Cronos, p.10Robert Silverberg
He said at last,—How far in the future is the time of destruction, wizard? Ten thousand years? Five thousand?
—Perhaps ten thousand years. Perhaps much less.
—Perhaps it will happen this year, even?
—I don’t know, Prince.
—A wizard should know the future.
—But your calling me a wizard doesn’t make me one, Prince. What you speak of as the future is the remote and misty past to me. I have no way of knowing when Athilan perished. Believe me, Prince.
Another period of silence. Then he said:
—I believe you—wizard.
And then I said, taking myself completely by surprise,—Prince, you need to save your city while there’s still time.
—Save it? How could I possibly save it?
—Leave this island. Lead everyone across to the mainland. Build a new Athilan in some place that will be invulnerable. And it will endure forever.
I felt undertones of amazement coming from him. I tell you, I was amazed myself at what I was doing.
But I couldn’t help it, Lora. I was caught up in the crazy rapture and wonder of my scheme.
I told him where to erect his New Atlantis.—Go to North Africa,I said.It’s warm there. There’s a place called Egypt, where a mighty river flows out of the heart of the continent. Your ships can get there easily from here, by sailing east and south. The land is fertile. You’ll have access to the sea. There’s stone to build with. You can create a new empire ten times as great as this one, one that will spread around the world.
—Or else,I said,go further east, to a place known as Mesopotamia. There are two rivers there, and it’s warm there too, and the land is perhaps even more fertile than in Egypt. And from there you can expand ever eastward, to a land called India, and one called China. You’ll be better off there than in Europe—in the mainland right here. Europe will be locked in ice for many more thousands of years. But China—India—Egypt—
I was berserk, Lora.
I was grossly interfering with the past. Not only had I opened direct contact with my own time-host, but here I was trying to get him to take a course of action that would beyond any doubt change the entire direction of history! Carried away by my own brilliance, I was telling him to goand found Egypt long before the Pharaohs would. Or better yet to create his new kingdom in Sumer or Babylon, and then to colonize the Orient, and—this part didn’t even matter to me, so crazed was I, so eager was I to be helpful—set up a Second Athilantan Empire that might become so powerful it would last on and on right into what you and I think of as historical times!
How about that? A tremendous sprawling kingdom ruled by extraterrestrial aliens, dominating the world for the next twenty thousand years, while none of our “real” history gets a chance to occur! No Greece, no Rome, no England, no United States—only eternal Athilan, all-powerful, reaching out in every direction, controlling everything! What a vision! What lunacy, Lora!
I offered to draw maps for him. I offered to give him geographical lessons. I promised to ransack my brains for every detail of what I knew about the Paleolithic Near East.
He let me rave for a long time.
And then he said, finally,—What a rare vision this is. What a wondrous scheme.
—Yes,I said, sure that I had convinced him.
And then: —But you know I would never do anything like this, wizard. Not even if I were Grand Darionis today, and I knew that the calamity would fall upon us in ten months’ time, would I do such a thing.
I was caught off balance.
He laughed.—Why do you think the princes of Athilan are shown the vision of the Rite of Anointing?
I said, really flustered now—Well—it’s because—I would assume—that is, it seems to me that it’s done in order to prepare you for the eruption. In case you happen to be the one who’s King at the time when it actually takes place. So thatyou can plan to take protective measures, arrange a safe evacuation, things like that.
—No. Not at all.
—Why is it done, then?
He paused a moment. Then he said,—To teach us that even though we are kings, we are as nothing in the hands of the gods.
—I don’t understand.
—You are no wizard then.
—I have never pretended to be one.
He said,—The gods have decreed that Athilan one day must perish, just as they decreed the fiery death of Romany Star. Don’t you think that we were aware that that would happen, too? And this city came out of that one. New greatness flowers out of lost greatness. It is our destiny, wizard, from time to time to be chastised by the gods, to be driven forth in sorrow from our homes, to begin anew, to create that which never existed before to replace that which was taken from us. Do you think we dare defy the gods? Do you think we dare thwart their will? We must accept what comes to us. That is the lesson of the Rite of Anointing. That is the thing I had to learn, if I am to be Grand Darionis some day. The vision was a test, yes. And I have passed that test.
—Your ancestors knew that Romany Star would be destroyed? And they did nothing to save themselves?
—They built sixteen starships, and loaded aboard them whatever they could. The rest they left behind to face the flames. And when the catastrophe comes to the isle of Athilan, we will have ships ready, and once again we will save what we can. The rest will be destroyed beyond recovery.
I said, bewildered,—I can’t believe that you’ll just sit here like sheep and take no action, even though you can seethe future and you know that the future holds destruction for you.
—Tell me this, wizard. In your era, do people still die?
—Yes. Of course.
—And yet you go about your daily lives, doing your work and making plans for the future and seeking always to better yourselves, even though you know that in twenty or thirty or fifty years you will certainly be dead? You don’t simply give up and lie down, the moment you discover that death is inevitable, and abandon all striving right at that point?
—It isn’t the same thing,I said.The individual has to die sooner or later, yes. But the family goes on, the nation goes on, the world goes on. Each one of us does his part in the time that’s allotted. What other choice do we have?
—And if you knew—you absolutely knew—that the world itself would perish on the day of your own death? Would you give up all striving because it seemed futile, wizard? Or would you continue to work and plan?
His argument seemed wrong to me.—But this isn’t a matter of the whole world being destroyed! It’s a matter of one island being struck by catastrophe, and its people having advance warning of the fact, and being unwilling to move to a safer place despite everything they know. That makes no sense to me.
—Only the kings know of the doom that is coming. Not any other soul.
—Even so. If the kings know, it’s their duty to save their people.
—And shall the king then thwart the will of the gods?Ram asked.We must take what comes. And fully learn the lesson the gods wish to teach.
That was where I gave up. I understood, then: these people really are alien. Their minds don’t work like ours. They seethe steamroller coming, and they refuse to get out of the way. It’s the will of the gods, they say. And for them that’s all there is to it. Pure fatalism. A philosophy like that isn’t easy for me to comprehend. But after all I’m only a visitor here.And my visit’s almost over. I feel the bond weakening; I feel Home Era starting to pull me back. In a little while I’ll be up front there, giving my report, confessing my blatant errors of judgment, surrendering myself to the judgment that’s waiting for me. If I’m lucky they’ll go easy on me. I understand that I’m not the first time-traveler to give in to the temptation to help his host avoid serious trouble. We’re only human, after all.
And what will happen here, I wonder?
Well, Atlantis will be destroyed. That was a given fact from the start. Perhaps it’ll happen when Ram is king, p
But a few ships are going to escape. I’m certain of that.
Where will they go? Egypt? Mesopotamia?
Will they live to build still another civilization, which will eventually perish also, but manage to pass a few fragments onward, until our world, the world that we call “modern,” has taken form? Somewhere in our own world today are the descendants of these Athilantans. Of that I’m certain too. These perpetual wanderers, these many-timesrefugees—surely they endure, surely they still dwell among us. By now they’ve forgotten their own history, I suspect. They don’t know that their ancestors came from another world to live among us Dirt People, and once built the greatest empire that ever was, of which not a trace remains. It’s all forever lost, back here in the distant buried corridors of time.
But that’s not important. Time devours everything. Entire histories vanish. What matters is endurance. The spirit survives and goes onward when the palaces crumble and the kings are forgotten.
And if I’ve learned anything from this fantastic journey in time, Lora, that’s it. You too, out there among the mammoth-hunters in their houses of bone, have seen what it’s like to struggle against hostile nature and prevail. I, here in glittering Athilan, have also discovered a thing or two about how harsh a place the universe can be, and how stubborn we mortals can be in fighting back.
Ram knows I’m leaving soon, disappearing into a distant-future time that’s not even a dream to him. I wonder if he’ll miss his “demon,” his “wizard.” I suspect he will.
I know I’m going to miss him. He’s the most noble guy I’ve ever known. And I think he’s going to be the greatest Grand Darionis that the Empire of Athilan has ever had.
And that’s the whole story. It’s just about time to go now, love. I’ll be seeing you in a little while, only twenty thousand years from here. I hope they have a pizza waiting for us when we get there.
Displacement hit him like a punch in the gut. He had to fight to keep from doubling up, coughing and puking. He was dizzy, too, and his legs kept trying to float up toward the ceiling. But the sensation lasted only a fraction of a second, and then he felt fine.He was still in the laboratory, standing right in front of himself. In front of Sean, too. Twin and twin. Sean and the other version of himself were sitting side by side on the shunt platform in their strange little three-legged metal chairs, waiting for it all to begin.
Five minutes from now the singularity coupling would come to life and the displacement force would take hold of them. And they would be shuttled at infinite speed between the black hole and the white hole until they were thrust out through the time gate. But right now they were staring in wonder and amazement at him—at the extra Eric, Eric2, the one who had been conjured up out of the mysterious well of time. Who had been pulled five minutes out of the future to stand before them now.
Weird to be looking at yourself like this, Eric thought. Seeing yourself from the outside.
In a sense, of course, he had had a way of seeing himself-from the outside all his life. He just needed to glance at his twin brother, Sean. Looking at Sean’s eyes was almost like looking into a mirror. The same color, the same glinting alertness. The same quick motions, taking everything in.
But this was different. Sean was like a mirror image of him, and your mirror image is never what you are. Eric didn’t feel he looked as much like Sean as everyone else seemed to think, anyway. But now he was looking at
himself, not Sean. Seeing neither his twin brother nor his own mirror image, but seeing himself unreflected, as others saw him all the time.
Strange. His nose—the nose of the other Eric—didn’t seem right and his smile turned the wrong way at the corners of his mouth. His eyebrows were reversed, with the one on the right side pointing up. His whole face looked out of balance.
Eric wandered around the lab like some sort of disembodied spirit, prowling here and there. Someone aimed a camera at him and he made faces into it, putting his hands to his ears and wiggling them.
Dr. Ludwig said, “Five minutes exactly. Perfect displacement. Perfect visibility.”
“Paradox number one,” Dr. White chimed in. “The duplication. The overlap of identity.”
“And paradox number two, also. The cumulative and self-modifying aspects of the time-stream correction.”
“Say that again?” Eric asked.
Ludwig didn’t trouble to reply. He glowered and scowled and vanished into the flow of his own intricate thoughts. It seemed to bother him that Eric had spoken at all. As if Ericwere nothing more than an irritating distraction at this very complicated moment.
All around the room, technicians were throwing switches and tapping commands into terminals. Everybody was tense. To all these people Time Zero, the moment of the initial shunt, was still four and a half minutes away. The final delicate calibrations and balances had to be made.
Some of the staff people were staring at him the way they might stare at a ghost. That puzzled him for a moment. They should be used to backward-going time travelers by now. After all, Sean had already come this way on the minus-fifty-minute shunt, hadn’t he? And Eric would be doing the minus-five-hundred-minute one himself a few hours ago. Even though he hadn’t experienced it yet,theyhad. Or should have.
But then Eric recalled what they had told him about these past-changing paradoxes. Each swing of the pendulum retroactively corrected everybody’s memories and perceptions. That was how it had been in the earlier experiments with robots and animals and they expected it to work the same this time. Nobody remembered Sean’s minus-fiftyminutes appearance, or any of the earlier ones, because they hadn’t happened yet. But as the pendulum kept swinging, those appearanceswouldhappen, at times earlier than this, and the corrections would be made, and everyone would begin to remember a past that right now didn’t yet exist. Or something like that. It made no sense if you tried to think of it in the old straight-line way. Now that time travel was a fact, no one could think that way ever again.
Warning lights were lit up on all the instrument panels now. Critical displacement momentum was nearly attained. Sean and that other Eric would be on their way in another few instants. And he’d be moving along, too. He couldn’tstay here much longer. Any minute now the next Eric2 would be making the journey from Time Zero back to minus-five-minutes, the journey that he himself had just taken. The mathematics of time wouldn’t allow him still to be here when the loop began all over again. You could have an Eric and an Eric2 in the same place at the same time, but not more than one Eric2. He would have to be up and out, swinging toward his second stop, the plus-fifty-minute level.
He could feel the force pulling at him now.
Eric waved jauntily at the Eric and Sean on the platform. When shall we three meet again, he asked himself? Probably never. He’d see Sean again at the end of the experiment, sure. If all went well. But there was no reason why he should ever come face-to-face with himself a second time.
Which was just as well, he decided. There’s something creepy about looking yourself in the eye.
“Have a good trip, guys!” he called out to them. And the force seized him and swept him away into the time-stream.
+ 5 minutes
And then at long last they threw the final switch, the one that would send him spinning off into the vast distant reaches of time, and nothing happened. At least that was how it felt to Sean at first. No blinding flashes of light, no strangely glowing haloes, no sinister humming sounds, no sense of turbulent upheaval. Nothing. An odd calmness, even a numbness, seemed to envelop him. So far as he could tell, nothing had changed at all. He was still sitting right where he had been, on the left-hand focal point of t
A moment later Sean started finding out how wrong he was.
That first moment of calm began to fade as bits of data came flooding into his mind: scattered and trivial bits at first, adding up very quickly into something overwhelming.Subtle wrongnesses became apparent, little ones that quickly grew bigger and bigger in his mind:
—Dr. Ludwig, who had been over by Eric’s side of the singularity coupling when the last switch was thrown, had moved to his left, barely outside the event horizon of the shunt field.
—Dr. White, who had been all the way across the big room in front of the bank of monitor screens frantically fidgeting with her thick curling hair, now was leaning against the frame of the lab door with her arms folded calmly.
—The computer printers, which had been standing silent in the moment before the throwing of the switch, were spewing copy like crazy. The frontmost one had an inchthick stack of pages in its hopper.
—Half a dozen technicians who had been scattered here and there around the room were gathered in a tight cluster just beyond the gleaming nickel-jacketed hood of the field shield. They were staring in at Sean as though he had sprouted a second head—or had lost the one he used to have.
—And more. The pattern of lights on the instrument panels was different. Someone had restrung the tangle of drooping gray cables on the back wall. And the video camera dolly had been pushed about halfway down the track in his direction. It had been in front of Eric before. At least a dozen tiny changes of that sort had been made.
It was, he thought, very much like one of those beforeandafter blackout tests they give you when you’re a kid, when they want to measure your I.Q. They show you the image of a room, and then the screen goes dark, and a moment later it lights up and everything’s been moved around. You have to note down as many of the changes as you can pick out, within thirty seconds or so. That was what had happened here. In the twinkling of an eye,beforehad turned intoafter. Five minutes after.
Cronos by Robert Silverberg / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes