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(A Tale of the Violent Century)

 

Berlin. 1987.

Sometimes it feels to Spit as though she’s stuck here, in time; that it’s always bloody Berlin, and it’s always 1987. Big hair, synths, glasnost, Donkey bloody Kong. She hates the whole fucking decade. She can’t wait for it to end. In the apartment across the street from the Wall, Whirlwind is looking through binoculars at Checkpoint Charlie. Somewhere nearby, by the Reichstag, Bowie is playing a live concert. He’s singing "Heroes."

"Oh, do shut up, David," Spit says. She hates that song. Bowie had done an entire concept album on the Übermenschen in the early '70s, when he was still wearing his Beyond-Man persona. Beside Spit, Whirlwind shifts, restless.

"Do you like anything," she mutters. Spit ignores her. They’re having one of their uncommon tiffs. Usually they get on great, but three days inside the flat watching the Wall, they both need a break from each other.

"My God, I smell," Whirlwind says. "I mean, just look at my hair, it’s disgusting."

"You look fine," Spit says. "You look good to me."

Whirlwind grins abruptly. Spit’s heart lifts a little when she does that. When did she first see Whirlwind? She tries to think. Some time during the War, it must have been, though they only met later, here, in Berlin, in the aftermath. But things were different back then. Everything was different, but for them. They never changed. Did they?

"We should have turned down the job," Whirlwind says. She takes Spit’s hand in hers. Her hand is warm and dry. Spit can feel the storm trapped inside her, longing to be let out. They should be heroes, she thinks, not . . . this again. Clandestine agents at the tail end of a cold war. She misses the War, sometimes. The proper War, the only one that ever mattered. When she knew what she was and what she had to do. When everything was black and white and everything was clear. And she remembers Paris, that long wait in that other cramped apartment overlooking L’Auberge, the restaurant where they’d hoped to finally corner Vomacht.

"That slimy rat fucker and his Nazi bitch daughter," she says, to no one in particular. Whirlwind turns from the window and grins again.

"This whole swearing thing suits you, you know, considering."

"Considering what."

"You being a dainty old English lady and all."

"Fuck you, you’re my age."

"And looking good for it," Whirlwind says, preening, until Spit can’t help but laugh. They can still hear Bowie’s voice, it echoes all over the city and across the wall, into East Germany—from which direction, the Old Man said, the package should arrive.

It’s a joint operation, but off the books—hence the two of them, having both left their respective services and gone freelance not too long back. Whirlwind representing the Americans’ interests, Spit stepping in once more to cover the Old Man’s back for him. It has always been thus, it will always be thus.

And, truth to tell, she can remember Fr. Johann. This might just be a part of it, too.

She remembers the Medicus.


 

Berlin, 1946. In the aftermath of the War the city was filled with ghosts, fleeing. There was something intoxicating about being in Berlin then, being the victors, as though the nightmare that was the War had gone on for so long that one assumed that it would always be there, would always encompass the world as we knew it. Then it was over, and we won, and it was like waking up from a long, dark sleep, a sleep of death, and in such sleep, what dreams may come, Oblivion says.   

"You’re drunk," Spit says. Oblivion shrugs. Those long thin fingers, wrapped around a glass. Fogg, Oblivion’s partner, is off somewhere. Hunting shadows. And Oblivion says, "Do you want to hear a story?"

On the other side of the bar are the Americans, those brash and loud League of Defenders. Tigerman, the Electric Twins, Whirlwind. Tigerman scowls in their direction. On the stage, a woman sings "Rum & Coca-Cola".

"What sort of story?" Spit says.

"A legend," Oblivion says. "What other story is there."

But Spit isn’t interested, Spit is bored with legends. The city is filled with escaped Übermenschen and their legends, all hawking their sad stories, hoping to get picked by the Americans in Operation Paperclip or, if they’re not that important, to get a ticket out somewhere else, even to dreary old Britain. At all costs these refugees want to avoid the Russian bear, and even more the on-going trials in Nuremberg. Some have formed into cells, word is there’s an escape route out of Germany for those favoured SS, "ratlines" to sunny South America, where every day’s a party like a National Socialist party. So Spit says, "What’s this one, then? A bat man? An iron fighter? Gestapo Joe? What sad story has he got? He didn’t do nothing wrong? He was just following orders?"

"Sure, sure," Oblivion says. "So young, and yet so cynical, Spit. Can’t you ever see the good in people?"

"These aren’t people," Spit says, shortly. And Oblivion nods that slim head of his, with the secret sorrow in his eyes, and says, "Sometimes, you kind of wish for a miracle."

And it’s this miracle that they go see, that night, a little drunk, a little high, and Fogg somewhere else, hunting shadows who knows where—was this before, or after, the whole sorry mess with Fogg? It’s somewhere around that time, anyway. And so they go, into the night, into the Russian Quarter, Spit and Oblivion, Oblivion and Spit: to see a miracle.

And they come to a church. It isn’t marked as such. It’s just a building, miraculously standing, there in a street of rubble. And despite the hour and the curfew, there are people outside, ordinary German citizens, that is to say, the walking dead: men and women and feral-looking children, those who survived the bombings and the fall of the city and Hitler’s suicide and the Russian invasion and now this, the final humiliation, this occupation by the Allies; the men in hats and the women in shawls and the children with hungry looks in their pinched rat-like faces, and they all wait patiently outside.

There is only a sole lamp glowing within, and it casts long jagged shadows. And Spit sees one woman, who is holding a baby to her chest, and the baby coughs in a way no baby should cough, the rattle it makes is like pebbles bunched in a fist.

"But what did he do?" Spit says, and Oblivion tells her. Then they go inside, into a gutted room with a makeshift altar, and the priest turns and sees them, and he nods: that’s it, that’s all he does, he nods as though he recognises them, as though he always knew that they would come.

 


 

But in 1987, Bowie is singing "Heroes." And when they finally do bring out the Medicus, they do so in a coffin. Spit watches, the flashing lights of the police cars, the heavy escort for the hearse, and the people milling outside, beyond the barriers, and there is the Old Man, somewhere down there, with the paperwork, the death certificate and what have you.

"Rest in peace," Spit says, ironically. The Old Man looks from side to side, then up, slowly. As though tracing the flight of unseen birds in the sky. He nods, to himself, to her, she doesn’t know.

Whirlwind says, "Do you think they’ll come?"

And Spit says, "They never forget. We could have had him, you know. Oblivion and I. We had him, and we let him go."

"Now why would you do that," Whirlwind says.

And Spit says, "It was the baby."


"Welcome," Fr. Johann says. He extends a hand, perhaps hoping for a shake, but it isn’t welcomed and he lets it drop. "Only, could it wait?" he says. "I still have parishioners. I would hate to let them down."

Spit glares at him. But Oblivion stays her hand. The priest nods. He welcomes the next in line, an old man with a foot that drags behind him. The Medicus speaks to him, makes the sign of the cross, then lays his hands on the old man’s leg. The old man’s face is suffused with pain, then something else, a thing one never sees, in this time, in this place. An easement, a relief. When the old man stands he does so with his bad leg, he is healed, he thanks the priest but the priest shrugs away his thanks. He turns back to Spit and Oblivion.

"I am making atonement," he says.

Where did he come from, this Fr. Johann? Somewhere in Bavaria, according to his file. Identified and in due course recruited to Gestapo Department F. Now in hiding in the wrong quarter of the city, now a priest, though who ordained him, if anyone did but himself, we don’t know.

Then the woman comes in, the one with the baby, and the priest takes the child from her, he lays his hands on this tiny bundle, this wartime baby, and he does what it is he does, this power, this inexplicable quantum entanglement of the Changed, and the baby breathes, the baby starts to cry, a clean, piercing, healthy sound, and the woman, the mother, she bursts into tears. And on and on they come, until none are left and the Medicus, exhausted, just sits down on the floor. Then he raises his head and says, "Now you can take me, if you please."


"But we didn’t," Spit says. She shrugs, a little helplessly. The hearse down below is still stalled. Spit scans the skies. Whirlwind steps onto the windowsill. The storm trapped inside her thrums. She wants to be let free, to take to the air. She can only be still for so long. Down below, the hearse’s engine finally starts. If they would strike, it would be just beyond, she thinks. She sees movement, from the corner of her eye. Who would they send, she wonders? Kerach, Ishtar, the Sabra? The hearse glides away from Checkpoint Charlie. The Old Man looks up, gives her a nod. They will come, she thinks.

Then it happens fast and slow. The hearse is lifted into the air, torn off the ground by some terrible, invisible force. Whirlwind with a sigh of relief drops into sheer air. She transforms, a storm, a whirlwind, shooting towards the car and the attackers. Spit looks through the binoculars, focuses. Moving shapes, Jewish Übermenschen, an extraction team. She knows them from other conflicts, other wars. She hawks phlegm. Her special talent. She spits, bullets travelling at ultrasonic speeds, smashing into streetlights, cars, hitting the Sabra in the leg, at least she thinks it’s him. He raises his face and bares his teeth in a grin. But his next step is halting, and he grabs hold of his leg, in pain.

She fires mechanically, giving Whirlwind support. The storm leaps from streetlight to puddle. It tears up traffic lights, it rips wheels off cars. It smashes Ishtar—is that her? Spit last ran into her in Buenos Aires, in ’71—against the wall of an apartment block. The hearse twists impossibly in mid-air, the metal screaming. Spit glances at the checkpoint, where the Old Man, without much fuss, gets in a small VW Beetle and drives away, and she notes that there’s a man, with a hat low over his face, sitting beside him.

Spectators watch the Übermenschen fight. Somewhere, David Bowie is still singing "Heroes." Or perhaps it’s only Spit who can hear it now, just the last fading notes as the destroyed hearse crashes to the ground, and the Israeli Übermenschen flee like silent ghosts, and Whirlwind reappears at the window, back in her human shape, and says, "It’s time to get out of here."


It was the baby, it must have been, the baby that shouldn’t have lived but did. Later, she heard Fr. Johann came under Bishop Hudal’s protection. The pro-Nazi bishop had helped many former SS escape on the "ratlines."

But the Medicus never fled with the others. He stayed on in what was by then East Germany, under the Communists, protected less by the church than by his skills, this miracle he had, this miracle of healing.

And the Communists used him, just the way the Nazis had, just the way, Spit presumes, later, as she and Whirlwind depart the apartment and the police sirens and make their way, anonymously, to the airport, that the Americans would use him now. She saw the photographs, the witness testimonies.

The way he’d kept the prisoners alive, through the worst of it all: the torture, the medical experiments, how he could keep them going long past the point where they would have died, healing them, over and over, with just a touch, to be kept alive, to be kept in pain, until their minds couldn’t cope anymore and they went gibbering mad, but still healthy, still alive, for all that all they wanted by then was to die, simply not to be.

How many had he done this to, over the years? she wonders. Browsing the newspaper section at the airport, waiting for her flight, she runs into one of the attackers from earlier. The Israeli woman, Ishtar. How many had Fr. Johann kept alive, in Gestapo prisons and the death camps, later in Stasi cells? The Medicus has such a talent it would be a shame to waste, and there are always prisoners who need interrogating, who need to be taken to the edge of death and kept there.

She nods to Ishtar and the Israeli woman nods back.

"We’ll get him," she says.

"I hope so," Spit says.

"He won’t get out of Berlin."

"I think he will," Spit says. The other woman smiles, reluctantly.

"We’ll get him. If not now, then next time."

"I hope so." 

Ishtar nods. Spit fingers a copy of a magazine with a spaceship on the cover.

"Well, it was nice to see you again," she says, politely.

Ishtar nods; then she’s gone. And Spit doesn’t buy anything in the end.

"The BA flight to London is now boarding."

She re-joins Whirlwind in the waiting area. "I could have stopped him," she says. "In ’46. How many do you think he’s kept alive since then? How many for the Stasi’s torturers?" And she says,"How do you weigh the profits and the loss? How many years, how many warm bodies? He did good, Whirlwind, when we saw him, I mean he wasn’t one thing or another, he was just a—"

"A tool," Whirlwind says.

"Yes."

"We should board the plane."

"A scalpel can kill but it isn’t what it’s for," Spit says, still, stubbornly. "I mean it’s how you wield it, isn’t it? It’s about who does the wielding."

"I really think we should go to the gate, Spit."

"It’s just that he was a war criminal, Whirlwind, I mean, he should have been standing there, in Nuremberg, with the others, it’s only that there was this baby, and—"  

"The BA flight to London is now boarding."

Whirlwind takes her hand, gently. "You can’t change the world, Spit," she says. "You can’t even change yourself."

"He changed it," Spit says, helplessly. "Vomacht. With that machine. He changed us."

But Whirlwind leads her, gently but insistently, away. "You think so?" she says. "You really do? The war still happened, people still died, babies are still being born. We don’t matter, Spit, not me, not you, not even the Medicus. Leave him to the Israelis. They’ll get him, sooner or later they always do. You and I can’t be responsible for everyone, we can’t change the world. The best we can do is try to get paid."

Spit nods. On the plane, she plugs in the oversized earphones, while Whirlwind fills in their expenses form. Spit keeps turning the twisty little dial in the armrest, trying to find something, anything other than "Heroes." Tinned music spins round and round until she turns it almost all the way down; until it could be anything, like the sound of the surf on some unimaginably distant shore.




This story takes place in the universe of Lavie Tidhar's critically acclaimed novel The Violent Century (2013). Tidhar is also the author of the Jerwood Fiction Uncovered Prize-winning and Premio Roma nominee A Man Lies Dreaming (2014) and the World Fantasy Award-winning Osama (2011). His latest novel is Central Station (2016). He is the author of many other novels, novellas, and short stories. Find him on the web at lavietidhar.wordpress.com.
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