Part 2 of 2
My father was an electrician. My mother taught piano. I don't remember much about my sister, except that she was very beautiful. There are no photographs; all I have are memories.
--Paul Brome, The Last Jew
Hannah assigned Brome a full-time bodyguard as the minutes ticked down to the Red Hour. Everyone was on edge. Brome slept very little, tormented by dreams of an empty desert and wailing souls tossed helplessly by the winds of time.
Hannah came to his quarters early the next morning, sent the bodyguard out into the corridor. In the past week she and Brome had become emotionally close out of necessity. Working together, the late night skull sessions, the immense stakes involved -- all had conspired to bring about a new dimension to their relationship.
"There's something I must tell you, Paul," she said. "No one else knows this -- not even Joseph -- but you have to know."
Brome sat at the foot of his rumpled cot, dressed in nothing but briefs. All the hair of his body was shaved (even his eyebrows) for full sensorial contact with the shycloth armor he would wear into the other timeline.
Hannah had fueled her body on nicotine, coffee, and Benzedrine in the past week; the abuse had taken its toll. Dark smudges rimmed her eyes. Her lab coat billowed around her thin frame, smelling sour as she paced back and forth. She had also developed an ugly hacking cough that made Brome wince.
"I need to tell you exactly why we're doing this." She was hoarse from too many cigarettes but had another going anyway.
Brome had expected a last-minute briefing, and mentally prepared himself for whatever was to come.
Hannah searched vainly for an ashtray, finally just flicked the ash onto the carpet. "I've solved another n-dimensional equation, Paul. I've been looking in on them for some time now. I think it's the future of the one I'm sending you into." A stray current from the air-conditioning duct blew soft wisps of hair away from her temples. Her voice lowered.
"Inside this other domain the Final Solution was successful, but global in nature. An Empire stretches from the Atlantic halfway across Russia. China is a vassal state of Japan. Africa has been annexed to the European continent. America, isolated from the world, has fractured into squabbling nation-states. Modern Israel doesn't exist; the Middle East is totally unrecognizable." Her lips trembled. "Everyone lives under the same umbrella: they have universal health coverage, universal education. Textbooks are full of revisionist history. Orbital platforms with Maltese crosses circle the Earth. Everyone within the Empire has enough to eat and a place to live and they're happy. They've killed over five hundred million people in a decades-long Global Solution program and they're happy and content with the racial purity of their world."
Brome went numb.
Hannah's eyes welled with tears. "Can you imagine what it's like, knowing a place like that exists?" Tears tracked her sallow face. "That world is as real as the polycrete floor I'm standing on. I've seen it, Paul."
Before he could say anything, Hannah rushed to the bathroom. The door snicked shut. The sound of running water masked her sobs.
Brome rapped on the door. "Hannah?"
After a long while it opened. She had scrubbed her face, made a feeble attempt to comb her hair, discarded the soiled lab coat and cigarette. She looked at him, eyes large in her drawn face.
"Well, now you know," she said.
Brome clumsily put his arms around her. She rested her head on his naked shoulder. "It's all right," he murmured. "I won't let it happen again. I'm going to do this thing, Hannah. I swear I will."
"I hope so," she said weakly. "God, I really hope you can."
On the deepest level of the black lab, the Van Den Broeck injection system surrounded a pilot's chair nestled in the bottom half of an ovoid shell. Snaking electrical cables crisscrossed the floor. Power conduits radiated outward, urchin-like, towards huge mass spectrometers and organic scintillators stacked into massive detector arrays. Bunched optical fibers and acrylic light ducts draped like lianas from the ceiling, pulsing with digital information. Honeycombed latticework filled in the gaps between rows of gleaming equipment.
Encased in shycloth armor, Brome walked out under the glaring lights. People crowded the observation booth.
Gibli met Brome on the steps leading to the chair, embraced him. "Good luck, Paul. Come back safe and sound."
Brome was grim. "I will."
He climbed into the pilot's chair, letting it adjust to the contours of his body. He pulled down his visor and activated the shycloth armor's imaging systems before switching to suit oxygen. The gas was cold, with a somewhat plastic taste.
The earpiece in his helmet crackled. Hannah, in the control booth surrounded by monitors scrolling green and amber numbers, started the checklist.
"One minute to injection."
The top half of the ovoid chamber fell smoothly from the ceiling. Hydraulics hissed. The two halves met, sealed. Enclosed, Brome checked his HUD telltales. His visor was up and running, giving him a full spectrum from UV through IR.
"Thirty seconds," Hannah warned. In the background he heard someone call out radiation readings.
A distant hum. Power feeding from the mini-tokamak buried beneath the black lab, Brome knew. Slight vibration in the chair frame. Feeling of disorientation beginning to take hold.
Mouth dry. Knuckles white. Pulse elevated.
What was it Gibli had said in Athens? Ah, yes.
You 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.
He hurtled through the domain boundary.
--throwing out a hand to grab the wooden bannister because his foot had slipped on one of the steps. Brome pulled himself straight, heart thundering. Bearings: he was halfway up the staircase, the balcony several meters above. Check the integrity of the suit: 3V recorders were on-line, documenting the mission for posterity. Power and environmental connections looked good. He looked around, recognizing the familiar landmarks and geography of Pommer Inn.
He remained motionless so the shycloth's outer integument of digital chromospheres could camouflage him. Below, an open doorway yawned onto heavy tables. Chairs, a glimpse of a rustic kitchen. Curtains drawn on the windows downstairs finished the Spartan decor. The rafters and aged timbers of the inn's vaulted ceiling creaked in protest as the wind rattled under the eaves.
He was born on Easter Saturday, half past six on the evening of April 20, 1889, in the Gasthof zum Pommer inn. The weather is overcast and chilly at 3:00 a.m. The inn will be cold. People will be in their warm beds, sleeping.
Brome switched on his visor's light-intensifiers. Objects jumped out in sharp relief: furniture, stairs, the grain of the wood on the cleanly swept floor, the coarse texture of rugs. He climbed the stairs silently, a technological ghost.
On the landing he found the recessed door leading to the private residences. Locked. He used a key attached to his wrist, squeezed the end bulb to make it inflate properly. The splines slid smoothly into the oiled hub of the lock. He opened the door and was through in seconds, the skeleton key safely back in his wrist pouch. Elapsed time from a clock in the lower left of his HUD: three minutes since he had been injected into Pommer Inn. Seventeen to go.
Parlor: heavily polished furniture, rugs placed neatly on a hardwood floor. Cramped dining room offset. Muddy boots by the door, jacket hanging on a peg. A doll (probably Angela's) was propped forlornly in a sturdy chair, staring at him with accusing black button eyes.
An ornate cuckoo clock ticked loudly. 0311. Tree branches scratched the side of the house. The wind moaned off the Inn River.
Brome weaved past dark furniture towards the back rooms, their doorways slightly open. The first was furnished with two beds. Alois, Jr., was in his, but Angela's was empty. Had she heard something and gone to warn her parents? Where was the housekeeper? Did she only work during the day, helping Klara with the children? Hannah had not been able to provide Brome with all the information he would have liked. She could make general determinations but could not give specific movements. Brome had to rely on his instinct, and his luck.
Five minutes. You're wasting time. Move.
He entered the largest bedroom, small by modern standards. A window cast a rectangle on the bed. The first person he saw was Angela, the target's half-sister. Her back was to her father, snuggled in his arms, sleeping soundly.
Brome stood over the family in the dark.
Alois's round face was drowned in sleep, mustached mouth slightly parted and snoring with a soft buzz. Klara lay on the other side of the bed, breathing evenly. A rocking crib sat flush against the wall, under a gilded mirror. A discarded blanket lay tangled on the wooden floor.
The boy was not in the crib.
Brome walked quietly around the foot of the bed and saw Klara had one possessive arm over a tiny hump under the covers. Only vaguely aware of the time ticking down in his visor's HUD, and the blinking recall switch, Brome stood and stared at the mother and her newborn child.
--And knew without a doubt he wouldn't have been able to do this if he hadn't already been desensitized to it a hundred times.
That's why Hannah ran so many sims. She wanted me inured to killing a child in its mother's arms. Even him.
Klara's already lost three: one within a few days of birth, two to diphtheria.
Now she'll lose a son because of me: a specter from a parallel history, supported by science and technology even I don't fully understand. For reasons she would never believe, never accept. (Do I?) Have her wake up with a dead baby in her arms? I won't do that to any mother, for any reason. Hannah be damned.
Take him to the crib and do it there.
I vow. I vow.
He placed his palm against the side of Klara's neck. A needle slid from his gloved thumb and pierced her skin. She opened her eyes, startled, blinked several times, closed them again. She was deeply asleep again within seconds.
Brome carefully removed the embroidered quilt, revealing the target. He slipped his hands under the tiny body and lifted the infant into a gleaming chink of moonlight. Adolfus whimpered, his tiny red fists clenched to his chest, mouth a red bow. The dark hair on his head was fine and thick. Long eyelashes brushed ruddy cheeks.
Brome stared raptly at the boy nestled in the crook of his arm, trying to equate this baby to the incalculable horrors of his own past and the future looming vast for the world of this domain. Oblivious to the passing time, he stood riveted by the meaning of the life he held in his arms for both worlds. Both histories. Himself.
He placed a second thumb-needle against the baby's neck, preparing to release a toxin that would shut down the child's respiration.
Joseph, you did this for me. You knew. That's why you found me in Athens.
I am the only man who can set right what was never meant to happen: the dissolution of my own humanity, my own soul.
I don't have to shatter the world if I can make it better, make it mean something again to be human. Only I hold the key to do that. One universe healed, another grappling with a more difficult lesson. I, locked in the middle.
To heal a wound in a history that never should have happened -- on any world. Brome believed that now. Looking at the boy, he knew it was frighteningly true: he was the only person in history who could set things right.
I'm not neglecting the past, he told himself. I'm affirming it. Forgiveness can't be an esoteric concept. If so, our grip on humanity is lost and we can never find the true depth of the human heart.
The suit's software alerted him. Sixteen minutes had passed. Only four left.
Four! Heart racing, he backed out of the master bedroom and hurried through the parlor. Oh God, oh God. Descending to the ground floor, he held the child close. The boy was beginning to wake, fussily. Brome opened the com channel in his HUD. Voice shaky with muffled disbelief in his helmet: "I've done it, I've done it. I have him. . . ."
There was no interim during which he was aware of transfer to his side of the domain wall. One fraction of a second he was in the gloom of Pommer Inn -- then reclining in the pilot's chair, clutching the screaming baby while the top half of the ovoid chamber cracked open and lifted, flooding light into his face. Attendants fell on him, downloading the visual record, stripping off helmet, gloves, battery pack, plastic oxygen tank.
Brome stepped off the dais, barely aware of the screams of disbelief reverberating in the lab. People clustered around him, keeping a careful distance from the squalling infant. Hannah gaped unbelievingly at what he carried. Gibli elbowed his way through the crowd, felt the tiny body with his hands and gasped.
Tears spilled shamelessly down Brome's face. "I couldn't do it, Joseph. God help me, I couldn't do it." His voice broke. "I'm only human."
The child wailed, tiny fists waving.
Brome, his sense of wonder vast at the infant in his arms, looked up, dazed. And all Humanity, and the histories of worlds gone mad and other worlds healed, and the faces of millions always important, towered like mountains over the event-chain he called life, thundering, thundering.