Mark of Achievement (short story)

A man twenty years my senior faced me. “I’m your grandson,” he said, “And I need to kill you.” However impossible, it wasn’t the best way to meet my future family.

Mark of Achievement

It was a strange encounter by any stretch of the imagination. At least, that’s how I remember it.

I’d taken Jen out for a meal. It was our forty-four day anniversary of being together, the sum of our ages or something else contrived like that. It seemed like a big deal at the time, which is why I’d forked out on a restaurant instead of going to our usual café.

We walked to her place afterwards, opened some wine and settled down with a movie. We were more interested in each other so we missed most of it. There’s not much more a gentleman has to say about the evening. We both fell asleep in each other’s arms on the settee.

I don’t know how long we slept, but it was dark when I woke with pins and needles in my leg. I expected Jen to be somewhere nearby, but I couldn’t feel her near me. I called to her, but there was no reply, only the sound of the extractor fan in the bathroom. I repositioned my tingling leg and drifted to sleep.

It could only have been a few moments later when I felt Jen rejoin me. I rolled over to spoon and put my hand on her thigh. My eyes opened quickly when my wrist was grabbed and yanked away.

“Don’t do that again.” It was a gruff voice, not Jen’s.

I froze. A middle-aged man sat in front of my groin. He held a torch to his face, briefly, so that I could see it. It was covered by a dark, full-grown beard which looked eerie in the torchlight. I recoiled, scrambling to sit, but he pushed me hard with his hand and kept me lying down. He reached for a syringe from the floor, leaving the torch on my chest in the same way that a surgeon treats his patient as a table.

“Now it’s cracked,” he said, holding the syringe in the torch beam. “Doesn’t matter, it’s not leaking.”

A syringe! This wasn’t good. My stomach curled into a knot and my throat dried as I hyperventilated. I moved my arm behind my back, pushing against the settee cushions, struggling to get upright.
“I said don’t,” the stranger repeated. “I won’t repeat myself.” He pushed me down, easily.

“Where’s Jen?” I squeaked, breathlessly. Immediately I regretted asking; perhaps this intruder didn’t know that she was in the house and I’d just alerted him to another victim.

“Don’t worry about Granny Jen. It’s because of you I’m here.”

Granny Jen?

My breathing was fast and shallow, so it was hard to get the words out. “What do you want?”

He put the syringe on my chest, picked up the torch and cast it around the lounge. I figured he was casing the place, trying to see if there was anything worth stealing.

I followed the illuminated circle as the torch panned the room. A bowl of unfinished peanuts. Empty wine glasses, one with lipstick. A cushion on the floor. An open magazine. These were small, worthless items – not things that were worth breaking into someone’s house and stealing.

“Very romantic, this,” he flashed his eyes around the room as a means of gesture. “It won’t come to anything though.”

“What do you mean by that? What do you want?”

“I’m your grandson,” he said. “And I need to kill you.”

There are moments in your life which can define you as a person. They may be great accomplishments, or they may be events where you’ve needed to act – or not. To make a stand against a school bully and suffer a broken leg, for example, or to run away when you can.

The intruder in the house, the syringe in his hand, even Jen’s absence – apparently, these events weren’t the ones which were going to kick me into action. As crazy as it sounds, it was his comment about him being my grandson that made me take stock.

I’ve nothing against having children. In fact, I’m looking forward to becoming a father – Jen knows it and she’s happy about the idea. Being a grandfather is simply the next step, or a mark of achievement; I’ll succeed in being a father by bringing my own child into parenthood.

Men not knowing that they’re fathers is sadly commonplace, but finding out that you’re a grandfather is usually dependent on how quickly your children tell you about it. I was told by my grandson. It was questionable because it’s a biological impossibility when I’m only twenty-three years old, and furthermore, my grandson looks like he’s at least twenty years my senior.

This brought time travel and trips from the future into the equation and marks the point in my life where I faced taking action, or not. I went for the latter. In short, I gave up.
With resignation comes great freedom because there’s no fear. I wasn’t the mighty oak fearful of the wind breaking my boughs. I was the grass in the clearing, knowing that the wind would simply blow over me and I wouldn’t break if I submitted.

“And you’ve come here from the future to do it. Shouldn’t we have a cup of tea whilst we get to know each other first?” I smiled. “You know, instead of playing around with syringes?”

In truth, I didn’t particularly want to know any more about him, and I certainly didn’t want him to know much more about me either.

“This is what you need to know. I’m Leo.” Leo patted his chest, “As I said earlier – your grandson. Pleased to meet you.” He stopped with the fake smile. “I’m the not-so-proud developer of an experimental virus which can be triggered remotely, and which the military has now taken control. You don’t need to be a genius to know why they find it interesting.”

He was right. I’m no genius, but even a fool would understand that the idea of injecting someone with something and having life-and-death power over that person would be attractive to them. I nodded – or tried to as best I could when lying down. “Why are you here?” I asked.

Leo sighed. “Now that the military has it, there’s no going back. The only way to undo what’s been done is to undo the past.”

“I see,” I said, but I didn’t. Travelling back in time to change history meant Leo warning his past self to take better care with his formulation, or even from developing it in the first place. It wasn’t about coming back to see me; I wasn’t in the picture.

“I mean, why have you come back to me? I’ve nothing to do with the military.” This was a true point. I’m opposed to violence, organised or otherwise. It’s a principle I live by, and one I’m determined to pass on to any future offspring.

“If you’re dead, then Dad can’t be born. Me neither,” Leo stated.

“No me, no virus, no military – no problem.”

“You’re going to kill me?”

Leo nodded.

“And let me guess,” I looked at the syringe, still on my chest. “By using your special virus.”

“I appreciate there’s some irony here,” Leo said, “But it’s what I know, so I don’t expect any complications. Our tests show that it’s quite painless, I’ve heard.”

Unable to accept this future laid out for me, I changed tack.

“How did you come back in time anyway?”

Leo tapped the syringe. “I developed another one of these. It effectively replaces the body clock with any time I set it to.” He smiled – for the first time, I noted. “Remotely operated, of course.”

“Of course,” I said, but I didn’t return his smile. “Why can’t you stay here and go back to your present when all this has blown over?”

Leo looked disappointed. I must have said something stupid.

“That won’t work for two reasons,” he said. The first is biological. My body clock has been artificially disrupted so it’s lost its ability to keep its own track of time. This means that in a few hours I’ll be uncoupled from the time line and slide around in it unless I top myself up with the compound. The trouble is that the formulation is toxic and the effects will accumulate over the days. At best, I’ll have a week before my blood cells lose their integrity and rupture. Whether I choose to spend my last days back home, or even somewhen else entirely is moot – I’ll be in a lot of pain. In short, when you go, I’ll see to it that I’ll go too.”

“Ah,” I said. There wasn’t much else to say, especially to someone who, in his own words, knows all about it – and still willing to take a one-way trip in time. “You said there was a second reason?”

“The tree still makes a noise in the forest when there’s no-one to hear it.” I looked at him with a vacant stare, silently wishing him to explain. He did. “My absence when the crap hits the fan doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.”

Good point. No wonder he was disappointed with his grandfather, any fool would have known that. I nodded in agreement. But I disagreed with my death on other grounds.

“OK. But I see two reasons why it won’t work. If you kill me, you won’t exist in the future. So clearly if you won’t exist – ”

“- and don’t develop my virus,” Leo interjected, “- and don’t develop your virus,” I continued, “you won’t have a virus with which to kill me.”

I caught him looking at the syringe. “What’s your other reason?” he said.

“You won’t be around to kill me if you don’t exist.”

It seemed odd to say it, especially as both he and the syringe were right there in front of me. But the logic of it worked; the fact that I was alive even now, meant that Leo for one reason or another wouldn’t – or hadn’t – gone through with it. And if that was the case, I was invincible; I couldn’t die because I hadn’t already died.

I could see Leo working through the logic in his eyes. Whatever the truth of it, I needed him to come to the same conclusion I did; he didn’t need to kill me.

Without warning, he grabbed the syringe and jabbed it into my left thigh.

I was going to die! It was barely an hour ago when I was with Jen and everything seemed fine. Now death loomed. How things can change!

“What the hell? I thought we just agreed this wasn’t going to work?” Apparently, my first thought was disapproval with my killer at having broken our implicitly stated agreement.

“You said it would be quick,” I whispered. “How long do I have?” I wasn’t sure that I wanted to know. Sometimes, a head in the sand is the only way to deal with some situations.

“I’ve just given you the neutralising agent. Relax.”

“It wasn’t the virus?” I pushed myself into a sitting position. Leo didn’t mind this time.

“I injected the virus in your leg when you were still sleeping. Now it’s neutralised. You’re not going to die.”

I’m not going to die.

I let it sink in. Looking back, it seems strange that I needed more time to come to terms with the relief of staying alive than with the fear of imminent death.

I thought about Leo. My grandson. He had a killer’s blood in him, but to his credit, his intention was more suicidal than homicidal. Was wiping out your existence to the extent that you hadn’t been born considered suicide? In any case, his motivation was noble – and one which remained, now that the link between it and my death was severed.

“Can you tell me more about the neutraliser?” I asked.

Leo was happy to. “The neutralising agent is a failsafe option I developed so that we could carry out tests whilst developing the virus. We could study the remote activation and the effects of the virus without killing anyone.”

“If everyone has your agent then the military has no power. Doesn’t that solve the problem?”

“The agent’s effective only if it’s administered within twenty minutes of infection with the virus.” Leo shook his head. “It’s to do with how the virus maps onto the host cells. I don’t have the time to explain the details of how it works.”

I didn’t need an explanation. The fact that it didn’t work was all I needed to know – and what Leo already knew. It was likely that he’d already thought about this long and hard whereas I needed more time to think of a solution. And as he suggested, some time to relax.

“How about a beer?” Admittedly I was offering Jen’s beer, but as I said, we’d been together for forty-four days. Long enough in this long-term relationship for this kind of behaviour to be acceptable. Leo nodded in the affirmative, and I headed to the kitchen.

To my shame, Jen was sitting at the table, flicking through a magazine. In my selfishness, I hadn’t thought about her whereabouts or her safety for a while. She looked up. “You couldn’t sleep either?”

I was relieved that she was unaware of Leo in her house, or his deadly intention. I didn’t know how to bring her up to speed quickly, so I let it pass. Head in the sand stuff. And besides, it was over now.

“Not really. I’m grabbing a beer, I’ve someone over.”

She nodded, and returned to her magazine, not commenting on either the time or that I had a visitor over at her place in the middle of the night.

“Hi Gran.” Leo had followed me into the kitchen. He held another syringe behind his back. I needed no processing time. I lunged towards him, catching him off guard and knocking the glass syringe out of his hand. It bounced off the kitchen worktop and cracked as it hit the tiled floor.

I’m no fighter, but Jen can be quite feisty – even when it’s the middle of the night and she doesn’t know what’s going on. When she saw me go for Leo she also sprang into action, knocking her chair backwards as she darted around the table and to where Leo and I were tussling. I pulled myself away when the syringe fell, Jen swinging her leg hard at Leo’s and bringing him to the floor.

It was comical to look at, but when she was done, she sat on Leo’s back like she was riding a horse.

“Who’s your Gran?” she said, calmly.

I answered for Leo. “That would be you,” I said. “And that syringe was for you. If he kills you, we don’t have a son and our son can’t father this fellow who goes on to develop the killer virus that he regrets creating, but still wishes to use in the syringe he’s brought here.” There. It turned out that I could bring her up to speed quickly. “He’s called Leo, by the way.”

Even given the lethal conditions, it was funny to watch. Jen slapped Leo hard across the top of his head, and ruffled his hair. “You idiot! If you kill either of us you won’t exist to come back and kill us.” I was impressed with how quickly she assimilated the facts. She gave Leo another slap to make sure the message sunk in.

“Obviously killing anyone isn’t going to be the answer,” I said. I tried shooting Leo a look, seeing as I thought we’d already agreed on this. He didn’t see me; Jen’s hand was pushing his head so that his bearded cheek was pinned against the floor.

No-one moved. Leo broke the silence, which in some ways made sense because he was the least comfortable. “You two mustn’t get together. You can’t have a baby.”

I looked at Jen, sitting on our grandson. She was magnificent! I was more than lucky that she loved me. She’d disagree, of course, but us being together was nothing to do with anything I am, but everything that she is. Why should I give her up because our idiot grandson does something so clever that it’s stupid? It’s not my fault! It wasn’t anyone’s fault. It wasn’t fair!

But say we do part ways and I marry someone else. If we have a child – a son – he’ll grow older to become Leo’s father. We know this because Leo is here. In some respects, the future has already happened because Leo’s already lived through it. If the child of my other wife becomes Leo’s father, it makes sense that I can continue my relationship with Jen, and avoid Leo’s father from being born.

Except that Leo already referred to Jen as “Gran”.

I was relieved that there was no sense in swapping out Jen for another girl, but I was doomed to be childless. I wasn’t happy about it, but this seemed to be the least lethal solution. It was a stretch, but maybe there was another way that I could have children.

I addressed Leo. “Jen and I are your grandparents. If we split up but both have sons in our new relationships, which one becomes your father?”

It was Jen who looked at me, perplexed. “Looking over that you’re even thinking about not seeing me, how would Leo know? He’s the future product of whatever action we do or don’t do now – in his past.”

Smart! Beauty and brains all in one package, sitting on top of her grandson. She was definitely a keeper.


I woke up late. The sun shone through the trees and into the bedroom, soft shadows dancing on the wall behind my head. My wife sat in the corner of the room with a magazine on her lap, looking outside. Jen looked at me when she heard me stretch out my muscle ache.

“Morning, handsome!” she said, smiling, “Sleep well?”

“Like a baby! Best rest I’ve had in a long time!” I replied. I struggled into a sitting position. “It’s funny. In this light, I can see how you’ll look when you’re old.” I smiled again. “Don’t worry, I’ll still love you in the distant future!”

The rocking chair creaked as Jen rose. She dropped her magazine onto the seat, and took her walking stick which was hooked on one of its wooden arms. It took her a few moments to walk to the bed-side, letting out a breath of exhaustion as she sat down beside me.

She stroked my cheek with a papery hand. ” ‘When I’m old in the distant future’? ” she said, “You’ve forgotten again, dear. We’re already there.”

Paul Sterlini

About “Mark of Achievement”

The “Grandfather paradox” loved by time travel fans is usually considered from the viewpoint of the grandson who goes back in time to kill his grandfather. With no grandfather to father his parents, will the grandson exist to go back in time and make the kill in the first place? In “Mark of Achievement” I wanted to turn this view upside down and think about how a grandfather would feel when faced with such a visit from his grandson.

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