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Authors: William Tenn

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BOOK: Time Waits for Winthrop
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“No, thank you,” Mr. Mead said curtly. “I’ll walk. I need the exercise.”

He hurried through the corridor and toward the staircase. Though he went down them at a springy executive trot, the stairs seemed to feel he wasn’t going fast enough. An escalator motion began, growing more and more rapid, until he stumbled and almost fell.

“Stop, dammit!” he yelled. “I can do this myself!”

The stairs immediately stopped flowing downward. He wiped his face with a large white handkerchief and started down again. After a few moments, the stairs turned into an escalator once more.

Again and again, he had to order them to stop; again and again, they obeyed him, and then sneakily tried to help him along. He seethingly gave up forbidding the stairs to assist him, and when he reached ground level, he was moving so fast that he rocketed out of the empty lobby of the building and onto the sidewalk. He might have broken a leg or dislocated his back.

Fortunately, the sidewalk began moving under him. As he tottered from right to left, the sidewalk did so, too, gently but expertly keeping him balanced. He finally got his footing and took a couple of deep breaths.

Under him, the sidewalk trembled slightly, waiting for him to choose a direction so that it could help.

Mr. Mead looked around desperately. There was no one in sight along the broad avenue in either direction.

“What a world!” he moaned. “What a loony-bin of a world! You’d think there’d be a cop—somebody!”

Suddenly there was somebody. There was the
pop-pop
of a jumper mechanism in operation slightly overhead and a man appeared some twelve feet in the air. Behind him, there was an orange hedgelike affair, covered with eyes.

A
portion of the sidewalk formed a mound under the two creatures and lowered them gently to surface level.

“Listen!” Mr. Mead yelled. “Am I glad I ran into you! I’m trying to get to the State Department and I’m having trouble. I’d appreciate a little assistance—”

“Sorry,” the other man said. “Klap-Lillth and I will have to be back on Ganymede in a half-hour. We’re late for an appointment as is. Why don’t you call a government machine?”

“Who is he?” the orange hedge inquired as they began to move swiftly to the entrance of a building, the sidewalk under them flowing like a happy river. “He doesn’t narga to me like one of you.”

“Time traveler,” his companion explained. “From the past. One of the exchange tourists who came in two weeks ago.”

“Aha!” said the hedge. “From the
past.
No wonder I couldn’t narga him. It’s just as well. You know, on Ganymede we don’t believe in time travel. It’s against our religion.”

The Earthman chuckled and dug the hedge in the twigs with his elbow. “You and your religion! When was the last time you attended a
shkootseem
ceremony?”

“Not since the last syzygy of Jupiter and the Sun,” the hedge admitted. “But that’s not the point. I’m still in good standing. What all you humans fail to understand about the Ganymedan religion…”

His rustling voice trailed off as they disappeared inside the building. Mead almost spat after them. Then he recollected himself. It was two o’clock. He didn’t have much time to fool around—besides, he was in a strange world with customs insanely different from his own and who knew what the penalties were for spitting?

“I want a government machine,” he said resignedly to the empty air.

He felt a little foolish, but that was what they had been told to do in any emergency. And, sure enough, a gleaming affair of wires and coils and multi-colored plates appeared beside him.

“Yes?” a toneless voice inquired. “Service needed?”

“I’m on my way to see Mr. Storku at our Department of State,” Mr. Mead explained, staring suspiciously at the largest coil near him, “and I’m having trouble walking on the sidewalk. I’m liable to fall and kill myself if it doesn’t stop moving under me.”

“Sorry, sir, but no one has fallen on a sidewalk for at least two hundred years. May I suggest you take a jumper?”

“I don’t
want
to take a jumper. I want to walk. All you have to do is tell this damn sidewalk to relax and be quiet.”

“Sorry, sir,” the machine replied, “but the sidewalk has its job to do. Besides, Mr. Storku is not at his office. He is taking some spiritual exercise at either Shriek Field or Panic Stadium.”

“Oh, no!” Mr. Mead groaned. His worst fears had been realized. He didn’t want to go to those places again.

“Sorry, sir, but he is. Just a moment while I check.” There were bright blue flashes among the coils. “Yes, Mr. Storku is doing a shriek today. He feels he has been over-aggressive recently. He invites you to join him.”

M
r. Mead considered. He was not the slightest bit interested in going to one of those places where sane people became madmen for a couple of hours. On the other hand, time
was
short and Winthrop
was
still stubborn.

“All right,” he said unhappily. “I’ll join him.”

“Shall I call a jumper, sir?”

The portly man stepped back. “No! I’ll—I’ll walk.”

“Sorry, sir, but you would never get there before the shriek has begun.”

Sweetbottom’s vice-president in charge of public relations worked hard to calm himself. He must remember that this was just a machine into whose circuits a given set of vocal reactions had been built. If he had an apoplectic fit in front of it, it would merely summon another machine, a medical one. All you could do was give it information or receive information from it.

“I-don’t-like-jumpers,”
he said between his teeth.

“Sorry, sir, but you expressed a desire to see Mr. Storku. If you are willing to wait until the shriek is over, there is no problem, except that you would be well advised to start immediately for the Odor Festival on Venus, where he is going next. If you wish to see him now, however, you must take a jumper. There are no other possibilities, sir, unless you feel that my memory circuits are inadequate or you’d like to add a new factor to the discussion.”

Mr. Mead sagged. “Okay, okay! Call a jumper.”

“Yes, sir. Here you are, sir.” The empty cylinder that suddenly materialized over Mr. Mead’s head caused him to start, but while he was opening his mouth to say, “Hey! I changed my—” it slid down over him.

There was darkness. He felt as if his stomach were being gently but insistently pulled out through his mouth. His liver, spleen and lungs seemed to follow suit. Then the bones of his body all fell inward to the center of his now-empty abdomen and dwindled in size until they disappeared. He collapsed upon himself.

Abruptly he was whole and solid again and standing in a large green meadow, with dozens of people around him. His stomach returned to its proper place and squirmed irritatedly back into position.

“—changed my mind. I’ll walk after all,” he said, and threw up.

S
torku, a tall, genial, yellow-haired young man, was standing in front of him when the spasms had subsided. “It’s such a simple thing, really, Mr. Mead. Just a matter of being intently placid during the jump.”

“Easy—easy to say,” Mr. Mead gasped. What was the reason Storku always exuded such patronizing contempt toward him? “Why don’t you people—why don’t you people find another way to travel? In my time, comfort in transportation is the keystone, the very
keystone
of the industry. Any railroad, busline or airline which doesn’t see to it that their passengers enjoy maximum comfort is out of business before you can bat an eye. Either that or they have a new board of directors.”

“I
sn’t he
intriguing?
” a girl near him said to her escort. “He talks just like one of those historical romances.”

Mr. Mead glanced at her sourly, then gulped. She was nude. For that matter, so was everyone else around him, including Mr. Storku. Who, he wondered nervously, knew what went on at these Shriek Field affairs? After all, he had only seen them before from a distance in the grandstand. And now he was right in the middle of these deliberate lunatics.

“Surely you’re being a bit unjust,” Mr. Storku suggested. “If an Elizabethan Englishman or a man from the Classic Greek period were to go for a ride in one of your horseless carriages or iron horses—to use your vernacular—he would exhibit much more discomfort than you have. It’s purely a matter of adjustment to the unfamiliar. Some adjust, like your contemporary Winthrop; some don’t, like yourself.”

“Speaking of Winthrop—” Mr. Mead began hurriedly, glad of the opening.

“Everybody here?” an athletic young man burst in as he bounded up. “I’m your leader for this shriek. On your feet, everybody, come on, let’s get those kinks out of our muscles. We’re going to have a real fine shriek—all it takes is teamwork!”

“Take your clothes off,” the government man told Mr. Mead. “You can’t run a shriek dressed. Especially dressed like that.”

Mr. Mead shrank back. “I just came here to talk to you. I’ll watch.”

A rich, roaring laugh from Storku. “You can’t watch from the middle of Shriek Field! And besides, the moment you joined us, you were automatically registered for the shriek. If you withdraw now, you’ll throw everything off.”

“I will?”

“Of course. A different quantity of stimuli has to be applied to any different quantity of people, if you want to develop a specific shriek-intensity in each one of them. Take your clothes off, man, and get into the thing. It will tone up your psyche magnificently.”

M
r. Mead thought it over, then began to undress. He was embarrassed, miserable and more than a little frightened at the prospect, but he had an urgent job of public relations to do on the yellow-haired young man.

In his time, he had gurgled pleasurably over ropelike cigars given him by politicians, gotten drunk in ghastly little bars with important newspapermen, and suffered the slings and the arrows of outrageous television quiz shows—all in the interests of Sweetbottom Septic Tanks, Inc. The motto of the Public Relations Man was strictly
When in Rome…

And obviously the crowd he had made this trip with from 1958 was composed of bunglers. They’d never get themselves and him back to their own time, back to a world where there was a supply-and-demand system that made sense. A world where an important business executive was treated like
somebody
, where the walls didn’t ripple around you, the furniture didn’t adjust constantly under you, where the very clothes on a person’s back didn’t change from moment to moment as if being revolved in a kaleidoscope.

No, it was up to him to get everybody back to that world and his only channel of effective operation lay through Storku. Therefore, Storku had to be placated and made to feel that Oliver T. Mead was one of the boys.

Besides, it occurred to him as he began slipping out of his clothes, some of these girls looked real cute. They reminded him of the Septic Tank Convention at Des Moines back in July. If only they didn’t shave their heads!

“All together, now,” the shriek leader sang out. “Let’s bunch up. All together in a tight little group, all bunched up and milling around.”

Mr. Mead was pushed and jostled into the crowd. It surged forward, back, right, left, being maneuvered into a smaller and smaller group under the instructions and shoving of the shriek leader. Music sprang up around them—more noise than music, actually, since it had no discernible harmonic relationships and grew louder and louder until it was almost deafening.

Someone striving for balance hit Mr. Mead in the stomach with an outflung arm. He said “Oof!” and then “Oof!” again as someone behind him piled into his back.

“Watch
out!
” a girl near him moaned as he trod on her foot.

“Sorry,” he told her, “I just couldn’t—” and then an elbow hit him in the eye and he went lurching away a few steps, until, the group changing its direction again, he was pushed forward.

R
ound and round he went on the grass, being pushed and pushing, the horrible noise almost tearing his eardrums apart. From what seemed a greater and greater distance, he could hear the shriek leader chanting: “Come on, this way, hurry up! No, that way, around that tree. Back into the bunch, you. Stay
together.
Now, backward, that’s right,
backward.
Faster,
faster.”

They went backward, a great mass of people pushing on Mead, jamming him into the great mass of people immediately behind him. Then, abruptly, they went forward again, a dozen little crosscurrents of humanity at work against each other in the crowd, so that as well as moving forward, he was also being hurled a few feet to the right and then turned around and being yanked back diagonally to his left. Once or twice, he was shot to the outskirts of the group, but, much to his surprise, all he did was claw his way back into the jam-packed surging middle.

It was as if he belonged nowhere else but in this mob of hurrying madmen. A shaved female head crashing into his chest, as the only hint that the group had changed its direction, was what he had come to expect. He threw himself back and disregarded the grunts and yelps he helped create. He was part of this—this—whatever it was. He was hysterical, bruised and slippery with sweat, but he no longer thought about anything but staying on his feet in the mob.

He was part of it and that was all he knew.

Suddenly, somewhere outside the maelstrom of running, jostling naked bodies, there was a yell. It was a long yell, in a powerful male voice, and it went on and on, almost drowning out the noise-music. A woman in front of Mr. Mead picked it up in a head-rattling scream. The man who had been yelling stopped, and, after a while, so did the woman.

Then Mr. Mead heard the yell again, heard the woman join in, and was not even remotely astonished to hear his own voice add to the din. He threw all the frustration of the past two weeks into that yell, all the pounding, shoving and bruises of the past few minutes, all the frustrations and hatreds of his lifetime.

All around him, others were joining it, too, until at last there was a steady, unanimous shriek from the tight mob that slipped and fell and chased itself all over the green meadow. Mr. Mead, in the back of his mind, experienced a childlike satisfaction in getting onto the rhythm they were working out—and in being part of working it out.

BOOK: Time Waits for Winthrop
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