“Get me out of here,” said Eckels. “It was never like this before, I was always sure I’d come through alive, I had good guides, good safaris, and safety. This time, I figured wrong. I’ve met my match and admit it. This is too much for me to get hold of.”
“Don’t run,” said Lesperance. “Turn around. Hide in the Machine.”
“Yes.” Eckels seemed to be numb. He looked at his feet as if trying to make them move. He gave a grunt of helplessness.
“Eckels” He took a few steps, blinking, shuffling. “Not that way!” The Monster, at the first motion, lunged forward with a terrible scream. It covered one hundred yards in four seconds. The rifles jerked up and blazed fire. A windstorm from the beast’s mouth engulfed them in the stench of slime and old blood. The Monster roared, teeth glittering with sun. Eckels, not looking back, walked blindly to the edge of the Path, his gun limp in his arms, stepped off the Path, and walked, not knowing it, in the jungle. His feet sank into green moss. His legs moved him, and he felt alone and remote from the events behind. The rifles cracked again. Their sound was lost in shriek and lizard thunder. The great lever of the reptile’s tail swung up, lashed sideways. Trees exploded in clouds of leaf and branch. The Monster twitched its jeweller’s hands down to fondle at the men, to twist them in half, to crush them like berries, to cram them into its teeth and its screaming throat. Its boulder-stone eyes levelled with the men. They saw themselves mirrored. They fired at the metallic eyelids and the blazing black iris. Like a stone idol, like a mountain avalanche, Tyrannosaurs fell. Thundering, it clutched trees, pulled them with it. It wrenched and tore the metal Path, The men flung themselves back and away. The body hit, ten tons of cold flesh and stone. The guns fired. The Monster lashed its armoured tail, twitched its snake jaws, and lay still. A fount of blood spurted from its throat. Somewhere inside, a sac of fluids burst. Sickening gushes drenched the hunters. They stood, red and glistening. The thunder faded. The jungle was silent. After the avalanche, a green peace. After the nightmare, morning. Billings and Kramer sat on the pathway and threw up. Travis and Lesperance stood with smoking rifles, cursing steadily. In the Time Machine, on his face, Eckels lay shivering. He had found his way back to the Path, climbed into the Machine. Travis came walking, glanced at Eckels, took cotton gauze from a metal box, and returned to the others, who were sitting on the Path.
“Clean up.” They wiped the blood from their helmets. They began to curse too. The Monster lay, a hill of solid flesh. Within, you could hear the sighs and murmurs as the furthest chambers of it died, the organs malfunctioning, liquids running a final instant from pocket to sac to spleen, everything shutting off, closing up forever. It was like standing by a wrecked locomotive or a steam shovel at quitting time, all valves being released or levered tight. Bones cracked; the tonnage of its own flesh, off balance, dead weight, snapped the delicate forearms, caught underneath. The meat settled, quivering. Another cracking sound. Overhead, a gigantic tree branch broke from its heavy mooring, fell. It crashed upon the dead beast with finality.
“There.” Lesperance checked his watch. “Right on time. That’s the giant tree that was scheduled to fall and kill this animal originally.” He glanced at the two hunters. “You want the trophy picture?”
“We can’t take a trophy back to the Future. The body has to stay right here where it would have died originally, so the insects, birds, and bacteria can get at it, as they were intended to. Everything in balance. The body stays. But we can take a picture of you standing near it.” The two men tried to think, but gave up, shaking their heads. They let themselves be led along the metal Path. They sank wearily into the Machine cushions. They gazed back at the ruined Monster, the stagnating mound, where already strange reptilian birds and golden insects were busy at the steaming armour. A sound on the floor of the Time Machine stiffened them. Eckels sat there, shivering.
“I’m sorry,” he said at last.
“Get up!” cried Travis. Eckels got up.
“Go out on that Path alone,” said Travis. He had his rifle pointed. “You’re not coming back in the Machine. We’re leaving you here!” Lesperance seized Travis’ arm.
“Stay out of this!” Travis shook his hand away. “This son of a bitch nearly killed us. But it isn’t that so much. Hell, no. It’s his shoes Look at them! He ran off the Path. My God, that ruins us I Christ knows how much we’ll forfeit. Tens of thousands of dollars of insurance We guarantee no one leaves the Path. He left it. Oh, the damn fool! I’ll have to report to the government. They might revoke our license to travel. God knows what he’s done to Time, to History!”
“Take it easy, all he did was kick up some dirt.”
“How do we know?” cried Travis. “We don’t know anything! It’s all a damn mystery! Get out there, Eckels!” Eckels fumbled his shirt.
“I’ll pay anything. A hundred thousand dollars!” Travis glared at Eckels’ chequebook and spat.
“Go out there. The Monster’s next to the Path. Stick your arms up to your elbows in his mouth. Then you can come back with us.”
“The Monsters dead, you yellow bastard. The bullets! The bullets can’t be left behind. They don’t belong in the Past; they might change something. Here’s my knife. Dig them out!” The jungle was alive again, full of the old tremorings and bird cries. Eckels turned slowly to regard that primeval garbage dump, that hill of nightmares and terror. After a long time, like a sleepwalker, he shuffled out along the Path. He returned, shuddering, five minutes later, his arms soaked and red to the elbows. He held out his hands. Each held a number of steel bullets. Then he fell. He lay where he fell, not moving.
“You didn’t have to make him do that,” said Lesperance. “Didn’t I? It’s too early to tell.” Travis nudged the still body.
“He’ll live. Next time he won’t go hunting game like this. Okay.” He jerked his thumb wearily at Lesperance. “Switch on. Let’s go home.” 1492. 1776. 1812. They cleaned their hands and faces. They changed their caking shirts and pants. Eckels was up and around again, not speaking. Travis glared at him for a full ten minutes.
“Don’t look at me,” cried Eckels. “I haven’t done anything.”
“Who can tell?” “Just ran off the Path, that’s all, a little mud on my shoes what do you want me to get down and pray?”
“We might need it. I’m warning you, Eckels, I might kill you yet. I’ve got my gun ready.”
“I’m innocent. I’ve done nothing.” 1999. 2000. 2055. The Machine stopped.
“Get out,” said Travis. The room was there as they had left it. But not the same as they had left it. The same man sat behind the same desk. But the same man did not quite sit behind the same desk. Travis looked around swiftly.
“Everything okay here?” he snapped. “Fine. Welcome home!” Travis did not relax. He seemed to be looking at the very atoms of the air itself, at the way the sun poured through the one high window.
“Okay, Eckels, get out. Don’t ever come back.” Eckels could not move.