By His Bootstraps
by Robert A. Heinlein
First publication (pseudonym Anson MacDonald):
Astounding Science Fiction (October 1941)
Bob Wilson did not see the circle grow.
Nor, for that matter, did he see the stranger who stepped out of the circle and stood staring at the back of Wilson's neck-stared, and breathed heavily, as if laboring under strong and unusual emotion.
Wilson had no reason to suspect that anyone else was in his room; he had every reason to expect the contrary. He had locked himself in his room for the purpose of completing his thesis in one sustained drive. He had to-tomorrow was the last day for submission, yesterday the thesis had been no more than a title: "An Investigation Into Certain Mathematical Aspects of a Rigor of Metaphysics."
Fifty-two cigarettes, four pots of coffee and thirteen hours of continuous work had added seven thousand words to the title. As to the validity of his thesis he was far too groggy to give a damn. Get it done, was his only thought, get it done, turn it in, take three stiff drinks and sleep for a week.
He glanced up and let his eyes rest on his wardrobe door, behind which he had cached a gin bottle, nearly full. No, he admonished himself, one more drink and you'll never finish it, Bob, old son.
The stranger behind him said nothing.
Wilson resumed typing. "-nor is it valid to assume that a conceivable proposition is necessarily a possible proposition, even when it is possible to formulate mathematics which describes the proposition with exactness.
A case in point is the concept 'time travel.' Time travel may be imagined and its necessities may be formulated under any and all theories of time, formulae which resolve the paradoxes of each theory. Nevertheless, we know certain things about the empirical nature of time which preclude the possibility of the conceivable proposition. Duration is an attribute of consciousness and not of the plenum. It has no Ding an Sich. Therefore-"
A key of the typewriter stuck, three more jammed up on top of it. Wilson swore dully and reached forward to straighten out the cantankerous machinery. "Don't bother with it," he heard a voice say. "It's a lot of utter hogwash anyhow."
Wilson sat up with a jerk, then turned his head slowly around. He fervently hoped that there was someone behind him. Otherwise- He perceived the stranger with relief. "Thank God," he said to himself.
"For a moment I thought I had come unstuck." His relief turned to extreme annoyance. "What the devil are you doing in my room?" he demanded. He shoved back his chair, got up and strode over to the one door. It was still locked, and bolted on the inside.
The windows were no help; they were adjacent to his desk and three stories above a busy street. "How did you get in?" he added.
"Through that," answered the stranger, hooking a thumb toward the circle. Wilson noticed it for the first time, blinked his eyes and looked again. There it hung between them and the wall, a great disk of nothing, of the color one sees when the eyes are shut tight.
Wilson shook his head vigorously. The circle remained. "Gosh," he thought, "I was right the first time. I wonder when I slipped my trolley?" He advanced toward the disk, put out a hand to touch it.
"Don't!" snapped the stranger.
"Why not?" said Wilson edgily. Nevertheless he paused.
"I'll explain. But let's have a drink first." He walked directly to the wardrobe, opened it, reached in and took out the bottle of gin without looking.
"Hey!" yelled Wilson. "What are you doing there? That's my liquor."
"Your liquor-" The stranger paused for a moment. "Sorry. You don't mind if I have a drink, do you?"
"I suppose not," Bob Wilson conceded in a surly tone. "Pour me one while you're about it."
"Okay," agreed the stranger, "then I'll explain."
"It had better be good," Wilson said ominously. Nevertheless he drank his drink and looked the stranger over.
He saw a chap about the same size as himself and much the same age-perhaps a little older, though a three-clay growth of beard may have accounted for that impression. The stranger had a black eye and a freshly cut and badly swollen upper lip. Wilson decided he did not like the chaps' face. Still, there was something familiar about the face; he felt that he should have recognized it, that he had seen it many times before under different circumstances.
"Who are you?" he asked suddenly.
"Me?" said his guest. "Don't you recognize me?"
"I'm not sure," admitted Wilson. "Have I ever seen you before?"
"Well-not exactly," the other temporized. "Skip it-you wouldn't know about it."
"What's your name?"
"My name? Uh . . . just call me Joe."
Wilson set down his glass. "Okay, Joe Whatever-your-name-is, trot out that explanation and make it snappy."
"I'll do that," agreed Joe. "That dingus I came through"-he pointed to the circle-"that's a Time Gate."
"A Time Gate. Time flows along side by side on each side of the Gate, but some thousands of years apart-just how many thousands I don't know. But for the next couple of hours that Gate is open. You can walk into the future just by stepping through that circle." The stranger paused.
Bob drummed on the desk. "Go ahead. I'm listening. It's a nice story."
"You don't believe me, do you? I'll show you." Joe got up, went again to the wardrobe and obtained Bob's hat, his prized and only hat, which he had mistreated into its present battered grandeur through six years of undergraduate and graduate life. Joe chucked it toward the impalpable disk.
It struck the surface, went on through with no apparent resistance, disappeared from sight.
Wilson got up, walked carefully around the circle and examined the bare floor. "A neat trick," he conceded. "Now I'll thank you to return to me my hat."
The stranger shook his head. "You can get it for yourself when you pass through"
"That's right. Listen-" Briefly the stranger repeated his explanation about the Time Gate. Wilson, he insisted, had an opportunity that comes once in a millennium-if he would only hurry up and climb through that circle. Furthermore, though Joe could not explain in detail at the moment, it was very important that Wilson go through.
Bob Wilson helped himself to a second drink, and then a third. He was beginning to feel both good and argumentative. "Why?" he said flatly.
Joe looked exasperated. "Dammit, if you'd just step through once, explanations wouldn't be necessary. However-" According to Joe, there was an old guy on the other side who needed Wilson's help. With Wilson's help the three of them would run the country. The exact nature of the help Joe could not or would not specify. Instead he bore down on the unique possibilities for high adventure. "You don't want to slave your life away teaching numskulls in some freshwater college," he insisted. "This is your chance. Grab it!"
Bob Wilson admitted to himself that a Ph.D. and an appointment as an instructor was not his idea of existence. Still, it beat working for a living. His eye fell on the gin bottle, its level now deplorably lowered. That explained it. He got up unsteadily.
"No, my dear fellow," he stated, "I'm not going to climb on your merry-go-round. You know why?"
"Because I'm drunk, that's why. You're not there at all. That ain't there." He gestured widely at the circle. "There ain't anybody here but me, and I'm drunk. Been working too hard," he added apologetically. "I'm goin' to bed."
"You're not drunk."
"I am drunk. Peter Piper pepped a pick of pippered peckles." He moved toward his bed.
Joe grabbed his arm. "You can't do that," he said.
"Let him alone!"
They both swung around. Facing them, standing directly in front of the circle was a third man. Bob looked at the newcomer, looked back at Joe, blinked his eyes and tried to focus them. The two looked a good bit alike, he thought, enough alike to be brothers. Or maybe he was seeing double. Bad stuff, gin. Should 'ave switched to rum a long time ago. Good stuff, rum. You could drink it, or take a bath in it. No, that was gin-he meant Joe.
How silly! Joe was the one with the black eye. He wondered why he had ever been confused.
Then who was this other lug? Couldn't a couple of friends have a quiet drink together without people butting in?
"Who are you?" he said with quiet dignity.
The newcomer turned his head, then looked at Joe. "He knows me," he said meaningly.
Joe looked him over slowly. "Yes," he said, "yes, I suppose I do. But what the deuce are you here for? And why are you trying to bust up the plan?"
"No time for long-winded explanations. I know more about it than you do-you'll concede that-and my judgment is bound to be better than yours. He doesn't go through the Gate."
"I don't concede anything of the sort-"
The telephone rang.
"Answer it!" snapped the newcomer.
Bob was about to protest the peremptory tone, but decided he wouldn't. He lacked the phlegmatic temperament necessary to ignore a ringing telephone. "Hello?"
"Hello," he was answered. "Is that Bob Wilson?"
"Yes. Who is this?"
"Never mind. I just wanted to be sure you were there. I thought you would be. You're right in the groove, kid, right in the groove."
Wilson heard a chuckle, then the click of the disconnection. "Hello," he said. "Hello!" He jiggled the bar a couple of times, then hung up.
"What was it?" asked Joe.
"Nothing. Some nut with a misplaced sense of humor." The telephone bell rang again. Wilson added, "There he is again," and picked up the receiver. "Listen, you butterfly-brained ape! I'm a busy man, and this is not a public telephone."
"Why, Bob!" came a hurt feminine voice.
"Huh? Oh, it's you, Genevieve. Look-I'm sorry. I apologize-"
"Well, I should think you would!"
"You don't understand, honey. A guy has been pestering me over the phone and I thought it was him. You know I wouldn't talk that way to you, babe."
"Well, I should think not. Particularly after all you said to me this afternoon, and all we meant to each other"
"Huh? This afternoon? Did you say this afternoon?"
"Of course. But what I called up about was this: you left your hat in my apartment. I noticed it a few minutes after you had gone and just thought I'd call and tell you where it is. Anyhow," she added coyly, "it gave me an excuse to hear your voice again."
"Sure. Fine," he said mechanically. "Look, babe, I'm a little mixed up about this. Trouble I've had all day long, and more trouble now. I'll look you up tonight and straighten it out. But I know I didn't leave your hat in my apartment-"
"Your hat, silly!"
"Huh? Oh, sure! Anyhow, I'll see you tonight. 'By." He rang off hurriedly. Gosh, he thought, that woman is getting to be a problem. Hallucinations. He turned to his two companions.
"Very well, Joe. I'm ready to go if you are." He was not sure just when or why he had decided to go through the time gadget, but he had. Who did this other mug think he was, anyhow, trying to interfere with a man's freedom of choice?
"Fine!" said Joe, in a relieved voice. "Just step through. That's all there is to it."
"No, you don't!" It was the ubiquitous stranger. He stepped between Wilson and the Gate.
Bob Wilson faced him. "Listen, you! You come butting in here like you think I was a bum. If you don't like it, go jump in the lake-and I'm just the kind of guy who can do it! You and who else?"
The stranger reached out and tried to collar him. Wilson let go a swing, but not a good one. It went by nothing faster than parcel post. The stranger walked under it and let him have a mouthful of knuckles-large, hard ones. Joe closed in rapidly, coming to Bob's aid. They traded punches in a free-for-all, with Bob joining in enthusiastically but inefficiently. The only punch he landed was on Joe, theoretically his ally. However, he had intended it for the third man.
It was this faux pas which gave the stranger an opportunity to land a clean left jab on Wilson's face. It was inches higher than the button, but in Bob's bemused condition it was sufficient to cause him to cease taking part in the activities.
Bob Wilson came slowly to awareness of his surroundings. He was seated on a floor which seemed a little unsteady. Someone was bending over him. "Are you all right?" the figure inquired.
"I guess so," he answered thickly. His mouth pained him; he put his hand to it, got it sticky with blood. "My head hurts."
"I should think it would. You came through head over heels. I think you hit your head when you landed."
Wilson's thoughts were coming back into confused focus. Came through? He looked more closely at his succorer. He saw a middle-aged man with gray-shot bushy hair and a short, neatly trimmed beard. He was dressed in what Wilson took to be purple lounging pajamas.
But the room in which he found himself bothered him even more. It was circular and the ceiling was arched so subtly that it was difficult to say how high it was. A steady glareless light filled the room from no apparent source. There was no furniture save for a high dais or pulpit-shaped object near the wall facing him. "Came through? Came through what?"
"The Gate, of course." There was something odd about the man's accent. Wilson could not place it, save for a feeling that English was not a tongue he was accustomed to speaking.
Wilson looked over his shoulder in the direction of the other's gaze, and saw the circle.
That made his head ache even more. "Oh, Lord," he thought, "now I really am nuts. Why don't I wake up?" He shook his head to clear it.
That was a mistake. The top of his head did not quite come off-not quite. And the circle stayed where it was, a simple locus hanging in the air, its flat depth filled with the amorphous colors and shapes Of no-vision. "Did I come through that?"
"Where am I?"
"In the Hall of the Gate in the High Palace of Norkaal. But what is more important is when you are. You have gone forward a little more than thirty thousand years."
"Now I know I'm crazy," thought Wilson. He got up unsteadily and moved toward the Gate.
The older man put a hand on his shoulder. "Where are you going?"
"Not so fast. You will go back all right-I give you my word on that. But let me dress your wounds first. And you should rest. I have some explanations to make to you, and there is an errand you can do for me when you get back-to our mutual advantage. There is a great future in store for you and me, my boy-a great future!"
Wilson paused uncertainly. The elder man's insistence was vaguely disquieting. "I don't like this."
The other eyed him narrowly. "Wouldn't you like a drink before you go?"
Wilson most assuredly would. Right at the moment a stiff drink seemed the most desirable thing on Earth-or in time. "Okay."
"Come with me." The older man led him back of the structure near the wall and through a door which led into a passageway. He walked briskly; Wilson hurried to keep up.
"By the way," he asked, as they continued down the long passage, "what is your name?"
"My name? You may call me Diktor-everyone else does.
"Okay, Diktor. Do you want my name?"
"Your name?" Diktor chuckled. "I know your name. It's Bob Wilson."
"Huh? Oh-I suppose Joe told you."
"Joe? I know no one by that name."
"You don't? He seemed to know you. Say-maybe you aren't that guy I was supposed to see."
"But I am. I have been expecting you-in a way. Joe . . . Joe-Oh!" Diktor chuckled. "It had slipped my mind for a moment. He told you to call him Joe, didn't he?"
"Isn't it his name?"
"It's as good a name as any other. Here we are." He ushered Wilson into a small, but cheerful, room. It contained no furniture of any sort, but the floor was soft and warm as live flesh. "Sit down. I'll be back in a moment."
Bob looked around for something to sit on, then turned to ask Diktor for a chair. But Diktor was gone, furthermore the door through which they had entered was gone. Bob sat down on the comfortable floor and tried not to worry.
Diktor returned promptly. Wilson saw the door dilate to let him in, but did not catch on to how it was done. Diktor was carrying a carafe, which gurgled pleasantly, and a cup. "Mud in your eye," he said heartily and poured a good four fingers. "Drink up."
Bob accepted the cup. "Aren't you drinking?"
"Presently. I want to attend to your wounds first."
"Okay." Wilson tossed off the first drink in almost indecent haste- it was good stuff, a little like Scotch, he decided, but smoother and not as dry-while Diktor worked deftly with salves that smarted at first, then soothed. "Mind if I have another?"
Bob drank more slowly the second cup. He did not finish it; it slipped from relaxed fingers, spilling a ruddy, brown stain across the floor. He snored.
Bob Wilson woke up feeling fine and completely rested. He was cheerful without knowing why. He lay relaxed, eyes still closed, for a few moments and let his soul snuggle back into his body. This was going to be a good day, he felt. Oh, yes-he had finished that double-damned thesis. No, he hadn't either! He sat up with a start.
The sight of the strange walls around him brought him back into continuity. But before he had time to worry-at once, in fact-the door relaxed and Diktor stepped in. "Feeling better?"
"Why, yes, I do. Say, what is this?"
"We'll get to that. How about some breakfast?"
In Wilson's scale of evaluations breakfast rated just after life itself and ahead of the chance of immortality. Diktor conducted him to another room-the first that he had seen possessing windows. As a matter of fact half the room was open, a balcony hanging high over a green countryside. A soft, warm, summer breeze wafted through the place. They broke their fast in luxury, Roman style, while Diktor explained.
Bob Wilson did not follow the explanations as closely as he might have done, because his attention was diverted by the maidservants who served the meal. The first came in bearing a great tray of fruit on her head. The fruit was gorgeous. So was the girl. Search as he would he could discern no fault in her.
Her costume lent itself to the search.
She came first to Diktor, and with a single, graceful movement dropped to one knee, removed the tray from her head, and offered it to him. He helped himself to a small, red fruit and waved her away. She then offered it to Bob in the same delightful manner.
"As I was saying," continued Diktor, "it is not certain where the High Ones came from or where they went when they left Earth. I am inclined to think they went away into Time. In any case they ruled more than twenty thousand years and completely obliterated human culture as you knew it. What is more important to you and to me is the effect they had on the human psyche. One twentieth-century style go-getter can accomplish just about anything he wants to accomplish around here-Aren't you listening?"
"Huh? Oh, yes, sure. Say, that's one mighty pretty girl." His eyes still rested on the exit through which she had disappeared.
"Who? Oh, yes, I suppose so. She's not exceptionally beautiful as women go around here."
"That's hard to believe. I could learn to get along with a girl like that."
"You like her? Very well, she is yours."
"She's a slave. Don't get indignant. They are slaves by nature. If you like her, I'll make you a present of her. It will make her happy." The girl had just returned. Diktor called to her in a language strange to Bob. "Her name is Arma," he said in an aside, then spoke to her briefly.
Arma giggled. She composed her face quickly, and, moving over to where Wilson reclined, dropped on both knees to the floor and lowered her head, with both hands cupped before her. "Touch her forehead," Diktor instructed.
Bob did so. The girl arose and stood waiting placidly by his side. Diktor spoke to her. She looked puzzled, but moved out of the room. "I told her that, notwithstanding her new status, you wished her to continue serving breakfast."
Diktor resumed his explanations while the service of the meal continued. The next course was brought in by Arma and another girl. When Bob saw the second girl he let out a low whistle. He realized he had been a little hasty in letting Diktor give him Arma. Either the standard of pulchritude had gone up incredibly, he decided, or Diktor went to a lot of trouble in selecting his servants.
"-for that reason," Diktor was saying, "it is necessary that you go back through the Time Gate at once. Your first job is to bring this other chap back. Then there is one other task for you to do, and we'll be sitting pretty. After that it is share and share alike for you and me. And there is plenty to share, I-You aren't listening!"
"Sure I was, chief. I heard every word you said." He fingered his chin. "Say, have you got a razor I could borrow? I'd like to shave."
Diktor swore softly in two languages. "Keep your eyes off those wenches and listen to me! There's work to be done."
"Sure, sure. I understand that-and I'm your man. When do we start?" Wilson had made up his mind some time ago-just shortly after Arma had entered with the tray of fruit, in fact. He felt as if he had walked into some extremely pleasant dream. If cooperation with Diktor would cause that dream to continue, so be it. To hell with an academic career!
Anyhow, all Diktor wanted was for him to go back where he started and persuade another guy to go through the Gate. The worst that could happen was for him to find himself back in the twentieth century. What could he lose?
Diktor stood up. "Let's get on with it," he said shortly, "before you get your attention diverted again. Follow me." He set off at a brisk pace with Wilson behind him.
Diktor took him to the Hall of the Gate and stopped. "All you have to do," he said, "is to step through the Gate. You will find yourself back in your own room, in your own time. Persuade the man you find there to go through the Gate. We have need of him. Then come back yourself."
Bob held up a hand and pinched thumb and forefinger together. "It's in the bag, boss. Consider it done." He started to step through the Gate.
"Wait!" commanded Diktor. "You are not used to time travel. I warn you that you are going to get one hell of a shock when you step through. This other chap-you'll recognize him."
"Who is he?"
"I won't tell you because you wouldn't understand. But you will when you see him. Just remember this-There are some very strange paradoxes connected with time travel. Don't let anything you see throw you. You do what I tell you to and you'll be all right."
"Paradoxes don't worry me," Bob said confidently. "Is that all? I'm ready."
"One minute." Diktor stepped behind the raised dais. His head appeared above the side a moment later. "I've set the controls. Okay. Go!"
Bob Wilson stepped through the locus known as the Time Gate. There was no particular sensation connected with the transition. It was like stepping through a curtained doorway into a darker room. He paused for a moment on the other side and let his eyes adjust to the dimmer light. He was, he saw, indeed in his own room.
There was a man in it, seated at his own desk. Diktor had been right about that. This, then, was the chap he was to send back through the Gate. Diktor had said he would recognize him. Well, let's see who it is.
He felt a passing resentment at finding someone at his desk in his room, then thought better of it. After all, it was just a rented room; when he disappeared, no doubt it had been rented again. He had no way of telling how long he had been gone-shucks, it might be the middle of next week! The chap did look vaguely familiar, although all he could see was his back. Who was it? Should he speak to him, cause him to turn around? He felt vaguely reluctant to do so until he knew who it was. He rationalized the feeling by telling himself that it was desirable to know with whom he was dealing before he attempted anything as outlandish as persuading this man to go through the Gate.
The man at the desk continued typing, paused to snuff out a cigarette by laying it in an ash tray, then stamping it with a paper weight.
Bob Wilson knew that gesture.
Chills trickled down his back. "If he lights his next one," he whispered to himself, "the way I think he is going to-"
The man at the desk took out another cigarette, tamped it on one end, turned it and tamped the other, straightened and crimped the paper on one end carefully against his left thumbnail and placed that end in his mouth.
Wilson felt the blood beating in his neck. Sitting there with his back to him was himself, Bob Wilson!
He felt that he was going to faint. He closed his eyes and steadied himself on a chair back. "I knew it," he thought, "the whole thing is absurd. I'm crazy. I know I'm crazy. Some sort of split personality. I shouldn't have worked so hard."
The sound of typing continued.
He pulled himself together, and reconsidered the matter. Diktor had warned him that he was due for a shock, a shock that could not be explained ahead of time, because it could not be believed. "All right- suppose I'm not crazy. If time travel can happen at all, there is no reason why I can't come back and see myself doing something I did in the past. If I'm sane, that is what I'm doing.
"And if I am crazy, it doesn't make a damn bit of difference what I do!
"And furthermore," he added to himself, "if I'm crazy, maybe I can stay crazy and go back through the Gate! No, that does not make sense. Neither does anything else-the hell with it!"
He crept forward softly and peered over the shoulder of his double. "Duration is an attribute of the consciousness," he read, "and not of the plenum."
"That tears it," he thought, "right back where I started, and watching myself write my thesis."
The typing continued. "It has no Ding an Sich. Therefore-" A key stuck, and others piled up on top of it. His double at the desk swore and reached out a hand to straighten the keys.
"Don't bother with it," Wilson said on sudden impulse. "It's a lot of utter hogwash anyhow."
The other Bob Wilson sat up with a jerk, then looked slowly around. An expression of surprise gave way to annoyance. "What the devil are you doing in my room?" he demanded. Without waiting for an answer he got up, went quickly to the door and examined the lock. "How did you get in?"
"This," thought Wilson, "is going to be difficult."
"Through that," Wilson answered, pointing to the Time Gate. His double looked where he had pointed, did a double take, then advanced cautiously and started to touch it.
"Don't!" yelled Wilson.
The other checked himself. "Why not?" he demanded.
Just why he must not permit his other self to touch the Gate was not clear to Wilson, but he had had an unmistakable feeling of impending disaster when he saw it about to happen. He temporized by saying, "I'll explain. But let's have a drink." A drink was a good idea in any case. There had never been a time when he needed one more than he did right now. Quite automatically he went to his usual cache of liquor in the wardrobe and took out the bottle he expected to find there.
"Hey!" protested the other. "What are you doing there? That's my liquor."
"Your liquor-" Hell's bells! It was his liquor. No, it wasn't; it was- their liquor. Oh, the devil! It was much too mixed up to try to explain. "Sorry. You don't mind if I have a drink, do you?"
"I suppose not," his double said grudgingly. "Pour me one while you're about it."
"Okay," Wilson assented, "then I'll explain." It was going to be much, much too difficult to explain until he had had a drink, he felt. As it was, he couldn't explain it fully to himself.
"It had better be good," the other warned him, and looked Wilson over carefully while he drank his drink.
Wilson watched his younger self scrutinizing him with confused and almost insupportable emotions. Couldn't the stupid fool recognize his own face when he saw it in front of him? If he could not see what the situation was, how in the world was he ever going to make it clear to him? It had slipped his mind that his face was barely recognizable in any case, being decidedly battered and unshaven. Even more important, he failed to take into account the fact that a person does not look at his own face, even in mirrors, in the same frame of mind with which he regards another's face. No sane person ever expects to see his own face hanging on another.
Wilson could see that his companion was puzzled by his appearance, but it was equally clear that no recognition took place. "Who are you?" the other man asked suddenly.
"Me?" replied Wilson. "Don't you recognize me?"
"I'm not sure. Have I ever seen you before?"
"Well-not exactly," Wilson stalled. How did you go about telling another guy that the two of you were a trifle closer than twins? "Skip it-you wouldn't know about it."
"What's your name?"
"My name? Uh-" Oh, oh! This was going to be sticky! The whole situation was utterly ridiculous. He opened his mouth, tried to form the words "Bob Wilson," then gave up with a feeling of utter futility. Like many a man before him, he found himself forced into a lie because the truth simply would not be believed. "Just call me Joe," he finished lamely.
He felt suddenly startled at his own words. It was at this point that he realized that he was in fact, "Joe," the Joe whom he had encountered once before. That he had landed back in his own room at the very time at which he had ceased working on his thesis he already realized, but he had not had time to think the matter through. Hearing himself refer to himself as Joe slapped him in the face with the realization that this was not simply a similar scene, but the same scene he had lived through once before-save that he was living through it from a different viewpoint.
At least he thought it was the same scene. Did it differ in any respect? He could not be sure as he could not recall, word for word, what the conversation had been.
For a complete transcript of the scene that lay dormant in his memory he felt willing to pay twenty-five dollars cash, plus sales tax.
Wait a minute now-he was under no compulsion. He was sure of that. Everything he did and said was the result of his own free will. Even if he couldn't remember the script, there were some things he knew "Joe" hadn't said. "Mary had a little lamb," for example. He would recite a nursery rhyme and get off this damned repetitious treadmill. He opened his mouth- "Okay, Joe Whatever-your-name-is," his alter ego remarked, setting down a glass which had contained, until recently, a quarter pint of gin, "trot out that explanation and make it snappy."
He opened his mouth again to answer the question, then closed it. "Steady, son, steady," he told himself. "You're a free agent. You want to recite a nursery rhyme-go ahead and do it. Don't answer him; go ahead and recite it-and break this vicious circle."
But under the unfriendly, suspicious eye of the man opposite him he found himself totally unable to recall any nursery rhyme. His mental processes stuck on dead center.
He capitulated. "I'll do that. That dingus I came through-that's a Time Gate."
"A Time Gate. Time flows along side by side on each side-" As he talked he felt sweat breaking out on him; he felt reasonably sure that he was explaining in exactly the same words in which explanation had first been offered to him. "-into the future just by stepping through that circle." He stopped and wiped his forehead.
"Go ahead," said the other implacably. "I'm listening. It's a nice story."
Bob suddenly wondered if the other man could be himself. The stupid arrogant dogmatism of the man's manner infuriated him. All right, all right! He'd show him. He strode suddenly over to the wardrobe, took out his hat and threw it through the Gate.
His opposite number watched the hat snuff out of existence with expressionless eyes, then stood up and went around in back of the Gate, walking with the careful steps of a man who is a little bit drunk, but determined not to show it. "A neat trick," he applauded, after satisfying himself that the hat was gone, "now I'll thank you to return to me my hat."
Wilson shook his head. "You can get it for yourself when you pass through," he answered absentmindedly. He was pondering the problem of how many hats there were on the other side of the Gate.
"That's right. Listen-" Wilson did his best to explain persuasively what it was he wanted his earlier persona to do. Or rather to cajole. Explanations were out of the question, in any honest sense of the word. He would have preferred attempting to explain tensor calculus to an Australian aborigine, even though he did not understand that esoteric mathematics himself.
The other man was not helpful. He seemed more interested in nursing the gin than he did in following 'Wilson's implausible protestations.
"Why?" he interrupted pugnaciously.
"Dammit," Wilson answered, "if you'd just step through once, explanations wouldn't be necessary. However-" He continued with a synopsis of Diktor's proposition. He realized with irritation that Diktor had been exceedingly sketchy with his explanations. He was forced to hit only the high spots in the logical parts of his argument, and bear down on the emotional appeal. He was on safe ground there-no one knew better than he did himself how fed up the earlier Bob Wilson had been with the petty drudgery and stuffy atmosphere of an academic career. "You don't want to slave your life away teaching numskulls in some freshwater college," he concluded. "This is your chance. Grab it!"
Wilson watched his companion narrowly and thought he detected a favorable response. He definitely seemed interested. But the other set his glass down carefully, stared at the gin bottle and at last replied:
"My dear fellow, I am not going to climb on your merry-go-round. You know why?"
"Because I'm drunk, that's why. You're not there at all. That ain't there." He gestured widely at the Gate, nearly fell and recovered himself with effort. "There ain't anybody here but me, and I'm drunk. Been working too hard," he mumbled, "'m goin' to bed."
"You're not drunk," Wilson protested unhopefully. "Damnation," he thought, "a man who can't hold his liquor shouldn't drink."
"I am drunk. Peter Piper pepped a pick of pippered peckles." He lumbered over toward the bed.
Wilson grabbed his arm. "You can't do that."
"Let him alone!"
Wilson swung around, saw a third man standing in front of the Gate-recognized him with a sudden shock. His own recollection of the sequence of events was none too clear in his memory, since he had been somewhat intoxicated-damned near boiled, he admitted-the first time he had experienced this particular busy afternoon. He realized that he should have anticipated the arrival of a third party. But his memory had not prepared him for who the third party would turn out to be.
He recognized himself-another carbon copy.
He stood silent for a minute, trying to assimilate this new fact and force it into some reasonable integration. He closed his eyes helplessly. This was just a little too much. He felt that he wanted to have a few plain words with Diktor.
"Who the hell are you?" He opened his eyes to find that his other self, the drunk one, was addressing the latest edition. The newcomer turned away from his interrogator and looked sharply at Wilson.
"He knows me."
Wilson took his time about replying. This thing was getting out of hand. "Yes," he admitted, "yes, I suppose I do. But what the deuce are you here for? And why are you trying to bust up the plan?"
His facsimile cut him short. "No time for long-winded explanations. I know more about it than you do-you'll concede that-and my judgment is bound to be better than yours. He doesn't go through the Gate."
The offhand arrogance of the other antagonized Wilson. "I don't concede anything of the sort-" he began.
He was interrupted by the telephone bell. "Answer it!" snapped Number Three.
The tipsy Number One looked belligerent but picked up the handset. "Hello. . .Yes. Who is this?...Hello . . . Hello!" He tapped the bar of the instrument, then slammed the receiver back into its cradle.
"Who was that?" Wilson asked, somewhat annoyed that he had not had a chance to answer it himself.
"Nothing. Some nut with a misplaced sense of humor." At that instant the telephone rang again. "There he is again!" Wilson tried to answer it, but his alcoholic counterpart beat him to it, brushed him aside. "Listen, you butterfly-brained ape! I'm a busy man and this is not a public telephone. . . . Huh? Oh, it's you, Genevieve. Look-I'm sorry. I apologize. . . You don't understand, honey. A guy has been pestering me over the phone and I thought it was him. You know I wouldn't talk to you that way, babe. . . . Huh? This afternoon? Did you say this afternoon? Sure. Fine. Look, babe, I'm a little mixed up about this. Trouble I've had all day long and more trouble now. I'll look you up tonight and straighten it out. But I know I didn't leave your hat in my apartment-. . . Huh? Oh, sure! Anyhow, I'll see you tonight. 'By."
It almost nauseated Wilson to hear his earlier self catering to the demands of that clinging female. Why didn't he just hang up on her? The contrast with Arma-there was a dish!-was acute; it made him more determined than ever to go ahead with the plan, despite the warning of the latest arrival.
After hanging up the phone his earlier self faced him, pointedly ignoring the presence of the third copy. "Very well, Joe," he announced. "I'm ready to go if you are."
"Fine!" Wilson agreed with relief. "Just step through. That's all there is to it."
"No, you don't!" Number Three barred the way.
Wilson started to argue, but his erratic comrade was ahead of him. "Listen, you! You come butting in here like you think I was a bum. If you don't like it, go jump in the lake-and I'm just the kind of a guy who can do it! You and who else?"
They started trading punches almost at once. Wilson stepped in warily, looking for an opening that would enable him to put the slug on Number Three with one decisive blow.
He should have watched his drunken ally as well. A wild swing from that quarter glanced off his already damaged features and caused him excruciating pain. His upper lip, cut, puffy and tender from his other encounter, took the blow and became an area of pure agony. He flinched and jumped back.
A sound cut through his fog of pain, a dull smack! He forced his eyes to track and saw the feet of a man disappear through the Gate. Number Three was still standing by the Gate. "Now you've done it!" he said bitterly to Wilson, and nursed the knuckles of his left hand.
The obviously unfair allegation reached Wilson at just the wrong moment. His face still felt like an experiment in sadism. "Me?" he said angrily. "You knocked him through. I never laid a finger on him."
"Yes, but it's your fault. If you hadn't interfered, I wouldn't have had to do it."
'Me interfere? Why, you bald faced hypocrite-you butted in and tried to queer the pitch. Which reminds me-you owe me some explanations and I damn well mean to have 'em. What's the idea of-"
But his opposite number cut in on him. "Stow it," he said gloomily. "It's too late now. He's gone through."
"Too late for what?" Wilson wanted to know.
"Too late to put a stop to this chain of events."
"Why should we?"
"Because," Number Three said bitterly, "Diktor has played me-I mean has played you. . . us-for a dope, for a couple of dopes. Look, he told you that he was going to set you up as a big shot over there"-he indicated the Gate-"didn't he?"
"Yes," Wilson admitted.
"Well, that's a lot of malarkey. All he means to do is to get us so incredibly tangled up in this Time Gate thing that we'll never get straightened out again."
Wilson felt a sudden doubt nibbling at his mind. It could be true. Certainly there had not been much sense to what had happened so far. After all, why should Diktor want his help, want it bad enough to offer to split with him, even-steven, what was obviously a cushy spot? "How do you know?" he demanded.
"Why go into it?" the other answered wearily. "Why don't you just take my word for it?"
"Why should I?"
His companion turned a look of complete exasperation on him. "If you can't take my word, whose word can you take?"
The inescapable logic of the question simply annoyed Wilson. He resented this interloping duplicate of himself anyhow; to be asked to follow his lead blindly irked him. "I'm from Missouri," he said. "I'll see for myself." He moved toward the Gate.
"Where are you going?"
"Through! I'm going to look up Diktor and have it out with him."
"Don't!" the other said. "Maybe we can break the chain even now." Wilson felt and looked stubborn. The other sighed. "Go ahead," he surrendered. "It's your funeral. I wash my hands of you."
Wilson paused as he was about to step through the Gate. "It is, eh? H-m-m-m-how can it be my funeral unless it's your funeral, too?"
The other man looked blank, then an expression of apprehension raced over his face. That was the last Wilson saw of him as he stepped through.
The Hall of the Gate was empty of other occupants when Bob Wilson came through on the other side. He looked for his hat, but did not find it, then stepped around back of the raised platform, seeking the exit he remembered. He nearly bumped into Diktor.
"Ah, there you are!" the older man greeted him. "Fine! Fine! Now there is just one more little thing to take care of, then we will be all squared away. I must say I am pleased with you, Bob, very pleased indeed."
"Oh, you are, are you?" Bob faced him truculently. "Well, it's too bad I can't say the same about you! I'm not a damn bit pleased. What was the idea of shoving me into that. . . that daisy chain without warning me? What's the meaning of all this nonsense? Why didn't you warn me?"
"Easy, easy," said the older man, "don't get excited. Tell the truth now-if I had told you that you were going back to meet yourself face to face, would you have believed me? Come now, 'fess up."
Wilson admitted that he would not have believed it.
"Well, then," Diktor continued with a shrug, "there was no point in me telling you, was there? If I had told you, you would not have believed me, which is another way of saying that you would have believed false data. Is it not better to be in ignorance than to believe falsely?"
"I suppose so, but-"
"Wait! I did not intentionally deceive you. I did not deceive you at all. But had I told you the full truth, you would have been deceived because you would have rejected the truth. It was better for you to learn the truth with your own eyes. Otherwise-"
"Wait a minute! Wait a minute!" Wilson cut in. "You're getting me all tangled up. I'm willing to let bygones be bygones, if you'll come clean with me. Why did you send me back at all?"
"'Let bygones be bygones,'" Diktor repeated. "Ah, if we only could! But we can't. That's why I sent you back-in order that you might come through the Gate in the first place."
"Huh? Wait a minute-I already had come through the Gate."
Diktor shook his head. "Had you, now? Think a moment. When you got back into your own time and your own place you found your earlier self there, didn't you?"
He--your earlier self-had not yet been through the Gate, had he?" No.- "How could you have been through the Gate, unless you persuaded him to go through the Gate?"
Bob Wilson's head was beginning to whirl. He was beginning to wonder who did what to whom and who got paid. "But that's impossible! You are telling me that I did something because I was going to do something."
"Well, didn't you? You were there."
"No, I didn't-no . . . well, maybe I did, but it didn't feel like it."
"Why should you expect it to? It was something totally new to your experience."
"But. . . but-" Wilson took a deep breath and got control of himself. Then he reached back into his academic philosophical concepts and produced the notion he had been struggling to express. "It denies all reasonable theories of causation. You would have me believe that causation can be completely circular. I went through because I came back from going through to persuade myself to go through. That's silly."
"Well, didn't you?"
Wilson did not have an answer ready for that one. Diktor continued with, "Don't worry about it. The causation you have been accustomed to is valid enough in its own field but is simply a special case under the general case. Causation in a plenum need not be and is not limited by a man's perception of duration."
Wilson thought about that for a moment. It sounded nice, but there was something slippery about it. "Just a second," he said. "How about entropy? You can't get around entropy."
"Oh, for heaven's sake," protested Diktor, "shut up, will you? You remind me of the mathematician who proved that airplanes couldn't fly." He turned and started out the door. "Come on. There's work to be done."
Wilson hurried after him. "Dammit, you can't do this to me. What happened to the other two?"
"The other two what?"
"The other two of me? Where are they? How am I ever going to get unsnarled?"
"You aren't snarled up. You don't feel like more than one person, do you?"
"Then don't worry about it."
"But I've got to worry about it. What happened to the guy that came through just ahead of me?"
"You remember, don't you? However-" Diktor hurried on ahead, led him down a passageway, and dilated a door. "Take a look inside," he directed.
Wilson did so. He found himself looking into a small windowless unfurnished room, a room that he recognized. Sprawled on the floor, snoring steadily, was another edition of himself.
"When you first came through the Gate," explained Diktor at his elbow, "I brought you in here, attended to your hurts and gave you a drink. The drink contained a soporific which will cause you to sleep about thirty-six hours, sleep that you badly needed. When you wake up, I will give you breakfast and explain to you what needs to be done."
Wilson's head started to ache again. "Don't do that," he pleaded. "Don't refer to that guy as if he were me. This is me, standing here."
"Have it your own way," said Diktor. "That is the man you were. You remember the things that are about to happen to him, don't you?"
"Yes, but it makes me dizzy. Close the door, please."
"Okay," said Diktor, and complied. "We've got to hurry, anyhow. Once a sequence like this is established there is no time to waste. Come on." He led the way back to the Hall of the Gate.
"I want you to return to the twentieth century and obtain certain things for us, things that can't be obtained on this side but which will be very useful to us in, ah, developing-yes, that is the word-developing this country."
"What sort of things?"
"Quite a number of items. I've prepared a list for you-certain reference books, certain items of commerce. Excuse me, please. I must adjust the controls of the Gate." He mounted the raised platform from the rear. Wilson followed him and found that the structure was boxlike, open at the top and had a raised floor. The Gate could be seen by looking over the high sides.
The controls were unique.
Four colored spheres the size of marbles hung on crystal rods arranged with respect to each other as the four major axes of a tetrahedron. The three spheres which bounded the base of the tetrahedron were red, yellow and blue; the fourth at the apex was white. "Three spatial controls, one time control," explained Diktor. "It's very simple. Using here-and-now as zero reference, displacing any control away from the center moves the other end of the Gate farther from here-and-now. Forward or back, right or left, up or down, past or future-they are all controlled by moving the proper sphere in or out on its rod."
Wilson studied the system. "Yes," he said, "but how do you tell where the other end of the Gate is? Or when? I don't see any graduations."
"You don't need them. You can see where you are. Look." He touched a point under the control framework on the side toward the Gate. A panel rolled back and Wilson saw there was a small image of the Gate itself. Diktor made another adjustment and Wilson found that he could see through the image.
He was gazing into his own room, as if through the wrong end of a telescope. He could make out two figures, but the scale was too small for him to see clearly what they were doing, nor could he tell which editions of himself were there present-if they were in truth himself! He found it quite upsetting. "Shut it off," he said.
Diktor did so and said, "I must not forget to give you your list." He fumbled in his sleeve and produced a slip of paper which he handed to Wilson. "Here-take it."
Wilson accepted it mechanically and stuffed it into his pocket. "See here," he began, "everywhere I go I keep running into myself. I don't like it at all. It's disconcerting. I feel like a whole batch of guinea pigs. I don't half-understand what this is all about and now you want to rush me through the Gate again with a bunch of half-baked excuses. Come clean. Tell me what it's all about."
Diktor showed temper in his face for the first time. "You are a stupid and ignorant young fool. I've told you all that you are able to understand. This is a period in history entirely beyond your comprehension. It would take weeks before you would even begin to understand it. I am offering you half a world in return for a few hours' cooperation and you stand there arguing about it. Stow it, I tell you. Now-where shall we set you down?" He reached for the controls.
"Get away from those controls!" Wilson rapped out. He was getting the glimmering of an idea.
"Who are you, anyhow?"
"Me? I'm Diktor."
"That's not what I mean and you know it. How did you learn English?"
Diktor did not answer. His face became expressionless.
"Go on," Wilson persisted. "You didn't learn it here; that's a cinch. You're from the twentieth century, aren't you?"
Diktor smiled sourly. "I wondered how long it would take you to figure that out."
Wilson nodded. "Maybe I'm not bright, but I'm not as stupid as you think I am. Come on. Give me the rest of the story."
Diktor shook his head. "It's immaterial. Besides, we're wasting time."
Wilson laughed. "You've tried to hurry me with that excuse once too often. How can we waste time when we have that?" He pointed to the controls and to the Gate beyond it. "Unless you lied to me, we can use any slice of time we want to, any time. No, I think I know why you tried to rush me. Either you want to get me out of the picture here, or there is something devilishly dangerous about the job you want me to do. And I know how to settle it-you're going with me!"
"You don't know what you're saying," Diktor answered slowly. "That's impossible. I've got to stay here and manage the controls."
"That's just what you aren't going to do. You could send me through and lose me. I prefer to keep you in sight."
"Out of the question," answered Diktor. "You'll have to trust me." He bent over the controls again.
"Get away from there!" shouted Wilson. "Back out of there before I bop you one." Under Wilson's menacing fist Diktor withdrew from the control pulpit entirely. "There. That's better," he added when both of them were once more on the floor of the hall.
The idea which had been forming in his mind took full shape. The controls, he knew, were still set on his room in the boardinghouse where he lived-or had lived-back in the twentieth century. From what he had seen through the speculum of the controls, the time control was set to take him right back to the day in 1952 from which he had started. "Stand there," he commanded Diktor, "I want to see something."
He walked over to the Gate as if to inspect it. Instead of stopping when he reached it, he stepped on through.
He was better prepared for what he found on the other side than he had been on the two earlier occasions of time translation-"earlier" in the sense of sequence in his memory track. Nevertheless it is never too easy on the nerves to catch up with one's self.
For he had done it again. He was back in his own room, but there were two of himself there before him. They were very much preoccupied with each other; he had a few seconds in which to get them straightened out in his mind. One of them had a beautiful black eye and a badly battered mouth. Beside that he was very much in need of a shave. That tagged him. He had been through the Gate at least once. The other, though somewhat in need of shaving himself, showed no marks of a fist fight.
He had them sorted out now, and knew where and when he was. It was all still mostly damnably confusing, but after former-no, not former, he amended-other experiences with time translation he knew better what to expect. He was back at the beginning again; this time he would put a stop to the crazy nonsense once and for all.
The other two were arguing. One of them swayed drunkenly toward the bed. The other grabbed him by the arm. "You can't do that," he said.
"Let him alone!" snapped Wilson.
The other two swung around and looked him over. Wilson watched the more sober of the pair size him up, saw his expression of amazement change to startled recognition. The other, the earliest Wilson, seemed to have trouble in focusing on him at all. "This going to be a job," thought Wilson. "The man is positively stinking." He wondered why anyone would be foolish enough to drink on an empty stomach. It was not only stupid, it was a waste of good liquor.
He wondered if they had left a drink for him.
"Who are you?" demanded his drunken double.
Wilson turned to "Joe." "He knows me," he said significantly.
"Joe," studied him. "Yes," he conceded, "yes, I suppose I do. But what the deuce are you here for? And why are you trying to bust up the plan?"
Wilson interrupted him. "No time for long-winded explanations, I know more about it than you do-you'll concede that-and my judgment is bound to be better than yours. He doesn't go through the Gate."
"I don't concede anything of the sort-"
The ringing of the telephone checked the argument. Wilson greeted the interruption with relief, for he realized that he had started out on the wrong tack. Was it possible that he was really as dense himself as this lug appeared to be? Did he look that way to other people? But the time was too short for self-doubts and soul-searching. "Answer it!" he commanded Bob (Boiled) Wilson.
The drunk looked belligerent, but acceded when he saw that Bob (Joe) Wilson was about to beat him to it. "Hello. . . . Yes. Who is this? Hello. . . . Hello!"
"Who was that?" asked "Joe."
"Nothing. Some nut with a misplaced sense of humor." The telephone rang again. "There he is again." The drunk grabbed the phone before the others could reach it. "Listen, you butterfly-brained ape! I'm a busy man and this is not a public telephone. . . . Huh? Oh, it's you, Genevieve-" Wilson paid little attention to the telephone conversation-he had heard it too many times before, and he had too much on his mind. His earliest persona was much too drunk to be reasonable, he realized; he must concentrate on some argument that would appeal to "Joe"-otherwise he was outnumbered. "-Huh? Oh, sure!" the call concluded. "Anyhow, I'll see you tonight. 'By."
Now was the time, thought Wilson, before this dumb yap can open his mouth. What would he say? What would sound convincing?
But the boiled edition spoke first. "Very well, Joe," he stated, "I'm ready to go if you are."
"Fine!" said "Joe." "Just step through. That's all there is to it."
This was getting out of hand, not the way he had planned it at all. "No, you don't!" he barked and jumped in front of the Gate. He would have to make them realize, and quickly.
But he got no chance to do so. The drunk cussed him out, then swung on him; his temper snapped. He knew with sudden fierce exultation that he had been wanting to take a punch at someone for some time. Who did they think they were to be taking chances with his future?