The Return of William Proxmire
By Larry Niven
Through the peephole in Andrew?s front door the man made a startling sight.
He looked to be in his eighties. He was breathing hard and streaming sweat. He seemed slightly more real than most men: photogenic as hell, tall and lean, with stringy muscles and no potbelly, running shoes and a day pack and a blue windbreaker, and an open smile. The face was familiar, but from where?
Andrew opened the front door but left the screen door locked. ?Hello??
?Dr. Andrew Minsky??
?Yes.? Memory clicked. ?William Proxmire, big as life.?
The ex-senator smiled acknowledgment. ?I?ve only just finished reading about you in the Tribune, Dr. Minsky. May I come in??
It had never been Andrew Minsky?s ambition to invite William Proxmire into his home. Still??Sure. Come in, sit down, have some coffee. Or do your stretches.? Andrew was a runner himself when he could find the time.
Andrew left him on the rug with one knee pulled against his chest. From the kitchen he called, ?I never in my life expected to meet you face to face. You must have seen the article on me and Tipler and Penrose??
?Yes. I?m prepared to learn that the media got it all wrong.?
?I bet you are. Any politician would. Well, the Tribune implied that what we?ve got is a time machine. Of course we don?t. We?ve got a schematic based on a theory. Then again, it?s the new improved version. It doesn?t involve an infinitely long cylinder that you?d have to make out of neutronium??
?Good. What would it cost??
Andrew Minsky sighed. Had the politician even recognized the reference? He said, ?Oh . . . hard to say.? He picked up two cups and the coffeepot and went back in. ?Is that it? You came looking for a time machine??
The old man was sitting on the yellow rug with his legs spread wide apart and his fingers grasping his right foot. He released, folded his legs heel to heel, touched forehead to toes, held, then stood up with a sound like popcorn popping. He said, ?Close enough. How much would it cost??
?Depends on what you?re after. If you??
?I can?t get you a grant if you can?t name a figure.?
Andrew set his cup down very carefully. He said, ?No, of course not.,,
?I?m retired now, but people still owe me favors. I want a ride. One trip. What would it cost??
Andrew hadn?t had enough coffee yet. He didn?t feel fully awake. ?I have to think Out loud a little. Okay? Mass isn?t a problem. You can go as far back as you like if . . . mmm. Let?s say under sixty years. Cost might be twelve, thirteen million if you could also get us access to the proton-antiproton accelerator at Washburn University, or maybe CERN in Switzerland. Otherwise we?d have to build that too. By the way, you?re not expecting to get younger, are you??
?I hadn?t thought about it.?
?Good. The theory depends on maneuverings between event points. You don?t ever go backward. Where and when, Senator??
William Proxmire leaned forward with his hands clasped. ?Picture this. A Navy officer walks the deck of a ship, coughing, late at night in the 1930s. Suddenly an arm snakes around his neck, a needle plunges into his buttocks??
?The deck of a ship at sea??
Proxmire nodded, grinning.
?You?re just having fun, aren?t you? Something to do while jogging, now that you?re retired.?
?Put it this way,? Proxmire said. ?I read the article. It linked up with an old daydream of mine. I looked up your address. You were within easy running distance. I hope you don?t mind??
Oddly enough, Andrew found he didn?t. Anything that happened before his morning coffee was recreation.
So dream a little. ?Deck of a moving ship. I was going to say it?s ridiculous, but it isn?t. We?ll have to deal with much higher velocities. Any
point on the Earth?s surface is spinning at up to half a mile persecond and circling the sun at eighteen miles per. In principle I think we could solve all of it with one stroke. We could scan one patch of deck, say, over a period of a few seconds, then integrate the record into the program. Do the same coming home.?
?You can do it??
?Well, if we can?t solve that one we can?t do anything else, either. You?d be on a tight schedule, though. Senators what?s the purpose of the visit??
?Have you ever had daydreams about a time machine and a scopesighted rifle??
Andrew?s eyebrows went up. ?Sure, what little boy hasn?t? Hitler, I suppose? For me it was always Lyndon Johnson. Senator, I do not commit murder under any circumstances.?
?A time machine and a scope-sighted rifle, and me,? William Proxmire said dreamily. ?I get more anonymous letters than you?d believe, even now. They tell me that every space advocate daydreams about me and a time machine and a scope-sighted rifle. Well, I started daydreaming too, but my fantasy involves a time machine and a hypodermic full of antibiotics.?
Andrew laughed. ?You?re plotting to do someone good behind his back??
?Robert Anson Heinlein.?
All laughter dropped away. ?Why??
?It?s a good deed, isn?t it??
?You know the name? Over the past forty years or so I?ve talked to a great many people in science and in the space program. I kept hearing the name Robert Heinlein. They were seduced into science because they read Heinlein at age twelve. These were the people I found hard to deal with. No grasp of reality. Fanatics.?
Andrew suspected that the senator had met more of these than he realized. Heinlein spun off ideas at a terrific rate. Other writers picked them up . . . along with a distrust for arrogance combined with stupidity or ignorance, particularly in politicians.
?Well, Heinlein?s literary career began after he left the Navy because of lung disease.?
?You?re trying to destroy the space program.?
?Will you help??
Andrew was about to tell him to go to hell. He didn?t. ?I?m still talking. Why do you want to destroy the space program??
?I didn?t, at first. I was opposed to waste,? Proxmire said. ?My colleagues, they?ll spend money on any pet project, as if there was a money tree out there somewhere??
?Milk price supports,? Andrew said gently. For several decades now, the great state of Wisconsin had taken tax money from the other states so that the price they paid for milk would stay up.
Proxmire?s lips twitched. ?Without milk price supports, there would be places where families with children can?t buy milk.?
The old man shook his head hard. ?I?ve just remembered that I don?t have to answer that question anymore. My point is that the government has spent far more taking rocks from the Moon and photographs from Saturn. Our economy would be far healthier if that money had been spent elsewhere.?
?I?d rather shoot Lyndon. Eliminate welfare. Save a lot more money that way.?
?A minute ago you were opposed to murder.?
The old man did have a way with words. ?Point taken. Could you get us funding? It?d be a guaranteed Nobel Prize. I like the fact that you don?t need a scope-sighted rifle. A hypo full of sulfa drugs doesn?t have to be kept secret. What antibiotic??
?I don?t know what cures consumption. I don?t know which year or what ship. I?ve got people to look those things up, if I decide I want to know. I came straight here as soon as I read the morning paper. Why not? I run every day, any direction I like. But I haven?t heard you say it?s impossible, Andrew,
and I haven?t heard you say you won?t do it.?
?Yes, thank you.?
Proxmire left him alone while he was in the kitchen, and for that Andrew was grateful. He?d have made no progress at all if he?d had to guard his expression. There was simply too much to think about.
He preferred not to consider the honors. Assume he had changed the past; how would he prove it before a board of his peers? ?How would I prove it now? What would I have to show them?? he muttered under his breath, while the coffee water was heating. ?Books? Books that didn?t get written? Newspapers? There are places that?ll print any newspaper headline I ask for. WAFFEN SS TO BUILD WORK CAMP IN DEATH VALLEY. I can mint Robert Kennedy half-dollars for a lot less than thirteen million bucks. Hmm . . .? But the Nobel Prize wasn?t the point.
Keeping Robert Heinlein alive a few years longer: Was that the point? It shouldn?t be. Heinlein wouldn?t have thought so.
Would the science fiction field really have collapsed without the Menace From Earth? Tradition within the science fiction field would have named Campbell, not Heinlein. But think: Was it magazines that had sucked Andrew Minsky into taking advanced physics classes? Or
Double Star, Red Planet, Anderson?s Tau Zero, Vance?s Tschai series? Then the newsstand magazines, then the subscriptions, then (of course) he?d dropped it all to pursue a career. If Proxmire?s staff investigated his past (as they must, if he was at all serious), they would find that Andrew Minsky, Ph.D., hadn?t read a science fiction magazine in fifteen years.
Proxmire?s voice came from the other room. ?Of course, it would be a major chunk of funding. But wouldn?t my old friends be surprised to find me backing a scientific project! How?s the coffee coming??
?Done.? Andrew carried the pot in. ?I?ll do it,? he said. ?That is, I and my associates will build a time machine. We?ll need funding and we?ll need active assistance using the Washburn accelerator. We should be ready for a man-rated experiment in three years, I?d think. We won?t fail.?
He sat. He looked Proxmire in the eye. ?Let?s keep thinking, though. A Navy officer walks the tilting deck of what would now be an antique Navy ship. An arm circles his throat. He grips the skinny wrist and elbow, bends the wrist downward, and throws the intruder into the sea. They train Navy men to fight, you know, and he was young and you are old.?
?I keep in shape,? Proxmire said coldly. ?A medical man who performs autopsies once told me about men and women like me. We run two to five miles a day. We die in our eighties and nineties and hundreds. A fall kills us, or a car accident. Cut into us and you find veins and arteries you could run a toy train through.?
He was serious. ?I was afraid you were thinking of taking along a blackjack or a trank gun or a Kalashnikov??
?I?ll say it anyway. Don?t hurt him.?
Proxmire smiled. ?That would be missing the point.?
And if that part worked out, Andrew would take his chances with the rest.
He had been reaching for a beer while he thought about revising the time machine paper he?d done with Tipler and Penrose four years
ago. Somewhere he?d shifted over into daydreams, and that had sent him off on a weird track indeed.
It was like double vision in his head. The time machine (never built) had put William Proxmire (the ex-senator!) on the moving deck of the U.S.S. Roper on a gray midmorning in December 1933. Andrew never daydreamed this vividly. He slapped his flat belly, and wondered why, and remembered: He was ten pounds heavier in the daydream, because he?d been too busy to run.
So much detail! Maybe he was remembering a sweaty razor-sharp nightmare from last night, the kind in which you know you?re doing something bizarrely stupid, but you can?t figure out how to stop.
He?d reached for a Henry Weinhart?s (Budweiser) from the refrigerator in his kitchen (in the office at Washburn, where the Weinhart?s always ran out first) while the project team watched their monitors (while the KCET funding drive whined in his living room). In his head there were double vision, double
memories, double sensations. The world of quantum physics was blurred in spots. But this was his kitchen and he could hear KCET begging for money a room away.
Andrew walked into his living room and found William Proxmire dripping on his yellow rug.
No, wait. That?s the other? The photogenic old man tossed the spray hypo on Andrew?s couch.
He stripped off his hooded raincoat, inverted it, and dropped it on top. He was trying to smile, but the fear showed through. ?Andrew? What I am doing here??
Andrew said, ?My head feels like two flavors of cotton. Give me a moment. I?m trying to remember two histories at once.?
?I should have had more time. And then it should have been the Washburn accelerator! You said!?
?Yeah, well, I did and I didn?t. Welcome to the wonderful world of Schrodinger?s Cat. How did it go? You found a young lieutenant junior grade gunnery officer alone on deck??The raincoat was soaking his cushions??in the rain??
?Losing his breakfast overside in the rain. Pulmonary tuberculosis, consumption. Good riddance to an ugly disease.?
?You wrestled him to the deck??
?Heh, heh, heh. No. I told him I was from the future. I showed him a spray hypo. He?d never seen one. I was dressed as a civilian on a Navy ship. That got his attention. I told him if he was Robert Heinlein I had a cure for his cough.?
?Cure for his cough??
?I didn?t say it would kill him otherwise. I didn?t say it wouldn?t,and he didn?t ask, but he may have assumed I wouldn?t have come for anything trivial. I knew his name. This was Heinlein, not some Wisconsin dairy farmer. He wanted to believe I was a time traveler. He did believe. I gave him his shot. Andrew, I feel cheated.?
?Me too. Get used to it.? But it was Andrew who was beginning to smile.
The older man hardly heard; his ears must be still ringing with that long-dead storm. ?You know, I would have liked to talk to him. I was supposed to have twenty-two minutes more. I gave him his shot and the whole scene popped like a soap bubble. Why did I come back here??
?Because we never got funding for research into time travel.?
?Ah . . . hah. There have been changes. What changes??
It wasn?t just remembering; it was a matter of selecting pairs of memories that were mutually exclusive, then judging between them. It was maddening . . . but it could be done. Andrew said, ?The Washburn accelerator goes with the time machine goes with the funding. My apartment goes with no time machine goes with no funding goes with . . . Bill, let?s go outside. It should be dark by now.?
Proxmire didn?t ask why. He looked badly worried.
The sun had set, but the sky wasn?t exactly black. In a line across a smaller, dimmer full Moon, four rectangles blazed like windows into the sun. Andrew sighed with relief. Collapse of the wave function:
This is reality.
William Proxmire said, ?Don?t make me guess.?
?Solar-powered satellites. Looking Glass Three through Six.?
?What happened to your time machine??
?Apollo Eleven landed on the Moon on July 20, 1969, just like clockwork. Apollo Thirteen left a month or two early, but something still exploded in the service module, so I guess it wasn?t a meteor. They . . . shit.?
?They didn?t get back. They died. We murdered them.?
Could he put it back? Should he put it back? It was still coming together in his head. ?Let?s see, NASA tried to cancel Apollo Eighteen, but there was a hell of a write-in campaign??
?Why? From whom??
?The spec-fic community went absolutely apeshit. Okay, Bill, I?ve got it now.?
?You were right, the whole science fiction magazine business justfaded out in the fifties, last remnants of the pulp era. Campbell alone couldn?t save it. Then in the sixties the literary crowd rediscovered the idea. There
must have been an empty ecological niche and the litcrits moved in.
?Speculative fiction, spec-fic, the literature of the possible. The New Yorker ran spec-fic short stories and critical reviews of novels. They thought Planet of the Apes was wonderful, and Selig?s Complaint, which was Robert Silverberg?s study of a telepath. Tom Wolfe started appearing in Esquire with his bizarre alien cultures. I can?t remember an issue of the Saturday Evening Post that didn?t have some spec-fic in it. Anderson, Vance, MacDonald . . . John D. MacDonald turns out novels set on a ring the size of Earth?s orbit.
?The new writers were good enough that some of the early ones couldn?t keep up, but a few did it by talking to hard science teachers. Benford and Forward did it in reverse. Jim Benford?s a plasma physicist but he writes like he swallowed a college English teacher. Robert Forward wrote a novel called Neutron Star, but he built the Forward Mass Detector, too.?
?There?s a lot of spec-fic fans in the military. When Apollo Twenty-one burned up during reentry, they raised so much hell that Congress took the manned space program away from NASA and gave it to the Navy.?
William Proxmire glared and Andrew Minsky grinned. ?Now, you left office in the sixties because of the cheese boycott. When you tried to chop the funding for the Shuttle, the spec-fic community took offense. They stopped eating Wisconsin cheese. The San Francisco Locus called you the Cheese Man. Most of your supporters must have eaten nothing but their own cheese for about eight months, and then Goldwater chopped the milk price supports. ?Golden Fleece,? he called it. So you were Out, and now there?s no time machine.?
?We could build one,? Proxmire said.
Rescue Apollo Thirteen? The possibility had to be considered. .Andrew remembered the twenty years that followed the Apollo flights. In one set of memories, lost goals, pointlessness and depression, political faddishness leading nowhere. In the other, half a dozen space stations, government and military and civilian; Moonbase and Moonbase Polar; Life photographs of the Mars Project half-finished on the lunar plain, sitting on a hemispherical Orion-style shield made from lunar aluminum and fused lunar dust.
I do not commit murder under any circumstances.
?I don?t think so, Bill. We don?t have the political support. We don?thave the incentive. Where would a Nobel Prize come from? We can?t prove there was ever a timeline different from this one. Besides, this isn?t just a more interesting world, it?s safer too. Admiral Heinlein doesn?t let the Soviets build spacecraft.?
Proxmire stopped breathing for an instant. Then, ?I suppose he wouldn?t.?
?Nope. He?s taking six of their people on the Mars expedition, though. They paid their share of the cost in fusion bombs for propulsion.?