Part 1 of 2
When it becomes necessary to abandon reason, decisions become more visceral. Changing from fight-or-flight back into reason is a slower process -- but necessary for the continuation of any species.
--Paul Brome, The Last Jew
Coarse bracken whipped the boy's legs as he ran through the forest. A full moon kept pace with his terror, gliding between jet branches.
Breath rasping, he gripped an empty 7.65mm pistol, its barrel warm from the last shot. In the distance behind him, German submachine guns barked their symphony of murder, suddenly stopped. Fifty meters into the thickening woods he still smelled the harsh stink of cordite intermingling with his own dank fear-sweat.
Moonlight dappling through the trees briefly illuminated him. The machine guns opened up again. Bark splintered; bits of pine needles and broken stems showered like green rain. A ricochet struck the side of his face, ripping open his cheek to expose gleaming bone, teeth.
He sprawled headlong and scrabbled across the frozen ground, biting back a scream. Frantic, he burrowed into the patch of shadow where the bracken was thickest, a wounded animal.
He lay on pine needles, heart knocking wildly against his breastbone while German soldiers shouted to each other.
The beam of a flashlight probed a clump of scrub, bounced away like a will-o'-the-wisp. They were quartering the area, methodically searching the rugged terrain.
The boy pressed a hand to his torn cheek to staunch the flow of blood, knowing he had to get sulfa drugs into the wound before it became infected.
Uncle Karl. Mischa. Mr. Lempke. Anya.
He pressed his forehead to the cold earth. All his friends dead -- ambushed by a German hunter-killer squadron lying in wait along the rail line. To catch and liquidate the resistance cell plaguing the supply trains shuttling troops and matériel to the Eastern Front.
The boy shoved the pistol into his waistband and drew a hunting knife from his fur-lined boot.
Uncle Karl. Mischa. Mr. Lempke. Anya.
Think, if you want to live. The Carpathian Mountains are behind me. I can hide from the patrols, using ravines and deep gorges.
Gripping the knife, ignoring the fierce pain in his face, the boy swore he would return from the mountains one day and drench the steel blade with Nazi blood. To avenge his family, his people.
"I vow," he whispered. The knife reflected a shard of moonlight into his brown eyes. "I vow."
He backed out of his hiding place, thanking God the Germans didn't have dogs with them.
Crouching low, he kept the bouncing light behind him. He struggled up a steep grade, slipping on the loose spall. Just before dawn he evaded the last of the search team on a wooded mountain slope. Finally, completely exhausted, his face swollen and crusted over, he crumpled at the base of a tree and wept for the memory of his dead family and friends.
I've seen every way a man can die. When I was finally captured in late 1943 I saw a group of kapos hacksaw an old Jew and his son to death in a quarry. There is nothing I haven't seen.
--Paul Brome, The Last Jew
"I'm telling you, it can be done," Joseph Gibli insisted. "The Americans have already opened swing-gates into alternate timelines. It's not a hoax."
Colonel Paul Brome sipped his ouzo. "What's a swing-gate?"
"That's what they're calling the interdimensional doorway."
"What did you say this lunatic's name was?"
"Dr. Hannah Zachal. And she's not a lunatic. The Americans have pumped billions of dollars into their project. The Russians and Euros are only a step behind. But now we've got the jump on them -- Dr. Zachal is the only person to solve the space-time equations we need to accomplish our task."
Only half-listening, Brome let the hot sun beat pleasantly on his face. Loose paper and dust blew through the narrow street and into the sidewalk cafe where he and Gibli sat. Tourists ambled through the Propylaea, snapping holographic images of one of the few ancient structures to survive the chaotic Mad Times that had dominated The Twen. On the horizon, the white columns of the Parthenon stood like mute sentinels.
Gibli shielded his face from the wind-blown grit. "What will it take to convince you, Paul?"
Brome solemnly regarded Gibli's cataract-clouded eyes set in a face scaled and pitted with age. He had known and trusted Gibli ever since their days together in the Mossad, and before that, in Dachau. He liked the man, respected his intuition. But this time. . . .
"Joseph, what you're saying is too fantastic to be believed." He shook his head with bemusement. "You can't violate causality. Hell, even I know that and I'm only a soldier."
"This isn't a go-back-in-time-to-kill-your-grandfather sort of thing," Gibli said. "That's impossible because we can't reach the past of our own timeline. This is a separate timeline that includes an historical event-chain echoing ours. It doesn't affect our time stream at all."
"You make it sound awfully easy."
"The main problem is energy expenditure. The year, the night we need is just far enough away. Wait any longer, and it'll slide out of reach. Forever."
Brome rolled the now empty ouzo glass between his hands. "Joseph, when you called out of the blue I didn't even know you were still alive. I haven't seen any of the old gang since I left Mossad. Now, suddenly, you show up in Athens while I'm on vacation. Why?"
"This project is important to me, Paul."
"So I gather. But why do you need me, when anyone else would do?"
Gibli dodged the question. "Look," he spread his gnarled hands apart, trying to relate some measure of the scale involved. "You can't go back more than about 130 years. Beyond that, the amount of energy required becomes too prohibitive. In fact, you'll only have twenty minutes to complete your mission."
Brome's eyebrows arched. "Only twenty minutes?"
"Maximum. Your presence will cause the timelines to radically diverge. If they separate too far we'll never be able to retrieve you."
A waiter brought a second round of drinks. Brome absently fingered the thin white scar along his jaw. In the distance, burnt-orange tiled roofs, whitewashed walls, and dark green olive groves blanketed a shimmering horizon. The Acropolis shone like a crown jewel in the midst of it all.
Gibli's outrageous proposition whirled through Brome's mind like a maelstrom. Gibli was obviously unable to live with the bitter winds and ghosts haunting his past. Brome, on the other hand, had long ago buried his dead -- and fully intended them to remain that way.
Going into the past, or opening an event-chain or whatever, was pure fantasy. Let the dead rest their rest. Besides, nobody gave a damn anymore and Brome was tired of trying to make them care; he had burnt out his anger long ago. People didn't want to be reminded of those days. They lived for today, no longer wanting to be defined by their cruel history. Frankly, who could blame them? Dredge that nightmare out of its grave? To what end?
He reached across the table for Gibli's hand, a withered bag of dried walnuts and brittle rods. Brome's own, by contrast, was supple and strong. The elasticity of his skin belied his eighty-odd years. Although Gibli had had the best medical care Mossad could provide, he had never accepted the idea of rejuv nodules at the base of his spine. Now, he was too old for the cutting-edge biotechnology to do him any good.
Years ago, Brome asked why he had made that decision. "Because someday I want to die," came the unexpected reply. "I'm not afraid of dying, Paul, that's the difference between us. You keep trying to understand what we experienced in the death camps. That's why you fail: no one can philosophically describe an illogical event."
Uncle Karl. Mischa. Mr. Lempke. Anya. Millions of others, nameless and faceless, but important. Always important. Why shouldn't I be able to understand the Why? Brome thought.
He shook himself and looked again into Gibli's leather-tanned face.
"Joseph, listen to me. Those bad years, and what they meant, are over now. Dr. Zachal's idea is moonshine. Even if it were true, what's the point? Because if we don't it'll fall beyond our reach and be lost forever?"
"That should be reason enough."
Brome shook his head. "And what about shattering the world we know? How will people react when word gets out? An operation of this magnitude can't be kept secret forever."
"Our security is first-rate."
Brome leaned forward. "Joseph, I beg you: don't let the past destroy us. Anyway, it's not our world; you're worried about people who probably don't even exist."
Gibli was unswayed. "You're the only man who can do it, Paul. The only one who can set right what, surely, was never meant to happen. You won't be shattering the world. You'll be healing an open wound in the history of our species. For the first and only time, Humanity has a chance to do something right. If we deny this responsibility to ourselves then we're ignoring what it may ultimately mean to be human."
"Ask anything else of me, but not this. My life as a soldier is behind me. I've moved on because I'm sick of killing. I'm sorry."
Rising abruptly, Gibli groped for his eyecane. His words lashed out. "Paul, you have a chance to return to the beginning and set things right for everyone. Your act will have a ripple effect--"
"Joseph, for God's sake, think what you're asking me to do!"
"For me, Paul. Please? We only have two weeks before the timeline moves beyond our reach."
Brome stared at a napkin fluttering in the breeze.
A vein in Gibli's temple throbbed like a black worm. "I thought I could count on you." Stubborn silence. "Then there's nothing more to say, except goodbye." He waved his eyecane in an arc, letting the digital bulb on its ferrule locate and warn him of landmarks. He hobbled down the crowded sidewalk, his thin frame and loose-fitting clothes soon lost in the crowds of tourists browsing the open-air stalls.
Brome angrily paid the bill then wandered the sun-washed streets, the plaintive request ringing in his ears: For me, Paul. Please?
Insanity. How dare Gibli think I would risk my life on a pipe-dream of murdering that inhuman monster?
Looking back, he couldn't pinpoint the exact moment he made up his mind, but he thought it was when he had seen Gibli, clothes loose upon his scarecrow frame, stoop-shouldered, shuffling through the buzzing crowds.
Brome had seen haunted men who looked like that before, in the death camps.
He found a public telecomp, pressed his ident chop into the data-capture slot. While he waited for the phone to initialize the call, an inner voice screamed: Don't do this! Gibli will drown you with his mad scheme. Think what you're doing!
Brome summoned his courage. No, he realized, if there's a chance, any chance it won't happen all over again . . . then I owe that much to the faceless millions who died in this event-chain I call my life. And if Gibli's right . . . God, if he is!
"Room 434, please."
The clerk routed the call.
"Joseph, I'll meet Dr. Zachal," Brome said without preamble. "I'm not promising anything, you understand, but I'll meet her."
Gibli never missed a beat. "Fine. My jet leaves for Tel Aviv in the morning. May I ask what made you change your mind?"
"Don't ever walk away from me like that again, Joseph. I don't ever want to see that again in my life." Brome's voice shuddered as he remembered the camps and the lurching, tattooed skeletons. And he, one of them.
A long pause. "I'm glad you're my friend," Gibli said softly.
Brome removed his ident card, breaking the connection, and waited until the buffer dumped the call data before turning to leave.
Man's destiny? History is replete with examples: the Romans, the Mongols, the Conquistadors. Victims and criminals in different guises, different eras. Man against himself -- that is the true eternal struggle.
--Paul Brome, The Last Jew
"When I open the swing-gate into the Gasthof zum Pommer inn you'll have twenty minutes to kill him before the Van Den Broeck bubble collapses." Dr. Hannah Zachal sat behind a cluttered walnut desk, sipping coffee from an ivory mug. "By the way, I read your book last night, Colonel, in preparation for this meeting. Can't say I liked it -- too bleak for my tastes."
Brome hadn't known what to expect when Gibli finally conveyed him to Israel's newest High-Energy Physics Institute on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, but he certainly wasn't ready to debate his literary skills.
"The Middle East wasn't a garden after the war, Doctor. We didn't have cheap microfusion energy or dependable life-extension techniques. Israel was surrounded by implacable enemies. We had our past hanging over our heads, coupled with an uncertain future. That's what I wrote about: man's failure to build a shining future from the harsh reality of his past."
"Hopefully, we can correct that now." Her eyes found Gibli, who sat, a bundle of bones and dried skin, in a deep armchair near a bright window. "Right, Joseph?"
He gazed with half-blind eyes at the diamond-sparkle of the Mediterranean Sea. "I pray so, Hannah. Yes."
She swung her attention back to Brome. "You're in good shape, Colonel. That's fortunate -- this project will be strenuous."
"I still teach a Krav Maga course for the military." He decided to regain the upper hand. "You're in pretty nice shape yourself, Doc, from what I can see under that lab coat."
Actually, he reflected, Hannah Zachal was a handsome woman, despite her prickly personality. Blue-black hair brushed back from her forehead contrasted with ivory skin and deep violet eyes -- haunted eyes, he realized, that had witnessed grim secrets of hidden worlds.
Hannah opened a file on her desk and read in a clear voice: "After Dachau, the Aliyah Beth smuggled you into Palestine during the British Mandate. You joined the Haganah, eventually becoming a Lieutenant with the Israeli Defense Force before Joseph recruited you into the Mossad. After several high-profile missions you retired. The reason is a little vague . . . ."
"Security," Joseph Gibli supplied cryptically, his long face in silhouette. "Paul's cover was blown in Damascus during a sensitive operation."
Hannah shrugged. "Very well. Afterwards, you wrote your collection of philosophical memoirs, The Last Jew. Two more books followed, neither garnering the critical acclaim of the first. Your last rejuv implant was over five years ago. You're not married and you have no children or surviving family. You are, and always have been, a professional soldier for the State of Israel." She lifted her eyes from the page.
Brome saw no reason to either deny or confirm these facts. They were common knowledge, to be gleaned from any book jacket.
Hannah closed the file, placed her palms flat on top. "I know you've expressed doubt about the significance of this project, Colonel Brome--"
"I never said it wasn't significant," he interjected. "I simply questioned whether it was feasible."
"Point. I assure you, however, I have accurately mapped the topological surface density and transitional energy gradients of the timeline in question. And I'm the only one who knows how to send a man in and bring him back again. Alive."
"Before I sign on, Doctor, I want to know more about the logistics involved. First of all, why pick me?"
She gave Gibli a sharp glance. "Didn't you tell him?"
"On the flight over," he affirmed. "But he still doesn't believe me."
Hannah rocked back in her chair and steepled her fingertips. "I don't want to bog down in a nomological discussion about the nature of the universal laws governing the timelines. Suffice it to say, we have two weeks to get you inside Pommer Inn and complete the assassination. Everything hinges on that one aspect of the mission. Nothing else is remotely important."
Hannah warmed to her subject. "There are an infinite number of domains, but you need the right metric -- the mathematical solution -- to map and access them. I will inject you into the late evening of April 20, 1889, the night the target was born. You will complete your mission and my system will retrieve you after twenty minutes. That's as long as I dare hold the swing-gate open before our respective timelines diverge." She ventured a thin smile. "I only have a small tokamak reactor as my power source."
"You still haven't answered my first question. Why me?"
"Remember what we're trying to do here, Colonel. Heal a wound. My sense of morality demands I send a man of your history through that domain wall."
But that's not the only reason Joseph came to me in Athens, Brome thought. She's hiding something else.
Hannah said candidly, "I can't give guarantees. It's a risk for everyone involved, including myself. If our government got wind of what we're trying to do they'd shut us down. Or worse."
"I've yet to hear a good reason why I should risk my life for this."
Gibli spoke. "Paul, it's simply a question of doing what's right for Humanity." His aged fingers played nervously with the shaft of his eyecane. "For me, for you, our past is an awesome mountain. We must escape its shadow. I'm not saying forget what happened. We are our past! But something in here," he clenched a bony fist and thumped his breast, "tells me for the first time in our long and terrible history, our people can ameliorate it." He slumped, emotionally spent. "I can't explain it any better. Except to say, I firmly believe what we do will have a profound impact on how we view ourselves and the future of our species. I don't know if we're chosen. We are, however, the only people in this event-chain who have a chance to level that mountain of history."
"If we're successful," Hannah said, "then perhaps we were chosen by some higher power to do this thing -- call it God or whatever you want."
Brome ground his teeth. He felt he was being maneuvered against his will. But, he reasoned, if there was the slightest possibility of bringing it off then shouldn't he try? For the nameless millions, if for no other reason?
"How many people know about this?"
Hannah: "Only a select few. We can't risk sabotage by an individual or a fanatical religious group blinded by political motivations."
Brome digested this. "Will we stay in Tel Aviv?"
She shook her head briskly. "There's a black lab buried a hundred meters beneath the Negev Desert, east of Mount Ramon. It's normally used as a hot lab to research dangerous, cutting-edge technology." She looked at him. "We'll start your training by running VR simulations. A lot of simulations."
"If I fail the first time. . . ."
"You can never go back. Translation of physical objects causes contamination of the domains. We'll never know what causal chain we've set into motion when the project has ended. All we can say is they won't suffer the same fate our world did."
Brome thought furiously, astonished he was considering doing this crazy thing. Murdering the boy. He met her gaze.
"How do I kill him?"
The first sims are easy: variations on weather, or random obstacles like locked doors or chambermaids with insomnia. Brome breezes through them.
He's given a blueprint. He memorizes every room, every closet, staircase, table, bed, and chair inside Pommer Inn, along with the dimensions of the private apartment where Klara, Alois, their children, and the target reside. Will reside. Did reside.
The boy is always referred to as "the target."
Hannah tells him: "Braunau am Inn is a border village on the River Inn, between Bavaria and Austria. You will be injected at 0300 local time. Everyone should be asleep."
The first sims are easy, yes. Then they get harder.
Hannah sets him down in a pasture. Clouds scudding across a starry sky are reflected in a weed-choked river. A weathered farmhouse stands in the distance. Brome forces himself to remember he is only inside a sensorium tank. He activates the protein-sheathed wetchip implanted in his brain's sulci and accesses a map. He's thirty kilometers from Braunau. He taps the pin mike curving from his ear, tells Hannah sitting like God in her polyglas observation booth over the sim tank: "I can't make the village in time; it's too far. I'm going to hit the recall switch." A switch on his visor will transmit a signal, reach across the domain wall, and yank him back to his own reality.
Hannah barks abruptly: "Are you telling me you're giving up?"
Brome begins to run. At the end of twenty minutes the sim shuts down and he's in the black lab, in the sensorium, face steaming with sweat, chest heaving, cursing anyone foolish enough to approach him.
He rips off the headset and stalks from the sim tank, angry for getting caught short that way. The sim was a test of character and he has failed. Hannah glowers from behind the polyglas windows, surrounded by her geeky programmers. Brome's performance is logged as "unacceptable" and she loads a new sim.
Pommer Inn on fire. Brome rushes inside. A woman, one of the housemaids, screams when she sees him; his shycloth armor has failed due to the intense heat. He takes the stairs two at a time, completes the mission, hits the recall and Hannah compliments him on getting the job done because he didn't waste time saving the other screaming children trapped in the raging fire. Hannah's like that, the bitch; the job comes first with her. Failure is never an option beneath the Negev.
Other scenarios. He meets a second traveler, from a third domain-echo, intent on saving the target. Brome kills him first, then the boy. Blood on his hands. Hannah logs the run a glowing success. Brome is sickened.
So many simulations in the intervening weeks he can't remember them all. Klara wakes. "Paul, why are you hurting my baby?" The sorrow in her voice cuts through him but he injects the target with toxin and Hannah logs the run. Or, he finds the right address, Vorstadt No. 219, but the inn has inexplicably been transformed into a blacksmith's shop. He searches frantically for the boy, fails, is recalled unceremoniously.
In another sim he approaches the inn from the countryside. Braunau in 1889 has medieval fortifications and broken Gothic arches limned with moonlight. Trees whisper; wind gusts off black water. A dog barks and he hears the somber clank of a cow bell from a nearby meadow. The Inn River meanders through the countryside like an unbroken silver thread. Idyllic, but he has come, a demon encased in shycloth armor, to murder a mother's child in her arms.
Hannah dismisses his qualms with a flip of her hand. "Children often died of measles or diphtheria in the late 1800s. Klara Pölzl is young and healthy. She can always have another little Schicklgruber."
New scenario: Brome is hopelessly lost inside the Planck foam forming the boundary between domains. He spins in white nothingness, in what he later learns is called "spatial decoherence" by the theoretical physicists assigned to the Project. He's incorporeal, tumbling helplessly, forever trapped. He screams but hears nothing, feels nothing, is nothing. He spends twenty long minutes in this hell before the sim mercifully ends.
Back in the sensorium, the attendant technicians peel adhesive sensors from his chest, temples, groin. He grabs one man, voice ringing like steel. "Goddammit, I'll walk out of here if you run that one again."
The tech, whey-faced, stares at his captured arm. One more pound of torque will snap the radius. His partner nervously radios Hannah's booth for instructions.
Brome's teeth are clenched. "Don't run it again. Do you hear me?"
"We won't, we promise." Gibli hobbles fast into the sensorium, gripping his eyecane. Brome releases the technician.
"Hannah's decided that's the last one," Gibli says. "You go tomorrow."
Brome looks up at the observation booth, in hope, in fear. Hannah, surrounded by her stone-faced programmers, nods.
Copyright © 2002 K. Mark Hoover
K. Mark Hoover is a writer living in Mississippi. He has published over a half dozen fiction and non-fiction articles and is the contest administrator for the Moonlight & Magnolia Fiction Writing Contest. The contest is open to new writers of genre fiction. He is married and has three children.