Vignette Sunday: The Price of Success

By Andy Cooke


On the Sea Lion Press Forums, we run a monthly Vignette Challenge. Contributors are invited to write vignettes on a specific theme (changed monthly).


The third theme was "Utopia"


2189, Berlin

No-one else was left who remembered. She’d been one of the youngest in the Project, and, of those, only a handful had truly known what was going on. All of those had kept their silence to death and beyond, and now she was the last.

Anti-ageing technology had its limits, and it appeared that about hundred and thirty years was currently the limit for human lifespan. Thanks to those anti-ageing advances, she’d been hale, active, and sharp right until the end, which had to be fast approaching. She was a hundred and thirty-one years old, and the Project was now well over a century in the past.

She stared at the grave. The inscription simply said, ‘Colin Davenport, 2031-2074’. That was all it said. No platitudes, no ‘missed by…’, nothing like that. Colin had been single and childless, otherwise he’d not have been selected, even with his height and build being exactly right. He wasn’t even buried there – it was empty. She’d insisted, though – she needed somewhere to be his memorial; somewhere for her to come and remember him. To remind herself of the price of this world.

She thought back to those hectic days when they thought they could change the world. When they had changed the world, albeit not quite in the way they’d first imagined. You couldn’t argue with results, though – the poorest in the world today lived lives of prosperity and plenty, life expectancy at birth was well over a century and rising, the World Ecological Council had just announced the first fall in global average climate temperature, with the expressed aim of returning to pre-industrial levels within another century, no war had been fought anywhere for two generations, colonies were established on the Moon, Mars, and Ceres, with outposts on Titan and floating in the Venusian atmosphere…

It was the price of it, though. And she was the last who knew what had been done.

*** ​

2074, Munich

“So – the anomaly appears to be natural in some way, and, after considerable work, we believe we have now temporarily constructed a CTC of significant duration capable of post-event causality amendment, but with the laboratory effectively within what can be described as a Causality Faraday Cage.” Professor Wilkins beamed at the group in front of him – a group handpicked for their resourcefulness, intelligence, analytic skills, combat effectiveness, and all-round skills. In the world as it existed today, with the amount of sheer ability needed to just survive, standing out to the degree these people stood out meant they were almost superhuman.

Jenny sighed and stepped forward. This was her role, and why, despite her youth, she was here: ‘Wilkinsian-to-human translator’ wasn’t her official job description; just the reality of her job.

“In short, gentlemen, thanks to a unique confluence of a freak natural occurrence and applied physics, we actually have a sort of ‘time-gate’ from here and now to Munich in the year 1929. The dates at either end cannot be changed. However, this time-gate can be used to change the past – and, of course, the present. However, the field around this lab, tapped off from the gate, means that we exist in a sort of state of temporal grace, unaffected by the changes in here until we go outside. This means we can observe the effects of the changes we make and go back and change them until we get it right. For a while, anyway.”

No-one asked whether it was a good idea to do this at all. The damage caused by the mid-century wars, the resource over-use, the pollution, the corporation conflicts, the genetic weapons… the fact that someone held out a hope to reset it all was enough for anyone to leap at the chance.

They’d analysed history to identify any and all ‘points of inflexion’ they could use. Or potential ‘Points Of Divergence’, to use a more popular term in the lab. No-one had been surprised by the result. The first team sent through was going to assassinate Adolf Hitler before he even rose to power.

It had been catastrophic. Oh, they’d succeeded, all right. And returned to a blasted, lifeless Earth. Nuclear war had obviously been widespread, and dated back to the late twentieth century.

Wilkins, subdued, had been the one who’d worked it out: Without Hitler, Nazism had not died in the cradle. It had been greater than that, and had even been galvanized by the murder of the First Fuhrer. His successors had made fewer mistakes, and… well, the eventual outcome was obvious. They’d had to send back a second team to liquidate – she hesitated; she’d always hated euphemisms – to kill the first team before it could succeed. And still returned to a lifeless world.

It had taken Wilkins longer to work it out, and possibly only he could have done so: the existence of the Anomaly here in 2074 Munich coupled with the ability to alter the past meant there were a huge array of possible presents. In the majority of those, the scientists who’d managed to harness the Anomaly as a time-gate hadn’t managed to create the ‘Faraday Cage’ that kept the lab outside of the time stream and allowed multiple attempts to change the past; those alternate presents had been sending back their own teams, changing the past, and being stuck with the outcome.

By the time they’d established this, they were running out of time themselves. It seemed bizarre that time-travellers could have such a problem, but the ‘time-outside-time’ within the lab was limited. The ‘Temporal Faraday Cage’ had its limits, which meant they had to solve the problem quickly.

Killing Adolf Hitler before his rise to power galvanized the Nazis. Assassinating him while he was in power meant that Nazism had a ready-made excuse for any issues – a ‘stab-in-the-back’ myth to add to the existing one. No, they decided: Adolf Hitler had to run his course, like a virus that would eventually result in host immunity. In fact, even his death in the Wolf’s Lair had to be prevented – somehow.

James Walker had been the first ‘Guardian Angel’. He’d stopped the first of their identified ‘PODs’ by locking a toilet door, and a bomb had not been detonated. He’d changed a few dishes in a meal, and Hitler didn’t die of poisoning. He’d distracted a gunman, who missed his shots at a train carriage. He’d died while diverting a group of men intent on ambushing Hitler’s car – but he died succeeding in his task.

Tom Graham had been next. He leaked information about a carpenter who’d put together a conspiracy to bomb the Fuhrer in Konigsberg. Beppo Romer was stopped. Graham had died stopping a group of gunmen who were shooting at Hitler’s car.

Peter Chapman had gone back and told the Gestapo about Helmuth Mylius’ plot, and died under torture as a suspected accomplice.

Derek Masterson had gone next, and jokingly referred to Maurice Bauvaud as his ‘nemesis’. Eventually, though, he’d stopped him, and even gone on to foil six more attempts before his own death.

Time after time after time, volunteer after volunteer had gone back and died protecting one of the most evil men ever to live. No fewer than eighty assassination attempts were foiled, many completely unnoticed, at the cost of the lives of sixteen volunteers.

The last one, however, was the hardest. Four attempts had been tried to prevent the death of Adolf Hitler on the 20th of July, 1944; all had failed. They had started to run out of time and were down to a final volunteer – Colin Davenport. Colin had volunteered for the backup plan, thanks to his size and build: before even James Walker had departed, the plastic surgery had been started. Now, just as the ‘time-outside-time’ was running out, he was ready – a perfect replica of Adolf Hitler himself.

He went back through the time-gate and his observer had died shortly after arrival, so the specific details were never known – but she knew he’d somehow made his way to the Wolf ‘s Lair unobserved; a second Hitler wandering about would have been highly conspicuous. Somehow, he’d been close enough to be caught in the edge of the blast in the room itself – something Jenny would have believed impossible, if she hadn’t known Colin so well. He’d managed to substitute himself for the dead Hitler and done so convincingly enough to fool even those closest to him. Then again, any discrepancies in behaviour could be blamed on trauma.

Colin had ensured that the Nazi state fought to the bitter end, and made sure it was bitter indeed. He’d had the strength of will to shoot himself in the end, so the few surviving Nazis could never blame anyone else for their Fuhrer’s death.

The time-outside-time had finally run out and the few of them left in the lab had emerged into a utopia. It had worked. Somehow, it had worked.

*** ​

Berlin, 2189

She stared at the stone that marked the memory of her long-lost lover. Yes, she’d paid a cost, as had they all, but that wasn’t the price that weighed down her soul.

The Holocaust. The death camps. The millions upon millions bombed, shot, displaced, drowned. The rise of Communism and the Cold War. The Middle-East wars and terrorism, after the rushed installation of a Jewish homeland for a traumatised and frightened group of people in an area where they would be resented, the guilty international community trampling on the rights of those already there in the hope it would all somehow sort itself out in the long run. A long run that had been very very long indeed, in the end.

But Nazism and Fascism had been fatally damaged. She couldn’t help wondering if someone, somehow, had found another Anomaly to defeat Communism, or to defeat the Islamic Terrorism, despite poor Wilkins’ insistence that his Anomaly had been unique – but her careful reading of history had never again found a series of coincidental escapes such as that which had accompanied Hitler.

She turned away from the grave, a tear sliding down her cheek. No matter what, none of them had been able to stop themselves from second-guessing their actions. Given enough time and analysis, surely they could have stopped it all without having actively aided and abetted the monsters?

Wilkins had been the first to break under the pressure of what they’d done. He’d been found with a bag over his head, full of nitrogen. A scientist to the end, he’d established the least traumatic method of suicide.

Six million Jews. Twenty Million Russians. More millions of dead Polish, German, Chinese… just from the War alone. Even without the other horrors of the Twentieth Century that they’d made sure had happened, those would have been enough to weigh down any conscience. The only way Jenny had managed to keep going was by ascribing to herself the role of Remembering. She would carry the load as the Conscience of the Project.

And soon she would be gone, and a cleaner world of billions of happy, healthy, prosperous humans would live on, testament to their success, totally unaware of the price that had been paid.

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