The Man From Time

by Frank Belknap Long

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Deep in the Future he found the answer to Man's age-old problem.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Daring Moonson, he was called. It was a proud name, a brave name. But what good was a name that rang out like a summons to battle if the man who bore it could not repeat it aloud without fear?

Moonson had tried telling himself that a man could conquer fear if he could but once summon the courage to laugh at all the sins that ever were, and do as he damned well pleased. An ancient phrase that--damned well. It went clear back to the Elizabethan Age, and Moonson had tried picturing himself as an Elizabethan man with a ruffle at his throat and a rapier in his clasp, brawling lustily in a tavern.

In the Elizabethan Age men had thrown caution to the winds and lived with their whole bodies, not just with their minds alone. Perhaps that was why, even in the year 3689, defiant names still cropped up. Names like Independence Forest and Man, Live Forever!

It was not easy for a man to live up to a name like Man, Live Forever! But Moonson was ready to believe that it could be done. There was something in human nature which made a man abandon caution and try to live up to the claims made for him by his parents at birth.

It must be bad, Moonson thought. It must be bad if I can’t control the trembling of my hands, the pounding of the blood at my temples. I am like a child shut up alone in the dark, hearing rats scurrying in a closet thick with cobwebs and the tapping of a blind man’s cane on a deserted street at midnight.

Tap, tap, tap--nearer and nearer through the darkness. How soon would the rats be swarming out, blood-fanged and wholly vicious? How soon would the cane strike?

He looked up quickly, his eyes searching the shadows. For almost a month now the gleaming intricacies of the machine had given him a complete sense of security. As a scholar traveling in Time he had been accepted by his fellow travelers as a man of great courage and firm determination.

For twenty-seven days a smooth surface of shining metal had walled him in, enabling him to grapple with reality on a completely adult level. For twenty-seven days he had gone pridefully back through Time, taking creative delight in watching the heritage of the human race unroll before him like a cineramoscope under glass.

Watching a green land in the dying golden sunlight of an age lost to human memory could restore a man’s strength of purpose by its serenity alone. But even an age of war and pestilence could be observed without torment from behind the protective shields of the Time Machine. Danger, accidents, catastrophe could not touch him personally.

To watch death and destruction as a spectator in a traveling Time Observatory was like watching a cobra poised to strike from behind a pane of crystal-bright glass in a zoological garden.

You got a tremendous thrill in just thinking: How dreadful if the glass should not be there! How lucky I am to be alive, with a thing so deadly and monstrous within striking distance of me!

For twenty-seven days now he had traveled without fear. Sometimes the Time Observatory would pinpoint an age and hover over it while his companions took painstaking historical notes. Sometimes it would retrace its course and circle back. A new age would come under scrutiny and more notes would be taken.

But a horrible thing that had happened to him, had awakened in him a lonely nightmare of restlessness. Childhood fears he had thought buried forever had returned to plague him and he had developed a sudden, terrible dread of the fogginess outside the moving viewpane, the way the machine itself wheeled and dipped when an ancient ruin came sweeping toward him. He had developed a fear of Time.

There was no escape from that Time Fear. The instant it came upon him he lost all interest in historical research. 1069, 732, 2407, 1928--every date terrified him. The Black Plague in London, the Great Fire, the Spanish Armada in flames off the coast of a bleak little island that would soon mold the destiny of half the world--how meaningless it all seemed in the shadow of his fear!

Had the human race really advanced so much? Time had been conquered but no man was yet wise enough to heal himself if a stark, unreasoning fear took possession of his mind and heart, giving him no peace.

Moonson lowered his eyes, saw that Rutella was watching him in the manner of a shy woman not wishing to break in too abruptly on the thoughts of a stranger.

Deep within him he knew that he had become a stranger to his own wife and the realization sharply increased his torment. He stared down at her head against his knee, at her beautiful back and sleek, dark hair. Violet eyes she had, not black as they seemed at first glance but a deep, lustrous violet.

He remembered suddenly that he was still a young man, with a young man’s ardor surging strong in him. He bent swiftly, kissed her lips and eyes. As he did so her arms tightened about him until he found himself wondering what he could have done to deserve such a woman.

She had never seemed more precious to him and for an instant he could feel his fear lessening a little. But it came back and was worse than before. It was like an old pain returning at an unexpected moment to chill a man with the sickening reminder that all joy must end.

His decision to act was made quickly.

The first step was the most difficult but with a deliberate effort of will he accomplished it to his satisfaction. His secret thoughts he buried beneath a continuous mental preoccupation with the vain and the trivial. It was important to the success of his plan that his companions should suspect nothing.

The second step was less difficult. The mental block remained firm and he succeeded in carrying on actual preparations for his departure in complete secrecy.

The third step was the final one and it took him from a large compartment to a small one, from a high-arching surface of metal to a maze of intricate control mechanisms in a space so narrow that he had to crouch to work with accuracy.

Swiftly and competently his fingers moved over instruments of science which only a completely sane man would have known how to manipulate. It was an acid test of his sanity and he knew as he worked that his reasoning faculties at least had suffered no impairment.

Beneath his hands the Time Observatory’s controls were solid shafts of metal. But suddenly as he worked he found himself thinking of them as fluid abstractions, each a milestone in man’s long progress from the jungle to the stars. Time and space--mass and velocity.

How incredible that it had taken centuries of patient technological research to master in a practical way the tremendous implications of Einstein’s original postulate. Warp space with a rapidly moving object, move away from the observer with the speed of light--and the whole of human history assumed the firm contours of a landscape in space. Time and space merged and became one. And a man in an intricately-equipped Time Observatory could revisit the past as easily as he could travel across the great curve of the universe to the farthest planet of the farthest star.

The controls were suddenly firm in his hands. He knew precisely what adjustments to make. The iris of the human eye dilates and contracts with every shift of illumination, and the Time Observatory had an iris too. That iris could be opened without endangering his companions in the least--if he took care to widen it just enough to accommodate only one sturdily built man of medium height.

Sweat came out in great beads on his forehead as he worked. The light that came through the machine’s iris was faint at first, the barest glimmer of white in deep darkness. But as he adjusted controls the light grew brighter and brighter, beating in upon him until he was kneeling in a circle of radiance that dazzled his eyes and set his heart to pounding.

I’ve lived too long with fear, he thought. I’ve lived like a man imprisoned, shut away from the sunlight. Now, when freedom beckons, I must act quickly or I shall be powerless to act at all.

He stood erect, took a slow step forward, his eyes squeezed shut. Another step, another--and suddenly he knew he was at the gateway to Time’s sure knowledge, in actual contact with the past for his ears were now assailed by the high confusion of ancient sounds and voices!

He left the Time machine in a flying leap, one arm held before his face. He tried to keep his eyes covered as the ground seemed to rise to meet him. But he lurched in an agony of unbalance and opened his eyes--to see the green surface beneath him flashing like a suddenly uncovered jewel.

He remained on his feet just long enough to see his Time Observatory dim and vanish. Then his knees gave way and he collapsed with a despairing cry as the fear enveloped him...

There were daisies in the field where he lay, his shoulders and naked chest pressed to the earth. A gentle wind stirred the grass, and the flute-like warble of a song bird was repeated close to his ear, over and over with a tireless persistence.

Abruptly he sat up and stared about him. Running parallel to the field was a winding country road and down it came a yellow and silver vehicle on wheels, its entire upper section encased in glass which mirrored the autumnal landscape with a startling clearness.

The vehicle halted directly in front of him and a man with ruddy cheeks and snow-white hair leaned out to wave at him.

“Good morning, mister!” the man shouted. “Can I give you a lift into town?”

Moonson rose unsteadily, alarm and suspicion in his stare. Very cautiously he lowered the mental barrier and the man’s thoughts impinged on his mind in bewildering confusion.

He’s not a farmer, that’s sure ... must have been swimming in the creek, but those bathing trunks he’s wearing are out of this world!

Huh! I wouldn’t have the nerve to parade around in trunks like that even on a public beach. Probably an exhibitionist ... But why should he wear ‘em out here in the woods? No blonds or redheads to knock silly out here!

Huh! He might have the courtesy to answer me ... Well, if he doesn’t want a lift into town it’s no concern of mine!

Moonson stood watching the vehicle sweep away out of sight. Obviously he had angered the man by his silence, but he could answer only by shaking his head.

He began to walk, pausing an instant in the middle of the bridge to stare down at a stream of water that rippled in the sunlight over moss-covered rocks. Tiny silver fish darted to and fro beneath a tumbling waterfall and he felt calmed and reassured by the sight. Shoulders erect now, he walked on...

It was high noon when he reached the tavern. He went inside, saw men and women dancing in a dim light, and there was a huge, rainbow-colored musical instrument by the door which startled him by its resonance. The music was wild, weird, a little terrifying.

He sat down at a table near the door and searched the minds of the dancers for a clue to the meaning of what he saw.

The thoughts which came to him were startlingly primitive, direct and sometimes meaningless to him.

Go easy, baby! Swing it! Sure, we’re in the groove now, but you never can tell! I’ll buy you an orchid, honey! Not roses, just one orchid--black like your hair! Ever see a black orchid, hon? They’re rare and they’re expensive!

Oh, darl, darl, hold me closer! The music goes round and round! It will always be like that with us, honey! Don’t ever be a square! That’s all I ask! Don’t ever be a square! Cuddle up to me, let yourself go! When you’re dancing with one girl you should never look at another! Don’t you know that, Johnny!

Sure I know it, Doll! But did I ever claim I wasn’t human?

Darl, doll, doll baby! Look all you want to! But if you ever dare--

Moonson found himself relaxing a little. Dancing in all ages was closely allied to love-making, but it was pursued here with a careless rapture which he found creatively stimulating. People came here not only to dance but to eat, and the thoughts of the dancers implied that there was nothing stylized about a tavern. The ritual was a completely natural one.

In Egyptian bas-reliefs you saw the opposite in dancing. Every movement rigidly prescribed, arms held rigid and sharply bent at the elbows. Slow movements rather than lively ones, a bowing and a scraping with bowls of fruit extended in gift offerings at every turn.

There was obviously no enthroned authority here, no bejeweled king to pacify when emotions ran wild, but complete freedom to embrace joy with corybantic abandonment.

A tall man in ill-fitting black clothes approached Moonson’s table, interrupting his reflections with thoughts that seemed designed to disturb and distract him out of sheer perversity. So even here there were flies in every ointment, and no dream of perfection could remain unchallenged.

He sat unmoving, absorbing the man’s thoughts.

What does he think this is, a bath house? Mike says it’s okay to serve them if they come in from the beach just as they are. But just one quick beer, no more. This late in the season you’d think they’d have the decency to get dressed!

The sepulchrally-dressed man gave the table a brush with a cloth he carried, then thrust his head forward like an ill-tempered scavenger bird.

“Can’t serve you anything but beer. Boss’s orders. Okay?”

Moonson nodded and the man went away.

Then he turned to watching the girl. She was frightened. She sat all alone, plucking nervously at the red-and-white checkered tablecloth. She sat with her back to the light, bunching the cloth up into little folds, then smoothing it out again.

She’d ground out lipstick-smudged cigarettes until the ash tray was spilling over.

Moonson began to watch the fear in her mind...

Her fear grew when she thought that Mike wasn’t gone for good. The phone call wouldn’t take long and he’d be coming back any minute now. And Mike wouldn’t be satisfied until she was broken into little bits. Yes, Mike wanted to see her on her knees, begging him to kill her!

Kill me, but don’t hurt Joe! It wasn’t his fault! He’s just a kid--he’s not twenty yet, Mike!

That would be a lie but Mike had no way of knowing that Joe would be twenty-two on his next birthday, although he looked eighteen at most. There was no pity in Mike but would his pride let him hot-rod an eighteen-year-old?

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