Larry Niven established his credentials as a provocative writer of hard science fiction with his Nebula Award–winning novel Ringworld, about an artificial ring-shaped planetary body with a million-mile radius and six-hundred-million-mile circumference that poses unusual technical problems in navigation and escape for its human inhabitants. The novel, and its sequels Ringworld Engineers and The Ringworld Throne, are part of Niven’s vast Tales of Known Space saga, an acclaimed future history of interstellar space that has accommodated a wide variety of themes including alien culture, immortality, time travel, terraforming, genetic engineering, teleportation, and exotic alien cultures in such novels as The World of Ptavvs and A Gift from Earth, and the short-fiction collections Neutron Star, The Shape of Space, and Tales of Known Space. Between 1988 and 1991 the series spun off a quartet of shared-world anthologies, The Man-Kzin Wars, concerned with human and extraterrestrial conflict. Niven’s collaborations extend to novel-length works of fiction and include The Mote in God’s Eye, Inferno, Oath of Fealty, and Lucifer’s Hammer, all co-authored with Jerry Pournelle, and the Dream Park series, written with Steve Barnes. Niven has also written a series of fantasies concerned with primitive concepts of magic, including The Magic Goes Away and the collection Time of the Warlock. A representative sampling of his short fiction and nonfiction can be found in N-Space.
THERE WERE TIMELINES branching and branching, a mega-universe of universes, millions more every minute. Billions? Trillions? Trimble didn’t understand the theory, though God knows he’d tried. The universe split every time someone made a decision. Split, so that every decision ever made could go both ways. Every choice made by every man, woman and child on Earth was reversed in the universe next door. It was enough to confuse any citizen, let alone Detective-Lieutenant Gene Trimble, who had other problems.
Senseless suicides, senseless crimes. A city-wide epidemic. It had hit other cities too. Trimble suspected that it was worldwide, that other nations were simply keeping it quiet.
Trimble’s sad eyes focused on the clock. Quitting time. He stood up to go home, and slowly sat down again. For he had his teeth in the problem, and he couldn’t let go.
Not that he was really accomplishing anything.
But if he left now, he’d only have to take it up again tomorrow.
Go, or stay?
And the branchings began again. Gene Trimble thought of other universes parallel to this one, and a parallel Gene Trimble in each one. Some had left early. Many had left on time, and were now halfway home to dinner, out to a movie, watching a strip show, racing to the scene of another death. Streaming out of police headquarters in all their multitudes, leaving a multitude of Trimbles behind them. Each of these trying to deal, alone, with the city’s endless, inexplicable parade of suicides.
Gene Trimble spread the morning paper on his desk. From the bottom drawer he took his gun-cleaning equipment, then his .45. He began to take the gun apart.
The gun was old but serviceable. He’d never fired it except on the target range, and never expected to. To Trimble, cleaning his gun was like knitting, a way to keep his hands busy while his mind wandered off. Turn the screws, don’t lose them. Lay the parts out in order.
Through the closed door to his office came the sounds of men hurrying. Another emergency? The department couldn’t handle it all. Too many suicides, too many casual murders, not enough men.
Gun oil. Oiled rag. Wipe each part. Put it back in place.
Why would a man like Ambrose Harmon go off a building?
IN THE EARLY MORNING light he lay, more a stain than a man, thirty-six stories below the edge of his own penthouse roof. The pavement was splattered red for yards around him. The stairs were still wet. Harmon had landed on his face. He wore a bright silk dressing gown and a sleeping jacket with a sash.
Others would take samples of his blood, to learn if he had acted under the influence of alcohol or drugs. There was little to be learned from seeing him in his present condition.
“But why was he up so early?” Trimble wondered. For the call had come in at 8:03, just as Trimble arrived at headquarters.
“So late, you mean.” Bentley had beaten him to the scene by twenty minutes. “We called some of his friends. He was at an all-night poker game. Broke up around six o’clock.”
“Did Harmon lose?”
“Nope. He won almost five hundred bucks.”
“That fits,” Trimble said in disgust. “No suicide note?”
“Maybe they’ve found one. Shall we go up and see?”
“We won’t find a note,” Trimble predicted.
EVEN THREE MONTHS earlier Trimble would have thought, How incredible! or, Who could have pushed him? Now, riding up in the elevator, he thought only, Reporters. For Ambrose Harmon was news. Even among this past year’s epidemic suicides, Ambrose Harmon’s death would stand out like Lyndon Johnson in a lineup.
He was a prominent member of the community, a man of dead and wealthy grandparents. Perhaps the huge inheritance, four years ago, had gone to his head. He had invested tremendous sums to back harebrained, quixotic causes.
Now, because one of the harebrained causes had paid off, he was richer than ever. The Crosstime Corporation already held a score of patents on inventions imported from alternate time tracks. Already those inventions had started more than one industrial revolution. And Harmon was the money behind Crosstime. He would have been the world’s next billionaire—had he not walked off his balcony.
They found a roomy, luxuriously furnished apartment in good order, and a bed turned down for the night. The only sign of disorder was the clothing—slacks, sweater, a silk turtleneck shirt, knee-length shoesocks, no underwear—piled on a chair in the bedroom. The toothbrush had been used.
He got ready for bed, Trimble thought. He brushed his teeth, and then he went out to look at the sunrise. A man who kept late hours like that, he wouldn’t see the sunrise very often. He watched the sunrise, and when it was over he jumped.
They were all like that. Easy, spontaneous decisions. The victim/killers walked off bridges or stepped from their balconies or suddenly flung themselves in front of subway trains. They strolled halfway across a freeway, or swallowed a full bottle of laudanum. None of the methods showed previous planning. Whatever was used, the victim had had it all along; he never actually went out and bought a suicide weapon. The victim rarely dressed for the occasion, or used makeup, as an ordinary suicide would. Usually there was no note.
Harmon fit the pattern perfectly.
“Like Richard Cory,” said Bentley.
“Richard Cory, the man who had everything. ‘And Richard Cory, one calm summer night, went home and put a bullet through his head.’ You know what I think?”
“If you’ve got an idea, let’s have it.”
“The suicides all started about a month after Crosstime got started. I think one of the Crosstime ships brought back a new bug from some alternate timeline.”
“A suicide bug?”
“You’re out of your mind.”
“I don’t think so. Gene, do you know how many Crosstime pilots have killed themselves in the last year? More than twenty percent!”
“Look at the records. Crosstime has about twenty vehicles in action now, but in the past year they’ve employed sixty-two pilots. Three disappeared. Fifteen are dead, and all but two died by suicide.”
“I didn’t know that.” Trimble was shaken.
“It was bound to happen sometime. Look at the alternate worlds they’ve found so far. The Nazi world. The Red Chinese world, half bombed to death. The ones that are so totally bombed, that Crosstime can’t even find out who did it. The one with the Black Plague mutation, and no penicillin until Crosstime came along. Sooner or later—”
“Maybe, maybe. I don’t buy your bug, though. If the suicides are a new kind of plague, what about the other crimes?”
“Uh uh. But I think we’ll check up on Crosstime.”
TRIMBLE’S HANDS FINISHED with the gun and laid it on the desk. He was hardly aware of it. Somewhere in the back of his mind was a prodding sensation: the handle, the piece he needed to solve the puzzle.
He’d spent most of the day studying Crosstime, Inc. News stories, official handouts, personal interviews. The incredible suicide rate among Crosstime pilots could not be coincidence. He wondered why nobody had noticed it before.
It was slow going. With Crosstime travel, as with relativity, you had to throw away reason and use only logic. Trimble had sweated it out. Even the day’s murders had not distracted him.
They were typical, of a piece with the preceding eight months’ crime wave. A man had shot his foreman with a gun bought an hour earlier, then strolled off toward police headquarters. A woman had moved through the back row of a dark theater, using an ice pick to stab members of the audience through the backs of their seats. She had chosen only young men. They had killed without heat, without concealment; they had surrendered without fear or bravado. Perhaps it was another kind of suicide.
Time for coffee, Trimble thought, responding unconsciously to dry throat plus a muzziness in the mouth plus slight fatigue. He set his hands to stand up, and—
The image came to him of an endless row of Trimbles, lined up like the repeated images in facing mirrors. But each image was slightly different. He would go get the coffee and he wouldn’t and he would send somebody for it and someone was about to bring it without being asked. Some of the images were drinking coffee, a few had tea or milk, some were smoking, some were leaning too far back with their feet on the desks (and a handful of these were toppling helplessly backward), some were, like this present Trimble, introspecting with their elbows on the desk.
Damn Crosstime anyway.
He’d have had to check Harmon’s business affairs, even without the Crosstime link. There might have been a motive there, for suicide or for murder, though it had never been likely.
In the first place, Harmon had cared nothing for money. The Crosstime group had been one of many. At the time that project had looked as harebrained as the rest: a handful of engineers and physicists and philosophers determined to prove that the theory of alternate time tracks was reality.
In the second place, Harmon had no business worries.
Quite the contrary.
Eleven months ago an experimental vehicle had touched one of the worlds of the Confederate States of America, and returned. The universes of alternate choice were within reach. And the pilot had brought back an artifact.
From that point on, Crosstime travel had more than financed itself. The Confederate world’s “stapler,” granted an immediate patent, had bought two more ships. A dozen miracles had originated in a single, technologically advanced timeline, one in which the catastrophic Cuba War had been no more than a wet firecracker. Lasers, oxygen-hydrogen rocket motors, computers, strange plastics—the list was still growing. And Crosstime held all the patents.
In those first months the vehicles had gone off practically at random. Now the pinpointing was better. Vehicles could select any branch they preferred. Imperial Russia, Amerindian America, the Catholic Empire, the dead worlds. Some of the dead worlds were hells of radioactive dust and intact but deadly artifacts. From these worlds Crosstime pilots brought strange and beautiful works of art which had to be stored behind leaded glass.
The latest vehicles could reach worlds so like this one that it took a week of research to find the difference. In theory they could get even closer. There was a phenomenon called “the broadening of the bands.” . . .
And that had given Trimble the shivers.
When a vehicle left its own present, a signal went on in the hangar, a signal unique to that ship. When the pilot wanted to return, he simply cruised across the appropriate band of probabilities until he found the signal. The signal marked his own unique present.
Only it didn’t. The pilot always returned to find a clump of signals, a broadened band. The longer he stayed away, the broader was the signal band. His own world had continued to divide after his departure, in a constant stream of decisions being made both ways.
Usually it didn’t matter. Any signal the pilot chose represented the world he had left. And since the pilot himself had a choice, he naturally returned to them all. But—
There was a pilot by the name of Gary Wilcox. He had been using his vehicle for experiments, to see how close he could get to his own timeline and still leave it. Once, last month, he had returned twice.
Two Gary Wilcoxes, two vehicles. The vehicles had been wrecked: their hulls intersected. For the Wilcoxes it could have been sticky, for Wilcox had a wife and family. But one of the duplicates had chosen to die almost immediately.
Trimble had tried to call the other Gary Wilcox. He was too late. Wilcox had gone skydiving a week ago. He’d neglected to open his parachute.
Small wonder, thought Trimble. At least Wilcox had had motive. It was bad enough, knowing about the other Trimbles, the ones who had gone home, the ones drinking coffee, et cetera. But—suppose someone walked into the office right now, and it was Gene Trimble?
It could happen.
Convinced as he was that Crosstime was involved in the suicides, Trimble (some other Trimble) might easily have decided to take a trip in a Crosstime vehicle. A short trip. He could land here.
TRIMBLE CLOSED HIS EYES and rubbed at the corners with his fingertips. In some other timeline, very close, someone had thought to bring him coffee. Too bad this wasn’t it.
It didn’t do to think too much about these alternate timelines. There were too many of them. The close ones could drive you buggy, but the ones further off were just as bad.
Take the Cuba War. Atomics had been used, here, and now Cuba was uninhabited, and some American cities were gone, and some Russian. It could have been worse.
Why wasn’t it? How did we luck out? Intelligent statesmen? Faulty bombs? A humane reluctance to kill indiscriminately?
No. There was no luck anywhere. Every decision was made both ways. For every wise choice you bled your heart out over, you made all the other choices too. And so it went, all through history.
Civil wars unfought on some worlds were won by either side on others. Elsewhen, another animal had first done murder with an antelope femur. Some worlds were still all nomad; civilization had lost out. If every choice was cancelled elsewhere, why make a decision at all?
Trimble opened his eyes and saw the gun.
That gun, too, was endlessly repeated on endless desks. Some of the images were dirty with years of neglect. Some smelled of gunpowder, fired recently, a few at living targets. Some were loaded. All were as real as this one.
A number of these were about to go off by accident.
A proportion of these were pointed, in deadly coincidence, at Gene Trimble.
See the endless rows of Gene Trimble, each at his desk. Some are bleeding and cursing as men run into the room following the sound of the gunshot. Many are already dead.
Was there a bullet in there? Nonsense.
He looked away. The gun was empty.
Trimble loaded it. At the base of his mind he felt the touch of the handle. He would find what he was seeking.
He put the gun back on his desk, pointing away from him, and he thought of Ambrose Harmon, coming home from a late night. Ambrose Harmon, who had won five hundred dollars at poker. Ambrose Harmon, exhausted, seeing the lightening sky as he prepared for bed. Going out to watch the dawn.
Ambrose Harmon, watching the slow dawn, remembering a two-thousand-dollar pot. He’d bluffed. In some other branching of time, he had lost.
Thinking that in some other branching of time that two thousand dollars included his last dime. It was certainly possible. If Crosstime hadn’t paid off, he might have gone through the remains of his fortune in the past four years. He liked to gamble.
Watching the dawn, thinking of all the Ambrose Harmons on that roof. Some were penniless this night, and they had not come out to watch the dawn.
Well, why not? If he stepped over the edge, here and now, another Ambrose Harmon would only laugh and go inside.
If he laughed and went inside, other Ambrose Harmons would fall to their deaths. Some were already on their ways down. One changed his mind too late, another laughed as he fell. . . .
Well, why not? . . .
Trimble thought of another man, a nonentity, passing a firearms store. Branching of timelines, he thinks, looking in, and he thinks of the man who took his foreman’s job. Well, why not? . . .
Trimble thought of a lonely woman making herself a drink at three in the afternoon. She thinks of myriads of alter egos, with husbands, lovers, children, friends. Unbearable, to think that all the might-have-beens were as real as herself. As real as this ice pick in her hand. Well, why not? . . .
And she goes out to a movie, but she takes the ice pick.
And the honest citizen with a carefully submerged urge to commit rape, just once. Reading his newspaper at breakfast, and there’s another story from Crosstime: they’ve found a world line in which Kennedy the First was assassinated. Strolling down a street, he thinks of world lines and infinite branchings, of alter egos already dead, or jailed, or President. A girl in a miniskirt passes, and she has nice legs. Well, why not? . . .
Casual murder, casual suicide, casual crime. Why not? If alternate universes are a reality, then cause and effect are an illusion. The law of averages is a fraud. You can do anything, and one of you will, or did.
Gene Trimble looked at the clean and loaded gun on his desk. Well, why not? . . .
And he ran out of the office shouting, “Bentley, listen, I’ve got the answer . . .”
And he stood up slowly and left the office shaking his head. This was the answer, and it wasn’t any good. The suicides, murders, casual crimes would continue. . . .
And he suddenly laughed and stood up. Ridiculous! Nobody dies for a philosophical point! . . .
And he reached for the intercom and told the man who answered to bring him a sandwich and some coffee. . . .
And picked the gun off the newspapers, looked at it for a long moment, then dropped it in the drawer. His hands began to shake. On a world line very close to this one . . .
And he picked the gun off the newspapers, put it to his head
fired. The hammer fell on an empty chamber.
fired. The gun jerked up and blasted a hole in the ceiling.
The bullet tore a furrow in his scalp.
took off the top of his head.