2

There were six men in the office, grouped in a semicircle in front of L.M.’s desk.

“Lock the door and cut the phone wires,” he ordered.

“It’s three in the morning,” Barney protested. “We can’t be overheard.”

“If the banks get wind of this I am ruined for life, and maybe longer. Cut the wires.”

“Let me take care of it,” Amory Blestead said, standing and taking an insulated screwdriver from his breast pocket—he was the head of Climactic Studios’ technical department. “The mystery is at last solved. For a year now my boys have been repairing these cut wires on the average of twice a week.” He worked quickly, taking the tops off the junction boxes and disconnecting the seven telephones, the intercom, the closed circuit television and the Muzak wire. L.M. Greenspan watched him closely and did not talk again until he had personally seen all ten wires dangling freely.

“Report,” he said, stabbing his finger at Barney Hendrickson.

“Things are ready to roll at last, L.M. All of the essential machinery for the vremeatron has been built on the set for The Creature’s Son Marries the Thing’s Daughter and the expenses have been covered by the budget for this picture. In fact there was a bit of a saving there, the professor’s machines cost less than the usual props—”

“Don’t digress!”

“Right. Well, the last laboratory scenes for the monster picture were shot this afternoon, yesterday afternoon I mean, so we got some grips in later on overtime and cleaned all the machinery out. As soon as they were gone the rest of us here mounted it in the back of an army truck from the set of The Pfc. from Brooklyn and the Prof has hooked it up and tested everything. It’s ready to go.”

“I don’t like the truck—it’ll be missed.”

“No, it won’t, L.M., everything has been taken care of. It was government surplus in the first place and was going to be disposed of in the second. It was sold legally through our usual outlet and bought by Tex here, I told you—we’re in the clear.”

“Tex, Tex—who is he? Who are all these people?” L.M. complained, darting suspicious glances around the circle. “I thought I told you to keep this thing small, hold it down until we saw how it works, if the banks get wind…”

“This operation is as small as it could possibly be. There is myself and the Prof, whom you know, and Blestead, who is your own technical chief and has been with you for thirty years—”

“I know, I know—but what about those three?” He waved a finger at two dark and silent men dressed in Levis and leather jackets, and at a tall, nervous man with reddish blond hair. Barney introduced them.

“The two in the front are Tex Antonelli and Dallas Levy, they’re stunt men…”

Stunt men! What kind of a stunt you pulling bringing in two phony cowboys?”

“Will you kindly relax, L.M. We need help on this project, trustworthy men who can keep quiet and who know their way around in case of any trouble. Dallas was in the combat infantry, then on the rodeo circuit before lie came here. Tex was thirteen years in the Marines and an instructor in unarmed combat.”

“And the other guy?”

“That’s Dr. Jens Lyn from U.C.L.A., a philologist.” The tall man rose nervously and made a quick bow toward the desk. “He specializes in German languages or something like that, and is going to do our translating for us.”

“Do you all realize the importance of this project now that you are members of the team?” L.M. asked.

“I’m getting paid my salary,” Tex said, “and I keep my mouth shut.” Dallas nodded in silent agreement.

“This is a wonderful opportunity,” Lyn said rapidly, with a slight Danish accent. “I have taken my sabbatical, I would even accompany you even without the generous honorarium as a technical adviser, we know so little of spoken Old Norse—”

“All right, all right,” L.M. lifted his hand, satisfied for the moment. “Now what is the plan? Fill me in on the details.”

“We have to make a trial run,” Barney said. “See if the Profs gadget really does work—”

“I assure you… !”

“And if it does work we set up a team, work out a script, then go out and shoot it on location. And what a location! All of history is open to us on wide screen! We can film it all, record it—”

“And save this studio from bankruptcy. No salary for extras, no sets to be built, no trouble with the unions…”

“Watch it!” Dallas said, scowling.

“Not your union, of course,” L.M. apologized. “All of the crew from here will be employed at scale and above, with bonuses, I was just thinking of the savings at the other end. Go now, Barney, while I am still enthusiastic, and do not come back until you have good news for me.”

They footsteps echoed from the cement path between the giant sound stages and their shadows stretched first in back, then in front of them as they walked through the pools of light under the widely spaced lamps. In the stillness and loneliness of the deserted studios they had sudden thoughts about the magnitude of what they were attempting and they moved, unconsciously, closer together as they walked. There was a studio guard outside the building who saluted as they approached and his voice broke the morbid spell.

“Tight as a drum, sir, and no disturbances at all.”

“Fine,” Barney told him. “We’ll probably be here the rest of the night, classified work, so see that no one gets near this area.”

“I’ve already told the captain and he’s passed the word to the boys.”

Barney locked the door behind them and the lights flared from the rafters above. The warehouse was almost empty, except for a few dusty flats leaning against the back wall and an olive-drab truck with the white army star on its door and canvas turtleback.

“The batteries and accumulators are charged,” Professor Hewett announced, clambering into the back of the truck and tapping on a number of dials. He unhooked the heavy cables that ran to the junction box in the wall and handed them out. “You may board, gentlemen, the experiment can begin any time now.”

“Would you call it something else besides experiment?” Amory Blestead asked nervously, suddenly beginning to regret his involvement.

“I’m getting into the cab,” Tex Antonelli said. “I’ll feel more comfortable there. I drove a six-by like this all through the Marianas.”

One by one they followed the professor into the rear of the truck and Dallas locked up the tailgate. The banks of electronic machinery and the gasoline-powered motor-generator filled most of the space and they had to sit on the boxes of equipment and supplies.

“I am ready,” the professor announced. “Perhaps for the first trial we might take a look in on the year 1500 A.D.?”

“No.” Barney was firm. “Set 1000 A.D. on your dials just as we decided and pull the switch.”

“But the power expenditure would be less, the risk even…”

“Don’t chicken out now, Professor. We want to get as far back as possible so that no one will be able to recognize the machinery as machinery and cause us any trouble. Plus the fact that the decision has been made to do a Viking picture, not a remake of The Hunchback of Notre Dame.”

“That would be in the sixteenth century,” Jens Lyn said. “I would date the setting in medieval Paris rather earlier, about…”

“Geronimo!” Dallas growled. “If we’re gonna go let’s stop jawing and go. It spoils the troops if you horse around and waste time before going into combat.”

“That is true, Mr. Levy,” the professor said, his fingers moving over the controls. “1000 anno domini it is—and here we go!” He cursed and rumbled at the controls. “So many of the switches and dials are dummies that I get confused,” he complained.

“We had to make the machines so they could be used in the horror film,” Blestead said, talking too fast. There was a fine beading of sweat on his face. “The machines had to look realistic.”

“So you make them unrealistic, bah!” Professor Hewett muttered angrily as he made some final adjustments and threw home a large multipoled switch.

The throbbing of the motor-generator changed as the sudden load came on, and a crackling discharge filled the air above the apparatus: sparks of cold fire played over all the exposed surfaces and they felt the hair on their heads rising straight up.

“Something’s gone wrong!” Jens Lyn gasped.

“By no means,” Professor Hewett said calmly, making a delicate adjustment. “Just a secondary phenomenon, a static discharge of no importance. The field is building up now, I think you can feel it.”

They could feel something, a distinctly unpleasant sensation that gripped their bodies solidly, a growing awareness of tension.

“I feel like somebody stuck a big key in my belly button and was winding up my guts,” Dallas said.

“I would not phrase it in exactly that manner,” Lyn agreed, “but I share the symptoms.”

“Locked on to automatic,” the professor said pushing home a button and stepping away from the controls. “At the microsecond of maximum power the selenium rectifiers will trip automatically. You can monitor it here, on this dial. When it reaches zero…”

“Twelve,” Barney said, peering at the instrument, then turning away.

“Nine,” the professor read. “The charge is building up. Eight… seven… six…”

“Do we get combat pay for this?” Dallas asked, but no one as much as smiled.

“Five… four… three…”

The tension was physical, part of the machine, part of them. No one could move. They stared at the advancing red hand and the professor said:

“Two… one…”

They did not hear “zero” because for that fraction of eternity even sound was suspended. Something happened to them, something undefinable and so far outside of the normal sensations of life that an instant later they could not remember what it had been or how it had felt. At that same moment the lights in the warehouse outside vanished, and the only illumination came from the dim glow of the instruments on the tiered panels. Behind the open end of the truck, where an instant before the brightly lit room had been, there was now only a formless, toneless gray nothing that hurt the eyes when you looked at it.

“Eureka!” the professor shouted.

“Anyone want a drink?” Dallas asked, producing a quart of rye from behind the crate he was sitting on, and accepting his own invitation to the marked detriment of the bottle’s liquid contents. It passed quickly from hand to hand—even Tex reached in from the cab for a slug—and all of them, with the exception of the professor, drew courage from it. He was too busy at his instruments, babbling happily to himself.

“Yes—definitely—definitely displacing toward the past… an easily measured rate… now physical displacement as well… wouldn’t do to end up in interstellar space or in the middle of the Pacific… oh dear no!” He glanced into a hooded screen and made more precise adjustments, “I suggest you hold securely to something, gentlemen. I have made as good an approximation as possible to the local ground level, but I am afraid to be too precise. I do not wish us to emerge underground, so there may be a drop of a few inches… Are you ready?” He pulled the master switch open.

The back wheels hit first and an instant later the front of the truck jarred to the ground with a mighty crash, knocking them about. Bright sunlight flooded in through the open rear making them blink, and a fresh breeze brought the sound of distant breakers.

“Well I’ll be double-god-damned!” Amory Blestead said.

The grayness was gone and in its place, framed by the canvas top of the truck like a giant picture window, was a view down a rocky beach to the ocean, where great waves were breaking. Gulls swooped low and screamed while two frightened seals snorted and splashed off into the water.

“This is no part of California I know,” Barney said.

“This is the Old World, not the New,” Professor Hewett said proudly. “To be precise, the Orkney Islands, where there were many settlements of the northmen in the eleventh century, in the year 1003. It undoubtedly surprises you that the vremeatron is capable of physical as well as temporal displacement, but this is a factor—”

“Nothing has surprised me since Hoover was elected,” Barney said, feeling more in control of himself and affairs now that they had actually arrived somewhere—or somewhen. “Let’s get the operation moving. Dallas, roll up the front of the tarp so we can see where we’re going.”

With the front end of the canvas cover out of the way, a rocky beach was disclosed, a narrow strand between water and rounded cliffs. About a half mile away a headland jutted out and cut off any further view.

“Start her up,” Barney called in through the rear of the cab, “and let’s see what there is further along the beach.”

“Right,” Tex said, pulling the starter. The engine ground over and burst into life. He kicked it into gear and they rumbled slowly down the rocky shingle.

“You want this?” Dallas asked, holding out a holstered revolver on a gunbelt. Barney looked at it distastefully.

“Keep it. I’d probably shoot myself if I tried to play around with one of those things. Give the other one to Tex and hold onto the rifle yourself.”

“Aren’t we going to be armed just in case, for our own protection?” Amory Blestead asked. “I can handle a rifle.”

“Not professionally, and we work to union rules around here. Your job is to help the professor, Amory, The vremeatron is the most important thing here. Tex and Dallas will take care of the armaments—that way we can be sure that there won’t be any accidents.”

Alt for Satan! Look at that, so beautiful, that I should be seeing this with my own eyes!” Jens Lyn burbled and pointed ahead.

The truck had churned its way around the headland and a small bay opened up before them. A crude, blackened rowboat was pulled up onto the shore, and just above the beach was a miserable-looking building made of clumsily piled turf and stone and covered with a seaweed-thatched roof. There was no one in sight, though smoke was curling up from the chimney hole at one end.

“Where is everybody?” Barney asked.

“It is understandable that the sight and sound of this truck has frightened them and that they have taken refuge in the house,” Lyn said.

“Kill the engine, Tex. Maybe we should have brought some beads or something to trade with the natives?”

“I am afraid that these are not the kind of natives that you are thinking of…”

The rough door of the house crashed open as if to emphasize his words and a man leaped out, howling terribly and waving a broad-bladed ax over his head. He jumped into the air, clashed the ax against a large shield he carried on his left arm, then thundered down the slope toward them. As he approached them with immense bounds they could see the black, horned helmet on his head, and his flowing blond beard and wide moustache. Still roaring indistinctly he began to chew the edge of the shield: foam formed on his lips.

“You can see that he’s obviously afraid, but a Viking hero cannot reveal his fear before the thralls and housecarls, who are undoubtedly watching from concealment in the building. So he works up a berserk rage—”

“Save the lecture, will you, Doc. Dallas, can you and Tex take this guy on, maybe slow him down before he breaks something?”

“Putting a bullet through him will slow him down a lot.”

“No! Positively not. This studio does not indulge in murder, even for self-defense.”

“All right, if that’s the way you want it—but this goes under the personal jeopardy bonus in the contract.”

“I know! I know! Now get out there before—”

Barney was interrupted by a thud, then a tinkling crash followed by even louder howls of victory.

“I can understand what he is saying!” Jens Lyn chortled happily. “He is bragging that he has taken out the monster’s eye…”

“The big slob has chopped off one of the headlights!” Dallas shouted. “Keep him busy, Tex, I’ll be right with you. Draw him away from here.”

Tex Antonelli slid out of the cab and ran down the beach away from the truck, where he was seen by the berserk axman, who instantly began to pursue him. At about fifty yards distance Tex stopped and picked up two fist-sized stones, well rounded by the sea, and bounced one of them in his palm like a baseball, waiting calmly until his raging attacker was closer. At five yards he let fly at the man’s head and, as soon as the shield had been swung up to intercept the stone, he hurled the other at the Viking’s middle. Both stones were in the air at the same time and even as the first one was bounding away from the shield the second caught the man in the pit of the stomach: he sat down with a loud woosh. Tex moved a few feet away and picked up two more stones.

“Bleyoa!”[1] the downed man gasped, shaking his ax.

“Yeah, and you’re one too. C’mon buddy, the bigger they are, the harder they splat.”

“Let’s wrap him up,” Dallas said, coming out from behind the truck and spinning a loop of rope around his head. “The Prof is getting jittery about his gadgets and wants to go back.”

“Okay, I’ll set him up for you.”

Tex shouted some Marine Corps insults, but they did not penetrate the linguistic barrier. He then resorted to the Latin language of gesture that he had learned as a youth and with rapid movement of fingers and hands called the Viking a cuckold, a gelding, ascribed some filthy personal habits to him and ended up with the Ultimate Insult, left hand slapped to right bicep causing the right fist to be jerked up into the air. One—or more—of these obviously had antecedents that predated the eleventh century, because the Viking roared with rage and staggered to his feet. Tex calmly stood his ground, though he looked like a pygmy before the charging giant. The ax swung up and Dallas’s spinning lasso shot out and caught it, while at the same moment Tex put out his foot and tripped him. As the Viking hit the ground with a crash both men were on him, Tex paralyzing him with an armlock while Dallas hogtied him with rapid bights of rope. In a few instants he was helpless, with his arms tied to his legs behind his back and roaring with frustration as they dragged him through the pebbles back to the truck. Tex had the ax and Dallas the shield.

“I have to talk to him,” Jens Lyn insisted. “It is a rare opportunity.”

“We must leave instantly,” the professor urged, making a delicate adjustment on the verniers.

“We’re being attacked!” Amory Blestead squealed, pointing with palsied ringer at the house. A ragged horde of shock-haired men armed with a variety of swords, spears and axes were rushing down the hill toward them.

“We’re getting out of here,” Barney ordered. “Throw that prehistoric lumberjack in the back and let’s get going. You can have plenty of time to talk to him after we get back, Doc.”

Tex jumped into the cab and grabbed up his revolver from the seat. He fired it out to sea until all the chambers were empty, raced the engine, flashed the remaining headlight and blew the horn. The shouts of the attackers turned to wails of fear as they dropped their weapons and fled back into the house. The truck made a U-turn and started back down the beach. When they came to the sharp curve around the headland a horn blasted from the other side of the rocks and Tex just had time to jerk the wheel to the right—until the tires were in the rush of breaking waves—as another olive-drab truck tore around the headland and roared by them.

“Sunday driver!” Tex shouted out the window and kicked the truck forward again.

Barney Hendrickson glanced up as the other truck went by, swinging into their wheel tracks, and was almost petrified as he looked into the open rear. He saw himself standing there, swaying as the truck lurched over the rocks and grinning wickedly. At the last moment, before the second truck vanished from sight, the other Barney Hendrickson raised his thumb to his nose and wiggled his fingers at his duplicate. Barney dropped back onto a box as the rock wall intervened.

“Did you see that?” he gasped. “What happened?”

“Most interesting,” Professor Hewett said, pressing the starter on the motor-generator. “Time is more plastic than I bad ever imagined. It allows for the doubling of world lines, perhaps even for trebling, or even an infinite number of coils. The possibilities are incredible…”

“Will you stop babbling and tell me what I saw,” Barney snapped, lowering the almost empty whiskey bottle.

“You saw yourself, or we saw us who will be—I’m afraid English grammar is not capable of accurately describing a situation like this. Perhaps it would be better to say you saw this same truck with yourself in it as it will be at a later date. That is simple enough to understand.”

Barney groaned and emptied the bottle, then shouted with pain as the Viking managed to wriggle around on the floor and bite him in the leg.

“Better keep your feet up on the boxes,” Dallas warned. “He’s still frothing.”

The truck slowed and Tex called back to them. “We’re coming to the spot where we landed, I can see where the tire tracks begin just ahead. What’s next?”

“Stop as close to the original position of arrival as you can. It makes the adjustments simpler. Prepare yourselves, gentlemen—we begin our return journey through time.”

“Tr?ll taki yor ?ll!”[2] the Viking roared.

 

[1]“Coward!”

[2]“May the trolls take you all!” (A pre-Christian equivalent of “Damn you!”)

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