What if things had gone differently? Each slight change sets off a greater chain reaction.
Edna smiled down from her perch behind the podium. The stool teetered precariously but she held tight to the speaking platform to keep from losing her balance.
"I am very pleased with the new lineup," she began. The rest of her speech was lost to her own ears at the sudden echo of a metallic "/click/". She managed to keep from turning her head or her eyes toward the direction of the sound. Her lips moved, her voice neither caught nor faltered but remained steady. Still she felt her insides chill. That had been the sound of a hammer being cocked. There was a gunman in the room preparing to fire on someone, perhaps on her. Still talking, she raised a shield around herself and cast about for the mind of the assailant but strangely, found none. There were a few people who were indeed armed- one man even had a sword concealed inside his walking stick- but none of them were making use of their weapons. What on earth?
"Raise those hands, Heimy."
The hands, coated to the elbows in blood, were duly raised. Cold steel pressed into his temples just above the arm of his glasses. He closed his eyes. It didn't matter anymore. It would soon be over.
"Drop the knife."
He had no knife, only a scalpel still red from his interrupted attempts at saving one last young man's life. He let it fall. They would never allow the boy on the table to live anyway. They both wore grays; that was reason enough for condemnation. Anything German was worthy of death to them.
"What d'you got to say for yourself, Kraut?"
The rifle barrel pressed into his flesh, nearly forcing him off balance from the crate he stood on in order to reach the kitchen sidebar turned exam table. He didn't resist the cold bite of the metal, instead leaned into it slightly, refusing to wilt before the punishment he deserved. He regretted not defying them then. They might have shot him and all of this could have been avoided. He should have gone with her. How very little those lost credits mattered now. Nothing mattered anymore. He was ready for it to end. In faltering English, his voice thick with his heavy German accent and unshed tears, he said all he could say:
She stopped in mid-sentence, her eyes going blank and wide as her head jerked to one side as if she'd been struck. Reporters and designers alike watched speechless as her tiny body crumbled, collapsing from the stepstool and landing with a dull smack on the polished marble floor. Fifteen extremely blank and silent seconds passed before the quiet fled and everyone rushed into action. Photographers snapped, reporters bellowed, and a handful of levelheaded souls formed a ring around Edna to keep her from being trampled to death under the sudden surge of attention.
It wasn't until one of the thinking persons attempting to keep the marauding reporters at bay bellowed "Get back you fiends, can't you see she's not breathing?!" that chaos truly began to ensue. Cameras flashed even more vigorously, bulbs popping and exploding as they were used and spent. A few more tenderhearted newsmongers came to their senses at the exclamation. Some and ran for the telephones to report their findings, others to ring the local hospitals, and a noble few did their best to drag their exuberant brethren away from the scene of the accident.
One final shot. A good five minutes after the initial shooting had ceased it rang out, stark and solitary, echoing by itself in the sudden silence. Something in it's empty echo made his heart shiver. He tried to shrug it off.
"All clear, Sir."
"Very good. Where's MacDonnell?"
"Went in there, Sir."
The young private jerked his thumb at a hastily improvised structure consisting of half a bombed-out kitchen shed and a ragged German tent. The gunshot had sounded from inside. Hoping MacDonnell had not been on the receiving end, he crossed the rubbled yard and ducked inside.
"MacDonnell?" he called.
"Are you all right?"
"Fine Sir, just taking care of a little kraut coward. He was hiding away in here, but I found him."
Xerek surveyed the dim and dusty interior of the makeshift building. It looked as if the German forces had converted it into a hasty field hospital. Blood and half-bandaged Germans lay here and there, staining the gray earth with spent life. A much smaller body lay sprawled in the dirt behind MacDonnell. He stopped in mid-thought, about to ask MacDonnell if the child had been dead when he found him. Instead the words died on his tongue as he approached and got a closer look.
"Oh my God..."
Ghosts of memories fled through his mind, his heart and stomach clenching at the sight. This was no child; this was...had been...a friend.
The little doctor lay on one side, one arm out, the other flopped over his middle, almost hidden in the too-big uniform jacket of storm trooper gray. Eyes to which the world had been laid bare down to its very molecules now rested closed, forever blinded. His thick glasses- bent and badly scratched but amazingly still intact- had been jarred out of place, the arms still hooked behind his ears, but the lenses uselessly tilted up towards his forehead away from his now empty eyes. A gaping hole through his right temple seeped dark red blood. More was rising on the ground, flooding his head in a small sea of muddied crimson. It had gone straight through. Instantaneous death. He would not have suffered. It was a meager and very empty consolation.
He closed his eyes and lowered his head where he knelt, taking a moment to collect both thoughts and feelings. In the back of his mind he wondered how in the name of all that was good and sweet had Karl come to serve under German forces? It hardly mattered now. Opening his eyes again and surveying all that was left of his friend, the deep lines and patches of gray in the smaller man's face and hair told a plain enough story. Whatever had happened to him had happened against his will.
He had forgotten MacDonnell was still there.
"Sir, are you all right?"
Rather than answer, Xerek simply stood and turned to face his subordinate. He couldn't be angry with him. There was no way the boy could have known. Looking at MacDonnell's dirty, freckled face Xerek couldn't even muster the energy to scold him.
"Gather the others and get out your shovels. Dig a grave. Four by three by six."
MacDonnell blinked. "Sir?"
"We are going to give this man a Christian burial."
The blank look turned to an astonished gawk.
"But...Sir...! He's a...he's..."
"A covert agent." It wasn't a lie. Not exactly. Xerek might not have known the story of Karl's misadventures, but he had known the little doctor and his convictions. He deserved this much at least. He noticed that MacDonnell's eyes had grown very wide indeed and his face had turned pale beneath the thick layer of grime.
"Oh shit..." he whispered. "And I... Oh /shit/...!"
"Never mind," his commander told him, "you had no idea, nor should you. There's nothing to be done about it now except lay him to rest."
"Yes, Sir," MacDonnell swallowed and hurried outside, shovel in hand.
The half-sized grave was made at the foot of a tree knocked crooked from a dud shell. A bandage wound around his head to conceal the bullet wound, Karl, on Xerek's orders, was relieved of his German jacket and fitted with a cast off British coat. It was easily five times too big for him, but that hardly mattered. The sleeves rolled back, Xerek pinned one his own stars to the collar. MacDonnell and Cox wrapped him in a ragged checkered tablecloth before laying him to rest. Half his dog tags were nailed to the tree, the other half Xerek kept along with his glasses.
Weeks later, while boiling a pot of coffee and another of socks over a small campfire, Xerek picked up a sheet of scavenged newspaper intended to feed the meager flames. His eyebrows rose in surprise not so much at the French headline but at the photograph below.
Edna lay on the floor on her side in an eerily familiar pose, left arm stretched out before her, the other draped haphazardly over her torso as if in a faint. Her hair astray and her glasses knocked out of place, it seemed the photographers had seized this rare chance to capture the renowned fashion designer looking slightly less than perfect for smaller variations of the original photo dotted the page. Xerek studied the smudged French newsprint until he could translate what had happened.
Cature Queen Collapses at London Exhibit. Rising fashion genius Edna Mode collapsed suddenly at the London exhibit of her Spring show. Ms. Mode unexpectedly fainted while in the middle of a Q/A session of an international press. She was taken by hospital van to /(here the name was smudged) where she lies recovering. Doctors have described Ms. Mode's condition as "stable". Eye witnesses state Ms. Mode was in good health and did not appear ill or in any way distraught before the press conference. Ms. Mode has never been exhibited symptoms of stage fright or been inclined to fainting spells, say those close to her. Her collapse was unexpected and troubling to all present. Cont. p14./
Page fourteen, however, did not seem to be in attendance. With a sigh, Xerek folded up the page and wrapped it around Karl's glasses. He would carry them in his pocket for another three years before he would get a chance to present them.
A lot could happen in three years. Edna, from her new home in New York, had thought she had left her ghosts behind in Europe when one walked through her door. The last time she had seen or heard from Julian Xerek was in 1939. Now on the other side of 1946 and the Atlantic Ocean, from another country, indeed another lifetime, things felt strange and different. She was, in all honesty, glad to see him alive and unharmed. There were perhaps a few more lines on his face, a few more gray strands creeping into his hair, but it was still Xerek. Because of that, she smiled. A small, tired smile, but a smile nonetheless.
It wasn't the quietness of her apartment, nor her entirely black dress that gave it away. As a self-trained telepath, E couldn't help the strong aura of thought and emotion that always surrounded her. It was completely invisible to most people, but Xerek was not most people. Though his abilities lay in sensing technology, as soon as he stepped through her door, it was evident.
She already knew.
Had known. Indeed now that he thought about it, it made sense. Her collapse at the fashion exhibit was evidence of that. She had loved Karl. No doubt she had formed some sort of psychic attachment to him, an invisible bond of awareness. When Karl had been shot, she had felt it too.
They stood and regarded one another briefly. There was no verbal greeting, no offering of a friendly hand. There was no need. They both knew why he had come. Without saying a word, Xerek fished in his inner jacket pocket. The yellowed newsprint crackled slightly under his touch. Sinking to one knee, he offered Edna the battered package, a fellow soldier returning the favor of her fallen champion. She swallowed hard before accepting the ragged bundle. Though she did not possess Karl's gift of X-ray vision, she seemed to see inside the tattered wrapping. The rolled-stiff paper unfolded, a pair battered glasses, bent arms folded at rest reflected softly in the lenses of her own out-sized spectacles. Squeezing her eyes shut, she lowered her head, clutching the mangled glasses tightly. She had known in her heart, but that did not make the physical proof any less painful. She sniffed once, her slight body shuddering briefly. Xerek had seen Edna calm, commanding, enraged. She had exhibited the full spectrum of female emotion except for one thing: Xerek could not in memory recall her crying. Not out of pain, out of sorrow, not for any reason. In an era where women had been typecast as simpering, sentimental and weepy, E had had no time for tears. And yet...
Her head bowed and her face obscured by her bangs, her shoulders shook with half-swallowed sobs. Paper and glasses clutched to her chest she stood there and vainly tried to hold her tears. The drops spilled over against her will, falling to the floor with a silent splash. Xerek, though inexperienced in dealing with emotional outbursts, could not help the sympathy her tears were squeezing from his heart, nor the choking sensation that followed. He never knew quite what to do in these situations, so it came as a vague surprise when he found he had reached and placed a hand on her little shoulder. Their heights nearly evened by Xerek's kneeling on the floor she stepped forward and leaned her head on his shoulder. Surrendering to her grief, she cried, too exhausted to hold her tears any longer. Under any other circumstances, it would have been extremely awkward. Perhaps it was their mutual grief that reduced the discomfort. At any rate it was with only mild clumsiness that Xerek loosely put his arms around her and held her close. The pain radiating from the tiny woman in his arms cut at his own emotions and he found his own eyes welling up. It was all right. For the moment, appearances did not matter. He patted her shoulder gently as if to say,
She sniffed quietly in response.