The Cost of Doing Nothing

Copyright Ken Brady. No reproduction without express permission from the author.
(Originally published in DAILY CABAL, 2010)

You’re not supposed to do anything to stop what’s happening. Just observe, collect historical data, dispel myths, report facts. The person whose body you’re occupying did nothing on this day in 1941, and if you act now you could change the course of history. At the very least, you’d lose your government grant.

This would be your last research trip to the past.

But the howling scream of pain from the naked woman strapped to the operating table makes you clench the clipboard tighter, grit your teeth to hold back a scream of your own. This is worse than expected.

Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii watches, arms crossed, as the doctor makes another incision, peels back flesh to expose diseased organs. The scream grows louder.

You look away, noting the other staff and visitors watching the vivisection. Most seem enrapt by the display, approving even. They’ve seen this before. The Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army has been doing this for years. Untold tens of thousands of times. You want to slash your clipboard across Ishii’s face, stop the madness.

But you don’t. Ishii isn’t the only one in charge of such a facility. There’s Unit 543 in Hailar, 100 in Changchun, 1644 in Nanjing, 516 in Qiqihar. Many more.

But Unit 731, just outside Harbin, is the headquarters. And today, several of the men who will continue Japan’s wartime biological weapons research are in attendance. Ryoichi Naito, who will go on to head up Unit 9420 in Singapore. Masaji Kitano, next in line for Ishii’s job. You note the details of their faces, matching demeanor with the books and interviews you’ve read.

For history’s sake.

You make eye contact with a young man you recognize as Yoshio Shinozuka from his testimony about crimes he committed here. He’s watching you, as if he knows you don’t belong. You tense. He just shakes his head.

Then he pulls a pistol and shoots Ishii, Naito, and Kitano. Two shots each. The room erupts in confusion and people scatter. Only you and Shinozuka remain, along with the screaming subject on the table. Shinozuka walks to her side, places a comforting hand on her shoulder, and shoots her once in the head.

He turns to you, eyes much older than belong in his young face.

“I know you would have done something,” he says. “But you still have research to do. A career and a life ahead of you. Make it count.”

He puts the pistol to his head and pulls the trigger.

You go ahead and scream, then quickly disconnect, watching the scene around you fade. As you return to the future, you know you’ll reflect on this event for the rest of your life.

And the next time you visit that operating room you know how you must act.