My complete stories & my book ORPHANS

Past Imperfect
by Steve Schlich

The alarm sounded in the middle of the night—as Stewart had always known it would. Emergencies define themselves in part by arriving at inconvenient hours. Of course there was not a moment to lose in responding. Stewart was still half asleep as he took his position next to Geary. By the time he'd opened his eyes fully, they were already hurtling back through time.

Their timeship was a smallish black box that sat between the two. It generated a force field that stretched as tightly around them as a stocking pulled over a thief's head. Geary piloted as if the ship were a sport racer. He worked the controls and bore the buffeting with obvious pleasure. Geary had been down this road many times, but it was Stewart's first.

The real thing was far more violent than any simulation Stewart had undergone in preparation. There was nothing to do but ride it out and focus on the readouts that the computer projected on a virtual screen in front of their eyes. The sensation was one of dangerous, edge-of-disaster speed.

The years ticked backwards in a dizzying blur. The timeship rocked as if shooting through an endless chain of explosions. Stewart found himself counting off seconds along with the elapsed time readout. It at least moved in familiar positive intervals.

“Approaching shock wave,” Geary dictated calmly for the trip log. “Looks like a big one.” He shot a glance at Stewart that said, So you think the going's rough now...

Stewart admired Geary's professionalism and resolved to keep his cool no matter what they encountered. But fear crept over him as the wave approached. They were on a collision course with the leading edge of a major alteration in history. Here was the quantum twist in reality that, by some technical magic he did not fully understand, had set off the alarm. Coming at them, it looked like a searing wall of fire.

The wave slapped and shook them with a force that Stewart thought would tear their force field apart. But they came out the other side as quickly as they had entered, and remained intact. Stewart tried to swallow but found nothing wet inside his mouth to accomplish the action.

“Shock wave traversed,” Geary told the log. “Heading into alternate past.” Stewart figured that the voice log must be a formality since the computer was recording everything anyway. Or perhaps it was a sop to posterity should their mission be unsuccessful.

With the rubicon crossed, the character of their passage through time changed; the ship lurched and paused, lurched and paused. The readouts increased in number and complexity. Stewart closed his eyes to fight the nausea.

The ship was stopping every so often to sample period news broadcasts. The computer compared them with known history to discover which event had been altered. When it knew the correct time and place, it would stop there so Geary and Stewart could go to work.

The process went faster than Stewart had dared hope. After scarcely five minutes of elapsed time, the ship made a final lurch and halted. Light poured over them. Stewart looked down, squinting. They hovered high above a twentieth-century American city. The ship's computer superimposed a terse readout over the scene:

Time: 1963 AD, November 22, 12:20 pm CST.
Place: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, USA.
Event: Assassination of John F. Kennedy.

Geary allowed himself a grim smile. “I might have known.”

“What do you mean?” Stewart asked.

“Oh, I've been here before. You must know that this is the most visited event in this century. Between time tourists and saboteurs, something's always getting changed.”

Below, a crowd lined the street to witness the most pivotal motorcade in history. Geary dropped their elevation slowly, giving the short tour as they went: “Texas School Book Depository over there. Sixth floor corner window.” He pointed impatiently when Stewart couldn't pick it out right away. “Elm Street. The grassy knoll.”

The scene played before them as if it were a repeatedly spliced film. Time moved forward in fits and starts. Sections of the crowd shimmered randomly and people—time tourists—appeared like apparitions. The computer overlaid each distortion with a splotch of red and a brief readout.

“We're crossing the paths of other timeships,” Geary said. “Get used to it. We'll be bumping up against them from here on. See all those people appearing in the crowd? Everybody's gotta watch Kennedy die. Vultures!”

Stewart felt as if he were watching the blurry, jumpy Zapruder footage. He returned his attention to the readouts. The computer was identifying other time travelers and cataloging them to determine who had changed history's flow.

The timeship's descent halted a few feet over the heads of people seated on the grass. The scene bled with red overlays identifying time tourists here to witness the coming violence. A man looked up and straight at Stewart. Straight through him.

“Are you sure they can't see us?” Stewart asked.

Geary shrugged. “We're just another shimmer like the ones they made arriving.” He pointed to the time-local clock. “This is it. The moment of truth. Now watch carefully.”

Shimmering disturbances buffeted the timeship and distorted the Lincoln Continental that carried the Kennedys and the Connollys. Zapruder's newsreel had been smooth and crisp compared to this. The entire sequence seemed more like a crudely drawn cartoon than history.

The limo turned onto Elm Street. It seemed to crawl toward the location where gunfire would not, in this past, interrupt its course. Stewart felt strange. He was watching for events that were scheduled to happen, but wouldn't.

“Are you familiar with the assassination?” Geary asked.

Stewart grinned. “The most visited event in this century? The class spent three days on it.”

“Good. Then you know what to look for. You take the Depository window. I'll take the grassy knoll.”

The Lincoln reached its rendezvous with destiny on Elm Street and continued past it. Stewart watched a rifle barrel poke out of the Texas School Book Depository window and pull back in again. So Oswald had been thwarted. But they knew that. Obviously the grassy knoll assassin had been stopped, too. In this past, there had been no gunfire at all.

“I saw Oswald's rifle in the window,” Stewart reported. “But he didn't fire.”

Geary smiled. “Well, that's good luck. At least we know that Oswald is at his station. No one went back farther to kill him as a child. My grassy knoll assassin's another story. No one in place at all.”

Kennedy's limo disappeared into the distance down Elm Street. People began shimmering out of existence all around them. Geary grunted.

“Goddamn tourists! Look at their faces. Kennedy didn't get his head blown off and they're disappointed. So they just hit the switch and leave. They don't understand that the locals watch them disappear like soap bubbles in the breeze. Next thing you know, everyone's paranoid.”

People were looking upset. Reality continued to jump its sprockets as more tourists activated their ships and left. This area of space/time had become such a confluence of temporal disturbances that simple existence was unsettling. You felt as if something had happened even when nothing had.

Geary sighed. “Well, the joke's on them. Those disappointed tourists are returning to a world they won't even recognize. History's changed now. Unless, of course, we fix it for them. You ready? Let's get to work.”

“What're we going to do?”

“Get out and roust some tourists. Maybe aid and abet a killer.”

“We're getting out?” Stewart felt his fear returning.

“Yes, out. You have a problem with that?”

“Well...won't we be changing history?”

“Didn't you just hear me say that history has already been changed? We're here to change it back! As much as we can, anyway. I know it's sick, but we have to make sure that at least one of Kennedy's assassins does his job. We'll move back a half hour or so and then get out. Okay?”


After the jump, Geary set the ship down in a back alley behind a dumpster. Stewart took one last look at the readout before it switched off.

Time: November 22, 1963, 12:00 Noon CST.
Place: Dealey Plaza, Dallas, Texas, USA.

Geary killed the ship's force field and carried the generator in his hand like a time-local briefcase. They moved out into the plaza.

Geary wasted no time. Two couples shimmered into existence on the grassy knoll, picnic lunches in hand, and sat down in casual anticipation. Geary passed Stewart the generator and walked right up to them. Stewart hung back and watched in amazement.

“Here for a nice little luncheon, I suppose,” Geary addressed the picnickers. “Haven't you got more sense than to go realtime in the middle of a crowd?”

The eyes of everyone in the group went wide. “What are you talking about?” one of the men asked weakly. He suspected that he was talking to another time traveler but couldn't be sure.

Geary grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him to his feet, knowing that the man wouldn't put up a fight. He didn't want to attract attention to himself.

Geary fumed at him. “What'll you tell the time-local cop who just saw you appear out of nowhere? `Excuse me, officer, we just dropped in to watch Kennedy die'?”

“Keep your voice down,” the man begged.

“Why bother? You're a walking anachronism! You may as well shout where you're from! That camera you're carrying won't be invented for another 90 years. The closures on your clothing won't be created for another 50! The material—”

Geary was one to talk. He and Stewart wore uniforms designed to pass as time-local in almost any age, but they wouldn't stand up to scrutiny. That was a moot point, though. The two of them had a legal, maybe even moral, right to be here. Didn't they?

Geary pushed and released, and the tourist sat down hard. He leaned over and hissed a short something more at the group, then walked back to Stewart. A moment later, the picnickers shimmered out of existence. Geary shook his head and sat down. Stewart joined him.

“They don't realize that you can alter history in subtle ways, too. Our mere presence changes things because we don't belong here.”

They sat on the knoll with their backs to Elm Street, facing a fence. Geary watched that fence like a hawk waiting for prey to reveal itself.

“My class on the assassination concluded that there is no absolute truth about who shot Kennedy,” Stewart said.

“That's true,” Geary admitted. “There have been a half dozen trips back here to restore the assassination. I've made two of them myself. That's in response to another half dozen trips made by saboteurs trying to prevent it. We keep rewriting history and then erasing the rewrite until there's nothing but a torn-up mess on the page. Who shot JFK? Was it Oswald? My man behind the fence? Cubans hiding in storm drains? It isn't possible to say who anymore. It matters only that he was shot, and that he died.”

“Well, that's uplifting,” Stewart offered. “What happens when—”

Geary grabbed his arm and nodded in the direction of a trenchcoated man loitering just behind the fence, studying Elm Street. It had to be Geary's grassy knoll gunman waiting to do his job. He didn't last long. The air behind him shimmered. A dark figure strode out of the distortion, grabbed the man and hauled him inside. Geary leapt to his feet and ran to the fence, but too late. The shimmer disappeared.

“Damn! Too slick, too quick. I don't see how we can prevent that.”

Stewart couldn't believe his ears. “What are you talking about? Can't we back up fifteen minutes and be ready when the kidnapper comes?”

Geary snorted. “And I suppose the gunman will just stand around while we lay into his attacker. Besides, we'd meet ourselves as well. Nobody's going to do any shooting from this location. Not this go-around. It doesn't matter. Oswald's the one now. Come on. We've got to make sure he carries through!”

They sprinted back to the alley. Geary reactivated the ship and took them to the roof of the Texas School Book Depository. Stewart checked the readout again as they readied their weapons. Time was running out.

Time: November 22, 1963, 12:20 pm CST.
Place: Texas School Book Depository, Dallas, Texas, USA.

They hurried down a stairwell to the sixth floor, stumbling around shimmering distortions that never materialized into anything real. Apparently this small stretch of space/time was even more heavily edited than the grassy knoll. Geary drew his weapon and motioned at Stewart to follow him silently.

Stewart remembered the layout of the building from his studies. The room where Oswald had eaten chicken and waited for his moment was just around the corner. They rounded that corner and slipped through the doorway—

“Stop! Right there!”

There was another man with Oswald, holding him at gunpoint. Had to be the time saboteur. The weapon he pointed at Oswald's temple couldn't have been manufactured before the year 2050.

“Don't kill him,” Geary ordered. “You don't know what you're messing with.”

A time disturbance moved around the room, unable to resolve itself. Oswald's rifle — the murder weapon — and a number of other guns lying near the infamous window rippled as if they were floating on an angry sea. A few of the guns disappeared. Oswald himself rippled and then vomited as the disturbance passed through him. His eyes were wide with terror.

The saboteur realized that Geary's weapon hadn't come from 1963 either. “What're you?” he demanded. “Time Cops?”

“Something like that,” Geary replied. “Listen, don't try to change history. It isn't meant to be changed.”

“I'm not going to kill him,” the saboteur told them. “But he's not going to kill anybody either. That's the beauty of it. No one dies!”

“Kennedy has to,” Geary said with quiet conviction. “It's history. I'm sorry. Now put down your weapon!”

Instead, the saboteur swung around and fired at Geary. Geary grabbed at his shoulder and stumbled. His return shot took out Oswald. Stewart drew his own weapon and dropped the saboteur. Then he paused for a dumbfounded moment to survey the carnage. What a mess! He was the only one still standing. He holstered his weapon and ran to Geary first, who was cursing. It was only a shoulder wound; nothing fatal.

He hurriedly checked Oswald and the saboteur. Neither had been as fortunate as Geary. They were both dead.

The moments ticked away. “Look out the window!” Geary grunted at Stewart. “Where's the limo?”

Stewart looked. “It'll be in position in another minute or so.” What could not now happen dawned on him. “Oh my God, what do we do? Oswald's dead!”

“We shoot Kennedy ourselves,” Geary told him. “Actually, you do. It'll take two hands to operate that rifle and I”—he held his wounded shoulder—“I haven't got two right now.”

Stewart's jaw dropped. “You've got to be kidding. I can't do that!”

“Yes, you can. You have to,” Geary told him. “Listen to me! This present has many possible futures, depending on what happens. But our present has only one past. And in that past, Kennedy dies. We don't have to like it, but that's what happened.”

Stewart considered it for a moment, then knelt down in front of the window and picked up Oswald's rifle. He checked—it was loaded and ready to go. He looked out at the motorcade and back at Geary.

“Why do we have to restore the assassination? Has anyone checked out what changes if it doesn't happen? I mean, maybe we get a better world.”

“Yes it's been checked out, but it doesn't matter if we get a better world! That's what every two-bit saboteur figures when he comes back to stop the event. What matters is that we get a different world!”

Geary fought his pain. “You felt the shock wave. That was no ripple caused by a minor disturbance in How Things Happened. When that wave hits our time, trillions of events will have changed. Unless we set things right, we won't even recognize our world anymore!”

Stewart rejected the logic. “So? Why is that important? If we hadn't left before the wave got there, we'd never know anything was different. As it is, we're the only ones who do know.”

“You like the idea of other people jerking reality out from underneath you and replacing it with their idea of what's right? I don't make the rules, but I agree with them. And I'm damned well going to enforce them!” Geary hadn't holstered his weapon, and he now pointed it at Stewart. “There isn't time to argue! You have to shoot him. Because if you don't, I'll shoot you. Now hurry!”

Stewart pointed the rifle out the window and took aim. Like magic, Kennedy appeared in his sights. He felt shimmering air around him. It was too easy—as if he'd fallen into a groove in space/time that guided all his motions. He couldn't stop himself. In a dreamlike motion, he tracked for a moment and pulled the trigger. Ejected the cartridge and slammed a fresh one home. Again. Again! The kickback bruised him, but he didn't notice.

In the distance, Kennedy jerked with the impact and slumped. The crowd screamed, and not all of them with shock. Jackie began her crawl out of the back seat and onto the trunk. The Lincoln accelerated and headed for Parkland Hospital. Stewart fell back inside the window and wept.

Geary was up and moving, ignoring his pain. With his good arm, he moved the dead sabateur's timeship into place, set it on automatic and sent the corpse back to its own time. Then he pulled Stewart to his feet. “Come on, we've got to get into position and reactivate the ship. The police will be up here soon.”

In the plaza below, pandemonium reigned.

The trip back was an easier ride. For one thing, the ship moved slower so as not to overtake the shock wave that was restoring the original future that the assassination had generated. They paused once to sample news and be sure that leaving a dead Oswald gripping his rifle at the Depository window hadn't mucked too much with history. For another thing, Stewart felt numb.

Geary alternated between contempt and compassion. “You knew this wasn't going to be easy when you signed on. Cheer up! You just saved the world as we know it. Literally.”

Stewart shivered. “I didn't know I'd have to kill a man. How am I supposed to feel good after that? John F. Kennedy, for Christ's sake! I feel like shit!”

“You may have also killed the fifty thousand who died in Vietnam over the next decade or so. Some say that they would have lived if Kennedy had. So sue me. This is the past that had to happen. All you did was restore it.”

Stewart couldn't stop replaying the murder in his head: he would pull the trigger, the rifle would fire and JFK would slump. Trigger/fire/slump. Reload.

Geary noticed that his own hands were shaking. Why? He hadn't fired the essential shot. He'd never pulled that trigger, not even this time.

He looked at Stewart. “I'm sorry that I used my gun on you. But I had to. Do you understand that I had to?”

“It's okay,” Stewart assured him glumly. “You were right. I realize that Kennedy had to die. I even understand why. But you were also right when you said I didn't have to like it. I didn't.”

There was a silence lasting decades on the trip meter. The time continuum may have been repaired, but Stewart would never be the same. Nor would Geary.

“None of us like it,” Geary replied. “But that's not why we came.” He put a hand on Stewart's arm. “Welcome to the corps.”

copyright (c) 1994 by Steve Schlich

ABOUT THE STORY introduction from the 1994 book ORPHANS

“Past Imperfect” is an orphan because I didn't do my homework properly. What facts it contains are correct; I wrote it after reading numerous articles published at the time of the 30th anniversary of John F. Kennedy's assassination. The homework I failed to do was to read old Science Fiction. One rejecting editor pointed out that big-name author Poul Anderson had written a famous series of stories with a similar theme — even a similar Time Cop agency — in the Fifties.

My complete stories