Cronos, p.36
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       Cronos, p.36

           Robert Silverberg
 

  “He says he’s kidnapped Mortensen, and he wants to discuss the situation with somebody in Class One.”

  Giacomin stiffened. His hands began to move in spasmodic jerks, and he fought to get them under control. “Who is this maniac?”

  “Quellen. He’s the CrimeSec here. He—”

  “Yes, I know him. When did he make this request?”

  “Ten minutes ago. First he tried to call Kloofman direct, but that didn’t work. So now he’s going through channels. He asked me and I’m asking you. What else can I do?”

  “Nothing else, I suppose,” said Giacomin hollowly. His quick mind sifted the possible things that could be done to the troublesome Quellen, beginning with slow disembowelment and proceeding from there. But Quellen had Mortensen, or said he did. And Kloofman was practically psychotic on the subject of Mortensen. He talked of little else.

  There went Giacomin’s carefully crafted plan to keep the news about Mortensen’s disappearance from getting tothe top man. He saw no way of avoiding that now. He could stall for time, but in the end Quellen would have his way.

  “Well?” Koll said. The tip of his nose quivered. “Can I remand his request officially to your level?”

  “Yes,” Giacomin said. “I’ll take it off your hands. Let me talk to Quellen.”

  A moment passed. Quellen appeared on the screen. Helookedsane, Giacomin thought. A little frightened at his own audacity, no doubt, but generally rational. At least as rational as Koll, for that matter.

  But determined. He wanted to see Kloofman. Yes, he had kidnapped Mortensen. No, he would not divulge the whereabouts of the kidnapped man. Moreover, any attempt to interfere with his freedom of action would result in the immediate death of Mortensen.

  Was it a bluff? Giacomin didn’t dare take the chance. He looked at Quellen in quiet wonder and said, “All right. You win, you madman. I’ll pass your request for an audience along to Kloofman and we’ll see what he says.”

  It was such a long time since Kloofman had consented to speak face to face with a member of the lower orders that he had nearly forgotten what the experience was like. He had some Class Threes and Fours and even Fives in attendance on him, of course, but they didn’t converse with him. They could just as well have been robots. Kloofman tolerated no chitchat from such people. High on the lonely eminence of Class One, the world leader had cut himself off from contact with the masses.

  He awaited the arrival of this person Quellen, then, with some curiosity. Resentment, of course; he was not accustomed to coercion. Anger. Irritation. Yet Kloofman was amused, as well. The pleasure of vulnerability had been denied him for many years. He could take a light approach to this unexpected crisis.

  He was also frightened. So far as the televector men could tell, Quellen actuallydidhave possession of Mortensen. That was distressing. It was a direct threat to Kloofman’s power. He could not laugh at such a situation.

  The subcranial probe murmured to Kloofman, “Quellen is here.”

  “Let him in.”

  The chamber wall rolled back. A lean, haggard-looking man walked awkwardly in and stood flatfooted before the huge pneumatic web in which Kloofman reposed. Between Kloofman and Quellen there rose a fine, almost imperceptible mist, an assassination screen extending from floor to ceiling. Any particle of solid matter attempting to cross that screen would be instantly volatilized, no matter what its mass or velocity. Robot wardens flanked Kloofman as an additional precaution. Kloofman waited patiently. The artificial systems within his reconstituted body purred smoothly, pumping blood through the vessels, bathing the inner meat with lymph. He saw that Quellen was uncomfortable in his presence. It scarcely surprised him.

  At length Kloofman said, “You’ve had your wish. Here I am. What do you want?”

  Quellen moved his lips, but there was a lag of several seconds before he produced words. “Do you know what I’m thinking?” he blurted finally. “I’m glad you exist. That’s what I’m thinking. It’s relieving to know that you’re real.”

  Kloofman managed to smile. “How do youknowI’m real?”

  “Because—” Quellen stopped. “All right. I retract that. I hope you’re real.” His hands were quivering at his sides. Kloofman observed the man make a visible effort to pull himself together—an effort that seemed to be at least outwardly successful.

  “Are you the man who kidnapped Mortensen?”

  “Yes.”

  “Where is he?”

  “I can’t reveal that, sir. Not yet. I’ve got to propose a deal with you first.”

  “A deal withme?” Kloofman delivered himself of a rumbling chuckle. “You’re incredible in your brazenness,” he said mildly. “Don’t you realize what I can do to you?”

  “Yes.”

  “And yet you come here to bargain with me?”

  “I have Mortensen,” Quellen reminded him. “Unless I release him, he won’t be free to hop on May 4. And that means—”

  “Yes,” said Kloofman sharply. He felt tension levels climbing within his body. This man had found his zone of vulnerability, all right. It was preposterous that he should be held at bay by a prolet, but that was the situation. Kloofman could take no chances with a man who threatened to change the past. No computer simulation could possibly calculate the effects of subtracting the hopper Donald Mortensen from his proper time destination. The world leader was helpless. Kloofman said, “You’re playing a dangerous game, Quellen. State your business. Then you’ll be removed and the location of Mortensen will be dredged from your mind.”

  “Mortensen is programmed to destruct in the event of any tampering with my brain,” said Quellen.

  Could that be true, Kloofman wondered? Or was this all some gigantic bluff?

  “Your business.”

  Quellen nodded. He seemed to be gaining poise and strength, as though he had discovered that Kloofman was no superbeing, but merely a very old man with great power. Quellen said, “I was assigned to the investigation into the time-travel operation. I’ve succeeded in finding the manwho controls it. He’s under arrest now. Unfortunately, he’s in possession of information that incriminates me in an illegal act.”

  “Are you a criminal, Quellen?”

  “I’ve done something illegal. It could bring me demotionand worse. If I turn the slyster over to your people, he’ll expose me. So I want immunity. That’s the deal. I’ll give you your man, and he’ll blab about my crime, but you’ll confirm me in my position and see to it that I’m not prosecuted or demoted.”

  “What’s your crime, Quellen?”

  “I maintain a Class Two villa in Africa.”

  Kloofman smiled. “Youarea scoundrel, aren’t you?” he said without rancor. “You connive out of your class, you blackmail the High Government—”

  “Actually I regard myself as fairly honest, sir.”

  “I suppose you do. But you’re a scoundrel all the same. Do you know what I’d do with a dangerous man like you, if I had my options? I’d put you in the time machine and hurl you far into the past. That’s the safest way to deal with agitators. That’s how we’ll cope, once we—” Kloofman fell silent. After a moment he said, “Your boldness stupefies me. What if I lie to you? I grant you your immunity, you turn Mortensen over to me and surrender the time-travel slyster, and then I seize you and arrest you all the same.”

  “I have two other documented hoppers hidden away,” said Quellen blandly. “One is due to depart later this year and the other one early next year. They’re further insurance that you won’t harm me after I’ve given you Mortensen.”

  “You’re bluffing, Quellen. You’ve invented those other two hoppers on the spot. I’ll put you under a neural probe and check on it.”

  “The moment the probe touches my brain,” said Quellen, “Mortensen will die.”

  Kloofman felt unaccustomed anguish. He was certain that this infuriating prolet was piling bluff upon bluff—but there was no way of proving that without peering into his brain, and bluff number one made
it too risky for Kloofman to try that. It might just not be a bluff.

  He said, “What do you really want, Quellen?”

  “I’ve told you. A pledge of immunity, before witnesses. I want you to guarantee that I won’t be punished for maintaining my place in Africa, and that I’ll come to no harm for having bearded you like this. Then I’ll give you the slyster and Mortensen.”

  “And the other two hoppers.”

  “Those also. After I’ve become assured of your good faith.”

  “You’re incredible, Quellen. But you seem to hold a strong position. I can’t let you keep Mortensen. And I want that time machine. It’s got many uses. Too dangerous to let it stay in private hands. All right. All right. You’ll have your pledge. I’ll give you more than that, Quellen.”

  “More, sir?”

  “Your villa’s Class Two, you say? I assume you want to go on living in it. We’ll have to make you Class Two then, won’t we?”

  “Take me into the High Government, sir?”

  “Of course,” said Kloofman warmly. “Consider: how can I send you back to lower levels, after you’ve triumphed over me like this? You’ve won status. I’ll put you up here. Giacomin will find room for you. A man who’s done what you’ve done can’t possibly remain in a low bureaucratic post, Quellen. So we’ll arrange something. You’ve won more than you came looking for.” Kloofman smiled. “I congratulate you, Quellen.”

  Quellen erupted into the upper air, after having risen level upon level upon level from that mythical catacomb that wasthe lair of Peter Kloofman. He staggered out into the street and planted himself solidly, feet on the pavement, head upturned to the towers far above. He saw the lacy connecting bridges, the gleaming cones atop the buildings, the faint patch of blue light beyond the summits.I don’t have much time, Quellen thought.

  He was numb with shock after his interview with Kloofman. In retrospect he had no idea how he had carried off such an enterprise. To muscle his way into the lair of a Class One administrator, to stand there bluntly making demands and having Kloofman accede to them, to pile fraud upon fraud and carry his bluffs home—it was not real. It couldn’t be. It had to be some sniffer palace fantasy, some dream of power that would fade with the ebbing of the drug from his brain.

  Yet the buildings were real. The sky was real. The pavements were real. And the interview with Kloofman had been real, too. He had won. He had been invited to accept Class Two status. He had compelled Kloofman to retreat.

  Quellen knew that he had not won a thing.

  He had done his audacious maneuver with reasonable aplomb, but it had been a fool’s maneuver, and he saw that more clearly now than he had an hour before. Any man could be proud of having had the nerve to confront Kloofman like that, but, having done it, Quellen knew that he had gained no real safety, only the temporary illusion of triumph. It would be necessary to activate the alternate plan that he had been nurturing for some hours. His mind had prepared itself for this eventuality, and he knew what he had to do, though he was not at all sure that he would have time to do it.

  He was in mortal danger. He had to act fast.

  Kloofman had not fooled him with his smiles, his words of praise, his promise of an uptwitch to High Governmentstatus, his apparent delight in Quellen’s audacity. Kloofman was frightened that something might happen to Mortensen that could topple his own power, yes, but Kloofman could not be pushed around as easily as it seemed.

  He’ll get Lanoy and Mortensen from me, Quellen knew, and then he’ll destroy me. I should have realized that from the start. How could I hope to outsmart Kloofman?

  But he did not regret having made the attempt. A man is not a worm; he can stand up on his legs, he can fight for his position. He can try. Quellen had tried. He had done something foolhardy to the point of absurdity, and he had carried it off with honor, even if his success was probably unreal.

  Now, though, he had to hasten to protect himself against Kloofman’s wrath. He had at least a little time in which to operate. The euphoria of his meeting with Kloofman had worn off, and he was thinking clearly and rationally.

  He reached the headquarters of the Secretariat of Crime and immediately gave orders for Lanoy to be taken from the custody tank once again. The slyster was brought to Quellen’s office. He looked moody and downcast.

  “You’re going to be sorry for this, Quellen,” Lanoy said bitterly. “I wasn’t joking when I said Brogg had keyed all his telltales over to me. I can have the news of your African place in the hands of the High Government in—”

  “You don’t need to inform on me,” said Quellen. “I’m letting you go.”

  Lanoy was startled. “But you said—”

  “That was earlier. I’m releasing you and wiping out as much as I can of the records involving you.”

  “So you gave in after all, Quellen? You knew you couldn’t take the risk that I’d expose you?”

  “On the contrary. I haven’t given in. I told the High Government about my African place myself. I let Kloofmanhimself know, in person. No sense wasting time talking to underlings. So your telltales won’t be telling anything that isn’t already known.”

  “You can’t ask me to believe that, Quellen!”

  “It’s the truth, though. And therefore the price for my letting you go has changed. It isn’t your silence any more. It’s your services.”

  Lanoy’s eyes widened. “What have you been up to?”

  “Plenty. But there’s no time for me to explain it now. I’ll get you safely out of this building. You’ve got to get back to your lab on your own power. I’ll join you there in about an hour.” Quellen shook his head. “Not that I think you’ll stay free for very long, Lanoy. Kloofman’s hungry for your machine. He wants to use it to send political prisoners back. And to raise public revenues. He’ll solve his unemployment problem by shooting the prolets back to 500,000B.C.and letting them get eaten by tigers. You’ll be picked up again, I’m sure of it. But at least it won’t be my doing.”

  He escorted Lanoy from the building. The little slyster gave Quellen a baffled look as he scuttled away toward the quickboat ramp.

  “I’ll be seeing you in a little while,” Quellen said.

  He boarded a quickboat himself, a local, and headed for his apartment to perform one last chore. Had Kloofman taken steps against him yet? Doubtless They were having frantic conferences in the chambers of the High Government. It wouldn’t be long now, though, and Quellen would be safe.

  He had come to understand a great many things. Why Kloofman wanted the machine so badly, for one thing: as a tool to extend his own power over the world. Unscrupulous, it was. And I nearly helped him get it.

  Then, too, Quellen saw why the recorded hoppers had all come from 2486–91. It didn’t mean that the backwardflow had been cut off next year, as he had assumed. It simply meant that control of the machine had passed then from Lanoy to Kloofman, and that all hoppers sent back after 2491 were hurled by the new process, which had a greater range, thrown back so far that they could be no possible threat to Kloofman’s regime. And would not, of course, show up in any historical records. Quellen shuddered. He wanted no part of a world in which the government held such powers.

  He entered his apartment and activated the stat. The glow of theta force enveloped him. Quellen stepped through, and emerged in his African cottage.

  “Mortensen?” he shouted. “Where are you?”

  “Down here!”

  Quellen peered over the edge of the porch. Mortensen was fishing. Stripped to the waist, his pale skin partly red and partly tan, he waved to Quellen affably.

  “Come on,” Quellen said. “You’re going home!”

  “I’d rather stay, thank you. I like it here.”

  “Nonsense. You’ve got a date to hop.”

  “Why hop if I can hang out here?” Mortensen asked reasonably. “I don’t understand why you brought me here, but I don’t feel like leaving now.”

  Quellen had no time to argue. It did not fi
t into his plan to keep Mortensen from making his May 4 hop. Quellen had no vested interest in disturbing the recorded past, and Mortensen’s value as a hostage would shortly be zero. It was conceivable that Mortensen’s failure to hop on schedule would jeopardize Quellen’s own continued existence, if he happened to be a descendant of the hopped Mortensen. Why take the risk? Mortensen would have to hop.

  “Come,” Quellen said.

  “No.”

  Sighing, Quellen moved in and once again anesthetizedthe man. He hauled the limp Mortensen into the cottage and thrust him through the stat, following a moment later himself. Mortensen lay sprawled out on the floor of Quellen’s apartment. In a short while, he’d awaken and try to comprehend all that had been happening to him, and perhaps he’d attempt to get back to Africa. But by then he would have registered on the Appalachia televector field, and Kloofman’s men would be on their way to pick him up. Kloofman would make sure that Mortensen hopped on schedule.

  Quellen left the apartment for the last time. He ascended the flyramp and waited for the quickboat. He knew the route to Lanoy’s place, thanks to Brogg.

  He would rather have triumphed over Kloofman than have taken this route. But he had been in a trap, and a man in a trap must seek the sane path to freedom, not the most glamorous one. There was irony in the decision, of course: the man assigned to police the hopper problem becoming a hopper himself. Yet there was a kind of inevitability, Quellen saw, right from the start, that made him one with Norm Pomrath and Brogg and the others. He had begun to make his hop the day he secured the African retreat for himself. Now he was merely completing the logical course of action.

  It was late afternoon by the time Quellen arrived. The sun was dipping to the horizon, and colors danced on the polluted lake. Lanoy was waiting for him.

  “Everything’s ready, Quellen,” he said.

  “Good. Can I rely on you to be honest!”

  “You let me go, didn’t you? There’s honor even among slysters,” said Lanoy. “You’re sure you want to do this?”

 
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