Taking a deep breath, Peace ordered one of the most expensive meals possible—a seven-course affair centered around a specialty dish of Aspatrian lobster cooked in imported champagne. He eagerly swallowed three aperitifs and had downed most of a generous serving of soup when he remembered that his main objective was to prolong his stay in the establishment and be on the alert for contacts. Slowing his spoon action to a more leisurely pace, he looked around the room and gave the other people present a good chance to see his face. It was early in the afternoon and the scattering of other customers seemed too absorbed in their lunches to pay him any attention. He began to wonder if it would have been better to hide out in the city all day and visit the Blue Toad at night when it was likely to be much busier.
His deliberations were interrupted by the arrival of the waiter, who was wheeling a trolley upon which sat a small glass-sided aquarium. The tank was surrounded by a curious framework of glittering metal rods, forming a kind of cage, and in it—placidly scooting backwards and forwards in the water—was a pink crustacean about the size of Peace’s little finger. He gazed at the tiny creature in bafflement for some time, then raised his eyes to the waiter, hoping to be enlightened.
“Your lobster, sir,” the waiter announced. “Say when.” He pressed a switch which was connected to the cage by silvery wires and the entire assembly began to emit a faint humming sound.
“Hold on,” Peace said, pointing at the inhabitant of the tank. “That thing’s more like a shrimp.
A baby shrimp, at that.”
“It’s a baby Aspatrian lobster, sir.”
“But I want a grown-up one. A big one.”
The waiter smiled condescendingly. “You can have it any size you want, sir—I’m growing it for you right now—but it’s better not to let them get too old. It’s a question of flavour.”
Peace watched in astonishment as the volume of space within the gleaming cage began to flicker in a disturbing way and the movements of the lobster in the tank abruptly speeded up.
Suddenly he realized that the peripatetic shellfish was growing larger with every second. It was also becoming more complicated in shape, sprouting legs, pincers, feelers and eye-stalks in a profusion which would have shamed or terrified any Earth-type lobster.
“It’s about two years old now, sir,” the waiter said helpfully. “Some of our customers think that’s when an Aspatrian lobster is at its peak, but others prefer them at three and even four years old. Just say when.”
“What’s the…?” Peace swallowed noisily as he transferred his gaze to the cage surrounding the tank and saw that the gleaming rods of which it was built met at strange angles. They produced an odd wrenching sensation in his eyes when he tried to follow their geometries, almost as though they passed into another dimension. A bizarre idea was born in his numbed brain.
“That thing,” he said feebly. “Is it a sort of time machine?”
” Of course, sir—all part of our gourmet service. Haven’t you seen one before?”
“I don’t think so,” Peace said. “It was just that I noticed the way the rods meet at strange angles and create a wrenching sensation in my eyes when I…”
“I do beg your pardon,” the waiter said, looking concerned. He stepped back, studied the time machine with a critical eye, then grasped the framework in both hands and twisted it until it had assumed a conventional shape made up of square corners and rectangles. It continued humming away, quite unperturbed by the casual manhandling.
“The chef sat on it last week,” the waiter explained, “and it hasn’t been the same since.”
Peace wondered briefly if time machine technology was another significant area of his ignorance. “I never expected to see a gadget like that.”
“Oh, this type—the single-acting introverter— is quite legal on Aspatria. Very useful for ageing whisky, but if you’ll take my advice, sir, you won’t let the lobster get any older.” The waiter switched off the time machine and, using a pair of tongs, hoisted the now enormous lobster up out of the tank. It eyed Peace malevolently, waving feelers and snapping its pincers.
“I’m not eating that thing,” Peace cried. “It’s a monster—take it away.”
“It will be killed, sir, and cooked to your…”
“I don’t care! Take it away and bring me a steak.”
The waiter dropped the lobster back into the water and, mouthing silently as he did so, trundled the tank away in the direction of the kitchens. Peace made use of the extra time to study and be seen by the lunchtime customers and staff, but there were no visible flickers of recognition, no stirrings of his own memory, and he developed a gloomy certainty that he should have delayed his visit until the evening. The trouble was that, barring some kind of near-miracle, he would never be allowed inside the Blue Toad again.
When the steak came he ate it very slowly and, playing for time, became increasingly fastidious about every detail of the meal and the accompanying wines and liqueurs. The tactic had had an unfortunate side effect in that, somewhere around Peace’s third demand for a different flavour of toothpick, the m aitre de correctly divined what was going on and stationed waiters at every doorway. To Peace’s eyes these individuals seemed larger and more muscular than was strictly necessary for their calling. They gazed fixedly at him while the restaurant slowly emptied of customers, and inevitably there came the moment when he was alone with them in the large room. The floor waiter who had been serving him for the past two hours approached with an air of grim expectancy. He was carrying a tray of antique bakelite, in the centre of which was Peace’s bill.
The waiter bowed stiffly. “Will that be all, sir?”
“No.” Having given the only answer open to him, Peace tried to think of a suitable follow-up.
“No, that isn’t all. Not by a long chalk. By no means is that all.”
The waiter raised his eyebrows. “What does sir wish now?”
“Bring me…” Peace’s brow prickled as he strove for inspiration. “Bring me … the same again.”
“I regret that’s impossible, sir.” The waiter placed the bill in front of Peace and folded his arms.
Peace turned the slip of paper over, saw that he had just spent the best part of a year’s pay for a legionary, and experienced a chill sensation in his bowels. The feeling, while highly unpleasant, suggested a possible means of escape.
“Please,” he said, getting to his feet, “direct me to the toilets.”
The waiter sighed loudly and indicated a panelled door at the opposite side of the room. Peace sauntered to it and, although he did not look back, received the impression that the covey of outsize waiters was closing in behind him. He went through the door, slamming it shut in his wake, and found himself in a small ante-room whose sole occupant was a dispenser robot which had about twelve gleaming arms, each one ending in a roll of toilet paper.
“I trust you have enjoyed an excellent meal, sir,” the robot said in an obsequious drone. “My exhalation analyzers tell me you dined on steak, and to complete your enjoyment I suggest a pliant but not unassertive paper such as our Superexec triple-ply pulped Lebanese cedar with the outer coating of…”
“Shove it,” Peace snarled, brushing aside the roll of pink tissue which zoomed towards him on the end of a telescopic arm. He opened another door and ran through into the toilets proper.
There were cubicles on each side, and the opposite wall was spanned by a row of wash basins, above which was a single window. He started towards it eagerly, then saw that it was protected by massive bars which looked as though they had been designed to imprison angry gorillas.
Sensing that there was little time to spare, he dashed into the furthermost cubicle on the right hand side and locked the door. He removed his shoes and set them on the floor with their toes projecting a short distance under the door, and then—with an agility born of desperation—swarmed up the cubicle wall. He sprinted along the precarious stepping stones of the other partitions, not daring to think what would happen if he missed his footing, and dropped down into the cubicle nearest the toilet entrance. Its door was partly open and he crammed himself into the triangular hiding place behind it. A few seconds later multiple footfalls sounded outside, followed by an angry hammering on the cubicle door he had locked.
As soon as he judged that all his pursuers had passed him by, Peace darted out of cover and ran for freedom. There was an immediate outcry which had the effect of supercharging his muscles. He flitted past the dispenser robot, which was waving all its arms in a kind of mechanical palsy, burst out into the restaurant and headed for the exit. In the lobby he collided with the head waiter who, with a speed of reflex surprising in one of his age, grabbed a double handful of Peace’s jacket. “Got you!” he shouted triumphantly. Peace kept on running, leaving the other man clutching a substantial area of blue paper suiting, and got safely into the street. The panorama of shuttling traffic and the footpaths crowded with shoppers was totally unfamiliar to him, but an instinct prompted him to turn left and he saw the entrance to an alley a short distance away. He reached it in several effortless bounds, almost as though propelled by his wayward Sevenleague boots, and glanced back.
“You won’t get away with this,” the head waiter shouted from beneath the Blue Toad’s entrance marquee. “The police will get you. The Oscars will.
Snuffling with increased dread, Peace sprinted along the alley, turned several corners and saw a different street ahead. He slowed to a normal pace, stepped out into the late afternoon sunlight and did his best to mingle with the stream of passers-by—a difficult task in view of the fact that he had no shoes and a gaping hole in his jacket. It came to him that he needed to find a place where he could remain in concealment until darkness fell, and then take up a vantage point near the Blue Toad from which he could study the evening patrons. The best place for his purpose, he realized, would be a cinema, assuming that the ten monits still in his pocket would be enough to pay for an admission ticket.
The decision made, he walked cautiously southwards along the block, crossed to a lesser street on the opposite side and saw a cinema only about a hundred metres from the corner.
Peace blinked several times, wondering how he had managed to find one so unerringly, and for the first time that day felt a glimmer of renewed hope. If he had known Touchdown City well in his previous life, it might be that exposure to the sight of his old haunts was beginning to rekindle his memory. Somewhat cheered by this notion, he approached the cinema and scanned its multifarious signs, looking for some indication of the admission charges. He quickly learned that it would cost him all of his ten monits to go inside, but other information presented on the placards seemed contradictory and confusing.
“GRAND FAMILY SHOW,” one sign read. “THE VIOLENT VIRGINS—strictly for adults; with a fun-feast for the kiddies—FLUFFO IN RAINBOW LAND.”
The building did not look big enough to contain two separate auditoriums, and yet every sign plugged the same message about a family entertainment which featured both adult and juvenile films. Peace was frowning at the bright lettering when he was approached by a blue-eyed cherubic boy of about twelve. The boy was neatly dressed in coppery shirt and hose, was shining with cleanliness and radiated an impression of having been carefully brought up in good surroundings. A pater-nalistic concern about the child hanging around a dubious movie house pushed Peace’s own problems into the back of his mind.
“It will be dark soon,” he said, smiling. “Why don’t you run home to mum and dad?”
“Why don’t you?” the cherub replied, “mind your own bloody business?”
Peace’s mouth fell open. “Who taught you words like that?”
“Who asked you to butt in?” The boy examined Peace from head to foot, and his expression changed to one of crafty appraisal. “How’d you like to make fifty monits?”
“Don’t be impertinent,” Peace said, affronted.
“It would buy you a pair of shoes—and all you have to do is go into the show with me.”
“You’re a nasty little whelp, and I wouldn’t be…” Peace’s tongue went numb as he glanced further down the street and saw a police car cruising slowly and watchfully near the curb.
“Let’s go inside, sonny.” He walked into the cinema foyer and jiggled nervously while he and the boy bought tickets and were handed steribags containing what looked like outsize sunglasses, a grey pair for him and a yellow pair for the boy. The nose of the police car was coming into sight as he pushed open the inner door, anxious to reach the anonymous dimness beyond. Finding his way to a seat was easier than he had expected because the screen was so brilliantly lit that it cast a strong glow over the entire auditorium.
As he was walking down the central aisle Peace was puzzled to note that the too-bright screen displayed nothing but a meaningless confusion of images and that there was absolutely no sound track. Undeterred by what, to him, were serious flaws in the presentation, a hundred or more patrons were sitting in attitudes suggestive of rapt enjoyment. Peace began to get an inkling of what was happening when he realized that everybody, young or old, was wearing the same kind of peculiar sunglasses. Intrigued in spite of himself, he sat down beside his small companion and began to open the steribag given to him at the box office. The boy plucked it from his grasp and replaced it with the bag containing his yellow glasses.
“What’s the idea?” Peace whispered.
“That’s the deal.” The boy dropped a ten-monit bill into Peace’s hand. “I’ll pay you ten an hour to a maximum of five hours.”
“But I don’t…”
“Shut up and watch the pictures,” the boy said. He put on the gray glasses and settled back into his seat with a look of fierce concentration.
Peace stared at him resentfully for a second, then donned the yellow glasses. The screen instantly assumed a normal degree of brightness, showing a cartoon image of a fluffy kitten chasing a butterfly, and an appropriate sound-track was fed into his ears via the side frames of the glasses. He watched the antics of the kitten for perhaps a minute, by which time intense boredom had set in, then he touched a miniature switch he had discovered on the bridge of the glasses. The cartoon film immediately changed with accompanying sound, to one in which an orange-coloured hound was unsuccessfully trying to scale a greased pole. Peace clicked the switch back and forth, and found that his choice was limited to the two equally depressing films he had already sampled. When he thought about it for a moment he realized that the lenses of his glasses were serving as stroboscopes, alternately becoming opaque and transparent at a frequency of perhaps a hundred cycles a second. Moving the switch altered the strobe timing, re-phasing it and allowing the wearer to see a different film of the several which were being projected onto the screen at once.