Sunday, October 4, 2009

1. Hydrogen


The Hindenburg

Time agents like to rendezvous at famous disasters. It goes with the personality. They don't trust you to remember the date otherwise.

Which was why I met Ivan at Lakehurst Naval Air Base, on the day the Hindenburg was due to burst into flame.

We were in the CO's office—don't think that wasn't hard to arrange—when he gave his report. "Herr Eidenbenz wouldn't listen to reason. So I left my briefcase under his couch and made an anonymous call to the Gestapo. He died under interrogation three days later." Ivan grinned incandescently. "No atom bomb for Uncle Adolph."

"Good work." I'm Jewish myself, and if it were up to me, Hitler would be strangled at birth. But we'd tried that once, and only made matters worse. Now we rely on men like Ivan, one-in-a-billion talents who are able to remember multiple pasts, and so guide events toward the desired future. "Have a drink."

I poured us each some of the commander's bourbon. Through the window I could see the great zeppelin, so large and placid, moving with slow grace toward the mooring tower. It was a creepy moment for me, knowing how many people were about to die.

We clicked glasses. "Poor Eidenbenz," I said. "Does it bother you, all the pain we inflict on innocents like him?"

"Are you nuts? I make history turn cartwheels. It's like being a god!" He gestured toward the zeppelin. "You people are no more distinct to me than so many hydrogen atoms. You rush about and bump furiously into each other, and what difference do any of you make to where the airship goes?

"Me, I can do anything I like, and who's to stop me? You can't even tell what I've done. You forget, and think it was always so."

He took out a pocket detonator and punched the button. Outside, there were sudden shouts of alarm. "You even forget I did this."

The flames from the burning Hindenburg cast a Satanic glow over his features.

He smiled. "Oh," he murmured, "the humanity."

© 2002 by Michael Swanwick and SCIFI.COM.


  1. I want to thank you for posting this. I read most of these years ago on SciFiction and through them you taught me what real freedom on the page can be. My own writing is richer for having read these stories.

    -Matthew Sanborn Smith

  2. Actually, these ARE a good example of the kinds of freedoms that science fiction allows. I can say that without immodesty because I don't think I invented any of the techniques used here. I just opened the SF toolkit and had fun.

    And, as you've discovered yourself, anybody can play.

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