5. The Death Carriers
What happened then came totally without warning. In one moment I sat comfortably in my chair watching De Kalb drew the knife-blade through the orange. In the next—
A blinding nova of pure energy exploded outward from a nexus in the center of my body.
The room ceased to be. De Kalb and Dr. Essen were unrealities far off at the periphery of that exploding nova. Vitality ran like fire through every nerve and vein, like an adrenalin charge inconceivably magnified. There was nothing in the world for one timeless moment but the bursting glow of that experience for which I have no name.
The first thing I saw when the room came back into focus around me was the blood running from De Kalb’s hand.
It meant nothing to me, in that first instant. Blood is the natural concomitant of death, and I knew that somewhere not far away a man had died a moment before. Then my senses came back and I sat up abruptly, staring at De Kalb’s face.
The color had drained out of it. He was looking at his cut hand with a blank unseeing gaze. There was a little blood on the silver knife. It was nothing. He had only cut himself slightly because of—
Our eyes met. I think the knowledge came simultaneously into our minds in that meeting of glances. He had felt it too. The explosion of white energy had burst outward in his nerve centers in the same moment it burst in mine. Neither of us spoke. It wasn’t necessary.
After what seemed a long while I looked at Dr. Essen. That bright steel glance of hers met mine squarely but there was only bewilderment in it.
“What happened?” she asked.
The sound of her voice seemed to release us both from our speechlessness.
“You don’t know?” De Kalb swung around to look at her. “No, evidently you don’t. But Mr. Cortland and I—Cortland, how often have you—“ He groped for words.
“Since the first of the deaths in Rio,” I said flatly. “You?”
“Since the first of them here. And ever since, though, very faintly, when they happened in Rio.”
“What are you talking about?” Dr. Essen demanded.
Heavily, speaking with deliberation, De Kalb told her.
“For myself,” he finished, glancing at me, “it began when I first opened the Record.” He paused, looked at his hand with some surprise and, laying down orange and knife, pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and wrapped it around the bleeding cut. “I didn’t feel that at all,” he said, almost to himself.
And then, to me, “I opened the Record. I told you that—something—went by me very fast and vanished at the spot where that nekronic strain later came into existence.” He looked at me soberly, his eyes narrowed. “Mr. Cortland,” he said, “can you tell me that you did not experience any feeling of recognition when you first saw that stain on the hearth?”
I got up so suddenly that my chair almost tipped over. Violently I said, “De Kalb, somewhere a man has just died! Something killed him. Something is making you and me accessories to murder! We’ve got to put a stop to it! This isn’t an academic discussion—it’s murder! We—”
“Sit down, Mr. Cortland, sit down.” De Kalb’s voice was tired. “I know quite well it’s murder. We must and will discover the truth about it. But not by shouting at one another. The truth lies in that box on the table. It lies somewhere very far in the future.
“Also, the truth is a being that roams our world, murdering at will. I released it, Mr. Cortland. Unwittingly, but I released it. That was a Pandora’s box I opened. Trouble and death came out of it. We can only pray that there is hope in the bottom of it, as there was in Pandora’s box.”
“Look,” I said. “Tell me how I can help and I’ll do it. But let’s not have any more generalities. I’m too close to these deaths. I think I’m in personal danger. Maybe you are too. What can we do?”
“We are not in personal danger from the killer. From the law—perhaps—if this connection from which we suffer were to become known. What can we do? I wish I could tell you. I’m sure of this much—that thing which came from the box, leaving the stain of nekronic matter like a footprint behind it, is a living and dangerous creature. It touched me as it went by. I think by that touch I’ve become—well, remotely akin to it. Were you touched too?”
I told him.
“Very well,” he said. “We are in danger. Has it occurred to you yet that where it touched the hearthstone, the nekron took root?”
For a moment I didn’t see what he meant. Then the implication hit me and I went cold and empty inside. De Kalb, seeing the look on my face, laughed shortly.
“I see it has. Very well. So far I haven’t detected any sign of nekronic infection in myself. I assume you haven’t either. But that proves nothing.”
“Have you seen the creature?” I asked. He hesitated. “I can’t be sure. I think I have. Will you tell me exactly what happened to you, please? Every detail, even the irrelevant.”
And when I had finished, he exchanged troubled glances with Dr. Letta Essen. “Directive intelligence, then,” she said.
“The way it moved,” De Kalb murmured. “That’s highly significant. And the impossibility of getting a firm grip on the creature. So—Letta, do you agree?”
“Frictional burns?” she asked. “But it didn’t move fast enough to cause those. That is—not spatially.”
“Not in space, no,” De Kalb said. “But in time? Limited, of course. A few seconds’ leeway would be enough if you consider the energy expended and the tremendous velocities involved. It looks like a shadow—it seems to have mass without weight—and it has high velocity without spatial motion.
“And Mr. Cortland’s tightening his grip on the creature seemed to push it away. Time-movement, then! It vibrates—it has an oscillating period of existence, certainly limited within a range of a few seconds. A tuning-fork vibrates in space. Why not vibration through time—with an extremely narrow range?
“No wonder you couldn’t hold the creature! Could you hold a metal rod vibrating that rapidly? You would get frictional burns on your hands—since your own weight would prevent you from partaking of its motion. The being’s existence must be, to a limited degree, extra-temporal.
“Consequently, I suppose any weapon used against it would have to be keyed to its own temporal periodicity. That is, if we had a pistol oscillating in time, we might be able to shoot the creature. But the hand that squeezed the trigger might have to be oscillating too.”
“Trembling like a leaf,” I said. “I know mine would be.”
He brushed that away. “How intelligent is this killer? Is ego involved, or merely vampirism? If the creature read your mind—” He grimaced. “No. No! The missing factor is what the nekron itself is and its special qualities. And we don’t know that. We probably never will until we go to the Face of Ea.”
I sighed. I sat down. I’d had too many jolts in the past half hour to feel very sure of myself.
“So we travel in time,” I said wearily “Mr. De Kalb—you’re crazy.”
He had enough energy left to chuckle rather wanly.
“You’ll think me even crazier, sir, when I tell you what it was I saw down there under the mountain, in the cavern. But I must finish my demonstration before you’ll be able to understand.”
“Get on with it, then.”
He took up orange and knife again. He fitted the blade into the cut and finished the job of bisecting the fruit a little above its equator. The severed top half lay upon the blade as on a narrow plate. Below it he held the other half of the orange in place, so that it still maintained its unbroken sphere.
“Consider this blade Flatland,” he said. “A world of two dimensions, intersecting the three-dimensional sphere. Now if I revolve the lower half of the orange, you will please imagine that the upper half revolves with it. One fruit—you see? The axis remains immovable in relation to the plane in Flatland it intersects.
“Now. I cut this lower half again, straight through. The same axis intersects the same point on this Flatland. In other words, the spatial axis remains stable. You understand so far?”
“No,” I said. He grinned, tossed knife and fruit back into the bowl.
“It takes thinking,” he said. “Let me go on. Now time is also a sphere. Time revolves. And time has an axis—a single stable extension of a temporal point, drawn through past and future alike, intersecting them all, as that knife-blade touched the orange everywhere in the Flatland dimension. And that, Mr. Cortland, is what makes travel in time theoretically valid.
“The theory of time-travel usually ignores space. The traveler steps into some semi-magical machine, presses a button and emerges a thousand years in the future—but on earth!” He snorted. “In a thousand years, or a thousand days, or in one day, or one minute, this planet along with the whole solar system would have traveled far beyond its position at the moment the traveler entered his machine.
“But there is one point from which he could enter the machine, enter time itself and be sure always of emerging on earth. For each planet, I think, there is one single point. The spot in the Laurentians where I saw—what I saw was that point for our planet. It is the spot at which the axis of the time-sphere intersects our own three-dimensional world. If it were possible to follow the line of the particular axis you would move through time.
“Well, I believe there is movement but along still another dimension, beyond this theoretical fourth which is time—or supertime. Call it a fifth. This much I’m sure of—if you could stay in the time axis indefinitely the ultra-time drift would carry you into another era, through era beyond era, wherever other ages intersect the time axis.” He shook his head.
“I admit I don’t understand it too clearly. It’s a science beyond ours. However, I think I can explain the presence of the Record box now. I believe the people of the Face sent it back in a direction parallel to the time-axis—which, remember, intersects the same area in space always, at any given moment. They sent it very far back, millennia into our past—as you say, like people tossing a message in a bottle into the stream of time.
“Look.” He held up his hand, thumb and forefinger touching at the tips. “Two times—my finger and thumb. But they touch at one point only. There you can cross. From the time of the Face to, let us say, some thousands of years B.C. This is vague again, and it is something I don’t understand.
“The extension is along still another dimension, possibly the ultra-sphere, this figurative fifth. But it’s logical to suppose there would be such a limitation. There is in space. You can step spatially only into areas spatially adjoining yours. And in time—well, it may apply there too.”
“All right,” I said. “Okay up to now. I’ll accept it. Now let’s have the kicker. What was it you saw in your cave?”
De Kalb leaned back in his chair, regarding me with a grin.
“I saw you, Mr. Cortland.”
I gaped at him.
His grin broadened.
“Yes, I saw you, lying alseep on the floor of the—the egg. I saw myself there too, asleep. I saw Dr. Essen. And lastly I saw Colonel Harrison Murray.”
He looked at me with obscure triumph, his grin very wide.
“You’re crazy,” I said bluntly.
“You’re thinking you’ve never been in a cavern under a Laurentian mountain, I suppose. Very likely. Nor has Dr. Essen. Nor, I imagine, Murray. But you will be, my friend. So will we all.” The grin faded. Now the deep voice was graver. “And we are all changed, there in the egg. You understand that?
“We are older, by a little, not temporally, but in experience. You can see that on our faces. We have all passed through strange experiences—good, bad, awe-inspiring, perhaps. And the men look—tired, older. But Dr. Essen looks strangely younger.” He shrugged heavily. “I don’t attempt to explain it. I can only report what I saw,” He smiled at me.
“Well, so much for that. Don’t look so stunned, Mr. Cortland! I assure you it was yourself. Which means that you will go with us when we take our great leap into the future, into the world of the Face. I believe we will all stand together in the living flesh before that great Face we have seen only in our minds, today.
“Believe? I know it. Those people lying asleep in the time-axis, with instruments on the floor around them to regulate their slumbers, will go forward in time—have gone forward. And they will return in the end to here and now.
“They will go as the box went. From the here and now, forward through the time-axis to the world of the Face. But there is no backward flow along that axis. No one can risk meeting himself in his own past, even if such a thing were possible. So when we return, we must come as the box did, along a path which is parallel to the axis, to that continuous point in time which may be millennia B.C., where the box originally emerged.
“In effect, one goes forward with the flow along the time axis and back around the circumference of the sphere which is time. And there we enter the time-axis chamber again, and are carried forward along the flow to our own present time.” He smiled.
“Do you see what that means? It means that one day those four in the Laurentian cavern will waken. And as they wake, as they step out, three men and a woman will enter the chamber and begin their journey into time!”
I gave my head a quick shake. Images were whirling in it like sparks from a Fourth-of-July pinwheel. None of them made sense to me, or perhaps only one. But that one was definite.
“Oh no they won’t,” I said.
“I will quote you a vulgarism,” I said meticulously. “There may be flies on some of you guys, but there ain’t no flies on me. I’m not going. I know when I’m well off. Jerry Cortland is staying right here with both feet firm upon his own temporal axis. I will write you the best story you ever saw about yourself, Mr. De Kalb, but I won’t climb on any merry-go-rounds with you. Is that clear?”
He chuckled deeply.
“But you did, Mr. Cortland—you did!”