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       Cronos, p.35

           Robert Silverberg
 
The technician obeyed. Lanoy was unplugged, filtered, and returned to consciousness. Attendant-robots wheeled him back to Quellen’s office. In a short while his reflexes were working again and he could move under his own power.

  Quellen shut down all recording devices in the office.He had a strong hunch that he wanted this conversation to be strictly off the record. Since there were only the two of them in the room, he also moved to cut down the oxy vent.

  “Leave it up, Quellen,” Lanoy said. “I like to breathe well. It’s at government expense.”

  “Let’s finish our talk, then. What’s your game?” Quellen was angry. Lanoy was a completely amoral creature, not even vicious in his criminality, who offended Quellen’s pride and sense of personal dignity.

  “I’ll be blunt with you, CrimeSec,” the slyster said. “I want my freedom, and I want to continue in business. I like it that way. That’s what I want. You want to arrest me and let the government or perhaps the High Government take over my business. That’s whatyouwant. Right?”

  “Right.”

  “Now, in a situation like that we have an interplay of mutually exclusive desires. So the stronger of the two forces wins—all the time. I’m stronger, and so you’ll have to let me go and suppress all the findings of your investigation.”

  “Who says you’re stronger, Lanoy?”

  “I know I am. I’m strong and you’re weak. I know a lot of things about you, Quellen. I know how you hate crowds and like fresh air and open spaces. These are pretty awkward idiosyncrasies to live with in a world like ours, aren’t they?”

  “Go on,” said Quellen. He cursed Brogg silently. No one else could have revealed his secret to Lanoy. And obviously Lanoy knew too much about him.

  “So you’re going to let me walk out of here a free man,” Lanoy continued, “or else you’ll find yourself back in a Class Nine or maybe Eleven unit. You won’t like it much there, CrimeSec. You’ll have to share a room, and you may not like your roommate, but there’ll be nothing you can do. And when you have a roommate, you won’t be free to run away. He’ll report you.”

  “What do you mean, run away?” Quellen’s voice was little more than a husky whisper.

  “I mean run away to Africa, Quellen.”

  That’s it, then, Quellen thought. Now it’s over; Brogg’s sold me completely down the river. He knew that with Lanoy in possession of the secret, he was totally in the little slyster’s power. He stood motionless before Lanoy, seething with the temptation to grab up a televector cable and knot it fatally around Lanoy’s neck.

  Lanoy said, “I hate to do this to you, Quellen. Actually. There’s no personal animus in it at all. You’re a pretty good sort, caught in a world you didn’t make and don’t especially like. But I can’t help myself. It’s either you or me, and you know who’s got to win in a deal like that.”

  “How did you find out?”

  “Brogg told me.”

  “Why would he do a thing like that? He was getting a good price from me.”

  “I gave him a better one,” said Lanoy. “I sent him back to Hadrian’s time. Possibly Trajan. He’s gone back 2400 years, at any rate.”

  Quellen felt the floor turn to sticky rubber beneath his feet, writhing and squirming and pulsing with heat. He clung to his desk so he would not slide through into oblivion. Brogg a hopper! Brogg gone? Brogg a traitor?

  “When did this happen?” Quellen asked.

  “Yesterday evening, about sunset. Brogg and I discussed the problem of how I was going to avoid being put out of business. He suggested that you had a point of vulnerability. I got it from him in return for the one thing he really wanted. He’s gone back to see Rome with his own eyes.”

  “That’s impossible,” Quellen insisted. “There are records on the known hoppers, and Brogg wasn’t on the list.”

  Even as he spoke, he knew how foolish the words were.The records went back only toA.D.1979. Brogg—unless Lanoy were bluffing—was almost nineteen centuries further back. There’d be no record.

  Quellen felt sick. He knew that Brogg had planted autonomic telltales all over Appalachia, with taped accounts of Quellen’s crime in them. The telltales were programmed to march down to headquarters in the event of Brogg’s death or disappearance. The little springy legs must have been in motion since last night. I’m finished, Quellen thought. Unless Brogg had the good grace to deactivate the telltales before he hopped. He could have done it with no great trouble. The boxes responded to telephoned instruction. One call would have shut them down. But had he? Otherwise, the High Government was even now in possession of the truth about Joseph Quellen.

  Quellen had talked to Koll only this morning, though, and Koll had congratulated him on his promotion. Koll was guileful, but not to that degree. He would surely have been the recipient of one of Brogg’s little telltales, and he wouldn’t have been able to conceal his fury and envy at the discovery that Quellen had been living in Class Two luxury all this time.

  So possibly Brogg had turned the telltales off. Or possiblyhe had never gone hopper at all.

  Scowling, Quellen slammed on his communicator and said, “Get me Brogg.”

  “I’m sorry, UnderSec Brogg hasn’t been in contact today.”

  “Not even to give a locus notice?”

  “We haven’t heard from him, sir.”

  “Ring his apartment. Check the district headquarters. If there’s no word from him within the next fifteen minutes, initiate a televector search. I want to know where he is!”

  Lanoy was beaming. “You’re not going to find him,Quellen. Believe me, he’s in Rome. I set up the displacement myself—temporal and geographical. If everything worked out, he landed just south of the city, somewhere along the Via Appia.”

  Quellen’s lips twitched. He was gripping the desk very, very tightly, now, so that his fingertips were beginning to make indentations in the top, which was thermal-sensitive and not designed to be handled that way. He said, “If you can send somebody back that far in time, how is it that 1979 has been the terminal date for the hopper phenomenon?”

  “Lots of reasons.”

  “Such as?”

  “For one, the process wasn’t reliable beyond about five hundred years until recently. We’ve improved the process. New research. Now we can confidently shoot people back a couple of thousand years and know they’ll get there.”

  “The pigs in the twelfth century?”

  “Yes,” Lanoy said. “Those were our experimental shots. Now, then: it also happens that such a concentration of hoppers got sent back to the 1979 nexus that the phenomenon came to the attention of authorities. Any hopper landing in a previouselsewherewould generally end up detained for insanity, or arrested for witchcraft, or something. So we tried to limit our hoppers to the 1979 to 2106 period because any hopper landing there would be recognized for what he was, and he’d have minimal troubles. We only exceeded that range upon special request, or sometimes by unintentional overshoot. You follow?”

  “Yes,” said Quellen glumly. “And Brogg went back to Rome?”

  “He really did. For a price. And now you’d better let me go, promising to keep the results of your investigation from getting any higher, or I’ll expose your little game. I’ll let it be known that you’ve got a hideaway in Africa.”

  Quellen said coolly, “I could put a beam through your head right now and claim that you assaulted me.”

  “No good, Quellen. For one thing, the High Government wants the time-transport process. Kill me and you lose the process.”

  “We could dredge it out of your brain on a neural replay dead or alive.”

  “Not if you lase me through the head,” Lanoy pointed out. “Anyway, the neural replay would also dredge up the Africa bit, wouldn’t it? Besides that, you’d suffer if I died. Didn’t you know that Brogg fed your story into a bunch of autonomic telltales programmed to walk into government headquarters if anything happened to him?”

  “Yes, but—”

  “He keyed them all o
ver to me just before he hopped. Your fate is tied to mine, Quellen. You don’t want to harm me. You want to let me go.”

  Quellen could feel the muscles of his face sag as the nastiness of his position came home. If he did not present Lanoy for prosecution, he ran the risk of demotion. If he turned Lanoy in, Lanoy would expose him. Nor could he simply let Lanoy walk out the way the slyster wished. It was already a matter of record that Lanoy was involved in the hopper affair. Koll knew. Spanner knew. Quellen could not easily expunge the knowledge from the records. If he tried to cover up for Lanoy, he would mire himself in lie upon lie. He was living one fraud as it was; he could not bear the strain of assuming another.

  “Do I get what I want?” Lanoy asked.

  A powerful surge of adrenalin rocked through Quellen. He was a man in a trap, and a trapped man fights fiercely. He found unexpected reserves of strength.

  There was one thing he could try, a monumentally audacious thing, something so vastly bold that it seemed almostsensible in its way. Perhaps it would fail; probably it would fail. But it was better than making deals with Lanoy and slipping deeper into a morass of bribery and compromise.

  “No,” he said. “You don’t get what you want. I’m not releasing you, Lanoy. I’m going to remand you for indictment.”

  “Are you crazy?”

  “I don’t think so.” Quellen rang for attendants. “Put this man back in the custody tank,” he said crisply. “Leave him there until further notice.”

  Lanoy was carried away, sputtering and protesting.

  Now to secure the bait for the leviathan he hoped to snare.

  Quellen jabbed communicator buttons. “Get me the Donald Mortensen file,” he commanded.

  The spool was brought to him. He threaded it through the projector and looked over Brogg’s investigation. The face of Mortensen gleamed out at him, youthful, pink. He looked like some kind of albino, Quellen thought, with that white hair and eyebrows. But albinos have pink eyes, don’t they? Mortensen’s were blue. Pure Nordic. How had he preserved his bloodline so well, Quellen wondered? He examined Mortensen’s dossier.

  Quellen pored over the recorded texts of Brogg’s pickups. Mortensen had quarreled with his wife; he had negotiated for a hopper trip several weeks hence; he had put money down, and was busily raising the rest of Lanoy’s fee. Then the data ended with Brogg’s notation: INVESTIGATION CONCLUDED BY OFFICIAL ORDER.

  Quellen rang the listening room. He gave the number of the Ear that had been pressed into Mortensen’s palm and asked if it was still functioning.

  “The Ear’s been deactivated, CrimeSec,” he was told.

  “Yes, I know. But can it be turned on again?”

  They checked. A few minutes later they gave him the bad news; the Ear had dissolved a day or two ago, as it was designed to do. There were no further transmissions from Mortensen. Quellen was disappointed, but the setback was not critical. He ordered a televector check on Mortensen’s whereabouts, hoping fiercely that he had not gone out of Appalachia.

  He hadn’t. The televector tracer reported that Mortensen was in a sniffer palace less than ten miles from Quellen’s office. Excellent, Quellen thought. He would make the arrest himself. This was something far too delicate to leave it to a subordinate.

  Catching a quickboat, Quellen crossed the city and stationed himself outside the sniffer palace, waiting on street level for Mortensen to come up from the depths. Seamy, shifty-eyed individuals kept shuttling past him. Quellen masked his discomfort and scanned everyone who emerged.

  There was Mortensen now.

  It was a long time since Quellen had made an arrest in person. He was a desk man, who left such contacts to underlings. Nevertheless he felt calm. He was well armed; taped to the palm of his hand was an anesthetic prong that would flip out at a command of his muscles, and beneath his armpit was a neural spray in case something went awry with the prong. He carried a laser pistol too, but the last thing he intended was to use it on Mortensen.

  Moving in behind the man as he strode away from the sniffer palace, Quellen tapped him on the shoulder and said, “Just keep walking calmly, Mortensen. You’re under arrest.”

  “What the hell—?”

  “I’m from the Secretariat of Crime. I’ve got orders to bring you in. There’s a prong in my palm and I’ll slap it into you in a hurry if you attempt to resist. Walk quietly aheadof me until we get to that quickboat ramp. You do as I say and you won’t get into trouble.”

  “I haven’t done anything wrong. I want to know the charge.”

  “Later,” said Quellen. “Keep walking.”

  “I have legal rights. A lawyer—”

  “Later. Walk.”

  They ascended the flyramp. Mortensen continued to grumble, but he made no show of resistance. He was a tall man, taller than Quellen. He did not look particularly powerful, though. Quellen kept his prong-laden palm ready. His entire future depended on the successful completion of this maneuver.

  The quickboat took them to Quellen’s apartment building.

  Mortensen looked puzzled. As they stepped out on the ramp, he grunted sullenly, “This doesn’t look like a crime office to me.”

  “Down the ramp, please,” Quellen said.

  “What is this, a kidnapping?”

  “I’ll show you my credentials if you’re worried. I’m an authentic peace officer. As a matter of fact, I hold the rank of CrimeSec. Step in here.”

  They entered Quellen’s apartment. Mortensen, facing Quellen, stared at him incredulously.

  “This is a private residence,” he said.

  “True. Mine.”

  “Somebody’s clearly given you the wrong tip on my sexual orientation, friend. I’m not—”

  “Neither am I,” said Quellen sharply. “Mortensen, are you planning to go hopper the first week in May?”

  Glaring, Mortensen said, “What’s that to you?”

  “A good deal. Is it true?”

  “Maybe. I’m not saying.”

  Quellen sighed. “You’re on the list of hoppers who went back, do you know that? A fully documented list giving your name, your date of birth, the day you arrived in the past, the day you left here. The list says you went back on May 4 of this year. Now do you want to deny that you’re planning to hop?”

  “I’m not saying anything. Get me a lawyer. Damn you, I didn’t threaten you in any way! Why did you have to muck around with my life?”

  “I can’t explain that now,” said Quellen. “It happens that you’re the unfortunate victim of a situation that’s getting out of hand. Mortensen, I’m going to send you on a journey. You’re going to have a vacation. I can’t say how long you’ll be away, but at least you’ll be comfortable there. You’ll find a full food program; help yourself. And rest assured that I’ll be looking out for your welfare. I’m on your side, actually. Deeply sympathetic to your position. But I’ve got to look out for myself, first.”

  The troubled Mortensen lifted a hand as though to lash out at Quellen. Smoothly, Quellen moved forward and activated the anesthetic prong on his hand. It bit into Mortensen’s skin. The instantaneous anesthetic went to work, and Mortensen folded up into unconsciousness. He would be out for about an hour, which was more than enough time.

  Quellen turned on the stat field and shoved Mortensen through. The blond man vanished. He would wake up in the CrimeSec’s African cottage. No doubt that would add to his general bafflement, but Quellen had not been able to offer explanations.

  A moment later the stat was turned off at Quellen’s end. That would keep Mortensen from getting back until Quellen was ready to bring him back.

  Waves of vertigo swept through him.

  He had the bait. Now he had to play his fish. It seemed incredible that he would succeed, but he had gone too far to permit himself to turn back. And, if he failed, he was beginning to see, there was an alternative way out, less honorable but possibly more rational a solution than what he had in mind.

  Can I get away with this, he
wondered? Can I actually try to blackmail the High Government and make it stick? Or am I simply out of my mind altogether?

  He would find that out soon enough. Meanwhile, he had a hostage—Mortensen. A hostage against the wrath of the High Government.

  Now, just one small thing remained: to get an interview with Peter Kloofman. Himself. In person. Could it be arranged? It was a staggering dream. How could a Class Seven bureaucrat gain admission to the presence of Kloofman?

  He’ll see me, Quellen thought. When he learns that I’ve kidnapped Donald Mortensen.

  15.

  David Giacomin, who had been carrying out some quiet monitoring of the Mortensen situation himself, was the first to discover that there was trouble. A flashing red light informed him that Mortensen had vanished from the reach of the Appalachia televector field.Giacomin experienced a sensation of disorientation. The critical day for Mortensen was May 4; and May 4 was still several weeks off. It wasn’t possible for him to have gone hopper so soon, was it?

  Yes, itwaspossible, Giacomin reflected. But if he had, why hadn’t the fabric of space and time tottered? The past had been altered—or else the records had been in error in the first place. Giacomin ordered a full investigation into the Mortensen disappearance to be carried out, mobilizing every resource of the High Government. Kloofman had personally instructed Giacomin to see that nothing happened to Mortensen; and now it appeared as though something had indeed happened. The perspiring Giacomin reflectedthat he better damned well get Mortensen back before Kloofman found out he was missing.

  Then, almost simultaneously, Giacomin learned that he was going to have to break the news to Kloofman after all.

  A call came through from Koll in the Secretariat of Crime, the ratty-faced little Class Six through whom Giacomin supervised that wing of governmental activities. Koll looked upset, even dazed. His face was flushed and his eyes were fixed and glossy.

  “I’ve got someone here who wants an interview with Kloofman,” Koll said. “A Class Seven—no, he’ll soon be Six— in my department.”

  “He’s insane. Kloofman wouldn’t see him, and you know it, so why are you bothering me with this?”

 
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