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Vintage Season Part 4

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Petulance and self-indulgence showed beneath the good man- ners. And tonight, an all-pervasive excitement.

By one o'clock everyone had gathered in the front rooms.

The teacups had begun to steam, apparently of themselves, around midnight, and the house was full of the faint, thin fragrance that induced a sort of euphoria all through the rooms, breathed in with the perfume of the tea.

It made Oliver feel light and drowsy. He was determined to sit up as long as the others did, but he must have dozed off in his own room, by the window, an unopened book in his lap.

For when it happened he was not sure for a few minutes whether or not it was a dream.



The vast, incredible crash was louder than sound. He felt the whole house shake under him, felt rather than heard the timbers grind upon one another like broken bones, while he was still in the borderland of sleep. When he woke fully he was on the floor among the shattered fragments of the window.

How long or short a time he had lain there he did not know. The world was still stunned with that tremendous noise, or his ears still deaf from it, for there was no sound anywhere. **

He was half-way down the hall towards the front rooms when sound began to return from outside. It was a low, in- describable rumble at first, prickled with countless tiny dis- tant screams. Oliver's eardrums ached from the terrible impact of the vast unheard noise, but the numbness was wearing off and he heard before he saw it the first voices of the stricken city.

The door to Kleph's room resisted him for a moment. The house had settled a little from the violence of thethe explo- sion?and the frame was out of line. When he got the door open he could only stand blinking stupidly into the darkness within. All the lights were out, but there was a breathless sort of whispering going on in many voices.

The chairs were drawn around the broad front windows so that everyone could see out; the air swam with tHe fragrance of euphoria. There was light enough here from outside for Oliver to see that a few onlookers still had their hands totheir ears, but all were craning eagerly forward to see.

Through a dream-like haze Oliver saw the city spread out with impossible distinctness below the window. He knew quite well that a row of houses across the street blocked the viewyet he was looking over the city now, and he could see it in a limitless panorama from here to the horizon. The houses between had vanished.

On the far skyline fire was already a solid mass, painting the low clouds crimson. That sulphurous light reflecting back from the sky upon the city made clear the rows upon rows of flattened houses with flame beginning to lick up among them, and farther out the formless rubble of what had been houses a few minutes ago and was now nothing at all.

The city had begun to be vocal. The noise of the flames rose loudest, but you could hear a rumble of human voices like the beat of surf a long way off, and staccato noises of screaming made a sort of pattern that came and went con- tinuously through the web of sound. Threading it in undulat- ing waves the shrieks of sirens knit the web together into a terrible symphony that had, in its way, a strange, inhuman beauty.

Briefly through Oliver's stunned incredulity went the memory of that other symphony Kleph had played here one day, another catastrophe retold in terms of music and moving shapes.

He said hoarsely: "Kleph"

The tableau by the window broke. Every head turned, and Oliver saw the faces of strangers staring at him, some few in embarrassment avoiding his eyes, but most seeking them out with that avid, inhuman curiosity which is common to a type in all crowds at accident scenes. But these people were here by design, audience at a vast disaster timed almost for their coming.

Kleph got up unsteadily, her velvet dinner gown tripping her as she rose. She set down a cup and swayed a little as she came towards the door, saying, "Oliver . . . Oliver"

in a sweet, uncertain voice. She was drunk, he saw, and wrought up by the catastrophe to a pitch of stimulation in which she was not very sure what she was doing.

Oliver heard himself saying in a thin voice not his own, "W-what was it, Kleph? What happened? What" But hap- pened seemed so inadequate a word for the incredible pano- rama below that he had to choke back hysterical laughter upon the struggling questions, and broke off entirely, trying to control the shaking that had seized his body.

Kleph made an unsteady stoop and seized a steaming cup.

She came to him, swaying, holding it outher panacea for all ills.

"Here, drink it, Oliverwe are all quite safe here, quite safe." She thrust the cup to his lips and he gulped auto- matically, grateful for the fumes that began their slow, coil- ing surcease in his brain with the first swallow.

"It was a meteor," Kleph was saying. "Quite a small me- teor, really. We are perfectly safe here. This house was never touched."

Out of some cell of the unconscious Oliver heard him-self saying incoherently, "Sue? Is Sue" he could not fin- ish.

Kleph thrust the cup at him again. "I think she may be safefor a while. Please, Oliverforget about all that and drink."

"But you knew!" Realization of that came belatedly to his stunned brain. "You could have given warning, or"

"How could we change the past?" Kleph asked. "We knew but could we stop the meteor? Or warn the city? Before we come we must give our word never to interfere"

Their voices had risen imperceptibly to be audible above the rising volume of sound from below. The city was roar- ing now, with flames and cries and the crash of falling build- ings. Light in the room turned lurid and pulsed upon the walls and ceiling in red light and redder dark.

Downstairs a door slammed. Someone laughed. It was high, hoarse, angry laughter. Then from the crowd in the room someone gasped and there was a chorus of dismayed cries.

Oliver tried to focus upon the window and the terrible pano- rama beyond, and found he could not.

It took several seconds of determined blinking to prove that more than his own vision was at fault. Kleph whimpered softly and moved against him. His arms closed about her automatically, and he was grateful for the warm, solid flesh against him. This much at least he could touch and be sure of, though everything else that was happening might be a dream. Her perfume and the heady perfume of the tea rose together in his head, and for an instant, holding her in this embrace that must certainly be the last time he ever held her, he did not care that something had gone terribly wrong with the very air of the room.

It was blindnessnot continuous, but a series of swift, widening ripples between which he could catch glimpses of the other faces in the room, strained and astonished in the flickering light from the city.

The ripples came faster. There was only a blink of sight between them now, and the blinks grew briefer and briefer, the intervals of darkness more broad.

From downstairs the laughter rose again up the stairwell.

Oliver thought he knew the voice. He opened his mouth to speak, but a door nearby slammed open before he could find his tongue, and Omerie shouted down the stairs.

"HoUia?" he roared above the roaring of the city. "Hol- lia, is that you?"

She laughed again, triumphantly. "I warned you!" her hoarse, harsh voice called. "Now come out in the street with the rest of us if you want to see any more!"

"HoUia!" Omerie shouted desperately. "Stop this or"

The laughter was derisive. "What will you do, Omerie?

This time I hid it too wellcome down in the street if you want to watch the rest."

There was angry silence in the house. Oliver could feel Kleph's quick, excited breathing light upon his cheek, feel the soft motions of her body in his arms. He tried consciously to make the moment last, stretch it out to infinity. Everything had happened too swiftly to impress very clearly on hismind anything except what he could touch and hold. He held her in an embrace made consciously light, though he wanted to clasp her in a tight, despairing grip, because he was sure this was the last embrace they would ever share.

The eye-straining blinks of light and blindness went on.

From far away below the roar of the burning city rolled on, threaded together by the long, looped cadences of the sirens that linked all sounds into one.

Then in the bewildering dark another voice sounded from the hall downstairs. A man's voice, very deep, very melodious, saying: "What is this? What are you doing here? Holliais that you?"

Oliver felt Kleph stiffen in his arms. She caught her breath, but she said nothing in the instant while heavy feet began to mount the stairs, coming up with a solid, confident tread that shook the old house to each step.

Then Kleph thrust herself hard out of Oliver's arms. He heard her high, sweet, excited voice crying, "Cenbe! Cenbe!"

and she ran to meet the newcomer through the waves of dark and light that swept the shaken house.

Oliver staggered a little and felt a chair seat catching the back of his legs. He sank into it and lifted to his lips the cup he still held. Its steam was warm and moist in his face, though he could scarcely make out the shape of the rim.

He lifted it with both hands and drank.

When he opened his eyes it was quite dark in the room.

Also it was silent except for a thin, melodious humming al- most below the threshold of sound. Oliver struggled with the memory of a monstrous nightmare. He put it resolutely out of his mind and sat up, feeling an unfamiliar bed creak and sway under him.

This was Kleph's room. But noKleph's no longer. Her shining hangings were gone from the walls, her white resilient rug, her pictures. The room looked as it had looked before she came, except for one thing.

In the far corner was a tablea block of translucent stuff out of which light poured softly. A man sat on a low stool before it, leaning forward, his heavy shoulders outlined against the glow. He wore earphones and he was making quick, erratic notes upon a pad on his knee, swaying a little as if to the tune of unheard music.

The curtains were drawn, but from beyond them came a distant, muffled roaring that Oliver remembered from his night- mare. He put a hand to his face, aware of a feverish warmth and a dipping of the room before his eyes. His head ached, and there was a deep malaise in every limb and nerve.

As the bed creaked, the man in the corner turned, sliding the earphones down like a collar. He had a strong, sensitive face above a dark beard, trimmed short. Oliver had never seen him before, but he had that air Oliver knew so well by now, of remoteness which was the knowledge of time it- self lying like a gulf between them.

When he spoke his deep voice was impersonally kind.

"You had too much euphoriac, Wilson," he said, alooflysympathetic. "You slept a long while."

"How long?" Oliver's throat felt sticky when he spoke.

The man did not answer. Oliver shook his head experi- mentally. He said, "I thought Kleph said you don't get hang- overs from" Then another thought interrupted the first, and he said quickly, "Where is Kleph?" He looked confused- ly towards the door.

"They should be in Rome by now. Watching Charle- magne's coronation at St. Peter's on Christmas Day a thousand years from here."

That was not a thought Oliver could grasp clearly. His aching brain sheered away from it; he found thinking at all was strangely difficult. Staring at the man, he traced an idea painfully to its conclusion.

"So they've gone onbut you stayed behind? Why? You ... you're Cenbe? I heard yoursymphonia, Kleph called it."

"You heard part of it. I have not finished yet. I needed this." Cenbe inclined his head towards the curtains beyond which the subdued roaring still went on.

"You neededthe meteor?" The knowledge worked pain- fully through his dulled brain until it seemed to strike some area still untouched by the aching, an area still alive to im- plication. "The meteorl But"

There was a power implicit in Cenbe's raised hand that seemed to push Oliver down upon the bed again. Cenbe said patiently, "The worst of it is past now, for a while.

Forget if you can. That was days ago. I said you were asleep for some time. I let you rest. I knew this house would be safefrom the fire at least."

"Thensomething more's to come?" Oliver only mumbled his question. He was not sure he wanted an answer. He had been curious so long, and now that knowledge lay almost within reach, something about his brain seemed to refuse to listen. Perhaps this weariness, this feverish, dizzy feeling would pass as the effect of the euphoriac wore off.

Cenbe's voice ran on smoothly, soothingly, almost as if Cenbe too did not want him to think. It was easiest to lie here and listen.

"I am a composer," Cenbe was saying. "I happen to be in- terrested in interpreting certain forms of disaster into my own terms. That is why I stayed on. The others were dilettantes.

They came for the May weather and the spectacle. The after- mathwell why should they wait for that? As for myself 1 suppose I am a connoisseur. I find the aftermath rather fascinating. And I need it. I need to study it at first hand, for my own purposes."

His eyes dwelt upon Oliver for an instant very keenly, like a physician's eyes, impersonal and observing. Absently he reached for his stylus and the note pad. And as he moved, Oliver saw a familiar mark on the underside of the thick, tanned wrist.

"Kleph had that scar, too," he heard himself whisper. "And the others."

Cenbe nodded. "Inoculation. It was necessary, under the circumstances. We did not want disease to spread in our own time-world.""Disease?"

Cenbe shrugged. "You would not recognize the name."

"But, if you can inoculate against disease" Oliver thrust himself up on an aching arm. He had a half-grasp upon a thought now which he did not want to let go. Ef- fort seemed to make the ideas come more clearly through his mounting confusion. With enormous effort he went on.

"I'm getting it now," he said. "Wait. I've been trying to work this out. You can change history? You can! I know you can. Kleph said she had to promise not to interfere. You all had to promise. Does that mean you really could change your own pastour time?"

Cenbe laid down his pad again. He looked at Oliver thoughtfully, a dark, intent look under heavy brows. "Yes,"

he said. "Yes, the past can be changed, but not easily. And it changes the future, too, necessarily. The lines of probabil- ity are switched into new patternsbut it is extremely diffi- cult, and it has never been allowed. The physic-temporal course tends to slide back to its norm, always. That is why it is so hard to force any alteration." He shrugged. "A the- oretical science. We do not change history, Wilson. If we changed our past, our present would be altered, too. And our time-world is entirely to our liking. There may be a few malcontents there, but they are not allowed the privilege of temporal travel."

Oliver spoke louder against the roaring from beyond the windows. "But you've got the power! You could alter history, if you wanted towipe out all the pain and suffering and tragedy"

"All of that passed away long ago," Cenbe said.

"Notnow! Not this"'

Cenbe looked at him enigmatically for a while. Then "This, too," he said.

And suddenly Oliver realized from across what distances Cenbe was watching him. A vast distance, as time is meas- ured. Cenbe was a composer and a genius, and necessarily strongly empathic, but his psychic locus was very far away in time. The dying city outside, the whole world of now was not quite real to Cenbe, falling short of reality because of that basic variance in time. It was merely one of the building blocks that had gone to support the edifice on which Cenbe's culture stood in a misty, unknown, terrible future.

It seemed terrible to Oliver now. Even Klephall of them had been touched with a pettiness, the faculty that had en- abled HoUia to concentrate on her malicious, small schemes to acquire a ringside seat while the meteor thundered in to- wards Earth's atmosphere. They were all dilettantes, Kleph and Omerie and the others. They toured time, but only as onlookers. Were they. boredsatedwith their normal exist- ence?

Not sated enough to wish change, basically. Their own timeworld was a fulfilled womb, a perfection made manifest for their needs. They dared not change the pastthey could not risk flawing their own present.

Revulsion shook him. Remembering the touch of Kleph's lips, he felt a sour sickness on his tongue. Alluring she hadbeen: he knew that too well. But the aftermath There was something about this race from the future. He had felt it dimly at first, before Kleph's nearness had drowned caution and buffered his sensibilities. Time travelling purely as an escape mechanism seemed almost blasphemous.

A race with such power Klephleaving him for the barbaric, splendid coronation at Rome a thousand years agohow had she seen him? Not as a living, breathing man. He knew that, very certainly Kleph's race were spectators.

But he read more than casual interest in Cenbe's eyes now. There was an avidity there, a bright, fascinated probing.

The man had replaced his earphoneshe was different from the others. He was a connoisseur. After the vintage season came the aftermathand Cenbe.

Cenbe watched and waited, light flickering softly in the translucent block before him, his fingers poised over the note pad. The ultimate connoisseur waited to savour the rarities that no non-gourmet could appreciate.

Those thin, distant rhythms of sound that was almost mu- sic began to be audible again above the noises of the distant fire. Listening, remembering. Oliver could very nearly catch the pattern of the symphonia as he had heard it, all inter- mingled with the flash of changing faces and the rank upon rank of the dying He lay back on the bed letting the room swirl away into the darkness behind his closed and aching lids. The ache was inplicit in every cell of his body, almost a second ego taking possession and driving him out of himself, a strong, sure ego taking over as he himself let go.

Why, he wondered dully, should Kleph have lied? She had said there was no aftermath to the drink she had given him. No aftermathand yet this painful possession was strong enough to edge him out of his own body.

Kleph had not lied. It was no aftermath to drink. He knew thatbut the knowledge no longer touched his brain or his body. He lay still, giving them up to the power of the illness which was aftermath to something far stronger than the strongest drink. The illness that had no nameyet.

Cenbe's new symphonia was a crowning triumph. It had its premiere from Antares Hall, and the applause was an ovation. History itself, of course, was the artistopening with the meteor that forecast the great plagues of the fourteenth century and closing with the climax Ceabe had caught on the threshold of modern times. But only Cenbe could have in- terpreted it with such subtle power.

Critics spoke of the masterly way in which he had chosen the face of the Stuart king as a recurrent motif against the montage of emotion and sound and movement. But there were other faces, fading through the great sweep of the composi- tion, which helped to build up to the tremendous climax.

One face in particular, one moment that the audience ab- sorbed greedily. A moment in which one man's face loomed huge in the screen, every feature clear. Cenbe had never caught an emotional crisis so effectively, the critics agreed.

You could almost read the man's eyes.After Cenbe had left, he lay motionless for a long while.

He was thinking feverishly I've got to find some way to tell people, if I'd known in advance, maybe something could have been done. We'd have forced them to tell us how to change the probabilities. We could have evacuated the city.

if I could leave a message Maybe not for today's people. But later. They visit all through time. If they could be recognized and caught some- where, some time, and made to change destiny It wasn't easy to stand up. The room kept tilling. But he managed it. He found pencil and paper and through the swaying of the shadows he wrote down what he could.

Enough. Enough to warn, enough to save.

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