“Well…” Peace was stumped for a suitable reply. “You know how it is.”
Penny cook’s brow cleared. “I get it! Say no more, Warren.”
“I won’t,” Peace assured him.
“Her husband came home unexpectedly and you had to run for it, you randy old jack-rabbit.”
Pennycook gave Peace an amiable punch on the shoulder. “I don’t mind telling you, Warren, when you came in here dressed like that, and reeking of that awful rose perfume, I thought you were…”
“How dare you!”
“It’s all right—now that I know you better I can tell you’re a bit of a stud.”
Peace was nodding his agreement when a disturbing new thought crossed his mind. He could divine within himself no interest whatsoever in the opposite sex, which seemed curious in the case of a healthy young man who had had no physical gratification in over a month. I’ve been too tired, he decided, pushing aside memories of how all his comrades in the Legion—despite exhaustion and malnutrition—had spent their scant leisure planning the orgies of the next leave period. Frowning, and more than a little subdued, he followed Pennycook into an office at the rear of the premises.
“Have you any idea how I could get some clothes?” he said. “I don’t mind what it costs.”
Pennycook nodded. “The Ten Monk Tailors is a few doors along the block. I could ask somebody to bring you a suit and some other things.”
“Ten monits! That’s not bad.”
“It’ll be more like a hundred—inflation, you know.” Pennycook turned away with a humorous glance at Peace’s bare legs. “You really are a randy old jack-rabbit, Warren.”
“Don’t keep saying that,” Peace replied irritably, not wishing to be reminded of the vast new areas of unspeakable sin which might lie in his past. He glanced around the office and his attention was caught by an electronic calendar which announced the date as 6 September 2386. The red-glowing figures blurred in his vision and came back into sharp focus as he suddenly grasped their significance. If the calendar was accurate, it meant that the time machine—in one of the damping oscillations about which Professor Legge had spoken—had dropped him off at a point two months before he had joined the Space Legion.
A weakness developed in Peace’s knees as, with a thrill of almost superstitious awe, he realized that his mysterious former self was alive in some other part of the galaxy at that very moment, no doubt busily adding to the mountain of guilt which would eventually drive him to the Legion’s recruiting office and the memory eraser. The concept, inured to shock though he was, threw Peace into a mental spin.
“I’ll call the tailors now,” Pennycook said, sitting down at his telephone. “Fix you up in no time.”
“Thanks,” Peace said abstractedly. “By the way, is your calendar right?”
“Why? Don’t you know what day it is?”
“It’s not that.” Peace strove to orient himself in the present. “I’ve been travelling a lot and I’m losing track of the time zones.”
“We use a compatible local calendar to match the Aspatrian seasons,” Pennycook said. “If you want the date on Earth it’s … let me see … the eighth of November.”
Peace sat down abruptly, his legs giving way altogether as it came to him that—simply by lying in wait outside the Legion recruiting station in Porterburg, Earth, in two days’ time—he would be able to meet the one person in the universe who could answer all his questions.
A night’s sleep in a comfortable hotel bed, the feeling of being clean and well fed, the knowledge that he was properly dressed and had money in his pocket—all these should have improved Peace’s frame of mind as he set out to walk to the spaceport in Touchdown City.
Instead, his brain used its renewed energies to dredge up further hints at his abnormality. Not only did it appear that he had an unsavoury reputation as far as small boys were concerned, but there was the curious business of Professor Legge’s daughter and the time machine. He, Warren Peace, had defied death at gunpoint rather than step into the machine—and yet he had willingly thrown himself into it to escape the embrace of a woman. The only crumb of comfort he could derive from his memory of the incident was that the female concerned had resembled a two-metres-tall amorous blancmange. Perhaps, Peace speculated, he would have reacted differently had she been young, slim and pretty.
As he walked through the crisp brightness of the autumn morning, Peace put himself to the test by staring long and hard at every attractive girl he saw among the city crowds. He derived a certain aesthetic pleasure from their appearance, but to his disappointment felt none of the stirrings he believed appropriate to a recent member of the brutal and licentious soldiery.
The experiment came to an abrupt end when, in his anxiety for results, he failed to observe that one subject was accompanied by a bull-necked heavyweight of jealous disposition who spun on his heel and made a grab for Peace’s collar. The agility Peace had developed in a dozen battle zones got him out of what could have been a nasty situation, but he decided not to risk drawing any further attention to himself.
He was not scheduled to join the Legion until the following day, which meant he was not now being hunted as a deserter—nor had he yet done any of the other things which were to get him into trouble—so it seemed advisable to keep his nose clean until he got safely to Earth. The civil spaceport was further away than the hotel clerk had given him to believe, and Peace began to regret his decision to walk. On impulse he hailed a passing taxi. The yellow car pulled to a halt at the curb beside him and its window slid down to reveal the lugubrious countenance of Trev, the driver who was destined to have the same window beat in on top of him by Peace a month later.
Peace instinctively covered his own face with his hands and hissed, “Go away! Why don’t you leave me alone?”
Trev’s face twitched with indignation and he accelerated off along the street, mouthing silently.
Unnerved by the brief encounter, Peace made himself as inconspicuous as possible during the remainder of the walk. Ten minutes later he reached the spaceport and was surprised to find it was only about the size of a large sports stadium, and had a similar kind of architecture. So many spaceships were continuously arriving and departing that the air above the field was darkened by a huge spout-shaped cloud of blurred dumb-bells. Peace was shocked by the magnitude of the traffic control problems involved, until he noticed that the ship’s trajectories criss-crossed through each other at will, and it dawned on him that the peculiar form of locomotion the vessels employed, in which they were neither in one place nor another at any given instant, meant it was impossible for them to collide.
He nodded his approval, conceding that—ugly though the cubist spaceships were compared to his visualized gleaming spires—they were an excellent mode of transport. He went into a ticket office, paid four hundred monits for a one-way trip to Earth, and emerged into a lounge which provided a panoramic view of the myriad ships actually landing and taking off. Craning his neck to take in more of the scene, he shouldered his way towards the low barrier at which the customs scanners were positioned, and had almost reached it when he became aware of bronze-gold reflections hovering at the edge of his field of vision. He turned and found himself looking at two Oscars who were calmly strolling among the knots of passengers and sightseers.
Peace’s instinctive reaction was to flee—his feet were making preliminary movements of their own accord—but his intellect dictated otherwise. Running would be the surest way of drawing attention to himself, and there was the overriding consideration that he was not guilty of any offence. There was no way of telling if these Oscars were the same pair who had chased him in his subjective yesterday—their smoothly cast features were almost identical—but the point was that this was the ninth of November, and therefore his desertion from the Legion, his abscondence from the Blue Toad, and the embarrassing episode at the movie house all lay a month in the future. Even if the Oscars could read minds, as some people had said, they could not persecute them for crimes they had yet to commit. He took a pack of self-igniting cigarettes from his pocket, sucked one into life and tried to appear relaxed and unconcerned.
The Oscars continued on their course through the departure lounge, the morning light glinting on tapering muscular bodies, their ruby-eyed faces impassive. People moved respectfully out of their way, but otherwise hardly seemed to notice the presence of the statuesque beings.
Wishing that he could be similarly unconcerned, Peace tried to blank out all memory of his misdeeds and discovered that resolving not to think of any particular subject produces an effect opposite to the one intended.
He pursed his lips and began to whistle tunelessly, a trick he felt would make him the image of bored innocence, but had forgotten his lungs were full of cigarette smoke. He emitted a single, hacking cough, loud as the bark of a walrus, which caused some bystanders to start violently and drew glances of sympathy from others.
The Oscars turned their heads towards him, and both came to a halt.
Peace, trying to stare down the inhuman gazes, puffed faster at his cigarette. I’m not guilty, his mind chanted in panic. I haven’t done all those awful things.
The Oscars’ heads rotated slowly until they were looking into each other’s eyes. Their silent communion lasted for several seconds, then both nodded and came striding towards Peace. So determined was he to prove he had nothing to fear that he waited until they were almost upon him before his nerve broke. Ducking to avoid outstretched brazen arms, he bolted for the only open ground available, which happened to be the landing field itself. He reached the customs barrier and, his muscles again supercharged by fear, sprang cleanly over it and headed out into the haphazard alleys formed by the parked spaceships. A clangor of falling metal behind him announced that, characteristically, the Oscars had chosen to run straight through the barrier.
Their footsteps drummed loudly in his wake, growing closer with every microsecond.
Peace cast around wildly for an escape route and saw a dark rectangle which was an open door at one end of a spaceship. He dashed into it, slammed the heavy steel door into place; to his relief, it locked automatically. Grateful for the fortress-like protection of the ship’s armoured shell, he staggered across what appeared to be a control room and dropped into its single cushioned seat. Breathing noisily, struggling to repress the trembling of his limbs, he surveyed his new environment and tried to plan his next move. The attempt at cerebration ended, stillborn, as one of the loudest sounds he had ever heard reverberated through the square room and, in the same instant, a bulge the size of a dinner plate appeared on the door he had just closed.
Peace’s face contorted with shock as he deduced that one of the Oscars had punched the steel slab with his fist— and had almost succeeded in holing it. With fingers crammed into his mouth, he stared in horror at the distorted metal and realized that had the Oscar thought of striking near the lock the door would almost certainly have burst open.
Perhaps, he thought, avidly clutching a thread of hope, they aren’t very intelligent. Perhaps that’s their one weak point, their Achilles’ heel. If so, how can I turn this fact to my advantage? How can I…?
Again his powers of thought were swamped by a cataclysmic sound, a second bulge appeared on the door, and it was born home to Peace that the Oscars simply had no need for brain power. They were invincible as they were. Driven almost beyond reason, he swung round to the sloping control console at which he was seated. A curious ripple passed over his vision, accompanied by a pins-and-needles sensation within his head, and for a fleeting moment he saw the array of instruments and controls through the eyes of another person. He stroked his hand down two rows of toggle switches, hit a large red button, and pulled upwards on the central control stick.
The blank wall in front of him became transparent. There was a glimpse of the spaceport buildings falling away below, a flash of blue sky turning to black—and then he was gazing, transfixed, at the hard, hostile brilliance of the stars.
The speed of the ship was so great that Peace could see a flowing change of parallax in the nearer stars. Entranced by the spectacle, he watched the bright specks swimming by; then it occurred to him that in order to produce such an effect the ship had to be going like a bat out of hell—and he had no idea of where it was headed. He should have been overjoyed at once more being delivered from the hands of the Oscars, who seemed to bear him a grudge, but now there was a new danger of his being lost for ever in the deeps of space. It was beginning to seem that there was no end to the unpleasant surprises fate had in store for him, that no matter how many catastrophes he avoided there would always be more lying in wait…
“That’s it,” Peace said in an aggrieved voice. “What’s the point of struggling? I’m just going to sit here and accept my destiny—and what a strange and lonely destiny it’s going to be!
“On and on I’ll go,” he intoned, warming to the subject, “far beyond the meagre confines of this galaxy and all the galaxies about it. Outstripping the speed of laggard light, on laughter-gilded wings, I’ll suffer a C-change. And what marvellous sights I’ll see before death finally closes my eyes—nebulae writhing in the exquisite torment of creation, the cosmic beacons of supernovae, universes like fireflies tangled in a silver braid…” Pleased with his newfound fatalism, Peace crossed his arms, sat back in the deep chair and made ready for eternity. He remained at one with the cosmos for perhaps ten seconds, and then boredom set in. It was quickly followed by panic. “Bugger the fireflies and silver braid,” he cried, leaping from the chair. “I want to go home.”
He ran to the transparent front wall and hunted all over it, as though having moved two paces closer could help him identify the pinpoint of light which would be Sol. Even in his distraught condition he realized almost at once that the quest was hopeless—there were millions of suns, scattered ahead of the ship in such profusion that it was impossible to impose any kind of order on them. Nothing short of a powerful computer would be able to cope with the astrogation problems involved, he decided, and caught his breath as the pins-and-needles he had experienced earlier returned in force, causing a strange easing sensation within his head.