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Time Travelers Visit 1930s Germany and Disrupt History

In Allen Steele's Time Loves a Hero, a journey to the past may change the centuries to come.

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  • Photo Credit: Aron Visuals / Unsplash

In the 24th century, time travel is not only possible, but it's a thriving industry. Aboard vessels called timeships, "chrononauts" journey to the past via wormholes, with the intention of studying historic catastrophes. Dr. Franc Lu and his partner, Lea, are two such individuals—and they’ve embarked on their toughest mission yet: witnessing the Hindenburg explosion.

On May 6, 1937, the civilian airship caught fire while approaching its landing site, killing 36. Franc and Lea have successfully traveled by way of the Oberon, arriving in 1930s Frankfurt prior to the crash. They then abduct two doomed Hindenburg passengers, and assume their identities. Disguised as the so-called John and Emma Pannes, the chrononauts take their places on the craft, planning to escape just before disaster strikes.

But when the critical moment comes, events diverge from the historical record. Disaster still strikes—but it isn't the one Franc and Lea planned...

Read an excerpt from Allen Steele's Time Loves of Hero, and then download the book. 




Time Loves a Hero

By Allen Steele

Thursday, May 6, 1937: 7:23 P.M.

An odd stillness had fallen over the airfield. The light drizzle had let up for a moment as dull gray clouds parted here and there, allowing sunlight to lance down upon the aerodrome and reflect greenish twilight off the Hindenburg’s silver skin. The Navy men had the zeppelin’s mooring lines in their hands; they dug in their heels, playing tug-of-war with the leviathan looming three hundred feet above their heads. On the outskirts of the crowd, a radio newsman from Chicago delivered a breathless report of the airship’s arrival into a portable dictaphone machine.

Glancing around the promenade, Franc realized that he was surrounded by dead people. Fritz Erdmann, the Luftwaffe colonel who had been trying to ferret out a saboteur among his fellow passengers, but failed to notice Eric Spehl; he would soon be crushed by a flaming girder. Hermann Doehner and his lovely teenage daughter Irene, taking a family vacation to America: they were doomed as well. Moritz Feibusch, the sweet man whom the stewards had segregated from other German passengers simply because he was a Jew; he would soon perish. Edward Douglas, the General Motors businessman the Gestapo believed was an American spy, whom Erdmann had dogged during the entire flight; he, too, was living his last minutes.

And so were John and Emma Pannes. At least, this was how history would record their fate.

Although the clothes he and Lea had put on this morning appeared to be made of contemporary wool and cotton, they were woven from flame-resistant fabrics unknown in this century. The handkerchiefs in their pockets, once unfolded and placed over their mouths, contained two-minute supplies of molecular oxygen. They had left nothing in their baggage which had been made in the twenty-fourth century; the divots they had scattered throughout the airship would dissolve when the ambient air temperature reached 96 Celsius. When no one recovered their bodies from the wreckage, it would be presumed that their corpses had been incinerated by the inferno. This wasn’t too far from the mark; some of the bodies recovered from the disaster had only been identifiable by wedding bands or engraved watches.

“Time,” Lea whispered.

Related: It's Only a Matter of Time: Time Travel in Fiction and Real Life  

Franc prodded his glasses again. “Sixty-five seconds, plus or minus a few.” Then he took off the spectacles and slipped them into a vest pocket. She nodded and returned her hand to the railing.

There was a sudden rush of cool air. A few feet down the promenade, someone had cranked open a window. A woman waved to a man with a bulky motion-picture camera on the ground far below. Ghosts. He was surrounded by ghosts.

In the breast pocket of his jacket, Franc carried the one personal souvenir of this trip he had permitted himself: a folded sheet of paper, engraved with the Hindenburg’s name and picture, upon which were printed the airship’s passenger list. This wasn’t for the CRC; when he got home, he would frame it on the wall of his Tycho City apartment. Lea had nagged him about taking it, until he pointed out that it would be destroyed anyway; he later pretended not to notice when she tucked a teaspoon into the garter belt of her stockings. Little things like that wouldn’t be missed. He just wished he could save the two caged dogs back in the baggage compartment. Dogs were so scarce where they came from, and he hated to think what would happen to them when …

Franc took a deep breath. Calm down, calm down. You’re going to get through this. Just don’t lose your head now …

They had deliberately placed themselves on the starboard promenade of Deck B, not far from the gangway stairs. Many of the survivors had lived simply because they were here and not on the port promenade of the same deck, where others would“be pinned down by dining-room furniture. The original John Pannes died because he left the promenade just before the crash to see about Emma, who had remained in their cabin for unknown reasons. Airsickness? A premonition, perhaps? History hadn’t recorded the exact reasons why the Pannes had died, but he and Lea wouldn’t make the same fatal error.

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  • Allen Steele drew from real history: The Hindenburg airship (above) crashed on May 6, 1937.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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The airship’s stern would hit the ground first. Although the aluminum grand piano at the far end of the promenade worried them, they had already agreed to rush the gangway as soon as they felt that first, fateful jerk that everyone would initially assume to be a mooring rope snapping. Down the stairs past the Deck A landing, then down another flight of stairs to the passenger hatch … by the time they got that far, the airship would be almost on the ground. They shouldn’t have to jump more than four meters.

Thirty-seven seconds. From the instant when the first flame appeared on the upper aft fuselage to the moment the Hindenburg was a flaming skeleton, only thirty-seven seconds would elapse. Time enough to cheat history …

Or time enough to lose the bet.

Franc felt Lea slide against him. “If we don’t …”

“We will.”

Her head nodded against his shoulder. “But if we don’t …”

“Don’t tell me you love me.”

Her laughter was nervous and dry. “Stop flattering yourself.”

He managed to chuckle, and her hand briefly squeezed his arm before it returned to the railing. Franc glanced to his left, saw the dirigible’s shadow gliding closer to the mooring mast. “Hang on … any second now …”

The airship drifted back, forward, back again. The ground crew fought the wind as they hauled the behemoth toward the iron tripod. The two ground shadows converged, became as one.

Franc clung to the railing, felt it dig into his palms. Okay, okay … when is it going to happen?

A sudden, hard jolt ran through the ship.

He grabbed Lea’s shoulders, turned her toward the door heading to the gangway. “Okay, let’s go!” he snapped. “Move, move …!”

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Lea took a step, then stopped. He slammed into her back.

“Wait a minute …” she whispered.

“Move!” He shoved at her. “We don’t have …!”

Then he stopped, and listened.

The deck was stable. It wasn’t tilting beneath their feet.

No screams. No shouting. The chairs and tables remained where they were.

Passengers gaped at them with baffled amusement. Edward Douglas chuckled and turned to say something behind his hand to his wife. Moritz Feibusch gave him a look of sympathy. Irene Doehner enjoyed a brief moment of teenage condescension. Colonel Erdmann sneered at him.

Then one of the stewards strolled down the promenade, announcing that the Hindenburg had arrived and that all passengers were to make way to gangway stairs. Please do not forget your baggage. Please proceed directly to American customs.

Franc looked down at Lea. Her face was pale; she trembled against him.

“What went wrong?” she whispered.

Thursday, May 5, 1937: 8:00 P.M.

Thirty-five minutes after the Hindenburg docked at Lakehurst Naval Air Station, an explosion in one of the aft gas cells destroyed the airship.

No one was aboard when the fire ripped through the dirigible. All the passengers and crew members had disembarked by then, and even the ground crew managed to dash to safety before the burning airship hit the ground, taking out the mooring mast with it A newsreel cameraman caught the conflagration on film; it was later remarked how fortunate it had been that the Hindenburg hadn’t exploded while still in the air, or otherwise an untold number of lives might have been lost.

Franc and Lea watched the fire from the safety of Tom’s rented Ford sedan, which he had driven to the outskirts of the aerodrome and pulled over on the shoulder. They had quietly collected their bags and walked down the gangway stairs; a stunned shuffle through customs, where officials stamped the Pannes’ passports and welcomed them back to America, then Hoffman met them just outside the receiving area. He instantly started to ask questions, but they signaled him to stay silent until they were out of earshot of the other passengers.

As they walked out to the car, Franc spotted Eric Spehl, still wearing his flight coveralls, climbing into the back of a checker cab. Unnoticed by either his fellow zeppelin men or the Luftwaffe intelligence officers, the rigger made his getaway. Fifteen minutes later, the bomb went off.

As clanging fire trucks raced down the road toward the inferno, the three of them looked at one another. “Well,” Tom said, “at least we haven’t created a paradox. We’re still here.”

Franc stared at the blazing airship. “The hell we haven’t!”

“We don’t know that yet,” Lea said from the backseat. “There’s been an anomaly. A serious one, to be sure, but it’s still only an anomaly.”

“Some anomaly.” Franc nodded toward the burning ship. “This isn’t like someone in Dallas noticing a couple of our people behind a fence during the Kennedy shooting. That didn’t change the course of history. This …”

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  • What was supposed to happen: the Hindenburg meets disaster in a New Jersey airfield.

    Photo Credit: Wikipedia

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Oberon’s still there.” Tom cocked his head toward the uplink case where it lay open next to Lea; she had just used it to contact the timeship. “If this was a paradox, Vasili shouldn’t be up there and we would have disappeared. Right?”

“Define paradox,” Franc said angrily. “Tell me exactly what happens during a spatiotemporal paradox.”

“I don’t …”

“Come on, tell me precisely how a spatiotemporal paradox would affect a contemporary worldline …”

“Cut it out.” Lea snapped the case shut. “We can figure it out after we get to the rendezvous point.”

So they drove away from Lakehurst, heading southwest down lonely country roads into the cool New Jersey night. Deep within the Pine Barrens, house lights gradually became farther apart until they disappeared altogether. A low fog had settled upon the marshlands; the sedan’s tires beat against frost heaves in the weathered blacktop. Lea moved the case to the floor and lay down in the backseat; she remarked how incredibly large automobiles had been during this period, and Tom responded by observing how much gasoline they consumed in order to move this much mass. Franc, sullen and impatient, switched on the dashboard radio and turned the knob from one end of the dial to another, picking up AM-band stations out of Trenton, Philadelphia, and New York. Ballroom jazz, comedy shows, crime melodramas: he roamed back and forth, searching for something that might explain what had just happened.

Just as they turned off the highway onto a narrow trip of dirt road, a variety show out of New York was interrupted by a news flash. The German airship Hindenburg, which had mysteriously exploded an hour and fifteen minutes ago just after it had arrived in New Jersey, had been destroyed by an act of deliberate sabotage. An unsigned communiqué received by the station only a few minutes earlier stated that an underground organization in Germany was claiming responsibility for the act. The note stated that a bomb had been placed aboard the airship to awaken the world to the atrocities being committed by the Nazi government, and to send a clear signal to the German people that Adolf Hitler could yet be overthrown.

Franc switched off the radio. There was a long silence in the car. “That’s what I define as a paradox,” he said at last.

“We’re still here,” Tom said softly.

Want to keep reading? Download Time Loves a Hero by Allen Steele.

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Featured photo: Aron Visuals / Unsplash