The Man Who Was Pipped At The Post
I’d bought him a stiff drink , which he’d downed in one gulp and he’d sat nursing the glass in silence for some time. I let him be. He’d had a bit of a shock after all.
My name is Pedar Tare, good sir, and I am a commercial traveller. You must understand, Mister Detective Inspector, that this was not my first visit to Trinalus VII, and the Sudman Starport quarter was familiar territory to me. The place may look rather sleazy and rag-tag, but it’s pretty safe for travellers because the place is swarming with your Starport Authority cops. Everyone knows, Starport cops are armed and they don’t muck about, so I‘m used to feeling safe round here. I was taking my usual route to the exports office and considering popping into a bar I knew when somebody suddenly screamed to look out! And this guy in some kind of a hairy horror mask tore out from the passage beside Romino’s waving an evil-looking handgun. Yelling bloody murder, he charged toward this lanky-looking guy to my left and next thing the scene exploded with gunfire. Somehow I grabbed Lanky and dragged us both behind a pillar. But the guy in the mask was down, nailed by the cops and we were being urged to move along. I came into Romino’s and ordered a drink and looking over my shoulder, noticed that he’d followed me in. He looked like he needed a drink too.
From the look of him he was middle-aged but claimed to be much younger. The getup he wore made me guess he was a teacher or a librarian, though poorly groomed; his hair was lank and greasy, face shadowed with stubble and his eyes were puffy and red. He was lugging a grey carry-all. He said his name was Brollin. He shrugged when I asked him if he had any connection with his assailant.
“I’m a lecturer and researcher in temporal physics at the Sudman University, or was, at least until they sacked me this morning…..” He paused to pull a face, shook a little then , regaining his composure he went on:
“ Icing on the cake, really, of my….bloody stupid life..”
I’m bound to say I seem to have one of those faces, the kind that begs the life stories of total strangers. What the hell, he’d had a scare, and I was in no hurry. I turned to listen.
“That’s me, always so bloody unsure. I’m cautious. I always have to check everything….” He fixed me with a stare;
“I PROCRASTINATE, Mr. Tare!” He mouthed emphatically, “ Too logical! That’s why I’m a scientist. Too much a scientist, not enough of a man, to make decisions and ACT! Without checking!
“When I was nine years eight months and six days old I was passing a toyshop in the Therman Arcade and I spotted a scale model of a 3021 black Ambergris Mark IV Arconmobile. Perfect working model imported from Lygax III. Only one on the planet. I stared at it half an hour. I had the credit chip in my pocket right there, but did I buy it? No! I had to think about it first. I had to check things. I went home. I came back six times over the next month resolved to buy it, credits in pocket. At the end of the month I hadn’t the credits, but by the end of the next I set off for the shop, determined to claim my toy.” He shot me an aggrieved look, “Sold! That morning! ”
Another pause to consider, then he went on; “ Yessss! That was the start of it! Just the beginning! Of course I was disappointed at the time but if I’d have only known….that was the first taste of how it would go on….”
I nodded sympathetically though it didn’t seem that traumatic to me, nor yet connected to the incident outside. He went on in a similar vein about similar objects of desire throughout his teenage years that he somehow failed to buy, or mislaid and failed to recover. I realised he was rather a loner, not good at relating to other people, preferring to concentrate on his scientific studies and upon material objects to which he seemed to attach undue personal significance. The story changed a little later, as he was coming to the end of his education and about to join the research team at the university. He met a girl….
Amarra was a newly graduated librarian who Brollin first met whilst researching for a new paper. Though it took him a month to even dare to speak to her, when he did she was friendly and open, and as it turned out, single, and would love to go for a drink with him.
“ She was pretty in her way; Modest, demure, but forthright and plain-speaking. She asked me out , so my procrastination didn’t come into it. Of course I’d fallen in love with her already, from afar. I was ecstatic! It was a giddy time! My work suffered, of course, but for once I didn’t care. She was loyal, intelligent, witty and attentive. We went out dancing, talked for hours. We even spoke of marriage, but not of course until I had finished my project, joined the research team and become solvent enough to keep her as she deserved. How I looked forward to our wedding night….”
“You mean you and she never…..?”
“No! She was from a good family. She would never have considered…..outside of wedlock…Hah!” He put his face in his hands, “Nor I! Hah! When I think of it! Poor naïve fool! I knuckled under, buried myself in my work. We had laid plans, had to make sacrifices, noses to the grindstone and think of the good times to come….Ugh!” For a few minutes he seemed overcome with emotion. Not quite weeping, not quite in control. He began again quietly….
“I’d been a little short with her when last we met. She had wanted to go out with me somewhere on some frivolous impulse, but I had an experiment to set up. I was expecting to kiss and make up. Then on that horrible evening, fifteen years ago to this very day , she came to me and told me it was over. There was someone else. An older man. She’d met him on the steps of the University library. He’d beckoned her over and they got talking. He took her for a meal, and then a dance and then….. Then….” He screwed up his face.
“I could hardly believe my ears. I was devastated. I asked her why? How? What had he got that I hadn’t? That was it, she replied, she didn’t know! His credentials, his job, his prospects, anything! And she hardly understood what had happened, he’d just swept her off her feet. And the most hurtfull thing she said was that he reminded her in some way of myself, but somehow more brooding, more edgy, more urgent and exciting. All those qualities I was lacking. And despite her treachery I can see she was right!”
“And what became of her?”
“ I never saw her again. I heared he deserted her, naturally, after he’d used her. She sent me notes of course begging me to have her back, but I couldn’t have brought myself to do that. How I hated her! She was a ruined woman. I believe she took her own life.”
I sucked my teeth and swallowed the comment I was going to make about the harshness of this. It’s not like this on my planet. “So what did you do, Brollin?” I asked.
“I withdrew into myself, immersed myself even more so in my work, and in the special project in particular.”
“I had never seemed to have enough time. I was searching for a practical solution to this problem, using the resources of the temporal physics department: To develop a field of energy that could displace an individual in time. And last year I perfected it! A time machine, Mr. Tare! A working time machine!”
Now I was incredulous! But he was totally in ernest, and I began to suspect I was talking to a mental patient. He explained to me that his machine could allow only short trips into the past (not the future) after which the traveller was obliged to return or temporal instability caused disintegration. Items however could be brought from the past to the present with no danger.
“At first I was cautious, of course , using the machine only to stretch out worktime. I was intrigued however to see how far it back I could go. I hit upon the perfect test! That Arconmobile! If I could go back that far, I would get to the shop before the bastard who had beaten me to it! It wouldn’t quite make up for the terrible disappointment I had felt.as a child, but the precious Arconmobile would finally be in the hands of its rightfull owner! Better late than never, eh? And of course I succeeded! Yes, and I have that toy to this day. So after this, I got rather excited. I dug out my list of all the objects that had been stolen away from under my nose and I was….. tempted whenever possible to nip back in time and recover them. I found it intoxicating! Intoxication led to obsession. Gradually I began to neglect my work at the department. I got into trouble, but I wasn’t concerned. I perfected a smaller machine, man-portable….”
As he continued, my dear Detective Inspector, the idea that he was delusional began to evaporate away, replaced by a cold feeling of inevitability. He paused for a moment to rummage around in his carry-all.
“I found I was starting to enjoy life more, but only if I continued to get my own back on those who had stolen my life in the past. Finally I conceived a new idea, a suitable revenge on the person that had hurt me more than anyone else in the world…..”
He grimaced; “Yesss! Amarra!”
“You went to get her back?”
“ Back? No! I wouldn‘t take her back! I hated her for what she did! Treacherous whore. No! If she’d rather be treated as a whore then that’s what I’d do!”
“ I beat him to it! My slick rival! I was there to meet her on the steps and I whisked her away before he ever showed up!”
“She didn’t recognise you?”
“Of course not1 I was years older for a start, dressed more daringly, sporting a moustache. Now it was MY turn to sweep her off her feet….”
“But don’t you realise, that…..”
“I was a man of the world. I had no cares. Though I hated the weak little slut, she never suspected! I was all charms and fellowship. I flattered her and blinded her with compliments and false promises and declarations. We dined and danced, I whisked her to some seedy hotel and I HAD her, HAD her and she was too giddy to resist. I hadn’t been aware that she was capable of such fierce passions.
"I popped back again a few times for good measure, then when I was heartily sick of the cheap little witch I stopped….. And then I found I finally had …..too much time. Time to think, and to start feeling …..empty.”
I had to say; “You realise now of course that it was y….” He held up his hand to stop me. In a low groan he answered.
He shut his eyes for a moment, and paused to sally his resolve. He bent to zip up his carry-all and stood up stiffly saying he was going for a leak. Then he walked off to the W.C. and took his bag with him.
And that’s when you came in, Detective Inspector Leviss. But don’t bother following him in there now, nor expect him to be coming out. You see I got a look inside that carry-all of his before he zipped it up. It contained a strange device in a grey metallic case, and an evil-looking gun, and a gruesome hairy horror mask.