15. Crumbling Flesh
The four silent figures lay deep in their age-old slumber in the chamber under the mountain. I saw them there again. I could feel the weight of the helmet on my head and I was this time fully aware of the Swan Garden around me and the sound of Paynter’s breathing at my side. But I was seeing the projection of a three-dimensional film. I was looking into the chamber as a camera’s eye had looked.
“This is the official record we made when we opened the cave,” Paynter said invisibly at my elbow. “Now watch carefully what happens. No one knows this but you and myself and the few technicians who were on the spot. We’ve kept it quiet. It’s so—so—well, watch and you’ll see.”
Nothing moved in the cave. Nothing had moved, I suppose, for a thousand years or more, not since all motion ceased when we sank into our long slumber. But now lights began to flash from beyond the gray egg of nothingness that walled us in. Paynter’s technicians were at work, trying to break that shell, trying to hatch out—what? Something terrifying. I knew that by the tone of Paynter’s voice.
The lights flashed and faded, glowed again, paled. Now the camera drew back and I could see Paynter himself, standing beside a group of workers and a battery of machines. All were intent upon the egg of time that held the sleepers.
It was curious to hear Paynter speak then—the Paynter of the cavern, speaking in the film, not the Paynter who sat beside me. Duplication piled upon duplication.
“What are the chances?” I heard him ask. “Are they going to wake?”
Murmurs answered him. After awhile, during which his eyes were very thoughtful upon the sleepers and upon the woman among the sleepers in particular, I heard him say in a musing voice, “We should have one of the entertainers here. If this is actually a time involvement, as you say, then these people will have been asleep a long while and they’ll feel bewildered when they wake.
“We need someone like—yes, Topaz—to speed their adjustment.” (I knew why he had thought of Topaz. I knew he had seen, without realizing it, the face of Topaz implicit in Dr. Essen’s sleeping face.)
“Send for Topaz,” he said firmly, his voice echoing in the cavern as ours had echoed once, a thousand years or many thousand of years before.
(Now perhaps this is as good a place as any for a word about the language he was speaking. It was certainly English but not as familiar a language as I write down. Any living tongue rapidly accumulates new words and phrases, drops old ones, assigns new meanings to words already in use, so that the colloquialisms of one generation are gibberish to the generation before it.
(The English we were speaking was changed, not a living language. Matter-transmission had spread civilization over a vast area and some common tongue was a necessity, but it couldn’t be a tongue that changed or it would soon cease to be a common language. So it wasn’t easy to follow what these people said around me—but it wasn’t impossible either.) The camera ground on for about thirty seconds more and then blurred briefly. Beside me Paynter spoke in a quick, impatient voice.
“Skip all that. It’s just more experiments. This was the period when they completed the analysis of the clothing and established the period from which it came as mid-Twentieth Century. It was about six hours after that before they breached the shell of force. I was notified and I sent for Topaz and came in myself for the finish. Now watch.”
The cavern took shape again before me. Clear in the bath of what was probably ultra-violet, because it brought the images out so clearly, the four sleepers lay. But this time there was a hum of activity around them. Men passed before the camera, obscuring it now and then, carrying lenses and long glowing tubes and angular things a little like sextants. I heard Topaz’s sweet high laughter and Paynter’s rebuke, “Watch,” Paynter said beside me. “It happened very suddenly.”
As he spoke, I saw the change begin. It was like a cleavage in space, a widening crack that spiderwebbed across the empty air like a riven bubble of plastic. The sleepers showed for an instant, distorted as though seen through a shattering substance with a different refractive index from air.
Then the cavern darkened for an instant. The four bodies seemed to spring into more dimensional reality—I sensed that their clarity was not due to the ultraviolet bath. It was as though a stereopticon image had become tangible. For a flashing second the four figures became part of—normal space. The shell of energy Dr. Essen had created so long ago no longer prisoned them beyond space and time.
The place grew darker still. It gave me a feeling of inexplicable urgency. I was on the verge of remembering something—that reddish twilight with faint lights twinkling through it was—was—
My thought paused. For the bodies were—crumbling,
I had a second of horrible, sickening terror, as though I felt my own flesh falling into dust too. Instinctively my fingers tightened on my legs. It was bewildering to feel my own flesh firm beneath my hands while before me in the projection I could see the same flesh crumble from my bones.
I watched myself disintegrate in the red twilight that had filled the cavern, fall swiftly into dust as if the thousand years of time we had cheated as we slept was taking its toll all in one final moment. But I knew that was not the answer. Living flesh does not crumble like that and we had been living until the egg broke around us. There was some more terrifying solution than that.
Suddenly, in my bewilderment and terror, I knew what the answer was. That shadowy red twilight, with lights faintly flashing across an empty world—I had seen that dusk before. In that same twilight I had seen the Face of Ea looking out over the world’s night. That crumbling of our flesh into dust had been no accident.
I knew I had watched the four of us murdered in our age-long sleep, deliberately dispersed into nothingness—by what? By whom? I had no way of guessing, but it seemed to me the red twilight that filled the cave indicated something of an answer. Nothing was happening to us at random, I knew fully in that moment of revelation. It was planned, deliberately planned—and by the people of the Face?
They had summoned us across the millenniums. Had they planned our shipwreck here on the strand of some middle future and then, with calm intent, scattered our dissolving bones upon the cavern floor, having used and finished us?
No, for we were still alive.
Only I remembered my own identity clearly, but I was sure the icily violent ego of Murray lay buried somewhere beneath the surface of Paynter’s mind. I had looked into Letta Essen’s eyes in the lovely face of Topaz. De Kalb must linger somewhere, submerged but waiting, behind the metal eyes of Belem. So we were not dead.
The dust that had been ourselves ceased its crumbling and falling and settled into long, roughly man shaped mounds on the floor of the cave.
“That happened coincidentally,” Paynter said with elaborate detachment. “But something rather odd took place at the same time. Look.”
The scene changed. The focus had shifted to another lens on the far side of the cavern. In the foreground Paynter stood, behind Topaz. Their faces were intent and horrified as they watched the egg begin to crack.
The film had stepped back sixty seconds and I was watching again the first beginnings of the disaster inside the shell of time. That curious riving of the air began again, the red twilight glimmering through, repeating itself as it would repeat endlessly whenever anyone chose to play this recording over.
But now, as the bodies began to crumble, I saw a change slip across Paynter’s face. I saw it go blank, then suddenly go quite bright with a blaze of awareness—and then totally blank.
His knees sagged. He folded up and dropped limply forward. Someone jumped to his side from the crowd at his back, caught him and eased him to the dusty floor. As he fell I could see beyond him the small, brightly colored body that was Topaz, collapsed without a sound.
There was milling confusion around the two for a moment. Then Paynter stirred and the crowd backed away a little. Paynter sat up, consciousness returning visibly to his blank face. Topaz, beside him, stirred and moved her hand, lifted it and, with her eyes still closed, brushed the clustering curls from her face with a curiously innocent vanity.
At my elbow Paynter said, “All right, that was that. A moment’s faintness. Neither of us suffered anything worse. But let’s go back again to the moment the shell cracked and Topaz and I fainted. There was a crowd outside, waiting to see what would happen. You’d be surprised how easy it is to draw a crowd. They didn’t take long to assemble, via matter-transmission, once word got out. Some of our other cameras caught an interesting detail or two.”
Now I saw a rolling slope thronged with men and women. Figures were toiling up from a plain below, where last I had seen the forests of northern Canada stretch unbroken. In the far distance a low white building gleamed in the sunlight among orchards.
“That building,” Paynter told me, “is the Kerry Plum Orchard transmitter. All these people came through it. They came from all over the galaxy, of course. No way to trace where they started from. Which is a pity because—well, look.”
I looked—and saw my own face.
Duplication doubled and redoubled. My head swam as I tried to realize it, to count up how many Jerry Cortlands were in existence in this one space and time. One had fallen to dust in the cave. One sat here in the Swan Garden beside Paynter. One strolled up the hillside toward the cavern, casually, through the crowd. It was myself, all right. I wore rather ragged shorts and a tattered pullover.
I turned left around a rock with part of the crowd and then there was a sudden humming excitement all over the hillside and a flash of reddish light from the cave.
“We’ve gone back again to the moment when the bodies began to disintegrate,” Paynter reminded me. “Down in the cave Topaz and I are collapsing. Up here—watch yourself.”
I saw the same look of dazed wonder melt into blank-ness on my pictured face. I saw myself fall.
“When you woke again,” Paynter was saying, “you were in the transmitter room by the City. Topaz was with you. That was when your memories started. Remember?”
“You mean—that was me?” I demanded. “That man who came with the crowd? The me sitting here now? Oh no, that isn’t possible! I remember! I went to sleep in the cave in the Twentieth Century and woke here. I never came out of a transmitter and joined a crowd in the Laurentians. You told me you’d wakened me in the cave!”
“Not, exactly, no,” Paynter said. “I just gave you your head. There was so much here that nobody understood, you see. I wanted you to go your own way until I knew all I could learn from you. Then I told you the truth. What could be fairer than that?”
“But I’m not that man on the hillside! Who was he? Where did he come from? He isn’t me!”
“Well, you’re that man. You saw what happened to the bodies in the cave. Your duplicate, my duplicate, Belem’s, the woman’s—they all disintegrated. As for who you are, I don’t know. It’s odd but not unheard of. With galaxy-wide colonization there must be a good many people in stray corners who have never been registered. You’re one of them.
“We tried but there’s no record of your prints and history. However, you are the man who fainted on the hillside. It took you longer to recover than it did us and when you woke you called yourself Cortland and you’ve just given me some very fantastic history. Which rings true, incidentally. You believe it. You aren’t faking.”
“Of course not. I was in the time chamber with the others!”
“You fell to dust, I suppose.” Paynter’s voice was impatiently amused. “Wait a minute. I thought I noticed something in the crowd near you. Hold on.”
I felt him move. The picture flashed on before me, picked up again the scene on the slope. Paynter gave some orders in an undertone, and the camera paused, halting in mid-stride a man who had just entered the edge of the picture.
It was De Kalb.
No, not De Kalb—Belem. He turned his face to the camera and light glinted on the quicksilver eyes.
The daylight flashed suddenly red again. The crowd nearby surged, chattering around me—my duplicate—as he fell. And Belem staggered. You could see the cold resolute Mechandroid brain gather itself to resist whatever assault this was upon its integrity. And the Mechandroid succeeded where the merely human had failed. Belem stumbled a little, leaned against the rock I had seen myself circle a moment before in the film, slid down so that he half crouched against it, his face in his hands.
Then quietly, in about a quarter of a minute, he rose and walked back toward the Kerry transmitter, moving stiffly even for him, his face bewildered.
Paynter was saying in my ear, “So that’s where he was!” But deep in the center of my mind a stirring of surprise gathered all my attention. Belem was watching too. Belem was thinking in almost the same words Paynter used, “So that is what happened! Now—now I almost understand.”