Red Star Falling - Part 2
by Ian Hocking
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.
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?'
Ian Hocking is the author of the best-selling Saskia Brandt series (Déjà Vu, Flashback, and The Amber Rooms). Déjà Vu won the Red Adept Science Fiction Award.