Ten selected short stories from the master of pulp, Murray Leinster - pen name of William Fitzgerald Jenkins, whose prolific career spanned the first six decades of the 20th Century. The Golden Age Masterwork of Sidewise in Time includes the Hugo Award-winning novella "Exploration Team". Full contents include: Sidewise in Time The Runaway Skyscraper The Mad Planet Politics Proxima Centauri First Contact A Logic Names Joe De Profundis If You Was a Moklin Exploration Team
Release date: September 3, 2020
Print pages: 346
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Sidewise in Time
Looking back, it seems strange that no one but Professor Minott figured the thing out in advance. The indications were more than plain. In early December of 1934 Professor Michaelson announced his finding that the speed of light was not an absolute – could not be considered invariable. That, of course, was one of the first indications of what was to happen.
A second indication came on February 15th, when at 12:40 p.m., Greenwich mean time, the sun suddenly shone blue-white and the enormously increased rate of radiation raised the temperature of the earth’s surface by twenty-two degrees Fahrenheit in five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, the sun went back to its normal rate of radiation without any other symptom of disturbance.
A great many bids for scientific fame followed, of course, but no plausible explanation of the phenomenon accounted for a total lack of after disturbances in the sun’s photosphere.
For a third clear forerunner of the events of June, on March 10th the male giraffe in the Bronx Zoological Park, in New York, ceased to eat. In the nine days following, it changed its form, absorbing all its extremities, even its neck and head, into an extraordinary, egg-shaped mass of still-living flesh and bone which on the tenth day began to divide spontaneously and on the twelfth was two slightly pulsating fleshy masses.
A day later still, bumps appeared on the two masses. They grew, took form and design, and twenty days after the beginning of the phenomenon were legs, necks, and heads. Then two giraffes, both male, moved about the giraffe enclosure. Each was slightly less than half the weight of the original animal. They were identically marked. And they ate and moved and in every way seemed normal though immature animals.
An exactly similar occurrence was reported from the Argentine Republic, in which a steer from the pampas was going through the same extraordinary method of reproduction under the critical eyes of Argentine scientists.
Nowadays it seems incredible that the scientists of 1935 should not have understood the meaning of these oddities. We now know something of the type of strain which produced them, though they no longer occur. But between January and June of 1935 the news services of the nation were flooded with items of similar import.
For two days the Ohio River flowed upstream. For six hours the trees in Euclid Park, in Cleveland, lashed their branches madly as if in a terrific storm, though not a breath of wind was stirring. And in New Orleans, near the last of May, fishes swam up out of the Mississippi River through the air, proceeded to ‘drown’ in the air which inexplicably upheld them, and then turned belly up and floated placidly at an imaginary water level some fifteen feet above the pavements of the city.
But it seems clear that Professor Minott was the only man in the world who even guessed the meaning of these – to us – clear-cut indications of the later events. Professor Minott was instructor in mathematics on the faculty of Robinson College in Fredericksburg, Va. We know that he anticipated very nearly every one of the things which later startled and frightened the world, and not only our world. But he kept his mouth shut.
Robinson College was small. It had even been termed a ‘jerkwater’ college without offending anybody but the faculty and certain sensitive alumni. For a mere professor of mathematics to make public the theory Minott had formed would not even be news. It would be taken as stark insanity. Moreover, those who believed it would be scared. So he kept his mouth shut.
Professor Minott possessed courage, bitterness, and a certain cold-blooded daring, but neither wealth nor influence. He had more than a little knowledge of mathematical physics and his calculations show extraordinary knowledge of the laws of probability, but he had very little patience with problems in ethics. And he was possessed by a particularly fierce passion for Maida Hayns, daughter of the professor of Romance languages, and had practically no chance to win even her attention over the competition of most of the student body.
So much of explanation is necessary, because no one but just such a person as Professor Minott would have forecast what was to happen and then prepare for it in the fashion in which he did.
We know from his notes that he considered the probability of disaster as a shade better than four to one. It is a very great pity that we do not have his calculations. There is much that our scientists do not understand even yet. The notes Professor Minott left behind have been invaluable, but there are obvious gaps in them. He must have taken most of his notes – and those the most valuable – into that unguessed-at place where he conceivably now lives and very probably works.
He would be amused, no doubt, at the diligence with which his most unconsidered scribble is now examined and inspected and discussed by the greatest minds of our time and space. And perhaps – it is quite probable – he may have invented a word for the scope of the catastrophe we escaped. We have none as yet.
There is no word to describe a disaster in which not only the earth but our whole solar system might have been destroyed; not only our solar system but our galaxy; not only our galaxy but every other island universe in all of the space we know; more than that, the destruction of all space as we know it; and even beyond that, the destruction of time, meaning not only the obliteration of present and future but even the annihilation of the past so that it would never have been. And then, besides, those other strange states of existence we learned of, those other universes, those other pasts and futures – all to be shattered into nothingness. There is no word for such a catastrophe.
It would be interesting to know what Professor Minott termed it to himself, as he coolly prepared to take advantage of the one chance in four of survival, if that should be the one to eventuate. But it is easier to wonder how he felt on the evening before the fifth of June, in 1935. We do not know. We cannot know. All we can be certain of is how we felt – and what happened.
It was half past seven a.m. of June 5, 1935. The city of Joplin, Missouri, awaked from a comfortable, summer-night sleep. Dew glistened upon grass blades and leaves and the filmy webs of morning spiders glittered like diamond dust in the early sunshine. In the most easternly suburb a high-school boy, yawning, came somnolently out of his house to mow the lawn before schooltime. A rather rickety family car roared, a block away. It backfired, stopped, roared again, and throttled down to a steady, waiting hum. The voices of children sounded among the houses. A colored washerwoman appeared, striding beneath the trees which lined this strictly residential street.
From an upper window a radio blatted: ‘—one, two three, four! Higher, now! – three, four! Put your weight into it! – two, three, four!’ The radio suddenly squawked and began to emit an insistent, mechanical shriek which changed again to a squawk and then a terrific sound as of all the static of ten thousand thunderstorms on the air at once. Then it was silent.
The high-school boy leaned mournfully on the push bar of the lawn mower. At the instant the static ended, the boy sat down suddenly on the dew-wet grass. The colored woman reeled and grabbed frantically at the nearest tree trunk. The basket of wash toppled and spilled in a snowstorm of starched, varicolored clothing. Howls of terror from children. Sharp shrieks from women. ‘Earthquake! Earthquake!’ Figures appeared running, pouring out of houses. Someone fled out to a sleeping porch, slid down a supporting column, and tripped over a rosebush in his pajamas. In seconds, it seemed, the entire population of the street was out-of-doors.
And then there was a queer, blank silence. There was no earthquake. No house had fallen. No chimney had cracked. Not so much as a dish or window-pane had made a sound in smashing. The sensation every human being had felt was not an actual shaking of the ground. There had been movement, yes, and of the earth, but no such movement as any human being had ever dreamed of before. These people were to learn of that movement much later. Now they stared blankly at each other.
And in the sudden, dead silence broken only by the hum of an idling car and the wail of a frightened baby, a new sound became audible. It was the tramp of marching feet. With it came a curious clanking and clattering noise. And then a marked command, which was definitely not in the English language.
Down the street of a suburb of Joplin, Missouri, on June 5, in the Year of Our Lord 1935, came a file of spear-armed, shield-bearing soldiers in the short, skirtlike togas of ancient Rome. They wore helmets upon their heads. They peered about as if they were as blankly amazed as the citizens of Joplin who regarded them. A long column of marching men came into view, every man with shield and spear and the indefinable air of being used to just such weapons.
They halted at another barked order. A wizened little man with a short sword snapped a question at the staring Americans. The high-school boy jumped. The wizened man roared his question again. The high-school boy stammered, and painfully formed syllables with his lips. The wizened man grunted in satisfaction. He talked, articulating clearly if impatiently. And the high-school boy turned dazedly to the other Americans.
‘He wants to know the name of this town,’ he said, un-believing his own ears. ‘He’s talking Latin, like I learn in school. He says this town isn’t on the road maps, and he doesn’t know where he is. But all the same he takes possession of it in the name of the Emperor Valerius Fabricius, emperor of Rome and the far corners of the earth.’ And then the school-boy stuttered: ‘He – he says these are the first six cohorts of the Forty-second Legion, on garrison duty in Messalia. That – that’s supposed to be two days’ march up that way.’
He pointed in the direction of St. Louis.
The idling motor car roared suddenly into life. Its gears whined and it came rolling out into the street. Its horn honked peremptorily for passage through the shield-clad soldiers. They gaped at it. It honked again and moved toward them.
A roared order, and they flung themselves upon it, spears thrusting, short swords stabbing. Up to this instant there was not one single inhabitant of Joplin who did not believe the spear-armed soldiers were motion-picture actors, or masqueraders, or something else equally insane but credible. But there was nothing make-believe about their attack on the car. They assaulted it as if it were a strange and probably deadly beast. They flung themselves into battle with it in a grotesquely reckless valor.
And there was nothing at all make-believe in the thoroughness and completeness with which they speared Mr Horace B. Davis, who had only intended to drive down to the cotton-brokerage office of which he was chief clerk. They thought he was driving this strange beast to slaughter them, and they slaughtered him instead. The high-school boy saw them do it, growing whiter and whiter as he watched. When a swordsman approached the wizened man and displayed the severed head of Mr Davis, with the spectacles dangling grotesquely from one ear, the high-school boy fainted dead away.
It was sunrise of June 5, 1935. Cyrus Harding gulped down his breakfast in the pale-gray dawn. He had felt very dizzy and sick for just a moment, some little while since, but he was himself again now. The smell of frying filled the kitchen. His wife cooked. Cyrus Harding ate. He made noises as he emptied his plate. His hands were gnarled and work-worn, but his expression was of complacent satisfaction. He looked at a calendar hung on the wall, a Christmas sentiment from the Bryan Feed & Fertilizer Co., in Bryan, Ohio.
‘Sheriff’s goin’ to sell out Amos today,’ he said comfortably. ‘I figger I’ll get that north forty cheap.’
His wife said tiredly: ‘He’s been offerin’ to sell it to you for a year.’
‘Yep,’ agreed Cyrus Harding more complacently still. ‘Comin’ down on the price, too. But nobody’ll bid against me at the sale. They know I want it bad, an’ I ain’t a good neighbor to have when somebuddy takes somethin’ from under my nose. Folks know it. I’ll git it a lot cheaper’n Amos offered it to me for. He wanted to sell it t’meet his int’rest an’ hol’ on another year. I’ll git it for half that.’
He stood up and wiped his mouth. He strode to the door.
‘That hired man shoulda got a good start with his harrowin’,’ he said expansively. ‘I’ll take a look an’ go over to the sale.’
He went to the kitchen door and opened it. Then his mouth dropped open. The view from this doorway was normally that of a not especially neat barnyard, with beyond it farmland flat as a floor and cultivated to the very fence rails, with a promising crop of corn as a border against the horizon.
Now the view was quite otherwise. All was normal as far as the barn. But beyond the barn was delirium. Huge, spreading tree ferns soared upward a hundred feet. Lacy, foliated branches formed a roof of incredible density above sheer jungle such as no man on earth had ever seen before. The jungles of the Amazon basin were parklike by comparison with its thickness. It was a riotous tangle of living vegetation in which growth was battle, and battle was life, and life was deadly, merciless conflict.
No man could have forced his way ten feet through such a wilderness. From it came a fetid exhalation which was part decay and part lush, rank growing things, and part the overpowering perfumes of glaringly vivid flowers. It was jungle such as paleobotanists have described as existing in the Carboniferous period; as the source of our coal beds.
‘It – it ain’t so!’ said Cyrus Harding weakly. ‘It – ain’t so!’
His wife did not reply. She had not seen. Wearily, she began to clean up after her lord and master’s meal.
He went down the kitchen steps, staring and shaken. He moved toward this impossible apparition which covered his crops. It did not disappear as he neared it. He went within twenty feet of it and stopped, still staring, still unbelieving, beginning to entertain the monstrous supposition that he had gone insane.
Then something moved in the jungle. A long, snaky neck, feet thick at its base and tapering to a mere sixteen inches behind a head the size of a barrel. The neck reached out the twenty feet to him. Cold eyes regarded him abstractedly. The mouth opened. Cyrus Harding screamed.
His wife raised her eyes. She looked through the open door and saw the jungle. She saw the jaws close upon her husband. She saw colossal, abstracted eyes half close as the something gulped, and partly choked, and swallowed. She saw a lump in the monstrous neck move from the relatively slender portion just behind the head to the feet-thick section projecting from the jungle. She saw the head withdraw into the jungle and instantly be lost to sight.
Cyrus Harding’s widow was very pale. She put on her hat and went out of the front door. She began to walk toward the house of the nearest neighbor. As she went, she said steadily to herself:
‘It’s come. I’m crazy. They’ll have to put me in an asylum. But I won’t have to stand him any more. I won’t have to stand him any more!’
It was noon of June 5, 1935. The cell door opened and a very grave, whiskered man in a curious gray uniform came in. He tapped the prisoner gently on the shoulder.
‘I’m Dr Holloway,’ he said encouragingly. ‘Suppose you tell me, suh, just what happened t’you? I’m right sure it can all be straightened out.’
The prisoner sputtered: ‘What – why – dammit,’ he protested, ‘I drove down from Louisville this morning. I had a dizzy spell and – well – I must have missed my road, because suddenly I noticed that everything around me was unfamiliar. And then a man in a gray uniform yelled at me, and a minute later he began to shoot, and the first thing I knew they’d arrested me for having the American flag painted on my car! I’m a traveling salesman for the Uncle Sam Candy Bar Co.! Dammit, it’s funny when a man can’t fly his own country’s flag—’
‘In your own country, of co’se,’ assented the doctor comfortingly. ‘But you must know, suh, that we don’t allow any flag but ouah own to be displayed heah. You violated ouah laws, suh.’
‘Your laws!’ The prisoner stared blankly. ‘What laws? Where in the United States is it illegal to fly the American flag?’
‘Nowheah in the United States, suh.’ The doctor smiled. ‘You must have crossed ouah border unawares, suh. I will be frank, an’ admit that it was suspected you were insane. I see now that it was just a mistake.’
‘Border – United—’ The prisoner gasped. ‘I’m not in the United States? I’m not? Then where in hell am I?’
‘Ten miles, suh, within the borders of the Confederacy,’ said the doctor, and laughed. ‘A queer mistake, suh, but theah was no intention of insult. You’ll be released at once. Theah is enough tension between Washington an’ Richmond without another border incident to upset ouah hot-heads.’
‘Confederacy?’ The prisoner choked. ‘You can’t – you don’t mean the Confederate States—’
‘Of co’se, suh. The Confederate States of North America. Why not?’
The prisoner gulped. ‘I – I’ve gone mad!’ he stammered. ‘I must be mad! There was Gettysburg – there was—’
‘Gettysburg? Oh, yes!’ The doctor nodded indulgently. ‘We are very proud of ouah history, suh. You refer to the battle in the War of Separation, when the fate of the Confederacy rested on ten minutes’ time. I have often wondered what would have been the result if Pickett’s charge had been driven back. It was Pickett’s charge that gained the day for us, suh. England recognized the Confederacy two days later, France in another week, an’ with unlimited credit abroad we won out. But it was a tight squeeze, suh!’
The prisoner gasped again. He stared out of the window. And opposite the jail stood an unquestionable courthouse. Upon the courthouse stood a flagpole. And spread gloriously in the breeze above a government building floated the Stars and Bars of the Confederacy!
It was night of June 5, 1935. The postmaster of North Centerville, Massachusetts, came out of his cubby-hole to listen to the narrative. The pot-bellied stove of the general store sent a comfortable if unnecessary glow about. The eyewitness chuckled.
‘Yeah. They come around the cape, thirty or forty of ’em in a boat all o’ sixty feet long with a crazy square sail drawin’. Round things on the gunnel like – like shields. An’ rowin like hell! They stopped when they saw the town an’ looked s’prised. Then they hailed us, talkin’ some lingo that wa’n’t American. Ole Peterson, he near dropped his line, with a fish on it, too. Then he tried to talk back. They hadda lotta trouble understandin’ him, or made out to. Then they turned around an’ rowed back. Actors or somethin’, tryin’ to play a joke. It fell flat, though. Maybe some of those rich folks up the coast pullin’ it. Ho! Ho! Ole says they was talkin’ a funny, old-fashioned Skowegian. They told him they was from Leifsholm, or somethin’ like that, just up the coast. That they couldn’t make out how our town got here. They’d never seen it before! Can y’imagine that? Ole says they were wikin’s, an’ they called this place Winland, an’ says – What’s that?’
A sudden hubbub arose in the night. Screams. Cries. A shotgun boomed dully. The loafers in the general store crowded out on the porch. Flames rose from half a dozen places on the water front. In their light could be seen a full dozen serpent ships, speeding for the shore, propelled by oars. From four of their number, already beached, dark figures had poured. Firelight glinted on swords, on shields. A woman screamed as a huge, yellow-maned man seized her. His brazen helmet and shield glittered. He was laughing. Then a figure in overalls hurtled toward the blond giant, an ax held threateningly.
The giant cut him down with an already dripping blade and roared. Men rushed to him and they plunged on to loot and burn. More of the armored figures leaped to the sand from another beached ship. Another house roared flames skyward.
And at half past ten a.m. on the morning of June 5th, Professor Minott turned upon the party of students with a revolver in each hand. Gone was the appearance of an instructor whose most destructive possibility was a below-passing mark in mathematics. He had guns in his hands now, instead of chalk or pencil, and his eyes were glowing even as he smiled frostily. The four girls gasped. The young men, accustomed to seeing him only in a classroom, realized that he not only could use the weapons in his hands, but that he would. And suddenly they respected him as they would respect, say, a burglar or a prominent kidnaper or a gang leader. He was raised far above the level of a mere mathematics professor. He became instantly a leader, and, by virtue of his weapons, even a ruler.
‘As you see,’ said Professor Minott evenly, ‘I have anticipated the situation in which we find ourselves. I am prepared for it, to a certain extent. At any moment not only we, but the entire human race may be wiped out with a completeness of which you can form no idea. But there is also a chance of survival. And I intend to make the most of my survival if we do live.’
He looked steadily from one to another of the students who had followed him to explore the extraordinary appearance of a sequoia forest north of Fredericksburg.
‘I know what has happened,’ said Professor Minott. ‘I know also what is likely to happen. And I know what I intend to do about it. Any of you who are prepared to follow me, say so. Any of you who object – well – I can’t have mutinies! I’ll shoot him!’
‘But – professor,’ said Blake nervously, ‘we ought to get the girls home—’
‘They will never go home,’ said Professor Minott calmly. ‘Neither will you, nor any of us. As soon as you’re convinced that I’m quite ready to use these weapons, I’ll tell you what’s happened and what it means. I’ve been preparing for it for weeks.’
Tall trees rose around the party. Giant trees. Magnificent trees. They towered two hundred and fifty feet into the air, and their air of venerable calm was at once the most convincing evidence of their actuality, and the most improbable of all the things which had happened in the neighborhood of Fredericksburg, Virginia. The little group of people sat their horses affrightedly beneath the monsters of the forest. Minott regarded them estimatingly – these three young men and four girls, all students of Robinson College. Professor Minott was now no longer the faculty member in charge of a party of exploration, but a definitely ruthless leader.
At half past eight a.m. on June 5, 1935, the inhabitants of Fredericksburg had felt a curious, unanimous dizziness. It passed. The sun shone brightly. There seemed to be no noticeable change in any of the facts of everyday existence. But within an hour the sleepy little town was buzzing with excitement. The road to Washington – Route One on all road maps – ceased abruptly some three miles north. A colossal, a gigantic forest had appeared magically to block the way.
Telegraphic communication with Washington had ceased. Even the Washington broadcasting stations were no longer on the air. The trees of the extraordinary forest were tall beyond the experience of any human being in town. They looked like the photographs of the giant sequoias on the Pacific Coast, but – well, the thing was simply impossible.
In an hour and a half, Professor Minott had organized a party of sightseers among the students. He seemed to pick his party with a queer definiteness of decision. Three young men and four girls. They would have piled into a rickety car owned by one of the boys, but Professor Minott negatived the idea.
‘The road ends at the forest,’ he said, smiling. ‘I’d rather like to explore a magic forest. Suppose we ride horseback? I’ll arrange for horses.’
In ten minutes the horses appeared. The girls had vanished to get into riding breeches or knickers. They noted appreciatively on their return that besides the saddles, the horses had saddlebags slung in place. Again Professor Minott smiled.
‘We’re exploring,’ he said humorously. ‘We must dress the part. Also, we’ll probably want some lunch. And we can bring back specimens for the botanical lab to look over.’
They rode forth – the girls thrilled, the young men pleased and excited, and all of them just a little bit disappointed at finding themselves passed by motor cars which whizzed by them as all Fredericksburg went to look at the improbable forest ahead.
There were cars by the hundreds where the road abruptly ended. A crowd stared at the forest. Giant trees, their roots fixed firmly in the ground. Undergrowth here and there. Over it all, an aspect of peace and utter serenity – and permanence. The watching crowd hummed and buzzed with speculation, with talk. The thing they saw was impossible. It could not have happened. This forest could not possibly be real. They were regarding some sort of mirage.
But as the party of riders arrived, half a dozen men came out of the forest. They had dared to enter it. Now they returned, still incredulous of their own experience, bearing leaves and branches and one of them certain small berries unknown on the Atlantic coast.
A State police officer held up his hand as Professor Minott’s party went toward the edge of the forest.
‘Look here!’ he said. ‘We been hearin’ funny noises in there. I’m stoppin’ anybody else from goin’ in until we know what’s what.’
Professor Minott nodded. ‘We’ll be careful. I’m Professor Minott of Robinson College. We’re going in after some botanical specimens. I have a revolver. We’re all right.’
He rode ahead. The State policeman, without definite orders for authority, shrugged his shoulders and bent his efforts to the prevention of other attempts to explore. In minutes, the eight horses and their riders were out of sight.
That was now three hours past. For three hours, Professor Minott had led his charges a little south of northeast. In that time they saw no dangerous animals. They saw some – many – familiar plants. They saw rabbits in quantity, and once a slinking gray form which Tom Hunter, who was majoring in zoology, declared was a wolf. There are no wolves in the vicinity of Fredericksburg, but neither are there sequoias. And the party had seen no signs of human life, though Fredericksburg lies in farming country which is thickly settled.
In three hours the horses must have covered between twelve and fifteen miles, even through the timber. It was just after sighting a shaggy beast which was unquestionably a woodland buffalo – extinct east of the Rockies as early as 1820 – that young Blake protested uneasily against further travel.
‘There’s something awfully queer, sir,’ he said awkwardly. ‘I don’t mind experimenting as much as you like, sir, but we’ve got the girls with us. If we don’t start back pretty soon, we’ll get in trouble with the dean.’
And then Minott drew his two revolvers and very calmly announced that none of them would ever go back. That he knew what had happened and what could be expected. And he added that he would explain as soon as they were convinced he would use his revolvers in case of a mutiny.
‘Call us convinced now, sir,’ said Blake.
He was a bit pale about the lips, but he hadn’t flinched. In fact, he’d moved to be between Maida Haynes and the gun muzzle.
‘We’d like very much to know how all these trees and plants, which ought to be three thousand miles away, happen to be growing in Virginia without any warning. Especially, sir, we’d like to know how it is that the topography underneath all this brand-new forest is the same. The hills trend the same way they used to, but everything that ever was on them has vanished, and something else is in its place.’
Minott nodded approvingly. ‘Splendid, Blake!’ he said warmly. ‘Sound observation! I picked you because you’re well spoken of in geology, even though there were – er – other reasons for leaving you behind. Let’s go on over the next rise. Unless I’m mistaken, we should find the Potomac in view. Then I’ll answer any questions you like. I’m afraid we’ve a good bit more of riding to do today.’
Reluctantly, the eight horses breasted the slope. They scrambled among underbrush. It was queer that in three hours they had seen not a trace of a road leading anywhere. But up at the top of the hill there was a road. It was a narrow, wandering cart track. Without a word, every one of the eight riders turned their horses to follow it. It meandered onward for perhaps a quarter of a mile. It dipped suddenly. And the Potomac lay before and below them.
Then seven of the eight riders exclaimed. There was a settlement upon the banks of the river. There were boats in harbor. There were other boats in view beyond, two beating down from the long reaches upstream, and three others coming painfully up from the direction of Chesapeake Bay. But neither the village nor the boats should have been upon the Potomac River.
The village was small and mud-walled. Tiny, blue-clad fi
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