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“I might never have been born.” Chris said.

She reached to Chris and put a hand on his arm, not only to reassure him but to reassure herself of his current solidity. “I might not have been born myself. Everything I've seen, the good and bad of the world that's been since 1944 . . . it'll all wash away like an elaborate sandcastle, and a new reality will exist in its place.”

“A new and worse reality,” Stefan said, clearly exhausted by the effort he had made to explain what was at stake.

“In that new world, I might never have written my novels.”

“Or if you wrote novels,” Stefan said, “they would be different from those you've done in this life, grotesque works produced by an artist laboring under the rule of an oppressive government, in the iron fist of Nazi censorship.”

“If those guys built the atom bomb in 1944,” Chris said, “then we'll all crumble away into dust and blow away.”

“Not literally. But like dust, yes,” Stefan Krieger agreed. Gone, with no trace that we've ever been."

“We've gotta stop them.” Chris said.

“If we can,” Stefan agreed. “But first we've got to stay alive in :his reality, and that might not be easy.”

Stefan needed to relieve himself, and Laura helped him into the motel bathroom, handling him as if she were a nurse accustomed to matter-of-fact dealings with the plumbing of sick men. By the time she returned him to the bed, she was worried about him again; though he was muscular, he felt limp, clammy, and he was frighteningly weak.

She told him briefly about the shoot-out at Brenkshaw's, through which he had remained comatose. “If these assassins are coming from the past instead of the future, how do they know where to find us? How did they know in 1944 that we'd be at Dr. Brenkshaw's when we were, forty-five years later?”

“To find you,” Stefan said, “they made two trips. First, they went farther into the future, a couple of days farther, to this coming weekend perhaps, to see if you had shown up anywhere by then. If you hadn't-and apparently you had not-then they started checking the public record. Back issues of newspapers, for one thing. They looked for the stories about the shooting at your house last night, and in those stories they read that you'd taken a wounded man to Brenkshaw's place in San Bernardino. So they simply returned to '44 and made a second trip-this time to Dr. Brenkshaw's in the early hours of this morning, January 11.”

“They can hopscotch around us,” Chris told Laura. “They can pop ahead in time to see where we show up, then they pick and choose the easiest place along the time stream to ambush us. It's sorta like ... if we were cowboys and the Indians were all psychic.”

“Who was Kokoschka?” Chris wanted to know. “Who was the man who killed my dad?”

“Head of institute security,” Stefan said. “.He claimed to be a distant relation of Oskar Kokoschka, the noted Austrian expressionist painter, but I doubt if it was true because in our Kokoschka there was no hint of an artist's sensitivity. Standartenfuhrer-which means Colonel-Heinrich Kokoschka was an efficient killer for the Gestapo.”

“Gestapo,” Chris said, awestruck. “Secret police?”

“State police,” Stefan said. “Widely known to exist but allowed to operate in secrecy. When he showed up on that mountain road in 1988, I was as surprised as you. There'd been no lightning. He must have arrived far away from us, fifteen or twenty miles, in some other valley of the San Bernardinos, and the lightning had been beyond our notice.” The lightning associated with time travel was in fact a very localized phenomenon, Stefan explained. “After Kokoschka showed up there, on my trail, I thought I would return to the institute and find all of my colleagues outraged at my treason, but when I got there, no one took special notice of me. I was confused. Then after I killed Penlovski and the others, when I was in the main lab preparing for my final jaunt into the future. Heinrich Kokoschka burst in and shot me. He wasn't dead! Not dead on that highway in 1988. Then I realized that Kokoschka had obviously only just learned of my treason when he'd found the men I'd shot. He would travel to 1988 and try to kill me-and all of you-at a later time. Which meant that the gate would have to remain open to allow him to do so, and that I was destined to fail to destroy it. At least at that time.”

“God, this headache,” Laura said.

Chris seemed to have no trouble whatsoever following the tangled threads of time travel. He said, "So after you traveled to our house last night, Kokoschka traveled to 1988 and killed my dad. Jeez! In a way, Mr. Krieger, you killed Kokoschka forty-three years after he shot you in that lab ... yet you had shot him before he shot you. This is wild stuff, Mom, isn't this wild? Isn't this great?''

“It's something,” she agreed. “And how did Kokoschka know to find you on that mountain road?”

“After he discovered I'd shot Penlovski, and after I escaped through the gate, Kokoschka must have found the explosives in the attic and basement. Then he must have dug into the automatic records the machinery keeps of all the times the gate is used. That was a bit of data tracking that was my responsibility, so no one previously had noticed all my jaunts into your life, Laura. Anyway, Kokoschka must have done some time traveling of his own, must have taken a lot of trips to see where I'd been going, secretly watching me watch you, watching me alter your destiny for the better. He must have been watching the day I came to the cemetery when your father was buried, and he must have been watching when I beat Sheener, but I never saw him. So from all the trips I made into your life, from all the times I just observed you and the times I acted to save you, he picked a place at which to kill us. He wanted to kill me because I was a traitor, and he wanted to kill you and your family because . . . well because he realized you were so important to me.”

Why? she thought. Why am I so important to you, Stefan Krieger? Why have you intruded in my destiny, trying to give me a better life?

She would have asked those questions then, but he had more to say about Kokoschka. His strength seemed to be fading fast, and he was having some difficulty holding on to the thread of his reasoning. She did not want to interrupt and confuse him.

He said, “From the clocks and graphs on the gate's programming board, Kokoschka could have discovered my final destination: last night, your house. But, you see, I actually had intended to return to the night that Danny died, as I promised you I would, and instead I returned one year later only because I made some mistake when entering my calculations in the machine. After I left through the gate, wounded, Heinrich Kokoschka would have found those calculations. He would have realized my mistake, and would have known where to find me not only last night but on the night that Danny died. In a way, by coming to save you from that runaway truck last year, I brought Danny's killer with me. I feel responsible for that, even though Danny would have died in the accident anyway. At least you and Chris are alive. For now.”

Why wouldn't Kokoschka have followed you to 1989, to our house last night? He knew you were already wounded, easy prey."

"But he also knew that I would expect him to follow me, and he was afraid I was armed and would be prepared for him. So he went to 1988, where I was not expecting him, where he had the advantage of surprise. Also, Kokoschka probably figured if he followed me to 1988 and killed me there, I would not therefore have ever returned to the institute from that mountain highway and would not have had a chance to kill Penlovski. He no doubt thought if he could pull a trick with time and undo those murders, thereby saving the head of the project. But of course he could not do so, because then he would be altering his own past, an impossibility. Penlovski and the others were already dead by then and would stay dead. !f Kokoschka had better understood the laws of time travel, he would have known that I would kill him in 1988 when he followed me there, because by the time he made that jaunt to avenge

Penlovski. I had already returned to the institute from that night, safe!"

Chris said, “Are you all right, Mom?”

“Do they make Excedrin in one-pound tablets?” she asked.

“I know it's a lot to absorb,” Stefan said. “But that's who Kokoschka is. Or who he was. He removed the explosives I'd planted. Because of him-and that inconvenient power failure that stopped the timer on the detonator-the institute still stands, the gate is still open, and Gestapo agents are trying to track us here in our own time-and kill us.”

“Why?” Laura asked.

“Revenge,” Chris said.

“They're crossing forty-five years of time to kill us just for revenge?” Laura said. “Surely there's more than that.”

“There is,” Stefan said. “They want to kill us because they believe we are the only people in existence who can find a way to close the gate before they win the war and alter their future. And in that assumption, they're correct.”

“How?” she asked, astounded. “How can we destroy the institute forty-five years ago?”

“I'm not sure yet,” he said. “But I'll think about it.”

She began to ask more questions, but Stefan shook his head. He pleaded exhaustion and soon drifted off to sleep again.

Chris made a late lunch of peanut butter sandwiches with the fixings he had bought at the supermarket. Laura had no appetite. She could see that Stefan was going to sleep for a few hours, so she showered. She felt better afterward, even in wrinkled clothes.

Throughout the afternoon the television fare was relentlessly idiotic: soap operas, game shows, more soap operas, reruns of fantasy Island, The Bold and the Beautiful, and Phil Donahue dashing back and forth through the studio audience, exhorting them to raise their consciousness about-and find compassion for-the singular plight of transvestite dentists.

She replenished the Uzi's magazine with the ammunition she had bought at a gunshop that morning.

Outside, as the day waned, clots of dark clouds formed and grew until no blue sky could be seen. The fan palm beside the stolen Buick seemed to pull its fronds closer together in expectation of a storm.

She sat in one of the chairs, propped her feet up on the edge of the bed, closed her eyes, and dozed for a while. She woke from a bad dream in which she had discovered she was made of sand and was swiftly dissolving in a rainstorm. Chris was sleeping in the other chair, and Stefan was still snoring softly on the bed.

Rain was falling, drumming hollowly on the motel roof, pattering in the puddles on the parking lot outside, a sound like bubbling-hot grease, though the day was cool. It was a typical southern California storm, tropically heavy and steady but lacking thunder and lightning. Occasionally such pyrotechnics accompanied rain in this part of the world, but less often than elsewhere Now Laura had special reason to be thankful for that climatological fact, because if there had been thunder and lightning, she would not have known whether it was natural or signaled the arrival of Gestapo agents from another era.

Chris woke at five-fifteen, and Stefan Krieger came around five minutes later. Both said they were hungry, and in addition to his appetite, Stefan showed other signs of recovery. His eyes had been bloodshot and watery; now they were clear. He was able to raise himself up in bed with his good arm. His left hand, which had been numb and virtually useless, was full of feeling now, and he was able :o flex it, wriggle his fingers, and make a weak fist.

Instead of dinner she wanted answers to her questions, but she'd led a life that had taught her patience-among other things. When they had checked into the motel shortly after eleven that morning, Laura had noticed a Chinese restaurant across the street. Now, though reluctant to leave Stefan and Chris, she went out into the rain to get some take-out food.

She carried the .38 under her jacket and left the Uzi on the bed with Stefan. Though the carbine was too big and powerful for Chris to handle, Stefan might be able to brace himself against the headboard and trigger a burst even with just his right hand, though the shock of recoil would shatter through his wound. When she returned, dripping rain, they put the waxed-cardboard containers of food on the bed-except for the two orders of egg flower soup, which were for Stefan, and which she put on the nightstand near him. Upon walking into the aromatic restaurant, she had found her own appetite, and naturally she had ordered far too much food: lemon chicken, beef with orange flavor, brown-pepper shrimp, moo goo gai pan, moo shu pork, and two containers of rice.

As she and Chris sampled all of the dishes with plastic forks and the food down with Cokes that she had gotten from the soda machine, Stefan drank his soup. He had thought he could not hold down more solid food, but with the soup disposed of, he cautiously began to try the moo goo gai pan and the lemon chicken.

At Laura's request he told them about himself while they ate. He had been born in 1909 in the German town of Gittelde in the Harz mountains which made him thirty-five years old. (“Well,” Chris he other hand, if you count the forty-five years you skipped when you traveled in time from '44 to '89, you're actually old!“ He laughed, pleased with himself. ”Boy, you sure look good for an eighty-year-old geezer!") After moving the following the First World War, Stefan's father, Franz Krieger, had been an early supporter of Hitler in 1919, a member the German Workers' Party from the very week that Hitler began his political career in that organization. He even worked with Hitler and Anton Drexler to write the platform with which that group, essentially a debating society, was eventually transformed into a true political party, later to become the National Socialists.

“I was one of the first members of the Hitler Youth in 1926, when I was seventeen,” he said. “Less than a year later I joined the Sturmabteilung or the SA, the brown shirts, the enforcement arm of the party, virtually a private army. By 1928, however, I was a member of the Schutzstaffel-”

“The SS!” Chris said, speaking in the same tone of horror mixed with strange attraction that he would have used if he had been talking of vampires or werewolves. “You were a member of the SS? You wore the black uniform and the silver death's-head, carried the dagger?”

“I'm not proud of it,” Stefan Krieger said. “Oh, at the time I was proud, of course. I was a fool. My father's fool. In the early days the SS vas a small group- the essence of elitism, and our purpose was to protect der Furer with our own lives if that was necessary. We were all eighteen to twenty-two, young and ignorant and hotheaded. In my own defense I'll say that I was not particularly hotheaded, not as committed as those around me. I was doing what my father wanted, but of ignorance I'll admit to having more than my fair share.*”