The Bird of Time

The Bird of Time

by George Alec Effinger

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Far into the future, Hartstein's graduation present from his grandparents was a wonderful trip…into the past. He had a long future in the doughnut industry to look forward to but this trip was the icing on the cake. It had been a long time since that first experiment in time travel was successfully pulled off, although not without its flaws. Now, in the…  See more details below


Far into the future, Hartstein's graduation present from his grandparents was a wonderful trip…into the past. He had a long future in the doughnut industry to look forward to but this trip was the icing on the cake. It had been a long time since that first experiment in time travel was successfully pulled off, although not without its flaws. Now, in the future, time travel was a lucrative tourist industry. But the time travel industry was keeping one little fact to itself: two percent never came back. This cover-up was the work of the Agency. The Agency knew what others did not: that the past wasn't really the past but a complicated dynamic of individual perceptions of what the past might have been. The past isn't real and reality becomes a state of mind. While selling their particular brand of escapist entertainment and vacation packages, the Agency didn't bother to tell its clients or the populace in general that a war was going on--a time war. The Agency was spending its time in a neck-and-neck battle with the Temporary Underground. The battlefield was none other than the space-time continuum, the weapons were time-shifts and theoretical mathematics. Hartstein had no idea what his trip would be or where it would take him. 

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You know the shock of utter terror just as you're about to hand over a large sum of money for something you're no longer sure you really want. Hartstein felt it. He felt it in his stomach, and he felt his hand give a peculiar reluctant quiver as he gave his card to the man behind the counter.

The man smiled, not pleasantly. He was dressed in the uniform of the Agency, the silver-and-blue tunic with the leatherneck collar. There were five rows of ribbons on his breast, signifying one thing and another, all mysterious and unknown to Hartstein. The man was evidently a hardened veteran of the Agency; it seemed odd to Hartstein to see him behind the counter, like a travel agent or an airline ticket clerk. "Second thoughts?" said the Agency man.

"Well," said Hartstein, "no." He wasn't going to let this veteran see that the notion of a vacation in time made him just a little uneasy. It did, but not enough to make him change his mind. Really, it was the expense that staggered Hartstein more than the danger. But possibly, down underneath, buried successfully beneath rocky strata of more mundane worries, there was the tickling fear that he might be one of the 2 percent that never came back.

Hartstein was a young man, recently graduated from college in Mississippi, about to begin a new life as an employee in a doughnut shop, who had been given a large sum of money by his grandparents with the stipulation that he spend it broadening his horizons, by traveling either to Europe or into the past. "I'd love to go back in time," he explained to his father. "Europe will always be there."

Mr. Hartsteinconsidered his son's urgency about the past, which, as far as he could see, would also always be there. "You're going to have a great future in doughnuts, son," he said.

And so, Hartstein was standing at the Agency counter in the lobby of the Agency Building right in the middle of Agency Plaza downtown. "Any luggage?" asked the uniformed man.

"Uh huh." Hartstein indicated a molded plastic suitcase he had brought with him, with extra shirts and socks, camera and film, and whatever else he thought he'd need.

"They didn't have molded plastic suitcases in ancient times," said the Agent.

"Oh," said Hartstein, "that's right." He looked confused.

"Don't worry. We'll provide you with everything you'll need, costume, appropriate accessories, money, and so forth. We'll make sure your hairstyle and facial hair conform to the local fashion. We'll give you a quick ESB knowledge of language, customs, and background. You won't have to worry about a thing."

"I'm not," said Hartstein in an uncertain voice. "Worried, I mean." He looked at a framed quotation hanging on the wall behind the agent:

When great causes are on the move in the world, we learn that we are spirits, not animals, and that something is going on in space and time, and beyond space and time, which, whether we like it or not, spells duty.
--Sir Winston Churchill

It made Hartstein feel better; that was what it was there for.

"Good," said the man in the uniform, "you're my kind of man." And he smiled again, no more pleasantly than the first time. "Now don't tell me, let me guess. You're either the Library at Alexandria or Catherine the Great."

Hartstein was astonished. "The Library," he said. "How did you know?"

"You college boys are all alike. Okay, take this receipt up to the ninth floor, Room 972. They'll give you all the introductory material. You can travel any time you like, just give us twenty-four hours' notice. You come in, take your ESB session, get outfitted, and we push you through the screen for your day in the past. You don't--"

"Can I go today?"


Hartstein swallowed. "Can I do it today?" he said.

The Agent shrugged. "Sure, of course. In a hurry? The Library isn't going anywhere."

"It's going to burn to the ground, isn't it?"

The uniformed man gave Hartstein a long, disdainful look. "They promised to hold off on that until after you leave," he said.

"Oh, good."

The man handed the receipt across the counter. "Take that upstairs. Good luck. Next?"

Room 972 was a large room; there was a counter across the front of it, and many desks and cubicles dividing the vast space to the rear. It looked like the kind of place you went to when the Internal Revenue Service wants to ask you a few questions. Hartstein's stomach began to grumble again. He told himself that there was no reason for anxiety, but he couldn't shake the feeling of impending doom. Doom he had chosen and paid for himself, with his grandparents' money.

"May I help you?" asked a young woman. She seemed very bored. She was dressed in the same silver-and-blue uniform, but on hers, there were no campaign ribbons. The cut of the tunic was less severe as well, permitting the general public to evaluate certain of her characteristics.

When Hartstein's eyes turned from the bustling activity around him to this attractive Agent, he lost some of his fear. "I'd like to go to the--"

"The Library, I know. Yellow slip, please." He gave the receipt to her. "When did you want to go?"

"I'd like to do it today, if I could."

She looked up at him and cracked her chewing gum. One eyebrow went up just a bit. "In a hurry?" she said.

Hartstein shrugged. There was a framed quotation at this counter, too:

The Bird of Time has but a little way
To fly--and Lo! the Bird is on the wing.
--The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám

The lines didn't mean a damn thing to Hartstein.

"Today," said the Agent, "let's see." She consulted several clipboards and a large, black, vinyl-bound noteBook. "Well, you're in luck. There's no real problem with that. It's, what? it's almost eleven o'clock. So, we can have you ready by two o'clock. You realize that you will have exactly twenty-four hours in the past, no more and no less. So if you go through at two, then you'll be back tomorrow at two. Right?"

"I understand," said Hartstein.

"And you took care of everything downstairs? Uh huh, it's all here on the voucher. So, is there anything you'd like to change? This is your last chance."

Hartstein wasn't crazy about the way she phrased that remark. "My last chance?" he said.

She looked up at the ceiling impatiently. "You can't be yelling 'Wait a minute, I forgot something' when they're pushing you through the screen. If you don't want to go to the Library, if you'd rather, say, go to see them assassinate Julius Caesar, you'd better do it now. We don't want to have to listen to your kvetching when you get back."

The idea of Julius Caesar and Brutus and Mark Antony's funeral oration and all that sounded very attractive to Hartstein, and he considered it for a moment.

"But if I were you," said the Agent, "I'd stick. You can spend all day in the Library. Caesar's down and dead in a minute, and then everybody goes to have lunch. The rest of the day you might as well be window-shopping in the Agency gift shop, for all the excitement there is."

"You're right. I'll just hang with my original plan."

"Good boy," said the young woman. "Take the voucher through the swinging gate, follow the yellow line on the floor, and see Sergeant Brannick. Have a good time in Alexandria." Like nightfall in the jungle, boredom reappeared with terrible suddenness on her ordinary face.

"Through the swinging gate," she said. She pushed a button and a buzzer sounded. Hartstein went through the gate and followed the yellow line. It went through a small village of polished desks until it came to an end abruptly, at the battered oak station of Sergeant Brannick.

"Voucher, please," said the sergeant. He was a large man, as large as the Agent who had sold Hartstein the ticket. He wore the Agency uniform, decorated with as many ribbons as the man downstairs had had. It seemed just as odd to Hartstein that Brannick would be employed here, handling the routing of tourists. Didn't the Agency need its experienced personnel in the field, patrolling the freeways of time, fighting the unimaginable crimes that temporal terrorists would certainly be plotting against the sleeping citizens of the present? "Voucher, please," said Brannick more loudly.

"Sorry," said Hartstein. He gave the man the yellow slip, now bent into a tiny, neat square. "Will the Library be crowded full of other people from the present when I get there?"

Brannick's eyes narrowed. "You won't see anybody there except the locals," he said.

"Oh? Why is that? Why isn't the place crammed like sardines with us by now?"

"Because 'The Past' is an objective concept, and it doesn't exist like that. Just like that necklace you have on. Subjectively it's a chain, although objectively it's only a collection of links. The past doesn't work that way. It isn't really a long line of links extending from 'then' until 'now.'"

"Oh, I see," said Hartstein, even though he didn't have the slightest idea what Brannick was talking about. He didn't want to annoy the man. "I've done a lot of thinking about moving around in time and what it could mean and what terrible things could happen and all the awful accidents that might occur if you weren't careful and all that."

A visible change came over Sergeant Brannick. "You have? The time business interests you?" he asked, his voice suddenly hearty and full of hollow buddiness.

"Uh huh. What do you mean, no such thing as the past? Where am I going, then?"

"No objective past, I said. There's definitely a past, all right. You're going to Alexandria and you're going to see the Library. While you're in town, by the way, why don't you run up to Pharos and see the lighthouse? It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, you know, and it was still standing where you're going. But tell me, you think that time travel is more exciting than, oh, spending a few days in Las Vegas?"

"I think so. I could have gone to Europe, but I decided to go back instead."

"No problem," said Brannick. "Like I said, we'll talk tomorrow. Give my regards to Cleopatra."

The doctor made Hartstein strip and stand with his toes on the yellow line. Then he told the young man to do all sorts of undignified things, some of which Hartstein couldn't believe had any diagnostic value. "Your injection," said the doctor in a tired voice.

"I've had all my shots and boosters," said Hartstein. "In school."

The doctor shook his head. "We have to inoculate you against things back there that don't even exist today. You'd have no protection at all against some of those diseases. You'd come back in such bad shape, in a week you'd look like Dorian Gray's painting."

"Like what?"

The doctor waved a hand. "Hold still," he said.

The yellow line took Hartstein to the ESB section. The procedure itself was quick, painless, and pleasant. He was given a mild sedative, which had him drifting in a warm, secure dream in a few minutes. He wasn't sure exactly how the knowledge was put into his mind; all he knew was that the letters stood for Electrical Stimulation of the Brain. It sounded like a sinister process, but it had been used on Hartstein a dozen times since childhood, during his education. It was a routine procedure; he was no more afraid of it than he was of other forms of medical editing. He lay back on the molded couch and put the intangible contents of his mind in the care of the ESB trainee who took his voucher. An hour later Hartstein had been processed. He took back the yellow slip and set out along the line once more. He tried to draw on his new knowledge of Egyptian language and social behavior, but nothing came. He worried that perhaps the ESB treatment hadn't stuck, or that some kind of mistake had been made. He recalled, however, that he had had the same experience following his other ESB sessions. When he got to Alexandria, when he needed the knowledge, it would be there.

The last station was the costume department. A young man in a tight-fitting Agency uniform told Hartstein to have a seat. "It won't take long, God knows," said the costumer. "It isn't as if you're going to feudal France or someplace interesting." He gave a wistful sigh. "I've always wanted to work upstairs, you know. Fitting people for the Renaissance. Can you imagine the materials, the fashions? Maybe someday. Well, for now, here's yours." He handed Hartstein a large sealed plastic bag.

"This is it?" Hartstein asked dubiously. He tossed the bag in one hand. It weighed very little.

The young man shrugged. "It's hot there, I guess."

Hartstein opened the bag. "Do I have to try it on here?"

The Agent closed his eyes in exasperation. "One size fits all," he said in a dull voice. "Oh, Lord, why me?"

Inside the bag was a white cotton skirt and some jewelry. "No sandals?" asked Hartstein.

The young man massaged his forehead in supreme weariness. He shook his head.

"No robe? I go around bare-chested?"

The young man nodded. "You get a headdress, though. One of those bath-towel things."

"Wow," said Hartstein without enthusiasm. He examined the jewelry: there was a gold bracelet with a large golden scarab, which was inlaid with lapis lazuli; there was an elaborate golden necklace with a lapis moon riding in a golden boat; there were two beautiful earrings, made of gold with cloisonné falcons, their wings arching to form perfect circles, inlaid with quartz, faience, and colored glass; there was a heavy gold ring depicting some Egyptian god or other. The priceless jewelry contrasted with the simple, rough cotton skirt. "Is this real gold?" asked Hartstein.

"Certainly is. You can't get out of this building without giving it back. And we can always get more of that jewelry anytime we want, just by going to Ancient Egypt and getting it. Let me help you with that skirt."

"That's all right," said Hartstein, "I can manage. But what am I supposed to be?"

The uniformed man scratched his wispy beard. "A scribe, I suppose, or a valuable slave in a wealthy household. I don't know. I've never been there myself."

"Well, in History 110 we had a couple of weeks about Egypt, and I've seen this before." Hartstein held up the lunar pectoral. "This is one of the King Tut treasures."

"They all are, honey."

Hartstein stared for a moment, not understanding. "But how am I going to get away with wearing all of this pharaoh's stuff, walking around the streets pretending I'm just a middle-class country boy with a yen to read the classics? And anyway, I'm going to about 50 B.C., and King Tut lived almost fifteen hundred years before that. All of this stuff, the skirt and the jewelry, is an anachronism. And the headdress too. Where I'm going, they'll all be influenced by the Greek occupation and the Romans."

The costumer yawned. "No, they won't."

"They won't? Why not?"

"They just won't, that's all. Wait until you get back there and then take a look around. Just remember, sweetheart, that the past isn't always the way you expect it to be, from reading books. How dreary that would be."

Hartstein was having more misgivings. "You can help me with the earrings," he said. "Did they have screw bases during the reign of the Ptolemies?"

"No, of course not, but do you want me to pierce your ears instead?"

Hartstein shook his head.

"Then just shut up and hold still."

The transmission screen itself wasn't very impressive. Hartstein had heard about it since childhood, had even seen pictures of it, yet he had a mental image that included more adventure and excitement than did the real thing. He waited on a worn green-painted bench for twenty minutes while a couple of dozen other people ducked through on their way to various eras. Some of the destinations were easy to guess, because of the travelers' costumes: one fat, bald man in the October of his years wore the skins of some mottled animal and carried a crude stone hatchet; two teenage girls traveling together wore Agency-issue outfits that disguised them as flower children of the 1960s; a tall, thin man with a loud voice and a permanent sneer wore the toga of a Roman senator. It gave Hartstein a feeling of being backstage at the community theater as he glanced around the waiting room and catalogued the cultures and centuries represented by the panorama of styles. And, he reminded himself, they all came from plastic-wrapped packages in the Agency warehouse. The most complex courtier's costume must have seen constant use, worn and cleaned and stored away again like a rented dinner jacket after prom night.

"Mr. Hartstein?" called a woman. He got up and went to the screen. "Mr. Hartstein? Your voucher, please. Thank you. Okay, we're going to put you through to Alexandria now. You will arrive early in the morning of May 15, 48 B.C., a full year before the Library will burn during Julius Caesar's siege of the city. Are you ready?"

Hartstein swallowed. He felt very nervous. His stomach was sending him sterner messages than ever. "I feel like a fool, dressed like this," he said.

The Agent had probably heard that sentiment many times. She did not reply. She grasped him by the arm and led him to the flickering screen. Hartstein saw that here, too, there was a framed sentiment:

Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'entrate.
--Dante Alighieri

He couldn't read Italian, but his high school Latin enabled him to recognize one word; speranza meant either "hope" or "breath," but he couldn't remember which.

"You will pop back here tomorrow at this time," she said. "You won't be able to do anything about it. Wherever you are, whatever you're doing, you'll snap back to the present. Try to keep track of the time, just to avoid any kind of inconvenience or embarrassment."

"Right," said Hartstein absently, just as she shoved him into the purple glow.

Just like that, he was in Egypt. He could tell, because of the palm trees and the camels. His first thought was, "Gee, it's just the way I imagined it." He was standing on a long, broad street. He looked to his right and left, but the street went on in both directions, straight as a reed, farther than he could see. There were imposing buildings nearby, on both sides of the street, and he was startled to realize that he knew what they were: behind him was the great Hall of Justice and, beside it, the public gymnasium; before him to the left was the famous amphitheater; far away down the street in the other direction were the city's stadium and the hippodrome; directly in front of him was the immortal Library. He looked both ways again for traffic, out of habit, and crossed the street.

The Library's appearance surprised him. There was a huge flight of granite steps leading up to the main entrance; the stairs were like a tremendous cataract of stone, guarded on either side by placid-looking granite sphinxes. "It looks like the New York Public Library," he thought. The resemblance was reinforced by the scores of people sitting on the steps. There were young couples holding hands, people talking together in groups of two and three, individuals idly watching the commerce of the city pass by on the great avenue, solitary loiterers dozing in the warm sun. All the men were dressed exactly as he was--barefoot, cotton skirt, headdress, showy jewelry. The women were even more remarkable in their tight, straight linen dresses and pleated, thin shoulder capes, their wide golden collars and inlaid pectorals, golden bracelets on their arms and wrists, golden rings on their fingers. Hartstein noticed that there seemed to be a lot of gold distributed among the common citizens. Everyone wore black or green outlines around the eyes. All the men looked like pharaohs and all the women like empresses. They passed the time in the pleasant weather outside the Library.

Hartstein stood on the sidewalk, hesitating. Part of him wanted to rush up the steps and into the building, to get his hands on the great, lost literary works of antiquity. Another part of him was still afraid. That part was momentarily stronger; it asked him first if he could account for the sidewalk. He could not. He accepted it as a fact of history that none of the present-day authorities had bothered to report. It wasn't important; it meant nothing to him. He forgot all about it before he had climbed ten steps.

"Do you know what time it is?" asked one of the sitting men, as Hartstein drew near. The Egyptian had his arm around an attractive dark-skinned young woman; when she turned her head sideways, she looked just like a hieroglyph.

Hartstein paused. Reflexively he glanced at his wrist, but he had no watch. He looked up into the sky and judged the time by the sun. "Nine o'clock, I'd guess," he said.

"Thanks." The man stood and offered a hand to the young woman. "Come on, baby, they'll be open now."

Hartstein passed them and continued up the steps. At the top were three great bronze doors. He went to the first. A little sign on a pole stood in front of it. The message was in two languages, like the English and Spanish signs in airports. Here, though, there were hieroglyphics on top and Latin on the bottom. "That's peculiar," thought Hartstein. "In History 110 they told me that demotic script replaced hieroglyphics long before now." Thanks to the ESB session, he could read the Egyptian symbols easily, while the only word of the Latin he knew was ianuam. The sign said please use next door. Hartstein smiled. "Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose," he murmured. He went to the middle door and swung it open.

Inside, the Library was lit by sunlight streaming through huge windows on every wall set high above the bookshelves. Hartstein stood inside the door, paralyzed for the moment by the staggering value of this gigantic room, by the anticipation of browsing through the treasure of lost wisdom. He became aware of the silence, of the pervasive odor of old books decaying in their bindings, of the sense of great riches of the intellect not far away, on the shelves within his reach, on other shelves across the vast hall, in other chambers hidden beyond distant doorways, of uncounted volumes and forgotten authors...

And then, like a fish from the sky, a thought startled him. What was most unusual about the Library was its overwhelming familiarity. "It's the ESB treatment," he told himself. But it was more than that. There was too much that was just like the present. More than he would have guessed.

In the center of the immense open hall there was a large desk. Two women sat behind it and glanced through papers and books. They were evidently employees--Hartstein had some initial difficulty calling them librarians--and he decided to begin his tour of the Library with them. He went to the desk and waited for one of the women to look up. "Hello," he said.

"Hello," said the librarian, "can I help you?" Hartstein was stunned; she was the most beautiful woman he had ever met in his entire life. Her eyes were deep and bright and violet, lidded with Nile blue, made even larger by the black outlines that curved up toward her temples. She wore a braided wig as black as death. Her skin was tanned and smooth, the hairs on her forearms pale, bleached by the sun. Her features were striking and exotic in the way that those of some photographic models are, the type of woman one never meets in real life. She wore the same long, figure-hugging dress, the same short cape, and the same queen's ransom in jewelry. She smiled, and the stale, studious atmosphere in the chamber ignited.

"I'm..." Hartstein looked around in panic.

"Can I help you find something?" she asked.

He nodded, desperate for an idea. "Do you have anything on philosophy?" he said.

"Of course. Go to that cabinet and look up philosophy. When you find the book you want, make a note of the catalogue number. I'll help you locate it. It will be over in that section, against the wall." She pointed past his shoulder, off in the general direction of the Sinai Desert.

"Thanks." Hartstein knew immediately that he had made a bad mistake. He didn't want to do anything that would take him away from the desk and the librarian, but he went to the cabinet. It was made of blond wood and fashioned with wooden pins instead of iron nails. He put a hand on the solid door, but he did not open it. He didn't want to spend his time looking over copied manuscripts of things he hadn't enjoyed reading in college. He went back to the desk.

"Did you find anything?" asked the lovely librarian.

"No," said Hartstein, "I changed my mind. I was hoping I could find--by the way, what is your name?"

"I am Pamari," she said, looking down shyly at her work. Her long black lashes hid her eyes.

"My name is Stulectis, from the city of Mardenes." Both proper names had been inserted into his memory by the ESB process. They were both merely foreign-sounding nonsense words. There had never been any city called Mardenes, but it sounded as if there might. "I think I'd like something less difficult to read, something that would give me a good idea of how the citizens of this great city live."

"You can try over there," said Pamari, indicating a section of books opposite another desk near the rear exit.

"Thanks again. Oh, and would you forgive me if I ask you something personal?" Pamari glanced into his eyes and, embarrassed, looked back down at her papers. "Would you like to have lunch with me? I'm only going to be in Alexandria until tomorrow morning. I thought--"

"I don't really think so," she whispered. She was blushing furiously.

"I'm very sorry," said Hartstein, angry with his foolishness. "I shouldn't have--" He interrupted himself and went to look at the books. He tried to remind himself that he had come to examine them, and not to promote a twenty-four-hour romance with a woman who had been dead for more than two thousand years.

Another shock interrupted his internal scolding. The books on the shelves were just that--books. Not scrolls. Not whatever else the Egyptians might have done with papyrus pages (collected them in folders made of sheepskin, tied them together with cotton twine). They were modern-looking books, bound in leather, their titles and authors painted on the binding in neat hieroglyphics. Hartstein took one down and looked it over. It was called Memnet's Shekel-Wise Guide to Parthia. There was a neat cartouche of catalogue numbers at the base of the book's spine. Hartstein opened it up; instead of hand-copied hieroglyphics, as he expected, he was bewildered to see printed pages. He cried aloud in outrage, almost running back to Pamari's desk. He waved the book above his head. "What is this?" he said loudly.

"I'm sorry, sir," said the other librarian, "but you'll have to lower your voice. This is--"

"What is this? You can't have printing!"

"--this is a library."

Pamari took the book from him. "Mr. Stulectis, is there some problem?" She looked honestly upset by his attitude.

"Remember where you are, sir," said the other woman.

"Remember where I am," said Hartstein, more calmly. "Yes, I remember. I'm very sorry. No, there's nothing wrong. I made a mistake. I think I made a terrible, very expensive mistake."

Pamari didn't understand what he meant. She looked at him curiously; he felt the blood rushing to his face, and he went back to the books to hide his discomfort. He noticed that the sign above the section where he had found Memnet's magnum opus said summer reading. He put the book back. Summer reading. "It figures," Hartstein muttered. He looked at other books nearby. There was one called The Murder of a Simple Scribe, by Adasirnat. There was The Flax-Seed Diet, by Architydes the Cytheran. There was Self-Realization Through Hubris, by Epimander. There were more: Passion's Scarlet Scarab, by Germanica Drusilla Tarquin; The Hittite Conspiracy, by Menotepset; a large volume of Who's Who in the Lower Kingdom; Osiris Is Dead Again, by Ekartis, formerly Associate High Priest of the Temple at Amarna; War-Chariots of the Nineveh Conflict, Volume II; New Voices in Etruscan Fiction, edited by Quintus Flavius Mummo; and many, many more. Hartstein's face was dark with rage as he continued to read the titles.

"If I can carry things back in time," he thought, "like this ridiculous jewelry, then I can probably take things with me to the present. I'll take one of these books with me. I want to see how Sergeant Brannick will explain this." Hartstein chose a book from the new & novel section, The Shriveling, by Karheshut of Thosis, author of The Yawning and The Theban Bronze-Implement Massacre. "I can't wait for this." Hartstein's fury had settled into a deadly, cold anger. When he returned to his own time, he was going to expose the Agency and make such a disturbance that the time-travel swindle would be ended forever. He wandered around the Library for a while, making notes of everything he wanted to report.

britannia, isle of blue men said a hand-glyphed poster above a small rack of books. Hartstein browsed among them for a few minutes, briefly amused by a volume entitled Papyrus-Reed Boats of the Gods, which attempted to prove that the monuments at Stonehenge and elsewhere in Britain were actually the docking sites used by Ra, Horus, Isis, and the rest, for their celestial craft when they visited their summer homes in the north. The book gave Hartstein an idea; he decided that sometime he'd like to visit Stonehenge while it was being created, just to learn what its prehistoric architects thought they were making. But, he reminded himself, if this visit to Alexandria were typical of the Agency's command of history, he might well witness those ancient Britons building parking lots for the gods.

There was a bulletin board with plenty of community messages: scribes offering copying services, rummage sales, cats and mice mummified cheap, meetings of the Historic Obelisk Preservation Committee, lessons on traditional drum and improvisational cymbal, choice delta property shown by appointment only, a class in the cooking of transalpine Gaul, moonlight monument tours and tomb investigation, baby-sitting, pet-sitting, palace-sitting, the usual mix of come-ons and vital information. Hartstein was beginning to understand just how mundane the past could be.

There was a librarian telling a story to a group of children in the Young Adults division. The girls wore red-dyed shifts of light cotton; the youngest boys were naked except for the ubiquitous Tutankhamen-inspired golden ornaments. In the periodicals room were back issues of the Alexandria News, most of which was devoted to daily reports of fires in the suburbs and barge collisions on the Nile, with a few pages of personal ads ("SWM, 42, successful merchant, landowner, on intimate terms with Thoth, would like to meet SWF, 14-25, prefer broadminded enslaved foreign princess, for mutually enlightening cultural exchanges, etc. No phonies or Carthaginians"). There were public-service messages posted on the walls (WHAT TO DO IN CASE OF PLAGUES. hail: Go indoors at once. Hailstones can be lethal to human beings and animals. Do not try to protect exposed property. Do not venture outside until you are certain the plague has passed. boils: Apply hot poultices and appropriate charms. If prayers and sacrifices are not effective, consult your physician. water turned to blood: Do not mix with wine or fruit juices. Blood is not satisfactory for drinking, washing, laundering, or other purposes. Do not use the water until you are notified by the authorities that it is safe to do so. And so on). There was a huge section of mystery novels and a small section of books that tried to make sense of the mixture of Egyptian, Greek, Roman, and miscellaneous deities. There was a large selection of firsthand accounts of strange places beyond the known world (Five Days on the Moon and A Journey to Africa's Land of Living Fire, by Philopeides the Lesser). There was everything, in short, that Hartstein would expect to find in his own neighborhood library, and nothing that he had hoped to see in Alexandria. Aristotle's lost books on comedy were missing, either checked out or stolen. The only thing by Aeschylus on the shelves was an early musical comedy called Pythagoras Tonite! which had been written in collaboration with friends while they were all still in school. There was very little in the Library that Hartstein found exciting or even interesting. There was nothing that he could carry breathlessly back to the present, nothing that shed light on the unanswered questions of the past, nothing that made Hartstein's expense worthwhile. Except Pamari.

"I'd like to check this book out," he told her, giving her the copy of Karheshut's masterpiece of horror.

"Certainly." She seemed glad that his spell of madness and wrath had passed. She smiled at him; she almost made him forget his disappointment and frustration. "May I have your library card?"

"Card? I'm sorry, I don't have a card."

Pamari nodded. "That's right, you said you were from out of town. Well, if you're going to be here for any length of time--But you said you were leaving tomorrow! Why would you want to check out this book?"

Hartstein opened his mouth and, finding no answer, closed it. The silence stretched on.

"Something to read in your hotel room tonight?" she asked.

He was inexpressibly grateful. "Yes," he said. "I could return it in the morning."

"Well, then," said Pamari, "we could give you a temporary card for today. May I see your identification?"

His heart sank. "Never mind the book," he said lamely, "I probably wouldn't finish it anyway. And I'd much rather take you to dinner, and then maybe you could show me the city."

This time Pamari didn't crush him with her reply. "Yes," she said lightly, "we could do that."

Hartstein was ecstatic. "What time should I meet you?" he asked.

"Six-thirty," she said. "At the front door."

"I'll be there," said Hartstein. He left the Library thinking of her, forgetting entirely why he had come to Alexandria, forgetting the sham and farce the Agency had traded him for his grandparents' hard-earned savings.

While the Library had been one of the most unsatisfactory experiences of his entire life, that evening in Alexandria was perhaps the most memorable. Every minute he spent in Pamari's company made him regret his modern life and dull and ordinary friends so many centuries in the future. Hartstein had to remind himself again and again that very soon he would return to the present, leaving Pamari frozen like a rare and beautiful butterfly in the amber of time. It put a not-unpleasant melancholy edge on his enjoyment of the ancient city.

Pamari suggested a small inn where they could have supper. Hartstein was curious about the kind of food he would get; he had no clear idea of what people in ancient times ate. As a matter of fact, he had no good idea of what people in modern Egypt ate. Yet it came as no surprise when the innkeeper brought large platters of roasted lamb and roasted camel, with bowls of dates and oranges. The innkeeper, a tall, burly man who looked as if he could handle any trouble that rowdy patrons might start in his establishment, carved the roasts himself. Hartstein was about to ask the man where he had obtained his golden necklace and golden bracelets and rings but, recalling what he had discovered in the Library earlier, he decided he didn't need to know any more answers.

There was a peculiar, sweet-tasting, light-colored wine with the meal, and as he drank more of it, Hartstein found the taste becoming more pleasant. "I thought there would be some Greek food," he said. "Because the Greeks ruled here for so long. The Ptolemies are a Greek family, and Cleopatra is more Greek than Egyptian."

"You do not like this food?" asked Pamari.

"I love it," said Hartstein, although he could have done without the roast camel. "But I expected more in the way of, oh, hummus and moussaka and baklava and that kind of stuff."

"I've never eaten those things," said Pamari. "You have traveled a great deal, haven't you? You've seen a lot of the world. I've never been outside the city of Alexandria."

Hartstein looked deeply into her sad eyes. "You would not believe the things I have seen," he said. He covered one of her small hands with his own.

"Tell me," she said excitedly. "Tell me what you've seen."

"I will. But I want you to tell me about Alexandria. I've seen nothing but the Library and this little inn. And you."

Pamari looked away, suddenly shy once again. "The Library is very famous," she murmured.

"But much less fascinating than you. Are you finished eating? Let me pay the man, and then we'll take a walk and you can show me the sights."

Pamari nodded. Hartstein drained the last of the wine in his golden goblet, left a few coins on the long table, and offered Pamari his hand. They left the inn and walked along the central avenue of the city, in the direction of the hippodrome. "What is back there?" asked Hartstein, pointing to the right, beyond the gymnasium, south toward what would have been the residential section of the city.

"Nothing of importance," she said. "I never go there."

"Why don't we? The stadium and hippodrome don't interest me. I'd rather walk with you toward nothing than spend my time looking at empty stone buildings." They turned away from the street and went along the eastern flank of the Hall of Justice. The way was dark and silent, and suddenly Hartstein was aware of how vulnerable the two of them were. He berated himself for leading Pamari toward who knew what kind of danger. There were surely thieves and robbers in Ancient Alexandria, and there were no Agency uniforms around to persuade the criminals that Hartstein was to be treated as a guest of the past. "Let's go back," he said. But before he turned around, he saw something too strange to ignore. There were dark shapes ahead of him, houses and shops and other buildings, but none of them were distinct, even though a full moon shone down from the clear Mediterranean sky. The nearer they approached, the farther the shadows receded. After two hundred yards Hartstein knew that something was wrong. "Why aren't there any houses?" he asked. "Where are all the houses?"

Pamari was bewildered. "There they are," she said, pointing ahead of them. "Can't you see?"

Hartstein waved a hand impatiently. "They were just ahead of us ten minutes ago. We've been walking and walking, and I still can't make out any of them. I can't seem to focus on any single building. It's like everything away from the main street--away from the Library--is vague and formless and not really there. I'll bet we could walk from now until morning without ever coming upon a real house. Or a real person either." He turned to her, wondering. He reached out and touched her face.

"I am real," she said, looking curiously at him.

"Are you?" he asked. He took her by the shoulders and pulled her nearer. She uttered a sigh; her languorous lashes hid the glistening eyes he would never see again. Hartstein bent to kiss her, cupping her delicate face in his rough hands. Just before his lips touched hers he fell forward, stumbling through a purple glow onto the Agency's temporal recovery stage.

"What the hell!" shouted Hartstein as he looked wildly around him.

"Welcome back, Mr. Hartstein," said Sergeant Brannick.

"What the hell is going on?" cried Hartstein. "What am I doing back here already?"

"It's two o'clock," said Brannick. "Twenty-four hours, just what you paid for. I suppose you're just a little disoriented. It takes some getting used to, flashing from one time to another like that."

"Twenty-four hours! It wasn't even twelve! I got there this morning and it wasn't even midnight yet. I had all night left. What kind of a cheat is this?"

Sergeant Brannick led Hartstein away from the recovery stage. Other travelers would be coming back soon, and it was important to keep the area clear. "I think someone neglected to tell you about the temporal Doppler effect," said the Agent.

"Somebody neglected to tell me about a whole lot of things," said Hartstein angrily. "And I'm going to get my answers, and then I'm going to make things pretty hot for your Agency, too."

"Why don't we talk about it?" said Brannick soothingly.

"Sure, I'd like that." Hartstein took out his page of notes, the ones he had made during his tour of the Library. He was dismayed to see that they were all written in hieroglyphics, which he could no longer decipher. "That's great," he muttered. "That's just typical." He crumpled the page into a ball and threw it on the floor.

"Sit down over here," said Brannick. "Some people are very upset when they come back. The past isn't always what they expected. Naturally we're anxious to make up for any unpleasantness. We don't want any unsatisfied customers, you know. Why don't you just tell me why you're so agitated?"

"Agitated!" shouted Hartstein.

"Shh." Brannick indicated a man dressed in the costume of a medieval Italian nobleman. "You'll spoil his fun."

"I'll tell you why I'm agitated," said Hartstein in a lower voice. "They had printed books! Bound, printed books!"

"Ah. You found Ancient Alexandria very much like our world in some ways."

Hartstein looked disgusted. "Not just your crummy similarities. I mean out-and-out anachronisms. Historical impossibilities. It was like a low-budget film made by uneducated fools with no imagination. Where was I really, some back-lot construction in Arizona? All ESB-trained union labor? Costumes, props, and nine-to-five Egyptians?"

Brannick took a deep breath. "You were really back there, Hartstein. You were really in the past. In Ancient Alexandria."


The Agent silenced him with a curt gesture. "But the past isn't what you think it is. It isn't always what you expect. There is no such thing as the objective past."

"I know, I heard that before. What the hell does it mean?"

Brannick massaged his forehead with one hand. "It means that the past depends on our ideas. The past looks like what we think it looks like, our consensus. There is nothing in the past that the present hasn't put there. If the majority of people today think there were knights in shining armor in fifth-century England, when you go back to fifth-century England there will be knights in shining armor. It doesn't make any difference what historians and archaeologists know, what has come down to us preserved through the ages, what truly existed in those days. The past is a subjective museum of popular belief."

"What about the real past?"

"You were in the real past, the only past that actually exists. I know, I know. I understand what you mean: What about the objective past?" Sergeant Brannick seemed very tired; Hartstein wondered how many times a day he had to go through this explanation. "The objective past is closed to us. We can't find it, to be more precise, if in fact it really exists anywhere."

"So, all time travel is a kind of legal con game," said Hartstein.

"Not really," said the Agent. "Almost everyone is thrilled and happy with their vacations. The past is exactly the way they expect it to be. After all, it's their ideas that make the past what it is. A few people are disappointed, those who know a little more, who know what they're looking for. We have to explain the situation and try to make them understand that we haven't cheated them." He indicated other returning travelers, all laughing and joking, dressed in costumes from many times and many lands. "If anyone is to blame, it's them. You visited their conception of Ancient Alexandria, their idea of what the great Library was like."

"And that's why there wasn't much else to the city? Why I couldn't find the streets and the houses where the people lived? Why there was nothing but downtown history?"

"That's right. I'm glad you're catching on so quickly. People may know about the Library, but they give little thought to what Alexandria, the rest of Alexandria, was like. So it's all vague and half-formed and patched up with clichés and fog."

Hartstein nodded. He had lost some of the sharp force of his anger, but he still had questions. "Then why was I snapped back here so early? I didn't have a full day in the past. I met a girl--"

Brannick smiled. "You always meet a girl, Hartstein. That's part of the popular idea of the past. That's where all the romance in the universe is--yesterday. Every time you go into the past, you'll meet a girl. Anyway, someone should have told you that time is subject to a kind of Doppler effect, the way light and sound are. The farther back in time you go, the shorter the minutes become. You were gone twenty-four hours by our clock. I don't know how many hours that would be in your Alexandria."

"You have an answer for everything, don't you?"

Sergeant Brannick looked down at his tunic, pulled it tight to eliminate some folds, and indicated his service ribbons. "Some of these I got for my distinguished career defending truth, justice, and the Agency way through all the eons of time. The rest I got for knowing all the answers. Listen, I know you're still unhappy about this Egyptian business. That's not good for you, it's not good for me, and it's not good for the Agency. We want to square things with you, Hartstein. We're ready to offer you another trip into the past, free of charge, all expenses paid, anywhere you want to go, stay as long as you like, up to five days. How does that sound to you?"

Hartstein said nothing for a long time. He watched men and women returning through the glowing screen from their holidays, from dead ages they had not perceived as somehow very wrong. "Why can't I be like them?" he thought. "Why can't I just be satisfied with what I found?" Everyone else seemed to have had a great time; Hartstein felt a little envious. "No," he said at last, "you don't have anything I want. You can't give me the real past, and these adventures in Storyland of yours don't interest me." He got up and walked away.

"You don't realize what I'm offering you, Hartstein," said the Agency man. "I'm giving you access to the whole world. Think about it."

Hartstein turned and faced him. "Nothing you say will make me go back in time again."

Brannick laughed. "You're wrong, Hartstein," he said. "I see your type every single day. You'll come back, I can tell. Don't worry. That offer of ours will be waiting for you, whenever you decide to take it."

Later, after he had traded the Alexandrian costume for his own clothing, Hartstein left the Agency Building. A cloud passed in front of the sun, suddenly darkening the afternoon. Hartstein looked up, frightened, certain that he would see the Bird of Time overhead, blotting out the light and warmth. The great Bird had flown by, Hartstein knew, and dropped its little gift on him. Nevertheless, Brannick had been right. Sooner or later, Hartstein was sure that he'd have to try it again.

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Meet the Author

George A. Effinger was born in Cleveland, Ohio, in 1947. He attended Yale University, where an organic chemistry course disabused him of the notion of becoming a doctor. He had the opportunity to meet many of his science fiction idols thanks to his first wife, who was Damon Knight and Kate Wilhelm’s babysitter. With their encouragement, he began writing science fiction in 1970. He published at least twenty novels and six collections of short fiction, including When Gravity Fails and The Exile Kiss. He also wrote and published two crime novels, Felicia and Shadow Money. With his Budayeen novels, Effinger helped to found the cyberpunk genre. He was a Hugo and Nebula Award winner and is a favorite among fellow science fiction writers.

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