The Plot

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 504

Brian Chaney is a demographer who has upset religious fundamentalists with a study of newly translated scrolls showing the Book of Revelations to be stories, not literal truths. On a beach to which he has gone to escape his notoriety, he is informed by the attractive but humorless Kathryn van...

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Brian Chaney is a demographer who has upset religious fundamentalists with a study of newly translated scrolls showing the Book of Revelations to be stories, not literal truths. On a beach to which he has gone to escape his notoriety, he is informed by the attractive but humorless Kathryn van Hise that the government has purchased his contract with his private employer. To his consternation, he finds himself having to follow her to an Illinois research station and its Time Displacement Vehicle, an experimental time machine.

Chaney joins irrepressible Navy officer Arthur Saltus, with whom he develops an easygoing relationship, and Air Force Major William Theodore Moresby, who disapproves not only of Chaney’s disdain for authority but also his biblical scholarship. The three have been chosen to carry out research in other times.

The United States in 1978 is a land of civil unrest, with trains armored against rocks and gunshots, the Great Lakes flooding, and social mores in flux. The Vietnam War is dragging on, escalating once to a nuclear exchange between the American military and communist China. A weak president who advanced to office on the death of his predecessor wants to use the time travel device to see if he can win the next election. Gilbert Seabrooke, the more imaginative project director, would like to travel backward in time to record the Crucifixion or the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Chaney, Saltus, and Moresby each makes an experimental jump a few years into the future. Chaney heads for the local library and reads old newspapers to catch up on what has happened. He discovers worsening civil unrest; another Chinese nuclear strike, but on U.S. soil; a win for the presidential incumbent; and a record of the marriage of Saltus to a woman named Katrina, which disappoints Chaney despite his previous successes with other women.

Further research uncovers limitations with the machine. It cannot go into the past any earlier than the existence of its massive nuclear power source, but it can go farther into the future. Each man is told to pick a time destination for another series of trips.

Moresby chooses July 4, 1999. He lands in the midst of a guerrilla battle, with bands of black raiders attacking what remains of the establishment. Moresby joins in the fighting and is killed.

Saltus, who goes to what would be his fiftieth birthday, in the year 2000, runs into a similar situation but manages to survive and return. Chaney goes to 2020, only to discover that his power source no longer exists by then and he can never return. He sees a few people, all of whom flee from him in seeming terror until he locates the aged Katrina. “Everyone fears you; no one will trust you since the rebellion,” she explains. “I am the only one here who does not fear a black man.”

It is only then that the reader learns Chaney’s color. He accepts his fate as one of those who will watch over the last days of human history.

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