Sunlight ascended and a penetrating mechanical voice declared, "All right, Lehrer. Time to get up and show 'em who you are and what you can do. Big man, that Niehls Lehrer; everybody acknowledges it -- I hear them talking. Big man, big talent, big job. Much admired by the public at large. You awake now?"
Lehrer, from the bed, said, "Yes." He sat up, batted the sharp-voiced alarm clock at his bedside into nullification. "Good morning," he said to the silent apartment. "Slept well; I hope you did, too."
A press of problems tumbled about his disordered mind as he got grouchily from the bed, wandered to the closet for clothing adequately dirty. Supposed to nail down Ludwig Eng, he said to himself. The tasks of tomorrow become the worse tasks of today. Reveal to Eng that only one copy of his great-selling book is left in all the world; the time is coming soon for him to act, to do the job only he can do. How would Eng feel? After all, sometimes inventors refused to sit still and do their job. Well, he decided, that actually consisted of a syndicate-problem; theirs, not his. He found a stained, rumpled red shirt; removing his pajama top he got into it. The trousers were not so easy; he had to root through the hamper.
And then the packet of whiskers.
My ambition, Lehrer thought as he padded to the bathroom with the whisker packet, is to cross the W.U.S. by streetcar. Whee. At the bowl he washed his face, then lathered on foam-glue, opened the packet and with adroit slappings managed to convey the whiskers evenly to his chin, jowls, neck; in a moment he had expertly gotten the whiskers to adhere. I'm fit now, he decided as he reviewed his countenance in the mirror, to take that streetcar ride; at least as soon as I process my share of sogum.
Switching on the sogum pipe he accepted a good masculine bundle, sighed contentedly as he glanced over the sports section of the San Francisco Chronicle, then at last walked to the kitchen and began to lay out soiled dishes. In no time at all he faced a bowl of soup, lambchops, green peas, Martian blue moss with egg sauce and a cup of hot coffee. These he gathered up, slid the dishes from beneath and around them -- of course checking the windows of the room to be sure no one saw him -- and briskly placed the assorted foods in their proper receptacles which he placed on shelves of the cupboard and in the refrigerator. The time was eight-thirty; he still had fifteen minutes to get to work. No need to kill himself hurrying; the People's Topical Library section B would be there when he arrived.
It had taken him years to work up to B. He did not perform routine work any longer, not at a section B desk, and he most certainly did not have to arrange for the cleaning of thousands of identical copies of a work in the early stages of eradication. In fact strictly speaking he did not have to participate in eradication at all; minions employed wholesale by the library took care of that coarse duty. But he did have to deal tete-a-tete with a vast variety of irritable, surly inventors who balked at their assigned -- and according to the syndicate mandatory -- final cleaning of the sole-remaining typescript copy of whatever work their name had become linked with -- linked by a process which neither he nor the assorted inventors completely understood. The syndicate presumably understood why a particular given inventor received a particular assignment and not some other assignment entirely. For instance, Eng and HOW I MADE MY OWN SWABBLE OUT OF CONVENTIONAL HOUSEHOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASEMENT DURING MY SPARE TIME.
Lehrer reflected as he glanced over the remainder of the newspaper. Think of the responsibility. After Eng finished, no more swabbles in all the world, unless those untrustworthy rogues in the F.N.M. had a couple illicitly tucked away. In fact, even though the ter-cop, the terminal copy, of Eng's book still remained, he already found it difficult to recall what a swabble did and what it looked like. Square? Small? Or round and huge? Hmmm. He put down the newspaper and rubbed his forehead while he attempted to recall -- tried to conjure up an accurate mental image of the device while it was still possible to do so. Because as soon as Eng reduced the ter-cop to a heavily inked silk ribbon, half a ream of bond paper and a folio of fresh carbon paper there existed absolutely no chance for him or for anyone else to recall either the book or the mechanism which the book described.
That task, however, would probably occupy Eng the rest of the year. Cleaning of the ter-cop had to progress line by line, word by word; it could not be handled as were the assembled printed copies. So easy, up until the terminal typescript copy, and then. . . well, to make it worth it to Eng, to compensate him for the long, arduous work, a really huge bill would be served on him: the task would cost Eng something on the order of twenty-five thousand poscreds. And since eradication of the swabble book would make Eng a poor man, the task. . .
By his elbow on the small kitchen table the receiver of the phone hopped from its mooring onto the table, and from it came a distant tiny shrill voice. "Goodbye, Niehls." A woman's voice.
Lifting the receiver to his ear he said, "Goodbye."
"I love you, Niehls," Charise McFadden stated in her breathless, emotion-saturated voice. "Do you love me?"
"Yes, I love you, too," he said. "When have I seen you last? I hope it won't be long. Tell me it won't be long."
"Most probably tonight," Charise said. "After work. There's someone I want you to meet, a virtually unknown inventor who's desperately eager to get official eradication for his thesis on, ahem, the psychogenic origins of death by meteor-strike. I said that because you're in section B --"
"Tell him to eradicate his thesis himself."
"There's no prestige in that." Earnestly, Charise pleaded, "It's really a dreadful piece of theorizing, Niehls; it's as nutty as the day is long. This boy, this Lance Arbuthnot --"
"That's his name?" It almost persuaded him. But not quite. In the course of a single day he received many such requests, and every one, without exception came represented as a crank piece by a crank inventor with a crank name. He had held his chair at Section B too long to be easily snared. But still -- he had to investigate this; his ethical structure insisted on it. He sighed.
"I hear you groaning," Charise said brightly.
Lehrer said, "As long as he's not from the F.N.M."
"Well -- he is." She sounded guilty. "I think they threw him out, though. That's why he's here and not there."
But that, Lehrer realized, proved nothing. Arbuthnot -- possibly -- did not share the fanatical militant convictions of the ruling elite of the Free Negro Municipality; possibly he was too moderate, too balanced for the Bards of the republic carved out of quondam Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas and Missouri. But then again he perhaps had too fanatical a view. One never knew; not until one met the person, and sometimes not even then. The Bards, being from the East, had managed to dribble a veil over the faces of three-fifths of mankind, a veil which successfully obscured motive, intention and God knew what else.
"And what is more," Charise continued, "he personally knew Anarch Peak before Peak's sad shrinking."
"Sad!" Lehrer bristled. "Good riddance." There: that had been the foremost eccentric and idiot of the world. All Lehrer needed was the opportunity to rub shoulders with a follower of the newly parasitic Anarch. He shivered, recalling from his professional eclectic books -- examining at the library the accounts of mid-twentieth century race violence; out of the riots, lootings and killings of those days had come Sebastian Peak, originally a lawyer, then a master spellbinder, at last a religious fanatic with his own devout following. . . a following which extended over the planet, although operating primarily in the F.N.M. environs.
"That could get you in trouble with God," Charise said.
"I have to get to work now," Lehrer said. "I'll phone you during my coffee break; meanwhile I'll do some research on Arbuthnot in the files. My decision as regards his nut-head theory of psychosomatic meteor-strike deaths will have to wait until then. Hello." He hung up the phone, then, and rose swiftly to his feet. His soiled garments gave off a truly gratifying odor of must as he made his way from his apartment to the elevator; satisfaction as to his grooming made him brighten. Possibly -- despite Charise and this, her newest fad, the inventor Arbuthnot -- today might be a good day after all.
But, underneath, he doubted it.
When Niehls Lehrer arrived at his section of the library, he found his slim blonde-haired secretary Miss Tomsen trying to rid herself -- and him, too -- of a tall, sloppily-dressed middle-aged gentleman with a briefcase under his arm.
"Ah, Mr. Lehrer," the individual said in a dry, hollow voice as he made out Lehrer, obviously recognizing him at once; he approached Niehls, hand extended. "How nice to meet you, sir. Goodbye, goodbye. As you people say out here." He smiled a flashbulb instantly-vanishing smile at Niehls, who did not return it.
"I'm quite a busy man," Niehls said, and continued on past Miss Tomsen's desk to open the inner door to his private suite. "If you wish to see me, you'll have to make a regular appointment. Hello." He started to shut the door after him.
"This concerns the Anarch Peak," the tall man with the briefcase said. "Whom I have reason to believe you're interested in."
"Why do you say that?" He paused, irritated. "I don't recall ever expressing any interest in anyone of Peak's sort."
"You must recall. But that's so. You're under Phase, here. I'm oriented in the opposite, normal time-direction; therefore what for you will soon happen is for me an experience of the immediate past. My immediate past. May I take a few minutes of your time? I could well be of great use to you, sir." The man chuckled.
" 'Your time.' Well-put, if I do say so. Yes, decidedly your time, not mine. Just consider that this visit by myself took place yesterday." Again he smiled his mechanical smile -- and mechanical it was; Niehls now perceived the small but brilliant yellow stripe sewed on the tall man's sleeve. This person was a robot, required by law to wear the identifying swath so as not to deceive. Realizing this, Niehls' irritation grew; he had a strict, deeply-imbedded prejudice against robies which he could not rid himself of; which he did not want to rid himself of, as a matter of fact.
"Come in," Niehls said, holding the door to his lavish suite open. The roby represented some human principal; it had not dispatched itself: that was the law. He wondered who had sent it. Some functionary of the syndicate? Possibly. In any case, better to hear the thing out and then tell it to leave.
Together, in the main workchamber of the library suite, the two of them faced each other.
"My card," the roby said, extending its hand.
He read the card, scowling.
Attorney At Law W.U.S.
"My employer," the roby said. "So now you know my name. You may address me as Carl; that would be satisfactory." Now that the door had shut, with Miss Tomsen on the other side, the roby's voice had acquired a sudden and surprising authoritative tone.
"I prefer," Niehls said, cautiously, "to address you in the more familiar mode as Carl Junior. If that doesn't offend you." He made his own voice even more authoritative. "You know, I seldom grant audiences to robots. A quirk, perhaps, but one concerning which I am consistent."
"Until now," the robot Carl Junior murmured; it retrieved its card and placed it back in its wallet. Then, seating itself, it began to unzip its briefcase. "Being in charge of section B of the library, you are of course an expert on the Hobart Phase. At least so Mr. Gantrix assumes. Is he correct, sir?" The robot glanced up keenly.
"Well, I deal with it constantly." Niehls affected a vacant, cavalier tone; it was always better to show a superior attitude when dealing with a roby. Constantly necessary to remind them in this particular fashion -- as well as in countless others -- of their place.
"So Mr. Gantrix realizes. And it is to his credit that via such a realization he has inferred that you have, over the years, become something of an authority on the advantages, uses and manifold disadvantages of the Hobart reverse-time field. True? Not true? Choose one."
Niehls pondered. "I choose the first. Although you must take into account the fact that my knowledge is practical, not theoretical. But I can correctly deal with the vagaries of the Phase without explaining it. You see, I am innately an American; hence pragmatic."
"Certainly." The roby Carl Junior nodded its plastic humanoid head. "Very good, Mr. Lehrer. Now down to business. His Mightiness, the Anarch Peak, has become infantile and will soon shrivel up entirely into a homunculus and re-enter a nearby womb. Correct? It is only a matter of time -- your time, once again."
"I am aware," Niehls said, "that the Hobart Phase obtains in most of the F.N.M. I am aware that His Mightiness will be within a handy nearby womb in no more than a matter of months. Frankly, this pleases me. His Mightiness is deranged. Beyond doubt; clinically so, in fact. The world, both that on Hobart Time and on Standard Time, will benefit. What more is there to say?"
"A lot more," Carl Junior answered gravely. Leaning forward he deposited a host of documents on Niehls' desk. "I respectfully insist that you examine these."
Carl Gantrix, by means of the video circuit of the robot's system, treated himself to a leisurely inspection of the top librarian Niehls Lehrer as that individual ploughed through the wearying stack of deliberately obscure pseudo documents which the robot had presented.
The bureaucrat in Lehrer had been ensnared by the bait; his attention distracted, the librarian had become oblivious to the robot and to its actions. Therefore, as Lehrer read, the robot expertly slid its chair back and to the left side, close to a reference card case of impressive proportions. Lengthening its right arm, the robot crept its manual grippers of fingeroid shape into the nearest file of the case; this Lehrer did of course not see, and so the robot continued with its assigned task. It placed a miniaturized nest of embryonic robots, no larger than pinheads, within the card file, then a tiny find-circuit transmitter behind a subsequent card, then at last a potent detonating device set on a three-day command circuit.
Watching, Gantrix grinned. Only one construct remained in the robot's possession, and this now appeared briefly as the robot, eyeing Lehrer sideways and cautiously, edged its extensor once more toward the file, transferring this last bit of sophisticated hardware from its possession to the library's.
"Purp," Lehrer said, without raising his eyes.
The code signal, received by the aud chamber of the file, activated an emergency release; the file closed in upon itself in the manner of a bivalve seeking safety. Collapsing, the file retreated into the wall, burying itself out of sight. And at the same time it ejected the constructs which the robot had placed inside it; the objects, expelled with electronic neatness, bounced in a trajectory which deposited them at the robot's feet, where they lay exposed in clear view.
"Good heavens," the robot said involuntarily, taken aback.
Lehrer said, "Leave my office immediately." He raised his eyes from the pseudo documents, and his expression was cold. As the robot reached down to retrieve the now-exposed artifacts he added, "And leave those items here; I want them subjected to lab analysis regarding purpose and source." He reached into the top drawer of his desk, and when his hand emerged it held a weapon.
In Carl Gantrix's ears the phone-cable voice of the robot buzzed. "What should I do, sir?"
"Leave presently." Gantrix no longer felt amused; the fuddy-duddy librarian was equal to the probe, was capable in fact of nullifying it. The contact with Lehrer would have to be made in the open, and with that in mind Gantrix reluctantly picked up the receiver of the vidphone closest to him and dialed the library's exchange.
A moment later he saw, through the video scanner of the robot, the librarian Niehls Lehrer picking up his own phone in answer.
"We have a problem," Gantrix said. "Common to us both. Why, then, shouldn't we work together?"
Lehrer answered, "I'm aware of no problem." His voice held ultimate calmness; the attempt by the robot to plant hostile hardware in his work-area had not ruffled him. "If you want to work together," he added, "you're off to a bad start."
"Admittedly," Gantrix said. "But we've had difficulty in the past with you librarians." Your exalted position, he thought. But he did not say it. "This has to do with the Anarch Peak. My superiors believe that there has been an attempt made to obliterate the Hobart Phase in regard to him -- a clear violation of law, and one posing a great danger to society. . . in that, if successfully done, it would in effect create an immortal person by manipulation of known scientific laws. While we do not oppose the continual attempt to bring about an immortal person by use of the Hobart Phase, we do feel that the Anarch is not the person. If you follow."
"The Anarch is virtually reabsorbed." Lehrer did not seem too sympathetic; perhaps, Gantrix decided, he doesn't believe me. "I see no danger." Coolly he studied the robot Carl Junior facing him. "If there is a menace it appears to me to lie --"
"Nonsense. I'm here to help you; this is for the library's benefit, as well as my own."
"Who do you represent?" Lehrer demanded.
Gantrix hesitated, then said, "Bard Chai of the Supreme Clearness Council. I am following his orders."
"That puts a different light on matters." The librarian's voice had darkened; and, on the vidscreen, his expression had become harder. "I have nothing to do with the Clearness Council; my responsibility goes to the Erads entirely. As you certainly know."
"But are you aware --"
"I am aware only of this." Reaching into the drawer of his desk librarian Lehrer brought out a square gray box, which he opened; from it he produced a typed manuscript which he displayed for Gantrix's attention. "The sole extant copy of HOW I MADE MY OWN SWABBLE OUT OF ORDINARY HOUSEHOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASEMENT DURING MY SPARE TIME. Eng's masterpiece, which borders on the eradicated. You see?"
Gantrix said, "Do you know where Ludwig Eng is, at the moment?"
"I don't care where he is; I only care where he'll be a two-thirty yesterday afternoon -- we have an appointment, he and I. Here in this office at section B of the library.
"Where Ludwig Eng will be at two-thirty yesterday," Gantrix said meditatively, half to himself, "depends a good deal on where he is right now." He did not tell the librarian what he knew; that at this moment Ludwig Eng was somewhere in the Free Negro Municipality, possibly trying to obtain audience with the Anarch.
Assuming that the Anarch, in his puerile, diminished state, could still grant audience to anyone.
The now-tiny Anarch, wearing jeans and purple sneakers and a many-times-washed T-shirt, sat on the dusty grass studying intently a ring of marbles. His attention had become so complete that Ludwig Eng felt ready to give up; the boy opposite him no longer seemed conscious of his presence. All in all, the situation depressed Eng; he felt more helpless than before he had come.
Nevertheless, he decided to try to continue. "Your Mightiness," he said, "I only desire a few more moments of your time."
With reluctance the boy looked up. "Yes, sir," he said in a sullen, muted voice.
"My position is difficult," Eng said, repeating himself; he had over and over again presented the childified Anarch with the identical material, and each time in vain. "If you as Anarch could telecast an appeal throughout the Western United States and the F.N.M. for people to build several swabbles here and there while the last copy of my book still survives --"
"That's right," the boy murmured.
"Pardon?" Eng felt a flicker of hope; he watched the small smooth face fixedly. Something had formed there.
Sebastian Peak said, "Yes sir; I hope to become Anarch when I grow up. I'm studying for that right now."
"You are the Anarch. You were the Anarch." He sighed, feeling crushed. It was clearly hopeless. No point in going on -- and today was the final day, because yesterday he would meet with an official from the People's Topical Library and that would be that.
The boy brightened. He seemed, all at once, to take interest in what Eng had to say. "No kidding?"
"God's truth, son." Eng nodded solemnly. "In fact, legally speaking you still hold the office." He glanced up at the lean Negro with the overly-massive side arm who currently constituted the Anarch's bodyguard. "Isn't that so, Mr. Plaut?"
"True, your Mightiness," the Negro said to the boy. "You possess the power to arbitrate in this case, having to do with this gentleman's manuscript." Squatting on his lank haunches the bodyguard sought to engage the boy's wandering attention. "Your Mightiness, this man is the inventor of the swabble."
"What's that?" The boy glanced from one to the other of them, scowling with suspicion. "How much does a swabble cost? I only have fifty cents; I got it as my allowance. Anyhow I don't think I want a swabble. I want some gum, and I'm going to the show." His expression became fixed, rigidly in place. "Who cares about a swabble?" he said with disdain.
"You have lived one hundred and sixty years," the bodyguard Plaut told him. "Because of this man's invention. From the swabble the Hobart Phase was inferred and finally established experimentally. I know that means nothing to you, but --" The bodyguard clasped his hands together earnestly, rocking on his hocks as he tried to keep the boy's constantly dwindling attention focussed. "Pay attention to me, Sebastian; this is important. If you could sign a decree. . . while you can still write. That's all. A public notice for people to --"
"Aw, go on; beat it." The boy glared at him with hostility. "I don't believe you; something's the matter."
Something is wrong, all right, Eng thought to himself as he rose stiffly to his feet. And there appears to be next to nothing that we can do about it. At least without your help. He felt defeated.
"Try him again later," the bodyguard said, also rising; he looked decidedly sympathetic.
"He'll be even younger," Eng said bitterly. And anyhow there was no time; no later existed. He walked a few steps away, then, overcome with gloom.
On a tree branch a butterfly had begun the intricate, mysterious process of squeezing itself into a dull brown cocoon, and Eng paused to inspect its slow, labored efforts. It had its task, too, but that task, unlike his, was not hopeless. However the butterfly did not know that; it continued mindlessly, a reflex machine obeying the urgings programmed into it from the remote future. The sight of the insect at work gave Eng something to ponder; he perceived the moral in it, and, turning, walked back to confront the child who squatted on the grass with his circle of gaily-colored luminous marbles.
"Look at it this way," he said to the Anarch Peak; this was probably his last try, and he meant to bring in everything available. "Even if you can't remember what a swabble is or what the Hobart Phase does, all you need to do is sign; I have the document here." Reaching into his inside coat pocket he brought the envelope out, opened it. "When you've signed this, it will appear on world-wide TV, at the six P.M. news in each time zone. I tell you what I'll do. If you'll sign this, I'll triple what you've got in the way of money. You say you have fifty cents? I'll give you an additional dollar, a genuine paper one. What do you say? And I'll pay your way to the movies once a week, at the Saturday matinee for the balance of the year. Is it a deal?"
The boy studied him acutely. He seemed almost convinced. But something -- Eng could not fathom what -- held him back.
"I think," the bodyguard said softly, "he wants to ask his dad's permission. The old gentleman is now alive; his components migrated into a birth-container about six weeks ago, and he is currently in the Kansas City General Hospital's birth ward undergoing revivification. He is already conscious, and His Mightiness has spoken with him several times. Is that not so, Sebastian?" He smiled gently at the boy, then grimaced as the boy nodded. "So that is it," he said to Eng, then. "I was right. He's afraid to take any initiative, now that his father's alive. It's very bad luck as far as you're concerned, Mr. Eng; he's just plain dwindled too much to perform his job. And everybody knows it as a fact."
"I refuse to give up," Eng said. But the truth of the matter was that purely and simply he had already given up; he could see that the bodyguard, who spent all his waking time with the Anarch, was correct. It had become a waste of time. Had this meeting taken place two years from now, however. . .
To the bodyguard he said heavily, "I'll go away and let him play with his marbles." He placed the envelope back in his pocket, started off; then, pausing, he added, "I'll make one final try yesterday morning. Before I'm due at the library. If the boy's schedule permits it."
"It surely does," the bodyguard said. He explained, "Hardly anybody consults him any more, in view of his -- condition." His tone was sympathetic, and for that Eng felt appreciation.
Turning wearily he trudged off, leaving the one-time Anarch of half the civilized world to play mindlessly in the grass.
The previous morning, he realized. My last chance. Long time to wait and do nothing.
In his hotel room he placed a phone call to the West Coast, to the People's Topical Library. Presently he found himself facing one of the bureaucrats with whom, of late, he had had to deal so much. "Let me talk directly to Mr. Lehrer," he grunted. Might as well go directly to the source, he decided; Lehrer had final authority in the matter of his book -- now decayed to a mere typewritten manuscript.
"Sorry," the functionary told him, with a faint trace of disdain. "It is too early; Mr. Lehrer has already left the building."
"Could I catch him at home, do you think?"
"He is probably having breakfast. I suggest you wait until late yesterday. After all, Mr. Lehrer needs some time for seclusive recreation; he has many heavy and difficult responsibilities to weigh him down." Clearly, the minor functionary had no intention of cooperating.
Dully depressed, Eng hung up without even saying hello. Well, perhaps it was for the better; undoubtedly Lehrer would refuse to grant him additional time. After all, as the library bureaucrat had said, Lehrer had pressures at work on him, too: in particular the Erads of the syndicate. . . those mysterious entities who saw to it that destruction of human inventions be painstakingly carried out. As witness his own book. Well, time to give up and head back west.
As he started from his hotel room, he paused at the mirror of the vanity table to see whether his face had, during the day, absorbed the packet of whiskers which he had foam-glued onto it. Peering at his reflection, he rubbed his jowls. . .
All along his jaw-line the dark stubble of newly-grown facial hair could be seen. He was growing a beard; stubble was coming in -- not being absorbed.
What this meant he did not know. But it terrified him; he stood gaping, appalled now by the fright collected within his reflected features. The man in the mirror did look even vaguely familiar; some ominous underlying deformity of change had attacked it. But why? And -- how?
Instinct told him not to leave the hotel room.
He seated himself. And waited. For what, he did not know. But one thing he did know. There would be no meeting with Niehls Lehrer of the People's Topical Library at two-thirty yesterday afternoon. Because --
He scented it, grasped it intuitively from the one single glance in the mirror of his hotel room's vanity table. There would be no yesterday; not for him, anyhow.
Would there be for anyone else?
"I've got to see the Anarch again," he said haltingly to himself. The hell with Lehrer; I don't have any intention of trying to make that or any other appointment with him now. All that matters is seeing Sebastian Peak once more; in fact as soon as it's possible. Perhaps earlier today.
Because once he saw the Anarch he would know whether what he guessed were true. And if it were true, then his book, all at once, lay outside jeopardy. The syndicate with their inflexible program of eradication no longer menaced him -- possibly. At least he hoped so.
But only time would tell. Time. The entire Hobart Phase. It was somehow involved.
And -- possibly -- not just for him.
To his superior Bard Chai of the Clearness Council, Gantrix said, "We were right." He recycled the tape recorder with shaking hands. "This is from our phone tap, video, to the library; the inventor of the swabble, Ludwig Eng, attempted to reach Lehrer and failed. There was therefore no conversation."
"Hence nothing to record," the Bard purred cuttingly. His round green face sagged in pouting disappointment.
"Not so. Look. It is Eng's image that's significant. He has spent the day with the Anarch -- and as a consequence his age-flow has doubled back upon itself. See with your own eyes."
After a moment, in which he scrutinized the video image of Eng, the Bard leaned back in his chair, said, "The stigma. Heavy infestation of beard-stubble; certain index in a male, especially of the Cauc persuasion."
"Shall we rebirth him now?" Gantrix said. "Before he reaches Lehrer?" He had in his possession a superbly made gun which would dwindle any person in a matter of minutes -- dwindle him directly into the nearest womb, and for good.
"In my opinion," Bard Chai said, "he has become harmless. The swabble is nonexistent; this will not restore it." But within, Bard Chai felt doubt, if not concern. Perhaps Gantrix, his subordinate, correctly perceived the situation; he had done so in the past, on several critical occasions. . . which explained his current value to the Clearness Council.
"But if the Hobart Phase has been cancelled out for Eng," Gantrix said doggedly, "then the development of the swabble will start up again. After all, he possesses the original typed manuscript; his contact with the Anarch has taken place before the Eradicators of the syndicate induced the final stage of destruct."
That certainly was true; Bard Chai pondered and agreed. And yet despite this knowledge he had trouble taking Ludwig Eng seriously; the man did not look dangerous, bearded or otherwise. He turned to Gantrix, began to speak -- then abruptly ceased.
"Your expression strikes me as unusual," Gantrix said, with palpable annoyance. "What's wrong?" He seemed uneasy, as the Bard's stare continued. Concern replaced displeasure.
"Your face," the Bard Chai said, keeping his composure with the greatest of effort.
"What about my face?" Gantrix's hand flew to his chin; he massaged briefly, then blinked. "My God."
"And you have not been near the Anarch. So that does not explain your condition." He wondered, then, about himself; had the reversal of the Hobart Phase extended to his own person as well? Swiftly he explored his own jaw-line and dewlap. And distinctly felt burgeoning bristle. Perplexing, he thought wildly to himself. What can account for this? The reversal of the Anarch's time-path might be only an effect of some prior cause involving them all. This put a new light on the Anarch's situation; perhaps it had not been voluntary.
"Can it be," Gantrix said reflectively, "that the disappearance of Eng's device could explain this? Except for mention in the typewritten manuscript there is no longer any reality connected with the swabble. Actually, we should have anticipated this, since the swabble is intimately associated with the Hobart Phase."
"I wonder," Bard Chai said, still rapidly pondering. But the swabble had not strictly speaking created the Hobart Phase; it served to direct it, so that certain regions of the planet could evade the Phase entirely -- whereas others had become completely mired in it. Still, the disappearance of the swabble from contemporary society must diffuse the Hobart Phase equally over everyone; and an outgrowth of this might be a diminution to beneath the level of effectiveness for those -- such as himself and Carl Gantrix -- who had participated in the Phase fully.
"But now," Gantrix said thoughtfully, "the inventor of the swabble, and first user of it, has returned to normal time; hence the development of the swabble has again manifested itself. We can expect Eng to build his first working model of the device at any time, now."
The difficulty of Eng's situation had now become apparent to Bard Chai. As before, use of the man's mechanism would spread throughout the world. But -- as soon as Eng built and placed in operation his pilot swabble, the Hobart Phase would resume; once more Eng's direction would reverse itself. The swabbles would then be abolished by the syndicate until, once again, all that remained was the original typewritten manuscript -- at which point normal time would reestablish itself.
It appeared to Bard Chai that Eng had gotten himself trapped in a closed loop. He would oscillate within a distinct small interval: between possessing only a theoretical account of the swabble and in actuality constructing and operating a functioning model. And tagging along with him would go a good portion of Terra's population.
We are caught with him, Bard Chai realized gloomily. How do we escape? What is our solution?
"We must either force Eng back into complete obliteration of his manuscript, including the idea for the construct," Gantrix said, "or --"
"But that is impossible," Bard Chai broke in impatiently. "At this point the Hobart Phase weakens automatically, since no working swabbles exist to sustain it. How, in their absence, can Eng be forced backward in time a single step farther?"
It constituted a valid -- and answerable -- query; both men realized that, and neither spoke for a time. Gantrix morosely continued to rub his jaw, as if he could perceive the steady growth of beard-stubble. Bard Chai, on the other hand, had withdrawn into an intensive introverted state; he pondered and repondered the problem.
No answer came. At least not yet. But, given time --
"This is extremely difficult," the Bard said, with agitation. "Eng will probably throw together his first swabble at any moment. And once more we will be cycled in a retrograde direction." What worried him now was one terrible, swift insight. This would occur again and again, and each time the interval would be shortened further. Until, he ruminated, it becomes a stall within a single microsecond; no time-progression in either direction will be able to take place.
A morbid prospect indeed. But one redemptive factor existed. Eng undoubtedly would perceive the problem, too. And he would seek a way out. Logically, it could be solved by him in at least one way: he could voluntarily abstain from inventing the swabble. The Hobart Phase, then, would never assert itself, at least not effectively
But such a decision lay with Ludwig Eng alone. Would he cooperate, if the idea were presented to him?
Probably not. Eng had always been a violent and autistic man; no one could influence him. This, of course, had helped him become an original personality; without this Eng would not have amounted to anything as an inventor, and the swabble, with its enormous effect on contemporary society, would never have come into existence.
Which would have been a good thing, the Bard thought morosely. But until now we could not appreciate this.
He appreciated it now.
The solution which Gantrix had proposed, that of rebirthing Eng, did not appeal to him. But it looked more and more to his eyes as the only way out. And a way out had to be found.
With profound irritation the librarian Niehls Lehrer inspected the clock on his desk, then his appointment book. Eng had not shown up; two-thirty had arrived, and Lehrer sat alone in his office. Carl Gantrix had been correct.
While pondering the meaning of this he heard, dimly, the phone ringing. Probably Eng, he decided as he reached for the receiver. A long way off, phoning in to say that he can't make it. I'll have trouble with this; the syndicate won't like it. And I'll have to alert them; I have no choice.
Into the phone he said, "Goodbye."
"I love you, Niehls." A breathless feminine voice; this was not the call which he had anticipated. "Do you love me?"
"Yes, Charise," he said. "I love you, too. But dammit, don't call me during business hours; I thought you knew that."
Contritely, Charise McFadden said, "Sorry, Niehls. But I keep thinking about poor Lance. Did you do the research on him that you promised? I bet you didn't."
As a matter of fact he had; or more accurately he had instructed a minor employee of the library to do the task for him. Reaching into the top desk drawer he brought out Lance Arbuthnot's folio. "Here it is," he informed Charise. "I know all there is to know about this crank. All I care to know, more correctly." He leafed among the sheets of paper within the file. "There's not much here, actually. Arbuthnot hasn't done much. You understand I can only take time to go into this matter because a major library client has failed -- so far -- to keep his two-thirty appointment. If he does show up, I'll have to terminate this conversation."
"Did Arbuthnot know the Anarch Peak?"
"That part of his account is true."
"And he is a genuine crank. So eradicating his thesis would be a distinct gain for society. It's your duty." Over the vid portion of the phone she batted her long lashes coaxingly. "Come on, Niehls, dear. Please."
"But," Lehrer continued inflexibly, "there is nothing here suggesting that Arbuthnot spent any time concocting a paper dealing with the psychosomatic aspects of death by meteor-strike."
She colored, hesitated, then said in a low voice, "I, um, made that up."
After a pause, Charise said, falteringly, "Well, h-h-he's -- the fact is, I'm his mistress."
"The fact is," Lehrer said boring ahead with ruthless vigor, "you don't really know what his thesis is about. It may be perfectly rational. A significant contribution to our society. Correct?" He did not wait for her reply; reaching, he started to break the phone circuit.
"Wait." She swallowed rapidly, ducked her head, then plunged on as his fingers touched the trip switch of the phone. "All right, Niehls; I admit it. Lance refuses to tell me what his thesis is about. He won't tell anybody. But if you'll undertake to eradicate it -- don't you see? He'll have to reveal it to you; your analysis of it is required before the syndicate accepts it. Isn't that so? And then you'll tell me what it's all about. I know you will."
Lehrer said, "What do you care what it's about?"
"I think," Charise said, hesitating, "it has to do with me. Honest. There's something strange about me, and Lance noticed it. I mean, that's not so unusual when you consider how, um, close we two are; we see so much -- if you'll excuse the expression -- of each other."
"I find this a dull topic," Lehrer said frigidly. At this point, he said to himself, I wouldn't accept Arbuthnot's thesis at any cost to me. Even if they debited me to the tune often thousand poscreds. "I'll talk to you some other time," he said, and broke the phone circuit.
"Sir," his secretary Miss Tomsen said over the desk intercom, "there's this man out here who's been waiting since six this evening. He says he only wants a second or two of your time, and Miss McFadden led him to understand that you'd be glad to --"
"Tell him I died in office," Lehrer said harshly.
"But you can't die, sir. You're under the Hobart Phase. And Mr. Arbuthnot knows that, because he mentioned it. He's been sitting out here doing a Hobart type horoscope on you, and he predicts that great things have happened to you during the previous year. Frankly he makes me nervous; some of his predictions sound so accurate."
"Fortune-telling about the past doesn't interest me," Lehrer said. "In fact, as far as I'm concerned, it's a hoax. Only the future is knowable." The man is a crank, all right, Lehrer realized. Charise told me the truth in that respect. Imagine maintaining in all seriousness that what has already happened, what has vanished into the limbo of nebulous yesterday, can be predicted. There's one killed every minute, as P.T. Barnum phrased it.
Maybe I should see him, he reflected. Charise is right; ideas like this ought to be eradicated for the good of mankind, if not for my own peace of mind.
But that was not all. Now a measure of curiosity overcame him. It would be interesting, in a feeble way, to hear the idiot out. See what he predicted, especially for the recent few weeks. And then accept his thesis for eradication. Be the first person he casts a Hobart type of horoscope for.
Undoubtedly, Ludwig Eng did not intend to show up. The time, Lehrer said to himself, must be two o'clock by now. He glanced at his wristwatch. And blinked.
The watch hands semaphored two-forty.
"Miss Tomsen," Lehrer said into the intercom, "What time do you have?"
"Leaping J. Lizards," Miss Tomsen said. "It's earlier than I thought. I distinctly recall it being two-twenty just a moment ago. My watch must have stopped."
"You mean it's later than you thought. Two-forty is later than two-thirty."
"No sir, if you don't resent my disagreeing with you. I mean, it's not my place to tell you what's what, but I am right. You can ask anybody. I'll ask this gentleman out here. Mr. Arbuthnot, isn't two-forty earlier than two-twenty?"
Over the intercom speaker came a masculine voice, dry and controlled. "I'm only interested in seeing Mr. Lehrer, not in holding academic discussions. Mr. Lehrer, if you will see me, I guarantee you'll find my thesis the most flagrant piece of outright trash you've ever had brought to your attention; Miss McFadden will not mislead you."
"Send him in," Lehrer reluctantly instructed Miss Tomsen. He felt perplexed. Something weird had begun to happen, something which was connected with the orderly flow of time. But he could not make out precisely what.
A dapper young man, in the first stages of baldness, entered the office, a briefcase under his arm. He and Lehrer briefly shook and then Arbuthnot seated himself facing the desk.
So this is the man Charise is having an affair with, Lehrer said to himself. Well, so it goes. "I'll give you ten minutes," he stated. "And then you're out of here. You understand?"
"I have concocted here," Arbuthnot said, unzipping his briefcase, "the most outrageously impossible concept imaginable to my mind. And I think official eradication is absolutely essential, here, if this idea is to be kept from taking root and doing actual outright harm. There are people who pick up and act on any idea, no matter how contrary to rational good sense. You're the only person I've shown this to, and I show it to you with grave reservations." Arbuthnot then, in one brisk and spasmodic motion, dropped his typewritten work on the surface of Niehls Lehrer's desk. And sat back, waiting.
With professional caution, Lehrer surveyed the title of the paper, then shrugged. "This is nothing more than an inversion of Ludwig Eng's famous work." He slid his castered chair back from the desk, disavowing the manuscript; raising both hands he gestured in dismissal. "This is not so preposterous; it's logically thinkable to reverse Eng's title -- anybody could do it at any time."
Arbuthnot said grimly, "But no one has. Until now. Read it once again and think out the implications."
Unimpressed, Lehrer once more examined the thick bundle of pages.
"The implications," Arbuthnot continued in a low, quiet, but tense voice, "of the eradication of this manuscript."
The title, still unimpressive to Lehrer, read:
HOW I DISASSEMBLED MY SWABBLE
INTO ORDINARY HOUSEHOLD OBJECTS IN MY BASEMENT
DURING MY SPARE TIME
"So?" Lehrer said. "Anyone can disassemble a swabble; in fact it's being done. In fact, thousands of swabbles are being eradicated; it's the pattern. In fact, I doubt whether a single swabble is now to be found anywhere in --"
"When this thesis is eradicated," Arbuthnot said, "as I am certain it has been, and recently, what will the negation consist of? Think it out, Lehrer. You know the implications of cleaning out of existence Eng's premise; it means the end of the swabble and therefore the Hobart Phase. In fact, we'll see a return to normal time-flow throughout the Western United States and the Free Negro Municipality within the past forty-eight hours. . . as Eng's manuscript nears syndicate jurisdiction. The eradication of my work, then, if you follow the same line of reasoning --" He paused, "You see what I've done, don't you? I've found a way to preserve the swabble. And to maintain the now-disintegrating Hobart Phase, Without my thesis we'll gradually lose all that the swabble has brought us. The swabble, Lehrer, eliminates death; the case of the Anarch Peak is only the beginning. But the only way to keep the cycle alive is to balance Eng's paper with mine; Eng's paper moves us in one direction; my paper reverses it, and then Eng's becomes operative once more. Forever, if we want it. Unless -- and I can't imagine this happening, although admittedly it is theoretically possible -- a hopeless fusion of the two time-flows results."
"You're a crank," Lehrer said thickly.
"Exactly." Arbuthnot nodded. "And that's why you'll accept my paper for official syndicate eradication. Because you don't believe me. Because you think this is absurd." He smiled slightly, his eyes gray, intelligent and penetrating. Pressing the on-button of his intercom, Lehrer said, "Miss Tomsen, notify the local outlet of the syndicate that I'd like an Erad sent to my office as soon as possible. I have some junk here that I want him to rule on. So we can begin the business of terminal copy extinction." "Yes, Mr. Lehrer," Miss Tomsen's voice said.
Leaning back in his chair, Lehrer surveyed the man seated across from him. "Does that suit you?"
Still smiling, Arbuthnot said, "Perfectly."
"If I thought there was anything in your concept --"
"But you don't," Arbuthnot said patiently. "So I'm going to get what I want; I'll be successful. Sometime tomorrow or at the latest the day after."
"You mean yesterday," Lehrer said. "Or the day before." He examined his wristwatch. "The ten minutes are up," he informed the crank inventor. "I'll ask you now to leave." He placed his hand on the bundle of papers. "This stays here."
Rising, Arbuthnot moved toward the door of the office. "Mr. Lehrer," he said, pausing, "don't be alarmed by this, but with all due respects, sir, you need a shave."
"I haven't shaved in twenty-three years," Lehrer said. "Not since the Hobart Phase first took effect in my area of Los Angeles."
"You will by this time tomorrow," Arbuthnot said. And left the office; the door shut after him.
After a moment of reflection, Lehrer touched the button of the intercom. "Miss Tomsen, don't send anyone else in here; I'm cancelling my appointments for the balance of the day."
"Yes sir." Hopefully, Miss Tomsen said, "He was a crank, wasn't he? I thought so; I can always tell. You're glad you saw him."
"Will see him," he corrected.
"I think you're mistaken, Mr. Lehrer. The past tense --"
"Even if Ludwig Eng shows up," Lehrer said, "I don't feel like seeing him. I've had enough for today." Opening his desk drawer he carefully deposited Arbuthnot's manuscript within it, then shut it once more. He reached toward the ash tray on the desk, selected the shortest -- and hence best -- cigarette butt, dabbed it against the ceramic surface until it began to burn, then lifted it to his lips. Puffing shreds of tobacco into it, he sat staring fixedly out the office window at the poplar trees that lined the walk to the parking lot.
The wind, rushing about, gathered up a quantity of leaves, swirled them onto the branches of the trees, adhered them in a neat arrangement which decidedly added to the beauty of the trees.
Already, some of the brown leaves had turned green. In a short while autumn would give way to summer, and summer to spring.
He watched appreciatively. As he waited for the Erad sent out by the syndicate. Due to the crank's deranged thesis, time had once more returned to normal. Except --
Lehrer rubbed his chin. Bristles. He frowned.
"Miss Tomsen," he said into the intercom, "will you step in here and tell me whether or not I need a shave?"
He had a feeling that he did. And soon.
Probably within the previous half hour.