THE WRONG END OF TIME
BY JOHN BRUNNER
THE WRONG END OF TIME
BY JOHN BRUNNER
Absolute calm, though not absolute stillness. The sea shifted lazily against the sandy beach, its motion indexed not by the white crests of ripples-the water was too oily for waves to break-but by the pale spots of imperishable plastic rubbish.
Tangled greenery grew down to within a short distance of the tide-mark.
Night. The sky was almost clear of cloud. There was no natural moon, but as though Phobos and Deimos had been transported from Mars-two small man-made moons arced between the stars.
Silence. Only branches rustling and the sound of the sea.
Less than a mile off-shore, a smear of white obtruded on the glassy water. It could have been due to a partly submerged rock. It was not. It lasted two minutes and disappeared.
Something fractionally blacker than the black ocean began to approach the land.
A shadow among shadows, Danty Ward crept through the underbrush. He felt his footing at each step so that he did not break the night-quiet; nonetheless he managed to move rather swiftly. He wore a dark jersey and dark pants, and he had paused by a puddle to smear mud on the highlights of his cheekbones and forehead. Gilding the lily in reverse. He was not following a trodden path, but he was keeping parallel to and a few yards from a dirt road that few people traveled. Indeed, hardly anyone came to this stretch of shore at all. It was most inadvisable to try. There were complex alarms and boobytraps, not to mention an electronic fence. Beyond these, hidden among trees and thickets, were highly efficient radar antennae. There were also silos in which were sunk short-range missiles with nuclear warheads of about quarter-megaton capacity. Back near the superway he had passed posters that showed a clenched fist hammering a city into ruins. Underneath
captions said: PART OF THE WORLD’S MOST PERFECT DEFENSIVE SYSTEM.
He had taken the precaution of turning everything off.
Somewhere nearby came the scrunching sound of a foot moving in gravel. Danty halted stock-still to feel the world, then stealthily made towards the road he had been avoiding. Parting the fronds of a flowering bush he saw a car on the other side of the track. about twelve feet away. A man leaned against it, his left wrist held close to his face as if he were trying to read his watch in the thin before dawn light.
With a little nod of satisfaction Danty slipped back into nowhere.
He passed on now towards the beach. coming soon to the point at which the greenery thinned and left only tough dune grasses. courtesy of the Federal Erosion Commission. “Every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea . . . ”
Like living on a melting iceberg.
A few yards farther on. a boulder stuck its blunt snout up from the sand. Danty looked both ways along the beach, then darted into shelter beside the rock. His back against it, he relaxed, invisible until daylight.
If he was right. though. he would be gone by then.
He stared seaward. Straining his eyes. he discerned something more coherent than a chance assembly of weed or garbage being carried inshore. Matt-dark but a little shiny because it was wet. Purposively shaped. A man in a survival suit.
Danty allowed himself a grunt of self-approbation, and concentrated on making his relaxation still more complete.
Vassily Sheklov, on the other hand, was tense. He had no qualms about the suit he was wearing-it was a very advanced model, and he would cheerfully have bet on it to carry him through hell-fire. It could not, however, protect him from the oppressive weight of knowledge about his situation, which bore down on his skull as though the dome of the night sky were leaning its entire burden on his head. He had unwisely allowed the submarine captain to press a last glass of vodka on him, by way of a toast to the success of his mission. The liquor-and his careful
yoga exercises-had sustained him during the nerve-racking period while they were inching towards the coast, sometimes within a meter of grounding on the bottom; to duck beneath the sweep-pattern of the radar they knew to be located hereabouts. they had to break surface not more than a kilometer from the beach. where the water was ridiculously shallow for such a big vessel. But now he was out here on his own he was horribly aware of what the slug of alcohol might have done to the speed of his reflexes.