The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century (2 page)

BOOK: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
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Theodore Sturgeon’s (1918–1985) fiction abounds with ordinary characters undone by
their all-too-human shortcomings or struggling in unsympathetic environments to find
others who share their desires and feelings of loneliness. Sturgeon began publishing
science fiction in 1939, and made his mark early in both fantasy and science fiction with
stories that have since become classics. “Microcosmic God” concerns a scientist who
plays God with unexpectedly amusing results when he repeatedly challenges a
microscopic race he has created with threats to their survival. “It” focuses on the
reactions of characters in a rural setting trying to contend with a rampaging inhuman
monster. “Killdozer” is a variation on the theme of Frankenstein in which a
construction crew is trapped on an island where a bulldozer has become imbued with
the electrical energy of an alien life form.

Fiction Sturgeon wrote after World War II showed the gentle humor of his earlier
work shading into pathos. “Memorial” and “Thunder and Roses” were cautionary tales
about the abuses of use of nuclear weapons. “A Saucer of Loneliness” and “Maturity”

both used traditional science
fiction scenarios to explore feelings of alienation and
inadequacy. Sturgeon’s work at novel length is memorable for its portrayals of
characters who rise above the isolation their failure to fit into normal society imposes.

More Than Human
tells of a group of psychologically dysfunctional individuals who
pool their individual strengths to create a superhuman gestalt consciousness. In
The Dreaming Jewels,
a young boy discovers that his behavioral abnormalities are actually
the symptoms of super
human powers. Sturgeon is also renowned for his explorations of
taboo sexuality and restrictive moralities in such stories as
Some of Your Blood,
World Well Lost,” and “If All Men Were Brothers Would You Let One Marry Your
Sister?” His short fiction has been collected in
Without Sorcery, E Pluribus Unicorn, Caviar,
A Touch of Strange.
The compilations
The Ultimate Egoist, Thunder and Roses, A Saucer of Loneliness, The Perfect Host, Baby Is Three, The Microcosmic God,
edited by Paul Williams, are the first seven volumes in a series that will
eventually reprint all of Sturgeon’s short fiction.

Traveling into the past only to discover that the past isn’t there any more is a popular
conceit of the genre. “Yesterday Was Monday,” one of his most-often reprinted tales, is
one of the early time-travel stories that were published after the pulp era, where the
emphasis wasn’t on science yet so much as strangeness, evoking a surreal feeling that
this story embodies perfectly. Making the protagonist of the story an everyday person
waking up in his own past instead of a scientist or an inventor only adds to the unusual
blend of time travel and fantasy.



Theodore Sturgeon

Harry Wright rolled over and said something spelled “Bzzzzhha-a-aw!” He chewed a bit on a mouthful of dry air and spat it out, opened one eye to see if it really would open, opened the other and closed the first, closed the second, swung his feet onto the floor, opened them again and stretched. This was a daily occurrence, and the only thing that made it remarkable at all was that he did it on a Wednesday morning, and—

Yesterday was Monday.

Oh, he knew it was Wednesday all right. It was partly that, even though he knew yesterday was Monday, there was a gap between Monday and now; and that must have been Tuesday. When you fall asleep and lie there all night without dreaming, you know, when you wake up, that time has passed. You’ve done nothing that you can remember; you’ve had no particular thoughts, no way to gauge time, and yet you know that some hours have passed. So it was with Harry Wright. Tuesday had gone wherever your eight hours went last night.

But he hadn’t slept through Tuesday. Oh no. He never slept, as a matter of fact, more than six hours at a stretch, and there was no particular reason for him doing so now.

Monday was the day before yesterday; he had turned in and slept his usual stretch, he had awakened, and it was Wednesday.

like Wednesday. There was a Wednesdayish feel to the air.

Harry put on his socks and stood up. He wasn’t fooled. He knew what day it was.

“What happened to yesterday?” he muttered. “Oh—yesterday was Monday.” That sufficed until he got his pajamas off. “Monday,” he mused, reaching for his underwear, was quite a while back, seems as though.” If he had been the worrying type, he would have started then and there. But he wasn’t. He was an easygoing sort, the kind of man that gets himself into a rut and stays there until he is pushed out. That was why he was an automobile mechanic at twenty-three dollars a week; that’s why he had been one for eight years now, and would be from now on, if he could only find Tuesday and get back to work.

Guided by his reflexes, as usual, and with no mental effort at all, which was also usual, he finished washing, dressing, and making his bed. His alarm clock, which never alarmed because he was of such regular habits, said, as usual, six twenty-two when he paused on the way out, and gave his room the once-over. And there was a certain something about the place that made even this phlegmatic character stop and think.

It wasn’t finished.

The bed was there, and the picture of Joe Louis. There were the two chairs sharing their usual seven legs, the split table, the pipe-organ bedstead, the beige wallpaper with the two swans over and over and over, the tiny corner sink, the tilted bureau. But none of them were finished. Not that there were any holes in anything. What paint there had been in the first place was still there. But there was an odor of old cut lumber, a subtle, insistent air of building, about the room and everything in it. It was indefinable, inescapable, and Harry Wright stood there caught up in it, wondering. He glanced suspiciously around but saw nothing he could really be suspicious of. He shook his head, locked the door and went out into the hall.

On the steps a little fellow, just over three feet tall, was gently stroking the third step from the top with a razor-sharp chisel, shaping up a new scar in the dirty wood. He looked up as Harry approached, and stood up quickly.

“Hi,” said Harry, taking in the man’s leather coat, his peaked cap, his wizened, bright-eyed little face. “Whatcha doing?”

“Touch-up,” piped the little man. “The actor in the third floor front has a nail in his right heel. He came in late Tuesday night and cut the wood here. I have to get it ready for Wednesday.”

“This is Wednesday,” Harry pointed out.

“Of course. Always has been. Always will be.”

Harry let that pass, started on down the stairs. He had achieved his amazing bovinity by making a practice of ignoring things he could not understand. But one thing bothered him—

“Did you say that feller in the third floor front was an actor?”

“Yes. They’re all actors, you know.”

“You’re nuts, friend,” said Harry bluntly. “That guy works on the docks.”

“Oh yes—that’s his part. That’s what he acts.” 

“No kiddin’. An’ what does he do when he isn’t acting?”

“But he—Well, that’s all he does do! That’s all any of the actors do!”

“Gee— I thought he looked like a reg’lar guy, too,” said Harry. “An actor? ’Magine!”

“Excuse me,” said the little man, “but I’ve got to get back to work. We mustn’t let anything get by us, you know. They’ll be through Tuesday before long, and everything must be ready for them.”

Harry thought: this guy’s crazy nuts. He smiled uncertainly and went down to the landing below. When he looked back the man was cutting skillfully into the stair, making a neat little nail scratch. Harry shook his head. This was a screwy morning. He’d be glad to get back to the shop. There was a ’39 sedan down there with a busted rear spring. Once he got his mind on that he could forget this nonsense. That’s all that matters to a man in a rut. Work, eat, sleep, pay day. Why even try to think anything else out?

The street was a riot of activity, but then it always was. But not quite this way. There were automobiles and trucks and buses around, aplenty, but none of them were moving.

And none of them were quite complete. This was Harry’s own field; if there was anything he didn’t know about motor vehicles, it wasn’t very important. And through that medium he began to get the general idea of what was going on.

Swarms of little men who might have been twins of the one he had spoken to were crowding around the cars, the sidewalks, the stores and buildings. All were working like mad with every tool imaginable. Some were touching up the finish of the cars with fine wire brushes, laying on networks of microscopic cracks and scratches. Some, with ball peens and mallets, were denting fenders skillfully, bending bumpers in an artful crash pattern, spider-webbing safety-glass windshields. Others were aging top dressing with high-pressure, needlepoint sandblasters. Still others were pumping dust into upholstery, sandpapering the dashboard finish around light switches, throttles, chokes, to give a finger-worn appearance. Harry stood aside as a half dozen of the workers scampered down the street bearing a fender which they riveted to a 1930 coupé. It was freshly bloodstained.

Once awakened to this highly unusual activity, Harry stopped, slightly open-mouthed, to watch what else was going on. He saw the same process being industriously accomplished with the houses and stores. Dirt was being laid on plate-glass windows over a coat of clear sizing. Woodwork was being cleverly scored and the paint peeled to make it look correctly weather-beaten, and dozens of leather-clad laborers were on their hands and knees, poking dust and dirt into the cracks between the paving blocks. A line of them went down the sidewalk, busily chewing gum and spitting it out; they were followed by another crew who carefully placed the wads according to diagrams they carried, and stamped them flat.

Harry set his teeth and muscled his rocking brain into something like its normal position. “I ain’t never seen a day like this or crazy people like this,” he said, “but I ain’t gonna let it be any of my affair. I got my job to go to.” And trying vainly to ignore the hundreds of little, hard-working figures, he went grimly on down the street.

When he got to the garage he found no one there but more swarms of stereotyped little people climbing over the place, dulling the paint work, cracking the cement flooring, doing their hurried, efficient little tasks of aging. He noticed, only because he was so familiar with the garage, that they were actually
the marks that had been there as long as he had known the place. “Hell with it,” he gritted, anxious to submerge himself into his own world of wrenches and grease guns. “I got my job; this is none o’ my affair.”

He looked about him, wondering if he should clean these interlopers out of the garage. Naw—not his affair, He was hired to repair cars, not to police the joint. Long as they kept away from him—and, of course, animal caution told him that he was far, far outnumbered. The absence of the boss and the other mechanics was no surprise to Harry; he always opened the place.

He climbed out of his street clothes and into coveralls, picked up a tool case and walked over to the sedan, which he had left up on the hydraulic rack yester—that is, Monday night. And that is when Harry Wright lost his temper. After all, the car was his job, and he didn’t like having anyone else mess with a job he had started. So when he saw his job—his ’39 sedan—resting steadily on its wheels over the rack, which was down under the floor, and when he saw that the rear spring was repaired, he began to burn. He dived under the car and ran deft fingers over the rear wheel suspensions. In spite of his anger at this unprecedented occurrence, he had to admit to himself that the job had been done well. “Might have done it myself,” he muttered.

A soft clank and a gentle movement caught his attention. With a roar he reached out and grabbed the leg of one of the ubiquitous little men, wriggled out from under the car, caught his culprit by his leather collar, and dangled him at arm’s length.

“What are you doing to my job?” Harry bellowed.

The little man tucked his chin into the front of his shirt to give his windpipe a chance, and said, “Why, I was just finishing up that spring job.” 

“Oh. So you were just finishing up on that spring job,” Harry whispered, choked with rage. Then, at the top of his voice, “Who told you to touch that car?”

“Who told me? What do you— Well, it just had to be done, that’s all. You’ll have to let me go. I must tighten up those two bolts and lay some dust on the whole thing.”

“You must
? You get within six feet o’ that car and I’ll twist your head offn your neck with a Stillson!”

“But— It has to be done!”

“You won’t do it! Why, I oughta—”

“Please let me go! If I don’t leave that car the way it was Tuesday night—”

“When was Tuesday night?”

“The last act, of course. Let me go, or I’ll call the district supervisor!”

“Call the devil himself. I’m going to spread you on the sidewalk outside; and heaven help you if I catch you near here again!”

The little man’s jaw set, his eyes narrowed, and he whipped his feet upward. They crashed into Wright’s jaw; Harry dropped him and staggered back. The little man began squealing, “Supervisor! Supervisor! Emergency!”

Harry growled and started after him; but suddenly, in the air between him and the midget workman, a long white hand appeared. The empty air was swept back, showing an aperture from the garage to blank, blind nothingness. Out of it stepped a tall man in a single loose-fitting garment literally studded with pockets. The opening closed behind the man.

Harry cowered before him. Never in his life had he seen such noble, powerful features, such strength of purpose, such broad shoulders, such a deep chest. The man stood with the backs of his hands on his hips, staring at Harry as if he were something somebody forgot to sweep up.

BOOK: The Best Time Travel Stories of the 20th Century
9.53Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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