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It was early evening when Gorfmann emerged and crept down to the floor on which Osternak's office was situated. Policemen were always making such a big thing about how thorough they were. The way to prevail against them was to be even more thorough. And how could such pedestrian, one-dimensional minds stand a chance against thoroughness combined with scientific training?
The corridor ran from front to back of the building, between doors leading to stairways at both ends. He waited behind the door to the rear until he saw his earlier self come in at the other end from the front stairs and go into Osternak's office. After a few minutes' wait, he tiptoed along to Professor Prandtl's office, which would suit his purpose nicely-it was opposite Osternak's, and Prandtl was away on a lecture visit to the U.S. until the following week. He turned the handle gently, eased the door open, and slipped inside . . . and instantly recoiled back out again. There was somebody in there-lying on the sofa beneath Prandtl's window, wrapped in blankets and seemingly asleep. Gorfmann didn't know what to make of it. Somebody with domestic troubles staying away from the house, perhaps? But he didn't have time to wonder, for he was out in the open in the corridor, and anyone could appear at any moment. He looked around for an alternative, spotted the cleaner's closet next to Prandtl's office, and quickly hid himself inside. It would give him just as good a view of Osternak's door, anyway.
The secret was to be thorough and check everything. He waited, watching, through the crack from the closet. The first thing was to be absolutely certain that the time sequence he was on was as he remembered.
And then the handle of Osternak's door rattled and turned a fraction. Gorfmann brought his eye close to the crack to observe. Osternak's door had opened partly, and through it he could see the version of himself that had been two days ago, standing with one hand on the door handle and looking back into the room. "Your a.s.surance, please," Osternak's voice demanded sharply from inside the office. And then Gorfmann's eyes drifted downward, and he saw to his consternation that a cleaning cloth was lying on the floor, right outside the closet. He must have dislodged it from one of the hooks inside the door in his hurry to hide himself. Instinctively, he crouched down, pushed the door open a fraction, and started to reach out.
His other self nodded his head stiffly. "Very well. But I protest." It was no good. There wasn't time.
Gorfmann pulled the door to again and watched, petrified, through the crack as his other self came angrily out of Osternak's office.
"Have a good evening, Rudi," Osternak's voice called out.
His other self closed the door, glanced down at the cloth, hesitated for a split second, then snorted and walked away. Gorfmann straightened himself up slowly, shaking with relief and silent laughter. Of course . . . it had to work out that way. It had already happened!
His speech at the banquet had ended at about ten minutes after eight. It was now almost six o'clock. He emerged from the closet and went along to the accounts office, which overlooked the front parking area, and just to be doubly certain, watched himself depart at six exactly with Hoetzer in Hoetzer's wagon.
Then he went up two floors and along to Hoetzer's office, where he switched on the large graphics printer that Hoetzer used for generating enlarged particle-trajectory diagrams from detector photographs, and set it to high-resolution mode. If left in that condition all night, the circuits would overheat and burn out. He didn't want to damage the machine, but a couple of hours would give it time to warm up nicely.
Happy that all was going according to plan, he went back up to his hideout to wait. The secret was to be thorough, thorough . . .
He emerged two hours later at eight-fifteen, wearing thin cotton gloves now, and went down to the pay phone located in an alcove off the front lobby-that way there wouldn't be any record of the call on the Inst.i.tute's telephone account.
"Thank you for calling. This is the Hotel Ibis, Innsbruck."
"h.e.l.lo. I believe you have a banquet there tonight, being given by the Celebrity Club?"
"Yes, sir, we do."
"I need to speak with one of the guests, please. It is most urgent."
"One moment." Gorfmann thought he heard somebody come in through the back door from the compound. He leaned out from the alcove and peered along the darkened pa.s.sage leading to the rear of the building . . . but there was no one. He remembered the figure on the couch in Prandtl's office and prayed that something wasn't about to go wrong now, through factors he couldn't possibly have antic.i.p.ated. That would have been too unjust. But there seemed to be something strange afoot in the place. . . . Then the operator at the Ibis came back on the line. "The guests are all eating at the moment, sir."
"I'm sorry, but it is important," Another pause.
"Whom did you wish to speak to, sir?"
"I wish to speak to somebody there called Gorfmann. A Dr. Rudi Gorfmann."
"Who is calling?"
"Just put me through, please."
"One moment. I'm transferring you to a table phone."
"Thank you." Jubilation surged through him. It was all working!
Than a voice on the line said, "h.e.l.lo? This is Rudi Gorfmann speaking."
He didn't believe it himself. "Just checking," he said, smothering the impulse to laugh.
"Who is this, please?"
"It doesn't matter. Let's just say that, as I know you'll be pleased to learn, you're even cleverer than you think."
"Look, I don't-" He hung up.
The next thing to do was get Osternak out of his office for a few minutes to allow himself to slip in. That was why he had switched on the printer a couple of hours previously. He inserted more coins and punched in the number of the direct line to Osternak's office. Through the deserted building from the floor above, he caught the muted sound of a telephone ringing. Then a voice in the receiver said, "h.e.l.lo?"
"Professor Osternak?" Gorfmann said, roughening his voice.
"Sorry to trouble you, Professor, but this is Security at the main gate."
"We've just had a call here from Dr. Hoetzer, in Innsbruck."
"He says that he was in a hurry to leave this evening, and that he left a piece of equipment switched on in his office-a graphics printer, I think he said."
"Oh dear. That could be unfortunate."
"So I understand. But apparently a certain procedure has to be followed to turn it off. I offered to take the directions down over the phone, but Dr. Hoetzer was short of time. He said you were up there tonight, and your office is only two levels down from his."
"Oh, I see. You'd like me to go up and turn it off for him."
"If it wouldn't be too much trouble, Professor."
"Oh, good heavens, no. No trouble at all. I'll attend to it right away."
"Thank you very much."
"Not at all. Good night."
"Good night, Professor." Gorfmann replaced the phone. "Heh, heh, heh. And good-bye, Professor," he murmured in his natural voice. Since Hoetzer's room was at the far end of the building, Osternak would use the rear stairs. Gorfmann moved swiftly across the lobby and went up the front staircase by the elevators. He halted at the double doors into the corridor leading to Osternak's office and peeped through in time to see Osternak's door open and the professor emerge and disappear through the doors at the far end. Gorfmann waited until the far doors had swung shut then walked quickly to the open door of Osternak's office. Inside, he went straight to the desk and rummaged through the drawers. The gun was there. He checked the chambers. It was loaded. That was the final thing that might have gone wrong.
He went through the drawers, rifling them and scattering the contents the way an intruder would, swept the papers off a side table, tossing down a few books from the shelves for good measure. Then he turned over a chair and a small table to give the appearance of a struggle, and threw down a candlestick, a figurine, and the clock from the mantleshelf over the fireplace, making sure that the clock was broken and showed the correct time. Finally he turned off the desk lamp, loosened the bulb in the ceiling light until it went out, turned it off at the switch by the door, and stood back in the shadows to wait.
He heard the door from the rear stairs open and Osternak's footsteps approaching less than a minute later. The professor appeared in the doorway, hesitated when he saw the darkness inside, then advanced a pace into the room and flipped the wall switch. Nothing happened. Then he did exactly what Gorfmann had antic.i.p.ated: He came into the room to try the desk lamp.
There would be no melodramatics or gloating speeches, Gorfmann had decided. Besides being rather distasteful, they provided an additional opportunity for things to go wrong. It would happen just as if he were a real intruder. When Osternak was halfway across the room, Gorfmann stepped forward to be sure of his aim and fired twice at the heart. Osternak cried out in shock and reeled away, clapping a hand to his chest, crashed into a chair, and fell over it in a heap. Gorfmann moved forward cautiously and waited, but the form lay motionless, picked out in the light from the doorway. Gorfmann reached up and tightened the ceiling-lamp bulb. The light came on to reveal the professor staring upward with glazed eyes, with a mess of blood covering his hand and chest, and spreading onto the carpet. Gorfmann grimaced to himself and walked over to turn the light off again at the wall switch. From the doorway he surveyed the scene for anything he might have overlooked. Finding nothing, he pocketed the gun-an intruder would hardly have left it; it would be found later in a place where it would seem to have been thrown away-and went back up to his hideout room for the tools that he'd brought. Now it was time for the really diabolical part of the whole thing.
For the remaining problem now, of course, was that there were two of him in existence-a situation that would cause impossible complications and which obviously couldn't be permitted to last. And since the mind of his alter ego could be guaranteed to work in the same way as his own-it was the same mind, after all-it wouldn't take long for the alter ego to figure out what was going on-again an intolerable state of affairs. Therefore the alter ego would have to go. The world was only big enough for one Rudi Gorfmann, anyway.
However, the beautiful thing about it all was that chance had already provided him the means. Wenkle had pinpointed the theft of his car as having occurred no earlier than ten-thirty. It was not yet eight forty-five. Hence he had over an hour and a half to do a sabotage job on his car, parked out front in the executive parking area. Then he would wait for the thief to appear, and force the events that followed into a different sequence. For if he prevented the theft from occurring, then obviously the car would still be there when his other self returned from Innsbruck. The accident would still happen, but with the subtle difference that the body recovered would be his unwanted other, unsuspecting self's, not the thief's. That meant, of course, that he would be on a new timeline and things would proceed from there on in a different way-but that would be no different from playing life by ear in the normal way that people did every day. In other words, he could handle it. The important thing was that Osternak would have been killed after surprising an intruder, who stole Gorfmann's car and in his panic to get away went over the cliff. An unidentifiable body would be recovered from the wreck, and a very alive Gorfmann-himself-would reappear to deplore the tragedy. Brilliant!
He worked deftly and surely, fixing the primary braking system in such a way that it would feel normal the first couple of times the pedal was depressed, and then fail catastrophically. And just to be sure there would be no chance of recovery, he disabled the emergency brake. He finished well before ten, and feeling pleased with himself, cleared away his tools and settled down to wait well back in the shadows of the shrubbery for the thief. After Hoetzer dropped him off upon their return from Innsbruck, he had come through the Keep and out the front door. The thief might come from that direction, or from another.
And then a light came on in one of the windows one level up, overlooking the forecourt-in the accounts office, Gorfmann ascertained from its position relative to the front door. A face appeared inside, pressing forward to peer down and shielding its eyes from the reflected light off the gla.s.s. Gorfmann remained motionless, deep under the shadow of the shrubbery. What was somebody doing in the accounts office at this hour? The face withdrew, and a moment later the light went out again. Was this something else to do with the figure on the sofa in Prandtl's office? Something strange was going on. Less than a minute later the performance repeated: the light in the accounts office came on once more, and the same figure came to the window and peered down, went away, and the light went out again. Perhaps somebody on the staff was using the premises for nocturnal romantic trysts, and getting some sleep in Prandtl's office in antic.i.p.ation of an active night. How disgraceful. Gorfmann would have something to say about that if he found out who it was. At least it might explain the presence of the thief, he reflected. But the thing to remember for now was the need to be careful with others around.
And then he heard footsteps approaching in haste, not from anywhere near the front door, but on the gravel path coming around the corner of the building from the side door by the library. Moments later, a figure came running around the corner, clad in a light-colored sweater. Gorfmann waited until he was certain that the figure was indeed heading for the car, then stepped out into view-but without getting too close for comfort-and called out sharply, "Who are you? What do you want?"
The figure stopped abruptly, recoiled, and fled back around the building. Gorfmann blinked behind his spectacles in the darkness, his hand feeling suddenly very slippery around the gun he'd been holding in his pocket as a precaution. Exit one thief. Was it really as easy as that?
And then he heard more footsteps coming across the lobby inside the main door and barely had time to duck back under the shrubbery before the door opened and a different figure appeared, this time wearing a topcoat over evening dress, its tie loosened as he had loosened his before helping Hoetzer with the generator. It was his alter ego. There could be no mistake about it. Fascinated, he watched himself climb into the car and start the engine. The lights came on, and the car backed out, changed into forward gear, and disappeared along the driveway and out onto the road. Then he heard it accelerating away downhill in the direction of the Weiderwa.s.ser bridge.
So, it was done. The timeline had been changed. A strange feeling of elation and sudden weariness came over him as he moved forward into the light from above the entrance and stood for a while, savoring the fresh night air and looking up at the stars. At the same time, he experienced an inner wonder at this new, awesome power that he had glimpsed, there for those with the nerve to grasp it. Yes, it was going to be a very new world, indeed.
Now it was time to become the Gorfmann who would go back to the main gate and report the stolen car. But that Gorfmann was supposed to have just come back from a banquet. He went in through the main door, and a patch of brake fluid on one of his shoes caused him to slip on the tiled floor of the vestibule. He cursed reflexively as he almost lost his balance and then went through to the men's washroom a short distance along the pa.s.sage leading to the backdoor to clean up. A few minutes later he emerged, carrying the soiled coveralls, and moving cautiously since he was still mindful that there were others in the building, made his way back up to the attic to put on the evening dress that he had brought with him for the purpose. As he straightened his tie and pulled on his topcoat, he grinned at himself in the mirror in fond of antic.i.p.ation of replaying the same night with Lisa all over again. Time machines could be worth millions! The last thing he had to do was clean up the attic room to remove all traces of his occupancy, bundle up the gun and the other things he had used, and on the way downstairs, lock them away in his own office until he had a chance to dispose of them properly.
On his way down, he almost ran into Osternak.
Neither the professor nor his clothes had a mark on them.
Gorfmann stopped dead and stood, paralyzed. His eyes widened behind his spectacles. His head shook from side to side in a barely discernible motion of protest. "It can't be," he whispered.
The professor stared back at him, seeming equally bemused for a second or two, then his features relaxed, almost as if he thought something was funny. "Oh, but it can," he said.
"How is this possible?"
"I don't understand it. You don't understand it. That's what I've been trying to tell you Rudi, but you wouldn't listen. Do what you will. You can't win."
Something snapped inside Gorfmann's mind then. An insane look came into his eyes, and he shook his head again, violently this time. "Oh, but I can." Gorfmann produced the gun from inside the bundle he was holding. "So, I can't win, eh? We'll see about that." He motioned for Osternak to walk ahead of him, down the stairs. "And don't try anything clever, you old goat. I didn't hesitate to shoot you before, and I won't again."
"There's nothing you can-"
"Save your breath."
They reached the ground floor and went out the back of the Keep into the compound. Gorfmann was breathing rapidly and heavily, his eyes darting fearfully this way and that. The older man moved warily, avoiding provocation. They entered the transfer dome and went into the control room, where Gorfmann activated the supervisory console and began flipping switches with one hand, all the time keeping the gun in the other trained on Osternak.
"What do you think you are doing?" Osternak asked.
Gorfmann's voice was by now little more than a hiss through his teeth. "As you say, I don't know what went wrong. But we are going to do it again, and this time I will get it right." He motioned toward the door through to the transfer chamber. "In there."
"Rudi, for heaven's sake, listen to me. You don't-"
"A second pa.s.s through the process will-"
"Move, or I'll shoot you now and take you through dead. It's all the same to me."
Osternak stepped into the chamber. Gorfmann squeezed in with him, keeping the muzzle of the gun jammed against the professor's ribs. He closed the door. Moments later, Osternak felt a brief dizziness as the transfer proceeded, nothing more. But Gorfmann screamed suddenly, sounding hideous in the confined s.p.a.ce, and the gun clattered to the floor as he clutched his hands to the sides of his head. He slumped against Osternak, and his body slid downward as far as the narrow chamber would permit. The door opened, and Osternak struggled to heave the inert form onto the floor outside. He stepped out behind and stooped over it. "That's what I was trying to tell you. . . ." But there was no point. Gorfmann was unconscious.
Osternak hurried through into the control room and scanned the instrument readouts. Through some fluke n.o.body seemed to be around, although it was still late in the working day. He thought back, replaying the events of the last several hours in his mind as accurately as he could. Yes, there was still time. He picked up the telephone handset from the hook on the side of the console and tapped a number.
"Yes," a voice acknowledged at the other end.
"Professor Osternak?" he queried, just to check.
"This is Professor Osternak, yes. Who is this, please?"
"I am a version of your later self."
"Oh. . . . Oh really? That is most interesting," the other Osternak's voice said.
"There isn't a lot of time. Now, if my guess is correct, Rudi Gorfmann is there with you at this moment, and you are having a rather disagreeable conversation about going public with the program. Am I right?"
"Yes, that is true, quite true." The other Osternak was doing a commendable job of managing to sound casual.
"And it is true, is it not, that you have been fearing that an illicit transfer will be made sooner or later?"
"Yes, that is so. But how do you-"
"I know what you think, because I am you, you see. But then again, I don't have to tell you, because you are me."
"Of course. Amazing! And so it happens."
"It has happened-a transfer. We have a problem."
"So, what can I do for you?"
"Not me, for yourself. I am you, from about five hours in the future. Five hours ago, I was you, sitting in that chair and taking this call."
"This is astounding. I-"
"Listen. Gorfmann is a lot worse than you think. He's insane."
"You are serious, yes?"
"Later this evening he is going to murder you."
"This is unbelievable. When does he intend to do this?"
"After eight, while his other self is at the banquet."
"Ach, so. . . ."
"I haven't worked out all the details, but he seems to have set up another self as an alibi. He'll leave your office in a few more minutes, which will give us a couple of hours. I think we might be able to stop him."
"Can we get together and talk about this?"