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Marking Time

Copyright © 1987, 2005 by Greg Slade

Oliver leaned back in his seat and turned to me one more time. "Are you sure you want to go through with this?"

"Why?" I asked him, "Are you worried you might get caught?"

"Caught? Not a chance. I could do this with one keyboard tied behind my back. Besides," he grinned, "This appeals to my larcenous side. What I don't understand is why you want to do this. I've known you for years, and this just doesn't fit in with any of the things you've devoted your life to! This society is what you've spent your whole life looking for, and now you're about to flush it down the tubes. I just don't understand it."

I smiled and told him what I had heard under so many suns in so many tongues, "Everything I have done before is useless compared to this one thing. Up until now, I've only been marking time."

He looked at me strangely, then turned to face his terminal. "Well," he said, "it's on to plunder. Once this program reaches their central exchange, their whole communications net will be disrupted and their tracking program will be a permanent shambles in 24 hours. After that, you can broadcast anything you like and no one will know where it came from or who's picking it up. Here's to the end of civilisation as they know it." He tapped up an access code and transmitted the program, then sat back. "There. It's done now. I hope to God you know what you're doing."

"I don't." I replied, "but He does."

It was a little disconcerting having the entry control officer examine my credentials with two eyes while checking me out so closely with the other two. Having somebody look down your back while sitting across a desk from you can give you the willies. It didn't help that people in uniform make me feel guilty even when I haven't done anything, and here I was being questioned by the long eye of the law. "Rudolf Dewey?" he asked.

"That's me," I replied, as evenly as I could.

"You are from Earth?" It was phrased as a question, although the bright blue U.N. passport in his hands made it a little redundant.

"Yes, that's right." I was waiting for the usual grilling about occupation. That was especially tricky when the officials I dealt with happened to be afflicted with religion. Sure enough, he settled back a little and crossed a couple of legs.

"Tell me, Mr. Dewey. Just why is it you are visiting this planet? We don't get many humans this far from Earth."

I drew a deep breath and started in. "I'm doing research into a phenomenon which seems to be fairly widespread amongst sentient species." That was a small lie it wasn't widespread, it was epidemic. I wasn't really looking for one more instance of it, I was trying to find just one planet that wasn't riddled with it. "You see, on many planets, there are people who believe in beings who cannot be seen, who brought the material universe into being, but are not part of it. These beings go by a lot of names: gods, daemons, deities, spirits..." I trailed off, looking for some indication that I was being understood.

The officer looked me over appraisingly with two or three eyes I never could get used to dealing with a polyocular species before bursting out. "Oh, you mean ignorance!"

"Excuse me?" I was puzzled. "What I was looking for were beings who claim to have knowledge of reality other than the material universe."

"Oh, I don't know about all that beyond the material universe stuff. How something can exist that doesn't exist doesn't make any sense to me at all. All I know is that there used to be a bunch of people who believed in things that don't exist. We called them ignorant, because they believed such ignorant things."

My heart fell. Despite my preliminary research, I had hoped to be wrong in this case. This planet had seemed too logical and orderly to be a breeding ground for superstitions. "What kinds of things?"

"Oh, I don't know. Ignorant things, that's all. Believing in things that aren't so. Well, they're all gone now. We're a totally enlightened planet. No ignorance left here at all."

This was bad news. I had gathered from my preliminary research on this planet that there had been religion actively festering just a few years previously. But now it had been wiped out, so there were no specimens left to classify. This may seem a little strange to you, that I was disappointed at the loss of something that I was desperately hoping not to find, but I am a scientist, after all. Even something I found personally repugnant was, after all, data. It's something like a specialist in diseases who, while hoping that no new strains will be found to bring harm to people, is nevertheless determined to obtain and classify as many samples of diseasecausing organisms as possible.

"Well, have you any records of the beliefs of these ignorant people? Something that says what they believed? Perhaps their sacred writings?"

"Oh, no." He laughed, "all that stuff was melted down. There's not a scrap anywhere on the planet. If there was, we'd know." At that, he pointed to a faint scar on his forehead. I knew what that meant. Each Diocletan was implanted with two biochips at birth. One, in the wrist, monitored physiological functions, reporting the presence of pain, injury, or stress to a central data bank for instant dispatch of medical or other emergency personnel when needed. The benefits to the society were incalculable. No one could be killed, injured, or even lost anywhere on Diocleta without the authorities knowing about it. The other chip, implanted in the forehead, served a less benign function. Totalitarian governments need a totality of knowledge to prevent revolt. No eavesdropping could be more effective than listening in on someone's thoughts. I suspected it would only be a matter of time before the government learned how to control minds as well as read them.

Of course, the system had its weaknesses. The bioelectric cells which powered the chips needed the presence of zinc, if only in trace amounts, to work efficiently, and Diocleta, through some planetological quirk, was entirely lacking in that one element. Therefore, the government provided free food carefully fortified with zinc so as to ensure sound bodies and minds. Armed with this knowledge, I had prepared my supplies for the time I would be on the planet all hydroponics and synthetics, quite fresh, quite anonymous, and quite free of zinc. I knew that zinc was not toxic to my system, and I had no biochips to worry about, but some stubborn streak in me insisted that I would give no chance to this government of working on this visitor. "Of course, even where the transport system isn't as reliable as it could be, and people rely on food they grow themselves, we have no reports of Ignorance! Why, did you know that in the Norenian Highlands, the level of zinc is so low, we don't even have accurate population statistics? But no sign of Ignorance, even there!" The officer was blathering on proudly.

"I'm sorry, where did you say that was?" Here, at least, was a possibility. Anywhere the chips were functioning intermittently was bound to be the last refuge of religious dissidents.

"What? Oh, the Norenian Highlands, just over the mountains from us here. Incredibly backward area. They don't even dye their hair purple there." He looked over my blond locks.

"Oh, yeah, I'm trying for the primitive look so I'll fit in with a place like that." I temporised.

"Nice try," he said, "But I don't know if they'll accept a biped in the highlands. They're not as cosmopolitan as we are here in the capital, you know. Well anyway, good luck. And if you need supplies or anything, don't hesitate to check out anything you like at a victualist."

I smiled and patted my bulging satchel. "Thanks, but I've got everything I need right here."

As it turned out, the Highlands proved considerably more difficult to get to than the officer's remarks had led me to believe. I finally arrived at the central village of the district, after a journey on six different modes of transport including two days aboard a leather hulled craft that looked like the result of crossbreeding a kayak and a Greek Trireme aboard an octopedal substitute for a mule. When I finally alighted, it was with a mixture of relief at standing on my own legs for a change, and disappointment at the wornout looking cluster of hovels which greeted me.

I found out from the owner of the local hostelry that the Village Hall was once a Hall of Ignorance, at least that's what he called it, he didn't know what it had been called originally. He did tell me that the last Hall of Ignorance to be closed was only another days' trip up the river. Dreading the thought of riding that water borne hybrid again, I put off following that lead until I had exhausted the leads within the village to no result, and my dwindling supplies forced me to choose between going on or turning back altogether.

The trip was even rougher than I expected. We followed the river upstream to a lake fronted by the village where the last Hall of Ignorance was situated. All during the second day of the journey, I was admiring a line of yellowish cliffs which stood on the upriver horizon. I asked one of the crew what they were called, but he only muttered something about wind and roused his shipmates to increase their already prodigious efforts at the oars. As we came out of the river and onto the lake, instead of hauling in the oars and resting during a leisurely sail, now that they no longer had to battle the current, the crew lashed the sail even tighter in its furl, and redoubled their efforts on the oars. Suddenly, that immovable line of cliffs, which had shown no change as I had been watching it for hours, burst upon us in a swirl of lashing sand and drumming rain. I realised then that the crew had been racing to get to port before the storm arrived, and had failed.

With the wind and the rain came steadily increasing waves, and over the shriek of the wind and the bawling of the coxswain, I began to hear the groaning of the timbers as the entire craft protested at this unfriendly treatment. All at once, the mast splintered, and the top portion came down right on top of the steering station, sweeping the unfortunate helmsbeing into the raging turbulence. Before the rest of the crew could react, the craft was beam on to the rapidly piling waves, and the pounding began to tear the skin from the ribs. Within minutes, we were driven before the wind onto a rocky lee shore. The craft broke up like a dropped clay pot. As I struggled in the swirl of shredded leather, splintered wood, and frothing water, I began to lose the sense of detachment which had come over me with the first squall, and I realised that there was a very good chance I wouldn't see the next sunrise. As I struggled desperately to free myself from the wreckage, I came the closest I have ever come to praying. Not out loud, but within myself, I cried out to the Universe in general, "Help!" I don't recall much from that point until I woke up the next day. I have a dim recollection of crawling out of the storm whipped lake, clutching my satchel, and collapsing on the shore; and then later strong, gentle hands picking me up, wrapping me in a blanket, and placing me on one of those eight legged mules.

The fire was going in the hut, even though it was daylight outside. I was glad for it, since even under the blankets, I was chilled to the bone from the drenching I had been through. On the other side of the fire, my clothes were drying on a rack. My satchel lay unopened beside it. I felt hands laid gently on my head, and a muttered voice talking to someone I could not see. I turned my head, and saw an ancient Diocletan, far older than I had ever seen before, with his eyes closed, bending over me. He was talking desperately under his breath, addressing his remarks to one he called "Great Father."

Suddenly I recognised what was going on. "You... you're praying!" I gasped through chattering teeth.

His eyes snapped open, then narrowed. "Do you know the meaning of prayer, stranger?"

"Oh, certainly." I began, "People pray all over the galaxy. That's how they speak to God. You must be a believer!"

He sat back. "Believer! I haven't been called that in a long time! Nowadays, belief is called ignorance." He shook his head sadly.

"I've been looking all over the planet for you. I thought they'd killed your kind off!" I said.

He looked at me more closely. "You have been looking for me? Why? Are you a believer?" he asked slowly.

I swallowed and replied, "I believe in the truth."

"Many people claim to have the truth, including the monitors. To them, truth matches the belief of him who holds the gun. Where does your truth come from?" He asked.

"I believe in what I see." I said. "I believe in what is real, and I believe in standing up for the truth, even when it is unpopular."

"Ah! You go to the heart of the matter, stranger. But you are right, I have been hiding too long. I should not be trying to hide the truth at the time when this poor world needs it most. My faith is yet too small." I looked at him in bewilderment. Suddenly I had gone from being on trial to passing judgment. "You are right, it is time to share the truth, whatever the cost. Do you have the words of truth?" He asked.

"Not for this planet. That is why I have been searching for you." That much I could say with confidence.

"I do have a copy." He said, "It has not been easy to keep from the Monitors. It is getting more difficult to keep zinc out of my garden."

"Do you need food?" I asked. "I have some with no zinc."

He examined my wrists and forehead. "You have not been through the Marking Time." He said. "Why do you avoid zinc?"

"Just on general principles," I replied. "I don't like people trying to get into my mind. I need to be in control all the time. I always have."

He gave me another strange look. "It is a strange servant who does not distinguish between the control of false masters and the guidance of his real master. I wonder how much of a believer you are?" He eyed me a minute longer, and I concentrated on not tensing up, but suddenly he turned away. "But that is not for me to judge."

To change the subject, I asked, "Do you have the words of truth with you?" He put one finger to his lips, then pried up a board from the floor of the hut. Reverently, he lifted out and unwrapped a large book. Gently, I took it, and read through a few passages. Every one rang familiar bells. No matter how many religions a planet had, there was always one that taught the same things. I shook my head. Here it was again, even on a planet with only one believer, that one believed in the One God.

"You read so quickly," he said. "It is as if you already know what to look for."

"Everywhere I go." I said. He looked at me inquiringly. "On every planet I have visited, there is a story of the Great Father visiting the planet in the form of the local inhabitants, teaching them, and then dying to free them from the evil they had done. The story is just the same here, just as the things he taught are the same."

"Ah," he said. "I have often wondered if the Great Father has dealt with other worlds as He has dealt with ours. It is good to learn this. But as for the teaching," he reached for the book. "That should not surprise you." And then he said what I had heard in so many tongues under so many suns, "All truth is God's truth."

I didn't see him die. He had gone outside to gather some firewood. I was crouching over the fire, trying to stop shivering. Suddenly, I heard the throbbing roar of helicopters, accompanied by the piercing whine of an air car. I jumped up to see what was going on, but before I reached the window, there was a burst of automatic fire. By the time I looked out, there was a formation of aircraft in Monitor markings settling in a wide circle around the hut, and in front of the hut lay a crumpled heap.

A minute later, I poked my head out the door. Standing over the crumpled heap, poking at it with one foot, was a familiar figure. It was the entry control officer, now wearing the uniform of a Monitor. He looked up, saw me, and started towards the hut. "You did an excellent job, Dr. Dewey. You are to be congratulated. None of our operatives have been able to catch up with this one, especially in such a short time."

"You used me as a Judas goat!" I growled at him. He gave me a blank look, so I rephrased it. "You used me to set him up!"

"But of course, Dr. Dewey. He would have spotted one of our operators miles away." He eased me back into the hut as the rest of the Monitors crowded in to search the place. "In fact, he has many times. We have been looking for him for years."

"If you could never find him, how did you know he was there?" I asked, and then, "That's mine," as I took my satchel from a Monitor who was about to open it. She glared at me for a minute, then, at a glance from the officer, carried on her search. I turned back to him.

"Little things mostly." He said, "Unobtrusive repairs on the hall of ignorance, an injured child, close to death, who is standing whole and well to greet the medical team as they arrive, people fed through a blizzard when the boats cannot make it up the river. All these clues add up."

"Are they so bad?" I asked. "He saved my life. Was that worth killing him for?"

"It's not what he did, it's what he is. He is the last vestige of a disease which we have now wiped from the planet. If we had let him go free, who knows how quickly it would have spread again? Besides, we could not control him." At my sudden look, he laughed. "No, we cannot control minds directly, but knowledge is a form of power. When we know who is where and thinking what, we can take steps to lessen their impact. With him we could not."

"No zinc." I said.

"Ah, I thought you might have realised that." He smiled. "Most Diocletans have enough zinc in their systems by now that we can at least read their physiological functions at close range. When we spotted him, with no readings at all, we knew he had to be avoiding zinc deliberately."

"And that's why you shot him before you even landed." Just then there was a splintering crash and a whoop of triumph. The Monitor who had been examining my satchel stood over the spot where the hastily replaced floorboard had been torn up again. She reached into the hiding place, removed a fruit bar, and dropped it into the hopper of a portable tester. Not a thing showed on the scanner.

"Hmmph. Not a trace of zinc." Murmured the officer. "He must have gone to extraordinary lengths to keep it out of his diet. But no matter. There is very little left. We probably would have picked up some readings from him soon in any case." He turned to me. "Tell me, Dr. Dewey, did he have any of those records you were looking for?"

I looked him in the eye closest to me. "He has no records."

"Well, don't be too disappointed. If he had, we would have had to destroy them anyway." As he said this, the Monitor aimed her gun down the hole and fired, reducing the food to charred cinders. "Now, we can give you a ride back to civilisation. Is there anything else you need to bring with you?"

I smiled and patted my bulging satchel. "Thanks, but I've got everything I need right here."


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