HE was a lean man, middle-aged, with grease-stained hair and skin, a crumpled cigarette between his teeth, his left hand clamped around the wheel of his car. The car, an ex-commercial surface truck, rumbled noisily but smoothly as it ascended the outgoing ramp and approached the check-gate that terminated the commune area.
"Slow down," his wife said. "There's the guard sitting on that pile of crates."
Ed Garby rode the brake; the car settled grimly into a long glide that ended directly in front of the guard. In the back seat of the car the twins fretted restlessly, already bothered by the gummy heat oozing through the top and windows of the car. Down his wife's smooth neck great drops of perspiration slid. In her arms the baby twisted and struggled feebly.
"How's she?" Ed muttered to his wife, indicating the wad of gray, sickly flesh that poked from the soiled blanket.
The guard came strolling over indifferently, sleeves rolled up, rifle slung over his shoulder. "What say, mac?" Resting his big hands in the open window, he gazed dully into the interior of the car, observing the man and wife, the children, the dilapidated upholstery. "Going outside awhile? Let's see your pass."
Ed got out the crumpled pass and handed it over. "I got a sick child."
The guard examined the pass and returned it. "Better take her down to sixth level. You got a right to use the infirmary; you live in this dump like the rest of us."
"No," Ed said. "I'm taking no child of mine down to that butchery."
The guard shook his head in disagreement. "They got good equipment, mac. High-powered stuff left over from the war. Take her down there and they'll fix her up." He waved toward the desolate expanse of dry trees and hills that lay beyond the check-gate. "What do you think you'll find out there? You going to dump her somewhere? Toss her in a creek? Down a well? It's none of my business, but I wouldn't take a dog out there, let alone a sick child."
Ed started up the motor. "I'm getting help out there. Take a child down to sixth and they make her a laboratory animal. They experiment, cut her up, throw her away and say they couldn't save her. They got used to doing that in the war; they never stopped."
"Suit yourself," the guard said, moving away from the car. "Myself, I'd sooner trust military doctors with equipment than some crazy old quack living out in the ruins. Some savage heathen tie a bag of stinking dung around her neck, mumble nonsense and wave and dance around." He shouted furiously after the car: "Damn fools--going back to barbarism, when you got doctors and X-rays and serums down on sixth! Why the hell do you want to go out in the ruins when you've got a civilization here?"
He wandered glumly back to his crates. And added, "What there is left of it."
Arid land, as dry and parched as dead skin, lay on both sides of the rutted tracks that made up the road. A harsh rattle of noonday wind shook the gaunt trees jutting here and there from the cracked, baking soil. An occasional drab bird fluttered in the thick underbrush, heavy-set gray shapes that scratched peevishly in search of grubs.
Behind the car the white concrete walls of the commune faded and were lost in the distance. Ed Garby watched them go apprehensively; his hands convulsively jerked as a twist in the road cut off the radar towers posted on the hills overlooking the commune.
"Damn it," he muttered thickly, "maybe he was right; maybe we're making a mistake." Doubts shivered through his mind. The trip was dangerous; even heavily-armed scavenger parties were attacked by predatory animals and by the wild bands of quasi-humans living in the abandoned ruins littered across the planet All he had to protect himself and his family was his hand-operated cutting tool. He knew how to use it, of course; didn't he grind it into a moving belt of reclaimed wreckage ten hours a day every day of the week? But if the motor of the car failed . . .
"Stop worrying," Barbara said quietly. "I've been along here before, and there's nothing ever gone wrong."
He felt shame and guilt: his wife had crept outside the commune many times, along with other women and wives; and with some of the men, too. A good part of the proletariat left the commune, with and without passes ... anything to break the monotony of work and educational lectures. But his fear returned. It wasn't the physical menace that bothered him, or even unfamiliar separation from the vast submerged tank of steel and concrete in which he had been born and in which he had grown up, spent his life, worked and married. It was the realization that the guard had been right, that he was sinking into ignorance and superstition, that made his skin turn cold and clammy, in spite of the baking midsummer heat.
"Women always lead it," he said aloud. "Men built machines, organized science, cities. Women have their potions and brews. I guess we're seeing the end of reason. We're seeing the last remnants of rational society."
"What's a city?" one of the twins asked.
"You're seeing one now," Ed answered. He pointed beyond the road. "Take a good look."
The trees had ended. The baked surface of brown earth had faded to a dull metallic glint. An uneven plain stretched out, bleak and dismal, a pocked surface of jagged heaps and pits. Dark weeds grew here and there. An occasional wall remained standing; at one point a bathtub lay on its side like a dead, toothless mouth, deprived of face and head.
The region had been picked over countless times. Everything of value had been loaded up and trucked to the various communes in the area. Along the road were neat heaps of bones, collected but never utilized. Use had been found for cement rubble, iron scrap, wiring, plastic tubing, paper and cloth--but not for bones.
"You mean people lived there?" the twins protested simultaneously. Disbelief and horror showed on their faces. "It's--awful."
The road divided. Ed slowed the car down and waited for his wife to direct him. "Is it far?" he demanded hoarsely. "This place gives me the creeps. You can't tell what's hanging around in those cellars. We gassed them back in '09, but it's probably worn off by now."
"To the right," Barbara said. "Beyond that hill, there."
Ed shifted into low-low and edged the car past a ditch, onto a side road. "You really think this old woman has the power?" he asked helplessly. "I hear so damn much stuff-- I never know what's true and what's hogwash. There's always supposed to be some old hag that can raise the dead and read the future and cure the sick. People've been reporting that stuff for five thousand years."
"And for five thousand years such things have been happening." His wife's voice was placid, confident. "They're always there to help us. All we have to do is go to them. I saw her heal Mary Fulsome's son; remember, he had that withered leg and couldn't walk. The medics wanted to destroy him."
"According to Mary Fulsome," Ed muttered harshly.
The car nosed its way between dead branches of ancient trees. The ruins fell behind; abruptly the road plunged into a gloomy thicket of vines and shrubs that shut out the sunlight. Ed blinked, then snapped on the dim headlights. They flickered on as the car ground its way up a rutted hill, around a narrow curve . . . and then the road ceased.
They had reached their destination. Four rusty cars blocked the road; others were parked on the shoulders and among the twisted trees. Beyond the cars stood a group of silent people, men and their families, in the drab uniforms of commune workers. Ed pulled on the brake and fumbled for the ignition key; he was astounded at the variety of communes represented. All the nearby communes, and distant ones he had never encountered. Some of the waiting people had come hundreds of miles.
"There's always people waiting," Barbara said. She kicked open the bent door and carefully slid out, the baby in her arms. "People come here for all kinds of help, whenever they're in need."
Beyond the crowd was a crude wooden building, shabby and dilapidated, a patched-together shelter of the war years. A gradual line of waiting persons was being conducted up the rickety steps and into the buildings; for the first time Ed caught sight of those whom he had come to consult.
"Is that the old woman?" he demanded, as a thin, withered shape appeared briefly at the top of the steps, glanced over the waiting people, and selected one. She conferred with a plump man, and then a muscular giant joined the discussion.
"My God," Ed said, "is there an organization of them?"
"Different ones do different things," Barbara answered. Clutching the baby tight, she edged her way forward into the waiting mass of people. "We want to see the healer-- we'll have to stand with that group over to the right, waiting by that tree."
Porter sat in the kitchen of the shelter, smoking and drinking coffee, his feet up on the windowsill, vaguely watching the snuffing line of people moving through the front door and into the various rooms.
"A lot of them, today," he said to Jack. "What we need is a flat cover-charge."
Jack grunted angrily and shook back his mane of blond hair. "Why aren't you out helping instead of sitting here guzzling coffee?"
"Nobody wants to peep into the future." Porter belched noisily; he was plump and flabby, blue-eyed, with thin damp hair. "When somebody wants to know if they're going to strike it rich or marry a beautiful woman I'll be there in my booth to advise them."
"Fortune-telling," Jack muttered. He stood restlessly by the window, great arms folded, face stern with worry. "That's what we're down to."
"I can't help that they ask me. One old geezer asked me when he was going to die; when I told him thirty-one days he turned red as a beet and started screaming at me. One thing, I'm honest. I tell them the truth, not what they want to hear." Porter grinned. "I'm not a quack."
"How long has it been since somebody asked you something important?"
"You mean something of abstract significance?" Porter lazily searched his mind. "Last week a fellow asked me if there'd ever be interplanetary ships again. I told him not that I could see."
"Did you also tell him you can't see worth a damn? A half year at the most?"
Porter's toad-like face bloomed contentedly. "He didn't ask me that."
The thin, withered old woman entered the kitchen briefly. "Lord," Thelma gasped, sinking down in a chair and pouring herself coffee. "I'm exhausted. And there must be fifty of them out there waiting to get healed." She examined her shaking hands. "Two bone cancers in one day about finishes me. I think the baby will survive, but the other's too far gone even for me. The baby will have to come back." Her voice trailed off wearily. "Back again next week."
"It'll be slower tomorrow," Porter predicted. "Ash storm down from Canada will keep most of them at their communes. Of course, after that--" He broke off and eyed Jack curiously. "What are you upset about? Everybody's growling around, today."
"I just came from Butterford," Jack answered moodily. "I'm going back later and try again."
Thelma shuddered. Porter looked away uneasily; he disliked hearing about conversations with a man whose bones were piled in the basement of the shelter. An almost superstitious fear drifted through the plump body of the precog. It was one thing to preview the future; seeing ahead was a positive, progressive talent. But returning to the past, to men already dead, to cities now turned to ash and rubble, places erased from the maps, participating in events long since forgotten--it was a sickly, neurotic rehashing of what had already been. Picking and stirring among the bones--literally bones--of the past.
"What did he say?" Thelma asked.
"The same as always," Jack answered.
"How many times is this?"
Jack's lips twisted. "Eleven times. And he knows it--I told him."
Thelma moved from the kitchen, out into the hall. "Back to work." She lingered at the door. "Eleven times and always the same. I've been making computations. How old are you, Jack?"
"How old do I look?"
"About thirty. You were born in 1946. This is 2017. That makes you seventy-one years old. I'd say I'm talking to an entity about a third of the way along. Where's your current entity?"
"You should be able to figure that. Back in '76."
Jack didn't answer. He knew perfectly well what his entity of this date, 2017, was doing back in the past. The old man of seventy-one years was lying in a medical hospital at one of the military centers, receiving treatment for a gradually worsening nephritis. He shot a quick glance at Porter to see if the precog was going to volunteer information previewed from the future. There was no expression on Porter's languid features, but that proved nothing. He'd have to get Stephen to probe into Porter if he really wanted to be sure.
Like the common workers who filed in daily to learn if they were going to strike it rich and marry happily, he wanted vitally to know the date of his own death. He had to know--it went beyond mere wanting.
He faced Porter squarely. "Let's have it. What do you see about me in the next six months?"
Porter yawned. "Am I supposed to orate the whole works? It'll take hours."
Jack relaxed, weak with relief. Then he would survive another six months, at least. In that he could bring to a successful completion his discussions with General Ernest Butterford, chief of staff of the armed forces of the United States. He pushed past Thelma and out of the kitchen.
"Where are you going?" she demanded.
"Back to see Butterford again. I'm going to make one more try."
"You always say that," Thelma complained peevishly.
"And I always am," Jack said. Until I'm dead, he thought bitterly, resentfully. Until the half conscious old man lying in the hospital bed at Baltimore, Maryland, passes away or is destroyed to make room for some wounded private carted by boxcar from the front lines, charged by Soviet napalm, crippled by nerve gas, insane from metallic ash-particles. When the ancient corpse was thrown out--and it wouldn't be long--there would be no more discussion with General Butterford.
First, he descended the stairs to the supply lockers in the basement of the shelter. Doris lay asleep on her bed in the corner, dark hair like cobwebs over her coffee-colored features, one bare arm raised, a heap of clothing strewn on the chair beside the bed. She awoke sleepily, stirred, and half sat up.
"What time is it?"
Jack glanced at his wristwatch. "One-thirty in the afternoon." He began opening one of the intricate locks that sealed in their supplies. Presently he slid a metal case down a rail and onto the cement floor. He swung an overhead light around and clicked it on.
The girl watched with interest "What are you doing?" She tossed her covers back and got to her feet, stretched, and padded barefoot over to him. "I could have brought it out for you without all that work."
From the lead-lined case Jack removed the carefully stacked heap of bones and remnants of personal possessions: wallet, identification papers, photographs, fountain pen, bits of tattered uniform, a gold wedding ring, some silver coins.
"He died under difficulties," Jack murmured. He examined the data-tape, made sure it was complete, and then slammed shut the case. "I told him I would bring this. Of course, he won't remember."
"Each time erases the last?" Doris wandered over to get her clothes. "It's really the same time again and again, isnt it?"
"The same interval," Jack admitted, "but there's no repetition of material."
Doris eyed him slyly as she struggled into her jeans. "Some repetition ... it always comes out the same, no matter what you do. Butterford goes ahead and presents his recommendations to the President."
Jack didn't hear her. He had already moved back, taken his series of steps along the time-path. The basement, Doris' half-dressed figure, wavered and receded, as if seen through the bottom of a glass gradually filled with opaque liquid. Darkness, mixed with shifting textures of density, wavered around him as he walked sternly forward, the metal case gripped. Backward, actually. He was retreating along the direction in which the flow itself moved. Changing places with an earlier John Tremaine, the pimple-faced boy of sixteen who had trudged dutifully to high school, in the year 1962 A. D. in the city of Chicago, Illinois. This was a switch he had made many times. His younger entity should be resigned, by now . . . but he hoped idly that Doris would be finished dressing when the boy emerged.
The darkness that was no-time dwindled, and he blinked in a sudden torrent of yellow sunlight. Still gripping his metal case he made the final step backward and found himself in the center of a vast murmuring room. People drifted on all sides; several gaped at him, paralyzed with astonishment. For a moment he couldn't place the spatial location--and then memory came, a swift bitter flood of nostalgia.
He was back in the high school library where he had spent much time. The familiar place of books and bright-faced youths, gaily-dressed girls giggling and studying and flirting . . . young people totally oblivious of the approaching war. The mass death that would leave nothing of this city but dead, drifting ash.
He hurried from the library, conscious of the circle of bewilderment he had left behind. It was awkward to make a switch in which the passive entity was near other people; the abrupt transformation of a sixteen-year-old high school boy into the stern, towering figure of a thirty-year-old man was difficult to assimilate, even in a society theoretically aware of Psionic powers.
Theoretically--because at this date public consciousness was minimal. Awe and disbelief were the primary emotions; the surge of hopefulness hadn't begun. Psi-powers seemed miraculous only; the realization that these powers were at the disposal of the public wouldn't set in for a number of years.
He emerged on the busy Chicago street and hailed a taxi. The roar of buses, autos, the metallic swirl of buildings and people and signs, dazed him. Activity on all sides: the ordinary harmless routines of the common citizen, remote from the lethal planning at top levels. The people on all sides of him were about to be traded for the chimera of international prestige . . . human life for metaphysical phantoms. He gave the cabdriver the address of Butterford's hotel suite and settled back to prepare himself for the familiar encounter.
The first steps were routine. He gave his identification to the battery of armed guards, was checked, searched, and processed into the suite. For fifteen minutes he sat in a luxurious anteroom smoking and restlessly waiting-as always. There were no alterations he could make here: the changes, if they were to materialize, came later.
"Do you know who I am?" he began bluntly, when the tiny, suspicious head of General Butterford was stuck from an inner office. He advanced grimly, case gripped. "This is the twelfth visit; there had better be results this time."
Butterford's deep-set little eyes danced hostilely behind his thick glasses. "You're one of those supermen," he squeaked. "Those Psionics." He blocked the door with his wizened, uniformed body. "Well? What do you want? My time's valuable."
Jack seated himself facing the general's desk and corps of aides. "You have the analysis of my talent and history in your hands. You know what I can do."
Butterford glanced hostilely at the report. "You move into time. So?" His eyes narrowed. "What do you mean, twelfth time?" He grabbed up a heap of memoranda. "I've never seen you before. State what you have to say and then get out; I'm busy."
"I have a present for you," Jack said grimly. He carried the metal case to the desk, unsnapped it, and exposed the contents. "They belong to you--go ahead, take them out and run your hands over them."
Butterford gazed with revulsion at the bones. "What is this, some sort of anti-war exhibit? Are you Psis mixed up with those Jehovah's Witnesses?" His voice rose shrilly, resentfully. "Is this something you expect to pressure me with?"
"These are your goddamn bones!" Jack shouted in the man's face. He overturned the case; the contents spilled out on the desk and floor. "Touch them! You're going to die in this war, like everybody else. You're going to suffer and die hideously--they're going to get you with bacterial poisons one year and six days from this date. You'll live long enough to see the total destruction of organized society and then you'll go the way of everybody else!"
It would have been easier if Butterford were a coward. He sat gazing down at the tattered remains, the coins and pictures and rusting possessions, his face white, body stiff as metal. "I don't know whether to believe you," he said finally. "I never really believed any of this Psi-stuff."
"That's totally untrue," Jack answered hotly. "There isn't a government on the planet ignorant of us. You and the Soviet Union have been trying to organize us since '58, when we made ourselves known."
The discussion was on ground that Butterford understood. His eyes blazed furiously. "That's the whole point! If you Psis cooperated there wouldn't be those bones." He jabbed wildly at the pale heap on the desk. "You come here and blame me for the war. Blame yourselves--you won't put your shoulders to the wheel. How can we hope to come out of this war unless everybody does his part?" He leaned meaningfully toward Jack. "You came from the future, you say. Tell me what you Psis are going to do in the war. Tell me the part you're going to play."
Butterford settled back triumphantly. "You're going to stand idly by?"
"And you came here to blame me?"
"If we help," Jack said carefully, "we help at policy level, not as hired servants. Otherwise, we will stand on the sidelines, waiting. We're available, but if winning the war depends on us, we want to say how that war will be won. Or whether there'll be a war at all." He slammed the metal case shut. "Otherwise, we might become apprehensive, as the scientists did in the middle fifties. We might begin to lose our enthusiasm ... and also become bad security risks."
In Jack's mind a voice spoke, thin and bitter. A telepathic member of the Guild, a Psi of the present, monitoring the discussion from the New York office. "Very well-spoken. But you've lost. You lack the ability to maneuver him ... all you've done is defend our position. You haven't even brought up the possibility of changing his."
It was true. Desperately, Jack said: "I didn't come back here to state the Guild's position--you know our position! I came to lay the facts out in front of you. I came here from 2017. The war is over. Only a remnant survives. These are the facts, events that have taken place. You're going to recommend to the President that the United States call Russia's bluff on Java." His words came out individually, icily. "It's not a bluff. It means total war. Your recommendation is in error."
Butterford bristled. "You want us to back down? Let them take over the free world?"
Twelve times: impasse. He had accomplished nothing. "You'd go into the war knowing you can't win?"
"We'll fight," Butterford said. "Better an honorable war than a dishonorable peace."
"No war is honorable. War means death, barbarism, and mass destruction."
"What does peace mean?"
"Peace means the growth of the Guild. In fifty years our presence will shift the ideology of both blocs. We're above the war; we straddle both worlds. There're Psis here and in Russia; we're part of no country. The scientists could have been that, once. But they chose to cooperate with national governments. Now it's up to us."
Butterford shook his head. "No," he said firmly. "You're not going to influence us. We make policy ... if you act, you act in line with our directives. Or you don't act. You stay out."
"We'll stay out."
Butterford leaped up. "Traitors!" he shouted as Jack left the office. "You don't have a choice! We demand your abilities! We'll hunt you out and grab you one by one. You've got to cooperate--everybody's got to cooperate. This is total war!"
The door closed, and he was in the anteroom.
"No, there isn't any hope," the voice in his mind stated bleakly. "I can prove that you've done this twelve times. And you're contemplating a thirteenth. Give up. The withdrawal order has been given out already. When the war begins we'll be aloof."
"We ought to help!" Jack said futilely. "Not the war-- we ought to help them, the people who're going to be killed by the millions."
"We can't. We're not gods. We're only humans with paratalents. We can help, if they accept us, allow us to help. We can't force our views on them. We can't force the Guild in, if the governments don't want us."
Gripping the metal case, Jack headed numbly down the stairs, toward the street. Back to the high school library.
At the dinner table, with black night lying outside the shelter, he faced the other surviving Guild members. "So here we are. Outside society--doing nothing. Not harming and not helping. Useless!" He smashed his fist convulsively against the rotting wooden wall. "Peripheral and useless, and while we sit here the communes fall apart and what's left collapses."
Thelma spooned up her soup impassively. "We heal the sick, read the future, offer advice, and perform miracles."
"We've been doing that thousands of years," Jack answered bitterly. "Sibyls, witches, perched on deserted hills outside towns. Can't we get in and help? Do we always have to be on the outside, we who understand what's going on? Watching the blind fools lead mankind to destruction! Couldn't we have stopped the war, forced peace on them?"
Porter said languidly, "We don't want to force anything on them, Jack. You know that. We're not their masters. We want to help them, not control them."
The meal continued in gloomy silence. Doris said presently, "The trouble is with the governments. It's the politicians who're jealous of us." She smiled mournfully across the table at Jack. "They know if we had our way, a time would come when politicians wouldn't be needed."
Thelma attacked her plate of dried beans and broiled rabbit in a thin paste of gravy. "There isn't much of a government, these days. It isn't like it was before the war. You can't really call a few majors sitting around in commune offices a government."
"They make the decisions," Porter pointed out. "They decided what commune policy will be."
"I know of a commune up north," Stephen said, "in which the workers killed the officers and took over. They're dying out. It won't be long before they're extinct."
Jack pushed his plate away and got to his feet. "I'm going out on the porch." He left the kitchen, crossed through the deserted living room and opened the steel-reinforced front door. Cold evening wind swirled around him as he blindly felt his way to the railing and stopped, hands in his pockets, gazing sightlessly out at the vacant field.
The rusty fleet of cars was gone. Nothing stirred except the withered trees, along the road, dry rustles in the restless night wind. A dismal sight; overhead a few stars glowed fitfully. Far off somewhere an animal crashed after its prey, a wild dog or perhaps a quasi-human living down in the ruined cellars of Chicago.
After a time Doris appeared behind him. Silently, she came up and stood next to him, a slim dark shape in the night gloom, her arms folded against the cold. "You're not going to try again?" she asked softly.
"Twelve is enough. I--can't change him. I don't have the ability. I'm not adroit enough." Jack spread his massive hands miserably. "He's a clever little chicken of a thing. Like Thelma--scrawny and full of talk. Again and again I get back there--and what can I do?"
Doris touched his arm wistfully. "How does it look? I never saw cities full of life, before the war. Remember, I was born in a military camp."
"You'd like it. People laughing and hurrying. Cars, signs, life everywhere. It drives me crazy. I wish I couldn't see it--to be able to step from here to there." He indicated the twisted trees. "Ten steps back from those trees, and there it is. And yet it's gone forever ... even for me. There'll be a time when I can't step there either, like the rest of you."
Doris failed to understand him. "Isn't it strange?" she murmured. "I can move anything in the world, but I can't move myself back, the way you do." She made a slight flutter of her hands; in the darkness something slapped against the rail of the porch and she bent over to retrieve it. "See the pretty bird? Stunned, not dead." She tossed the bird up and it managed to struggle off into the shrubs. "I've got so I only stun them."
Jack wasn't pleased. "That's what we do with our talents. Tricks, games. Nothing more."
"That isn't so!" Doris objected. 'Today when I got up, there was a bunch of doubters. Stephen caught their thoughts and sent me out." Pride tingled in her voice. "I brought an underground spring up to the surface--it burst out everywhere and got them all soaked, before I sent it back. They were convinced."
"Did it ever occur to you," Jack said, "that you could make it possible for them to rebuild their cities?"
"They don't want to rebuild cities."
"They don't think they can. They've given up the idea of rebuilding. It's a lost concept." He brooded unhappily. "There's too many millions of miles of ruined ash, and too few people. They don't even try to unify the communes."
"They have radios," Doris pointed out. "They can talk to each other, if they want."
"If they use them, the war will start up again. They know there're pockets of fanatics left who'd be happy to start the war, given half the chance. They'd rather sink into barbarism than get that started." He spat into the weedy bushes growing beneath the porch. "I don't blame them."
"If we controlled the communes," Doris said thoughtfully, "we wouldn't start up the war. We'd unify them on a peaceful basis."
"You're playing all sides at once," Jack said angrily. "A minute ago you were performing miracles--where'd this thought come from?"
Doris hesitated. "Well, I was just passing it on. I guess Stephen really said it, or thought it. I just spoke it out loud."
"You enjoy being a mouthpiece for Stephen?"
Doris fluttered fearfully. "My God, Jack--he can probe you. Don't say things like that!"
Jack stepped away from her and down the porch steps. He rapidly crossed the dark, silent field, away from the shelter. The girl hurried after him.
"Don't walk off," she gasped breathlessly. "Stephen's just a kid. He's not like you, grown-up and big. Mature."
Jack laughed upward at the black sky. "You damn fool. Do you know how old I am?"
"No," Doris said, "and don't say. I know you're older than I am. You've always been around; I remember you when I was just a kid. You were always big and strong and blond." She giggled nervously. "Of course, all those others . . . those different persons, old and young. I don't really understand, but they're all you, I guess. Different yous along your time-path."
"That's right," Jack said tightly. "They're all me." "That one today, when you switched down in the basement, when I was sleeping." Doris caught his arm and rucked her cold fingers around his wrist. "Just a kid, with books under his arm, in a green sweater and brown slacks."
"Sixteen years old," Jack muttered. "He was cute. Shy, flustered. Younger than I am. We went upstairs and he watched the crowd; that was when Stephen called me to do the miracle. He--I mean, you-- stood around so interested. Porter kidded him. Porter doesn't mean any harm--he likes to eat and sleep and that's about all. He's all right. Stephen kidded him, too. I don't think Stephen liked him."
"You mean he doesn't like me."
"I--guess you know how we feel. All of us, to some degree . . . we wonder why you keep going back again and again, trying to patch up the past. The past is over! Maybe not to you . . . but it really is over. You can't change it; the war came, this is all ruined, only remnants are left. You said it yourself: why are we on the outside? We could so easily be on the inside." Childish excitement thrilled through her; she pushed against him eagerly, carried away by her flow of words. "Forget the past--let's work with the present! The material is here; the people, the objects. Let's move it all around. Pick it up, set it down." She lifted a grove of trees a mile away; the whole top of a line of hills burst loose, rose high in the air, and then disslved in booming fragments. "We can take things apart and put them back together!"
"I'm seventy-one years old," Jack said. "There isn't going to be any putting together for me. And I'm through picking over the past. I'm not going to try anymore. You can all rejoice . . . I'm finished."
She tugged at him fiercely. "Then it's up to the rest of us!"
If he had Porter's talent he could see beyond his death. Porter would, at some future time, view his own corpse stretched out, view his burial, continue to live month after month, while his plump corpse rotted underground. Porter's bovine contentedness was possible in a man who could preview the future. . . . Jack twisted wretchedly as anguished uncertainty ached through him. After the dying old man in the military hospital reached the inevitable end of his life-span--what then? What happened here, among the survivors of the Guild?
Beside him, the girl babbled on. The possibilities he had suggested: real material to work with, not tricks or miracles. For her, the possibilities of social action were swimming into existence. They were all restless, except perhaps Porter. Tired of standing idle. Impatient with the anachronistic officers who kept the communes alive, misguided remnants of a past order of incompetents who had proved their unfitness to rule by leading their block to almost total destruction.
Rule by the Guild couldn't be worse.
Or could it? Something had survived rule by power-oriented politicians, professional spellbinders recruited from smoke-dingy city halls and cheap law offices. If Psionic rule failed, if analogues of the struggle of national states arose, there might be nothing spared. The collective power of the Guild reached into all dimensions of life; for the first time a genuine totalitarian society could arise. Dominated by telepaths, precogs, healers with the power to animate inorganic matter and to wither organic matter, what ordinary person could survive?
There would be no recourse against the Guild. Man controlled by Psionic organizers would be powerless. It was merely a question of time before the maintenance of non-Psis would be seriously scrutinized, with an eye toward greater efficiency, toward the elimination of useless material. Rule by supercompetents could be worse than rule by incompetents.
"Worse for whom?" Stephen's clear, treble thoughts came into his mind. Cold, confident, utterly without doubt. "You can see they're dying out. It's not a question of our eliminating them; it's a question of how long are we going to maintain their artificial preservation? We're running a zoo, Jack. We're keeping alive an extinct species. And the cage is too large . . . it takes up all the world. Give them some space, if you want. A subcontinent. But we deserve the balance for our own use."
Porter sat scooping up baked rice pudding from his dish. He continued eating even after Stephen began screaming. It wasn't until Thelma clawed his hand loose from his spoon that he gave up and turned his attention to what was happening.
Surprise was totally unknown to him; six months earlier he had examined the scene, reflected on it, and turned his attention to later events. Reluctantly, he pushed back his chair and dragged his heavy body upright.
"He's going to kill me!" Stephen was wailing. "Why didn't you tell me?" he shouted at Porter. "You knew-- he's coming to kill me right now."
"For God's sake," Thelma shrilled in Porter's ear, "is it true? Can't you do something? You're a man--stop him!"
While Porter gathered a reply, Jack entered the kitchen. Stephen's shrill wails grew frantic. Doris hurried wild-eyed after Jack, her talent forgotten in the abrupt explosion of excitement. Thelma hurried around the table, between Jack and the boy, scrawny arms out, dried-up face contorted with outrage.
"I can see it!" Stephen screamed. "In his mind--he's going to kill me because he knows I want to--" He broke off. "He doesn't want us to do anything. He wants us to stay here in this old ruin, doing tricks for people." Fury broke through his terror. "I'm not going to do it. I'm through doing mind-reading tricks. Now he's thinking about killing all of us! He wants us all dead!"
Porter settled down in his chair and pawed for his spoon. He pulled his plate under his chin; eyes intently on Jack and Stephen, he continued slowly eating.
"I'm sorry," Jack said. "You shouldn't have told me your thoughts, I couldn't have read them. You could have kept them to yourself." He moved forward.
Thelma grabbed him with her skinny claws and hung on tight. The wail and babble rose in hysteria; Porter winced and bobbed his thick neck-wattles. Impassively, he watched Jack and the old woman struggle together; beyond them, Stephen stood paralyzed with childish terror, face waxen, youthful body rigid.
Doris moved forward, and Porter stopped eating. A kind of tension settled over him; but it was a finality that made him forget eating, not doubt or uncertainty. Knowing what was going to happen didn't diminish the awesomeness of it. He couldn't be surprised . . . but he could be sobered.
"Leave him alone," Doris gasped. "He's just a boy. Go sit down and behave yourself." She caught hold of Jack around the waist; the two women swayed back and forth, trying to hold the immense muscular figure. "Stop it! Leave him alone!"
Jack broke away. He tottered, tried to regain his balance. The two women fluttered and clawed after him like furious birds; he reached back to push them away....
"Don't look," Porter said sharply.
Doris turned in his direction. And didn't see, as he anticipated. Thelma saw, and her voice suddenly died into silence. Stephen choked off, horrified, then screeched in stricken dismay.
They had seen the last entity along Jack's time-path once before. Briefly one night the withered old man had appeared, as the more youthful entity inspected the military hospital to analyze its resources. The younger Jack had returned at once, satisfied that the dying old man would be given the best treatment available. In that moment they had seen his gaunt, fever-ridden face. This time the eyes weren't bright. Lusterless, the eyes of a dead object gazed blankly at them, as the hunched figure remained briefly upright.
Thelma tried vainly to catch it as it pitched forward. Like a sack of meal it crashed into the table, scattering cups and silver. It wore a faded blue robe, knotted at the waist. Its pale-white feet were bare. From it oozed the pungent hygienic scent of the hospital, of age and illness and death.
"You did it," Porter said. "Both of you together. Doris, especially. But it would have come in the next few days, anyhow." He added, "Jack's dead. We'll have to bury him, unless you think any of you can bring him back."
Thelma stood wiping at her eyes. Tears dribbled down her shrunken cheeks, into her mouth. "It was my fault. I wanted to destroy him. My hands." She held up her claws. "He never trusted me; he never put himself in my care. And he was right."
"We both did it," Doris muttered, shaken. "Porter's telling the truth. I wanted him to go away . . . I wanted him to leave. I never moved anything into time, before."
"You never will again," Porter said. "He left no descendants. He was the first and the last man to move through time. It was a unique talent."
Stephen was recovering slowly, still white-faced and shaken, eyes fixed on the withered shape in its frayed blue pajamas, spread out under the table. "Anyhow," he muttered finally, "there won't be any more picking over the past."
"I believe," Thelma said tightly, "you can follow my thoughts. Are you aware of what I'm thinking?"
Stephen blinked. "Yes."
"Now listen carefully. I'm going to put them into words so everybody will hear them."
Stephen nodded without speaking. His eyes darted frantically around the room, but he didn't stir.
"There are now four Guild members," Thelma said. Her voice was flat and low, without expression. "Some of us want to leave this place and enter the communes. Some of us think this would be a good time to impose ourselves on the communes, whether they like it or not."
"I would say," Thelma continued, examining her ancient, dried-up bands, "that if any of us tries to leave here, I will do what Jack tried to do." She pondered. "But I don't know if I can. Maybe I'll fail, too."
"Yes," Stephen said. His voice trembled, then gained strength. "You're not strong enough. There's somebody here a lot stronger than you. She can pick you up and put you down anywhere she wants. On the other side of the world--on the moon--in the middle of the ocean.
" Doris made a faint strangled sound. "I--"
"That's true," Thelma agreed. "But I'm standing only three feet from her. If I touch her first she'll be drained." She studied the smooth, frightened face of the girl. "But you're right. What happens depends not on you or me, but on what Doris wants to do."
Doris breathed rapidly, huskily. "I don't know," she said, faintly. "I don't want to stay here, just sitting around in this old ruin, day after day, doing--tricks. But Jack always said we shouldn't force ourselves on the communes." Her voice trailed off uncertainly. "All my life, as long as I can remember, when I was a little girl growing up, there was Jack saying over and over again we shouldn't force them. If they didn't want us ..."
"She won't move you now," Stephen said to Thelma, "but she will eventually. Sooner or later she'll move you away from here, some night when you're sleeping. Eventually she'll make up her mind." He grinned starkly. "Remember, I can talk to her, silently in her mind. Any time I want."
"Will you?" Thelma asked the girl.
Doris faltered miserably. "I--don't know. Will I? . . . Maybe so. It's so--bewildering."
Porter sat up straight in his chair, leaned back, and belched loudly. "It's strange to hear you all conjecturing," he said. "As a matter of fact, you won't touch Thelma." To the old woman he said, "There's nothing to worry about. I can see this stalemate going on. The four of us balance each other--we'll stay where we are."
Thelma sagged. "Maybe Stephen's right. If we have to keep on living this way, doing nothing--"
"We'll be here," Porter said, "but we won't be living the way we've been living."
"What do you mean?" Thelma demanded. "How will we be living? What's going to happen?"
"It's hard to probe you," Stephen said to Porter peevishly. "These are things you've seen, not things you're thinking. Have the commune governments changed their position? Are they finally going to call us in?"
"The governments won't call us in," Porter said. "We'll never be invited into the communes, any more than we were invited into Washington and Moscow. We've had to stand outside waiting." He glanced up and stated enigmatically, "That waiting is about over."
It was early morning. Ed Garby brought the rumbling, battered truck into line behind the other surface cars leaving the commune. Cold, fitful sunlight filtered down on the concrete squares that made up the commune installations; today was going to be another cloudy day, exactly like the last. Even so, the exit check-gate ahead was already clogged with outgoing traffic.
"A lot of them, this morning," his wife murmured. "I guess they can't wait any longer for the ash to lift."
Ed clutched for his pass, buried in his sweat-gummed shirt pocket. "The gate's a bottleneck," he muttered resentfully. "What are they doing, getting into the cars?"
There were four guards, today, not the usual one. A squad of armed troops that moved back and forth among the stalled cars, peering and murmuring, reporting through their neck-mikes to the commune offices below surface. A massive truck loaded with workers pulled suddenly away from the line and onto a side road. Roaring and belching clouds of foul blue gas, it made a complete circle and lumbered back toward the center of the commune, away from the exit gate. Ed watched it uneasily.
"What's it doing, turning back?" Fear clutched him. "They're turning us back!"
"No, they're not," Barbara said quietly. "Look--there goes a car through."
An ancient wartime pleasure car precariously edged through the gate and out onto the plain beyond the commune. A second followed it and the two cars gathered speed to climb the long low ridge that became the first tangle of trees.
A horn honked behind Ed. Convulsively, he moved the car forward. In Barbara's lap the baby wailed anxiously; she wound its seedy cotton blanket around it and rolled up the window. "It's an awful day. If we didn't have to go--" She broke off. "Here come the guards. Get the pass out." Ed greeted the guards apprehensively.
"Morning." Curtly, one of the guards took his pass, examined it, punched it, and filed it away in a steel-bound notebook. "Each of you prepare your thumb for prints," he instructed. A black, oozing pad was passed up. "Including the baby."
Ed was astounded. "Why? What the hell's going on?"
The twins were too terrified to move. Numbly, they allowed the guards to take their prints. Ed protested weakly, as the pad was pushed against his thumb. His wrist was grabbed and yanked forward. As the guards walked around the truck to get at Barbara, the squad leader placed his boot on the running board and addressed Ed briefly.
"Five of you. Family?"
Ed nodded mutely. "Yeah, my family."
"Complete? Any more?"
"No. Just us five."
The guard's dark eyes bored down at him. "When are you coming back?"
"Tonight." Ed indicated the metal notebook in which his pass had been filed. "It says, before six."
"If you go through that gate," the guard said, "you won't be coming back. That gate only goes one way."
"Since when?" Barbara whispered, face ashen.
"Since last night. It's your choice. Go ahead out there, get your business done, consult your soothsayer. But don't come back." The guard pointed to the side road. "If you want to turn around, that road takes you to the descent ramps. Follow the truck ahead--it's turning back."
Ed licked his dry lips. "I can't. My kid--she's got bone cancer. The old woman started her healing, but she isn't well, not yet. The old woman says today she can finish."
The guard examined a dog-eared directory. "Ward 9, sixth level. Go down there and they'll fix up your kid. The docs have all the equipment." He closed the book and stepped back from the car, a heavy-set man, red-faced, with bristled, beefy skin. "Let's get started, buddy. One way or the other. It's your choice."
Automatically, Ed moved the car forward. "They must have decided," he muttered, dazed. "Too many people going out. They want to scare us . . . they know we can't live out there. We'd die out there!"
Barbara quietly clutched the baby. "We'll die here eventually."
"But it's nothing but ruins out there!"
"Aren't they out there?"
Ed choked helplessly. "We can't come back--suppose it's a mistake?"
The track ahead wavered toward the side road. An uncertain hand signal was made; suddenly the driver yanked his hand in and wobbled the truck back toward the exit gate. A moment of confusion took place. The truck slowed almost to a stop; Ed slammed on his brakes, cursed, and shifted into low. Then the truck ahead gained speed. It rumbled through the gate and out onto the barren ground. Without thinking, Ed followed it. Cold, ash-heavy air swept into the cabin as he gained speed and pulled up beside the truck. Even with it he leaned out and shouted, "Where you going? They won't let you back!"
The driver, a skinny little man, bald and bony, shouted angrily back, "Goddamn it, I'm not coming back! The hell with them--I got all my food and bedding in here--I got every damn thing I own. Let them try to get me back!" He gunned up his truck and pulled ahead of Ed.
"Well," Barbara said quietly, "it's done. We're outside."
"Yeah," Ed agreed shakily. "We are. A yard, a thousand miles--it's all the same." In panic, he turned wildly to his wife. "What if they don't take us? I mean, what it we get there and they don't want us. All they got is that old broken-down wartime shelter. There isn't room for anybody--and look behind us."
A line of hesitant, lumbering trucks and cars was picking its way uncertainly from the gate, streaming rustily out onto the parched plain. A few pulled out and swung back; one pulled over to the side of the road and halted while its passengers argued with bitter desperation.
"They'll take us," Barbara said. "They want to help us--they always wanted to."
"But suppose they can't!"
"I think they can. There's a lot of power there, if we ask for it. They couldn't come to us, but we can go to them. We've been held back too long, separated from them too many years. If the government won't let them in, then we'll have to go outside."
"Can we live outside?" Ed asked hoarsely.
Behind them a horn honked excitedly. Ed gained speed. "It's a regular exodus. Look at them pouring out. Who'll be left?"
"There'll be plenty left," Barbara answered. "All the big shots will stay behind." She laughed breathlessly. "Maybe they'll be able to get the war going again. It'll give them something to do, while we're away."