Cronos, p.19Robert Silverberg
Wherever he looked, some not-quite-human creatures could be seen in the valley. The whole history of the evolution of humanity seemed to be here, all the extinct forms that he had studied in school and a good many that he was unable to identify at all.
What was this place? Unless he had lost count of the shunts, he was at the plus-500-billion-minute level now. 951,000 years in the future. What were all these creatures doing here, all wandering around at random like this?
“You have just arrived, I suppose?” a pleasant voice said behind him. Eric whirled. The speaker was a bearded man of about fifty, elegant and amiable-looking, wearing what looked like riding clothes of the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century. He might have been some English gentleman out for a stroll in the woods. “Bathurst,” he said. “Benjamin Bathurst. Former Minister Plenipotentiary of HisBritannic Majesty George III to the court of Franz I, Emperor of Austria. Of course, I’m nothing very much any more.”
“Eric Gabrielson,” Eric said shakily. “From Los Angeles, California, the—the United States.”
“Very pleased to make your acquaintance,” Bathurst said. “Always charming to see another human face. There are forty of us now, I think. Of course, we’re greatly outnumbered by the apes, but everyone’s friendly enough. You’re a million years in the future, you know. The United States, you say? Of America? The former Colonies? California was never one of the Colonies, as I recall. But I suppose—”
“We got it from Mexico,” Eric said. “Somewhere around 1849. And yes, I know we’re a million years in the future. Approximately. But you—George III—”
He was having trouble speaking clearly. An overdose of confusion was making his voice husky. The Neanderthal, muttering to himself, began to fondle Bathurst’s intricately carved walking stick. The Englishman smiled and gently drew it away.
“What year are you from?” he asked Eric.
“2016 is when I set out from.”
“Ah. 2016. The fabulous future, indeed. Well, well, we will have much to talk about, then. No one else here comes from any year later than 1853, I believe. Most are much earlier. We have a Roman couple, do you know, and several Greeks, and an Egyptian or two. And some who speak no language any of us can fathom. They must be quite ancient. I myself was seized in 1809.”
“Oh, yes, of course, boy! How did you think we all got here?”
Eric moistened his lips. “I’m here as a result of an experiment in travel through time carried out at the California Institute of Technology,” he said. “But you—”
Bathurst shrugged. “A victim of kidnapping. Forced transport. Seized unawares. The same fate that has befallen all the creatures here, both human and otherwise. Except you, it would seem, if you indeed have come voluntarily. The rest of us are captives. It is a very comfortable captivity, I must say, but it is captivity all the same. And it is imprisonment for life, I grieve to say. Yet it is a very comfortable imprisonment, for all that.”
Kidnapped from 1809? Romans? Greeks? Neanderthals? Australopithecines?
“Who is responsible for bringing us here, you mean to ask? Why, the demigods who inhabit this distant eon, boy! Our own remote descendants! Perhaps you’ll meet them someday. I myself have seen them on three occasions thus far. Quite remarkable, you’ll find. True demigods, as far beyond us as we are beyond these shaggy apelike fellows here. We’ve been collected, do you see? All manner of historical specimens, and prehistorical specimens too, I dare say. It’s a kind of zoological garden here. An exhibit, do you see, of the people of ages gone by, collected by mysterious magical means from every era of antiquity. I’m one of the items on display, boy, for the amusement and edification of our remote descendants. And now so are you, do you see? So are you.”
He was almost coming to believe that it was real. The tender succulent turkey meat, the sweet rich cranberry sauce, the hot steaming rolls—it was all so much like the family feasts of his boyhood that after a while he simply accepted it and let it engulf him like a warm bath. Mom, Dad, his grandparents, Eric—But then it all turned misty and insubstantial. He had a final glimpse of the sphere of green light once again, and he thought he saw a row of faces behind the light, faces that might have been human and might have been something else. Then everything went black and the shunt took him and swept him away.
He was in heavy jungle terrain now. The air was thick and close, the trees were tall and slender and set close together with their crowns meeting overhead to form a canopy. Here and there, through a break in the foliage, he saw pale sugarloaf-shaped mountains on the horizon. This, he knew, was the world of 951,293 years before Time Zero.
And there was the biggest gorilla anyone had ever seen, standing twenty feet in front of him.
Actually he doubted that it was a gorilla. Perhaps it was more like an orangutan, with that deep chest and short neck. Or something midway between the two. But it was colossal. It was supporting itself on all fours, but he suspected that when it stood upright it would be close to nine feet tall.
It was watching him with a who-the-devil-are-you?look in its beady yellow eyes, and it was making a low growling sound, very ominous. Gorillas and orangutans, Sean told himself, eat fruits and vegetables. This guy doesn’t look like a hunter to me. But he’s big. Very big. And not friendly looking. Absolutely not friendly. And I’m on his personal turf, and he doesn’t like it.
“Listen,” Sean said, “I don’t want you to get annoyed about anything, okay? Just as I was telling those Indians a little while ago, it’s not my plan to bother you in the slightest. I’m only a visitor here. I’m simply passing through, and I’m not going to be here very long, let me assure you of that.”
The giant ape appeared to frown. It seemed to consider what Sean was telling it.
It didn’t seem to like what it had heard, though.
It began to snort and growl. It raised itself to its full unbelievable height and pounded itself on its chest like King Kong in a feisty mood. It made unmistakably angry sounds. Sean wondered if it was going to charge him. He wasn’t sure. The ape didn’t seem quite sure, either. For a long moment it rocked back and forth in place, growling, beating its chest, glaring at the intruder.
Then it leaned forward on its knuckles and made a different sound, deep and ominous.
Yes, Sean thought. Itisgoing to charge. It very definitely is going to charge.
And I’m going to die, back here in the umptieth centuryB.C.
Or else I’ll get shunted out of here in the nick of time and it’s Eric who’ll die when he shows up right in front of a crazed charging ape. It’s just as bad either way.
The shunts were coming too fast, too close together. Eric was drowning in a torrent of wonders. To be given a glimpse of Neanderthals in their own time, chanting by their own campfire, and then to be swept far onward to a magical place where pithecanthropi and australopithecines and Romans and Greeks and nineteenthcentury Englishmen lived all jumbled together in some kind of far-future zoo, and to be pulled away from that much too soon, before he had even begun to learn the things he wanted to know—And now this. Nine and a half million years in the past. Paradise for the sort of dreamer who once built fossil dinosaurs out of papier-mâché. Not that there were any dinosaurs here, of course. Not in the Pliocene period, no. Dinosaurs were much earlier than that: this was mammal time, here. But, dinosaurs or no, he had been let loose in a garden of zoological wonders and he would gladly have spent a year here, five years, ten. There was so much to see. Paleozoology wasn’t even his field—he barely knew thenames of half the creatures who were parading before his astounded eyes—and even so he would have given anything to be allowed to remain.
But he knew that the irresistible force of the shunt soon would surround him and tear him free of this place and sweep him onward.
That giant piglike thing with the fantastic bristly face and the terrifying teeth, a creature bigger than any rhinoceros, snorting and snuffling in the underbrush—
That hairy elephant with the short trunk and the long outthrust jaw, and the second pair of tusks jutting down over the other ones—
That skittish yellow animal with a camel’s silly face and a gazelle’s agile body, running in frantic herds across the plains—
That one that had a camel’s body and a camel’s head, but a neck like a giraffe’s, reaching up easily to graze on treetops close to twenty-five feet high—
The deer with its horns on its nose, and the one with fangs like a tiger’s, and the one whose head was all knobs and crests and other strangenesses—
The giant ground sloth with the long weird drooping snout, almost like a little trunk—
The armadillo as big as a tank, angrily lashing its spiked tail against the ground—
Dream-animals. Nightmare-animals. They were everywhere on this wondrous plain, grazing, creeping, crawling, climbing, hunting, sleeping. He wanted to see every one, to commit them all to memory, to come home with mind-pictures of this Pliocene wonderland that would keep paleozoologists busy for decades. Unique discoveries, animals unknown to science. But already he felt the force tugging at him.
Another day, he begged. Half a day. Another three hours.
No chance. The equations were inexorable. Forces had to balance.
He was five trillion minutes from home and the giant ape was no longer his immediate problem. Because the pendulum had swung and the iron fist of the displacement force had grabbed him and converted him into a shower of tachyons and sent him rocketing off toward the other end of time. So it was Eric who was destined to show up right in the path of the ape’s charge, when they started down the homeward slope of the voyage.I have to do something to warn him, Sean thought. But what?
He looked around. He was standing in a fragrant bower of blossoming plants that sprouted on shining crystalline stalks three feet high, plants that looked like nothing he had ever seen before. And a great blue world was shining overhead like a dazzling beacon, filling half the sky.
It looked a little like the Earth, that huge world floating up there. There was one great bulging land mass that was very much like Africa, though it seemed too far to the south, and he couldn’t find Europe where it ought to be, only abroad ocean occupying what might have been the place of the Mediterranean Sea. To the west Sean could make out something similar to the curve of North America’s eastern seaboard, though the shape wasn’t a perfect match with what he remembered, and the West Indies weren’t there. Far down to the side was an enormous round hump of an island, vaguely in the position that South America once had had.
If that was Earth, then, that loomed above him in the sky, it was an Earth vastly transformed.
Earth? Up there in the sky? Then where was he? On the moon?
A garden of fragrant green and gold flowers rising on stalks of crystal—on the moon?
Flowers on the moon? Sweet fresh air on the moon?
Nine and a half million years. Anything was possible.
He took a few steps. The pull of gravity seemed normal enough. It should feel almost like floating, he knew, to walk on the moon. Unless they had changed that, too. If they could give the moon an atmosphere and make gardens grow on it, they could give it Earth-like gravitation also.
Should the Earth look this close, though? He wasn’t sure. He wished his astronomy was a little sharper. And his knowledge of geology, too. He knew that the continents drifted around, over the course of many millions of years, but could they have rearranged themselves so drastically in just nine and a half million? Eric would know, of course. But Eric wasn’t here.
The people of this era, Sean decided, can do anything they feel like doing. They can move the moon closer to the Earth. They can move South America farther from North America. Anything. Anything.
An age of miracles is what it must be.
He felt like an apeman suddenly swept millions of years forward into a world of telephones, television, computers,spaceships. Miracles. Miracles everywhere. And that was really what he was, he knew: a primitive creature, a prehistoric ape, a hairy shambling ancient man who needed to shave his face every day and who still carried an appendix around in his belly. How they must pity him, the unseen watchers who—he was entirely sure—were studying him now! Were they human at all? Did the human race still exist? Or had it died out long ago, and given way to some race of superbeings?
He reached down and let his fingers caress one of the lovely crystalline flowers.
It wriggled with pleasure like a cat being stroked, and began to sing, a slow, sinuous, sensuous melody.
Immediately the others nearby started to preen and sway as if trying to get Sean’s attention.Touch me,they were telling him.Touch me, touch me, touch me! Make me sing!
He was reminded of the garden of talking flowers that Alice had found in Looking-Glass Land: the vain and haughty Tiger-lily, and Rose, and Violet. How many times had he read that book, he and Eric! Eric had always liked Wonderland better; Sean had preferred the world beyond the looking-glass. And now here he was in Looking-Glass Land himself, where the flowers sang, and the blue Earth hung in the sky instead of the moon.
“You like that, do you?” he asked the flowers.
And he stroked this one and that, reaching out toward them, going on down the garden row until hundreds of them were swaying and singing. The sweetness of their song was dreamlike on the thick perfumed air. He had never heard anything so beautiful.
A great strange peace came over him. He felt a Presence in his spirit. Something magical, something almost divine. Slowly he walked between the rows of flowers, savoring the mild night air, pausing often to stare up at the blue worldthat seemed so close overhead. It was an overwhelming privilege, being here in this place so many millions of years beyond his own time. He knew he would never see more of it than this garden, and that he would never understand any of it at all, but none of that mattered. He was here. He had been touched by Something that was as far beyond him as he was beyond the apes of the forests of humanity’s dawn. Something magnificent. Something all-powerful. And yet, small as he was, splendid and mighty as It was, he felt a kinship with It. He was part of It; It was a part of him.
Then he thought of Eric, and the snarling, roaring, maddened giant ape that he was fated to meet head-on when it was his turn to arrive back there in that prehistoric jungle. And his mood of harmony and tranquility shattered.
At once the flowers began to sing a soothing song. He stared at them a long while, not soothed, brooding about his brother. That ape looked really murderous. What if he kills Ricky, Sean thought? What happens to the experiment? What happens to the world? What happens tome? It was the big risk that they had all tried to make believe would not be a factor. But Sean had seen the look in that ape’s eye.
If only I could warn him, he thought. But how? How?
To the flowers he said, “I have to save my brother.”
They made a gentle humming sound.
He sat quietly, staring at a smooth flat white rock, like a gleaming slab of marble, just in front of him in the garden.
An idea came to him.
“Forgive me,” he said. “I’ve got to mess up this beautiful place a little. But it may be that the whole structure of the past and the future depends on it.”
He took out his laser and turned it to high beam. And began to write, carving a message on that flawless stone slab in ugly black charred letters.
As concisely as he could, he told his brother when
“Do you think that’ll do it?” he asked the flowers. “Will he turn up here in this exact spot? Will he see the message? Will he be able to nail the ape in time?”
The flowers were singing again. Soothing, comforting sounds. Everything will be all right, they were saying. Everything will be fine.
I hope that’s true, Sean thought, trying to relax.
Gradually the magic returned. This was too beautiful a place to be tangled up in fears and fretfulness for long.
He felt that celestial harmony again. He felt that peace, he felt that Presence.
Then the flowers fell silent. He stared up at the shining Earth with trembling wonder.
Onward——onward, unimaginably far—
He hovered in space, midway between somewhere and anywhere. There was golden light all about him. Comets left dazzling trails in the void. Suns whirled and danced. He filled his hands with the stuff of space, warm and soft.
He felt like a god.
This was Time Ultimate. The power of the singularities that had propelled him through time reached its limit here. The world he knew lay 95 million years behind him. Here in this realm of light everything was utterly strange. He was drifting among the stars, far from Earth. Earth? He could barely remember Earth. He could barely remember himself, who he was, why and how he had come here. So far away now, so faint in his mind. All that noisy striving, all that energy, all that restless seeking. The boiling cauldron that had been Earth and its billions of people.
Cronos by Robert Silverberg / Science Fiction have rating 3 out of 5 / Based on18 votes