In April, I posted my thousandth post on this blog. To celebrate, I will share here all my short stories. Every couple of weeks, I’ll be posting one story from my celebrated Exciting Destinies series for you to enjoy. With over 30 stories so far, I hope you’ll have lots of fun in the coming months!
Last week, I posted Shoot The Devil, one of my favorite short stories from Infinite Waters. This week, it’s Shoot The Devil (Redux) from You’re In For A Ride. This is an alternative telling of that same story. You will notice that the two stories start the same, then diverge wildly. I love the idea of small changes having huge repercussions down the line, and this is my way of exploring that.
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Shoot The Devil (Redux)
“Papieren,” a voice barks behind me.
I freeze in my tracks. My heels stop clicking on the pavement. I thought I could sneak into my destination unseen at this late hour, but this city has more eyes than cobblestones. Act natural, my instructor’s voice whispers in my head. The same thing he’s been repeating daily during our six months of ceaseless training.
I turn slowly around, one hand in the air, the other digging into my purse for my battered wallet. Since leather is no longer used in the twenty-second century, this is an heirloom brought along specifically for the purpose. I fish out my pass to hand it over to the impatient hand.
A young man roams his eyes over the length of my body and down my dress. Despite the heavy coat, I feel him stripping me with his eyes. As if these fabrics weren’t bad enough. I cringe and shut my eyes for a moment. In my head, I rip off the itchy wool dress and stockings and scratch my whole body from head to toe. I hate the twentieth century.
“Papieren, bitte,” the man corrects himself, making me open my eyes again. A flirty smile is now playing on his lips.
Yech. As he reaches for my papers, two soft pops break the silence of the night, a crying baby in one of the nearby apartments almost drowning them out. His eyes widen. Flirting morphs into shock within a split second. He crashes on the cobblestone pavement before he has a chance to realize what has happened.
I can’t stop staring at his clean-shaven face. God, they’re so young, I think. The countless hours spent training have not prepared me for the stark reality of Nazi Germany. Somehow, I had expected everything to be more cinematic and less… well, less real. That’s the problem with time travel; everything is so similar, yet the smallest detail can seem odd.
The copper smell of blood hits my nostrils. It soils the pavement and spreads onto the street. My stomach turns. I bring my fist to my mouth to force down bile.
“Will you just stand there?”
My partner emerges from the shadows to kneel next to the soldier. He presses two fingers to the man’s throat. Satisfied that the soldier’s heart is no longer pumping, he grabs the body by the shoulders and drags him into a building’s entrance. He pauses just long enough to throw me a silver torchlight. “Clean up.”
I flip a switch on the device. A pulsing blue light flashes against the stones. I direct it at the blood trail. Within seconds, the light dissolves the clotting blood, leaving behind nothing but a moist smudge that no one will notice.
My partner pulls out a skeleton key and jiggles it into a rusted lock until it clicks softly. We hurry inside a medieval building and shut the door behind us, before slipping into a dark corridor filled with the reassuring stench of boiled cabbage. A baby’s plaintive cries attack us from an apartment to my left, followed by a faint argument.
We push the body down a dark staircase and wait until we hear a thump. I use the blue light to clean up red streaks from the wide stones, while my partner hurries down the stairs to hide the body in the basement. It will soon be discovered, but we’ll be long gone by then.
I am about to head downstairs to help him when a brown door on the side creaks open to reveal a woman’s ancient face. She throws me a stern, suspicious look as I squeeze the torch into my pocket.
“Who are you?” she asks me in German, glancing at the bulge under my breasts.
“A friend…” I rasp in German and cough to clear my clogged throat. “A friend of Dr. Schumann’s. He’s visiting family in Berlin.”
My heart pounds as she takes this in, her eyes never leaving my face. I straighten the hemline of my dress with long, nervous strokes. Finally, she shoots me a venomous look. “Tell him he’s late for the rent.”
“I will,” I promise. Without a word, she slams the door.
I wipe beads of sweat from my brow as my partner emerges from the staircase. “The light.” He extends his hand until I hand him the torch. A few moments later, he reappears. “Done. Now, where to?”
I point upstairs and we make our way into Dr. Schumann’s apartment. As we climb the stairs, I pull out a dull gray metal cylinder from a hidden pocket in my thick coat. It hisses when I pry it open, expanding into a two-barreled gun. With a soft whir, a laser scope snaps in place at the top, projecting a red dot on the wall across from me. Its comforting weight in my hand helps my breath slow down.
We slink inside and I wrinkle my nose; the apartment reeks of alcohol. I blink for a moment before moving any farther, my eyes still getting used to the low light.
“Greetings, Doctor,” my partner says to a still silhouette on an armchair while I hang my coat on a nail by the door.
No reply comes. Like our intel had suggested, Dr. Schumann is lying in his favorite corner of the room, dead as a lanky doornail, the victim of chronic liver failure. His half-open eyes reflect the soft light coming from outside through the dingy, tattered curtains. I pad over to close them, avoiding his lifeless stare.
The soft music coming from the huge radio facing him comes to an abrupt end, followed by a yelling announcer. As my heart skips a beat, I wonder if I should keep it on, then decide that my nerves are too fraught for sudden sounds. I turn the knob, welcoming the ensuing quiet.
A thin beam of pale light cuts through the middle of the tall window overlooking the small plaza where Hitler will arrive in less than an hour. As my partner heads toward it, he trips over an empty bottle and kneels to plonk it onto a table.
I consider turning on a light as he pries the window open to glance outside. Chances are no one will look up, but we have already maxed out our luck for one night, and I don’t want to take any risks. I pull the gun out of the coat’s pocket and join my partner next to the window. He pulls a nearby chair for me and I sit down, then examine my gun under the streetlamp’s soft glow. The laser sight whirs and turns as it calculates distance, a red dot pointing at the ceiling.
“Can you do it?” my partner asks.
I look through the scope and see the magnified vision of two stone columns, a thick, ornate wooden door between them. “Yes.” At this range, and with this weapon, even a half-blind man could do it. All I have to do is tag Hitler the moment he appears. The smart bullet will do the rest. Even if I aim at the ceiling, it will fly out the window and explode upon contact with its target.
I take deliberate, slow breaths to calm my nerves. My partner notices this.
“I thought you’d done this before,” he says.
“I have. But not for real.”
He clicks his tongue. “Sure it was. You blew this bastard’s head clean off. I’ve seen the vid.”
I shrug. “And then I came back, and nothing had changed. As per protocol, a time agent stopped me before the timeline could change. They rebooted history and the Nazis went through with their crimes.”
“Well, this time it’s different.” He places a hand on my shoulder, sending goose bumps along my spine. My eyes leave the scope and meet his worried gaze. “Do you want me to do it?”
I push off his hand, annoyed. “I told you, I’ve done it before. You just focus on your end. Make sure they can’t change the timeline back.”
“I told you, you got nothing to worry about.” He sounds miffed. “I’ve set up the detour. Instead of the recovery room, we’ll end up in time to stop the agent. Besides, it’s already played out, hasn’t it?”
“I don’t know,” I confess and bite my lip. “Time travel, paradox fields… It’s all a bit too much for me.”
He places his hand on my shoulder again and gives me a light squeeze. “All you need to know is that tonight, we make a difference.” His voice is now softer.
I say nothing for a few moments. I know it’s just nerves, really. He cares for me, or he would never agree to break every oath we took; every rule we’d been taught; every instinct we had. Preservation of the timeline is the number one concern of every time traveler. I still can’t believe he has agreed to help me break it. But Hitler has to pay for his crimes. For real, this time.
I return my eye to the scope and lose track of time staring at the twin columns. I jolt when a car speeds into the plaza and four dark-clad men jump out. I instinctively draw back into the room’s shadows as they study the surrounding buildings. After a moment, they disappear toward the plaza’s four corners, while the driver parks the car under my building. It won’t be long now.
I rub sweat off my palms and pull a pair of gloves from my pocket. The last thing I want is to have the gun slip through my fingers as I pull the trigger; I only have one chance at this. I stare with disdain at my sweaty, shaking fingers as I push them into their soft constraints.
The sound of more cars screeching outside makes me hurry up, snapping the gloves on my hands. I steal a look outside; three cars have stopped before the City Hall’s entrance. I have no idea what the Fuehrer wants there at this late hour; our intel doesn’t extend that far. Nor do I need to know, of course. Like countless Jews before me, all I want is a shot at the man who had nearly destroyed my people.
With a flick of my thumb, I switch the laser off and stare down the scope, focusing on the car in the middle. I almost slam the trigger as its door flies open and a bodyguard steps out to glance around, then force myself to sit still, any sudden movement certain to draw attention. When the man steps to the side, holding the door open, I have him in my sights.
The monster who was responsible for millions of deaths springs out of the car with an agility that catches me off guard. I curse silently, flicking the laser sight on with my thumb. A tiny red dot, clearly visible through the scope, dances on the stone steps, trying to lock onto the short man rushing toward the yawning doors of the building. I hold my breath and tag him with the laser until a soft beep confirms the lock.
As if knowing that something is wrong, my target pauses for a moment and his gaze darts around. I squeeze the trigger just as the Fuehrer lifts his head to face my way.
The soft bang is barely perceptible. The breaking of the window, on the other hand, makes me jump. We should have opened it, I realize. For a split-second, Hitler’s mustached lip quivers at the loud crash as he stares at me, bug eyed, then his head explodes into countless tiny fragments, spraying warm droplets over his stunned bodyguards. Blood flies onto the steps below like swirling scarlet raindrops, baptizing the marble in his blood. The Fuehrer’s knees buckle, sending his body to crash against the stone.
Loud yells and shouts shoot from outside. A woman screams as I jump up and bring my hand to my mouth to drown a cackle. I pull back into the safety of the dark apartment. I did it! My heart fills with primal joy as my pulse pounds on my temples.
My partner grabs me by the shoulders and kisses me hard on the lips. “We have to go,” he says as he breaks the kiss. “Just like we said.”
I nod, my head still spinning. A countdown starts in my head; we have to stop Zion from resetting the timeline. Rotating the buckle on my belt to reveal a small indentation, I click it with my finger. The buckle splits open and I press the inconspicuous button inside, before releasing the breath of relief that has caught in my throat.
Normally, we would return straight to the recovery room, while an agent travels back in time to stop us from entering the time machine, thus undoing the assassination. But my partner has set off a different course for us. A detour that will lead us straight into the sphere room. For better or for worse, there will be no going back. Not to the same future, anyway. I clutch my partner’s hand and shut my eyelids as the room starts to spin and fade away.
When I crack them open again, I stand in an arched room with a large silver sphere in the middle. My head pounds—one of the unfortunate results of time travel. I almost lose my balance and stumble forward. Thankfully, my partner grabs my arm and steadies me.
Careful, he mouths.
I nod and stare at my feet, waiting for the room to stop spinning. It doesn’t help that the room is round, or that a blood red light is flashing over the secured twin doors. At least the walls are a dull, plain gray. Anything more exciting and my lunch would be coloring the concrete floor.
My partner nudges me and nods toward a man in a plain khaki uniform stopping a previous version of us from entering the sphere. A blue beret is sticking from his right shoulder strap, making him our target.
“Right now, you should be recovering,” he tells our past versions. “The recording to show you the assassination should be on our server. So, it’s time to deactivate the paradox field generator.”
I take a step forward and catch my self’s eye. She winks at me. I take another step and a wave of nausea hits me. I nod at my partner, who tiptoes to the agent and taps his shoulder. The man’s eyes bulge as he spins around and sees us.
“You’re not supposed to—” The past version of my partner sneaks up on him and brings his arm around the man’s neck. The agent grabs his arm and twists his body in a vain attempt to escape the chokehold. After a few endless moments, he stops flopping and goes limp on my partner’s arms with a soft sigh.
I rush to his side as fast as the spinning room lets me. “Did you…”
He shakes his head, panting. “He’ll be fine. Just unconscious.”
I notice that my self from the past is gaping at us. “Hurry up,” I shout and motion toward the sphere’s open door. As if snapping from a dream, my past self drags my past partner by the hand and into the sphere. Within a couple of seconds, it blinks out of existence.
“That was easy,” I say.
My partner rubs his chin. “Almost too easy,” he says, just as an alarm starts blaring.
With each blast, my head feels like exploding. I push my hands against my ears. Floodlights snap to life, fixing on our position.
“Now what?” I shout to be heard over the deafening noise.
“Now we wait,” my partner shouts back.
The doors to the room burst open. Armed soldiers storm inside. We both raise our arms in the air. I hold my breath and close my eyes. A gentle gust of wind makes me open them again. Our surroundings rapidly turn transparent, like one of those fadeout effects you see in old movies. The guards, too, fade away. They look around them and at each other, their eyes as wide as the floodlights fixed on us. I blink and the room is gone, along with the startled troops.
Instead of the sphere room, we find ourselves inside the blackened end of a hollow crater, towered by the twisted skeletons of ruined buildings, sticking out of the ground like fossilized fingers of some prehistoric monster. Crumbled edifices and broken columns are all that remain of once proud skyscrapers. A light breeze stirs the omnipresent dust and ash. Like gray snowflakes, ash particles dance lazily around us for a moment before settling back down on the ruins.
Above us, constant lightning streaks through a sky thick with leaden clouds. No sun is to be seen. The light coming through has a dull yellow hue, like it’s sick and dying. I stop breathing and listen for a sign of life: the tweet of a bird; the barking of a dog; the wailing of a baby. Nothing. Only distant thunders interrupt the eerie silence.
We exchange a baffled look and start climbing out of the hole. I take one step and the soft ground gives way under my feet. My shoe sinks into unsteady pebbles. My partner grabs my arm and helps steady me.
“Thanks,” I rasp.
When we finally reach the lip of the crater, I take off my shoes and remove ash and pebbles before putting them back on. My gaze searches the dead city. The crater lies in the middle of a crumbling asphalt street. Rusty cars lie under tons of debris, their occupants long gone. They appear to be really old, like from a century ago. At least.
My partner coughs to clear his throat. “What the hell happened here?”
I rub stinging dust off my eyes. “Are we in the right place?”
He pulls a cell out of his pocket and flicks the screen on. He checks it for a moment, then lifts it in the air and does a slow spin. “No signal of any kind.” He puts the device back into his pocket. “But it looks like we’re in the right place. Look.” He points at the crumbling façade of an ancient building. “Isn’t that the church behind our building?”
“Is it?” I study a cracked dome in the distance. The surrounding structure once consisted of high walls and smaller chapels. Now, all that remains is that cleft dome and a collapsing bell tower, perching perilously next to it. “Or, at least, what remains of it,” I mumble.
“If there’s one place bound to have records, that has to be a church.”
We make our way to the complex. Neither of us speaks. The cold numbs my hands and feet. I reach and grab his hand with mine. He squeezes it at first, then his hand slips from beneath my fingers and hangs limp by his side. I mimic him and we walk that way until we reach a tall stone rampart. Without a word, he points at an opening where the wall has given way. We enter a courtyard filled with broken columns. Normally bustling with activity and pilgrims, there is not a soul to be found. A chill runs across my spine and I squeeze my coat against me, realizing I’m still wearing the same clothes I wore when I shot Hitler. For some reason, the thought annoys me and I speed up.
“Over here,” he says and points at a metal door. Rusted hinges keep it closed.
I grasp the door handle and pull. It creaks and the door opens an inch with an agonized moan. “Come help me, will you?”
He rushes to my side. I search his face, but he avoids my gaze and grabs the handle. “On three,” he says.
“One, two…” I put all my weight and pull.
Crack! The top hinges give way. The door jerks open, like a half-opened tin lid. The clamor echoes through the courtyard. I half-wish, half-dread seeing another human being, but no one appears.
The interior is pitch black and smells of decay. It is a rancid smell that makes me twitch my nose. My partner flicks a switch a couple of times. Nothing happens. He turns on the light on his cell and uses it to illuminate a dark corridor. Broken glass and pebbles crunch under our feet. We pass empty offices with desks covered in thick layers of dust. In parts, the ceiling has given way. Broken beams touch the floor and let thin slivers of light inside.
I spot a stack of books on a shelf. As I touch it, it collapses into a heap of dust. I jump back and cough.
“Over here,” my partner says. He holds up a book with a thick leather cover. “This must be a journal.”
Some pages in the middle are stuck together, but we manage to pry it open with careful fingers. Several of the first pages crumble to dust as we do, but the last half of the book remains intact.
“What is this?” The handwritten scribbles inside are in an unfamiliar language.
“Hang on.” He scans the page with his cell and stares at the screen. “It’s Greek.” I stare at him while he reads silently. His face turns as ashen as the dust around us, then he flips the page and scans again.
“Come on, you—”
“Shh!” He repeats the process a few times while I study our surroundings. My eyes have adjusted to the dark by now. I spot faded icons of forgotten saints on the crumbly walls. They glare at us from the shadows, as if we’re violating the sanctity of the place. Their faces creep me out, so I lift my gaze to examine the sickly sky through a hole in the ceiling.
He reads the last page and raises defeated eyes at me. “I think I know what happened,” he says. He sounds as if he’s choking on gravel.
My heart skips a beat. “Yes?”
He draws a deep breath. “After we killed Hitler, Germany basically imploded. Two months later, Stalin invaded. After occupying Germany, he attacked Poland. Then, the Allies declared war on Russia.” He takes my hand. “There never was a Cold War. Just a decades-long hot one. The States got the bomb first, but the Russians did so just a month later. The second part of the war was fought with nukes.”
I stare at him in disbelief. Numbness spreads from my head to my toes. My lips move before I can think. “If this place was nuked, how did any of this survive?”
“It wasn’t hit directly. This”—he motions around us—“is the result of the fallout. The nuclear winter has lasted well over a century. The monk who wrote this describes how all of his brothers died of radiation poisoning.” His face drops as his gaze scans the condemning faces on the walls. “His last entry was over a hundred years ago. We may well be the last people alive.” He gives me a resigned half shrug. “Not for long, of course. Radiation is probably killing us as we speak.”
Despite myself, I burst into a cracked cackle.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asks, a flash of anger in his voice.
“We broke history.” My head spins. Is radiation already killing me? My legs buckle and my knees hit the ground, raising a cloud of ash. Burning tears streak down my cheeks. “We broke history.”
He kneels next to me and takes me in his arms. I gasp as our surroundings fade around us. This time, they disappear into a blinding flash of light.
“Hold still,” a woman’s voice says.
Hands pull at my face. I slap them away, then my eyes focus on a woman’s face a few inches away. A woman in a blue beret is pulling away virtual reality goggles.
“The dizziness will soon pass,” she says in a professional voice. “You should lie still until then.”
I nod and nausea hits me. I shut my eyes. “Where am I?”
She pulls a needle leading to a transparent tube from my arm, making me cringe. “Back at the training camp. Your memories will return shortly.”
I absentmindedly rub a red spot on my arm, where the needle used to be. It stings. She removes spider-like electrodes from my temples and memories rush into my head as if a floodgate has ripped open. The experience from the time travel fades away, leaving an acrid taste in my mouth, like waking up from a nightmare. I haven’t time-traveled yet. Today was part of the training. A warning to the dangers of messing with the timeline.
“I told you it was too easy,” a groggy voice says. On a bed next to mine, my partner is grinning at me, ignoring a male nurse who is flicking a penlight at his eyes.
“Hey, you,” I say. My voice is hoarse, as if my throat has been sandblasted.
The woman and the nurse move in front of a large monitor displaying various readings and exchange notes in low voices. Every now and then they glance at us and tap on a tablet.
I turn my attention back to my partner. I’ve had my eye on him for a while now. I remember my excitement at getting him as my exercise partner. “Hell of a first date,” I say, a dry smile on my lips.
“At least we got to kiss.”
My cheeks feel hot.
“But you’re right. Let me make it up to you,” he continues with a wide grin and a mischievous sparkle in his warm hazel eyes. “Dinner at Freddo’s?”
I check out his handsome face and broad shoulders. Even lying on that bed, his wide frame is imposing. My heart flutters as I mimic his grin. “Sure, why not. Meet you at eight?”
The grin on his face widens as his head slumps back on his pillow. “Deal.”
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