In the valley of Nis the accursed waning moon shines thinly, tearing a path for its light with feeble horns through the lethal foliage of a great upas-tree. And within the depths of the valley, where the light reaches not, move forms not meet to be beheld. Rank is the herbage on each slope, where evil vines and creeping plants crawl amidst the stones of ruined palaces, twining tightly about broken columns and strange monoliths, and heaving up marble pavements laid by forgotten hands. And in trees that grow gigantic in crumbling courtyards leap little apes, while in and out of deep treasure-vaults writhe poison serpents and scaly things without a name.
“THE FIRST time machine, gentlemen,” Professor Johnson proudly informed his two colleagues. “True, it is a small-scale experimental model. It will operate only on objects weighing less than three pounds, five ounces and for distances into the past and future of twelve minutes or less. But it works.”
The small-scale model looked like a small scale—a postage scale—except for two dials in the part under the platform.
Professor Johnson held up a small metal cube. “Our experimental object,” he said, “is a brass cube weighing one pound, two point three ounces. First, I shall send it five minutes into the future.”
EARTH was so far away that it wasn’t visible. Even the sun was only a twinkle. But this vast distance did not mean that isolation could endure forever. Instruments within the ship intercepted radio broadcasts and, within the hour, early TV signals. Machines compiled dictionaries and grammars and began translating the major languages. The history of the planet was tabulated as facts became available.
The course of the ship changed slightly; it was not much out of the way to swing nearer Earth. For days the two within the ship listened and watched with little comment. They had to decide soon.
What they called me, that was what started it. I’m as good an American as the next fellow, and maybe a little bit better than men like that, big men drinking in a bar who can’t find anything better to do than to spit on a man and call him Mex. As if a Mexican is something to hide or to be ashamed of. We have our own heroes and our own strength and we don’t have to bend down to men like that, or any other men. But when they called me that I saw red and called them names back.
“Mex kid,” one of the men said, a big red-haired bully with his sleeves rolled back and muscles like ropes on the big hairy arms. “Snot-nosed little Mex brat.”
Before Williams went into the future he bought a camera and a tape recording-machine and learned shorthand. That night, when all was ready, we made coffee and put out brandy and glasses against his return. “Good-bye,” I said. “Don’t stay too long.” “I won’t,” he answered. I watched him carefully, and he hardly flickered. He must have made a perfect landing on the very second he had taken off from. He seemed not a day older; we had expected he might spend several years away. “Well?” “Well,” said he, “let’s have some coffee.” I poured it out, hardly able to contain my impatience. As I gave it to him I said again, “Well?” “Well, the thing is, I can’t remember.” “Can’t remember? Not a thing?” He thought for a moment and answered sadly, “Not a thing.” “But your notes? The camera? The recording-machine?” The notebook was empty, the indicator of the camera rested at “1” where we had set it, the tape was not even loaded into the recording-machine. “But good heavens,” I protested, “why? How did it happen? Can you remember nothing at all?” “I can remember only one thing.” “What was that?” “I was shown everything, and I was given the choice whether I should remember it or not after I got back.” “And you chose not to? But what an extraordinary thing to—” “Isn’t it?” he said. “One can’t help wondering why.”
W. Hilton Young (1923-2009) was a British writer and politician and the 2nd Baron Kennet. His short story, “The Choice”, was first published in the March 1952 issue of Punch.
The next time you see the full moon high in the south, look carefully at its right-hand edge and let your eye travel upward along the curve of the disk. Round about two o’clock you will notice a small, dark oval: anyone with normal eyesight can find it quite easily. It is the great walled plain, one of the finest on the Moon, known as the Mare Crisium — the Sea of Crises. Three hundred miles in diameter, and almost completely surrounded by a ring of magnificent mountains, it had never been explored until we entered it in the late summer of 1996.
Our expedition was a large one. We had two heavy freighters which had flown our supplies and equipment from the main lunar base in the Mare Serenitatis, five hundred miles away. There were also three small rockets which were intended for short-range transport over regions which our surface vehicles couldn’t cross. Luckily, most of the Mare Crisium is very flat. There are none of the great crevasses so common and so dangerous elsewhere, and very few craters or mountains of any size. As far as we could tell, our powerful caterpillar tractors would have no difficulty in taking us wherever we wished to go.
There was no question that Montie Stein had, through clever fraud, stolen better than $100,000. There was also no question that he was apprehended one day after the statute of limitations had expired.
It was his manner of avoiding arrest during that interval that brought on the epoch-making case of the State of New York v. Montgomery Harlow Stein, with all its consequences. It introduced law to the fourth dimension.
For, you see, after having committed the fraud and possessed himself of the hundred grand plus, Stein had calmly entered a time machine, of which he was in illegal possession, and set the controls for seven years and one day in the future.
The doctors have left and I am told that in a few hours I shall die. In my lifetime the world has progressed from the chaotic turmoil of the early Atomic era to the peacefulness and tranquility of our present age, and I die content.
For ten years I have instructed you in all that you will need for the future. One final lesson remains to be taught.
THE space freighter Queen Dierdre was a great, squat, pockmarked vessel of the Earth-Mars run and she never gave anyone a bit of trouble. That should have been sufficient warning to Mr. Watkins, her engineer. Watkins was fond of saying that there are two kinds of equipment—the kind that fails bit by bit, and the kind that fails all at once.
Watkins was short and red-faced, magnificently mustached, and always a little out of breath. With a cigar in his hand, over a glass of beer, he talked most cynically about his ship, in the immemorial fashion of engineers. But in reality, Watkins was foolishly infatuated with Dierdre, idealized her, humanized her, and couldn’t conceive of anything serious ever happening.
On this particular run, Dierdre soared away from Terra at the proper speed; Mr. Watkins signaled that fuel was being consumed at the proper rate; and Captain Somers cut the engines at the proper moment indicated by Mr. Rajcik, the navigator.
The ship, for reasons that had to do with the politics of appropriations, was named Senator Joseph L. Holloway, but the press and the public called her Big Joe. Her captain, six-star Admiral Heselton, thought of her as Great Big Joe, and never fully got over being awestruck at the size of his command.
“She’s a mighty big ship, Rogers,” he said proudly to the navigator, ignoring the latter’s rather vacant stare and fixed smile. “More than a mile long, and wider than hell.” He waved his hands expansively. “She’s never touched down on Earth, you know. Never will. Too big for that. They built her on the moon. The cost? Well…”
Swiveling his chair around, Heselton slowly surveyed the ship’s control room with a small, satisfied smile. The two pilots sitting far forward, almost hidden by their banks of instruments, the radar operators idly watching their scopes, the three flight engineers sitting intently at their enormous control consoles, and, just behind, the radio shack—its closed door undoubtedly hiding a game of cards. For weeks now, as Big Joe moved across the galaxy’s uncharted fringe, the radio bands had been completely dead, except, of course, for the usual star static hissing and burbling in the background.