Mission to Misenum, Or The Three Faces of Time
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by Sam Merwin, Jr.
Category: Alternate History/Science Fiction
Description: She Had to Prevent Present and Future from Warring in the Past! "Fast-moving adventure, told with engaging humor," is what the New York Times says readers can expect from this classic science fiction saga. Elspeth Marriner, once an ace journalist, is now a Time Watcher working from the mysterious House of Many Worlds. On some parallel time-tracks, Earth's cultures lag thousands of years behind our own. On others, science is far in advance of ours. As a Watcher, Elspeth's job is to keep advanced Earths that had discovered the existence of their parallel sisters from invading and exploiting those that were less advanced. Now the Watchers have discovered that the power-hungry dictator of one far-advanced civilization, having devastated his own Earth, has already infiltrated a parallel Earth still in the age of the Roman Empire, and is seeking to conquer it! Though chariots roll through the streets, and men with swords guard the cities, flying tanks and atomic artillery are gathering in secret behind the walls! In this sequel to Merwin's The House of Many Worlds, it's Elspeth's job to enter this world and stop the invasion! And all she knows is that the dictator's master plan centers around the famous events that occurred at Misenum on the 24th of August, 74 C.E. Worse, Elspeth learns that her co-agent on the mission will be the irritating, insulting Mark Fraser, the one man on this Earth whose presence she can't stand! The San Francisco Chronicle wrote that in the Elspeth Marriner doulogy, "Merwin has created characters that are human--entertaining and realistic." H. L. Gold, Galaxy Magazine raved that the series was "an exciting, modern science fiction story, with a new and highly unusual twist--outstanding for its realistic characters and expert seasoning of thrills and horror."
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books, 2004
eBookwise Release Date: January 2005
17 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [211 KB]
Reading time: 129-181 min.
The old man rested his white, blue-veined hands on the top of his magnificent satinwood desk and leaned slightly forward, as if to impress upon Elspeth Marriner the importance of what he had to tell her. His wise, deep-set eyes fixed themselves upon hers with a calm, yet compelling urgency.
He said, "My dear, thanks to circumstances beyond my control, I am going to send you out alone for the first time."
There was no need for further explanation. Elspeth understood fully the implications of Mr. Horelle's remark. For she was, although still on the sunny side of thirty, a veteran Watcher, one of that supremely select little group accustomed to risk their lives transferring as trouble shooters to whichever of the many parallel versions of Earth needed their services.
Usually, it was Watcher policy to operate in teams of two or more-working in close collaboration with the carefully screened and chosen agents in residence on the worlds to which they were assigned. On her previous missions for Mr. Horelle, Elspeth had worked with a man named Mack Fraser, an ex-prizefighter turned magazine cameraman. Although her relationship with Mack had been a chronically stormy one, she was used to Mack and sensed, with a pang of inner regret, how helpless she was going to feel without him.
But she knew better than to admit this unease to Mr. Horelle. In his wisdom, she knew he must already have foreseen her feelings and discounted them. Her blue eyes steady on those of the Chief Watcher, she said, "Where am I needed?"
Elspeth, fair, sensitive, a poet, felt deep gratification at the slight trace of a smile that moved the old man's lips. She had said what he wanted her to say. He passed a parchment-hued hand over his tall forehead before beginning the briefing.
Then he said, "My dear, I am assigning you to a newly discovered and quite remarkable version of Earth. Your mission will be neither military nor political this time-I am sending you merely to observe." His thin fingers caressed the celestial globe on one side of the great desk.
"We have been extremely slow in discovering the world of your destination," he went on, "perhaps because it and the worlds in close parallel to it have been concealed from our instruments by an odd cosmic cloud that partially shut off the sun's rays in your new world's particular plane."
"Heavens!" Elspeth exclaimed. "It must be a backward sort of world."
"It is," said Mr. Horelle, again with the trace of a smile. "Yet I feel certain that its backwardness is of a nature that will prove especially fascinating to you. Antique-that is the name of your assigned planet for reasons you will shortly understand-has been in a sort of cosmic deepfreeze for two millennia. It has, in short, lost almost two thousand years of its history."
Fascinated, Elspeth said, "Why, it sounds almost like traveling backward in time!"
"You will be transferring to a world that is actually equivalent to the latter part of the first century of the Christian era," said Mr. Horelle, obviously enjoying the fullness of Elspeth's response. "The disaster that retarded its development utterly destroyed life on the two-score planets closest to its continuum.
"Yet, in broader perspective, this appalling catastrophe has its fortunate facets," the old man continued. "Naturally, we must profit by its discovery-an ancient world that is actually contemporaneous with our modern worlds. If I were still capable of making transfer, I assure you I should not miss the opportunity I am offering you."
Elspeth could only nod as she considered what might lie ahead of her. Here, she thought, was a world for poets-poets and lovers rather than engineers or tradesmen. Here was the world of Horace, of Ovid, of Virgil and Catullus.... She felt a surge of immense inner satisfaction sweep through her.
Mr. Horelle brought her out of it with, "Unfortunately, we are not fully aware of all the possible implications in the mere existence of such a parallel planet. They may not prove to be entirely pleasant or profitable to the worlds as a whole. So, my dear, I want you to be on the alert for any anachronisms, to let your intuition as well as your judgment guide you should you sense anything wrong or out of place."
"I understand." Elspeth nodded. "I take it I am to go to Rome." And, when Mr. Horelle nodded, "Where do I make transfer-on this side of the ocean?"
Again Mr. Horelle smiled. "Hardly," he said, "unless you literally wish to paddle your own canoe. I have already arranged for you to fly to Sicily. Your transfer point lies there, halfway between Messina and Mount Etna."
Elspeth nodded. The whole business of effecting transfer between worlds was a delicate and sometimes dangerous one. As Mack Fraser once remarked, in his meat-and-potatoes way: "It's like being a naval aviator-no matter how many carrier landings you make, you never really get used to it."
Mr. Horelle's house, situated on a small island just within the barrier of Cape Hatteras, was one of the key transfer points in the Western Hemisphere-for the important doings of mankind, as well as the forces of nature, were instrumental in making transfer points possible.
As Mr. Horelle had told Elspeth and Mack Fraser when the two of them, ostensibly on a picture-and-article assignment for Picture Week, were first conducted to Spindrift Key, "...if a tangent in time develops out of historical decisions, then it must grow out of minor personal decisions as well. It takes forces far greater than any one person can generate to split the space-time continuum in which our universe exists.
"A nova, the destruction of a planet, even such momentous man-made events as effect the life history of this minor speck of space-dust we call Earth-these things all leave their marks in varying degrees. For a while after their occurrence-the time span varies according to the shock suffered by the fabric of the continuum-a tangential zone remains through which, to those who know the secret of the key, it is possible to effect a transfer between worlds."
To this, Mack Fraser had wondered: "But what has ever happened here-in this godforsaken place?"
And Mr. Horelle had explained, to both of them, "Spindrift Key is thrice tangential. Almost four centuries ago, an Englishman named Sir Walter Raleigh put ashore inside the Capes while en route back to England after founding a Colony at Roanoke. He then decided that this island and the mainland behind it offered a safer and more generally favorable site for his colony. It was his plan to transfer it here before returning to England."
"And...?" a fascinated Elspeth had asked.
Mr. Horelle's reply was, "In one of our tangential worlds Raleigh was able to make his transfer. His colony survived and the entire history of the continent was altered. In the world you come from, conditions arose which caused him to postpone doing so. The Roanoke colony, left to its fate, perished.
"Then, in January of 1813, the American privateer Patriot, Captain Overstocks commanding, was lured onto a reef by the so-called 'bankers' or pirates, who then made a highly prosperous business out of decoying ships to their ruin. The Patriot was running the then British blockade off the Capes with a safe-conduct arranged between the British admiral and Governor Joseph Alston of South Carolina. She was bound for New York...
"Actually, Alston was only able to obtain his safe-conduct because he and his father-in-law, Aaron Burr, were both trafficking with the British. There was a conspiracy afoot which planned for a double uprising in both the South and New England that could have altered the entire course of subsequent history. In your world, the shipwreck prevented it. But in certain others..." He had let it hang.
Then, leaning toward them across his magnificent desk: "More recently, when a pair of brothers named Wilbur and Orville Wright were experimenting with heavier-than-air craft at nearby Kittyhawk, they made a number of their crucial plans and decisions in this very room. I believe you can compute the tangential potentialities of their discovery.
"So," he concluded, "Spindrift Key is perhaps the strongest tangential point on this continent. That it is a seasonal storm center is an added factor in its tangency. It is actually a multiple gateway to parallel worlds, its older tangencies maintained and reinforced by the importance of more recent occurrences..."
Elspeth thought back to the moment, in this very room, which had so altered her life. Since becoming a Watcher, Elspeth found little time to write poetry or magazine articles for Picture Week. Instead of writing drama, she lived it-at times with danger and ugliness, at times with a full awareness of incredible beauty and the sense of serving other peoples in other worlds.
Yet none of the other worlds to which Mr. Horelle had assigned her, seemed to Elspeth to offer such a full meed of interest and excitement as this so-called Antique to which she was being sent. Looking at Mr. Horelle, she said, "Whom do I get in touch with upon my arrival?"
"I think you will find the agent in residence both familiar and interesting," said the old man. "His name is Pliny-Pliny the Elder-and I understand that, while he does not fully understand the theory of interworld transfer, he is both intelligent and disposed to be cooperative. I believe you will also find him a gentleman."
Mention of the word "gentleman" caused Elspeth at once to think of the man who had served as her partner on her previous assignments for Mr. Horelle and the Watchers-for Mack Fraser was apparently everything but a "gentleman." She said, bluntly, "Mr. Horelle, why isn't Mack going with me on this assignment?"
"Chiefly," he replied, "because Mack is needed elsewhere. Yours is essentially a cultural assignment. You speak the classic languages and know their history and their art."
"I wonder," said Elspeth, "which of the schools of Latin pronunciation will prove to be correct."
"Almost certainly, neither of them." Mr. Horelle smiled his faint smile again. "Actually, I should very much like to know myself whether ae is pronounced eee or eye. Perhaps, on your return, we can discuss the matter."
Elspeth sensed that she was being dismissed. While Mr. Horelle never discussed his age, he was almost incredibly old; it was necessary for him to conserve every precious ounce of energy he possessed. She rose and said, "I shall look forward to it. And thank you, sir, for such an assignment."
His thin lips curved again and he lifted one alabastrine hand in farewell salute. He said, "Remember, my dear. Be on the alert for anachronisms. We really know very little about this world. And above all, take care of yourself."
"I'll be careful," she said. She knew that, like herself, Mr. Horelle was remembering Juana Brooks, the brilliant little beauty who had inducted-and conducted-Mack and herself through the complexities of their first polyworld assignment-and had paid for it with her life.
To a very real extent, Elspeth had dedicated her life in an effort to fill Juana's shoes with the Watchers. Nor was her value lessened by the very real humility she brought to her job. She recalled the dark, vivid Juana, and the disaster that had destroyed her. It had come from a degenerate man out of a degenerate world, a man who had not hesitated to use that deadliest of all hand-weapons, the disintegrator. He, too, had died. But his death had not restored Juana Brooks to life.
Elspeth said farewell to the hound-faced butler who had served Mr. Horelle and Spindrift Key for more than four decades. She left the fine old white mansion, standing atop its gentle rise of well-landscaped lawn. Always, when she departed from this place she had come to love best in all the world, Elspeth wondered whether she would live to revisit it.
Walking to the trim little jetty, where a power boat waited to carry her to the somewhat dilapidated village that hugged the western shore of the inlet, Elspeth admitted to herself that she was going to miss Mack Fraser-even while she despised herself for making the admission.
She could envision every seam, every pore, every feature of his homely-handsome face. Thanks to his somewhat shadowy early experiences in the prize ring, Mack's nose was slightly flattened across the bridge, its end a trifle off center. His cheekbones were not entirely symmetrical, as if one of them-the left one-had been shattered by a fist. His eyes habitually wore a sleepy look which, she suspected, came from the thin pouches of scar tissue on their upper lids.
Why women found him attractive, Elspeth had never been able to figure out to her own satisfaction. But they did and Elspeth resented the fact far more than she should. Conceited tomcat, she thought, recalling that Mack had quite casually stood her up on their last supposed meeting in Manhattan.
She was going to miss his toughness, his steadiness, his meat-and-potatoes resourcefulness. She was going to miss him a lot more than she cared to admit to herself.
Yet it was going to be a test, a chance to prove herself-her first solo assignment. What had Mr. Horelle told her: to keep her blue eyes well peeled for any anachronisms in this strange new-or rather old-world she was to visit? She resolved to keep her ears open as well.
As she entered the power boat, she tried to remember some of the things she had read about Rome in the first century of the Christian era. Although, following the wild eruptions that succeeded the Claudian Caesars, the Flavians, led by Vespasian, had brought order out of the chaos that followed Nero, pagan Rome was still a difficult and dangerous place. She was going to have to depend very greatly upon the agent in residence, Pliny the Elder. She wondered if he were as complete a stuffed shirt as she had always supposed.
She lit a cigarette and dropped the match into the warm water of the inlet, thinking, Rome, get ready. But ready or not, here we come.