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       Cronos, p.16

           Robert Silverberg
 

  The forest was beautiful. He had never seen a lovelier place than this.

  The mighty chocolate-red redwood trunks were like the columns of a vast cathedral. Far above him, nearly four hundred feet up, the treetops met in a roof of foliage. A pearly twilight glow was all that broke through to brighten the forest floor. The stillness was fantastic. He could hear no sound except the gentle patter of the droplets of condensed fog that fell to the soft needle-carpeted floor, and the distant murmur of a brook. The fronds of huge glistening ferns were everywhere about him.

  The year 1065! In Europe now, the man who would be called William the Conqueror was laying his plans for the invasion of England. The Crusades would soon be beginning. There were great native American empires in Mexico and Peru. And at this moment, who knew what was happening in the palaces of China, Africa, the Baghdad of the Arabian Nights—?

  He felt a moment of something very like regret at finding-himself in this place.

  If the spatial displacement had been greater, this shunt might have dropped him down in the hectic midst of history—in Rome, say, or Constantinople, or Venice, or perhapsone of the stone cities of the Mayas. But here—here in this peaceful redwood forest on the California coast—Eric was as alone as though this were the dawn of time. There was no trace here of whatever sparse and scattered Indian population California had at this time. All was silence. All was peace.

  That pang of regret vanished as suddenly as it had come.

  To be allowed to see such beauty as this was a privilege beyond measure. How could he yearn for some other place?

  Quietly, struck by wonder, Eric wandered through the stupendous groves of trees. He thought of the California he had left behind, the roar of the freeways, the droning of the planes overhead, the immense sprawl of the cities. They had saved a few little redwood forests, sure, somewhere far up north of San Francisco. Like museum exhibits. But everywhere else the hand of man had left its mark.

  And this was how it all had looked before we came, he thought.

  Here, in this awesome solitude, in this place where perhaps no human being had walked before, he felt himself suddenly swept by an emotion that was completely new to him. He wanted to drop to his knees and give thanks—to whom, to what, he wasn’t really certain—for the beauty he beheld. He had never done such a thing before. Even now he hesitated, embarrassed, self-conscious.

  Go on, he thought. Nobody’s watching. And even if somebody were, so what?

  But it was too late. The moment had passed. It would be forced, artificial, unreal, for him to do it now. Instead he stood quietly, resting his hand lightly on the giant trunk of a tree by the edge of the little stream.

  He felt the strength of it, the immensity. This tree, he thought, had made a great voyage through time, of a sort, itself. It must have been living when Jesus was born. Oreven earlier. And on and on through the centuries to this year of 1065, and on beyond. Probably it would still be here in 1865 or 1875 or 1885 or whenever it was that men would come along with their saws and hatchets to cut it down. It might have lived on into the twenty-first century, the twenty-second, even the thirty-second, if it had been left to finish its long journey undisturbed.

  After a while he walked onward. He had no regret now that the shunt had brought him here, instead of to some busy capital of the medieval world. This moment out of time, this quiet interlude in the strange fantastic journey that the swinging pendulum had launched him on, was worth a thousand Constantinoples.

  He smiled. And then he dropped to his knees after all, and bowed his head, and gave thanks and praise, not knowing to whom, to what. For this beauty, for this moment of peace: thanks and praise. Thanks and praise.

  18.

  Sean

  + 5×108minutes

  Alt! No podo pasari! Todos tempuus vorbudt aqui!”“Are you speaking to me?” Sean asked the huge mechanical creature that loomed before him.

  “Anglic!” the great gleaming robot cried. “Du spikke Anglic! Yis u no?”

  “Yis,” Sean said, bluffing for all he was worth. “Ik spikke Anglic. Yis.”

  The thing was at least nine feet high, and it was all eyes and mouth. Half a dozen huge sparkling eyes ran around its upper end, some kind of band of sensors that flickered restlessly up and down the whole spectrum and probably beyond it into the infrared and the ultraviolet. And an ugly gaping slot of a mouth, big as the top of a garbage can, in its belly. The better to swallow you with, my little timetraveler.Du spikke Anglic? Answer yis u no, or I’ll gobble you up!

  Sean looked around uneasily. He was standing on some rubbery catwalk suspended about twenty feet above what might have been a street. The street looked rubbery too,with purple pumpkin-shaped growths sprouting from it at intervals of eight or ten feet. To his right was what looked like a wall of ice, a smooth glacial face rising to an enormous height. He could see people moving around freely within the ice. So it wasn’t ice and not a glacier, but a building of some sort. On the other side of him the street was lined with giant metallic needles the size of telephone poles. They were glowing pale purple and giving off soft twanging sounds.

  So this is the yearA.D.2967, Sean thought. Well, it sure looks like the yearA.D.2967.

  “Anglic,” the huge robot said. “Du spikke Anglic.” Something was rumbling in its interior, making a cementmixer sound. The eye-band turned a blazing yellow, then slowly subsided into orange and red. Small portholes on the robot’s sides opened and swiveled. Projections like the feet of insects came poking out of them, waving and wriggling about.

  It means to swallow me, Sean thought. As soon as it can figure out what I am. I’m going to be a tin can’s afternoon snack.

  He wondered what would happen to him if he turned and tried to make a run for it. Probably a bad idea. He imagined jets of gluey liquid squirting from those portholes and lassoing him at fifty paces.

  “Anglic,” said the robot again. “You are a speaker of Anglic. Yes. Yes. Mode adjustment made. Comprendus? You are a tempuu and Anglic is your sprak. Comprendus? Comprendus? Rispondim! Do you comprendan?”

  “You don’t quite have it right yet,” Sean said. “But keep trying.”

  “No comprendus?”

  “No comprendus, right.”

  “Correction mode. Correction mode.” The robot begansputtering and mumbling to itself. Cautiously Sean started to back away, moving very slowly. Maybe it won’t notice that I’m leaving. The sounds from the metallic poles to his left grew higher in pitch. People were pointing at him through the glassy walls of the artificial glacier. “You will cease departing,” the robot said. “Correction has been made. We use your mode now. You are Anglic-speaking time-traveler, unauthorized. You will us show your documentuus.”

  “Documents,” Sean said. “That’s better Anglic. English, we call it. But I don’t have any documents. I’m too early for that. I come from the year—”

  “No documentuus! No documentuus!” The robot’s eyeband flashed vivid scarlet. “Illicitimu! Tempuu vorbudtu! No podo pasari!” It was getting really excited. The enormous froglike mouth was opening and closing. Sean saw lights flashing inside, and gears moving about. It began to move toward him in a slow, ponderous way.

  Itisgoing to gobble me up, he thought. Because I’m an unregistered time-traveler and I don’t have the right passport. Or something.

  He turned and started to run.

  “No!” a voice cried behind him. “Alt! No flikken! Is safe! Is okay! I to do, you will safe!”

  A girl, a woman—he couldn’t tell which, he couldn’t begin to guess her age—emerged out of nowhere. She was very slender and she was taller than he was. She had glistening silver hair and silver eyes too, and her skin was bright red, the color of a ripe apple. She looked strange, but she looked beautiful, too.

  She might have been the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

  Darting swiftly around him, she ran right up to the giant robot and slapped the palm of her hand against itsmidsection. A panel opened
at once. She reached in and pressed a key. Instantly the robot’s eye-band color shifted toward blue. “Podo pasari,” the robot muttered. “Tempuu licitimu. Validimu. Propriu.” And it moved off, still muttering to itself.

  The woman smiled. Her silver eyes dazzled him.

  “You will forgive,” she said. “My Anglic. Is not big good. But you will safe now.” Her voice was deep and rich and warm, with an odd little crack in it. It was like no voice he had ever heard, but very beautiful. Her hand reached toward his. “They do not like tempuus, this year. Time-travelers. Too many come, too much confuse. But I will protect. My people will. How is your name?”

  “Sean,” he said. “Sean Gabrielson. From the year 2016.”

  “I bin Hepta-Noni-Acanta-Leela-Quintu-Quintu,” she said.

  “Is all that your name?”

  “I am to you Quintu-Leela,” she said, and laughed. Her laughter was magical. From the humming telephone poles came an answering sound, delicate, eerie. Her hand tightened on his. “Come with me. You will safe with me. I will show the world.” Again the laugh. “Everything. You and me, we bin amicuus. Friends, you say? Friends. We bin very warm friends. Comprendus?”

  Sean nodded. He felt as though an electric current were passing from her hand into his. Perhaps it was. Quintu-Leela, he thought. The sound of her voice was marvelously strange and strangely marvelous. And those silver eyes. He imagined her name and his entwined within a heart, blazing in purple fire in the sky.

  Love at first sight, that was what it was.

  He had heard about such things but he had never really believed they happened. Especially to him. Love at firstsight! Was that too crazy? Quintu-Leela and Sean. Sean and Quintu-Leela. God, she was beautiful! And fascinating! That voice! Those eyes!

  Yes, I do believe I’m falling in love, he thought.

  With a woman who lives in the time of my own greatgreatgreat-great-great-great-great-granddaughter. Who for all I know couldbemy own great-great-great-greatgreatgreat-great granddaughter. The woman of my dreams, an incredible woman, a phenomenal woman, and any hour now, maybe any minute now, the displacement force is going to sweep me away from her forever.

  19.

  Eric

  + 5×109minutes

  The tunnels went on and on, an endless maze, one smooth shining onyx-walled corridor after another. Eric had no idea where he was or where he had been or where he was heading. All he knew was that he was somewhere below the surface of the Earth, plodding through corridor after corridor after corridor, never once getting a glimpse of the sun, the sky, the stars. And never once seeing another human being.He wondered how far underground he was.

  He wondered whether any life, human or otherwise, still existed on Earth’s surface, here in the 116th centuryA.D.

  He wondered if he was still on Earth at all.

  This was his third day in the tunnels now. At least that was what the chronometer said. But his mind and body both were hopelessly confused down here, where there was no day, no night, only the unending onyx walls lit by some mysterious radiance deep within the stone. He felt almost no need for sleep. When he did, he simply slouched up against the tunnel wall and closed his eyes for half an hour or so. Heate just as sparsely. Now and then he remembered to consume one of the food tablets from his utility belt. Most of the time he was content to coast along on the slow-release nutrient additives that the Project Pendulum medics had pumped into his bloodstream a few hours before Time Zero.

  It had been a fantastic experience at first, roaming this mystifying underground world of the far future. None of his previous shunts had shown him anything remotely as strange as this. But the fascination was beginning to wear thin for him.

  He had arrived in a glow of dense emerald light. It was all around, engulfing everything, so that he could almost believe he was at the bottom of the sea. The light was so deep and so strong that it was impossible for him to make out any features whatever of his surroundings.

  Then the light vanished as though a hood had been thrown over his head, and he found himself in a zone of the deepest blackness he had ever known. For a long while after that nothing happened. He stood in complete silence, mystified, uncertain.

  “Hello?” he said. “Anybody there?”

  Nothing. No one. Silence.

  He took a step. Another. Another. He was unable to see a thing. For all he knew, there was a pit a mile deep right in front of him. But he couldn’t just stand here forever, waiting for things to happen. He went on, step by uneasy step.

  There was a sweetness in the air, and something else, a touch of lemon, perhaps, or sage, or both at once. He wasn’t surprised. Each era he had visited so far had had a distinct and characteristic flavor. He hadn’t expected that, that every time would smell different from all other times. This is the smell of the 116th century, he thought. It was a likable odor, but unreal, synthetic.

  Perhaps they make their own air in the yearA.D.,11529,he thought. He imagined giant air-making machines on the borders of every city, releasing flavors of every desired sort into the atmosphere. Maybe that was how they had coped with the buildup of carbon dioxide that had turned the whole world into a giant greenhouse in the twenty-second century. Just thinking about the time he had spent in that sweltering tropical world made him feel sweaty and weak. The air is a lot better here, he thought. Of course the greenhouse-effect problems were ancient history to the people of this era. Nine thousand years in the past, in fact.

  That was before he realized that he wasn’t breathing surface air at all. He was underground.

  He put out his hand and touched smoothness to his left: highly polished stone. The moment he touched it, it lit up, and he saw that he was in a long cavern or corridor that stretched far in front of him, disappearing into dimness hundreds of yards away. The walls curved gently up to meet the rounded arch of the ceiling. He recognized the glossy brown stone as onyx, though it was astonishing to think of a corridor this size wholly lined with that rare and beautiful mineral. Synthetic onyx, maybe, he thought. This is the 116th century. They can do anything. There was pale light pulsing within the walls, an inexplicable inner radiance, cool and beautiful.

  In awe and wonder he walked onward. After a little while he saw figures moving slowly toward him and he halted, narrowing his eyes to peer into the distance. He felt curiously unafraid. This was too much like a dream to seem real. And in any case he was confident that the beings of this future age would be too civilized to offer him any harm.

  They came closer, within the range of his vision now. They weren’t human.

  They were cone-shaped beings eight or nine feet high, with brilliant orange eyes the size of platters and rubberyblue bodies. Clusters of scarlet tentacles dangled like nests of snakes from their shoulders. They walked in an odd gliding, lurching way on suction pads that made a peculiar slurping sound as they clamped down and pulled free again.

  No way could evolution have transformed the human race into creatures like this, Eric thought. Not in 9500 years, not ever. These had to be aliens of some sort. There were half a dozen of them moving in a solemn procession along the opposite side of the corridor wall. He stared up at them. They were gigantic looming presences, massive, menacing.

  He felt the first pricklings of fear. Being a traveler out of time gave him no invulnerability, only the illusion of it. This might be dreamlike but it was no dream, and those creatures were twice his size. Would they try to harm him? He stood poised on the balls of his feet, ready to bolt and dart past them at the first hostile sign.

  But they paid no attention to him. Like a procession of mourners they shuffled toward him and past him, not giving him so much as a glance. They seemed completely preoccupied with their own ponderous thoughts.

  Eric stared at them in amazement.

  Was he so insignificant to them? No more important than a squirrel by the side of the road? Had he come 9500 years to be totally ignored?

  Sudden crazy fury blossomed in him.

  “Hey!
he called. “Wait! Aren’t you even going to stop and ask the time of day? Don’t you wonder what I am?”

  They kept on going without looking back at him.

  Eric shook his head. Anger gave way to bewilderment.

  “I sure as hell wonder what you are,” he muttered lamely.

  The huge creatures continued to shuffle onward down the corridor. They dwindled in the dimness until he could barely see them, far down the way. And then, at a placewhere the corridor seemed to curve slightly to the right, all at once they disappeared, vanishing like soap bubbles in the air.

  Frowning, Eric struggled to understand. Had they found some passage?

  Maybe they had never been there at all. Maybe they had simply been hallucinations. Maybe this allwasa dream.

  He ran back after them.

  When he came to the place where the giant creatures had disappeared he could find no trace of doorways or side passages. The walls of the corridor were as smooth and unbroken here as they had been from the start.

  He shrugged, turned back in the other direction, and marched on.

  After what seemed like hours more of plodding along the same empty hallway Eric reached a place where the corridor swelled and split into nine apparently identical tunnels. At random he entered the third tunnel from the left. It too seemed to be empty. But then once again he saw a procession of strange beings coming toward him.

  These looked like giant purple starfish with rough pebblyskins. Each had a globe of brilliant white flame glowing at the center of its body and fifteen or twenty rigid tentacles radiating stiffly outward. The way that they moved was to roll along with weird grace on the tips of their tentacles, like acrobats turning cartwheels.

 
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