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       Cronos, p.22

           Robert Silverberg
 

  “But you know the job machine will contact you here if there’s any work, so—”

  “I want to go toit,” Pomrath said with icy dignity. “I do not want it to come tome. I will go to the job machine. And then, most likely to the sniffer palace afterward. Perhaps to celebrate and perhaps to drown my sorrow.”

  “I knew it.”

  “Damn you, Helaine, why don’t you get off me? Is it my fault I’m between jobs? I rank high in skills. I ought to be working. But there’s a cosmic injustice in the universe that keeps me unemployed.”

  She laughed harshly. The harshness was a new note, something of the last few years. “You’ve had work exactly twenty-three weeks in eleven years,” she told him. “The rest of the time we’ve collected doles. You’ve moved up from Class Twenty to Class Fourteen, and there you stick, year after year, and we’re getting nowhere, and the walls of this damned apartment are like a cage to me, and when those two kids are in it with me I feel like tearing their heads off, and—”

  “Helaine,” he said quietly. “Stop it.”

  To his considerable surprise, she did. A muscle knotted in her jaw as she caught herself headlong in her stream of protest. Much more calmly she said, “I’m sorry, Norm. It’s not your fault we’re prolets. There are only so many jobs to be had. Even with your skills—”

  “Yes. I know.”

  “It’s the way things are. I didn’t mean to screech, Norm. I love you, do you know that? For better, for worse, like they say.”

  “Sure, Helaine. All right.”

  “Maybe I’ll go to the sniffer palace with you, this time. Let me get the kids programmed and—”

  He shook his head. It was very touching, this sudden display of affection, but he saw enough of Helaine in the apartment, day and night. He didn’t want her following him around as he took his pitiful pleasures. “Not this time, sweeting,” he said quickly. “Remember, I’ve got to go punch the job machine first. You’d better stay here. Go visit Beth Wisnack, or somebody.”

  “Her husband’s still gone.”

  “Who, Wisnack? Haven’t they traced him?”

  “They think he—he hopped. I mean, they’ve had a televector on him and everything,” Helaine said. “No trace. He’s really gone.”

  “You believe in this hopper business?” Pomrath asked.

  “Of course.”

  “Traveling in time? It doesn’t make any sense. I mean, as a matter of teleology, if you start turning the universe upside down, if you confuse the direction in which events flow, Helaine, I mean—”

  Her eyes were very wide. “The faxtapes say there’s such a thing. The High Government is investigating it. Joe’s own department. Norm, how can you say there are no time-hoppers, when people are disappearing every day? When Bud Wisnack right on the next level—”

  “There’s no proof he did that.”

  “Where else is he, then?”

  “Antarctica, maybe. Poland. Mars. A televector can slip up just like anybody else. I can’t swallow this time-travel deal, Helaine. It has no thingness for me, do you follow? It’s unreal, a fantasy, something out of a sniffer dream.”

  Pomrath coughed. He was doing a lot of vociferous talking lately. He thought about Bud Wisnack, small and bald, withan eternal blue stubble on his cheeks, and wondered if he had really jumped a hoop in time and gone off to 1999 or whenever.

  The Pomraths looked at each other in awkward silence for a moment. Then Helaine said, “Tell me something hypothetical, Norm. If you went outside now and a man came up to you and said he was running the hopper business, and did you want to go back in time and get away from it all, what would you say to him?”

  Pomrath considered. “I’d tell him no. I mean, would it be honorable to skip out on my wife and family? It’s all right for a Bud Wisnack, but I couldn’t duck all my responsibilities, Helaine.”

  Her gray-blue eyes sparked. She smiled her don’t-foolmekiddo smile. “That’s very nobly said, Norm. But I think you’d go, all the same.”

  “You’re entitled to think what you want to think. Since it’s all a fantasy anyway, it doesn’t really matter. I’m going to have a look at the job machine now. I’ll give it a real punch. Who knows? I might find myself twitched right up to Class Seven with Joe.”

  “Could be,” Helaine said. “What time will you be back?”

  “Later.”

  “Norm, don’t spend too much time at the sniffer palace. I hate it when you get high on that stuff.”

  “I’m the masses,” he told her. “I need my opium.”

  He palmed the door. It slid open with a little whickering sound, and he went out. The hall light was burning feebly. Cursing, Pomrath groped his way toward the elevator. The hall lights weren’t like this in Class Seven places, he knew. He had visited Joe Quellen. Not often, true; his brother-inlaw didn’t mingle much with the prolets, even when they were his own kin. But he had seen. Quellen led a damned good life. And what was he, anyway? What were his skills?He was a bureaucrat, a papershuffler. There was nothing Joe Quellen could do that a computer couldn’t do better. But he had a job. Tenure.

  Gloomily Pomrath stared at his distorted reflection in the burnished framework of the elevator oval. He was a squat, broadshouldered man just past forty, with heavy eyebrows and tired, sad eyes. The reflection made him look older, with much flesh at his throat. Give me time, he thought. He stepped through the oval and was sped upward toward the surface level of the huge apartment house.

  I made my choices of my own free will, he insisted. I married the voluptuous Helaine Quellen. I had my permitted two children. I opted for my kind of work. And here I am in one room for four people, and my wife is skinny and I don’t look at her when she’s naked because I have to spare her nerves, and the oxy quota is used up, and here I am going to punch the job machine and find out the old, old story, and then to drop a lousy few pieces at the sniffer palace, and—

  Pomrath wondered what exactly he would do if some agent of the time-hopper people came up to him and offered to peddle him a ticket into a quieter yesterday. Would he do a Bud Wisnack and grab at the chance?

  This is nonsense, Pomrath told himself. Such an option doesn’t exist. The time-hoppers are imaginary. A fraud perpetrated by the High Government. You can’t travel backward in time. All you can do is go relentlessly forward, at a rate of one second per second.

  But if that’s the case, Norm Pomrath asked himself, where did Bud Wisnack really go?

  When the apartment door closed, and Helaine found herself alone, she slumped down wearily on the edge of the all-purpose table in the middle of the room and bit down hard on her lower lip to keep back the tears.He didn’t even notice me, she thought. I took a shower right in front of him and he didn’t even notice.

  Actually, Helaine had to admit, that wasn’t true. She had watched his reflection in the coppery wall-plate that was their substitute for a window, and she had seen him covertly looking at her body as she stood with her back to him under the shower. And then, when she had walked naked across the room to pick up her tunic, he had looked at her again, the front view.

  But he hadn’tdoneanything. That was the essential thing. If he felt some spark of sexual feeling for her, he would have showed it. With a caress, a smile, a hasty hand slammed against the button that would bring the hidden bed sliding out of the wall. He had looked at her body, and it hadn’t had any effect on him at all. Helaine suffered more from that than from all the rest.

  She was thirty-seven, almost. That wasn’t really old. She had seventy or eighty years of actuarial lifespan ahead of her. Yet she felt middle-aged. She had lost a great deal of weight lately, so that her hip-bones jutted out like misplaced shoulderblades. She no longer wore her off-the-bosom dresses. She knew that she had ceased to have much sensual appeal for her husband, and it pained her.

  Was it true, the stories going around that the High Government was promoting special anti-sex measures? That by order of Danton the men were getting impotence pills and
the women were receiving desensualizers? That was what the women were whispering. Noelle Kalmuck said that the laundry-room computer had told her so. You had to believe what a computer told you, didn’t you? Presumably the machine was plugged right into the high Government itself.

  But it made no sense. Helaine was no genius, but she had common sense. Why would the High Government wantto meddle with the sex drive? Surely not as a birth-control measure. They controlled birth more humanely, by interfering with fertility, not with potency. Two children per married couple, that wasit. If they allowed only one, they might be making some headway with the population problem, but unfortunately there were substantial pressure groups who insisted on the two-child family, and even the High Government had bowed. So population was stabilized, and even reduced a little—taking into account the bachelors, like Helaine’s brother Joe, and the couples who had sworn the Sterility Pledge, and such—but no real headway was made.

  Still, with fertility controlled, it was illogical for the High Government to take away sex as well. Sex was the sport of the prolets. It was free. You didn’t need to have a job in order to enjoy sex. It passed the time. Helaine decided that the rumors she had heard were sheer foolishness, and she doubted that the laundry computer had said anything on the subject to Noelle Kalmuck. Why should the computer talk to Noelle at all? She was just a giggly little fool.

  Of course, you could never tell. The High Government could be devious. This time-hopper business, for example: was there any truth in it, Helaine wondered? Well, there were all the accredited documents of time-hoppers who had arrived in previous centuries, but suppose they were all frauds inserted in the history books simply to baffle and confuse? What was the real and what was imagined?

  Helaine sighed. “What time is it?” she asked.

  Her earwatch said gently, “Ten minutes to fifteen.”

  The children would be arriving home from school soon. Little Joseph was seven, Marina was nine. At this age they still had some shreds of innocence, as much as any children could have who spent all their lives in the same room as their parents. Helaine turned to the foodboxand programmed their afternoon snack with furious jabs of her knuckles. She had just finished the job when the children appeared.

  They greeted her. Helaine shrugged. “Plug in and have your snacks,” she said.

  Joseph grinned angelically at her. “We saw Kloofman in school today. He looks like Daddy.”

  “Sure,” Helaine said. “The High Government has nothing-better to do than visit schoolrooms, I know. And the reason-why Kloofman looks like Daddy is—” She cut herself short. She had been about to say something untrue, but Joseph had a literal mind. He’d repeat it, and the next day the investigators would come around to know why the class Fourteen Pomrath family was claiming to be related to one of Them.

  Marina broke in, “It wasn’t really Kloofman anyway. Not himself. They just showed pictures of him on the wall.” She nudged her brother. “Kloofman wouldn’t come to your grade, silly. He’s much too busy.”

  “Marina’s right,” Helaine said. “Listen, children, I’ve programmed you. Have your snack and start your homework right away.”

  “Where’s Daddy?” Joseph asked.

  “He went to punch the job machine.”

  “Will he get a job today?” Marina wanted to know.

  “It’s hard to say.” Helaine smiled evasively. “I’m going to visit Mrs. Wisnack.”

  The children ate. Helaine stepped through the door and went uplevel to the Wisnack apartment. The door told her that Beth was home, so Helaine announced herself and was admitted. Beth Wisnack nodded to her wordlessly. She looked terribly tired. She was a small woman, just about forty, with dark, trusting eyes and dull-green hair pulledback in a tight grip to a bun. Her two children, the usual boy and girl, sat with their backs to the door, snacking.

  “Any news?” Helaine asked.

  “None. None. He’s gone, Helaine. They won’t admit it yet, but he’s hopped, and he won’t ever come back. I’m a widow.”

  “What about the televector search?”

  The little woman shrugged. “According to law they’ve got to keep it going eight days. Then that’s all. They’ve searched the registered list of hoppers, but there’s nobody named Wisnack on it. Which doesn’t mean a thing, of course. Very few of them used their real names when they arrived in the past. And the early ones, they didn’t even record the physical descriptions. So there’ll be no proof. But he’s gone. I’m applying for my pension next week.”

  Helaine felt the weight of Beth Wisnack’s misery like some kind of additional humidity in the room. Her heart went out to her. Life wasn’t very attractive here in Class Fourteen, but at least you had your family structure to cling to in times of stress. Beth didn’t even have that, now. Her husband had put thumb to nose and disappeared on a oneway journey to the past. “Good-by, Beth, good-by, kids, good-by, lousy twenty-fifth century,” he might have said, as he vanished down the time tunnel. The coward couldn’t face responsibility, Helaine thought. And who was going to marry Beth Wisnack now?

  “I feel so sorry for you,” Helaine murmured.

  “Save it. There’ll be troubles for you, too. All the men will run away. You’ll see. Norm will go too. They talk big about obligations, but then they run. Bud swore he’d never go, either. But he was out of work two years, you know, and even with the check every week he couldn’t stand it any more. So he went.”

  Helaine didn’t like the implication that her own husband was about to check out. It seemed ungracious of Beth to hurl such a wish at her, even in her own grief. After all, Helaine thought, I came on a simple neighborly mission of consolation. Beth’s words hadn’t been kind.

  Beth seemed to realize it.

  “Sit down,” she said. “Rest. Talk to me. I tell you, Helaine, I hardly know what’s real any more, since the night Bud didn’t come back. I only wish you’re spared this kind of torture.”

  “You mustn’t give up hope yet,” Helaine said gently.

  Empty words, Helaine knew. Beth Wisnack knew it too.

  Maybe I’ll talk to my brother Joe, she thought. See him again. Maybe there’s something he can do for us. He’s Class Seven, an important man.

  God, I don’t want Norm to become a hopper!

  3.

  Quellen was glad to escape from Koll and Spanner. Once he was back in his own office, behind his own small but private desk, Quellen could feel his status again. He was something more than a flunky, no matter how Koll chose to push him around.He rang for Brogg and Leeward, and the two UnderSecs appeared almost instantly.

  “Good to see you again,” Stanley Brogg said sourly. He was a large man, somber-looking, with a heavy face and thick, hairy-backed fingers. Quellen nodded to him and reached out to open the oxy vent, letting the stuff flow into the office and trying to capture the patronizing look Koll had flashed at him while doing the same thing fifteen minutes before. Brogg did not look awed. He was only Class Nine, but he had power over Quellen, and both of them knew it.

  Leeward did not look awed either, for different reasons. Leeward simply was not sensitive to small gestures. He was a towering, cadaverous, undemonstrative man who wentabout his work in a routinely methodical way. Not a dolt, but destined never to get out of Class Nine, either.

  Quellen surveyed his two assistants. He could not bear the silent scrutiny he was getting from Brogg. Brogg was the one who knew the secret of the African hideaway; a third of Quellen’s substantial salary was the price that kept Brogg quiet about Quellen’s second, secret home. Big Leeward did not know and did not care; he took his orders directly from Brogg, not from Quellen, and blackmail was not his specialty.

  “I suppose you’ve been informed of our assignment to handle the recent prolet disappearances,” Quellen began. “The so-called time-hoppers have become the problem of the Secretariat of Crime, as we have anticipated for several years now.”

  Brogg produced a thick stack of minislips. “As a matter of fa
ct, I was going to get in touch with you about the situation just now. The High Government’s taken quite an interest. Koll no doubt has told you that Kloofman himself is involved. I have the new statistics. In the first four months of this year sixty-eight thousand prolets have vanished.”

  “But you’re on the case?”

  “Of course,” Brogg said.

  “Progress report?”

  “Well,” Brogg said, pacing up and down the little room and wiping the sweat from his heavy jowls, “you know the theory, though it’s been occasionally controverted. That the hoppers are starting out from our proximate timenexus. I’ve plotted it all. Tell him, Leeward.”

  Leeward said, “A statistical distribution shows that the theory is correct. The present disappearances of prolets are linked directly to historical records of the appearance of the so-called hoppers in the late twentieth century and succeeding years.”

  Brogg pointed to a blue-covered volume lying on Quellen’s desk. “History spool. I put it there for you. It confirms my findings. The theory’s sound.”

  Quellen ran a finger along his jawline and wondered what it was like to carry around as much fat on one’s face as Brogg did. Brogg was perspiring heavily, and his expression was a sad one; he was virtually begging Quellen with his eyes to open the oxy vent wider. The moment of superiority pleased the harried CrimeSec, and he made no move toward the wall.

  Crisply Quellen said, “All you’ve done is to confirm the obvious. We know the hoppers have been taking off from this approximate era. That’s been a fact of record since roughly 1979. The High Government directive orders us to isolate the distribution vector. I’ve developed an immediate course of action.”

  “Which has been approved by Koll and Spanner, of course,” Brogg said insolently. His jowls quivered as his voice rumbled through them.

  “It has,” Quellen said with as much force as he could muster. It angered him that Brogg could so easily deflate him. Koll, yes, Spanner, yes—but Brogg was supposed to be his assistant. Brogg knew too much about him, though. Quellen said, “I want you to track down the slyster who’s shipping these hoppers back. Do anything within the codes to halt his illegal activity. Bring him here. I want him caught before he sends anyone else into the past.”

 
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