Page 45

As he crouched against the Toyota, Klietmann decided they could not have been more inappropriately dressed for their mission if they had been made up as circus clowns. The surrounding desert was mostly white and beige, pale pink and peach, with little vegetation and only a few rock formations significant enough to provide cover. In their black suits, as they tried to circle and get behind the woman, they would be as visible as bugs on a wedding cake.

Hubatsch, who had been standing near the front of the Toyota, directing short barrages of automatic fire at the Buick, dropped down. “She's gone to the front of the car with the boy, out of sight.”

“Local authorities will show up soon,” Bracher said, looking west toward state route 111, then southwest in the general direction of the patrol car they had blown off the road four miles back.

“Remove your coats,” Klietmann said, stripping out of his own. “White shirts will blend with the landscape better. Bracher, you stay here, prevent the bitch from doubling back this way. Von Manstein and Hubatsch, try to circle around on the right side. Stay well apart and don't move from one point of cover until ,you've picked out the next. I'll go north and east, around on the left.”

“Do we kill her without trying to find out what Krieger is up to?” Bracher asked.

“Yes,” Klietmann said at once. “She's too heavily armed to be taken alive. Anyway, I'd bet my honor that Krieger will be coming back to them, returning here through the gate in a few minutes, and we'll be better able to deal with him when he arrives if we've already taken out the woman. Now go. Go.”

Hubatsch, followed a few seconds later by von Manstein, left the cover of the Toyota, staying low, moving fast, and heading south-southeast.

Lieutenant Klietmann went north from the Toyota, holding his submachine gun in one hand, running in a crouch, making for the meager cover of a sprawling mesquite bush upon which a few tumbleweeds had gotten hung up.

Laura rose slightly and peered around the front fender of the Buick just in time to see two men in white shirts and black trousers sprint away from the Toyota, heading east toward her but also angling to the south, obviously intending to circle behind her. She stood and squeezed off a short burst at the first man, who made for the cover of a toothlike formation of rock, behind which he safely vanished.

At the sound of gunfire, the second man sprawled flat in a shallow depression that did not entirely conceal him, but the angle of fire and the distance made him a hard target. She did not intend to waste any more rounds.

Besides, even as she saw where the second man had gone to ground, a third gunman opened fire on her from behind the Toyota. Bullets cracked off the Buick, missing her by inches, and she was forced to drop down again.

Stefan would be back in just three or four minutes. Not long. Not long at all. But an eternity.

Chris was sitting with his back against the front bumper of the Buick, his knees drawn up against his chest, hugging himself, and shaking visibly.

“Hang on, kiddo,” she said.

He looked at her but said nothing. Through all the terrors they had endured in the past couple of weeks, she had not seen him look so dispirited. His face was pale and slack. He realized that this game of hide and seek had never been a game at all for anyone but him, that nothing was in fact as easy as in the movies, and this frightening perception brought to his gaze a bleak detachment that scared Laura.

“Hang on,” she repeated, then scrambled past him to the other front fender, on the driver's side, where she crouched to study the desert to the north of them.

She was worried that other men were circling her on that flank. She could not let them do that because then the Buick would be of no use as a barricade, and there would be no place to run except into the open desert, where they would kill her and Chris within fifty yards. The Buick was the only good cover around. She had to keep the Buick between her and them.

She could see no one out there on her north flank. The land was more uneven in that direction, with a few low spines of rock, a few drifts of white sand, and no doubt many man-size depressions in the desert floor that were not visible from her position, places where a stalker might even now be taking cover. But the only things that moved were three dry tumbleweeds; they rolled slowly, erratically, in the mild, inconstant breeze.

She slipped past Chris and returned to the other fender in time to see that the two men to the south were already on the move again. They were thirty yards south of her but only twenty yards in front of the Buick, closing with frightening speed. Though the leader was staying low and weaving as he ran, the follower was bolder; perhaps he thought Laura's attention would be focused on the front man.

She fooled him, stood up, leaned out from the Buick as far as she had to, using it for cover as best she could, and squeezed off a two-second burst. The gunman at the Toyota opened fire on her, giving his buddies cover, but she hit the second running man hard enough to lift him off his feet and pitch him through a bristling manzanita.

Though not dead, he was clearly out of action, for his screams were so shrill and agonized, there could be no doubt he was mortally wounded.

As she dropped down below the line of fire again, she found that she was grinning fiercely. She was intensely pleased by the pain and horror that the wounded man's screams conveyed. Her savage reaction, the primitive power of her thirst for blood and revenge, startled her, but she held fast to it because she sensed that she would be a better and more clever fighter while in the spell of that primal rage.

One down. Perhaps only two more to go.

And soon Stefan would be here. No matter how long his work required in 1944, Stefan would program the gate to bring him back here shortly after he had left. He would rejoin her-and enter the fight-in only two or three minutes.

The prime minister happened to be looking directly at Stefan when he materialized, but the man in uniform-a sergeant-became aware of him because of the discharge of electrical energy that accompanied his arrival. Thousands of bright snakes of blue-white light wriggled away from Stefan, as if his very flesh had generated them. Perhaps deep crashes of thunder and bolts of lightning shattered the sky in the world above these underground rooms, but some of the displaced energy of time travel was expended here, as well, in a sizzling display that brought the uniformed man straight to his feet in surprise and fear. The hissing serpents of electricity streaked across the floor, up the walls, coalesced briefly on the ceiling, then dissipated, leaving everyone unharmed; the only damage was to a large wall map of Europe, which had been seared in several places but not set aflame.

“Guards!” the sergeant shouted. He was unarmed but evidently quite sure that his cry would be heard and answered swiftly, for he repeated it only once and made no move toward the door. “Guards!”

“Mr. Churchill, please,” Stefan said, ignoring the sergeant, “I'm not here to do you any harm.”

The door flew open and two British soldiers entered the room, one holding a revolver, the other an automatic carbine.

Speaking hastily, afraid he was about to be shot, Stefan said, “The future of the world depends on your hearing me out, sir, please.”

Throughout the excitement, the prime minister had remained seated in the armchair at the end of the table. Stefan believed that he had seen a brief flash of surprise and perhaps even a glimmer of fear on the great man's face, but he would not have bet on it. Now the prime minister looked as bemused and implacable as in every photograph that Stefan had ever seen of him. He raised one hand to the guards: “Hold a moment.” When the sergeant began to protest, the prime minister said, “If he had meant to kill me, certainly he would have done so already, on arrival.” To Stefan he said, “And that was some entrance, sir. As dramatic as any that young Olivier has ever made.”

Stefan could not help but smile. He stepped out of the corner, but when he moved toward the table, he saw the guards stiffen, so he stopped and spoke from a distance. “Sir, by the very manner that I've arrived here, you know I'm no ordinary messenger and that what I have to tell you must be ... unusual. It's also highly sensitive, and you may not wish to have my information conveyed to any ears but yours.”

“If you expect us to leave you alone with the PM,” the sergeant said, “you're . . . you're mad!”

“He may be mad,” the prime minister said, “but he's got flair. You must admit that much, Sergeant. If the guards search him and find no weapons, I'll give the gentleman a bit of my time, as he asks.”

“But, sir, you don't know who he is. You don't know what he is. The way he exploded into-”

Churchill cut him off. “I know how he arrived, Sergeant. And please remember that only you and I do know. I will expect you to remain as tight-lipped about what you've seen here as you would about any other bit of war information that might be considered classified.”

Chastened, the sergeant stood to one side and glowered at Stefan while the guards conducted a body search.

They found no weapons, only the books in the rucksack and a few papers in Stefan's pockets. They returned the papers and stacked the books in the middle of the long table, and Stefan was amused to see that they had not noticed the nature of the volumes they'd handled.

Reluctantly, carrying his pencil and dictation pad, the sergeant accompanied the guards out of the room, as the prime minister had instructed. When the door closed, Churchill motioned Stefan to the chair that the sergeant had vacated. They sat in silence a moment, regarding each other with interest. Then the prime minister pointed to a steaming pot that stood on a serving tray. “Tea?”

Twenty minutes later, when Stefan had told only half of the condensed version of his story, the prime minister called for the sergeant in the corridor. “We'll be here a while yet, Sergeant. I will have to delay the War Cabinet meeting by an hour, I'm afraid. Please see that everyone is informed-and with my apologies.”

Twenty-five minutes after that, Stefan finished.

The prime minister asked a few more questions-surprisingly few but well-thought and to the heart of the matter. Finally he sighed and said, “It's terribly early for a cigar, I suppose, but I'm in the mood to have one. Will you join me?”

“No, thank you, sir.”

As he prepared the cigar for smoking, Churchill said, “Aside from your spectacular entrance-which really proves nothing but the existence of a revolutionary means of travel, which might or might not be time travel-what evidence do you have to convince a reasonable man that the particulars of your story are true?”

Stefan had expected such a test and was prepared for it. “Sir, because I have been to the future and read portions of your account of the war, I knew you would be in this room at this hour on this day. Furthermore I knew what you would be doing here in the hour before your meeting with the War Cabinet.”

Drawing on his cigar, the prime minister raised his eyebrows.

“You were dictating a message to General Alexander in Italy, expressing your concerns about the conduct of the battle for the town of Cassino, which has been dragging on at a terrible cost of life.”

Churchill remained inscrutable. He must have been surprised by Stefan's knowledge, but he would not provide encouragement even with a nod or a narrowing of his eyes.

Stefan needed no encouragement because he knew that what he said was correct. “From the account of the war that you will eventually write, I memorized the opening of that message to General Alexander-which you had not even finished dictating to the sergeant when I arrived a short while ago: 'I wish you would explain to me why this passage by Cassino Monastery Hill, et cetera, all on a front of two or three miles, is the only place which you must keep butting at.' ”

The prime minister drew on his cigar again, blew out smoke, and studied Stefan intensely. Their chairs were only a few feet apart, and being the object of Churchill's thoughtful scrutiny was more unnerving than Stefan would have expected.

At last the prime minister said, “And you got that information from something I will write in the future?”

Stefan rose from his chair, retrieved the six thick books that the guards had taken from his rucksack-Houghton Mifflin Company's trade-paperback reprints published at $9.95 each-and spread them out on the end of the table in front of Winston Churchill. “This, sir, is your six-volume history of the Second World War, which will stand as the definitive account of that conflict and be hailed as both a great work of history and literature.” He was going to add that those books were largely responsible for Churchill's being awarded the Nobel Prize for literature in 1953, but decided not to make that revelation. Life would be less interesting if robbed of such grand surprises.

The prime minister examined the covers of all six books, front and back, and permitted himself a smile when he read the three-line excerpt from the review that had appeared in the Times Literary Supplement. He opened one volume and swiftly riffled the pages, not pausing to read anything.

“They aren't elaborate forgeries,” Stefan assured him. “If you will read any page at random, you'll recognize your own unique and unmistakable voice. You will-”

“I've no need to read them. I believe you, Stefan Krieger.” He pushed the books away and leaned back in his chair. “And I believe I understand why you've come to me. You want me to arrange an aerial bombardment of Berlin, targeted tightly to the district in which this institute of yours is located.”

“Yes, Prime Minister, that's exactly right. It must be done before the scientists working at the institute have finished studying the material on nuclear weapons that's been brought back from the future, before they agree upon a means of introducing that information into the German scientific community at large-which they may do any day now. You must act before they come back from the future with something else that might turn the tide against the Allies. I'll give you the precise location of the institute. .American and RAF bombers have been making both daylight and night runs on Berlin since the first of the year, after all-”

“There has been considerable uproar in Parliament about bombing cities, even enemy cities,” Churchill noted.

“Yes, but it's not as if Berlin can't be hit. Because of the narrowly defined target, of course, this mission will have to take place in daylight. But if you strike that district, if you utterly pulverize that block-”

“Several blocks on all sides of it would have to be reduced to rubble,” the prime minister said. “We can't strike with sufficient accuracy to surgically remove the buildings on one block alone.”

“Yes, I understand. But you must order it, sir. More tons of explosives must be dropped on that district-and within the next few days-than will be dropped on any other scrap of land in the entire European theater at any time in the entire war. Nothing must be left of the institute but dust.”