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Brother Assassin


Lieutenant Derron Odegard leaned back in his contour chair for just long enough to wipe his somewhat sweaty palms on the legs of his easy-fitting duty uniform, and to shift minutely the position of the padded headset on his skull. He performed these nervous actions without taking his eyes from the tangled green pattern on the wide, slightly curved viewscreen before him; then he leaned forward again and resumed his hunt for the enemy.

After only half an hour on watch he was already bone-tired, feeling the weight of every one of his planet's forty million surviving inhabitants resting crushingly on the back of his neck. He didn't want to bear the burden of responsibility for any of those lives, but at the moment there was nowhere to set it down. Being an officer and a sentry gained a man a bit of material comfort and allowed him a bit less regimentation when he went off duty—but let a sentry make one gross mistake on the job, and the entire surviving population of the planet Sirgol could be tumbled into nothingness, knocked out of real-time and killed, ended so completely that they would never have existed at all.

Derron's hands rested easily and lightly on the molded controls of his console; there was a good deal of skill, though nothing like love, in his touch. Before him on the screen, the green, tangled cathode traces shifted at his will, like tall grasses pushed aside by the hands of a cautious hunter. This symbolic grass through which he searched represented the interwoven lifelines of all the animals and plants that flourished, or had flourished, upon a certain few square miles of Sirgol's land surface, during a few decades of time, some twenty thousand years deep in the prehistoric past.

Surrounding Derron Odegard's chair and console were those of other sentries, a thousand units all aligned in long, subtly curving rows. Their arrangement pleased and rested the momentarily lifted eye, then led the gaze back to the viewscreen where it belonged. Concentration was further encouraged by the gentle modulations that sometimes passed like drifting clouds across the artificial light, which flowed from the strongly vaulted ceiling of this buried chamber, and by the insistent psych-music that came murmuring in and out of headsets, airy melodies now and then supported on an elemental, heavy beat. In this chamber buried below many miles of rock, the air was fresh with drifting breezes, scented convincingly with the tang of the sea or the smell of green fields, with various reminiscences of the living soil and water that the berserkers' bombardment had wiped away, months ago, from Sirgol's surface.

Again, the traces representing interconnected life rippled on Derron's viewscreen as he touched the controls. In the remote past, the infraelectronic spy devices connected to his screen were moving at his command. They did not stir the branches nor startle the fauna in the ancient forests they surveyed. Instead they hovered just outside reality, not interfering, avoiding most of the nets of paradox spread by reality for man or machine that traveled in time. The spy devices lurked just around the local curves of probability from real-time, able to sense even from that position the lines of powerful organization of matter that were life.

Derron knew that his assigned sector, nearly twenty thousand years back, was somewhere near the time of the First Men's coming to Sirgol, but he had not yet seen the trace, unmistakably powerful, of a human lifeline there. He was not looking for humans especially. What mattered was that neither he nor any other sentry had yet observed the splash of disruptive change that would mean a berserker attack; the gigantic machines besieging the planet in present-time had perhaps not yet discovered that it was possible here to invade the past.

Like a good sentry in any army, Derron avoided letting his own moves become predictable as he walked his post. From his seat in remote physical comfort and relative physical safety, he monitored the signals of one spy device after another, ranging now a decade farther into the past, then five miles north; next two years uptime, then a dozen miles southwest. Still no alien predator's passage showed in the lush symbolic grass that grew on Derron's screen. The enemy he sought had no lifeline of its own, and would be visible only by the death and disruption that it broadcast.

"Nothing yet," said Derron curtly, without turning, when he felt his supervisor's presence at his elbow. The supervisor, a captain, remained looking on for a moment and then without comment walked quietly on down the narrow aisle. Still without lifting his eyes from his screen, Derron frowned. It irritated him to realize that he had forgotten the captain's name. Well, this was only the captain's second day on the job, and the captain, or Derron, or both of them, might be transferred to some other duty tomorrow. The Time Operations Section of Sirgol's Planetary Defense Forces was organizationally fluid, to put it mildly. Only a few months ago had the defenders realized that the siege might be extended into time warfare. This sentry room, and the rest of Time Operations, had been really functional for only about a month, and it had yet to handle a real fight. Luckily, the techniques of time warfare were almost certainly entirely new to the enemy also; nowhere else but around the planet Sirgol was time travel known to be possible.

Before Derron Odegard had managed to recall his captain's name, the first battle fought by Time Operations had begun. For Derron it began very simply and undramatically, with the calm voice of one of the communications girls flowing into his earphones to announce that the berserker space fleet had launched toward the planet several devices that did not behave like ordinary missiles. As these weapons fell toward the planet's surface they vanished from direct observation; the sentry screens soon discovered them in probability-space, falling into the planet's past.

There were five or six objects—the number was soon confirmed as six—dropping eight thousand years down, ten thousand, twelve. The sentries watching over the affected sectors were alerted one after another. But the enemy seemed to understand that his passage was being closely followed. Only when the six devices had passed the twenty-one-thousand-year level, when their depth in the abyss of time had made observation from the present practically impossible, did they stop. Somewhere.

"Attention, all sentries," said a familiar, drawling male voice in Derron's headset. "This is the Time Operations commander, to let you all know as much as I do about what's going on. Looks like they're setting up a staging area for themselves down there, about minus twenty-one thousand. They can shoot stuff uptime at us from there, and we probably won't be able to spot it until it breaks into real-time on us, and maybe not until it starts killing."

The psych-music came back. A few minutes passed before the calm voice of a communications girl spoke to Derron individually, relaying orders for him to shift his pattern of search, telling him in which dimensions and by how much to change his sector. The sentries would be shifting all along the line, which meant that an enemy penetration into real-time was suspected. Observers would be concentrating near the area of the invasion while still maintaining a certain amount of coverage everywhere else. The first enemy attack might be only a diversion.

These days, when an enemy missile dug near the shelters, Derron rarely bothered to take cover, never felt anything worse than the remotest and vaguest sort of fear; it was the same for him now, knowing that battle was joined, or about to be. His eye and hand remained as steady as if he knew this was only one more routine training exercise. There were advantages in not caring very much whether death came now or later.

Still he could not escape the hateful weight of responsibility, and the minutes of the watch dragged more slowly now than ever. Twice more the imperturbable girl-voice changed Derron's search sector. Then the Time Ops commander came back on to confirm officially that an attack was launched.

"Now keep your eyes open, boys," said the drawling voice to all the sentries, "and find me that keyhole."

At some time deeper than twenty thousand years in the past, at some place as yet undetermined, the keyhole must exist—an opening from probability-space into real-time, created by the invasion of the six berserker devices.

Had men's eyes been able to watch their arrival directly, they would have seen the killing machines, looking like six stub-winged aircraft, materialize apparently from nowhere in a spot high in Sirgol's atmosphere. Like precision fliers, the machines exploded at once out of the compact formation in which they had appeared to scatter in six separate directions at multisonic speed.

And, as they separated, the six immediately began seeding the helpless world below them with poison. Radioactives, antibiotic chemicals . . . it was hard to tell from a distance of twenty thousand years just what they were using. Like the other sentries, Derron Odegard saw the attack only by its effects. He perceived it as a diminution in the probability of existence of all the life in his sector, a rising tide of moribundity beginning in one corner of that sector and washing slowly over the rest.

The six machines were poisoning the whole planet. If the First Men were on the surface at the time of this attack, it would of course kill them; if they landed later they would wander baby-helpless to their deaths in a foodless, sterile world. And, if that happened, the descendants in present-time of the First Men, the entire surviving population, would cease to exist. The planet and the system would be the berserkers' for the taking.

The rising odds on world death spread up through prehistory and history. In each living cell on the planet the dark tide of nonexistence rose, a malignant change visible on every sentry screen.

The many observed vectors of that change were plotted by men and computers working together in Time Operations' nerve center. They had a wealth of data to work with; perhaps no more than twenty minutes of present-time had passed from the start of the attack until the computers announced that the keyhole of the six enemy flying machines had been pinpointed.

In the deeper catacomb called Operations Stage Two, the defensive missiles waited in stacks, their blunt simple shapes surrounded by complexities of control and launching mechanism. At the command of Operations' computers and their human overseers, steel arms extended a missile sideways from its rack, while on the dark stone floor beneath it there appeared a silvery circle, shimmering like a pool of troubled liquid.

The arms released the missile, and in the first instant of falling it disappeared. While one set of forces propelled it into the past, another sent it as a probability-wave up through the miles of rock, to the surface of the planet and beyond, into the stratosphere, straight for the keyhole through which the six devices of the enemy had entered real-time.

Derron saw the ominous changes that had been creeping across his screen begin suddenly to reverse themselves. It looked like a trick, like a film run backward, like some stunt without relevance to the real world.

"Right in the keyhole!" yelped the Time Ops commander's voice, drawling no longer. The six berserker devices now shared their point of entry into real-time with an atomic explosion, neatly tailored to fit.

As every screen showed the waves of death receding, jubilation spread in murmurous waves of its own, up and down the long curved ranks of sentry posts. But caution and discipline combined to keep the rejoicing muted. The remainder of the six-hour shift passed in the manner of a training exercise, in which all the i's were properly dotted and the t's crossed, the tactical success made certain by observations and tests. But beneath the discipline and caution the jubilation quietly persisted. Men who were relieved on schedule for their breaks passed one another smiling and winking. Derron smiled like everyone else when someone met his eye. To go along, to show the expected reaction, was socially the easiest course. And he did feel a certain pride in having done a good job.

When the shift ended without any further sign of enemy action, it was certain that the berserkers' first venture into time warfare had been beaten back into nonexistence.

But the damned machines would come back, as they always did, thought Derron. Stiff and sweaty and mentally tired, not bothering to smile this time, he rose from his chair with a sigh of relief to make room for the sentry on the next shift.

"I guess you people did all right today," said the replacement, a touch of envy in his voice.

Derron managed one more smile. "You can have the next chance for glory." He pressed his thumbprint into the appropriate place on the console's scanner, as the other man did the same. Then, officially relieved, he walked at a dragging pace out of the sentry room, joining the stream of other members of his shift. Here and there another face appeared as grim and tired as he knew his own must look. But once they had passed through the doors that marked the area of enforced quiet, most of the men formed excited groups and started to whoop it up a little.

Derron stood in line to turn in his recording cartridge with its record of his shift activity. Then he stood in another line, to make a short oral report to one of the debriefing officers. And after that he was free. As if, he thought, freedom had any meaning these days for a citizen of Sirgol.

A huge passenger elevator, one of a string that worked like buckets on an endless belt, lifted him amid a crowd of others out of the deeper caves of Operations to the housing level of the buried world-city. At this depth there were still miles of rock overhead.

The ideal physical environment of the sentry room was not to be found on Housing Level or at any other place where maximum human efficiency was not considered essential at all times. Throughout most of Housing Level the air tended to be stale at best, and at worst it was burdened with unpleasant odors. The lighting along most of the gray street-corridors was no better than it had to be. In most public places decoration was limited to the ubiquitous signs and posters, which, in the name of the government, exhorted the people to greater efforts for victory or promised them that improvements in living conditions were on the way. Here and there, such improvements were slowly being made. From month to month, the air became a little fresher, the food a little more varied and tastier. Given the practically limitless power of hydrogen fusion to labor for them upon the mineral wealth of the surrounding rock, it seemed that the besieged planet garrison might sustain themselves indefinitely, in gradually increasing comfort.

The corridor in which Derron now walked was one of the main thoroughfares of the buried world-city. His bachelor officer's cubicle was one of the housing units that, along with shops and offices, lined its sides. The corridor was two stories high and as wide as an ordinary main street in some ordinary minor city of the late lamented surface world. Down its center were laid moving belts, ridden in either direction by people who had to go farther than they could conveniently walk. Derron could see pairs of white-uniformed police rushing past on the belts now, checking the dog tags of travelers. Planetary Command was evidently cracking down on work-evaders.

As usual, the broad statwalks on either side of the moving strips were moderately crowded with an assortment of people. Men and women in work uniforms monotonously alike were going to their jobs or leaving them, at a pace neither hurried nor slow. Only a group of children just set free from some schoolroom were displaying any excess of energy. A very few adults and young people, off duty, strolled the walks or stood in line before the stores and places of amusement. Those businesses still under some semblance of private management seemed on the average to do a brisker trade than those wholly operated by the government.

One of the shorter queues of customers was the one before the local branch of the Homestead Office. Like the other small offices and shops, it was an area partitioned off by wire and glass to one side of the wide corridor. Standing in front of the Homestead Office on the statwalk, Derron looked in at the lethargic clerks, at the display of curling posters and somehow shabby models. The displays depicted, in colors meant to glow impressively, a number of plans for the postwar rehabilitation of the planet's surface.




Of land there was no shortage. Substances breathable and drinkable, however, might be hard to find. But the Homestead assumption was that someday—after victory, of course—there would be a good new life for all on the surface, a life nourished and protected by the new oceans of air and water that were to be somehow squeezed from the planet's deep rock or, if need be, brought in from the giant outer planets of the Sirgol system.

To judge by their uniform insignia, the people standing in the short line before the Homestead office were of all classifications and ranks. But at the moment they were all displaying what an earlier age might have called a peasant patience. With eyes that hoped and wanted to believe, they fed their gaze on the models and the posters. Derron had stopped on the statwalk mainly to look at these people standing in line. All of them had somehow managed to forget, if indeed they had ever allowed themselves to grasp the fact, that the world was dead. The real world, the one that mattered, had been killed and cremated, along with nine out of the ten of the people who had made it live.

Not that the nine out of ten, the statistics, really mattered to Derron. Or, he thought, to anyone else. It was always only the individual who mattered. . . .

A familiar face, a beloved face, came into Derron's thoughts, and he pushed it wearily away and turned from the believers who were waiting in line for a chance to strengthen their belief.

He began to walk toward his cubicle once more; but when he came to a place where the corridor branched, he turned on impulse to follow the narrow side passage. It was like an alley, dark and with few doors or windows; but a hundred paces ahead it ended in an arch that framed the living green of real treetops. At this time of day there would not be many people in the park.

He had not taken many steps down the side corridor before he felt the tremor of an explosion come racing through the living rock surrounding him. Ahead, he saw two small red birds streak in alarm across the green of the trees. He kept on walking without hesitating or breaking stride, and had taken three more paces before the sound came, dull and muffled but heavy. It must have been a small missile penetration, fairly close by. From the besieging fleet in space the enemy threw down probability-waves that sometimes got through the defenses and the miles of shielding rock and then turned into missiles and so into explosions in the vicinity of the buried shelters.

Unhurriedly, Derron continued walking to the end of the passage. There he halted, leaning with both hands on a protective railing of natural logs while he looked out over the dozen acres of park from a little balcony two levels above the grass. From the dome of "sky" six levels higher yet, an artificial sun shone down almost convincingly on grass and trees and shrubbery and on the varicolored birds in their invisible cage of curtain-jets of air. Across the park there tumbled a narrow stream of free fresh water; today its level had fallen so that the concrete sides of its bed were revealed halfway down.

A year ago—a lifetime ago—when the real world had been still alive, Derron Odegard had not been one to spend much time in the appreciation of nature. Oh, a hike now and then in the fresh air. But he had been concentrating on finishing his schooling and in settling down to the labors of the professional historian. He had centered his life in texts and films and tapes and in the usual academic schemes for academic advancement. Even his hikes and holidays had taken him to places of historic significance. . . . With an effort that had become reflex, he forced the image of the girl he had loved once more from his thoughts.

A year ago, a historian's career had been a prospect filled with excitement, made electric by the first hints from the physicists that the quirks of Sirgol's unique space-time might prove susceptive to manipulation, that humanity on Sirgol might be granted a first-hand look at much of its own past. Only a year ago, the berserker war had seemed remote; a terrible thing, of course, but afflicting only other worlds, light-years away. Decades had passed since the Earthmen had brought warning, and Sirgol's planetary defenses had been decades in the building, a routine part of life's background for a young man finishing his schooling.

It occurred to Derron now, as a trivial truism, that in the past year he had learned more about history than he had in all the years of study that had gone before. Not that it was doing him any good. He thought now that when the last moment of history came on Sirgol, if he could know that it was the last, he would try to get away to one of these little parks with a small bottle of wine he had been saving. He would finish history by drinking whatever number of toasts history allowed, to whatever dead and dying things seemed to him most worthy of mourning.

The tension of the day's watch was just beginning to drain from his fingers into the hand-worn bark of the railing, and he had actually forgotten the recent explosion, when the first of the wounded came stumbling into the park below.

The man came out of a narrow, grass-level entrance, his uniform jacket gone and the rest of his clothing torn and blackened. One of his bared arms was burnt and raw and swollen. He walked quickly, half blindly, among the trees, and then like an actor in some wilderness drama fell full length at the edge of the artificial brook and drank from it ravenously.

Next from the same entrance came another man, older, more sedentary in appearance. Probably some kind of clerk or administrator, though at the distance Derron could not make out his insignia. This man was not visibly wounded, but he moved into the park as if he were lost. Now and then he raised his hands to his ears; he might be deaf, or just wondering if his head was still there.

A pudgy woman entered, moaning in bewilderment, using first one hand and then the other to hold the flap of her torn scalp in place. After her another woman. A steady trickle of the suffering and maimed was flowing from the little entrance at grass level, spilling into the false peace of the park and defiling it with the swelling chorus of their querulous voices.

From somewhere down the passages were heard authoritarian yells, and then the whine and rumble of heavy machinery. Damage Control was on the job promptly, for rescue and emergency repair. The walking wounded were obviously being sent to the park to get them out from under foot while more urgent matters were handled. By now there were a couple of dozen sufferers wandering over the grass or lying on it, their groans demanding of the trees why the missile had gotten through today, why it had had to come to them.

Among the wounded there walked a slender girl of eighteen or twenty, clad in the remnants of a simple paper uniform dress. She stopped, leaning against a tree as if she could walk no farther. The way her dress was torn . . .

Derron turned away from the railing, squeezing his eyes shut in a spasm of self-disgust. He had suddenly seen himself, standing here like some ancient tyrant remotely entertained by others' pain, condescending to lust with a critical eye. One of these days, and soon, he would have to decide whether he was really still on the side of the human race or not.

There was a stairway handy, and he hurried down to the ground level of the park. The badly burned man was bathing his raw arm in the cool running water, and others were drinking. No one seemed to have stopped breathing or to be bleeding to death. The girl looked as if she might fall away from her supporting tree at any moment.

Pulling off his jacket as he went to her, Derron wrapped her in the garment and eased her away from the tree. "Where are you hurt?"

She shook her head and said something incoherent. Her face was pale enough for her to be in shock; he tried to get her to sit down. She would not, and so the two of them did a little off-balance dance while he held her up. She was a tall, slim girl, and under normal conditions she would be lovely . . . no, not lovely, or anyway not pretty in the ordinary way. But good to look at, certainly. Her hair, like most women's these days, was cut in the short simple style promoted by the government. She was wearing no jewelry or make-up at all, which was a bit unusual.

She soon came out of her daze enough to look down with bewilderment at the jacket that had been wrapped around her. "You're an officer," she said in a low blurry voice, her eyes focusing on the collar insignia.

"In a very small way. Now, hadn't you better lie down somewhere?"

"No. . . . I've been trying to get home . . . or somewhere. Can't you tell me where I am? What's going on?" Hervoice was rising.

"I believe there was a missile strike. Here now, this insignia of mine is supposed to be a help with the girls, so sit down at least, won't you?"

She resisted, and they danced a few more steps. "No. First I have to find out . . . I don't know who I am—or where, or why!"

"I don't know those things about myself." That was the most honest communication he had spoken to anyone in a considerable time. More people, passers-by and medics, were running into the park now, adding to the general confusion as they tried to help the wounded. Becoming gradually more aware of her surroundings, the girl looked wildly around at all this activity and clung to Derron's arm.

"All right, young lady, since you seem determined to walk, I'm going to take you to the hospital. There's one not far from here, just down the elevator. Come along."

The girl was willing enough to walk beside him, holding his arm. "What's your name?" he asked her as they boarded the elevator. The other people aboard stared at the dazed girl wearing his jacket.

"I . . . don't know!" Finding her name gone, she became really frightened. Her hand went to her throat, but no dog tag depended there. Many people didn't like to wear them and disregarded the regulation requiring it. "Where are you taking me?"

"I told you, to a hospital. You need some looking after." He would have liked to give a wilder answer, for their staring fellow passengers' benefit.

Down at Operations Level, he led the girl off the elevator. A few more steps brought them to an emergency entrance to the hospital complex. Other casualties from the explosion, stretcher cases, were arriving now, and the emergency room was crowded. An elderly nurse started to take Derron's jacket off the girl, and what was left of her own clothing peeled away with it. The girl squealed faintly, and the nurse rewrapped her with a brisk motion. "You just come back for this jacket tomorrow, young man."

"Gladly." And then the pressure of stretcher bearers and other busy people around him was so great that he could do no more than wave goodbye to the girl as he was forced slowly out into the corridor. He disentangled himself from the crowd and walked away smiling, almost laughing to himself about the nurse and the jacket, as if it had been a great joke. It was a while since he had had a thought that seemed worth smiling at.

He was still smiling faintly as he ducked into the Time Operations complex to pick up the spare jacket that he kept in his locker in the sentries' ready room. There was nothing new on the bulletin board. He thought, not for the first time, of applying for a transfer, to some job that didn't require sitting still for six hours of deadly strain a day. But it seemed that those who didn't apply were just about as likely to be transferred as those who did.

Naturally, the girl's husband or lover would probably show up before tomorrow to claim her. Of course—a girl like that. Well, he would hope someone showed up for her—a sister or a brother, perhaps.

He went into the nearby officers' gym and got into a handball game with his old classmate Chan Amling, who was now a captain in Historical Research Section. Amling was not one to play without betting, and Derron won an ersatz soft drink, which he preferred not to collect. The talk in the gym was mostly about Time Operations' first victory; when someone brought up the subject of the missile strike, Derron said no more than that he had seen some of the wounded.

After showering, Derron and Amling and a couple of others went to a bar on Housing Level that Amling favored. Major Lukas, the chief historical psychologist in Time Operations, was established there in a booth, holding forth on the psychic and other attributes of some new girls at a local uplevel dive called the Red Garter. There were some areas in which private enterprise still flourished with a minimum of governmental interference.

Amling bet with the others on darts, on dice, and on something having to do with the Red Garter girls. Derron wasn't listening too closely, though for a change he was smiling and joking a little. He had one drink, his usual maximum, and relaxed for a while amid the social noise.

In the local officers' mess he ate his dinner with a better appetite than usual. When at last he reached his cubicle, he kicked off his shoes and stretched out on his cot and for once was sound asleep before he could even consider taking a pill.

* * *

After coming stiffly awake in the middle of the night, then getting undressed and going properly to bed, he still awoke somewhat ahead of schedule and feeling well rested. The little clock on his cubicle wall read oh-six-thirty hours, Planetwide Emergency Time. This morning none of the aspects of Time weighed on him very heavily. Certainly, he thought, he had enough of that mysterious dimension at his disposal to let him stop at the hospital for a while before going on duty.

Carrying yesterday's jacket over his arm, he followed a nurse's directions and found the girl seated in a patients' lounge, which at this time of the morning she had pretty much to herself. She was planted directly in front of the television, frowning with naive-looking concentration at Channel Gung-Ho, as the government's exhortation channel was popularly termed. Today the girl was wearing a plain new paper dress and hospital slippers.

At the sound of Derron's step she turned her head quickly, then smiled and got to her feet. "Oh, it's you! It's a good feeling to recognize someone."

Derron took the hand she was holding out. "It's a good feeling to be recognized. You're looking much better."

She thanked Derron for his help, and he protested that it had been nothing. She turned off the television sound and they sat down to talk. He introduced himself.

Her smile vanished. "I wish I could tell you my name."

"I know, I talked with the nurse. . . . They say your amnesia is persisting, but outside of that you're doing fine."

"Yes, I feel fine except for that one little detail. I guess I wasn't physically hurt at all. And I have a new name, of sorts. Lisa Gray. For the sake of their hospital records they had to tag me with something, next off some list they keep handy. Evidently a fair number of people go blank in the upper story these days and have to be renamed. And they say so many records, fingerprints and things, were lost when the surface was evacuated."

"Lisa's a nice name. I think it suits you."

"Thank you, sir." She managed to sound almost carefree for a moment.

Derron considered. "You know, I've heard that being in the path of a missile, being run over by the probability-wave before it materializes, can cause amnesia. It's a little like being dropped into the deep past. Sort of wipes the slate clean."

The girl nodded. "Yes, the doctors think that's what happened to me yesterday. They tell me that when the missile hit I was with a group of people being brought down from an upper level that's being evacuated. I suppose if I had any next of kin with me, they were blown to pieces along with our records. Nobody's come looking for me."

It was a story common enough on Sirgol to be boring, but this time Derron could feel the pain in it. In sympathy he changed the subject. "Have you had your breakfast yet?"

"Yes. There's a little automat right here if you want something. Maybe I could use some more fruit juice."

In a minute Derron was back, carrying one paper cup of the orange-colored liquid called fruit juice, one cup of tea, and a couple of the standard sweet rolls. Lisa was again studying the television version of the war; the commentator's stentorian voice was still tuned mercifully low.

Derron laid out his cargo on a low table and pulled his own chair closer. Glancing at Lisa's puzzled expression, he asked, "Do you remember much about the war?"

"Almost nothing. . . . I guess that part of my memory really was wiped clean. What are these berserkers? I know they're something terrible, but . . ."

"Well, they're machines." Derron sipped his tea. "Some of them are bigger than any spaceships that we or any other Earth-descended men have ever built. Others come in different shapes and sizes, but all of them are deadly. The first of them were constructed ages ago, by some race we've never met, to fight in some war we've never heard of.

"They were programmed to destroy life anywhere they could find it, and they've come only the Holy One knows how far, doing just that." Derron had begun in a conversational tone, and his voice was still quiet, but now the words seemed to be welling up from an inexhaustible spring of bitterness. "Sometimes men have beaten them in battle, but some of them have always survived. The survivors hide out on unexplored rocks, around some dark star, and they build more of their kind, with improvements. And then they come back. They just go on and on, like death itself. . . ."

"No," said Lisa, unwilling to have it so.

"I'm sorry, I didn't mean to start raving. Not so early in the morning, anyway." He smiled faintly. He supposed he had no reasonable excuse for unloading the weight of his soul onto this girl. But once things started pouring out . . . "We on Sirgol were alive, and so the berserkers had to kill us. But since they're only machines, why, it's all only an accident, sort of a cosmic joke. An act of the Holy One, as people used to put it. We have no one to take revenge on." His throat felt tight; he swallowed the rest of his tea and pushed the cup away.

Lisa asked, "Won't men come from other planets to help us?"

He sighed. "Some of them are fighting berserkers near their own systems. A really big relief fleet would have to be put together to do us any good—while, of course, politics must still be played among the stars as usual. Oh, I suppose help will be sent eventually."

The television commentator was droning on aggressively about men's brilliant defensive victories on the moon, while an appropriate videotape was being shown. The chief satellite of Sirgol was said to much resemble the moon of Earth; long before either men or berserkers had existed, its round face had been pocked by impact craters into an awed expression. But during the last year, the face of Sirgol's moon had vanished under a rash of new impacts, along with practically all of the human defenders there.

"I think help will come to us in time," said Lisa.

In time for what? Derron wondered. "I suppose so," he said, and felt that he was lying.

Now the television was presenting a scene on Sirgol's dayside. Under a sky of savage blue—a little atmosphere was left—cracked mud flats stretched away to a leveled horizon. Nothing lived. Nothing moved but a few thin whirlwinds of yellow-gray dust. Rising gleaming from the dried mud in the middle distance were the bright steel bones of some invading berserker device, smashed and twisted last tenday or last month by some awesome energy of defense. Another victory for the droning voice to try to magnify.

Lisa turned away from the desolate display. "I have a few memories left—of beautiful things on the surface. Not like that."

"Yes. There were some beautiful things."

"Tell me."

"Well." He smiled faintly. "Do you prefer to hear about man's marvelous creations, or the wonders of nature?"

"Things men made, I suppose. . . . Oh, I don't know. Man is a part of nature, isn't he? And so the things he makes are, too, in a way."

There rose before his mind's eye the image of a cathedral temple towering on a hill, and a sunburst of stained glass . . . but that would not bear remembering. He said, "I don't know if we can be considered a part of nature on this planet or not. You remember how peculiar the space-time around Sirgol is?"

"You mean about the First Men coming here—but I don't think I ever really understood the scientific explanation. Tell me."

"Well." Derron assumed some of the professional historian's manner, which he had never had much chance to display. "Our sun looks much like any other G-type star that has an Earth-type planet. But in our case appearances are deceiving. Oh, in ordinary human life, time is the same as elsewhere. And interstellar ships that travel faster than light can enter and leave our system—if they take precautions.

"The first starship to arrive here was an explorer from Earth. Her crew, of course, had no way of knowing about our tricky space-time. While approaching an uninhabited Sirgol, their ship accidentally dropped back through about twenty thousand years—an accident that could have happened nowhere else in the known universe.

"Only on Sirgol is time travel possible, and then only under certain conditions. One of these conditions seems to be that anyone who goes back more than about five hundred years undergoes enough mental devolution to wipe his memory out. That is what happened to the Earthmen on the explorer. Her crew became the First Men—and the First Women, too, of course—of our mythology. After dropping twenty thousand years, they must have had no memories left at all. They must have crawled around like babies after their ship landed itself."

"How could they ever have survived?"

"We don't really know. Instinct—and luck. The grace of God, religious people say. We can't get a look at the First Men, even with spy devices, and fortunately the berserkers can't reach them either. The first humans on the planet, of course, form an evolutionary peduncle, a true new beginning. And as such they tend to be invisible, unfindable from the future, no matter what techniques are employed."

"I thought evolution was just a matter of random mutations, some of which work out and some don't." Lisa nibbled at a sweet roll, listening carefully.

"There's a good deal more than that involved. You see, matter has organizational energies, as well as the more obvious kinds. The movement of all matter through time is toward greater complexity, raising level after level of organization higher and higher above chaos—the human brain supposedly represents one of the peaks, to date, of this process. Or this is the optimistic view most scientists say they hold. . . . It doesn't seem to include the berserkers. Anyway, where was I?"

"The First People had landed."

"Oh, yes. Well, they kept on surviving, somehow, and multiplying. Over thousands of years they built up civilizations from scratch. When the second exploring ship from Earth arrived here, about ten years Earth-time after the first, we had achieved a planetwide government and were just getting started on space travel ourselves. In fact, the second Earth ship was attracted by signals from some of our early interplanetary probes. The crew of the second ship approached more cautiously than the first ship had, realized they were facing a tricky patch of space-time and landed successfully.

"Pretty soon the men from Earth had figured out what had happened to the crew of the first ship and were saluting us as their descendants. They also brought us warning of the berserkers. Took some of our people to other systems and gave them a glimpse of what the war against the machines was like. Of course, the people of Earth and other worlds were pleased to have four hundred million new allies, and they deluged us with advice on planetary weapons and fortifications, and we spent the next eight years getting ready to defend ourselves. And then about a year ago the berserker fleet came. End of lesson, end of history."

Lisa did not seem dismayed by the end of history. She drank some of the so-called juice as if she liked it. "What do you do now, Derron?"

"Oh, various odd jobs in Time Operations. You see, the berserker offensive in present-time is stalled. They can't pry us out of these deep caves and they can't build themselves a base on the planet, or even hold a beachhead on the surface, while we're here. They've discovered the time travel bit, so of course now they're using it to try and get at us through our past. In their first attack along that line they tried to slaughter everything alive, in true berserker style, but we stopped that rather easily. So their next attempt will probably be more subtle. They'll kill some important individual or do something else to delay some vital step in our history. Perhaps the invention of the wheel or something like that. Then succeeding steps in our development will automatically be delayed. We'd be in the Middle Ages, perhaps, when the second explorer from Earth arrived. No radio signals to guide the Earthmen to us. Or, if they found us anyway, we'd have no technological base and no modern industry to build ourselves defenses. Earth and other planets have enough trouble defending themselves. Therefore we'd be unprotected when the berserkers came. Therefore today no stubborn resistance from the caves—we'd all be either dead or nonexistent; it's a nice philosophical problem which."

"Oh! But you'll be able to stop their time attacks. I'm sure you will!"

Pour out what bitter hopelessness you might, there was nothing left at last to do with this girl but smile at her and wish her well, and Derron found himself smiling, after two or three false starts. Then he glanced at the version of Time he wore on his wrist. "If it all depends on me, I guess I'd better go and start my day's heroic fighting."

* * *

Today the briefing officer for Derron's sentry shift was Colonel Borss, who as usual handled the job with the somber expectancy of a scriptural prophet.

"As we all know, yesterday's defensive action was a tactical success," the colonel admitted to begin with. In the semidarkness of the briefing room, his pointer skipped across the glowing symbols on the huge display he had prepared. Then Derron, seated near the front, could see the colonel smile as he continued. "But, strategically speaking, we must admit that the situation has somewhat deteriorated."

It soon became evident that the cause of the colonel's gloomy smile was the existence of the enemy staging area, still not accurately located but known to be somewhere more than twenty-one thousand years down. "After the enemy has made three more sorties up from there, three more breakthroughs into real-time, we'll have three vectors to trace back, enough to give us a positive fix on his staging area. We'll smash it with a few missiles, and that will kill his entire Time Operations program."

The colonel paused before delivering his punch line, "Of course, we have first to deal with the little problem of repelling three more attacks."

The audience of junior officers dutifully made faint sounds of laughter. Colonel Borss switched his display screen to show a glowing, treelike shape, which the labels showed to be a type of graph of human history on Sirgol.

He tapped with his pointer far down on the tree's trunk, where it was still a slender shoot growing up out of question marks. "We rather expect that the first of the three attacks will fall here. Somewhere near the First Men."

* * *

Matt, sometimes also called Lion Hunter, felt the afternoon sun warm on his bare shoulders as he turned away from the last familiar landmarks, putting behind him the territory in which he had lived all his twenty-five years.

To get a better view of the land ahead, into which he and the rest of The People were fleeing, he climbed up onto a shoulder-high rock that stood beside the faint game trail they were following. The little band of The People, now no more in number than a man's fingers and toes, went shuffling past Matt at a steady pace, walking in a thin and wide-spaced file. They were of all ages. Such garments as they wore were of bark or leather, and aside from their scanty clothing they had little enough to burden them. On this journey no one was hanging back, no one trying to argue the others into stopping or turning around.

The landscape wavered with the spirits of heat. From atop the rock Matt could see swamps ahead, and barren hills. Nothing very inviting. There might be strange dangers as well as familiar ones in this unfamiliar land, but everyone had agreed in council that nothing they might encounter could be as terrible as that from which they fled—the new beasts, lions with flesh of shiny stone, lions who could not be hurt by the stones or arrows of men, who came killing by day and night, who could kill with only a glance of their fiery eyes.

In the past two days, ten of The People had been slain by the stone-lions. And the survivors had been able to do nothing but hide, hardly daring even to look for puddles from which to drink or to pull up roots to eat.

Slung over Matt's shoulder was the only bow now left to the survivors of The People. The other bows had been burnt up or broken, along with the men who had tried to use them in defense against the stone-lions. Tomorrow, Matt thought, he would try hunting meat in the new country. No one was carrying any food. Some of the young ones wailed now and then with hunger, until the women pinched their noses and mouths to keep them quiet.

The file of The People had passed Matt now. As he ran his eye along the line of familiar backs, he found their number one short. He was frowning as he hopped down from his rock.

A few strides brought him up to those in the rear of the march. "Where is Dart?" he asked. It was not that Matt had any idea of controlling the comings and goings of the members of the band, though he more than anyone else was their leader. It was simply that he wanted to know everything that was going on, with the stone-lions behind them and an unknown land ahead.

Dart was an orphan, but he was now too big to be considered a child any longer, and so none of the other adults were especially concerned.

"He kept saying how hungry he was," a woman said. "And then a little while ago, when you were in the rear, he ran on toward those swampy woods ahead. I suppose looking for food."

* * *

Derron was just buying Lisa some lunch—from the automat in the patients' lounge, since she was still in the hospital under observation—when the public address speakers began to broadcast a list of Time Operations men who were to report for duty at once. He heard his name included.

He scooped up a sandwich to eat as he ran and bade Lisa a hasty goodbye. Quick as he was, most of the group of twenty-four men were already assembled when he reached the room to which they had been summoned. Colonel Borss was pacing back and forth impatiently, discouraging questions.

Soon after Derron's arrival, the last man on the list came in, and the colonel could begin.

"Gentlemen, the first assault has come, just about as predicted. The keyhole has not yet been pinpointed, but it's approximately three hundred years after the most probable time of the First Men.

"As in the previous attack, we are faced with six enemy machines breaking into real-time. But in this case the machines are not fliers, or at least they seem not to be operating in an airborne mode. They are probably anti-personnel devices that move on legs or rollers; certainly they will be invulnerable to any means of self-defense possessed by the Neolithic population.

"We anticipate great difficulty in finding the keyhole, because the destructive changes caused directly by this attack are quantitatively much less than those we saw last time. This time the berserkers are evidently concentrating on some historically important small group or individual. Just who in the invaded area is so important, we don't know yet, but we will. Any questions on what I've said so far?—Then here's Colonel Nilos, to brief you on your part in our planned countermeasures."

Nilos, an earnest young man with a rasping voice, came straight to the point. "You twenty-four men all have high scores in training on the master-slave androids. No one has had any real combat experience with them yet, but you soon will. I'm authorized to tell you that you're relieved of all other duties as of now."

Well, I wanted a transfer, thought Derron, leaning back in his chair with a mental shrug. Around him the reactions ranged from joy to dismay, voiced in muted exclamations. The other men were all noncoms or junior officers like himself, drawn from various sections in Operations. He knew a few of them, but only slightly.

The murmurings of pleasure or distress at the change of duty and the imminence of combat continued as the two dozen men were conducted to a nearby ready room, where they were left to wait idly for some minutes; and as they were taken by elevator down to Operations Stage Three, on the lowest and most heavily defended level yet excavated.

Stage Three, a great echoing cave the size of a large aircraft hangar, was spanned by a catwalk at a good distance above the floor. From this catwalk, looking like spacesuits on puppet strings, were suspended the two dozen master-units that Derron and the other operators were to wear. On the floor below the masters, in a neat corresponding rank, stood their slaves, the metal bodies taller and broader than those of men, so that they dwarfed the technicians who now labored at giving them the final touches of combat readiness.

In small rooms at the side of Stage Three, the operators were given individual briefings, shown maps of the terrain where they were to be dropped, and provided with an outline of the scanty information available on the Neolithic seminomads they were to protect. Then, after a last brief medical check, the operators dressed in leotards and marched up onto the catwalk.

At this point the word was passed down from high authority to hold everything. For a few moments no one seemed to know the cause of the delay; then a huge screen at one side of the stage lit up, filled by the image of the bald massive head of the Planetary Commander himself.

"Men . . ." boomed the familiar amplified voice. Then there was a pause as the image frowned off-camera. "What's that?" it shouted after a moment. "Operations has them waiting for me? Tell him to get on with the job! I can give pep talks anytime! What does he think—"

The Planetary Commander's voice continued to rise, but then was cut off along with his picture. Derron was left with the impression that Number One still had a lot to say, and, indifferent as Derron was to the progress of his own military career, he was glad it was not being said to him.

The activity in Stage Three promptly got underway again. A pair of technicians came to help Derron into his assigned master-unit, which was a process like climbing down into a heavy diving suit suspended on cables. The master was an enormously awkward thing to wear until the servo power was turned on. Then the thick body and heavy limbs at once became delicately responsive to their wearer's slightest movement.

"Slave power coming on," said a voice in Derron's helmet. And a moment later it seemed to all his senses that he had been transported from the master down into the body of the slave-unit standing beneath it on the floor. As the control of its movements passed over to him, the slave started gradually to lean to one side, and he moved its foot to maintain balance as naturally as he moved his own. Tilting back his head, he could look up through the slave's eyes to see the master-unit, with himself inside, maintaining the same attitude on its complex suspension.

"Form a file for launching," was the next command in his helmet. The slaves' metal feet echoed on the hard floor of the cavernous chamber as the squad of them faced left into line. Human technicians, who seemed suddenly to have shrunk, scurried to get out of the way. At the head of the line of metal men the floor of the stage blossomed out suddenly into a bright mercurial disk.

" . . . Four, three, two, one, launch!"

With immense and easy power the line of tall bodies ran toward the circle on the dark floor, disappearing in turn as they reached it. The figure ahead of Derron jumped and vanished. Then he himself, in proxy, leaped out over the silvery spot.

His metal feet came down on grass, and he staggered briefly on uneven ground. He was standing in shadowy daylight in the midst of a leafy forest.

He checked a compass set in the slave's wrist and then moved at once to a place from which he could get a good look at the sun. It was low in the western sky, which indicated that he had missed his planned moment of arrival by some hours—if not by days or months or years. He reported the apparent error at once, subvocalizing to keep the slave's speaker silent.

"Start coursing then, Odegard," said one of the controllers: "We'll try to get a fix on you."


Derron began to walk a spiral path through the woods. While he did this he kept alert for any sign of the enemy or of the people he had been sent to protect. But the main purpose of this coursing maneuver was to splash up a few waves—to create disturbances in the historical positionings of the plant and animal lifelines about him, disturbances that a skilled sentry some twenty thousand years in the future would hopefully be able to see and pinpoint.

After Derron had walked in a gradually widening spiral for some ten minutes, alarming perhaps a hundred small animals, crushing perhaps a thousand unseen insects underfoot, and bruising uncountable leaves of grass and tree, the impersonal controller's voice spoke again.

"All right, Odegard, we've got you spotted. You're slightly off spatially, but in the right direction to let you catch up with your people. You'll need to do some catching up because you're between four and five hours late. The sun's going down, right?"

"It is."

"All right, then, bear about two hundred degrees from magnetic north. If you walk that course for a quarter of an hour you should be very near your people."

"Understand." Instead of having a chance to scout the area before his people walked through it, he would just be hurrying to catch them before something else caught them. Derron started off at a brisk pace, checking his compass regularly to keep the slave going in a straight line. Ahead of him, the wooded land sloped gradually downward into a swampy area. Beyond the farther edge of swamp, several hundred meters from his present position, there rose low rocky hills.

"Odegard, we're getting indications of another disturbing factor, right there on top of you. Sorry we can't give you a good bearing on it. It's almost certainly one of the berserkers."

"Understand." This kind of work was more to Derron's taste than being immobilized in a sentry's chair; but still the weight of forty million lives was back on his neck again, as deadly as ever.

Some minutes passed. Derron's progress had slowed, for he was having to keep a lookout in all directions while planning a good path for the heavy slave-unit to take through the marshy ground. And then all at once he heard trouble, plain and unmistakable—it sounded like a child screaming in terror.

"Operations, I'm onto something."

The scream came again and again. The slave-unit's hearing was keen and directionally accurate. Derron changed course slightly and began to run, leaping the unit over the softest-looking spots of ground, striving for both speed and silence.

After he had run for half a minute he slid as silently as possible to a halt. A stone's throw ahead of him, he saw a boy of about twelve up in a treetop, clinging tightly to the thin upper trunk with both arms and legs, but still in danger of being shaken down. Every time his yelling ceased for a moment, another sharp tremor would run up the trunk and set him off again. Although the lower part of its trunk was quite thick, the tree was being shaken like a sapling by something concealed in the bushes around its base. There was no animal in this forest with that kind of strength; it would be the berserker machine there in the underbrush, using the boy as bait, hoping that his cries would bring the adults of his group.

Derron stepped slowly forward. But before he could tell on which side of the tree the berserker was hidden, and take aim, it had spotted his slave-unit. Out of the bushes a pinkish laser beam came stabbing, to gouge out a fireworks display from the armor covering the slave's mid-section. Leveling the laser beam before it like a lance, heaving bushes and saplings out of its way, the berserker charged. Derron caught a glimpse of something metallic and low, four-legged, wide and fast-moving as a ground-car. He snapped open his jaw and pressed down, inside his helmet, on the trigger of his own laser weapon. From the center of the slave's forehead a pale thin shaft of light crackled out, aimed automatically at the spot where Derron's eyes were focused.

The slave-unit's beam smote the charging machine at a point somewhere amid the knobs of metal that made it seem to have a face, then glanced off to explode a small tree into a cloud of flame and steam. The shot might have done damage, for the enemy broke off its rush in midstride and dived for cover behind a hillock, a grass-tufted hump of earth less than five feet high.

Two officers in Operations, both of whom were evidently monitoring the video signal from the slave, began to speak simultaneously, giving Derron orders and advice. But even if they had gone about it more sensibly, he had no time to do anything now except go his own way. Somewhat surprised at his own aggressiveness, he found himself running the slave-unit in a crouch around the tiny hill.

He wanted the fight to be over quickly, one way or the other. He charged at top speed, yelling wordlessly inside his helmet as he fired his laser. The berserker burst into his view, crouched like a metal lion, squat and immensely powerful. If there had been a spare moment in which to hesitate, Derron might have flinched away, for in spite of all his training the illusion was very strong that he was actually about to hurl his own tender flesh upon the waiting monster.

As it was, he had no time to flinch. With all the inertia of its metal mass the slave ran at full speed into the crouching berserker. The trees in the swamp quivered.

A few seconds' experience was enough to convince Derron that the decision to use anthropomorphic fighting machines in this operation had been a great blunder. Wrestling was a tactic not likely to succeed against a machine of equal or superior power, one not limited in the speed of its reactions by the slowness of protoplasmic nerves. For all the slave-unit's fusion-powered strength, which Operations had envisioned as rending the enemy limb from limb, Derron could do no more than hang on desperately, gripping the berserker in a kind of half-nelson while it bucked and twisted like a wild load-beast to throw him off.

Once the fight started it seemed to Derron that every authority in Operations was looking over his shoulder, and that most of them had something to say about it. Voices in Derron's ears shouted orders and abuse at him and at one another. Some of them were probably trying to get the others off his back, but he had no time to hear them anyway. The green forest was spinning round him faster than his eyes and brain could sort it out. In a dizzily detached fraction of a second he could notice how his feet flew uselessly on the ends of his metal legs, breaking down small trees as the monster whirled him. He tried to turn his head to bring the cyclops eye of his laser to bear, but now one of the berserker's forelimbs was gripping the slave's neck, holding the slave's head immobile. He kept trying desperately to get a more solid grip for his own steel arms round the berserker's thick neck, but then his grip was broken, and he flew.

Before the slave could even bounce, the berserker was on top of it, far faster and more violent than any maddened bull. Derron fired his laser wildly. The dizziness of the spinning, and now the panicky sensation of being painlessly trampled and battered, raised in him a giddy urge to laughter. In a moment more the fight would be lost, and he would be able to give up.

The berserker tossed him once again. And then it was running away, fleeing from Derron's wildly slashing sword of light. As lightly as a deer the squat machine leaped away among the trees and vanished from Derron's sight.

Dizzily he tried to sit up on the peculiar sandy slope where he had been flung. In doing so he at once discovered why the berserker had chosen to retreat; some important part had been broken in the slave, so that its legs now trailed as limp and useless as those of a man with a broken spine. But since the slave's laser still worked and its powerful arms could still do damage, the berserker's computer-brain had decided to break off the fight. The berserker saw no reason to trade zaps with a crippled but still dangerous antagonist, not when it could be busy at its basic program of killing people.

The Operations voices had their final say.

"Odegard, why in the—"

"In the Holy One's name, Odegard, what do you think—"

"Odegard, why didn't you . . . ? Oh, do what you can!"

With a click they were all gone from his helmet, leaving their disgust behind. He had the dazed impression that they were all hurrying away in a jealous group, to descend like a cloud of scavenger birds upon some other victim. If his experience since taking the field was anywhere near typical, the foul-up of the whole operation must be approaching the monumental stage, that stage where avoidance of blame would begin to take precedence in a good many minds.

Anyway, he was still in the field, now with half a unit to work with. His disgust was mainly with himself. Gone now was the wish to get things settled quickly, one way or the other. Even his dread of responsibility was gone, at least for the moment. Right now all he wanted was another chance at the enemy.

Holding the slave propped with its arms into a sitting position, he looked about him. He was halfway down the conical side of a soggy sandpit that was ten or fifteen meters across at the top. Nothing grew inside the pit; outside, the nearby trees were nearly all in bad shape. Those that had escaped being broken in the wrestling match were blackened and smoking from his wildly aimed laser.

What had happened to the boy?

Working his arms like a swimmer, Derron churned his way uphill through the sand to a spot from which he could see over the rim of the pit. He could recognize, a short distance away, the tall tree in which the youngster had been clinging for his life; but he was not in sight now, living or dead.

In a sudden little sand-slide the crippled slave slid once more down the tricky slope toward the watery mess that filled the bottom of the funnel.


Derron at last recognized the place where the slave-unit had been thrown. It was the trap of a poison-digger, a species of large carnivore exterminated on Sirgol in early historical times. Looking down now at the bottom of the pit, Derron met the gaze of two grayish eyes, set in a large lump of head that floated half above the surface of the water.

* * *

Matt was standing just behind the boy Dart, while both of them peered very cautiously through the bushes toward the poison-digger's trap. The rest of The People were a few hundred yards away, resting in the concealment of some undergrowth while they scratched up a few roots and grubs to eat.

Matt could just catch glimpses, above the rim of the funnel, of what seemed to be a head. It was certainly not the poison-digger's head, but a shape as bald and smoothly curved as a drop of water.

"I think it is a stone-lion," Matt whispered very softly.

"Ah, no," whispered Dart. "This is the big man I told you about, the stone-man. Ah, what a fight he and the stone-lion had! But I didn't wait to see the end of it; I jumped from the tree and ran while I could."

Matt hesitated, and then decided to risk a closer look. Motioning with his head for Dart to follow, he bent down and crept forward. From behind another bush they could see down into the pit, and Matt was just in time to observe something that made him gasp silently in amazement. Poison-Digger, who could master any creature once it had fallen into his pit, reared up from his slime and struck. And the stone-man simply slapped Digger's nose with casual force, like someone swatting a child. And with a howl like the cry of a punished child, the Bad One splashed down under his water again!

The man of shiny stone muttered to himself. His words were filled with power and feeling, but spoken in a tongue unknown to Matt. He slapped at his legs, which lay twisted as if they were dead, and then with big arms he started trying to dig his way up out of the pit. Stone-Man made the sand fly, and Matt thought he might eventually get himself out, but it looked like a very hard struggle.

"Now do you believe me?" Dart was whispering fiercely. "He did fight the stone-lion, I saw him!"

"Yes, yes, I can believe it." Still crouching and keeping out of sight of the pit, Matt led the young one away, back toward the others of the band. He supposed that a fight between two such beings might have accounted for all the burnt and broken trees that had puzzled him earlier, and for all the noise that The People had heard. Now, while leading Dart away from the pit, Matt looked hopefully among the bushes for a huge shiny corpse. A dead stone-lion was one sight Matt wanted very much to see—it might help blot out another picture that would not leave his mind, the picture of what a stone-lion had done to his two young wives.

Huddling under bushes with the rest of the band, Matt talked things over with the more intelligent adults. "I want to approach this stone-man," he said. "And try to help him."


Finding the words to explain why was not easy. For one thing, Matt was eager to join forces, if he could, with any power that was able to fight against a stone-lion. But there was more to it than that, for this particular stone-man did not look capable of much more fighting.

The others listened to Matt, but kept muttering doubtfully. Finally the oldest woman of The People took from her lizard-skin pouch (in which she also carried the seed of fire) the finger bones of her predecessor in office. Three times she shook the bones, and threw them on the muddy ground, and studied the pattern in which they fell. But she could not see the stone-man in the bones and she could offer no advice.

The more he thought about it, the more determined Matt became. "I'm going to try to help the stone-man. If he does turn out to be hostile, he can't chase us on his dead legs."

* * *

The slave-unit's ears picked up the approach of the whole band of The People, though they were being very quiet.

"I'm getting some company," Derron subvocalized. He got no immediate reply from any of the too many chiefs who had been overseeing him before; and that suited him just as well for the moment.

The People drew near, and the bolder among them peered cautiously from behind bush and tree trunk at the slave-unit. When they saw its head was raised, looking at them, they stepped one at a time out of concealment, showing weaponless hands. Derron imitated the gesture as well as he could; he needed one hand to support the slave in a sitting position.

The People seemed slowly to gain confidence from the slave's peaceful gestures, its quiescence, and probably most of all from its obviously crippled condition. Soon the whole band had come out into the open and stood whispering among themselves as they peered curiously down into the pit.

"Anybody listening?" Derron subvocalized. "I've got a crowd of people here. Get me a linguist!"

Since the start of Time Operations, a desperate effort had been made to learn as many as possible of the languages and dialects of Sirgol's past. Disguised microphones and video pickups had been carried on spy devices to many places and times in the past where there were people to be studied. The program of study had been pushed as hard as possible, but the magnitude of the job was overwhelming. In the modern world there were just two people who had managed to learn something of the speech of these Neolithic seminomads, and those two were very busy people today.

"Odegard!" When response did come, it took the form of a blast in his helmet that made Derron wince. The voice did not identify itself, but sounded like that of Colonel Borss. "Don't let those people get away from you! Even if your unit's crippled, it can offer them some protection."

"Understand." Derron sighed, sub-subvocally. "How about getting me a linguist?"

"We're trying to get you one. You're in a vital area there. . . . Stand guard over those people until we can get another unit to the spot!"

"Understood." Things were tough in the berserker-ridden Neolithic today. But he might, after all, be better off sealed up in his master-unit than out in the foul-up and confusion that must be engulfing the Section.

* * *

"Anyone that size is bound to eat a lot of food," one of the older men was complaining to Matt.

"With his dead legs," Matt answered, "I don't suppose he'll live long enough to eat very much." Matt was trying to talk some of the braver men into giving him a hand in pulling the stone-man up out of the trap. Stone-Man seemed to be waiting with some confidence of getting help.

The man debating against Matt cheerfully switched arguments. "If he's not going to live long, there's no use trying to help him. Anyway, he's not one of The People."

"No, he's not. But still . . ." Matt continued to search for new words, new ways of thought. He would help the stone-man alone if he had to. By arguing he was trying to make his feelings clear to himself as well as to the others. He saw this strange being who had tried to help Dart as a part of some larger order, one to which The People also belonged; as if there could be a band, a tribe-of-all-men, some group set in opposition to all the wild beasts and demons that killed and afflicted men by day and night.

"Suppose there was a band of stone-people around here," suggested another man. A few of The People looked over their shoulders apprehensively. "They would be dangerous enemies to have, but strong friends."

The suggestion did not strike root; the idea either of friendship or of enmity with other bands did not have much importance in The People's life.

But Dart piped up, "This one wants to be our friend."

The oldest woman scoffed. "So would anyone who was crippled and needed help."

* * *

A girl linguist's voice joined the muted hive that was buzzing anew in Derron's helmet. She provided him with a rather halting translation of part of the debate among The People, though she was ordered away after only a couple of minutes to work with another operator. From Operations voices in the background, Derron overheard that so far two berserkers had been destroyed, but ten slave-units had been lost. And the appearance of the slave-units tended to terrify and scatter the people they were supposed to be protecting.

"Tell them to try pretending they're crippled," Derron advised the Section. "All right, I'll do without a linguist if I have to. That may be better than getting a word or two wrong somewhere. But how about dropping me some of those self-defense weapons to hand out to these people? It'll be too late for that when the berserker comes back." The machine he had fought must have gotten sidetracked following some old trail or pursuing some other band, but he had to assume that it would be back. "And drop me grenades, not arrows. There's only one man in this band who has a bow." Inside the slave's big torso was a chamber into which small items could be sent from the future as required.

"The self-defense weapons are being prepared," someone assured him. "It's dangerous to hand 'em out until they're absolutely needed, though. Suppose they decide to use 'em on the slave? Or blow each other up by mistake?"

"I think it'll be more dangerous to wait too long. You can at least drop them now."

"They're being prepared."

The way things were going today, Derron didn't know whether he could believe that or not.

The People seemed still to be discussing the slave-unit, while he kept it sitting in what he hoped was a patient and trustworthy attitude. According to the brief translation Derron had heard, the tall young man with the bow slung over his shoulder was the one arguing in favor of helping the "stone-man."

At last this man with the bow, who seemed to be the nearest thing to a chief that these people had, succeeded in talking one of the other men into helping him. Together they approached one of the saplings that had been splintered in the fight and twisted it loose from its stump, hacking through the tough strings of bark with a hand ax. Then the two bold men brought the sapling right up to the edge of the poison-digger's trap. Gripping it by the branches, they pushed the splintered end down to where the slave could grasp it. Derron caught hold with both hands.

The two men pulled, then grunted with surprise at the weight they felt. The boy who had been up in the tree came to help.

"Odegard, this is Colonel Borss," said a helmet-voice in urgent tones. "We can see now what the berserkers' target is: the first written language on the planet originates very near your present location. The deaths so far haven't weakened its probability too much, but one more killing could be the one to push it under the real-time threshold. There's a peduncle effect, of course, and we can't pinpoint the inventor, but the people in your band are certainly among the ancestors of his tribe."

Derron was clinging to the sapling as the slave-unit was dragged out over the edge of the pit. "Thanks for the word, Colonel. How about those grenades I requested?"

"We're rushing two more slave-units into your sector there, Odegard, but we're having some technical troubles with them. Three of the enemy have been destroyed now. . . . Grenades, you say?" There was a brief pause. "They tell me some grenades are coming up." The colonel's voice clicked off.

Their rescue job complete, The People had all fallen back a few steps and were watching the machine carefully. Derron braced himself on one arm and repeated his peaceful gestures with the other. This seemed to reassure his audience about the slave, but they promptly found something else to worry about—the setting sun, which they kept glancing at over their shoulders as they talked to one another. Derron needed no linguist to know that they were concerned about finding some place of relative safety in which to spend the night.

In another minute The People had gathered up their few belongings and were on the march, with the air of folk resuming a practiced activity. The man with the bow spoke several times to the slave-unit and looked disappointed when his words were not understood, but he could not dally. Stone-Man was left free to help himself as best he might.

So Derron trailed along at the end of The People's hiking file. He soon found that on level ground he could keep the slave-unit moving along pretty well on its long arms, walking it like a broken-backed ape on the knuckles of its hands with its legs dragging. The People cast frequent backward glances at this pathetic creature, regarding it with mixed and not altogether favorable emotions. But even more frequently they looked back farther in the direction they had come from, plainly fearful that something else could be on their trail.

If The People were not expecting the berserker machine, Derron was. The slave's leg-dragging track was certainly plain enough, and the sight of it might cause the killing machine to approach with some caution, but it would still come on.

Colonel Borss came back to talk over the situation. "Odegard, our screens show the berserker's area of disturbance moving south away from you and then coming back; evidently you were right about it being on a false trail of some kind. Your berserker is the only one we haven't bagged yet, but it seems to be in the most vital spot. What I think we'll do is this: the two slave-units being sent to reinforce you are going to catch up with your band in a few minutes present-time. We'll have them follow your band's line of march, keeping just out of sight, one on each flank; don't want to scare your people with a lot of metal men and have them scatter—we've had enough of that problem today. When your people stop somewhere for the night, you stay with 'em, and we'll set up the other two units in ambush."

"Understand." Derron kept moving, walking with his arms, the master-unit rising and falling slightly as the slave jolted over the bumpy terrain. A certain amount of feedback was necessary to give the operator the feeling of presence in the past.

The colonel's plan sounded reasonable, as Derron thought it over. And by Derron's interpretation of the law of averages, something should go right pretty soon.

Falling dusk washed the wilderness in a kind of dark beauty. The People were marching with the swampy, half-wooded valley on their right and the low rocky hills now immediately on their left. The man with the bow, whose name seemed to be something like Matt, kept anxiously scanning these hills as he walked at the head of the file.

"What about dropping those grenades to me now? Ho, Operations? Anybody there?"

"We're setting up this ambush now, Odegard. We don't want your people hurling grenades around at random in the dark."

There was some sense to that, Derron supposed. And his slave could not throw anything efficiently while it had to walk and balance on its hands.

The leader Matt turned suddenly aside and went trotting up a barren hillside, the other people following briskly. Scrambling after them as best he could, Derron saw that they were heading for a narrow cave entrance, set into a steep low cliff like a door in the wall of a house. Everyone halted a little distance away from the hole. Before Derron had quite caught up, Matt had unslung his bow and nocked an arrow. Another man then pitched a sizable rock into the darkness of the cave, having to stretch around an L-bend at the entrance to do so. At once there reverberated out of the depths a growl, which scattered The People like the good survival experts they were.

When the cave bear came to answer the door, it discovered the slave alone, a crippled foundling on the porch.

The bear's slap of greeting bowled the unbalanceable slave over. From a supine position Derron slapped back, bending the bear's snout slightly and provoking a blood-freezing roar. Made of tougher stuff than poison-diggers, the bear strained its fangs on the slave-unit's face. Still flat on his back, Derron lifted the bear with his steel arms and pitched it downhill. Go away!

The first roar had been only a tune-up for the one that followed. Derron didn't want to break even an animal's lifeline here if he could help it, but time was passing, and his real enemy would be drawing near. He threw the bear a little farther this time. The animal bounced once, landed on its feet and running, and kept right on going into the swamp. Howls trailed in the air behind it for half a minute.

The People emerged from behind rocks and inside crevices and gathered slowly around the slave-unit, for once forgetting to look over their shoulders along the way they had come. Derron had the feeling that in another moment they were going to fall down and worship him; before any such display could get started, he knuckle-walked the slave-unit into the cave and scanned the darkness—the slave's eyes adjusted quickly to see in whatever wave-lengths were present—to make sure it was unoccupied. It was a high narrow cavern with a second opening, small and window-like, high up on the wall toward the rear. There was plenty of room to shelter the entire band; Matt had made a good discovery.

When Derron came out of the cave, he found The People getting ready to build a good-sized fire at the mouth; they were gathering wood from under the trees at the edge of the swamp and lugging it hurriedly uphill. Far across the valley, a small spark of orange burned in the thickening purplish haze of falling night, marking the encampment of some other band.

"Operations, how are those ambush arrangements coming along?"

"The other two units are just taking up their positions. They have you in sight at the mouth of the cave."


Let The People build their fire, then, and let the berserker be drawn by it. It would find the band as well protected as they would ever be.

From a pouch of some kind of tough skin, one of the old women produced a bundle of bark, which she unwrapped to reveal a smoldering center. With incantations and a judicious use of wood chips, she soon had the watchfire blazing. Its upper tongues reached high and bright against the fast-dimming sky.

The band filed into the cave, the slave-unit last to enter, right after Matt. Just inside the L-bend of the entrance, Derron sat his proxy, leaning against the wall, and relaxed his arms with a great sigh. He was ready for a rest. In spite of the servo assists, he had had a lot of exercise.

He had no sooner relaxed a notch than the night outside erupted without warning into battle. There was the crackle and slam of laser flame, the clang and squeal and crunch of armored bodies meeting. The people in the cave jumped as one person to their feet.

In the flickering reflections of laser light, Derron could see Matt with his bow ready, facing the entrance, while the other adults looked for rocks to throw. In the rear of the cave the boy Dart had scrambled up to a perch from which he could look out of the high small window. The laser light was bright on his awed face.

And then the lights went out. The flashing and crashing outside ended as abruptly as it had begun. Silence and darkness stretched on in a deathlike numbness.

"Operations? Operations? What's going on outside? What happened?"

"Oh, my God, Odegard!" The voice was too shaken for him to identify. "Scratch two slave-units. Odegard, that—that damned thing's reflexes are just too good—"

The watchfire came exploding suddenly into the cave, transformed by the kick of a steel-clawed foot into a hail of sparks and brands that bounced back from the curving wall of stone just opposite the narrow entrance and became a thousand scattered dying eyes on the cave floor. The berserker would be trying to flush its game, to see if there was a second exit through which the humans could try to run. It must know that the crippled slave-unit was inside the cave, but by now the berserker's cold computer-brain must have learned contempt for all that the android slaves of Time Operations could do against it. For, once it was satisfied that there was no way for its prey to escape, it tried to walk right in. There came a heavy grating sound; the cave mouth had proved just a bit too narrow for the machine to enter.

"Odegard, we've got a dozen arrows ready to drop to your unit now. Shaped charges in the points, set to fire on contact."

"Arrows? I said grenades! I told you we've got only one bow here, and there's no room for—" In midsentence Derron realized that the high little window in the rear of the cave might make an excellent archery port. "Send us arrows, then. Send something, quick!"

"We're dropping the arrows now. Odegard, we have a relief operator standing by in another master-unit, so we can switch if you need relief."

"Never mind that. I'm used to working this broken-backed thing by now, and he isn't."

The berserker was raising a hellish racket, scraping and hammering at the stubborn bulge of rock that was keeping it from its prey. When a signal in his helmet told Derron that the arrows had arrived, he lost no time in using the slave's hands to open the door in its metal bosom. With a bank of awed faces turned to watch in the gloom, the slave-unit reached into its own metal heart to pull out a dozen shafts, which it then held out to Matt.

From the manner of their appearance it was plain they were no ordinary arrows, and in the present situation there could be no doubt what their purpose must be. Matt delayed only a moment, holding the weapons with reverence, to make a sort of bow to the slave; and then he dashed to the rear of the cave and scrambled up to the window.

That window hole would have provided him with a fine safe spot to shoot from, had the enemy possessed no projective weapons. But since the enemy was laser-armed, it would be the slave-unit's job to draw fire on itself and keep the berserker as busy as possible.

Hoping devoutly that Matt was an excellent shot, Derron inched his crippled metal body up to the very corner of the L-bend. He could feel the berserker's blows jarring through the rock he leaned against; he thought that if he reached around the corner he could touch it. Derron waited, looking back into the cave; and when he saw Matt nock the first magic arrow to his bow, he went out around the corner with as quick a movement as he could manage on his hands.

And he nearly fell on his face, for the berserker was out of reach, having just backed away to take a fresh run at the cave entrance. This maneuver made it quicker with its laser than Derron was with his. The slave's armor glowed, but still held, while Derron scrambled forward, firing back. If the berserker saw Matt in his window it ignored him, thinking arrows meant nothing.

The first one struck the monster on the shoulder of one foreleg, the wooden shaft spinning viciously away while the head vanished in a momentary little fireball. The explosion left a fist-sized hole.

The machine lurched off balance even as its laser flicked toward Matt, and the beam did no more than set fire to the bush atop the little cliff. Derron was still scrambling toward the berserker as best he could, holding his own laser on it like a spotlight, gouging the beam into the shoulder wound. Matt popped up bravely and shot his second arrow as accurately as the first, hitting the berserker square in the side, so the punch of the shaped charge staggered it on its three legs. And then its laser was gone, for Derron had lurched close enough to swing a heavy metal fist and close up the projector-eye for good.

With that, the wrestling match was on again. For a moment Derron thought that this time he had a chance, for the strength of the slave's two arms more than equaled that of the berserker's one usable foreleg. But the enemy's reflexes were still better than human. In a matter of seconds Derron was once more barely hanging on, while the world spun around him. And then again he was thrown.

He grabbed at the legs that trampled him, trying to hang on somehow, to immobilize the berserker as a target. A stamping blow smashed his own laser. What was delaying the arrows?

The berserker was still too big, too strong, too quick, for the crippled slave to handle. Derron clung to one leg, but the other two functional limbs kept on stomping like pile drivers, tearing with their steel claws. There went one of the slave's useless feet, ripped clean off. The metal man was going to be pulled to pieces. Where were the arrows? 

And then the arrows came. Derron had one glimpse of a hurtling human body above him as Matt leaped directly into the fight, brandishing a cluster in each hand. Yelling, seeming to fly like some storm god of legend, he stabbed his bolts against the enemy's back.

Only a hint of lightning showed outside the berserker's body. The thunder was all deep inside, an explosion that made both machines bounce. And, with that, the fight was over.

Derron dragged the wrecked and overheated slave-unit shuddering out from under the mass of glowing, twisting, spitting metal that had been the enemy. Then, exhausted, he rested the slave on its elbows. In the wavering glow of the gutted berserker machine, he saw Dart come running from the cave. Tears streaked the boy's face; in his hand was Matt's bow, the broken string dangling. And after Dart the rest of The People came running from the cave to gather around something that lay motionless on the ground.

Derron made the slave sit up. Matt lay dead where the enemy's last convulsion had thrown him. His belly was torn open, his hands charred, his face smashed out of shape—then the eyes opened in that ruined face. Matt's chest heaved for a shaky breath, and he shuddered and went on breathing.

The women wailed, and some of the men began a kind of slow song. Everyone made way as Derron crawled his battered proxy to Matt's side and lifted him as gently as he could. Matt was too far gone to wince at a few more minor burns from the touch of the slave's hot metal.

"Good work, Odegard." Colonel Borss's voice had regained strength. "Good work, you've wrapped the operation up. We'll drop you a medikit to use on that fellow; his lifeline could be important."

"He's in too bad shape for that, sir. You'll have to lift him with me."

"Would like to help, of course, but I'm afraid that's not in the regulations. . . ." The colonel's voice faded in hesitation.

"His lifeline is breaking here, Colonel, no matter what we do. He won it for us, and now his guts are hanging out."

"Um. All right, all right. Stand by while we readjust for his mass."

The People were standing in an awed ring around the slave-unit and its dying burden. The scene would probably be assimilated into one of the historical myths, thought Derron. Perhaps the story of the dying hero and the stone-man would be found some day among the earliest writings of Sirgol. Myths were tough bottles; they could hold many kinds of wine.

Up at the mouth of the cave the oldest woman was having trouble with her tinder as she tried to get the watchfire started again. A young girl who was helping grew impatient, and she grabbed up a dried branch and ran down to the glowing shell of the berserker. From that heat she kindled her brand; waving the flame to keep it bright, she moved back up the hill in a kind of dance.

And then Derron was sitting in a fading circle of light on the dark floor of Operations Stage Three. Two men were running toward him with a stretcher. He opened his metal arms to let the medics take Matt and then turned his head inside his helmet and found the master power switch with his teeth.

He let the end-of-mission checklist go hang. In a matter of seconds he had extricated himself from the master-unit and was pushing his way past the first people coming toward him with congratulations. In his sweated leotard he hurried downstairs from the catwalk and made his way through the throng of technicians, operators, medics, and miscellaneous celebrants who were already crowding the floor of the stage. He reached Matt just as the medics were raising the stretcher that held him. Wet cloths had been draped over the wounded man's protruding intestines, and an intravenous had already been started.

Matt's eyes were open, though of course they were stupid with shock. To Matt, Derron could be no more than another strange being among many; but Derron was one who walked beside him in human contact, gripping his forearm above his burned hand, until consciousness faded away.

As the stretcher moved toward the hospital, something like a procession gathered behind it. As if a public announcement had been broadcast ahead, the word was spreading that for the first time a man had been brought up from the deep past. When they brought Matt into the emergency room it was only natural that Lisa, like everyone else in the hospital who had the chance, should come hurrying to see him.

"He's lost," she murmured, looking down at the swollen face, the eyelids now and then flickering open. "Oh, so lost and alone. I know the feeling." She turned anxiously to a doctor. "He'll live now, won't he? He's going to be all right?"

The doctor smiled faintly. "If they're breathing when we get 'em this far, we usually save 'em."

Trustingly Lisa sighed in immediate deep relief. Her concern for the stranger was natural and kind.

"Hello, Derron." She smiled at him briefly, before going to hover over the stretcher as closely as she could. Her voice and manner had been absent, as if she hardly noticed him at all.


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