Science Fiction politics parallel worlds Alternate timeline


By Stephen Dedman
Sep 27, 2020 · 2,689 words · 10 minutes

Photo by Dan Freeman via Unsplash.

From the author: What does it take to change history? Sometimes, maybe it's just one person deciding to speak out.



by Stephen Dedman


World One: Kew Gardens, New York; March 20, 1964.

            Martin had a nice enough job as a tailor and a nice enough family who lived in a nice enough apartment which he came home to that evening, as he had done nearly every evening for several years. As he walked into the lobby, he saw one of his downstairs neighbours, David, standing on one leg while trying to fish his keys out of his pockets without putting down the bags he was carrying. Martin grunted a greeting, and produced his own keys. David hopped aside, and Martin held the door open for him, then closed it again and waited for the reassuring click of the lock. He’d been extremely security-conscious since a young woman was stabbed in the hallway of the building next door, less than a week before.

            David nodded his thanks and they walked towards the lift together, but neither man spoke or met the other’s eye. Both of them had witnessed the beginning of the attack, as had dozens of other residents in the street, but David had been the only person to speak, yelling out, “Let that girl alone!” To Martin’s surprise, the attacker had actually fled at the sound of another voice, giving the woman time to hide in a doorway… but the man had soon returned, found the woman, chased her inside, and finally killed her. Martin also suspected that David had also been the one who called the police… but he’d never asked. He knew it hadn’t been him, or his wife, and of course it was none of his business. Still, he felt uncomfortable now whenever he met the young bachelor, and avoided speaking to him. He grunted a farewell as David stopped the lift at the fifth floor and exited, then rode the lift up the tenth floor and walked to his own apartment, where his wife was preparing dinner and his children doing their homework. He kissed his wife, then walked into the bathroom, removed his coat and jacket, and washed his hands. David walked up to his own door, his keys still in his hand, and managed to open it without dropping his bags of groceries. He had just placed the steak in the frying pan when someone rang from the lobby, asking to be let in. He looked at his fingers, then punched the intercom button with his elbow. “Yes?”

            “Flowers for Mr David Fox.”

            The bachelor blinked. Flowers? In March? He hadn’t had a date in more than a month, nor gotten so much as a card on Valentine’s Day, and his birthday wasn’t until June. “Are you sure you have the right address?”

            “Sure I’m sure,” said the man, testily, and repeated it.

            “Who’re they from?”

            “Don’t ask me, Mac; I just deliver ‘em. Are you going to let me in? I got other deliveries to make.”

            “Yeah, okay,” he replied, and buzzed him in. The delivery man knocked on his door a moment later, and David peered through the peephole as he wiped his hands on a paper towel. The bouquet was small and the man large, and he hesitated slightly before opening the door. The man handed him the bouquet, and David looked at it curiously. “There’s no card,” he said, as he man showed him a clipboard and a pen.

            “Yeah? Maybe you got a secret admirer. Can you just sign this, please? Some of us got to work for a livin’.”

            “Okay, okay.” He picked up the pen and signed, then took the flowers, shut the door, and hurried into the kitchen to rescue his steak. The delivery man headed back down the hallway, then up the stairs, and knocked on Martin’s door. When the tailor answered, he smashed him across the temple with the barrel of his revolver. Martin staggered backwards, hitting his head on the table, and everything went black.

            When Martin revived, the man was standing over him, the gun pointed at his mouth. “Quiet,” he said. “Don’t talk unless I tell you. Don’t try yelling for help, because even if anybody comes running, I can shoot you both before they get here, so don’t make a fuckin’ sound. You know how to do that, don’t you?”

            Martin stared at the pistol, and nodded. “Your kids are in the bedroom,” said the gunman softly, almost gently. “I had to tie them up and gag them too, but they’re okay. This isn’t about them. Your wife’s okay too,” he said, and nodded towards the kitchen. Cautiously, Martin looked away for an instant, and saw his wife tied to a dining room chair with electric flex, a napkin stuffed into her mouth and held in place with sticky tape. Her eyes were wide with fear, and her face white, but she wasn’t making a sound. “Now,” the gunman continued, “if you do as I say, I won’t have to hurt her, or kill you. Unnerstand?”

            Martin nodded, and the gunman kicked him in the groin with his heavy steel-capped boot. The pain was worse than anything the tailor had felt in years, worse than anything he could remember. He instinctively curled up into a foetal position to protect himself, but apart from a brief gasp, he didn’t make a sound. The gunman nodded. “I want you to sit down in that chair there,” he said, quietly.

            Martin rolled over until he was on his hands and knees, and crawled over towards the chair, then painfully hauled himself up until he could sit. He kept his thighs apart, because his balls felt as though they’d swollen up to the size of his head. The gunman followed him, keeping the long-barreled revolver pointed at his neck, then fished a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket and cuffed Martin to the chair.

            “Good,” he said, quietly, then swung the pistol so that the barrel hit Martin across the cheek, laying it open. “I’m not here to rape or rob anybody. I just got to ask you some questions and deliver a message.

            “A week ago, you saw a young woman getting stabbed in the street outside. So did thirty, forty other people in this building that we know about. None of you went downstairs, but one of yous yelled out, and the guy with the knife ran away.” The gunman shrugged. “He came back and finished her off, but I figure most of yous didn’t see that, though maybe you heard it, ‘cause the woman kept screaming. Only one guy called the cops, and that was after the woman was already dead. But my boss is curious.

            “I know there’s some old folks in this building who don’t trust cops because they was in the concentration camps. We got no problem with that; Hell, I don’t trust cops either, so it don’t worry us when other people don’t want to get involved with ‘em.” He smiled. “But you didn’t go to no concentration camp. So what’s your story? You saw it, didn’t you?”

            “Yes,” Martin whispered, his voice barely audible even to himself.

            “Speak up. And you didn’t do nothing?”

            Martin swallowed. “No. I… I heard the woman, but I didn’t see any knife.”

            “She screamed out that he’d stabbed her, and she begged for help.”

            “I didn’t see any knife,” Martin repeated. “I don’t see that well at night. Then I heard a man downstairs yell out, and the man - the one with the knife - ran away… and I was tired, and… Ruth told me to come back to bed. So I did.” He bit his lip, and didn’t look at his wife. “I didn’t think he’d come back.”

            “But she kept screaming. Did you hear her again?”

            Martin nodded.

            “Did you do anything that time?”

            “No. I… I thought…”

            “You thought what?”

            “I didn’t think I could help. I’m not a young man, and I’ve never been a fighter, and by the time I got down to the street…”

            “You were scared?”

            “She said he had a knife!”

            The gunman looked behind him towards the kitchen, then shrugged. “You’re not paid to be a hero, right? You leave that to the cops, right?”


            “So why didn’t you call them?”

            Martin opened his mouth, and closed it again. “I don’t know. I guess I thought that… well, so many people were looking out their windows, I thought somebody must already have called the cops, and what difference would one more make?”

            The gunman shrugged. “Looks like everybody else thought the same way, huh?”

            Martin nodded.

            “Did you know the woman?” asked the gunman. “She lived right across the road…”

            “I’d seen her around,” Martin replied, miserably. “I didn’t know her well - I didn’t even know her last name until I saw it in the paper yesterday.”

            “You remember it?”

            “Genovese. Catherine Genovese.”

            “Uh-huh.” The gunman hunkered down and looked Martin in the face. “You work in the garment industry, right?”


            “You’ve lived in this city long?”

            “Yes, most of my life.”

            “Uh-huh. You ever heard of the Five Families?”

            “The mafia families?”

            The gunman smiled. “You know their names? They been in the papers a lot.”

            Martin nodded. “The Gambino family, the Bonnano family, the… the…” He gulped. “Genovese…” he whispered, then, his voice rising almost to a scream, “I didn’t know -“

            The gunman hit him across the face again, shutting him up. “What you don’t know… oh, fuck it.” He hit him again. “Know this and unnerstand it and remember it. I was never here. This never happened. Kitty Genovese is no relation to the family. You just keep not getting involved, not calling the cops. Keep being scared. You got that?”

            Martin nodded again.

            “I’m going to leave now, and I don’t want you to make a sound for at least ten minutes. If you do, or if you ever call the cops and tell them about this, then maybe I’ll be back, or maybe somebody else will. Okay? After ten minutes, you can yell all you like. One of your neighbours will probably come and get you out of those cuffs one of these days. Neighbours help each other in a place like this, right?” He chuckled, then hit him one more time, this time in the solar plexus. “Nothing personal,” he said softly, still smiling. “We just had to pick one of you to ask - just one was enough to tell us what we wanted to know. You’re okay with us. Hell, we love people like yous.”


*          *          *


World Two: HMAS Adelaide, en route to the Persian Gulf, November 7, 2001

            Matt was sitting in the galley with his back to the television, reading the latest Flashman book, but he turned around when Daniel looked up and swore. “What’s up?”

            “Bald little prick just called us all liars!”

            “What?” Matt turned back around and faced his friend. “What’s he saying now?”

            Daniel took a deep breath. “He’s still saying that kids were thrown overboard from that boat. He’s even using photos we took of the people we rescued - but they’ve cut the date and time stamps off them to make it look like it happened before the boat sank.”

            “He’s been doing that for a month.”

            “I know, but we told people on Christmas that no kids were thrown overboard and that the photos were doctored! And now he’s calling us liars!”

            “He’s a politician. He probably thinks it’s a compliment. Besides, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and some -“

            “The election’s on Saturday. He only needs to fool people for a few more days! But if people knew he was the liar -“

            “We tried telling them.”

            “The islanders, sure.” He lowered his voice to a murmur. “We didn’t tell the papers. Or the opposition, or the other parties. If they knew… look, you’re in signals, you got access to the original photos. Can’t you get a message back to someone who might give a fuck?”

            Matt hesitated, then shook his head. “Telling the islanders was one thing, but this… I’m not sure I can, and if I was caught trying, I’d be tried. Court martial. No thanks.”

            “You’d be a fucking hero!”

            “I didn’t join the navy to become a fucking hero!” Unintentionally, he raised his voice, and a few of his shipmates at nearby tables looked up. “And I’m not being paid to be a hero,” he added softly, as he stared down at his plate.

            Daniel glowered at him, but didn’t say a word.

            “Look, dozens of people must have seen the original photos by now. Somebody’s sure to leak them before Saturday. Some officer who wants to go into politics. Some civilian who doesn’t have to worry about the risks.”

            “That’s -“

            Matt looked at his watch, and shook his head. “I don’t want to get involved in some crusade, okay? So fuck off. I’m tired; I’m going to bed.”


*          *          *


World Three: Windows on the World, New York; December 12, 2001


            “Why not?” asked the publisher, sipping at his Scotch. He was sitting with his back to the window; he took most out-of-town clients here, and was no longer fascinated by the view.

            “Because nobody would read it,” said the judge. “That’s why not. Except maybe for the last chapter.”

            The publisher shrugged. “Maybe, maybe not, but I think it’d be a best-seller anyway. And it’s a chance to put your point of view across, answer your critics…”

            “No,” said the judge. “I’ve retired from the bench. I’ve turned down a position with the International Criminal Court. I want to take it easy for a while. Maybe in a year or two…”

            “In time for the next election?”

            “Maybe after that. I’m sick of politics. Do you want to know why I voted that way?”

            “If you want to tell me,” said the publisher, quietly.

            The judge stared into his drink, looking at the ice cubes. “There were four Democrat appointees, and five Republican appointees including me, and I knew how everybody else was going to vote, but that shouldn’t have mattered. We should be beyond that. All the other stuff, about Scalia’s sons and Thomas’s wife and the Florida secretary of state working for Bush, I didn’t even know until later. But when they call you Justice as though it’s your first name, you try to give them justice. And there’s an old saying about justice: it must not only be done, it must be seen to be done.

            “I knew nobody, here or overseas, was going to believe justice had been done if we all voted for what seemed to be the interests of the party that had appointed us. It wasn’t for Gore, or Bush, it was for justice and the reputation for the Supreme Court. So I said count all the votes, and… well, you know the rest.”

            The publisher nodded. “Do you regret it?”

            A long silence. “My decision? No. The result? Sometimes.” He looked through the window. The air was unusually clear, and the restaurant had a great view. He’d never been impressed by the World Trade Centre, and always thought the twin towers resembled nothing so much as the boxes the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings had come in - but at least if you were inside the monstrosity, you didn’t have to look at it. “But I guess we’ll never know what might have happened if it’d gone the other way.”