Citizens: a time-travel short story

The French Revolution is a dangerous time…even in the future.

The guard peered through the rusty iron bars of their cell. He was pointing a bayonet-tipped musket in their direction. 

Citoyen!” he barked. This was followed by a spate of curse words in the gutter French of the late 1700s. Robert Craig could only catch a word here and there. His wife, who spoke modern French, was able to understand considerably more. But even she missed much of it. This fellow was obviously uneducated. He spoke the rough and improvised French of the provinces, not the cultured dialect of Paris.

“What did he say?” Robert Craig asked his wife.

“He said that we’re nothing but bourgeoisie exploiters of the people, and that we’ll get what is coming to us soon enough.”

Anglais!” the guard spat. He leveled his musket at Mrs. Craig. She sat on the floor beside her husband. The floor was bare except for some straw that smelled of old urine and mildew.

Anglais means English,” Mrs. Craig said.

“I understand that much French,” Robert replied. Numerous times they had tried to tell the guard that they were American—not English. They had finally given up the effort. 

The guard made a little explosive sound by expelling air between his lips. Mrs. Craig barely flinched as she stared directly into the muzzle of the musket. The guard had been playing this game with them for hours. It was now obvious that he did not intend to shoot them in their cell. He was not authorized to do so. The Craigs would meet their fate on the guillotine, having been sentenced to death by a representative of the Committee of Public Safety. 

Their trial had been a brief, pro-forma affair. The Craigs were not afforded the benefit of a counselor or an interpreter. The prosecutor had hastily read the charges leveled against them. Then the judge had fixed his gaze on Robert and Susan Craig. He had rapped his knuckles on the surface of the little oak table at which he sat, and uttered a single word: “mort”—death.

The guard lowered his musket and turned his back to them; but the Craigs knew that he would continue the game later. Their jailer seemed to take special delight in harassing this particular set of captives. He was a big, burly man with a heavy mustache and a head of long, unkempt black hair.  Robert would have guessed that the guard was in his mid-thirties. His clothes and manner strongly suggested a lifetime of poverty. No doubt he had a bone to pick with the Ancien Régime. But neither Robert nor Susan had any part in his troubles. Besides, Louis XVI had been guillotined in January 1793—just six months ago. The hated king was dead.

“You never should have crossed Barry Olsen,” Mrs. Craig said. “He’s the one who put us here. I’m sure of it.”

“We can’t be certain of that,” Robert said. However, he privately speculated that his wife Susan was correct.  Barry Olsen and Robert Craig were both U.S. senators. Olsen was the Senate Majority Leader, while Craig was a member of the struggling opposition. As one of the most powerful individuals in the country, Barry Olsen wielded undeniable power; but was his influence the cause of their current predicament? 

Robert removed the Wang Time Travel Ltd. receipt and ticket stub from his pants pocket. The ticket was dated August 12, 2109. The Wang company was based in Beijing, of course; but there were a handful of Wang Time Travel branch offices in the United States. Few Americans could afford to indulge in the luxury of recreational time travel. For those who could, however, travel to the past was the ultimate adventure. In 2109, time travel was still a relatively new phenomenon. The first time travel experiments had been conducted in China during the 2090s. Time travel had been commercially available since 2101.

The Craigs were now discovering firsthand that time travel could indeed be dangerous to the individual time traveler. However, the process was free of the world-altering risks about which previous generations had speculated.

Ever since time travel was first imagined, scientists, philosophers, and science fiction authors had dwelled upon the so-called “grandfather paradox.” The idea went something like this: Suppose a man goes back in time and meets the young, unmarried version of his grandfather. Next suppose that the time traveler and this younger version of his grandfather find some reason to quarrel. The man ends up killing his own ancestor before he can procreate. Question: Does the time traveler then cease to exist in the present?

Physicists of the late twenty-first century answered this question by proving another theory: the theory of parallel universes. They discovered that there are in fact an infinite number of alternate realities. Some are very similar to the “actual” reality—others are completely different. In one alternate reality you might be born a minute earlier or a minute later. In another alternate reality you might be born in a different year, to different parents—or you might never be born at all.

This meant that the risks associated with the “grandfather paradox” could be easily avoided by directing time travelers to parallel universes that were separate from but 99.99% similar to our own. Therefore, when a time traveler paid a fare to visit “the past”, he was technically cheated. The place he visited was not the past of his own universe; but it was so similar as to be indistinguishable.

And so the Craigs had purchased their time travel tickets from the Washington D.C. branch office of Wang Time Travel Limited. The company was supposed to transport them to the Paris of 1778. In this year, pre-revolutionary France and the American colonies were allies in a war against Great Britain. Americans would therefore be popular in Paris. 

Instead, the Craigs reached Paris fifteen years later, in the summer of 1793. This was the height of the phase of the French Revolution known as the Reign of Terror. Maximilien Robespierre and the Jacobin’s Committee of Public Safety ruled the French nation as virtual dictators, and they used the guillotine liberally. The blade claimed thousands of heads each week. You did not have to be an aristocrat in order to be condemned. Shopkeepers and other petty bourgeoisie also provided fuel for le guillotine. As did the domestic servants and the gardeners of the wealthy. Many of the guillotine’s victims were sentenced to death merely for failing to use the revolutionary form of address: citoyen—“citizen”—with sufficient ardor. 

The Craigs had landed in the middle of downtown Paris clad in aristocratic period garb. Robert wore knee-breeches and stockings. Susan Craig wore a fashionable dress of the late 1770s. Both of their heads were adorned with powdered wigs.

Less than ten minutes had passed before the Craigs were arrested by the sans-culotte—the citizen volunteers who enforced Jacobin rule. The sans-culotte possessed little in the way of military discipline; in most cases they functioned as a loosely organized rabble. But they were effective at terrorizing the enemies of the revolutionary state nonetheless. When they did not kill their victims on the spot, they took them into custody and brought them to the Committee of Public Safety for judgment.

Robert and Susan had insisted that they were Americans—and not the British aristocrats that their clothing suggested. Robert showed his sans-culotte abductors his passport. The document asserted that Robert Lawrence Craig was a citizen by birth of the Socialist Republic of America. But the Frenchmen had not been convinced. They were suspicious of the unfamiliar material on which the passport was printed. Moreover, there was no such country as the Socialist Republic of America: and indeed there had not been in 1793.

The guard began humming to himself. Robert guessed that it was one of the many revolutionary songs that the new authorities had commissioned. Revolution and bad music seemed to go together. Before long another person—perhaps another guard like this one—would come and take them to a waiting tumbrel, Robert knew. Then they would have a short ride through downtown Paris, to—

Robert’s thoughts were disturbed by the distant sound of a drum roll. He stood up from the filthy floor and walked over to the window of their third floor cell. The window was covered only with bars. The shutters had fallen off long ago and the prison officials had not repaired them. Robert strained to see the structure of the guillotine. It was far away, and partially obscured by the hovels of this impoverished section of Paris.

Robert could barely make out the face of the woman whom two guards were leading up the platform to the guillotine. Robert guessed her to be in her late twenties. The woman’s face looked haggard and bruised. Her hair had been cut to facilitate her beheading. 

The guards bound her hands behind her back and placed her face-down on the guillotine. A third man, who was a revolutionary official of some sort, began to read a proclamation. A fourth man, a hooded executioner, stood ready at the lever that would release the blade.

Robert turned to his wife: “What is that slogan the revolutionaries are always spouting?” he asked.

Liberté, égalité, fraternité” she replied, still seated on the floor. “’Liberty, equality, fraternity,’ in English.”

Robert resumed his observation of the woman’s execution. He turned back to the window just in time to see the blade whistle down its wooden frame. The young woman’s head fell from her body into the basket below. The executioner lifted her head from the basket and showed it to the crowd. The mob roared in approval.

So this is their idea of liberty, equality, and fraternity, Robert Craig thought. Mob rule. The dictatorship of the many. Why couldn’t people understand that dictatorship of the many could be equally as tyrannical as dictatorship of the few—or the one?

Then his thoughts returned to Barry Olsen. He shook his head at the scene outside the window, and rejoined his wife on the floor. 

“Do you think I was wrong to oppose Barry Olsen in the Senate?” he asked her. 

“Not wrong,” she said. “But maybe unwise. Barry Olsen is very popular. The young people adore him. They say he brings them hope.  They say there hasn’t been anyone like him in a hundred years. And they say he’ll be the next president of the Socialist Republic of America.”

“Don’t call it that,” Robert said, grimacing. “Not when it’s just the two of us.”

“Honey,” Susan began. They had had this discussion many times before. “That’s what your passport says. Mine too. You’re a senator of the Socialist Republic of America.”

“If my grandfather were here he would—” he began.

“Yes, I know. Your grandfather used to tell you about the days when the country was called something else. But he was born when? In nineteen-ninety-one. And think about how many years he’s been gone.”

Robert shook his head futilely. He knew there was nothing to be gained by traversing this familiar ground yet again. The United States of America had been renamed the Socialist Republic of America (SRA) in 2047, after decades of moving in that direction. And the new name was only the beginning. The renaming of the country had been accompanied by a reinterpretation of its history. American schoolchildren were now taught that the Founding Fathers had intended to create a socialist republic all along; but their efforts were stymied by a shadowy clique known as “the Selfish Ones.” According to this new version of history, the Selfish Ones represented a persistent cancer throughout the course of the American timeline. The Selfish Ones had been responsible for every injustice and catastrophe, from slavery and the treatment of the Native Americans in the 1800s, to the Urban Food Riots of 2029.

Even the Declaration of Independence had been altered to cleanse it of the purported influence of the Selfish Ones. The words “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness” had been replaced with “Unity, Association, and the Service of Others.”

For better or worse, though, not everyone embraced the new agenda. Private-sector firms still existed within America’s planned economy, like weeds in an otherwise perfectly tended garden. These vestiges of free enterprise were one of Senator Olsen’s most persistent concerns. 

We are supposed to be one America,” Barry Olsen was fond of saying. “But the Selfish Ones are still among us. They seek profit rather than service, individual indulgence rather than Association. They are the ones who take food from the mouths of the poor.” 

And if he were elected president, Barry Olsen would call out the Selfish Ones by name and punish them. Robert Craig was sure of it. There would be a bloodletting—all in the name of the People. “Remove the obstacles to unity,” Barry Olsen was fond of saying. The senator’s young followers had this slogan printed on their clothing, their personal belongings, and sometimes even their bodies.

“Barry Olsen claims he will purify the country,” Susan Craig said. “He says he’ll put a stop to the recent backsliding—the resurgence of private industry.” 

“That’s crazy!” Robert said. “Free enterprise is booming in Russia, China, and practically everywhere else. Why couldn’t it work again here?” Then he stopped himself, realizing that “here” was a relative term. “I mean in America, of course. In our time.”

“The government’s five-year economic plan is failing miserably, and the people need scapegoats.”

“The five-year economic plan is failing because the government is using resources inefficiently,” Robert snapped.

“Robert, dear, don’t blame me. You may disagree with him—and for what it’s worth—you know I do, too. But that’s the message the people want to hear. And there is nothing you can do about it. Especially not now. Not here.”

No, thought Robert, there is nothing I can do about it now, separated from the battle in the American People’s Congress by more than three hundred years (not to mention thousands of miles). Within a few hours Susan and I are going to die on that platform over there, and Barry Olsen is going to have a free hand to advance his agenda 

As he heard the drum roll begin again, he reflected that Susan was probably right. Barry Olsen probably was responsible for their current predicament. Olsen had been head of the committee that approved licenses for foreign joint ventures operating in the SRA. He could have held that trump card over the owners of Wang Time Travel Ltd. 

Robert could just imagine a transcript of the conversation. You want your license renewed? Well, I want Senator Craig out of the way. Suppose you arrange a little accident when he takes his wife on that trip to 1770s Paris…Suppose you send him to 1793 instead… 

And why wouldn’t Barry Olsen want him out of the way? He had been a constant thorn in Olsen’s side—arguing for a return to free enterprise principles and individual initiative. 

Robert had recently battled Senator Olsen on proposed legislation that would have effectively outlawed private businesses of any kind. The bill, drafted by Olsen himself, would have mandated that all enterprises must accept the government as a shareholder. 

Olsen had dubbed it The Economic Unity Act. Robert Craig had given an impassioned speech against The Economic Unity Act—the speech of his life, in fact—and the bill had been narrowly defeated in the Senate as a result. But Olsen was young, impassioned, and he could claim a growing personality cult in the SRA. Time was on his side.

“Why do you suppose that Barry Olsen is so popular?” Robert Craig asked his wife.

“Barry Olsen tells people what they’ve always wanted to hear,” Susan replied. “That the government will take care of them, if they only surrender what’s left of their freedom as part of the bargain. Then they won’t have to be responsible. They won’t have to think—”

“Because Barry Olsen will think for them.” Robert finished his wife’s sentence.

Susan rubbed one of the cuts on her face. The sans-culotte had not been gentle when they arrested the Craigs. “Yes, I suppose that’s it.”

Robert stood up and wandered back to the window. The guards had just led another prisoner up to the guillotine. The Jacobin official was enumerating the prisoner’s many crimes against the state. As she was placed into a prone position beneath the guillotine’s blade, the drummers resumed their thrumming cadence.

As he watched this spectacle for the second time, Robert was suddenly certain that Barry Olsen was responsible for his presence in this cell. The irony of the situation was a bit too convenient. The senator could have killed him in any number of ways. He could have arranged for Robert and his wife to be put down in the middle of a catastrophic earthquake or a raging battle. For that matter, why not in the middle of an erupting volcano? That would complete the task quickly and leave no possibility of escape. 

The French Revolution, however, was a political means of accomplishing his murder. Robert would be beheaded as an enemy of the People, a Selfish One—the very thing that Barry Olsen had often accused him of being. 

Outside, the drum roll stopped and the blade of the guillotine descended again. Another head fell into the basket. The executioner raised the head high into the air and the crowd roared.  

Soon he and Susan would have to mount the stairs leading to the guillotine.

Overcome with a surge of emotion, Robert abandoned his place at the window and knelt down before his wife. He wrapped his arms around her small, feverish frame. 

“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I’m so sorry I got us into this.”

There was a scraping sound as the door to the cellblock creaked open. A prissy-looking, prim little man appeared before their cell. He was dressed in knee breeches and a fine frock coat. He wore the tricolor cockade of the revolution. He was carrying a single piece of paper.

When the guard saw this man, he snapped to attention and saluted. Robert concluded that the short man was a revolutionary authority. He uttered a few terse sentences in French to the guard as he gestured to his document.

“What did he say?” Robert asked his wife.

“He said that the paper is our execution order. It’s our turn to go—out there.”

“Right now?”

“Apparently so.”

“We won’t give up without a fight,” Robert whispered in her ear. He sized up their guard: He was a big man; but Robert believed that he could briefly overpower him. 

If I can get that musket away from him, Robert thought. I’ll have one shot. I would never be able to reload that thing; but I’ll still have the bayonet to use. I can ram it through that little Jacobin official’s heart.

The odds were against him, of course. There would be at least one or two more guards downstairs. He would have to either kill or evade them.

The guard removed the key to their cell from a peg on the wall. The prissy little man in the frock coat and knee breeches read over his document as he waited—no doubt making sure that everything was in order.

The guard leaned his musket against a crossbar in the cell’s grating. He inserted the key into the lock and turned it. Then he slowly pushed open the door of their cell, eliciting a groan of rusty hinges.

Robert thought: I must not hesitate. I must move quickly.

From far outside the window, beyond the rooftops of this impoverished section of Paris, the sound of drums began once again.