Red Star Falling - Part 1
by Ian Hocking
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.'
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.
Continued next week…