Book: The Time Traveler's Almanac

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THE FINAL DAYS

David Langford

David Langford is a British writer, editor, and critic, mostly known for his work in the science fiction field. He publishes the science fiction fanzine and newsletter Ansible. In addition to several novels, he has written many short stories, including parodies and other works of dark humor. He has won the Hugo Award more than twenty-five times and has also received much recognition as an editor, writer, and speaker. This story was first published in 1981 in the anthology A Spadeful of Spacetime, edited by Fred Saberhagen.

It was under the hot lights that Harman always felt most powerful. The air throbbed and sang with dazzlement and heat, wherein opponents – Ferris merely the most recent – might shrivel and wilt; but Harman sucked confidence from cameras, glad to expose something of himself to a nation of watchers, and more than a nation. Just now the slick, machine-stamped interviewer was turned away, towards Ferris; still Harman knew better than to peer surreptitiously at his own solid, blond and faintly smiling image in the monitor. Control was important, and Harman’s image was imperturbable: his hands lay still and relaxed, the left on the chair-arm, the right on his thigh, their stillness one of the many small negative mannerisms which contributed to the outward Harman’s tough dependability.

*   *   *

Gradually the focus was slipping away from Ferris, whose mere intelligence and sincerity should not be crippling his handling of the simplest, the most hypothetical questions.

“What would be your first act as President, Mr. Ferris?”

“Well, er … it would depend on…”

And the monitor would ruthlessly cut back to Harman in relaxed close-up, faintly smiling. One of the tricks was to be always the same. Ferris, alternately tense and limp, seemed scarcely camera-trained. Why? Ferris did not speak naturally toward the interviewer, nor oratorically into the camera which now pushed close, its red action-light ablink; his gaze wavered as he assembled libertarian platitudes, and his attention was drawn unwillingly beyond the arena’s heat and light, to something that troubled him. Harman glanced easily about the studio, and followed Ferris’s sick fascination to his own talisman, the magic box which traced the threads of destiny. (Always to be ready with a magniloquent phrase; that was another of the tricks.)

He could have laughed. Ferris, supposedly a seasoned performer and a dangerous opponent, could not adapt to this novelty. Four days to go, and his skill was crumbling under the onslaught of a gigantically magnified stage-fright. Posterity was too much for him.

*   *   *

Looking up from the box, the technician intercepted Harman’s tightly relaxed gaze and held up five fingers; and five more; and four. Harman’s self-confidence and self-belief could hardly burn brighter. Fourteen watchers. Favoured above all others, he had never before scored higher than ten. The wheel still turned his way, then. Ecce homo; man of the hour; man of destiny; he half-smiled at the clichés, but no more than half.

*   *   *

The interviewer swivelled his chair to Harman, leaving Ferris in a pool of sweat. His final questions had been gentle, pityingly gentle; and Ferris with flickering eyes had fumbled nearly all.

“Mr. Ferris has explained his position, Mr. Harman, and I’m sure that you’d like to state yours before I ask you a few questions.”

Harman let his practised voice reply at once, while his thoughts sang fourteen … fourteen.

“I stand, as I have said before, for straight talking and honest action. I stand for a rejection of the gutless compromises which have crippled our economy. I want a fair deal for everyone, and I’m ready to fight to see they get it.”

The words were superfluous. Harman’s followers had a Sign.

*   *   *

“I’ll tell you a true story about something that happened to me a while ago. I was walking home at night, in a street where vandals had smashed up half the lights, and a mugger came up to me. One of those scum who will be swept from the streets when our program of police reform goes through.”

(He detected a twitch of resentment from Ferris; but Ferris was off-camera now.)

“He showed me a knife and asked for my wallet, the usual line of talk. Now I’m not a specially brave man, but this was what I’d been talking about when I laid it on the line about political principles. You just don’t give in to threats like that. So I said damn you, come and try it, and you know, he just crumpled up. There’s a moral in that story for this country, a moral you’ll see when you think who’s threatening us right now—”

It was a true story. As it happened, the security man on Harman’s tail had shot the mugger as he wavered.

*   *   *

“A few questions, then,” said the interviewer. “I think we’re all waiting to hear more about the strangest gimmick ever included in a Presidential campaign. A lot of people are pretty sceptical about these scientists’ claims, you know. Perhaps you could just briefly tell the viewers what you yourself think about these eyes, these watchers—?”

When you’re hot, you’re hot. Harman became still chattier.

“It’s not a gimmick and it’s not really part of my campaign. Some guys at the Gravity Research Foundation discovered that we – or some of us – are being watched. By, well, posterity. As you’ll know from the newspapers, they were messing about with a new way of picking up gravity waves, which is something a plain man like me knows nothing about; and instead their gadget spotted these (what did they call them?) little knots of curdled space. The nodes, they called them later, or the peepholes. The gadget tells you when they’re looking and how many are looking. It turns out that ordinary folk” – he suppressed the reflexive like you and me – “aren’t watched at all; important people might get one or two or half-a-dozen eyes on them…”

At a sign from the interviewer, a previously dormant camera zoomed in on the technician and the unremarkable-looking Box. “Can you tell us how many – eyes – are present in this studio, sir?”

The technician paused to make some minor adjustment, doubtless eager for his own tiny share of limelight. He looked up after a few seconds, and said:

“Fifteen.”

*   *   *

Ferris shuddered very slightly.

*   *   *

“Of course,” said Harman smoothly, “some of these will be for Mr. Ferris.” Ferris, he knew, had two watchers; intermittently; and it seemed that he hated it. The interviewer, giant of this tiny studio world, was never watched for his own sake when alone. He was marking time now, telling the tale of Sabinnen, that artist whom they tagged important in earlier tests of the detectors. Sabinnen was utterly obscure at that time; that ceased when they tracked the concentration of eight eyes, and his cupboardful of paintings came to light, and did it not all hang together, this notion of the Future watching the famous before their fame?

*   *   *

Harman revelled in the silent eyes which so constantly attended him. It recalled the curious pleasure of first finding his home and office bugged; such subtle flattery might dismay others, but Harman had nothing to hide.

“But I must emphasize that this is only a pointer,” he said, cutting in at the crucial moment. “The people have this hint of the winning side, as they might from newspaper predictions or opinion polls – but the choice remains theirs, a decision which we politicians must humbly accept. Of course I’m glad it’s not just today’s voters who have faith in me—” He was full of power; the words came smoothly, compellingly, through the final minutes – while Ferris stared first morosely at his shoe and then bitterly at Harman, while the interviewer (momentarily forgetful of the right to equal time, doubtless reluctant to coax the numbered Ferris through further hoops) listened with an attentive silence which clearly said In four days you will be President.

*   *   *

Then it was over, and Harman moved through a triumphal procession of eager reporters, scattering bonhomie and predictions of victory, saluted again and again by electronic flashes which for long minutes burnt green and purple on his retinas; and so to the big, quiet car with motorcycles before and behind, off into the anonymous night. He wondered idly whether any reporter had been kind enough to beg an opinion or two from Ferris.

*   *   *

He refused to draw the car’s shades, of course, preferring to remain visible to the public behind his bullet-proof glass. There was a risk of assassination, but though increasing it was still small. (How the eyes must have hovered over JFK, like a cloud of eager flies. But no one could wish to assassinate Harman … surely.) He settled in the rear seat, one hand still relaxed upon the leather, the other resting calmly on his own right thigh. The outline of the chauffeur’s head showed dimly through more impervious glass … In four days he would rate six motorcyclists before and behind; with two only to supplement the eye-detector’s van and this purring car, he felt almost alone. Better to recall the seventeen watchers (the number had been rising still, the Argus eyes of destiny marking him out); or the eye of the camera, which held within it a hundred million watchers here and now. The show had gone well. He felt he might have succeeded without the silent eyes, the nodes of interference born of the uncertainty principle which marked where information was siphoned into the years ahead. How far ahead? No one knew; and it did not matter. Harman believed in himself and knew his belief to be sincere, even without this sign from heaven to mark him as blessed of all men.

*   *   *

And that was strangely true, he knew. The princes and powers of the world had been scanned for the stigmata of lasting fame (not the Soviets, of course, nor China); politicians – Harman smiled – often scored high, yet none higher than eight or nine. Seventeen showed almost embarrassing enthusiasm on the part of the historians, the excellent, discriminating historians yet to be.

*   *   *

I shall deserve it, Harman told himself as his own home came into view, searchlights splashing its pale walls and throwing it into due prominence. In a brief huddle of guards he passed within to the theoretical privacy of his personal rooms, sincere and knowing again that he was sincere. He would fulfil his promises to the letter, honest and uncompromising, ready to risk even his reputation for the good of Democracy. He paced the mildly austere bedroom (black and white, grey and chrome); he fingered the chess set and go-board which magazines had shown to the nation. The recorders whirred companionably. His clothes were heavy with sweat, inevitable under the hot lights; the trick was not to look troubled by heat, not ever to subside and mop oneself like Ferris, poor Ferris.

This room had no windows, for sufficient reasons; but Harman knew of six optical bugs at the least. Naked in the adjoining shower, he soaped himself and smiled. Seventeen watchers – or perhaps nineteen or twenty, for the power was still rising within him – the bugs and the watchers troubled him not at all. That, he was certain, was his true strength. He had nothing to hide from the future, nor from the present; in all his life, he believed there was no episode which could bring shame to his biography. Let the eyes peer! The seedy Ferris might weaken himself with drink, with women, but Harman’s energies flowed cool and strong in a single channel, which for convenience he called The Good Of The Nation.

*   *   *

He tumbled into pyjamas, his erection causing some small discomfort. Four days. Only four days and then: no compromise. The hard line. Straight talk, nation unto nation. He would give them good reason to watch him, Harman, the ultimate politician. He felt, as though beneath his fingers, the Presidential inheritance of red telephones and red buttons.

*   *   *

The eyes of time were upon him. He knew he would not fail them.

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