All I have to do now, he impressed on himself, building up his confidence, is stop being so damned accident prone. Play it cool! Blend into the background! Even I can stay out of trouble till the morning.
The concentrated dose of positive thinking had an immediate effect on Peace’s spirits. A certain amount of spring returned to his stride and a few minutes later—as though honoring the promise of divine assistance for those who help themselves—the lights of a bus appeared in the distance. As the vehicle drew closer Peace saw that its destination was Porterburg, and he breathed a sigh of gratitude. He signalled the driver to stop and, avoiding any possibility of having his toes flattened by a wheel on the narrow road, mounted the glassy bank of snow and waited until the bus had drawn up in front of him. Its doors opened with a pneumatic gasp. Peace edged forward, his feet shot out from under him, the icy surface hit the back of his head and, with no perceptible lapse of time, he found himself lying, hands still in pockets, in pitch darkness under the bus. Metal components churned dangerously near the tip of his nose as he struggled to get his hands free of the pockets, which had suddenly developed a vice-like grip on his wrists.
“Where did that joker go?” The bus driver’s voice could scarcely be heard above the noise of machinery, but it had a distinct note of impatience.
“I’m down here,” Peace croaked. “Help me somebody!”
“People flag you down, and then it turns out they don’t want a ride after all,” the driver grumbled. “I don’t know—it must be a new craze.”
There came the sound of doors closing, the bus rolled forward and its nearside wheel brushed the hair on top of Peace’s head. He was congratulating himself on, at least, having escaped a gory death when a projection near the vehicle’s rear end struck him in the ribs and trundled him along the ground for a short distance before releasing him in an untidy heap in the centre of the road.
Peace struggled to his feet, clutching his side, and swore at the departing bus. When its lights had finally vanished into the night, he looked down at himself and was aghast to see that his jacket and hose, immaculate only a short time earlier, were oil-stained and torn. He giggled hysterically for a moment, then clapped a hand over his mouth.
“I’m not going to let this thing throw me,” he announced to the lonely expanse of moonlit snow all round. “I am the master of my own destiny.” Taking stock of his physical condition, he found he could still walk although, in addition to a contused jaw, he now sported a throbbing lump on the back of his head and at every breath was experiencing a sharp pain which suggested one or more broken ribs. Travelling by public transport no longer seemed a good idea, in view of his appearance, but he had enough money to go by taxi to Porterburg and find a discreet hotel. After a shower and a night’s recuperation, he told himself, he would be almost as good as new. The first essential was to find a telephone, and from there on everything would be straightforward. Drawing the tatters of his jacket closer around himself, Peace once again set out for the nearby community, which—in spite of its geographical proximity— was beginning to seem as distant and unattainable as Shangri La.
Twenty minutes later he passed a sign which read, “HARTLEYVILLE—Pop. 347”, and limped down the single main street in search of a telephone kiosk.
Although it was early in the evening the street seemed deserted, and consequently he felt a pang of irritation on reaching a phone box to find that not only was it in use, but that there was another prospective caller waiting to get in. Reminding himself of the need to be philosophical in the face of such minor annoyances, Peace took his place in line and hoped his condition would not attract any comment. He need not have worried on that score, because the red-haired man in front—hardly sparing him a glance—was devoting all his attention to hammering on the door with his fist and shouting abuse at the man inside. It appeared he had been kept waiting for some time and, lacking Peace’s hard-won stoicism, was nearing a state of apoplexy. He kept darting from one window to another, making gestures of frustration and rage, but the dimly-seen caller within foiled him each time by turning away, as users of call boxes have done since time immemorial.
Peace watched the little drama with Olympian amusement, pondering on the pettiness of the troubles which some mortals allowed to disrupt their serenity. He was beginning to wish he could drop a hint about what real misfortune was like when the red-haired man uttered a climatic burst of obscenities,” scurried across the street and disappeared between two buildings. Less than a minute later the man in the box finished his call, came out, nodded to Peace and faded away into the night, leaving him free to make use of the telephone.
Patience does it every time, Peace thought smugly, stepping into the box. He had just begun to conjure up information about taxi services on the illuminated directory display when the door was yanked open behind him. A rough hand dragged him out into the open and he found himself gazing up into the flinty countenance of a very large and cold-eyed policeman. The red-haired man had returned to the scene with the policeman and was hopping up and down in the background.
“That’s him!” he said vindictively. “Twenty minutes he kept me waiting out here in the cold.
Run him in, Cyril, run him in!”
“Do me a favour, Reuben,” the cop replied. “Don’t try to teach me the job, huh?”
“But twenty minutes, Cyril! Everybody knows you’re only allowed three minutes in a public call box.”
“Pardon me, officer, but this is all a mistake,” Peace said, his heart sinking. “I’ve only been here a minute and…”
“Liar!” Reuben screamed. “He’s trying to con you, Cyril. He thinks you’re a dumb hick cop.”
“Is that a fact?” The policeman gave Peace a stare in which the hostility was augmented by dawning suspicion. “How did you get all messed up like that? What’s your name, mister, and where are you from?”
“Me?” Peace spoke with the calmness of desperation. “I’m from nowhere.”
Summoning reserves of strength whose existence he had not suspected, he gave the policeman a violent shove in the chest. The big man, taken unawares, lost his footing on the packed snow and fell on his back with an appalling crash of harness and equipment. Peace leapt over him and fled into one of the alleys which had begun to feature so prominently in his affairs, running so swiftly that he felt at one with the night wind, scarcely aware of his feet touching the frozen ground.
A stabbing pain in the side of his chest brought him to a standstill in a very short time, the effortless dream-flight at an end. He looked all around in the darkness. He could see nothing but moon-silvered trees and flat snowscape beyond, and there were no sounds of pursuit.
Sitting down on a convenient tree stump, he waited for his mind to catch up with his body.
Though it appeared he was safe for the minute, he found it chastening to reflect that within half an hour of setting foot on Earth he had contrived to injure himself, ruin his new clothes, and get into fresh trouble with the law.
There’s no doubt about it, he thought, adding to his little store of self-knowledge. I’m quite definitely accident prone.
The revelation prompted him to make a tough reappraisal of his plans. As his breathing gradually returned to normal there came the conviction that his only hope of keeping the morning appointment lay in getting to Porterburg alone and unaided— which meant he would have to walk all night. The prospect was a daunting one, especially as the air was growing noticeably colder by the minute, but all other options had retreated or vanished.
Aching from head to toe, already beginning to shiver, Peace lurched to his feet and began the dismal forty-kilometre trek he hoped would end at the crossroads of the past, present and future. His bout of philosophizing while waiting for the telephone already seemed pathetic, but he made a last effort to locate at lease one positive aspect of the situation, to find a nugget of hope which would sustain him through the night. At first the task seemed quite impossible—then his thoughts focused on the single, glittering achievement of the day.
“Thank God,” he said fervently, hobbling through the snow, “I managed to shake off those damned Oscars.”
His month in the Space Legion had familiarized Peace with hardship and discomfort, but in retrospect—by the time he reached Porterburg— it seemed a halcyon period of comradeship, laughter and warmth.
He inched through the city in the steely light of dawn, trying not to draw attention to himself, but at intervals was overtaken by trembling fits so violent that his torn clothing flapped audibly, giving him something of the demeanor of a drug-crazed Haitian dancer. Most of the early morning pedestrians hurried by with averted eyes, but a few were stung to compassion and approached him with offers of money or help. Where possible he quickly sent them on their way with hoarse assurances of his well-being, but two persistent cases had to be frightened off by deliberately going into the voodoo routine with extra conviction. This was strangely easy to do, and before long he was forced to accept the idea that he could be suffering from pneumonia.
Death itself had begun to seem quite an attractive prospect, but the idea of it occurring before he had completed his mission filled him with alarm. Coaxing his limbs to make greater efforts, he speeded up his progress and eventually reached the quarter of the city wherein lay the headquarters of the Space Legion’s 203 Regiment. He turned into a mean and rather narrow street and saw before him a large redbrick building, reminiscent of a brewery, which bore a sign proclaiming it to be Fort Eccles. The structure in no way resembled Peace’s conception of a Legion establishment, but he had passed the stage of caring about such anomalies. He went along the side of the building, inspecting various doors until he reached one which had a plaque identifying it as the entrance to the recruiting office.
In spite of his chronic debility, Peace’s heart quickened as he realized that this was the exact location of his second birth a few crowded weeks earlier, and that the solution to the great mystery of his life was almost within reach.
A notice on the door yielded the information that the office would be open for business at 8.30 a.m. Peace no longer had a watch, but had passed a number of clocks in the district. He knew he was approximately an hour too early, and that waiting that length of time in the intense cold could easily be the last nail in his coffin. He glanced about him and almost sobbed with gratification as he espied an orange-lit bar directly across the street. Its steamy windows promised heat and sustenance, and furthermore would provide a vantage point from which he could monitor all arrivals at the recruiting office. Bitter experience had taught Peace that it was always when his fortunes appeared to be taking a turn for the better that disaster struck him yet another blow, but he was unable to repress a glow of simple pleasure at the prospect of a comfortable seat, heated air and pots of strong, scalding coffee. Clamping his arm against his damaged ribs, he shuffled across the street and went into the bar, which was almost empty at that hour of the day.
The bartender eyed him speculatively, but immediately became affable when he set a fifty monit note on the counter. A couple of minutes later, armed with a beaker of coffee stiffly laced with Bourbon, Peace made his way to the front of the narrow room and dropped into a chair at the window. He sipped his drink eagerly, holding the container in both hands, absorbing every calorie. So intent was he on the life-giving brew that half of it was gone before his eyes could focus on anything further away than the beaker’s rim. He found himself staring at another early-morning customer—a clean-shaven young man with a dull-pink face, wide mouth, blue eyes, and blond hair which was fashionably thinned above the forehead.
The young man, slumped in his seat, was the personification of a hangdog misery—exactly as Peace had last seen him, projected as an image on the wall of Captain Widget’s office.
A tidal wave of hot coffee washed around Peace’s nostrils as he realized he was looking at himself.
Not daring to think about the complexities which lay ahead, he got to his feet and limped to the other table. “Mind if I sit here, Norman?”
“I don’t mind.” His other self continued to stare into an empty glass.
Peace sat down.” Don’t you want to know how I know your name?”
“Couldn’t care less.” The young man raised his head and regarded Peace with mournful eyes which betrayed not the slightest trace of recognition. His gaze shifted to Peace’s grubby hands and disreputable clothing, and he took a crumpled ten-monit note from the pocket of his brown houndstooth jacket. “You should buy food with that—not booze.”
“I don’t want a handout.” Peace pushed the bill away, and decided to try shock tactics.
“Norman, what would you say if I told you that you and I are the same person?”
“I’d say you ought to lay off the vanilla extract for a while.”
The leaden indifference in his other selfs voice shocked Peace, but he pressed on. “It’s true, Norman—just look at me.”
Norman gave him a cursory glance. “You don’t even look like me.”
Peace opened his mouth to argue, and at the same instant caught a glimpse of himself in a wall mirror. He appeared ten years older than Norman, was much thinner, bearded, ragged, filthy, and had a swollen jaw which substantially altered the shape of his face. He also had a black eye, which he had not known about until that moment, and the harsh night of exposure had imparted to the rest of his skin the sort of blue-red hue normally acquired through a strict diet of cheap wine. Peace gulped and had to admit that Norman was right—they looked like two different people.
“All right,” he said, pouring sincerity into his voice. “I’ve been through a lot lately, but I tell you it’s true—you and I are the same person.”
A hint of amusement appeared briefly on Norman’s doom-laden countenance. “This is the weirdest come-on I’ve ever heard, and it’s being wasted—I’ve already given you the money.”
He pushed the note back across the table.
“I don’t want your money,” Peace said impatiently, wondering how he could ever have been so obtuse. “Are you going to listen to me, Norman?” Norman sighed and glanced at his watch.
“I suppose it will help to pass the last hour— conundrums instead of cognac. Why not? Let me see now, this must be like that old one about proving to somebody he isn’t here, except that I’ve to guess how you and I can be the same person. How about…?”