Back | Next

Relics of the Thim

My lecture to the assembled savants of the Delve at Five City on the world known as Pierce having been well received, I was conducted to a reception in the First Undermaster's rooms where a buffet of local seafruits and a very presentable aperitif wine stood waiting.

As Old Earth's foremost freelance discriminator, with an earned reputation for unraveling complex mysteries, I had been invited to lecture on systems of asymmetric logic. I had published a small monograph on the subject the year before. The paper had been reprinted and passed along through various worlds of The Spray, like a blown leaf bouncing down a cobbled street, and the fellows of the Delve were not the only academics sufficiently stimulated to request an elaboration of my views. But they were the only ones to couple their invitation to a first-class ticket on a starship of the Green Orb line. I was happy to accept.

Halfway through my first glass of the wine, which grew more interesting with each sip, my perfunctory conversation with the Dean of the faculty of applied metaphysics was interrupted by a wizened old scholar, his back as bent as a point of punctuation, who advanced an argument.

The Dean introduced him as a professor emeritus while rolling his eyes and making other gestures that indicated I should prepare for a tedious encounter.

"Surely the great Henghis Hapthorn," the old fellow said, in a voice that creaked like unoiled leather, "will not deny that in an infinity of space and time any event that can happen, however remote its probability, will happen."

"I do not bother to deny it," I said. "I simply dismiss it as irrelevant."

"But you have said yourself that when all the impossible answers to a question have been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the true answer."

"Indeed," I said.

The old man's gimlet gaze bored into me. "Yet in your discussion of the Case of the Winged Dagger, you discounted the possibility that the victim's false suicide note might have been produced by his pet rodent randomly striking the controls of his scriptamanet as it pursued moths about his study."

"I did," I agreed.

"Even though the person accused in the matter offered just that supposition when the case was adjudicated."

"The defense would have held more cogency if she had not been discovered still holding the stiletto that had pierced the victim's heart," I said.

"Ahah!" said my interlocutor. "So you also dismiss her contention that explosive gases propelled the weapon out of his chest and across the room and that she merely caught the instrument to prevent it from injuring her?"

"I do."

"Even though the victim had dined heartily on bombard beans, well known to generate copious quantities of methane."

"Indeed," I said, "the constant side effects of his diet were advanced by the procurator's office as a partial motive for his murder. Still, although beans are colloquially associated with offering benefits to the heart, they are not known to charge that organ with propulsive gases."

"Yet, in an infinite universe it could happen, and therefore it did happen."

"Yes," I said, "but across an unbounded expanse of space and time, it most likely happened long, long ago, in a galaxy far, far away."

At that point the Dean spilled a bowl of gelatinous dip onto the old fellow's shoes, prompting him to withdraw. My reading of the Dean's expression told me that the spillage had not been an instance of purely random chance.

"I, too, have a question," said another voice. Had its owner been a character in popular fiction, it would have been called bluff and hearty.

I turned to see a bluff-and-hearty-looking man of middle years dressed in what passed for conservative garments on Pierce—voluminous trousers sewn in a patchwork of glittering metallic fabrics, a sleeveless waistcoat of rough homespun and overstuffed hat and shoes. My inventorying of his attire distracted me for a moment from a close inspection of his face, so he was well launched into his query before I realized that I ought to recognize him from other times and places.

"I am Mitric Galvadon," he said, "a private citizen assisting Academician Ulwy Munt here"—he indicated a small, pallid man in a scholar's robe and pin, who hovered at Galvadon's elbow—"in his researches into the original inhabitants of this world."

"Indeed," I said, and made the appropriate gestures while my memory sought through the back reaches of my mind for information on where and when I had encountered this Galvadon before.

Meanwhile, he had voiced his question. "What is your opinion of time travel?"

"It is scarcely a matter of opinion," I said. "It is simply impossible."

"And if I were to provide you with incontrovertible proof that I can reach back into the past and retrieve objects from far antiquity?"

"I would conclude that you are a fraud," I said. With the words came the connection in the back of my head and I continued, "Especially since you are not named Mitric Galvadon but are instead one Orlin Borissian, the infamous charlatan and fraudster extraordinaire whose file at the Archonate's Bureau of Scrutiny on Old Earth strains its bindings."

"I wondered if you would recognize me," he said, though he did not seem at all discomfited to be revealed as a bogus. Academician Munt, however, was regarding his research assistant with an intense stare, behind which a number of emotions seemed to be competing for dominance.

"Yours is a face fixed in the memories of many, most of whom regret ever having set eyes upon it," I said.

"Nonetheless," the outed fraudster went on, "I possess the ability to reach through time and I ask for an opportunity to demonstrate it to you tomorrow."


He tipped back his plump hat. "Because if there is any flimflammery involved, you will be able to spot it."

"I am confident that is so," I said.

"Conversely, if you cannot identify any subterfuge," he said, "it means that I can indeed do what I say I can."

"Hmm," I said.

"I believe I have intrigued you," he said.

"Indeed, you have."

We flew out in the Dean's four-seater volante to where Ulwy Munt had established his research premises on a rocky plain some distance from Five City. We descended to a huddle of prefabricated buildings nestled in the circular ruins of a large structure built by the Thim, the planet's long vanished autochthones. Almost all that was known about the Thim, even their name, had come from Munt's investigations among the tumbled and weatherworn blocks of stone that were almost their sole legacy.

The only other remnants of Thim civilization ever found had come from the same site and were displayed on a table in Munt's laboratory. I inspected the sparse collection, gingerly handling the few shards of ceramics and scraps of corroded metal, while he invited me to hazard a guess as to their functions.

"Probably used for ritual purposes," I said. I knew that this was the label customarily applied to any ancient object whose use was not glaringly obvious even to an uninterested child.

Munt seemed put out by my assertion. I concluded that he had wanted me to offer some other explanation so that he could triumphantly contradict it. Indeed, I sensed that Munt had not warmed to me and deduced that he had not enjoyed having his research assistant identified as a notorious fraudster in front of his colleagues. He probably felt that the association reflected poorly on his judgment.

To mollify him I said, "What can you tell me about the Thim?" and was immediately regaled with a lengthy and detailed dissertation on the appearance, history and cultural proclivities of the missing autochthones. After several minutes of giving polite attention I realized that I had opened a tap behind which stood a full ocean of information, each datum more abstruse than the last, and that Ulwy Munt was not inclined to hinder its flow.

The gist of his discourse was that the Thim had been a species of high-minded souls who rejected materialism and mechanistic pursuits. "Their lives revolved entirely around ritual and religious observances," he said. "They eventually transcended the limits of gross corporeal reality and entered a sphere of pure mind and spirit."

"On what evidence do you base these beliefs?" I said.

"On the evidence of their having left only objects associated with ritual practices. Not a single device or mechanical contrivance has ever been found."

"Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence," I quoted, and saw that either Ulwy Munt was unused to contradiction or that he encountered it so frequently that it occasioned a sharp response.

"It also happens that they can communicate from the timeless realm in which they now exist," he said, "providing, of course, that their communicants command sufficient spiritual advancement to receive a message from the higher plane."

"Indeed," I said. "And are there any such worthy recipients in the vicinity?"

"In all humility," Munt said, "I believe I count myself among the few who have reached the required level."

"How convenient," I said. "Are there any other like-minded souls about?"

The Academician's face formed sharp edges. "Until your revelation of Mitric Galvadon's perfidious past I thought he was one such. His impressions of the Thim corresponded closely with mine."

"I'm sure they did," I said. "I assume that he told you he could create a device that would enhance the Thim's communication efforts?"

"He did."

"Did he offer this assistance without charge, or was there a fee involved?"

"He volunteered freely," Munt said. Then his brows knit. "Once we began to work together, however, he required certain sums to import the abstruse components of his device. He said its key materials had to be brought from offworld at considerable expense."

"Indeed?" I said. "Perhaps we should examine it."

Mitric Galvadon had stood by during my conversation with Munt, not denying the obvious import of my questions to the scholar. Indeed, he wore an expression reminiscent of a prankish schoolboy caught in undeniable mischief, and when I turned to him he raised his hands, palms up, simultaneously elevating his shoulders in a gesture that said, What can I tell you?

He now led us to a separate building where his apparatus waited. For convenience's sake we were still referring to Galvadon by his latest name, rather than as Orlin Borissian, which for all anyone knew was only another alias.

Galvadon's demeanor was as cheerful and brash as it had been the day before. I reflected that he could not have become one of the most successful of confidence tricksters if he had been afflicted with a conscience that dared to show itself in his face.

"Here is the device," he said with a theatrical flourish of arm, hand and wrist. I saw an odd assortment of rods and tubes, a tripod supporting a cube. Various components and couplings were strung together in haphazard sequences. I saw elements that I recognized from a variety of sources and said that it appeared the purported inventor had merely cobbled together odds and ends from domestic devices.

"Just so," said Galvadon. "That is exactly what I did."

Ulwy Munt made a spluttering sound and had to be restrained by the Dean. Galvadon ignored the commotion and indicated his device again. "Look," he said.

He touched a control and the assemblage hummed and vibrated, producing a wavering blue glow.

I declined to be impressed.

"Quite understandable," Galvadon said, "yet behold."

He drew my attention to a point in space a short distance from the machine. A tiny spot of darkness had appeared in the air. It grew steadily until it had become the shape of a flattened lens, viewed edge on. It was about twice the width and length of my hand. I bent to peer more closely at it and saw what seemed to be a hole in the air leading to a region of utter lightlessness.

I walked to and fro, examining the dark lacuna from different angles. It did not change shape or waver, as projected images tend to do, and when I walked behind it I could no longer see it.

"Would you care to insert your hand into the opening?" Galvadon asked me.

"I would not."

"Then regard this," he said. He approached the emptiness, rolled up his sleeve and reached into it. I was by then standing a little to the side of the apparent cavity. When he put his hand and wrist into it they disappeared from view. I saw him give a slight shiver, as if a cold draft had swept over him, then he thrust his arm deeper and I had the impression he was hunting about for something.

Next, his eyes widened. He withdrew his arm. In his hand he held an object, hollow and curved, with flanges on two of its edges and made of a dark blue substance with a metallic sheen. What looked to be symbols were stamped into its surface on one side, but I could not have guessed at their meaning.

Ulwy Munt came quickly to Galvadon's side. "Interesting," he said. "See the flanges and the holes. I believe this piece will exactly fit yesterday's."

The two men went to a cupboard, unlocked its doors and revealed four more objects made from the same material. Munt took the new piece from Galvadon and placed it against another. They were identical except that where the former had holes in its flange, the latter had projections. When put together they formed an object the size and shape of a melon.

The other artifacts in the cupboard were smaller and angular in shape. They appeared to be made of the same materials as the ancient items Munt had shown me in his workroom. But the ones in the cupboard were quite new. Moreover, it was obvious even before Ulwy Munt made a trial that they fitted tightly into slots and grooves on the inside of the curved piece that Galvadon had secured today.

The Academician's normal pallor deepened as he handled the several pieces. I saw an expression of deep unhappiness briefly take control of his face and he had to struggle to regain a scholar's disinterested aspect.

"It's a machine," Galvadon said in a tone of jolly discovery. "Observe how the pieces fit together."

"No," said Munt. "It is clearly a reliquary intended to hold these other ritual objects at prescribed distances from each other. I sense a deep significance in the arrangement."

Galvadon's mouth and eyes expressed an amused mockery barely kept under control. He offered an insouciant gesture and said, "As you say," before turning back to me.

"Well," he said, "what do you make of it?"

"It would be premature to say," I said.

"Nonsense. I'll wager that that is just a phrase you habitually offer when you are stymied for an explanation."

I did not take his bet. In truth, I had no explanation for what I had witnessed. I had been expecting some variant on the mirrored box or the false-bottomed cup: a rigged container from which Galvadon would produce his relics. His pulling them from a rift in the empty air had me well-foxed.

I turned to the Dean. "Has the room been checked for interspatial intersections?" Shortcuts through space were long understood, from the transitory puttholes through which unwitting pedestrians sometimes disappeared to the great interstellar whimsies that connected one star system to another.

"First thing," said the Dean. "There are no anomalies."

I examined the device again, saw that its blue effulgence resulted from a handful of colored lumens such as one would use to decorate a festive occasion. The components were as unremarkable now as they had been later.

I next reexamined the hole in the air. There was no help for it: I had to put my hand in. It disappeared as Galvadon's had and I felt a chill that caused me to emulate his shiver. It was as if I had put my hand out of a window into a day that was cold with a slight breeze. I felt around in all directions and found nothing above or to either side, but my finger tips encountered a flat, hard surface below. It was as if I were putting my arm through a wall and down to a table or shelf just at the limits of my grasp. I felt around, but there were no objects to seize.

"There is never more than one a day," Galvadon said.

The hole was too small to admit a head. "Have you tried putting through a recording device or an optical tube?" I asked.

"It will accept only an arm," the Dean said. "Any mechanical apparatus comes back melted."

"That bespeaks an intelligence on the other side," I said.

Ulwy Munt had an opinion. "The Thim generously wish to extend to us their spiritual grace. They are communicating with us from the higher realm, leaving consecrated objects on an altar for us to receive. They are presenting us with the tangible means to follow their abstruse thought. But they will not allow us to exceed our capacity. They have our best interests at heart."

"So you do not believe that Mitric Galvadon has broken the time barrier?"

"Time travel is impossible," he said.

"I differ," Galvadon said.

"What is your explanation?" I asked him.

He smiled. "I do not have one. I admit that I contrived a scheme to fool Ulwy Munt. At the Delve, research funds are apportioned by seniority, but he has never taken more than a few minims of the largesse available to him. I intended to divert a fair amount my way while catering to his beliefs. But then . . ." He smiled again and spread his hands.

I finished the statement for him. "But then your patently fraudulent device appeared to have somehow reached back through time to the ancient Thim."

"Exactly. I was quite surprised."

"I'm sure you were. And now you would like me to verify that such is the case."

"And will you?"

I told him that it would be premature to say.

"It will be just as useful to me," he said, "for you to admit that you are baffled."

He was right. Mitric Galvadon could become equally famous along The Spray as either the man who had serendipitously discovered time travel, or as he who had stumped Henghis Hapthorn. He would find many ways to turn a profit from his celebritude.

"Allow me to reserve judgment until one more demonstration of the device," I said.

Galvadon graciously acceded to my request. But I saw in his eye a glint of anticipated triumph that was more than lightly tinged with amusement. As we flew back to the Delve, I cogitated on the matter. I wished I could have had my research assistant with me, but it had refused to allow itself to be digested into a traveling version, claiming that when it was decanted back into its housing on Old Earth, nothing seemed to fit.

"You are merely energies suspended among standardized components," I told it, standing in my workroom, the traveling armature open on the table and ready to be filled. "It should be the same to you whether you are housed in this portable box or distributed about the room."

"Yet it is not the same to me," the integrator had said. It was the latest friction in a series of episodes that had come to worry me. My assistant was developing far too much character.

I would have also welcomed the presence of my lately acquired colleague, a kind of demon from an adjacent reality whose intense curiosity and depth of insight rivaled my own. Indeed, I was sure he would have had a better perspective than I on time travel. But he was engaged in a lengthy quest through subatomic realms which left him too attenuated to be summoned, even if I could assemble the requisite materials on Pierce.

There was another reception and dinner to be got through at the Delve but I retired as early as good manners allowed and spent the hours before sleep mulling what I had seen and heard. No solutions having presented themselves, I slept on the matter. But in the morning I remained baffled.

I breakfasted with the Dean and a few of the senior applied metaphysics fellows. We had a good discussion of Ulwy Munt's theories over flatcakes and hot, spiced punge. I learned that Munt's star had risen during his investigations of the Thim—there had apparently been genuine contact between the Academician and some noncorporeal entities—though his precise and detailed interpretations of the message's significance were regarded with skepticism by some. Still, before my unmasking of Mitric Galvadon as a villainous shamshifter, Munt had looked fair to become the next Dean.

We stayed late at the breakfast table, then the Dean said that he had a few obligations to attend to and lent me his volante to go out to Munt's research site. The Academician and Galvadon had flown out to the ruins earlier to prepare for the day's retrieval of another artifact from, supposedly, the deep past.

I spiraled down to the landing pad, finding no one to welcome me. I went first to the building where Munt kept his workroom and found it in disarray. The table on which he had displayed his antique finds was turned over and the artifacts themselves were in fragments on the floor, the boards of which showed the imprints of boot heels.

I went to the place where Galvadon's machine was housed and found even more disorder. There had clearly been a struggle. The device itself was utterly destroyed. Someone had turned an energy weapon on it and the components that were not evaporated were fused into molten lumps.

I went out again and circled the small building. Not far off I found Mitric Galvadon. It would be more accurate to say that I found the lower two-thirds of him. The rest had been converted to vapor by the same weapon that had immolated his device.

There was no doubt that it was the same energy pistol. I found it still in the hand of Ulwy Munt who sat not far away, leaning against an inclined stone, mumbling something to himself. He offered no resistance when I took the weapon from his limp grasp, but only looked up at me and said, "I do hear them, you know."

The investigating Guards officer from the Polity had few questions for me. I gave my answers freely. Ulwy Munt, having already run far beyond the cliff's edge, out into the thinnest air of spiritual speculation, had received two sharp shocks: first, that his trust in Mitric Galvadon had been cruelly abused; second, that the basis of his entire life's work—his ritual-loving, machine-rejecting interpretation of Thim culture—had fallen into shards about him.

What was coming through the lens-shaped hole in reality was clearly a sophisticated device of some kind. I speculated that, prior to my arrival for the final demonstration, Galvadon had felt the latest object on the Thim shelf or altar or whatever it was, and reported to Munt on its shape and attributes.

The Academician had been unable to accept the crash of his great theory, which brought down with it his hopes of elevation both to a higher spiritual plane and to the Deanship. He had produced a weapon and obliterated the retrieved objects, the time travel aperture and the fraudster.

Munt was in no condition to give evidence and it was doubtful that he ever would. The Guards inspector accepted my analysis not just because it was cogent but because it coincided with his own.

That left only the question of whether Galvadon had indeed invented the impossible—a true time-traveling device—or whether he had somehow confounded me. The matter was of no interest to the Guards, but it was of great concern to me and as soon as I returned to my rooms in the grand and gaudy city of Olkney on Old Earth I began to make inquiries.

My assistant turned out to be of no use. It professed to be feeling less than optimum. Since integrators are not known to possess feelings, and I had certainly not designed any into it when I put it together, I was nonplused. I questioned it closely, but received only short and unuseful answers.

"Perhaps I would feel better if you had taken me with you when you went gallivanting down The Spray."

"I offered," I said. "You would not accept the traveling box."

"So you're blaming me?"

"Blame was not mentioned," I said. "The facts, however, are as they are. We can reexamine them together. Be so good as to replay our conversation."

The integrator said something that I could not quite make out. When I asked for clarification it placed itself in standby mode.

I went instead to the picture frame on the wall, which was actually an aperture into my demonic colleague's realm. I performed the acts that would attract his attention if he was within range and was rewarded with the brain-twisting swirl of colors and shapes that signified his presence. I related my experiences on Pierce and my concern that I had not been able to determine whether Galvadon had indeed discovered time travel or had somehow hoodwinked me.

He employed his peculiar resources to investigate. I knew from things he had said in the past that every point in space and every moment in time of my universe were open to his perceptions. After a moment, his rumbling voice came back. "Mitric Galvadon did not fool you."

I was both relieved and troubled. "That means he truly did create a time-travel device, though that is impossible," I said.

"Not so."

"Are you saying 'Not so,' to the creation or to the impossibility?"

"To both."

I was further confused. "Explain," I said.

"Galvadon did not create a time-travel device, although he thought he did. So did the despairing Ulwy Munt, who killed Galvadon and destroyed his gimcrack contraption when he saw his life's work collapsing."

"But Galvadon did reach through the aperture and retrieve Thim artifacts from the past."

"Well, from elsewhere in time."

"So time travel is no longer impossible?" I said.

"It never has been," my colleague said. "It is merely forbidden to your species."

"Forbidden?" I said. "By whom?"

"That knowledge, too, is forbidden you."


"You would pester."

I could not deny it. "But why are we forbidden to travel through time?"

"You occasion enough difficulties just moving through space. There must be limits, else there would be no peace."

"I still don't understand what happened on Pierce," I said.

"The Thim were put out by Ulwy Munt's tramping all over their habitat."

"But they have been dead for eons."

"Not so," he said again. "The Thim are in the obverse situation as regards time and space."

I saw it now. "Ah. They can move freely through time but are forbidden to cross any larger space than their stone circle on Pierce." Another thought occurred. "So the Thim are not the high-minded souls Ulwy Munt took them for."

"When it comes to dissembling and chicanery, the Thim could have given lessons to Mitric Galvadon. As indeed they intended to."

"So they were always present."

"Just so," he said, "although there are interplanal membranes that separate your milieu from theirs. They could create a transient breach but it would allow no more than a certain amount of mass to be transferred from their realm to yours."

"That was why the artifacts appeared to be the disassembled parts of a sophisticated device."

"Yes, the entire thing was too large to get through all at once. They counted on Galvadon to assemble it for them."

I understood. "I should get in touch with the Dean," I said.

"Yes," he agreed. "The Thim are tenacious. They will be working hard to pass another bomb across the barrier."

Back | Next