Review: “Flight from Tomorrow”, H. Beam Piper, 1950.
Piper scholar John F. Carr call this a minor story, and he’s right from the central premise right down to it not being published in top tier Astounding Stories but the September/October 1950 issue of Future Stories. It is notable for the introduction of Piper’s A.E. dating system. That’s Atomic Era with the year zero being 1942, the year of the first controlled atomic fission event in human history. Piper would use the system in his later Terro-Human Future History. This story, though, is not part of that series.
The story opens at the end of a revolt. The rule of Hradzka, tyrant lord over our solar system, is on its last legs. The imperial palace is under attack. Hradzka can’t get to his secret spaceship and escape to still loyal colonies on Mars and in the Asteroid Belt.
Army Commander Zarvas Pol leads a group to find Hradzka in the palace. He and others fear that Hradzka will get to his time machine.
At the top of the 5,000 foot high New Tower, they find Hradzka and the time machine gone. They do find a dead Zoldy Jarv and one Kradzy Zago, still alive. Zago is an old man and member of the Learned Brothers. Of Jarv’s death, Zago says,
See, he squandered his life as a fool squanders his money, getting nothing for it. And a man’s life is not money, Zarvas Pol.
Pol is concerned. As long as Hradzka can exist anywhere in space-time, he is a threat. Hradzka won’t be back, Zago assures them.
The story then shifts to Hradzka whom, we learn, is from an era even further in the future than the “mid-Fifty-Second Century of the Atomic Era”, but that’s where he’s headed, “the Ninth Age of Chaos, following the Two-Century War and the collapse of the World Theocracy.” Equipped with his cache of recorded information, he plans setting up a small feudal state in that era and, using the weapons of the future, take over the solar system again. Then it’s recruiting more men and building more time machines and then taking an army back to his home in the future.
But there’s something wrong with the settings of the time machine. It doesn’t stop its travel into the past until the first century A.E., our time. After “landing” in some woods, there is a small explosion, and the machine catches on fire. Hradzka realizes Jary and Zago sabotaged the machine. Hradzka knows he’s never going to get back home.
Still, he knows, even without all his documents destroyed with the time machine, how to build “a crude blaster, or a heat-beam gun, or an atomic-electric conversion unit.” Hradzka can still lord it over the local barbarians.
Seeing what seems to be a truck full of farm laborers, Hradzka conceives the plan of insinuating himself into the local population while pretending to be a mute. He kills one of the laborers to get clothes, gets in with the workers and hides his blaster in a hollow tree.
He finds menial work with a farmer and his wife. He observes vehicles and some of the farmer’s gun. On the third day at the farm, the farmer’s chickens start to die. The plants around the area start to wither, and the farmer and his wife sicken.
When the farmer shoots one of his sick cows, Hradzka observes the weapon is a simple missile throwing one. A doctor comes to the house. Hradzka begins to worry that his presence and the sickness, which he doesn’t know the cause of, may draw suspicion to him, so he leaves. The local “barbarians” seem to have a greater level of sophistication than he anticipated.
Hradzka manages to find an auto garage, but, just as he’s trying to insinuate himself there, a highway patrolman shows up looking for him. In the resulting fight, Hradzka shoots the patrolman with his own gun and escapes in the patrolman’s car.
Going back to the farm, he finds more policeman there. They try to stop him, and he fires on them and drives off. The police pursue, and Hradzka retrieves his blaster and fires it at them.
Escaping into the nearby countryside, Hradzka notices the plants look a lot sicklier than when he was there. He realizes that, whatever the sickness is, he brought it with him.
An air search is made for Hradzka, and he shoots down five of the planes with his blaster. But the game has been upped, and bombs are dropped on Hradzka, and he dies.
The story then shifts back to the Palace.
Zagos tells Pol how the time machine was sabotaged. Then Zagos asks Pol if he’s ever heard of the Deadly Radiations, a legend from the early Atomic Era that atomic radiation could sicken and kill people.
They are not legends. In the early A.E., humans were not adapted to atomic radiation. After “the great wars of the first centuries of the Atomic Era,” few survivors were left. But they were resistant to radiation and passed that ability on to their children. The world is now drenched in radiation as was Hradzka.
Zagos explains that Hradzka landing in America (implicitly identified) probably killed hundreds through radiation poisoning.
But America developed A-bombs and had radiation detectors, and Hradzka’s menace would have been quickly thwarted. In fact, Zagos thinks the legendary Ancient Spaceport, a valley full of concrete, was built over Hradzka’s body. It’s been Hradzka’s tomb for 10,000 years.
The story’s plot is well executed, but the story, mixing mutation from nuclear war with a time travel paradox, is nothing particularly special.