4. The Laurentian Story
Again I waited. This time I had to prompt him.
“The nekron,” he said. “It’s growing. It will never stop growing, until—” He paused, shrugged. “We have to believe they’re in the future,” he said. “We have to help them. They made sure of that. For unless we do the nekron will grow and grow until our world is like theirs—dead matter. Inert. Nekronic. I call it that because it is death.
“An absolutely new form of matter, the death of energy. It breaks a supreme law of our universe, the law of increasing entropy. Entropy trends toward chaos, naturally. But the nekron is the other extreme, a pattern, a dead null-energy pattern of negation.”
“You mean,” I demanded, “that the people of the City deliberately set a trap for the man who first opened the box?”
“They had to. They had to make sure we’d answer their appeal to save ourselves.”
“Then you’re convinced they exist in the future, not the past?”
“You saw the Face. You were aware, you say, of the waves of civilization rising and falling between our time and theirs? How can you doubt it, then, Mr. Cortland?”
I was silent, remembering.
“It doesn’t matter,” De Kalb went on. “That question is purely academic. Past or future is all one in the time-fabric you will understand better after you’ve opened the box again.”
“But,” I said, “how can we help them? If they can’t destroy the menace to their own world, whatever it is, how could we? It’s ridiculous. And anyhow, if time-travel was possible for the box—which I don’t for a moment really accept—how could it be possible for tangible, living men from our time? And if it were, how could you be sure you weren’t dashing off to save a city that would prove when you found it to be already dead? Overwhelmed a million years ago? How is it—”
“No, no, Mr. Cortland!” De Kalb held up a large hand with an orange balanced on its palm. “You have so much to learn! Allow me the intelligence to think of those objections myself! Surely you don’t imagine all that hadn’t occurred to me already?
“The answer is that the nekron can be destroyed—or at least that the problem it poses can be solved. I believe it can be solved only by this method—three men and one woman must go into the future age that holds the Face of Ea. For that, apparently, was the original plan of the people of the Face.”
“What makes you so certain of that?”
“A number of factors. The Record was sent to our civilization, remember?”
I had him there. “But it was found in Cretan ruins, you said.”
“Certainly. And the ancient Minoans didn’t open it. I suspect the Record existed long before the time of Theseus—but it remained unopened until a neotechnical civilization had developed on this planet. Only men—and women—who were products of such a culture would have the qualities necessary to solve the nekronic problem.”
“Why didn’t they send the Record directly to our era? Why did they miss the right time by thousands of years?”
“I am no expert in the specialized restrictions of time-traveling,” De Kalb said, with some irritation. “It may be that too-accurate aim is impossible. How can I tell that? The Record reached the right hands. I can easily prove that.”
But I was searching for errata. “You said we’d have the qualities that could solve the nekronic problem—destroy it, I suppose you mean. Well? Have you solved it?”
De Kalb lost his ill-temper and beamed at me. “No,” he said. “Not yet. The nekronic matter itself is very curious—atypical, completely. It is absolutely nonreactive. It has no spectrum. It emits no energy. No known reagent affects it in the slightest degree. It is a new type of matter, plain and simple. I cannot destroy it—not yet. Not now. But I believe I can do it with the guidance and aid of the people of the Face. As a matter of—”
The telephone on the table beside him buzzed sharply. Dr. Essen swung around with a start. De Kalb grunted, nodded at her, muttered, “I’m afraid so,” as if in answer to a question and took up the telephone with his free hand.
It sputtered at him.
“All right, put him on,” De Kalb said in a resigned voice. The receiver buzzed and sputtered again. De Kalb’s placid features grimaced, smoothed out, grimaced again. “Now Murray,” he said. “Now Murray—no, wait a minute! Confound it, Murray, allow me to—I know you are, but—”
The telephone would not let him speak. It crackled angrily, a word now and then coming out clearly. De Kalb listened in resigned silence. Finally he heaved himself up in the chair and spoke with sudden resolution.
“Murray,” he said sharply, “Murray, listen to me. Cortland’s here.”
The phone crackled. De Kalb grinned. “I know you don’t,” he said. “Probably Cortland doesn’t like you either. That’s not important. Murray, can you come up here? Yes, it is important. I have something to show you.” He hesitated, glanced at Dr. Essen, shrugged. “I am casting the die, Murray,” he said. “I want to show you a certain box.”
“You know Colonel Harrison Murray?” De Kalb asked. I nodded. I knew and disliked him for personal qualities quite apart from his ability. He was old army, West Point, a martinet. He had the violent, uncontrolled emotions of an hysterical woman and the mechanical brilliance of a—well, a robot.
No one could deny his genius. He prided himself on being scrupulously just, which he wasn’t. But he thought he was. A fine technician, a genius at strategy and tactics. He confirmed that in the Pacific, back in ‘45. I’d done a profile on him once and he hadn’t liked it at all.
“You’re taking him in on this?” I asked.
“I’ve got to. He can make it too hot for me unless he understands. You see, I’ve been working with him on—never mind. But he insists I go on with it. He can’t see how important this new business is.”
“Ira.” Dr. Essen put in timidly. “Ira, do you really think it’s wise? To bring the colonel in yet, I mean. Are you sure?”
“You know I’m not, Letta.” He frowned. “But there’s so little time to be lost, now. I don’t dare wait any longer. Mr. Cortland—” He swung around toward me. “Mr. Cortland, I see it is now time to give you one more bit of knowledge. I have a story to tell you, about myself and you. Surely you must have realized by now that you are involved in this thing far beyond any power of mine to accept or dismiss.”
I nodded. I did know that. I thought briefly of the things that had happened to me in Rio, of the affinity I had sensed without understanding between that stain on the hearthstone and the—the creature which had scorched my hand in Rio and the deaths that had come after. Would they stop now—in Rio? Would they begin again, nearer home? There had to be some connection—coincidence just doesn’t stretch that far. But all I could do was wait.
“This is my story,” De Kalb said. “Our story, Mr. Cortland. Yours and mine, Dr. Essen’s—perhaps Colonel Murray’s too. I don’t know. I wish I did. Well, I’ll get on with it.” He sighed heavily. “After I had experienced the Record many times,” he said “I began to realize that there was in it reference to a certain spot on the earth’s surface that had a rather mystifying importance.
“I was unable to grasp why. The place was localized by latitude, longitude, various methods of cross-reference. It took me a long while to work it out in terms of our own world and era and decimal system. But finally I did it.
“I went there.” He paused, regarding me gravely. “Have you ever been in the Laurentians, Mr. Cortland? Do you know the wildness of those mountains? So near here by air, and so far off in another world, once you arrive and the sound of your motor ceases. You imagine then that you can hear the silences of the arctic wastes, which are all that lie beyond that band of northern forests.
“Well, I hired men. I sank a shaft. They thought I was simply a prospector with more money and fewer brains than most. Fortunately they didn’t know my real reason—that the spot I was hunting had turned out to be underground. You get some curious superstitions up there in the wilds—perhaps not curious. In many ways they’re wise men. But my spot, in this era at least, had to be dug for.
“My instruments showed me a disturbance toward which the shaft was angled. And eventually we came to the source of that disturbance. We found it. We hollowed a cavern around it. After that I dismissed the men and settled down to study the thing I had found.” He laughed abruptly.
“It was twenty feet of nothing, Mr. Cortland. An oval of disturbance, egg-shaped, cloudy to the eye. I could walk through it. But, inside that oval, space and matter were walled off from our own space and matter by a barrier that was, I know now, supra-dimensional. A man may move from light to dark, encountering no barrier—yet the difference is manifest. There were tremendous differences here.
“Also there was something inside. I was convinced of that long before I got my first glimpse of it. I tried many things. It was finally under a bombardment of UV that I saw the first shadowy shape inside that nothingness. I increased the power, I decreased it, I played with the vernier like a violinist on a Stradivarius.
“I chased that elusive mystery up and down through the light bands like a cat on a mouse’s trail. And at last, quite clearly, I saw—” He broke off, grinning at me.
“No, I shall not tell you yet what I saw,” he said. “You wouldn’t believe me. The moment has now come, Mr. Cortland, when I must give you a little lesson on the nature of time.” He held up the orange, revolving it slowly between his fingers.
“A sphere,” he said, “revolving on an axis. Call it Earth.” He put out his other hand and took up from the fruit bowl a silver knife with a leaf-shaped blade a little broader than the orange. With great deliberation he slid the edge through the rind.