In Ray Bradbury’s vision, reality was a fabric so delicate that the crushing of a butterfly could ripple up through 65 million years to change the results of an election. Bradbury painted that scenario in his 1952 story, A Sound of Thunder.
The sign on the wall seemed to quaver under a film of sliding warm water, Eckels felt his eyelids blink over his stare, and the sign burned in this momentary darkness:
TIME SAFARI, INC.
SAFARIS TO ANY YEAR IN THE PAST.
YOU NAME THE ANIMAL.
WE TAKE YOU THERE. YOU SHOOT IT.
A warm phlegm gathered in Eckels’ throat; he swallowed and pushed it down. The muscles around his mouth formed a smile as he put his hand slowly out upon the air, and in that hand waved a check for ten thousand dollars to the man behind the desk.
“Does this safari guarantee I come back alive?”
“We guarantee nothing,” said the official, “except the dinosaurs.” He turned. “This is Mr. Travis, your Safari Guide in the Past. He’ll tell you what and where to shoot. If he says no shooting, no shooting. If you disobey instructions, there’s a stiff penalty of another ten thousand dollars, plus possible government action, on your return.” Eckels glanced across the vast office at a mass and tangle, a snaking and humming of wires and steel boxes, at an aurora that flickered now orange, now silver, now blue. There was a sound like a gigantic bonfire burning all of Time, all the years and all the parchment calendars, all the hours piled high and set aflame. A touch of the hand and this burning would, on the instant, beautifully reverse itself. Eckels remembered the wording in the advertisements to the letter. Out of chars and ashes, out of dust and coals, like golden salamanders, the old years, the green years, might leap; roses sweeten the air, white hair turn Irish-black, wrinkles vanish; all, everything fly back to seed, flee death, rush down to their beginnings, suns rise in western skies and set in glorious easts, moons eat themselves opposite to the custom, all and everything cupping one in another like Chinese boxes, rabbits in hats, all and everything returning to the fresh death, the seed death, the green death, to the time before the beginning. A touch of a hand might do it, the merest touch of a hand.
“Hell and damn,” Eckels breathed, the light of the Machine on his thin face. “A real Time Machine.” He shook his head. “Makes you think. If the election had gone badly yesterday, I might be here now running away from the results. Thank God Keith won. He’ll make a fine President of the United States.”
“Yes,” said the man behind the desk. “Were lucky. If Deutscher had gotten in, we’d have the worst kind of dictatorship. There’s an anti-everything man for you, a militarist, anti-Christ, anti-human, anti-intellectual. People called us up, you know, joking but not joking. Said if Deutscher became President they wanted to go live in 1492. Of course it’s not our business to conduct Escapes, but to form Safaris. Anyway, Keith’s President now. All you got to worry about is”
“Shooting my dinosaur,” Eckels finished it for him. “A Tyrannosaurus Rex. The Thunder Lizard, the damnedest monster in history. Sign this release. Anything happens to you, we’re not responsible. Those dinosaurs are hungry.” Eckels flushed angrily.
“Trying to scare me!”
“Frankly, yes. We don’t want anyone going who’ll panic at the first shot. Six Safari leaders were killed last year, and a dozen hunters.We’re here to give you the damnedest thrill a real hunter ever asked for. Travelling you back sixty million years to bag the biggest damned game in all Time. Your personal check’s still there. Tear it up.” Mr. Eckels looked at the check for a long time. His fingers twitched.
“Good luck,” said the man behind the desk.
“Mr. Travis, he’s all yours.” They moved silently across the room, taking their guns with them, toward the Machine, toward the silver metal and the roaring light. First a day and then a night and then a day and then a night, then it was day-night-day-night-day. A week, a month, a year, a decade! A.D. 2055. A.D. zoic). 1999! 1957! Gone! The Machine roared. They put on their oxygen helmets and tested the intercoms. Eckels swayed on the padded seat, his face pale, his jaws stiff. He felt the trembling in his arms and he looked down and found his hands tight on the new rifle. There were four other men in the Machine. Travis, the Safari Leader, his assistant, Lesperance, and two other hunters, Billings and Kramer. They sat looking at each other, and the years blazed around them.
“Can these guns get a dinosaur cold?” Eckels felt his mouth saying.
“If you hit them right,” said Travis on the helmet radio. “Some dinosaurs have two brains, one in the head, another far down the spinal column. We stay away from those. That’s stretching luck. Put your first two shots into the eyes, if you can, blind them, and go back into the brain.” The Machine howled. Time was a film run backward. Suns fled and ten million moons fled after them.
“Good God,” said Eckels. “Every hunter that ever lived would envy us today. This makes Africa seem like Illinois.” The Machine slowed; its scream fell to a murmur. The Machine stopped. The sun stopped in the sky. The fog that had enveloped the Machine blew away and they were in an old time, a very old time indeed, three hunters and two Safari Heads with their blue metal guns across their knees.
“Christ isn’t born yet,” said Travis. “Moses has not gone to the mountain to talk with God. The Pyramids are still in the earth, waiting to be cut out and put up. Remember that, Alexander, Caesar, Napoleon, Hitler, none of them exists.” The men nodded.
“That” Mr. Travis pointed” is the jungle of sixty million two thousand and fifty-five years before President Keith.” He indicated a metal path that struck off into green wilderness, over steaming swamp, among giant ferns and palms.
“And that,” he said, “is the Path, laid by Time Safari for your use. It floats six inches above the earth. Doesn’t touch so much as one grass blade, flower, or tree. It’s an antigravity metal. Its purpose is to keep you from touching this world of the past in any way. Stay on the Path. Don’t go off it. I repeat. Don’t go off. For any reason! If you fall off, there’s a penalty. And don’t shoot any animal we don’t okay.”
“Why?” asked Eckels. They sat in the ancient wilderness. Far birds’ cries blew on a wind, and the smell of tar and an old salt sea, moist grasses, and flowers the colour of blood.
“We don’t want to change the Future. We don’t belong here in the Past. The government doesn’t like us here. We have to pay big graft to keep our franchise. A Time Machine is damn finicky business. Not knowing it, we might kill an important animal, a small bird, a roach, a flower even, thus destroying an important link in a growing species.”
“That’s not clear,” said Eckels.
“All right,” Travis continued, “say we accidentally kill one mouse here. That means all the future families of this one particular mouse are destroyed, right?”
“And all the families of the families of that one mouse! With a stamp of your foot, you annihilate first one, then a dozen, then a thousand, a million, a billion possible mice”
“So they’re dead,” said Eckels. “So what?”