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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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.”
(End of Sample Excerpt)
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