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“Do you suppose it’s possible to murder God?”
Gretel was Gottlieb’s most troubling patient. She was clairvoyant. She was also, he feared, quite mad.
He paused in the midst of jotting a note in her file. Capping his fountain pen and setting it on the desk, alongside the blotter, gained his scattered thoughts a few seconds to catch up with her. “I beg your pardon?”
“If He is omniscient and infallible, then surely He would see the moment and manner of His own passing. Knowing this, and being infallible, He could prevent it. Yet to do so would imply His prescience was imperfect. While not doing so would mean He is not eternal.” She sighed.
Gottlieb said, “The death of God is a metaphor. It isn’t meant as a literal, corporeal death. It represents the overthrow of God through modern man’s diminished need for external sources of wisdom.”
Nietzsche was required reading at the farm. But only the approved works, of course.
Gretel frowned and turned her gaze to the open window. The wool of her peasant dress rasped across the wires draped over her shoulder. The wires emerged from rivets in her skull, spiraling down through her raven-black locks to dangle at her waist. Sunlight glinted on the copper connectors; like the other subjects, she wore a battery only during tests. Her hair had grown thick and lustrous since Dr. von Westarp finalized the locations of the electrodes in her brain, and thus suspended the surgeries.
It was the last day of May and the first sunny day in a week. A breeze fluttered swastika banners atop the farmhouse. Moments later it ruffled the papers on Gottlieb’s desk, filling his office with the loamy smell of rain-damp earth. Birdsong twittered through the forest surrounding the former orphanage, punctuated by steady hammering from a nearby construction project. If Gottlieb strained, he could just make out the rhythmic crunch of shovels and picks from the Schutzstaffel squad trying to recover Oskar’s body.
Gretel said, “But for the sake of argument.”
“Very well,” said Gottlieb. He leaned back, crossed his arms. “There is no paradox if He chooses to die.”
Gretel shook her head. “I’m not talking about Jesus Christ. And changing the question from murder to suicide doesn’t avoid the problem. If He is omnipotent and infallible, He can end anything permanently, including His eternal life. But if He is in fact eternal, He cannot die.”
“In that case, I suppose He would choose to be permanently mortal.”
“Nobody can know the mind of God, Doctor.”
Gottlieb saw a way to turn the conversation back to the topic at hand. He said, “You’ve developed an interesting preoccupation, in light of yesterday.” But she didn’t take his opening, so he forged ahead: “Did you have foreknowledge of the accident, Gretel? Did you foresee Oskar’s death?”
“I couldn’t see anything after the power went out.”
The power surge had shorted out Gottlieb’s desk lamp. It had been a gift from his father; the base was Meissen porcelain, from the works near Dresden. But the farm had electrical engineers on staff. Perhaps they could fix—
Gretel had changed the subject again. She was good at that. Which was consistent with his diagnosis.
He started to confront her deflection, but stopped to listen: Plop. Drip. Plop.
Gottlieb peered over the desk. Mud caked the soles of her bare feet and the spaces where it had squelched between her toes. And now clumps of it plopped to Gottlieb’s office rug as her feet dried. Morning dew had wicked into the hem of Gretel’s dress, darkening the pale blue wool. She’d been to the meadow again.
Gottlieb pointed to the sprig of lavender tucked behind her ear. “I see you’ve gone back to picking wildflowers.”
“You were hunting mushrooms yesterday, as I recall.”
“Yes. But I prefer flowers.” She took the sprig from behind her ear and gave it a sniff.
“What did you do with the mushrooms you found?”
“I threw them away, of course. Wild mushrooms can be very poisonous.”
“Then why pick them?”
“I like the sensation when nature loses its grip.”
Gottlieb uncapped the fountain pen, jotted another note in her file. He tried to make it look casual. He hoped the tremble in his hand didn’t betray his unease.
A knock at the door derailed his train of thought. The door swung open. Standartenführer Pabst barged in.
“I’m with a patient now,” said Gottlieb.
The colonel glanced at Gretel. “Leave us.”
“As you wish.” She stood. “Good day, Doctor.” Off she went, trailing mud and the scent of lavender.
Pabst closed the door. He said, “Dr. von Westarp has been summoned to Berlin. Reichsführer Himmler wishes to know how we lost one of our most valuable test subjects.”
“I’m sure the doctor will give a thorough explanation.”
“Himmler isn’t the only person upset about yesterday’s fiasco. The doctor and I had a long talk before he departed. He blames you for Oskar’s death.”
The words pierced Gottlieb like an icicle to the heart. These days, the doctor’s disapproval was a death sentence.
“I had nothing to do with this,” he whispered.
“Yes, you did. Your job is to hone their minds. Not to hold their hands and coddle them with Jew science.” He spat the words like venom.
“Discredited. Von Westarp has latitude to run the farm as he sees fit, and thus far, that has been to your benefit. But Oskar died from a failure to concentrate, to visualize, to anticipate. All things you were meant to teach him.” Pabst turned for the door. “The doctor returns tomorrow. In the meantime, I’d advise against trying to leave.”
Gottlieb sank into his chair, shivering. His gaze passed over the notes he’d made during Gretel’s session.
“Standartenführer, wait.” The colonel paused with his hand on the doorknob. Gottlieb said, “What if I told you Oskar’s death wasn’t an accident?”
On the evening that Oskar died, Gretel had spent the afternoon picking mushrooms in the forest. Gottlieb knew this because he’d taken to using his bird-watching binoculars to track her solitary wanderings around the Schutzstaffel facility. He carried a notepad where he recorded—amongst excited notes of Bohemian waxwings and spotted woodpeckers—observations of Gretel’s behavior and speculations about her state of mind.
Mushrooms were a new interest. Usually she picked wildflowers in the meadow behind the former orphanage, such as the corn poppies that dotted the field where unsuccessful test subjects had been buried.
The daylong thrum of spring rains had finally subsided, and now a setting sun emerged beneath the gunmetal gray clouds that had hidden the sky for several days. But the sun was too feeble to bake off the damp. The cleansing scent of rain still permeated the farm, along with a tang of ozone wafting from the shed where electricians made final adjustments to the new diesel generator.
Gretel cocked her head, as if listening to something faint. The corner of her mouth quirked up. She cast her sloe-eyed gaze across the campus of the Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung germanischen Potenzials, the Reich’s Authority for the Advancement of German Potential.
Gottlieb slewed the binoculars. His magnified view panned across the training field where Hauptsturmführer Buhler buckled a leash on Kammler, the mentally deficient telekinetic. Past workmen erecting a new laboratory before the chemists arrived from IG Farben. Past the man hovering unsteadily a few inches above the earth.
It was, in other words, a typical day at the farm.
Rudolf dipped, wobbled, then landed with a soggy thud. “Concentrate,” said the technician filming the session. “What is wrong with you today?”
Farther away, Oskar, Klaus, and a trio of technicians had gathered around a standalone brick wall in a distant corner of the training field. Gottlieb stopped, and refocused the optics. Klaus was Gretel’s brother.
A mottled yellow bandage still covered the stumps of the fingers Klaus had lost in a recent training accident. Like Gretel, Rudolf, and the others, he and Oskar each had an assortment of wires trailing from their skulls. Klaus kept his hair shorn close to the scalp. Oskar’s hair had grown back as a mass of thick blond curls, though it had been straight on the day he was sold to von Westarp. These two young men were unusual in that they’d manifested identical abilities. But like the rest of the subjects, they were still coming to terms with their abilities. Neither had yet attempted full-body dematerialization.
Oskar spoke to a technician. The tech flicked his thumb, and something glittered briefly in the golden sunset. The tech caught the coin and slapped it to his wrist. It wasn’t difficult to read his lips: heads. Oskar cursed. Klaus had won the toss.
Cameras had been positioned to cover both sides of the wall. The cameramen gave the all-clear. Klaus plugged his wires into the battery at his waist. An unsteady shimmer enveloped his body as he called upon his Willenskräfte. But it lasted only a fraction of a second. Orange sparks fountained from the battery, followed by a plume of green-black smoke. Klaus flinched, disconnected his wires, and hurled the defective battery to the ground. Oskar laughed; the honor of the breakthrough would be his after all. But the cameras were running, so the technicians barked something at him, and Oskar became serious again.
Oskar saluted the camera. Faced the wall. Took a deep breath. Connected his battery. Shimmered.
And immediately sank into the earth.
Klaus fell to all fours, retching; cameramen screamed for help; technicians demanded shovels. But Gottlieb knew it was too late. Oskar would live only as long as he could hold that one lungful of air. And if he were still falling, he was already deep beneath the farm.
Gottlieb scanned the forest again. Prim satisfaction had settled across Gretel’s face. He realized, with nauseating certainty, that she had anticipated the catastrophe. And it pleased her.
He remembered a term recently introduced to the scientific literature of psychoanalysis.
Gretel caught him watching her. She winked.
The term was sociopath.
Rudolf was scheduled for the session after Gretel, but Gottlieb canceled it, and reshuffled his other appointments.
One day. He had one day to prove his value.
Sunlight flashed on shovel blades in the forest, where soldiers dug shallow graves. The technicians behind the test for Klaus and Oskar had—in their haste to earn favor through a major breakthrough—overlooked basic physics. Insubstantiality did not confer immunity to gravity. Worse yet, without Oskar’s corpse, von Westarp couldn’t recoup the loss by studying physiological effects of the Willenskräfte. The technicians’ execution had surprised nobody.
Moist earth sucked at Gottlieb’s boots. He passed the new generator hut. A low mechanical whine, followed by much banging and cursing, emanated from inside. The ozone smell lingered here, though it was overlaid with the hydrocarbon cloy of diesel fuel.
The air in the battery lab carried the eye-watering stink of ammonia. A technician looked up from what appeared to be a circuitry test stand. He wore a jeweler’s loupe over one eye. “Yes?”
“I’d like to speak with somebody about Klaus’s battery,” said Gottlieb. “The test yesterday?”
The other man set the loupe to rest on his forehead. He squinted. “You’re on the medical staff.”
“Yes. I’m Gottlieb. Hello.”
“Shit. Was Klaus hurt?”
“I doubt it,” said Gottlieb. The surviving test subjects had endured far worse than the occasional shock over the years. “But I’ll see him this afternoon.”
“I’m Osterhagen,” said the technician. They shook hands. “Why are you here? We’re busy.”
Gottlieb said, “I’m curious about what happened. It would have been Klaus they’re trying to dig up right now if his battery hadn’t chosen that moment to fail.”
“Ah. So Pabst made you his dogsbody.” Osterhagen paused to unleash a wet coughing fit into his handkerchief, then gestured at the test stand. “This is Klaus’s.”
The device had opened to reveal a tangle of circuitry surrounding a pair of glass bulbs. Each encased an ingot of metal, one dull gray, the other coppery. Paste like curdled milk coated the dull ingot. One bulb had cracked.
“I don’t know why it failed,” said Osterhagen.
Gottlieb indicated the cracked glass. “That looks bad.”
“No. That happened when Klaus tossed it on the ground. They’re like trained apes, Gottlieb. ’These prototypes are fragile,’ we warn them. But they never listen. Overmen? Ha.” Osterhagen hacked into the handkerchief again. It came away from his mouth stippled with rusty phlegm. “I suppose you’ll report my seditious attitude to Pabst.”
“Hardly. I have my own problems with him right now.”
Osterhagen blinked. “You’re on the hook, aren’t you?”
Gottlieb nodded. Swallowed.
“You poor bastard,” said Osterhagen. “I’m sorry.”
He indicated a smudge of soot near the junction of a thin wire and a ceramic disc. “This looks like a faulty connection. But a flaw like that would have been identified during final testing.” He pointed to a nearby cabinet. It had a slot about the size of a battery, and leads similar to those embedded in the skulls of the test subjects. Beneath two lamps (one red, one green), a sequence of names had been painted around a dial: Heike. Reinhardt. Oskar. . . .
“We test each battery immediately after construction.”
Gottlieb said, “I thought all batteries were alike.”
“Perhaps someday. That’s why we’re recruiting the extra help from IG Farben. The Verfügungstruppe has mandated complete interchangeability.”
“But they’re not interchangeable now,” said Gottlieb.
“Nope. Each subject draws on his or her battery uniquely.” Osterhagen tapped his temple. “Different arrangement of the electrodes.”
“When was this battery built?”
“We can’t keep up with demand. But we managed to squeeze this one in just before the test. Klaus wasn’t happy about the delay. He complained we were making him late. I closed it up, ran it through the test rig, got a green light, handed it to him. And off he went.”
After passing inspection, the battery had gone directly from Osterhagen’s hands to Klaus’s. And Klaus, concerned about being late, would have gone straight to the test site.
Where, moments later, it failed. Thus saving his life.
Gretel hadn’t come near the battery. Another icicle caught Gottlieb in the chest, stole his breath. What if he had been wrong about her? What would he tell von Westarp?
Gottlieb retrieved a film from the archives before returning to his office. He finished preparing the projector just as his next patient arrived.
“How are you feeling, Klaus?”
“Perfectly well. Why wouldn’t I be?” Typical bluster.
“I understand you had a close call yesterday.”
Klaus shrugged. “Accidents happen.”
“I think you’re being insincere. You became physically ill after Oskar’s accident, didn’t you?”
Klaus glared at him. After a pause just long enough to conjure a plausible excuse, he said, “My battery malfunctioned. I got a shock. It made me sick.”
“Ah. I thought it might have been a reaction to seeing Oskar buried alive. I’m glad to know I was mistaken.”
Von Westarp’s successful methods carried a price. Kammler wasn’t born a stuttering imbecile; the Twins weren’t born mute; Klaus hadn’t always suffered from claustrophobia.
“It was—” Klaus cleared his throat. “—my battery.”
“Terrible way to go,” said Gottlieb. “All that stone and soil.” He shuddered. “How long can you hold your breath? It’s what, about two minutes now?”
This was central to Klaus and Oskar’s training.
“I suppose. Why?”
“Well, I worked through the arithmetic, you see. Morbid curiosity, I suppose. Do you know how far Oskar might have fallen, assuming he lasted that long? I was astonished. It’s miles, actually.” Gottlieb paged through his journal. “I have the figure here, somewhere.”
“I couldn’t care less,” said Klaus. His voice echoed.
Gottlieb stopped. “Apologies. I get carried away at times.” He pretended to make another note. Then, as casually as he could manage: “Have you spoken with Gretel recently? I think she worries about you.”
Rapidly: “We’re not close.”
“Too bad. It’s touching, her concern.”
“She’s my little sister,” he said.
“Yes. Silly to think she’s capable of protecting you.”
Klaus went rigid. He covered it well, owing to years of physical conditioning, but Gottlieb saw the discoloration of his knuckles as he squeezed the armrests.
What do you know about your sister? You suspect she isn’t well. Even if you won’t admit it to yourself.
Gottlieb said, “I’d like to watch something with you.”
He turned off the lights, then started the projector. It cast flickering images across the ridges and whorls of horsehair plaster in the wall.
Klaus plucked at the bandages on his finger stumps. “We’ve already discussed this.”
The black and white film depicted a recent training session. Chiaroscuro Klaus waved a ghostly arm through solid granite. The test went as intended, until he lost his concentration and started thrashing like a caged animal. His face contorted with wild cries for help. The scene ended as medics arrived with a bone saw.
The film reel flapped on its spindle, fanning the scent of warm acetate through the office. Gottlieb hit the lights.
“How do you feel when you see this, Klaus?”
“I said we’ve already discussed this.”
“Do you feel differently after the accident yesterday?”
“Why would I?” His fingers worried at frayed gauze.
“I understand that you won the toss. So it would have been you who made the first attempt, if your battery hadn’t failed. That doesn’t evoke any particular feelings?”
“Why? It was Oskar’s mistake.” Klaus said, with halfhearted bravado, “He died from of a weakness of will.”
“But you wouldn’t have made the same mistake.”
“Of course not. I saw the danger immediately.”
“Yet you didn’t warn Oskar.”
“Why would I?” Klaus slammed the door on his way out.
Clearly, he hadn’t seen the danger. He hadn’t internalized the lesson from the previous accident. And that oversight had almost left him buried alive: a claustrophobe’s nightmare. But Klaus would never again take things for granted. He now understood, in a visceral way, the importance of mental discipline.
. . . line integral of the electric field is thus proportional to the time derivative of the magnetic flux. Note, however, the sign of the induced electromotive force, which resists changes to the current. . . .
The text devolved into hieroglyphics. Then the hieroglyphs became smudges of ink that meandered across the page like earthworms seeking high ground after a rainstorm. Gottlieb’s eyes had mutinied.
He removed his reading glasses, pinched the bridge of his nose, and rubbed his eyes. Sunset had come and gone hours ago, so the farm was dark except where a ring of klieg lights had been erected to aid the search for Oskar’s body. Because Gottlieb hadn’t managed to get his desk lamp repaired, he’d been forced to read by candle light.
His eyes burned. It wasn’t a very good candle.
He was steeling himself for another reading attempt when there came a tentative knock at the door. Gottlieb opened it.
Osterhagen stood in the corridor. “Evening, Doctor.”
“I’ve been feeling the tiniest bit crazy lately. Can you fit me in for a session to fix my brain?”
“Well, it’s late—”
“Relax,” said Osterhagen, raising one hand. “I figured you might need some company.” Glass tinkled when he hefted a paper sack. “Figured you could use some of this, too.”
Gottlieb pushed the door wide and waved the other man inside. “You’re quickly becoming my favorite patient.”
Osterhagen entered. The faint ammonia odor from the lab still clung to him. He smelled like cat piss.
From the bag, he produced a bottle of scotch and two glasses. He inspected one glass in the candlelight, fished out his handkerchief, then gave it a quick rub. Gottlieb pretended not to notice.
Osterhagen splashed liquid amber into each glass, saying, “You’re sure I’m not interrupting? You look . . .”
Gottlieb said, “No. I was just reading.”
Osterhagen glanced at the book. “Ahhh. Maxwell’s equations.” It came out as though he were greeting an old friend. He flipped through the pages, careful to keep Gottlieb’s place. “That puts me back in my student days.”
“I can’t decipher any of this,” said Gottlieb. “It’s gibberish.” He shoved the book aside.
Osterhagen handed him a glass. “Many people say that what you do is also gibberish.”
Gottlieb sighed. “So I’ve heard.”
Osterhagen raised his glass. “To those who practice gibberish, for the betterment of Germany.”
Gottlieb touched it with his own. Clink.
The tastes of oak, and earth, and fire slid across his tongue. The scotch traced a smooth, slow burn on the way down, like smoldering silk.
“Wow.” He checked the bottle. ”How’d you get this?”
“My son sent it. He’s a cargo inspector at the port in Bremen. Good job. It has some nice side benefits.”
Several moments passed while they drank in silence. Gottlieb took a heavy swig, dousing the ice in his gut with liquid fire.
“At least they haven’t outlawed electromagnetism yet.” He pointed a thumb at his chest, splashing his shirt in the process. “I’m guilty of ’Jew science.’”
“Ouch.” Osterhagen wiped the back of his hand across his lips. “But that shouldn’t matter, if von Westarp has need of you.”
“Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? The good doctor seems to think I’m at fault for yesterday’s accident.”
“I figured it was something like that. You’re not alone, though. I thought he was going to round up all of us engineers after the power surge. Even those of us who aren’t working on the generator. I spent half the morning running all over the farm to replace blown fuses, the other half wondering if I’d get a shallow grave for my trouble.”
Gottlieb raised his glass. “To those of us destined for a bullet in the temple.”
Clink. Gottlieb emptied his glass. Osterhagen refilled it, then his own. More silent drinking.
Osterhagen smacked his lips. “They do it in the forest near the battery lab. The executions, I mean. Sometimes I hear it.” He burped. “My advice? Don’t beg. It only makes them angry.”
“Not as angry as trying to leave the farm.”
That happened once or twice per year. Some staff members couldn’t handle the sight of deeds that should have been—in a properly ordered universe—impossible. Those who tried to leave eventually ended up in the forest. Those who stayed eventually found their way to Gottlieb’s office.
“True,” said Osterhagen. “So what really happened yesterday? You must have a theory by now.”
“No theories. Many suspicions.” Gottlieb lowered his voice. “I think it was Gretel. Can’t prove it, though.”
“Ah. That one.” Osterhagen took a long sip. A long, careful sip.
“What do you know about her?”
Osterhagen shook his head. “Nothing. I know very little about any of the test subjects.”
“But . . .”
“The men in the battery lab avoid Gretel. More than they avoid the others. They leave it up to me to deal with her.” Gottlieb gestured for him to elaborate. He did, but only just: “She makes them uncomfortable. Me, too.”
They spoke of sons and fathers, electromagnetism and psychotherapy. When he departed, Osterhagen took the lamp but left the bottle.
Gottlieb woke when the rising sun cleared the forest, high enough to stream through the office window and spear him in the eyes. Sleeping at the desk had made for terrible posture, so now his headache throbbed in time to the carpenters’ hammering. Each blow reverberated in his skull.
As the last vestiges of sleep abandoned him, Gottlieb remembered fragmentary dreams of snowflakes and avalanches, butterflies and hurricanes, corn poppies and ravens.
He’d slept through breakfast, but it mattered little because anxiety had shot his appetite in the temple. The fortifying fire of last night’s drink had become a heap of cold ashes in his stomach and bitter despair on his tongue. Dr. von Westarp would return from Berlin today, but Gottlieb was no closer to staying his own execution. No closer to unraveling Gretel’s actions.
He had to know what had happened to Klaus’s battery.
Rudolf arrived at the office, yawning and rubbing bleary eyes, just as Gottlieb was stepping out. He frowned when he saw Gottlieb locking his office.
“Oh, come on,” he said. “I really need to see you.”
“I’m sorry,” said Gottlieb. “I’m quite busy. We’ll have to reschedule.”
Gottlieb squeezed past him. Over his shoulder, he called, “Find me this afternoon.”
Look hard, though. I might be buried in the forest.
He had to skirt the training field on his way to the battery laboratory. Reinhardt stood in the center of the field, frowning at moist piles of hay until they sprouted violet flames. Gottlieb retraced his path past the generator station (still more cursing and banging). The hammering grew louder as he passed the carpenters at work on the new building.
“Guten Morgen, Herr Doktor.”
Gretel swung out from behind a wall stud. Gottlieb jumped. He hadn’t seen her chatting with the foreman. She leaned in his path, a buttercup tucked behind one ear.
Her eyes, darker than overripe plums, searched his face. She said, “You look troubled.”
His heart thrashed inside his ribcage, seeking escape. She’d frightened him on purpose, to play with him, to keep him off-balance. But Gottlieb didn’t need to wait for the panic to subside before he could craft a suitable response. His professional training took over. He turned the question back on Gretel.
“I’m sad about Oskar. Aren’t you?”
“Yes.” She jumped down beside him. It fluttered the mud-stained hem of her dress, as well as her hair, and the wires protruding from her skull. He caught a whiff of the flower, and tried not to flinch as she brushed against him.
She clucked her tongue. “Poor Oskar. Such a tragedy.”
“And a senseless one,” he said. “An accident like that might have happened to anybody.”
“Not anybody.” The tone of her voice carried faint disapproval, as though he’d said something dim. More brightly, she said, “Are you looking for a late breakfast? I’ll walk with you.”
And she did. Neither spoke. Gretel was, of course, unconcerned by the awkward silence. The clinician in Gottlieb, the small part of him not overwhelmed with the desire to flee, double-checked his diagnosis against her behaviors. The superficial charm fit.
He noticed something odd: she wasn’t barefoot. Yet the day had dawned warm, and clearly she’d been to the meadow.
He said, “I see you’re wearing shoes today.”
Gretel nodded. Frowned. “The workmen spilled a bucket of nails. They haven’t found them all.”
She turned for the mess hall, but he continued toward the battery lab. “Wait.” She gave him the flower. The hairy stem tickled his fingers. “To brighten your office.”
Osterhagen was already hard at work, still dissecting Klaus’s battery. But he shook his head when Gottlieb entered. Not yet, my friend.
He had, however, fixed the lamp.
Gottlieb’s appetite still hadn’t returned by midday. In lieu of lunch, he spent half an hour composing his final wishes. The nib of his fountain pen dotted the tip of his tongue with the taste of cold, inky steel.
He’d never married, and he owned little. To his mother he left his savings, which had grown in the few years since he’d accepted a stipend from the Reichsbehörde. Medical texts and related items, including some files (those not embargoed by the Schutzstaffel), he bequeathed to his alma mater, the University of Heidelberg.
After sealing the document in an envelope and setting it on his desk, beside the electromagnetics textbook and Gretel’s wildflower, he pulled out the bird-watching binoculars. Bird watching was a good excuse for entering the forest, from which a brave soul might run for it.
But Gottlieb was still gathering the courage to make the attempt when Rudolf returned. The bright flare of irritation quickly burned itself out, to be followed by darker feelings of shame and resignation.
I’m a doctor; I’m here to help them. Very well. Let it be said I performed my duty until the very end.
Gottlieb pulled the relevant file and opened his journal while his patient sprawled in a chair.
Rudolf said, without preamble, “You have to drug me.”
He didn’t cover his mouth when he yawned; his breath wafted across the desk, carrying to Gottlieb the odors of coffee and a sour stomach. The flying man’s eyes were pink through the sclera. The skin beneath his bloodshot eyes had become dark and puffy in the days since they’d last met.
“How long have you had trouble sleeping?”
“It started three nights ago,” said Rudolf. “And I can’t take another. So give me something.”
Oskar had died two days ago. Gottlieb remembered how, just before the accident, Rudolf had been reprimanded for failing to concentrate during his training session.
“What happened three nights ago?”
“That’s when the crazy bitch starting banging on the wall in the middle of the night.” Rudolf yawned again.
Gottlieb sat up. “Crazy bitch” meant Gretel. She and Rudolf shared a wall.
“Yes. I need something so that I can sleep through her racket tonight. The medics refuse.”
“Dr. von Westarp is very strict about these things.”
“I don’t care. I need sleep.” Rudolf rapped his knuckles on the desk. “Wham, wham, wham! Every night.” He shook his head. “She’s bent, you know. Out of her mind.”
“What is she doing?”
Rudolf noticed the buttercup. He snatched it, twirled it in his fingers.
“Decorating her room,” he said, then crushed the blossom. A snowfall of flower petals dusted the rug.
Gottlieb started to ask, “Decorating? What—”
But he stopped, because he knew what she’d been doing: hanging wildflowers. But for that she would need . . . What had she said this morning? They haven’t found them all.
“You’re certain she started three nights ago?”
“I’ve hardly slept since then. So yes, I’m certain.”
Gottlieb grabbed the textbook and stood, tipping his chair in his haste. “I must go,” he said.
Rudolf moaned. “What about my sedative?”
But Gottlieb was already running outside. Please, he thought. Just a little more time.
He found the foreman Gretel had been speaking to, and inquired about her visit.
She’d come to return a hammer, said the foreman.
Had she borrowed anything else?
Yes. But while the foreman claimed nothing noteworthy had happened during his interactions with the girl, Gottlieb insisted he recount both conversations in detail. After he did, Gottlieb knew he’d found the loose thread.
The sticking point was, still, Klaus’s battery. Gretel had come nowhere near it, yet she’d somehow sabotaged it during the few moments between when her brother departed the battery lab and arrived at the test site. He’d gone straight from one to the other.
And, thus, past the new generator.
The susurration of tires on crushed gravel announced the arrival of an automobile. A black Mercedes emerged from the forest, rolling along the lane to the farmhouse. Dr. von Westarp had returned from Berlin.
Gottlieb sprinted for the generator hut. He barged into the middle of an argument. Sweaty, red-faced men shouted across the hulking innards of a disassembled dynamo. The room stank of hot oil, diesel fuel, and fear.
Somebody said to him, “Who the hell are you?”
“I know what happened to the generator,” said Gottlieb. He brandished a nail he’d borrowed from the foreman. “You’re looking for one of these.”
“Since when do we take advice from the medical staff?”
“The doctor has returned from Berlin. He’ll demand a report on your progress fixing this generator. If you follow my advice, he might not have you executed.”
It took half an hour of difficult labor, but in the end they found it. Gottlieb laughed. The engineers looked at him as though he were part sage, part madman.
He wiped his eyes, then sought Osterhagen.
A blood-red sunset streamed through bay windows overlooking the grounds. Von Westarp paced before his blackboard. The board contained a palimpsest scrawl of the doctor’s notes, and a large drawing that was part anatomical cutaway, part circuit diagram. His footsteps kicked up eddies of chalk dust. He hadn’t yet changed from his SS-Oberführer uniform to his preferred lab coat.
Standartenführer Pabst had escorted Gottlieb to the doctor’s study. Von Westarp spent twenty minutes describing the humiliation of reporting to Reichsführer Himmler the loss of seventeen years’ work. For ten more minutes, he explained how the accident revealed systematic failures in the operation of the Reichsbehörde. Gottlieb’s sweaty palms threatened to soak through the paper sack on his lap.
Von Westarp said, “How do you explain yourself?”
“Oskar’s death was unavoidable. Gretel wanted it to happen.”
“She knew?” Von Westarp trembled. The beet color had begun to drain from his face as the tirade came to an end, but now it returned. “She foresaw but didn’t warn us?”
The soggy bag crackled on Gottlieb’s lap. “You misunderstand me, doctor. She’s not merely clairvoyant. She uses her prescience to manipulate fate.” Gottlieb looked from von Westarp, to Pabst, then back again. “Gretel is broken, was born broken, in ways I can’t easily explain. And now, with her power . . . We have no frame of reference for what that girl has become.”
“You’re shifting the blame to save yourself.”
Gottlieb reached into the sack. “Do you know how a diesel generator works? I didn’t until recently,” he said. “It’s essentially a gasoline engine that spins magnets past a coil of wire. A good generator maintains a steady flow of electricity regardless of demand. There are electrical and mechanical safeguards to ensure this. But the most important of these is the governor. It keeps things spinning at a steady rate.” From the sack he withdrew a bent nail. “Unless something gets lodged inside.”
Von Westarp turned the nail in his hand. The dying sunlight illuminated faint scoring from a pair of vise-grip pliers. The engineers had struggled to remove it.
Pabst asked, “Why did she sabotage our infrastructure?”
“She didn’t. Not directly. She’s too subtle for that.” Three days ago, Gottlieb explained, Gretel had accosted the foreman overseeing work on the new lab. She’d asked for a spare hammer and nails. He offered her the bucket. She took a few nails, thanked him, and went on her way. But the foreman, busy and distracted, didn’t return the nail bucket to its proper spot. It wasn’t long before somebody kicked it over. They gathered the spilled nails.
“But they missed one,” said Gottlieb, pointing at the twisted metal. He took another item from the paper sack. Pabst wrinkled his nose at the scents of leather and foot odor. “This boot belongs to one of the engineers. See this gap between the rubber and the leather? It’s where the nail lodged when he stepped on it. Not deep enough to pierce his foot. But it did hitch a ride to the generator hut.”
Where magnets yanked it into the bowels of the machine. Where it went unnoticed by the engineers.
“By the time the engineers realized there was a problem and cut the flow of diesel fuel, it was too late. Without speed control, the rotor accelerated beyond its tolerances. The voltage regulators couldn’t keep up.”
“The power surge,” said Pabst. “The blown fuses.”
Gottlieb said, “This happened just as Klaus carried his battery to the test site. The batteries contain delicate circuitry. It’s susceptible to—” He opened his bird-watching notebook, read the phrase Osterhagen had provided. “—electromagnetic pulse.”
As for why Gretel had done this, Gottlieb explained how the close call played on Klaus’s phobia. No mere warning could have carried the same visceral impact. “I predict Klaus will make rapid progress in his training. His sister orchestrated this experience to hone him. Temper him.”
Von Westarp sunk into a brooding silence. It lasted several minutes. The only sound was a faint click when Pabst turned on a lamp.
“Do you know what this means?” von Westarp whispered.
Yes, thought Gottlieb. She’s too dangerous, too subtle to be let loose. Please see that.
“If there were a God,” said von Westarp, “she would know His mind, and thwart Him. He has been replaced.”
Like a sweater caught on a burr, Gottlieb’s breath hitched in his chest. Von Westarp was making a grievous error, thinking he could use Gretel. But Gottlieb had narrowly avoided one execution this week, and couldn’t bear to start over again. Perhaps it was weakness, perhaps it was cowardice, but he kept his thoughts to himself.
“Excellent work, Gottlieb. If you hadn’t persevered, the full scope of my success might have gone unrecognized a great deal longer.”
Gottlieb knew when he was dismissed. He should have melted with relief, but he couldn’t. Not while one loose end remained.
As he departed, he heard von Westarp address the colonel: “I’m troubled, Pabst. This flaw in the batteries is unacceptable. Go down to the laboratory. . . .”
Von Westarp called off the search for Oskar’s body the next morning. The excavation had grown so deep and wide it threatened to disrupt training operations. It did make a convenient grave, however. They tossed Osterhagen’s body in the crater before filling it.
Gottlieb said a silent prayer for his friend, then took a walk to the meadow.
Gretel was there. But she had company today. Von Westarp had assigned a soldier to attend her. Right now the private carried an armload of buttercups and lavender. Another soldier had been sent to the mess hall, to collect empty milk bottles that Gretel could use as vases.
And just like that, the last loose thread unraveled before Gottlieb’s eyes. Gottlieb had worked at it well into the night, as he drank to Osterhagen’s memory. But he’d made no headway.
With a minimum of effort, Gretel had managed to save her brother’s life while simultaneously ensuring the near miss would become a scar he carried for the rest of his life. And along the way she managed to demonstrate—vividly—a major flaw in the battery design.
All this in the course of hanging wildflowers in her room. Which, doubtless, she would have done even if she’d had no need to rescue Klaus. She liked flowers.
Gretel was nothing if not efficient. And yet she’d gone so far out of her way to change her routine on the day Oskar died. She hadn’t done it before or since. Why hunt mushrooms on that one day?
Because Gretel had wanted Gottlieb to see her.
When they’d first met, Osterhagen had said Gottlieb was Pabst’s dogsbody. But that was wrong. Not a dogsbody—a cat’s-paw. He’d been Gretel’s cat’s-paw.
She’d arranged everything so that Gottlieb would dissect her plan and lay it out for von Westarp. Just to instill von Westarp with a sense of awe. From now on, Gretel could do anything she wanted.
Who controlled the farm now? Gottlieb couldn’t say for certain. But he did know that from now on he lived by Gretel’s indulgence as much as von Westarp’s.
She had murdered God. Nature had lost its grip on her.
Copyright © 2010 by Ian Tregillis