Cronos, p.18Robert Silverberg
Then he felt a sudden stiff jab between his shoulder blades.
He whirled. And found himself looking at another of the hunters, who had come up silently behind him. His eyes were dark and shining, almost glowing with a light of their own. They were fixed on Sean in absolute concentration. The hunter grasped a spear lightly in his left hand, balancing it easily by the middle of its shaft.
He must have used the wooden end of the spear to poke Sean in the back. But now he had swung it around the other way. Sean stared. The long, sharp, elegantly carved stone point of the spear came into close focus just in front of him. It was aimed at the center of his chest, hovering just a couple of inches over his heart.
The rules are never broken. That was the last thing that he remembered the anterstin thelerimane saying, back in the tunnels that ran beneath the world ofA.D.11529. Those two spooky humanoids with the long whiplike limbs had seemed to be telling him that he was going to dwell in the tunnels forever.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.And then he felt the familiar swooping dizzying sensation-that let him know he was making a shunt, and the anterstin thelerimane disappeared. The weird glistening tunnel with the onyx wall disappeared. The whole world ofA.D.11529 disappeared.
So much for the quarantine powers of the galithismon, Eric thought. Whoever or whatever the galithismon might be, it had been unable to withstand the power of the great pendulum that was carrying Eric back and forth across time.
What now? he wondered.
He found himself on an icy windswept plain, bleak and desolate. Leafless trees with dark crooked trunks rose here and there above the snowfields. The air was harsh and sharp, with howling gusts cutting deep. He touched his utility belt to give himself a little protection against the cold.
This was the minus-fifty-billion-minute level. Fifty billion-minutes! He was 95,129 years into the past now—the Pleistocene period, the last Ice Age, the Fourth Glacial. Eric took his bearings. Latitude 41 degrees north. Longitude 6 degrees east.East?He was in Europe, then. Right in the middle of Spain. A whopping spatial displacement, clear across the whole United States and the Atlantic, too. Halfway around the world and smack into the teeth of an Ice-Age gale.
And there were tracks in the fresh snow in front of him.
No question about it. The tracks had been made by someone with a wide foot, very wide. Probably a short person, because the prints were fairly close together.
But human, without a doubt. Because the feet that had left those tracks in the snow had been clad in sandals of some sort. The imprint was unmistakable: no sign of toes or claws, only the rounded front end of the sandal and the tapering heel.
Human? In Pleistocene Spain?
Neanderthals, Eric thought in sudden wonder. And he began to follow the trail.
It led up and over a hummock of rock that jutted from the snowfield, and down the other side through a region of loose and annoyingly deep snow that gave him much trouble, and then up the side of a steep hill. Climbing it was real work. For one bad moment he thought he had lost the trailaltogether; but then he picked it up again, midway up the hill. Behind him, the winds grew wilder and snow began to fall. He scrambled upward.
A cave. A fire burning within.
He stared. Eight, ten people inside, close together by the campfire. Wearing shaggy fur robes, though some were bare to the waist. Short people, stocky and squat, with big heads and thick necks and barrel chests and broad, low-bridged noses. They weren’t pretty, no. But they weren’t apes, either. They were human beings. Different from us, but not by much. Cousins. Our Neanderthal cousins. Eric shivered, and not just from the cold.
One of them was singing, and the others were gathered around, nodding and clapping their hands in time. A slow, rhythmic chant, which suddenly speeded up, then slowed again, speeded again: an intricate rhythm, constantly changing. Almost like a poem. Almost? Itwasa poem! Those complex rhythms, the solemnity of the chanter’s voice, the rapt attention of the listeners. TheIliadof the Neanderthals, maybe, a tale of heroic battle deeds. Or theOdyssey, the story of a man who had gone to war across the sea and had had a hard time getting home. A tribal poet, telling the great old stories around the campfire. Stories that would fall into the deepest sort of oblivion when these rugged people of the Ice Age were swept away into extinction, thirty or forty thousand years from now.
Neanderthal poetry! The idea stunned and dazzled him.
He leaned forward as far as he dared, peering into the mouth of the cave, straining to hear the words, hoping with an impossible hope to understand the meaning.
Abruptly the chanting stopped. There was silence in the cave.
They knew he was there. How? He had crouched downbehind a great rock partly blocking the entrance. But they were looking his way. Sniffing. Those big noses, those wide nostrils. They could smell him. They were murmuring to each other. Suddenly these people seemed less like ancient cousins, more like hairy ogres or trolls.
The storm was lashing the plain now: wild winds, flailingthe falling snow into thick white curtains. Eric backed away from the mouth of the cave. He heard a shout from within, then another, another. Desperately now he began to run down the hill, slipping and stumbling in the loosely packed snow.
And they were coming after him.
Don’t try to run, he thought. Slide for it! Slide!
He dropped down flat and gave himself a shove. And went wildly tobogganing away, moving at an ever accelerating speed with his knees drawn up tight against his chest and his arms pulled in over them. A couple of times he fetched up against some upjutting snag of a tree, or some hunk of rock, and gave himself a nasty whack; but then he pushed on, down and down and down the hill.
After a time he looked back. The Neanderthals had stopped pursuing him. They were standing some distance above him on a snowy ridge, staring at him in what looked like openmouthed astonishment.
They probably think I’m crazy, Eric thought. Crazy skinny peculiar-looking guy with a strange outfit on, who can’t find any better way to amuse himself than go sliding down a bumpy hill in the middle of a snowstorm. Obviously a low-I.Q. type, a real moron.
Or maybe not. Maybe they think I’m having a good time.
He stood up, waved, shouted to them.
“Come on!” he called. “You try it, too! It’s fun, guys! It’s fun!”
He saw them muttering to each other. Maybe they were considering it. Maybe they were seriously thinking about taking up body-sledding, now that I’ve shown them the way.
I may have started something here, he thought. The Neanderthal Winter Olympics!
He brushed snow from his clothes and trudged on down the hillside, feeling a little creaky and battered. When he looked back next, the Neanderthal conference was still going on, and two of them were lying in the snow, trying to shove themselves downhill.
The point of the spear just barely grazed Sean’s chest. The other man held it there. Sean froze, not even breathing. He looked down, eyes bugging, at the sharp stone tip against his breastbone. This is it, he thought. The end of Sean, nine thousand years ago in Arizona. The archaeologists will be real confused when they find the bones of a white man in the ancient strata here.You have to do something, he told himself.
Go for the dart gun? Or even the laser? No. It took a little-time to get the anesthetic darts armed and primed. He didn’t have that much time. As for the laser, he knew he was supposed to avoid using the weapon unless he had absolutely no other option. Besides, he suspected that the moment he made any movement toward his utility belt that spear would be sticking out his back.
Do something. Anything.
He began to sing.
He had no idea
Oh, say, can you see
By the dawn’s early light . . .
The hunter looked astounded. He stepped back, one pace, two, three, without taking his eyes off Sean.
. . . what so proudly we hailed
by the twilight’s last gleaming . . .
The hunter spoke: a single stream of words punctuated by explosive little bursts of breath.
“Sorry,” Sean said. “I don’t speak Prehistoric Hopi, or whatever you’re talking.” He managed a smile. It wasn’t easy. It must have looked more like a tense grimace. Every culture understands smiling, he knew. Show your teeth. It’s a sign of good will. “You are a Hopi or something, right? An Indian, anyway. An early version. An ancestor. My name is Sean. I come here in peace from the year 2016. Do you want me to sing some more? ‘God rest ye merry gentlemen, let nothing you dismay—’ ”
The hunter spoke again, the same speech, faster this time. To Sean his words sounded blunt, cruel, harsh.
Sean responded with another smile, a little on the edgy side. And came out with:
California, here I come
Right back where I started from . . .
It was hard to tell what the other was planning to do. The hunter’s eyelids were fluttering now. His nostrils flared wide. He grasped his spear at both ends and pulled it back tightly against his chest. He spoke once more, slowly and ina deeper voice. As if he were sinking into some sort of trance.
Keep on singing, Sean thought.
I am the captain of the Pinafore
And a right good captain too.
De deedle deedle dee and deedle deedle dee
With chimpanzees for my crew.
They weren’t quite the right words, but he doubted that the hunter would know that. And at least the tune was there.
The other hunters were approaching now. Their faces were smeared with bison blood. One of them prodded Sean with the business end of his spear, pushing against the close-knit fabric of his jumpsuit. It was just the lightest of touches, but Sean shivered as he felt the keen tip of the stone point. He tried singing the “Hallelujah” chorus. It didn’t sound so good solo. They came in closer now, pinching and poking him. He switched to “Silent Night” thinking it might calm them some. The first one, the one who seemed to have gone into a trance, made a low rumbling sound far back in his throat.
I’d like to get out of here, Sean thought.
Somehow. Any way at all.
Just let it be right now.
He smiled again, the widest smile he could manage. “I know you can’t understand a thing that I’m saying, but I’m saying it calmly and reasonably. I’m not here to cause any trouble. I’m simply a visitor. My name is Sean Gabrielson and I’m twenty-three years old and I have a degree in physics from Cal Tech, and I mean to keep right on speaking quietly and reasonably to you until you decide that I’m nothreat. I’m also willing to sing anything you request. I can do some nice old rock numbers, I know a couple of hymns, I can do patriotic songs. And I can keep it up until the next shunt comes and gets me, if I have to. Just stand there and listen peacefully, okay?” He started in on “Rock of Ages.” They all looked almost hypnotized now. Eyes wide, staring. They didn’t know what to make of him. “I can tell you all sorts of useful things, too. For example, I can advise you to start thinking about migrating north, because these animals here that you hunt are going to clear out of this territory in another few hundred years, once things start getting really warm and dry, and—”
They were looking at him in what looked like awe. Maybe they’re beginning to think I’m a god, he thought. Or maybe they just love the sound of my voice.
“You see, this is the late Pleistocene, but eventually this is going to be known as the state of Arizona, and I can prophesy that there’s going to be a freeway right down the middle of this valley, running from Flagstaff down to Phoenix or Tucson—”
They were down on their knees. Yes. Worshipping me, Sean thought. He grinned. Theydothink I’m a god. Unless they’re just begging me to stop talking and start singing again.
Old Man River, that Old Man River . . .
This is going to be fun, he told himself.
Then he felt the displacement force tugging at him.
Not now, he thought in annoyance. Not just when it’s getting good! But there was nothing he could do about it. The force had pulled him away from Quintu-Leela and now it was yanking him away from his first good shot at being a god, or at least being a star singer. One moment he was staringat a bunch of awed prehistoric bison hunters, and the next he was floating in a globe of green light, somewhere very far away.
So long, fellows. Onward to—what?
This was serious future now, a truly heavy distance. He was 95,129 years down the line, an enormous jump. His last forward swing had taken him a mere 951 years ahead. Even that world, Quintu-Leela’s world ofA.D.2967, was utterly unlike anything he knew or could understand. That was how vast the changes had been between his own time and Quintu-Leela’s.
Now he was a hundred times as far from Time Zero. 95,129 years! The transformations in human life during such an immense span must have been incredible. It had taken only five thousand years to go from the first civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia to the age of travel through time and space. Now he had covered twenty times as many years. Did the human race even exist any more? Or had it evolved into something unimaginably strange?
Where was he? What was this globe of green light? What was going to happen to him?
Many questions, no answers.
Then a deep gentle voice said, “Hey, it’s good to see you again, Sean. Been a long time, boy.”
A very familiar voice. His grandfather’s voice, rich and warm. Grandpa Gabrielson who lived in San Diego.
Sean blinked into the greenness. “Is that you, Grandpa?”
“Who else, boy?”
Unmistakable, that voice. The voice of the wise, loving old man who had spent so many holiday weekends with them, who liked to tell all those stories of the first television sets, the first jet planes, the first trip to the moon, the first flights of the space shuttle. Grandpa Gabrielson had workedas an engineer for the Apollo space program when he was a young man, and later he had been involved in the shuttle project. He had seen the whole modern world take shape in his lifetime.
But Grandpa Gabrielson had no business being here in the 932nd century. Grandpa Gabrielson had lived to a good old age, well past eighty. But he had died last year, just before Sean and Eric had been chosen for Project Pendulum.
“I’m here too, son. It reallyhasbeen a long time!”
His grandmother’s voice. She had died when he was ten. And then his father was in the green globe with him, clapping him on the back, laughing, asking him if he was managing to keep up with the baseball scores while he was shunting around. And his mother, glowing with pride. And his mother’s parents, Grandfather and Grandmother Weiss. He hardly knew them, because they lived in Belgium.
And Eric was there also.
It was Thanksgiving Day, and there was a huge turkey on the table, and mounds of cranberry sauce, and mountains of candied yams and turkey stuffing and everything else, and the whole family was there. His father was busy carving, as he always did. And he and Eric were side by side for the first time in 95,129 years.
Sean looked at his brother. He could feel the strange force, the brother-force, that had bound him to his twin all his life. The force which he had not felt since the moment they had gone their separate ways at Time Zero on the shunt platform.
“Are you really here?” he asked.
Eric grinned. “What do you think? That I’m just some sleazy illusion?”
“But this can’t be happening,” Sean said. “Thanksgiving Day in the year 95,129? Grandpa and Grandma here? Mom and Dad? No. I’m in some kind of green globe and this isjust some hallucination that who knows w
Eric gave him a pitying look. “You must have lost your mind. Or misplaced it, at the very least. I’m as real as you are, and probably a lot hungrier. Shut up and pass the turkey, turkey!”
Scrambling down an icy hillside through a blinding snowstorm was bad enough. But every breath was agony. Breathing this fierce Fourth Ice Age atmosphere was like inhaling icicles. And to have a pack of angry Neanderthals coming after him, besides—Eric felt the shunt take him and sweep him mercifully into some far-off warmer place. He landed on all fours, gasping and coughing, and crouched there a moment until he had recovered. At last he looked up.
A Neanderthal face was looking back at him. Sloping forehead, rounded chin, broad nose, mouth like a jutting muzzle. Shrewd dark eyes studying him intently.
“Huh? Did I bring you along with me somehow?”
The Neanderthal knelt beside him and said something in an unknown language. His voice was deep and the way he spoke seemed oddly musical, though very strange. He didn’t seem hostile. Behind him, Eric saw softly rounded green hills, a wide valley broken by a chain of lakes, a forest in the distance.
There were prehistoric hominids wandering about wherever he looked.
He had landed in a group of ten or fifteen Neanderthals. Off to his left a hundred yards away were some slender little creatures looking a bit like apes but walking confidently upright. Eric recognized them as australopithecines from the early Pleistocene, creatures that occupied a place somewhere midway on the evolutionary path that had led toHomo sapiens. And over there, that awesome monster of an ape, as massive as a grizzly bear? Wasn’t that Gigantopithecus, from a million yearsB.C.?And those, in the middle distance? Sturdy-looking people who seemed almost human but for their strangely apelike faces: could those beHomo erectus,the ancestors of mankind whose fossil remains had been found in Java and China?
Cronos by Robert Silverberg / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes