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       Cronos, p.17

           Robert Silverberg
 
“Excuse, me,” Eric said at once. “I’m Eric Gabrielson. I’m a time-traveler from the twenty-first centuryA.D.,and—”

  No use. They weren’t any more interested in him than the suction-footed giants had been.

  He watched in dismay as the starfish went rolling onward and beyond. When they were a hundred yards or so past him they all abruptly turned to the left and pressed themselves against the corridor wall, which emitted apainful blue glow the moment they touched it. Eric covered his eyes.

  When it seemed safe to open them again, there was no sign of the starfish creatures. Had they stepped right through the corridor wall?

  Puzzled, he backtracked and studied the wall. It looked no different from any other section of the wall. After a moment’s hesitation he touched it with the palm of his hand. Nothing happened. No blinding blue glow, nothing.

  He went onward.

  He slept a little while. He nibbled a couple of food tablets.

  He came to another place where the tunnel forked once more, branching into seventeen passages this time. He chose the rightmost branch. The tunnel was the same as before, smooth, glossy, bright with that inexplicable inner radiance.

  More beings appeared, seemingly floating in the air. They were elongated transparent creatures filled with churning misty organs. They looked like the sort of things you might see under the microscope in a drop of water, blown up to giant size—huge protozoa, a tribe of colossal paramecia.

  “Hello?” he ventured. “Does anybody here know what a human being is? Or was?”

  The giant protozoa didn’t seem to be interested in conversation, either.

  Nor were the next creatures that he met, nor the next, nor the ones after those. Branch after branch, tunnel after tunnel, and it was always the same: silence, gleaming walls stretching far out before him, occasional bands of grotesque beings traversing the infinite corridors bound on unimaginable mysterious migrations. Sometimes they seemed to disappear into the corridor walls, as the starfish had done.Sometimes they seemed to emerge from the walls just as mysteriously.

  Eric might just as well have been invisible.

  What had begun as an eerily fascinating experience was becoming maddening and frustrating. He found himself wondering how long it was going to be before the displacement force seized him and carried him out of here to his next shunt, 95,000 years deep in the past. At least the past was a place that he felt he understood.

  Then, late on the third day, two beings that might almost have been human stepped suddenly out of the corridor wall no more than twenty feet in front of him.

  Eric realized after the first startled moment that they weren’t human, not at all. Their bodies were impossibly long and narrow and their arms and legs were thin as whips, with elbows every twelve inches. Their hands had more than five fingers. Their lips were nothing but slits, their bare waxy-looking skins were greenish-yellow, and their golden eyes seemed to be set on end, much longer than they were broad.

  There might have been some evolutionary changes in the human race since his own time, but a mere ninety-five centuries could never have produced a transformation like this. They had to be some sort of aliens.

  Strange as they were, they were humanoid, at any rate. Not giant paramecia or walking starfish or great shambling blue-and-orange monsters. And, unlike all the others, they hadn’t simply walked past him without a glance and kept on going. They had actually stopped and were studying him with some interest. That gave him hope.

  “Please,” he said. “I’m lost. I don’t have any idea where I am. Won’t you help me?”

  The two eerie humanoids exchanged a quick glance. Another positive sign. It was the first reaction he hadmanaged to get from any of the beings he had encountered in these corridors. But they remained silent.

  “Talk to me,” he said. “Somehow. There’s got to be a way that you can communicate with me. I know there is.”

  For a moment more they remained motionless. Then one of them made a gesture with its many fingers. In Eric’s own time that gesture meantcome closer. He had no notion what it might mean here. He decided to risk it.

  When he was just a few paces from them they reached their long ropy arms toward him and touched their soft cool fingers to his. It was like touching an electric socket. A sudden tingling shock burst through him.

  “No—wait—”

  He tried to pull back, but he was unable to break the contact.

  And then, amazingly, he felt intelligible words taking form in his mind.

  There is no reason for you to fear us. Why would we want to harm you?

  “I didn’t know what was happening to me. Or what to expect. I—I—” He took a deep breath. “I’m Eric Gabrielson. I come from the twenty-first century. There’s been this experiment, you see, in time displacement, and—”

  We know that. We are the anterstrin thelerimane.

  They said it as though that explained everything.

  “Oh,” he said. “And this is Earth, isn’t it? In the yearA.D.11529?”

  This is Earth, yes. You are in the quarantine section.

  “Quarantine?”

  All new arrivals are placed in quarantine until their clearances come through. It is the law. Visitors from time must undergo clearance just as visitors from space do. Once you are cleared you will be permitted to visit Upper Earth.

  “I see,” Eric said. “And how long does it take to get a clearance?”

  The anterstrin thelerimane said,In some cases, no more than ten or twenty days. In others, perhaps fifty to a hundred years, or even longer. Centuries, sometimes.

  Eric thought of the displacement force, gathering its irresistible momentum now, almost ready perhaps to sweep him away from this place.

  “Can’t it ever be done faster?” he asked.

  There is much that must be determined before strangers can be released into Upper Earth. We ourselves have been here sixteen years, and our case is by no means settled. You may have to wait just as long.

  “But I can’t,” Eric protested. “I’m shunting in time on pendulum swings. Do you understand what I’m saying? The next swing could carry me away in an hour, or a minute, or a day. And then I’d never get to see what Earth is like in this era.”

  Oh, no,the quiet mental voice of the anterstrin thelerimane.You will not be suddenly carried away, we assure you. The rules are never broken. No one leaves quarantine until the galithismon permits it. You will stay here until your clearance comes. We promise you that. Even if you must remain in the quarantine tunnels for five hundred years.

  20.

  Sean

  -5×109minutes

  It was almost noon by the time Sean came to the eastern rim of the broad mesa that he had been crossing since dawn. He peered over the edge and what he beheld in the dark valley below made him gasp with wonder.Bison. Thousands of them, maybe millions, great shaggy brown beasts with their heavy heads down close to the ground.

  They were ripping fiercely at the thick lush grass of the valley as if trying to turn the place into a barren desert in a single day. The vast herd filled the valley as far as Sean could see. The cold, biting wind out of the east carried their odor to him, rank and musky and sharp.

  At last. After three days of solitary wandering in this cool wet land that was supposed to be Arizona, seeing nothing bigger than a ground squirrel and feeling tension rising within him as silent emptiness gave way only to more emptiness, he was staring at more animals than he had ever seen in one place in his life. Giant animals. What he saw out there was probably one of the last of the great big-gameherds that had survived from the Ice Age and still roamed the Southwest here in the paleolithic past.

  “Hey!” he called. “Hey, all you bison! You’re extinct, do you know that? You hear what I’m telling you? Lie down and roll over! You’re extinct!”

  Sean didn’t expect the bison to pay any attention to him, and they didn’t. They went right on grazing, tearing out enormous clumps of grass, shaking their huge heads almost
angrily from side to side as they fed. He had simply needed to hear the sound of his own voice again.

  The three days that he had spent trekking through this forlorn world of 5×109minutes ago had been the loneliest days he had ever known. Especially after the shunt that had preceded this one. Lovely Quintu-Leela, his woman with silver eyes. How he missed her now! What pain that had been, seeing her waver and vanish before him as the displacement force pulled him onward in time! She was like something half-remembered from a vivid dream, now. She was up there in the future, in bewildering, incomprehensibleA.D.2967. And he was back here, five billion minutes in his own past.

  Five billion minutes! That was some 9,513 years. This was the world of 7500B.C.,more or less. These bison belonged here. He was the intruder.

  Everything was different here, everything was unfamiliar. The air, when it didn’t reek of bison fur, had an odd crisp iron quality, a metallic harshness that Sean knew was simply its purity. He had never breathed truly fresh air before. The sky looked bigger and bluer, the horizon farther away than it ought to be. The light was more intense. The water that flowed in the many streams that crossed these plains seemed to have a strange electric tingle to it because it was so clean.

  This was a world without automobiles, without airplanes, without chemical factories, without anything thatbelched fumes into the air. Strange huge animals roamed it freely, and human beings scarcely existed. Over on the other side of the world in the Near East and maybe China the first little towns were being founded, but even there the world must still be unspoiled. It was almost impossible to comprehend how far he was from his own time. The pyramids of Egypt would not be built for another five thousand years.

  And yet Sean knew he had only begun his voyage across the eons. By the time he reached the outer limits of the pendulum swing, this era would seem like the day before yesterday to him.

  He looked out into the sea of bison before him.

  Now he noticed other animals down there too, moving on the edges of the great bison herd. To his left he saw a pack of large long-legged wolflike creatures with broad, heavy-looking heads and dense blue-black fur. They looked frightening, but there was something curiously unferocious about their movements: they were sniffling and snuffling around like scavengers hoping to find an easy meal, and even when a lost bison calf wandered past them they made no move to attack.

  Farther to the left were three peculiar-looking massive creatures squatting down on their haunches in front of a slender pine tree. Even squatting like that, they were taller than the tree. They were methodically pulling it apart, stripping the bark from its branches and cramming it into their mouths. Sean remembered seeing pictures of them on the orientation tape for this period: giant ground sloths. Deeper into the distance, so far across the valley that he could barely make them out, were mastodons. Their elephantlike forms were unmistakable. He saw some things that might have been camels out there, too. And closer at hand was a pair of heavyset creatures that seemed midway between an elephant and a pig in shape. Giant tapirs, he supposed.

  The experts had thought these creatures of the late Ice Age might be just about extinct, here in the Arizona of 7500B.C.But there was some uncertainty about the date of the great extinction and they had asked Sean to keep an eye out for them as he passed through this level of the shunt. And there they were. Beginning their decline, maybe, but far from extinct.

  Mastodons! Bison! Giant ground sloths!

  What a fantastic sight!

  As Sean stared out toward the far reaches of the valley, a sudden flash of activity closer at hand caught his attention. He looked down and to his left. The bison calf had strayed just a little too far. From a dense clump of bushes at the base of the mesa came now a quick and savage killer, long and low-slung, with a compact, powerful tigerlike body and two astounding gleaming fangs almost a foot in length.

  The calf never had a chance.

  Swiftly the saber-tooth pounced, rising from the ground with a fierce thrust of its strong back and loins and clamping its heavy forearms against the bison’s shaggy hump. In the same instant those two great daggers rose and sank deep into the flesh of the bison. The calf shivered under the assault and sank to its knees, and then tumbled over, pushing desperately at the saber-tooth with its hooves as though trying to shoo away an annoying fly.

  It was all over in moments. Somberly Sean watched the killer-cat feed; and then the wolves came forth, snarling with sudden fury, demanding their share. The saber-tooth glared at them coldly as if ready to take on the whole pack. Then it wriggled its heavy neck in something remarkably like a shrug, and slowly moved off. It had eaten its fill, and now it was abandoning its prey to the hungry wolves. They were scavengers after all, terrifying though they might look.

  Eventually the wolves too vanished into the thickets, leaving the bloody carcass for smaller beasts to devour.

  Sean now began warily to make his way down the mesa’s steeply sloping eastern face. He wanted a closer look at all these animals. Now that the most dangerous predator down there had had its lunch, the risks he faced were probably not great. And in any case he had an anesthetic dart gun strapped in the utility belt around his waist, and a laser, too. The dart gun ought to be able to take care of most problems. He wasn’t supposed to use the laser as a weapon except in the most desperate of circumstances. If he went around killing things with his laser in the remote past, he might be making significant changes in the fabric of time by removing this critter or that which hadn’t originally been destined to die at the hands of a man of the far future. But his surviving the mission was important, too. He had to calculate the trade-offs before going for the weapon.

  The soil was damp and soggy from the rain that had drenched these plains, and him, last night. As he descended he sank in almost an inch with every step, coming up with moist, sticky mud on his boots. Mud wasn’t something he associated with Arizona. Or valleys rich with thick lush grass. The Arizona he knew was a place of parched wastelands, dry brittle soil, twisted thorny scrub vegetation. But his instrument reading showed that he was somewhere just to the north of the place where Phoenix would be in another nine thousand-odd years.

  He had started out from Los Angeles, up there at Time Zero inA.D.2016. Not only had the shunt displaced him in time, though, it had also moved him some four hundred miles in space. No surprise there. The preshunt calculations had predicted that. The longer the time-shunt, the farther the spatial displacement.

  This was Arizona, all right. But it was prehistoric Arizonaat the tail end of the Pleistocene Ice Age. The great chill that had brought so much moisture to this part of the continent had already begun to retreat; the lakes and meadows were starting to dry out, the big game animals were becoming sparse. During his increasingly depressing three-day trek through the utter silence of this land he had begun to fear that they were already extinct. Now Sean knew that that was not so.

  Slipping and sliding and stumbling, he made his way the last twenty feet to the valley floor and found himself about a hundred yards from the nearest bison.

  This close, he realized that they had little in common with the bison he had seen in zoos except the shagginess of their hides. These animals were gigantic, each one as big as a truck. They were colossal. They were immense. Their horns, instead of curving back to lose themselves in the heavy fur, jutted out three feet or more on each side. And the sound they made as they grazed was a mighty throbbing growl like the sound a fire makes as it roars through a dry forest.

  He edged sideways, keeping his back to the mesa wall. A few of the bison closest to him eyed him without curiosity for a moment, but most did not even bother looking up. Why should they? They had no reason to fear him. They might never have seen a human being before. The whole human population of North America at this time was probably no more than twenty or thirty thousand widely scattered nomads. And to these bison he must seem utterly harmless, a flimsy little two-legged thing with no teeth or muscles worth worrying about and no cla
ws at all.

  Seeing that the bison were ignoring him, Sean moved out a little more boldly into the valley. The hugeness of the animals filled him with awe. They were like mountains. Even the calves seemed immense. He had all the more respect now for the strength of that saber-tooth.

  He saw other animals now, smaller ones, animals he could not name. They were almost familiar—something that could almost have been a badger, and waddling birds that were somewhat like turkeys, and little scrambling rodents not much unlike guinea pigs. But they were all somehow different from their modern counterparts.

  He wished he knew more about prehistoric zoology. This was an amazing place. Evidently this valley was a rich and fertile location that was particularly attractive to beasts great and small from all over central Arizona. What an amazing privilege it was to be allowed to see this congregation of great creatures!

  Then he realized that he was not the only person here.

  Shouts came from a fold in the valley floor a few hundred yards away. Glancing up in surprise, Sean was startled to see eight or ten tall, slender men in loincloths pelting one of the bison calves with rocks to drive it into a small box canyon. They were armed with spears tipped with tapering stone points, and as they pursued the angry, frightened calf they jabbed at it again and again, barely penetrating its thick furry hide. Killing it was going to be a difficult job.

  Sean had been so concerned with the animals that he hadn’t heard the hunters approach. Now, struck with wonder and amazement, he stepped back behind a tree to watch them in action. They were long-limbed, graceful men. They seemed almost to be floating as they ran along behind the calf. Though they had dark skins of a deep coppery hue, they looked very little like the Indians of his own time. Their heads were narrow and tapering, their shoulders sloped, their features were small, almost delicate. The chilly air seemed to bother them not at all, practically naked though they were.

  He leaned forward, peering intently, fascinated by the sight of these prehistoric hunters at their task.

 
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