[Robert J. Sawyer] Science Fiction Writer
ROBERT J. SAWYER
Hugo and Nebula Winner


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Opening Chapters

END OF AN ERA

by Robert J. Sawyer

Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved.


Paperback: Berkley/Ace, November 1994, ISBN 0-441-00114-9
Trade Paperback: Tor, September 2001, ISBN 0-312-87693-9

British edition: New English Library, October 1994

Japanese edition: Hayakawa Publishing Company


Prologue: Divergence

       My father is dying. He's in the oncology ward at Toronto's Wellesley Hospital, cancer eating away at his colon, his rectum — parts of the body people think it's funny to talk about.

       It's unfair having to see him like this. How am I going to remember him when he's gone? As I knew him from childhood — a temperamental giant who used to carry me on his shoulders, who used to play catch with me even though I couldn't throw for beans, who used to tuck me in and kiss me good night, his face like sandpaper against my cheek? I don't want to remember him like this, shrunken and old, an anorexic mummy with rheumy eyes and varicose face, tubes in his arms, tubes up his nose, drool staining his pillow.

       "Dad . . ."

       "Brandon." He coughs twice. Sometimes he coughs more, but it is always an even number. They rack his body in pairs, these coughs, like one-two punches from a wily heavyweight. "Brandon," he says again, as if the coughs have erased the earlier uttering of my name. I wait for the words that always come next. "Long time no see."

       It's a little play we put on. My line is always the same, too. "I'm sorry." But I'm like an actor who's been in the same part too long. I say it without feeling, without meaning. "I've been busy."

       He's been watching TV again. That fifty-centimeter Sony mounted high on the hospital wall is a kind of time machine for him. Thanks to Channel 29 from Buffalo, which specializes in golden oldies, he gets to peek into the past. Sometimes he reaches back a full six decades for an I Love Lucy episode, colorized and reprocessed in stereo. This afternoon he is casting back a mere twenty years for a rerun of Roseanne.

       Rosie and Dan are standing in the kitchen talking about the latest trouble their daughter Becky has gotten into. The picture has that dotty look that old videotaped shows get when viewed on a high-definition TV. I pick up the remote from the table beside the bed and aim it at the set. Click, and the Connors and their little neat world collapse into a singularity in the center of the screen. The dot lingers — a faint reminder of the former life, hanging on longer than it should. I turn to my father.

       "How are you feeling?" I ask.

       "The same." It's always the same. I put the remote down next to the crystal vase. The flowers I'd brought last time have withered. The once-bright petals have turned the color of dried blood and the water looks like weak tea. I take hold of the stems and, dripping on the stippled tile, carry the dead things over to the garbage pail and drop them in. "I'm sorry I didn't bring fresh ones."

       I come back and sit beside him. The chair has a chrome-plated frame and vinyl cushions that smell like warm vomit. He looks old, older than anyone I've ever seen. He used to have a full head of hair, even in his early seventies. But he's completely bald now. Chemotherapy has taken its toll.

       "Why don't you ever bring Tess with you?" he asks.

       I look out the window. Toronto in February is a gray city, like a photograph printed in half-tones. The last of the snow, old and dirty, has been eroded by the first spring rains, forming hoodoos at the sides of the roads. Wellesley Street is streaked with white salt stains. It's three in the afternoon and hookers are already at the intersections, wearing heavy fur coats and fishnet stockings. "Tess and I aren't married anymore," I remind him.

       "I always liked Tess."

       Me, too. "Dad, I'm going away for a few days."

       He doesn't say anything.

       "I'm not sure when I'll be back."

       "Where are you going?"

       "Alberta. The Red Deer River valley."

       "That's a long way away."

       "Yes. A long way."

       "Another dig?"

       "Not so much a dig this time, Dad. But it is a dinosaur hunt. It may take a couple of weeks."

       After a long, long time he says softly, "I see."

       "I'm sorry to have to leave you."

       Silence again.

       "If you don't want me to go, I won't."

       He rolls his crab-apple head to look at me. He knows I have just lied to him. He knows I am going anyway. What kind of son am I, leaving behind a dying father?

       "I've got to be on my way now," I say at last. I touch his shoulder, a bony thing covered by thin pajamas. Once the color of summer sky, they've been washed and dried to the pale blue-gray of an old woman's hair rinse.

       "Will you write? Send a postcard?"

       "I can't, Dad. I'll be cut off from the rest of the world out there. I'm sorry."

       I pick up my trench coat and head for the door, resisting the urge to look back, to say something — anything — else.

       "Wait."

       I turn. He adds nothing more, but after a few eternal seconds beckons me closer, closer still, until I am leaning over him, his ragged breath pungent in my nostrils. Then, at last, he speaks, faintly but clearly. "Bring me something to put an end to all this pain. That stuff you've got in the lab. Bring me some."

       In the comparative-anatomy lab at the museum we've got chemicals for killing wild animals: painless clear death for the rodents; amber death for the larger mammals; an incongruous peach-colored death for the lizards and snakes. I stare at my father.

       "Please, Brandon," he says. He never calls me Brandy. Brandon was the name of his favorite uncle — some guy from England that I'd never met — and nobody had ever called him Brandy. "Please help me."

       I stumble out of the ward, somehow find my car. By the time I realize what I am doing, I have driven almost all the way to the house where Tess and I used to live, where Tess still lives. I turn around, go home, and get very drunk, feeling no pain.

      


Chapter 1

       Professor Cope's errors will continue to invite correction, but these, like his blunders, are hydra-headed, and life is really too short to spend valuable time in such an ungracious task.

— Othniel Charles Marsh
paleontologist
(1831-1899)


       I will correct [Marsh's] errors, and I expect the same treatment. This should not excite any personal feelings in any person normally or properly constituted; which unfortunately Marsh is not. He makes so many errors, and is so deficient that he will always be liable to excitement and tribulation. I suspect a Hospital will yet receive him.

— Edward Drinker Cope
paleontologist
(1840-1897)


       Fred, who lives down the street from me, has a cottage on Georgian Bay. One weekend he went up there alone and left his tabby cat back home with his wife and kids. The damned tabby ran in front of a car right outside my town house. Killed instantly.

       Fred loved that cat, and his wife knew he'd be upset when she told him what had happened. But when he got back Sunday evening, he said he already knew the cat was dead — because, according to the version of the story I eventually heard over my back fence, he'd seen his cat up at the cottage, two hundred kilometers away. The tabby had appeared to him one last time to say goodbye.

       I always looked at Fred a little differently after I'd heard that. I mean, it was fantastic, and fantastic things don't happen in normal lives. Certainly they don't happen to people like me.

       Or so I thought.

       I'm a paleontologist; a dinosaur guy. Some might think that's glamorous, I suppose, but it sure doesn't pay glamorously. Oh, about twice a year, I get my name in the paper or five seconds on CBC Newsworld, commenting on a new exhibition or some new find. But that's about it for excitement. Or at least it was, until I got involved in this project.

       Time travel.

       I feel like an idiot typing those two words. I'm afraid anyone who reads them will start looking at me the way I look at poor Fred.

       Sure, by now everyone has probably read about the mission in the papers, or seen the preparations on TV. Yeah, it really works. Ching-Mei Huang has demonstrated it enough times. And, yes, it's incredible, absolutely incredible, that she went from a first discovery of the underlying principle in 2005 to a working time machine by 2013. Don't ask me how she did it so fast; I don't have a clue. In fact, sometimes I don't think Ching-Mei has a clue, either.

       But it works.

       Or, at least, the first throwback worked; the automated probe returned with air samples (a little more oxygen than today, no pollution, and, fortunately, no harmful germs), plus about four hours' worth of pictures, showing lots of foliage and, at one point, a turtle.

       But now we're going to try it with human beings; if this test works, a bigger mission, with everyone from meteorologists to entomologists, will be sent back next year.

       But for this attempt, only two people were going back, and one of them was me: Brandon Thackeray, 44, a little paunchy, a lot gray, a goddamned civil servant, a museum curator. Yes, I'm also a scientist. Got a Ph.D. — from an American university, to boot — and I suppose it makes sense that it would be a scientist who'd go gallivanting across time. But I'm not an adventurer. I'm just a regular guy, with quite enough to deal with, thank you very much, without something like this. An ailing father, a divorce, a mortgage that I might be able to pay off by the beginning of the next geologic era, hay fever. Regular stuff.

       But this was far from regular.

       We were hanging by a thread.

       Okay, it was really a steel cable, about three centimeters thick, but it didn't give me any more reassurance.

       And I wished that damned swaying would stop.

       Our time machine had been lifted up by a turbo Sikorsky Sky Crane, and was now hanging a thousand meters above the stark beauty of the Badlands of Alberta. The pounding of the helicopter's engines thundered in my ears.

       I wished that noise would stop, too.

       But most of all, I wished Klicks would stop.

       Stop being an asshole, that is.

       He wasn't really doing anything. Just lying there in his crash-couch, on the other side of the semicircular chamber. But he's so smug, so goddamned smug. The couch is like a high-tech La-Z-Boy upholstered in black vinyl and mounted on a swivel base. Your feet are lifted up, your spine tips at an angle, and a tubular headrest supports your noggin. Well, Klicks had his legs crossed at the ankle, and his arms interlaced behind his head. He looked so bloody calm. I knew he was doing it just to bug me.

       I, on the other hand, was gripping the armrests of my crash-couch like one of those poor souls who are afraid to fly.

       It was about two minutes until the Throwback.

       It should work.

       But it might not.

       In two minutes we could be dead.

       And he had his legs crossed.

       "Klicks," I said.

       He looked over at me. We were almost exactly the same age, but opposites in a lot of ways. Not that it matters, but I'm white and he's black — he was born in Jamaica and came to Canada as a boy with his parents. (I always marveled that anyone would leave that climate for this one.) He's clean-shaven and hasn't started to gray yet. I've got a full beard, have lost about half my hair, and what's left is about evenly split between gray and brown. He's taller and broader-shouldered than me, plus, despite having a job that involves as much time at a desk as mine does, he's somehow avoided middle-age spread.

       But most of all, we're opposites in temperament. He's so cool, so laid-back, that even when he's standing he gives the impression of being stretched out somewhere, tropical drink in hand.

       Me, I think I'm getting ulcers.

       Anyway, he looked in my direction, his face a question. "Yeah?"

       I didn't know what I had intended to say. After a moment, I blurted out, "You really should put on your shoulder straps."

       "What for?" he replied in that too-smooth voice of his. "If the programmed stasis delay works, it won't matter if I'm standing on my head when they rev up the Huang Effect. And if it doesn't work . . ." He shrugged. "Well, man, those straps will slice you like a hard-boiled egg."

       Typical. I sighed and pulled my straps tighter, the thick nylon bands reassuringly solid. I saw him smile, just a bit — but also just enough so that he could be sure that I would see the smile, the patronizing expression.

       A crackle of static from the radio speaker fought to be heard above the sounds of the helicopter, then: "Brandy, Miles, are you ready?" It was the precise voice of Ching-Mei Huang herself, measured, monotonal, clicking over the consonants like a series of computer relays.

       "Ready and waiting," Klicks said, jaunty.

       "Let's get it over with," I said.

       "Brandy, are you okay?" asked Ching-Mei.

       "I'm fine," I lied, wishing I had a bucket to throw up into. The swaying back and forth was getting to me. "Just do it, will you?"

       "As you say," she replied. "Sixty seconds to Throwback. Good luck — and God protect." I was sure that little reference to God was for the sake of the network cameras. Ching-Mei was an atheist. She only had faith in empirical data, in experimental results.

       I took a deep breath and looked around the small room. His Majesty's Canadian Timeship Charles Hazelius Sternberg. Great name, eh? We'd had a list of about a dozen paleontologists we could have honored, but old Charlie won out because, in addition to his pioneering fossil hunting in Alberta, he'd actually written a science-fiction story about time travel, published in 1917. The PR people loved that.

       Ching-Mei's voice over the radio speakers: "Fifty-five. Fifty-four. Fifty-three."

       Anyway, nobody ever calls it His Majesty's Canadian Etc. Instead, our timeship is almost universally known as the Sternberger, because to most people it looks like a fat hamburger. To me, though, it looks more like a squat version of the Jupiter 2, the spaceship from that ridiculous TV series Lost in Space. Just like the Space Family Robinson's vehicle, the Sternberger was essentially a two-level disk. We even had a little dome on the roof like they did. Ours housed meteorological and astronomical instruments; there was room enough for one person to squeeze into it.

       "Forty-eight. Forty-seven. Forty-six."

       The Sternberger was much smaller than the Jupiter 2, though — only five meters in diameter. Our lower deck wasn't designed for people; it was just 150 centimeters thick and consisted mostly of our water tank and part of the garage for our Jeep.

       "Forty-one. Forty. Thirty-nine."

       Our upper deck was divided into two halves, each semicircular in shape. One half contained the habitat. Along its curving outer wall was a kidney-shaped worktable, our radio console, and a compact laboratory unit crammed with geological and biological instruments. The straight back wall, marking the ship's diameter line, had three doors built into it. Door number one — does anybody remember Monty Hall? — led to a little ladder that angled up into the rooftop instrumentation dome and to a ramp that went down the meter and a half to the outer entrance door. Door number two led to the Jeep's garage, which took up the height of both decks. Door number three gave access to the washroom stall.

       "Thirty-four. Thirty-three. Thirty-two."

       Mounted against the central wall in the gaps between the doorways were a small stand with an old microwave oven on it, a large food refrigerator, a bank of three equipment lockers swiped from some high school demolition sale, and a small medical refrigerator with a first-aid kit on top. Bolted to the floor were the swivel bases for our two crash-couches.

       A time machine.

       An actual time machine.

       I just wish I knew exactly where it was going to take me.

       "Twenty-nine. Twenty-eight. Twenty-seven."

       The Huang Effect was accurate to one-half of one percentage point — a minuscule imprecision. But given that we were casting back from A.D. 2013 to 64.7 million years ago, a half-point error could plop us as much as 330,000 years into the Cenozoic, much too late to determine just what had caused the worldwide extinctions at the end of the previous era, the Mesozoic.

       "Twenty-four. Twenty-three. Twenty-two."

       My analyst says I'm going to excessive lengths to prove I'm right and Klicks is wrong. Thank God for socialized medicine — there's no way I could afford to stubbornly disbelieve Dr. Schroeder month after month if the government health plan weren't picking up the bills for my therapy. Besides, it's more than just me versus Klicks. If we don't miss our target, this trip might clear up an enduring scientific mystery, something that he and I and hundreds of others had argued for years through the pages of Nature and Science and The Journal of Vertebrate Paleontology.

       "Nineteen. Eighteen. Seventeen."

       The government of Alberta had wanted us to launch from Dinosaur Provincial Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site. But the fossils found there were from a time 10 million years before the end of the age of dinosaurs. We'd gone upstream along the Red Deer River to a formation from the latest late Maastrichtian — right at the end of the Cretaceous. But to make the government happy, Ching-Mei had established her control center at the Tyrrell Field Station inside Dinosaur Provincial Park.

       "Thirteen. Twelve. Eleven."

       The distance between the center of the Earth and ground level here in the Red Deer valley might have changed by several hundred meters in the last 65 million years. Unfortunately, the geomorphologists working on this project couldn't agree on whether the landforms would have shifted up or down during that timespan. To avoid the possibility of our ship arriving underground — killing us, of course, not to mention causing one hell of an explosion as matter tried to force itself inside of other matter — the Sternberger had been hauled a kilometer above the Badlands by the Sikorsky. Just before Ching-Mei threw the switch to activate the Huang Effect, we would be cut loose. The interior of the Sternberger would lock into stasis — a stopped-time condition, the first creation of which had won Ching-Mei a Nobel Prize in 2007 — until ten minutes after we arrived in the Mesozoic. Plenty of time, supposedly, for us to come crashing to the ground and for the mountain of debris we would kick up on impact to rain out of the sky.

       That's the theory, anyway.

       "Seven. Six. Five."

       I thought of something funny in those last few seconds. If I did die, my will still named Tess as my beneficiary. Not that I owned much of value — just a beat-up Ford and the town house in Mississauga — but it seemed strange that my ex-wife would get it all. I guess that would be all right if both Klicks and I died, but I didn't like to think of just me buying it. After all, since Tess had taken up with Klicks — just how long had they been seeing each other, anyway? — my estate would in essence go to him, too. That's the last thing I wanted.

       "TWO. ONE. ZERO!"

       My stomach lurched as the cable was released —


More Good Reading

An excerpt from End of an Era by Robert J. Sawyer. Copyright © 1994 by Robert J. Sawyer. All rights reserved.


More about End of an Era
Thoughts on the book's opening line
A Reading Group guide for the novel

Other novels by Robert J. Sawyer
Short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
More Sample chapters


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