Crossroads of Destiny

by H. Beam Piper

public Domain

Science Fiction Story: No wonder he'd been so interested in the talk of whether our people accepted these theories!

Tags: Science Fiction   Novel-Classic  

I still have the dollar bill. It’s in my box at the bank, and I think that’s where it will stay. I simply won’t destroy it, but I can think of nobody to whom I’d be willing to show it--certainly nobody at the college, my History Department colleagues least of all. Merely to tell the story would brand me irredeemably as a crackpot, but crackpots are tolerated, even on college faculties. It’s only when they begin producing physical evidence that they get themselves actively resented.

When I went into the club-car for a nightcap before going back to my compartment to turn in, there were five men there, sitting together.

One was an Army officer, with the insignia and badges of a Staff Intelligence colonel. Next to him was a man of about my own age, with sandy hair and a bony, Scottish looking face, who sat staring silently into a highball which he held in both hands. Across the aisle, an elderly man, who could have been a lawyer or a banker, was smoking a cigar over a glass of port, and beside him sat a plump and slightly too well groomed individual who had a tall colorless drink, probably gin-and-tonic. The fifth man, separated from him by a vacant chair, seemed to be dividing his attention between a book on his lap and the conversation, in which he was taking no part. I sat down beside the sandy-haired man; as I did so and rang for the waiter, the colonel was saying:

“No, that wouldn’t. I can think of a better one. Suppose you have Columbus get his ships from Henry the Seventh of England and sail under the English instead of the Spanish flag. You know, he did try to get English backing, before he went to Spain, but King Henry turned him down. That could be changed.”

I pricked up my ears. The period from 1492 to the Revolution is my special field of American history, and I knew, at once, the enormous difference that would have made. It was a moment later that I realized how oddly the colonel had expressed the idea, and by that time the plump man was speaking.

“Yes, that would work,” he agreed. “Those kings made decisions, most of the time, on whether or not they had a hangover, or what some court favorite thought.” He got out a notebook and pen and scribbled briefly. “I’ll hand that to the planning staff when I get to New York. That’s Henry the Seventh, not Henry the Eighth? Right. We’ll fix it so that Columbus will catch him when he’s in a good humor.”

That was too much. I turned to the man beside me.

“What goes on?” I asked. “Has somebody invented a time machine?”

He looked up from the drink he was contemplating and gave me a grin.

“Sounds like it, doesn’t it? Why, no; our friend here is getting up a television program. Tell the gentleman about it,” he urged the plump man across the aisle.

The waiter arrived at that moment. The plump man, who seemed to need little urging, waited until I had ordered a drink and then began telling me what a positively sensational idea it was.

“We’re calling it Crossroads of Destiny,” he said. “It’ll be a series, one half-hour show a week; in each episode, we’ll take some historic event and show how history could have been changed if something had happened differently. We dramatize the event up to that point just as it really happened, and then a commentary-voice comes on and announces that this is the Crossroads of Destiny; this is where history could have been completely changed. Then he gives a resumé of what really did happen, and then he says, ‘But--suppose so and so had done this and that, instead of such and such.’ Then we pick up the dramatization at that point, only we show it the way it might have happened. Like this thing about Columbus; we’ll show how it could have happened, and end with Columbus wading ashore with his sword in one hand and a flag in the other, just like the painting, only it’ll be the English flag, and Columbus will shout: ‘I take possession of this new land in the name of His Majesty, Henry the Seventh of England!’” He brandished his drink, to the visible consternation of the elderly man beside him. “And then, the sailors all sing God Save the King.”

“Which wasn’t written till about 1745,” I couldn’t help mentioning.

“Huh?” The plump man looked startled. “Are you sure?” Then he decided that I was, and shrugged. “Well, they can all shout, ‘God Save King Henry!’ or ‘St. George for England!’ or something. Then, at the end, we introduce the program guest, some history expert, a real name, and he tells how he thinks history would have been changed if it had happened this way.”

The conservatively dressed gentleman beside him wanted to know how long he expected to keep the show running.

“The crossroads will give out before long,” he added.

“The sponsor’ll give out first,” I said. “History is just one damn crossroads after another.” I mentioned, in passing, that I taught the subject. “Why, since the beginning of this century, we’ve had enough of them to keep the show running for a year.”

“We have about twenty already written and ready to produce,” the plump man said comfortably, “and ideas for twice as many that the planning staff is working on now.”

The elderly man accepted that and took another cautious sip of wine.

“What I wonder, though, is whether you can really say that history can be changed.”

“Well, of course--” The television man was taken aback; one always seems to be when a basic assumption is questioned. “Of course, we only know what really did happen, but it stands to reason if something had happened differently, the results would have been different, doesn’t it?”

“But it seems to me that everything would work out the same in the long run. There’d be some differences at the time, but over the years wouldn’t they all cancel out?”

Non, non, Monsieur!“ the man with the book, who had been outside the conversation until now, told him earnestly. “Make no mistake; ‘istoree can be shange’!”

I looked at him curiously. The accent sounded French, but it wasn’t quite right. He was some kind of a foreigner, though; I’d swear that he never bought the clothes he was wearing in this country. The way the suit fitted, and the cut of it, and the shirt-collar, and the necktie. The book he was reading was Langmuir’s _Social History of the American People_--not one of my favorites, a bit too much on the doctrinaire side, but what a bookshop clerk would give a foreigner looking for something to explain America.

“What do you think, Professor?” the plump man was asking me.

“It would work out the other way. The differences wouldn’t cancel out; they’d accumulate. Say something happened a century ago, to throw a presidential election the other way. You’d get different people at the head of the government, opposite lines of policy taken, and eventually we’d be getting into different wars with different enemies at different times, and different batches of young men killed before they could marry and have families--different people being born or not being born. That would mean different ideas, good or bad, being advanced; different books written; different inventions, and different social and economic problems as a consequence.”

“Look, he’s only giving himself a century,” the colonel added. “Think of the changes if this thing we were discussing, Columbus sailing under the English flag, had happened. Or suppose Leif Ericson had been able to plant a permanent colony in America in the Eleventh Century, or if the Saracens had won the Battle of Tours. Try to imagine the world today if any of those things had happened. One thing you can be sure of--any errors you make in trying to imagine such a world will be on the side of over-conservatism.”

The sandy-haired man beside me, who had been using his highball for a crystal ball, must have glimpsed in it what he was looking for. He finished the drink, set the empty glass on the stand-tray beside him, and reached back to push the button.

“I don’t think you realize just how good an idea you have, here,” he told the plump man abruptly. “If you did, you wouldn’t ruin it with such timid and unimaginative treatment.”

I thought he’d been staying out of the conversation because it was over his head. Instead, he had been taking the plump man’s idea apart, examining all the pieces, and considering what was wrong with it and how it could be improved. The plump man looked startled, and then angry--timid and unimaginative were the last things he’d expected his idea to be called. Then he became uneasy. Maybe this fellow was a typical representative of his lord and master, the faceless abstraction called the Public.

“What do you mean?” he asked.

“Misplaced emphasis. You shouldn’t emphasize the event that could have changed history; you should emphasize the changes that could have been made. You’re going to end this show you were talking about with a shot of Columbus wading up to the beach with an English flag, aren’t you?”

“Well, that’s the logical ending.”

“That’s the logical beginning,” the sandy-haired man contradicted. “And after that, your guest historian comes on; how much time will he be allowed?”

“Well, maybe three or four minutes. We can’t cut the dramatization too short--”

“And he’ll have to explain, a couple of times, and in words of one syllable, that what we have seen didn’t really happen, because if he doesn’t, the next morning half the twelve-year-old kids in the country will be rushing wild-eyed into school to slip the teacher the real inside about the discovery of America. By the time he gets that done, he’ll be able to mumble a couple of generalities about vast and incalculable effects, and then it’ll be time to tell the public about Widgets, the really safe cigarettes, all filter and absolutely free from tobacco.”

The waiter arrived at this point, and the sandy-haired man ordered another rye highball. I decided to have another bourbon on the rocks, and the TV impresario said, “Gin-and-tonic,” absently, and went into a reverie which lasted until the drinks arrived. Then he came awake again.

“I see what you mean,” he said. “Most of the audience would wonder what difference it would have made where Columbus would have gotten his ships, as long as he got them and America got discovered. I can see it would have made a hell of a big difference. But how could it be handled any other way? How could you figure out just what the difference would have been?”

“Well, you need a man who’d know the historical background, and you’d need a man with a powerful creative imagination, who is used to using it inside rigorously defined limits. Don’t try to get them both in one; a collaboration would really be better. Then you work from the known situation in Europe and in America in 1492, and decide on the immediate effects. And from that, you have to carry it along, step by step, down to the present. It would be a lot of hard and very exacting work, but the result would be worth it.” He took a sip from his glass and added: “Remember, you don’t have to prove that the world today would be the way you set it up. All you have to do is make sure that nobody else would be able to prove that it wouldn’t.”

“Well, how could you present that?”

“As a play, with fictional characters and a plot; time, the present, under the changed conditions. The plot--the reason the coward conquers his fear and becomes a hero, the obstacle to the boy marrying the girl, the reason the innocent man is being persecuted--will have to grow out of this imaginary world you’ve constructed, and be impossible in our real world. As long as you stick to that, you’re all right.”

“Sure. I get that.” The plump man was excited again; he was about half sold on the idea. “But how will we get the audience to accept it? We’re asking them to start with an assumption they know isn’t true.”

“Maybe it is, in another time-dimension,” the colonel suggested. “You can’t prove it isn’t. For that matter, you can’t prove there aren’t other time-dimensions.”

“Hah, that’s it!” the sandy-haired man exclaimed. “World of alternate probability. That takes care of that.”

He drank about a third of his highball and sat gazing into the rest of it, in an almost yogic trance. The plump man looked at the colonel in bafflement.

“Maybe this alternate-probability time-dimension stuff means something to you,” he said. “Be damned if it does to me.”

“Well, as far as we know, we live in a four-dimensional universe,” the colonel started.

The elderly man across from him groaned. “Fourth dimension! Good God, are we going to talk about that?”

“It isn’t anything to be scared of. You carry an instrument for measuring in the fourth dimension all the time. A watch.”

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