Penguin books - səhifə 42
Smoke seeped from the earth, charred trees fell, as he watched, at no more than a breath from the direction of the sea. Powdered dust rose up at every footfall, turning clothes white, faces to masks of dust. The farther up the peninsula, the less damage. A strange gradient of death and wreckage, south to north, in which the poorest and most helpless got it worst—as, indeed, the gradient was to run east to west, in London a year later when the rockets began to fall. Most of the casualties had been among "foreign workers," a euphemism for civilian prisoners brought in from countries under German occupation. The wind tunnel and the measuring house were untouched, the pre-production works only slightly damaged. Pokier's colleagues were outside Scientist Housing, which had been hit—phantoms moving in morning fog still not burned off, washing up in buckets of beer because the water was still out. They stared at Pokier, failing, enough of them, to keep accusation out of their faces.
"I wish I could have missed this."
"Dr. Thiel is dead."
"How was fairyland, Pokier?"
"I'm sorry," he said. It wasn't his fault. The others were silent: some watching, some still in shock from the night.
Mondaugen showed up then. "We're exhausted. Could you come with me to Pre-production? A lot has to be sorted out, we need a hand." They shuffled along, each in his own dust-cloud. "It was terrible," Mondaugen said. "All of us have been under some strain."
"They sounded like I'd done it."
"You feeling guilty because you weren't here?"
"I'm wondering why I wasn't here. That's all."
"Because you were in Zwölfkinder," replied the enlightened one. "Don't invent complications."
He tried not to. That was Weissmann's job, wasn't it, Weissmann was the sadist, he had responsibility for coming up with new game-variations, building toward a maximum cruelty in which Polder would be unlaid to nerves vessels and tendons, every last convolution of brain flattened out in the radiance of the black candles, nowhere to shelter, entirely his master's possession . . . the moment in which he is defined to himself at last. . . . This is what Pokier could feel waiting now, a room he'd never seen, a ceremony he couldn't memorize in advance. ...
There were false alarms. Polder was almost sure once during the winter, during the test series at Blizna. They had moved east into Poland, to fire over land. The shots from Peenemünde were all out to sea, and there'd been no way to observe the re-entry of the A4. Blizna was almost exclusively an SS project: part of Maj.-Gen. Kammler's empire-building. The Rocket at that point was plagued by an airburst problem in its terminal phase—the vehicle blew apart before reaching the target. Everyone had an idea. It might be an overpressure in the liquid-oxygen tank. Perhaps, because the Rocket coming down was lighter by 10 tons of fuel and oxidizer, the shift in the center of gravity was making it unstable. Or perhaps the insulation on the alcohol tank was at fault, somehow allowing residual fuel to be burned on re-entry. This was Polder's reason for being there. By then he was no longer in the propulsion group, or even working as a designer—he was in the Materials office, expediting the procurement of various plastics for insulation, shock absorption, gasketry—exciting stuff. The orders to Blizna were strange enough to be Weissmann's work: the day Pokier went out to sit in the Polish meadows at the exact spot where the Rocket was supposed to come down, he was certain.
Green rye and low hills for miles all around: Pokier was by a small trench, in the Sarnaki target area, pointing his binoculars south toward Blizna like everybody else: waiting. Erwartung in the crosshairs, with the just-sprung rye blowing, its gentler nap being brushed up by the wind . . . look down at this countryside, down through Rocket-miles of morning space: the many shades of forest green, Polish farmhouses white and brown, dark eels of rivers catching the sun at their curves . . . and at the very center down there, in the holy X, Pokier, crucified, invisible at first look, but in a moment. . . now beginning to resolve as the fall gathers momentum—
But how can he believe in its reality up there? Insects whine, the sun is almost warm, he can gaze off at the red earth and millions of blowing stalks, and fall nearly into a light trance: in shirtsleeves, with his bony knees pointing up, the gray suit jacket wrinkled years beyond last pressing bundled under his ass to soak up the dew. The others he came out with are dotted here about Ground Zero, blithe Nazi buttercups—binoculars sway from slate-colored horsehide straps around their necks, the Askania crew fuss with their equipment, and one of the SS liaison men (Weissmann isn't here) keeps looking at his watch, then at the sky, then the watch, the crystal becoming, in brief flashes on/off, a nacreous circle binding together the hour and the fleecy sky.
Pokier scratches at a graying 48-hour beard, bites at lips very chapped, as if he has spent most of the late winter outside: he has a winter look. Around his eyes, over the years, has grown a ruinous system of burst capillaries, shadows, folds, crowsfeet, a ground that by now has gathered in the simple, direct eyes of his younger and poorer days . . . no. Something was in them, even then, something others saw and knew they could use, and found how to. Something Pokier missed. He's spent enough of his life looking into mirrors. He really ought to remember. . . .
The airburst, if it happens, will be in visual range. Abstractions, math, models are fine, but when you're down to it and everybody's hollering for a fix, this is what you do: you go and sit exactly on the target with indifferent shallow trenches for shelter, and you watch it in the silent fire-bloom of its last few seconds, and see what you will see. Chances are astronomically against a perfect hit, of course, that is why one is safest at the center of the target area. Rockets are supposed to be like artillery shells, they disperse about the aiming point in a giant ellipse—the Ellipse of Uncertainty. But Pokier, though trusting as much as any scientist in uncertainty, is not feeling too secure here. It is after all his own personal ass whose quivering sphincter is centered right on Ground Zero. And there is more to this than ballistics. There is Weissmann. Any number of chemists and materials people know as much about insulation as Polder . . . why should he have been picked, unless . . . somewhere in his brain now two foci sweep together and become one . . . zero ellipse ... a single point ... a live warhead, secretly loaded, special bunkers for everyone else . . . yes that's what he wants ... all tolerances in the guidance cooperating toward a perfect shot, right on top of Pokier ... ah, Weissmann, your end game lacks finesse—but there were never spectators and judges not in all this time, and who ever said the end could not be this brutal? Paranoia has
rushed Pokier, drowned him to the temples and scalp. He may have shit, he can't tell. His pulse thuds in his neck. His hands and feet ache. The black-suited blond enforcers look on. Their metal insignia twinkle. Low hillsides lie under early sun. All the field glasses stare south. The Aggregat is on route, nothing can be changed. No one else here cares for the penetralia of the moment, or last mysteries: there have been too many rational years. The paper has piled too thick and far. Pokier cannot reconcile, not really, his dream of the perfectly victimized with the need bred into him to take care of business—nor see how these may be one and the same. The A4 must, after all, go out in the field very soon, this failure rate must be brought down, and so those who've come are here, and if there is a massive failure of vision this morning in the Polish meadow, if no one, not even the most paranoid, can see anything at all beyond the stated Requirements, certainly it's not unique to this time, this place, where the eyes cupped against the black binoculars are looking only for the day's "reluctant virgin"—as the witty rocketeers have dubbed their problem rockets—to announce herself... to note where, forward to aft, the trouble may be, the shape of a vapor trail, the sound of the burst, anything that might help. . . .
At Sarnaki, as the records tell it, the rocket came down that day with the usual double-blast, a streak of white condensation in the blue sky: another premature airburst. Steel fragments fell, a hundred feet away from the Zero point, slashing into the rye like hail. Polder saw the explosion, no more than anyone else. He was never sent out again. The SS people watched him get to his feet, and stretch, and slowly move off with the others. Weissmann would get his report. New varieties of torture would be coming.
But inside Pökler's life, on no record but his soul, his poor harassed German soul, the time base has lengthened, and slowed: the Perfect Rocket is still up there, still descending. He still waits—even now, alone at Zwölfkinder waiting for "Use," for this summer's return, and with it an explosion that will take him by surprise. . . .
In the spring, when the winds at Peenemünde had shifted around to the southwest, and the first birds were back, Polder was transferred to the underground factory at Nordhausen, in the Harz. Work at Peenemünde, after the British raid, had begun to fall off. The plan— again Kammler's—was now to disperse testing and production around Germany, to prevent another and possibly fatal Allied attack. Pökler's duties at the Mittelwerke were routine: materials, procurement. He slept in a bunk next to a wall of dynamited stone painted white, with a bulb over his head burning all night long. He dreamed that the bulb
was a representative of Weissmann, a creature whose bright filament was its soul. They held long dream-dialogues whose substance Pokier could never remember. The bulb was explaining the plot to him in detail—it was more grand and sweeping than Pokier could ever have imagined, it seemed many nights to be purely music, his consciousness moving through the soundscape at bay, observing, compliant, still precariously safe, but not for long.
At the time there were rumors of an estrangement growing between Weissmann and his "monster," Enzian. The Schwarzkom-mando by then had grown away from the SS structure, much as the SS itself had from the German Army. Their power now lay not in absolute weaponry but in information and expertise. Pokier was happy to hear that Weissmann was having his troubles, but at a loss how to use it to any advantage. When his orders to Nordhausen had come through, he'd had a flash of despair. Was the game adjourned then? He might never see Ilse again. But a memo had come, telling him to report to Weissmann in his office.
The hair at Weissmann's temples was graying and disarranged. Pokier saw that one earpiece of his glasses was held on with a paper clip. His desk was a litter of documents, reports, reference books. It was a surprise to see him looking less diabolical than harassed as any civil servant under pressure. His eyes were aimed in Pökler's direction, but the lenses distorted them.
"You understand that this transfer to Nordhausen is voluntary."
Pokier understood, with relief and two seconds of actual love for his protector, that the game was still on. "It will be something new."
"Yes?" Partly a challenge, but partly interested too.
"Production. We've been so involved here with the research-and-development end. It's not a weapon for us so much as a 'flying laboratory,' as Dr. Thiel said once—"
"Do you miss Dr. Thiel?"
"Yes. He wasn't in my section. I didn't know him well."
"A shame he got caught in the raid. We all move in an Ellipse of Uncertainty, don't we?"
Pokier allowed himself a look at the cluttered desk, quick enough to be taken either for nervousness or as a comeback—Weissmann, looks like you have your own Ellipse all right—"Oh, I don't have the time usually to worry. At least the Mittelwerke is underground."
"The tactical sites won't be."
"Do you think I might be sent—"
Weissmann shrugged and favored Pokier with a big fake smile. "My dear Pokier, how can anyone predict where you'll go? We'll see how it all develops."
Later, in the Zone, with his guilt become a sensual thing, prickling at his eyes and membranes like an allergy, it would seem to Polder that he could not, even by that day in Weissmann's office, have been ignorant of the truth. That he had known the truth with his senses, but allowed all the evidence to be misfiled where it wouldn't upset him. Known everything, but refrained from the only act that could have redeemed him. He should have throttled Weissmann where he sat, corrugations of skinny throat and Adam's apple sliding under Pökler's palms, thick eyeglasses sliding off as the weak little eyes go blearing helplessly after their final darkener. . . .
Pokier helped with his own blindness. He knew about Nord-hausen, and the Dora camp: he could see—the starved bodies, the eyes of the foreign prisoners being marched to work at four in the morning in the freezing cold and darkness, the shuffling thousands in their striped uniforms. He had known too, all along, that Ilse was living in a re-education camp. But it wasn't till August, when the furlough arrived as usual in its blank kraft envelope, and Polder rode northward through the gray kilometers of a Germany he no longer recognized, bombed and burned, the wartime villages and rainy purple heath, and found her at last waiting in the hotel lobby at Zwölfkinder with the same darkness in her eyes (how had he missed it till now? such swimming orbits of pain) that he could finally put the two data together. For months, while her father across the wire or walls did his dutiful hackwork, she had been prisoner only a few meters away from him, beaten, perhaps violated. ... If he must curse Weissmann, then he must also curse himself. Weissmann's cruelty was no less resourceful than Pökler's own engineering skill, the gift of Daedalus that allowed him to put as much labyrinth as required between himself and the inconveniences of caring. They had sold him convenience, so much of it, all on credit, and now They were collecting.
Trying, a bit late for it, to open himself to the pain he should have been feeling, he questioned her now. Did she know the name of her camp? Yes, Ilse confirmed—or was told to answer—that it was Dora. The night before she left to come here she'd seen a hanging. Evening was the hour for the hangings. Did he want to hear about it? Did he want to hear about it....
She was very hungry. They spent the first few days eating, what-
ever Zwölfkinder had to sell. There was less than the year before, and it was much more expensive. But the enclave of innocence still enjoyed a high priority, so there was something.
Not so many children this year, though. The engineer and girl had the place practically to themselves. The Wheel and most of the other rides stood motionless. Petrol shortage, a child guard informed them. Luftwaffe flights roared overhead. Nearly every night the sirens cried out, and they watched the searchlights come on in Wismar and in Lübeck, and sometimes heard the bombs. What was Pokier doing in this dream world, this lie? His country waited to be crushed between invaders from east and west: back at Nordhausen the hysteria had risen to epic scale, as the first rockets were about to go out into the field, about to fulfill engineering prophecies old as peacetime. Why, at this critical moment, had they let Pokier off? Who else these days was getting furloughs? And what was "Use" doing here, wasn't she supposed to be too old by now for fairy tales? her new breasts so visible now beneath her frock, her eyes so nearly empty drifting without real interest toward random boys destined for the Volkssturm, older boys, no more interested in her. They dreamed of their orders, of colossal explosions and death—if they even saw her it was sidewise, sly ... her Father -will tame her. . . her teeth will bite the pole . . . someday I will have a herd of them for myself . . . but first I must find my Captain . . . somewhere out in the War . . . first they must deliver me from this little place. . . .
Who was that, going by just then—who was the slender boy who flickered across her path, so blond, so white he was nearly invisible in the hot haze that had come to settle over Zwölfkinder? Did she see him, and did she know him for her own second shadow? She was conceived because her father saw a movie called Alpdrücken one night and got a hardon. Pokier in his horny staring had missed the Director's clever Gnostic symbolism in the lighting scheme of the two shadows, Cain's and Abel's. But Use, some Use, has persisted beyond her cinema mother, beyond film's end, and so have the shadows of shadows. In the Zone, all will be moving under the Old Dispensation, inside the Cain-ists' light and space: not out of any precious Göllerei, but because the Double Light was always there, outside all film, and that shucking and jiving moviemaker was the only one around at the time who happened to notice it and use it, although in deep ignorance, then and now, of what he was showing the nation of starers. ... So that summer Ilse passed herself by, too fixed at some shadowless interior noon to mark the intersection, or to care.
She and Pokier hardly talked this time: it was their mutest holiday together. She walked broodful, her head down, her hair hooding her face, brown legs kicking at refuse the undermanned garbage detail hadn't picked up. Was it her time of life, or did she resent being under orders to spend time with a dull and aging engineer at a place she'd outgrown years ago?
"You don't really want to be here, do you?" They sat by a polluted stream, throwing bread to ducks. Pokier's stomach was upset from ersatz coffee and tainted meat. His head ached.
"It's here or the camp," her face stubbornly aside. "I don't really want to be anywhere. I don't care."
"Do you like it here? Do you want to be back under your mountain? Do you talk to the elves, Franz?"
"No, I don't enjoy it where I am"—Franz?—"but I have, I have my job. . . ."
"Yes. So do I. My job is being a prisoner. I'm a professional inmate. I know how to get favors, who to steal from, how to inform, how to—"
Any minute she'd say it... "Please—stop it Use—" this time Pokier got hysterical and did slap her. Ducks surprised at the sharp report about-faced and waddled away. Ilse gazed back at him, no tears, eyes room after room strung into the shadows of an old prewar house he could wander for years, hearing voices and finding doors, hunting himself, his life as it might have been. . . . He could not bear indifference from her. Close to losing control, Pokier committed then his act of courage. He quit the game.
"If you don't want to come back next year," even though "next year" meant so little by that point in Germany, "you don't have to. It would be better if you didn't."
She knew immediately what he'd done. She pulled one knee up, and rested her forehead there, and thought. "I'll come back," she said very quietly.
"Yes. Really."He did, then, let everything go, every control. He veered into the wind of his long isolation, shuddering terribly. He cried. She took his hands. The floating ducks watched. The sea cooled under the hazy sun. An accordion played somewhere back in the town. From behind the decaying mythical statues, sentenced children shouted to each other. Summer ended.
Back at the Mittelwerke he tried, and kept trying, to get into the Dora camp and find Use. It didn't matter any more about Weissmann. The SS guards each time were courteous, understanding, impossible to get past.
The work load now was incredible. Pokier was getting less than two hours' sleep a day. News of the war reached under the mountain only as rumors and shortages. Procurement philosophy had been "triangular"—three possible sources for the same part, in case one was destroyed. Depending what didn't come from where, or how late it was, you knew which factories had been bombed, which rail connections taken out. Toward the end you had to try and fabricate many of the components locally.
When Pokier had time to think, he was met by the growing enigma of Weissmann's silence. To provoke him, or the memory of him, Polder went out of his way to talk to officers in Major Förschner's security detail, looking for news. None of them responded to Pokier as anything more than a nuisance. They'd heard rumors that Weissmann was no longer here but in Holland, in command of his own rocket battery. Enzian had dropped out of sight, along with many key Schwarzkommando. Polder grew more and more certain that this time the game was really over, that the war had caught them all, given new life-death priorities and no more leisure for torturing a minor engineer. He was able to relax some, move through the day's routine, wait for the end, even allow himself to hope that the thousands in Dora would soon be free, among them Use, some acceptable Use. . . .
But in the spring, he did see Weissmann again. He woke from a dream of a gentle Zwölfkinder that was also Nordhausen, a city of elves producing toy moon-rockets, and there was Weissmann's face at the edge of his bunk, watching him. He seemed to have aged ten years, and Pokier hardly recognized him.
"There isn't much time," Weissmann whispered. "Come with me."
They moved through the white, sleepless bustle of the tunnels, Weissmann walking slowly and stiffly, both men silent. In one of the office spaces, half a dozen others were waiting, along with some SS and SD. "We've already obtained permission from your groups," Weissmann said, "to release you for work on a special project. This will be the highest possible security. You'll be billeted separately, eat separately, and speak to no one who is not present in this room." They all looked around to see who that might be. No one they knew. They looked back at Weissmann.
He wanted a modification worked into one rocket, only one. Its serial number had been removed, and five zeros painted in. Pokier knew immediately that this was what Weissmann had been saving him for: this was to be his "special destiny." It made no sense to him: he had to develop a plastic fairing, of a certain size, with certain insulating properties, for the propulsion section of the rocket. The propulsion engineer was the busiest on the project, rerouting steam and fuel lines, relocating hardware. Whatever the new device was, nobody saw it. According to the rumor, it was being produced elsewhere, and was nicknamed the Schwarzgerät, because of the high secrecy surrounding it. Even the weight was classified. They were through inside of two weeks, and the "Vorrichtung für die Isolierung" was on its way to the field. Pokier reported back to his regular supervisor, and the routine went on as before. He never saw Weissmann again.
The first week in April, with American units supposed to be arriving at any moment, most of the engineers were packing, collecting addresses of co-workers, drinking farewell toasts, drifting through the emptying bays. There was a graduation feeling in the air. It was hard not to whistle "Gaudeamus igitur." Suddenly the cloistered life was about to come to an end.
A young SS guard, one of the last to leave, found Polder in the dusty cafeteria, handed him an envelope, and left without a word. It was the usual furlough form, superseded now by the imminent death of the Government—and a travel permit to Zwölfkinder. Where the dates should have been, someone had written, almost illegibly, "after hostilities end." On the back, in the same hand (Weissmann's?) a note to Pokier. She has been released. She will meet you there. He understood that this was payment for the retrofit work he'd done on the 00000. How long had Weissmann been keeping him deliberately on ice, all so he'd have a plastics man he could depend on, when the time came?
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