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       Cronos, p.34

           Robert Silverberg
 

  Leeward stood massively behind the little man, and Quellen faced him over the interrogation table. Brogg had not appeared at the office this morning. Koll and Spanner were listening from their own office next door. The slyster looked waxen-faced and limp from his night in the custody tank, and yet he held himself with dignity.

  “You’re Lanoy?” Quellen jabbed.

  “That’s my name.” He was a small, dark, intense, rabbity sort of man, with thin lips constantly moving. “Sure, I’m Lanoy.” The little slyster radiated a confident warmth. He was gaining strength from moment to moment. Now he sat with his legs crossed and his head thrown back.

  “It was pretty nasty the way your boys tracked me down,” Lanoy said. “It was bad enough that you fooled that poor dumb prolet into leading you to me, but you didn’t have to dump me in the tank like that. I spent a lousy night. I’m not doing anything illegal, you know. I ought to sue.”

  “Nothing illegal? You’re disturbing the past five hundred years!”

  “I am not,” Lanoy said calmly. “Nothing of the sort. They’ve already been disturbed. It’s a matter of record, you know. I’m just seeing to it that past history gets to take place the way it took place, if you follow what I’m saying. I’m a public benefactor. What if I weren’t fulfilling the records?”

  Quellen glowered at the arrogant slyster. He turned to pace, found that he had no room to move in the tiny office, and sat down ineffectually at his desk. He felt strangely weak in the presence of the slyster. The man had power. Quellen said, “You admit that you’re sending prolets back as hoppers. Why?”

  Lanoy smiled. “To earn a living. Surely you understand that. I’m in possession of a very valuable process, and I want to make sure I get all I can out of it.”

  “Are you the inventor of the time-travel process?”

  “I don’t claim to be. But it doesn’t matter,” said Lanoy. “I control it.”

  “If you want to exploit your machine for money, why don’t you simply go back in time and steal, or place bets on the arthropods, to make a living? Grab a quick killing on the outcome of a race that’s in the records, then come back here.”

  “I could do that,” Lanoy admitted. “But the process is irreversible, and there’s no way of getting back to the present again with my winnings. Or my stealings. And I like it here, thank you.”

  Quellen scratched his head. Helikedit here? It seemedincredible that anyone would, but apparently Lanoy meant just what he said. One of those perverse estheticians, undoubtedly, who could find beauty in a dunghill.

  He said, “Look, Lanoy, I’ll be extremely frank with you: you’re subject to penalties for operating this enterprise without the consent of the High Government. Kloofman has ordered your arrest. I’m not prepared to say what sort of a sentence you’ll get, but it could be anything up to complete personality erasure, depending on your attitude. However, there’s one option for you. The High Government wants control of your time-travel gimmick. Turn it over to my men—not just the device, you understand, but the method. Your cooperation will win you a remission of your sentence to some degree.”

  “Sorry,” said Lanoy. “The machine’s private property. You haven’t got any right to it.”

  “The courts—”

  “I’m not doing anything illegal, and so I don’t need to worry about what kind of sentence I’ll get. And I refuse to yield to your jurisdiction. The answer’s no.”

  Quellen thought of the pressures that were on him from Koll and Spanner and even Kloofman to solve this case, and he got angry and frightened at the same time. He blurted, “When I get through with you, Lanoy, you’ll wish you’d used your own machine and gone back a million years. We can induce cooperation. We can reduce you to jelly.”

  Lanoy’s cool smile did not waver. His voice was measured as he said, “Come now, CrimeSec. You’re starting to lose your temper, and that’s always illogical. Not to add dangerous.”

  Quellen sensed the truth of Lanoy’s warning. He struggled to calm himself, and lost the struggle. The muscles of his throat seemed to be writhing in knots. “I’ll keep you in the tank until you rot,” he snapped.

  “Now where will that get you? I’ll be so much moldy flesh, and you still won’t be able to deliver the time process to the High Government.” The slyster shrugged. “Would you mind giving me a little more oxy in here, please, by the way? I happen to be suffocating.”

  In his astonishment at the bold request, Quellen opened the vent wide. Leeward registered surprise at Lanoy’s breach of taste. No doubt the watchers in the next room were startled at Quellen’s abrupt capitulation, too.

  Lanoy said, “If you arrest me, I’ll break you, Quellen. I tell you there’s nothing illegal in what I’m doing. Look here—I’m a registered slyster.” Lanoy produced a card, properly stamped.

  Quellen was stymied. Lanoy definitely had him off balance. Ordinarily, he was better equipped to deal with criminals, but the events of the last few trying days had weakened his fibers. Quellen chewed his lip, watched the little man closely, and fervently wished that he were back beside his Congo stream throwing rocks at the crocodiles.

  “I’m going to put a stop to your time-travel business, anyway,” Quellen finally said.

  Lanoy chuckled. “I wouldn’t advise trying it, Quellen.”

  “CrimeSec to you.”

  “I wouldn’t advise making trouble for me,Quellen,” Lanoy repeated. “If you cut off the flow of the hoppers now, you’ll turn the past topsy-turvy. Those people went back. It’s recorded in history. Some of them married and had children, and the descendants of those children are alive today.”

  “I know all that. We’ve discussed the theory in great detail.”

  “For all you know, Quellen, you may be the descendant of a hopper I’m scheduled to be sending back next week— and if that hopper never gets back, Quellen, you’ll pop outof existence like a snuffed candle. I guess it’s a pleasant way to die. But do you want to die?”

  Quellen stared glumly. Lanoy’s words chased round and round in his aching skull. It became apparent to him now that it was a plot to drive him insane. Marok, Koll, Spanner, Brogg, Judith, Helaine, and now Lanoy—they were all determined to see Quellen enmeshed. It was an unvoiced conspiracy. Silently he cursed the hundreds of millions of jostling inhabitants of Appalachia, and wondered if he would ever know a moment’s solitude again.

  He took a deep breath. “The past won’t be changed, Lanoy. We’ll lock you up, all right, and take away your machine, but we’ll see to it ourselves that the hoppers go back. We’re not fools, Lanoy. We’ll see to it that everything goes as it’s supposed to go.”

  Lanoy watched him almost with pity for a moment, as one might observe a particularly rare butterfly impaled on a mounting board.

  “Is that your game, CrimeSec? Do you really think you’ll learn to operate the machine?”

  “I’m sure of it.”

  “In that case, I’ll have to take steps to protect myself,”

  Quellen felt like hiding. “What could you possibly do?”

  “You’ll see. Suppose you put me back in the custody tank for the time being, while you figure out your own set of options. Then come and get me and talk to me again. Privately. I’ve got some interesting things to tell you. You won’t want anyone else to hear them, though.”

  An aperture yawned in the sky, as though a quick hand had unzipped it. Norm Pomrath dropped through. His stomach protested as he made a rapid descent, falling eight or nine feet without warning. Lanoy might have told me, he thought, that I’d come out in the middle of the air. At thelast moment he twisted and landed on his hip and his left leg. His kneecap tapped the pavement. Pomrath gasped and lay in a huddled heap for a moment, throbbing where he had bruised himself.It wouldn’t do to lie here long, he knew. He pulled himself-together and got unsteadily to his feet, brushing himself off. The street was remarkably filthy. Pomrath’s entire left side ached. He hobbled up against the wall of a building, clinging to it for
a moment, and, clenching his teeth, performed one of the suggested neural exercises for enhancing the flow of blood. The pain began to ebb from him as the capillaries he had crushed emptied out.

  There. That was better. He’d ache for a few hours, but it wasn’t serious.

  Now he had his first chance to look about him at the world ofA.D.2050.

  He wasn’t impressed. The city looked cluttered, as it would look four and a half centuries hence, but the clutter was a random, asymmetrical thing. Spiky buildings in an archaic style stuck up everywhere. There were no quickboat ramps and no bridges above the street levels. The pavement was cracked. The streets were crowded with pedestrians, not noticeably fewer than he was accustomed to seeing on the streets, although he knew that world population was only a third of what it would be in his rightful era. The styles of clothing interested him. Although it was springtime and the air was warm, everyone was dressed for maximum concealment, the women bundled up from ankles to chin, the men affecting loose capes that blurred the outlines of their body. So Pomrath knew that Lanoy had sent him approximately to the right time.

  Pomrath had done some homework. He knew that the middle of the twenty-first century had been a time of neopuritan reaction against the fleshly excesses of the immediatepast. He liked that. Nothing bored him more than an epoch of brazenly bare-breasted women and men in codpieces. True sensuality, he knew, thrived only in an era of erotic repression. Sensuality was one of the things he was looking for. After a decade as devoted father and faithful husband, Pomrath anticipated a fling.

  He also knew that the neopuritan phase was soon to be struck down by another swing of the pendulum. So he would have the best of both cultures: first the covert pleasures of the inner revolt against the public morality, and then, in his declining days, the joys of witnessing the total breakdown of that morality. He had picked a good time. No wars to speak of, no particular crises. A man could enjoy himself here. Especially if he had useful skills, and a medical technician like Pomrath would thrive in this time of primitive medicine.

  No one had seen him appear. At least, any witnesses to his materialization had quickly scurried on about their businesses, without meddling. Good.

  He had to get his bearings, now.

  He was in a city, presumably New York. Shops and offices all around. Pomrath drifted with the pedestrian tide. A kiosk at the corner was peddling what seemed to be the this-time equivalent of a faxtape. Pomrath stared. There was a date: May 6, 2051. Good old Lanoy. Within a year of the requested time. The yellow tape chuttered out of the slot in the machine. Pomrath had difficulty reading the ancient sans-serif type face. He hadn’t realized how the shapes of the letters had changed. A moment though, and he had the hang of it.

  Fine. Now all he needed was some money, an identity, a place to live. Within a week, he felt, he would be fully established in the matrix of this era.

  He filled his lungs with air. He felt confident, bouncy,buoyant. There was no job machine here. He could live by his own wits, doing solitary battle with the inexorable forces of the universe and actually getting the universe to yield a little. In his own time, he was just a number on a punched card, a patch of ions on a coded tape. Here he was free to select his own role and capitalize on it.

  Pomrath stepped into a shop at random. They were sellingbooks in there. Not spools;books. He looked at them in wonder. Cheap, sleazy paper; blurry ink; flimsy bindings. He picked up a novel, flipped its pages, put it down. He found what seemed to be a popular medical guide. It would be useful; Pomrath wondered how he could gain possession of it without money. He didn’t want to admit to anyone that he was a hopper. He wanted to make the grade by his own devices.

  A man whom he assumed was the proprietor came up to him—plump, grimy-faced, with watery blue eyes. Pomrath smiled. He knew that his clothing marked him as a stranger, but he hoped it didn’t stamp him too clearly as a stranger out of time.

  The man said in a soft, feathery voice, “There’s better downstairs. Want to catch some haunch?”

  Pomrath’s smile grew broader. “Sorry, I be not easy speaking. My English very hard.”

  “Haunch, I said.Haunch. Downstairs. You from out of town?”

  “Visitor from Slavic country. Incomplete grasp your language,” Pomrath said, laying on what he hoped sounded like a thick Czech accent. “Maybe you help? Am feeling unsettled here.”

  “That’s what I thought. A lonely foreigner. Well, go downstairs. The girls’ll cheer you up. Twenty dollars. You got dollars?”

  Pomrath began to see what was going on in the basementof the bookshop. He nodded vociferously and headed toward the rear of the store, still clutching his medical guide. The proprietor didn’t appear to notice that he had taken the book.

  Stairs led below. Stairs! Pomrath hardly knew what they were. He gripped the railing tightly, unsure of his footing as he descended. At the bottom, some sort of scanner beamed him and he heard a blipping sound that probably indicated he was carrying no weapons. A fleshy woman in bulky robes came swishing out to inspect him.

  In his own time there were public sex cubicles available to all, without concealment. It figured that in this neopuritan era there would be girlie cribs hidden in the lower levels of musty old buildings. Vice, Pomrath thought, was probably more common here per capita than up yonder.

  The woman said, “You’re the foreigner Al said was coming-down, huh? You sure look foreign to me. Where you from, France?”

  “Slavic district. Praha.”

  “Where’s that?”

  Pomrath looked uncertain. “Europe. To the east.”

  The woman shrugged and led him with. Pomrath found himself in a small, low-ceilinged room which contained a bed, a washstand, and a pasty-faced blonde girl. The girl slipped off her robe. Her body was soft and slightly flabby, but the basic material was pretty good. She looked young and more intelligent than her job called on her to be.

  “It’s twenty dollars,” she said patiently.

  Pomrath knew that the moment of truth had arrived. He flicked a wary glance around the little room and saw no sign of any scanning devices. He couldn’t be sure, naturally. Even way back here, they had been pretty sophisticated about espionage, and he didn’t doubt that they pulled the same dirty tricks that were common in his own time. But hehad to take the risk. Sooner or later, he had to find himself an ally in this other time, and now was a reasonable time to begin.

  “I don’t have any money,” said Pomrath, dropping the phony accent.

  “Then get the hell out of here.”

  “Shh. Not so fast. I’ve got some ideas. Sit down. Relax. How would you like to be rich?”

  “Are you a cop?”

  “I’m just a stranger in town, and I need a friend. I’ve got plans. Cooperate with me and you’ll be out of the bed-girl business in a hurry. What’s your name?”

  “Lisa. You talk funny. What are you, a hopper or something?”

  “Is it that obvious?”

  “Just a guess.” The girl’s eyes were very blue, very wide. She picked up her robe and put it on again, as though she did not think it proper to hold a business conference in the nude. She kept her voice low as she said, “You just get here?”

  “Yes. I’m a doctor. I can make us fabulously rich. With what I know—”

  “We’ll turn all the turbines, child!” she said. “You and me. What’s your label?”

  “Keystone,” Pomrath said at random. “Mort Keystone.”

  “We’re going to twist orbits, Mort.”

  “I know we are. How soon can you get out of this place?”

  “Two more hours.”

  “Where should I meet you?”

  “There’s a park two blocks from here. You can sit there and wait and I’ll come along.”

  “A what?”

  “A park. You know, grass, benches, some trees. What’s the matter, Mort?”

  Pomrath was struck by the alienness of having trees and grass in the middle of a city. He managed a smile.


  Nothing’s the matter. I’ll wait for you in the park.” Then he handed her the book. “Here. Buy this for me when you leave the shop. I don’t want to have to steal it.”

  She nodded. Then she said, “You sure you don’t want anything else while you’re down here?”

  “There’s time for that later,” said Pomrath. “I’ll be waitingin the park.”

  He went out. The bookstore proprietor waved cheerily to him. Pomrath replied in a string of improvised guttural sounds and stepped into the street. It was difficult for him to believe that he had been on the verge of psychotic collapse only a few hours ago and four hundred forty-nine years from now. He was utterly calm. This world held challenges for him, and he knew he could meet those challenges.

  Poor Helaine, he thought. I wonder how she took the news.

  He walked briskly down the street, only momentarily bothered by the lack of resilience in the pavement. I am Mort Keystone, he told himself. Mort Keystone. Mort Keystone. And Lisa will help me get together some money to start a medical practice. I’ll be a rich man. I’ll live like a Class Two. There’s no High Government to slap me down.

  I’ll have power and status among these primitives, he told himself pleasantly. And after I’m established, I’ll track down a few people from my own time, just so I don’t feel too isolated from it. We’ll reminisce, he thought.

  We’ll reminisce about the future.

  14.

  Quellen waited three hours, until Koll and Spanner both were tied up on other government business. Then he went down the hall to the custody tank. He opened the scanner slot and peered in. Lanoy floated peacefully on the dark green fluid, utterly relaxed, evidently enjoying himself. On the stippled metal wall of the tank the indicators announced the slyster’s status. EEG and EKG bands wavered and criss-crossed. Heartbeat, respiration, everything was monitored.Summoning a technician, Quellen said, “Get him out of there.”

  “Sir, we just put him back in a few hours ago.”

  “I want to interrogate him. Get him out!”

 
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