I saw myself dying on the other side of the street.
I was leaning against a lamp post with one hand at my middle as blood oozed over my fingers where I held that awesome wound. My head hung down and every once in a while an ominous shudder ran through my frame. My body was wearing tight black breeches and short boots, a black jacket with white piping tight to the chest and shoulders. There was an insignia of some sort on the sleeve. A black belt held half a dozen objects sheathed in black leather holsters.
As I watched, I saw myself sag as my knees bent. I started to topple sideways and downward, to sprawl across the curbing of the little Long Island town where I had come for summer vacation.
The street was deserted except for myself and—my strange twin.
I ran across the street and knelt beside this man who looked exactly like me. He was still alive, breathing in shallow gasps.
"I'll get a doctor," I said.
His eyes opened. Faintly he shook his head. His lips moved twice before, by bending and ear close to them, I could hear his words.
I turned him over, gently. His face was ashen, and so much like my own that I must have cried out, for his lips twisted in a bitter smile and he lifted his eyelids to look at me. Even his eyes were my eyes, deep blue and with short yellow lashes.
"Yes, I—look for you—just because you are—my exact double. I am—Chan Dahl. I—"
The eyes widened. His teeth bit into his lower lip until they drew blood while a convulsive shiver ran over his big frame. He was in such a pain that his body kept quivering constantly.
"I am from—many thousand years in—the future. I am what—my people call a Chronomad, one of those selected ones who—move back and forth in time."
The eyelids lowered. He gasped once and was motionless. My hand went to his heart, felt it faintly beating. I could transfer him to my cottage. There was a doctor vacationing with his family a little way up the beach; I would get him to minister to him, at least to lessen his agony.
I slipped my arms under his back and thighs. Mercifully for him, he remained unconscious. He was heavy, for I myself am a big man and quite muscular; it was an odd sensation carrying him, looking down into my own face, seeing myself I would be, some day, so close to death.
My T-bird was across the way. I had come into Shore-dune for a six-pack of beer. The delicatessen man was a friend of mine who would go down the back way and into the store after hours. I had been on my way to his street door when my twin from the future had come staggering out of the shadows on the other side of the street and into my life.
I managed to get him into the car, huddled up on the back seat, and shortly we were speeding south on the bay road that would take me to my cottage. The moon was at its quarter, the night was dark—there are no lights on the side streets this far out—and I made good time. I braked in the shadows of my cottage within hearing distance of the waters of Peconic Bay lapping at the beach.
I have always loved the shore. It cool waters and level stretches of sand, the twisted masses of pallid driftwood on stumbles on occasionally, the gulls cawing overhead and the little sandpipers running just beyond the fringe of seaweed that shows the high tide mark, all make it pleasant place to relax.
I have always been a lonely man. Perhaps because of that loneliness I like the empty desolation and the weather-beaten old seafood houses, the mudflats with the bulkhead pilings jutting up like bony fingers, the boats bobbing gently at their anchors to a swell of water where a speedboat passes by. At low tide I can browse for sea urchins and discover little pools left between the gray rocks by the retreating bay. It is like having your own aquarium.
I am an archaeologist, attached to a museum staff. Most of my life is spent at the sweltering digs of the Near East or somewhere off in Mexico, or down in the jungles of South America, grubbing about for forgotten Incan remains. The air is dry there, and it is hot, and there is rarely a cool wind for the flushed face and the sweating body. It explains why I always come back to the coast for my vacations.
My hand told me his heart still throbbed, faintly and weakly, that he was still alive. I carried him into the cottage and deposited him on my bed before I turned on a light. The cottage had been mine for years. Lacking a wife, I need move no furniture about. I can walk anywhere in my five rooms blind-folded and never brush against a thing.
I drew down the shades, then flipped the light switch. Part of the field kit which I take everywhere with me on an expedition is given over to medical supplies, for on a dig you are cut off for long stretches of time from the niceties of civilization and must learn to be your own physician.
I shook two morphine tablets into my hand and came back to the dying man. I lifted his head. His eyes opened and he smiled. I pressed the tablets between his lips; he seemed to sense what they were, and swallow them with the water I held to his mouth. He lay back and sighed.
The pain must have left him soon, for he appeared to grow stronger. He turned his head and regarded me.
"We do look alike," he whispered. "I chose well when I chose you." A shadow of guilt crossed his face, and he grimaced. "I was going to kill you, you know—in order to steal your identity. I intended to become Kevin Cord, the young archaeologist I would have disintegrated your body so that it would never be found...then I'd have assumed your life."
His eyes never left my face. I sat quietly, knowing I was safe enough; my double would be dead in a little while. His plan had backfired on him in some way. When I said something of this, he nodded.
"Yes, it went all wrong. I thought I was safe from the Mystery but—they caught me. They did this to me."
"Why? Who caught you? What mystery?"
"They thought I knew the most dangerous secret in the universe."
My lips twitched at his melodramatic statement. He frowned, then his eyes gleamed with amusement. He was telling the truth, he murmured. It was the most dangerous secret in the universe—but he did not know it. The Alatars had made a mistake. For him it was a most deadly mistake.
"It may be better this way," he said at last. "I could never go back to my own people. I could not go forward. And so I—ran away."
"To my time?"
His head moved faintly in agreement. "So far back we—are forbidden to come here. It was safe enough, in a sense. I would have lived out my remaining years as you—if the Alatars hadn't caught me.
There was a little silence. His eyes were closed and his face was becoming more pallid by the minute. I put my hand on his chest. His heartbeat was very slow, very weak. When he died, I would have to notify the police at Shore-dune, I told myself. I wondered if they would believe my version of what had happened or—would they think I killed him?
We waited. He was far away in some dim borderland to which all men must go in those last few seconds before death. His eyes opened and his lips twitched; then his eyes closed and his mouth was still.
Only just before the end did he rouse himself. He came up on an elbow, staring wildly about him with the stark fear livid on his features.
"When day is dark and night is bright—when Earth slides left and space slides right..." He broke off to laugh hysterically, head thrown back, mouth wide open. "Then you'll know you've found the Mystery!"
It was sheer gibberish. It made no sense at all.
As I leaned forward to ask him to explain, this man who called himself Chan Dahl fell backward. His elbow went out from under him and the hand that held his bloody middle slipped sideways and over the edge of the bed where it hung limp and waxen except where the blood dripped down onto the carpet.
The heart that had brought him from far in the future was stilled. I took away my hand. He was dead, no doubt about it, but to make absolutely sure I found a mirror and held it to his lips and nostrils. The mirror remained clean.
I sat back, brooding down at him. Obviously, my next step was to phone Otto Krausner, the Shore-dune chief of police. Otto was a friend of mine. I hoped he would believe my story of what had happened.
There would be an inquest, of course, a medical autopsy, and a most thorough investigation. Dully, I realized that I might not go on the field trip to Uruguay for work on the mammal ectoparasites; I have never been in Uruguay and was most anxious to go. If I were to face a murder charge...
I heaved myself to my feet. The sooner done, the sooner over. I turned toward the living room and the phone waiting there for me.
A woman stood in the doorway.
She was staring at me with a bitter, twisted smile on her rather full red mouth, and she was aiming a slender metallic rod straight for my stomach. I remember how Chan Dahl had looked with most of his insides gone, and I felt the hair rise on the back of my neck.
The woman said something I could not understand.
At least she was willing to talk. I spread my hands and tried to look friendly. "Look, I'm not the one who killed him. I have nothing to do with him. He says his name was Chan Dahl and—"
"Oh, stop it," she snapped angrily. "I never thought you'd come to this, you fool."
She spoke my language now, so I said, "I found him in town. He was wounded there. I brought him here. There's a doctor down the beach..."
My voice trailed off. Her cold eyes told me she did not believe me. She waved the metal rod she held so I retreated a few steps until I had backed against my bureau. I put my hands on its edge and squeezed the wood as hard as I could. The woman stepped from the doorway, walking toward the bed with a feline grace.
With this breathing space from surprise, I had an opportunity to give her more than a worried glance. She wore the same black and white outfit that clothed Chan Dahl. Her jacket was slightly longer than his, reaching to the tops of her thighs. She was all woman, very feminine, and as deadly as a king cobra.
The belt that held her holstered weapons—the slender rod was one of them, I assumed—spanned what appeared to be about a twenty-two inch waist. Tawny hair framed a face tanned a honey brown. She wore her hair long, swept up on top of her head and fastened there in a sort of topknot.
She sighed and lifted her eyes from the dead man to me. "Why didn't you disintegrate him, at least?" she asked. Her face was puzzled, her manner hesitant.
Suddenly she bent down, touched open his many leather holsters. Half of them were empty, and she nodded, straightening with brisk certainty. "Of course. You lost the disintor. You had to use any weapon you had." She lifted out what looked like a toy ray-gun, only it was heavier and shorter. I did not need to ask to know this was the real thing.
"You turned a stunner on full power and hit him with that. I'll take it with me as evidence."
As she was tucking the stunner into her belt, I said, "Look, lady—you have everything all wrong. I didn't kill Chan Dahl. I found him that way in town."
She heard me out, her face cold and hard. When I was done, she shook her head. "It won't do, Chan Dahl. You killed the past-man, took his clothes, put your own clothes on him, and waited to be found. You knew I was hunting for you."
"Look, I'll prove it to you,' I stated desperately. "I'll tell you all about myself, show that I couldn't possibly be this Chan Dahl."
She smiled faintly. "I scanned his mind too, on my way down, just as you did. Let me tell you about this Kevin Cord."
The woman told me all about myself for half an hour. She dredge up facts from my subconscious that I hadn't thought about for years. When she finished I was sweating, because I knew I was beaten. I had absolutely no way of proving I was not—no, wait.
"Fingerprints," I said hoarsely. "My fingerprints won't be the same as his. They'll prove I'm Kevin Cord and not Chan Dahl."
Amusement twitched her lips. "All right, if it pleases you to go on arguing, show me your fingerprints."
I got a stamp pad from my desk and made impressions of my eight fingers and two thumbs. Then I did the same to Chan Dahl. I held them up and squinted in disbelief. Our fingerprints matched exactly.
The woman was at my elbow, faintly perfumed and breathing gently. "You stole a plastic-raft set, Chan Dahl. Or do you imagine I wasn't briefed thoroughly when I left Nyallar?"
At my obviously dazed look, she snapped. "A plastic-raft set can change anything about human flesh, you know that. Oh. why delay? You don't have a leg to stand on. Go on. Go into the next room. I have to get rid of the body and remove every trace of what you've done here tonight so the past-men won't realize we've been here."
She motioned with the thin metal rod. I walked to the door.
Looking back, I saw her standing over what was left of Chan Dahl, lifting the metal rod, aiming it. A purple flare ran from its muzzle and hit the dead man, running out across his body like lavender ink. In an instant he was coated with that odd flame.
Then—my bed was empty.
The woman glanced at the blood drops on the floor. She made an adjustment of the rod and fired a paler purple flame at them. The bloodstains winked out of existence. Her head lifted as she glanced about the room, at the floor. There were no more bloodstains in the bedroom, but in the living room she found and eliminated three more.
I went into the dark night. She closed and locked my door, then brought out a round glass globe that began to glow in her palm. Back and forth she moved it as she scanned the ground. Every once in awhile she used the disintor on more blood drops.
She took a little longer with my T-bird, because Chan Dahl had been in it all the way from town. I stood back and watched her, admiring her efficiency. The thought of jumping her and trying to wrestle away her disintor rod occurred to me, but she kept me at a distance by glancing at me and motioning with the thin metal rod as if telling me she knew I was there.
When she was done she pointed back toward the woods. There were pine barrens there, scrub trees that once stretched from Greenport in as far as Smithtown, and these between the beach property and Shore-dune were the last remaining stretch so close to the end of the island. I began my walk toward them.
The woman followed at a little distance, not making the mistake of crowding me so that I would be within distance of her. She was a smart cookie, and suspicious. When I was in between the trees, she called to me to wait for her, to move slowly and to the right.
I walked where she said to walk. Up ahead of me, suddenly, I saw a faint shimmer, as if heat waves were rising from the ground. They were transparent so that I could make out the trees beyond them, but they were in a little open space between the pines, as if some object might be there but hidden from the casual view.
Behind me there was a click.
The heat shimmer was gone. In its place was a low glass object out of which rose a slender metal rod tipped with a glowing ball. From above, the glass thing might appear to be oval, for it tapered slightly at its ends; from the ground, it appeared to be no more than a small glass house. Faintly I could make out furniture inside it.
I glanced back at the woman.
She touched her belt again; there was another click, and part of the glass wall opened. I walked in, she followed m and the glass wall firmed back in place. I could see the pine barrens outside, and the dark sky studded with stars and a quarter moon, and, through the trees, the waters of Peconic Bay. It was like being inside a goldfish bowl and looking out at the world.
A black panel set with buttons of many colors was inset into the wall to one side of the door. The woman touched several of the buttons swiftly, with the ease of long familiarity. Instantly a grayish fog gathered beyond the glass walls, the pine barrens vanished behind it. From somewhere underfoot a deep hum sounded, steady, rhythmic.
The woman turned back to me. To my surprise, there were tears in her eyes, and she was biting her lip.
"Chan, you fool! Why did you do it? Nothing could have been that bad—nothing! For any other crime there might be some sort of excuse but—to kill a past-man!"
I said, "Look, lady, I'm the past-man."
She shook her head wearily. "You can drop your pose here. The anti-probes are up. Nobody can see or hear us with scanners. Now...tell me all about it. What was it that made you—go back?"
I spread my hands. "I don't know how I can convince you. My name is Kevin Cord. I'm an archaeologist, lady. I—"
She stamped her foot. "For the love of Karnith, will you stop calling me 'lady'!"
"Gladly. Just tell me your name."
She took one step forward. Her hand came up and slapped me across the face. I stood rigid with surprise, no so much from the sting of the slap as from the emotions that played across her lovely face. There was shocked anger there, and a frightened dismay, and the dawning light of stark terror. Her breath came swiftly as he panted, almost sobbing.
"Stop it, stop it, stop it!" she cried.
Her hands balled into fists that lifted as if to drum against my chest. With her hands held up like that, she whispered, "You know what the Council would do to me if you were a past-man, Chan. I'd be exterminated. Nobody is allowed back beyond the Red Line. Sometimes thinks that happen back this far change what is to happen in our own time."
"Be prepared for surprise, then," I said dully.
She began to laugh. Her fingers loosed and she put her hands together, rubbing them slowly. The color came back into her cheeks.
"You just want to tease me—pay me back for having found you! I guess I don't blame you. Another hour and I wouldn't have been able to locate you. You were smart; you destroyed your Timeler."
My blank look made her stare hard. Her hand gestured. "This is a Timeler. A time traveler. You had one just like it. You destroyed it."
"You still haven't told me your name."
"Carla," she smiled, watching me with an odd intentness. Whatever she expected to happen—did not. I simply said, "Glad to know you, Carla."
She shook her head wearily. "I never knew you were such an actor, Chan. Of course my name isn't Carla. You know that, yet you never even blinked."
"Could be I'm really Kevin Cord."
She shivered and turned away, moving toward a lounge chair patterned in green and white stripes. It looked comfortable as it folded about her, to hold her in the utmost comfort, as if it were a living thing. She crossed her legs.
"All right," she said suddenly. "I'll play your little game. If it makes you happy to see me executed for having brought back a past-man, then I'll make you happy." Her voice broke, suddenly, as her control wavered. "Once we were in love. I—I'm still in love with you. But I can't understand you...you've changed."
Through a break in the fog outside the Timeler I caught a glimpse of a terrible storm. Lightning flashes streaked the sky, brilliant yellow against dark black. The rain pelted all around us in a torrential downpour. No storm as fierce as that could have sprung up since we stepped inside the time machine.
There was only one answer. We were moving in time.
I stepped to the glass wall and peered out. The storm was awesome in its fury. I watched great waves pounding upward at the beach. When a particularly brilliant lightning bolt exploded overhead, I gasped. My cottage was no longer where it should be.
There was perfume beside me. The woman said, "The fire destroyed the cottage."
"The conflagration of 2035."
The storm was gone now, vanished within a few seconds. Now the sun shone down on the black remnants of the pine barrens. There was char and sand and water, no more.
"Soon they will begin building," she said heavily. "The population explosion forced men into cities so they could live upward in space. What was once the New York metropolis extends by this time to the eastern end of Long Island, into Connecticut and New Jersey. Skyscrapers are no longer just office buildings, but dwellings as well."
She sighed softly, "I don't know why I'm telling you all this. You know more about it than I do."
"Please," I said. "Go on."
It may have been my imagination, but the woman seemed to shudder. Perhaps something of what I said was getting through to her, convincing her that I was not Chan Dahl but—Kevin Cord. I knew suddenly the terrible dilemma she faced: if I were not Chan Dahl, she was traveling to her death for having dislodged a past-man; on the other hand, she did not quite dare to turn around and put me back in my own time era, for fear that I might really be Chan Dahl in a consummate acting role.
Outside the glassine walls I was watching buildings rise, swiftly, as if by trick photography. Great glass and metal rectangles stood on end, grouped about a great circle covered with a dome. Inside the dome I could make out little flashes of movement: people, going about their work and play in the scant nano-seconds inside the Timeler that were equal to their years.
"The weather inside the domes and the buildings is controlled," she said. "Underground rails connect distant points of the country. Monorail cars that travel under automation at speeds of better than two hundred miles an hour. Oh yes—there are planes, too, that work by negative gravity."
She smiled at my expression. "Cooper found the answer to gravity, back after the year 1996. It let us send spaceships to Mars, to colonize its dry-ways. It helped control the population to some extent. There was little or no danger to space travel, once the gravity units were operating. Gravity fed energy into the motors, controlling the temperature and initial inertia of every space trip. It even allowed the stelastic hulls to repel heat, gathering a small amount of it and feeding it back into the ship, for comfort, through sensitive wires."
My expression was rapt. Glancing upward at my face, she caught her breath. She was half leaning against me, soft and warm. I put my arm around her shoulders, drawing her even closer. She did not pull away, but there were tears in her hazel eyes.
"Tell me the truth," she whispered.
"I'm not Chan Dahl," I said.
I kissed her. And then—she knew.