Copyright 1995 Don Benish|
Roscoe Ledbetter stood beside the time machine. An enormous group had come to see him off, a whole raft of media types, several politicians looking for free publicity, and perhaps the whole of the world's SETI enthusiasts.
Among these was Hugo Peintner, the very first time-traveler. He walked up to the podium and slapped Roscoe on the back. "Well, Ledbetter, I have to hand it to yuh, I never expected anyone to actually go ahead with this crazy stunt. I only jumped ahead two years, but you're gonna jump one thousand years. What an adventure. Who knows what you'll find."
Roscoe grinned weakly. He knew it was not too late to turn back. But he had to know. For a whole century now, people had been searching the heavens for a sign of another intelligent life form. Nothing had been found by anyone. For years now, SETI had born the burden of a fool's reputation. He had the opportunity to travel forward in time to an era where humans should be able to explore the galaxy themselves. They would physically find the aliens that their radio telescopes had never been able to.
"I will soon be shaking hands with beings that evolved on another planet." Roscoe confidently predicted. "Although, perhaps it won't exactly be their hands I will be shaking."
"Maybe you will find a way to turn the clock back and return to tell us about them." Hugo had been one of the inventors of the time-travel vehicle. Yet, the equations used, showed a way to travel forwards in time only, not backwards. That is why he had only jumped two years. Roscoe was taking a chance that his trip would strand him in a strange world from which there was no return.
"Possibly. But I will be quite content with the new friends I will make a thousand years hence." He imagined a huge crowd of supporters to greet him at the end of his journey. Surely his name and his mission would continue down through the intervening years.
"Well, don't forget about us when you get there."
"Certainly." Roscoe did not mention the notion that if reverse time travel was possible, by now, someone surely would have returned from the future.
It was time to leave. All his good-byes said, Roscoe sat in the vehicle's chair. Hugo's trip had indicated that the transition was relatively instantaneous. He was not even strapped in, since the previous trip had been smooth and uneventful. Ledbetter looked around at the world and the people he knew he would never see again, then he nodded to Hugo and pressed the button on the chair arm.
A sudden brightness caused him to squeeze his eyes shut. After a moment, he cracked an eyelid to see a dulling haze. A high-pitched whine became audible as the frequency rapidly dropped. The haze began to clear and he found himself back in the world.
But where? None of the surroundings looked familiar. Instead of a concrete pad, the machine seemed to have landed on a cobble-stone path of some sort. There was no crowd to greet him. In fact, he saw no one at all. Perhaps, the machine merely missed its landing coordinates. Somewhere, a crowd of well-wishers was probably waiting to greet him and would be disappointed.
A bush rustled at one side of the path. "Hello!" he called. "Is anyone there?"
A boy appeared quietly beside the bush, staring at the traveler. "Where is everybody? I made it. I thought they would be here to greet me."
The boy continued staring, but said nothing. Roscoe noticed that the boy's clothing appeared to be made of animal skins. Surely he had not gone backward in time!
Satisfied that Roscoe was harmless, the boy approached the newcomer but continued to stare. Finally, he blurted out a few syllables, but they made no sense to the bewildered traveler. Cautiously, the boy touched the stranger's clothes and then burst out in wild sentences. Roscoe detected some words that he knew, but not enough to decipher the lad's excitement.
It soon became apparent to both that communication was impossible. The boy motioned Roscoe to follow and led off down the path. He set a killer pace, but Roscoe had always prided himself on staying in shape and managed to keep up.
The surrounding countryside looked only vaguely familiar. The rolling nature of southern Missouri was right, but the trees were all gone. All around was tumble-down wreckage of buildings long demolished. This might be Springfield, but Roscoe found it hard to believe. Where were the towering buildings and gleaming spaceports of the future?
The path led to a group of buildings that seemed more or less whole. They were made of concrete and stone but were ancient and much patched. Some appeared to have once been much taller but had had the upper stories decapitated.
They stopped before a building that had once been gaudy with giant windows but which were now boarded up. Roscoe guessed that it might even date from his time, perhaps a bank or some such business. He saw crudely lettered sign he could read. It said, University.
Roscoe understood where the boy had lead him. Not being able to understand the strange man, he had taken him to learned men who might be able to. He wondered whether the mutterings of the boy were actual language or simple gibberish. He found it hard to believe that the English language could change so much in only a thousand years. He had to admit, the old English of Norman times was much different from modern English, but surely language had not changed this much, not with the forces of technology and media to moderate the drift.
Inside, the building was gloomy and dusty, lit by guttering candles. Much of the decoration common to such buildings had long ago been stripped off and the walls laid bare. The counters and desks were gone and in their place were rough-hewn benches that would have looked appropriate in a Saxon castle.
A very short man appeared in a doorway and appraised the visitor. He wore a short rough cloak and carried a large staff. In the dim light Roscoe thought the man rather dark-complected and his hair hanging in braids, like an Indian or perhaps a Rastafarian.
The man spoke to the boy rapidly in the same strange language as the boy had spoken to Roscoe. The boy replied at length as if making a report, then turned and left.
Roscoe looked back at the dark man. "You speak English!"
"Yes. Though it is a dead language, my order still has to learn it. Most of the ancient texts are in English. We practice by conversing amongst ourselves."
"Dead language!" Roscoe exclaimed. "Just what year is this?"
"Three twenty-two AC."
"AC? What does AC mean?"
"After collapse." He began to look at Roscoe warily. "Surely everyone knows that. Just who are you, stranger?"
Roscoe explained that he was a time traveler from the 2lst century. He added that he was rather befuddled by the strange state of affairs and feared that something might have gone wrong in the time jump.
The man frowned briefly. "That would be why you speak English and not Chiricke. The year would be 3076 AD by your reckoning, so there would seem to be no flaw in your machine." He motioned Roscoe to follow and led him into a dark corridor flanked by doorless rooms that had once been offices. "In English, my name would be Snake-legs, but most call me Scoot."
"You said the local language was Chiricke. Would that be Cherokee as in American Indian?"
"It would. All the people hereabouts are descendants of a tribe from the midwest."
Happy that the time machine had worked properly, Ledbetter was nonetheless disturbed by the dramatic changes that Springfield and the rest of the country seemed to have undergone. Before he could ask any more questions, they came to a large room, perhaps once a conference room, where several other robed figures sat.
Scoot introduced the visitor. "This is Mr. Ledbetter from the past. He feels that things are not as they should be, or at least as he expected them."
The several small brown figures gazed silently at Roscoe. He wondered whether they were communicating telepathically. A rather rotund man with straight black hair spoke up, "I am called Red Mouse, although friends call me Porky. Yes, Mr. Ledbetter, things are not as you probably expected them. White man's civilization collapsed, although pockets exist here and there. We, red men, survived because we revived the old traditions. And then, we were not seduced by the Setins."
"Satans? You mean devils?"
Red Mouse smiled. "No, not Satans. But, for sure, many today consider them devils for the harm they did to the world. They were fanatics who caused the economy and technology to collapse. Their purpose was originally benign, but their name and the name of their founder were both uncannily like the name of the Christian devil. As time went by, their goals became more despicable and they came to be equated with the devil."
A third person spoke up, "I am Gray Deer." It was a female voice! Roscoe looked at the speaker in surprise. He had not noticed her before. In fact, she did not look that much different from the others. "I am curious, Mr. Ledbetter. We are familiar with the ancient time-travel experiments, but as I recall, the problem was that it was a one-way trip. A traveler had to entirely abandon his past for an unknown future. Whatever possessed you to leave your world and journey this far into the future?"
"I came here because I hoped to meet the extra-terrestrials that you have surely discovered by now. The search was making no headway in my time and I have always wanted to meet a being that had evolved on another planet, so here I am."
The Chiricke looked at one another thoughtfully. Finally, Red Mouse spoke up slowly, "I am sorry to inform you, Mr. Ledbetter, but your trip has been for naught. We have no extra-terrestrials to show you. In fact, if you were to ask anyone outside this room about them, you might be torn to bits. You see, that is what the Setins wanted also."
Roscoe recoiled in horror as he realized that "Setin" was a word derived from SETI. "You're crazy! How could the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence cause evil? We simply wished to find those who must be out there. We do not seek to overthrow the world or to destroy it, just the opposite."
"Whatever your cause started out to be, that is not what it became. Setins believed in the existence of Extra Terrestrial Intelligence despite the bulk of evidence against it. SETI ceased being a scientific endeavor and became a religion. Even before your time there was a large scientific understanding that SETI was a fruitless undertaking. Yet the belief in the existence of extra-terrestrial life was so deeply ingrained in the psyche of so many that it took on a life of its own."
Roscoe fairly screamed. "That's not so! They are there. They must be! We can't possibly be alone in the galaxy. It's all lies!"
Red Mouse contemplated the time-traveler's angry face. "Calm yourself, Mr. Ledbetter, and I will explain." His voice was low but with an undertone of force and threat. "I understand your despair so listen to me as I tell you of what befell the earth because of your folly."
Roscoe managed to restrain himself. Something about the little brown man frightened him.
"Great strides were made in science in the years following your departure. The solar system was fully explored and research facilities on the moons of the great planets were constructed at great cost. Yet nothing came of them. Useful research was shunted aside to make way for the ever more frantic search for extra-terrestrial life. Reasonable thinkers who argued against the search were murdered by the fanatics, who insisted that the only acceptable goal was to find the aliens. Great catastrophes began to wrack the earth but nothing was done because it would have taken away from the search."
"Soon, there came the first great war. The sane people of earth rebelled against the cost and destruction of the search. Whole countries had been covered with the telescope dishes and no room was left to grow food. Materials for making life's necessities were no longer available because the search claimed them all. The rebels published a document describing the folly, and scientifically explained the Setin's lack of success by proving the low chances of finding any other intelligent life. The devils responded by attacking with fiendish weapons devised in secret. They had previously commandeered the whole of technology for the search. Evidently, they expected some resistance and had developed their weapons as a contingency. Needless to say, the rebellion was crushed, killing many millions of people in the process."
"But many of us survived, still opposing the Setins. Only we no longer spoke it out loud. Many, like the Indians, turned inward to become self-sufficient. Meanwhile the Setins continued their headlong plunge. They finally managed to design a ship capable of going to the stars."
Roscoe's eyes lit up. "You mean they ventured to the stars. Then they have found the aliens by now, surely."
Red Mouse shook his head wearily as the others muttered in disgust at the pig-headed time traveler. "You just don't get it, do you? There are no aliens, at least not within the reach of man. The search only proved what the science predicted. The ship could not travel beyond the boundaries of the completed search in less than ten thousand years. Unfortunately for the Setins, it had a maximum voyage of possibly twenty years. It was a futile hope but the Setins were too far gone in their insanity to see it. And then, just before the ship was ready, they became divided. They couldn't decide where to go. One faction wanted to go one way and the other wanted to go another way. The second war broke loose even more murderous than the first."
"Bands of insane lunatics beating at each other over what direction to point their funeral pyre," added Gray Deer.
"But they did go?"
"Oh, yes. Eventually, after most of the Earth's population had been slaughtered, one faction came out on top. They piled into their gorgeous chariot and took off, even though everyone who knew how to run it had been killed. We figure that by now they have blundered into a star and vaporized. We hope so, anyway."
Roscoe was stunned. As he was led away from the conference room, he realized that not only were there no aliens here for him to meet, but that he was trapped for the rest of his life in a world that considered him to be the vilest of crackpots. Like a communist trapped in a land of hard-core capitalists, he could argue his point of view until he was blue in the face and gain nothing but the audience's scorn. He briefly wondered if he would be killed. After all, he was a representative of the founders of the greatest enemy of this era.
His group passed through a hallway with a thick carpeting of dust on the floor. Roscoe wondered why they had taken him this way since, apparently, this passageway was seldom used. Then he saw why. The flickering flames of the torches showed a rogue's gallery of SETI heroes throughout time. He recognized two, although the last names had been modified. In one name, the 'g' had been crossed out and changed to a 't'. The other name had 'oy' changed to 'el'. Horns and dastardly mustaches had been added to the pictures.
Then he saw a picture that made him stop. It was himself, although the name had been altered to read 'Roscoe Bedwetter'. The horns and mustache merely made him look foolish. But, the spite that went into changing the original picture and placing it in this gallery sent shivers down his spine. Roscoe Ledbetter was hated by the people of this age and his name was inscribed on their list of devils and fools. He could not stay here, even if he could manage to contain his disappointment, for these people would surely kill him, eventually.
The group emerged from the 'Hall of Setins,' as they called it, and took him to a small room. He lay down on the bed and pretended to go to sleep. The Chiricke brought him food and drink and then left him alone. He ate the meal and lay down again. When darkness finally came, he roused himself. He knew he could not stay here. Even if these people did not try to kill him, he would be miserable for the rest of his life. He would have to leave this place eventually and now seemed as good a time as any. The window of his room opened on to an ancient drainage canal. He kicked the boards out of the window and climbed down into the ditch.
He had followed the ditch about a kilometer when he came to a crude bridge he remembered crossing that morning. A thought sprang into his mind. If he could reach the time machine, he might be able to use it to escape from this horrible place.
He climbed out of the canal and followed the path that the Indian boy had taken that morning. In the darkness, he felt safer from the strange inhabitants of this land but he nearly missed several landmarks. There had been no other travelers that morning and so he was not surprised that there were none now.
He reached the clearing where the time machine still stood. He had been afraid that the Chiricke might have taken it or simply destroyed it, but there was no indication that anyone had even been here. He looked the machine over very carefully and then sat down in it. The elation of the morning was gone. Roscoe knew there was only a very slim chance that the shipful of Setins that Red Mouse had referred to might ever actually have been successful. If he was ever to meet aliens, he would have to find them on his own.
An inspiration hit him. There was one place where beings very unlike humans were sure to be found. He reached over to the knob that controlled the length of the time jump. He knew that adding resistance into the circuit made the jump longer. He ripped the knob assembly out of the panel, leaving the wires dangling in open air. He had no idea how long the jump might be, but it would certainly be millions of years. That should be long enough for humans to evolve into something entirely different.
He pressed the start button. The brightness blazed forth and the high-pitched whine sounded as before. At last, he would get to meet his aliens.