The idea for this story started with the image of a man walking into a bar with a rabbit under his arm, so then I had to figure out what he was doing here. This was the first story I ever had accepted anywhere. First published in New Orbit Magazine, June 2018.
Hitler and the Rabbit
By S.A. McKenzie
The TV screen at the end of the bar had dissolved into fizzing static. It let out an electronic squawk and Rick hastily switched it off. Now he could hear the laughter and loud conversation through the open windows from the tables outside, where two of the village cricket teams were enjoying the sunshine.
Mistrustful of an English summer, the three old men at the bar had retained their year-round uniform of trousers and long-sleeved checked shirts. Win Reilly was even wearing a woollen vest over his shirt. He leaned in to talk to Rick. “I’m telling you, you ought to turn this place into a gastropub. You’d be raking it in.”
Cara came out of the kitchen with a tray of clean glasses, and saw the black TV screen.
“Oh no,” she said with mock dismay. “Now I’m going to miss Dancing with the Stars.”
Rick snorted. “How about you dance on outside and clear the tables?” he said. “That lot’s on their third round.”
Cara picked up an empty tray and did a couple of showy pirouettes with it on the way to the door, then paused and threw Rick an elaborate curtsy. He gave her a brief round of applause. She stopped to hold the door open for Terry Hughes and his wife Amelia before she went outside. Terry came up to the bar in front of Rick, then looked back for Amelia. She had stopped in the middle of the room and was holding her phone up, turning in a slow circle. “Your reception’s terrible in here, Rick,” she said.
“It’s all that eighteenth century brick, love,” he said with a grin.
“I’ll just pop outside and check the babysitter hasn’t texted,” she said to her husband, and went out the door, phone in hand.
Terry nodded to the old men and pulled himself onto a stool next to them. “If the baby sitter doesn’t text an update every five minutes she thinks the world’s going to end.” He turned to Rick. “Pint of Guinness, and a half of cider for the lady,” he said.
Tim Stanton was shaking his head at Win. “Now, if this place was going to be a gastropub, it’d need one of them great big kitchens, yeah? Where would they put that? Rick’d have to buy up next door and start knocking walls out.”
Down the end, Will Jones chimed in. “My son-in-law took us to one of those gastropubs in London, once. They served us Yorkshire puddings stuffed with lamb, with parsnip crisps stuck on top.”
Tim shook his head. “It ain’t right, to do that to a perfectly good pudding.”
“Somehow,” Rick said, handing Terry his drinks. “I don’t think the four of you, and an occasional batch of ramblers,” he nodded to the only occupied table near the door, where two couples in hiking boots were sitting, “would be enough to keep a restaurant afloat around here.”
“You should get a karaoke machine,” Terry suggested.
Win and Tim groaned. “Don’t say that, you’ll set him off,” Win said. But it was too late.
“Karaoke?” Will said, straightening up. “I could do that.” He launched into the first verse of My Way in a surprisingly deep baritone.
“Quick,” said Win, shoving some notes at Rick. “Another round. If he’s drinking, he can’t be singing.”
Rick began filling glasses quickly, putting the first in front of Will, who stopped singing and began to drink. He looked up when he heard the door of the bar open, but it wasn’t Cara coming back with the dirty glasses. A young man stood in the doorway for a long moment, looking behind him. He could have been admiring the way the golden evening light stretched out the shadows of the beech trees across the village green, but by the way his shoulders were hunched, Rick didn’t think he was admiring the view. He let the door swing shut and approached the bar. He was unshaven, his clothes rumpled, and his dark curly hair looked like he’d been running his hands through it. He had something tucked in his jacket under his right arm.
“Evening,” the stranger said. “A pint of lager, thanks.”
The bundle, deposited on the bar, proved to be a large brown rabbit. It sat on the bar and looked around, nose twitching.
Rick eyed the rabbit as it cautiously sniffed a bowl of peanuts.
“I really don’t think that’s hygienic,” he said.
“Oh, he’ll be fine,” the rabbit’s companion said. “They can’t catch diseases from humans.”
He extended a hand to Rick. “I’m Cready, and my furry friend here is Hector.”
“Rick,” said the barman, pouring the beer.
A couple of the ramblers got up from the table near the door. The man went past the bar to the toilets. The woman, who looked to be in her forties with curly dark hair and a sun-burned face, came up and leaned on the bar next to Cready, looking at the rabbit. “A couple of gin and tonics, and two pints of Guinness,” she said to Rick, and then turned to Cready. “So, what’s the punchline?” she said.
Cready blinked at her. He’d already downed half his beer. “Sorry?”
“A man walks into a pub with a rabbit. Sounds like the start of a joke. What’s the punchline?” She extended a finger for the rabbit to sniff, and then gently stroked his head.
“Ah,” said Cready. “And then the world ends. That’s the punchline.” He drained the rest of his glass and pushed it towards Rick for a refill.
“That’s not terribly funny,” she said.
“No,” Cready said. “I think I’m going to keep drinking until it starts to seem hilarious.”
“What about the rabbit?” she said. “Does he think it’s funny?”
“Hard to tell, with rabbits, but this fellow here is one very special rabbit,” Cready said, with a grand gesture at Hector. “We are both employees of Chron-X.”
“That’s the crowd that bought up the Wainbridge nuclear power station down in Essex, isn’t it? The government was supposed to be decommissioning it,” the woman said. “I remember the protests when they leased it to the Americans.”
“You’re a long way from home, then,” Terry said.
Cready nodded. “I ran out of petrol a couple of miles from the village. We’re probably not far enough away, but then, I don’t think anywhere will be far enough.” He rummaged in his jacket pocket and produced a carrot, which he offered to the rabbit.
The rambler frowned at him. “Far enough? Has there been a radiation leak?”
Cready laughed. “If only! No, there’s nothing wrong with the nuclear reactor. It’s far worse than that.” He noticed that everyone at the bar was staring at him now.
“Sorry. Maybe I should start at the beginning.” He took a sip of his beer. “See, Chron-X was the first company to figure out a way to commercialize time travel.”
“I read about that,” Terry said. “When time travel was first discovered there were so many obstacles you couldn’t do much with it.”
“Exactly.” Cready began to count on his fingers. “First, you need a shit load—excuse me—of electricity to open a time portal, which is why they had to have their own power station, and very expensive it was leasing that off the government. And the further back in time you go, the more power you need. The Wainbridge station at maximum capacity couldn’t get us back more than 200 years.”
He raised another finger. “Secondly, you can’t send anything much bigger than a shoe box back, so they couldn’t send people back. And finally, even with all that power available, they couldn’t keep the aperture open much more than ten minutes.”
“So is there a sort of opening you could stick your arm into, or that you could look through?” Terry looked intrigued.
Cready grinned. “In the early days, one idiot technician did stick his arm through. He never got it back. Eventually they worked out that the only way to send anything to the past and have it arrive intact is in a heavily shielded box.”
He pushed his glass towards Rick for another top-up. “So, can you bring back stuff from the past?” Rick asked, as he poured the beer.
“Good question,” Cready said, with a nod towards Rick. “It turned out, no. Only stuff on a microscopic level, anyway. A bit of dust, pollen, bacteria, air, just the incidental stuff that gets on the equipment. Anything else, and you’d need a couple more nuclear power stations to haul it back here. You’ve heard that travel quote, ‘Take only pictures, leave only footprints’? That’s time travel, in a nutshell.”
“What’s the point of it all, then?” the rambler asked.
“Exactly!” Cready smacked his glass back down on the bar, making everyone start. Hector laid his ears back, but went on methodically eating his carrot. “Five years of expensive experimentation, and all Chron-X got out of the past was some video, and maybe a few instrument readings, if the instruments survived the trip. They couldn’t even go far enough back to access the really interesting bits of the past, the sort of thing that might get the shareholders excited. No close-ups of a Tyrannosaurus rex, or Cleopatra in her underwear.”
“The trick, in the end, was to find a question that historians wanted an answer to. A situation where ten or fifteen minutes of video of a specific moment might answer that question.”
“They ran into problems getting that video. You can’t send something back that obviously doesn’t belong in an era. People are going to notice it. Apart from not wanting to contaminate the past, you don’t want people picking up your cameras and fiddling with them when you’ve only got a few minutes to film something. We needed a way for the recording equipment to be able to move around, without being noticed or interfered with.”
“Couldn’t they send a robot? A little one that could crawl around and take pictures? Like those ones that go to Mars,” Rick asked.
Cready laughed. “You’ve been reading those stories in the papers about how robots are going to take our jobs, aren’t you? Sure, you could build something that could move slowly around on any terrain, and take pictures, if you want to spend plenty of money, and didn’t mind that it probably wouldn’t come back in one piece. The hard part is making it look like something that belongs in that time and place. It just wasn’t possible on our budget. In the end, they came up with a far cheaper and more effective solution: animals.”
He ruffled Hector’s fur. “Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the world’s only time traveling rabbit.” Everyone looked at the rabbit. Hector modestly ignored the attention, snuffling around for the remaining scraps of carrot.
Rick noticed Terry was staring at the glass of cider in front of him, frowning as if he couldn’t remember how it got there. Finally he shrugged, and began to drink it.
“Why rabbits, though?” the rambler asked. “They’re not that bright.”
“Oh, we tried all sorts of animals. What you send depends on the situation. If it’s a city, for example, you might want to send off a couple of pigeons with cameras attached and get footage from above. Small dogs sometimes worked, but it’s hard getting dogs small enough to fit in the box. We got the best results with pigeons and rabbits, so that’s what we used.”
“Look at this.” He put a finger under what looked like part of Hector’s fur and lifted it up. “The harness is made of rabbit fur, so it’s not noticeable. You attach tiny cameras and sensors all over it. They don’t need a lot of memory, because they broadcast everything back to a receiver which stays in the box. We’ve got a chap who made props for the Lord of the Rings movies. He does these fantastic little covers for the boxes. They blend right in, make it look like a clump of grass with a rabbit hole in it. So, the box opens, the rabbit dashes out, runs in a wide circle around the area, filming the whole time and then—hopefully—dives back in the hole. Then the box closes and we pull it back to the present.”
He took a clicker out of his pocket, and clicked it fast three times. The rabbit immediately reared up on his hind feet and looked around at him. Cready popped a piece of dried apple down on the bar and the rabbit began nibbling at it.
“That’s my job,” Cready said. “Mobile Unit Specialist, Level 3. Or chief rabbit trainer, in other words.”
“So, you get to cuddle bunnies all day?” the rambler said, laughing. Rick realised abruptly that he hadn’t finished pouring the drinks she’d ordered. He finished topping up the Guinness, and reached for the gin bottle. She looked at him in confusion when he put down four drinks in front of her. He looked over at the table by the door where her companions had been sitting. Nothing there but some empty glasses and a small pile of rucksacks. Her companions seemed to have wandered off. Odd, he thought. He hadn’t seen them go out the door. And the man she’d been with hadn’t come back from the toilets, either. “Sorry,” he said. “Got you mixed up with another table.” He took three of the drinks back and put them behind the bar. “That’ll be three quid.” He found himself staring past her at the windows. The light outside was dimming fast. Must be clouding over.
“Sounds like an interesting sort of job,” Win was saying to Cready.
“Oh, it was a good job, all right,” Cready said. “Doesn’t pay to get too attached, of course. At least a quarter of the rabbits don’t survive the return trip. Always plenty of work for me, training the new ones. We solved the mystery of the Marie Celeste—had to use seagulls for that one. Bloody nightmare training them, always squawking and crapping on everything. We used rats to get some amazing footage of Jack the Ripper, though the historians still hadn’t matched the pictures with any known historical figure, last I’d heard. We know where Agatha Christie disappeared to for eleven days in 1926. You’ll never believe what she got up to. Things were going brilliantly, until we got a contract to investigate Hitler.”
“A few years back, there was a Frenchman who claimed to be Hitler’s son. The story was that Adolf Hitler had a brief affair with a French teenager while serving in France during the First World War. No-one had ever been able to conclusively prove that Hitler was the father, though. We started by opening a portal where Hitler was supposed to have first encountered Charlotte Lobjoie, in a hayfield outside the village of Fournes-in-Weppe in 1917. Should have been a textbook operation. Good old Hector here was going to pop out of the grass, run around a bit, film everything in the area, and pop back down his hole. We even got the right spot first time out. There he was, the young Adolf Hitler, rather ineptly chatting up the ladies.”
“It’s at that point that things started to go wrong. How were we to know that Hitler was afraid of rabbits? Or maybe he was just easily startled. You see, those country girls, they’re very practical. They saw a nice plump rabbit run out and they all tried to grab him to stuff him in a sack for dinner. Poor old Hector had to take evasive action. He wound up running straight at Hitler, who screamed like a little girl, leapt backwards, fell over and hit his head on a rock.”
The bar windows were black rectangles now. It was too early for it to be so dark. Terry’s wife hadn’t come back inside. Neither had Cara. Probably got to chatting to one of the cricketers, Rick thought. But he could no longer hear any voices from the open windows. Rick knew he should go and look for her, but he didn’t want to move away from the bar, from that little island of light. It was all right for the others at the bar. They had their backs to it. They couldn’t see the way the darkness seemed to be nibbling at the edges of the room. Rick reached out suddenly to the switch panel and flicked on the rest of the light switches, even the extra bright ones that he usually turned on only when they were doing the cleaning. He noticed Cready was looking at him, with an odd mixture of pity and trepidation.
With an effort, Rick dragged his mind back to the story. “So, Hitler fell down and hit his head?” Cready rubbed the stubble on his face. “I’ll never forget the sound that made. You didn’t need to be a surgeon to know that it had done some serious damage. The girls all forgot about the rabbit and ran to the fallen man, and Hector hopped back in the box and came home.”
“When the techs reviewed the footage, there was an uproar. Had we accidentally killed Hitler? Before all this happened, the boffins had had two different theories about what might happen, if we somehow managed to change recorded history. One school of thought said that since everything that happened in the past has already happened, then it can’t be changed. There’s a kind of inertia to time. So we’d just find that young Adolf got a nasty cut—scalp wounds bleed terribly, after all—and history would proceed as written. The other theory was that any major change would cause a parallel universe to split off. So your time traveller returns to an alternate reality, having changed history, and finds that as far as everyone there is concerned, the changed version was the way it had always been, and therefore we’d never know we had changed history.”
Cready stopped and stared into his drink as if he could read something there.
“Well, which was it?” Tim Stanton asked after a long pause. “I remember all my old man’s war stories, and there was nothing in them about Hitler dying young.”
Cready downed the last of his drink, and put the glass down on the bar with great care. “Turns out, they’re all wrong,” he said. “The space-time continuum is a lot more fragile than anyone ever guessed. I’m sure eventually they could come up with a theory to explain what’s happening. Only, there won’t be any time for that.”
“What do you mean?” the rambler said. “What’s going to happen?” Everyone at the bar was staring at Cready now. Except Rick. He was looking over Cready’s shoulder. Behind them, the door to the bar had quietly slipped away, and with it the windows, and the tables near the door. Rick blinked hard. Had there ever been a door? He couldn’t seem to remember.
Cready scooped up the rabbit from the bar and held him tightly. “I’m sorry. I’m so sorry,” he said. “It started in France this morning, and moved outwards from there. We didn’t know how to stop it. I thought—I thought that if I stayed close to Hector it might miss me somehow. I just took him and ran. Everyone at the facility is gone now.”
He blinked. He was talking to a row of empty stools. Irritated by his tight grip, the rabbit twisted suddenly in his arms and wriggled free. Cready grabbed at him, missed, and Hector tumbled to the carpet.
The rabbit shook himself and fluffed out his fur. All he could smell now was himself and the sweaty tang of human hands on his coat. Even a rabbit’s eyes couldn’t penetrate the darkness around him. He didn’t like this scentless place. The salt he’d licked off the peanuts at the bar was making him thirsty. Dim images flickered through his mind. Water, grass, good solid soil under his paws, the smell of other rabbits. Light. There should be light. This darkness wasn’t right. He thought as hard as a rabbit can think about the feel of sun on his fur, about the long stretched shadows of a summer evening.
A faint yellow glow began to form ahead of him. Hector sat up, ears forward. He began to hop towards the scent of growing things.
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© Copyright S.A. McKenzie 2018