The Big Time

Chapter 8

Give me a place to stand, and I will move the world -Archimedes A PLACE TO STAND Bruce's voice had a faraway touch and he was looking up left at the Void as he said, "Have you ever really wondered why the two sides of this war are called the Snakes and the Spiders? Snakes may be clear enough-you always call the enemy something dirty. But Spiders-our name for ourselves? Bear with me, Ilhilihis; I know that no being is created dirty or malignant by Nature, but this is a matter of anthropoid feelings and folkways. Yes, Mark, I know that some of your legions have nicknames like the Drunken Lions and the Snails, and that's about as insulting as calling the British Expeditionary Force the Old Contemptibles. "No, you'd have to go to bands of vicious youths in cities slated for ruin to find a habit of naming like ours, and even they would try to brighten up the black a bit. But simply-Spiders. And Snakes, for that's their name for themselves too, you know. Spiders and Snakes. What are our masters,, that we give them names like that?" It gave me the shivers and set my mind working in a dozen directions and I couldn't stop it, although it made the shivers worse. Illy beside me now-I'd never given it a thought before, but he did have eight legs of a sort, and I remembered thinking of him as a spider monkey, and hadn't the Lunans had wisdom and atomic power and a billion years in which to get the Change War rolling? Or suppose, in the far future, Terra's own spiders evolved intelligence and a cruel cannibal culture. They'd be able to keep their existence secret. I had no idea of who or what would be on Earth in Sevensee's day, and wouldn't it be perfect black hairy poisoned spider-mentality to spin webs secretly through the world of thought and all of space and time? And Beau-wasn't there something real Snaky about him, the way he moved and all? Spiders and Snakes. Spinne und Schlange, as Erich called them. S S. But SS stood for the Nazi Schutzstaffel, the Black Shirts, and what if some of those cruel, crazy Jerries had discovered time travel and-I brought myself up with a jerk and asked myself, "Greta, how nuts can you get?" From where he was on the floor, the front of the bar his sounding board, Doc shrieked up at Bruce like one of the damned from the pit, "Don't speak against the Spiders! Don't blaspheme! They can hear the Unborn whisper. Others whip only the skin, but they whip the naked brain and heart," and Erich called out, "That's enough, Bruce!" But Bruce didn't spare him a look and said, "But whatever the Spiders are and no matter how much they use, it's plain as the telltale on the Maintainer that the Change War is not only going against them, but getting away from them. Dwell for a bit on the current flurry of stupid slugging and panicky anachronism, when we all know that anachronism is what gets the Change Winds out of control. This punch-drunk pounding on the Cretan-Dorian fracas as if it were the only battle going and the only way to work things. Whisking Constantine from Britain to the Bosporus by rocket, sending a pocket submarine back to sail with the Armada against Drake's woodensides-I'lI wage you hadn't heard those! And now, to save Rome, an atomic bomb. "Ye gods, they could have used Greek fire or even dynamite, but a fission weapon ... I leave you to imagine what gaps and scars that will make in what's left of history-the smothering of Greece and the vanishment of Provence and the troubadours and the Papacy's Irish Captivity won't be in it!" The cut on his cheek had opened again and was oozing a little, but he didn't pay any attention to it, and neither did we, as his lips thinned in irony and he said, "But I'm forgetting that this is a cosmic war and that the Spiders are conducting operations on billions, trillions of planets and inhabited gas clouds through millions of ages and that we're just one little world-one little solar system, Sevensee-and we can hardly expect our inscrutable masters, with all their pressing preoccupations and far-flung responsibilities, to be especially understanding or tender in their treatment of our pet books and centuries, our favorite prophets and periods, or unduly concerned about preserving any of the trifles that we just happen to hold dear. "Perhaps there are some sentimentalists who would rather die forever than go on living in a world without the Summa, the Field Equations, Process and Reality, Hamlet, Matthew, Keats, and the Odyssey, but our masters are practical creatures, ministering to the needs of those rugged souls who want to go on living no matter what." Erich's "Bruce, I'm telling you that's enough," was lost in the quickening flow of the New Boy's words. "I won't spend much time on the minor signs of our major crack-up-the canceling of leaves, the sharper shortages, the loss of the Express Room, the use of Recuperation Stations for ops and all the other frantic patchwork-last operation but one, we were saddled with three Soldiers from outside the Galaxy and, no fault of theirs, they were no earthly use. Such little things might happen at a bad spot in any war and are perhaps only local. But there's a big thing." He paused again, to let us wonder, I guess. Maud must have worked her way over to me, for I felt her dry little hand on my arm and she whispered out of the side of her mouth, "What do we do now?" "We listen," I told her the same way. I felt a little impatient with her need to be doing something about things. She cocked a gold-dusted eyebrow at me and murmured, "You, too?" I didn't get to ask her me, too, what? Crush on Bruce? Nuts!-because just then Bruce's voice took up again in the faraway range. "Have you ever asked yourself how many operations the fabric of history can stand before it's all stitches, whether too much Change won't one day wear out the past? And the present and the future, too, the whole bleeding business. Is the law of the Conservation of Reality any more than a thin hope given a long name, a prayer of theoreticians? Change Death is as certain as Heat Death, and far faster. Every operation leaves reality a bit cruder, a bit uglier, a bit more makeshift, and a whole lot less rich in those details and feelings that are our heritage, like the crude penciled sketch on canvas when you've stripped off the paint. "If that goes on, won't the cosmos collapse into an outline of itself, then nothing? How much thinning can reality stand, having more and more Doublegangers cut out of it? And there's another thing about every operation-it wakes up the Zombies a little more, and as its Change Winds die, it leaves them a little more disturbed and nightmare-ridden and frazzled. Those of you who have been on operations in heavily worked-over temporal areas will know what I mean-that look they give you out of the sides of their eyes as if to say, 'You again? For Christ's sake, go away. We're the dead. We're the ones who don't want to wake up, who don't want to be Demons and hate to be Ghosts. Stop torturing us.'" I looked around at the Ghostgirls; I couldn't help it. They'd somehow got together on the control divan, facing us, their backs to the Maintainers. The Countess had dragged along the bottle of wine Erich had fetched her earlier and they were passing it back and forth. The Countess had a big rose splotch across the ruffled white lace of her blouse. Bruce said, "There'll come a day when all the Zombies and all the Unborn wake up and go crazy together and figuratively come marching at us in their numberless hordes, saying, 'We've had enough." But I didn't turn back to Bruce right away. Phryne's chiton had slipped off one shoulder and she and the Countess were sitting sagged forward, elbows on knees, legs spread-at least, as far as the Countess's hobble skirt would let her-and swayed toward each other a little. They were still surprisingly solid, although they hadn't had any personal attention for a half hour, and they were looking up over my head with half-shut eyes and they seemed, so help me, to be listening to what Bruce was saying and maybe hearing some of it. "We make a careful distinction between Zombies and Unborn, between those troubled by our operations whose lifelines lie in the past and those whose lifelines lie in the future. But is there any distinction any longer? Can we tell the difference between the past and the future? Can we any longer locate the now, the real now of the cosmos? The Places have their own nows, the now of the Big Time we're on, but that's different and it's not made for real living. "The Spiders tell us that the real now is somewhere in the last half of the 20th Century, which means that several of us here are also alive in the cosmos, have lifelines along which the now is traveling. But do you swallow that story quite so easily, Ilhilihis, Sevensee? How does it strike the servants of the Triple Goddess? The Spiders of Octavian Rome? The Demons of Good Queen Bess? The gentlemen Zombies of the Greater South? Do the Unborn man the starships, Maud? "The Spiders also tell us that, although the fog of battle makes the now hard to pin down precisely, it will return with the unconditional sunender of the Snakes and the establishment of cosmic peace, and roll on as majestically toward the future as before, quickening the continuum with its passage. Do you really believe that? Or do you believe, as I do, that we've used up all the future as well as the past, wasted it in premature experience, and that we've had the real now smudged out of existence, stolen from us forever, the precious now of true growth, the child-moment in which all life lies, the moment like a newborn baby that is the only home for hope there is?" He let that start to sink in, then took a couple of quick steps and went on, his voice rising over Erich's "Bruce, for the last time-" and seeming to pick up a note of hope from the very word he had used, "But although things look terrifyingly black, there remains a chance-the slimmest chance, but still a chance-of saving the cosmos from Change Death and restoring reality's richness and giving the Ghosts good sleep and perhaps even regaining the real now. We have the means right at hand. What if the power of time traveling were used not for war and destruction, but for healing, for the mutual enrichment of the ages, for quiet communication and growth, in brief, to bring a peace message-" But my little commandant is quite an actor himself and knows a wee bit about the principles of scene-stealing and he was not going to let Bruce drown him out as if he were just another extra playing a Voice from the Mob . He darted across our front, between us and the bar, took a nmning leap, and landed bang on the bloody box of bomb. A bit later, Maud was silently showing me the white ring above her elbow where I'd grabbed her and Illy was teasing a clutch of his tentacles out of my other hand and squeaking reproachfully, "Greta girl, don't ever do that." Erich was standing on the chest and I noticed that his boots carefully straddled the circle of skulls, and I should have known anyway you could hardly push them in the right order by jumping on them, and he was pointing at Bruce .and saying, "-and that means mutiny, my young sir. Um Gottes willen, Bruce, listen to me and step down before you say anything worse. I'm older than you, Bruce. Mark's older. Trust in your Kameraden. Guide yourself by their knowledge." He had got my attention, but I had much rather have him black my eye. "You older than me?" Bruce was grinning. "When your twelve-years' advantage was spent in soaking up the wisdom of a race of sadistic dreamers gone paranoid, in a world whose thought-stream had already been muddied by one total war? Mark older than me? When all his ideas and loyalties are those of a wolf pack of unimaginative sluggers two thousand years younger than I am? Either of you older because you have more of the killing cynicism that is all the wisdom the Change World ever gives you? Don't make me laugh! 'I'm an Englishman, and I come from an epoch when total war was still a desecration and the flowers and buds of thoughts not yet whacked off or blighted. I'm a poet and poets are wiser than anyone because they're the only people who have the guts to think and feel at the same time. Right, Sid? When I talk to all of you about a peace message, I want you to think about it concretely in terms of using the Places to bring help across the mountains of time when help is really needed, not to bring help that's undeserved or knowledge that's premature or contaminating, sometimes not to bring anything at all, but just to check with infinite tenderness and concern that everything's safe and the glories of the universe unfolding as they were intended to-" "Yes, you are a poet, Bruce," Erich broke in. "You can tootle soulfully on the flute and make us drip tears. You can let out the stops on the big organ pipes and make us tremble as if at Jehovah's footsteps. For the last twenty minutes, you have been giving us some very charmante poetry. But what are you? An Entertainer? Or are you a Soldier?" Right then-I don't know what it was, maybe Sid clearing his throat-I could sense our feelings beginning to turn against Bruce. I got the strangest feeling of reality clamping down and bright colors going dull and dreams vanishing. Yet it was only then I also realized how much Bruce had moved us, maybe some of us to the verge of mutiny, even. I was mad at Erich for what he was doing, but I couldn't help admiring his cockiness. I was still under the spell of Bruce's words and the more-than-words behind them, but then Erich would shift around a bit and one of his heels would kick near the death's head pushbuttons and I wanted to stamp with spike heels on every death'shead button on his uniform. I didn't know exactly what I felt yet. "Yes, I'm a Soldier," Bruce told him, "and I hope you won't ever have to worry about my courage, because it's going to take more courage than any operation we've ever planned, ever dreamed of, to carry the peace message to the other Places and to the wound-spots of the cosmos. Perhaps it will be a fast wicket and we'll be bowled down before we score a single run, but who cares? We may at least see our real masters when they come to smash us, and for me that will be a deep satisfaction. And we may do some smashing of our own." "So you're a Soldier," Erich said, his smile showing his teeth. "Bruce, I'll admit that the half-dozen operations you've been on were rougher than anything I drew in my first hundred sleeps. For that, I am all honest sympathy. But that you should let them get you into such a state that love and a girl can turn you upside down and start you babbling about peace messages-" "Yes, by God, love and a girl have changed me!" Bruce shouted at him, and I looked at Lili and I remembered Dave saying, "I'm going to Spain," and I wondered if anything would ever again make my face flame like that. "Or, rather, they've made me stand up for what I've believed in all along. They've made me-" "Wunderbar," Erich called and began to do a little sissy dance on the bomb that set my teeth on edge. He bent his wrists and elbows at arty angles and stuck out a hip and ducked his head simperingly and blinked his eyes very fast. "Will you invite me to the wedding, Bruce? You'll have to get another best man, but I will be the flower girl and throw pretty little posies to all the distinguished guests. Here, Mark. Catch, Kaby. One for you, Greta. Danke schon. Ach, zwei Herzen in dreivierteltakt ... ta-ta ... ta-ta ... ta-ta-tata-ta..." "What the hell do you think a woman is?" Bruce raged. "Something to mess around with in your spare time?" Erich kept on humming "Two Hearts in Waltz Time"-and jigging around to it, damn him-but he slipped in a nod to Bruce and a "Precisely." So I knew where I stood, but it was no news to me. "Very well," Bruce said, "let's leave this Brown Shirt maricon to amuse himself and get down to business. I made all of you a proposal and I don't have to tell you how serious it is or how serious Lili and I are about it. We not only must infiltrate and subvert other Places, which luckily for us are made for infiltration, we also must make contact with the Snakes and establish working relationships with their Demons at our level as one of our first steps." That stopped Erich's jig and got enough of a gasp from some of us to make it seem- to come from practically everybody. Erich used it to work a change of pace. "Bruce! We've let you carry this foolery further than we should. You seem to have the idea that because anything goes in the Place-dueling, drunkenness, und so weiter-you can say what you have and it will all be forgotten with the hangover. Not so. It is true that among such a set of monsters and free spirits as ourselves, and working as secret agent to boot, there cannot be the obvious military discipline that would obtain in a Terran army. "But let me tell you, Bruce, let me grind it home into you-Sid and Kaby and Mark will bear me out in this, as officers of equivalent rank-that the Spider line of command stretches into and through this Place just as surely as the word of der Fuhrer rules Chicago. And as I shouldn't have to emphasize to you, Bruce, the Spiders have punishments that would make my countrymen in Belsen and Buchenwald-well, pale a little. So while there is still a shadow of justification for our interpreting your remarks as utterly tasteless clowning-" "Babble on," Bruce said, giving him a loose downward wave of his hand without looking. "I made you people a proposal." He paused. "How do you stand, Sidney Lessingham?" Then I felt my legs getting weak, because Sid didn't answer right away. The old boy swallowed and started to look around at the rest of us. Then the feeling of reality clamping down got something awful, because he didn't look around, bnt straightened his back a little. Just then, Mark cut in fast. "It grieves me, Bruce, but I think you are possessed. Erich, he must be confined." Kaby nodded, almost absently. "Confine or kill the coward, whichever is easier, whip the woman, andlet's get on to the Egyptian battle." "Indeed, yes," Mark said. "I died in it. But now perhaps no longer." Kaby said to him, "I like you, Roman." Bruce was smiling, barely, and his eyes were moving and fixing. "You, Ilhilihis?" Illy's squeak box had never sounded mechanical to me before, but it did as he answered, "I'm a lot deeper into borrowed time than the rest of you, tra-la-la, but Papa still loves living. Include me very much out, Brucie." "Miss Davies?" Besides me, Maud said flatly, "Do you think I'm a fool?" Beyond her, I saw Lili and thought, "My God, I might look as proud if I were in her shoes, but I sure as hell wouldn't look as confident." Bruce's eyes hadn't quite come to Beau when the gambler spoke up. "I have no cause to like you, sir, rather the opposite. But this Place has come to bore me more than Boston and I have always found it difficult to resist a long shot. A very long one, I fear. I am with you, sir." There was a pain in my chest and a roaring in my ears and through it I heard Sevensee grunting, "sicka these lousy Spiders. Deal me in." And then Doc reared up in front of the bar and he'd lost his hat and his hair was wild and he grabbed an empty fifth by the neck and broke the bottom of it all jagged against the bar and he waved it and screeched, "Ubivaytye Pauki-i Nyemetzi!" And right behind his words, Beau sang out fast the English of it, "Kill the Spiders-and the Germans!" And Doc didn't collapse then, though I could see he was hanging onto the bar tight with his other hand, and the Place got stiller, inside and out, than I've ever known it, and Bruce's eyes were finally moving back toward Sid. But the eyes stopped short of Sid and I heard Bruce say, "Miss Forzane?" and I thought, "That's funny," and I started to look around at the Countess, and felt all the eyes and I realized, "Hey, that's me! But this can't happen to me. To the others, yes, but not to me. I just work here. Not to Greta, no, no, no!" But it had, and the eyes didn't let go, and the silence and the feeling of reality were Godawful, and I said to myself, "Greta, you've got to say something, if only a suitable four-letter word," and then suddenly I knew what the silence was like. It was like that of a big city if there were some way of shutting off all the noise in one second. It was like Erich's singing when the piano had deserted him. It was as if the Change Winds should ever die completely ... and I knew beforehand what had happened when I turned my back on them all. The Ghostgirls were gone. The Major Maintainer hadn't merely been switched to Introvert. It was gone, too.

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