He nodded in appreciation of the gadgetry involved—in an old-style cinema the audience was actually in darkness fifty percent of the time, in between frames, and it was logical to use that time to project a different film. This explained the intense brightness of the screen when he had viewed it directly, without the filtering effect of the strobe glasses. Or did it? The screen had been very bright, with maybe four times the normal brilliance, and where were the violent virgins promised by the signs outside? At that moment cherub-face, seated beside Peace, gave a low moan of pleasure.
Peace regarded the boy suspiciously, then snatched the gray glasses away from him and crammed them on to his own nose. He was assailed by an orgiastic panorama of heaving flesh, plus sound effects which made it clear that if any of the participants really were virgins their departure from that blessed state was imminent. A feeling of warmth spread over Peace’s face.
The boy tugged at his arm. “Give me back my glasses.”
“I will not.” Peace took the glasses off and folded them up.
“But I paid you for them.”
“I don’t care,” Peace said firmly. “There ought to be a law against showing that sort of thing to minors.”
“There is, poop-head. Why do you think I’m paying you? Come on—hand them over.”
“Nothing doing.” Peace offered the boy the yellow glasses. “You’ll have better fun watching Fluffo.”
“Balls to Fluffo,” the boy retorted. “Look, mister, hand over the glasses or I’ll make trouble for you.”
Peace sneered at him. “After what I’ve been through, you think you can make trouble for me!”
“Leave me alone,” the boy screamed. “Stop touching me! Go away!”
“Just a minute,” Peace said, alarmed, “perhaps we can…”
“No, I don’t want to look in your grown-up glasses—they show awful things happening.
Please don’t make me look.” The boy’s voice grew even louder, convincingly hysterical. “I just want to see Brown Houn’ and Fluffo. Take your hand away! What are you doing to me?”
“If you don’t keep quiet,” Peace whispered, brandishing his fist. “I’m going to smash your evil little face.”
“Is that a fact?” a gruff voice said close behind him. Powerful hands lifted Peace right out of his seat and suddenly he was being propelled up the aisle with his arms twisted behind his back. Women in the end seats he passed hissed abuse at him and made painfully accurate swings with their handbags. Peace tried to break free, but his captor was too strong for him and seemed to have had training in physical combat, Ie. opened the heavy swing doors by the simple expedient of bouncing Peace against them, and the both men were out in the foyer. A managerial-looking woman with silver-blue hair and a pince-nez came out of a side office, drawn by the sounds of commotion.
“Got one, Miz Harley,” Peace’s captor announced. “Child molester. Caught him in the act.
Now can I have a bonus?”
Peace wagged his head earnestly. “This is ridiculous. I never touched the boy. I was only…”
“Shut up, you.” The big man shook Peace reprovingly, giving him a mild case of whiplash. “I saw him, Miz Harley. Caught him in the act. About my bonus, Miz Harley, do you think…?”
“Perhaps we ought to hear what the gentleman has to say about it,” Miz Harley said in reasonable tones which were music to Peace’s ears. She came nearer, adjusting her pince-nez.
Her eyes focused on Peace’s face and the colour abruptly fled from her cheeks.
“It’s you,” she said in a scandalized voice, taking a step backwards. “Up to your old tricks! Is no child safe from you?”
“What is this?” Peace protested, too shocked to feel any satisfaction at apparently having found a link with his past. “I wouldn’t dream of…”
Miz Harley pointed an accusing finger into his face. “You’ve tried to disguise yourself! The beard makes you look different, but not different enough. You’ve been here before, interfering with children. You’re a monster!”
Not again, Peace thought, as the familiar words echoed in his mind. He put on what he hoped was a smile, and said, “Look, can’t we talk this over quietly in your office?”
Miz Harley shook her head. “It’s people like you who give simultaneous cinemas a bad name.” She transferred her gaze to the big man behind Peace. “Blow your whistle, Simpkins.”
A large hand carrying a subetheric whistle appeared at the edge of Peace’s field of view, and a moment later there came a piercing warble which he sensed to be loaded with all kinds of ultrasonic frequencies. People on their way into the cinema paused to whisper to each other and to examine Peace with obvious distaste. His shoulders drooped as he realized that his spell of freedom was drawing to a close. The police were on their way, and in a matter of minutes he would be handed back to the Legion, having learned no more about himself than that, apparently, he had a history of molesting children. Perhaps he was a monster, after all—in which case he deserved everything that was coming to him.
“There are quite a few Oscars in town today,” Miz Harley said comfortably. “I’ll bet they get here first.”
“Hope they do—the police is too soft.” Peace’s captor gave him another shake. “We should’ve thrown all these Earthie Blue-asses off the planet altogether in ‘83. I blame the Government, of course. What was the point in us beating the tripes out of them in the war, and then letting them walk all over the place terrifying innocent kiddies?”
“Innocent kiddy!” Peace was stung to protest, although the mention of Oscars had chilled his blood. “That little swine was… Wait a minute! We won the war in ‘83.”
“Oh, yeah?” The big man gave a rumbling laugh. “It looks that way, doesn’t it? You don’t see our boys going about with no shoes. You don’t see our boys going around dressed in trampy fourth-rate gear.” Warming to his subject, he transferred his hold to the shoulders of Peace’s jacket. “Look at this stuff, Miz Harley. Why it’s no better than … paper!”
The break in the big man’s rhetoric was occasioned by the fact that Peace, on the instant of feeling the restraints transferred from his person to his clothing, had begun to run for the cinema exit. There was a loud ripping sound and his jacket, already seriously weakened by the day’s escapades, disintegrated entirely. Clad in only a half-sleeved shirt and lightweight hose, he darted out into the street and, with a curious feeling that all this had happened to him before, turned left and ran like a gazelle, scarcely feeling the ground beneath his feet. He made ready to fend off busy-bodies who might try to interfere with his escape, but his progress along the narrow thoroughfare was strangely unimpeded. The late afternoon shoppers, who would normally have been intrigued by the sight of a partially clad man fleeing through the city had drawn close to the walls and were staring at something further along the street in the direction in which Peace was running. He narrowed his eyes against the low-slanting rays of the sun, and promptly skidded to a standstill, his mouth contorted by shock.
Coming towards him, the light glinting on the enormous bronze muscles of their shoulders, were two Oscars.
Peace had no recollection of having seen similar beings in the past, but neither had he any difficulty in matching them to Dinkle’s description. The hairless domes of their heads and overall metallic sheen of their nude bodies were unmistakable, as were the massive torsos which tapered down to lean hips and powerful thighs. They paused in their effortless loping run, appeared to confer for a second or two, and then—as if they truly were telepathic and could see into Peace’s soul—ran towards him, glaring with terrible ruby eyes.
“Oh, God,” Peace quavered. He remained transfixed with terror for what seemed an eternity before leaping sideways into an alley which emerged between two stores. The adrenalin-boosted fleetness he had shown earlier was as nothing compared to the superhuman speed he now developed within a few windmilling strides. Aware that he had to be breaking the galactic sprint records, Peace risked a backwards glance and saw that the long stretch of alley was still deserted. He was beginning to feel a glow of self-congratulation when the wall just behind him burst asunder in a shower of bricks and the two Oscars, who had cheated by taking a diagonal shortcut through the building, appeared at his heels.
Peace emitted a falsetto scream and went into a kind of athletic overdrive which took him beyond the reach of grasping metallic fingers. He caromed around a corner and saw, a short distance ahead of him, an oddly familiar doorway above which was a faded sign reading: ACME RAINCOAT CO. He flew to it, burst open the door and ran up a dark flight of stairs.
He paused on a shabby landing and saw before him yet another door which was labelled in barely decipherable letters, “Female Toilets— Acme Employees Only”.
I refuse to hide in any more lavatories, he thought, but at that instant the outer door to the building crashed open with a splintering sound and the two bronze figures came pounding up the stairs, their eyes glowing redly in the dimness.
Peace shouldered his way into the toilets, and realized at once that he was trapped. The tiny room in which he found himself was filthy and disused, obviously a century old or more, and had no other exits. Its sole illumination came from a cobwebbed skylight which, even had he been able to reach it, was too small to clamber through. He turned, clutching at a last straw, to bolt the door—but discovered he was too late.
The Oscars were already standing in the doorway, stooping to peer at him below the lintel.
Peace backed away from them, dumbly shaking his head. His heels encountered a projection on the floor and he sat down with bone-jarring force on the ancient toilet seat.
A curious humming noise filled the room and— before Peace’s petrified, disbelieving eyes—the menacing figures of the Oscars became transparent and faded into thin air.
Peace ogled the empty doorway for several pounding seconds, wondering what had happened to the bronze giants. It seemed impossible for such massive figures to become insubstantial and then vanish entirely, but there was no denying the evidence of his own eyes.
Or was there?
As the shock of his strange reprieve began to wear off, Peace’s awareness of his surroundings grew more acute and he realized that peculiar things were happening all around him in the little room. The walls and ceiling were beginning to look cleaner and fresher, cracks were disappearing from the plaster, and the paintwork—contrary to the natural order of things—was renewing itself, and even changing colour.
There was a pervasive energetic humming noise and the light from the overhead window was flickering in a disturbing way. Peace gnawed his lower lip as he tried to connect the last two effects with something in his previous experience. A picture of a baby Aspatrian lobster scooting around in a tank sprang into his mind, and he gave a moan of dismay as a full understanding of his predicament swiftly followed.
The two Oscars had not faded into nothingness. They had remained solid, securely anchored in the year 2386, while he—Warren Peace—had faded out of their sight.
He was adrift in a runaway time machine! “This can’t happen to me,” Peace said aloud, obstinately shaking his head, but his brain was dredging up other pertinent memories. The waiter in the Blue Toad had described his portable time machine as a single-acting introverter, which implied the existence of other types, among which might be a double-acting extroverter—whatever that was. If an introverter altered the rate of time within its framework and left the outside world unaffected, an extroverter might—Peace struggled with unfamiliar concepts—maintain a normal time flow internally and cause the external universe to age or grow younger. The phrase “double-acting” suggested that an operator had the choice of going backwards or forwards in time, but Peace was not operating the machine he had blundered into. He had no idea of where its controls were, nor of the temporal direction in which he was travelling, nor why anybody should have been crazy enough to secrete a time machine in a raincoat factory toilet in the first place.
Impelled by a needling sense of urgency, Peace jumped to his feet, and in that instant the humming noise ceased and the light in the room steadied to a normal glow from above. He turned and looked thoughtfully at the rickety toilet seat, then dismissed the notion that it might contain a pressure switch which activated the time machine when anybody sat down.
His world had gone haywire recently, but there had to be a limit somewhere. Anxious to get out of the device’s sphere of influence, he strode out on to the landing and looked around. The building was quiet, but it now had a lived-in atmosphere which, together with the improved conditions of its fabric, suggested to Peace that he had journeyed into the past. The question was—how far?
Bemused and still trembling from his exertions, he opened a door to his left, listened to make sure there were no sounds of occupancy, and went into a large room which seemed to be equipped for some kind of scientific research. Peace, who had half-expected to see rows of sewing machines, paid little attention to the scattering of instrument cabinets, cables and electrical chassis. He went to a business calendar on a wall nearby, looked at it and felt a sudden weakness in his knees. The date it quoted was 2292, which—if he accepted the figure—meant he had gone back 94 years into history.
Peace placed a hand on his brow and tried to make a new assessment of his situation. How was he going to regain knowledge of his past when that past was now in the future? What chance had he of, say, ever being reunited with his father and mother when they had yet to be born?
He glanced around wildly and spotted a newspaper lying on a workbench. It was covered with fragments of what appeared to be a pork pie, which he shook off on to the floor. The date at the top was: 3 June 2292—confirming the information he had gleaned from the calendar.
He was gazing at the numerals in utter despondency when he heard the door to the laboratory being thrown open.
“Put your hands in the air,” a man’s voice told him. “And don’t try anything funny because I’ve got a gun pointing straight at your fourth vertebra.”
Peace raised his hands resignedly. “Look, I’m not a thief.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” the man said. “It seems to me you’re acting like a thief thief.”
“Stealing a lousy newspaper!” Peace cried, irritated by the fresh injustice that fate was heaping on him, and by his unseen captor’s nervous tendency to repeat the last words of sentences. “Big deal!”