Fweet! somebody whistled. "Hey, Jancsi, get out from under that thing. I want to talk to you."
Janos Bartok scooted out from under the Steam-Powered Quadrovelocipede and sat up. The problem with living linearly, as someone may or may not have noted, is that when there are several things urgently needing to be said, you can only say one of them first.
Bartok was a man of priorities. "Get off that please," he said; "it's delicate."
The other man hopped off the top of the Bartok Experimental Invisibility Shield. "Is that all?" he complained overdramatically. "No how are you, no who are you you look just like me, no what-have-you-done-to-my-assistant--"
"Associate," Bartok corrected automatically. "Ramos is a scientist in his own right. He has a summa cum laude in Physics from Harvard College.”
"Along with studies in medicine, comparative theology and underwater basketweaving... yeah yeah yeah." The other man waved a hand negligently.
"And what have you done to him, may I ask?" Janos demanded.
"Nothing! Nothing at all. I just stopped time for a minute so we could have this little chat."
Bartok scowled at the stranger for a moment, then strode over to his motionless colleague and shook him by the shoulder, then snapped his fingers in front of the smaller man’s face. "Ramos?" he called. Nothing happened.
"See?" said the stranger, sounding inordinately pleased with himself. "Are you ready to listen to me now?"
Janos primmed up his lips in restrained annoyance, but asked semi-patiently, "What do you want, then?"
"Just this. Ernest Pratt is on his way here. If you go with him, you'll wind up being unnecessarily polite to some really annoying Germans all day. So I want to take your place for twenty-four hours." The man leaned across the desk with a conspiratory grin. "I get to deal with the Germans the way I want; you get to work undisturbed on anything in here, except the quadrovelocipede - I'll need that. Everybody wins!"
"Except, apparently, these mysterious Germans," Janos mused.
"C'mon. It's Ernest's overseas publisher - believe me, he's odious. And his kid is worse. They deserve everything that'll happen to them. Look," the man pleaded, "I'll see that they don't get hurt, just scared. Is it a deal?"
"Why are you asking my permission for this," Janos wanted to know, "if you have the power to stop time and appear as my exact duplicate? You could simply... step in." He shrugged eloquently. "No one would ever know."
The other man smirked. "That's where you're wrong, Jancsi. You'd know. By the time I got back, you'd probably have gotten about halfway to figuring out how I did it - and wow boy, would there be trouble then!" He whistled. "So, I'm offering you a deal. I take your place, you don't have to be insulted by Germans, you get 24 hours all to yourself guaranteed no interruptions, you can watch everything I do if you want--" he snapped his fingers and a large brass box with a viewing screen appeared in one corner of the lab, showing an image of Ernest Pratt frozen in mid-stride-- "nobody gets hurt, and I'll leave you a totally scientifically impossible gadget that's guaranteed to help you save Ernie's life a little way down the line. Final offer. What do you say, Jani?"
Janos thought that over for a minute. "You absolutely guarantee that no one will be hurt?" he asked finally.
"Absolutely, Jancsi, my boy," the stranger replied, lifting his hand as if he were taking an oath.
"And you won't damage my reputation too badly?"
"I'll only do what you'd want to do yourself if you met these guys. Word of honor."
"Very well," said Janos at last, sighing. "I hope I don't regret this, but I accept. You did say scientifically impossible?"
"Ab-so-lutely! You'll find it on your desk tomorrow morning. I advise you to leave it in one piece till you're done with it - you'll know when." The stranger waved goodbye, turned his back, and strode out the door.
On the screen in the corner, Ernest Pratt's image began to move.