I said to him, "Glad you're here, sir. I can report. Ah, what was it you came for? Impatient to hear if I'd had any results?" My mind was spinning like a whirling dervish in a revolving door. I'd spent a wad of his money and had nothing I could think of to show for it; nothing but the last stages of a grand-daddy hangover.
"Came for?" Mr. Oyster snorted. "I'm merely waiting for your girl to make out my receipt. I thought you had already left."
"You'll miss your plane," Betty said.
There was suddenly a double dip of ice cream in my stomach. I walked over to my desk and looked down at the calendar.
Mr. Oyster was saying something to the effect that if I didn't leave today, it would have to be tomorrow, that he hadn't ponied up that thousand dollars advance for anything less than immediate service. Stuffing his receipt in his wallet, he fussed his way out the door.
I said to Betty hopefully, "I suppose you haven't changed this calendar since I left."
Betty said, "What's the matter with you? You look funny. How did your clothes get so mussed? You tore the top sheet off that calendar yourself, not half an hour ago, just before this marble-missing client came in." She added, irrelevantly, "Time travelers yet."
I tried just once more. "Uh, when did you first see this Mr. Oyster?"
"Never saw him before in my life," she said. "Not until he came in this morning."
"This morning," I said weakly.
While Betty stared at me as though it was me that needed candling by a head shrinker preparatory to being sent off to a pressure cooker, I fished in my pocket for my wallet, counted the contents and winced at the pathetic remains of the thousand. I said pleadingly, "Betty, listen, how long ago did I go out that door--on the way to the airport?"
"You've been acting sick all morning. You went out that door about ten minutes ago, were gone about three minutes, and then came back."
"See here," Mr. Oyster said (interrupting Simon's story), "did you say this was supposed to be amusing, young man? I don't find it so. In fact, I believe I am being ridiculed."
Simon shrugged, put one hand to his forehead and said, "That's only the first chapter. There are two more."
"I'm not interested in more," Mr. Oyster said. "I suppose your point was to show me how ridiculous the whole idea actually is. Very well, you've done it. Confound it. However, I suppose your time, even when spent in this manner, has some value. Here is fifty dollars. And good day, sir!"
He slammed the door after him as he left.
Simon winced at the noise, took the aspirin bottle from its drawer, took two, washed them down with water from the desk carafe.
Betty looked at him admiringly. Came to her feet, crossed over and took up the fifty dollars. "Week's wages," she said. "I suppose that's one way of taking care of a crackpot. But I'm surprised you didn't take his money and enjoy that vacation you've been yearning about."
"I did," Simon groaned. "Three times."
Betty stared at him. "You mean--"
Simon nodded, miserably.
She said, "But Simon. Fifty thousand dollars bonus. If that story was true, you should have gone back again to Munich. If there was one time traveler, there might have been--"
"I keep telling you," Simon said bitterly, "I went back there three times. There were hundreds of them. Probably thousands." He took a deep breath. "Listen, we're just going to have to forget about it. They're not going to stand for the space-time continuum track being altered. If something comes up that looks like it might result in the track being changed, they set you right back at the beginning and let things start--for you--all over again. They just can't allow anything to come back from the future and change the past."
"You mean," Betty was suddenly furious at him, "you've given up! Why this is the biggest thing-- Why the fifty thousand dollars is nothing. The future! Just think!"
Simon said wearily, "There's just one thing you can bring back with you from the future, a hangover compounded of a gallon or so of Marzenbrau. What's more you can pile one on top of the other, and another on top of that!"
He shuddered. "If you think I'm going to take another crack at this merry-go-round and pile a fourth hangover on the three I'm already nursing, all at once, you can think again."
SLAVES OF MERCURY.
By Nat Schachner
The Space Wanderer Returns Hilary Grendon piloted his battered, time-worn space flier, the Vagabond, to the smiling Earth that rose rapidly to greet it. Only the instinctive ease of long practise prevented a smash-up, his hands trembled so at the controls.
Home again--the old familiar Earth! He could scarcely believe it! Perhaps it was only a dream, and he'd wake up among the unhuman glittering cylinders of Saturn, shuddering and crawling with the iciness of their fixed regard.
Hilary's eyes blurred with unaccustomed mistiness as he drank in the warm sunlight, the soft green of the grass and the gracious lines of the slender birches as they fluttered their leaves daintily in the unhurrying breeze. How different it all was from the harsh red angularities of Mars!
He was outside, breathing deeply, inhaling the perfumed air with delight. This was the only heaven; beyond--that far-flung immensity of planetary orbs--was hell! He, Hilary Grendon, the carefree, smiling skeptic of old, was a Fundamentalist now.
How long was it since they had started out on the first flight that man had taken into outer space--he and those stanch comrades? Five years? God! Had it been so long? Yet here he was, back on Earth again, the kindly, blessed Earth their eyes had clung to when they were fighting desperately for their lives against the protoplasmic things that inhabited Ganymede.
Hilary brushed a tear away as he thought of those brave, loyal friends. Dick lay as he fell on Saturn, transfixed by an icicle dart; Martin had been engulfed in an unholy maw on Ganymede; Dorn was a frozen idol to the spiral beings of Pluto; and poor Hurley, his fate was the worst of all: his hideously bloated body was swinging in an orbit around Mars, a satellite through all eternity.
He, Hilary Grendon, was the sole survivor of that tremendous Odyssey!
Hilary shook his head vigorously to clear away the flood of recollections. Enough that he had returned. Then a sudden eagerness surged through him, a joyous intensity of emotion. What a story he had to relate--how the Earth people would hang with bated breath upon his adventurings! And Joan--his heart gave a queer leap at the thought of that slender ardent wisp of a girl with her shining head and steady gray eyes. She had promised to wait for him, forever, if need be. She had said it simply, without heroics; yet Hilary knew then that she would keep her promise.
A rush of impatience succeeded the inaction of his memories. He must get to New York at once. He could not wait any longer. Joan first--then Amos Peabody, the venerable President of the United States--to report his return. He smiled at the stupefaction that would greet him. No doubt he had long been given up for dead. The world had been skeptical of the space ship he had invented; had, except for a faithful few, mocked at his plans. Indignantly he had taken his calculations, his blue prints of the spheroid, along with him. If the flight was a success, well and good; if not, they would not be worth much anyway.
In spite of his fever to be off, he carefully locked the controls, sealed the outer air-lock. Hilary Grendon was a methodical man: that was the reason he had survived.
Then he struck across country, walking very fast. He knew where he was: in the wilderness of the Ramapos, some forty miles from New York. Sooner or later, he reasoned, he would strike one of the radiating conveyors that led into the metropolis, or a human being that would set him on the right track.
A half hour's sturdy tramping brought him out of the tangled hills into civilization. There was a glitter of metal and vita-crystal dwellings that stood four-square to the sun and the winds. A broad ribbon-conveyor hurled its shining length in ceaseless rush down the narrow valley. Human beings--normal homely Earth men with the ordinary number of legs and arms, with honest-to-God faces and warm living flesh, were seated on the conveyor-benches as they flashed by. Hilary could have wept with delight. It was two years since he had seen his own kind; two years since Hurley's tragic misstep through the breach in the air-lock made by a meteor as they were nearing Mars.
Hilary leaped on the slow-moving ramp, skilfully worked his way across the graded speed belts until he was on the express conveyor that led straight on to New York.
He sank into a cushioned seat next to an oldish man with iron-gray hair through which the speed of their flight whipped and pulled. Hilary was bursting for real human conversation again; he grinned to himself at the excited astonishment of this impassive stranger if he should announce himself. How should he do it? Should he remark casually without any preamble: "Pardon me for addressing you, sir, but I'm Hilary Grendon, you know." Just like that, and lean back for the inevitable gasp: "What, not the Hilary Grendon!" And he would nod offhandedly as though he had just taken a little trip to Frisco and back.
He stole a sidelong glance at the sternly-etched profile. The man was staring straight in front of him, looking neither to the left nor to the right. It did not seem as if he were aware of Hilary's existence. So with a sigh Hilary decided against that method of approach as a trifle too abrupt.
"Nice day to-day, isn't it?" The sound of his own voice startled him. English was an alien language to his unaccustomed tongue after the hissing syllables of the Martians.
With pathetic eagerness he awaited the inevitable answer to this commonplace introduction; that he might once more hear normal Earth tones in friendly converse, see the smile of greeting on a real Earth face.
But there came no answer. The man continued staring straight ahead, immobile, fixed. There was no slightest turn to the etched profile. It was as if he had not heard.
Hilary felt a sudden surge of anger. Damn discourteous, this first Earthman he had met. What had happened to the old hospitality? Had it passed out while he was roaming the spaces? He leaned over, harsh words tumbling for exit, when suddenly he checked himself. There was something strange about that fierce blank stare. The man's face, too, he saw now, was lined and worn; suffering had left its multitudinous imprint upon an ordinarily rotund countenance.
Hilary shouted suddenly: "Good morning." The man did not answer, nor did he stir from his unvarying pose. Deaf! The returned Earthman suffered swift pity. With gentle forefinger he prodded the man.
The reaction was astounding. The man cowered like a pricked balloon; little strangling moans forced themselves out of clenched teeth. Dumb, too! His face jerked around to the direction of Hilary's gentle prodding. Merciful heavens, the man was blind also! Two vacant red-rimmed sockets stared pitifully at him--the eyeballs were gone, ripped out.
But what struck Hilary particularly was the mortal terror that was depicted on the blind man's face. It was as though he expected some cruel, crippling blow to follow; as though it were the last straw on the back of unmentionable former agonies. Hilary shuddered. It was not good to witness such animal fear. A dark shadow blotted out the brightness of the Earth-day for him. There was something wrong here, something that required a good deal of explanation.
His probing eyes went thoughtfully over the poor cowering wretch. Those careworn features were familiar, somehow. Where had he seen the man before? Suddenly he stiffened, choking an exclamation. The man was bound immovably to his seat. Thin metal links, almost invisible, encircled his feet; held the elbows taut against the fluted columns of the seat-back.
Hilary's space-tanned features hardened; the light gray of his eyes darkened. All the pleasure of his homecoming vanished. The kindly Earth seemed suddenly grown inimical. What had happened in the five long years of his absence? This would have been impossible on the Earth he had known; a man, manifestly the victim of hideous tortures, bound like a wild animal to the seat of a public conveyor.
He went swiftly into action. From the depths of a capacious pocket he fished a sheathed blade of stellite, triply keen; its razor-sharp edge sawed smoothly at the bonds.
In his mounting anger Hilary had paid no attention to the scattering of people occupying the cushioned chairs of the speeding conveyor. But a smothered nearby gasp caused his head to jerk up. He met the incredulous stare of a paunchy, heavy-jowled man seated some chairs away. There was more than incredulity, there was furtive fear in the small beady eyes sunken in folds of fat.
Hilary gave way to unreasoning anger.
"Stop looking like a stuck pig," he called sharply. "Give me a hand with this poor fellow."
The response was surprising. The man got up from his chair precipitately, stark panic written all over him. The sweat oozed from his shiny forehead as he backed cautiously away. He tripped over the edge of the seat behind, and fell. Once more he scrambled to his feet, and as if the fall had released his trembling muscles, he turned and ran, stumbling and dodging across the local conveyors, never once looking back.
Hilary watched his mad flight wonderingly. "Good Lord," he thought, "does my face frighten people so? Maybe I've turned into a Martian."
He turned to appeal to the others on the conveyor, and received another shock. The few men within earshot were already on their feet and moving away from there with unostentatious celerity. Hilary surveyed their receding backs thoughtfully. What was there about himself to frighten grown men out of their wits? Or was it the poor tortured wretch he was trying to release who was responsible for the exodus?
Already the express was almost clear. He saw the deserters throwing themselves guiltily into seats on the local belts, and then he was carried swiftly past. Only one man remained stubbornly in his seat, some fifteen rows back. He was a huge mountain of a man, a giant upon Earth, and there was a strangeness in his wide stare.
Hilary frowned, then shook his head, and dropped down to his task again. The blind man moaned and jerked as he felt the bite of stellite upon his fetters. Hilary made soothing sounds, forgetful that he could not hear, and worked steadily. There was a little clinking noise and the links that bound the arms fell apart. He attacked the leg shackles next.
There was a tap on Hilary's shoulder, light, electric, yet strangely heavy in its implications. Hilary turned his head sharply, saw the landscape blotted out by a huge overshadowing bulk. Five years in a hostile universe had made him cautious. He pivoted on his heels and rose in a single flowing motion, stellite blade ready for instant action.
The Strange Guard There confronted him the hugest figure of a man he had ever seen. Hilary was not lacking in inches himself--he was well over six feet; but the giant staring quizzically down at him was nearer seven, with shoulders to match. The features of his face were gargantuan in their ruggedness, yet singularly open, while a pair of mild blue eyes, childlike in expression, looked in perpetual wonder out upon the world.
In spite of his annoyance, Hilary instinctively liked the giant.
"What do you want?" he inquired gruffly.
The Colossus surveyed him with his child's eyes.
"Man, you are crazy." He spoke in a deep bass rumble, without emotion or inflection. He was simply stating a fact.
A surge of annoyance swept over the returned wanderer from the far spaces. This was the last straw.
"I may be," he admitted coldly, "but I like my particular form of craziness."
"You know the penalty of course for what you are doing?" the big man inquired unemotionally.
Hilary swore deeply. "Damn the penalties, whatever you mean by that. Here's a man who has been tortured unmercifully--chained like a dog. I intend to free him."
The mild blue eyes contained the hint of a gleam.
"But you know the penalties," he repeated. His murmur sounded like the rumble of a distant earthquake.
Hilary straightened sharply, poked his finger at the midriff of the giant.
"I don't know what you are talking about," he stabbed. "What is the meaning of all this? Who is this unfortunate, and why did everyone disappear as though I had the plague when I sat next to him?"
A look of bewilderment swept over the massive face, bewilderment tinged with a dawning suspicion of the questioner's sanity.
"You mean to say you don't know?" The tone held incredulity.
"I've just told you so," Hilary pointed out. He felt a growing unease.
The giant eyed him closely. "Man, where on earth have you been these last three years?"
Hilary grinned. "I haven't."
"You haven't?" echoed the other. Suspicion hardened the childlike eyes into cold flame. The man was dangerous when aroused. He thrust his jaw down at Hilary. "If you are jesting with me...." He left the sentence unfinished, but the clenching of a huge fist left no doubt as to his intention.
"I am not jesting," Hilary assured him grimly. "I have been away from the Earth for five years. I've just returned."