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THE TEMPORAL RIFT by Francis G Rayer

This short story first appeared in the magazine New Worlds, Issue Number 16, dated July 1952.
Editor: John Carnell. Publisher: Nova.
Country of first publication: Great Britain (England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland).
This work is Copyright. All rights are reserved.


By George Longdon (pseudonym of Francis G. Rayer)

THE TEMPORAL RIFT

The Time capsule had been buried for thousands of years — yet the date inscribed upon it was still in the future. It was quite a minor problem compared with the space-abberator set up for Mankind.

Illustrated by HUNTER

Sam Sperry splashed along the muddy path, where rain made deep pools in the excavation site bottom. Drizzle shone in the searchlight beams, and moisture dripped from his hat to the collar of his waterproof. He regretted leaving the comfort of his warm office.

“I hope there’s some truth in what you say !” he declared.

The man leading him among the piles of excavated rock looked back.

“It’s just as I said, Mr. Sperry. The gang is leaving it until you’ve seen it.”

Sam grunted. “We’ll see,” he said. Ernie Jones was sensible, though a bit simple.

They followed a wall of clay marked by the ripping teeth of the excavating machines. Ahead, two workmen stood near a silent conveyor-bucket chain. Ernie Jones pointed triumphantly.

“There ! I’ve never seen the like of it !”

A blunt metal object projected from the clay. Sam examined it under the brilliant light. It was as large as a man could span, and blue metal showed where the clay had been scraped off.

“Beats me how it got there,” Jones said.

Sam eyed it with curiosity. A hundred feet of stone and earth, undisturbed for a million years, lay above.

“It was uncovered by the excavating ?”

“Yes, Mr. Sperry. The men have been working round it. We thought it a mass of fused ore, at first.”

Sam nodded. “It’s obviously artificial.” He tapped it, causing a hollow, dull ringing. “Get it out and hoisted to surface level,” he decided. “Evacuate other gangs from the site meanwhile. Go yourself, if you like.”

Jones looked uneasy. “You think it’s explosive ?”

Sam shrugged. “Your guess is as good as mine. It’s best to be careful, that’s all.”

He began to dig with two volunteers. The object’s appearance of newness amazed him. A sling was fitted under the long cylinder as it emerged, and a hawser taken to a derrick above. In an hour the object was free. Sam wiped his forehead as the derrick began to wind and the torpedo rose slowly under the brilliant lamps. It was rounded at each end, and about ten feet long. He scowled, watching it rise. It should never have been there at all, he thought, and stamped to the lift-cage to reach surface level.

A searchlight illuminated the torpedo shape as the derrick slewed and began to lower. Sam hoped no unexpected difficulty was going to arise to delay the preparation of the new, subterranean experimental laboratory. The contract stated that the site and building shell would be ready in one year — on the day after, January 1st, 1960, the Sperry Works technicians would move in.

Rain ran down his neck, and he frowned at the descending object. The tall buildings away to his left were still the Sperry Works, but he was boss in name only. His work had suddenly proved to be of national importance. Officialdom had taken over, had made available unlimited capital — and unobtrusively removed him from his position. Now, a Board of Directors had the last say . . .

The torpedo touched down and the sling was removed. A hose was turned on the sticky clay, and the object lifted to a trolley. Sam examined it. Its outside shell appeared without feature, except for an engraving.

“Get it into the old workshop and see if you can open it,” he ordered. A thin line encircled its middle. “It may unscrew. Don’t use force if you can avoid it.”

He rubbed at the surface with his palm. The engraving was a date, and perfectly legible.

“22nd March, 1979,” it said.

This is 1959, he thought. He stood as motionless as if shot. 1979 was twenty years in the future !

Sam sat in his office, his feet on the desk. Ernie Jones dropped into the opposite chair, his coat dripping rain to the floor.

“Maybe it’s a hoax, boss,” he said.

Sam regarded him with kindly eyes. Jones had been there when the Sperry Works was a single corrugated-iron building.

“Who’d spend a packet on that, Ernie ? And how did it get there ? The gangs have been on the full twenty-four hours, to keep up to schedule.”

Ernie Jones scratched his grey head. “There’s truth in that, Mr. Sperry.”

“And sense,” Sam said. “It’s a problem for the Directors, not me.”

This was the first time he was glad he was not boss, Sam thought. But when he turned in to sleep he knew that he would not forget the object — its presence was too paradoxical.

He slept uneasily, and went to his office early, determined to form no opinion yet. His phone rang. Ernie Jones sounded excited.

“It unscrews,” he said, “but such a thread I’ve never seen ! It’s neither left nor right-hand — that’s what held us up.”

He paused as if expecting comment. Sam compressed his lips; he would suspend judgment on all this until it made sense.

“A thread that doesn’t unscrew either way,” he said, gaining time to quieten his shock, “yes, that all ?”

“There’s lots more.” Jones sounded disappointed. “The thing’s full of junk.”

“Junk!” Sam could not hide his surprise.

“Everything imaginable. Clothes, cosmetics, books, micro-films, everything you can think of small enough to go in.”

Sam stared at the phone, an idea forming slowly. Why would such things be stored in an unbreakable metal cylinder ? Because they had become relics . . .?

“And the strange thing is, it’s all so ordinary, boss,” Jones was saying. “Except for the films, you could pick up junk like this anywhere.”

“You’re sure ?” Sam asked.

“Yes, boss. Ordinary stuff like you see every day.”

Sam gnawed his lip; that was what he had suddenly feared. Ordinary stuff, such as you might see any day, stored in a sealed capsule . . .

“I’m coming round,” he said.

The night’s rain had left the concrete wet, and a fresh wind flapped his coat. Sam remembered when he had first tried the space-abberator, as he had called it, and how he had demonstrated to an unbelieving official. The man had gone away bewildered; two days later the tests were repeated before a dozen men whose names no one mentioned. A week afterwards the Sperry Works had been taken over, the development to be continued under official guidance, for reasons of national security, Sam was told.

He had made an impenetrable shield — a distortion of space through which nothing passed. Bullets did not ricochet, or shatter the target behind. They ceased to exist. The officials had talked of protecting whole cities from aerial attack; within hours of the second tests the place had swarmed with police and technicians, and an electrified fence was being erected. In a new building the largest space-abberator yet made was finished. The one to follow would be in vaults in the newly excavated site to reduce random radiation.

Ernie Jones was in the old workshop and the torpedo-shaped object lay in two halves. Sam looked at the thread, a mass of closely-set projections like turbine blades.

“It needed a semi-rotary movement to unscrew,” Jones said. “Rather tricky.”

Sam believed him. The contents were on a disused bench. As Jones had said, the stuff was absolutely ordinary and mostly of their own period. Books and newspapers were numerous, with other objects beyond counting.

Relics, Sam thought again, preserved for a future age.

Some of the papers were tied into bundles, but none was dated later than ten years on. Sam looked at them in curiosity; they had not yet come from the presses.

“The films ?” he asked.

“They show people, places and things, so far as I can tell, yet, Mr. Sperry. Some show us as we are to-day. Some are of a few years ahead, as far as I can judge.”

Ernie Jones made a gesture showing that he was baffled. It would take time to sift through the material, especially the papers and films, Sam thought. The obvious plan was to see if the latter made sense or gave an explanation.

“You’ve reported your find ?” he asked suddenly.

Jones pulled a face. “Yes, boss. It’s gone through the usual channels, as they put it. I was told everything must be left exactly as I had found it until they decide what to do.”

“Has anyone been here to look ?”

Jones shook his head. “Not yet.”

Sam put some of the papers under his coat and buttoned it. “I don’t feel like — waiting,” he said.

Back in his office, he opened the papers on his desk. A long search through obviously unimportant matter brought him to a paragraph stating that the Sperry Works area was wholly closed to the public, and no information was available. He sat back, frowning, not liking the word area, then turned to later issues. One said the neighbourhood of the Sperry Works had been evacuated, but that no further trouble was expected. The paper was the last he had, and written near in the margin were the words “This is the beginning.”

He sat frowning until the phone rang. A clipped voice asked for him.

“Here,” Sam said.

“We understand you have examined the materials found in the object discovered,” the clipped voice said, and Sam’s neck bristled. “This should have been avoided.”

So Ernie had talked, Sam thought. Trouble was beginning, though Jones had meant no harm.

“So what ?” he said thinly.

“We must insist that you go no further in this matter until the Board has decided what, if anything, shall be done. We cannot permit evidence to be destroyed, through carelessness, or allow individuals to take upon themselves the responsibility of examining such data ”

Sam hung up, feeling in no mood for official ballyhoo. He sighed, and went out. The workshop where the capsule had been taken was locked and silent.

“Locked out of my own sheds !” he growled.

He went to the new buildings. The effectiveness of his discovery had already been proved; now, technicians sought for a better explanation of what actually happened. They had not got far, and Sam felt a perverse joy in their failure.

The space-abberator occupied the middle of a huge workshop and Sam went in. A glass roof was supported on girders and daylight streamed in. The apparatus drew power from underground conductors. The control panels filled one wall and two men stood near them. One was elderly, the senior technician and a man Sam did not resent, because of his kindliness and knowledge. The second was younger, perhaps forty-five, and a man Ernie Jones termed a “queer cove.”

“We were going to run a test,” Manning, the elder, said.

Sam nodded. “What on ?”

“To see if the random radiation is less.”

“It won’t be !” the younger man declared. He looked nervous — always did, Sam thought. Now, his face twitched. “You’ll never reduce the radiation !” he stated. “It’s inherent in the effect.”

Sam eyed him curiously. “Why say that ?”

“Because everything which reduces radiation also reduces the efficiency of the effect,” Etterick stated firmly. “Even the sunken chamber on the new site won’t help, when it’s finished. You might as well try to stop time ! You can stop a clock — but that doesn’t stop time !”

Sam sucked in his lips, feeling oddly uneasy, his eyes on Etterick’s intense face. It was a thin face, lined beyond the man’s years, and the eyes were never still. “You’ve seen the capsule ?” he asked.

Etterick looked blank. “What capsule ?”

“Nothing — it was only a question suggested by your remark about stopping time . .

He left it at that, wondering if he could explain, or only land himself in a deeper morass of incomprehensibles. Manning had looked from one to the other as they spoke.

“Etterick has — certain doubts which he can’t put into words,” he said. “Briefly, he feels we’re meddling with something we don’t understand.”

“Nor do we !” Etterick stated.

“Perhaps not — but we shall find out.”

Manning examined the instruments, moving with a quiet efficiency which dropped years from his age. Sam walked round the apparatus in the centre of the floor. Sunshine slanting through the roof played on it, brilliantly picking out its shining components. Large as a house, it represented what Sam considered a shocking amount of capital expense. The new abberator, to be built in the subterranean chamber, would be ten times as huge, and would be the forerunner of many such units. A minor atomic explosion directed against the field had been snuffed out. Geiger counters behind failed to detect radiation . . . Such fields over key cities would form a powerful defence, authorities said . . .

He moved along behind the apparatus, slowly growing conscious of a tingling throughout his whole body. If it was radiation, it was harmless, in moderate dosage. He would watch the test, he decided . . .

The sun was visible through the roof, and was moving — fast . . . backwards. It sank into the eastern sky, the heavens grew dark, the room black as ink . . .

Sam stared, unable to move.

illustration from The Temporal Rift  New Worlds #16 The screen was on, he thought. He was inside. Manning supposed he had gone out.

Refusing to think, he reached carefully forwards with one hand. He had felt the screen before — it was a warm ebb and flow which could be touched, almost like velvet. It was not there. He gained the workshop door and opened it. Stars shone above, and the night was still. Dazed, he went to his room and sat on the bed. He felt unable to think clearly or go outside. The shock he had experienced was akin to lasting terror. To his surprise he slept a little, and when dawn came went slowly to his office. Everything looked normal. The morning shift was going to the excavation site. He sat at his desk, thinking, and put his legs upon it. His phone rang. Jones sounded excited.

“It unscrews,” he said, “but such a thread I’ve never seen ! It’s neither left nor right-hand— that’s what held us up.”

He paused as if expecting comment. Sam compressed his lips; he would suspend judgment on all this until it made sense.

“A thread that doesn’t unscrew either way,” he said, gaining time to quieten his shock, “yes, that all ?”

I've lived all this before, his mind screamed. Something was wrong— wrong ...

“There’s lots more.” Jones sounded disappointed. “The thing’s full of junk.”

Sam lived through the morning in an agony of mental amazement approaching insanity. It was desperately, unbelievably wrong. Like seeing a film round the second time — and knowing what was coming ... He dragged through the hours, real, yet a nightmare. Things should happen exactly how they did before, he thought. They did, but he knew. That first time, he had not known. He groaned silently. Everything else in the world was happening as it had before, in unfathomable repetition. Or he himself was back and seeing it again ... It was impossible to decide which. At last he found himself in the workshop, talking to the two, and experienced fear such as he had never known before. If it happened again, he thought, he would be in a strange, never-ending circle of time, eternally reliving those hours, and knowing . . .

“ . . . Briefly, he feels we’re meddling with something we don’t understand,” Manning said.

“Nor do we !” Etterick stated.

“Perhaps not — but we shall find out.”

Manning examined the instruments, moving with a quiet efficiency which dropped years from his age. Sam walked round the apparatus in the centre of the floor. Sunshine slanted through the glass roof . . .

No ! he thought. No. No !

He drew back, trembling, and found Manning adjusting the dials. “Hullo, thought you’d gone out,” Manning said.

Sam licked his lips, dry as paper. “You’re going to run a test ?”

“Yes.”

The circle was broken, Sam thought. The relief of it made him feel weak. He had made a loop in time, but was free. He stood near the panel, gazing at the apparatus, hating it beyond all words to express.

“The — tests must stop . . .” he said suddenly, and his voice scarcely seemed his own.

Manning’s eyes flicked up in surprise. “Only this morning the Board urged we press on more quickly ”

“Then they’re fools !” Sam said. “Madmen ! They don’t know what they’re doing !”

He turned on his heel and went out. The wind was cool on his face, and he breathed deeply, his agitation subsiding. Then, his lips set in a tight, thin line, he stamped towards the administrational buildings.

“I’m going to stay here and see the Directors if I have to wait until doomsday,” Sam stated.

The young woman behind the reception desk opened a notepad. “You could leave a message, Mr. Sperry— — ”

“And grow old waiting ? Ring them again !”

She did. Sam skirted the desk and had a hand on the knob of the second door before she could move.

“But you haven’t an appointment, Mr. Sperry !”

Sam opened the door. “That’s my worry !”

He went in, closing it at his back. Eight men sat at a polished table.

Every face reflected surprise and censure.

“We were in session, Mr. Sperry,” the chairman said.

He was tall, thin, with a face like carved brown wood and military erectness, though in light grey civilian clothes. Sam met his eyes levelly.

“The space-abberator must be stopped ! No more tests must be made until we know what happens.”

Eyebrows were raised. “An unexpected and strongly termed request, Mr. Sperry,” the chairman said. “What prompts it ?”

Sam’s face twitched. “The fact that we don’t know what happens ! We put up this screen — this force-field — and it shields everything behind so effectively that nothing gets through. Light, hertzian waves, radiated particles, and physical bodies — all fail to penetrate. They are not merely halted, or reflected back. They cease to exist — as far as we know.”

A man leaned forwards with elbows on the table, looking at Sam.

“Our ignorance need not distress you,” he said evenly. “Electricity was used before anyone knew what it was. Science often employs forces about which it knows little. The results are more important than the means. Certain procedures produce certain results; if those results are useful, we employ them. The shielding effect of the apparatus you originated is useful; therefore we shall develop and extend it.”

“I am not alone in my doubts,” Sam pointed out, compressing his lips.

“You mean Etterick ? We know. He can formulate no logical explanation. He merely suspects. In view of the importance of the work, we cannot stop it because of mere suspicions, Mr. Sperry.”

Sam wondered what they would say if told that he had relived several hours of the past. They would think him mad, and dismiss his demands.

“Have you had the capsule found in the excavation site examined ?” he asked. “It is connected with this.”

They whispered together. “It has not been looked into — officially,” the chairman said. Sam noticed the emphasis — they were aware of his visit to the workshop. “We feel it of no great urgency, and cannot see that it relates to our work.”

“It relates,” Sam said. “Tell me this — what happens to the things we shy against the screen ?”

He knew that a few minutes more would see him at the swearing stage. The Board was officialdom at its worst. No one would take a risk. Everything moved with painful slowness through official channels.

“We do not know.” The man who had spoken before shook his head. “But we shall find out.”

“When it’s too late !” Sam snapped. “It may be too late already !” He scowled at them. “The capsule contains papers with future dates, recording an unknown disturbance arising here !”

“You have examined the contents ?” the chairman interposed.

“I have.”

“Then you have committed an act we must censure, Mr. Sperry ”

“Censure it, then !” Sam swore roundly. “But don’t play with things you don’t understand ! Such long-winded, roundabout methods I’ve never before seen !”

The chairman flushed. “We shall be forced to record your attitude in our reports, Mr. Sperry . .

Sam swore again. “To hell with your reports and censures ! Act, instead of breathing hot air !” He glared at them. “If these works were mine I’d close this moment, and never touch the abberator until we knew what it was doing, even if it meant personal ruin ! As originator of the process, and past owner of the works, that’s my considered opinion. Close down. Stop the apparatus. Investigate what’s happening. Put that on your records !”

They whispered again. “We cannot agree. If you have any proof, of course ”

Sam swore, and the banging of the door behind him punctuated his words. The panels rang; the girl at the desk jumped, looking up quickly.

“Proof !” Sam said. “On their heads be it !”

He stamped out. There was no proof. Only in one direction would the wheels of officialdom gain a sudden momentum — to expel him from the Sperry Works !

“They’re madmen !” he said to himself, outside. His hot anger was subsiding. He should have expected nothing else, he thought. Reams of reports in triplicate would have to be passed by the Board before any possible stopping of the plant.

He found Etterick alone in one corner of a workshop long disused, and contemplating a large ring of metal set up in a lathe. He looked round, startled.

“You’re off duty ?” Sam asked.

“Yes, Mr. Sperry.”

“Then I’d like you to tell me exactly what you feel about the apparatus back there !”

Sam jerked his head towards the space-abberator building, watching Etterick keenly. He had a strong respect for the other’s intellect. Forty-five, he looked more, and was already slightly bald. His ears were large, his chin unexpectedly square.

“That’s — difficult,” Etterick said.

“I suspect — something.” Sam sat down on one of the stools near the bench. “That may help. Don’t feel I’m going to ridicule you.”

They were silent and Etterick twirled the ring upon the lathe, his brows drawn together. The ring itself was odd, indented with serrations which must have required a great deal of hand-work.

“I scarcely know how to put it,” he said at last. “To begin with, we don’t know what’s happening. Everything directed against the screen vanishes. That scares me. Matter cannot be annihilated — nor can radiations. They can be reflected back, but not simply cease to exist. We’re building bigger units. Instead, we should find out what happens when an object reaches the screen produced by the existing apparatus.”

Sam felt disappointed, half-expecting some revelation. “That’s how I feel,” he said. “Anything else.”

“Nothing — concrete.”

That was the trouble, Sam thought. They suspected, but could not prove. Their suspicions were difficult to put into words, though Etterick’s face showed his emotion. His cheeks were drawn tight; his eyes were tired. Sam looked from him to the ring, and a chill feeling sprang into being within him. The apparently random serrations were somehow familiar . . . He licked his lips.

“What are you making ?”

Etterick’s gaze flickered to the ring, then back to him.

“A — model. An idea I had. It’s for a special thread — one which can’t shake loose ”

Sam felt the blood drain from his cheeks, and the ice in his heart grow colder. “A thread which screws both ways ?”

Etterick nodded. “How did you know ?”

He seemed disappointed. Sam bit a lip, wondering if this meant nothing, really. After all, Etterick’s thread could be adopted into engineering practice.

. . . Perhaps Etterick himself had not made the thread on the capsule back there in the locked workshop.

He felt an explanation of his unease would seem foolish. “What were you making it for ?”

“Just — to try an idea."

Etterick began setting the controls on the lathe and Sam sensed that he had dried up. He went out. Night had come. Strings of lights marked the perimeter of the site and a glow from the depths of the excavation shone heavenwards. The dull rumble of machinery echoed up.

He stood motionless, recalling how Etterick had looked when speaking of the space-abberator apparatus. He wondered whether the morrow would see an official order requesting that he, Sam Sperry, withdraw from the Sperry Works. If that order came, it would be enforced. He scowled. Time was so short, and his hands tied.

But not quite tied, he thought. Not tied against acting immediately as he himself thought fit ! And that meant now.

The space-abberator was dimly lit by overhead tubes. No watchman was visible, and Sam went in. He had first discovered the effect while working on other things. The mechanism in the centre of the chamber was delicate, yet huge, and its value incalculable.

What happens ? he wondered.

He went into the centre hollow of the apparatus, so like a magnetron resonant chamber, with small chambers radially at eight points, reached by narrow passages down which a man could walk. An identical set of apparatus occupied each radial chamber. Sam scratched his chin. They knew what the thing did, but not how. Generated pulses met in the central cavity, forming a surge which passed out at the open upper end, to be deflected by an inverted conical reflector, forming a field round the machine. One day, the bosses said, the field would be made large enough to cover a city.

Sam wondered what whisper of international unease had urged on the work, so that more men poured in, with more equipment. The new abberator would be begun even before the site was ready, and lowered down as walls and roof were erected.

He wondered if he should have told Etterick about the capsule. But they could not gain access to it without official permission.

He returned to the central chamber, of a highly conductive polished metal, as were the passages and radial chambers. It was not in a fault that the danger lay, Sam thought, but in something inherent in the unit. The whole procedure was — wrong. Work should be stopped, not pressed on with increasing speed.

The central cavity was warm. He felt the walls. They were warm, too, and he frowned. The initial heating of the cathodes embedded in the junction of the radial passages had begun, and must proceed for a full half-hour before the critical operating temperature was reached. That meant it would be wise to go, he thought, as apparently a night test was to be run. He would look into one of the radial chambers to see if the cathodes there were also heating, he decided. If not, some fault was arising.

The cathodes in the first chamber were cherry-red. The others would be the same — they always were. No major breakdown had ever arisen.

He returned to the central cavity, lowering his feet for the ladder below the exit manhole. Abruptly, as under a blow, the surrounding walls shuddered. The ladder ceased to exist; he felt himself falling . . . but such a distance as meant not only to the floor below ... He struck earth with bone-shattering concussion, driven to hands and knees. His head met something unyielding, and consciousness went.

illustration from The Temporal Rift  New Worlds #16 He slowly grew aware of smooth rock, and sat up, rubbing himself. The night sky was above, and wind chill upon his face.

Wind, Sam thought.

He struggled to his feet, swaying, and saw he was in a saucer-shaped depression whose rim formed a serrated horizon half a mile away.

This time, it was too late . . . He reached the rim of the depression and began to climb. The rock was scooped out smooth as by a great machine.

Darkness stretched ahead beyond the edge. No lights indicated busy cities or vehicles.

He went slowly round the circumference of the pit, looking for a sign of human habitation. The distant view was dark and still. Often he listened, but the silence was broken only by the thin wind over the craggy rocks.

He judged that he was half-way round the perimeter when the slow, rhythmic tapping of a metal tool on rock reached his ears. Ahead was a single light.

He hurried, stumbling, not daring to think. An old man was working with a pick. He looked up, and leant upon it.

“Seldom I see anyone out here,” he said.

His voice was familiar. Sam halted, swaying.

“What are you — doing ?” he asked weakly.

“Trying to find out what happened.”

Sam felt his strength ebbing. Some things were difficult to comprehend — and this was one ! His mind curled, seeking an explanation, but the situation was too complex. He wondered whether he was mad . . .

“You look done in,” the man said. “Come to my hut.”

They walked over the stony ground. A shed of unpainted boards occupied a dip and the man hung his lantern on a nail.

“Funds are low,” he said apologetically.

Sam examined him. Bald, the heavy beard growing from chin to ears lent his host a prophetic appearance. A bunk occupied one corner of the hut. Nearby was a table and a single chair. A cupboard was nailed to one wall. Under it lay a muddle of oddments, and Sam’s eyes opened wide.

“Junk,” Ernie Jones would have called it. “Loads of it — just everything.”

Sam felt the strain and conflict in his mind creeping over him, and knew that he was going to faint.

“You’re — Etterick,” he said. “Etterick, with his odd thread, who put the stuff in the capsule ...”

Sam felt better after he had slept. Etterick sat on the bed.

“It’s thirty years since I began the capsule,” he said. He got up slowly and put the cup away. “I’ve stayed, determined to know what happened. I’ve felt like giving up — but never have. Some day I may prove what I suspect, or show I am wrong. I want to be wrong.”

“I’d like to see the capsule,” Sam said. It was the last proof.

They went out. From its rim Sam looked down at the circular depression.

“Buildings — everything, went,” Etterick said. “A large area is permanently evacuated. We’re probably the only people within thirty miles. The depression slowly grows in diameter. The effect was not confined to the time of its initiation. Things we thought the shield stopped were simply jerked into another time — as we found when the first missile appeared from nowhere and knocked a hole in the opposite wall. The delay was not predictable.”

“But this — hole,” Sam said, baffled.

“The machine had already created it in a future period. When that instant was reached, buildings and all vanished. It was self-destruction — with a time-lag. It was not there. I’d cracked up, trying to get them to stop the apparatus.”

Sam turned from the depression, made on through time. “You mentioned a secondary manifestation,” he said.

Etterick nodded, leading the way along a path. “The secondary effect I deduce may lie at a much greater depth, and occupy an increased area. I have never seen it. I imagine it as a ring separated by time, as well as space, and possibly arising at a further point in the future. There may be a series of rings, each larger, each arising farther in the future. If I am right, the appearance of a second would prove that to be so.”

Larger, Sam thought. Encompassing continents, the whole planet . . .

“The capsule is in a cave,” Etterick said. “It was foolish, perhaps, trying to preserve a few poor relics of life on this Earth.”

He indicated a cleft where steps had been cut. Sam imagined him toiling below, building the capsule. One thing was clear — Etterick had never known that the capsule had been found in the past. That information had never percolated through official channels.

Sam descended alone, the lantern in his hand. “I’m getting too stiff for the steps,” Etterick had said.

It was complicated, Sam thought. But it all fitted.

Ahead was the workshop where Etterick had laboured alone, uselessly. “The capsule is ten yards on, at the end of the cave,” Etterick had said.

Sam went on. There was no capsule and no wall. Only a gap in the rock, extending indefinitely on either hand, smooth, like a giant tunnel, its curvature so slight, the circumference must have been many miles. It was increasing slowly in size, the lip creeping towards his feet.

Etterick doesn’t know this, he thought.

Sweat was on his brow when he regained the surface and put out the lantern.

“The capsule’s all right,” he said thinly.

Etterick smiled, an old man. “I’ve put half a lifetime into it. It’s indestructible . . .”

But not safe against random shuttling through time, Sam thought. He thought, too, of the terrible rift, and its slow growing. The secondary ring, proving others would arise. Etterick was old, and could do nothing . . . It was a pity to destroy an old man’s dream of helping . . . Now, no one could help, ever. It was too late.

He listened to the wind, the memory of the terrible rift numbing him. It would always grow; could never be stopped . . .

The earth under his feet seemed to wobble, as if the planet had faltered about its axis.

Etterick looked at him. “Feel all right ?” he asked.

Sam nodded. “It was nothing . . .”

THE END

Francis G. Rayer.


to abberate = to diverge

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