The Nick of Time
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by George Alec Effinger
Category: Science Fiction
Description: Time travel: been there, done that … or at least Frank Mihalik has. On February 17, 1996, Frank discovers the secret to time-travel, or at least he thought he had. He must embark on a voyage through time and space in order to set things right. He must survive parallel universes in which--Oh my!--Shirley Temple plays the awesome role of Dorothy in "The Wizard of Oz"! Only his love, Cheryl, can save him, but he is almost tricked by a parallel-dimension Cheryl and potentially wrecks his love life. How will Frank survive this wild jerk through these dark counter-universes? And will our universe ever be the same?
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1985
eBookwise Release Date: December 2001
37 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [329 KB]
Reading time: 209-293 min.
Book One The World of Pez Pavilion: Preliminary to the Groundbreaking Ceremony * * * Day One
Just at noon on the seventeenth of February, 1996, Frank Mihalik became the first person to travel backward through time. He looked like an explorer and he spoke like a pioneer. He was tall and broad-shouldered and well-muscled, with a deep chest covered with the right amount of dark hair--virile but not atavistic--with large strong hands but the gentle manner of a man who has made a gracious peace with the powerful body nature had given him. He had short dark hair and bright unyielding eyes. His face was rugged and handsome, but not pretty and definitely not cute. He spoke in a low earnest voice and smiled often. He was intelligent but not tedious, a good friend in times of happiness or sorrow, a joy to his aging mother, a solid citizen, and a good credit risk. He had been chosen to make the first trip into the past because Cheryl, his girlfriend, had roomed at college with a woman who was now a talent coordinator on a popular late-night holovision talk show. Such a woman had a lot of influence in the last years of the twentieth century.
The journey--or, at least, Mihalik's departure--was broadcast live all over the world. People in every nation on Earth saw Mihalik step from the silver van where he'd eaten breakfast and gone through his final briefing. Accompanied by the brooding brilliant director of the project, Dr. Bertram Waters, Cheryl, and Ray, Mihalik's backup man, the volunteer walked the last fifty yards to the embarkation stage. At the foot of the steps leading up to the stage itself, Mihalik shook hands with Dr. Waters and Ray. He hugged Cheryl and kissed her, fondly but not passionately; this was a moment for emotional control and steadiness. Mihalik went up the steps and sat in the folding chair that had been placed at the target point. He waited while the voice of the project's control counted down the seconds. At T minus zero there was a flicker of amber light, a sizzle, a snap, and a moderate clap of thunder. Mihalik was gone. He had plummeted into the past.
He was now sitting in a darkened room. He knew immediately that it was no longer 1996. He wondered where he was--rather, when he was. He would still be in New York City, of course. He stood up, a crooked smile on his handsome face. He ran a hand through his mildly rumpled hair, made sure his fly was zipped, and felt his way across the room toward a door that leaked a thin line of light at the bottom.
Outside it was summer. In 1996 it had been February, cold and bleak; here it was warm and bright, the sky partly cloudy, the temperature in the mid-eighties, the humidity somewhere around 40 percent. There was a large crowd of people outside, and they were wandering from one building to another; it seemed to Mihalik that he was in some kind of exhibition. The people carried maps, and the parents among them struggled to control their small children, all of whom wanted to run off in directions other than straight ahead. Mihalik walked close to a young couple with a baby in a stroller. He looked at the book the man was carrying: Official Guide Book--New York World's Fair 1939, For Peace and Freedom.
The building Mihalik came out of was the Hall of Industry and Metals. He walked along the avenue, marveling at the past and the peace and quiet and brotherhood and Christian fellowship everyone showed toward his or her neighbors. There were no fights on the sidewalk. There were no vagrants, no troublemakers, no drug dealers or prostitutes. There were only happy families and corporate exhibits. This was the golden past, an era of innocent bliss, of concern for the rights of individuals and respect for private property. Mihalik was grateful for the opportunity to escape the mad world of 1996 to spend a little time in this more humane place. He would return to the present refreshed, and he would be able to help his own world identify the essential problems that created jealousy and mistrust among people. Mihalik was not unaware of the weight of responsibility he carried; he had been charged with the duty of returning to 1996 with some token of what society had lost in the intervening sixty years.
Mihalik walked toward a great white needle and a great white globe. He had seen pictures of these structures: the Trylon and Perisphere. They were located at the Fair's Theme Center, and Mihalik had a feeling they represented something important. His first task, as he began to orient himself in the world of 1939, was to find out just what these two imposing symbols meant to the people of his grandparents' generation. He stopped a young woman and spoke to her; she looked at his unusual costume--he was wearing the thin, olive green one-piece garment of 1996--and assumed he was one of the Fair's employees. "What do these marvelous buildings mean to you?" he asked.
"The Trylon?" she said. "The Trylon is a symbol of man's upward yearnings, pointing into the sky where dwell all hope and ambitions."
"That's just what I was thinking," said Mihalik.
"And the Perisphere, well, the Perisphere is the promise of Democracity, you know."
"Democracity?" asked Mihalik.
"You walk into that big bowl and spread out before you is a model of the city of the future. Have you ever seen a city of the future?"
"Yes," said Mihalik, "on numerous occasions."
"Most cities of the future are too conservative, I feel," said the young woman. "We need monorails. We need aerial bridges linking cloud-piercing office buildings and apartment towers. We need parks where slums now blight the boroughs. We need fourteen-lane highways that parallel new sparkling waterways. We need shopping and recreation centers where citizens may spend their newly won leisure and newly earned wealth. We need bright, airy schools where young minds may learn to value the gift of life that has been given them. All this lies within the Perisphere--a dream of times to come, a vision of the New York City that will exist in our children's lifetime in this place. The Perisphere is a ringing challenge, a concretalization of our hope and ambitions as symbolized by the Trylon, drawn down to earth and made manifest for our inspection. It is a kind of miracle."
"I can't wait to see it," said Mihalik.
"Yeah, but there's this huge line all the time," she said. "You got to be ready to wait. I hate lines, don't you? You'd be better off seeing something else."
"What would you suggest?"
The young woman thought for a moment. "Have you seen the Monkey Mountain in Frank Buck's Jungleland?"
"No," said Mihalik, "I just got here."
"I love to watch monkeys," said the woman. "Well, enjoy yourself." She waved goodbye.
"Thank you," he said. He decided to see Democracity another time. He wanted to look at the other buildings, the exhibitions, and the beautiful, quaint Art Deco architecture of this harmless island in the past. The buildings themselves reminded him of something: their graceful curved lines where, in 1996, they would instead have had sharp forbidding edges; their naive pride in proclaiming which company or nation had erected them; their clean accents in glass, brick, and stainless steel. After a moment he knew what they made him think of--it was the colors, the pastel pinks and pale greens. They were the same colors as the little candy hearts he used to see on Valentine's Day, the ones with the clever little slogans. Oh Baby and Kiss Me and You Doll and 2 Much. The candy colors contributed to the feeling of childlike innocence Mihalik felt. It made no difference that the buildings celebrated the very things that turned this wonderful world into the anxiety-ridden bankrupt ruin of 1996.
He walked toward the Lagoon of Nations. It was heartwarming to see families enjoying their outing together. That sort of thing was rare in Mihalik's time. Here in 1939, mothers and fathers still protected their children from the evils of the world, instead of just throwing up their hands in futile despair. Here there were parents who wanted the best for the young ones, who still thought it was valuable to show the children new things, educational things, sights and sounds and experiences that let the boys and girls grow up feeling that they participated in an exciting, vibrant world. Mihalik wished that his parents had been more like that. He wondered, then, where his parents were; in 1939, he realized, his mother had not even been born. His father was a boy of two, running around in a darling little sailor suit somewhere in Elkhart, Indiana. Mihalik was sorry that he had only a few hours to spend in the past; he would have been curious to visit his grandparents. That was only one of the interesting things he could do in 1939.
Adventures in Yesterdayland
Mihalik looked at his watch; it was eleven o'clock. He sat on a bench along Constitution Mall, under the cold stone eyes of the giant statue of George Washington. There was a newspaper on the bench. Mihalik paged through the paper happily, laughing aloud at the simple views people had of the world in this day. He expected to be astounded by the prices in the advertisements, and he was: linen suits went for $8.25 or two for $16, a beef roast was $0.17 a pound. They didn't have linen suits or beef roasts in 1996. But Mihalik had been prepared for this. He had been briefed, he had been carefully indoctrinated by technicians and specialists so that whatever era he ended up in, he wouldn't be stunned into inactivity by such things as the price of a beef roast. So Mihalik was not paralyzed by temporal shock. He found that he could still turn the pages of the newspaper. On the sports page he read that both the Dodgers and the Giants had lost, but that the Yankees had crushed the Browns 14-1 on Bill Dickey's three home runs. He didn't have any idea what any of that meant.
"Hello," said a man in a tan suit. He looked like he never got any sun; Mihalik thought the man's face was the unhealthy color of white chocolate Easter bunnies. The man took a seat on the bench.
"Hello," said Mihalik.
"I'm from out of town. I'm from South Bend, Indiana." Mihalik recalled that Indiana had been one of the fifty-two "states" that had once composed the United States. "You're probably wondering why I'm not over at the Court of Sport," said the resident of 1939.
"Yes," said Mihalik, "that's just what I was thinking."
"Because they're raising the blue and gold standard of the University of Notre Dame over there, right this minute. But I said to myself, 'Roman,' I said, 'why travel all this way by train and come to this wonderful Fair, just to see them raise a flag and give some speeches?'"
"I know exactly what you mean. I came a long way, too, and I'm trying to decide what to see first."
"I'm looking forward to seeing the girls in the Aquacade."
Mihalik looked at his watch. He didn't know how long he would have in the past, and he thought he could spend the time more profitably examining all the fascinating little things that contributed to the peace and plenty and harmony he saw all about him. "Someone recommended the monkeys in Frank Buck's Jungleland," he said.
The man from Indiana seemed angry. "I didn't come all this way to see monkeys," he said. He stood up and walked away.
"No," thought Mihalik, "you came all this way to see shameless women." He glanced through the newspaper a little further. In the comics, Dixie Dugan was wondering about a handsome stranger who was coming into the Wishing Well Tea Shoppe every day. An article informed him that in Berlin the Germans were having practice air raid drills because, as a German spokesman said, the fact is that air attack in modern times is not beyond the range of possibility. Mihalik recalled that the Second World War was due to start any time now, so the Germans were laughing up their sleeves at the rest of the world. And the United States had revoked its trade agreement with Japan because of Japan's conduct in China, and in a few months there would be an embargo on raw materials.
Yet all around him, Mihalik saw happy people enjoying the summer morning, crushing the carnations along Constitution Mall, dropping paper cups on the sidewalk, littering George Washington's feet with mustard-covered paper napkins. Could they not see how international events were building toward the great cataclysm that would lead inexorably to the terrifying world of 1996? Would he have to grab them all, one by one, and scream into their faces, "Behold, how the world rushes headlong to its doom!" Would they listen? No, admitted Mihalik, not with the Yankees so comfortably in first place. To these people, everything was right with the world. Everything seemed normal. They had no idea that they were the architects of the future, each of them individually, and that their attendance here at the World's Fair was part of the reason their descendants fifty-seven years hence were suffering. "Enjoy it while you can," murmured Mihalik bitterly.
Further up Constitution Mall were four statues, four white figures in the overstated, heroic manner that Mihalik always associated with totalitarian governments. "I must be wrong," he thought. "These statues were put here to celebrate the best aspects of the American Way, as it was understood decades before my birth, during one of the great ages of the ascendancy of the United States." The statues represented the Four Freedoms. There was a half-naked woman looking up, depicting Freedom of Religion. There was a half-naked woman gesturing vaguely, illustrating Freedom of Assembly. A third half-naked woman with a pencil and notepad took care of Freedom of the Press. And a partially draped man with his hand upraised somehow conveyed the notion of Freedom of Speech. The statues were white; everything along Constitution Mall was white: the Trylon and Perisphere, the flowers, the statues, all the way to the Lagoon of Nations. Things in other areas were color-coded: each building in a particular section of the Fair was the same color, but the farther away from the Theme Center it was, the deeper the shade, It was not long before Mihalik learned to find his way around the complex of streets and walkways.
About noon he realized that he was very hungry. "They ought to have sent some provisions with me," he thought. For the first time, he felt that the scientists who planned his journey into the past had overlooked some important details. They had failed to foresee all the difficulties he might encounter. For instance, he had no money. There were hamburgers and popcorn and cotton candy and Cokes all around him, but Mihalik was helpless to get anything to eat. He watched sadly as little children dropped large globs of ice cream on the sidewalk. "What a waste," he said to himself. "That could feed a family of six Dutch refugees in 1996." It also could have fed him. He sat on another bench and tried to devise a way of getting something to eat. He didn't know if he would have to spend an hour in the past or a day or a week. He had had a good breakfast in the silver van, but now it was lunchtime.
"Tired?" said a man who sat next to him on the bench. Mihalik made a mental note to report on the friendliness of the people of the past. They all seemed eager to share his views and listen to his opinions. That was very rare in 1996.
"Yes," said Mihalik. "I've been walking all morning, and I've just discovered that I have no money."
"You've been robbed? A pickpocket?" The man seemed outraged.
"I guess so," said Mihalik.
The man looked at Mihalik's green jumpsuit. "Where did you keep your wallet?" he asked.
"You don't have any pockets."
"Well," said Mihalik lamely, "I carried my money in my hand."
"Uh huh," said the man dubiously. "Do you still have the stub from your ticket?"
"Yeah," said Mihalik, "it's right here. Oh, my God! The thief must have stolen that, too!"
"Sure, pal. I'm a detective, and I think I ought to take you--"
Mihalik got up and ran. He didn't look back; he was big and strong and fast, and he knew that he could outdistance the detective. Mihalik ran to the right, into the Heinz Dome. He looked around briefly, but what interested him the most were the samples of all the Heinz products they were giving away free. He went back to each again and again until the employees of the Dome began whispering among themselves. Mihalik took that as a cue to leave, and he walked out of the building. Several spoonfuls of relish and catsup had done little for his hunger, but he did have a nice plastic souvenir, a pin in the shape of a pickle. On the top of the Dome was a statue of the Goddess of Perfection. Mihalik was not aware that there was a goddess of perfection, in anyone's pantheon; it was just something else that had been forgotten on the way to the end of the century.
He checked his watch again, and he found that it had stopped at 1:07. The sky was becoming darker; the newspaper had mentioned a great drought the city had suffered for more than a month. It looked like this afternoon there would be some relief. "Just my kind of luck," he thought. But there would be plenty of interesting things he could see while he waited for the rain to pass.
The first heavy drops fell just as he left the Washington State Exhibit. The rain fell with flat spatting sounds on the concrete paths. Mihalik looked around quickly, then ducked into the Belgian Pavilion. He saw more films and exhibits of things that would soon become extinct. He wondered how horrified these people would be if they knew how tenuous their existence was, how little time was left for their world, for the things they so took for granted. A Belgian girl was working away in poor light, making lace. What place was there in 1996 for lace, or for Belgian girls either, for that matter? Both had virtually ceased to exist. Yet Mihalik dared not pass that information on to these people: they very definitely were not world leaders, not even stars of stage and screen who would have some influence over world opinion.
In one part of the Belgian Pavilion there were diamonds from the Congo, which at this time was still a Belgian colony. There was a copy of a statue of King Albert made of diamonds. It looked foolish to Mihalik, but the diamonds made him think of rock candy, the kind he used to eat when he was young, with the little piece of string inside that always stuck between his teeth. There were many diamonds and other precious gems; Mihalik wished that he had just one to buy a hot dog with.
The day passed quickly. Mihalik wondered what he ought to do. He knew that it was very expensive to keep him in the past; he was surprised that he hadn't been brought back already. He didn't think he could learn much more at the Fair: the really interesting exhibits charged admission, and he didn't have a single penny. And he might as well not even bother going over to the amusement section. It didn't make any difference where he was when the technicians recalled him; he didn't have to be in the same place he started from. But he hadn't completely answered the questions the great thinkers of the future wanted solved. "I've been here since about ten o'clock this morning," he thought. "It's now after nine o'clock. Maybe they're going to go for a full twelve hours." Mihalik shrugged; in that case, the best thing to do was stay at the Fair. At ten o'clock there was going to be an invasion from Mars, and he kind of wanted to see it.
At quarter of ten he started walking toward Fountain Lake, where the 212th Coast Artillery had set up. Mars was as close to Earth as it had been in fifteen years, closer than it would be for another seventeen. The management of the Fair had taken the opportunity to show what would happen if Martians took it into their pointy little green heads to attack the 1939 New York World's Fair. Airplanes flew by overhead. There was a complete blackout around Fountain Lake, and instead of the usual nightly spectacular, there were flares and fireworks and anti-aircraft bursts and machine-gun fire, all for Peace and Freedom, and then the fountains themselves began dancing and throwing their red, green, blue, and yellow streams at the invisible, cowardly invaders. In a few minutes it was all over, and the public began walking slowly toward the Fair's exits. It was time to go home, time to digest the marvelous holiday, time to tuck in Junior and Sis and thank God and Mayor LaGuardia for the swell day at the Fair and the victory over the Martians. It was time for Mom and Dad to count their blessings and hug each other and realize just how lucky they were to be living in the World of Tomorrow. It was time for Frank Mihalik to figure out what he was going to do next. He obviously wasn't flashing back yet to 1996, and he wasn't welcome any longer on the Fairgrounds, not until nine o'clock the next morning. This was something he hadn't considered: he had no money and nowhere to go.
He walked with the crowd through the exit and into the subway. Even though he didn't have the fare, he was able to slip on a train in the middle of the throng. He stood in the crowded subway car, trying to keep his balance and at the same time avoiding shameless body contact. He wondered if there could be any rides in the amusement section of the Fair that were as frightening and revolting as the subway; he doubted it because anything so terrible would have made its mark on civilization, and would have been known to the historians of 1996. "We're jammed in here like a boxful of Milk Duds all crushed together," he thought. He rode for a long time, through the borough of Queens and into Manhattan. He was tempted to get off and walk around the famous places that had once existed in New York: Broadway, Times Square, Fifth Avenue. But he didn't think he would be so lucky later, trying to get back on the subway without money. He decided to spend the whole night on the train.
There were fewer and fewer people on the train as time passed. He looked at his watch: it was almost midnight. The train was pulling into a large, noisy underground station. He waited for the doors to open. There was a flicker of amber light, a sizzle, a snap, and a moderate clap of thunder. Then everything went dark. "Thank God!" said Mihalik aloud. He knew he was back home. Very soon he would see Cheryl, his girlfriend, and Ray, his backup. Ray would be sorry he missed the Fair. At least Mihalik had brought back a pickle pin for Cheryl. He got up and tried to feel his way in the dark. He wondered where he had materialized. He found a door after a few moments and walked through.
A Necessary and Fundamental Change in GamePlan
Outside it was bright daylight. "That isn't right," thought Mihalik. The time in 1996 was two hours ahead of 1939; he had left at noon and arrived at ten in the morning. He had last looked at his wristwatch just before midnight; it ought to be 2 a.m. "I'll bet I know what it is," thought Mihalik, a wide smile appearing on his face, "I'll bet there's this time-dilation principle. Maybe twelve hours in 1996 translate to more or less than that in 1939. So I really wasn't kept in the past as long as I thought. I just got the benefit of the Mihalik Effect." He liked the sound of that a lot.
He was less happy when he left the building. It turned out to be the Hall of Industry and Metals. "My God," he thought, "they brought the whole building back with me." All around him he saw laughing, happy people enjoying what was clearly the 1939 New York World's Fair. Mihalik was sturdy and he was almost fearless, but he had a tough time handling disappointment. Sometimes he chose the most incredible theories rather than face up to the truth. "They brought the whole damn Fair back!" he cried. "Well, at least they'll be able to study this period at their leisure." Privately Mihalik thought it was an extravagant waste of time, energy, and research bucks.
In lighthearted moments, Mihalik had tried to imagine his welcome back in the gritty, weary world of 1996. He had pictured plenty of blue and yellow bunting hanging from buildings, political figures on hand to share his glory, beautiful San Diego screen stars with orphans for him to kiss, bands, cheering, free beer. He saw none of that. It was all very disillusioning to him. There was a band, he had to admit that, but it was the Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Girls' Pipe Band, and they had played at the Fair yesterday and had somehow been snatched into the future along with the rest of the World of Tomorrow.
He saw a young couple wheeling a stroller. They looked familiar; it took a moment, but Mihalik recalled them. They had been the couple whose copy of the guideBook yesterday let him know where he had arrived. And evidently, they had returned to the Fair for a second day, only to be whisked through time along with the Saskatoon Girls' Pipe Band. He felt he owed them some sort of apology.
He found a bench and sat down to wait. Someone would come to get him soon, he knew. He needed to be debriefed. He needed to be debriefed and fed. He hoped the scientists and technicians had a hearty meal waiting for him, and a warm bath, and a nice bed, because he didn't feel that he could face world leaders and San Diego screen stars in his present condition. He would be ashamed to spend another hour in the same green Jumpsuit.
There was a newspaper on the bench. Mihalik picked it up and read it for a moment before he realized that it was from the day before. That made him wrinkle his brow; he was sure, from all that he had seen, that the Fair's sanitation employees wouldn't have left the newspaper on the bench all day and all night. But there were the same stories: the air raid drills in Berlin, the revocation of the Japanese trade pact, Dixie Dugan and her handsome stranger, Bill Dickey and his three home runs. He took the paper with him, intending to throw it in a trash container. He had always been civic-minded.
"Hello," said a man.
"Hello," said Mihalik.
"I'm from out of town. I'm from South Bend, Indiana. You're probably wondering why I'm not over in the Court of Sport."
Mihalik studied this joker. He was wearing a suit the color of Bit-O-Honey. Why had all these people come back for another day, and why were they all wasting their time going back to the same places he had seen them at yesterday? Didn't they realize it was 1996 beyond the Fair's gates now, no longer their comfortable, secure 1939? Well, he didn't want to be the one to tell them. Let them find out on their own. There was no real way to prepare them for it, anyway. "I'll bet I know," said Mihalik. "I'll bet you said to yourself, 'Roman, why travel all this way by train and come to this wonderful Fair, just to see them raise a flag and give some speeches?'"
The man stared at Mihalik. "How did you know I was going to say that? How did you know my name was Roman?"
"Did I guess right?" asked Mihalik.
"Right as rain. Both times."
"I'm an amusement attraction. You owe me twenty-five cents."
"Gee," said Roman, still astonished, digging out a quarter from a little change purse, "they don't have anybody like you in South Bend."
Mihalik nodded wisely. "You got to come to New York for that," he said. "This is the big city. You be careful now, you hear?"
"Gee," said the man again. He walked away, shaking his head.
"You came to see the girls in the Aquacade, right?" Mihalik called after him. The man's mouth dropped open. "Don't worry, that one's on the house. Have a good time!" Mihalik wished that the designer of the official time-travel project's suit had foreseen a need for pockets. It meant that he had to carry the quarter in his hand until he decided how to spend it. He walked around the Fair, noticing many other people he had seen the day before. He found that increasingly odd.
As he was sitting on another bench, a man came up to him. "Tired?" the man asked.
"Yes," said Mihalik. "It's tough, guessing people's occupations, you know. I bet I can guess yours, easy. For a dollar."
"Concessions like that are all over in Carnivaland," said the man. "And don't none of them cost a dollar."
"You're scared to try," said Mihalik.
"You're a liar," said the man. "All right, go ahead. What am I?"
"You're a detective."
"Yeah, you're a detective. You've got a badge in a black wallet in the inside pocket of your jacket."
"Do I look like a detective to you?" said the man grimly.
"You want me to fish the goddamn badge out for you?" asked Mihalik.
"Sure, pal, you just try. Say, I ought to--"
"Never mind, keep your dollar. I must have been out of my mind."
The man studied Mihalik closely. "How'd you know I was a dick?"
"Your intelligent face," said Mihalik.
"Look, pal, I think I'm going to take you--"
Mihalik got up and ran. He thought while he ran, something he had learned to do while still in his teens. He realized that he was faced with two mutually exclusive explanations for the day's events. The first was that the whole Fair had been picked up bodily from Flushing Meadows in 1939 and transported to 1996, and the people who had done the moving were taking their time about announcing themselves. The second was that, in some weird and super-science way, he was living Thursday, July 27, 1939, all over again. He had reached no conclusions when he came to the Heinz Dome; neither of the choices were particularly attractive.
The matter was decided not long after. While he wandered into a part of the Fair he had not seen the day before, he casually looked at his watch. It had stopped at 1:07, the same time it had before. "Hmm," said Mihalik. He knew significance when he encountered it. Evidence was piling up in favor of the second explanation.
He passed by some more things he either had already seen or wasn't interested in. It seemed that he might be forced to spend longer in 1939 than anyone had anticipated. "Maybe this is all a dream," he told himself. "Maybe yesterday was all a dream, and this is it coming true. Maybe yesterday was real and I'm dreaming about it now." For a few minutes those thoughts were more entertaining than the film he was watching in the Science and Education Building. It was called Trees and Men. He was sitting through it because he wanted to see the one that came after, Dawn of Iran. He was curious to find out what an "iran" was.
He saw more people he recognized, and turned his early twenty-five-cent victory into a tidy four and a half dollars, which he spent on a Maryland soft-shell crab at one place and some strawberries in Moselle wine at the Luxembourg Exhibit in the Hall of Nations. Individually the items were spectacular. Together they were lousy; but Mihalik had little experience in dining so extravagantly. Real strawberries surprised him. They tasted nothing like the Lifesavers and Turkish Taffy that presented themselves as strawberry-flavored.
The rain started right on time. Mihalik smiled and went into the Petroleum Industries Building and watched another terrible film, Pete Roleum and His Cousins, a puppet animation. In 1996 there was a worldwide ban that prohibited puppet animations; now Mihalik understood why.
It rained on the twilight concert of the Manhattan Music School Chorus and on the Reverend Carleton F. Hubbard of the Ocean Parkway Methodist Church, who gave an address few people listened to. Mihalik was getting very tired. He had been robbed of his entire night and had not slept now in--how long? He'd lost track. He wondered where he could go to spend his second night in the romantic past. He looked around the Fair, at the people who were still having a terrific time. "Personally," he thought, "I've had just about enough." Finally he decided to do just what he had done the night before. He watched the obsolete airplanes fly to victory over the no-show Martians--interplanetary combat decided by default. Mihalik shook his head ruefully--if only the real thing had been so easy in 1992.
He got on the subway and was again disgusted by the crowded conditions. It was only natural that he'd feel the same; these were the same people. He was getting weary of the beauties and quaintness of this bygone age. He was sick to death of Thursday, July 27.
Just at midnight there was a flicker of amber light, a sizzle, a snap, and a moderate clap of thunder. Then everything went dark.
A Sign from the Future or God or Something
Mihalik sat on the chair in the lightless room. "I've been here before," he thought. He was exhausted, hungry, and thirsty, yet his curiosity urged him to ignore all that and run to the door. There were two possibilities: either he had returned to the future, to his home in 1996; or he had cycled around once again, locked into Thursday as if on an endless tape loop of the hours between 10 a.m. and midnight. Neither logic nor the way these things work out in stories permitted anything else. Suddenly despairing, Mihalik was in no hurry to learn the truth. He stretched himself out on the floor and slept until his spent energies had restored themselves. Only then did he rise and feel his way to the exit. He grasped the doorknob, took a deep breath, and went through.
He was still at the Fair. Mihalik accepted his fate quietly: he was stranded in the past, marooned upon the reefs of time, lost possibly forever on this same long-dead day. He maintained some hope because he had faith in the science of tomorrow and the dedication of everyone involved in the time-travel project. He realized that his fate included an unusual inconvenience: he would have to adjust to a fourteen-hour day.
He made the unused room in the Hall of Industries and Metals his home, his fortress. "I must begin to provide for myself," he thought. It was seven o'clock in the evening. He wandered through the Fair in the slackening rain, and he saw that fortunately everything he required for a good life was available here. There were food and shelter, clothing and companionship, candy and balloons. He looked at his watch, which had again stopped at 1:07 during his nap. It was a symbol to him of his isolation. It also suggested that if he relied on his intelligence and wits, he would suffer little in a material way. He could do nothing, however, about the essential loneliness of the shipwrecked traveler. The world he came from could not be reached on a handmade raft of logs.
The days passed, all of them basically identical. Mihalik amused himself by learning the movements of the people and things he saw during the day. After a while he began to win money by betting with visitors. "See that woman in the white hat?" he would ask. He pointed to a woman with a hat decorated with many white balls, like a chocolate nonpareil covered with round white sprinkles.
"What of it?"
"I'll bet you a buck that she stops by that bench, bends down, and takes off her shoe."
And soon Mihalik had the price of a dinner of hot dogs and a soft drink. It didn't take long before he knew who would accept a bet and how much he could raise the stake. He even began calling the people by their names, like old friends, startling them or fooling them into believing he had strange mental powers. It made no difference: after midnight, when it all began again, they always forgot what happened on the previous version of the day.
But in a similar and more ominous fashion, Mihalik lost everything he gained during the day. He tried to build up a supply of food, but it disappeared at midnight. A pillow and a blanket that he moved into his secret home vanished during the night as well. Every mark he made upon this world of the past evaporated with the rising of the sun at 10 a.m. Mihalik was forced to go out each day and begin all over again. He could not save against hard times. He could not afford to be sick or to take a holiday. His life became a daily struggle to hunt for or gather food.
The man from 1996 avoided thinking about the ramifications of that fact. He had been given, in effect, a license to perform the most hideous crimes--whatever catastrophes and personal tragedies he created would all be made better at midnight. Whatever the police did to him, wherever they took him, at midnight he would be back in the dark room in the Hall of Industries and Metals. On a few occasions, in unsettled moments, he allowed himself to behave without conscience, knowing that no genuine damage could be done. He robbed, he assaulted, and once he beat a man severely beneath the granite gaze of Freedom of Assembly. He was frightened by the fear and frustration that were unleashed; he didn't know such horrible things were pent up inside him, and he vowed to stand guard against being taken over by them.
"A man in my situation will descend into madness," he thought. "It is the natural and expected course to follow." Mihalik decided to forego the years of slow deterioration and fall apart in one quick plunge. That was the way things were done where he came from.
Although he knew it was a pointless thing to do, he began a journal. "This Fair has become a Carnival of Despair," he wrote. He rather liked that line; he thought it showed a certain style. "I am alone here, among a crowd of 101,220 (71,491 paid; Fair Total to Date: 15,562,809). Everyone I knew is dead to me, or might as well be--Cheryl, my beloved; Ray, the greatest old backup a man could want; all the guys in the long white lab coats; every friend and relative and enemy and total stranger I ever saw. In these last few days I have railed against the fate that brought me here. That was a fruitless exercise. I have cursed the gods for singling me out for this punishment. That, too, brought me no nearer a solution. I perceived at first that I had no chance of relief: I had neither food, house, clothes, nor weapon on which to rely. There was nothing but death before me. Is this the way it would end for Frank Mihalik, Chronologic Trailblazer? Devoured in the past? Murdered by savages in a savage time, starved to death in the midst of plenty? As night approached I again fought off these phantoms and determined to sleep soundly, and to take appropriate measures in the morning.
"This I attempted to do. In the light of the new day I saw, to my great surprise, that upon the shores of time's great ocean, upon which I had been cast up by the inscrutable Governor of the universe, there were also such things as I needed for my livelihood, if not my complete happiness. I tried to build a little store of things, a gathering of provisions won by cleverness, stealth, and yes, occasional violence. But these provisions disappeared at midnight, like the magical accoutrements of Cinderella, and I was left each morning with only those things I had brought with me through the corridors of time--myself, my clothing, and my wristwatch." Mihalik abandoned his attempt to record his trials when he realized that the journal, as well, would disappear at midnight, and that he could never keep track of anything from one day to the next. A calendar was impossible; even scratches made on the wall or slashes carved into a wooden pole would vanish with the day. It was just as well, he told himself; the journal had started to go off the deep end before it was a page old.
Mihalik was troubled by the notion that his imprisonment was, in fact, a form of punishment, something that had been planned and implemented by unknown forces in his own time, something kept secret from him but set up specifically to torment Frank Mihalik. He didn't understand why; he had always been a model citizen. His only flaw, or, at least, all that he could recall anyway, was that he coveted his neighbor's ass. But there was a lot of that in 1996; he thought it was unfair that he had been singled out for such monstrous treatment. He wanted everyone to know he was heartily sorry. But that didn't seem to be enough.
One day Mihalik rose from his sleep sometime after noon--his watch had stopped as it did every day, at 1:07--and went forth to have fun and find entertainment among the people. The newspaper was where it always was, on the bench. Mihalik read it once again, paying attention this time to articles he had only glanced at before. He thought he might go into Manhattan one evening to see a movie; the scientists in 1996 would want to know about popular entertainments. He considered seeing Naughty But Nice, with Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl. There was a serious lack of "Oomph" in Mihalik's world of the future. He would be doing everyone a great service by returning with his impressions of the real thing.
But there were a lot of exciting shows to choose from. There were funny little items in the news, too, and he wished that he could talk about them with Cheryl, his girlfriend. He missed her and her simple, guileless approach to life.
One article caught Mihalik's eye. He had read it before, but had paid little attention to it--it had been just an amusing example of how foolish these people could be when they took themselves too seriously. The story described how some scientists at a major university had unlocked the secret of atomic structure. "Within the heart of the atom," claimed Dr. Z. Marquand, "is a solid little nucleus, shaped like a football. Tiny things called electrons whip around the nucleus, and that's about all there is to it."
"This will make an entertaining diversion," thought Mihalik. He went to a public telephone, dropped in a nickel, and had the operator connect him with Dr. Marquand's office at the university.
"Hello," said a gruff no-nonsense voice at the other end, "this is Zach Marquand."
"Hello, sir. My name is unimportant. I am calling in reference to your announcement concerning the nature of the atom."
"Yes, indeed. A major leap forward in our understanding of the world around us, if I do say so myself."
Mihalik withheld his laughter. "Tell me, Dr. Marquand," he said, "what is the little football nucleus made of?"
There was a long silence on the line. Finally Marquand spoke up. "I was afraid someone would ask me that. Who is this? Is this Niels Bohr? Is that you, Niels?"
"Dr. Marquand, I am a traveler from the future. I come from the year 1996. In my time we know quite a bit more about the mysteries of the universe, and I can tell you candidly that the nucleus is not football-shaped. It looks like a little root beer barrel. And it's made up of protons and neutrons, which are in turn made up of smaller things, which in turn are made up of even tinier things. There doesn't seem to be an end to it."
"I knew that already," said Marquand. "We just made that announcement to throw the Germans off the track. Say, are you really from the future?"
"Sure," said Mihalik, "why would I lie?"
"Then you could tell me marvelous things. Would you answer one question for me? It would mean a great deal."
Mihalik hesitated, but then he recalled that this conversation was not really taking place, that at midnight Dr. Marquand would forget all about it. "Ask anything you like," he said.
"Will skirts ever get any shorter?" asked the scientist.
Marquand hung up the telephone; so much for the day's fun. Now it was time to find lunch. He looked around the Fair. A seagull flew by overhead, the same seagull that flew by every day at precisely 4:25:18. That meant that he could meet a man named Eddie Rosen from Paramus, New Jersey and win a dollar from him. That would buy a pleasant meal and leave him enough change to go into the General Motors Futurama, which was his favorite exhibit.
The afternoon rain fell, but Mihalik ignored it. He saw Eddie Rosen walking toward him, just as he did every afternoon, but something new had been added: with a shock, the time traveler saw five children holding the strings of helium-filled balloons. He had never seen the children before. "How can that be?" he thought. He felt a chill of apprehension. He had adjusted marvelously to being marooned; but if now the universe had decided to play impish tricks on him by changing the natural way of things, Mihalik realized he was in serious danger. There was something about the balloons the children carried, something tantalizingly familiar....
Red, yellow, black, orange, green.
He knew that sequence. It represented something to him.
Red, yellow, black--a black balloon? Mihalik had never seen a child with a black balloon before. Now he was sure it was some sort of signal. But from whom? And what did it mean?
Friday, at Last
At 10:15, the forces of Earth began their defense of the home world once again. Mihalik watched it all wearily. He had twenty-two dollars in his pocket, and in one hour and forty-five minutes it would all melt away. He considered taking a taxi into Manhattan and getting blitzed in some dismal nightclub; he wouldn't need to worry about getting home, of course. That was a function of the universe. All around him anti-aircraft guns blasted, flames danced, fountains sprayed, and colored lights flashed. But somehow it was different. Mihalik came quickly to attention: somehow it was different. There was a rhythm and a pattern to the colored lights as they played upon the fountains. Blink, blink, blink, blink, blink. Instead of smoothly shifting melodies of color, the lights changed in regular, staccato order. Two colors, then a beat of darkness, then two more colors; the sequence repeated itself exactly, over and over. It had never done that on any of the previous Thursday evenings.
Red, yellow, darkness, orange, green.
It was the same sequence as the colors of the children's balloons.
Mihalik was a good man, a kind man, who would someday make a wonderful husband and father. Everyone liked him in 1996, and he felt certain that some of the folks in 1939 enjoyed talking with him, too; they might have become friends, if they didn't forget all about him each night at twelve o'clock. It caused the young man a great deal of mental anguish that some great cosmic force was toying with him, teasing him and torturing him, for unknown reasons. How could he hope to fight the power of natural law? It was a hopeless struggle; Mihalik had always avoided hopeless struggles before because they looked bad on his résumé, but there seemed to be no escape from this one. He left the Martian invasion and went into the amusement area, Carnivaland. He thought the pure lunacy of the rides might distract his mind.
He rode the Dodg'em for fifteen cents and smashed into a car driven by a little old lady with blue hair; it didn't make him feel any better. He shattered china dishes with wooden balls. He rode through the Laff in the Dark and didn't laff. He dropped two hundred fifty feet on the Parachute Jump, yet the mystery still waited for him on the ground. He watched motorcycle riders challenge the Wall of Death but nobody crashed and it was almost midnight.
Then, like a wallop from Elektro, the Motor-Man, the significance of the balloons and lights hit him. Red, yellow, black, orange, green: that was the color sequence in a package of Chuckles. Mihalik was overcome with elation. It couldn't be coincidence; taking ten possible color choices, the number of permutations taken five at a time is given by the formula M = n (n--1) (n--2).... (n--p + 1). Mihalik substituted 10 for n and 5 for p, multiplied it out, and arrived at the conclusion that the odds of the balloons appearing in just that sequence were 1 in 30,240; the odds of both the balloons and the colored lights repeating the sequence were therefore 1 in (30,240)2O. Did they have Chuckles in this primitive time? It made no difference--it could mean but one thing: the scientists of 1996 had not abandoned him. They were even now working feverishly to spring him from the temporal slammer. He hurried to gobble down the rest of a hamburger; it would vanish in less than fifteen seconds. As the second hand of his watch approached twelve, a voice called to him over the loudspeakers: "Mr. Frank Mihalik, please report--"
There was a flicker of amber light and all the rest of it.
"Ouch! Damn it!" said someone in the dark.
It hadn't been Mihalik's voice. "Who is it?" he asked.
"I can't see a damn thing," said the voice.
"Wait a minute, I know where the door is." Mihalik walked quickly to the exit and opened it; light flooded into the room.
There was another chair near his own. His girlfriend, Cheryl, was sitting in it.
"Cheryl!" he cried. "What are you doing here?"
"They sent me back, Frank, to let you know they're having a little trouble." She joined him by the door. He touched her long auburn hair and thrilled again to the vivacity in her green eyes. Her luscious gams were hidden by her green jumpsuit, but his memory of them was impeccable. She was some dish. He put his arms around her and held her for a moment. Then he gazed deeply into her eyes and kissed her. It was an emotional moment.
"Oh, Cheryl," he said, "I've missed you so."
"I've missed you, Frank."
"Ray's fine, he sends his regards."
Sadness filled Mihalik as he realized how Cheryl had sacrificed herself to bring a message that was rather self-evident. "We may never go home," he said. "You may be trapped here with me forever."
"It makes no difference to me where we are, Frank, so long as I'm with you. What is this place?"
Mihalik led her out into the morning sunshine. He put his arm around her shoulders and let her drink in the spectacle. "This," he announced grandly, "is the New York World's Fair of 1939!"
"Oh," she said, sighing.
"You sound disappointed."
She shrugged and smiled. "It's nothing," said Cheryl. "I was just hoping for something really exciting, like the Italian Renaissance."
"But this is really exciting! I have so much to show you. Wait until you see the thrills and wonders they've collected here."
They walked along Constitution Mall. Cheryl exclaimed over such things as the quaint clothing and odd architecture. "The buildings are so strange," she said. "They're built in laminated layers, like licorice of all sorts. They pile horizontal planes or stick them on end beside one another, and then round off all the edges."
"Yes," said Mihalik, "this is a safety-conscious age. These people are the sowers of the seeds of our world. These are our ancestors, Cheryl. Everything we are, we owe to them. Think of it: the Mediterranean still exists in this time. The Antarctic Inflow hasn't been discovered yet. There is no space travel, and people still haven't learned the terrible truth about vitamins."
"What a brave old world it is," said Cheryl. "I'm hungry."
Mihalik led her to the bench near the Washington statue, the one with the newspaper. They sat down; he held her hands in his strong grasp. "Cheryl," he said, "let me tell you of the nature of our imprisonment." And he sketched for her the immutable laws under which they had to live.
"Why, that's not so awful," she cried. "We can make a wonderful life together. We can overcome anything, so long as we have each other."
"But we can't build anything. At midnight, everything we've accomplished is destroyed, leaving us with nothing. We return to the same point in time and space, and have to begin again."
Cheryl was not distressed. "I have confidence in you, Frank," she said. "Your mother told me what a clever little boy you were. She told me all about the summer you were a camp counselor and the time you found that lost little kid in the woods. I'll put my well-being in your hands and trust to providence that we'll be happy and healthy and everything. We'll earn money during the morning and spend it at night. Then we'll get plenty of rest, maintain a regimen of good grooming habits, and get married somehow. It will be swell, Frank, don't you see? How many people get the opportunity to honeymoon in the past?"
Mihalik said nothing for a few seconds. "We don't have any identification, Cheryl," he said. "We don't have our birth certificates or our nucleotide registers."
"What does that matter? We're young and we're in love, and this is the romantic past. These people of 1939 will move mountains to see that we're happy, just like in all those musical comedies."
"We'll see." Actually, Mihalik was touched by her faith. He didn't explain to her his theory that they had been trapped as a punishment for tampering with the mechanisms of time. He had come to believe that there were certain things that should not be messed with by the hands of men. He was sure that he was being punished, but he didn't know by whom--people of the far future? Nature? God? The Hershey Chocolate Company?
Cheryl was enthralled by the possibilities. "We have the chance to influence our own world, Frank," she said, indicating that she hadn't been paying close attention. "We can create an atmosphere of harmony and understanding, and steer the world away from the terrible course it will take without our guidance. We can start right here, right in this Fair. We can give them a new path to follow that will alter the future. Can't you see it, Frank? Right over there, among those statues, there will rise a tall, sharp, clean building that will teach these primitives what they must learn if they are to avoid their fatal errors. I can see it as plain as day: a spacious central court decorated with cement swans, artistic but disciplined exhibition areas on both sides, every surface a different material, everything in cool pastel colors, a tribute to the after-dinner mint and Necco Wafers and--"
Mihalik slapped her face, hard; she stopped rambling. "I'm sorry," he said. "But if we're going to live in this place, we have to keep a deadly realistic outlook."
"Yes, dear, I understand," she said. "Maybe we should just forget about the Necco Wafers."
"I have been thinking about leaving notes for people in the future to discover. They buried a time capsule in the Westinghouse Building. It will be opened in the year 6939."
Cheryl felt her jaw; nothing seemed broken. "6939? But we'll be dead by then, Frank," she said.
Mihalik nodded grimly. "I know that. But no doubt they will have perfected time travel, and they will be able to zip back here and rescue us, then drop us off in 1996 on the way back to their own era."
"If that were true, they would have done it already. The fact that they haven't rescued us means that they won't rescue us."
Mihalik considered her objection. "But we haven't left the note yet," he said.
Cheryl explained it to him slowly, as if he were just another dim bulb from the past. "It's all the same whether we leave the note today or tomorrow or ten years from now. The note will get to 6939 at the same time, whenever we put it into the capsule, see?"
Mihalik squinted his eyes and tried to focus on her meaning. "Let's suppose I plan to put the note there this afternoon."
"At the moment I'm walking toward the time capsule, up there in the future it's already 6939."
"And the note is already there."
"Then why do I have to bother putting the note in the capsule?"
Cheryl chewed her lip thoughtfully. She had been an adhesives major in college and it hadn't prepared her for this sort of reasoning. "Because," she said, "if you look at it that way, the note was in 6939 even before you came back here. The note has always been in 6939, but it hasn't always been here. So you have to put the note in the capsule here before they can come get us."
Mihalik pretended that her explanation made sense. "But at midnight everything we do disappears. The note would disappear, too."
"Maybe it wouldn't," said Cheryl. "Maybe it would be safe in the time capsule."
"How are we going to get it into the time capsule?" asked Mihalik.
She looked exasperated. "I don't know," she snapped. "Why do I have to think of everything? You're the big hotshot explorer. You think of something for a change."
"Here comes Roman," he said. "I'll get us money for lunch."
The World of Tomorrow Delivers the Goods
There was no way for Mihalik to know how long he had been trapped in Thursday, July 27, 1939. It had been many months, but whether they totaled a year he did not know. Cheryl had been with him for at least six weeks, and she had adjusted to the routine of life. Indeed, she seemed to have a quicker grasp of the possibilities than he did. It was her suggestion that prompted him to give Dr. Zach Marquand another call.
And so, at quarter past twelve on the afternoon of July 27, Mihalik, Cheryl, and Dr. Marquand rode the subway out to the Fair--to Mañana Meadow, as it was called, to view A Happier Way of American Living Through a Recognition of the Interdependence of Men and the Building of a Better World of Tomorrow with the Tools of Today. They had virtually kidnapped the scientist, bribing him with bits of information, luring him with hints of the future. He hadn't visited the fair yet, anyway, and like the hayseed from Indiana, he had heard all about the attractions that featured swell dames.
They got off the train and paid their way into the Fairgrounds. "Now watch closely," said Mihalik. "Do you see that man over there? In about five seconds he's going to take off his suit coat and a wallet will fall on the ground."
Dr. Marquand said nothing. In a few seconds, just as Mihalik described, the coat came off and the wallet fell. "How did you know that?" asked Marquand.
Mihalik shrugged. "I've seen it happen again and again, every day at just this hour. I've lived through this day hundreds of times. I know exactly what is going to happen. Look, quickly, over there. That kid with the candy cigarette in his mouth is going to lose his balloon. See? And in about ten seconds a band will start playing some march."
"'The Thunderer,'" said Cheryl.
"Great Caesar's Ghost!" cried Dr. Marquand when the band started playing. "You've persuaded me. You are indeed travelers from the future. But how can I help you?"
They walked slowly along the avenue, past the statues of the Four Freedoms. "The crew in our time gave me a message," said Cheryl. "They haven't been able to return Frank and me to our own era because they can't overcome something they call temporal inertia. No matter how much energy they pump into their apparatus, they can't budge us from the past. That has to be done from this side. What you have to do is find some way of giving us just a tiny shove, and then the people in 1996 will be able to recover us easily."
Dr. Marquand stared at a young woman straightening the seams of her silk stockings. "Then what we need is a source of great energy," he said, "enough energy to topple you out of the space-time trap. Too bad we don't have that cobalt bomb you told me about."
Mihalik stopped to win a dollar from a young married couple he had come to know and like. He told them their names, their address, the names of their parents, the years they graduated from high school, whom they voted for in the last election, where they had spent their honeymoon, and the location of a strawberry birthmark on the young woman's body. He came back and gave the dollar to the scientist. "Does it have to be something like an explosion?" he asked. "Maybe they could drop us off a building or something ."
"I'd rather be blown up all at once," said Cheryl.
"I suspect," said Dr. Marquand, "that there's something here at the Fair that would serve us. Let me think.... I've seen pictures in the newspaper--I know! The General Electric Building! Let's go."
Cheryl wanted to pick up a souvenir for Ray, who would be disappointed if they returned without bringing him anything. She chose a pickle pin from the Heinz Dome. "He'll like this," she said. For herself, she found a pin in the General Motors Futurama that said I Have Seen the Future. It was poignantly appropriate.
"He'll get a kick out of the pickle pin," said Mihalik.
The two chronoventurers walked hand in hand. Mihalik took the opportunity to say goodbye to all the people he'd come to know here on Day One; of course, none of them knew who he was, but they all acted polite, if uncomfortable.
"What a sweet age this is," murmured Cheryl. "How they slumber unaware. There are no monostellaphenazide leaks, no Chou-Tsien plague, no tick worms in the Midwest, no signals from Sinus to worry about."
"It isn't all wonderful," said Marquand. "We have our share of worries, too."
Mihalik paused to take a last look around the Fair. "It's been wonderful," he said, "but I kind of look forward to not knowing what's going to happen next. Dr. Marquand, do you want us to tell you what is going to happen in your world?"
The scientist thought for a moment. "It would give me a peculiar responsibility," he said. "It could be a terrible secret to know ahead of time, a fearful curse. But why not? What the hell, go ahead. Tell me."
Mihalik and Cheryl took turns filling in the history of the world, as much as they could recall, from 1939 to 1980. Mihalik was able to remember some of the winners of certain sporting events as well as financial trends during those decades. "In 1980, the presidential election will be won by Ronald Rea--"
"Who cares?" said Marquand. "I'll probably be dead by then. Here we are, the General Electric exhibit."
They went in. Dr. Marquand's reputation allowed them to examine the machinery used in the demonstrations of artificial lightning--really just a static electricity generator that produced dramatic displays of metal-vaporizing and timber-shattering. The centrepiece of the demonstration was an arc of ten million volts that leaped thirty feet from one pole to another. "Gee," murmured Cheryl.
"Yes," said Dr. Marquand soberly, "science is our friend; but we must be careful, for without a sense of responsibility the playthings we create may become our deadliest enemies."
"Like nuclear energy, for instance," said Mihalik.
"Well," said the physicist, "I was thinking of the martini and the gimlet, myself. There won't be another exhibition here for almost fifteen minutes. Let's position you on that target pole and whip a couple of bolts at you. That ought to do the trick."
Cheryl slipped her hand into Mihalik's. "Are you afraid?" she whispered.
"Not at all," said Mihalik. He laughed in the face of death.
"If this doesn't work," said Dr. Marquand respectfully, "it will char you into a little pile of black powder. You're a very brave man."
Mihalik laughed again. "We'll try anything, sir," he said. "We're from the future."
"Yes, I keep forgetting. Okay, hold still. I'm all ready here. Before you go, however, there's something I want to ask you. Do you know which of all the different versions of today will be the real one? The one everyone will remember?"
Mihalik shook his head. Cheryl had no answer, either.
"Another thing," asked Marquand. "Why do sweets play such an important part in your lives? Is there some situation in the future that makes candy more valuable than it is today?"
Mihalik looked at Cheryl. "Dr. Marquand," he said, "we can't answer that, either. All we know is that over the years the manufacturers have become immensely powerful. It began during the Second World War, I think. We don't know how or why, but something started civilization on the road to what, in 1996, amounts to a virtual sucrocracy. It is a mystery that baffles our historians."
"Thank you," said Marquand. "I will watch the trend carefully. Knowing about it will guarantee me security in my old age. Now hold very still--"
The technology of the past exploded upon Mihalik and Cheryl; ten million volts of blazing lightning smote them, but all they experienced was a flicker of amber light....
With an echo of thunder in their ears, they fell to the floor. Both were dazed and groggy. They opened their eyes. They were no longer in the General Electric Building. They were now in a small room that appeared to be someone's office. There was a desk and a filing cabinet, a telephone, a typewriter on a small stand, and a framed picture of the Man from Mars--the chairman of the candy company who had become boss of the world years ago. "We're back," whispered Mihalik. "Such a miracle as this is evidence of the secret hand of Providence governing the world, that the eye of an infinite power searches into the remotest corner of space and time, and sends help to the miserable whenever it pleases."
"Well," said Cheryl, "I give a lot of credit to Dr. Marquand, too."
"Or else it was all just a lucky accident. I wonder whatever happened to Marquand, that primitive genius. We will have to find out. But for now it's enough just to rejoin our world and our own time. Ray will be glad to see us; I have to admit that I've missed his ugly mug. Say, did those pins come with you through time?"
Cheryl opened her hand; the souvenirs were gone. "He'll understand," she said sadly. "Maybe I dropped them."
"Tough break, kid."
"I wonder about something, Frank. Do you suppose that our telling Dr. Marquand about candy could be what actually began the trend? That somehow we influenced our own present by going into the past?"
"You mean that if we hadn't told him about it, when we came back here it would all be some other way?"
"What difference does it make?" he asked. "If it hadn't been candy, it would have been something else. Something worse, like green vegetables or fossil fuels."
"You're right, Frank. I'm lucky to be your girlfriend."
They went to the door of the office. He put his hand on the knob. "We've left the sepia-tinted days of yesteryear," he said. "It was fun and it was terrifying, but now we're safely home. Once we step through this door, we'll be back in our very own dull, drab, nougat-centered, cavity-prone World of Tomorrow."
"Can't you wait just a moment?" asked Cheryl. She pressed her warm, moist lips against his in a lingering kiss.
Mihalik pulled away. "No," he said decisively, "I'd like to stay here with you, but I have a duty to the project. I'm crazy about you, Cheryl, but you must respect my moral obligation."
"I do, Frank, really. I'm sorry for acting so foolish."
So together they left the office and walked into the uncertainty of the rest of their lives. That, in the final analysis, is the great adventure in which each of us takes part: what more courageous thing is there, after all, than facing the unknown we all share, the danger and joy that await us in the unread pages of the Book of the Future....