Click on image to enlarge.
by Richard Wadholm
Category: Dark Fantasy
Description: At the end of World War II, an American task force investigates a Nazi project to reanimate the dead and summon strange monsters from other dimensions. Deranged by their own studies, the Nazi scientists have been difficult to find, much less talk to. Only the linguist Susan Gilbert has had any luck getting their cooperation. When it turns out that the biggest, most horrific experiment of them all has yet to be completed, she ends up leading the effort to save the world. But she's not a mad genius, not a secret agent, and not even in the military, and the only man with the knowledge to help her succeed is her own worst enemy, a remorseless, manipulative villain hunted by the Allies, the Nazis, and supernatural monsters alike. A dark fantasy based on the work of H.P. Lovecraft, Astronomy is Richard Wadholm's debut novel. Richard's fiction has been published several times in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, and his story "Green Tea," which appeared in Asimov's Year's Best anthology, was nominated for the year 2000 Theodore Sturgeon Award.
eBook Publisher: Electricstory.com, 2000
eBookwise Release Date: June 2001
44 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [259 KB]
Reading time: 157-220 min.
Prelude Conrad Hartmann asks one more time if this is really #43 Münterstrasse. He has asked several times already. The young man behind the desk lamp is plainly annoyed at this continual questioning.
He has been here before, but as a patron--never when the place was closed. The Four Winds Bar is a palace of refuge if you are German of a particular age and a particular past.
Most evenings it holds an air of the lurid, the covert. That is part of its attraction. It helps to keep out American soldiers and others of mixed race.
Tonight, the Four Winds is unaccountably closed. No one is here but the help, and every face Hartmann sees holds a private and knowing smile. Hartmann is frankly unnerved. "You are the delivery man," the boy tells him. "One would expect you to know who we were." The youth is involved in some exacting operation that keeps him from looking up as he speaks. Hartmann hears a persistent buzzing beneath his hands.
The young man's name is Karla, or Karel, something like that--one of those East European names that would belong to a woman anywhere this side of the Elbe River. Hartmann tightens his lip at the thought of refugees diluting the pristine bloodlines of the German people.
But Karel does not look like a refugee. He has a sardonic, feline stare, and sapphire eyes that he's no doubt been complimented on since he was a young boy.
And then there is the buzzing on Karel's desk. Hartmann has resisted looking as long as possible; looking would somehow be an act of surrender. But the buzzing is so persistent, and Karel is so intent, Hartmann glances between the telephone and the collected works of Friedrich Nietzsche. He bites his lip at what he finds there.
A fly is pinned through the thorax by a long sewing needle. It is still alive. Its wings go on and off incessantly. Its legs squirm as it struggles to free itself.
Karel is slicing it from abdomen to head, the way a chef minces a clove of garlic.
"At some point in this process," Karel explains with an air of scientific exactitude, "the fly expires. We have yet to determine what that point is." Karel looks up for the first time, and smiles.
Hartmann makes some excuse about checking his truck. Any regular driver would be anxious by now--American soldiers are everywhere. A tank truck full of five thousand kilos of mercury just sitting in an alley would invite their interest.
Hartmann is starting to like the idea of American soldiers nosing around his truck. He is starting to pray for them. He would walk out of here and never look back were it not for the war crimes indictment hanging over him.
The door from the bar opens onto some dissolute cabaret piano and a gust of stale beer stench.
"Ahh, Herr Hartmann. Our friend from The Central League of Secret Theories." The actual words are Zentralbund der Geheimlehre. And the voice speaking them lingers over each syllable as if savoring a mouthful of wine. He might be reminiscing about better days gone by. He might simply be reminding Hartmann whom he's supposed to be representing.
Hartmann turns to confront a dwarfish silhouette in the dim light from the bar. The man rolls into the light of Karel's desk lamp. The dwarfish ghost materializes into a shrunken little man hunched into a motorized wheelchair.
"Stürmbannführer Kriene." Hartmann offers the rigid, arm-forward salute of the SS. Kriene feigns surprise at this formality. He passes a hand to his forehead in the manner of a simple Wehrmacht officer. Some might see this as a gesture of patronizing disdain. Hartmann sees a gesture of camaraderie, intended to put him at ease. Things are going well, he tells himself.
Kriene strains to look up into Hartmann's eyes. He has to swivel his head sideways to do it. Whatever he sees there makes him snort with disgust.
"Save your pity, Herr Hartmann. I am as I am for the sake of my Reich and my Führer. You are here to deliver something for us, yes?"
Hartmann is not feeling pity exactly. He had been warned of Jürgen Kriene's injuries. No one warned him of Kriene's pitiless eyes.
He reaches for the consignment sheet in his pocket. The motion nearly gets his arm torn from him.
Herr Kriene has this distracting affectation, this pair of Dobermans. One is black, the other a roan. They snarl at Hartmann. They leap to the limits of their chains, which are attached to a breathing machine riding sidecar to the wheelchair. Hartmann backs against Karel's desk. He waits for the whole ungainly contraption to tip over, and the dogs to come loose.
Kriene chuckles at his panic. He clucks at his dogs in a soothing voice. "Now, Max," he says to the roan. "Now, Wolf." The dogs are instantly quiet. "They are extremely intelligent, you know," Kriene says. "Smarter than most dogs. Smarter than most people, I dare say." His eyes never leave Hartmann's face.
Hartmann nods appreciatively.
Kriene says, "I must confess I was expecting someone else."
Hartmann has prepared himself for sticky questions. "Schiller was taken by the Allies this morning," Hartmann quickly explains.
This is true. Willy Schiller has been picked up by the Allies, on the advice of an anxious little prison guard from Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp named Conrad Hartmann.
Hartmann had enjoyed himself rather egregiously at the expense of any number of Jewish and Communist prisoners. Three months after the war, Hartmann is a man with real war criminal potential, ready to do just about any stupid and dangerous thing to prove his value as an informer.
"Taken this very morning. Yet he had time to phone you. Schiller is indeed a good man."
"Just tell me where the stuff goes," Hartmann says. He tries to sound brusque, but he cannot ignore the tremor in his voice. These people make him nervous.
Kriene motions to his young charge. Reluctantly, Karel sets down the razor. The young man leads Hartmann past the wheelchair-bound scientist into the bar.
The room is dim. Hartmann stumbles against a chair. Even though his eyes had been adjusted to the dusk outside, he needs a moment to place himself in here.
He hears Karel chuckle. "Watch your step, please." The young man offers this as a suggestion to an imbecile.
Hartmann scans the room for the thing he came to photograph.
Arrayed against the windward side of the room are seven open windows. Out of each window, a telescope aims for the stars. These are for the amateurs, the dilettantes. For the serious astronomer, there is only one instrument worth looking through.
The ceiling is opened wide to the night sky. Directly beneath the partition awaits a basin of stars. This is the thing his Allied handlers want to know about. He has been given a small camera. He fingers it in his pocket just to make sure it's still there. He had planned to get pictures, whatever he found in here. But that cannot happen under such close scrutiny.
"You are curious about my Cauldron of Stars." Hartmann jumps at the reedy, malicious voice. He has not heard Kriene roll up behind him. "A mercury reflector," Kriene explains. "The most perfect mirror in the world. No glass could be polished so fine."
Herr Kriene speaks to Hartmann as if he has never been here before. This is not so good. Hartmann has counted on his familiarity to reduce suspicions. It has worked before--Hartmann recently left a very incriminating package behind the counter without raising an eyebrow. But then he was dealing with barmaids. Now he is lying to people of a distinctly different echelon.
Kriene notices Hartmann's hand in his pocket. "I hope that is not a cigarette you are reaching for, Herr Hartmann. The Führer himself abhorred smoking and spoke to the subject on numerous occasions."
Hartmann obediently removes his hand.
Kriene asks him if he does not find the pool beautiful. Hartmann can only nod. "We've learned from our tragic missteps, Herr Hartmann. Real destructive power requires the highest degree of precision. I tried to explain this to Herr Heisenberg as he pursued his goal of a fission bomb. I tried explaining this to the men of this very project. They failed to listen and paid the price. Now that I am in charge, exactitude is our watchword."
Hartmann nods appreciatively. "I don't understand," he says, straining for erudition. "If this is a telescope, how do you aim it?"
"Ahh." Kriene's smile grows wider. Hartmann has asked the right question. "We have developed an aiming device using a set of centrifuges and synchronized cameras, liberated from Doctor Heisenberg's bomb project just prior to the Fall. The centrifuges hold small portions of mercury suspended against gravity, and the synchronized cameras ensure that only the actual starlight is recorded to film."
What Hartmann wants to ask--what his handlers want him to ask--is, "What do perfect pictures of stars have to do with reversing the outcome of the war?" He is scared that has said too much already.
A quartet of silent figures has gathered around Kriene's withered form. They look like men dipped in mercury. They are mirror-coated from head to foot. Their faces are mirrors.
But of course, Hartmann realizes--they are men like himself. They are wearing protective suits. Kriene wears no such protection, despite his proximity to the open pool. Perhaps this exposure is the reason for his condition?
The four silver men have pressed in around him. There is an unspoken command; Hartmann's forearms are taken. He is turned forcibly to the edge of the mercury pool.
"What is this?" he demands. "I am a good German. I am a party member since 1936."
"You are a collaborator," Kriene replies mildly.
His dogs bark hysterically. Kriene puts a hand to the roan's head. "Now, now, Max."
A rough hand grabs the forelock of Hartmann's hair. Hartmann claws at the edge of the mirrored pool. "I am innocent. I am filling in for Schiller."
"Indeed"--Kriene frowns with curiosity--"Schiller's replacement. But Schiller never delivers to us. Schiller delivers to an intermediary. Your handlers have proven too knowledgeable for your good, Herr Hartmann."
Hartmann's last view of this world is the stretched rictus, the wild eyes, of his own screaming reflection.
--And all around him, the stars.
Hartmann drowns in stars.