‘Until the Pit is Dug for the Wicked’, John Kratman

Illustrations © 2008 Cécile Matthey.

 [ Tellehim, © 2008, Cécile Matthey ] The sight of the dead child did not bother Klaman, at least not in any outwardly recognizable way. Nothing bothered him anymore. He was a sonderkommando, one of the prisoners who emptied the gas chambers and fired the ovens in the crematoriums. He had seen enough children's corpses to harden his heart. Had he been the type to go mad from the sight of death, he would have done it long before fate brought him to Auschwitz-Birkenau.

While the rest of the men in his unit cajoled, pushed, and fabricated lies to get the transport cars unloaded of their doomed human cargo, Klaman knelt beside the tiny body, abandoned in the autumn mud. The child's mother was nowhere to be seen. In the rising and falling noise of the guard dogs barking, the screaming, and the sound of rifle butts striking flesh, he could not hear if any one particular woman wailed for a lost baby.

The child was a little girl, perhaps seven years old. The list of possible circumstances that could have led to her death was long. Klaman let his mind brush past the worst of the possibilities.

A small book was stuffed into the pocket of the girl's coat, a corner of the binding just visible. Klaman reached out and took it, grunting with surprise when he saw what it was—Tellehim, the book of Psalms.

Despite Klaman's long association with death and his practiced detachment to the horrors that surrounded him, a memory of life before the Nazis swam to the surface of his mind.

His father hunched over his workbench, making jewelry with quick and clever fingers. A hand-rolled cigarette burned in a brass ashtray. Through a small window, he could see his grandmother hanging wash in the yard. His grandfather sat by the fire, reading the Torah.

Klaman riffled through the pages for a moment, then remembered where he was. It would not do to have one of the guards see him with the book. He stuffed it into his pocket and made his way toward the train ramp.

He was not one of the sonderkommandos that talked to the people on the transports. He spoke Yiddish, of course, and his German was perfect, but most of the Jews coming in on the trains were Hungarian and had trouble understanding his dialect. Klaman only dealt with the dead. He extracted teeth from the corpses, gold and white metal, and did not have much to do before the transport was processed. He usually just watched.

A number of men from Klaman's unit stood in the middle of the crowd of people, calmly explaining that everything would be all right. A few Nazi officers directed Jews into separate groups. Those to the left would live for a little while. Those to the right would die, though they did not yet know it.

When the prisoners marked for death were all inside the building that housed the showers, an SS guard scrambled to the roof. He donned a gas mask, opened a small trapdoor above the showers, and dropped a dispersal canister of Zyklon "B" gas into the air duct below. Death would be quickest for those close to the canister, long and painful for those furthest away.

There was always a hierarchy to the position of the corpses—The small and weak at the bottom of the piles, the biggest and strongest on the top, the last ones to succumb.

Karl Becker walked alone through the shattered remains of the ancient country of Poland. Dust and grit choked the air. Only the thin shell of his radsuit stood between him and the onslaught of the hotzone. A solitary excavator mech trailed behind him, offering him companionship, but little comfort.

From time to time, he checked the radiation meter on his helmet's heads-up display to be sure his suit was not breached. Extended exposure would mean a certain, albeit a lingering, death.

"Another half kilometer, Karl." Colonel Ziegler's voice rang in his head, rather than the comm unit in his suit. It always gave Karl the chills to know Ziegler could likewise read his thoughts.

He stifled his unconscious musing, burying it deep beneath the mundane consideration of his surroundings. He tried to relax. If Ziegler caught his unpatriotic thought, there was nothing he could do about it.

The area around him was strewn with rubble and occasionally he discerned the vague outline of a concrete foundation. Otherwise there was nothing recognizable as man-made for kilometers. The sun rose in the east, an orange globe suspended in clouds pregnant with radioactive death.

"For God's sake, am I there yet?" Becker spoke aloud out of habit, even though Ziegler could hear his raw thoughts.

"One hundred meters." If Ziegler was amused at his discomfort, he did not show it. The concentration required to operate the psi-amplifier left little room for levity.

The loose soil barred Becker from taking a rover. It could barely stand the weight of the light excavator mech that followed him across the nightmare landscape.

"Turn east fifteen degrees."

Becker changed direction.

"Stop. You're there."

"How deep, Colonel?"

"Three meters."

Becker punched a few buttons on the mech's keypad, then commanded, "Mech, excavate. Three meters."

The excavator rolled into position and proceeded to funnel the radioactive soil through a front-loading sifter. A dynamic screen in the belly of the mech expanded to let rocks and rubble through then contracted to catch any materials that the mech identified as being of interest. Bone fragments and dust began to build up in the catch plate.

"Anything?" Ziegler's voice came from his helmet comm, garbled with static. He had disengaged from the psi-amplifier.

"Bones. The usual." A glint in the catch plate caught Becker's eye. "Wait a minute. There's something else."

Becker opened the clear cover of the catch plate and reached inside. He grabbed a handful of dirt, letting the dust and debris run through his fingers until he held only a shining bit of metal.

"A piece of jewelry of some kind." It was a small brass medal, a swastika emblazoned on its front, an eagle above it. Becker turned it over. The back showed a number "12" encircled by stylized leaves.

"Keep going," Ziegler said. "I saw it. It's there."

Becker repressed a shudder. The sensation of Colonel Ziegler in his mind made him feel soiled. Still, having someone tell you where to dig was better than blindly searching through the centuries-old rubble of Oswiecim with pick and shovel.

The mech located the canister in under an hour. Becker carved the fused clay and sand from around the steel cylinder with a handheld pulse laser, hoping to preserve it as much as possible for the trip back to the lander.

In the process, he unearthed a fragment of a vellum-paged book.

He radioed back. "I've got the canister. Coming home. You were right again, Herr Oberst."

"Naturally," Ziegler radioed back. "Was there ever any doubt?"

The camp underground brought word back to Klaman's barracks. The Nazis were planning to exterminate his unit of sonderkommandos. One of the women that smuggled gunpowder from the munitions factory brought the news. The camp underground had enough explosives to build a few small bombs, saved against the day when the prisoners would rebel.

Being marked for death did not surprise Klaman. His first job when he got off the train at Birkenau was to cremate the bodies of the previous group of sonderkommandos. The Nazis never left them around for long.

The Nazis gave them proper clothes, decent—well, more decent—food, and a warm place to sleep. But it was only a temporary reprieve. Eventually, Klaman knew, his time would come. Then he could join his father and sister in death, and await the day when God would drop the dew of life on the remnants of his body and he would live again.

Bielecki, another Pole like Klaman, whispered to a bunch of men gathered around him in a circle. He looked up and caught Klaman's eye.

"What about you, dentist?" he asked. "Are you with us or will you die like a sheep?"

Klaman winced at the nickname Bielecki had thought up for him. "Death now, death later—what's the difference?" He reached into his pocket and took out the book he had taken from the little girl's corpse.

Bielecki walked over and stood very close to Klaman. His clothes stunk of the crematorium.

"Die if you want, dentist." Bielecki stood a foot taller than Klaman. He put his hand on his chest and shoved him against the wall. "But you are either with us or against us."

"You'll kill me if I say 'no'?" Klaman nodded and opened the little book. "In that case, I'm with you."

Becker’s hair was still wet from the decontamination shower. He looked out at the barren landscape of Poland through a view screen in the mess hall and waited for Eva and Colonel Ziegler to arrive. A number of mechs rumbled back and forth outside in the ever-present dust storm, working to repair the main cooling unit of the zeppelin-shaped lander. The heat of reentry from New Munich space platform had damaged it. The storm was so thick Becker could barely make out the mechs' designation numbers or the swastikas emblazoned on their chassis.

The door to the mess opened with a soft hum and Colonel Ziegler and his daughter, Eva, entered.

The Colonel had twisted scar that ran snake-like from just above his left eye to his hairline where it disappeared into a blond mass of curls. It marked him as surely as his red uniform and silver insignias of rank marked him an Oberst of the Hellseherkorps, Reichsführer Von Reiniger's psi-corps. The surgical scar on his forehead concealed the micro-miniature circuitry that gave Ziegler the ability to peer into the minds of men. It also allowed him to operate the psi-amplifier.

Eva was young, just out of medical school, and had her father's hair, but softer features, unmarked by cruelty. Her lab coat did little to hide the beautiful curves of her body.

"Hello, Karl. Welcome back." She smiled at him a little uncertainly. "Is something the matter?"

"No." Becker smiled and forced his thoughts of Eva's body deep down inside his brain. "Too many hours outside, I guess. It makes you a bit crazy."

"You brought it?" Ziegler asked. His eyes bored into Karl, probing, searching, always.

"Yes, Herr Oberst. The medal and the canister are in the decontamination units. The decon technicians tell me they can salvage them."

"And what about the book, eh foolish Karl?" Ziegler smiled and sat at one of the round cafeteria tables. He tapped at the scar on his forehead with his index finger. "Or did you think that was your little secret?"

Becker swallowed. He had not told anyone about the ruined book he had found at the dig site. "It's a pretty poor artifact, almost illegible."

Ziegler grunted and flicked cigarette ash on the spotless cafeteria floor. "Just what kind of book is it?"

"The computers are trying to salvage it, Colonel. I won't know what it is until—"

"Ah, but you do know, don't you, foolish Karl?" Ziegler fixed Becker with his eyes. "It is unclean, the writings of the untermenschen."

"Perhaps." Becker began to sweat. Ziegler's powers were diminished without the psi-amplifier, but he could still catch surface thoughts.

"Keep the book, Karl. The Reichsführer is only interested in ancient weapons. As long as we deliver the artifacts Reichsführer Von Reiniger wants for the two-hundred year Reich Pageant, I don't care what you do."

Becker sighed. The book might be his chance to rise in status, a chance for a better life for himself and his parents among academia. The first person to crack the ancient Hebrew language would be published in all the major scientific journals, regardless of the nature of the writings. "Thank you, Colonel. The gas canister will be ready for you in a few hours."

"And the bone fragments?"

"Yes, they will be ready, too."

"Good." He pointed his chin at Becker and smiled at Eva. "Can you use Karl's help tonight, Eva?"

She blushed. "I could use some help with the recording system."

"Tonight?" Becker had planned on meeting Eva secretly at twenty-three-hundred.

"My father wants to use the psi-amplifier on that medal you found," Eva said.

"I think the Reichsführer would be very interested in that bit of brass. A soldier's medal." Ziegler threw his cigarette on the floor and a spidery cleaning mech darted out of its roost and sucked it up. "I thought we could do a biographical write-up on the man—a portrait of a hero of the Great War, a front line destroyer of the untermenschen."

"I'd be happy to help." Becker hid his disappointment as best he could. Recording Colonel Ziegler's experiment was a far cry from the evening he had planned with Eva.

"Meet us at the psi-amplifier station this evening at say, I don't know, twenty-four hundred hours?"

"I'll be there." Becker stood up. "Tschuess, Colonel. Tschuess, Eva."

"Hold on a moment, Karl." Ziegler stood up. "Eva, would you excuse us, please?"

"Yes, Father." Eva stepped toward the mess hall doorway and stopped. "Wiederschaun, Karl." She hurried out.

"What can I do for you, Colonel?" Becker's hands shook. He hid them behind his back.

"What are your intentions with my daughter, Karl?"

"Well, I, that is—"

"Eva is young, she thinks she's in love with you." Ziegler took a step forward, standing too close to Becker. He was the shorter of the two by a few centimeters. He exhaled smoke into his face. "You are not worthy of her."


"You will break off your relationship. No more late night trysts."

"But, Colonel, I—"

"Do not cross me, foolish Karl. Think of your own family—your mother, your father. The labor camps are no place for the infirm."

Klaman had an oil lamp by his straw mattress and he read the Tellehim as the rest of his team conspired to escape. The weather had turned. A cold rain pounded the roof of the barracks and the shutters rattled in the wind.

Bielecki and the rest of the prisoners had spent much of the day caching makeshift weapons around the camp, leaving their assigned work to be done in half the time it normally took. The whole unit was exhausted from the effort of cleaning the gas chambers and loading the ovens.

Bielecki broke off his whispered conversation. "Read us something, eh dentist? Comfort us." He blew air out of his nose and waved a hand in dismissal.

A few of the men looked up. If there was interest or hope in their eyes, Klaman could not see it. He saw only hard, cold eyes set in young-old faces. He flipped a couple of pages and read:

"'...He planted the ear, shall He not hear? He who formed the eye, shall He not see? He who disciplines nations, shall He not rebuke? He who teaches wise men knowledge—God knows their thoughts, and they are futile. Blessed is the man whom you do not discipline, O Yahweh, and teach him your Torah that you may give him rest from the days of evil, until a pit is dug for the wicked.'"

The men smoked cigarettes and thought private thoughts. Outside, the steady pounding of the rain turned the yard to a quagmire. A single black tendril of smoke blew from the crematorium, buffeted by the wind and angled like the finger of God pointing from Heaven.

The mechs were unable to repair the main cooling unit and Dr. Schroeder and Becker were forced to go out and inspect the damage firsthand. Schroeder was the nominal leader of the dig, but hierarchy was always tenuous with a member of the Hellseherkorps involved. Added to that, Schroeder's family was marked by the Gestapo. His father and two brothers were both executed for rebellion when Schroeder was a boy.

"It looks like we'll need to cut this expedition short, Karl." It was hard to tell Schroeder was over eighty-years old. He moved easily in his radsuit, almost oblivious to the certain death all around him. "Colonel Ziegler won't be pleased."

"The secondary units are adequate for a few days, Dr. Schroeder." Becker tapped on the unit, a smaller dimple on the rounded underbelly of the lander. "We can continue to dig for a least another forty-eight hours."

"Not too anxious to end our little trip, eh Karl?" Even through the ever-present dust, Becker could see the old man's smile. "She's very beautiful."

Becker laughed. "Yes, she is."

"You can see her on New Munich." Schroeder clapped him on the back. "This hellhole is no place for love."

"I don't think I'll be seeing her again, Doctor." Becker related his conversation with Colonel Ziegler.

Schroeder turned serious. "Forget her, Karl. There are a million beautiful girls. If you cross a Hellseher like Ziegler, you'll end up dust. How long do you think you can keep it secret? He will know. He'll strap himself into that foul machine and he will know. Not even our thoughts are safe."

Klaman watched the guard set his rifle down and drop his pants to relieve himself. Bielecki edged closer through the trees, stalking him. He drew close, covered the guard's mouth with one hand, and drew his knife across his throat.

The guard twisted away and let out a short, gurgling yell. The soldiers around the sonderkommandos turned, their rifles raised in hard-trained readiness.

All around Klaman, sonderkommandos drew out secreted lengths of pipe, shovels, and pick-axes. Klaman clutched a large kitchen knife in one sweaty fist.

The guard closest to him grunted and fell face first into the mud. A sonderkommando stood behind him, a bloody ball peen hammer in his hand. He dropped the hammer and picked up the guard's rifle. He kneeled and drew back the bolt, aimed, and fired at one of the guard towers, squeezing off a few rounds before the machine gun crew in the tower opened up on him. He collapsed in a spray of blood. A score of prisoners were mowed down in front of Klaman.

The bullets kicked up dust and swept toward him. He dropped into the dirt and threw his arms over his head, the kitchen knife still in his hand.

But the bullets never reached him. Against all hope, the machine gun fell silent. He looked up and saw a guard a meter away, unaware that Klaman was still alive.

Klaman sprang to his feet and grabbed the guard by the lapel of his coat. He buried the kitchen knife in the guard's gut, surprised at the joy he felt in doing it. The man screamed, a low and awful sound. Klaman released him, some small decoration from the guard's uniform still clutched in his hand, the knife still in the man's stomach.

The machine gunner in the tower shot at him again and Klaman ran. The gate beyond the train tracks stood open.

An explosion drowned out the sounds of gunfire. He felt the concussion on his back as he ran. The machine gun fell silent. Klaman could hear the dogs behind him. Most of the trees around the camp had been cleared, but a small vein of thick woods outside Birkenau led to a larger forest. Klaman closed the gap quickly.

"My father is wrong, Karl. She put her hand on his cheek and kissed him in the relative privacy of the psi-lab.

"Maybe he's right." Becker frowned and touched his forehead to hers. "You deserve a better man, a more successful man."

"I love you for who you are." She held him tighter.

"I'm going to finish my studies, Eva. I'll decipher the Hebrew book I found at the dig site—I'll publish a paper in the Academy of Science journal. Then your father will see."

"That untermenschen book?" She pulled away from him. "What will that prove? That you can read the language of animals?"

"You're wrong." Becker reached out to take her hand and she pulled from his grasp again. "They were men, Eva. Men!”

She backed away from him and opened the door to the psi-lab. "No. They were evil—they destroyed everything they touched. And you would bring them back." She fled.

"Eva, wait! That's your father talking."

But she was gone.

Becker wondered how he could ever make her understand. Her father was a Colonel of the Hellseherkorps. His father was a laborer on the Agriplatforms. She did not know what it was like to see parents go hungry so that their children could eat. The Reich was hard and cruel, like the soil of Oswiecim. It ground men's bones to dust.

Klaman awoke to the barking of dogs. The October sun was low on the horizon and a bitter wind blew from the east.

Four soldiers got out of a small truck and milled around on the dirt road. The log Klaman had fallen asleep behind hid him from view, but already the guards' two dogs were pulling on their leashes, noses to the wind.

The handler strained against the pull of his animals. The other soldiers fanned out, rifles ready. The lead man walked over to the edge of the wood and a frightened rabbit burst out of the brush. The soldier, startled, uttered a short oath and kicked, missing it and laughing. Klaman got on his stomach and tried to crawl away.

"Juden!" A guard raised his rifle and Klaman scrambled to his feet, terror giving him energy to run. He sprinted for the woods, gunshots tearing around him as he fled.

The psi-lab was aft and Becker had to walk through the lander's sleeping quarters to get there. He took his time, not wanting to awaken any other of the various technicians and scientists who might have already gone to bed. The faint hum of life support and the power generators thrummed in the walls and floors. Zero-g handholds studded the walls and ceiling, useless while the lander sat on the Earth's surface.

He stopped at the decontamination unit and removed the brass medal and bone fragments. He dug around in a drawer and found a couple of plastic test tubes to put them in. The intact gas canister was in a much larger unit. Becker toggled a control on the device and the opaque window on its side cleared, revealing a gleaming cylinder swarmed with miniature cleaning mechs, each one polishing and restoring the artifact a millimeter at a time.

A number of cracks had appeared in the steel over the centuries, but they had been sealed by the sand and soil fused around it by the close impact of atomic warheads. The decontamination unit wrapped it in a stasis field while the mechs pieced it back to a solid whole and kept its deadly contents intact.

The Colonel and Eva waited in the psi-lab. The room was crammed with equipment, but it was the psi-amplifier chair that held Becker's attention. It resembled a dentist's chair except for the small, saucer-like cups attached to the headrest, each aligned to about where a man's ears would be. Nylon cuffs lay where the ankles and wrists would go. Wires protruded from the back of it and trailed off to the many machines and computers that lined the room. A steel coil, much like a spring, hung suspended from the ceiling.

Becker stared at it, fascinated and repulsed at the same time. The Colonel seemed to look right through Becker when he was strapped into that chair, as if he could see everything he thought or had said, anything that resided in the blackest pit of his mind no matter how deep it lay buried.

"Ah, Karl! You're just in time." Colonel Ziegler said.

Eva moved about the psi-chair, adjusting straps and levers and checking various readouts that ran along the attached console. She turned to smile a wan greeting and hurried to one of the cabinets to retrieve a data module.

"Thank you for letting me come, Colonel," Becker said, trying with all his might to make his surface thoughts blank. In his mind's eye he imagined a sheet of white paper, unmarred and perfect. He concentrated on the page, only the page, keeping any stray thought out of his mind, willing himself to reveal nothing.

"Did you bring the medal and the bones?"

"Yes." Becker removed the stoppered tubes from his pocket and waved them from side-to-side, rattling the bones against the glass and handing them to Ziegler.

"Excellent." Ziegler removed the stopper from the tube that contained the medal. He held it up to the light, turning it to see the brass glimmer. The data banks on the New Munich platform identified it as a twelve-year service medal, awarded to veterans of the Wehrmacht around the time of the Great War.

"Are we ready, Eva?" Ziegler asked.

"Whenever you are."

He handed her the vial of bones, but kept the medal in his hand. He sat in the chair and sighed as he set his head in the amplifier cradle. Eva strapped him in, tightening the straps one at a time and giving them a quick tug to ensure they were fastened.

"Karl, please sit over there and start the camera," she said, gesturing at the recording console that jutted from the lab wall. She put the vial of bone fragments into Ziegler's strapped down hand. "Ready for power up, Father."

Becker started the camera.

"You can start now," Ziegler said.

Eva turned to the control panel, flipped a plastic cover over the main power, and punched the large button underneath it. The machinery behind the amplifier chair hummed and the large coil over the chair began to glow pale green.

"Ah." Colonel Ziegler took a deep breath and closed his eyes, clutching the vial and the medal in white-knuckled hands. His thin muscles strained against the nylon straps that held him in the amplifier's seat."Oswiecim—Auschwitz, two hundred years ago. The air is clean and cold, the hills still green. I see five men, running through the woods. They have two dogs."

"Are you getting this, Karl?" Eva asked, back to him.


"I'm with him, the man with the medal," Colonel Ziegler said. "The soldiers are chasing him. The dogs are at his heels."

Ziegler strained even harder against the straps, the muscles in his neck standing out. "His cap slips off his head. A bullet strikes a tree as we run by it."

"What is it he's seeing?" Becker asked.

Eva shrugged. "I don't know."

"Ahh! I'm shot!" Ziegler slumped. "We're lying in a ditch. The sun is shining on my face."


"The soldiers are standing over us," Ziegler said. "One steps on the hand holding the medal, crushing it into the dirt, but we don't let it go. There is smoke rising in the distance."

"Father! Are you all right?"

"A rifle! Aimed at our face!" Ziegler whispered. He slumped forward in the psi-chair, head hung low.

Eva turned toward the flickering readouts that dotted the side of the psi-amplifier. "These readings can't be right."

"He knows! He knows I am there! He feels it. He feels it!" Ziegler cried.

Becker stood up. "Colonel! Can you hear me?" He stepped within three paces of the chair and stopped, casting a nervous look over the crackling and glowing coil above his head. It seemed to glow brighter every second. Becker felt it on his face like a miniature sun.

"Who are you?" Ziegler asked in strangely accented German. "Watch out! The gun!"

Sparks from the coil above started to rain down on Ziegler.

"It's overheating, Eva. Shut the damned thing down." Becker staggered away from the sparks, his forearm over his eyes.

"I just can't shut it off cold. It would kill him." Eva typed on the console. Perspiration ran off her chin.

The sparks continued to shower down. Ziegler's light cotton uniform began to smolder. His eyes opened.

"Colonel!" Becker grabbed the fire extinguisher from the wall and pointed it at Ziegler. He hesitated. "How long?"

"One minute."

The coil glowed white-hot. The Colonel looked up at it from the chair, his mouth open. A long bolt of electricity shot from the coil and contacted the metal top of the psi-amplifier chair. He screamed.

Becker sprayed the extinguisher on Ziegler then fanned it out to hit all of the machinery. When it was empty, he drew out his pocketknife and cut the straps off of Ziegler's legs and wrists.

A bullet struck a tree as Klaman passed it.

I'm with him.

Klaman jerked his head around, expecting to see a guard at his shoulder. But there was no one there.

It's cold.

Klaman tripped over a gnarled tree root. His cap fell off his head as he struggled to maintain his balance. Another bullet struck a tree just a few feet away. A burning pain flared in his right shoulder.

Ahh! I'm shot!

The shock of it knocked Klaman out of his stride and he sprawled in a heap, rolling until he came to rest in a shallow drainage ditch. He stared up at the clouds, strangely calm. A long column of smoke from the camp still drifted across the autumn sky.

A booted foot ground his hand into the dirt. One of the guards aimed his rifle at Klaman's face.

A rifle! Aimed at our face. A voice whispered in his ear, very close.

"Who are you?" Klaman asked. The guard hesitated, looked at his companions, shrugged.

He knows I am there.

Klaman closed his eyes and prayed. Over the excited barks of the dogs, he heard the guard pull the bolt back on his rifle.

Lightning flashed in great torrents on the back of his eyelids. Once, when he was a boy, he jumped off a cliff into a lake and his stomach had twisted as he raced toward the icy water. He felt himself fall the same way now, bathed in electric shocks of light, toward a cold blackness set in the center of his mind. A great rush of vacuum gripped his consciousness. He felt ripped from himself, adrift in a vast ocean, suffocated and alone.

Feeling returned slowly, voices from a great distance.

"Our orders are to return him to the camp," a voice said. "Get him in the truck."

They dragged him to his feet and threw him into the steel back of a truck. The dogs nipped at his heels and the man holding their leashes laughed.

"Where is your officer?" he cried, cursing as they pushed him forward. The pain in his shoulder was almost unbearable. "I demand to speak to your superior!"

One of the guards grasped his wounded shoulder and squeezed. He screamed and collapsed in the dirt, the agony driving him close to losing consciousness. A booted foot caught him in the ribs. "Swine!"

He rolled back and forth, caught his breath, and hissed through clenched teeth. "I'll see you shoveling shit in the coldest work farm in the system!"

"Shut up, Juden." The truck lurched forward.

"I'm Oberst Ziegler, of the Reichsführer's Hellseherkorps!"

Becker and Eva stood over Colonel Ziegler's bed. A thick-pile carpet, an antique from before the war, covered most of the steel floor. Becker thought it was probably worth more than his father had made in a lifetime of grubbing in the dirt.

Eva held one of her father's hands. "He should come out of it soon."

"I still think we should get Dr. Schroeder," Becker said.

"There's nothing to be gained." Eva knew Dr. Schroeder had his own friends at the Chancellery, friends that would be more than pleased to embarrass her father and the Reichsführer. "He'll just panic and abort the mission before we have a chance to finish the dig. We'll ask my father how he wants to handle it when he wakes up."

She kissed Ziegler on the forehead and his eyes flickered beneath their closed lids then opened.

"Who are you? Why am I here?" he whispered. He cast a terrified look around the room, noting the swastika emblazoned on the wall and the deep maroon and gold painting of the Führer above it.

"You're in your quarters, Father. It's me, Eva." She pressed his hand to her lips. "There was an accident with the psi-amplifier. Karl pulled you out and we brought you here."

Ziegler looked confused, but nodded. "Thank you."

"Colonel, what's with the accent?" Becker asked.


"Colonel?" Becker looked at Eva. "Is he in shock?"

Eva shook her head. "I don't know. Possibly. Father, do you know my name? Think carefully now."

Ziegler pushed himself up on his elbows and Eva adjusted the pillows so he could lean back. "Eva?"

Eva sighed. "Yes. You've had an accident, Father. You need to rest."

Karl walked to the sideboard and poured two fingers of schnapps into a crystal glass. He held it out to Ziegler.

The Colonel's hand shook. He looked at the drink for a moment, then held it under his nose and took a small sip. "Thank you."

"You're welcome."

"I'm afraid I don't feel very well," he said.

"I want to give you an injection," Eva said. "It will calm your nerves."

"An injection?"

Eva took a hypo from a steel tray beside his bed and held it up to the overhead lights. She flicked it with one finger to shake loose the bubbles.

"But I feel fine. No need for that! I'll—I'll be whomever you want..."

"Hold him down, Karl. He's delirious."

Becker grasped Ziegler by the shoulders and pushed him as gently as possible down to the bed, painfully aware that he was touching one of the most powerful men in the Third Reich. "Easy, Colonel. Easy. You'll feel better after you've rested."

Eva held the contact-hypo to the crook of his arm.

"But I can work! I can still work," Ziegler said, his speech slurred. "Am I dead? Is this Heaven?" He smiled at Eva. "There are angels here." His eyes closed.

"What the hell is going on?" Becker demanded.

"I don't know." Eva said. "Some sort of amnesia, perhaps, from his abrupt exit from the psi-amplifier. Sleep will do him good."

The comm unit buzzed and Becker pressed the answer button, grateful for any excuse to get away.

"Becker, here."

"Karl, there is a problem with the secondary cooling unit. I need you to come out here and take a look." It was Dr. Schroeder. The howl of the storm was audible on the comm.

"I'm busy with Colonel and Dr. Ziegler, Dr. Schroeder."

"Please ask the Colonel if he can spare you for a few hours. If you don't come soon, the reactor core will explode and we'll lose the Reichsführer's precious artifacts, along with our lives." Schroeder's voice was heavy with static, but Becker was sure he heard a bit of annoyance in the old man's voice. He's had enough with the Reichsführer Von Reiniger's special project.

"All right, give me ten minutes to suit up. Becker out." He looked at Eva. "I'll be back as soon as I can. You're sure you don't want me to tell Schroeder?"

"Not yet. Let's see if the sleep does him any good."

Becker started to speak, but thought better if it. He turned on his heel and walked out of the room, leaving Eva sitting beside her father's bed.

It took Becker almost twelve hours to jury-rig the secondary cooling unit. But the temperature of the lander's engine core continued to rise. They would need to return to the platforms soon.

He made his way to the mess hall to get coffee and stopped short in the doorway. Colonel Ziegler sat at one of the tables, an empty cup in front of him.

"How are you feeling, Colonel?" The image of a blank piece of paper rose almost unbidden to Becker's mind. He focused all his concentration on it in an effort to keep his thoughts hidden.

"Very well, thank you." Ziegler's eyes flicked up and took in Becker, head to toe. His eyes lingered on his mouth. "You have very healthy teeth."

"Well, thank you." Becker said, taken aback. He felt his surprise slip through the cracks in his attempt to shield his thoughts.

"Eva told me you saved my life." Ziegler held out his hand. "Thank you, Karl."

"You're welcome." Becker shook his hand. "I'm sure you would have done the same for me."

Ziegler poured himself another cup of coffee. "You were...outside?"

"Yes. The secondary cooling unit failed."

Ziegler, looking bewildered, nodded. "What an awful place this is." He walked to the observation port. The wind had settled a bit and the sun looked like little more than a daub of red paint on a gray canvas. "What's it called?"

"You mean the old name?" Becker wanted to talk to Eva. There was something wrong with her father. "Oswiecim, or Auschwitz."

Ziegler dropped his cup and it shattered on the hard floor. He started to pick up the pieces when two cleaning mechs darted from their roost and cleared the spilled coffee and glass.

Ziegler gasped and took two steps backward. "What happened to it?"

"It's a hotzone, Colonel. Don't you remember?" Becker said. "There were a number of nuclear explosions here during the Great War."

"Nuclear explosions?"

"Yes. Atomic missiles, launched almost two hundred years ago. The V-3's that destroyed the armies of the Soviet Union?"

Just then, Eva walked into the cafeteria. "There you are, Father. I told you to stay in bed. The Reichsführer wouldn't be very happy if I were to let anything bad happen to you."

"The Reichsführer?"

"Come along, Father. I'll tuck you in."

Becker pretended to study a safety placard on the cafeteria wall. His conversation with Eva would have to wait.

Ziegler watched the countryside melt away to a dense industrial area. Smoke hung heavy in the autumn air. The truck approached a massive gate set in a high stone wall. Above the gate, formed in black iron, were the words, "Arbeit macht frei'"—"Work will set you Free".

A railway platform stood at the west end of the compound. A train had just arrived. The guards drove the truck toward the platform and got out. Ziegler, still dazed from his wound, jumped off the bed before the guards could begin to beat him again.

A few men in striped uniforms and pillbox hats pulled open one cattle car's door and a press of bodies fell out onto the ramp. An odor of death and excrement reached nose and he turned away in disgust. It reminded him of the lower sections of New Munich where the untermenschen toiled in the shadows. "What is this place?" he asked, but no one answered him. Ziegler rubbed at his forehead. He felt blind without his implant.

The guards nodded to a squat brick building and corralled him toward it. A chimney dominated the center of the structure. Its dark column of smoke turned the sunset orange.

Ziegler looked around at the crush of people wailing and the uniformed men pushing them into groups before the railway platform. His guard jabbed him in the ribs with the butt of his rifle, forcing him up against the steel door of the smoke-crowned building.

"Get in, Jew."

"I'm not a Jew! I'm Oberst—!" The guard shoved him forward into darkness and Ziegler fell to the dirt floor, his wounded shoulder exploding with pain. The door clanged shut behind him.

"Eh, dentist. I guess God did not save you." A low venomous chuckle emanated from the corner of the room. Ziegler's eyes, no yet acclimated to darkness, strained to see.

"Who is it? Who's there?"

"You know me, dentist. Bielecki."

Ziegler's eyes adjusted. A huge man, dark and dirty, sat in the corner of the little room, his elbows on his knees and his head sunk low.

"Will it be the bullet or the showers for us, do you think?" another voice asked. Seven other men sat on the floor of the room.

"Who knows?" Bielecki said. "If it's the showers, we know where to stand, where the gas is strongest. We'll be dead soon enough."

"At least we took some of them with us." Another man, faceless in the shadows, said.

"Yes." Another voice.

"Do you still have the book, dentist?" Bielecki asked.

Ziegler did not answer. Bielecki struggled to his feet. There was a great deal of blood on his left leg. He shambled toward Ziegler, his hands outstretched. Ziegler stepped away, stopping when his back hit the door.

"Book?" he asked. "What is this place?"

"Don't you know?" Bielecki patted Ziegler's chest and under his armpits. He extracted a book from his pocket. "This is hell."

One of the other prisoners struck a match and it flared like a star in the blackness. Bielecki put his face close to the little book and read:

"...who will rise up for me against the evildoers? Who will stand up to the workers of iniquity? Had Yahweh not been a help to me, my soul would have dwelt in silence...."

Ziegler stuck his hand in his pocket and drew out a brass medal the size of a coin. In the light of the match, he saw it was a soldier's decoration, a number "12" on its back and an eagle perched over a swastika on the front.

"Oh, Eva. Help me," he whispered.

The comm unit in Becker's quarters interrupted his study of the ruined book from the hotzone. "Yes?"

"Karl?" It was Colonel Ziegler. "May I come in?"

"Enter," Becker said. The door to his quarters slid open.

The Colonel stood in the doorway, his hair neatly combed and his Hellseherkorps uniform pressed and perfect. "I hope I'm not disturbing you."

"Not at all. Please come in." Becker stood up and offered him a chair. "Would you like a drink? I have schnapps."

Ziegler sat down next to Becker's data console. "That would be nice, thank you."

The tri-d screen of Becker's data console flashed red and green as it attempted to decipher the few lines of legible characters visible on the ruined pages of the book. Ziegler watched the square cursor flash through possible translations.

"What's this?" he asked.

"The book I found buried in the liquidation camp." Becker set two glasses in front of Ziegler and poured them each a drink. He raised one to Ziegler. "Heil."

"Thank you." Ziegler took a small sip. "May I see this book?"

"All I have here is this facsimile." Becker handed him a sheaf of paper. "The real artifact is in a stasis bubble in the main lab. It would disintegrate in open air. You wouldn't be able to do much with it anyway—it required computer-aided reconstruction just to salvage a few passages."

"Oh." Ziegler riffled through the pages, a small smile on his face. "Why all this? Why not just give it to someone who can read Hebrew?"

Becker considered Ziegler for a minute. It was possible he had read his mind. "I would need you to call up the dead to find someone to read it."

"Call up the dead?" Ziegler finished his drink in a gulp.

"Of course. The Jewish untermenschen are extinct." Becker poured himself another drink. Ziegler pushed his glass forward and he filled his, too. "I often wonder what the world would be like if the Great War had not happened. So many dead. The Earth almost destroyed. What great men and women might have been born?"

"And what monsters?" Ziegler's hand was shaking.

"I can still show you the original book if you like."

"I'd like that, Karl. Thank you."

They walked aft to the lab. It was crowded with technicians cleaning artifacts for the Chancellery's two hundred year Reich Pageant.

"It's over here," Becker said.

The remainder of the little book hung next to the canister Becker had retrieved from the hotzone. About twenty more stasis bubbles were suspended in midair throughout the viewing chamber, each containing an object recovered from the dig site.

"What is that?" Ziegler pointed at the canister.

Becker smiled with pride. "That's your canister, Herr Oberst. The Zyklon "C"."

"Zyklon "B"?" Ziegler rubbed at the snake-like scar on his forehead. He leaned his other hand against the wall.

"No, this is much more rare. The second generation of the Zyklon pesticide, Zyklon "C". Are you all right?" Becker put a hand on Ziegler's arm to steady him, but the Colonel shook it off. "I think you had better get back to bed."

"I'm fine. Tell me more."

"After your accident and the problems with the cooling units, I completely forgot to tell you. The gas granules are intact!"


"The fused sand around the canister kept it from escaping. We've repaired it."

"Repaired it?"

"The Reichsführer will be very pleased, don't you think? This is a very unique find. Even the rapid dispersal system on the canister is functional."

"Yes." Ziegler swayed a bit. "I'm sure he'll be ecstatic."

"I thought, perhaps, you could present it to him when we get back to New Munich."

"In person?"

"Certainly. I imagine the Reichsführer will be planning some sort of a ceremony when we return."

The guard slammed the hatch closed. Ziegler banged on the door. "I tell you, I am Oberst Fritz Ziegler! I demand to speak to your commanding officer. Open this door!"

The rest of sonderkommandos crowded around the central shower heads.

"Dentist, come over here. It will be quicker." Bielecki's face was pale, almost as white as marble.

The trap door above the showers squeaked as the guards opened it. A faint thump could be hear in the ductwork as the canister of Zyklon "C", the latest pesticide produced by the Reich, dropped in.

Bielecki's eyes held his. He held out his huge hands, palms up, and Ziegler, spellbound, walked over to take them. The gigantic Pole smiled down and the fear fled from Ziegler's heart, replaced by a tired regret. "I'm sorry," he said.

"There is no sorrow where we're going." Bielecki's hands burned with inner heat.

The gas hit Ziegler's lungs and he felt his throat constrict. A spike of pain flared in his chest. A seizure knocked him to his knees, but Bielecki's marble hands kept him from the hard brick floor. His consciousness slipped away, dancing on the edge of his agony.

One by one the men around the central showerhead fell. Bielecki lasted the longest, swaying like a great tree about topple at last in a final storm. He fell on top of Ziegler, his head resting on his shoulder, his eyes closed.

The latest group of Jews had arrived a few hours earlier. Of these, the youngest and the strongest were selected to continue the work of the sonderkommando.

With Krematorium IV destroyed, the dead needed to be dragged to Krematorium V. Ziegler's body, or what had become his body, was the first out of the gas chamber. The young sonderkommando, still in shock from his first day in the horror of Birkenau, did not notice the little book or the medal that fell from his corpse's pocket. They landed in the mud in front of the crematorium, unseen.

In the general confusion of the cleanup, a German supply officer unloaded a new shipment of gas canisters in front of the crematorium and the book and the medal were crushed into the dirt under the containers full of gaseous death.

Becker dreamed he was walking down the hall of the lander with Colonel Ziegler.

"I want to see the canister, Karl." Ziegler was dressed in an outlandish costume: striped shirt and pants of some poor material, a little pillbox hat on his head. He took a crumpled pack of cigarettes from his pocket and lit one with the end of his thumb, as if by some bizarre magic.

"I thought you decided to quit smoking, Colonel." The air was stifling hot and Becker felt a bead of sweat slide behind his ear.

"You only live once." Ziegler blew a perfect smoke ring. It spun in midair and twisted itself into a six-pointed star. "Tell me more about the gas, Karl."

"Certainly, Herr Oberst. Zyklon 'C' is hydrocyanic acid, fiber, and a stabilizing agent. When exposed to air, the pellets become gaseous hydrogen cyanide."

"Is it much different from Zyklon 'B'?" They reached the main lab's door and entered. The canister sat within its stasis bubble, suspended within an insulated glass chamber.

"It's far more potent. It also had a modified delivery system that utilized compressed oxygen to disperse the gas in a wider radius in a short period of time."

"How would it be activated?" Shadow engulfed the pits around Ziegler's eyes.

Becker punched a few keys on the stasis command console and the bubble rotated toward the delivery window of the chamber. He reached into the window and drew the canister out. "Let me show you." He set the canister on a work table in the center of the room.

"Aren't you afraid it will go off?" Ziegler's skin tightened against his skull and his eyes seemed to sink back into their sockets. "Wouldn't it kill us?"

"I would imagine that it would kill everyone in a room this size in less than thirty seconds." Becker pointed at plastic box mounted on the canister. "But I installed a safety mechanism."

"How would you disarm it?"

"Let me show you. Simply press the correct number sequence on the safety keypad." Becker entered five numbers on the keypad. "Then grasp this handle, turn it to the right, and pull." Becker grabbed the handle on top of the canister and made to pull it out, but Ziegler laid a skeletal hand on his forearm to stop him.

"No need for that, Karl." Ziegler smiled. The skin on his face cracked and blackened, became nothing but ash. The inner fire consumed him until there was nothing sitting in the chair but a skeleton in a striped uniform, hat perched on its bleached head.

It held Ziegler's pose for a moment then crumbled to dust, leaving nothing but the clothes and a tiny brass medal. Becker knelt beside the pile of clothes and ash and picked it up. It was the artifact he had excavated from the dig site.

A fierce wind began to blow through the lab. The dusty remains of Ziegler's body rolled into a miniature whirlwind, engulfing Becker and then the lab itself. He screamed and threw his arms in front of his face.

Becker woke up in the main lab in his night clothes. The Zyklon "C" canister sat on the table in front of him.

He found a lab coat and put it on, shaken by his dream and confused as to how he had ended up in the main lab. He put the canister back in its stasis bubble and started to walk back to his quarters.

He ran into Colonel Ziegler, standing at the door of the psi-lab.

"Hello, Colonel."

"Hello, Karl." Ziegler was pale, the scar on his forehead redder than usual against the whiteness of his skin. Sweat stained the collar and armpits of his uniform. "What are you doing up so late?"

"Bad dream," Becker said.

Ziegler nodded. "Poland is a place of nightmares."

"You don't look well, Colonel. Shall I call Eva?"

"No, no. I'm fine. Goodnight." He walked off.

Not sure why, Becker entered the psi-lab. The recording he'd made of Ziegler's accident was queued up and still running. Becker crossed to the psi-chair and touched the seat. It was still warm, despite the coolness of the air-conditioned room.

"It's an amazing machine," Ziegler said from behind him. He stood in the door of the psi-lab.

"Colonel? I thought you were going to bed."

"I forgot my uniform jacket." He pointed. A red Hellseherkorps jacket hung from the back of a chair near the recording console.

"Ah." Becker swallowed. Without thinking, he said, "You seem changed, Colonel, since the accident."

Ziegler put on his jacket. "For better or worse?"

"Neither. A different person entirely."

"And what if I was? A different person, I mean. What would you do?"

"My duty—"

"Duty?" Ziegler snorted. "You seem like a good man, Karl. You love Eva, do you not?"


"Then take what love you can, Karl, and be happy. There's little enough happiness in the world."

"Can't I love your daughter and have my duty, too?"

"Of course. But which duty will you choose? Your duty to life or your duty to the Reich?"

"You're not making sense."

"In your heart, you understand." Becker pointed at the hull of the lander. "The next time you go outside, listen to the sound of the wind and the dust. The ghosts in the storm will explain it to you." Ziegler started through the doorway, but stopped, his hand on the frame. "It is better to fight and die than go willingly to the slaughter like a sheep."

After Ziegler left, Becker sat alone for a long while, his gaze fixed on the psi-amplifier. Then he went to his quarters to sleep.

New Munich glittered as it spun, a great jewel against the backdrop of space. The transparent edge of the station's massive ring shone green and lush with trees and crops. The lander drew closer the massive perfection of the Reich Chancellery grew more and more visible. It was a beacon in the ring of the eleven space platforms, the seat of power and the home of the Führer.

"It's beautiful," Ziegler said. He watched the platform rotate on its axis from the main observation port in the mess hall.

"But you've always hated New Munich, Father." Eva and Becker sat at one of the tables, enjoying a last cup of coffee together before the madness of unloading their cargo began.

"Even things you hate can be beautiful," Ziegler said. "At least in their own twisted ways."

Becker thought of his home sector, buried in the inner darkness of the ring, far from the beauty of the city that defined the Chancellery. "Will you see the Reichsführer today, Colonel?"

"I'm to report to him immediately."

Eva clapped her hands. "Can you introduce Karl to him, Father?"

Ziegler crossed to where the steel canister of Zyklon "C" stood on a table, still wrapped in the stasis bubble.

"I'd be happy to." He smiled at Karl and something in his eyes made Becker turn away. "In fact, how would you like to meet the Führer?"

"The Führer?" Becker's heart skipped a beat. "He'll be there? When you..." he pointed at the canister.

"Give this to the Reichsführer?" Ziegler stroked the canister with his fingertips. "Yes."

"Oh, Karl!" Eva said. "Isn't it wonderful? We're going to meet the Führer himself!"

"Yes. Wonderful."

The lander docked and the slow business of homecoming began. A few hours into the ordeal, a contingent of Hellseherkorps in red dress uniforms arrived to escort them to the Reichsführer.

The Führer's SS guards, clothed in black and silver, surrounded the entrance to the Chancellery. A security gate, lined with scopes and various detectors, stood in front of the portal. A number of drab and malnourished-looking servants were busy hanging colorful decorations for the Reich Pageant around the doors.

A warning klaxon sounded as Ziegler approached the scope. "Stop him! He has poison gas!"

"Halt!" Two guards barred Ziegler's passage toward the door, their rifles aimed at his chest.

Eva rushed forward and Becker restrained her with his hand. "There are safety locks." But his words fell on deaf ears. He looked at Ziegler. His hand was on the dispersal lever of the canister.

The Captain of the Hellseherkorps contingent charged with escorting Ziegler to the Reichsführer stepped forward. "Colonel Ziegler is a guest of the Reichsführer Von Reiniger."

"I don't care who he is. I cannot let him pass."

The Hellseherkorps Captain spoke into the comm on his shoulder. Within a minute, the door beyond the scopes opened and the Reichsführer marched out.

He was old, his lined face and vulture's neck trembled as he spoke. A snake-like scar, much like Ziegler's, marked his brow. "What's the delay, Captain?"

"They have a weapon, Reichsführer." The SS guard gestured at the canister. "Poison gas."

The Reichsführer moved closer to get a better look at the canister. "What is this, eh Fritz?"

"A Zyklon 'C' canister, Reichsführer. Recovered from the camp."

"Mein Gott! It's priceless...what a find!" The Reichsführer's eyes lit up. He waved his hands at the guards. "Let them pass. On my authority."

The SS men looked at one another, eyebrows raised. Their Captain crossed to a comm unit and spoke a few terse words. After a minute, he returned and nodded his head.

"For you, Reichsführer, it is permitted."

Becker stepped forward. "Reichsführer, I need to tell you—"

"Who is this young man, Fritz?"

"My daughter's betrothed, Reichsführer. Karl Becker."

"Betrothed!" The old man's smile was cold. "The Führer will be pleased. He loves young people. They must come with us to dinner."

"Of course." Ziegler walked past the guards, the canister under his arm.

Eva stepped forward, but Becker did not move or release her hand. "Karl? Come on, the Reichsführer is waiting!"

Becker started to speak, but Ziegler interrupted him. "Eva, I'm sorry, can you go back to our quarters and bring my notes? I've forgotten them and I'm sure the Reichsführer would like to hear about the other artifacts we've recovered."

Eva looked disappointed, but nodded. "Yes, Father."

"Karl, please escort her. A spaceport is no place for a lady to be alone." Ziegler took Becker's hand and pressed a folded piece of paper into it. "Which will you choose, eh? Life or dust?" he whispered.

 [ Ziegler's choice, © 2008, Cécile Matthey ] Before Becker could answer, Ziegler turned and walked through the door and into the presence of the Führer. The door opened and he was swallowed up in the sounds of horns and a wash of maroon and gold tapestries, the canister cradled in his arms like a baby. He grabbed the dispersal lever and twisted it to the right. The door closed behind him.

Becker heard a muffled scream and automatic gunfire from the sealed chamber. The SS guards left their stations and pounded on the door, frantic to gain entry. More guards streamed into the Chancellery and Becker and Eva had to fight their way out like fish swimming upstream.

"What's going on?" Eva tried to turn but Becker dragged her forward. "My father!"

Becker forced Eva to the transit tunnels and onto a tram bound for the dark interior of the station, ignoring her protests. "Where are we going? What's happened?"

"Your father did his duty."

Becker waited until the car was underway before he unfolded the piece of paper the Colonel had passed to him. It was a copy of the book from the dig site. Precise handwriting filled the margin of the sheet. Becker read:

"'...Can the throne of destruction be associated with You? Those who fashion evil into a way of life—they joined together against the righteous, and the innocent blood they condemn. Then the Lord became a stronghold for me, and my God, the rock of my salvation. He turned upon them their own violence, and with their own evil He will cut them off, Yahweh, our Elohim, will cut them off."

© 2008 John Kratman

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