Book: Radiant Doors



Michael Swanwick

Radiant Doors


The doors began opening on a Tuesday in early March. Only a few at first–flickering and uncertain because they were operating at the extreme end of their temporal range–and those few from the earliest days of the exodus, releasing fugitives who were unstarved and healthy, the privileged scientists and technicians who had created or appropriated the devices that made their escape possible. We processed about a hundred a week, in comfortable isolation and relative secrecy. There were videocams taping everything, and our own best people madly scribbling notes and holding seminars and teleconferences where they debated the revelations.

Those were, in retrospect, the good old days.

In April the floodgates swung wide. Radiant doors opened everywhere, disgorging torrents of ragged and fearful refugees. There were millions of them and they had every one, to the least and smallest child, been horribly, horribly abused. The stories they told were enough to sicken anyone. I know.

We did what we could. We set up camps. We dug latrines. We ladled out soup. It was a terrible financial burden to the host governments, but what else could they do? The refugees were our descendants. In a very real sense, they were our children.

Throughout that spring and summer, the flow of refugees continued to grow. As the cumulative worldwide total ran up into the tens of millions, the authorities were beginning to panic–was this going to go on forever, a plague of human locusts that would double and triple and quadruple the population, overrunning the land and devouring all the food? What measures might we be forced to take if this kept up? The planet was within a lifetime of its loading capacity as it was. It couldn’t take much more. Then in August the doors simply ceased. Somebody up in the future had put an absolute and final end to them.

It didn’t bear thinking what became of those who hadn’t made it through.

"More tales from the burn ward," Shriver said, ducking through the door flap. That was what he called atrocity stories. He dumped the files on my desk and leaned forward so he could leer down my blouse. I scowled him back a step.

"Anything useful in them?"

"Not a scrap. But that’s not my determination, is it? You have to read each and every word in each and every report so that you can swear and attest that they contain nothing the Commission needs to know."

"Right." I ran a scanner over the universals for each of the files, and dumped the lot in the circular file. Touched a thumb to one of the new pads–better security devices were the very first benefit we’d gotten from all that influx of future tech–and said, "Done."

Then I linked my hands behind my neck and leaned back in the chair. The air smelled of canvas. Sometimes it seemed that the entire universe smelled of canvas. "So how are things with you?"

"About what you’d expect. I spent the morning interviewing vics."

"Better you than me. I’m applying for a transfer to Publications. Out of these tents, out of the camps, into a nice little editorship somewhere, writing press releases and articles for the Sunday magazines. Cushy job, my very own cubby, and the satisfaction of knowing I’m doing some good for a change."

"It won’t work," Shriver said. "All these stories simply blunt the capacity for feeling. There’s even a term for it. It’s called compassion fatigue. After a certain point you begin to blame the vic for making you hear about it."

I wriggled in the chair, as if trying to make myself more comfortable, and stuck out my breasts a little bit more. Shriver sucked in his breath. Quietly, though–I’m absolutely sure he thought I didn’t notice. I said, "Hadn’t you better get back to work?"

Shriver exhaled. "Yeah, yeah, I hear you." Looking unhappy, he ducked under the flap out into the corridor. A second later his head popped back in, grinning. "Oh, hey, Ginny–almost forgot. Huong is on sick roster. Gevorkian said to tell you you’re covering for her this afternoon, debriefing vics."

"Bastard!"

He chuckled, and was gone.

I sat interviewing a woman whose face was a mask etched with the aftermath of horror. She was absolutely cooperative. They all were. Terrifyingly so. They were grateful for anything and everything. Sometimes I wanted to strike the poor bastards in the face, just to see if I could get a human reaction out of them. But they’d probably kiss my hand for not doing anything worse.

"What do you know about midpoint-based engineering? Gnat relays? Sub-local mathematics?"

Down this week’s checklist I went, and with each item she shook her head. "Prigogine engines? SVAT trance status? Lepton soliloquies?" Nothing, nothing, nothing. "Phlenaria? The Toledo incident? ‘Third Martyr’ theory? Science Investigatory Group G?"

"They took my daughter," she said to this last. "They did things to her."

"I didn’t ask you that. If you know anything about their military organization, their machines, their drugs, their research techniques–fine. But I don’t want to hear about people."

"They did things." Her dead eyes bored into mine. "They–"

"Don’t tell me."

"–returned her to us midway through. They said they were understaffed. They sterilized our kitchen and gave us a list of more things to do to her. Terrible things. And a checklist like yours to write down her reactions."

"Please."

"We didn’t want to, but they left a device so we’d obey. Her father killed himself. He wanted to kill her too, but the device wouldn’t let him. After he died, they changed the settings so I couldn’t kill myself too. I tried."

"God damn." This was something new. I tapped my pen twice, activating its piezochronic function, so that it began recording fifteen seconds earlier. "Do you remember anything about this device? How large was it? What did the controls look like?" Knowing how unlikely it was that she’d give us anything usable. The average refugee knew no more about their technology than the average here-and-now citizen knows about television and computers. You turn them on and they do things. They break down and you buy a new one.

Still, my job was to probe for clues. Every little bit contributed to the big picture. Eventually they’d add up. That was the theory, anyway. "Did it have an internal or external power source? Did you ever see anybody servicing it?"

"I brought it with me," the woman said. She reached into her filthy clothing and removed a fist-sized chunk of quicksilver with small, multicolored highlights. "Here."

She dumped it in my lap.

It was automation that did it or, rather, hyperautomation. That old bugaboo of fifty years ago had finally come to fruition. People were no longer needed to mine, farm, or manufacture. Machines made better administrators, more attentive servants. Only a very small elite–the vics called them simply their Owners–were required to order and ordain. Which left a lot of people who were just taking up space.

There had to be something to do with them.

As it turned out, there was.

That’s my theory, anyway. Or, rather, one of them. I’ve got a million: Hyperautomation. Cumulative hardening of the collective conscience. Circular determinism. The implicitly aggressive nature of hierarchic structures. Compassion fatigue. The banality of evil.

Maybe people are just no damn good. That’s what Shriver would have said.

The next day I went zombie, pretty much. Going through the motions, connecting the dots. LaShana in Requisitions noticed it right away. "You ought to take the day off," she said, when I dropped by to see about getting a replacement PzC(15)/pencorder. "Get away from here, take a walk in the woods, maybe play a little golf."

"Golf," I said. It seemed the most alien thing in the universe, hitting a ball with a stick. I couldn’t see the point of it.

"Don’t say it like that. You love golf. You’ve told me so a hundred times."

"I guess I have." I swung my purse up on the desk, slid my hand inside, and gently stroked the device. It was cool to the touch and vibrated ever so faintly under my fingers. I withdrew my hand. "Not today, though."

LaShana noticed. "What’s that you have in there?"

"Nothing." I whipped the purse away from her. "Nothing at all." Then, a little too loud, a little too blustery, "So how about that pencorder?"

"It’s yours." She got out the device, activated it, and let me pick it up. Now only I could operate the thing. Wonderful how fast we were picking up the technology. "How’d you lose your old one, anyway?"

"I stepped on it. By accident." I could see that LaShana wasn’t buying it. "Damn it, it was an accident! It could have happened to anyone."

I fled from LaShana’s alarmed, concerned face.

Not twenty minutes later, Gevorkian came sleazing into my office. She smiled, and leaned lazily back against the file cabinet when I said hi. Arms folded. Eyes sad and cynical. That big plain face of hers, tolerant and worldly-wise. Wearing her skirt just a smidge tighter, a touch shorter than was strictly correct for an office environment.

"Virginia," she said.

"Linda."

We did the waiting thing. Eventually, because I’d been here so long I honestly didn’t give a shit, Gevorkian spoke first. "I hear you’ve been experiencing a little disgruntlement."

"Eh?"

"Mind if I check your purse?"

Without taking her eyes off me for an instant, she hoisted my purse, slid a hand inside, and stirred up the contents. She did it so slowly and dreamily that, I swear to God, I half expected her to smell her fingers afterward. Then, when she didn’t find the expected gun, she said, "You’re not planning on going postal on us, are you?"

I snorted.

"So what is it?"

"What is it?" I said in disbelief. I went to the window. Zip zip zip, down came a rectangle of cloth. Through the scrim of mosquito netting the camp revealed itself: canvas as far as the eye could see. There was nothing down there as fancy as our labyrinthine government office complex at the top of the hill–what we laughingly called the Tentagon–with its canvas air-conditioning ducts and modular laboratories and cafeterias. They were all army surplus, and what wasn’t army surplus was Boy Scout hand-me-downs. "Take a look. Take a goddamn fucking look. That’s the future out there, and it’s barreling down on you at the rate of sixty seconds per minute. You can see it and still ask me that question?"

She came and stood beside me. Off in the distance, a baby began to wail. The sound went on and on. "Virginia," she said quietly. "Ginny, I understand how you feel. Believe me, I do. Maybe the universe is deterministic. Maybe there’s no way we can change what’s coming. But that’s not proven yet. And until it is, we’ve got to soldier on."

"Why?"

"Because of them." She nodded her chin toward the slow-moving revenants of things to come. "They’re the living proof of everything we hate and fear. They are witness and testimony to the fact that absolute evil exists. So long as there’s the least chance, we’ve got to try to ward it off."

I looked at her for a long, silent moment. Then, in a voice as cold and calmly modulated as I could make it, I said, "Take your god-damned hand off my ass."

She did so.

I stared after her as, without another word, she left.

This went beyond self-destructive. All I could think was that Gevorkian wanted out but couldn’t bring herself to quit. Maybe she was bucking for a sexual harassment suit. But then again, there’s definitely an erotic quality to the death of hope. A sense of license. A nicely edgy feeling that since nothing means anything anymore, we might as well have our little flings. That they may well be all we’re going to get.

And all the time I was thinking this, in a drawer in my desk the device quietly sat. Humming to itself.

People keep having children. It seems such a terrible thing to do. I can’t understand it at all, and don’t talk to me about instinct. The first thing I did, after I realized the enormity of what lay ahead, was get my tubes tied. I never thought of myself as a breeder, but I’d wanted to have the option in case I ever changed my mind. Now I knew I would not.

It had been one hell of a day, so I decided I was entitled to quit work early. I was cutting through the camp toward the civ/noncom parking lot when I ran across Shriver. He was coming out of the vic latrines. Least romantic place on Earth. Canvas stretching forever and dispirited people shuffling in and out. And the smell! Imagine the accumulated stench of all the sick shit in the world, and you’ve just about got it right.

Shriver was carrying a bottle of Spanish champagne under his arm. The bottle had a red bow on it.

"What’s the occasion?" I asked.

He grinned like Kali and slid an arm through mine. "My divorce finally came through. Wanna help me celebrate?"

Under the circumstances, it was the single most stupid thing I could possibly do. "Sure," I said. "Why not?"

Later, in his tent, as he was taking off my clothes, I asked, "Just why did your wife divorce you, Shriver?"

"Mental cruelty," he said, smiling.

Then he laid me down across his cot and I let him hurt me. I needed it. I needed to be punished for being so happy and well fed and unbrutalized while all about me ...

"Harder, God damn you," I said, punching him, biting him, clawing up blood. "Make me pay."

Cause and effect. Is the universe deterministic or not? If everything inevitably follows what came before, tickety-tock, like gigantic, all-inclusive clockwork, then there is no hope. The refugees came from a future that cannot be turned away. If, on the other hand, time is quanticized and uncertain, unstable at every point, constantly prepared to collapse in any direction in response to totally random influences, then all that suffering that came pouring in on us over the course of six long and rainy months might be nothing more than a phantom. Just an artifact of a rejected future.

Our future might be downright pleasant.

We had a million scientists working in every possible discipline, trying to make it so. Biologists, chaoticists, physicists of every shape and description. Fabulously dedicated people. Driven. Motivated. All trying to hold out a hand before what must be and say "Stop!"

How they’d love to get their mitts on what I had stowed in my desk.

I hadn’t decided yet whether I was going to hand it over, though. I wasn’t at all sure what was the right thing to do. Or the smart thing, for that matter.

Gevorkian questioned me on Tuesday. Thursday, I came into my office to discover three UN soldiers with hand-held detectors, running a search.

I shifted my purse back on my shoulder to make me look more strack, and said, "What the hell is going on here?"

"Random check, ma’am." A dark-eyed Indian soldier young enough to be if not my son then my little brother politely touched fingers to forehead in a kind of salute. "For up-time contraband." A sewn tag over one pocket proclaimed his name to be PATHAK. "It is purely standard, I assure you."

I counted the stripes on his arm, compared them to my civilian GS-rating and determined that by the convoluted UN protocols under which we operated, I outranked him.

"Sergeant-Major Pathak. You and I both know that all foreign nationals operate on American soil under sufferance, and the strict understanding that you have no authority whatsoever over native civilians."

"Oh, but this was cleared with your Mr.–"

"I don’t give a good goddamn if you cleared it with the fucking Dalai Lama! This is my office–your authority ends at the door. You have no more right to be here than I have to finger-search your goddamn rectum. Do you follow me?"

He flushed angrily, but said nothing.

All the while, his fellows were running their detectors over the file cabinet, the storage closets, my desk. Little lights on each flashed red red red. Negative negative negative. The soldiers kept their eyes averted from me. Pretending they couldn’t hear a word.

I reamed their sergeant-major out but good. Then, when the office had been thoroughly scanned and the two noncoms were standing about uneasily, wondering how long they’d be kept here, I dismissed the lot. They were all three so grateful to get away from me that nobody asked to examine my purse. Which was, of course, where I had the device.

After they left, I thought about young Sergeant-Major Pathak. I wondered what he would have done if I’d put my hand on his crotch and made a crude suggestion. No, make that an order. He looked to be a real straight arrow. He’d squirm for sure. It was an alarmingly pleasant fantasy.

I thought it through several times in detail, all the while holding the gizmo in my lap and stroking it like a cat.

The next morning, there was an incident at Food Processing. One of the women started screaming when they tried to inject a microminiaturized identi-chip under the skin of her forehead. It was a new system they’d come up with that was supposed to save a per-unit of thirteen cents a week in tracking costs. You walked through a smart doorway, it registered your presence, you picked up your food, and a second doorway checked you off on the way out. There was nothing in it to get upset about.

But the woman began screaming and crying and–this happened right by the kitchens–snatched up a cooking knife and began stabbing herself, over and over. She managed to make nine whacking big holes in herself before the thing was wrestled away from her. The orderlies took her to Intensive, where the doctors said it would be a close thing either way.

After word of that got around, none of the refugees would allow themselves to be identi-chipped. Which really pissed off the UN peacekeepers assigned to the camp, because earlier a couple hundred vics had accepted the chips without so much as a murmur. The Indian troops thought the refugees were willfully trying to make their job more difficult. There were complaints of racism, and rumors of planned retaliation.

I spent the morning doing my bit to calm down things down–hopeless–and the afternoon writing up reports that everyone upstream wanted to receive ASAP and would probably file without reading. So I didn’t have time to think about the device at all.

But I did. Constantly.

It was getting to be a burden.

For health class, one year in high school, I was given a ten-pound sack of flour, which I had to name and then carry around for a month, as if it were a baby. Bippy couldn’t be left unattended; I had to carry it everywhere or else find somebody willing to baby-sit it. The exercise was supposed to teach us responsibility and scare us off of sex. The first thing I did when the month was over was to steal my father’s .45, put Bippy in the backyard, and empty the clip into it, shot after shot. Until all that was left of the little bastard was a cloud of white dust.

The machine from the future was like that. Just another bippy. I had it, and dared not get rid of it. It was obviously valuable. It was equally obviously dangerous. Did I really want the government to get hold of something that could compel people to act against their own wishes? Did I honestly trust them not to immediately turn themselves into everything that we were supposedly fighting to prevent?

I’d been asking myself the same questions for–what?–four days. I’d thought I’d have some answers by now.

I took the bippy out from my purse. It felt cool and smooth in my hand, like melting ice. No, warm. It felt both warm and cool. I ran my hand over and over it, for the comfort of the thing.

After a minute, I got up, zipped shut the flap to my office, and secured it with a twist tie. Then I went back to my desk, sat down, and unbuttoned my blouse. I rubbed the bippy all over my body: up my neck, and over my breasts and around and around on my belly. I kicked off my shoes and clumsily shucked off my pantyhose. Down along the outside of my calves it went, and up the insides of my thighs. Between my legs. It made me feel filthy. It made me feel a little less like killing myself.

How it happened was, I got lost. How I got lost was, I went into the camp after dark.

Nobody goes into the camp after dark, unless they have to. Not even the Indian troops. That’s when the refugees hold their entertainments. They had no compassion for each other, you see–that was our dirty little secret. I saw a toddler fall into a campfire once. There were vics all around, but if it hadn’t been for me, the child would have died. I snatched it from the flames before it got too badly hurt, but nobody else made a move to help it. They just stood there looking. And laughing.

"In Dachau, when they opened the gas chambers, they’d find a pyramid of human bodies by the door," Shriver told me once. "As the gas started to work, the Jews panicked and climbed over each other, in a futile attempt to escape. That was deliberate. It was designed into the system. The Nazis didn’t just want them dead–they wanted to be able to feel morally superior to their victims afterward."

So I shouldn’t have been there. But I was unlatching the door to my trailer when it suddenly came to me that my purse felt wrong. Light. And I realized that I’d left the bippy in the top drawer of my office desk. I hadn’t even locked it.

My stomach twisted at the thought of somebody else finding the thing. In a panic, I drove back to the camp. It was a twenty-minute drive from the trailer park and by the time I got there, I wasn’t thinking straight. The civ/noncom parking lot was a good quarter-way around the camp from the Tentagon. I thought it would be a simple thing to cut through. So, flashing my DOD/Future History Division ID at the guard as I went through the gate, I did.

Which was how I came to be lost.

There are neighborhoods in the camp. People have a natural tendency to sort themselves out by the nature of their suffering. The twitchers, who were victims of paralogical reprogramming, stay in one part of the camp, and the mods, those with functional normative modifications, stay in another. I found myself wandering through crowds of people who had been "healed" of limbs, ears, and even internal organs–there seemed no sensible pattern. Sometimes our doctors could effect a partial correction. But our primitive surgery was, of course, nothing like that available in their miraculous age.

I’d taken a wrong turn trying to evade an eyeless, noseless woman who kept grabbing at my blouse and demanding money, and gotten all turned around in the process when, without noticing me, Gevorkian went striding purposefully by.

Which was so unexpected that, after an instant’s shock, I up and followed her. It didn’t occur to me not to. There was something strange about the way she held herself, about her expression, her posture. Something unfamiliar.

She didn’t even walk like herself.

The vics had dismantled several tents to make a large open space surrounded by canvas. Propane lights, hung from tall poles, blazed in a ring about it. I saw Gevorkian slip between two canvas sheets and, after a moment’s hesitation, I followed her.

It was a rat fight.

The way a rat fight works, I learned that night, is that first you catch a whole bunch of Norwegian rats. Big mean mothers. Then you get them in a bad mood, probably by not feeding them, but there are any number of other methods that could be used. Anyway, they’re feeling feisty. You put a dozen of them in a big pit you’ve dug in the ground. Then you dump in your contestant. A big guy with a shaven head and his hands tied behind his back. His genitals are bound up in a little bit of cloth, but other than that he’s naked.

Then you let them fight it out. The rats leap and jump and bite and the big guy tries to trample them underfoot or crush them with his knees, his chest, his head–whatever he can bash them with.

The whole thing was lit up bright as day, and all the area around the pit was crammed with vics. Some shouted and urged on one side or the other. Others simply watched intently. The rats squealed. The human fighter bared his teeth in a hideous rictus and fought in silence.

It was the creepiest thing I’d seen in a long time.

Gevorkian watched it coolly, without any particular interest or aversion. After a while it was obvious to me that she was waiting for someone.

Finally that someone arrived. He was a lean man, tall, with keen, hatchet-like features. None of the vics noticed. Their eyes were directed inward, toward the pit. He nodded once to Gevorkian, then backed through the canvas again.

She followed him.

I followed her.

They went to a near-lightless area near the edge of the camp. There was nothing there but trash, the backs of tents, the razor-wire fence, and a gate padlocked for the night.

It was perfectly easy to trail them from a distance. The stranger held himself proudly, chin up, eyes bright. He walked with a sure stride. He was nothing at all like the vics.

It was obvious to me that he was an Owner.

Gevorkian too. When she was with him that inhuman arrogance glowed in her face as well. It was as if a mask had been removed. The fire that burned in his face was reflected in hers.

I crouched low to the ground, in the shadow of a tent, and listened as the stranger said, "Why hasn’t she turned it in?"

"She’s unstable," Gevorkian said. "They all are."

"We don’t dare prompt her. She has to turn it in herself."

"She will. Give her time."

"Time," the man repeated. They both laughed in a way that sounded to me distinctly unpleasant. Then, "She’d better. There’s a lot went into this operation. There’s a lot riding on it."

"She will."

I stood watching as they shook hands and parted ways. Gevorkian turned and disappeared back into the tent city. The stranger opened a radiant door and was gone.

Cause and effect. They’d done ... whatever it was they’d done to that woman’s daughter just so they could plant the bippy with me. They wanted me to turn it in. They wanted our government to have possession of a device that would guarantee obedience. They wanted to give us a good taste of what it was like to be them.

Suddenly I had no doubt at all what I should do. I started out at a determined stride, but inside of nine paces I was running. Vics scurried to get out of my way. If they didn’t move fast enough, I shoved them aside.

I had to get back to the bippy and destroy it.

Which was stupid, stupid, stupid. If I’d kept my head down and walked slowly, I would have been invisible. Invisible and safe. The way I did it, though, cursing and screaming, I made a lot of noise and caused a lot of fuss. Inevitably, I drew attention to myself.

Inevitably, Gevorkian stepped into my path.

I stumbled to a halt.

"Gevorkian," I said feebly. "Linda. I–"

All the lies I was about to utter died in my throat when I saw her face. Her expression. Those eyes. Gevorkian reached for me. I skipped back in utter panic, turned–and fled. Anybody else would have done the same.

It was a nightmare. The crowds slowed me. I stumbled. I had no idea where I was going. And all the time, this monster was right on my heels.

Nobody goes into the camp after dark, unless they have to. But that doesn’t mean that nobody goes in after dark. By sheer good luck, Gevorkian chased me into the one part of the camp that had something that outsiders could find nowhere else–the sex-for-hire district.

There was nothing subtle about the way the vics sold themselves. The trampled-grass street I found myself in was lined with stacks of cages like the ones they use in dog kennels. They were festooned with strings of Christmas lights, and each one contained a crouched boy. Naked, to best display those mods and deformities that some found attractive. Off-duty soldiers strolled up and down the cages, checking out the possibilities. I recognized one of them.

"Sergeant-Major Pathak!" I cried. He looked up, startled and guilty. "Help me! Kill her–please! Kill her now!"

Give him credit, the sergeant-major was a game little fellow. I can’t imagine what we looked like to him, one harridan chasing the other down the streets of Hell. But he took the situation in at a glance, unholstered his sidearm and stepped forward. "Please," he said. "You will both stand where you are. You will place your hands upon the top of your head. You will–"

Gevorkian flicked her fingers at the young soldier. He screamed, and clutched his freshly crushed shoulder. She turned away from him, dismissively. The other soldiers had fled at the first sign of trouble. All her attention was on me, trembling in her sight like a winded doe. "Sweet little vic," she purred. "If you won’t play the part we had planned for you, you’ll simply have to be silenced."

"No," I whispered.

She touched my wrist. I was helpless to stop her. "You and I are going to go to my office now. We’ll have fun there. Hours and hours of fun."

"Leave her be."

As sudden and inexplicable as an apparition of the Virgin, Shriver stepped out of the darkness. He looked small and grim.

Gevorkian laughed, and gestured.

But Shriver’s hand reached up to intercept hers, and where they met, there was an electric blue flash. Gevorkian stared down, stunned, at her hand. Bits of tangled metal fell away from it. She looked up at Shriver.

He struck her down.

She fell with a brief harsh cry, like that of a sea gull. Shriver kicked her, three times, hard: In the ribs. In the stomach. In the head. Then, when she looked like she might yet regain her feet, "It’s one of them! " he shouted. "Look at her! She’s a spy for the Owners! She’s from the future! Owner! Look! Owner!"

The refugees came tumbling out of the tents and climbing down out of their cages. They looked more alive than I’d ever seen them before. They were red-faced and screaming. Their eyes were wide with hysteria. For the first time in my life, I was genuinely afraid of them. They came running. They swarmed like insects.



They seized Gevorkian and began tearing her apart.

I saw her struggle up and halfway out of their grips, saw one arm rise up above the sea of clutching hands, like that of a woman drowning.

Shriver seized my elbow and steered me away before I could see any more. I saw enough, though.

I saw too much.

"Where are we going?" I asked when I’d recovered my wits.

"Where do you think we’re going?"

He led me to my office.

There was a stranger waiting there. He took out a hand-held detector like Sergeant-Major Pathak and his men had used earlier and touched it to himself, to Shriver, and to me. Three times it flashed red, negative. "You travel through time, you pick up a residual charge," Shriver explained. "It never goes away. We’ve known about Gevorkian for a long time."

"US Special Security," the stranger said, and flipped open his ID. It meant diddle-all to me. There was a badge. It could have read Captain Crunch for all I knew or cared. But I didn’t doubt for an instant that he was SS. He had that look. To Shriver he said, "The neutralizer."

Shriver unstrapped something glittery from his wrist–the device he’d used to undo Gevorkian’s weapon–and, in a silent bit of comic bureaucratic punctilio, exchanged it for a written receipt. The security officer touched the thing with his detector. It flashed green. He put both devices away in interior pockets.

All the time, Shriver stood in the background, watching. He wasn’t told to go away.

Finally, Captain Crunch turned his attention to me again. "Where’s the snark?"

"Snark?"

The man removed a thin scrap of cloth from an inside jacket pocket and shook it out. With elaborate care, he pulled it over his left hand. An inertial glove. Seeing by my expression that I recognized it, he said, "Don’t make me use this."

I swallowed. For an instant I thought crazily of defying him, of simply refusing to tell him where the bippy was. But I’d seen an inertial glove in action before, when a lone guard had broken up a camp riot. He’d been a little man. I’d seen him crush heads like watermelons.

Anyway, the bippy was in my desk. They’d be sure to look there.

I opened the drawer, produced the device. Handed it over. "It’s a plant," I said. "They want us to have this."

Captain Crunch gave me a look that told me clear as words exactly how stupid he thought I was. "We understand more than you think we do. There are circles and circles. We have informants up in the future, and some of them are more highly placed than you’d think. Not everything that’s known is made public."

"Damn it, this sucker is evil."

A snake’s eyes would look warmer than his. "Understand this: We’re fighting for our survival here. Extinction is null-value. You can have all the moral crises you want when the war is won."

"It should be suppressed. The technology. If it’s used, it’ll just help bring about ..."

He wasn’t listening.

I’d worked for the government long enough to know when I was wasting my breath. So I shut up.

When the captain left with the bippy, Shriver still remained, looking ironically after him. "People get the kind of future they deserve," he observed.

"But that’s what I’m saying. Gevorkian came back from the future in order to help bring it about. That means that time isn’t deterministic." Maybe I was getting a little weepy. I’d had a rough day. "The other guy said there was a lot riding on this operation. They didn’t know how it was going to turn out. They didn’t know."

Shriver grunted, not at all interested.

I plowed ahead unheeding. "If it’s not deterministic–if they’re working so hard to bring it about–then all our effort isn’t futile at all. This future can be prevented."

Shriver looked up at last. There was a strangely triumphant gleam in his eye. He flashed that roguish ain’t-this-fun grin of his, and said, "I don’t know about you, but some of us are working like hell to achieve it."

With a jaunty wink, he was gone.




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