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a SF Short Story by John Argo

by John Argo


title by John Argo


Step right up, ladies and gentlemen, and play the shell game of parallelocation. I swap the walnuts, I swap the walnuts, I swap the walnuts. Can you see which one has the pea? Is the eye fast enough to follow the action? Will you bet money that you are more clever than these three little walnut shells? Step right up, ladies and gentlemen. Put your money down and play the game of life. It's the game of the stars. Play the cosmic game. Step right upů

—First Tale—

The Father of Parallelocation, Critias the Logician—not to be confused with Critias the Tyrant (460-403 BCE)—was a contemporary of Archimedes and barely survived his mentor's death during the successful Roman siege of Syracuse in 212 B.C.

Critias, when he fled to the tiny Aegean island of Hermetica after the fall of Syracuse, took many of the master's more arcane works along. Critias found refuge among the inhabitants of Kalos, a colony of Athens dating to the Golden Age. There, he befriended many leading intellects of that transitional period. Among the benefits Critias brought to Kalos were the Archimedean water screw and the steam clock, for which Critias earned a high place in Kaloid society.

One day, while the Romans were besieging Hermetica (Athens had fallen, the Golden Age of Greece was over, and it looked as though Kalos was about to fall under the ax and fasces of the Senate and the People of Rome), Critias called the City Council to his porch overlooking the sweet blue Aegean Sea.

The ten men, wearing white togas, disembarked from their biremes at the marble wharf of Critias' villa and filed up the broad steps. Phronias, the eldest and leader of the ten, appeared perplexed. "This had better be good, Critias. You know we are anticipating a Roman invasion at any moment."

Critias, a squat powerful man with piercing dark eyes and unruly blue-black hair, raised both hands. "Calm yourselves, council members. I know that a Roman war fleet is headed this way. I will explain why it was so urgent that I call you." Servants brought olives, fish, cheese, dates, and wine. While they ate, Critias said: "Friends, as you know, when I came to Kalos ten years ago I brought with me the essential texts of Archimedes. Many of the Master's works were unfinished because of war. I will today show you his greatest invention, completed and perfected secretly by me, and by this means we will defeat the Romans."

Several council members made disbelieving faces. Babrius, a young man, who was prematurely bald but sported a heavy reddish beard to offset his glowing pate, said sarcastically: "Critias fails to remind us that Archimedes lost at Syracuse."

Critias ignored the gibe. Babrius, he knew, was a devout Pythagorean and could not bear to hear Archimedes revered. Critias raised a gilded mallet and struck three times against an oak shaft that pierced the center point of a wooden drum built into the porch. A gasp ensued from the ten guests as the two flanking columns of the stairwell leading up to Critias' villa slowly tilted downward. At the same time, a doorway, made of wood, inclined forward like a drawbridge, revealing a gloomy interior of the villa, with hissing steam valves and dimly glowing coal lights." Sorcery!" shouted Vinias, a stooped, gnarled old man with crazed olive eyes and a scarred head where a Punic sword had gored him in a long-ago battle.

"Nonsense," said Csthesiphon with a thin, knowing smile. He was Athenian, and never let anyone forget it, though he was of the later Athens, humbled and Roman. "Nonsense. Just typical showmanship. The man is a sophist, though a good one."

"Hear me," Critias said. "The immense device you see inside my villa is what I call a Parallelocator. With this device, I intend to lure the invading Romans to a quick demise without the loss of a single Hermetic life."

"Oh come now," Babrius, the Pythagorean, scoffed, but he like the other nine council members was suddenly veiled in an air of apprehension, as if some odd chill wind had just blown in from the sunny sea.

Critias declaimed: "Only yesterday I set two hares and a turtle into the Paralellocator. They vanished without a trace. Proof that they went into some other world."

"Now, Critias," the Athenian, Csthesiphon, said, flicking his switch of office (for he was superintendent of works), "surely the gods tossed your animals to Hades."

"Or they were eaten by Archimedeans," Babrius scoffed.

Critias waved their sarcasms away. "You have all heard and beautiful island. They will be spellbound by the mechanical innovations of my villa. When they are good and drunk, 1 will flick a lever and send them to a parallel world, and they will never bother us again. Scoff if you wish, but 1 will show you. Who dares come with me to look at the parallel worlds?"

The ten men stirred uneasily. Now none spoke, none dared even laugh.

"Very well," Critias said, "I will go alone. I will bring you the hares and the turtle back as proof." So saying, he pulled a lever in the wall. Before the lever had settled, Critias jumped into the machinery—and vanished.

Critias bit his lip. Nothing had happened. He was sprawled on the steps before his villa, whose innards still quietly and ominously clicked and hissed and glowed with strange lights. As Critias got to his feet, he heard laughter. He turned.

He faced the seven council members, the eldest of whom, Phronias, said: "Well, Critias? We are waiting." He pointed to the horizon, where several dark ships loomed, Roman triremes under full sail, their oars rotating; one could almost hear the hortators' drums pounding.

"This is absurd," said the Athenian, Csthesiphon, of the red beard and gleaming head. "We are wasting valuable time—"

"Hold it!" Critias shouted. "Something went wrong this time. Here, let me try again. It worked with the rabbits, so it should work again." He pulled the lever, jumped across the doorway, and vanished from sight.

Critias shook his head. Here he was again, sprawled on the steps of his villa and nothing had happened. He turned and faced the three council members who had come to his villa: The Pythagorean, Csthesiphon; the elder Phronias; and the general Philippos. Beyond the porch, smoke poured from the burning defenses in the harbor.

The grave look on Philippos' face gave expression as Phronias spoke: "Critias, thank you, it would have been too late anyway had it worked. The Romans are about to enter Kalos, and we have sent a peace delegation to surrender."

"Wait!" Critias shouted. "One more try! It's always worked with hares and turtles. Let me just—" He pulled the lever and scrambled through the doorway, vanishing before the three men's amazed eyes.

Critias shook his head and rose groggily to his feet. What had gone wrong? Why did the device work when he threw animals in, but not when he himself entered? A piercing scream made him whirl, just in time to see his invited guest, the Roman governor of Hermetica, Teutorius, run through by an oak spear. The spear thrower, a wild man with bald head and thick red beard, unsheathed a wicked looking sword. Waving the sword, Csthesiphon, the wine merchant and Euclidean, bellowed at Critias: "Shameless swine!"(he made slicing motions)"You sold us all out to the Romans!" So saying, he rushed at Critias. Critias, in the nick of time, pulled the lever down and dove through the doorway. Nothing happened. He was still here as before—alone on the porch of his porch overlooking the Ionian Sea.

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