Maps in a mirror, p.7

Maps in a Mirror, page 7


Maps in a Mirror

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  But why should the old man hate me? Barth wondered. I don’t know him. He finally decided that it was because he had been so fat, so obviously soft, while the old man was wiry to the point of being gaunt, his face pinched by years of exposure to the sunlight. Yet the old man’s hatred had not diminished as the months went by and the fat melted away in the sweat and sunlight of the potato field.

  A sharp sting across his back, the sound of slapping leather on skin, and then an excruciating pain deep in his muscles. He had paused too long. The old man had come to him.

  The old man said nothing. Just raised the lash again, ready to strike. Barth lifted the hoe out of the ground, to start work again. It occurred to him, as it had a hundred times before, that the hoe could reach as far as the whip, with as good effect. But, as a hundred times before, Barth looked into the old man’s eyes, and what he saw there, while he did not understand it, was enough to stop him. He could not strike back. He could only endure.

  The lash did not fall again. Instead he and the old man just looked at each other. The sun burned where blood was coming from, his back. Flies buzzed near him. He did not bother to brush them away.

  Finally the old man broke the silence.

  “H,” he said.

  Barth did not answer. Just waited.

  “They’ve come for you. First job,” said the old man.

  First job. It took Barth a moment to realize the implications. The end of the potato fields. The end of the sunlight. The end of the old man with the whip. The end of the loneliness or, at least, of the boredom.

  “Thank God,” Barth said. His throat was dry.

  “Go wash,” the old man said.

  Barth carried the hoe back to the shed. He remembered how heavy the hoe had seemed when he first arrived. How ten minutes in the sunlight had made him faint. Yet they had revived him in the field, and the old man had said, “Carry it back.” So he had carried back the heavy, heavy hoe, feeling for all the world like Christ bearing his cross. Soon enough the others had gone, and the old man and he had been alone together, but the ritual with the hoe never changed. They got to the shed, and the old man carefully took the hoe from him and locked it away, so that Barth couldn’t get it in the night and kill him with it.

  And then into the house, where Barth bathed painfully and the old man put an excruciating disinfectant on his back. Barth had long since given up on the idea of an anesthetic. It wasn’t in the old man’s nature to use an anesthetic.

  Clean clothes. A few minutes’ wait. And then the helicopter. A young, businesslike man emerged from it, looking unfamiliar in detail but very familiar in general. He was an echo of all the businesslike young men and women who had dealt with him before. The young man came to him, unsmilingly, and said, “H?”

  Barth nodded. It was the only name they used for him.

  “You have an assignment.”

  “What is it?” Barth asked.

  The young man did not answer. The old man, behind him, whispered, “They’ll tell you soon enough. And then you’ll wish you were back here, H. They’ll tell you, and you’ll pray for the potato fields.”

  But Barth doubted it. In two years there had not been a moment’s pleasure. The food was hideous, and there was never enough. There were no women, and he was usually too tired to amuse himself. Just pain and labor and loneliness, all excruciating. He would leave that now. Anything would be better, anything at all.

  “Whatever they assign you, though,” the old man said, “it can’t be any worse than my assignment.”

  Barth would have asked him what his assignment had been, but there was nothing in the old man’s voice that invited the question, and there was nothing in their relationship in the past that would allow the question to be asked. Instead, they stood in silence as the young man reached into the helicopter and helped a man get out. An immensely fat man, stark-naked and white as the flesh of a potato, looking petrified. The old man strode purposefully toward him.

  “Hello, I,” the old man said.

  “My name’s Barth,” the fat man answered, petulantly. The old man struck him hard across the mouth, hard enough that the tender lip split and blood dripped from where his teeth had cut into the skin.

  “I,” said the old man. “Your name is I.”

  The fat man nodded pitiably, but Barth—H—felt no pity for him. Two years this time. Only two damnable years and he was already in this condition. Barth could vaguely remember being proud of the mountain he had made of himself. But now he felt only contempt. Only a desire to go to the fat man, to scream in his face, “Why did you do it! Why did you let it happen again!”

  It would have meant nothing. To I, as to H, it was the first time, the first betrayal. There had been no others in his memory.

  Barth watched as the old man put a hoe in the fat man’s hands and drove him out into the field. Two more young men got out of the helicopter. Barth knew what they would do, could almost see them helping the old man for a few days, until I finally learned the hopelessness of resistance and delay.

  But Barth did not get to watch the replay of his own torture of two years before. The young man who had first emerged from the copter now led him to it, put him in a seat by a window, and sat beside him. The pilot speeded up the engines, and the copter began to rise.

  “The bastard,” Barth said, looking out the window at the old man as he slapped I across the face brutally.

  The young man chuckled. Then he told Barth his assignment.

  Barth clung to the window, looking out, feeling his life slip away from him even as the ground receded slowly. “I can’t do it.”

  “There are worse assignments,” the young man said.

  Barth did not believe it.

  “If I live,” he said, “if I live, I want to come back here.”

  “Love it that much?”

  “To kill him.”

  The young man looked at him blankly.

  “The old man,” Barth explained, then realized that the young man was ultimately incapable of understanding anything. He looked back out the window. The old man looked very small next to the huge lump of white flesh beside him. Barth felt a terrible loathing for I. A terrible despair in knowing that nothing could possibly be learned, that again and again his selves would replay this hideous scenario.

  Somewhere, the man who would be J was dancing, was playing polo, was seducing and perverting and being delighted by every woman and boy and, God knows, sheep that he could find; somewhere the man who would be J dined.

  I bent immensely in the sunlight and tried, clumsily, to use the hoe. Then, losing his balance, he fell over into the dirt, writhing. The old man raised his whip.

  The helicopter turned then, so that Barth could see nothing but sky from his window. He never saw the whip fall. But he imagined the whip falling. Imagined and relished it, longed to feel the heaviness of the blow flowing from his own arm. Hit him again! he cried out inside himself. Hit him for me! And inside himself he made the whip fall a dozen times more.

  “What are you thinking?” the young man asked, smiling, as if he knew the punch line of a joke.

  “I was thinking,” Barth said, “that the old man can’t possibly hate him as much as I do.”

  Apparently that was the punch line. The young man laughed uproariously. Barth did not understand the joke, but somehow he was certain that he was the butt of it. He wanted to strike out but dared not.

  Perhaps the young man saw the tension in Barth’s body, or perhaps he merely wanted to explain. He stopped laughing but could not repress his smile, which penetrated Barth far more deeply than the laugh.

  “But don’t you see?” the young man asked. “Don’t you know who the old man is?”

  Barth didn’t know.

  “What do you think we did with A?” And the young man laughed again.

  There are worse assignments than mine, Barth realized. And the worst of all would be to spend day after day, month after month, supervising that contemptible animal that he
could not deny was himself.

  The scar on his back bled a little, and the blood stuck to the seat when it dried.


  Gemini lay back in his cushioned chair and slid the box over his head. It was pitch black inside, except the light coming from down around his shoulders.

  “All right, I’m pulling us over,” said Orion. Gemini braced himself. He heard the clicking of a switch (or someone’s teeth clicking shut in surprise?) and the timelid closed down on him, shut out the light, and green and orange and another, nameless color beyond purple danced at the edges of his eyes.

  And he stood, abruptly, in thick grass at the side of a road. A branch full of leaves brushed heavily against his back with the breeze. He moved forward, looking for—

  The road, just as Orion had said. About a minute to wait, then.

  Gemini slid awkwardly down the embankment, covering his hands with dirt. To his surprise it was moist and soft, clinging. He had expected it to be hard. That’s what you get for believing pictures in the encyclopedia, he thought. And the ground gave gently under his feet.

  He glanced behind him. Two furrows down the bank showed his path. I have a mark in this world after all, he thought. It’ll make no difference, but there is a sign of me in this time when men could still leave signs.

  Then dazzling lights far up the road. The truck was coming. Gemini sniffed the air. He couldn’t smell anything—and yet the books all stressed how smelly gasoline engines had been. Perhaps it was too far.

  Then the lights swerved away. The curve. In a moment it would be here, turning just the wrong way on the curving mountain road until it would be too late.

  Gemini stepped out into the road, a shiver of anticipation running through him. Oh, he had been under the timelid several times before. Like everyone, he had seen the major events. Michelangelo doing the Sistine Chapel. Handel writing the Messiah (everyone strictly forbidden to hum any tunes). The premiere performance of Love’s Labour’s Lost. And a few offbeat things that his hobby of history had sent him to: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, a politician; the meeting between Lorenzo d’Medici and the King of Naples; Jeanne d’Arc’s death by fire—grisly.

  And now, at last, to experience in the past something he was utterly unable to live through in the present.


  And the truck careened around the corner, the lights sweeping the far embankment and then swerving in, brilliantly lighting Gemini for one instant before he leaped up and in, toward the glass (how horrified the face of the driver, how bright the lights, how harsh the metal) and then

  agony. Ah, agony in a tearing that made him feel, for the first time, every particle of his body as it screamed in pain. Bones shouting as they splintered like old wood under a sledgehammer. Flesh and fat slithering like jelly up and down and sideways. Blood skittering madly over the surface of the truck. Eyes popping open as the brain and skull crushed forward, demanding to be let through, let by, let fly. No no no no no, cried Gemini inside the last fragment of his mind. No no no no no, make it stop!

  And green and orange and more-than-purple dazzled the sides of his vision. A twist of his insides, a shudder of his mind, and he was back, snatched from death by the inexorable mathematics of the timelid. He felt his whole, unmarred body rushing back, felt every particle, yes, as clearly as when it had been hit by the truck, but now with pleasure—pleasure so complete that he didn’t even notice the mere orgasm his body added to the general symphony of joy.

  The timelid lifted. The box was slid back. And Gemini lay gasping, sweating, yet laughing and crying and longing to sing.

  What was it like? The others asked eagerly, crowding around. What is it like, what is it, is it like—

  “It’s like nothing. It’s.” Gemini had no words. “It’s like everything God promised the righteous and Satan promised the sinners rolled into one.” He tried to explain about the delicious agony, the joy passing all joys, the—

  “Is it better than fairy dust?” asked one man, young and shy, and Gemini realized that the reason he was so retiring was that he was undoubtedly dusting tonight.

  “After this,” Gemini said, “dusting is no better than going to the bathroom.”

  Everyone laughed, chattered, volunteered to be next (“Orion knows how to throw a party”), as Gemini left the chair and the timelid and found Orion a few meters away at the controls.

  “Did you like the ride?” Orion asked, smiling gently at his friend.

  Gemini shook his head. “Never again,” he said.

  Orion looked disturbed for a moment, worried. “That bad for you?”

  “Not bad. Strong. I’ll never forget it, I’ve never felt so—alive, Orion. Who would have thought it. Death being so—”

  “Bright,” Orion said, supplying the word. His hair hung loosely and clean over his forehead—he shook it out of his eyes. “The second time is better. You have more time to appreciate the dying.”

  Gemini shook his head. “Once is enough for me. Life will never be bland again.” He laughed. “Well, time for somebody else, yes?”

  Harmony had already lain down on the chair. She had removed her clothing, much to the titillation of the other party-goers, saying, “I want nothing between me and the cold metal.” Orion made her wait, though, while he corrected the setting. While he worked, Gemini thought of a question. “How many times have you done this, Orion?”

  “Often enough,” the man answered, studying the holographic model of the timeclip. And Gemini wondered then if death could not, perhaps, be as addictive as fairy dust, or cresting, or pitching in.

  Rod Bingley finally brought the truck to a halt, gasping back the shock and horror. The eyes were still resting there in the gore on the windshield. Only they seemed real. The rest was road-splashing, mud flipped by the weather and the tires.

  Rod flung open the door and ran around the front of the truck, hoping to do—what? There was no hope that the man was alive. But perhaps some identification. A nuthouse freak, turned loose in weird white clothes to wander the mountain roads? But there was no hospital near here.

  And there was no body on the front of his truck.

  He ran his hand across the shiny metal, the clean windshield. A few bugs on the grill.

  Had this dent in the metal been there before? Rod couldn’t remember. He looked all around the truck. Not a sign of anything. Had he imagined it?

  He must have. But it seemed so real. And he hadn’t drunk anything, hadn’t taken any uppers—no trucker in his right mind ever took stay-awakes. He shook his head. He felt creepy. Watched. He glanced back over his shoulder. Nothing but the trees bending slightly in the wind. Not even an animal. Some moths already gathering in the headlights. That’s all.

  Ashamed of himself for being afraid at nothing, he nevertheless jumped into the cab quickly and slammed the door shut behind him and locked it. The key turned in the starter. And he had to force himself to look up through that windshield. He half-expected to see those eyes again.

  The windshield was clear. And because he had a deadline to meet, he pressed on. The road curved away infinitely before him.

  He drove more quickly, determined to get back to civilization before he had another hallucination.

  And as he rounded a curve, his lights sweeping the trees on the far side of the road, he thought he glimpsed a flash of white to the right, in the middle of the road.

  The lights caught her just before the truck did, a beautiful girl, naked and voluptuous and eager. Madly eager, standing there, legs broadly apart, arms wide. She dipped, then jumped up as the truck caught her, even as Rod smashed his foot into the brake, swerved the truck to the side. Because he swerved she ended up, not centered, but caught on the left side, directly in front of Rod, one of her arms flapping crazily around the edge of the cab, the hand rapping on the glass of the side window. She, too, splashed.

  Rod whimpered as the truck again came to a halt. The hand had dropped loosely down to the woman’s side,
so it no longer blocked the door. Rod got out quickly, swung himself around the open door, and touched her.

  Body warm. Hand real. He touched the buttock nearest him. It gave softly, sweetly, but under it Rod could feel that the pelvis was shattered. And then the body slopped free of the front of the truck, slid to the oil-and-gravel surface of the road and disappeared.

  Rod took it calmly for a moment. She fell from the front of the truck, and then there was nothing there. Except a faint (and new, definitely new!) crack in the windshield, there was no sign of her.

  Rodney screamed.

  The sound echoed from the cliff on the other side of the chasm. The trees seemed to swell the sound, making it louder among the trunks. An owl hooted back.

  And finally, Rod got back into the truck and drove again, slowly, but erratically, wondering what, please God tell me what the hell’s the matter with my mind.

  Harmony rolled off the couch, panting and shuddering violently.

  “Is it better than sex?” one of the men asked her. One who had doubtless tried, but failed, to get into her bed.

  “It is sex,” she answered. “But it’s better than sex with you.”

  Everyone laughed. What a wonderful party. Who could top this? The would-be hosts and hostesses despaired, even as they clamored for a chance at the timelid.

  But the crambox opened then, buzzing with the police override. “We’re busted!” somebody shrieked gaily, and everyone laughed and clapped.

  The policeman was young, and she seemed unused to the forceshield, walking awkwardly as she stepped into the middle of the happy room.

  “Orion Overweed?” she asked, looking around.

  “I,” answered Orion, from where he sat at the controls, looking wary, Gemini beside him.

  “Officer Mercy Manwool, Los Angeles Timesquad.”

  “Oh no,” somebody muttered.

  “You have no jurisdiction here,” Orion said.

  “We have a reciprocal enforcement agreement with the Canadian Chronospot Corporation. And we have reason to believe you are interfering with timetracks in the eighth decade of the twentieth century.” She smiled curtly. “We have witnessed two suicides, and by making a careful check of your recent use of your private timelid, we have found several others. Apparently you have a new way to pass the time, Mr. Overweed.”

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