A plague of Demons And Other Storiesby Keith Laumer



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The Star-Sent Knaves1Clyde W. Snithian was a bald eagle of a man, dark-eyed, pot-bellied, with the large, expressive hands of a rug merchant. Round-shouldered in a loose cloak, he blinked small reddish eyes at Dan Slane's travel-stained six-foot-one."Kelly here tells me you've been demanding to see me." He nodded toward the florid man at his side. He had a high, thin voice, like something that needed oiling. "Something about important information regarding my paintings.""That's right, Mr. Snithian," Dan said. "I believe I can be of great help to you.""Help how? If you've got ideas of bilking me . . ." The red eyes bored into Dan like hot pokers."Nothing like that, sir. Now, I know you have quite a system of guards here—the papers are full of it—""Damned busybodies! Sensation-mongers! If it wasn't for the press, I'd have no concern for my paintings today!""Yes, sir. But my point is, the one really important spot has been left unguarded.""Now, wait a minute—" Kelly started."What's that?" Snithian cut in."You have a hundred and fifty men guarding the house and grounds day and night—""Two hundred and twenty-five," Kelly snapped."—but no one at all in the vault with the paintings," Slane finished."Of course not," Snithian shrilled. "Why should I post a man in the vault? It's under constant surveillance from the corridor outside.""The Harriman paintings were removed from a locked vault," Dan said. "There was a special seal on the door. It wasn't broken.""By the saints, he's right," Kelly exclaimed. "Maybe we ought to have a man in that vault.""Another idiotic scheme to waste my money," Snithian snapped. "I've made you responsible for security here, Kelly! Let's have no more nonsense. And throw this nincompoop out!" Snithian turned and stalked away, his cloak flapping at his knees."I'll work cheap," Dan called after the tycoon as Kelly took his arm. "I'm an art lover.""Never mind that," Kelly said, escorting Dan along the corridor. He turned in at an office and closed the door."Now, as the old buzzard said, I'm responsible for security here. If those pictures go, my job goes with them. Your vault idea's not bad. Just how cheap would you work?""A hundred dollars a week," Dan said promptly. "Plus expenses," he added.Kelly nodded. "I'll fingerprint you and run a fast agency check. If you're clean, I'll put you on, starting tonight. But keep it quiet."* * *Dan looked around at the gray walls, with shelves stacked to the low ceiling with wrapped paintings. Two three-hundred-watt bulbs shed a white glare over the tile floor, a neat white refrigerator, a bunk, an armchair, a bookshelf and a small table set with paper plates, plastic utensils and a portable radio—all hastily installed at Kelly's order. Dan opened the refrigerator, looked over the stock of salami, liverwurst, cheese and beer. He took out a loaf of bread, built up a well-filled sandwich, opened a can of beer.It wasn't fancy, but it would do. Phase one of the plan had gone off without a hitch.Basically, his idea was simple. Art collections had been disappearing from closely guarded galleries and homes all over the world. It was obvious that no one could enter a locked vault, remove a stack of large canvases and leave, unnoticed by watchful guards—and leaving the lock undamaged.Yet the paintings were gone. Someone had been in those vaults—someone who hadn't entered in the usual way.Theory failed at that point; that left the experimental method. The Snithian collection was the largest west of the Mississippi. With such a target, the thieves were bound to show up. If Dan sat in the vault—day and night—waiting—he would see for himself how they operated.He finished his sandwich, went to the shelves and pulled down one of the brown-paper bundles. Loosening the string binding the package, he slid a painting into view. It was a gaily colored view of an open-air café, with a group of men and women in gay-ninetyish costumes gathered at a table. He seemed to remember reading something about it in a magazine. It was a cheerful scene; Dan liked it. Still, it hardly seemed worth all the effort . . . He went to the wall switch and turned off the lights. The orange glow of the filaments died, leaving only a faint illumination from the nightlight over the door. When the thieves arrived, it might give a momentary advantage if his eyes were adjusted to the dark. He groped his way to the bunk.So far, so good, he reflected, stretching out. When they showed up, he'd have to handle everything just right. If he scared them off there'd be no second chance. He would have lost his crack at—whatever his discovery might mean to him.But he was ready. Let them come.* * *Eight hours, three sandwiches and six beers later, Dan roused suddenly from a light doze and sat up on the cot. Between him and the crowded shelving, a palely luminous framework was materializing in mid-air.The apparition was an open-work cage—about the size and shape of an outhouse minus the sheathing, Dan estimated breathlessly. Two figures were visible within the structure, sitting stiffly in contoured chairs. They glowed, if anything, more brightly than the framework.A faint sound cut into the stillness—a descending whine. The cage moved jerkily, settling toward the floor. Long pink sparks jumped, crackling, to span the closing gap; with a grate of metal, the cage settled against the floor. The spectral men reached for ghostly switches . . . The glow died.Dan was aware of his heart thumping painfully under his ribs. His mouth was dry. This was the moment he'd been planning for, but now that it was here—Never mind. He took a deep breath, ran over the speeches he had prepared for the occasion:Greetings, visitors from the future . . . No good; it lacked spontaneity. The men were rising, their backs to Dan, stepping out of the skeletal frame. In the dim light it now looked like nothing more than a rough box built of steel pipe, with a cluster of levers in a console before the two seats. And the thieves looked ordinary enough: two men in gray coveralls, one slender and balding, the other shorter and round-faced. Neither of them noticed Dan, sitting rigid on the cot. The thin man placed a lantern on the table, twiddled a knob. A warm light sprang up. The visitors looked at the stacked shelves."Looks like the old boy's been doing all right," the shorter man said. "Fathead's gonna be pleased.""A very gratifying consignment," his companion said. "However, we'd best hurry, Percy. How much time have we left on the dial?""Plenty," Percy grunted. "Fifteen minutes anyway."The thin man opened a package, glanced at a painting."Ah, a Plotz. Magnificent. Almost the equal of Picasso in his puce period."Percy shuffled through the other pictures in the stack."Like always," he grumbled. "No nood dames. I like nood dames.""Look at this, Percy! The textures alone—"Percy looked. "Yeah, nice use of values," he conceded. "But I still prefer nood dames, Fiorello.""And this!" Fiorello lifted the next painting. "Look at that gay play of rich browns!""I seen richer browns on Thirty-third Street," Percy said. "They was popular with the sparrows.""Percy, sometimes I think your aspirations—""Whatta ya talkin'? I use a roll-on." Percy, turning to place a painting in the cage, stopped dead as he caught sight of Dan. The painting clattered to the floor. Dan stood, cleared his throat. "Uh . . .""Oh-oh," Percy said. "A double-cross.""I've—ah—been expecting you gentlemen," Dan said. "I—""I told you we couldn't trust a guy with nine fingers on each hand," Fiorello whispered hoarsely. He moved toward Percy. "Let's blow, Percy," he muttered."Wait a minute," Dan said. "Before you do anything hasty—""Don't start nothing, Buster," Percy said cautiously. "We're plenty tough guys when aroused.""I want to talk to you," Dan insisted, ignoring the medium-weight menace. "You see, these paintings—""Paintings? Look, it was all a mistake. Like, we figured this was the gents' room—""Never mind, Percy," Fiorello cut in. "It appears there's been a leak."Dan shook his head. "No leak. I simply deduced—""Look, Fiorello," Percy said. "You chin if you want to; I'm doing a fast fade.""Don't act hastily, Percy. You know where you'll end.""Wait a minute!" Dan shouted. "I'd like to make a deal with you fellows.""Ah-hah!" Kelly's voice blared from somewhere. "I knew it! Slane, you crook!"* * *Dan looked about wildly. The voice seemed to be issuing from a speaker. It appeared Kelly hedged his bets."Mr. Kelly, I can explain everything!" Dan called. He turned back to Fiorello. "Listen, I figured out—""Pretty clever!" Kelly's voice barked. "Inside job. But it takes more than the likes of you to outfox a old-timer like Ed Kelly.""Perhaps you were right, Percy," Fiorello said. "Complications are arising. We'd best depart with all deliberate haste." He edged toward the cage."What about this ginzo?" Percy jerked a thumb toward Dan. "He's onto us.""Can't be helped.""Look—I want to go with you!" Dan shouted."I'll bet you do!" Kelly's voice roared. "One more minute and I'll have the door open and collar the lot of you! Come up through a tunnel, did you?""You can't go, my dear fellow," Fiorello said. "Room for two, no more."Dan whirled to the cot, grabbed up the pistol Kelly had supplied. He aimed it at Percy. "You stay here, Percy! I'm going with Fiorello in the time machine.""Are you nuts?" Percy demanded."I'm flattered, dear boy," Fiorello said, "but—""Let's get moving. Kelly will have that lock open in a minute.""You can't leave me here!" Percy spluttered, watching Dan crowd into the cage beside Fiorello."We'll send for you," Dan said. "Let's go, Fiorello."The balding man snatched suddenly for the gun. Dan wrestled with him. The pistol fell, bounced on the floor of the cage, skidded into the far corner of the vault. Percy charged, reaching for Dan as he twisted aside; Fiorello's elbow caught him in the mouth. Percy staggered back into the arms of Kelly, bursting red-faced into the vault."Percy!" Fiorello wailed and, releasing his grip on Dan, lunged to aid his companion. Kelly passed Percy to one of three cops crowding in on his heels. Dan clung to the framework as Fiorello grappled with Kelly. A cop pushed past them, spotted Dan, moved in briskly for the pinch. Dan grabbed a lever at random and pulled.Sudden silence fell as the walls of the room glowed blue. A spectral Kelly capered before the cage, fluorescing in the blue-violet. Dan swallowed hard and nudged a second lever. The cage sank like an elevator into the floor, vivid blue washing up its sides.Hastily he reversed the control. Operating a time machine was tricky business. One little slip, and the Slane molecules would be squeezing in among brick and mortar particles . . . But this was no time to be cautious. Things hadn't turned out just the way he'd planned, but after all, this was what he'd wanted—in a way. The time machine was his to command. And if he gave up now and crawled back into the vault, Kelly would gather him in and try to pin every art theft of the past decade on him.It couldn't be too hard. He'd take it slowly, figure out the controls . . . * * *Dan took a deep breath and tried another lever. The cage rose gently, in eerie silence. It reached the ceiling and kept going. Dan gritted his teeth as an eight-inch band of luminescence passed down the cage. Then he was emerging into a spacious kitchen. A blue-haloed cook waddled to a luminous refrigerator, caught sight of Dan rising slowly from the floor, stumbled back, mouth open. The cage rose, penetrated a second ceiling. Dan looked around at a carpeted hall.Cautiously he neutralized the control lever. The cage came to rest an inch above the floor. As far as Dan could tell, he hadn't traveled so much as a minute into the past or future.He looked over the controls. There should be one labeled "Forward" and another labeled "Back," but all the levers were plain, unadorned black. They looked, Dan decided, like ordinary circuit-breaker type knife-switches. In fact, the whole apparatus had the appearance of something thrown together hastily from common materials. Still, it worked. So far he had only found the controls for maneuvering in the usual three dimensions, but the time switch was bound to be here somewhere . . . Dan looked up at a movement at the far end of the hall.A girl's head and shoulders appeared, coming up a spiral staircase. In another second she would see him, and give the alarm—and Dan needed a few moments of peace and quiet in which to figure out the controls. He moved a lever. The cage drifted smoothly sideways, sliced through the wall with a flurry of vivid blue light. Dan pushed the lever back. He was in a bedroom now, a wide chamber with flouncy curtains, a four-poster under a flowered canopy, a dressing table—The door opened and the girl stepped into the room. She was young. Not over eighteen, Dan thought—as nearly as he could tell with the blue light playing around her face. She had long hair tied with a ribbon, and long legs, neatly curved. She wore shorts and carried a tennis racquet in her left hand and an apple in her right. Her back to Dan and the cage, she tossed the racquet on a table, took a bite of the apple, and began briskly unbuttoning her shirt.Dan tried moving a lever. The cage edged toward the girl. Another; he rose gently. The girl tossed the shirt onto a chair and undid the zipper down the side of the shorts. Another lever; the cage shot toward the outer wall as the girl reached behind her back . . . Dan blinked at the flash of blue and looked down. He was hovering twenty feet above a clipped lawn.He looked at the levers. Wasn't it the first one in line that moved the cage ahead? He tried it, shot forward ten feet. Below, a man stepped out on the terrace, lit a cigarette, paused, started to turn his face up—Dan jabbed at a lever. The cage shot back through the wall. He was in a plain room with a depression in the floor, a wide window with a planter filled with glowing blue plants.The door opened. Even blue, the girl looked graceful as a deer as she took a last bite of the apple and stepped into the ten-foot-square sunken tub. Dan held his breath. The girl tossed the apple core aside, seemed to suddenly become aware of eyes on her, whirled—With a sudden lurch that threw Dan against the steel bars, the cage shot through the wall into the open air and hurtled off with an acceleration that kept him pinned, helpless. He groped for the controls, hauled at a lever. There was no change. The cage rushed on, rising higher. In the distance, Dan saw the skyline of a town on the horizon, approaching with frightful speed. A tall office building reared up fifteen stories high. He was headed dead for it—He covered his ears, braced himself—With an abruptness that flung him against the opposite side of the cage, the machine braked, shot through the wall and slammed to a stop. Dan sank to the floor of the cage, breathing hard. There was a loud click! and the glow faded.With a lunge, Dan scrambled out of the cage. He stood looking around at a simple brown-painted office, dimly lit by sunlight filtered through elaborate venetian blinds. There were posters on the wall, a potted plant by the door, a heap of framed paintings beside it, and at the far side of the room a desk. And behind the desk—something. 2Dan gaped at a head the size of a beach ball, mounted on a torso like a hundred-gallon bag of water. Two large brown eyes blinked at him from points eight inches apart. Immense hands with too many fingers unfolded and reached to open a brown paper carton, dip in, then toss three peanuts, deliberately, one by one, into a gaping mouth that opened just above the brown eyes."Who're you?" a bass voice demanded from somewhere near the floor."I'm . . . I'm . . . Dan Slane . . . your honor.""What happened to Percy and Fiorello?""They—I—There was this cop, Kelly—""Oh-oh." The brown eyes blinked deliberately. The too-many-fingered hands closed the peanut carton and tucked it into a drawer."Well, it was a sweet racket while it lasted," the basso voice said. "A pity to terminate so happy an enterprise. Still . . ." A noise like an amplified Bronx cheer issued from the wide mouth."How . . . what . . . ?""The carrier returns here automatically when the charge drops below a critical value," the voice said. "A necessary measure to discourage big ideas on the part of wisenheimers in my employ. May I ask how you happen to be aboard the carrier, by the way?""I just wanted—I mean, after I figured out—that is, the police . . . I went for help," Dan finished lamely."Help? Out of the picture, unfortunately. One must maintain one's anonymity, you'll appreciate. My operation here is under wraps at present. Ah, I don't suppose you brought any paintings?"Dan shook his head. He was staring at the posters. His eyes, accustoming themselves to the gloom of the office, could now make out the vividly drawn outline of a creature resembling an alligator-headed giraffe rearing up above foliage. The next poster showed a face similar to the beach ball behind the desk, with red circles painted around the eyes. The next was a view of a yellow volcano spouting fire into a black sky."Too bad." The words seemed to come from under the desk. Dan squinted, caught a glimpse of coiled purplish tentacles. He gulped and looked up to catch a brown eye upon him. Only one. The other seemed to be busily at work studying the ceiling."I hope," the voice said, "that you ain't harboring no reactionary racial prejudices."* * *"Gosh, no," Dan reassured the eye. "I'm crazy about—uh—""Vorplischers," the voice said. "From Vorplisch, or Vega, as you locals call it." The Bronx cheer sounded again. "How I long to glimpse once more my native fens! Wherever one wanders, there's no pad like home.""That reminds me," Dan said. "I have to be running along now." He sidled toward the door."Stick around, Dan," the voice rumbled. "How about a drink? I can offer you Chateau Neuf du Pape '59, Romany Conte '32, goat's milk, Pepsi—""No, thanks.""If you don't mind, I believe I'll have a Big Orange." The Vorplischer swiveled to a small refrigerator, removed an immense bottle fitted with a nipple and turned back to Dan. "Now, I got a proposition which may be of some interest to you. The loss of Percy and Fiorello is a serious blow, but we may yet recoup the situation. You made the scene at a most opportune time. What I got in mind is, with those two clowns out of the picture, a vacancy exists on my staff, which you might fill. How does that grab you?""You mean you want me to take over operating the time machine?""Time machine?" The brown eyes blinked alternately. "I fear some confusion exists. I don't quite dig the significance of the term.""That thing," Dan jabbed a thumb toward the cage. "The machine I came here in. You want me—""Time machine," the voice repeated. "Some sort of chronometer, perhaps?""Huh?""I pride myself on my command of the local idiom, yet I confess the implied concept snows me." The nine-fingered hands folded on the desk. The beach-ball head leaned forward interestedly. "Clue me, Dan. What's a time machine?""Well, it's what you use to travel through time."The brown eyes blinked in agitated alternation. "Apparently I've loused up my investigation of the local cultural background. I had no idea you were capable of that sort of thing." The immense head leaned back, the wide mouth opening and closing rapidly. "And to think I've been spinning my wheels collecting primitive 2-D art!""But—don't you have a time machine? I mean, isn't that one?""That? That's merely a carrier. Now tell me more about your time machines. A fascinating concept! My superiors will be delighted at this development—and astonished as well. They regard this planet as Endsville."* * *"Your superiors?" Dan eyed the window; much too far to jump. Maybe he could reach the machine and try a getaway—"I hope you're not thinking of leaving suddenly," the beach ball said, following Dan's glance. One of the eighteen fingers touched a six-inch yellow cylinder lying on the desk. "Until the carrier is fueled, I'm afraid it's quite useless. But, to put you in the picture, I'd best introduce myself and explain my mission here. I'm Blote, Trader Fourth Class, in the employ of the Vegan Confederation. My job is to develop new sources of novelty items for the impulse-emporia of the entire Secondary Quadrant.""But the way Percy and Fiorello came sailing in through the wall! That has to be a time machine they were riding in. Nothing else could just materialize out of thin air like that.""You seem to have a time-machine fixation, Dan," Blote chided. "You shouldn't assume, just because you people have developed time travel, that everyone has. Now"—Blote's voice sank to a bass whisper—"I'll make a deal with you, Dan. You'll secure a small time machine in good condition for me. And in return—""I'm supposed to supply you with a time machine?"Blote waggled a stubby forefinger at Dan. "I dislike pointing it out, Dan, but you are in a rather awkward position at the moment. Illegal entry, illegal possession of property, trespass—then doubtless some embarrassment exists back at the Snithian residence. I daresay Mr. Kelly would have a warm welcome for you. And, of course, I myself would deal rather harshly with any attempt on your part to take a powder." The Vegan flexed all eighteen fingers, drummed his tentacles under the desk, and rolled one eye, bugging the other at Dan."Whereas, on the other hand," Blote's bass voice went on, "you and me got the basis of a sweet deal. You supply the machine, and I fix you up with an abundance of the local medium of exchange. Equitable enough, I should say. What about it, Dan?""Ah, let me see," Dan temporized. "Time machine. Time machine—""Don't attempt to weasel on me, Dan," Blote rumbled ominously."I'd better look in the phone book," Dan suggested.Silently, Blote produced a dog-eared directory. Dan opened it."Time, time. Let's see . . ." He brightened. "Time, Incorporated; local branch office. Two twenty-one Maple Street.""A sales center?" Blote inquired. "Or a manufacturing complex?""Both," Dan said. "I'll just nip over and—""That won't be necessary, Dan," Blote said. "I'll accompany you." He took the directory, studied it."Remarkable! A common commodity, openly on sale, and I failed to notice it. Still, a ripe bope-nut can fall from a small tree as well as from a large." He went to his desk, rummaged, came up with a handful of fuel cells. "Now off to gather in the time machine." He took his place in the carrier, patted the seat beside him with a wide hand. "Come, Dan. Get a wiggle on."* * *Hesitantly, Dan moved to the carrier. The bluff was all right up to a point—but the point had just about been reached. He took his seat. Blote moved a lever. The familiar blue glow sprang up. "Kindly direct me, Dan," Blote demanded. "Two twenty-one Maple Street, I believe you said.""I don't know the town very well," Dan said, "but Maple's over that way."Blote worked levers. The carrier shot out into a ghostly afternoon sky. Faint outlines of buildings, like faded negatives, spread below. Dan looked around, spotted lettering on a square five-story structure."Over there," he said. Blote directed the machine as it swooped smoothly toward the flat roof Dan indicated."Better let me take over now," Dan suggested. "I want to be sure to get us to the right place.""Very well, Dan."Dan dropped the carrier through the roof, passed down through a dimly seen office. Blote twiddled a small knob. The scene around the cage grew even fainter. "Best we remain unnoticed," he explained.The cage descended steadily. Dan peered out, searching for identifying landmarks. He leveled off at the second floor, cruised along a barely visible corridor. Blote's eyes rolled, studying the small chambers along both sides of the passage at once."Ah, this must be the assembly area," he exclaimed. "I see the machines employ a bar-type construction, not unlike our carriers.""That's right," Dan said, staring through the haziness. "This is where they do time . . ." He tugged at a lever suddenly; the machine veered left, flickered through a barred door, came to a halt. Two nebulous figured loomed beside the cage. Dan cut the switch. If he'd guessed wrong—The scene fluoresced, pink sparks crackling, then popped into sharp focus. Blote scrambled out, brown eyes swiveling to take in the concrete walls, the barred door and—"You!" a hoarse voice bellowed."Grab him!" someone yelled.Blote recoiled, threshing his ambulatory members in a fruitless attempt to regain the carrier as Percy and Fiorello closed in. Dan hauled at a lever. He caught a last glimpse of three struggling, blue-lit figures as the carrier shot away through the cell wall.* * *Dan slumped back against the seat with a sigh. Now that he was in the clear, he would have to decide on his next move—fast. There was no telling what other resources Blote might have. He would have to hide the carrier, then—A low growling was coming from somewhere, rising in pitch and volume. Dan sat up, alarmed. This was no time for a malfunction.The sound rose higher, into a penetrating wail. There was no sign of mechanical trouble. The carrier glided on, swooping now over a nebulous landscape of trees and houses. Dan covered his ears against the deafening shriek, like all the police sirens in town blaring at once. If the carrier stopped it would be a long fall from here. Dan worked the controls, dropping toward the distant earth.The noise seemed to lessen, descending the scale. Dan slowed, brought the carrier in to the corner of a wide park. He dropped the last few inches and cut the switch.As the glow died, the siren faded into silence.Dan stepped from the carrier and looked around. Whatever the noise was, it hadn't attracted any attention from the scattered pedestrians in the park. Perhaps it was some sort of burglar alarm. But if so, why hadn't it gone into action earlier? Dan took a deep breath. Sound or no sound, he would have to get back into the carrier and transfer it to a secluded spot where he could study it at leisure. He stepped back in, reached for the controls—There was a sudden chill in the air. The bright surface of the dials before him frosted over. There was a loud pop! like a giant flashbulb exploding. Dan stared from the seat at an iridescent rectangle which hung suspended near the carrier. Its surface rippled, faded to blankness. In a swirl of frosty air, a tall figure dressed in a tight-fitting white uniform stepped through.Dan gaped at the small round head, the dark-skinned, long-nosed face, the long, muscular arms, the hands, their backs tufted with curly red-brown hair, the strange long-heeled feet in soft boots. A neat pillbox cap with a short visor was strapped low over the deep-set yellowish eyes, which turned in his direction. The wide mouth opened in a smile which showed square yellowish teeth."Alors, monsieur," the newcomer said, bending his knees and back in a quick bow. "Vous été une indigine, n'est ce pas?""No compree," Dan choked out. "Uh . . . juh no parlay Fransay . . .""My error. This is the Anglic colonial sector, isn't it? Stupid of me. Permit me to introduce myself. I'm Dzhackoon, Field Agent of Class Five, Interdimensional Monitor Service.""That siren," Dan said. "Was that you?"Dzhackoon nodded. "For a moment, it appeared you were disinclined to stop. I'm glad you decided to be reasonable.""What outfit did you say you were with?" Dan asked."The Inter-dimensional Monitor Service.""Inter-what?""Dimensional. The word is imprecise, of course, but it's the best our language coder can do, using the Anglic vocabulary.""What do you want with me?"* * *Dzhackoon smiled reprovingly. "You know the penalty for operation of an unauthorized reversed-phase vehicle in Interdicted territory. I'm afraid you'll have to come along with me to Headquarters.""Wait a minute! You mean you're arresting me?""That's a harsh term, but I suppose it amounts to that.""Look here, uh—Dzhackoon. I just wandered in off the street. I don't know anything about Interdicts and reversed-whoozis vehicles. Just let me out of here."Dzhackoon shook his head. "I'm afraid you'll have to tell it to the Inspector." He smiled amiably, gestured toward the shimmering rectangle through which he had arrived. From the edge, it was completely invisible. It looked, Dan thought, like a hole snipped in reality. He glanced at Dzhackoon. If he stepped in fast and threw a left to the head and followed up with a right to the short ribs—"I'm armed, of course," the Agent said apologetically."Okay," Dan sighed. "But I'm going under protest.""Don't be nervous," Dzhackoon said cheerfully. "Just step through quickly."Dan edged up to the glimmering surface. He gritted his teeth, closed his eyes and took a step. There was a momentary sensation of searing heat . . . His eyes flew open. He was in a long, narrow room with walls finished in bright green tile. Hot yellow light flooded down from the high ceiling. Along the wall, a series of cubicles were arranged. Tall, white-uniformed creatures moved briskly about. Nearby stood a group of short, immensely burly individuals in yellow. Lounging against the wall at the far end of the room, Dan glimpsed a round-shouldered figure in red, with great bushes of hair fringing a bright blue face. An arm even longer than Dzhackoon's wielded a toothpick on a row of great white fangs."This way," Dzhackoon said. Dan followed him to a cubicle, curious eyes following him. A creature indistinguishable from the Field Agent except for a twist of red braid on each wrist looked up from a desk."I've picked up that reversed-phase violator, Ghunt," Dzhackoon said. "Anglic Sector, Locus C 922A4."Ghunt rose. "Let me see; Anglic Sector . . . Oh, yes." He extended a hand. Dan took it gingerly; it was a strange hand—hot, dry and coarse-skinned, like a dog's paw. He pumped it twice and let it go."Wonderfully expressive," Ghunt said. "Empty hand, no weapon. The implied savagery . . ." He eyed Dan curiously."Remarkable. I've studied your branch, of course, but I've never had the pleasure of actually seeing one of you chaps before. That skin; amazing. Ah . . . may I look at your hands?"Dan extended a hand. The other took it in bony fingers, studied it, turned it over, examined the nails. Stepping closer, he peered at Dan's eyes and hair."Would you mind opening your mouth, please?" Dan complied. Ghunt clucked, eyeing the teeth. He walked around Dan, murmuring his wonderment."Uh . . . pardon my asking," Dan said, "but are you what—uh—people are going to look like in the future?""Eh?" the round yellowish eyes blinked; the wide mouth curved in a grin. "I doubt that very much, old chap." He chuckled. "Can't undo half a million years of divergent evolution, you know."* * *"You mean you're from the past?" Dan croaked."The past? I'm afraid I don't follow you.""You don't mean—we're all going to die out and monkeys are going to take over?" Dan blurted."Monkeys? Let me see. I've heard of them. Some sort of small primate, like a miniature Anthropos. You have them at home, do you? Fascinating!" He shook his head regretfully. "I certainly wish regulations allowed me to pay your sector a visit.""But you are time travelers," Dan insisted."Time travelers?" Ghunt laughed aloud."An exploded theory," Dzhackoon said. "Superstition.""Then how did you get to the park from here?""A simple focused portal. Merely a matter of elementary stressed-field mechanics.""That doesn't tell me much," Dan said. "Where am I? Who are you?""Explanations are in order, of course," Ghunt said. "Have a chair. Now, if I remember correctly, in your locus, there are only a few species of Anthropos extant—""Just the one," Dzhackoon put in. "These fellows look fragile, but oh, brother!""Oh yes; I recall. This was the locus where the hairless variant systemically hunted down other varieties." He clucked at Dan reprovingly. "Don't you find it lonely?""Of course, there are a couple of rather curious retarded forms there," Dzhackoon said. "Actual living fossils; sub-intellectual Anthropos. There's one called the gorilla, and the chimpanzee, the orangutan, the gibbon—and, of course, a whole spectrum of the miniature forms.""I suppose that when the ferocious mutation established its supremacy, the others retreated to the less competitive ecological niches and expanded at that level," Ghunt mused. "Pity. I assume the gorilla and the others are degenerate forms?""Possibly.""Excuse me," Dan said. "But about that explanation . . .""Oh, sorry. Well, to begin with, Dzhackoon and I are—ah—Australopithecines, I believe your term is. We're one of the many varieties of Anthropos native to normal loci. The workers in yellow, whom you may have noticed, are akin to your extinct Neanderthals. Then there are the Pekin derivatives—the blue-faced chaps—and the Rhodesians—""What are these loci you keep talking about? And how can cavemen still be alive?"Ghunt's eyes wandered past Dan. He jumped to his feet. "Ah, good day, Inspector!" Dan turned. A grizzled Australopithecine with a tangle of red braid at collar and wrists stared at him glumly."Harrumph!" the Inspector said. "Albinism and alopecia. Not catching, I hope?""A genetic deficiency, Excellency," Dzhackoon said. "This is a Homo sapiens, a naturally bald form from a rather curious locus.""Sapiens? Sapiens? Now, that seems to ring a bell." The oldster blinked at Dan. "You're not—" He waggled fingers in instinctive digital-mnemonic stimulus. Abruptly he stiffened. "Why, this is one of those fratricidal deviants!" He backed off. "He should be under restraint, Ghunt! Constable! Get a strong-arm squad in here! This creature is dangerous!"* * *"Inspector. I'm sure—" Ghunt started."That's an order!" the Inspector barked. He switched to an incomprehensible language, bellowed more commands. Several of the thick-set Neanderthal types appeared, moving in to seize Dan's arms. He looked around at chinless, wide-mouthed brown faces with incongruous blue eyes and lank blond hair."What's this all about?" he demanded. "I want a lawyer!""Never mind that!" the Inspector shouted. "I know how to deal with miscreants of your stripe!" He stared distastefully at Dan. "Hairless! Putty-colored! Revolting! Planning more mayhem, are you? Preparing to branch out into the civilized loci to wipe out all competitive life, is that it?""I brought him here, Inspector," Dzhackoon put in. "It was a routine traffic violation.""I'll decide what's routine here! Now, Sapiens! What fiendish scheme have you up your sleeve, eh?""Daniel Slane, civilian, Social Security number 456-7329-988," Dan said."Eh?""Name, rank, and serial number," Dan explained. "I'm not answering any other questions.""This means penal relocation, Sapiens! Unlawful departure from native locus, willful obstruction of justice—""You forgot being born without permission, and unauthorized breathing.""Insolence!" the Inspector snarled. "I'm warning you, Sapiens, it's in my power to make things miserable for you. Now, how did you induce Agent Dzhackoon to bring you here?""Well, a good fairy came and gave me three wishes—""Take him away," the Inspector screeched. "Sector 97; an unoccupied locus.""Unoccupied? That seems pretty extreme, doesn't it?" one of the guards commented, wrinkling his heavily ridged brow."Unoccupied! If it bothers you, perhaps I can arrange for you to join him there!"The Neanderthaloid guard yawned widely, showing white teeth. He nodded to Dan, motioned him ahead. "Don't mind Spoghodo," he said loudly. "He's getting old.""Sorry about all this," a voice hissed near Dan's ear. Dzhackoon—Ghunt, he couldn't say which—leaned near. "I'm afraid you'll have to go along to the penal area, but I'll try to straighten things out later."Back in the concourse, Dan's guard escorted him past cubicles where busy IDMS agents reported to harassed seniors, through an archway into a room lined with narrow gray panels. It looked like a gym locker room."Ninety-seven," the guard said. He went to a wall chart, studied the fine print with the aid of a blunt, hairy finger, then set a dial on the wall. "Here we go," he said. He pushed a button beside one of the lockers. Its surface clouded and became iridescent."Just step through fast. Happy landings.""Thanks." Dan ducked his head and pushed through the opening in a puff of frost. 
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