“You should have killed him!”
“I should never have told you I’m from the future.”
“Yes, you should have. You should have told me before, when we could have changed the outcome of the war.”
“You don’t understand, that’s not how it works.”
“Are you trying to tell me you come from the future and you can’t change what happens now?”
“Of course I can change what happens now. In fact, I have changed what happened. Being here changes the future.”
“Well a lot of people are dead. They need not have died; you could have prevented their deaths.”
“OK. I’m going to humor you for a little while. How, exactly, was I supposed to save the people who have died?”
Johnny scratched his head, his blond crew cut hair was still short, they were released from the Army just a few days ago.
“I mean, you could have gone up to the top brass and told them…”
“Go up to the top brass. Right. I look like a kid, OK, I’m chronologically twenty years old. According to you, a twenty-year-old can go up the top generals in the armed forces and tell them: Oh, I’m from the future. You need to listen to me and I’ll tell you how to win the war.”
“Well, now that you put it that way, it doesn’t sound reasonable. But you are from the future, you should be able to provide them with technology which can give us the upper hand and then we could…”
“Would you listen to yourself? Give them technology?” The piercing blue eyes stared deep into Johnny’s. “How, exactly, would I provide them with technology?”
“Well, you know, ray guns or something, you know, destructor rays or something.”
“For the love of all that’s reasonable, would you listen to yourself? Let’s say I had a ray gun. I come up to… who, exactly? You know, walk up and say: I have a ray gun.” He shook his head, “They’d lock me up and throw away the key.”
“Not if you showed them. If you showed them a ray gun, they’d listen to you.” Johnny ran his hand through his short hair. “Come on, there must be a way for you to reach the right person. You are from the future, you know, read up on the right person to contact, and come, and tell them.” His eyes opened wide; his breathing rapid. “That’s what you should have done, you know, go to the main guy, in research or something, to the guys that were making the biggest bomb or something, and told them to try this or that, you know, nudge them in the right direction. It would have taken years off the war, saved millions of lives.”
“Yeah, but what if the weapon I give them is too powerful? What if they decide to enslave the rest of the world? What happens if they figure they’ll make it bigger, better, and they don’t know how it works, not really, I gave it to them, right? What then? What if there is a huge disaster because of me?”
Johnny stood up and walked a little way away from his friend, hands on his head. Then turned back quickly.
“Is that what happened, you came back in time once and they destroyed the world?”
“Well, think about it, knucklehead, if I had come back and they destroyed the world I would not have been born and would not be able to come back again to correct the mistake. See my point?”
Johnny went over to where his friend sat, and took the matching rocking chair.
His friend sat there, serenely, looking back, waiting. Joe was as typical a guy as you could meet. You would see him on the street and not give him a second look. Tall, but normal tall, not like a giant. Broad-shouldered and strong, but then most of the people coming back from the war were in good shape, mostly thin, of course, and a few like Joe, broad-shouldered and muscular, many like himself, thin and strong. His raven black hair, his square jaw, he was good looking while being completely forgettable.
“But you have gone back, right?” He asked tentatively.
“I can only travel two or three times. People who tried going back and forth in time, trying to tweak it until it comes out just right, normally, die in the process.”
“Why? Is it, like, painful? Does it hurt you when you go back and forth?”
“No, it is not painful. Uncomfortable, certainly, but not painful. No, the problem is we have to move in space as well as time, to place the traveler in the physical location we want them at, at the time we want them at.”
“What? Do you have to place them somewhere else? Not in your laboratory?”
Joe smiled. “No, you see the Earth, the whole solar system, the whole galaxy, are moving in the universe. We know where the place we want has been. We can calculate within a few microns the location we want the subject to reach. The distances are, quite literally, astronomical. However, we have to have some sort of safe destination in mind. We’ve had accidents when the traveler has materialized in the air, we usually use a parachute approach, that way the traveler has very few chances of materializing in an occupied space. There have been deaths. Bird strikes mostly.”
“The bird hits the traveler? Is that fatal?” Johnny didn’t see it.
This time Joe actually laughed out loud. “Oh no, what we mean by bird strike is the traveler materialized in a space occupied by a bird. Both the bird and the traveler get killed, instantly. Neither survives the contact.”
“Oh.” Johnny had not considered where to materialize, as Joe put it. He thought they would just pop up in an alley or something, but of course, they could not see… “Wait, so you jump blind?”
“Sort of. We send a photodetector… it takes a three-sixty picture of the place we mean to hit. If it’s open, we send the traveler to a time period close to where we reconnoitered. We are not able yet to send the traveler to the exact same place at the exact next second, which would be ideal.”
“The exact next second? Not at the same time? I mean, if you checked the area with your photo thing, you should just send the traveler to the same place the same time, if it was safe.”
“Again, not how it works. You see, the traveler would materialize in the same space the photodetector occupies and it would be dangerous and potentially deadly. We have to make sure we shoot for a location far enough in the future of the moment the photoreceptor went back as to avoid risk, but not so far in the future of that moment as to make the observation obsolete.”
“Oh.” It was a lot to get your head around. “So, are you going back? To report that this time it worked?”
“This is my third trip. I’m done. I’m surprised I survived this time. I didn’t want to stay back in my time, I didn’t want to risk it.”
“Why? You have time travel; you must have all kinds of neat inventions.”
“There are a lot of scientific advances, yes. There is a lot we know. In physics. In medicine. In many of the sciences.”
“What’s your world like?”
“Very different from this one, that’s for sure.”
“Is it better?”
“It’s different. Not better, not worse. Different is the term that describes it.”
“So, why do you choose to stay here at this time?”
“Oh, I think it’ll be fascinating, for one thing. The coming years are going to be most interesting.”
“Really?” Johnny rocked forward, clasped his hands together and rested his elbows on his knees. “What’s going to happen? Are you going to be really rich? I mean, you know what companies are going to make it big, right? So, you can make really big investments which would be risky to anyone else, but you will know they are going to make it, right?”
Joe gave a full belly laugh. “No, that’s not how it works. I have no idea what companies are a good investment and which aren’t”
“You didn’t check them out? Are you insane?” Johnny had sat back in his rocker and thrown his hands up in exasperation. “I would have, I would have looked at history books and stuff. I would have read anything I could get my hands on about this period. There are always breakout companies. You know, like the company Edison made, I mean, can you imagine getting in on the light bulb business when it started. Wow. Instant millionaire.”
Again, Joe laughed at the stars in his friend’s eyes. “That’s really not how it works. Even if you bought in at the very beginning, it takes years for an investment to make you rich. It’ll get there, maybe, but it would take time.”
“Well, what about the lottery? Or the horses? There is an alternative! Horse racing, there must be some famous race that a horse wins that nobody expects, even if you bet sure-fire favorites all the time, you know, sure things for everybody, but for you, in particular, you’d make money that way.”
“I hate to tell you this, but history doesn’t record some of those things as exactly as you would think. Not as far in the future as I come from.”
“Well, I don’t know. There must be something. Like where an especially rich gold mine is located. You can buy the land cheap and then, surprise! There is a gold mine in your property.”
“All good ideas. I didn’t look any of those things up, though. Sorry.”
“I can not understand why. You were not going to stay here? Is that it? You were supposed to go back, and you have decided to brake with your time on a whim?”
The smile slipped off Joe’s face. “There is something to that, of course. Not exactly, but something like that happened.”
“Why would you want to know? I am familiar with the period of history immediately previous to this moment, I studied it extensively. I have been preparing for this trip, essentially since grade school. I studied everything the young people of your time study, and then I studied everything I needed to come here and accomplish my mission. There was a lot to study. I made many sacrifices. I lost many friends, many of us traveled and didn’t come back. Some came back very damaged and hurt, some stayed here alive, I hope, but most likely dead. Some were here preparing for my arrival. The records of this time are relatively simple for us to manipulate, so we did. That’s why I have a full back history. I have a perfect trajectory in your time. I can be traced from my birth to this moment. It’s all there. My mother, on the other hand, is different, she will be a blind alley, and my father, unknown. All the documentation is there, if you look for it. All of it is false, of course, but impossible to prove with the technology of this time.”
Johnny was fascinated by his friend’s story. “What are you going to do now, though? How are you going to make a living?”
“Well. Like many of you, I’ll go to college. The government will help with that, me being a veteran and all.” A quick smile. “I feel I earned it. I did serve.”
Johnny recalled his previous irritation. “You could have done it; you could have found some way. You could have stopped so many people from getting killed uselessly.”
“No, you didn’t. You trained with me. We both got deployed at the same time. We fought together. Many of our friends died. They died! Mike died in my arms. You could have stopped it.”
Joe’s face was dark. “I don’t know exactly what you think I could have done. I didn’t even know who Mike was. He didn’t make it into any of the references I looked at. He was unknown before the war and his death didn’t make a significant dent in the timeline so…”
“His death didn’t affect the timeline? What kind of statement is that?” Johnny exploded.
“I didn’t know he died. Just like I didn’t know about the death of any specific individuals. The numbers of dead are in the millions. Not one million two thousand one hundred twenty-three, down to an individual digit. Once there are more than one million dead, the individuals’ blur, the numbers get rounded out.”
“Rounded out! That is the most callus insensitive…”
“Maybe, but your beef is with history, not with me.”
Johnny got up, walked over to the railing overlooking the yard. He saw the white picket fence separating the well-kept front lawn from the street. His back was turned to his friend or rather, he turned his back on the man sitting on the other rocker. He claimed to be from the future. He seemed to be telling the truth. How could he be sure? The callousness and insensitivity were something he could not understand or condone. They were talking about people’s lives here.
“Could you have saved some of us? Any of us? Did you save me?”
“I did save you. I saved you many times. You know that.”
“That’s not what I mean. We fought together. We were in the same outfit. We trained together and we got assigned together, but did you do something that saved my life or any of our friends’ lives? Did any of us die in another… past? Another time?”
Joe got up and walked to the railing, looking off into the distance. “I saved some of you. You know I did. I shot many enemies. I killed them, so you survived.”
“We all killed people. It was a damn war. Did you save any of us, or we were just extras in your story, to survive or not according to your needs?”
“I don’t know what you want me to say. I killed people who might have survived if I wasn’t here. Any of them could have killed one of you.”
“Did any of us survived now that you are here who did not survive before?” Johnny raised his voice.
Joe turned to his friend. “I don’t know. As I said, history doesn’t record everybody, only…”
“Only important people. Relevant people. Which we, obviously, are not.” Johnny crossed his arms and cocked his head to the side.
“I am a bit player in this drama. I do not control what happens. I certainly can not control who lives or who dies.”
“You do too. If you are from the future you know which battles we won, which we lost, and why. You could have been an invaluable source of intelligence. Instead, you were in the field with us. This is idiotic. You can’t be from the future. The whole thing is stupid.” He turned around again.
“You are right. That’s how it must look to you. I understand. I should go.” He started down the three steps that separated the porch from the yard.
Johnny was fuming but calmed down as he saw Joe’s broad back walk down the path towards the yard’s door.
“Wait. Wait. Come back.”
Joe stopped and turned, but did not move to return to the front of the house.
“I want to understand, I want to know.”
“You don’t like the answers so far. You are really not going to like the answers going forward.”
A cold humorless smile crept onto Johnny’s face. “And how could you possibly know that? I’m nobody, I’m sure this conversation was not recorded by history, so how can you possibly know I’m not going to like the conversation going forward?”
“Because I know you. I trained with you, I fought with you, I know you.”
Johnny wanted to argue, to say that it was not possible, but his curiosity won out.
“Come back up. Let me go inside and make us some lemonade. I think we need a drink.”
Joe started back. “I agree we need a drink. Lemonade is not what I mean, though.”
“It’s what you are getting and you are going to like it. Now sit and shut up while I come back.”
A few minutes later, Johnny came back with a large pitcher of lemonade with ice and two glasses.
They poured and sat on the rocking chairs, looking at the street, lost in thought.
“Before you said you didn’t want to risk it. Risk what?”
Joe took another sip of his drink and put the glass down. The lazy drops chasing each other on the glass as the afternoon light glinted off them.
“Going back is a risk. The position changes ever so slightly every time if the traveler has done very little. The development of technology and everything else is about the same, so the location in space is also about the same. If the change is a radical one… the lab, the technology itself will be different. We have people come back to materialize in a wall. We have records of people who were sent, and never came back. We have planned experiments which got canceled and we don’t know if that’s because we did send someone back and the actions result on the cancelation of the very experiment which would allow for them to come back. So, risky. I’m not willing to chance it.”
“You made a big difference then?”
Joe sighed deeply. “Yes.”
“What did you change from your time to my time… or rather this time?”
Joe took a sip of his lemonade. “Something stronger. I definitely need something stronger to tell you that.”
It was Johnny’s turn to sigh. “OK, if it’ll get you talking, I’ll get some—”
“No, no. I’m kidding. I changed everything. I disobeyed orders and changed the future. Radically.”
“That means you can’t go back?”
“It means that if I went back, there may not be a place for me to go to. The technology that allows me to travel through time might not have been invented.”
“Why would that happen? What did you change that was so radical?”
“You know the mission I volunteered for?”
“Yeah, sure. I volunteered too, but got shot and had to hang back.”
“Well, I knew how it was supposed to turn out. I was sent to make sure it worked. I was sent back to make sure the desired outcome was reached. In fact, I was sent back to prevent very minor events to occur.” He chuckled. “Some people thought a war wound was good, but it must be minor. A silly little thing. A few speeches with an arm sling. But, oh, no, the leader should not be seen in a sling. So, I was sent back to prevent one shot from reaching its target. I had to train as a paratrooper, go to battle and get selected for that particular detail.” He paused to drain the rest of the lemonade, the remaining ice cubes clinking at the bottom of the glass. “I had to train, to risk my life, to stop a grazing wound. So a few war propaganda movies could be made without a sling.” Joe chuckled darkly, shaking his head.
“What are you talking about? None of the allied generals are wounded. None with the kind of wound you describe. And, anyway, what would the big deal of a little wound be? It’s war, people get wounded.”
“Yes, you would think that, right?” He settled in the rocker and moved softly back and forth. “They tried the others first. They sent people to that side of the equation, they figured their ideologies were more… in tune.” Joe closed his eyes, gripping the armrests tightly, the memory a painful one. “It didn’t work. The people we sent got killed. It only became obvious once they had been killed, the record trace showed them dead.”
“Wouldn’t the record show that soldier dead before you sent him back? I mean, you know who you are looking for and…”
“Again, you don’t understand. We don’t have officers, or major historical figures. We need grunts, like us, doing the job. At some point and under certain circumstances, they may make the news, as heroes. Normally, that’s not what we want. We want them to be anonymous so the impact is only and exclusively the intended one.”
“My head hurts.” Johnny stroke his forehead with stiff fingers, and then rested the cool glass on it. “So, what happened?”
“They tried several times. Each time, the people we sent ended up in the casualty roster.” He shook his head slowly. “Of course, they simply kept looking for better candidates, better insertion points. It all convinced them more than ever that the little change would have the wide and strong repercussions they wanted. If avoiding the minor wound was so difficult, imagine the effect on History of actually succeeding. They figured the effect would be rotund, immense, earthshattering.”
“You swallowed a dictionary or what?”
Another humorless laugh. “A thesaurus, but I get your point. They picked five of us. We were extensively trained. Speech patterns, the fashions and hobbies of the time, the sports.” He looked over at his friend and before Johnny could make any comment quickly added, “before this time, all the regular information a young man my age would have. I have no idea which is the next winning team, or the results of the next Olympics.”
“It couldn’t hurt to ask,” Johnny said, seriously, but with a playful smile on his lips.
“Some of us came directly to this time, some to a time previous to this one. Their mission to get our records ready and done. The plan was good. Excellent, in fact.”
“Well, it worked. You are here, the war is over. It worked.”
“Yes, the war is over.” Joe reclined in the rocking chair and closed his eyes. He didn’t say anything for a few minutes and Johnny thought he may have fallen asleep.
“It was so difficult, you know, to train. The training was, in a word, unpalatable.” Joe had not opened his eyes.
“Unpalatable? Well, aren’t we talking fancy?”
“I do have a large vocabulary. I speak several languages.”
“Yes, they always asked for you to interrogate the prisoners. You were good. I remember.”
A shadow crossed his friend’s face. Joe’s brows came together, his closed eyes shut tight.
“I know you didn’t like it, Joe. I know you were never too keen on the interrogations.”
“I interrogated them. I always got answers. Usually, the prisoners were sent to camps, I know what happens to some of them, or rather what was supposed to happen to some of them. What they decide to do in the future. Or rather, what they would have done.”
Johnny cleared his throat. “Is that why… is that the reason you…”
“Why I shot them? I didn’t shoot many. Only a couple that tried to escape.”
“So you said. You were on guard duty, you said they escaped, no one knew how they had been able to cut the ropes and to open the pen. They didn’t make it to the trees. You killed them.”
“They were sadistic bastards. They would have survived the war and they would have…”
“How do you know? They were grunts like us. You said it yourself, history doesn’t record unimportant people…” Johnny’s eyes opened wide. “You mean, those guys were important? They were historically significant? And you killed them?” His voice had risen with each word until he was practically screaming.
“Yes. I know what they did. I know what they were going to do. They had killed many people, they had experimented on women, on children. I knew what they would do after the war when they were given free rein to study the human condition, to study how to manipulate people, how to make people perfect.”
“No, they would not have been able to. They were prisoners of war. They were headed for trial…” He turned to his friend. “They did go to trial, right?”
“No, in the future I come from, they never went to trial.”
“Why? If they are who you say they are, I mean, yeah, they were officers, but…”
“They had switched uniforms; they were not army officers. They were intelligence-gathering officers and they were responsible for horrible tortures in the name of science.”
“So, you killed them.”
“A major change, from what you are telling me. Definitely would affect your destination, from what you’ve told me.”
“I don’t believe my destination, as you put it, is there anymore.”
“But… we won the war. The destination might have changed, yes, but to the point of not being there anymore? Isn’t that a little radical?”
“The changes I have made are very radical. I have changed things beyond the scope of the original mission.”
“What was your mission, then?”
Joe paused. The pause was so long that Johnny thought the answer was not coming.
“The first time I traveled back, I established the groundwork for what I was supposed to do to complete my mission. I got assigned at the bunker…”
“What bunker? When? You were never assigned to any bunker that I know of.”
“I was much younger then. This was years ago. My years, but also yours. I was a child. My blue eyes saved me, although my skin is a little dark for them.” His eyes were looking in the distance, as if he could see the past he was describing. “I was tasked with finding a way in and out so the events could take place as recorded historically, and my older self would have the opportunity of going in and out, unnoticed.” He paused again; the memories painful.
“I came here when I started my paratrooper training. I met you and the guys. Years ago, now. We have been together almost since the beginning of the war. The beginning for us, anyway, at the end of ‘42”
“OK, so that’s the second time, the first you went to the bunker, wherever that may be. Then you came here. Then you said you made a third time trip, what was that about?”
“When you got shot, I got assigned to the 69th Infantry Division. I requested it, and I’m fluent in Russian too, not just German, so they approved my transfer. We hooked up with the Soviet troops in Leckwitz. From there, it was relatively simple to talk my way in the invasion and siege of Berlin. My perfect German a clear advantage. I also showed them I had a good knowledge of the terrain so I was detached to go with…”
“You were with the Soviets in Berlin? That’s impossible, I don’t believe it.”
“You believe I can travel through time, but don’t believe I could get myself into the invading Soviet army? Really?”
His friend sat back on the rocking chair and moved slowly back and forth, taking in the information. “You have to admit, it sounds incredible.”
“That’s not the incredible part.” Joe smiled. “I went with them all the way near the bunker. The fighting was uncomfortable, urban fighting is dirty and dangerous. The secret entrance was covered with boards and wallpaper.” Joe’s left-hand stroke his chin, as he leaned back on the rocker and looked up. “It took me a few minutes to find it. I eventually did. I traveled back in time to get the bullet proof shirt, to give to him, so when he escaped, the grazing wound would not come to be. I went in. Found them in there. They had already killed the dog. I wanted to save Blondi, but the Alsatian was already dead, nothing I could do. It made me angry. They had taken pills to emulate death. The other pills were cyanide, they had planned it carefully. They would think they had died of cyanide poisoning.” He shook his head, tightening his jaw, angrily. “I took one of the real cyanide pills and gave it to her. Put it under her tongue. It dissolved and kill her for real. Him, I put his gun against his head and pulled the trigger.”
His friend, Johnny, was stunned beyond words.
“Are you telling me you killed Hitler?”
“Come on, why would a person take cyanide and, before it took effect, shoot himself?”
“Joe. What happened in your time? What was your future?”
“Not my future, my history. Hitler was taken to a morgue where he was rescued by a group of SS paratroopers. He had been micromanaging the losing war for a long time. He had made arrangements for his escape, he got a minor wound in his arms while escaping, but he made it out alive. He made it to Italy, from there to Morocco and from there to Buenos Aires.”
“What? Buenos Aires? Where is that?”
“South America. Argentina. A strong presence of European born people allowed him to restructure his forces.”
“Surely the allies went after him. Surely, we got him, or the brits.”
“No, they all got in a shouting match which resulted eventually in a shooting match with the Soviets. Each accused the other of letting Hitler go.”
“Impossible. That was a clear threat. The USSR is our ally!”
“For now. You will remember Russia, Ukraine, Transcaucasian and Byelorussia formed the USSR, well they start going after their neighbors and start annexing territories. Everybody remembered what happened when they didn’t stop Hitler when he invaded Poland, so…”
“But why did you do it? Why did you come back to change history?”
“Because the Thousand Year Reich enslaved my people, because they used us for human experiments, because I tasted freedom when I came here. Because I knew what I had been tasked to do was wrong. I was a slave. They use us for their experiments. I was bred for this; my parents were slaves too.” He got up and started walking towards the street. “Now, it is all new. Now it is all different. I don’t know what will happen tomorrow, because it is a different world.”
“So, you see, I did kill Hitler, just not when you thought I should, but when I could. I’m sorry, I should never have told you. Goodbye, my friend.” He opened the fence gate, and was gone, walking down the street, into the dying light of dusk.