It’s cold, but Victor keeps waiting. They’ll be coming out soon. He moves the snap pistol to his other hand and the wintry metal bites. There is nothing warm in Mauthausen. The packed dirt streets are frosted. The air is chilled. The people are frozen in their own way, if Victor thinks about it. Sometimes they look more like a photograph…
The butcher shop opens with a slink of steam and light. The assassins emerge, squabbling about directions. One of them is Austrian-looking, with plastered blonde hair and well-synthesized clothes. The other is not. His muddy, post-racial melanin stands out sharply against the pallid villagers. A Diaspora handgun winks in and out of view with the motion of an untucked shirt. Victor is surprised; he doesn’t recognize the model. He supposes it is a few years ahead of his time.
Time. He needs to ensure the Quo.
“Gruss Gott,” Victor says, rounding the corner of the alley after them. They both whirl. They have frantic eyes, unsteady. They are terrified and elated at once by what they have come to do. There is a hunger and a purpose shining in beautiful irises. Neither of them speak High German.
“Get lost, you fucking puppy,” one of them mutters, waving Victor off.
“We must be close,” the other says. “Oh, God, we can do it. We’ll actually do it.” Victor has to wonder again how so many have slipped through. Bribery, for the most part. Social conscience could be another factor. Some officials might not try their hardest to prevent an illegal rewind if they secretly sympathize with the cause.
“As unlicensed rewinders in a restricted time and area, you are in violation of the Quo.” He didn’t mean to mention the Quo. That slips out unbidden. There is a section and subsection he should have snarled at them instead. Victor has already scanned them for bombs, so he snaps a bullet into each of their foreheads. The shooting is very quiet.
Victor covers the bodies with nanoweave, tucking sprawled limbs under the tarp with practiced motions. He can do disposal later, during the night. Victor leaves the alley as an empty stretch of cold dirt in the eyes of passers-by. He’s returned them to the dust. That’s the Quo in its essence: some have to return, some have to stay.
One in particular has to stay. It begins to snow, but the flakes don’t reach the ground.
They come every so often, the rewinders. Every few months. He waits for them, like partners in a very slow dance, and eventually – after weeks of trudging through dirty Mauthausen and bundling wood for food, weeks of watching for new faces very carefully – they will appear. Victor is out on the street again, with the snap pistol hidden safely in his pocket and now the Diaspora as well. He’s passing through the square. The villagers used to seem like ghosts to him, but he understands better now. He’s the ghost.
The hut is waiting for him on the outside of the village, a cramped thing where he either sleeps or masturbates. Dirt floor, wooden walls. Victor picks a nail out of the rotting door frame as he enters. He never bothers making repairs. The family will relocate again soon, hopefully closer to Linz. Mauthausen doesn’t suit him.
Victor sleeps and has bad dreams. He wakes up when the night is sufficiently dark to move corpses.
Someone else is in the alley. Victor doesn’t differentiate the crouched shape from the other weird shadows until it steps forward, pointing a weapon at him. He can’t see the face, so he looks down instead to where the nanoweave has been stripped away and discarded in the snow. The men he killed earlier in the evening are going blue and black, tangled side by side like crooked insects.
“English?” the man demands.
“If you want,” Victor says. The voice sounds young. The stance seems competent.
“This is your job, yes? You’re one of their monitors.” He is staying in the shadows. Victor wonders if he has been careless. Nobody should ever find the bodies, even with tracing equipment. But then, there have never been two attempts in such quick succession. Maybe the third rewinder has been here all along.
“Empty your pockets,” the rewinder says. Victor reaches into his coat and pulls out the Diaspora. He unloads it and drops the dissembled weapon at his feet. “And the other. There’s weight in both.”
Victor drops the snap pistol.
“I’m going to kill you,” the rewinder says. “But first, I have to ask. I have to.” Victor is familiar with the question, though usually he hears it from a man or woman dying at his feet. He gives the same answer.
“I’m maintaining the Quo,” he says simply.
“That’s what they call it? That’s what they write on your memos?” The rewinder has a tremor in his voice. Disgust, maybe. He doesn’t understand.
“That’s what I call it. Chronology has to be preserved. The cost doesn’t matter.” It feels good, surprisingly, to talk to someone in English. He has missed it.
“Turn around,” the rewinder says. “I’ll walk you to the back of the alley.” Victor turns on his heel, waits. He feels the gun poke into his back, and then they walk. He finds himself looking at a dead brick wall. There’s soot on it.
“What’s it like, now?” Victor asks. The rewinder doesn’t answer for a moment.
“The same. We’ve broken time itself, and things are the same.” He makes an angry noise. “Your bosses make sure of that. But, this year, things change. 1894. Anything of note happening this year?” Victor’s hands are cold. He puts them in his pockets.
“Kate Chopin writes a short story. Coca Cola sells in bottles.” Victor stares into the brick. “Nothing here in Austria.” The muzzle of the gun jerks forward and he lets his head bob with it, like a puppet on a stick.
“I think there will be, tonight,” the rewinder says. Victor still has a nail in his pocket.
“It’s going to be harder than you think,” Victor says. “You won’t like it.”
“I’ve used this before,” the rewinder snaps. Victor rolls it with his thumb.
“Not me,” Victor says. “Him. He’s young.” He feels the man take a step back. Hesitate.
“It’s easier to crush a snake egg than kill a cobra,” the rewinder says. “It’s more certain this way. And I can override any compulsion, social or biological, if it means preventing Auschwitz. Saving millions.”
“There’s no certainty,” Victor says back. “That’s the point.” He slams his hand backward towards the voice with a rusted nail locked between his knuckles. His other hand comes up as he turns and jars the gun away. There are flesh sounds. The gun goes off and his eardrums implode, his eyes are filled with oil spills.
Then the man is lying in the dirt and Victor is over him with the gun held steady in cupped hands. The rewinder is not old. He doesn’t look out of place in his ragged coat and wool trousers—he could be the son of the butcher. Same age. He is trying to knead his eye, but the nail gouged it out and there is only gouting blood and torn socket.
“You’re killing those people,” he gasps. “You’re killing them all. You’re turning on the showers, goddamn you, goddamn you.” His chest is spasming.
“I know,” Victor snaps. He knows. It’s the nature of the Quo. “But if you prevent that, what do you cause? Do you know that? No?”
“Coward,” the rewinder sputters.
“It’s not worth the risk,” Victor says. “Better a known atrocity than the unknown. No matter what it is.” He doesn’t want to hear a counter-argument, so he shoots him. He has enough of those. For all Victor knows, the other bodyguards and monitors have already failed their assignments, and the world is not as it should have been. If he came this close to failure, here behind this butcher shop, how could he be sure that others hadn’t? The Quo might already be demolished, and his job might be a farce. A farce set in the shithole of Mauthausen.
There’s no certainty, not even in the Quo. He hopes he is preventing catastrophe, but sometimes he dreams he is a monster in the dark, saving Belial and murdering angels. In the morning, Victor goes to the house. As has been his tradition since being deployed five years ago, to Braunau-am-Inn, he finds the small dark-haired boy and watches him play in the yard for a little while.
He wonders if he is a good man or a bad man.