The Uncertainty Principle

by Gary Kittle


“Oh, come on, you’re not serious?”

Dawson leans back in the office chair until it squeals. “Of course not.”

“Because that would make you as mad as he was.”

Dawson surveys the hundreds of books lining the walls. “Gets you thinking, though.”

Atkinson picks up a book but seems unable to manoeuvre his intellect past the title. “Does it?”

Dawson waves a manuscript at his colleague, eyebrows raised. “This isn’t just a thesis, comrade. It’s a confession…”

* * * *

It’s January, the air crisp like ancient parchment, light draining from a late afternoon sky. Earlier he is certain he saw the aging Emperor Franz Joseph struggling into his horse-drawn carriage, but he isn’t here for him. Given the choice he would have travelled back to see his beloved grandfather again. But he has a job to do, perhaps the most important job any man has ever embarked upon. He must remain focused.

Yet crunching through the snow, memories of his grandfather won’t leave him: a tall, dignified man whose hands shook if he took them out of his pockets. The inspiration for the young boy’s love of history, he realised later that Granddad’s reminiscences of combat were a form of therapy, albeit one only partially successful.

The third time they’d taken him away had been the last…

There is a bench ahead, and he knows this is the most likely spot. His research is meticulous; he’s a model student. Here he will wait and shiver, and not just from the cold. He clutches the revolver in his pocket, a genuine nineteen-thirteen model. His clothes itch, fresh from a costume supplier that won’t start trading for another century. The complexities of his infidelity with the past are endlessly arcane.

A minute later the time has come. Glimpsed through the light snowfall, someone approaches. Feeling giddy, he stoops to tie his bootlace. The waiting is nearly over.

* * * *

Atkinson takes the manuscript from his colleague’s grasp. “These two names mean nothing to me,” he sniffs, leafing through the pages.

“Exactly,” Dawson declares. “It’s the perfect crime.”

“So, you are serious?”

“Just speculating.”

“Yes, but you’re doing it out loud. It’s unnerving.”

“He was a brilliant student, according to the faculty staff,” Dawson sighs, “but his obsession with these two characters came to rule his life.”

“And drove him to suicide, is my conclusion.”

Dawson paraphrases a line from the thesis: “From such inauspicious circumstances these two social misfits would become the two greatest mass murderers of the twentieth century.”

Atkinson shakes his head. “And the fact that neither of us have heard of these international super-villains proves he must have pulled it off. Right?”

“Like I said, it makes you think.”

“Yes,” Atkinson snorts. “Like a madman!”

* * * *

The approaching figure plans to stay in Vienna for a month, working on an essay about Marxism. He is no stranger to snow; this Austro-Hungarian winter is tame compared to those of his native Georgia. At the bench, he sits.

Laces retied, the history student draws nearer to his target. As inconspicuously as he can, he steals a quick glance as he passes. There is no mistaking that Georgian face, already displaying an iron resolve that will earn him the nickname of the Man of Steel.

His first target identified, the student stoops to adjust his other boot lace. Taking a deep breath, his eyes follow the trail of his own footsteps back through the snow. And there, in the distance, advancing quickly along the buried path, comes the twenty-three-year-old Austrian immigrant with artistic aspirations and a chip on his shoulder the size of Bavaria. His clothes look threadbare and neglected, his hat fringed by a crown of snowflakes. The temperature drops so quickly he can hear it crackling through the trees.

It’s now or never.

Standing hastily, the student frees the revolver from his pocket and prepares himself for the penultimate acts of his life. Two shots to the head and then an unmarked grave by this time tomorrow for them both. After that, all that will remain will be to put the fifth bullet through his own skull.

The Georgian looks up at his would-be Austrian adversary, as if in the latter’s purposeful marching he senses a kindred spirit. The second target, lately killing time in a men’s hostel just a few miles away, touches the brow of his hat. The revolutionary on the bench responds with a curt nod…

“He’s quite mad, you know,” Father declared, as he tossed Granddad’s notebooks and papers onto the fire. “It’s for the best.”

But the boy could never believe that. He knew his grandfather, a biochemist before the war that ruined him, could have saved millions. His ideas and theories soared to the heavens with the majesty of migrating birds. But like Grandad, those birds would never come back…

And remembering his grandfather’s scribbled notebooks, his earnest fireside lectures, the history student squeezes the trigger.

* * * *

“But joking aside…”

“Joking aside,” echoes Dawson, “Someone will probably find his body in the next few days.”

“So, you do agree with me?” Atkinson laughs. “You know, for a second there…”

“Maybe I just wanted it to be true. Inject some colour into another dull case.”

Atkinson pulls out his gas mask but hesitates before strapping it on. “I know the feeling. The suicide rate has gone through the roof of late.”

A grinning Dawson stands, reaching for his own mask. “What suicide rate, comrade?”

“Oh, please!” Atkinson groans. “Mind you, if this guy really wanted to go back in time to alter the future for the better...”

They reach the heavily sealed front door together, beyond which swirl the acrid fumes of another poison gas attack.

“Go on.”

“Well, he should have knocked off someone like Comrade Trotsky instead.”

Dawson puts his mask on quickly, hiding his reaction. Atkinson’s flippant joke could get them both shot. But he won’t report him, because he knows he’s right.

Any future would have been preferable to the one they’ve got.


Copyright © 2019 Gary Kittle