On an evening in mid-twentieth century New York, Manse Everard had changed into a threadbare lounging outfit and was mixing himself a drink. The doorbell interrupted. He swore at it. A tiring several days lay behind him and he wanted no other company than the lost narratives of Dr. Watson.
Well, maybe this character could be gotten rid of. He slippered across his apartment and opened the door, his expression mutinous. “Hello,” he said coldly.
And then, all at once, it was as if he were aboard some early spaceship which had just entered free fall; he stood weightless and helpless in a blaze of stars.
“Oh,” he said. “I didn’t know Come in.”
Cynthia Denison paused a moment, looking past him to the bar. He had hung two crossed spears and a horse-plumed helmet from the Achaean Bronze Age over it. They were dark and shining and incredibly beautiful. She tried to speak with steadiness, but failed. “Could I have a drink, Manse? Right away?”
“Of course.” He clamped his mouth shut and helped her off with her coat. She closed the door and sat down on a Swedish modern couch as clean and functional as the Homeric weapons. Her hands fumbled with her purse, getting out cigarettes. For a time she did not look at him, nor he at her.
“Do you still drink Irish on the rocks?” he asked. His words seemed to come from far away, and his body was awkward among bottles and glasses, forgetting how the Time Patrol had trained it.
“Yes,” she said. “So you do remember.” Her lighter snapped, unexpectedly loud in the room.
“It’s been just a few months,” he said, for lack of other phrases.
“Entropic time. Regular, untampered-with, twenty-four-hours-to-the-day time.” She blew a cloud of smoke and stared at it. “Not much more than that for me. I’ve been in now almost continuously since my, my wedding. Just eight and a half months of my personal, biological, lifeline time since Keith and I… But how long has it been for you, Manse? How many years have you rung up, in how many different epochs, since you were Keith’s best man?”
She had always had a rather high and thin voice. It was the only flaw he had ever found in her, unless you counted her being so small—barely five feet. So she could never put much expression into her tones. But he could hear that she was staving off a scream.
He gave her a drink. “Down the hatch,” he said. “All of it.” She obeyed, strangling a little. He got her a refill and completed his own Scotch and soda. Then he drew up a chair and took pipe and tobacco from the depths of his moth-eaten smoking jacket. His hands still shook, but so faintly he didn’t think she would notice. It had been wise of her not to blurt whatever news she carried; they both needed a chance to get back their control.
Now he even dared to look straight at her, She hadn’t changed. Her figure was almost perfect in a delicate way, as the black dress emphasized. Sunlight-colored hair fell to her shoulders; the eyes were blue and enormous, under arched brows, in a tip-tilted face with the lips always just a little parted. She hadn’t enough makeup for him to tell for sure if she had cried lately. But she looked very near to it.
Everard became busy filling his pipe. “Okay, Cyn,” he said. “Want to tell me?”
She shivered. Finally she got out: “Keith. He’s disappeared.”
“Huh?” Everard sat up straight. “On a mission?”
“Yes. Where else? Ancient Iran. He went back there and never returned. That was a week ago.” She set her glass down on the couch arm and twisted her fingers together. “The Patrol searched, of course. I just heard the results today. They can’t find him. They can’t even find out what happened to him.”
“Judas,” whispered Everard.
“Keith always… always thought of you as his best friend,” she said frantically. “You wouldn’t believe how often he spoke of you. Honestly, Manse, I know we’ve neglected you, but you never seemed to be in and.…”
“Of course,” he said. “How childish do you think I am? I was busy. And after all, you two were newly married.”
Everard got his pipe going. When his face was screened with smoke, he said: “Begin at the beginning. I’ve been out of touch with you for—two or three years of my own lifeline time—so I’m not certain precisely what Keith was working on.”
“That long?” she asked wonderingly. “You never even spent your furloughs in this decade? We did want you to come visit us.”
“Quit apologizing!” he snapped. “I could have dropped in if I’d wished.” The elfin face looked as if he had slapped it. He backed up, appalled. “I’m sorry. Naturally I wanted to. But as I said… we Unattached agents are so damned busy, hopping around in all space-time like fleas on a griddle… Oh, hell,” he tried to smile, “you know me, Cyn, tactless, but it doesn’t mean anything. I originated a chimaera legend all by myself, back in Classic Greece. I was known as the
She returned a dutiful quirk of lips and picked up her cigarette from the ashtray. “I’m still just a clerk in Engineering Studies,” she said. “But it puts me in close contact with all the other offices in this entire milieu, including headquarters. So I know exactly what’s been done about Keith… and it isn’t enough! They’re just abandoning him! Manse, if you won’t help him Keith is dead!”
She stopped, shakily. To give them both a little more time, Everard reviewed the career of Keith Denison.
Born Cambridge, Mass., 1927, to a moderately wealthy family. Ph.D. in archeology with a distinguished thesis at the age of twenty-three, after having also taken a collegiate boxing championship and crossed the Atlantic in a thirty-foot ketch. Drafted in 1950, served in Korea with a bravery which would have earned him some fame in a more popular war. Yet you had to know him quite a while before you learned any of this. He spoke, with a gift of dry humor, about impersonal things, until there was work to be done. Then, without needless fuss, he did it.
Discharged and at loose ends in 1952, Denison was contacted by a Patrol agent and recruited. He had accepted the fact of time travel more readily than most. His mind was supple and, after all, he was an archeologist. Once trained, he found a happy coincidence of his own interests and the needs of the Patrol; he became a Specialist, East Indo-European Protohistory, and in many ways a more important man than Everard.
For the Unattached officer might rove up and down the time lanes, rescuing the distressed and arresting the lawbreaker and keeping the fabric of human destiny secure. But how could he tell what he was doing without
Everard took the pipe from his mouth. “Okay, Cynthia,” he said. “Tell me what did happen.”
The little voice was almost dry now, so rigidly had she harnessed herself. “He was tracing the migrations of the different Aryan clans. They’re very obscure, you know. You have to start at a point when the history is known for certain, and work backward. So on this last job, Keith was going to Iran in the year 558 B.C. That was near the close of the Median period, he said. He’d make inquiries among the people, learn their own traditions, and then afterward check back at a still earlier point, and so on… But you must know all about this, Manse. You helped him once, before we met. He often spoke about that.”
“Oh, I just went along in case of trouble,” shrugged Everard. “He was studying the prehistoric trek of a certain band from the Don over the Hindu Kush. We told their chief we were passing hunters, claimed hospitality, and accompanied the wagon train for a few weeks. It was fun.”
He remembered steppes and enormous skies, a windy gallop after antelope and a feast by campfires and a certain girl whose hair had held the bittersweet of woodsmoke. For a while he wished he could have lived and died as one of those tribesmen.
“Keith went back alone this time,” continued Cynthia. “They’re always so shorthanded in his branch, in the entire Patrol, I suppose. So many thousands of years to watch and so few man-life-times to do it with. He’d gone alone before. I was always afraid to let him, but he said… dressed as a wandering shepherd with nothing worth stealing… he’d be safer in the Iranian highlands than crossing Broadway. Only this time he wasn’t!”
“I take it, then,” said Everard quickly, “he left—a week ago, did you say?—intending to get his information, report it to the clearinghouse of his specialty, and come back to the same day here as he’d left you.”
“Yes.” She lit another cigarette from the butt of the first. “I got worried right away. I asked the boss about it. He obliged me by querying himself a week ahead—today—and got the answer that Keith had not returned. The information clearing-house said he never came to them. So we checked with Records in milieu headquarters. Their answer was… was… Keith never did come back and no trace of him was ever found.”
Everard nodded with great care. “Then, of course, the search was ordered which MHQ has a record of.”
Mutable time made for a lot of paradoxes, he reflected for the thousandth occasion.
In the case of a missing man, you were not required to search for him just because a record somewhere said you had done so. But how else would you stand a chance of finding him? You
It could get very messed up. No wonder the Patrol was fussy, even about small changes which would not affect the main pattern.
“Our office notified the boys in the Old Iranian milieu, who sent a party to investigate the spot,” foretold Everard. “They only knew the approximate site at which Keith had intended to materialize, didn’t they? I mean, since he couldn’t know exactly where he’d be able to hide the scooter, he didn’t file precise coordinates.” Cynthia nodded. “But what I don’t understand is, why didn’t they find the machine afterward? Whatever happened to Keith, the scooter would still be somewhere around, in some cave or what-ever. The Patrol has detectors. They should have been able to track down the scooter, at least, and then work backwards from it to locate Keith.”
She drew on her cigarette with a violence that caved in her cheeks. “They tried,” she said. “But I’m told it’s a wild, rugged country, hard to search. Nothing turned up. They couldn’t find a trace. They might have, if they’d looked very, very hard—made a mile-by-mile, hour-by-hour search. But they didn’t dare. You see, that particular milieu is critical. Mr. Gordon showed me the analysis. I couldn’t follow all those symbols, but he said it was a very dangerous century to tamper with.”
Everard closed one large hand on the bowl of his pipe. Its warmth was somehow comforting. Critical eras gave him the willies.
“I see,” he said. “They couldn’t search as thoroughly as they wanted, because it might disturb too many of the local yokels, which might make them act differently when the big crisis came. Uh-huh. But how about making inquiries in disguise, among the people?”
“Several Patrol experts did. They tried that for weeks, Persian time. And the natives never even gave them a hint. Those tribes are so wild and suspicious… maybe they feared our agents were spies from the Median king, I understand they didn’t like his rule… No. The Patrol couldn’t find a trace. And anyhow, there’s no reason to think the pattern was affected. They believe Keith was murdered and his scooter vanished somehow. And what difference—” Cynthia sprang to her feet. Suddenly she yelled—“What difference does one more skeleton in one more gully make?”
Everard rose too, she came into his arms and he let her have it out. For himself, he had never thought it would be this bad. He had stopped remembering her, except maybe ten times a day, but now she came to him and the forgetting would have to be done all over again.
“Can’t they go back locally?” she pleaded. “Can’t somebody hop back a week from now, just to tell him not to go, is that so much to ask? What kind of monsters made that law against it?”
“Ordinary men did,” said Everard. “If we once started doubling back to tinker with our personal pasts, we’d soon get so tangled up that none of us would exist.”
“But in a million years or more—there must be exceptions!”
Everard didn’t answer. He knew that there were. He knew also that Keith Denison’s case wouldn’t be one of them. The Patrol was not staffed by saints, but its people dared not corrupt their own law for their own ends. You took your losses like any other corps, and raised a glass to the memory of your dead, and you did not travel back to look upon them again while they had lived.
Presently Cynthia left him, returned to her drink and tossed it down. The yellow locks swirled past her face as she did. “I’m sorry,” she said. She got out a handkerchief and wiped her eyes. “I didn’t mean to bawl.”
She stared at the floor. “You could try to help Keith. The regular agents have given up, but you could try.”
It was an appeal from which he had no recourse. “I could,” he told her. “I might not succeed. The existing records show that, if I tried, I failed. And any alteration of space-time is frowned on, even a trivial one like this.”
“It isn’t trivial to Keith,” she said.
“You know, Cyn,” he murmured, “you’re one of the few women that ever lived who’d have phrased it that way. Most would have said, It isn’t trivial to me.”
Her eyes captured his, and for a moment she stood very quiet. Then, whispering:
“I’m sorry, Manse. I didn’t realize… I thought, what with all the time that’s gone past for you, you would have—”
“What are you talking about?” he defended himself.
“Can’t the Patrol psychs do anything for you?” she asked. Her head drooped again. “I mean, if they can condition us so we just simply can’t tell anyone unauthorized that time travel exists… I should think it would also be possible to, to condition a person out of—”
“Skip it,” said Everard roughly.
He gnawed his pipestem a while. “Okay,” he said at last. “I’ve an idea or two of my own that may not have been tried. If Keith can be rescued in any way, you’ll get him back before tomorrow noon.”
“Could you time-hop me up to that moment, Manse?” She was beginning to tremble.
“I could,” he said, “but I won’t. One way or another, you’ll need to be rested tomorrow. I’ll take you home now and see that you swallow a sleepy pill. And then I’ll come back here and think about the situation.” He twisted his mouth into a sort of grin. “Cut out that shimmy, huh? I told you I had to think.”
“Manse… ” Her hands closed about his.
He knew a sudden hope for which he cursed himself.
In the fall of the year 542 B.C., a solitary man came down out of the mountains and into the valley of the Kur. He rode a handsome chestnut gelding, bigger even than most cavalry horses, which might elsewhere have been an invitation to bandits; but the Great King had given so much law to his dominions that it was said a virgin with a sack of gold could walk unmolested across all Persia. It was one reason Manse Everard had chosen to hop to this date, sixteen years after Keith Denison’s destination.
Another motive was to arrive long after any excitement which the time traveler had conceivably produced in 558 had died away. Whatever the truth about Keith’s fate, it might be more approachable from the rear; at least, straight-forward methods had failed.
Finally, according to the Achaemenid Milieu office, autumn 542 happened to be the first season of relative tranquility since the disappearance. The years 558-553 had been tense ones when the Persian king of Anshan, Kurush (he whom the future knew as Koresh and Cyrus), was more and more at odds with his Median overlord Astyages. Then came three years when Cyrus revolted, civil war racked the empire, and the Persians finally overcame their northerly neighbors. But Cyrus was scarcely victorious before he must face counteruprisings, as well as Turanian incursions; he spent four years putting down that trouble and extending his rule eastward. This alarmed his fellow monarchs: Babylon, Egypt, Lydia, and Sparta formed a coalition to destroy him, with King Croesus of Lydia leading an invasion in 546. The Lydians were broken and annexed, but they revolted and had to be broken all over again; the troublesome Greek colonies of Ionia, Caria, and Lycia must be settled with; and while his generals did all this in the west, Cyrus himself must war in the east, forcing back the savage horsemen who would otherwise burn his cities.
Now there was a breathing spell. Cilicia would yield without a fight, seeing that Persia’s other conquests were governed with a humanity and a tolerance of local custom such as the world had not known before. Cyrus would leave the eastern marches to his nobles, and devote himself to consolidating what he had won. Not until 539 would the war with Babylon be taken up again and Mesopotamia acquired. And then Cyrus would have another time of peace, until the wild men grew too strong beyond the Aral Sea and the King rode forth against them to his death.
Manse Everard entered Pasargadae as if into a springtime of hope.
Not that any actual era lends itself to such flowery metaphors. He jogged through miles where peasants bent with sickles, loading creaky unpainted oxcarts, and dust smoked off the stubble fields into his eyes. Ragged children sucked their thumbs outside windowless mud huts and stared at him. A chicken squawked back and forth on the highway until the galloping royal messenger who had alarmed it was past and the chicken dead. A squad of lancers trotting by were costumed picturesquely enough, baggy pants and scaly armor, spiked or plumed helmets, gaily striped cloaks; but they were also dusty, sweaty, and swapping foul jokes. Behind adobe walls the aristocrats possessed large houses with very beautiful gardens, but an economy like this would not support many such estates. Pasargadae was 90 per cent an Oriental town of twisted slimy streets between faceless hovels, greasy headcloths and dingy robes, screaming merchants in the bazaars, beggars displaying their sores, traders leading strings of battered camels and overloaded donkeys, dogs raiding offal heaps, tavern music like a cat in a washing machine, men who wind-milled their arms and screamed curses—what ever started this yarn about the inscrutable East?
“Alms, lord. Alms, for the love of Light! Alms, and Mithras will smile upon you!…”
“Behold, sir! By my father’s beard I swear that never was there finer work from a more skilled hand than this bridle which I offer to you, most fortunate of men, for the ridiculous sum of…”
“This way, master, this way, only four houses down to the finest sarai in all Persia—no, in all the world. Our pallets are stuffed with swan’s down, my father serves wine fit for a Devi, my mother cooks a pilau whose fame has spread to the ends of the earth, and my sisters are three moons of delight available for a mere…”
Everard ignored the childish runners who clamored at his sides. One of them tugged his ankle, he swore and kicked and the boy grinned without shame. The man hoped to avoid staying at an inn; the Persians were cleaner than most folk in this age, but there would still be insect life.
He tried not to feel defenseless. Ordinarily a Patrolman could have an ace in the hole: say, a thirtieth-century stun pistol beneath his coat and a midget radio to call the hidden space-time antigravity scooter to him. But not when he might be frisked. Everard wore a Greek outfit; tunic and sandals and long wool cloak, sword at waist, helmet and shield hung at the horse’s crupper, and that was it; only the steel was anachronistic. He could turn to no local branch office if he got into trouble, for this relatively poor and turbulent transition epoch attracted no Temporal commerce; the nearest Patrol unit was milieu HQ in Persepolis, a generation futureward.
The streets widened as he pushed on, bazaars thinned out and houses grew larger. At last he emerged in a square enclosed by four mansions. He could see pruned trees above their outer walls. Guards, lean lightly armed youths, squatted beneath on their heels because standing at attention had not yet been invented. But they rose, nocking wary arrows, as Everard approached. He might simply have crossed the plaza, but he veered and hailed a fellow who looked like a captain.
“Greetings, sir, may the sun fall bright upon you.” The Persian which he had learned in an hour under hypno flowed readily off his tongue. “I seek hospitality from some great man who may care to hear my poor tales of foreign travel.”
“May your days be many,” said the guard. Everard remembered that he must not offer baksheesh: these Persians of Cyrus’s own clans were a proud hardy folk, hunters, herdsmen, and warriors. All spoke with the dignified politeness common to their type throughout history. “I serve Croesus the Lydian, servant of the Great King. He will not refuse his roof to—”
“Meander from Athens,” supplied Everard. It was an alias which would explain his large bones, light complexion, and short hair. He had, though, been forced to stick a realistic Van Dyke effect on his chin. Herodotus was not the first Greek globe-trotter, so an Athenian would not be inconveniently outre. At the same time, half a century before Marathon, Europeans were still uncommon enough here to excite interest.
A slave was called, who got hold of the majordomo, who sent another slave, who invited the stranger through the gate. The garden beyond was as cool and green as hoped; there was no fear that anything would be stolen from his baggage in this household; the food and drink should be good; and Croesus himself would certainly interview the guest at length.
Of attainable things, that is.
To be sure, if Keith had unamendably died…
“Hell and purple frogs,” muttered Everard. “Cut that out, will you?”
After sunset it grew chilly. Lamps were lit with much ceremony, fire being sacred, and braziers were blown up. A slave prostrated himself to announce that dinner was served. Everard accompanied him down a long hall where vigorous murals showed the Sun and the Bull of Mithras, past a couple of spearmen, and into a small chamber brightly lit, sweet with incense and lavish with carpeting. Two couches were drawn up in the Hellenic manner at a table covered with un-Hellenic dishes of silver and gold; slave waiters hovered in the background and Chinese-sounding music twanged from an inner door.
Croesus of Lydia nodded graciously. He had been handsome once, with regular features, but seemed to have aged a lot in the few years since his wealth and power were proverbial. Grizzled of beard and with long hair, he was dressed in a Grecian chlamys but wore rouge in the Persian manner. “Rejoice, Meander of Athens,” he said in Greek, and lifted his face.
Everard kissed his cheek as indicated. It was nice of Croesus thus to imply that Meander’s rank was but little inferior to his own, even if Croesus had been eating garlic. “Rejoice, master. I thank you for your kindness.”
“This solitary meal was not to demean you,” said the ex-king. “I only thought… ” He hesitated. “I have always considered myself near kin to the Greeks, and we could talk seriously—”
“My lord honors me beyond my worth.” They went through various rituals and finally got to the food. Everard spun out a prepared yarn about his travels; now and then Croesus would ask a disconcertingly sharp question, but a Patrolman soon learned how to evade that kind.
“Indeed times are changing, you are fortunate in coming at the very dawn of a new age,” said Croesus. “Never has the world known a more glorious King than,” etc., etc., doubtless for the benefit of any retainers who doubled as royal spies. Though it happened to be true.
“The very gods have favored our King,” went on Croesus. “Had I known how they sheltered him—for truth, I mean, not for the mere fable which I believed it was—I should never have dared oppose myself to him. For it cannot be doubted, he is a Chosen One.”
Everard maintained his Greek character by watering the wine and wishing he had picked some less temperate nationality. “What is that tale, my lord?” he asked. “I knew only that the Great King was the son of Cambyses, who held this province as a vassal of Median Astyages. Is there more?”
Croesus leaned forward. In the uncertain light, his eyes held a curious bright look, a Dionysian blend of terror and enthusiasm which Everard’s age had long forgotten. “Hear, and bring the ac-count to your countrymen,” he said. “Astyages wed his daughter Mandane to Cambyses, for he knew that the Persians were restless under his own heavy yoke and he wished to tie their leaders to his house. But Cambyses became ill and weak. If he died and his infant son Cyrus succeeded in Anshan, there would be a troublesome regency of Persian nobles not bound to Astyages. Dreams also warned the Median king that Cyrus would be the death of his dominion.
“Thereafter Astyages ordered his kinsman, the King’s Eye Aurvagaush [Croesus rendered the name Harpagus, as he Hellenized all local names], to do away with the prince. Harpagus took the child despite Queen Mandane’s protests; Cambyses lay too sick to help her, nor could Persia in any case revolt without preparation. But Harpagus could not bring himself to the deed. He exchanged the prince for the stillborn child of a herdsman in the mountains, whom he swore to secrecy. The dead baby was wrapped in royal clothes and left on a hillside; presently officials of the Median court were summoned to witness that it had been exposed, and buried it. Our lord Cyrus grew up as a herdsman.
“Cambyses lived for twenty years more without begetting other sons, not strong enough in his own person to avenge the firstborn. But at last he was plainly dying, with no successor whom the Persians would feel obliged to obey. Again Astyages feared trouble. At this time Cyrus came forth, his identity being made known through various signs. Astyages, regretting what had gone before, welcomed him and confirmed him as Cambyses’ heir.
“Cyrus remained a vassal for five years, but found the tyranny of the Medes ever more odious. Harpagus in Ecbatana had also a dreadful thing to avenge: as punishment for his disobedience in the matter of Cyrus, Astyages made Harpagus eat his own son. So Harpagus conspired with certain Median nobles. They chose Cyrus as their leader, Persia revolted, and after three years of war Cyrus made himself the master of the two peoples. Since then, of course, he has added many others. When ever did the gods show their will more plainly?”
Everard lay quiet on the couch for a little. He heard autumn leaves rustle dryly in the garden, under a cold wind.
“This is true, and no fanciful gossip?” he asked.
“I have confirmed it often enough since I joined the Persian court. The King himself has vouched for it to me, as well as Harpagus and others who were directly concerned.”
The Lydian could not be lying if he cited his ruler’s testimony: the upper-class Persians were fanatics about truthfulness. And yet Everard had heard nothing so incredible in all his Patrol career. For it was the story which Herodotus recorded—with a few modifications to be found in the
Only, this tall tale was sworn to by eyewitnesses!
There was a mystery here. It brought Everard back to his purpose. After appropriate marveling remarks, he led the conversation until he could say: “I have heard rumors that sixteen years ago a stranger entered Pasargadae, clad as a poor shepherd but in truth a mage who did miracles. He may have died here. Does my gracious host know anything of it?”
He waited then, tensed. He was playing a hunch, that Keith Denison had not been murdered by some hillbilly, fallen off a cliff and broken his neck, or come to grief in any such way. Because in that case, the scooter should still have been around when the Patrol searched. They might have gridded the area too loosely to find Denison himself, but how could their detectors miss a time hopper?
So, Everard thought, something more complicated had happened. And if Keith survived at all, he would have come down here to civilization.
“Sixteen years ago?” Croesus tugged his beard. “I was not here then. And surely in any case the land would have been full of portents, for that was when Cyrus left the mountains and took his rightful crown of Anshan. No, Meander, I know nothing of it.
“I have been anxious to find this person,” said Everard, “because an oracle,” etc., etc.
“You can inquire among the servants and townspeople,” suggested Croesus. “I will ask at court on your behalf. You will stay here awhile, will you not? Perhaps the King himself will wish to see you; he is always interested in foreigners.”
The conversation broke up soon after. Croesus explained with a rather sour smile that the Persians believed in early to bed, early to rise, and he must be at the royal palace by dawn. A slave conducted Everard back to his room, where he found a good-looking girl waiting with an expectant smile. He hesitated a moment, remembering a time twenty-four hundred years hence. But—the hell with that. A man had to take whatever the gods offered him, and they were a miserly lot.
It was not long after sunrise when a troop reined up in the plaza and shouted for Meander the Athenian. Everard left his breakfast to go out and stare up a gray stallion into the hard, hairy hawk-face of a captain of those guards called the Immortals. The men made a backdrop of restless horses, cloaks and plumes blowing, metal jingling and leather squeaking, the young sun ablaze on polished mail.
“You are summoned by the Chiliarch,” rapped the officer. The title he actually used was Persian: commander of the guard and grand vizier of the empire.
Everard stood for a moment, weighing the situation. His muscles tightened. This was not a very cordial invitation. But he could scarcely plead a previous engagement.
“I hear and obey,” he said. “Let me but fetch a small gift from my baggage, in token of the honor paid me.”
“The Chiliarch said you were to come at once. Here is a horse.”
An archer sentry offered cupped hands, but Everard pulled himself into the saddle without help, a trick it was useful to know in eras before stirrups were introduced. The captain nodded a harsh approval, whirled his mount, and led at a gallop off the plaza and up a wide avenue lined with sphinxes and the homes of the great. This was not as heavily trafficked as the
The palace, gaudily painted brick, stood on a wide platform with several lesser buildings. The captain himself sprang down, gestured curtly, and strode up a marble staircase. Everard followed, hemmed in by warriors who had taken the light battle axes from their saddlebows for his benefit. The party went among household slaves, robed and turbaned and flat on their faces, through a red and yellow colonnade, down a mosaic hall whose beauty Everard was in no mood to appreciate, and so past a squad of guards into a room where slender columns upheld a peacock dome and the fragrance of late-blooming roses entered through arched windows.
There the Immortals made obeisance.
The Chiliarch, whom he remembered Croesus identifying as Harpagus, leaned forward. Against the tiger skin on the couch and the gorgeous red robe on his own gaunt frame, the Mede showed as an aging man, his shoulder-length hair the color of iron and his dark craggy-nosed face sunken into a mesh of wrinkles. But shrewd eyes considered the newcomer.
“Well,” he said, his Persian having the rough accent of a North Iranian, “so you are the man from Athens. The noble Croesus spoke of your advent this morning and mentioned some inquiries you were making. Since the safety of the state may be involved, I would know just what it is you seek.” He stroked his beard with a jewel-flash-ing hand and smiled frostily. “It may even be, if your search is harmless, that I can help it.”
He had been careful not to employ the usual formulas of greeting, to offer refreshment, or otherwise give Meander the quasi-sacred status of guest. This was an interrogation. “Lord, what is it you wish to know?” asked Everard. He could well imagine, and it was a troublous anticipation.
“You sought a mage in shepherd guise, who entered Pasargadae sixteen summers ago and did miracles.” The voice was ugly with tension. “Why is this and what more have you heard of such matters? Do not pause to invent a lie—speak!”
“Great lord,” said Everard, “the oracle at Delphi told me I should mend my fortunes if I learned the fate of a herdsman who entered the Persian capital in, er, the third year of the first tyranny of Pisistratus. More than that I have never known. My lord is aware how dark are the oracular sayings.”
“Hm, hm.” Fear touched the lean countenance and Harpagus drew the sign of the cross, which was a Mithraic sun-symbol. Then, roughly: “What have you discovered so far?”
“Nothing, great lord. No one could tell—”
“You lie!” snarled Harpagus. “All Greeks are liars. Have a care, for you touch on unholy matters. Who else have you spoken to?”
Everard saw a nervous tic lift the Chiliarch’s mouth. His own stomach was a cold jump in him. He had stumbled on something which Harpagus had thought safety buried, something so big that the risk of a clash with Croesus, who was duty bound to protect a guest, became nothing. And the most reliable gag ever invented was a snicker-snee… after rack and pincers had extracted precisely what the stranger knew…
“None, my lord,” he husked. “None but the oracle, and the Sun God whose voice the oracle is, and who sent me here, has heard of this before last night.”
Harpagus sucked in a sharp breath, taken aback by the invocation. But then, almost visibly squaring his shoulders: “We have only your word, the word of a Greek, that you were told by an oracle—that you did not spy out state secrets. Or even if the God did indeed send you here, it may as well have been to destroy you for your sins. We shall ask further about this.” He nodded at the captain. “Take him below. In the King’s name.”
It blazed upon Everard. He jumped to his feet. “Yes, the King!” he shouted. “The God told me… there would be a sign… and then I should bear his word to the Persian King!”
“Seize him!” yelled Harpagus.
The guardsmen whirled to obey. Everard sprang back, yelling for King Cyrus as loudly as he could. Let them arrest him. Word would be carried to the throne and… Two men hemmed him against the wall, their axes raised. Others pressed behind them. Over their helmets, he saw Harpagus leap up on the couch.
“Take him out and behead him!” ordered the Mede.
“My lord,” protested the captain, “he called upon the King.”
“To cast a spell! I know him now, the son of Zohak and agent of Ahriman! Kill him!”
“No, wait,” cried Everard, “wait, can you not see, it is this traitor who would keep me from telling the King… Let go, you sod!”
A hand closed on his right arm. He had been prepared to sit a few hours in jail, till the big boss heard of the affair and bailed him out, but matters were a bit more urgent after all. He threw a left hook which ended in a squelching of nose. The guardsman staggered back. Everard plucked the ax from his hand, spun about, and parried the blow of the warrior on his left.
The Immortals attacked. Everard’s ax clanged against metal, darted in and smashed a knuckle. He outreached most of these people. But he hadn’t a cellophane snowball’s chance in hell of standing them off. A blow whistled toward his head. He ducked behind a column; chips flew. An opening—he stiff-armed one man, hopped over the clashing mailclad form as it fell, and got onto open floor under the dome. Harpagus scuttled up, drawing a saber from beneath his robe; the old bastard was brave enough. Everard twirled to meet him, so that the Chiliarch was between him and the guards. Ax and sword rattled together. Everard tried to close in… a clinch would keep the Persians from throwing their weapons at him, but they were circling to get at his rear. Judas, this might be the end of one more Patrolman…
“Halt! Fall on your faces! The King comes!”
Three times it was blared. The guardsmen froze in their tracks, stared at the gigantic scarlet-robed person who stood bellowing in the doorway, and hit the rug. Harpagus dropped his sword. Everard almost brained him; then, remembering, and hearing the hurried tramp of warriors in the hall, let go his own weapon. For a moment he and the Chiliarch panted into each other’s faces.
“So… he got word… and came… at once,” gasped Everard.
The Mede crouched like a cat and hissed back: “Have a care, then! I will be watching you. If you poison his mind there will be poison for you, or a dagger ”
“The King! The King!” bellowed the herald.
Everard joined Harpagus on the floor.
A band of Immortals trotted into the room and made an alley to the couch. A chamberlain dashed to throw a special tapestry over it. Then Cyrus himself entered, robe billowing around long muscular strides. A few courtiers followed, leathery men privileged to bear arms in the royal presence, and a slave M.C. wringing his hands in their wake at not having been given time to spread a carpet or summon musicians.
The King’s voice rang through the silence: “What is this? Where is the stranger who called on me?”
Everard risked a peek. Cyrus was tall, broad of shoulder and slim of body, older-looking than Croesus’ account suggested—he was forty-seven years old, Everard knew with a shudder—but kept supple by sixteen years of war and the chase. He had a narrow dark countenance with hazel eyes, a sword scar on the left cheekbone, a straight nose and full lips. His black hair, faintly grizzled, was brushed back and his beard trimmed more closely than was Persian custom. He was dressed as plainly as his status allowed.
“Where is the stranger whom the slave ran to tell me of?”
“I am he, Great King,” said Everard.
“Arise. Declare your name.”
Everard stood up and murmured: “Hi, Keith.”
Vines rioted about a marble pergola. They almost hid the archers who ringed it. Keith Denison slumped on a bench, stared at leaf shadows dappled onto the floor, and said wryly, “At least we can keep our talk private. The English language hasn’t been invented yet.”
After a moment he continued, with a rusty accent: “Sometimes I’ve thought that was the hardest thing to take about this situation, never having a minute to myself. The best I can do is throw everybody out of the room I’m in; but they stick around just beyond the door, under the windows, guarding, listening. I hope their dear loyal souls fry.”
“Privacy hasn’t been invented yet either,” Everard reminded him. “And VIP’s like you never did have much, in all history.”
Denison raised a tired visage. “I keep wanting to ask how Cynthia is,” he said, “but of course for her it has been—will be—not so long. A week, perhaps. Did you by any chance bring some cigarettes?”
“Left ’em in the scooter,” said Everard. “I figured I’d have trouble enough without explaining that away. I never expected to find you running this whole shebang.”
“I didn’t myself.” Denison shrugged. “It was the damnedest fantastic thing. The time paradoxes—”
“So what did happen?”
Denison rubbed his eyes and sighed. “I got myself caught in the local gears. You know, sometimes everything that went before seems unreal to me, like a dream. Were there ever such things as Christendom, contrapuntal music, or the Bill of Rights? Not to mention all the people I knew. You yourself don’t belong here, Manse, I keep expecting to wake up… Well, let me think back.
“Do you know what the situation was? The Medes and the Persians are pretty near kin, racially and culturally, but the Medes were top dog then, and they’d picked up a lot of habits from the Assyrians which didn’t sit so well in the Persian viewpoint. We’re ranchers and freehold farmers, mostly, and of course it isn’t right that we should be vassals—” Denison blinked. “Hey, there I go again! What do I mean ‘we?’ Anyhow, Persia was restless. King Astyages of Media had ordered the murder of little Prince Cyrus twenty years before, but now he regretted it, because Cyrus’s father was dying and the dispute over succession could touch off a civil war.
“Well, I appeared in the mountains. I had to scout a little bit in both space and time—hopping through a few days and several miles—to find a good hiding place for my scooter. That’s why the Patrol couldn’t locate it afterward… part of the reason. You see, I did finally park it in a cave and set out on foot, but right away I came to grief. A Median army was bound through that region to discourage the Persians from making trouble. One of their scouts saw me emerge, checked my back trail—first thing I knew, I’d been seized and their officer was grilling me about what that gadget was I had in the cave. His men took me for a magician of some kind and were in considerable awe, but more afraid of showing fear than they were of me. Naturally, the word ran like a brushfire through the ranks and across the countryside. Soon all the area knew that a stranger had appeared under remarkable circumstances.
“Their general was Harpagus himself, as smart and tough-minded a devil as the world has ever seen. He thought I could be used. He ordered me to make my brazen horse perform, but I wasn’t allowed to mount it. However, I did get a chance to kick it into time-drive. That’s why the search party didn’t find the thing. It was only a few hours in this century, then it probably went clear back to the Beginning.”
“Good work,” said Everard.
“Oh, I knew the orders forbidding that degree of anachronism.” Denison’s lips twisted. “But I also expected the Patrol to rescue me. If I’d known they wouldn’t, I’m not so sure I’d have stayed a good self-sacrificing Patrolman. I might have hung on to my scooter, and played Harpagus’ game till a chance came to escape on my own.”
Everard looked at him a moment, somberly. Keith had changed, he thought: not just in age, but the years among aliens had marked him more deeply then he knew. “If you risked altering the future,” he said, “you risked Cynthia’s existence.”
“Yes. Yes, true. I remember thinking of that… at the time… How long ago it seems!”
Denison leaned forward, elbows on knees, staring into the pergola screen. His words continued, flat. “Harpagus spit rivets, of course. I thought for a while he was going to kill me. I was carried off, trussed up like butcher’s meat. But as I told you, there were already rumors about me, which were losing nothing in repetition. Harpagus saw a still better chance. He gave me a choice, string along with him or have my throat cut. What else could I do? It wasn’t even a matter of hazarding an alteration; I soon saw I was playing a role which history had
“You see, Harpagus bribed a herdsman to support his tale, and produced me as Cyrus, son of Cambyses.”
Everard nodded, unsurprised. “What’s in it for him?” he asked.
“At the time, he only wanted to bolster the Median rule. A king in Anshan under his thumb would have to be loyal to Astyages, and thereby help keep all the Persians in line. I was rushed along, too bewildered to do more than follow his lead, still hoping minute by minute for a Patrol hopper to appear and get me out of the mess. The truth fetish of all these Iranian aristocrats helped us a lot—few of them suspected I perjured myself in swearing I was Cyrus, though I imagine Astyages quietly ignored the discrepancies. And he put Harpagus in his place by punishing him in an especially gruesome way for not having done away with Cyrus as ordered—even if Cyrus turned out to be useful now—and of course the double irony was that Harpagus really had followed orders, two decades before!
“As for me, in the course of five years I got more and more sickened by Astyages myself. Now, looking back, I see he wasn’t really such a hound from hell, just a typical Oriental monarch of the ancient world, but that’s kind of hard to appreciate when you’re forced to watch a man being racked.
“So Harpagus, wanting revenge, engineered a revolt, and I accepted the leadership of it which he offered me.” Denison grinned crookedly. “After all, I was Cyrus the Great, with a destiny to play out. We had a rough time at first, the Medes clobbered us again and again, but you know, Manse, I found myself enjoying it. Not like that wretched twentieth-century business of sitting in a foxhole wondering if the enemy barrage will ever let up. Oh, war is miserable enough here, especially if you’re a buck private when disease breaks out, as it always does. But when you fight, by God, you fight, with your own hands! And I even found a talent for that sort of thing. We’ve pulled some gorgeous stunts.” Everard watched life flow back into him: “Like the time the Lydian cavalry had us outnumbered. We sent our baggage camels in the van, with the infantry behind and horse last. Croesus’ nags got a whiff of the camels and stampeded. For all I know, they’re running yet. We mopped him up!”
He jarred to silence, stared awhile into Everard’s eyes, and bit his lip. “Sorry. I keep forgetting. Now and then I remember I was not a killer at home—after a battle, when I see the dead scattered around, and worst of all the wounded. But I couldn’t help it, Manse! I’ve had to fight! First there was the revolt. If I hadn’t played along with Harpagus, how long do you think I’d have lasted, personally? And then there’s been the realm itself. I didn’t ask the Lydians to invade us, or the eastern barbarians. Have you ever seen a town sacked by Turanians, Manse? It’s them or us, and when
Everard sat listening to the garden rustle under a breeze. At last: “No. I understand. I hope it hasn’t been too lonesome.”
“I got used to it,” said Denison carefully. “Harpagus is an acquired taste, but interesting. Croesus turned out to be a very decent fellow. Kobad the Mage has some original thoughts, and he’s the only man alive who dares beat me at chess. And there’s the feasting, and hunting, and women.…” He gave the other a defiant look. “Yeah. What else would you have me do?”
“Nothing,” said Everard. “Sixteen years is a long time.”
“Cassandane, my chief wife, is worth a lot of the trouble I’ve had. Though Cynthia—God in heaven, Manse!” Denison stood up and laid hands on Everard’s shoulders. The fingers closed with bruising strength; they had held ax, bow, and bridle for a decade and a half. The King of the Persians shouted aloud:
“How are you going to get me out of here?”
Everard rose too, walked to the floor’s edge and stared through lacy stonework, thumbs hooked in his belt and head lowered.
“I don’t see how,” he answered.
Denison smote a fist into one palm. “I’ve been afraid of that. Year by year I’ve grown more afraid that if the Patrol ever finds me it’ll… You’ve got to help.”
“I tell you, I can’t!” Everard’s voice cracked. He did not turn around. “Think it over. You must have done so already. You’re not some lousy little barbarian chief whose career won’t make a lot of difference a hundred years from now. You’re Cyrus, the founder of the Persian Empire, a key figure in a key milieu. If Cyrus goes, so does the whole future! There won’t have been any twentieth-century with Cynthia in it.”
“Are you certain?” pleaded the man at his back.
“I boned up on the facts before hopping here,” said Everard through clenched jaws. “Stop kidding yourself. We’re prejudiced against the Persians because at one time they were the enemies of Greece, and we happen to get some of the more conspicuous features of our own culture from Hellenic sources. But the Persians are at least as important!
“You’ve watched it happen. Sure, they’re pretty brutal by your standards: the whole era is, including the Greeks. And they’re not democratic, but you can’t blame them for not making a European invention outside their whole mental horizon. What counts is this:
“Persia was the first conquering power which made an effort to respect and conciliate the people it took over; which obeyed its own laws; which pacified enough territory to open steady contact with the Far East; which created a viable world-religion, Zoroastrianism, not limited to any one race or locality. Maybe you don’t know how much Christian belief and ritual is of Mithraic origin, but believe me, it’s plenty. Not to mention Judaism, which you, Cyrus the Great, are personally going to rescue. Remember? You’ll take over Babylon and allow those Jews who’ve kept their identity to return home; without you, they’d be swallowed up and lost in the general ruck as the ten other tribes already have been.
“Even when it gets decadent, the Persian Empire will be a matrix for civilization. What were most of Alexander’s conquests but just taking over Persian territory? And that spread Hellenism through the known world! And there’ll be Persian successor states: Pontus, Parthia, the Persia of Firduzi and Omar and Hafiz, the Iran we know and the Iran of a future beyond the twentieth-century… ”
Everard turned on his heel. “If you quit,” he said, “I can imagine them still building ziggurats and reading entrails—and running through the woods up in Europe, with America undiscovered—three thousand years from now!”
Denison sagged. “Yeah,” he answered. “I thought so.”
He paced awhile, hands behind his back. The dark face looked older each minute. “Thirteen more years,” he murmured, almost to himself. “In thirteen years I’ll fall in battle against the nomads. I don’t know exactly how. One way or another, circumstances will force me to it. Why not? They’re forced me into everything else I’ve done, willy-nilly… in spite of everything I can do to train him, I know my own son Cambyses will turn out to be a sadistic incompetent and it will take Darius to save the empire—God!” He covered his face with a flowing sleeve. “Excuse me. I do despise self-pity, but I can’t help this.”
Everard sat down, avoiding the sight. He heard how the breath rattled in Denison’s lungs.
Finally the King poured wine into two chalices, joined Everard on the bench and said in a dry tone: “Sorry. I’m okay now. And I haven’t given up yet.”
“I can refer your problem to headquarters,” said Everard with a touch of sarcasm.
Denison echoed it: “Thanks, little chum. I remember their attitude well enough. We’re expendable. They’ll interdict the entire lifetime of Cyrus to visitors, just so I won’t be tempted, and send me a nice message. They will point out that I’m the absolute monarch of a civilized people, with palaces, slaves, vintages, chefs, entertainers, concubines, and hunting grounds at my disposal in unlimited quantities, so what am I complaining about? No, Manse, this is something you and I will have to work out between us.”
Everard clenched his fists till he felt the nails bite into the palms. “You’re putting me in a hell of a spot, Keith,” he said.
“I’m only asking you to think on the problem—and Ahriman damn you, you will!” Again the fingers closed on his flesh, and the conqueror of the East snapped forth a command. The old Keith would never have taken that tone, thought Everard, anger flickering up; and he thought:
“I’ve been over this ground before, with myself,” said Denison more calmly. “I know the implications as well as you do. But look, I can show you the cave where my machine rested for those few hours. You could go back to the moment I appeared there and warn me.”
“No,” said Everard. “That’s out. Two reasons. First, the regulation against that sort of thing, which is a sensible one. They might make an exception under different circumstances, but there’s a second reason too: you are Cyrus. They’re not going to wipe out an entire future for one man’s sake.”
“Uh-huh,” said Denison. “I mentioned that idea only to dispose of it. But there must be some other way. Look, Manse, sixteen years ago a situation existed from which everything else has followed, not through human caprice but through the sheer logic of events. Suppose I had not showed up? Mightn’t Harpagus have found a different pseudo-Cyrus? The exact identity of the King doesn’t matter. Another Cyrus would have acted differently from me in a million day-to-day details. Naturally. But if he wasn’t a hopeless moron or maniac, if he was a reasonably able and decent person—give me credit for being that much—then his career would have been the same as mine in all the important ways, the ways that got into the history books. You know that as well as I do. Except at the crucial points, time always reverts to its own shape. The small differences damp out in days or years, negative feedback. It’s only at key instants that a positive feedback can be set up and the effects multiply with passing time instead of disappearing. You know that!”
“Sure,” said Everard. “But judging from your own account, your appearance in the cave
Denison looked at him over a raised chalice, lowered it and kept on looking. His face congealed into a stranger’s. He said at last, very softly:
“You don’t want me to come back, do you?”
Everard leaped off the bench. He dropped his own cup, it rang on the floor and wine ran from it like blood.
“Shut up!” he yelled.
Dennison nodded. “I am the King,” he said. “If I raise my finger, those guards will hack you in pieces.”
“That’s a hell of a way to get my help,” growled Everard.
Denison’s body jerked. He sat motionless for a while, before he got out: “I’m sorry. You don’t realize what a shock.… Oh, yes, yes, it hasn’t been a bad life. It’s had more color in it than most, and this business of being quasi-divine grows on you. I suppose that’s why I’ll take the field beyond the Jaxartes, thirteen years from now: because I can’t do anything else, with all those young lion eyes on me. Hell, I may even think it was worth it.”
His expression writhed smilewards. “Some of my girls have been absolute knockouts. And there’s always Cassandane. I made her my chief wife because in a dark way she reminds me of Cynthia. I think. It’s hard to tell, after all this time. The twentieth century isn’t real to me. And there’s more actual satisfaction in a good horse than a sports car… and I know my work here is valuable, which isn’t a knowledge granted to many… Yeh. I’m sorry I barked at you. I know you’d help if you dared. Since you don’t, and I don’t blame you, you needn’t regret it for my sake.”
“Cut that out!” groaned Everard.
It felt as if there were gears in his brain, spinning against emptiness. Overhead he saw a painted roof, where a youth killed a bull, and the Bull was the Sun and the Man. Beyond columns and vines trod guards in dragon skin mailcoats, their bows strung, their faces like carved wood. The harem wing of the palace could be glimpsed, where a hundred or a thousand young women counted themselves fortunate to await the King’s occasional pleasure. Beyond the city walls lay harvest fields where peasants readied sacrifice to an Earth Mother who was old in this land when the Aryans came, and that was in a dark predawn past. High over the walls floated the mountains, haunted by wolf, lion, boar and demon. It was too alien a place. Everard had thought himself hardened to otherness, but now he wanted suddenly to run and hide, up to his own century and his own people and a forgetting.
He said in a careful voice, “Let me consult a few associates. We can check the whole period in detail. There might be some kind of switch point where… I’m not competent to handle this alone, Keith. Let me go back upstairs and get some advice. If we work out anything we’ll return to… this very night.”
“Where’s your scooter?” asked Denison.
Everard waved a hand. “Up in the hills.”
Denison stroked his beard. “You aren’t telling me more than that, eh? Well, it’s wise. I’m not sure I’d trust myself, if I knew where a time machine could be gotten.”
“I don’t mean that!” shouted Everard.
“Oh, never mind. Let’s not fight about it.”
Denison sighed. “Sure, go on home and see what you can do. Want an escort?”
“Better not. It isn’t necessary, is it?”
“No. We’ve made this area safer than Central Park.”
“That isn’t saying much.” Everard held out his hand. “Just get me back my horse. I’d hate to lose him: special Patrol animal, trained to time hop.” His gaze closed with the other man’s. “I’ll return. In person. Whatever the decision is.”
“Sure, Manse,” said Denison.
They walked out together, to go through the various formalities of notifying guardsmen and gatekeepers. Denison indicated a palace bedchamber where he said he would be every night for a week, as a rendezvous. And then at last Everard kissed the King’s feet, and when the royal presence had departed he got aboard his horse and jogged slowly out through the palace gates.
He felt empty inside. There was really nothing to be done; and he promised to come back himself and pass that sentence upon the King.
Late that day he was in the hills, where cedars gloomed above cold, brawling brooks and the side road onto which he had turned became a rutted upward track. Though arid enough, the Iran of this age still had a few such forests. The horse plodded beneath him, worn down. He should find some herdsman’s house and request lodging, simply to spare the creature. But no, there would be a full moon, he could walk if he must and reach the scooter before sunrise. He didn’t think he could sleep.
A place of long sere grass and ripe berries did invite him to rest, though. He had food in the saddlebags, a wineskin, and a stomach unfilled since dawn. He clucked encouragingly to the horse and turned.
Something caught his eye. Far down the road, level sunlight glowed off a dust cloud. It grew bigger even as he watched. Several riders, he guessed, coming in one devil of a hurry. King’s messengers? But why, into this section? Uneasiness tickled his nerves. He put on his helmet cap, buckled the helmet itself above, hung shield on arm and loosened the short sword in its sheath. Doubtless the party would just hurrah on past him, but…
Now he could see that there were eight men. They had good horseflesh beneath them, and the rearmost led a string of remounts. Nevertheless the animals were pretty jaded; sweat had made streaks down their dusty flanks and manes were plastered to necks. It must have been a long gallop. The riders were decently clad in the usual full white pants, shirt, boots, cloak, and tall brimless hat: not courtiers or professional soldiers, but not bandits either. They were armed with sabers, bows, and lariats.
Suddenly Everard recognized the greybeard at their head. It exploded in him: Harpagus!
And through whirling haze he could also see—even for ancient Iranians, the followers were a tough-looking crew.
“Oh-oh,” said Everard, half aloud. “School’s out.”
His mind clicked over. There wasn’t time to be afraid, only to think. Harpagus had no other obvious motive for hightailing into the hills than to catch the Greek Meander. Surely, in a court riddled with spies and blabbermouths, Harpagus would have learned within an hour that the King spoke to the stranger as an equal in some unknown tongue and let him go back northward. It would take the Chiliarch a while longer to manufacture some excuse for leaving the palace, round up his personal bully boys, and give chase. Why? Because “Cyrus” had once appeared in these uplands, riding some device which Harpagus had coveted. No fool, the Mede must never have been satisfied with the evasive yarn Keith had handed him. It would seem reasonable that one day another mage from the King’s home country must appear; and this time Harpagus would not let the engine go from him so easily.
Everard paused no longer. They were only a hundred yards away. He could see the Chiliarch’s eyes glitter beneath shaggy brows. He spurred his horse, off the road and across the meadow.
“Stop!” yelled a remembered voice behind him. “Stop, Greek!”
Everard got an exhausted trot out of his mount. The cedars threw long shadows across him.
“Stop or we shoot!… halt!… shoot, then! Not to kill! Get the steed!”
At the forest edge, Everard slipped from his saddle. He heard an angry whirr and a score of thumps. The horse screamed. Everard cast a glance behind; the poor beast was on its knees. By God, somebody would pay for this! But he was one man and they were eight. He hurried under the trees. A shaft smote a trunk by his left shoulder, burying itself.
He ran, crouched, zigzag in a chilly sweet-smell-ing twilight. Now and then a low branch whipped across his face. He could have used more under-brush, there were some Algonquian stunts for a hunted man to try, but at least the soft floor was noiseless under his sandals. The Persians were lost to sight. Almost instinctively, they had tried to ride after him. Cracking and crashing and loud obscenities ripped the air to show how well that had worked.
They’d come on foot in a minute. He cocked his head. A faint rush of water… He moved in its direction, up a steep boulder-strewn slope. His hunters were not helpless urbanites, he thought. At least some of them were sure to be mountaineers, with eyes to read the dimmest signs of his passage. He had to break the trail; then he could hole up until Harpagus must return to court duties. The breath grew harsh in his throat. Behind him voices snapped forth, a note of decision, but he couldn’t make out what was said. Too far. And the blood pounded so loudly in his ears.
If Harpagus had fired on the King’s guest, then Harpagus surely did not intend that that guest should ever report it to the King. Capture, torture till he revealed where the machine lay and how to operate it, and a final mercy of cold steel were the program.
He came out on the edge of a high, wet bank. A brook roiled valleyward below him. They’d see he had come this far, but it would be a tossup which way he splashed in the streambed… which should it be, anyhow?… the mud was cold and slippery on his skin as he scrambled down. Better go upstream. That would bring him closer to his scooter, and Harpagus might assume it more likely he’d try to double back to the King.
Stones bruised his feet and the water numbed them. The trees made a wall above either bank, so that he was roofed by a narrow strip of sky whose blue deepened momentarily. High up there floated an eagle. The air grew colder. But he had one piece of luck: the brook twisted like a snake in delirium and he had quickly slipped and stumbled his way from sight of his entry point.
He had stopped noticing how the rocks smashed at his thinly shod feet, how his body pitched and staggered or how noisy the water was. But then he came around a bend and saw the Persians.
There were two of them, wading downstream. Evidently his capture meant enough to overcome their religious prejudice against defiling a river. Two more walked above, threading between the trees on either bank. One of the latter was Harpagus. Their long swords hissed from the scabbards.
“Stop!” called the Chiliarch. “Halt, Greek! Yield!”
Everard stood death-still. The water purled about his ankles. The pair who splashed to meet him were unreal down here in a well of shadow, their dark faces blotted out so that he saw only white clothes and a shimmer along saber blades. It hit him in the belly: the pursuers had seen his trail down into the brook. So they split up, half in each direction, running faster on solid ground than he could move in the bed. Having gone beyond his possible range, they started working their way back, more slowly when they were bound to the stream’s course but quite certain of their quarry.
“Take him alive,” reminded Harpagus. “Ham-string him if you must, but take him alive.”
Everard snarled and turned toward that bank. “Okay, buster, you asked for it,” he said in English. The two men in the water yelled and began to run. One tripped and went on his face. The man opposite tobogganed down the slope on his backside.
The mud was slippery. Everard chopped the lower edge of his shield into it and toiled up. Harpagus moved coolly to await him. As he came near, the old noble’s blade whirred, striking from above. Everard rolled his head and caught the blow on his helmet, which bonged. The edge slid down a cheekpiece and cut his right shoulder, but not badly. He felt only a sting and then was too busy to feel anything.
He didn’t expect to win out. But he would make them kill him, and pay for the privilege.
He came onto grass and raised his shield just in time to protect his eyes. Harpagus probed for the knees. Everard beat that aside with his own short sword. The Median saber whistled. But at close quarters a lightly armed Asian hadn’t a chance against the hoplite, as history was to prove a couple of generations hence.
The Chiliarch grinned tautly through tangled gray whiskers and skipped away. A play for time, of course. It succeeded. The other three men climbed the bank, shouted and rushed. It was a disorderly attack. Superb fighters as individuals, the Persians had never developed the mass discipline of Europe, on which they would break themselves at Marathon and Gaugamela. But four against unarmored one was impossible odds.
Everard got his back to a tree bole. The first man came in recklessly, sword clashing on the Greek shield. Everard’s blade darted from behind the bronze oblong. There was a soft, somehow heavy resistance. He knew that feeling from other days, pulled his weapon out and stepped quickly aside. The Persian sat down, spilling out his life. He groaned once, saw he was a dead man, and raised his face toward the sky.
His mates were already at Everard, one to a side. Overhanging boughs made lassos useless; they would have to do battle. The Patrolman held off the lefthand blade with his shield. That exposed his right ribs, but since his opponents were ordered not to kill he could afford it. The righthand man slashed at Everard’s ankles. Everard sprang in the air and the sword hissed under his feet. The lefthand attacked stabbed low. Everard sensed a dull shock and saw steel in his calf. He jerked free. A sunset ray came between bunched needles and touched the blood, making it an impossibly brilliant red. Everard felt that leg buckle under him.
“So, so,” cried Harpagus, hovering ten feet away. “Chop him!”
Everard growled above his shield rim: “A task your jackal leader has no courage to attempt for himself, after I drove him back with his tail between his legs!”
It was calculated. The attack on him stopped a bare instant. He reeled forward. “If you Persians must be the dogs of a Mede,” he croaked, “can you not choose a Mede who is a man, rather than this creature which betrayed its king and now runs from a single Greek?”
Even this far west and this long ago, an Oriental could not lose face in such a manner. Not that Harpagus had ever been a coward; Everard knew how unfair his taunts were. But the Chiliarch spat a curse and dashed at him. Everard had a moment’s glimpse of eyes wild in a sunken hook-nosed face. He lumbered lopsidedly forward. The two Persians hesitated for a second more. That was long enough for Everard and Harpagus to meet. The Median saber rose and fell, bounced off Greek helmet and shield, snaked sideways for another leg cut. A loose white tunic flapped before Everard’s gaze. He hunched shoulders and drove his sword in.
He withdrew it with the cruel professional twist which assures a mortal wound, pivoted on his right heel, and caught a blow on his shield. For a minute he and one Persian traded fury. At the edge of an eye, he saw the other circling about to get behind him. Well, he thought in a remote way, he had killed the one man dangerous to Cynthia…
The call was a weak flutter in the air, less loud than the mountain stream, but the warriors stepped back and lowered their blades. Even the dying Persian took his eyes from heaven.
Harpagus struggled to sit up, in a puddle of his own blood. His skin was turned gray. “No… hold,” he whispered. “Wait. There is a purpose here. Mithras would not have struck me down unless… ”
He beckoned, a somehow lordly gesture. Everard dropped his sword, limped over and knelt by Harpagus. The Mede sank back into his arms.
“You are from the King’s homeland,” he rasped in the bloody beard. “Do not deny that. But know… Aurvagaush the son of Khshayavarsha… is no traitor.” The thin form stiffened itself, imperious, as if ordering death to wait upon its pleasure. “I knew there were powers—of heaven, of hell, I know not which to this day—powers behind the King’s advent. I used them, I used him, not for myself, but because I had sworn loyalty to my own king, Astyages, and he needed a… a Cyrus… lest the realm be torn asunder. Afterward, by his cruelty, Astyages forfeited my oath. But I was still a Mede. I saw in Cyrus the only hope—the best hope—of Media. For he has been a good king to us also—we are honored in his domains second only to the Persians… Do you understand, you from the King’s home?” Dim eyes rolled about, trying to see into Everard’s but without enough control. “I wanted to capture you—to force your engine and its use from you, and then to kill you… yes… but not for my own gain. It was for the realm’s. I feared you would take the King home, as I know he has longed to go. And what would become of us? Be merciful, as you too must hope for mercy.”
“I shall,” said Everard. “The King will remain.”
“It is well,” sighed Harpagus. “I believe you speak the truth… I dare not believe otherwise… Then I have atoned?” he asked in a thin anxious voice. “For the murder I did at my old king’s behest—that I laid a helpless infant upon the mountainside and watched him die—have I atoned, King’s countryman? For it was that prince’s death… which brought the land close to ruin… but I found another Cyrus! I saved us! Have I atoned?”
“You have,” said Everard, and wondered how much absolution it lay in his power to give.
Harpagus closed his eyes. “Then leave me,” he said, like the fading echo of a command.
Everard laid him upon the earth and hobbled away. The two Persians knelt by their master, performing certain rites. The third man returned to his own contemplations. Everard sat down under a tree, tore a strip from his cloak and bandaged his hurts. The leg cut would need attention. Somehow he must get to the scooter. That wouldn’t be fun, but he could manage it and then a Patrol doctor could repair him in a few hours with a medical science future to his home era. He’d go to some branch office in an obscure milieu, because there’d be too many questions in the twentieth century.
And he couldn’t afford that. If his superiors knew what he planned, they would probably forbid it.
The answer had come to him not as a blinding revelation, but as a tired consciousness of knowledge which he might well have had subconsciously for a long time. He leaned back, getting his breath. The other four Persians arrived and were told what had happened. All of them ignored Everard, except for glances where terror struggled with pride and made furtive signs against evil. They lifted their dead chief and their dying companion and bore them into the forest. Darkness thickened. Somewhere an owl hooted.
The great King sat up in bed. There had been a noise beyond the curtains.
Cassandane, the Queen, stirred invisibly. One slim hand touched his face. “What is it, sun of my heaven?” she asked.
“I do not know.” He fumbled for the sword which lay always beneath his pillow. “Nothing.”
Her palm slipped down over his breast. “No, it is much,” she whispered, suddenly shaken. “Your heart goes like a war drum.”
“Stay there.” He trod out past the drapes.
Moonlight streamed from a deep-purple sky, through an arched window to the floor. It glanced almost blindingly off a bronze mirror. The air was cold upon bare skin.
A thing of dark metal, whose rider gripped two handlebars and touched tiny controls on a panel, drifted like another shadow. It landed on the carpet without a sound and the rider got off. He was a burly man in Grecian tunic and helmet. “Keith,” he breathed.
“Manse!” Denison stepped into the moonlight. “You came!”
“Tell me more,” snorted Everard sarcastically. “Think anybody will hear us? I don’t believe I was noticed. Materialized directly over the roof and floated slowly down on antigrav.”
“There are guards just outside the door,” said Denison, “but they won’t come in unless I strike that gong, or yell.”
“Good. Put on some clothes.”
Denison dropped his sword. He stood rigid for an instant, then it blazed from him: “You’ve got a way out?”
“Maybe. Maybe.” Everard looked away from the other man, drummed fingers on his machine’s control panel. “Look, Keith,” he said at last, “I’ve an idea which might or might not work. I’ll need your help to carry it out. If it does work, you can go home. The front office will accept a
Denison shivered with more than chill. Very low: “I think so.”
“I’m stronger than you are,” said Everard roughly, “and I’ll have the only weapons. If necessary, I’ll shanghai you back here. Please don’t make me.”
Denison drew a long breath. “I won’t.”
“Then let’s hope the Norns cooperate. Come on, get dressed. I’ll explain as we go. Kiss this year goodbye, and trust it isn’t, ‘So long’—because if my notion pans out, neither you nor anyone else will ever see it again.”
Denison, who had half turned to the garments thrown in a corner for a slave to replace before dawn, stopped. “What?” he said.
“We’re going to try rewriting history,” said Everard. “Or maybe to restore the history which was there in the first place. I don’t know. Come on, hop to it!”
“Quick, man, quick! D’you realize I came back to the same day as I left you, that at this moment I’m crawling through the mountains with one leg stabbed open, just to save you that extra time? Get moving!”
Decision closed upon Denison. His face was in darkness, but he spoke very low and clear: “I’ve got one personal goodbye to say.”
“Cassandane. She’s been my wife here for, God, for fourteen years! She’s borne me three children, and nursed me through two fevers and a hundred fits of despair, and once when the Medes were at our gates she led the women of Pasargadae out to rally us and we won… Give me five minutes. Manse.”
“All right, all right. Though it’ll take more than that to send a eunuch to her room and—”
Denison vanished behind the bed curtains.
Everard stood for a moment as if struck.
And then, when his fingertips had begun to hurt from the tightness of his grip on the sword hilt:
Presently Denison came back. He did not speak as he put on his clothes and mounted the rear seat on the scooter. Everard spacehopped, an instantaneous jump; the room vanished and moonlight flooded the hills far below. A cold gust searched around the men in the sky.
“Now for Ecbatana.” Everard turned on his dashlight and adjusted controls according to notes scribbled on the pilot pad.
“Ec—Oh, you mean Hagmatan? The old Median capital?” Denison sounded astonished. “But it’s only a summer residence now.”
“I mean Ecbatana thirty-six years ago,” said Everard.
“Look, all the scientific historians in the future are convinced that the story of Cyrus’s childhood as told by Herodotus and the Persians is pure fable. Well, maybe they were right all along. Maybe your experiences here have been only one of those little quirks in space-time which the Patrol tries to eliminate.’’
“I see,” said Denison slowly.
“You were at Astyages’ court pretty often when you were his vassal, I suppose. Okay, you guide me. We want the old guy himself, preferably alone at night.”
“Sixteen years was a long time,” said Denison.
“If you’re going to change the past anyway, why use me at this point? Come get me when I’d been Cyrus only one year, long enough to be familiar with Ecbatana but—”
“Sorry, no. I don’t dare. We’re steering close enough to the wind as is. Lord knows what a secondary loop in the world lines could lead to. Even if we got away with it, the Patrol would send us both to the exile planet for taking that kind of chance.”
“Well… yes. I see your point.”
“Also,” said Everard, “you’re not a suicidal type. Would you actually want the you of this instant never to have existed? Think for a minute precisely what that implies.”
He completed his settings. The man behind him shuddered. “Mithras!” said Denison. “You’re right. Let’s not talk more about it.”
“Here goes, then.” Everard threw the main switch.
He hung over a walled city on an unfamiliar plain. Though this was also a moonlit night, the city was only a black huddle to his eyes. He reached into the saddlebags. “Here,” he said. “Let’s put on these costumes. I had the boys in the Middle Mohenjodaro office fix ’em up to my specs. Their situation is such that they often need this type of disguise for themselves.”
Air whistled darkly as the hopper slanted earth-ward. Denison reached an arm past Everard to point. “That’s the palace. The royal bedchamber is over on the east side…”
It was a heavier, less graceful building than its Persian successor in Pasargadae. Everard glimpsed a pair of winged bulls, white in an autumnal garden, left over from the Assyrians. He saw that the windows before him were too narrow for entrance, swore, and aimed at the nearest doorway. A pair of mounted sentries looked up, saw what was coming, and shrieked. Their horses reared, throwing them. Everard’s machine splintered the door. One more miracle wasn’t going to affect history, especially when such things were believed in as devoutly as vitamin pills at home, and possibly with more reason. Lamps guided him down a corridor where slaves and guards squalled their terror. At the royal bedroom he drew his sword and knocked with the pommel. “Take over, Keith,” he said. “You know the Median version of Aryan.”
“Open, Astyages!” roared Denison. “Open to the messengers of Ahuramazda!”
Somewhat to Everard’s surprise, the man within obeyed. Astyages was as brave as most of his people. But when the king—a thickset, hard-faced person in early middle age—saw two beings, luminously robed, halos around their heads and fountaining wings of light on their backs, seated on an iron throne in midair, he fell prostrate.
Everard heard Denison thunder in the best tent-meeting style, using a dialect he could not follow:
“O infamous vessel of iniquity, heaven’s anger is upon you! Do you believe that your least thought, though it skulk in the darkness which begot it, was ever hidden from the Day’s Eye? Do you believe that almighty Ahuramazda would permit a deed so foul as you plot…”
Everard didn’t listen. He strayed into his own thoughts: Harpagus was probably somewhere in this very city, full of his youth and unridden as yet by guilt. Now he would never bear that burden. He would never lay a child upon the mountain and lean on his spear as it cried and shivered and finally became still. He would revolt in the future, for his own reasons, and become the Chiliarch of Cyrus, but he would not die in his enemy’s arms in a haunted forest; and a certain Persian, whose name Everard did not know, would also be spared a Greek sword and a slow falling into emptiness.
“…Know, Astyages, that this child Cyrus is favored of heaven. And heaven is mercifu you have been warned that if you stain your soul with his innocent blood, the sin can never be washed away. Leave Cyrus to grow up in Anshan, or burn forever with Ahriman! Mithras has spoken!”
Astyages groveled, beating his head on the floor.
“Let’s go,” said Denison in English.
Everard hopped to Persian hills, thirty-six years futureward. Moonlight fell upon cedars near a road and a stream. It was cold, and a wolf howled.
He landed the scooter, got off and began to remove his costume. Denison’s bearded face came out of the mask, with strangeness written upon it. “I wonder,” he said. His voice was nearly lost in the silence under the mountains. “I wonder if we didn’t throw too much of a scare into Astyages. History does record that he gave Cyrus a three-year fight when the Persians revolted.”
“We can always go back to the outbreak of the war and provide a vision encouraging him to resist,” said Everard, struggling to be matter-of-fact; for there were ghosts around him. “But I don’t believe that’ll be necessary. He’ll keep hands off the prince, but when a vassal rebels, well, he’ll be mad enough to discount what by then will seem like a dream. Also, his own nobles, Median vested interests, would hardly allow him to give in. But let’s check up. Doesn’t the King lead a procession at the winter solstice festival?”
“Yeah. Let’s go. Quickly.”
And the sunlight burned around them, high above Pasargadae. They left their machine hidden and walked down on foot, two travelers among many streaming in to celebrate the Birthday of Mithras. On the way, they inquired what had happened, explaining that they had been long abroad. The answers satisfied them, even in small details which Denison’s memories recorded but the chronicles hadn’t mentioned.
At last they stood under a frosty-blue sky, among thousands of people, and salaamed when Cyrus the Great King rode past with his chief courtiers Kobad, Croesus, and Harpagus, and the pride and pomp and priesthood of Persia followed.
“He’s younger than I was,” whispered Denison. “He would be, I guess. And a little smaller… different face entirely, isn’t it?… but he’ll do.”
“Want to stay for the fun?” asked Everard.
Denison drew his cloak around him. The air was bitter. “No,” he said. “Let’s go back. It’s been a long time. Even if it never happened.”
“Uh-huh.” Everard seemed more grim than a victorious rescuer should be. “It never happened.”
Keith Denison left the elevator of a building in New York. He was vaguely surprised that he had not remembered what it looked like. He couldn’t even recall his apartment number, but had to check with the directory. Details, details. He tried to stop trembling.
Cynthia opened the door as he reached it. “Keith,” she said, almost wonderingly.
He could find no other words than: “Manse warned you about me, didn’t he? He said he would.”
“Yes. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t realize your looks would have changed that much. But it doesn’t matter. Oh, my darling!”
She drew him inside, closed the door and crept; into his arms.
He looked around the place. He had forgotten how cramped it was. And he had never liked her taste in decoration, though he had yielded to her.
The habit of giving in to a woman, even of asking her opinion, was one he’d have to learn all over again. It wouldn’t be easy.
She raised a wet face for his kiss. Was
“Oh, Keith, welcome home,” said the high small voice.