It looks like "the writing bug" comes with the territory of being a nerd with an abundance of ideas and a complete lack of time to do them in. I have been writing mostly technical articles for almost 10 years now. In this time I've written literally hundreds of articles, at a rate of approximately one every week or so, most of them for a real, printed IT magazine in Croatia named Mreža. That's all in addition to my day job.
Writing technical articles is great (and the amount of things you can learn by reviewing products is amazing), but, while still very creative, it's the type of writing which is constrained by the physical world, by the facts about the topic you are writing about. Being a book-vore, it always seems like I could be writing the next great SF novel - as it does to every tech writer ever. We are all oh so clever and creative, of course :)
Occasionally, when I could spare some time and when I have an idea I think is worth exploring, I have written some stories. Now, "written" is in most cases too strong a word to describe what I have done. In most cases, I have just started to write them and them stopped as soon as a real-world job took over my time. In some cases I've returned to finish them, but that's an exception rather than a rule.
Since it doesn't look like I will fund my retirement by writing, and for Internet brownie points, I realized I could dump some of the more interesting stories here, on my blog. Some of those, if you scale down your expectations, I think are reasonably entertaining.
For my first story, I'll copy-paste here the only one I ever attempted to sell through Amazon, called "The Sin". I wrote this in 2011. Looking back at it, it really is not something to brag about, but in the case you actually liked it, you can actually "buy" the Kindle copy :D
Oh my sin is too great, I can never atone. And they are right, you know, when they say that the road to Hell is paved with good intentions. Not that mine were especially good, now I realize, but what else could I do? I couldn't just stay and watch! All those people, I had to do something. And I did, and in a way I succeeded and got my wish, and it was of course, of course not what I really wanted. Now I cannot imagine doing anything else anywhere else, any time else than sit here near the Brzezinka road in the dusk looking at the glistening new road sign to Auschwitz, reaching for the end of my pilgrimage to the Angel of Death. One patrol has already passed but they didn't see me, or they did but didn't care, or want to care (Can it be that they deliberately ignored me, let me go? No, never, they must have been tired.) Soon, a patrol with a black capped officer must pass me by, and those soldiers will be efficient, they will not dare to let me walk away. The sun is setting.
# # #
I was told I have great things in my future, that I have talent. I suppose they were right. In any case, I did not contradict my tutors when they gave me top marks – I was a good student, I got along. With some tutors I really got along: Havisham was simply too good looking to pass, and as we avoided publicity we had it going pretty good. She was the first to know and first to warn me I should stop obsessing, but also the first to leave me. For the time we were together I was happy to have someone to talk to even if I didn't listen, not really. I could only think of the people, what they experienced and what I experienced through them in the simulators. The Nazi regime ruled a large part of the European continent in the early 1940s but what they did was never since paralleled as far as we could tell. Very soon, we really would be able to tell all of it.
I specialized in the era of the Second World War mostly by accident: I was originally interested in the English Civil War for my Big Wars class but it turned out to be Havisham's class. She thought it would be too tedious to handle the teacher-pupil relationship as well, so I picked the first class which wasn't crowded and it was the German Blitzkrieg, the first part of a War so long and eventful they've split it into separate topics. Most students liked the simulators but it seemed I was one of the rare ones who actually enjoyed it, and damn the consequences. I practically lived for the days when I got to strap myself into the bed and connect myself to the sensorium's probes. I never really had complex dreams in real life, so when I first experienced a simulation it immediately felt as they were completing me. I would wake up from a simulation with a big grin on my face and couldn't imagine why others would frown on them as chores they had to do as a part of the class. Eventually I got a special permit from some of the tutors I was friendly with which enabled me to go there during weekends. I found out how to tune the timers so it wasn't rare that I got up to 12 hours of uninterrupted hookup, and dreams and our brains being what they are, this easily translated to a week of subjective time. The Blitzkrieg reconstruction, though scrupulously created on solid facts, was actually fun, very detailed and varied and obviously scripted by someone with a particular interest in tanks and field warfare. Each session I could choose to be a commander of a different armoured unit walking over a weak European country in famously rich and impeccable uniforms. It was grand, standing at the top hatch of a tank rolling forward at the head of a division across unspoiled landscapes in the sun. I knew they lost the war eventually and that they were the bad guys, but it was all too distant in the experience. For the time being it felt good to be powerful and invincible. We saw little casualties and they were mostly on the opposing side – and so what? One death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. They could have chosen to surrender and avoid getting shelled to bits.
At first I was mostly a passive observer, enjoying the ride but as time got on I got more and more involved – as was expected since I actually was here to learn – and now when I remember, I mostly think of how fun tank tactics were. Since I was spending more time in the simulation than expected, I did repeats and took more and more involved roles and eventually got to larger-scale strategy and then it was trivial to have my first involvement with politics. As crude as it seemed in the beginning and with the comical “Heil Hitlers!” I gradually found out how honourable and honour-bound most of the officers were, convinced their duty is right. I sincerely wanted to know more.
After finishing the class and the semester (with highest grades, as everyone expected), it became practically a hobby of mine to go through World War Two simulations in the chronological order. The Führer fascinated me. There was this man who knowingly and ruthlessly took advantage of the collapsed nation and in a few short years made it fit for world domination. I saw first hand (or as near to first hand as I could get being in the sensorium) the effect he had on the crowds, how his words made perfect sense to the people about to get new jobs in the largest military industry to date. I began following him through the simulations, both of the War and other topics – as long as it had him I considered it a bonus, and I soon found out that in personal life, except for some relatively mild and widely published quirks, he was almost ordinary. Once on the stage – either at a private political meeting or delivering a speech to the masses, he was a rock star. It was a perfect storm, really, with the beginnings of the mass media and serious investment in propaganda, he could not fail. I made up for the lack of personal interaction in real life by getting to know the people whose lives were influenced daily by the Führer. To his own countrymen he was the omnipresent leader, with huge ideas that were obviously starting to come true through the war. To others, he was a suddenly rising threat to their lives or livelihood. To one particular group of people, he was the worst single enemy they had in their whole history.
I knew about the Holocaust of course, every history student knew the numbers. I don't know what I expected from the simulation – more statistics, I guess. I saw the pictures in textbooks and they were – unfortunate. Every war has its victims and imagining ways to hurt each other is one of humanity's more popular pastimes, so it was supposed to be, well, mundane. How do you differentiate the suffering of one group over the other? I was certainly not prepared to value the fate of Jews over those of Bosnian Muslims or Nicaraguan peasants, they were all equally just facts and figures, facts and figures of other people's lives. At first it was just one of many chaotic things in the turmoil – a single group of people picked on, which accidentally did hold a number of factories and banks that would be nice to pull into the war effort so it was kind of understandable. Later the pickings turned to bullying and soon they were not welcome in any polite company. As long as I was on the strong side in the simulations it was easy to forget they were even people! I was as guilty as those whose behaviour was scripted for my simulations and I couldn't even see it.
The real terror started near the end of the war, and I watched in horror through the eyes on both sides. If the Blitzkrieg simulation was done by a team with eyes on big armour and finding the fun in war, the Holocaust team was filled with sadists. Historical records on which all of it was based were those collected when the camps were finally liberated, augmented with testimonials of the survivals, and it became my true obsession: I couldn't watch and I couldn't look away. Over and over, once on the side of the guards and once on the side of cattle being brought to slaughter, and worse. First the hopeful eyes of new arrivals who were told it was a harmless relocation, then seeing and feeling this hope die away within the first hours in the camp, as they mingle with the few survivals of the last cargo train. Every new session I would follow the fate of one of the detainees, all the way to their end, more often than not alone and screaming and always scared. The suffering got to me but I couldn't walk away. The most mesmerising, the most cruel and horrifying were the medical experiments. It made me sick to watch and I couldn't help but avoid seeking out every detail of the project in Block 10. The madness had its reasons, though – how else would you get statistical data on how long the average person takes to drown, or bleed out, or die from pneumonia, or from being crushed under a concrete slab, if you don't, methodically and meticulously, try it out on dozens of average persons and watch them every minute as they die? It was like I was on a mission to witness the suffering of as many victims I could, which even then I knew was sick. Havisham left me.
I managed to finish my studies with honours, mostly based on past track record than the not-so-stellar results I got after I started obsessing, and was offered a place in the faculty. This was the best and the worst thing that happened to me, as it meant I could use the simulators freely in off-hours, but it led me to where I am today. You can imagine what having free access to the library meant to me. I was called the planet's foremost expert on the Second World War but all that knowledge was peripheral, learned as I tried to find out how could such intense suffering happen in this world, how could such savagery rise in the middle of the civilization. Of course it all lead back to Him, the arch-enemy, the nemesis of legions: my Führer, damn him!
My days in the History department were mostly boring. The students I had were either drawn to my lectures because of my great passion for the topic or were repulsed by the same reason and gave me bad references. Only few were interested or could stomach the tours I gave of the University's Holocaust collection. It didn't matter, really, as my reputation and the lecture tours I gave were enough to keep me safely within the fortress of academia. I spent 15 years there, collecting everything I could get my hands on about what started the horrific persecution. I found surprisingly little hard facts about Hitler's early life. Anti-Semitism had occurred several times in history but no one has gone so far as to claim all Jews had to be eradicated. What did he have against this group of people? What did they do to him? No matter how I tried I couldn't find anything convincing. Yes, there were rich Jews and poor Austrians, as well as vice-versa. He could have had a Jewish girlfriend who left him but that's hardly a reason for something this drastic. What happened to him? What gave him the vehement hatred? Clearly, he was the nexus, the reason why a persecution was turned to genocide.
Peripheral to my work at the University I came across colleagues from all disciplines and from all over the world. Some came to the University for one reason or the other, others I met while travelling abroad. I socialized only occasionally, at dinners and official events when I couldn't get out on an excuse or when I found someone who listened. Somewhere along the line, between good wine and some dean's or the other's oratory exercises I heard a fragment of a sentence which covered me in cold sweat: practical time travel. It immediately snapped for me: If only? Could it be done? Could I? Really? I practically stumbled at Dr. Khron speaking about a breakthrough in his high energy department which he was trying to get funding for – and I went home in a trance. What if the Holocaust never happened? The faces of tortured innocents passed daily through my mind, and I so desperately wanted to help – but how? Even if it were possible for me to go back, what could I do, a single man without special skills or support? The thought did not let me go. As I reviewed documents and simulations which I already saw dozens of times, they spoke to me, the sunken eyes and hushed voices and I knew that I had to help them. But how? There were six major extermination camps inside German occupied territories and nothing short of moving the D day a few years earlier could harm all of them. Even removing Eichmann, the architect of the Final Solution, would only slow the process down – at best. I tried to rationalize it away but deep down I knew there was only one thing I could do, it was my destiny and mine alone, there was no one else.
It is notoriously hard to find exact details of a historical person's whereabouts, even one so well known as Hitler was. I mean, we know where he gave speeches and where he travelled after he got famous, but by then he had enough fanatical bodyguards that I had practically no chance of getting near him – and besides, who knows what an obvious assassination could trigger? Finally, I narrowed my choices down to two general occasions in time and space: his “homeless” period in Vienna and his time as a courier in the First World War – at both times he would have not been missed. Dr. Khron was easily a pushover, much too interested in making his device work than what it would be used for. I used my influence as a historian to “suggest” that it could be used (carefully, of course) to investigate some of the biggest mysteries in history, despite the good doctor's weak protests that it cannot work that way, but I persisted and the funding poured in. I kept a presence in the project even though I didn't really follow Dr. Khron's upbeat explanations of its principles and followed its progress daily. It took us twenty years to get to a first prototype, twenty years in which I did not doubt for a minute at what my purpose was.
At first we couldn't be sure if it really worked. Our first experiments were just sending a few grains of special isotopes into past and trying to find their residue in the present time. There was some ambiguity at first but when Dr. Khron called me one early morning and sounded half drunk, I knew we had succeeded. I suspended my teaching to spend more time with the project and became quite familiar with the people working there. Challenges fell one by one – we sent a rock back and found one just like it in the gravel outside our compound; we sent half an apple back and found an apple tree down the road which had identical DNA to the half we held back, though the tree was twisted enough that we doubted if time travel had effects on health. Finally it was time to send back a more complex organism, a higher animal, but we really couldn't find a way to check for success. Our device only had a precision of several years so we couldn't pinpoint the destination time. We looked at the University archives and there weren't any unusual occurrences of duplicate cats and dogs, so there was no consensus on what to send back. Imagine my enthusiasm when I suggested precisely what I was waiting for all these years. I would go back, yes, to my favourite time period, and do something unambiguous that would act as a signal. It was only sensible, after all. Sending a large object through – the problem was in volume rather than mass – would require a second prototype which would be hopefully be finished in ten years – just perfect for me to wrap up my affairs. I had no family and besides, I talked so enthusiastically about the era that it would seem they were genuinely making me a favour. Finally, as it was a science experiment and I was a subject willing to sign anything, not to mention with an influential place in the project, the idea was approved.
If nothing, the finality of this decision only made me think about it more, and there was no peace for me any more. I fervently collected anything about my target in the chosen times – depending on the targeting error in the device, I could be sent closer to either of the targets. I was level-headed about what I was after. I need to pass as a citizen, use whatever resource I have at the moment to locate the monster when he's weakest and simply kill him. No theatrics. Discussion would be futile – his will was always admirable. Paradoxically, it started looking like my perfect disguise would also be terribly ironic, as the most valuable thing per volume I could bring with myself was gold; apparently, I only had to grow a five year beard to be a passable Jewish goldsmith.
The days leading to the experiment went uneventful. The team did their job, and I made a point of visiting them every day to subtly emphasize my involvement. I got some authentic clothes, made some concealed pouches and filled them with random gold coins and jewellery and walked at the designated time to the designated place – the doorway through which I will go to save millions. It would be useless to describe the voyage, as there is nothing to compare it to. It was simultaneously bright and dark, hot and cold, and for some reason it tasted of coffee.
It turned out I got there near the end of the First World War, in April of 1918, and used a sizeable chunk of my resources to travel under various names toward (instead of away) the battlefield near Somme, my goal and my purpose in life. It was easy to find and stalk my prey, a boisterous young courier who was already decorated at the start of the war. He was barely recognizable as his future self and did not appear to practice for his crowd-rallying future. The only company I could see him regularly with was a perfectly Aryan fellow named Otto. In fact, and this amused me greatly as it explained much about the nemesis of nations, Adi and Otto were apparently much closer friends than mere comrades in arms. They being together all the time could have made things difficult but not significantly; there was no mention of his friend in the historical records so I was certain that if I couldn't think of anything else, both could be safely killed.
You must understand that despite being a wealthy elder civilian, I was still an elder civilian with business in a military compound, with restricted options. My first thought was to poison him – there was bad food all over the place and even a simple dysentery could kill him without penicillin. I couldn't get close enough, though, and of course I couldn't make friends with him to get in the right position. Hiring someone to kill him proved impossible, as he had no enemies and even suggesting the assassination of a fellow German soldier required a lot of beer – and money – to silence. I was stumped: it seemed so easy in the beginning – getting here should have been the complicated part. Desperate, I even tried attacking him physically with a knife outside the tavern, but was thrown aside by Otto and beaten as a crazy drunken Jew that I supposedly was. The war was coming to an end later that year and I feared I would lose him as he enters politics – I needed to act fast. Finally, I bought a rifle for myself.
I never shot a rifle – or any other weapon – and just holding it made me nervous. Worse than that, I couldn't practice freely but I had to hire a carriage and travel enough distance so the shots couldn't be heard. I did what I could and bought a large reserve of ammunition to inflate my odds. I was ready, and I had decided on a time for my move: after Otto's birthday party in late October. I was happy when found out the location and the time of the party: in a barn annexed by the army which was perfect as it was outside the compound and as such not really guarded. There was a feeling in the air that the war is about to end so the security was lax and the morale low. At the right time I picked up my rifle and several ammo clips, hid them in the pouches and straps of my long black coat and walked to a spot in the woods near the barn. I waited.
The partying went on through the night and I was freezing. I did regular exercises with my hands but couldn't help getting my fingers numb. I had nowhere else to go, nothing to do which would be more important than this, the purpose of my life. I vaguely thought about the long-term consequences: what will happen to the future, to all the technology and social interactions that were the result of the Second World War? But I was convinced: wars will happen, and human progress being what it is, things like the microwave oven and the atomic bomb will inevitably be created sooner or later. I couldn't stop that, but I could – and would! – stop the monstrosities only Hitler started. There was no choice for me, not now after all the effort, but to sit on the ground and wait for the party to break up, for my target to emerge from the door so I can see him in the light. At last the Bavarian songs died down and the shadows beneath the door started moving. I picked my rifle and lay down to aim. My adrenalin spiked.
The door opened and drunken soldiers started pouring out. It was a commotion but nothing out of the ordinary. Adi and Otto emerged at the front, half hugged neck to neck and I grinned – I could awe my colleagues with a book and a paper or two if I could only go back – but not now, not any more. I steadied the rifle, took a deep breath and aimed. The world slowed down as my destiny approached, and my heart pounded. I remember it so vividly, the smell of the earth beneath me, the barn door making a lighted rectangle some 30 yards in front of me, the rifle smelling of old oil and gunpowder. I squeezed the trigger and shot, then immediately pulled the bolt and shot two more times. My first round hit him somewhere in the body – I couldn't tell where – but I'm sure the second hit him in the chest and the third made a splinter in the door frame. He stumbled in slow motion, lost his grip on his comrade and fell with an outstretched arm and face down into the dirt.
It seemed like the two things happened at the same time: my shock as I saw the fell man's head of blonde hair after his cap rolled away, and the surprised look I got from his partner, with fierce eyes despite being drunk, as he drew his handgun in my general direction. There was no doubt that he saw me; he even might have recognized me from our previous encounter. He brought the pistol up to his world-famous black moustache and fired, and missed. The sound of the bullet hitting the ground somewhere close to me made me recover fast as I took aim again and more than nervously started squeezing the trigger over and over again until I realized to my horror that there was no sound, no flash and no bullets travelling to their target – the rifle had seized.
By then I was already chased by Hitler and two of the less drunken soldiers, but only Hitler fired. A bullet whistled near my ear and the next two missed. The fourth one hit me, though I didn't know for sure at the time, just a feeling of wetness and heat in my lower back, so I just continued running. I heard a scream behind me and then a more quiet one: “Adi! Komm her!” and my pursuit fell behind. Exhausted and scared I returned to my house, picked up whatever gold I had left and hastily abandoned the base and the town on my horse, travelling off-road to avoid any soldiers. I was lucky, it turned out, as Adi and his cronies went wild and shot every elderly Jew in town in retaliation, but they couldn't find me.
And so, you see, this is my sin. I failed. And more, I failed in the worst possible way, as he saw me as a Jew killing his partner! I hate my failure and I curse history, cruel for not letting me succeed!
# # #
I knew what I have done, and that I will never have the same chance again, but I couldn't admit it, not completely. I tried again in '34 but failed, of course, as I knew I would, and once more, half-heartedly in '37, another failure. It doesn't matter, It is still my sin, my own choices have lead to this and I am the one who sealed the fate of millions, who strengthened his hatred, not some random person and not a statistic – I know in my heart there is only myself to blame. I wanted to kill a man and I did.
As prosecutions of Jews started and ramped up to their miserable peak, I was ready to answer for my sin, I did not run away. Sickeningly, history mocked me again: as if I was not important enough to be rounded up in the night and shipped in cattle trains, as if I didn't belong there with the sufferers! But I was and I am, and now in the the new year of 1945 I have started my way, on foot, to meet my salvation on the road to Birkenau. I am going to pay a visit to the Todesengel, the Angel of Death, Doctor Mengele, and I know exactly what we will talk about.