Big Echo

Critical SF

It’s OK to Say if You Went Back in Time and Killed Baby Hitler

by Jo Lindsay Walton

Figure 1. The spiced pumpkin latte Starbucks “don’t” do this time of year.

Figure 1. The spiced pumpkin latte Starbucks “don’t” do this time of year.

Admit it. You went back in time and killed Baby Hitler.

Official reason?

Because in 2018 you’re coming hard for these fascists, wherever and whenever they show up, and in most guises too, for sure including key babies.

… real reason?

Averting the Holocaust and World War II, that was more like an additional upside.

Your mission’s core driver was all around heroing your brand.

That’s for sure how Ash felt about things. What better way to roll out the universe’s first linearity disruptor start-up than to kill Baby Hitler, baby?

When you say to people in the street “time travel,” what do they say? They say “kill Baby Hitler.”

It’s something people are already comfortable with. That is so important, because with time travel, the negative narratives are out there already. To the nope nope nope nope community, KBH is a teachable moment. What could be more memorable than —

Yeah, okay. With you. Not memorable. Super the opposite of memorable. Even had it worked like it was supposed to. Because if it had worked –

– which it didn’t

then everybody would have been like:

‘You killed who?’

‘And this person was a, a baby?’

‘That doesn’t sound very ethical.’

‘Oh, so the baby started it?’

‘You should go to jail.’

‘We hate this press conference.’

Still. Umeko said it best. ‘Going back in time and killing Baby Hitler. It just has to be done. You can’t not.’

It’s Umeko who volunteers, in a big way, and the first thing she says — blinking back into the 2018 timestream, wrapped in the time rig and ribbons of rising time steam, all up in your riverfront mezzanine lab space, that the six of you rent from what you’re pretty sure is a procedurally generated tech lab space rentals firm based on Ash’s Google history, called Gillian Anderson Linearity and Linearity Disruption Services Incubation Services — is, ‘How many dead? Like, how many people would you say died in wars in the Twentieth Century, ballpark? Asking for a friend. Shit, do you guys still speak English?’

‘You didn’t get your guy,’ says Ash tranquilly. ‘Am I speaking English yet?’

Umeko's eyes widen. She wears a wild look. ‘I don’t know who you’re talking about. But speaking personally? I just went back in time and killed Baby Hitler.’

Belle shakes her head. ‘Wee man got away from you. History hasn’t changed.’

‘I don’t want to get too graphic,’ says Umeko. ‘Is “I beheaded Baby Hitler” too graphic?’

‘M’kay,’ muses Ash. ‘I mean . . . didja bring back the head?’

Umeko punches RELEASE. With a satisfying hiss the zany punctuation of the time rig scaffold peels from Umeko’s torso, and as chinks of opened frost sublime, for a second her silhouette stands transfixed in the centre of a ghost-pale rose tree. Steam flowers glide apart in the unobtrusive AC and the mezzanine lab’s ambient cerulean refulgence downshifts to a marbled teal and lemon glow.

Umeko sags. ‘You guys, if this is some kind of epic troll, I have had the worst –’

‘I knew it!’ yells Belle. ‘We all knew it, deep down! Great Man Theory is bullshit! It’s all about the economics, you guys. History has a structure! If Hitler wasn’t Hitler, someone else had to become Hitler!’ Belle’s smart-chair slowly smart-swivels her to face the wall.

‘We are not going back,’ Umeko moans. ‘Never return to the scene of the crime, especially if you’re already still there!’

And as for you?

The mezzanine lab space is filling with other people’s feelings right now? You feel your usual urge to fade into the background, possibly literally. But you do lean in to murmur, ‘Or just the torso, Umeko, babes? No?’

Because you feel that’s important.

‘About a hundred and sixty million,’ Liz says in that same monotone she always uses, but which is particularly good for announcing numbingly large numbers of war dead. ‘To answer your original question. Fifty-five million died in World War II. Depending on methodology.’

‘Liz that sounds like it might be the offensive estimate,’ Belle says, counter-scootching her keister contra the smart-chair’s steady clockwise curling. ‘Might want to check if those are the offensive ones.’

Hedvig purrs, ‘Rexie Meksy, you could chalk this one to benchmarking.’ Hedvig’s first words since Umeko shimmered back into your timestream. ‘Go five minutes earlier. Work on closing that Baby Hitler kills performance gap.’

Hell no, Bed-Hed,’ says Umeko. ‘Me going back is when shit kicks off. That’s when for some unimaginable reason I hide the real Baby Hitler and replace him with whoever I just killed. Who was Hitler, by the way.’

‘People,’ soothes Ash. ‘Don’t call it a setback. Call it a setdifferent.’

‘Great Man Theory,’ Belle says smugly, to the wall she’s facing.

‘Belle, please,’ Umeko sighs. ‘Why would the new Hitler still be called ‘Hitler’?’

Belle frowns and bobs her head from side-to-side. ‘Okay. Yeah.’

‘Doo-doo-tish!’ says Ash. ‘Conun-drum.’

Umeko buries her face in her hands. ‘I did the DNA pinprick. It was the Führer. Couldn’t have been more him if he’d had the mustache.’

‘I have been thinking of him as with the mustache,’ admits Belle.

‘I went back to 1890. I disrupted the fucking incumbent. With a fucking sword.’

Umeko brandishes bloody cutlass, a bit wildly.

‘Whoa,’ says Ash, as everybody leans back slightly.

‘That isn’t actually our ceiling,’ mutters Hedvig.

‘I knew we should have adopted him,’ says Liz. ‘And then used my line –’

‘I support you Liz,’ says Hedvig. ‘But none of us thinks your line quite sums up our offering.’

‘“We adopted Hitler in 1889. How early will you adopt?” It’s a good line.’

‘And actually we’ve made that clear on a number of occasions,’ says Hedvig.

‘Beheaded,’ says Umeko.

And you?

No one’s really watching, so you slip into the time rig, and start adjusting sliders.

‘But take a moment to upside this,’ says Ash. ‘I for one am happy I continue to have been born.’

‘Speak for yourself,’ heckles Umeko.

‘Take a moment to be present in the moment you’re taking a moment to be present in,’ Ash says. ‘Pivot to a comfortable posture. I want to smell that self-care coming off you, m’kay? And I want you to focus on the crown of your head. And then feel your attention shift to your temples and forehead. Good job. And then feel your attention shift to some possible solutions. Why are we still in the same timeline? What is in your hearts?’

You ignite the pre-jump diagnostics.

Liz hazards, ‘When you change stuff in the past, it just doesn’t affect the future?’

‘Superb. Run with it.’

‘Like you’re editing code that has already run, I retract the hypothesis. I see so so many problems with it already.’

Umeko frowns, ‘Liz, like I’d have to stay behind to watch my edits unfold, all the way to the present? Guys, I don’t have that kind of –’

‘I said I retract it.’

‘Thanks, hon. I already have so much on my plate and I’ve had such a horrible –’

‘You have,’ soothes Ash. ‘You have. Do you need some space? We don’t need to do this now. Some of us do, but you specifically don’t need –’

‘We don’t need to do anything … at any particular time,’ says Belle, hollowly.

‘This is just something I found,’ says Liz. ‘This is real. It’s called Night. “Suddenly a cry rose up from the wagon, the cry of a wounded animal. Someone had just died. Others, feeling that they too were about to die, imitated his cry. Hundreds of cries rose up simultaneously. Not knowing against whom we cried. Not knowing why. The death rattle –”’

‘Liz, please. Thank you truly for sharing. But please.’

‘There’s always some massacre going on. People are always being butchered. It’s like the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. You can’t think about it all the time. You can’t pretend we’re hogtied in the wilderness when there’s a Starbucks just there.’

‘A hundred and sixty million dead is a tragedy. One Baby Hitler dead is just a statistical rounding error.’

‘I don’t know,’ says Liz. ‘It’s like, now that we have the time travel rig . . . none of it is in “the past” any more. All of that death, it is all here.’

‘Liz,’ says Ash. ‘Do you need to play your safety jam?’

‘The racism and the death. It’s in this room. But you know, somehow, it was always like that. All along. I don’t know. I don’t know. You guys, you guys –’

And you?

You must have shifted your weight, made some sound.

Because everyone is staring at the time travel rig. At you.

Ash double-takes. ‘What are you doing in the –’

That’s when you ping back to 1890.

And see what you see.

‘-ou guys!’ you explain, shimmering into 2018. ‘Everything is okay. We have competition!’

Bleaken Moment, the others calls themselves.

If your team is all ‘engineery,’ then Bleaken Moment are wizards. That thing about advanced magic and technology being indistinguishable? It makes zero sense if you know anything about branding.

You, by the way, call yourselves Deliver Ruins.

‘Bleaken Wizard look more clockworkpunky?’ you try to explain. ‘Seem to have some limited range teleport capacity, possibly with a cooldown. But wherever and whenever they’re from, and however their rig works, and whatever reason they have for messing with us . . . they have the edge on us. They put the stet on Umeko’s quest, and didn’t break a sweat.’

‘Barriers to entry,’ murmurs Hedvig.

And you?

You’re just happy nobody’s noticed you’ve been away for three years.

It wasn’t an easy hunt.

‘You can borrow it,’ says Ash quietly. ‘Just, ask.’

‘So these rivals saved Baby Hitler? Why can’t Umeko remember?’

Umeko is halfway through a salt caramel muffin. ‘I feel like I’d remember something like that.’

‘It’s not like that,’ you explain. ‘Bleaken Moment sort of . . . bookended Umeko’s spacetime?’

After seeing what you just saw, you feel like you have to say “murdered” now. But you soften it by saying “we.”

‘The child we murdered,’ you say. ‘Our competitors whisk him away the moment before Umeko’s first sword-stroke. Then they put him back, nanoseconds later, and that version does die. But meanwhile they’ve forked Baby Hitler. They go to some quiet, out-of-the-way nook of time. They let him crawl around for a minute, then zip him back in time one minute, so now there are two Baby Hitlers. They take the spare one and –’

‘We get it,’ says Umeko.

Belle squints. ‘Y-eah. Obviously.’

‘Any chance they’re us?’ says Ash. ‘Future selves, branched selves, folded selves, reverting our own edits –’

‘I mean probably,’ you say. ‘Who cares?’

‘Homecoming oppo research hero be frank,’ says Hedvig. ‘Are we unbundling Baby Hitler?’

‘Babes,’ you confirm. ‘We are unbundling Baby Hitler.’

Ash is already pacing, eyes lit. ‘A competitive market, duopoly probably. Resource we’re fighting over is Hitler Seconds. He’s not infinitely reproducible, infinitely fungible, there are limits. The tech imposes certain limits.’

‘Bleaken Moment might be cosmic clean-up crew types,’ Belle protests. ‘Maintain the fabric of reality. God-level tech. Admin privilege.’

‘Tush,’ says Ash. ‘Even so, their interventions can’t take zero time, Belle. Baby Hitler has a granularity, he ages. There’s a sense in which he’s exhaustible.’

‘I agree with Ash,’ says Hedvig. ‘Hitler Seconds are scarce. At some point you have a grown Hitler situation. But actually, it’s going to be Game Over long before that. Can we backwards-induct this?’

‘He can become less Hitler-like too,’ Umeko points out. ‘I’m thinking arbitrage.’

‘Killing Baby Hitler might not even be necessary,’ says Liz. ‘We could adopt –’

‘True,’ soothes Ash. ‘Although killing Baby Hitler is our USP. It’s in the Covenant.’

‘Hitler Seconds,’ says Belle thoughtfully. ‘Hey, left field. What if we go back in time and just keeping work for Airbnb, and don’t spin off our R&D unit into a time travel start-up?’

Everybody stares at Belle.

Umeko demands, ‘How does that kill Baby Hitler?’

‘I’m modelling now,’ says Hedvig, sketching on her tablet. ‘Is the Bleaken time rig hard-indexed to Earth’s gravity well same as ours is?’

‘I just hated it there,’ says Liz. ‘No! I hated the way I felt about myself when I was there?’

‘I was constantly on edge,’ you agree. ‘It’s Airbnb, but sometimes there isn’t breakfast? That always — I always felt on edge about that.’

‘If so,’ says Hedvig, ‘it becomes a question of how quickly you can shunt Baby Hitler out of the space his double needs to occupy. Or his multiples.’

Moments like this respark all your love and respect for Hedvig. The outlines of a Baby Hitler battery farm have formed on Hedvig’s tablet.

‘That’s all it is. However fast they can get Baby Hitler out of the way, they can copypasta him.’

Ash frowns. ‘A lot of assumptions here. Love it. Can we move a healthy ten-month human thirty inches sideways at eight Gs?’

‘Are you saying can we, ethically?’ says Hedvig. ‘I’ve been thinking bodily integrity-wise.’

‘Existential integrity-wise,’ says Umeko. ‘Not just bodily.’

‘Superb,’ says Ash. ‘Run with that, Umeko? Love it.’

‘Only that the original Baby Hitler, the one that grew up and did World War II, was never moved sideways at eight Gs. Intensely formative experiences like that make this baby less Hitlerish in a head-to-head.’

Hedvig taps rapidly. ‘We will need a closeness-to-Hitler’s-experiences-as-a-toddler function and some thresholds.’

Liz fiddles with her phone and Four Non Blonde’s 1992 hit ‘What’s Up’ strums to life: Liz has a neurodiversity letter of marque from the procedurally generated HR Clippy to play this particular song whenever she needs to. Trying to get up that great big hill of hope.

For some reason, to you, today, the song feels like the closing credits of some show you just binge-watched.

‘Correction,’ says Hedvig. ‘We won’t need our own function and thresholds. We’ll need our best approximation of what they’re working off.’

‘And I take a deep breath,’ sings Belle, who originally opposed this reasonable workplace adjustment. ‘And I get real high.’

‘Should we use gamification?’ you say timidly. ‘Sorry, that’s probably dumb, I should mention this is my first half-day back at work in three years.’

‘You look amazing,’ Umeko tells you. ‘You look great.’

‘Move them forward,’ says Liz. ‘Sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt everybody. Just saying to Hedvig. Move the Baby Hitlers forward twenty inches, not sideways ten.’

You reach and squeeze Umeko’s hand. ‘Thanks.’

‘Oh ya. They’ll be shaving it any way they can, right Ash? If they have fine-grained matter conveyance, do they even need to copy-paste the whole Baby Hitler? Could they cut margins by just replacing the specific organ tissue we assassinate on each iteration?’

‘Nerve splicing,’ agrees Ash. ‘Love it. Fibrin glue kit, Photoshop skillset. Run with it. Can someone get Starbucks? And can someone get a Baby Hitler, just so we know what it is we’re –’

You are already configuring the sliders.

‘Whoa,’ says Liz. ‘Our competitors keep folding Baby Hitler and inserting him back into history. We keep killing him.’

‘Yes Liz,’ says Hedvig, in a carefully-judged-not-to-be-patronizing tone.

‘Doesn’t that eventually imply an out-of-the-way-nook where we throw Baby Hitlers in a macerator? A death camp for Baby Hitlers?’ Liz starts a weird snuffle. Hard to make out with the hey-yeah-yeah-yeah backing track but basically you’re looking at either giggling or crying from Liz.

‘Superb,’ says Ash. ‘Big picture time. What’s the point of going back in time to kill Baby Hitler? Who were we when we began this, and what have we become? Well, we all may take our own view.’ She looks sharply at you. ‘Have you gone yet?’

‘No,’ you lie.

You’ve only been gone a week this time.

Diversified your start-ups big time. Put out some feelers with the Bleaken people. Interesting guys.

‘Oh my God do I pray,’ sings Belle. ‘I pray every single day. For a revolution.’

You smile nervously into Ash’s cool gaze.

Swear your bun was bigger just now,’ she says eventually. ‘Before you go. I would say that no death camps is — I just feel really strongly on this, no death camps is where we need to be. We need to be crushing the no death camps space.’

Five uncertain faces hover.

You shake your head in disgust.

‘Come on you guys,’ you say. ‘Death camps is their brand,’ and then murmurs of approval ripple through the room. ‘We’re more around really understanding the market and using tech to solve the biggest challenges facing humanity today.’

Hedvig touches your wrist. ‘Hey. You know that spiced pumpkin latte Starbucks “don’t” do at this time of year?’

Night (1956/1958/1960) is by Elie Wiesel.

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