The explosion was centered near the southern shore of Groom Lake, Nevada, in what used to be a large military base known euphemistically as Area 51. It took out almost all of Southern Nevada along with parts of eastern California, as well as western Utah and Arizona. Hundreds of millions died and yet there was never an official explanation for the cause.
Earth’s largest crater was created on Saturday, August 7, 2048 at approximately 3:01 p.m. PST. The cloud of dust thrown into the atmosphere caused spectacular sunsets for the next decade. Unfortunately, the explosion also vaporized all of the nuclear weapons stored at the Groom Lake facility. Over that next decade, cancer annihilated nearly sixty percent of the human race worldwide, and that wouldn’t be the worst of it.
10,983 A.D. adjusted to the modern calendar.
“I’ve made it. I’m alive. But just what the hell happened?”
Charles William Jefferson stood gazing at the vast wasteland through the view screen of his Temporal Suit. He was only supposed to go ahead a century and instead, this.
“There’s nothing left. What the hell did those bastards do?”
He felt a little like the character Taylor in the old “Planet of the Apes” movie. An astronaut who, instead of finding an alien world, found Earth in the far future after a terrible nuclear holocaust reduced humanity to the level of the ape, and caused the ape to rise to sentience.
Only here, nothing was alive. Nothing at all. If it wasn’t for his environmental suit, exposed to the atmosphere with all its toxins and hard radiation, Jefferson would have died in seconds.
In fact, the suit kept him slightly out of phase with future time, so in a very accurate sense, he wasn’t exactly there, wasn’t part of this dead world.
“It couldn’t have been climate change. We’d been making headway against that for almost twenty years. Surely they had made great inroads into helping the biosphere recover after I left.”
The sun was setting in the west. Jefferson surveyed the desert by the deep red light of his planet’s native star. It might as well have been the surface of Mars.
“I’ve got to backtrack this thing. Find out what went wrong. Maybe I can carry information back to the present so we can prevent this awful eventuality.”
Charles Jefferson started out his career in the Air Force as a test pilot. He’d flown some of the most advanced aircraft ever designed by man. He’d also earned his degree in particle physics, so he was one of the best educated daredevils in the world.
That combination put him at the top of the list of candidates to perform the initial test of the MacGregor-Fielding Temporal Transmission Suit.
Diane MacGregor and Stuart Fielding spent almost a lifetime developing the suit, the only practical method of transmitting a human being forward and backward in time.
Once activated, the person in the suit would be isolated from the time-space continuum by a chronotron field. A precisely calculated algorithm would determine the wearer’s space-time coordinates, which, for Jefferson in this first experiment, should have been sometime in the mid-22nd century.
And yet, Jefferson’s instruments told him he’d traveled forward in time over 8000 years. How was that possible? Was the theory behind the suit, the calculations determining his temporal relocation that faulty?
It had worked. His chronometer told him when he was. It didn’t tell him how he got there.
He had no contact with his present. He couldn’t ask for advice. He was totally alone, but he knew how to get back, at least he thought he knew.
Jefferson turned and faced the way he came. Then he started running, he started running home, but he planned on making a few stops along the way.
Three crawlers, the last of a herd of hundreds, were sitting by a fire in the desert. Roasting on hot coals in front of them was a Sand Rat, fatter than any they’d seen for at least a season.
The sun had just set and the desert cold caused them to curl their robes tighter around emaciated bodies and move as close to the coals as they could without burning themselves.
“Lok!” Gnarn, one of the two males, pointed deeper into the craterland. “Wot?”
Sin, the other male, and Kan, the female who owned them, stared. In the distance there was something shimmering. Not exactly a light, but they could see that it looked like a crawler, but more upright.
It was bigger, bulkier, like a crawler but also like a beast.
It had a head like crawlers, four limbs, two arms, two legs, like a crawler. No hair. Too smooth. What?
For an instant Jefferson materialized and his sensors picked up a heat source surrounded by three humans or human-like creatures. He’d manifested only for a few seconds, but from an outsider’s perspective in normal time-space, it would seem like hours.
Sin, the younger of the two males, wanted to go, to look, to get closer.
Kan forbade it. She was female and ruled the two males. She needed them to hunt and to mate, and for the hope that among their people, she and at least one of the males might be fertile. Births were becoming fewer and without offspring, the crawlers would die off.
They hadn’t seen another herd or remnant in five cycles.
So the trio stared, gibbered, and cowered. Gnarn threw the medicine bones, taken from a rabbit they’d chanced upon a year ago in the foothills. The bones predicted a portent of evil.
They huddled together in terror of what this thing might bring until it once more winked out of existence.
Norn and Carnito were range riders assigned to patrol the Crater Badlands and guard against renegades. They’d broken camp an hour ago and were cantering across the hard sand and stone. They hadn’t seen a man, civil or renegade, in over a week, which was a good sign. Nothing was supposed to be alive out here except gophers, jack rabbits and venom snakes.
They were riding right toward it when it manifested directly in front of them, less than a hundred meters away. Both their mounts threatened to throw them, in spite of their training, but the two range riders maintained control of their creatures and mainly of their emotions.
“What the fracken hell is that, Carnito?”
“You’re asking me?”
A man, or what looked like a man, appeared before them. Well, it was man shaped, but dressed in some sort of bulky outfit, like a deep miner’s suit, helmet and all.
And damn if it didn’t look like it was running, but really slow. He, it, or whatever, had one leg extended in front of the other. Norn and Carnito liked to watch the tribal runners compete, and that’s exactly the pose the strange man had, like a runner, but like a runner frozen in ice.
Jefferson saw them, managed a look at the chronometer. They were men, more like men than the last time he’d come out of the timestream. They rode mounts, but not like any horses Jefferson had ever seen.
“Let’s see, a little over four-thousand years into the future. The people look more like people, but the animals…damn!”
Although from Jefferson’s perspective, he was only there for a few seconds, Norn and Carnito watched him for over three hours.
Norn dismounted without a word and Carnito followed his partner’s lead.
It was clear the mounts weren’t going to get any nearer to this phenomena, so they left them to stand there with a “stay” command. Then both men walked toward whatever the hell that thing was.
“Are you sure we should get near it, Norn?”
Carnito was a brave man, braver than most range riders, but in the face of this insane unknown, he could barely hold his water.
“It looks like a man. Strange suit, but we’re range riders. Got to know what it is.”
Norn wasn’t any more anxious to approach the stranger than Carnito, but they’d taken an oath. The civils were counting on them and their breed to keep them safe, and by damn, they were going to do it.
They approached the stranger to about a meter. It was broad daylight. Not a cloud anywhere in the blue. Damn.
The stranger. He had a man’s face. They could see through the looking glass in the helmet. Must have been about mid-age or so. Brown skin, like old Abe Wright and his tribe. Must be related.
The suit. Not a miner’s suit. Too fancy. All sort of knobs and lights and little lines, like the wires for the old radio Thinker Gee put together, but lots more complex.
Norn slowly reached out a hand to the right arm of the stranger. He tried to touch, but something pushed back. He pressed harder, but an invisible force, something pushed back.
“I can’t touch him, Carnito.”
“Maybe you’re crazy to even try. Let’s get out of here.”
“We swore an oath.”
“How can you say this thing is a danger to the civils. He ain’t even moving.”
“I saw him move, just a little bit. Left leg got a small mite higher, like a man trying to run through ice.”
“Let’s get back and watch, Norn.”
Both men walked back to their mounts which had obediently minded their place. They waited nearly two more hours, watching and guarding the stranger before he shimmered and vanished. From Jefferson’s point of view, he’d been present only for five or six seconds.
Jefferson wasn’t sure, but he thought he experienced a kind of acceleration coupled with a slight loss of balance. He was worried about what would happen if it continued.
It was taboo to enter the Craterland. The People’s Guard surrounded the parameter now that the Republic of Los California had been re-established. Much had been lost in the disaster, and much more in the horrific aftermath. It was fortunate that some of the survivors, the Fathers and Mothers, passed down the old knowledge to their children, and their children’s children. The only information storage that endured were the books. Treasure troves of old, buried libraries and schools were precious, and some of the citizens of the Republic became the teacher-builders.
Barr McKinney had been in the Guard for five years and had made the rank of Lance Corporal. He wasn’t a teacher-builder, but he was a student-operator. His teacher Tamm Elroy taught him to pilot the remote drone and how to operate the camera. Barr knew this was science and technology, but he couldn’t help but feel as if it were also part magic.
Corporal McKinney was one of twenty parameter drone operators. The operators were spaced evenly around the entire circumference of the crater and each one was responsible for monitoring a portion of the wasteland. It was just now beginning to be able to support life. The cactus and sage had returned, and outpost Lima Tahoe reported a sighting of what they thought was a hare about a month ago. Tango Sedona recorded a small herd of rodents just last week.
So far McKinney at outpost Charlie Fresno hadn’t seen anything move except wind-blown sagebrush, that is, until today.
He was alone in the pilot’s hut, hands on the joystick, eyes glued to the monitor, listening in his headset for any unusual noise. He was flying the solar-powered drone North-Northeast at about sixty kph, keeping it roughly 30 meters high. The drone had just passed over the Valley of Death and was approaching what was widely believed to be the epicenter of the ancient disaster, when McKinney saw something shimmering on the desert floor.
He slowed his craft down and reduced altitude to have a look. At first McKinney thought it was a reflection, a trick of sand and sunlight. Then, as the drone hovered just two meters off the ground and ten meters away from the object, he knew he was looking at a man!
McKinney in rapid succession turned on the camera’s recorder and punched the send button on his microphone. “Sarge! Sarge! Get in here now!”
A man in the Craterland. That was supposed to be impossible!
Sergeant Kim Hunt was just as astonished. Minutes later, half a dozen other technicians and officers crowded around the viewscreen in the tiny hut.
“What’s that suit he’s wearing, Lieutenant?”
“You’ve got me, Sarge. Some sort of anti-radiation suit maybe? Corporal, have you noticed any movement from this figure?”
“I think so, Sir, but it’s very slow, and look at the position of the body.”
“I see it Corporal. It looks like a man running…”
“But he’s tripped.”
“Sir, could this have anything to do with the disaster? You know, the reason for the crater?”
“You have a lively imagination, Corporal. The disaster happened a long time ago, nearly a thousand years by some estimates. I don’t see how this apparition could have caused something to happen so far in the past.”
While hours were passing in the observation hut and additional drones were being routed to the scene, for Charles Jefferson, it had only been about 30 seconds. From his perspective, the drone had come out of nowhere. He saw the camera. He knew he was being observed. If only he could communicate, but the time differential was too great.
There was something else. He wanted to stop, to materialize here. She should have been able to. That capacity had been built into the suit. Something was wrong. The sense of terrific acceleration was increasing with each step and he was becoming even more unbalanced, being thrown forward. Jefferson was starting to fall, and he realized the consequences of collapsing to the ground while in temporal flux.
He was the cause. His kinetic potential was so great that when he came to a stop, the discharge of energy would be disastrous. Desperately, Jefferson attempted to halt his forward motion and avoid falling. As he shimmered back out of existence again, it was already far too late.
Jefferson tried to put his hands out to break the fall. There was nothing to see. It was night. The crater was barren.
He barely had the front of his right boot on the ground. He continued to fall forward face first.
His gloved hands extended in front of him, he was just inches from the still smoldering crater floor.
Saturday, August 7, 2048, 2:48 p.m. PST
The MacGregor-Fielding Temporal Transmission Test was conducted in a large aircraft hanger that had been converted for this purpose. No one was sure of the size of the chronotron field the suit would generate, so test pilot Charles Jefferson was isolated in the hanger, while MacGregor and Fielding, along with an army of scientists, technicians, military officers, and intelligence operatives, monitored him and the suit from a bunker five miles to the south.
They had watched Jefferson shimmer out of existence several minutes ago and were waiting. The test called for the pilot to take the suit approximately 100 years into the future, run some routine tests with the suit’s sensors, and then return. The programmed time of return was sixty-two seconds ago.
Charles Jefferson was late.
The team in the bunker was astonished, not because Charles Jefferson and the Temporal Suit shimmered back into existence, but because the pilot was falling forward. He re-entered the time-space continuum and completed his fall to the floor.
Earth’s largest crater was created on Saturday, August 7, 2048 at approximately 3:01 p.m. PST. The cloud of dust thrown into the atmosphere caused spectacular sunsets for the next decade. Unfortunately, the explosion also vaporized all of the nuclear weapons stored at the Groom Lake facility. Over that next decade, cancer annihilated nearly sixty percent of the human race worldwide.
Humanity didn’t have a chance.
Civilization did make a valiant attempt to rise again and for a while, it looked like the human race would go on and even rebuild a technological world. But the biosphere was slowly degrading. The temporal explosion had caused far more damage than anyone could expect.
Eventually, Earth’s magnetic field was so compromised, it could no longer prevent lethal levels of radiation from reaching the surface. By the time Charles Jefferson arrived in 10,983 A.D. and made his first observations, mankind had long gone extinct.
I first read James Tiptree Jr’s 1972 short story The Man Who Walked Home when I was in high school.
Of course, at the time, I had no idea that “James Tiptree, Jr.” was just a pseudonym of the late Dr. Alice Sheldon. It seems tragic to me that there was a time when women weren’t thought capable of writing science fiction and had to hide behind a man’s name.
My story is a direct ripoff of Sheldon’s, though I prefer to think of it as an homage. I’ve probably read the story a few more times over the years, but I don’t actually remember.
Her story stuck with me, though. Probably from the feeling of horror I originally experienced as Sheldon’s protagonist tripped and started his long fall forward to disaster.
I took the same basic situation and put my own spin on it, both from the time traveler’s perspective and from those of the various observers across time.
I hope my little fictive tale was entertaining. I don’t think it’s as good as Sheldon’s but you can read it for yourself and let me know. Sheldon’s short story is available for free at Baen.com.
The story, not including this afterword, is slightly over 2700 words long.