THE NINTH CIRCLE
Finding a modern man hidden far back in
time is not always easy, even if you know where he is!
Time, the eternal enemy, was sharpening its sword—he could hear the grating of the file as it moved down the blade. Soon a veiled arm would swing and the end would come. He would have failed.
Roland Thompson shivered and clutched his fur cape a little tighter. But the perpetual cold groped around this cloth obstacle and stroked him with its deadly, icy fingers. He would have exchanged all his twenty-first-century possessions for one good arctic parka now.
Eight days were left. He had already squandered half of his allotted time. It was difficult to believe, as he sat here in these mountains, that the fate of a country 3,000 miles and 14,000 years away might depend upon his success…or failure.
Thompson stared westward, where the sun was still clinging to the horizon, then turned his gaze to the south and shivered again. Gray peaks scratched the sky as far as his vision would take him. His imagination descried the glaciers that he knew were distantly there, somewhere to the south of him, but his eyes couldn’t see them. He estimated his latitude to be between ten and fifteen degrees south, and he wondered if those frozen mountains had ever come this close to the equator. He wanted to ask someone, but his companions wouldn’t understand a word he said. Thompson was fluent in English, French, Chinese and Russian, and comprehended half a dozen other languages, but none would serve him here, for no one else in the world spoke any of them. Except Wisnovsky. And he didn’t remember.
But Thompson realized he could worry about glaciers later. There were more immediate matters to attend to now. He had ten numb toes to save.
Before Thompson completed the painful task of staggering to his feet, a man appeared in front of him, spear in hand, and indicated that in his opinion Thompson should remain seated. Roland answered with an outstretched right hand, but instead of receiving a handshake, he almost got a spear point through his palm. He sighed. To a twenty-first-century American, the act of shaking hands would be instinctive; unfortunately, a man whose conscious mind and memories functioned as if they were native to the Twelfth Millennium BC would have a fear of strangers which would overwhelm any lingering instinct for handshaking. Thompson really hadn’t expected the ploy to succeed.
“OK, Judas, I won’t make any sudden moves again. I just want to sit a little nearer to the fire.” As he spoke, Thompson clutched his cape around him, exaggerated his shivering, then pointed to the fire around which the rest of the small band was sitting. The man looked puzzled and scared so Thompson repeated his gesture. Still Judas did not understand.
“Well, Judas,” Thompson said. “I have two choices. Either I sit out here and freeze to death, or I walk closer to the fire and hope you don’t give me that spear in my gut. I think I’ll take my chances with the latter.” He abruptly strode toward the fire. The native stumbled backward in a hasty retreat until Thompson was within ten yards of the fire. Then Judas made his stand. The quivering glow in the man’s eyes told Roland that perhaps this wouldn’t be such a bad place to sit down. He did so. If the band let him stay here all night he probably wouldn’t freeze, though he wouldn’t be any too comfortable, especially since this night was without a doubt going to be the coldest yet. Not a reassuring thought, because a polar bear would have had trouble adjusting to the weather so far.
The fire burned in the hearth way of the band’s large mountain cave, and only the seven men in the band sat on the outside of the fire where Thompson could see them clearly. The women and children were shadow creatures on the far side of the fire, buried by the darkness within the cave that even the light from the fire could not penetrate.
The band consisted of seven men, six women, and three children. Even the adults were young, probably not more than nineteen or twenty, though they appeared much older in many ways. This climate and the hardness of their way of life ingrained the years upon their bodies. The leader, however, was older, perhaps thirty-five or even forty—it was impossible to determine his exact age, since in other circumstances, other times, he could have passed for sixty. Possibly he was the father of some or all of the others. He was an old man by their standards; few, if any, of the younger ones would count as many winters as he had lived.
Six of the men had women, with a strictly monogamous relationship as far as Thompson could tell, but then he couldn’t see what went on inside the cave at night. Two of the children belonged to one of the women, the mate of the man Thompson called Judas. He had names for three of the other men, too, primarily for the purpose of organizing his thoughts.
Thompson looked over the men once more. Which one was Wisnovsky?
One of the men was about five feet, ten inches tall, weighing perhaps a hundred and fifty pounds. He was too big. A second man was six inches shorter and could have barely pushed the needle of a scale over the hundred mark. He was too little. Since the chief was missing three fingers on his right hand, no doubt the result of some almost forgotten hunt, he too could be eliminated. Thompson did not believe the Eurasians would go quite that far to disguise Wisnovsky.
That left four men. All were about Wisnovsky’s height, five feet, five inches tall, and all appeared to be about Wisnovsky’s weight, a hundred and forty pounds. All had dark brown skin over wiry frames, dark brown eyes, large mouths and nostrils, and short foreheads which sloped back more rapidly than a twenty-first-century man’s. And any one of them could be Wisnovsky: Judas, Thompson’s present guard and the father of two of the children; Ugolino, the spear-point-maker: Brutus, the father of the third and oldest child, a boy about seven, and Cassius, the wifeless one.
The names were the names of traitors because Wisnovsky was a traitor. At least General Foster thought so. Thompson wasn’t so sure, but he had accepted the general’s opinion temporarily.
Four men. They all looked alike, yet one was different. Thompson frowned. What mark does civilization leave on a man’s mind? Three of his four suspects were primitive cave dwellers; the fourth was born in the twenty-first century AD. But the latter was living among and acting like the former—indeed, he believed he was one of them—how could he be distinguished? For eight days the problem had tormented Thompson’s brain, and still the answer was as far away as the time from which he had come.
Thompson never did get to sleep that night.
The band retired into the cave, leaving only one man, Cassius, behind to watch Thompson and the darkness. Roland studied him as Cassius tended the fire and stared into the gloom. He wondered why the guard was necessary, since he couldn’t think of any animals which would threaten the band. Obviously, however, there were dangers.
Or…and the thought bothered Thompson…was he the danger they worried about? He had tried to prove to them that his intentions were peaceful and harmless, but perhaps the information had not crossed the 14,000-year culture gap. There was certainly no rush of people to befriend him. For the most part, everyone attempted to ignore him and pretend he didn’t exist. As he put together the facts, he realized that they must think he was either an apparition, or an evil shaman.
After observing Cassius for a few minutes, it became evident that the man was afraid of him, and that this fear was wrestling with his sense of duty. At length Cassius retreated into the cave with the rest of the band, fear becoming the victor in the struggle.
Now Thompson was alone. His body ached, and his muscles desperately needed rest, but his mind would not cooperate. His eyes drifted out of focus—the fire danced and blurred—his eyelids drooped, blinked…sagged. Light left his world.
And still his mind refused to surrender. There was too little time and too much to think about.
One little test—that’s all he needed. Just a simple test to separate one twenty-first-century man from his primitive companions.
Two different cultures, two different times. And all he needed was one basic difference. Just one.
Though his mind was alert, his tired body almost betrayed him. Only a misstep by his assailant saved his life.
A pebble clattered across the cave floor. He forced his eyelids open. His eyes did not adjust instantly but he saw the shadow in the hearth way, the arm held high.
He rolled to his right, and the arm jerked; the spear smashed into the ground near his feet.
Now he was fully awake and standing. But the figure was gone.
He stood for a long time staring into the cave, breathing hard. It didn’t make sense. The band was afraid of him. If they viewed him as an evil shaman, as he suspected they did, they would not dare try to kill him. They would be afraid his evil spirit might linger to torment them.
There was another thing. Without a doubt, the spear toss had been very inaccurate. The attacker had stood not more than forty feet from Thompson, yet the spear had landed at his feet, not in the dirt where his chest had been. That didn’t make sense. These people lived by the spear—died by their failures. It was inconceivable that one of them could miss his target at a distance as close as forty feet.
Of course, even virtuosos made mistakes. The native had not expected Thompson to roll when he did. The throw had been hurried. Maybe that accounted for the error.
Thompson breathed a sigh of relief and his accumulated tensions dissolved. One thing was certain: another few seconds and another few steps and the assailant would never have missed, not matter how poor a spear thrower he was.
The thought disturbed Thompson. There should be no poor spear throwers in the band. All the men, even Wisnovsky, because of his psychotransformation, should be excellent shots.
All Thompson’s feelings of fatigue had vanished by now, and the remainder of the night brought no rest, no sleep, no escape from the questions which haunted him.
The band considered him a shaman because he had appeared out of the air before their astonished eyes. But an hour before that, his time, there had been a corridor a mile beneath the Arizona desert where he walked as just a man, with no pretensions of being anything other than a man.
“Why not send someone who knows Wisnovsky?” Thompson asked.
General Abrams Foster shrugged and twitched his nose. “Naturally, that was our desire. Unfortunately, this someone had to meet several other qualifications. He had to be intelligent, he had to be a top agent, and most important of all, he had to be available within an hour. I am not completely sure whether it was a stroke of good fortune or a cruel joke of fate that you were here.”
“If you have doubts about me, I will—”
“Most of my agents are a blood-lusting lot,” the general continued, ignoring Thompson. “Not you. You would walk fifty miles out of your way to avoid fighting with some obnoxious little creep that you could destroy without a losing a drop of sweat. On this mission, I would have preferred to send someone who would not hesitate to kill every suspect if Wisnovsky could not be identified.”
“You would kill Wisnovsky?”
“Yes. The Eurasians mustn’t have him.”
“You know I wouldn’t do that,” Thompson said. He stared over at the general.
The general sighed deeply. “That isn’t your only fault. When you arrive, you will no doubt scare what few wits these people have completely out of them. Why couldn’t you be smaller?”
Thompson drew himself up to his full six and a half feet. “Some faults I can change; my height I cannot.”
“If you lost a hundred pounds, you would still outweigh most of them.”
Thompson grinned. “It’s all muscle.”
“They will probably mistake you for a mountain,” General Foster commented. He sighed again. “I suppose you’ll have to do, however.”
“Why were you limited to an hour to locate your agent?”
“It’s a matter of power. We have a lock on Wisnovsky’s position, but it is a tenuous one. To hold it requires draining power from our base’s warp-screens. Even a full strength, the screens can barely repel a cobalt blast; to weaken them very much would be suicide. The base might survive, but most of the remainder of the US—which depends on us for defense—would not.”
“Can’t we find Wisnovsky again if we lose him?”
“No. We know only that he is somewhere in the Andes Mountains 12,000 to 14,000 years ago. That is as much accuracy as our equipment will give us. It is like being on a ship at sea looking through a pair of cheap field glasses at a beacon on the shore. As long as it is burning, you can easily follow that beacon in to land, but from a hundred miles out there is no way to precisely determine the coordinates of the beacon with your crude instrument. If the beacon goes out, you probably would never be able to land at that exact point on the shore.
“Similarly, to find Wisnovsky again we need his exact position in time and space. We have neither.”
Excerpted from "Memories of Darkness" by Robert B. Marcus Jr.. Copyright © 2012 by Robert B. Marcus Jr.. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher. Excerpts are provided solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.