Right Place Wrong Time

by Howard Faxon

Copyright© 2015 by Howard Faxon

Science Fiction Story: A very smart chemist is shifted to post-civil war Oregon. I think that it reads a little like an E. E. Doc Smith short story.

Tags: Science Fiction   Historical   sci-fi adult story,sci-fi story

I'm a pretty easy-going guy, and manage to keep it together no matter what gets thrown at me.


Somebody way above my pay grade decided to test that little claim.

I was born on the last day of August, 1957. The year Sputnik went up and touched off the space race, stepping all over Kennedy's dick. Nothing big about that, you say? Well wrap your little pea pickin' brain around this. The newspapers the kids are hawking downtown say it's October 1, 1919. Another zinger is I look like I'm about thirty, and a young thirty at that.

I've always been a big guy. Six-six, two forty. I run about every morning. I'm one of those guys that everyone hated in school--the guy that glanced through the book and aced the tests. I'm a flash reader and never forget a word I read or heard. I can hear a song and after a couple times through can play a pretty decent version of it on a guitar.

I CLEPed out of all sorts of English classes as well as Spanish, French, German, biology, calculus and chemistry. I'd have taken more but they limited out on me. I specialized in industrial chemistry and synthesis simplification. That was my Ph.D subject. I pulled together and taught an advanced track chemistry course on the history of a selection of 'significant' compounds. The kicker was, you had to synthesize at least one gram of the substance being studied for an 'A' in that course segment. We covered ephedrine, penicillin, chloroform, atropine, coedine, asprin, sodium hypochlorite (bleach), chloramphenicol and, over a separate summer school course, we synthesized Erythromycin, Azithromycin and Doxycycline. Now those are some rough reaction chains! I couldn't touch atropine, diphenoxylate or chloral hydrate as they were restricted substances. Atropine was pushing it as well, but I had a pass from the ATF and the DEA.

Those three 'cin's would 'cure' the black plague, cholera, syphillis, yellow fever and other nasties.

When everything went to hell in the sandbox I signed up as a combat medic. Yep, sixty-eight whiskey. Got a couple combat medic badges, too. I had to apologize to more than one soldier for using them as a rifle rest. Most laughed like hell. I got dinged for it, but hell--both of us got out without any more holes. That's a "Real Good Thing" as they say. When I learned from a paratroop medic that a Junior Miss Tampon fits a 7.62 bullet hole I was in hog heaven. Did you know that Tampax pads are sterile bandages right out of the box? Good stuff!

We weren't supposed to do anything invasive, but I talked a surgeon into guiding me through cutting down and stitching a bleeder, and doing a simple bowel reduction. I asked him how different that was from doing a resection. He showed me the three mesentary layers that had to line up.

After I took a leg off because the guy was trapped under a burning APC I shook for two days. Amputation is a hard, hard school.

From then on I carried an extra field bag with quart bottles of betadiene, I.V. kits, field drapes, masks, gloves, an irrigation syringe, a little surgical kit with a fistful of #18 sterile scalpel blades and a pot-load of different gauge pre-threaded sterile suture packs. I practiced my stitching on pig guts, pig skin and tomatoes. My Dr. mentor told me that I wasn't far behind what a flight surgeon could do. I figured that I could catch a baby, but I didn't want to go into a chest or cut a hole in anyone's head and expect them to live. But then, I'd never been stuck as the only guy around with a hope of pulling it off, either. How's that go? Necessity is a mother? Something like that.

I'd retired at forty, having figured out and patented a synthesis reduction that gave over thirty percent higher yield to a flow synthesis making a popular heart medication. I sold the rights to Abbott Labs for seven million. I bought a nice place with limited access in Oregon and took up a new hobby--I joined a pathfinder group. It's kind of like being in a civilian knock off of Army recon snake eaters.

I'd just made it through a tough nine-day week in the field and sat down in my jeep, my field pack beside me, my medic kit behind the seat and a heavy canvas Army tank repair bag full of tools and such back in the bed. (When you take the rear seat out of an old jeep, you end up with a mini-pickup truck.) Later I stopped for gas and a leg stretch the hair on my neck stood up for a bit which spooked me, but I passed it off as 'crowd fever'. I made it home near Roseburg from Mt. Hood state park in one piece, only stopping at that gas station and later at a decent restaurant for a big, fat, juicy steak dinner. I pulled up in my driveway and heard a hissing. It got louder and louder. It seemed to come from everywhere. Suddenly I saw a bright flash and passed out. It must have been momentary because when I regained conciousness the jeep was still in the air and coming down to a four-point landing from about eight feet in the air. The windshield in front of me was shattered and somehow remelted into a sagging sheet of sparkly fused glass. When I hit the ground all the air got knocked out of me, leaving me stunned. I had a significant sun burn on top of my tan. I breathed in colder air than what I expected. There was snow on the ground. The last I knew it was late July. Very strange. I got out and looked around. My prefab house and outbuildings were gone. HUGE trees grew where the buildings once stood. Once I got over being fashed by that, I turned back to the jeep.

The engine was missing. So was the hood. Nothing was torn up. It looked like a team of mechanics had unhooked everything and hoisted it out in the few seconds that I was flying through the air. I was pissed.

In the back of the jeep I carried around a big, deep plastic wheelbarrow with the handles detached so that it would fit. I opened the rear door and hardtop window, then slid out the barrow. It hid a plastic chest that pretty well filled the spare space. It held a short-barreled pump shotgun, a handi-rifle in 30.06 and a .357 Smith & Wesson hand cannon, along with an ammo can full of rounds for each firearm, a 20x20 canvas tarp, a big canvas tent, two heavy wool blankets, a bag of quarter inch sisal rope, a box of blacksmith-made tent stakes and a wool capote made from a pair of knock-off union Civil War blankets.

(I had found a place that made very tightly woven blankets, just right for a reenactor in a winter sleet storm.) I'd forgotten all about the poke I'd left in that storage box. It held eight one ounce Kruggerands. I attached the handles to the barrow and filled it with the case, medic kit and tool bag. I put on my capote and strapped on the pistol. Once I had it loaded and a pocket full of ammo I felt much more dialled-in. I took a pee, drank my fill from one of the jugs I kept in the back and cranked down the driver's seat back to have a nap. I had no doubt that I was in deep shit but there wasn't a damned thing I could do about it at the time. I saved my stressing out for something that I could affect, convince or kill.

The next thing I knew the sun had set. I pulled a couple big rat traps out of my kit, tied them to a couple saplings and set them with peanut butter for bait. I busied myself by setting up a hammock and covering tarp, then cleared a spot and started a small fire in a little bitty pit under the foot end of my hammock. I had a squirrel fork in my pathfinder kit and got everything ready. I'd heard a couple loud snaps as the traps triggered while I was bulding my fire. I went off to find them by moonlight. I had a big, fat squirrel in one and a rabbit in the other. I took everything back to camp.

I cleaned the game with my neck knife and set the squirrel on the fire to cook while I hung the rabbit in the branches of a tree overnight. Then I cleaned up and started a Bisquick pancake.

My neck knife is something special. Being an engineer I knew quite a bit about the properties of various materials and machining techniques. I'd had a narrow billet of tungsten zone purified three times until it was damned near atomically pure, then had it ground into a knife with a three inch long fat oval handle and a three inch flat-ground blade with a 1/4 inch spine and one inch faces. The final quarter inch--the edge--had tungsten carbide crystals mixed into the metal before its final cooling, forming and sharpening. I'd tried beating on it with a sledge hammer against an anvil face. It shrugged off everything. If I ever had to sharpen the thing I was in for a bad time, though. Twenty garnet belts on a belt sander might do it. Maybe not.

I ate my squirrel dinner with a hot stiff pancake slathered with a little cherry jam. I had my obligatory cup of tea while watching the fire die. After wiping out my cup withsnow and a rag then putting it away I wrapped up in a wool blanket and small tarp. I abandoned myself into the care of Morpheus.

Come the morning I did my duty and had another cup of tea. Then I inspected the barrow, added my rucksack and blanket roll then covered it over with a heavy canvas tarp and rope. A final check of the jeep netted me a nearly new lighter and a plastic container of double-A batteries from the glove box. I retrieved my two-pound hammer from next to the passenger's seat and discovered a couple of odd things that had slid beneath that seat over the years. I found the little 6" cast iron fry pan that had mysteriously dissppeared, a full roll of contractor's brown garbage bags and a diamond-point shovel with a straight four-foot handle.

[Ed. I actually found all this stuff and more the last time I cleaned my jeep. It's possible. I'd had it for over ten years though, which explained a lot.]

I cooked up my rabbit in a quick stew with dried potatoes, chowed down, filled all my water bottles from the spring feeding the little lake and added a few drops of potassium iodide to each one. Then I hefted that barrow and headed for town. I was in the uplands so I basically headed down the river valley. The trees had not been informed that it there was supposed to be a path running through there. It was not an easy trip. I figure that something looking like a town would be down-river. There had been a settlement near there ever since white men moved into the area.

On coming into town I decided to (a) bargain for some local money, and (b) get rid of something heavy. That damned barrow was making my arms longer. I found a blacksmith simply by listening for the regular sound of a hammer beating on metal. Being a mechanical as well as a chemical engineer as well as a traditionalist I'd spent a little time at a forge with a hammer in hand. I wasn't a professional by any stretch of the imagination but I could do a fair job, and my shoulders were broad enough to support my working steadily for hours.

I managed to trade a ratcheting come-along with fifty five feet of welded chain for four one-ounce twenty dollar gold pieces. That's when I casually asked and found out the date. It was November 26, 1867. The civil war had just whimpered to an end. The people were tired of war. I had to straighten out my bona fides, make a lot of money and equip a production lab for an antibiotic run. I knew that the Bubonic Plague was coming to San Francisco in 1900 and the Chinese population were going to take it in the neck.

I spent some money at a men's haberdashery for a sack suit, then found a leathermaker that had a good four-piece set of luggage available. He knew of a carpenter that had a couple domed chests for sale, and the carpenter knew a wheelwright that made buckboard wagons. I bought the luggage, the chests and a high-walled buckboard then set about finding a pair of mules to pull them. The mules weren't that expensive, but their boarding was. All that cost two ounces of gold, leaving me with ten ounces of gold coin. I took a room with breakfast and dinner for a month, taking another ounce from my poke.

I took up my medical kit and visited a local doctor of good reputation. I could tell that the words running though his mind were "Don't let the door hit you in the ass, kid."

I decided right there and then to go for broke. I pulled out my wallet. I slid out my driver's license, my veteran's ID card, a Citibank credit card with my photo on it and a twenty dollar bill. They were all dated. He picked them up one by one and carefully examined them, first by eye and then with a large magnifying lens. After a bit he carefully slid them back to me and sat back in his arm chair. "Impossible." I replied with, "Try it while wearing my shoes."

He quizzed me as to what I'd done. The bowel resections impressed him. He nodded at my fear of working inside the rib cage or the skull. Finally he said, "What did you do after your first amputation?"

"I was a basket case for two days." He nodded. We talked about medications and treatments. When I emphasized sterile conditions and instruments he snorted. I shook my head and described germ theory. Louis Pasteur's publications hadn't reached the west coast yet. He knew about using the inner bark of a willow (salycilate) but not about Cinchona bark (quinine), penicillin or Jimson weed (atropine). When I told him about using potassium iodide as an expectorant to stop pneumonia in its tracks as well as to treat goiter he got excited. I had a few other little tricks like iodine mixed with a little bromine in alcohol to treat small wounds and using chloral hydrate instead of morphine or heroin to calm a colicky child. Even cannabis indica was better than an opiate.

He eventually took me home for dinner and a drink to dig more information out of me. He was glad to put me up in one of his rooms and sign a certificate of medical competence for me--in essence it was a right to practice medicine. I had to pry my deposit out of the rooming house.

Outside of pharmaceutical houses and some factories, at the time bleach was unheard of. I set about finding a windy valley that nobody else had a use for. I had plans to build a wind powered DC generator to make concentrated bleach and collect chlorine in cold water. However, I was getting despondent about my lack of funds.

I recieved direct proof that someone was watching out for me. I woke up the next morning with all the information I needed to find the Anaconda mine and the Gold Cup Placer mine, some twenty three miles away on the main southern road, then between one and three miles up a river bed. I worked all that winter and spring with Doc Kendall to build up a little money and to allow the grasses to grow long enough back in the mountain valleys to feed the mules.

I took the cart and mules down to the creek, then turned off to the east. I kept going until the cart could proceed no further, perhaps two miles. I left the cart hidden inside a blackberry patch and proceeded on with the mules laden with provisions, canvas and a few tools. Within two days of leaving the wagon my vision 'clicked in'. I recognized the spot. There was enough surface gold to pick up a few nuggets but nothing heart-stopping. I resorted to panning. I picked up a quarter pound a day when I was lucky. I flagged my work sites and the amounts found at them with notched poles. After a week I followed the path of the richest returns. Each time I collected five pounds I filled a small canvas bag and tied it off. Soon I was harvesting a third of a pound a day, then a half. Suddenly the yield dropped off to nearly nothing. I'd passed the drift. I backed up and started digging. I got to four feet down, harvesting almost a pound a day. It was getting too deep for me to mine since the river kept filling in the hole. I secured what I had collected and continued upstream until I found the placer site. It was at an abrupt turn in the stone bed of the creek. I collected nearly eighty pounds there, to go with the twenty five that I'd mined downstream before the temperature started dropping enough to brown the grasses. I loaded up my mules and headed back to town.

The bank didn't want to give me fair value. I complained first to the sheriff, and then to the editor of the newspaper. That did it! I ended up with twenty seven thousand dollars after a fifty dollar processing fee, which everyone agreed was scandalous.

I bought that little valley I'd had my eye on. I went back to working for the doc while I sent away for bags of powdered concrete. I also sent away to Eugene for a catalog published by a lab glassware supply house. I had a long way to go yet. I didn't know how much my chemical feedstocks were going to cost me, or if they were even available. How much would I have to pre-synthesize and purify just to get a good supply of the base ingredients? I hoped that I wouldn't have to send away to Berlin, Munich or Paris but I wasn't holding my breath.

As a moneymaker I began stockpiling scrap cotton cloth, hydrogen peroxide, hydrochloric acid and nitric acid. I knew how to make safe guncotton. It made a wonderful blasting agent and the railways were cutting their routes through the mountains. If I worked with them I might be able to get a siding put in. That would cut down my later shipping costs dramatically.

After 1906, after the S. F. earthquake, it would be time to buy up property in Imperial valley.

In my spare time I fooled around with my D.C. generator. It was a painstaking task to wind varnished wire without cracking the insulation and shorting the thing out. After every layer I bedded it in nitrocellulose and laid down a layer of parchment. I built it large and heavy to compensate for the shortcomings in the bearings and insulation. I hoped that I wouldn't have to build its supporting tower very tall. I hoped that if it were two stories off the ground then any other construction would not interfere with the winds it required. Rather than risk supporting a heavy generator up in a tower where maintenance would be difficult I designed and built two 90 degree geared drives and a greased vertical shaft to drive the generator. I made sure to incorporate a brake at the windmill itself and a clutch between the gearbox and the generator to take it off line, both for maintenance and in case of storms. Regrettably I was reinventing the wheel, as the wind pump was in use back east at the time, but there was no simple way to get one other than by rounding South America--the railroad had not come to the west coast yet.

I poured the foundations for the tower and two workshops that spring. There was a fast, very cold spring-fed stream flowing down the center of the valley. For heating reaction vessels I had alcohol lamps. For cooling I had spring-water-fed cooling jackets. The state of the art was ground glass fittings which worked marvellously well. They had to be kept lubricated with mineral oil lest they sieze up tighter than a mafia wedding contract, as in never to be sundered short of extreme violence.

Making guncotton was a matter of bleaching a quantity of shredded cotton, neutralizing it to the pH of distilled water, drying it, then agitating it in a bath of mixed hydrochloric and nitric acids, six parts nitric to one part hydrochloric. The cotton could only be left in the chilled reaction flask for a fixed period, then had to be immediately neutralized and dried some seven times. A simple vacuum pump accelerated this last task. Over-nitration made it unstable. Everything had to be done cold, very cold. At the end a handfull of powdered chalk and a scant handfull of lime were dusted over the nitrated cotton and mixed in to maintain a neutral pH over time, as the acid had a tendency to leach from the cotton strands and acidify the batch, making it unstable. That was a painfully learned lesson from the future, or my past.

It sold to the miners. They adored it. Then the railroad engineers heard about it. It was perhaps half the price of a similar volume of gunpowder. I patented the process and sold licenses to produce it.

My next salable product was TNT. I sent away to Germany for ten one-liter flasks of toluene, then set about building a blockhouse in which to synthesize the explosive. Using a cold water bath process, a small amount of nitric acid was floated on top of toluene and allowed to react. The denser liquid TNT was siphoned off the bottom with a pipette, then neutralized with hydrogen peroxide. Then the final product was dried to remove the water carrier. Lotsa boom in a small package. I patented that process and once again sold licenses to manufacture.

My bank balance was growing by leaps and bounds. Doc Kendall became a true believer when I started whipping off patentable processes left and right.

I finally buckled down to working on my doxycycline synthesis. The first time I ran a batch it took me sixteen painful, agonizing steps and resulted in a yield of about five percent. How did I figure that out? A Silica Gel tower and 1100 volts DC, that's how. Electrophoresis. I picked up a nice little patent on that too. Once washed clean of the silica jell we tried it out on a kid with a persistent case of cholera. She responded nicely. Yup, we had the good stuff.

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