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Tune Out of Time

a short story
by Philip E High

The machine was big, it had cost a great deal of money but somehow it failed to impress. There was something garish about it, vaguely theatrical. It was like one those huge organs that used to rise in front of the stage in the 1930s some two centuries A Step to the Stars by Philip E Highbefore.

Sadly, others saw the likeness, too, and it came to be known, unkindly, as Mottram's Organ.

It just couldn't be taken seriously as a product of the new science, Psycho-Radionics.

Through this new science, the world and the universe were giving up their secrets. This could probe all substances and probe twice as far into space as any other device known to man.

Mottram claimed that his machine could go much further. It could recreate the past visually on a screen -- within one hundred and seventy metres radius and back in time up to five thousand years.

Test figures suggested that, fed a mass of data, it could predict a problematical future up to ten thousand years.

It was this claim that blew Mottram's organ out of the water before anyone had studied it.

The few scientists who came along to the device's unveiling gave him a hard time.

"How do you propose bringing in the future, Mottram -- visually?"

"Well, no, I don't think the visuals would react to advanced substances."

"Then by what medium do you hope to bring it in?"

"By a human being, naturally. We are dealing with psycho-radionics."

"But, good God, man, with a human link, you could bring in dreams, imagination, the subjective, anything."

"I am prepared to meet such contingences."

"No doubt, Mottram, no doubt -- but the dangers to the human recipient are beyond calculation."

"That is true, but I have taken immense precautions. Monitors will keep tabs on his heart rate, chemical changes in his blood, aura variations and mental outputs."

The scientist shrugged. "If I were a volunteer for the position, your assurances would fail to comfort me. Those safety devices might cut in fractionally too late."

There was, of course, a mass of printed work and specifications to go with the device, but they were only glanced at. The future indeed! This was reaching beyond the boundaries of true science. Mottram was a known eccentric anyway; this time he really had gone over the top.

Mottram received the final jeer from the last viewer. "Is it restricted to classical themes only, old boy, or can it turn out a bit of jazz as a sideline?"

Mottram's Organ had been cruelly christened.

Adam Mottram was hurt but not put down by the criticism. It seemed to be something that every pioneer had to go through. In the long run you had to prove your point to confound the critics. Failure or not, the device had been examined by twelve experts from The Ministry of Technical Safety. Although it had not been given an operational safety degree, the incorporated safety devices had been pronounced as adequate which meant it was free to test

Mottram himself was a little bird-like man with dark, untidy hair and a permanently corrugated forehead. He was a dedicated scientist and had been fortunate in finding a volunteer who was equally dedicated.

His name was Alan Stapleton and he was in his early thirties. He was not a scientist but he was a widely read, well-educated man of a high intelligence. He wanted to learn more, experience more and his zest for knowledge had drawn him into this position.

When qualified volunteers were sought, he was not only one of the first to volunteer but one of the first chosen. In this dimension of science the word 'qualified' had an entirely different meaning. In this particular science, knowledge had very little to do with suitability.

Psycho-radionics, simplified, was a link between the human brain and a computer likeness working as one.

It had been found that this human/computer had vastly extended faculties in most branches of science such as nuclear construction, medicine, an exploration of the universe far beyond that of any previous method.

Countless tests and three decades of practical experience had proved beyond doubt that the method was safe. No physical or mental deterioration had been suffered from the quite numerous operators working in various parts of the world. These operators, however, were working within known boundaries but this device, clearly, did not. Together, man and machine were going to probe into the abstract -- into time and space.

Both men were aware that herein lay the danger; the machine might escape the danger but would the human brain?

By the time came for the test, Mottram had worked himself into a dreadful state of nerves. "You're quite sure you still want to go through with this? You've thought it through from beginning to end?"

"For the tenth time, yes. Do you want ten affirmatives to confirm it? Hell, Adam. there are more safety cut-outs in this thing than there are computer units. In any case the Commission For Safety passed it, isn't that enough?"

"I'm sorry. I've got nerves, I'm probably giving you nerves. I'm like that. Another thing, while I'm on the subject, I wouldn't have observers in for the same reason. I couldn't stand their blasted jeers and know-all smirks if it fails."

Mottram paused, drew a deep breath and croaked: "Are you ready?"

"Yeah, sure." Stapleton was shocked to discover that his own voice was curiously unnatural.

He put on the helmet, tightened the contacts and pulled the protective screen down in front of him.

He was suddenly frightened, he had used several P-S machines before but this was different. Absurd images rose in his mind. He was flying blind, he was flying a bloody great organ blind.

Three small green lights appeared near his right knee. Mottram had pressed the master switch --

Inside Stapleton's head there was a remote sort of bang. He had no time to think that something had gone, no time even to feel fear.

He was leaning against a wall in a quiet street -- street? No, a canyon almost: smooth, reddish, without windows but thronged with people.

He could see, looking up, that it was nighttime. The streets were brightly lit but he had no idea where the light came from; there were no streetlights.

Surely he and Mottram had agreed that their first experiment would be the past?

On the other hand this might be neither, that bang in the head might have been final.

He was gripped suddenly by both arms and pushed heavily against the wall.

"You do not belong here. What are doing here, appearing on the street in that state?"

Stapleton saw he had been grasped by two heavily bearded men in multi-colored voluminous clothing.

"I'm sorry, something went wrong ... am I dead?"

"What are you talking about, fellow? Of course you are not dead. This is not the world of spirits."

"But you grabbed me almost at once. You said I did not belong."

"You are being too complicated, fellow. You have but to look around you. Only women expose their faces, men are respectably bearded. Do you wonder we said you did not belong? Shaven faces here, if not outright indecent are anti-social. You are, therefore, an alien -- yes?"

Stapleton, confused, nodded quickly. "Yes -- yes -- I suppose I am but I don't understand what's happened."

"Nor we but we will take you to a diagnostic for help."

On an obscure fragment of matter called Earth, Mottram, frozen, stared at his device. Every warning and every safety device had had blown as soon as he had pressed the activator switch. There was an acrid smell of burned insulation points and rubber. Small clouds of brown smoke drifted towards the ceiling.

Mottram was a nervous wreck on occasions but never in a crisis. His mind remained cool, analytical and detached.

He saw at once that attempting to correct his device was out of the question. He couldn't get near it: twenty centimetres from its surface, his hand was stopped by something unseen; it was surrounded or encased in invisible substance.

He ran through his options quickly. Call someone -- who? He knew more about this device than anyone in the world. The only answer, therefore, was to use the spare computer in the corner of the room to try and figure out what had gone wrong.

Inside his mind was a kind of open wound, too. Dear God, what had happened to Stapleton? Where was he? Was he still alive or had he been blown to a million fragments in the first second?

Stapleton had been taken into a room that had appeared in the wall beside them. There had been a brief flash and this room had changed into another larger room, which seemed to be equipped like a laboratory.

Stapleton felt numb. The past! With matter transmission? This was a future civilization, no doubt about it.

The right wall of the room bulged slightly and a man stepped through it and into the room. A tall man in a green apron and wearing a green, square cut beard.

"I have been given to understand you thought you had entered the world of spirits," he said. "What caused you to think that?"

"There was an accident and I ended up on a strange world, it was a natural conclusion, surely?"

"You are alien to this world are you not?"

"Yes. Yes, I am."

"Is not your civilization founded on the continuation of life?"

"The con -- " Stapleton stopped, realizing what the man was driving at. "Well, a number claim to believe in life after death and a larger number hope so."

"You mean, that as a civilization, your people do not know?" The bearded man looked shocked. "In what blind and dreadful chaos you must live. Here we know, here we can see and, on rare occasions, communicate directly with our loved ones when they have gone before us. Needless to say our entire civilization is based upon this reality."

"I'm not questioning your claims," Stapleton was slightly flushed, "but for me everything does not fit neatly into place. I find myself in an alien dimension and everyone speaks perfect English. To me this just doesn't make sense."

The other looked at him understandingly. "I am sorry, I should have shown more consideration. It is not your fault you have a chaotic background ... Allow me please to investigate, which I should have done in the first place."

He went to the right wall of the room and made a few brief motions with hands. He appeared to read something but, to Stapleton, the wall remained clear.

The bearded man studied for perhaps half a minute then turned towards Stapleton, "I think I have arrived at the cause, please correct me if I am wrong. As I see it, from my calculations here, a device has been constructed in your dimension to explore time and space."

"Yes, you've got it exactly."

"A very dangerous device if I may say so. Dangerous, not in itself, great care has been utilized on its construction, but in its aims. It opens a door into conceptions, about which those who built it know nothing. It is, in comparison, like opening the door of a jungle onto an urban street with no knowledge whatever of the kind of animals that live in that jungle. I deduce that this device was locked on the past -- who's past, yours or ours? Time is relative, our future could be in your past or vice versa. What your device has done, however, is attuned you exactly to a specific dimension in time/space. You cannot live, or exist as a corporate being in any other dimension save this one because you are exactly attuned to it. This also explains your language problem. We do not speak your tongue and you do no speak ours but, as humanoids, we are so exactly attuned that we appear to. What really is taking place is a near-perfect telepathic communication."

Stapleton, shivering inwardly, said: "What happens now?"

"Well, as near as I am able to explain it, you are an intrusion into order. In due course you will be re-adjusted or re-attuned to your normal dimension. I must warn you, however, that the process is not exact. It is possible that you become attuned to one or two other dimensions before you actually return to your own. My people will give you every assistance and every protection possible, but we cannot guarantee your safety beyond doubt."

Stapleton nearly said: "Can't I stay here?" but changed his mind hastily. Did he want to stay in a society where each individual knew when he was going to die and what sort of position he would occupy in the next world? Thanks, but no, that was not for him. Suppose he had no choice? He asked the bearded man directly.

"A short time only, visitor, the equivalent of two days."

In another time in another space, Mottram was sweating over his computer. He had arrived at a rough idea as to what had gone wrong. The setting for his device should have been set fractionally into the future to begin. Then, on start, the device would have proceeded into the past normally. As it was, on the pressure of the switch, the machine had begun its assumed journey. All the safety devices, designed to function on entry, were consequently stressed and put themselves out of action.

Mottram swore horribly, uncaring about a tear running down his face. It was a theory, a mathematical mad house, no more. It did nothing to correct matters or to bring Alan back from God knew where.

He became conscious of a noise behind him, and turned.

"Got trouble?" Reginald Newport had been one of the scientists at the unveiling and he was beaming.

"Get out of here." Mottram's voice was shrill but almost steady. "If you've come to gloat I shall think nothing of killing you, too."

"Killing me? I don't understand"

"Stapleton is missing."

"Oh, my God!" Newport felt genuine regret mixed with a faintly malicious triumph. They had warned the stupid bastard. Again he must let the other lads know as soon as possible. He put a swift secret code on his mobile. Wallerton would read it and call the others.

He said: "Surely you can do something to the machine, reverse the circuits or something?"

"I can't get near it, take a look for yourself."

Newport did so and was suddenly alarmed. The bloody thing was covered in some sort of transparent substance like ice.

He called the other scientists discreetly -- not that Mottram was in any fit state to notice what he did. He didn't like the set-up at all. Like the other scientists he had expected the whole business to flop. The device may not have travelled in time but something untoward had happened.

He could understand Mottram being distraught, Stapleton was trapped inside the thing and there was no means of reaching him. Did he have sufficient air? Was the device building up an enormous charge of static now, which might result in a gigantic explosion?

One of the scientists who hurried in was Rodman. He was the man who asked Mottram if his device played classics or jazz.

Rodman no longer felt sarcastic or witty. As soon as he had come in and looked at the machine, a cold center had begun in the center of his stomach and seemed to be spreading.

He was frightened but he had no idea why he was frightened.

He was a plastics expert, and, aside from hearsay, knew absolutely nothing about Psycho-Radionics. Yet, here, right now, was a danger he had to report.

Suddenly, it seemed, there was a faint click in his mind and the tension vanished, the matter was being taken care of. He was, however, still frightened -- this incident contained a threat.

Two thousand miles away in an obscure office a man rose and prepared for a journey. He had received the message and knew what to do; this clever device would have to blow itself to pieces. He would ensure, of course, that the reasons for the explosion would be wholly acceptable to an enquiry.

Near the device, Mottram, although nearly frantic, had kept his self-control and was still laboring to save Stapleton. There must be a key to the bloody thing, it must respond to some sort of short wave frequency or other -- harmonics, perhaps?

At that moment there was a loud crack from the machine and several of those present sprinted for the door.

Those who did not, however, saw the ice-like substance, in which the device had been encased, splinter down the middle.

The two halves fell sideways but never hit the floor. They dissolved into a shimmering mist before they reached it.

"Out of my blasted way!" Mottram pushed those in his way roughly aside.

Lights were coming on; the machine was functioning again. Mottram did not wonder or care if it had stopped.

He pushed back the cover. "You OK?" He did not wait for an answer; he said: "My God!" and "Can I help you out?"

"I'm fine, thanks."

Mottram turned on the watchers. "Make some room, can't you? This is not a bloody side show."

Those in the front began to edge back uneasily. This was Stapleton, they knew him, but, dear God, in about five hours -- ?"

Someone at the back said: "My God, he has traveled in time."

Stapleton wore at least a week's growth of beard and his face was dirty. His clothing was in tatters and the left sleeve of his jacket was missing.

He laid his hand briefly on Mottram's shoulder. "Thanks, I know how you felt." He looked at and through the others. "A shower, a meal and a long sleep are the order now. I will give details of my experiences in the morning."

He paused and half turned away, then he said: "Most of you will not believe me, some may but it is immaterial: none of you will like it!"

Although he was near exhaustion Stapleton found sleep elusive. As the bearded man had warned him, there was no straight return. When that world faded, he found himself on another.

This one was hot and wildly tropical. He was standing with his back to a high, black and obviously volcanic cliff. Vines, as thick as his thigh climbed up it, sprouting huge purple leaves and bright red berries.

There was a thick mist that cleared occasionally revealing a blazing white sun and some of his surroundings.

He was looking at a jungle that had taken root in a swamp. He could see small pools of water and the place stank.

Beyond the jungle, close to the horizon was a range of mountains. Two of the distant peaks were belching black smoke and occasionally he could feel the ground shiver beneath his feet.

He noticed suddenly that the vines in front of him were flattened as if a large number of people had passed there recently.

He shrugged mentally, no point in just standing here, better reconoitre, but with caution. Let's see now, the cliff bent to the left ...

He sat on a black rock, staring unseeingly before him. He wore a loose, silvery-colored suit and a tight helmet of the same color with a long peak.

He glanced in Stapleton's direction as he approached then quickly away.

"Come to gloat?" he asked.

"Sorry, I don't quite understand, and -- "

He was not permitted to finish the sentence.

"You're a timer, aren't you? Don't tell me you're not, you've got that sort of humming, harmonic sort of sound. I can always tell."

"Not from choice." Stapleton was suddenly angry.

The other looked at him quickly. "Sorry, should have looked closer."

"It's nothing personal, it's just a state I've got into. Emotionally I've come to the end of the road. I'm too embittered to feel bitterness, too choked with hatred to feel the need for revenge."

He looked up at Stapleton with an intense expression. "They played us for idiots, the greatest confidence trick in all eternity. We fell for it, it was so cleverly put over that we really believed that we thought of it."

The ground shook beneath their feet and he shouted: "Grab that thick vine on the cliff face there and hang on for dear life."

The earth tremor lasted about eleven seconds but it seemed like five minutes to Stapleton. It was terrifying -- the entire world seemed to roll beneath their feet in waves and the cliff face shivered. Trees in the jungle rocked like the masts of many ships and, here and there, founts of water rose above the highest branches.

When it was over, the uniformed man pushed back his peaked helmet and wiped his forehead on the back of his hand. "That is number thirty two," he said. "After a time you get used to them -- almost."

He re-adjusted his helmet and smiled weakly. "My name is K'Quandrok; full title, Pioneer Supervisor, First Class -- and you?"

Stapleton told him and since there still seemed to be some tension, gave a brief outline of the situation.

K'Quandrok's faint hostility lessened. "Sorry, it is clear you are a victim also. You know, friend, it happens every day, somewhere in the universe. One race or another discovering the basic principles of time travel. Those who survive come back with the stupendous news that time is relative -- relative to what? Vague incomprehensible clichés that mean nothing. We were just the same, we thought we knew it all and we didn't even discover it but we thought we did. The clues were laid out neatly before us, a neat puzzle for us to put together as our own. We could travel in time, what clever little boys! Clever! We were less than nothing, we were children paddling a tree trunk with our hands."

He paused and stared unseeingly into the distance. "Only the Herdsmen knew what they were doing, they were the only ones who could manipulate time -- "

This time he did smile but it was a mockery of the real thing. "You have told of your situation, friend, come, see something of ours. Just round the corner here, there is a wide crack in the cliff face, a few paces only."

A fissure in the cliff face lead to an open plain and Stapleton stared at it open mouthed. unable to find words. Then:


K'Quandrok nodded, his face twisted. "Yes, I think you can say that, impressive and utterly useless. They showed us that before we left, stores waiting in readiness for our arrival. Boxes, crates, containers, stretching away a mountain high. All this containing stores and machines to construct our future here, machines to make roads, build cities and cultivate the land. It may amaze you to know, my friend, that some few of those crates in the front actually contain machines. I think they were put there to mock us. Nowhere can any frantically searching survival team find a solar transformer. Without such a device, any machine, ever found, would be useless."

He sighed and turned slowly away. "As you have probably guessed, we have been manipulated by an alien race which we never knew existed. It is clear they grew to greatness on the most profitable economy of all -- a slave economy. Build an empire, conquer the stars but use some lesser life forms to do the job for you. Mind you, mine was not the only world exploited there were several more, all humanoid, if you understand me. When we, and the other races with us, have tamed this primitive world to their satisfaction, they will move in to take over, another jewel in their crown of conquest."

He paused and looked at Stapleton with an expression of utter resignation. "Yes, yes, perhaps a billion years hence on this planet, no worry to them, they control time -- "

The room was packed when he entered it next morning and he realized instantly that word had gone around and several members of the media had joined the crowd. They were there for a laugh and, perhaps a weird story or two but certainly not to take the business seriously. It was obviously true that this man Stapleton had undergone some sort of experience but it was unlikely to be factual or provable. The best they could hope was an unlikely subjective experience.

They started by giving him a hard time, prompted, it was clear, by information supplied by some of the scientists.

A few hours ago Stapleton would have withered under such questioning but they were dealing with a different man now.

"Tell me, Mr. Stapleton, did you fly this device like an aircraft?"

"No, once operating, I had no control over it."

"And it traveled in time?"

"So it appeared, yes."

"Which way? Up? Down? Round the corner?"

"Sir, if you can explain to me how to give directions in time, I shall be happy to answer you."

The reporter colored slightly, realizing he had walked right into that one. Again, he must watch it next time he tackled him.

"Is anyone going to let this man speak?" enquired a voice at the back. "The time for enquiry and criticism is after we've heard his story, not before."

They let him tell the first part of his story but there was an interruption at the end. "Have I got this right, you end up with a world full Holy Joes, Bible Bashers?"

"I found myself with a gentle, friendly and highly ethical people. The fact that they had practical knowledge of myths you make jokes about supported their culture. Do you have a problem with such an idea, sir?"

The reporter was a big, heavy shouldered man and the remark had got under his guard. For two pins he would flatten the sarcastic bastard's nose.

He looked into Stapleton's eyes and changed his mind. He had seen that look in a man's eyes before. Men who had survived a heavy bombardment in war, or just escaped disaster, men who had lived close to death and knew what it meant. Men whose lives had been changed by their experiences -- those kind of men you left alone.

The majority of those present had made up their minds. This man Stapleton was not trying to deceive them. He was telling the truth as he saw it. His story was undoubtedly subjective but he believed it to be the truth.

Others were far less convinced. "I suppose you took a short trip on a flying saucer on your return journey, Mr. Stapleton?"

The other answered him seriously. "Not with physical attunement, no. Their life structure bears no resemblance to ours but there was a mental attunement, yes; we communicated briefly."

"Oh ho, little green men, eh? This gets better as it goes along!"

Stapleton still refused to be drawn. "Their color is a popular misconception, they are a light gray in color and only just humanoid."

"Well, well!" The reporter looked about him triumphantly. "Now really are getting down to something, aren't we? Tell me, Time Traveler, what planet do these mythical creatures come from?"

Stapleton faced his audience expressionlessly. "They don't come from any planet, they are space nomads."

"Oh, come on!" The information had nearly stopped the reporter. "Surely you're not trying to tell us that these things live in space? Nothing could live there, nothing could breathe -- what do you think we are, a bunch of bloody fools?"

"Can you breathe under water, sir?"

"No, but -- "

"Fish can and do. Is your mind so rigid, sir, that you cannot conceive of a different type of life form actually living in space itself? Their body structure bears no resemblance to ours and they derive their life forces from cosmic energy."

The reporter glowered at him angrily. He had the uncomfortable feeling that the wind had been taken out of his sails. He made strenuous efforts to take command of the situation again.

"May we assume you discussed matters of galactic importance?"

Stapleton smiled at him gently. "Yes. I think you may assume that. The exploitation, and mass destruction of intelligent life is forbidden, you know."

The reporter sidestepped that one. He would be drawn into channels he didn't understand. Worse, this fellow was keeping his balance and not losing his temper in the face of ridicule.

"I suppose they advised you of one of the mysteries of the age, Stapleton -- the missing link, for example?"

Stapleton was not a vindictive person but he felt it time to strike a blow in his own defense.

"I'm sorry I raised my story above your understanding, sir. Did you not understand from my earlier words that there is no missing link? The diversity of human types on our world is not due to complicated genetic changes that occurred when the ape stood upright. It came about because those diverse types were dumped on this planet by an alien empire builder."

"You're not saying that such an obvious fantasy applies to us! That it was our ancestors who were dumped here a billion years ago? Go back to playing your bloody organ, Stapleton."

"As you wish my friend, but you, like many others, may not like the tune."

The reporter refused to let go. "You are asking us to believe that this primitive world you saw was actually Earth! May we then assume that this man to whom you spoke may well have been your grandfather -- a billion times removed, of course."

He laughed softly and continued. "And this authority you claim to have contacted. An alien cop, no doubt, who will stick his thumbs in his belt and ask us what seems to be the trouble?"

The reporter would have continued but he was interrupted by yet another addition to the crowd. A small anonymous man who had come two thousand miles to destroy a machine and those responsible for it. He raised his left arm as if to look at his watch and his right to pull back his sleeve slightly.

The open fingers never made the left arm cuff.

His body turned to a strange rigidity yet the muscles in his face went completely lax.

A puff of black smoke was ejected suddenly from his open mouth.

His head fell to pieces, crumbled into smoking fragments and drifted away like dust. The right arm fell off at the elbow, the left, at the shoulder. Nothing reached the floor, there was a brief swirl and then the place where he had stood was empty.

There was an instinctive movement among the crowd towards the exits and not only among the suddenly fearful. It was all too much, they wished they had never come, they were out of their depth.

They never made the doors, the exits were not blocked but the very fact that something had appeared was enough.

They knew what it was, it radiated both its presence and its purpose.

This was the law, the ultimate in law. It was not angelic, they knew that, but it was the ultimate in organic life. It cared, far beyond human caring and the thing that had appeared to die in front of them, had not been a man but a machine.

It held them with its very presence; they were warmed by it, felt safe in its nearness, yet numbed by its aura of power.

Visually, it riveted everyone but in essence, it resembled nothing more startling than a flame.

A flame that began some twelve centimetres above the floor and rose to the height of the average man. A steady unwavering flame, warmly alive, a beautiful translucent blue.

They knew that all they had been told was true. The aliens, the things a remote ancestor called the Herdsman, they were coming.

But when they arrived, ready to take over the Earth -- this would be waiting for them.

© Philip E High 2004
From A Step to the Stars by Philip E High, published in 2004 by Wildside Press. Used by permission of the author and the author's agent, Cosmos Literary Agency. All rights reserved.

A Step to the Stars by Philip E High
A Step to the Stars is published by Wildside Press (2004, ISBN: 0809500272).

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