Time in the Round

by Fritz Leiber

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Poor Butcher suffered more than any dictator in history: everybody gave in to him because he was so puny and they were so impregnable!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

From the other end of the Avenue of Wisdom that led across the Peace Park, a gray, hairless, heavily built dog was barking soundlessly at the towering crystal glory of the Time Theater. For a moment, the effect was almost frightening: a silent picture of the beginning of civilization challenging the end of it. Then a small boy caught up with the dog and it rolled over enthusiastically at his feet and the scene was normal again.

The small boy, however, seemed definitely pre-civilization. He studied the dog coldly and then inserted a thin metal tube under its eyelid and poked. The dog wagged its stumpy tail. The boy frowned, tightened his grip on the tube and jabbed hard. The dog’s tail thumped the cushiony pavement and the four paws beat the air. The boy shortened his grip and suddenly jabbed the dog several times in the stomach. The stiff tube rebounded from the gray, hairless hide. The dog’s face split in an upside-down grin, revealing formidable ivory fangs across which a long black tongue lolled.

The boy regarded the tongue speculatively and pocketed the metal tube with a grimace of utter disgust. He did not look up when someone called: “Hi, Butch! Sic ‘em, Darter, sic ‘em!”

A larger small boy and a somewhat older one were approaching across the luxurious, neatly cropped grass, preceded by a hurtling shape that, except for a black hide, was a replica of Butch’s gray dog.

Butch shrugged his shoulders resignedly and said in a bored voice: “Kill ‘em, Brute.”

The gray dog hurled itself on Darter. Jaws gaped to get a hold on necks so short and thick as to be mere courtesy terms. They whirled like a fanged merry-go-round. Three more dogs, one white, one slate blue and one pink, hurried up and tried to climb aboard.

Butch yawned.

“What’s the matter?” inquired Darter’s master. “I thought you liked dog fights, Butch.”

“I do like dog fights,” Butch said somberly, without looking around. “I don’t like uninj fights. They’re just a pretend, like everything else. Nobody gets hurt. And look here, Joggy--and you, too, Hal--when you talk to me, don’t just say Butch. It’s the Butcher, see?”

“That’s not exactly a functional name,” Hal observed with the judiciousness of budding maturity, while Joggy said agreeably: “All right, Butcher, I suppose you’d like to have lived way back when people were hurting each other all the time so the blood came out?”

“I certainly would,” the Butcher replied. As Joggy and Hal turned back skeptically to watch the fight, he took out the metal tube, screwed up his face in a dreadful frown and jabbed himself in the hand. He squeaked with pain and whisked the tube out of sight.

“A kid can’t do anything any more,” he announced dramatically. “Can’t break anything except the breakables they give him to break on purpose. Can’t get dirty except in the dirt-pen--and they graduate him from that when he’s two. Can’t even be bitten by an uninj--it’s contraprogrammed.”

“Where’d you ever get so fixated on dirt?” Hal asked in a gentle voice acquired from a robot adolescer.

“I’ve been reading a book about a kid called Huckleberry Finn,” the Butcher replied airily. “A swell book. That guy got dirtier than anything.” His eyes became dreamy. “He even ate out of a garbage pail.”

“What’s a garbage pail?”

“I don’t know, but it sounds great.”

The battling uninjes careened into them. Brute had Darter by the ear and was whirling him around hilariously.

“Aw, quit it, Brute,” the Butcher said in annoyance.

Brute obediently loosed his hold and returned to his master, paying no attention to his adversary’s efforts to renew the fight.

The Butcher looked Brute squarely in the eyes. “You’re making too much of a rumpus,” he said. “I want to think.”

He kicked Brute in the face. The dog squirmed joyously at his feet.

“Look,” Joggy said, “you wouldn’t hurt an uninj, for instance, would you?”

“How can you hurt something that’s uninjurable?” the Butcher demanded scathingly. “An uninj isn’t really a dog. It’s just a lot of circuits and a micropack bedded in hyperplastic.” He looked at Brute with guarded wistfulness.

“I don’t know about that,” Hal put in. “I’ve heard an uninj is programmed with so many genuine canine reactions that it practically has racial memory.”

“I mean if you could hurt an uninj,” Joggy amended.

“Well, maybe I wouldn’t,” the Butcher admitted grudgingly. “But shut up--I want to think.”

“About what?” Hal asked with saintly reasonableness.

The Butcher achieved a fearful frown. “When I’m World Director,” he said slowly, “I’m going to have warfare again.”

“You think so now,” Hal told him. “We all do at your age.”

“We do not,” the Butcher retorted. “I bet you didn’t.”

“Oh, yes, I was foolish, too,” the older boy confessed readily. “All newborn organisms are self-centered and inconsiderate and ruthless. They have to be. That’s why we have uninjes to work out on, and death games and fear houses, so that our emotions are cleared for adult conditioning. And it’s just the same with newborn civilizations. Why, long after atom power and the space drive were discovered, people kept having wars and revolutions. It took ages to condition them differently. Of course, you can’t appreciate it this year, but Man’s greatest achievement was when he learned to automatically reject all violent solutions to problems. You’ll realize that when you’re older.”

“I will not!” the Butcher countered hotly. “I’m not going to be a sissy.” Hal and Joggy blinked at the unfamiliar word. “And what if we were attacked by bloodthirsty monsters from outside the Solar System?”

“The Space Fleet would take care of them,” Hal replied calmly. “That’s what it’s for. Adults aren’t conditioned to reject violent solutions to problems where non-human enemies are concerned. Look at what we did to viruses.”

“But what if somebody got at us through the Time Bubble?”

“They can’t. It’s impossible.”

“Yes, but suppose they did all the same.”

“You’ve never been inside the Time Theater--you’re not old enough yet--so you just can’t know anything about it or about the reasons why it’s impossible,” Hal replied with friendly factuality. “The Time Bubble is just a viewer. You can only look through it, and just into the past, at that. But you can’t travel through it because you can’t change the past. Time traveling is a lot of kid stuff.”

“I don’t care,” the Butcher asserted obstinately. “I’m still going to have warfare when I’m World Director.”

“They’ll condition you out of the idea,” Hal assured him.

“They will not. I won’t let ‘em.”

“It doesn’t matter what you think now,” Hal said with finality. “You’ll have an altogether different opinion when you’re six.”

“Well, what if I will?” the Butcher snapped back. “You don’t have to keep telling me about it, do you?”

The others were silent. Joggy began to bounce up and down abstractedly on the resilient pavement. Hal called in his three uninjes and said in soothing tones: “Joggy and I are going to swim over to the Time Theater. Want to walk us there, Butch?”

Butch scowled.

“How about it, Butch?”

Still Butch did not seem to hear.

The older boy shrugged and said: “Oh, well, how about it--Butcher?”

The Butcher swung around. “They won’t let me in the Time Theater. You said so yourself.”

“You could walk us over there.”

“Well, maybe I will and maybe I won’t.”

“While you’re deciding, we’ll get swimming. Come along, Joggy.”

Still scowling, the Butcher took a white soapy crayon from the bulging pocket in his silver shorts. Pressed into the pavement, it made a black mark. He scrawled pensively: KEEP ON THE GRASS.

He gazed at his handiwork. No, darn it, that was just what grownups wanted you to do. This grass couldn’t be hurt. You couldn’t pull it up or tear it off; it hurt your fingers to try. A rub with the side of the crayon removed the sign. He thought for a moment, then wrote: KEEP OFF THE GRASS.

With an untroubled countenance, he sprang up and hurried after the others.

Joggy and the older boy were swimming lazily through the air at shoulder height. In the pavement directly under each of them was a wide, saucer-shaped depression which swam along with them. The uninjes avoided the depressions. Darter was strutting on his hind legs, looking up inquiringly at his master.

“Gimme a ride, Hal, gimme a ride!” the Butcher called. The older boy ignored him. “Aw, gimme a ride, Joggy.”

“Oh, all right.” Joggy touched the small box attached to the front of his broad metal harness and dropped lightly to the ground. The Butcher climbed on his back. There was a moment of rocking and pitching, during which each boy accused the other of trying to upset them.

Then the Butcher got his balance and they began to swim along securely, though at a level several inches lower. Brute sprang up after his master and was invisibly rebuffed. He retired baffled, but a few minutes later, he was amusing himself by furious futile efforts to climb the hemispherical repulsor field.

Slowly the little cavalcade of boys and uninjes proceeded down the Avenue of Wisdom. Hal amused himself by stroking toward a tree. When he was about four feet from it, he was gently bounced away.

It was really a more tiring method of transportation than walking and quite useless against the wind. True, by rocking the repulsor hemisphere backward, you could get a brief forward push, but it would be nullified when you rocked forward. A slow swimming stroke was the simplest way to make progress.

The general sensation, however, was delightful and levitators were among the most prized of toys.

“There’s the Theater,” Joggy announced.

“I know,” the Butcher said irritably.

But even he sounded a little solemn and subdued. From the Great Ramp to the topmost airy finial, the Time Theater was the dream of a god realized in unearthly substance. It imparted the aura of demigods to the adults drifting up and down the ramp.

“My father remembers when there wasn’t a Time Theater,” Hal said softly as he scanned the facade’s glowing charts and maps. “Say, they’re viewing Earth, somewhere in Scandinavia around zero in the B.C.-A.D. time scale. It should be interesting.”

“Will it be about Napoleon?” the Butcher asked eagerly. “Or Hitler?” A red-headed adult heard and smiled and paused to watch. A lock of hair had fallen down the middle of the Butcher’s forehead, and as he sat Joggy like a charger, he did bear a faint resemblance to one of the grim little egomaniacs of the Dawn Era.

“Wrong millennium,” Hal said.

“Tamerlane then?” the Butcher pressed. “He killed cities and piled the skulls. Blood-bath stuff. Oh, yes, and Tamerlane was a Scand of the Navies.”

Hal looked puzzled and then quickly erased the expression. “Well, even if it is about Tamerlane, you can’t see it. How about it, Joggy?”

“They won’t let me in, either.”

“Yes, they will. You’re five years old now.”

“But I don’t feel any older,” Joggy replied doubtfully.

“The feeling comes at six. Don’t worry, the usher will notice the difference.”

Hal and Joggy switched off their levitators and dropped to their feet. The Butcher came down rather hard, twisting an ankle. He opened his mouth to cry, then abruptly closed it hard, bearing his pain in tight-lipped silence like an ancient soldier--like Stalin, maybe, he thought. The red-headed adult’s face twitched in half-humorous sympathy.

Hal and Joggy mounted the Ramp and entered a twilit corridor which drank their faint footsteps and returned pulses of light. The Butcher limped manfully after them, but when he got inside, he forgot his battle injury.

Hal looked back. “Honestly, the usher will stop you.”

The Butcher shook his head. “I’m going to think my way in. I’m going to think old.”

“You won’t be able to fool the usher, Butcher. You under-fives simply aren’t allowed in the Time Theater. There’s a good reason for it--something dangerous might happen if an under-five got inside.”


“I don’t exactly know, but something.”

“Hah! I bet they’re scared we’d go traveling in the Time Bubble and have some excitement.”

“They are not. I guess they just know you’d get bored and wander away from your seats and maybe disturb the adults or upset the electronics or something. But don’t worry about it, Butcher. The usher will take care of you.”

“Shut up--I’m thinking I’m World Director,” the Butcher informed them, contorting his face diabolically.

Hal spoke to the uninjes, pointing to the side of the corridor. Obediently four of them lined up.

But Brute was peering down the corridor toward where it merged into a deeper darkness. His short legs stiffened, his neckless head seemed to retreat even further between his powerful shoulders, his lips writhed back to show his gleaming fangs, and a completely unfamiliar sound issued from his throat. A choked, grating sound. A growl. The other uninjes moved uneasily.

“Do you suppose something’s the matter with his circuits?” Joggy whispered. “Maybe he’s getting racial memories from the Scands.”

“Of course not,” Hal said irritably.

“Brute, get over there,” the Butcher commanded. Unwillingly, eyes still fixed on the blackness ahead, Brute obeyed.

The three boys started on. Hal and Joggy experienced a vaguely electrical tingling that vanished almost immediately. They looked back. The Butcher had been stopped by an invisible wall.

“I told you you couldn’t fool the usher,” Hal said.

The Butcher hurled himself forward. The wall gave a little, then bounced him back with equal force.

“I bet it’ll be a bum time view anyway,” the Butcher said, not giving up, but not trying again. “And I still don’t think the usher can tell how old you are. I bet there’s an over-age teacher spying on you through a hole, and if he doesn’t like your looks, he switches on the usher.”

But the others had disappeared in the blackness. The Butcher waited and then sat down beside the uninjes. Brute laid his head on his knee and growled faintly down the corridor.

“Take it easy, Brute,” the Butcher consoled him. “I don’t think Tamerlane was really a Scand of the Navies anyhow.”

Two chattering girls hardly bigger than himself stepped through the usher as if it weren’t there.

The Butcher grimly slipped out the metal tube and put it to his lips. There were two closely spaced faint plops and a large green stain appeared on the bare back of one girl, while purple fluid dripped from the close-cropped hair of the other.

They glared at him and one of them said: “A cub!” But he had his arms folded and wasn’t looking at them.

Meanwhile, subordinate ushers had guided Hal and Joggy away from the main entrance to the Time Theater. A sphincter dilated and they found themselves in a small transparent cubicle from which they could watch the show without disturbing the adult audience. They unstrapped their levitators, laid them on the floor and sat down.

The darkened auditorium was circular. Rising from a low central platform was a huge bubble of light, its lower surface somewhat flattened. The audience was seated in concentric rows around the bubble, their keen and compassionate faces dimly revealed by the pale central glow.

But it was the scene within the bubble that riveted the attention of the boys.

Great brooding trees, the trunks of the nearer ones sliced by the bubble’s surface, formed the background. Through the dark, wet foliage appeared glimpses of a murky sky, while from the ceiling of the bubble, a ceaseless rain dripped mournfully. A hooded figure crouched beside a little fire partly shielded by a gnarled trunk. Squatting round about were wiry, blue-eyed men with shoulder-length blond hair and full blond beards. They were clothed in furs and metal-studded leather.

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