The gleaming bowls of light set in the creamy ceiling dulled when the huge, circular door at the back of the booth opened. They returned to white brilliance as the chubby man in the severe black jumper swung the door shut behind him and dogged it down again.
Twelve reporters of both sexes exhaled very loudly as he sauntered to the front of the booth and turned his back to the semi-opaque screen stretching across it. Then they all rose in deference to the cheerful custom of standing whenever a security official of the government was in the room.
He smiled pleasantly, waved at them and scratched his nose with a wad of mimeographed papers. His nose was large and it seemed to give added presence to his person. “Sit down, ladies and gentlemen, do sit down. We have no official fol-de-rol in the Brooklyn Project. I am your guide, as you might say, for the duration of this experiment—the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations. My name is not important. Please pass these among you.”
They each took one of the mimeographed sheets and passed the rest on. Leaning back in the metal bucket seats, they tried to make themselves comfortable. Their host squinted through the heavy screen and up at the wall clock, which had one slowly revolving hand. He patted his black garment jovially where it was tight around the middle.
“To business. In a few moments, man’s first large-scale excursion into time will begin. Not by humans, but with the aid of a photographic and recording device which will bring us incalculably rich data on the past. With this experiment, the Brooklyn Project justifies ten billion dollars and over eight years of scientific development; it shows the validity not merely of a new method of investigation, but of a weapon which will make our glorious country even more secure, a weapon which our enemies may justifiably dread.
“Let me caution you, first, not to attempt the taking of notes even if you have been able to smuggle pens and pencils through Security. Your stories will be written entirely from memory. You all have a copy of the Security Code with the latest additions as well as a pamphlet referring specifically to Brooklyn Project regulations. The sheets you have just received provide you with the required lead for your story; they also contain suggestions as to treatment and coloring. Beyond that—so long as you stay within the framework of the documents mentioned—you are entirely free to write your stories in your own variously original ways. The press, ladies and gentlemen, must remain untouched and uncontaminated by government control. Now, any questions?”
The twelve reporters looked at the floor. Five of them began reading from their sheets. The paper rustled noisily.
“What, no questions? Surely there must be more interest than this in a project which has broken the last possible frontier—the fourth dimension, time. Come now, you are the representatives of the nation’s curiosity—you must have questions. Bradley, you look doubtful. What’s bothering you? I assure you, Bradley, that I don’t bite.”
They all laughed and grinned at each other.
Bradley half-rose and pointed at the screen. “Why does it have to be so thick? I’m not the slightest bit interested in finding out how chronar works, but all we can see from here is a grayed and blurry picture of men dragging apparatus around on the floor. And why does the clock only have one hand?”
“A good question,” the acting secretary said. His large nose seemed to glow. “A very good question. First, the clock has but one hand, because, after all, Bradley, this is an experiment in time, and Security feels that the time of the experiment itself may, through some unfortunate combination of information leakage and foreign correlation—in short, a clue might be needlessly exposed. It is sufficient to know that when the hand points to the red dot, the experiment will begin. The screen is translucent and the scene below somewhat blurry for the same reason—camouflage of detail and adjustment. I am empowered to inform you that the details of the apparatus are—uh, very significant. Any other questions? Culpepper? Culpepper of Consolidated, isn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. Consolidated News Service. Our readers are very curious about that incident of the Federation of Chronar Scientists. Of course, they have no respect or pity for them—the way they acted and all—but just what did they mean by saying that this experiment was dangerous because of insufficient data? And that fellow, Dr. Shayson, their president, do you know if he’ll be shot?”
The man in black pulled at his nose and paraded before them thoughtfully. “I must confess that I find the views of the Federation of Chronar Scientists—or the federation of chronic sighers, as we at Pike’s Peak prefer to call them—are a trifle too exotic for my tastes; I rarely bother with weighing the opinions of a traitor in any case. Shayson himself may or may not have incurred the death penalty for revealing the nature of the work with which he was entrusted. On the other hand, he—uh, may not or may have. That is all I can say about him for reasons of security.”
Reasons of security. At the mention of the dread phrase, every reporter straightened against the hard back of his chair. Culpepper’s face lost its pinkness in favor of a glossy white. They can’t consider the part about Shayson a leading question, he thought desperately. But I shouldn’t have cracked about that damned federation!
Culpepper lowered his eyes and tried to look as ashamed of the vicious idiots as he possibly could. He hoped the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations would notice his horror.
The clock began ticking very loudly. Its hand was now only one-fourth of an arc from the red dot at the top. Down on the floor of the immense laboratory, activity had stopped. All of the seemingly tiny men were clustered around two great spheres of shining metal resting against each other. Most of them were watching dials and switchboards intently; a few, their tasks completed, chatted with the circle of black-jumpered Security guards.
“We are almost ready to begin Operation Periscope. Operation Periscope, of course, because we are, in a sense, extending a periscope into the past—a periscope which will take pictures and record events of various periods ranging from fifteen thousand years to four billion years ago. We felt that in view of the various critical circumstances attending this experiment—international, scientific—a more fitting title would be Operation Crossroads. Unfortunately, that title has been—uh, preempted.”
Everyone tried to look as innocent of the nature of that other experiment as years of staring at locked library shelves would permit.
“No matter. I will now give you a brief background in chronar practice as cleared by Brooklyn Project Security. Yes, Bradley?”
Bradley again got partly out of his seat. “I was wondering—we know there has been a Manhattan Project, a Long Island Project, a Westchester Project and now a Brooklyn Project. Has there ever been a Bronx Project? I come from the Bronx; you know, civic pride.”
“Quite. Very understandable. However, if there is a Bronx Project you may be assured that until its work has been successfully completed, the only individuals outside of it who will know of its existence are the President and the Secretary of Security. If—if, I say—there is such an institution, the world will learn of it with the same shattering suddenness that it learned of the Westchester Project. I don’t think that the world will soon forget that.”
He chuckled in recollection and Culpepper echoed him a bit louder than the rest. The clock’s hand was close to the red mark.
“Yes, the Westchester Project and now this; our nation shall yet be secure! Do you realize what a magnificent weapon chronar places in our democratic hands? To examine only one aspect—consider what happened to the Coney Island and Flatbush Subprojects (the events are mentioned in those sheets you’ve received) before the uses of chronar were fully appreciated.
“It was not yet known in those first experiments that Newton’s third law of motion—action equalling reaction—held for time as well as it did for the other three dimensions of space. When the first chronar was excited backward into time for the length of a ninth of a second, the entire laboratory was propelled into the future for a like period and returned in an—uh, unrecognizable condition. That fact, by the way, has prevented excursions into the future. The equipment seems to suffer amazing alterations and no human could survive them. But do you realize what we could do to an enemy by virtue of that property alone? Sending an adequate mass of chronar into the past while it is adjacent to a hostile nation would force that nation into the future—all of it simultaneously—a future from which it would return populated only with corpses!”
He glanced down, placed his hands behind his back and teetered on his heels. “That is why you see two spheres on the floor. Only one of them, the ball on the right, is equipped with chronar. The other is a dummy, matching the other’s mass perfectly and serving as a counterbalance. When the chronar is excited, it will plunge four billion years into our past and take photographs of an Earth that was still a half-liquid, partly gaseous mass solidifying rapidly in a somewhat inchoate solar system.
“At the same time, the dummy will be propelled four billion years into the future, from whence it will return much changed but for reasons we don’t completely understand. They will strike each other at what is to us now and bounce off again to approximately half the chronological distance of the first trip, where our chronar apparatus will record data of an almost solid planet, plagued by earthquakes and possibly holding forms of sublife in the manner of certain complex molecules.
“After each collision, the chronar will return roughly half the number of years covered before, automatically gathering information each time. The geological and historical periods we expect it to touch are listed from I to XXV in your sheets; there will be more than twenty-five, naturally, before both balls come to rest, but scientists feel that all periods after that number will be touched for such a short while as to be unproductive of photographs and other material. Remember, at the end, the balls will be doing little more than throbbing in place before coming to rest, so that even though they still ricochet centuries on either side of the present, it will be almost unnoticeable. A question, I see.”
The thin woman in gray tweeds beside Culpepper got to her feet. “I—I know this is irrelevant,” she began, “but I haven’t been able to introduce my question into the discussion at any pertinent moment. Mr. Secretary—”
“Acting secretary,” the chubby little man in the black suit told her genially. “I’m only the acting secretary. Go on.”
“Well, I want to say—Mr. Secretary, is there any way at all that our post-experimental examination time may be reduced? Two years is a very long time to spend inside Pike’s Peak simply out of fear that one of us may have seen enough and be unpatriotic enough to be dangerous to the nation. Once our stories have passed the censors, it seems to me that we could be allowed to return to our homes after a safety period of, say, three months. I have two small children and there are others here—”
“Speak for yourself, Mrs. Bryant!” the man from Security roared. “It is Mrs. Bryant, isn’t it? Mrs. Bryant of the Women’s Magazine Syndicate? Mrs. Alexis Bryant.” He seemed to be making minute pencil notes across his brain.
Mrs. Bryant sat down beside Culpepper again, clutching her copy of the amended Security Code, the special pamphlet on the Brooklyn Project and the thin mimeographed sheet of paper very close to her breast. Culpepper moved hard against the opposite arm of his chair. Why did everything have to happen to him? Then, to make matters worse, the crazy woman looked tearfully at him as if expecting sympathy. Culpepper stared across the booth and crossed his legs.
“You must remain within the jurisdiction of the Brooklyn Project because that is the only way that Security can be certain that no important information leakage will occur before the apparatus has changed beyond your present recognition of it. You didn’t have to come, Mrs. Bryant—you volunteered. You all volunteered. After your editors had designated you as their choices for covering this experiment, you all had the peculiarly democratic privilege of refusing. None of you did. You recognized that to refuse this unusual honor would have shown you incapable of thinking in terms of National Security, would have, in fact implied a criticism of the Security Code itself from the standpoint of the usual two-year examination time. And now this! For someone who had hitherto been thought as able and trustworthy as yourself, Mrs. Bryant, to emerge at this late hour with such a request makes me, why it,” the little man’s voice dropped to a whisper, “—it almost makes me doubt the effectiveness of our Security screening methods.”
Culpepper nodded angry affirmation at Mrs. Bryant, who was biting her lips and trying to show a tremendous interest in the activities on the laboratory floor.
“The question was irrelevant. Highly irrelevant. It took up time which I had intended to devote to a more detailed discussion of the popular aspects of chronar and its possible uses in industry. But Mrs. Bryant must have her little feminine outburst. It makes no difference to Mrs. Bryant that our nation is daily surrounded by more and more hostility, more and more danger. These things matter not in the slightest to Mrs. Bryant. All she is concerned with are the two years of her life that her country asks her to surrender so that the future of her own children may be more secure.”
The acting secretary smoothed his black jumper and became calmer. Tension in the booth decreased.
“Activation will occur at any moment now, so I will briefly touch upon those most interesting periods which the chronar will record for us and from which we expect the most useful data. I and II, of course, since they are the periods at which the Earth was forming into its present shape. Then III, the Pre-Cambrian Period of the Proterozoic, one billion years ago, the first era in which we find distinct records of life—crustaceans and algae for the most part. VI, a hundred twenty-five million years in the past, covers the Middle Jurassic of the Mesozoic. This excursion into the so-called ‘Age of Reptiles’ may provide us with photographs of dinosaurs and solve the old riddle of their coloring, as well as photographs, if we are fortunate, of the first appearance of mammals and birds. Finally, VIII and IX, the Oligocene and Miocene Epochs of the Tertiary Period, mark the emergence of man’s earliest ancestors. Unfortunately, the chronar will be oscillating back and forth so rapidly by that time that the chance of any decent recording—”
A gong sounded. The hand of the clock touched the red mark. Five of the technicians below pulled switches and, almost before the journalists could lean forward, the two spheres were no longer visible through the heavy plastic screen. Their places were empty.
“The chronar has begun its journey to four billion years in the past! Ladies and gentlemen, an historic moment—a profoundly historic moment! It will not return for a little while; I shall use the time in pointing up and exposing the fallacies of the—ah, federation of chronic sighers!”
Nervous laughter rippled at the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations. The twelve journalists settled down to hearing the ridiculous ideas torn apart.
“As you know, one of the fears entertained about travel to the past was that the most innocent-seeming acts would cause cataclysmic changes in the present. You are probably familiar with the fantasy in its most currently popular form—if Hitler had been killed in 1930, he would not have forced scientists in Germany and later occupied countries to emigrate, this nation might not have had the atomic bomb, thus no third atomic war, and Venezuela would still be part of the South American continent.
“The traitorous Shayson and his illegal federation extended this hypothesis to include much more detailed and minor acts such as shifting a molecule of hydrogen that in our past really was never shifted.
“At the time of the first experiment at the Coney Island Subproject, when the chronar was sent back for one-ninth of a second, a dozen different laboratories checked through every device imaginable, searched carefully for any conceivable change. There were none! Government officials concluded that the time stream was a rigid affair, past, present, and future, and nothing in it could be altered. But Shayson and his cohorts were not satisfied: they—”
I. Four billion years ago. The chronar floated in a cloudlet of silicon dioxide above the boiling Earth and languidly collected its data with automatically operating instruments. The vapor it had displaced condensed and fell in great, shining drops.
“—insisted that we should do no further experimenting until we had checked the mathematical aspects of the problem yet again. They went so far as to state that it was possible that if changes occurred we would not notice them, that no instruments imaginable could detect them. They claimed we would accept these changes as things that had always existed. Well! This at a time when our country—and theirs, ladies and gentlemen of the press, theirs, too—was in greater danger than ever. Can you—”
Words failed him. He walked up and down the booth, shaking his head. All the reporters on the long, wooden bench shook their heads with him in sympathy.
There was another gong. The two dull spheres appeared briefly, clanged against each other and ricocheted off into opposite chronological directions.
“There you are.” The government official waved his arms at the transparent laboratory floor above them. “The first oscillation has been completed; has anything changed? Isn’t everything the same? But the dissidents would maintain that alterations have occurred and we haven’t noticed them. With such faith-based, unscientific viewpoints, there can be no argument. People like these—”
II. Two billion years ago. The great ball clicked its photographs of the fiery, erupting ground below. Some red-hot crusts rattled off its sides. Five or six thousand complex molecules lost their basic structure as they impinged against it. A hundred didn’t.
“—will labor thirty hours a day out of thirty-three to convince you that black isn’t white, that we have seven moons instead of two. They are especially dangerous—”
A long, muted note as the apparatus collided with itself. The warm orange of the corner lights brightened as it started out again.
“—because of their learning, because they are sought for guidance in better ways of vegetation.” The government official was slithering up and down rapidly now, gesturing with all of his pseudopods. “We are faced with a very difficult problem, at present—”
III. One billion years ago. The primitive triple trilobite the machine had destroyed when it materialized began drifting down wetly.
“—a very difficult problem. The question before us: should we shllk or shouldn’t we shllk?” He was hardly speaking English now; in fact, for some time, he hadn’t been speaking at all. He had been stating his thoughts by slapping one pseudopod against the other—as he always had…
IV. A half-billion years ago. Many different kinds of bacteria died as the water changed temperature slightly.
“This, then, is no time for half measures. If we can reproduce well enough—”
V. Two hundred fifty million years ago. VI. A hundred twenty-five million years ago.
“—to satisfy the Five Who Spiral, we have—”
VII. Sixty-two million years. VIII. Thirty-one million. IX. Fifteen million. X. Seven and a half million.
“—spared all attainable virtue. Then—”
XI. XII. XIII. XIV. XV XVI. XVII. XVIII. XIX. Bong—bong—bong bongbong-bongongongngngngggg…
“—we are indeed ready for refraction. And that, I tell you, is good enough for those who billow and those who snap. But those who billow will be proven wrong as always, for in the snapping is the rolling and in the rolling is only truth. There need be no change merely because of a sodden cilium. The apparatus has rested at last in the fractional conveyance; shall we view it subtly?”
They all agreed, and their bloated purpled bodies dissolved into liquid and flowed up and around to the apparatus. When they reached its four square blocks, now no longer shrilling mechanically, they rose, solidified, and regained their slime-washed forms.
“See,” cried the thing that had been the acting secretary to the executive assistant on press relations. “See, no matter how subtly! Those who billow were wrong: we haven’t changed.” He extended fifteen purple blobs triumphantly. “Nothing has changed!”
Nineteen forty-seven was the year of the first great science-fiction boom, following both the interest generated by the development of the atomic bomb and several highly successful science-fiction anthologies. The editor of one of these, Groff Conklin, was approached by moneyed people who offered to back him and Ted Sturgeon in a new magazine of which they were to be co-editors. This was a couple of years before Anthony Boucher and J. Francis McComas were to get together to produce The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and was a harbinger of the excitement that was to grip the science-fiction publishing field in the late ’40s and early ’50s.
Ted and Groff in their turn approached me and a number of other writers, offering a rate unheard up to that time—four and five cents a word—“for the very best stories of which you guys are capable, something genuinely distinguished.” (The going rate for science fiction at that time was one-half cent to a dazzling two cents a word. Only John W. Campbell of Astounding ever paid at the high rate—and only when a story knocked him off his chair.)
I had been thinking for a number of months about a new kind of story and one which had hitherto been inexplicably absent from the magazines we all wrote for: straight down-the-line and overt political satire. I say “inexplicably” because such satire had been very successful at novel length—Zamiatin’s We and Huxley’s Brave New World, to mention only the first two examples that came to mind—and because the science-fiction magazine would seem to be the natural, even ideal, vehicle for such stories.
And the America of 1947 seemed made for such satire. The Federation of Atomic Scientists, a group composed of the younger physicists and chemists who had worked on the Manhattan Project and been terrified of what they had accomplished, was under attack from many official and unofficial quarters as unpatriotic or—much worse in those days—demonstrating outright friendliness with the potential enemy. We were then, you might remember, in the earliest stages of what came to be known as the Cold War.
On the Congressional front, Senator Joseph McCarthy had not yet appeared in all his rattling glory, but the matters he was to specialize in had been ably handled for some years now by Martin Dies and the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC). The stage was being set.
Nineteen forty-seven was also the year, therefore, of a slashing attack on the entertainment industry by Martin Dies and HUAC: all kinds of celebrities and behind-the-scenes creative people had been subpoenaed and questioned most closely about their political associations and personal friendships—all in the name of national security and the protection of the manufacturing secrets of the atomic bomb. “Security” was the watchword of the day, a watchword invoked to cover all kinds of investigations and much more likely to be referred to at that time than the Constitution itself.
In the portentous name of Security, to mention just one hilarious example, supermarkets that stocked Polish hams (Poland, after all, was behind the Iron Curtain and was a full-fledged Communist state) were picketed as being of doubtful patriotism. There were prosecutions in the name of Security; there were suicides because of Security; there were heavily financed national campaigns in newspapers, magazines, and the broadcast media; there were even elections based on Security. And one especially enthusiastic junior Congressman had finally proposed that there be a seat in the Cabinet for Security.
It was this last development that sent me, halfway between laughter and outright terror, to the typewriter. I wrote and rewrote “Brooklyn Project” in a day and a half.
Both Sturgeon and Conklin liked it and marked it as their first purchase for the new magazine.
I was ecstatic. I blocked out a whole series of political and social satires I would write for that magazine. I had found the form I would be content to concentrate on for the next couple of decades. And I had found a well-paying market for that form.
Then the roof fell in. Or, rather, a whole series of roofs.
The backers of the magazine unbacked. They’d been involved in bad deals, assets that were supposed to be liquid had solidified on them, this, that—whatever: all plans for the new publication were cancelled. Conklin and Sturgeon tried to find financing elsewhere, and failed.
Sturgeon returned the manuscript to me with the comment: “Sorry, Phil, but you won’t have any trouble peddling a piece this good.”
He was wrong. Campbell called me to his office and skimmed the piece back to me across his desk. “Oh, no,” he said. “No, no, no!”
Science-fiction magazine editors on the next level down reacted pretty much the same way. “I wouldn’t touch this with a ten-foot pole,” one of them said. “Not in these times. I wish I could, though. The time-travel gimmick is lovely.”
The story finally found a home at what was then the very bottom of the field—Planet Stories, which paid a maximum one-half cent a word and specialized in action stories that took place anywhere but on Earth.
“The story doesn’t fit our book in any way,” Malcolm Reiss, the editor, told me, “and it’s dangerous as hell, but I figure this one is for God. An editor is entitled to at least one for God.”
Written 1947 / Published 1948