X. Past and Future

Stitches in Time was written partly to encourage a discussion of cause-effect relationships… and partly just for fun.  Alternate timelines are always worth considering, because they illustrate ripple effects and demonstrate that there is no such thing as “inevitability.”  Remembering this keeps historians honest.

Stitches in Time

The sliding doors opened, admitting an altogether nondescript individual. Of middle height and age, as well as average, slightly overweight build and thinning hair, the man in the ordinary brown business suit might have had his presence ignored had not the speaker at the opposite end of the conference room stopped in mid-sentence to acknowledge his arrival.

“Ah, Officer Penn! Who else is with you?”

“I’m sorry, Dr. Jarreau. I’m the only person the Department has available.”

Jarreau and the half-dozen others seated around a heavy table were visibly disappointed. Investigative-Officer-Second-Class Feldon Penn understood why. They wanted someone important, a specialist with a recognized track record; but he was a bureaucrat whose principal skill was the recognition of alphabetical order for filing purposes.

As he claimed a chair near, but not at, the conference table, Penn tried to conceal his embarrassment. He was as successful in this as those in the room had been in hiding their displeasure. Someone in the home office had a strange sense of humor. Instead of declining politely when the University had requested the opportunity to present its “striking new weapon in the war against crime”, a high-level administrator had come up with a better idea. Any person with half a brain knew that the Department of Public Order had no time for tea parties where theoretical models, alien to reality, would be built and then destroyed by little men in horn-rimmed glasses. The best agents were applying every second of available time to the search for the Bogeyman, and these professors wanted somebody significant to waste time sitting around a table with them, while statistical charts flashed by on a computer screen.

Obviously, the Department could not tie up good investigators that way. Then again, they could not afford to alienate the “ivory tower” crowd either. They might need help of some sort from them in the future.

There was only one alternative. Send a nobody. And who was more of a nobody than Investigative-Officer-Second-Class Feldon Penn? He was, at the most charitable, a chair-bound terminal-watcher — someone whose close relatives, if he had any, might overlook without reminders. An android could tend his station while he was “on assignment;” and nobody would know the difference, except that the machine’s conversation would probably be livelier.

Somewhere an administrator was getting a good chuckle out of all this, even if Dr. Jarreau and his colleagues were not. A few professors gave shrugs of futility. Others simply gestured at their spokesman to begin the presentation.

Feeling like a salesman about to make a detailed money pitch to a three-year-old, Jarreau mustered what enthusiasm he could. “Officer Penn, what is the single most heinous crime presently occupying you and your associates?”

“Well, the murders of those seventy-four children, I suppose.”

“The so-called “Bogeyman murders”, correct?”

“Yes, Professor, that’s right. There must be thousands of agents working on that around the globe.”

“Pardon my curiosity, but how many solid leads would you say have been turned up?” There was a tinge of sarcasm in Jarreau’s voice, but Penn was used to being addressed in such a fashion and ignored it.

“Based on what’s come through my filing station, we don’t have anything solid. We know that all the victims were really young — between three and six years. Beyond that, there doesn’t seem to be a pattern. The nationalities, economic backgrounds, physical features, parents’ ages and jobs, scenes of the crimes, modes of attack . . . nothing seems to repeat itself.”

Penn’s tone drifted back into apology. “At least, as far as I know. Some of the data might be too restricted to run through my station.”

“Wouldn’t it be useful if an agent could be at the scene of a murder when it takes place?”

“Sure, but I don’t see how. . . .”

“Ah, but that is precisely what we are trying to show your Department! It’s new, scarcely more than experimental really. But it does work!” Jarreau’s voice soared with enthusiasm until the startled faces of his associates reminded him that the room was not soundproofed and the project was supposed to be known only to a few.

He turned to another man on his right. “Dr. Sandurski, I think it’s time you took over. Officer Penn, this is Dr. Stefan Sandurski, Senior Professor of Advanced Trans-Dimensional Physics.”

Jarreau sat down. The older, stuped figure rose and softly, almost reluctantly, began to speak in a voice tinged with an Old World accent. “The principle is quite simple really.”

For the next quarter hour, the professor explained the basic elements of theoretical physics upon which his discovery rested. Felden Penn listened respectfully to all of it, unable to comprehend anything except the article adjectives and one or two of the verbs.

One fact did come across, however. Sandurski was describing a workable time machine.

“. . . And that, gentlemen, is the way it should work. But, Dr. Jarreau, I must repeat my warning. It has not been tested thoroughly; and I strongly advise against using a human as an experimental subject, no matter how worthy the cause.”

With this admonition the older man returned to his seat, and Jarreau once again took over. “We fully appreciate Professor Sandurski’s concern, but that is what we propose to do. Three of us have already volunteered to test it in individual experiments. After we confirm that the technology does indeed function as it should, we will assist the Department in pinpointing the locations and times of past atrocities. Then agents can be sent to wait for and apprehend the diseased mind — or minds — behind all this killing. That is what we wish you to transmit to your superiors.”

Penn recognized that these words constituted a dismissal. He nodded, rose, and turned toward the exit. As he passed through the sliding doors, he could hear Jarreau’s voice one last time. “Remember your granddaughter, Stefan. You have given us the power to prevent other tragedies like hers. . . .”

* * *

“Penn, are you sure you’ve got this right? That’s a pretty incredible claim! Can anyone vouch for you on this?”

“No, sir. I mean, I was the only one assigned to the conference. Since you’re my superior, I thought I should report to you.”

Assistant Director Hipling’s chair swung nervously from side to side behind his desk. Its bureaucratic occupant did not like to have a comfortable rut disturbed.

“The security section did report some such classified research in progress at the University, but there’s been a tight lid on it. Oh, -uh, thanks for the report. You can resume your station.”

Penn obediently returned to his post, much to the disappointment of those who worked around him. In its brief tenure, his android substitute had seemed the model of wit and charm in comparison to the human it had temporarily replaced.

A blanket of tight security, combined with Penn’s natural reticence, prevented the extraordinary subject matter of the conference from leaking beyond the few who would and could make decisions. At the computer console of the Investigative-Officer-Second-Class, the entire incident blended into the gray routine of data storage. Occasionally, a casual thought about the strangeness of it all drifted through his head, but the situation was no more bizarre than the failure of a meteorologist here in the twenty-second century to predict the exact temperature of a given day. An eyebrow might rise briefly, but that was all.

Yet three things did catch and hold Felden Penn’s interest. First, a trio of missing-person reports arrived for processing a week or so later. He vaguely recognized the first pair of names as prominent physics professors at the University. The last name seemed to tie things together; it was Dr. Emil Jarreau. All three had been last seen near the laboratories on the sprawling campus.

The second situation was the simultaneous transfer of five highly respected agents from an assignment logged simply as “Classified Criminology Project, Western University”. Each was returned to his previous responsibilities without explanation.

Finally, the number of Bogeyman incidents began to escalate. They varied in their circumstances, but each fit the broad pattern. That ended a brief hiatus which had coincided roughly with the agents’ assignment to the University and the disappearance of the three professors.

All of this was strange enough to move Penn to unaccustomed action. He sought a five-minute interview with Assistant Director Hipling and found his superior in an uncharacteristically frank mood.

“Yes, you’re quite right. Those agents were assigned to that idiocy you heard at that conference. You can guess why we recalled them. The silly machine doesn’t work! Three perfectly intelligent, empirically critical scientists committed suicide in it! They stepped right into the chamber. Professor — what’s his name? — Sandurski threw a switch that was supposed to send them into the past for a few minutes and then bring them back neatly to the present. Instead, they just vanished!”

“Dr. Sandurski did warn them that it needed more testing. I remember him saying that. . . .”

“Well, Penn, they should have listened to the man! It’s still a classified project, but we won’t get involved until they can certify that round-trip tickets are available.”

“What about the murders, sir?”

You mean the recent number of them?”

“I mean the pattern. A lot, then only a few, then a lot again. Do you think that means something?”

“Hmmmm. Odd coincidence, perhaps. Probably nothing more. But don’t worry; I’ll have someone look into it.”

“Thank you, sir.”

After Penn’s departure, Hipling shrugged and immediately forgot the conversation. He had more important things to do.

The Investigative-Officer-Second-Class, however, did not forget. He had enough native intelligence to recognize that no one would take him seriously; he had been hired to file, not analyze. Something nagged at him about that “odd coincidence”, and even the bland rut of his usual thoughts could not quiet it.

When his shift ended, he made his way to the University and to the physics laboratories in particular. His Department badge and written authorization to attend the earlier conference served as passes into what was supposed to be a restricted area.

“Why, yes, Officer. Dr. Sandurski is in his laboratory. But I’m afraid only a few selected physicists are allowed in there. You’ll have to wait.” The security guard was friendly but firm.

“Is there an intercom in the lab? I’d like to be announced.”

“There used to be, but the professor had it disconnected. Too annoying, he said.”

Penn nodded. “Perhaps he has an office in which I could wait.”

The guard seemed uncomfortable with this option, but this rather ordinary visitor was an officer of the Department of Public Order. Obviously, the man was important, in spite of his appearance. He led Penn to a small room, rendered a cubicle by the stacks of paper and overstuffed filing cabinets occupying most of the floor space.

When the guard departed, Penn let his eyes wander around the tight space, at first casually and then with greater care. He did not understand half of what he could make out, but the physicist’s legible handwriting was no barrier.

A lower drawer in the desk was partially open, and its contents were visible. The writing seemed out of place amid the formulae and analytical diagrams. Penn could only see half of a sheet of paper; but at the upper left he read four digits: “2230”. Below that were names and what looked like events or actions with dates in parentheses after them. He recognized none of the names, and yet there was something oddly familiar about a few of them.

Where had he seen them before? Then it struck him. They were the surnames of the Bogeyman’s victims!

“May I help you, Officer?”

It was Stefan Sandurski’s recognizable accent and soft, friendly voice. Penn was startled and embarrassed, like a child caught with a hand in the cookie jar.

“Uh, well, yes, Professor. I have a few questions. I wonder if you might answer them for me.”

“Certainly, Officer — what was your name?”

“Felden Penn,” he answered nervously. In spite of the scientist’s outward cordiality, there was something disconcerting about his stare. He remained standing at the entrance to the office, and his slight figure somehow managed to loom menacingly over his visitor. Penn decided to plunge ahead, as if everything were as pleasant as the words made them appear.

“I was wondering if you could explain to me what happened to your three colleagues who volunteered to test the machine. What went wrong?”

“I told all of you that it needed more work, but no one would listen!” There was an aggressive, bitter edge to the reply. Sandurski never moved from the doorway.

“Yes, sir. I remember that. But could you be a bit more specific?”

The physicist smiled. “Perhaps you will let me demonstrate the problem for you.” He motioned politely toward the entrance. Penn rose with as much nonchalance as he could muster. Maxims about what happens to the unduly curious popped into his mind, but he did his best to suppress them.

Neither man said a word, as they walked down the hall toward the lab. Sandurski waved at the security guard, indicating that his visitor posed no threat. The guard nodded acknowledgement. Keys pushed in a coded sequence unlocked the laboratory door, which then swished open, admitting them into a large, but essentially bare room.

The center of attention was a compartment large enough for one adult. It was connected by an arm to a central motor. On the opposite side of the room, behind a transparent shield, was what seemed to be a control panel.

“This looks like some kind of centrifuge,” ventured Penn.

“Rather simply stated, but essentially correct,” replied the professor.

As the officer stared at the contraption, Sandurski quietly eased his way to the control panel and pressed a few buttons. Then he returned and resumed his explanation.

“Now for your answers, sir. As you may have guessed by now, based on the attention my file drawer was receiving when I entered the office, this machine is perfectly, flawlessly operational. My three colleagues are quite alive.”

Penn felt his heart pounding and sweat forming on his forehead. He stammered, “I assure you, Professor, I have no idea what you are talking about.”

“I think you do. Have you told any of your superiors? It really doesn’t matter, as you will realize when I finish. By the way, I know you aren’t armed. There is a security scanner at the door which is programmed to trigger an alarm, if a traditional weapon enters this laboratory. I did more than unlock the door when I pushed those keys.”

Penn could do nothing but listen and stare.

“The three missing scientists are very much alive, as I said. They can be found five years in the future. Their story will no doubt be considered outlandish, and they will probably be deemed deranged or the victims of some kind of group amnesia. In any event, their absence provides a neat premise upon which to base my argument that the machine doesn’t work, thereby getting rid of your Department’s agents, as well as my curious and overly helpful associates. As for the list I carelessly left open to your prying eyes, it is, you might say, ‘future history’. Everyone was so interested in using my research to delve into the past! No one considered its more significant uses for the future!”

He lowered his voice as if to share an amusing secret with a colleague. “Now I will tell you something that only you and I know — among the currently living of course. I AM YOUR BOGEYMAN!”

“But… why?” That was all the dumbfounded Penn could say.

“Officer, how many innocent victims died in the concentration camps of twentieth century Germany or the labor camps of that same period’s Soviet Union? How about the religious persecutions carried out by the ‘Kingdom of God’ only a few decades later? Those figures are astounding, even in our statistically inundated age. Yet think of the lives that could have been saved — the scientists, artists, or writers who could have enriched our cultures — if Hitler or Stalin or Runni had died at an early age! Of course, the immediate families would have grieved temporarily; but later generations would have been spared the utter desolation those children inflicted when they matured.”

He continued. “I simply choose a date a generation or two in the future, and use my machine to witness it first-hand. Where there is tyranny or oppression, I look for the tyrant or oppressor. Obviously, I could do nothing to overturn an entrenched regime, but I have the ability to crush these weeds before they grow!”

Penn shook himself from his trance. “What gives you the right to judge what is good and what is evil? You are not God, Professor!”

“I have a conscience, sir — something I dare say people seem to lack today! The deaths, the torture of millions! That is clearly an evil!”

“While the death of one is good? How can you say that?”

Complacent people like you — the kind that is unaware of their social responsibilities — always condemn anyone who takes action. That’s why I couldn’t share my secret. But no one will discover it, because of the way I use my machine. I go back a day or two in time, study my subjects, select the perfect isolated moment, kill them, return to the machine, and then come back to the present. By using it, I’ve discovered that it is possible – how can I put it? — to be in two places at once. I always have an alibi; and I never stay in the past long enough to arouse suspicion. Admittedly, I had to avoid using the machine while your agents were lurking about; but in a few days, I shall fill in the void by returning to those weeks to do my hunting.”

Here Sandurski paused. After a few seconds, he spoke again. His prophetic intensity had reverted to polite calm. “You are probably wondering, Officer, why I am telling you all of this. I am unarmed and cannot prevent you from leaving here and going straight to the Department with my entire story.”

Although Penn said nothing, that point had indeed crossed his mind.

“And now I will explain.” The scientist walked nonchalantly toward the centrifuge compartment. “In a few seconds, I will disappear into the past. Your past, Officer Penn. I will stop along the way to obtain some biographical data on you, and then I will proceed to some scene in your youth. And you will die, Officer Penn. When I return to this laboratory, a few moments from now, you will no longer be here; because, my friend, you will not exist!”

He entered the compartment and activated something within it. Investigative-Officer-Second-Class Felden Penn watched helplessly as his existence evaporated, along with the figure of Dr. Sandurski.

* * *

When the physics professor reappeared in his laboratory, only a few minutes of real time had elapsed. He emerged from the compartment; and, as he had confidently anticipated, the visitor with whom he had earlier been speaking was not there.

But another of his expectations proved incorrect.

The security guard was still as he remembered him. However, the guard gestured toward the office and advised him that he had company.

Wedged into that tiny space were several men, at least two of whom were studying the contents of his desk drawers with great interest. One man who seemed to be supervising the proceedings hailed the approaching scientist.

“Stefan Sandurski, I believe?”

“Yes. And who are you? What gives you the right to . . .”

“I am Director Hipling of the Department of Public Order. You don’t know me, Doctor; but I assure you I know a great deal about you and, I’m afraid, about your private use of this time travel device. As for what gives me and my people the right to search this office, this should suffice.”

He showed the amazed professor a fully authorized warrant.

“I have to hand it to you, Professor. This was ingenious, right down to the disappearance of your associates — which you obviously engineered to throw us off the scent. It might have worked, had it not been for Investigative-Officer-Second-Class Frammels here.”

He nodded toward a dashing young man dressed in the height of twenty-second century fashion. Frammels stepped forward.

“I always do a little additional analysis on whatever comes through my station, and I couldn’t miss the pattern of the disappearances, the transfers, and the murder rates. It was a simple matter of selling my suspicions to Director Hipling.”

“No one can ignore someone as persuasive as this young man,” the Director interjected. “What luck that we had him at that terminal! Lucky, that is, for the civilized world, Professor, but not for you. These documents support most of his suspicions, and the truth-scan we run on you should confirm the rest.”

A stunned Sandurski yielded without further protest. As he was led away, he heard Hipling casually remark, “Imagine what would have happened if we had put a nobody at that station!”

Questions for Analysis:

1. The story emphasizes the continuity between past, present, and future. Assuming this, can there ever be an “unimportant event”? Why, or why not?

2. Assess the “Bogeyman’s” motives for his crimes. Are they morally justifiable? Why, or why not?

3. If time travel were possible, for what legitimate, positive uses, if any, could it be employed?

4. The story suggests that people often distrust “ivory-tower intellectuals”, whom they regard as separate from the mainstream of events and values. Can you cite any contemporary examples of this? To what degree is this generalization valid?

5. It may be said that historians can change the future by “assassinating the past.” Revision of historical explanations and new assessments of historical personalities go on constantly in book and classroom for a variety of reasons. Given this tendency, can real historical truth ever be determined?

6. Continue the story. What other changes would one expect to encounter in a world without Officer Penn?

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