- Author: Frederik Pohl
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It wasn't fair—a smart but luckless man
like Mooney had to scrounge, while Harse
always made out just because he had a....
By FREDERIK POHL
Illustrated by GAUGHAN
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction May 1957.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Mooney looked out of his window, and the sky was white.
It was a sudden, bright, cold flare and it was gone again. It had no more features than a fog, at least not through the window that was showered with snow and patterned with spray from the windy sea.
Mooney blew on his hands and frowned at the window.
"Son of a gun," he said, and thought for a moment about phoning the Coast Guard station. Of course, that meant going a quarter of a mile in the storm to reach the only other house nearby that was occupied; the Hansons had a phone that worked, but a quarter of a mile was a long way in the face of a December gale. And it was all dark out there now. Less than twenty miles across the bay was New York, but this Jersey shore coast was harsh as the face of the Moon.
Mooney decided it was none of his business.
He shook the kettle, holding it with an old dish towel because it was sizzling hot. It was nearly empty, so he filled it again and put it back on the stove. He had all four top burners and the oven going, which made the kitchen tolerably warm—as long as he wore the scarf and the heavy quilted jacket and kept his hands in his pockets. And there was plenty of tea.
Uncle Lester had left that much behind him—plenty of tea, nearly a dozen boxes of assorted cookies and a few odds and ends of canned goods. And God's own quantity of sugar.
It wasn't exactly a balanced diet, but Mooney had lived on it for three weeks now—smoked turkey sausages for breakfast, and oatmeal cookies for lunch, and canned black olives for dinner. And always plenty of tea.
The wind screamed at him as he poured the dregs of his last cup of tea into the sink and spooned sugar into the cup for the next one. It was, he calculated, close to midnight. If the damn wind hadn't blown down the TV antenna, he could be watching the late movies now. It helped to pass the time; the last movie was off the air at two or three o'clock, and then he could go to bed and, with any luck, sleep till past noon.
And Uncle Lester had left a couple of decks of sticky, child-handled cards behind him, too, when the family went back to the city at the end of the summer. So what with four kinds of solitaire, and solo bridge, and television, and a few more naps, Mooney could get through to the next two or three A.M. again. If only the wind hadn't blown down the antenna!
But as it was, all he could get on the cheap little set his uncle had left behind was a faint gray herringbone pattern—
He straightened up with the kettle in his hand, listening.
It was almost as though somebody was knocking at the door.
"That's crazy," Mooney said out loud after a moment. He poured the water over the tea bag, tearing a little corner off the paper tag on the end of the string to mark the fact that this was the second cup he had made with the bag. He had found he could get three cups out of a single bag, but even loaded with sugar, the fourth cup was no longer very good. Still, he had carefully saved all the used, dried-out bags against the difficult future day when even the tea would be gone.
That was going to be one bad day for Howard Mooney.
Rap, tap. It really was someone at the door! Not knocking, exactly, but either kicking at it or striking it with a stick.
Mooney pulled his jacket tight around him and walked out into the frigid living room, not quite so frigid as his heart.
"Damn!" he said. "Damn, damn!"
What Mooney knew for sure was that nothing good could be coming in that door for him. It might be a policeman from Sea Bright, wondering about the light in the house; it might be a member of his uncle's family. It was even possible that one of the stockholders who had put up the money for that unfortunate venture into frozen-food club management had tracked him down as far as the Jersey shore. It could be almost anything or anybody, but it couldn't be good.
All the same, Mooney hadn't expected it to turn out to be a tall, lean man with angry pale eyes, wearing a silvery sort of leotard.
"I come in," said the angry man, and did.
Mooney slammed the door behind him. Too bad, but he couldn't keep it open, even if it was conceding a sort of moral right to enter to the stranger; he couldn't have all that cold air coming in to dilute his little bubble of warmth.
"What the devil do you want?" Mooney demanded.
The angry man looked about him with an expression of revulsion. He pointed to the kitchen. "It is warmer. In there?"
"I suppose so. What do—" But the stranger was already walking into the kitchen. Mooney scowled and started to follow, and stopped, and scowled even more. The stranger was leaving footprints behind him, or anyway some kind of marks that showed black on the faded summer rug. True, he was speckled with snow, but—that much snow? The man was drenched. It looked as though he had just come out of the ocean.
The stranger stood by the stove and glanced at Mooney warily. Mooney stood six feet, but this man was bigger. The silvery sort of thing he had on covered his legs as far as the feet, and he wore no shoes. It covered his body and his arms, and he had silvery gloves on his hands. It stopped at the neck, in a collar of what looked like pure silver, but could not have been because it gave with every breath the man took and every tensed muscle or tendon in his neck. His head was bare and his hair was black, cut very short.
He was carrying something flat and shiny by a molded handle. If it had been made of pigskin, it would have resembled a junior executive's briefcase.
The man said explosively: "You will help me."
Mooney cleared his throat. "Listen, I don't know what you want, but this is my house and—"
"You will help me," the man said positively. "I will pay you. Very well?"
He had a peculiar way of parting his sentences in the middle, but Mooney didn't care about that. He suddenly cared about one thing and that was the word "pay."
"What do you want me to do?"
The angry-eyed man ran his gloved hands across his head and sluiced drops of water onto the scuffed linoleum and the bedding of the cot Mooney had dragged into the kitchen. He said irritably: "I am a wayfarer who needs a. Guide? I will pay you for your assistance."
The question that rose to Mooney's lips was "How much?" but he fought it back. Instead, he asked, "Where do you want to go?"
"One moment." The stranger sat damply on the edge of Mooney's cot and, click-snap, the shiny sort of briefcase opened itself in his hands. He took out a flat round thing like a mirror and looked into it, squeezing it by the edges, and holding it this way and that.
Finally he said: "I must go to Wednesday, the twenty-sixth of December, at—" He tilted the little round thing again. "Brooklyn?" he finished triumphantly.
Mooney said, after a second: "That's a funny way to put it."
"I mean," said Mooney, "I know where Brooklyn is and I know when the twenty-sixth of December is—it's next week—but you have to admit that that's an odd way of putting it. I mean you don't go anywhere in time."
The wet man turned his pale eyes on Mooney. "Perhaps you are. Wrong?"
Mooney stared at his napping guest in a mood of wonder and fear and delight.
Time traveler! But it was hard to doubt the pale-eyed man. He had said he was from the future and he mentioned a date that made Mooney gasp. He had said: "When you speak to me, you must know that my. Name? Is Harse." And then he had curled up on the floor, surrounding his shiny briefcase like a mother cat around a kitten, and begun dozing alertly.
But not before he showed Mooney just what it was he proposed to pay him with.
Mooney sipped his cooling tea and forgot to shiver, though the drafts were fiercer and more biting than ever, now just before dawn. He was playing with what had looked at first like a string of steel ball-bearings, a child's necklace, half-inch spheres linked together in a strand a yard long.
Wampum! That was what Harse had called the spheres when he picked the string out of his little kit, and that was what they were.
Each ball-bearing was hollow. Open them up and out come the treasures of the crown. Pop, and one of the spheres splits neatly in half, and out spills a star sapphire, as big as the ball of your finger, glittering like the muted lights of hell. Pop, and another sphere drops a ball of yellow gold into your palm. Pop for a narwhal's tooth, pop for a cube of sugar; pop, pop, and there on the table before Harse sparkled diamonds and lumps of coal, a packet of heroin, a sphere of silver, pearls, beads of glass, machined pellets of tungsten, lumps of saffron and lumps of salt.
"It is," said Harse, "for your. Pay? No, no!" And he headed off Mooney's greedy fingers.
Click, click, click, and the little pellets of treasure and trash were back in the steel balls.
"No, no!" said Harse again, grinning, snapping the balls together like poppets in a string. "After you have guided me to Brooklyn and the December twenty-sixth. But I must say to you. This? That some of the balls contain plutonium and some radium. And I do not think that you can get them. Open? But if you did, you perhaps would die. Oh. Ho?" And, laughing, he began his taut nap.
Mooney swallowed the last of his icy tea. It was full daylight outside.
Very well, castaway, he said silently to the dozing pale-eyed man, I will guide you. Oh, there never was a guide like Mooney—not when a guide's fee can run so high. But when you are where you want to go, then we'll discuss the price....
A hacksaw, he schemed, and a Geiger counter. He had worn his fingers raw trying to find the little button or knob that Harse had used to open them. All right, he was licked there. But there were more ways than one to open a cat's eye.
A hacksaw. A Geiger counter. And, Mooney speculated drowsily, maybe a gun, if the pale-eyed man got tough.
Mooney fell asleep in joy and anticipation for the first time in more than a dozen years.
It was bright the next morning. Bright and very cold.
"Look alive!" Mooney said to the pale-eyed man, shivering. It had been a long walk from Uncle Lester's house to the bridge, in that ripping, shuddering wind that came in off the Atlantic.
Harse got up off his knees, from where he had been examining the asphalt pavement under the snow. He stood erect beside Mooney, while Mooney put on an egg-sucking smile and aimed his thumb down the road.
The station wagon he had spotted seemed to snarl and pick up speed as it whirled past them onto the bridge.
"I hope you skid into a ditch!" Mooney bawled into the icy air. He was in a fury. There was a bus line that went where they wanted to go. A warm, comfortable bus that would stop for them if they signaled, that would drop them just where they wanted to be, to convert one of Harse's ball-bearings into money. The gold one, Mooney planned. Not the diamond, not the pearl. Just a few dollars was all they wanted, in this Jersey shore area where the towns were small and the gossip big. Just the price of fare into New York,