Killer to Come: The Science Fiction Classic
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by Sam Merwin, Jr.
Category: Science Fiction/Suspense/Thriller
Description: Due to his research into the lives of geniuses, Dr Julius Conrad of the Wellington Institute for the Study of the Humanities has developed a radical hypothesis: Namely, that the work of most geniuses, past and present, has been directed by minds from a ruthless future which take possession of either the unstable geniuses themselves or else of unstable people who are in a position to change the course of the geniuses' work. When Conrad is murdered on the eve of announcing his theory, journalist Henry Sanford and the Institute's brainy Liza Drew investigate. Soon the pair discover their own lives are in jeopardy, for the people of the future are determined that no one of our era will ever reveal their existence or the role they play in human history. As critic Groff Conklin wrote in Galaxy, Killer to Come has "a sharpness and authority in the writing, plotting and characterization that makes it soar high. Entertains in an expert and colorful fashion. A fast-moving tale with a wry and uncomfortable payoff."
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2003
eBookwise Release Date: September 2005
9 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [194 KB]
Reading time: 121-170 min.
THERE was no time for thought, little time for action, as the car bore down on them out of the darkness, its tires singing on the wet pavement. What Hank did was entirely a matter of reflex action. He flung himself clear of the pavement barely in time, skidding on the slick grass as his feet left the macadam. Half-falling, he twisted to learn the fate of his companion.
Although what happened took place in less than a second, it seemed to Hank to unroll with the patient relentlessness of a slow-motion movie. He saw Jervis spring awkwardly to the far side of the road, saw his heel slip on the rain-soaked pavement, saw him flail, his arms in a desperate effort to keep from falling.
And then the unbelievable happened. The car, almost on top of Jervis, did not slow down--rather it seemed to leap forward. It swung to the left, directly toward the poet. Instead of the expected scream of brakes, hastily applied, the shrill protest of tires against increased friction with the pavement, Hank heard the roar of a powerful motor goaded into greater life.
For a quick-frozen instant he could actually see a foot or so of space between chromium front bumper and Jervis' sprawling legs. And then the space had disappeared. The poet was lifted by the bumper and thrown high in the air, like some wilting matador in a Mexican ring tossed by a bull too cunning for him. There came a horrid thudding, scraping sound as his body struck the streamlined hood-then another series of horrid sounds as, limp and sodden with its own blood, it struck the macadam. And then the car was gone, its speed still increasing, its red tail lights dwindling to pinpricks in the middle distance.
Battling sudden nausea--more at what he knew he was about to see than at what he had already seen--Hank sprinted to the side of the shattered poet, who lay in a spreading puddle of blood that sparkled like Burgundy in the glow of the street light.
Hank had been close to death by violence too often in the course of his career not to know, without doctor's telling, that Jervis was virtually dead. His legs lay at grotesque angles which had no coherent relationship to the angle of his torso, one of his wrists horribly bent so that jagged bone-ends protruded through the tortured flesh, one side of his face and head a bloody mash.
Yet, as he knelt to see if by any chance his first judgment could be wrong, the poet's one good eye opened and looked up at him with perfect comprehension. A corner of the sardonic mouth struggled to curve upward in a grin. A whispering voice said, "They were waiting.
She trod dark turf with muted step,
Hid face beneath her hood...
Pretty corny, isn't it?"
He was struggling to laugh as he died. And Hank, for the first time since the trouble began, realized the danger in which he must walk from then on. He did not know who the killer was, nor from what quarter he would strike again, nor at what target. And worse, he did not know from when the murderer came. For the first time since the trouble began, Hank realized to the full, the terrifying implications of the theory of Dr. Julius Conrad. * * * *
It had begun, some twenty-two hours earlier, at a typical rainy night gathering at the Wellington Institute Club bar--if anything in any way connected with that extraordinary assemblage of advanced egos and post-graduate intellects could be labeled typical.
The banquettes along the north wall had been preempted as usual by a group of Medieval Language Fellows, who were debating at half-heat the exact pronunciation and usage of diphthongs in Languedoc during the twelfth century. At the large round center table an Archeological Don, his face weathered and ultimately leathered by decades of expeditions under tropical suns, was expatiating to a trio of Fellows of his department and two of their wives on the importance of the latest pre-Mayan discoveries in Guatemala. At one end of the bar Jervis, the poet, was getting quietly and mournfully drunk by himself.
And there were others present. At one of the small tables close to the bar Henry "Hank" Sanford, Fellow in Writing, and Liza Drew, Fellow in Drama, were seated, ignoring the torrents of talk that swept around them. Wordlessly they were marveling at the double miracle of one another, their sours-on-the-rocks barely touched. Occasionally, when the lighting of fresh cigarettes gave them adequate excuse, they engaged briefly in unobtrusive manual contact above the dark wood of the table. They were newly and utterly in love and their language was not the language of words.
"Don't, darling," Liza murmured as Hank reached openly and successfully for her left hand. "Do you want to make an institute thing of us?"
"Well, we are one--or are we?" Hank protested, reluctantly releasing her fingers. He was a tall, raw-boned, thirtyish young man. His light brown hair was close-cropped to a long, well-proportioned head with features whose somewhat astonishing ugliness was transformed into charm by the overt good humor of his mouth, the character and intelligence that showed themselves in his unexpectedly dark brown eyes.
Liza made a face at him, sighed, said, "Oh, I suppose we are, but I'm not quite ready to tell the world yet. I'm enjoying things too much the way they are." Her voice was light, liquid, clear, perfect.
"That's the Smithfield in you, honey," Hank told her gravely. "If you didn't depend on it for my future support, I'd whale it out of you." He did his best to look fierce.
Liza gurgled her delight at him over the rim of her drink, put it down, said, "Not my Mickey Mouse."
He found her perfectly enchanting when she smiled. Her heavy, dark gold hair framed a smooth, rather prominent forehead, wide-set, turquoise-blue eyes, a short, straight nose dusted with freckles, a warm, too wide mouth above a softly determined chin. She wore a splashily-printed dark blue dress and her figure ... On that important matter Hank had more than once told her she was utterly wasted while sitting down.
He tried to look even more ferocious, growled, "I can be plenty rough when I have to. Let's look at the record..."
"Let's not," said Liza, motioning him to silence. She nodded slightly toward the bar at her left. Hank followed directions although he felt moderately abused at Liza's having allowed something from outside to break in upon her preoccupation with him. He picked up his drink, took a sip, listened.
It appeared that Herman Willis, Dean of History at the Institute, was angry at Dr. Julius Conrad, Don of Creative Arts. Physically the two Institute officials were absurdly ill-matched. Willis, tall, iron-grey, saturnine, had more than six inches of height over his colleague, and must have, outweighed him by half a hundred pounds, although he was spare of build where Dr. Conrad was not. Furthermore, Dean Willis was by far the more impressive elegance in attire, a lethally satiric wit, and a solidly earned reputation as an historian of civilization second only to Dr, Toynbee.
Dr. Conrad, on the other hand, managed to look remarkably like a penguin even when not wearing dinner clothes. He was casual in dress to the point of sloppiness, seemed superficially and a trifle vulgarly gregarious, wholly vulnerable to a man like the Dean. One stem of his horn-rimmed glasses was broken, and had been repaired temporarily and precariously with Scotch tape.
It was quickly apparent to Hank that the penguin had the upper hand in the argument. Dean Willis was obviously close to his boiling point. His face was dangerously red, his carefully combed grey hair appeared actually to bristle. In a paroxysm of exasperation he shook his head helplessly at Liza and Hank, then reached abruptly for his glass on the bar
Dr. Conrad, following his gaze, ran stubby fingers through the remnants of sandy hair, winked, grinned at them--a succession of gestures that seemed to add to his companion's annoyance. Abruptly, Dean Willis swung about to face the pair at the table, said, "What's the use of trying to talk sense to a crazy man?"
Dr. Conrad chuckled, said, "In the words of that incarcerated Chanler chap whose brother married the opera singer, 'Who's loony now?' Like every born traditionalist, when confronted by truths that disrupt the narrow canons of his faith, Dean Willis has a tendency to start screaming for the militia."
Hank felt uncomfortable. Although it was Institute practice to regard each member as the social and intellectual equal of every other, regardless of title or authority, he retained a sort of vermiform respect for his superiors that prevented his feeling as free as he supposed he should in their presence.
But Liza, though she was some months newer at the Institute than himself, had no such qualms. She said, "We were sitting alone minding our business, when out of an orange-colored glass ... If you two want any non-humble opinions from us, you'd better give us a briefing!'
Dean and Don exchanged glances and there was truce in their eyes. "Very well, then," said Willis, "if you don't mind listening to the ravings of a lunatic."
"Let's cut them a drink before we start bending their shellpink ears," suggested Dr. Conrad, beaming at Liza in a non-possessive way that hinted at affection for, and enjoyment of, all pretty women.
Pat McColl, who had been hovering close to the argument, took the order, set the drinks on a tray at the bar. A big, blocky Hibernian with a broken nose and a sage way of listening, Pat had become almost as much of an institution as the Institute itself. He said, "I'd bring them to the table, but I've got to keep Jervis in order."
"Poor Jervis," said Dr. Conrad, eyeing the melancholy poet, who was leaning on the bar, staring into nowhere. "He always seems to be ossified. Thank God I'm not a poet. The hangovers would kill me, I'm afraid. The poor devil's in a blank. A pretty decent chap, too, when he's got his wits with him. Emotional, but decent."
Dean Willis snorted. "He's not in a blank. Next week, next month, next year, we'll be reading all about our nasty selves and the nasty little things we're saying tonight. I'm beginning to think he's a menace."
"Was Jervis the subject of your argument?" Liza inquired.
"It's no argument--it's sheer lunacy," said Dean Willis. He turned to bring the tray of drinks to the table while Hank rustled extra chairs. When they were comfortably settled the Dean added, "They ought to make Pat McColl Institute Master when Manly Tabard retires. I believe he knows more about all the fields of study here than anyone else. Certainly he's heard more about them."
"Amen to that," said Dr. Conrad. Then, lifting his glass to Liza, "I wish they'd had Fellows like you when I was a bit younger. I'd have gone with them instead of girls any day, and my life would now be a beautiful song for Jervis to write about."
Liza dimpled, and Dean Willis cut in with, "No matter what they call them, they're all the same to you, Julie, aren't they? Can't you leave any of them alone?" The unexpected venom in his voice made Hank jump. It was followed by a silence that could only be termed embarrassing.
Hank broke it, saying, "I thought you two came over to-to..." In his confusion he lost track of his thought.
Liza picked it up, with, "Yes, what about this great debate you wish us to pass judgment on?" She assumed a mock judicial gravity that halted the unpleasant battle about to be joined in by the two older men. They signed another armistice with their eyes.
Dean Willis said, "You may or may not know that Julie here is ostensibly engaged in a study of human genius--its occurrence, its causes, its results. As such, his work is out of my department." Contempt lurked ill-concealed beneath his tone.
"And a good thing too," replied the plump man amiably.
"History per se is a dead thing, valuable only in its capacity to relate past human conduct to its present and future."
"Time-stuff again!" snorted the Dean. "Believe it or not, Miss Drew, Julie is trying to convince me that time travel is actually with us today."
"Oh, now really!" protested Liza, nursing her drink.
Hank felt his interest mount. He had always, though from an utterly non-scientific viewpoint, found stimulation in the type of plausible neo-fantasy that has won the name of science fiction. He said, "But even if time travel were theoretically possible it seems to me that the physical obstacles would be insuperable."
"My idea exactly," said the Dean, nodding. "While I was considering Julie's theory as some sort of joke I tried to explain some of these obstacles. In the first place, to travel backward in time, even in a non-physical sense, would imply travel faster than light. You know the old idea--that if a man could travel faster than light and had a sufficiently powerful telescope he'd be able to view history through it if he went far enough from Earth."
"I remember reading that one in the Book of Knowledge or something, when I was ten," said Liza.
"Theoretically it makes sense, I suppose," remarked Hank, lighting cigarettes for Liza and himself.
"All right, theoretically it does," stated the Dean. "But in actuality, even if travel faster than light were possible, actual time would be taken to travel out and back from Earth. So when our traveler returned he would be somewhere in his own and the Earth's future rather than in the past."
"Have your fun, Herman," said Dr. Conrad, unwrapping a Bock Panatella.
Dean Willis ignored him, went on with, "And there are appalling physical obstacles. Remember, our solar system is moving through space at an unknown speed. Our galaxy is moving still faster. Imagine trying to get a fix on a past Earth and getting back to it even if you did succeed in getting far enough away with your immense telescope to see history." He snorted again.
"Perhaps at some future date..." Hank put in cautiously.
"Nonsense!" said the Dean explosively. "It can't be done and it won't ever be done and I'll give you two good reasons why. In the first place, one-way time travel doesn't make sense. Our travelers, supposing them to be more or less human, would be wanting to return to their own time either to report or to show off. And if time travel into the past is incredible, travel into the future is downright absurd."
He paused to survey his audience. Liza and Hank regarded him with mystification. Dr. Conrad contented himself with blowing a large balloon-tire smoke ring, then blowing a smaller one through it. Dean Willis regarded this byplay with a frown.
"Imagine the task confronting our traveler to the future," he continued. "Not only would he have to travel faster than the solar system and the galaxy, he'd have to know where they were going so that he could get ahead of them and be waiting for Earth to catch up with him. Time travel!" He gave vent to his fourth snort.
"But," said Dr. Conrad, sotto voce, "as Galileo is supposed to have said when forced to admit the Earth was stationary, 'Yet it does move."
"All right, here's the clincher," Dean Willis retorted. "Let us presuppose that all these obstacles are solved. Let us agree that someone, in some far-distant future, has made time travel a reality. Very well, if time travelers are ever going to exist, why haven't they visited us? Why don't we know about them?"