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8. Out of the History Books

When Merola and her pilot next touched down in Sane Looie, the sky was just passing through dusk on the way to evening dark. Merola directed the little robot to avoid the grassy field they had used before.

“It won’t be dark then—oh no!” the purchasing agent, Pinkus Boskin, had explained to her. “On the night when you must act, the diamond will be lit as with the power of a thousand suns. The infield grass will be as green and glowing as a bottle of Heineken’s, the dirt strip around the baselines as brown as Mississippi mud, and the chalk lines themselves as white and pure as … as chalk.”

From the way he was talking, using antique references she could barely follow, and from the way his eyes were going all wet and dreamy, Merola gathered that he himself might be the buyer. However, in this black business, to deal directly with an officer of the Jongleurs du Temps, one about to go on official Search, and to attempt to subvert the purposes of that Search—that would be foolhardy in the extreme.

“No,” Boskin went on, briskly enough, “you must land outside the stadium, no closer than the edge of the parking lot.” When Merola’s brow furrowed, he went on quickly: “The place where the spectators temporarily store their self-powered carriers. And you’ll have to disguise yourself, because you will probably be seen. There will be a crowd, after all.”

Berzher landed on the grass of a triangular piece of ground that sloped gently down to a double set of steel rails which Merola guessed might be connected—like everything else in this culture—with transportation. Just across the street and to the east stood the multi-level building that squared the lozenge-shaped playing field at the center of an entire city block. Berzher folded the ship’s panels in record time and laid them flat on the ground. Someone would have to walk down the slope and cross right over them to find the liteship in the dark.

“I can feel eyes on us,” Berzher said.

She looked around quickly. Beyond, in the parking lot, people in clumps and streams moved between their vehicles and past the Jongleurs’ landing site as they headed toward the tall arches of the stadium entrance. “Those are just spectators,” she told him. “They have come to watch the contest.”

“I can feel their attention,” he insisted.

“No one is looking this way.” She shrugged.

“It’s your mission,” he said without enthusiasm.

Merola stripped out of her biosuit and put on her disguise: a pair of long pantaloons made of a rough-surfaced blue cloth that the agent Boskin had called “denim”; shoes of the same material, but in sparkling white, with pale rubber soles that were molded into gripping ridges, which he referred to as “Keds”; a blouse of thin, stretchy material woven from vegetable fiber called a “cotton tee”; and of course her own blonde wig.

“Stay here with the ship,” she told Berzher.

“And avoid becoming an accessory? Gladly!”

Merola used all of her training to avoid the watchful eyes of the uniformed men, whom she easily identified as guards, and duck unobserved under the arms of the metal barriers which separated legitimate ticket-holders from the passing general public. She made her way on various levels to the outer reaches of the arena, in the area called “the bleachers.” The agent had given her precise coordinates as to the place and time where the event of interest was going to happen.

When no one was looking, Merola climbed down over the front rail of the raised seating section, past a white-and-blue sign for something called a “Konica.” She dropped onto the pavement below and quickly burrowed in among the struts and columns that supported a superstructure which the watchers, who were actually sitting down, still called “the stands.” She was in an angle of the field, along an imaginary line drawn down the left side of “the diamond,” just as the agent had described. She had time to spare: forty-three minutes, to be exact.

Crouched in the shadows, Merola tried not to think about the enormity of what she was planning to do. The “trade” she would engineer—but Berzher had been right, it was theft—could not be excused as negligence, miscalculation, or accident. Merola had willfully and deliberately departed from her temporal cues to violate Jongleur protocol. She would be tampering with an identifiable, traceable, and culturally important artifact from this reference now. If the Troupe ever learned of her actions, she risked—at a minimum—losing Jongleur status and being permanently grounded. The administrative penalties only went up from there. That was why she had avoided taking her neural imprint at any time during the preliminary stages of this Search assignment: best not to leave a record of her intentions through the entangling of electrons, as private and personal as those recollections might be. Neither would she share with Berzher any more of the details than necessary, beyond simple arrival at this place and time, because his bitstream was automatically imprinted, and other machine intelligences could retrieve it upon demand.

The truth was, Merola loved her job. Aside from the prestige and implied power, being member of an elite corps that guided and controlled the future of her own society, the work of a Jongleur was a great adventure, sometimes even dangerous. Each mission tested her knowledge and skills, her ingenuity, her nerve. Each trip showed her something new about the human condition as well as about herself. And, to tell the absolute truth, Merola was more comfortable as a stranger traveling in places and times that no longer existed, among people she would meet briefly and touch lightly, then leave and never see again. She did not have to form deep attachments, worry about how other people might feel, care about their problems, or otherwise concern herself with the subjects she sampled. By the time she returned to her own reference now, they would all be long dead, dust and ashes, not even a memory.

The Troupe psychologists had noted this about Merola. They identified these personality traits as flaws but agreed they made her more adaptable and, when required, cold and ruthless. The psychologists also knew that anything which increased her survival potential served the Troupe’s ultimate purpose.

So what would tempt Merola to risk a life that suited her so well? The collector—or his agent—this Pinkus Boskin—had found Merola’s personal weakness: a deep affection and an urge to protect her younger sister, Merosith. The girl had personal flaws of her own which were the opposite of Merola’s and strong in proportion.

Where Merola was cold and spare, aloof and calculating, Merosith was loving and giving, usually thoughtless, and careless about either past or future. As a beautiful young woman with dazzling eyes, a generous mouth, and clever hands, she attracted men of all kinds, the good sorts, the cavaliers, and the casual sports. When she had money, she spent. If she lacked it, she borrowed. Merosith’s last thirty years had passed in attracting, collecting, abusing, and then discarding husbands and lovers in an endless whirl. She threw lavish parties and galas, acquired and flaunted fancy clothes, jewelry, perfumes, and genetic enhancements, maintained expensive households and country estates, enjoyed whole seasons of extensive travel in high style, and otherwise ephemeralized, consumed, and tossed aside every asset that passed through those cunning hands. Merosith’s debts had become enormous—more than enough to take the family down with her—and Boskin had lately acquired the greater part of her pledged notes.

Now, for simply retrieving an object Merola could hold in one hand, this baseball—a lump of twine covered with white horsehide and red thread—Boskin would release Merosith, excuse her debts, and set the Tsverins free. It was an exchange of service that Merola could hardly refuse.

The object’s historicity, its significance in one time frame or the other, meant nothing to her. From Merola’s frame of reference, the man who was shortly to hit this ball with a piece of shaped wood called a “bat” and send it out of the grassy “infield,” over to where she waited under the stands, and so into “the history books”—that man had been dead for more than seventy-nine centuries. Only a handful of human beings from Merola’s own time even knew his name—“Magwyer,” or some such; Merola had already forgotten—or the fact that he would only hit a ball like this a mere seventy times in one year, at least according to Boskin. Others had hit such balls farther, more often, and with more style. Merola shrugged. It was all very mysterious, why any buyer would want the thing. But this one did and would pay well for it. That was what mattered.

While Merola contemplated her own situation, one part of her mind had been attending to the announcer—a voice amplified with membranes pulsed by electric coils in boxes positioned throughout the stadium building—who was obviously interpreting the action on the field for the sight impaired. “Bottom of the fourth … Two outs … Bases empty …” the bored voice said. “McGwire comes to the plate … A lot of pressure on him tonight …”

Merola heard the key phrases that signaled what was about to happen and stood up. She crept to the edge of darkness under the stands and peered out, toward the brightly lit diamond. The white- and gray-clad men standing around its brown dirt perimeter were too far away for her to distinguish any person in particular. None of that mattered.

“He takes a swing …” That was her cue. “Down the left field line … Low and—” Suddenly the voice woke up and started screaming. “Will it clear the fence? … Yes! Ladies and gentlemen, Mark McGwire just hit home run number sixty-two!”

Merola waited in the shadows. The flying ball grew in her field of vision, streaking toward her through the stadium lights, like a comet of pure white ice, rising over the fence. Boskin had warned her not to try catching it, as that would destroy the object’s historical value—not to mention the bones of her hand. She let it hit—smack!—on the Konica sign above her head. The ball dropped to the pavement, bounced once limply, and left history in the palm of her hand.

“That line drive broke Roger Maris’s record for single-season home runs,” Boskin had explained—and who else but the buyer would know such details? “That record had stood for thirty-seven years!”

“Until tonight,” Merola thought sadly.

She faded back, further into the shadows, drew from the pocket of her pantaloons the ball Berzher had stolen from the Umpire Locker Room, and tossed it casually toward the lights on the field.

The rest of her mission would, she felt, pass in similar fashion. Like clockwork.

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