Then and Now

A Sci-Fi Short Story written by John E. DeLaughter

Then and Now

by John E. DeLaughter

John E. DeLaughter is a geophysicist, paranomasiac, and world-famous bad sailor. His work has taken him to all seven continents where he always meets the nicest people. Currently retired, he lives on a sailboat with Missy the cat. Among the stories he’s had published are “The Terran Game” (Aphelion Webzine), “Mark of Cain” (Youth Imagination Magazine), and “The Day the Rockets Flew” (Strange Wars, 2022). With Mel. White, he has written six Duncan and Mallory novels.

John E. DeLaughter’s other purchasable works:

His book on science fair projects ( https://www.amazon.com/Twenty-Last-Minute-Science-Fair-Experiments-ebook/dp/B0C9VT69KF/ )

His Kids’ book ( https://www.amazon.com/Are-You-Dinner-John-DeLaughter-ebook/dp/B0C2JQQ9WL/ )?

 

I didn’t say we should kill him.

Other people did, but not me. Nevertheless, there he lies, or what remains of him in the then that we had come to avert. His unkempt hair flops across his brow. His once-expressive mouth is stilled, sagging under the mustache that spurred a thousand jokes. His ragged fingertips, bitten to the quick over his past week as debacle turned to disaster and became apocalypse, drag loosely on the desk where he once ruled as a god. But gods don’t die. And he is dead beyond all recall.

Dust covers the room, legacy of the bombing that has reduced his city to rubble and his country to a wasteland of starving, dead-eyed phantoms. Paintings of him hang askew on the walls. Blood and a spilled tray of food stain the carpet. Incised into the cement floor is a perfect circle, where my team arrived from our now to his then.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

I was under orders to capture him, to bring him forward to our now so he could see the real result of his dreams and our nightmares. To place him on display, a flawed ideology made flesh. Alive in our now, he would have been just another failed tyrant. Dead in his then, he becomes a martyr for his cause. Alive, he could have been tried in our now for crimes in his then, exposing the base passions that inspired the orgy of death he oversaw. Dead, those crimes inspire millions more.

The shackles we brought for him gleam in the room’s dim light. Lightning flickers as the charge that brought us here slowly dissipates. A faint whiff of ozone competes with the overpowering stench of death and defeat; the stink of fear and feces pour from his body as words once poured from his mouth. But where his words inspired a fanatic loyalty, his body just inspires exhausted indifference. For this, we fought.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

I thought it, God knows I thought it. The cost of our mission was astronomical. Hundreds have died in our now to bring us to his bunker. Thousands died in his then in the military push that brought defeated his army and put him in a place where we could capture him without destroying what would come next. Tens of millions were killed by his orders; more millions died fighting back. Could his single death balance those scales?

Not to mention the billions spent, then and now. Money that could have been used for other uses. Building homes for the homeless. Feeding the hungry. Reaching out to the stars. But in his then there was no choice; if that money wasn’t spent fighting the cancerous ideology he created, our now would never have happened. Yet we are now faced with that same dogma, dressed in newer and flashier clothing but with the same root: fear of the other. Only by bringing him from his then to our now, by showing his new devotees the flawed, failed truth of what he really was, could we stop it. But we were too late and he is dead, along with our future.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

My team was selected with one question in mind: were we untouched by his poisonous legacy? As much as could be said for anyone in our now, we were. None of us lost family to the camps he set up back then. None of our great-grandparents died in the war he caused. Ten out of ten billion who were as safe as any could be from the temptation to put a bullet in his brain in the instant that we saw him. But irony is the most fundamental force in the Universe.

We were supposed to arrive five minutes earlier than we did. If we had arrived then, he would have been alive and our mission would now have been a success. But some subtle miscalculation caused us to miss our time by less than 0.000005%. Perhaps it was the Iron Pilgrims who attacked the base as we were flung from our now to his then. Perhaps it was some hidden fifth columnist who wrote the wrong equation into the computer guiding our trip, deliberately sending us off course. Perhaps it was simply bad luck. Whatever it was, it means that our last, best hope of avoiding the past is gone. In our now we will relive his then.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

He would have been given the best of care; he would have lived a long, unhappy life as an example of what happens when hubris combines with hate. He would have learned what it was to be truly powerless as his every word, his every reaction was broadcast for all to see. No leader is glorious when seen on the toilet.

In the end, he would have died just the same as all heirs to the flesh do. But his death would have been as prolonged and merciful as we could make it. Instead of a quick flash of heat and the blast of a bullet, it would have been a life spent on display. Being examined by experts in abnormal psychology. In politics. In religion. Over and over again, as his followers watched him slowly crumble in the realization that the only truly final solution lay in rejecting his ideas.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

Once we brought him to our now, there would have been plenty of volunteers to play the hangman’s role. Not just from the descendants of those he harmed, either. Many of those who claim to follow his ideals would rather see him dead than brought forward. Absolute power can never be shared. History, both his and ours, proves that most fundamental of truths.

Courday assassinated Marat in his bath to protect the Revolution Marat had helped start. Jughashvili killed Ulyanov for the crime of being popular. Gofeng obliterated Biao, Qing, Hongwen, and Wenyuan lest they remind the people of Zedong’s promises. And Eriksson would have killed him, just to ensure that the new millennial reign was uncontaminated by anything more than distorted memories of the failed first attempt. But we would have kept him alive.

I didn’t say we should kill him.

His followers, maybe. Those who proclaim the new gospel of his old hate, perhaps. Sooner or later, they will start the war that this desperate journey was supposed to prevent. And then we will have no choice but to kill those who would kill us.

War is never the best choice. Only a megalomaniac or a fool seeks it out. War can only ever be the least-worst choice. When the choice is between fighting to the death or being killed, then you fight; at the very least, you can protect others. And now that is all that is left. Eriksson will refight the war he lost, relight McCord’s pyres, and reopen Sâr’s camps. And we will fight them every step of the way. To do any less is to allow his then to forever become our now.

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