Dear Charles
by Murray Leinster


Sector 233, Zone 3, Home 1254, Radli.

The Thirty-Fourth Century, a.d.

My dear great-great-great-etc.-grandson Charles:

Your friend Hari Vans will discover this letter printed as a fiction story in an ancient, tattered book of still more ancient fiction stories in the rare-books stacks of the University Library. He will be astonished to see your name and still more astonished to read his own. He will be astounded to find your correct address in a volume printed when neither you nor your address existed. So he will show this letter to you, and in this way I can write you a very important message. The ordinary postal service could hardly be expected to deliver a letter after fourteen centuries, and I feel I must tell you about urgent family matters.

I need to arrange, through you, to meet and woo (and of course to win, despite your unfilial objections) your great-great-etc.-grandmother. When this letter is delivered, she will happen to be engaged to you, so I do not really count on your co-operation. The most I expect is a frantic effort on your part to prove that the whole business is pure lunacy. But that effort will be all I need, Charles, and I think that for the family’s sake you should make it. It really is a family matter. As nearly as I can compute it on a basis of four generations to the century, you are my great-great-etc.-grandson some fifty-two times removed. This relationship exists because of a somewhat unusual series of events, and you need to know what to do to bring them about.

To make it clear… I imagine that in your day they still talk of time-travel as impossible because, so the argument runs, if one went back in time a hundred years, landed on his grandfather, and happened to kill him, he would make it impossible for himself to have been born. But of course if he wasn’t born his grandfather wouldn’t be killed. So he would be born. So he would kill his grandfather. So he wouldn’t be born. Ad infinitum. I am sure you know this proof that time-travel is impossible.

However, I am your great-great-etc.-grandfather because of just the reverse of this classical paradox. It happens that when you read this, you are about to discover me as a visitor come forward from my time to yours. And in your time, with your extremely reluctant assistance, I shall woo and win your current girl friend and bring her contentedly back to my century to become your fifty-two-times-removed-grandmother.

I hardly expect you to approve the notion, Charles. You are inclined to be selfish. You will resist my great-grandparental authority, not caring about the consequences to the family. But I think you will flub it. After all, if you did manage to keep me from wooing and winning Ginny, you would not be born to stop me. So I would woo and win her, in which case you would be born to stop me. If you did such a thing, you would not be born. In short, I think I am going to marry Ginny. In fact, I already have, and now I want to arrange for it.

Let me clarify the situation a little. In my senior year at Collins University, my physics professor was Prof. Knut Hadley, Ph.D., M.A. etc., etc. He was a person with a sort of monorail mind, capable of following an idea tenaciously over dizzy heights of improbability and through fastnesses of opposing facts. In the previous semester he’d tracked an idea down. It was a dilly. As class-work, he had five of us seniors help him put together an incredibly complicated electronic gadget that he said would provide experimental proof of the verity of the Lorenz-Fitzgerald equation. His theory was—

No. I spare you that, Charles. Let’s keep this simple. You just remember that if you manage to keep me from winning Ginny you won’t be born to keep me from winning Ginny, so I will win her and you will be born to try and stop me—you see? Just bear that in mind if you get confused. It may help.

In any case, Professor Hadley’s apparatus took a splendid if incomprehensible form. We built it with elaborate care. And some two weeks before graduation it was finished. Professor Hadley was jubilant. Standing before us, he adjusted this and checked over that. He made sure of voltages and he measured micro-ohms of resistance. And then he got ready to turn it on.

For obvious reasons, I am not going to give you any clues to how it was made. As it turned out, this was the device by which I traveled to your century, and I wouldn’t want you to make another and come back to kill your fifty-two-times-removed-grandfather. You will want to, Charles, but it would be most improper. All the intervening generations, of which I am the revered sire, would never exist. Out of consideration for them I can’t allow it. My regards to your father, by the way, Charles. And your great-etc.-grandmother insists that I give you a message. She remembers you with an affection I cannot match, and hopes that you meet some nice girl and marry her and live happily ever after. I’m afraid I retain too much of my old antagonism toward Ginny’s first suitor to wish you well.

In re the family business, though, Professor Hadley struck an enthusiastic attitude. He made a speech, in which he said that his device would demonstrate the theoretically undemonstrable. Dramatically, he flipped the switch over.

He was right about demonstrating the undemonstrable, all right! He didn’t know his own genius or his own gadget. When he flipped over the switch a spark leaped, tubes lighted, insulation smoked…

And Professor Hadley, beaming, turned a rather pretty luminous puce color, and with every appearance of satisfaction faded quietly into thin air. Smiling happily and glowing like an off-color neon sign, he vanished deliberately before our eyes.

We stared, our mouths open. We blinked. And after about three seconds there was a sharp, somehow conclusive “snap,” and the gadget burned itself out with enthusiastic thoroughness. It spat sparks. Its insulation caught fire. It definitely ceased to work. And Professor Hadley remained among the missing.

Your attention span is short, Charles, so I will not tell you of the disturbance caused by this event. We five witnesses to his disappearance, of course, were flatly disbelieved. The police hinted darkly of a multiple indictment for murder, but were stymied by the well-known rule of corpus delicti. Then they looked into his papers and found he was corresponding with seventeen female members of Lonely Hearts clubs. He had represented himself to them as a young and wealthy bachelor, and they were liars, too. The police began to investigate them, announced that an arrest could be expected in the near future, and the five of us were mysteriously clear of suspicion. But a diversion, about that time, helped to take attention away from us, too. On Graduation Morning the Dean of Women was discovered atop the statue of the University’s Founder, celebrating the end of the academic year. She was standing on her head on the Founder’s bronze top hat, singing A Robin in the Merry Month of May in parts—no mean feat for one woman—and she was wearing the Art Department’s one prized Picasso neatly made over into a leotard. This tended to draw public attention from Professor Hadley’s less spectacular disappearance.

I may say that the mystery has never been solved. Nobody ever found out where he went. I think it possible, however, that his dentures may yet some day be found in some Upper Devonian fossil-bearing stratum. I say this because, while he was trying to prove the Lorenz-Fitzgerald hypothesis on purpose, I later found out that he had made a time-travel device by accident. And from my knowledge of Professor Hadley, I am sure he would have had it set up to run backward.

Here I have anticipated myself. I should say that I graduated some two weeks after the Professor disappeared, but with a commitment to jerk sodas during the summer session to pay up my senior-year bills. I remained in the small university town. Toothy schoolteachers swarmed in to absorb culture and get academic credits that would raise their pay if they didn’t catch husbands. Time marched on.

Then Joe turned up. I call him Joe to spare him embarrassment. Joe was one of those scholastic triumphs nobody remembers. He was embracing a teaching career; he was magnificently learned; he was splendidly earnest. In his own way I am sure he was a perfectly swell guy—and nobody cared. He’d been grabbed in a hurry to teach Professor Hadley’s subjects to the bespectacled summer students, and come fall he would be let go for somebody who knew less but counted more. It was too bad. I was brutal to Joe myself, finally, but—

Somebody told him what had happened to Professor Hadley. He thought it over. He came to me as a known witness. He said thoughtfully that Professor Hadley was a very able man, and, if he had thought he could prove the Lorenz-Fitzgerald theory, it was worth looking into. Would I help him reconstruct the burned-out gimmick and see what the trouble was? If he could find out, he could write a paper about it, and, if some scientific publication printed it, he might get a permanent instructorship…

I felt sorry for him. Also, some of the schoolteachers were hanging around where I soda-jerked and happened to be walking my way when I quit.

I remembered the physics lab as a quiet place where one might peacefully drink a bottle of beer in the evenings. Or the mornings, for that matter. I agreed to help Joe. We began. And that is how fifty-two-times-removed-great-grandsons are born.

You are a result of all this, Charles.

Understand this, Charles, I have to tell my story as fiction in order to get it into print so Hari Vans will show it to you so you will yank on a piece of sash cord… There is a paradox involved, Charles—if you haven’t noticed. In my century and in my life, these things happened in June and July of a year ago. It’s just about twenty-two months since Joe and I got Professor Hadley’s gadget rebuilt and moved a safe distance away from it before we turned it on. But that device carried me into the thirty-fourth century, where Ginny was waiting interestedly to meet me because she’d read this letter. But twenty-two months ago I had not written it. Yet if you’re to act in your typically impulsive way—and if Ginny is to regard me with the bright and fascinated eyes of a girl looking at the man she knows she’s going to marry—I have to write it some time, don’t I? So the things that have happened will take place?

Now let’s talk about Professor Hadley’s time-transporter instead. Shall we?

It was remarkably complicated to look at. There were coils and electron tubes. There were inductances, grid leaks and transistors, with dials, rheostats, feedbacks and assorted hardware. I didn’t understand it, and even Joe grew more and more pained as we replaced one after another of the burned-out wires and condensers and whatnots, and it made progressively less sense to him. He knew his books, did Joe, but this was something else. Still, we got it rebuilt, and I could swear that it was exactly the way Professor Hadley’d had it put together, except with heavier wiring.

The Professor must have been pretty bright. He’d been absolutely sure the thing would demonstrate the Lorenz-Fitzgerald contraction, but it was much more remarkable than that. It was a time-transporter, moving objects from one temporal frame of reference to another.

Every scientist in history has said that can’t be done. I hope the Professor, wherever he is—in the Upper Devonian or Jurassic or even the Lower Cretacious period—knows of his accidental triumph.

But Joe and I just sat and looked at it when it was done, Charles. We didn’t know the next step to take. We had no idea what it would do, and neither of us was especially anxious to glow a luminous puce color and, however happily smiling, fade away into nothingness. We put a long extension-cord on the switch. From some distance away we turned the thing on. Nothing happened. We turned it off. I put an empty beer-bottle where Professor Hadley had stood and we turned the thing on. The beer-bottle glowed a pale pink and faded away. We turned the thing off. Nothing happened. The beer-bottle stayed gone.

We looked at each other. Joe looked very pained indeed. But then he muttered something about discovering the physical nature of the barrier. He tied a string to a beer-bottle. We vanished it. When we turned the gadget off it looked like the string was cut in half. But when Joe picked it up to look at the cut end, the beer-bottle came out of nowhere, still tied fast.

About that time I began to dither, Charles. I will be frank about it. There is much that I do not understand about Professor Hadley’s time-transporter. It was the first one ever made, and I am quite sure there will never be another. If there is, it will be over my dead body. Right then, I opened a bottle of beer.

And Norton, the laboratory cat, came gloomily into the room. He was gaunt and seedy and with his usual hangover. I regret to tell you, Charles, that in my day some of the lower animals sank to near-human depths. Norton was notorious at Collins University for his intemperate habits. Believe it or not, he would pass up a sardine for a cocktail any day, and on the morning after a wet night he was frequently to be seen prowling about empty beer-cans trying to get a hair of the dog that bit him. Not that any dog would dare bite Norton, no! Norton was a mighty warrior, in his cups. One Christmas he got tanked up on egg-nog.

But that has nothing to do with you, Charles. This morning Norton came loping over to me with an imploring air, as one who would say feverishly: “Fella, give me one drink to straighten me out, and so help me I’m gonna join AA!” I gave him the drink. He lapped it up, broodingly. Then he burped, rolled over and went to sleep.

The same idea struck Joe and myself simultaneously.

You’ve guessed it. We waked Norton and tied a string to his collar, put him in the place from which the beer-bottle had gone into the wild blue yonder, and threw on the time-transporter switch. Norton was in the act of yawning as the current went on. His yawn continued undisturbed. He glowed, to be sure. Brilliantly. But he faded to invisibility in a sort of brownish-purple mist. The last we saw of him was his teeth just beginning to close in the insouciant manner so typical of him.

We turned off the time-transporter. Norton stayed gone. We discussed the matter at length. I went and pulled on the string. And Norton, tied to it, yielded to my tugging. He came protestingly out of nowhere, blinking reproachfully. He had every appearance of having been interrupted in a nap. He was unharmed and undisturbed save by our waking him. We put him down, and he curled up and went back to sleep.

Perhaps we were not conservative, Charles. After only one experiment with an animal, we probably should not have gone on immediately to a human subject. But we were enthusiastic. That is, I was enthusiastic, and Joe was pallidly grim. We solemnly matched to see who would fade out. I lost. Therefore I met your great-great-etc.-grandmother, through the help you are going to give me.