<—Everything is white, as if David is staring into a bright light. He strains for texture, some surface on which to hang perspective, but beyond a universal, milky deepness, there are only conflicting impressions—weightlessness opposed by descent.
He is… up. Yes. Up… He’s not afraid of falling; there isn’t a “below” to hit because everything is white and—>
-this is the Zugspitze glacier. I’m skiing the Bavarian Alps. Thick cumuli hide the steep slope, masking how horizontal switches to vertical in an icy instant. A shaky equilibrium, evidenced by the twisting behind my eyes. I grimace, hardening lines already weathered deep by exposure.
I slowly traverse down to the hut. It would be bad to break my neck and die with the war over; Nuremberg and the semblance of Army life is more than 200 kilometers north, and guard duty pales when compared to mountaineering-
<—No, that wasn’t right. He knows that happened to his father, David Walsh, Sr. The Army drafted him in April 1945, a month after his eighteenth birthday. He wanted to join the paratroopers but the war was ending in Europe, and he went to the infantry instead. Basic training in Georgia, guard duty on German POWs, and—>
-mountaineering and skiing in the Bavarian Alps, and I’m snowplowing across a treacherous area where here and now narrows to my pounding heart and the watery shhh of the waxed wooden skis cutting through the fresh granular powder, each snowflake reduced to a complex structure at microscopic levels, chaos defining the nature of order. Lake Eib is a beautiful deep blue in the valley below. Oval-shaped but crimped on one end, it resembles a gigantic all-seeing eye, choppy with emotion. The distance to the lakeside village is manageable; my platoon should easily catch the train and reach Garmisch-Partenkirchen before dark.
“I don’t like the Beta amplitude here toward the end.”
“Lyn, the UpLoad worked. The MEG shows zero brain activity. Clean slate. We can start the ‘bots on tissue regeneration and bring him back Down before the day’s out.”
“We saw the same spike during the simian prelims, Elli.”
“There isn’t any record of side effects.”
“We had to UpLoad someone. He was already dying. We’ve just put him out of his misery a little sooner if the Up and Down fails.”
“I feel responsible.”
“Of course you do. It’s perfectly understandable. He’s your father. But what else could you do? He’d lost all touch with reality. You told me time and again he didn’t know who he was, how he had lost so much he believed he was his own father.”
“I want to do a virtual interface.”
“We’re already behind schedule.”
“I want to go inside.”
“Fine. So long as you tell the board why there’s a delay in their Alzheimer’s cure.”
My legs feel stiff, but I’m not allowed to sit, not on suicide watch in Nuremberg Prison. One prisoner, Robert Ley, the leader of the German Labour Front, hung himself from a pipe with a bath towel, so Colonel Andrus has the guards watch the prisoners through the cell-door windows. Some guards stand at attention, some at ease, a handful lean against the metal shelves set below the waist-high food slots in the doors. Sunlight slants through the cellblock windows at one end, transforming gray, pitted concrete and rust-splotched steel into the semblance of a decrepit cathedral. Barred catwalks run along the upper levels, the skeleton of a somber vault arching over khaki-clad supplicants and imprisoned confessors alike. A hard detail, numbingly boring at the worst of times.
Unless the prisoner on trial is Hermann Göring, Commander-in-Chief of the Luftwaffe, President of the Reichstag, Prime Minister of Prussia, and Adolf Hitler’s designated successor.
“The Russian film was a fake. Die Gräueltaten? Atrocities? The pictures were probably taken during their own revolution. Like the baskets of heads.”
The Iron Knight paces his cell, as if movement distances him from the court’s charges.
“You must believe that, mein Sohn,” he continues. “The film was fake. Those fields covered with bodies, an easy thing to find in wartime. How could they photograph fresh corpses? They cannot come ready to make photographs; they must have shot those people themselves. These are falsche Anschuldigungen—false accusations—your judges make against us.”
Göring is a chameleon: one moment he looks old, thin from privation, his grey wool uniform pants and cotton shirt drab and musky like they were worn to bed, which is possible. The next, he smiles, wolfish, and the barren narrow cell can’t contain his presence. An audience of one is still an audience, his fresh attitude says. With russet-colored hair barely thinning atop a square face, florid jowls reddened by the cold, and a strong brow, his presence reminds me… of my father? No, that’s not right. I’m Dave Walsh. I don’t have any children. No juniors running around. Not yet.
“You look confused, my boy.” Göring is at the cell window.
“No, I’m… I’m fine. You reminded me of someone.” For a moment, I scowl in confusion and realize I’m standing <—floating—> off to the right, watching myself banter with Göring. I try to hear what we’re—I’m—saying, but the silence is smothering. The cellblock appears flat, two-dimensional, colors fading from khaki greens, concrete whites, and rusty iron reds to the faded grays of a photograph. Some of the guards trail pale doppelgängers, ghost images. The floor-to-ceiling windows flare, brighter and brighter—
“It’s an identity crisis, Elli.”
“So? His mind is fixing its broken links. No surprise. The chimps went through the same stages. It’s perfectly normal.”
“Nothing’s normal yet. He’s the first human subject.”
“He’ll be the last we see if you keep stalling. The board needs results. We ran an interface pre-UpLoad. Once we bring him back Down we’ll check how his memories mesh with the regenerated brain tissue.”
“I need time—”
“You need results. You seem to forget the company loses all federal health contracts if it isn’t the first with a functional human DownLoad. First, Lyn. We can’t afford second place.”
“I haven’t forgotten.”
“We’ll go under. You, me, everyone. The feds won’t let us cure a cold, let alone your father’s Alzheimer’s.”
“He doesn’t know who he is. The samples conflict. We need to resolve reality from imagination.”
“I want to keep my job.”
“I want this done right.”
<—Everything is white again.
Somehow, David knows he was thinking about his father again. It’s one truth, calm amid the storm of recollections playing across this void.
“Me, myself, and I.”
“Me, myself, and I. Say it.”
The voice flares within the impenetrable whiteness with the weight of thunder. Is this madness? David… he’s afraid that it might be madness.
“Your self-references are confused. It’s dissociating. Think of Descartes if it will help.”
Descartes? Did his father ever mention Descartes? The old bastard told so many stories toward the end.—>
“-toward the end?” Göring snaps his fingers in front of the cell window.
“I’m sorry. What was that?”
Göring frowns. “I do not appreciate being ignored,” he says. “I told the colonel jailer he should note he is dealing with historical figures here, that he is nobody. You should take the same care.”
“You reached him, Lyn. He’s responsive. Now that’s enough.”
“I don’t know. The interface sensors show the UpLoad dropping into Delta patterns.”
“He’s dreaming the German again. The patient history shows he kept relating stories about World War II before the coma.”
“Those are my grandfather’s stories. He also suffered from Alzheimer’s.”
“Why would your father obsess about events a century old? Events that happened to your grandfather?”
“I don’t know. Yet.”
“This is bad, Lyn. There’s too much going on here to consider him stable. I didn’t think it was right for you to interface in the first place—because of the delay—but it’s even worse now.
“I can help. I know him. You said we don’t have time; we DownLoad my father or it’s over for us.”
“We need to move on.”
“It will look worse if we lose him and start over.”
“It’s worse if we cure his Alzheimer’s and he comes back schizophrenic.”
<—David recalls climbing atop a wobbly stool, grasping the chromed cupboard handle for support, and stretching for the top shelf. The cookie jar sitting there is a robin’s egg blue, so bright and desirable for a five-year-old.
His mother and father are talking in the living room. What they’re saying is a mystery; they won’t teach him how to speak German. One more sign he is different. Where he has dark hair, dark eyes, and a healthy summer tan, they’re blonde, pale, peeling. Night versus day.
Five, and he already knows he doesn’t belong.
The stool tilts. His scuffed sneakers scramble for purchase on the small surface, and he falls. The next thing he knows he’s running through the house, blood dripping from his gouged chin and the stool resting on its side in his wake, as blameless as the cupboard handle that made the deep cut. No one to blame but himself, his pain his own fault. He isn’t wanted.
Not yet. Not yet.—>
I ask Göring what he knows about Descartes.
Colonel Andrus discourages fraternization, but knows the prisoners will talk, if only to hear their own voices and forget the sour desperation that hangs in the cellblock like the stench inside a slaughterhouse. Days on end with someone looking over your shoulder would drive saints to distraction, let alone sinners on trial for their lives.
Göring shrugs. “He was a philosopher and mathematician, full of questions about truth and concepts about physics.” He lowers his chin, a bulldog worrying a meaty bone. “A Frenchman.”
“Me, myself, and I.”
“Jawohl, but that is not complete.” Göring runs his thumbs under his suspenders, a gesture as contemplative as if he had scratched his chin. “I think, therefore I am. That’s Cartesian philosophy.”
“What does it mean?”
“Es ist nicht so wichtig.” Göring laughs, sits on his cot, showing he doesn’t care. Though the tribunal hearings ran long today, he appears comfortable in jodhpurs, wool socks, and unbuttoned shirt, energized by the close confines. “When the Papists condemned Galileo Galilei, the truth was not enough for Descartes to back his own views. He was weak. You are not.”
“Me, myself, and I.”
Göring smiles, exposing teeth yellow from cigarette smoke. “You think, therefore you are.”
The floor suddenly tilts under my feet like the
<—wobbly stool… father’s drool… mother’s request… father knows best—>
deck of my troop transport during its stormy Atlantic crossing. I clutch the metal food shelf for support; I’m about to become a disembodied observer again.
“You’re afraid, because this isn’t real.”
I stumble, dropping back to here and now. A young woman is standing within the cell. Tall, sable hair cut in a shoulder-length pageboy style, clad in an open white coat, yellow silk blouse, dark tweed skirt, sensible shoes with low heels. Göring leers at her well-turned calves, the only part of her that shows signs of overt femininity.
“Stop that!” I pound the metal shelf with a fist; Göring can’t stare at— “Ann?”
The door dissolves beneath my fists, dissolves beneath the force of my intent, more like grey smoke than tempered steel. Evanescent remnants flood the cell: dusty cobwebs span the low ceiling, black mold ripens on the close walls, and the pitted concrete floor, soft as clay, gives beneath my boots. The only sure points are Göring’s intense gaze and the young woman.
I know this can’t be my wife, my Ann
because I won’t meet her for another year, not until I return to the States. This must be someone else who looks like her. And yet…
I grab her arms and pull her close. Before she can speak, my mouth covers hers with a hard kiss.
Göring applauds, leans forward. “That is it, mein Sohn. Die Führung übernehmen. Assume control.”
I rip at her uniform. It tears
and I tell myself that means she’s willing, and suddenly I’m naked as well and I attempt to force her legs apart, desperate for the almost-lost, never-forgotten sensation of completeness. She struggles, pushes her hands against my chest. Her mouth moves, but I don’t hear
not while the blood thrums through my veins. This is my wife. The last time we were together… I can’t remember the last time. I can’t remember.
<—No, she’s not Ann, not my mother, and I am not him. I refuse to be him.—>
Göring is laughing and I realize the woman still struggles within my grasp, her head rocking from side to side in denial. Her hair is wrong. Ann favored a permanent wave for her hairstyle, almost sticky to the touch, stiff with chemicals.
<—Not Ann. Who? If this isn’t Nuremberg, which is what he fears the encroaching white blankness indicates, then where? If this isn’t Nuremberg, then who is he?—>
“She looks good.” Göring’s voice is fuzzy, like a poor recording. “If she is not your wife, yet resembles her, then perhaps she is Jocasta, die Mutter aus Ödipus?”
<—David wraps his arms about my head, hiding his face, his tears bitter with a salt born in sorrow and shame. Jocasta and Oedipus bring to mind “Chinatown,” a film he referenced on occasion, though the reason escapes him the longer he examines it. A woman played by Faye Dunaway told two truths to her lover and champion as he beat her for her duplicity: “She’s my sister; she’s my daughter! She’s my sister; she’s my daughter!” David only hears half the dialogue. The words sound as damning.—>
“Lyn! Lyn, are you all right?
“Fine… I’m fine.”
“What went wrong? Your wave patterns synchronized with his. You were caught.”
“I know… but I’m fine now. I know what’s wrong. I might be able to fix the situation.”
“Are you sure?”
“No. I’m not. Though I do know I’ll lose him if I can’t get him to save himself.”
<—Disorientation reigns. The sweet cinnamon taste of the woman’s lips, twisting his recollections of cold winter mornings as a child, where he shared hot oatmeal, sugared and spiced, with his mother.
He knows he isn’t David Walsh, Sr., yet part of his mind wants him to claim that identity.
Perhaps, if he deserved punishment, because a son could never—would never—do what his mother asked him to do. Even when death was the only merciful choice.—>
He stands at the rail of a Liberty ship, returning home from service in Europe. His military-issue skivvies hang on his thin frame. Raucous shouts blare from the mess portholes, echoes of camaraderie. The gamy smell of too many bodies in close quarters easily bests the fresh Atlantic winds that carry the salty promise of landfall on the North America continent, which announces itself as a thickening brown band along the horizon.
“Me, myself, and I. I think, therefore, I am.”
<—Close eyes. Welcome the white darkness. Picture the transport entering the harbor. Open eyes.—>
He sees the jagged horizon. Gray-blue sky reclines on a bed of concrete, granite and steel needles, the skyline of 1940s Manhattan. At this distance, it appears empty, a desolate canvas by Georges Seurat; vague motions near the building foundations are directionless ghosts rather than people, phantoms formed by imagination and expectation. Tugs, merchant freighters, destroyers, and sibling transports ply the harbor in the foreground, motion and sound a seesaw ballet as each opens metal throats to issue a siren call. Towering to port is Lady Liberty, austere on her tiny perch, an icon frozen by the fevered expectations of the devout.
“She looks down on you,” says Göring. “Die Walküre.”
“It is… how do you say… skin deep.” He is clad in full regalia: peaked cap at a jaunty angle; uniform crisp and clean with razor seams; boots spit into mirror sheen; medals and ribbons upon his left breast armor against mediocrity.
<—Close eyes. Open eyes.—>
The island. The troop transport continues past, deeper into the harbor. The green lawn circling the fort is empty.
<—Close and open.—>
The pedestal interior is shadowed, except for the tablet.
Blurred lines define as words, which in turn convey meaning:
“Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name Mother of Exiles.”
“Jawohl. Die Mutter. Are you the homeless and tempest-tost here, mein Sohn?” Göring made the jump as well. His smile seems imprecise. Forced, perhaps nervous, the only false note—or the only true one.
“I’m not your son.”
His protest sounds childish. Göring bears more than a strong resemblance to his father: flushed cheeks, piercing stare, and hard square jaw-too much alcohol and too many hours bridling at what he considered a hard life.
<—Close and open.—>
Back outside to the empty sward and fresh ocean air.
Göring trails. “Are you afraid?”
“I am not-”
<—Me, myself, and I, remember that.—>
“You’re not real,” David says. “You’re a figment; I constructed you from my father’s war stories.”
Göring nods his head and crosses his arms. One hand cups his chin in contemplation, his nervous manner tempered. He turns and paces back and forth across the grass, and it’s as if he’s still inside his cell. David realizes this is progress, but isn’t sure of the goal.
“You’re not real,” he says again, instinctively understanding that repetition cements the best paradigms.
He looks up to the Statue, drops to his knees as he remembers the architect, Frederic-Auguste Bartholdi, modeled it after his mother. The world—what he perceives as the world—seems to spin away, as if he were fixed in space while it continues its orbit round the sun. “God, what’s happening to me?” Göring crouches and lays an arm across his shoulder—
It is the woman again, the one who isn’t his wife or his mother. Who must not be his daughter. Not after what he did to her. He wouldn’t fall into trap set by Göring.
She stands near the fort wall, arms crossed before her chest like armor. The Statue looms in the background. Both wear dour expressions, bruised shadows beneath their eyes, lips pressed together in a tight line. The woman’s attire is the same, but her clothes seem crisper, starched by determination, her stance a mixture of sharp angles that mirror the fort’s defensive lines.
“Who are you?” David asks as he stands. He doesn’t want to know the answer; his voice breaks, halfway between laughter and a sob. Göring stands as well, still holding him by the shoulder, still supporting. “Who am I?”
She hesitates for what seems minutes but lasts two long, slow breaths. Her face seems to change, becoming unfamiliar, controlled. Less like his daughter’s face. “I’m a doctor… Elli… Elli Montgomery. You’re my patient.”
He doesn’t recognize the name. So, it isn’t Lyn… he can accept that. No more crimes in his family. She’s his doctor—and he’s her patient.
“How bad is it?” he asks.
“You were dying. Alzheimer’s.”
<—Just like his father.—>
David glances at Göring, who pats his back, nods as if he knows what he’s thinking. He pulls away from the murderer’s grasp. The only memories he possesses are extrapolations of stories his father told on his deathbed. Why shouldn’t he think of his father? Guilt is a cruel master. When he first heard his own diagnosis, he welcomed the promised oblivion. Welcomed the chance to forget what his mother asked him to do. He bites his knuckles so he can’t question whether he’s lost his mind. “You said I was dying.”
She hesitates again. “Your daughter approached us about your participation in clinical studies being conducted by our company. We accepted you. We cured you, repairing and replacing damaged brain cells.”
David gestures toward the Statue and the city beyond. The scene gains or loses clarity and motion as his attention shifts like misaligned frames in a kinetoscope. “Why am I here?”
She shrugs. “This is what you want.”
“I’m not sure I understand you.”
“While we repaired your brain, we mirrored your consciousness into a quantum substrate modeled on your own—”
“Stop.” Her words are so much garble. “I’ve no idea what you’re saying.”
“Es ist mir scheißegal!” Vulgarity from Göring.
“I’m sorry,” David says. “Apparently I’m an old man. Set in my ways, as well as sick.”
“You were a psychologist.”
“Descartes!” He sighs. Logic always makes sense in hindsight. “Me, myself, and I.”
“Think of the disease like a drought,” she says. “It destroyed the tributaries you used to access your memory.”
He glances at Göring. “And now the drought is over.”
“For your body, yes,” she says. “The problem is when we moved the water back it didn’t follow the same paths. You think differently than before. I assume it relates to your father’s experiences during the war, something that happened at Nuremberg. Something he told you before he died—”
“My father never talked about the war, not until the end. When he was incoherent.” When the only sane thing about the situation was to see it end.
She shakes her head. “There is still correlation, and you need to resolve what issues you have; recognize your unique identity; separate from a phantom memory.”
Göring halts his pacing, places his fists on hips, his face growing florid. “Oedipus asks the priest of Zeus: Is it dread of ill that moves you or a boon ye crave?”
She looks away… his lovely Lyn looks away. “You want me to deal with him,” he says.
She opens her mouth to reply, but Göring answers instead. “Of course she does.”
For a simulacrum born amidst a psychological crisis, his insight is marvelous. More logic awaiting hindsight? Is he id, ego, or superego? Father, Son, or Holy Ghost?
Island and harbor fade to sepia tones, snapshots, just as the images of the guards at Nuremburg Prison did. The only clear points are this woman who must not be his daughter and the Statue, both as overpowering as the stench of ammonia in a hospital ward.
Tears fill his eyes when he looks at them. He isn’t sure whether it’s sadness or fear, or even a cause more clinical than emotional. He doesn’t know or care. This portal on the New World is closed, its gate guarded by one Lady cast from metal and another formed from harsh judgments.
“You want me to kill him.” The familiar words taste like ash; he always was a good son.
“No!” Her eyes open wide, and she shakes her head. “I want you to set him free. Why else are you here?” She indicates the Statue behind her. “Göring represents your father, but I believe he also represents your body, your identity. Before the dementia shut down your autonomic brain functions, you had accepted your death.”
“I don’t want to die!” His response is automatic—and yet he knows it’s a lie.
Lyn looks at Göring. “I believe that if he dies, you die,” she says. “If he dies, your father dies again.”
He opens his mouth to protest again, stops, slowly shaking his head. He knows the truth. He can’t deny it; his subconscious kept assaulting him with it. He dreamt this world into being to play the fool. He didn’t want to face his guilt. He didn’t want to admit he killed his father, though the act was more mercy than murder at the time. His mother asked him to do it, and he obeyed.
And he enjoyed it.
Cellblock versus island, and cellblock wins despite its own drab tone or his fellow jailers-in-arms, now unmasked and wholly two-dimensional. Architecture and desire place him in the cell’s open doorway, Göring and Lyn both inside in the Iron Knight’s cramped cell.
She shivers. More than likely recalling how he attacked her.
“Please, don’t stay.” These mental walls are as solid as real ones if he wants to see them as such. “I need time. This is too new, too much.”
“I’m trying to save you.”
“Leave us alone,” Göring says to her, then turns and crosses the cell to stand beside him.
She ignores him. “If you think that’s best?”
David nods. “Let me talk alone with him.”
“With your father.”
He takes a deep breath. “Yes.”
Her presence fades—matter losing cohesion; electrons, neutrons, and protons going separate ways—until she is a swirl of dust that seeps through the wall.
“Is he all right?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do you think he’ll do?”
“I don’t know.”
“What should I do?”
The cot in Göring’s cell is hard. He needs it to feel that way. Obdurate. His lovely Lyn is gone, but he still feels constrained, hemmed in by her half-formed explanations. He rests his head in his hands.
Göring moves about the cell like a drone, polishing the fixtures with a rag made from a torn undershirt until the rusted pipes assume a golden, earthy tone. “Der Führer imposed order on the physical world, and believed such actions would promote harmony and direction for the spirit.”
“Control the body, control the mind,” David says.
Göring purses his lips. “It is an admirable concept,” he continues, his words clipped. “And would hold my interest still but for its poor execution.”
David laughs at the irony of that: death as a sign of poor planning. “So it’s back to Descartes.”
“He knew one or two things. For a Frenchman,” says Göring.
The comment is analytical, a psychologist might say it, with qualifications and retreats to obscure intention. I think, therefore I am. What was removed from the aging shell his body had become? Is transubstantiation damnation?
“You live no matter what,” Göring says, sitting beside him.
The cell is brighter after the cleaning. The analogy isn’t lost; it’s impossible to hide from the rudimentary reflections in Göring’s handiwork. His face appears hoary while David’s feels too young, too untouched.
He understands that this prison, built with the bricks and mortar formed by his thoughts, is not perfect. He can focus on the technical aspects of Lyn’s explanation and her disappearance, and his predicament is clear: below a molecular level, everything is so much foam, reality only an illusion. Anything can slip through these walls as she did, if it moves at a quantum level—even if it’s as concrete as his feelings of sorrow. “I don’t know if I should be allowed to live.”
“Do not hide from the choices you made,” Göring says, his voice soft, less his and more what David expects his own adult voice sounded like. He holds out a hand.
David stares at it for a moment, and it only requires a miniscule effort to form a black pill on the open palm. Göring pops the poison into his mouth, swallows; a simple, dignified death. Something mothers might request.
“Better than letting me hang,” Göring says.
David nods. “How could my father do that for you?”
“How could you obey your mother and kill your father? Was it duty or hate? He made you feel worthless at every opportunity, even the most mundane.” He shrugs. “I can’t answer that question.”
David considers the Statue, frozen on her island, torch raised, welcoming. “Love always comes with a price.”
“Where will you go, mein verlorener? My prodigal?”
“Into exile.” Somewhere beyond this storage space, hidden beneath the foam of reality. Perhaps somewhere he can heal. He doesn’t want to die. He knows that now. He wants to live. He wants to be forgiven.
Göring nods. “For ’tis bliss to bide in regions sorrow cannot reach,” he says, quoting Sophocles once more as he lies back on the cot, uniform pressed and smart, boots supple, soles clean and fresh, medals peacock bright upon his breast as if for full military review or a funeral with honors.
David stands and moves to the cell door, physical action a matter of habit. His father stayed until the end when he helped Göring die. David doesn’t need to remain.
Steve Nagy studied education and journalism, and worked for various newspapers throughout the Midwest as a reporter and copyeditor before settling in Michigan and joining a software company. He spends his days providing phone support to newspapers throughout the US and overseas. His nights belong to his family and his muse. His stories have seen reprint and honorable mentions in The Mammoth Book of Best New Horror and The Year’s Best Fantasy and Horror.
“Mother of Exiles” owes its origins to stories my father told me about his war experiences as a Nuremberg guard, and stories my uncle didn’t tell me about the D-Day invasion. I recalled a Worldcon panel where Joe Haldeman talked about war and the mark that death leaves on those who take another person’s life.