The 1002nd Night
A Tale of Eastern Promises
The Caliph Harun al Rashid was somewhat accustomed to the concept of the supernatural. His mother, Al-Khayzuran, had filled his ears this many a year with tales of magicians, djinns, flying horses, clairvoyants and the like. And it must be admitted that he was the most cosmopolitan of rulers, receiving, as he did, deputations of diplomats from lands as distant and alien as, for example, Cathay and Cornwall. So the only surprise he evinced when a strange foreigner turned up in his most private apartment, a modest salon of a quarter acre or so, was how the intruder, if not magical, had circumvented the intricate labyrinth and the seven Circassian cut-throats which together protected his privacy, or how, were he magical, his manifestation had been contrived without the pillar of fire, or the whirlwind, or both, which tradition argued accompanied the appearance of genies and related unlikely beings.
"Are you telling me that, having the ability to travel in time, you have not explored your own eventual demise?"The apparition, or foreigner, was apparelled in a sort of pastiche of court dress, laughable really, like a figure from a court painting or an actor in some melodrama. This in contrast to the simple white shift currently worn by the Caliph. Harun restrained himself from summoning the guard partly out of curiosity and partly because he had been told stories of terrible consequences to those who offended the emissaries of the magical kingdoms. Besides, the ridiculous figure confronting him appeared unarmed, and could clearly have been easily dispatched by the Caliph himself, using only the ceremonial dagger at his waist. An involuntary smile touched his lips as he enquired after the comical visitor's business.
With gestures of obeisance and with what were presumably intended to be words of elaborate flattery, his visitor jabbered for some thirty seconds in a very formal and archaic version of the Caliph's own language, as though the speaker had learned it from a book, specifically, the Q'ran. Harun al Rashid made a gesture intended to silence him, but the idiot gabbled on until fixed by one of the monarch's most truculent glares.
"Tell me first. Are you man or djinn?"
"An Englishman, Prince of Emirs. My name is Herbert Wells."
"Erberwels. An unlikely name."
"Yes, indeed, I do not use the Herbert myself. You may refer to me as Wells, if you prefer."
"How does an Englishman called Wells differ from a man or a djinn?"
"An Englishman is indeed a man, a man from England, a country remote from your domain."
"How came you here?"
"By a type of gateway. Behold, between these two pillars." The Caliph could perceive a shimmer in the air, similar to the heat haze above a desert dune at midday.
"Magic, then," he concluded.
"Technology, Lion of Persia. A sage of my time declared that any sufficiently advanced technology would appear as magic to people who did not possess it."
"Does this mean that any impudent rascal can now invade my sanctum at will?"
"By no means, Commander of the Faithful. I alone have mastered the art of time travel." Harun noted the nonsensical term 'time travel' without comment.
"At your request," continued the visitor, "I shall remove my unworthy self and never darken the sanctity of your chamber again."
"And what was your motive for so doing in the first place?"
"I merely wished to confer some wisdom upon you."
"You consider that I lack wisdom?" bristled the Caliph.
"Forgive my clumsy expression, Lord. I meant 'knowledge', not 'wisdom'."
"'Knowledge is Power' as the Prophet once said. I can always use a little more power. But is this magical knowledge you offer? I ask because a dozen charlatans falsely claiming supernatural capabilities are daily turned away from my gates, while a few of the more impertinent conjurors are imprisoned or worse for their troubles. So far, you have greatly exceeded the boundaries of respectful behaviour without offering either illumination or entertainment. I hope for your sake that you begin to educate or amuse me very soon."
"It is not magic, Sire, but what we call 'Science' - interesting or useful properties of the universe and its contents."
Wells produced, from his ridiculous robe, a coloured sphere, a handspan in width, mounted eccentrically on a black stand. He turned it on its axis a few times before saying "This is a chart of the whole world, in complete accuracy."
The Caliph took the sphere in his hands. It appeared to be made of wood, with a thin skin of some kind of painted papyrus glued upon it. "This is the world? Why did the artist paint it on a ball?"
"Because the world is round like a ball."
"Really? Hmmm... One of my more eccentric astronomers has long suspected as much. This makes two of you. So... This is a strange map indeed. Where is this palace represented?" Harun enquired. Wells stretched out his hand. "Do not touch me! Indicate with a finger."
Wells did so. "That's Baghdad, that dot there."
"And Hindustan? I see. Cathay? So far for a camel, so near for a finger. And the blue... this represents the sea?"
"Yes, Your Eminence. And the white at top and bottom represents cold areas. Ice."
"So much sea and ice. I must study this. My advisers have told me that I am the leader of half the world, barring only the domains of Charlemagne in the west and the Chinese emperor in the east. It appears that this is not the case." He indicated a sheet of pure white alabaster inlaid with precious metals and enamels. "This is the map my geographers have provided me with. If you are right, they have been lying to me."
Wells peered at the alabaster map. "To do them justice, Eminence, I can see several resemblances between their map and the true situation. The errors are mostly in scale, and in overactive imagination." He illustrated the latter assertion by pointing to an elaborately conceived sea monster located at the Straits of Jebel al Tariq in the Western Mediterranean Sea.
"You think so? Then come with me now to the Hall of the Philosophers and I shall forthwith summon my geographers to consult it."
"Unfortunately," demurred Wells, "For reasons too complex and tedious to elucidate, I am unable to move much farther from my gateway than I am at present. My time here is limited, and I have much to tell you. Summon the geographers by all means, but they must come here, or not at all."
"You are peremptory in your demands, apparition, but you have piqued my interest with your sphere, though I regard with scepticism your claim that you cannot venture far from your gateway. If you have other marvels, reveal them now, and we shall return to the sphere if time permits." The Caliph placed the globe on a nearby table which was carved from a single piece of jade.
Wells pulled from his robe a metal tube and tugged it at both ends. With a smooth set of clicks, it extended to the length of an arm, as interlocking tubes were revealed. For a moment, the Caliph experienced a slight alarm, and he took a cautious step backwards, his right hand touching the hilt of his jewelled knife. Wells applied one end of the tube to his own left eye and swung it from side to side. "Ah, Sire, do you see that small vase on the table near the door?" he asked.
"I am intimately familiar with it, as it is my own, a gift from the King of Jerusalem, and containing a bone from the finger of Abraham."
"Yes, of course it is. But now, if you can, observe it through this tube."
The Caliph complied, noticing, as he did, that there was a pane of glass in each end of the tube. It took a few moments to adjust, but he was completely astonished by what he saw.
"A glass to perceive things at a distance! I have heard of such a device. How can I control its influence to discover what my Wazir is doing at this instant?"
"Regrettably," admitted Wells, "This glass can only make larger that which you can already see."
The Caliph's disappointment was clear. "But I could walk to that vase and inspect it without the aid of your seeing tube."
"True. But the tube will also make objects that you could not easily reach seem closer, such as a ship at sea or a distant bird. Or, indeed, the moon or stars."
"Hmph. I have limited requirements in those departments, though I dare hazard that my astronomers and sea captains may be interested in this toy. You are evidently a man of considerable resources. Cannot you offer me something rather less trivial? You tell me that you come to me from a future time. Can you not advise me on my fate?"
"To my everlasting regret, Your Eminence, it is not recommended for a time traveller like myself to reveal an individual's future to the subject, particularly, as in the present case, when the person is extremely important, as they may attempt to alter the course of history, to the eventual inconvenience of the traveller and his generation."
"Are you telling me that, having the ability to travel in time, you have not explored your own eventual demise?"
"My gateway can only penetrate to the past, not to my future. In any event, I should be reluctant to seek my own moment of death - it would remove some of the unpredictability of life."
"Nonsense. Every man's fate is written. It cannot be altered. Predestination is at the heart of the true faith. Revealing that which is known to Allah cannot make any difference to the individual. My soothsayers are utterly frank in their revelations, though a trifle inconsistent in their conclusions at times.
"That, certainly, is a consideration," replied Wells, judiciously. "Theoretically, since your future is in my past, I should be able to discover what befell you in later life. Unfortunately, precise details of your life have not percolated to my time, except that, in general, you are known as a wise and merciful ruler, which is why I chose you to communicate with."
"I suspect you of prevarication, Englishman. I warn you, I have resources to loosen the most resolute tongue."
"Of that I am certain. But before you put me to the test, let me first reveal to you that which I would deliver voluntarily. I feel sure that you will be well satisfied with what I have to offer."
"For example?" said the Caliph, picking a sweetmeat from a nearby pedestal and chewing it, wiping his fingers on an embroidered napkin, the product of two years labour from a blind artist.
Wells reached into a bag which appeared to have been sewn into his pantomime costume. The Caliph made a mental note to have similar bags inserted in his own robes. In these, he would be able to carry concealed weapons and other useful articles. Wells produced a sheaf of extremely white papyrus sheets, of a remarkably uniform size and shape.
"These," he announced, "Contain plans in the form of pictures for the construction of what we call 'a printing press' with movable type, together with instructions on making paper and ink."
"Of what use is this 'press'?"
"It enables the user to make many copies of a single document or book."
"What value is that? A scribe can read a single copy of a document to many listeners. If I need another copy of a book, I simply command that one be made."
"And this takes how long?"
"A day, if I am in a hurry. One clerk can be assigned to each page. Here," he said, pointing to a gorgeously rich volume bound in white leather and gold leaf standing on a lectern which was made of solid gold, a tribute from the people of Anatolia, "Is a Q'ran they prepared for me last week."
"What if every citizen in your empire could have his own copy of the Q'ran?"
"Then we would have anarchy. We have an ample sufficiency of disputatious mullahs already, each with his own interpretation of the Prophet's teachings. Besides, most of my citizens cannot read, praise be to Allah, and many are infidels - Jews, Christians and so on, living under our protection. They pay taxes; they become citizens. An excess of books could only destabilise the empire." He twitched his robe in irritation.
"I am not yet at a loss," protested Wells. How about an explanation of the laws of motion, or electricity, or magnetism?"
Harun snorted. "How about something useful? Can you provide me with a poison which duplicates the symptoms of some common fatal disease, so that I can rid myself of that scheming villain of a Wazir without his entire family swearing revenge and attempting to murder me at every turn?"
"I am afraid that Your Eminence knows more about poison than I will ever learn."
The Caliph sighed. "I warn you that I am already weary of your pathetic contributions. What next?"
"This land of yours, Sire, is often hot. I can describe to you how to build a machine that makes ice."
"A machine? I have no need of a machine to make ice. Allah, may His Name be praised, creates all the ice we require and stores it in the mountains to the north of India. We import a shipload every month or so to cool our beverages and sherbets."
"I have here, " said Wells, "A clock of astonishing accuracy, which, together with observations of the sun, would enable your navigators to correctly determine their position in mid-ocean, without landmarks."
"Pah! Keep your clock. I have recently sent to my colleague, Charlemagne, a water clock of astounding beauty and cleverness. We are expert in the measurement of time. Can you not assist me in my campaign to civilise the known world?
"Your glittering reputation as a conqueror precedes you down the ages," replied Wells carefully, "I can think of nothing that would enhance your capabilities beyond their current high levels."
The Caliph fixed Wells with a dangerous glare. "Do not attempt to hoodwink me, magician. It is completely certain that mankind will develop, above all other considerations, weapons of war and murder. I urge you to concentrate your efforts towards that topic, as your reward will be greatest if you satisfy me in this regard."
Wells paused before replying, "My best advice, until your metals technology improves, would be to perfect the use of massed archers, and to establish a powerful and disciplined navy. Further, you may discover that the Emperor of Cathay's alchemists are aware of certain incendiary substances. In my time, the capability to fly in the air above the enemy is regarded as a key factor. You take a large quantity of material and make a huge hollow bag from it. Then you place a fire at the mouth of the bag, and shortly the bag fills with hot air and rises in the air, taking..."
"Enough! You sound like my first wife, rattling on with such nonsense. From a woman, this is tolerable, and she has the asset of beauty which I cannot help noticing that you, candidly, lack. The secret I require you to reveal is that of the great weapon which can destroy whole cities at a stroke. It has been forecast by my most reliable clairvoyant that a Caliph will possess such a weapon. I wish that Caliph to be me."
"Why would you want such a weapon? A weapon that would kill tens of thousands of people, men, women and children, at a stroke."
"That is simple. You say that future generations will call me merciful, and for that, I am gratified. Yet in my sincere attempt to civilise the known world, thousands die and are maimed in cruel ways, from ripped limbs, skewered guts, broken heads, cut throats. It moves me to tears, whether the victims are the Faithful or not. With such a weapon, I would destroy one city, perhaps two. Then my enemies would see my power and I would never be challenged on the battlefield. I could negotiate without bloodshed, as I did at Byzantium. Stability would be achieved."
Wells nodded thoughtfully. "I see what you mean. Such a weapon could indeed be a force for peace. I have long been an advocate of a World State. I hate to disappoint the leader of Islam, but such a weapon is not feasible. My own time is some 1300 years in your future - the year 1942 in the Christian calendar. About thirty years before my time, there was a war that involved nearly the whole world, and there is currently another very large war in progress, yet the weapons in use are not greatly advanced on those available to your own armies, except for those, as I remarked, begging your pardon, delivered from the air. I feel certain that if a weapon of such magnitude were possible, it would have been deployed in my own time."
A bell rang from the direction of Wells's gateway, and the visitor glanced over his shoulder. "Your Eminence, I regret I must go very soon. And I so want to tell you how to propel a chariot by an engine that uses steam instead of by horses."
"The steam engine was invented by Hero of Alexandria 600 years ago. It is a toy. Does your steam engine feed and water itself in the field, does it produce its own successors as does a horse?"
"Well, no. Perhaps, then, I can interest you in a number of ingenious uses which you may not have discovered for that inflammable black liquid that sometimes oozes from the desert."
"Bah! Begone before I have you flayed and impaled for your outrageous blether. Return, if you must, when you have learned the secret of the destroyer of cities!"
Wells beat a hasty retreat to his gateway, and when he became invisible, as he did silently within a minute or so, Harun returned to his olive-wood desk, a gift from Athens, and to contemplation of a letter from his emissary to the near-mythical islands of Japan, beyond even Cathay. What was it that the clairvoyant had said about the great weapon and Japan?
© Gil Williamson 2008 All Rights Reserved
Date and time of last update 18:17 Fri 19 Feb 2010
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