Cronos, p.32Robert Silverberg
Quellen’s offense was a unique one. No one else, to his knowledge, had been shrewd enough to find that particular way out of heavily overpopulated Appalachia, the octopusof a city that spread all over the eastern half of North America. Of all the hundreds of millions of inhabitants of Appalachia, only Joseph Quellen, CrimeSec, had had the cleverness to find a bit of unknown and unregistered land in the heart of Africa and build himself a second home there. That was something for pride. He had the standard Class Seven cubicle of a room in Appalachia, plus a Class Two villa beyond the dreams of most mortals, beside a murky stream in the Congo. It was nice, very nice, for a man whose soul rebelled at the hellish conditions of Appalachian life.
But it took money to keep people bribed. Quellen had silenced everyone concerned who might know that he was living luxuriously in Africa instead of dwelling in a tenbyten cubicle in Northwest Appalachia, like a good Seven. Someone—Brogg, he was sure—had sold him out to Koll. And now Quellen was on very thin ice indeed.
A demotion would rob him even of the privilege of maintaining a private cubicle, and he would go back to sharing his home, as he had with the unlamented roommate Bruce Marok. It hadn’t been so bad when Quellen had been below Class Twelve and had lived, first in the public bachelor dorms, then in gradually more private accommodations. He hadn’t minded the presence of other people so much when he was younger. But when he had reached Class Eight and was put into a room with just one other person, that had been the most painful time of all, souring Quellen permanently.
In his own way, Marok was undoubtedly a genuinely fine fellow, Quellen reflected. But he had jarred on Quellen’s nerves, crucifying him with his sloppiness and his unending visiphone calls and his constant presence. Quellen had longed for the day when he would reach Seven and could live alone, no longer with a roommate as a constant check.Then he would be free—free to hide from the inpressing crowd.
Did Koll know the truth? Quellen soon would find thatout.
Restlessly he walked down the echoing corridor to the monitoring wing. Might as well find out what they’ve learned about Norm, he thought. The brown metal gate slithered into its slot as Quellen palmed the door identification plaque. He went in. Instruments hummed all over the place. Technicians salaamed to him. The smell of some antiseptic chemical was in the air, as though this were a hospital.
“The Pomrath monitor bank,” Quellen said.
“This way, CrimeSec.”
“Who’s watching it?”
“It’s been on automatic, sir. Here we are.” The man pulled out a pneumochair. Quellen planted himself before the turning spools of a tape pickup. The technician said, “Would you like to plug in on realtime first, or go over what we’ve taped since last night?”
“I’ll do a little of both,” Quellen said.
“This is the realtime jack, and this—”
“I know. I’ve used the equipment before.”
The technician colored and went scuttering away. Quellen jacked himself into the realtime circuit, and abruptly jacked himself out again. His brother-in-law was performing natural bodily functions. Quellen bit his lip. With quick, edgy manipulation he activated the reserve spools and tuned in on what Norm Pomrath had been up to since Brogg had planted the Ear on him.
Quellen could not allow himself a one-to-one realtime correlation, of course, with Pomrath’s activities. He had to be selective. Skimming along the tape, he found remarkably little conversation recorded. Pomrath had been to a snifferpalace last night. Then he had gone home. He had quarrelled with Helaine. Quellen listened.
POMRATH:I don’t give a damn. I need my relaxation.
HELAINE:But we’ve waited dinner for you. And here you are all full of drugs. You don’t even have an appetite!
POMRATH:What of it? I’m here. Put out the dinner. You program, I’ll eat!
There was more of it, all relentlessly domestic and dreadfully dull. Quellen skipped ahead fifteen minutes and found the quarrel still going on, punctuated now by the snuffing sound of his nephew’s tears and the annoyed comments of little Marina. It pained Quellen that the family disputes of the Pomraths should be so commonplace. He moved the tape on a short distance. The Ear had picked up different sounds. Harsh breathing sounds.
HELAINE:put your hand there again.
POMRATH:Oh, honey, you know I will.
HELAINE:Right there. Oh! Oh, Norm!
POMRATH:Are you ready yet?
HELAINE:A little while. Give me time. This is so nice, Norm.
Quellen stared shamefully at the floor. A faintly incestuous pleasure went through him as he eavesdropped on the lovemaking of the Pomraths. He reached for the dial, hesitated, listened to sudden pangs of ecstasy, clenched his jaws together as the words on the tape became more intimate and then dissolved into a rush of gasping sighs.I ought to erase this section, Quellen thought. I ought at least not to listen to it myself. How disgustingly curious we can get sometimes!
With a quick jerky motion he sped the dial ahead. Nothing-but sleep-sounds now. Then morning-sounds. Childrenpattering around. Pomrath under the molecular bath. Helaine yawning, asking about the breakfast menu.
POMRATH:I’m going out early today.
HELAINE:You think you have a line on that job opportunity?
POMRATH:What job opportunity?
HELAINE:You know, the minislip you were carrying. About the man to see if you’re out of work.
Quellen waited for more. The telemetry showed unusual excitement in Pomrath, a surge of pulse intensity, a rise in skin temperature. Nevertheless, the conversation was truncated without any word about Lanoy. Quellen skimmed again. The timer told him that he was approaching realtime levels now. Quellen jacked in once more.
POMRATH:You can take me to Lanoy, can’t you?
The monitor was programmed to trip an alarm when the name “Lanoy” was mentioned. There was an imperceptible lag while the computer analyzed the wave forms of Pomrath’s speech, and then the alarm went off. A red light began to glow on the control panel of the monitor system. Signals blared around the room. A warning bell sounded.Pong. Pong.Three technicians came running toward the instrument.
Quellen said, “It’s all right. I’ll monitor it. Just shut off these damned alarms.”
Quellen leaned forward, and sweat poured down the palms of his hands as he listened to his brother-in-law commit the ultimate betrayal of his family.
Pomrath had traveled a considerable distance thatmorning, unaware, of course, that his motions were being transmitted to the headquarters of the Secretariat of Crime and that his words and even his heartbeats were being recorded.
In the past several days he had asked many questions, mostly prior to the mounting of the Ear in his flesh. The minislips advertising Lanoy’s services were widely distributed. Information about the actual whereabouts of Lanoy was not so easily had. But Pomrath had persistence.
He was determined to leave, now.
He had had all he could take. It was too bad about Helaine, of course, and the kids. He’d miss them. Yet he was fed up, and he sensed that he was on the edge of psychotic collapse. Words were losing their meaning for him. He’d stare up at a faxtape for half an hour, trying to puzzle out the significance of the rows of symbols on the yellow sheet. They had become squirming microbes to him. KLOOFMAN. UNEMPLOYMENT. TAX RATE. DANTON. MANKLOOF. LOYPMEMUNTNE. TONDAN. XAT RAET. KL. OOF. PLOYM. AX R. Dancing animalcules. EMPL. FMAN. Time to get away, ANTO. UNEM, THEM. FLOOK. FLOOK! FLOOK! FLOOK!
A simpler world, that’s what he needed. To hop to a place not yet this fouled with humanity—yes. Yes. Lanoy was the answer. Pomrath’s head throbbed. It seemed to him that his frontal lobes were swelling, pushing against his forehead dangerously forward. “Can you direct me to Lanoy?” His head might burst, spewing brains all over the street. “I’m out of work. I want to see Lanoy.” FLOOK! XAT RAET! “Lanoy?”
Pomrath paid him. “Where do I go? What do I do?”
“Quickboat. Number Sixteen Line.”
“Where do I get off?”
“Just get on, that’s all.”
EMPL! FMAN! Pomrath headed for the quickboat ramp. He filed obediently aboard. It seemed a pleasant coincidence that someone would have been so conveniently available to tell him how to reach the elusive Lanoy, Norm thought. But a moment’s reflection led him to think it was no coincidence at all. The flabby-faced man had probably been an agent of Lanoy, haunting him, ready to guide him in the right direction when the critical moment approached. Of course. His eyes were aching. Something coarse and gritty was in the air, a special eyeball-abrasive gas, perhaps, released by order of the High Government to bring about universal polishing of proletarian corneas. MANK! NOTD! Pomrath huddled in a corner of the quickboat. A cowled figure came up to him, a girl with shaven scalp, jutting cheekbones, no lips at all. “For Lanoy?” she asked.
“Transfer to the Northpass Line.”
“If you say so.”
“It’s the only way.” She smiled at him. Her skin seemed to change color, cycling attractively through the spectrum from infragreen to ultralemon. PLOYM! XAT! Pomrath trembled. He wondered what Helaine would say when she knew. Would she weep? How soon would she remarry? Would his children bear his name? The line of Pomraths extinct? Yes. Yes. For he would have to bear some other name back there. FMANK! What if he called himself Kloofman? Sublime irony: my great-grandchild a member of the High Government. Some chance.
Pomrath got off the quickboat. The cowled girl remained aboard. How did they know who he was andwhere he was bound? He felt frightened. The world was full of specters. Pray for the repose of my soul, he thought. I’m so tired. OOF! TON!
He waited at the ramp. Around him the spires of ugly buildings of the previous century stabbed holes in the sky. He was out of the central slum-clearance zone now. Who knew what stinking warren he was heading toward? A new quickboat arrived. Pomrath boarded it unquestioningly. I am in your hands, he thought. LANOY! YONAL! Anyone. Anyone. Just get me out of here.
He journeyed northward. Was this still Appalachia? The sky was dark here. Programmed for rain, perhaps. A clean flush to purify the streets. What if Danton recommended a rain of sulfuric acid? The pavement hissing and smoking, citizens running to and fro as their flesh dissolved. The ultimate population control. Death from the skies. Serve you right for going outdoors. The quickboat halted. Pomrath got out and waited on the ramp. Rain was falling here, pocking against the sidewalk.
“I’m Pomrath,” he said to a kindly old lady.
“Lanoy’s waiting. Come on.”
He found himself in rural surroundings ten minutes later. There was a shack by the edge of a lake. Figures moved mysteriously in and out. Pomrath was thrust forward. A purring voice said, “Lanoy’s waiting for you out back.”
He was a small man with a big nose. He wore clothing that seemed to be two hundred years old.
“I think so.”
“What are you, Class Twelve?”
“Fourteen,” Pomrath confessed. “Get me out of here, will you please?”
“My pleasure,” said Lanoy.
Pomrath looked at the lake. It was a hideous sight, crawling with pollution. Great greasy swatches of coarse algae roiled in the oily water.
Lanoy said, “Isn’t it lovely? Six centuries of nonstop pollution interspersed with high-sounding official speeches. The renewal zone is still twenty years away by public count. Would you like to take a swim? We don’t practice baptism here, but we can arrange a ceremony to fit anybody’s religious preferences.”
Pomrath shuddered. “I can’t swim. Just get me out of here.”
“The alga iscladaphora. Biologists sometimes come up here to admire it. It reaches lengths of ninety feet. We’ve also got anaerobic sludgeworms here, and fingernail clams. Quite primeval. I don’t know how they survive. You’d be shocked if you knew the oxygen content of that water.”
“Nothing shocks me,” said Pomrath. “Please. Please.”
“It’s full of coliform intestinal bacteria also,” Lanoy remarked. “I believe the current count is 10,000,000 per 100 milliliters. That’s about 10,000 times the safe level for human contact. Lovely? Come inside, Pomrath. You know it’s not easy, being a hopper.”
“It’s not easy being anything, these days.”
“Consider the challenges, though.” Lanoy led him within the shack. Pomrath was startled to see that the interior was out of keeping with the weatherbeaten exterior. Inside, everything was neat, spanking clean. A partition divided the building into two huge compartments. Lanoy dropped into a web and lay there, jiggling, like a spider. Pomrath remained standing. Lanoy said, “I can take you and dump you into the year 1990, if you’d like, or 2076, or most any other year. Don’t be fooled by what you read in the faxtapes. We’re actually more versatile than the public knows. We’re improving the process constantly.”
“Send me anywhere,” said Pomrath.
“The correct term isanywhen. But look here: I send you to 1990. Can you face it? You won’t even be able to speak the language properly. You’ll speak a weird jargon that they won’t understand, all your grammar blurred. Do you know the distinction between ‘who’ and ‘whom’? Between ‘shall’ and ‘will’? Can you handle tenses?”
Pomrath could feel the blood surging in his arteries. He did not understand why Lanoy was weaving this cocoon of words about him. He had had enough words.
Lanoy laughed. “Don’t let me frighten you. You don’t need to know those things. They were forgotten, even then. People were sloppy in their speech. Not as sloppy as we are today, because we’ve had another few hundred years to erode the language. But they had blotted out all the conjugations and declensions already. Still, it’ll take you a couple of weeks to learn how to communicate. You can get into a lot of trouble in a couple of weeks. Are you prepared to be sent to a lunatic asylum? Shock treatments, straight-jacket, all the barbarities of our ancestors?”
“Just get me out of here.”
“The police will interrogate you. Don’t give them your right name, Pomrath. You aren’t listed in the hopper records, which means you never gave them your right name, and don’t you dare try to do it. Make up a name. You can admit to being a hopper if you land in 1979 or later. If you go back earlier, you’re entirely on your own. Frankly, I wouldn’t try it. I don’t think you’ve got the caliber for a free-lance trip like that. You’re an intelligent man, Pomrath, but you’re worn thin by care. Don’t take risks. Go as an orthodox hopper and throw yourself on the mercies of the past. You’ll make out.”
“What does it cost?”
“Two hundred units. A token fee, really. Barely covers the energy costs.”
“Is it safe?”
“As safe as taking a quickboat ride.” Lanoy grinned. “It’s disconcerting. No High Government to watch over you. Dozens of independent national states. Local rivalries. Conflicting taxing bodies. You’ll have to cope, but that’s all right. I think you’ll manage.”
“It can’t be worse than what’s here.”
“Are you married, Pomrath?”
“Yes. Two children. I love them deeply.”
“Want to take the whole family along?”
“Can it be done?”
“With uncertainties. We’ve got to send you separately: mass limits. You could get scattered over a range of as much as a dozen years. Your kids arriving first, then you and your wife a few years later, maybe.”
Pomrath trembled. “Suppose I go first. Will you keep a record of where I’m sent—whenI’m sent—so that my family can come after me if that’s what my wife wants to do?”
“Of course. We look out for your welfare. I’ll get in t
“You know I am,” Pomrath said.
Quellen, monitoring the conversation, sat trance-like and chilled. He could not see Lanoy, he had no real idea where the conversation was taking place, but yet he realized that his brother-in-law was about to enroll in the legion of hoppers, and there was nothing that could be done about it. Unless Brogg and Leeward reached Lanoy’s headquarters in the nick of time, and came bursting in to make the arrest—
A voice said, “Sir, UnderSec Brogg is calling.”
Quellen pulled himself away from the monitor. A visionless phone was rolled up. Quellen put it to his ear.
“Where are you?” he demanded. “Have you traced Lanoy yet?”
“We’re working on it,” Brogg said. “It turned out Brand didn’t know the exact location. He just knew somebody who could take him to somebody who could bring him to Lanoy.”
“But we’ve got a geographical area pegged. We’re cordoning it and closing in by televector. It’s only a matter of time now before we put the intercept on Lanoy in person.”
“How much time?” asked Quellen icily.
“I’d say six hours,” Brogg replied. “Plus or minus ninety minutes. We’re certain to nail him today.”
Six hours, Quellen thought. Plus or minus. And then Lanoy would be in custody.
But Norm Pomrath would be a hopper by then.
Brogg said in a relaxed tone, “I have to arrest you, of course. You understand that. It’s regulations.”“Of course,” Lanoy said. “It goes almost without saying. I wondered what took you people so long to get to me.”
“Uncertainty in high places. There was a lot of dithering.” Brogg smiled at the little man. “I don’t mind telling you, you have the High Government quite upset. They’re sweating to arrest you, but at the same time they’re afraid of wrecking their position of power through some sort of rearrangement of past events. So they’ve been stalemated. It’s the classic conflict situation: they must stop you, and they don’t dare it.”
Cronos by Robert Silverberg / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes