Moths flitted in a bell jar, beating their incandescent wings against the glass prison. “Delicate, beautiful, and utterly impossible,” James Blankenship mused, cranking a vacuum pump and sucking the air from the jar. The moths fluttered their last.
“Impossible how, mate?” Avery Dawes said. “They’re moths to me.”
“They would appear so, to those educated mainly in cricket statistics and barroom ballads. No offense, Dawes.”
“On the contrary; it’s nice to have my expertise recognized!”
“These are actius chrono. You are familiar with the plight of the common mayfly? They die within a day; their lifespan is accelerated because time works on them differently, just as time works differently on a Galapagos tortoise and a Rattus rattus. But the actius chrono is peculiar even compared to the mayfly. Time hurls it backward. These moths were born tomorrow; if I had not asphyxiated them, they would have died yesterday.”
Avery shook his handsome head, confused. “Then how did you catch them?”
“I found some dead ones and waited.”
James carried the jar to a large machine that dominated the laboratory. A faded Turkish divan was bolted to a metal platform, below which three ponderous gears turned. A large clock was mounted on the face of the machine, with three more dials to indicate the day, month, and year. It was obvious to even a layman like Avery that this was a machine meant to pierce the veil of time.
“These moths will be the raw fuel for my chronokineton,” James said. “Seat yourself, Avery!”
“When are we going?”
“Greece, the fifth century before Christ. I want to find Pythagoras and explain to him why his famous theorem is wrong.”
“That the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle is equal to the sum of the squares on the other two sides? But that’s a natural law! Even I know that!”
James only pursed his lips and shook his head, amused.
He fed the moths into the machine; deep in its innards the gears whirred, ticking down the years. “It’s starting! It’s going to work!”
An explosion knocked him from the divan. He rolled across the floor. Avery, always alacritous, scooped him up and set him on his feet while his head yet reeled. “It’s completely destroyed my chronokineton!”
“Looks like we’ve got a guest.” Avery faced the intruder in the shattered doorframe, a mechanical being nine feet in height, with flashing red eyes and a small-bore cannon fixed on one of its three arms. “Don’t you know it’s polite to send a card up first, mate?” To James, “Is this the work of some rival of yours?”
“No,” said James, unmanned with awe, “none of my rivals have the ingenuity to construct such a marvel!”
“You can study the fragments,” said Avery, fists raised. “Come on, you rascal. I’ve bested automatons in fisticuffs before!”
“Hold a moment, Avery. It seems to be retreating.” Indeed, the automaton withdrew on ponderous, clanking feet. “Let us chase this rabbit to its warren.”
They pursued the automaton through the quiet Chelsea street; though it moved with surprising speed, it shattered kerbs and snapped limbs from chestnut trees, and they had no difficulty following it to a columned building, domed in the new Classical manner. Here James stopped. “The Chelsea branch of the Royal Society!” he exclaimed. “The automaton and its master must be within!”
“Then we follow!” Avery led the way. A butler received them. “My apologies, sirs, but this club is exclusively for members.”
“Out of the way, man! Can’t you see we’re on the heels of a giant automaton?” Avery hammered his fist into the man’s face.
A familiar voice came from the main hall before them. “Report your success!”
“The chronokineton is destroyed.” The voice was toneless.
They burst through the double doors. “All right, you rogues, face your comeuppance!” Avery cried, as an identical voice shouted almost the same thing. They froze in confusion. For in the chamber stood their exact doubles.
An older version of James, grey at the temples, with even thicker glasses, deactivated the automaton with a hand gesture. An Avery, not older but more distinguished, lowered his fists, which had been ready to pummel the intruders. “I say!” the Averys chimed.
“I knew we’d see them,” said the older Avery. “I remembered it–but I’m still shocked. Pleasantly shocked,” he added.
“We do cut a dashing figure, don’t we?” Avery murmured.
James the Senior regarded his younger counterpart coolly. “Look at me! I thought I knew everything then! Now I know it was closer to ninety percent of everything.”
“I might have learned something today,” said James hotly, “if you hadn’t smashed my chronokineton!”
“Its destruction was imperative. Time-travel is the one truly disastrous knowledge.”
“And since when has the prospect of disaster ever stalled me? Have I not barreled on with my designs for the Earth-Cracker and the Causality-Crusher?”
“You’ll have to trust me,” said James the Senior.
James sighed. “I must. You are, after all, the only person I trust implicitly.” Avery shot him a wounded look.
“I’m sorry we can’t shake hands, mate,” Avery the Senior said to his counterpart. “But Jim tells me it’d shatter the fabric of space and time.”
“He’s always saying that,” said Avery.
“Hold a moment!” shouted James. “You come from the future to warn me not to meddle with time travel? Explain that!”
“We must depart,” the older James said. “Farewell! And remember, never, ever–” A sourceless beam of light swallowed them; it faded, and the room was empty.
Avery clapped James’s shoulder. “My condolences, Jim! What will you do now?”
James shrugged. “Isn’t it obvious? I’ll begin work on an unstoppable engine of destruction, an automaton nine feet in height, with flashing red eyes and a small-bore cannon mounted on one of its three arms! That is what the world needs now!”
If you enjoyed this adventure of Messrs. Blankenship & Dawes, you may read the original novella in which these august personages met. Jens Rushing invites you to visit his webpage and read there some fiction and his journal.