Postcard From The Future #8

This month’s postcard from the future comes from a 23rd century policeman…

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A message to the past, eh? Tell you what, I’ve always loved reading detective novels and I’m kind of envious of you guys back then with real crime and real criminals. All we get to do these days is fill out forms and liase with sociologists and behavioural psychologists. In fact, I had to get a degree to get this job. Surprised eh? Yeah, in theory I could still “beat the crap out of a punk” (God, I love that old 20th century noir cop patois), but I rarely get the chance these days. My history tutor used to tell me that all those old crime novels were “romanticised” and “escapist” but that strikes me as weird. What kind of screwed-up century were you living in where murder, robbery and rape seemed like escapism? Oh I know…. I’ve answered my own question. I enjoy reading that stuff now because I’m bored and there’s so little crime today, but come on guys, you had plenty of the real things, wars, famine, terrorism, plagues, riots… why did you have to make up shit too?

Worst we get these days are people going loopy, usually from boredom. Mental cases. I mean, nothing premeditated. Nobody planning for years how to rob a bank vault or steal a priceless painting then going about it in black lycra outfits and sandshoes, and leaving us lots of clues so we can spend months working out who did it. Maybe those things never happened in your time either. You know, serial killers committing each atrocity according to a chess move or a page of Shakespeare or something. Maybe you were all bored too. Well my message to you is beware, things are going to get even more boring in a few centuries. Better make the most of your real criminals, cherish ‘em while you can. Oops, I guess the superintendent wouldn’t be too chuffed to see me writing stuff like this if he caught me. Hope I don’t win this postcard competition or this could be embarrassing.

Most interesting crime that’s come my way in the last ten years was that guy Dufrates who went on the run from the government time lab, started trying to make unauthorised excursions into his own past to try and bring back dead lovers and relatives or something. Sick whacko. The feds took control of the operation and tipped us off where to look. Thing is he kept re-writing the past and I kept having to send guys over to city hall to re-check the municipal library archives. One day his wife would have died in a car accident, the next in a gas explosion, the next in a freak home electrocution incident, then finally cancer. I thought my sergeant was screwing up at first, then it dawned on us what Dufrates was doing. Rewriting history, quite literally.

He had some fancy rig set up in his apartment over on the west side, hidden behind a dummy wall panel, a whole concealed room, lead-lined, with spinning silver wheels and electrodes sparking away. That was how we caught him in the end, he burnt his way through his neighbours ceiling and sent her cat back to 1846 where it materialised in the middle of a Victorian parlour game. Yeah, you’ll find that in the history books. Now you will, that is.

Cranks say Dufrates got even further than we think he did before we stopped him, that he stopped the Nazis discovering nuclear fission and swapped Rudolf Hess for a lookalike who he got to shoot Lee Harvey Oswald. Wrote this history we have, trashed the one we don’t know we used to have, that sort of thing. Crazy stuff, but I do have to admit that if you look closely; the assassination of historical figures does always seem to have occurred under weird circumstances like someone was jerking around, right enough. You know, Franz Ferdinand’s motorcade took a wrong turning in the streets of Sarajevo and gave the gun man a second chance, started world war one, etcetera. That recount in 2000 that let George Bush junior get in instead of Al Gore, very fishy…. Child’s play for a time jockey to go back and play a little hokey pokey with a few ballot papers, really. But why bother? Hard to say, when causality links are so complex and unpredictable. Which was why Dufrates had to be stopped. He didn’t get it. He was so deranged he thought he could unravel history by mathematical formula, make a few tweaks here and there and stop one person dying, save a few loved-ones at the cost of several thousand unfortunate strangers.

Or a million. The more I really think about it, there really is an argument that some of the bad luck in Earth’s history can only make sense in terms of some evil time-meddler effecting a trade-off. You know, like Hiroshima and Nagasaki do seem pretty over-the-top considering the Japanese had already surrendered at that point. Sledgehammer to crack a nut, like some guy knew the man who would run his wife over was the son of an inhabitant of one of those cities, and couldn’t take any chances. Or someone burned the library of Alexandria down in 49BC, just to destroy records of his son’s parking fines. OK, I’m kidding now, but you get my point.

Could human beings be that selfish? Is love that absurd, that maddening? Not today of course in our brave new world, but it certainly was back then, or even in the 20th or 21st centuries. People believed all kinds of nonsense like people being fated to love one another, love at first sight, there being only one ideal partner out there for you, your perfect other half, that sort of thing. Sociological reports I saw suggested that Dufrates might have had that kind of psychological disorder, monomaniac erotic compulsion I think they called it. Stalking his dead dame halfway across the world and across the centuries, leaving a trail of debris and confusion wherever he went, millions dead, absurdly unlikely cruelty.

Yeah, the more I talk about this crazy idea, sitting here bored in my lunch break in this world without interesting crimes anymore, I start to see the sense in it and even half-way believe it. Human history is too absurd not to have been the product of deranged meddling by a deranged madman. I wonder what our real history would have been like?

Let the Japanese emperor remain a nominally living God at the end of World War Two, thus letting a quarter of a million innocent men, women and children go on living. Go easy on the Germans after world war one rather than grinding them into the dirt for reparations, bingo, no poverty and hurt pride, no Hitler. A strategic assassination of George W Bush during his election campaign by a collective of Americans with brains, bingo, no invasion of Iraq. Al Gore gets in and starts a green energy programme two decades early and weans America off oil, leaving Israel to make peace or be overrun.

Where would we be if some of that had actually happened? Do you know that aluminium* was discovered by a Roman craftsman two thousand years early, but he made the mistake of telling the emperor? Tiberius immediately saw it would threaten the value of gold and silver, so had the poor fellow beheaded, and his workshop destroyed. Just think. If it wasn’t for that, the Romans might have made it to the moon in rockets and thrashed all their enemies in lightweight armour, instead of being overthrown in the end by barbarians. All but for one man’s vanity and greed and short-sightedness, history could have saved itself a millennium of a detour.

Lesson: think who you tell stuff to before you open your big gob. Oh yes, and: trust no one. I should know. I mean, come to think of it, maybe I should stop to consider who I might be talking to right now. Who exactly are you? Like I said, I’m a police officer.

[*Actually, it was flexible glass, according to Pliny The Elder. The people of the future are misinformed –Ed.]

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About Douglas Thompson

Douglas Thompson’s short stories have appeared in a wide range of magazines and anthologies, most recently Albedo One, Ambit, Postscripts, and New Writing Scotland. He won the Grolsch/Herald Question of Style Award in 1989 and second prize in the Neil Gunn Writing Competition in 2007. His first book, Ultrameta, was published by Eibonvale Press in August 2009, nominated for the Edge Hill Prize, and shortlisted for the BFS Best Newcomer Award. His critically acclaimed second novel, Sylvow, was published in autumn 2010, also from Eibonvale. A third novel Apoidea has recently been released from The Exaggerated Press and a fourth Mechagnosis is due from Dog Horn in June 2012.

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