Publicat Sâmbătă, 2 Septembrie 2006, ora 19:28
The announcement was running on all monitors, while the acoustic circuit was screeching it staccato bursts, piercing our eardrums.
“Damn it, Anne”, Mrs. Kats burst out, “what do you expect? A formal invitation? Get going to the chief’s office, scram!”
I sighed, stood up and stepped on the transporting strip. Behind me, four sighs of relief blessed the reestablished silence. Naturally, that was the slowest strip of all. The General deserved being let waiting. He had acquired the bad habit of calling me every two days, boring me with his insistent proposals of marriage. I didn’t dare to give him a straight “no”; after all, he was the boss! And he pretended not to understand, the hypocrite! However, that day, I was going to cut him short – and that because Hobs had finally made up his mind!
“Sergeant Anne Limtz at your order, General! Request permission to report: last night I became engaged to Colonel George Hobs. I hope this isn’t against regulations, sir!”
He went pale, then blushed up to his ears, like a boiled lobster. He swallowed dryly a few times – I watched his Adam’s apple jump – but he managed to address me in a calm, neutral, official voice.
“Time Police Regulations stipulate nothing regarding the marital status of the staff. You disappoint me, Sergeant Limtz, I thought you knew that.”
I remind standing at attention and lowered my eyes. Maybe I had been to blunt. Everyone knew General Paul Glaff hated losing. “What is he going to do now? Will he regretfully inform me that my services are no longer required?”
“Sit down. I have an extremely important mission for you.”
I sat down, blood throbbing in my temples. For once he had called me for something serious, and instead of letting him talk first…
“The Seven Counselors have decided”, he began, not giving me time to collect my thoughts, “and The Seven Parliaments have approved of the decision, unanimously: time traveling causes too many problems. Soon, our police won’t be able to cope with it. At least three men are needed to chase each schmendrick who takes off in a handmade chronomobile. All sorts of… hmm! ‘heroes’ want to change the past, to create another present, a ‘better’ one, of course! And all sorts of lunatics want to know the future, but they always pick up the most improbable alternatives and return to reveal the ‘oncoming apocalypse’! It’s a total mess! Sooner or later, some fool is going to escape our surveillance and do something beyond repair.”
I fidgeted, worried. I couldn’t understand why he told me something I already knew, nor what the decisions of The Seven Parliaments, whatever that was, had to do with the mission, however important, assigned to an anonymous sergeant like me.
“Well”, he went on, “it was decided that we be the ones to do something beyond repair. Put an end to time travel, once and for all. This is your mission, Sergeant Limtz. You’re living at once. Destination: June 28, 2008. You are to kill Marcel Ovici before he reaches Professor Kruger with his epoch-making invention. He’ll be carrying both the prototype of the chronomobile and the technical documentation. You have to steal them and bring them over here. The Seven Counselors will bury them in the Top Secret Files. As for your own device – you’ll find a way to destroy it!”
I felt as if something had unexpectedly fallen on my head. A pity I couldn’t see myself in the mirror. The General, who was watching me very closely, bit his lips to refrain from laughing, and at that moment – how foolish of me! – he seemed like a very nice guy. So I ventured a question:
“Why me? I’ve never killed anyone. Who decided to give me this mission?”
“The computer from the Personnel Department. And this one is never wrong.”
I stood up.
“Request permission to proceed with my mission”, I said, convinced of the futility of any further comments.
He held out his hand.
“Good luck, Sergeant.”
Then, while I was completing the salute and the ninety degrees turn:
“And some friendly advice, Anne: when you return, do it YESTERDAY, and think again before saying ‘yes’ to the Colonel’s proposal.”
Naturally, I left determined to ignore his advice. I programmed my pocket chronomobile, activated it and… I turned up at the underground station where Marcel Ovici and his cousin, the poet Krama, were waiting for the train. Ovici was restlessly shifting his weight from one foot to the other. Krama, a well-known scammer (more then one sex kitten had sneaked into the past hoping to spend at least one hour in his bed) noticed me right away and fixed his pale blue eyes on me. I gave him a friendly smile and casually approached them. The poet’s face beamed: he sensed an easy pick up. Ovici noticed me too. He stared at me, pursing his lips. Then he looked away and swept his forehead with his fingers, as if he wanted to wipe away an unpleasant thought. I wondered if he hadn’t already traveled through time and seen me, in a possible future, accepting the murderous mission.
I didn’t have time for further speculations. The train had arrived and I got into the same carriage with them. It was crowed, but I managed to grab the seat on the inventor’s left. He had Krama sitting on hid right. Both sulked and I suspected the reason: Ovici would have preferred to have Krama sitting between us, and so would Krama.
I was afraid that one of them would use a pretext to suggest a change of seats and that the other would gladly accept. So I proceeded with my mission. The train stood still, the people froze like broken machinery; I had stopped their time, and, for my use only, I had extended a second to its maximal span of about two minutes. More that enough to inject – Dear God! – the lethal needle into Ovici’s skull. Then I grabbed the manuscript and the prototype and hastily sent myself forward into my normal time.
I found myself, just I as wished, in my own kitchen. I threw my chronomobile in the waste mixer and, while nostalgically listening to the grinding of the crushed metal, I asked the robot for a big, black coffee. I reluctantly sipped it, trying in vain to refrain from imagining what had taken place in the train after my flight: Ovici breathless, collapsed – without anybody noticing when it all had happened – in his terrified cousin’s arms, who was to troubled to remember the exact moment of my disappearance and suspecting that the inventor’s precious baggage had been stolen in the jostling. The puzzled passengers, the restlessness, the bustle created around the deceased on the first stop. The headlines, the amazing suppositions concerning the invention that was lost without a trace, together with the death of its creator who had no time to give anyone details about it. And again Ovici’s body, in an unnatural crouch, his wide open eyes displaying his fear… I wondered if he had had a last moment glimpse of the true scenario of his death…
I finished my coffee and swept away my grim thoughts – which resembled feelings of guilt that weren’t supposed to embitter a sergeant who had only done her duty – and I set off for the Time Police Headquarters, anxious to report mission accomplished. I had just entered an expressway cabin, when an image that I had automatically recorded came back to my mind, making me sweat: before leaving my apartment, through the half-open bedroom door, I had glimpsed a double bed in disarray and a man’s rumpled pajamas carelessly thrown on a chair.
Before that part of my brain over which I have control could process the information involuntarily selected from my memory, the cabin stopped; puzzled, I checked the display, fearing that I had provided the wrong coordinates for my destination. But no, I hadn’t been wrong. Still, the surroundings were unfamiliar, yet, at the same time, familiar. I probably would have been left with the same impression by a sepia copy of a famous painting, although, actually, the changes had to do with more than color.
The building of the Time Police was higher and more slender: it lacked a wing, but had gained two stories. The sign was painted in pastel colors undergoing a permanent change, as if the letters, with their voluptuous windings (entirely different from the stern ones I had admired that very morning), were an organ of multicolored pipes, blending in an apparently random fashion, but still observing an algorithm that my confused mind refused to grasp.
On the left, the huge spider-like restoring machines no longer surrounded the former building of the Archives. Its enormous paintings shone as new, the way they hadn’t for more then a century, when the building had been inaugurated with great pomp. I had been present at the ceremony on my first chronotrip, following the graduation of the Preliminary Courses. It had been an historical event, which had given the chronotravelling agencies the opportunity to make nice money; everybody wanted to be present at the inauguration of the first creation of the first independent cybernetic unit specialized in mural designs. In our present, that unit was exhibited in the basement of the very building it had decorated.
But two of the paintings were completely different from the ones I knew so well. I stared at them from the cabin I didn’t dare to leave.
But I dared to look at my right. There, towering as always, the same Central Chronotravelling Agency. The only difference was that a sign similar to the one on the front of Time Police presented it as “The International Time Travelling Agency Headquarters”.
I ventured to leave the cabin witch vanished at once, probably summoned by someone who had lost his patience. I looked across the street. The park was still there, but instead of the old lime trees there were strange shrubs overwhelmed by a richness of pearly flowers, which reflected minute rainbows and filled the air with a faint, pleasant fragrance. “It’s probably the new creation of the Genetic Art Institute, the one they said they’ll exhibit in a week’s time”, I told myself, while in my mind the information was beginning to sink in; things were getting clearer!
I called myself a long series of names. I should have been ashamed that I, of all people, a member of the Time Police for three years, had such difficulties in understanding that it all came down to nothing more than a few trivial changes… natural consequences of the alteration (no one would call it a crime, of course) I had produced while going back two hundred years on the conventional time scale.
Trivial changes, probably unimportant… Hmm! A man’s pajamas in my bedroom, me, a member (I admit, a fanatical one) of the Good Morals Preservations League! I must have married George earlier and I would already have been Mrs. Hobs, one that had missed her own nuptial ceremony and whose deflowering colonel Hobs was going (or wasn’t he?) to labor for a second time.
Then, there was a building of the Archives whose restoration had been finished earlier and which had two paintings changed; that was easy to accept, as well as the fact that the Genetic Art Institute had exhibited one of its successful creation at a different date.
That left only the Time Police building and its sign, both altered… But, Dear God! Why did the Time Police still exist? Why did the Central Chronotravelling Agency still exist, even under another name? Why so, when Ovici had died before showing his invention to anyone capable of understanding and applying it? Why so, when the manuscript and the prototype of the chronomobile were in my bag, witch followed me like a faithful dog, faultlessly detecting the specific smell of my body and refusing to open unless it recognized my touch? Why so, when my chronomobile, the only one saved from nonexistence, had just been decomposed in its constituent elements that were already waiting to be recycled?
Did the Time Police exist only so that I could have someone to report to, and hand over the manuscript and the prototype? And hadn’t it existed, what would I have been supposed to do, what would I have been entitled to do, what would have been my duty regarding the contents of that damned bag?
I felt like lying down and crying, as I had done after having broken my first cyberdoll. I felt like crying and begging help of the uncaring passers-by who filled the Ovici Boulevard (I assumed the name had changed) where, from time to time, a huge hologram of the famous inventor appeared.
Through some strange coincidence, the hologram appeared there and then, between the Time Police Headquarters and me. It was so near as I could touch its knee if I stretched my hand and, maybe yielding to a masochistic impulse, I raised my head. I have no idea how I managed to stifle a scream. Because not Ovici, but Krama was staring at me with a glimmer of vengeance in the dim depth of his eyes.
Luckily, it vanished at once. I uttered a “come what may” sort of sigh, made a cross with my tongue on the roof of my mouth, and stepped on the medium speed strip which led to the Time Police precincts.
“Hey, Anne, how come you of all people are so late?”, I was asked by a cheerful girl who had just stepped next to me.
“I was on a mission”, I answered, with calculated indifference, then I started fighting the blank that covered her identity, through her face and voice seemed strangely familiar.
“A… ‘mission’ involving Hobs?” she giggled, revealing a gap between her front teeth. “Honestly, Anne, you can tell me everything!”
‘Honestly, Anne, you can tell me everything!’ Linda! Linda Brown, my childhood friend, my schoolmate and, for a year, my partner in the C-309 time patrol. Dear God! I felt my hear raising and blood draining out of my face. I had last seen her two years ago, at the ceremony of her cremation. She had been laying on her death bed, as dead as can be, with the gap between her teeth revealed by a false smile (she lacked a piece of her upper lip), her face smeared with cheap make-up which was no good in hiding her bruises, and her right hand stiffly set upon her chest, covered by the right hand as if trying to hide the severed fingers. She had been the prey of a neo-cannibal pack. The local police had found them to late, after they had raped her and ripped off her lip and her fingers with their fucking mutant fangs and had dragged her into a blind alley where they probably intended to enjoy their feast.
“Sorry, Linda, I am in a hurry’, I said over my shoulder, jumping stuntman-like straight the high speed strip.
“Hypocrite!” she shouted after me with the same giggle. “Be careful, you fool, Paul might find out!”
Confused by her strange words, I didn’t even think that my office might have also been changed, and located in some other part of the building. Only when I found it in its own place did I consider that to be a happy coincidence.
My three office mates met me with disapproving glances.
“Listen, Anne”, asked Mrs. Katz, who, due to her age, was too presumptuous, “where the hell did you get this queer uniform?”
Indeed, their uniforms were blue, while mine was beige, but it had the same cut and the same black symbol on the left sleeve: an hourglass in which the sand gathered miraculously into the strangled part.
“I’ll tell you later”, I mumbled. “But where’s Kate?” I asked, noticing the absence of my best friend. “What happened? When did they move her out of the office?
They stared at me with horror, then exchanged worried glances.
“The news is that you’ve just started taking drugs, Mrs. Glaff?” Mrs. Katz scolded me, blushing. “How else could you forget the terrible event of the last year, with the neo-cannibals? Or has that tasteless shellfish Hobs blown your mind entirely?”
I collapsed into a chair. ‘Mrs. Glaff’?! She had called me ‘Mrs. Glaff’?! Me?!
Dear God! I wasn’t Hobs’ wife; I was the General’s wife! And Hobs, what about Hobs? I was terrified by the thought that he could be my lover, mine, a married woman, and a member of the Good Morals Preservation League! This was punishable by excommunication and public exposure through the holographic commercials that crisscrossed the imposing building oh the League. It was punishable… THERE, or THEN… But HERE and NOW? Maybe I wasn’t even a League member!
“Sergeant Glaff is expected in the general’s office! Sergeant Glaff is expected in the general’s office! Sergeant Glaff is…”
I rushed to the fastest strip, but no quickly enough to escape the words Mrs. Katz uttered with philosophical detachment:
“The hurry of a guilty soul!”
When he laid eyes on me, General Paul Glaff seemed appalled. He checked the phonic isolation system and said bitterly:
“Sometimes I’d like to kill you, Anne, can you understand this? What king of uniform is this? Is it carnival time? Or maybe you think you haven’t compromised me enough, and there’s still room for more or better?”
I met his green, tired eyes; and I felt sincerely sorry that I had stumbled into that strange world in which, I didn’t know when, how or why, I had offended him. A world in which I was still embarrassing him, although I was only doing my duty, or at least what had been my duty in my former world.
Then, in a flash, I remembered a fragment from The Book of Time, which the critics considered a mixture of pretentious nonsense, which didn’t prevent it from being a best seller, the first of those written by Marana Cerioniacev, the most fashionable psychic.
‘An explorer of the past who, willfully or not, causes even the slightest alteration in it, creates a ramification, a so-called parallel world, differing from his home world through the consequences of that alteration. When he wants to return in his own time, the explorer can travel only along the created ramification, being thus condemned to live in a world parallel to his original one.’
I repressed to believe in the buxom madam Marana’s theories, I saluted according to the regulations, and I stood at attention:
“Sergeant Anne Limtz at your order, General! Re…”
“What’s the meaning of…”, he started, but I went on stubbornly raising my voice slightly, firmly decided not to be interrupted:
“…quest permission to report!” And I told him, almost all in one breath, everything that had happened since I had left his office, that same office or some other one, in that world or in a different one, parallel, perpendicular, adjacent, tangent or whatever it might have been! As evidence, I grabbed the bag that was programmed to follow me, took the prototype and the manuscript and pushed them under the general’s eyes.
“Extraordinary!” he exclaimed, examining the device. “It looks a lot like a kramamobile! Fantastic! I’ll deliver these to the higher authorities! I think this will come to the attention of The Ten Parliaments and of The Ten Counselors! Anne, I don’t understand a thing, but I feel like forgiving all your sins!”
He dashed upon me and kissed me. Dear God! He kissed me like I couldn’t remember Hobs ever having done, even after out engagement the previous night! Still, this seemed less important then the news I had just heard:
The Ten Parliaments! The Ten Counselors! But there were only seven of them! Seven counselors who had decided my mission, seven parliaments that had unanimously approved it! They had decided and approved a mission that had affected themselves?! Hadn’t them realized what they were doing?! Impossible! For a long time there have been RUMORS of a committee specialized in evaluating the consequences of changing the past, of a new generation of cyborgs intended to research this field… RUMORS!… The neo-cannibals packs had long been labeled like that, but Linda had already died THERE and Kate had already died HERE… So…
And the ‘kramamobile’! So I hadn’t been wrong, Krama was the Hero, the Great Man, who had had a fitting hologram made, a hologram programmed to walk besides his descendant’s descendants along the boulevard called by his name.
“The boulevard”, I said, “this boulevard on which our headquarters is built, is called Krama boulevard, isn’t it?”
The general looked at me as if I was an alien.
“Of course! How else could it be called?”
“OVICI!” I yelled. “It was OVICI you send me to kill, because the COMPUTER from the Personnel Department chose me! OVICI invented the CHRONOmobile! OVICI’s hologram has been haunting this boulevard for almost two centuries and I have repeatedly seen with MY own eyes!”
“If it weren’t for this device… and for these papers”, he added, slapping a pile of papers printed in small letters which I knew were called newspapers and had been used to spread the news before the advent of the information bracelets, “I’d swear you’re mad! I hope I’ll sort everything out later, Now sit down, Sergeant Glaff. I have an extremely important mission for you.”
I sat down, blood throbbing in my temples. Dear God, could it be…
“The Ten Counselors have decided”, he began, not giving me time to collect my thoughts, “and The Ten Parliaments have approved of the decision, unanimously: time traveling causes too many problems. Soon, our police won’t be able to cope with it. At least three men are needed to chase each schmendrick who takes off in a handmade chronomobile. All sorts of… hmm! ‘heroes’ want to change the past, to create another present, a ‘better’ one, of course! And all sorts of lunatics want to know the future, but they always pick up the most improbable alternatives and return to reveal the ‘oncoming apocalypse’! It’s a total mess! Sooner or later, some fool is going to escape our surveillance and do something beyond repair.”
I fidgeted, worried. I suspected why he told me something I already knew, and what the decisions unanimously approved by The Ten Parliaments had to do with the extremely important mission assigned to an anonymous sergeant like me.
“Well”, he went on, “it was decided that we be the ones to do something beyond repair. Put an end to time travel, once and for all. This is your mission, Sergeant Glaff. You’re living at once. Destination: June 28, 2008. You are to kill Ovid Krama before he can produce the first result belonging to Ovici, the cousin who has just died in his arms. Krama is still the only one who knows that he has used the backs of Ovici’s papers to sketch his famous poems collected under the title ‘The Vagrants of Chronos’. You’ll bring the papers here. The Ten Counselors will bury them in the Top Secret Files. As for your own kramamobile – you’ll find a way to destroy it!”
I risked the improper question, feeling I had to do it, because that was a role I was playing the second time. But I could no longer say ‘I’ve never killed anyone before’. I just added:
“Who decided to entrust me this mission?”
“Never mind”, he answered, “but there was no other way. Look!”
And he handed me one of the newspapers.
In the middle of the front page, drawn in a few firm brush strokes, laid an improvised but suggestive sketch of the most familiar and unfamiliar face in the world: my own, it was me, there could be no doubt about it.
“This the drawing of the woman who sat next to Ovici and who vanished as mysteriously as his valuable baggage. It was made after a description given by Krama, who, as we know, was an acute observer of the eternal feminine” – the general smiled ironically and a devilish glimmer of his green eyes lent, for a moment, so much charm to his stern features that I found myself – how foolish of me! – regretting I had not lived anyone of our moment of privacy. But the spell broke when he went on, in the voice of one accustomed to command: “You have to show up there before the next stop, encourage Krama, stick to him, accompany him home, get into his bed if necessary, and not come back without the fucking papers and without sucking the very marrow of him!”
“You push your wife into someone else bed?!” I said indignantly, without understanding why I felt so offended.
He gave a disgusted smile.
“A wife I have been sharing with Hobs for five months… What difference does it make?”
I think I turned pale. I would have liked to say something, anything, but I couldn’t utter a word. It was the first time something like that was hurled in my face.
“You thought I didn’t know? Well, I do! Thanks to your friends in you shitty league. The news was ‘made public’. Your hieroglyphic holograms were sliding around the headquarters yesterday. Sure, sane people don’t bother to read them. But I did. At the right moment! I am not head of Time Police for nothing!”
I appreciated his bitter sense of humor, noticing, at the same time, both that HERE I also was a member of the League, and that its methods hadn’t changed.
“I’d like to believe that story you’ve just told me”, he went on, after a pause during which he swallowed the lump in his throat, as his habit was. “But, as I said, I don’t have times for these things now. I’ve given you an order, sergeant, and I don’t want any back talk!”
“But I have no KRAMAmobile’, I protested. “And I destroyed my CHRONOmobile while carrying out another order!”
He fumbled to a drawer, then handed me a device. The kramamobile and the chronomobile may have been different as prototypes, but the shape they had in his first year of the twenty-third century was absolutely identical.
“I took the liberty of taking your device from the rack and of adjusting it myself to nanosecond and to micrometer, plus the required wardrobe change. You only have to activate the transport. You’d better do it as soon as possible!”
“And where will I return?”, I continued my objections. “In a world without Time Police? In a world were I’ll be Hobs’ wife and your mistress, General?”
“Sarge”, he told me without losing his temper, although his boiled lobster-like blush was starting to spread again, “your job isn’t to question orders! This isn’t our ‘love-nest’! Sarge, your job is to carry out orders!”
I stood up.
“Request permission to proceed with my mission.”
He held out his hand.
“Good luck, Sergeant.”
Then, while I was completing the salute and the ninety degrees turn:
“And a friendly advice, Anne: when you return, do it YESTERDAY, and prevent me at any cost from passing in front of your barbarous league headquarters! Return YESTERDAY, Anne, please!”
Naturally, I left determined to ignore his advice, sure of its absolute uselessness. I even thought about ignoring his order, cancel Glaff’s adjustments and escape somewhere in far off times. But I knew how long the Time Police’s grasp was, and I didn’t need a computer to tell that my chances were asymptotically approaching zero.
Therefore I activated the transport and returned to the underground train, on the chair I had picked, in that fraction of a second when Ovici collapsed into Krama’s arms, and something flashed pass me, defying, as I also did, what was considered to be the normal time flow. And I felt my hair raising again; this time because I realized that sergeant Limts had just flashed pass sergeant Glaff, that I had met ME. And I wondered whether we both existed, whether a representative of the decadent Apostolic Church could have explained to me if we both were or weren’t the same body and soul; or maybe we were a single soul in two twin bodies, or two souls in two bodies, or two unfortunate creatures that had been cloned from the same pattern we didn’t know, by a cold intelligence, devilish or divine, and thrown into a game we rules we couldn’t understand, taking place in PARALLEL AREAS! And I swore that when I would return to that time I called HOME I would place my burden on the shoulders of a priest, or at least on Marana Cerioniacev’s shoulders, during one of the ‘consultation-audiences’ she easily granted; I swore that while I was screaming and fretting worse than any passenger of the train that I had driven into history.
Krama noticed me for the second time, felt happy that I encouraged him with gestures and words, that I helped him to avoid the insistences of the crowd, the police and the press, that I accompanied him to the morgue and to the pub that I dragged him out before he could drink his last cent and his last grain of sanity. And when I climbed uninvited in his attic that he emphatically called ‘a love and creation nest’, he considered it the most natural thing in the world.
‘The Vagrants of Chronos’ were lying in full view in a thick pile of typed sheets whose ‘hidden side’ was covered with complex, hardly readable formulae, broken off by scratches and small, crowed sketches.
“There’s a fortune lying there”, he mumbled, visibly pleased that I was curiously leafing through them. “No, two fortunes”, he corrected himself, lifting a paper and turning it in front of my eyes from on side to the other, ‘one on each side. Especially the one on the other side, I just realized, is going to make me reach and famous. You’ll be proud – I guarantee it! – when you’ll tell your granddaughters that Ovid Krama loved you one night - or more, who knows? More but too short nights of the last summer that found him poor and unknown!”
I listened to him, abandoning myself to his lips and hands – but holding on to the kramamobile hidden in my pocket. I activated it, freezing the moment for the yet unknown poet. But in that moment that was dilated for me, I didn’t hurry to kill him; I only programmed the kramamobile and hid it under the pillow, near the needle that had proved to be such an effective weapon. And I returned to that man, who had turned to dust long before I had been born, I readjusted my breast under his left hand, my tight under his right hand, and my naked shoulder under his lips.
I returned to his bed, not out of duty, but out of the desire of acting at least once in that incomprehensible game according to my own fantasy; out of the desire to find out whether I was Anne Limtz, colonel Hobs virgin fiancée, or Anne Glaff, the adulterous wife of the head of the Time Police; out of the desire to defy everything, including myself, gaining, me, a fanatical member of the Good Morals Preservation League, the pleasure for which others had risked infringing the law – and had received the punishment for those found guilty of '‘attempting to alter the Past’: life confinement in the Lunatic Asylum.
I came to my senses in bed, naked, almost happy I had managed to abandon myself, offering a submissive body to the unleashed poet'’ hungry caresses. Then I felt the paint, sharp and boring, like I have never imagined it, and I cried out, pushing the man’s shoulders, in vain trying to free myself. Krama covered my mouth with his lips and I saw his face from an unnatural angle, and frightened by the glimmer of vengeance from the dim depth of his eyes.
Then he relaxed, in a last spasm of pleasure, and, with scarlet fury, I thrust the needle deeply in the base of his skull.
I fumbled hurriedly under the pillow and activated the kramamobile.
I found myself, just as I wished, in my own kitchen. I collapsed on the floor. I was dressed in my uniform and the naked body of the poet was above me, still holding me. I growled because I had been in such panic that I had brought the dead man with me instead of the precious manuscript. Furious, I reprogrammed the device and activated the transport back. But I didn’t vanish before Glaff showed up on the doorstep, scantily clad, and, behind him, I, almost naked – and I heard my own terrified scream.
I was again in Krama’s attic at the moment when the poet was laying me carefully, like a precious trophy, on his bed. I fumbled underneath the pillow, I found the needle and used it without hesitation.
“… That’s what kind of heart lies behind a bra”…
That verse, torn from I couldn’t remember where, rolled over and over in my mind, acid-like remorse, while I was burning the manuscript, page by page, in a dirty pot I had found in the strange kitchen, filled with things I could find neither meaning, nor even name, for. I was burning the papers, the secret of the damned invention that had to be destroyed, regardless of the risks I was taking by acting according to my own convictions. I was burning the papers, watching them as if they had being living beings, feeling something almost like pity while seeing them wretchedly squirming, then turning black and changing, irreversibly, into ashes.
I was burning the papers, and that line was rolling over through my mind, bumping every now and then into questions that wouldn’t go away – because they weren’t getting any answers.
Why had I met myself screaming THERE, AT HOME? Why hadn’t I found myself when I first returned? Why, coming back HERE, I had not found Krama and me writhing about in crumple-sheeted bed? And, if that had happened, what would I have done, what could I have done, what would I have been entitled to do, what would have been my duty?
After the fire gulped down the last sheet, I stepped, without looking, over Krama who lay unclothed and soulless near the bed, where I had pushed him, and took the kramamobile. I programmed it carefully: the spatial coordinates, the year, the month…
“Return YESTERDAY, Anne, please!”
“… That’s what kind of heart lies behind a bra”…
After all, why wouldn’t I return YESTERDAY? What would it have cost me to abide by his request – or advice?
… the day, the hour, the minute, the second. That was enough, further accuracy wasn’t necessary.
I found myself, just as I wished, in my own kitchen. I started to throw the kramamobile in the waste mixer…
Then I suddenly felt bound up, as if caught in a block of solid air, inside my own body, turned by ‘rigor mortis’ into a stone. My ears were tingling with the same law note of the messy tune that the kitchen’s acoustic circuit was humming when I had entered the room. And Otto, my spotted tomcat, had frozen, defying gravity, in the middle of a leap between two chairs. I wanted to shout, but I couldn’t open my mouth or make my vocal cords vibrate. My eyelids didn’t listen to me, either, when I wanted to close them to avoid seeing the three George Hobs. The intruders had come out of nowhere and were naturally moving about in that still world.
This was how I realized that my and my cat’s time had been stopped, that we were both frozen in that strange time frame in which only my mind, and maybe the tomcat’s, were free to wonder.
This was how I realized that Ovici had not only had an insight of his own death, but he had actually been a powerless witness to the real scenario of his death!
This was how I realized that Ovid Krama and the others passengers of the train had witnessed the murder and the theft of the prototype! But why had they kept silent? Had each one of them felt he had been hallucinating and was afraid to speak about it? Or had the resumption of the normal time flow been the sponge that had wiped off the strange incident from their memories? Both alternatives also explained pretty well Krama’s lack of reaction at the interruption of his amorous ardor. Anyway, I was about to find out shortly, after all, I was the guinea pig in a similar experiment… Dear God! Of course, the three hadn’t stopped time to kill my tomcat! Hadn’t I been as rigid and unfeeling as a stone, horror would have slid like an icicle down my spine, from one vertebra to another, paralyzing me.
And who were these three Hobs twins? What were they? Clones? Androids? Was anyone of them been my fiancée in one world or my lover in the other? Anyway, I could have killed all of them without the slightest remorse.
“… That’s what kind of heart lies behind a bra”…
The hell with that! They were the ones trying to kill me!
The first George Hobs took the kramamobile from my hand and gave it to the second. The second George Hobs hid it in the folds of his rich cloak that seemed to belong to a wizard from the era of ignorance, and signaled to the third. The third George Hobs approached me; he has holding a strange object, a sort or spherical helmet. He put it on my head, taking me light away. Yet, I managed to scream. The tomcat answered me with a long, sharp, sinister mewing.
I felt six arms grabbing me and I started to fight, understanding I could move again. I fought desperately, hitting and scratching blindly and screaming like mad.
I woke up tossing and turning, soaked in sweat and wrapped up in darkness. I came to my senses after a few seconds and I removed the spongy helmet of the oniric recorder, which had slid down, covering my eyes.
Happily, I had been connected to the recorder! Any movie company would have bought such a dream, paying a fortune for it!
I took out the translucent disk and went to the developing module nook. Paul was there, grumbling.
“Don’t tell me it broke down today, of all days!” I cried out, instead of ‘good morning’.
He smiled crookedly, squinting at me.
“I won’t, if you think it’ll help! And why not today, dear Mrs. Glaff?” he added.
“I had a weird dream, I wanted to develop it as quickly as possible!”
“So what? I could say the same thing! Give me the disk. I’ll have both of them developed downtown.”
I handed it reluctantly.
“Promise me you won’t view it before I tell you what it’s about!”
“Really! Have you dreamt you were with another man again, honey?”
“Kind of”, I mumbled, afraid of a scene.
But he just laughed.
“And when I think I picked you up from the Good Morals Preservation League!”
We left together that morning. We happened to take an old-fashioned expressway cabin, one that had a mirror inside. I was happy, for the umpteenth time, to see how well we looked together, in our elegant gray uniforms, with the left sleeve ornate by the Secret Police symbol: an hourglass in which the sand gathered miraculously into the strangled part. Dear God! How could I have dreamt I rejected Paul or cheated on him, that I preferred Hobs, that tasteless shellfish?! Still, Paul was going to be glad that, in my dream, he was the General!
I found Linda and Kate in the office.
“They still haven’t found Mrs. Katz”, Linda informed me. “Many people think that the neo-cannibals got her! Anne, it seems they really do exist!”
“Under hypnosis, Marana Cerioniacev always said that they exist and they are mutants – a creation that got out of control, an unforgivable mistake of the Genetic Art Institute”, Kate added.
I was tempted to tell them that, in my dream, not only the neo-cannibals exist, but also they have butchered, in parallel worlds, the two of them! But the acoustic circuit started screeching:
“Sergeant Glaff is expected in the general’s office! Sergeant Glaff is expected in the general’s office! Sergeant Glaff is…”
I stepped on the transporting strip. The slow one. Orders are supposed to be carried out, but no one said anything about how urgent this one was.
As usual, General Hobs spoke only about his feelings for me, about how Colonel Glaff’s promotion was in my hands… I had a hard time trying to keep him at distance without hitting or insulting him, and I decided to tell Paul everything. The dream recording could only be of help.
But Paul didn’t come home that night. Hobs had arranged a mission for him. And Hobs came around that evening. The specially programmed protocol robot tried to convince him that I was out, but the lunatic started to deactivate it. Luckily, I had turned on the protection field of my bedroom. The General left with his tail between his legs.
Paul returned towards dawn.
“Those idiots ruined your dream”, he said as soon as he had come in. “They said it hadn’t been well fixed and that it wasn’t their fault that it didn’t come out right when they processed it. But they got mine! I assure you this one is worth seeing!”
“It’s not the same thing, Paul!”
And, sulking, I turned my back on him.
He laughed and held me in his arms:
“Come now, honey, I can give you something better than dreams!”
We were almost undressed when the kitchen circuit started humming my favorite tune.
Paul startled and jumped out of bed.
“Why are you so scared? It’s got to be the cat!”
“It’s not playing for the cat! This tune is only for you!”
He rushed to the kitchen; I followed him, intrigued.
I found him standing on the doorstep. I stood on my toes and, over his shoulders, I saw… I saw MYSELF, dressed in a beige uniform, flattened by the weight of a naked man who had a long needle sticking out of the base of his skull. Krama! The dream! Dear God!
While the two were simply vanishing, I let out a piercing scream.
“I told you to come back YESTERDAY!” Paul snapped. “Why do you never listen to me?”
I felt my knees weakening, everything around me started spinning and turning black…
The alarm clock robot put his hand on my shoulder and woke me up. I rubbed my eyes, then touched my head. I found the spongy helmet or the oniric recorder, in its proper position. The robot had opened the windows: it knew I liked fresh air and the morning sun.
Well, yes, this time I woken up for good! But, Dear Good, what a weird dream! And just before my engagement to Hobs, the Colonel George Hobs I had so much yearned for!
Luckily I had been connected to the recorder and I had the dream! Any movie company would have bought such dream for a fortune! (And my wedding dress was going to be great – the financial problem was solved!)
I took out the translucent disk and went to the developing module nook. There I found one of the maintenance robots.
“There was some sabotage last night, someone has tampered with the energy supply”, he explained while searching through the bowels of the device. “All sensitive equipments were affected. For developing, address to a specialized center, where they have more reliable devices.”
A first suspicion struck me, but I chased it angrily away. I wasn’t going to go nuts because of some dream – even though a twisted yet a somewhat logical one – and a stupid coincidence!
I went to the communication circuit and placed an urgent call to General Paul Glaff, head of Special Police. I asked the day off, aware that I was taking advantage of his – often-confessed – weakness for me.
“… That’s what kind of heart lies behind a bra”…
“Of course, Anne”, he answered. “Especially if you are going to use the time to call off your engagement to the Colonel!” he added and, maybe it was just a feeling, but his green eyes seemed to hold an accomplice glimmer on the screen.
“When you return, do it YESTERDAY, and think again before saying ‘yes’ to the Colonel’s proposal.”
A second suspicion pierced, almost painfully, into my brain.
How did Glaff know about the engagement? I had only told Linda and Kate! (Happily, the neo-cannibals were just a rumor issued – for reasons I am not at liberty to disclose – by the Secret Police itself!) Maybe they had blabbed out something in front of Mrs. Katz, and the old hag had spread the news!
Somewhat calmed down, I preferred to dismiss my doubts and I left for a center specialized in oniric developments.
My beige uniform, with the symbol of the Special Police - the hourglass in which the sand gathered miraculously into the strangled part – embroidered on its left sleeve, seemed to impress the woman at the reception desk.
“What account shall we charge it to?” she asked hesitantly, as if afraid she would make me angry.
“Sergeant Anne Limtz”, I said, and it seemed my name startled her.
“Could you wait? It will only take two minutes!”
I nodded and she inserted the disk in a slot of the terminal that served her (or which she served?).
Two minutes passed, then another one, then one more…
A very elegant and excessively polite middle-aged man entered the room.
“We are very sorry”, he began. “The recent disturbances of the energy supplier have probably caused a malfunction in your oniric recorder. All we have managed to get from the recording were jumbled colors and unarticulated sounds. You owe us nothing. On the contrary, your ultra-sensitive device being one of our company’s products, you will receive a compensation.”
I left without saying anything, overwhelmed by the second coincidence and the third suspicion. But, not wanting to spoil my day, I chased away my troubled thoughts and turned to the Good Morals Preservation League.
When I mentioned I wanted to announce my engagement, I was ushered into the First Secretary’s office.
“It’s a rather delicate problem, Anne”, the old hag said, giving me a motherly glance over the crooked nose. “I don’t know if you had been told this before, but you have a complacent hymen. Here, this is the recording in which our doctor explains it to your future husband. We wouldn’t want a member of our League suspected of premarital sex!”
Premarital sex… Dear God! With Krama, for instance…?!
A fourth suspicion lodged itself deeply, not letting itself driven away.
Hobs was waiting for me at home. In fact, there were two of them: the Colonel, whom I recognized by his uniform, and THE OTHER, who seemed another Hobs, disguised in the rich cloak of a wizard from the era of ignorance.
“My twin brother Giorgio, an actor”, George introduced him. “I invited him for the engagement.”
A fifth suspicion squeezed my heart.
“You wouldn’t be three, would you? Triplets?” I heard myself asking.
“Yes, we are”, the actor smiled. “Our brother Gheorghi couldn’t make it. He’s running for a counselor position. And he has a good chance, too! The other candidate, Ovid Ovici, died unexpectedly last night.”
Ovid Ovici! Ovid Krama, Marcel Ovici… Dear God!
A sixth suspicion took my breath away. Fragments of the last night’s dream jumped up in my head. Some of them stood out: Glaff’s face, the kiss, the foreplay interrupted at the end of the dream… And the three identical Hobs who wanted… Dear God! What did they want from me, besides the kramamobile?… And General Hobs, who kept insisting in his office, and at my bedroom door, his leering looks…
“I’d like to put off the engagement”, I said after a long while.
George gaped white faced – “like a tasteless shellfish”, I thought, suddenly satisfied.
That night I requested - and was granted!- a ‘consultation-audience’ from Marana Cerioniacev, that less known medium the dream had reminded me of.
Marana, a gray haired, rubensian matron, listened to me with a transfigured look on her face, while jingling a string of ruby beads.
“We don’t know where dreams come from, when they ARE dreams”, she whispered, as if she was letting me on a secret – awakening my seventh suspicion. “As for the ways of TIME, about its ‘currents’, these haven’t been disclosed even to us, the ‘paranormals’! But I FEEL something, here and here” – she touched her forehead and her left breast – “and I’ll say it sometime, when I’ll sketch “The Book of Time’, the book of my life. I’ll sent you an autographed copy, my girl, because you have revealed a lot to me!”
“Well, but I…”
“You just follow your feelings”, she interrupted. “You’ll make no mistakes, you are not anybody, because you have been chosen to make some KNOTS, cross some STRANDS.”
“Who chose me?” I asked, almost laughing at the thought that she might answer like the dream Glaff: “The computer from the Personnel Department.”
“I don’t know yet”, she murmured, abandoning her beads. “Maybe a cybernetic intelligence. Maybe men from the future. “ She smiled. “Maybe a future Time Police.” Then, gravely once more: “Maybe God…”
“Maybe the devil!” I broke in, suddenly irritated.
“You didn’t understand anything.” She spat the words, frowning. “But you have time, I see a lot of time ahead of you! Go and follow your feelings, for you – remember this – you are not just anybody!”
The following day, when General Paul Glaff called me in his office, I said in one breath:
“Sergeant Anne Limtz at your order, General! Request permission to report: last night I decided to accept your proposal or marriage. I hope this isn’t against regulations, sir!”
The general smiled - and a devilish glimmer of his green eyes lent, for a moment, so much charm to his stern features that I found myself regretting I had not made up my mind sooner. He swallowed dryly a few times – I watched his Adam’s apple jump – but he answered calmly, in a neutral, official voice:
“Special Police Regulations stipulate nothing regarding the marital status of the staff. You disappoint me, Sergeant Limtz, I thought you knew that.”
I remind standing at attention, my blood throbbing in my temples, and lowered my eyes. Who could have whispered to Glaff this line, word for word?
“Sit down”, he added, not giving me time to collect my thoughts. “As soon as General Glaff gets down from the seventh heaven, you’ll be able to talk to him.”
We got married two month later; after seven month, I gave birth, prematurely in my opinion, normally, in the doctor’s, to a girl. Without consulting me, Paul chose and recorded her name: Krama. When I heard – Dear God! – my hear turned white. Nobody could explain it. Paul comforted me by saying – and looking as if he meant it – that I was more beautiful that way. Anyway, I hold no grudge against him. Poor soul! He knows nothing (DOES HE?) about my ‘dream’ and I’m never going to tell him. I have become satisfied with piling new suspicions over the old ones, without counting them anymore.
As for George Hobs, in order to show he wasn’t upset, he suggested that he and his brothers to be the girl’s Godfathers, which Paul enthusiastically accepted.
Fifteen years have past since then. Krama Glaff is a strange teenager, with big, dreamy, pale blue eyes. She writes poems and doesn’t get much sleep. We gave up the alarm clock robot. She wakes us up every morning. Every morning I wake up dazed, seeing her face from an unnatural angle, and I try in vain to persuade myself that what I see in the dim depth of her eyes is not a glimmer of vengeance. And every morning he holds ‘The Book of Time’, the first bestseller signed by Marana Cerioniacev, who has become a most fashionable medium.
I received the autographed copy three years ago. I already knew the critics’ opinion: ‘a mixture of fantastic theories and pretentious nonsense’. Curious, I opened the book at random: ‘An explorer of the past who, willfully or not, causes even the slightest alteration in it, creates a ramification, a so-called parallel world…’ Dear God! I shivered and I promised myself I would never open it again!
But Krama reads it again and again, making all kind of computations and notes. She has recently confessed to me that she feels she could defeat time:
“I’m thinking of a tiny, pocket device. I’ll call it the Krama chronomobile!”
‘The Krama chronomobile!’ Dear God! I was glad my hear couldn’t turn white a second time!
And today I accidentally found one of Krama’s notebooks, full or poems. Basking on its cover, carefully handwritten, a title that has taken my breath away: ‘The Vagrant of Chronos’! Dear God!
© Copyright Ana Veronica Mircea
|Sursa : Imagikon
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