Back | Next


Autum Leaves and Temporal Swords

About the only non-time-travel thing the three of us did agree on was that the smell of burning autumn leaves was the finest of perfumes, gaseous ambrosia and vastly superior to all commercial olfactory products. Also, that any governmental official who called it pollution was obviously a Fascist Left-Wing Atheist. (As named by Jim, me, and Ian, respectively.)

One day, just as Hasenpfeffer completed raking all the leaves from our huge front lawn into a humongous pile on the gravel drive in front of the shop, Ian came screeching up in the Corvette. He had this bright idea burning a hole in his mind, and was so eager to try it out that he simply didn't notice the six-foot high pile of leaves on the driveway. He just plowed through them, jumped out of the car and hobbled as fast as his damaged foot would take him into the shop.

Hasenpfeffer, less than amused, proceeded to pack the little car solid with leaves, raise the rag top, and then bury the car with the rest of the pile. This procedure left him with a feeling of contentment, accomplishment, and proper vindication.

An hour later, Ian realized that he needed a few parts from the industrial supply store down the road. He rushed to what he still thought of as "his" car, jumped in and actually fired it up before he realized that he couldn't see out the windshield, or breathe either, for that matter.

The next day, Hasenpfeffer's bedroom was stuffed nearly solid with leaves, leaving Ian looking smug while Jim, with a new lady friend on his arm, screamed.

And the day after that it was Ian's bed and closet that got the full treatment.

I watched this leafy dialogue go on all winter, the same pile of leaves being handed back and forth, and growing smaller and increasingly tattered in the process.

Wisely, I stayed neutral.

Toward spring, they were down to one leaf. You might pull on a roll of toilet paper and out would float this battered tree leaf.

If I happened to find it, I always returned it to its place. After all, they weren't talking to me. I didn't want to get involved, it wasn't my fight, and furthermore, in the service I had seen this sort of thing get dangerously out of hand.

Still, they played it safe enough, this time. Usually, an exchange of practical jokes tends to escalate, each side trying to out do the other, every round, but in this case they were saved by the self-destructibility of autumn leaves.

The leaf appeared in magazines and books, under the place mats and in the breakfast cereal. Finally, it had been abraded down to a stem and six fragile veins before it was retired by mutual consent.

* * *

Meanwhile, the work went on. We learned to calibrate our circuits to amazing accuracies—things sent for weeks reemerged within micro-seconds of the predicted time.

We learned how to focus the field and project it as tight as a laser beam, which made an incredible knife or sword. This was nothing like a Star Wars light saber. It was a lot better. Switched on, it projected a thin needle of nothingness that looked like a tightly stretched black thread. Everything that entered that line was sent forward, an atom at a time, I think, for hundreds and thousands of years, reemerging imperceptibly except as an immeasurably tiny addition to the background radiation.

It was a neat toy, and I spent a few weeks "polishing" it into a tidy, hand-held package. For safety reasons, I put in four trigger switches, complete with anti-tiedowns. To turn it on, you had to have a finger on each trigger, and lifting any one of them turned the beam off. Then, you had to release all the buttons before it could be turned back on. This was so that Hasenpfeffer wouldn't try to tape down three of the buttons, and hurt himself, or me either.

The blade length was adjustable from an eighth of an inch out to twelve feet, by means of a sliding potentiometer built into the side, easily reachable with your right thumb. For power, it had solar cells charging Ni-Cad batteries, and everything that had to penetrate the housing—switches and so forth—were guaranteed to be dust tight and water tight, down to thirty meters.

Ian machined up three stainless steel housings for them, complete with belt clips, and these were hermetically sealed at well.

We christened them "Temporal Swords."

Switched on, it made a crackly hissing sound that was caused by air molecules leaving rapidly for elsewhen. The sword was a glorious thing, the ultimate cutting tool and the deadliest possible short-range weapon.

As a cutting tool, it could cut absolutely anything as quickly and as smoothly as you could feed the stock to the tool. There were no vibrations, and with the right beam width, no chips to clear away. Over the coming months, Ian adapted all of his cutting tools from conventional cutting bits to temporal swords. The lathes didn't look much different, but the Bridgeports looked like they were decapitated with their motors and gearboxes gone. And the saws were reduced down to being little more than holding fixtures! Eventually, Ian replaced all five of his saws with simple clamps to hold the swords accurately, and had Hasenpfeffer sell the surplus machine tools.

At the other end of the spectrum, as a weapon, it was something to make a combat veteran perk up, drool, and pant with lust. With a flick of your wrist, you could cut through anything with this puppy! I mean that if a Sherman tank offended you, you could turn it into a pile of small metal chunks in seconds. And the only sounds anybody would hear would be a quiet hiss and the much louder sound of bits of dead tank hitting the ground.

But you couldn't fence with one because you couldn't parry. Two beams interpenetrated without difficulty. I figured that it was just as well, since I think that Hasenpfeffer has a Zorro streak in him, and a temporal sword wasn't a play toy.

I put a light bulb in the butt, letting it serve as a flashlight as well as a cutting tool. This use was not encouraged because it quickly ran down the batteries.

Ian and I talked about high-output, long-range pulsed models—rifles and pistols—but, probably because none of us hunted, it was a long while before we got around to making any.

Anyway, when the first "production" model was done, I took it outside to run a real world test, or, in the popular vernacular, to play with it.

It was a beautiful day and Hasenpfeffer was trimming the hedge with a pair of huge, two handed scissors. He was still doing most of the drudge work around the place because he wasn't of much use elsewhere.

I went to the shaggy end of the hedge, adjusted the blade to about three feet, and held the beam horizontally at shoulder level, where the hedge should be topped. Then I walked steadily towards Hasenpfeffer, neatly trimming the shrubs to height. He saw me, stared at me, and registered pleasant shock.

"Give me that thing!"

"Hey, sure Jim." I laughed. "Only it's as dangerous as sin and not quite as much fun. Look, you hold all four of these triggers down to make it work. Then this slide controls blade length and . . ."

"Got it!" He took it out of my hand, ignorant of the fact that it is very bad form to take a tool out of any workingman's hands. It's a fighting offense in the Society of the Competent.

He slashed at the hedge, gouging a hole that would take years to grow back in. He laughed and ran to some Blue Spruce lawn trees that were in need of clipping. He began vigorously trimming them, slicing thin cuts into the lawn that made hash out of the automatic sprinkler system.

I once read the report of an early Spanish explorer who had given a jungle native a sharp steel machete. This Indian had spent much of his life pushing thick greenery aside so that he could walk upright, forcing his way around it when he had to, and bowing under it when nothing else would suffice.

The Indian tried a few swings with the machete and suddenly realized that he now had the power to slash his lifelong tormentor asunder! He ran off laughing, screaming and yelling war cries while butchering the vines and shrubs of the Amazon. A little technology sometimes goes a long way. . . . 

Eventually, hours later, the Indian came back to camp with his new blade hanging from his exhausted right arm. He was slick with sweat, and the explorer described his facial expression as of "one who had just enjoyed sexual release."

Hasenpfeffer acted just like that Indian. He trimmed a few more small fir trees, laughing and shouting, working his way to the "back forty." He slashed a big, ornamental boulder in half, screaming like a cowboy, or maybe a Rebel cavalryman. Then he fixed his attention on a big sugar maple which grew at the edge of the lawn.

Ian heard the shouting and came out in time to see the ancient tree fall to a single cut! With great, uncharacteristic agility, Hasenpfeffer leaped at his foe, gleefully chopping it in seconds into firewood.

"Hasenpfeffer, what happened to your ecology thing?" Ian shouted.

It was one of our many continuing arguments. I figured that it was our world and we shouldn't make it dirty, but Ian had this semi-religious idea that we were morally obligated to use everything that God had given to us here on earth.

Hasenpfeffer was a flaming, left-wing ecology freak. He loudly defended the "right to life" of leeches, snail darters, puff adders and every other living creature except for mosquitoes, of course, and the cow he was currently eating.

And here he was, butchering this innocent tree.

"We've already got a five-year supply of firewood!" Ian added.

"My God. You're right." Shocked at his own actions, Hasenpfeffer dropped to his knees. Forgetting that all he had to do to turn off the blade was to let go of any one of the four triggers, he stupidly reached for the blade length adjustment with his left hand. His mania over, his clumsiness returned, and that's when Hasenpfeffer pitched in his part.

The thin, black thread of nothingness crossed his palm, and four still connected fingers hit the dirt before he felt the pain.

I got a tourniquet around his wrist and we drove him to the U of M Hospital, where things were considerably more sophisticated than they are in the Upper Peninsula. Ian had had the brains to pick up the severed fingers, put them on ice, and bring them along. The doctors were able to sew them back on, blood vessels, tendons, and all.

In a few months they worked again, after a fashion, but the nerves never regenerated. Most of his left hand was numb.

The medical bills made a major dent in our cash reserves.

Despite Jim's accident, Ian and I got to wearing our swords all the time, just like we both always carried our calculators clipped to our belts.

Hasenpfeffer wouldn't touch a sword after his accident. He claimed that our carrying them was an atavistic fetish, a response to our primitive blood lusts, and a stupid macho stunt.

Well, he rarely touched a calculator, either.

Admittedly, a sword was rarely useful as a tool. After the first week, I used my Swiss Army jackknife ten times for every time I used my sword. It was just too powerful for most ordinary things—it was too easy to cut the circuit board you were working on in half when you only meant to trim a lead.

Out in the shop, cutting steel and ceramics, Ian used variations of the sword all the time. By then, he had replaced them as the cutting tools on all of his lathes and mills and saws. But I rarely remember seeing him using the one that was clipped to his waist.

A feeling of power? Maybe. I suppose that I could have cut a truck in half if I ever needed to. But that same line of reasoning said that my calculator, my wallet and my keys each gave me, in their own ways, a similar feeling of power. I felt naked with any one of them missing.

All I know is that it felt good to have my sword there.


Back | Next