1. Encounter in Rio
The whole thing never happened and I can prove it—now. But Ira De Kalb made me wait a billion years to write the story.
So we start with a paradox. But the strangest thing of all is that there are no real paradoxes involved, not one. This is a record of logic. Not human logic, of course, not the logic of this time or this space.
I don’t know if men will ever journey again, as we journeyed, to that intersection of latitude and longitude where a shell hangs forever—forever and yet not forever, in space and out of space—on the axis stretching through time from beginning to end.
From the dawn of the nebulae to the twilight of absolute entropy, when the framework of the cosmos has broken down into chaos, still that axis will stretch from dawn to dusk, from beginning to end. For as this world spins on an axis through space, so the sphere of time spins on its own axis.
I never understood the ultimate answer. That was beyond me. It took the combined skills of three great civilizations far apart in time to frame that godlike concept in which the tangible universe itself was only a single factor.
And even then it was not enough. It took the Face of Ea—which I shall never be able to describe fully.
I saw it, though. I saw it, luminous in the reddish dusk, speaking to me silently above the winds that scour perpetually across the dead, empty lands of a day yet to come. I think it will stand there forever in an empty land on a dead planet, watching the endless night draw slowly on through days as long as years. The stars will stand and the Earth-nekropoh’s will stand and the Face will stand there forever. I was there. I saw it.
Was there? Will be?Maybe? I can’t tell now. But of all stories in the world, this more than any needs a pattern.
Since the beginning is in the past, before men as such existed at all, the only starting place I know is a temporal and personal one, when I was drawn into the experiment. Now that I know a little more about the nature of time it seems clearer to me that past, present and future were all stepping stones, arranged out of sequence. The first step took place two months ago.
That was here in this time and space. Or in the time and space that existed two months ago. There’s been a change.
Now this is the way it used to be.
For me, the Big Ride. You start when you’re born. You climb on the toboggan and then you’re off. But you can only have the one ride. No use telling the ticket-taker you want to go again. They shovel you under at the end of the slope and there’s a new lot of passengers waiting. You’ve had your three-score and ten. And it’s over.
I’d ridden the toboggan for thirty-five years. Jeremy Cortland, Jerry Cortland of the Denver Post, the Frisco Call-Bulletin, PM, AP, Time, Collzers–sometimes staff, sometimes roving assignments. I leaned out of the toboggan and plucked fruit from the orchards as I sped by. Strange fruit, sometimes. Generic term is News. And that covers a lot of territory.
There was a splinter in the toboggan’s seat. I had on red flannel underwear. I had a nervous tic. I couldn’t sit still. I kept reaching out, grabbing. Years of it, of by-lines that said “cabled by Jeremy Cortland.”
Russia, China, war coverage, Piccard’s bathyscaphe, the supersonic and altostratosphere planes, the Russian earth-borer gadget, the Big Eye at Palomar—the coal strikes and the cracker lynchings and that dirt farmer in North Dakota who suddenly began to work miracles. (His patients didn’t stay cured, you remember, and he disappeared.)
The Big Ride. In between I grabbed at other things. One marriage, one divorce, and more and more bulges. Long bouts, between assignments. I didn’t give a—well, you can’t use that word in some papers. But it was all right. What did I expect, heaven?
The eyes aren’t quite as clear as they used to be. The skin under them is a little puffy. One chin begins to be not quite enough. But it’s still the Big Ride. With a splinter in the seat.
Dodging alimony payments, I skipped to Brazil, got in on a submarine exploration of the Amazon, wrote it up, sold it to AP as a feature. The first installment appeared on the same day as another little item—buried in the back—that said 85 and 87 had been made artificially.
Astatine and francium—the missing link in the periodic table—two billion years ago you could have picked up all the astatine and francium you wanted, just by reaching down and grabbing. If you’d been around at the time. Since then 85 and 87 have decayed into other elements. But Seaborg and Ghiorso at UC made them synthetically, with the big cyclotron and atomic oven transmutation, and the column on one side of that trivial item said SECOND BURN-DEATH VICTIM FOUND, and on the other there was a crossword puzzle.
I didn’t care, either.
Those deaths, by an indefinable sort of burning, were just starting to confound the United States authorities at the time. They hadn’t yet spread to South America.
There was another item in that same ParAr that concerned me though I didn’t know it at the time seemed that Ira De Kalb was working with Military Intelligence on some sort of highly secret project—so secret you could read all about it as far south as Rio if you had the price of the paper.
I had my own current problem. And it was a very odd one.
The thing started six weeks before it began. You’ll have to get used to paradox—which isn’t paradox once you grasp the idea.
It started in an alley in Rio, a little cobbled tunnel opening off the Rua d’Ouvidor, and what I was doing there at three o’clock of a summer morning in January I’ll never be able to tell you. I’d been drinking. Also I’d been playing chemin de fer and there was a thick pad of banknotes in the inside pocket of my white jacket, another stuffed into the dark wine-colored cummerbund I was wearing.
Looking down, I could see the toes of my shoes twinkling in the moonlight as I walked. The sky twinkled too, and the lights up in the hills and out on the bay. The world was a shiny place, revolving gently around me.
I was rich. But this time it was going to last. This time I’d cut out the binges and take a little house up in Petropolis, where it’s cool, and I’d really get down to work on the analysis of news-coverage I’d been planning for so long. I’d made up my mind. I was drunk but I’d be sober again and the resolution would stay behind when the liquor died.
I don’t often get these fits of decision but when they come they’re valid enough and I knew this one was serious. That was a turning point in the career of Jerry Cortland, there in the moonlight on the checkered pavement.
What happened at the mouth of that alley I’ll never really know. Fortunately for me I couldn’t see or realize it clearly, being drunk.
It sprang from the deep shadow and put out two arms at me. That much I’m sure of. Two arms that never touched me. They never meant to. They shot past my ears, and I heard a thin hissing noise and something seemed to turn over in my mind, leisurely, like a deep-buried thought stirring to life. I could all but feel it move.
I touched it.
I wish I hadn’t. But I was thinking of my money. My hand closed on the thing—on a part of it—no one will ever know on just what. I will only tell you it was smooth with a smoothness that burned my hand. Friction burned it, I think now. The sheer velocity of the thing, though it was not then moving perceptibly, took a neat thin layer of cuticle off my palm wherever it touched. I think it slid out of my grip on a thin lubrication of my own skin.
You know how it is when you touch something white-hot? For an instant it may feel cold. I didn’t know I was burned. I closed my hand hard on the—on whatever it was I had hold of. And the very pressure of the grip seemed to push it away, out of my hand, very smooth and fast. All I know is that a moment later I stood there, shaking my band because it stung and watching something dark in the moonlight vanish down the street with a motion that frightened me.
I was too dazed to shout. By the time my wits came back it had disappeared and the feeling of unreality it left behind made me doubt whether I had ever seen or felt it at all.
About ten minutes later I found my money was gone. So it wasn’t a turning point in my life, after all. If things had worked out any differently I never would have met Ira De Kalb. I never would have got myself mixed up in that series of deaths which so far as I was concerned were only signposts pointing the way to De Kalb. Maybe it was a turning point, at that.
The mind as well as the senses can be awfully slow sometimes. The hand doesn’t know it has been burned, the mind can’t recognize the impossible when it confronts it. There are many little refuges for a mind that must not admit to itself the impossible has happened.
I went back to my hotel that night and got into bed. I had met a thief, I told myself drowsily, as I’d deserved—walking a city street that late at night, loaded down with cash. I had it coming. He’d got my money and that was that. (He—it—hadn’t touched the money, or me, except in that one brief unbalanced instant. The thing was impossible. But since it had happened, then it was possible and the mind could dismiss it.) I went to sleep.
And woke at dawn to the most extraordinary experience I’d ever had in my life, up to then. Even that encounter on the Rua d’Ouvidor hadn’t been like this.
The experience was pure sensation. And the sensation was somewhere inside me, vaguely in the solar plexus region—a soundless explosion of pure energy like a dazzling sun coming into sudden, radiant being. There aren’t any accurate words to tell about it.
But I was aware of ring after ring of glowing vitality bursting outward from that nova in the deepest nerve-center of my body. For a timeless instant I lay there, bathed in it, feeling it pour like a new kind of blood through my veins. In that instant I knew what it was.
Then somebody turned off the power at its source.
I sat up abruptly, empty of the radiance, empty as if it had never happened, but filled terribly with the knowledge of what had caused it.
My head ached from the sudden motion. Dawn made the sky light outside and brimmed the room with a clear gray luminous pallor. I sat there holding my head in both hands and knowing—knowing—that somewhere in the city an instant ago a man had been killed.
There was no shadow of doubt in my mind. I was as sure as if I had had that strange sensation a hundred times before and each time seen a man die as it burst into a nova-glow inside me.
I wanted to go back to sleep and pretend it had been a dream. But I knew I couldn’t. I dragged myself out of bed and into my clothes. I took my aching head and jangled nerves down into the street and found a yawning taxi-driver.
You see, I even knew where the dead man would be found. It was unthinkable that I should go there looking for him—but I went. And I found him. He was lying huddled against the rim of a fountain in a little square not far from the place where I’d last seen my—my thief—of the night before vanishing with that disquieting, smooth swiftness in the moonlight.
The dead man was an Indian, probably a beggar. I stood there in the deserted square, looking down at him, hearing the early morning traffic moving noisily past, knowing someone would find us here together at any moment. I had never seen a victim of the burn-death before but I knew I looked at one now. It wasn’t a real burn, properly speaking. Friction, I though, had done it. The eroded skin made me think of something, and I looked at my own palm.
I was standing there, staring from my burned hand to the dead man and then back again, when—it happened again.
The bursting nova of pure radiance flared into, violence somewhere near the pit of my stomach. Vitality poured through my veins ...
I sold the series to AP as usual. There had been five of the murders in Rio before I got my idea about putting an end to them and by then the stories had begun to hit the States papers, some of them running my picture along with the sensational stuff about the deaths, and my uncanny ability at locating the bodies.
Looking back now, I suppose the only reason they didn’t arrest me for murder was that they couldn’t figure out how I’d done it. Luckily my hand had healed before the police and the papers began to connect me so tightly with the deaths.
After the fifth murder I got a reservation for New York. I had come to the conclusion that if I left Rio the murders would stop—in Rio. I thought they might begin again in New York. I had to find out, you see. By then I was in pretty bad shape, for the best of reasons—or the worst. Anyhow, I went back.