Cronos, p.25Robert Silverberg
OUT OF WORK?
That’s interesting, Pomrath thought. I must have the look of the hard-core unemployed in my eyes, by now. Out of work? Sure!
But who the hell is this Lanoy?
Martin Koll made a great show of rearranging the papers on his desk, to cover a confusion that he was scarcely eager to let Quellen see. The CrimeSec had just brought Koll a very disturbing proposition, as full of ricocheting implications as an image trapped between two mirrors. Koll, in turn, would have to refer it to the High Government for a judgment. He would gladly have impaled Quellen on a rusty spike for having caused such trouble for him. Agreed, it was a clever proposal. But cleverness was out of character for Quellen. The man was dogged, methodical, reasonably adept, but that was no reason for him to present his superior with a treacherous proposition like this.“Let me see if I grasp it,” said Koll, who grasped it all too perfectly. “Your search of the hopper records has produced an authentic individual named Mortensen who is listed as having departed for the past from next month. It’s your suggestion to monitor him, track him to his contact point, and if necessary prevent him forcibly fromcompleting his trip to the past by arresting those who have agreed to send him there.”
Quellen nodded. “That’s it.”
“You realize that it would be a direct interference with the past, in a deliberate way that’s never been tried before, so far as I know?”
“I realize it,” said Quellen. “That’s why I came to you for authorization. I’m caught between two imperatives: catch the time-travel slyster, and preserve the orderly structure of history. Obviously this Mortensen is in contact with the slyster, or will be, if May 4 is his actual departure date. So if we slap a tracer on him—”
“Yes,” Koll said drily. “You’ve said that already. I appreciate the difficulty.”
“Do you have an instruction for me?”
Koll fidgeted with his papers again. He suspected that Quellen was doing this intentionally, putting his boss on the spot in a rare display of temperament. Koll was cognizant of the niceties of the situation. For ten years now he had made Quellen dance tohistune, compelling him to catch one hot assignment after another and then watching with some amusement as Quellen brought his limited capacities into play to deal with the problem. Koll admitted that there had been a element of sadism in his treatment of Quellen. It was fair enough; Koll was entitled to his personality faults, just like everyone else, and it seemed justifiable to him to release his aggressions through hostility toward the uncomplaining Quellen. All the same, it was a bother to have Quellen concoct a mess like this by way of revenge.
After a long moment of awkward silence Koll said, “I can’t give you an instruction just yet. I’ll have to consult with Spanner, of course. And most likely we’ll need to get an advisory view from the other quarters.”
Meaning the High Government. Koll did not fail toobserve the small smile of triumph that passed rapidly over Quellen’s amiable features. Quellen was enjoying this, there could be no doubt of it.
“I’ll hold off taking critical action until further word, sir,” the CrimeSec said.
“You’d better,” Koll replied.
Quellen went out. Koll dug his fingernails into his palms until his hands throbbed with pain. Then, with quick, disgusted taps of his fingers, he punched the autosec buttons until the machine disgorged a spool of his conversation with Quellen. That was for Spanner to study. And after that—
Spanner was out, just now. Checking on some complaint in another department. Koll, perspiring badly, wished that Quellen had waited until a time when Spanner was in the office before presenting this Mortensen nonsense. But no doubt that was part of Quellen’s devilish plan, too. Koll bitterly resented being persecuted by the underling. He closed his eyes and saw Quellen’s face on the inside of the lids: long straight nose, pale blue eyes, cleft chin. An ordinary face, a forgettable face. Some might even say a handsome face. No one had ever called Martin Koll handsome. On the other hand, he was clever. Far cleverer than the hapless Quellen, or so Koll had always thought, until this afternoon.
An hour later, Spanner came back. As he settled into his desk like a beast returning from a gorging meal, Koll slid the spool over to him.
“Play this. Then tell me what you think.”
“Can’t you give me a précis?”
“Play it. It’s simpler,” Koll said.
Spanner played it, mercifully using his earphone so Koll would not have to listen to the conversation again. When the spool had run its course, Spanner looked up. He tugged at the flesh of his throat and said, “It’s a good chance to catch our man, isn’t it?”
Koll closed his eyes. “Follow my train of thought. We tag Mortensen. He does not go back in time. He does not have the five children he is credited with fathering. Three of those five children, let us say, carry significant historical vectors. One of them grows up to be the father of the assassin of Secretary-General Tze. One of them becomes the grandfather of the unknown girl who carried the cholera to San Francisco. One of them is responsible for the line of descent that culminates in Flaming Bess. Now, since Mortensen never actually reaches his destination in the past, none of those three are born.”
“Look at it another way,” said Spanner. “Mortenson goes back and has five children. Two of them remain spinster girls. The third is killed falling through thin ice. The fourth becomes a common laborer and has some children who never amount to anything. The fifth—”
“How do you know,” asked Koll quietly, “what the consequences of removing a single common laborer from the matrix of the past would be? How do you know what incalculable changes would be worked by removing even a spinster?Do you want to risk it, Spanner?Do you want the responsibility?”
“Neither do I. It’s been possible to intercept hoppers for four years, now, simply by going through the records and catching them before they take off. No one’s done it. No one’s even suggested it, so far as I know, until the fiendish idea was hatched in the mind of our friend Quellen.”
“I doubt that,” said Spanner. “As a matter of fact, I’ve thought of it myself.”
“And kept the idea to yourself.”
“Well, yes. I hadn’t had the time to work out the implications. But I’m sure it’s occurred to others in the governmentwho have been working on the hopper problem. Perhaps it’s already been done, eh, Koll?”
“Very well,” said Koll. “Call Quellen and ask him to file a formal request for approval of his plan. Then you sign it.”
“No. We’ll both sign it.”
“I refuse to take the responsibility.”
“In that case, so do I,” Spanner said.
They smiled at each other in non-amusement. The obvious-conclusion was all that was left.
“In that case,” said Koll, “we must take it to Them for a decision.”
“I agree. You handle it.”
“Coward!” Koll snorted.
“Not really. Quellen brought the matter to you. You discussed it with me and got an advisory opinion that confirmed your own feelings. Now it’s back to you, and you’re the one who’s riding it. Ride it right up to Them.” Spanner smiled cordially. “You aren’t afraid of Them, are you?”
Koll shifted uncomfortably in his seat. At his level of authority and responsibility, he had the right of access to the High Government. He had used it several times in the past, never with any degree of pleasure. Notdirectaccess, of course; he had spoken face to face with a few Class Two people, but his only contacts with Class One had been on the screen. On one occasion Koll had spoken with Danton, and three times with Kloofman, but he had no way of being certain that the images on the screen were in fact those of authentic human beings. If something said it was Kloofman, and spoke in Kloofman’s voice, and looked like the tridims of Kloofman that hung in public places, that still did not necessarily mean that there now was or ever had been such an actual pers
“I’ll call and see what happens,” said Koll.
He did not want to make the call from his own desk. The need for physical motion was suddenly great in him. Koll rose, too abruptly, and scuttled out, down the hall, into a darkened communicator booth. The screen brightened as he keyed in the console.
One hardly dared to pick up the phone and call Kloofman, naturally. One went through channels. Koll’s route to the top was through David Giacomin, Class Two, the viceroy for internal criminal affairs. Giacomin existed. Koll had seen him in the flesh, had touched his hand on one instance, had even spent a numbing two hours at Giacomin’s private domain in East Africa, one of the most memorable and harrowing experiences in Koll’s entire life.
He put through the call to Giacomin. In less than fifteen minutes the viceroy was on screen, smiling pleasantly at Koll with that easy benevolence that a Class Two man of secure ego could afford to display. Giacomin was a man of about fifty, Koll thought, with close-cropped iron-gray hair, lips that ran lopsidedly across his face, and a furrowed forehead. His left eye had been damaged irreparably some time in the past; in its place he wore a stubby fiber-receptor whose glass rods were plugged directly into his brain.
“What is it, Koll?” he asked amiably.
“Sir, one of my subordinates has proposed an unusual method of obtaining information about the hopper phenomenon. There’s some controversy about whether we should proceed along the suggested path of action.”
“Why don’t you tell me all about it?” Giacomin said, his voice as warm and comforting as that of a frood begging to know about your most severe neurosis.
An hour later, toward the end of his working day, Quellen learned from Koll that nothing had been settled concerning Mortensen. Koll had talked to Spanner, and then he hadtalked to Giacomin, and now Giacomin was talking to Kloofman, and no doubt one of Them would be handing down The Word on the Mortensen project in a few days. Meanwhile, Quellen was to sit tight and take no provacative action. There was still plenty of time between now and Mortensen’s documented May 4 departure date.Quellen did not feel any sense of delight at the trouble he was causing. Tagging Mortensen was a clever idea, yes; but it was dangerous sometimes to be too clever. Quellen knew that he had made Koll uncomfortable. That never paid. For all he could tell; Koll had made Giacomin uncomfortable too, and now Giacomin was troubling Kloofman, which meant that Quellen’s clever proposal was stirring eddies of annoyance all the way to the very top of the global power structure. When Quellen had been younger, and seething with ambitions to rise to Class Seven eminence, he would have liked nothing better than to win such attention to himself. Now, though, hewasClass Seven, so he had attained the private apartment that was his dream, and further promotions would gain him little. Besides, his highly illegal nest in Africa weighed on his conscience. The last thing he wanted was to have a member of the High Government say, “This man Quellen is very clever—find out all you can about him.” Quellen wished to remain inconspicuous, these days.
Still, he could not have let himself suppress the Mortensen idea. He had official responsibilities to fulfill, and the extent of his private deviation from the residence laws made him all the more conscientious about doing his public duties.
Before going home for the day, Quellen sent for Stanley Brogg.
The beefy assistant said at once, “We’ve got a wide net out for the slyster, CrimeSec. It’s only a matter of days or even hours before we know his identity.”
“Good,” said Quellen. “I’ve got another line of approach for you to begin on. But this has to be handled with care, because it hasn’t been officially approved yet. There’s a man named Donald Mortensen planning to take his time-hop on May 4. Check him in the records you gave me; that’s where I found out about him. I want tracers put on him. Check his activities and contacts. But it’s got to be done with extreme delicacy. I can’t stress that too highly, Brogg.”
“All right. Mortensen.” “
Delicately.If this man finds out we’re tracing him, it could lead to a gigantic mess for all of us. Demotions or even worse. So get it straight: work around him, but don’t even graze him. Otherwise it’ll go hard for you.”
Brogg smiled slyly. “You mean you’ll drop me a couple of classes if I bungle?”
“I don’t think you’d do that, CrimeSec. Not tome.”
Quellen met the fat man’s eyes steadily. Brogg was becoming offensive lately, taking too keen a relish in the power he held over Quellen. His accidental discovery of Quellen’s African villa was the great torment of the CrimeSec’s life.
“Get out of here,” Quellen said. “And remember to be careful about Mortensen. It’s very possible that this line of investigation will be quashed by the High Government, and if it is we’ll all be frying if They find out we’ve alerted Mortensen.”
“I understand,” said Brogg. He left.
Quellen wondered if he should have done that. What if word came down via Giacomin that Mortensen was to be left alone? Well, Brogg was competent enough—too competent, sometimes. And there was really not much time to handle the Mortensen situation if approval did comethrough. Quellen had to initiate the project in advance. On a speculative basis, so to speak.
He had done all he could for now. Fleetingly he considered the idea of getting Brogg to handle the whole filthy case while he went back to Africa, but he decided that that would be inviting disaster. He shut up his office and went outside to catch the nearest quickboat back to his little Class Seven apartment. In the next few weeks, he knew, he might be able to slip off to Africa for an hour or two at a time, but no more than that. He was mired in Appalachia until the hopper crisis was over.
Returning to his apartment, Quellen discovered that he had neglected to keep his foodstocks in good supply. Since his stay in Appalachia threatened to be long or possibly permanent, he decided to replenish his stores. Sometimes Quellen ordered by phone, but not today. He fastened thePrivacyradion to his door again and went down the twisting flyramp to the supply shop, intending to stock up for a long siege.
As he made his way down, he noticed a sallow-looking man in a loose-fitting purple tunic heading in the opposite direction up the ramp. Quellen did not recognize him, but that was unsurprising; in the crowded turmoil of Appalachia, one never got to know very many people, just a handful of neighbors and relatives, and a few service employees like the keeper of the local supply shop.
The sallow-looking man stared curiously at Quellen. He seemed to be saying something with his eyes. Quellen felt profoundly uncomfortable about the contact. In his departmental work, he had learned a good deal about the various classes of molesters one could encounter on the streets. The ordinary sexual kind, of course; but also the ones who sidled up to you and punctured your veins to inject theaddictive dose of some infernal drug like helidone, or the sinster sorts given to jamming carcinogens against your skin in a crowd, or perhaps the secret agents who subtly stuck a molecular probe into your flesh that would transmit every word of your conversation to a distant pickup point. Such things happened all the time.
“Take it and read it,” the sallow-faced man muttered.
He brushed against Quellen and shoved a wadded minislip into his hand. There was no way Quellen could have avoided the contact. The stranger could have done anything to him in that brief instant; right now Quellen’s bone calcium might be turning to jelly, or his brain sloughing off through his nostrils, all to satisfy the gratuitous needs of some bump-killer. But it seemed that all the man had done was to put some kind of advertisement into Quellen’s palm. Quellen unfolded the minislip after the other had disappeared up the flyramp, and read it:
OUT OF WORK?
That was all. Instantly Quellen’s CrimeSec facet came into play. Like most lawbreakers in public office, he was vigorous in prosecution of other lawbreakers, and there was something in Lanoy’s handbill that smacked of illegality, not j
Out of work? See Lanoy.
Quellen wondered who Lanoy was and what his magic remedy might be. He made up his mind that he would have Leeward or Brogg look into the matter.
Carefully stowing the minislip in his pocket, Quellen entered the supply shop. The lead-lined door swung back to admit him. Robot merchandise-pickers were scuttling down the shelves, taking inventories, filling orders. The red-faced little man who ran the shop—as a front for the computers, naturally; what housewife wanted to gossip with a computer?—greeted Quellen with an unusual display of heartiness.
“Oh, it’s the CrimeSec! We haven’t been honored by you in a long time, CrimeSec,” the rotund shopkeeper said. “I was beginning to think you’d moved. But that’s impossible, isn’t it? You’d have notified me if you had gotten a promotion.”
“Yes, Greevy, that’s true. I’ve just not been around lately. Very busy these days. Investigations.” Quellen frowned. He did not want the news of his frequent absences noised all around the community. Quickly, edgily, he grabbed up the greasy gray binding of the basic catalog and began to call off numbers. Canned foods, powdered concentrates, staples, all the components of a basic diet. He scrawled his list and jammed it before the sensors while the shopkeeper looked on benignly.
Greevy said, “Your sister was in yesterday.”
“Helaine? I haven’t seen much of her lately.”
“She looks poorly, CrimeSec. Terribly thin. I programmed some Calfill for her, but she didn’t want it. Has she been to the medics?”
Cronos by Robert Silverberg / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes