Wednesday, October 17, 2007

John G Hemry's "Small Moments in Time": Is he a murderer, or a messiah?

I don't recall having liked many horror stories - this is a very rare exception. And it gets to my all time best stories list. This is the kind of story that makes reading 25 others to find it worth the effort. Very contrived plot, but that doesn't come in the way of readability.

A man in position to force either of the two actions faces an extreme dilemma - to save a large fraction of humanity from get butchered, & doom the future of humanity to extreme sicknesses, or save the future at an unacceptable cost.

Full text of this story is available for download. Note the downloaded file wrongly lists the author's name as Henry; Hemry is correct name.

Story summary.

Narrator is a "temporal interventionist" - he travels across time to make little tweaks to events, or to "trade" across time! Former idea is very similar to Asimov's novel "The End of Eternity". I have read stories involving cross-"parallel universe" trade, but this is my first on across time trade.

He carries within his body an AI called Jeannie. But that is just decoration to the story. Her role is minor.

He is currently in Junction City, Kansas, US. His own year is beyond twenty first century. He has traveled here to the year 1918 AD to collect some grains that have died out in intervening centuries.

While here, he detects another time traveler. This other traveler will be called John Smith - not his real name. He is from an earlier period than narrator, & has primitive time travel gear.

John appears to be a very sick man. Narrator finds his movements suspicious, & does some investigation.

After much drama, we will learn the reason John is here: to spread a genetically engineered germ that will cause a deadly variant of "Spanish Fever" that kills people with strong immune systems, but leaves the weak unscathed!

He had spread the germ near Junction City a month back, but it hasn't had the expected effect. He is now going to spread it to 3 different locations - "Freetown in Sierra Leone, Brest in France, and Boston in the United States".

Strain is designed to die quickly - so future investigators will not have anything to go by. Eventually, over 20 million will die of this action.

Why is he doing this? He doesn't appear to be a mad man. We are told "autoimmune plagues" have become rather widespread in John's time - late twentieth & early twenty first century. "Evolution and science had failed us. Given us better and better immune systems as we survived the assaults of everything Earth could throw at us, while we developed vaccines to keep many natural ailments away from our ever-stronger, ever more vigilant immune systems... Our immune systems were so strong, so vigilant. They didn’t have enough to do. They attacked us. More and more. Our digestive systems, our nervous systems, our joints, our cardiovascular systems. Everything... billions. Crippled and dying by the very immune systems which are supposed to protect them... This isn’t about making humanity ‘better,’ whatever the hell that means. It’s about culling enough of the strongest immune systems from the human gene pool now in order to put off the onset of the autoimmune plagues for another one or two generations. Long enough for medical science to develop the means to diagnose and treat the disorders before they overwhelm the human race.”

Narrator is in a position to stop John. What should he do?

Fact sheet.

"Small Moments in Time", short story, review
First published: Analog, December 2004.
Rating: Time well spent A