A window in time
“So, Professor. You’ve built another time machine.”
“This one’s a different approach, Vice Chancellor. This device is quite unlike anything the world has seen before. It allows us to look into the past. Literally.”
“It opens a window into any time you choose. You can look through it and see the room you’re standing in, at any point in history. Imagine! You could witness Shakespeare putting the finishing touches to Hamlet. You could see Henry VIII as a fit young sportsman. You could watch Leonardo painting the Mona Lisa.”
“A window, you say?”
“Yes. A small window, at the moment. About two centimetres in diameter. And we only have enough power to keep it open for four seconds at a time. But still, imagine the benefit to history! To archaeology! To palaeontology!”
The Vice Chancellor scratched his chin, imagining the potential benefits for the college. And lamenting the professor’s lack of commercial acumen.
“A window, though? Tell me – does this window open?”
“I’m not sure what you mean, Vice Chancellor.”
“Does this window allow you to pass things through it?”
Professor Armstrong gaped at the college principal. “Well,” he said, “I don’t see why not. I mean, it’s not like there’s glass or anything. I suppose it’s possible. Yes, it’s certainly possible.”
The Vice Chancellor jumped to his feet. “But this is fantastic!” he said, knocking a Wedgwood tea cup to the floor. “Don’t you see the potential?”
“Um,” said Professor Armstrong. “Well, I suppose we could… well, we could steal one of Leonardo’s paint brushes. We could take one of Shakespeare’s quills. Michelangelo’s chisel. A lock of Henry VIII’s hair. I suppose there’s some academic value in those items. But we’ve only got four seconds, and it’s only a small window.”
“But can you pass something through it the other way?”
“The other way? You mean, like sending Shakespeare a ballpoint pen? Giving Leonardo a tube of gouache? Well, I don’t see why not.”
“No, Professor. If you have the technology, there’s only one serious use for it.”
“We have to shoot Hitler.”
* * *
The college paid for the trip to Berchtesgarten, and a vintage Luger. The Vice Chancellor had done some research – despite being seriously out of practice – and had decided on 16th September 1938 at the Kehlsteinhaus, built to honour Hitler’s 50th birthday.
“I’m really not sure about this, Vice Chancellor.”
“Nonsense, Professor. We’ll be doing the world a tremendous service. Possibly the greatest service anyone could ever do. Just think – with one shot we can prevent the Second World War from ever having taken place! Think of the lives we’ll save. Think of the misery we’ll avert.” And think of the Nobel Peace Prize, he thought. Think of the book royalties, the TV interviews, the likely honours.
“But Vice Chancellor,” said the professor, “we might do untold damage. You can’t just change the past. There will be repercussions.”
“Trust me, Professor. I understand these things.”
And so the professor reluctantly opened his laptop, set the time to 14:45 and the date to 16th September, and started to fine-tune the controls.
“It’s ready,” he announced. “But remember, you only get four seconds.”
“That will be enough,” said the Vice Chancellor, gripping the Luger with both hands and aiming down the sight. “Just leave it to me.”
The professor hit the Enter key, and the machine hummed into life. A pink disc hovered in the air, and gradually brightened as a strong smell of ammonia filled the room.
“Three… two… one… now!”
And as the disc turned transparent, the Vice Chancellor clearly saw Adolf Hitler standing at the window. He squeezed the trigger, heard a deafening bang, and had just time to see Hitler collapse before the disc vanished out of existence and the laptop toppled to the floor.
He turned to the professor, beaming.
“We’ve done it,” he gasped.
They heard the sound of running feet in the passageway outside, and the door was flung open by the manager of the Berchtesgarten.
“Meinen Herren,” he announced, breathlessly, “is everything well? I have a loud noise heard, wie ein Kanonenschuss. How you say it, a gun bang.”
“No, no, everything’s fine,” said the Vice Chancellor, hiding the Luger behind his back. “My colleague just dropped his laptop on the stone floor.”
“Was ist? Ich verstehe nicht. I do not this ‘loptap’ understand.”
“His PC. His personal computer.”
The manager looked confused, so the Vice Chancellor moved aside and gestured to the flagstoned floor. But there was nothing there.
“Professor? Where is the laptop?”
Professor Armstrong stared at the floor, shaking his head.
“It’s as I feared,” he said. “If we averted the war, or even delayed it by a few years, then we may also have prevented the vast government funding that was pumped into Alan Turing’s cryptanalysis research at Bletchley Park. Without that, computing would have been set back decades. Which means the world has yet to invent the laptop. Perhaps even the computer itself.”
He felt in his pocket, fingers scrabbling in the void.
“Which means we have no smartphones, either.”
The Vice Chancellor turned to the hotel manager.
“Forgive me,” he said, “but I have a very poor memory. Can you tell me, how many world wars have there been?”
The manager stared at him, then started to giggle. Then collapsed into a great belly laugh, his great belly wobbling with amusement.
“Why, two, of course,” he spluttered between bouts of hysterics. “Oh, diese Engländer, se sind sehr lustig. Your well-known British humour, nein?”
The Vice Chancellor slumped into a chair, and gazed at the professor, who stood forlornly staring out of the window.
“Well,” he said, “it was worth a try. We might have made the world a better place.” He stood up, took the shell-shocked professor by the arm, and steered him towards the door.
“Thank you, Herr Manager,” he said quietly. “You’ve been most helpful.”
“It is nothing,” replied the manager, turning to leave. “Heil Himmler!”