Science Fiction

The Devil You Don't

By Matthew Hughes
Feb 7, 2019 · 1,338 words · 5 minutes

From the author: I was a successful speechwriter because I knew how to paint word pictures, and because I could write in the voice of the person who was going to give the speech. As I wrote, I could hear the speaker's voice in my head. Back in 2003, I decided to write a story in the inimitable voice of one of the 20th century's great speech-makers. I sold it to the late and undeniably great Gardner Dozois, who was then editing Asimov's SF Magazine.


by Matthew Hughes


The frantic sparks fly up into the November night like lost souls seeking safe harbor who, finding none, extinguish themselves against the unheeding darkness.  Or so I might write it if ever I should put pen to paper to tell this tale.  But I shall not.

The fire itself is confined by the blackened steel barrel.  I poke again with the gardener's fork and another flurry of sparks shoots up, and with them scraps of burning paper.  By the flickering light of the flames I can sometimes see a printed word or two before they are consumed:  Alamein, Rommel, Singapore, Yalta.

The books are thick.  They will take time to burn but I have learned patience.  I have always taken the longer view.  Perhaps it is a sense of history.  Perhaps it is just how I am formed.  But, in the arena of public life, he who takes the longer view must win out in the end.

The gardener has left in heaps his cullings from the bygone summer's flower beds.  I gather another armful of dried stalks and withered blossoms and throw them onto the flames.  The flare of light illuminates the disturbed earth that the gardener turned over this afternoon and the pile of red bricks that have lain here much longer -- more than a year since I abandoned building a wall to take Mr. Chamberlain's reluctant call.

First Lord of the Admiralty, then.  Prime Minister now.  It was what I had always wanted, I will admit, though I would have preferred its arrival under less perilous circumstances.

The books are burning well.  I leave them and kneel beside the wall.  The cement with which to mix the mortar is just where I left it and there is water at hand.  I lay a red fired brick atop the black soil, trowel its side with mortar then place a second beside it. 

Another pass with the trowel, then another brick.  The work proceeds as it always did, a step at a time.  That is how walls are built.  As are lives.  And futures.

The man appeared from thin air.  I wanted to think he had stepped out of the darkness but the space behind him was well lit by the lights of Chartwell's great house, my house.  I had not been here since the start of the war. 

"Please don't be alarmed," he said.

"I am alarmed," I said.  "My visitors usually make less startling entrances, and then only when invited."

"I mean you no harm."

"I am relieved to hear it."

"I've come from the future."

"Now I am alarmed anew," I said.

There was a policeman in the house, a Special Branch man with a pistol.  But I did not call out.  My visitor begged me to allow him to demonstrate his bona fides. 

I did so and was soon convinced.  He had a watch that displayed time through ingenious means and a device no larger than a calling card that could extract a square root in the blink of an eye.  He showed me coins and paper money bearing the likeness of the young Princess Elizabeth, grown grandmotherly beneath the Crown of State.

"I am glad to know that the royal family endures," I said.  "You bring me a heartening sign when one is sorely needed."

"I have brought you more than signs," he said.  "I have brought you wonders."

He produced a package of books, small paperbound editions such as I had not seen before.  I took them in my hands.  The titles had a ring to them:  The Gathering Storm, Their Finest Hour, Blood, Sweat and Tears.

Then I saw the name of the author.  It was mine own.

"What are these?" I said.

"Your memoirs," he said.  "The war years, at least."

"Then I survive," I said.

"More than that.  You win."

"I am glad to hear it."

"It was touch and go for a while," he said.  "But that was not the worst of it."

"Oh?  Then what was the worst of it?"

I have not often seen a man look so forlorn.  "The cost," he said.  "The sheer waste.  The horror."

I did not know how to comfort him.  I set the books down on a heap of bricks then brought out cigars and offered him one.  He seemed delighted to take it.  His face shed its melancholy and he exhibited an exhilaration I have seen only in the shining eyes of schoolboys encountering their idols on the sidelines of a cricket pitch.

"I knew you would be here tonight, alone," he said, when he had puffed his cigar alight.  He had studied my life, he said, choosing a night when I had come to the old place, away from memoranda and telephones and committees, to wrestle with my old black dog of a mood that had gripped me since the terrible raid on Coventry two nights ago.

He savored the rich Cuban leaf, blew out a long stream of blue smoke, then said, "But now you can stop all of it before it happens -- the Blitz, the Battle of the Atlantic."  He looked wistful for a moment then continued.   "My mother's younger brother drowned when his ship was torpedoed off Newfoundland in 1942.  Fifty years later, she still cried for him."

"I am very sorry," I said.

"But you see, now he doesn't have to die," he said, gesturing to the books with the hand that held the cigar so that a scattering of ash fell upon the cover of the one entitled The Hinge of Fate.  "It's all in there.  Hitler's plans, his blunders.  His invasion of Russia, D-Day, all of it."

I looked at the books atop the bricks but did not touch them.

"Now you can strike where he is weakest, shorten the war, save tens of millions of lives."

"Are there others like you?" I asked.  "Other travelers through time?"

He told me that the channels by which he had come back to me were abstruse, unknown to any other.  He had hit upon time travel by the most outrageous twist of odds.  "But once I knew I could come here, I had to," he said.  "The war was the most terrible thing that ever happened.  But with these books you can prevent the worst of it."

"Hmmm," I said.  "Show me."

He bent to retrieve one of the volumes.  I reached for a brick.

I mortar a second layer of bricks over the first, tapping each carefully into line with its brothers.  The man from the future lies with his wonders beneath the fire-hardened oblongs.  His books are ashes now.

I wonder if he understood, as the light was going out of his eyes, that I must accept all the horrors to come.  That is the price to be paid for the knowledge he had brought me, the knowledge that we will be able to endure and that then will come brighter days.

But would they still come if I had looked into those books?  If I could see the present as the past through my own future eyes, would I not surely wander from the path that I now tread in darkness, though with a good hope that it will lead us eventually to those broad sunlit uplands?

I must choose the devil I know, though I know him now to be even more horrid than I feared, because the devil I don't know may well be even worse.

Yet the man from the future has not striven in vain.  He has done much good.  Because of him, my black dog is once more whipped back to his dark kennel. 

I finish the second layer of bricks, stand and brush the dirt from the knees of my trousers.  I lay the trowel on the unyielding surface.

I shall carry on.  We shall see it through.








This story originally appeared in Asimov's.

Matthew Hughes

I'm writing fantasy and science fiction, often in a Jack Vance mode.