(c) 2013 David L Clements
Kill one, save a thousand. That’s what our recruiters said.
But the calculus doesn’t end there.
Kill one, save a thousand. But then you damn a billion and anoint a handful.
And here I sit, one of the anointed, a gun waiting in my hand, as Gorski discusses split branes and unraveled sheaves, telling me exactly how we got it wrong.
The project was simple enough in the early days. After Gorski invented crossbrane travel we learnt from our own history then went to other, parallel worlds and made sure they didn’t repeat any of our mistakes. And we learnt from them as well, copied what they got right and made those changes elsewhere.
The easiest universes to reach are essentially the same as our own. We can’t change them. We have no foreknowledge, no insight, no freedom of action. A few steps further away you get timeshifted universes that started a few decades after ours but are otherwise similar. They’re like traveling in time but without grandfather paradoxes. These sheaves are fairly easy to get to, easy to live in and are where we work.
We were just explorers at the start, but Gorski discovered what we could do by accident, when he hit someone with a car in a different 1920s Chicago. He jumped away before the police arrived, but checked the body first for identification. He had just killed Al Capone.
All exploration was stopped as that sheaf was monitored for catastrophe. Nothing happened. Gorski hadn’t broken the universe. He’d just had a car accident.
And that’s when the project was born. Instead of studying nearby sheaves, we set out to change them, to improve them.
The obvious candidates were dealt with first
Across a thousand separate sheaves, Hitler died a thousand times. In some cases it was a childhood accident. In others we made certain he never survived the First World War. Elsewhere a sniper’s bullet killed him as an aspiring politician. Similar misfortunes stalked the worst of history. Stalin and Mao, Blair and Kennedy, Caligula and Nero – all were dealt with. It would take years to see the results of our editing but we knew we were doing the right thing. Someone even set up a scoreboard, where the deaths of the world’s worst were tallied, and we received credit for the changes we made.
The work was endless, by definition, with uncountable universes populated by evil men we had to dispose of. So we started to recruit agents from other sheaves to help.
Years passed, and we hoped to see the fruit of our labors.
Oddly, we didn’t.
World wars continued, genocides persisted, civilizations still collapsed.
At first we thought we just needed to work harder and started to eliminate the people who took the places of those we removed. We went from Hitlers to Rohms or Drexlers, from Stalins to Berias or Zinovievs. And then to their successors or replacements. None of it worked. Everywhere we tried to fix history it seemed to inevitably revert to the chaos and tragedy we opposed. In many cases it was worse. Much worse. We lost many sheaves completely thanks to nuclear or biological wars.
Our good work was coming to nothing.
I suggested to Gorski that history was fighting back, that it wanted to take a particular direction unimpeded by outside interference. He left the office frowning and disappeared for days. I guessed he was thinking about the issue and congratulated myself that, for once, I had given him genuine pause for thought.
Then, once it was too late, he phoned me at midnight demanding that I meet him at the control centre.
“It’s not history we’re fighting,” he told me as I arrived. “It’s much more personal.”
“What do you mean?” I replied.
“We thought we were the first to split the brane, to be able to reach other sheaves and do what we want in them. We killed, blackmailed and manipulated to get rid of dictators and criminals. But we were just as blind and stupid as our victims!”
“We’re doing it to save people,” I protested, just as I had protested just a few hours before, when they came for me. But my heart wasn’t in it.
“That’s what they all say!” said Gorski. “We’ve become what we set out to destroy.” He stared directly at me. “How many have we killed since Capone? Hundreds, thousands. We’ve attracted attention.”
I stared back at him in silence, since I knew he was right.
“You still don’t see?” he continued. “We’re not the first. Others have been doing this for ages. They’ve manipulated our own history the way we’ve tried elsewhere. And they’re better at it. We may have had the Holocaust, Cambodia, Afghanistan. But look at the disasters we’ve produced, with whole Earths lost to war and genocide.” He shook his head in regret. “We should stop now, before they come for us. Otherwise it’s our turn. We’ll go the same way as all the Hitlers we’ve dispatched.”
I raised the gun, pointing it at his chest.
“Too late for that,” I sighed.
David L Clements is an astrophysicist working at Imperial College London on the Herschel and Planck satellite missions. His main interests are in dusty galaxies and their role in galaxy formation and evolution. In his copious free time he writes science fiction, and has had stories published in Analog, Nature Futures, and a number of anthologies. He has also had non-fiction published in Astronomy Now, Clarkesworld and elsewhere, and has authored rather too many scientific papers.