The marshy grounds surrounding the city had been drained centuries before, but on rare evenings the Danube could still shroud Vienna in cold fog.
The young man’s footsteps did not so much click as clap against the cobblestones; in the heels of both shoes, damp cardboard plugged holes in the leather. His portfolio was clasped tightly under one arm as he hurried along the street. He kept his head down, watching his step rather than the diffuse glow of the streetlamps or the dark shades of passers-by.
He did not notice the shadow of another man leave the wall behind him as he passed.
The second man raised an arm, aiming it at the back of the unaware young artist.
There was a noise audible only if one was listening for it.
The second man crumpled to the pavement.
The young man disappeared into the fog.
A rising hum penetrated Rael’s unconsciousness. He groaned, and tried to open his eyes.
Memory awoke. He jerked, wincing, and found himself restrained in a chair.
“Hey, sleeping beauty’s awake,” someone said.
Slitted eyes not yet adjusted to the bright whiteness of the room, Rael turned his head. A heavyset man in a blue jumpsuit stood leaning against a plain white wall. At his waist hung a toolbelt. There was a weapon holstered there, hanging next to the long club of a subduer.
Rael stared at him. “You stopped me,” he blurted, the tone of his voice halfway between disbelief and anger.
“We sure did, sweetheart,” a second man said. Rael swung his head around to find the second man standing in front of the wall opposite the first. He also wore a jumpsuit, and a tool belt, and his left shoulder was turned so that Rael could see the emblem there.
The discovery police.
“You’re taking me back,” Rael said in a tone of discovery. “This is a jump engine.”
“Jump engine, time machine, whatever you like. Yes, we’re headed back. But don’t worry about it, buddy. You’ll be back just long enough for a nice trial and then I’m sure you’ll be warped off to exile in some prehistoric tropical paradise, where you can die of tooth decay on your own sweet schedule and not futz up the future.”
“You stopped me! Don’t you know who that was?!”
“’Course we do,” the heavyset man said.
“Why did you stop me? He murdered millions!”
The uniformed man looked over Rael’s head to his companion. “They always go after Hitler. Why always Hitler? Stalin killed as many people. Or Mao. Hell, why not that Cambodian asshole? Even that Cambodian guy wanted to bag Hitler instead.”
“It’s the name,” the other man replied. “These idiots spend all their time with math and engineering and field theory, they want to start big right out of the gate.” He turned his attention to Rael. “Isn’t that right, sweetie?”
“You assholes,” Rael said, his voice cold. “You just… let him live. You’re as bad as he is! You could save all those people! You just killed millions!”
The second man left his wall and prodded Rael with his subduer, face suddenly stoney. “Millions, eh? What do you know about the timestream, boy? What happens when you change the past?”
“I don’t… the future changes.”
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. No. See, you don’t remember. None of you outside the corps remember. No, the future doesn’t change. The past changes. It snaps back. There’s one timeline, asshole. You change something, the continuum changes other things so that it can get back to where it was.”
“The Great Pogrom. You remember it? Of course not. Six million Jews murdered between nineteen twenty-eight and thirty-five. On the orders of the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Ferdinand and his weedy German cousin, Wilhelm’s kid.”
“One of the worst incidents of genocide in history. So some asshole discovers a time machine, goes back to well before Franzie becomes Emperor, and offs him. This was before we had the discovery police, mind you.”
Rael was shaking his head.
“Of course, the timestream had to repair itself. Had to get back to where it wanted to go. And, like water flowing downhill, it made a new course. A course that didn’t require Franz and company, because he was dead now, wasn’t he? So a couple million young Brits and Frenchmen and Germans and Russians got to die a half-century before their time. And – and here’s the kicker – the Jews still all got murdered. Possibly even more horribly. But three centuries later – as far as we can tell – the world wound up exactly the same.”
The man rapped his subduer on the back of Rael’s head. “It’s almost like the continuum wanted to teach us meddling humans a lesson.”
The humming stopped. The wall in front of Rael, which he hadn’t realized was a door, slid open.
His chair lifted into the air.
“Anyway, kid, here’s your stop. Give our regards to the tribunal.”
Jaq and Lawrie waited until the kid had floated off down the hall, then exited the time chamber.
“You know what the world needs, Jaq?” Lawrie asked.
“A way to detect these home-made time machines before the idiots turn them on.”
“Too true,” Jaq replied. “Too true.”
- Sun Ra
Columns by Sun Ra