16. The Subterrane
There was silence in the Swan Garden for a long moment. Then Paynter lifted the helmet from my head and stood looking down thoughtfully at me. The crystalline bower came back around me. I was looking into Murray’s face but it was Paynter, from Colchan Three and this middle future, who spoke.
“There were four asleep in the cave,” he said. “There were four who blanked out for a time when the sleepers disintegrated. That must mean we living four were duplicates in more than appearance to those who were destroyed. I don’t understand, of course.
“The integrating machines are working on it now. Eventually they’ll hand us all the factors and their conclusions. Meanwhile, Cortland, I think I caught an impression of yours while our minds were in rapport. Is Topaz a duplicate of that woman in the cave?”
“Dr. Essen,” I said. “I think she is. Yes.” But silently, to myself, I was thinking. “They all have identities but me. I’m myself. And yet I saw Jerry Cortland dissolve. That must mean that I’m the nameless man, the one who came up the hillside from nowhere and fainted. When he woke up, he was Jerry Cortland—me. And I’ll never dare sleep in this world for fear that when I wake I’ll be—him. Not myself. I saw myself disintegrated in the cave for a purpose, by some means I don’t understand. I’m dead. When this man wakes up, I’ll—”
“All right, Cortland,” Paynter said briskly. “I’ll leave you here for an hour. You’ll be quite safe, of course. Topaz will rejoin you in a moment or two.”
“Am I a prisoner?” I asked.
“Well, no, not exactly.” He gave me a grim smile. “You want the same things we do, I suppose. An answer to all this. I’m assuming you’ve told us the truth. I’m as sure of that as it’s possible to be. Of course you may have powers you’ve been able to hide from us, so we’ll keep an eye on you until we know more. Topaz will bring you to me in an hour. By then I hope well have an answer from the integrators.”
He gave me a stiff salute of farewell and turned away, pushed among the lacy palmetto growths and was gone, presumably into the matter-transmitter. I couldn’t understand why he hadn’t killed me.
For there had been five in the time-axis, not four. And the fifth was the most dangerous thing ever let loose upon a galaxy. The nekronic killer had come out with me. How, I could not guess, if it were true that I was not Jerry Cortland, but a nameless man from the hillside below the Laurentian cavern. The Infection was not in the flesh then but in the—mind? The memory? At any moment I knew I might feel that blinding shock thrilling through me, the exploding burst of energy that meant another death.
Paynter knew. He had read my memories. He wasn’t top man, of course. When his findings were integrated the orders might be simply, “Kill Cortland.” It’s what I’d have done in their place. It was only logical.
So they expected me to wait, did they? Wait for what, the firing squad?
Well, maybe I wouldn’t do it. I felt like laughing when I remembered how complicated life had seemed back in my own day. There I’d had only one time, one space, one Jerry Cortland to consider. And even then I’d been on the rollercoaster with a splinter in the seat of my pants. Now Jerry Cortland was dead. He was lying in a heap of dust in a cavern somewhere on another planet for all I knew.
Illogical? Oh, sure. For now I was up against something too big for the human mind to comprehend, really and—irrationally—I felt cheerful.
I saw another of the pale green oranges floating along the stream and plucked it out deftly, sank my teeth into it. It was alcoholic, in a mildly exhilarating way. I let the tingling juice run down my throat and—
“You are in great danger,” a voice in my brain said coldly and suddenly.
I clapped my free hand to my head and pressed the bone beneath the skin in some primitive impulsive attempt to massage the devils out of my brain. He was there—De Kalb, Belem—with his cold metal gaze looking out through my eyes and his cold metal thoughts moving through mine.
“Can you read my mind?” I asked, all but vocally, making the question clear in the front of my mind.
“No. Only when you put your thoughts as clearly as this. Please try to keep them clearer. That fruit you are eating—it fogs the mind. Throw it away. I must consult you now.”
Deliberately I took another deep bite of the alcoholic orange. No one had invited him into my mind, I thought somewhat incoherently, the Swan Garden looking pleasantly blurred before me. I had no real reason to trust either De Kalb or Belem. I didn’t like the way the Mechandroid could crawl into my head, pull up a chair and settle down for a free sight-seeing trip.
If it worked the other way now—I’d enjoy a quick round-trip through Topaz mind, for instance. She was not only lovely but unpredictable as an ocelot. I’d have given a good deal to look into her mind. I imagined it would surprise me. And as for Paynter—I knew his type. He had that conviction of absolute rightness that makes fanatics. He hadn’t left me entirely on my own, I was pretty sure.
“Drop that fruit,” the voice in my mind said. “Drop that fruit.”
I didn’t intend to. I started to flex my elbow to bring the orange up for another bite—but my muscles weren’t working very well. They weren’t working at all. My arm went lax, my fingers turned into putty and the orange fell with a splash back into the stream. Regretfully I watched it bob away.
“Do you see that purple fruit?” the inexorable voice inquired. “There, coming over the bend. Catch it.”
I decided to do nothing.
I found myself plucking a purple object shaped like a cigar from the stream, lifting it to my mouth, biting off a section. It was succulent too, but astringent. The giddy elation began to leave me. More soberly I took a second bite.
“Very good,” Belem’s disembodied voice said. “I don’t want to work that hard again. It isn’t easy to do this. You may need all the strength I can give you sooner than you think. Don’t make me exhaust myself fighting you.”
“How do you work it?” I inquired with the front part of my consciousness. “Where are you, anyhow? Isn’t it crowded in there? Look out for the left lobe—it’s slippery.”
“That is probably humor,” Belem said coldly. “Wasted on a Mechandroid. I have no intention of telling you how I do this but there is no reason why you shouldn’t know where I am. Exactly where you saw me last. My body remains in stasis while my mind is in close rapport with yours.
“I can see and hear and feel everything you do. I can read your clearer thoughts. I can, with a great effort, control your motor reflexes for a brief time. Whether you like it or not your fate and mine are now linked until I can effect a separation again.”
“For better or worse!” I said wildly. “For richer or poorer—I see another orange coming along; shall we have one together?”
“Finish that purple fruit,” Belem ordered, “You may need another. I am going to take you through the transmitter now to a certain underground region whose existence we have suspected for a long while. I learned its location during your rapport with Paynter.
“It is a highly secret place but together I believe we can enter it and perform an important task. I believe it will in the end be as important to you as to us. In some way none of us yet understands your destiny and mine are linked through that time-axis where we both have slept. We—”
“Don’t forget Paynter was there too,” I reminded him.
“I know. I’ve explored your memory along with Paynter. I know all the essentials now and I believe I begin to get a glimmer of the pattern. Our first task is to visit the Government Subterrane. If you will turn to the left now and go back along the path to the transmitter room—”
“Why should I?” I was feeling sullen as the exhilaration died in me. “This is my brain, not yours. I have my own problems. Go crawl into somebody else’s mind or do your own dirty work. I’m in enough of a jam right now with Paynter, or I will be when—”
“When he realizes that you are a carrier for the nekronic killer, exactly. Paynter will not hesitate to sacrifice you when the time comes. When it does you and I will be at a safe distance, with the object I mean to get in the Subterrane. Now will go or must I force you?”
I started to speak—aloud in my anger—but before the words could come there was a ripple of self-conscious laughter among the star-shaped leaves and Topaz swept forward through the fronds and spun around before me. She was covered with spangles, glittering, dazzling, flickering, all colors, clinging to her skin, her hair, her floating veils.
“Oh, how beautiful I am!” she caroled, with an air of innocent vainglory. “Tell me, did you ever see anything so beautiful before?”
“Never in my life,” I assured her. “It’s—” My jaw snapped shut on the last word. My muscles tightened and without the least conscious volition I found I had turned my back to her and was marching down the path toward the matter-transmitter. In my brain a cool, metallic mind seemed to be saying with an intonation of despair, “Human beings!”
It was interesting to watch my own hands manipulating the buttons that selected the proper wave-bands for our destination. The process looked far too simple—there were only half a dozen buttons in all—but I assumed the Mechandroid, gazing through my eyes, tightening and releasing my muscles, knew what he was doing.
He did. The room shimmered before me, disorientation and brief nausea shook us both together in gigantic oblivion and—
We emerged into a large underground concourse—I think it was underground; it sounded and felt like it—thronged with busy men and women who paid me only the slightest of glancing attention as I pushed among them, half guided now and half of my own volition. There were people here in costumes so various that I suppose my own clothing was no more outlandish than anyone else’s.
I think this was a nexus in the great web of matter-transmission, under the surface of what planet I have no idea.
People from colonies all over the Galaxy must have changed stations here. I know I attracted no attention as I hurried through the cosmopolitan crowd toward a row of transmission rooms in the center of the concourse, closed the door behind me, manipulated more buttons.
It was curious, I thought to myself as the familiar disorientation swam through my brain, how little I was seeing of this marvelous world of the middle future. Topaz had assured me that cities were obsolete and mankind lived in luxurious isolation wherever his fancy dictated.
Yet all I had seen so far, except for the Swan Garden, had been the underpinnings of the culture, the girders upon which its farming luxuries were builded. What lay above-ground, on the flowering surfaces of the planets, I was not to know, then or—perhaps—ever.
The room steadied about me. The door slid open.
I looked down a long corridor bathed in white light.
“This is the Subterrane,” Belem’s voice in my brain said.