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The prime minister was silent for a minute or so, watching the thin, bluish plume of his cigar smoke, thinking. Finally: “I'll need to consult with my advisers, of course, but I believe the earliest we could prepare and launch the bombardment would be two days hence, on the twenty-second, but perhaps as late as the twenty-third.”

“I think that'll be soon enough,” Stefan said with great relief. “But no later. For God's sake, sir, no later.”

As the woman crouched by the driver's-side fender of the Buick and surveyed the desert to the north of her position, Klietmann was watching her from behind a tangle of mesquite and tumbleweed. She did not see him. When she moved to the other fender and turned her back to Klietmann, he got up at once and ran in a crouch toward the next bit of cover, a wind-scalloped knob of rock narrower than he was.

The lieutenant silently cursed the Bally loafers he was wearing, because the soles were too slippery for this kind of action. It now seemed foolish to have come on a mission of assassination dressed like young executives-or Baptist ministers. At least the Ray-Bans were useful. The bright sun glared off every stone and slope of drifted sand; without the sunglasses, he would not have been able to see the ground ahead of him as clearly as he could now, and he certainly would have put a foot wrong and fallen more than once.

He was about to dive for cover again when he heard the woman open fire in the other direction. With this proof that she was distracted, he kept going. Then he heard screaming so shrill and ululant that it hardly sounded like the screaming of a man; it was more like the cry of a wild animal gutted by another creature's claws but still alive.

Shaken, he took cover in a long, narrow basin of rock that was below the woman's line of sight. He crawled on his belly to the end of that trough and lay there, breathing hard. When he raised his head to bring his eyes up to the level of the surrounding ground, he saw that he was fifteen yards directly north of the Buick's rear door. If he could move just a few more yards east, he would be behind the woman, in the perfect position to cut her down.

The screaming faded.

Figuring that the other man to the south of her would lie low for a while because he would be spooked by the death of his partner, Laura shifted again to the other front fender. As she passed Chris, she said, “Two minutes, baby. Two minutes at most.”

Crouching against the corner of the car, she surveyed their north flank. The desert out there still seemed untenanted. The breeze had died, and not even the tumbleweed moved.

If there were only three of them, they surely would not leave one man at the Toyota while the other two tried to circle her from the same direction. If there were only three, then the two on her south side would have split, one of them going north. Which meant there had to be a fourth man, perhaps even a fifth, out there in the shale and sand and desert scrub to the northwest of the Buick.

But where?

As Stefan expressed his gratitude to the prime minister and got up to leave, Churchill pointed to the books on the table and said, “I wouldn't want you to forget those. If you left them behind-what a temptation to plagiarize myself!”

“It's a mark of your character,” Stefan said, “that you haven't importuned me to leave them with you for that very purpose.”

“Nonsense.” Churchill put his cigar in an ashtray and rose from his chair. “If I possessed those books now, all written, I'd not be content to have them published just as they are. Undoubtedly I would find things needing improvement, and I'd spend the years immediately after the war tinkering endlessly with them-only to find, upon completion and publication, that I had destroyed the very elements of them that in your future have made them classics.”

Stefan laughed.

“I'm quite serious,” Churchill said. “You've told me that my history will be the definitive one. That's enough foreknowledge to suit me. I'll write them as I wrote them, so to speak, and not risk second-guessing myself.”

“Perhaps that's wise,” Stefan agreed.

As Stefan packed the six books in the rucksack, Churchill stood with his hands behind his back, rocking slightly on his feet. “There are so many things I'd like to ask you about the future that I'm helping to shape. Things that are of more interest to me than whether I will write successful books or not.”

“I really must be going, sir, but-”

“I know, yes,” the prime minister said. “I won't detain you. But tell me at least one thing. Curiosity's killing me. Let's see ... well, for instance, what of the Soviets after the war?”

Stefan hesitated, closed the rucksack, and said, “Prime Minister, I'm sorry to tell you that the Soviets will become far more powerful than Britain, rivaled only by the United States.”

Churchill looked surprised for the first time. “That abominable system of theirs will actually produce economic success, abundance?”

“No, no. Their system will produce economic ruin-but tremendous military power. The Soviets will relentlessly militarize their entire society and eliminate all dissidents. Some say their concentration camps rival those of the Reich.”

The expression on the prime minister's face remained inscrutable, but he could not conceal the troubled look in his eyes. “Yet they are allies of ours now.”

“Yes, sir. And without them perhaps the war against the Reich wouldn't have been won.”

“Oh, it would be won,” Churchill said confidently, “just not as quickly.” He sighed. “They say politics makes strange bedfellows, but the alliances necessitated by war make stranger ones yet.”

Stefan was ready to depart.

They shook hands.

“Your institute shall be reduced to pebbles, splinters, dust, and ashes,” the prime minister said. “You've my word on that.”

“That's all the assurance I need,” Stefan said.

He reached beneath his shirt and pushed three times on the button that activated the homing belt's link with the gate.

In what seemed like the same instant, he was in the institute in Berlin. He stepped out of the barrel-like gate and returned to the programming board. Exactly eleven minutes had elapsed on the clock since he had departed for those bombproof rooms below London.

His shoulder still ached, but the pain had not increased. The relentless throbbing, however, was gradually taking a toll on him, and he sat in the programmer's chair for a while, resting.

Then, using more numbers provided by the IBM computer in 1989, he programmed the gate for his next-to-last jaunt. This time he would go five days into the future, arriving at eleven o'clock at night, March 21, in other bombproof, underground quarters-not in London but in his own city of Berlin.

When the gate was ready, he entered it, taking no weapons. This time he did not take the six volumes of Churchill's history, either.

When he crossed the point of transmission inside the gate, the familiar unpleasant tingle passed inward from his skin, through his flesh, into his marrow, then instantly back out again from marrow to flesh to skin.

The windowless, subterranean room in which Stefan arrived was lit by a single lamp on the corner desk and briefly by the crackling light he brought with him. In that weird glow Hitler was clearly revealed.

One minute.

Laura huddled with Chris against the Buick. Without shifting her position she looked first toward the south where she knew one man was hiding, then to the north where she suspected that other enemies lay concealed.

A preternatural calm had befallen the desert. Windless, the day had no more breath than a corpse. The sun had shed so much of itself upon the arid plain that the land seemed as full of light as the sky; at the far edges of the world, the bright heavens blended into the bright earth with so little demarcation that the horizon effectively disappeared. Though the temperature was only in the high seventies, everything-every bush and rock and weed and sweep of sand-appeared to have been welded by the heat to the object beside it.

One minute.

Surely only a minute or less remained until Stefan would return from 1944, and somehow he would be of great help to them, not only because he had an Uzi but because he was her guardian. Her guardian. Although she understood his origins now and was aware that he was not supernatural, in some ways he remained for her a figure larger than life, capable of working wonders.

No movement to the south.

No movement to the north.

“They're coming,” Chris said.

“We'll be okay, honey,” she said softly. However, her heart not only raced with fear but ached with a sense of loss, as if she knew on some primitive level that her son-the only child she could ever have, the child who had never been meant to live-was already dead, not because of her failure to protect him so much as because destiny would not be thwarted. No. Damn it, no. She would beat fate this time. She would hold on to her boy. She would not lose him as she had lost so many people she had loved over the years. He was hers. He did not belong to destiny. He did not belong to fate. He was hers. He was hers. “We'll be okay, honey.”

Only half a minute now.

Suddenly she saw movement to the south.

In the private study of Hitler's Berlin bunker, the displaced energy of time travel hissed and squirmed away from Stefan in snakes of blazing light, tracing hundreds of serpentine paths across the floor and up the concrete walls, as it had done in the subterranean conference room in London. That bright and noisy phenomenon did not draw guards from other chambers, however, for at that moment Berlin was enduring another bombing by Allied planes; the bunker shook with the impact of blockbusters in the city far above, and even at that depth the thunder of the attack masked the particular sounds of Stefan's arrival.

Hitler turned in his swivel chair to face Stefan. He showed no more surprise than Churchill, though of course he knew about the work of the institute, as Churchill had not, and he understood at once how Stefan had materialized within these private quarters. Furthermore he knew Stefan both as the son of a loyal and early supporter and as an SS officer who had worked long for the cause.

Though Stefan had not expected to see surprise on Hitler's face, he had hoped to see those vulturine features twist with fear. After all, if der Furhrer had read Gestapo reports on recent events at the institute-which he had certainly done-he knew that Stefan stood accused of having killed Penlovski, Januskaya, and Volkaw six days ago, on March 15, fleeing thereafter into the future. He probably thought that Stefan had made this trip illicitly just six days ago, shortly before killing those scientists, and was going to kill him as well. Yet if he was frightened, he controlled his fear; remaining seated, he calmly opened a desk drawer and withdrew a Luger.

Even as the last of the electricity discharged, Stefan threw his arm forth in the Nazi salute, and said with all the false passion he could muster, “Heil Hitler!” To prove quickly that his intentions were not hostile, he dropped to one knee, as if genuflecting before the altar of a church, and bowed his head, making of himself an easy and unresisting target. “Mein Furhrer, I come to you to clear my name and to alert you to the existence of traitors in the institute and in the Gestapo contingent responsible for the institute's security.”

For a long moment the dictator did not speak.

From far above, the shockwaves of the night bombardment passed through the earth, through twenty-foot-thick steel and concrete walls, and filled the bunker with a continuous, low, ominous sound. Each time that a blockbuster hit nearby, the three paintings-removed from the Louvre following the conquest of France-rattled against the walls, and on der Furhrer'?, desk a hollow, vibrant sound rose from a tall copper pot filled with pencils.

“Get up, Stefan,” Hitler said. “Sit there.” He indicated a maroon leather armchair, one of only five pieces of furniture in the cramped, windowless study. He put the Luger on his desk-but within easy reach. “Not just for your honor but for your father's honor and that of the SS, as well, I hope you're as innocent as you claim.”

Stefan spoke forcefully because he knew Hitler greatly admired forcefulness. But at all times he also spoke with feigned reverence, as if he truly believed he was in the presence of the man in whom the very spirit of the German people, past and present and future, was embodied. Even more than forcefulness, Hitler was pleased by the awe in which certain of his subordinates held him. It was a thin line to tread, but this was not Stefan's first encounter with the man; he'd had some practice ingratiating himself with this megalomaniac, this viper cloaked in a human disguise.

“Mein Furhrer, it was not I who killed Vladimir Penlovski, Januskaya, and Volkaw. It was Kokoschka. He was a traitor to the Reich, and I caught him in the documents room at the institute just after he had shot Januskaya and Volkaw. He shot me there, as well.” Stefan put his right hand against the upper left side of his chest. “I can show you the wound if you wish. Shot, I fled from him to the main lab. I was stunned, not sure how many in the institute were involved in his subversion. I didn't know to whom I could safely turn, so there was only one way to save myself-I fled through the gate to the future before Kokoschka could catch me and finish me off.”

“Colonel Kokoschka's report tells a quite different story. He said that he shot you as you fled through the gate, after you had killed Penlovski and the others.”

“If that were so, Mein Furhrer, would I have returned here to attempt to clear my name? If I were a traitor with more faith in the future than I have in you, would I not have stayed in that future, where I was safe, rather than return to you?”

“But were you safe there, Stefan?” Hitler said, and smiled slyly. “As I understand, two Gestapo squads and later an SS squad were sent after you in that distant time.”

Stefan was jolted by the mention of an SS squad because he knew it must have been the group that arrived in Palm Springs less than an hour before he left, the group that had occasioned the lightning in the clear desert sky. He was suddenly more worried for Laura and Chris than he had been, because his respect for the dedication and murderous abilities of the SS was far greater than that with which he regarded the Gestapo.

He also realized Hitler had not been told that the Gestapo squads had been outgunned by a woman; he thought Stefan had gone up against them himself, not realizing that Stefan had been comatose throughout those encounters. That played into the lies that Stefan intended to tell, so he said, “My Furhrer, I dealt with those men when they came after me, yes, and did so in good conscience because I knew they were all traitors to you, intent on killing me so that I would not be able to return to you and warn you of the nest of subversives who were-and still are-at work within the institute. Kokoschka has since vanished-am I correct? And so have five other men at the institute, as I understand. They had no faith in the future of the Reich, and fearing that their roles in the murders of March fifteenth would soon be revealed, they fled to the future, to hide in another era.”