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Mind, Machines and Evolution Part 25

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"That's why I'm calling you."

"How?"

"Right now I am in the transfer control room. There is another version of Gorfmann here, too, but he is unconscious. He has gone through two transfers in too short a time, and I think the stress has deranged him completely-exactly what we have been worried about. There's no one else here at the moment, but I'm going to move him into the motor room in case anyone comes back. As soon as the one that's with you leaves the office, get over here as fast as you can and give me a hand to move him somewhere safer.

Then we can talk about what to do."

"I shall be most interested to meet you."

The two Osternaks used a dolly from the materials store to cart the still lifeless Gorfmann across the compound and into the Keep, where they took him to Professor Prandtl's office, since Prandtl was away for a week, and laid him out on the sofa by the window. They loosened his tie and made him comfortable with blankets and a pillow borrowed from the medical room on the floor below. As an afterthought, Osternak Two removed the car keys from Gorfmann's pocket. "I think as a precaution we'll hang on to these," he said. "It wouldn't do to let him go driving if he got out." Then they closed the door and went across the corridor to their own office to discuss what to do next.

The second Osternak-the one who had come back through the machine with Gorfmann-had a better idea of what was going on and a.s.sumed the initiative, taking the chair behind the desk. The other sat down opposite. "Fortunately, since we already share most of our thoughts, we don't have to waste a lot of time talking," Osternak Two said. In other words, Osternak One was already aware of the logical uncertainties surrounding this kind of situation. He didn't know if the events already established on a timeline could be altered; whether the situation involved parallel universes, branching universes, or heavens alone knew what; or what the complexities would be of skipping from one line to another. On the other hand, everything might be predetermined. That was precisely what the experiments currently in progress were designed to find out. Also, double pa.s.ses through the process within too short a span of time caused disorientation of the central nervous system, and what the effects might be on somebody in Gorfmann's already unbalanced condition was anybody's guess.

"Agreed," Osternak One said. Which took care of the hours they could have spent debating things like that.

"I suggest that we play it safe until we're out of this wretched loop that Gorfmann has initiated,"

Osternak Two said. "Having two maniacs around is more than I know how to handle. So I say, let's play everything as it happened until the time that Gorfmann transferred back the first time to commit the murder. After that version of him goes back, there will only be one of him left, which will be a much simpler situation. We can worry about what to do next at that point."

"What time was that-when he went back?" Osternak One asked.

"I don't know. I'm not even sure when he arrived. But since there have been people working in the transfer dome all day, I suspect he's already here somewhere. My guess is that he arrived last night or early this morning, and is holed up somewhere until the time he has picked."

Osternak One nodded slowly. "Ah, I see . . . which will no doubt coincide with the time his other self is publicly visible at the banquet in Innsbruck."

"Exactly," Osternak Two said.

"Hmm." Osternak rubbed his chin. "Which one of us is going to get murdered?" he asked uncomfortably.

"Well, I've already been who you are right now, so it will have to be you."

"Oh." Osternak One didn't sound overthrilled. Then his expression changed as the implication struck him. "Wait a minute, Osbert. If you were me, and you're not dead, then you can't have been killed."

"Yes, I know you feel slightly stupid for having taken so long to see it, for I felt the same thing myself at this moment. So don't worry about it. The next question is, how are you going to stop him doing it?"

"You could tell me, of course."

"Which is what I said, too, when I was you, of course. But I also know that you realized while you were saying it that it wouldn't do. It has to be your idea, to keep things the way they happened. We can experiment later with what happens when you deliberately change things-but let's get out of this situation first. Which I remember is what you are thinking yourself at this moment, anyway."

"Well, if he is hiding in the building somewhere, we could search the place and . . . No, that wouldn't work, would it? That can't have happened with you."

"You're catching on."

"Why? Did you start to say the same thing?"

"Yes."

"But I a.s.sume I must come up with something, since you evidently did."

"I hope so. If not, G.o.d alone knows what happens."

Osternak One ran his fingers through his halo of white hair. "Well, the only think I can think of is that we-I, that is, must fake it. Where do I get shot? Nothing gruesome, I hope."

"Twice, in the chest."

"Whose gun does he use?"

"Yours, from the desk. He makes it look as if an intruder was disturbed."

Osternak One thought for a moment, and then his expression lightened. "Ah, yes, well, in that case I could reload it with blanks. The sticky red solvent they use in the plating shop should make a pa.s.sable blood subst.i.tute. . . . Er, does this happen in good light?"

Osternak Two beamed and nodded approvingly. "No, right here in the office. He lures you up to Hoetzer's lab for a few minutes with a bogus phone call, and when you get back he has fixed the lights.

Complete darkness, apart from the light from the corridor."

"So a handful of the stuff carried in and smacked to the chest when he fires? . . ."

"Splendid, splendid!" Osternak Two said. He had a painful bruise on his hip from where he had fallen over the chair, but saw no need to say anything about that. "Now, you have to stay here to take the phone call, which will come at about eight-thirty. Before then, I will have left a jar of red solvent from the plating shop on the table by the graphics printer in Hoetzer's office-you'll find out why when Gorfmann phones you. Also, I intend to install a hidden camera in the transfer-chamber room, running off a timer, to record when Gorfmann makes his first transfer back. Once that has occurred, we shall be out of the loop."

"He could have come back from several days ahead," Osternak One pointed out. "But of course, you are already aware of that."

"Yes. And that's why I'm going to set up a camera and not risk dying of cramp and cold trying to maintain a vigil there in person."

They stood up and regarded each other curiously. Finally Osternak One said, "Well, time is getting on. I have my preparations to make, and so do you. Is there anything useful I can do when I've cleaned up after being shot?"

"I'd just keep an eye on our sleeping friend across there," Osternak Two said, nodding his head in the direction of the door.

"Yes, well, I don't know if we're supposed to meet again, but in case not . . ." Osternak One held out a hand. The other shook it. "It's been . . . an interesting encounter." Osternak Two came around the desk, and walked toward the door. "One thing," Osternak One said. Osternak Two turned. "I don't know when I'm supposed to go back to become you."

"Oh, I think that will take care of itself," Osternak Two a.s.sured him. He turned away again and left through the door.

Outside in the corridor, Osternak Two looked briefly into Professor Prandtl's office to check on Gorfmann. The body was still out cold, but breathing more regularly now. Satisfied that there was no immediate call for medical help, he left the Keep through the rear entrance and went into the instrumentation lab to collect the things he needed to set up the camera. He carried the bits and pieces to the control room and found a suitable hiding place that commanded a good view of the transfer room and the door into the chamber. The camera and film were designed for extended-duration scientific work and would silently capture a frame every five seconds for twenty-four hours. There would be no trouble in coming back to change the magazine once a day if need be. He worked slowly and meticulously, his mind wandering over the peculiarities and apparent contradictions of the situation. How could the same object be physically present twice at the same time? What happened when somebody deliberately undid what had been done? Were memory patterns somehow altered to correlate with the changed circ.u.mstances? There were questions that he didn't have the beginnings of answers to yet. Time drifted on, and he became completely preoccupied with his thoughts. . . . And then his attention focused with the sudden realization that it was approaching eight-thirty . . . and his heart missed a beat. Oh G.o.d, the solvent!

He dropped what he was doing and hastened out into the compound and over to the plating shop.

There, he scooped a glob of the red goo from its container into an empty can, stuffed the can in a plastic bag, and hurried over to the Keep and in through the rear door. Just as he was about to ascend the rear stairs, he heard a voice coming from the pa.s.sage leading through to the front lobby. Fearful that it was the other Osternak looking for him after failing to find the solvent-which would have meant that he'd missed his cue and ruined everything-he changed course and charged into the pa.s.sage. But as he came closer to the lobby he recognized the voice as Gorfmann's and ducked hastily into a darkened doorway.

Gorfmann was speaking under the canopy of the pay phone in the alcove at the end of the pa.s.sage.

Gorfmann must have heard him come in, Osternak was certain. Yes, he could see Gorfmann's shadow form leaning out of the alcove to peer along the pa.s.sageway toward the back door. Osternak froze in the doorway, not daring to move a muscle. And then, to his relief, Gorfmann moved back into the alcove again, and his voice resumed, "I'm sorry, but it is important. . . . I wish to speak to somebody there called Gorfmann. A Dr. Rudi Gorfmann." Osternak frowned to himself in the darkness. He had guessed that Gorfmann must have made his call from somewhere nearby. The time was right, but the call wasn't.

Why was Gorfmann calling himself? Was there a conspiracy being enacted between the two Gorfmanns, which he had never suspected? A sinking feeling of impending disaster came over him. From the alcove, Gorfmann's voice continued, "Just put me through, please . . . Thank you . . . Just checking." Gorfmann sounded as if he was trying not to laugh. Then, "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." There was a click as Gorfmann hung up.

Osternak agonized in the darkness along the pa.s.sage, wondering what to do. Then he realized that Gorfmann was making another call.

"Professor Osternak?" Gorfmann said, in a thick voice which the Osternak along the pa.s.sage recognized instantly as something he had heard before. "Sorry to trouble, you, Professor, but this is Security at the main gate. . . . We've just had a call from Dr. Hoetzer, in Innsbruck. . . . Yes. He says that he was in a hurry to leave this evening, and . . ."

It was all still on track! He hadn't caused a disaster after all. Osternak drew a deep breath to recover his wind after his rush across the compound and the tension he had experienced since, and then emerged from the doorway and backed quietly away along the pa.s.sage. From the front of the building, he heard Gorfmann finish his call, leave the alcove, and go running up the front stairs. Osternak paused again for breath at the bottom of the rear stairs. Oh G.o.d, three flights.

When Osternak Two got to Hoetzer's office, Osternak One was already there, searching frantically under the table by the graphics printer and along the shelves above just as Osternak Two had realized he would be. But Osternak Two was too breathless to explain, and besides there wasn't time. He opened the bag containing the can and held it while the other dipped his hand, and then waved weakly toward the door to send Osternak One on his way. Then he leaned against the printer for a while to regain his breath and composure. Just as he was coming back out onto the stairs, the sound of two shots in rapid succession came up the stairway from below.

When he was halfway back across the compound, it came to him that there were now not two, but three Gorfmanns loose: one at the banquet, one on Prandtl's couch, and the one who had just shot the other Osternak. So even when one of them made the transfer back through time, it would still leave two. The situation wouldn't simplify itself in the way he had imagined. He shook his head wearily, unable to grapple with any more of it and feeling like a piece of flotsam being carried along on a tide of events that was long past any ability of his to control. Resolved at least to complete what he had set out to do, he went back into the transfer dome to finish setting up the camera.

Professor Osternak One waited until he was sure that Gorfmann had left, then picked himself up slowly from the floor. His hip ached from the knock he had taken from the chair when he went down. Osternak Two could have warned him about that, he reflected huffily. Since he had no intention of lying there for the rest of the night, it followed that Gorfmann would know anyway that the murder attempt had failed, should he choose to come back to the office for any reason. Therefore, Osternak reasoned, he might as well use some of the time he had to tidy things up. But first, he went to his lab to collect the spare shirt, tan sweater, and pants that he kept there in case of chemical spills and other accidents-the same clothes that Osternak Two had been wearing, he had noticed with curiosity, but it now made sense-and then proceeded to the washroom to change, and to sponge the worst of the stains from the clothes he had been wearing. Then he bundled up the wet clothes, returned to his office, and stowed them in a cupboard for sending to the cleaners the next day. That ch.o.r.e taken care of, he spent the next hour righting the furniture, returning the books to their places, and picking up and sorting through the papers that had been scattered all over the floor. It was a shame about the broken clock and the figurine, he reflected ruefully as he put them back in their places. Then he sat down and poured himself a brandy-he had just been murdered, after all. That deserved some compensation.

Only then did he remember that he was supposed to be keeping an eye on the Gorfmann in Prandtl's room across the corridor. Muttering a reproach to himself for his forgetfulness, he went out of the office, pushed open Prandtl's door, and looked in. And his jaw dropped in shock and dismay.

The couch and the room were empty. There was no trace of Gorfmann to be seen.

White-faced, Osternak One ran back into his own office and called the transfer-chamber room on an internal line. The ringing tone seemed to go on interminably, while all the time he tried frantically to think of the most likely places that Gorfmann might have gone. But with a madman, who could tell? Then the ringing stopped and his own voice answered cautiously, "Yes?"

"I'm in our office. He's gone. Gorfmann has gone. He's loose somewhere."

"I was just coming back. I've finished on the camera here. I'll be over there right away." Osternak Two hung up.

The car! Gorfmann mustn't be allowed to get to his car-in his state he could cause a ma.s.sacre. He usually parked it in the executive area in front of the Keep, Osternak knew. The thing was to check if it was still there. He went back into the corridor and along to the accounts office at the front of the building, which overlooked the executive parking area. He turned on a light, crossed the room to a window, and peered down, shielding his eyes with a hand. Gorfmann's car was still down there. That was something at least. And then he remembered that Gorfmann couldn't use the car anyway, because Osternak Two had taken his keys when they put him in Prandtl's office. Silly of him to have forgotten. Where, then-Keys!

Gorfmann kept a spare set of keys in his desk!

Osternak ran out of the accounts office and up the stairs to the corridor where Gorfmann's office was situated. Sure enough, there was a shadowy figure at the far end. He started running toward it, expecting it to flee; it ran toward him, evidently expecting the same thing. It was the other Osternak, who, not surprisingly, had thought the same thing.

"His car's still there. I checked from the accounts office window," Osternak One panted.

"I know it is," Osternak Two replied. "So did I."

The door of Gorfmann's office was open, the light was on, and the top drawer of the desk had been pulled out. There were no keys in it.

"He must be on his way down. We have to try and catch him in the lobby," Osternak One cried. "You take the back stairs. I'll take the front." He rushed out again to the end of the building and scampered back down the front stairs. When he was almost down to ground level, he saw a figure in a topcoat and evening dress, its tie loosened, reeling drunkenly some distance away from him in the open lounge area outside the upper floor of the library. There could be no mistake this time. He started in that direction, and in the same instant Gorfmann saw him. "Rudi, stop," he called. But Gorfmann vanished down a side staircase. Osternak followed as fast as he could, but when he reached the bottom of the stairs, Gorfmann had gone. There were several directions he could have taken, but the two most probable, if he was going for his car, were either through to the lobby or out the library side door. Osternak picked the latter and followed the gravel path outside around a corner of the building to the parking area. Yes, there was a figure under the shrubs, near Gorfmann's car. Osternak started running toward it.

But instead of trying to escape, the figure stepped forward and called out, "Who are you? What do you want?"

Osternak halted in sudden confusion. It wasn't Gorfmann at all, in dinner dress, but somebody else in a black, single-piece garment that looked like a jump-suit. The last thing that Osternak wanted now was further complication. He turned and ran back around the corner and in through the side door. Inside, he vacillated over which way to go and finally went through to the lobby and down the pa.s.sage to the back door to check the compound.

As Osternak disappeared down the pa.s.sage from the lobby, the crazed figure of Gorfmann came out of another opening behind him, staggered across the lobby, fumbling with his car keys, and disappeared out the front door.

Out in the compound, Osternak One halted uncertainly. Gorfmann, in evening dress, was approaching from the gate that opened through from the general staff parking area. But he was behaving in a suddenly very different manner, walking jauntily and whistling to himself. And although his tie was untied, all of a sudden he didn't have a topcoat. Aware that something odd was going on, Osternak faded back into the shadows by the rear door of the Keep. And then another figure appeared at the gate behind Gorfmann.

"Hey, Rudi," it called. Gorfmann stopped and looked back. It was Hoetzer's voice. "You forgot your coat."

"Oh, silly of me." Gorfmann turned and retraced his steps to the gate.

And then it dawned on Osternak what was happening. This wasn't the Gorfmann he had been chasing at all, but the original one, back from Innsbruck. Osternak exhaled his breath slowly at the thought of the collision that had almost occurred, and let himself quietly back into the building. He walked quickly back along the pa.s.sage to the front lobby, and just as he got there a car engine started up outside. A moment later, he saw headlamps through the lobby windows, then Gorfmann's car backing out of its parking slot and roaring away. He ran toward the door, although the gesture was already futile, but then stopped dead as he was about to open it. The figure in the black jump-suit was still out there, standing in full view in the forecourt, now, looking up at the sky. Then the figure began crunching across the gravel toward the door. Osternak backed off and drew himself up into the darkness at the foot of the front stairs. The figure in the jump-suit came in through the door and then skidded on the tiles just inside the vestibule, almost falling over. Osternak heard him curse, and then watched him walk across to the pa.s.sage at the back and go into the men's washroom a short distance along.

No sooner had that door closed when the sound of another door opening came from the far end of the pa.s.sage, followed by footsteps approaching briskly. Osternak moved higher up the stairs, deeper into the darkness. It was the Gorfmann back from Innsbruck, no doubt going through to pick up his car. Hoetzer must have dropped him off in the general staff area for some reason instead of bringing him directly around to the front. Osternak was past trying to figure out what was happening now, or when, or with whom, or why. He waited in the stairway, totally bemused.

Gorfmann disappeared out through the front door. Osternak heard his footsteps come to a sudden halt outside on the gravel, then go stamping back and forth from one end of the parking area to the other.

Finally they came back to the entrance, and Gorfmann burst through, slamming the door behind him.

"What in h.e.l.l's going on?" Osternak heard him muttering aloud to himself. "Oh G.o.d, this is too much.

Not at a time like this, of all nights!" His voice faded away along the pa.s.sage. The sound came of the back door opening, closing again with a bang, and then all was quiet.

Osternak waited a while longer, but everything remained still. He turned and went slowly up to his office, thinking that perhaps his other self might have gone there, too. But he found it deserted. He went over to his desk, sat down, took the flask from the cabinet below his terminal, and poured himself another large, straight brandy. He sat there for a long time, trying to make sense of it all, but he was too tired.

Tomorrow he would write it all down. But for now . . . there was nothing more to be done for now. He replaced the flask, switched off the desk lamp, got up wearily, and walked over to the door. After one last look around and a final, baffled shake of his head, he turned out the light and walked the corridor to the front stairs. Just as he got there, a figure coming down the stairs fast almost ran into him. It was a Gorfmann. Osternak had no idea which one. He was wearing evening dress and a topcoat, but had his tie tied.

For a second Gorfmann just stood there, paralyzed with shock and looking as befuddled as Osternak felt. His eyes widened disbelievingly behind his spectacles, and his head shook protestingly. "It can't be,"

he whispered.

Suddenly the pieces fell together in Osternak's mind, and despite the circ.u.mstances he couldn't contain a thin smile. "Oh, but it can," he a.s.sured Gorfmann.

"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."

"Oh, but I can." Gorfmann drew out the gun. Osternak could have taken it, since it contained only blanks . . . but that would have spoiled everything.

As they walked away down the stairs, Osternak ahead and Gorfmann following a short distance behind with the gun, another figure who had been listening came down from the level above. He followed them at a safe distance across the compound and watched as they entered the transfer dome. He waited outside for a few minutes, and by the time he went inside, the control room was empty. He went over to the supervisory console, which had been activated, and read from the displays that the transfer countdown was just twenty seconds from zero. He moved quietly over to the door and peered around it into the transfer room just in time to see Gorfmann step into the chamber behind Osternak One and close the door. There was a brief humming noise, and then silence. Back in the control room the displays went through the posttransfer routine, and the system shut itself down.

Professor Osbert Osternak Two came back outside and stood looking around at the silhouettes of the Keep, the silent laboratory buildings, and the lights from the main gate area on the far side of the compound. He drew the set of Gorfmann's car keys from his pocket and stared at them for a long time, thinking to himself and wondering at the subtleties of the universe. Then he walked slowly back across the compound and into the Keep. Ten minutes later, wearing his overcoat and hat, he came out through the front entrance, climbed into his car, and left for home. It had been a long night in more ways than one.

He had been awake an extra six hours, and his body was beginning to feel it. Tomorrow, for once, he would sleep in late, he decided. Very late.

Inspector Wenkle made a sweeping motion with his hand over the papers spread out on the desk in Professor Osternak's office. "The thing that puzzles me, Professor, is that the dent.i.tion of the victim matches Dr. Gorfmann's records perfectly. Also, we found traces of unburned hair that also matched samples from a comb found in Gorfmann's desk."

Osternak returned a what-am-I-supposed-to-say-to-that look. "Surely you're not suggesting that it was Gorfmann in the car, Inspector? How could it have been? You said that you interviewed him yourself the day after the accident happened."

"Also, they both had surgical pins in the same knee."

"Lots of people have surgical pins."

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Mind, Machines and Evolution Part 25 summary

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