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Articles by Brian Jackson

The Kingmakers

20 April 2015

Sixty years ago, it was cold and raining. John pulled up the tall collar on his coat, and shrugged his shoulders to try to shake a chill off. Just like an old movie, he thought. Outside the state building, the guards were gray or brown, with the signature yellow vest and fringe of an officer's uniform.

John knew the floor plan and the schedule as well as any of the officers. He slipped inside without any trouble. As he walked an empty hallway, he tried to breathe slowly, to keep his heart from racing, to ignore the trickle of cold sweat under his arms. The cameras had already seen him, but he'd have a minute or two before anyone could react, and even if they caught him, they couldn't do much. They certainly couldn't do what they'd done to his grandfather.

Down two flights of stairs, he still couldn't hear any of the soldiers' voices. There were news clippings and photographs preserved for posterity on the walls. As he walked by, he saw bold, shocking headlines proclaiming that the refugee crises had ended, that the midwestern resistance had fallen, that the "Great Reform" was already reporting major successes in increasing the average intelligence and overcoming the moral defects of the previous generation. The hallway widened into an impressive atrium, deserted and motionless, but utterly hygienic. The crippled tenements two miles from the capital were choked with mold and rust in John's memory, but the place where the prime minister held his pep rallies was clean enough that you could eat off the floor.

At the back of the atrium, two great yellow-in-gray flags flanked a short hall concealing the conference rooms. Under his heavy coat, John took big, fast steps and threw open the double doors--

Two dozen rifle barrels and red laser sights interrupted his momentum.

The man who'd ordered just short of three billion human deaths during his tenure as prime minister of the North Atlantic Union blew the steam from a teacup behind the conference table.

"Thomas Miller," John shouted, "May God repay you for what you've done to the world after I'm finished with you!" The prime minister sighed. "Well, I've seen what I came here for. You're not a man! The 'animals' you sent to their deaths were men. You're a disease."

The prime minister was unimpressed by John's rehearsed speech.

"Please," the prime minister said, and shook his head disappointedly.

His men opened fire on John, whose elation gave way to surprise. The magnetic armor and collar coil kept him safe, but they weren't aiming to kill. The service pistol he'd brought from home was a total loss, and bullets were rebounding wildly off the left side of his body with thunderous reports. John clinched his teeth and turned away before fleeing through the hallway he'd come in.

At his left wrist, the control panel was scratched and smudged, but still working, to John's relief. He'd accounted for bodyguards when he made the first jump, but not equipment damage. As the prime minister's men advanced from the conference room, he pressed a sequence of buttons on the touchscreen, vanishing with an audible thump as air rushed into the gap in the environment where a man used to be.

It took considerable bravery to travel in time, John thought. A whirling vortex swept around him, through him. Greatness demands a sacrifice.

When he'd cracked the last equation, he was both happy and sad. This was a once-in-a-lifetime discovery, but what did that phrase even mean anymore? To change the past was finally possible. Think of all the mistakes that could be avoided! Think of the incredible progress that could be made! Science fiction warned him about changing his own past, but the equations showed that it wouldn't really matter. Ah, but the bad news! The reason it didn't matter was that if you built a machine to make the trip, you could only ever go one way: backward! Still, to think about what a man could do in the right place and at the right time...

The vortex was subsiding. Even now, electromagnetic forces were carefully opening a gap in the environment for John to appear in - carefully, so the weight of the atmosphere wouldn't slam the air together all of a sudden. It was October. Thomas Miller's family had just returned from a vacation to Europe. Tommy was ten. John was thankful that newspapers couldn't resist gossiping about celebrities, even minor ones, like Senator Miller of Boston Massachusetts.

A skinny, brown haired child was playing behind a fence in the front yard. John knew the face, even behind a layer of baby fat. He stepped down from the curb, and a strong hand gripped him from behind, spinning John around. An orange light glared from behind a featureless helmet. Silently, a molten-hot dagger penetrated his heavy coat and pierced the magnetic armor underneath. John gasped painfully, and leaned into the mechanical arms of his assailant, mouth agape. Tommy was facing the other way. A finch landed on the fence, its yellow plumage gleaming in front of Tommy's wide-eyed face. He reached a gentle hand towards the bird.

Two silhouettes propped John's body against the cold wall of a suburban garage. The taller one pulled the garage door shut.

John mouthed a feeble, "Why?"

Removing his helmet, one of the men spoke.

"What were you going to do to Tommy?"

John shook his head, speechless and gasping.

"Do you know what happened to the world by the time we figured it all out? There were only a few thousand people left on this planet. Can you believe that?" John coughed. The helmetless man continued. "Time travel was the worst thing we ever invented. That kid's the only reason you got to have a life at all."

John spit on his own clothes.

"He killed so many people. He called them animals," John choked. The helmetless man nodded.

"I'm afraid there's nothing we could do. But for what it's worth, someone had to do it. Might as well be someone we choose."

John summoned his strength, trying to back his way up the wall to his feet.

"But... nobody has to... nobody has to die. We can fix anything."

"Fixing everything was the problem," said the shadow, looming over John. "So we bet on Tommy. You might say he's our little lightning rod. You know, nearly every damned fool that figures out how to muck around with history decides to come looking for him first."

"But... I..." John felt his legs getting weak under him.

The other silhouette, still helmeted, pointed something at John's forehead.

"Sorry," said the man.

There was a flash, and John's body collapsed to the floor. The helmeted man holstered his weapon, then began fidgeting around through John's pockets. They always brought something with them. He drew a leather wallet from the back pocket of John's bloodied jeans. Looking inside, he found John's driver's license, noting carefully the date of birth.

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