“‘When we know the present precisely, we can predict the future,’ is not the conclusion but the assumption. Even in principle, we cannot know the present in all detail. . . .”
quoted in The Quantum Story: A History in 40 Moments
by Jim Baggott
December 18, 1944
Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule
The winter cold bit through Moe Berg’s coat. He walked silently with fellow agent Leo Martinuzzi, their shoes crunching on the icy sidewalks. The sky overhead was gray, the entire world seemed gray, from the buildings around him to the mountains beyond.
Some of that was the light. Zürich had banned most outdoor lights—and many indoor lights as well—terrified of being an Allied bombing target, even though Switzerland remained carefully neutral.
It didn’t feel neutral. Zürich in particular felt like the center of the war itself, with spies and expatriates from everywhere. Germans could travel freely here, as could Americans, and what was more, they could mingle without causing too much difficulty.
Although Berg had hidden his American identity for this little venture. This afternoon, he was a student, although how anyone thought him a student at forty-two still boggled his mind. Berg guessed it was simply because so many post-doctoral students at Eidgenössische Technische Hochschule had aged before their time.
Paul Scherrer claimed the aging had nothing to do with the war, but with the stress of the work. He should know. He was the director of the Physics Institute at ETH, which was sponsoring this lecture.
More to the point, Scherrer had sponsored Berg.
Berg had the invitation in his coat pocket. He resisted the urge to finger the paper. He was nervous for the first time in years.
The last time he remembered being nervous was standing at home plate in Shibe Park in Philadelphia, on his very first at bat for the Brooklyn Dodgers, twenty-one years and an entire lifetime ago. That day, he’d been happy to hit a single, thinking it a miracle that the ball, which bounced left, had stayed in bounds.
A miracle. Back then he had such small expectations of miracles. Back then he had actually believed the Great War was the War to End All Wars, and he never imagined himself undercover for the United States government—not military, but more than a spy.
When (if) he carried out the worst part of this afternoon’s mission, he would not only be an assassin, but he would be a dead assassin. And the headlines all over the world would confuse baseball lovers everywhere:
Former Major League Catcher Moe Berg Dead in Assassination Plot.
Or, more accurately:
German Scientist Werner Heisenberg Assassinated! And then, the smaller headline: Swiss Authorities Claim Scientist Assassinated by Former Major League Catcher Moe Berg.
Berg chuckled dryly. Martinuzzi looked at him, frowning. Berg shrugged. It didn’t matter. If he assassinated Heisenberg, he wouldn’t live to see the headlines. His family would, and they would wonder. They probably had no idea he was capable of killing a man in cold blood.
He wasn’t sure he was capable of killing a man in cold blood, but he was here, pistol in a shoulder holster underneath his suit coat, cyanide tablet in his breast pocket.
Ahead of him, the ETH looked foreboding in the fading daylight. Perhaps it was the police presence outside the huge neo-classical building, calling attention to the fact that the guest inside was someone who needed protection.
Entering the building was the key. Berg had to stay calm, act like this was any other day. Martinuzzi was nervous enough for the both of them.
Berg didn’t ask why, just like he hadn’t asked what Martinuzzi’s mission was. He suspected Martinuzzi was there either to finish the job should Berg bungle it or simply to disappear into the crowd and report back to headquarters when he got a chance.
They both worked for the Office of Strategic Services, and technically, they reported to the same man. But Berg was a favorite of Wild Bill Donovan, head of the OSS, who, everyone said, had President Roosevelt’s ear. Sometimes Berg liked to imagine that the things he told Donovan found their way to the president himself.
This mission certainly would. Success or failure, the president would learn of it all.
And that made Berg’s heart pound harder.
He took a deep breath, then let it out slowly. He and Martinuzzi turned toward the front of the building. One of the police guards, a slender man in an ill-fitting uniform, asked the reason for their appearance so late in the day.
Berg answered for both of them. He spoke excellent high German, thanks to a number of visits to Switzerland throughout the war. His Swiss German, as so many called it, was much better than Martinuzzi’s, but Berg could still hear errors in his own speech. He tried not to talk much when he was on a mission; he was always better at listening anyway. It was one of his best skills.
He produced his invitation and Martinuzzi did the same. The policeman glanced at the papers, then handed them back and nodded toward the doors. Berg climbed the stone steps, Martinuzzi beside him, one hurdle conquered.
Martinuzzi reached the intricately carved wooden door before Berg, and pushed it open. They stepped inside. A flood of warm air mixed with the scents of chalk and tobacco almost overwhelmed him.
More police ahead, and some men who still wore their coats—open as if they had forgotten to remove them. Nazis, probably, sent either to guard Heisenberg or watch him or both.
Berg removed his own hat, and tucked it under his right arm, opposite the shoulder holster. He held the invitation. He wasn’t shaking. In fact, now that he was inside the EHT, he was calm, as calm as he got in the middle of a ballgame, crouched behind home, sending signals to the pitcher as he listened to the rustle of the crowd, and the inevitable loose talk of the batter in front of him.
Loose talk. That had been his job when he started catching for the White Sox, collecting loose talk. And that was his job now.
Or it had been, until this mission. This mission in which he was supposed to murder a scientist to prevent the creation of the ultimate weapon, a weapon the scientist had once said would only have to be the size of a pineapple to destroy an entire city.
If a city got destroyed, the Allies wanted it to be a German city, not an American one. A small weapon like that—a bomb of unbelievable power—could be smuggled into the United States and take out Washington D.C. without much thought at all. A sneak attack, like Pearl Harbor. Only this time, Americans would all know what the city was. They would all know what had been lost: they wouldn’t need it explained to them by fast-talking announcers interrupting a Giants football game.
This policeman didn’t even look at Berg, just waved him forward. Berg went to the anteroom near the small lecture hall and carefully removed his winter coat.
He resisted the urge to pat his pockets and check his gun. Instead, he smiled at the student who exchanged a small beige ticket for the coats and hats, and went into the lecture hall alone.
It wasn’t fair to call the room a lecture hall, even a small lecture hall. In the United States, it would simply be called a classroom. Up front stood a table covered with a coat and some papers. A lectern had been moved to one side. Beside it, a standalone blackboard tilted at an odd angle.
Twenty students and professors filled the chairs. Except for Scherrer, who sat near the front and looked eager, most clumped near the middle. The students seemed less than enthusiastic. They had exams within the week and probably wanted to study, rather than listen to a German scientist, even if this German scientist had made one of the most significant discoveries in physics in the past twenty years.
Werner Heisenberg’s controversial uncertainty principle was one of the cornerstones of quantum physics. Heisenberg postulated that it was possible to know a particle’s position or that it was possible to know how fast the particle moved, but no one could know both the position and movement of the particle at the same time. Berg had spent quite a bit of time in Oxford, talking with leading scientists as he prepared for this job, and one of them used a description that moved away from particles into theory, which Berg appreciated.
That scientist had told Berg that at its core, Heisenberg’s principle meant this: The act of observing changes the thing being observed.
Berg wasn’t sure how he felt about that, or even if he believed it. He’d spent his career—both as a catcher and now as a spy—as an observer, and it had been his job to remain unnoticed. Funny how that particular skill was what got him into this room.
He then would become part of the experiment. And as such, he would not get out alive.
* * *
Leah Hammerschmidt huddled inside her coat. She sat in the last chair of the last row. She wanted to stand in the back, but Paul Scherrer had guided her to a chair himself, saying she would be more comfortable, asking—sideways—what she was doing here.
She had come with Herr Doctor Heisenberg, she had said in her best Bavarian German—which, of all the German dialects she spoke, was her best German of all. She had spoken softly, however. She didn’t want Heisenberg to overhear her, and contradict her.
Better to let the other physicists think that Heisenberg had finally vacated his principles and spent time with a woman other than his wife than to have them question who Leah was.
She was a last-minute addition to the team. And this lecture was a test of her field ops abilities, and it made her uncomfortable. Or maybe the clothing did.
She wasn’t dressed for it. She wore a wool skirt, and a sweater too thin to keep her warm. Her wool socks had holes in them, just like her shoes. In that sense, her clothing made her fit right in: Germans no longer had the luxury of nice clothing. Even Heisenberg wore an obviously worn suit. It hung on him, and looked frayed even from this distance.
He was frailer and older than she’d expected. She did a quick computation: he had to be in his mid-forties. She would have guessed he was in his fifties. But the bombings inside Germany, the loss of friends, and the pressure of his work had taken an obvious toll.
He tinkered with the free-standing blackboard, then about fifteen minutes after the lecture was due to start, he gave up and went to the lectern.
She held her breath as he started, uncertain what he would say this time. But he launched into a safe lecture on S-Matrix theory, covering topics he’d covered time and time again.
He paced as he warmed to his topic, and Leah let out a small sigh of relief. She surveyed the room, German physicist Carl Friedrich von Weizsäcker sitting on his hands, trying to pay attention. He had the unwelcome duty of reporting back to the German High Command any missteps that Heisenberg made.
Moe Berg watched Weizsäcker too. Berg had glanced at Weizsäcker twice. Martinuzzi didn’t seem to notice at all, but Leah had learned that Martinuzzi was subtler than anyone gave him credit for. Quiet, competent, and smart. She wondered why the OSS even bothered with Berg, who was so famous among Americans that she had seen GIs recognize him on the street.
No one could explain the ways of Donovan’s crew, or what Donovan himself was thinking. She certainly wasn’t here to figure that out.
She recognized some of the other physicists, and a few of the students. The students were hard to miss. They earnestly took notes, as if they would be quizzed on this—and for all she knew, they would.
Only one person didn’t quite fit, yet he looked familiar. Tall, blond, high cheekbones, and that kind of off-hand beauty that came naturally to every third Swiss. His blue eyes were hard, and his lips thin. His clothing caught her: it looked new.
Scherrer looked sharp as well, but she expected that of him. He was the director of the Physics Institute, with an honored guest in his room. One of the great minds in physics, whom all expected to continue to do great things.
And right now—December 1944—everyone who understood physics believed that “great things” meant building a great weapon, one that would harness the power of the atom itself.
She shuddered. And as she did, a movement caught her eye.
Berg, reaching into his suit coat.
“Oh, shit,” she said out loud, but she wasn’t certain if she spoke German or English.
She launched herself across the room, knowing it was already too late.
* * *
The lecture was innocent; he knew that much. Berg couldn’t follow all of the equations that Heisenberg put on the board (hell, he couldn’t follow most of them; math had never been his strong suit), but he had learned enough physics in the past year to understand that this topic was an older one. The student beside him had written boring!!! in his notes, something he would not have done had Heisenberg inexplicably started talking about current German research or, more to the point, the bomb itself.
But orders were orders. Berg had sat through fifteen minutes of the lecture, arguing with himself about that very thing, about orders being orders. But his handler in Paris, when relaying those orders, had said one simple sentence, one Berg couldn’t get out of his mind.
We must deny them his brain.
Berg had seen what such brains could do. He’d actually spoken to Colonel Leslie Groves about the work being done in the United States. Berg knew this was a race. And he knew the Germans couldn’t be allowed to win it.
He slowly, unobtrusively, pulled the pistol out of his jacket. Then he leaned a bit to the left. He would have to stand. If he didn’t, he might hit one of the students, and he couldn’t bear that.
So he waited until Heisenberg went to the board again and picked up a piece of chalk. As Heisenberg turned his back on the group, Berg rose, pistol out. People around him gasped.
He pulled the trigger quickly, hoping his aim was true. He would only have one real chance at this.
The shot boomed in the small space. Students screamed and ducked. Scherrer turned toward Berg with a frown on his face.
But Heisenberg dropped, blood spattered against the board.
That was all Berg needed.
The Nazi guards ran toward him, as did several other men. Martinuzzi got in their way just long enough for Berg to pull the cyanide capsule out of his pocket and place it in his mouth. He had to bite the damn thing for it to work, and he hoped he wouldn’t have to.
But no one shot him. One of the police from outside had come in here, holding handcuffs.
Berg couldn’t be caught. He knew he didn’t dare be caught. He was one of the few operatives who knew about the atomic weapons program in the United States. He also knew that no man could hold up against all interrogation procedures, no matter how strong that man was.
He bit down and winced at the bitter taste.
The other men had reached him. They tackled him. He went down backward, his mouth flooding with saliva, his eyes watering.
Heisenberg was down too.
Berg closed his eyes, imagined a high fly ball disappearing into the sunlight, and pretended he couldn’t feel a thing.
* * *
Leah had the advantage of a head start. She reached Heisenberg as he slammed into the chalkboard on the way down. She crouched beside him, waving the others away.
“Get him!” she shouted in German. “Get the assassin!”
Others didn’t have to be told twice. The Germans around Heisenberg ran for Berg. There was a scuffle behind her, chairs falling, cursing, but no more shooting.
Some of the students had hit the ground. Others fled in panic. Some screamed, although fewer than she wanted.
She knelt beside Heisenberg. The shot was high, the exit wound near his left shoulder.
Berg had missed the heart then. Heisenberg would live.
Although his breathing was ragged. Blood in the lungs, perhaps? Or just the shock of the wound?
His blue eyes met hers. “Why?”
“The bomb,” she said. “They want you to stop working on the bomb.”
He frowned, as if he didn’t understand her.
“The atomic weapon,” she said. “You once said it need be no bigger than a pineapple.”
He groaned and looked away. “We stopped,” he said. “We stopped long ago.”
“They don’t believe it,” she said.
“No money,” he said. “No materiel. We are losing, for God’s sake. How can we build such a thing when we cannot stay in our homes?”
The last sounded watery, and he coughed.
She glanced around. Still no one beside her, except one male student, looking pale and frightened.
“Get a doctor,” she said to him. “Quickly, before we lose the professor.”
The boy didn’t have to be told twice. He scampered away.
“Will I be all right?” Heisenberg asked her.
She shushed him gently, then she leaned on his good arm, and pinched his nose shut. She placed the heel of her hand on his chin, forcing his mouth closed, and pulled downward with her fingers for good measure.
His eyes bulged, first with fear, and then with lack of oxygen. He tried to buck her off, but didn’t have the strength.
Someone else approached. She didn’t look up.
“May I help?” he asked.
She blocked his view with her body, maintaining her grip, wishing Heisenberg was dying faster. “I sent someone for a doctor. Now I need something to staunch the blood.”
“Consider it done,” the man said and moved away.
Heisenberg stopped struggling. She knew that no one could lose that much oxygen and remain still, yet her training made her hold for another minute, just to make sure he was not faking.
His eyes were fixed and dilated. She let out a small sigh and moved her hand, placing it on the shoulder wound as if she were trying to stop the bleeding.
She hadn’t moved her body.
“Allow me, Miss,” said a man with a Berlin accent. She looked up, trying to seem tired and discouraged.
She didn’t have to fake the tired. She wasn’t sure about the discouraged.
The man behind her was the same man she had noticed before, the handsome blond man with the new clothes.
“I don’t want to remove the pressure on his wound,” she said in a deliberately flat voice.
“Here,” he said. “I will put my hands down first, and then you remove yours.”
He did so as he spoke. She wasn’t sure if he even noticed that Heisenberg had not moved, that his chest wasn’t moving, that his eyes were glazing over.
“You have done so much,” the man said.
“I don’t think it was enough,” she said, her voice shaking.
But he didn’t seem to hear that either. He was looking at Heisenberg and frowning. He had finally realized that the man was dead.
She staggered away, not really play-acting any longer as the adrenaline flowed through her. There was still a cluster of people around Berg, but they weren’t touching him.
He was sprawled on the floor, his skin an odd color, foam around his mouth. Martinuzzi was nowhere to be seen, but, unless she missed her guess, some of the Germans were missing too. A chase was probably underway. The two men had come together, and others were bound to have noticed.
She sank into a nearby chair, hands coated in blood. The coat was ruined. The skirt too. And her knees were bruised.
She let out a small sigh. She hoped it worked this time, but it was impossible to know, at least from her position. Here. Now. In this room, where time seemed to have stopped.
Early winter 1943
About 100 Miles East of Moscow
It didn’t matter where she went; every place in Europe was cold. This time Leah wore a wool coat over a heavy man’s shirt and an even thicker sweater. She also wore long johns underneath the pair of black wool trousers she’d managed to snag before she left. The wool cap covered her blond hair, keeping her ears warm, but the two sets of wool mittens did little for her hands.
She was freezing. The small wood stove in the corner did little against the depth of a Russian winter.
No wonder Hitler got bogged down in Russia. How did anyone survive this place?
Her handler, Albert Dehrs, stood near the door of the tiny cabin. Someone had stuffed blankets against the door. The windows were covered with more blankets to keep the cold out, yet Dehrs had shed his coat and his mittens, either used to the chill or one of those people blessedly impervious to it. Or maybe the two tablet computers on the small wooden table created a tiny heat source that Leah couldn’t feel so far away.
“New wrinkle,” he said in English. “We just found this time branch. I thought it would be better for you to see this here, rather than watch it at home base.”
Home base, at least, was warm. And very far away, both in time and in space. The central point for the breaking of branches. Those 1944 physicists she had rubbed elbows with on her previous job, the job she privately called the Heisenberg Waste of Time, since everyone knew the man had no impact on the war effort in 1944, those scientists had worried about the future they were creating, not the past.
Yet she was concerned with the past. Very concerned.
Heisenberg himself had said it was impossible to know all of the present, so a man could not understand the future. But what he failed to acknowledge was that a person could not completely know the past either. It had branches and eddies and complications, complications that got worse with each tinker.
The irony hadn’t escaped her: the machine her people had used to “fix” time had become a weapon. It was a weapon born of the research the historic physicists had done, a weapon they could not have imagined but a weapon that would not exist without them.
She tucked her mittened hands underneath her armpits, and walked over to Dehrs.
“What am I here to see?” she asked. And more importantly, how was she supposed to see it, with the windows blocked?
At that moment, he wrapped an arm around her and pulled her down, holding her head down against his thigh. Light hit them, light so bright that for a brief, rather frightening moment, she saw his bones through his skin.
Her stomach flipped, and she cursed as the light dimmed. She tried to move, but he held her. Then the ground shook, bouncing the table, the chairs, the pans on one side of the wall, banging and thumping. One of the tablets landed on her back and slid down her side, and somehow she managed to catch the slick thing, made of polymers not even invented yet.
After a few minutes, the ground’s shaking stopped, but she didn’t.
Dehrs let go of her head, and she raised it.
“Son of a bitch,” she said. “That was a goddamn bomb. What the hell? How close are we?”
Dehrs looked pale. “More than a hundred miles. We should be all right.”
“If there’s no wind,” she said. “If we get out in time. If, if, if.”
He put a hand on her arm.
“We’ll be all right,” he said softly. His eyes met hers. He seemed calm enough, although she could see his pulse racing in the hollow of his throat.
“What the hell did you bring me here for? We’re—”
And then her brain caught up with her mouth, or maybe the panic subsided, the shock, the fear, the anger, all set aside for the wonder filling her.
Not good wonder either, but the kind that brought with it kind of a stunned sickness, a sense of awe, yes, but awe tinged with fear.
“This is 1943, right?” she asked. “Winter.” As if that part wasn’t obvious. “Where did it hit?”
“Moscow,” he said quietly.
“Moscow.” She blinked. Her eyes still had an afterburn. If she shut them, the world still looked bright, almost blinding. “Why would the U.S. bomb Moscow? Or was it some kind of accident?”
“No accident,” Dehrs said. “And it wasn’t the U.S.”
She let out a small breath of air. She was still clutching that tablet, but it had shut off. She handed it to Dehrs because she didn’t know what else to do.
“Germany?” she asked. “They got a bomb?”
“This makes no sense.” She tried to process this new change. A “wrinkle,” Dehrs had called it. This was more than a wrinkle. It was a disaster. “Why now? I mean, it makes no tactical sense. If they’re going to bomb Moscow, then they need to do it in June or July, some time when they can follow with men and materiel. Tactically, this is stupid.”
Copyright © 2013 by
Kristine Kathryn Rusch