Lucifer's Last Laugh

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Chapter 28: The Spook’s Tale

JoeL and I check in with Baggie and Boola Boola. I compliment Baggie on his recent television sermons which have ringingly endorsed the outlandish precepts of Super Christianity. JoeL and I review their plan for assassinating President Presserwesser and, after insisting on a few minor changes, pronounce it acceptable.

“So exactly two weeks from today Presserwesser will go poof,” I say with satisfaction. “Also Vice President Snark and the entire cabinet.”

“And a gladsome good riddance to them,” says JoeL.

After a nychthemeron of tossing and turning over an especially lumpy anti-gravity space situated eight microns above my bed, I decide to confront my inner feelings regarding treason. But regrettably I cannot find them. So I consult my outer feelings. Also non-existent.

So, many oppugnations later, I decide to visit my favorite wizard. Name of KRYTNPLZ, pronounced krytnplz, emphasis on whatever syllable one prefers.

Kryt, as I call him for short, resides in a tasteful haut moderne palace on the outskirts of Hell. Lucifer, by the by, created wizards as a specialized set of devils to be consulted whenever we are perplexed.

As befitting a senior wizard, Kryt is very short with a beard that drapes to his hooves and a nose three times too large for his face.

“Loki,” he greets me genially, “haven’t seen you since that nasty dustup with Abonsam forty-five hundred years ago. Congratulations on your America assignment by the way. A more unpleasant bunch of humans I can scarcely imagine. I hope Father plans to annihilate them all.”

“As you know, Kryt, I cannot discuss Father’s plans with anyone, even you. I have come to consult you about a personal matter.”

“Have a seat.” Kryt gestures towards a comfortable looking McCobb armchair. “What’s up?”

“I need your advice about accessing my inner self.”

“Which one? There are twelve, you know.”

“I’m not sure. I suppose the one that contains forbidden desires.”

Kryt pulls on his beard thoughtfully. “Number nine, then, but you know we are diophysitic for a reason. Knowing our forbidden desires is strictly forbidden.”

“Yes, but I figure you might know a way around that.”

“I’ve only done it once before. With Huamantantac when he found himself unable to get the cormorants to flock. So the Paracas were running out of guano fast. Penetration into inner self nine resulted in his discovery that he was fundamentally anti-guano and, as you know, he has been completely useless ever since. I don’t want that to happen to you.”

“I understand and I know there is nothing I can do to induce you otherwise but I am concerned that my mission to America might be completely jeopardized if I don’t understand my deepest motives.”

“I would need to ask permission from Father.”

“He knows everything I think and feel, anyway.”

“Of course, but the question is does He want you to be able to do likewise.”

“Let’s ask him.”

After performing a mental proskynesis Kryt and I engage in a conference telecommunication with Lucifer who patiently hears us out.

“I can guarantee that if you do this, Loki, you won’t like what you find,” He says briskly. “But go ahead if you must.”

Kryt asks me to levitate over a leister and ponder pathenolatry.

Immediately I am plunged into a slough of despond where I discover that as much as I love and revere Father I also resent and hate Him. My desire to serve Him faithfully is counterweighted by my impulse to betray Him constantly. I am grateful that He created me but bitter that He imposed limitations upon me. I wish that I were He so I could punish me.

“Well?” inquires Kryt when my inner voyage has concluded.

“I feel much better now.”

Professor Oliver Barzun peers at me through thick gold-rimmed glasses. He is enormously fat with a face reminiscent of a ca de bou bulldog. Hardly the stereotype of a Nobel prizewinning physician, I reflect, but he is the world’s foremost authority on extending the human lifespan so I have come to consult him on your behalf, Margarita, to determine if there may be a way to keep you with me if Father refuses to grant you immortality. I have assumed the persona of a medical reporter for The New York Times interested in nothing so much as writing a resounding puff piece on the great man. Barzun is a Null Three but reading his mind is really not necessary. Afflicted with an enormous ego and uncommon parrhesia, what he says is unfortunately what he means.

As we stroll through the Institute of Chemistry and Cell Biology at Harvard Medical School, Barzun ushers me into various laboratories where he points proudly to assorted fuscous organisms squiggling around in tiny glass boxes.

“We all want to get out of this life alive,” he says, “Americans especially. We take the ‘life’ part of the Declaration of Independence guarantee quite literally.”

“But what are the chances of achieving human immortality anytime soon?”

“Soon? If you mean in the next twenty years. Negligible. But in the next one hundred, excellent. Following in the footsteps of my eminent predecessor, Dr. Aubrey De Grey, we have expanded his program, Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence, or SENS, into a truly groundbreaking program of biogentorology. As we like to say, it all makes perfect SENS.” Barzun’s chuckle sounds like the vagitus of a newborn child. “And we are making progress on all fronts. Take, for example, junk in the cell. We have found that hardening of the arteries, is caused by a kind of junk called lysosomes. So we have injected genes from soil bacteria into the lysosomes to produce enzymes that digest the stuff that causes atherosclerosis.”

“Wow! What made you think of that?”

“I observed that buried animal flesh shows no accumulation of lysosomic junk so soil bacteria had to be the cause,” Barzun says proudly. “Then there is junk outside the cell, extracellular fluid, which contains amyloid, always found in the brains of Alzheimer patients. Our team is working on a vaccine that would cause the immune system to eat amyloid. We are also working in the areas of reversing cell degeneration, getting rid of unwanted cells like fat cells that reduce the body’s response to insulin, chromosome mutations like cancer where we are seeking to eliminate the gene that makes telomerase which is what makes cancer cells cell immortal, mitochondrial mutations,

and protein cross-links outside the cell.”

Barzun’s self-confidence makes me want to indulge in a bit of atretic godwottery but I restrain myself.

“Have you considered the ethical implications of prolonging the human lifespan indefinitely?”

“Not really. I am a scientist, not a moralist.”

“But isn’t Americans’ pathological fear of death fundamentally unheroic? After all, heroes court death.” I fail to indicate in any way my utter contempt for heroes.

“Shows how stupid heroes are,” Barzun sneers. I dislike having to agree with the cur.

“And wasn’t it that old moralist Hubermas who once wrote that ‘at the heart of the American desire to wage endless war is the American fear of death’?”

“Meaning what, exactly?”

“That Americans are so obsessed with leading perfectly safe lives that relatively minor threats like terrorism panic them into all-out war.”

“So? What’s wrong with waging endless war? Somebody needs to scrub the bottom of the gene pool now and again.”

I decide not to engage Barzun in further debate, having learned what I needed to know, which is that deranged doctors like him will never be able to make you immortal. Father remains my almost certainly futile hope on that score.

The next day Asira and JoeL drag a handsome but well-worn looking man of about fifty into my palatial San Francisco home.

“This asshole insists on seeing you,” says JoeL.

“I really think you should hear what he has to say,” puts in Asira.

“You Thornhill?” asks the man.

I nod.

“Well, Mr. Thornhill, I have seen the future and it sucks.”

“Interesting, and why is it that you have come to me?”

The man sits down and runs his hands through thick, slightly graying hair.

“My name is Matt Scott and I’m from the future. I know, you don’t believe me but I think you may be my last hope.”

I ponder this communication briefly whilst consulting the scientific database that Lucifer has implanted in my eleventh cerebral cortex.

“You claim to be a time traveler?” The database has yielded this possibility, based on the equations of Kurt Gödel and something called tachyons.

“Yeah I’m from a little over thirty-five years in the future and, as I analyze it, everything somehow comes back to you.”

“How so?”

“According to the National Intelligence records you are the guy that alerted us to Teddy Teawater.”

“Yes, and?”

“Teddy really went nuts after Presserwesser won re-election. She exerted some kind of strange hold over him and his successors. Anyway, she has been murdering our veterans right and left, at least ten thousand so far, and the U.S. government has been aiding and abetting her.”

I am both surprised and skeptical. None of this fits into the plan that Father and I have so brilliantly devised.

“And she hasn’t just been waxing vets,” says Matt Scott, “ but anyone who got in her way, including Hank Himmler, that weird Dribble gal, and you.”

I am aghast. “She has harmed Special Agent Dribble?”

Matt Scott snorts. “Harmed her? She sliced and diced her and served her up for sushi. You she just got rid of by nuking Schenectady while you were in it.”

The remotest thought of noxiousness being visited upon you, my precious, my pleasure, my pearl, launches me into a fit of instant insanity.

“I don’t care about me,” I say, “but are you sure that Agent Dribble is dead or will be soon?”

“Look, I don’t expect you to believe me. It’s a pretty wild tale, after all. But hypnotize me, make sure I’m telling the truth and then maybe you can figure out a way to change things, even though I know that’s impossible. You can’t change the past, at least not according to the geniuses behind the Chronos Project.”

“Very well,” I say, knowing that hypnosis is unnecessary because Matt Scott is a Null Five, “let’s hear your story.”


When the Company doctor told me I would be dead in about six months, I laughed, loudly, longly, not quite uproariously, all the Special Forces training coming back to me: do the unexpected; it fucks over people’s minds, puts you in charge of the situation and, in general, makes life a lot more fun. The doc, whose name I don’t remember, tried hard not to look dumbfounded.

“You don’t believe me?” He had the nerve to sound affronted; I had dented his dignity.

“Sure I do. You’re an official, accredited CIA physician with an unswerving loyalty to the Hippocratic Oath.”

He looked at me with his version of a steady gaze. “This is not part of some larger game, Mr. Scott.”

I nodded. The news was beginning to sink in. A disease they didn’t even have a name for. Extremely rare. Extremely fatal. I would consult other doctors, of course, on the grounds that this guy could be a bozo or that the Agency might be using him for sinister ends known only to Deputy DCI’s and above, but I was pretty sure he was telling the truth. I had just turned thirty-five and wouldn’t make it to thirty-six. Maybe I should start smoking or stop running. Read War and Peace. Go to a Greek island. Fuck myself silly. Beat the shit out of Jason Ridley, my ex-wife Karen’s shiny new husband. Beat the shit out of my ex-wife. Leave all my worldly possessions to a foundation, the sole purpose of which would be to dispatch people periodically to beat the shit out of Jason and my ex-wife. I stood up, grinned at Dr. Spook, and left.

My office was a cubicle, indistinguishable from the hundreds of others at CIA Headquarters in Langley, Virginia. No windows. No charm. A workstation with room for me and one visitor. I dialed an inside line. Lou Grolz’s deep, unlovely voice answered. “Happy hour,” I said.

“Be right there.”

I stayed on the phone and made an appointment with an internist so rich that he was beyond CIA manipulation. Lou arrived. I hauled the bottle of Jack Daniel’s out of the lower right hand drawer of my desk and poured healthy shots into styrofoam cups.

“What’s the occasion, Matt?”

I leaned back in my chair and raised my cup. “Promotion.”

“Hey, that’s great. To what?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Seraphim. Cherubim. Whatever the big guy is short of.”

The register of Lou’s voice moved to dangerous depths. “Would you mind telling me what the fuck you are talking about?”

I shrugged. Lou was my closest friend in the Agency. A big, overweight man in his early forties, he had always wanted to be in Operations but could never meet the physical requirements. He envied my Clandestine Services background and couldn’t understand why I’d moved to the Analytical Branch. I had tried to explain to him that agent running and special operations were, at least ninety per cent of the time, boring, flat, stale, and unprofitable, that I liked the challenge of analysis and appreciated the illusory sense it gave me of understanding more of the so-called Big Picture. Lou and I both worked the Eastern European desk, although his field was economics and mine politics. From the first, we had recognized kindred spirits in one another, the willingness to go out on a limb, to write minority reports that disagreed with prevailing Agency opinion, to goad the bureaucrats we served into some semblance of thought. Outside of work, we got together for the occasional beer and he and his wife Lynn had seen me through the rough time after the divorce. A good friend. But should I tell him about my imminent demise? Should I burden him with the responsibility of ministering to the newly moribund me? At that point I made the decision not to tell anyone. I didn’t want to go through the next six months on the receiving end of pitying glances, false jocularity, or sentimental reminiscences. Not from Lou or anyone else. In intelligence jargon no one I could think of had a need to know.

“Forget it, Lou. There’s no promotion. I just felt like a drink. It’s been a hard week.”

Lou gave me a sympathetic look. “Karen, again?”

“Yeah. I thought I was getting used to it but once in a while I get a bad case of the blues.” This wasn’t strictly true. I didn’t think about Karen all that much anymore and, when I did, it was more with anger than sadness.

“Fuck it,” Lou said decisively, “and while you’re at it, a little more JD if you please. Not so much styrofoam this time.”

We almost got drunk, but decided we didn’t want to embarrass the security guards.

The next two weeks were a blur of bureaucratic routine punctuated with messages from the medical fraternity confirming the fact that I was indeed a dying man. In the long tradition of naming the unnameable, one immunologist informed me that my condition was the result of a VUO, a virus of unknown origin. I don’t remember his name either but I recall silently christening him an asshole of unknown origin. The facts remained the same. Time left, about six months. Symptoms, nothing much until the last month or so, when I would begin experiencing a low-grade fever followed by a high grade fever followed by coma followed by ’bye-’bye. I drank a little more than usual, which is to say I drank a lot and, in general, failed to come to any profound conclusions about the meaning of it all. I stopped seeing two women I’d been dating, avoided Lou and Lynn, listened to old Kingston Trio records, threw out my Wagner tapes, bought a copy of War and Peace, and paged through travel brochures.

It is difficult to characterize my mood during this time. I wasn’t depressed or angry. I wasn’t filled with the false elation that is said to accompany intimations of mortality. I suppose I was mostly numb and intermittently puzzled. I was used to isolation, of course. My parents were long dead. No brothers or sisters. No close friends, except for the Grolzes. No wife. But somehow knowing that you are dying gives new meaning to a lot of words, isolation among them. I began to realize that I had always been alone, that the intimacy between Karen and me had been a sham, making more understandable the alacrity with which, given the first opportunity, she dumped me. Such self-awareness as I acquired gave me no consolation. It was little more than a preliminary summing-up, an account of the debits and credits of a life that could have been lived better. Since there was no time to make amends, I concluded that further self-examination was pointless. I would die as I had lived, ignorant and alone.

When Malcolm Frazier called, I figured that the Agency had decided to put me on medical leave. Although I hardly ever saw him, Frazier was my boss, an amiable nonentity who communicated largely by memo and innuendo. CIA medical staff had no doubt informed him of my illness as, indeed, they were required to do. I would have preferred to stay on the job but I knew that bureaucracies didn’t operate that way. If you were sick you went on leave; all this according to Section 8, paragraph B or whatever the appropriate regulation was. Frazier asked me to be in his office at three that afternoon and so I came, appreciated the abstracts hanging in the receptionists’ cubicle, leafed through a copy of People Magazine and, in general, felt exactly as if I were visiting my dentist.

“Matt, come on in.” Frazier shook my hand and ushered me into his office, which was approximately twenty times bigger than my cubicle. He gestured for me to sit on the couch while he took a chair opposite. I wondered briefly why every executive followed the advice outlined in management seminars, the kind of advice that said you should get out from behind your desk and sit at the same level as your visitors so you did not intimidate them with your power and prestige. Frazier didn’t intimidate me anyway. He was a chubby man of medium height with a sallow complexion and washed-out gray eyes. I had never heard an original phrase issue from his mouth and I didn’t expect today to be any different.

“I won’t go into the medical thing, Matt, except to say that I’m sorry. We all are.” Another thing Frazier had learned from management seminars was that it made people feel good if you repeated their first names at every opportunity. “You probably think, Matt, that I asked you here to talk about disability leave and all that.” He paused, evidently expecting me to say something. When I didn’t, he smiled, patted my knee reassuringly and continued in his bland monotone. “The fact is that you’re needed for a special assignment.” How, his tone seemed to imply, could I resist asking him what he was talking about? Why didn’t I look eager, pleased, gung-ho or even vaguely curious? Frazier scratched his chin and his smile faded. “This is an assignment, Matt, that is so special they won’t even tell me about it.” His face wore an expression of wonderment, as if his being cut out of the loop was so unprecedented that it deserved a moment of silent prayer. “It’s not Agency, at least not directly. If you’re interested, you’re supposed to talk with someone named Michael Workman over in Fort Dietrick.” Although I hadn’t said anything or even changed expression, Frazier held up his hands. “I know what you’re thinking, Matt. Fort Dietrick. USAMRIID (The United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases). Medical experiments. The only thing I’m authorized to tell you, in fact, the only thing they told me, was that this had nothing to do with anything like that.” Which, of course, was exactly what they would say, whether true or not. I thought back over the experiments conducted by the CIA, the Army, and the Navy in the past. Nerve gas, toxins released in New York and San Francisco, hallucinogens injected into unsuspecting civilians. What did I care? If I were to be the guinea pig, that is. Unless it involved pain.

“How do I get in touch with Workman?”

“He’s expecting you this evening. Six o’clock.” Frazier handed me a piece of paper on which was typed a residential address in Silver Springs. I pocketed the paper and stood up. Frazier grabbed my hand again and pumped it vigorously. “Good luck, Matt.” I nodded and left, hoping never to see Malcolm Frazier again.

In that respect, at least, my hopes were fulfilled.

Workman’s house was set back from the street, built within the last few years, but intended to look Colonial, expensive imported shade trees gracing the lawn as if to signal the fact that the owner did not need to be concerned about money.

“Matthew Scott?” Workman was in his early fifties, a handsome man with hair just beginning to turn gray, and an erect way of carrying himself that suggested a military background. He ushered me into the living room, large and high-ceilinged with comfortable, expensive-looking furniture and a profusion of potted plants.

“Drink?”

“Bourbon, please. Neat.”

“Jack Daniel’s OK?”

I nodded. Workman had no doubt read my personnel file. If he offered me dinner, I was sure I’d be served all my favorite foods. He fussed with the drinks a little longer than was strictly necessary and, once we were seated, raised his glass in a silent toast.

“I’ll get right to the point, Mr. Scott.”

“Matt.”

“I’m directing a project that only the President, the Secretary of Defense, the National Security Advisor, and the people working directly for me know about. Even if you decide not to join us, which I hope will not be the case, nothing we say here tonight goes beyond this room.”

“Understood.”

“We know about your illness, of course, but I want to emphasize that we were planning to offer you this assignment before you were diagnosed as terminal.” At least he didn’t mince words.

“I gather this is a short-term project.” Once again, I grinned my Special Forces grin. Workman gave me an odd look, then smiled.

“Sort of. But let me explain. You have a Master’s in History from Georgetown, five years of operational experience with the CIA, plus three more as an analyst. You have a reputation as a maverick who looks at things in an original way and sticks to your guns when your superiors don’t necessarily agree with you. These are all qualities we need. The fact that you are dying means only one thing to me: more motivation to take the job.”

“My last hurrah? I don’t mean to disillusion you but right now I find it difficult to work up much motivation even to piss, let alone spend the little time remaining to me working on this mysterious project of yours.”

Workman reached for my glass. “Another drink?” I felt a little woozy from the first one, which was odd, considering the rate at which I had been slugging bourbon down lately, but I didn’t refuse. Workman watched as I emptied half the glass in a heroic swallow. I immediately felt about ten times woozier.

“You son of a bitch.”

“It’s OK. Just sit back for a minute and the dizziness will go away.”

Since I could hardly move anyway, I didn’t have much choice except to follow his advice, cursing myself silently for being taken in by the oldest trick in the book, the drugged drink. As Workman had promised though, I began to feel better almost instantly. The room came back into focus, seeming somehow subtly changed, a plant or two out of place, the curtains drawn when before they’d been open, the painting over the mantelpiece tipped slightly to the right instead of hanging absolutely straight. Aside from such minor details, there was one major difference. Workman was holding a gun, a nine millimeter Walther PPK, and he was pointing it at my chest.

“Just a precaution while I tell you what this is all about. No point in having you lose your temper unnecessarily.”

“I see what you mean. I can’t wait for you do something that would really piss me off.”

Workman held the gun steady. “Matt, I’m offering you something that you really won’t want to turn down. Did you notice the differences in this room?”

“A few of them. I haven’t had a chance yet to do a thorough inventory. How long was I out? An hour or two?”

He shook his head. “You weren’t out at all. This isn’t an hour later, or even a second later. In fact, it’s approximately five years earlier.”

I stared at him and then began laughing. “You’re really nuts, Workman. You and the President and the Secretary of Defense and the fucking National Security Advisor. Now why don’t you put that gun away, I’ll call 911 and try to get you the help you really need.”

“You and I are in what, for want of a better word, we call an anteroom,” Workman said in a flat voice, “a room located in the past but, to all intents and purposes, out of time altogether.” He leaned forward, not forgetting to keep the gun trained on me, excitement in his voice now. “Don’t you see what I’m saying. Outside of time. That means you could stay here forever. You would never die. Do you see what I’m offering you? Nothing less than immortality.”

My head was clear now, not even a slight taste of Jack Daniel’s remaining in my mouth.

“Maybe I’m a little slow these days but so far you’re not making much sense.”

“Your disease can only progress in present time, your time. As long as you remain in the past, you can’t die.”

“Good. Then you won’t mind if I take that gun away from you and wrap it around your head. A few slugs won’t bother me. Right?”

“Wrong. I should have said that you can’t die from your VUO or from old age or any other natural cause. You can, of course, be killed.”

“Of course. I should have known there’d be a catch.”

“If you’ll can the sarcasm for a minute, I’ll explain. Here.” He handed me the Walther. It was so light I didn’t even need to verify that it wasn’t loaded.

“I’m listening.”

“For quite a while now (notice that I avoid specific time references which, in this context, are meaningless) we have been experimenting with time travel. By we I mean the team that I direct which consists of physicists, historians, national security specialists, technicians of all kinds. A discovery was made, it doesn’t matter by whom or when, that there are various entryways into the past, time portals we call them. Our initial experiments focused on sending inanimate objects back in time. We found that it was impossible to transmit any man-made object beyond the point of its original manufacture. The Walther PPK you now have in your hand, for example, was manufactured in 1966. If this anteroom existed prior to 1966, it could not be here. We assume that this represents a certain logic in the space-time continuum that would prevent the introduction of inappropriate technology into the past. No bringing of Uzis to the Battle of Agincourt, for instance. Living things, on the other hand, follow a completely different logic. You cannot introduce them into a past that is coincident with their own lifetime. So you, for example, could not visit any part of the past within the past thirty-five years.”

“But you said that right now this anteroom, as you call it, is five years in the past.”

“That was for illustrative purposes. I also said it was outside of time. Without getting too complicated, let’s just say that you cannot leave this room and enter into the events that surround us. Nor can I. It is simply physically impossible. And no one from the outside can enter this room. Access is only possible from our present five years from now or from the past.” Workman took a deep breath and seemed to relax a bit. “How about a real drink? No drugs this time.”

“If you’ll make it a double.” So far I figured that my initial hypothesis had been correct. Workman was nuts. I would let him play out his harmless little fantasy for a while and then I would leave and go somewhere where I could die in peace without lunatics disturbing my final days.

“To continue, once we began sending back living things we noticed that they underwent no physiological changes. A drosophila, a fruit fly, could live several thousand times its normal life span in the past. The same is true of any organism, any animal. The reason we know that organisms can be killed is because several came back dead, eliminated by natural predators, not by disease or old age. In any event, we’ve learned enough to take the logical next step, which is to send a human being into the past.”

“And that would be lucky old me.”

“You have the characteristics we need. The right age. Thirty-five is not so old or so young that you would stand out at any time in the past. Right size, not too large or too small. Your training and background indicate that you can take care of yourself without any fancy modern weaponry. You know how to approach a situation intelligently and analytically. Your education is an adequate beginning. Our specialists can fill in the necessary background. Don’t flatter yourself that you’re our only candidate but, all things considered, we’d just as soon start with you.”

“Fine. Now maybe you could give me one good reason why I should believe anything that you’ve said, why I should risk putting myself into the hands of a certifiable head case like you?”

Workman laughed. “Let’s put it another way. What have you got to lose?”

I thought about that for a minute, then shrugged.

“Since you put it that way, you silver-tongued son of a bitch. . . .”


Mike Workman proved to be a pleasant but indefatigable taskmaster. Once I had signed onto the project, codenamed Chronos, he set me to work on time travel paradoxes, many culled from science fiction, others, based on what his researchers had learned thus far. Some classic scenarios didn’t pertain. I couldn’t go back in time, kill myself as a child, thus creating the paradox of not having lived long enough to go back in time and kill myself. Why? Because I couldn’t visit a time in which I had been alive. In theory, I could, however, prevent my parents from meeting or my grandparents, etc. because any time prior to my birth (or perhaps conception, no one was quite sure yet) was open to my time traveling and would result in the same paradox. This, of course, was part of the larger question: could I change an event in the past, subsequently altering the course of history? Suppose, for example, I successfully assassinated Hitler in 1923, right before the Beer Hall Putsch? Or in 1938, 1941, or even 1944? In 1923, presumably I would have eliminated the nascent Nazi Party’s most charismatic leader, probably resulting in the elimination of Naziism as a serious political movement in Germany. The Weimar Republic could have survived. World War II, at least in Europe, might have been averted. Eleven million people, six million of them Jews, would not have been exterminated in the Nazi death camps. Without the pressure of the War, the atomic bomb would not have been developed, at least not by 1945; there would have been no Cold War (since no Hot War would have preceded it). Eisenhower, a mere Lieutenant Colonel in 1940, would not have become a national hero and thus would not have been elected President. Churchill, without a Nazi menace to rail against, would not have been Prime Minister of Britain, and so on. Aside from the death camp slaughters, millions of people, combatants and noncombatants alike, would not have perished; millions of others would not have been maimed, wounded, or emotionally scarred. All in all, a positive result. But the present would be altered unrecognizably. Millions who had died would have lived and had children, grandchildren and great grandchildren. Millions of others would not have been born because, in the absence of the movements back and forth of individuals and whole populations caused by World War II, their ancestors would never have met. Lee Harvey Oswald might very well not have been born, could therefore not have assassinated John F. Kennedy, who probably would not have been President anyway. Even more unsettling, the assassination of Hitler, while on the surface a good and humanitarian thing to have done, might have unleashed a series of consequences even worse than what did happen. Someone as charismatic, but more rational than he, could have become the Nazi leader, leading to an eventual triumph of the Third Reich and all the attendant miseries that would entail. Alternatively, with a weak Germany and a collapsing capitalist economy, Stalin might have made a successful move for world conquest. The obvious solution, to go back in time and assassinate Stalin as well, leads to a whole other universe of unintended and, indeed, unimaginable, consequences. If Stalin, why not Lenin? If Lenin, why not Kaiser Wilhelm? Or Karl Marx? Or Napoleon, Caesar, and Alexander? In short, any attempt to redress the obvious wrongs of the past would lead to an altogether different present, perhaps better, perhaps worse, perhaps non-existent, but without doubt different. The same would hold true for less spectacular interventions, preventing the marriage, say, of two serfs on a medieval fief, two people of whom there is now no record of their having ever existed. A small thing, it would seem, but given the hundred or so generations from their time to the present, the thousands upon thousands of their descendants who would never have lived, the changes to the present would, once again, be unimaginable. Any change, however small, to the past would necessarily set in motion an unpredictable and irremediable series of events, leading to the almost mathematically certain probability that those who instituted the change would either not exist or would be in no position to do so; hence, the change could not be made. This fundamental paradox had often been used as a seemingly irrefutable argument against time travel. But if Workman was not deluded, time travel was possible. This meant one of two things. Either the past was unchangeable, e.g., no matter how many times we tried it, Hitler could not be assassinated or every possible variation of past events is expressed in an infinite number of parallel worlds; i.e., everything that could have happened has happened.

Personally, I liked the parallel worlds hypothesis but Workman dismissed it with Occam’s Razor. “It is far more logical to assume,” he said in his most pontifical professorial manner, “that there exists a single unchangeable past than that there are an infinite number of equally real alternative pasts. We use the term infinite so frequently that we fail to reflect on its meaning. Infinite really does mean infinite, you know.”

So we went to work. I culled databases, fiddled around with time travel paradoxes, smoked six packs of cigarettes a day and underwent a series of mental tests that left me drained and weary.

“I gotta get out of here,” I said, “or I will die before my allotted time.”

“OK,” said Workman, “we will send you thirty-five years and change into the past. See how that works.”

“What am I supposed to do once I get there?”

Workman removed a large green file folder from the top of his desk and handed it to me. The plastic tab on the folder read “Roger O. Thornhill.”

“Who he?” I ask.

Workman stands at his office window, hands shoved in his pants pockets and looks out over the antiseptic grounds of Fort Dietrick.

“I assume you remember reading about the Presserwesser administration in school?”

“Sure. It was a pivotal point in American history, what with Presserwesser declaring war on every country except Iceland and making Super Christianity the state religion, after he managed to ram through the 31st Amendment abolishing the separation between church and state.”

“And you have heard about Theodora Teawater?”

“Teddy? Everyone’s favorite Washington hostess? Didn’t she first come to prominence during the last year of the first Presserwesser administration?”

“Yes, and she’s still going strong. Doesn’t seem to have aged a day. What you don’t know, because only a handful of people in National Intelligence know this, is that Teddy Teawater is a mass murderer.”

I was flabbergasted. Teddy Teawater was a kind of national icon, a close friend of all the presidents over the past thirty odd years beginning with Presserwesser. Rumored to be the most influential person in the country, despite never having held an official government post, she was beautiful and charismatic. The press loved her because she was always ready with a quotable quip.

Workman noted my surprise. “We don’t know exactly why but for years she has been murdering American combat veterans. We’re not sure how many because she is extremely clever but it runs into the thousands.”

“Then why the hell hasn’t she been arrested?”

“Oh, she is very well protected. Not just by the presidents but by officials at every level of government.”

“Why don’t you just send me back to kill her before this crazy murder spree got started?”

Workman sighed. “Believe me we’d love to. But remember, we can’t change the past. At least we don’t think we can. But we can do something about the future so the more we know about how Teddy Teawater came to prominence the better able we will be to deal with her. Obviously this is a clandestine operation, secret from the president and his people as well as from Teddy’s allies in National Intelligence. There are just five of us, not including you, who know about our plan to topple Ms. Teawater. We call ourselves ‘The Devil’s Own.’”

“So what’s with this Thornhill character?”

Workman turns and smiles sardonically. “That’s just it. We don’t know. Thornhill was a mysterious figure, an MI-5 operative, who helped with the initial investigation into the very first murders that Teddy committed. But just after he tracked her down he was blown up in the Schenectady Incident. And then, one by one, the other people involved in the investigation, Special Agent Margaret Dribble and Deputy Chief of CIA Ops Sidney Reilly, were mysteriously murdered, along with a San Francisco police detective named Shank. Also, the then Director of National Intelligence, Hank Himmler, died under suspicious circumstances. But we have reason to believe that Thornhill was onto something about Teddy that the others weren’t.”

“So you want me to put him under surveillance.”

“Yes, and we’ve worked out a method that should enable you to do that without the slightest chance of his detecting you. Remember the anteroom? How it is outside time?”

“How can I forget?”

“Well, we will send you into the past but it will be a past that is exactly one microsecond ahead of the actual past. You will be invisible to people in that time but you can watch them from a microsecond in their future. You won’t be able to interact with them nor they with you but that’s a good thing because you won’t be able to change anything they do and they won’t be in a position to do anything to you, like kill you.”

“Sounds boring.” I have always hated surveillance. Eating fast foods and peeing into a wide-necked jar while at the same time trying to stay alert.

“I doubt it. Everything in our files on Thornhill indicates that he was not a boring guy.” Workman gestured at the green file folder. “Read that and be ready to go by 0800 tomorrow morning.”

“Yes, sir.”

Thornhill’s file was not very revealing. Supposedly an MI-5 agent (although in his accompanying commentary, Sidney Reilly expressed some doubts about this) he was the author of a best-selling book on Hitler who had been involved in both the search for the terrorist Boola Boola Shakhur and the suspected murderer Teddy Teawater. Just before he went to Schenectady to confront Shakhur, witnesses claimed he had handed Reilly a computer disk, supposedly containing info he wanted transmitted to Agent Dribble. But the following day, Reilly himself was incinerated and Teddy Teawater dismembered Dribble so no one ever found out what was on that disk.

The next morning Workman looked on as the techs strapped me into the complicated-looking Chronos machinery (resembling somewhat the engine of a 1957 Citroen) and proceeded to zap me back thirty-five point seven years.

I found myself in San Francisco just outside the Russian Hill mansion that according to his file Thornhill had leased during his stay in the U.S. Ringing the doorbell was a gorgeous woman whom I recognized from her photo as Agent Margaret Dribble. Noting that the microsecond interval seemed to be working, I followed Dribble into the mansion where she encountered a smiling Thornhill. He was a big brute who looked like a composite of Rock Hudson, Robert Taylor, Tyrone Power and James Garner and sounded like a bad imitation of Cary Grant...

I interrupt at this point. “Scott, I am right here. You can address me directly.” Meanwhile I telemessage Melchom, alerting him to the microsecond interval surveillance technique so that he and Father can figure out a way to get around it in the future.

Matt Scott awakens from his trance.

“Oh yeah, Thornhill. Where was I?”

“Just beginning your spying on me.”

He shakes his head groggily. “I never knew what to make of you. I mean I tried to follow you around but every so often you would just disappear. And once in a while this guy,” he indicates Asira, “and a couple of other suits would show up out of nowhere and you would all talk in a language I didn’t understand. So I ended up spending most of my time following Agent Dribble instead.”

“And what did you find out about her?”

“Kind of a weird chick. She talked a lot on a secure phone with Sidney Reilly and occasionally Hank Himmler, updating them on the Shakhur and Teawater investigations and expressing her doubts about you, whether you were on the up and up and then she would sack out in her crappy little motel room on Lombard and spend hours gazing at surveillance photos of you, sighing and caressing herself.”

This is promising information, I tell myself. So you, dearest Margarita, are not as immune to my charms as I thought.

“So what did you find out that would have helped in forestalling Teddy Teawater’s murderous rampage?”

“Pretty much nothing that I didn’t already know from the files. I mean I knew how you finally caught up with Teddy and everything that happened right through the Schenectady Incident and immediately afterwards.”

“So tell me about that.”

“Hey,” Scott says truculently. This is my story and I will tell it the way I want to. So after a couple of weeks of what I considered wasted time, I activated the Chronos return mechanism.

“But something screws up and I don’t go forward to my own time. Instead I go thirty five point seven years beyond my time and intersect with the mind of a future Chronos explorer, Solomon J. Mohammed, and experience his tale, which I’m now going to relate to you.”

I interrupt him in fine fury. “I don’t give a shit about Solomon’s tale, I want to know about Teddy Teawater and Margaret Dribble and. . .”

“Tough,” says Matt Scott. “You’re gonna hear Solomon’s tale first.”

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