Cronos, p.21
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       Cronos, p.21

           Robert Silverberg
 

  But, came Quellen’s insistent thought, they must have discovered his secret. Why else would Koll send for him so urgently, with the whiplash tone in his voice? Quellen began to perspire despite the air conditioning, which kept away most of the fierce Congo heat.

  They would put him back in Class Eight if they found out. Or, much more likely, they would bounce him all the way back to Twelve or Thirteen, and slap a perpetual hold on him. He would be doomed to spend the rest of his life in a tiny room inhabited by two or three other people, the biggest, smelliest, most unpleasant people the clicking computers could find for him.

  Quellen calmed himself. Perhaps he was taking alarm for no reason. Koll had said it was High Government business, hadn’t he? A directive from above, not any private arrest. When they really found him out, Quellen knew, they wouldn’t simply summon him. They wouldcomefor him. So this was some affair of work. He had a momentary vision of the members of the High Government, shadowy demigods at least eleven feet high, pausing in their incomprehensible labors to drop a minislip memo down the chute to Koll.

  Quellen took a long look at the green overhanging trees,bowed under the weight of their leaves and glistening with the beaded drops of the morning’s rain. He let his eyes rove regretfully over the two spacious rooms, his luxurious porch, the uncluttered view. Each time he left here, it was as though for the last time. For a moment, now that everything might well be just about lost, Quellen almost relished the buzzing of the flies. He gulped in a final sweeping look and stepped toward the stat. The purple field enveloped him. He was sucked into the machine.

  Quellen was devoured. The hidden power generators of the stat were connected by direct link to the central generator that spun endlessly on its poles at the bottom of the Atlantic, condensing the theta force that made the stat travel possible. What was theta force? Quellen could not say. He could barely explain electricity, and that had been around for a longer time. He took it for granted and gave himself to the stat field. If someone had introduced a minor abscissa distortion, Quellen’s atoms would be broadcast to the universe and never reassembled, but one did not think about such things.

  The effect was instantaneous. The lean, lanky form of Quellen was shattered, a stream of tagged wavicles was relayed halfway across the planet, and Quellen was reconstituted. It happened so fast—molecule ripped from molecule in a fragment of a nanosecond—that his neural system could not pick up the pain of total dissolution. The restoration of life came just as swiftly.

  One did not think about the realities of stat travel. One simply traveled. To do otherwise was to ask for the miseries.

  Quellen emerged in the tiny apartment for Class Seven citizens of Appalachia that everyone thought he inhabited. Some messages awaited him. He glanced at them: they were advertising blares mainly, although a note told him that hissister Helaine had come calling. Quellen felt a twitch of guilt. Helaine and her husband were prolets of the prole, ground under by the harsh realities. He had often wished he could do something for them, since their unhappiness added prongs to his own sense of conscience. Yet what could he do? He preferred not to get involved.In a series of swift motions he slipped out of his loungingclothes and into his crisp business uniform, and removed thePrivacyradion from the door. Thus he transformed himself from Joe Quellen, owner of an illegal privacy-nest in the heart of an unreported reservation in Africa, into Joseph Quellen, CrimeSec, staunch defender of law and order. He left the house. The elevator tumbled him endless stories to the tenth-floor quickboat landing. Stat transmission within a city was technically impossible; more’s the pity, Quellen felt.

  A quickboat slid onto its ramp. Quellen joined the multitudes pressing into it. He felt the thrum of power as it moved outward. Aching humbly from fear, Quellen headed downtown to meet Koll.

  The building of Secretariat of Crime was considered an architectural masterpiece, Quellen had been told. Eighty stories, topped by spiked towers, and the crimson curtain-walls were rough and sandy in texture, so that they sparkled like a beacon when illuminated. The building had roots; Quellen had never learned how many underlevels there were, and he suspected that no one really knew, save certain members of the High Government. Surely there were twenty levels of computer down there, and a crypt for dead storage below that, and a further eight levels of interrogation rooms even deeper. Of that much, Quellen had sure knowledge. Some said that there was another computer, forty levels thick, underneath the interrogation rooms, and there were those who maintained that this was the true computer, while theone above was only for decoration and camouflage. Perhaps. Quellen did not try to probe too deeply into such things. For all he knew, the High Government itself met in secret councils a hundred levels below street level in this very building. He kept his curiosity under check. He did not wish to invite the curiosity of others, and that meant placing a limit on his own.

  Clerical workers nodded respectfully to Quellen as he passed between their close-packed rows. He smiled. He could afford to be gracious; here he had status, themanaof Class Seven. They were Fourteens, Fifteens, the boy emptying the disposal basket was probably a Twenty. To them, he was a lofty figure, virtually a confidant of High Government people, a personal associate of Danton and Kloofman themselves. All a matter of perspective, Quellen thought.

  Actually he had glimpsed Danton—or someone said to be Danton—only once. He had no real reason to think that Kloofman actually existed, though probably he did.

  Clamping his hand vigorously on the doorknob, Quellen waited to be scanned. The door of the inner office opened. He entered and found unfriendly figures hunched at desks within. Little sharp-nosed Martin Koll, looking for all the world like some huge rodent, sat facing the door, sifting through a sheaf of minislips. Leon Spanner, Quellen’s other boss, sat opposite him at the glistening table, his great bull neck hunching over still more memoranda. As Quellen came into the room, Koll reached to the wall with a quick nervous gesture and flipped up the oxy vent, admitting a supply for three.

  “Took you long enough,” Koll said, without looking up.

  Quellen glowered at him. Koll was gray-haired, grayfaced, gray of soul. Quellen hated him. “Sorry,” he said. “I had to change. I was off duty.”

  “Whatever we do won’t alter anything,” rumbled Spanner,as if no one had entered and nothing had been said. “What’s happened has happened, and nothing we do will have the slightest effect. Do you see? It makes me want to smash things! To pound and break!”

  “Sit down, Quellen,” Koll said offhandedly. He turned to Spanner, a big, beefy man with a furrowed forehead and thick features. “I thought we’d been through this all before,” Koll said. “If we meddle it’s going to mix up everything. With about five hundred years to cover, we’ll scramble the whole framework. That much is clear.”

  Quellen silently breathed relief. Whatever it was they were concerned about, it wasn’t his illegal African hideaway. From the way it sounded, they were talking about the time-hoppers. Good. He looked at his two superiors more carefully, now that his eyes were no longer blurred by fear and the anticipation of humiliating punishment. They had obviously been arguing quite a while, Koll and Spanner. Koll was the deep one, with his agile mind and nervous, birdlike energy. But Spanner had more power. They said he had connections in high places, even High places.

  “All right, Koll,” Spanner grunted. “I’ll even grant that it will mix up the past. I’ll concede that much.”

  “Well, that’s something,” the small man said.

  “Don’t interrupt me. I still think we’ve got to put a stop to it. We can’t undo what’s done, but we can cut it short this year. In fact, we must.”

  Koll glared balefully at Spanner. Quellen could see that his own presence was the only reason Koll was concealing the anger lying just behind his eyes. They would be spewing curses at one another if the underling Quellen did not happen to be in the room.

  “Why, Spanner, why?” Koll demanded in what passed for measured tones. “If we keep the
process going we maintain things as they are. Four thousand of them went in ’86,nine thousand in ’87, fifty thousand in ’88. And when we get last year’s figures, they’ll be even higher. Look—here it says that over a million hoppers arrived in the first eighty years, and after that the figures kept rising. Think of the population we’re losing! It’s wonderful! We can’taffordto let these people stay here, when we have a chance to get rid of them. And when history says that we did get rid of them.”

  “History also says that they stopped going back to the past after 2491. Which means that we caught them next year,” Spanner said. “I mean, that wewillcatch them next year. It’s ordained. We’ve got no choice but to obey. The past’s a closed book.”

  “Is it?” Koll laughed; it was almost a bark. “What if we don’t solve it? What if the hoppers keep on going back?”

  “It didn’t happen that way, though. Weknowit. All the hoppers who reached the past came from the years 2486 to 2491. That’s a matter of record,” said Spanner doggedly.

  “Records can be falsified.”

  “The High Government wants this traffic stopped. Why must I argue with you, Koll? You want to defy history, that’s your business, but defying Them as well? No. We don’t have that option.”

  “But to clear away millions of prolets—”

  Spanner grunted and tightened his grasp on the minislipshe was holding. Quellen, feeling like an intruder, let his eyes flick back from one man to the other.

  “All right,” Spanner said slowly. “I’ll agree with you that it’s nice to keep losing all those prolets. Even though on the face of things it appears that we won’t go on losing them much longer. You say we have to let it keep going on, or else it’ll alter the past. I take the opposite view. But let that pass. I won’t argue the point, since you seem so positive. Furthermore, you think that it’s a good thing to use this time-hopper business as a method of reducing population.I’m with you on that too, Koll. I don’t like overcrowding any more than you do, and I’ll admit things have reached a ridiculous state nowadays. But consider: we’re being hoodwinked. For someone to be running a time-travel business behind our backs is illegal and unethical and a lot of other things, and he ought to be stopped. What do you say, Quellen? Ultimately this is going to be the responsibility of your department, you know.”

  The sudden reference to him came as a jolt. Quellen was still struggling to get his bearings in this debate, and he was not entirely sure what they were talking about. He smiled weakly and shook his head.

  “No opinion?” Koll asked abrasively.

  Quellen looked at him. He was unable to stare straight into Koll’s hard, colorless eyes, and so he let his gaze rest on the bureau manager’s cheekbones instead. He remained silent.

  “No opinion, Quellen? That’s too bad indeed. It doesn’t speak well of you.”

  Quellen repressed a shudder. “I’m afraid that I haven’t been keeping up with the latest developments in the timehopper case. As you know, I’ve been very busy on certain projects that—”

  He let his voice trail off, feeling like a fool. His eager assistants probably knew all about this situation, he thought. He wondered why he had never bothered to check with Brogg. But how could he anticipate everything?

  Koll said, “Are you aware that thousands of prolets have vanished into nowhere since the beginning of the year, Quellen?”

  “No, sir. Ah, I mean, of course, sir. Certainly. It’s just that we haven’t really had a chance to take action on it,” Quellen said.

  The footling sound of his own voice appalled him.Verylame, Quellen, very lame,he told himself.Of course you don’t know anything about it, when you spend all your free time in that pretty little hideaway across the ocean. But Stanley Brogg probably knows every detail. Brogg is very efficient.

  “Well, just where do you think they’ve gone?” Koll asked. “Maybe you think they’ve all hopped into stats and gone off somewhere to look for work? To Africa, maybe?”

  The barb had poison on it. Quellen came close to gaspingin shock before he could convince himself that Koll was stabbing in the dark. He hid his reaction as well as he could and replied evenly, “I have no idea, sir.”

  “You haven’t been reading your history books very well, then, Quellen. Think, man: what was the most important historical development of the past five centuries?”

  Quellen thought. What, indeed? The Entente? The comingof the High Government? The breakdown of the nations? The stat? He hated the way Koll could turn him into an idiotic schoolboy. Quellen knew he was no fool, however inane he might seem when hauled on the carpet. He was competent enough. But at the core of his being was his vulnerability, his hidden crime, and that meant he was jelly at the core. He began to sweat. He said, “I’m not sure how to evaluate that question, sir.”

  Koll casually flipped the oxy up a little higher, in an almost insulting gesture of friendliness. The sweet gas purred into the room. Softly Koll said, “I’ll tell you, then. It’s the arrival of the hoppers. Andthisis the era they’re starting out from.”

  “Of course,” Quellen said. Everyone knew about the hoppers, and he was annoyed with himself for not simply offering the obvious to Koll.

  “Someone’s developed time travel in the past few years,” Spanner said. “He’s beginning to siphon the timehpppersback to the past. Thousands of unemployed prolets are gone already, and if we don’t catch him soon he’ll clutter up the past with every wandering workingman in the country.”

  “So? That’s just my point,” Koll said impatiently. “We know they’ve already arrived in the past; our history books say so. Now we can sit back and let this fellow distribute our refuse all over the previous five centuries.”

  Spanner swiveled round and confronted Quellen. “What do you think?” he demanded. “Should we follow the order of the High Government, round up this fellow, and stop the departure of the hoppers? Or should we do as Koll says and let everything go on, which defies not only Them but also incidentally the information of history?”

  “I’ll need time to study the case,” Quellen said suspiciously. The last thing that he wanted to have happen to him was to be forced into making a judgement in favor of one superior over another.

  “Let me show you your path right now,” Spanner said, with a side glance at Koll. “We have our instructions from the High Government, and it’s futile to debate them. As Koll here knows quite well, Kloofman himself has taken an interest in this case. Our task is to locate the illegal nexus of time-travel activity and bring it under official control. Koll, if you object, you’d better appeal to the High Government.”

  “No objections,” said Koll. “Quellen?”

  Quellen stiffened. “Yes, sir?”

  “You heard Mr. Spanner. Get on it, fast. Track down this fellow who’s shipping the hoppers and put him away, but not before you get his secret out of him. The High Government wants control of the process. And a halt to this illegal activity. It’s all yours, Quellen.”

  He was dismissed.

  2.

  Norman Pomrath looked coldly at his wife and said, “When is your brother going to do something for us, Helaine?”“I’ve told you. He can’t.”

  “He won’t, you mean.”

  “Hecan’t. Who do you think he is, Danton? And will you please get out of my way? I need a shower.”

  “At least you said please,” Pomrath grumbled. “I’m grateful for small mercies.”

  He stepped to one side. Out of some tatter of modesty he did not watch as his wife stripped off her green tunic. She crumpled the garment, tossed it aside, and got under the molecular bath. Since she stood with her back to him while she washed, he let himself watch her. Modesty was an important thing, Pomrath thought. Even when you’ve been married eleven years, you’ve got to give the other person some privacy in these stinking one-room lives. Otherwise you’ll click your gyros. He gnawed a fingernail and stole furtive glances at his wife’s lean buttocks.

  The air in the Pomrath apartm
ent was foul, but he didn’t dare turn up the oxy. He had drawn this week’s supply, and if he nudged the stud, the utility computer somewhere in the bowels of the earth would say unpleasant things to him. Pomrath didn’t think his nerves could stand much garbage from a utility computer just now. His nerves couldn’t stand much of anything. He was Class Fourteen, which was bad enough, and he hadn’t had any work in three months, which was worse, and he had a brother-in-law in Class Seven, which really cut into him. What good did Joe Quellen do him though? The damned guy was never around. Ducking out on his family responsibilities.

  Helaine was finished with her shower. The molecular bath used no water; only Class Ten and up was entitled to use water for purposes of bodily cleaning. Since most people in the world were Class Eleven and down, the planet would stink halfway across the universe but for the handy molecular baths. You stripped down, stood in front of the nozzle, and ultrasonic waves cunningly separated the grime from your skin and gave you the illusion of being clean. Pomrath did not bother to avert his eyes as Helaine’s nude white form crossed in front of him. She wriggled into her tunic. Once, he remembered, he had thought she was voluptuous. He had been much younger then. Later, it had seemed to him that she had begun to lose weight. Now she was thin. There were times—especially at night—when she hardly looked female to him.

  He slid down into the webfoam cradle along one windowless wall and said, “When do the kids get home?”

  “Fifteen minutes. That’s why I showered now. Are you staying here, Norm?”

  “I’m going out in five minutes.”

  “To the sniffer palace?”

  He scowled at her. His face, creased and pleated bydefeat, was well designed for scowling. “No,” he said, “not to the sniffer palace. To the job machine.”

 
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