Absolutely Inflexible

by Robert Silverberg

The detector over in one corner of Mahler’s little office gleamed a soft red. With a weary gesture of his hand he drew it to the attention of the sad-eyed time jumper who sat slouched glumly across the desk from him, looking cramped and uncomfortable in his bulky spacesuit.

“You see,” Mahler said, tapping his desk. “They’ve just found another one. We’re constantly bombarded with you people. When you get to the Moon, you’ll find a whole Dome full of them. I’ve sent over four thousand there myself since I took over the bureau. And that was over eight years ago—in twenty-seven twenty-six, to be exact. An average of five hundred a year. Hardly a day goes by without someone dropping in on us.”

“And not one has been set free,” the time jumper said. “Every time traveler who’s come here has been packed off to the Moon immediately. Every single one.”

“Every one,” Mahler agreed. He peered through the thick shielding, trying to see what sort of man was hidden inside the spacesuit.

Mahler often wondered about the men he condemned so easily to the Moon. This one was small in stature, with wispy locks of white hair pasted to his high forehead by perspiration. Evidently he had been a scientist, a respected man of his time, perhaps a happy father although very few of the time jumpers were family men. Perhaps he possessed some bit of scientific knowledge which would be invaluable to the 28th Century. Or perhaps he didn’t. It scarcely mattered. Like all the rest, he would have to be sent to the Moon, to live out his remaining days under the grueling, primitive conditions of the Dome.

“Don’t you think that’s a little cruel?” the other asked. “I came here with no malice, no intent to harm anyone. I’m simply a scientific observer from the past. Driven by curiosity, I took the Jump. I never expected that I’d be walking into life imprisonment.”

“I’m sorry,” Mahler said, getting up.

He decided to end the interview then and there. He had to get rid of this jumper because there was another space traveler coming right up. Some days they came thick and fast, and this looked like one of the really bad days. But the efficient mechanical tracers never missed a jumper.

“But can’t I live on Earth and stay in this spacesuit?” the man asked, panicky now that he saw his interview with Mahler was coming to an end. “That way I’d be sealed off from contact at all times.”

“Please don’t make this any harder than it is for me,” Mahler said. “I’ve explained to you why we must be absolutely inflexible. There cannot—must not—be any exceptions. Two centuries have now passed since the last outbreak of disease on Earth. So naturally we’ve lost most of the resistance acquired over the countless generations when disease was rampant. I’m risking my life coming so close to you, even with the spacesuit sealing you off.”

Mahler signaled to the tall, powerful guards who were waiting in the corridor, looking like huge, heavily armored beetles in the casings that protected them from infection. This was always the worst moment.

“Look,” Mahler said, frowning with impatience. “You’re a walking death trap. You probably carry enough disease germs to kill half the world. Even a cold—a common cold—would wipe out millions now. Acquired immunity to disease has simply vanished over the past two centuries. It’s no longer needed, with all diseases conquered. But you time travelers show up loaded with potentialities for all the diseases that once wiped out whole populations. And we can’t risk having you stay here with them.”

“But I’d—”

“I know. You’d swear by all that’s holy to you or to me that you’d never leave the confines of the spacesuit. Sorry. The word of the most honorable man doesn’t carry any weight against the safety of two billion human lives. We can’t take the slightest risk by letting you stay on Earth.

“I know. It’s unfair, it’s cruel—it’s anything else you may choose to call it. You had no idea you would walk into a situation like this. Well, I feel sorry for you. But you knew you were going on a one-way trip to the future, and would be subject to whatever that future might decide to do with you. You knew that you could not possibly return in time to your own age.” Mahler began to tidy up the paper on his desk with a brusqueness that signaled finality. “I’m terribly sorry, but you’ll just have to try to understand our point of view,” he said. “We’re frightened to death by your very presence here. We can’t allow you to roam Earth, even in a spacesuit. No. There’s nothing for you but the Moon. I have to be absolutely inflexible. Take him away,” he said gesturing to the guards.

They advanced on the little man and began gently to ease him out of Mahler’s office.

Mahler sank gratefully into the pneumochair and sprayed his throat with laryngogel. These long speeches always left him exhausted, and now his throat felt raw and scraped. Someday I’ll get throat cancer from all this talking. Mahler thought. And that’ll mean the nuisance of an operation. But if I don’t do this job, someone else will have to.

Mahler heard the protesting screams of the time jumper impassively. In the beginning he had been ready to resign on first witnessing the inevitable frenzied reaction of jumper after jumper as the guards dragged them away. But eight years had hardened him.

They had given him the job because he had been a hard man in the first place. It was a job that called for a hard man. Condrin, his predecessor, had not been the same sort of man at all, and because of his tragic weakness Condrin was now himself on the Moon. He had weakened after heading the bureau a year, and had let a jumper go.

The jumper had promised to secrete himself at the tip of Antarctica and Condrin, thinking that Antarctica would be as safe as the Moon, had foolishly released him. Right after that they had called Mahler in. In eight years Mahler had sent four thousand men—to the Moon. The first had been the runaway jumper—intercepted in Buenos Aires after he had left a trail of disease down the hemisphere from Appalachia to the Argentine Protectorate. The second had been Condrin.

It was getting to be a tiresome job, Mahler thought. But he was proud to hold it and be in a position to save millions of lives. It took a strong man to do what he was doing. He leaned back and awaited the arrival of the next jumper. Instead the door slid smoothly open, and the burly body of Dr. Fournet, the bureau’s chief medical man, broke the photoelectric beam. Mahler glanced up. Fournet carried a time rig dangling from one hand.

“I took this away from our latest customer,” Fournet said. “He told the medic who examined him that it was a two-way rig and I thought you’d better be the first to look it over.”

Mahler came to full attention quickly. A two-way rig? Unlikely, he thought. But if it was true it would mean the end of the dreary jumper prison on the Moon. Only how could a two-way rig exist? He reached out and took the rig from Fournet.

“It seems to be a conventional twenty-fourth century type,” he said.

“But notice the extra dial,” Fournet said, frowning. Mahler peered and nodded. “Yes. It seems to be a two-way rig, all right. But how can we test it? And it’s not really very probable,” he added. “Why should a two way rig suddenly show up from the twenty-fourth century, when no other traveler has one? We don’t even have two-way time travel ourselves, and our scientists insist that we never will.

“Still,” he mused, “it’s a nice thing to dream about. We’ll have to study this a little more closely. But I don’t seriously think it will work. Bring the jumper in, will you?”

As Fournet turned to signal the guards, Mahler asked him, “What’s the man’s medical report, by the way?”

“From here to here,” Fournet said somberly. “You name it, he’s carrying it. Better get him shipped off to the Moon as quickly as you can. I won’t feel safe until he’s off this planet.”

The big medic waved to the guards. Mahler smiled. Fournet’s overcautiousness was proverbial in the Bureau. Even if a jumper were to show up completely free from disease, Fournet would probably insist that he was carrying everything from asthma to leprosy.

The guards brought the jumper into Mahler’s office. He was fairly tall, Mahler saw—and quite young. It was difficult to see his face clearly through the dim plate of the protective spacesuit which all jumpers were compelled to wear. But Mahler could tell that the young time traveler’s face had much of the lean, hard look of Mahler’s own. It was just possible that the jumper’s eyes had widened in surprise as he entered the office, but Mahler could not

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