Vagrants of Time

– Vagrants of Time –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

They are most rational and yet insane:
And outward madness not to be controlled;
A perfect reason in the central brain,
Which has no power, but sitteth wan and cold,
And sees the madness, and foresees as plainly
The ruin in its path, and trieth vainly
To cheat itself refusing to behold.


— Bysshe Vanolis (1834–1882)

Table of Contents so far

  • *** *** ***

    1. Knowing the Future

    It was night when I found a Time Traveler.

    He was nodding in front of a small lop-sided booth.  It was made of tar-paper rudely stapled over old apple crates, and was wedged narrowly between a grog shop and gambling den.  A painted hand-bill read: I KNOW THE FUTURE!

    The Time Traveler sat slumped on the cracked pavement, his upturned cap among the litter beside him, and a little card was tucked in the hat-band.  Letters painstakingly traced in fading ink read: Gratuities Accepted.

    The drunken sailors, with painted women clinging to their arms, strolled down the crooked street with rolling steps, and never gave the Time Traveler a second glance.  They threw some coins, of wadded bills, into the cap of the man across the way, a Negro in striped shirt who strummed a guitar and smiled.

    The Time Traveler raised bleary eyes as I walked up.  “I know the future.  There’s going to be a stock-market crash,” he mumbled. “Rich men diving out of windows, shooting themselves in the head.  FDR wins the next election.  He’ll stop the Depression by getting into the war.  America’s cultural imperialism on the Japanese causes it all, you know.  They’re only trying to defend their native culture.  Then we’ll drop an atomic bomb on them.  A terrible, evil bomb!  Because of White racism.  Please….”  He pointed to the cap. “I just need a little bit.  I gotta go to the Patent Office.”

    I stepped back.  The smell of booze on his breath was strong.  He needed a bath.  “What’s the date of the Stock Market crash?”

    His eyes seemed to focus a bit. “Uh… Black Tuesday.  Nineteen… um…  Twenty-Nine? I think it was in October…”

    “You should have studied your High School textbooks before you dropped back here, Connecticut Yankee.  Some of us like things they way they turned out.”

    A dim light came into his eye as that comment sank in.  I let him climb to his feet, and he started to run.  I caught him by the shoulder before he took two stumbling steps, and I gently lifted my revolver out of my pocket and showed it to him.  He went limp and stared at me with dull eyes.

    I nodded my head toward the door of his little booth. “We need privacy.”

    One or two of the sailors on the street saw the gun in my hand, and nudged their companions.  The prostitutes just averted their eyes. That was about all.  No one called for the cops.  The black man with the guitar kept strumming.  I guess it was that kind of neighborhood.

    He pushed aside the tarp which served him for a door.  Inside, the booth was actually a shack, and was a bigger than I thought it would be; it went back into the narrow place between the two buildings. There was no back wall, just an alley with trashcans.

    To my right, three apple crates in a row were covered with a mule-blanket; that was his bed.  Empty whiskey bottles were standing in a neat line inside these crates; maybe it was his calendar.

    To my left, another crate served as a chair for his guests.  There were enough holes and knots in the wooden planks to admit a dingy light from the street.  I pushed him so that he sat down on the ‘bed’ and I took the ‘chair.’

    I tucked the revolver back into my overcoat pocket.

    He said sullenly, “Aren’t you going to read me my rights…?”

    I drew a cigarette out of my shirt pocket, sucked on the filtered end.  There was a little flare of light around the other end as the chemical trigger ignited.  In that glint of light, I saw where , on the pavement, there was another bottle, this one with a blackened candle stub choking the neck.   I bent over and held the burning tip of my cigarette to the wick.  It sputtered and came to life in a buttery yellow glow.

    “The Supreme Count won’t decide Miranda v. Arizona till the Sixties, Connecticut,” I said. “And that’s forty years from now.  Is that when you hail from, eh?  Late Sixties?  Before the turn of the Century?”

    He coughed and slid backwards along the top of the blanket till his back was against the bricks.  He stared at my cigarette, and then, he, who smelled of booze and urine and godknowswhatall, delicately pinched his nostrils. “You’re trying to poison me with second-hand smoke!”  he said.

    That narrowed it down a bit.

    I said, “Let me ask you a trivia question.  What do you call the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the Americas before the settlers came?”

    “Aborgini… What?  You mean the Native Americans?”

    “And what do you call the gentleman of color across the way there?  The one with the guitar?”

    That offended him.  I saw his spine stiffen. “Color!  How dare you!  You shouldn’t use such language!  He is an African American, I’ll have you know.”

    “Oh.  You’re one of them,” I sighed and took another puff from my cigarette.  Somehow, it just didn’t taste as good as it had just a moment ago.

    “And just what’s that supposed to mean?!”  I think he was beginning to realize that he really did not like me.

    “I tell you what it means.  No.  Let me use an example. Just what were you planning on patenting at the patent office, chum?”

    He gave a sort of shrug, or maybe a louse bit him. “I know great things to come.  Jet planes!  Television! Transistor radios!  Moon rockets!”

    “Great.  I’m impressed.  Tell me how a transistor works.”


    I waited.

    He said, “I was going to hire someone to look into that for me, after I made my money on something else.”

    “Like the jet plane…?”

    “Yeah.  Like the jet plane.  A supersonic jet plane!  Faster than the speed of sound! Why not?”

    “How are you at math?”  I asked.

    He seemed to think about that for a second, and then he nodded. “I was taught by means of the latest method. It was called the ‘whole problem’ approach to math.  My Facilitator said I was functionally equivalent, nonjudgmentally, to the best in the class.  I remember I got a ‘diligent performance’ mark on my report card.”  He smiled to himself. “I feel really positive about my math skills!”

    I took a slide rule out of the left side pocket of my coat, a little pad of notepaper with a fountain-pen clipped to the first sheet.  I laid the them on the bed in front of him, within his reach.  I leaned back.

    He looked puzzled.  He did not reach for them.

    I said, “Calculate the pressure-changes along a typical wing cross-section for a craft as it approaches Mach One.  Assume any height above sea-level you want.”

    He looked at the slipstick curiously.  Maybe he thought it was a folding ruler or something.

    He just looked at me blankly.  Then his gaze darkened, and his lips slid down into a pout. “You’re as bad as those snotty clerks at the Patent Office were, the first time I tried to go.   They wanted a working model, they said, or exhaustive blueprints, or something.  I told them I was an idea man!  That I knew these ideas were going to make it big, real big!  They’ll find out I was right.  They’ll see!  They’ll see!”

    Something about the look on his face made me realize he might have been a lot younger than I thought.  Maybe the booze had aged him.  Maybe the guy had just come out of junior high school.

    I asked, “What level of schooling did they give you, back when you come from?”

    He said, “I went to grad school for two years.  I did my thesis in Comparative Teaching Ethnography.  That’s why I was so right to come back to this undeveloped age, you see.  Because I could teach them what they needed to know, but I could do it in the context of their own world-view-values, you see, without making any judgmental cultural impositions on their primitive system.”

    I picked up the slide-rule and notepad and tucked them back in my pocket.  “So they taught you to feel good about your math without teaching you how to do calculus, and you decided to come back the past and get rich quick because you already knew all the answers, right?  And just how were you expecting to make a living here, in this day and age?”

    He just looked sullen at that one.  He mumbled, “How was I supposed to know everything would be so… so backwards?!  No one told me they didn’t have unemployment insurance.”

    “You were going to live off the dole?  That was your plan?”

    He was silent.

    “Connecticut, this is only about a half a decade after they amended the Constitution to allow the Feds to collect an income tax.  The Big Spenders come later.  Here and now, they still use gold for money.  Hard gold.  People worked in these days.  How could you NOT know that?  You are a goddam Time Traveler!  You would not have even had to crack open a history primer to learn this stuff.  All you had to do was talk to your Grandparents, for Chrissake!”

    The sullen look sank deeper into his features.  He hunched his shoulders and turned his head away.  Apparently, it was beneath his dignity to answer my questions.

    I leaned back on the crate and took a long puff.  He looked back and watched me blow a smoke me.  I let my eyes follow the little trickle of smoke up toward the tar-paper roof.

    Fragile things, smoke rings.  Transient.  Even the best on only lasts a second or two.

    It dissolved.

    He spoke next. “Why do you keep calling me that..?”


    “Connecticut Yankee..?  I’m not from Connecticut.”

    “You don’t recognize the reference…?  I guess you wouldn’t.  Your political officers, or thought police or whatever they call them in your day and age probably banned that author out of those government-run institutions you people called your schools.”  I brought my eyes back down and looked at him. “The Connecticut Yankee is a character in a story — a fairy tale, at the time it was written, since Time Travel had not been and would not be invented in that timeline — who goes back to the Dark Ages and changes things for the better.   It was originally written as a satire.  There is a Timeline which grows out of the Dark Ages, and not just one, because people who liked the story went back to that period and tried it.  What’s funny about it all is that, is that almost without exception, history did not change that much despite whatever the well-intentioned Yankees tried to do. A.D. 500 is the onset of the Dark Ages. It was the overreach of the Imperial government in Constantinople, devaluation of currency, high taxes, that brought down the Western Empire. Bringing in gunpowder or the printing press early does not change any of that. All that Yankee ingenuity! All wasted.”

    “You can’t tell me it had no effect.”

    “Oh, I didn’t say that, chum. Actions have consequences.  Just not always the ones you expect.  In some of the lines, the early introduction of gunpowder made it so that economic prosperity, and technical skill, were more important than personal valor to win a victory.  In all the timelines where gunpowder was introduced before its time, the Moorish kingdoms in Spain, by the Tenth Century, are able to produce more skilled gunners and gunsmiths than all of Dark Ages Europe.

    “And so there is no Christianity in those lines any more.  There is slavery, polygamy, buggery, and tyranny aplenty. No republics. No inventors. No moonrockets. The Jihad against the Aztecs was fought with muskets in al-Qidah 1420, which would have been AD 2000. Except that calendar is not in use.”

    He was smiling at that.

    “What’s so funny?” I said.

    The part about no Christians.”


    “Don’t get me wrong,” he said, “I kind of like the Middle Ages.  They had small, ecologically-conscious communities, and everyone knew their place in society, so you did not have any of the stress and aggressive dysfunctional codependency of modern strife and market competition, you see?  And the people were all generally a lot happier back then.  They had fewer of the hang ups caused by too much freedom.  But, still, you know, what you said.  I gotta laugh.  Of course the Church screwed things up.  I hate those Fundamentalist types.  You know why?  They are so damn judgmental.”

    “And being judgmental is wrong..?”

    “Damn straight!”

    “And what causes a Dark Ages, do you suppose?”

    “I dunno.  Barbarians…?”

    “Exactly.  Provincial, intolerant, holier-than-thou barbarians.  Barbarians who talk loud and know nothing.  Barbarians who lack self-discipline and live only for plunder, which they spend on intoxicants.  Barbarians with no sense of right and wrong.  With no sense of logic.”

    “Hey!  Hold on!  You are talking about native peoples who have their own special and cherished value system!  Aren’t you being a racist when you use a stereo-typed label like ‘barbarians’ for the native peoples of…. uh…”

    “What?  The Vandals and the Goths were white.  Nordic.”

    “Oh.  Sorry.  It’s OK to call them barbarians, then.”

    I smiled and shook my head.  I said in a thoughtful voice, “You were not really here to make money, were you?  You were here for some idealistic crusade, some part of the past you want to rewrite.”

    He gave me that look I’ve seen deer give me when I shine a hand-lamp into their eyes at night: startled, frozen.

    I said: “Oh, come on.  You’ve got ‘revisionist’ written all over you. Come on.  Out with it.  Who is it this time?  Einstein?  Oppenheimer?  If you wanted to kill Hitler, you’d be in Germany.”

    He said, “To stop them from making the atomic bomb!”

    “Oh, sure.  Sure.”

    Now he stood up, his eyes blazing. “You have no right to judge me!  Atomic energy is evil! Evil! It hurts the environment! It allows the racial domination of the White European Males over the native peoples all over the globe!  It is too dangerous to be allowed into human hands!”

    “Great.  My great-grand-dad is one of the million American soldiers who die trying to take the Japanese Home Islands in the timeline without the bomb.  That’s before he meets great-grand-ma, so don’t expect me to weep over how nasty the bomb is.  The surrender terms allow the Military Imperial government to remain in power, and they do not give up their arms, and so they make a deal with Stalin after Stalin takes Paris, so World War III gets started before the end of Truman’s Administration and lasts on to the late Nineteen-Fifties and Sixties.  Which is about the same time, in your world, the Flower-Power children and walking on Peace-marches.  By the turn of the Century, the African continent is one big concentration-camp, and the ‘African Americans’ as you call them, are on what you would call the endangered species list.  The Arab satellite states keep some alive for slaves, and the Chinese keep some in a zoo.”

    I stood up, spat out the cigarette, and stepped on it, grinding out its spark of pleasant light beneath my shoe.  “No, pal.  Don’t talk to me about how bad things were here in the past, and how you’re going to change the timelines and fix everything.  Fixing things takes hard work.  Fixing things takes learning how things work, first, and analyzing why the broken things do not work, and discovering the steps needed to fix it.  Fixing things takes the discipline to carry out those steps, the wisdom to foresee the unintended consequences of any proposed solution, and the judgment to avoid a solution that causes more problems than it solves.   Have you got all that?  No.  Never mind.    You just want to change the past, and make the world a better place, don’t you?  Changing the past is hard work, too.  Changing anything is hard.”

    When I turned to go he gawlped at me. “Hey — you mean — I’m not under arrest..?”

    I pushed aside the tarp he used for a door. “For what?  All you might do, if you succeed, is generate another alternate break-off line.  There are billions of them, floating around in the chronic background ylem.  One more won’t make any difference.  Knock yourself out.  Have a ball.”

    “Wait — aren’t you a cop?”

    “Huhn?  What made you think that, Connecticut Yankee?”

    “But you’re carrying a gun!”

    That made me smile.  “I’m a citizen.  Every civic-minded person in my world carries a gun.  On account of violent crime.”

    “The violent crime rate is that high?”

    “High?  Are you nuts?  I just told you everyone goes armed.  We’ve got embezzlers and some con-men.  The life expectancy of your average rapist or burglar in my day and age is roughly equal to the length of time it takes for a girl or a home-owner to draw, take aim, and shoot.”

    He looked at me oddly.  “You’re not a cop.  But what were you — what was all this –?”

    “Like I said, the world without the bomb is one where my great-grand-pappy dies. And a whole lot of people suffer a whole lot. That world wasn’t there last chronic-energy-release cycle, so someone must have made it.  I’m looking for the guy who did.”

    He did not ask me why.  Instead, he said, “So — I am not going to succeed…  not ever?! Is that what you are saying? Is it? Well?”

    The kind of guys who do the hard work it takes to change the world are not the kind of guys who go back in time looking for quick money, or thinking a quick assassination of one historical figure will solve a complex and on-going historical movement.  The kind of guys who look for quick fixes and easy answers aren’t the kind who can affect history enough to generate a whole new time-line.  But I did not bother to say that.  He saw the look in my eye.  We both knew what it meant.

    All I said was, “You know the future.  You tell me.”

    *** *** ***

    Talking to Myself

    Outside, the air was cleaner.  There was a little park around the corner and down the street.  I sat down on a white bench beneath a gold pole lamp.

    One of my least favorite versions of myself must have followed me.

    There he stood sitting on the grass beneath the streetlamp, legs folded in a crooked oriental style called ‘full-lotos’ but which I think should be called ‘hernia-time.’  He wasn’t wearing a hat, but he did have a ring in his nose.

    He came from one of those timelines where you need a license to get married, to practice law or medicine, to own a dog, to have a kid, to own a house, to run a business, to own money, to eat, to sleep, to get sick, to get well, or to die.   And as for him personally, he was the kind of person who actually liked the world he came from, just the way it was.  And that will tell you all you need to know about what kind of guy he is.  No, I did not like him.

    He opened his eyes.  They were slightly reddened.  Maybe he had been up late.  Maybe not.

    He said, “You talked with father, did you?”

    I thought I smelled the smell of cheap hooch on his breath.  Like father, like son, I guess.

    I shrugged and sat down on the bench.  Here was the spot the paradox field, travelling future-to-past, would sweep through to pick me up in a fifteen or twenty minutes, so I had to wait here. This was the bus-stop for time travelers.  He and I both had to wait here.  Might as well talk.

    “You read the diaries,” I said.  “The first three volumes are the same for you and me.  The deviation must be somewhere around when he was in his early to mid twenties.  That’s the same period when he was doing his Time-hiking.  There’s got to be a version of him that goes back and helps reform that stupid world he comes from.”

    That superior and condescending look I always hate on him surfaced again.  He said patiently, “And you think one little conversation… with you, of all people… will get him to change his mind about his fundamental beliefs?  And that your ideas will change his life and therefore change the whole future…?”

    “I figure someone’s ideas make the future.  Why not mine…?”

    “Egocentrism is an inevitable result of the kind of individualist-isolationist and ruthlessly competitive neurotic-capitalist society like the one you come from.  Megalomania is part of your cultural myth-identification.”

    “Funny.  And here I thought folks like you liked high self-esteem.”

    His tone became even more lofty. “You cannot induce that particular skew line you are so fond of into coming back into existence by putting on some charade for father.  His actions are not the crucial cusp actions.”

    “Then whose are?”

    “Nobody’s.  That is the whole point!  Human action is meaningless.”

    “Really…?  Then why, exactly, are you wasting your breath to tell me so?”

    He said intently: “The skewed deviation-line you are hunting for so frantically is some quantum-mechanical quirk, a stray line generated by mere uncertainty fluctuations, without cause and without effect, out from the background ylem.  Time Travel proves that human beings do not have free will.  Therefore, obviously, all of human mental constructs are epiphenomenal, mere illusion.”

    “Sure, brother.”  I leaned back, tucked my hands, fingers laced, behind my head,  crossed my legs at the ankles and tried to make myself comfy. “Whatever you say…”

    His tone got sharper.  “I realize you are personally attached to that skew line; your home town and all; but this is merely a subjective emotional valuation!”

    I said in an airy tone, “Say.  This would not have anything to do with the fact that your future and mine are mutually exclusive and mutually incompatible, would it?  That if I win, you lose, and that if you win, I lose?”

    He looked sullen and did not answer the question.

    I said darkly, “Gee. Sometimes it is just no fun being twins, is it?”

    He made a dismissive gesture.  “Your attempt is futile in any case.  The line you are trying to negate is the base time-line, the inevitable one.”

    “Maybe its the easiest future to get into.  Doesn’t make it the best.”

    He said, “You just do not appreciate what a well-regulated, ecologically sound, racially and ethno-culturally diverse/integrated culture is like. We just do not have the competitive urges you have; we are more mature; we have moved beyond all that to personal human improvement.”

    “Oh?  Is that why you snuck back along the timeline to this afternoon before I came, and tried to get Ol’ Dad liquored up, so he’d be too drunk to notice anything I was saying? Is your passive and enlightened view of human futility that thing that made you go back and try to undo what I just did before I did it…?”

    He said stiffly, “I was merely cleaning up temporal pollution. Litter, so to speak.”

    I did not bother to answer that.

    Neither of us said anything for a moment or two.  I felt the trembling in my back teeth as sensors wired into my nervous system picked up an approaching paradox wave, travelling past-to-future.  He must have felt it coming too, because he stood up, and turned on his levitator sandals, so that his feet would not be touching the ground when the time-field snatched him up.

    He looked at me curiously when I did not get off the bench. “Isn’t this your ride?”  He asked. “You’ve trying to change father’s mind, and it didn’t work.  Aren’t you going back downstream?”

    “Nope.  Upstream.  I’m going to catch the 8:15 pastward to the day before yesterday.”

    He snorted. “Attempting a futile action twice does not make it less futile.”

    I cocked an eye up at him where he was floating, walking an inch or so off the ground. “You might want to wait around for the 8:15 yourself.  I’m going to go back and re-do what I just did, and so therefore you are going to have to go back and re-do what you just did.”

    He expression was one of disgust. “You are trying to make this a controversy between us, aren’t you?  Why can’t you just submit to the inevitable?”

    “I’ll say that to you once my side is winning.”

    He snorted. “How long will it take you to realize that your side cannot win!  People do not want freedom; it disorients them.  And they are not mature and responsible enough to make decisions; that has to be left to experts. The semi-anarchistic future for which you stand is next to impossible.  You cannot make it come to pass.”

    I said, “You do not remember us having this conversation before, do you?”


    “This is the thirty-first time for me.”

    “Thirty-first…”  He was flabbergasted.

    “Yup.  And I’ll do it thirty more times, or a hundred, if I have to.  One of these times, I am going to come across the version of him that leads to the hell-hole future you come from, and I am going to stop it.  It does not matter to me how long it takes.  But you cannot say the same thing, can you?”

    He stared at me blankly.  I knew him well enough to know what he was thinking.  He was thinking about all the things he had wanted to do, that he found he could not stick to, not for a month, not for a week.  No, he could not say he would keep trying. It was not in his nature.

    He was a man without drive or discipline, and who knew it.  I admit that guy made me sick.  He, but for the grace of God, was me.

    I leaned back further. “Get used to it, brother.  Your future does not stand a chance.”

    There was a silent zinging in the air, a moment of pressure, and the moving time-field picked him up.  It looked to me as if spacetime itself folded and closed over his startled face, swallowed him up, and carried him away, one more speck of flotsam on the currents of history, gone.

    *** *** ***



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