Cronos, p.33
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       Cronos, p.33

           Robert Silverberg
 

  “I appreciate their troubles,” said Lanoy. “It’s a terribly complicated life even for Them, isn’t it? Well, you’re here, now. Come outside. Let’s watch the sunset, shall we?”

  Brogg followed Lanoy from the shack. It was late, now, well into his overtime phase, but Brogg did not object. All day long he and Leeward had zeroed in on Lanoy, juggling televector constants until they had located him within anarrowing radius. As Brogg had told Quellen earlier in the day, it was only a matter of hours. In fact, it had taken four hours and some minutes from the time of Brogg’s call. Deftly, Brogg had sent Leeward off on a wild goose chase an hour ago. Now Brogg and Lanoy were alone at this remote shack. Brogg had much to say to the hopper man.

  A swollen golden sun hung suspended in the darkening sky. The track of illumination cast a purplish glow over the polluted lake. It took on an eerie glitter, and the slime-creatures that writhed on its surface seemed ennobled by the aura of the dying day. Lanoy stared raptly into the west.

  “It is beautiful,” he said finally. “I could never leave this era, UnderSec Brogg. I see the beauty within the ugliness. Regard that lake. Was there ever anything like it? I stand here at sunset each night in awe.”

  “Remarkable.”

  “Very. There’s poetry in that ooze. The oxygen’s just about gone, you see. There’s been a devolution of organic life there, so that we’ve got only anaerobic forms. I like to think that the sludgeworms dance down there at sunset. About, about, in reel and rout. Look at the play of colors on that big swatch of algae. It grows as long as seaweed here. Do you care for poetry much, Brogg?”

  “My passion’s for history.”

  “What period?”

  “Roman. The early Empire. Tiberius through Trajan, approximately. Trajan’s time: a true golden age.”

  “The Republic doesn’t interest you?” asked Lanoy. “The brave puritans? Cato? Lucius Junius Brutus? The Gracchi?”

  Brogg was astounded. “You know such things?”

  “I cast a wide net,” said Lanoy. “You realize that I deal with the past on a daily basis. I’ve acquired a certain familiarity with history myself. Trajan, eh? You’d like to visit Rome of Trajan’s era, would you?”

  “Of course,” Brogg said huskily.

  “What about Hadrian? Still a golden age there. If you couldn’t have Trajan, would you settle for Hadrian? Let us say, a margin of error covering a generation—we might miss Trajan, but in that case we’d land somewhere in Hadrian. We’d do better to aim for the forward end of Trajan’s rule. Otherwise the error might take us the other way, and you wouldn’t like that, eh? You’d come out in Titus, Domitian, one of that nasty bunch. Not at all to your liking.”

  Brogg could manage only a hoarse, croaking voice. “What are you talking about?”

  “You know quite well.” The sun had set. The magic glow ebbed from the ruined lake. “Shall we go in?” Lanoy asked. “I’ll show you some of the equipment.”

  Brogg allowed himself to be led back inside. He towered over the little man; Lanoy was no bigger than Koll, and had something of Koll’s nervous inner energy. Yet Koll brimmed with hatred and pustulence; Lanoy seemed utterly confident, with a core of tranquility within his active dynamism.

  Lanoy opened a door in the partition that divided the building. Brogg peered in. He saw vertical bars of some gleaming material, an openwork cage, dials, switches, an array of rheostats. Rows of color-coded panels on the machinery radiated bright glows of data. It all seemed to be put together with an eye toward deliberate confusion.

  “This is the time-travel machine?” Brogg asked.

  “Part of it. There are extensions both in time and space. I won’t plague you with the details. The principle is simple, anyway. A sudden strain on the fabric of the continuum; we thrust present-day material in, scoop out an equal bucketload of mass from the past. Conservation of matter, you understand. When our calculations are off by a few grams, it causes disturbances, implosions, meteorological effects. We try not to miss, but we sometimes do. There’s a fusionplasma at the heart of it all. No better way to rip open the continuum; we use our own little sun to do it. We tap off the theta force, you see. Every time someone uses a stat, it builds up temporal potential that we grab and utilize. Even so, it’s an expensive process.”

  “What do you charge for a trip?”

  “Two hundred units, generally. That is, if we’re willing to take money at all.”

  “You send some people free?” Brogg asked.

  “Not exactly. We won’t accept the money of certain individuals, I mean. We insist on payment of a different kind—services, information, that sort of thing. If they’re not willing to render what we need, we don’t transport them. For those people, no amount of money could hire us.”

  “I don’t altogether follow.”

  “You will,” Lanoy said. He closed the partition and returned to the office part of the shack. Sprawling out comfortably in his web, he asked Brogg, “What arrest procedure are you going to follow in my case?”

  “You’ll have to come down to the office to talk to CrimeSec Quellen. He’ll have disposition of the case.

  Meanwhile we’ll have to cordon this place off with a wide-band radion, and it’ll remain sealed pending appeal. Any habeas corpus will go automatically to the High Government. Of course, if you can handle Quellen, the picture will change completely.”

  “But I must go to the office?”

  “Yes.”

  “What sort of man is this Quellen. Malleable?”

  “I think so. Especially if you use the right hammer on him,” Brogg said.

  “Does the hammer have a high rental cost?”

  “Not very high.” Brogg leaned forward. “Is your machine really limited to a reach of only five centuries?”

  “Not at all. We keep improving. We’ve had a controlled reach of five centuries for quite some time, but an uncontrolled reach that’s much greater.”

  “Yes,” said Brogg. “The pigs and dogs thrown back to the twelfth century, and such.”

  “You know about those?”

  “I’ve been very thorough. What’s your controlled reach now?”

  Lanoy shrugged. “It’s variable. We can hit almost anywhere in two thousand years, but the built-in error gets wider the further the throw. We’ve got it down to plus or minus thirty years now, but that’s quite a range. At the furthest, that is. We could hit 1492 or 1776 smack on the nose, I firmly believe.” He smiled. “What’s the hammer for pounding Quellen?”

  “It’ll cost you,” said Brogg. “What’s the cost of a ticket to Hadrian?”

  “The hammer for Quellen.”

  “You won’t take cash?”

  “Not from you.”

  Brogg nodded. “Let’s negotiate,” he said. “I think we can strike a deal.”

  By sunset, Helaine Pomrath was convinced that her husband had become a hopper.It was almost a telepathic thing. He had not come home for dinner, but he had been late for dinner quite frequently the last few weeks. Yet this was different. Helaine felt a strange sense of his absence. She had shared her life with him for so long that she had grown accustomed to his presence, even when he was not with her physically. Now she felt herself in the company of the presence of his absence.

  The room seemed smaller, darker. The children’s eyes were wide. Helaine said reassuring things to them. She triednot to think of Beth Wisnack and her grim prophecy that Norm was soon to become a hopper. Helaine asked the time, and the earwatch told her that it was half past eighteen. She gave the children their dinner, but did not eat herself.

  At quarter after nineteen, she phoned her brother at his apartment.

  “I hate to disturb you, Joe, but it’s about Norm. He isn’t home for dinner, and I’m worried.”

  There was a long silence at the other end. Helaine watched Quellen’s face, but the expression on it baffled her. His lips were tightly compressed.

  “Joe? Why aren’t you answering me? Listen, I know I’m just
a foolish woman who’s worrying about nothing at all, but I can’t help it. I’ve got this definite feeling that something terrible has happened.”

  “I’m sorry, Helaine. I did what I could.”

  “What are you talking about?”

  “There’s been an arrest. We’ve pulled in the slyster who ran the hopper outfit. But there just wasn’t time to get Norm. He slipped right through.”

  She felt the chill sweeping up from her legs and invadingher internal organs, turning them one by one to lumps of resonating ice. “Joe, I don’t understand you. Do you know something about Norm?”

  “We were monitoring him. Brogg put an Ear on him last night at my instruction. He went out to look for Lanoy this morning. The slyster.”

  “The one you arrested?”

  “Yes. Lanoy’s running the hopper game.Wasrunning. He’s in custody. I’ll be interrogating him in the morning. Norm went to him. It was far out—the trip took him all morning. We were vectoring in on Lanoy, you understand, but there was absolutely no way to get to Norm in time. I’ve got a tape of the whole thing as it came out of the Ear.”

  “He’s—gone?”

  “Gone,” Quellen said. “His destination was 2050. Lanoy wasn’t sure that they could hit the year exactly, but he said the odds were in favor. I want you to know, Helaine, that Norm was thinking of you right up until he left. You can listen to the tapes yourself. He said he loved you and the children. He was trying to arrange things so you and the children could follow him to 2050. Lanoy agreed to do it. It’s all on record.”

  “Gone. He just hopped like that.”

  “He was in bad shape, Helaine. The things he was saying this morning—he was practically insane.”

  “I know it. He’s been like that for days. I tried to get him to go to a frood, but—”

  “Is there anything I can do, Helaine? Do you want me to come over and stay with you?”

  “No.”

  “I can have a registered consolation service come around.”

  “Don’t bother.”

  “Helaine, you’ve got to believe me, I did everything that was in my power to prevent this from happening. And if you choose to follow him the hopper way, I’ll see to it that you get the opportunity. That is, if the High Government permits further hopper operations, now that we’ve taken Lanoy into custody.”

  “I’ll think about it,” said Helaine quietly. “I don’t know what I’ll do. Just let me alone now. Thanks for everything, anyway, Joe.”

  She opaqued the screen and broke the contact. Now that the worst had happened, Helaine felt oddly calm. Glacially calm. She would not go into the past hunting for her husband. She was the widow Pomrath, betrayed, abandoned.

  Joseph said, “Mommy, where’s Daddy?”

  “He’s gone away, son.”

  “Will he be coming back soon?”

  “I don’t think so,” Helaine said.

  Marina looked up. “Does that mean that Daddy’s dead?”

  “Not quite,” Helaine told her. “It’s too complicated. I’ll explain it some other time. Plug yourselves in and do your homework, children. It’s almost bedtime.”

  She went to the drawer where they kept the alcohol tubes. Withdrawing one quickly, she pressed the snout against her skin and took a quick, subcutaneous jolt. It left her feeling neither more animated nor more depressed. She was frozen, at an emotional constant of zero.

  The widow Pomrath. Beth Wisnack will be pleased to hear it. She can’t bear the thought that any other woman might still have a husband.

  Closing her eyes, she pictured Norm landing in 2050, a stranger and alone. He would make out, she knew. He had his medical skills. Dropped into the primitive past like that, he’d set up in business as a doctor, perhaps even concealing his hopper status—otherwise he’d have been on the roster of registered hoppers, wouldn’t he? He’d be rich and successful. Patients would flock to him, especially women patients. He would lose his look of bleak defeat, and take on the glow of prosperity. He’d stand taller, and smile more often. Helaine wondered what sort of woman he would marry.Hadmarried. It was all done. That was the weird part of it. Norm had already lived and died, perishing about the year 2100, and his body had turned to dust centuries ago, along with the bodies of his other wife and his other children. Perhaps his descendants in today’s world were a numerous tribe. Perhaps I’m one of them myself, Helaine thought. And the book was sealed; his destiny had been written hundreds of years before their wedding day. Even then, it was fated thathe would leave her and circle back into the past to die hundreds of years before he was born.

  Helaine’s mind reeled. She took a second alcohol tube, and it helped her, but not much. The children sat with their backs to her, plugged into their homework machine, assiduously pretending to study.

  I am lost, she thought.

  I am nothing.

  I am the widow Pomrath.

  On the third tube, a new thought occurred to her. I am fairly young. Given a few months to relax, I could even be attractive again. Joe can arrange it; there must be a special government pension for the deserted wives of hoppers. I’ll go away, fill out, put some meat on my bones. Then I’ll marry again. Of course, I’ll have used up my reproductive quota, but that won’t matter. I can find a man who’s willing to forego fatherhood. He’ll adopt Joseph and Marina.

  Someone tall and handsome, and high in slope. Can I catch a Class Six? A widower, maybe even a man whose wife turned hopper, if there are any.

  I’ll show Norm. I’ll catch myself a real prize.

  Already, she could feel her body blossoming, filling out, the sap rising in it. For months, years even, she had lived in a barren winter of terror, clinging to her husband and nurturing him through his mood of empty despair in the hope that she could prevent him from abandoning her. Now that he was gone, she no longer needed to fear that he would go. She was returning to life. She felt younger.

  I’ll fix Norm Pomrath, Helaine thought. I’ll make him sorry he ever went away!

  13.

  It was morning. Quellen had deliberately allowed the captured slyster Lanoy to languish overnight in the custody tank, so that he could reflect on his crimes. Lanoy was in total sensory deprivation, floating in a warm bath of nutrients with all inputs plugged off, so that nothing would register on his mind but his own predicament. Such treatment often had a marked softening effect on the hardest of cases. And from what Brogg had said, Lanoy was the hardest case in a long while.Quellen had received the news at home, late in the evening, not long before Helaine’s call. He had given instructions for Lanoy’s treatment, but he had not actually gone down to headquarters to view the slyster. Leeward had brought him in, Brogg remaining behind at the hopper place itself.

  It had been a somber night for Quellen. He knew, of course, that Norm Pomrath had gone to the past. He had been listening helplessly, jacked into the realtime circuit, while Pomrath and Lanoy discussed the project and came toan agreement. Then and there, Pomrath had paid over his money—virtually wiping out the family savings—and had stepped up on the platform to be thrust into the year 2050. Ear transmissions had ceased at that point. The Ear was a sensitive device, but it had no way of broadcasting across a temporal gap.

  Helaine’s stony face had been unpleasant to behold. She blamed him for what had happened, Quellen knew, and she never would really forgive him. So his sister, his only relative, was lost to him. And Judith, too, was lost. Since the fiasco at the social regurgitation communion, she had refused to take any calls from him. He knew that he would never see her again. The slender bare form in the sprayon costume postured wantonly in Quellen’s dreams, waking him often.

  The only comfort in a generally bleak situation was the fact that Lanoy had been found and arrested. That meant the heat would be off the department soon. With the hopper ring smashed, life could revert to routine, and Quellen would be free to spend most of his time in Africa, once again. Unless, of course, Brogg had really betrayed him. Quellen had forgotten abo
ut that. Koll’s unfriendly tone of yesterday—did it mean that his own arrest was in the offing, as soon as the Lanoy affair was wrapped up?

  Quellen got his answer to that shortly before midnight, when Koll called. For Koll, office hours extended throughout the night and the day.

  “I’ve just checked with the office,” Koll said. “They tell me you’ve got the slyster.”

  “Yes. He was brought in around eighteen, nineteen this evening. Brogg and Leeward traced him. They’ve put him in the custody tank. I’ll interrogate him in the morning.”

  “Good job,” Koll said, and Quellen noticed the trace of an honest smile flickering on the small man’s lips. “Thiskeys nicely into the status meeting Spanner and I had this afternoon. I’ve just put through a promotion form for you. It seems unfair to let the CrimeSec live in a Class Seven unit when he rates at least a Six, don’t you think? You’ll be joining Spanner and me in your higher grade quite soon. Of course, that won’t affect your slope in the office hierarchy, but I thought you’d be pleased.”

  Quellen was pleased. And relieved. So he doesn’t know about Africa after all. It was just my guilty conscience stirring up fears. Then a new worry came: how could he move the illegal stat to new quarters without being detected? It had been hard enough to get it installed here. Perhaps Koll was only leading him deeper into a trap. Quellen pressed his palms against his temples and shivered, waiting for morning—and Lanoy.

  “You admit you’ve been sending people into the past?” Quellen demanded.“Sure,” said the little man flippantly. Quellen stared at him, feeling an irrational pulse of anger throbbing in his skull. How could the slyster be so calm? “Sure,” Lanoy said. “I’ll send you back for two hundred units.”

 
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