25. Return Voyage
Luckily I cannot remember that last horror very clearly.
It was I who saved us from that.
This was my purpose. It was the plan from the beginning. That was why I had been allowed from the start to keep my own memories intact. For I was the anchor man at the end of the chain, the solid rock and the lifeline extending beyond the shore of sanity and logic and the monstrous, non-matter maelstrom engulfing the others.
They had needed their double minds to meet and fight the nekron, to carry the battle to its own grounds. But my purpose was to anchor the line. I could feel them losing touch with all familiar things, feel the dark destroying silence of the nekron closing them in.
It closed about me too but not completely. It could not shut out my memories. I had a singleness of mind that made a chain too strong to snap. I remembered my own world, my own time, with a clarity unimpaired by double memories. All the small things that are changeless realities came back to me in one strong pouring tide.
The little things that mean nothing alone—things like firelight moving on the walls of an old room, the smell of freshly-cut grass at twilight, the sharp fragrance of printer’s ink, the heart-shaking thunder of a flight of planes moving in formation overhead, the taste of cold sweet spring-water gushing from a mountainside.
I remembered Earth.
So I woke them out of the dead emptiness of the nekron’s heart. Their minds clung to mine and mine clung to the lifeline of my own world, my own time, my own indestructible memories.
Last of all De Kalb struck—with Belem’s mind locked into his.
We were in the nekron’s heart now. We had been admitted to its most vulnerable spot. Once before Belem had done something very like this—when he joined his mind with mine and summoned the nekronic killer to defeat Paynter’s men.
Now in the nekron’s very citadel, its innermost heart—he gripped our minds closer together. He forced them until they were one indeed.
He opened that gigantic ultimate mind to the nekron!
Two of the finest brains of two cultures guided us then—Belem, inhuman, emotionless, machine-bred, half-human—and De Kalb, with all his brilliance and his humanity balancing Belem’s cold logic. Behind these two-in-one, the rest of us—a single unit now.
Paynter and Murray—hammer and anvil!
Topaz and Letta Essen—incomparably resourceful, evading the counter-attack.
I with my single mind, holding fast to the solidity of the normal universe, standing like a wall behind the others, holding open the gates in that wall through which we had come, through which the power of the Face of Ea poured to help us.
The power of the nekron flowed through us, channeled by Belem and De Kalb. It emptied, drained like a falling ocean into us. But we were not vulnerable, now. It could not—feed—upon us.
Water, changing to steam, must expand, find room to accommodate its physical change. The process must be completed. But this monstrous change could not be completed in any way normal to the nekron. It had not drained its force into us by choice—Belem had drawn and channeled it.
Now its normal release was blocked.
We were battered back beneath the onslaught of that terribly concentrated power. But we held. Somehow we held—the multiple minds of two civilizations, chosen and tempered by the last, greatest science of all.
There is no other word. It expanded tremendously, through us and beyond us, and that frightful concentration of alien force was gone. The disincarnated, dissolved units of the nekron expanded—seeds of the death beyond death—but helpless in this single moment beyond time, no longer a functioning unit capable of planned action.
We could never kill it—but we had it helpless for the first instant in the history of the universe. One moment outside time was all we had—but one moment was enough.
The burning suns reeled around us again. They blurred-time blurred and space and the incredible infinite complexity of the universe shuddered and was divided. That was the end.
The suns flickered out around us. We were sinking into a dimness that swallowed up our senses as the darkness swallowed the light. But I could not quite let go. There was trouble somewhere—a question unanswered.
“Have you finished with us now?” I wondered in the darkness. “Are you sending us back, double-minded, into worlds where only a single body can dwell? It was you who destroyed our bodies—”
The great calm Face that was the composite of so many faces took shape before my mind’s eye, perhaps tangibly before us in the thickening dark. The great, quiet voice said, “If Belem could divide matrices and I universes, do you need to doubt that your bodies can be divided too and each be duplicated exactly from a single matrix? It was done once, in Eden, before the first civilization rose. It shall be done again, by the power of the last civilization of all. Sleep, now—sleep.”
In the dimness that followed upon the darkening of the suns and the stilling of the voice I remembered Genesis, and Adam’s words. Bone of my bones, flesh of my flesh ...
The Face that watched drew further and further away, grew tinier and tinier in red-lit distances down a vista of diminishing temporal lanes ...
I knew now that we must have swung far off around that other pole of time, the beginning, the wellspring of life and space and duration. We must have moved forward along the unchanging temporal axis toward our own world.
In which there was no nekron now, had never been, never would be.
But there were not even dreams in this slumber to hint at the stations of that journey.
So we returned,
So we woke.
It was Topaz whose eyes met mine when I sat up dizzily after that tremendous nightmare and found the rough walls of the cavern intact around us. Topaz? No—and yet not Letta Essen either. She smiled and it was Topaz’s smile, but the long, long eons had changed her.
Letta Essen’s slumbering ego in the doubled body of the girl Topaz had wrought subtle alterations, pulling back that flexible flesh into a more fitting body for the woman who had been Letta Essen. It was an older and wiser Topaz, a younger Letta Essen, who met my first dazed glance when I awoke.
Murray was sitting up dizzily. De Kalb had already risen and was trying the flashlight that lay in the entry to our cavern, his face bewildered. I knew why. It seemed incredible that the battery should still be working after such millennia.
Only no millennia had passed. We had been asleep no time at all as time is counted in this world.
We hardly spoke. We were still too stunned for clear thinking—it seemed only a moment ago that we had last looked into the Face of Ea. Unsteadily we made our way out of the cave. The low slanting sunlight of a summer evening still lay across the wooded mountain.
Instinctively I looked for the white building of the Kerry transmitter that opened upon the farthest worlds of the galaxy—but that was still a thousand years away. The mountains stretched in unbroken forests to the horizon.
At the foot of the slope, near the place where Murray’s plane still stood awaiting us, was the cabin where De Kalb had lived long ago—months ago, perhaps, as we count time here but eons had passed just the same—when this cavern was first dug out of the mountainside.
De Kalb unlocked the door. The cabin was musty from long disuse but we didn’t care. Oddly enough we needed sleep more than anything else in the world. Oddly, because we had just now risen from a sleep of countless millions of years.
So that’s the story.
And now you know why I can say—and prove—that the whole thing never happened. This isn’t my world, now. Not any more. Not the world I left. This is a world in which no nekronic flash leaped from a box that Ira De Kalb opened and dropped to his hearthstone to infect the world, De Kalb and me. All that did happen once, in another world that hasn’t existed since the four of us, a doubled weapon wielded by the Face of Ea, wrought the cleaving apart of two universes.
Imponderable forces shifted when that cleavage took place. You and I know nothing about it, for it happened far beyond the perceptions of any sentient creature. But it happened. Oh yes, it happened.
Funny, how important the little changes are. It’s so hard to get used to the absence of so much I used to take for granted. And there are so many new things too, things that weren’t there when I went away. Nobody knows that except the four of us, of course. Everybody thinks these things have always been as they are now.
Well, it’s all right as a world—maybe.
But not as a world for me. Here I’ve always been on that roller-coaster, snatching as things rush by. Maybe I’d do the same thing in any world. You never can tell till you try.
So I’m going to try.
There are still sleepers in that cavern where the time-axis turns, you know. If De Kalb had looked deeper when he first brought out our images under ultra-violet, he’d have seen more than we ever guessed, at the time. He’d have seen more than our doubled images, still asleep, waiting for the world of the middle future which is the final station in their round-trip through time. Paynter, Belem, Topaz are sleeping there. And so am I. And I mean myself, Jerry Cortland—twinned.
You see, I’ve looked. And I’m there. The other fellow, the one who came up the hill from the Kerry transmitter and blacked out and received my dominant mind, is asleep of course, waiting for his own time. But beside him is—Jerry Cortland. Two of us. Double images.
You realize what that means?
I’m going forward. I know—because I went. It was a wonderful world they had. I want to see more of it. I want to wake up in a time when the race of man is spreading through the galaxy, leaping across the gulfs between the stars, opening the gates to all the worlds. I want to and I will.
But I’ll never see Topaz again—unless I’m luckier than I expect to be. I’ll never see Belem or Paynter or the world where they’ll wake—finding it changed too, I suppose, and a little bewildering, as mine is now.
The trouble is, two identical matrices can’t exist in the same time. And that other fellow has priority. It’s his world, his time. He’ll wake with the others and go out. I’ll sleep on until the way is clear. That means, of course, until he dies.
I wish I knew more about him. He had no record in the vast files of the galactic government. He was dressed in ragged clothing when I saw him. That indicates he’s some wanderer of the outland planets, living a dangerous life—if he goes back to it. He may not. Waking with Paynter, Belem, Topaz, he may be drawn into another kind of career entirely. I’ll know someday. But not until he’s dead. Not until I wake again.
And when I wake, who knows how many years will have elapsed since Topaz stepped out of the time-axis into her own world again? She may be an old woman before I see her. She may be only a few years matured. She may have been fifty years dead. Perhaps I may never be sure. You see, I don’t even know her name.
She was Topaz that week in which I wakened. Next week, and the week after and the year beyond that—do you think any records are kept of the whims of a girl like Topaz? Not even she will remember by the time I wake, if she’s alive then. Time moves too fast for that.
Well, all this belongs to the future. And so do I. Even before the cosmic cleavage altered all history I was a misfit in this civilization. And now it just isn’t my world anymore. I don’t belong here. So I think I’ll take my chances in that other place, where I won’t have to get used to the little things that keep bothering me here and bother nobody but me—
Like Washington being the capital of the United States—now!