THE FINGERS TRILOGY
Blind Fingers on Civvy Street
This isn't in the manuals. It is highly irregular and it is counterproductive and was never meant to happen this way because what would have been the use of putting an entire army, a vast army of men, into subsynch and having them come back from doppelprojection burning with illegal recall. So he knew he had to be an exception: a red-hot, illegal exception because everybody knows that war is horrible and that subsynch is real as Megev dust and the gray, granular death of Arm'a'gedd-on. And if it hadn't been for the woman, Blind would never have known.
Nobody is supposed to know the subsynch program, at least not in detail. All battle orders are in permanent hermhypno-seal. As a private he had no access whatever to them. Even officers didn't know precisely what would happen when they went in, but it was tanks, rockets, body-heat seeking hi-vibe anti-personnel mini-missiles that often as not found their way up a man's anus and gave the poor soldier his first and last homo-erotic moment before he became a glowing tribute to cellular combustion. And, since doppelprojection in subsynch went back six hundred years, there was chemical, too, though illegal even when it had first been applied.
The idea had been to grind each other up in one final love orgy of physical contact, that is, as physical contact as you could get at the end of the 20th century without resorting to swords and battle-axes. It was tanks and men, and Blind was one of the men, supposedly in the thick of battle, but instead he found himself in a white-walled room in a house with half the roof missing, flat on his back, waiting for the yellow rain. The yellow rain had first officially been spread in the Yalu river basin, in China, but as it became globally known, yalu changed to yellow and it was now the yellow rain that fell on man and beast and made a mess of their lungs, first, then turned the rest of the internals into intentional mush. The cellular chain reaction, once initiated, continued even after physical death. It transformed the corpses into puddles of goo, coating the Megev with a thick pie-crust of blood and molten flesh.
Recall is illegal, so much so that the two words are used together: illegal recall. All precautions are taken to make sure that the war experience while of flawless reality, has no holes in it through which conscious memory might seep. The entire subsynch experience occurs within: the subcon program operates in the realms of the sub- and unconscious, so that its effect cannot be diminished by intellectual analysis.
To ensure this, the hermhypno-seal is placed on top of the entire cycle so that even if there is a leak, this breaks the seal and the individual involved can easily be identified. He is then either debriefed properly or sent back into subsynch for a fresh experience to wash out the old, defective one. Blind was the rare and far exception.
Not only was there recall, not only had the hermhypno-seal been broken to make him stick out, but somehow he had managed to return home undetected. Nobody bothered him after that, so the whole thing became a private matter for himself and for his wife. The official attitude toward such extremely rare cases was that, even if a man had illegal recall and escaped detection and debriefing, his conscious memory would, after all, still support the subcon program whose tenets were condensed in the simple slogan: War Is Horrible! For Blind this slogan now appeared slightly altered to read: War Is Horrible... but! And this but was just another way of recalling Sha.
Blind sat at the kitchen table and watched his wife prepare a hi-energy mix at the counter. He was thinking of Sha. He was thinking that women didn't come like that anymore. It wasn't merely that Sha had been totorgasmic, but that she had become a mystery to Blind. When she found him, he had been in subsynch and he continued in subsynch all through the yellow rain experience that melted his doppel, i.e., melted private Blind Fingers - for the reality of dying is flawlessly experienced by the doppelprojection, precisely as if not the doppel were dying but the real man. Now he could not explain to himself how Sha could have treated him as if he had been a real man, unless... well, unless she herself was also a doppel in subsynch.
But women are never put in subsynch. It isn't thought important. The subcon program re-enforces male aversion to the hoary ease with which males adapt to killing. Certainly there are women who have the same or similar predisposition, but their number is much smaller and the official attitude is that they are easily pacified by the huge mass of pacified males which the subcon program produces each year.
Sha might have been a real person of that time, six hundred years ago, conjured in subsynch like the tanks and the hi-vibe anti-personnel mini-missiles and the yellow rain, but she had certainly not been conjured officially because that would have provided an amelioration to the principle: War Is Horrible. Obviously the government had no interest in anything like that. Yet anti-government groups were known to exist and Sha might have belonged to one of those. These were people who would bring down an established order that had resulted in well nigh six hundred years of unbroken peace on earth. If war were horrible, which it was, the possibility of being subverted by the word but was worse, and precisely therein lay the insidious threat!
Blind sat at the table, endlessly studying his wife's sleek lines, endlessly praising his good fortune in the wonder of her body, just waiting for her to turn so that he could add the praise of his good fortune for the noble fire in her eyes as well to all the blessings he so endlessly counted, waiting also for the moment when, with eyes closed, he could do honor and justice to the name she had bestowed on him - a name he wore proudly, as did all married men he knew. Turn she did, and close his eyes he did, reaching blindly for her, when she said:
"Bline," (Juno was a southern lady), "Bline, stop dreaming about subsynch and the war. You know that's illegal recall. Bad enough your seal is broken and you can't go out. Just remember - you're not a doppel now. This is real. And you're on civvy street."
"Put on some calypso," he instructed her. "I want to recreate the mood of the period."
"The period, the period, that's all you're interested in these days! Besides, the music was reggae, not calypso."
"Put on King Scratch and the Bay Street Boys!"
"Bob Marley and the Wailers give a much better ... "
There they went again, this time with calypso versus reggae. It might have been potatoes versus yams or oatmeal versus crispies or, well, war versus the tiny word but.
Blind's illegal recall took him back to the broken house and to Sha. He had been burnt badly, and she was taking care of him. He had been burnt by a heat-seeking anti-personnel mini-missile on its way to a soldier with much greater body heat than his, some huge, sweating private somewhere diagonally ahead of him. If Blind had stood just half a step to the right that moment, he would have been dead. This way he was merely roasted on one side. Actually, technojargonically speaking, he had been hi-vibed, but the effect was that of a severe burn all down the right side of his body.
She had put him on a linen sheet, in the shady part of the single-space house. When he came to, he saw her sitting there fanning herself with a newspaper. He told her his name and she smiled. That smile remained on her face to the end. And, inexplicably, he had grinned and said,
"I'm in subsynch, you know, I'm only a doppel." That in itself was crazy, because doppels do not know what they are until later when they get back to their bodies in the dormitories, and even then only subconsciously so there can be no conscious identification and analysis of the subsynch experience.
"You were washed ashore out of the Megev."
"They're dropping the yellow rain. The bloodmush is ankledeep in places."
"And where do you come from?"
"I'm taking care of you. Just remember - sex isn't everything."
"I'm not thinking about sex."
"I am," she had admitted.
Immediately, he had had an erection. Sha had easily and smoothly mounted him from his healthy side, avoiding the bum areas on the right. She had taken it slow and easy and, quite against his habit, he had watched her come in that old-fashioned way of hers, a long series of totorgasmic shivers that should not have been as touching as they were, for, after all, Juno too was totorgasmic. His eyes open, he had watched that quivering undulation of the abdominal cavity, had seen it come and fade and come again, and finally subside.
When he woke, the yellow rain was falling. He, that is. his doppel, had died a slow, awful death, a death that felt like eternal hell-life to him. The few brief moments of ordinary consciousness when he was not engaged in the excruciating labor of dying were filled with longing for Sha, but she was nowhere in sight. It was this absence that later led him to suspect that she, too, had been a doppel.
"It's just a body, you know," Juno was saying, here and now, in the kitchen, under Blind's exploring fingers.
"Yeah, but it's yours. I like these panties, where'd you get them?"
"Contraband from America."
"Must have cost a fortune on the apport-market."
"Well," she said, adjusting herself on his lap, "if I had bought them on the apport-market, they would not have been cheap."
"A stowaway soldier on a time-apport transport that ran the psychblockade gave them to me. I couldn't resist."
"I don't blame you," he mumbled, or mumbled some such thing, playing with the marvelously elastic stretchies. His fingers found them irresistible. This was good, old-fashioned fifty percent cotton with nylon and polyester mixed in equal proportion so that not only was there no static cling but not even - he imagined - the feel of static cling if you wore them.
"Bet they fit all sizes, too," he ventured. She squirmed a little under his hand.
Silently, blindly, he continued, redoubling his efforts.
"Fingers, will you stop stretching my panties?"
Coming up out of his tactile garden, his eyes flew open. Well, such was life on civvy street: a man might sit with his perfect wife on his lap and get lost in probing the contraband yield of a pair of stretch panties apported from a time when apocalyptic wars raged on earth. He had, of course, seen and felt such stretchies before. But something had been missing then, the first step. If you get the second piece of evidence before you got the first, you couldn't appreciate it for what it meant. If you didn't have the first piece of evidence, the crucial piece, then you were treading water and nothing made sense. You could buy a hundred pieces from that horrible time on the apport-market, but you could never relate even a single one of them to the war, or deduce the full horror of war from it, unless... well, unless you had illegal recall and your broken hermhypno-seal had escaped detection. Then you had the basic piece of evidence on which the truth rested. Then you made all the connections.
Blind made his wife slide off his lap. He stood up. He stretched, yawned, reached for the hi-energy mix and drank it down in one, gulping draft. Wiping his mouth with the back of one hand he looked at his wife Juno in her illegal beige panties. Before he could ask what had happened to that soldier, she said,
"The soldier disappeared."
"And the transport?"
She shrugged. She gave him a long look.
"Bline, get it out of your mind. You can't go back there and be happy."
"Aren't they short a soldier now?"
"Don't be ridiculous," she sighed. "20th century America needs you as much as it needs these briefs."
He tugged absently, dreamily, at her marvelous stretchies.
"They tell us how horrible war is," he said. "We go into subsynch and come back subconsciously re-enforced against the horror of killing and of being killed.
"But these panties tell me that maybe not just stretchies were better then. Maybe sex, too, and shoes, socks, yoghurt. Maybe even love! Sure, war is horrible... but... !"
She twists away from him and stands back, leaning against the kitchen counter. Her abdomen trembles as if before orgasm. Clearly she is angry.
"Fingers, you're a fool!"
"I'll find that transport. Or I'll let them put me through subsynch again, clean me out."
She says nothing. She gazes down those perfect legs to her feet. Blind takes her into his arms and his hand slides down the long twin ridge of sinews that create between them the shady spinal valley, arriving at the small of her back.
His right little finger slides in between downy, tawny skin and stretchies: it's touch and go. Let the apported clown soldier from the 20th century shower her with panties all he wants! Won't she soon tire of a man who has fled from the wars of his time?
Of course she will stop him. She has stopped him by telling him that he's a fool. That is how it is: in this our peaceful time we men here are pacified in subsynch and controlled by our wives who name us. My name is Blind Fingers. I know men named Silent Sweet, Fiery Sleep, Closely Held Sorrow and such like names. We, all of us, live in peace with our perfect wives. If it were the custom for men to name their wives, I'd name mine Stretch or Fit, or Stretch to Fit.
Fingers at War
"Hey, Grease! Why they call you Grease?"
Fingers didn't react to the question. He was thinking about Juno. There was a lull in the fighting, in fact, the fighting had been mostly lulls. Long lulls and savage bursts of fighting, that was the kind of war it was. Fingers was thinking what a terrible burden a beautiful woman is on an ugly man. She makes him jealous, he has to keep himself clean, and finally he has to leave.
The bursts of fighting were so savage that you forgot you were fighting. It was a kind of exhilaration you could talk about during the long lulls. That's what they did - talk about the savage bursts, or about trivia.
"Grease, you not sleepin, are you?"
"So why they call you Grease?"
You fought even in the lulls - you fought sleep. Sleep was dangerous, as in any war, but more so in this one. In sleep you found good clean air to breathe, nice fresh water to drink, cool blue skies to look up into, a gentle breeze to make you remember there were still unscarred patches of skin on your face. And there was perfectly steamed rice and plump mango and heaps of tender beans. Why, there even was milk. In sleep, a man found everything he could want, including death. Who knew, death might be even more plentiful!
Grease hitched up his shoulders, rolled his head this way and that, but the stiffness wouldn't budge. He was getting on in years, time to quit. Just to stay awake, he said,
"In my day they called me Blind. I'd been put in subsynch, but the hermhypno broke. I could have wrecked the entire subcon program. I went home, rested up a little, found a timetransport and..."
"Yeah, right, the hermhippo broke. What's a hermhippo anyway?"
Without pulling the p-pack from his pocket, Fingers took out a purifier and struck it against a rock. It started to burn: a round, blue flame that gave off no warmth and no light, but afforded the luxury of ten minutes of uncontaminated air. Unless there was a cave-in, you could last a whole hour after the purifier had burnt out. The Andropods worked on the upper levels of air, depressing one stratum after another until only a thin layer was left which finally caved in. This was followed by a savage burst of fighting: fighting for air, that is.
Fingers had five p-packs containing twenty purifiers each, and a well camouflaged cache not too far away. For a pack of purifiers, desperate soldiers had been known to claw the fissured ground until the bones showed through their fingertips.
"Hey, how old are you, anyway?"
Fingers was thinking how you could never possess a beautiful woman. The purifier was going and he was feeling secure and good. She could be your wife, you could live with her all of your life, and still you could never be certain of her. When you felt good and secure, the hunger was not so bad. You needed it, because it kept you anticipating the savage bursts: there'd be no hunger then, and no need for sleep. There were times when you hated the lulls and wished that you were fighting all the time.
"Trade you a ration for a p-pack."
Grease didn't bother to turn his head. He looked up, sniffing the air like a dog sniffing for rain. Sometimes you could sniff those damn cave-ins coming, but just now there was nothing. The blue flame sputtered and began to shrink. Before it died, Fingers took a few deep breaths. There hadn't been a cave-in in days, which could only mean there'd be one soon. Hell, he could afford the trade. It would give him a whole day of no hunger. He tossed a pack to the man; it was a psychological maneuver: once a soldier got his hands on a p-pack, he just naturally couldn't let go.
Fingers said, "That's fifteen for the ration, and five for nudging me if I doze off."
"You got it."
The ration came sailing over Finger's shoulder. Wasn't so long ago they woke you automatically if you fell asleep. It was just something one soldier did for another, but no more. Now. if a cave-in came down on a man and he died (which he usually did) those closest to him took his purifiers and his rations. Waking a man had become a negotiable commodity, like p-packs and rations. The law of supply and demand was every bit as cruel as the bursts of fighting were savage.
Of course, paying a man to wake you was no guarantee that he'd wake you. When you're dead you're dead and being dead there's no way for you to complain about supply and demand. This kind of bargaining balanced on a very slim sliver of honor indeed.
"So why they start callin you Grease?"
"Well" said Grease, "the Tee-Tee developed malfunction. We got through alright, but we looked like hell. Have you ever seen a man climb out of a barrel full of molasses? I got the devil's case of a radiation burn in that timeslip too and it took months to get rid of the slime."
He bit a healthy chunk off the ration and started chewing. By his watch it was eight o'clock in the morning. Had he stayed in the future, he'd just now be squeezing June's buns good morning, but the present was no time for reminiscences. Back there in the future, pleasure had been two handfuls of flesh and a pair of perfect stretchies; here pleasure was survival. Fingers hummed a little to himself. Then he started singing, which was basically unheard of for a soldier. It cut down on the purifier's after-effects, which made it expensive, for one thing. For another, singing attracted the Andropods.
"Shut up, Pops!"
He sang on, somebody shoved him. But he held his ground.
...life in the past
was a drawn-out blast
and it often melted your bones
yes life in the past
was one hell of a blast
and it often melted your bones.
Then they all heard it: like a great plane planing high in the distance an enormous plank of wood high in the air. A few greenies chuckled innocently. Grease began to crawl off to the side, away from the group, in the general direction of his cache. He was pumping adrenalin like mad as he scraped over the parched ground. There was a curious feeling of pride that came with the adrenalin as part of the conditioned reflex induced by hearing the Andropods planing away up there. Yes, a man could still feel pride, crawling along down here in the dust, practically defenseless under all that hi-tech razzle-dazzle above him.
Producing a cave-in is a highly complicated technological achievement, a direct assault on Mother Nature. It gave the victims the satisfaction of knowing that the Andropods were the bad guys, though nobody knew where God stood in the matter. Maybe He liked a winner. It took very little prophetic acumen to predict the outcome: Barring a miracle, the Andropods would take it by a land... by an air-slide. God would actually have to reach down and smite them.
Grease rolled himself up in the battle-tested hedgehog position to occupy as little space as possible. Many an old soldier like himself was wiped out simply because he got too stiff to roll himself up like this. Grease, too, if he managed to stay alive, had only a few more years of suppleness in his limbs. Time to quit. Time to go... how? How could he ever get back home?
In this defensive crouch he lit first one, then another purifier, set his hands on the ground, put his head between them, with the purifiers burning like sentries on either side. That is how he awaited the cave-in. If it wasn't too big, you could get away from it at the periphery. If it hit you directly with its center, even a dozen purifiers wouldn't protect you. It was basically a matter of luck whether you lived or died.
The Andropods were planing overhead now. They weren't using a plane, of course, it just sounded like one. For all their technology, they were a little stupid, the Andropods. For one thing, they were both methodical and erratic, like farmers harvesting a field of wheat, doing half the field and then, for no discernible reason, shooting off diagonally, cutting a path to some other patch, leaving the rest of the air untouched, even though they certainly knew there were soldiers below. Soldiers? Hell, they were mice in a field at harvest time.
One of the greenies! He stood practically upright, looking down on Grease. He had a blank expression on his face.
"Can you spare a p or two?"
"Get the hell down!"
The kid squatted but made no move to ball up.
The greenie sat down, crossed his legs nonchalantly.
"Okay. so you're nuts," said Grease.
"I just wanna breathe a little," said the greenie. Grease unhitched himself a mite, pulled out a few purifiers and handed them to the kid. Then he went back into his hedgehog crouch. The greenie lit a single purifier and sat there, immensely pleased with himself and with life. Above them the Andropods were harvesting air at an even pace. While the Andropods are erratically methodical, we, whom they call the anti-Andropods, are methodically erratic. They have a constant pattern from which they unpredictably deviate, while we constantly deviate from an unpredictable pattern. Decades ago they succeeded in naming us in relation to them - an advantage to them which we have never quite been able to overcome. But naming us in relation to them has also handicapped them: That little hyphen is our umbilical cord to them. If we cut it, we become independent of them, become simply Antis. That, of course, is the unwavering goal of Leadership: to eliminate the hyphen, to cast off, to be Antis.
It was Leadership that created methodical erraticism as a strategy for us. It's an open secret that this was done to cover up a truer bent: an erratic methodology very much like that which the Andropods actually practice, while they are probably camouflaging their own true nature which may well be methodically erratic.
And to know that for this, kids like the greenie beside me had to die and would have to continue to die!
When the cave-in came, he happened to be just inside its periphery, while I was just outside of it. He flopped once, twice, a fish out of water. I saw this only in a blur because, balled up as I was, I rolled away from the cave-in, got to my feet and ran, didn't even look back. To roll and run is methodically erratic and sometimes it works. I had been lucky once again!
I got a little ways down the field, found my cache, got out a few more p-packs and some rations. I moved on a bit farther, sat down and lit three purifiers to celebrate my fifty-seventh escape from the death of honor on the battlefield.
The sound of planing had stopped, it looked like a fine day in the making. The sun was climbing steadily into the hazy skies. Some birds, having fled from the vacuous rush of air, tentatively began to chirp and warble. I saw soldiers, now crouching low against a ridge, now moving on around it out of sight. There was something peaceful and reassuring in their businesslike progress: They were veterans, men like myself. When all is said and done, we are a tough tribe! We are truly like mice. We have survived countless harvests in the field and will survive countless more. We have lived under the sickle and the scythe and survived, and we are surviving the great planing machines of the Andropods as well.
There is no mellower philosopher than a soldier in a lull between bursts of fighting. I sat there, breathing the purified air, thinking about the woman I had left in the future. I was thinking that this was really not a war at all. It was more like the tide in which water and land play equal parts and are inseparable: Still, the land will not be water, nor will a mouse be a scythe or a harvester. And we, the future Antis, will never be Andropods.
But the killing! It creates only cynicism and despair, except among the greenies who don't know any better than to be carelessly optimistic.
I'm an oddity here, even here: an old soldier in a brutal war, yet nobody wonders how I've managed to survive this long.
They try to provoke me, they laugh at me. they don't understand my language. And I won't adapt to their primitive, stilted way of communicating. We have nothing in common but the war we're in together: Survival is our common denominator.
Isn't the test of a man's power his ability to leave? Well, I'm powerless! But I'm not certain that to be an old man in the future would have been preferable to this. Okay: Time isn't what it's cracked up to be. But you have to crack it up to see this. There must be others who, like me, have seen time crack.
There has been safety in the romantic notion of human progress, just as there now is safety in the romantic notion of the foundering of our species. Through eons we have tied ourselves to our myths until we have become inseparable from them: North is up and south is down. East is right and west is left. We are down here, the Andropods are up there, between us is air. The air belongs to them, the ground belongs to us: myths, myths, myths!
Our true business on earth may never be known, though it rumble and murmur darkly beneath all language: pebbles whispering in a riverbed, the mysterious hiss of the scythe, Adropods distantly planing air, great armies of mice swarming over broken-down machinery in a half-harvested field under autumnal skies.
Has the abolition of money brought us happiness, can it give us back our women? Has not the dictum that a man may teach only what he knows sucked knowledge dry? Once, we knelt and prayed. Today, of this ritual, only the hedgehog position remains. Six hundred years hence our doppels will melt in subsynch. That's how it will be: Believe me! My bones are there!
Fingers come Home
After the war, that is, when a lull in the fighting had lasted so long the Antis thought the war was actually over, Private Fingers (also known as Grease) started hanging around Time Locks for a longshot chance to go home.
He was in competition with great hordes of kids trying to do just the opposite: get away from home. They didn't care where they went, just as long as it was away. Kids trying to get away had been the situation since time immemorial. Kids, yes, but seldom men of Blind's generation. It wasn't simply that older men had lost hope, or that they mixed up reality, myth, prophesy and everyday gossip and so no longer knew what was what. It was well known that only young, resilient bodies could hope to survive passage through Time Locks. Or experienced sailors who had lived most of their lives half in and half out of time.
Blind was neither young, nor an experienced time sailor. He had been one of a handful of youngish men in some distant future who, dissatisfied with subsynch and doppelprojection, had found a time transport and managed to get themselves mixed up in a real war in the past. That real war had really aged him. Everytime Blind saw his face in a mirror he had to shake his head.
The way to get into Time Locks was to find it. Its general location was well known: the kids knew it. If you hung out with them you could be pretty certain that you were somewhere in the Time Locks area. But actually to get in was a matter of individual perception. Without steamjuice you couldn't do it. And even steamjuice was no guarantee. It was tough stuff, causing havoc and devastation even among the kids. For every kid who came back from a steamjuice ride, two or three didn't. They stayed out there: Juicies.
A Juicy was like an old man (or woman, because women tried it, too) with a young body: reality, myth, prophesy and everyday gossip were so mixed up that the Juicy just sat around grinning, having a good time, his (or her) purpose for steaming in the first place quite forgotten.
Private Fingers was there because he figured he had no choice: if he couldn't make it home, he might as well turn into a Juicy and spend the rest of his days grinning idiotically at the world. One thing was certain, if the war started up again, what with the long-range after effects of steamjuice, he wouldn't last a day under the Andropods! Blind knew further that at his age he could steam only a couple or three times at most. After that, he'd be a Juicy. And he'd already wasted one time - well, not really wasted it. He'd actually seen something that looked like Time Locks, made a run for it before he fell back. A kid he told this to laughed and clapped him on the shoulder.
"Oh yeah, Pops, what they look like. Time Locks?"
Fingers was cautious, having learned how quickly kids snapped up something new and handled it as if they'd known it all their lives.
"... isn't Time Locks supposed to differ from one man to the next?"
And you had to be careful to employ the singular for Time Locks. A lot of stories circulated about the term's derivation, some highly irreverent, like that version that it had evolved from some ancient expletive, admonition or exclamation, like: Damn Lox! As long as you employed the singular, you were sure to keep the kids guessing.
"And so it is. Pops, so it is!" grinned the kid.
Some kids were known to have steamed for Time Locks a dozen times or more without apparent damage. They still had that serious, focused look that bespoke their unbroken determination to get away from home. Fingers pitied and envied them at the same time. Who knew, one of these youngsters might just wind up in doppelprojection and come back babbling about the marvels of the future that Fingers had so zestfully forsaken. And there was Cutlass, the Sailorman, who blew in now and then, utterly unruffled, to tease all and sundry with his Tales of Past and Future; the only living being reputed to be able to hit Time Locks at any time, on first try, without juice. A legend in his time or out.
"Nothin' to it lads and lassies," he held forth, "simple matter of gene control, guts, imagination. You name it, Cutlass's got it."
His speech slurred a bit – not surprising considering how often he had navigated the reefs of time. Blind was careful to cultivate his favor. Since they were about the same age, he found it easy to talk to him.
"Hello there. Seafarer!"
"Ahoy there. Soldier!"
"Where you been this time out?"
"Oh, here and there and never nowhere." came the standard reply from the guant and grizzled time traveler. They chatted for a while, parted, met again weeks later, chatted some more. They seemed to be getting along. Blind tried to find out if Cutlass knew anything about Blind's own timeslot in the future, so he cautiously introduced some of the language of his period,
"I mean everybody is hermhypnotically sealed and there is doppelprojection in subsynch?"
Cutlass added wrinkles to his forehead.
"Not sure, Soldier. Could be an American period."
"Yeah, that's it!"
"Well, let me see, they had leaders famous for valor and suffering: a Schenectady, a Jantzen, a Vixen, a Corder, a Raymond. Corder got shot in the head, got his brainpan in some national shrine. Schenectady was a tall, ugly man who once showed off a huge stomach scar from an abortive attempt to commit suicide while a young and passionate idealist studying in Jippan. Corder had a terminal sickness, I think. And Raymond, well, Raymond was a hero to the people of his time. Here's a story, a kind of national fable, I heard once while in port in that slot. They told it to their children at bedtime: Raymond was out on a fishing trip, alone in a canoe, when a large animal with long, pointy ears, called I think a babbit, came swimming, flashing its big teeth, trying to ram the canoe. Raymond fought it off with a paddle, smashed its head in. Later turned out that this babbit was remote-controlled by a foreign power. Made Raymond one of the immortals, ring a bell?"
"Vaguely," said Fingers. "Ancient history."
Dimly he remembered hearing about a remote-controlled babbit or rabbit that started a war - one of those historical anecdotes as easily attributable to the historian's imagination, or to time blur, as to historical fact. As for those names, well! He shrugged. He looked at Cutlass, who looked back at him.
"Listen, Soldier, you want to go this bad, come along with me. Trust old Cutlass. Sooner or later we're bound to hit your slot."
Fingers made some excuse, said he needed time to think it over. Cutlass the Sailorman left. Fingers had trouble making up his mind, but everyday there were more rumors that the war would crank up again soon, and so, when they met again, he said yes, he was eager to go.
"Okay, what do I do?"
"You do as I do," said the sailor.
So when the sailor walked into a narrow lane in the dark of night, the soldier followed him. When he went into an old, abandoned building, Fingers went in, too, following his guide down moldy stairs into the basement, into a dank and musty smelling room lit only by the sailor's phosphorescent night-beam. Through a trapdoor they eased, climbing deeper down into a narrow passage that led down into another, larger cellar room with a strangely shaped, pointed object in its center.
"This" said Cutlass, "is the top of the tallest steeple in the town below the town above us. Follow me!"
Through an opening in the roof they climbed into the tower and began to descend a long winding staircase of stone. Fingers sweated from exhaustion and fear, his legs trembled. Finally they reached the ground floor and emerged into a street: utter darkness here, Cutlass´ night-beam glowing feebly so that Fingers had only a hand, an arm, and a bit of a head and shoulder in silhouette to follow. He stumbled along, scraping elbows and shoulders against walls. When they had entered another door and began to feel their way down yet another staircase, he called after the sailor to stop so he could catch his breath. Cutlass made no reply, kept descending. Fingers dragged after him: endless passages, endless staircases, round and round and down, his head in a whirl. He felt used up, ancient, hollow...
"Is Time Locks," he croaked, "getting closer?"
Now at last the phosphor-stick stood still in midair, casting an eerie glow upon the sailor's gaunt face, grinning.
"Dime Lucks they call us, Lucky Dimes. Kids steam, hear an echo, Time Locks they wanna pass through, Time Locks it is. Time Locks is me. Time Locks is Lucky Dimes and Lucky Dimes is anybody who knows how to get there. Follow me, Soldier!"
Fingers would later remember little of the remainder of their journey. Down and down they climbed, and deeper yet, until he could go no farther and collapsed, weeping, a helpless bundle of flopping limbs. Then he slept for a long time.
He woke by the side of a skeleton whose bony fingers still clutched a crumbling night-beam. Fingers sat up, blinking. Was the war over? No sounds of distant planing in the upper layers of atmosphere, nor the wooshing cascade of the Yellow Rain. He rose from the hard floor, walked out of a hut into sunshine under faultless skies. A light breeze blew, birdsong could be heard above the bass notes from a species of animals called crawlers: he was home!
As he made his way through the crowds in the marketplace, Fingers scanned people's faces. Had they changed? No one paid attention to him. But, just as he had crossed the square, about to enter the avenue leading to his own quarter, his arm was touched by someone. He saw an eager young face, a rakishly cut beard, clear eyes seeking his:
"Hello, sailor! Can you spare time?"
"Not now. I'm going home."
"Tomorrow then, or any day. I'm looking for a transport. I must travel."
"Yes, you must."
Smiling, Fingers walked on: so that's how he had changed! Now he looked like a sailor!
He took his time getting home. In a cafe he read a newspaper. Programmed news, peace time news as it had always been. Human interest stories, all style, no content. He didn't even bother to check the date.
In the lavatory he examined his face in a mirror: not so strange, not so familiar. Impenetrable eyes. He continued on his way, turned into the side street that led to his home. When he had finally walked up the stairs and stood at the door, he hesitated. Doorbell or code? He rang the bell, waited, rang again. Nobody home. He touched the code-lock's surfaces in sequence: nothing. He had forgotten the numbers and their sequence! To have remembered them would have been a miracle.
It took him a while, sitting wearily on the top step, to remember. He then walked through the hall into the kitchen, sat down at the table, their table. Sitting there waiting for Juno he felt calm and happy: wasn't it really yesterday, or this morning, they'd embraced? As long ago and as recently as he cared to make it. Love made you free in time, time made you free in love. He slept some more. Juno sat at the table, earnestly watching him. All of their past together was behind a closed door in another room. When he woke he saw her freshly: a girl, a woman, free to travel. Again.
"Welcome home, sailor," she said unsmiling.
"Soldier, welcome. Whence hail you?"
She said it lightly, with comicstrip irony, as if she knew all the battles he had been in, everything he'd done.
"Here and there and never nowhere."
"Wide and deep as well. And thick," said Fingers. Juno got up. They had not touched, not yet. He felt no hurry. She felt no hurry. They were after all the best of friends. They'd gone through thick and thin: he through thick, she through thin.
"Lucky Dimes," he said. "Lucky Dimes is dead!"
"I thought coffee was forbidden."
"I got it from a sailor on the black market." Fingers plunged into a private memory vortex: in this very kitchen, at this very table, stretchies from a sailor. Wasn't that why he had left? Wasn't that what he had wanted to bring back for her, forbidden goods: coffee, stretchies, nylons, chocolate, cigarettes? He emptied his pockets on the kitchen table - coins, a packet of powdered steamjuice, a ration bar, couple of sticks from a p-pack - survival items all of these, a hopeless pile of useless trinkets! He pursed his lips,
"Stories I brought you. Stories!" Weren't all sailors interchangeable? Now it was he who had brought her coffee. Now it was Blind Fingers, it was Grease who would tell her stories. As for the stretchies, wasn't it he who held them in his hand? It had been yesterday, yes it had! She had not changed. This was her body, these were the stretchies he had brought home from his travels, and this was Juno's black fire!
That is how this tale ends, in a time when Fingers, and others like him, broke the hermhypnoseal, forsook home, and returned, an Anti, to fight subsynch and doppelprojection. It is a tale from the beginning of time mastery, from a period when we began to discover how to move within our true history. Really it is a tale from the beginning of our pride.
Today our women no longer name us. There is plenty of air for all to breathe, and plenty of wars in the past to choose from. Death is no longer known as Time Locks, its echo, but by its proper name: Lucky Dimes. We have come a long way.
Blind Fingers, Grease and his contemporaries, imagined time to be long, wide, deep and thick. They are our ancestors, and they gave us a substance to dissolve. That is why we honor them.
©Peter Edler 1985, 2005