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The End of Eternity, Page 2

Isaac Asimov

2. Observer

  Harlan stood at the gateway to Time and thought of himself in new ways. It had been very simple once. There were such things as ideals, or at least catchwords, to live by and for. Every stage of an Eternal's life had a reason. How did "Basic Principles" start?

  "The life of an Eternal may be divided into four parts. . . "

  It all worked out neatly, yet it had all changed for him, and what was broken could not be made whole again.

  Yet he had gone faithfully through each of the four parts of an Eternal's life. First, there was the period of fifteen years in which he was not an Eternal at all, but only an inhabitant of Time. Only a human being out of Time, a Timer, could become an Eternal; no one could be born into the position.

  At the age of fifteen he was chosen by a careful process of elimination and winnowing, the nature of which he had no conception. of at the time. He was taken beyond the veil of Eternity after a last agonized farewell to his family. (Even then it was made clear to him that whatever else happened he would never return. The true reason for that he was not to learn till long afterward. )

  Once within Eternity, he spent ten years in school as a Cub, and then graduated to enter his third period as Observer. It was only after that that he became a Specialist and a true Eternal. The fourth and last part of the Eternal's life: Timer, Cub, Observer and Specialist.

  He, Harlan, had gone through it all so neatly. He might say, successfully.

  He could remember, so clearly, the moment that Cubhood was done, the moment they became independent members of Eternity, the moment when, even though un-Specialized, they still rated the legal title of "Eternal. "

  He could remember it. School done, Cubhood over, he was standing with the five who completed training with him, hands clasped in the small of his back, legs a trifle apart, eyes front, listening.

  Educator Yarrow was at a desk talking to them. Harlan could remember Yarrow well: a small, intense man, with ruddy hair in disarray, freckled forearms, and a look of loss in his eyes. (It wasn't uncommon, this look of loss in the eyes of an Eternal-the loss of home and roots, the unadmitted and unadmittable longing for the one Century he could never see. )

  Harlan could not remember Yarrow's exact words, of course, but the substance of it remained sharp.

  Yarrow said, in substance, "You will be Observers now. It isn't a highly regarded position. Specialists look upon it as a boy's job. Maybe you Eternals" (he deliberately paused after that word to give each man a chance to straighten his back and brighten at the glory of it) "think so too. If so, you are fools who don't deserve to be Observers.

  "The Computers would have no Computing to do, Life-Plotters no lives to Plot, Sociologists no societies to profile; none of the Specialists would have anything to do, if it weren't for the Observer. I know you've heard this said before, but I want you to be very firm and clear in your mind about it.

  "It will be you youngsters who will go out into Time, under the most strenuous conditions, to bring back facts. Cold, objective facts uncolored by your own opinions and likings, you understand. Facts accurate enough to be fed into Computing machines. Facts definite enough to make the social equations stand up. Facts honest enough to form a basis for Reality Changes.

  "And remember this, too. Your period as Observer is not something to get through with as quickly and as unobtrusively as possible. It is as an Observer that you will make your mark. Not what you did in school, but what you will do as an Observer will determine your Specialty and how high you will rise in it. This will be your post-graduate course, Eternals, and failure in it, even small failure, will put you into Maintenance no matter how brilliant your potentialities now seem. That is all. "

  He shook hands with each of them, and Harlan, grave, dedicated, proud in his belief that the privileges of being an Eternal contained its greatest privilege in the assumption of responsibility for the happiness of all the human beings who were or ever would be within the reach of Eternity, was deep in self-awe.

  Harlan's first assignments were small and under close direction, but he sharpened his ability on the honing strap of experience in a dozen Centuries through a dozen Reality Changes.

  In his fifth year as Observer he was given a Senior's rating in the field and assigned to the 482nd. For the first time he would be working unsupervised, and knowledge of that fact robbed him of some of his self-assurance when he first reported to the Computer in charge of the Section.

  That was Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge, whose pursed, suspicious mouth and frowning eyes seemed ludicrous in such a face as his. He had a round button of a nose, two larger buttons of cheeks. He needed only a touch of red and a fringe of white hair to be converted into the picture of the Primitive myth of St. Nicholas.

  (-or Santa Claus or Kriss Kringle. Harlan knew all three names. He doubted if one Eternal out of a hundred thousand had heard of any one of them. Harlan took a secret, shamefaced pride in this sort of arcane knowledge. From his earliest days in school he had ridden the hobbyhorse of Primitive history, and Educator Yarrow had encouraged it. Harlan had grown actually fond of those odd, perverted Centuries that lay, not only before the beginning of Eternity in the 27th, but even before the invention of the Temporal Field, itself, in the 24th. He had used old books and periodicals in his studies. He had even traveled far downwhen to the earliest Centuries of Eternity, when he could get permission, to consult better sources. For over fifteen years he had managed to collect a remarkable library of his own, almost all in print-on-paper. There was a volume by a man called H. G. Wells, another by a man named W. Shakespeare, some tattered histories. Best of all there was a complete set of bound volumes of a Primitive news weekly that took up inordinate space but that he could not, out of sentiment, bear to reduce to micro-film.

  Occasionally he would lose himself in a world where life was life and death, death; where a man made his decisions irrevocably; where evil could not be prevented, nor good promoted, and the Battle of Waterloo, having been lost, was really lost for good and all. There was even a scrap of poetry he treasured which stated that a moving finger having once written could never be lured back to unwrite.

  And then it was difficult, almost a shock, to return his thoughts to Eternity, and to a universe where Reality was something flexible and evanescent, something men such as himself could hold in the palms of their hands and shake into better shape. )

  The illusion of St. Nicholas shattered when Hobbe Finge spoke to him in a brisk, matter-of-fact way. "You can start in tomorrow with a routine screening of current. Reality. I want it good, thorough, and to the point. There will be xio slackness permitted. Your first spatio-temporal chart will be ready for you tomorrow morning. Got it?"

  "Yes, Computer," said Harlan. He decided as early as that that he and Assistant Computer Hobbe Finge would not get along, and he regretted it.

  The next morning Harlan got his chart in intricately punched patterns as they emerged from the Computaplex. He used a pocket decoder to translate them into Standard Intertemporal in his anxiety to make not even the smallest mistake at the very beginning. Of course, he had reached the stage where he could read the perforations direct.

  The chart told him where and when in the world of the 482nd Century he might go and where he might not; what he could do and what be could not; what he must avoid at all costs. His presence must impinge only upon those places and times where it would not endanger Reality.

  The 482nd was not a comfortable Century for him. It was not like his own austere and conformist homewhen. It was an era without ethics or principles, as he was accustomed to think of such. It was hedonistic, materialistic, more than a little matriarchal. It was the only era (he checked this in the records in the most painstaking way) in which ectogenic birth flourished and, at its peak, 40 per cent of its women gave eventual birth by merely contributing a fertilized ovum to the ovaria. Marriage was made and unmade by mutual consent and was not recognized legally as anything more than a p
ersonal agreement without binding force. Union for the sake of childbearing was, of course, carefully differentiated from the social functions of marriage and was arranged on purely eugenic principles.

  In a hundred ways Harlan thought the society sick and therefore hungered for a Reality Change. More than once it occurred to him that his own presence in the Century, as a man not of that time, could fork its history. If his disturbing presence could only be made disturbing enough at some key point, a different branch of possibility would become real, a branch in which millions of pleasure-seeking women would find themselves transformed into true, pure-hearted mothers. They would be in another Reality with all the memories that belonged with it, unable to tell, dream, or fancy that they had ever been anything else.

  Unfortunately, to do that, he would have to step outside the bounds of the spatio-temporal chart and that was unthinkable. Even if it weren't, to step outside the bounds at random could change Reality in many possible ways. It could be made worse. Only careful analysis and Computing could properly pin-point the nature of a Reality Change.

  Outwardly, whatever his private opinions, Harlan remained an Observer, and the ideal Observer was merely a set of sense-perceptive nerve patches attached to a report-writing mechanism. Between perception and report there must be no intervention of emotion.

  Harlan's reports were perfection itself in that respect.

  Assistant Computer Finge called him in after his second weekly report.

  "I congratulate you, Observer," he said in a voice without warmth, "on the organization and clarity of your reports. But what do you really think?"

  Harlan sought refuge in an expression as blank as though chipped painstakingly out of native 95th Century wood. He said, "I have no thoughts of my own in the matter. "

  "Oh, come. You're from the 95th and we both know what that means. Surely this Century disturbs you. "

  Harlan shrugged. "Does anything in my reports lead you to think that I am disturbed?"

  It was near to impudence and the drumming of Finge's blunt nails upon his desk showed it. Finge said, "Answer my question. "

  Harlan said, "Sociologically, many facets of the Century represent an extreme. The last three Reality Changes in the aboutwhen have accentuated that. Eventually, I suppose the matter should be rectified. Extremes are never healthy. "

  "Then you took the trouble to check the past Realities of the Century. "

  "As an Observer, I must check all pertinent facts. "

  It was a standoff. Harlan, of course, did have the right and the duty to check those facts. Finge must know that. Every Century was continually being shaken by Reality Changes. No Observations, however painstaking, could ever stand for long without rechecking. It was standard procedure in Eternity to have every Century in a chronic state of being Observed. And to Observe properly, you must be able to present, not only the facts of the current Reality, but also of their relationship to those of previous Realities.

  Yet it seemed obvious to Harlan that this was not merely unpleasantness on Finge's part, this probing of the Observer's opinions. Finge seemed definitely hostile.

  At another time Finge said to Harlan (having invaded the latter's small office to bring the news), "Your reports are creating a very favorable impression with the Allwhen Council. "

  Harlan paused, uncertain, then mumbled, "Thank you. "

  "All agree that you show an uncommon degree of penetration. "

  "I do my best. "

  Finge asked suddenly, "Have you ever met Senior Computer Twissell?"

  "Computer Twissell?" Harlan's eyes widened. "No, sir. Why do you ask?"

  "He seems particularly interested in your reports. " Finge's round cheeks drew downward sulkily and he changed the subject. "To me it seems that you have worked out a philosophy of your own, a viewpoint of history. "

  Temptation tugged hard at Harlan. Vanity and caution battled and the former won. "I've studied Primitive history, sir. "

  "Primitive history? At school?"

  "Not exactly, Computer. On my own. It's my-hobby. It's like watching history standing still, frozen! It can be studied in detail whereas the Centuries of Eternity are always changing. " He warmed up a trifle at the thought of it. "It's as though we were to take a series of stills from a book-film and study each painstakingly. We would see a great deal we would miss if we just scanned the film as it went past. I think that helps me a great deal with my work. "

  Finge stared at him in amazement, widened his eyes a little, and left with no further remark.

  Occasionally, thereafter, he brought up the subject of Primitive history and accepted Harlan's reluctant comments with no decisive expression on his own plump face.

  Harlan was not sure whether to regret the whole matter or to regard it as a possible way of speeding his own advancement.

  He decided on the first alternative when, passing him one day in Corridor A, Finge said abruptly and in the hearing of others, "Great Time, Harlan, don't you ever smile?"

  The thought came, shockingly, to Harlan that Finge hated him. His own feeling for Finge approached something like detestation thereafter.

  Three months of raking through the 482nd had exhausted most of its worth-while meat and when Harlan received a sudden call to Finge's office, he was not surprised. He was expecting a change in assignment. His final summary had been prepared days before. The 482nd was anxious to export more cellulose-base textiles to Centuries which were deforested, such as the 1174th, but were unwilling to accept smoked fish in return. A long list of such items was contained in due order and with due analysis.

  He took the draft of the summary with him.

  But no mention of the 482nd was made. Instead Finge introduced him to a withered and wrinkled little man, with sparse white hair and a gnomelike face that throughout the interview was stamped with a perpetual smile. It varied between extremes of anxiety and joviality but never quite disappeared. Between two of his yellow-stained fingers lay a burning cigarette.

  It was the first cigarette Harlan had ever seen, otherwise he would have paid more attention to the man, less to the smoking cylinder, and been better prepared for Finge's introduction.

  Finge said, "Senior Computer Twissell, this is Observer Andrew Harlan. "

  Harlan's eyes shifted in shock from the little man's cigarette to his face.

  Senior Computer Twissell said in a high-pitched voice, "How do you do? So this is the young man who writes those excellent reports?"

  Harlan found no voice. Laban Twissell was a legend, a living myth. Laban Twissell was a man he should have recognized at once. He was the outstanding Computer in Eternity, which was another way of saying he was the most eminent Eternal alive. He was the dean of the Allwhen Council. He had directed more Reality Changes than any man in the history of Eternity. He was-- He had-- Harlan's mind failed him altogether. He nodded his head with a doltish grin and said nothing.

  Twissell put his cigarette to his lips, puffed quickly, and took it away. "Leave us, Finge. I want to talk to the boy. "

  Finge rose, murmured something, and left.

  Twissell said, "You seem nervous, boy. There is nothing to be nervous about. "

  But meeting Twissell like that was a shock. It is always disconcerting to find that someone you have thought of as a giant is actually less than five and a half feet tall. Could the brain of a genius actually fit behind the retreating, bald-smooth forehead? Was it sharp intelligence or only good humor that beamed out of the little eyes that screwed up into a thousand wrinkles.

  Harlan didn't know what to think. The cigarette seemed to obscure what small scrabble of intelligence he could collect. He flinched visibly as a puff of smoke reached him.

  Twissell's eyes narrowed as though he were trying to peer through the smoke haze and he said in horribly accented tenth-millennial dialect, "Will you petter feel if I in your yourself dialect should speech, poy?"

  Harlan, brought to the su
dden brink of hysterical laughter, said carefully, "I speak Standard Intertemporal quite well, sir. " He said it in the Intertemporal he and all other Eternals in his presence had used ever since his first months in Eternity.

  "Nonsense," said Twissell imperiously. "I do not bother of Intertemporal. My speech of ten-millennial is over than perfect. "

  Harlan guessed that it had been some forty years since Twissell had had to make use of localwhen dialects.

  But having made his point to his own satisfaction, apparently, he shifted to Intertemporal and remained there. He said, "I would offer you a cigarette, but I am certain you don't smoke. Smoking is approved of hardly anywhen in history. In fact, good cigarettes are made only in the 72nd and mine have to be specially imported from there. I give you that hint in case you ever become a smoker. It is all very sad. Last week, I was stuck in the 123rd for two days. No smoking. I mean, even in the Section of Eternity devoted to the 123rd. The Eternals there have picked up the mores. If I had lit a cigarette it would have been like the sky collapsing. Sometimes I think I should like to calculate one great Reality Change and wipe out all the no-smoking taboos in all the Centuries, except that any Reality Change like that would make for wars in the 58th or a slave society in the 1000th. Always something. "

  Harlan was first confused, then anxious. Surely these rattling irrelevancies must be hiding something.

  His throat felt a little constricted. He said, "May I ask why you've arranged to see me, sir?"

  "I like your reports, boy. "

  There was a veiled glimmer of joy in Harlan's eyes, but he did not smile. "Thank you, sir. "

  "It has a touch of the artist. You are intuitive. You feel strongly. I think I know your proper position in Eternity and I have come to offer it to you. "

  Harlan thought: I can't believe this.

  He held all triumph out of his voice. "You do me great honor, sir," he said.

  Whereupon Senior Computer Twissell, having come to the end of his cigarette, produced another in his left hand by some unnoted feat of legerdemain and lit it. He said between puffs, "For Time's sake, boy, you talk as though you rehearsed lines. Great honor, bah. Piffle. Trash. Say what you feel in plain language. You're glad, hey?"

  "Yes, sir," said Harlan cautiously.

  "All right. You should be. How would you like to be a Technician?"

  "A Technician!" cried Harlan, leaping from his seat.

  "Sit down. Sit down. You seem surprised. "

  "I hadn't expected to be a Technician, Computer Twissell. "

  "No," said Twissell dryly, "somehow no one ever does. They expect anything but that. Yet Technicians are hard to find, and are always in demand. Not a Section in Eternity has what it considers enough. "

  "I don't think I'm suited. "

  "You mean you're not suited to take a job with trouble in it. By Time, if you are devoted to Eternity, as I believe you are, you won't mind that. So the fools will avoid you and you will feel ostracized. You will grow used to that. And you will have the satisfaction of knowing you are needed, and needed badly. By me. "

  "By you, sir? By you particularly?"

  "Yes. " An element of shrewdness entered the old man's smile. "You are not to be just a Technician. You will be my personal Technician. You will have special status. How does that sound now?"

  Harlan said, "I don't know, sir. I may not qualify. "

  Twissell shook his head firmly. "I need you. I need just you. Your reports assure me you have what I need up here. " He tapped his forehead quickly with a ridge-nailed forefinger. "Your record as Cub is good; the Sections for which you have Observed reported favorably. Finally, Finge's report was most suitable of all. "

  Harlan was honestly startled. "Computer Finge's report was favorable?"

  "You didn't expect that?"

  "I-don't know. "

  "Well, boy, I didn't say it was favorable. I said it was suitable. As a matter of fact, Finge's report was not favorable. He recommended that you be removed from all duties connected with Reality Changes. He suggested it wasn't safe to keep you anywhere but in Maintenance. "

  Harlan reddened. "What were his reasons for saying so, sir?"

  "It seems you have a hobby, boy. You are interested in Primitive history, eh?" He gestured expansively with his cigarette and Harlan, forgetting in his anger to control his breathing, inhaled a cloud of smoke and coughed helplessly.

  Twissell regarded the young Observer's coughing spell benignly and said, "Isn't that so?"

  Harlan began, "Computer Finge had no right-"

  "Now, now. I told you what was in the report because it hinges on the purpose I need you most for. Actually, the report was confidential and you are to forget I told you what was in it. Permanently, boy. "

  "But what's wrong with being interested in Primitive history?"

  "Finge thinks your interest in it shows a strong Wish-to-Time. You understand me, boy?"

  Harlan did. It was impossible to avoid picking up psychiatric lingo. That phrase above all. Every member of Eternity was supposed to have a strong drive, the stronger for being officially suppressed in all its manifestations, to return, not necessarily to his own Time, but at least to some one definite Time; to become part of a Century, rather than to remain a wanderer through them all. Of course in most Eternals the drive remained safely hidden in the unconscious.

  "I don't think that's the case," said Harlan.

  "Nor I. In fact, I think your hobby is interesting and valuable. As I said, it's why I want you. I want you to teach a Cub I shall bring to you all you know and all you can learn about Primitive history. In between, you will also be my personal Technician. You'll start in a few days. Is that agreeable?"

  Agreeable? To have official permission to learn all he could about the days before Eternity? To be personally associated with the greatest Eternal of them all? Even the nasty fact of Technician's status seemed bearable under those conditions.

  His caution, however, did not entirely fail him. He said, "If it's necessary for the good of Eternity, sir--"

  "For the good of Eternity?" cried the gnomish Computer in sudden excitement. He threw his cigarette butt from him with such energy that it hit the far wall and bounced off in a shower of sparks. "I need you for the existence of Eternity. "