Someone had found the bodies of Januskaya and Volkaw. He heard more shouting. People running. Glancing nervously at the closed door to the hall, he decided he had no time to reprogram. He would have to settle for returning to Laura one year after he had last left her.
With the silencer-fitted Colt Commander in his right hand, he rose from the programming console and headed toward the gate-that eight-foot-high, twelve-foot-long, polished steel, open-ended barrel resting a foot off the floor on copper-plated blocks. He did not even want to risk taking time to recover his peacoat from the corner where he had left it an hour ago. The commotion in the corridor was louder. When he was only a couple of steps from the entrance to the gate, the lab door was thrown open behind him with such force that it hit the wall with a crash. “Stop right there!”
Stefan recognized the voice, but he did not want to believe what he heard. He brought up the pistol as he swung around to confront his challenger: The man who had raced into the lab was Kokoschka.
Impossible. Kokoschka was dead. Kokoschka had followed him to Big Bear on the night of January 10, 1988, and he had killed Kokoschka on that snowswept highway.
Stunned, Stefan squeezed off two shots, both wide. Kokoschka returned his fire. One slug took Stefan in the chest, high on the left side, knocking him backward against the edge of the gate. He stayed on his feet and got off three shots at Kokoschka, forcing the bastard to dive for cover and roll behind a lab bench.
There were less than two minutes from detonation. Stefan felt no pain because he was in shock. But his left arm was useless; it hung limply at his side. And an insistent, oily blackness seeped in at the edges of his vision.
Only a few overhead lights had been left on, but suddenly even they flickered and went out, leaving the room vaguely illuminated by the wan glow of the many glass-covered dials and gauges.
For an instant Stefan thought the dying light was a further surrender of his consciousness, a subjective development, but then he realized the public power supply had failed again, evidently due to the work of saboteurs, for there had been no sirens to warn of an air attack.
Kokoschka fired twice from darkness, the muzzle flash marking his position, and Stefan loosed the last three rounds in his pistol, though there was no hope of hitting Kokoschka through the marble lab bench.
Thankful that the gate was powered by a secure generator and still functional, Stefan threw away the pistol and with his good hand gripped the rim of the barrel-shaped portal. He pulled himself inside and crawled frantically toward the three-quarter point, where he would cross the energy field and depart this place for Big Bear, 1989.
As he hitched on two knees and one good arm through the gloomy interior of the barrel, he abruptly realized that the timer on the detonator in his office was connected to the public power supply. The countdown to destruction had been interrupted when the lights had gone out.
With dismay he understood why Kokoschka was not dead in Big Bear in 1988. Kokoschka had not made that trip yet. Kokoschka had only now learned of Stefan's perfidy, when he had discovered the bodies of Januskaya and Volkaw. Before the public power supply was restored, Kokoschka would search Stefan's office, find the detonator, and disarm the explosives. The institute would not be destroyed.
Stefan hesitated, wondering if he should go back.
Behind him he heard other voices in the lab, other security men arriving to reinforce Kokoschka. He crawled forward.
And what of Kokoschka? The security chief evidently would travel to January 10, 1988, trying to kill Stefan on state route 330. But he would only manage to kill Danny before being killed himself. Stefan was pretty sure that Kokoschka's death was an immutable destiny, but he would need to think more about the paradoxes of time travel, to see if there was any way Kokoschka could escape being gunned down in 1988, a death that Stefan had already witnessed.
The complications of time travel were confusing even when one pondered them with a clear head. In his condition, wounded and struggling to remain conscious, he only grew dizzier thinking about such things. Later. He would worry about it later.
Behind him in the dark laboratory, someone began firing into the entrance of the gate, hoping to hit him before he reached the point of departure.
He crawled the last couple of feet. Toward Laura. Toward a new life in a distant time. But he had hoped to close forever the bridge between the era he was leaving and that to which he was now pledging himself. Instead the gate would remain open. And they could come across time to get him . . . and Laura.
Laura and Chris spent Christmas with Thelma at Jason Gaines's house in Beverly Hills. It was a twenty-two-room, Tudor-style mansion on six, walled acres, a phenomenally large property in an area where the cost per acre had long ago escalated far beyond reason. During construction in the '40s-it had been built by a producer of screwball comedies and war movies-no compromises had been made in quality, and the rooms were marked by beautiful detail work that could not have been duplicated these days at ten times the original cost: There were intricately coffered ceilings, some made of oak, some of copper; crown moldings were elaborately carved; the leaded windows were of stained or beveled glass, and they were set so deep in the castle-thick walls that one could comfortably sit on the wide sills; interior lintels were decorated with hand-carved panels-vines and roses, cherubs and banners, leaping deer, birds with ribbons trailing from their bills; exterior lintels were of carved granite, and in two were set mortared clusters of colorful della Robbia-style ceramic fruits. The six-acre property around the house was a meticulously maintained private park where winding stone pathways led through a tropical landscape of palms, benjaminas, ficus nidida, azaleas laden with brilliant red blossoms, impatiens, ferns, birds of paradise, and seasonal flowers of so many species that Laura could identify only half of them.
When Laura and Chris arrived early on Saturday afternoon, the day before Christmas, Thelma took them on a long tour of the house and grounds, after which they drank hot cocoa and ate miniature pastries prepared by the cook and served by the maid in the airy sun porch that looked out upon the swimming pool.
“Is this a crazy life, Shane? Can you believe that the same girl who spent almost ten years in holes like McIlroy and Caswell could end up living here without first having to be reincarnated as a princess?”
The house was so imposing that it encouraged anyone who owned it to feel Important with a capital I, and anyone in possession of it would be hard-pressed to avoid smugness and pomposity. But when Jason Gaines came home at four o'clock, he proved to be as unpretentious as anyone Laura knew, amazingly so for a man who had spent seventeen years in the movie business. He was thirty-eight, five years older than Thelma, and he looked like a younger Robert Vaughn, which was a lot better than “decent-looking,” as Thelma had referred to him. He was home less than half an hour before he and Chris huddled in one of his three hobby rooms, playing with an electric train set that covered a fifteen-by-twenty-foot platform, complete with detailed villages, rolling countryside, windmills, waterfalls, tunnels, and bridges.
That night, with Chris asleep in the room adjoining Laura's, Thelma visited her. In their pajamas they sat cross-legged on her bed, as if they were girls again, though they ate roasted pistachios and drank Christmas champagne instead of cookies and milk.
“The weirdest thing of all, Shane, is that in spite of where I came from, I feel as if I belong here. I don't feel out of place.”
She did not look out of place, either. Though she was still recognizably Thelma Ackerson, she had changed in the past few months. Her hair was better cut and styled; she had a tan for the first time in her life; and she carried herself more like a woman and less like a comic trying to win laughter-meaning approval-with each funny gesture and posture. She was wearing less flamboyant- and sexier-pajamas than usual: clingy, unpatterned, peach-colored silk. She was, however, still sporting bunny slippers.
“Bunny slippers,” she said, “remind me of who I am. You can't get a swelled head if you wear bunny slippers. You can't lose your sense of perspective and start acting like a star or a rich lady if you keep on wearing bunny slippers. Besides, bunny slippers give me confidence because they're so jaunty; they make a statement; they say 'Nothing the world does to me can ever get me so far down that I can't be silly and frivolous.' If I died and found myself in hell, I could endure the place if I had bunny slippers.”
Christmas Day was like a wonderful dream. Jason proved to be a sentimentalist with the undiminished wonder of a child. He insisted they gather at the Christmas tree in pajamas and robes, that they open their gifts with as much popping of ribbons and noisy tearing of paper and as much general drama as possible, that they sing carols, that while opening gifts they abandon the idea of a healthy breakfast and instead eat cookies, candy, nuts, fruitcake, and caramel popcorn. He proved that he had not just been trying to be a good host when he had spent the previous evening with Chris at the trains, for all Christmas Day he engaged the boy in one form of play or another, both inside and outside the house, and it was clear that he had a love of and natural rapport with kids. By dinnertime Laura realized Chris had laughed more in one day than in the entire past eleven months.
When she tucked the boy into bed that night, he said, “What a great day, huh, Mom?”
“One of the all-time greats,” she agreed.
“All I wish,” he said as he dropped toward sleep, “is that Daddy could've been here to play with us.”
“I wish the same thing, honey.”
“But in a way he was here, 'cause I thought of him a lot. Will I always remember him, Mom, the way he was, even after dozens and dozens of years, will I remember him?”
“I'll help you remember, baby.”
“Because sometimes already there are little things I don't quite remember about him. I have to think hard to remember them. But I don't want to forget 'cause he was my daddy.”
When he was asleep, Laura went through the connecting door to her own bed. She was immensely relieved when a few minutes later Thelma came by for another girl-to-girl, because without Thelma, she would have had a few very bad hours there.
“If I had babies, Shane,” Thelma said, climbing into Laura's bed, “do you think there's any chance at all that they'd be allowed to live in society, or would they be banished to some ugly-kid equivalent of a leper colony?”
“Don't be silly.”
“Of course, I could afford massive plastic surgery for them. I mean, even if it turns out that their species is questionable, I could afford to have them made passably human.”
“Sometimes your put-downs of yourself make me angry.”
“Sorry. Chalk it up to not having a supportive mom and dad. I've got both the confidence and doubt of an orphan.” She was quiet for a moment, then laughed and said, “Hey, you know what? Jason wants to marry me. I thought at first he was possessed by a demon and unable to control his tongue, but he assures me we've no need of an exorcist, though he's evidently suffered a minor stroke. So what do you think?”
“What do I think? What's that matter? But for what it's worth, he's a terrific guy. You are going to grab him, aren't you?”
“I worry that he's too good for me.”
“No one's too good for you. Marry him.”
“I worry that it won't work out, and then I'll be devastated.”
“And if you don't give it a try,” Laura said, “you'll be worse than devastated-you'll be alone.”
Stefan felt the familiar, unpleasant tingle that accompanied time travel, a peculiar vibration that passed inward from his skin, through his flesh, into the marrow of his bones, then swiftly back out again from bones to flesh to skin. With a pop-whoooosh he left the gate, and in the same instant he was stumbling down a steep, snow-covered slope in the California mountains on the night of January 10, 1989.
He tripped, fell on his wounded side, rolled to the bottom of the slope, where he came to rest against a rotted log. Pain flashed through him for the first time since he had been shot. He cried out and flopped onto his back, biting his tongue to keep from passing out, blinking up at the tumultuous night.
Another thunderbolt ripped the sky, and light seemed to pulse from the jagged wound. By the spectral glow of the snow-covered earth and by the fierce but fitful flashes of lightning, Stefan saw that he was in a clearing in a forest. Leafless, black trees thrust bare limbs toward the fulminous sky, as if they were fanatical cultists praising a violent god. Evergreens, boughs drooping under surplices of snow, stood like the solemn priests of a more decorous religion.
Arriving in a time other than his own, a traveler disrupted the forces of nature in some way that required the dissipation of tremendous energy. Regardless of the weather at the point of arrival, the imbalance was corrected by a sky-shattering display of lightning, which was why the ethereal highway on which time travelers journeyed was called the Lightning Road. For reasons no one had been able to ascertain, a return to the institute, to the traveler's own era, was marked by no celestial pyrotechnics.
The lightning subsided, as it always did, from bolts worthy of the Apocalypse to distant flickerings. In a minute the night was dark and calm again.
As the thunderbolts had faded, his pain had increased. It almost seemed as if the lightning that had cracked the vaults of heaven was now captured within his chest, left shoulder, and left arm, too great a power for mortal flesh to contain or endure.
He got onto his knees and rose shakily to his feet, worried that he had little chance of getting out of the woods alive. But for the phosphorescent glow of the snow-mantled clearing, the cloudy night was cellar-black, forbidding. Though undisturbed by wind, the winter air was icy, and he was wearing only a thin lab coat over shirt and pants.
Worse, he might be miles from a highway or any landmark by which he could reckon his position. If the gate was considered as a gun, its accuracy was remarkable for the temporal distance covered to the target, but it was far from perfect in its aim. A traveler usually arrived within ten or fifteen minutes of the time he intended, but not always with the desired geographic precision. Sometimes he touched down within a hundred yards of his physical destination, but on other occasions he was as far as ten or fifteen miles off, as on the day that he had traveled to January 10, 1988, to save Laura, Danny, and Chris from the Robertsons' sliding pickup truck.
On all previous trips, he had carried both a map of the target area and a compass, lest he find himself in just such a place of isolation as he had arrived at now. But this time, having left his peacoat in the corner of the lab, he had neither compass nor map, and the occluded sky deprived him of the hope of finding his way out of the forest with the help of the stars.