Science Fiction & Fantasy

Null States

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Fiction

Traveller’s Rest

It was an apocalyptic sector. Out of the red-black curtain of the forward sight-barrier, which at this distance from the Frontier shut down a mere twenty metres north, came every sort of meteoric horror: fission and fusion explosions, chemical detonations, a super-hail of projectiles of all sizes and basic velocities, sprays of nerve-paralysants and thalamic dopes. The impact devices burst on the barren rock of the slopes or the concrete of the forward stations, some of which were disintegrated or eviscerated every other minute. The surviving installations kept up an equally intense and nearly vertical fire of rockets and shells. Here and there, a protectivized figure could be seen “sprinting” up, down, or along the slopes on its mechanical “walker,” like a frantic ant from an anthill attacked by flamethrowers. Some of the visible oncoming trajectories could be seen snaking overhead into the indigo gloom of the rear sight-curtain, perhaps fifty metres south, which met the steep-falling rock surface forty-odd metres below the observer’s eye. The whole scene was as if bathed in a gigantic, straight rainbow. East and west, as far as the eye could see, perhaps some forty miles in this clear mountain air despite the debris of explosion (but cut off to the west by a spur from the range), the visibility-corridor witnessed a continual onslaught and counter-onslaught of devices. The visible pandemonium was shut in by the sight-barriers’ titanic canyon-walls of black, reaching the slim pale strip of horizon-spanning light at some immense height. The audibility-corridor was vastly wider than that of sight; the many-pitched din, even through left ear in helm, was considerable.

“Computer-sent, must be,” said H’s transceiver into his right ear. No sigil preceded this statement, but H knew the tones of B, his next-up, who in any case could be seen a metre away saying it, in the large concrete bubble whence they watched, using a plaspex window and an infrared northviewer with a range of some hundreds of metres forward. His next-up had been in the bunker for three minutes, apparently overchecking, probably for an appreciation to two-up who might be in station VV now.

“Else how can they get minute-ly impacts here, you mean?” said H.

“Well, of course it could be longrange low-frequency—we don’t really know how Time works over There.”

“But if the conceleration runs asymptotically to the Frontier, as it should if Their Time works in mirror-image, would anything ever have got over?”

“Doesn’t have to, far’s I can see—maybe it steepens a lot, then just falls back at the same angle the other Side,” said B’s voice; “anyway, I didn’t come to talk science: I’ve news for you, if we hold out the next few seconds here: You’re Relieved.”

H felt a black inner sight-barrier beginning to engulf him, and a roaring in his ears swallowed up the noise of the bombardment. He bent double as his knees began to buckle, and regained full consciousness. He could see his replacement now, an uncertain-looking figure in protsuit (like everybody else up here) at the far side of the bunker.

“XN 3, what orders then?” he said crisply, his pulse accelerating.

“XN 2: pick em-kit now, repeat now, rocket 3333 to VV, present tag”—holding out a luminous orange label printed with a few coarse black characters—“and proceed as ordered thence.”

H stuck up his right thumb from his fist held sideways at elbow length, in salute. It was no situation for facial gestures or unnecessary speech. “XN 3, yes, em-kit, 3333 rocket, tag” (he had taken it in his left glove) “and VV orders; parting!”

He missed B’s nod as he skimmed on soles to the exit, grabbed a small bundle hanging (one of fifteen) from the fourth hook along, slid down the greasy slide underground ten metres to a fuel-cell-lit cavern, pressed a luminous button in the wall, watched a lit symbol passing a series of marks, jumped into the low “car” as it ground round the corner, and curled up foetuswise. His weight having set off the cardoor mechanism, the car shut, slipped down and (its clamps setting on H’s body) roared off down the chute.

Twenty-five seconds after his “parting” word, H uncurled at the forward receiver cell of station VV nearly half a mile downslope. He crawled out as the rocket ground off again, walked ten steps onward in this larger version of his northward habitat, saluted thumb-up and presented his tag to two-up (recognised from helm-tint and helm-sign), saying simultaneously, “XN 3 rep, Relieved.”

“XN 1 to XN 3: Take this” (holding out a similar orange tag plucked from his pocket) “and take mag-lev train down, in—70 seconds. By the way, ever seen a prehis?”

“No, sir.”

“Spot through here, then; look like pteros but more primitive.”

The infrared telescopic viewer looking northwest passed through the forward sight-barrier which due north was about forty metres away here; well upslope, yet still well clear of the dark infrared-radiation barrier could be seen, soundlessly screaming and yammering, two scaly animals about the size of large dogs, but with two legs and heavy wings, flopping around a hump or boulder on the rock. They might have been hit on their way along, and could hardly have had any business on that barren spot, H thought.

“Thanks; odd,” he said. Eleven seconds of the seventy had gone. He pulled out a squirter-cup from the wall and took a drink from the machine, through his helm. Seventeen seconds gone, fifty-three to go.

“XN 1 to XN 3: How are things up there?”

Naturally a report was called for: XN 2 might never return, and communication up-time and down-time was nearly impossible at these latitudes over more than a few metres.

“XN 3. Things have been hotting up all day; I’m afraid a burst through may be attempted in the next hour or so—only my guess, of course. But I’ve never seen anything like it all this time up here. I suppose you’ll have noticed it in VV too?”

“XN 1, thanks for report,” was all the answer he got. But he could hear for himself that the blitz was much more intense than any he had known at this level either.

Only twenty-seven seconds remained. He saluted and strode off across the bunker with his em-kit and the new tag. He showed the tag to the guard, who stamped it and pointed wordlessly down a corridor. H ran down this, arriving many metres down the far end at a little gallery. An underslung, railguided vehicle with slide-doors opening into cubicles glided quietly alongside. A gallery-guard waved as H and two others waiting opened doors whose indicators were unlit, the doors slid to, and H found himself gently clamped in on a back-tilted seat as the mag-lev train accelerated downhill. After ten seconds it stopped at the next checkhalt; a panel in the cubicle ceiling lit up to state “diversion, left,” presumably because the direct route had been destroyed. The train now appeared to accelerate, but more gently, swung away to left (as H could feel), and stopped at two more checkhalts before swinging back to right and finally decelerating, coming to rest and opening some 480 seconds after its start, by Had’s personal chronograph, instead of the 200 he had expected.

At this point daylight could again be seen. From the top bunker where XN 2 had discharged him, Had had now gone some ten miles south and nearly three thousand metres down, not counting detours. The forward sight-barrier here was hidden by a shoulder of mountain covered in giant lichen, but the southern barrier was evident as a violet-black fog-wall a quarter of a mile off. Lichens and some sort of grass-like vegetation covered much of the neighbouring landscape, a series of hollows and ravines. Noise of war was still audible, mingled with that of a storm, but nearby crashes were not frequent and comparatively little damage could be seen. The sky overhead was turbulent. Some very odd-looking animals, perhaps between a lizard and a stoat in general appearance, were swarming up and down a tree-fern near by. Six men in all got out of the mag-lev train, besides Had. Two and three marched off in two groups down a track eastward. One (not one of those who had got in at VV) stayed with Had.

“I’m going down to the Great Valley; haven’t seen it for twenty days; everything’ll be changed. Are you sent far?” said the other man’s voice in Had’s right ear through the transceiver.

“I—I—I’m Relieved,” tried Had uncertainly.

“Well I’m . . . disintegrated!” was all the other man could manage. Then, after a minute, “Where will you go?”

“Set up a business way south, I think. Heat is what suits me, heat and vegetation. I have a few techniques I could put to good use in management of one sort or another. I’m sorry—I never meant to plume it over you with this—but you did ask me.”

“That’s all right. You certainly must have Luck, though. I never met a man who was Relieved. Make good use of it, won’t you. It helps to make the Game worthwhile, up here—I mean, to have met a man who is joining all those others we’re supposed to be protecting—it makes them real to us in a way.”

“Very fine of you to take it that way,” said Had.

“No—I mean it. Otherwise we’d wonder if there was any people to hold the Front for.”

“Well, if there weren’t, how’d the techniques have developed for holding on up here?” put in Had.

“Some of the Teccols I remember in the Great Valley might have developed enough techniques for that.”

“Yes, but think of all the pure science you need to work up the techniques from; I doubt if that could have been studied inside the Valley Teccols.”

“Possibly not—that’s a bit beyond me,” said the other’s voice a trifle huffily, and they stood on in silence till the next cable-car came up and round at the foot of the station. Had let the man get in it—he felt he owed him that—and a minute later (five seconds only, up in his first bunker, he suddenly thought ironically and parenthetically) the next car appeared. He swung himself in just as a very queer-looking purple bird with a long bare neck alighted on the stoat-lizards’ tree-fern. The cable-car sped down above the ravines and hollows, the violet southern curtain backing still more swiftly away from it. As the time-gradient became less steep, his brain began to function better and a sense of well-being and meaningfulness grew in him. The car’s speed slackened.

Had was glad he still wore his prot-suit when a couple of chemical explosions burst close to the cable line, presumably by chance, only fifty metres below him. He was even more glad of it when flying material from a third broke the cable itself well downslope and the emergency cable stopped him at the next pylon. He slid down the pylon’s lift and spoke with his transceiver close to the telephone at the foot. He was told to make west two miles to the next cable-car line. His interlocutor, he supposed, must be speaking from an exchange more or less on the same latitude as that of his pylon, since communication even here was still almost impossible north-south except at ranges of some metres. Even so, there was a squeaky sound about the other voice and its speech came out clipped and rapid. He supposed his own voice would sound gruff and drawled to the other.

Using his “walker,” he picked his way across ravines and gullies, steering by compass and watching the sight-barriers and the Doppler tint-equator ahead for yawing. “All very well for that man to talk about Teccols,” he thought, “but he must realise that no civilization could have evolved from anywhere as far north as the Great Valley: it’s far too young to have even evolved Men by itself—at least at this end; I’m not sure how far south the eastern end goes.”

The journey was not without its hazards: There were several nearby explosions, and what looked like a suspicious artificial miasma, easily overlooked, lay in two hollows which he decided to go round. Moreover, an enraged giant bear-sloth came at him in a mauve shrub-thicket and had to be eliminated with his quickgun. But to one who had just come down from that mountain-hell all this seemed like a pleasant stroll.

Finally he came upon the line of pylons and pressed the telephone button at the foot of the nearest, after checking that its latitude-number was nearly right. The same voice, a little less outlandish and rapid, told him a car would arrive in three-quarters of a minute and would be arranged to stop at his pylon; if it did not, he was to press the emergency button nearby. Despite his “walker,” nearly an hour had gone by since he set out by it. Perhaps ninety minutes had passed since he first left the top bunker—well over a minute and a half of their time there.

The car came and stopped, he scrambled up and in, and this time the journey passed without incident, except for occasional sudden squalls and the passage of flocks of nervous crows, until the car arrived at its terminus, a squat tower on the heathy slopes. The car below was coming up, and a man in it called through his transceiver as they crept past each other, “First of a bunch!” Sure enough, the terminus interior was filled with some twenty men all equipped—almost enough to have warranted sending them up by polyheli, thought Hadol, rather than wait for cars at long intervals. They looked excited and not at all cast down, but Hadol refrained from giving away his future. He passed on to the ratchet-car way and found himself one of a group of men more curious about the landscape than about their fellows. A deep reddish curtain of indeterminate thickness absorbed the shoulders of the heights about a quarter-mile northward, and the bluish fog terminated the view over the valley at nearly half a mile southward, but between the two the latitudinal zone was tolerably clear and devoid of obvious signs of war. Forests of pine and lower down of oak and ash covered the slopes, until finally these disappeared in the steepening edge of the Great Valley, whose meadows could however be glimpsed past the bluff. Swirling cloud-shadows played over the ground, skirts and tassels of rain and hail swept across it, and there was the occasional flash and rumble of a storm. Deer could be seen briefly here and there, and dense clouds of gnats danced above the trees.

A journey of some fifty minutes took them down, past two empty stations, through two looped tunnels and among waterfalls and under cliffs where squirrels leapt across from dangling root to root, through a steadily warmer and warmer air to the pastures and cornfields of the Great Valley, where a narrow village of concrete huts and wooden cabins, Emmel, nestled on a knoll above the winding river, and a great road ran straight to the east, parallel to a railway. The river was not, indeed, large here—a shallow, stony but attractive stream—and the Great Valley (all of whose breadth could now be seen) was at this western point no more than a third of a mile across. The southward slopes terminating the North-Western Plateau, now themselves visible, were rich in shrubland.

The utter contrast with what was going on above and, in top bunker time, perhaps four minutes ago, made Hadolar nearly drunk with enjoyment. However, he presented his luminous tag and had it (and his permanent checktab) checked for radiation, countersigned and stamped by the guard commander at the military terminal. The detachable piece at the end of the tag was given back to him to be slipped into the identity disc which was, as always, let into a slot in one of his ribs; the other portion was filed away. He got out of his prot-suit and “walker,” gave up his gun, ammunition, and em-kit, was given two wallets of one thousand credit tokens each and a temporary civsuit. An orderly achieved the identity-disc operation. The whole ceremony from his arrival took 250 seconds flat—two seconds up in the top bunker. He walked out like an heir to the earth.

The air was full of scents of hay, berries, flowers, manure. He took intoxicated gulps of it. At the freshouse he ordered, paid for, and drank four decis of light ale, then ordered a sandwich and an apple, paid and ate. The next train east, he was told, would be in a quarter of an hour. He had been in the place perhaps half an hour. No time to spend watching the stream, but he walked to the railhead, asked for a ticket to Veruam by the Sea some 400 miles east and, as the detailed station map showed him, about thirty miles south, paid, and selected a compartment when the train arrived from its shed.

A farm girl and a sleepy-looking male civilian, probably an army contractor, got in one after the other close behind Hadolar, and the compartment contained just these three when the train left. He looked at the farm girl with interest—she was blonde and placid—as the first female he had seen for a hundred days. Fashions had not changed radically in thirty-odd years, he saw, at least among Emmel farm-girls. After a while he averted his gaze and considered the landscape. The valley was edged by bluffs of yellowish stone now to north and now to south. Even here their difference in hue was perceptible—the valley had broadened slightly; or perhaps he was being fanciful and the difference was due solely to normal light-effects. The river meandered gracefully from side to side and from cliff to cliff, with occasional islands, small and crowned with hazel. Here and there a fisher could be seen by the bank, or wading in the stream. Farmhouses passed at intervals. North above the valley rose the great slopes, apparently devoid of signs of human life except for funicular stations and the occasional heliport, until they vanished into the vast crimson-bronze curtain of nothingness which grew insensibly out of a half cloud-covered green sky near the zenith. Swirls of whirlwind among the clouds told of the effects of the time-gradient on weather, and odd lightning-streaks, unnoticed further north amid the war, appeared to pirouette among them. To the south the plateau was still hidden by the height of the bluffs, but the beginnings of the dark blue haze grew out of the sky above the valley skyline. The train stopped at a station and the girl, Hadolar saw with a pang, got out. Two soldiers got in in light dress and swapped minor reminiscences: They were on short-term leave to the next stop, a small town, Granev, and eyed Hadolar’s temporary suit but said nothing.

Granev was mostly built of steel and glass: not an exciting place. It made a one-block twenty-storey five-mile strip on either side of the road, with over-pass-canopy. (How lucky, thought Hadolar, that speech and travel could go so far down this Great Valley without interlatitude problems: virtually the whole 450 miles.) Industry and some of the Teccols now appeared. The valley had broadened until, from the line, its southern cliffs began to drown in the blue haze half a mile off. Soon the northern slopes loomed a smoky ruddy brown before they, too, were swallowed up. The river, swollen by tributaries, was a few hundred metres across now and deep whenever the line crossed it. So far they had only gone fifty-odd miles. The air was warmer again and the vegetation more lush. Almost all the passengers were civilians now, and some noted Hadolar’s temporary suit ironically. He would buy himself a wardrobe at Veruam at the first opportunity, he decided. But at the moment he wished to put as many miles as possible between himself and that bunker in the shortest personal time.

• • • •

Some hours later the train arrived at Veruam by the North-Eastern Sea. Thirty miles long, forty storeys high, and 500 metres broad north-south, it was an imposing city. Nothing but plain was to be seen in the outskirts, for the reddish fog still obliterated everything about four miles to the north, and the bluish one smothered the view southward some seven. A well-fed Hadolaris visited one of the city’s Rehabilitation Advisors, for civilian techniques and material resources had advanced enormously since his last acquaintance with them, and idioms and speech-sounds had changed bewilderingly, while the whole code of social behaviour was terrifyingly different. Armed with some manuals, a pocket recorder, and some standard speechform and folkway tapes, he rapidly purchased thin clothing, stormwear, writing implements, further recording tools, lugbags and other personal gear. After a night at a good guestery, Hadolaris sought interviews with the employing offices of seven subtropical development agencies, was tested and, armed with seven letters of introduction, boarded the night liner mag-lev train for the south past the shore of the North-Eastern Sea and to Oluluetang some 360 miles south. One of the tailors who had fitted him up had revealed that on quiet nights very low-pitched rumblings were to be heard from, presumably, the mountains northward. Hadolaris wanted to get as far from that North as he conveniently could.

He awoke among palms and savannah-reeds. There was no sign of either sight-barrier down here. The city was dispersed into compact blocks of multistorey buildings, blocks separated by belts of rich woodland and drive-like roadways and monorails. Unlike the towns of the Great Valley, it was not arranged on an east-west strip, though its north-south axis was still relatively short. Hadolarisóndamo found himself a small guestery, studied a plan of the city and its factory areas, bought a guide to the district and settled down to several days of exploration and inquiry before visiting the seven agencies themselves. His evenings were spent in adult classes, his nights absorbing the speech-form recordings unconsciously in sleep. In the end, after nineteen days (about four hours at Veruam’s latitude, four minutes at that of Emmel, less than two seconds at the higher bunker, he reflected) he obtained employment as a minor sales manager of vegetable products in one of the organizations.

Communication north and south, he found, was possible verbally for quite a number of miles, provided one knew the rules. In consequence the zoning here was far from severe and travel and social facilities covered a very wide area. One rarely saw the military here. Hadolarisóndamo bought an automob and, as he rose in the organization’s hierarchy, a second one for pleasure. He found himself well liked and soon had a circle of friends and a number of hobbies. After a number of love affairs, he married a girl whose father was higher up in the organization, and, some five years after his arrival in the city, became the father of a boy.

• • • •

“Arisón!” called his wife from the boat. Their son, aged five, was puttering at the warm surface of the lake with his fists over the gunwale. Hadolarisóndamo was painting on the little island, quick lines and sweeps across the easelled canvas, a pattern of light and shade bursting out of the swamp trees over a little bay. “Arisón! I can’t get this thing to start. Could you swim over and try?”

“Five minutes more, Mihányo. Must get this down.”

Sighing, Karamihanyolàsve continued, but without much hope, to fish from the bows with her horizontal yo-yo gadget. Too quiet round here for a bite. A parakeet flashed in the branches to right. Derestó, the boy, stopped hitting the water, and pulled over the tube-window, let it into the lake and got Mihányo to slide on its lightswitch. Then he peered this way and that under the surface, giving little exclamations as tiny fish of various shapes and hues shot across. Presently Arisón called over, folded up his easel, pulled off his trousers, propped paints and canvas on top of everything, and swam over. There were no crocs in this lake, hippo were far off, filariasis and bilharzia had been eliminated here. Twenty minutes’ rather tense tinkering got things going, and the silent fuel-cell driven screw was ready to pilot them over to the painting island and thence across the lake to where a little stream’s current pushed out into the expanse. They caught four. Presently back under the westering sun to the jetty, tie-up, and home in the automob.

• • • •

By the time Derestó was eight and ready to be formally named Lafonderestónami, he had a sister of three and a baby brother of one. He was a keen swimmer and boatman, and was developing into a minor organizer, both at home and in school. Arisón was now third in the firm, but kept his balance. Holidays were spent either in the deep tropics (where one could gain on the time-exchange) or among the promontories on the southern shores of the North-Eastern Sea (where one had to lose), or, increasingly, in the agricultural stream-scored western uplands, where a wide vista of the world could in many areas be seen and the cloudscapes had full play. Even there the sight-barriers were a mere fogginess near the north and south horizons, backed by a darkness in the sky.

Now and then, during a bad night, Arisón thought about the “past.” He generally concluded that, even if a breakthrough had been imminent in, say, half an hour from his departure, this could hardly affect the lives of himself and his wife, or even of their children, down here in the south, in view of the time-contraction southwards. Also, he reflected, since nothing ever struck further south than a point north of Emmel’s latitude, the ballistic attacks must be mounted close to the Frontier; or if they were not, then the Enemy must lack all knowledge of either southern time-gradients or southern geography, so that the launching of missiles from well north of the Frontier to pass well south of it would not be worthwhile. And even the fastest heli which could be piloted against time conceleration would, he supposed, never get through.

Always adaptable, Arisón had never suffered long from the disabilities incident on having returned after a time at the Front. Mag-lev train travel and other communications had tended to unify the speech and the ethos, though naturally the upper reaches of the Great Valley and the military zone in the mountains of the North were linguistically and sociologically somewhat isolated. In the western uplands, too, pockets of older linguistic forms and old-fashioned attitudes still remained, as the family found on its holidays. By and large, however, the whole land spoke the tongue of the “contemporary” subtropical lowlands, inevitably modified of course by the onomatosyntomy or “shortmouth” of latitude. A “contemporary” ethical and social code had also spread. The southern present may be said to have colonized the northern past, even geological past, somewhat as the birds and other travelling animals had done, but with the greater resources of human wits, flexibility, traditions, and techniques.

Ordinary people bothered little about the war. Time conceleration was on their side. Their spare mental energies were spent in a vast selection of plays and ploys, making, representing, creating, relishing, criticizing, theorizing, discussing, arranging, organizing, co-operating, but not so often out of their own zone. Arisón found himself the member of a dozen interweaving circles, and Mihányo was even more involved. Not that they were never alone: The easy tempo of work and life with the double “week” of five days’ work, two days free, seven days’ work and six days free, the whole staggered across the population and in the organizations, left much leisure time which could be spent on their own selves. Arisón took up texture-sculpting, then returned after two years to painting, but with magneto-brush instead of spraypen; purified by his texture-sculpting period, he achieved a powerful area control and won something of a name for himself. Mihányo, on the other hand, became a musician. Derestó, it was evident, was going to be a handler of men and societies, besides having, at thirteen, entered the athletic age. His sister of eight was a great talker and arguer. The boy of six was, they hoped, going to be a writer, at least in his spare time: He had a keen eye for things, and a keen interest in telling about them. Arisón was content to remain, when he had reached it, second in the firm: A chiefship would have told on him too much. He occasionally lent his voice to the administration of local affairs, but took no major part.

• • • •

Mihányo and Arisón were watching a firework festival on the North-Eastern Sea from their launch, off one of the southern promontories. Up here, a fine velvety backdrop for the display was made by the inky black of the northern sight-barrier, which cut off the stars in a gigantic arc. Fortunately the weather was fine. The silhouettes of the firework boats could just be discerned. In a world which knew no moon, the pleasures of a “white night” were often only to be got by such displays. The girl and Derestó were swimming round and round the launch. Even the small boy had been brought out, and was rather blearily staring northward. Eventually the triple green star went up and the exhibition was over; at the firework boats a midnight had been reached. Derestó and Venoyyè were called in, located by a flare, and ultimately prevailed on to climb in, shivering slightly, and dry off in the hot-air blaster, dancing about like two imps. Arisón turned the launch for the shore and Silarrè was found to be asleep. So was Venoyyè when they touched the jetty. Their parents had each to carry one in and up to the beachouse.

Next morning, they packed and set out in the automob for home. Their twenty days’ holiday had cost 160 days of Oluluetang time. Heavy rain was falling when they reached the city. Mihányo, when the children were settled in, had a long talk on the opsiphone with her friend across the breadth of Oluluetang: She (the friend) had been with her husband badger-watching in the western uplands. Finally, Arisón chipped in and, after general conversation, exchanged some views with the husband on developments in local politics.

“Pity one grows old so fast down here,” lamented Mihányo that evening; “if only life could go on for ever!”

“Forever is a big word. Besides, being down here makes no difference to the feeling—you don’t feel it any slower up on the Sea, do you, now?”

“I suppose not. But if only . . .”

To switch her mood, Arisón began to talk about Derestó and his future. Soon they were planning their children’s lives for them in the way parents cannot resist doing. With his salary and investments in the firm they would set up the boy for a great administrator, and still have enough to give the others every opportunity.

Next morning it was still in something of a glow that Arisón bade farewell to his wife and went off to take up his work in the offices. He had an extremely busy day and was coming out of the gates in the waning light to his automob in its stall, when he found standing round it three of the military. He looked inquiringly at them as he approached with his personal pulse-key in hand.

“You are VSQ 389 MLD 194 RV 27 XN 3, known as Hadolarisóndamo, resident at” (naming the address) “and subpresident today in this firm.” The cold tones of the leader were a statement, not a question.

“Yes,” whispered Arisón as soon as he could speak.

“I have a warrant for your immediate re-employment with our Forces in the place at which you first received your order for Release. You must come with us forthwith.” The leader produced a luminous orange tag with black markings.

“But my wife and family!”

“They are being informed. We have no time.”

“My firm?”

“Your chief is being informed. Come now.”

“I—I—I must set my affairs in order.”

“Impossible. No time. Urgent situation. Your family and firm must do all that between them. Our orders override everything.”

“Wh—wh—what is your authority? Can I see it, please?”

“This tag should suffice. It corresponds to the tagend which I hope you still have in your identity disc—we will check all that en route. Come on now.”

“But I must see your authority, how do I know, for instance, that you are not trying to rob me, or something?”

“If you know the code you’ll realise that these symbols can only fit one situation. But I’ll stretch a point: You may look at this warrant, but don’t touch it.”

The other two closed in. Arisón saw that they had their quickguns trained on him. The leader pulled out a broad screed. Arisón, as well as the dancing characters would let him, resolved them in the light of the leader’s torch into an order to collect him, Arisón, by today at such and such a time, local Time, if possible immediately on his leaving his place of work (specified); and below, that one man be detailed to call Mihányo by opsiphone simultaneously, and another to call the president of the organization. The Remployee and escort to join the military mag-lev train to Veruam (which was leaving within about fifteen minutes). The Remployee to be taken as expeditiously as possible to the bunker (VV) and thence to the higher bunker (from which he had come some twenty years before, but only about ten minutes in the Time of that bunker, it flashed through Arisón’s brain—apart from six or seven minutes corresponding to his journey south).

“How do they know if I’m fit enough for this job after all these years?”

“They’ve kept checks on you, no doubt.”

Arisón thought of tripping one and slugging two and doing a bolt, but the quickguns of the two were certainly trained upon him. Besides, what would that gain him? A few hours’ start, with unnecessary pain, disgrace, and ruin on Mihányo, his children, and himself, for he was sure to be caught.

“The automob,” he said ridiculously.

“A small matter. Your firm will deal with that.”

“How can I settle my children’s future?”

“Come on, no use arguing. You are coming now, alive or dead, fit or unfit.”

Speechless, Arisón let himself be marched off to a light military vehicle.

In five minutes he was in the mag-lev train, an armoured affair with strong windows. In ten more minutes, with the train moving off, he was stripped of his civilian clothes and possessions (to be returned later to his wife, he learnt), had his identity disc extracted and checked and its Relief tagend removed, and a medical checkup was begun on him. Apparently this was satisfactory to the military authorities. He was given military clothing.

He spent a sleepless night in the train trying to work out what he had done with this, what would be made of that, who Mihányo could call upon in need, who would be likely to help her, how she would manage with the children, what (as nearly as he could work it out) they would get from a pension which he was led to understand would be forthcoming from his firm, how far they could carry on with their expected future.

A grey pre-dawn saw the train’s arrival at Veruam. Foodless (he had been unable to eat any of the rations) and without sleep, he gazed vacantly at the marshalling-yards. The body of men travelling on the train (apparently only a few were Remployees) were got into closed trucks and the long convoy set out for Emmel.

At this moment Hadolaris’ brain began to re-register the conceleration situation. About half a minute must have passed since his departure from Oluluetang, he supposed, in the Time of his top bunker. The journey to Emmel might take up another two minutes. The route from Emmel to that bunker might take a further two and a half minutes there, as far as one could work out the calculus. Add the twenty-years’ (and southward journey’s) sixteen to seventeen minutes, and he would find himself in that bunker not more than some twenty-two minutes after he had left it. (Mihan, Deres, and the other two would all be nearly ten years older and the children would have begun to forget him.) The blitz was unprecedentedly intense when he had left, and he could recall (indeed it had figured in several nightmares since) his prophecy to XN 1 that a breakthrough might be expected within the hour. If he survived the blitz, he was unlikely to survive a breakthrough; and a breakthrough of what? No one had ever seen the Enemy, this Enemy that for Time immemorial had been striving to get across the Frontier. If it got right over, the twilight of the race was at hand. No horror, it was believed at the Front, could equal the horror of that moment. After a hundred miles or so he slept, from pure exhaustion, sitting up in a cramped position, wedged against the next man. Stops and starts and swerves woke him at intervals. The convoy was driving at maximum speeds.

At Emmel he stumbled out to find a storm lashing down. The river was in spate. The column was marched to the depot. Hadolar was separated out and taken in to the terminal building where he was given inoculations, issued with “walker,” quickgun, em-kit, prot-suit, and other impedimenta, and in a quarter of an hour (perhaps seven or eight seconds up at the top bunker) found himself entering a polyheli with thirty other men. This had barely topped the first rise and into sunlight when explosions and flarings were visible on all sides. The machine forged on, the sight-curtains gradually closing up behind and retreating grudgingly before it. The old Northern vertigo and somnambulism re-engulfed Had. To think of Kar and their offspring now was to tap the agony of a ghost who shared his brain and body. After twenty-five minutes they landed close to the foot of a mag-lev train line. The top-bunker lapse of “twenty-two minutes” was going, Had saw, to be something less. He was the third to be bundled into the mag-lev train compartments, and 190 seconds saw him emerging at the top and heading for bunker VV. XN 1 greeted his salute merely with a curt command to proceed by rocket to the top bunker. A few moments more and he was facing XN 2.

“Ah, here you are. Your Relief was killed so we sent back for you. You’d only left a few seconds.” A ragged hole in the bunker wall testified to the incident. The relief’s cadaver, stripped, was being carted off to the disposal machine.

“XN 2. Things are livelier than ever. They certainly are hot stuff. Every new offensive from here is pitched back at us in the same style within minutes, I notice. That new cannon had only just started up when back came the same shells—I never knew They had them. Tit for tat.”

Into H’s brain, seemingly clarified by hunger and exhaustion and much emotion, flashed an unspeakable suspicion, one that he could never prove or disprove, having too little knowledge and experience, too little overall view. No one had ever seen the Enemy. No one knew how or when the War had begun. Information and communication were paralysingly difficult up here. No one knew what really happened to Time as one came close to the Frontier, or beyond it. Could it be that the conceleration there became infinite and that there was nothing beyond the Frontier? Could all the supposed missiles of the Enemy be their own, somehow returning? Perhaps the war had started with a peasant explorer lightheartedly flinging a stone northwards, which returned and struck him? Perhaps there was, then, no Enemy?

“XN 3. Couldn’t that gun’s own shells be reflected back from the Frontier, then?”

“XN 2. Impossible. Now you are to try to reach that forward missile post by the surface—our tunnel is destroyed—at 15º 40’ East—you can just see the hump near the edge of the I/R viewer’s limit—with this message; and tell him verbally to treble output.”

The ragged hole was too small. H left by the forward port. He ran, on his “walker,” into a ribbon of landscape which became a thicket of fire, a porcupine of fire, a Nessus-shirt to the Earth, as in a dream. Into an unbelievable supercrescendo of sound, light, heat, pressure, and impacts he ran, on and on up the now almost invisible slope . . .

David I. Masson

David I MassonDavid Irvine Masson was born in Edinburgh from a distinguished family of academics and thinkers. Although his output was small and consisted entirely of short stories, he gained a reputation as a writer of vigorous experimental SF. All of his short science fiction is published in the collection The Caltraps of Time. He died in Leeds in 2007.