R.A. Lafferty ~ The Six Fingers of Time

Time is money.
Time heals all wounds.
Given time,
anything is possible.
And now he had all the
time in the world!

He began by breaking things that morning. He broke the glass of
water on his night stand. He knocked it crazily against the
opposite wall and shattered it. Yet it shattered slowly. This
would have surprised him if he had been fully awake, for he had
only reached out sleepily for it.

Nor had he wakened regularly to his alarm; he had wakened to a
weird, slow, low booming, yet the clock said six, time for the
alarm. And the low boom, when it came again, seemed to come from
the clock.

He reached out and touched it gently, but it floated off the
stand at his touch and bounced around slowly on the floor. And
when he picked it up again it had stopped, nor would shaking
start it.

He checked the electric clock in the kitchen. This also said six
o’clock, but the sweep hand did not move. In his living room the
radio clock said six, but the second hand seemed stationary.

“But the lights in both rooms work,” said Vincent. “How are the
clocks stopped? Are they on a separate circuit?”

He went back to his bedroom and got his wristwatch. It also said
six; and its sweep hand did not sweep.

“Now this could get silly. What is it that would stop both
mechanical and electrical clocks?”

He went to the window and looked out at the clock on the Mutual
Insurance Building. It said six o’clock, and the second hand did
not move.

“Well, it is possible that the confusion is not limited to
myself. I once heard the fanciful theory that a cold shower will
clear the mind. For me it never has, but I will try it. I can
always use cleanliness for an excuse.”

The shower didn’t work. Yes, it did: the water came now, but not
like water; like very slow syrup that hung in the air. He reached
up to touch it there hanging down and stretching. And it
shattered like glass when he touched it and drifted in fantastic
slow globs across the room. But it had the feel of water, wet and
pleasantly cool. And in a quarter of a minute or so it was down
over his shoulders and back, and he luxuriated in it. He let it
soak his head and it cleared his wits at once.

“There is not a thing wrong with me. I am fine. It is not my
fault that the water is slow this morning and other things awry.”

He reached for the towel and it tore to pieces in his hands like
porous wet paper.

Now he became very careful in the way he handled things. Slowly,
tenderly, and deftly he took them so that they would not break.
He shaved himself without mishap in spite of the slow water in
the lavatory also.

Then he dressed himself with the greatest caution and cunning,
breaking nothing except his shoe laces, a thing that is likely to
happen at any time.

“If there is nothing the matter with me, then I will check and
see if there is anything seriously wrong with the world. The dawn
was fairly along when I looked out, as it should have been.
Approximately twenty minutes have passed; it is a clear morning;
the sun should now have hit the top several stories of the
Insurance Building.”

But it had not. It was a clear morning, but the dawn had not
brightened at all in the twenty minutes. And that big clock
still said six. It had not changed.

Yet it had changed, and he knew it with a queer feeling. He
pictured it as it had been before. The hour and the minute hand
had not moved noticeably. But the second hand had moved. It had
moved a third of the dial.

So he pulled up a chair to the window and watched it. He realized
that, though he could not see it move, yet it did make progress.
He watched it for perhaps five minutes. It moved through a space
of perhaps five seconds.

“Well, that is not my problem. It is that of the clock maker,
either a terrestrial or a celestial one.”

But he left his rooms without a good breakfast, and he left them
very early. How did he know that it was early since there was
something wrong with the time? Well, it was early at least
according to the sun and according to the clocks, neither of
which institutions seemed to be working properly.

He left without a good breakfast because the coffee would not
make and the bacon would not fry. And in plain point of fact the
fire would not heat. The gas flame came from the pilot light like
a slowly spreading stream or an unfolding flower. Then it burned
far too steadily. The skillet remained cold when placed over it;
nor would water even heat. It had taken at least five minutes to
get the water out of the faucet in the first place.

He ate a few pieces of leftover bread and some scraps of meat.

In the street there was no motion, no real motion. A truck, first
seeming at rest, moved very slowly. There was no gear in which it
could move so slowly. And there was a taxi which crept along, but
Charles Vincent had to look at it carefully for some time to be
sure that it was in motion. Then he received a shock. He realized
by the early morning light that the driver of it was dead. Dead
with his eyes wide open!

Slowly as it was going, and by whatever means it was moving, it
should really be stopped. He walked over to it, opened the door,
and pulled on the brake. Then he looked into the eyes of the dead
man. Was he really dead? It was hard to be sure. He felt warm.
But, even as Vincent looked, the eyes of the dead man had begun
to close. And close they did and open again in a matter of about
twenty seconds.

This was weird. The slowly closing and opening eyes sent a chill
through Vincent. And the dead man had begun to lean forward in
his seat. Vincent put a hand in the middle of the man’s chest to
hold him upright, but he found the forward pressure as relentless
as it was slow. He was unable to keep the dead man up.

So he let him go, watching curiously; and in a few seconds the
driver’s face was against the wheel. But it was almost as if it
had no intention of stopping there. It pressed into the wheel
with dogged force. He would surely break his face. Vincent took
several holds on the dead man and counteracted the pressure
somewhat. Yet the face was being damaged, and if things were
normal, blood would have flowed.

The man had been dead so long however, that (though he was still
warm) his blood must have congealed, for it was fully two minutes
before it began to ooze.

“Whatever I have done, I have done enough damage,” said Vincent.
“And, in whatever nightmare I am in, I am likely to do further
harm if I meddle more. I had better leave it alone.”

He walked on down the morning street. Yet whatever vehicles he
saw were moving with an incredible slowness, as though driven by
some fantastic gear reduction. And there were people here and
there frozen solid. It was a chilly morning, but it was not that
cold. They were immobile in positions of motion, as though they
were playing the children’s game of Statues.

“How is it,” said Charles Vincent, “that this young girl (who I
believe works across the street from us) should have died
standing up and in full stride? But, no. She is not dead. Or, if
so, she died with a very alert expression. And–oh, my God, she’s
doing it too!”

For he realized that the eyes of the girl were closing, and in
the space of no more than a quarter of a second they had
completed their cycle and were open again. Also, and this was
even stranger, she had moved, moved forward in full stride. He
would have timed her if he could, but how could he when all the
clocks were crazy? Yet she must have been taking about two steps
a minute.

He went into the cafeteria. The early morning crowd that he had
often watched through the windows was there. The girl who made
flapjacks in the window had just flipped one and it hung in the
air. Then it floated over as if caught by a slight breeze, and
sank slowly down as if settling in water.

The breakfasters, like the people in the street, were all dead in
this new way, moving with almost imperceptible motion. And all
had apparently died in the act of drinking coffee, eating eggs,
or munching toast. And if there were only time enough, there was
even a chance that they would get the drinking, eating, and
munching done with, for there was the shadow of movement in them
all.

The cashier had the register drawer open and money in her hand,
and the hand of the customer was outstretched for it. In time,
somewhere in the new leisurely time, the hands would come
together and the change be given. And so it happened. It may have
been a minute and a half, or two minutes, or two and a half. It
is always hard to judge time, and now it had become all but
impossible.

“I am still hungry,” said Charles Vincent, “but it would be
foolhardy to wait for service here. Should I help myself? They
will not mind if they are dead. And if they are not dead, in any
case it seems that I am invisible to them.”

He wolfed several rolls. He opened a bottle of milk and held it
upside down over his glass while he ate another roll. Liquids had
all become perversely slow.

But he felt better for his erratic breakfast. He would have paid
for it, but how?

He left the cafeteria and walked about the town as it seemed
still to be quite early, though one could depend on neither sun
nor clock for the time any more. The traffic lights were
unchanging. He sat for a long time in a little park and watched
the town and the big clock in the Commerce Building tower; but
like all the clocks it was either stopped or the hand would creep
too slowly to be seen.

It must have been just about an hour till the traffic lights
changed, but change they did at last. By picking a point on the
building across the street and watching what moved past it, he
found that the traffic did indeed move. In a minute or so, the
entire length of a car would pass the given point.

He had, he recalled, been very far behind in his work and it had
been worrying him. He decided to go to the office, early as it
was or seemed to be.

He let himself in. Nobody else was there. He resolved not to look
at the clock and to be very careful of the way he handled all
objects because of his new propensity for breaking things. This
considered, all seemed normal there. He had said the day before
that he could hardly catch up on his work if he put in two days
solid. He now resolved at least to work steadily until something
happened, whatever it was.

For hour after hour he worked on his tabulations and reports.
Nobody else had arrived. Could something be wrong? Certainly
something was wrong. But this was not a holiday. That was not it.

Just how long can a stubborn and mystified man plug away at his
task? It was hour after hour after hour. He did not become hungry
nor particularly tired. And he did get through a lot of work.

“It must be half done. However it has happened, I have caught up
on at least a day’s work. I will keep on.”

He must have continued silently for another eight or ten hours.

He was caught up completely on his back work.

“Well, to some extent I can work into the future. I can head up
and carry over. I can put in everything but the figures of the
field reports.”

And he did so.

“It will be hard to bury me in work again. I could almost coast
for a day. I don’t even know what day it is, but I must have
worked twenty hours straight through and nobody has arrived.
Perhaps nobody ever will arrive. If they are moving with the
speed of the people in the nightmare outside, it is no wonder
they have not arrived.”

He put his head down on his arms on the desk. The last thing he
saw before he closed his eyes was the misshapen left thumb that
he had always tried to conceal a little by the way he handled his
hands.

“At least I know that I am still myself. I’d know myself anywhere
by that.”

Then he went to sleep at his desk.

Jenny came in with a quick click-click-click of high heels, and
he wakened to the noise.

“What are you doing dozing at your desk, Mr. Vincent? Have you
been here all night?”

“I don’t know, Jenny. Honestly I don’t.”

“I was only teasing. Sometimes when I get here a little early I
take a catnap myself.”

The clock said six minutes till eight and the second hand was
sweeping normally. Time had returned to the world. Or to him. But
had all that early morning of his been a dream? Then it had been
a very efficient dream. He had accomplished work that he could
hardly have done in two days. And it was the same day that it was
supposed to be.

He went to the water fountain. The water now behaved normally. He
went to the window. The traffic was behaving as it should. Though
sometimes slow and sometimes snarled, yet it was in the pace of
the regular world.

The other workers arrived. They were not balls of fire, but
neither was it necessary to observe them for several minutes to
be sure they weren’t dead.

“It did have its advantages,” Charles Vincent said. “I would be
afraid to live with it permanently, but it would be handy to go
into for a few minutes a day and accomplish the business of
hours. I may be a case for the doctor. But just how would I go
about telling a doctor what was bothering me?”

Now it had surely been less than two hours from his first rising
till the time that he wakened to the noise of Jenny from his
second sleep. And how long that second sleep had been, or in
which time enclave, he had no idea. But how account for it all?
He had spent a long while in his own rooms, much longer than
ordinary in his confusion. He had walked the city mile after mile
in his puzzlement. And he had sat in the little park for hours
and studied the situation. And he had worked at his own desk for
an outlandish long time.

Well, he would go to the doctor. A man is obliged to refrain from
making a fool of himself to the world at large, but to his own
lawyer, his priest, or his doctor he will sometimes have to come
as a fool. By their callings they are restrained from scoffing
openly.

Dr. Mason was not particularly a friend. Charles Vincent realized
with some unease that he did not have any particular friends,
only acquaintances and associates. It was as though he were of a
species slightly apart from his fellows. He wished now a little
that he had a particular friend.

But Dr. Mason was an acquaintance of some years, had the
reputation of being a good doctor, and besides Vincent had now
arrived at his office and been shown in. He would either have
to–well, that was as good a beginning as any.

“Doctor, I am in a predicament. I will either have to invent some
symptoms to account for my visit here, or make an excuse and
bolt, or tell you what is bothering me, even though you will
think I am a new sort of idiot.”

“Vincent, every day people invent symptoms to cover their visits
here, and I know that they have lost their nerve about the real
reason for coming. And every day people do make excuses and bolt.
But experience tells me that I will get a larger fee if you
tackle the third alternative. And, Vincent, there is no new sort
of idiot.”

Vincent said, “It may not sound so silly if I tell it quickly. I
awoke this morning to some very puzzling incidents. It seemed
that time itself had stopped, or that the whole world had gone
into super-slow motion. The water would neither flow nor boil,
and fire would not heat food. The clocks, which I first believed
had stopped, crept along at perhaps a minute an hour. The people
I met in the streets appeared dead, frozen in lifelike attitudes.
And it was only by watching them for a very long time that I
perceived that they did indeed have motion. One car I saw
creeping slower than the most backward snail, and a dead man at
the wheel of it. I went to it, opened the door, and put on the
brake. I realized after a time that the man was not dead. But he
bent forward and broke his face on the steering wheel. It must
have taken a full minute for his head to travel no more than ten
inches, yet I was unable to prevent his hitting the wheel. I then
did other bizarre things in a world that had died on its feet. I
walked many miles through the city, and then I sat for hours in
the park. I went to the office and let myself in. I accomplished
work that must have taken me twenty hours. I then took a nap at
my desk. When I awoke on the arrival of the others, it was six
minutes to eight in the morning of the same day, today. Not two
hours had passed from my rising, and time was back to normal. But
the things that happened in that time that could never be
compressed into two hours.”

“One question first, Vincent. Did you actually accomplish the
work of many hours?”

“I did. It was done, and done in that time. It did not become
undone on the return of time to normal.”

“A second question. Had you been worried about your work, about
being behind?”

“Yes. Emphatically.”

“Then here is one explanation. You retired last night. But very
shortly afterward you arose in a state of somnambulism. There are
facets of sleepwalking which we do not at all understand. The
time-out-of-focus interludes were parts of a walking dream of
yours. You dressed and went to your office and worked all night.
It is possible to do routine tasks in a somnambulistic state
rapidly and even feverishly, with an intense concentration–to
perform prodigies. You may have fallen into a normal sleep there
when you had finished, or you may have been awakened directly
from your somnambulistic trance on the arrival of your co-workers.
There, that is a plausible and workable explanation. In the case
of an apparently bizarre happening, it is always well to have a
rational explanation to fall back on. They will usually satisfy a
patient and put his mind at rest. But often they do not satisfy
me.”

“Your explanation very nearly satisfies me, Dr. Mason, and it
does put my mind considerably at rest. I am sure that in a short
while I will be able to accept it completely. But why does it not
satisfy you?”

“One reason is a man I treated early this morning. He had his
face smashed, and he had seen–or almost seen–a ghost: a ghost of
incredible swiftness that was more sensed than seen. The ghost
opened the door of his car while it was going at full speed,
jerked on the brake, and caused him to crack his head. This man
was dazed and had a slight concussion. I have convinced him that
he did not see any ghost at all, that he must have dozed at the
wheel and run into something. As I say, I am harder to convince
than my patients. But it may have been coincidence.”

“I hope so. But you also seem to have another reservation.”

“After quite a few years in practice, I seldom see or hear
anything new. Twice before I have been told a happening or a
dream on the line of what you experienced.”

“Did you convince your patients that it was only a dream?”

“I did. Both of them. That is, I convinced them the first few
times it happened to them.”

“Were they satisfied?”

“At first. Later, not entirely. But they both died within a year
of their first coming to me.”

“Nothing violent, I hope.”

“Both had the gentlest deaths. That of senility extreme.”

“Oh. Well, I’m too young for that.”

“I would like you to come back in a month or so.”

“I will, if the delusion or the dream returns. Or if I do not
feel well.”

After this Charles Vincent began to forget about the incident. He
only recalled it with humor sometimes when again he was behind in
his work.

“Well, if it gets bad enough I may do another sleepwalking act
and catch up. But if there is another aspect of time and I could
enter it at will, it might often be handy.”

Charles Vincent never saw his face at all. It is very dark in
some of those clubs and the Coq Bleu is like the inside of a
tomb. He went to the clubs only about once a month, sometimes
after a show when he did not want to go home to bed, sometimes
when he was just plain restless.

Citizens of the more fortunate states may not know of the
mysteries of the clubs. In Vincent’s the only bars are beer bars,
and only in the clubs can a person get a drink, and only members
are admitted. It is true that even such a small club as the Coq
Bleu had thirty thousand members, and at a dollar a year that is
a nice sideline. The little numbered membership cards cost a
penny each for the printing, and the member wrote in his own
name. But he had to have a card–or a dollar for a card–to gain
admittance.

But there could be no entertainments in the clubs. There was
nothing there but the little bar room in the near darkness.

The man was there, and then he was not, and then he was there
again. And always where he sat it was too dark to see his face.

“I wonder,” he said to Vincent (or to the bar at large, though
there were no other customers and the bartender was asleep), “I
wonder if you have ever read Zurbarin on the Relationship of
Extradigitalism to Genius?”

“I have never heard of the work nor of the man,” said Vincent. “I
doubt if either exists.”

“I am Zurbarin,” said the man.

Vincent hid his misshapen left thumb. Yet it could not have been
noticed in that light, and he must have been crazy to believe
there was any connection between it and the man’s remark. It was
not truly a double thumb. He was not an extradigital, nor was he
a genius.

“I refuse to become interested in you,” said Vincent. “I am on
the verge of leaving. I dislike waking the bartender, but I did
want another drink.”

“Sooner done than said.”

“What is?”

“Your glass is full.”

“It is? So it is. Is it a trick?”

“Trick is the name for anything either too frivolous or too
mystifying for us to comprehend. But on one long early morning of
a month ago, you also could have done the trick, and nearly as
well.”

“Could I have? How would you know about my long early
morning–assuming there to have been such?”

“I watched you for a while. Few others have the equipment to
watch you with when you’re in the aspect.”

So they were silent for some time, and Vincent watched the clock
and was ready to go.

“I wonder,” said the man in the dark, “if you have read
Schimmelpenninck on the Sexagintal and the Duodecimal in the
Chaldee Mysteries?”

“I have not and I doubt if anyone else has. I would guess that
you are also Schimmelpenninck and that you have just made up the
name on the spur of the moment.”

“I am Schimm, it is true, but I made up the name on the spur of a
moment many years ago.”

“I am a little bored with you,” said Vincent, “but I would
appreciate it if you’d do your glass-filling trick once more.”

“I have just done so. And you are not bored; you are frightened.”

“Of what?” asked Vincent, whose glass was in fact full again.

“Of reentering a dread that you are not sure was a dream. But
there are advantages to being both invisible and inaudible.”

“Can you be invisible?”

“Was I not when I went behind the bar just now and fixed you a
drink?”

“How?”

“A man in full stride goes at the rate of about five miles an
hour. Multiply that by sixty, which is the number of time. When I
leave my stool and go behind the bar, I go and return at the rate
of three hundred miles an hour. So I am invisible to you,
particularly if I move while you blink.”

“One thing does not match. You might have got around there and
back, but you could not have poured.”

“Shall I say that mastery over liquids is not given to beginners?
But for us there are many ways to outwit the slowness of matter.”

“I believe that you are a hoaxer. Do you know Dr. Mason?”

“I know that you went to see him. I know of his futile attempts
to penetrate a certain mystery. But I have not talked to him of
you.”

“I still believe that you are a phony. Could you put me back into
the state of my dream of a month ago?”

“It was not a dream. But I could put you again into that state.”

“Prove it.”

“Watch the clock. Do you believe that I can point my finger at it
and stop it for you? It is already stopped for me.”

“No, I don’t believe it. Yes, I guess I have to, since I see that
you have just done it. But it may be another trick. I don’t know
where the clock is plugged in.”

“Neither do I. Come to the door. Look at every clock you can see.
Are they not all stopped?”

“Yes. Maybe the power has gone off all over town.”

“You know it has not. There are still lighted windows in those
buildings, though it is quite late.”

“Why are you playing with me? I am neither on the inside nor the
outside. Either tell me the secret or say that you will not tell
me.”

“The secret isn’t a simple one. It can only be arrived at after
all philosophy and learning have been assimilated.”

“One man cannot arrive at that in one lifetime.”

“Not in an ordinary lifetime. But the secret of the secret (if I
may put it that way) is that one must use part of it as a tool in
learning. You could not learn all in one lifetime, but by being
permitted the first step–to be able to read, say, sixty books in
the time it took you to read one, to pause for a minute in
thought and use up only one second, to get a day’s work
accomplished in eight minutes and so have time for other
things–by such ways one may make a beginning. I will warn you,
though. Even for the most intelligent, it is a race.”

“A race? What race?”

“It is a race between success, which is life, and failure, which
is death.”

“Let’s skip the melodrama. How do I get into the state and out of
it?”

“Oh, that is simple, so easy that it seems like a gadget. Here
are two diagrams I will draw. Note them carefully. This first,
envision it in your mind and you are in the state. Now this
second one, envision, and you are out of it.”

“That easy?”

“That deceptively easy. The trick is to learn why it works–if you
want to succeed, meaning to live.”

So Charles Vincent left him and went home, walking the mile in a
little less than fifteen normal seconds. But he still had not
seen the face of the man.

There are advantages intellectual, monetary, and amorous in being
able to enter the accelerated state at will. It is a fox game.
One must be careful not to be caught at it, nor to break or harm
that which is in the normal state.

Vincent could always find eight or ten minutes unobserved to
accomplish the day’s work. And a fifteen-minute coffee break
could turn into a fifteen-hour romp around the town.

There was this boyish pleasure in becoming a ghost: to appear and
stand motionless in front of an onrushing train and to cause the
scream of the whistle, and to be in no danger, being able to move
five or ten times as fast as the train; to enter and to sit
suddenly in the middle of a select group and see them stare, and
then disappear from the middle of them; to interfere in sports
and games, entering a prize ring and tripping, hampering, or
slugging the unliked fighter; to blue-shot down the hockey ice,
skating at fifteen hundred miles an hour and scoring dozens of
goals at either end while the people only know that something odd
is happening.

There was pleasure in being able to shatter windows by chanting
little songs, for the voice (when in the state) will be to the
world at sixty times its regular pitch, though normal to oneself.
And for this reason also he was inaudible to others.

There was fun in petty thieving and tricks. He would take a
wallet from a man’s pocket and be two blocks away when the victim
turned at the feel. He would come back and stuff it into the
man’s mouth as he bleated to a policeman.

He would come into the home of a lady writing a letter, snatch
up the paper and write three lines and vanish before the scream
got out of her throat.

He would take food off forks, put baby turtles and live fish into
bowls of soup between spoonfuls of the eater.

He would lash the hands of handshakers tightly together with
stout cord. He unzippered persons of both sexes when they were at
their most pompous. He changed cards from one player’s hand to
another’s. He removed golf balls from tees during the backswing
and left notes written large “YOU MISSED ME” pinned to the ground
with the tee.

Or he shaved mustaches and heads. Returning repeatedly to one
woman he disliked, he gradually clipped her bald and finally
gilded her pate.

With tellers counting their money, he interfered outrageously and
enriched himself. He snipped cigarettes in two with a scissors
and blew out matches, so that one frustrated man broke down and
cried at his inability to get a light.

He removed the weapons from the holsters of policemen and put cap
pistols and water guns in their places. He unclipped the leashes
of dogs and substituted little toy dogs rolling on wheels.

He put frogs in water glasses and left lighted firecrackers on
bridge tables.

He reset wrist watches on wrists, and played pranks in men’s
rooms.

“I was always a boy at heart,” said Charles Vincent.

Also during those first few days of the controlled new state, he
established himself materially, acquiring wealth by devious ways,
and opening bank accounts in various cities under various names,
against a time of possible need.

Nor did he ever feel any shame for the tricks he played on
unaccelerated humanity. For the people, when he was in the state,
were as statues to him, hardly living, barely moving, unseeing,
unhearing. And it is no shame to show disrespect to such comical
statues.

And also, and again because he was a boy at heart, he had fun
with the girls.

“I am one mass of black and blue marks,” said Jenny one day. “My
lips are sore and my front teeth feel loosened. I don’t know what
in the world is the matter with me.”

Yet he had not meant to bruise or harm her. He was rather fond of
her and he resolved to be much more careful. Yet it was fun, when
he was in the state and invisible to her because of his speed, to
kiss her here and there in out-of-the-way places. She made a
nice statue and it was good sport. And there were others.

“You look older,” said one of his co-workers one day. “Are you
taking care of yourself? Are you worried?”

“I am not,” said Vincent. “I never felt better or happier in my
life.”

But now there was time for so many things–time, in fact, for
everything. There was no reason why he could not master anything
in the world, when he could take off for fifteen minutes and gain
fifteen hours. Vincent was a rapid but careful reader. He could
now read from a hundred and twenty to two hundred books in an
evening and night; and he slept in the accelerated state and
could get a full night’s sleep in eight minutes.

He first acquired a knowledge of languages. A quite extensive
reading knowledge of a language can be acquired in three hundred
hours world time, or three hundred minutes (five hours)
accelerated time. And if one takes the tongues in order, from the
most familiar to the most remote, there is no real difficulty. He
acquired fifty for a starter, and could always add any other any
evening that he found he had a need for it. And at the same time
he began to assemble and consolidate knowledge. Of literature,
properly speaking, there are no more than ten thousand books that
are really worth reading and falling in love with. These were
gone through with high pleasure, and two or three thousand of
them were important enough to be reserved for future rereading.

History, however, is very uneven; and it is necessary to read
texts and sources that for form are not worth reading. And the
same with philosophy. Mathematics and science, pure or physical,
could not, of course, be covered with the same speed. Yet, with
time available, all could be mastered. There is no concept ever
expressed by any human mind that cannot be comprehended by any
other normal human mind, if time is available and it is taken in
the proper order and context and with the proper preparatory
work.

And often, and now more often, Vincent felt that he was touching
the fingers of the secret; and always, when he came near it, it
had a little bit the smell of the pit.

For he had pegged out all the main points of the history of man;
or rather most of the tenable, or at least possible, theories of
the history of man. It was hard to hold the main line of it, that
double road of rationality and revelation that should lead always
to a fuller and fuller development (not the fetish of progress,
that toy word used only by toy people), to an unfolding and
growth and perfectibility.

But the main line was often obscure and all but obliterated, and
traced through fog and miasma. He had accepted the Fall of Man
and the Redemption as the cardinal points of history. But he
understood now that neither happened only once, that both were of
constant occurrence; that there was a hand reaching up from that
old pit with its shadow over man. And he had come to picture that
hand in his dreams (for his dreams were especially vivid when in
the state) as a six-digited monster reaching out. He began to
realize that the thing he was caught in was dangerous and deadly.

Very dangerous.

Very deadly.

One of the weird books that he often returned to and which
continually puzzled him was the Relationship of Extradigitalism
to Genius, written by the man whose face he had never seen, in
one of his manifestations.

It promised more than it delivered, and it intimated more than it
said. Its theory was tedious and tenuous, bolstered with
undigested mountains of doubtful data. It left him unconvinced
that persons of genius (even if it could be agreed who or what
they were) had often the oddity of extra fingers and toes, or the
vestiges of them. And it puzzled him what possible difference it
could make.

Yet there were hints here of a Corsican who commonly kept a hand
hidden, or an earlier and more bizarre commander who wore always
a mailed glove, of another man with a glove between the two;
hints that the multiplex-adept, Leonardo himself, who sometimes
drew the hands of men and often those of monsters with six
fingers, may himself have had the touch. There was a comment of
Caesar, not conclusive, to the same effect. It is known that
Alexander had a minor peculiarity; it is not known what it was;
this man made it seem that this was it. And it was averred of
Gregory and Augustine, of Benedict and Albert and Acquinas. Yet a
man with a deformity could not enter the priesthood; if they had
it, it must have been in vestigial form.

There were cases for Charles Magnut and Mahmud, for Saladin the
Horseman and for Akhnaton the King; for Homer (a Seleuciad-Greek
statuette shows him with six fingers strumming an unidentified
instrument while reciting); for Pythagoras, for Buonarroti,
Santi, Theotokopolous, van Rijn, Robusti.

Zurbarin catalogued eight thousand names. He maintained that they
were geniuses. And that they were extradigitals.

Charles Vincent grinned and looked down at his misshapen or
double thumb.

“At least I am in good though monotonous company. But what in the
name of triple time is he driving at?”

And it was not long afterward that Vincent was examining
cuneiform tablets in the State Museum. These were a broken and
not continuous series on the theory of numbers, tolerably legible
to the now encyclopedic Charles Vincent. And the series read in
part:

“On the divergence of the basis itself and the confusion
caused–for it is five, or it is six, or ten or twelve, or sixty
or a hundred, or three hundred and sixty or the double hundred,
the thousand. The reason, not clearly understood by the people,
is that Six and the Dozen are first, and Sixty is a compromise in
condescending to the people. For the five, the ten are late, and
are no older than the people themselves. It is said, and
credited, that people began to count by fives and tens from the
number of fingers on their hands. But before the people the–by
the reason that they had–counted by sixes and twelves. But Sixty
is the number of time, divisible by both, for both must live
together in time, though not on the same plane of time–” Much of
the rest was scattered. And it was while trying to set the
hundreds of unordered clay tablets in proper sequence that
Charles Vincent created the legend of the ghost in the museum.

For he spent his multi-hundred-hour nights there studying and
classifying. Naturally he could not work without light, and
naturally he could be seen when he sat still at his studies. But
as the slow-moving guards attempted to close in on him, he would
move to avoid them, and his speed made him invisible to them.
They were a nuisance and had to be discouraged. He belabored them
soundly and they became less eager to try to capture him.

His only fear was that they would some time try to shoot him to
see if he were ghost or human. He could avoid a seen shot, which
would come at no more than two and a half times his own greatest
speed. But an unperceived shot could penetrate dangerously, even
fatally, before he twisted away from it.

He had fathered legends of other ghosts, that of the Central
Library, that of University Library, that of the John Charles
Underwood Jr. Technical Library. This plurality of ghosts tended
to cancel out each other and bring believers into ridicule. Even
those who had seen him as a ghost did not admit that they
believed in the ghosts.

He went back to Dr. Mason for his monthly checkup.

“You look terrible,” said the Doctor. “Whatever it is, you have
changed. If you can afford it, you should take a long rest.”

“I have the means,” said Charles Vincent, “and that is just what
I will do. I’ll take a rest for a year or two.”

He had begun to begrudge the time that he must spend at the
world’s pace. From now on he was regarded as a recluse. He was
silent and unsociable, for he found it a nuisance to come back to
the common state to engage in conversation, and in his special
state voices were too slow-pitched to intrude into his consciousness.

Except that of the man whose face he had never seen.

“You are making very tardy progress,” said the man. Once more
they were in a dark club. “Those who do not show more progress we
cannot use. After all, you are only a vestigial. It is probable
that you have very little of the ancient race in you. Fortunately
those who do not show progress destroy themselves. You had not
imagined that there were only two phases of time, had you?”

“Lately I have come to suspect that there are many more,” said
Charles Vincent.

“And you understand that only one step cannot succeed?”

“I understand that the life I have been living is in direct
violation of all that we know of the laws of mass, momentum, and
acceleration, as well as those of conservation of energy, the
potential of the human person, the moral compensation, the golden
mean, and the capacity of human organs. I know that I cannot
multiply energy and experience sixty times without a compensating
increase of food intake, and yet I do it. I know that I cannot
live on eight minutes’ sleep in twenty-four hours, but I do that
also. I know that I cannot reasonably crowd four thousand years
of experience into one lifetime, yet unreasonably I do not see
what will prevent it. But you say I will destroy myself.”

“Those who take only the first step destroy themselves.”

“And how does one take the second step?”

“At the proper moment you will be given the choice.”

“I have the most uncanny feeling that I will refuse the choice.”

“From present indications, you will refuse it. You are
fastidious.”

“You have a smell about you, Old Man without a face. I know now
what it is. It is the smell of the pit.”

“Are you so slow to learn that?”

“It is the mud from the pit, the same from which the clay tablets
were formed, from the old land between the rivers. I’ve dreamed
of the six-fingered hand reaching up from the pit and overshadowing
us all. And I have read: ‘The people first counted by fives and
tens from the number of fingers on their hands. But before the
people–for the reason that they had–counted by sixes and
twelves.’ But time has left blanks in those tablets.”

“Yes, time in one of its manifestations has deftly and with a
purpose left those blanks.”

“I cannot discover the name of the thing that goes in one of
those blanks. Can you?”

“I am part of the name that goes into one of those blanks.”

“And you are the man without a face. But why is it that you
overshadow and control people? And to what purpose?”

“It will be long before you know those answers.”

“When the choice comes to me, it will bear very careful
weighing.”

After that a chill descended on the life of Charles Vincent, for
all that he still possessed his exceptional powers. And he seldom
now indulged in pranks.

Except for Jennifer Parkey.

It was unusual that he should be drawn to her. He knew her only
slightly in the common world and she was at least fifteen years
his senior. But now she appealed to him for her youthful
qualities, and all his pranks with her were gentle ones.

For one thing this spinster did not frighten, nor did she begin
locking her doors, never having bothered about such things
before. He would come behind her and stroke her hair, and she
would speak out calmly with that sort of quickening in her voice:
“Who are you? Why won’t you let me see you? You are a friend,
aren’t you? Are you a man, or are you something else? If you can
caress me, why can’t you talk to me? Please let me see you. I
promise that I won’t hurt you.”

It was as though she could not imagine that anything strange
would hurt her. Or again when he hugged her or kissed her on the
nape, she would call: “You must be a little boy, or very like a
little boy, whoever you are. You are good not to break my things
when you move about. Come here and let me hold you.”

It is only very good people who have no fear at all of the
unknown.

When Vincent met Jennifer in the regular world, as he more often
now found occasion to do, she looked at him appraisingly, as
though she guessed some sort of connection.

She said one day: “I know it is an impolite thing to say, but you
do not look well at all. Have you been to a doctor?”

“Several times. But I think it is my doctor who should go to a
doctor. He was always given to peculiar remarks, but now he is
becoming a little unsettled.”

“If I were your doctor, I believe I would also become a little
unsettled. But you should find out what is wrong. You look
terrible.”

He did not look terrible. He had lost his hair, it is true, but
many men lose their hair by thirty, though not perhaps as
suddenly as he had. He thought of attributing it to the air
resistance. After all, when he was in the state he did stride at
some three hundred miles an hour. And enough of that is likely to
blow the hair right off your head. And might that not also be the
reason for his worsened complexion and the tireder look that
appeared in his eyes? But he knew that this was nonsense. He felt
no more air pressure when in his accelerated state than when in
the normal one.

He had received his summons. He chose not to answer it. He did
not want to be presented with the choice; he had no wish to be
one with those of the pit. But he had no intention of giving up
the great advantage which he now held over nature.

“I will have it both ways,” he said. “I am already a
contradiction and an impossibility. The proverb was only the
early statement of the law of moral compensation: ‘You can’t take
more out of a basket than it holds.’ But for a long time I have
been in violation of the laws and balances. ‘There is no road
without a turning,’ ‘Those who dance will have to pay the
fiddler,’ ‘Everything that goes up comes down,’ But are proverbs
really universal laws? Certainly. A sound proverb has the force
of universal law; it is but another statement of it. But I have
contradicted the universal laws. It remains to be seen whether I
have contradicted them with impunity. ‘Every action has its
reaction.’ If I refuse to deal with them, I will provoke a strong
reaction. The man without a face said that it was always a race
between full knowing and destruction. Very well, I will race them
for it.”

They began to persecute him then. He knew that they were in a
state as accelerated from his as his was from the normal. To them
he was the almost motionless statue, hardly to be told from a
dead man. To him they were by their speed both invisible and
inaudible. They hurt him and haunted him. But still he would not
answer the summons.

When the meeting took place, it was they who had to come to him,
and they materialized there in his room, men without faces.

“The choice,” said one. “You force us to be so clumsy as to have
to voice it.”

“I will have no part of you. You all smell of the pit, of that
old mud of the cuneiforms of the land between the rivers, of the
people who were before the people.”

“It has endured a long time, and we consider it as enduring
forever. But the Garden which was in the neighborhood–do you know
how long the Garden lasted?”

“I don’t know.”

“That all happened in a single day, and before nightfall they
were outside. You want to throw in with something more permanent,
don’t you.”

“No. I don’t believe I do.”

“What have you to lose?”

“Only my hope of eternity.”

“But you don’t believe in that. No man has ever really believed
in eternity.”

“No man has ever either entirely believed or disbelieved in it,”
said Charles Vincent.

“At least it cannot be proved,” said one of the faceless men.
“Nothing is proved until it is over with. And in this case, if it
is ever over with, then it is disproved. And all that time would
one not be tempted to wonder, ‘What if, after all, it ends in the
next minute?'”

“I imagine that if we survive the flesh we will receive some sort
of surety,” said Vincent.

“But you are not sure either of such surviving or receiving. Now
_we_ have a very close approximation of eternity. When time is
multiplied by itself, and that repeated again and again, does
that not approximate eternity?”

“I don’t believe it does. But I will not be of you. One of you
has said that I am too fastidious. So now will you say that
you’ll destroy me?”

“No. We will only let you be destroyed. By yourself, you cannot
win the race with destruction.”

After that Charles Vincent somehow felt more mature. He knew he
was not really meant to be a six-fingered thing of the pit. He
knew that in some way he would have to pay for every minute and
hour that he had gained. But what he had gained he would use to
the fullest. And whatever could be accomplished by sheer
acquisition of human knowledge, he would try to accomplish.

And he now startled Dr. Mason by the medical knowledge he had
picked up, the while the doctor amused him by the concern he
showed for Vincent. For he felt fine. He was perhaps not as
active as he had been, but that was only because he had become
dubious of aimless activity. He was still the ghost of the
libraries and museums, but was puzzled that the published reports
intimated that an old ghost had replaced a young one.

He now paid his mystic visits to Jennifer Parkey less often. For
he was always dismayed to hear her exclaim to him in his ghostly
form: “Your touch is so changed. You poor thing! Is there
anything at all I can do to help you?”

He decided that somehow she was too immature to understand him,
though he was still fond of her. He transferred his affections to
Mrs. Milly Maltby, a widow at least thirty years his senior. Yet
here it was a sort of girlishness in her that appealed to him.
She was a woman of sharp wit and real affection, and she also
accepted his visitations without fear, following a little initial
panic.

They played games, writing games, for they communicated by
writing. She would scribble a line, then hold the paper up in the
air whence he would cause it to vanish into his sphere. He would
return it in half a minute, or half a second by her time, with
his retort. He had the advantage of her in time with greatly more
opportunity to think up responses, but she had the advantage over
him in natural wit and was hard to top.

They also played checkers, and he often had to retire apart and
read a chapter of a book on the art between moves, and even so
she often beat him; for native talent is likely to be a match for
accumulated lore and codified procedure.

But to Milly also he was unfaithful in his fashion, being now
interested (he no longer became enamored or entranced) in a Mrs.
Roberts, a great-grandmother who was his elder by at least fifty
years. He had read all the data extant on the attraction of the
old for the young, but he still could not explain his successive
attachments. He decided that these three examples were enough to
establish a universal law: that a woman is simply not afraid of a
ghost, though he touches her and is invisible, and writes her
notes without hands. It is possible that amorous spirits have
known this for a long time, but Charles Vincent had made the
discovery himself independently.

When enough knowledge is accumulated on any subject, the pattern
will sometimes emerge suddenly, like a form in a picture revealed
where before it was not seen. And when enough knowledge is
accumulated on all subjects, is there not a chance that a pattern
governing all subjects will emerge?

Charles Vincent was caught up in one last enthusiasm. On a long
vigil, as he consulted source after source and sorted them in his
mind, it seemed that the pattern was coming out clearly and
simply, for all its amazing complexity of detail.

“I know everything that they know in the pit, and I know a
secret that they do not know. I have not lost the race–I have won
it. I can defeat them at the point where they believe themselves
invulnerable. If controlled hereafter, we need at least not be
controlled by them. It is all falling together now. I have found
the final truth, and it is they who have lost the race. I hold
the key. I will now be able to enjoy the advantage without paying
the ultimate price of defeat and destruction, or of collaboration
with them.

“Now I have only to implement my knowledge, to publish the fact,
and one shadow at least will be lifted from mankind. I will do it
at once. Well, nearly at once. It is almost dawn in the normal
world. I will sit here a very little while and rest. Then I will
go out and begin to make contact with the proper persons for the
disposition of this thing. But first I will sit here a little
while and rest.”

And he died quietly in his chair as he sat there.

Dr. Mason made an entry in his private journal: “Charles Vincent,
a completely authenticated case of premature aging, one of the
most clear-cut in all gerontology. This man was known to me for
years, and I here aver that as of one year ago he was of normal
appearance and physical state, and that his chronology is also
correct, I having also known his father. I examined the subject
during the period of his illness, and there is no question at all
of his identity, which has also been established for the record
by fingerprinting and other means. I aver that Charles Vincent at
the age of thirty is dead of old age, having the appearance and
organic condition of a man of ninety.”

Then the doctor began to make another note: “As in two other
cases of my own observation, the illness was accompanied by a
certain delusion and series of dreams, so nearly identical in the
three men as to be almost unbelievable. And for the record, and
no doubt to the prejudice of my own reputation, I will set down
the report of them here.”

But when Dr. Mason had written that, he thought about it for a
while.

“No, I will do no such thing,” he said, and he struck out the
last lines he had written. “It is best to let sleeping dragons
lie.”

And somewhere the faceless men with the smell of the pit on them
smiled to themselves in quiet irony.

lafferty

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