Maps in a mirror, p.8

Maps in a Mirror, page 8

 

Maps in a Mirror
 



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  Orion shrugged. “It’s merely a passing fancy. But I am not interfering with time-tracks.”

  She walked over to the controls and reached unerringly for the coldswitch. Orion immediately snagged her wrist with his hand. Gemini was surprised to see how the muscles of his forearm bulged with strength. Had he been playing some kind of sport? It would be just like Orion, of course, behaving like one of the lower orders—

  “A warrant,” Orion said.

  She withdrew her arm. “I have an official complaint from the Timesquad’s observation team. That is sufficient. I must interrupt your activity.”

  “According to law,” Orion said, “you must show cause. Nothing we have done tonight will in any way change history.”

  “That truck is not robot-driven,” she said, her voice growing strident. “There’s a man in there. You are changing his life.”

  Orion only laughed. “Your observers haven’t done their homework. I have. Look.”

  He turned to the control and played a speeded-up sequence, focused always on the shadow image of a truck speeding down a mountain road. The truck made turn after turn, and since the hologram was centered perpetually on the truck, it made the surrounding scenery dance past in a jerky rush, swinging left and right, up and down as the truck banked for turns or struck bumps.

  And then, near the bottom of the chasm, between mountains, the truck got on a long, slow curve that led across the river on a slender bridge.

  But the bridge wasn’t there.

  And the truck, unable to stop, skidded and swerved off the end of the truncated road, hung in the air over the chasm, then toppled, tumbled, banging against first this side, then that side of the ravine. It wedged between two outcroppings of rock more than ten meters above the water. The cab of the truck was crushed completely.

  “He dies,” Orion said. “Which means that anything we do with him before his death and after his last possible contact with another human being is legal. According to the code.”

  The policeman turned red with anger.

  “I saw your little games with airplanes and sinking ships. But this is cruelty, Mr. Overweed.”

  “Cruelty to a dead man is, by definition, not cruelty. I don’t change history. And Mr. Rodney Bingley is dead, has been for more than four centuries. I am doing no harm to any living man. And you owe me an apology.”

  Officer Mercy Manwool shook her head. “I think you’re as bad as the Romans, who threw people into circuses to be torn by lions—”

  “I know about the Romans,” Orion said coldly, “and I know whom they threw. In this case, however, I am throwing my friends. And retrieving them very safely through the full retrieval and reassembly feature of the Hamburger Safety Device built inextricably into every timelid. And you owe me an apology.”

  She drew herself erect. “The Los Angeles Timesquad officially apologizes for making improper allegations about the activities of Orion Overweed.”

  Orion grinned. “Not exactly heartfelt, but I accept it. And while you’re here, may I offer you a drink?”

  “Nonalcoholic,” she said instantly, and, then looked away from him at Gemini, who was watching her with sad but intent eyes. Orion went for glasses and to try to find something nonalcoholic in the house.

  “You performed superbly,” Gemini said.

  “And you, Gemini,” she said softly (voicelessly), “were the first subject to travel.”

  Gemini shrugged. “Nobody said anything about my not taking part.”

  She turned her back on him. Orion came back with the drink. He laughed. “Coca-Cola,” he said. “I had to import it all the way from Brazil. They still drink it there, you know. Original recipe.” She took it and drank.

  Orion sat back at the controls.

  “Next!” he shouted, and a man and woman jumped on the couch together, laughing as the others slid the box over their heads.

  Rod had lost count. At first he had tried to count the curves. Then the white lines in the road, until a new asphalt surface covered them. Then stars. But the only number that stuck in his head was nine.

  9

  NINE

  Oh God, he prayed silently, what is happening to me, what is happening to me, change this night, let me wake up, whatever is happening to me make it stop.

  A gray-haired man was standing beside the road, urinating. Rod slowed to a crawl. Slowed until he was barely moving. Crept past the man so slowly that if he had even twitched Rod could have stopped the truck. But the gray-haired man only finished, dropped his robe, and waved gaily to Rod. At that moment Rod heaved a sigh of relief and sped up.

  Dropped his robe. The man was wearing a robe. Except for this gory night men did not wear robes. And at that moment he caught through his side mirror the white flash of the man throwing himself under the rear tires. Rod slammed on the brake and leaned his head against the steering wheel and wept loud, wracking sobs that shook the whole cab, that set the truck rocking slightly on its heavy-duty springs.

  For in every death Rod saw the face of his wife after the traffic accident (not my fault!) that had killed her instantly and yet left Rod to walk away from the wreck without a scratch on him.

  I was not supposed to live, he thought at the time, and thought now. I was not supposed to live, and now God is telling me that I am a murderer with my wheels and my motor and my steering wheel.

  And he looked up from the wheel.

  Orion was still laughing at Hector’s account of how he fooled the truck driver into speeding up.

  “He thought I was conking into the bushes at the side of the road!” he howled again, and Orion burst into a fresh peal of laughter at his friend.

  “And then a backflip into the road, under his tires! How I wish I could see it!” Orion shouted. The other guests were laughing, too. Except Gemini and Officer Man-wool.

  “You can see it, of course,” Manwool said softly.

  Her words penetrated through the noise, and Orion shook his head. “Only on the holo. And that’s not very good, not a good image at all.”

  “It’ll do,” she said.

  And Gemini, behind Orion, murmured, “Why not, Orry?”

  The sound of the old term of endearment was startling to Orion, but oddly comforting. Did Gemini, then, treasure those memories as Orion did? Orion turned slowly, looked into Gemini’s sad, deep eyes. “Would you like to see it on the holo?” he asked.

  Gemini only smiled. Or rather, twitched his lips into that momentary piece of a smile that Orion knew from so many years before (only forty years, but forty years was back into my childhood, when I was only thirty and Gemini was—what?—fifteen. Helot to my Spartan; Slav to my Hun) and Orion smiled back. His fingers danced over the controls.

  Many of the guests gathered around, although others, bored with the coming and going in the timelid, however extravagant it might be as a party entertainment (“Enough energy to light all of Mexico for an hour,” said the one with the giddy laugh who had already promised her body to four men and a woman and was now giving it to another who would not wait), occupied themselves with something decadent and delightful and distracting in the darker corners of the room.

  The holo flashed on. The truck crept slowly down the road, its holographic image flickering.

  “Why does it do that?” someone asked, and Orion answered mechanically, “There aren’t as many chronons as there are photons, and they have a lot more area to cover.”

  And then the image of a man flickering by the side of the road. Everyone laughed as they realized it was Hector, conking away with all his heart. Then another laugh as he dropped his robe and waved. The truck sped up, and then a backflip by the manfigure, under the wheels. The body flopped under the doubled back tires, then lay limp and shattered in the road as the truck came to a stop only a few meters ahead. A few moments later, the body disappeared.

  “Brilliantly done, Hector!” Orion shouted again. “Better than you told it!” Everyone applauded in agreement, and Orion reached over to flip of
f the holo. But Officer Manwool stopped him.

  “Don’t turn it off, Mr. Overweed,” she said. “Freeze it, and move the image.”

  Orion looked at her for a moment, then shrugged and did as she said. He expanded the view, so that the truck shrank. And then he suddenly stiffened, as did the guests close enough and interested enough to notice. Not more than ten meters in front of the truck was the ravine, where the broken bridge waited.

  “He can see it,” somebody gasped. And Officer Manwool slipped a lovecord around Orion’s wrist, pulled it taut, and fastened the loose end to her workbelt.

  “Orion Overweed, you’re under arrest. That man can see the ravine. He will not die. He was brought to a stop in plenty of time to notice the certain death ahead of him. He will live—with a knowledge of whatever he saw tonight. And already you have altered the future, the present, and all the past from his time until the present.”

  And for the first time in all his life, Orion realized that he had reason to be afraid.

  “But that’s a capital offense,” he said lamely.

  “I only wish it included torture,” Officer Manwool said heatedly, “the kind of torture you put that poor truck driver through!”

  And then she started to pull Orion out of the room.

  Rod Bingley lifted his eyes from the steering wheel and stared uncomprehendingly at the road ahead. The truck’s light illuminated the road clearly for many meters. And for five seconds or thirty minutes or some other length of time that was both brief and infinite he did not understand what it meant.

  He got out of the cab and walked to the edge of the ravine, looking down. For a few minutes he felt relieved.

  Then he walked back to the truck and counted the wounds in the cab. The dents on the grill and the smooth metal. Three cracks in the windshield.

  He walked back to where the man had been urinating. Sure enough, though there was no urine, there was an indentation in the ground where the hot liquid had struck, speckles in the dirt where it had splashed.

  And in the fresh asphalt, laid, surely, that morning (but then why no warning signs on the bridge? Perhaps the wind tonight blew them over), his tire tracks showed clearly. Except for a manwidth stretch where the left rear tires had left no print at all.

  And Rodney remembered the dead, smashed faces, especially the bright and livid eyes among the blood and broken bone. They all looked like Rachel to him. Rachel who had wanted him to—to what? Couldn’t even remember the dreams anymore?

  He got back into the cab and gripped the steering wheel. His head spun and ached, but he felt himself on the verge of a marvelous conclusion, a simple answer to all of this. There was evidence, yes, even though the bodies were gone, there was evidence that he had hit those people. He had not imagined it.

  They must, then, be (he stumbled over the word, even in his mind, laughed at himself as he concluded:) angels. Jesus sent them, he knew it, as his mother had taught him, destroying angels teaching him the death that he had brought to his wife while daring, himself, to walk away scatheless.

  It was time to even up the debt.

  He started the engine and drove, slowly, deliberately toward the end of the road. And as the front tires bumped off and a sickening moment passed when he feared that the truck would be too heavy for the driving wheels to push along the ground, he clasped his hands in front of his face and prayed, aloud: “Forward!”

  And then the truck slid forward, tipped downward, hung in the air, and fell. His body pressed into the back of the truck. His clasped hands struck his face. He meant to say, “Into thy hands I commend my spirit,” but instead he screamed, “No no no no no,” in an infinite negation of death that, after all, didn’t do a bit of good once he was committed into the gentle, unyielding hands of the ravine. They clasped and enfolded him, pressed him tightly, closed his eyes and pillowed his head between the gas tank and the granite.

  “Wait,” Gemini said.

  “Why the hell should we?” Officer Manwool said, stopping at the door with Orion following docilely on the end of the lovecord. Orion, too, stopped, and looked at the policeman with the adoring expression all lovecord captives wore.

  “Give the man a break,” Gemini said.

  “He doesn’t deserve one,” she said. “And neither do you.”

  “I say give the man a break. At least wait for the proof.”

  She snorted. “What more proof does he need, Gemini? A signed statement from Rodney Bingley that Orion Overweed is a bloody hitler?”

  Gemini smiled and spread his hands. “We didn’t actually see what Rodney did next, did we? Maybe he was struck by lightning two hours later, before he saw anybody—I mean, you’re required to show that damage did happen. And I don’t feel any change to the present—”

  “You know that changes aren’t felt. They aren’t even known, since we wouldn’t remember anything other than how things actually happened!”

  “At least,” Gemini said, “watch what happens and see whom Rodney tells.”

  So she led Orion back to the controls, and at her instructions Orion lovingly started the holo moving again.

  And they all watched as Rodney Bingley walked to the edge of the ravine, then walked back to the truck, drove it to the edge and over into the chasm, and died on the rocks.

  As it happened, Hector hooted in joy. “He died after all! Orion didn’t change a damned thing, not one damned thing!”

  Manwool turned on him in disgust. “You make me sick,” she said.

  “The man’s dead,” Hector said in glee. “So get that stupid string off Orion or I’ll sue for a writ of—”

  “Go pucker in a corner,” she said, and several of the women pretended to be shocked. Manwool loosened the lovecord and slid it off Orion’s wrist. Immediately he turned on her, snarling. “Get out of here! Get out! Get out!”

  He followed her to the door of the crambox. Gemini was not the only one who wondered if he would hit her. But Orion kept his control, and she left unharmed.

  Orion stumbled back from the crambox rubbing his arms as if with soap, as if trying to scrape them clean from contact with the lovecord. “That thing ought to be outlawed. I actually loved her. I actually loved that stinking, bloody, son-of-a-bitching cop!” And he shuddered so violently that several of the guests laughed and the spell was broken.

  Orion managed a smile and the guests went back to amusing themselves. With the sensitivity that even the insensitive and jaded sometimes exhibit, they left him alone with Gemini at the controls of the timelid.

  Gemini reached out and brushed a strand of hair out of Orion’s eyes. “Get a comb someday,” he said. Orion smiled and gently stroked Gemini’s hand. Gemini slowly removed his hand from Orion’s reach. “Sorry, Orry,” Gemini said, “but not anymore.”

  Orion pretended to shrug. “I know,” he said. “Not even for old times’ sake.” He laughed softly. “That stupid string made me love her. They shouldn’t even do that to criminals.”

  He played with the controls of the holo, which was still on. The image zoomed in; the cab of the truck grew larger and larger. The chronons were too scattered and the image began to blur and fade. Orion stopped it.

  By ducking slightly and looking through a window into the cab, Orion and Gemini could see the exact place where the outcropping of rock crushed Rod Bingley’s head against the gas tank. Details, of course, were indecipherable.

  “I wonder,” Orion finally said, “if it’s any different.”

  “What’s any different?” Gemini asked.

  “Death. If it’s any different when you don’t wake up right afterward.”

  A silence.

  Then the sound of Gemini’s soft laughter.

  “What’s funny?” Orion asked.

  “You,” the younger man answered. “Only one thing left that you haven’t tried, isn’t there?”

  “How could I do it?” Orion asked, half-seriously (only half?). “They’d only clone me back.”

  “Simple enough,” Gemini
said. “All you need is a friend who’s willing to turn off the machine while you’re on the far end. Nothing is left. And you can take care of the actual suicide yourself.”

  “Suicide,” Orion said with a smile. “Trust you to use the policeman’s term.”

  And that night, as the other guests slept off the alcohol in beds or other convenient places, Orion lay on the chair and pulled the box over his head. And with Gemini’s last kiss on his cheek and Gemini’s left hand on the controls, Orion said, “All right. Pull me over.”

  After a few minutes Gemini was alone in the room. He did not even pause to reflect before he went to the breaker box and shut off all the power for a critical few seconds. Then he returned, sat alone in the room with the disconnected machine and the empty chair. The crambox soon buzzed with the police override, and Mercy Manwool stepped out. She went straight to Gemini, embraced him. He kissed her, hard.

  “Done?” she asked.

  He nodded.

  “The bastard didn’t deserve to live,” she said.

  Gemini shook his head. “You didn’t get your justice, my dear Mercy.”

  “Isn’t he dead?”

  “Oh yes, that. Well, it’s what he wanted, you know. I told him what I planned. And he asked me to do it.”

  She looked at him angrily. “You would. And then tell me about it, so I wouldn’t get any joy out of this at all.” Gemini only shrugged.

  Manwool turned away from him, walked to the timelid. She ran her fingers along the box. Then she detached her laser from her belt and slowly melted the timelid until it was a mass of hot plastic on a metal stand. The few metal components had even melted a little, bending to be just a little out of shape.

  “Screw the past anyway,” she said. “Why can’t it stay where it belongs?”

  FREEWAY GAMES

  Except for Donner Pass, everything on the road between San Francisco and Salt Lake City was boring. Stanley had driven the road a dozen deadly times until he was sure he knew Nevada by heart: an endless road winding among hills covered with sagebrush. “When God got through making scenery,” Stanley often said, “there was a lot of land left over in Nevada, and God said, ‘Aw, to hell with it,’ and that’s where Nevada’s been ever since.”

 

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