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Title: The Big Time
Author: Leiber, Fritz, 1910-1992
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "The Big Time" ***

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[Illustration]


By FRITZ LEIBER

THE BIG TIME

    _You can't know there's a war on--for the Snakes coil and Spiders
    weave to keep you from knowing it's being fought over your live and
    dead body!_

Illustrated by FINLAY



CHAPTER 1

    When shall we three meet again
    In thunder, lightning, or in rain?

    When the hurlyburly's done.
    When the battle's lost and won.

                             --Macbeth

ENTER THREE HUSSARS


My name is Greta Forzane. Twenty-nine and a party girl would describe
me. I was born in Chicago, of Scandinavian parents, but now I operate
chiefly outside space and time--not in Heaven or Hell, if there are such
places, but not in the cosmos or universe you know either.

I am not as romantically entrancing as the immortal film star who also
bears my first name, but I have a rough-and-ready charm of my own. I
need it, for my job is to nurse back to health and kid back to sanity
Soldiers badly roughed up in the biggest war going. This war is the
Change War, a war of time travelers--in fact, our private name for being
in this war is being on the Big Time. Our Soldiers fight by going back
to change the past, or even ahead to change the future, in ways to help
our side win the final victory a billion or more years from now. A long
killing business, believe me.

You don't know about the Change War, but it's influencing your lives all
the time and maybe you've had hints of it without realizing.

Have you ever worried about your memory, because it doesn't seem to be
bringing you exactly the same picture of the past from one day to the
next? Have you ever been afraid that your personality was changing
because of forces beyond your knowledge or control? Have you ever felt
sure that sudden death was about to jump you from nowhere? Have you ever
been scared of Ghosts--not the story-book kind, but the billions of
beings who were once so real and strong it's hard to believe they'll
just sleep harmlessly forever? Have you ever wondered about those things
you may call devils or Demons--spirits able to range through all time
and space, through the hot hearts of stars and the cold skeleton of
space between the galaxies? Have you ever thought that the whole
universe might be a crazy, mixed-up dream? If you have, you've had hints
of the Change War.

How I got recruited into the Change War, how it's conducted, what the
two sides are, why you don't consciously know about it, what I really
think about it--you'll learn in due course.

       *       *       *       *       *

The place outside the cosmos where I and my pals do our nursing job I
simply call the Place. A lot of my nursing consists of amusing and
humanizing Soldiers fresh back from raids into time. In fact, my formal
title is Entertainer and I've got my silly side, as you'll find out.

My pals are two other gals and three guys from quite an assortment of
times and places. We're a pretty good team, and with Sid bossing, we run
a pretty good Recuperation Station, though we have our family troubles.
But most of our troubles come slamming into the Place with the beat-up
Soldiers, who've generally just been going through hell and want to
raise some of their own. As a matter of fact, it was three newly arrived
Soldiers who started this thing I'm going to tell you about, this thing
that showed me so much about myself and everything.

When it started, I had been on the Big Time for a thousand sleeps and
two thousand nightmares, and working in the Place for five hundred-one
thousand. This two-nightmares routine every time you lay down your dizzy
little head is rough, but you pretend to get used to it because being on
the Big Time is supposed to be worth it.

The Place is midway in size and atmosphere between a large nightclub
where the Entertainers sleep in and a small Zeppelin hangar decorated
for a party, though a Zeppelin is one thing we haven't had yet. You go
out of the Place, but not often if you have any sense and if you are an
Entertainer like me, into the cold light of a morning filled with
anything from the earlier dinosaurs to the later spacemen, who look
strangely similar except for size.

Solely on doctor's orders, I have been on cosmic leave six times since
coming to work at the Place, meaning I have had six brief vacations, if
you care to call them that, for believe me they are busman's holidays,
considering what goes on in the Place all the time. The last one I spent
in Renaissance Rome, where I got a crush on Cesare Borgia, but I got
over it. Vacations are for the birds, anyway, because they have to be
fitted by the Spiders into serious operations of the Change War, and you
can imagine how restful that makes them.

"See those Soldiers changing the past? You stick along with them. Don't
go too far up front, though, but don't wander off either. Relax and
enjoy yourself."

Ha! Now the kind of recuperation Soldiers get when they come to the
Place is a horse of a far brighter color, simply dazzling by comparison.
Entertainment is our business and we give them a bang-up time and send
them staggering happily back into action, though once in a great while
something may happen to throw a wee shadow on the party.

       *       *       *       *       *

I am dead in some ways, but don't let that bother you--I am lively
enough in others. If you met me in the cosmos, you would be more apt to
yak with me or try to pick me up than to ask a cop to do same or a
father to douse me with holy water, unless you are one of those
hard-boiled reformer types. But you are not likely to meet me in the
cosmos, because (bar Basin Street and the Prater) 15th Century Italy and
Augustan Rome--until they spoiled it--are my favorite (Ha!) vacation
spots and, as I have said, I stick as close to the Place as I can. It is
really the nicest Place in the whole Change World. (Crisis! I even
_think_ of it capitalized!)

Anyhoo, when this thing started, I was twiddling my thumbs on the couch
nearest the piano and thinking it was too late to do my fingernails and
whoever came in probably wouldn't notice them anyway.

The Place was jumpy like it always is on an approach and the gray velvet
of the Void around us was curdled with the uneasy lights you see when
you close your eyes in the dark.

Sid was tuning the Maintainers for the pick-up and the right shoulder of
his gold-worked gray doublet was streaked where he'd been wiping his
face on it with quick ducks of his head.

Beauregard was leaning as close as he could over Sid's other shoulder,
one white-trousered knee neatly indenting the rose plush of the control
divan, and he wasn't missing a single flicker of Sid's old fingers on
the dials; Beau's co-pilot besides piano player. Beau's face had that
dead blank look it must have had when every double eagle he owned and
more he didn't were riding on the next card to be turned in the gambling
saloon on one of those wedding-cake Mississippi steamboats.

Doc was soused as usual, sitting at the bar with his top hat pushed back
and his knitted shawl pulled around him, his wide eyes seeing whatever
horrors a life in Nazi-occupied Czarist Russia can add to being a drunk
Demon in the Change World.

Maud, who is the Old Girl, and Lili--the New Girl, of course--were
telling the big beads of their identical pearl necklaces.

You might say that all us Entertainers were a bit edgy; being Demons
doesn't automatically make us brave.

Then the red telltale on the Major Maintainer went out and the Door
began to darken in the Void facing Sid and Beau, and I felt Change Winds
blowing hard and my heart missed a couple of beats, and the next thing
three Soldiers had stepped out of the cosmos and into the Place, their
first three steps hitting the floor hard as they changed times and
weights.

       *       *       *       *       *

They were dressed as officers of hussars, as we'd been advised,
and--praise the Bonny Dew!--I saw that the first of them was Erich, my
own dear little commandant, the pride of the von Hohenwalds and the
Terror of the Snakes. Behind him was some hard-faced Roman or other, and
beside Erich and shouldering into him as they stamped forward was a new
boy, blond, with a face like a Greek god who's just been touring a
Christian hell.

They were uniformed exactly alike in black--shakos, fur-edged pelisses,
boots, and so forth--with white skull emblems on the shakos. The only
difference between them was that Erich had a Caller on his wrist and the
New Boy had a black-gauntleted glove on his left hand and was clenching
the mate in it, his right hand being bare like both of Erich's and the
Roman's.

"You've made it, lads, hearts of gold," Sid boomed at them, and Beau
twitched a smile and murmured something courtly and Maud began to chant,
"Shut the Door!" and the New Girl copied her and I joined in because the
Change Winds do blow like crazy when the Door is open, even though it
can't ever be shut tight enough to keep them from leaking through.

"Shut it before it blows wrinkles in our faces," Maud called in her
gamin voice to break the ice, looking like a skinny teen-ager in the
tight, knee-length frock she'd copied from the New Girl.

But the three Soldiers weren't paying attention. The Roman--I remembered
his name was Mark--was blundering forward stiffly as if there were
something wrong with his eyes, while Erich and the New Boy were yelling
at each other about a kid and Einstein and a summer palace and a bloody
glove and the Snakes having booby-trapped Saint Petersburg. Erich had
that taut sadistic smile he gets when he wants to hit me.

The New Boy was in a tearing rage. "Why'd you pull us out so bloody
fast? We fair chewed the Nevsky Prospekt to pieces galloping away."

"Didn't you feel their stun guns, _Dummkopf_, when they sprung the
trap--too soon, _Gott sei Dank_?" Erich demanded.

"I did," the New Boy told him. "Not enough to numb a cat. Why didn't you
show us action?"

"Shut up. I'm your leader. I'll show you action enough."

"You won't. You're a filthy Nazi coward."

"_Weibischer Engländer!_"

"Bloody Hun!"

"_Schlange!_"

The blond lad knew enough German to understand that last crack. He threw
back his sable-edged pelisse to clear his sword arm and he swung away
from Erich, which bumped him into Beau. At the first sign of the
quarrel, Beau had raised himself from the divan as quickly and silently
as a--no, I won't use that word--and slithered over to them.

"Sirs, you forget yourselves," he said sharply, off balance, supporting
himself on the New Boy's upraised arm. "This is Sidney Lessingham's
Place of Entertainment and Recuperation. There are ladies--"

       *       *       *       *       *

With a contemptuous snarl, the New Boy shoved him off and snatched with
his bare hand for his saber. Beau reeled against the divan, it caught
him in the shins and he fell toward the Maintainers. Sid whisked them
out of the way as if they were a couple of beach radios--simply nothing
in the Place is nailed down--and had them back on the coffee table
before Beau hit the floor. Meanwhile, Erich had his saber out and had
parried the New Boy's first wild slash and lunged in return, and I heard
the scream of steel and the rutch of his boot on the diamond-studded
pavement.

       *       *       *       *       *

Beau rolled over and came up pulling from the ruffles of his shirt bosom
a derringer I knew was some other weapon in disguise--a stun gun or even
an Atropos. Besides scaring me damp for Erich and everybody, that
brought me up short: us Entertainers' nerves must be getting as naked as
the Soldiers', probably starting when the Spiders canceled all cosmic
leaves twenty sleeps back.

Sid shot Beau his look of command, rapped out, "I'll handle this, you
whoreson firebrand," and turned to the Minor Maintainer. I noticed that
the telltale on the Major was glowing a reassuring red again, and I
found a moment to thank Mamma Devi that the Door was shut.

Maud was jumping up and down, cheering I don't know which--nor did she,
I bet--and the New Girl was white and I saw that the sabers were working
more businesslike. Erich's flicked, flicked, flicked again and came away
from the blond lad's cheek spilling a couple of red drops. The blond lad
lunged fiercely, Erich jumped back, and the next moment they were both
floating helplessly in the air, twisting like they had cramps.

I realized quick enough that Sid had shut off gravity in the Door and
Stores sectors of the Place, leaving the rest of us firm on our feet in
the Refresher and Surgery sectors. The Place has sectional gravity to
suit our Extraterrestrial buddies--those crazy ETs sometimes come
whooping in for recuperation in very mixed batches.

From his central position, Sid called out, kindly enough but taking no
nonsense, "All right, lads, you've had your fun. Now sheathe those
swords."

For a second or so, the two black hussars drifted and contorted. Erich
laughed harshly and neatly obeyed--the commandant is used to free fall.
The blond lad stopped writhing, hesitated while he glared upside down at
Erich and managed to get his saber into its scabbard, although he turned
a slow somersault doing it. Then Sid switched on their gravity, slow
enough so they wouldn't get sprained landing.

       *       *       *       *       *

Erich laughed, lightly this time, and stepped out briskly toward us. He
stopped to clap the New Boy firmly on the shoulder and look him in the
face.

"So, now you get a good scar," he said.

The other didn't pull away, but he didn't look up and Erich came on. Sid
was hurrying toward the New Boy, and as he passed Erich, he wagged a
finger at him and gayly said, "You rogue." Next thing I was giving Erich
my "Man, you're home" hug and he was kissing me and cracking my ribs and
saying, "_Liebchen! Doppchen!_"--which was fine with me because I do
love him and I'm a good lover and as much a Doubleganger as he is.

We had just pulled back from each other to get a breath--his blue eyes
looked so sweet in his worn face--when there was a thud behind us. With
the snapping of the tension, Doc had fallen off his bar stool and his
top hat was over his eyes. As we turned to chuckle at him, Maud squeaked
and we saw that the Roman had walked straight up against the Void and
was marching along there steadily without gaining a foot, like it does
happen, his black uniform melting into that inside-your-head gray.

Maud and Beau rushed over to fish him back, which can be tricky. The
thin gambler was all courtly efficiency again. Sid supervised from a
distance.

"What's wrong with him?" I asked Erich.

He shrugged. "Overdue for Change Shock. And he was nearest the stun
guns. His horse almost threw him. _Mein Gott_, you should have seen
Saint Petersburg, _Liebchen_: the Nevsky Prospekt, the canals flying by
like reception carpets of blue sky, a cavalry troop in blue and gold
that blundered across our escape, fine women in furs and ostrich plumes,
a monk with a big tripod and his head under a hood--it gave me the
horrors seeing all those Zombies flashing past and staring at me in that
sick unawakened way they have, and knowing that some of them, say the
photographer, might be Snakes."

Our side in the Change War is the Spiders, the other side is the Snakes,
though all of us--Spiders and Snakes alike--are Doublegangers and Demons
too, because we're cut out of our lifelines in the cosmos. Your lifeline
is all of you from birth to death. We're Doublegangers because we can
operate both in the cosmos and outside of it, and Demons because we act
reasonably alive while doing so--which the Ghosts don't. Entertainers
and Soldiers are all Demon-Doublegangers, whichever side they're
on--though they say the Snake Places are simply ghastly. Zombies are
dead people whose lifelines lie in the so-called past.

       *       *       *       *       *

"What were you doing in Saint Petersburg before the ambush?" I asked
Erich. "That is, if you can talk about it."

"Why not? We were kidnapping the infant Einstein back from the Snakes in
1883. Yes, the Snakes got him, _Liebchen_, only a few sleeps back,
endangering the West's whole victory over Russia--"

"--which gave your dear little Hitler the world on a platter for fifty
years and got me loved to death by your sterling troops in the
Liberation of Chicago--"

"--but which leads to the ultimate victory of the Spiders and the West
over the Snakes and Communism, _Liebchen_, remember that. Anyway, our
counter-snatch didn't work. The Snakes had guards posted--most unusual
and we weren't warned. The whole thing was a great mess. No wonder Bruce
lost his head--not that it excuses him."

"The New Boy?" I asked. Sid hadn't got to him and he was still standing
with hooded eyes where Erich had left him, a dark pillar of shame and
rage.

"_Ja_, a lieutenant from World War One. An Englishman."

"I gathered that," I told Erich. "Is he really effeminate?"

"_Weibischer?_" He smiled. "I had to call him something when he said I
was a coward. He'll make a fine Soldier--only needs a little more
shaping."

"You men are so original when you spat." I lowered my voice. "But you
shouldn't have gone on and called him a Snake, Erich mine."

"_Schlange?_" The smile got crooked. "Who knows--about any of us? As
Saint Petersburg showed me, the Snakes' spies are getting cleverer than
ours." The blue eyes didn't look sweet now. "Are you, _Liebchen_, really
nothing more than a good loyal Spider?"

"Erich!"

"All right, I went too far--with Bruce and with you too. We're all
hacked these days, riding with one leg over the breaking edge."

Maud and Beau were supporting the Roman to a couch, Maud taking most of
his weight, with Sid still supervising and the New Boy still sulking by
himself. The New Girl should have been with him, of course, but I
couldn't see her anywhere and I decided she was probably having a
nervous breakdown in the Refresher, the little jerk.

"The Roman looks pretty bad, Erich," I said.

"Ah, Mark's tough. Got virtue, as his people say. And our little
starship girl will bring him back to life if anybody can and if ..."

"... you call this living," I filled in dutifully.

       *       *       *       *       *

He was right. Maud had fifty-odd years of psychomedical experience, 23rd
Century at that. It should have been Doc's job, but that was fifty
drunks back.

"Maud and Mark, that will be an interesting experiment," Erich said.
"Reminiscent of Goering's with the frozen men and the naked gypsy
girls."

"You are a filthy Nazi. She'll be using electrophoresis and deep
suggestion, if I know anything."

"How will you be able to know anything, _Liebchen_, if she switches on
the couch curtains, as I perceive she is preparing to do?"

"Filthy Nazi I said and meant."

"Precisely." He clicked his heels and bowed a millimeter. "Erich
Friederich von Hohenwald, _Oberleutnant_ in the army of the Third Reich.
Fell at Narvik, where he was Recruited by the Spiders. Lifeline
lengthened by a Big Change after his first death and at latest report
Commandant of Toronto, where he maintains extensive baby farms to
provide him with breakfast meat, if you believe the handbills of the
_voyageurs_ underground. At your service."

"Oh, Erich, it's all so lousy," I said, touching his hand, reminded that
he was one of the unfortunates Resurrected from a point in their
lifelines well before their deaths--in his case, because the date of his
death had been shifted forward by a Big Change after his Resurrection.
And as every Demon finds out, if he can't imagine it beforehand, it is
pure hell to remember your future, and the shorter the time between your
Resurrection and your death back in the cosmos, the better. Mine, bless
Bab-ed-Din, was only an action-packed ten minutes on North Clark Street.

Erich put his other hand lightly over mine. "Fortunes of the Change War,
_Liebchen_. At least I'm a Soldier and sometimes assigned to future
operations--though why we should have this monomania about our future
personalities back there, I don't know. Mine is a stupid _Oberst_, thin
as paper--and frightfully indignant at the _voyageurs_! But it helps me
a little if I see him in perspective and at least I get back to the
cosmos pretty regularly, _Gott sei Dank_, so I'm better off than you
Entertainers."

I didn't say aloud that a Changing cosmos is worse than none, but I
found myself sending a prayer to the Bonny Dew for my father's repose,
that the Change Winds would blow lightly across the lifeline of Anton A.
Forzane, professor of physiology, born in Norway and buried in Chicago.
Woodlawn Cemetery is a nice gray spot.

"That's all right, Erich," I said. "We Entertainers Got Mittens too."

He scowled around at me suspiciously, as if he were wondering whether I
had all my buttons on.

"Mittens?" he said. "What do you mean? I'm not wearing any. Are you
trying to say something about Bruce's gloves--which incidentally seem to
annoy him for some reason. No, seriously, Greta, why do you Entertainers
need mittens?"

"Because we get cold feet sometimes. At least I do. Got Mittens, as I
say."

       *       *       *       *       *

A sickly light dawned in his Prussian puss. He muttered, "Got mittens
... _Gott mit uns_ ... God with us," and roared softly, "Greta, I don't
know how I put up with you, the way you murder a great language for
cheap laughs."

"You've got to take me as I am," I told him, "mittens and all, thank the
Bonny Dew--" and hastily explained, "That's French--_le bon Dieu_--the
good God--don't hit me. I'm not going to tell you any more of my
secrets."

He laughed feebly, like he was dying.

"Cheer up," I said. "I won't be here forever, and there are worse places
than the Place."

He nodded grudgingly, looking around. "You know what, Greta, if you'll
promise not to make some dreadful joke out of it: on operations, I
pretend I'll soon be going backstage to court the world-famous ballerina
Greta Forzane."

He was right about the backstage part. The Place is a regular
theater-in-the-round with the Void for an audience, the Void's gray
hardly disturbed by the screens masking Surgery (Ugh!), Refresher and
Stores. Between the last two are the bar and kitchen and Beau's piano.
Between Surgery and the sector where the Door usually appears are the
shelves and taborets of the Art Gallery. The control divan is stage
center. Spaced around at a fair distance are six big low couches--one
with its curtains now shooting up into the gray--and a few small tables.
It is like a ballet set and the crazy costumes and characters that turn
up don't ruin the illusion. By no means. Diaghilev would have hired most
of them for the Ballet Russe on first sight, without even asking them
whether they could keep time to music.



CHAPTER 2

    Last week in Babylon,
    Last night in Rome,

                --Hodgson

A RIGHT-HAND GLOVE


Beau had gone behind the bar and was talking quietly at Doc, but with
his eyes elsewhere, looking very sallow and professional in his white,
and I thought--Damballa!--I'm in the French Quarter. I couldn't see the
New Girl. Sid was at last getting to the New Boy after the fuss about
Mark. He threw me a sign and I started over with Erich in tow.

"Welcome, sweet lad. Sidney Lessingham's your host, and a fellow
Englishman. Born in King's Lynn, 1564, schooled at Cambridge, but London
was the life and death of me, though I outlasted Bessie, Jimmie,
Charlie, and Ollie almost. And what a life! By turns a clerk, a spy, a
bawd--the two trades are hand in glove--a poet of no account, a beggar,
and a peddler of resurrection tracts. Beau Lassiter, our throats are
tinder!"

At the word "poet," the New Boy looked up, but resentfully, as if he had
been tricked into it.

"And to spare your throat for drinking, sweet gallant, I'll be so bold
as to guess and answer one of your questions," Sid rattled on. "Yes, I
knew Will Shakespeare--we were of an age--and he was such a modest,
mind-your-business rogue that we all wondered whether he really did
write those plays. Your pardon, 'faith, but that scratch might be looked
to."

Then I saw that the New Girl hadn't lost her head, but gone to Surgery
(Ugh!) for a first-aid tray. She reached a swab toward the New Boy's
sticky cheek, saying rather shrilly, "If I might ..."

Her timing was bad. Sid's last words and Erich's approach had darkened
the look in the young Soldier's face and he angrily swept her arm aside
without even glancing at her. Erich squeezed my arm. The tray clattered
to the floor--and one of the drinks that Beau was bringing almost
followed it. Ever since the New Girl's arrival, Beau had been figuring
that she was his responsibility, though I don't think the two of them
had reached an agreement yet. Beau was especially set on it because I
was thick with Sid at the time and Maud with Doc, she loving tough
cases.

"Easy now, lad, and you love me!" Sid thundered, again shooting Beau the
"Hold it" look. "She's just a poor pagan trying to comfort you. Swallow
your bile, you black villain, and perchance it will turn to poetry. Ah,
did I touch you there? Confess, you are a poet."

       *       *       *       *       *

There isn't much gets by Sid, though for a second I forgot my psychology
and wondered if he knew what he was doing with his insights.

"Yes, I'm a poet, all right," the New Boy roared. "I'm Bruce Marchant,
you bloody Zombies. I'm a poet in a world where even the lines of the
King James and your precious Will whom you use for laughs aren't safe
from Snakes' slime and the Spiders' dirty legs. Changing our history,
stealing our certainties, claiming to be so blasted all-knowing and best
intentioned and efficient, and what does it lead to? This bloody SI
glove!"

He held up his black-gloved left hand which still held the mate and he
shook it.

"What's wrong with the Spider Issue gauntlet, heart of gold?" Sid
demanded. "And you love us, tell us." While Erich laughed, "Consider
yourself lucky, _Kamerad_. Mark and I didn't draw any gloves at all."

"What's wrong with it?" Bruce yelled. "The bloody things are both
lefts!" He slammed it down on the floor.

We all howled, we couldn't help it. He turned his back on us and stamped
off, though I guessed he would keep out of the Void. Erich squeezed my
arm and said between gasps, "_Mein Gott, Liebchen_, what have I always
told you about Soldiers? The bigger the gripe, the smaller the cause! It
is infallible!"

One of us didn't laugh. Ever since the New Girl heard the name Bruce
Marchant, she'd had a look in her eyes like she'd been given the
sacrament. I was glad she'd got interested in something, because she'd
been pretty much of a snoot and a wet blanket up until now, although
she'd come to the Place with the recommendation of having been a real
whoopee girl in London and New York in the Twenties. She looked
disapprovingly at us as she gathered up the tray and stuff, not
forgetting the glove, which she placed on the center of the tray like a
holy relic.

       *       *       *       *       *

Beau cut over and tried to talk to her, but she ghosted past him and
once again he couldn't do anything because of the tray in his hands. He
came over and got rid of the drinks quick. I took a big gulp right away
because I saw the New Girl stepping through the screen into Surgery and
I hate to be reminded we have it and I'm glad Doc is too drunk to use
it, some of the Arachnoid surgical techniques being very sickening as I
know only too well from a personal experience that is number one on my
list of things to be forgotten.

By that time, Bruce had come back to us, saying in a carefully hard
voice, "Look here, it's not the dashed glove itself, as you very well
know, you howling Demons."

"What is it then, noble heart?" Sid asked, his grizzled gold beard
heightening the effect of innocent receptivity.

"It's the principle of the thing," Bruce said, looking around sharply,
but none of us cracked a smile. "It's this mucking inefficiency and
death of the cosmos--and don't tell me that isn't in the
cards!--masquerading as benign omniscient authority. The Spiders--and we
don't know who they are ultimately; it's just a name; we see only agents
like ourselves--the Spiders pluck us from the quiet graves of our
lifelines--"

"Is that bad, lad?" Sid murmured, innocently straight-faced.

"--and Resurrect us if they can and then tell us we must fight another
time-traveling power called the Snakes--just a name, too--which is bent
on perverting and enslaving the whole cosmos, past, present and future."

"And isn't it, lad?"

"Before we're properly awake, we're Recruited into the Big Time and
hustled into tunnels and burrows outside our space-time, these miserable
closets, gray sacks, puss pockets--no offense to this Place--that the
Spiders have created, maybe by gigantic implosions, but no one knows for
certain, and then we're sent off on all sorts of missions into the past
and future to change history in ways that are supposed to thwart the
Snakes."

"True, lad."

"And from then on, the pace is so flaming hot and heavy, the shocks come
so fast, our emotions are wrenched in so many directions, our public and
private metaphysics distorted so insanely, the deepest thread of reality
we cling to tied in such bloody knots, that we never can get things
straight."

"We've all felt that way, lad," Sid said soberly; Beau nodded his sleek
death's head; "You should have seen me, _Kamerad_, my first fifty
sleeps," Erich put in; while I added, "Us girls, too, Bruce."

"Oh, I know I'll get hardened to it, and don't think I can't. It's not
that," Bruce said harshly. "And I wouldn't mind the personal confusion,
the mess it's made of my spirit, I wouldn't even mind remaking history
and destroying priceless, once-called imperishable beauties of the past,
if I felt it were for the best. The Spiders assure us that, to thwart
the Snakes, it is all-important that the West ultimately defeat the
East. But what have they done to achieve this? I'll give you some
beautiful examples. To stabilize power in the early Mediterranean world,
they have built up Crete at the expense of Greece, making Athens a ghost
city, Plato a trivial fabulist, and putting all Greek culture in a minor
key."

       *       *       *       *       *

"You got time for culture?" I heard myself say and I clapped my hand
over my mouth in gentle reproof.

"But _you_ remember the dialogues, lad," Sid observed. "And rail not at
Crete--I have a sweet Keftian friend."

"For how long will I remember Plato's dialogues? And who after me?"
Bruce challenged. "Here's another. The Spiders want Rome powerful and,
to date, they've helped Rome so much that she collapses in a blaze of
German and Parthian invasions a few years after the death of Julius
Caesar."

This time it was Beau who butted in. Most everybody in the Place loves
these bull sessions. "You omit to mention, sir, that Rome's newest
downfall is directly due to the Unholy Triple Alliance the Snakes have
fomented between the Eastern Classical World, Mohammedanized
Christianity, and Marxist Communism, trying to pass the torch of power
futurewards by way of Byzantium and the Eastern Church, without ever
letting it pass into the hands of the Spider West. That, sir, is the
Snakes' Three-Thousand-Year Plan which we are fighting against, striving
to revive Rome's glories."

"Striving is the word for it," Bruce snapped. "Here's yet another
example. To beat Russia, the Spiders kept England and America out of
World War Two, thereby ensuring a German invasion of the New World and
creating a Nazi empire stretching from the salt mines of Siberia to the
plantations of Iowa, from Nizhni Novgorod to Kansas City!"

He stopped and my short hairs prickled. Behind me, someone was chanting
in a weird spiritless voice, like footsteps in hard snow.

"_Salz, Salz, bringe Salz. Kein' Peitsch', gnädige Herren. Salz, Salz,
Salz._"

I turned and there was Doc waltzing toward us with little tiny steps,
bent over so low that the ends of his shawl touched the floor, his head
crooked up sideways and looking through us.

I knew then, but Erich translated softly. "'Salt, salt, I bring salt. No
whip, merciful sirs.' He is speaking to my countrymen in their
language." Doc had spent his last months in a Nazi-operated salt mine.

       *       *       *       *       *

He saw us and got up, straightening his top hat very carefully. He
frowned hard while my heart thumped half a dozen times. Then his face
slackened, he shrugged his shoulders and muttered, "_Nichevo_."

"And it does not matter, sir," Beau translated, but directing his remark
at Bruce. "True, great civilizations have been dwarfed or broken by the
Change War. But others, once crushed in the bud, have bloomed. In the
1870s, I traveled a Mississippi that had never known Grant's gunboats. I
studied piano, languages, and the laws of chance under the greatest
European masters at the University of Vicksburg."

"And you think your pipsqueak steamboat culture is compensation for--"
Bruce began but, "Prithee none of that, lad," Sid interrupted smartly.
"Nations are as equal as so many madmen or drunkards, and I'll drink
dead drunk the man who disputes me. Hear reason: nations are not so puny
as to shrivel and vanish at the first tampering with their past, no,
nor with the tenth. Nations are monsters, boy, with guts of iron and
nerves of brass. Waste not your pity on them."

"True indeed, sir," Beau pressed, cooler and keener for the attack on
his Greater South. "Most of us enter the Change World with the false
metaphysic that the slightest change in the past--a grain of dust
misplaced--will transform the whole future. It is a long while before we
accept with our minds as well as our intellects the law of the
Conservation of Reality: that when the past is changed, the future
changes barely enough to adjust, barely enough to admit the new data.
The Change Winds meet maximum resistance always. Otherwise the first
operation in Babylonia would have wiped out New Orleans, Sheffield,
Stuttgart, and Maud Davies' birthplace on Ganymede!

"Note how the gap left by Rome's collapse was filled by the
imperialistic and Christianized Germans. Only an expert Demon historian
can tell the difference in most ages between the former Latin and the
present Gothic Catholic Church. As you yourself, sir, said of Greece, it
is as if an old melody were shifted into a slightly different key. In
the wake of a Big Change, cultures and individuals are transposed, it's
true, yet in the main they continue much as they were, except for the
usual scattering of unfortunate but statistically meaningless
accidents."

"All right, you bloody savants--maybe I pushed my point too far," Bruce
growled. "But if you want variety, give a thought to the rotten methods
we use in our wonderful Change War. Poisoning Churchill and Cleopatra.
Kidnapping Einstein when he's a baby."

"The Snakes did it first," I reminded him.

"Yes, and we copied them. How resourceful does that make us?" he
retorted, arguing like a woman. "If we need Einstein, why don't we
Resurrect him, deal with him as a man?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Beau said, serving his culture in slightly thicker slices,
"_Pardonnez-moi_, but when you have enjoyed your status as Doubleganger
a _soupcon_ longer, you will understand that great men can rarely be
Resurrected. Their beings are too crystallized, sir, their lifelines too
tough."

"Pardon me, but I think that's rot. I believe that most great men refuse
to make the bargain with the Snakes, or with us Spiders either. They
scorn Resurrection at the price demanded."

"Brother, they ain't that great," I whispered, while Beau glided on
with, "However that may be, you have accepted Resurrection, sir, and so
incurred an obligation which you as a gentleman must honor."

"I accepted Resurrection all right," Bruce said, a glare coming into his
eyes. "When they pulled me out of my line at Passchendaele in '17 ten
minutes before I died, I grabbed at the offer of life like a drunkard
grabs at a drink the morning after. But even then I thought I was also
seizing a chance to undo historic wrongs, work for peace." His voice was
getting wilder all the time. Just beyond our circle, I noticed the New
Girl watching him worshipfully. "But what did I find the Spiders wanted
me for? Only to fight more wars, over and over again, make them crueler
and stinkinger, cut the swath of death a little wider with each Big
Change, work our way a little closer to the death of the cosmos."

Sid touched my wrist and, as Bruce raved on, he whispered to me, "What
kind of ball, think you, will please and so quench this fire-brained
rogue? And you love me, discover it."

I whispered back without taking my eyes off Bruce either, "I know
somebody who'll be happy to put on any kind of ball he wants, if he'll
just notice her."

"The New Girl, sweetling? 'Tis well. This rogue speaks like an angry
angel. It touches my heart and I like it not."

Bruce was saying hoarsely but loudly, "And so we're sent on operations
in the past and from each of those operations the Change Winds blow
futurewards, swiftly or slowly according to the opposition they breast,
sometimes rippling into each other, and any one of those Winds may shift
the date of our own death ahead of the date of our Resurrection, so that
in an instant--even here, outside the cosmos--we may molder and rot or
crumble to dust and vanish away. The wind with our name in it may leak
through the Door."

       *       *       *       *       *

Faces hardened at that, because it's bad form to mention Change Death,
and Erich flared out with, "_Halt's Maul, Kamerad!_ There's always
another Resurrection."

But Bruce didn't keep his mouth shut. He said, "Is there? I know the
Spiders promise it, but even if they do go back and cut another
Doubleganger from my lifeline, is he me?" He slapped his chest with his
bare hand. "I don't think so. And even if he is me, with unbroken
consciousness, why's he been Resurrected again? Just to refight more
wars and face more Change Death for the sake of an almighty power--" his
voice was rising to a climax--"an almighty power so bloody ineffectual,
it can't furnish one poor Soldier pulled out of the mud of
Passchendaele, one miserable Change Commando, one Godforsaken Recuperee
a proper issue of equipment!"

And he held out his bare right hand toward us, fingers spread a little,
as if it were the most amazing object and most deserving of outraged
sympathy in the whole world.

The New Girl's timing was perfect. She whisked through us, and before he
could so much as wiggle the fingers, she whipped a black gauntleted
glove on it and anyone could see that it fitted his hand perfectly.

This time our laughing beat the other. We collapsed and slopped our
drinks and pounded each other on the back and then started all over.

"_Ach, der Handschuh, Liebchen!_ Where'd she get it?" Erich gasped in my
ear.

"Probably just turned the other one inside out--that turns a left into a
right--I've done it myself," I wheezed, collapsing again at the idea.

"That would put the lining outside," he objected.

"Then I don't know," I said. "We got all sorts of junk in Stores."

"It doesn't matter, _Liebchen_," he assured me. "_Ach, der Handschuh!_"

All through it, Bruce just stood there admiring the glove, moving the
fingers a little now and then, and the New Girl stood watching him as if
he were eating a cake she'd baked.

       *       *       *       *       *

When the hysteria quieted down, he looked up at her with a big smile.
"What did you say your name was?"

"Lili," she said, and believe you me, she was Lili to me even in my
thoughts from then on, for the way she'd handled that lunatic.

"Lilian Foster," she explained. "I'm English also. Mr. Marchant, I've
read _A Young Man's Fancy_ I don't know how many times."

"You have? It's wretched stuff. From the Dark Ages--I mean my Cambridge
days. In the trenches, I was working up some poems that were rather
better."

"I won't hear you say that. But I'd be terribly thrilled to hear the new
ones. Oh, Mr. Marchant, it was so strange to hear you call it
Passiondale."

"Why, if I may ask?"

"Because that's the way I pronounce it to myself. But I looked it up and
it's more like Pas-ken-DA-luh."

"Bless you! All the Tommies called it Passiondale, just as they called
Ypres Wipers."

"How interesting. You know, Mr. Marchant, I'll wager we were Recruited
in the same operation, summer of 1917. I'd got to France as a Red Cross
nurse, but they found out my age and were going to send me back."

"How old were you--are you? Same thing, I mean to say."

"Seventeen."

"Seventeen in '17," Bruce murmured, his blue eyes glassy.

It was real corny dialogue and I couldn't resent the humorous leer Erich
gave me as we listened to them, as if to say, "Ain't it nice,
_Liebchen_, Bruce has a silly little English schoolgirl to occupy him
between operations?"

Just the same, as I watched Lili in her dark bangs and pearl necklace
and tight little gray dress that reached barely to her knees, and Bruce
hulking over her tenderly in his snazzy hussar's rig, I knew that I was
seeing the start of something that hadn't been part of me since Dave
died fighting Franco years before I got on the Big Time, the sort of
thing that almost made me wish there could be children in the Change
World. I wondered why I'd never thought of trying to work things so that
Dave got Resurrected and I told myself: no, it's all changed, I've
changed, better the Change Winds don't disturb Dave or I know about it.

"No, I didn't die in 1917--I was merely Recruited then," Lili was
telling Bruce. "I lived all through the Twenties, as you can see from
the way I dress. But let's not talk about that, shall we? Oh, Mr.
Marchant, do you think you can possibly remember any of those poems you
started in the trenches? I can't fancy them bettering your sonnet that
concludes with, 'The bough swings in the wind, the night is deep; Look
at the stars, poor little ape, and sleep.'"

That one almost made me whoop--what monkeys we are, I thought--though
I'd be the first to admit that the best line to use on a poet is one of
his own--in fact, as many as possible. I decided I could safely forget
our little Britons and devote myself to Erich or whatever needed me.



CHAPTER 3

    Hell is the place for me. For to Hell go the fine churchmen, and the
    fine knights, killed in the tourney or in some grand war, the brave
    soldiers and the gallant gentlemen. With them will I go. There go
    also the fair gracious ladies who have lovers two or three beside
    their lord. There go the gold and the silver, the sables and ermine.
    There go the harpers and the minstrels and the kings of the earth.

                                                              --Aucassin

NINE FOR A PARTY


I exchanged my drink for a new one from another tray Beau was bringing
around. The gray of the Void was beginning to look real pleasant, like
warm thick mist with millions of tiny diamonds floating in it. Doc was
sitting grandly at the bar with a steaming tumbler of tea--a chaser, I
guess, since he was just putting down a shot glass. Sid was talking to
Erich and laughing at the same time and I said to myself it begins to
feel like a party, but something's lacking.

It wasn't anything to do with the Major Maintainer; its telltale was
glowing a steady red like a nice little home fire amid the tight cluster
of dials that included all the controls except the lonely and
frightening Introversion switch that was never touched. Then Maud's
couch curtains winked out and there were she and the Roman sitting
quietly side by side.

He looked down at his shiny boots and the rest of his black duds like he
was just waking up and couldn't believe it all, and he said, "_Omnia
mutantur, nos et mutamur in illis_," and I raised my eyebrows at Beau,
who was taking the tray back, and he did proud by old Vicksburg by
translating: "All things change and we change with them."

Then Mark slowly looked around at us, and I can testify that a Roman
smile is just as warm as any other nationality, and he finally said, "We
are nine, the proper number for a party. The couches, too. It is good."

Maud chuckled proudly and Erich shouted, "Welcome back from the Void,
_Kamerad_," and then, because he's German and thinks all parties have to
be noisy and satirically pompous, he jumped on a couch and announced,
"_Herren und Damen_, permit me to introduce the noblest Roman of them
all, Marcus Vipsaius Niger, legate to Nero Claudius (called Germanicus
in a former time stream) and who in 763 A.U.C. (Correct, Mark? It means
10 A.D., you meatheads!) died bravely fighting the Parthians and the
Snakes in the Battle of Alexandria. _Hoch, hoch, hoch!_"

       *       *       *       *       *

We all swung our glasses and cheered with him and Sid yelled at Erich,
"Keep your feet off the furniture, you unschooled rogue," and grinned
and boomed at all three hussars, "Take your ease, Recuperees," and Maud
and Mark got their drinks, the Roman paining Beau by refusing Falernian
wine in favor of scotch and soda, and right away everyone was talking a
mile a minute.

We had a lot to catch up on. There was the usual yak about the war--"The
Snakes are laying mine fields in the Void," "I don't believe it, how can
you mine nothing?"--and the shortages--bourbon, bobby pins, and the
stabilitin that would have brought Mark out of it faster--and what had
become of people--"Marcia? Oh, she's not around any more," (She'd been
caught in a Change Gale and green and stinking in five seconds, but I
wasn't going to say that)--and Mark had to be told about Bruce's glove,
which convulsed us all over again, and the Roman remembered a legionary
who had carried a gripe all the way to Octavius because he'd
accidentally been issued the unbelievable luxury item sugar instead of
the usual salt, and Erich asked Sid if he had any new Ghostgirls in
stock and Sid sucked his beard like the old goat he is. "Dost thou ask
me, lusty Allemand? Nay, there are several great beauties, amongst them
an Austrian countess from Strauss's Vienna, and if it were not for
sweetling here ... Mnnnn."

I poked a finger in Erich's chest between two of the bright buttons with
their tiny death's heads. "You, my little von Hohenwald, are a menace to
us real girls. You have too much of a thing about the unawakened, ghost
kind."

He called me his little Demon and hugged me a bit too hard to prove it
wasn't so, and then he suggested we show Bruce the Art Gallery. I
thought this was a real brilliant idea, but when I tried to argue him
out of it, he got stubborn. Bruce and Lili were willing to do anything
anyone wanted them to, though not so willing to pay any attention while
doing it. The saber cut was just a thin red line on his cheek; she'd
washed away all the dried blood.

The Gallery gets you, though. It's a bunch of paintings and sculptures
and especially odd knick-knacks, all made by Soldiers recuperating here,
and a lot of them telling about the Change War from the stuff they're
made of--brass cartridges, flaked flint, bits of ancient pottery glued
into futuristic shapes, mashed-up Incan gold rebeaten by a Martian,
whorls of beady Lunan wire, a picture in tempera on a crinkle-cracked
thick round of quartz that had filled a starship porthole, a Sumerian
inscription chiseled into a brick from an atomic oven.

       *       *       *       *       *

There are a lot of things in the Gallery and I can always find some I
haven't ever seen before. It gets you, as I say, thinking about the guys
that made them and their thoughts and the far times and places they came
from, and sometimes, when I'm feeling low, I'll come and look at them so
I'll feel still lower and get inspired to kick myself back into a good
temper. It's the only history of the Place there is and it doesn't
change a great deal, because the things in it and the feelings that went
into them resist the Change Winds better than anything else.

Right now, Erich's witty lecture was bouncing off the big ears I hide
under my pageboy bob and I was thinking how awful it is that for us that
there's not only change but Change. You don't know from one minute to
the next whether a mood or idea you've got is really new or just welling
up into you because the past has been altered by the Spiders or Snakes.

Change Winds can blow not only death but anything short of it, down to
the featheriest fancy. They blow thousands of times faster than time
moves, but no one can say how much faster or how far one of them will
travel or what damage it'll do or how soon it'll damp out. The Big Time
isn't the little time.

And then, for the Demons, there's the fear that our personality will
just fade and someone else climb into the driver's seat and us not even
know. Of course, we Demons are supposed to be able to remember through
Change and in spite of it; that's why we are Demons and not Ghosts like
the other Doublegangers, or merely Zombies or Unborn and nothing more,
and as Beau truly said, there aren't any great men among us--and blamed
few of the masses, either--we're a rare sort of people and that's why
the Spiders have to Recruit us where they find us without caring about
our previous knowledge and background, a Foreign Legion of time, a
strange kind of folk, bright but always in the background, with built-in
nostalgia and cynicism, as adaptable as Centaurian shape-changers but
with memories as long as a Lunan's six arms, a kind of Change People,
you might say, the cream of the damned.

But sometimes I wonder if our memories are as good as we think they are
and if the whole past wasn't once entirely different from anything we
remember, and we've forgotten that we forgot.

As I say, the Gallery gets you feeling real low, and so now I said to
myself, "Back to your lousy little commandant, kid," and gave myself a
stiff boot.

Erich was holding up a green bowl with gold dolphins or spaceships on it
and saying, "And, to my mind, this proves that Etruscan art is derived
from Egyptian. Don't you agree, Bruce?"

Bruce looked up, all smiles from Lili, and said, "What was that, dear
chap?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Erich's forehead got dark as the Door and I was glad the hussars had
parked their sabers along with their shakos, but before he could even
get out a Jerry cussword, Doc breezed up in that plateau-state of
drunkenness so like hypnotized sobriety, moving as if he were on a
dolly, ghosted the bowl out of Erich's hand, said, "A beautiful specimen
of Middle Systemic Venusian. When Eightaitch finished it, he told me you
couldn't look at it and not feel the waves of the Northern Venusian
Shallows rippling around your hoofs. But it might look better inverted.
I wonder. Who are you, young officer? _Nichevo_," and he carefully put
the bowl back on its shelf and rolled on.

It's a fact that Doc knows the Art Gallery better than any of us, really
by heart, he being the oldest inhabitant, though he maybe picked a bad
time to show off his knowledge. Erich was going to take out after him,
but I said, "Nix, _Kamerad_, remember gloves and sugar," and he
contented himself with complaining, "That _nichevo_--it's so gloomy and
hopeless, _ungeheuerlich_. I tell you, _Liebchen_, they shouldn't have
Russians working for the Spiders, not even as Entertainers."

I grinned at him and squeezed his hand. "Not much entertainment in Doc
these days, is there?" I agreed.

He grinned back at me a shade sheepishly and his face smoothed and his
blue eyes looked sweet again for a second and he said, "I shouldn't want
to claw out at people that way, Greta, but at times I am just a jealous
old man," which is not entirely true, as he isn't a day over
thirty-three, although his hair is nearly white.

Our lovers had drifted on a few steps until they were almost fading into
the Surgery screen. It was the last spot I would have picked for the
formal preliminaries to a little British smooching, but Lili probably
didn't share my prejudices, though I remembered she'd told me she'd
served a brief hitch in an Arachnoid Field Hospital before being
transferred to the Place.

But she couldn't have had anything like the experience I'd had during my
short and sour career as a Spider nurse, when I'd acquired my best-hated
nightmare and flopped completely (jobwise, but on the floor, too) at
seeing a doctor flick a switch and a being, badly injured but human,
turn into a long cluster of glistening strange fruit--ugh, it always
makes me want to toss my cookies and my buttons. And to think that dear
old Daddy Anton wanted his Greta chile to be a doctor.

       *       *       *       *       *

Well, I could see this wasn't getting me anywhere I wanted to go, and
after all there was a party going on.

Doc was babbling something at a great rate to Sid--I just hoped Doc
wouldn't get inspired to go into his animal imitations, which sound
pretty fierce and once seriously offended some recuperating ETs.

Maud was demonstrating to Mark a 23rd Century two-step and Beau sat down
at the piano and improvised softly on her rhythm.

As the deep-thrumming relaxing notes hit us, Erich's face brightened and
he dragged me over. Pleasantly soon I had my feet off the diamond-rough
floor, which we don't carpet because most of the ETs, the dear boys,
like it hard, and I was shouldering back deep into the couch nearest the
piano, with cushions all around me and a fresh drink in my hand, while
my Nazi boy friend was getting ready to discharge his _Weltschmerz_ as
song, which didn't alarm me too much, as his baritone is passable.

Things felt real good, like the Maintainer was just idling to keep the
Place in existence and moored to the cosmos, not exerting itself at all
or at most taking an occasional lazy paddle stroke. At times the Place's
loneliness can be happy and comfortable.

Then Beau raised an eyebrow at Erich, who nodded, and next thing they
were launched into a song we all know, though I've never found out where
it originally came from. This time it made me think of Lili, and I
wondered why--and why it's a tradition at Recuperation Stations to call
the new girl Lili, though in this case it happened to be her real name.

    _Standing in the Doorway just outside of space,
    Winds of Change blow 'round you but don't touch your face;
    You smile as you whisper tenderly,
    "Please cross to me, Recuperee;
    The operation's over, come in and close the Door."_



CHAPTER 4

    De Bailhache, Fresca, Mrs. Cammel, whirled
    Beyond the circuit of the shuddering Bear
    In fractured atoms.

                                       --Eliot

SOS FROM NOWHERE


I realized the piano had deserted Erich and I cranked my head up and saw
Beau, Maud and Sid streaking for the control divan. The Major Maintainer
was blinking emergency-green and fast, but the code was plain enough for
even me to recognize the Spider distress call and for a second I felt
just sick. Then Erich blew out his reserve breath in the middle of
"Door" and I gave myself another of those helpful mental boots at the
base of the spine and we hurried after them toward the center of the
Place along with Mark.

The blinks faded as we got there and Sid told us not to move because we
were making shadows. He glued an eye to the telltale and we held still
as statues as he caressed the dials like he was making love.

One sensitive hand flicked out past the Introversion switch over to the
Minor Maintainer and right away the Place was dark as your soul and
there was nothing for me but Erich's arm and the knowledge that Sid was
nursing a green light I couldn't even see, although my eyes had plenty
time to accommodate.

Then the green light finally came back very slowly and I could see the
dear reliable old face--the green-gold beard making him look like a
merman--and then the telltale flared bright and Sid flicked on the Place
lights and I leaned back.

"That nails them, lads, whoever and whenever they may be. Get ready for
a pick-up."

Beau, who was closest of course, looked at him sharply. Sid shrugged
uneasily. "Meseemed at first it was from our own globe a thousand years
before our Lord, but that indication flickered and faded like witchfire.
As it is, the call comes from something smaller than the Place and
certes adrift from the cosmos. Meseemed too at one point I knew the fist
of the caller--an antipodean atomicist named Benson-Carter--but that
likewise changed."

Beau said, "We're not in the right phase of the cosmos-Places rhythm for
a pick-up, are we, sir?"

Sid answered, "Ordinarily not, boy."

Beau continued, "I didn't think we had any pick-ups scheduled. Or
stand-by orders."

Sid said, "We haven't."

Mark's eyes glowed. He tapped Erich on the shoulder. "An octavian
denarius against ten Reichsmarks it is a Snake trap."

Erich's grin showed his teeth. "Make it first through the Door next
operation and I'm on."

       *       *       *       *       *

It didn't take that to tell me things were serious, or the thought that
there's always a first time for bumping into something from really
outside the cosmos. The Snakes have broken our code more than once. Maud
was quietly serving out weapons and Doc was helping her. Only Bruce and
Lili stood off. But they were watching.

The telltale brightened. Sid reached toward the Maintainer, saying, "All
right, my hearties. Remember, through this Doorway pass the fishiest
finaglers in and out of the cosmos."

The Door appeared to the left and above where it should be and darkened
much too fast. There was a gust of stale salt seawind, if that makes
sense, but no stepped-up Change Winds I could tell--and I had been
bracing myself against them. The Door got inky and there was a flicker
of gray fur whips and a flash of copper flesh and gilt and something
dark and a clump of hoofs and Erich was sighting a stun gun across his
left forearm, and then the Door had vanished like that and a tentacled
silvery Lunan and a Venusian satyr were coming straight toward us.

The Lunan was hugging a pile of clothes and weapons. The satyr was
helping a wasp-waisted woman carry a heavy-looking bronze chest. The
woman was wearing a short skirt and high-collared bolero jacket of
leather so dark brown it was almost black. She had a two-horned
_petsofa_ hairdress and she was boldly gilded here and there and wore
sandals and copper anklets and wristlets--one of them a copper-plated
Caller--and from her wide copper belt hung a short-handled double-headed
ax. She was dark-complexioned and her forehead and chin receded, but the
effect was anything but weak; she had a face like a beautiful
arrowhead--and a familiar one, by golly!

But before I could say, "Kabysia Labrys," Maud shrilly beat me to it
with, "It's Kaby with two friends. Break out a couple of Ghostgirls."

And then I saw it really was old-home week because I recognized my Lunan
boy friend Ilhilihis, and in the midst of all the confusion I got a nice
kick out of knowing I was getting so I could tell the personality of one
silver-furred muzzle from another.

They reached the control divan and Illy dumped his load and the others
let down the chest, and Kaby staggered but shook off the two ETs when
they started to support her, and she looked daggers at Sid when he tried
to do the same, although she's his "sweet Keftian friend" he'd mentioned
to Bruce.

       *       *       *       *       *

She leaned straight-armed on the divan and took two gasping breaths so
deep that the ridges of her spine showed through her brown-skinned
waist, and then she threw up her head and commanded, "Wine!"

While Beau was rushing it, Sid tried to take her hand again, saying,
"Sweetling, I'd never heard you call before and knew not this pretty
little fist," but she ripped out, "Save your comfort for the Lunan," and
I looked and saw--Hey, Zeus!--that one of Ilhilihis' six tentacles was
lopped off halfway.

That was for me, and, going to him, I fast briefed myself: "Remember, he
only weighs fifty pounds for all he's seven feet high; he doesn't like
low sounds or to be grabbed; the two legs aren't tentacles and don't act
the same; uses them for long walks, tentacles for leaps; uses tentacles
for close vision too and for manipulation, of course; extended, they
mean he's at ease; retracted, on guard or nervous; sharply retracted,
disgusted; greeting--"

Just then, one of them swept across my face like a sweet-smelling
feather duster and I said, "Illy, man, it's been a lot of sleeps," and
brushed my fingers across his muzzle. It still took a little
self-control not to hug him, and I did reach a little cluckingly for
his lopped tentacle, but he wafted it away from me and the little
voice-box belted to his side squeaked, "Naughty, naughty. Papa will fix
his little old self. Greta girl, ever bandaged even a Terra octopus?"

I had, an intelligent one from around a quarter billion A.D., but I
didn't tell him so. I stood and let him talk to the palm of my hand with
one of his tentacles--I don't savvy feather-talk but it feels good,
though I've often wondered who taught him English--and watched him use a
couple others to whisk a sort of Lunan band-aid out of his pouch and cap
his wound with it.

Meanwhile, the satyr knelt over the bronze chest, which was decorated
with little death's heads and crosses with hoops at the top and
swastikas, but looking much older than Nazi, and the satyr said to Sid,
"Quick thinkin, Gov, when ya saw the Door comin in high n soffened up
gravty unner it, but cud I hav sum hep now?"

Sid touched the Minor Maintainer and we all got very light and my
stomach did a flip-flop while the satyr piled on the chest the clothes
and weapons that Illy had been carrying and pranced off with it all and
carefully put it down at the end of the bar. I decided the satyr's
English instructor must have been quite a character, too. Wish I'd met
him--her--it.

Sid thought to ask Illy if he wanted Moon-normal gravity in one sector,
but my boy likes to mix, and being such a lightweight, Earth-normal
gravity doesn't bother him. As he said to me once, "Would Jovian gravity
bother a beetle, Greta girl?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I asked Illy about the satyr and he squeaked that his name was Sevensee
and that he'd never met him before this operation. I knew the satyrs
were from a billion years in the future, just as the Loonies were from a
billion in the past, and I thought--Kreesed us!--but it must have been
a real big or emergency-like operation to have the Spiders using those
two for it, with two billion years between them--a time-difference that
gives you a feeling of awe for a second, you know.

[Illustration]

I started to ask Illy about it, but just then Beau came scampering back
from the bar with a big red-and-black earthenware goblet of wine--we try
to keep a variety of drinking tools in stock so folks will feel more at
home. Kaby grabbed it from him and drained most of it in one swallow and
then smashed it on the floor. She does things like that, though Sid's
tried to teach her better. Then she stared at what she was thinking
about until the whites showed all around her eyes and her lips pulled
way back from her teeth and she looked a lot less human than the two
ETs, just like a fury. Only a time traveler knows how like the wild
murals and engravings of them some of the ancients can look.

My hair stood up at the screech she let out. She smashed a fist into the
divan and cried, "Goddess! Must I see Crete destroyed, revived, and now
destroyed again? It is too much for your servant."

Personally, I thought she could stand anything.

There was a rush of questions at what she said about Crete--I asked one
of them, for the news certainly frightened me--but she shot up her arm
straight for silence and took a deep breath and began.

"In the balance hung the battle. Rowing like black centipedes, the
Dorian hulls bore down on our outnumbered ships. On the bright beach,
masked by rocks, Sevensee and I stood by the needle gun, ready to give
the black hulls silent wounds. Beside us was Ilhilihis, suited as a sea
monster. But then ... then ..."

Then I saw she wasn't altogether the iron babe, for her voice broke and
she started to shake and to sob rackingly, although her face was still a
mask of rage, and she threw up the wine. Sid stepped in and made her
stop, which I think he'd been wanting to do all along.



CHAPTER 5

    Whenever I take up a newspaper and read it, I fancy I see ghosts
    creeping between the lines. There must be ghosts all over the world.
    They must be as countless as the grains of the sands, it seems to
    me.

                                                                 --Ibsen

SID INSISTS ON GHOSTGIRLS


My Elizabethan boy friend put his fists on his hips and laid down the
law to us as if we were a lot of nervous children who'd been playing too
hard.

"Look you, masters, this is a Recuperation Station and I am running it
as such. A plague of all operations! I care not if the frame of things
disjoints and the whole Change World goes to ruin, but you, warrior
maid, are going to rest and drink more wine slowly before you tell your
tale and your colleagues are going to be properly companioned. No
questions, anyone. Beau, and you love us, give us a lively tune."

Kaby relaxed a little and let him put his hand carefully against her
back in token of support and she said grudgingly, "All right, Fat
Belly."

Then, so help me, to the tune of the Muskrat Ramble, which I'd taught
Beau, we got girls for those two ETs and everybody properly paired up.

Right here I want to point out that a lot of the things they say in the
Change World about Recuperation Stations simply aren't so--and anyway
they always leave out nine-tenths of it. The Soldiers that come through
the Door are looking for a good time, sure, but they're hurt real bad
too, every one of them, deep down in their minds and hearts, if not
always in their bodies or so you can see it right away.

Believe me, a temporal operation is no joke, and to start with, there
isn't one person in a hundred who can endure to be cut from his lifeline
and become a really wide-awake Doubleganger--a Demon, that is--let alone
a Soldier. What does a badly hurt and mixed-up creature need who's been
fighting hard? _One individual_ to look out for him and feel for him and
patch him up, and it helps if the one is of the opposite sex--that's
something that goes beyond species.

There's your basis for the Place and the wild way it goes about its
work, and also for most other Recuperation Stations or Entertainment
Spots. The name Entertainer can be misleading, but I like it. She's got
to be a lot more than a good party girl--or boy--though she's got to be
that too. She's got to be a nurse and a psychologist and an actress and
a mother and a practical ethnologist and a lot of things with longer
names--and a reliable friend.

       *       *       *       *       *

None of us are all those things perfectly or even near it. We just try.
But when the call comes, Entertainers have to forget grudges and gripes
and envies and jealousies--and remember, they're lively people with
sharp emotions--because there isn't any time then for anything but _help
and don't ask who_!

And, deep inside her, a good Entertainer doesn't care who. Take the way
it shaped up this time. It was pretty clear to me I ought to shift to
Illy, although I wasn't quite easy in my mind about leaving Erich,
because the Lunan was a long time from home and, after all, Erich was
among anthropoids. Ilhilihis needed someone who was _simpatico_.

I like Illy and not just because he is a sort of tall cross between a
spider monkey and a persian cat--though that is a handsome combo when
you come to think of it. I like him for himself. So when he came in all
lopped and shaky after a mean operation, I was the right person to look
out for him. Now I've made my little speech and know-nothings in the
Change World can go on making their bum jokes. But I ask you, how could
an arrangement between Illy and me be anything but Platonic?

We might have had some octopoid girls and nymphs in stock--Sid couldn't
be sure until he checked--but Ilhilihis and Sevensee voted for real
people and I knew Sid saw it their way. Maud squeezed Mark's hand and
tripped over to Sevensee ("Those are sharp hoofs you got, man"--she's
picked up some of my language, like she has everything else), though
Beau did frown over his shoulder at Lili from the piano, maybe to argue
that she ought to take on the ET, as Mark had been a real casualty and
could use live nursing. But it was plain as day to anybody but Beau that
Bruce and Lili were a big thing and the last to be disturbed.

Erich acted stiffly hurt at losing me, but I knew he wasn't. He thinks
he has a great technique with Ghostgirls and he likes to show it off,
and he really is pretty slick at it, if you go for that sort of thing
and--yang my yin!--who doesn't at times?

And when Sid formally wafted the Countess out of Stores--a real blonde
stunner in a white satin hobble skirt with a white egret swaying up from
her tiny hat, way ahead of Maud and Lili and me when it came to looks,
though transparent as cigarette smoke--and when Erich clicked his heels
and bowed over her hand and proudly conducted her to a couch, black
Svengali to her Trilby, and started to German-talk some life into her
with much head cocking and toothy smiling and a flow of witty flattery,
and when she began to flirt back and the dream look in her eyes
sharpened hungrily and focused on him--well, then I knew that Erich was
happy and felt he was doing proud by the _Reichswehr_. No, my little
commandant wasn't worrying me on that score.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark had drawn a Greek hetaera, name of Phryne; I suppose not the one
who maybe still does the famous courtroom striptease back in Athens, and
he was waking her up with little sips of his scotch and soda, though,
from some looks he'd flashed, I got the idea Kaby was the kid he really
went for. Sid was coaxing the fighting gal to take some high-energy
bread and olives along with the wine, and, for a wonder, Doc seemed to
be carrying on an animated and rational conversation with Sevensee and
Maud, maybe comparing notes on the Northern Venusian Shallows, and Beau
had got on to Panther Rag, and Bruce and Lili were leaning on the piano,
smiling very appreciatively, but talking to each other a mile a minute.

Illy turned back from inspecting them all and squeaked, "Animals with
clothes are so refreshing, dahling! Like you're all carrying banners!"

Maybe he had something there, though my banners were kind of Ash
Wednesday, a charcoal gray sweater and skirt. He looked at my mouth with
a tentacle to see how I was smiling and he squeaked softly, "Do I seem
dull and commonplace to you, Greta girl, because I haven't got banners?
Just another Zombie from a billion years in your past, as gray and
lifeless as Luna is today, not as when she was a real dreamy sister
planet simply bursting with air and water and feather forests. Or am I
as strangely interesting to you as you are to me, girl from a billion
years in my future?"

"Illy, you're sweet," I told him, giving him a little pat. I noticed his
fur was still vibrating nervously and I decided the heck with Sid's
orders, I'm going to pump him about what he was doing with Kaby and the
satyr. Couldn't have him a billion years from home and bottled up, too.
Besides, I was curious.



CHAPTER 6

    Maiden, Nymph, and Mother are the eternal royal Trinity of the
    island, and the Goddess, who is worshipped there in each of these
    aspects, as New Moon, Full Moon, and Old Moon, is the sovereign
    Deity.

                                                             --Graves

CRETE CIRCA 1300 B.C.


Kaby pushed back at Sid some seconds of bread and olives, and, when he
raised his bushy eyebrows, gave him a curt nod that meant she knew what
she was doing. She stood up and sort of took a position. All the talk
quieted down fast, even Bruce's and Lili's. Kaby's face and voice
weren't strained now, but they weren't relaxed either.

"Woe to Spider! Woe to Cretan! Heavy is the news I bring you. Bear it
bravely, like strong women. When we got the gun unlimbered, I heard
seaweed fry and crackle. We three leaped behind the rock wall, saw our
gun grow white as sunlight in a heat-ray of the Serpents! Natch, we
feared we were outnumbered and I called upon my Caller."

[Illustration]

I don't know how she does it, but she does--in English too. That is,
when she figures she's got something important to report, and maybe she
needs a little time to get ready.

Beau claims that all the ancients fit their thoughts into measured lines
as naturally as we pick a word that will do, but I'm not sure how good
the Vicksburg language department is. Though why I should wonder about
things like that when I've got Kaby spouting the stuff right in front of
me, I don't know.

"But I didn't die there, kiddos. I still hoped to hurt the Greek ships,
maybe with the Snake's own heat gun. So I quick tried to outflank them.
My two comrades crawled beside me--they are males, but they have
courage. Soon we spied the ambush-setters. They were Snakes and they
were many, filthily disguised as Cretans."

There was an indignant murmur at this, for our cutthroat Change War has
its code, the Soldiers tell me. Being an Entertainer, I don't have to
say what I think.

"They had seen us when we saw them," Kaby swept on, "and they loosed a
killing volley. Heat- and knife-rays struck about us in a storm of wind
and fire, and the Lunan lost a feeler, fighting for Crete's Triple
Goddess. So we dodged behind a sand hill, steered our flight back toward
the water. It was awful, what we saw there: Crete's brave ships all sunk
or sinking, blue sky sullied by their death-smoke. Once again the Greeks
had licked us!--aided by the filthy Serpents.

"Round our wrecks, their black ships scurried, like black beetles, filth
their diet, yet this day they dine on heroes. On the quiet sunlit beach
there, I could feel a Change Gale blowing, working changes deep inside
me, aches and pains that were a stranger's. Half my memories were
doubled, half my lifeline crooked and twisted, three new moles upon my
sword-hand. Goddess, Goddess, Triple Goddess--"

       *       *       *       *       *

Her voice wavered and Sid reached out a hand, but she straightened her
back.

"Triple Goddess, give me courage to tell everything that happened. We
ran down into the water, hoping to escape by diving. We had hardly
gotten under when the heat-rays hit above us, turning all the cool green
surface to a roaring white inferno. But as I believe I told you, I was
calling on my Caller, and a Door now opened to us, deep below the deadly
steam-clouds. We dived in like frightened minnows and a lot of water
with us."

Off Chicago's Gold Coast, Dave once gave me a lesson in skin-diving and,
remembering it, I got a flash of Kaby's Door in the dark depths.

"For a moment, all was chaos. Then the Door slammed shut behind us. We'd
been picked up in time's nick by--an Express Room of our
Spiders!--sloshing two feet deep in water, much more cramped for space
than this Place. It was manned by a magician, an old coot named
Benson-Carter. He dispelled the water quickly and reported on his
Caller. We'd got dry, were feeling human, Illy here had shed his
swimsuit, when we looked at the Maintainer. It was glowing, changing,
melting! And when Benson-Carter touched it, he fell backward--death was
in him. Then the Void began to darken, narrow, shrink and close around
us, so I called upon my Caller--without wasting time, let me tell you!

"We can't say for sure what was it slowly squeezed that sweet Express
Room, but we fear the dirty Snakes have found a way to find our Places
and attack outside the cosmos!--found the Spiderweb that links us in the
Void's gray less-than-nothing."

No murmur this time. This reaction was genuine; we'd been hit where we
lived and I could see everybody was scared as sick as I was. Except
maybe Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently. I
decided they were the kind that love makes brave, which it doesn't do to
me. It just gives me two people to worry about.

"I can see you dig our feelings," Kaby continued. "This thing scared the
pants off of us. If we could have, we'd have even Introverted the
Maintainer, broken all the ties that bind us, chanced it incommunicado.
But the little old Maintainer was a seething red-hot puddle filled with
bubbles big as handballs. We sat tight and watched the Void close. I
kept calling on my Caller."

       *       *       *       *       *

I squeezed my eyes shut, but that made it easier to see the three of
them with the Void shutting down on them. (Was ours still behaving? Yes,
Bibi Miriam.) Poetry or no poetry, it got me.

"Benson-Carter, lying dying, also thought the Snakes had done it. And he
knew that death was in him, so he whispered me his mission, giving me
precise instructions: how to press the seven death's hands, starting
lockside counterclockwise, one, three, five, six, two, four, seven, then
you have a half an hour; after you have pressed the seven, do not monkey
with the buttons--get out fast and don't stop moving."

I wasn't getting this part and I couldn't see that anyone else was,
though Bruce was whispering to Lili. I remembered seeing skulls engraved
on the bronze chest. I looked at Illy and he nodded a tentacle and
spread two to say, I guessed, that yes, Benson-Carter had said something
like that, but no, Illy didn't know much about it.

"All these things and more he whispered," Kaby went on, "with the last
gasps of his life-force, telling all his secret orders--for he'd not
been sent to get us, he was on a separate mission, when he heard my
SOSs. Sid, it's you he was to contact, as the first leg of his mission,
pick up from you three black hussars, death's-head Demons, daring
Soldiers, then to wait until the Places next match rhythm with the
cosmos--matter of two mealtimes, barely--and to tune in northern Egypt
in the age of the last Caesar, in the year of Rome's swift downfall,
there to start an operation in a battle near a city named for Thrace's
Alexander, there to change the course of battle, blow sky-high the
stinking Serpents, all their agents, all their Zombies!

"Goddess, pardon, now I savvy how you've guided my least footstep, when
I thought you'd gone and left me--for I flubbed your three-mole signal.
We've found Sid's Place, that's the first leg, and I see the three black
hussars, and we've brought with us the weapon and the Parthian
disguises, salvaged from the doomed Express Room when your Door appeared
in time's nick, and the Room around us closing spewed us through before
it vanished with the corpse of Benson-Carter. Triple Goddess, draw the
milk now from the womanhood I flaunt here and inject the blackest
hatred! Vengeance now upon the Serpents, vengeance sweet in northern
Egypt, for your island, Crete, Goddess!--and a victory for the Spiders!
Goddess, Goddess, we can swing it!"

The roar that made me try to stop my ears with my shoulders didn't come
from Kaby--she'd spoken her piece--but from Sid. The dear boy was purple
enough to make me want to remind him you can die of high blood pressure
just as easy in the Change World.

"Dump me with ops! 'Sblood, I'll not endure it! Is this a battle post?
They'll be mounting operations from field hospitals next. Kabysia
Labrys, thou art mad to suggest it. And what's this prattle of locks,
clocks, and death's heads, buttons and monkeys? This brabble, this
farrago, this hocus-pocus! And where's the weapon you prate of? In that
whoreson bronze casket, I suppose."

She nodded, looking blank and almost a little shy as poetic possession
faded from her. Her answer came like its faltering last echo.

"It is nothing but a tiny tactical atomic bomb."



CHAPTER 7

    After about 0.1 millisecond (one ten-thousandth part of a second)
    has elapsed, the radius of the ball of fire is some 45 feet, and the
    temperature is then in the vicinity of 300,000 degrees Centigrade.
    At this instant, the luminosity, as observed at a distance of
    100,000 yards (5.7 miles), is approximately 100 times that of the
    sun as seen at the earth's surface ... the ball of fire expands very
    rapidly to its maximum radius of 450 feet within less than a second
    from the explosion.

                                                            --Los Alamos

TIME TO THINK


Brother, that was all we needed to make everybody but Kaby and the two
ETs start yelping at once, me included. It may seem strange that Change
People, able to whiz through time and space and roust around outside the
cosmos and knowing at least by hearsay of weapons a billion years in the
future, like the Mindbomb, should panic at being shut in with a little
primitive mid-20th Century gadget. Well, they feel the same as atomic
scientists would feel if a Bengal tiger were brought into their
laboratory, neither more nor less scared.

I'm a moron at physics, but I do know the Fireball is bigger than the
Place. Remember that, besides the bomb, we'd recently been presented
with a lot of other fears we hadn't had time to cope with, especially
the business of the Snakes having learned how to get at our Places and
melt the Maintainers and collapse them. Not to mention the general
impression--first Saint Petersburg, then Crete--that the whole Change
War was going against the Spiders.

Yet, in a free corner of my mind, I was shocked at how badly we were all
panicking. It made me admit what I didn't like to: that we were all in
pretty much the same state as Doc, except that the bottle didn't happen
to be our out.

And had the rest of us been controlling our drinking so well lately?

Maud yelled, "Jettison it!" and pulled away from the satyr and ran from
the bronze chest. Beau, harking back to what they'd thought of doing in
the Express Room when it was too late, hissed, "Sirs, we must
Introvert," and vaulted over the piano bench and legged it for the
control divan. Erich seconded him with a white-faced "_Gott in Himmel,
ja!_" from beside the surly, forgotten Countess, holding, by its slim
stem, an empty, rose-stained wine glass.

I felt my mind flinch, because Introverting a Place is several degrees
worse than foxholing. It's supposed not only to keep the Door tight
shut, but also to lock it so even the Change Winds can't get
through--cut the Place loose from the cosmos altogether.

I'd never talked with anyone from a Place that had been Introverted.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark dumped Phryne off his lap and ran after Maud. The Greek Ghostgirl,
quite solid now, looked around with sleepy fear and fumbled her
apple-green chiton together at the throat. She wrenched my attention
away from everyone else for a moment, and I couldn't help wondering
whether the person or Zombie back in the cosmos, from whose lifeline the
Ghost has been taken, doesn't at least have strange dreams or thoughts
when something like this happens.

Sid stopped Beau, though he almost got bowled over doing it, and he held
the gambler away from the Maintainer in a bear hug and bellowed over his
shoulders, "Masters, are you mad? Have you lost your wits? Maud! Mark!
Marcus! Magdalene! On your lives, unhand that casket!"

Maud had swept the clothes and bows and quivers and stuff off it and was
dragging it out from the bar toward the Door sector, so as to dump it
through fast when we got one, I guess, while Mark acted as if he were
trying to help her and wrestle it away from her at the same time.

They kept on as if they hadn't heard a word Sid said, with Mark yelling,
"Let go, _meretrix_! This holds Rome's answer to Parthia on the Nile."

Kaby watched them as if she wanted to help Mark but scorned to scuffle
with a mere--well, Mark had said it in Latin, I guess--call girl.

Then, on the top of the bronze chest, I saw those seven lousy skulls
starting at the lock as plain as if they'd been under a magnifying
glass, though ordinarily they'd have been a vague circle to my eyes at
the distance, and I lost my mind and started to run in the opposite
direction, but Illy whipped three tentacles around me, gentle-like, and
squeaked, "Easy now, Greta girl, don't you be doing it, too. Hold still
or Papa spank. My, my, but you two-leggers can whirl about when you have
a mind to."

My stampede had carried his featherweight body a couple of yards, but it
stopped me and I got my mind back, partly.

"Unhand it, I say!" Sid repeated without accomplishing anything, and he
released Beau, though he kept a hand near the gambler's shoulder.

Then my fat friend from Lynn Regis looked real distraught at the Void
and blustered at no one in particular, "'Sdeath, think you I'd mutiny
against my masters, desert the Spiders, go to ground like a spent fox
and pull my hole in after me? A plague of such cowardice! Who suggests
it? Introversion's no mere last-ditch device. Unless ordered, supervised
and sanctioned, it means the end. And what if I'd Introverted ere we got
Kaby's call for succor, hey?"

       *       *       *       *       *

His warrior maid nodded with harsh approval and he noticed it and shook
his free hand at her and scolded her, "Not that I say yea to your mad
plan for that Devil's casket, you half-clad lackwit. And yet to
jettison.... Oh, ye gods, ye gods--" he wiped his hand across his
face--"grant me a minute in which I may think!"

Thinking time wasn't an item even on the strictly limited list at the
moment, although Sevensee, squatting dourly on his hairy haunches where
Maud had left him, threw in a dead-pan "Thas tellin em, Gov."

Then Doc at the bar stood up tall as Abe Lincoln in his top hat and
shawl and 19th Century duds and raised an unwavering arm for silence and
said something that sounded like: "Introversh, inversh, glovsh," and
then his enunciation switched to better than perfect as he continued, "I
know to an absolute certainty what we must do."

It showed me how rabbity we were that the Place got quiet as a church
while we all stopped whatever we were doing and waited breathless for a
poor drunk to tell us how to save ourselves.

He said something like, "Inversh ... bosh ..." and held our eyes for a
moment longer. Then the light went out of his and he slobbered out a
"_Nichevo_" and slid an arm far along the bar for a bottle and started
to pour it down his throat without stopping sliding.

Before he completed his collapse to the floor, in the split second while
our attention was still focused on the bar, Bruce vaulted up on top of
it, so fast it was almost like he'd popped up from nowhere, though I'd
seen him start from behind the piano.

"I've a question. Has anyone here triggered that bomb?" he said in a
voice that was very clear and just loud enough. "So it can't go off," he
went on after just the right pause, his easy grin and brisk manner
putting more heart into me all the time. "What's more, if it were to be
triggered, we'd still have half an hour. I believe you said it had that
long a fuse?"

He stabbed a finger at Kaby. She nodded.

"Right," he said. "It'd have to be that long for whoever plants it in
the Parthian camp to get away. There's another safety margin.

"Second question. Is there a locksmith in the house?"

       *       *       *       *       *

For all Bruce's easiness, he was watching us like a golden eagle and he
caught Beau's and Maud's affirmatives before they had a chance to
explain or hedge them and said, "That's very good. Under certain
circumstances, you two'd be the ones to go to work on the chest. But
before we consider that, there's Question Three: Is anyone here an
atomics technician?"

That one took a little conversation to straighten out, Illy having to
explain that, yes, the Early Lunans had atomic power--hadn't they
blasted the life off their planet with it and made all those ghastly
craters?--but no, he wasn't a technician exactly, he was a "thinger" (I
thought at first his squeakbox was lisping); what was a thinger?--well,
a thinger was someone who manipulated things in a way that was truly
impossible to describe, but no, you couldn't possibly thing atomics; the
idea was quite ridiculous, so he couldn't be an atomics thinger; the
term was worse than a contradiction, well, really!--while Sevensee, from
his two-thousand-millennia advantage of the Lunan, grunted to the effect
that his culture didn't rightly use any kind of power, but just sort of
moved satyrs and stuff by wrastling space-time around, "or think em roun
ef we hafta. Can't think em in the Void, tho, wus luck. Hafta have--I
dunno wut. Dun havvit anyhow."

"So we don't have an A-tech," Bruce summed up, "which makes it worse
than useless, downright dangerous, to tamper with the chest. We wouldn't
know what to do if we did get inside safely. One more question." He
directed it toward Sid. "How long before we can jettison anything?"

Sid, looking a shade jealous, yet mostly grateful for the way Bruce had
calmed his chickens, started to explain, but Bruce didn't seem to be
taking any chance of losing his audience, and as soon as Sid got to the
word "rhythm," he pulled the answer away from him.

"In brief, not until we can effectively tune in on the cosmos again.
Thank you, Master Lessingham. That's at least five hours--two mealtimes,
as the Cretan officer put it," and he threw Kaby a quick soldierly
smile. "So, whether the bomb goes to Egypt or elsewhere, there's not a
thing we can do about it for five hours. All right then!"

His smile blinked out like a light and he took a couple of steps up and
down the bar, as if measuring the space he had. Two or three cocktail
glasses sailed off and popped, but he didn't seem to notice them and we
hardly did either. It was creepy the way he kept staring from one to
another of us. We had to look up. Behind his face, with the straight
golden hair flirting around it, was only the Void.

"All right then," he repeated suddenly. "We're twelve Spiders and two
Ghosts, and we've time for a bit of a talk, and we're all in the same
bloody boat, fighting the same bloody war, so we'll all know what we're
talking about. I raised the subject a while back, but I was steamed up
about a glove, and it was a big jest. All right! But now the gloves are
off!"

       *       *       *       *       *

Bruce ripped them out of his belt where they'd been tucked and slammed
them down on the bar, to be kicked off the next time he paced back and
forth, and it wasn't funny.

"Because," he went right on, "I've been getting a completely new picture
of what this Spiders' war has been doing to each one of us. Oh, it's
jolly good sport to slam around in space and time and then have a rugged
little party outside both of them when the operation's over. It's sweet
to know there's no cranny of reality so narrow, no privacy so intimate
or sacred, no wall of was or will be strong enough, that we can't
shoulder in. Knowledge is a glamorous thing, sweeter than lust or
gluttony or the passion of fighting and including all three, the
ultimate insatiable hunger, and it's great to be Faust, even in a pack
of other Fausts.

"It's sweet to jigger reality, to twist the whole course of a man's life
or a culture's, to ink out his or its past and scribble in a new one,
and be the only one to know and gloat over the changes--hah! killing men
or carrying off women isn't in it for glutting the sense of power. It's
sweet to feel the Change Winds blowing through you and know the pasts
that were and the past that is and the pasts that may be. It's sweet to
wield the Atropos and cut a Zombie or Unborn out of his lifeline and
look the Doubleganger in the face and see the Resurrection-glow in it
and Recruit a brother, welcome a newborn fellow Demon into our ranks and
decide whether he'll best fit as Soldier, Entertainer, or what.

"Or he can't stand Resurrection, it fries or freezes him, and you've got
to decide whether to return him to his lifeline and his Zombie dreams,
only they'll be a little grayer and horrider than they were before, or
whether, if she's got that tantalizing something, to bring her shell
along for a Ghostgirl--that's sweet, too. It's even sweet to have Change
Death poised over your neck, to know that the past isn't the precious
indestructible thing you've been taught it was, to know that there's no
certainty about the future either, whether there'll even be one, to know
that no part of reality is holy, that the cosmos itself may wink out
like a flicked switch and God be not and nothing left but nothing!"

He threw out his arms against the Void. "And knowing all that, it's
doubly sweet to come through the Door into the Place and be out of the
worst of the Change Winds and enjoy a well-earned Recuperation and share
the memories of all these sweetnesses I've been talking about, and work
out all the fascinating feelings you've been accumulating back in the
cosmos, layer by black layer, in the company of and with the help of the
best bloody little band of fellow Fausts and Faustines going!

"Oh, it's a sweet life, all right, but I'm asking you--" and here his
eyes stabbed us again, one by one, fast--"I'm asking you what it's done
to us. I've been getting a completely new picture, as I said, of what my
life was and what it could have been if there'd been changes of the sort
that even we Demons can't make, and what my life is. I've been watching
how we've all been responding to things just now, to the news of Saint
Petersburg and to what the Cretan officer told beautifully--only it
wasn't beautiful what she had to tell--and mostly to that bloody box of
bomb. And I'm simply asking each one of you, what's happened to you?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He stopped his pacing and stuck his thumbs in his belt and seemed to be
listening to the wheels turning in at least eleven other heads--only I
stopped mine pretty quick, with Dave and Father and the Rape of Chicago
coming up out of the dark on the turn and Mother and the Indiana Dunes
and Jazz Limited just behind them, followed by the unthinkable thing
the Spider doctor had flicked into existence when I flopped as a nurse,
because I can't stand that to be done to my mind by anybody but myself.

I stopped them by using the old infallible Entertainers' gimmick, a fast
survey of the most interesting topic there is--other people's troubles.

       *       *       *       *       *

Offhand, Beau looked as if he had most troubles, shamed by his boss and
his girl given her heart to a Soldier; he was hugging them to himself
very quiet.

I didn't stop for the two ETs--they're too hard to figure--or for Doc;
nobody can tell whether a fallen-down drunk's at the black or bright end
of his cycle; you just know it's cycling.

Maud ought to be suffering as much as Beau, called names and caught out
in a panic, which always hurts her because she's plus three hundred
years more future than the rest of us and figures she ought to be that
much wiser, which she isn't always--not to mention she's over fifty
years old, though her home-century cosmetic science keeps her looking
and acting teenage most of the time. She'd backed away from the bronze
chest so as not to stand out, and now Lili came from behind the piano
and stood beside her.

Lili had the opposite of troubles, a great big glow for Bruce, proud as
a promised princess watching her betrothed. Erich frowned when he saw
her, for he seemed proud too, proud of the way his _Kamerad_ had taken
command of us panicky whacks _Führer_-fashion. Sid still looked mostly
grateful and inclined to let Bruce keep on talking.

Even Kaby and Mark, those two dragons hot for battle, standing a little
in front and to one side of us by the bronze chest, like its guardians,
seemed willing to listen. They made me realize one reason Sid had for
letting Bruce run on, although the path his talk was leading us down was
flashing with danger signals: When it was over, there'd still be the
problem of what to do with the bomb, and a real opposition shaping up
between Soldiers and Entertainers, and Sid was hoping a solution would
turn up in the meantime or at least was willing to put off the evil day.

But beyond all that, and like the rest of us, I could tell from the way
Sid was squinting his browy eyes and chewing his beardy lip that he was
shaken and moved by what Bruce had said. This New Boy had dipped into
our hearts and counted our kicks so beautifully, better than most of us
could have done, and then somehow turned them around so that we had to
think of what messes and heels and black sheep and lost lambs we
were--well, we wanted to keep on listening.



CHAPTER 8

    Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world.

                                            --Archimedes

A PLACE TO STAND


Bruce's voice had a faraway touch and he was looking up left at the Void
as he said, "Have you ever really wondered why the two sides of this war
are called the Snakes and the Spiders? Snakes may be clear enough--you
always call the enemy something dirty. But Spiders--our name for
ourselves? Bear with me, Ilhilihis; I know that no being is created
dirty or malignant by Nature, but this is a matter of anthropoid
feelings and folkways. Yes, Mark, I know that some of your legions have
nicknames like the Drunken Lions and the Snails, and that's about as
insulting as calling the British Expeditionary Force the Old
Contemptibles.

"No, you'd have to go to bands of vicious youths in cities slated for
ruin to find a habit of naming like ours, and even they would try to
brighten up the black a bit. But simply--Spiders. And Snakes, for that's
their name for themselves too, you know. Spiders and Snakes. What are
our masters, that we give them names like that?"

It gave me the shivers and set my mind working in a dozen directions and
I couldn't stop it, although it made the shivers worse.

Illy beside me now--I'd never given it a thought before, but he did have
eight legs of a sort, and I remembered thinking of him as a spider
monkey, and hadn't the Lunans had wisdom and atomic power and a billion
years in which to get the Change War rolling?

Or suppose, in the far future, Terra's own spiders evolved intelligence
and a cruel cannibal culture. They'd be able to keep their existence
secret. I had no idea of who or what would be on Earth in Sevensee's
day, and wouldn't it be perfect black hairy poisoned spider-mentality to
spin webs secretly through the world of thought and all of space and
time?

And Beau--wasn't there something real Snaky about him, the way he moved
and all?

Spiders and Snakes. _Spinne und Schlange_, as Erich called them. S & S.
But SS stood for the Nazi _Schutzstaffel_, the Black Shirts, and what if
some of those cruel, crazy Jerries had discovered time travel and--I
brought myself up with a jerk and asked myself, "Greta, how nuts can you
get?"

       *       *       *       *       *

From where he was on the floor, the front of the bar his sounding board,
Doc shrieked up at Bruce like one of the damned from the pit, "Don't
speak against the Spiders! Don't blaspheme! They can hear the Unborn
whisper. Others whip only the skin, but they whip the naked brain and
heart," and Erich called out, "That's enough, Bruce!"

But Bruce didn't spare him a look and said, "But whatever the Spiders
are and no matter how much whip they use, it's plain as the telltale on
the Maintainer that the Change War is not only going against them, but
getting away from them. Dwell for a bit on the current flurry of stupid
slugging and panicky anachronism, when we all know that anachronism is
what gets the Change Winds out of control. This punch-drunk pounding on
the Cretan-Dorian fracas as if it were the only battle going and the
only way to work things. Whisking Constantine from Britain to the
Bosporus by rocket, sending a pocket submarine back to sail with the
Armada against Drake's woodensides--I'll wager you hadn't heard those!
And now, to save Rome, an atomic bomb.

"Ye gods, they could have used Greek fire or even dynamite, but a
fission weapon.... I leave you to imagine what gaps and scars that will
make in what's left of history--the smothering of Greece and the
vanishment of Provence and the troubadours and the Papacy's Irish
Captivity won't be in it!"

The cut on his cheek had opened again and was oozing a little, but he
didn't pay any attention to it, and neither did we, as his lips thinned
in irony and he said, "But I'm forgetting that this is a cosmic war and
that the Spiders are conducting operations on billions, trillions of
planets and inhabited gas clouds through millions of ages and that we're
just one little world--one little solar system, Sevensee--and we can
hardly expect our inscrutable masters, with all their pressing
preoccupations and far-flung responsibilities, to be especially
understanding or tender in their treatment of our pet books and
centuries, our favorite prophets and periods, or unduly concerned about
preserving any of the trifles that we just happen to hold dear.

"Perhaps there are some sentimentalists who would rather die forever
than go on living in a world without the _Summa_, the Field Equations,
_Process and Reality_, _Hamlet_, Matthew, Keats, and the _Odyssey_, but
our masters are practical creatures, ministering to the needs of those
rugged souls who want to go on living no matter what."

       *       *       *       *       *

Erich's "Bruce, I'm telling you that's enough," was lost in the
quickening flow of the New Boy's words. "I won't spend much time on the
minor signs of our major crack-up--the canceling of leaves, the sharper
shortages, the loss of the Express Room, the use of Recuperation
Stations for ops and all the other frantic patchwork--last operation
but one, we were saddled with three Soldiers from outside the Galaxy
and, no fault of theirs, they were no earthly use. Such little things
might happen at a bad spot in any war and are perhaps only local. But
there's a big thing."

He paused again, to let us wonder, I guess. Maud must have worked her
way over to me, for I felt her dry little hand on my arm and she
whispered out of the side of her mouth, "What do we do now?"

"We listen," I told her the same way. I felt a little impatient with her
need to be doing something about things.

She cocked a gold-dusted eyebrow at me and murmured, "You, too?"

I didn't get to ask her me, too, what? Crush on Bruce? Nuts!--because
just then Bruce's voice took up again in the faraway range.

"Have you ever asked yourselves how many operations the fabric of
history can stand before it's all stitches, whether too much Change
won't one day wear out the past? And the present and the future, too,
the whole bleeding business. Is the law of the Conservation of Reality
any more than a thin hope given a long name, a prayer of theoreticians?
Change Death is as certain as Heat Death, and far faster. Every
operation leaves reality a bit cruder, a bit uglier, a bit more
makeshift, and a whole lot less rich in those details and feelings that
are our heritage, like the crude penciled sketch on canvas when you've
stripped off the paint.

"If that goes on, won't the cosmos collapse into an outline of itself,
then nothing? How much thinning can reality stand, having more and more
Doublegangers cut out of it? And there's another thing about every
operation--it wakes up the Zombies a little more, and as its Change
Winds die, it leaves them a little more disturbed and nightmare-ridden
and frazzled. Those of you who have been on operations in heavily
worked-over temporal areas will know what I mean--that look they give
you out of the sides of their eyes as if to say, 'You again? For
Christ's sake, go away. We're the dead. We're the ones who don't want to
wake up, who don't want to be Demons and hate to be Ghosts. Stop
torturing us.'"

       *       *       *       *       *

I looked around at the Ghostgirls; I couldn't help it. They'd somehow
got together on the control divan, facing us, their backs to the
Maintainers. The Countess had dragged along the bottle of wine Erich had
fetched her earlier and they were passing it back and forth. The
Countess had a big rose splotch across the ruffled white lace of her
blouse.

Bruce said, "There'll come a day when all the Zombies and all the Unborn
wake up and go crazy together and figuratively come marching at us in
their numberless hordes, saying, 'We've had enough.'"

But I didn't turn back to Bruce right away. Phryne's chiton had slipped
off one shoulder and she and the Countess were sitting sagged forward,
elbows on knees, legs spread--at least, as far as the Countess's hobble
skirt would let her--and swayed toward each other a little. They were
still surprisingly solid, although they hadn't had any personal
attention for a half hour, and they were looking up over my head with
half-shut eyes and they seemed, so help me, to be listening to what
Bruce was saying and maybe hearing some of it.

"We make a careful distinction between Zombies and Unborn, between those
troubled by our operations whose lifelines lie in the past and those
whose lifelines lie in the future. But is there any distinction any
longer? Can we tell the difference between the past and the future? Can
we any longer locate the now, the real now of the cosmos? The Places
have their own nows, the now of the Big Time we're on, but that's
different and it's not made for real living.

"The Spiders tell us that the real now is somewhere in the last half of
the 20th Century, which means that several of us here are also alive in
the cosmos, have lifelines along which the now is traveling. But do you
swallow that story quite so easily, Ilhilihis, Sevensee? How does it
strike the servants of the Triple Goddess? The Spiders of Octavian Rome?
The Demons of Good Queen Bess? The gentlemen Zombies of the Greater
South? Do the Unborn man the starships, Maud?

"The Spiders also tell us that, although the fog of battle makes the now
hard to pin down precisely, it will return with the unconditional
surrender of the Snakes and the establishment of cosmic peace, and roll
on as majestically toward the future as before, quickening the continuum
with its passage. Do you really believe that? Or do you believe, as I
do, that we've used up all the future as well as the past, wasted it in
premature experience, and that we've had the real now smudged out of
existence, stolen from us forever, the precious now of true growth, the
child-moment in which all life lies, the moment like a newborn baby that
is the only home for hope there is?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He let that start to sink in, then took a couple of quick steps and went
on, his voice rising over Erich's "Bruce, for the last time--" and
seeming to pick up a note of hope from the very word he had used, "But
although things look terrifyingly black, there remains a chance--the
slimmest chance, but still a chance--of saving the cosmos from Change
Death and restoring reality's richness and giving the Ghosts good sleep
and perhaps even regaining the real now. We have the means right at
hand. What if the power of time traveling were used not for war and
destruction, but for healing, for the mutual enrichment of the ages, for
quiet communication and growth, in brief, to bring a peace message--"

But my little commandant is quite an actor himself and knows a wee bit
about the principles of scene-stealing, and he was not going to let
Bruce drown him out as if he were just another extra playing a Voice
from the Mob. He darted across our front, between us and the bar, took a
running leap, and landed bang on the bloody box of bomb.

A bit later, Maud was silently showing me the white ring above her elbow
where I'd grabbed her and Illy was teasing a clutch of his tentacles out
of my other hand and squeaking reproachfully, "Greta girl, don't ever do
that."

Erich was standing on the chest and I noticed that his boots carefully
straddled the circle of skulls, and I should have known anyway you could
hardly push them in the right order by jumping on them, and he was
pointing at Bruce and saying, "--and that means mutiny, my young sir.
_Um Gottes willen_, Bruce, listen to me and step down before you say
anything worse. I'm older than you, Bruce. Mark's older. Trust in your
_Kameraden_. Guide yourself by their knowledge."

He had got my attention, but I had much rather have him black my eye.

"You older than me?" Bruce was grinning. "When your twelve-years'
advantage was spent in soaking up the wisdom of a race of sadistic
dreamers gone paranoid, in a world whose thought-stream had already been
muddied by one total war? Mark older than me? When all his ideas and
loyalties are those of a wolf pack of unimaginative sluggers two
thousand years younger than I am? Either of you older because you have
more of the killing cynicism that is all the wisdom the Change World
ever gives you? Don't make me laugh!

"I'm an Englishman, and I come from an epoch when total war was still a
desecration and the flowers and buds of thoughts not yet whacked off or
blighted. I'm a poet and poets are wiser than anyone because they're the
only people who have the guts to think and feel at the same time. Right,
Sid? When I talk to all of you about a peace message, I want you to
think about it concretely in terms of using the Places to bring help
across the mountains of time when help is really needed, not to bring
help that's undeserved or knowledge that's premature or contaminating,
sometimes not to bring anything at all, but just to check with infinite
tenderness and concern that everything's safe and the glories of the
universe unfolding as they were intended to--"

"Yes, you are a poet, Bruce," Erich broke in. "You can tootle soulfully
on the flute and make us drip tears. You can let out the stops on the
big organ pipes and make us tremble as if at Jehovah's footsteps. For
the last twenty minutes, you have been giving us some very _charmante_
poetry. But what are you? An Entertainer? Or are you a Soldier?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Right then--I don't know what it was, maybe Sid clearing his throat--I
could sense our feelings beginning to turn against Bruce. I got the
strangest feeling of reality clamping down and bright colors going dull
and dreams vanishing. Yet it was only then I also realized how much
Bruce had moved us, maybe some of us to the verge of mutiny, even. I was
mad at Erich for what he was doing, but I couldn't help admiring his
cockiness.

I was still under the spell of Bruce's words and the more-than-words
behind them, but then Erich would shift around a bit and one of his
heels would kick near the death's-head pushbuttons and I wanted to stamp
with spike heels on every death's-head button on his uniform. I didn't
know exactly what I felt yet.

"Yes, I'm a Soldier," Bruce told him, "and I hope you won't ever have to
worry about my courage, because it's going to take more courage than any
operation we've ever planned, ever dreamed of, to carry the peace
message to the other Places and to the wound-spots of the cosmos.
Perhaps it will be a fast wicket and we'll be bowled down before we
score a single run, but who cares? We may at least see our real masters
when they come to smash us, and for me that will be a deep satisfaction.
And we may do some smashing of our own."

"So you're a Soldier," Erich said, his smile showing his teeth. "Bruce,
I'll admit that the half-dozen operations you've been on were rougher
than anything I drew in my first hundred sleeps. For that, I am all
honest sympathy. But that you should let them get you into such a state
that love and a girl can turn you upside down and start you babbling
about peace messages--"

"Yes, by God, love and a girl have changed me!" Bruce shouted at him,
and I looked around at Lili and I remembered Dave saying, "I'm going to
Spain," and I wondered if anything would ever again make my face flame
like that. "Or, rather, they've made me stand up for what I've believed
in all along. They've made me--"

"_Wunderbar_," Erich called and began to do a little sissy dance on the
bomb that set my teeth on edge. He bent his wrists and elbows at arty
angles and stuck out a hip and ducked his head simperingly and blinked
his eyes very fast. "Will you invite me to the wedding, Bruce? You'll
have to get another best man, but I will be the flower girl and throw
pretty little posies to all the distinguished guests. Here, Mark. Catch,
Kaby. One for you, Greta. _Danke schön. Ach, zwei Herzen in
dreivierteltakt ... ta-ta ... ta-ta ... ta-ta-ta-ta-ta ..._"

"What the hell do you think a woman is?" Bruce raged. "Something to mess
around with in your spare time?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Erich kept on humming "Two Hearts in Waltz Time"--and jigging around to
it, damn him--but he slipped in a nod to Bruce and a "Precisely." So I
knew where I stood, but it was no news to me.

"Very well," Bruce said, "let's leave this Brown Shirt _maricón_ to
amuse himself and get down to business. I made all of you a proposal and
I don't have to tell you how serious it is or how serious Lili and I are
about it. We not only must infiltrate and subvert other Places, which
luckily for us are made for infiltration, we also must make contact with
the Snakes and establish working relationships with their Demons at our
level as one of our first steps."

That stopped Erich's jig and got enough of a gasp from some of us to
make it seem to come from practically everybody. Erich used it to work a
change of pace.

"Bruce! We've let you carry this foolery further than we should. You
seem to have the idea that because anything goes in the Place--dueling,
drunkenness, _und so weiter_--you can say what you have and it will all
be forgotten with the hangover. Not so. It is true that among such a set
of monsters and free spirits as ourselves, and working as secret agents
to boot, there cannot be the obvious military discipline that would
obtain in a Terran army.

"But let me tell you, Bruce, let me grind it home into you--Sid and Kaby
and Mark will bear me out in this, as officers of equivalent rank--that
the Spider line of command stretches into and through this Place just as
surely as the word of _der Führer_ rules Chicago. And as I shouldn't
have to emphasize to you, Bruce, the Spiders have punishments that
would make my countrymen in Belsen and Buchenwald--well, pale a little.
So while there is still a shadow of justification for our interpreting
your remarks as utterly tasteless clowning--"

"Babble on," Bruce said, giving him a loose downward wave of his hand
without looking. "I made you people a proposal." He paused. "How do you
stand, Sidney Lessingham?"

Then I felt my legs getting weak, because Sid didn't answer right away.
The old boy swallowed and started to look around at the rest of us. Then
the feeling of reality clamping down got something awful, because he
didn't look around, but straightened his back a little. Just then, Mark
cut in fast.

"It grieves me, Bruce, but I think you are possessed. Erich, he must be
confined."

       *       *       *       *       *

Kaby nodded, almost absently. "Confine or kill the coward, whichever is
easier, whip the woman, and let's get on to the Egyptian battle."

"Indeed, yes," Mark said. "I died in it. But now perhaps no longer."

Kaby said to him, "I like you, Roman."

Bruce was smiling, barely, and his eyes were moving and fixing. "You,
Ilhilihis?"

Illy's squeak box had never sounded mechanical to me before, but it did
as he answered, "I'm a lot deeper into borrowed time than the rest of
you, tra-la-la, but Papa still loves living. Include me very much out,
Brucie."

"Miss Davies?"

Beside me, Maud said flatly, "Do you think I'm a fool?" Beyond her, I
saw Lili and I thought, "My God, I might look as proud if I were in her
shoes, but I sure as hell wouldn't look as confident."

Bruce's eyes hadn't quite come to Beau when the gambler spoke up. "I
have no cause to like you, sir, rather the opposite. But this Place has
come to bore me more than Boston and I have always found it difficult to
resist a long shot. A very long one, I fear. I am with you, sir."

There was a pain in my chest and a roaring in my ears and through it I
heard Sevensee grunting, "--sicka these lousy Spiders. Deal me in."

And then Doc reared up in front of the bar and he'd lost his hat and his
hair was wild and he grabbed an empty fifth by the neck and broke the
bottom of it all jagged against the bar and he waved it and screeched,
"_Ubivaytye Pauki--i Nyemetzi!_"

And right behind his words, Beau sang out fast the English of it, "Kill
the Spiders--and the Germans!"

And Doc didn't collapse then, though I could see he was hanging onto
the bar tight with his other hand, and the Place got stiller, inside and
out, than I've ever known it, and Bruce's eyes were finally moving back
toward Sid.

       *       *       *       *       *

But the eyes stopped short of Sid and I heard Bruce say, "Miss Forzane?"
and I thought, "That's funny," and I started to look around at the
Countess, and felt all the eyes and I realized, "Hey, that's me! But
this can't happen to me. To the others, yes, but not to me. I just work
here. Not to Greta, no, no, no!"

But it had, and the eyes didn't let go, and the silence and the feeling
of reality were Godawful, and I said to myself, "Greta, you've got to
say something, if only a suitable four-letter word," and then suddenly I
knew what the silence was like. It was like that of a big city if there
were some way of shutting off all the noise in one second. It was like
Erich's singing when the piano had deserted him. It was as if the Change
Winds should ever die completely ... and I knew beforehand what had
happened when I turned my back on them all.

The Ghostgirls were gone. The Major Maintainer hadn't merely been
switched to Introvert. It was gone, too.



[Illustration]


CHAPTER 9

    "We examined the moss between the bricks, and found it undisturbed."

    "You looked among D----'s papers, of course, and into the books of
    the library?"

    "Certainly; we opened every package and parcel; we not only opened
    every book, but we turned over every leaf in each volume...."

                                                                   --Poe

A LOCKED ROOM


Three hours later, Sid and I plumped down on the couch nearest the
kitchen, though too tired to want to eat for a while yet. A tighter
search than I could ever have cooked up had shown that the Maintainer
was not in the Place.

Of course it had to be in the Place, as we kept telling each other for
the first two hours. It had to be, if circumstances and the theories we
lived by in the Change World meant anything. A Maintainer is what
maintains a Place. The Minor Maintainer takes care of oxygen,
temperature, humidity, gravity, and other little life-cycle and
matter-cycle things generally, but it's the Major Maintainer that keeps
the walls from buckling and the ceiling from falling in. It is little,
but oh my, it does so much.

It doesn't work by wires or radio or anything complicated like that. It
just hooks into local space-time.

I have been told that its inside working part is made up of vastly
tough, vastly hard giant molecules, each one of which is practically a
vest-pocket cosmos in itself. Outside, it looks like a portable radio
with a few more dials and some telltales and switches and plug-ins for
earphones and a lot of other sensory thingumajigs.

But the Maintainer was gone and the Void hadn't closed in, yet. By this
time, I was so fagged, I didn't care much whether it did or not.

One thing for sure, the Maintainer had been switched to Introvert before
it was spirited away or else its disappearance automatically produced
Introversion, take your choice, because we sure were Introverted--real
nasty martinet-schoolmaster grip of reality on my thoughts that I knew,
without trying, liquor wouldn't soften, not a breath of Change Wind,
absolutely stifling, and the gray of the Void seeming so much inside my
head that I think I got a glimmering of what the science boys mean when
they explain to me that the Place is a kind of interweaving of the
material and the mental--a Giant Monad, one of them called it.

Anyway, I said to myself, "Greta, if this is Introversion, I want no
part of it. It is not nice to be cut adrift from the cosmos and know it.
A lifeboat in the middle of the Pacific and a starship between galaxies
are not in it for loneliness."

       *       *       *       *       *

I asked myself why the Spiders had ever equipped Maintainers with
Introversion switches anyway, when we couldn't drill with them and
weren't supposed to use them except in an emergency so tight that it was
either Introvert or surrender to the Snakes, and for the first time the
obvious explanation came to me:

Introversion must be the same as scuttling, its main purpose to withhold
secrets and materiel from the enemy. It put a place into a situation
from which even the Spider high command couldn't rescue it, and there
was nothing left but to sink down, down (out? up?), down into the Void.

If that was the case, our chances of getting back were about those of my
being a kid again playing in the Dunes on the Small Time.

I edged a little closer to Sid and sort of squunched under his shoulder
and rubbed my cheek against the smudged, gold-worked gray velvet. He
looked down and I said, "A long way to Lynn Regis, eh, Siddy?"

"Sweetling, thou spokest a mouthful," he said. He knows very well what
he is doing when he mixes his language that way, the wicked old
darling.

"Siddy," I said, "why this gold-work? It'd be a lot smoother without
it."

"Marry, men must prick themselves out and, 'faith I know not, but it
helps if there's metal in it."

"And girls get scratched." I took a little sniff. "But don't put this
doublet through the cleaner yet. Until we get out of the woods, I want
as much you around as possible."

"Marry, and why should I?" he asked blankly, and I think he wasn't
fooling me. The last thing time travelers find out is how they do or
don't smell. Then his face clouded and he looked as though he wanted to
squunch under my shoulder. "But 'faith, sweetling, your forest has a few
more trees than Sherwood."

"Thou saidst it," I agreed, and wondered about the look. He oughtn't to
be interested in my girlishness now. I knew I was a mess, but he had
stuck pretty close to me during the hunt and you never can tell. Then I
remembered that he was the other one who hadn't declared himself when
Bruce was putting it to us, and it probably troubled his male vanity.
Not me, though--I was still grateful to the Maintainer for getting me
out of that spot, whatever other it had got us all into. It seemed ages
ago.

       *       *       *       *       *

We'd all jumped to the conclusion that the two Ghostgirls had run away
with the Maintainer, I don't know where or why, but it looked so much
that way. Maud had started yipping about how she'd never trusted Ghosts
and always known that some day they'd start doing things on their own,
and Kaby had got it firmly fixed in her head, right between the horns,
that Phryne, being a Greek, was the ringleader and was going to wreak
havoc on us all.

But when we were checking Stores the first time, I had noticed that the
Ghostgirl envelopes looked flat. Ectoplasm doesn't take up much space
when it's folded, but I had opened one anyway, then another, and then
called for help.

Every last envelope was empty. We had lost over a thousand Ghostgirls,
Sid's whole stock.

Well, at least it proved what none of us had ever seen or heard of being
demonstrated: that there is a spooky link--a sort of Change Wind
contact--between a Ghost and its lifeline; and when that umbilicus, I've
heard it called, is cut, the part away from the lifeline dies.

Interesting, but what had bothered me was whether we Demons were going
to evaporate too, because we are as much Doublegangers as the Ghosts and
our apron strings had been cut just as surely. We're more solid, of
course, but that would only mean we'd take a little longer. Very
logical.

I remember I had looked up at Lili and Maud--us girls had been checking
the envelopes; it's one of the proprieties we frequently maintain and
anyway, if men check them, they're apt to trot out that old wheeze about
"instant women" which I'm sick to death of hearing, thank you.

Anyway, I had looked up and said, "It's been nice knowing you," and Lili
had said, "Twenty-three, skiddoo," and Maud had said, "Here goes
nothing," and we had shook hands all around.

We figured that Phryne and the Countess had faded at the same time as
the other Ghostgirls, but an idea had been nibbling at me and I said,
"Siddy, do you suppose it's just barely possible that, while we were all
looking at Bruce, those two Ghostgirls would have been able to work the
Maintainer and get a Door and lam out of here with the thing?"

"Thou speakst my thoughts, sweetling. All weighs against it: Imprimis,
'tis well known that Ghosts cannot lay plots or act on them. Secundo,
the time forbade getting a Door. Tercio--and here's the real meat of
it--the Place folds without the Maintainer. Quadro, 'twere folly to
depend on not one of--how many of us? ten, elf--not looking around in
all the time it would have taken them--"

"I looked around once, Siddy. They were drinking and they had got to the
control divan under their own power. Now when was that? Oh, yes, when
Bruce was talking about Zombies."

"Yes, sweetling. And as I was about to cap my argument with quinquo when
you 'gan prattle, I could have sworn none could touch the Maintainer,
much less work it and purloin it, without my certain knowledge. Yet ..."

"Eftsoons yet," I seconded him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Somebody must have got a door and walked out with the thing. It
certainly wasn't in the Place. The hunt had been a lulu. Something the
size of a portable typewriter is not easy to hide and we had been inside
everything from Beau's piano to the renewer link of the Refresher.

We had even fluoroscoped everybody, though it had made Illy writhe like
a box of worms, as he'd warned us; he said it tickled terribly and I
insisted on smoothing his fur for five minutes afterward, although he
was a little standoffish toward me.

Some areas, like the bar, kitchen and Stores, took a long while, but we
were thorough. Kaby helped Doc check Surgery: since she last made the
Place, she has been stationed in a Field Hospital (it turns out the
Spiders actually are mounting operations from them) and learned a few
nice new wrinkles.

However, Doc put in some honest work on his own, though, of course,
every check was observed by at least three people, not including Bruce
or Lili. When the Maintainer vanished, Doc had pulled out of his
glassy-eyed drunk in a way that would have surprised me if I hadn't seen
it happen to him before, but when we finished Surgery and got on to the
Art Gallery, he had started to putter and I noticed him hold out his
coat and duck his head and whip out a flask and take a swig and by now
he was well on his way toward another peak.

The Art Gallery had taken time too, because there's such a jumble of
strange stuff, and it broke my heart but Kaby took her ax and split a
beautiful blue woodcarving of a Venusian medusa because, although there
wasn't a mark in the paw-polished surface, she claimed it was just big
enough. Doc cried a little and we left him fitting the pieces together
and mooning over the other stuff.

After we'd finished everything else, Mark had insisted on tackling the
floor. Beau and Sid both tried to explain to him how this is a one-sided
Place, that there is nothing, but nothing, under the floor; it just gets
a lot harder than the diamonds crusting it as soon as you get a quarter
inch down--that being the solid equivalent of the Void. But Mark was
knuckle-headed (like all Romans, Sid assured me on the q.t.) and broke
four diamond-plus drills before he was satisfied.

Except for some trick hiding places, that left the Void, and things
don't vanish if you throw them at the Void--they half melt and freeze
forever unless you can fish them out. Back of the Refresher, at about
eye-level, are three Venusian coconuts that a Hittite strongman threw
there during a major brawl. I try not to look at them because they are
so much like witch heads they give me the woolies. The parts of the
Place right up against the Void have strange spatial properties which
one of the gadgets in Surgery makes use of in a way that gives me the
worse woolies, but that's beside the point.

       *       *       *       *       *

During the hunt, Kaby and Erich had used their Callers as direction
finders to point out the Maintainer, just as they're used in the cosmos
to locate the Door--and sometimes in the Big Places, people tell me. But
the Callers only went wild--like a compass needle whirling around
without stopping--and nobody knew what that meant.

The trick hiding places were the Minor Maintainer, a cute idea, but it
is no bigger than the Major and has its own mysterious insides and had
obviously kept on doing its own work, so that was out for several
reasons, and the bomb chest, though it seemed impossible for anyone to
have opened it, granting they knew the secret of its lock, even before
Erich jumped on it and put it in the limelight double. But when you've
ruled out everything else, the word impossible changes meaning.

Since time travel is our business, a person might think of all sorts of
tricks for sending the Maintainer into the past or future, permanently
or temporarily. But the Place is strictly on the Big Time and everybody
that should know tells me that time traveling _through_ the Big Time is
out. It's this way: the Big Time is a train, and the Little Time is the
countryside and we're on the train, unless we go out a Door, and as
Gertie Stein might put it, you can't time travel through the time you
time travel in when you time travel.

I'd also played around with the idea of some fantastically obvious
hiding place, maybe something that several people could pass back and
forth between them, which would mean a conspiracy, and, of course, if
you assume a big enough conspiracy, you can explain anything, including
the cosmos itself. Still, I'd got a sort of shell-game idea about the
Soldiers' three big black shakos and I hadn't been satisfied until I'd
got the three together and looked in them all at the same time.

"Wake up, Greta, and take something. I can't stand here forever." Maud
had brought us a tray of hearty snacks from then and yon, and I must say
they were tempting; she whips up a mean hors d'oeuvre.

I looked them over and said, "Siddy, I want a hot dog."

"And I want a venison pasty! Out upon you, you finical jill, you
o'erscrupulous jade, you whimsic and tyrannous poppet!"

I grabbed a handful and snuggled back against him.

"Go on, call me some more, Siddy," I told him. "Real juicy ones."



CHAPTER 10

    My thought, whose murder yet is but fantastical,
    Shakes so my single state of man that function
    Is smother'd in surmise, and nothing is
    But what is not.

                                           --Macbeth

MOTIVES AND OPPORTUNITIES


My big bad waif from King's Lynn had set the tray on his knees and
started to wolf the food down. The others were finishing up. Erich, Mark
and Kaby were having a quietly furious argument I couldn't overhear at
the end of the bar nearest the bronze chest, and Illy was draped over
the piano like a real octopus, listening in.

Beau and Sevensee were pacing up and down near the control divan and
throwing each other a word now and then. Beyond them, Bruce and Lili
were sitting on the opposite couch from us, talking earnestly about
something. Maud had sat down at the other end of the bar and was
knitting--it's one of the habits like chess and quiet drinking, or
learning to talk by squeak box, that we pick up to pass the time in the
Place in the long stretches between parties. Doc was fiddling around the
Gallery, picking things up and setting them down, still managing to stay
on his feet at any rate.

       *       *       *       *       *

Lili and Bruce stood up, still gabbing intensely at each other, and Illy
began to pick out with one tentacle a little tune in the high keys that
didn't sound like anything on God's earth. "Where do they get all the
energy?" I wondered.

As soon as I asked myself that, I knew the answer and I began to feel
the same way myself. It wasn't energy; it was nerves, pure and simple.

Change is like a drug, I realized--you get used to the facts never
staying the same, and one picture of the past and future dissolving into
another maybe not very different but still different, and your mind
being constantly goosed by strange moods and notions, like nightclub
lights of shifting color with weird shadows between shining right on
your brain.

The endless swaying and jogging is restful, like riding on a train.

You soon get to like the movement and to need it without knowing, and
when it suddenly stops and you're just you and the facts you think from
and feel from are exactly the same when you go back to them--boy, that's
rough, as I found out now.

The instant we got Introverted, everything that ordinarily leaks into
the Place, wake or sleep, had stopped coming, and we were nothing but
ourselves and what we meant to each other and what we could make of
that, an awfully lonely, scratchy situation.

I decided I felt like I'd been dropped into a swimming pool full of
cement and held under until it hardened.

I could understand the others bouncing around a bit. It was a wonder
they didn't hit the Void. Maud seemed to be standing it the best; maybe
she'd got a little preparation from the long watches between stars; and
then she is older than all of us, even Sid, though with a small "o" in
"older."

       *       *       *       *       *

The restless work of the search for the Maintainer had masked the
feeling, but now it was beginning to come full force. Before the search,
Bruce's speech and Erich's interruptions had done a passable masking job
too. I tried to remember when I'd first got the feeling and decided it
was after Erich had jumped on the bomb, about the time he mentioned
poetry. Though I couldn't be sure. Maybe the Maintainer had been
Introverted even earlier, when I'd turned to look at the Ghostgirls. I
wouldn't have known. Nuts!

Believe me, I could feel that hardened cement on every inch of me. I
remembered Bruce's beautiful picture of a universe without Big Change
and decided it was about the worst idea going. I went on eating, though
I wasn't so sure now it was a good idea to keep myself strong.

"Does the Maintainer have an Introversion telltale? Siddy!"

"'Sdeath, chit, and you love me, speak lower. Of a sudden, I feel not
well, as if I'd drunk a butt of Rhenish and slept inside it. Marry yes,
blue. In short flashes, saith the manual. Why ask'st thou?"

"No reason. God, Siddy, what I'd give for a breath of Change Wind."

"Thou can'st say that eftsoons," he groaned. I must have looked pretty
miserable myself, for he put his arm around my shoulders and whispered
gruffly, "Comfort thyself, sweetling, that while we suffer thus sorely,
we yet cannot die the Change Death."

"What's that?" I asked him.

I didn't want to bounce around like the others. I had a suspicion I'd
carry it too far. So, to keep myself from going batty, I started to
rework the business of who had done what to the Maintainer.

During the hunt, there had been some pretty wild suggestions tossed
around as to its disappearance or at least its Introversion: a feat of
Snake science amounting to sorcery; the Spider high command bunkering
the Places from above, perhaps in reaction to the loss of the Express
Room, in such a hurry that they hadn't even time to transmit warnings;
the hand of the Late Cosmicians, those mysterious hypothetical beings
who are supposed to have successfully resisted the extension of the
Change War into the future much beyond Sevensee's epoch--unless the Late
Cosmicians are the ones fighting the Change War.

One thing these suggestions had steered very clear of was naming any one
of us as a suspect, whether acting as Snake spy, Spider political
police, agent of--who knows, after Bruce?--a secret Change World
Committee of Public Safety or Spider revolutionary underground, or
strictly on our own. Just as no one had piped a word, since the
Maintainer had been palmed, about the split between Erich's and Bruce's
factions.

Good group thinking probably, to sink differences in the emergency, but
that didn't apply to what I did with my own thoughts.

       *       *       *       *       *

Who wanted to escape so bad they'd Introvert the Place, cutting off all
possible contact and communication either way with the cosmos and
running the very big risk of not getting back to the cosmos at all?

Leaving out what had happened since Bruce had arrived and stirred things
up, Doc seemed to me to have the strongest motive. He knew that Sid
couldn't keep covering up for him forever and that Spider punishments
for derelictions of duty are not just the clink of a firing squad, as
Erich had reminded us. But Doc had been flat on the floor in front of
the bar from the time Bruce had jumped on top of it, though I certainly
hadn't had my eye on him every second.

Beau? Beau had said he was bored with the Place at a time when what he
said counted, so he'd hardly lock himself in it maybe forever, not to
mention locking Bruce in with himself and the babe he had a yen for.

Sid loves reality, Changing or not, and every least thing in it, people
especially, more than any man or woman I've ever known--he's like a
big-eyed baby who wants to grab every object and put it in his
mouth--and it was hard to imagine him ever cutting himself off from the
cosmos.

Maud, Kaby, Mark and the two ETs? None of them had any motive I knew of,
though Sevensee's being from the very far future did tie in with that
idea about the Late Cosmicians, and there did seem to be something
developing between the Cretan and the Roman that could make them want to
be Introverted together.

"Stick to the facts, Greta," I reminded myself with a private groan.

That left Erich, Bruce, Lili and myself.

Erich, I thought--now we're getting somewhere. The little commandant has
the nervous system of a coyote and the courage of a crazy tomcat, and if
he thought it would help him settle his battle with Bruce better to be
locked in with him, he'd do it in a second.

But even before Erich had danced on the bomb, he'd been heckling Bruce
from the crowd. Still, there would have been time between heckles for
him to step quietly back from us, Introvert the Maintainer and ... well,
that was nine-tenths of the problem.

If I was the guilty party, I was nuts and that was the best explanation
of all. Gr-r-r!

Bruce's motives seemed so obvious, especially the mortal (or was it
immortal?) danger he'd put himself in by inciting mutiny, that it seemed
a shame he'd been in full view on the bar so long. Surely, if the
Maintainer had been Introverted before he jumped on the bar, we'd all
have noticed the flashing blue telltale. For that matter, I'd have
noticed it when I looked back at the Ghostgirls--if it worked as Sid
claimed, and he said he had never seen it in operation, just read in the
manual--oh, 'sdeath!

       *       *       *       *       *

But Bruce didn't need opportunity, as I'm sure all the males in
the Place would have told me right off, because he had Lili to
pull the job for him and she had as much opportunity as any of
the rest of us. Myself, I have large reservations to this
woman-putty-in-the-hands-of-the-man-she-loves-madly theory, but I had to
admit there was something to be said for it in this case, and it had
seemed quite natural to me when the rest of us had decided, by unspoken
agreement, that neither Lili's nor Bruce's checks counted when we were
hunting for the Maintainer.

That took care of all of us and left only the mysterious stranger,
intruding somehow through a Door (how'd he get it without using our
Maintainer?) or from an unimaginable hiding place or straight out of the
Void itself. I know that last is impossible--nothing can step out of
nothing--but if anything ever looked like it was specially built for
something not at all nice to come looming out of, it's the Void--misty,
foggily churning, slimy gray....

"Wait a second," I told myself, "and hang onto this, Greta. It should
have smacked you in the face at the start."

Whatever came out of the Void, or, more to the point, whoever slipped
back from our crowd to the Maintainer, Bruce would have seen them. He
was looking at the Maintainer past our heads the whole time, and
whatever happened to it, he saw it.

Erich wouldn't have, even after he was on the bomb, because he'd been
stagewise enough to face Bruce most of the time to build up his role as
tribune of the people.

But Bruce would have--unless he got so caught up in what he was
saying....

No, kid, a Demon is always an actor, no matter how much he believes in
what he's saying, and there never was an actor yet who wouldn't
instantly notice a member of the audience starting to walk out on his
big scene.

So Bruce knew, which made him a better actor than I'd have been willing
to grant, since it didn't look as if anyone else had thought of what had
just occurred to me, or they'd have gone over and put it to him.

Not me, though--I don't work that way. Besides, I didn't feel up to
it--Nervy Anna enfold me, I felt like pure hell.

"Maybe," I told myself encouragingly, "the Place is Hell," but added,
"Be your age, Greta--be a real rootless, ruleless, ruthless
twenty-nine."



CHAPTER 11

    The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
    With bombs and guns and shovels and battle gear,
    Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
    Lines of gray, muttering faces, masked with fear,
    They leave their trenches, going over the top,
    While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists

                                            --Sassoon

THE WESTERN FRONT, 1917


"Please don't, Lili."

"I shall, my love."

"Sweetling, wake up! Hast the shakes?"

I opened my eyes a little and lied to Siddy with a smile and locked my
hands together tight and watched Bruce and Lili quarrel nobly near the
control divan and wished I had a great love to blur my misery and
provide me with a passable substitute for Change Winds.

Lili won the argument, judging from the way she threw her head back and
stepped away from Bruce's arms while giving him a proud, tender smile.
He walked off a few steps; praise be, he didn't shrug his shoulders at
us like an old husband, though his nerves were showing and he didn't
seem to be standing Introversion well at all, as who of us were?

Lili rested a hand on the head of the control divan and pressed her lips
together and looked around at us, mostly with her eyes. She'd wound a
gray silk bandeau around her bangs. Her short gray silk dress without a
waistline made her look, not so much like a flapper, though she looked
like that all right, as like a little girl, except the neckline was
scooped low enough to show she wasn't.

Her gaze hesitated and then stopped at me and I got a sunk feeling of
what was coming, because women are always picking on me for an audience.
Besides, Sid and I were the centrist party of two in our
fresh-out-of-the-shell Place politics.

She took a deep breath and stuck out her chin and said in a voice that
was even a little higher and Britisher than she usually uses, "We girls
have often cried, 'Shut the Door!' But now the Door is jolly well shut
for keeps!"

I knew I'd guessed right and I felt crawly with embarrassment, because I
know about this love business of thinking you're the other person and
trying to live their life--and grab their glory, though you don't know
that--and carry their message for them, and how it can foul things up.
Still, I couldn't help admitting what she said wasn't too bad a
start--unpleasantly apt to be true, at any rate.

"My fiance believes we may yet be able to open the Door. I do not. He
thinks it is a bit premature to discuss the peculiar pickle in which we
all find ourselves. I do not."

There was a rasp of laughter from the bar. The militarists were
reacting. Erich stepped out, looking very happy. "So now we have to
listen to women making speeches," he called. "What is this Place,
anyhow? Sidney Lessingham's Saturday Evening Sewing Circle?"

       *       *       *       *       *

Beau and Sevensee, who'd stopped their pacing halfway between the bar
and the control divan, turned toward Erich, and Sevensee looked a little
burlier, a little more like half a horse, than satyrs in mythology book
illustrations. He stamped--medium hard, I'd say--and said, "Ahh, go flya
kite." I'd found out he'd learned English from a Demon who'd been a
longshoreman with syndicalist-anarchist sympathies. Erich shut up for a
moment and stood there grinning, his hands on his hips.

Lili nodded to the satyr and cleared her throat, looking scared. But she
didn't speak; I could see she was thinking and feeling something, and
her face got ugly and haggard, as if she were in a Change Wind that
hadn't reached me yet, and her mouth went into a snarl to fight tears,
but some spurted out, and when she did speak her voice was an octave
lower and it wasn't just London talking but New York too.

"I don't know how Resurrection felt to you people, because I'm new and I
loathe asking questions, but to me it was pure torture and I wished only
I'd had the courage to tell Suzaku, 'I wish to remain a Zombie, if you
don't mind. I'd rather the nightmares.' But I accepted Resurrection
because I've been taught to be polite and because there is the Demon in
me I don't understand that always wishes to live, and I found that I
still felt like a Zombie, although I could flit about, and that I still
had the nightmares, except they'd grown a deal vivider.

"I was a young girl again, seventeen, and I suppose every woman wishes
to be seventeen, but I wasn't seventeen inside my head--I was a woman
who had died of Bright's disease in New York in 1929 and also, because a
Big Change blew my lifeline into a new drift, a woman who had died of
the same disease in Nazi-occupied London in 1955, but rather more slowly
because, as you can fancy, the liquor was in far shorter supply. I had
to live with both those sets of memories and the Change World didn't
blot them out any more than I'm told it does those of any Demon, and it
didn't even push them into the background as I'd hoped it would.

"When some Change Fellow would say to me, 'Hallo, beautiful, how about a
smile?' or 'That's a posh frock, kiddo,' I'd be back at Bellevue looking
down at my swollen figure and the light getting like spokes of ice, or
in that dreadful gin-steeped Stepney bedroom with Phyllis coughing
herself to death beside me, or at best, for a moment, a little girl in
Glamorgan looking at the Roman road and wondering about the wonderful
life that lay ahead."

       *       *       *       *       *

I looked at Erich, remembering he had a long nasty future back in the
cosmos himself, and at any rate he wasn't smiling, and I thought maybe
he's getting a little humility, knowing someone else has two of those
futures, but I doubted it.

"Because, you see," Lili kept forcing it out, "all my three lives I'd
been a girl who fell in love with a great young poet she'd never met,
the voice of the new youth and all youth, and she'd told her first big
lie to get in the Red Cross and across to France to be nearer him, and
it was all danger and dark magics and a knight in armor, and she
pictured how she'd find him wounded but not seriously, with a little
bandage around his head, and she'd light a fag for him and smile
lightly, never letting him guess what she felt, but only being her best
self and watching to see if that made something happen to him....

"And then the Boche machine guns cut him down at Passchendaele and there
couldn't ever have been bandages big enough and the girl stayed
seventeen inside and messed about and tried to be wicked, though she
wasn't very good at that, and to drink, and she had a bit more talent
there, though drinking yourself to death is not nearly as easy as it
sounds, even with a kidney weakness to help. But she turned the trick.

"Then a cock crows. She wakes with a tearing start from the gray dreams
of death that fill her lifeline. It's cold daybreak. There's the smell
of a French farm. She feels her ankles and they're not at all like huge
rubber boots filled with water. They're not swollen the least bit.
They're young legs.

"There's a little window and the tops of a row of trees that may be
poplars when there's more light, and what there is shows cots like her
own and heads under blankets, and hanging uniforms make large shadows
and a girl is snoring. There's a very distant rumble and it moves the
window a bit. Then she remembers they're Red Cross girls many, many
kilometers from Passchendaele and that Bruce Marchant is going to die at
dawn today.

"In a few more minutes, he's going over the top where there's a
crop-headed machine-gunner in field gray already looking down the sights
and swinging the gun a bit. But she isn't going to die today. She's
going to die in 1929 and 1955.

"And just as she's going mad, there's a creaking and out of the shadows
tiptoes a Jap with a woman's hairdo and the whitest face and the
blackest eyebrows. He's wearing a rose robe and a black sash which belts
to his sides two samurai swords, but in his right hand he has a strange
silver pistol. And he smiles at her as if they were brother and sister
and lovers at the same time and he says, '_Voulez-vous vivre,
mademoiselle?_' and she stares and he bobs his head and says, 'Missy
wish live, yes, no?'"

[Illustration]

       *       *       *       *       *

Sid's paw closed quietly around my shaking hands. It always gets me to
hear about anyone's Resurrection, and although mine was crazier, it also
had the Krauts in it. I hoped she wouldn't go through the rest of the
formula and she didn't.

"Five minutes later, he's gone down a stairs more like a ladder to wait
below and she's dressing in a rush. Her clothes resist a little, as if
they were lightly gummed to the hook and the stained wall, and she hates
to touch them. It's getting lighter and her cot looks as if someone were
still sleeping there, although it's empty, and she couldn't bring
herself to put her hand on the place if her new life depended on it.

"She climbs down and her long skirt doesn't bother her because she knows
how to swing it. Suzaku conducts her past a sentry who doesn't see them
and a puffy-faced farmer in a smock coughing and spitting the night out
of his throat. They cross the farmyard and it's filled with rose light
and she sees the sun is up and she knows that Bruce Marchant has just
bled to death.

"There's an empty open touring car chugging loudly, waiting for someone;
it has huge muddy wheels with wooden spokes and a brass radiator that
says 'Simplex.' But Suzaku leads her past it to a dunghill and bows
apologetically and she steps through a Door."

I heard Erich say to the others at the bar, "How touching! Now shall I
tell everyone about my operation?" But he didn't get much of a laugh.

"That's how Lilian Foster came into the Change World with its
steel-engraved nightmares and its deadly pace and deadlier lassitudes. I
was more alive than I ever had been before, but it was the kind of life
a corpse might get from unending electrical shocks and I couldn't summon
any purpose or hope and Bruce Marchant seemed farther away than ever.

"Then, not six hours ago, a Soldier in a black uniform came through the
Door and I thought, 'It can't be, but it does look like his
photographs,' and then I thought I heard someone say the name Bruce, and
then he shouted as if to all the world that he was Bruce Marchant, and I
knew there was a Resurrection beyond Resurrection, a true resurrection.
Oh, Bruce--"

She looked at him and he was crying and smiling and all the young beauty
flooded back into her face, and I thought, "It has to be Change Winds,
but it can't be. Face it without slobbering, Greta--there's something
that works bigger miracles than Change."

And she went on, "And then the Change Winds died when the Snakes
vaporized the Maintainer or the Ghostgirls Introverted it and all three
of them vanished so swiftly and silently that even Bruce didn't
notice--those are the best explanations I can summon and I fancy one of
them is true. At all events, the Change Winds died and my past and even
my futures became something I could bear lightly, because I have someone
to bear them with me, and because at last I have a true future
stretching out ahead of me, an unknown future which I shall create by
living. Oh, don't you see that all of us have it now, this big
opportunity?"

"_Hussa_ for Sidney's suffragettes and the W.C.T.U.!" Erich cheered.
"Beau, will you play us a medley of 'Hearts and Flowers' and 'Onward,
Christian Soldiers'? I'm deeply moved, Lili. Where do the rest of us
queue up for the Great Love Affair of the Century?"



CHAPTER 12

    Now is a bearable burden. What buckles the back is the added weight
    of the past's mistakes and the future's fears.

    I had to learn to close the front door to tomorrow and the back door
    to yesterday and settle down to here and now.

                                                             --Anonymous

A BIG OPPORTUNITY


Nobody laughed at Erich's screwball sarcasms and still I thought, "Yes,
perish his hysterical little gray head, but he's half right--Lili's got
the big thing now and she wants to serve it up to the rest of us on a
platter, only love doesn't cook and cut that way."

Those weren't bad ideas she had about the Maintainer, though, especially
the one about the Ghostgirls doing the Introverting--it would explain
why there couldn't be Introversion drill, the manual stuff about blue
flashes being window-dressing, and something disappearing without
movement or transition is the sort of thing that might not catch the
attention--and I guess they gave the others something to think about
too, for there wasn't any follow-up to Erich's frantic sniping.

But I honestly didn't see where there was this big opportunity being
stuck away in a gray sack in the Void and I began to wonder and I got
the strangest feeling and I said to myself, "Hang onto your hat, Greta.
It's hope."

"The dreadful thing about being a Demon is that you have all time to
range through," Lili was saying with a smile. "You can never shut the
back door to yesterday or the front door to tomorrow and simply live in
the present. But now that's been done for us: the Door is shut, we need
never again rehash the past or the future. The Spiders and Snakes can
never find us, for who ever heard of a Place that was truly lost being
rescued? And as those in the know have told me, Introversion is the end
as far as those outside are concerned. So we're safe from the Spiders
and Snakes, we need never be slaves or enemies again, and we have a
Place in which to live our new lives, the Place prepared for us from the
beginning."

She paused. "Surely you understand what I mean? Sidney and Beauregard
and Dr. Pyeshkov are the ones who explained it to me. The Place is a
balanced aquarium, just like the cosmos. No one knows how many ages of
Big Time it has been in use, without a bit of new material being brought
in--only luxuries and people--and not a bit of waste cast off. No one
knows how many more ages it may not sustain life. I never heard of Minor
Maintainers wearing out. We have all the future, all the security,
anyone can hope for. We have a Place to live together."

       *       *       *       *       *

You know, she was dead right and I realized that all the time I'd had
the conviction in the back of my mind that we were going to suffocate or
something if we didn't get a Door open pretty quick. I should have known
differently, if anybody should, because I'd once been in the Place
without a Door for as long as a hundred sleeps during a foxhole stretch
of the Change War and we'd had to start cycling our food and it had been
okay.

And then, because it is also the way my mind works, I started to picture
in a flash the consequences of our living together all by ourselves like
Lili said.

I began to pair people off; I couldn't help it. Let's see, four women,
six men, two ETs.

"Greta," I said, "you're going to be Miss Polly Andry for sure. We'll
have a daily newspaper and folk-dancing classes, we'll shut the bar
except evenings, Bruce'll keep a rhymed history of the Place."

I even thought, though I knew this part was strictly silly, about
schools and children. I wondered what Siddy's would look like, or my
little commandant's. "Don't go near the Void, dears." Of course that
would be specially hard on the two ETs, but Sevensee at least wasn't so
different and the genetics boys had made some wonderful advances and
Maud ought to know about them and there were some amazing gadgets in
Surgery when Doc sobered up. The patter of little hoofs ...

"My fiance spoke to you about carrying a peace message to the rest of
the cosmos," Lili added, "and bringing an end to the Big Change, and
healing all the wounds that have been made in the Little Time."

I looked at Bruce. His face was set and strained, as will happen to the
best of them when a girl starts talking about her man's business, and I
don't know why, but I said to myself, "She's crucifying him, she's
nailing him to his purpose as a woman will, even when there's not much
point to it, as now."

And Lili went on, "It was a wonderful thought, but now we cannot carry
or send any message and I believe it is too late in any event for a
peace message to do any good. The cosmos is too raveled by change, too
far gone. It will dissolve, fade, 'leave not a rack behind.' We're the
survivors. The torch of existence has been put in our hands.

"We may already be all that's left in the cosmos, for have you thought
that the Change Winds may have died at their source? We may never reach
another cosmos, we may drift forever in the Void, but who of us has been
Introverted before and who knows what we can or cannot do? We're a seed
for a new future to grow from. Perhaps all doomed universes cast off
seeds like this Place. It's a seed, it's an embryo, let it grow."

She looked swiftly at Bruce and then at Sid and she quoted, "'Come, my
friends, 'tis not too late to seek a newer world'."

       *       *       *       *       *

I squeezed Sid's hand and I started to say something to him, but he
didn't know I was there; he was listening to Lili quote Tennyson with
his eyes entranced and his mouth open, as if he were imagining new
things to put into it--oh, Siddy!

And then I saw the others were looking at her the same way. Ilhilihis
was seeing finer feather forests than long-dead Luna's grow. The
greenhouse child Maud ap-Ares Davies was stowing away on a starship
bound for another galaxy, or thinking how different her life might have
been, the children she might have had, if she'd stayed on the planets
and out of the Change World. Even Erich looked as though he might be
blitzing new universes, and Mark subduing them, for an eight-legged
_Führer-imperator_. Beau was throbbing up a wider Mississippi in a
bigger-than-life sidewheeler.

Even I--well, I wasn't dreaming of a Greater Chicago. "Let's not go
hog-wild on this sort of thing," I told myself, but I did look up at the
Void and I got a shiver because I imagined it drawing away and the whole
Place starting to grow.

"I truly meant what I said about a seed," Lili went on slowly. "I know,
as you all do, that there are no children in the Change World, that
there cannot be, that we all become instantly sterile, that what they
call a curse is lifted from us girls and we are no longer in bondage to
the moon."

She was right, all right--if there's one thing that's been proved a
million times in the Change World, it's that.

"But we are no longer in the Change World," Lili said softly, "and its
limitations should no longer apply to us, including that one. I feel
deeply certain of it, but--" she looked around slowly--"we are four
women here and I thought one of us might have a surer indication."

My eyes followed hers around like anybody's would. In fact, everybody
was looking around except Maud, and she had the silliest look of
surprise on her face and it stayed there, and then, very carefully, she
got down from the bar stool with her knitting. She looked at the
half-finished pink bra with the long white needles stuck in it and her
eyes bugged bigger yet, as if she were expecting it to turn into a baby
sweater right then and there. Then she walked across the Place to Lili
and stood beside her. While she was walking, the look of surprise
changed to a quiet smile. The only other thing she did was throw her
shoulders back a little.

I was jealous of her for a second, but it was a double miracle for her,
considering her age, and I couldn't grudge her that. And to tell the
truth, I was a little frightened, too. Even with Dave, I'd been bothered
about this business of having babies.

       *       *       *       *       *

Yet I stood up with Siddy--I couldn't stop myself and I guess he
couldn't either--and hand in hand we walked to the control divan. Beau
and Sevensee were there and Bruce, of course, and then, so help me,
those Soldiers to the death, Kaby and Mark, started over from the bar
and I couldn't see anything in their eyes about the greater glory of
Crete and Rome, but something, I think, about each other, and after a
moment Illy slowly detached himself from the piano and followed, lightly
trailing his tentacles on the floor.

I couldn't exactly see him hoping for little Illies in this company,
unless it was true what the jokes said about Lunans, but maybe he was
being really disinterested and maybe he wasn't; maybe he was simply
figuring that Illy ought to be on the side with the biggest battalions.

I heard dragging footsteps behind us and here came Doc from the Gallery,
carrying in his folded arms an abstract sculpture as big as a newborn
baby. It was an agglomeration of perfect shiny gray spheres the size of
golf balls, shaping up to something like a large brain, but with holes
showing through here and there. He held it out to us like an infant to
be admired and worked his lips and tongue as if he were trying very hard
to say something, though not a word came out that you could understand,
and I thought, "Maxey Aleksevich may be speechless drunk and have all
sorts of holes in his head, but he's got the right instincts, bless his
soulful little Russian heart."

We were all crowded around the control divan like a football team
huddling. The Peace Packers, it came to me. Sevensee would be fullback
or center and Illy left end--what a receiver! The right number, too.
Erich was alone at the bar, but now even he--"Oh, no, this can't be," I
thought--even he came toward us. Then I saw that his face was working
the worst ever. He stopped halfway and managed to force a smile, but it
was the worst, too. "That's my little commandant," I thought, "no team
spirit."

"So now Lili and Bruce--yes, and _Grossmutterchen_ Maud--have their
little nest," he said, and he wouldn't have had to push his voice very
hard to get a screech. "But what are the rest of us supposed to
be--cowbirds?"

       *       *       *       *       *

He crooked his neck and flapped his hands and croaked, "Cuc-koo!
Cuc-koo!" And I said to myself, "I often thought you were crazy, boy,
but now I know."

"_Teufelsdreck!_--yes, Devil's dirt!--but you all seem to be infected
with this dream of children. Can't you see that the Change World is the
natural and proper end of evolution?--a period of enjoyment and
measuring, an ultimate working out of things, which women call
destruction--'Help, I'm being raped!' 'Oh, what are they doing to my
children?'--but which men know as fulfillment.

"You're given good parts in _Götterdämmerung_ and you go up to the
author and tap him on the shoulder and say, 'Excuse me, Herr Wagner, but
this Twilight of the Gods is just a bit morbid. Why don't you write an
opera for me about the little ones, the dear little blue-eyed
curly-tops? A plot? Oh, boy meets girl and they settle down to breed,
something like that.'

"Devil's dirt doubled and damned! Have you thought what life will
be like without a Door to go out of to find freedom and adventure,
to measure your courage and keenness? Do you want to grow long gray
beards hobbling around this asteroid turned inside out? Putter around
indoors to the end of your days, mooning about little baby
cosmoses?--incidentally, with a live bomb for company. The cave, the
womb, the little gray home in the nest--is that what you want? It'll
grow? Oh, yes, like the city engulfing the wild wood, a proliferation
of _Kinder_, _Kirche_, _Küche_--I should live so long!

"Women!--how I hate their bright eyes as they look at me from the
fireside, bent-shouldered, rocking, deeply happy to be old, and say,
'He's getting weak, he's giving out, soon I'll have to put him to bed
and do the simplest things for him.' Your filthy Triple Goddess, Kaby,
the birther, bride, and burier of man! Woman, the enfeebler, the
fetterer, the crippler! Woman!--and the curly-headed little cancers she
wants!"

He lurched toward us, pointing at Lili. "I never knew one who didn't
want to cripple a man if you gave her the chance. Cripple him, swaddle
him, clip his wings, grind him to sausage to mold another man, hers, a
doll man. You hid the Maintainer, you little smother-hen, so you could
have your nest and your Brucie!"

He stopped, gasping, and I expected someone to bop him one on the
schnozzle, and I think he did, too. I turned to Bruce and he was
looking, I don't know how, sorry, guilty, anxious, angry, shaken,
inspired, all at once, and I wished people sometimes had simple suburban
reactions like magazine stories.

Then Erich made the mistake, if it was one, of turning toward Bruce and
slowly staggering toward him, pawing the air with his hands as if he
were going to collapse into his arms, and saying, "Don't let them get
you, Bruce. Don't let them tie you down. Don't let them clip you--your
words or your deeds. You're a Soldier. Even when you talked about a
peace message, you talked about doing some smashing of your own. No
matter what you think and feel, Bruce, no matter how much lying you do
and how much you hide, you're really not on their side."

That did it.

       *       *       *       *       *

It didn't come soon enough or, I think, in the right spirit to please
me, but I will say it for Bruce that he didn't muck it up by tipping or
softening his punch. He took one step forward and his shoulders spun and
his fist connected sweet and clean.

As he did it, he said only one word, "Loki!" and darn if that didn't
switch me back to a campfire in the Indiana Dunes and my mother telling
me out of the Elder Saga about the malicious, sneering, all-spoiling
Norse god and how, when the other gods came to trap him in his hideaway
by the river, he was on the point of finishing knotting a mysterious net
big enough, I had imagined, to snare the whole universe, and that if
they'd come a minute later, he would have.

Erich was stretched on the floor, his head hitched up, rubbing his jaw
and glaring at Bruce. Mark, who was standing beside me, moved a little
and I thought he was going to do something, maybe even clobber Bruce in
the old spirit of you can't do that to my buddy, but he just shook his
head and said, "_Omnia vincit amor._" I nudged him and said, "Meaning?"
and he said, "Love licks everything."

I'd never have expected it from a Roman, but he was half right at any
rate. Lili had her victory: Bruce clearing the field for the marriage by
laying out the woman-hating boy friend who would be trying to get him to
go out nights. At that moment, I think Bruce wanted Lili and a life with
her more than he wanted to reform the Change World. Sure, us women have
our little victories--until the legions come or the Little Corporal
draws up his artillery or the Panzers roar down the road.

Erich scrambled to his feet and stood there in a half-slump,
half-crouch, still rubbing his jaw and glaring at Bruce over his hand,
but making no move to continue the fight, and I studied his face and
said to myself, "If he can get a gun, he's going to shoot himself, I
know."

Bruce started to say something and hesitated, like I would have in his
shoes, and just then Doc got one of his unpredictable inspirations and
went weaving out toward Erich, holding out the sculpture and making
deaf-and-dumb noises like he had to us. Erich looked at him as if he
were going to kill him, and then grabbed the sculpture and swung it up
over his head and smashed it down on the floor, and for a wonder, it
didn't shatter. It just skidded along in one piece and stopped inches
from my feet.

That thing not breaking must have been the last straw for Erich. I swear
I could see the red surge up through his eyes toward his brain. He swung
around into the Stores sector and ran the few steps between him and the
bronze bomb chest.

Everything got very slow motion for me, though I didn't do any moving.
Almost every man started out after Erich. Bruce didn't, though, and
Siddy turned back after the first surge forward, while Illy squunched
down for a leap, and it was between Sevensee's hairy shanks and Beau's
scissoring white pants that I saw that under-the-microscope circle of
death's heads and watched Erich's finger go down on them in the order
Kaby had given: one, three, five, six, two, four, seven. I was able to
pray seven distinct times that he'd make a mistake.

He straightened up. Illy landed by the box like a huge silver spider and
his tentacles whipped futilely across its top. The others surged to a
frightened halt around them.

Erich's chest was heaving, but his voice was cool and collected as he
said, "You mentioned something about our having a future, Miss Foster.
Now you can make that more specific. Unless we get back to the cosmos
and dump this box, or find a Spider A-tech, or manage to call
headquarters for guidance on disarming the bomb, we have a future
exactly thirty minutes long."



CHAPTER 13

    But whence he was, or of what wombe ybore,
    Of beasts, or of the earth, I have not red:
    But certes was with milke of wolves and tygres fed.

                                              --Spenser

THE TIGER IS LOOSE


I guess when they really push the button or throw the switch or spring
the trap or focus the beam or what have you, you don't faint or go crazy
or anything else convenient. I didn't. Everything, everybody, every move
that was made, every word that was spoken, was painfully real to me,
like a hand twisting and squeezing things deep inside me, and I saw
every least detail spotlighted and magnified like I had the seven
skulls.

Erich was standing beyond the bomb chest; little smiles were ruffling
his lips. I'd never seen him look so sharp. Illy was beside him, but not
on his side, you understand. Mark, Sevensee and Beau were around the
chest to the nearer side. Beau had dropped to a knee and was scanning
the chest minutely, terror-under-control making him bend his head a
little closer than he needed to for clear vision, but with his hands
locked together behind his back, I guess to restrain the impulse to push
any and everything that looked like a disarming button.

Doc was sprawled face down on the nearest couch, out like a light, I
suppose.

Us four girls were still by the control divan. With Kaby, that surprised
me, because she didn't look scared or frozen, but almost as intensely
alive as Erich.

Sid had turned back, as I'd said, and had one hand stretched out toward
but not touching the Minor Maintainer, and a look on his beardy face as
if he were calling down death and destruction on every boozy rogue who
had ever gone up from King's Lynn to Cambridge and London, and I
realized why: if he'd thought of the Minor Maintainer a second sooner,
he could have pinned Erich down with heavy gravity before he could touch
the buttons.

Bruce was resting one hand on the head of the control divan and was
looking toward the group around the chest, toward Erich, I think, as if
Erich had done something rather wonderful for him, though I can't
imagine myself being tickled at being included in anybody's suicide
surprise party. Bruce looked altogether too dreamy, Brahma blast him,
for someone who must have the same steel-spiked thought in his head that
I know darn well the rest of us had: that in twenty-nine minutes or so,
the Place would be a sun in a bag.

       *       *       *       *       *

Erich was the first to get down to business, as I'd have laid any odds
he would be. He had the jump on us and he wasn't going to lose it.

"Well, when are you going to start getting Lili to tell us where she hid
the Maintainer? It has to be her--she was too certain it was gone
forever when she talked. And Bruce must have seen from the bar who took
the Maintainer, and who would he cover up for but his girl?"

There he was plagiarizing my ideas, but I guess I was willing to sign
them over to him in full if he got us the right pail of water for that
time-bomb.

He glanced at his wrist. "According to my Caller, you have twenty-nine
and a half minutes, including the time it will take to get a Door or
contact headquarters. When are you going to get busy on the girl?"

Bruce laughed a little--deprecatingly, so help me--and started toward
him. "Look here, old man," he said, "there's no need to trouble Lili, or
to fuss with headquarters, even if you could. Really not at all. Not to
mention that your surmises are quite unfounded, old chap, and I'm a bit
surprised at your advancing them. But that's quite all right because, as
it happens, I'm an atomics technician and I even worked on that very
bomb. To disarm it, you just have to fiddle a bit with some of the
ankhs, those hoopy little crosses. Here, let me--"

Allah il allah, but it must have struck everybody as it did me as being
just too incredible an assertion, too bloody British a bare-faced bluff,
for Erich didn't have to say a word; Mark and Sevensee grabbed Bruce by
the arms, one on each side, as he stooped toward the bronze chest, and
they weren't gentle about it. Then Erich spoke.

"Oh, no, Bruce. Very sporting of you to try to cover up for your girl
friend, but we aren't going to let ourselves be blown to stripped atoms
twenty-eight minutes too soon while you monkey with the buttons, the
very thing Benson-Carter warned against, and pray for a guesswork
miracle. It's too thin, Bruce, when you come from 1917 and haven't been
on the Big Time for a hundred sleeps and were calling for an A-tech
yourself a few hours ago. Much too thin. Bruce, something is going to
happen that I'm afraid you won't like, but you're going to have to put
up with it. That is, unless Miss Foster decides to be cooperative."

"I say, you fellows, let me go," Bruce demanded, struggling
experimentally. "I know it's a bit thick to swallow and I did give you
the wrong impression calling for an A-tech, but I just wanted to capture
your attention then; I didn't want to have to work on the bomb. Really,
Erich, would they have ordered Benson-Carter to pick us up unless one of
us were an A-tech? They'd be sure to include one in the bally
operation."

"When they're using patchwork tactics?" Erich grinningly quoted back at
him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Kaby spoke up beside me and said, "Benson-Carter was a magician of
matter and he was going on the operation disguised as an old woman. We
have the cloak and hood with the other garments," and I wondered how
this cold fish of a she-officer could be the same girl who was giving
Mark slurpy looks not ten minutes ago.

"Well?" Erich asked, glancing at his Caller and then swinging his eyes
around at us as if there must be some of the old _Wehrmacht_ iron
somewhere. We all found ourselves looking at Lili and she was looking so
sharp herself, so ready to jump and so at bay, that it was all _I_
needed, at any rate, to make Erich's theory about the Maintainer a
rock-bottom certainty.

Bruce must have realized the way our minds were working, for he started
to struggle in earnest and at the same time called, "For God's sake,
don't do anything to Lili! Let me loose, you idiots! Everything's true I
told you--I can save you from that bomb. Sevensee, you took my side
against the Spiders; you've nothing to lose. Sid, you're an Englishman.
Beau, you're a gentleman and you love her, too--for God's sake, stop
them!"

Beau glanced up over his shoulder at Bruce and the others surging around
close to his ankles and he had on his poker face. Sid I could tell was
once more going through the purgatory of decision. Beau reached his own
decision first and I'll say it for him that he acted on it fast and
intelligently. Right from his kneeling position and before he'd even
turned his head quite back, he jumped Erich.

But other things in this cosmos besides Man can pick sides and act fast.
Illy landed on Beau midway and whipped his tentacles around him tight
and they went wobbling around like a drunken white-and-silver barber
pole. Beau got his hands each around a tentacle, and at the same time
his face began to get purple, and I winced at what they were both going
through.

Maybe Sevensee had a hoof in Sid's purgatory, because Bruce shook loose
from the satyr and tried to knock out Mark, but the Roman twisted his
arm and kept him from getting in a good punch.

Erich didn't make a move to mix into either fight, which is my little
commandant all over. Using his fists on anybody but me is beneath him.

       *       *       *       *       *

Then Sid made his choice, but there was no way for me to tell what it
was, for, as he reached for the Minor Maintainer, Kaby contemptuously
snatched it away from his hands and gave him a knee in the belly that
doubled me up in sympathy and sent him sprawling on his knees toward the
fighters. On the return, Kaby gave Lili, who'd started to grab too, an
effortless backhand smash that set her down on the divan.

Erich's face lit up like an electric sign and he kept his eyes fixed on
Kaby.

She crouched a little, carrying her weight on the balls of her feet and
firmly cradling the Minor Maintainer in her left arm, like a basketball
captain planning an offensive. Then she waved her free hand decisively
to the right. I didn't get it, but Erich did and Mark too, for Erich
jumped for the Refresher sector and Mark let go of Bruce and followed
him, ducking around Sevensee's arms, who was coming back into the fight
on which side I don't know. Illy un-whipped from Beau and copied Erich
and Mark with one big spring.

Then Kaby twisted a dial as far as it would go and Bruce, Beau, Sevensee
and poor Siddy were slammed down and pinned to the floor by about eight
gravities.

It should have been lighter near us--I hoped it was, but you couldn't
tell from watching Siddy; he went flat on his face, spread-eagled, one
hand stretched toward me so close, I could have touched it (but not let
go!), and his mouth was open against the floor and he was gasping
through a corner of it and I could see his spine trying to sink through
his belly. Bruce just managed to get his head and one shoulder up a bit,
and they all made me think of a Dore illustration of the _Inferno_ where
the cream of the damned are frozen up to their necks in ice in the
innermost circle of Hell.

The gravity didn't catch me, although I could feel it in my left arm. I
was mostly in the Refresher sector, but I dropped down flat too, partly
out of a crazy compassion I have, but mostly because I didn't want to
take a chance of having Kaby knock me down.

Erich, Mark and Illy had got clear and they headed toward us. Maud
picked the moment to make her play; she hadn't much choice of times, if
she wanted to make one. The Old Girl was looking it for once, but I
guess the thought of her miracle must have survived alongside the fear
of sacked sun and must have meant a lot to her, for she launched out
fast, all set to straight-arm Kaby into the heavy gravity and grab the
Minor Maintainer with the other hand.



CHAPTER 14

    Like diamonds, we are cut with our own dust.

                                       --Webster

"NOW WILL YOU TALK?"


Cretans have eyes under their back hair, or let's face it, Entertainers
aren't Soldiers. Kaby weaved to one side and flicked a helpful hand and
poor old Maud went where she'd been going to send Kaby. It sickened me
to see the gravity take hold and yank her down.

I could have jumped up and made it four in a row for Kaby, but I'm not a
bit brave when things like my life are at stake.

Lili was starting to get up, acting a little dazed. Kaby gently pushed
her down again and quietly said, "Where is it?" and then hauled off and
slapped her across the face. What got me was the matter-of-fact way Kaby
did it. I can understand somebody getting mad and socking someone, or
even deliberately working up a rage so as to be able to do something
nasty, but this cold-blooded way turns my stomach.

Lili looked as if half her face were about to start bleeding, but she
didn't look dazed any more and her jaw set. Kaby grabbed Lili's pearl
necklace and twisted it around her neck and it broke and the pearls went
bouncing around like ping-pong balls, so Kaby yanked down Lili's gray
silk bandeau until it was around the neck and tightened that. Lili
started to choke through her tight-pressed lips. Erich, Mark and Illy
had come up and crowded around, but they seemed to be content with the
job Kaby was doing.

"Listen, slut," she said, "we have no time. You have a healing room in
this place. I can work the things."

"Here it comes," I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything,
on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally
stylized for me, the horror with my name on it. I wasn't going to be
allowed to blow up peacefully. They weren't satisfied with an A-bomb.
They had to write my private hell into the script.

"There is a thing called an Invertor," Kaby said exactly as I'd known
she would, but as I didn't really hear it just then--a mental split I'll
explain in a moment. "It opens you up so they can cure your insides
without cutting your skin or making you bleed anywhere. It turns the big
parts of you inside out, but not the blood tubes. All your skin--your
eyes, ears, nose, toes, all of it--becoming the lining of a little hole
that's half-filled with your hair.

"Meantime, your insides are exposed for whatever the healer wants to do
to them. You live for a while on the air inside the hole. First the
healer gives you an air that makes you sleep, or you go mad in about
fifty heartbeats. We'll see what ten heartbeats do to you without the
sleepy air. Now will you talk?"

       *       *       *       *       *

I hadn't been listening to her, though, not the real me, or I'd have
gone mad without getting the treatment. I once heard Doc say your liver
is more mysterious and farther away from you than the stars, because
although you live with your liver all your life, you never see it or
learn to point to it instinctively, and the thought of someone messing
around with that intimate yet unknown part of you is just too awful.

I knew I had to do something quick. Hell, at the first hint of
Introversion, before Kaby had even named it, Illy had winced so that his
tentacles were all drawn up like fat feather-sausages. Erich had looked
at him questioningly, but that lousy Looney had un-endeared himself to
me by squeaking, "Don't mind me, I'm just sensitive. Get on with the
girl. Make her tell."

Yes, I knew I had to do something, and here on the floor that meant
thinking hard and in high gear about something else. The screwball
sculpture Erich had tried to smash was a foot from my nose and I saw a
faint trail of white stuff where it had skidded. I reached out and
touched the trail; it was finely gritty, like powdered glass. I tipped
up the sculpture and the part on which it had skidded wasn't marred at
all, not even dulled; the gray spheres were as glisteningly bright as
ever. So I knew the trail was diamond dust rubbed off the diamonds in
the floor by something even harder.

That told me the sculpture was something special and maybe Doc had had a
real idea in his pickled brain when he'd been pushing the thing at all
of us and trying to tell us something. He hadn't managed to say anything
then, but he had earlier when he'd been going to tell us what to do
about the bomb, and maybe there was a connection.

I twisted my memory hard and let it spring back and I got "Inversh ...
bosh ..." Bosh, indeed! Bosh and inverse bosh to all boozers, Russki or
otherwise.

So I quick tried the memory trick again and this time I got "glovsh" and
then I grasped and almost sneezed on diamond dust as I watched the
pieces fit themselves together in my mind like a speeded-up movie reel.

It all hung on that black right-hand hussar's glove Lili had produced
for Bruce. Only she couldn't have found it in Stores, because we'd
searched every fractional pigeonhole later on and there hadn't been any
gloves there, not even the left-hand mate there would have been. Also,
Bruce had had two left-hand gloves to start with, and we had been
through the whole Place with a fine-tooth comb, and there had been only
the two black gloves on the floor where Bruce had kicked them off the
bar--those two and those two only, the left-hand glove he'd brought from
outside and the right-hand glove Lili had produced for him.

       *       *       *       *       *

So a left-hand glove had disappeared--the last I'd seen of it, Lili had
been putting it on her tray--and a right-hand glove had appeared. Which
could only add up to one thing: Lili had turned the left-hand glove into
an identical right. She couldn't have done it by turning it inside out
the ordinary way, because the lining was different.

But as I knew only too sickeningly well, there was an extraordinary way
to turn things inside out, things like human beings. You merely had to
put them on the Invertor in Surgery and flick the switch for full
Inversion.

Or you could flick it for partial Inversion and turn something into a
perfect three-dimensional mirror image of itself, just what a right-hand
glove is of a left. Rotation through the fourth dimension, the science
boys call it; I've heard of it being used in surgery on the highly
asymmetric Martians, and even to give a socially impeccable right hand
to a man who'd lost one, by turning an amputated right arm into an
amputated left.

Ordinarily, nothing but live things are ever Inverted in Surgery and you
wouldn't think of doing it to an inanimate object, especially in a Place
where the Doc's a drunk and the Surgery hasn't been used for hundreds of
sleeps.

But when you've just fallen in love, you think of wonderful crazy things
to do for people. Drunk with love, Lili had taken Bruce's extra
left-hand glove into Surgery, partially Inverted it, and got a
right-hand glove to give him.

What Doc had been trying to say with his "Inversh ... bosh ..." was
"Invert the box," meaning we should put the bronze chest through full
Inversion to get at the bomb inside to disarm it. Doc too had got the
idea from Lili's trick with the glove. What an inside-out tactical
atomic bomb would look like, I could not imagine and did not
particularly care to see. I might have to, though, I realized.

But the fast-motion film was still running in my head. Later on, Lili
had decided like I had that her lover was going to lose out in his plea
for mutiny unless she could give him a really captive audience--and
maybe, even then, she had been figuring on creating the nest for Bruce's
chicks and ... all those other things we'd believed in for a while. So
she'd taken the Major Maintainer and remembered the glove, and not many
seconds later, she had set down on a shelf of the Art Gallery an object
that no one would think of questioning--except someone who knew the
Gallery by heart.

       *       *       *       *       *

I looked at the abstract sculpture a foot from my nose, at the clustered
gray spheres the size of golf balls. I had known that the inside of the
Maintainer was made up of vastly tough, vastly hard giant molecules, but
I hadn't realized they were quite _that_ big.

I said to myself, "Greta, this is going to give you a major psychosis,
but you're the one who has to do it, because no one is going to listen
to your deductions when they're all practically living on negative time
already."

I got up as quietly as if I were getting out of a bed I shouldn't have
been in--there are some things Entertainers are good at--and Kaby was
just saying "you go mad in about fifty heartbeats." Everybody on their
feet was looking at Lili. Sid seemed to have moved, but I had no time
for him except to hope he hadn't done anything that might attract
attention to me.

I stepped out of my shoes and walked rapidly to Surgery--there's one
good thing about this hardest floor anywhere, it doesn't creak. I walked
through the Surgery screen that is like a wall of opaque, odorless
cigarette smoke and I concentrated on remembering my snafued nurse's
training, and before I had time to panic, I had the sculpture positioned
on the gleaming table of the Invertor.

I froze for a moment when I reached for the Inversion switch, thinking
of the other time and trying to remember what it had been that bothered
me so much about an inside-out brain being bigger and not having eyes,
but then I either thumbed my nose at my nightmare or kissed my sanity
good-by, I don't know which, and twisted the switch all the way over,
and there was the Major Maintainer winking blue about three times a
second as nice as you could want it.

It must have been working as sweet and steady as ever, all the time it
was Inverted, except that, being inside out, it had hocused the
direction finders.



CHAPTER 15

    black legged spiders
    with red hearts of hell

                  --marquis

LORD SPIDER


"Jesu!" I turned and Sid's face was sticking through the screen like a
tinted bas-relief hanging on a gray wall and I got the impression he had
peered unexpectedly through a slit in an arras into Queen Elizabeth's
bedroom.

He didn't have any time to linger on the sensation, even if he'd wanted
to, for an elbow with a copper band thrust through the screen and dug
his ribs and Kaby marched Lili in by the neck. Erich, Mark and Illy were
right behind. They caught the blue flashes and stopped dead, staring at
the long-lost. Erich spared me one look which seemed to say, so you did
it, not that it matters. Then he stepped forward and picked it up and
held it solidly to his left side in the double right-angle made by
fingers, forearm and chest, and reached for the Introversion switch with
a look on his face as if he were opening a fifth of whisky.

The blue light died and Change Winds hit me like a stiff drink that had
been a long, long time in coming, like a hot trumpet note out of
nowhere.

I felt the changing pasts blowing through me, and the uncertainties
whistling past, and ice-stiff reality softening with all its duties and
necessities, and the little memories shredding away and dancing off like
autumn leaves, leaving maybe not even ghosts behind, and all the crazy
moods like Mardi Gras dancers pouring down an evening street, and
something inside me had the nerve to say it didn't care whether Greta
Forzane's death was riding in those Winds because they felt so good.

I could tell it was hitting the others the same way. Even battered,
tight-lipped Lili seemed to be saying, you're making me drink the stuff
and I hate you for it, but I do love it. I guess we'd all had the worry
that even finding and Extroverting the Maintainer wouldn't put us back
in touch with the cosmos and give us those Winds we hate and love.

The thing that cut through to us as we stood there glowing was not the
thought of the bomb, though that would have come in a few seconds more,
but Sid's voice. He was still standing in the screen, except that now
his face was out the other side and we could just see parts of his
gray-doubleted back, but, of course, his "Jesu!" came through the screen
as if it weren't there.

At first I couldn't figure out who he could be talking to, but I swear I
never heard his voice so courtly obsequious before, so strong and yet so
filled with awe and an under-note of, yes, sheer terror.

"Lord, I am filled from top to toe with confusion that you should so
honor my poor Place," he said. "Poor say I and mine, when I mean that I
have ever busked it faithfully for you, not dreaming that you would ever
condescend ... yet knowing that your eye was certes ever upon me ...
though I am but as a poor pinch of dust adrift between the suns ... I
abase myself. Prithee, how may I serve thee, sir? I know not e'en how
most suitably to address thee, Lord ... King ... Emperor Spider!"

       *       *       *       *       *

I felt like I was getting very small, but not a bit less visible, worse
luck, and even with the Change Winds inside me to give me courage, I
thought this was really too much, coming on top of everything else; it
was simply unfair.

At the same time, I realized it was to be expected that the big bosses
would have been watching us with their unblinking beady black eyes ever
since we had Introverted waiting to pounce if we should ever come out of
it. I tried to picture what was on the other side of the screen and I
didn't like the assignment.

But in spite of being petrified, I had a hard time not giggling, like
the zany at graduation exercises, at the way the other ones in Surgery
were taking it.

I mean the Soldiers. They each stiffened up like they had the old ramrod
inside them, and their faces got that important look, and they glanced
at each other and the floor without lowering their heads, as if they
were measuring the distance between their feet and mentally chalking
alternate sets of footprints to step into. The way Erich and Kaby held
the Major and Minor Maintainers became formal; the way they checked
their Callers and nodded reassuringly was positively esoteric. Even Illy
somehow managed to look as if he were on parade.

Then from beyond the screen came what was, under the circumstances, the
worst noise I've ever heard, a seemingly wordless distant-sounding
howling and wailing, with a note of menace that made me shake, although
it also had a nasty familiarity about it I couldn't place. Sid's voice
broke into it, loud, fast and frightened.

"Your pardon, Lord, I did not think ... certes, the gravity ... I'll
attend to it on the instant." He whipped a hand and half a head back
through the screen, but without looking back and snapped his fingers,
and before I could blink, Kaby had put the Minor Maintainer in his hand.

Sid went completely out of sight then and the howling stopped, and I
thought that if that was the way a Lord Spider expressed his annoyance
at being subjected to incorrect gravity, I hoped the bosses wouldn't
start any conversations with me.

Erich pursed his lips and threw the other Soldiers a nod and the four of
them marched through the screen as if they'd drilled a lifetime for this
moment. I had the wild idea that Erich might give me his arm, but he
strode past me as if I were ... an Entertainer.

I hesitated a moment then, but I had to see what was happening outside,
even if I got eaten up for it. Besides, I had a bit of the thought that
if these formalities went on much longer, even a Lord Spider was going
to discover just how immune he was to confined atomic blast.

I walked through the screen with Lili beside me.

       *       *       *       *       *

The Soldiers had stopped a few feet in front of it. I looked around
ahead for whatever it was going to turn out to be, prepared to drop a
curtsy or whatever else, bar nothing, that seemed expected of me.

I had a hard time spotting the beast. Some of the others seemed to be
having trouble too. I saw Doc weaving around foolishly by the control
divan, and Bruce and Beau and Sevensee and Maud on their feet beyond it,
and I wondered whether we were dealing with an invisible monster; ought
to be easy enough for the bosses to turn a simple trick like
invisibility.

Then I looked sharply left where everyone else, even glassy-eyed Doc,
was coming to look, into the Door sector, only there wasn't any monster
there or even a Door, but just Siddy holding the Minor Maintainer and
grinning like when he is threatening to tickle me, only more fiendishly.

"Not a move, masters," he cried, his eyes dancing, "or I'll pin the pack
of you down, marry and amen I will. It is my firm purpose to see the
Place blasted before I let this instrument out of my hands again."

My first thought was, "'Sblood but Siddy is a real actor! I don't care
if he didn't study under anyone later than Burbage, that just proves how
good Burbage is."

Sid had convinced us not only that the real Spiders had arrived, but
earlier that the gravity in the edge of Stores had been a lot heavier
than it actually was. He completely fooled all those Soldiers, including
my swelled-headed victorious little commandant, and I kind of filed away
the timing of that business of reaching out the hand and snapping the
fingers without looking, it was so good.

"Beauregard!" Sid called. "Get to the Major Maintainer and call
headquarters. But don't come through Door, marry go by Refresher. I'll
not trust a single Demon of you in this sector with me until much more
has been shown and settled."

"Siddy, you're wonderful," I said, starting toward him. "As soon as I
got the Maintainer unsnarled and looked around and saw your sweet old
face--"

"Back, tricksy trull! Not the breadth of one scarlet toenail nearer me,
you Queen of Sleights and High Priestess of Deception!" he bellowed.
"You least of all do I trust. Why you hid the Maintainer, I know not,
'faith, but later you'll discover the truth to me or I'll have your
gizzard."

I could see there was going to have to be a little explaining.

       *       *       *       *       *

Doc, touched off, I guess, by Sid waving his hand at me, threw back his
head and let off one of those shuddery Siberian wolf-howls he does so
blamed well. Sid waved toward him sharply and he shut up, beaming
toothily, but at least I knew who was responsible for the Spider wail of
displeasure that Sid had either called for or more likely got as a gift
of the gods and used in his act.

Beau came circling around fast and Erich shoved the Major Maintainer
into his hands without making any fuss. The four Soldiers were looking
pretty glum after losing their grand review.

Beau dumped some junk off one of the Art Gallery's sturdy taborets and
set the Major Maintainer on it carefully but fast, and quickly knelt in
front of it and whipped on some earphones and started to tune. The way
he did it snatched away from me my inward glory at my big Inversion
brainwave so fast, I might never have had it, and there was nothing in
my mind again but the bronze bomb chest.

I wondered if I should suggest Inverting the thing, but I said to
myself, "Uh-uh, Greta, you got no diploma to show them and there
probably isn't time to try two things, anyway."

Then Erich for once did something I wanted him to, though I didn't care
for its effect on my nerves, by looking at his Caller and saying
quietly, "Nine minutes to go, if Place time and cosmic time are
synching."

Beau was steady as a rock and working adjustments so fine that I
couldn't even see his fingers move.

Then, at the other end of the Place, Bruce took a few steps toward us.
Sevensee and Maud followed a bit behind him. I remembered Bruce was
another of our nuts with a private program for blowing up the place.

"Sidney," he called, and then, when he'd got Sid's attention, "Remember,
Sidney, you and I both came down to London from Peterhouse."

I didn't get it. Then Bruce looked toward Erich with a devil-may-care
challenge and toward Lili as if he were asking her forgiveness for
something. I couldn't read her expression; the bruises were blue on her
throat and her cheek was puffy.

Then Bruce once more shot Erich that look of challenge and he spun and
grabbed Sevensee by a wrist and stuck out a foot--even half-horses
aren't too sharp about infighting, I guess, and the satyr had every
right to feel at least as confused as I felt--and sent him stumbling
into Maud, and the two of them tumbled to the floor in a jumble of hairy
legs and pearl-gray frock. Bruce raced to the bomb chest.

       *       *       *       *       *

Most of us yelled, "Stop him, Sid, pin him down," or something like
that--I know I did because I was suddenly sure that he'd been asking
Lili's pardon for blowing the two of them up--and all the rest of us
too, the love-blinded stinker.

Sid had been watching him all the time and now he lifted his hand to the
Minor Maintainer, but then he didn't touch any of the dials, just
watched and waited, and I thought, "Shaitan shave us! Does Siddy want in
on death, too? Ain't he satisfied with all he knows about life?"

Bruce had knelt and was twisting some things on the front of the chest,
and it was all as bright as if he were under a bank of Klieg lights, and
I was telling myself I wouldn't know anything when the fireball fired,
and not believing it, and Sevensee and Maud had got unscrambled and were
starting for Bruce, and the rest of us were yelling at Sid, except that
Erich was just looking at Bruce very happily, and Sid was still not
doing anything, and it was unbearable except just then I felt the little
arteries start to burst in my brain like a string of fire-crackers and
the old aorta pop, and for good measure, a couple of valves come
unhinged in my ticker, and I was thinking, "Well, now I know what it's
like to die of heart failure and high blood pressure," and having a last
quiet smile at having cheated the bomb, when Bruce jumped up and back
from the chest.

"That does it!" he announced cheerily. "She's as safe as the Bank of
England."

Sevensee and Maud stopped themselves just short of knocking him down and
I said to myself, "Hey, let's get a move on! I thought heart attacks
were fast."

Before anyone else could speak, Beau did. He had turned around from the
Major Maintainer and pulled aside one of the earphones.

"I got headquarters," he said crisply. "They told me how to disarm the
bomb--I merely said I thought we ought to know. What did you do, sir?"
he called to Bruce.

"There's a row of four ankhs just below the lock. The first to your left
you give a quarter turn to the right, the second a quarter turn to the
left, same for the fourth, and you don't touch the third."

"That is it, sir," Beau confirmed.

The long silence was too much for me; I guess I must have the shortest
span for unspoken relief going. I drew some nourishment out of my
restored arteries into my brain cells and yelled, "Siddy, I know I'm a
tricksy trull and the High Vixen of all Foxes, but what the Hell is
Peterhouse?"

"The oldest college at Cambridge," he told me rather coolly.



CHAPTER 16

    "Familiar with infinite universe sheafs and open-ended postulate
    systems?--the notion that everything is possible--and I mean
    everything--and everything has happened. _Everything._"

                                                          --Heinlein

THE POSSIBILITY-BINDERS


An hour later, I was nursing a weak highball and a black eye in the
sleepy-time darkness on the couch farthest from the piano, half watching
the highlighted party going on around it and the bar, while the Place
waited for rendezvous with Egypt and the Battle of Alexandria.

Sid had swept all our outstanding problems into one big bundle and,
since his hand held the joker of the Minor Maintainer, he had settled
them all as high-handedly as if they'd been those of a bunch of
schoolkids.

It amounted to this:

We'd been Introverted when most of the damning things had happened, so
presumably only we knew about them, and we were all in so deep one way
or another that we'd all have to keep quiet to protect our delicate
complexions.

Well, Erich's triggering the bomb did balance rather neatly Bruce's
incitement to mutiny, and there was Doc's drinking, while everybody who
had declared for the peace message had something to hide. Mark and Kaby
I felt inclined to trust anywhere, Maud for sure, and Erich in this
particular matter, damn him. Illy I didn't feel at all easy about, but I
told myself there always has to be a fly in the ointment--a darn big
one this time, and furry.

Sid didn't mention his own dirty linen, but he knew we knew he'd flopped
badly as boss of the Place and only recouped himself by that last-minute
flimflam.

Remembering Sid's trick made me think for a moment about the real
Spiders. Just before I snuck out of Surgery, I'd had a vivid picture of
what they must look like, but now I couldn't get it again. It depressed
me, not being able to remember--oh, I probably just imagined I'd had a
picture, like a hophead on a secret-of-the-universe kick. Me ever find
out anything about the Spiders?--except for nervous notions like I'd had
during the recent fracas?--what a laugh!

The funniest thing (ha-ha!) was that I had ended up the least-trusted
person. Sid wouldn't give me time to explain how I'd deduced what had
happened to the Maintainer, and even when Lili spoke up and admitted
hiding it, she acted so bored I don't think everybody believed
her--although she did spill the realistic detail that she hadn't used
partial Inversion on the glove; she'd just turned it inside out to make
it a right and then done a full Inversion to get the lining back inside.

       *       *       *       *       *

I tried to get Doc to confirm that he'd reasoned the thing out the same
way I had, but he said he had been blacked out the whole time, except
during the first part of the hunt, and he didn't remember having any
bright ideas at all. Right now, he was having Maud explain to him twice,
in detail, everything that had happened. I decided that it was going to
take a little more work before my reputation as a great detective was
established.

I looked over the edge of the couch and just made out in the gloom one
of Bruce's black gloves. It must have been kicked there. I fished it up.
It was the right-hand one. My big clue, and was I sick of it! Got
mittens, God forbid! I slung it away and, like a lurking octopus, Illy
shot up a tentacle from the next couch, where I hadn't known he was
resting, and snatched the glove like it was a morsel of underwater
garbage. These ETs can seem pretty shuddery non-human at times.

I thought of what a cold-blooded, skin-saving louse Illy had been, and
about Sid and his easy suspicions, and Erich and my black eye, and how,
as usual, I'd got left alone in the end. My men!

Bruce had explained about being an A-tech. Like a lot of us, he'd had
several widely different jobs during his first weeks in the Change World
and one of them had been as secretary to a group of the minor atomics
boys from the Manhattan-Project-Earth-Satellite days. I gathered he'd
also absorbed some of his bothersome ideas from them. I hadn't quite
decided yet what species of heroic heel he belonged to, but he was thick
with Mark and Erich again. Everybody's men!

Sid didn't have to argue with anybody; all the wild compulsions and
mighty resolves were dead now, anyway until they'd had a good long rest.
I sure could use one myself, I knew.

The party at the piano was getting wilder. Lili had been dancing the
black bottom on top of it and now she jumped down into Sid's and
Sevensee's arms, taking a long time about it. She'd been drinking a lot
and her little gray dress looked about as innocent on her as diapers
would on Nell Gwyn. She continued her dance, distributing her marks of
favor equally between Sid, Erich and the satyr. Beau didn't mind a bit,
but serenely pounded out "Tonight's the Night"--which she'd practically
shouted to him not two minutes ago.

I was glad to be out of the party. Who can compete with a highly
experienced, utterly disillusioned seventeen-year-old really throwing
herself away for the first time?

       *       *       *       *       *

Something touched my hand. Illy had stretched a tentacle into a furry
wire to return me the black glove, although he ought to have known I
didn't want it. I pushed it away, privately calling Illy a washed-out
moronic tarantula, and right away I felt a little guilty. What right had
I to be critical of Illy? Would my own character have shown to advantage
if I'd been locked in with eleven octopoids a billion years away? For
that matter, where did I get off being critical of anyone?

Still, I was glad to be out of the party, though I kept on watching it.
Bruce was drinking alone at the bar. Once Sid had gone over to him and
they'd had one together and I'd heard Bruce reciting from Rupert Brooke
those deliberately corny lines, "For England's the one land, I know,
Where men with Splendid Hearts may go; and Cambridgeshire, of all
England, The Shire for Men who Understand;" and I'd remembered that
Brooke too had died young in World War One and my ideas had got fuzzy.
But mostly Bruce was just calmly drinking by himself. Every once in a
while Lili would look at him and stop dead in her dancing and laugh.

I'd figured out this Bruce-Lili-Erich business as well as I cared to.
Lili had wanted the nest with all her heart and nothing else would ever
satisfy her, and now she'd go to hell her own way and probably die of
Bright's disease for a third time in the Change World. Bruce hadn't
wanted the nest or Lili as much as he wanted the Change World and the
chances it gave for Soldierly cavorting and poetic drunks; Lili's seed
wasn't his idea of healing the cosmos; maybe he'd make a real mutiny
some day, but more likely he'd stick to bar-room epics.

His and Lili's infatuation wouldn't die completely, no matter how rancid
it looked right now. The real-love angle might go, but Change would
magnify the romance angle and it might seem to them like a big thing of
a sort if they met again.

Erich had his _Kamerad_, shaped to suit him, who'd had the guts and
cleverness to disarm the bomb he'd had the guts to trigger. You have to
hand it to Erich for having the nerve to put us all in a situation where
we'd have to find the Maintainer or fry, but I don't know anything
disgusting enough to hand to him.

I had tried a while back. I had gone up behind him and said, "Hey, how's
my wicked little commandant? Forgotten your _und so weiter_?" and as he
turned, I clawed my nails and slammed him across the cheek. That's how I
got the black eye. Maud wanted to put an electronic leech on it, but I
took the old handkerchief in ice water. Well, at any rate Erich had his
scratches to match Bruce's, not as deep, but four of them, and I told
myself maybe they'd get infected--I hadn't washed my hands since the
hunt. Not that Erich doesn't love scars.

       *       *       *       *       *

Mark was the one who helped me up after Erich knocked me down.

"You got any omnias for that?" I snapped at him.

"For what?" Mark asked.

"Oh, for everything that's been happening to us," I told him
disgustedly.

He seemed to actually think for a moment and then he said, "_Omnia
mutantur, nihil interit._"

"Meaning?" I asked him.

He said, "All things change, but nothing is really lost."

It would be a wonderful philosophy to stand with against the Change
Winds. Also damn silly. I wondered if Mark really believed it. I wished
I could. Sometimes I come close to thinking it's a lot of baloney trying
to be any decent kind of Demon, even a good Entertainer. Then I tell
myself, "That's life, Greta. You've got to love through it somehow." But
there are times when some of these cookies are not too easy to love.

Something brushed the palm of my hand again. It was Illy's tentacle,
with the tendrils of the tip spread out like a little bush. I started to
pull my hand away, but then I realized the Loon was simply lonely. I
surrendered my hand to the patterned gossamer pressures of
feather-talk.

[Illustration]

Right away I got the words, "Feeling lonely, Greta girl?"

It almost floored me, I tell you. Here I was understanding feather-talk,
which I just didn't, and I was understanding it in English, which didn't
make sense at all.

For a second, I thought Illy must have spoken, but I knew he hadn't, and
for a couple more seconds I thought he was working telepathy on me,
using the feather-talk as cues. Then I tumbled to what was happening: he
was playing English on my palm like on the keyboard of his squeakbox,
and since I could play English on a squeakbox myself, my mind translated
automatically.

Realizing this almost gave my mind stage fright, but I was too fagged to
be hocused by self-consciousness. I just lay back and let the thoughts
come through. It's good to have someone talk to you, even an underweight
octopus, and without the squeaks Illy didn't sound so silly; his
phrasing was soberer.

       *       *       *       *       *

"Feeling sad, Greta girl, because you'll never understand what's
happening to us all," Illy asked me, "because you'll never be anything
but a shadow fighting shadows--and trying to love shadows in between the
battles? It's time you understood we're not really fighting a war at
all, although it looks that way, but going through a kind of evolution,
though not exactly the kind Erich had in mind.

"Your Terran thought has a word for it and a theory for it--a theory
that recurs on many worlds. It's about the four orders of life: Plants,
Animals, Men and Demons. Plants are energy-binders--they can't move
through space or time, but they can clutch energy and transform it.
Animals are space-binders--they can move through space. Man (Terran or
ET, Lunan or non-Lunan) is a time-binder--he has memory.

"Demons are the fourth order of evolution, possibility-binders--they can
make all of what might be part of what is, and that is their
evolutionary function. Resurrection is like the metamorphosis of a
caterpillar into a butterfly: a third-order being breaks out of the
chrysalis of its lifeline into fourth-order life. The leap from the
ripped cocoon of an unchanging reality is like the first animal's leap
when he ceases to be a plant, and the Change World is the core of
meaning behind the many myths of immortality.

"All evolution looks like a war at first--octopoids against monopoids,
mammals against reptiles. And it has a necessary dialectic: there must
be the thesis--we call it Snake--and the antithesis--Spider--before
there can be the ultimate synthesis, when all possibilities are fully
realized in one ultimate universe. The Change War isn't the blind
destruction it seems.

"Remember that the Serpent is your symbol of wisdom and the Spider your
sign for patience. The two names are rightly frightening to you, for all
high existence is a mixture of horror and delight. And don't be
surprised, Greta girl, at the range of my words and thoughts; in a way,
I've had a billion years to study Terra and learn her languages and
myths.

"Who are the real Spiders and Snakes, meaning who were the first
possibility-binders? Who was Adam, Greta girl? Who was Cain? Who were
Eve and Lilith?

"In binding all possibility, the Demons also bind the mental with the
material. All fourth-order beings live inside and outside all minds,
throughout the whole cosmos. Even this Place is, after its fashion, a
giant brain: its floor is the brainpan, the boundary of the Void is the
cortex of gray matter--yes, even the Major and Minor Maintainers are
analogues of the pineal and pituitary glands, which in some form sustain
all nervous systems.

"There's the real picture, Greta girl."

The feather-talk faded out and Illy's tendril tips merged into a soft
pad on which I fingered, "Thanks, Daddy Longlegs."

       *       *       *       *       *

Chewing over in my mind what Illy had just told me, I looked back at the
gang around the piano. The party seemed to be breaking up; at least some
of them were chopping away at it. Sid had gone to the control divan and
was getting set to tune in Egypt. Mark and Kaby were there with him, all
bursting with eagerness and the vision of tanks on ranks of mounted
Zombie bowmen going up in a mushroom cloud; I thought of what Illy had
told me and I managed a smile--seems we've got to win and lose all the
battles, every which way.

Mark had just put on his Parthian costume, groaning cheerfully,
"Trousers again!" and was striding around under a hat like a fur-lined
ice-cream cone and with the sleeves of his metal-stuffed candys flapping
over his hands. He waved a short sword with a heart-shaped guard at
Bruce and Erich and told them to get a move on.

Kaby was going along on the operation wearing the old-woman disguise
intended for Benson-Carter. I got a half-hearted kick out of knowing she
was going to have to cover that chest and hobble.

Bruce and Erich weren't taking orders from Mark just yet. Erich went
over and said something to Bruce at the bar, and Bruce got down and
went over with Erich to the piano, and Erich tapped Beau on the shoulder
and leaned over and said something to him, and Beau nodded and yanked
"Limehouse Blues" to a fast close and started another piece, something
slow and nostalgic.

Erich and Bruce waved to Mark and smiled, as if to show him that whether
he came over and stood with them or not, the legate and the lieutenant
and the commandant were very much together. And while Sevensee hugged
Lili with a simple enthusiasm that made me wonder why I've wasted so
much imagination on genetic treatments for him, Erich and Bruce sang:

    "_To the legion of the lost ones, to the cohort of the damned,
    To our brothers in the tunnels outside time,
    Sing three Change-resistant Zombies, raised from death and
              robot-crammed,
    And Commandos of the Spiders--
    Here's to crime!
    We're three blind mice on the wrong time-track,
            Hush--hush--hush!
    We've lost our now and will never get back,
            Hush--hush--hush!
    Change Commandos out on the spree,
    Damned through all possibility,
    Ghostgirls, think kindly on such as we,
            Hush--hush--hush!_"

While they were singing, I looked down at my charcoal skirt and over at
Maud and Lili and I thought, "Three gray hustlers for three black
hussars, that's our speed." Well, I'd never thought of myself as a
high-speed job, winning all the races--I wouldn't feel comfortable that
way. Come to think of it, we've got to lose and win all the races in the
long run, the way the course is laid out.

I fingered to Illy, "That's the picture, all right, Spider boy."

                                                          --FRITZ LEIBER



Transcriber's Note:

    This etext was produced from _Galaxy Science Fiction_ March and
    April 1958. Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that the
    U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed. Minor spelling and
    typographical errors have been corrected without note.





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