by Poul Anderson
The Time Patrol base would only remain for the hundred-odd years of inflow. During that while, few people other than scientists and maintenance crew would stay there for long at a stretch. Thus it was small, a lodge and a couple of service buildings, nearly lost in the land.
Five and a half million years before he was born, Tom Nomura found that southern end of Iberia still more steep than he remembered it. Hills climbed sharply northward until they became low mountains walling the sky, riven by canyons where shadows lay blue. It was dry country, rained on violently but briefly in winter, its streams shrunken to runnels or nothing as its grass burnt yellow in summer. Trees and shrubs grew far apart, thorn, mimosa, acacia, pine, aloe; around the waterholes palm, fern, orchid.
Withal, it was rich in life. Hawks and vultures were always at hover in cloudless heaven. Grazing herds mingled their millions together; among their scores of kinds of zebra-striped ponies, primitive rhinoceros, okapi-like ancestors of the giraffe, sometimes mastodon—thinly red-haired, hugely tusked—or peculiar elephants. Among the predators and scavengers were sabertooths, early forms of the big cats, hyenas, and scuttering ground apes which occasionally walked on their hind legs. Antheaps lifted six feet into the air. Marmots whistled.
It smelled of hay, scorch, baked dung and warm flesh. When wind awoke, it boomed, pushed, threw dust and heat into the face. Often the earth resounded to hoofbeats, birds clamored or beasts trumpeted. At night a sudden chill struck down, and the stars were so many that one didn’t much notice the alienness of their constellations.
Thus had things been until lately. And as yet there was no great change. But now had begun a hundred years of thunder. When that was done, nothing would ever be the same again.
Manse Everard regarded Tom Nomura and Feliz a Rach for a squinting moment before he smiled and said, “No, thanks, I’ll just poke around here today. You go have fun.”
Did an eyelid of the big, bent-nosed, slightly grizzled man droop a little in Nomura’s direction? The latter couldn’t be sure. They were from the same milieu, indeed the same country. That Everard had been recruited in New York, 1954 A.D., and Nomura in San Francisco, 1972, ought to make scant difference. The upheavals of that generation were bubble pops against what had happened before and what would happen after. However, Nomura was fresh out of the Academy, a bare twenty-five years of lifespan behind him. Everard hadn’t told how much time his own farings through the world’s duration added up to; and given the longevity treatment the Patrol offered its people, it was impossible to guess. Nomura suspected the Unattached agent had seen enough existence to have become more foreign to him than Feliz—who was born two millenniums past either of them.
“Very well, let’s start,” she said. Curt though it was, Nomura thought her voice made music of the Temporal language.
They stepped from the veranda and walked across the yard. A couple of other corpsmen hailed them, with a pleasure directed at her. Nomura agreed. She was young and tall, the curve-nosed strength of her features softened by large green eyes, large mobile mouth, hair that shone auburn in spite of being hacked off at the ears. The usual gray coverall and stout boots could not hide her figure or the suppleness of her stride. Nomura knew he himself wasn’t bad-looking—a stocky but limber frame, high-cheeked regular features, tawny skin—but she made him feel drab.
Also inside, he thought. How does a new-minted Patrolman—not even slated for police duty, a mere naturalist—how does he tell an aristocrat of the First Matriarchy that he’s fallen in love with her?
The rumbling which always filled the air, these miles from the cataracts, sounded to him like a chorus. Was it imagination, or did he really sense an endless shudder through the ground, up into his bones ?
Feliz opened a shed. Several hoppers stood inside, vaguely resembling wheelless two-seater motorcycles, propelled by antigravity and capable of leaping across several thousand years. (They and their present riders had been transported hither in heavy-duty shuttles.) Hers was loaded with recording gear. He had failed to convince her it was overburdened and knew she’d never forgive him if he finked on her. His invitation to Everard—the ranking officer in hand, though here-now simply on vacation—to join them today had been made in a vague hope that the latter would see that load and order her to let her assistant carry part of it.
She sprang to the saddle. “Come on!” she said. “The morning’s getting old.”
He mounted his vehicle and touched controls. Both glided outside and aloft. At eagle height, they leveled off and bore south, where the River Ocean poured into the Middle of the World.
Banks of upflung mist always edged that horizon, argent smoking off into azure. As one drew near afoot, they loomed topplingly overhead. Further on, the universe swirled gray, shaken by the roar, bitter on human lips, while water flowed off rock and gouged through mud. So thick was the cold salt fog that it was unsafe to breathe for more than a few minutes.
From well above, the sight was yet more awesome. There one could see the end of a geological epoch. For a million and a half years the Mediterranean basin had lain a desert. Now the Gates of Hercules stood open and the Atlantic was coming through.
The wind of his passage around him, Nomura peered west across unrestful, many-hued and intricately foam-streaked immensity. He could see the currents run, sucked toward the new-made gap between Europe and Africa. There they clashed together and recoiled, a white and green chaos whose violence toned from earth to heaven and back, crumbled cliffs, overwhelmed valleys, blanketed the shore in spume for miles inland. From them came a stream, snow-colored in its fury, with flashes of livid emerald, to stand in an eight-mile wall between the continents and bellow. Spray roiled aloft, dimming the torrent after torrent, wherein the sea crashed onward.
Rainbows wheeled through the clouds it made. This far aloft, the noise was no more than a monstrous millstone grinding. Nomura could clearly hear Feliz’s voice out of his receiver, as she stopped her vehicle and lifted an arm. “Hold. I want a few more takes before we go on.”
“Haven’t you enough?” he asked.
Her words softened. “How can we get enough of a miracle?”
His heart jumped. She’s not a she-soldier, born to lord it over a ruck of underlings. In spite of her early life and ways, she isn’t. She feels the dread, the beauty, yes, the sense of God at work—
A wry grin at himself: She’d better!
After all, her task was to make a full-sensory record of the whole thing, from its beginning until that day when a hundred years hence, the basin was full and the sea lapped calm where Odysseus would sail. It would take months of her lifespan. (And mine, please, mine.) Everybody in the corps wanted to experience this stupendousness; the hope of adventure was practically required for recruitment. But it wasn’t feasible for many to come so far downstairs, crowding into so narrow a time-slot. Most would have to do it vicariously. Their chiefs would not have picked someone who was not a considerable artist, to live it on their behalf and pass it on to them. Nomura remembered his astonishment when he was assigned to assist her. Short-handed as it was, could the Patrol afford artists ?
Well, after he answered a cryptic advertisement and took several puzzling tests and learned about intertemporal traffic, he had wondered if police and rescue work were possible and been told that, usually, they were. He could see the need for administrative and clerical personnel, resident agents, historiorgraphers, anthropologists, and, yes, natural scientists like himself. In the weeks they had been working together, Feliz convinced him that a few artists were at least as vital. Man does not live by bread alone, nor guns, paperwork, theses, naked practicalities.
She restowed her apparatus. “Come,” she ordered. As she flashed eastward ahead of him, her hair caught a sunbeam and shone as if molten. He trudged mute in her wake.
The Mediterranean floor lay ten thousand feet below sea level. The inflow took most of that drop within a fifty-mile strait. Its volume amounted to ten thousand cubic miles a year, a hundred Victoria Falls or a thousand Niagaras.
Thus the statistics. The reality was a roar of white water, spray-shrouded, earth-sundering, mountain-shaking. Men could see, hear, feel, smell, taste the thing; they could not imagine it.
When the channel widened, the flow grew smoother, until it ran green and black. Then mists diminished and islands appeared, like ships which cast up huge bow waves; and life could again grow or go clear to the shore. Yet most of those islands would be eroded away before the century was out, and much of that life would perish in weather turned strange. For this event would move the planet from its Miocene to its Pliocene epoch.
And as he flitted onward, Nomura did not hear less noise, but more. Though the stream itself was quieter here, it moved toward a bass clamor which grew and grew till heaven was one brazen bell. He recognized a headland whose worndown remnant would someday bear the name Gibraltar. Not far beyond, a cataract twenty miles wide made almost half the total plunge.
With terrifying ease, the waters slipped over that brink. They were glass-green against the darkling cliffs and umber grass of the continents. Light flamed off their heights. At their bottom another cloud bank rolled white in ever-ending winds. Beyond reached a blue sheet, a lake whence rivers hewed canyons, out and out across the alkaline sparkle, dust devils and mirage shimmers of the furnace land which they would make into a sea.
It boomed, it brawled, it querned.
Again Feliz poised her flyer. Nomura drew alongside. They were high; the air whittered chilly around them.
“Today,” she told him, “I want to try for an impression of the sheer size. I’ll move in close to the top, recording as I go, and then down.”
“Not too close,” he warned.
She bridled. “I’ll judge that.”
“Uh, I… I’m not trying to boss you or anything.” I’d better not. I, a plebe and a male. “As a favor, please—” Nomura flinched at his own clumsy speech. “—be careful, will you? I mean, you’re important to me.”
Her smile burst upon him. She leaned hard against her safety harness to catch his hand. “Thank you, Tom.” After a moment, turned grave: “Men like you make me understand what is wrong in the age I come from.”
She had often spoken kindly to him: most times, in fact. Had she been a strident militant, no amount of comeliness would have kept him awake nights. He wondered if perhaps he had begun loving her when first he noticed how conscientiously she strove to regard him as her equal. It was not easy for her, she being almost as new in the Patrol as he—no easier than it was for men from other areas to believe, down inside where it counted, that she had the same capabilities they did and that it was right she use herself to the full.
She couldn’t stay solemn. “Come on!” she shouted. “Hurry! That straight dropoff won’t last another twenty years!”
Her machine darted. He slapped down the face screen of his helmet and plunged after, bearing the tapes and power cells and other auxiliary items. Be careful, he pleaded, oh, be careful, my darling.
She had gotten well ahead. He saw her like a comet, a dragonfly, everything vivid and swift, limned athwart yonder mile-high precipice of sea. The noise grew in him till there was nothing else, his skull was full of its doomsday.
Yards from the waters, she rode her hopper chasmward. Her head was buried in a dial-studded box, her hands at work on its settings; she steered with her knees. Salt spray began to fog Nomura’s screen. He activated the self-cleaner. Turbulence clawed at him; his carrier lurched. His eardrums, guarded against sound but not changing pressure, stabbed with pain.
He had come quite near Feliz when her vehicle went crazy. He saw it spin, saw it strike the green immensity, saw it and her engulfed. He could not hear himself scream through the thunder.
He rammed the speech switch, swooped after her. Was it blind instinct which sent him whirling away again, inches before the torrent grabbed him too? She was gone from sight. There was only the water wall, clouds below and unpitying blue calm above, the noise that took him in its jaws to shake him apart, the cold, the damp, the salt on his mouth that tasted like tears.
He fled for help.
Noonday glowered outside. The land looked bleached, lay moveless and lifeless except for a carrion bird. The distant falls alone had voice.
A knock on the door of his room brought Nomura off the bed, onto his feet. Through an immediately rackety pulse he croaked, “Come in. Do.”
Everard entered. In spite of air conditioning, sweat spotted his garments. He gnawed a fireless pipe and his shoulders slumped.
“What’s the word?” Nomura begged of him.
“As I feared. Nothing. She never returned home.”
Nomura sank into a chair and stared before him. “You’re certain?”
Everard sat down on the bed, which creaked beneath his weight. “Yeah. The message capsule just arrived. In answer to my inquiry, et cetera, Agent Feliz a Rach has not reported back to her home milieu base from the Gibraltar assignment, and they have no further record of her.”
“Not in any era?”
“The way agents move around in time and space, nobody keeps dossiers, except maybe the Danellians.”
“Do you imagine they’d reply?” Everard snapped—they, the supermen of the remote future who were the founders and ultimate masters of the Patrol. One big fist clenched on his knee. “And don’t tell me we ordinary mortals could keep closer tabs if we wanted to. Have you checked your personal future, son? We don’t want to, and that’s that.”
The roughness left him. He shifted the pipe about in his grip and said most gently, “If we live long enough, we outlive those we’ve cared for. The common fate of man; nothing unique to our corps. But I’m sorry you had to strike it so young.”
“Never mind me!” Nomura exclaimed. “What of her?”
“Yes… I’ve been thinking about your account. My guess is, the airflow patterns are worse than tricky around that fall. What should’ve been expected, no doubt. Overloaded, her hopper was less controllable than usual. An air pocket, a flaw, whatever it was, something like that grabbed her without warning and tossed her into the stream.”
Nomura’s fingers writhed against each other. “And I was supposed to look after her.”
Everard shook his head. “Don’t punish yourself worse. You were simply her assistant. She should have been more careful.”
“But—God damn it, we can rescue her still, and you won’t allow us to?” Nomura half screamed.
“Stop,” Everard warned. “Stop right there.”
Never say it: that several Patrolmen could ride backward in time, lay hold on her with tractor beams and haul her free of the abyss. Or that I could tell her and my earlier self to beware. It did not happen, therefore it will not happen.
It must not happen.
For the past becomes in fact mutable, as soon as we on our machines have transformed it into our present. And if ever a mortal takes himself that power, where can the changing end? We start by saving a glad girl; we go on to save Lincoln, but somebody else tries to save the Confederate States—No, none less than God can be trusted with time. The Patrol exists to guard what is real. Its men may no more violate that faith than they may violate their own mothers.
“I’m sorry,” Nomura mumbled.
“It’s okay, Tom.”
“No, I… I thought… when I saw her vanish, my first thought was that we could make up a party, ride back to that very instant and snatch her clear—”
“A natural thought in a new man. Old habits of the mind die hard. The fact is, we did not. It’d scarcely have been authorized anyway. Too dangerous. We can ill afford to lose more. Certainly we can’t when the record shows that our rescue attempt would be foredoomed if we made it.”
“Is there no way to get around that?”
Everard sighed. “I can’t think of any. Make your peace with fate, Tom.” He hesitated. “Can I… can we do anything for you?”
“No.” It came harsh out of Nomura’s throat. “Except leave me be for a while.”
“Sure.” Everard rose. “You weren’t the only person who thought a lot of her,” he reminded, and left.
When the door had closed behind him, the sound of the falls seemed to wax, grinding, grinding. Nomura stared at emptiness. The sun passed its apex and began to slide very slowly toward night.
I should have gone after her myself, at once.
And risked my life.
Why not follow her into death, then?
No. That’s senseless. Two deaths do not make a life. I couldn’t have saved her. I didn’t have the equipment or—The sane thing was to fetch help.
Only the help was denied—whether by man or by fate hardly matters, does it?—and so she went down. The stream hurled her into the gulf, she had a moment’s terror before it smashed the awareness out of her, then at the bottom it crushed her, plucked her apart, strewed the pieces of her bones across, the floor of a sea that I, a youngster, will sail upon one holiday, unknowing that there is a Time Patrol or ever was a Feliz. Oh, God, I want my dust down with hers, five and a half million years from this hour!
A remote cannonade went through the air, a tremor through earth and floor. An undercut bank must have crumbled into the torrent. It was the kind of scene she would have loved to capture.
“Would have?” Nomura yelled and surged from the chair. The ground still vibrated beneath him. “She will!”
He ought to have consulted Everard, but feared—perhaps mistakenly, in his grief and his inexperience—that he would be refused permission and sent upstairs at once.
He ought to have rested for several days, but feared that his manner would betray him. A stimulant pill must serve in place of nature.
He ought to have checked out a tractor unit, not smuggled it into the locker on his vehicle.
When he took the hopper forth, a Patrolman who saw asked where he was bound. “For a ride,” Nomura answered. The other nodded sympathetically. He might not suspect that a love had been lost, but the loss of a comrade was bad enough. Nomura was careful to get well over the northern horizon before he swung toward the seafall.
Right and left, it reached further than he could see. Here, more than halfway down that cliff of green glass, the very curve of the planet hid its ends from him. Then as he entered the spume clouds, whiteness enfolded him, roiling and stinging.
His face shield stayed clear, but vision was ragged, upward along immensity. The helmet warded his hearing but could not stave off the storm which rattled his teeth and heart and skeleton. Winds whirled and smote, the carrier staggered, he must fight for every inch of control.
And to find the exact second—
Back and forth he leaped across time, reset the verniers, reflicked the main switch, glimpsed himself vague in the mists, and peered through them toward heaven: over and over, until abruptly he was then.
Twin gleams far above… He saw the one strike and go under, go down, while the other darted around until soon it ran away. Its rider had not seen him, where he lurked in the chill salt mists. His presence was not on any damned record.
He darted forward. Yet patience was upon him. He could cruise for a long piece of lifespan if need be, seeking the trice which would be his. The fear of death, even the knowing that she might be dead when he found her, were like half-remembered dreams. The elemental powers had taken him. He was a will that flew.
He hovered within a yard of the water. Gusts tried to cast him into its grip, as they had done to her. He was ready for them, danced free, returned to peer—returned through time as well as space, so that a score of him searched along the fall in that span of seconds when Feliz might be alive.
He paid his other selves no heed. They were merely stages he had gone through or must still go through.
The dim dark shape tumbled past him, beneath the flood, on its way to destruction. He spun a control. A tractor beam locked onto the other machine. His reeled and went after it, unable to pull such a mass free of such a might.
The tide nearly had him when help came. Two vehicles, three, four, all straining together, they hauled Feliz’s loose. She sagged horribly limp in her saddle harness. He didn’t go to her at once. First he went back those few blinks in time, and back, and back, to be her rescuer and his own.
When finally they were alone among fogs and furies, she freed and in his arms, he would have burnt a hole through the sky to get shore where he could care for her. But she stirred, her eyes blinked open, after a minute she smiled at him. Then he wept. Beside them, the ocean roared onward.
The sunset to which Nomura had leaped ahead was not on anybody’s record either. It turned the land golden. The falls must be afire with it. Their song resounded beneath the evening star.
Feliz propped pillows against headboard, sat straighter in the bed where she was resting, and told Everard: “If you lay charges against him, that he broke regulations or whatever male stupidity you are thinking of, I’ll also quit your bloody Patrol.”
“Oh, no.” The big man lifted a palm as if to fend off attack. “Please. You misunderstand. I only meant to say, we’re in a slightly awkward position.”
“How?” Nomura demanded, from the chair in which he sat and held Feliz’ hand. “I wasn’t under any orders not to attempt this, was I? All right, agents are supposed to safeguard their own lives if possible, as being valuable to the corps. Well, doesn’t it follow that the salvaging of a life is worthwhile too?”
“Yes. Sure.” Everard paced the floor. It thudded beneath his boots, above the drumbeat of the flood. “Nobody quarrels with success, even in a much tighter organization than ours. In fact, Tom, the initiative you showed today makes your future prospects look good, believe me.” A grin went lopsided around his pipestem. “As for an old soldier like myself, it’ll be forgiven that I was too ready to give up.” A flick of somberness: “I’ve seen so many lost beyond hope.”
He stopped in his treading, confronted them both, and stated: “But we cannot have loose ends. The fact is, her unit does not list Feliz a Rach as returning, ever.”
Their clasps tightened on each other.
Everard gave him and her a smile—haunted, nevertheless a smile—before he continued: “Don’t get scared, though. Tom, earlier you wondered why we, we ordinary humans at least, don’t keep closer track of our people. Now do you see the reason?
“Feliz a Rach never checked back into her original base. She may have visited her former home, of course, but we don’t ask officially what agents do on their furloughs.” He drew breath. “As for the rest of her career, if she should want to transfer to a different headquarters and adopt a different name, why, any officer of sufficient rank could approve that. Me, for example.
“We operate loose in the Patrol. We dare not do otherwise.”
Nomura understood, and shivered.
Feliz recalled him to the ordinary world. “But who might I become?” she wondered.
He pounced on the cue. “Well,” he said, half in laughter and half in thunder, “how about Mrs. Thomas Nomura?”