Needle in a Timestack is Robert Silverberg at his very best—intelligent, inventive, and visionary. This collection showcases his talent for thought-provoking science fiction, ranging in themes from time travel to space travel, the media to mortality.
In the titular story—under development as a feature film by Oscar-winning screenwriter John Ridley—a jealous ex-husband warps time in a vindictive attempt to destroy his former wife’s new marriage. Thirty-one identical sons have a shocking surprise for their mother in “There Was an Old Woman.” The prophetic “The Pain Peddlers” depicts reality TV in a way that allows viewers to revel in a voyeuristic, adrenaline-fueled rush. Also included are Silverberg’s Hugo Award–winning “Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another,” and the Locus Award winner “The Secret Sharer,” a Joseph Conrad–inspired tale of a ship captain drawn into a strange alliance with a stowaway.
The New York Times Book Review hailed Silverberg as “the John Updike of science fiction.” The stories in Needle in a Timestack unite us in our humanity, in the face of science, technology, and our own changing culture.
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About the Author
Robert Silverberg is one of science fiction’s most beloved writers, and the author of such contemporary classics as Dying Inside, Downward to the Earth, and Lord Valentine’s Castle. He is a past president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America and the winner of five Nebula Awards and five Hugo Awards. In 2004 the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America presented him with the Grand Master Award. Silverberg is one of twenty-nine writers to have received that distinction.
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Needle in a Timestack
Long, long ago I was at a science fiction convention in Los Angeles, and was talking with Bill Rotsler, a very good friend of mine, when a young man intruded on our conversation and began bothering us. Bill turned to him and said, "Go away, kid, or I'll change your future." At which I said, "No, tell him that you'll change his past," and suddenly I realized that I had handed myself a nice story idea.
I even had a ready-made title waiting for it before I wrote word one, as I have indicated above. It so happened that in 1966, when my publisher was Ballantine Books, I delivered a short story collection with a title so clunkily unwieldy that it has long disappeared from my memory. Betty Ballantine, the charming and gracious person who was my editor at that company, charmingly and graciously let me know that she thought it was a terrible title, and suggested, in its place, Needle in a Timestack. I loved it. We put it on the book, and, as I explained at great and confusing length a few pages back, I used it again a decade later on a second short story collection with a generally different table of contents. It still struck me as a lovely title, and particularly appropriate for the time-travel story I was about to write. So, at last, the short story "Needle in a Timestack," which had not existed when I was assembling the two story collections of that name, came into being. I wrote it in January 1982 — its intricate time-travel plot unfolded for me with marvelous clarity as I worked — and Alice Turner, the superb fiction editor of Playboy, bought it immediately for Playboy's July 1983 issue.
Some years later a major American movie company bought it also. They gave me quite a lot of money, which was very pleasant, but they didn't do anything about actually making the movie. In the fullness of time I got the rights back, and eventually my agent sold it to the same movie company, which had undergone a total change of ownership and management, and once again they let the rights lapse. But in the interim the story had attracted the attention of John Ridley, the Oscar-winning writer of Twelve Years a Slave. Ridley snapped it up, wrote a splendid script totally faithful to my story, found financing, and directed the film. Which led, finally, to the present story collection, in which story title and book title come together at last, half a century after Betty Ballantine set it all in motion.
Between one moment and the next the taste of cotton came into his mouth, and Mikkelsen knew that Tommy Hambleton had been tinkering with his past again. The cotton-in-the-mouth sensation was the standard tip-off for Mikkelsen. For other people it might be a ringing in the ears, a tremor of the little finger, a tightness in the shoulders. Whatever the symptom, it always meant the same thing: your time-track has been meddled with, your life has been retroactively transformed. It happened all the time. One of the little annoyances of modern life, everyone always said. Generally, the changes didn't amount to much.
But Tommy Hambleton was out to destroy Mikkelsen's marriage, or, more accurately, he was determined to unhappen it altogether, and that went beyond Mikkelsen's limits of tolerance. In something close to panic he phoned home to find out if he still had Janine.
Her lovely features blossomed on the screen-glossy dark hair, elegant cheekbones, cool sardonic eyes. She looked tense and strained, and Mikkelsen knew she had felt the backlash of this latest attempt too.
"Nick?" she said. "Is it a phasing?"
"I think so. Tommy's taken another whack at us, and Christ only knows how much chaos he's caused this time."
"Let's run through everything."
"All right," Mikkelsen said. "What's your name?"
"Nick. Nicholas Perry Mikkelsen. You see? Nothing important has changed."
"Are you married?"
"Yes, of course, darling. To you."
"Keep going. What's our address?"
"11 Lantana Crescent."
"Do we have children?"
"Dana and Elise. Dana is five, Elise is three. Our cat's name is Minibelle, and —"
"Okay," Mikkelsen said, relieved. "That much checks out. But I tasted the cotton, Janine. Where has he done it to us this time? What's been changed?"
"It can't be anything major, love. We'll find it if we keep checking. Just stay calm."
"Calm. Yes." He closed his eyes. He took a deep breath. The little annoyances of modern life, he thought. In the old days, when time was just a linear flow from then to now, did anyone get bored with all that stability? For better or for worse it was different now. You go to bed a Dartmouth man and wake up Columbia, never the wiser. You board a plane that blows up over Cyprus, but then your insurance agent goes back and gets you to miss the flight. In the new fluid way of life there was always a second chance, a third, a fourth, now that the past was open to anyone with the price of a ticket. But what good is any of that, Mikkelsen wondered, if Tommy Hambleton can use it to disappear me and marry Janine again himself?
They punched for readouts and checked all their vital data against what they remembered. When your past is altered through time-phasing, all records of your life are automatically altered too, of course, but there's a period of two or three hours when memories of your previous existence still linger in your brain, like the phantom twitches of an amputated limb. They checked the date of Mikkelsen's birth, parents' names, his nine genetic coordinates, his educational record. Everything seemed right. But when they got to their wedding date the readout said 8 Feb 2017, and Mikkelsen heard warning chimes in his mind. "I remember a summer wedding," he said. "Outdoors in Dan Levy's garden, the hills all dry and brown, the 24th of August."
"So do I, Nick. The hills wouldn't have been brown in February. But I can see it — that hot dusty day — "
"Then five months of our marriage are gone, Janine. He couldn't unmarry us altogether, but he managed to hold us up from summer to winter." Rage made his head spin, and he had to ask his desk for a quick buzz of tranks. Etiquette called for one to be cool about a phasing. But he couldn't be cool when the phasing was a deliberate and malevolent blow at the center of his life. He wanted to shout, to break things, to kick Tommy Hambleton's ass. He wanted his marriage left alone. He said, "You know what I'm going to do one of these days? I'm going to go back about fifty years and eradicate Tommy completely. Just arrange things so his parents never get to meet, and —"
"No, Nick. You mustn't."
"I know. But I'd love to." He knew he couldn't, and not just because it would be murder. It was essential that Tommy Hambleton be born and grow up and meet Janine and marry her, so that when the marriage came apart she would meet and marry Mikkelsen. If he changed Hambleton's past, he would change hers too, and if he changed hers, he would change his own, and anything might happen. Anything. But all the same he was furious. "Five months of our past, Janine — "
"We don't need them, love. Keeping the present and the future safe is the main priority. By tomorrow we'll always think we were married in February of 2017, and it won't matter. Promise me you won't try to phase him."
"I hate the idea that he can simply — "
"So do I. But I want you to promise you'll leave things as they are."
"Well — "
"All right," he said. "I promise."
Little phasings happened all the time. Someone in Illinois makes a trip to eleventh- century Arizona and sets up tiny ripple currents in time that have a tangential and peripheral effect on a lot of lives, and someone in California finds himself driving a silver BMW instead of a gray Toyota. No one minded trifling changes like that. But this was the third time in the last twelve months, so far as Mikkelsen was able to tell, that Tommy Hambleton had committed a deliberate phasing intended to break the chain of events that had brought about Mikkelsen's marriage to Janine.
The first phasing happened on a splendid spring day — coming home from work, sudden taste of cotton in mouth, sense of mysterious disorientation. Mikkelsen walked down the steps looking for his old ginger tomcat, Gus, who always ran out to greet him as though he thought he was a dog. No Gus. Instead a calico female, very pregnant, sitting placidly in the front hall.
"Where's Gus?" Mikkelsen asked Janine.
"Gus? Gus who?"
"You mean Max?"
"Gus," he said. "Sort of orange, crooked tail — "
"That's right. But Max is his name. I'm sure it's Max. He must be around somewhere. Look, here's Minibelle." Janine knelt and stroked the fat calico. "Minibelle, where's Max?"
"Gus," Mikkelsen said. "Not Max. And who's this Minibelle?"
"She's our cat, Nick," Janine said, sounding surprised. They stared at each other.
"Something's happened, Nick."
"I think we've been time-phased," he said.
Sensation as of dropping through trapdoor — shock, confusion, terror. Followed by hasty and scary inventory of basic life-data to see what had changed. Everything appeared in order except for the switch of cats. He didn't remember having a female calico. Neither did Janine, although she had accepted the presence of the cat without surprise. As for Gus — Max — he was getting foggier about his name, and Janine couldn't even remember what he looked like. But she did recall that he had been a wedding gift from some close friend, and Mikkelsen remembered that the friend was Gus Stark, for whom they had named him, and Janine was then able to dredge up the dimming fact that Gus was a close friend of Mikkelsen's and also of Hambleton and Janine in the days when they were married, and that Gus had introduced Janine to Mikkelsen ten years ago when they were all on holiday in Hawaii.
Mikkelsen accessed the household callmaster and found no Gus Stark listed. So the phasing had erased him from their roster of friends. The general phone directory turned up a Gus Stark in Costa Mesa. Mikkelsen called him and got a freckle-faced man with fading red hair, who looked more or less familiar. But he didn't know Mikkelsen at all, and only after some puzzling around in his memory did he decide that they had been distantly acquainted way back when, but had had some kind of trifling quarrel and had lost touch with each other years ago.
"That's not how I think I remember it," Mikkelsen said. "I remember us as friends for years, really close. You and Donna and Janine and I were out to dinner only last week, is what I remember, over in Newport Beach."
"My wife's name is Karen. Jesus, this has been one hell of a phasing, hasn't it?" He didn't sound upset.
"I'll say. Blew away your marriage, our friendship, and who knows what-all else."
"Well, these things happen. Listen, if I can help you any way, fella, just call. But right now Karen and I were on our way out, and —"
"Yeah. Sure. Sorry to have bothered you," Mikkelsen told him.
He blanked the screen.
Donna. Karen. Gus. Max. He looked at Janine.
"Tommy did it," she said.
She had it all figured out. Tommy, she said, had never forgiven Mikkelsen for marrying her. He wanted her back. He still sent her birthday cards, coy little gifts, postcards from exotic ports.
"You never mentioned them," Mikkelsen said.
She shrugged. "I thought you'd only get annoyed. You've always disliked Tommy."
"No," Mikkelsen said, "I think he's interesting in his oddball way, flamboyant, unusual. What I dislike is his unwillingness to accept the notion that you stopped being his wife a dozen years ago."
"You'd dislike him more if you knew how hard he's been trying to get me back."
"When we broke up," she said, "he phased me four times. This was before I met you. He kept jaunting back to our final quarrel, trying to patch it up so that the separation wouldn't have happened. I began feeling the phasings and I knew what must be going on, and I told him to quit it or I'd report him and get his jaunt- license revoked. That scared him, I guess, because he's been pretty well behaved ever since, except for all the little hints and innuendoes and invitations to leave you and marry him again."
"Christ," Mikkelsen said. "How long were you and he married? Six months?"
"Seven. But he's an obsessive personality. He never lets go."
"And now he's started phasing again?"
"That's my guess. He's probably decided that you're the obstacle, that I really do still love you, that I want to spend the rest of my life with you. So he needs to make us unmeet. He's taken his first shot by somehow engineering a breach between you and your friend Gus a dozen years back, a breach so severe that you never really became friends and Gus never fixed you up with me. Only it didn't work out the way Tommy hoped. We went to that party at Dave Cushman's place and I got pushed into the pool on top of you and you introduced yourself and one thing led to another and here we still are."
"Not all of us are," Mikkelsen said. "My friend Gus is married to somebody else now."
"That didn't seem to trouble him much."
"Maybe not. But he isn't my friend any more, either, and that troubles me. My whole past is at Tommy Hambleton's mercy, Janine! And Gus the cat is gone too. Gus was a damned good cat. I miss him."
"Five minutes ago you weren't sure whether his name was Gus or Max. Two hours from now you won't know you ever had any such cat, and it won't matter at all."
"But suppose the same thing had happened to you and me as happened to Gus and Donna?"
"It didn't, though."
"It might the next time," Mikkelsen said.
But it didn't. The next time, which was about six months later, they came out of it still married to each other. What they lost was their collection of twentieth-century artifacts — the black-and-white television set and the funny old dial telephone and the transistor radio and the little computer with the typewriter keyboard. All those treasures vanished between one instant and the next, leaving Mikkelsen with the telltale cottony taste in his mouth, Janine with a short-lived tic below her left eye, and both of them with the nagging awareness that a phasing had occurred.
At once they did what they could to see where the alteration had been made. For the moment they both remembered the artifacts they once had owned, and how eagerly they had collected them in '21 and '22, when the craze for such things was just beginning. But there were no sales receipts in their files and already their memories of what they had bought were becoming blurry and contradictory. There was a grouping of glittery sonic sculptures to the corner, now, where the artifacts had been. What change had been effected in the pattern of their past to put those things in the place of the others?
They never really were sure — there was no certain way of knowing — but Mikkelsen had a theory. The big expense he remembered for 2021 was the time jaunt that he and Janine had taken to Aztec Mexico, just before she got pregnant with Dana. Things had been a little wobbly between the Mikkelsens back then, and the time jaunt was supposed to be a second honeymoon. But their guide on the jaunt had been a hot little item named Elena Schmidt, who had made a very determined play for Mikkelsen and who had had him considering, for at least half an hour of lively fantasy, leaving Janine for her.
"Suppose," he said, "that on our original time-track we never went back to the Aztecs at all, but put the money into the artifact collection. But then Tommy went back and maneuvered things to get us interested in time jaunting, and at the same time persuaded that Schmidt cookie to show an interest in me. We couldn't afford both the antiques and the trip; we opted for the trip, Elena did her little number on me, it didn't cause the split that Tommy was hoping for, and now we have some gaudy memories of Moctezuma's empire and no collection of early electronic devices. What do you think?"
"Makes sense," Janine said.
"Will you report him, or should I?"
"But we have no proof, Nick!"
He frowned. Proving a charge of time-crime, he knew, was almost impossible, and risky besides. The very act of investigating the alleged crime could cause an even worse phase-shift and scramble their pasts beyond repair. To enter the past is like poking a baseball bat into a spiderweb: it can't be done subtly or delicately.
"Do we just sit and wait for Tommy to figure out a way to get rid of me that really works?" Mikkelsen asked.
"We can't just confront him with suspicions, Nick."
"You did it once."
"Long ago. The risks are greater now. We have more past to lose. What if he's not responsible? What if he gets scared of being blamed for something that's just coincidence, and really sets out to phase us? He's so damned volatile, so unstable — if he feels threatened, he's likely to do anything. He could wreck our lives entirely."
"If he feels threatened? What about —"
"Please, Nick. I've got a hunch Tommy won't try it again. He's had two shots and they've both failed. He'll quit it now. I'm sure he will."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Needle In A Timestack"
Copyright © 2019 Agberg, Ltd..
Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Needle in a Timestack,
There Was an Old Woman,
The Pain Peddlers,
The Sixth Palace,
In Entropy's Jaws,
This Is the Road,
The Pope of the Chimps,
The Dead Man's Eyes,
The Road to Nightfall,
Enter a Soldier. Later: Enter Another,
The Reality Trip,
Call Me Titan,
Defenders of the Frontier,
Ishmael in Love,
The Secret Sharer,
A Biography of Robert Silverberg,