Cronos, p.27
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       Cronos, p.27

           Robert Silverberg
 

  “He—uh—runs some kind of employment bureau, I think. I’m not sure.” Pomrath looked thoroughly uncomfortable. “Somebody slipped that to me as I was coming out of the sniffer palace.”

  “What good is it, if there’s no address on it?”

  “I guess you’re supposed to follow it up,” Pomrath said. “Hunt around, do some detective work. I don’t know.

  Actually, I had forgotten all about it, to tell you the truth. Give it here.”

  She surrendered it. He took it quickly, and thrust it intohis pocket. Helaine did not like the speed with which he got the incriminating document out of sight. Although she hadn’t even a remote notion of its implications, she was easily able to detect her husband’s guilt and general embarrassment.

  Maybe he’s planning a surprise for me, she thought. Maybe he’s already been to this Lanoy and done something about getting a job, but he was saving it to tell me next week when it’s our anniversary. And I bungled it by asking him questions. I should have let it go a while.

  Her son Joseph, stark naked, stepped down from the platform of the molecular bath. His sister, equally naked, got under it. Helaine busied herself with programming breakfast. Joseph said, “We’re going to learn geography in school today.”

  “How lovely,” Helaine said vaguely.

  “Where’s Africa?” the boy asked.

  “Far away. Across the ocean somewhere.”

  “Can I go to Africa when I grow up?” Joseph persisted.

  There was a shrill giggle from the bath. Marina whirled around and said, “Africa’s where the Class Twos live! Are you going to be Class Two, Jo-Jo?”

  The boy glowered at his sister. “Maybe. Maybe I’ll be Class One. How do you know?Youwon’t be anything. I got something you don’t have already.”

  Marina made a face at him. All the same, she turned around to hide her undeveloped nine-year-old body from his beady eyes. From his corner of the room, Pomrath looked up from the morning faxtape and grunted, “Cut it out, both of you! Jo-Jo, get dressed! Marina, finish your bath!”

  “I just said I wanted to go to Africa,” the boy muttered.

  “Don’t speak back to your father,” said Helaine. “Breakfast’s ready, anyhow. Get dressed.”

  She sighed. Her head felt as though someone had poured powdered glass into it. The children always bickering, Norm sitting in the corner like a guest at his own wake, mysterious minislips popping up in the wash, four windowless walls hemming her in—no, it was too much. She didn’t understand how she could tolerate it. Eat, sleep, bathe, make love, all in one little room. Thousands of grubby neighbors mired in the same bog. Picnic once a year, via stat to some faraway place that wasn’t all built up yet— bread and circuses, keep the prolets happy. But it hurt to see a tree and then come back to Appalachia. There was actual pain in it, Helaine thought miserably. She had not bargained for this when she married Norm Pomrath. He had been full of plans.

  The children ate and left for school. Norm remained where he was, turning and twisting the fax-tape in his stubby fingers. Now and then he shared an item of news with her. “Danton’s dedicating a new hospital in Pacifica next Tuesday. Totally automated, one big homeostat and no technicians at all. Isn’t that nice? It reduces government expenditures when no employees are required. And here’s a good one, too. Effective the first of May, oxy quotas in all commercial buildings are reduced by ten per cent. They say it’s to enable additional gas supplies to reach householders. You remember that, Helaine, when they cut the home quota too around August. It always goes down. When it gets to the point where they’re rationing air—”

  “Norm, don’t get worked up.”

  He ignored her. “How did all this happen to us? We’ve got a right to something better. Four million people per square inch, that’s where we’re heading. Build the houses a thousand stories high so there’s room for everyone, and it takes a month to get down to street level or up to the quickboat ramp, but what of it? It’s progress. And—”

  “Do you think you’ll be able to locate this Lanoy and get a job through him?” she asked.

  “What we need,” he went on, “is a first-class bacterial plague. Selective, of course. Wipe out all those who are lacking in functional job skills. That cuts the dole roll by a few billion units a day. Devote the tax money to makework programs for the rest. If that doesn’t work, start a war.

  Extraterrestrial enemies, the Crab People from the Crab Nebula, everything for patriotism. Start alosingwar. Cannonfodder.”

  He’s cracking up, Helaine thought as her husband went on talking. It was an endless monologue these days, a spewing fountain of bitterness. She tried not to listen. Since he showed no sign of leaving the apartment, she did. She hurled the dishes into the disposal unit and said to him, “I’m going to visit the neighbors,” and walked out just as he launched into an exposition of the virtues of controlled nuclear warfare as a means of population check. Random spasms of noise, that was what Norm Pomrath was producing these days. He had to hear himself talk, so that he did not forget he was still there.

  Where shall I go, Helaine wondered?

  Beth Wisnack, widowed by her time-hopping husband, looked smaller, grayer, sadder today than she had looked on Helaine’s last visit. Beth’s mouth was tightly drawn back in the quirk of suppressed rage. Behind the look of feminine resignation that she wore was inward fury:how dare he do this to me, how could he abandon me like this?Courteously Beth offered an alcohol tube to her guest. Helaine smiled pleasantly, took the snub-ended red plastic tube, thrust it against the fleshy part of her arm. Beth did the same. The ultrasonic snouts whirred; the stimulant spurted into their blood-streams. An easy drunk, for thosewho did not like the taste of modern liquors. Helaine flickered her eyes, relaxing. She listened for a while to Beth’s song of complaint, pitched all on one note.

  Then Helaine said, “Beth, do you know about someone called Lanoy?”

  Beth was at instant attention. “Who Lanoy? What Lanoy? Where did you hear of him? What do you know of him?”

  “Not much. That’s why I asked you.”

  “I heard the name, yes.” Her pale eyes were agitated. “Bud mentioned it. I heard him talking, telling some other man, Lanoy this, Lanoy that . . . It was the week before he ran out on me. Lanoy, he said. Lanoy will fix it.”

  Helaine reached for a second alcohol tube without waitingto be invited. There was a sudden chill inside her that needed to be thawed.

  “Lanoy will fix what?” she asked.

  Beth Wisnack subsided defeatedly. “I don’t know. Bud never discussed things with me. But I heard him talking about this Lanoy, anyway. A lot of whispering going on. Just before he left, he was talking Lanoy all the time. I’ve got a theory about Lanoy. You want to hear?”

  “Of course!”

  Smiling, Beth said, “I think Lanoy’s the one who runs the hopper business.”

  Helaine had thought so too. But she had come here to learn otherwise, not to have her worst fears confirmed. Tense, her hands trembling a little, she smoothed her tunic, shifted her position, and said, “You really think so?”

  “Bud talked Lanoy all week. Then he disappeared. He was hatching something and it had to do with Lanoy. I should know what? But I’ve got my theories. Bud met this Lanoy somewhere. They struck a deal. And—and—” The painand rage welled too close to the surface. “And Bud left,” Beth Wisnack said breathily. She popped another tube. Then she said, “Why do you ask?”

  “I found a slip in Norman’s clothes,” Helaine said. “It was some kind of advert.‘Out of work? See Lanoy.’I asked him about it. He got very embarrassed. Took the slip away from me, tried to tell me it was an employment agency, something like that. I could see he was lying. Hiding something. The trouble is, I don’t know what.”

  “You better start worrying hard, Helaine.”

  “You think it’s bad?”

  “I think it’s just the same as with Bud. Norm’s in contact with them. He’s probably trying to raise t
he money now. And they send him out.Poof!Gone. No husband. The widow Pomrath. Two kids, shift for yourself.” Beth Wisnack’s eyes were glittering strangely now. She did not look unhappy at the prospect that Helaine’s husband might go hopper. It was the misery that craves company, Helaine knew. Let every husband in the world vanish into the maw of the past and perhaps Beth Wisnack would feel some delight.

  Helaine fought to stay calm.

  “When the police investigated Bud’s disappearance,” she said, “did you mention this Lanoy to them?”

  “I named him, yes. They wanted to know if Bud had been seeing anyone unusual just before he vanished, and I said I didn’t know, but there was this name he had mentioned a few times, Lanoy, that I didn’t know. They took it down. I don’t know what they did about it. It isn’t going to bring Bud back. You can only go one direction in time, you know. Backward. They don’t have any machines back there to send people ahead again, and in any case I understand it isn’t possible. You go back, you’re stranded there for keeps. So when Norm goes—”

  “He’s not going,” said Helaine.

  “He’s seeing Lanoy, isn’t he?” Beth asked.

  “All he had was the minislip. It didn’t even have an address on it. He said he didn’t know where to find Lanoy. And we aren’t sure that Lanoy is connected with the hopper business, anyhow.”

  Beth’s eyes sparkled. “The Lanoy mob is in contact with him,” she said. “That means they can reach him any time. So he can reach them. And they’ll send him back. He’s going to be a hopper, Helaine. He’s going to go.”

  Q.E.D.

  A quickboat took her to the flamboyant skyscraper that housed the Secretariat of Crime. Some persistent work at the front desk yielded Helaine the information that her brother was at the office today, and if she cared to wait a while perhaps he would see her. She requisitioned an appointment with him. The machine asked for her thumbprint, and she gave it, and then sat down to wait in an anteroom draped with somber purplish fabrics.Helaine was not accustomed to venturing out into the world of office buildings and walking servomechanisms. She stayed close to home, and did her shopping by remote contact. “Downtown”—the world at the end of the quickboat routes—was a frightening place to her. She forced herself to remain cool. On a matter as serious as this, she had to see her brother face to face across a desk, so that he could not escape from her at the flick of a switch. She was terrified.

  “The CrimeSec will see you,” a flat impersonal vocoder voice told her.

  She was ushered into the presence of her brother. Quellen stood up, flashed a quick, uncomfortable smile, beckoned her into a chair. The chair grabbed her and began to knead the muscles of her back. Helaine shuddered at the sensation, and pulled away in alarm as the invisible handswithin the chair started to go to work on her thighs and buttocks. The delicate feedback sensors of the chair caught her mood, and the attentions ceased.

  She looked uncertainly at her brother. Quellen seemed to be as ill at ease with her as she was with him; he tugged at his ear, clenched his jaws, popped his knuckles. They were practically strangers. They met on family occasions, but there had been no real communication between them for a long time. He was a few years older than she was. Once, they had been quite close, two devoted siblings bantering and heckling one another just as her Joseph and Marina did today. Helaine could remember her brother as a boy, stealing his peeks at her body in their one-room apartment, pulling her hair, helping her with her homework. Then he had begun his training for government service, and after that he had not been part of her world in any meaningful way. Now she was an edgy housewife and he was a busy public officer, and she was somewhat afraid of him.

  For perhaps three minutes they exchanged friendly pleasantries about domestic matters. Helaine talked about her children, her social conscience unit in the apartment, her personal reading program. Quellen said very little. He was a bachelor, which set him further apart from her. Helaine knew that her brother kept company with some woman, somebody named Judith, but he rarely talked about her and seemed hardly ever even to think of her. There were times when Helaine suspected that Judith did not exist—that Quellen had invented her as camouflage for some solitary vice he preferred, or, worse, for some homosexual involvement. Sodomy was acceptable socially these days; it helped to keep the birth rate low. But Helaine did not like to think of her brother Joe taking part in such practices.

  She brought the chatter to a deliberate end by asking0about Judith. “Is she well? You’ve never kept your promise to bring her to visit us, Joe.”

  Quellen looked as uncomfortable at the mention of Judith as Norm Pomrath had looked while Helaine was questioning him about the Lanoy minislip. He said evasively, “I’ve mentioned the idea to her. She thinks it would be fine to meet you and Norm, but not just yet. Judith’s a little disturbed by having to meet your children. Children unsettle her. But I’m sure we’ll work something out.” He flashed the quick, hollow smile again. Then he dismissed the touchy subject of Judith by getting down to the business at hand. “I’m sure this wasn’t just a social call, Helaine.”

  “No. It’s business, Joe. I see by the faxtapes that you’re conducting an investigation of the hoppers.”

  “Yes. True.”

  “Norm’s going to hop.”

  Quellen sat stiffly upright, his left shoulder rising higher than the right one. “What gives you that idea? Has he told you so himself?”

  “No, of course not. But I suspect it. He’s been very depressed lately, about not working and all that.”

  “Nothing new with him.”

  “More so than usual. You should hear the way he talks. He’s so bitter, Joe! He talks absolute nonsense, just a stream of angry words that don’t make any sense. I wish I could quote him for you. He’s building up to some kind of psychological explosion, I know it. I can feel the steam gathering inside him.” She winced. The chair was starting to massage her again. “He hasn’t worked for months now, Joe.”

  Quellen said, “I’m aware of that. You know, the High Government is furthering a whole sequence of plans designed to alleviate the unemployment problem.”

  “That’s fine. But in the meanwhile Norm isn’t working,and I don’t think it’ll matter much longer. He’s in contact with the hopper people and he’s going to hop. Even while I’m sitting here telling you this, he might be getting into the machine!”

  Her voice had risen to a tinny screech. She could hear the echoes of it go bouncing around in her brother’s office. It seemed to her that the ends of her nerves had burst through her skin all over her body, and were jutting out like quills.

  Quellen’s manner changed. He seemed to make a conscious effort to relax, and he leaned forward benevolently, giving her a froodlike smile. Helaine expected him to ask, “Shall we now attempt to get to the bottom of this delusion of yours?” What he actually said, in honeyed, humoring tones, was, “Maybe you’re getting overwrought for no real reason, Helaine. What makes you think he’s having dealings with the hopper criminals?”

  She told him about the Lanoy minislip, and about Norm’s exaggerated reaction of unconcern when she had queried him on Lanoy. As she quoted the five-word slogan on the slip, Helaine was startled to see her brother’s beaming look of phony solicitude give way for a moment to a blank expression betokening some sudden absolute terror within. Then Quellen recovered; but he had already betrayed himself. Helaine was sharp to detect such momentary flickers of the inner persona.

  She said, “You know about Lanoy?”

  “It happens that I’ve seen one of those slips, Helaine. They’re being circulated pretty widely. You go up a quickboat ramp and somebody comes up to you and hands one out. No doubt that’s how Norm got his.”

  “And it’s advertising for the hopper people, isn’t it?”

  “I’ve got no reason to think so,” Quellen drawled, his eyes proclaiming his lie to her.

  “Are you investigating Lanoy, though? I mean, if there’s reason to suspect—”
/>
  “We’re investigating, yes. And I repeat, Helaine, there’s no necessary cause to feel that this person Lanoy is in any way connected with the hopper problem.”

  “But Beth Wisnack said that her husband Bud talked about Lanoy all week before he went.”

  “Who?”

  “Wisnack. A recent hopper. When I asked her about Lanoy, Beth told me point-blank that he was responsible for Bud’s disappearance, and she also said that it was a sure thing that Norm would be going too.” Agitated, Helaine crossed and uncrossed her legs. The chair’s dull brain picked up the evidence of her restlessness, and after having been quiescent for a few minutes began to fondle her again.

  Quellen said, “We can check this business of Norm’s going hopper very easily.” He swung around and produced a spool. “I have here the complete listing of all the documented hoppers who were recorded as they arrived in the past. This list was compiled recently for me and of course I haven’t studied it completely, because it contains hundreds of thousands of names. But if Norm did hop, we’ll find him here.”

  He activated the spool and began to search it, explainingin a half-mumble that the listings were alphabetical. Helaine sat rigidly as the search continued through the alphabet at a rate of thousands of bits per second. It would not take long for Quellen to reach the “P” entries. And then—

  If Norm had gone, he would be entered here. His fate would be plain for her to see—his fate and hers, inscribed in this Doomsday Book of thermoplastic tape. She would learn that her marriage had been doomed three hundred years before she contracted it. She would find that her husband’s name had been inscribed centuries ago on a roster of fugitivestives from this century. Why had that roster not been a matter of public record all this time? Because, she knew, it would lie like a dead hand across the souls of those who had hopped, would hop, must hop. What would it be like to grow up under the shadow of the knowledge that you were destined to leap from your own era?

  “You see?” Quellen said triumphantly. “He isn’t on the list.”

 
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