A few revisions needed to bring this story up to date, and I think you’ll soon see the reason why. About 120 pages typed so not especially short, and perhaps worth a fresh spot of tea. Enjoy.
(The Hollies \\ On A Carousel)
The Deep End of Your Dreams
I never think of the future. It comes soon enough.
17 April, 1912
She stood at the rail, looking down into the sea.
New York lay somewhere ahead, not quite another day ahead, and now the ship of dreams lay somewhere down there, down there in the belly of the beast. Dead and gone now for a day, gone to a past drifting from her reach. Her father was, she assumed, still aboard, still down there in the darkness. Waiting for her, she just had to think.
She was alone now. Seven years old and all alone in the world. And yet, for some reason she was not frightened. Maybe because little things like death had never bothered her. How do you fear that which you do not know? How do you see past the moment when the moment never passes?
No, her ship of dreams had grazed ice and then the sea had risen up and taken everything she thought she understood – and only then did the moment pass. Only then did time exceed her reach. And now that the moment had passed she looked around at her new world and what she thought she saw only frightened her. Everything was gone, her father chief among those things – and she had watched it all slip beneath the sea. Gone, everything she had ever known slipped away, disappeared in an instant as the ship pointed to the heavens before she broke in half and just slipped away. Nothing remained but the panic of getting to the boats, of the voices calling out in the misty night and how they had slowly grown silent. And maybe she listened to her father’s voice calling out, but she would never know. Maybe then, as the moment finally passed and time began for her, maybe she finally understood her father wasn’t going to be by her side.
She’d watched him standing behind that other rail, their eyes locked-on one another’s as the distance between them grew ever wider, and she’d tried to follow him as he moved aft – as the great ship settled by the bow. Amidst all the moaning and tears of the women around her, she’d watched in silence as the Titanic began her final journey, yet even then she’d turned inward, tried to cling to the moment, tried to keep time standing still.
Adrift in a lifeboat watching the black eye of the sea she settled on the reflection of a star overhead. ‘Nothing lasts,’ she heard, and then she realized the star sing was singing to her.
‘Nothing lasts forever.’
‘Not even love.’
“Not even love,” she said to the black water now – far below and racing from the moment.
“What was that you said?” she heard a man ask, and she turned to look but was afraid to look into a star.
She shrugged at the voice but she didn’t know what to say.
“Are you alone, child?” a kindly old man asked. He seemed short and fat, but then she realized it was his topcoat. Yet as she stared at the man’s face she smiled, for she had never seen such a colossal mustache in her life and the man looked like a blubbery walrus.
She nodded to his question, and she tried not to laugh.
“Marie! Come here this instant!”
A maid of some sort scurried to the old man’s side. “Sir?”
“Find Mrs Wilkinson, would you? And bring a blanket from our stateroom.”
“Yes, sir,” the cowed girl said, before curtsying and scurrying away.
The old man turned back to the little girl, his face now a contorted grimace of concern. “Were your parents aboard the Titanic?”
She nodded her head again. “My father was.”
“Where’s your mother?”
“She died, two years ago.”
“You have no other family?”
She shook her head.
“Well, confound it all,” the old man said, his eyes watering. “What’s to become of you?”
That did it. Something inside her broke and she started to cry – and the sight tore into the old man like nothing he’d ever experienced before. He knelt and held on to her as if she was his own daughter…and he did so until Marie, the maid, returned with a blanket.
“The Missus will be here shortly, sir,” the girl said, frowning at the sight of the old man down on his knees like that. It was all, she thought, just so – undignified!
And when Emily Wilkinson twaddled up, blathering on about the chill in the air, Rupert Wilkinson stood and turned to his wife: “See here, Emily…it’s April, and this is the North Atlantic. It’s supposed to be chilly out here!”
“This is not chilly, Rupert. It’s positively arctic and what are you doing on your knees!”
“Blast you, woman!” he said, pointing off the starboard rail. “That’s Long Island over there, not the North Pole! Pull yourself together, woman!”
And so, of course, Emily huffed up. “You wanted to see me about something?”
So Rupert huffed up too. “Yes. This girl is off the Titanic and she’s all alone. I mean, all alone in the world. What are we going to do about that?”
The old woman looked at the girl – and then her heart melted too. “Oh, you poor dear,” she said, then one eyebrow arched up and she looked at her husband of thirty years. “And just what do you have in mind now, Rupert Wilkinson?”
“If she’s alone is it not our duty to help.”
“OUR duty? How did you come to THAT conclusion?”
“Do you see anyone stepping forward to help the girl right now?”
“Surely there will be someone for her in New York?” Emily said, her voice on edge now. She was used to her husband’s larkish misadventures, but this was altogether something else again. “Darling, what’s your name?”
“Claire. Claire Aubuchon.”
“Are you from France?” Rupert asked.
Claire shook her head. “No, but Daddy worked there.”
“And what did your father do?”
“I don’t know exactly, but he worked in the embassy. We live so close he can walk.”
“Well, I know Phil Knox, so we’ll get to the bottom of this in short order.”
“Who’s Phil Knox?” Emily asked.
“He’s the Secretary of State,” Claire replied, though her chiding tone was perhaps a little condescending.
“He sure is,” Rupert said, and not a little impressed. “And do you know what your father did in Paris?”
“No, not exactly,” Claire said. “It was a secret.”
“Oh, indeed,” Rupert sighed, “I see. Well, we need to find you some new clothes. Emily? Would you and Marie be so kind as to take Miss Claire to the dressmaker’s? Perhaps they could find something more becoming for her arrival? I think I’ll head up to the wireless office, see if I have any new messages…”
After a night at the Waldorf, the Wilkinson entourage boarded the Pennsylvania Railroad’s Fast Express – after receiving assurances from Cunard that they would indeed have space on the Lusitania’s next sailing for Cherbourg. And Rupert had decided to carry little Claire to Washington, if only to guarantee her well-being while he sorted things out.
Claire had reverted to type in the absence of her father; she had, in other words, pulled out a book and opened it to the page where she had last left off, and Rupert watched her every movement now, fascinated by the little creature’s intellectual dexterity. At times she appeared listlessly dull and flat, but then he would watch her eyes. They were full of curiosity, sweeping here and there and always taking everything in, and as he’d seen her reading last night he wondered what interested her.
“I don’t recognize that script,” he said, looking at the book’s cover. “What are you reading.”
“It’s called Resurrection. It’s in Russian.”
“You read Russian?”
“English, too, I assume? Anything else?”
“French and German. I learned French first.”
“You can read all those languages?”
She nodded her head as she looked up from the book. “My father could read and write seven languages, but he didn’t count Latin.”
“Oh? Can you speak Latin?”
“Of course. But not as well as my Father.”
“That book there…? Who’s it by?”
“I’m not sure I know the man. Is he famous?”
“I think so.”
“Well, don’t let me disturb you,” Rupert said, and when her eyes dropped back to the book he looked to Emily – who had watched the exchange with something approaching pure wonder in her eyes.
Emily had been to college and studied literature – though that had been decades ago – yet she grasped that the girl’s intellect must be truly staggering, if, that is, she wasn’t simply exaggerating. Watching her now, the girl turned a page, on average, in less than twenty seconds – which was shocking enough for a seven year old – but she was reading in Tolstoy’s native language, not her own.
“Claire,” she asked, hating to interrupt her again, “I’ve not read that work. What’s it about?”
“About man’s search for redemption, though, from what I can tell so far, most of the events are allegorical in nature.”
“Allegorical? For what?”
“Political and social injustice, the nature of corruption.”
“Do those things mean anything to you?”
Emily smiled, though she was now shocked beyond belief. “Did you and your father read a lot, together?”
“And what about your mother? What did she do?”
“She taught music, but she wrote music all the time, too.”
“Oh? What kind of music?”
“Symphonies, though she wrote chamber music too.”
“What about you? Do you play?”
Claire nodded her head again. “The piano, and I’m learning the violin.”
“Do you write music, as well?”
Emily looked at her husband, her eyes taking in his apparent shock, then she looked at the girl again. “Claire? Would you like to live with Rupert and myself?”
The girl studied them both for a moment, then shrugged. “I don’t know you. I think the better question might be, do you want me to live with you? And even then I’d want to know why?”
“To take care of you,” Rupert said.
“To help you with your reading and music,” Emily added. “Would that interest you?”
“Would I have any brothers or sisters?”
“Both, but they are all already on their own, so you wouldn’t live with them in the usual sense.”
“Where would I live?”
“In Philadelphia,” Rupert replied. “I manage a law firm there, but I travel a lot. Would that interest you?”
“What? Travel, or to live in Philadelphia?”
“Both, I suppose.”
She closed the book and folded her hands on her lap, then she looked out the window into the passing landscape. A long sigh slipped from her lips, but she saw Rupert’s expression in the reflection as she watched his movements inside the glass, and she saw the man’s eyes were full of hope.
“I think I would miss Paris,” she said at last.
“We have a small villa outside of Paris,” Emily said hopefully. “That’s where we were going when…”
Claire smiled. “Oh? Where?”
“Near Chartres,” Rupert said. “Have you been to the cathedral there?”
She nodded her head carelessly, like the question was beneath contempt.
“What did you think of it?”
“I like the vaulting behind the altar. It’s like the web of creation came to life.”
He nodded. “We are going to retire there soon, in two more years. Would you like to live there?”
“Yes. Could I still go to Paris?”
“Yes, of course. As often as you like.”
“But for the next two years I’d live in Philadelphia?”
“That’s right. But who knows, you might enjoy that too. In fact, we’ll be stopping in Philadelphia in just a few minutes. We’re already in the north part of the city right now…”
Claire looked out the window for the next several minutes, clearly unimpressed as mile after mile of dowdy, red brick buildings slipped by. “Will we be able to see Independence Hall from the train?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“I’d like to see that. My father took me to the house where Thomas Jefferson lived when he was ambassador to France. He told me how much Jefferson shaped the French Revolution.”
“Did he? And what did you think of that?”
“I would have liked to know Jefferson.”
“So would I.”
She turned and looked at the old man again, nodding her head as she thought things through. “Are we going to talk to Secretary Knox? About me?”
“And you want me to live with you?”
“Yes, if you think you’d like that.”
She closed her eyes, nodded her head once again, then resumed looking out the window – wondering about life and what waited ahead.
She walked up the boarding ramp to the Lusitania’s promenade deck, following Rupert now, and she had to admit she liked the burly, grandfatherly ways of the fat old man. She reminded him of Tolstoy’s Count Ilya Rostov, the compassionately careless patriarch in War and Peace, and that wasn’t an altogether bad thing to be, she told herself, as long as wealth wasn’t too important. She’d read enough about money to understand the implications of being poor, yet she’d read enough to understand that money could be a poison, too. Rupert seemed wealthy – yet kind of careless, too – like Count Ilya.
She followed him and was surprised to find she had her own stateroom, and that Emily had arranged to have a piano placed in sitting area. She assumed she’d have to play for them, and that bothered her a little – yet she had to admit she’d missed playing since she and her father left Paris.
She’d enjoyed Washington, the cherry blossoms along the Potomac most of all, and her few hours in the Secretary’s office – in Foggy Bottom, as Rupert called it – had been pleasant enough. Once she told Secretary Know she’d be happy to live with the Wilkinsons things had sailed along smoothly enough, though after Rupert said he’d handle all the paperwork she’d felt a little like a puppy.
Yet their brief return to Philadelphia had been promising. Emily had taken her to one bookstore after another, and now she had, literally, a steamer trunk full of unread books to fill the days ahead, and all sorts of new clothes, too. Her father had never attached much importance to such things, so she’d watched Emily as she was lead from one store to the next, the old woman going on and on about which designers were promising and which were doddering incompetents, and at times she wondered about the woman’s sanity.
Another maid had been engaged, a younger girl, perhaps fifteen, who would do, as far as she could tell, nothing but keep her own clothes in order and make sure she was suitably dressed for meals. The girl’s name was Edith, and at first blush she seemed quite simple.
So, after the Wilkinsons’ belongings were unpacked, the maids Marie and Edith came in to get her things settled, so she sat behind the piano and began playing a Debussy prélude, La cathédrale engloutie, the soft, measured notes filling the stateroom with a deep blue melancholy. As she fell deeper inside the music she closed her eyes and let the music take her deeper and deeper into the despair she’d denied for the last two weeks, and when, minutes later, she fell away from the keyboard she saw Emily and Rupert watching her from the corridor outside her room, the maids almost in tears…
She stood and pushed herself away from the instrument, then she walked out onto the promenade deck and made her way forward – as tugs pushed the ship away from the city.
She felt the ship accelerate into the East River, the open sea ahead now – again – then she felt Rupert by her side, standing – silently – beside her as sea-borne breezes lifted her hair.
“That was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever heard in my life,” he whispered.
She turned and looked at him, tried to read the emotions playing across his face. “I’m sorry,” she said.
“Sorry? Whatever for?”
She looked at the denial in his eyes and wondered where that came from, then she looked ahead.
“Will we pass where the Titanic went down?”
“I don’t know, Claire.”
“I’d like to…see that place again.”
He nodded. “I think I understand.”
She reached over and took his hand. “Thank you, Rupert.”
“Of course.” He sighed as he looked into her eyes, then he made up his mind. “Do you think, maybe one day, you could call me ‘Father?’”
She leaned into the old man, let him hug her for the longest time. “Yes,” she finally said.
Then she heard his tears, and so she smiled.
In time – seven more years, to be precise – she knew her place in her odd, new family, the Wilkinson family. Her nearest sibling – in age, anyway – was a boisterous jock named Elizabeth. Liz rode horses with a western saddle and rowed crew, both unheard of predispositions in 1919, and she was big-boned and coarse-humored, too. Liz had started college the year before, at Penn, though she frequently snuck home so Claire could help with her homework.
Her oldest sibling, her brother Charles, had become something of an adonis to her. Chuck, as she called him, was tall and possessed a firm intellect, and he was scrupulously fair-minded. Yet even at seven years old she had a kind of crush on him, and when she looked at him she thought of him in a special way. Chuck was completely unlike Rupert in every way, too, so much so she wondered if Rupert was his father, and in time Chuck became Claire’s protector – both at home and when he picked her up at school. When the war broke out in Europe, in 1914, he’d wanted to run off to England and enlist, but Rupert had prevailed on him… “Finish college first! Who knows, maybe we won’t be sucked into this war…”
That was, however, not to be.
By the time America formally entered the war, in 1917, Chuck was in the Navy, an officer, and already had his eye on a career in politics.
Rupert was devastated.
And after seven years the fly in Claire’s ointment was her sister Amanda. Amanda was a devious, manipulative creature who enjoyed breaking things – then blaming the latest calamity on someone else, though usually on Claire. This might have been a serious issue had not both Rupert and Chuck seen through Amanda’s intentions, and in time it seemed plain to Claire that there was something seriously wrong with Amanda. Yet Amanda’s cause was not hampered in any way by her looks. Blond-haired and blue-eyed, Amanda was regarded as one of the brightest lights in Mainline Society, and would-be suitors came calling for her on a nauseatingly regular basis – which bothered Claire not in the least, but which, in the end, crushed the big-boned Elizabeth. Amanda was about a year younger than Chuck and so was blissfully out of the picture by this point in time, yet when she drifted by on weekends discord followed in her wake as naturally as gusting winds precede a summer afternoon’s thunderstorm. So when Claire felt the coming of Amanda’s treacherous laughter, she generally kept out of the rain by losing herself among the books in their father’s library.
Which was the safest place in this new world, in this place called Philadelphia.
Rupert’s promise to move to Chartres was as empty as most of the empty promises he made. “Exigent entreaties” designed to forestall meaningful conversations were always to blame, and Claire had read enough to understand the man’s various shortcomings. He was of a type common in literature, a quiet sort of con-man, affable and generous to a fault, but a con-man, and not so unusually The Law was his stock in trade. Anyone could tell Rupert was addicted to making money, scads and scads of money, but he seemed to have little inclination to happiness. He read little else beyond the latest financial news, and in the end he had little interest in Claire’s accomplishments on the piano. Perhaps not so unusually, by the time Claire turned twelve the fat old man had developed a somewhat unhealthy interest in Claire’s body.
Yet oddly enough, Emily, her mother, saw through these machinations and kept him away after the sun went down, and in time Claire learned that Rupert had visited his unhealthy appetites on Amanda often enough to be of some concern socially. A hasty trip to Sweden had been arranged to take care of one such problem, and all the attendant complications that came with such an undesired event.
Because Rupert was one of those men. His appetites were severe, his sense of propriety impaired by proximity – and far too often by bourbon – and while he could have had affairs with any number of available women, he chose, far too often, to take out his lustful inclinations on Amanda. And soon enough Claire saw through her sister’s actions and intentions, understood where her grief came from, yet the distance between them remained insurmountable. In time she learned, as well, that one of the unforeseen complications after her sister’s Swedish misadventure was that she was barren: Amanda would never have children – and this was considered a Dark Family Secret. Perhaps the Darkest.
1919 saw the winding down of the war, and Chuck’s return from the North Atlantic became a cause for celebration – if only for a short time. He had two more years to fulfill his commitment to the Navy, and as he did not want his father to intervene he planned to finish his stint then gather his wits about him and move on to graduate school – ah! – before running for congress. That was the plan, anyway.
Yet Chuck was coming home for Christmas, and that was miracle enough for them all. The future would, or so it seemed at the time, have to wait for the present to catch up to the past.
The dream came to her that year, on the night before Christmas. And perhaps no creatures were stirring…
She was on the boat deck and her father was lifting her up off the deck, placing her in the lifeboat; there was an explosion and one of the great red funnels collapsed in on itself – and then everyone was in the water. A vice of pinpricks held her firm and she wanted to struggle and break free of the water but she felt a hand grasping her ankle, pulling her down. She stuck her head beneath the waves and saw her father trying to pull himself back to the surface and she knew if she didn’t kick free of him he would pull her down too…
And she watched his limpid, questioning eyes as he slipped into the yawning darkness, falling away, fading into the night…
And she bolted upright in bed, drenched in salt water.
When Chuck heard her screams he ran to her; Rupert and Emily were not far behind.
Everyone first assumed Amanda had poured a bucket of seawater on her while she slept, but Amanda wasn’t in her room. She wasn’t, as it happened, even in the house. She had slipped out with an old boyfriend and was, at the time, in a nearby stable and most passionately involved. When she tried to sneak back into the house before dawn she was met by her family, all but Claire and Emily, anyway, and they all wanted to know why she had done such a thing…
“Done what?” Amanda wanted to know.
“You poured buckets of seawater on your sister Claire!” Rupert fairly shouted.
“I did no such thing!” Amanda countered. “I was with Langston all night!”
“You what?” Chuck seethed, and too late Amanda realized what she’d just admitted. Her father stormed from the kitchen, leaving Chuck standing there aghast. “What have you done now?”
But Amanda held her ground. “I am not a child, and I did no such thing!”
“Claire’s bed is awash in sea water. Go to her room, you can still smell the sea! If you didn’t do this, can you explain to me what happened?”
“Show me!” Amanda almost shouted, and Chuck led her up the back stairway to Claire’s room. Marie and Edith were just now stripping the bed and Amanda could see that easily two to maybe three gallons of seawater had been deposited on her sister’s bed. Worse still, her room, indeed, the hallway outside Claire’s room smelled just like a briny seashore, and so she walked into the room, held the sheets to her face. “It IS seawater…” she whispered.
“I told you that, did I not?” Chuck growled. “Where did you find it this time of year? Did you two go down to the shore?”
“Did you take the train to the shore?”
“No! I told you I had nothing to do with this!”
“Amanda, this is no longer funny. You simply must own up to these pranks of yours.”
“I’m telling you, Charles, for the last time – I had nothing to do with this…!”
Then he too turned and stormed away from the scene of her latest crime.
Amanda stood in the room, Marie and Edith staring at her now, shaking with unrepentant sorrow for the poor lost soul. Then she spied a fleck of something on the oak floor and bent to see what it was…
“Seaweed…?” she sighed, after bringing the ragged green scrap to her nose. “But…how could this be?”
Some semblance of normalcy had returned by the time luncheon was served, and by that time the family had gathered around the Christmas tree in the library and exchanged their simple gifts. Claire seemed none the worse for her ordeal, yet she paid not the slightest attention to Amanda until her sister leaned close after dessert and spoke to her.
“Claire, I didn’t do that to you,” Amanda pleaded. “Please believe me…”
Yet Claire had a faraway look in her eyes; faraway and preternaturally calm. “I was dreaming of the sea,” she said quietly. “Then I was drowning, screaming…”
“You were dreaming?”
“Yes. That’s right. I was on the Titanic again, but the ship turned on it’s side and I was thrown into the water – by my father…”
Everyone was looking at her now, and even Chuck seemed disturbed by what she’d just said. “You were in the water?” he asked. “By the Titanic? And then you woke up?”
“Yes. I was about to drown…”
Chuck looked at his father – who only shook his head, the expression on his face studiously dour beyond anyone’s remembrance.
“Were you under the water, in the sea,” Rupert asked then.
“Yes,” she said. “It was quite dark.”
“And your father was with you?” Rupert added.
“He was under me, trying to pull himself back up to the surface.”
“Under you? You mean…pulling you down?”
“And that’s when,” Chuck interrupted, “you woke up?”
“I found this on the floor in her room,” Amanda said defiantly, tossing the bit of seaweed on the table in front of her father’s place. He picked it up and turned it over in the midday light, then he handed the piece to Chuck. “What do you make of this, son?”
Chuck turned it over in the light, too, then the blood drained out of his face. “This is a deep water kelp, Father, of a kind we most often see around the Grand Banks. I’ve never heard of it being found along our shores.”
Rupert looked from his son to Claire, who was looking at Amanda now.
“I don’t think it was a dream, Amanda,” Claire said, “and I don’t think you threw water on me.”
“But where do you think you were, Claire?” Emily asked.
“I was in the sea, with my father.”
“And with the Titanic? In 1912?” Chuck asked, and when she nodded her head he crossed his arms and sighed. “That’s not possible. You know that, don’t you, Claire.”
She continued nodding. “Yes, I know. Nevertheless, it happened.”
“Has anything like this happened to you before?” her brother asked.
She shook her head, then her head canted sideways a little. “I’ve seen father in my dreams, but not like this.”
“So, this was different? In what way?”
She turned and looked at him. “I don’t know how else to describe it, Charles, but this wasn’t a dream. I was there. I felt it happen…I felt him grab me, and it felt like he would never let me go again.”
Three days later they rode down to the Navy Yard and saw Charles onto his ship, then Rupert took the rest of the family to lunch at an old downtown eatery. Amanda was still seething about her mistreatment, while Liz seemed most unsure of herself once again now that Charles was off to sea again, and Claire felt a ripple in the currents that steered this little family – like at some point over the last week Charles had assumed leadership of the clan. It was subtle, but it was there.
And no one talked about her dream – or whatever it was. The wet bed and puddled water on the hardwood floors were evidence enough that something out of the ordinary had happened, but no one was willing to make the leap that Claire implied was needed to believe her version of events. And in truth, Claire had to admit she didn’t want to believe those things had happened.
Because, on the one hand, she knew she’d never left her bed. Simple enough. Yet she instinctively understood that she had been in the North Atlantic, if only for a few minutes – and the proof of that assertion lay in the watery residue everyone had seen in her bedroom.
What else could it be?
“Claire? What are you thinking about?” Rupert asked.
“How much I’ll miss Charles,” she said, telling only half the truth.
“Me too,” Liz added.
“It must be the uniform,” Rupert sighed.
“I can’t believe they’re sending that ship back to France,” Emily added. “Why do they need to do that?”
“They’re escorting troop ships, in case some U-Boat commander hasn’t gotten word yet.”
Emily shook her head, turned away from her mother’s fears. “Must we keep coming to this dreadful old place, Rupert?”
“Dreadful? What’s dreadful about it?”
“The food is rancid and the service inferior,” she said – just as their waiter walked up to the table. If the old man had heard her he was doing a fine job pretending he hadn’t, and after he took their orders he disappeared into the kitchen. “Check your food for broken glass and rat droppings,” she added a little too ruefully.
“Emily…really…” Rupert whispered, but he was looking at Claire just then. Looking at the fear in her eyes. “Claire…? What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Charles. There’s something wrong with his ship…”
“What? What do you mean?”
“There’s a fire on his ship. I see it. Right now.”
Rupert’s arched eyebrow was all the others needed to see. He was beyond skeptical now, almost to the point where he wanted to seek out professional help for the little girl. “Bah,” he growled as he turned to Emily and began talking about arrangements for getting the girls back to school next week. Their meals came and everyone ate in silence – everyone, that is, but Claire. She kept looking towards the windows at the front of the restaurant, her mind’s eye filling with images of burning men and flooding compartments –
Then without warning she stood and ran to the window, and Rupert watched her go with a growing sense of anger flooding his own mind’s eye…until he heard fire trucks rolling by on the street. Then crowds of people were running down towards the Navy Yard. He stood and walked to the windows and stood by Claire’s side.
“Down there,” she said, pointing.
Rupert saw boiling clouds of black smoke coming from the Navy Yard, roiled orange flames just visible above the buildings blocking their view of the grounds.
“Good Lord,” he whispered. “Claire, please go back to the table. I need to go see what’s happened.”
“Father?” she said, and as it was so infrequent that she addressed him as such, he turned and looked at her.
“If you leave this place right now you’ll die.”
“What? What are you saying, Claire?” he said, fascinated by the faraway look in her eyes.
“The fire is spreading rapidly now. You won’t be safe.”
“Claire, to the table with you, now. Wait with your mother for my return.”
She turned to look at him as he left the building, but she had already seen the horse-drawn pumper unit that would run him down and kill him. She had seen the horses in a dream last night, just as she’d seen this raging fire. Hundreds of people would die in the next hour, but Charles would not be among them. No, he would escape immediate injury, then lead battalions of fire-fighters in a heroic charge to prevent the spreading fire from spilling over into an ordnance depot. Days from now he would be hailed as the hero of the Navy Yard fire; his future in politics would be assured.
And Rupert would be gone.
As she sat at the table, she looked at her sisters and wondered how Amanda would react to the news.
She was halfway through her senior year at Radcliffe the first time the bottom fell out of the stock market, and the short-lived panic that gripped the nation seemed to ripple across campus for days and days. When things finally settled down, Claire, like most of the people in the country, realized divisions that existed within the world only increased during the uncertainty. Poor people on the sidelines began lining up at soup kitchens and wealthy people continued getting wealthy, in other words, and as a result the Wilkinson family suffered not at all. Indeed, as Charles would soon point out, the family’s fortunes had increased markedly, thanks to some timely advice he received prior to these events.
Yet Claire seemed not at all interested in her brother’s financial wizardry, perhaps because money had always eluded her understanding. She had, and only for the first time, become interested in the world beyond music during her second term at Radcliffe. She had her first opportunity to study advanced mathematics, which led her deeper into the realms of physics and chemistry. In other words, when the country began to convulse, as stock markets crashed in 1929, she was herself immersed in the study of high energy physics – at least until news of the world beyond academia intruded on her studies.
She began to read about the effects of the crash spreading not only across the country, but around the world, after she enrolled in a required history course, and what piqued her interest most occurred when her professor talked about implications of wartime reparations imposed on the German state after the war in Europe concluded. He talked about how cycles of reinvestment, particularly between American and German banks, would soon grind to a halt – and with devastating consequence. The ruinous inflation that had visited the Weimar Republic in the early twenties would return, her professor warned, and when that happened there would be trouble. Real trouble. And that trouble was already spreading.
Because there were violent opposition parties in Germany now, most problematically the National Socialists – who were, ironically, anything but socialist. He mentioned of Mussolini’s National Fascist Party, which had taken power in 1921 by forming a tight alliance between fascists and existing corporate power structures in the Italian state, and he cautioned that German industrial might – when incorporated into a fascist regime – would prove ruinous to the aims of the League of Nations. If liquidity in the financial markets dried up, as it surely would in a crisis of this magnitude, there would be war in Europe again, and soon. Within ten years, he claimed at the conclusion of one lecture.
And Claire thought about this professor’s claims as she walked away from class that afternoon. What would another war mean, she wondered – both to her family and to the broader future of humanity? For weeks she thought of little else, and when she went home for Thanksgiving she sat one evening with Charles and they talked about what she’d learned in class. They sat alone, in her father’s old library where she’d spent so much time in hiding, and they talked for hours and hours.
“The things your professor talked about,” he said at one point, “the collapse of reinvestment markets and increasing demands for reparations, is already happening. Inflation is already becoming a real concern in greater Germany.”
“So, hyper-inflation could lead to the rise of this populist, people’s party? This Hitler everyone is talking about? You think that’s inevitable, too?”
Charles sighed and shook his head. “Not inevitable, Claire, but certainly more than likely. I’m only a junior member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, but I’m getting the same briefings President Hoover gets, and the specter of European inflation has the President spooked. He’s practically begging the French and the British to relax terms of the Versailles treaty, but as their banks begin to lose liquidity they’re demanding that their governments increase German reparations. It’s insane, by the way, but this Mussolini in Italy is eating it up, pumping money into the National Socialist Party in Munich. If Hoover can’t reverse this trend, I’d say your professor is absolutely correct.”
“Actions have consequences,” she thought, not quite aware she was speaking.
“You’re damn right they do!”
“What do you think I should do now?” she asked.
“What are your options?”
“Get married, I guess, or go to graduate school.”
“In what? Physics? Do they even let women into those programs?”
She looked away, shrugged noncommittally. “It’s not impossible. My advisor wants me to at least try, and he told me there’d be no problem about my getting into Harvard, but he thinks Princeton is where the real action is at.”
“What kind of action?”
“The physics of high temperature reactions.”
“And…what are you not telling me?” he said as he saw the look in her eyes
“Theoretically, there are weapons applications. There’s a physicist over in Germany, Heisenberg, who is a leader in this field.”
“Weapons? What kind of weapons?”
“Possibly – bombs. It’s a long way off, and even the physics is questionable.”
“But you’re studying this stuff?”
“No, not really; it’s more like I’m learning the theory behind what’s beginning to take shape. The real work, if it gets that far, will be happening at places like Princeton, Chicago and out at Berkeley.”
“Why don’t you go to California? Weather’s nicer, and that would give me an excuse to visit you out there. And…you’ll be far away from all this mess in Europe.”
“That’s kind of what I’ve been thinking.”
“Well, let me know when you get in. We’ll go out together and get you settled.”
“What happened to that Cartwright girl? Not rich enough for you?”
Charles turned red. “Oh, her family is wealthy enough, but her old man is a staunch Hoover supporter. He’d murder Stephanie if she married a Democrat.”
“Father would murder you for running as a Democrat.”
Charles laughed just a little as the thought played out across his face. “Yup, he would’ve. Do you ever miss him? I mean, I know he wasn’t really…”
“Oh, I miss him. And yes, he was. I was seven years old when the ship went down; I can barely remember my other father now.”
“Do you remember that dream? The one…?”
“Do you still have – dreams – like that?”
She turned away.
“Claire? It’s not like you to keep things from me.”
“The Navy Yard fire. I saw that coming, Charles, and I saw Rupert’s death, too. I tried to tell him, but…”
“He shut you down. He never believed in all that stuff…”
“I believe what I saw. Amanda does, too. But Mother and Liz? I think they’ll always be more inclined to believe you’re a witch of some sort,” he said with a wink, and she smiled. And then they both laughed, nervous little laughs full of the fear of unknown consequences.
“Well, we’d better go see how that bird is cooking,” he said after that.
“I hope you’ve learned how to carve; after last year’s debacle…”
“Ouch…say no more…anyway, it’s your turn this year…”
But no, it wasn’t.
By Christmas it was clear to them all that the coming recession would be deep and prolonged, and Charles talked with Claire about that man named Hitler.
In July after being admitted to the University of California, she and Charles planned to take the train across the country to California, where he thought they might buy her a rambling bungalow on a hill overlooking the bay.
The very name and the implied reinvention of her life sounded so intensely romantic even then, like something out of the Spanish poetry of Carolina Coronado – which she had adored while at Radcliffe. She found a book of Coronado’s poems to take with her on the journey as she packed her things, full of impossible dreams that all seemed so happy when she remembered the time years later.
After a night and a day crossing to Chicago, she and Charles finally boarded Union Pacific’s Overland and they settled into the rooms of their Pullman car for this next leg of the journey. A porter brought them cups of beef broth before the train left the ornate station, yet Claire could see the effects of the Crash on the platform below the train: children begging for pennies, indifferent business men walking past with not even a glance, and then the station restaurant advertising soup for a penny, hamburgers for two cents, forgotten men sitting by the entrance – hoping for a handout while they slowly withered away.
“It’s awful out there,” she said to Charles as they looked at the shattered landscape, this evolving land of broken dreams. “It’s even worse here than it was in Pittsburgh, and I never thought I’d see anything like that in my life.”
“You should hear what we’re being told about conditions in Germany.”
“Why isn’t more about this in the papers?”
“Oh, I suspect we’ve got problems of our own. Enough so that the powers that be assume we wouldn’t be interested enough to give a damn.”
“That’s awful, Charles. Just awful. A few years ago…all these people hard at work. And now, look at them. Reduced to begging for food, begging for their survival.”
“You took Tilleman’s economic geography class. You know the score. This is just dialectical materialism playing out before your eyes. Systemic imbalances seeking distributive realignment…”
“Don’t blather on with that jargon, Charles. Look out the window, look at the reality behind your textbook analyses, look at the toll in human suffering, the real cost behind all these economic rationalizations. This isn’t some kind of distributive realignment; this is suffering. Needless suffering. ”
“And it’s the same story it’s always been, Claire. The same processes that have been going on for thousands of years, and with each iteration we improve, we progress.”
“But the cost…?”
“One generation is sacrificed, the next three or four benefit, then comes the next realignment, the next round of suffering…”
“What? And then what? Another Golden Age after the sacrifice?”
“We either progress or we stagnate. We take chances, or we wither – and die.”
“Is all this really so simple?”
“No, of course not. That’s why there are political parties always fighting it out over what the road to progress looks like. Now we have trade unions fighting it out with capital…but who knows what tomorrow will look like…?”
The train jerked and billowing clouds of black smoke filled the platform, then cinders were raining down on the panhandling children as the huge steam engine chuffed away from the station. A boy standing on the bricks below their window looked up at her, and she watched as black dust settled on his brow – and then she waved at the boy, and tried to smile.
He turned and walked away, and she wondered what it must be like to be so hungry you had no energy left for even a simple gesture – and then she wondered why the boy reminded her of her father. Her real father.
Wyoming was the same, but darkness was coming on and most children were gone from the platforms they glided past in the night. Yet she saw squalid encampments outside each little town the train passed through, the same scarecrow children she’d seen in each big city they stopped in, and their porter brought them drinks while she looked down on each passing scene of suffering.
But hadn’t the Titanic been the same? The “unsinkable” Titanic? A few first class passengers cloistered above the many hundreds of steerage class passengers jammed into the tight spaces below the huge ship’s waterline? She wondered what had become of those people? Had they drowned with the rats that fled from the icy water as it swept through the cargo hold? Had they not even made it to the boat deck? Did those people ever make it to the boat deck, so to speak; did they ever really have a chance? Or did wealth conspire to keep them down with the rats, waiting to drown?
They had a dinner of roast beef and creamed spinach, with a fat round Yorkshire pudding fresh out of the oven rounding out the feast, yet she found she had no appetite for such things that night and only picked at her food.
“You should eat your dinner, Claire,” Charles said softly, as always aware of her passing moods. “They simply throw away whatever’s left.”
She nodded her head and picked at her spinach a while longer, then she gave up and pushed the plate away.
“So, have you decided to join an order?” he asked. “Steal away into the night, fall into a life of splendid isolation and moral contemplation?”
She smiled at her brother, this strange man who was really anything but. “What about you? How are you going to weather the storm?”
He looked away for a moment, lost in thought, then he turned back to her. “I’ve applied to the Department of State for a posting to Germany.”
She tried to hide her surprise, but failed: “You…what? You’re turning your back on politics?”
“For the time being, yes.”
“Berlin is the fulcrum, the pivot point of history right now. I want to be there. I want to watch what happens, if only so I can better understand the forces shaping our world right now.”
“And then what?”
“Someday I’ll return, perhaps run for the Senate.”
“And then…for president?”
He smiled. “You’re being presumptuous, aren’t you?”
“No, just making plans.”
The train slowed for the next station and she looked at the platform as it stopped, and she saw another boy standing down there, standing under a gaslight. Moths circled the light, and they circled the boy’s face too, but he ignored them – and looked directly into Claire’s eyes.
“Who is that?” Charles asked.
“He looks like my father, when he was young. He was in Chicago, too.”
“What? The same boy?”
“He must be traveling on this train…”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because he isn’t.”
Charles watched Claire just now, suddenly very aware of everything she said and did. She was in that place again, that place he found her in the night of the dream – yet now she was simply staring at this strange boy standing on the platform below.
She reached out to him, but the glass window kept them apart, then Charles watched as the boy reached out for her too, just as the train began pulling away from the station…but then she turned to her brother.
And he’d never seen such fear in his life. Fear, locked in her eyes, like a moth caught in the glare of an open flame. She swallowed, hard, as she looked at her brother, and she began to breathe more deeply, a little quicker, too.
“Claire? What is it?”
She stood and ran from the table, and he quickly followed.
She was standing with the lookouts in the crystal cold night, and she watched the reflections of stars on the mirror smooth sea while she tried to ignore the cold.
“Oh my God…” the lookout sighed, then he turned for the bell and began ringing it, then he was on the growler, shouting for whoever was standing watch in the wheelhouse.
“Iceberg, dead ahead!” the seaman yelled, and she turned and looked at the slowly building pandemonium as the ship began to turn. She turned too and looked at the approaching berg, willing the ship to turn, faster, even as she knew how this was going to end – again. But no, something was different this time.
The ship simply didn’t turn at all, and the seaman by her side – was the little boy down on the platform.
And the bow of the great ship slammed into the iceberg, a frontal collision of such colossal force that the bow simply crushed inward – then fell away. Their lookout tower tore away too, and they fell on top of the wheelhouse just as an avalanche of ice rained down over the foredeck and the bridge.
Oh, God, it hurts!” she screamed, then she felt someone shaking her, and lights coming on in the darkness.
She opened her eyes, saw Charles and the Pullman porter standing over – shock and fear in their eyes. She looked at her hands and found they were covered in blood, and her berth was awash in briny ice.
Charles stared at Claire’s berth, the porter by his side aghast at the sight. Seawater was running from the mattress onto the rolling floor of the compartment, while fist-sized chunks of ice continued to rain down from the ceiling – then he looked up and saw the vortex. Shimmering blue, like a metallic-tornadic sphere was embedded within the woodwork, and it made not a sound even as more and more ice showered out of the gyre, hitting Claire’s hands as she tried to protect herself.
“What’s goin’ on in there?” the porter cried, his eyes wide with fear.
“Must be something wrong with the air conditioning,” Charles said, reaching in and pulling Claire from the compartment.
“They ain’t no air conditioning in this car, mister.”
“Then where’s this ice coming from?”
The old man stuck his head in the compartment and looked around. “I don’t know…I just don’t know, sir. Beats the devil out of me…ain’t never seen nothin’ like it…”
“Is it snowing out there?” Charles said, pointing at the window.
“No, sir, it sure ain’t. Why does…it smells like the ocean in there…now you tell me – what’s goin’ on in there…?”
Charles bundled Claire in his robe and helped her to his compartment, and he grabbed a washcloth and tried to staunch the flow of blood coming from a shallow laceration on her scalp, then he heard the porter run to the end of the car, perhaps summoning the conductor.
And sure enough a gaggle of men appeared a few minutes later, inspecting the car generally then making a thorough inspection of Claire’s compartment – before coming by Charles’ compartment to check on her condition.
“We’re sure sorry about this, Congressman. We can’t find anything that might have caused this. Do you have any idea what might have happened, Ma’am?”
“No sir, I don’t.”
“Well, we’ll be coming to Salt Lake City soon enough, if we need to summon a doctor…”
“Thank you.” Charles said. “I’ll keep an eye on her and let you know, but I think it likely we will have to. This is a deep cut.”
“Yessir,” the conductor said, looking at her scalp, then he shook his head and left, talking to his men as they walked to the vestibule.
“What happened, Claire?” he said when he was sure they were alone again.
Her breathing was strange now, deep ragged gulps followed by brief, shallow sighs. “I’m so cold,” she hissed, cold vapor trailing her words.
“It’s warm in here, Claire. What are you feeling now?”
“Water. Cold water. Icy pinpricks…all over my body…”
“What do you see?”
“The ship…the bow’s been torn off by the impact, ice is falling on us…”
“Us? Who’s with you…your father?”
“No, the boy is with me now, he’s speaking to me…”
“What is he saying?”
“‘Change course, now. Change your heading.’”
Her eyes flickered, then opened, and she finally seemed somewhat aware of her surroundings in the sleeper… “Where am I?” she asked.
“You’re safe now, on the train, with me.”
“Yes. We’re nearing Salt Lake, and you took a nasty blow to the head…”
“A blow? What…?”
“Ice. Your berth is full of seawater, too. More than the last time, I think.”
Her breathing became shallow and fast, and she looked around Charles’ compartment – the mahogany walls and the brass fittings seemed jarring to her. “We fell, the lookout tower with us still in it, we fell on the wheelhouse, then ice started falling…”
“What do you think the boy meant? Change course…?”
“He shouted a warning to the wheelhouse but they didn’t react, they never saw the ice coming, and the ship just plowed into the berg.”
“They never saw…? You mean they…?”
“I don’t think there was anyone there, Charles. The ship felt empty, like we were the only two people onboard…”
There came a light tapping on the door, and Charles found the porter standing in the narrow corridor with an arm full of towels. “Thought you might be needin’ these, Congressman.”
“Thanks. Is there any alcohol onboard, anything I could use to clean this wound?”
“I don’t think so, but I’ll go see. Might be somethin’ in the kitchen…” the old man said as he scurried away, then Charles turned to Claire again. “You say you were alone, with the boy?”
“I’m not sure. It feels so far away right now. Not so real anymore…”
“That ice was real enough, Claire. The cut on your head is, too.”
“I could have done that to – myself,” she said, beginning to cry. “I could have scratched myself in my sleep…?”
“What? How? What are you saying? Do you want to go look at all the ice in your compartment? There must be twenty pounds of it on your berth…and I saw it falling from something in the ceiling?”
“Something? What do you mean, something?”
“I don’t know what it was, but it looked like a blue sphere spinning round and round.”
“Blue…? I saw something blue…just before the ship hit…”
And as suddenly she entered a trancelike state; her body grew rigid and her eyes settled into a blank stare…
Nothing. He could see she was barely breathing now, too, so he shook her. Gently at first, then with more urgency – and still he felt nothing but the same vacant stare…until he noticed the room was suffused inside a shimmering blue glow…
He looked around, saw he was on the deck of a ship, and that it was very cold out…
Then he heard someone overhead shouting “Iceberg, dead ahead!” and he turned, saw the looming mountain of ice not a few hundred yards ahead. He felt Claire at his feet and looked down, but another man was leaning over her now, leaning over a lifeboat and a seven year old girl, and he didn’t need to ask the man’s name.
Moments later he felt the berg ripping into the ship’s hull once again, and he wondered what it was going to feel like to die in these icy waters…
Her hands hurt; of that much she was sure. She looked at her fingers, and the joints in her hands now came to her as the roots of a gnarled oak might – as if pushing up through the dry grass of late summer.
“Can this be me,” she gulped, the sight tearing at her mastery of the moment. “These can’t be my hands…can they?”
Yet, when she moved her fingers she felt overwhelming pain, and that searing sense of immediacy pushed aside all other awareness of the moment. She had been on the ship one moment, yet seconds later she had been with Charles in a train – but now…this? She was in a small compartment, at least it looked somewhat like a sleeping compartment, yet she was certain this was no train, and certainly not the ship she’d been on with her father. She sensed no movement here, nothing at all save for a distant hum, and the vaguest impression that air was being pumped into this small space.
Then, she felt more than heard a faint hissing sound – and as she watched a doorway slid open.
A man. She saw a man – in a wheelchair. He seemed familiar too, yet not quite – then she saw a naval officer was pushing the wheelchair, and, oddly enough, he looked familiar to her as well. She remembered the patch on his shoulder…
“Doctor Aubuchon?” the old man in the wheelchair said, his voice rheumy, tired and full of deep sorrow. “Claire? Is it you?”
“Do I…do we know one another, sir?” she asked, now completely taken aback by the man in the chair, and then the naval officer coughed gently before he looked away – as if she had said something embarrassingly untoward to the man.
“Claire? It’s me…Franklin?”
“Roosevelt? You don’t recall anything?”
She drifted for a moment, reaching for a lost memory, then: “You were the president, weren’t you? I remember something about that now.” She paused and looked around the room again. “Where are we?”
The old man wheeled himself over to a porthole on the near wall, but there were no dogs on this port to keep the raging sea from pouring in, just a smooth oval glass perhaps a foot wide, at most nine inches tall. She followed the old man, this President Roosevelt, to the window and looked out…
…and fell away when she saw a planet spread out below. The surface that arced away beneath this ship, or whatever it was, was a mottled sea of flowing tans and mauves, and there was a vast ring encircling the orb, the sandy ring casting an immense, oblate shadow on the pulsing world below.
“What is this?” she gasped, “Saturn?”
“Yes, that’s right – or so they tell me – but I’m still not sure I believe them.”
She then felt an inrushing, overwhelming pressure gripping her skin, the unexpected force pushing in from every direction – yet within the pressure she felt entombed in pure, icy silence.
Then she saw the mountain. A vast horn in twilight, dark gray rock in swirling streaks of mist, and she saw an Old Man watching her – seemingly from within the mist. His eyes were glowing with anger, and the old man was looking right at her.
“Where have you been?” the old man asked. “I was expecting you hours ago…”
Yet she didn’t recognize the man, and before she knew what was happening she felt a new relentless pressure on her skin again, then she was standing beside lookouts overlooking a vast deck – and she saw the iceberg, heard the forlorn cry: “Iceberg, dead ahead! Mister Lightoller…”
But this time the rudder bit into the sea and held; the great ship leaned perilously to starboard and then, suddenly, it seemed immediately clear to her that the ship was going to miss the iceberg entirely this time. She leaned with the ship and looked down into the sea, and she could see the great white spur beneath the rail as they passed– and again, she knew they’d escaped this time – that somehow the Titanic had escaped her certain fate, that somehow History had come undone…
She was breathing deeply now, and one of the men standing watch heard her and turned to face the sound of her fear.
“‘Ere now, lass, what be the likes of you standing up ‘ere now, and in your night clothes and all, eh…?”
She looked down at her hands and bare feet – and recognized her seven-year-old-self, then she felt the biting cold air nipping at her arms and legs…
“Did we miss it?” she asked, not really sure what to make of this disrupted night just now.
“Looks like it, Missy. Now, it’s best we get you back to your stateroom…”
One of the lookouts called out and an officer from the wheelhouse came for her, then a steward walked her back to her father’s stateroom…
The kind-faced man knocked on the stateroom door and she heard her father rousing, then coming to the door – yet when the door opened she saw someone else. Someone she’d never seen before, yet even so this other man smiled when he saw her standing there.
“Claire, have you been out exploring again? And…look at you – with no shoes again?”
“She was up with the lookouts, sir,” the steward said. “Don’t quite know how she got there, but the Captain asked that you try to keep her with you after hours.”
“Of course, of course,” the man said sternly, looking down at her with scarcely concealed scorn in his eyes. “I’ll see to that.”
And she wondered who he was, and why he was here. And – where was her father?
The man held out his hand and without knowing why she took it, and she let him guide her into the stateroom. When the door closed she turned to the man and stared – then: “Where’s my father?”
“Your father? Claire? Don’t you remember?”
“Remember? Remember what?” She said, but she felt the words more than she understood their meaning, and she fought to accept what little she understood of this new place – even as she struggled to find her way inside the moment.
“Who are you?” she said after a long moment studying the man’s oddly recognizable features.
“I’m your grandfather, Claire. I came for you – for the funeral. You don’t remember?”
She shook her head slowly… “No-o-o,” she sighed, then she thought about all she’d seen in the last few minutes and she intuitively understood she needed to keep these things to herself – lest the people here think there was something wrong with her. “I think I should go to bed now, Grandfather.”
“Right. Well, yes, but I think you need a hot bath first,” he said as he went to ring a bell for the maid. “Don’t you think so, too?”
“Yes, you’re correct, Grandfather.”
He turned and looked at her again – but shook his head after a moment – as if he had been confused by something. “Are you sure you’re alright,” he asked.
She nodded her head. “Yes, Grandfather,” but in the next instant she was standing in a vast mist – only now the air smelled strange. Like oil…burning oil – only sharper – and her eyes started to burn, then came water. A moment later she heard an immense whining roar building in the near distance, and suddenly bright lights split the night so she turned from her quivering shadow and faced the glare, recoiled from the sight of a great winged machine hurtling down a concrete road of some sort, then she fell away when the machine leapt into the sky. Acrid smoke fell on her and she watched in horror as the thing rose from the earth and disappeared in the deepening gloom.
“I’ve lost my mind,” she sighed. “I’ve gone crazy. This is what it means to be mad…to see things such as this that have never existed…”
She closed her eyes and shook her head, tried to squeeze all these twisted images from her mind…then she felt the swaying motion again, the clickety-clack–clickety-clack of the rails below and she opened her eyes again…
Charles was staring at her now, sniffing at the stuffy air in the compartment.
“What is that smell?” he asked. “Like something burning…?”
She shook her head as echoes of a man named Roosevelt danced in her mind’s eye, then she remembered the naval officer standing behind the president. A patch on his shoulder? She could see it now, more clearly than she imagined possible.
Something about time? Project TimeShadow…but whatever could that mean?
Yet…why did all that sound so familiar?
She sat in the close compartment, rubbing the loose skin under her eyes while looking out the window at a vast, snow-covered prairie rolling by in the darkness. Her eyes felt like molten pools deep within the earth, and she felt a line of perspiration beading on her forehead.
‘Oh, God no,’ she thought, ‘I can’t get sick now. Not now…’
She shook her head, leaned back and palpated the glands in her neck – but they felt soft and small so she relaxed and picked up the sheaf of papers and found her place – again – then dove back into the text, rereading an exploration of transuranic radiochemical fractionation presented only a few months ago in Naturwissenschaften, a journal of physics and chemistry published in Germany. It hadn’t taken Oppenheimer’s team at Berkeley more than a few days to grasp the importance of Hahn and Meitner’s breakthrough, yet it turned out that several groups of physicists around the United States and Canada had made the same observation – and in roughly the same time-frame. Now varied groups of engineers, chemists and physicists were en route to Washington to meet with the president.
She almost didn’t hear the soft knock on her compartment’s door but she looked up and shook her head, then rubbed her eyes again before speaking: “Yes?” she said to the darkness.
And then a kindly faced old porter stuck his head in the door. “Doctor Aubuchon? Doctor Oppenheimer would like to speak with you, down in his compartment. He says, if you don’t mind.”
“What time is it?” Claire asked.
“Not quite six, Ma’am.”
“Morning? Or afternoon?”
“It’s five-forty-three in the morning, Ma’am.”
“Right,” she sighed, adding: “I need a glass of water” – then fishing for a bottle of aspirin from her purse as the porter slipped away. She looked the monograph, and her notes, then she downed the tablets before she walked down the swaying corridor to Robert’s compartment.
The door was standing wide open, and her brother Charles stood anxiously when he saw her eyes. He helped her into the chair then closed the door on his way out, never saying a word to her.
“I think you look worse than I feel,” Oppenheimer sighed. “I’d kill for an aspirin right now.”
She nodded, pulled the bottle from her purse and passed it over, wanting more than anything else in the world to pour ice water into her burning eyes.
“You’re rubbing your eyes again,” Robert chided. “Getting episcleritis. Knock it off, and I mean right now. I can’t have you going blind right now…”
“I hear you.”
“So? Any new conclusions?”
“We may have underestimated the forces involved. The energy released could be cataclysmic.”
Oppenheimer nodded his head slowly. “That’s my take, too.”
“Have you heard from Werner?”
“Heisenberg? No. But I don’t expect the Reich will let this kind of free exchange of ideas continue. The implications of this work are creating shockwaves throughout the community.”
What did Bohr have to say about it?”
“I think he’s terrified, Claire.”
“So, he confirmed? What about Schwarzwald?”
Oppenheimer nodded his head. “Yes, her conclusion as well.”
“What are you reading now?” she asked, looking at the colorful book on the little table under the window.
“This? Oh, the Bhagavad Gita,” he said, passing the book over to her.
She opened the heavy book and looked over a page or two, then passed it back. “You read Sanskrit?”
She shook her head as she looked him in the eye: “Why?”
“I get the impression, reading this now, that these events have been foretold.”
She smiled, then looked out the window again and noted the the prairie was shading from gray to purple, and she wondered what he meant. “Foretold?”
“Eternal recurrence…something like that. Have you read Jung?”
She shook her head, then looked at him again. “Something about archetypes, I recall.”
“Precisely,” he said. “You should try to get some sleep. We’ll be in Chicago around noon.”
“Straight to D.C. from there?”
He nodded. “We should be there tomorrow morning.”
“Have you met him before?”
“Only in passing. Why?”
“Oh, something that happened years ago.”
“Something? Like what?”
“I’m not sure, but I recall seeing him on a ship – and yet he seemed to know me.”
He looked at her for the longest while, then opened the book on his lap and began reading aloud; moments later she felt herself falling…
He looked younger…of that much she was certain. He had looked pale and used up when she’d seen him on the strange ship, but now he seemed stronger – and very sharply focused. When she walked into the conference room he looked up at her briefly, but she saw no recognition in his eyes, nothing at all to indicate they’d ever met before, and his attention had soon shifted to something Harry Hopkins was whispering in his ear.
But it was him. It was the Roosevelt she’d seen on the ship, and now – here he was. And here she was. In the same room, looking right at him, and everything about him seemed so utterly familiar. She watched the way his hands moved – soft yet decisive – and the way his eyes seemed to focus on every detail in the room…like as soon as someone entered he made an inventory of their characteristics. A Navy captain stood behind him, a man named Carlton, and he was talking to Hopkins just now – but the captain was looking at her much more frequently as they talked, like he knew something she didn’t.
Then her brother Charles walked up to the officer and the two shook hands – and that seemed to answer one question – for the moment, anyway, then Oppenheimer walked into the room. She watched Roosevelt look up – nothing dismissive in his eyes now – and she watched Oppenheimer work his way around the room to his place at the table – by her right side. Directly across from Roosevelt, she noticed.
Eye-to-eye. Man-to-man. As equals.
So, she thought, the president wants to look him in the eye. Wants to see beyond the truth of the moment.
Then three more men walked into the room – three men she recognized from newspaper articles, and she watched them as they walked up to her brother and the Navy captain, then as they shook hands with the president – before moving off to the shadows where Hopkins lurked.
Presently the naval officer, the Captain Carlton, called the room to order, and everyone’s attention focused on Roosevelt – who coughed once, his eyes bright and almost wet, before he looked up from a stack of papers on the table in front of him.
“Good morning,” the president said, and there arose a chorus of well wishes from those around the table. “I’ve read and reread the various synopses given to me by the Navy, and I’ve called this meeting to see what the scientific consensus is about the threat posed by these findings. Dr Oppenheimer? Care to get this show on the road?”
Robert laughed, then looked over at Claire. “If you don’t mind, Mr President, I’d prefer that my associate, Dr Aubuchon, run through our initial observations.”
Claire cleared her throat and was about to speak when Roosevelt coughed again, this time a ragged, rheumy fit, and she watched as his face turned at first red, then faintly blue. A steward poured ice water and Hopkins was by the president’s side in an instant, helping him take the glass in hand. Looks were exchanged around the table as a bottle of cough medicine was produced.
“Damn bugs!” Roosevelt grumbled between spoonfuls of medicine. He put his hands out on the edge of the table – as if steadying himself against a storm-tossed sea – then he looked at Claire and smiled. “Tell me, Doctor Aubuchon, as succinctly as you can…can a bomb be made using the theories and techniques posited in this paper?”
“That remains to be seen, Mr President, but the possibility is real. The techniques presented, those to stream off and produce isotopes from raw ores, simply do not exist at this time. These are issues related to electrical and mechanical engineering, not simply matters of theoretical physics, and one of the first items that springs to mind is the vast scale needed to produce even measurable quantities of refined uranium. To produce a fission bomb of the sort being characterized would require an industrial operation that simply exists nowhere in the world.”
“Presently, you mean? Explain.”
“Well, sir, imagine a trainload of ore, uranium ore. Perhaps fifty hopper cars worth of raw ore. With optimal efficiencies, and by that I mean utilizing efficiencies of extraction that, again, simply do not exist anywhere on earth today, we might be able to prepare a sample size of, well, sir, a kilogram of the necessary isotope to conduct preliminary experiments.”
“Alright. Say we lick that problem. How much ore would be needed to produce a bomb?”
Oppenheimer broke in just then. “Mr President, we simply won’t know the answer to that question until we can produce enough of the necessary isotope.”
“And?” the president sighed, “just how much time do you think you’d need to get to that point?”
“We’re just not sure, Mr. President,” Oppenheimer replied, his voice cool and steady.
“And what about the ore we might need?”
“Perhaps a hundred thousand metric tons, Mr President,” one of the naval officers standing in the shadows said.
“Oh. Is THAT all?” Roosevelt said, his splitting into that famously broad grin of his. “Where can we lay our hands on that much ore, Captain Henry?”
The President turned and looked at the captain, then at another man standing by Hopkins. “Dr Kirby, is it your belief that the machinery to accomplish this is feasible? On the necessary scale?”
“Sir, we’ve never tried to regulate currents with this degree of precision, but yes, it’s possible. Assuming we can deliver a prototype for testing within a few months, get our testing done, then ramp up production…well…yes sir. We can do it.”
Roosevelt leaned back and looked up at the ceiling for a moment, then daubed his eyes with a handkerchief. “What are we talking about here, Dr Aubuchon? What kind of bomb?”
“Mr President, I don’t think we have a frame of reference here. There’s never been anything like this, not in human history. We are talking about a vast, almost primeval power, sir. The power that fuels the universe.”
“Theoretically, Dr Aubuchon. How big?”
“Mr President,” Oppenheimer broke in once again, “once again, we simply don’t know, but initial projections are staggering. Certainly one such device, a small one, would be enough to destroy a large city.”
“Alright, Robert. Now, one last question. How long will it take the Germans to get there?”
Oppenheimer looked down, then shook his head slowly. “There are few sources available to the Germans outside of Africa, but they’ll need to overcome an even more important barrier, sir.”
“And that is?”
“There isn’t a more ethical scientist in Germany, Mr President. Perhaps in the world.”
“I see. And what if Mr Hitler decides to kill this ethical scientist, Dr Oppenheimer? What then?”
“Then we’d better be further along than the Germans, sir.”
She went from the meeting to her brother’s house in Chevy Chase and rested, but only for a few hours. She and her brother, as well as Dr Oppenheimer, were to dine with the President and Mrs Roosevelt this evening, and her brother asserted it was necessary for her to ‘look presentable’ for the occasion…
“No, you may not wear that nasty old cardigan tonight!” he’d almost shouted at her. “It’s covered in chalk, let alone smells like it hasn’t been cleaned since 1919!”
“No doubt it hasn’t,” Claire sighed. “And it doesn’t – ‘stink,’ nor do I?”
“Well, it smells like a wet goat.”
She’s just left it at that. “Does Anne have something I can borrow?” she asked. Charles’ wife had impeccable taste, and ‘just oodles and oodles of time to go shopping.’
“You two are hardly the same size, you know, but I’ll ask. Have you considered that she’s not at all happy about not being invited to dinner tonight?”
“No, not really. I’d assume most of the things under discussion would be somewhat classified. Does she have the necessary clearance?”
Charles turned and stormed out of her room, grumbling as he thundered down the stairs – leaving Claire to wonder about her brother’s sanity one more time. She took off her sweater and dropped onto the bed, and was soon fast asleep – again. She felt urgent hands shaking her awake some time later, saw the sun was now close to the horizon and that a heavy snow was falling. She rolled over and saw Charles standing by the bed, looking at her with concern in his eyes.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“I’ve been shaking you for ages. I wasn’t even sure you were breathing.”
She sat up slowly, yawning as she did. “How long was I out?”
“About three hours.”
“Do I have time to shower?”
“Well, you won’t be allowed in the White House smelling the way you do right now, so I’d hop to it.”
“I do not smell, Charles.”
“Oh, okay. I must assume my nose is broken then. Perhaps you can explain that to the Golden Retriever outside your door. You know, the one who’s been trying to burrow under the door for the past half hour.” She stood and promptly passed out, falling to the floor like a sack of rocks. She felt Charles’ hands lifting her, helping her to the side of the bed. “You’re burning up, Claire. How long have you felt like this?”
“Night before last, I think. If you have a couple of aspirin handy, I’ll be alright.”
“Can you handle some orange juice?”
“Yes, that’d be nice.”
“Alright, I’ll get that going – if you think you can handle getting to the shower.”
“Help me up, would you?”
He helped her to the bathroom, and when he was sure she was steady on her feet he left her to it; when she came out a few minutes later she found some of Anne’s things laid out on her bed and she dressed, then, looking out the window at the heavy snow falling, she dried her hair with a fresh towel. Charles knocked on the door a few minutes after that, asked if she was ready to go, and he took her arm when she walked out to him.
“Thanks, big brother,” she sighed.
“Your welcome, little sister,” he said, taking her hand in his.
The Navy had sent a courier to take them to the White House, and as they arrived at the portico she saw Oppenheimer and a turtle-faced man get out of a sedan together, and the two naval officers who’d spoken at the conference earlier were with them, too. “Who’s that with Robert?”
“Yes. He’s at Columbia now, I think. Einstein’s shadow, I think they call him.”
“So I’ve heard. We’re not the only one’s invited tonight, I see.”
“I think the guest list has expanded somewhat since we left this afternoon. Einstein will be here, and I heard Thomas Mann may be, as well.”
“The writer? Why him?”
“He’s been helping get academics out of Germany, and has come to be seen as a kind of father figure for the exile community.”
“He has clearance, Claire. He hates Hitler, and he has the president’s ear, so be nice. Okay?”
She shook her head as Marines came to open their doors, and she took Charles’ arm and walked with him into the White House.
After so many years in California, walking from a minor blizzard into the stuffy heat of the old building’s radiator heat was a shock, and almost instantly she broke out into a cold sweat. Charles, of course, noticed immediately.
“Your face is the color of a plum…what’s going on with you?”
“It’s the heat, I think. As soon as we hit this air I felt like I was going to melt – from the inside out.”
“You’re starting to perspire again.”
“I think I’m going to be sick…”
A steward helped her to the nearest restroom, then a physician was summoned – and she soon found herself in one of the upstairs bedrooms, laid out like a fish on a monger’s scale. Panting now, she tried to close her eyes again – but as soon as she did she was back on the ship.
And Roosevelt was with her again, looking out the thick glass port-light by her side. Looking out at Saturn’s rings, and she was quailing before the implications of this place. The walls were bright red, and somewhat distorted – like the floors sloped up. Regardless of whether she turned to the left or the right, like she was inside some sort of vast, toroidal ringlike structure.
Then she felt an eyelid being forced apart between two soft fingers, a bright light shining in the middle of her skull, making her turn away – or trying to, at least.
“Ah, good. You’re still with us,” a man’s soothing voice said…then she felt a thermometer sliding between her lips. “Under the tongue, if you can,” the voice said.
She sat just in silence, her eyes darting around the bedroom, echoes of red fighting for her attention. Fingers on her wrist, she saw the physician counting as he watched the motion of her breath, then he pulled out the glass thermometer and looked at the scale.
“That can’t be right,” he murmured.
“What is it?”
“Wouldn’t that account for the heat I felt?”
“It might, but then again, you’d probably feel rotten. More that you can imagine.”
“What makes you think I don’t?”
The physician was shaking the thermometer down again, then he placed it in a vial of alcohol for a moment before he wiped it down. “Let’s try this again,” he added, slipping it under her tongue a second time.
She listened to a clock ticking in the distance, then the gurgling of hot water flowing through the radiator across the room – and she could almost imagine blood flowing through her veins as another wave of heat washed across the room. In an instant she was standing beside Roosevelt on the toroidal floor.
“I’ll never tire of looking at this,” he sighed – then she noticed he was standing now. No wheelchair. No hint of disability – at all.
Then an overwhelming wave of ammonia catching her unawares, her eyes parting again, that noxious light shining on the back of her skull.
“You passed out again,” the physician said, “and now your temperature is ninety four-three.”
“What do you think’s wrong with me?”
“I’m not quite sure, but the rather annoying thing is that you and the president are experiencing the exact same symptoms. He has – all afternoon, too.”
“I need to speak with him, right away…”
“I’m not sure that’s possible, Doctor Aubuchon.”
“It’s important. I need to ask him something.”
But the door to the room opened, and she saw him in his chair out in the hallway, looking on with concern in his eyes, then he was wheeling himself into the room, right up to her bedside.
“Leave us, doctor,” Roosevelt said, and the physician put his things away in his little black bag and left the room, closing the door as he went.
“You were there again,” Roosevelt said, reaching out now – and this time taking her hand.
His skin felt so familiar, so shockingly intimate and familiar. “What were we doing there?”
The president shook his head and sighed. “I don’t know, but whatever else it may be, it’s real. Your presence here confirms that.”
“This morning, when I walked in the conference room, did you recognize me?”
“No, not right away. When you spoke I began to feel…something like an echo, of meeting you before. Something far away, something washing over me like a memory of tomorrow. Like something that hasn’t happened yet – but has somewhere else.”
“Some other time, you mean? Something that hasn’t happened yet, but how could that be?”
“Something, or someone, related to this morning’s conference? Something is being manipulated?”
“Time?” she said. “But…how?”
“How isn’t as important as why right at this moment, Doctor. If we’d simply shared a delusion, the how of this might be interesting – from a psychiatrist’s point of view – but understanding the why of things will be vital going forward. At least from a politician’s standpoint, I might add.”
“The why of things? Is that important?”
Roosevelt tried not to laugh, but failed – though he caught himself before he started coughing again. “The why is always the most important point to consider, young lady. Why do we need to consider making bombs out of uranium? Why do we need to go to war with Germany? How is a question for engineers and economists; why is my purview right now, and with events in Asia and Eastern Europe spiraling out of control right now, the answer to why you and I are sharing this vision is suddenly the most crucial thing I can think of.”
“The first time I saw you…well, it was almost ten years ago.”
“What?” Roosevelt said, suddenly exasperated. “When was this?”
“My brother and I were headed west. I was on my way to Berkeley, to begin graduate school, and I felt myself phasing in and out of time, experiencing different outcomes to events that had happened long before. My father’s death, the sinking of the Titanic…”
“The Titanic? Why, of all…”
“I was onboard, sir, the night she went down.”
“Good God. Why didn’t I read that in your dossier?”
She shrugged. “The night of our first encounter, she missed the iceberg. And I learned my father had passed away some two weeks before, not on that night…”
“So…time had been altered, and in more ways that one?”
“And then you met me, for the first time?”
She nodded her head slowly. “By that window…looking out…”
“At those rings.”
“The walls on that ship…what color are they?”
Roosevelt looked at her, trying to come to terms with these revelations, then a sudden thought came to him: “I say, you’re looking much better now. Do you feel up to going downstairs?”
She nodded her head again. “Yes, I think so.”
“Good. Let’s give it a try, shall we?”
Sitting on the train, heading back to California a few days later, she thought about that encounter, and the evening that followed, for hour after hour as the train crossed the country. About the various discussions around the table, the palpable excitement surrounding the road ahead. Entire new industries would have to be created almost overnight…precision electro-magnets capable of streaming off isotopes in electron streams. A vast new transport infra-structure to carry ores from Canada and Brazil, and in wartime.
Yes, war. Roosevelt had made it abundantly clear that war with both Germany and Japan, and possibly Russia, now appeared inevitable. The United States would have to fight two well armed adversaries on opposite sides of the earth, or risk being swallowed by an imploding wall of totalitarianism. It was as simple as that.
The last resort, Roosevelt said, might very well be the fission bomb under discussion – but then he’d asked: “What then? What happen if we succeed? If we win this war, how in God’s name do we maintain the unstable peace that must surely follow? What happens after we finally open Pandora’s box?”
When they’d first made it down to the room, a large ballroom where both cocktails and heated arguments were being consumed in unhealthy quantities, people were just shuffling off to a dining room, but Roosevelt had mysteriously disappeared again. Charles and Oppenheimer saw her coming through a doorway and both rushed to her side.
“Ah,” Oppenheimer said casually, “you didn’t die, I take it?”
Charles shook his head as he walked up to her, rolling his eyes. “You look better, the color of a tangerine now. Better than that plum-red you were sporting…”
“And I feel better, too. Thanks for asking.”
“We’ve taken the liberty of putting you next to Ben Goodman…”
“Benny Goodman? The…musician?”
“No, dear,” Oppenheimer sighed, as if he was talking to a child. “Ben Goodman, the physician. The physician who held your wrist and took your temperature when you were upstairs. He seems to think you need to go to the hospital.”
“Yes. Oddly enough, he thinks both you and Franklin have pneumonia.”
“Bosh. I have no such thing. I’ve not coughed in days.”
“Indeed. You must remind me…where did you take your medical diploma?”
Ignoring Robert, she turned to Charles. “Now, where am I sitting?”
“Follow me,” her brother said, and when they gained the table a dapper looking man stood and held out her chair.
“Well, you’re looking better,” Goodman said. “How’re you feeling? Still flushed?”
She smiled and sat, and Charles sat between her and Oppenheimer. “Aspirin seems to do the trick for me,” she said. “Do you have any idea whatever it is I’ve gotten hold of.”
“No, not at all. Well, all I can tell you is drink plenty of water tonight. They tend to over-salt the food here,” Goodman said, frowning.
“You come here often, I take it?”
“I seem to have taken up residence here – rather against my will, I might add.”
“Yes, it seems I’ve become the President’s Personal Physician, or some such blather. That’s what’s on the door to my office, anyway. Are you Charles’ wife?”
She looked at Goodman and smiled. “Truly? Why is that splendid?”
“Yes indeed. Take a look around, would you? There are three females in attendance, one is serving food this evening, and one of them is Mrs Roosevelt. You’re the third, and I’m sitting next to you. So, yes. I think that’s very splendid indeed!”
“I see. You’re not married, I take it?”
“No, but the night is young.”
Claire grinned while she tried not to shake her head.
“So, why did Charles bring you along?”
“I’m Robert Oppenheimer’s assistant.”
“Indeed,” Goodman said, frowning. “A physicist, then?”
She nodded her head, smiled a little smile, though feeling not at all triumphant. “Yes. Isn’t that the bee’s knees?”
“Are you working on all this uranium stuff?”
“I’m sorry, I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“Of course. It’s just that I am, so I naturally assumed…”
“Yes. Well, you see, I’d been working on establishing new protocols for radiation exposure, primarily for use with or during diagnostic imaging, when Szilard tapped me to help out. When I’m not working here, I’m stationed at the Navy Yard.”
“Oh? You’re in the Navy?”
“Yes, and sorry…no uniform tonight. I was off duty, until Harry called me in to check on the President.”
“Ah, you’re not into politics, I take it? Harry Hopkins. He’s been with Franklin since day one. The New Deal is his baby, if you didn’t know. Harry is one of those Progressive Optimists you read about in the Times.”
She shrugged again. “If you say so.”
“Not interested, I take it?”
She shook her head gently, though she smiled at Goodman.
“Oh dear,” he sighed, “I may fall in love with you before we get to our salads. Where are you working?”
“Yes, of course. How stupid of me. You did say you were working with Robert.”
“Where did you go to school, Doctor?”
“Annapolis, then Georgetown. I began working with x-ray imaging devices when I did my internship, and I’ve been fascinated by the devices ever since.”
“And how did you get roped into being the President’s physician?”
“Harry was out at the Yard and he had a bad cold. I ended up seeing him and that was that.”
“Yes. Bad luck.”
She smiled when he grinned again, and she looked at his eyes a little longer this time. Kind, gentle, and deeply inquisitive. A scientist’s eyes, in other words. “So, radiological dosing? You’ll be working on this so-called uranium project, I take it?”
“Yes. So I’d imagine we’ll see each other from time to time?”
“Would you like that?”
“Yes, you know, I rather think I would.”
She felt her face flushing again, felt a few beads forming on her forehead, then she felt a glass of ice-water being thrust into her hand. “Drink it down, and take some ice into your mouth, roll it around…”
And without asking she did so, then she felt him grasp her wrist, begin counting-off her pulse while he watched her face and neck. “You know, even as sick as you are, you have the most enchanted eyes I’ve ever seen in my life.”
“Enchanting, I think perhaps you meant to say?”
“No, enchanted. Like you’ve seen wild, magic things already. Like there’s little that makes you afraid.”
She could feel Charles looking at her, listening to this conversation, and she tried her best to ignore his eyes burning into the back of her skull, then she took a deep breath and leaned back in her chair. “You know, I’ve felt better.”
“I’d like to run you over to Georgetown, if you don’t mind.”
“Perhaps after dinner, Dr Goodman,” she heard her brother say – then she was wrapped in warm blankets of deep sleep, adrift on a sunless sea.
14 November, 1943
The sea breeze was shedding her veneer of autumn as easily as winter’s breath came on, and Claire stood at the rail looking out over the Atlantic as the great ship steamed to the southeast. Even from this modest height – and she guessed she was about thirty feet or so above the water’s surface – the sense of speed as the Iowa knifed through the sea was absolutely palpable. And it looked as though the destroyers and even the nearby cruiser were working hard to keep up with the immense battleship, for indeed they were. Now, on their second day at sea, the small convoy was carrying the president to Morocco; from there the gathering of diplomats and soldiers would fly with him to Tehran, where a meeting between the all the president’s men and both Churchill and Stalin was scheduled to take place.
“Why am I here?” she asked the wind. “What possible use could I be to him?”
She turned and saw him in his chair near the rail, perhaps fifty feet away, just under the huge sixteen inch guns of the number two turret. The teak decks were mottled by random hits of spray, the three barrels cast giant, oblate shadows over Roosevelt and the deck under his chair, so that one moment he was alive in early morning sunlight, the next a wraith sheathed in shadow.
“That’s what we are,” she sighed, “the two of us. Sun and shadow, light and dark. Good and evil.”
Once the theoretical nature of their work had borne fruit, she had begun to see the real contours of darkness inside Roosevelt’s Pandora’s Box. And she had begun to see her role in uncovering that uncertain darkness, and until recently she could only guess what would be released when the box was opened. And no, she realized she wasn’t simply a passive receptacle standing idly by while others did the work. She had played a pivotal role unraveling the darkest fire man had ever kindled, and yes, she understood she was more than just a simple bystander, too. She had grown into one of the most important members of the group designing the charge that would induce fission, and now she was helping Sealy and his team as they worked with Boeing on modifications to the B-29s wings. She now realized she would help bring the ultimate irony to humanity’s doorstep: we would harness the power of creation to destroy – and the world would never be the same again.
As she watched Roosevelt, she wondered what he would do with this immense power. Let the world know what we alone possessed, let the Germans and the Japanese understand the consequences of prolonging the war? Or, keep the power a secret? Unleash it on an unsuspecting world without any warning at all?
And she watched Roosevelt more closely now that she understood him better. She had never once considered how much his personal struggle with polio had redefined his character, how much the wounded man’s experience in Warm Springs had altered his patrician’s frame of reference. The entitled Assistant Secretary of the Navy would eventually become the Governor of New York, but only after defeating his own very personal demons. She’d never really known these things about the man, not until the night before, anyway. When they’d sat and talked on this very deck, under the stars.
And he seemed to know each and every star in the night sky, from the origins of their names to their uses as aids to navigation. He loved everything about these big ships too, especially the ability to project force around the world. He’d championed the development of naval aviation – in the First World War of all things – and even submarines. She’d known so little about him when he was first elected, but now – after working with him off and on for four years, she thought of him almost as a father.
Fathers had been in short supply all her life, after all, and though she hardly ever thought about it she knew she had missed out on something important. Charles was Charles, a brother and never anything more, yet Charles had assumed the role of father when she was still quite young. And, as it turned out, he had never really had understood this very basic need. He became a friend – and not a father – and then a sort of career advisor, yet he never expressed any sort of familial love for her – and that was a scar that had never really healed. He cared, true enough, but he had never once expressed anything at all like love for her – not even a brother’s love. Because he wasn’t her brother…not really…and that was the plain unspoken truth between them.
And yet, Roosevelt had immediately seen through all her hastily erected veneers, had seen her need, and he had done so in an instant. At first she put this down to his politician’s instincts, but no, she sensed there was more to him than that. After their first meeting in the White House he had begun writing letters to her, silly, half-affectionate fatherly missives she at first dismissed as the ramblings of a lonely old man – but, again, she had found something else in his words. A need to connect personally with the reality of her work, not only to understand her better, but to better come to terms with what they were building out there in the high New Mexican desert.
And so she wrote to him, too. Long letters about the problems the team faced, little notes about how odd it was being one of the few women out there under the high stars. She was impressed a man so burdened with the many responsibilities of his office, and that he took the time to correspond with her, and often as she wrote to him she would lapse back into the dream, see him standing by that oval window looking out on Saturn’s rings…
‘Why don’t you find a man, get married,’ he wrote once, and she thought about the answer to that question for a long time before she set out to craft a reply.
‘I thought I had, once,’ she wrote to the president. ‘Your physician, Ben Goodman. We spent a few days together in 1939, and I thought we had found something special. Something real and lasting, only then he drifted away. I have no need to go through that again…’
His next letter rocked her world.
‘He speaks of you often,’ Roosevelt wrote, ‘yet I was given to believe you had spurned his advances. Was that not the case?’
And so, when she had boarded the Potomac with Roosevelt a few days before this covert crossing, she was instantly on guard when she saw Goodman walk aboard just ahead of the president. Neither had looked her way; indeed, neither had acknowledged her presence in any way. And as the only female on a US Navy battleship steaming across an ocean full of German U-boats, she had been locked away in the executive officer’s stateroom, apparently for the duration of the crossing – lest she distract the men. Or so she was told…
Then, last night.
Roosevelt had asked that she come to his cabin after dinner. He wanted, the hand delivered note plainly stated, to talk with her about an idea or two.
When she was escorted to his cabin the door opened and she found him tucked into bed, sipping some sort of amber liqueur. “Could I pour you a snort?” Roosevelt asked, grinning.
“What is it?” she asked.
She shrugged, a blank look on her face.
“It’s a liqueur, made from scotch whiskey,” another voice said, and she turned to see Goodman at a writing desk, inside the attached captain’s more utilitarian, in-port cabin.
“I see,” she said, though of course she didn’t. She couldn’t, not just now, because her vision had grown confined and dark, and her thoughts muddied as the currents of time slowed. She had watched Goodman pour her a glass, then turned to the president sitting in his bed. He was smiling, she saw, and looking not at all unlike another grinning Cheshire cat of some ill repute.
She had taken the glass and carried it too her nose, closed her eyes as the honied scent found her, then she took some of the liquid on her tongue and let it settle there. When she opened her eyes Goodman was sitting across from her, his eyes still full of a quiet, lingering empathy.
“Like it?” Goodman asked.
“I do. Yes, very much, as a matter of fact.”
“Well then,” Roosevelt crooned, holding up his glass. “A toast! Here’s to swimmin’ – with bow-legged wimin’…”
Goodman grinned and shook his head, then he too took a sip, his eyes never leaving her’s, not for a single instant.
“I hope you’re not asking me to swim with a bunch of bow-legged women, Mr. President,” she laughed, almost under her breath.
“No, no, not at all, Claire. We were going over some production figures this afternoon when someone asked about your work on the blast dynamics and effects on the airframe. It’s been weeks since I read an update on that work, and I wanted to get your take on the problem.”
“Now, Mr. President?”
“Well, sir, as you know, the basic question is altitude versus the aerodynamic properties of the bomb itself. In other words, how long it will take the warhead to reach the target…”
“Are we still talking about that fused air-burst thing, or a ground impact?”
“For all intents and purposes, Mr President, there won’t be much difference on delta-T. Our current working hypothesis has the aircraft dropping on the target from thirty-one thousand feet. We need to retard the bomb’s velocity in order to allow egress of the aircraft, as even if we can achieve a wing loading in the eighty pounds per square inch range it’s not likely the aircraft will survive.”
“What would an optimal range from detonation look like?”
“Twenty miles, Mr President. A minimum of twenty miles.”
“We discarded the idea, sir, after it was demonstrated that anti-aircraft fire might hit the bomb and disable it.”
“We’re looking at an enhanced climb profile that gets the aircraft to thirty-four thousand feet, then the crew would start a shallow dive at full power, make the drop at thirty and continue diving to around twenty-five thousand.”
“And their speed at that point would be?”
“We’re looking at roughly 320.”
“Will that get you to twenty miles?”
“No sir. Not quite – but we’re getting close.”
“Drag, Mr President. We’re designing the weapon to be as aerodynamically inefficient as possible.”
“Can the wings be further reinforced?”
“Boeing engineers have done about all they can…short of a complete redesign of the nacelles, where they attach to the leading edge of the wing.”
“They’re still the problem?”
“Yessir. My modeling shows that the blast wave will start a series of oscillations on the outboard nacelles, eventually leading to failure of the wing. If they’re less than fifteen miles from detonation you might as well advise the crew it will be a one-way mission. Bailing out would simply expose them to an unprotected dose of intense radiation.”
“And as I mentioned earlier, sir,” Goodman added, “the amount of exposure to the aircrew of this amount and kind of radiation poses unknown risks. The further away they are, the better.”
“So, it looks like we’ve got the means to make the weapon, but it also looks like we may sacrifice the crew if we use it? Is that about the size of it, Dr Aubuchon?”
“No, sir. I still feel quite confident we’ll solve the problem. Probably through a combination of methods, and I still think the engineers have a few tricks up their sleeve. By the way, that wing is a work of art, Mr President. Wing loading, as it stands now, is in the seventy pounds per square inch range, but I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they can modify the structure to get to a hundred pounds. If they can, and if the aircraft can hit 340 knots in a limited duration dive, then we aren’t going to have a problem.”
“Robert doesn’t share your optimism, Dr Aubuchon. Perhaps you could tell me why?”
“This isn’t his area of expertise, Mr President, and as he hasn’t spent as much time out in Seattle as I have, so he’s not up to speed on the specific range of options available to us.”
“It’s not your area of expertise either, is it, Claire?”
“No, it isn’t, Mr President. But Boeing’s engineers have to work with the numbers I give them, so I’ve learned a lot about this aircraft’s strengths and limitations working with them. The math is simple and straight-forward, I might add.”
“I’ll have to take your word for that, Claire,” Roosevelt said, grinning again. “Well, Ben? Think I could take some sea air this time of night?”
“Yessir, I think that might do us all some good, just remember what the captain said. No smoking out on deck, sir.”
“Bosh! Damn U-boats!”
“I’ll go get Roy, sir. Claire? Would you come with me, please?”
She followed Goodman out into the passageway while Roosevelt’s valet went in the cabin to help dress the president, and they waited for Roosevelt’s naval escort, this time a colonel from the Marines, before heading topsides.
A few chairs had been hastily placed on the main deck, just ahead of the number two turret, and the tiniest sliver of a crescent moon hung above the horizon off to their left. Roosevelt used his shoulders to move from his wheelchair to the deck chair, then huffed and puffed for a moment – getting his wind back as he looked out over the infinite sea.
“By Golly, Claire, there’s nothing like the sea at night. Surrounded by stars, as we were in the beginning. And look at that! Even the moon is cooperating tonight…and just look at Orion, would you!”
Both she and Goodman turned and looked up at The Hunter, his bow drawn through the millennia. “I was out earlier, Mr President,” the Marine said, “and I do believe after your vision settles you’ll see the pink smudge in the scabbard.”
“Really? It’s been years and years since I’ve seen that. Too many years, I think.”
“It’s nice to feel summer air again,” Goodman added. “I’m already dreading winter.”
“Are you indeed?” Roosevelt said. “Maybe it’s time you moved out west. Berkeley, perhaps?”
Goodman looked at the president, not sure what to say.
“Maybe it’s time you settled down, tried to have a family?” Roosevelt added. “Family saved me, of course, though I had very nearly destroyed mine. Losing the use of my legs, finding my way to Georgia, getting involved with those kids…”
“Sir?” Claire said, sounding puzzled.
“Warm Springs. I went down there for the waters. Hot, ninety degree water, waters full of magnesium. It was this ramshackle place, almost beyond repair, the people who came to take the water were as afraid of us polio patients as lepers were in the middle ages. I came to understand discrimination for the first time in my life, as well as despair. Hell, I suppose discrimination and despair are one and the same. But I suppose that goes without saying. Yet in a way now I don’t think one can truly experience hope without first experiencing the deepest despair, but then again I may not have been the first person to have come around to that way of thinking.”
“What happened down there,” she asked. “To change your mind, I mean?”
“I felt so sorry for myself. For the loss of my future, I suppose you might say.” Roosevelt looked away for a moment. “Yet it was the children down there who taught me how to live again, to see beyond my legs. Eleanor helped me purchase the place, and we’ve turned it into a facility for treating children with polio.”
“I had no idea,” Claire said.
“Ben’s been down to help out a time or two, haven’t you?”
“Yes, Mr. President. And it’s been an honor.”
“Indeed. There’s a humility in the suffering of children, I think. Especially when children without hope of a cure. Humanity’s burden, I think it is, too. Every suffering child we let pass into the night is an unconscionable burden on our souls.”
“Yes it is, sir,” Goodman added.
“Anyway, that’s what I was getting at, Ben. You’ll miss out on one of life’s greatest joys if you miss out having children of your own.”
“Perhaps when this all over, Mr President,” Goodman sighed heavily.
“Ben, this will never be over. Don’t you understand that yet?”
“This war will never be over, Ben. It can’t ever be over. Once the music stops playing, industry will collapse again. We learned that after the First War, if you’ll recall. As Assistant Secretary of the Navy I was charged with demobilizing the Atlantic Fleet, and so we scrapped almost half those vessels in a matter of months. I fought to preserve our submarine fleet, and to increase research on aircraft carriers, and whatever else I could, but both Wilson and Harding were adamant…we didn’t need a peacetime navy. Short-sighted bastards! Of course, mobilizing for war in 1916, and again in 1940, pulled us out of the economic doldrums, yet that may be the one vital lesson lost on most people both in and outside of Washington. Military spending props up the rest of the economy, simple as that.”
“But with these new weapons,” Claire began, “haven’t we made war obsolete?”
“Obsolete? You mean, as in no one would dare attack us now?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“And how long before another country has these weapons? A country, perhaps, not quite so friendly to our interests. Remember, today’s friend might not always be so friendly…”
“You mean, Russia?”
“Yes, I suppose I do, but it really doesn’t matter who, Claire. It will happen, and the how or the why won’t matter then. It will happen, and the sword will be poised above all our necks.” Roosevelt’s eyes swept the horizon, then he turned to Claire. “What about you, Claire? Ready for a life of domestic tranquility?”
“I don’t know that I could let go just now, Mr President. I want to see this through.”
“Yes…there’s nothing so vital as having a purpose in life, yet there’s also nothing as important as having your own little sliver of immortality. Children are still our best shot at that, I guess you know?” Roosevelt added, turning to look at Goodman again.
“You’re correct, of course, Mr President.”
“Look at them,” Roosevelt sighed, his word drifting away on the slipstream as he pointed at the night sky. “Not even the stars will last forever. I know you two feel something for one another, and it would do me a world of good to see something nice and decent come from all this uranium nonsense. All I ask is that you think about it, alright? Just think about it, before it’s too late.”
Goodman stood and walked forward, past the number one turret and on to the foredeck, and two ratings walked along behind him – just in case – then Roosevelt turned to Claire. “No time like the present, I always say,” the president whispered. “Roy, I feel I’ve had enough of this air for now. You’d better get me inside.”
She turned away as Roosevelt struggled back into his wheelchair, but she watched his men wrestle his chair inside before turning to look at Goodman. He was leaning on a rail up forward, still looking up at the stars, and she looked at him for the longest while, then she turned and walked aft, back to her cabin.
She had expected Tehran to be unbearably hot, yet the city was pleasantly cool, almost cold at night. She was with Roosevelt’s group staying at the Soviet embassy, and while Goodman’s room was next to her’s she did not see him once after they settled-in at the embassy. Roosevelt’s intrusion had rattled her, and she neither needed nor wanted some sort of presidential imprimatur attached to any relationship she might have – even if that’s what she called this nascent thing between them.
They’d seen each other, from a distance, anyway, while still on the Iowa, even after one of the escorting destroyers accidentally launched a torpedo at the battleship, but Roosevelt didn’t summon her again. Perhaps Goodman had relayed what had happened, perhaps not, but the evening had unsettled her. Had it him, as well?
And why had she gone back to her cabin? Why had she left him alone up there? What had she felt for him before? Friendship? Or had there been something more? Something beyond gratitude, that he had taken care of her at Georgetown when her “walking pneumonia” very nearly took her out? What of those long walks in the piñon out on the west side of Los Alamos? When they’d talked about California versus Maryland, of perhaps getting married and starting a family.
Yet she’d never once seen the slightest hint of love in his eyes. Empathy? Yes. Compassion? Again, yes. But love for her? Not in the slightest. Yet the first time she saw him around young men, good looking young men, his eyes sparkled – with pure, unbridled lust – and that had settled the matter. Still, she had to admit that lust had never been a powerful draw for her. She’d never had sex, not once, and she’d told herself more than once that if she went through life without experiencing lust that wouldn’t be the worst thing that could happen.
And she almost believed that, too.
On one of their last walks together in New Mexico she’d asked him about that. About what he felt when he saw attractive young men. “I don’t know,” he’d replied hesitantly, his eyes looking away, his shame apparent. “Why do you ask?”
“Because you seem so full of desire.”
“What do you mean, ‘I do?’ Are you telling me you aren’t homosexual?”
“I don’t know. I suppose I might be…”
“You mean you’ve never…?”
“Good God, no!”
“But you’re attracted to men, right?”
“I don’t know,” he’d said with a sigh. “I suppose it’s possible.”
Yet as hard as she tried to believe him, she knew he was lying. She knew this was so because she could see deceit in his eyes when he spoke, something she’d never expected to see from him. So, when he’d walked away from Roosevelt that night on deck, he’d walked away from her too. From any idea of a future together.
Yet there was something about him that attracted her still. His empathic soul, perhaps. His ability to see into people, to understand them. Yes, it was simply ironic that he couldn’t see into his own soul, or that he was willing to walk away from what he saw about himself, but this only made the tragic flaw all the more intriguing. And unnerving.
So, she’d thought about him that first night in Tehran. She wondered if he might indeed be a good father, a good partner for the rest of their lives. Could she ignore his lustful impulses, could he contain them enough to keep them from destroying their lives? Would it be worthwhile to even live like that? Would she want the central equation of their lives reduced to an ongoing series of evasions?
Yet the very next day, while walking to the British embassy, she’d felt a young man fall in beside her…
“Dr. Aubuchon?” the man asked.
“My name is Trevor. Trevor Eisenstadt. I’m with the British legation.”
“If you have some time after the next session, I’d like to talk with you if I could.”
“Indeed. And why would I do that?”
“I’ve asked my minister to have a word with Secretary Hull; he’ll vouch for my status.”
“Alright, Mr Eisenstadt.”
“It’s doctor, if you don’t mind.”
“Ah. And your field of study is, Dr. Eisenstadt?”
“Yes, but I’ll explain later,” Eisenstadt said, but without saying another word he veered off and joined another group, and she watched him as they walked on, lost inside the peculiar reality of those two words. Very few physicists were specializing in quantum mechanics, not yet, anyway, so what interest could he have in her work in Los Alamos?
Yet just then she was struck by an even more unsettling realization: she’d seen him before.
On that ship. On that ship with the red walls, the ship where she and Roosevelt stood together, looking out over Saturn’s rings.
“Trevor Eisenstadt” tried not to watch as Aubuchon rejoined her group, but he had been waiting for just the right moment, and for a very long time. He rejoined his own group, a covey of diplomats from the British legation, and he listened to their talk of agenda items – mainly how to keep Churchill from being pushed out of the main flow of the conversation between Roosevelt and Stalin – and that was when he felt William Thacker’s eyes boring into his.
“Who was that?” Thacker asked.
“Who? The girl?” Eisenstadt replied. “Claire Aubuchon. I met her once, in D.C., I think. Rather cute, don’t you think?”
He watched as Thacker looked after the girl for a moment, then he continued. “I was thinking I’d try to ask her out – again,” he said, grinning conspiratorially.
“Oh, was she so interesting?” Thacker said, now eying Eisenstadt.
“I’ll never tell,” he said, for indeed, he never would.
“What did she say?”
“I’m going to meet up with her when the afternoon session wraps up. Say, I’d bet you didn’t know she’s Charles Wilkinson’s little sister.”
“Seriously? I hear he’s in the queue for an ambassadorship.”
“So I’ve heard.”
“They’ll probably send him to Oman.”
“Family has too much money for that.”
“Ah,” Thacker sighed. “So that’s where your interest resides, eh, Trevor?”
Eisenstadt grinned, looked sheepishly away.
“You sly dog,” Thacker joshed before he walked quickly to catch up with the ambassador.
Trevor groaned inwardly, then thought of the very first time he’d seen her. How many lifetimes ago had that been? A hundred? A thousand?
And just then, watching her disappear into the main conference room, he had to admit he really didn’t know anymore.
She listened to the introductory remarks the first morning, tried to make sense of Stalin’s ambiguous statement of greeting, his continued insistence that America and Britain open up a second front as soon as possible, then she listened as Roosevelt thanked Stalin for the sacrifices of the great Russian people. She looked at Churchill from time to time, too; at the old man’s chin resting on his chest, his hooded eyes barely concealing the anger seething away inside. Everyone knew he was being pushed aside, that Roosevelt was, in a very real sense, relegating the United Kingdom to the dustbin of History. Stalin, his wolfish eyes darting here and there, could barely conceal his glee. The sun would soon, his darting glances confirmed, set on the British Empire. Tehran would forever be remembered as the final changing of the guard; Japanese aircraft had put an end to any just claim that Britain had any right to a global empire. The sinking of the battleships Prince of Wales and Repulse, on 10 December 1941 off the east coast of Malaya, and just three days into the Pacific war, simply codified Neville Chamberlain’s policy of appeasement. Those results were cast in stone now, and History’s judgement would be severe.
It was odd, too, Claire thought. Churchill was by far the most astute wartime politician since Napoleon, and yet Napoleon, too, had squandered his empire. Were all empires doomed to rise and fall, she wondered? Was western civilization so doomed, as well? If mankind held firm to its grasp of stoking the fires of religious intolerance, would life on this planet survive the atomic age? Was that what she saw in Churchill’s eyes just now? Communist atheism running headlong into the last vestiges of the Judeo-Christian impulse?
And the Manhattan Project was now teeming with scientists from both Britain and Canada, not to mention all the other European emigres that had fled Hitler’s spreading malignancy. The best, the greatest minds in the world, all gathered under the vast New Mexican sun. Her mind drifted to Santa Fe, to Taos, to the spine of mountains that ran between them…the Sangre de Cristos, the Blood of Christ mountains, snow-capped and brilliant. Her little house in Los Alamos, her casita, looked out on those mountains, and when she took walks in the sharp air her mind always drifted to them, and now, sitting in this faraway land, she found herself thinking about that jagged spine of rocks once again.
How many civilizations had those mountains borne witness to? The various native tribes that came and went on their nomadic wanderings to and from Mesa Verde, then the Spanish? The French, under Napoleon III had tried to push into New Mexico, too. The Republic of Texas had laid claim to the valley for a few decades, and now it called the United States of America home. But yes, empires rose on the mighty roar of their warriors, yet they invariably whispered off the stage as their aspirations faded, with age, into irrelevancy.
Then the words ‘quantum mechanics’ drifted into her mind’s eye, and she saw the man again, in the same waking dream. She closed her eyes and tried to see him now as he was then, standing on that ship.
It was the same ship, wasn’t it?
Her eyes popped open in that instant and her eyes darted around the room again. Yes, there he was, sitting behind Churchill and Anthony Eden – and he was looking directly at her. Why, she wondered, did that not surprise her? And why did he suddenly seem so familiar? And, oh yes! Why had he said those two vexing words? There weren’t a hundred people in the world who knew what those two words, quantum mechanics, really meant, and most of those lived within a few blocks of her – under the gaze of those very same mountains in New Mexico.
She wondered what he knew, too. Wondered if he had heard of the Aubuchon Shift.
Time was like an arrow, or so the saying went. Once loosed, that arrow went on and on, and in one direction only. But what happened before the arrow left the bow? What happened when you tricked time, and made it go backwards? As an arrow might when the bow is drawn?
Her eyes burned and she rubbed them again, rubbed them until she felt the sclera detach – then she cursed under her breath and stopped.
“When are you ever going to learn?” she heard Charles say, and she looked up at him and grinned sheepishly.
She shrugged, then looked at the note in his hand. “What’s that?” she asked.
“Franklin would like to see you. I think Secretary Hull will be there too.”
“Why him, for God’s sake?”
Charles shrugged. “Hull is always around when the discussion turns to Stalin, or even to Russia generally. Get used to it.”
“He’s too serious,” she sighed. “I don’t like him, Charles.”
He chuckled. “Serious? Cordell? And why wouldn’t he be? He and Acheson have only been charged with creating the post-war political framework of the world.”
“Right. And just what the hell have I got to do with that?”
“Well, there’s been some talk of this shift you discovered…”
“I think that’s the point. There’ve been some very serious discussions about this, I can tell you. The whole paradox thing that Oppenheimer brought up, as I guess you can imagine, shook up a lot of people.”
“Myself included,” Claire didn’t exactly need to add.
“Exactly. Now, I’d suggest you not try to conceal a thing. Answer Hull’s questions directly, but pay attention to Acheson. Dean has the better grasp of scientific matters, so if you see him struggling you’ll need to dumb it down a little.”
“Okay. Is Acheson the one you’ve been working for?”
“Uh-huh. He’s the brains of the outfit, and don’t you forget it. Roosevelt ain’t stupid, and neither is Hull, but Acheson is in another league compared to those guys. He’s smart, and his eyes don’t miss a thing. And don’t even think of lying when he’s in the room.”
“I wasn’t planning on lying, Charles.”
“I know. Now, come on.”
“Do you know a Trevor Eisenstadt?” she blurted.
“With the Brits, right? I’ve heard the name before. Why?”
“He said he wants to have a talk with me.”
Charles visibly stiffened when he heard that, and Claire noticed. “Don’t meet with him unless Hull gives you the go-ahead.”
“He assured me Eden would vouch for him…”
“Doesn’t matter. They’ll be probing, trying to get information on this Shift you’ve run into. My guess is Churchill is directing this contact, but he’ll keep very-very hands-off to avoid any semblance of impropriety. Anyway, you’d better scoot.”
“Is it still cold out?”
“You’d better take a coat, yes.”
She picked up something and walked out into the early morning air, took a deep breath then wrapped the coat around her shoulders as she walked over to Roosevelt’s suite, unnerved by all the Russian guards standing around. ‘Well,’ she thought, ‘it is their embassy…’
An America Marine stood outside the president’s door, and he came to attention as she approached – yet the door magically opened as she arrived, and Carlton, the Navy captain who acted as Roosevelt’s aide, smiled from inside the suite.
“Good morning, Dr Aubuchon,” Carlton said.
“And to you, Russ. Anything new overnight?”
“Nothing major. Some new fuel consumption figures from inside Germany; that’s about it.”
She nodded understanding as she walked inside, noted a fire simmering away in the fireplace as she took off her coat, then watched Carlton point at the ceiling. ‘Yes,’ she sighed inwardly, ‘I caught the signal, Russ. The place is bugged, they’re listening. I get that…’
“Secretary Hull will be right out,” Carlton added as he walked into his makeshift office off this ‘living room,’ and she wondered if Roosevelt would come too. He had looked like death warmed over by the end of yesterday’s sessions, and had reportedly gone straight to bed. The burdens this man carried, she thought, were enough to crush anyone, yet he had carried the weight of the world on his shoulders for years now, and yet he never seemed to flinch under the load. Now all that benign neglect was catching up to him, and that worried her…
Another door opened and Secretary Hull walked into the room – looking more than a little tired – and he came and sat across from her.
“Ah, the fire’s not out yet…good. Franklin slept with the windows open a little last night…too cold for me.”
“Yessir,” she said.
“I’ve a request from Churchill that you be allowed some time with this Eisenstadt fellow. Know anything about him?”
“No sir, not a thing. He approached me on the way to the morning session, asked to speak to me then walked back to his legation.”
“Damned odd,” Hull sighed. “Should have put that request in writing. Damned odd. You haven’t met before?”
“I’m not sure, sir. I might have seen him before, in passing, but I don’t know him, or anything about his work.”
“I see. Well, I don’t need to mention that talk about this shift you’ve discovered will be off-limits.”
“And the president would like a follow-up ‘contact report’ when you wrap this up. Just make sure Captain Carlton gets it as soon as you’ve written it up. Just the basics, but your impressions about why this contact was initiated, what you think they’re fishing for…that kind of thing.”
“Well, you best get at it. I understand he’s waiting for you now,” the Secretary of State added, pointing at the door.
“Thank you, sir,” she said, standing and picking up her coat. Another Marine opened the door now and helped her with her coat, then she stepped out into the courtyard. And there, standing in a swirling sea of autumn leaves was this Trevor Eisenstadt. Not very tall, she thought, and almost too thin, his head a little too big for his frame, as well. As she approached she thought his eyes looked almost owl-like; large and predatory, eyes like a raptor, and she couldn’t decide whether they were darkest amber or dusty-gray.
“So,” she said as she walked up to the man, “quantum mechanics? What’s on your mind?”
“Have you had breakfast?” Eisenstadt said, smiling.
“No, I haven’t, and I’m starving.”
“I’ve found a place, and not too far away – if you think you can stand a walk…?”
“Lead on, kind sir.”
“What do you think of Tehran?”
“It’s cooler than I thought it would be, that much is certain. Have you been to the Grand Bazaar?”
“That’s where we’re headed, as luck would have it. Have you been yet?”
“No, but I wanted to see it before we leave. Is it safe?”
He chuckled. “Don’t bother turning to look, but I think we have about a half dozen of your Marines following us, and God only knows how many Russians.”
“Anyway, I’ve found Tehran quite lovely, and the people wonderful. I shouldn’t mind living here, if it came to that. You’re looking well, by the by. New Mexico agrees with you.”
She was instantly on-guard, now that he’d tipped his hand so obliquely. “You’ve been, I take it?”
“Only to Santa Fe, but that was years ago, before the war. Stayed at the LaFonda. Walking the square in the early morning? Magic.”
“And what were you doing in Santa Fe.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Looking for Navaho pottery. For my collection.”
“Ah. Find anything interesting?”
“Quite a bit, actually. Well, here we are…”
He led the way inside a small restaurant just across from a narrow passage that led into one of the Bazaar’s many entrance halls, and the varied scents coming from the small kitchen were almost intoxicating. Breakfast, teas, fruits and mists of exotic spice hung in the air apparent, the heady brew at once compelling and unnerving.
“Do you speak Persian?” he asked.
“You must be joking,” she deadpanned.
“Well then, shall I order for you?” he said, almost laughing.
“No sheep’s eyes, please, but other than that…”
This time he did laugh, openly and for a long time, then he spoke to the proprietress for a moment before leading Claire to a table. “Shouldn’t take long,” he advised, looking out the front door at the gaggle of confused security personnel gathered there, wondering what to do now.
“So,” Claire said, eyeing Eisenstadt as he sat, “quantum mechanics?”
“Yes, sorry. Kind of an odd way to introduce myself, I know. How far along are you?”
“What are you calling it? The shift?”
“I’m sorry, but I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“I understand. We’d like you to stop all research on this material. Now.”
“On time dilation and contraction.”
She stared at the man for a long time, not sure who or what he was now, then she simply looked down at her hands. “Oh, is that all?”
“And who is ‘we’?”
He shrugged. “People who want you to stop, before you get into serious trouble.”
“Trouble? With whom? The Physics Police?”
His eyes turned deadly serious in the next instant. “Yes, something like that.”
It was the way he spoke, the look in his eyes that convinced Claire Aubuchon that this man, if indeed he was a man, was completely serious and on-the-level.
“We’ve met before, haven’t we?” she asked, her voice conspiratorially quiet. “On that ship?”
He nodded his head only once, an ambiguous gesture that left her feeling even more unsure of the moment.
“Where are you from?”
He grinned, slightly, still looking her in the eye: “Near Cambridge, I should think.”
“Uh-huh, sure. And before that?”
“Does it matter?”
“Yes, very much.”
“Not so far from London. I was born in Kent.”
“When? You mean, when was a born? The year?”
She nodded her head, almost knowing what had to come next.
“And let me take a wild guess…on the first of April?”
He smiled broadly now. “Almost. The 21st of September.”
She felt a sudden shift, like her understanding of the universe had quietly slipped from the room. Her father…her father’s date and place of birth…and now, after these 30 years it felt like vast cosmic tumblers were finally slipping into place. This Eisenstadt should be seventy six years old, yet he looked, what? Twenty-five? Thirty?
“And you’re my father, is that what you’re telling me?”
He stared at her now, though he said not a single word.
“That’s not fair, and you know it,” she said as she confronted his silence.
“Can you tell me what this is really all about? Please?”
“I already have. Stop all work on the Shift. You’re endangering everyone on the planet.”
“Because, again, I might upset some sort of Physics Police? Is that what you’re implying?”
“I’m not implying anything, Claire. It’s a warning. Stop, now. While you still can.”
“And I’m going to introduce you to my brother this evening. You might fall in love with him. I should warn you, everyone does, sooner or later.”
“You’re telling me to fall in love with this man?”
“And if I don’t?”
Eisenstadt shook his head, then two plates of food arrived and he looked at her reaction to the food. Some things never change, he thought.
Eisenstadt’s “brother” was indeed a precocious, lovable bundle of inherent contradictions, and yes, every woman at the closing ceremonial dinner – held, of course, in the British Embassy – was enthralled by him.
His name was Benjamin Levy, and he was not, as it happened, related to Eisenstadt. They were not real brothers, Trevor said. No, they were more like friends.
“I see,” Claire had said. “And let me guess…he was born on the 21st of September, 1866 as well?”
“Yes, of course.”
“In Kent, I take it?”
“And he grew up near Cambridge?”
Trevor turned and looked at her then: “My, we’re on a roll tonight.”
“He does seem to be a ladies man.”
“Oh, he is that. Ready to meet him?”
“I’m not sure. Does he know who I am?”
“Oh yes. He’s been looking forward to this evening for some time, I think you could say.”
“Well then, I suppose we should get on with it.”
“Yes, tally-ho and all that. Into the fire – into the fight.”
She looked at Benjamin as she and Trevor walked across the room; he was the same height as Trevor, the same general build, too, and more curious still, he had the same general raptor like head – a little too large for his frame and the same peregrine shape. When she closed the distance she saw Benjamin had the same eyes, too…not quite amber, not quite blue…like a color that phased between the two, lost in indecision…
And this Benjamin was talking with Cordell Hull just now, and she wasn’t quite sure why, but that troubled her.
“Ah, here she is now,” the Secretary of State said. “Dr Aubuchon, may I introduce you to Dr Ben Levy. He’s been working on a few of the same problems you have, only up at Cambridge.”
She held out her and and Levy took it. “A pleasure,” she said.
“The pleasure is all mine, dear lady,” and they smiled at one another for a moment, then she turned to Trevor – and saw her brother Charles standing behind them both, now casting a wary eye at Levy.
“Ah, Charles,” Hull said, “are you and Dean finished for the evening?”
“Yessir. We’ve established the framework for the monetary conference, and Mr Acheson floated the idea of Bretton Woods again.”
“Ah. And our friends are still resisting?”
“I think they’re pushing for one of their Black Sea resorts, sir.”
“No doubt. Well, no doubt we’ll see stormy waters ahead. Charles? Have you met Dr Benjamin Levy?”
“No sir, I’ve not had that pleasure.”
“He’s with the Underground Balloon Corps, as luck would have it?”
“Ah,” Charles said, one eyebrow arching. “Well, it is indeed nice to meet you. I’m sure you have some interesting stories to share.”
“Well,” Hull added, “perhaps some other time.” Now both the Secretary of State and Trevor Eisenstadt cornered Charles, and they led him away to a far corner of the room, leaving Benjamin and Claire alone…suddenly – and completely – alone.
“The underground balloon corps? What is that all about?”
“You’ve not heard about us, I take it?” Levy said, now turning his predator’s gaze on her.
“No. Sorry. Should I have?”
“Well, no, as a matter of fact. I’m rather glad you haven’t. We’ve been charged with identifying top scientists working on the German heavy water project…”
“The bomb, you mean…?”
“Yes. And, well, we’re charged with either extracting them, or removing them from the equation.”
“So, you’ve penetrated their operations?”
And Levy only smiled, though he blinked rapidly a few times, and the reaction only served to heighten her perception of him. He was indeed a predator, and a dangerous one, at that.
“Your brother as much as told me that we’re to be married. Is that about the size of it?”
And again, only the blinking eyes gave any indication at all that he had even heard her, though now his face grew thoughtful, if a little puzzled. “Did he, now?” Levy said a moment later.
“Yes, he did.”
“Trevor has a…”
“A what? A warped sense of humor?”
“Questionable timing, I think I might have said.”
“Yes. I’d have rather liked the whole courtship ritual to unfold with few such expectations, if you know what I mean.”
And this time it was she who smiled, gently, and now it was she who remained silent.
“But yes,” he added, “I think that’s the general idea.”
“My, but you really do know how to sweep a girl off her feet…”
And Levy laughed now, a boisterous, fun-loving laugh. “Ah, indeed I do.”
“And if you don’t mind me asking, just how long will we be married for? A week? A month or two?”
His eyes turned more serious then, and they turned to meet her own: “1984, I believe. Forty-one years, then I’ll die, but I’ll leave you with two beautiful daughters.”
“You’re serious, aren’t you? I mean…”
“Oh yes. Quite.”
“How could you possibly know that…” she began, then the implications of his words slammed into her – and she fell silent – yet she was aware he was studying her reaction so she turned to face his penetrating stare head-on. “May I ask why? For what purpose have you chosen me?”
“Why, to save the universe, of course,” Levy said, though he began smiling again, but then he took her hand and led her to a table. A table for two, and the only such table in the lavish room. She was being set up she knew then, but by who, or whom, and to what purpose?
Was that why Roosevelt had insisted she attend the conference? Certainly there was no other reason she could fathom, no real reason for her to attend a conference on the structures of post-war Europe. And why arrange this liaison here and now? She looked across the room, saw Charles looking at Roosevelt – and Roosevelt looking directly at her, grinning that sly grin of his.
“Why me?” she whispered, the sound more a plaintive sigh of despair.
“You don’t know?” Levy said, almost as quietly.
She shook her head slowly, unsure of herself again. “No. No, I really don’t.”
“Ah, well, you will soon enough.”
“And…where are we to be married?”
“In New Mexico, I should think, though I don’t suppose we should rush things.”
“I beg your pardon? You’re telling me I’m going to spend the rest of my life with you, but that there’s no need to rush into this thing?”
“I see. You do know, don’t you, that this is rather like a bad dream? A very bad dream?”
“And what if I told you it was? What would you think then?”
“That I was mad. Stark, raving mad.”
“Ah, well, there you have it…”
“What? What are you talking about? Are you telling me this is all some sort of wild, paranoid delusion?”
“Is it? Tell me, and I mean right now! Is this, or is this not real? Am I in a ballroom, in Tehran, in 1943?”
“Oh, yes. This is as real as it gets, Claire; of that you can be most sure.”
Levy was on the same aircraft with Claire when Roosevelt’s group left Tehran, and the entire group flew on to Cairo, then, after a brief stay in Algiers, on to Morocco. The Iowa and her escorts arrived then, and were waiting just offshore as the aircraft landed, but Roosevelt wanted to linger and visit Casablanca and Marrakech. Hull wouldn’t countenance any more delays, so gigs and launches ferried the group out to the Iowa, and within hours the ships set sail, steaming for Norfolk. Aircraft and submarines ranged ahead, looking for any signs of U-boat activity or other surface threats, but the first two days passed, generally speaking, with little anxiety. Then a lookout spotted a periscope on the second evening, and all hell literally broke loose. The escorting destroyers criss-crossed all around the Iowa, dropping dozens of depth-charges as they passed, and when nothing showed up on sonar the convoy resumed steaming straight for Virginia, only now at the greatest possible speed.
And then, Ben Levy asked to speak with Captain McCrea.
“There is a German surface raider working in the vicinity of Bermuda just now, Captain. I’d recommend heading a bit north, for Boston or Portland.”
“And where did you hear this, sir, if you don’t mind me asking?” the captain asked.
“I’m not sure I’m allowed to say, Captain, but I think either the President or Secretary Hull will vouch for me.”
“The Secretary already has. Any particular course you’d like me to steer?”
“Come right to two nine nine degrees and reduce your speed to sixteen knots. You’ll not need to refuel with this reduction, sir.”
“I see,” the captain said, more than a little incredulous now. “Perhaps you’d like to set a new watch-keeping schedule now, too,” McCrea added, not a little sarcastically.
Levy looked at the captain, understood the position he’d just put the man in and nodded his head. “Sir, a Focke-Wulf 200 C-4 is scheduled to depart San Sebastian at approximately 0430 tomorrow morning. This particular aircraft is equipped with the new FuG 200 Hohentwiel search radar, as well as one Hs-293 anti-shipping missile. There is a strong cold front approaching the area and visibility will be limited. I doubt they’ll fire based on radar returns alone.”
“I assume you work with the OSS?”
“Yessir, something like that.”
“So, what time would this aircraft intercept us on our current track?”
“It should be in the area sometime between 0830 and 0845. We’ll be out of range, by that point, for any allied aircraft to provide cover.”
“Well, why the devil don’t we head for Brazil, or even Argentina?”
“There are at least three large Wolf-packs operating in the area between Bermuda and Barbados, and I can assure you the German High Command is making a maximum effort to get to this ship.”
“You’re full of all kinds of good news, aren’t you, sir,” Captain McCrea said, but the man’s earlier sarcasm was gone now, replaced with something approaching genuine respect.
“Captain, if you don’t mind, I’d like you to meet me on the bridge this evening, call it 2100 hours. I’d recommend you get some sleep now…we may be in for a busy night.”
And with that, Levy walked from the bridge back through officer’s country to his cabin, but he stopped outside Claire’s cabin and knocked lightly on her door.
“Come on in,” he heard her say, and he smiled at the light, carefree sound of her voice, the genuine warmth her words conveyed.
“How’re you doing?” he asked when he saw her red eyes, not to mention the swollen, boggy cheeks under them. Her lips were reddish-blue, her nail-beds, too.
“Something about ships and the sea,” she said. “We just don’t get along.”
“The carbon-monoxide concentration in this room is too high. You need to come with me, get some fresh air.”
She nodded, started to stand but toppled over; he caught her and held her close for a long moment, let her pressures catch up for a moment before he led her through the confined walkways to a hatch that opened onto the foredeck. When her face hit the fresh sea air she revived almost instantly, and just then a seaman came by.
“Is she alright, sir,” the young man asked.
“We’ve got some noxious fumes working their way into her cabin. You’d better round up the X-O, and tell the captain he’d better check on the president’s cabin, too.”
The kid ran off and half a dozen men, both officers and ratings, showed up within minutes. Levy told them his concerns and the men took off, and sure enough, Roosevelt was feeling ill, too. Soon, most of the working group was gathered on deck, huffing sea air in great gulps, and soon enough more men carried out chairs and a small table; sandwiches appeared moments later, and pitchers of iced-tea, too.
“This your doing, Mr Levy,” Claire heard, and she turned to see the Captain McCrea walking their way.
“Yessir, ‘fraid so.”
“Well, we found some corrosion in a few pipes in that area, and a few shoddy floor welds, too. Quite possible we’d have had a few fatalities tonight without your intervention.”
The captain spun around and walked off, looking like he was about to go chew on some undercooked executive officer for lunch. Work details sprang into action all over the ship, while Claire looked at Benjamin with newfound respect, and now not quite sure what she felt about this kind-hearted stranger with death in his eye.
She turned and leaned into his shoulder just then, and when he put an arm around her she felt weak in the knees for a moment – until she remembered she really had no idea who – let alone what – this stranger really was.
It seemed most every one of the people in Roosevelt’s working group had surreptitiously found their way to the bridge just before nine that evening, and both Captain McCrea and the X-O were hunched over the chart table when Roosevelt was wheeled onto the bridge. All the servicemen snapped to attention and Claire could tell the President relished this little bit of pomp; nevertheless, he told them all to get back to their duties while Roy wheeled him over to windows that overlooked the foredeck.
“Why can’t I go out, Captain McCrea?” the President asked.
McCrea looked up, shook his head. “Thirty-eight degrees out, Mr President. Sea temp is fifty two, and sea state is, well sir, it’s going to be a rough night.”
“I see, John. Carry-on.”
Levy looked at a bulkhead mounted clock and walked over to the captain. “Any time now, sir.”
“X-O, bring the ship to general quarters, signal all ships: go dark now.”
“Aye, sir.” Moments later klaxons rang and men scrambled to their stations all over the ship, and forty seconds later the X-O announced “All stations manned and ready, Captain. Water-tight doors are set, and the ship is ready for air engagement…”
“Very well,” McCrea said.
Levy walked off the bridge to the radar operators compartment, and he looked at the screen for a moment…
“There he is,” Levy said, and the radar operator snapped to, began firming up the plot. Levy walked back out to the bridge.
“Captain, aircraft bearing zero two two degrees, fifty miles. Best guess is his altitude is ten thousand, possibly in a slight descent.”
“Alright. Radar, keep your reports coming.”
“Aye, sir. Single aircraft is turning in our direction now, still in a shallow dive, now about four-six miles out, speed now one seven zero knots.”
“You think that’s your Focke-Wulf?” McCrea asked Levy.
“Right profile, Captain. There were, are four of them up right now.”
“You think he’s got us?” McCrea asked, trying to ignore the slip.
“What kind of range does that missile of his have?”
“It’s altitude dependent, sir. Anywhere from two to five kilometers.”
“Any idea how big his warhead is?”
“Roughly 300 kilos of high explosives. Signal your escorts to move in close now, sir. As close as they possibly can – without risking a collision. And let’s you and I go out to the bridge-deck, sir.”
McCrea led the way, and he looked out into the night sky, saw a line of thunderstorms along the far horizon, the distant clouds silhouetted by flickering lightning.
“How far away?” Levy asked.
“Fifty, maybe seventy miles. Won’t do us a bit of good.”
They watched the cruiser and four destroyers sliding in closer and closer, the cruiser taking up station perhaps fifty yards off their starboard beam, the phosphorescence kicked up in it’s wake almost magnificent…
“Remind me, Mr Levy, just why the hell did I let you talk me into this?” McCrea said, turning to look at the civilian – but Levy was staring straight up into the night sky now…
At something bright blue.
“What the devil is that?” McCrea hissed, suddenly feeling betrayed.
“A friend, sir.”
Whatever IT was, the thing was resolving into a sphere now – yet it was impossible to gauge any idea of it’s size, let alone how far away it was…
“What is that, Benjamin?”
He turned, saw Roosevelt and Hull looking up at the blue sphere – and Claire, too, only she was looking at him, a million questions in her eyes.
He turned back to the sphere, saw its descent was slowing rapidly now, and its motion was apparent to everyone looking at it.
Then the X-O stuck his head out the hatch…
“Captain, zero bearing change, range now thirty five miles and closing.”
“Got it,” McCrea hissed. “Mr Levy?”
“Steady as she goes, Captain.”
McCrea shook his head. “Just how big is that thing, Levy?”
“Now about a mile in diameter. Its altitude is one hundred and ten thousand feet.”
“Jesus,” Hull sighed, “it’s huge. What did you say it was made of?”
“Pure energy, Mr Secretary,” Benjamin said, but he was looking into Claire’s eyes just then, trying to take the measure of her mood. She did not look happy, and he guessed because she had seen into the nature of his lie.
McCrea was looking up at the sphere now, and out of habit he checked his navigational stars: Vega was hovering near the zenith, while Deneb and Altair were down a bit, now to the southeast, but soon enough the sphere commanded all his attention. He held out his clinched fist, tried to measure its relative size against a known object, and just then the sphere was half the size of his extended fist. Then…thirty seconds later the object was as big as his fist…
Then the X-O stuck his head out the hatch again: “Sir, Mr Dawson is requesting weapons free; they want to engage the object overhead…”
“X-O, under no circumstances is anyone to open fire on that object. Make that clear to the C-O of each vessel in the group, and I mean NOW!”
“And where is that goddamn airplane!”
“Constant bearing now, Captain, and two-two miles out.”
“Mr Levy?” McCrea said, “I’m getting a little nervous. Why is that?”
Levy smiled, though it was too dark out for McCrea to see. “Me too, Captain.”
“Ben?” He heard Claire say his name and he opened his arm to her, felt her slip in by his side. He furled his arm around her and pulled her tight.
“It won’t be long now,” Levy sighed, staring at the sphere.
McCrea guessed the object was only a few hundred feet above the gunnery mast now, and he saw the surface of the sphere did indeed look like pure energy…it’s surface was covered with hairy blue – lightning, for want of a better word – and it was still closing fast. “Is this going to hurt when it hits?” McCrea asked.
“No sir,” Levy answered, “though some power systems may be temporarily affected.”
And seconds later the Iowa and her escorts were literally encased within the sphere, and in the next instant all seven ships went cold. The ever-present vibration of the ship’s power plant faded away, and in the same instant all power to every system on the ship simply tripped and fell silent.
McCrea looked up, tried to make out the contours of the sphere – but it was gone now, and no trace of it remained. Then… “What’s with the goddamn stars?”
“What about them?” Roosevelt said.
“Vega was on the zenith less than ten minutes ago; now it’s low on the southern horizon, while Altair and Deneb are higher in ascension. That can’t be.”
Levy hadn’t counted on this happening, hadn’t thought anyone would notice the changes in stellar positions, and he nodded his head. “Spherical aberration of being within the sphere,” he lied. “It ought to change when we re-emerge.”
“X-O? Where’s that aircraft?”
“Sir, all systems are dark now.”
“Well hallelujah and no fucking shit! Any of the ship’s lookouts still at their posts, Commander?”
“Yessir, and no reported sightings.”
“How about helm? We got any rudder authority?”
“Yessir, the auxiliary kicked-in.”
McCrea looked at the escorts and noted that all the other ships were still – more or less – safely abeam and not closing in. “Mr Levy, any idea how long this is gonna last?”
“Thirty, maybe forty minutes.”
“Somebody bring me a sextant,” McCrea grumbled, and within moments a seaman carried over the Plath almost reverentially and handed it to his captain. “Thanks, son.”
McCrea grumbled while he walked the transit in the moonless night, trying to zero-in the horizon, and when he was sure he had it on the line he dialed the vernier until the two horizon lines met; when he was sure he had what he needed he walked into the chartroom and pulled out his tables, started reducing the angles.
He soon realized none of the figures he had worked so he walked back out on the bridge-deck and shot almost-as-bright Altair, knowing that with this one higher in the night sky he had to be more careful with his horizons. Again he grumbled and growled, again he thought he got exactly what he needed, and again he walked to the chart-table, working through the tables and the math by candlelight.
The problem, he soon realized, was simple: neither Vega nor Altair were anywhere close to where they ought to be, and then he felt Levy by his side.
“Problem?” Levy said.
“You could say that, yes. Vega and Altair aren’t where they’re supposed to be, and I can’t account for it.”
“No, your sight reduction tables don’t go back that far.”
McCrea felt the hair on the back of his neck rise. “What did you say?”
“They haven’t been at these stellar coordinates in roughly eighty thousand years.”
McCrea didn’t know what to say, so he said – nothing.
“We find it far easier to move through time, Captain. I’m sorry…I should have warned you, but I didn’t count on your familiarity with the stars.”
“Is that sphere…your ship?”
“That…? No, it’s more like a tool. Once inside the sphere we slip through time.”
“Uh-huh. And where did the sphere come from?”
“And where, Mr Levy, is that?”
And when Benjamin Levy pointed at the sky, Captain John McCrea shook his head. “And if you don’t mind me asking son, just where the hell are you from?”
“New London, sir.”
Levy chuckled. “Can’t say I blame you, sir. I wouldn’t believe me either.”
“How much longer?”
“Maybe ten minutes.”
“Well, let’s get back out there.”
“Yessir, but…could we keep this just between you and me?”
“Not on your fuckin’ life, Mr Levy.”
And Levy laughed, laughed until he couldn’t stop. He laughed as he walked out into the windy bridge-deck, laughed while Roosevelt looked to McCrea for an answer, but then the Captain simply shrugged and looked away in despair.
A few minutes later the sphere seemed to spontaneously reappear, then, as it shot up into the night sky, the Iowa’s systems came back to life. The boilers had to be re-ignited, pressure had to come up again, but diesel generators restored vital systems before that happened.
“Bridge, radar. We’re clear across the board here. No, repeat no radar contacts.”
McCrea shook his head, then looked up into the night sky again again. Vega was back where she was supposed to be; Altair and Deneb were as well. He brought the sextant back out and shot Vega, then Altair, taking his time to double check all his angles. He shot them again, just to make sure, then he retired to the chartroom.
An hour later he had reduced all his new shots, and when he crossed the arcs he looked up and smiled. In the last hour and a half the Iowa had moved perhaps a quarter mile. And what…? Eighty thousand years?
He looked up, saw Levy watching him as he worked.
‘No,’ Captain John McCrea thought, ‘on second thought, I think for once in my life I’ll just keep my mouth shut.’
The X-O walked over to the chart table and looked at this seasoned navigator’s work, then up at his captain. “Orders, Captain?”
“Resume heading of two-nine-nine, speed sixteen knots, and you have the con, X-O. Mr Levy and I are going for a little walk.”
Claire too had seen the Shift, had seen Vega, Deneb and Altair drop down to the southern horizon, only she make a quick estimate of the change in right ascension and declination and worked through the math – in her head. Judging from these three stars alone, the earth’s relative position in the galaxy had either moved ahead forty thousand years, or retreated more than seventy thousand year. That meant, she guessed, the sphere was a cloud created from one electron, and what? By varying the charge rate the sphere could be made smaller or larger? But how could anyone do that? And what if, as many were beginning to suspect, there were particles smaller than electrons, protons and neutrons. How would that change the calculus of the phenomenon?
‘There’s still so much I don’t know,’ she whispered, her inner voice tinged with frustration, then she thought about Oppenheimer’s warning, his ‘paradox of time.’ If time was a river, a constantly flowing river, and if the flow was disrupted by a traveler venturing into the past, and if the river’s course was thereby altered, then everything that had happened after the alteration would be altered, too.
“So if,” Oppenheimer continued, “one was to go back far enough and teach cave men to make fire millennia before the original event, presumably mankind would be that much further along the curve.”
But then she had said something to the effect that “But what if one went back and prevented man from learning how to make fire, or how to make a wheel? Couldn’t an unscrupulous agent move through time to completely undermine human progress?”
“But why,” Oppenheimer sighed condescendingly, “would anyone want to do something like that?”
“Why is it, Robert,” Albert Einstein said to the assembled group, “that you assume human actions will always be rational, or even benevolent, when all human history is full of direct contradictions of that notion?”
“Because destruction is creative, Albert. It always has been.”
“Yet what if, and one day soon, we take our destructive impulses too far? What then, Robert? What will we have created?”
“Renewal, I should think, Albert.”
“Renewal?” Einstein sighed. “Whose renewal, Robert? Perhaps those Hindu gods of yours? Chamunda, I dare say?”
And what had Benjamin said? “We have to stop now, or else.” What did his ‘or else’ mean? He was implying direct consequences, wasn’t he? So ‘or else’ meant there was someone, somewhere, who would take great offense at her continued work within the Los Alamos group, and her tinkering with the fabric of time…
And she thought just then that ‘someone…somewhere’ was exactly the wrong way of looking at the problem. The real issue would most likely turn around the idea of someone, sometime. The idea that the river of time might be diverted in such a way that people in the future would be somehow negated, and so, perhaps, simply cease to be, had never occurred to her.
So what if Trevor and Benjamin had truly come from New London, Connecticut; if that was true, could Trevor indeed be her father? The idea washed over her for a while: ‘Yes – but only if my father was a time traveler. Or if he still was a time traveler. Yet they are trying to stop the me from working with the Los Alamos group, from studying this phenomenon. Why?’
The only plausible explanation would be to keep their present intact, and yet to do that they couldn’t overtly intervene. To repair that kind of damage would require that they move backwards in time again and to erase the damage done…but how could they – if their present was negated?
Then it hit her. Trevor had said he’d been born in the nineteenth century, and what if that was the truth?
But what about his eyes. And Benjamin’s, too. She’d never seen anything quite like them before, and they were identical. And both their heads were a little “off,” weren’t they. Not shaped quite right.
She shook her head, refused to think through the consequences of these little observations, the cause and effect, any further. She didn’t like where this path was taking her.
Oh no, not at all.
Levy stood on the bridge, looked out over the stormy seas, at the scudding clouds whipped along by the storm. The Iowa plowed through these towering waves, throwing great white walls of blue water over the foredeck, but the escorting destroyers weren’t have such an easy time now. He watched as one of them, one of the newer Buckley class DEs, struggled up and over a forty foot wave, the little ship’s helmsman obviously fighting to keep the hull from turning sideways to the wind and the waves and broaching, to, in effect, being rolled over. The Iowa could take these seas head-on, and for days if necessary, but these little “tin cans” could be seriously damaged, or lost, in a storm like this one.
But that’s not what Levy was thinking about.
No, and that was because, in the accounts he’d read about the Iowa’s role in the Tehran mission, she had never once diverted towards Portland, Maine. Roosevelt’s convoy had traveled, unmolested, directly to Norfolk, Virginia…so why had he decided to divert north? An extra measure of caution, perhaps? A sense that something wasn’t quite right?
They had known about the German Condors flying out of northern Spain, the Wolf-packs operating in the south- and mid-Atlantic, as well as the raiders patrolling south of Bermuda, but what didn’t they know about? The weather, for one, but then there were all the other ships and submarines on patrol, ships whose activities had never been recorded by history. Each was suddenly a great unknown, and now he wondered if, by altering the Iowa’s course two days before, he had begun to alter the flow of time. If that was true, the assumed outcome of this trip – Roosevelt’s safe return to Washington, D.C., was now in jeopardy.
Großadmiral Karl Dönitz read through the latest dispatches then looked over the assembled nautical charts; most laid out the approaches to the Straits of Gibraltar, two represented waters around the Azores. Next, he looked at the assumed track of the convoy, then last nights report that a Condor flying out of Spain had developed a positive track on the ships. The convoy had deployed some kind of new electro-magnetic weapon, and the ships had simply disappeared; when news of this development landed on Hitler’s desk that morning, an invective storm had enveloped the entire command hierarchy in Berlin. “One of our maritime patrol aircraft had Roosevelt in its sights, then the ship simply disappeared?! Find this convoy! Find Roosevelt, and kill him!”
Dönitz looked over the dispatch one more time, and once again he plotted the coordinates on the relevant charts, then he looked over his fleet readiness report.
Unencumbered by escorting destroyers, Scharnhorst could, conceivably, make a dash into the North Atlantic and intercept the convoy at the Georges Banks. The weather would be treacherous, but that might work to their benefit. The Condor’s pilot had remarked that the convoy was only making 15-16 knots, a fuel conserving rate, meaning the Iowa’s escorts wouldn’t need to refuel at Bermuda. So, the convoy would be approaching Halifax in bad weather and in a perilously low fuel state. And air cover would be unavailable in such a storm, too.
He picked up the phone on his desk. “I need to speak with Konteradmiral Eric Bey immediately.”
Three hours later, the Scharnhorst left Narvik and slipped quietly through the Vestfjorden – bound for the calm waters of the Georges Bank.
20 December 1943
“I don’t think I’ve ever seen it this bad out,” the X-O said as the Iowa’s bow disappeared inside another sixty foot wave. The windshield wipers were working overtime now, having been set at maximum power for more than thirty hours, and the storm hadn’t abated in the least.
Captain McCrea looked at the Indiana, now about a quarter mile off their port quarter, through his ever-present binoculars, and he held his breath as he watched her disappear briefly under a fresh sixty-foot wave. He resumed breathing only when he saw her forward guns break free of all that blue water.
“Signal Indiana to reduce speed to ten knots,” the captain said as he eyed a train of sixty footers bearing down on his ship. “Come left to two-six-zero; let’s take these waves head-on for a while, stop the rolling as best we can, and someone see if Mr Levy can make it up to the bridge now.”
He heard men moving and instantly regretted the order. Most everyone below was strapped into bunks, though out of sheer desperation some tried to use the head. Only the truly insane aboard made their way to one of the ship’s dining rooms, but no matter what was eaten, the half-digested muck soon came right back up. Sending someone to fetch Levy meant a seaman would have to navigate three passageways and two stairways; almost a suicide mission under these conditions. He hoped Levy had his sea legs now…
“Indiana acknowledges ten knots and two-six-zero, Captain.”
“Very well,” McCrea said, glad he’d sent the lighter DEs south to Bermuda; they’d have had a truly evil time in these seas. Now, with less than five hundred miles to go he wanted to breath easy. He wanted to believe the worst was over.
But something was bothering him. Something important. What was he missing?
“X-O, let’s fire up the radar, see if we have any company.”
The latest radar arrays were enclosed in small domes, structures perhaps 15 feet in diameter. The first convoys to make the Murmansk run lost radar when freezing sea water rendered the radomes inoperable; now almost all naval vessels were operating with enclosed sets, yet even so, the latest were hardly any better when operating in a sea-state like this. Waves and rain conspired to make all but the largest targets hard to acquire, and the ship’s violent motion didn’t much help matters.
“Bridge, radar, I have a large target bearing seven-two degrees, two zero miles. Standby for a speed.”
McCrea and the X-O looked at one another. There was no allied shipped this far north, not in this storm, so it could only be one thing.
“The Brits got Tirpitz, right?” McCrea asked.
“Yessir, but the Scharnhorst is operational, and last I heard the Prinz Eugen was in the Baltic.”
“Bridge, radar. Confirmed vessel track, speed two-five knots, positive radar emissions.”
McCrea shook his head. “Signal Indiana, let ‘em know the situation and tell them to come right to two-eight-zero, increase speed to flank. Helm, steady on two-six-zero, increase speed, all ahead full.”
“She has eleven inch guns, right, sir?”
“Yup, but they’re not radar-controlled. In these seas she’d need all the luck in the world to even get close. Tell Indiana to run parallel when she’s five miles off our beam. If Scharnhorst manages to close we’ll give her a broadsides at ten thousand yards.”
“Is it Scharnhorst, sir?” McCrea heard Levy ask.
“My, my, as I live and breathe…it’s Mr Levy. And what a surprise, he knows the tactical situation, too.”
Levy ignored the sarcasm. “What’s his range, Captain McCrea?”
“About twenty miles.”
“Bridge, radar, now picking up a second target, same range, same bearing, two nine knots.”
“That will be the Prinz Eugen, Captain.”
“No kidding. Gee whiz, my lucky day.”
“What speed can we make?”
“In these seas…twenty-seven? Those ships won’t be seaworthy after this beating, and the Prinz Eugen only has eight inch guns.”
“Both have 12 torpedo tubes, Captain,” Levy added.
“Won’t do them any good…not in these seas.”
Levy walked over to a barometer. “Rising?”
“That’s right, and this storm will clear from the southwest.”
McCrea shook his head.
“I see,” Levy sighed – as he left the bridge.
Naval Air Station, Brunswick, Maine
“Mauler 7-0-4, clear to taxi runway one-niner left, altimeter two-niner niner one, wind one eight seven at twelve.”
“7-0-4 to one niner left,” Lieutenant Noel Stevens replied, then he turned to his co-pilot, a nugget, Lieutenant-j.g. Dan Cox, fresh out of his S-3 course at Jax. “Got the TACAN freqs entered?”
“Gimme flaps 10.”
“Weps? How y’all doin’ back there?”
“Kewl beans, skipper. All checklists complete.”
“7-0-4,” Brunswick tower said, “taxi short of the runway and hold. P-3 on final.”
“Four, holding short.” Stevens looked at the mottled gray Orion on short final, and he followed it with his eyes all the way to touchdown while he worked his controls and pumped the brakes a few times. “Arm spoilers,” he told Cox. “Set yaw-dampers to stand-by.”
“7-0-4, clear for take-off. Contact Boston Center 123.3, and good day.”
“Four rolling, one-two-three – three,” Stevens said as he advanced the throttles to the Viking’s pre-set take off power.” The Lockheed accelerated smoothly down the runway and he listened as Cox called out their speeds; he pulled back on the stick at one forty and at three degrees nose up the S-3B climbed gently, quickly gaining speed.
“Boston, Mauler 7-0-4 out of NAS Brunswick. We’re en route to check out a contact south of Halifax. We’ll maintain 500 AGL out of Class B, and 3-3-0 knots.”
“7-0-4, roger. No civilian traffic at this time, clear to depart your discretion.”
Mauler 704 was a Lockheed S-3B, the “Sea Control” variant of the S-3 Viking family, armed with two AGM-84 Harpoon anti-shipping missiles. An unidentified hostile surface contact, most likely a Russian cruiser, had been picked up by an Ohio class SSBN transiting the Georges Bank, and as 7-0-4 was the closest aircraft armed with Harpoons, Stephens and Cox got the call. Flying over the Gulf of Maine at 350 miles per was, generally speaking, great fun, but not when a potential hostile was lurking out there somewhere.
There wasn’t a cloud in the sky this morning, and the seas were mirror-calm as the Viking skimmed along a few hundred feet above the surface, and within forty minutes they were in the reported area…
“Nothing, skipper. Just some X-band stuff going into Gloucester. Fishing boats, a couple of stinkpots. No vodka burners.”
“Well, fuck,” Stephens said, cutting the power and trimming the aircraft into a gentle climb. “Go ahead and light off the -137. Let’s see what we’re missing…”
Mauler 7-0-4 quickly reached fifteen thousand feet, but that was as high as he dared go out here. They were still well under the track of all trans-Atlantic traffic flying in and out of New York and Boston now, but he didn’t want to get tangled up in that mess.
“Skip? What if that Boomer picked up an Akula?”
“Wrong plant noise.”
“I read something a few weeks ago. The Akula apparently sounds pretty rough running on the surface.”
“Taylor? You shittin’ me? A nuc boat sounding like a diesel cruiser? What are you smoking back there?”
“Hey, I’m just thinkin’ out loud, ya know?”
“And we haven’t got MAD gear on this crate either, let alone any torps,” Stephens added as he reefed the Viking into a tight climbing right turn. He scanned his instruments, then looked up into the sky…
“What the fuck is that?” he said, leveling out the wings, then turning hard to the left.
“What?” Cox said.
Stephens pointed across Cox’s chest, straight up towards space. “That!”
“Looks like some kind of a energy disturbance, like St Elmo’s fire,” Cox said. “It’s descending.”
Stephens leveled the Viking, checked his ECM panel. “Weps? Got anything airborne, maybe flight level five zero, descending?”
“Radar’s clear, skipper.”
“Ah, Portland, Mauler 704, you have any traffic over head, say extreme flight level, like flight level five-zero?”
“7-0-4, only traffic we get up there is Concorde, and none are in the area right now.”
“Okay Portland, we’ve got a large blue sphere descending near this location, and nothing showing up on radar, either. Doesn’t appear to be a conventional aircraft and it looks too slow to be some sort of re-entry vehicle.”
“7-0-4, still negative radar contact.”
“Uh, skipper, that thing’s comin’ on down real fast,” Cox said. “Maybe we should give it some room, ya know?”
“I want to get closer, be right by it when it passes.”
“It’s gonna be close alright…”
“Jesus,” Stephens cried, “look at the size of that thing…”
And in the next instant Mauler 4-0-7 disappeared from air traffic control radars in Halifax, Portland and Boston.
And in the next instant Stephens fought to regain control of his aircraft…
The Viking had suddenly and without warning entered a violent thunderstorm – he chopped the throttle and trimmed for level flight, fighting to keep his eyes on the panel in the violent motion.
“Where the fuck did THAT come from!” he shouted, trying to make his voice heard over the hail battering his windshield, flipping his radar display to WTX, ranging in on the nearest red cell.
“Skipper, outside air temp just dropped from 55 to 22,” Cox cried, “and we got blowin’ snow out there!”
“Get some bleed air goin’ on the leading edge, pitot and AOA anti-ice set to MAX,” Stephens said, cutting the power even more. “Uh, Portland, 4-0-7, do you read?”
Nothing…not even static.
“Check the breakers, maybe we took some lightning.”
“Checked. Nothin’ tripped.”
“Set COMM1 to scan then set COMM2 to Halifax, and better get the transponder to 7700 and squawk ident.”
“Skipper?” Weps said, his voice wary now, “I got four contacts, 0-3-4 magnetic and sixty miles.”
“Anything else out here?”
“Okay,” Stephens sighed, “let’s get out of this crud and see what’s happenin’ down there on the water,” he said, cutting power yet again and trimming for a steeper dive.
Then, over the scanning radio: “Iowa, Iowa, we’re taking fire, repeat, we’re taking fire.”
“Roger, Indiana, come left to 2-0-5 magnetic. We’ll cross behind you, you target the first ship, we’ll fire on the second after we pass.”
“What the fuck?” Stephens said, looking at Cox. “Weps, start calling out range and speed to that first contact…”
“Roger…now 0-2-0 degrees and nine miles.”
“You got the frequency?”
“242.2,” Cox said. “Locked in.”
“Iowa, this is Mauler 7-0-4, what’s your sit-rep, over.”
“Mauler 7-0-4, identify.”
“Uh, 7-0-4, we’re an S-3 out of Brunswick, VS-32, and we got two Harpoons if you need ‘em.”
McCrea looked at his X-O and shrugged. “Do you know what an S-3 is?”
His X-O shook his head as the Captain walked to the radio room.
“Okay, 7-0-4, this is BB-61 and we’ve got two bad guys on our ass. They’re about four miles behind us, and they’ve bracketed the Indiana twice with surface fire, and we’ve got torpedoes in the water.”
“61, 7-0-4, say again? You are engaged with surface combatants?”
“Affirmative, 7-0-4. Two hostiles firing at us.”
Stephens looked at Cox and shrugged. “Light off the wing cameras. Weps, target vessel three.”
“Targeting. Target acquired.”
“Lock on target.”
“Locked on. Getting some radar bleed now, skipper.”
“ECM to active.”
Stephens had his Viking 300 feet above the waves now, heading right for Contact One, whoever this BB61 really was…and then he saw the ship dead ahead…
Then he saw three shells land in the sea on either side of the Iowa – just as his aircraft screamed overhead…
“And just what the devil was that!” Captain McCrea screamed. “You ever seen anything like that before?”
“Get Mr Levy up here, goddamnit! On the double!”
“Was that the Iowa?” Cox screamed.
“Yup. Weps, ready on one.”
The first Harpoon, the missile hanging outboard of the Viking’s left engine, leapt off the rail in a searing white roar…
Rear Admiral Eric Bey saw the launch from the Scharnhorst’s bridge, but he had no idea what it was beyond a brilliant white light. Alarms starting sounding when lookouts called an aircraft on the horizon dead ahead, yet Bey couldn’t believe that. No aircraft could possibly be up in this weather, let alone engage in combat operations…
Then he saw the missile streak by, perhaps two hundred meters off his port beam, and he ran out on the bridge-deck and watched it home-in on the Prinz Eugen. His hands on the ice covered rail, he saw the impact…indeed, he could feel the heat moments later…and despite the snow and the wind it took minutes for the his first view of the burning wreckage to emerge from the flames and billowing smoke.
“Radar! Where is that aircraft!” Bey called out, frantic now.
He saw the two battleships still ahead and shook his head…
“Hard right rudder, make your course zero two zero, make smoke and all ahead full!”
“Skipper?” the Viking’s weapons control officer said calmly. “Aspect change on target three. He’s breaking off, sir.”
“Okay, I see him now,” Stephens said as he flew over the flaming hulk of the Prinz Eugen. “See the flag?” he asked Cox as 7-0-4 flew past the sinking battle-wagon.
“NAZI German, as a matter of fact. Weps, safe your weapon.”
“Roger. Harpoon two to safe.”
“Make sure the camera is getting all this,” Stephens said to Cox.
“It’s recording, getting a good image.”
He cut power and trimmed his nose up a little, let more speed bleed off until he knew he needed to drop some flaps. Using the joystick, Cox centered the camera on the Scharnhorst’s stern, the vessel’s name and hailing port clear in the display.
“Scharnhorst?” Cox asked.
“Uh-huh. She went down in ‘44, I think.”
“What? You mean, as in 1944? That we just engaged – and sunk – a German battlewagon that hasn’t existed in fifty years?”
“Yup, that’s what it looks like,” Stephens said, grinning. Let’s get some Mark I eyeballs on those two Navy ships…”
As Stephens reefed the little jet into a tight turn, and now on a reciprocal heading to the US ships, he barely felt the presence of the sphere again – then seconds later Mauler 7-0-4 burst out into radiantly clear skies. He checked the condition of his aircraft, knowing instinctively that the Iowa was gone now, then he checked-in with Brunswick as he changed course back to the base, not quite knowing what waited for him in the days ahead, and not at all sure what they had just experienced. Whatever had happened, he thought, at least it had been more exciting than chasing phantom Russian trawlers…
Roosevelt was, apparently, taken to a train waiting for him in Portland, and from there he rode to Boston, then on to the White House, while Claire and Ben Levy accompanied Charles back to the Wilkinson home in Philadelphia for a few days rest. They arrived on Christmas eve, just in time for dinner, and the house was decorated just as Claire remembered. A little over the top, as always, but festive and gay.
For there were children roaming the halls once again, and the stairs and hallways echoed with laughter.
Charles had two now, both boisterous boys, while Liz had three – two boys and a very little girl – while poor, barren Amanda had finally given in to her various depressions and learned to eat. When Claire first saw Amanda that evening she could hardly believe her eyes, for the glorious blond-headed dream-boat of Mainline Society had blossomed into something quite unrecognizable. Sullen didn’t begin to describe the look on poor Amanda’s face; no, her’s was the quiet lassitude of broken dreams…too many nighttime visits by Rupert had simply cut the girl loose from mundane things – like reality. She muttered to her demons no matter where she was, no matter who was around to listen.
And as these things so often do, her latest series of outbreaks was attended by Benjamin Levy.
Amanda was sitting at the piano in the library, staring at sheet music when he walked into the vast, high-ceilinged room. He did not see her sitting there as he walked to one of the shelves and pulled a book down, for she had neither moved nor spoken a single word.
Then he heard a child’s forlorn cry and turned to see Amanda in animated discussion with – no one. She was fully engaged in an argument, the contours of which remained a mystery to him as he listened, though he heard references to unwanted advances and pleas to a doctor…
He watched her for some time, fascinated. He’d heard of schizophrenia, of course, but had never seen evidence of its existence before, and watching this woman rattle on as if fully engaged in a life or death struggle was at once as interesting as it was troubling.
He moved closer to the piano yet the woman didn’t respond to his presence, and he realized he simply didn’t exist to her right now, at least not in the world this woman inhabited. Wherever this woman was, she simply was not in the same place he was.
Then Claire walked into the room, looking first at Ben, then at her sister.
She walked over to the piano and looked at Amanda, then to Benjamin. And at the book in Benjamin’s hand.
Tolstoy’s Resurrection. Now…why had he taken that book from the shelves?
And she could almost remember when books like that one had consumed all her interest – until they didn’t – couldn’t – anymore. Until the overt primacy of the physical world became self apparent, and how after that epiphany she had turned away from literature and music.
Then, hearing Amanda’s words, she fell inside the distant conversation, and her pleas to the demons that haunted her…
And so Claire moved to her sister’s side, sat beside her on the piano bench and put an arm around Amanda’s shoulders.
“Oh, my poor dear,” Claire said, startled at the change she found now, “what’s bothering you this fine Christmas eve?”
And those words seemed to pull Amanda back into the present – for a moment. “Claire? You’re home?”
“Yes, precious, I am.”
“Play for me, would you?”
Claire shook her head, as if she hadn’t quite understood the words. “Play?”
“Yes. Debussy. Remember how you used to sit and play for father?”
“When you played, he left me alone. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t.”
“I loved it when you played Debussy most of all. He left me alone for days.”
“I’m sorry, my love. I didn’t know.”
“Did you love me, Claire?”
“Yes, of course. I always have.”
“That’s so sweet of you to say. I wished I was younger when you came to us. That we could have played together. As it was, I was most afraid of you…”
“Why? Because you were so much larger than life. Seven years old and reading books even my mother hadn’t, playing Debussy for us all, showing us the way forward, away from all the nightmares in this house.”
“I don’t understand, Amanda.”
“Really? I was so jealous of you…”
“Jealous? But really, it was I who was jealous…of you! You’ve always been the gorgeous one, so charming and full of poise, and I knew I’d never be as beautiful as you…”
And Amanda leaned over, let her head rest on Claire’s shoulder. “And look at me now,” she whispered. “Look at me now, dear sister.”
“I am, dearest. And do you know what? I think you need to come with me, out to New Mexico, and live with me for a while.”
“Yes. Did you know I have a horse there, and mountain trails to ride? Streams to fish, pools to swim in? You’d love it, Amanda. Won’t you think about it? We could have so much fun…”
“Play something for me, Claire.”
“But…I haven’t, not in years.”
“The Clair de lune? I might remember that…”
“Yes, please. That was always father’s favorite.”
Claire turned and faced the piano, and though it had been twenty years she played as if it had been only days. She played and played and Amanda wept, gently at first, then openly – as her nightmares came for her in this ancient room…their knives drawn, patiently waiting for just the right moment as they circled.
While Claire played Ben Levy looked at these two creatures and wondered about the things they had shared. About the things that had pushed them apart once upon a time, and about the tragic, unseen bond that held them so close even now. He thought about what it meant to be human, to be part of a family. About the betrayals you can never forgive, as if the moments that held these two people fast together were tragic moments trapped in memory. He thought about music, human music – and the music of the spheres. Yet all the blood in the universe couldn’t explain what he had just seen…the tears on Amanda’s face the echoes of another little girl’s betrayals, the solace she took from lost chords, notes played by echoes of another little girl – one blissfully unaware of all the other little betrayals that had lay waiting in this kaleidoscope of shadows.
All these hidden emotions were right there in front of him, on two faces hiding as one.
And if he’d ever wondered what it would be like to be betrayed by a father, here was all the evidence one would ever need – in this amber shadowland, lives hiding just out of sight until the fault lines became too hard to ignore. Until that other voice spilled out of the light of day, no longer content to wait for satisfaction.
When Claire finished walking through these conjoined memories she stood abruptly and walked out of the library, while Amanda resumed her dialogue with the dead. Benjamin opened Tolstoy to a bookmark and looked at the words on the page for a moment, then he followed Claire out into the shadows.
He walked to a vast parlor, what was being called a living room these days, and he stared at the Christmas tree set up before a huge expanse of diamond-paned leaded-glass windows. The house, he saw, was some sort of approximation of a Tudor mansion, with reddish brick augmented by blackish-brown timbers and sharply arced doors separating one room from another, all set-off by a huge stone fireplace along a far wall. The Christmas tree was a good twelve feet tall, and he saw an infinite number of amber reflections set amongst the green needles, reflections of other lights long gone, reflections of memories patiently waiting to be reexamined.
There were even stockings set on the mantle, he saw, and he remembered a time when such things had meant something to him. A life he’d never known, of course, yet attractive in the way borrowed memories often are.
Presents under the tree, countless expectations wrapped in endless anticipation. So much happiness, so many memories waiting to be made, wanting to be made.
What if it all disappeared tomorrow, he asked himself? What if I make another mistake? I very nearly cost Roosevelt his life, and Claire’s. What if McCrea hadn’t turned on the radar? What if Scharnhorst had crept up on them unawares? What if the Iowa had perished in those cold, storm-tossed seas? And Claire, too? If she had been lost, then what?
He had to admit now he was starting to feel something for her. Nothing like attraction, though not really, but perhaps more like admiration, even a grudging respect. Hers was a towering intellect, beyond anything these people had ever encountered, yet she seemed, if not unaware then perhaps simply careless about the implications of her strength of mind. So few minds reached her state of development, anywhere, yet when such power arose the universe took note. There were a handful of such minds on earth now, and that might soon become a problem. If they succeeded in detonating their device the universe would take note, and then he’d have to decide what to do.
If they came he’d have to go back once again, go back to that night of drifting icebergs and frantic pleading. Outcomes would have to be altered once again, destinies sent in new directions. He’d have to kill her this time, before she started changing outcomes again, before he fell in love with her – again. And most of all, before their daughter rose from the ashes and destroyed them all.
He sat across from Claire – and Amanda – his eyes trained on the gently passing landscape on the far side of the glass. They were on the Southwest Chief, now about halfway between Chicago and Lamy, New Mexico, and Claire was reading a report from Boeing engineers detailing reinforcements made to the outboard engine nacelles on three B-29s that had just come off the line; simulated blasts had rendered catastrophic damage to all three test aircraft and she was vexed now – because they had ignored her suggestion that they use either a heavier gauge steel, or consider an even stronger, though experimental, laminated metal…
Amanda was staring at her reflection in the window, talking to a man who looked suspiciously like her father – and who was holding a knife to her belly, apparently getting ready to slice her open and remove the unborn child from her womb…
Levy saw Amanda tense as she cried out and shook his head, then he turned away in embarrassed despair in search of silence, wondering not only how, but why Claire thought she would be able to take care of this wounded creature. Or why she should? There were hospitals, after all, and Claire would never be able to dedicate the necessary time for the level of care Amanda would require. And…she wasn’t even biologically related! Why wouldn’t Charles or Elizabeth step forward and take over her care…?
‘Does she expect me to care for this poor creature?” Ben sighed inwardly. ‘If so, she will be very disappointed…’ No, he would begin work at 3M after the war. ‘His’ family would move to Minneapolis, and Claire would commence teaching and stop all work on the Shift. She had to. He had explained that to her more than once, and she’d said she understood the implications of continuing, the repercussions such a course of action guaranteed.
He turned and looked at Claire again, still lost in that latest engineering report.
“Anything new?” he asked.
“They used aluminum again. Three aircraft lost.”
“Titanium would be better.”
“Titanium? How so?”
“Have the their metallurgists and engineers look at this formula,” he said, scribbling on the back of an envelope:
2Mg(l) + TiCl4(g) → 2MgCl2(l) + Ti(s) [T = 800–850 °C]
“What is it?”
“Just pass it along, Claire.”
“I had no idea you were a misogynist, Mr. Levy,” Claire sighed.
“What makes you say that?”
“Because,” Amanda interjected, “you’re speaking to her like a misogynist asshole, Asshole.”
Claire’s left eyebrow arced sharply, then she tried to stifle the laugh she knew was coming.
“That was a little paternalistic of me, wasn’t it?” Ben sighed.
“A little?” Amanda asked.
“I’m sorry,” he added, taking the envelope again and writing on the back at an incomprehensible speed. “So, essentially, if one takes refined rutile from raw titanium ore, you reduce it further with a petroleum-derived coke in a fluidized bed reactor at 1000 degrees centigrade. Next, the resulting mixture should be treated with chlorine gas, giving you titanium tetrachloride, as well as a few other other nasty chlorides,” Levy said, grinning manically. “Next, these should be separated by further continuous fractional distillation, then, in a separate reactor, the titanium tetrachloride should be further reduced by liquid magnesium, at, say, 800 to 850 degrees centigrade, and this will ensure complete reduction. The resulting alloy will meet your requirements.”
“Oh? How strong is it?”
“Several orders of magnitude, I should think, than what they’re currently using, and not nearly so heavy.”
She took the envelope and studied it – while Amanda looked at Levy.
“Who are you,” Amanda said at long last.
“Me? Just your average industrial chemist.”
“You’re an asshole,” Amanda said, looking him in the eye, daring him to challenge her.
“Yes. And I’m not at all sure I trust you.”
“And why should you? You hardly know me?”
“Claire hardly knows you. Why does she trust you?”
“Because she knows me better than you think likely, or even possible.”
“You speak in circles a lot, you know?”
“Occupational hazard, I suppose.”
“Never a straight answer,” Amanda sighed, then she returned to staring at the myriad reflections in the window…waiting for their return…
The house was odd, he thought. Odd, and tiny.
How had Claire made the adjustment? From that house in Philadelphia – to this?
The entire house – all three bedrooms of it – was quite literally smaller than the library in the Philadelphia house. The walls were bare; not a single picture adorned the walls. There was no paneling on the walls, no library, and just one bathroom a little larger than a telephone booth.
And while Claire had returned to her own bedroom, and put Amanda in a large bedroom near her own, she had put him in a tiny space off the kitchen he assumed had been provided for some sort of domestic help.
And here he had thought she was developing feelings for him…
He lay in his bed that night thinking about this sudden uncomfortable turn of events, wondering if he should simply abort the mission and return to the ship, try to reconcile events that had already been altered with potentially more agreeable outcomes likely in the near future. Still, he knew what they’d say…
‘It’s a good plan…stick with it a little longer…’
Planting dreams…molding the shape of her intellect to help create the best possible outcome…and then she’d stumbled upon the Shift – the worst possible outcome imaginable. All it would take to sunder the current order was one simple ripple in the fabric of time caused by the shift – and then They would come. The people living on earth now thought they knew what true evil was, but no one here had ever met one of Them. The silent ones, the mind readers. Keepers…that’s what they called themselves. No one knew what they kept, unless it was a certain order to the universe.
He thought about that for a moment…
What if someone went back to the very beginning of time, to the moment when the universe came into being? To the moment of inception? What if someone went back and took that cosmic thimble full of matter and put it in a suitcase, then simply made the suitcase disappear? What if all the matter of the universe simply vanished? What then?
The theory said that if the Shift began it would send the universe back to this zero point. Was that what the Keepers sought to prevent? What if the Shift was unstoppable once it started, if the arrow of time became corrupted?
The shift was fundamentally different than the TimeShadows. The spheres could be controlled, and easily, and time travel could take place without distorting the flow of time. Not so with the Shift. The Shift was a one way ticket back to the beginning, and conceivably whatever lurked before the beginning.
Before the beginning?
Is that what the Keepers are guarding?
He sat up in bed and walked out the door to the kitchen, then he stumbled to an open door and he walked out onto the stone patio and looked out at the stars. Was there something beyond, he wondered? Something on the other side of all that blackness? Was that the secret?
He heard someone coming out of the house, walking up behind him – and he stood perfectly still, looking at the pole star, imagining the earth spinning round and round.
Silence. Only the sound of someone breathing.
He turned, saw Amanda standing there, a large knife in her hand, a slash-wound across her belly.
His eyes went wide, he began to feel panic for the first time in his life. “What have you done!” he cried…then she lunged at him, the knife aiming right at his heart.
Claire heard Amanda walk from her room, heard the door that led to the backyard open. She shook her head and slipped on her jeans and hiking boots, walked through the living room until she saw Amanda in the yard, the knife drawing back. She saw Benjamin standing there with his back to them both, looking, as he seemed to do often, at the stars – and she knew what was going to happen. She started running, and was through the door when Ben started to turn around. She came up from behind Amanda as she lunged, hooked her arm around Amanda’s neck and knocked her to the ground, then she saw the belly wound and thought maybe he had done it.
Ben was kneeling now, applying pressure, but the flow of blood was simply catastrophic. Without thinking he pressed his left temple and waited…
The scientist’s compound at Los Alamos was, in early 1944, one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the United States. Guards in Jeeps patrolled constantly – both the paved streets and the rugged arroyos that surrounded the compound. Several guards saw the blue sphere that settled over the small house on Sycamore Street, and they raced to investigate.
When they arrived they found blood in the backyard, the back door to the house standing wide open – and no one inside the house.
And no blue sphere.
Thirty four minutes later Harry Hopkins walked into the president’s bedroom and gently shook Roosevelt’s shoulder.
The room was impossibly small, the walls bright red – and Claire shook her head as the dream…but no, this wasn’t a dream, was it? Amanda was on an operating table and two machines were hovering over her body. Retractors had pulled open and revealed an enormous cavity; the robots were moving so fast she could neither see nor understand what they were doing. Screen flashed as readouts changed, one of the machines hovered over to what looked like a storage device and opened it and then plugged a bag of red fluid – was it blood – into the IV that coursed into Amanda’a arm.
She saw that Ben was beside her, and that they were in a small clean room off the operating room, and that Ben was talking on an intercom of some sort.
“She’s lost too much blood,” she heard him say, and she began to fear the worst. Then she heard him say: “Are you sure?”
He listened for a moment, then keyed codes on some kind of electronic pad. One of the machines stopped what it was doing and went back to the storage unit, pulled out another bag and added that to the IV.
Ben turned to her. “She’ll be alright now,” he said.
“She was, yes.”
“What do you mean, she was?”
“She is not dying now. She will be better in about five hours. We can return to the house then.”
“Are you kidding? Look at her!”
But then Claire turned and looked at her sister; now the fourteen inch long gash was simply gone, and her color was improving – right before her eyes.
“What have you done to her?”
“She’ll be better now. In every way.”
“In every way? What do you mean?”
“You will see.”
“Where are we?”
“You won’t tell me?”
“No. I cannot.”
She turned and looked at Amanda. “Why did she do this?”
“I do not know.”
“What’s wrong with you, Ben? You don’t…you’re not speaking right.”
“I am tired. I must rest.”
And with that he turned and walked from the little room, but the door slid shut behind him as he left, leaving her locked inside the tiny cabin. She looked at Amanda, at the machines working on her, then she too felt tired. A small bed slid out of the wall and she just made it before she passed out.
She woke and looked around, rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. Her bed, in her bedroom. In Los Alamos. The hard sunshine pouring in through the window left sharp shadows on the walls, and the sky over the spine of the Sangre de Cristo was the deepest blue she had ever seen…and then she remembered the blood.
Then, she heard knocking on the door. Frantic knocking, then men at the window, looking in. One saw her and tapped on the glass…
“Yes, just a minute. Let me get dressed, please.”
The man seemed to visibly relax, then he disappeared around the side of the house. She slipped into her jeans and put on a flannel shirt, then walked to Amanda’s room. Her sister was sleeping fitfully so she let her be, then walked to the kitchen, and into Ben’s room.
Gone. The room was empty, and there was no trace of him at all.
She walked to the front door and opened it, saw a half-dozen uniformed and plain-clothes policemen standing there, all looking very agitated.
“We’ve been searching for you for hours now!” one of them, apparently an FBI agent, said. “We found blood all over the backyard…”
“I’m so sorry,” Claire began. “My sister fell and cut herself last night. I ran her down to Santa Fe.”
“Officers saw some sort of sphere descend on the house. Do you know anything about that? Some sort of experiment, perhaps?”
She looked at the agent and shrugged. “I wasn’t conducting any experiments.”
“So…everything’s okay here?”
“Yes, and thank you for your concern.”
“Is your sister here, or at the hospital?”
“Here. Back in her bedroom now, sound asleep.”
“There was a lot of blood…what happened to her?”
Claire looked down. “I’m sorry, but she has emotional issues. Hallucinations.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the agent said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“It’s no intrusion, officer. Would you like to check on her, see for yourself?”
“That’s alright, Ma’am. Doctor Oppenheimer would like you to check in with his office as soon as you can.”
She nodded. “Thanks, I will.”
“Well, good day, doctor.”
“And you,” she said, closing the door, then she retreated to the kitchen, to Ben’s room. There was no sign he’d ever been there and she felt gut-punched, almost bereft – because she knew he wouldn’t be back. She walked, head down, into the kitchen – wondering if, after last night, life would ever be the same.
Those machines! Performing surgery! And the red walls…? It had to be that ship…
She put her hands out and steadied herself on the counter, took a few deep breaths, then she saw another agent in the backyard, just standing there, looking up at the sun.
Then she saw the shape of the man’s head, and she just knew.
She went back out to the patio. “Ben?” she asked, and the man turned around.
“No,” the man said.
“Do you know where he is?”
“He failed. He will not be returning.”
“Failed? What did he fail to do?”
“To protect you, and your family.”
“He didn’t fail…”
“That was not your decision to make.”
“Was? May I see him?”
“No. That is no longer possible.”
“I see. And, what happens next?”
“My name is Andrew. I am to be your husband.”
“Well, Andrew, nothing personal, but Ben was going to be my husband. I’d rather like it if that came to pass.”
“Would you mind going back to wherever you just came from and see if you can make that happen?”
“That may no longer be possible.”
She watched the man, if that was indeed what it was, walk off into the arroyo, then she returned to the kitchen and made coffee before she scrambled two eggs. When she had cleaned up after, she showered and put on fresh clothes, then went to Amanda’s bedroom again and sat on the edge of the bed.
There was something different about her this morning. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but Amanda definitely looked different. She pulled back the sheets and looked at the wound – and found nothing but smooth, white skin – and no trace of any sort of wound.
“The robots,” she sighed.
“The what?” Amanda groaned.
Claire looked at Amanda, saw the illness in her eyes was gone, replaced by a less malignant confusion. “My, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
“Any pain anywhere?”
“Pain? No…not really,” then Amanda seemed to look at Claire for a long time, then: “Claire? Is that you?”
“Yes, of course it’s me. Who did you think…”
“Where am I?”
“What?” Claire sighed, now confused herself. “Where do you think you are?”
“I have no idea…” Amanda quailed, now apparently on the verge of tears.
“You’re at my house, Amanda, in New Mexico…”
“New Mexico? Since when did you have a house out there?”
“For two years now. I work here.”
Amanda sat upright in bed, her eyes searching for something recognizable – but after a moment she gave up, hugged her knees to her chest and started crying. Claire came close and enfolded her sister in her arms.
“Sh-h-h,” Claire whispered in a soothing, maternal way, “it’s alright. I’m here. It’s alright now.”
But Amanda was shaking her head…her confusion abnormally oppressive.
“What’s the last thing you remember,” Claire asked.
“I’m not sure.” Then: “Father, running to a fire. At the Navy Yard.”
And Claire gasped. “Amanda, that was almost twenty years ago. Have you remembered nothing since?”
“What? Twenty…?” she said, trying to stand just now – her knees almost buckling.
“Here, let me help you?” Claire steadied her sister and helped her to the bathroom, but when Amanda saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink she screamed, terrified.
“That’s not me!” she cried. “Oh, please God! Tell me that’s not me! Oh, please…who is that?”
“You should shower now,” Claire said. “Then we’ll get you dressed.” She turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, yet Amanda stood – transfixed – looking into the mirror at the stranger staring back…
Claire led her into the shower and let the spray beat on the back of her sister’s neck, and soon the water brought her back to the present. “Oh my, that feels so good.”
“Just stand there. Relax. I’ve a new toothbrush for you, too.”
“Could I have it, please. My teeth feel like they’re coated in saw-dust.”
“Sure. I’ll be right back.” She went out to the hall closet and found the brush, then she saw a man standing on the patio. “Benjamin?” she whispered.
When he nodded she ran to the door and let him in, then flew into his arms.
Yet he seemed almost inert, spent, and she stepped back, looked into his eyes. “Ben?”
“I’m very tired.”
“Why don’t you take a rest. Amanda’s just now up, and I’ve got her in the shower.”
He nodded. “That should help, but Claire? She’s very fragile now.”
She nodded her head too. “Go rest. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
“Show you? You don’t remember?”
“I told you, I’m very tired.”
She helped him to his room off the kitchen, then thought better of it and took him to her room. “Just lay down and rest your eyes. I’ll be right back…”
Then she took a new toothbrush to the shower, and found Amanda staring into the steam-covered mirror again, wiping rivulets of moisture from the silvered glass. “I recognize the eyes,” she said, “but nothing else makes sense. When did this happen to me?”
“What, my dear?”
“How did this happen to me?”
“Amanda, tell me…what do you remember?”
“Twenty three – I’m twenty-three, and I’m going to finish college next year, after spending the year in Sweden.”
“What happened in Sweden, Amanda?”
And Claire watched as her sister looked inside the glass, and she wondered what she saw just then. But, apparently she saw nothing, or nothingness, as Amanda turned to her and shook her head. “Isn’t that odd? I can’t recall a thing about it. Where’s father?”
“He’s not here just now,” Claire whispered.
“And Charles? Where is he?”
“Charles is in Washington just now, Amanda, but he’ll be out to see you soon enough.”
“And mother? Where is she?”
“She’s with father now, dearest.”
“At home. At home in Philadelphia.”
“I want to go to Bookbinder’s, for the soup. Will you take me –oh, but you say we’re in New Mexico! How silly of me!”
“How about I fix some eggs and coffee? Would that do?”
“Oh, yes please. I do feel a bit hungry.”
“How many eggs?”
“Oh, you know me…just one, over easy.”
Claire nodded – as she did indeed remember, then, not quite sure what had happened to Amanda over the course of the night, she walked back to the kitchen and lit the stove. A while later Amanda walked out, and Claire was astonished to see that the dress she’d worn the day before hung loosely on her sister’s diminished frame.
“One egg, over easy,” Claire said, putting the plate with the egg on a little table in the kitchen. Amanda ate half, then declared she was full before she had her coffee, black.
“I’ll need to go into work for a little bit,” Claire said, looking at her sister. “You’re looking tired…would you like to take a nap?”
“Ooh, yes please. I’ve never felt so tired.”
When she returned a few hours later Amanda was on the patio out back, laughing gayly as a harried looking Ben Levy tried to keep up with the conversation.
There was a small kiva in the corner of Claire’s bedroom, and a few pieces of piñon burned and popped away in there, lending the room a smokey scent that was pleasant in the extreme – or so Ben thought. He had never expected to feel the way he did just now, laying on Claire’s bed with her head resting on his lap. He had never known love, not even a mother’s love, but as he ran his fingers through her hair he knew, sitting in the amber light, that the feelings coursing through his veins could only be one thing.
He wondered about miracles of such a life for a moment, as if this is what people meant when they spoke of such things. And the oddest thing of all? They hadn’t said a word in what felt like hours.
There seemed to be no need.
“We’ll need more wood for the fire,” she said now. “I’ll go get some.”
“Show me how?” Ben asked.
“How to make the fire work?”
“You’ve never made a fire?”
“No. There is no need where I live.”
“And where is that? The ship?”
“Connecticut? Really? I always thought winters there were somewhat brutal.”
“Not where I lived.”
“And where was that?”
“And when did you move to London?”
“We were older then.”
“You went to school there?”
“What did you study?”
“Science. Chemistry and physics.”
“Boeing is working on your titanium process; they should have results in a few weeks.”
“If necessary, I can go to Seattle with you.”
Claire looked away then, lost in a thought. “Can you tell me about Amanda? What you treated her with?”
“Treated? You misunderstand. She treated herself.”
“How do you mean?”
“There were replication errors. These were repaired…”
“And that is?”
Ben blinked, shook his head. “The bacteria in her gut were out of balance. This caused a cascading series of failures in other relevant areas of her internal biome. This sequence has been reversed. She will feel better soon.”
“I see,” Claire lied, not having the slightest idea what he was talking about. “What about these errors in replication?”
“I’m sorry. I misspoke.”
“Ah. So, the emotional problems she’s experienced?”
“There will be consequences, but with counseling they should be manageable.”
“Will she loose weight?”
“Yes. She has lost four kilos already, and her basal metabolic rate…”
“Her – what?”
“The rate at which she burns energy?”
“How did you determine that, Ben?”
“It is not important.”
“Tell me, what is important, Ben?”
“These feelings. The feelings we are experiencing.”
“Oh? Tell me how you feel?”
“How? I think I understand what, not how.”
“What do you feel now.”
“I think it is love.”
“Ah. Have you ever been in love before?”
“I have read about love, I have seen love, but no, I have never personally felt love.”
“How is that possible?”
“That was quite normal where I grew up?”
“Do you think you could love a child, Ben?”
“You said we would have two children. Don’t you know that children need love most of all?”
“Children need love?”
“Affection. Feelings of trust and understanding.”
“Children need to develop in an atmosphere of trust and understanding, tempered with affection. Without these things, children grow emotionally distrustful, even mean.”
The words washed over Ben Levy and he struggled to understand the meaning behind her words. Had she just told him that he was mean, and not trustworthy? Surely that was not love?
She watched his reactions, the reactions of a child, of someone who had not the slightest idea what it meant to be human, and that only made her more curious. It was no longer a question of who he was; it was more now that she didn’t know what he was?
Human? Yes, of course, but he hadn’t been born in the 1800s –
That just couldn’t be. Could it?
“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s get some more wood.”
The only thing she knew just then was that she had to keep him talking. The more tired he became, the more he talked… The more he talked, the less she understood, but that wasn’t important now.
Roosevelt was in the Oval Office, looking over the FBI’s final report on the matter, reading through it for the third time. The blue sphere had been seen twice over Los Alamos, the report stated plainly enough, yet Aubuchon had denied any knowledge of its reappearance, and that troubled him. It troubled Harry Hopkins too, and Cordell Hull. They had all caught a brief glimpse of the sphere twice on the return voyage; the first when the Condor approached off Spain, the second when that strange aircraft appeared over the Georges Banks and attacked the German battleship.
And now, another sphere – over Aubuchon’s house in Los Alamos? He just didn’t know her well enough to understand what this meant.
So he picked up the telephone on his desk and spoke to the switchboard operator. “Get Harry, would you?”
A few minutes later Hopkins entered the Oval Office. “We have the latest German rail car dispositions you asked for, Mr President. Attacking fuel transport lines seems to be working.”
“Harry? I need to speak with Claire…Dr Aubuchon. And I need to see her eyes when I speak to her.”
Hopkins nodded. “Yessir. I understand.”
“Handled discreetly, of course.”
“Yessir. She’s still in Los Alamos. There are no records she took her sister to a hospital in Santa Fe, by the by.”
Roosevelt looked down at his hands, coughed once. “There are days when I truly hate this job, Harry.”
“What do you think…”
“She’s lying, for one thing, Harry. That means she’s hiding something. And if a person in her position is hiding something, then we’re in trouble. The entire project could be compromised.”
Hopkins pursed his lips, nodded slowly. “Do you want to remove her now, or wait until we can finish a full security review?”
Roosevelt leaned back in his wheelchair and sighed, then shook his head. “We can’t afford a breakdown in security now. Especially not now. Chop her off, bring her in, and anyone else in that house. We need to know who’s been compromised.”
“Her sister Amanda is on the approved list, as is Levy. Those are the only two in the house. At least, as of last night.”
“Have the FBI handle it, but I want it handled discreetly. And I want to talk to her tonight.”
“Yes, Mr President.” Hopkins turned and left the Old Man with his thoughts. He knew that look, after all, well enough – didn’t he? He went to his office and called the director…
Amanda looked odd the next morning. Clear-eyed and almost emaciated, Claire guessed her sister had lost more than twenty pounds in the last three days – an impossibility, true enough, but the evidence was there, right before her eyes.
“How are you feeling this morning,” she asked Amanda as her bare-footed sister padded into the kitchen.
“Tired. I was in the lab all night.”
“I know. I heard you come in. Around two, I think.”
“When I start on something I often lose track of time.”
Amanda nodded. “Father was like that,” she sighed, still coming to terms with the passage of so much time, and her absence from the flow. “Charles was too, in school, anyway.”
“He still is.”
“Do you miss him?”
Amanda nodded carefully, slowly, hesitation clear in her movements.
“I didn’t know him the same way you did, Amanda, but my memories of him are of a warm, caring person.”
Amanda smiled, a tenuous, wounded smile – her eyes full of groping hands in dark places. “I’ve seen Ben before, you know?”
“Ben? Before? Where was that?”
“In Sweden. He was the physician who took my baby?”
“What?” Claire felt inrushing pressure when the words registered.
“I couldn’t place him at first, I think, because he hasn’t aged. But it’s him. I remember his voice most of all, but oh yes, Claire, it’s him. Of that I’m sure.”
Claire stared at the stovetop, lost in breaking waves of suddenly inexplicable implications. Ben…Trevor…and who else? Had they been following her all her life? But, to what purpose? Why watch her so closely? And why take a fetus?
“You must be mistaken, Amanda. That’s clearly not possible.”
“Clearly, yes, I agree. Yet he was there. Ask him.”
“No. I think I’m a little afraid, and I guess I wanted you with me if I do.”
She shook her head, tried to laugh a little. “This must all be a coincidence of some sort, dear sister. Such a thing is simply impossible.”
“Impossible. Yes. I dreamed last night that you were on a ship of some sort, a ship near a strange planet, and that people were talking to you about something called a shift. It was all very real feeling, like we were really there.”
“A shift? Really?”
“That your work has something to do with it. What does that mean, do you think?”
Claire shook her head. “I don’t know.”
“I wonder who he is?”
“Yes. Is it true? You’re going to marry him?”
Claire looked away, embarrassed. “What makes you say that?”
“I’ve heard you two talking, but it’s not like I was snooping around. Is it true?”
“I think, yes, maybe.”
“But why? You don’t love him, do you?”
And Claire shrugged. “I don’t know that it’s as simple as that, Amanda. There are other things I’m considering.”
But just then Claire turned to Amanda, looked her in the eye. “We’ll talk to him tonight, I promise. About Sweden, about your dream – all of it.”
Amanda took the evasion in stride, met her sister’s gaze on terms at once familiar – yet lonely. Claire’s words felt like a betrayal, and that was not a feeling she remembered coming from her. They looked at one another for a moment longer, then she made up her mind. “I think I should return to Philadelphia, Claire. I’ll only be in your way out here, and you have more important things to take care of.”
“Nonsense. There’s nothing more important to me than you.”
“Could you get me on the next train?”
“Really? You want to go home now? You haven’t seen or done anything, and there’s so much…”
“Yes, I feel homesick, as silly as that must sound. Really, I’d like to go home, back to Pennsylvania.”
“Alright,” Claire said, feeling dejected – and a little relieved. “I’ll call.” She turned and walked inside, leaving Amanda on the patio staring at the Blood of Christ mountains.
“Where’s Amanda?” Ben asked as he walked into the kitchen.
“On her way home. I got her on the one-thirty Chief.”
“Home? You mean, Philadelphia?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“Really? I thought you knew everything?”
“Her trip to the ship was not expected.”
“So, the future has been altered once again.”
Be nodded his head. “Yes.”
“Yet, you’re still here?”
“Yes, I’m still here.”
“When are we to marry? Is tomorrow too soon?”
“After the war concludes. If we married sooner it would appear suspicious.”
“Is it – suspicious?”
“What do you mean?”
“Amanda mentioned that you were the physician in Sweden, the man who removed her baby.”
“She said there was no mistaking you, or your voice.”
“Is it true?”
“Yes,” Ben sighed, “it’s true. You’ll understand, in time. There’s no frame of reference yet Claire, or I could tell you.”
“Frame of reference? What’s that supposed to mean?”
“The reasons why we had to, not to mention the technology involved, but I promise, I’ll tell you someday. Before I die, anyway.”
“And what about Amanda? What about her feelings?”
Ben shrugged. “Turn on the radio.”
“Turn on the radio. Now.”
She moved to the living room and turned on the set, then, waiting for the tubes to warm, she asked if he needed anything to eat or drink.
“No. I’m fine.”
As she tuned-in the station in Santa Fe she recoiled in horror. The Chief had derailed near Walsenburg, Colorado, and rescue operations were underway. The scene of the accident was remote, the announcer said, noting it was miles from the nearest major roadway.
“We should go,” Claire said. “I’ll need to be there when they bring her to the hospital.”
“There’s no rush,” Ben said, his face a mask of barely concealed pain.
“Why? What do you mean?”
“She’s gone, Claire.”
“Gone? What do you mean, gone?”
“Just that. She is gone.”
She stumbled to her chair and fell into it, hands covering her face. “Gone,” she sobbed. “Amanda? Gone?”
“You bastard!” Claire screamed. “You did this!”
Ben looked away, then walked over to the little fireplace and started putting piñon on the grate, and soon he had a fire going. When he turned Claire was looking at him, pure malice in her eyes.
“We had no part in anything that happened today, Claire. Amanda simply arrived at a moment in time, the end of a certain chain. It was her time, and there was nothing we could do to alter that.”
“Oh, yes there is.”
“Yes, but to alter that timeline once again could prove disastrous.”
“Come. Stand with me by the fire.”
“I’m not cold.”
“Nonsense. I’ve never known anyone so cold.”
Her stare turned to icy stone after that, then she left the house. He heard her driving off into the night so he walked out to the patio in time to see her speeding down the canyon towards the highway that led to Santa Fe – and Walsenburg. He sighed again, then returned to his little bedroom off the kitchen.
He was smiling just then, for a million little reasons, when he heard someone knocking at the door. That, he knew, would be the FBI.
The road was rough, and of course there were thunderstorms just ahead. Albuquerque lay beyond this line of storms, somewhere beyond the lightning, and Claire was smoldering inside.
Stopped by Los Alamos security near the entrance to the highway to Santa Fe, she had finally been stuffed into the back seat of a gray Ford sedan – only to find Levy already in the car. Handcuffed, as it turned out.
Then she was handcuffed, and for the first time in her life she’d wanted to cry. She also didn’t want Ben to see her crying, to afford him the opportunity to see into her fear, so she turned away, looked at her reflection in the glass…
Amanda…gone. How was that even possible? How did the best train in the country derail, without apparent cause, in the middle of nowhere?
When the FBI agent had asked where she was going she’d told him, and after he apologized he told her he hadn’t heard any details about the accident.
“If you don’t mind me askin’, Ma’am, how do you know your sister’s dead?” the agent asked as they passed through Santa Fe.
“He told me,” Claire replied directly, pointing at Ben.
“And, sir, how did you hear this information?”
And he couldn’t very well answer – ‘Gee, I learned of this a thousand years from now,” so he thought for a moment before answering: “On the radio.”
“I didn’t think they did that,” the agent said. “But then again, I don’t think you’re telling me the truth.”
Then Ben looked at Claire’s reflection in the glass – and their eyes met for a moment, yet she turned away.
“You’ll have to ask the people at the station,” Ben added.
“I will,” the agent said, looking at Ben in the rear view mirror.
“Where are we going?” Claire asked the agent, still looking at her reflection.
“To take a ride in an airplane, I guess you could say.”
“I see,” she added, thinking about the people who would want to talk to her after the sphere had been reported over her house. That meant Oak Ridge, or Washington. She thought about the sphere seen here, then the one off the Spanish coast. That one had been clearly observed – by everyone – including the president.
Yes, she was going to be taken to Washington – to see Roosevelt. Because…she had to be under suspicion now. Well, she’d just to have to let Levy talk to them, let them figure out what to do with him – because one way or another she was pretty sure Ben wasn’t going to let anything happen to her.
Slate colored clouds loomed ahead, and she saw lightning in the clouds, too, then fat drops of water hit the windshield. Heavier drops began to beat the Ford’s roof and she closed her eyes, listened to the mysterious rhythm… Why, she wondered, did humans see patterns everywhere? Why? And what pattern did Amanda’s death fit into?
Then the thought hit her: he had chosen not to protect Amanda? Why now, when he had opted to save her the day before? Had she suddenly become so peripheral to the future? Or had her death – now, today, this afternoon – preserved some pre-established order?
Then yet another thought slammed into her: what if Amanda’s trip to the ship had severely altered a timeline? What if her immediate death had become the only way to realign a presumed natural order of time?
Then, another leap of insight. What if…when she’d uprooted Amanda, brought her west from Philadelphia, what if she had altered…but wait…how could she ever know anything like that was true? She couldn’t, not with any certainty. If time was a river, how many tributaries could be generated by just one person. By just one person in the course of a single day? How many ‘what ifs’ could there be?
‘For all intents and purposes, an infinite number.’
Because if just one person confronted an almost infinite number of momentous choices in the course of lifetime, the permutations would literally be very nearly infinite. One would never know, unless they could somehow see into the future, to somehow measure the results of one choice over another.
What crushed her in that moment, what made her feel completely insignificant was the thought that Ben and Trevor – and all the people like them she assumed were working here – had just that ability. If so, there’s was an Olympian vantage, one not so different than what the ancients thought characterized the gods.
She opened her eyes, looked out the window, saw the outskirts of Albuquerque as they emerged from the thunderstorm. The rain-soaked two-lane blacktop was nearly deserted now, and she had seen only a few trucks headed to Santa Fe, while up ahead Albuquerque’s lights were winking on as the sun licked the far horizon. They drove through the city in silence, Ben apparently looking at pedestrians out the Ford’s window, yet now with his arms crossed over his chest, somehow looking very bored while also projecting an image of insecurity.
They drove out onto the tarmac at the Albuquerque Army Air Force Base, right up to a waiting DC-3, and as soon as they were aboard the aircraft the pilots throttled-up and taxied for the runway. It felt to Claire like only minutes passed before they were airborne, headed east over the Sandia Mountains – and into an infinite night.
More FBI agents met their aircraft at the small Army Air Force base near the Maryland border, and their small convoy made the short drive into the city in total silence. Even more agents were waiting under the White House portico, where both she and Ben were searched before being escorted to Harry Hopkins’ office. She recognized Ben Acheson as she walked into the cramped office, and she saw smoldering malice in the man’s peregrine eyes, then she saw Hopkins was in the room too. And he did not look in the least happy.
“The blue spheres,” Acheson said, pointing at Levy without preamble. “What are they?”
Ben stared at both Hopkins and Acheson for a moment, then shrugged. “In it’s essence, while each mimics a plasma, what you’ve witnessed is but a small electro-magnetic field that resides around a single sub-atomic particle. Power is applied to the field and that regulates the size of the sphere.”
“And why would you do that, Mr Levy?”
“Because the resulting sphere can be manipulated.”
“You mean Time, don’t you, sir? You can manipulate time?”
“No, sir. Not me, personally.”
“Your people, then.”
“That is a true statement, Mr Acheson.”
“Are you human?”
“Where are you from?”
“Don’t lie to me, you son of a bitch.”
“I am not, sir. Of that, you may be sure.”
“Alright…one more time. Where are you from?”
“Where did I come from? – would be the question you’re searching for.”
“Then you know exactly what I mean,” Acheson snarled. “Tell me where.”
“‘Where’ isn’t the correct question, sir. ‘When’ is more appropriate. Or – more to the point.”
“When? And just what do you mean by that?”
“My first iteration was created in 1866, sir. This body, the one you’re interacting with, was created in the year 3037. That is from when I come – this time.”
“You expect me to believe…?”
“I’ve told you the truth. Every time you’ve asked me a question, I’ve told you the absolute truth.”
“Well, the president seems to take great stock in you,” Acheson sighed, “though for the life of me I have no idea why.”
Levy only smiled, though he steepled his fingers now, as if measuring the passage of time to a metronome only he could hear.
“You’re a time traveler, then?” Hopkins said, speaking now for he first time, stepping tentatively into the flow.
“Not true, Mr Hopkins. I am – we are – engineers.”
“What kind of engineers?” Acheson snarled, suddenly perturbed again.
“Time, sir,” Levy said – looking from Hopkins to Acheson. “We engineer Time. We try to do so in such a manner that we disrupt certain unwanted imbalances. That we ensure more acceptable outcomes, without disrupting our own existence.”
“And,” Acheson growled, “if I may be permitted to ask, acceptable – to whom? To you?”
“Yes, of course.”
“You know…I think I’ll have you shot.”
“That’s quite understandable,” Levy said, smiling again. “I’m sure the Russians would allow you to, though I feel quite certain Mr Churchill may take offense.”
“What have they got to do with any of this?” Acheson said, his eyes narrowing.
“Everything. Absolutely everything.”
“What did you mean when you said you were human enough? Human enough for what? To fool us?”
Claire looked at Ben now, her eyes full of questions. “You say you were born in 1866? The original iteration of you – whatever that means?”
“Yes, that’s right,” Ben said, grinning.
“What was your name? Back in 1866?”
Levy smiled broadly now. “Herbert.”
“Herbert?” Acheson said, his voice unbelieving. “Herbert…what?”
“Herbert George Wells.”
And it was Claire who burst out laughing this time. “You should pick your doppelgänger with more care, next time – Herbert.”
“Oh, I am not he.”
“Iteration?” Hopkins said. “What do you mean when you say that?”
“I am a copy.”
“A copy?” Acheson added. “Of H. G. Wells? Named Ben Levy?”
“Yes. Just so.”
“And you are not completely human?”
“Not a type of human you would recognize.”
Claire turned inward now, afraid of the next question she had to ask. “Who created you, Ben?”
“Our granddaughter, Claire. Though her husband helped. Her name will be Dana. Dana Goodman.”
“Minneapolis, you said.”
“That’s correct. You remember now?”
Claire nodded before she turned away, then she closed her eyes – if only to stop the flow of tears that might not have been hers. But there was no way to tell, really.
This work © 2017-2022 adrian leverkühn | abw | adrianleverkühnwrites.com all rights reserved, and as usual this was a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s (rather twisted) imagination or coincidentally referenced entities are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. In other words, this is just a little bit of fiction, pure and simple.