By H. Beam Piper
Published by Librivox
Read by Alex Buie and kelcymx
This is the second story in Piper’s “Paratime” Series. The first was an interesting tale called “He Walked Around the Horses,” which dealt with the mysterious disappearance of Benjamin Bathurst, a British diplomat who was staying at an inn in Prussia and who was last seen in this world walking behind a waiting team of horses. This was one of those mysterious disappearances, along with that of Ambrose Bierce, that SF and Fantasy writers like to cite in stories from time to time. In Piper’s story he does not just disappear but somehow ends up on an alternate time line.
Police Operation references the Bathurst disappearance, but one really need not read that first story to be able to follow the second. It turns out (in Piper’s series) that Bathurst was accidentally picked up by a Paratime traveler and dropped off again in a nearby time line. Paratime in Piper’s stories is the vast array of alternative time lines. He claims they are not actually infinite in scope, but other than that, it all fits in well with some aspects of M Theory.
Piper divides Paratime into five Levels. In Level One the ability to travel sideways in Time, but not into the future or past, is invented. In later stories it seems that this is so low probability that it has only happened once, although in this first story it seems there are nearby and nearly identical timelines that have. That bit gets conveniently forgotten later on, and likely just as well.
The one really bad guess on Piper’s part was that humans colonized the Earth in the distant past from Mars. This is something vaguely mentioned in some of his Terro-human Federation series as well, but while it is a detail in the background the story doesn’t really make much difference save to differentiate the cultures of the various Levels. For example in Level Two the people are as civilized at those of Level One, but do not have Paratime travel. Level Three cultures have suffered various setbacks but are still fairly advanced, but no longer remember their Martian origin. All the rest of us barbarians are in Level Four. We suffered a major cultural collapse early on and are just starting to work our way back to true civilization, though we may kill ourselves off on the way. In Sector Five either the Martian colony failed entirely or never started.
In this story, a man from Level One has been working on Level Four (our time line, I think) and has his… well, call it an extraterrestrial wolf (that’s close enough) with him. The man is killed and the big bad wolf is out killing things. If the animal is killed by a resident of this time line they will eventually know it is an unearthly critter and might guess that it came from another time line, since it can’t at this time have come from Venus (well, okay, it can’t have come from Venus at any time, but Piper died in 1964 and did not know that). This violates the so-called Paratime Secret. It is the law on Level One that no one off Level One can know that there are non-detectable “aliens” living among them and it is the job of the Paracops to see that the secret is kept. So it is Val’s job to catch the beast and cover up any sign of its extraterrestrial origin.
Once you get past all the introductory setup stuff, it is a pretty good story and the true start of the Paratime Series that includes the very popular Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen stories. I recommend reading the whole series. These stories are still available (many can be downloaded for free from Project Gutenberg) and are available digitally and in print. Several authors have extended the Kalvan series as well.
Librivox actually has two recordings of this story available. One is by Mark Nelson and part of a collection of Piper Stories. I plan to listen to that eventually. Mister Nelson usually reads quite well, but I have listened to him before and decided to give this edition a try.
I might be wrong but to me it sounds like Alex Buie is a young man. His voice sound like it has not yet settled into a mature register. This is not a condemnation, though. I thought he read the story fairly well for all that. He did mispronounce a few words, but I’ve heard professional readers do much worse. He also made no attempt to alter his voice character by character, but as I see it, it is better to simply read aloud creditably if you cannot act out the voices and Mister Buie does just that.
Kelcymx, I think, is a woman. I could find nothing about her (or him?) so I was forced to guess but I think the voice I heard was that of a woman, possibly in her late teens, but probably older, (I don’t claim to be a good judge of such things) rather than another young man, so for this review I will refer to her as a female and my abject apologies if I am mistaken. Normally I find myself jarred by recordings featuring more than one reader, but kelsymx’s reading flowed naturally from Alex Buie’s and at first I did not even notice the change. The major difference, in fact was that kelcymx did not mispronounce any words that I can remember, but like Alex, she did not attempt to act out the story, she just read it creditably in an even and easy to understand manner.
Could these readings have been better? Well, yes, I suppose so, but I am happy I had the chance to listen to both Alex Buie and kelcymx’s tracks in this favorite story.