The Instant of Now - Cover

The Instant of Now

by Irving E.Cox

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: One of the most intriguing of all science fiction patterns is that of the galactic sweep--the story which takes for granted human travel between stars at speeds far faster than the speed of light. In its most successful form, such a story combines cosmic action with a wholly human plot.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Revolution is not necessarily a noble thing. Unless shrewdly directed, its best elements may fall victim to its basest impulses.

Eddie Dirrul had destroyed the message seconds after reading it. Yet, as he left the pneumotube from the University, he felt as if it were burning a hole in his pocket. It had come to him from Paul Sorgel, the new top-agent from the Planet Vinin. It had been written in High Vininese.

For a moment the alien language had slowed Eddie’s reaction to its contents, as had the shocking nature of its words. It had read--

_Need your help. Glenna and Hurd in brush with Secret

Police--both hurt. Come at once._

Luckily old Dr. Kramer had asked no awkward questions when Eddie excused himself from the balance of the lecture. If the kindly bumbling professor had been inquisitive, Eddie had no idea how he would have answered. Glenna was his fiancée, Hurd his best friend--and their disaster meant disaster for the underground movement that had become the guiding purpose of his entire life.

The night was still young when he emerged from the pneumotube and the slanting ramp-lines of windows in the massive unit-blocks of the Workers’ Suburb rose about him within the darkness of the structural frames that encased them.

Parks, recreation centers and gaudy amusement halls were aswirl with the usual evening crowds. With a sort of angry heedlessness Eddie forced his way among tall perpetually-youthful men in bright leisure clothing--and consciously alluring women clad in filmy garments as teasingly transparent as mist.

Glenna hurt--and Hurd! Seriously, of course, or Paul Sorgel would never have risked a hand-message. With quiet desperation he pushed through the crowds--in his trim grey Air-command uniform he was one with them, a nonentity like themselves.

He knew where to find the three he sought. Beyond the outdoor courts, where his fellow-Agronians amused themselves with a variety of racquet-games, lay a tiny park, wherein a state of wild disorder was carefuly maintained in imitation of nature.

Few were attracted by its rugged growth, save in very warm weather, when hardy souls ventured within its borders to relax in artificial breezes created by silent concealed fans. In its center stood a small stone building that housed the maintenance machinery. It was deserted, except for once each year when the city engineering crews came to check the machines and to make minor repairs. There the Libero-Freedom Movement held its meetings, in the shadow of the whirring wheels.

Sorgel came out of the shadows as Dirrul pushed through the thicket of brush that surrounded the stone building. In a hushed whisper he asked, “That you, Eddie?”

“Yes--where are they?”

“Inside. I gave them a hypo--they’re both under now. It makes it easier.”

“How did it happen, Paul?”

“I was to meet Glenna and Hurd at her apartment, to talk over the details of the Plan. The police were there ahead of me but I broke up the party before they could finish the job. Since they’ve got to do this sort of thing unofficially, to be able to deny it later if any questions are asked, I scared them off easily enough. I brought Glenna and Hurd here in my Unicyl but I’ll need your help to get them out.”

“This is the second time it’s happened, Paul!” said Eddie. “And the Plan--we’ll have to organize all over again. As soon as our people hear about this most of them will run like scared rabbits.”

“Not if they don’t know, Eddie. That’s where you come in. We’ve got to get Glenna and Hurd away from Agron. If there’s no evidence of a crime there’s no reason for an investigation.”

“But what can I do?”

“Borrow one of the Air-command’s surface jets for a while.”

Paul Sorgel’s plan was simple and efficient. The Air-Command field was fenced with electronic paralysis barriers and the entrance was heavily guarded. But no watch was kept inside the encampment except for a daily inspection of the machines when the guard was changed at dawn. Since Dirrul was a Captain of the Space-maintenance Division, 73rd Air-Command Wing, he was able to enter the area at any time without question. Among the scheduled night training flights for new cadets, the departure of one more surface jet would pass unobserved.

“Come back here for Glenna and Hurd,” Sorgel said, “and take them out to the South Desert. If there’s no hitch you should be back before dawn, with time to spare. If not...” Sorgel shrugged. “Eddie, we can’t build a better universe without taking occasional risks.”

Slowly Dirrul’s body tensed with fear. In a cold dead voice he asked, “Am I to leave them there, without help or medicine, to die of thirst and hunger?”

“Many sacrifices are necessary for the good of the Movement.”

“But Glenna and Hurd are our leaders!”

“The freedom of the universe means a little more, I think, than the temporary safety of two individuals.” Sorgel lit a cigarette. In the faint pink reflection of the Glo-Wave lighter his face was emptily placid, a faint smile twisting the corners of his lips. “Suppose I say it’s a command, Dirrul--a Vininese command, calling for Vininese discipline.”

After a moment Dirrul replied in a choked whisper, “I’ll take them, sir.”

Sorgel smiled and the crisp tone of authority edged out of his voice. “As a matter of fact, Eddie, I was curious to see what you would do. The Vininese Confederacy practises neither cruelty nor deception. You’ll find one of our Space-dragons hidden in a gorge of the Katskain Range. It’s the ship I came in a week ago.

“The pilot was instructed to wait fifteen planetary revolutions in the event that I might have a report to send back to Headquarters. You must learn to trust me, Eddie. From the first, you see, I intended to send Glenna and Hurd to Vinin. If they get there in time there’s a chance our Medical Corps can pull them through. They may even be back here with us for the day when we carry out the Plan.”

Dirrul was in no real danger. Much as it benefited the Movement the laxity of Agronian security was one of the chief reasons why Dirrul scorned the Planetary Union. The space-wide patrols of the Air-Command, the city guards and the electronic paralysis barricades created a feeling of internal control--but it was all a glittering sham. If it were not for the Nuclear Beams the whole system would long since have crumbled under the first pressure from outside.

With no difficulty he picked up Glenna and Hurd and took them to the South Desert, where he put them aboard the sleek Vininese space-ship. It was one of the new Dragon design--compact, efficient, faster than anything built by the Planetary Union, protected by sixteen circular batteries and yet small enough to be handled by one man.

Dirrul had seen only one other Vininese Space-dragon and that from a distance at the Agronian commercial airport, when the last Vininese ambassador arrived. Technically there was no reason why Paul Sorgel could not have landed there as well, except that the Customs questionnaire might have proved embarrassing.

Twenty years earlier, when Dirrul was still a schoolboy, the Galactic War had ended. Since that time relations between the Planetary Union and the Vininese Confederacy had steadily improved--at least in appearance. Undoubtedly there were commercial interests on both sides anxious to maintain peace and in recent years the quantity of goods in trade had grown enormously. But it was a truce, not a peace--a compromise, rather than a victory--forced on the galaxy when the scientists of the Planetary Union discovered the Nuclear Beams.

Pain shot through Dirrul’s mind as he carried Glenna into the pressurized chamber under the control room. She and Hurd were still unconscious but Glenna turned in his arms and her eyes fluttered open. She looked at him and screamed in terrible agony before the pilot of the Space-dragon plunged a hypodermic sedative into her arm.

“It is better,” he said to Dirrul in throaty Vininese. “So beautiful a one should not feel the pain.” Carefully he fastened the needlepoint of a wall tube into Glenna’s vein and another into Hurd’s.

“Synthetic blood feeding,” he said with a smile. “It will keep them alive, perhaps even permitting minor wounds to heal, until I deliver them to the authorities on Vinin. You see, sir, my little ship is well-equipped.” He slammed the round door of the hospital room shut and led Dirrul to the control blister.

“How long will it be, this trip to Vinin?” Dirrul asked, speaking very slowly in classical Vininese. Like everyone in the Movement he had studied the language of Vinin as a sort of courtesy and duty but he had no illusion about his small ability to handle it.

“In terms of your time,” the pilot said, “about thirty days.”

“Only thirty? The Planetary Union hasn’t a ship that could make it under sixty!”

“But this is a Space-dragon.” The words were self-explanatory.

Proudly the pilot showed Dirrul the controls, as functional and as uncomplex as the cool clean lines of the ship herself. The design was so logical, so basically simple, that within a few minutes Dirrul understood enough of the mechanism to have driven the ship himself.

“Your scientists could do as well,” the pilot suggested, “if they wished.”

“Not mine,” Dirrul said.

“Pardon--the scientists of the Planetary Union. On Vinin we create for the future, for the progress of the Confederacy. We have no patience with petty argument, tedious experimentation or the pointless splitting of hairs that seems to occupy so much of your time here. For us a scientist is a producer, like everyone else. If he fails to do his job we replace him.”

Pleased with the comparison the pilot chuckled over his dials as he turned on the power. Above the roar he said to Dirrul, “We must talk again one day, sir. If you ever have the good fortune to come to Vinin be sure to look me up.”


As the Vininese ship shot smoothly out into the night sky, Dirrul’s surface jet slashed back toward the Agronian capital. A synthetic tension, which he deliberately fed with nightmare improbabilities, kept him reasonably alert until he had safely returned the jet to its place in the compound. Then weariness engulfed him. Groggily he staggered to the pneumotube and within five minutes he was asleep in the small two-room worker’s apartment where he lived.

The insistent ping of the door visiscope woke him. Dirrul glanced at his wall clock and saw that it was still early morning. He had slept less than three hours. Swearing angrily he turned down the visiarm. Dr. Kramer’s serene aging white-bearded face was mirrored on the grey-tinted screen.

“Good morning, Edward,” Kramer said with excessive cheerfulness. “For a moment I was afraid I had missed you. I’ve brought a transcription of the lecture you missed yesterday.”

Dirrul swung out of bed and pushed the entry release. Soundlessly the thin metal door slid into the wall and the little professor bounced into the room. The door shot back into place.

“But you’re not dressed!” the professor exclaimed without the slightest regret. “I always supposed you Air-Command men had to report for work at eight.”

“Yesterday I was out on emergency call,” Dirrul said dully. “For twelve hours, so I’ve the morning off. I had planned to pound the pillow until--”

“Good! We can talk, then. I don’t have a class until ten and I always like to make the personal acquaintance of my students.” Dr. Kramer made himself comfortable in Dirrul’s Cloud-foam lounge, clasping his small, white hands over the little bulge of his belly. “Nice apartment you have here, Edward--excellent taste in furnishing.”

“You don’t mind if I shave and dress and have a bite of breakfast, Dr. Kramer?” Dirrul’s sarcasm was quite lost on the professor.

“Do, by all means,” Kramer said. “And you might order a pot of coffee for me.”

Dirrul touched a button and the bed rolled up into the wall--another and the gleaming metal shower-room slid open. He stripped and bathed, setting the aquadial so that his body was pounded by a sharp rain of icy water. When he snapped it off the massage arms shot out, rubbing him dry with soft, plastic puffs. He sprayed the newly patented No-Beard Mist on his face and, after waiting the required three seconds, wiped it off with a disposable fiber towel. The skin was pink and clean, refreshingly invigorated. When he took a fresh uniform out of the wall-press and put it on he felt very much himself again, scarcely annoyed by his lack of sleep.

He pushed the button and the bathroom rolled out of sight. The whole process had taken less than five minutes.

At his panel-control Dirrul dialed a sizable breakfast for himself and coffee for the professor. Before he could draw up chairs the grey-topped table had rolled from its wall slot, the steaming food containers fixed to it.

“The marvels of invention!” Dr. Kramer said. “When I was young we had nothing like this. Many times, Edward, I had to prepare my own meals--and mighty skimpy ones they were too, some of them. A young teacher in those days wasn’t paid very much.”

“You survived, Dr. Kramer,” Dirrul reminded him dryly. “A little work now and then wouldn’t hurt us, either.”

“That’s the old argument, Edward. How we frothed and stewed over it when this new system was in its infancy! That was before your time, of course.” Kramer poured a cup of coffee and after a thoughtful hesitation quietly took a slice of toast from Dirrul’s platter. “They said we’d create a race of helpless children--defenseless lazy softies. They said if the individual wasn’t forced to fight for his own survival, for the small comforts of life, he would die of boredom, drown initiative in luxury.”

Dr. Kramer smiled--and took another slice of toast. “Like so many of the terrifying predictions of the Cassandras none of it came to pass. Today we’re stronger and more vigorous than ever. Today we have more new inventions, more new discoveries, more fine philosophical insight than ever before in our entire history.

“Actually what we did was save time on the trivial routines so we could spend our work-potential where it mattered. After all, what was gained by a social system that forced me to spend so much of my energy feeding and housing and clothing myself? Weigh the loss against the greater contribution I might have made if I had spent the same time in research.”

“Why, yes, Dr. Kramer--you could have given us the Cloud-foam lounge a generation earlier,” Dirrul said bitterly, “or perhaps the Safe-sweet candy.”

Again his sarcasm lost its savor, for the professor simply beamed and said, “Possibly, if that had been my field of interest. As it happens I’m a psychologist specializing in emotive linguistics--the symbologies for conveying meanings.” The professor smiled.

“Our present vigor and strength, no doubt, is reflected in the sort of thing we do with all this extra time our gadgets give us--the scholarly research in the Arena or the Phonoview.”

“You’re being very uncritical, Edward. Under any social form a great majority of the people would spend everything on personal pleasures. Why not? Each generation produces only a few leaders--we simply recognize that fact and adjust to it.”

“But without the incentive of personal gain, Dr. Kramer...”

The professor laughed uproariously. “Incentive! You amaze me, Edward. I haven’t heard the word used in just that context since I was a boy. You’re a throwback--an anachronism. You sound like one of the elderly prophets of doom. I thought the breed had died out generations ago.” The professor laughed again. “So our system creates no incentives. Tell me, Edward, why are you spending your Work-Equivs to take my night course?”

“Because, when I’ve passed enough university hours I can take the promotional test and become a full-fledged space-pilot.”

“And still you say there’s no incentive?”

“For myself, yes--but all of us ought to have the same kind of drive,” said Dirrul.

“Such a condition never existed, Edward. Always there have been a few to make the inventions and the discoveries, a few to create the new dreams and frame the new ideas. Our people are no different. Incentive comes from within the individual--it cannot be imposed from the outside.

“The poorest sort of incentive, therefore, is economic need. Our system provides all our people with the basic necessities for everyday living. Some few of us are content with these and never want anything else. But the great majority work to earn Work-Equivs, which they can spend as they please--on amusement, luxury, education or the races at the Arena.

“Whatever the goal, it is a personal goal, set by each individual for himself. It’s the only kind of incentive that makes any sense. Take yourself as an example--you spend your share of Work-Equivs on additional education because you want to become a space-pilot. By the time you’ve earned the promotion you’ll have lifted yourself to a position of leadership.

“As you are well aware the space-pilot is the politician--statesman is a better word--of the Planetary Union. Through his ingenuity, his skill with languages, his psychological understanding of diverse racial groups, he holds our planets and peoples together, in one union with a common social philosophy. Think how frustrating it would be if you could never move toward your goal, Edward, because everything you earned had to be spent on trivialities--food, clothing, a place to live.”

“All right,” said Eddie doubtfully, “I have an apartment given to me but it has to be here in a worker’s block. If our system provides for us all alike, as you imply, how is it you have accommodations in the Scientist’s Center? Why should you be set apart? Or the poets and writers? Or the space-pilots, for that matter?”

“But there’s no difference in the way we live, Edward. In general people who do similar work and have similar interests are happier if they share the same social environment. The average person, living in a worker’s block, would feel terribly out of place in a scientist’s center, just as I would develop terrific frustrations if I had to live with the mystics or the religious orders.”

Dirrul deftly snatched the last piece of toast as the professor reached for it. “I’ll dial some for you if you like,” he offered.

“Oh, no, Edward! I’m dieting, you see, and I like to think--well, as I’ve told you so often in class, we all practise self-deception of a sort. Usually it’s harmless--and almost always we symbolize it in words. For me the symbol is diet.

“I set up a specialized definition and convince myself that I am dieting if I never directly order fattening food. That gives me an escape hatch. If food is offered to me or if it happens to--ah--to fall into my hands, I can take it and still keep a clear conscience.”

“Perhaps you practise more self-deception than you know, Dr. Kramer,” said Eddie. “For instance, all your fine words about the strength and vitality of our new system--when I was a boy we licked the Vininese Confederacy. We couldn’t do it today.”

“That’s a matter of opinion. We’re at peace now and we’ll remain so.”

“Only because we have the Nuclear Beams. And look how we’ve botched that mess! Our scientists gave the process to the Vininese in order to patch together a peace when we could have destroyed their civilization completely.”

“And our own too--with the weight of such a crime on our group conscience. There’s one thing you still must learn, Edward--scientific progress is made by the sharing of ideas, not the concealment of them. We build the future upon the truths of the past and the present. If some of those truths are hidden away we create falsely on utterly false foundations.”

Dr. Kramer pulled a manila envelope from his pocket and laid it on the table, pushing back his chair. “I must go, Edward; these are the notes on my lecture. As I told you before, I really came here for something else. I wanted to talk to you, to get to understand you better. I think I’ve learned a great deal.”

The little professor was no longer smiling and the gentle touch of banter was gone from his voice. Dirrul felt a creeping fear rise within him. How much had he unconsciously revealed? How many of his own beliefs had Dr. Kramer been able to read between the lines?

Knowing them, would he guess Dirrul’s connection with the Movement? The professor’s bland naiveté could be the mask of a police informer. Dirrul shivered, remembering the sudden punishment that had overtaken Glenna and Hurd.

At the door Dr. Kramer paused and said, “I’m entertaining two or three of the university faculty this evening, Edward. They’ve read some of the papers you have written for my class. I’d like to have you meet them. My apartment--eight-thirty.”

It was a command rather than an invitation. Dirrul accepted.


As soon as the professor had gone his fear vanished. What he had said to Dr. Kramer gave away no secrets and, in any case, he was crediting the professor with a perception he did not have. Ever since first joining the Movement, when he was still in school, Dirrul had taken such pains to conceal his motives that it would have required a good deal more than Dr. Kramer’s clumsy prying to reveal them.

He had deliberately patterned his attitudes and habits upon a composite average, even to a mild and starry-eyed criticism of the system which was more or less expected from the ambitious young men of the Air-command.

Dr. Kramer’s ecstatic praise of the system was the typical emotional reaction of the older generation. The professor may actually have been convinced of the truth of his own fuzzy propaganda. It was that sort of blind faith which still held the Planetary Union together.

Before returning to the Air-Command base at noon, Dirrul sought out Paul Sorgel and reported that Glenna and Hurd were safely on their way to Vinin. Apologetically, he mentioned Dr. Kramer’s invitation, expecting to elicit Sorgel’s scorn. Instead the Vininese agent was enthusiastic.

“Wonderful, Eddie!” he said. “Engineer it so they’ll ask you back. We’ve never got one of our people in with the older science crowd before. Feel them out--we might pick up some converts. I won’t need you at the next few meetings of the Movement--they’ll be largely reorganizational, you know. I’ve been reading over Glenna’s notes on the Plan. With one or two modifications we should be able to carry it out.”

At eight-thirty that evening Dirrul was admitted to Dr. Kramer’s apartment. He was neither overwhelmed by the professor’s excessive courtesy nor impressed by the other guests. They were from the faculty of the Advanced Air University, elderly, respected and distinguished, names known for a generation everywhere in the Planetary Union.

To them, Edward Dirrul was merely a curiosity, a live specimen mounted for analysis. He had criticised their system. They intended to wring out the strands of his motivation, classify them, speculate and theorize upon them--and perhaps, ultimately, do the whole thing up as a monograph.

Dirrul knew why Kramer had selected him for study rather than any of the current crop of university students who held similar views. A product of the educational philosophy of the Planetary Union, Dirrul was thoroughly adjusted and decidedly aware of both his own abilities and shortcomings.

He was, first of all, gifted in the use of abstractions and generalities. In rare combination with this flair he had superior mechanical intelligence and a talent for expressive verbalization. He dealt easily in the subtle skills of logic. If he set his mind to it, he could erect absolute proofs of diametrically opposed truths and few minds could detect the delicately concealed flaws in the reasoning.

On the negative side of the scale was Dirrul’s complete lack of psycho-biological intelligence, or a sense of scientific semantics. Neither to him seemed important. He missed them not at all and resented the legal requirements that forced him to take Dr. Kramer’s course before he could qualify as a space-pilot.

The papers he had written for the professor were beautifully constructed patterns of logic, cast in well-turned phrases. They had clarified the criticism which others put inarticulately. It was the precision of his argument that disturbed Dr. Kramer and his faculty friends.

Dirrul was amused as the distinguished scientists skillfully manipulated the conversation to create counter-arguments opposing his. It was a game played in abstractions, a technique of which Dirrul was an instinctive master. Apparently the scientists found some sort of excitement in the game, since on succeeding evenings Dirrul was swamped with invitations from other faculty members--so many, in fact, that he had to neglect the serious work of the Movement. When he complained to Paul Sorgel, the Vininese agent was delighted.

“We can get along without you for awhile, Eddie,” Sorgel said. “You’re doing something much more important. You have a real in with the science crowd, and you’ve got them on the run because your arguments make sense. Every doubt you sow in their minds now will make our work just that much easier when the proper time comes.”

Occasionally Dirrul had an uneasy feeling that he was making no real progress at all, that when he talked to the scientists he was a dancing puppet dangling on invisible strings. It seemed impossible that the scientists of the Ad-Air University could be so repeatedly defeated by his logic. Slowly, however, he reasoned his way to an explanation.

The scientists, like the system itself, were in the last wild frenzy of a decaying social order. They had lived so long in the atmosphere of relative truths, they had so carefully schooled themselves to avoid all absolutes, that they were unable to elude the simplest processes of logic. Their very efforts to be objective made them too honest to reject a conclusion once Dirrul had demonstrated the careful structure that seemed to support it.

A month passed. Dirrul felt divorced from the Movement, existing in suspended animation in a cloud of wordy unreality. Then abruptly the slow-moving dream ended. Late one night Paul Sorgel slipped into Dirrul’s apartment and announced in an emotionless whisper, “The Plan’s ready. You’ll have to carry the details to Vinin. We can’t use the teleray--the Union monitors might pick up the message and decode it.”

“Naturally our Vininese Headquarters will want to know, Paul,” said Eddie, “but can’t that wait? We’ll need every man here when we--”

Sorgel interrupted him. “I’ve made one or two changes in Glenna’s original plan. It was too impractical. A handful of men can’t take over half a galaxy.”

“Glenna and Hurd weren’t after the entire Planetary Union, Paul--that’s out of the question. We meant to liberate Agron first. The capital is here and for awhile the government would be disrupted. When the people on the other planets saw how much better our social organization had become, modeled on the Vininese system, they would stage their own revolutions just like ourselves.”

Sorgel laughed scornfully. “And in the meantime, of course, none of them would think of attacking you and throwing your people out?”

“Not if we seized the Nuclear Beam Transmitters,” said Dirrul, “no space-fleet could come near us then.”

“Eddie, you’ve lived in Agron too long. You’re not thinking straight when you try to build the Plan around a single weapon.”

“Why not, Paul? It’s a perfect defense. In less than thirty seconds the Beam Transmitters can charge the entire stratospheric envelope of Agron. Nothing can move through it without disintegrating, yet life on the surface of the planet would go on quite normally because the atmosphere serves as an insulation.”

“Technically it’s a change in the form of energy, not a disintegration,” Sorgel reminded him. “The beamed electrons unite with the atoms of visible material substances and alter them. I quite understand the process, Eddie--Vinin has the Beam too, you know.”

“Because the Agronian scientists gave you the specifications!”

“That always has rankled, hasn’t it?” said Sorgel.

“Yes,” Dirrul admitted. “If the Vininese scientists had discovered the Beam-reaction first they would have conquered the galaxy.”

“Conquer is a nasty word, Eddie,” Sorgel said softly. “Vinin makes no conquests. Let’s put it differently and say we would have used the Beam to bring peace to the galaxy instead of splitting it in two as it is now.”

“Glenna’s Plan can change all that, at least here on Agron.”

“Face the facts, Eddie! A few conscientious people with ideals can’t take over a planet. The Movement has its crews trained to capture the Beam Transmitters. You’ll isolate Agron and seize the government offices simultaneously. What happens then?”

“Our people will rise and join us,” said Eddie. “We’ll create a new government modeled on Vinin’s and we’ll have young leaders instead of murky thinkers like Dr. Kramer.”

“That’s effective propaganda for speechmaking, but--”

“Glenna pounded away at it too, Paul,” said Eddie. “It was the most telling line in winning our new crop of recruits.”

“Which is precisely why the police disposed of her. But it won’t work. The people won’t rise. A mob is lethargic, too willing to keep things as they are. Here on Agron you’ve been coddled too long with luxuries and easy living. You have to prod the mob awake with a shock-force, a force coming from the outside.”

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