“You don’t have to guess anything—I’m going to tell you.” Peace sipped some coffee to hide his exasperation. “Supposing I tell you I’ve been in a time machine, and that…” He broke off as he saw that the fresher version of himself was dogmatically shaking his head.
“I wouldn’t believe you. Double-acting extroverters are illegal—especially here on Earth where there’s so much more history to be interfered with. Government detector vans go around all the time and root them out as soon as they’re switched on. I’ve heard they can even tell what year you’re tuned in to.”
“That’s the whole point,” Peace said triumphantly. He was on the verge of explaining that he was talking about an event which had occurred on Aspatria when a mind-quaking new thought stilled his voice. He had been so busy trying to bring this meeting about that there had been no time to plan what he was going to say, or in which to think about the possible consequences. Norman had been to Aspatria already, that much he knew, and if he now named the planet in evidence, convinced Norman he was speaking the truth, and went on to catalogue all the horrors and miseries of the last month—Norman could very well decide not to join the Legion.
And he, Warren Peace, was the individual who had come into existence as a direct result of Norman signing on for his thirty, forty or fifty years! Peace hurriedly swallowed some more coffee as he tried to sort out the paradoxes involved. If Norman changed his mind about entering the Legion, would Warren Peace cease to exist? Somehow the notion of being erased by a shift in probabilities was more terrible to Peace than that of facing a straightforward, old-fashioned death. A man who was dying normally had the consolation of knowing he would have some kind of memorial, even if it was only a heap of unpaid bills, but facing the possibility of never having existed at all was too much for anybody to…
“What’s the whole point?” Norman said. “Go on—you’ve got me interested.”
“That’s the point,” Peace replied lamely, his mind racing. “That I’ve got you interested. You weren’t interested at first, you see. And now you are.”
“So it was a come-on, after all.” The distracted look appeared in Norman’s eyes as he took out another bill and placed it beside the first. “That’s twenty you’ve got—do you mind if we call it quits now?”
Peace made to brush the money aside, then recalled that if he did so it was destined to end up in the hands of the predatory Captain Widget. He lifted the bills and crammed them into his pocket and tried to conceive a new approach to the main problem. Time was rushing by and he was no nearer to learning the guilty secret which was driving Norman, almost literally, to his wit’s end.
“Thank you,” he said. “It goes against the grain for an old legionary like me to accept a handout, but times are hard.”
“Legionary?” Norman looked at him with renewed curiosity. “But how did you get out?”
“Invalided.” Forgetting the state of his ribs, Peace banged himself on the side of the chest, gave a sharp cry and folded over the table, narrowly avoiding plunging his face into an ashtray.
“Are you all right?” Norman said anxiously.
“Just a twinge.” Peace straightened up, fearful of being evicted by the bartender. “It’s the weather that does it, you know. I’ll be all right in a minute.” To cover his confusion he raised his beaker and sipped more coffee.
Norman toyed for a moment with his glass. “Why did you join up?”
“Ah … I wanted to forget something.”
“What was it?”
“How would I know?” Peace could not understand how the conversational roles had become reversed. “I’ve forgotten it.”
“Of course—I’m sorry.” Norman nodded, and then—as if something had aroused a painful memory—his lower lip began to tremble.
Peace felt strangely guilty, but he sensed the time was right for him to make a move. “Norman,” he said gently, “you’re waiting to join the Legion, aren’t you?”
“I am! I am! Why don’t they open that cursed office? Why do they make us wait so long to lay down our burdens?”
“All in good time,” Peace soothed, glancing around anxiously in case Norman’s emotional outburst had disturbed other customers in the bar. “Listen, Norman, why don’t you tell me what’s on your mind?”
Norman looked at him with tortured eyes. “It was a terrible thing I did. I can’t talk about it.”
“Of course you can.” Peace placed his free hand over Norman’s. “You can tell me, Norman.
Get it off your chest. You’ll feel much better.”
“If only that were true.”
“It is. It is,” Peace said. “Tell it to me, Norman.”
“You’re sure you really want to hear?”
Peace swallowed nervously. “I do, Norman. I do.”
“All right,” Norman said, in slow, agonized tones. “My crime is…”
“My crime is …”
“Yes, Norman, yes!”
“… that I deserted from the Legion.”
There came an ear-splitting crash as Peace dropped his coffee beaker on the tiled floor. He gazed strickenly at the top of Norman’s bowed head, unable to speak, then found himself dragged to his feet by the bartender, who had vaulted over the counter.
“All right, youse two,” the barman said, “Outside! I been watching youse two since youse two came in here, and I don’t want the likes o’ youse two in here.”
“It was an accident, a pure accident.” Peace, his mind still in a downward spiral of disbelief, tucked the twenty monits he had taken from Norman into the barman’s shirt pocket and persuaded him to return to his post. The barman gathered up the pieces of ceramic, issued a final warning about holding hands, and shambled away with a number of distrustful backward glances. Peace sat down again and tapped the crown of Norman’s head with a single knuckle.
“Look at me, Norman,” he whispered. “You wouldn’t put me on, would you?”
“No. It’s the truth.”
“But, Norman! Being a deserter from the Legion is nothing to get worked up about.
Practically ever ranker in the outfit dreams of nothing else. It’s their one ambition in life.”
“That’s all right for rankers—it’s expected of them.” Norman raised his face which was crimson with shame. “But I was an officer.”
“An officer?” Peace fell silent, trying to fit the new information into the complex puzzle of his life, but Norman had got into his confessional stride and was speaking faster.
“… and not just any officer, you see. I was Lieutenant Norman Nightingale, only son of General Nightingale himself. My family has a distinguished record of service in the Legion that goes back two centuries. Two centuries! Two hundred years of generals and space marshals, campaigns and courage, medals and honours, glory and greatness. Can you imagine the burden—the unspeakable burden—that tradition placed on me?” Peace shook his head, partly because it was expected of him, partly because a fierce tingling sensation had developed behind his forehead.
“Almost from the minute I was born, certainly from the cradle, I was prepared and groomed for the Legion. My father never spoke to me about anything else. My mother never spoke to me about anything else. My life was totally committed to the Legion—and the terrible thing is that… that I had no love for it. I wanted to do other things.” Norman paused, obviously reflecting on his filial shortcomings.
Peace was glad of the break because the pins-and-needles had grown stronger, and his memory was throwing up images of a Southern-style white-columned house; a stern-faced, grey-haired man, immaculate in the uniform of a Legion staff officer; a pretty woman, reserved to the point of remoteness, whose upright posture was as militarily correct as that of her husband. These, he knew, were visions of his own childhood, and he began to understand why the memory eraser in the recruiting station had blanked out his entire past. If his whole life had been steeped in the tradition of Space Legion service, his guilt over betraying the family ideal would be equally all-pervading. Every incident stored in his memory, every last detail of his upbringing and early career would be a clue to the nature of his crime—and therefore the machine, with electronic scrupulousness, had deleted the lot.
One of his life’s great mysteries had been cleared up, but another had come forward in its place.
“I see the fix you’re in, Norman,” Peace said slowly. “Naturally, with a background like yours, you feel rotten about having gone AWOL—but why go back as a ranker? You don’t need to have any memories wiped out—as soon as you return to the Legion you’ll cease to be a deserter, and you’ll have nothing to feel guilty about. It’s as simple as that.”
“As simple as that, he says!” Norman gave a sardonic laugh, indicative of a soul in torment.
“Well, isn’t it?”
“If only you knew.”
“For God’s sake!” Peace fought back his impatience, remembering that his former self was in dire mental straits. “Tell me all about it, Norman.”
“The trouble is,” Norman said, gripping his glass in an agitated manner, “That I didn’t just go AWOL. I deserted in the face of the enemy—out of sheer cowardice—and even for a general’s son, that’s serious.”
“It’s pretty serious,” Peace agreed, “but nothing that out… your father couldn’t square for you.”
Norman shook his head. “You just don’t understand—though, as you haven’t had my sort of upbringing, I couldn’t expect you to. There’s simply no way to wipe out the disgrace I’ve brought on the family name. In any case, that’s not my big problem—it’s guilt that’s my problem. My own personal, monogrammed, hand-made guilt over the circumstances in which I deserted.”
“Tell me about it,” Peace said, ignoring a clammy touch of unease.
“I can’t do that. I don’t think I could ever speak to anybody about that.”
This time Norman’s reticence made Peace feel relieved rather than angry. “Okay. So you deserted in the face of the enemy—what happened next?”
Norman took a shaky breath. “We were fighting on Aspatria at the time. Have you ever been there?”
“Let me see.” Peace pretended to search his memory. “I think I spent some leave there once.”
“That must have been after the rebellion ended. When I was there in ‘83 the fighting was still going on, and everything was a bit chaotic. I managed to make my way down to Touchdown City and hide out for a while. The military police were looking for me, of course, but I had no trouble dodging them. It was an easy life for a while, because I had plenty of money—and then some alien beings they call Oscars showed up, and they started haunting me. Have you heard about the Oscars?” A constriction seemed to form around Peace’s heart. “I’ve heard of them. Why did they come after you?”
“Beats me,” Norman said in a distant voice. “They just seemed to know I’d done something bad—personally I think they can read minds. It was the weirdest thing ever, because it was dark when I first ran into them, and they just seemed to look right inside me with those awful eyes they’ve got.”
“You say this happened in ‘83?” Peace frowned as he did some mental juggling with dates.
“But this is 2386—you don’t look like you’ve been on the run for three years.”
“I haven’t.” Norman gave Peace an enigmatic smile. “But the explanation is so fantastic you’ll never believe it.”
“I will. I’ll believe anything! Tell it to me, Norman.”
“Well, I’d stayed in my room all day—because usually I only went out at night—and I’d developed quite an appetite, so I decided to have a real blow-out at a sort of restaurant-cum-nightclub called the Blue Toad. It’s very expensive, but the food is quite good. Except for the seafood, that is. You’ll probably never be there, but if you are, don’t order the lobster.”
“I won’t,” Peace assured him. “Was this the night you saw the Oscars?”
“That’s what I’m trying to tell you,” Norman reproved. “I paid for my meal, was given a nasty little souvenir, came out of the restaurant, and as I’d been cooped up in my room all day I decided not to go straight back to it. There was a movie house nearby—one of those multiple projection places—so I went to see what was showing. I had a look at the posters outside, but lost interest when I saw the sort of programme it was. Blatant pornography! Women in the nude!
“Naturally I didn’t want to see anything like that, and was just about to go somewhere else when—you’ll hardly believe this—a boy of about ten approached me and offered me money if I would take him inside and swap strobe-glasses with him. You know, let him see the so-called adult movies.”
“What did you do?” Peace said apprehensively, recalling earlier qualms about his sexual preferences.
“What do you think? I grabbed the brat by the ear and told him I was taking him straight home to his parents.”
“Good for you!” Peace felt a load lift from his mind. “You did the right thing.”
“That’s what I thought, but the evil little swine kicked up a fuss.” A shocked expression appeared on Norman’s face as he thought about the incident. “Would you believe that he told people I’d made certain suggestions to him?”
“It’s quite true. He knew exactly what to say— probably makes a habit of hanging around there. Then some manageress woman came out and started shouting at me and blew a whistle.
I tell you, it was a ghastly experience. Under the circumstances, being a wanted man and so forth, I decided to get out of there in a hurry, so I made a run for it—and that’s when the damned Oscars showed up. I don’t know how they managed to appear on the scene so quickly, but two of them made a grab for me, and I only escaped by running up an alley.”
Tingling waves were sweeping over Peace’s brain. “How did you get away from them?”
“This is the really fantastic bit. I thought I could move pretty fast, but the Oscars would have run me into the ground in no time. They’d have caught me if I hadn’t noticed a door leading into an old factory building. I shot through it, ran upstairs in the darkness—not knowing where I was— blundered into a toilet, fell over the seat, and … you’ll never guess what happened next.”
“You went backwards in ti…” Peace, who had become carried away with the narrative, cut the fateful word short.
Norman looked at him curiously. “What were you saying?”
“You went backwards. Into the wall.”
“That wasn’t what happened at all,” Norman said, annoyed at having his story interrupted at a crucial point. “Look, do you want to hear this, or don’t you?”
“I’m sorry. Please go on.”
“All right—but no more interruptions.”
“Now, as I was saying—you’ll never be able to guess what happened next.”