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“He went back!” Bracher said, astonished.

“Why would he go back,” von Manstein said, “when everyone at the institute wants his ass?”

“Worse,” Hubatsch said from behind the lieutenant. “He came to 1989 days before we did. So that belt of his will have taken him back to the same point, to the day that Kokoschka shot him-to just eleven minutes after Kokoschka shot him. Yet we know for a fact he never returned that day. What the hell's going on here?”

Klietmann was worried, too, but he didn't have time to figure out what was going on. His job was to kill the woman and her son if not Krieger. He said, “Get ready,” and he slowed the Toyota to look for a way down the embankment.

Hubatsch and Bracher had already withdrawn the Uzis from their attache cases in Palm Springs. Now von Manstein armed himself with his weapon.

The land rose to meet the highway. Klietmann swung the Toyota off the pavement, down the sloped embankment, and onto the desert floor, heading toward the woman and the boy.

When Stefan activated the homing belt, the air became heavy, and Laura felt a great, invisible weight pressing on her. She grimaced at the stench of hot electrical wiring and burnt insulation, overlaid by the scent of ozone, underlaid by the apricot smell of the Vexxon. The air pressure grew, the blend of odors intensified, and Stefan left her world with a sudden, loud pop. For an instant there seemed to be no air to breathe, but the brief vacuum was followed by a blustery inrush of hot wind tainted by the faintly alkaline smell of the desert.

Standing close at her side and holding fast to her, Chris said, “Wow! Wasn't that something, Mom, wasn't that great?”

She did not answer because she noticed a white car driving off state route 111, onto the desert floor. It turned toward them and leaped forward as its driver accelerated.

“Chris, get in front of the Buick. Stay down!”

He saw the oncoming vehicle and obeyed her without question.

She ran to the open door of the Buick and snatched one of the submachine guns off the seat. She stepped to the rear, standing by the open trunk, and faced the oncoming car.

It was less than two hundred yards away, closing fast. Sunlight starred and flashed off the chrome, coruscated across the windshield.

She considered the possibility that the occupants were not German agents from 1944 but innocent people. However that was so unlikely, she could not allow the possibility to inhibit her.

Destiny struggles to reassert the pattern that was meant to be.

No. Damn it, no.

When the white car was within one hundred yards, she squeezed off two solid bursts from the Uzi and saw bullets punch at least two holes in the windshield. The rest of the tempered glass instantly crazed.

The car-she could see now that it was a Toyota-spun out, turning a full three hundred and sixty degrees, then ninety degrees more, throwing up clouds of dust, tearing through a couple of still green tumbleweeds. It came to rest about sixty yards away, the front end pointed north, the passenger's side toward her.

Doors flew open on the far side, and Laura knew the occupants were scrambling out of the car where she could not see them, staying low. She opened fire again, not with the hope of hitting them through the Toyota but with the intention of puncturing the fuel tank; then perhaps a lucky spark, struck by a bullet passing through sheet metal, might ignite the gasoline and catch some or all of those men in the sudden flames as they huddled against the far flank of the vehicle. But she emptied the Uzi's extended magazine without igniting a fire, even though she had almost certainly riddled the fuel tank.

She threw down the gun, pulled open the back door of the Buick, and snatched up the other, fully loaded Uzi. She got the .38 Chief's Special from the front seat, too, never taking her eyes off the white Toyota for more than a second or two. She wished that Stefan had left the third submachine gun, after all.

From the other car, sixty yards away, one of the gunmen opened fire with an automatic weapon, and now there was no doubt who they were. As Laura crouched against the side of the Buick, bullets thudded into the open trunk lid, blew out the rear window, tore into the rear fenders, ricocheted off the bumper, bounced off surrounding shale with sharp cracks, and kicked up puffs of powdery, white sand.

She heard a couple of rounds cutting the air close to her head-deadly, high-pitched, whispery whines-and she began to edge backward toward the front of the Buick, staying close to it, trying to make as small a target of herself as possible. In a moment she joined Chris where he huddled against the Buick's grille.

The gunman at the Toyota ceased firing.

“Mom?” Chris said fearfully.

“It's all right,” she said, trying hard to believe what she told him. “Stefan will be back in less than five minutes, honey. He's got another Uzi, and that'll even the odds a lot. We'll be okay. We only have to hold them off for a few minutes. Just a few minutes.”

Kokoschka's belt returned Stefan to the institute in a blink, and he entered the gate with the nozzle on the Vexxon cylinder wide open. He was squeezing the handle and trigger so hard that his hand ached, and the pain already was beginning to travel up his arm into his wounded shoulder.

From within the gloom of the barrel, he could see only a small portion of the lab. He glimpsed two men in dark suits, who were peering in the far end of the gate. They very much resembled Gestapo agents-all of the bastards looked as if they'd been cloned from the same small group of degenerates and fanatics-and he was relieved to know that they could not see him as clearly as he could see them; for a moment at least they would think he was Kokoschka.

He moved forward, the noisily hissing canister of Vexxon held before him in his left hand, the pistol in his right hand, and before the men in the lab realized something was wrong, the nerve gas hit them. They dropped to the floor, below the elevated gate, and by the time Stefan stepped down into the laboratory, they were writhing in agony. They had vomited explosively. Blood was running from their nostrils. One of them was on his side, kicking his legs and clawing at his throat; the other was curled fetally on his side and, with fingers hooked like claws, was ripping horribly at his eyes. Near the gate-programming board three men in lab coats- Stefan knew them: Hoepner, Eicke, Schmauser-had collapsed. They tore at themselves as if mad or rabid. All five dying men were trying to scream, but their throats had swollen shut in an instant; they were able to make only faint, pathetic, chilling sounds like the mewling of small, tortured animals. Stefan stood among them, physically unaffected but appalled, horrified, and in thirty to forty seconds they were dead.

A cruel justice was served in the use of Vexxon against these men, for it had been Nazi-sponsored researchers who had synthesized the first nerve gas in 1936, an organophosphorous ester called tabun. Virtually all subsequent nerve gases-which killed by interfering with the transmission of electrical nerve impulses-had been related to that original chemical compound. Including Vexxon. These men in 1944 had been killed by a futuristic weapon, >et it was a substance that had its origins in their own twisted, death-centered society.

Nevertheless Stefan took no satisfaction from these five deaths. He had seen so much killing in his life that even the extermination of the guilty to protect the innocent, even murder in the service of justice, repulsed him. But he could do what he had to do.

He put the pistol on a lab bench. He shrugged the Uzi off his shoulder and put that aside as well.

From a pocket of his jeans, he withdrew a few inches of wire, which he used to lock open the trigger on the Vexxon. He stepped into the ground-floor corridor and put the canister in the center of that hallway. In a few minutes the gas would spread through the building by way of stairwells, elevator shafts, and ventilation ducts.

He was surprised to see that only the night lights illuminated the hallway and that the other labs on the ground floor appeared to be deserted. Leaving the gas to disperse, he returned to the gate-programming board in the main lab to learn the date and time to which Heinrich Kokoschka's homing device had brought him. It was eleven minutes past nine o'clock on the night of March 16.

This was a piece of singularly good luck. Stefan had expected to return to the institute at an hour when most of its staff-some of whom began work as early as six in the morning and some of whom stayed as late as eight o'clock-would be in residence. That would have meant as many as a hundred bodies scattered throughout the four-floor building; and when they were discovered, it would be known that only Stefan Krieger, using Kokoschka's belt and penetrating the institute from the future by way of the gate, could have been responsible. They would realize that he had not come back merely to kill as many of the staff as were on the premises, that he had been up to something else, and they would launch a f major investigation to discover the nature of his scheme and undo j what damage he had done. But now ... if the building was mostly empty, he might be able to dispose of the few bodies in a fashion that would cover his presence and direct all suspicion to these dead men.

After five minutes the Vexxon cylinder was empty. The gas had spread throughout the structure, with the exception of the two guard foyers at the front and back entrances, which did not share even ventilation ducts with the rest of the building. Stefan went from floor to floor, room to room, looking for more victims. The only bodies he found were those of the animals in the basement, the first time-travelers, and the sight of their pathetic corpses disturbed him as much or more than the five gassed men.

Stefan returned to the main lab, took five of the special belts from a white cabinet, and buckled the devices on the dead men, over their clothes. He quickly reprogrammed the gate to send the bodies roughly six billion years into the future. He had read somewhere that the sun would have gone nova or would have died in six billion years, and he wanted to dispose of the five men in a place where no one would exist to notice them or to use their belts to home in on the gate.

Dealing with the dead in that silent, deserted building was an eerie business. Repeatedly he froze, certain that he'd heard stealthy movement. A couple of times he even paused in his labors to go in search of the imagined sound but found nothing. Once he looked at one of the dead men behind him, half convinced that the lifeless thing had started to rise, that the soft scrape he'd heard had been its cool hand clawing for a grip on the machinery, as it tried to drag itself erect. That was when he realized how deeply disturbed he had been by bearing witness to so many deaths over so many years.

One by one he dragged the reeking corpses into the gate, shoved them along to the point of transmission, and heaved them across that energy field. Tumbling through the invisible doorway in time, they vanished. At an unimaginably distant point they would reappear-either on an earth long cold and dead, where not even one plant or insect lived, or in the airless and empty space where the planet had existed before being consumed by the exploding sun.

He was exceedingly careful not to venture across the transmission point. If he was suddenly transported to the vacuum of deep space, six billion years hence, he would be dead before he had a chance to press the button on his homing belt and return to the lab.

By the time he disposed of the five cadavers and cleaned up all traces of their messy deaths, he was weary. Fortunately the nerve gas left no apparent residue; there was no need to wipe down every surface in the institute. His wounded shoulder throbbed as badly as in the days immediately after he had been shot.

But at least he had cleverly covered his trail. In the morning it might appear as if Kokoschka, Hoepner, Eicke, Schmauser, and the two Gestapo agents had decided that the Third Reich was doomed and had defected to a future in which peace and plenty could be found.

He remembered the animals in the basement. If he left them in their cages, tests would be run to discover what had killed them, and perhaps the results would cast doubt on the theory that Kokoschka and the others had defected through the gate. Then once again the primary suspect would be Stefan Krieger. Better the animals should disappear. That would be a mystery, but it would not point directly toward the truth, as would the condition of their carcasses.

The hot, pounding pain in his shoulder became hotter, as he used clean lab coats for burial shrouds, bundling groups of animals together, tying them up with cord. Without belts he sent them six billion years into the future. He retrieved the empty nerve-gas canister from the hall and sent that to the far end of time as well.

At last he was ready to make the two crucial jaunts that he hoped would lead to the utter destruction of the institute and the certain defeat of Nazi Germany. Moving to the gate-programming board again, he took a folded sheet of paper from the hip pocket of his jeans; it contained the results of days of calculations that he and Laura had done on the IBM PC in the house in Palm Springs.

If he had been able to return from 1989 with enough explosives to reduce the institute to smoldering rubble, he would have done the job himself, right here, right now. However, in addition to the heavy canister of Vexxon, the rucksack filled with six books, the pistol, and the Uzi, he would have been unable to carry more than forty or fifty pounds of plastique, which was insufficient to the task. The explosives he had planted in the attic and basement had been removed by Kokoschka a couple of days ago, of course, in local time. He might have come back from 1989 with a couple of cans of gasoline, might have attempted to burn the place to the ground; but many research documents were locked in fireproof file cabinets to which even he did not have access, and only a devastating explosion would split them open and expose their contents to flames.

He could no longer destroy the institute alone.

But he knew who could help him.

Referring to the numbers arrived at with the aid of the IBM PC, he reprogrammed the gate to take him three and a half days into the future from that night of March 16. Geographically, he would be arriving on British soil in the heart of the extensive underground shelters beneath the government offices overlooking St. James's Park by Storey's Gate, where bombproof offices and quarters for the prime minister and other officials had been constructed during the Blitz, and where the War Room was still located. Specifically, Stefan hoped to arrive in a particular conference room at 7:30 A.M., a jaunt of such precision that only the knowledge and computers available in 1989 could allow the complex calculations to determine the necessary time and space coordinates.

Carrying no weapons, taking with him only the rucksack full of books, he entered the gate, crossed the point of transmission, and materialized in the corner of a low-ceilinged conference room in the center of which stood a large table encircled by twelve chairs.

Ten of the chairs were empty. Only two men were present. The first was a male secretary in a British army uniform, a pen in one hand and a pad of paper in the other. The second man, engaged in the dictation of an urgent message, was Winston Churchill.