Date Line by Noel Loomis appeared in the October 1948 issue of Thrilling Wonder Stories and is the first in the Orig Prem series.
I’ve read stories that have made me think “Wow, this seems like it probably inspired an episode of the Twilight Zone” and stories that have made me think “Wow, this seems like it probably inspired an episode of the Outer Limits.” Now I can say that I’ve read a pulp story that has made me think “Wow, this seems like it probably inspired a bit on Firesign Theatre.”
In “The FutureTM” (2230), people have mastered time travel and in a desperate game to fend off ennui in a time when nothing interesting happens anymore, the primary news organization in the solar system publishes nothing but “This day in history” type puff pieces, featuring live, on the ground coverage of things going on 100, 200, 500, 1000, etc. years ago. There’s a spectre of Pluto cancelling their subscription and that severance leading to political upheaval in the solar system, but we’ll get back to that.
Stieve Andro has been stuck doing “This day 300 years ago” for so long he’s that bored and sick of it. Sure, there was the big collapse, but he’d rather be doing something, anything, else. It also doesn’t help that his robot companion Orig Prem got drunk and made passes at the Mayor’s wife at his inauguration (and Stieve himself was guilty of getting caught with the Mayor’s wife’s maid), which has brought some significant heat onto the both of them in the 20th century. Stieve begs the director of the Solar News Time Travel division to let him do something more interesting, like cover the period of the Last War in 2091, when “the world got in such a turmoil they even threw away all the calendars until somebody made out another one in Twenty-One-O-Five, after it was all over.” Eventually, Stieve manages to beg a cakewalk special feature assignment covering Columbus’s discovery of America. When he gets there, his robot assistant Orig Prem has already been hard at work, turning the event into a circus.
Prim has the Indians manning paid observation decks (“Lookum through telescope, mister. Ten cents for seeum Santa Maria. Only ten cents for lookum, mister.”), selling popcorn, and selling programs (“Can’t tell a Spaniard from an Indian without a program.”) and has also set himself up as the head of the Chamber of Commerce Welcoming Committee. Stieve Andro is there just in time to cover the solemn and significant historic event:
Well, the boats were pulling up. A tall man stood in the prow of the first one. He had white hair and beard, his nose was aquiline and his eyes blue. He faced the beach regally, but when the boat was grounded he leaped overboard and waded through the water and strode up the beach.
“And to think,” Prem muttered, “that I built this dock to save him from getting wet!”
But the tall man strode up the grandstand. The big Indian chief rose to meet him.
“How!” he said gravely. “I makeum you welcome to New World. This great day for you, black day for Indians. But this history. I greetum you. Have a smoke.”
The tall man’s eyes were dancing. “Thank you very much,” he said gravely. “Smoking has not been introduced to Europe as yet. But I could go for a drop of wine.” He added: “I am very happy to be here. It was a long trip.”
“Will you please step closer to the microphone?” asked Stieve. “We’re on the air in 2230, you know. Ladies and gentlemen, you are hearing the voice of Mr. Christopher Columbus.”
The tall man looked doubtfully at the microphone, but Prem smiled and nodded encouragingly. The tall man stepped closer as if he was about to swallow the microphone. “Hello, mom,” he said gravely. “It was a wet crossing, but we made it. I hereby declare America officially discovered.”
The live broadcast finished, Stieve finds himself in the same sort of trouble here as he did in 1930 and did just the thing his director warned him not to do; turned out telling the popcorn girl that she could come and play in his yard any time she wanted was an offer of marriage in Guanahani, and wouldn’t you know it, her dad was the Indian Chief of Police who chases them back to their time machine. When he gets back to 2230, Stieve finds himself in trouble, but not for the reasons you’d think:
“You prize dummy!” Smullen roared. “While you’re off gallivanting around the Fifteenth Century, you overlooked the one date in history that would appeal to Pluto.”
Stieve licked his lips. “What-what do you mean, sir?”
“Do you know when Pluto was discovered?”
Stieve swallowed. Whatever the answer was, it would be bad. “No, sir.”
“March 13, 1930.” Smullen snarled. “Three hundred years ago today. One more day and you’d have had it. But no, you had to start traipsing around in time-“
Stieve felt terrible. He hadn’t wanted to let down Smullen.
“Can’t I cover it tomorrow, sir?” he pleaded. Out of the corner of his eye Stieve was aware that Orig Prem had entered and stood just inside the door.
“No!” said Smullen. “That’s zigzagging. Time Travel won’t allow it. You’ve been going back exactly three hundred years, and tomorrow you’d have to go back three hundred years and a day. They won’t stand for it.”
Stieve felt miserable. Orig Prem spoke up. “I think we can still make it, sir,” he said apologetically.
“What do you mean?” Smullen growled.
“The date, sir. I’ve just discovered this really isn’t March thirteenth. Today is March twelfth. Tomorrow will be the thirteenth.”
It turns out that because all of the calendars were thrown out during the Last War, when they’d re-instituted them, they’d forgotten to omit a leap day in 2100 (a year during which no calendars existed). This manages to save the day for Stieve, Smullen, and Solar News.
I’m trying not to think too hard about the ramifications of the date issue in this story; at first I was thinking “Hey, wouldn’t he still be zigzagging in time?” but really he’d been going back in time to one-year-plus-a-day from the start rather than going back exactly a year, which he’d have to do to make it to the announcement of Pluto’s discovery.
In some ways, this one reminded me of some of Asimov’s “word problems disguised as short fiction” pieces, but there was still far more story here than what I’ve read of his Black Widowers. As you can see from the quotes, it’s not the best writing I’ve come across, but it wasn’t unreadable 1st person dialect and it had its droll moments. Much of the humor here works better in the radioplay format where one doesn’t have to worry about figuring out all of the different ways of saying that someone said something.