In the moment before Saskia Brandt awoke, she had a vision of red chrysanthemums falling. The flowers looked unreal. Their stems were too straight and their falls too slow. Their Gestalt was artful sadness.
Then the sky beyond them wintered and the dream faded.
She awoke to freezing darkness. Her throat was dry. She turned and coughed. The edge of her breast touched a cold surface and, with a shock that stopped her coughing, she understood that she was lying on a metal tray, naked but for a loose shroud. She raised her knees until they bumped metal.
She passed her hands over her body. It was difficult to move them under the shroud. She found one injury: a deep cut high on the inside of her right leg.
She coughed again.
Saskia closed her eyes and tried to contact her computer agent, an Ego-class device that she carried disguised as a business card. There was no reply. It was the first time in years she had felt its absence. The computer was either nearby and offline, or too far away to contact.
Saskia reminded herself that she was the foremost in her Recruitment Clade. She would remain calm. She had scrambled through mud beneath plasma fire on the cold training field outside Berlin during the winter of 2024. She could cope with a metal box, a cut leg and a sore throat.
She did not know where she was, or how she had got here. The Meta Carrier Wave would remedy that. In the meantime, what did she remember? She would verbalise her story to herself. A mindful narrative; just as she had been trained.
I remember my name, Saskia Brandt, and I remember Meta. My designation: Agent (Singular). My training I remember, too. And Toaster, my Ego unit. I am nearing the end of a four-year mission. I left Meta at 4:55 p.m. on Monday, 15 June, 2026 and travelled through time to Siberia, 12 April, 1904. My mission is No. 11. I am following the money of the Yerevan Square Expropriation. She paused. I play Ms Mira Tucholsky, twenty-seven years old, crypto-anarchist…
At these words, Saskia stopped. She gave herself a first class mark for declarative memory. But there was something amiss with her mind. It felt slow and wrong.
Like any Agent Singular, her cranium carried a glass-covered chip connected to more than forty per cent of her grey matter by super-conducting carbon filaments. She did not know the details of its operation. A Meta doctor had explained that it added a third form of thinking. While the right hemisphere was dominant for parallel, holistic processes, and the left hemisphere was dominant for serial, detailed processes, the chip could coordinate both hemispheres and add a posthuman mode of thought that nobody could quite define. ‘Meta thinking’, perhaps. That form of thinking was gone. Saskia now felt its absence in the same way she felt the absence of her Ego unit.
While the chip might have malfunctioned, it had not failed, because it now spoke to her. An involuntary whisper passed through her dry lips and she heard: ‘Coda.’
CODA was a half-remembered acronym. It referenced a procedure in which a dead agent – she deflated at this realisation – was granted a few hours’ activity post-mortem until the chip itself exhausted its power. As the chip was too small to contain a power source, it drew energy from something called Euler Space. It was the degradation of the energy bridge that determined the length of her CODA.
Her chip, then, had spent the last few hours further infesting her tissues and hijacking her nerves until it had assumed the role of physical puppet-master.
Saskia Brandt – ace student, her Major’s favourite – wanted to scream.
Agent Singular, she told herself, lead your fear.
She closed her eyes and recalled her last memory. She had been standing on the polished floor of the Amber Room in the Great Summer Palace of the Tsars, south of St Petersburg. It had been a warm spring night. Ripe for the recovery of half a million roubles stolen from the State Bank the year before. Saskia had played a central role in the robbery. Indeed, she had inhabited her revolutionary part with a relish that only one like her, knowing the greater story had already been told, could bring. When those agents transporting the money north to Finland had betrayed the Party and stashed the money somewhere in St Petersburg, it had been Saskia who had led the recovery.
Last moment: She had been standing on that polished floor. The handsome Georgian revolutionary, Soso, had approached the statue of a mounted Frederick the Great, where the cash was hidden, and put his hand on the leg of the horse. Soso: poet, Marxist, murderer; a man who collected aliases like dandies collected handkerchiefs. The Milkman. Soselo. The Pockmarked One. Koba.
She had been standing, waiting, on that polished floor, quite ready for Soso to congratulate her on the recovery of the cash.
His eyes. Those honey-coloured eyes had turned cold as he smiled. They had set to amber. Then he had given the slightest nod to someone over her shoulder.
In her cold metal box, remembering, Saskia hissed at the darkness. Again, she saw the red chrysanthemums tumbling through a wintering sky.
Last, last moment: She had been standing in the Amber Room when, in the setting eyes of Soso, her augmented perception had revealed the reflection of his henchman, Kamo, raising the butt of his revolver.
And now she was here.
I will lead my fear.
Saskia turned her head to tighten the shroud against her face. Then she bit the fabric, snarled, and jerked her mouth. The linen ripped. She slid her hands to the hole and forced it wider until the shroud split like a second skin. She wriggled free.
By her head, there was a hairline gap where the lid of the box met the side. She pushed her fingers into it. Only the tips would go. She felt around its edges until she discovered that the end of her box was a door, hinged on one side and latched on the other.
She curled into a ball and reversed herself inside the locker until her feet were against the door. A toe-label fluttered against her sole. Thinking of Soso’s honey-coloured eyes, she braced herself against the sides. There was no quiet way out. She kicked and kicked. The top latch of the locker was already loose, and this gave her leverage to break the lower one.
She slid out and fell to a crouch.
A tear of blood dropped from her wound onto the tiles of a well-appointed autopsy room. The lights were off, but shuttered windows on the far wall bled halos of gaslight. Night, then. She smelled carbolic acid. All the work surfaces were empty and the drawers closed. The buckets were stacked.
The impression was not Russian. Where was she?
She crossed to the metal work-table that ran the length of the wall. The drawers beneath it were unlocked. In the topmost, she found a lancet. Holding this like a dagger, she retreated into a cavity beneath the bench and remained there for a moment, looking out. She strained to hear breathing, or perhaps a fearful swallow. Nothing. The mortuary was still. Nobody had come to investigate the sound of her escape.
Strands of her loose, shoulder-length hair swung in front of her face. She sniffed. The hairs held traces of propellant, something smokeless with a low brisance. Cordite? If so, she had recently fired a rifle.
Saskia took the lancet in her teeth. She emerged from the cavity and looked through the drawers until she found sutures, needle and scissors. With care, she put the thread through the lips of her leg wound. The pain that she felt when tying it off was distant, a satellite below the horizon. Then she used the lancet to cut the string of her toe tag.
The installation of the ceiling lights had left a scar in the plaster that she traced back to the switch near the closed door. She walked to the switch and flicked it.
The room streamed with burning tungsten. Saskia glanced at the window shutters, decided they would serve for blackout, and climbed onto the nearest of the two examination tables.
She stood on tiptoe and raised her hand to the hot filament. The light reddened through her flesh. Retinal-embedded augmentations isolated the Meta carrier wave, a trilling note of information in the light comprising changes too fast for the technology of 1908 to detect. Saskia waited until a sample with sufficient fidelity had been obtained. Then she dropped from the table and turned off the light. She took the lancet from her mouth and retreated into the cavity beneath the long workbench, thinking about the knowledge she had obtained from the carrier wave.
Saskia could not query the signal in the carrier wave any more than a sailor could query the constellations. She had to be content with her facts. First, she was no longer in St Petersburg. This mortuary was in Geneva. Somehow, she had left Russia. Had she been drugged or coerced? Or had she travelled willingly, only to suffer a lacunar amnesia of the past few days? The local time was just after sunset on the evening of 11th June, 1908. Her last remembered moment – the attack in the Amber Room – was the 23rd May, by the Julian calendar. Six days ago. To reach Geneva so quickly, she must have boarded – or been put upon – a train the morning after that attack.
For now, Saskia settled on the explanation that she had regained consciousness in the Amber Room and pursued the Bolsheviks to Geneva. At some point thereafter, she had been involved in a fatal confrontation that had also interfered with the recent memories on her chip.
The final secret of the Meta carrier wave had the greatest practical importance. Her organisation kept single-blind agents throughout the world. These agents were locals, or ‘intemporals’. Often, they were young men with a gambling or drug problem that could be leveraged. Some were unknowingly modified for strength, speed or intelligence. Many believed that they worked for a foreign state or a clandestine branch of their own government. Saskia had been given instructions to use Agents Intemporal in extraordinary circumstances. Standard procedure was to engage their services once and pay them off with valuables from the nearest Meta cache. She now knew the identity of the local Agent Intemporal.
She left her hiding space and walked to the double doors. She put her ear against one. Hearing nothing, she ramped up the sensitivity of her vision, opened it and passed into an anteroom gloomy with sinks. Doors led in all directions. The sign above one said ‘Cloakroom’. Saskia pushed through and found a bank of lockers. They were shut and secure. There was a rack of lab coats on the opposite wall.
As she donned one of the coats and inverted the collar, she thought about the physical tendrils that had extended from the chip to her retinas. She had seen the eyes of uncollected corpses in the gutters of Tiflis, the Georgian capital, when running with Soso’s gang. Dead eyes were the same; but they were not the same. They were the clock unwound and the waveless sea.
If a person looks at my eyes, she thought, they will see death.
She felt a thickness in her throat, but no tears came. Perhaps that part of her biology had not survived her death.
When she joined Meta, she had lost her biographical memory and taken the name Saskia Brandt. There had been a rumour that all the Agents Singular were criminals before their recruitment. That was why they were Singular.
Concentrate, she thought. Lead your fear.
She entered a through-office. The wall behind the desk was lined with pigeon holes. Saskia searched through them and saw all manner of paperwork, but no death certificates. She was about to break into the desk drawers when she was touched by a sensation whose analogue was dizziness, but whose origin had to be the chip, not her body. She understood that an important routine in her artificial mind was about to fail.
Slow as a snake around a mouse, involuntary as a yawn, her mouth enunciated a word.
Food. Saskia nodded. Message received.
With that, she returned to full awareness. She abandoned her search for paperwork and passed through the office, finding herself in a reception room.
An elegant but impractical desk occupied the centre. Pastoral paintings hung on the walls. The room was perfumed and somewhat in disguise. It was the made-up face of the mortuary.
Saskia lifted the speaker of the candlestick telephone and waited for the operator. As she did, she looked at her fingertips. They were ashy with cyanosis. Again, she wondered how her eyes would make her appear. Unseeing, like the blind? Inhuman, like a shark?
‘Hello, this is your operator,’ said a French-speaking woman. There was a note of surprise in her voice.
‘Hello, this is Ms Maxine Friedrich,’ replied Saskia. She affected the bad French of a young woman accustomed to speaking Swiss German, ‘Working late on my first day, as you can see.’
After a pause, the operator laughed. ‘You’re a brave girl. I couldn’t bear it, I’m sure.’
Saskia relaxed. That explained the operator’s initial surprise. Saskia’s location must have been visible on the switchboard. The operator continued, ‘Your party, please?’
Saskia gave the number for the Agent Intemporal.
‘Putting you through now.’
In the silence that followed, Saskia’s gaze idled over the desk drawers. Some of them were open.
A young man said, ‘Hello, Mr Gausewitz speaking.’
‘This is your particular friend,’ said Saskia. ‘Do you remember me?’
‘How could I forget?’ replied the man. His voice was too casual, and Saskia worried that he might overplay his part. However, his question was the correct response to hers.
‘Would you collect me, please? I’m at–‘
Saskia stopped. She was staring at a broken vase on the floor. She had not noticed it before now. The red chrysanthemums it had once held were surrounded by shards of glass.
She seemed to step back from herself.
Saskia tried to reconcile the chrysanthemums with the vision that had accompanied her resurrection. If the sound of the vase shattering against the floor had awoken her, how could she have pictured these same red flowers in her dream, moments before? Local time followed physical law, even for the extemporal Agents Singular. Her training had never covered such a timeslip.
Less haste, Agent Singular, she thought. The scenario was not practised, but the lessons of other scenarios might still apply.
‘Chambésy,’ she said. The words came with the ease of over-learned patterns: ‘Oh, and let me show you the outfit I saw.’ That told Gausewitz she needed clothes. ‘You remember the restaurant on Alfred-Vincent? I bought it from a shop near there.’ That told him to bring food.
‘I remember. What about Bernhardt?’
He was asking if he needed to bring a gun.
‘He always complicates things.’
‘Very good. I will see you directly.’
The operator said, ‘Ms Friedrich, your caller has rung off.’
‘Thank you. And goodnight.’
Saskia replaced the receiver. Alone, part of the black, she waited as clocks clicked away the quarter hour. Silence grew like a frost. Saskia remained inert. Her eyes closed. She was meditating on the noises beyond: passing carriages; the footsteps in puddles; the cry of a baby. She hoped that the answer to the riddle of the chrysanthemums would come to her. It did not.
Why are the chrysanthemums tumbling? Have they been thrown? Scattered by something or someone? Have they meaning?
The baby cried again.
Local time should follow physical law, she thought. I was taught that. It was a lesson from a scenario. She looked at her bare feet and wondered whether it would hurt to walk on the broken glass. The lessons of other scenarios still apply. They still apply.
When she looked up, there was a man on the other side of the desk. His expression was neutral and fixed on hers, anchored there with what she soon took to be embarrassment. She noticed the rain jewelling his eyelashes. With that, Saskia Brandt returned. She forgot about the chrysanthemums. She wound the clock inside herself.
He was carrying two canvas bags.
‘Put them on the desk,’ she said, buttoning her lab coat, ‘then go and close the door.’
In the moment he turned, Saskia considered him. He wore a beige, double-breasted suit and a bowler hat. He was no older than twenty-three. His gait was relaxed and his shoulders were wide. He was a mountain climber, perhaps. Shorter than average. Certainly shorter than Saskia.
He had left a storm lantern and a doctor’s bag near the hat stand.
‘Stay there,’ she said, when he had closed the door. ‘And don’t turn around.’
‘I do apologise for walking straight in,’ he said. His hands were clasped behind his back, at ease. ‘I didn’t know if the location was secure.’
Saskia pondered his words. No mention of his lock-picking skills. Then she caught sight of a baguette in one of the canvas bags. It rekindled her hunger, which was deeper than any she had known before. She gripped the bread with both hands, twisted away a piece, and stuffed it into her mouth. It tasted good but was difficult to chew. She had little saliva. She turned the bag upside down on the desk and clawed through the food: a jar of Cornichon pickles; paté in a twist of greased paper; a wooden box containing cheeses; aioli in a jar; and punitions, or shortbread biscuits. She swallowed the bread and undressed the paté, halving it in two bites. Duck. Then she opened the jar of aioli, scooped some in her fingers, and pressed it into her mouth.
She sagged against the desk, breathing heavily. Scintillations had been creeping into the edge of her vision. Now they rolled back.
‘You can turn around now,’ she said.
The man turned. His face was more pretty than handsome. He had a strong tan and this offset his blue eyes. He was subdued by her presence but Saskia detected a latent gadabout charm. He was careful to look into her eyes alone.
‘I’m Saskia Brandt, Agent Singular.’ Her expression was stern. ‘You may call me Saskia when we’re alone, or Ms Tucholsky. I’ve lost the distinction, frankly.’
‘Saskia, I am Hans Gausewitz.’ He tilted his bowler. ‘Everyone calls me Gaus.’
Saskia upended the second bag. A hat box, shoe box, and a dress fell onto the table. She opened the shoe box. Inside were black leather boots. She pushed her hand into one. Conversationally, she said, ‘Have you ever met a woman like me, Gaus?’
‘I have never…’ he said, faltering. ‘I have never met an Agent Singular.’
Saskia looked at him. ‘I’m not like your contemporaries.’
His eyes flicked down to her chest, which was imperfectly covered by the lab coat, and returned to her eyes.
‘You are the most-‘
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’m not. When you look into my eyes, they do not look back. I am dead.’
He tried to smile. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘Imagine a marionette whose strings thread its limbs. My brain is dead, Gaus, and my muscles and organs dying. My will survives. Its seat is a tiny machine in my skull, no bigger than a house spider, and it is the spider that conducts the whole, sorry orchestra.’
As she spoke, his expression changed from polite enquiry to horror. He cleared his throat and said, ‘Then how do you-‘
‘Well enough. Now,’ she said, ‘I thank you for the food and the clothes. You may go. In one hour, I will telephone with the location of the Meta cache. You will be richer than Croesus of Lydia as long as you never speak of me. If you do, you will be found and everything will be taken from you. Understand?’
Saskia observed his reaction. She expected to see worry and he did not disappoint her.
‘I wish to help. They told me that Meta will–‘
‘Never mind what we do, Agent Intemporal.’
Saskia found underclothes. To her relief, the corset had elastic sides. She let her lab coat drop to the floor. Gaus’s eyes dropped with it.
‘I’m in the final hours of my mission,’ she said. ‘I don’t have time to babysit you.’
Quietly, Gaus said, ‘I want to help.’
‘You can, with this bloody corset,’ she said, turning her back to him. Gaus reached across the desk and fastened the hooks. Saskia reminded herself that Gaus was an intemporal who had been born in the late 1880s. Though he knew about time travel, he had never experienced technology sufficient to resurrect a dead body, and it was to his credit that he had reacted rationally at all.
And to my credit, too.
The corset was fastened. She sighed and said, ‘You’re good to offer, Gaus. Through that door you’ll find the administrator’s desk and most of the paperwork held by the mortuary. See if you can find the death certificate for Ms Mira Tucholsky, or anyone admitted this evening. I’m also keen to recover my possessions. A photograph in particular. You have gloves?’
‘My toe tag is in the main room beneath the work bench. It has a four-digit number. That might help.’
The mention of her toe tag seemed to shock him. He said, ‘It…might.’
He pushed through into the anteroom. When she heard him opening drawers, Saskia pulled her hair into a ponytail, tied it with the string, and made a bun. She secured this by passing the lancet through it horizontally, being careful with its double-edged blade. Then she finished getting dressed. The clothes were pleasingly black: blouse, long gloves, a cape with a burgundy bow, and a wide hat whose brim rested on the length of the lancet.
Gaus returned with a sheet of paper. He placed it on the desk and shared a look with Saskia. She could not deny being pleased. Perhaps she should let Gaus help her after all.
The death certificate had been signed by a Dr Vetsch of Champ-de-Blé. The circumstances of her death were termed ‘suspicious’. Saskia raised an eyebrow at that. Blood loss through an incision to the femoral artery. Her name was unknown. There was a crime number. The form was otherwise blank.
‘Did you find any belongings with this?’
Gaus shook his head.
Saskia thought sadly upon the photograph. The picture was her first and last principle. Everything else flowed from it. Her memory of it was not enough. She needed the thing itself.
‘Never mind. Our next step will be to locate Dr Vetsch. Will you come with me?’
Saskia saw the tungsten intensity in his eyes, a brightness he could not dim with his indifferent slouch against the desk. Saskia’s instinct was to extinguish this light.
‘Do you know the word “zombie”, Gaus?’
He smiled. ‘No.’
‘It’s just as well. Let us say that we are star-crossed. We are not destined to be, you and I.’
His smile vanished, and his hurt was plain. Saskia wondered whether he would abandon her there and then. But he was stronger than that. He corrected his slouch. He did not flinch, even when Saskia put her darkening hand to his cheek and said, ‘Make the decision cold. Are you certain?’
Curiosity, or her: two reasons behind his urge to help. Saskia did not quite believe either of them.
‘Then fetch my shroud from the locker. I’ll put everything into the doctor’s bag, and we shall leave without further trace. Will you be able to lock the door behind us?’
‘That reminds me,’ she said. ‘In the topmost drawer beneath the workbench in the locker room is a small leather wallet containing autopsy tools. I will have it, please.’
TO BE CONTINUED IN ISSUE #2 OF THE NEW ACCELERATOR
Synopsis of RSF 1
Geneva, 1908: Having been re-animated by twenty-first century medical technology, time-travelling Agent Singular Saskia Brandt has a few hours of life remaining to complete her mission for the Möbius Extemporal Agency. Her only help is a local sleeper agent, the mysterious Hans ‘Gaus’ Gausewitz.
Saskia and Gaus were standing in the little garden outside the mortuary. There was a gas lamp at the end of the block and, like the one nearby, it illuminated no more than a circle. Beneath that lamp, Saskia could see a woman with two Dalmatians; she had stopped to check her pocket watch. The genteel street was otherwise empty. Gaus raised his storm lantern.
‘My automobile is in repair, I’m afraid. We should walk. It will be no longer than five minutes.’
‘Carry the lantern and I’ll take the bag,’ said Saskia. ‘That is more consistent with our roles. You are a doctor and I am a nurse.’
They walked to the end of the street. As they passed the Dalmatian walker beneath the streetlamp, Saskia put a gloved finger to the corner of her eye and inclined her head, concealing her face.
They turned right at the junction.
Gaus said, ‘Your death certificate claimed you were Russian.’
Saskia could not know how helpful Gaus would be to her mission. For all she knew, he might be integral. She decided to be honest with him.
‘It did. But I’m not Russian. I’m from Berlin. I’ve just been playing a Russian for the past four years to get close to a person of interest to Meta.’
The street was broad. Saskia felt every pair of eyes that passed.
‘My last memory before tonight,’ she continued, ‘is of standing in the Amber Room.’
Gaus’s eagerness returned. ‘You mean that you were in St Petersburg?’
‘In the Great Summer Palace, yes, which is some distance to the south of St Petersburg.’
‘How can that be your last memory?’ asked Gaus. ‘Were you drugged for the journey to Switzerland?’
‘I believe I was conscious,’ she said, wrapping the cape tighter about herself. ‘One cannot travel by train in a stupor. There are too many passport checks, meals, inquisitive guards. My memory of the last few days has been lost. It is a form of lacunar amnesia.’
‘Simply the loss of memory for a specific event.’
‘Did you lose your memory because you…’ he trailed off.
He held her stare. His confidence was growing.
‘Yes,’ she said.
‘Are we looking for the person who did that to you?’
Again, Saskia was reluctant to furnish Gaus with the information. But she compelled herself to do so. What difference could it make?
There are lessons to be learned from every scenario. One must generalise.
‘Persons, plural. Two Georgians. Both shorter than me. One has pock-marked cheeks, has a stiff left arm and walks with a limp. He answers to the names Soso, Soselo, Koba, Joe Pox, and others. The other is heavier in build; probably has a beard. That’s Kamo.’
A mounted gendarme trotted past them. Saskia felt the danger, though she doubted her sluggish heart rate increased. Her mind and her body now operated at a remove.
‘Here,’ said Gaus. ‘The doctor’s practice is down this street, where the blue cabriolet is parked.’
As they turned, the street sloped down to the greyness of Lake Geneva. The mountains were a dim band beyond.
‘A question for you, Gaus. How long have you been an agent?’
‘That’s a long run. What do they have on you?’
‘Nothing,’ he said, looking surprised. ‘I like money.’
Not unusual, thought Saskia. But you are.
The practice was a handsome, two-storey building. It had a courtesy lantern burning over its front gate and a second inside its porch. Looking at the building, Saskia experienced one of those moments when her identity as a time traveller seem to her a lens through which reality itself flipped between two interpretations: then or now; the lady is a young woman or an old crone; the wire cube faces down and to the left, or up and to the right.
These people are alive or dead.
She looked at Gaus. She had warned him that her eyes were dead. But she had forgotten that his eyes were dead, too, from one of her perspectives.
‘Go and knock,’ she said. The words sounded harsher than she had intended. ‘I don’t want complications. Just get my belongings for now.’
Gaus hesitated. He seemed to detect her difficulty in attending to the moment.
‘Go,’ she repeated. ‘You want to help me, don’t you?’
Saskia waited beyond the circle cast by the street lamp. She could see Gaus’s approach through a gap between two trees. Despite the hour, Saskia was confident that the doctor, or his assistant, would be awake.
She was not disappointed. Moments later, the door opened on a short, young woman holding a lamp. She wore a loose cape over her nightclothes and her hair was netted.
‘Please excuse the hour,’ said Gaus. ‘I am Hans Motz. I need to the see the doctor.’
The woman looked at him with the air of someone experienced with night visitors. In a firm tone, she said, ‘The doctor is on a call. If you wish, I will telephone Dr Gafetti, whose practice is two blocks away. What is the trouble?’
Gaus did not answer. He turned to Saskia, who scowled at him. His mouth was no match for his lock picks. The woman held up her lantern and followed his sightline. She started when she saw Saskia, who approached her on silent feet.
‘Don’t be alarmed,’ said Saskia, as the woman’s expression changed from one of curiosity to shock. ‘You treated my sister. We were twins. It must be difficult to look upon me.’
‘Come inside,’ said the woman, looking from Gaus to Saskia. Her professional demeanour had crumbled. ‘Come, come.’
Saskia followed Gaus and the young woman into the house. She found herself in a dark parlour smelling of old woods and polish. The woman closed the door behind them and turned up the wick on her lantern. She led them through a hallway lined with chairs, through which they reached the examining room.
Saskia slowed on the threshold. The owner of this room had signed her death certificate. In the jagged signature she had seen a gentleman doctor of the previous age, and his examining room confirmed that. Despite the recent establishment of the germ theory, and the attendant importance of antisepsis, the room smelled like fresh meat and sawdust. The mortuary had been cleaner.
The woman hooked her lantern above the examination table on the far wall. Its light reflected in the glass doors of the nearby medicine cabinet. She watched Gaus wander around the room, touching the spines of medical journals and inspecting the countless knick-knacks given by grateful patients. The woman looked from him to Saskia and said, ‘Your husband can stay, but I must examine you.’
‘You do not need to do that. I just need–‘
‘I’m sorry,’ said the woman. She folded her arms. Her stubbornness was plain, and it frustrated Saskia, who had few hours of movement left. ‘I am Ms Schild. You won’t recognise me. I was with Dr Vetsch when we treated your injuries earlier today. Lie down and let me attend to you.’
Saskia said, ‘Ms Schild, I need to recover any items that were in the possession of my sister.’
‘Nonsense,’ said Ms Schild. ‘Your lip is split. I did that trying to wake you.’
Saskia put her hand to her lip. She exchanged a look with Gaus, who was sitting against a copper radiator near the doorway.
‘Ms…Tucholsky, is it?’ asked Ms Schild. She appeared to make the decision that she would not be afraid, and Saskia smiled inwardly at her courage.
‘Yes,’ Saskia said.
‘Let me be candid. Your treatment in our surgery was not successful. A grievous injury to your femoral artery led to significant blood loss. Your breathing stopped. You had no central pulse on palpation, and no heart sounds.’ She forced a smile. ‘I washed the blood from your body. I find the fact of your survival to be incredible. That being so, I insist that you permit me to examine you.’
Saskia made a play of being found out. With a deep breath, she said, ‘You’re correct. I am the Ms Tucholsky you treated earlier today. I told you the story about being a twin because few people believe me when I tell them my history of cataleptic trances. They are precipitated by shock. There’s even a story that my great-grandfather was once interred prematurely.’ She studied Ms Schild’s expression and decided to draw her out. ‘But this is well known to the friends who brought me to the surgery. I’m surprised they didn’t mention it.’
‘Your friends?’ asked Ms Schild. She looked confused. ‘It was Count Nakhimov and his driver who brought you. You were attacked in an alleyway near the old Counting House. They saw the incident and brought you here immediately, as the Count has had a long association with Dr Vetsch. The Count claimed that he had never met you before. He had only your business card to know your name.’
Saskia was surprised to hear of Count Nakhimov, the double-agent with whom she had consulted in Zurich when attempting to trace the lost roubles of the Yerevan Square Expropriation. She did not believe the story about being attacked in an alleyway. Yes, she had been attacked; but not in the street, she was sure. Her strength and speed tended to place her beyond harm at close-quarters fighting. Her wound had the hallmark of betrayal.
Saskia wanted her belongings, starting with the photograph. She considered threatening Schild, but Saskia respected and liked her.
‘Ms Schild,’ she said, ‘I can see that you wish to help me. Whether or not you believe I could survive my injury, trust the evidence of your eyes. Furthermore, I am in danger. It increases with every moment that passes. I would ask you to retrieve my belongings. Will you?’
Ms Schild hesitated for moment. Then she lowered her head, nodded once, and left the room with her lantern. Gaus turned up the wick on his own and put it on the doctor’s desk beside a pile of papers.
‘Shall I follow her?’
Saskia shook her head.
Minutes later, Ms Schild returned with a canvas rucksack, which she gave to Saskia. She put it on the desk where the light from the storm lantern was strongest. Ms Schild and Gaus watched as she ran her fingers over the seams, lifted the bag to her nose, and shook the contents out.
The largest item was a crushed straw boater. Saskia looked inside the crown and saw an English manufacturing label, but no owner’s name. There was a handkerchief holding fresh blueberries. The handkerchief had no initials. In a leather pouch, she found a pair of amber-coloured spectacles with round lenses.
As she put them on, their fastware recognised her physiology and projected a full telemetric overlay onto her vision. The spectacles could not remotely detect the photograph but they were paired with her Ego unit. She looked around the room, stopping briefly on Gaus. The icon of her Ego unit appeared near his breast pocket. It was ten miles away, and in a low-power state, waking every thirty minutes to register its position. It had not moved in three hours.
‘Thank you, Ms Schild,’ said Saskia. She removed her spectacles and returned them to the rucksack along with the rest of her possessions. ‘We’re obliged to you.’
‘You should talk to the police,’ said Ms Schild. ‘The person who attacked you is still at large.’
‘The situation will be resolved in that regard,’ said Saskia. ‘You can be sure.’
‘You’re something to do with the police, aren’t you?’ asked Ms Schild. She looked both suspicious and interested.
‘A police “woman”,’ said Saskia, raising her eyebrows at Gaus. ‘How futuristic. Why do you say that?’
Ms Schild shrugged. ‘You have the air of a professional.’
Saskia inclined her head and waited, signalling that Gaus should take his lantern. He did so. Ms Schild led them to the parlour, unlocked the outer door, and bid them good-night.
As Saskia stepped out, she turned back and said, ‘In two days, I would like you to contact my friend here. His real name is Gaus, and he will now tell you his address.’
Gaus seemed uncertain. He patted his breast pocket, found nothing, then pulled a business card from the watch pocket of his waistcoat. He glanced at the card and passed it to Ms Schild.
‘I apologise that the design is somewhat ornate,’ he said. ‘I live near the Cathedral of St Peter. It is not far from here.’
‘Gaus will have funds at his disposal,’ said Saskia. ‘He will be happy to arrange a loan, on very good terms, for your attendance at the University of Geneva’s medical programme.’ At Schild’s emerging protest, Saskia held up her hand. ‘This is an entirely philanthropic gesture. You will be under no obligation to me or Gaus.’
‘What makes you think I want to be a doctor?’ Ms Schild asked. Though she tried to conceal her pleasure by staring at the details on the card, her excitement was plain.
‘Call it your “air of professionalism”, if you like. Moreover, is it not true that you have already been playing doctor? Dr Vetsch isn’t on a call, is he? He’s somewhere in the house, dead drunk.’
‘Medical training is expensive,’ said Ms Schild, not meeting her gaze.
Saskia said nothing. She bowed and walked into the street: without sound, as was her habit. She waited for Gaus to catch up.
‘Taxi rank?’ she said, before he could ask any questions.
‘Left turn ahead, then right.’
They walked on. Doctor and nurse once more their disguise.
‘Why so helpful, Gaus? Just your nature?’
‘No Agents Intemporal have ever joined the ranks of the Singular,’ she said. Her voice was soft, the better to deliver this lesson. ‘Your circle closes elsewhere.’
They did not speak again until they found the rank. Theatre-goers crowded the short stretch of road, and Saskia feared that they would take all the available motorised taxicabs, but there remained a Unic cab and one of the more popular Renaults. The Unic was a thin, black contraption with the apparent tensile strength of a top hat. Saskia loved it. She told Gaus to request a fare in the direction of Lausanne.
Its portly driver helped them into the covered back. Gaus sat with his doctor’s bag between his legs; Saskia put the rucksack on her lap. As the driver blared his horn twice, ushering pedestrians aside, Saskia heard the first drops of rain on the canvas.
‘Where are we heading tonight, lady and gentleman?’ asked the driver. ‘I need to tell my runner before we set off.’
‘Yverdon-les-Bains,’ she said, remembering the location signalled by the Ego unit. ‘The Rue de la Maladaire. Do you know it?’
The driver nodded and repeated this to the boy at the window, who ran off with the news. Then the taxicab rattled across Geneva. The lake would remain on their right for the next few minutes, but Saskia was not looking at the scenery. She was preparing to relive her lost days through the amber spectacles.
She used a sequence of blinks, fixations and saccades to control the interface. She summoned its oldest visual capture and was surprised by its recency: only six days ago. The spectacles were designed to record everything viewed by the wearer. It was as though they had been reset. Years of data had been lost.
Saskia blinked. At once, she saw the telescoping facade of the Great Summer Palace. The time offset suggested that the capture had been taken after Kamo had knocked her unconscious. So she must have woken in the Amber Room, evaded capture, and made it outside the palace.
The viewpoint swung left and right. Saskia selected ‘Intra-Cranial Device’ as the sound output and had the strange experience of overhearing a conversation between her formerself–this ‘Saskia Lacuna’–and her Ego computer.
Lacuna spoke to the computer as though it were a friend rather than field equipment. Perhaps, thought Saskia, this was the effect of her head injury.
In the capture, Kamo and Soso were not to be seen. They must have already made their getaway with the money. Saskia watched as Lacuna looked towards a celestial object and used it to recalibrate the date and time of the spectacles.
Cool idea, she thought. Confirms that the spectacles were reset. But why would my fall to the floor do that? The reset had to be triggered by something more serious. An electromagnetic pulse?
Saskia skipped through the capture, stopping and starting as required.
Over the next minutes of conversation, she learned that Saskia Lacuna claimed to be from a parallel universe.
Saskia blinked to pause the capture. She commanded the spectacles to assume transparency, and watched flashes of Lake Geneva through the dripping, bending trees. Her first instinct was to dismiss the idea of a parallel universe as a fantasy induced by the head injury. However, it explained both the lacunar amnesia and the fastware reset of the spectacles.
Saskia knew from her training that there was ample scientific evidence of the quantum entanglement phenomenon crossing between realities on nearby world-lines. Given that Saskia’s brain chip–and perhaps those of other Saskias in nearby universes–were designed to be receptive to targeted entanglement events, then it was possible for the information state of Saskia’s chip to be overwritten following a malformed quantum code injection. The pulse for this event might also knock out the fastware on the spectacles, force her Ego computer offline, and explain the lacunar amnesia–which, in this scenario, was not amnesia at all but a period in which Saskia’s mind was replaced by another.
What happened to my mind pattern when Saskia Lacuna replaced it? Who or what put my mind back after hers had left?
Saskia commanded the spectacles to resume playback. She listened to Saskia Lacuna tell the Ego unit that she was somehow lost in time and trying to return to the future using the Amber Room as a portal.
This was enough to convince Saskia that Lacuna was telling the truth. She knew that the Amber Room was used by Meta as one of three anchors within Maxwell Space to triangulate matter injection. The nature of massed amber gave rise to a property that was tractable from a temporally remote perspective. It made sense that, in the reality of Saskia Lacuna, Meta, or a similar organisation, would use it as a portal.
The data capture was incomplete. Presumably, Lacuna had seldom used the spectacles. Saskia would need to get the rest of the story from her Ego computer.
When Saskia removed the spectacles and rubbed her eyes, she saw that they had already reached Yverdon-les-Bains and were passing the Parc d’Entremonts. The rain was loud on the roof of the taxicab.
Gaus saw her stir. He said, ‘We’re a few blocks away.’
Saskia was about to reply when she noticed a Peugeot Bébé parked at the northern end of the street. It was not far from a tall gate. She tapped the shoulder of the driver. They swung towards the kerb and the driver set the engine to a rattling idle.
Saskia reached across Gaus and wiped away the condensation from the window. It was certainly a Bébé. The registration number was indistinct but might have been that of Count Nakhimov, who had delivered her body to the doctor earlier that day.
‘Wait here,’ she said to Gaus.
Gaus shrugged. She felt him watch her as she climbed down to the pavement. The rain was falling at a sharp angle. It was a typical Swiss May downpour. She hurried across the road with one hand on her hat.
The Peugeot Bébé had stopped in the dark gap between two street lamps. The automobile had acquired a canvas roof since she had seen it last, and a second bench seat behind the driver, but the label hanging from the steering column gave the registration address as Volketswil, where the Count had a villa.
The label was flecked with blood. It made her think of the label that had been tied around her big toe. She stood for a moment looking into the dark cockpit. The knowledge of her mission was a support and she leaned upon it, resuming the cold regard of the Agent Singular as she contemplated what lay curled around the steering column.
By the time she returned to the taxi, her composure was complete. She ignored the questioning stare of Gaus and said, ‘Be so good,’ to the driver, who found his gear and got them underway.
The Hotel Moderne was situated in the corner of a nearby square. It was adjacent to an impressive hall with a clock whose iron hands had come to prayer. Midnight. The square was not deserted, as Saskia had anticipated given the hour and the rain, but the activity was mostly through traffic, pedestrian and taxicab. When their driver stopped, Saskia passed him double the fare and thanked him.
She and Gaus stood in the rain as the taxicab shuddered through its turning circle and faded away. They both looked at the Moderne for a moment. Gaus turned to her. In answer to the curiosity in his expression, she put her spectacles on.
They highlighted a window on the third floor.
‘There,’ she said, pointing. ‘Fourth from the left. But that is a job for me. Do you remember the automobile I checked in the Parc d’Entremonts?’
‘It’s a Bébé, parked in the darkest place on that street. You can’t miss it.’ She watched him for a reaction. Seeing none, she said, ‘Drive it back here within ten minutes.’
He crossed to the shadowed alley alongside the hotel. His shoes were loud on the cobbles, his hands were in his pockets and his head was bent. Saskia watched him until he was out of sight.
She turned to look at the hotel. She could ring for service but that might alert whoever had taken her Ego computer. She walked into the side alley. The darkness there was deep. She asked the spectacles to compute a climbable route to the third floor. It suggested a path that Saskia disagreed with, so she dismissed the overlay and relied on its night vision alone. She had been the second-best climber in her Recruitment Clade.
She flexed her hands. There was strength in them, though their subtlety had diminished. The truth was that her body was on an unstoppable downward curve. Nothing could save her. The technology of her own time could restore life under some circumstances, for some people, and in an Emergency Suite. Not Saskia. Not here. Her prognosis was CODA; a brief encore. A haunting of herself.
She removed her long gloves and tucked them into her bosom along with the spectacles. She stepped out of her boots and hooked them by the heels into the ribbon of her cape. She pressed down on her hat. Then she gripped the drainpipe and tested its connection to the wall. It moved. The metal hoops that attached the lower section had come away years ago. Saskia pondered for a moment. She put her fingertips into the gaps between the large bricks. Her right, stockinged foot found a similar crack. She looked up. This would have to be done quickly.
Within a minute, fingers and toes bleeding, she was at the room adjacent to her target. She had a secure stance and nobody had raised the alarm.
She looked through the window to checked the room was unoccupied. That tallied with the thermographic data provided by her spectacles; it was the coldest on the floor.
Its double window was designed to open inwards. Saskia adjusted her feet to a more comfortable position, then drew the lancet from beneath the brim of her hat. Her hair-bun fell loose. She put the blade between the two panels and slid it upwards. The latch opened and she leaned into the room.
Beneath the window was a bed. Saskia tumbled onto it and closed the window behind her. She waited to hear if her entry had been noticed.
Saskia retrieved her long gloves and put them back on. She secreted the lancet within the forearm of her right glove; if she poked the blade through the fabric at the wrist it avoided her skin. She approached the door and examined the lock. It was a simple mechanism. She defeated it using the small autopsy instruments that Gaus had retrieved from the mortuary.
She stepped into her boots and assumed an attitude of irritation and authority. Then she opened the door and peered out. The corridor was swamp-lit with luminescent gas. It was panelled with dark woods. A glass display case held faded newsprints and sketches. There was a blue carpet running its length. Keeping to this carpet, Saskia walked to the room next door.
There she hesitated. She sorted through several conversational openings from the banal to the absurd. Ultimately, she knocked and prepared to deliver a complaint about noise.
The door opened a few centimetres.
‘Who is it?’ said a man, speaking French. Saskia recognised his voice and it took her a long moment to tamp down her surprise and achieve the composure she needed.
Synopsis of RSF 2
Geneva, 1908: Re-animated Time traveller Saskia Brandt, aided by Gaus, a local sleeper agent, has uncovered the details of her death. She has broken into a hotel room to recover her personal computer, ‘Ego’.
The man asking the question was Pavel Eduardovitch Nakhimov, the son of Saskia’s contact, Count Nakhimov. Saskia had spent several weeks of the previous spring as a guest of the family in their St Petersburg residence on the Apothecary Island. During this time she had grown to know Pasha and his sister, Ludmilla. Pasha had been a serious boy; occupied by his officer training and a march to manhood. Saskia and Pasha had been on cordial terms until the day his father, the Count, had made clear that he was in love with Saskia. She had left their house during a smoggy twilight without taking leave.
‘Pavel Eduardovitch,’ she said quietly. ‘You remember me, I’m sure.’
She heard him take a sharp breath and hold it. When he did not open the door further, she pushed gently into the room.
Pasha had moved to the window. He was a tall man, clean-shaven, with Brilliantined hair in a side parting. Eighteen years old. He wore a crumpled evening suit and, today, his face was that of a gambler who had lost himself to cards. She remembered teaching him, over a hand of écarté, the English phrase ‘an old head on young shoulders’.
‘Mother of God,’ he whispered. ‘How is it that you are alive? I saw your lights dim and disappear.’
For a moment, Saskia was too confused to speak. Ms Schild had told her that Count Nakhimov and his servant Mr Jenner had delivered her to Dr Vetsch. Had she meant Pasha and Mr Jenner? If that were true, why was he calling himself the Count? There could be one reason.
‘Your father,’ she said, regretting the statement for its truth, ‘is dead.’
‘I don’t know what is happening.’ His voice cracked on the last word. ‘Explain to me what is happening.’
‘Pasha,’ she whispered, keeping her back to the door as she closed it. ‘I am here.’
His next action surprised her. He crossed the room and put his lips on hers and kissed her so hard that her head struck the closing door, tipping her hat. Saskia put a hand on her hat and closed her eyes. She felt the muscles around her eyes relax.
Pasha pulled away. ‘You’re icy.’
‘It’s cold outside,’ she said. ‘I just came in.’
His face had the deep concern of which young, righteous men are capable. She wanted to smile. But the larger situation had to be resolved. There were very few hours left.
‘Listen to me. I woke in the mortuary earlier tonight, and my last memory was of standing in the Amber Room. What happened from that point until now?’
He gave her a perplexed look. ‘Why should I tell you what you already know?’
‘The woman who examined me was not a real doctor,’ she said, ‘and, though my wounds are grievous, I am…well, there is an English phrase that applies: “alive and kicking”.’
‘But my wits are not fully mine. You must indulge me. And quickly. We are in danger here.’
Pasha did not quite believe her. She could see that. However, he recounted the events of that first night: He had discovered her in the Great Summer Palace, where he had been posted as part of the household guard. They had joined forces to pursue the Georgians and their money to Switzerland.
Saskia watched him talk. To be sure, he said, his motivations had not overlapped perfectly with Saskia Lacuna’s. She had wished to kill the outlaw Soso. Pasha could not countenance this, but he would defeat Soso and return the money to Russia along with the outlaw. He would do this for his Tsar and for himself, so that Soso could stand trial for the murder of his father, Count Nakhimov.
‘When did your father die?’ she asked.
‘It was the night of your break-in at the Great Summer Palace, not above a week ago. You yourself led me to his body in the observatory beyond the orchard.’
Saskia frowned. In her earlier review of the data from the spectacles, she had not seen that.
‘Tell me what happened once we reached Switzerland.’
‘You jumped from the train before Geneva and told me to go home. I did not. Saskia, I regretted your absence extremely.’ In case he tried to kiss her again, Saskia lowered her head. Abashed, he continued, ‘With the help of Mr Jenner, I located the house of the outlaws and came there to find you mortally…grievously wounded. The outlaws had escaped. If it weren’t for your note, the story would have ended there.’
Saskia closed her eyes. Inside the sound of rain, horses and wheels, she could hear the growing clatter of the Bébé. Pasha held her throat. The sudden warmth and intimacy–deeper than the kiss–made her ache with sadness, but there was no quarter in her eyes when she took his head and pushed him back, transfixing him with her coldness.
‘I am sorry,’ she said. ‘But Mr Jenner is dead. I found him in your father’s automobile ten minutes ago. He didn’t get any further than the Parc d’Entremonts.’
‘No.’ Pasha paced to the window, returned to the door, groaned at her, then cast himself across the bed. He made fists against his mouth. ‘I sent him there,’ he said.
‘The embassy,’ he said. His voice was tired, but already the weight of his courage was settling him. Saskia had always admired this. He had learned it during his childhood, much of which had been spent in illness and pain. ‘You referred to it in your note. I sent them a telegram.’
‘My note? Show me.’
‘Here,’ said Pasha. He felt inside his trouser pocket and handed her a small card.
Saskia thumbed its edge. The card was too stiff to be real. She read the embossed text.
Ms Tucholsky, Tutor
Mathematics; English; Physical Education
References upon request
Messages received at Hotel de l’Europe, Nevsky Avenue and Mikhailovskaya Ulitsa, St Petersburg
She flipped it. In what appeared to be pencil, and in her own cursive Cyrillic, someone had written:
P–If something happens, the money is going to the Eiger, JF Railway. Talk to BRYULLOV @ Embassy in Berne. Yrs, M T.
Saskia frowned. This business card was her Ego unit. The text about the meeting had been projected onto its surface in an attempt to manipulate Pasha. In that, the card had succeeded.
Saskia had long known that her mission would end in the valley of the Eiger, Grindelwald. The ‘JF’ before ‘railway’ stood for ‘Jungfraujoch’. The sons of Adolf Guyer-Zeller, a Swiss entrepreneur, were continuing work on a tourist railway that passed through the Eiger to the ridge between the mountains of the Mönch and the Jungfrau. Saskia knew that the Russian anarchist community had connections with the company. Its tunnels were often used for all manner of contraband, including weaponry and expropriations.
‘Was there anything else with this card?’ she asked. ‘A photograph?’
Outside, the Bébé pulled up. Saskia went to the window. When Gaus saw her, he touched the brim of his hat. He was wearing goggles and driving gauntlets.
‘Pasha,’ she said, turning back to him. ‘The telegram you sent earlier this evening was intercepted. Whether or not you mentioned the money, its presence was clear to somebody. The person who killed Jenner didn’t want him to reach the embassy. It is likely that the same person wants to kill you, but has not made his attempt yet. He is probably watching this hotel.’
Pasha gave her a sickly smile. ‘Perhaps he is the man in the vehicle downstairs.’
‘That man is with me. Will you come with us?’
‘Mr Jenner…’ he began.
‘There is nothing you can do for him now.’
‘Is it still your intention to kill the outlaw?’
‘Pasha, please. I need someone I can trust.’
He sighed through his nose. ‘That does not say much for the man driving the automobile.’
Saskia waited. Pasha had helped smuggle her from Russia, and he had been engaged in the pursuit of Soso when she found him in the hotel. She was sure he would agree to help her.
‘I fell asleep after dinner,’ said Pasha, looking at his palms. ‘I dreamed of a man on a stone balcony. Below him were his people, all dressed in grey and standing in lines. There were millions. Above them hung a great red star. The man on the balcony was delivering a monologue. The solitude of each citizen overwhelmed me. It was the saddest dream I’d ever had. I wonder if Mr Jenner was dead by then.’
Saskia crouched before him at the edge of the bed and took his hands.
‘We’ll have somebody take care of Mr Jenner. At this moment, however, we cannot let anyone else know. Certainly no one at the embassy. It has been compromised. The local police may be able to help, but we cannot trust them. They might hinder us. Gather your things, Pasha. Hurry.’
‘Very good,’ he said, at last.
Saskia left the room and put her boots next to the door, as though for cleaning, and moved down the stairs to the ground floor. She emerged on an L-junction. Ahead, there was a frosted glass door leading to a lounge. She walked along the corridor and followed it to the right. The concierge was seated in his booth. He was reading a newspaper.
Morning, Toaster, she thought, sending a neural transmission to her Ego unit. Wake up, and try to increase production from my salivary glands.
‘Saskia,’ came the reply. ‘I am surprised to receive a transmission from you.’
Saskia frowned. She continued her silent steps. She was almost at the booth.
Since when do you refer to me as Saskia?
‘My apologies, Agent Singular. For the last few days, your chip was overwritten by a digital entity from a parallel universe. Our manner of communication was somewhat less formal.’
The bitch is back.
‘”Toaster” gave that away.’
Saskia had called her Ego unit ‘Toaster’ ever since an earlier prototype had malfunctioned in the rucksack of her colleague, an Agent Singular codenamed Echo. That unit had vented its capacitor and reached three hundred degrees Celsius in five seconds. Echo’s dance as he fought to shrug off the rucksack had delighted the other members of the Recruitment Clade.
Echo had not made it through training. A plasma weapon had sliced him in half during an exercise in Krakow.
Reduce the confidence interval on your humour detector. That should help you avoid false positives.
Reduce them further. Now, activate a sleeper neurotoxin in my saliva.
The concierge looked up. At first, he smiled, but his smile faded as her impassive expression overwhelmed him. He seemed to realise that something was wrong.
‘Madam, can I help you?’
Saskia leaned forward and took his tie. She pulled his lips onto hers. There was an initial yielding as the man accepted the kiss, but this was followed by a slight recoil.
He tastes the death in me, she thought.
It took three seconds for her saliva to penetrate his skin, and two more for the sleep agonist to carry across his blood-brain barrier. It triggered the suprachiasmatic nucleus on his brain midline, spread activation to surrounding structures, and dropped him into a sleep across his newspaper. As the rapid onset was designed to inhibit the encoding of recent episodic memory, he would not remember her.
Saskia lifted his telephone, dialled the Count’s room, and said, ‘Go.’
She replaced the receiver and moved behind the desk. After a minute, she had located Pasha’s passport and a receipt signed by Mr Jenner. She passed these to Pasha, who had arrived at the desk with his case in one hand and her boots in the other. He was looking at the concierge.
‘Did you hurt him?’
Saskia said nothing. She shrugged and put on her boots. The weaponised neurotoxins were decaying. In a few minutes, the concierge would be sleeping normally.
It occurred to Saskia that Pasha had not enquired further about her recovery. Could it be that Saskia Lacuna had revealed herself as a time traveller with advanced medical technologies? The Agents Intemporal like Gaus were convincible, but that unusual capacity was a criterion for their selection. Civilians like Pasha would always take it for a lie, a joke, or a delusion.
‘When I came into your room just now,’ Saskia said, ‘I wanted to say “Buh”. That’s what a ghost says in Germany.’
‘I know,’ said Pasha. He looked at her significantly. ‘Perhaps you don’t remember, but when I held you on the way to the surgery, I said: “Deliver me, O Lord, from my enemies; In You I take shelter. O Lord, revive me, for Your name’s sake.”‘
Saskia did not know how he intended this remark. However, if he accepted her presence without the need for a lie about hereditary cataleptic trances, that would do.
Pasha placed his key on its hook behind the concierge. They walked outside, to the rain, where the engine of the Bébé puttered. Pasha exchanged a curt nod with Gaus, then put his briefcase into the back. Saskia inspected the space around the steering column.
‘What did you do with Mr Jenner?’ she asked.
‘You might have warned me,’ said Gaus. As Pasha climbed alongside him, he continued, ‘I left him behind a tree in the park, covered by a blanket. It was the best I could do.’
‘My thanks,’ said Pasha, tightly. ‘I am Nakhimov, an acquaintance of Ms Tucholsky.’
‘Hans Gausewitz. Everyone calls me Gaus.’
They shook hands.
Gaus offered to help Saskia up. She ignored him and climbed into the back. Before they moved away, Gaus turned to her and said, ‘He was carrying a gun.’
‘Give it to me.’
‘I thought it would be better if I kept it.’
Saskia said nothing. Gaus exchanged a glance with Pasha. Gaus’s expression was companionable; Pasha’s remained impassive. With a sigh, Gaus reached into his pocket and pulled out the gun. Saskia took it. It was a .40, but dangerous enough.
‘Head for Berne,’ she said.
The car pulled away. Saskia settled back and hugged herself. She felt colder than she should. She looked to the Jura mountains. She pictured their incursion into France. Ahead were the hills of the Broye River and, still further, Lake Neuchâtel. The journey to the Eiger would take several hours.
You told Pasha that the money was to be hidden in a tunnel of the Jungfrau Railway. From where did you get this information?
‘I overheard a conversation between Vladimir Lenin and a Swiss railway clerk.’
Very well. And do you know what happened to my photograph?
Don’t make me talk to you about humour and confidence intervals again. The one I carry always.
‘I was last aware of the photograph six days ago in St Petersburg, three hours before your infiltration of the Amber Room. You were holding it to your lips.’
Saskia told herself to focus on her present situation. The photograph was a token, and a forlorn one at that.
Tell me as much as you can about my physical state.
‘The Euler Bridge of your Intra-Cranial Device is down to 52 per cent efficiency. Your ICD has recruited an emergency physical power source in your spine to provide kinetic energy for your base metabolism. Harmful by-products are now being carried away from your muscles, but not efficiently given your reduced blood volume.’
And the rate of putrefaction?
‘Your artificial medical organ has begun producing agents to counteract ammonia and hydrogen sulphide, and certain volatile amines.’
‘Hypoxia has all but destroyed your central nervous system. Elements of your peripheral nervous system have been repaired to allow basic sensory and motor function. This means that your mental processing is now based on the chip.’
How much longer do I have?
‘Four to six hours, plus or minus one. Much depends on your level of activity. I would advise you to sleep, and eat some high protein food if you can.’
Saskia tapped Gaus on the shoulder. ‘Food?’
‘Under your seat.’
Saskia felt for the doctor’s bag and opened it. Among other things, there was duck paté left. She licked some from the paper.
Tell me what happened from the point at which I woke up in the Amber Room. Refer to me during this period as Saskia Lacuna.
She and I are different people.
‘A lacuna is the missing portion of a book or manuscript.’
You fascinate me. Now tell me what happened.
The card related the story of Saskia Lacuna becoming conscious and her immediate arrest by the duty Hussar, Pavel Eduardovitch Nakhimov. The story was consistent with Pasha’s account.
As she listened, Saskia swallowed the last of the paté and thought about Pasha. He had always been a serious boy. Square, some might say. But his reaction to her appearance in the hotel room spoke to a change in their relationship over the past few days.
Toaster, did Saskia Lacuna and Pasha become intimate?
‘To my knowledge, no.’
The Ego unit continued with the story from the point when Saskia Lacuna had jumped from the train some kilometres from Geneva. Alone, the woman had hiked to a mountain hut and used a young shepherd to relay a message to Soso. The outlaw had sent his henchman, Kamo.
When the computer told her that Kamo had died during their firefight, Saskia turned to look at the dark pines passing the automobile.
Saskia had found the years since 1904 to be a great steppe. While history was a storm with many fronts, the weather, from her perspective, had always seemed mild. Thinking room was ample. Physical maps had unknown regions; the maps of thought likewise had lacunae.
Lacuna, she thought, and the word chilled her. What had Toaster said? “The missing portion of a book or manuscript.” She thought of those tumbling chrysanthemums. The red blooms turning.
Kamo had given her flowers once. What had she felt for him? Love?
‘I’m sorry, but I did not receive your question clearly.’
That thought was not meant for you. Continue.
The card told her that Saskia Lacuna had walked to the house on Chemin de la Pie where Lenin and Soso were staying. Saskia admired the move. It was brave. Brave with Saskia’s body, of course, but brave nonetheless. Ego then related her death, which had come to her from the knife of a little girl she had tried to protect: a single cut and coldly done.
Someone had taught that child to kill.
Toaster, she sent, tell me the last thing that you said to Saskia Lacuna.
‘I told her that I would help the Count and Mr Jenner apprehend, but not kill, Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin.’
Saskia nodded. Ego’s plan had been a reasonable one under the circumstances. It was not for nothing that it was her assistant. But the plan had failed. Pasha’s telegram to the embassy had been intercepted and Mr Jenner betrayed.
Are you aware of my sealed orders?
‘I have not been aware of any until this point.’
My query should make them visible to you. They are, however, encrypted. Access them using the phrase: “My voice is my passport. Verify me.” The phrase should be encoded acoustically. Be sure to preserve my prosodic contour. Are you done? If so, repeat the orders back to me.
The Ego unit read the orders to her.
‘I am surprised,’ it concluded.
I am not.
‘Will you tell me why it has to end here, like this?’
Saskia pictured the chiral logo of Meta.
For questions beginning with “why”, my little kitchen helper, think about what the ‘m’ in Meta stands for.
‘That is not useful.’
Saskia had had enough.
‘Gaus, pull over.’
He brought the automobile to a stop near a junction and extinguished the headlights. The rain was a dismal crackle on the roof.
With her hand hidden beneath her cloak, Saskia reached for Mr Jenner’s gun, which she had slipped under her thigh.
‘I told you about the danger, Gaus. I will not have you killed. Your role is to help me, and you have done so. We will leave you here and drive on. This isn’t far from Berne. I suggest you pay a visit to the farm over there and stay the night.’
Gaus had turned around in his seat. He pulled up his goggles to reveal a frustrated, tired eyes.
‘I can help you.’
‘I’ll telephone your house with the location of the Meta cache,’ said Saskia. ‘You may take everything there as payment, but I would ask you to remember your promise to Miss Schild, who wished to go to medical school. Does she have your word?’
‘Of course,’ said Gaus, angrily. Then he seemed to check himself. ‘If that’s what you wish, then that’s what I will do, Agent Singular.’
‘Russia thanks you, too,’ said Pasha. He was younger than Gaus but his voice had a paternal edge. ‘There are many who agree with the principles of these men, but not their willingness to embrace criminality.’
To this, Gaus did not reply. He discarded his gauntlets and the goggles, then stepped down from the car. Saskia swung around to the front seat. She had the gun in her hand, but kept it palmed.
‘Oblige me,’ said Pasha. ‘Return to Mr Jenner. If something happens to us in Grindelwald, I need you to see that he has a Christian burial.’
Saskia was annoyed that Pasha had revealed their destination. However, she said nothing. If she corrected him with a plausible alternative, this would draw attention to his blunder.
‘We have to go,’ she said. ‘Thanks for everything. You were well chosen.’
Saskia gave him the storm lantern and watched as he crouched in front of the engine. She checked that the gear stick was in neutral, then pumped the accelerator. Gaus turned the crank and the engine started with a bray.
They drove on, leaving Gaus a rather sorry, diminishing figure with his lantern.
‘That was hard on him,’ said Pasha.
‘Can you drive this automobile?’
‘I have never driven.’
‘I’m going to stop at the next bend. You’ll take over.’
‘If you insist.’
They exchanged places at a small passing place on the road. Pasha donned the goggles and gauntlets. It was colder in the front seat, and wet, so Saskia removed a blanket from the boot and laid it across her legs.
‘How do you find driving, Pasha?’
‘It’s rather like skating!’ he shouted, swerving left and right to demonstrate. He had a tendency to mash the gears and stray from the centre of the road, but he was a fast learner. It was not long before he became accustomed to the loose steering and could keep the vehicle at a constant thirty-five kilometres per hour, though he had a tendency to use the handbrake at speed.
They drove on in silence for another five kilometres, passing through Berne and turning south-east towards Lake Thun. The paling band of sky was serrated by the mountain line. Three of those peaks, running left-to-right, were the Eiger, Mönch and Jungfrau: the Ogre, the Monk and the Maiden.
She was looking into the darkness beyond the light of the headlights when Pasha said, ‘I understand that you wanted to spare him trouble, but he might have made all the difference. He’s fit and eager. An alpinist, he told me.’
Saskia opened her mouth to elaborate on her feelings about Gaus, then thought better of it. ‘A doctor and his woman travelling at night will be easier to explain to the police,’ she said. ‘We’re based in Berne and we are to see a patient in Kleine Scheidegg.’
‘If you think they will believe us.’
Saskia turn to him. Though the memory of his romantic behaviour in the hotel had continued to give her discomfort, she was glad he had managed to act the gentleman since. No doubt he was also grieving for his father and Mr Jenner. But he had committed himself to her cause and, with the professionalism of a man freshly attached to the military, he was soldiering through. But what would happen when their missions diverged? How fast would she become an enemy to him?
They threaded the Interlaken pass. The rain had stopped and dawn was a whitening strip against the snowcaps. An arc of spindrift reached into the sky above the four thousand metre peak of the Eiger, reddening with the last of night. Its glory no longer worked for her.
‘Stop here,’ she said, when they approached a lay-by halfway between Alpiglen and Kleine Scheidegg, the high pass at the foot of the Eiger where the uncompleted Jungfrau Railway began its ascent into the very mountain. ‘There is a chance that I might be recognised by the people staying in the hotels.’
‘Shall I go on alone?’
‘Yes. I’ll stay in the car. I must remain mobile.’ Saskia looked at the north wall of the Eiger. Even with the night upon it, the higher snowfields glowed. ‘I need you to find out the extent of the hollows within that mountain.’
‘You mean the Jungfrau Railway?’
‘Yes,’ said Saskia. ‘Things like the number of service tunnels, how many workers we might expect, and the likelihood of finding explosives on the site.’
‘What will be our plan?’
‘It’s still early. There should be time for us to hike up the tunnel itself. We will find the money.’
‘How will we carry it?’
‘We will improvise.’
‘There are sure to be workers, or at least a guard. They will see our lantern.’
Saskia put her hand on his. ‘Do you remember your dream? You saw a man conducting monologues above a million solitudes.’
Pasha looked at the mountain. Its face, and the sky beyond, was becoming brighter by degrees.
‘There was a red star above him.’
‘The star will fall today,’ Saskia said. ‘If you help me.’ She reached into her bosom and withdrew the amber spectacles. ‘For us, even inside the mountain, it will never be dark.’ She slid them onto Pasha’s face.
Make the spectacles work for him.
‘That is not permitted.’
I permit it, Toaster.
Pasha’s eyes widened. He laughed.
‘Is it a kaleidoscope?’
‘No,’ Saskia said. ‘Just as a telescope allows you to see far away things as though they were closer, these spectacles show you things in darkness as though they were lit.’
‘This is German in design, is it not?’
‘You have to ask? Now, Pasha, go to the hotel. Tell them that you are a tourist and your car has broken down. Keep to English or French. Don’t tell them that you are Russian, or that you are travelling with a woman. Tell them that you intend to ride the Jungfrau Railway later today. The railway is not complete but it does take paying passengers part of the way. Ask about it. They’re sure to have some pamphlets, perhaps a map.’
Pasha stepped down. He lingered for a moment–his true boyhood broke through the mask–and then he gave her a serious nod before walking away in the direction of Kleine Scheidegg, the pass that connected Grindelwald with Lauterbrunnen. Saskia watched him through the dirty glass of the windscreen. He was minuscule against the immensity of the landscape. Saskia had not loved him. She hoped Lacuna had.
With that thought, a certain coldness settled upon her, gradual as falling snow. She noted that her fitness was decaying along with her tissues. Her vision, too, had darkened at the edges. She pulled off her gloves and looked at her ashy fingers. They seemed out of scale, as though they were faraway monuments foreshortened by a lens.
She looked at the Eiger. It was a grey, snow-blotched monster, even at this acute angle. The sky above it had cleared.
How much longer do I have?
‘Hours. I suggest you sleep.’
She took the Bébé’s driving manual from a compartment beneath her seat and found a thick, blunt pencil in the dashboard. In the gloom, she tried to sketch out the scene of the photograph that she–that is, Saskia Lacuna–had lost. Toaster, why did the other Saskia take over of my brain chip? Was she on a mission, too?
The Ego unit told her the story of Saskia Lacuna’s world-line. For her, Soso would adopt the name Man of Steel and come to rule Russia and part of Europe. The symbol of his power was a red star. Saskia could imagine it behind his platform, growing, reddening, as he spoke across the countless solitudes.
‘Saskia Lacuna told me that Soso would be responsible for the deaths of millions,’ continued Ego. ‘When she became aware that our world-line was not her own, and that its future was unknown to her, she resolved to make a difference here. She wished to remove him from the world-line.’
Saskia let her thoughts unfurl. Those millions had their heads bowed in boredom and desolation. Their heads remained down, even when the Man of Steel called them to death. Great tides of people vanished as though never born. Emptied. Ablated.
Each a lacuna.
The star shattered to red chrysanthemums.
Her eyelids softened. She slept.
Synopsis of RSF 3
Geneva, 1908: Time traveller Saskia Brandt has been reunited with Count Nakhimov, who has helped fill her lost memories from the past days. They have driven to the mountain valley of Grindelwald to confront the orchestrator of their misfortunes: a Georgian anarchist called Soso.
The four gendarmes came from Kleine Scheidegg. They were cloaked and hatted and all business. One of them carried a lantern, but the indirect light was strengthening. Dawn.
The gendarmes did not speak as they approached the Bébé. When they were close enough to touch it, they nodded to one another and drew their pistols and formed a surrounding box.
The gendarme with the lantern reached for the door. He opened it and shone his light inside.
The Bébé was empty.
From her crouch behind a pine tree, on higher ground, Saskia watched them. The men made no small talk.
Five minutes later, a police automobile approached from Kleine Scheidegg. It stopped near the Bébé. An elegant gentleman stepped out. He had a lit, drooping pipe in his mouth. He motioned for a second man to leave the vehicle.
This man was taller than the first. His hands were cuffed behind his back: Pavel Eduardovitch Nakhimov, flexing his shoulders.
The lantern-carrying gendarme turned to his pipe-smoking colleague and shook his head. The pipe-smoker seemed dissatisfied. He turned to Pasha and gestured towards the Bébé. His meaning was clear. He wanted Pasha to explain its presence.
Pasha looked at the Bébé as though he had never seen it before.
The pipe-smoker protested. He argued that Pasha must recognise the automobile. Pasha pretended not to understand. He shrugged and looked at the man as though he were an idiot. Saskia nodded. Good. At some point in their conversation, Pasha fussed at his cuffs and gaped, making as though he found it difficult to breathe. He stumbled.
Saskia, alone, saw the pamphlet that dropped from the rear of his jacket.
Soon, the pipe-smoker ordered Pasha back into the police automobile, climbing in after him. The gendarmes watched as the vehicle trundled out of sight. They had yet to break their square.
Saskia wondered what the police had on Pasha. For such elaborate treatment of him and the Bébé, they must have connected him to the stolen money by way of the telegram.
The gendarme with the lantern crouched to look beneath the vehicle. Seeing nothing, he turned to his colleagues and motioned for them to search the area.
Saskia did not move. The terrain was rocky, uneven and thick with trees. She was not surprised to see them make little effort to find her. When they had covered the ground around the Bébé in a cursory fashion, they returned to the vehicle and drove it away, following the first automobile towards Kleine Scheidegg.
Saskia shook the facts again and again, seeing how they fell. Pasha’s arrival at the hotel in Kleine Scheidegg had been anticipated. While his enquiries might have raised suspicions on their own, Saskia was sure the authorities had been waiting for him; Kleine Scheidegg was an important crossroads in the Bernese Oberland, but it could not have four gendarmes and an officer of the Sûreté standing by. This overwhelming force suggested that the Bolshevik machinery was turning.
She walked down to the lay-by and retrieved the pamphlet that Pasha had dropped. Very good. It was an investor’s summary of the Jungfraujoch Railway. It showed the line running south out of Kleine Scheidegg before an eastern swing into the foot of the Eiger. That tunnel would have been Saskia’s best route to Soso. But with Pasha discovered and the Bolsheviks alerted, Saskia could not risk using it.
There were several places within the network where side-tunnels had been cut through the north face. One of them, Station Rostock, had been a temporary staging post, closed after the turn of the century. All that remained of the station was a wooden door leading onto the face. Saskia was more interested in a second station, the so-called Eigerwand, which had a long, open terrace at a height of around three thousand metres.
She looked at the Eiger. The terrace of the Eigerwand Station would be one third of the way up the face, well before it became vertical.
A healthy and fully augmented Saskia might have free-climbed the route, given modern clothing, fair weather, and luck. The Saskia who had been reduced by death, however, was a poorer prospect by far. She would be more affected by ice-climbing, the falling rocks, and disorientation. Her climb would begin at Apliglen. She would need equipment and a local guide.
Ego, how long will it take me to walk to Alpiglen?
‘Half an hour.’
Very well. Enhance my hearing, please. When there is any evidence of vehicles, or walkers, tell me to take cover. In the meantime, prime and entrain the rock-climbing representations in my pre-frontal motor cortex.
‘You no longer have a functioning motor cortex.’
Saskia looked at her hands. They were gloved. She wondered how black her fingers were now.
Read me something as I walk. Emily Dickinson, perhaps.
With Ego’s companionable whisper among her thoughts, she walked the road. On the outskirts of Alpiglen, she hid in the drainage channel as a group of servant girls hurried past with bread from Kleine Scheidegg. Saskia felt foolish in the ditch. She continued along the road and greeted a young farmer, who touched his cap in return. He was accompanied by a loping mountain dog. The dog gave her a wide berth.
Saskia went straight past the chalets of the settlement to the higher ground at the south, where it started to ramp up to the Eiger. The lush greens greyed out and the groves thinned. Where the path became steep, bright with the first spill of sunshine, Saskia stopped on the edge of a meadow creaming with daffodils.
As he defeated–dying–
On whose forbidden ear
The distant strains of triumph
Burst agonized and clear.
That will do, she thought. Thank you.
There was a bicycle leaning against a tree. It had bulging panniers. Nearby, a familiar man was looking up at the Eiger. He had not seen her. He held something to his mouth. A moment later, Saskia’s sensitised ears heard the crunch of an apple.
Ego, return my hearing to human-band.
Saskia slipped off her rucksack and withdrew the gun that Gaus had found on Mr Jenner. She approached the man. He wore a tweed jacket but the bowler hat was the same. From five metres away, Saskia cleared her throat. The man turned.
‘Good morning, Gausewitz, whom everyone calls Gaus.’
At that moment, an east wind fell upon the meadow, drawing out her cape like a great, black wing. Gaus seemed intimidated, even scared, at her sudden appearance. She watched him master himself.
‘Ms Tucholsky,’ he said. Though his smile was forced, Saskia felt that he was pleased to see her. ‘My luck is in.’
‘Gaus, you have always been eager to help me, and I thank you for it.’ Saskia kept her eyes steady. Her gun was angled towards his feet. ‘But I ordered you to return.’
Gaus swallowed his mouthful of apple, then slung the core into the daffodils. With a juvenile pout, he said, ‘You think it’s easy for Agents Intemporal? All this waiting? I was selected because I need money, I suppose. That’s my fault for chumming along with the Alpine Club. But I want the adventure, too.’
Saskia did not let her expression betray the intensity of her thoughts. Her mind moved through scenario after scenario, reconfiguring the facts in arrangements consistent with a positive opinion of Gaus. They were implausible.
‘What you need to do, my adventurous friend, is to explain how you came to meet me here.’
‘Thinking,’ he said, as though this was sufficient. When she raised her eyebrows, he smiled, and continued, ‘Plus luck. I’ve always been lucky.’ He pushed up the brim of his bowler hat. ‘When you dismissed me, I really did intend to return to Geneva. But I remembered your desire to find the photograph that had been in your possession before the events of your “lacuna”.’ He shrugged and looked at the gun. ‘I wanted to find it for you. It would be a parting gift in return for the adventure you’ve given me.’
Though she did not believe a word of this, Saskia smiled. ‘That was kind, but foolish.’
Gaus relaxed. With greater energy, he said, ‘I have a friend, Luc, who works for the police in Geneva. I placed a telephone call to him. He checked the records and told me that no photograph of yours had been confiscated. He did, however, tell me that a body had been discovered in Yverdon-les-Bains and that the suspect was a Russian gentleman who had been seen entering the Hotel Moderne with the victim. He was thought to be travelling to Kleine Scheidegg. A bulletin had been put out for his arrest.’
That might explain Pasha’s reception, she thought.
‘How did the police know he was heading for Kleine Scheidegg?’
Gaus said, ‘Apparently, the Eiger was mentioned in a telegram to the Russian Embassy in Berne, which the authorities intercepted.’
Saskia nodded. ‘They are rather more competent than I had hoped.’ To expedite his story, she said, ‘So, having heard of the arrest warrant for Pasha, you decided I needed your help?’
‘I knew that the police would arrest Pasha, but that they weren’t looking for you. It is obvious to me that whatever you wish to find within the Eiger tunnels, it will be guarded, and the police activity in Grindelwald will have warned them. Simply walking up the track before the first train would no longer do; you must either enter the tunnel from the final station at the Jungfraujoch, which is impossible, or climb to the Eigerwand Station. From where would a climber do that?’ He gestured around the meadow. ‘Alpiglen. And could you succeed alone? Surely not.’
‘Saskia, this man is not telling the whole truth.’
‘Very well,’ said Saskia. She put the gun away. ‘I thank you for your diligence. It will not go unnoticed by Meta. But now, we must move.’
Excitedly, Gaus opened the bicycle panniers and showed Saskia their contents. In one there were underclothes, tweed waistcoat and jacket, woollen shirt, plus-fours, hobnail boots, leather gloves, snow goggles, and fingerless gloves. The other pannier was stuffed with rope. This being 1908, there were neither karabiners to pass ropes through nor pitons to anchor them to rock. At least the rope looked like good, Italian hemp. Gaus had no alpenstocks–staffs with an iron pin at the base–but there were four short Eckenstein axes with curved blades and wrist straps.
‘Where did you get all this?’ she asked, beginning to removing her clothes.
Gaus turned to the Eiger.
‘I’ve climbed the northern face of the Jungfrau twice,’ he said. ‘Once as a boy with a chamois hunter, and once guiding some friends from the Alpine Club. The landlord of a tavern in Sengg keeps gear for us over the winter.’ He cleared his throat. ‘The climb to the Eigerwand terrace is not an easy one. However, I made it last summer with friends from Grindelwald and Zermatt, plus an Englishman. It took us two and a half hours, though conditions were good.’
‘How would you describe them today?’ asked Saskia. She was down to her corset, which she kept on for back support.
‘Any attempt will be a roulette of stone and ice. But the recent cold works in our favour. The ice will be more stable, and hold back the rock.’ He looked her up and down. ‘How do you climb?’
Saskia was dressed. She buttoned her tweed jacket and swung her rucksack over her shoulder. She checked that her hair bun was secured by the lancet.
‘I’m no Gertrude Bell,’ she said, feigning an English accent in reference to the famous alpinist, ‘but I’ll have a bloody good go.’
They set off at a strong pace. Saskia did not sweat or breathe heavily. The chemistry of respiration no longer worked in the same way for her. After twenty minutes, with the gradient increasing along with the wind, Gaus passed her a felt Alpine Hat. She jammed it over her head, hair bun and all. Her feet were bleeding in her boots.
‘So tell me about Meta,’ he said.
‘I could tell you everything, but then I’d have to eat your brains.’
Gaus gave her a puzzled look. He was standing on an outcrop, and he reached down to help her up.
‘Whatever do you mean?’
A shower of snow and ice hissed down the mountain. They squeezed into a narrow gully to let it pass. Saskia looked down. They had climbed more than a hundred metres. The chalets of Alpiglen were dots in a blaze of green.
‘Goggles on, I think,’ said Gaus. ‘Do you need a woollen head-warmer? I have one in my rucksack.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Here, let me show you how to use the axes.’
For the next hour, they pitted themselves against the steepening face. Gaus led. On occasion, he slowed to cut steps in the ice, but otherwise the curved blades of their axes made secure holds. They raised their rucksacks above their heads when sharp stones fell about them. One hit Saskia’s rucksack with enough force to tear the fabric. At that point, Gaus suggested they stop and eat something.
They sat on an icy slab beneath an overhang with their feet dangling into the exposure. A mist came and went. In the gaps, the floor of the valley was a choppy, green sea. Its beauty saturated the eye. Gaus had chocolate, biscuits and a concentrated mixture of fat and protein called Pemmican. Saskia ate the Pemmican, chased by a spoonful of brandy. The snow had soaked through every layer of her clothes. She felt tired and heavy.
‘I’d like to rope up,’ said Gaus. ‘Have you done that before?’
Saskia said nothing. She was flexing her feet inside the boots.
Ego unit, inhibit the pain I’m feeling.
‘That will increase the chances of a fall.’
I’m aware of that, Toaster.
‘I’ve climbed with ropes before,’ she said, sounding doubtful. ‘But perhaps you could remind me.’
‘You have good balance and a head for heights,’ he said. ‘So it will work well. We will be tied together by this rope. We keep it taut at all times. As I go up, pay it out.’ He showed her a systematic way of passing it through her hands. ‘Then, as you climb to me, I will pull it taut. I will lead so that I can support you if you slip.’
‘What if you slip?’
Gaus winked. ‘Agent Extemporal, I have not slipped yet.’
Saskia smiled. She understood the principles of belaying very well, but wished they had pitons to hammer into the rock.
‘Thanks for your continuing help, Gaus.’
He bowed. ‘It is a pleasure. This is what life should be about. Adventure. Challenge.’
They continued upwards. Meanwhile, the mist closed in and Saskia lost sight of the valley floor. Gaus climbed ahead. When he reached the end of his rope, he would rest and belay Saskia as she climbed after him. They continued in this manner up crags and through gullies until the terrace was in sight.
Saskia was exhausted.
How much longer do I have, Toaster?
‘As a functional human being, not long.’
She came alongside Gaus fifteen metres beneath the terrace. This section of the face was a few degrees from the vertical. A rugged wind blew. He pushed his goggles upwards and she did the same. Ice had formed in his nostrils and on his scarf.
The terrace was a platform cut into the face, wide enough for several dozen people to enjoy the view. From this angle, all Saskia could see was part of its iron rail. The great blank wall of the north face proper could be seen above it.
Gaus looked from the terrace to Saskia. He smiled. Their rope was belayed over an arête. Without a karabiner, she knew, the friction of the rock would work on the strands. The major part of their rope was coiled in a diagonal between Gaus’s shoulder and hip, but there was at least three metres loose about his boot. His rucksack was stuffed into a gap on his left along with his axes. Saskia, to his right, opened her mouth to speak, but her words were interrupted by a sudden rain of rock and ice.
She was able to move close against the face. Gaus was more exposed. A brownish mass of packed snow exploded across his shoulder and pushed him sideways. Before Saskia could reach for him, he had tilted out over the exposure. His face was determined, not panicked, but he was too far to grip the rock. As he fell, he took a huge breath.
Saskia had time to sink in her stance. She looked up at the arête over which their rope passed. Gaus was not a large man. Shorter than her, and a little heavier. The friction would be enough as long as the rope held.
Between her feet, she saw the snaking, loose rope above Gaus snap straight. It did not have the elastic property of synthetic material. Gaus let out an animal growl of strain. Saskia did likewise and felt herself lighten, pulled and squeezed by the rope, but she held the belay. Gaus’s second impact against the face was less energetic but more damaging. He seemed to fold flat. When he swung out again, there was blood around his ears and nose. His hat was tumbling into the mist. His hands clutched the rope and his feet peddled, desperate to reach the security of the rock, pathetic as a man dropped from the gallows.
Saskia’s sense of unease peaked. She turned to look up the wall. Not far above, she saw a head and shoulders outlined against the snow. Whoever it was wore a fedora and was leaning out from the edge of the terrace rail, tied by a single rope, and was looking at her.
The Georgian Highlander. The Pockmarked One.
She understood. The sudden violence of ice and rock had not been accidental. Soso must have dropped a heavy stone against the face.
Saskia looked at Gaus. As he got the toe of one boot into a crack, she hissed, ‘Agent Intemporal!’
Gaus turned his head upwards. His expression was sleepy. She saw him notice Soso; watched his eyes widen and his vitality return. To capture Gaus’s attention, she drew the lancet from her hair and held it to the rope. In a low but clear voice, she said, ‘When were you going to kill me? Once I’d told you what I know about Meta?’
Gaus looked at her as though she were insane. But the coldness of Saskia’s certainty ended his game before he played it. The moment sparked: he understood that she understood.
‘When that man drops another rock,’ he said, ‘the debris will strike us both from the face. Your position is too precarious. Let me secure myself.’
‘Tell me everything,’ she said. The tense coils of rope around her chest made it difficult to take a breath. ‘Start with why you killed Jenner.’
‘Let me get secured, woman,’ he said. The whiteness of his knuckles contrasted with the blood on the rope.
‘Yesterday evening, when I put on my spectacles at the doctor’s surgery, they identified you as an individual with neural augmentations. You were quick to disable them when you realised that the spectacles were anachronistic, but not quick enough. I confirmed my suspicions shortly afterwards by having you tell Miss Schild your address on the pretext of funding her medical degree. With your neural implants disabled, you were forced to look at the card itself. The real Gaus would never need reminding of his home address.’
Saskia felt the rope slide upwards before she caught it. Her grip was weakening. Gaus tilted outwards.
‘No,’ he gasped. ‘Not like this.’
‘When Pasha contacted the embassy,’ she said, ‘you intercepted the telegram. You flagged down Mr Jenner and killed him. Only someone with augmentations and training would be able to kill an armed and careful man like Mr Jenner. I don’t know why you spared Pasha. Perhaps you were interrupted. Either way, you knew that Pasha had sent his telegram after speaking to me, so it was important to locate my body and destroy any incriminating material that might be stored nearby. You used your lock picks to enter the mortuary. You opened my locker to view the body and understood, through a physical scan, that I was a Meta agent and about to regain consciousness.’
Gaus shook his head. There were tears in his eyes. Saskia had to give him full marks for his performance.
‘It is not what you think.’
‘Standard procedure for an Agent Singular during CODA is to contact the local Agent Intemporal,’ she continued. ‘You decided that the best way to find out more about my mission was to replace Gaus. You had to hurry, though. That’s why you didn’t close the locker properly. And that’s why you knocked over the vase of chrysanthemums in the reception; you were searching its drawers for paperwork. It also clears up why I could not find my paperwork in the administrator’s desk, and yet it took you a matter of moments. You were carrying them with you.’
‘Damn it all, if you thought I was your enemy, why would you let me come this far?’
‘I have a certain faith in my mission.’ She looked at the rope and her lancet. ‘You’re wondering if I’m going to kill you. The real question is how much I weigh your life against my success.’
In Russian, Gaus said, ‘You cannot succeed, comrade.’
She looked at him. His expression had changed. Saskia saw no fear there. Only faith to rival hers. This, she understood, was the true man.
‘You are a Meta agent on an orthogonal mission,’ Saskia said. She could not hide the dread in her voice. ‘Am I correct?’
He laughed. ‘I know all about Meta. But I don’t work for it.’
‘Then for whom?’
‘The people.’ He indicated the open air with a flick of his head. ‘This vastness is nothing. Think of all the realities, all the permutations of choice. Where I come from, the man above us is the greatest human being of our age, and has been our living father for almost one hundred and fifty years.’
Saskia remembered well the theoretics lectures delivered to her Recruitment Clade. The realities were indeed infinite and beyond understanding. It was extraordinary, but credible, that Gaus had come to her from a reality where the Soviet Union, or some version of it, had maintained its grip into the twenty-first century, perhaps helmed by an undying dictator.
‘And you have been sent to protect him?’
‘Not just him. All the hims; all the possibilities. I have come to this reality to preserve the life of the man above so that the revolution can spread further.’
Saskia shook her head. Those theoretics lectures had been clear on something else. Nobody could change the past. It was the Novikov Self-consistency Principle. Whoever travelled backwards in time became a part of events. Nothing and no-one was privileged to escape the fundamental determinism of the universe. At least, Saskia thought, that had to be true of people who had travelled back to a point in their own past. Did the same logic hold for those who entered a universe from a different one altogether? She could not answer this. Either her failing brain chip had undermined her concentration, or the question was unanswerable.
‘Revolution is meaningless,’ she said. ‘It never ends. Only begins.’
His laugh was contemptuous. ‘Remind me what the “m” stands for in your version of Meta, Agent Singular.’
‘”Möbius”. What of it?’
‘Where do you find meaning, Agent Singular? Where does your mission end, and where does it begin?’
‘You are arguing against mathematics, comrade,’ she said. There was something in his words that unsettled her, but she could not identify it. ‘In that, you will fail. Ask yourself why you would want to spread revolution.’
He snorted. ‘It is the duty of every comrade, comrade, to spread the revolution and to raise the red star wherever it has fallen.’
Saskia had pitied Gaus moments before. Now he sickened her. ‘Soso doesn’t know anything about a red star.’
‘Oh, I think he does,’ said Gaus. His eyes drifted beyond her. ‘Deep down.’
Saskia looked up in time to see Soso leaning out from the terrace rail again. He carried a large rock on his hip. When he flung it down, the rock shattered to pieces, and each of the pieces knocked stone from the face until a dirty cascade of snow and rock was pouring upon them.
Saskia reached behind herself, grabbed the top of her rucksack with both hands, and pulled it over her head. Then a flat stone landed near her shoulder. Its fragments exploded against her face. Her instinct was to turn away and, given that the rucksack made her top heavy, she lost her footing and fell into the void.
She did not fall more than five metres, and the descent was slow because the rope was taut and Gaus was her counterweight. The rope rasped across the arête. She pinwheeled once, twice, and slammed against the rock. She cut her forehead. Blood covered her eyes and she tried to blink it away.
‘Agent Singular, this is Ego. I am inhibiting pain sensations associated with your wound.’
As she swung against the face once more, she looked for Gaus. He was two metres immediately below her. His proximity was a shock. Saskia’s fall had pulled him up to a more favourable position on the face, and he had secured both feet and his left hand. With his right, he was cutting the rope with his knife. The strands parted as she watched.
Her end of the rope was still tangled about her torso and held tight by her weight. Her axes hung from their wrist straps.
Ego, maximise my physical capabilities for the next few minutes, please.
‘I hope this answers your earlier question,’ he said. ‘Now.’
The rope parted. At the same instant, the clock speed of her chip increased. Time became finer in its detail. She fell. Her weight no longer trapped the rope against her body and she was able to free her right arm. She missed Gaus by a centimetre. She snatched for her axe shaft, gripped it, and drove the point into a small crack. She thought, Ego, more pain inhibition, just as her body beat against the face. She looked down and rammed her toes into potential holds. The right boot slid free but the left held.
She secured her right boot, established another anchor with her left axe, and thought, Alright, Ego. Clock me down.
The world seemed to slow again. Fatigue settled upon her.
‘Saskia, that used fifteen per cent of the energy available to your chip. You won’t be able to do it again. Your overall energy capacity is now at four per cent.’
How long does that give me?
She looked up, past Gaus. Soso was moving into position again. He had another rock. This one was bigger.
Saskia checked Gaus’s position. His feet were planted wider than would be comfortable.
‘That’s a precarious grip, comrade,’ said Saskia. ‘And you just cut your rope.’
Gaus said nothing. She could hear him shuffling against the rock. His leg moved to the left, searching for a toehold. It was too late. When the wave of stone came, his body was washed away from the face. Saskia cantilevered aside and watched him tumble out into the exposure above the valley. Fragments struck her shoulder but he had shielded her from the worst.
She hung there.
Gaus was gone. He had not screamed.
I will lead my fear.
Keeping her right axe in place, she shrugged the rucksack from her left shoulder. Then she released the buckle for the right-arm strap and felt the rucksack fall away. She dropped the rope, too.
She was alone on the face, lighter, and thinking hard.
‘You have no power remaining to overclock your chip without exhausting it, ending your mission.’
Saskia moved her left hand to a new hold. It was weak and difficult to control. She sagged against the face. Her boots were slipping.
She thought, I am going to fall.
The world seemed to pause. Saskia looked up the face. She saw a potential route to the left of the arête. She felt alive and ready to scramble all the way to the terrace.
Toaster, you’ll get a very small medal for this.
There was no reply. Even the background hum of an open neural channel was absent.
Saskia set herself against the face and climbed. It was not technically difficult, being covered with good ice, and, given her enhanced perception, she was able to find a route with ease.
The terrace rail loomed as her overclocked chip stepped down to a slower rate. Abruptly, she felt tired and weak. A blackness crept onto the edge of her vision.
Soso stepped into view. The brim of his fedora fluttered and his trench coat had the collar turned up. Saskia remembered how Soso had seemed in the Amber Room. How triumphant he had looked. His expression today was not one of defeat. Not yet. He showed surprise.
As well he might, thought Saskia. He abandoned me to a fatal wound in a burning house.
‘It cannot be,’ he said. ‘It cannot be.’
‘Help me up and I’ll tell you the whole story,’ she said, smiling. ‘I’ve killed the traitor. Now the money is safe.’
There was a bouquet of red chrysanthemums at his feet, wrapped in a damp white cone. Saskia did not know what to make of them; and she had no time. Soso reached inside the bouquet and withdrew a gun. As he stared at her, his surprise became hate.
‘I wanted Kamo to kill you that night in the Amber Room,’ he said. ‘He convinced me otherwise. He was a fool for you, as too many of us were.’
Saskia was vertical against the face where the lowest terrace rail had been hammered into the rock. With a huge effort, she hauled herself upwards a few centimetres and looked further along the terrace. At the end, near the tunnel entrance, she could see three suitcases. No doubt they contained the encyclopaedias within which the expropriated money had been hidden. There was a carbine leaning against the suitcases, as well as a crate of dynamite. This terrace was Soso’s last stand against any attack that might come from the railway. The dynamite was typical insurance. Soso had difficulty holding a carbine because of his weak left arm.
‘I came for you,’ she said, gasping. ‘I came for you.’
‘Fuck your mother,’ he said. His smallpox scars were whiter than ever. ‘You killed Kamo.’
There was room between the rails for Soso to pass his gun hand through. The gun was cold against her temple. She turned her head, and then she saw a gendarme standing in the shadows of the tunnel entrance. Soso would not be able to see him. As Saskia watched, a second gendarme joined him. Pasha must have convinced them to investigate his story.
The shadows on the tunnel wall reminded her of conversations with Soso. They had discussed Plato as often as Marx. The mind of Soso was an order of magnitude greater than those of his outlaws, and he knew it. Saskia alone had been his equal in Tiflis.
‘Here’s a riddle for my Soso,’ she said, beginning with her habitual phrase. Soso half smiled. ‘Paradox is called “spear-shield” in Chinese. Why? There is the story of an old smith who wishes to sell a spear and a shield. He says that the spear can break any shield, while the shield can withstand any attack. His customers ask the old smith, “What happens when the spear strikes the shield?”‘
Soso did not reply, but he had allowed her to speak, and in this interval a gendarme had stepped unseen onto the terrace. Before Soso could dismiss her riddle with a remark and a bullet, the gendarme shouted, ‘You! Put down your pistol!’
The next instant was lost in a deafening chaos of shots and ricochets. Soso crouched against the rail. He fired at the gendarme, who sheltered behind the explosives while his colleague returned fire from the tunnel entrance. Soso growled and pointed his gun at the sky.
‘I surrender!’ he shouted in German. The echo was sharp. ‘If you shoot the dynamite, you will kill us!’
Saskia swung her axe through the bars, hooking Soso’s gun arm. Her feet slipped and her full weight came down on the axe. Soso screamed.
She was dangling over the exposure. She had both hands on the axe. Her grip weakened as her energy diminished to the last.
In Russian, she shouted, ‘Pasha! Are you there?’
There was a pause. Then Pasha’s voice shouted back, ‘Yes, I’m here! What is our plan?’
Soso’s humerus bone cracked. He moaned and fought to maintain his grip on the gun. His weakened left arm swung across to help, but the angle was too much; his hand made spastic movements.
‘You, Count Nakhimov, are going to call everyone back into the tunnel.’
‘I’m still in cuffs! They’re giving the orders.’
‘They believed you well enough to come up here, didn’t they?’ she said. The chrysanthemums were losing their redness. The world darkened for her. ‘They’ll believe you now.’
Saskia considered reaching for her second axe, but she could not risk lessening her grip. She tried to adjust her stance but the strength had left her legs. She could not feel her feet.
‘You failed again,’ Soso whispered. ‘You failed in the house on Chemin de la Pie and you’ve failed here.’
With a growl, Saskia released her left hand and plunged it through the bars. She gripped Soso’s gun. Slowly, she brought it to bear on the dynamite.
‘My name is Saskia Maria Brandt. I am the mud beneath the felt boots.’
She focused the last of her strength on pressing the trigger. Soso roared.
‘You, behind the crates!’ she screamed. ‘Take cover!’
The gendarme fled from the crates to the tunnel.
Saskia looked at Soso. There was a rage on his face greater than any she had ever seen.
She squeezed the trigger. The crates disintegrated. There was a feeling of wind blowing through her hair, and of tumbling, and then the world was sound. Immense pain bloomed within this. In time, this became perfect numbness. There were iron bars spinning. A rain of roubles. Rock shards. Red, red chrysanthemums falling.
And then the last of her energy was spent.
She saw, or remembered, the chrysanthemums. In the straightness of the stems, and slowness of the flowers as they turned against the wintering sky, Saskia Brandt saw a fissure in her faith.
Agent Singular. Particular, special–one shot.
She remembered the lost photograph. It showed a woman lying on a greyish background. She knew, now, that the background was a ledge near the foot of the Eiger.
The face of the woman in the photograph was incomplete, but enough remained to be recognisable as Saskia Brandt. It had been taken, said her Major, by a photographer from the Grindelwald Echo as one of several that might accompany an article on the death of a Russian revolutionary known as The Georgian Highlander. The dead woman had been discovered late in the morning of the day that the Highlander was killed.
Saskia had been given that photograph when she became an Agent Candidate. It had served to remind her throughout her training and the slow years of her mission that it would end in this fall to her death, and in success.
On the back of the photograph, her Major–a man whose name she had never known–had written:
Remember that you, too, must die.
Gaus spoke to her from memory. ‘Where do you find meaning, Agent Singular? Where does your mission end, and where does it begin?’
by Ian Hocking