Never Before, by Ericka Kahler
The assassin’s disguise was nearly perfect; only a slight flash of metal as he laughed tipped me off that he was not the bourgeois German businessman he pretended to be. “Assassin,” I whispered furiously to Sid as he passed by. My diamond bracelet flashed against his Nazi uniform as I patted his arm. He nodded, pulling his face into a false smile.
I laughed, tilting my head to the left toward the Fuhrer’s table. “Dark hair in the brown suit with a bow tie. He has a bridge that’s not contemporary dental work.”
Sid let his fingers linger on my shoulder affectionately before moving to intercept the time traveler. I watched him maneuver through the crowd as I headed toward the bar. I sipped the wine the bartender put in front of me, keeping my eyes on Sid as he finally made it to the man I had pointed out. Sid looked to me for confirmation. I nodded faintly.
How had he managed to get this far? I snorted to myself as Sid started talking to the man. My boss thought I, with no official position in Hitler’s Reich, was unnecessary. This would prove to him I did more than go to parties and flirt with Hitler’s deplorable cronies.
Sid distracted the would-be assassin long enough to break him away from the crowd immediately surrounding the Fuhrer. However, the time traveler’s eyebrow twitched and I saw his hands moving nervously, making me a little twitchy myself. “Careful, Sid,” I muttered behind my wine glass. The man was ready to pull out whatever he was carrying in his pocket and fire it off, innocent bystanders be damned. I put down the wine glass to go over there, then picked it up again. I might have a way to salvage the situation.
Sid touched the man’s sleeve and he jerked it away frantically. The man’s eyes darted around the room. I hurried my steps, no longer worried about looking casual or elegant. As he reached into his jacket, I yelled out, “Uncle! What are you doing here?”
The man looked over at me, startled. Sid prodded his elbow. This byplay lasted long enough for me to get to where they both stood so I wouldn’t be yelling across the crowd anymore. Just as I had hoped, some of Hitler’s bodyguards detached from his orbit, headed our way. “Did Father send you? I told him I am a grown woman now and he can not forbid me from going to parties!”
“Quiet, girl,” the assassin said. He spoke passable German, but with a strange accent that would give him away as a foreigner.
“Leave me be.”
“But Uncle,” I said, putting extra shrill in me voice. “I like parties, and dancing and drinking, and I won’t stay in that stuffy house just because Father doesn’t like it when I go out!”
“I don’t care if you embarrass yourself by behaving like a common whore,” he gritted out between his teeth as the SS guards approached. “Now shut up and leave me alone!”
“Whore,” I yelled. “You can’t talk to me that way!” The SS Guards came to stand next to me, and I heard one fail to suppress a snicker. The rest of the crowd paused their conversations to see what the commotion was about. The man opened his mouth to say something else, but I threw the glass of wine right in his face. He sputtered, thankfully too surprised to marshal his thoughts for speech.
Sid tugged the man’s sleeve. “Come on,” he said, talking to the man but addressing his words to the SS bodyguards. “Let’s go resolve your family issues in private.”
One of the SS guards touched me on the shoulder. “You should go with them, miss,” he said.
“What, no! I want to stay,” I protested, slurring me words just a touch so the guard would think me drunk.
“You’re disturbing the Fuhrer,” he said, firmly grasping my arm and directing me toward the door.
“Oh,” I said, sounding disappointed. “I so wanted to meet him. It was why I came tonight.”
“Some other day,” the other SS bodyguard told me kindly. “Go home to your father now.” The kindness in his voice touched me. I looked to his chest to see if there was a name patch on his uniform. I might find him worth recruiting, later. An SS bodyguard would be perfect, since it was already his job to watch out for Hitler. He’d just have to be told about the other set of assassins to look out for.
I allowed him to escort me to the door without further trouble. America would come into the war soon and security would get a lot tighter; I didn’t want to be banned from Hitler’s parties before they had another agent in place. I emerged in the back of the building, some kind of alley. Large trash cans lined the dirty bricks next to the door. Sid held the assassin by his waist as he fought desperately to get back inside.
“Let me go. I must get back inside! I need to… see Hitler. It is my only chance!”
“And you have to let it go,” Sid said quietly.
“No, no, I can’t! It must be now! I have no more time!”
“Buddy,” I said to him, “You are stuck here. You have nothing but time now.”
His eyes widened and his head zipped back and forth between us as he tried to figure out if my comment meant I knew his secret. Sid placed an arm around the man’s shoulders, moving him down the alley towards the open street.
“Guten Herr,” Sid said quietly. “I know you are from the future, as I am. So I truly understand why you feel you must do this. But I can’t allow you back in that room.”
“No,” the man said. “No!” he shouted.
Smoother than I would have believed from a man so stocky, he twisted to the side, leaving Sid behind, stumbling to keep his balance. The man himself dashed back towards the door of the club, grabbing the handle as he slid by. The momentum of his movement yanked the door open with his weight, and he lost his footing. He thumped, hard, into the grubby bricks of the building.
Sid lunged to grab hold of him, but again he managed to swirl away, faster than I would have believed possible. I watched the guy land a blow on Sid’s temple, ringing his bell enough to that he let go and ran a palm over the spot where it had struck, shaking his head. The assassin shed Sid’s grip and ran down the alley towards me.
Instead of grabbing him and fighting, which would never work for me, I slid out of his path and spun my leg around, getting my shin wedged sideways between his knees. I screamed in pain, but as I intended, his broken stride sent him flying face first into the ground. Gravity took care of the rest, his skull meeting brick hard enough to send him into unconsciousness. I lay on the ground gritting my teeth against the pain.
“You all right,” Sid asked as he got up and walked over to me. As I went to answer, sirens started in the distance. He and I both froze, listening to see which direction they were going. The wail got closer to us as I sat there, still. “We have to get you both off the street,” Sid said, “until the polizei are gone. They would arrest us all just for looking like this.”
I nodded. “I won’t make it far. I think I broke my leg when I tripped him.” I unbuckled my shoes and removed them, knowing I would never be able to walk in heels.
“Where to, then? We can’t let him be taken. They would figure out that he’s not German and he might reveal more than we can allow them to know.”
I closed my eyes, searching my mental map of the blocks around the club for a suitable place to hole up where we might not be noticed. “There is an empty shop at the end of the block to the west. I should be able to make it there. Can you carry him by yourself?”
Sid nodded. He bent down to pick up the stocky man. He managed to make it look like a drunk officer helping his companion after a little too much drinking at the club. I limped after them, placing as little weight as possible on my fractured leg while still trying to look drunk, not injured. My leg throbbed in pain, sharp stabs echoing my footfalls. By the time I got to the end of the block I had given up the pretense of walking normally, trading appearance for speed as the sirens came closer and closer. Finally, we came up to the emptied storefront.
Sid cocked an eyebrow at the door, which was covered with a painted yellow Star of David. “Juden Sign?”
“Just cleared two days ago. Should be fine for a few minutes.” I pulled a flat metal piece out of the sole of my shoe and jammed it between the door frame and the lock on the door. I flipped my wrist and popped open the flimsy lock, swinging the door out enough to slip through. Sid kicked it open further to get the guy inside. I followed as quickly as my injury would allow and slid the door closed, but the knob didn’t catch on the door frame. I steadied it so it wouldn’t swing on the hinges.
Sid settled our assassin on a bench that once had been used by customers getting their shoes fitted. Sadly, I looked around the deserted shop. The owner was gone, taken, and even if he survived the war would likely never see this place again. I settled on the counter to relieve the pain that had taken over my leg. Fractured only, I hoped, and not a full break. The fact I was able to walk seemed a good indication the damage was not that severe.
Our assassin stirred, moaning in pain as his hand went to his nose. Sid brushed the hand away and took a closer look at the injury.
“It doesn’t seem to be bleeding, but you are going to have a hell of a bruise on your forehead later,” he said.
The man tutted impatiently. “You are from the future, you said.”
Sid and I both nodded. “Yes,” I told him. “Probably a lot further in the future than you.”
“So you know,” he said. “You know why I have to do this. Why did you stop me?”
“It’s our job,” Sid told him. He laid a hand on the man’s shoulder. “I know it seems Hitler is the epitome of evil. Over nine million dead, not counting soldiers on the front. But every scenario where Hitler dies is worse.”
Our assassin looked at me, his mouth dropped open in disbelief. “Worse?”
Sid and I nodded. I lifted my injured leg to lay flat on the counter. I probed it gently to assess the damage while I tried to formulate the words in a way he would believe. “Didn’t you ever wonder what would happen in Germany if someone else ran the Reich,” I asked him.
“It would have to be better than this,” he said.
“Would it,” Sid asked him. “You’ve studied Hitler, no doubt. Did you bother studying the men around him? Hitler is hardly a genius, mentally or strategically, but some of them are. Without Hitler’s ego to hold them back…”
I winced as my fingers found the fracture. “Look,” I said, taking over the narrative from Sid, “Hitler is nothing more than a jovial psychopath compared to what happens if he dies. There are only a few scenarios where the human race survives this war intact. Fewer still that don’t completely destroy civilization within a century of Germany’s rise to power. Hitler’s Reich is horrible, but it’s the best scenario we’ve explored. Humanity survives, civilization survives and we all get to be born some day with the correct number of body parts.”
“And sacrifice the lives of nine million people,” the assassin scoffed. “How do you know that saving one of them might not have changed all that? That you are not sacrificing a better future by allowing them all to die?”
“If one individual life could change things, we would save that life.” Sid paused and looked our assassin in the eyes. “The life that changes things is Hitler’s.”
“So we stop all you well-meaning time travelers intent on killing him,” I said, scooting off the counter. I wiped the dust off of my good dress. I hoped nothing more staining than dust had touched it. Formal dresses were pretty hard to come by, even in Berlin, and there was no easy way for me to get a new one.
“All for the greater good, eh?” The man said.
“I know it doesn’t seem that way,” Sid said consolingly. “But it’s true. You’re trying to save millions of lives, while we are trying to save the entire human race.”
“Not millions,” he muttered. “Just one.” Before Sid or I realized what was happening, the assassin pushed Sid back, hard, into the counter. Sid hit the edge then fell down to the floor. I lunged for the assassin, but my injured leg gave out and I fell without even brushing the fabric of his coat with my fingers. I watched, helpless, as he escaped out the door. Sid stood up and took off after him, but I was too hampered by my leg to help. I struggled to my feet and limped out the door.
I had only managed to make it a few feet when sirens roared, passing by the abandoned storefront at reckless speeds. I didn’t bother to hide. The only thing that would send so many polezei barreling through the streets like that was an attack on Hitler. Maybe, I thought tremulously as I struggled to walk, I would get lucky and Hitler would survive. If the bullet didn’t hit the right organs the medical care in this time was good enough to save his life.
Running footsteps sounded behind me. I looked over my shoulder, ready to play more injured in the hopes I wouldn’t get rounded up. I saw a dress uniform and it took me a couple of seconds to recognize Sid. I sagged against the bricks of the building behind me. Sid’s face told me what I needed to know. “He’s dead,” I said.
Sid nodded, dejected. “They both are. Our assassin won’t be talking, but under the circumstances…”
“This is a disaster,” I said.
“This is exactly the disaster we were here to prevent,” Sid countered.
I wondered if I would feel it when the future changed. My training covered theories about paradox and being caught in shifting timelines. But all they could really say was they didn’t know what would happen. Small changes didn’t affect the timeline much. History kind of corrected for the details so long as the larger flow of events remained the same. That loophole allowed Sid and I to be here in the first place. Screw the butterfly in China theory. As long as we didn’t make a splash, anachronists like Sid and I didn’t change things much. Do something stupid like kill Hitler however….
“Does it have to be Hitler?” I said out loud. I pushed away from the building, the power of the thought taking shape.
“What,” Sid said, leaning close to shield our conversation from passers-by on the street. Not that he need have bothered. Everyone was rushing to see if it was true that Hitler had been killed. We could have shouted our conversation and I doubt anyone would have noticed.
“Does it have to be him? What if we could keep the Reich on track? Find a new demagogue with a charming voice and pour him into Hitler’s mold?”
Sid cocked his head in thought. “Replace Hitler and take the chance that the man is just a detail?”
“What’s in a name,” I quoted. I gathered his arm and led him down the street, leaning heavily on him for support. “We’ve studied the Third Reich. We know the path history should take. What if we just nudge it a little? Make sure the new leader will make the same mistakes?”
“Make sure he invades Russia,” Sid said.
“Make sure he opposes the expanded role of the Luftwaffe,” I said.
Sid stopped us on the sidewalk. “The Final Solution? This is different than anonymously saving the life of an evil man. That’s protecting history. You’re talking about making it. If we do this the Holocaust won’t be their fault anymore; it’ll be ours.”
“Do you know which histories spawn from the death of Hitler now, in 1938?”
Sid shook his head.
“Neither do I. I think we have to make history match as closely as possible for there to be any chance of this working.” I looked back towards the abandoned storefront where Sid and I had failed. The yellow paint was still bright under the street lights. Now, that yellow Star of David would be my burden. I had not sent this store owner to his death, but I would ensure that millions of his brethren followed him there. I had to choose, now, if I would sacrifice the future to save them.
“Let’s go back to the club,” I said. “I think it’s best if we target someone within the current power structure to mold into Hitler’s likeness. We can start working our way in now, while things are still in disarray after the assassination.”
As we made our way down the street towards the sirens, Sid said, “I wonder if someday they will send agents to protect us from assassins from the future?”
“Only if we succeed,” I said.
Sid helped me along in silence until he said, “You think they’ll hate us? Like we do them?” He tipped his head towards the club where the crowd clustered around the entrance grew.
Would they hate us? I already hated us. I stared at the Nazi symbol on Sid’s dress uniform feeling it sear itself into my skin like a brand. “Only if we succeed,” I said.
Ericka Kahler has lived in eight states, all of them progressively further north. At this rate her nursing home will be above the Arctic Circle, even though she really HATES snow. She has worked in fields ranging from radio to construction to law to finance. Once she escaped the cult she began writing and editing. Her short fiction has been published in Basement Stories and InfectiveInk as well as the anthologies “Written in the Mitten” and “Dark Light 3.”
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Tags: Ericka Kahler, history, science fiction, time