Best of All Possible Worlds

– Best of All Possible Worlds-

By John C. Wright

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“MAKE way for Liberty!”—he cried;
Made way for Liberty, and died!


— James Montgomery (1771–1854)

Table of Contents so far

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1. Arrival

It was Jane Jefferson who found the paratime traveler wandering, dazed, by the river near the wreckage of his inter-dimensional vehicle. She had seen the huge cylindrical machine materialize out of the night sky above the Nanticoke River. It was damaged even before the crash. Trailing streamers of smoke, its aft section a mass of flame, the vehicle slid screaming through the air, shuddering and gyrating, till its nose plunged into the bridge supports of the Nanticoke River Bridge.

With the magnificent slowness of a great disaster, the bridge leaned and collapsed into the river, pinning the wreckage of the strange vehicle against the shore. It was midnight, and no traffic had been on the bridge. Jane knew the vehicle was not from this earth: but she wasted no time with disbelief.

The man she found bleeding and staggering by the riverside had a heavy-jowled, bearded face, with thick supraorbital ridges and a back-sloping forehead. The features were those of some extinct near-relative of Homo Sapiens. He stared at her with eyes as wily and frightened as the eyes of any beast of prey. Thick scars, from many past injuries, gave his heavy face a craggy grandeur.

The traveler wore a heavy uniform of blue and black leather, padded at the shoulders, pinched at the waist, ornamented with massive metal clasps, and a tool-belt. When he saw her, he drew a tube-shaped weapon from the tool-belt and pointed it at her. He stood swaying, blinking the blood from his eyes, looking wildly at the bushes and road behind her. She spoke to him soothingly, made calming gestures, smiled and stepped forward. He relaxed and sagged and holstered the tube.

Jane put her arm around him and helped him to her car. In the light from the headlights, he seemed to have nothing more than bruises and shallow cuts on his head and shoulders.

He spoke in classical Latin, thanking her, and saying he needed no help.

Jane had learned Latin in school. “This is a self-moving carriage. Inside, and it will carry you to a physician’s house.” She could not remember if there was any word for hospital.

“No! Tell your masters I will speak without torture. Do not take me to the physicians!”

“To heal you; to restore you to health. No one will harm you.” Jane explained. She wondered if she had spoken incorrectly.

The traveler grimaced and squinted. He leaned on the hood of the car and laughed. “Your masters have deceived you, perhaps. You are sent here unarmed, to put me at my ease, a beautiful maiden. Sometimes they let one think he has escaped, that hope and panic will make his mind break when he is caught again. Or they give you a woman, so that you will be fond of her. Many men whom no torment would break cannot tolerate to see the lips they kissed burnt with iron, to see the fingers they held twisted and broken.”

“You are in a delirium. You are confused. Come into the carriage and I will take you to a physician.”


“I will take you to the house of my father and mother. They are away. No one is there. No one will hurt you.”

The traveler nodded, closed his eyes, and sagged as if in vast fatigue

She drove them to her parent’s house in Woodland, half an hour away. Her parents were gone for the week-end. Later, bandaged and showered and put to bed, the traveler slept the sleep of exhaustion, his hands curled around a kitchen knife he had picked up when Jane had been feeding him, and which he would not release. At the door to the guest-room, she turned to watch him sleeping, and wondered if he actually thought she was beautiful.

The next morning, she found him wandering suspiciously through the house, looking at the appliances and furniture, the books, the simple objects, with mingled surprise and envy. He was amazed at the clothes in the closet, pushing her father’s shirt hangers with his thumb, perhaps counting the number, or perhaps feeling the fabric. He seemed shocked, almost angry, at the amount of food in the cupboard and refrigerator. When he saw the hunting rifles hanging on her father’s gun-rack, he seemed thunderstruck.

He asked, “Where are your slaves? If this is the house of a noble, how comes he to have no slaves?”

“Slavery is illegal. There has been no one allowed to own or buy or sell their fellow men since before my grandfather’s time.”

“In this province?”

“In all of the world.” Jane led him out onto the patio, and offered him a chair. It was a pleasant day: the sunlight shone on the leaves of nearby tree. Bird sang in the bushes lining the driveway.

She said boldly, “What is your name? What world…What world are you from?”

“Vorspell, I am.” He touched his chest. “I am from this world. Not from this time.”

He raised both eyebrows when she merely nodded calmly.

She asked matter-of-factly, “From the past, or the future?”

He shook his shaggy head. “Neither. It cannot be explained, you would not understand…”

“From sidewise in time? Alternate worlds? Variants?” She smiled sweetly.

He blinked in confusion, then said slowly, “Yes. Same world, different history. Different probability, more likely, less likely. You understand? How can you understand this?”

“I watch Twilight Zone,” Jane said.

“This is what, that you watch?”

“We have writers who speculate about what might happen. They imagine different possibilities, tell about how things will be in the future.”

He shook his head. “How can your masters allow this? If the people knew how bad things will be in the future, they will be restive; or, should they be told their children will have better futures, they will be full of envy and discontent. And if they are allowed to think the world might have been different, it will anger them. Why do your masters allow such writings?”

“In this country, every man is his own master, and may write what he likes.”

“But your king… your patricians … I saw your weapons … You could not allow the underlings such a privilege. They will turn on you.”

“We have no king. We have no patricians. All men may carry weapons, not just noblemen. All men are equal here.”

“Aha. Then there is anarchy. When two men of different religions meet in the street, they shoot each other to death with their flame-weapons, is it not so? When one of the faithful meets an infidel, he must destroy him.”

“No. You are being ridiculous. They tolerate each other.”

“They are godless, then? No god commands crusade?”

“No. We have one of the most religious countries in the world. We just tolerate differences. Don’t you understand? Freedom of speech. Freedom of assembly. All that.”

“Your speech… one man meets another who says what he does not like. They do not duel each other? They swallow the slander? They hear lies and do nothing?”

“Yes. Why are you laughing?”

“How can all of them be so forbearing? Not just one or two saintly and patient men, but all? Almost all?”

“Yes. Yes. What is funny?”

“I found the least likely world! The last variant!”

“What does that mean?’

The paratime traveler raised his arms in a sweeping gesture, as if to encompass the house, the land, the surrounding county, the world . “How likely does all this seem to you?”

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2. Departure

Jane blinked.

Vorspell leaned back, and tucked his hands behind his head. “I explain. I laugh because I am pleased; long have we searched for such a place as this, but our vessels will not reach so far beyond the most likely variant worlds .”

“I don’t understand .”

“Nostraterra is not the most likely of worlds, but it is the one which first invented parachronic travel. The first inventor, Marconius, of course, was imprisoned and slain. The Holy Kings of Roma seized the machine.. .”

“Slain? Why was he… why did you say, ‘of course’?”

“Our law says that no man can conspire to hinder or restrain trade. This man had selfishly invented what no other man had; other tradesmen could not sell such a machine as this. He was not a member of the guild of engineers; he had broken the law. He did not work for the good of the poor nor the glory of the crown, but for himself, and he attempted to hold his invention for ransom, not giving it to those who needed it, but demanding money. Do not pity him: he was selfish.”

“That’s not the way we treat inventors in this country. You don’t need licenses to buy and sell things; we have no such law about restraining trade. We are a free people.” Jane said uncertainly. She wasn’t quite certain about the laws; she knew her father friends were always complaining about new regulations, more controls, new taxes.

“The Kings of Roma explored the worlds more likely and less likely. The world our instruments shows as most likely was conquered by the followers of Mahound. There are no Romans there. The other worlds we know are the empires of Babylon, of Nineveh, of the Aryans, of the Hun, of the Han. Our empire conquered theirs, one by one, one history against another.”

“What is your empire called?”

“Imperium. There is only one. She arose from the loins of our Holy Kings, who are the descendants of Aeneas, and of Romulus and Remus.”

” Your version of Rome never had a Republic? You have no republics? No democracies?”

“Democracy? That is a strange word.”

“You have a Rome in your history, but no Athens?”

“Yes. We have an Athens. It was ruled by the kings who were the sons of Theseus. The great philosopher Plato and his students persuaded Alexander of Macedonia to adopt the policies of his republic. All property was held in common, men and women were required to wed whomever the judges directed, and their children were taken from them at birth, so that no one formed any bonds to any save to the state. The kings acted in the name of the people, whom he owned and controlled. Is this what you mean by democracy?”

“No…” she said sadly.

Vorspell continued his story: “There has always been a legend that, among all the possible worlds, there is one which is the best. A utopia, a place of vast wealth, where war is a rare accident and all slaves lost their fetters. Our instruments could detect your world from afar, but, alas, she was too distant, too unlikely, for us to be able to reach with our vessels .”


“I come from the likely worlds”

“What do you mean?”

He leaned back and crossed his arms on his chest. “Consider: Your world without slavery, your people whom slander and idolatry do not provoke, how can it be probable? To have this, all men, every one, must be willing to endure and forgive all things he hates most. To have peace, all men must wish for peace. But to have war, only a few need take up arms. Perhaps one can have a small group of such forbearing and saintly men, or, among the more unlikely worlds, a city of them. But a multitude? A myriad? A nation? Impossible.”

She spread her hands. “We’re a democracy.”

“Mobs always raise a Caesar to be king, and worship him as divine.”

“People wouldn’t do such a thing. Not Americans. And I do not think we are unlikely at all!”

“No? Does it strike you as likely that every single man will agree to leave all other men free and untroubled?”

“If that is the law.”

“On what is law based? The strength of men. How long does it last? As long as the strong allow. How likely is your world? Will the great and powerful welcome an honest rule, if honest rule curtails their power and greatness? Will worshippers forever accept the blasphemies of the godless, or the hateful rites of foreign and outlandish gods? Will the merchants accept poverty rather than bribe Caesar to alter weights and measures for them, and drive those who steal their trade away? Will the poor see the gathered wealth of the privileged sit aside, without being tempted? How likely is such forbearance? Those who forebear will not long endure, without being overcome by those who do not forebear. Hear me, maiden: Few are needed to ignite a war. All are needed to smother the flames. To leave other men untroubled is not our way. Man is wolf to man.”

Jane was silent for a while. She was thinking about how much of history was consumed with the wars and oppressions. She thought of Pharaohs and Mikados and Khans and Sultans and Maharajas. She pondered the Aztec Empire and Atilla the Hun, and remembered tales of Druids burning human sacrifices. Was there any land on Earth which did not know slavery? Was their any spot of ground not taken in bloody conquest?

How many European nations had nothing like the English Common Law? Nearly all. How many colonies of England had rebelled, and replaced monarchic rule with rule of law, limited government, enshrined in a Bill of Rights? Only one.

If the same proportion of parallel time was occupied with violence and tyranny as obtained in past time, then her world may well be the only one with limited government, elected officials, individual rights.

Vorspell said, “Your rights restrain your Caesars from oppressing you. But if he had power to protect your rights, he has power to invade them when he sees fit. Such invasion greatly pleases a Caesar, or else he is not a Caesar at all. What is it, besides their forbearance, which holds them in check?”

And when she did not answer, he said, “You see how improbable it all is.”

Jane asked: “You said our world was too far away from your world, too unlikely, for your machines to reach. How did you come to be here, then? The way you treat your inventors, I know it is not because of an innovation in your vehicles.”

Vorspell nodded gravely. “Your world has become much more likely in recent years. It grows ever closer to my own. Invasion will come as soon as you are close enough. I came to speak the word of warning. Remain utopia!”

Later, when the agents from the government came to take him away, Vorspell did not dare to resist, but he gave Jane a sardonic look, as they forced him, handcuffed, into the back of one of the cars.

“You can’t do this!” Jane said angrily to the calm-faced federal man directing the arrest. “He hasn’t done anything! He hasn’t hurt anyone! You can’t arrest people without cause! You have to read him his rights!”

The man looked at her with polite contempt. “Miss, we’re acting under the authority of the National Initiative for Coordinated Emergencies. We can only protect his rights by suspending them. The emergency is permanent. Volunteer cooperation is mandatory.”

“Let him go! Don’t you need an arrest warrant?”

His face grew cold. “Warrant? That is anti-government language. It is dangerous disinformation! Silence is violence! Questions are insurrections!”

“Show me your badge!”

Instead, she was handcuffed and hooded instead, thrust into the vehicle, and never heard from again, nor were her remains recovered by her parents.

The word of warning was not spread.

A day came when many of the cylindrical machines, heavily armed and armored, began to materialize in a large fleet above the Nanticoke River, with flotillas solidifying in the air above Marshyhope Creek, Barren Creek, and Mockingbird Creek.


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Watch this space next week for another tale of wonder, fancy, or phantasmagoria!