Instant of Decision

by Randall Garrett

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: How could a man tell the difference if all the reality of Earth turned out to be a cosmic hoax? Suppose it turned out that this was just a stage set for students of history?

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

When the sharp snap of a pistol shot came from the half-finished building, Karnes wasn’t anywhere near the sandpile that received the slug. He was fifteen feet away, behind the much more reliable protection of a neat stack of cement bags that provided cover all the way to a window in the empty shell of brick and steel before him.

Three hundred yards behind him, the still-burning inferno of what had been the Assembly Section of Carlson Spacecraft sent a reddish, unevenly pulsating light over the surrounding territory, punctuating the redness with intermittent flashes of blue-white from flaring magnesium.

For an instant, Karnes let himself hope that the shot might be heard at the scene of the blaze, but only for an instant. The roar of fire, men, and machine would be too much for a little pop like that.

He moved quietly along the stacked cement bags, and eased himself over the sill of the gaping window into the building. He was in a little hallway. Somewhere ahead and to his left would be a door that would lead into the main hallway where James Avery, alias James Harvey, alias half-a-dozen other names, was waiting to take another pot-shot at the sandpile.

The passageway was longer than he had thought, and he realized that he might have been just a little careless in coming in through the window. With the firelight at his back, he might make a pretty good target from farther down the hall, or from any of the dark, empty rooms that would someday be officers’.

Then he found it. The slight light from the main hallway came through enough to show him where to turn.

Keeping in the darkness, Karnes’ eyes surveyed the broad hallway for several seconds before he spotted the movement near a stairway. After he knew where to look, it was easy to make out the man’s crouched figure.

Karnes thought: I can’t call to him to surrender. I can’t let him get away. I can’t sneak across that hall to stick my gun in his ribs. And, above all, I cannot let him get away with that microfilm.

Hell, there’s only one thing I can do.

Karnes lifted his gun, aimed carefully at the figure, and fired.

Avery must have had a fairly tight grip on his own weapon, because when Karnes’ slug hit him, it went off once before his body spread itself untidily across the freshly set cement. Then the gun fell out of the dead hand and slid a few feet, spinning in silly little circles.

Karnes approached the corpse cautiously, just in case it wasn’t a corpse, but it took only a moment to see that the caution had been unnecessary. He knelt, rolled the body over, unfastened the pants, pulled them down to the knees and stripped off the ribbon of adhesive tape that he knew would be on the inside of the thigh. Underneath it were four little squares of thin plastic.

As he looked at the precious microfilm in his hand, he sensed something odd. If he had been equipped with the properly developed muscles to do so, he would have pricked his ears. There was a soft footstep behind him.

He spun around on his heel, his gun ready. There was another man standing at the top of the shadowy stairway.

Karnes stood up slowly, his weapon still levelled.

“Come down from there slowly, with your hands in the air!”

The man didn’t move immediately, and, although Karnes couldn’t see his face clearly in the shimmering shadows, he had the definite impression that there was a grin on it. When the man did move, it was to turn quickly and run down the upper hallway, with a shot ringing behind him.

Karnes made the top of the stairway and sent another shot after the fleeing man, whose outline was easily visible against the pre-dawn light that was now beginning to come in through a window at the far end of the hall.

The figure kept running, and Karnes went after him, firing twice more as he ran.

Who taught you to shoot, dead-eye? he thought, as the man continued to run.

At the end of the hall, the man turned abruptly into one of the offices-to-be, his pursuer only five yards behind him.

Afterwards, Karnes thought it over time after time, trying to find some flaw or illusion in what he saw. But, much as he hated to believe his own senses, he remained convinced.

The broad window shed enough light to see everything in the room, but there wasn’t much in it except for the slightly iridescent gray object in the center.

It was an oblate spheroid, about seven feet high and eight or nine feet through. As Karnes came through the door, he saw the man step through the seemingly solid material into the flattened globe.

Then globe, man and all, vanished. The room was empty.

Karnes checked his headlong rush into the room and peered around in the early morning gloom. For a full minute his brain refused even to attempt rationalizing what he had seen. He looked wildly around, but there was no one there. Suddenly he felt very foolish.

All right. So men can run into round gray things and vanish. Now use a little sense and look around.

There was something else in the room. Karnes knelt and looked at the little object that lay on the floor a few feet from where the gray globe had been. A cigarette case; one of those flat, coat-pocket jobs with a jet black enamel surface laid over tiny checked squares that would be absolutely useless for picking up fingerprints. If there were any prints, they’d be on the inside.

He started to pick it up and realized he must still be a bit confused; his hands were full. His right held the heavy automatic, and between the thumb and forefinger of his left were the four tiny sheets of microfilm.

Karnes holstered the pistol, took an envelope from his pocket, put the films in it, replaced the envelope, and picked up the cigarette case. It was, he thought, a rather odd-looking affair. It--

“Awright, you. Stand up slow, with your hands where I can see ‘em.”

Great God, thought Karnes, I didn’t know they were holding a tea party in this building. He did as he was told.

There were two of them at the door, both wearing the uniform of Carlson Spacecraft. Plant protection squad.

“Who are you, bud?” asked the heavy-jawed one who had spoken before. “And whataya doin’ here?”

Karnes, keeping his hands high, said: “Take my billfold out of my hip pocket.”

“Okay. But first get over against that wall and lean forward.” Evidently the man was either an ex-cop or a reader of detective stories.

When Karnes had braced himself against the wall, the guard went through his pockets, all of them, but he didn’t take anything out except the pistol and the billfold.

The card in the special case of the wallet changed the guard’s manner amazingly.

“Oh,” he said softly. “Government, huh? Gee, I’m sorry, sir, but we didn’t know--”

Karnes straightened up, and put his hands down. The cigarette case that had been in his right hand all along dropped into his coat pocket.

“That’s all right,” he said. “Did you see the lad at the foot of the stairs?”

“Sure. Jim Avery. Worked in Assembly. What happened to him?”

“He got in the way of the bullet. Resisting arrest. He’s the jasper that set off the little incendiaries that started that mess out there. We’ve been watching him for months, now, but we didn’t get word of this cute stroke until too late.”

The guard looked puzzled. “Jim Avery. But why’d he want to do that?”

Karnes looked straight at him. “Leaguer!”

The guard nodded. You never could tell when the League would pop up like that.

Even after the collapse of Communism after the war, the world hadn’t learned anything, it seemed. The Eurasian League had seemed, at first, to be patterned after the Western world’s United Nations, but it hadn’t worked out that way.

The League was jealous of the UN lead in space travel, for one thing, and they had neither the money nor the know-how to catch up. The UN might have given them help, but, as the French delegate had remarked: “For what reason should we arm a potential enemy?”

After all, they argued, with the threat of the UN’s Moonbase hanging over the League to keep them peaceful, why should we give them spaceships so they can destroy Moonbase?

The Eurasian League had been quiet for a good many years, brooding, but behaving. Then, three years ago, Moonbase had vanished in a flash of actinic light, leaving only a new minor crater in the crust of Luna.

There was no proof of anything, of course. It had to be written off as an accident. But from that day on, the League had become increasingly bolder; their policy was: “Smash the UN and take the planets for ourselves!”

And now, with Carlson Spacecraft going up in flames, they seemed to be getting closer to their goal.

Karnes accepted his weapon and billfold from the guard and led them back down the stairway. “Would one of you guys phone the State Police? They’ll want to know what happened.”

The State Police copters came and went, taking Karnes and the late Mr. Avery with them, and leaving behind the now dying glow of Carlson Spacecraft.

There were innumerable forms to fill out and affidavits to make; there was a long-distance call to UN headquarters in New York to verify Karnes’ identity. And Karnes asked to borrow the police lab for an hour or so.

That evening, he caught the rocket for Long Island.

As the SR-37 floated through the hard vacuum five hundred miles above central Nebraska, Karnes leaned back in his seat, turning the odd cigarette case over and over in his hands.

Except for the neat, even checking that covered it, the little three-by-four inch object was entirely featureless. There were no catches or hinges, or even any line of cleavage around the edge. He had already found that it wouldn’t open.

Whatever it was, it was most definitely not a cigarette case.

The X-ray plates had shown it to be perfectly homogeneous throughout.

As far as I can see, thought Karnes, it’s nothing but a piece of acid-proof plastic, except that the specific gravity is way the hell too high. Maybe if I had cut it open, I could have--

Karnes didn’t push anything on the case, of that he was sure. Nor did he squeeze, shake, or rub it in any unusual way. But something happened; something which he was convinced came from the case in his hands.

He had the definite impression of something akin to a high-pressure firehose squirting from the interior of the case, through his skull, and into and over his brain, washing it and filling it. Little rivers of knowledge trickled down through the convolutions of his brain, collected in pools, and soaked in.

He was never sure just how long the process took but it was certainly not more than a second or two. Afterwards, he just sat there, staring.

From far across the unimaginable depths of the galaxy, fighting its way through the vast, tenuous dust clouds of interstellar space, came a voice: “Are you ill, sir?”

Karnes looked up at the stewardess. “Oh. Oh, no. No, I’m all right. Just thinking. I’m perfectly all right.”

He looked at the “cigarette case” again. He knew what it was, now. There wasn’t any English word for it, but he guessed “mind impressor” would come close.

It had done just that; impressed his mind with knowledge he should not have; the record of something he had no business knowing.

And he wished to Heaven he didn’t!

This, Karnes considered, is a problem. The stuff is so alien! Just a series of things I know, but can’t explain. Like a dream; you know all about it, but it’s practically impossible to explain it to anybody else.

At the spaceport, he was met by an official car. George Lansberg, one of the New York agents, was sitting in the back seat.

“Hi, sleuth. I heard you were coming in, so I asked to meet you.” He lowered his voice as Karnes got in and the car pulled away from the parking lot. “How about our boy, Avery?”

Karnes shook his head. “Too late. Thirty million bucks worth of material lost and Avery lost too.”

“How come?”

“Had to kill him to keep him from getting away with these.”

He showed Lansberg the microfilm squares.

“The photocircuit inserts for the new autopilot. We’d lose everything if the League ever got its hands on these.”

“Didn’t learn anything from Avery, eh?” Lansberg asked.

“Not a thing.” Karnes lapsed into silence. He didn’t feel it necessary to mention the mind impressor just yet.

Lansberg stuck a cigarette into his mouth and talked around it as he lit it.

“We’ve got something you’ll be getting in on, now that Avery is taken care of. We’ve got a fellow named Brittain, real name Bretinov, who is holed up in a little apartment in Brooklyn. He’s the sector head for that section, and we know who his informers are, and who he gives orders to. What we don’t know is who gives orders to him.

“Now we have it set up for Brittain to get his hands on some very honest-looking, but strictly phony stuff for him to pass on to the next echelon. Then we just sit around and watch until he does pass it.”

Karnes found he was listening to Lansberg with only half an ear. His brain was still buzzing with things he’d never heard of, trying to fit things he had always known in with things he knew now but had never known before. Damn that “cigarette case”!

“Sounds like fun,” he answered Lansberg.

“Yeah. Great. Well, here we are.” They had driven to the Long Island Spaceways Building which also housed the local office.

They got out and went into the building, up the elevator, down a corridor, and into an office suite.

Lansberg said: “I’ll wait for you here. We’ll get some coffee afterwards.”

The redhead behind the front desk smiled up at Karnes.

“Go on in; he’s expecting you.”

“I don’t know whether I ought to leave you out here with Georgie or not,” Karnes grinned. “I think he has designs.”

“Oh, goodie!” she grinned back.

My, my aren’t we clever! His thought was bitter, but his face didn’t show it.

Before he went in, he straightened his collar before the wall mirror. He noticed that his plain, slightly tanned face still looked the same as ever. Same ordinary gray-green eyes, same ordinary nose.

Chum, you look perfectly sane. You are perfectly sane. But who in hell would believe it?

It wouldn’t, after all, do any good for him to tell anyone anything he had found. No matter what the answer was, there wasn’t anything he could do about it. There wasn’t anything anyone could do about it.

Thus, Karnes’ report to his superior was short, to the point, and censored.

That evening, Karnes sat in his apartment, chain-smoking, and staring out the window. Finally, he mashed out a stub, stood up, and said aloud: “Maybe if I write it down I can get it straight.”

He sat down in front of the portable on his desk, rolled in a sheet of paper, and put his fingers on the keys. Then, for a long time, he just sat there, turning it over and over in his mind. Finally, he began to type.

_A Set of General Instructions and a Broad Outline on the

Purposes and Construction of the Shrine of Earth._

Part One: Historical.

_Some hundred or so millennia ago, insofar as the most

exacting of historical research can ascertain, our remote

ancestors were confined to one planet of the Galaxy; the

legendary Earth._

_The third planet of Sun (unintelligible number) has long

been suspected of being Earth, but it was not until the

development of the principles of time transfer that it

became possible to check the theory completely._

The brilliant work done by--

(Karnes hesitated over the name, then wrote--)

_--Starson on the ancient history and early evolution of the

race has shown the theory to be correct. This has opened a

new and fascinating field for the study of


Part Two: Present Purposes and Aims.

_Because of the great energy transfer and cosmic danger

involved in too frequent or unrestricted time travel, it has

been decided that the best method for studying the social

problems involved would be to rebuild, in toto, the ancient

Earth as it was just after the initial discoveries of atomic

power and interplanetary space travel._

_In order to facilitate this work, the Surveying Group will

translate themselves to the chronological area in question,

and obtain complete records of that time, covering the years

between (1940) and (2020)._

_When the survey is complete, the Construction Group will

rebuild that civilization with as great an exactness as

possible, complete with population, fossil strata, edifices,


_Upon the occasion of the opening of the Shrine, the replica

of our early civilization will be begun as it was on

(January 3, 1953). The population, having been impregnated

with the proper memories, will be permitted to go about

their lives unhampered._

Karnes stopped again and reread the paragraph he had just written. It sounded different when it was on paper. The dates, for instance, he had put in parentheses because that was the way he had understood them. But he knew that whoever had made the mind-impressor didn’t use the same calendar he was used to.

He frowned at the paper, then went on typing.

Part Three: Conduct of Students.

_Students wishing to study the Shrine for the purpose of

(unintelligible again) must obtain permits from the Galactic

Scholars Council, and, upon obtaining such permits, must

conduct themselves according to whatever rules may be laid

down by such Council._

Part Four: Corrective Action to be Taken.

_At certain points in the history of ancient Earth, certain

crises arose which, in repetition, would be detrimental to

the Shrine. These crises must be mitigated in order that--_

Karnes stopped. That was all there was. Except--except for one more little tail end of thought. He tapped the keys again.

(Continued on Stratum Two)

Whatever in hell that means, he thought.

He sat back in his chair and went over the two sheets of typed paper. It wasn’t complete, not by a long shot. There were little tones of meaning that a printed, or even a spoken word couldn’t put over. There were evidences of a vast and certainly superhuman civilization; of an alien and yet somehow completely human way of thinking.

But that was the gist of it. The man he had seen in that new building at Carlson Spacecraft was no ordinary human being.

That, however, didn’t bother Karnes half so much as the gray globe the man had disappeared into after he had been shot at. And Karnes knew, now, that the shots probably hadn’t missed.

The globe was one of two things. And the intruder had been one of two groups.

(A) One of the Surveyors of Ancient Earth, in which case the globe had been a--well, a time machine. Or

(B) A student, in which case the machine was a type of spacecraft.

The question was: Which?

If it were (A), then he and the world around him were real, living, working out their own destinies toward the end point represented by the man in the gray globe.

But if it were (B)--

Then this was the Shrine, and he and all the rest of Earth were nothing but glorified textbooks!

And there would come crises on the Shrine, duplicates of the crises on old Earth. Except that they wouldn’t be permitted to happen. The poor ignorant people on the Shrine had to be coddled, like the children they were. Damn!

Karnes crumpled the sheets of paper in his hands, twisting them savagely. Then he methodically tore them into bits.

When the first dawnlight touched the sea, Karnes was watching it out the east window. It had been twenty-four hours since he had seen the superman walk into his gray globe and vanish.

All night, he had been searching his brain for some clue that would tell him which of the two choices he should believe in. And he couldn’t bring himself to believe in either.

Once he had thought: Why do I believe, then, what the impressor said? Why not just forget it?

But that didn’t help. He did believe it. That alien instrument had impressed his mind, not only with the facts themselves, but with an absolute faith that they were facts. There was no room for doubt; the knowledge imparted to his mind was true, and he knew it.

For a time, he had been comforted by the thought that the gray globe must be a time machine because of the way it had vanished. It was very comforting until he realized that travel to the stars and beyond didn’t necessarily mean a spaceship as he knew spaceships. Teleportation--

Now, with the dawn, Karnes knew there was only one thing he could do.

Somehow, somewhere, there would be other clues--clues a man who knew what to look for might find. The Galactics couldn’t be perfect, or they wouldn’t have let him get the mind impressor in his hands. Ergo, somewhere they would slip again.

Karnes knew he would spend the rest of his life looking for that one slip. He had to know the truth, one way or another.

Or he might not stay sane.

Lansberg picked him up at eight in a police copter. As they floated toward New York, Karnes’ mind settled itself into one cold purpose; a purpose that lay at the base of his brain, waiting.

Lansberg was saying: “--and one of Brittain’s men got the stuff last night. He hadn’t passed it on to Brittain himself yet this morning, but he very probably will have by the time we get there.

“We’ve rigged it up so that Brittain will have to pass it to his superior by tomorrow or it will be worthless. When he does, we’ll follow it right to the top.”

“If we’ve got every loophole plugged,” said Karnes, “we ought to take them easy.”

“Brother, I hope so! It took us eight months to get Brittain all hot and bothered over the bait, and another two months to give it to him in a way that wouldn’t make him suspicious.

“It’s restricted material, of course, so that we can pin a subversive activities rap on them, at least, if not espionage. But we had to argue like hell to keep it restricted; the Spatial Commission was ready to release it, since it’s really relatively harmless.”

Karnes looked absently at the thin line of smoke wiggling from Lansberg’s cigarette.

“You know,” he said, “there are times when I wish this war would come right out in the open. Actually, we’ve been fighting the League for years, but we don’t admit it. There have been little disagreements and incidents until the devil won’t have it. But it’s still supposed to be a ‘worry war’.”

Lansberg shrugged. “It will get hot just as soon as the Eurasian League figures they are far enough along in spacecraft construction to get the Martian colonies if they win. Then they’ll try to smash us before we can retaliate; then, and not before.

“We can’t start it. Our only hope is that when they start, they’ll underestimate us. Say, what’s that you’re fooling with?”

The sudden change of subject startled Karnes for an instant. He looked at the mind impressor in his hands. He had been toying with it incessantly, hoping it would repeat its performance, or perhaps give additional information.

“This?” He covered quickly. “It’s a--a puzzle. One of those plastic puzzles.” Maybe it doesn’t work on the same person twice. If I can get George to fool around with it, he might hit the right combination again.

“Hmmm. How does it work?” George seemed interested.

Karnes handed it to him. “It has a couple of little sliding weights inside it. You have to turn the thing just right to unlock it, then it comes apart when you slide out a section of the surface. Try it.”

Lansberg took it, turned it this way and that, moving his hands over the surface. Karnes watched him for several minutes, but there didn’t seem to be any results.

Lansberg looked up from his labors. “I give up. I can’t even see where it’s supposed to come apart, and I can’t feel any weights sliding inside it. Show me how it works.”

Karnes thought fast. “Why do you think I was fiddling with it? I don’t know how it works. A friend of mine bet me a ten spot that I couldn’t figure out the combination.”

Lansberg looked back at the impressor in his hands. “Could he do it?”

“A snap. I watched him twice, and I still didn’t get it.”

“Mmm. Interesting.” George went back to work on the “puzzle.”

Just before they landed on the roof of the UN annex, Lansberg handed the impressor back to Karnes. It had obviously failed to do what either of them had hoped it would.

“It’s your baby,” Lansberg said, shaking his head. “All I have to say is it’s a hell of a way to earn ten bucks.”

Karnes grinned and dropped the thing back in his coat pocket.

By the time that evening had rolled around, Karnes was beginning to get just a little bored. He and Lansberg had been in and out of the New York office in record time. Then they had spent a few hours with New York’s Finest and the District Attorney, lining up a net to pick up all the little rats involved.

After that, there was nothing to do but wait.

Karnes slept a couple of hours to catch up, read two magazines from cover to cover, and played eight games of solitaire. He was getting itchy.

His brain kept crackling. What’s the matter with me? I ought to be thinking about this Brittain fellow instead of--

But, after all, what did Brittain matter? According to the records, he was born Alex Bretinov, in Marseilles, France, in nineteen sixty-eight. His father, a dyed-in-the-wool Old Guard Communist, had been born in Minsk in nineteen forty.

Or had he been wound up, and his clockwork started in January of nineteen fifty-three?

The radio popped. “Eighteen. Alert. Brittain just left his place on foot. Carson, Reymann following. Over.”

Lansberg dropped his magazine. “He seems to be heading for the Big Boy--I hope.”

The ground car followed him to a subway, and two men on foot followed him in from Flatbush Avenue.

Some hours later, after much devious turning, dodging, and switching, Brittain climbed into a taxi on the corner of Park Avenue and Forty-seventh Street, evidently feeling he had ditched any tails he might have had.

Karnes and Lansberg were right behind him in a radio car.

The cab headed due south on Park Avenue, following it until it became Fourth, swung right at Tenth Street, past Grace Church, across Broadway. At Sixth, it angled left toward Greenwich Village.

“Somewhere in the Village, nickels to knotholes,” Lansberg guessed as he turned to follow.

Karnes, at the radio, was giving rapid-fire directions over the scrambler-equipped transceiver. By this time, several carloads of agents and police were converging on the cab from every direction. From high above, could be heard the faint hum of ‘copters.

Lansberg was exultant. “We’ve got them for once! And the goods on every essobee in the place.”

The cars hummed smoothly through the broad streets, past the shabby-genteel apartment neighborhood. Back in the early sixties, some of these buildings had been high-priced hotels, but the Village had gone to pot since the seventies.

A few minutes later, the cab pulled up in front of an imposing looking building of slightly tarnished aluminum paneling. Brittain got out, paid his fare, and went inside.

As the cab pulled away, Karnes gave orders for it to be picked up a few blocks away, just in case.

The rest of the vehicles began to surround the building.

Karnes, meanwhile, followed Brittain into the foyer of the apartment hotel. It was almost a mistake. Brittain hadn’t gone in. Evidently attracted by the footsteps following him, he turned and looked back out. Karnes wasn’t more than ten feet away.

Just pretend you live here, thought Karnes, and bully-boy will never know the difference.

He walked right on up to the doorway, pretending not to notice Brittain. Evidently, the saboteur was a little flustered, not quite knowing who Karnes was. He, too, pretended that he had no suspicions. He pressed a buzzer on the panel to announce himself to a guest. Karnes noticed it was 523; a fifth floor button.

The front door, inside the foyer, was one of those gadgets with an electric lock that doesn’t open unless you either have a key to the building or can get a friend who lives there to let you in.

When Karnes saw Brittain press the buzzer, he waited a second and took a chance.

“Here,” he said, fishing in his pocket, “I’ll let you in.” That ought to give him the impression I live here.

Brittain smiled fetchingly. “Thanks, but I--”

Bzzzz! The old-fashioned lock announced that it was open. Karnes stopped fishing and opened the door, letting Brittain follow him in. He stayed in the lead to the elevator, and pushed the button marked “4.”

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