The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century (10 page)

BOOK: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
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That was all; but in Davis’s eyes it clinched the matter, though Barton was still doubtful. In the weeks that followed, he too began to waver, until at last they were both convinced that the theory was correct. For Professor Fowler was spending more and more of his time with Henderson and Barnes; so much so that they sometimes did not see him for days. He had almost lost interest in the excavations, and had delegated all responsibility to Barton, who was now able to use the big pneumatic drill to his heart’s content.

They were uncovering several yards of footprints a day, and the spacing showed that the monster had now reached its utmost speed and was advancing in great leaps as if nearing its victim. In a few days they might reveal the evidence of some eon-old tragedy, preserved by a miracle and brought down the ages for the observation of man.

Yet all this seemed very unimportant now, for it was clear from the Professor’s hints and his general air of abstraction that the secret research was nearing its climax. He had told them as much, promising that in a very few days, if all went well, their wait would be ended. But beyond that he would say nothing.

Once or twice Henderson had paid them a visit, and they could see that he was now laboring under a considerable strain. He obviously wanted to talk about his work, but was not going to do so until the final tests had been completed. They could only admire his self-control and wish that it would break down. Davis had a distant impression that the elusive Barnes was mainly responsible for his secrecy; he had something of a reputation for not publishing work until it had been checked and double-checked. If these experiments were as important as they believed, his caution was understandable, however infuriating.

 

Henderson had come over early that morning to collect the Professor, and as luck would have it, his car had broken down on the primitive road. This was unfortunate for Davis and Barton, who would have to walk to camp for lunch, since Professor Fowler was driving Henderson back in the jeep. They were quite prepared to put up with this if their wait was indeed coming to an end, as the others had more than half-hinted.

They had stood talking by the side of the jeep for some time before the two older scientists had driven away. It was a rather strained parting, for each side knew what the other was thinking. Finally Barton, as usual the most outspoken, remarked:

“Well, Doc, if this
is
Der Tag, I hope everything works properly. I’d like a photograph of a brontosaurus as a souvenir.”

This sort of banter had been thrown at Henderson so often that he now took it for granted. He smiled without much mirth and replied, “I don’t promise anything. It may be the biggest flop ever.”

Davis moodily checked the tire pressure with the toe of his boot. It was a new set, he noticed, with an odd zigzag pattern he hadn’t seen before.

“Whatever happens, we hope you’ll tell us. Otherwise, we’re going to break in one night and find out just what you’re up to.”

Henderson laughed. “You’ll be a pair of geniuses if you can learn anything from our present lash-up. But, if all goes well, we may be having a little celebration by nightfall.”

“What time do you expect to be back, Chief?”

“Somewhere around four. I don’t want you to have to walk back for tea.”

“O.K.—here’s hoping!”

The machine disappeared in a cloud of dust, leaving two very thoughtful geologists standing by the roadside. Then Barton shrugged his shoulders.

“The harder we work,” he said, “the quicker the time will go. Come along!”

The end of the trench, where Barton was working with the power drill, was now more than a hundred yards from the main excavation. Davis was putting the final touches to the last prints to be uncovered. They were now very deep and widely spaced, and looking along them, one could see quite clearly where the great reptile had changed its course and started, first to run, and then to hop like an enormous kangaroo. Barton wondered what it must have felt like to see such a creature bearing down upon one with the speed of an express; then he realized that if their guess was true this was exactly what they might soon be seeing.

By mid-afternoon they had uncovered a record length of track. The ground had become softer, and Barton was roaring ahead so rapidly that he had almost forgotten his other preoccupations. He had left Davis yards behind, and both men were so busy that only the pangs of hunger reminded them when it was time to finish. Davis was the first to notice that it was later than they had expected, and he walked over to speak to his friend.

“It’s nearly half-past four!” he said when the noise of the drill had died away. “The Chief’s late—I’ll be mad if he’s had tea before collecting us.”

“Give him another half-hour,” said Barton. “I can guess what’s happened. They’ve blown a fuse or something and it’s upset their schedule.”

Davis refused to be placated. “I’ll be darned annoyed if we’ve got to walk back to camp again. Anyway, I’m going up the hill to see if there’s any sign of him.”

He left Barton blasting his way through the soft rock, and climbed the low hill at the side of the old riverbed. From here one could see far down the valley, and the twin stacks of the Henderson-Barnes laboratory were clearly visible against the drab landscape. But there was no sign of the moving dust-cloud that would be following the jeep: the Professor had not yet started for home.

Davis gave a snort of disgust. There was a two-mile walk ahead of them, after a particularly tiring day, and to make matters worse they’d now be late for tea. He decided not to wait any longer, and was already walking down the hill to rejoin Barton when something caught his eye and he stopped to look down the valley.

Around the two stacks, which were all he could see of the laboratory, a curious haze not unlike a heat tremor was playing. They must be hot, he knew, but surely not
that
hot.

He looked more carefully, and saw to his amazement that the haze covered a hemisphere that must be almost a quarter of a mile across.

And, quite suddenly, it exploded. There was no light, no blinding flash; only a ripple that spread abruptly across the sky and then was gone. The haze had vanished—and so had the two great stacks of the power-house.

Feeling as though his legs had turned suddenly to water, Davis slumped down upon the hilltop and stared open-mouthed along the valley. A sense of overwhelming disaster swept into his mind; as in a dream, he waited for the explosion to reach his ears.

It was not impressive when it came; only a dull, long-drawn-out whoooooosh! that died away swiftly in the still air. Half unconsciously, Davis noticed that the chatter of the drill had also stopped; the explosion must have been louder than he thought for Barton to have heard it too.

The silence was complete. Nothing moved anywhere as far as his eye could see in the whole of that empty, barren landscape. He waited until his strength returned; then, half running, he went unsteadily down the hill to rejoin his friend.

Barton was half sitting in the trench with his head buried in his hands. He looked up as Davis approached; and although his features were obscured by dust and sand, the other was shocked at the expression in his eyes.

“So you heard it too!” Davis said. “I think the whole lab’s blown up. Come along, for heaven’s sake!”

“Heard what?” said Barton dully.

Davis stared at him in amazement. Then he realized that Barton could not possibly have heard any sound while he was working with the drill. The sense of disaster deepened with a rush; he felt like a character in some Greek tragedy, helpless before an implacable doom.

Barton rose to his feet. His face was working strangely, and Davis saw that he was on the verge of breakdown. Yet, when he spoke, his words were surprisingly calm.

“What fools we were!” he said. “How Henderson must have laughed at us when we told him that he was trying to
see
into the past!”

Mechanically, Davis moved to the trench and stared at the rock that was seeing the light of day for the first time in fifty million years. Without much emotion, now, he traced again the zigzag pattern he had first noticed a few hours before. It had sunk only a little way into the mud, as if when it was formed the jeep had been traveling at its utmost speed.

No doubt it had been; for in one place the shallow tire marks had been completely obliterated by the monster’s footprints. They were now very deep indeed, as if the great reptile was about to make the final leap upon its desperately fleeing prey.

RICHARD MATHESON

Richard Matheson was recognized as a powerful new talent in postwar fantasy with the
publication of his first story, “Born of Man and Woman,” in 1950. His early novels
I Am Legend
and
The Shrinking Man
broke new ground through their blending of
fantasy, horror, and science-fiction elements and elaborations of the theme that
dominates all his writing: the individual alone in a hostile universe struggling to
survive. Matheson’s special interest in the paranormal has served as the foundation for
his novels
A Stir of Echoes, Hell House,
and
What Dreams May Come
. His time-travel
romance,
Bid Time Return,
won the World Fantasy Award. His short stories are among
the most reprinted in the fields of fantasy, horror, and science fiction. Most were
collected in the definitive retrospective volume
The Stories of Richard Matheson
. He is
also author of the suspense novels
Ride the Nightmare
and
Seven Steps to Midnight,
and the award-winning westerns
Journal of the Gun Years
and
The Gunfight
. He has
scripted many movies and television shows, and his own work has been adapted for film
and television series, including
The Twilight Zone
and
Night Gallery
.

A popular exploration of the time-travel story is that of the protagonist meeting him-or herself from the future or the past. Matheson’s “Death Ship” takes the idea one step
further, having the space-exploring heroes of the tale encounter themselves in a very
dangerous future tense. This story was filmed as an episode of the original
Twilight Zone
television series in 1963, and starred Jack Klugman and Ross Martin as two of the
astronauts.

DEATH SHIP

by Richard Matheson

Mason saw it first.

He was sitting in front of the lateral viewer taking notes as the ship cruised over the new planet. His pen moved quickly over the graph-spaced chart he held before him. In a little while they’d land and take specimens. Mineral, vegetable, animal—if there were any. Put them in the storage lockers and take them back to Earth. There the technicians would evaluate, appraise, judge. And, if everything was acceptable, stamp the big, black INHABITABLE on their brief and open another planet for colonization from overcrowded Earth.

 

Mason was jotting down items about general topography when the glitter caught his eye.

“I saw something,” he said.

He flicked the viewer to reverse lensing position.

“Saw what?” Ross asked from the control board.

“Didn’t you see a flash?”

Ross looked into his own screen.

“We went over a lake, you know,” he said.

“No, it wasn’t that,” Mason said. “This was in that clearing beside the lake.”

“I’ll look,” said Ross, “but it probably was the lake.”

His fingers typed out a command on the board and the big ship wheeled around in a smooth arc and headed back.

“Keep your eyes open now,” Ross said. “Make sure. We haven’t got any time to waste.”

“Yes sir.”

Mason kept his unblinking gaze on the viewer, watching the earth below move past like a slowly rolled tapestry of woods and fields and rivers. He was thinking, in spite of himself, that maybe the moment had arrived at last. The moment in which Earthmen would come upon life beyond Earth, a race evolved from other cells and other muds. It was an exciting thought. 1997 might be the year. And he and Ross and Carter might now be riding a new
Santa Maria
of discovery, a silvery, bulleted galleon of space.

“There!” he said. “There it is!”

He looked over at Ross. The captain was gazing into his viewer plate. His face bore the expression Mason knew well. A look of smug analysis, of impending decision.

“What do you think it is?” Mason asked, playing the strings of vanity in his captain.

“Might be a ship, might not be,” pronounced Ross. 

Well, for God’s sake, let’s go down and see, Mason wanted to say, but knew he couldn’t. It would have to be Ross’s decision. Otherwise they might not even stop.

“I guess it’s nothing,” he prodded.

He watched Ross impatiently, watched the stubby fingers flick buttons for the viewer.

“We might stop,” Ross said. “We have to take samples anyway. Only thing I’m afraid of is... “

He shook his head. Land, man! The words bubbled up in Mason’s throat. For God’s sake, let’s go down!

Ross evaluated. His thickish lips pressed together appraisingly. Mason held his breath.

Then Ross’s head bobbed once in that curt movement which indicated consummated decision. Mason breathed again. He watched the captain spin, push and twist dials. Felt the ship begin its tilt to upright position. Felt the cabin shuddering slightly as the gyroscope kept it on an even keel. The sky did a ninety-degree turn, clouds appeared through the thick ports. Then the ship was pointed at the planet’s sun and Ross switched off the cruising engines. The ship hesitated, suspended a split second, then began dropping toward the earth.

“Hey, we settin’ down already?”

Mickey Carter looked at them questioningly from the port door that led to the storage lockers. He was rubbing greasy hands over his green jumper legs.

“We saw something down there,” Mason said.

“No kiddin’,” Mickey said, coming over to Mason’s viewer. “Let’s see.”

Mason flicked on the rear lens. The two of them watched the planet billowing up at them.

BOOK: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
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