By Dolores J. Nurss
il'Dawes, whenever he can get away with it, wears what appears to be an
anachronistic, battered old baseball cap with a raveling of
no-longer-legible gold embroidery. This mystified me for many years.
Finally, on impulse, around my early to mid-twenties, I prayed for a
dream to explain this. I got more than I bargained for:
You see, a few nights later I went to sleep, my eyes last registering
the clock at 3:14 AM. I woke unwillingly at 3:47, compelled against all
reason (and grumbling the while) to jot the dream down--in abbreviated
notes, I thought.
I appreciate nothing after being dragged from 33 minutes of
already-overly-postponed sleep. Yet I found my work that morning not
only showed a startling insight into Jake, but arrived in the most
perfect story-form I'd ever dreamed, written in a style that I'd never
till then used--Jake's own voice--put down so completely and in such
detail that it needed only nitpicky grammatical and punctuation
correction--aside from those corrections I now present it exactly as I
wrote it. Oh, and one other slight modification: The notes did not
describe the couch, but I remembered it vividly in the dream itself, so
I added that.
For the record, I am not
tall, left-handed, or any of the other things recorded in this
story. But that is exactly how I wrote it down, while still
One additional note: before
this Jake always wore his hair short. After this he grew it out long.
Oracles do strange, symbolic things. Oh, and in his own timeframe, this
happened in June, 2697]
I went to the cafeteria, saving my money for I don't know what. I don't
remember. A couple tables away I caught sight of a man, watching me
quietly. He was old--no, he looked old to me then, in his fifties or
sixties, if you can estimate such things. Aged-young face, ravaged
handsomeness. I felt riveted by a power, but a friendly power.
He had thick, grey hair that spilled down past his shoulders, smoothly
brushed and dignified. Every line on his face spelled penetrating
thought, especially the ones around his mouth: curves added onto a
square, strong chin. He dressed in grey and brown, with his legs
stretched out in front of him, crossed at the ankles. Even sitting down
I could see his height.
Since by now we'd both been staring at each other for several minutes,
I went over to introduce myself. I don't usually do that. When he stood
to greet me I had the shock of finding his eyes exactly level with my
own--that doesn't happen often. They seemed to form a bridge between
us, our eyes. His were black.
As I told him my name he clasped my hand, left-handed like me, no
awkward moment. He kept his clasp upon me for a long interval before he
introduced himself: Henrie Dass. It rang a bell, some teacher
recommended to me or something.
I still had telepathy in those days, though it became more diffuse as
my training progressed. I felt a wave of personality rush through me
from him, a keen slap of mind-ocean, at once vibrant and grey,
refreshing and achingly cold. Then it withdrew, as though embarrassed.
I felt a second wave come towards me, this time desperate, hurtling
back, repentant of the first withdrawal. But before it reached me fully
he slammed a shield between us. Not before I read fear, though, or
maybe panic. Habitual panic.
He said, in the old usted grammar, "We have a lot in common, the gentleman and I."
"Do you always affect archaic speech?" I asked. I was blunter then, too young for diplomacy.
He laughed. "Pardon me," he said. "My thoughts went...I'm an historian,
you see. I forget sometimes what year I'm in." I didn't even realize he
still gripped my hand until he released it. "You're interested in
history," he stated.
"Somewhat." No more than any of us.
"Come to my place, then. I have many things to show you."
I went, flowing with the adventure. He had a one-story home inside a
sort of oriental garden, a clean, well-made place full of shining
display cases, things mounted on walls, and shelves of books. I get
lazy, myself, and do all my reading from the console. But I know the
sort of personality that loves to hold the actual thing in one's hands,
to absorb an ambiance from it. To relish it.
He took pride in his collection. Most of the books he'd bound himself,
often illustrating them, too. He took down a copy of Huckleberry Finn,
flipped to a picture of Jim the Runaway Slave, and went on about all
the research he did to discover the ethnic differences between the
Antebellum American Negro and the present-day Blacks of Altraus.
He pointed out in his engraving details of calluses with a magnifying
glass and explained experiments he'd conducted, handling reproductions
of authentic tools to put such calluses temporarily on his own hands
and to develop the same muscles--just so he'd know how to draw details
nobody else would notice. I saw he needed praise for his efforts and
gave it to him.
That embarrassed him. He apologized, confessing that he had a bad habit
of fishing for compliments. He never meant to, he just always caught
himself at it. He put the book back.
"That brings us to why I invited you here, Jake. Do you like this house?"
"How would you like to have it to yourself for three days?"
I wanted it. Everywhere I looked things beckoned me. Tibetan devil's
masks leered across the room at Greek theater masks. A WWI British
helmet hung from a Victorian coat-stand, along with a cane carved in
the Celtic style. It seemed mostly Earth stuff, so it had to be
reproductions, probably a lot of it made by Henrie. Instead of
answering I picked up a hat from a table, a rich, royal blue
embroidered in gold, a cap with a visor.
"What's this?" I asked.
"Ah, that's a duplicate of a sort of American crown of honor. You're familiar with NASA?"
"Yes." They played a role in the Great Migration.
"They awarded one of these caps to each of their astronauts upon
returning to the planet. See how this embroidery resembles leaves? It's
a direct descendent of the Greek victor-crowns, thousands of years
"It has the Til emblem on it."
He chuckled, a little shamefacedly. "That's a fancy of my own, Jake.
I'm not sure, but my research indicates that they used to embroider the
adventurer's name there." he took the cap in his hands, fingering the
fabric with a sort of wistful affection. "I thought for a long while
what name I would put there, which astronaut I'd choose. Finally I
realized we were all their heirs, living in their dream of a New World.
Though we arrived differently, we are all astronauts." He raised the
cap up to the light. "I sewed the emblem there to give us all the
honor." His hands sank again. "Vain of me, I suppose."
"No, it feels right." I kept admiring the thing.
"You like it."
He handed it to me. "Try it on."
I did. "It fits me."
"It should. I made it to my own measure." He paced a bit, looking to
the ground. "Jake, it's a wonderful coincidence that we look so
similar, the years between us notwithstanding." He turned to face me.
"Put a wig on you and from a distance no one would know it was you
staying here, not me."
"You're in trouble. You want me to take your identity for awhile."
"Ah. You understand." He smiled at me, a rich, warm expression. Still,
I felt the chill behind it. Not a coldness of heart, but something hot
cooling of a sudden, like a tempering blade...
"Henrie, beware! Not all steel survives tempering--some cracks."
He stared at me blankly. "What's that again?"
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'm training for an oracle and I haven't got a handle on it yet. I don't know what it means."
"It just burst out of you. I see." He stood a long moment, considering
my words seriously. Then he smiled, threw up his hands and said, "I
don't understand it either, Jake."
"You're in trouble. Tell me about it."
"Over here." He brought me to a twenty-first century sofa, made up of
soft, green spheres and sphere-sections. As I sat he poured us each
sweet tea from a Russian samovar of the most intricate workmanship. He couldn't possibly have made all of this, I remember thinking. He must've hired some of it out, or have skillful friends.
He put an arm around my shoulders; I could feel it tremble, though he
acted nonchalant. "Would you think less of me, Jake, if I told you I
had trouble with my own friendclan?"
I sipped his tea. "I don't know you well enough to think anything of you."
"They're good people, Jake; they mean only the best for me." Suddenly
he swiveled towards me where he sat. "Do I strike you as eccentric?" He
gripped my arm with hands of ice.
"For the Institute? No more than anybody else."
"They worry about me, all the time. It wears me down. Jake, I...I don't
know how things got to be such a mess. I never meant to be
manipulative, but I needed them. I thought I did, anyway. I manipulated
them into letting me join their friendclan, originally. I manipulated
them into paying me attention. I hungered after praise and I never
realized how my hunger ate ulcers of guilt into them, so that they
flattered me constantly."
His fists clenched. "They flattered
me, Jake! I based my entire life on lying feedback; now I don't know
how much, if any, of my accomplishments counted for anything. I thought
of myself as a notable historian--they praised all my work, lavishly,
but I have no way of knowing how many others get printouts of my work.
Not many, I'll wager."
"The Archives are so vast that..."
"And my classes. I've just realized that all of my classes have a few
of their children in it, or friends of their children, or people with
some other connection. It takes only a couple to make a good claque,
lead the herd to acclaim me as an exceptional teacher. All false! All a
ruse to sustain the crippled ego of a neurotic who has never
contributed anything of value to anyone."
"If so, sir, they must love you a lot to go so far."
"They fear me! They fear my capacity to twist little knives of guilt
into their vitals. They don't love me--how could they love someone who
hurts them so? I've always created an imitation friendclan, handing out
imitation esteem to an imitation man, who has lived at least half a
century of an imitation life!"
"Henrie, I think you're being unfair to yourself. What I've seen so far
is an intelligent, interesting man, with a sensitive grasp of the
people behind events. If you see so much in history, you must
understand everyday people that much more."
He smiled, regretfully, on me. "Have I gotten to you so soon? Do you
pity me already? But no, maybe it's not flattery. I do make a good
first impression. There's nothing to follow it with, Jake--I'm as
hollow as that mask over there."
He sipped at his tea. "As for history, it's much easier to understand
someone whose whole life stretches out on paper in front of you,
beginning to end, with no pressure as you peruse the details of his
passions, no need to interact. I'm insensitive in real life; I find my
fellow man incomprehensible. What else can you conclude from someone
who can't seem to help spilling all his troubles onto a chance-met
stranger?" His smile felt colder than anything I had yet perceived in
"I asked. You're answering. You said you had a purpose in bringing me here."
"Yes. My purpose. It's simple, really. I need three days to pull myself
together, embark on a solution, cut the Gordian knot I can't untangle."
He no longer touched me, though we sat centimeters apart on the couch.
A whole distance of history seemed to sift down in between us. "I have
persuaded my friends to leave me alone during that time, but I know
they've been watching me. I've seen them outside my window. It's been
perfect luck to find you, a man remarkably like myself who, if I'm not
mistaken, also has considerable ability in th shielding department. Am
"Nobody reads my thoughts when I don't want them to."
"Excellent! Then we'll trade identities. Just for three days. I'll stay
at your place, while you stay here. You won't mind the wig?"
"Not if you don't mind my roach problem. Just give me time to get my laundry caught up, first; it's all over my apartment."
I left him to make my own arrangements. My first place (I moved out
shortly after) was a loft, an old triangular attic-studio towards the
east end of campus. I had clothes strewn about. I had not yet learned
the routines to keep a place tidy--I'd only been on my own for six
months. By the time Henrie arrived, though, I had it squared away. I'd
also taken time to call my own friends and ask them for a few day's
isolation. It seemed no strange thing from me.
He came in the evening, wearing this grey belted sweater-coat down
nearly to his ankles, with sleeves wide enough for gowns in their own
right, though they stopped just past the elbows. I tried to make out
the design, but it had raveled too much. This was authentic, no
"You've been an agent, I see." I couldn't tell which culture made such sweaters, but I recognized it from something I'd read.
"I've tried my hand at that and a few other things." He piled his
dufflebag onto the bed and surveyed his surroundings with a smile,
though I knew him used to better. I noticed a peculiarity in his smile:
the corners pulled down, not up, yet it remained an expression of
approval. For some people it works like that.
"I don't think I resemble you all that closely, Henrie." I knew I couldn't smile like that if I tried.*
"Nonsense. You'll do all right at a distance. People fill in glimpses
of what they expect to see. If we looked as deeply as we could, we'd
all go mad."
I left him, then, just as he pulled out a pipe and stuffed it. Outside,
I watched him through the window as he smoked, looking suddenly old and
melancholy. I know I smelled marijuana before I left, which surprised
me. It's an acceptable vice among specialists, but I never heard of it
going with anyone of his wide-ranging mind. It must've been a temporary
fancy; had it been his habit all his research would've centered on one
culture in one time--detailed, perhaps, but within defined borders. He
must've been awfully depressed, then, to seek unaccustomed refuge.
I spent the three days happily, exploring his house and all the
surprises within it. Everything showed such master craftsmanship. It
spoke of a deep-seated love for humanity and all that humanity thinks
and does, a treasuring of everything the species ever came up with. He
cherished humankind, surrounded himself with artifacts like a lovesick
man might bury himself in the tokens of an incomprehensible mistress or
steal from an unrequiting love: this handkerchief touched by her lips,
that lock of hair from her comb, a lost shoe. Only for him it was model
ships, a bolt from an original space-capsule, a dentist's drill from
the turn of the century. I kept it all dusted for him, the treasures of
On the third day I returned to my loft. A crowd stood around, blocking
my way. I pushed through, only to be stopped by a man wearing the black
and white badge of the coroner's office. I saw a flask on the floor,
empty, with poison warnings written on it. Later, when they read me his
will (written on my desk) I found that he'd left the astronaut's cap to
[*He does all the time!--djn]