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´╗┐Title: A hitch in time
Author: Pohl, Frederik
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A hitch in time" ***


                            A HITCH IN TIME

                          By JAMES MacCREIGH

           [Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
                 Thrilling Wonder Stories, June 1947.
         Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
         the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]


Obviously the man was dying, and there was no chance that he ever would
be discovered.

I blessed the carelessness that had caused me to set the space-time
dials a little off when I began this journey to the distant past. I
had come to this barbaric era in the proper time, indeed, but millions
of miles removed from it in space. It had been only after an annoying
search that I had discovered Earth, jetted toward it in my space-drive
suit and had come down out of the skies to land on this tiny, deserted
island in the middle of an empty sea.

But it was incredible luck that had brought me there. For I had found
exactly what I needed--a man who would give me information, clothing
and an identity--and then die, and obliterate the record of my
interference with the course of events!

I, Thom Ra, walked toward him. Feeble though he was, he opened his eyes
and stared at me.

"Thank Heaven!" he whispered, in the thick, hideous language of that
era. "I couldn't have lasted much longer if you hadn't found me." He
fell back and smiled at me with heartfelt gratitude, and for a moment
I felt a wild, fleeting impulse to help him, to save his life. But of
course, I dared not interfere. For that would change the shape of the
future, and that meant destruction for me....

When I blasted off from the island, a little later, he was dead, and I
was wearing his uniform--and his name.

He gave me information before he died, and I had no trouble locating
the spot I wanted. I waited till dark before landing a few hundred
yards from the war-dome. Then I hid my space-drive suit in a cluster
of ancient trees, and walked into the building that housed the most
murderous weapon of all time.

The sentry challenged me, of course, but I was ready for him. After a
quick look at my stolen credentials he sheathed his ray pistol.

"Pass, sir," he said, and I walked in, no longer as Thom Ra, but
identified as a Captain San Requa of the Intelligence Service.

At once I saw the atom-rocket. It was on the other side of the great
chamber, nestled in a wheeled cradle, ready to be rolled out to the
blast-off point. Hurrying technicians swarmed about it with last-minute
checks. I walked over, saluted the officer who was supervising and
began to witness events which I had crossed so tremendous a span of
years to observe.

The atom-rocket was a long, silvery torpedo, a cluster of tubes at the
rear, a snub-nosed warhead at the front. A panel in the side of it was
open, and technicians were setting dials according to the figures read
off by a white-haired old officer with the insignia of a general on his
collar.

       *       *       *       *       *

I listened in awe and reverence, straining to note and remember
everything that occurred. To think that I was actually present at the
climactic moment of the legendary War of Annihilation! It was the most
thrilling moment of my life. Almost I forgot to curse Master Lys and
his duplicity as I watched.

Almost--but not quite. For the thing was too fresh in my mind, and I
was aware that I was still in danger.

It had begun with a routine notice that my preparatory work had been
approved, and that I was authorized to enter a theme in ortho-history
for my final Citizenship Ratings. The theme, I saw with a sinking
heart, was the War of Annihilation.

I had hurried to Master Lys, my instructor, sure that there was an
error.

"Master, you give me an impossible task," I had said. "The theme
regulations are that I must make a 'real and complete contribution to
human knowledge.' But how can I? We have so pitifully few records of
the War of Annihilation--all of them have been studied, and analyzed,
and worked over for thousands of years. There is no way for me to add
to what has been written already!"

He cackled at me in his insufferable Tri-Alpha way.

"There is a way," he mumbled, peeping at me out of his rheumy old eyes.

It took me a moment to realize what he meant.

"The time-belts!" And Master Lys nodded.

Well, I argued with him, of course. The time-belts were too dangerous;
not one time-traveler in ten returned from the past, even when their
projects were as recent as a hundred years ago. And the farther into
the past one ventured, the more certain it became that return would be
impossible.

For although the mechanism of the time-belts could be trusted and there
was no physical menace that the conductor-screens or the katonator-guns
could not cope with, there was the ever-present danger of Fan-Shaped
Time itself.

It was the First Law of Chronistics: Our era is the product of
everything that occurred in the past. Should anything in the past be
changed, our age would also be changed. Oh, it would continue to exist,
but in a parallel branch of time--and there was no way of passing
from one branch to another. And if a traveler into the past should
_interfere_ in the course of events, he would be bound to the new
time-stream his actions created, and the unlucky traveler would never
be able to return.

The branches of Fan-Shaped time could never be retraced. The man who
interfered with the space-time matrix, displacing even a comma in the
great scroll of time, would be cut off from his origin forever.

The danger was too great. I refused to accept the assignment, even
though I knew it would mean I could never rise to the status of
Tri-Alpha citizenship which was otherwise my right.

But then I heard about Elren--lovely, adored Elren Dri--and I could no
longer refuse.

For Elren's Mating Indices were posted, and she was a Tri-Alpha
herself! Then I understood what had been in Master Lys' mind when
he set that impossible task for me. For I knew that the gnarled,
worm-eaten old wreck had dared to covet my Elren! Loving me, she could
never be his. But with me out of the way he might have a chance.

I accepted the assignment. Master Lys secured a time-belt for me--he
was willing enough to help at my execution--and I began my perilous
journey through time.

I came back to my surroundings with a start. Something was wrong!

Subconsciously I had been studying the atom-rocket, and now I was
jolted out of my reveries as I realized that it did not look as it
should have.

       *       *       *       *       *

The ortho-history books were clear on one fact: Venus had been
destroyed in the War of Annihilation by means of a hydrogen-chain
reaction, the most deadly atom blast known. Atoms of hydrogen, under
the influence of gamma-particle bombardment, coalesced to form atoms of
helium--and all the incalculable power represented by the odd fraction
of mass left over was released in the form of free energy.

But the atom-rocket before me seemed to be nothing more than a simple
nuclear-fission affair! Where were the photon-exciters? The gamma-ray
bombardment equipment?

Of course, even a fission bomb could do a good deal of local damage,
as shown in the first atom-bombed cities during the Little Wars of the
early Twentieth Century. But, unless our nuclear science was in error,
it could not set off a chain reaction of the type that had destroyed
the Venusian colonies. Was I in the wrong place?

Alarmed, I shoved my way closer to the rocket, staring at it. It was a
crude, primitive affair, of course, and it was hard for me to identify
its parts. I examined it with frantic curiosity--and abruptly I found
myself in peril!

One of the technicians I had pushed aside was staring at me, eyes
filled with suspicion. I caught his gaze and cursed myself for having
acted so rashly. Desperately I strove to think of a way to allay his
suspicions, but it was too late.

"What are you doing?" the technician demanded. "Who are you?"

I tried to conciliate him.

"Captain San Requa's my name," I said, using the name on the stolen
identity papers. "I am--" But I got no farther than that. My accent
gave me away.

"He's a spy!" roared the technician. "Help!" And a dozen ray-pistols
flashed out of their holsters as the men around us were galvanized into
action.

I lost my head. Terrified, I grabbed for the safety belt concealed
beneath my stolen tunic, touched the button that controlled my
conductor screen. The screen shimmered into instant life, and not a
moment too soon. Rays from the weapons pointed at me flashed from all
sides, sparked against the opalescent curtain of the screen and were
dissipated.

I was safe--but only for an instant.

For I had made my second great mistake. I was too close to the
atom-rocket. My conductor screen grazed the warhead itself!

Its energies surged through the unstable elements in the warhead; a
warning bell sprang into clamorous life. The group around me froze in
their tracks, mouths open, faces mirroring fright and disbelief--and
the frightful power of the strained atoms within the warhead began to
grind toward nuclear fission!

There was only one thing to do, and a poor choice it was! But in a
moment the warhead would explode, and of me and my mission, and the
whole future of Earth, nothing would be left but a puff of fiery vapor.

Quickly I dropped the shield of my conductor screen. Trusting that my
luck would hold, and the men around me would be too dazed to fire their
weapons again, I drew my katonator, set it at _drain_, focused it on
the atomic warhead.

[Illustration: Drawing my katonator, I focused the twin violet beams on
the warhead of the atomic bomb.]

The twin violet beams sprang out and impinged on the silvery metal,
pierced it and sucked the heart from the seething mass of erupting
matter within. Blinding energies were drawn from those toppling atomic
structures, surging through the carrier-beam of the katonator into
the photon-pack cartridges at my waist. I had an instant's fear as I
wondered if the storage pack would hold all the mighty energies of the
warhead, far greater than the maximum load for which it was designed.

But lightnings of static electricity played about my head, dissipating
brilliantly but harmlessly into the air, and in an instant the danger
was over. The bursting energies of the warhead had been drawn out, and
the mass of matter inside it was inert.

Before me lay the atom-rocket, harmless, dead.

I had destroyed Earth's most potent weapon!

       *       *       *       *       *

I give those ancients credit for bravery. Dangerous though I must have
seemed, they closed in on me without firing their weapons. Meekly I
raised my arms over my head.

The white-haired general blazed hatred at me from his pale eyes.

"Who are you?" he demanded.

I shrugged. Carefully I phrased my words in their outlandish tongue.

"I am a--a visitor from the future," I said. "I regret the accident
that just happened more than I can say."

"Regret it?" he blazed. "Hah! You'll regret it twice as much when you
face the firing squad!"

I spread my hands helplessly. In truth, death had no terrors for me
now. A firing squad would seem almost a blessing--for I had destroyed
the bomb that would have blasted Venus. Whatever happened now, the
future before me was changed--and in a changed future I had no place,
and my Elren would not exist!

"Take him out and shoot him," the general cried.

I turned to go to death, almost eagerly. In my heart I whispered:

"Elren! Elren, my lost love!"

The technician who had unmasked me interfered.

"Wait!" he begged. "Let me question him, sir. Perhaps he's telling the
truth."

The general glowered. "What's the difference? He's wrecked the bomb!"
But he hesitated and finally said, "All right. Question him. The harm's
done anyhow."

Sunk in despair I scarcely heard the other officer's sharp queries, but
he was hesitant and I told him whence I had come, and why. He looked at
me incredulously.

"But the bomb?" he demanded. "What did you do to it?"

I patted the photon-pack cartridges strung along my belt. "I had to
drain it," I said. "It was about to explode--"

"Drain it? How?"

"With the katonator." I explained to him how the energies of the
exploding atoms were drawn off through the katonator-beams and trapped
in the photon-pack.

He stared at the tiny power cells, eyes wide but showing a sudden glint
of hope.

"Can you take that energy out again and send it into another object?"

"You mean to energize the atom-bomb again?" I said. "No, of course not."

He was shaking his head. "I mean something else," he said. "Can you
send them across fifty million miles of space?"

I stared at him, fascinated and afraid.

"I dare not interfere," I whispered.

"But, you _have_ interfered," he yelled. "You've wrecked our chance to
win this war. You've got to help us!"

I stepped back, bewildered. What he said was true enough. Yet all my
training, all the warnings of Elren and Master Lys, said over and over:
You must not interfere!

Yet I had interfered already; I had started a new time-sequence by
destroying Earth's chance to wipe out Venus. If I could neutralize that
act by helping them now, perhaps there would be a chance.

"I will show you how to use the katonator," I said weakly.

Silently I adjusted it, slipped the belt off and handed it to him. He
led me outside to where stars blazed in a black night. He looked upward
hesitantly, pointed to a brilliant blue planet.

"Is that it?" he asked one of his companions. The man nodded. Carefully
he took aim, pressed the trigger as I had showed him.

Lightnings roared again! The twin violet beams leaped from the muzzle
of the weapon, howled up into the heavens. In a fraction of a second
the photon-pack was drained and the pyrotechnic display died away. All
was silent.

One of the officers raced back into the building, pounded the keys of a
calculator. He returned almost at once.

"At this distance it will take just under nine minutes for light to
make the round trip," he said.

The officer who had fired the katonator whirled to confront me.

"Suppose I missed?" he cried in sudden alarm. "It is so far--a fraction
of a second of arc would make the beam miss entirely."

I shook my head. "The beam fans out," I explained. "And a planet has
mass and the photons are attracted by gravity. Even if they should
miss, the attraction of the planet would draw them into it."

       *       *       *       *       *

He nodded and was silent. Silence cloaked us all--a hundred ancients
and myself, all staring up into a mysterious night.

Nine minutes passed as slowly as nine terrible years. But by and by the
hands of my chronometer completed their revolutions.

Suddenly we saw the katonator-beams strike.

Above us a new sun blazed forth, kindling like the striking of a
cosmic match. Night fled around us, and day came flaring up into
noonday brilliance, and beyond. Heat poured down upon us, brilliant
rays of sunlight more intense than I had ever seen. The dome behind me
sparkled and glistened in the incredible radiations from the stricken
planet millions of miles away, and for a moment I could almost feel
the fierce actinic waves of ultra-violet, cosmics and a thousand other
super-spectral radiations.

Then the peak was reached, and the light began to fade as all the
hydrogen was transmuted and consumed. In a moment the flare of energies
was gone, and the pale blue planet had become a glowing orange coal.

We had seen a billion persons dying in a planetary suttee.

The vastness of the dead stunned me. I found that I was sobbing, almost
weeping as I felt myself stained with a cosmic guilt.

The officer who had destroyed a billion lives glanced at me in full
understanding of what he had done. He placed a hand on my shoulder,
strangely comforting.

"It couldn't be helped," he said in a voice that surged with emotion.

I nodded bleakly. It couldn't be helped. "It was for the sake of
Earth," I said, blindly seeking justification. "Earth was destined to
win, in my time-sequence, and I had interfered--I had to correct the
consequences of my blunder--"

I stopped. Wild astonishment burst through the tragic mask on the face
of the officer. He drew back his arm as though he had found himself
embracing an adder.

"What's the matter?" I asked in astonishment.

He stared at me with dawning comprehension--and pity. "Say that again!"
he whispered.

"Why--I said I had to correct my mistake. I had interfered, and
the time-traveler who interferes maroons himself hopelessly. I had
destroyed your weapon against Venus--yet Venus had to be obliterated,
or else I had no chance of return. I was lost--and now, perhaps, I may
have a chance to get back."

He shook his head. There was compassion in his voice. "No, you have no
chance," he said, and hesitated while I tried to take in his meaning.
"You see, this is Venus." He waved at the glowing cinder in the sky.
"_That_ was Earth up there."



*** End of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "A hitch in time" ***

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