Below is the first chapter of my speculative fiction novel, Ordovician.
My name was Gavrilo Princip, and I knew who I had to kill.
Gavrilo wasn’t my only name, just the one most pertinent to what I was doing at the time. My features were dark and my hair shiny, curly, and black. I wore a thin mustache, had soft features, and stood a full head shorter than most of the men around me. I noted all this while passing a butcher’s shop — my visage reflected in the glass, the first time I’d seen myself wearing this face — then looked away, afraid of seeming too interested in the cuts of meat displayed behind my mirrored doppelgänger. It was an uneasy time rife with racial tension, and I didn’t want to be remembered for casing the place.
Blend in. As a country-bumpkin from a formerly Ottoman village, that meant keeping my eyes downcast and my accent hidden, though I was aching to test it on the locals. I wasn’t told what my assignment was today. Not in detail, at least. But I knew. All the earmarks were there, and it was just a matter of going through the motions I knew would result in my slaying the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his pregnant wife, Sophie, the Duchess of Hohenberg.
There would be others like me, exactly like me, in fact, roaming the streets of Sarajevo with the same goal in mind. I had to connect with the group, Unification or Death, and quickly, lest the others should beat me to the motorcade and take their place in history. My rightful place.
I knew the proper hand signals, which would allow me to contact my brothers in arms. Unity or Death — known by locals as the Black Hand — had attained a reputation, though it wasn’t come by honestly. Their renown was inherited by another group called National Defense, which went legit after pressure from the Austrian government forced Serbia to expose them. The Black Hand picked up where National Defense left off, though the latter was led by political leadership, while the former was primarily a rag-tag group of young agitators led by insurrectionist military officials.
As such, the infrastructure I was hoping to tap into would be loose and disorganized. I knew this mission was almost called off at the last minute — the man who instigated it tried to stop me and my co-conspirators from crossing the border from Serbia when it became less certain whether or not Russia would support my home country in a fight against Austria.
I knew things about what was about to happen the real Gavrilo wouldn’t have known, if there ever was such a man. I knew the broad strokes, anyway. Everyone back home did.
I flashed a hand signal at a youth about my age who was giving me the eye, but didn’t get any response beyond a tilted head — the universal sign of confusion. I walked a block and saw another potential twenty-something ne’er-do-well and flashed him the sign. Another head-tilt, another disappointment. I turned a corner and nearly stumbled into a young boy who couldn’t have been more than fifteen or sixteen, who looked like he could have grown up in my home village of Obljaj — a fellow Yugoslav. I started to walk by, flashing the subtle hand gesture that identified Black Hand members to each other, and almost missed his return gesture.
As was customary, we didn’t acknowledge each other immediately. Instead he started following me, several paces behind along the cobblestone road. I tipped my hat down against the late-morning sun, and turned down a less-congested side street, pulling a small pipe from my coat and ducking into a shadowed doorway, removing a small pouch of tobacco as I walked. It was growing warmer as the day progressed, and the darkened stoop was cool enough to be a legit place to stand, even beyond its intended purpose as a surreptitious meeting spot.
The teenage boy pulled out his own pipe and ducked into the doorway as well. “Nice day,” he said in the local tongue, with a tinge of expected Serbian around the edges.
“A wonderful day, given to us by God for a great purpose,” I said as I packed my pipe and tucked the pouch back into my coat.
“May our great nation bloom like the sun on the horizon.” The coded messages spoken, our identities confirmed, the boy broke character and smiled through the prickly black fuzz that would soon take over his upper lip. “What can I get you?”
“Pistol,” I said.
I stood in the doorway, lighting my pipe and puffing at it, enjoying the tobacco-flavored smoke and texture of the wooden stem on my lips. After fifteen minutes, I considered leaving the doorway, wondering if perhaps the boy had been captured, or if he was bringing the police; selling me out for some reward. But a few minutes later, even as I tapped the tobacco remnants from the bowl of my pipe in preparation for a hasty retreat, the boy returned.
He stepped back into the doorway, nonchalantly as before, and pulled a folded newspaper from his coat. “Did you catch the news today? It looks as if the Archduke will be in town. Motorcading right along Appel Quay.”
He handed the newspaper to me carefully, and I could tell by the weight that he’d procured the right pistol. “Well that would be something to see,” I said. “Perhaps I’ll attend the festivities.” The boy nodded and was off, never looking back or indicating in his gait that anything was out of the ordinary. Just a kid, but a real professional.
I unfolded the newspaper carefully, sliding the gun into the palm of my hand while holding the still-folded paper with the other, concealing it from anyone who might walk past. I checked the gauge and make of the gun: FN Model 1910. Designed by John Browning, manufactured in Belgium. I had no practice with this particular weapon, but had used many similar pieces from similar manufacturers.
I checked the cartridge, which contained seven .380 ACPs — rimless bullets that softened the blowback of small pistols, and ideal for assignments like the one I needed to complete. And since there were seven tucked inside, that meant they were .32 calibre. Everything was perfect so far. Just one more point of failure to check.
I pulled the gun closer to my face, tilting it slightly to cast more light along the serial number engraved under the maker’s mark, but I couldn’t quite make it out in the shadow of the doorway. I tilted my hand and my head, squinting hard to try and make out the numbers, but decided I wouldn’t be able to see clearly enough without making a spectacle of myself in the process. I tucked the pistol in my jacket and clamped the newspaper under my armpit. I emerged from the doorway, hands in pockets, strolling toward the Quay.
There was a crowd gathered around the main thoroughfare blocking my view of the road, but it gave me an excuse to seek higher ground. I stepped up on to a small brick wall that protected a row of spindly trees from foot traffic, but with my small stature, I still couldn’t see anything but the hats of the men and women lined up shoulder to shoulder in front of me. I sidestepped to the left, keeping my eyes on the crowd as I shuffled, trying simultaneously to avoid drawing attention to myself by stumbling over a stray cat or pile of trash, and to be ready to insert myself into any crack in the impenetrable wall of humanity hindering my view.
Further to my left was the Austro-Hungarian Bank, and I knew that one of my Black Hand brothers would be waiting there, psyching himself up to hurl a hand grenade when the Duke’s car was close enough. I searched the crowd for a likely match for Mohamed — my grenade-wielding countryman — but couldn’t tell Yugoslav from local; everyone looked similar in their coats and hats.
I turned away and walk up the Quay, in the direction from which the motorcade would arrive. I saw a brownish, curly-haired twenty-something dawdling under the overhang of the bank, slightly concealed by the tiny shadow cast by the morning sun. From the length of the shadow, geolocation, and time of year, estimated it to be half-past nine. Things would start happening very fast, very soon — I needed to enlist the help of Mohamed quickly, lest I find myself unprepared upon the Archduke’s arrival.
I looked down at the wall where the young man I assumed was Mohamed had been standing, and found it empty but for a rowdy handful of children, tugging at their Sunday best, confused as to why they were being forced to wear such livery outside of church.
It could be that the young man I spotted was Mohamed and he’d stepped away for a moment. Maybe he, too, was seeking a better position, unwilling to trust fate to open a door in the crowd at the right moment.
Or maybe it hadn’t been Mohamed at all. It could have been…
I did my best to move casually, keeping my face casually downcast, but allowing my eyes to scan my periphery, seeking movement that was out of place. Anything that might alert me to the presence of a potential foe.
And then I saw it: a flash of reflected sunlight on what looked like greenish-blue metal in my periphery. A color and texture that didn’t belong in that place, at that time. As soon as I saw it, I felt a telltale full-body hum; still faint, because I hadn’t yet been activated, but still distinct as a slap across the face. It told me there was something I needed to take care of before I could focus on killing the Archduke.
The glint of off-color metal came from behind a wall of barrels, each filled with pickled food of all sorts, to celebrate the Archduke’s arrival.
After the Archduke’s motorcade left the new hospital — the opening of which was the purpose of the his visit to the city — there would be a massive celebration, for high and low class alike; though the common people would enjoy a stripped-down version of what the lords and politicians would enjoy.
I slipped to the left of the wall of barrels, back in the direction I came from, and walked along with packs of celebrants, hoping the man behind the barrels would lose track of me just as I had him. Long enough, at least, for me to shoot first.
A minute later, I strode toward an open patio where a clutch of locals were starting their celebration early, with their wooden casks tapped and their underclass-lavish glasses filled to the brim with blood red wine. I hoped to throw my opponent off, shrugging off my scent not just by changing position and hiding in crowds, but by adjusting my walk, my pace, my visual personality. There was more confidence in my bearing, now, and I kept my chin tilted upward just slightly. I stopped making eye-contact with underclassmen, and walked with the purposeful hurriedness of someone who has people waiting for him elsewhere. My clothing hadn’t changed, but I hoped my persona had shifted enough to give me the jump on my unknown foe.
After circling around the patio, pulling in my wake a flurry of curious looks and shouted invitations, I rounded the front of the building — some kind of tap house — behind which the barrels were stacked, and peeked around the corner to the side entrance. Nothing.
There was one more corner between me and the side of the building that was concealed by the barrels. Once I turned the corner, whomever was hiding behind them would be a clear target for me, though I would be the same for them.
I thought for a moment before deciding it would be better to be closer than my target would expect when I emerged within plain view. I quickly sidestepped along the length of the wall, leaned up against the building, and strained to hear a crunch of leaves, a folding of grass, a swishing of fabric on fabric; anything that would tell me what the man around the corner was doing. Where he was. Whether or not he was aware of my approach.
I held my breath and heard nothing but the mumbling and footfalls of locals milling around — the anticipatory voices of common people awaiting something magnificent. I knew I wouldn’t learn anything in that jumbled hubbub. I had to take a calculated risk.
Thinking back a few minutes, I estimated how far the barrels would be from me, and where within that mental map would be the ideal hiding place for a hunter trying to avoid becoming prey. I adjusted my plan to take into consideration the weapons I knew we’d both be using, and opted to get in close, quickly.
Taking a deep breath, I made sure the pistol I’d acquired earlier was snug in my jacket pocket, pulled my newspaper from my armpit with one hand, and slid the other hand up my coat sleeve. I undid the wrist button on my shirt and placed my index finger and thumb on opposite sides of my forearm, just above my wrist; muscle memory placing them on the correct trigger points without my having to look. After a moment, I felt a vibratory hum run through my body, indicating that I could pull my fingers away. Pistol safely in my jacket, my real weapon had been activated.
Another pistol appeared in my free hand when I touched my forearm. It was a far smaller model than the one given to me by the boy in the doorway, and was the same greenish-blue I saw a glimmer of behind the barrels. Now active, I had to move fast. As soon as the weapon appeared, I leapt from my position against the building, tiny pistol held steady in front of my chest, body arced, prepared for impact with the grassy ground.
I saw a figure throw his hands in front of his face and drop something to the ground as I fired, landed, and rolled to my feet. Standing up and shuffling toward him, I could tell he wasn’t the person I was looking for. The object he’d dropped was a ceramic mug: he’d apparently intended to swipe some wine from one of the barrels. When he saw the gun in my hands, he fell to his knees and started shaking, clutching his hands in front of him as if praying to a merciful god. He said, “Please, no. Please, no.”
Turning away from him, I barely dodged a fist swinging toward my face. I fell backward and kicked out with both legs at the man who lunged at me from behind. I tangled his legs with mine, sending him toppling to the ground mid-lunge, and I scissored his thigh with my calves, causing him to tighten up in pain and drop his small gun; an exact copy of the one I still held.
I rolled into a crouch, aimed my gun at his head, and noted with satisfaction that he wore the same face I wore: another Gavrilo Princip. I pulled the trigger. The other Gavrilo disappeared, and I pulled myself back to my feet.
The distant full-body hum disappeared with the man, leaving only my own; a lighter intensity vibration, detectable only when I was active. I turned to the groveling man, now silent, but still on his knees. I said “Don’t worry. He was a bad man. Go with God.” With that, I tucked the small blue-green gun — my snapper — back into my trouser pocket and walked around the barrels, back toward the street to wait for the Archduke’s motorcade to appear. I looked at the sun’s position in the sky and noted the time. I wouldn’t have to wait very long.
I walked along the Quay, away from the barrels and bank. I needed more time, and a better position. If I didn’t hurry, I would have neither.
Pulling myself into a light jog, I assumed an intense look of purpose — it’s amazing what you can get away with if you look like you’re doing something important; even elbowing your way through a rowdy crowd.
I could hear the motorcade approaching, behind me. It wasn’t moving fast, but certainly faster than I would have hoped at that moment. I ran up a small hill, and if I stood on my toes I could just see above the sea of hats. The motorcade was next to the bank, which meant Mohamed was, at that very moment, chickening out and not throwing his grenade.
I continued to run away from the motorcade, passing the police station where, if I remembered correctly, young Nedeljko would be steeling his nerves to hurl a grenade at the Archduke’s car; and unlike Mohamed, Nedeljko would go through with it.
I didn’t want to get caught up in the panicked crowd when the grenade went off, so I had to move fast. I leaned into a run, perspiration beading along my brow, my scalp starting to simmer under my hat. I nearly knocked a woman down when she blocked my path, but I kept on moving: Now that I could tell the layout of the street, I knew exactly where I had to be.
It was easy to tell when the grenade went off. There were screams and the wind-wafted scent of saltpeter, even as far away as I had gotten from ground zero. The explosion itself was also quite loud, though the drone of undamaged motorcade cars speeding up after the attack grew more distinct as they droned closer and closer to my position.
I stopped and stood helplessly as the motorcade sped by. The cars, and the Archduke, were shielded from my sight by the throng of people in front of me, but their presence was obvious from the sound of their motors, the squeal of women jumping back from the street, and the whoosh of wind from their passing. I missed my chance to kill my target. Exactly as planned.
As I walked away from the Quay, I watched a trio of police cars pull up to assist an officer who was pulling poor Nedeljko from the River Milijacka, which bordered the street, Appel Quay, on one side. As instructed, Nedeljko had taken a cyanide capsule and jumped into the river after hurling his grenade, hoping to avoid capture. He survived, though; history had different plans for him.
I meandered my way across the street and up a block onto Franz Joseph Street. I stopped into a small food store, bought a sandwich to nibble on, and waited at my next position just outside the shop, sitting on a ledge next to the road.
I felt another hum pulse through my body, like the thrum of a second heartbeat. Another assassin wearing my face was near. And he had activated his weapon.
I tore off pieces of sandwich and methodically popped them into my mouth, finishing the last bit as I waited, my back against the wall of the store. I propped my leg up on the ledge and leaned back, assuming a relaxed posture, but ready to spring up or roll away in an instant, if necessary. I looked out at Lateiner’s Bridge across Appel Quay, and admired the view in what I assumed would be my final few minutes in Serajevo, one way or another.
I saw my double approaching from a block away, but I could tell where he was even without visual confirmation. The hum in my body grew and grew, the intensity of its pulse intensified with every step he took in my direction. Much like the other man I shot, he was short and dark skinned, his curly black hair shining as if drenched in oil. A small mustache upon his face, mouth unsmiling, like mine.
His hand was in his pocket. He could see my hands were hidden behind my bent leg. I knew that he, like me, was fingering a small, greenish-blue gun, waiting for the right moment to draw it and fire. He walked up and stood directly in front of me, blocking my view of the street. He knew this was where it would happen, the same as I did.
“Gavrilo,” he said, nodding his head in greeting.
“Gavrilo,” I said, dipping my chin as much as I was able while leaning against the wall.
He pulled a bundle of paper from his pocket and unwrapped it, revealing the half-eaten remnants of a sandwich. “I picked one up earlier. Figured it was best to get a head-start on things in case I didn’t have time to pick one up at the last minute.”
“Nothing is last minute if you plan correctly. Know the details. Pay attention.” I smiled condescendingly, hoping to get a rise out of him; to spur him into inelegant action. But it didn’t seem to hit home: he smiled back.
“We all plan differently. You, for example, went out hunting when you should have been assessing. We all had to learn the Quay, but you took your time. Knocking out our mutual friend in the process, if I’m not mistaken.”
I kept my eyes on him, barely daring to blink. “I might have.”
“I felt his tether snap. So yes, you did.” The other Gavrilo, one hand still in his pocket, handed his sandwich to a street kid who tugged at his sleeve, then wiped his hand on his trousers before tucking it into the other pocket. He said, “Well, that was very good of you. Saves me the time. And gives me the chance to prove who has the better draw.”
“This is Eastern Europe, 1914, not the 19th century North American West,” I said lifting my leg slightly, the gun in my pocket sliding toward my hip as I did. “There are no cowboys in pre-Great War Sarajevo.”
“Not until now,” he said, “Not until —“ his breath caught as a car whizzed around the corner, forcing him to choose between jumping out of the way toward me and being plowed down. The first car sped past, but the second pulled up and stopped just behind him.
The other Gavrilo pulled his hands from his trouser pockets and scrambled for a second, standard pistol — from the correct time period — in his jacket pocket. As he turned, I kicked, sliding the tiny pistol into my waiting hand, pivoted my leg out of the way, and fired in one fluid movement. The other Gavrilo didn’t even fall to the ground before disappearing, though his FM Model 1910 pistol clattered on the pavement as I pulled my own, identical gun from my coat and fired twice at the Archduke and his wife: both had turned to face me just as the other Gavrilo ceased to be.
One bullet passed through the Archduke’s neck, while the other hit his wife in the stomach. Before the pedestrians milling around nearby could react, I held the barrel of the gun up to view it in full sunlight and smiled.
The serial number was 19047 — Gavrilo’s number. I was the Gavrilo who made history.
The crowd swarmed me and took my gun. After a few minutes of cacophonic bustle, restraint, and brutal physical abuse, the police shouldered the common folk away from me and I had a brief moment in which to pop a cyanide capsule from my coat pocket and swallow it, languishing in the sick, dizzy feeling that sped through my stomach and brain before everything went black.
I woke up to silence. I woke up to The Present.
Sound like something you might enjoy? Snag a copy on Amazon.