The Man From 2071

by Sewell Peaslee Wright

Public Domain

Science Fiction Story: Out of the flow of time there appears to Commander John Hanson a man of mystery from the forgotten past.

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

Perhaps this story does not belong with my other tales of the Special Patrol Service. And yet, there is, or should be, a report somewhere in the musty archives of the Service, covering the incident.

Not accurately, and not in detail. Among a great mass of old records which I was browsing through the other day, I happened across that report; it occupied exactly three lines in the log-book of the Ertak:

“Just before departure, discovered stowaway, apparently demented, and ejected him.”

For the hard-headed higher-ups of the Service, that was report enough. Had I given the facts, they would have called me to the Base for a long-winded investigation. It would have taken weeks and weeks, filled with fussy questioning. Dozens of stoop-shouldered laboratory men would have prodded and snooped and asked for long, written accounts. In those days, keeping the log-book was writing enough for me and being grounded at Base for weeks would have been punishment.

Nothing would have been gained by a detailed report. The Service needed action rather than reports, anyway. But now that I am an old man, on the retired list, I have time to write; and it will be a particular pleasure to write this account, for it will go to prove that these much-honored scientists of ours, with all their tremendous appropriations and long-winded discussions, are not nearly so wonderful as they think they are. They are, and always have been, too much interested in abstract formulas, and not enough in their practical application. I have never had a great deal of use for them.

I had received orders to report to Earth, regarding a dull routine matter of reorganizing the emergency Base which had been established there. Earth, I might add, for the benefit of those of you who have forgotten your geography of the Universe, is not a large body, but its people furnish almost all of the officer personnel of the Special Patrol Service. Being a native of Earth, I received the assignment with considerable pleasure, despite its dry and uninteresting nature.

It was a good sight to see old Earth, bundled up in her cottony clouds, growing larger and larger in the television disc. No matter how much you wander around the Universe, no matter how small and insignificant the world of your birth, there is a tie that cannot be denied. I have set my ships down upon many a strange and unknown world, with danger and adventure awaiting me, but there is, for me, no thrill which quite duplicates that of viewing again that particular little ball of mud from whence I sprang. I’ve said that before; I shall probably say it again. I am proud to claim Earth as my birth-place, small and out-of-the way as she is.

Our Base on Earth was adjacent to the city of Greater Denver, on the Pacific Coast. I could not help wondering, as we settled swiftly over the city, whether our historians and geologists and other scientists were really right in saying that Denver had at one period been far from the Pacific. It seemed impossible, as I gazed down on that blue, tranquil sea, that it had engulfed, hundreds of years ago, such a vast portion of North America. But I suppose the men of science know.

I need not go into the routine business that brought me to Earth. Suffice it to say that it was settled quickly, by the afternoon of the second day: I am referring, of course, to Earth days, which are slightly less than half the length of an enaren of Universe time.

A number of my friends had come to meet me, visit with me during my brief stay on Earth; and, having finished my business with such dispatch, I decided to spend that evening with them, and leave the following morning. It was very late when my friends departed, and I strolled out with them to their mono-car, returning the salute of the Ertak’s lone sentry, who was pacing his post before the huge circular exit of the ship.

Bidding my friends farewell, I stood there for a moment under the heavens, brilliant with blue, cold stars, and watched the car sweep swiftly and soundlessly away towards the towering mass of the city. Then, with a little sigh, I turned back to the ship.

The Ertak lay lightly upon the earth, her polished sides gleaming in the light of the crescent moon. In the side toward me, the circular entrance gaped like a sleepy mouth; the sentry, knowing the eyes of his commander were upon him, strode back and forth with brisk, military precision. Slowly, still thinking of my friends, I made my way toward the ship.

I had taken but a few steps when the sentry’s challenge rang out sharply, “Halt! Who goes there?”

I glanced up in surprise. Shiro, the man on guard, had seen me leave, and he could have had no difficulty in recognizing me. But--the challenge had not been meant for me.

Between myself and the Ertak there stood a strange figure. An instant before, I would have sworn that there was no human in sight, save myself and the sentry; now this man stood not twenty feet away, swaying as though ill or terribly weary, barely able to lift his head and turn it toward the sentry.

“Friend,” he gasped; “friend!” and I think he would have fallen to the ground if I had not clapped an arm around his shoulders and supported him.

“Just ... a moment,” whispered the stranger. “I’m a bit faint ... I’ll be all right...”

I stared down at the man, unable to reply. This was a nightmare; no less. I could feel the sentry staring, too.

The man was dressed in a style so ancient that I could not remember the period: Twenty-first Century, at least; perhaps earlier. And while he spoke English, which is a language of Earth, he spoke it with a harsh and unpleasant accent that made his words difficult, almost impossible, to understand. Their meaning did not fully sink in until an instant after he had finished speaking.

“Shiro!” I said sharply. “Help me take this man inside. He’s ill.”

“Yes, sir!” The guard leaped to obey the order, and together we led him into the Ertak, and to my own stateroom. There was some mystery here, and I was eager to get at the root of it. The man with the ancient costume and the strange accent had not come to the spot where we had seen him by any means with which I was familiar; he had materialized out of the thin air. There was no other way to account for his presence.

We propped the stranger in my most comfortable chair, and I turned to the sentry. He was staring at our weird visitor with wondering, fearful eyes, and when I spoke he started as though stung by an electric shock.

“Very well,” I said briskly. “That will be all. Resume your post immediately. And--Shiro!”

“Yes, sir?”

“It will not be necessary for you to make a report of this incident. I will attend to that. Understand?”

“Yes, sir!” And I think it is to the man’s everlasting credit, and to the credit of the Service which had trained him, that he executed a snappy salute, did an about-face, and left the room without another glance at the man slumped down in my big easy chair.

With a feeling of cold, nervous apprehension such as I have seldom experienced in a rather varied and active life, I turned then to my visitor.

He had not moved, save to lift his head. He was staring at me, his eyes fixed in his chalky white face. They were dark, long eyes--abnormally long--and they glittered with a strange, uncanny light.

“You are feeling better?” I asked.

His thin, bloodless lips moved, but for a moment no sound came from them. He tried again.

“Water,” he said.

I drew him a glass from the tank in the wall of my room. He downed it at a gulp, and passed the empty glass back to me.

“More,” he whispered. He drank the second glass more slowly, his eyes darting swiftly, curiously, around the room. Then his brilliant, piercing glance fell upon my face.

“Tell me,” he commanded sharply, “what year is this?”

I stared at him. It occurred to me that my friends might have conceived and executed an elaborate hoax--and then I dismissed the idea, instantly. There were no scientists among them who could make a man materialize out of nothingness.

“Are you in your right mind?” I asked slowly. “Your question strikes me as damnably odd, sir.”

The man laughed wildly, and slowly straightened up in the chair. His long, bony fingers clasped and unclasped slowly, as though feeling were just returning to them.

“Your question,” he replied in his odd, unfamiliar accent, “is not unnatural, under the circumstances. I assure you that I am of sound mind; of very sound mind.” He smiled, rather a ghastly smile, and made a vague, slight gesture with one hand. “Will you be good enough to answer my question? What year is this?”

“Earth year, you mean?”

He stared at me, his eyes flickering.

“Yes,” he said. “Earth year. There are other ways of ... figuring time now?”

“Certainly. Each inhabited world has its own system. There is a master system for the Universe. Who are you, what are you, that you should ask me a question the smallest child should know?”

“First,” he insisted, “tell me what year this is, Earth reckoning.”

I told him, and the light flickered up in his eyes again--a cruel, triumphant light.

“Thank you,” he nodded; and then, slowly and softly, as though he spoke to himself, he added, “Less than half a century off. Less than a half a century! And they laughed at me. How--how I shall laugh at them, presently!”

“You choose to be mysterious, sir?” I asked impatiently.

“No. Presently you shall understand, and then you will forgive me, I know. I have come through an experience such as no man has ever known before. If I am shaken, weak, surprising to you, it is because of that experience.”

He paused for a moment, his long, powerful fingers gripping the arms of the chair.

“You see,” he added, “I have come out of the past into the present. Or from the present into the future. It depends upon one’s viewpoint. If I am distraught, then forgive me. A few minutes ago, I was Jacob Harbauer, in a little laboratory on the edge of a mountain park, near Denver; now I am a nameless being hurtled into the future, pausing here, many centuries from my own era. Do you wonder now that I am unnerved?”

“Do you mean,” I said slowly, trying to understand what he had babbled forth, “that you have come out of the past? That you ... that you...” It was too monstrous to put into words.

“I mean,” he replied, “that I was born in the year 2028. I am forty-three years old--or I was a few minutes ago. But,”--and his eyes flickered again with that strange, mad light--”I am a scientist! I have left my age behind me for a time; I have done what no other human being has ever done: I have gone centuries into the future!”

“I--I do not understand.” Could he, after all, be a madman? “How can a man leave his own age and travel ahead to another?”

“Even in this age of yours they have not discovered that secret?” Harbauer exulted. “You travel the Universe, I gather, and yet your scientists have not yet learned to move in time? Listen! Let me explain to you how simple the theory is.

“I take it you are an intelligent man; your uniform and its insignia would seem to indicate a degree of rank. Am I correct?”

“I am John Hanson, Commander of the Ertak, of the Special Patrol Service,” I informed him.

“Then you will be capable of grasping, in part at least, what I have to tell you. It is really not so complex. Time is a river, flowing steadily, powerful, at a fixed rate of speed. It sweeps the whole Universe along on its bosom at that same speed. That is my conception of it; is it clear to you?”

“I should think,” I replied, “that the Universe is more like a great rock in the middle of your stream of time, that stands motionless while the minutes, the hours, and the days roll by.”

“No! The Universe travels on the breast of the current of time. It leaves yesterday behind, and sweeps on towards to-morrow. It has always been so until I challenged this so-called immutable law. I said to myself, why should a man be a helpless stick upon the stream of time? Why need he be borne on this slow current at the same speed? Why cannot he do as a man in a boat, paddle backwards or forwards; back to a point already passed; ahead, faster than the current, to a point that, drifting, he would not reach so soon? In other words, why can he not slip back through time to yesterday; or ahead to to-morrow? And if to to-morrow, why not to next year, next century?

“These are the questions I asked myself. Other men have asked themselves the same questions, I know; they were not new. But,”--Harbauer drew himself far forward in his chair, and leaned close to me, almost as though he prepared himself to spring--”no other man ever found the answer! That remained for me.

“I was not entirely correct, of course. I found that one could not go back in time. The current was against one. But to go ahead, with the current at one’s back, was different. I spent six years on the problem, working day and night, handicapped by lack of funds, ridiculed by the press--Look!”

Harbauer reached inside his antiquated costume and drew forth a flat packet which he passed to me. I unfolded it curiously, my fingers clumsy with excitement.

I could hardly believe my eyes. The thing Harbauer had handed me was a folded fragment of newspaper, such as I had often seen in museums. I recognized the old-fashioned type, and the peculiar arrangement of the columns. But, instead of being yellow and brittle with age, and preserved in fragments behind sealed glass, this paper was fresh and white, and the ink was as black as the day it had been printed. What this man said, then, must be true! He must--

“I can understand your amazement,” said Harbauer. “It had not occurred to me that a paper which, to me, was printed only yesterday, would seem so antique to you. But that must appear as remarkable to you as fresh papyrus, newly inscribed with the hieroglyphics of the ancient Egyptians, would seem to one of my own day and age. But read it; you will see how my world viewed my efforts!” There was a sharpness, a bitterness, in his voice that made me vaguely uneasy; even though he had solved the riddle of moving in time as men have always moved in space, my first conjecture that I had a madman to deal with might not be so far from the truth. Ridicule and persecution have unseated the reason of all too many men.

The type was unfamiliar to me, and the spelling was archaic, but I managed to stumble through the article. It read, as nearly as I can recall it, like this:

Harbauer Says Time

Is Like Great River

Jacob Harbauer, local inventor, in an exclusive interview, propounds the theory that man can move about in time exactly as a boat moves about on the surface of a swift-flowing river, save that he cannot go back into time, on account of the opposition of the current.

That is very fortunate, this writer feels; it would be a terrible thing for example, if some good-looking scamp from our present Twenty-first Century were to dive into the past and steal Cleopatra from Antony, or start an affair with

Josephine and send Napoleon scurrying back from the front and let the Napoleonic wars go to pot. We’d have to have all our histories rewritten!

Harbauer is well-known in Denver as the eccentric inventor who, for the last five or six years, has occupied a lonely shack in the mountains, guarded by a high fence of barbed wire. He claims that he has now perfected equipment which will enable him to project himself forward in time, and expects to make the experiment in the very near future.

This writer was permitted to view the equipment which

Harbauer says will shoot him into the future. The apparatus is housed in a low, barn-like building in the rear of his shack.

Along one side of the room is a veritable bank of electrical apparatus with innumerable controls, many huge tubes of unfamiliar shape and appearance, a mighty generator of some kind and an intricate maze of gleaming copper bus-bar.

In the center of the room is a circle of metal, about a foot in thickness, insulated from the flooring by four truncated cones of fluted glass. This disc is composed of two unfamiliar metals, arranged in concentric circles.

Above this disc, at a height of about eight feet, is suspended a sort of grid, composed of extremely fine silvery wires, supported on a frame-work of black insulating material.

Asked for a demonstration of his apparatus, Harbauer finally consented to perform an experiment with a dog--a white, short-haired mongrel that, Harbauer informed us, he kept to warn him of approaching strangers.

He bound the dog’s legs together securely, and placed the struggling animal in the center of the heavy metal disc.

Then the inventor hurried to the central control panel and manipulated several switches, which caused a number of things to happen almost at once.

The big generator started with a growl, and settled immediately into a deep hum; a whole row of tubes glowed with a purplish brilliancy. There was a crackling sound in the air, and the grid above the disc seemed to become incandescent, although it gave forth no apparent heat. From the rim of the metal disc, thin blue streamers of electric flame shot up toward the grid, and the little white dog began to whine nervously.

“Now watch!” shouted Harbauer. He closed another switch, and the space between the disc and the grid became a cylinder of livid light, for a period of perhaps two seconds. Then Harbauer pulled all the switches, and pointed triumphantly to the disc. It was empty.

We looked around the room for the dog, but he was not visible anywhere.

“I have sent him nearly a century into the future,” said

Harbauer. “We will let him stay there a moment, and then bring him back.”

“You mean to say,” we asked, “that the pup is now roaming around somewhere in the Twenty-second Century?” Harbauer said he meant just that, and added that he would now bring the dog back to the present time. The switches were closed again, but this time it was the metal plate that seemed incandescent, and the grid above that shot out the streaks of thin blue flame. As he closed the last switch, the cylinder of light appeared again, and when the switches were opened, there was the dog in the center of the disc, howling and struggling against his bonds.

“Look!” cried Harbauer. “He’s been attacked by another dog, or some other animal, while in the future. See the blood on his shoulders?”

We ventured the humble opinion that the dog had scratched or bit himself in struggling to free himself from the cords with which Harbauer had bound him, and the inventor flew into a terrible rage, cursing and waving his arms as though demented. Feeling that discretion was the better part of valor, we beat a hasty retreat, pausing at the barbed-wire gate only long enough to ask Mr. Harbauer if he would be good enough, sometime when he had a few minutes of leisure, to dash into next week and bring back some stock market reports to aid us in our investment efforts.

Under the circumstances, we did not wait for a response, but we presume we are persona non grata at the Harbauer establishment from this time on.

All in all, we are not sorry.

I folded the paper and passed it back to him; some of the allusions I did not understand, but the general tone of the article was very clear indeed.

“You see?” said Harbauer, his voice grating with anger. “I tried to be courteous to that man; to give him a simple, convincing demonstration of the greatest scientific achievement in centuries. And the fool returned to write this: to hold me up to ridicule, to paint me as a crack-brained, wild-eyed fanatic.”

“It’s hard for the layman to conceive of a great scientific achievement,” I said soothingly. “All great inventions and inventors have been laughed at by the populace at large.”

“True. True.” Harbauer nodded his head solemnly. “But just the same--” He broke off suddenly, and forced a smile. I found myself wishing that he had completed that broken sentence, however; I felt that he had almost revealed something that would have been most enlightening.

“But enough of that fool and his babblings,” he continued. “I am here as living proof that my experiment is a success, and I have a tremendous curiosity about the world in which I find myself. This, I take it, is a ship for navigating space?”

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