Axidava

Placebo

The object appeared in the middle of Main Way, about fifty feet from the statue of Vachel Lindsay, and at least a hundred from anything else. It was much too big and complicated to have been hidden anywhere, and it hadn’t any wheels, tracks, wings, or other visible means of movement.

Corrigan, looking the object over, decided that it could not have come from any logical place in the world. Not being prejudiced, he then thought a little about the illogical places, and the places that weren’t in the world. Corrigan decided that it must be another attempt at time travel, and he clucked his tongue sympathetically.

Well, someone had to break the news. Corrigan arose from the grass and walked toward the object.

There was a young man sitting in the object, on a sort of high saddle. He looked a little wild-eyed, and he seemed to be talking to himself, as he pulled and twisted at the rows of controls in front of him. Corrigan, looking up at him, decided that he couldn’t be very healthy, and that the stiff gray garments he wore must be extremely uncomfortable.

“Greetings, traveler,” Corrigan called.

“You’re speaking Anglish!” the young man exclaimed. “Good! Maybe I can get some help here. What year is this?”

“1955, by most systems.”                    

The young man turned a little paler.

“I’ve just left 1955,” he said unhappily. “Four times, in fact. Four different 1955’s. And each one’s a bit worse. Now the machine won’t work.”

“Your theory’s wrong,” Corrigan said calmly. “Hasn’t it occurred to you yet that time travel might be impossible?”

The young man made a choked sound. He began to climb down from his perch, keeping his eyes fixed suspiciously on Corrigan as he did so. He saw Corrigan as a small brown man, dressed in loose blue trousers, barefooted, and with a puff of white hair that seemed never to have been properly cut. The lawns and grassy roads, the bright and impermanent-looking buildings, and Corrigan himself, all added up to one thing in the young man’s mind.

“You’re wrong,” Corrigan said. “I’m not a lunatic, and this isn’t an asylum. We don’t have them.”

The young man, on the ground now, stared at Corrigan in evident horror.

“Mind reading?”

“More or less,” Corrigan said. “It saves time. For instance, you’re Darwin Lenner, and you’d like very much to get back to wherever you started from. In fact, you have to, or something unpleasant might happen to you, by your standards.”

“I’d be absent without permission,” Lenner admitted. “I … I wish you wouldn’t do that.”

“Only when absolutely necessary,” Corrigan smiled. “I’m a philosopher by trade, myself, not a mind reader. My name’s Philip Corrigan, and I’d be very glad to help you on your way … but I think it might be a little difficult. We aren’t really a very mechanically-minded people here.”

Lenner ran his hands through his hair. “I’ve got to get back. Isn’t there anybody who knows something about time machines?”

Corrigan had been thinking swiftly. He had also been carrying on a conversation which Lenner could not possibly hear, with a man who was several miles away.

“Burwell, he wants to go home.”

“Fine. He ought to. Why doesn’t he?”

“He lost his confidence. He thinks his machine’s broken down.”

“That kind, eh? I suppose the thing never really did work very well.”

“Most of them don’t. They go traveling around hit-or-miss through probability under the operator’s own mental steam—but this fellow probably comes from a world where an idea like that’s illegal.”

“Sounds like it. Corrigan, take him on a guided tour or something, and keep him busy. I’ll be over as soon as I can. I’m going to do something for his self-confidence. Here’s the story to give him….”

*

Corrigan had always enjoyed conducting guided tours, and he was enjoying this one especially well. He had a slightly wicked taste for complicated teasing, and Lenner was a perfect object. He had evidently come from one of the more unpleasant probabilities, a world full of complex rules and harshly restrictive; everything that he saw bothered him. The handsome girls, wearing unstrategically placed flowers and very little else; the flocks of children, as plentiful as pigeons and apparently as free of supervision; the almost total absence of anybody actually performing useful work … all of it contributed to Lenner’s increasing nervousness.

The guided tour went in a wide circle, and Lenner and Corrigan wound up sitting in a tavern facing on Main Way. Lenner ignored the green drink before him and peered unhappily out the big window toward his machine.

“Where is that friend of yours?” he asked, for the fifth time.

“He’ll be here,” Corrigan assured him. “Why hurry? Don’t you like it here?”

Lenner’s mouth hardened. He looked around him, and shook his head.

“No.” He spoke almost apologetically, “I’m sorry … well, look, old fellow, no hard feelings, I hope. But this world of yours is primitive. Degenerate, I’d say.”

“Primitive?”

“No laws—not even morals! Those girls … and of course, you don’t have any civilized advantages. Not even ground transportation. That man you spoke of has to walk here. And that’s something else I don’t understand. You say he’s another time traveler….”

“Probability traveler, actually,” Corrigan corrected.

“All right, probability. Why does he stay here? Why would a really intelligent man give up civilization?”

“Well, you know how it is. He’s gone native, you might say. Life among the lotus eaters, and all that. Might happen to anybody, even yourself.”

Lenner shuddered.

“It’s all right, though.” Corrigan continued. “He’ll be here any minute, and I’m sure he’ll be able to help. Knows all there is to know about these machines. In fact, here he comes now.”

Burwell entered, and Corrigan could hardly suppress a small chuckle. Burwell had picked up Lenner’s ideas about what a man of intelligence and authority ought to look like, and had gone to some trouble to look the part. He was wearing a uniform of some sort, spectacles, and an expression of extreme wisdom.

“I’m sure I can repair what’s wrong,” Burwell told Lenner. “Let’s go and look at your machine.”

Arriving, Burwell climbed over the mechanism with an air of bored ability, occasionally thumping at something, adjusting something else, or hitting a part with a tool until it rang. He muttered to himself as he worked, allowing the sound of his musings to drift in Lenner’s direction.

“Umm … badly twisted impeller … the varish is more or less waffled … let’s see if … ah, there we are.”

He climbed down and solemnly shook hands with Lenner.

“Fine machine you’ve got there, my boy. It’ll take you back to your own place quite easily now. There wasn’t a thing wrong except the drift crotch. However, I wouldn’t use it again if I were you. There’s no real control on these things. A man could end up anywhere. And of course, you’d never find your way back here, without control.”

“Well, thanks…” Lenner said doubtfully. He glanced around. “It’s a shame there’s no way we could regularly communicate between our worlds. There’s a lot we could do for this one.”

“I’m sure of that,” Burwell said, hastily looking away. “But it isn’t worth the danger and difficulty of reaching us. For myself, it doesn’t matter any more.” He assumed a nobly tragic expression. “But you are young; you’ve got your life ahead of you; your State and your society need you. I’m glad to help you on your way.”

Lenner mounted the machine, and Burwell beamed a thought at Corrigan.

“I’ve convinced him that the thing works, and that it would not be easy to come back. Actually, that machine of his is a real work of art. It doesn’t do a damn thing. This boy comes from a place where they have to have a mechanical crutch for everything. His gadgets are pink pill stuff … something to convince him he can do things he could do anyway. All we have to do now is give him a small mental shove to help him along, and he’ll be home in no time. All right, now—SHOVE!”

Corrigan and Burwell shoved. Lenner and his machine faded and were gone, leaving only a flattened place on the grass.

“Brrr,” Burwell said. “Am I glad that worked! If he’d stayed another week or so we would have had our first lunatic of the century.”

“Or worse,” Corrigan said, stirring the grass with his toes. “Did you get what he was thinking about when he talked about his world and ours getting into touch, and civilizing us?”

“I got it, all right.” Burwell said. “The fellow’s mind was a swamp. A real primitive. And just like any other primitive, all he needed was a placebo from a witch doctor. Me, in my savage regalia. Just let me get this thing with the glass in it off my nose, and these button things opened up a bit, and we can get on with that chess game. I hope the next traveler picks somewhere else to land, though—I’ve never felt so silly in my life!”

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