The Time Stream: A Keystone SF Classic
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by John Taine
Category: Science Fiction
Description: She Championed Love Against Science! Here is the rarely reprinted and highly-acclaimed classic, a stunning mixture of passionate romance and scientific adventure, that The Science Fiction Encyclopedia calls, "one of the outstanding products of the early sf magazines * an elaborate time-travel adventure which helped extend the horizon of pulp sf." Some time in the far past or distant future, in the advanced, scientific world of Eos, which just might be Earth, the woman Cheryl demands the right to marry the man she loves, even though genetic analysis shows any children they produce will have less than desirable genes. In a world of perfect freedom, Cheryl is free to do what she pleases. But then one of her four closest friends discovers that before Eos, an even mightier civilization flourished on their world, one that was destroyed then the "beast" was let out in human kind. Her friend thinks this "beast" could uncontrolled human passion and warns Cheryl's that her choice might somehow threaten their own world. When she demands proof, her four friends set off on a quest across their planet, and deep into its history and science, in search of answers. But wait, that's not where the story starts. It starts pages earlier, on our Earth, in the 20th century, when a woman who is also named Cheryl and her four friends enter the river of time as part of an experiment whose end they can not foresee. But have they been swept backward or forward? As the stream buffets them, they are sometimes on Eos, sometimes on Earth, sometimes on unnamed worlds that may be the future or the past. On all these worlds Cheryl stands firm for her right to the man she loves, convinced that love shows the right path. But does her intransigence spell the end or the beginning for the human race? Critic and historian E. F. Bleiler hailed John Taine's The Time Stream as one of the "all time classics of science fiction * Taine's finest work * adult science fiction at its best."
eBook Publisher: Renaissance E Books/PageTurner, 2005
eBookwise Release Date: October 2005
6 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [330 KB]
Reading time: 223-312 min.
CHAPTER I: SENT BACK
We have explored to its remotest wildernesses a region that all but a few hold to be inaccessible to the human mind. Yet, in looking back after twenty-five years at the colossal drama which unrolled with stunning rapidity before our bewildered consciousness, I can see in it all no incident more mysterious than the unquestioning faith with which we accepted our guide--the venerable Georges Savadan--at his own valuation. That granted, the rest followed with a magnificent inevitability. It was like the running down of Sylvester's watch when the mainspring snapped; a trivial accident precipitated events which time had been holding in suspension for ages.
We fell in with Savadan's suggestions as readily as if they had been the natural promptings of our own minds. Indeed, with the exception of Beckford, we seemed at every step of our progress into the unknown to anticipate the old man's will. The sudden transformation of the Savadan whom we had so often watched dreaming over his port at Holst's, into the resolute, energetic leader alert to every hint of danger, caused us no surprise. It was a change for which we were secretly prepared. We had known the old man subconsciously all our lives.
Surely there never was a company of explorers less likely than ours to penetrate the dim secrecies of the future; but so we did. It matters little what our occupations were when we set out, exactly a quarter of a century ago, on our explorations. Nevertheless, as our lives and all our daily activities acquired a strange significance in the light of our adventures, I shall briefly state who and what we were, and how we started.
The place and date are extremely important. We first succeeded in entering the time stream in San Francisco, on the fourteenth of April, 1906. That was precisely four days before the city was destroyed by earthquake and fire.
The mere catalogue of our party follows, with their nationalities and places of birth, and their ages in 1906.
Colonel Dill, born in Tennessee, veteran of the Civil War, age 66. Habitually in need of money, and eager to imbibe any amount of whiskey at any other man's expense. Hobby, imaginary bloodshed.
Palgrave, born in San Francisco, age 26. Physician, specializing on morally and mentally unstable children. This man is now the well known child specialist of New York. Hobby, color analysis.
Beckford, also born in San Francisco, age 27. Attorney and orator. Lifelong friend of Palgrave and, with him, suitor of Cheryl Ainsworth. Hobby, oratory.
Ducasse, born in France, age 25. Psychologist and student of philosophy, with strong leaning toward practical mechanics. Hobby, prison reform.
Herron, born in Chicago, age 24. Newspaper reporter. Hobby, deciphering of code messages.
Culman, born in Germany, age 47. Mechanical engineer and inventor. In easy circumstances, owing to a simple, lucky device for measuring flow in oil wells. Hobbies, hatred of war and a desire to expose the trickeries of mediums and others in some kinds of psychic research.
Sylvester, born in England, naturalized U.S. citizen, age 23. Lived at Los Gatos (three hours by train from San Francisco), where he had a paying ranch. Highly educated in modern theoretical physics--as it was in 1906, with ample leisure to continue his studies.
Savadan, born in France, age unknown, probably 65. Political refugee. Had lived for many years in San Francisco in very straitened circumstances.
Myself (Smith), born in San Francisco, age 24. Analytical chemist.
To this strange assortment three others may be added, although they were not strictly in our party. First there was Cheryl Ainsworth, age 24, who must be noticed more in detail later. For the moment this mention of her is sufficient. Next there was Herr Holst, the genial proprietor of the inn where Dill, Palgrave, Beckford, Ducasse, Herron, Culman, Sylvester, Savadan, and I met once a fortnight to discuss everything in this world and the next. Last, there was John Petrie, prince of bartenders and quiet, unobtrusive host to our small crowd. Petrie's hobby was a very crude brand of astrology. He was one of us, although he never knew it and did not join us in our adventure.
All of these details, however, are of little importance. What I wish to bring out in citing them is merely that we were an apparently haphazard handful of acquaintances thrown together by chance. There were many such handfuls in the old San Francisco. We know now that ours was not governed by chance. Even before we somewhat rashly started, we had inklings of the truth.
What drew us together? What common interest could hold together a whiskey-sodden Civil War veteran, a brilliant young child specialist, a young lawyer, a student of philosophy, a newspaper reporter, an expert in modern theoretical physics, a mechanical engineer, a discredited French politician, and an analytical chemist, whose ages ranged from 23 to 66? What could possibly unite men of such a wide range of ages but a common interest in the nature of time? One "chance" remark or another had gradually attracted man after man to us, until in all eight of us stood on the threshold of reality without dreaming what door was presently to open. Chance, of course, played no part in drawing us together. We were already exploring, but we had lost our way.
I need not recall the long debates in which we indulged on the nature of time. Unaccountable at first, even to us, those puzzled arguments on the curiously unreal aspects of time as it appeared to us in our everyday lives, gradually assumed a deeper significance until at last, on the fourteenth of April, 1906, four minutes before midnight, events crystallized out of the waters of eternity, and we found ourselves. I pass on to these as rapidly as may be done clearly, and I shall state precisely how we ourselves, still dazed, began to learn the true meanings of our lives.
Our fortnightly reunion at Holst's was breaking up. Sylvester, anxious not to miss his train for Los Gatos, consulted his watch.
"Four minutes to twelve. I'll have to be running." He absentmindedly began winding his watch. The mainspring snapped. The peculiar metallic click rocked my brain for a fraction of a second with an appalling vertigo. Recovering instantly, I heard Sylvester's awed voice: "I am beginning to remember. This is the time."
The aged Savadan was on his feet, listening intently.
"You will all remember presently," he said. "Not here. Come to my attic at once. I--we all--must perform an experiment immediately."
Even Colonel Dill followed Savadan into the starry night without a word of dissent. Already we were walking in a dream more vivid than this thin shadow of reality which we call life. The night was cool and penetratingly clear. The myriads of icy white and steel-blue stars seemed to descend and blaze not more than a hundred feet above our heads when we turned toward the East and walked, as Savadan said, to meet the sunrise. Savadan, it seems, had already remembered much. Sylvester, too, was far ahead of all but Savadan. As we turned the corner and came in sight of Savadan's lodging, Sylvester pointed up to a dark, almost starless region of the sky near the zenith.
"Look up there," he whispered, "and you will remember."
We looked where he pointed, but nobody answered. I had a haunting sensation of having watched that identical region of the sky in ages long dead and forgotten, waiting for the last rising of millions upon millions of dying suns.
We had reached our destination, still walking in a dream.
"I must ask you to go up quietly," Savadan requested, pausing with his hand on the door-knob. "The people here charge me only a nominal rent for my room, so I try to disturb them as little as possible. There are three flights before you reach my attic."
Savadan was about to enter, when Herron whispered, "Wait!" He was standing with his back to us, intently regarding five shadowy eucalyptus trees in the parking strip. Their mysterious beauty against the cold blue stars of the Eastern heavens was a miracle to make any man pause. And the deep shadows in the fresh, sweet smelling grass of the narrow parking strip were a memory of illimitable spaces in an infinite sky unvisited by stars. Again that illusive half-memory of forgotten regions swept over me like the starlit billows of a cold sea. What sea I struggled to remember I learned only at the end of our explorations.
"Wait a second," Herron repeated hesitatingly in a low voice strangely unlike his usual assertiveness. "I almost had it then."
The ghost of a breeze stirred in the eucalyptus leaves. Herron gazed up at the trees, listening eagerly to every syllable of the faint, lisping rustle.
"Ah," he exclaimed softly, "it comes back."
He began quoting Rossetti's magical crystallization of the haunting mystery which all of us felt but could not express:
"I have been here before,
But when or how I cannot tell,
I know the grass beyond the door,
The sweet, keen smell,
The sighing sound..."
He did not finish the exquisite stanza. Sylvester quoted another fragment,
"...I knew it all of yore;"
and to my surprise Palgrave, who reads little verse, finished:
"Has this been thus before?
And shall not thus time's eddying flight
Still with our lives our love restore
In death's despite,
And day and night yield one delight once more?"
We felt that it was a question and a prophecy.
"Come," said Savadan, "you are the men. I too have seen a sudden flash of light. Herron will read the monuments, and I shall learn why I have been sent back so often and so fruitlessly. I have waited and toiled thirty years for this moment."
"I wish I could remember," Culman muttered, with one last look at the mystery of the Eastern sky.
The door closed softly behind us, shutting out the magic of the stars.
"These are my quarters, gentlemen," said Savadan, turning up the gas. "I regret that I cannot offer you chairs. Our first experiment however can be performed standing."
We took in the bleak attic at a glance. It ran the whole length of the house and made up in airiness what it lacked in comfort. In one corner a pile of trunks and packing cases belonging to the people of the house formed a sort of alcove containing the sum of Savadan's earthly possessions; a narrow canvas cot, one straight-backed chair, a plain deal writing table and half a dozen well-used books. A few feet from the alcove stood an old fashioned cistern, whose continual trickling filled the attic with a faint, musical tinkling. To this day the sound of running water brings back every detail of our first plunge into the unfathomable stream of time.
"The experiment which I propose to try is a very simple one, Culman," Savadan continued. "Nevertheless I think it will whet your appetite for deeper researches. Will you please stand with your back to the light? Sylvester, you will face Culman. The rest of you, Colonel Dill, Beckford, Smith, Palgrave, and Ducasse, will arrange yourselves in a circle about Culman and Sylvester. There is nothing mysterious about the circular order, it is merely to enable us all to get the most of this miserable light."
While we arranged ourselves as he directed, Savadan turned up the jet to its fullest flare.
"That's better," he said, taking his place in the centre of the ring with Culman and Sylvester. "Now, if one of you will lend me his watch, we can go."
"One second," said Culman, handing over his timepiece to Savadan. "Will you first tell us why the running down of Sylvester's watch at Holst's had such a peculiar significance for you?"
"I could readily do so, but it would take too much time just now. Won't you allow me to defer all explanations to a less anxious moment? You see, the whole 'set' or complexion of events indicates the present as an extraordinarily favorable time for our experiment. If we let this slip we may have to wait years before we can break into the stream of events."
"Don't mind Culman," Palgrave advised. "He is just as much of a believer as the rest of us, only he hates to admit the fact. You're still in command, Mr. Savadan. Fire away, and shoot Culman's skepticism out of the back parts of his head."
"Taken by consent," Ducasse muttered. "Hurry up before my other foot goes to sleep."
"Very well," Savadan replied. "I can tell you only this much of what I propose to do. Time, with all of its events, is flowing past us like a mighty river. It has been sweeping through human and prehuman history for ages beyond the powers of man to number. If now one could hurl himself into that stream and swim steadily back against the current, he might see the history of our race speeding past his vision.
"You may compare history to the successive photographs on a moving picture film: the events of human or other history have left indelible records on what I may call the film of time; run that film backward from the present, and you will see the past restored with all its events in the reverse order. Or if you run it forward from any given epoch, the past will live once more before your eyes precisely as it was. For time is not a thing that once past it is forever perished; time is one and eternal. Past, present, and future are but different aspects--different folds, if you like--of one continuous, unchanging record of everlasting existence. Our memories hint at a shadow of the truth."
* * * *
CHAPTER II: IN THE TIME STREAM
He paused for a moment, but no one offered any remarks. Little did we dream that only three years later (in 1909), Minkowski would seriously put forward similar views in the name of sober science, and that the 29th of May, 1919, would see the experimental confirmation of even stranger realities concerning the nature of time and space.
"Let us suppose," he went on, "that one has actually projected himself into the stream of time, and that he has made headway against the current into the remote past. To his eyes the goings and comings of the men and women upon the banks of the stream, the colorful reflections of stately cities on its unruffled surface, and the tramp of passing armies long since dissipated into dust by the unaging winds, will all be as vivid and real as what we call the present is to us.
"Yet those men and women on the banks would have been dead and their names, their very nations, forgotten for centuries, and the great cities with all their teeming life and trade, shapeless mounds of grass-grown rubbish for thousands of years.
"Now I have mastered, in ways which I but imperfectly comprehend, this secret of swimming back against the stream of events. It is like swimming in water. Once the knack has been learned it is never forgotten. But to learn it in the first place takes constant practice, and final success comes only in some involuntary twist of the mind or muscles. I am sure of this; nobody ever knows exactly how he first mastered swimming in water, and certainly not even the most expert seers can explain to others the secret of swimming back against the stream of time. In the same way I cannot account reasonably for my intuition that all of you are in that delicately balanced mental state between past and future which a trivial accident may upset, plunging you all headlong into the ever moving waters of eternity ... Well, Sylvester, at what point shall we enter the stream?"
"Where we can, I suppose. Let us try for the desert of the monuments. Then we may learn who it is that keeps sending you and me back, and why."
"For the desert of the monuments then. So be it."
He held out Culman's watch under the flaring gas jet so that we could plainly see the second hand busily ticking off its round.
"This watch is a mere detail. Any other object which would unite your minds for an instant would serve my purpose equally well. Do you all see the second hand clearly?"
"Then follow it closely. When I say 'Ready,' be prepared to call out the exact second which will be passed over next. When I say 'Go,' name the second being passed over. This is simply to concentrate all of your minds in a certain direction of time. Now, we will have a practice first. This counts for nothing. Ready!"
We craned forward, staring at the watch. It was fifteen minutes past two. The second hand was just starting on a new circuit of its small dial.
"Very good, gentlemen," said Savadan, evidently pleased. "You all got it exactly. Now the next is the real experiment. I shall try to time it so that you will call off 'Twenty.' That will make the time fifteen minutes and twenty seconds past two. Ready!"
We bent toward the watch with a tense expectancy, not one of us doubting that we should indeed be rewarded for our open-mindedness. My last clear impression was the look on Ducasse's face. It was a gleam of quiet satisfaction as if he were enjoying secret knowledge newly acquired and not shared by any one in the circle, even by Savadan or Sylvester.
I seemed to strangle, fighting for the breath I could not get. Then the floor of the universe gave way and I pitched down into absolute nothing. My bones burst into an intolerable flame and I was utterly consumed. Not a vestige of my flesh or bone survived; not so much as a pinch of ash remained; I was destroyed. The very atoms that had made up the elements of my body perished. They were dissipated like wandering sparks into their primal electricities; these clashed together, positive and negative in a multitude of shocks, nullifying each other in a union of final nothingness. The last sparks of my material existence had been blown out; I was annihilated. My body had been blasted clean out of space and time. Where I had existed there was a void.
Yet something that was not matter remained unchanged. And that residue had an infinite capacity for pain and understanding.
Instantaneously the agonizing destruction was reversed: there was a stirring in the emptiness of space and time; the electrons and protons that were to become my elements were sown like seeds of fire through the black vastnesses of an embryonic universe; ages elapsed in stark flashes of blinding intelligence, and my atoms, recreated, had reunited. Then, with the flaming, instant rush of aeons and the creation of innumerable stars, my body was hurled back into existence.
Was I dead? For centuries, it seemed, I lay motionless, revolving that question in a stunned agony of doubt. The black, starless void of an unknown sky spanned the vastness overhead as with a vault of iron.
I became conscious of my groans. The sound echoing against the iron sky terrified me, and I felt my hold on existence slipping. A second more and I had let go; I was falling sheer down a bottomless abyss. My mind, my life, went out, and I perceived no more...
"This place is dead."
It was Herron's mind communicating with my own. No word had been spoken, and I was not reading his mind. Yet I knew that he was beside me in that place, and that his knowledge was mine; the place was dead.
Then Culman's mind groped toward mine in a wandering bewilderment:
"We have been sent back."
"Too far." Palgrave.
"Too far," Palgrave's thought reiterated with a kind of numb fear. "'They sent us back too far. Out of space and time. We do not exist. Annihilated. Never get back. Dead forever."
"Not too far," Savadan's thought felt for our minds with the skill born of long practice. "I have been in this place before. We shall get out. Follow my will."
"What place is this?" I wondered.
"It has no name. Call it the Desert of the Dawn."
"Why! There is no light."
"It is dark now, but the dawn will not fail us. I begin to see. The darkness on my left is giving way, I remember. Before this desert in the region farther back where Dill was sent, all is perpetual night. After this desert, forward in time where the sender is, there is no darkness. We were sent back."
"From where?" several queried.
"From the light, to see its first dawn."
"Is this Desert of the Dawn in the same fold of space and time as the region whence we were sent back? Who remembers?"
It was Palgrave's mind asking for knowledge, and Sylvester answered.
"It is not. Neither in space nor time is it the same. We are in another universe. Why were we sent back? Who remembers?"
"I remember," Herron thought, "but not distinctly. I must read the incised legends on certain monuments. But I have been sent back too far in time; the monuments have not yet been built. I must come again. Feel what we are lying on."
"Dust and fragments of bone," several thought. "All the inhabitants of this place perished ages ago."
"Not all," Herron thought. "The one who sent us back tells me so. There is a remnant living. They are in the deepest subterranean chambers where there is still air--not here, but on the other side. And they will come to the surface and build the monuments before quitting this place forever. I must come back when they have finished their work and gone on, away from here, out into space in search of a living sphere. This one is dead. I know now why we were sent back."
"Let Palgrave think it. He knows."
"I know," Palgrave thought, "but not clearly. Over the universe that we were sent back from there hovers the shadow of a great fear. Our people in that universe descended from the last of the race on whose bones we have fallen. Our first ancestors were the builders of the monuments. This whole place is a wilderness of death. We were sent back to learn the history of our race--to find out whether there is truth in the dim legends which we have all but forgotten. The monuments will reveal what truth there is. But the legends have been so changed in the wearing down of innumerable ages that I doubt whether we shall recognize them for the same, or understand their meanings when we read them.
"There is one legend of a terrible fall, that sent us back to the beasts. There is another of a great slaughter when all but a handful of the whole race perished between the rising and the setting of the morning stars.
"We were hurled twice out of space and time to discover what catastrophe made this vast region a desolation of bones and ruin. For the same catastrophe, according to signs which the legends declare to be infallible, is visible in our own near future. Having knowledge, we may avert disaster, shaping the future to our own desires."
"Does knowledge ever deflect the stream of time?" Savadan doubted. "In this dead place I lose all faith."
"We must discover the means," Culman thought. "There is something we were sent back to prevent--some threatened breach of the one law of reason. What was it?"
"A marriage," came Palgrave's answering thought. "There are two people in the universe whence we came who must not marry. For their union will be the first spark of a consuming flame that will sweep us back to universal death. They must obey the law of reason or we shall all perish and our universe become, like this, a wilderness of desolation."
"Can we prevent their union?" Savadan doubted.
"We do not know. We can but tell them what the ancestors of our race were, and what we may again become. Thereafter the decision is theirs, and we must abide by it. For without freedom of the will for all men and women our place would be as dark as this. We can bind no man. No woman shall be coerced into reason. All are free; that is our tradition and our law. We shall take back sure knowledge; that is all."
We lay unthinking for centuries in the thick darkness of the desert. Then suddenly Savadan's mind leapt out to ours with a command:
"On your feet! The dawn is upon us. If it passes us unawakened we shall sleep forever. Up!"