Story Excerpt

A Rocket for Dimitrios

by Ray Nayler

 

Now

“Just hang on, Alvin. We’re going to get help.”

Alvin was slumped in the passenger seat of the open-top Willys terraplane. Two thousand feet below us, the Black Sea lived up to its name: a sheet of ebony darker than the sky above, its featureless surface relieved only by the scattered flecks of night trawlers and freighters.

The bad stabilizer on the Willys kept pulling its nose down. I had both hands on the wheel and was just fighting to keep it level, glancing over at Alvin.

“Talk to me.”

“Okay, I’m talking.” Alvin said. In the dull yellow light of the dashboard lights I could see the pain lines at the side of his mouth.

“Where were you hit?”

“Chest. High. Left side. Can I . . . not talk for a while?”

I unfastened my seat belt and leaned over, one hand on the wheel. “I need you to buckle yourself in, Alvin. I know it’s hard, but I need you to help me.”

Alvin searched for the latchplate. His fingers were clumsy and slow. Finally he came up with it. I dug on the other side of the seat, found the buckle, snapped the belt closed.

“There.”

“Safety first,” Alvin grinned through bloody teeth.

“Such a comedian. Now I’ll do mine.”

Then they hit us.

I didn’t see them until they were just a few meters away: a black sedan, running lights off. It clipped us high in the rear fender . . . and I was out of the terraplane, falling through space, arms outstretched, toward the black water below.

*   *   *

Days Earlier

“You travel with your own private army.”

I was balancing a gimlet on the alabaster railing of the villa’s balcony, looking out at the Bosporus. Across the strait, the lights of the city’s European side were strung like watchfires between the winding ribbon of black water and Belgrad Forest flowing down from the isthmus’ hills. Ferries crossed the water slow as comets hanging in the sky.

I had been gazing out at this view for fifteen minutes now. Alvin was running interference, keeping the Turks attending the diplomatic reception away from me with a stream of banter, drink refills, and war stories. Alvin had played football in high school before the war—linebacker, state champion. He knew how to block. Years in the OSS had translated that footwork and stiff shoulder to subtler techniques. But somehow this one had gotten through.

I didn’t turn around right away. He continued:

“During the thousand-year rule of the Byzantine Empire, a view of the Bosporus was considered so essential to happiness it was illegal to build a home that blocked anyone’s window on the strait. The Greek records are filled with lawsuits to this effect. I think it is Istanbul’s greatest treasure, this view to the water from nearly everywhere.”

Now I did turn around. “It’s nice.”

He was tall, with an old-fashioned brilliantined hairstyle that made me think of silent film stars. Like all the other men at the party, he was in coat and tails. His bowtie was as immaculate as his well-barbered face and the affected gray streak in his hair.

“As I was saying, Miss Aldstatt—you travel with your own private army.”

He gestured at the two MPs taking up space in the balcony’s recesses. I wondered if he knew they were just a fraction of the people keeping an eye on me.

“Allow me to introduce myself. I am Chief Inspector Refik Bayar.”

Yeah, he knew. Chief Inspector Bayar, if the briefing from the Consulate was even half accurate, had nets everywhere sifting through the sea of information, sorting the plots and counter-plots and counter-counter-plots from Istanbul to the newly won possessions in the Balkans, the Caucasus, and Transoxiana. He was the center of everything in the Istanbul Protectorate’s network of informants. Our OSS attaché called him by the nickname everyone in Turkey knew him by: Balıkçı—“the Fisherman.”

He continued: “I was hoping to get a chance to speak with you before your—performance—tomorrow.”

“Performance? Like a séance, or a magic trick?”

He shook his head. “Perhaps I have insulted you. If so, it was not intentional. My English is . . . imperfect. What I mean is that I would like to give you some background, some helpful context, before you begin to . . .” he struggled to find a word “. . . investigate Mr. Dimitrios Makropoulos.”

“With all due respect . . .” But we were interrupted by a general commotion. The U.S. ambassador’s stretch terraplane had come sweeping in over the Bosporus, and was making a smooth half-turn in the air before beginning its descent, its landing lights playing across the villa’s marble terrace. Below, white-gloved Marines snapped to attention, unflinching as the terraplane lowered itself to the ground no more than a few meters from them.

I left my half-empty gimlet on the balcony rail and walked inside. Chief Inspector Bayar followed, but Alvin intervened, taking my arm with a disarming grin directed at the Fisherman. “I see you’ve met our national treasure,” he said. “You’ll excuse me, but I’ve got to borrow her for a minute or two. Duty calls, you know.”

“What did he want?” Alvin whispered in my ear.

“Didn’t have time to find out.”

The U.S. ambassador was a California Tech scion, one of the hundreds of beneficiaries of the boom in patents and manufacturing that had come after the government began to parcel out discoveries from the saucer crash of ’38 for research by the universities and private companies. His family was in the terraplane and anti-gravity transport end of things—hence his grand entrance in his custom flying car. It was said he had Roosevelt’s ear, too—but I doubted that: I’d had an in-briefing with the ambassador that morning, and he’d struck me as about as much puffed-up, self-important ignorance as you could cram into a suit. Mr. Roosevelt, now well into his seventh term, didn’t seem like the kind of man who would need advice from this particular species of buffoon.

*   *   *

“So, you’re the girl that talks to dead people,” the ambassador had said as I came into his office that morning.

I noticed he had one of those idiotic gold Roosevelt silhouette pins in his lapel. A badge of loyalty. They weren’t required, but I was beginning to see them crop up more and more among the sycophants of the diplomatic corps.

So, you’re a puffed-up, aging boy whose daddy was smart enough to grab up the saucer patents early, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I wasn’t feeling combative. I was feeling fragile and tired, struggling to fight off a cold caught on the transatlantic rocket flight. The flight in that tin can might have been under an hour long, but it had been long enough breathing in the germs of my fellow humans for me to come down with something, and afterward I’d spent a day in a guarded room at the Pera Palace Hotel, too miserably congested to see the sights—which had given me nothing to do but stew in my own anxious thoughts about this assignment.

“Sir, I’m a combat veteran of the Second World War and the Afterwar. I was in General Hedy Lamarr’s Technical Corps. I pilot the loops, if that’s what you mean.” Maybe that would help him sort the word “girl” out of his speech.

He didn’t even blink.

“I hear you’re the only one who can do it. Pilot the . . . the loops, as you call them. I hear everyone else who they hooked up to that machine died. That true?”

“I might not be the only one, but it’s too much of a risk for them to find out if there’s anyone else out there who can do it. They tested it on ten of us undergraduates back then, and the other nine died. That put a stop to recruiting, sure enough.”

“How long ago was that, now?”

“I’ve been in this business over a decade now. Signed up for a trial with the other students, back when I was on the G.I. Bill at Cal. There were lots of psychological and technical studies, and the money was okay: it would buy you a meal or two anyway.”

I listened to my own voice. The throwaway tone. Very casual, as if there had been nothing to it, surviving something that had killed all the other students who took the trial with me. I tried not to think of that day at the lab—my hand shaking so badly I could barely light a cigarette, sitting under the cherry tree in the courtyard half-mad, saying my name over and over to myself while the men in white coats ran back and forth. Dead. All of them. Dead. All of them but me. And my head had hurt so bad I couldn’t crawl out of bed for two days. But then Alvin had come to see me in the hospital, and offered me the opportunity of a lifetime: to go from struggling undergraduate on the G.I. Bill, trying to make my way in the world, to overpaid specialist in piloting the loops. A great offer, and all I had to risk for it was my life.

I didn’t mind: I’d risked my life plenty already. At least with this offer, the pay was good.

That had been the beginning.

“Anyhow,” the ambassador said, “I guess that makes you pretty valuable. But I hear you aren’t OSS. Refused to join. Government service not good enough for you?” He tossed the phrase off lightly, as if he were joking, but there was an edge to it. How can we trust someone who won’t join the team?

“I guess you’ve met Alvin, my handler.”

“I have.”

“Well, then you can see he’s OSS enough for the two of us. I figure with him around there’s no need for me to sign up. And anyway I was never much of a joiner.”

“But you volunteered for the war. Served in General Lamarr’s Technical Corps. Saw action both in the war against the Axis and the Afterwar. The fall of Berlin . . .”

I cut him off. “I was never much for standing by and watching Adolf Hitler and Hideki Tojo murder millions of people, either.”

“Fair enough. And I suppose you know what’s at stake here.”

“What I know is you’ve got a corpse in a Turkish morgue by the name of Dimitrios Makropoulos. And Alvin tells me you folks think he had a line on the location of another crashed saucer.”

“That’s right.”

“Which is why I’m here: to dig into his brain and see what I can find.”

“That’s right,” he said. “And I don’t think I need to tell you what would happen if someone else got the information first. Say, the Russians. What consequences that would have for the balance of power.”

What balance of power? I wanted to ask. We own the balance, and we’ve got the power.

The ambassador was sweating, and it wasn’t hot in the room. At first I thought he was just that kind of froggish, clammy-handed man who sweats a lot, but now I realized he was nervous—really agitated.

“We think our Turkish allies have only agreed to this—uh, interrogation—because they don’t believe it will work.” He had gotten up and gone to the window, looking out. “If they thought it would work, I don’t think they ever would have allowed it.”

“Why not?” I leaned back in my chair. “They did pretty well by us, coming in as allies in the last months of the war and then sweeping up most of their old Ottoman holdings in the Balkans, as well as expanding into the Caucasus and Transoxiana to boot. We’ve been good to them.”

I was playing dumb, of course: everyone knows there’s nothing more dangerous than an ally. You know where your enemies stand, but your allies are another thing. Half the time you’re too close-up to see what they are doing clearly. And close-up is right where someone can put a knife in your belly.

“And anyway,” I said, “I heard the story of a second flying saucer is just a fairy tale. It’s been floating around in the ether since the war. Sometimes it’s at the bottom of the Pacific, sometimes it’s on Mount Ararat along with the woodchips left over from Noah’s Ark. Sometimes it’s in the Himalayas along with Shangri-La and the Yeti.” But if it were true, I thought—if there really were a second saucer out there—it would change everything. The tech we got off that saucer in ’38 allowed us to whip the Axis and the Soviets both. Then we ganged up with the “Free German Army,” which is what Patton recommissioned the remnants of Hitler’s Wehrmacht as, and pushed the Russians back across their border. Not to mention helping Chiang Kai Shek wipe out the Chinese Communists.

We’d kept the world safe for democracy with that saucer tech—and turned millions of people to ash to do it. I know—I helped us do it. Now things were pretty good: Chiang Kai Shek was running most of Asia for us, with his occupying armies in Japan, and Europe was fast becoming a U.N.-run American province. You could fly your terraplane coast to coast along Beacon Chain 50 from San Francisco to Washington D.C. in twenty-four hours, then hop on a rocket at the National Launch Zone, land in Austria in an hour, and get the cancer burned out of your lungs in a Viennese clinic. Then if you were hungry, you could eat at a Howard Johnson’s right across from the Opera House.

A world of opportunity, brought to you almost gratis by your friendly American overlords. Okay, we don’t use the word “overlords”—but Hegemon sounds a bit old-fashioned, too. We just don’t talk about it, if we can avoid it.

Turkey had waffled a little too long, and sure—we’d made them pay for it: in the end they had to accept the official name of “Istanbul Protectorate and Associated Territories,” with a U.N. monitoring team in Istanbul to make sure they didn’t get out of line. The Istanbul Protectorate’s title and subject status was their Scarlet Letter—and fair enough, I thought: that’s what you get for playing footsie under the table with the Nazis right up until 1943.

But the fact was Turkey, or the Istanbul Protectorate, or whatever you wanted to call it, had benefited from siding with us in the end. After all, even a friend who shows up a little late is still a friend, right? Even if he does have a bit of your enemy’s lipstick on his collar. So we’d allowed them to expand into the vacuum the Soviets and the Axis left behind in the confused Eastern edge of Europe, where it tangled into Eurasia—places that were too far away from us, with politics too complicated for us to deal with. We were glad to hand it to them: it was a mess. Better them than us.

And our Security Council allies Britain and France rubber-stamped the decision. The French hesitated for about two days, just to show they weren’t our puppets. Smoked a Gauloise and walked around being moody, I suppose. Then they caved and signed the resolution like they always did.

But another saucer—well, if the Russians found it, it would change everything. And much as I didn’t like the way things were now sometimes, I knew they could get a lot worse if Marshal Zhukov got his hands on the kind of tech we had.

“What makes you think this Dimitrios knew anything about your second saucer?”

“He’d been on our radar a long time. He was at the center of a web of Balkan informants and double agents, criminal gangs, terrorist nationalist movements—the line between all of them is thin out here. He’s been a part of every story surrounding the second saucer. His name just kept turning up. If anyone knew, it was him.”

“Too bad he wound up bobbing around in the Bosporus, then.”

The ambassador wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. He stared out the window, not turning to look at me.

“That’s where you come in, if what they say about you and this machine you operate is true.”

“It’s true. But it’s not always possible to get the answers we are looking for.”

“What do you mean?”

“It might not surprise you to know that even with alien technology, fishing around in the brain of a dead person is a tricky business. We’re following neural memory pathways—what we call the ‘loops’—that disintegrate as we run along them. I might get three, maybe four tries at pulling the information out of his head, maximum. Sometimes I only get one or two tries before the loops fall apart. And then there are distortions: think of your own memories—how clear are they, really? Much of the time, you’ll find you don’t remember things accurately at all: you just have an image in your head that might be something someone told you about something that happened to you, or that is distorted by a lie you told someone about what happened, or a false memory based on a photograph you saw of yourself. The loops are like that, only worse. These are the memories and thoughts of a dead person, falling apart as we try to glean what we can from them, and getting tangled up with my own thoughts and memories. We say the loops are ‘sticky’—they pick up your own fears, your own preconceptions, and wind those up with the subject’s.”

I could tell he was getting more nervous: he kept opening his mouth like a fish, then closing it again. I decided to calm him down a bit: “Still, Alvin and I’ve solved murders with the loops, broken up spy rings, retrieved secrets. Sometimes it all comes together.”

He mopped his forehead with an expensive looking silk handkerchief that didn’t look like it was designed to touch human secretions. “So what you’re telling me is bringing you all the way out here might have been useless. That it might have been a waste of time we don’t have.”

“No, Ambassador. What I’m telling you is that bringing me all the way out here might be of use. It might actually be your only chance to find out what you want to know.”

*   *   *

The ambassador didn’t look sweaty or hopeless this evening. This was his forte: glad-handing everyone, back slapping and giving acknowledging head-tilts to acquaintances across the room. He was a dinner party creature—one of that breed of people whose confidence is a public performance—as soon as he is alone, or with just one or two other people, his personality collapses in on itself like a flan in a cupboard.

I stayed long enough after his arrival to let him pump my hand and then told Alvin I was still feeling poorly from the rocket over, and maybe he could have my armed contingent march me back to the Pera Palace so I could keep my strength up for tomorrow.

“You should come along as well,” I said. “You look like you could use a little rest.”

Alvin shook his head. “Still trying to get the lay of the land here. With things complicated back home, I’m having trouble keeping my factions here straight.”

“Complicated?”

Alvin leaned in close enough for me to scent the lime edge of his aftershave. “Word is, she fled the country months ago. They’ve managed to hush it up for the time being, but the press has finally caught on. The story is about to get out, and that means all hell will break loose. And what’s maybe worse is who she took with her.”

“Where did she go?”

“Get some rest. You’re going to need it.”

*   *   *

They had set the loops up in a wing of a semi-abandoned building near the shore of the Golden Horn. It looked to have once been a factory or research facility. I hadn’t slept well, and I was perhaps still feeling a little off from my cold: all morning, my mind had been full of abstract associations, runaway thoughts. As I stepped into the building my first thought was of how difficult it would be for the archaeologists of some future era to understand anything about us, these people of the twentieth century, the beings who had once lived on Earth and constructed such places, filled with such strange contraptions—iron rails in the ceilings, salt-rusted chains hanging from massive pulleys, huge enameled sinks, walls covered in cracked, clinical white tile. The cement floor bore strange oil and chemical stains.

What had been made or done here? I was contemporary, or nearly so, with the people who had built these things, and I could not even begin to guess. There were ramps outside the building that led down to the Golden Horn itself, but there was nothing nautical about the place.

In the center of the cavernous room the OSS techs had set up my Loop chair, something like a cross between a dentist’s chair and a prop from some old mad scientist movie. The massive headset, like an evil version of the hair dryers the old ladies love to hang out under at the salon, was propped on its stand. Thick cables led away from the set and disappeared under a white curtain. It was the same kind of curtain you might find in a hospital room, separating patients in a ward.

Seagulls screamed outside, their voices echoing through the building’s broken windows. The air was filed with the rot-salt scent of shoreline. Behind the curtain would be Dimitrios, laid out on his zinc slab, awaiting communion.

I wondered what kind of subject he would be. Would there be only one or two loops, fragments of some of the last things he saw, or would his mind be one of the rare ones, a labyrinth of memories to wander in?

Whichever it was, the sheer cost and risk of transporting the Loop Set from California, the armed guards, and the ambassador’s sweaty performance in his office, all spoke to the importance of what I had been brought here to do. Looking at the white curtain with the rubber-sheathed tentacles of connecting wire winding under it, I felt suddenly afraid and helpless. I wanted to back out of there, say I needed another day to rest up. But I knew there wasn’t time: Dimitrios was fading with every passing moment.

Besides the white-coated technicians milling around, there was Alvin, who had flown me here in a Willys terraplane that kept dipping its nose due to a stabilizer problem, and the Fisherman.

Chief Inspector Refik Bayar looked as immaculate in the middle of this gloomy techno-industrial barn as he had at the party the night before, though he was now dressed in a military uniform complete with polished Sam Browne belt and riding boots to the knee. As the kind of person who is constantly discovering I have lipstick on my teeth, a popped button giving folks a glimpse of my cleavage, or toilet paper on my shoe, I resent people who look like they come stamped off some assembly line at any hour of the day. They don’t impress me: they just make me dislike them and their shallow fastidiousness.

“The chief inspector is here to give you some background on Dimitrios Makropoulos. He won’t observe the session.”

“I usually just dive right in,” I said. “You know that, Alvin.”

The chief inspector nodded. “Yes. I’m sorry—this was at my insistence. There are issues of Balkan politics involved that are thorny, and you may not be able to understand without context. I was briefed by your colleague on the normal procedures you follow, but usually you are operating within the context of your own country. Here you are out of your element, so to speak. I would like to be your guide, if you will allow me. To give you just a sketch of who this man was, so you can place his mind in the proper context.”

“Fair enough.”

He glanced at Alvin questioningly. I sighed. “Yes, I can look at the body without needing smelling salts, Chief Inspector. I’ve seen a thing or two.” Ashes blowing down a street in Konigsberg. Russian tanks exhaling the ashes of their crews when you opened the hatches, Russian planes dropping from the sky, clouds of ashes in their cockpits. The ashes of the people of Berlin drifting in the shade of the lime trees on Unter den Linden. Ashes I helped make. “I think I have the stomach for it.”

Refrigeration bars created a cube of cold around us. In the center of this chilled space, the body was laid out on its enamel slab, naked. The flesh was slightly swollen from its time in the water, the corpse pale and purplish under the glare of the high-powered electric lamps suspended from the room’s ceiling. At the body’s feet was a neatly folded pile of clothing: underclothes and socks, a salt-stained serge suit that had once been blue, a garish floral tie. The man looked to be about fifty, with a neat moustache meticulously dyed black that stood out, in its absurd immaculateness, from the wreckage of the rest of him. He had a face you pass on the street a thousand times a day, and a balding head he was trying to conceal with a bad comb-over. The mortician had done him the favor of neatly smoothing his hair into place for him in death—a surprising touch of human kindness in this strange setting.

The Fisherman looked down at the corpse of Dimitrios with such raw distaste that, for a moment, it seemed as if he were going to spit on the dead man.

“The man you see on the slab before you is a professional of a kind that is far too common in this part of the world. His type is the true cause of violence and chaos in Europe and Eurasia. He was not a spy. He was not an assassin. He was not a politician. He was not a part of any mafia. No. Instead, he was the connective tissue between all of it. He was the link between all of them—the cowardly politicians, the organized crime interests, the spies, the violent fanatics. His kind is the sinew on which assassinations, political coups, and sabotage rely. He was a middleman. A broker in information and innuendo, an arranger of deals. He knew people, found things, made sure other things were not found. He never risked himself: he allowed others to take the risks. He had no allegiance to any cause: he saw allegiance and causes as pathways to what he wanted. The Serbian nationalist, the Greek heroin-smuggler, the Bolshevik, the Nazi: it was all the same for him. They had ideologies: he had self-interest, and self-interest alone. There are thousands like him: they infest this part of the world like cockroaches in a cheap hotel.

“We know little about his early days. If he is the Dimitrios we think he is, then he was found abandoned in 1909 in Larissa, Greece. Parents unknown. Mother believed Rumanian. He was adopted by a Greek family, goat herders on the Mani Peninsula, we believe. Their identity is lost. Makropoulos was likely nothing but an alias. He carried papers as a Greek subject when we found him floating—but they were forged. 

“We know almost nothing of his life until he was arrested here in Istanbul for the robbery and murder of a duenme money lender in 1933, then released due to a lack of evidence after the fig picker that fingered him for the crime was himself found dead in the Elephant Stables Cistern. The fig picker had been garroted and then stabbed for good measure. But not by Dimitrios: he was in our custody at that time. So we had to let him go.

“And he went: he disappeared. Maybe he is the Dimitrios involved in the theft of naval documents in Zagreb for a Croat nationalist faction in 1936, but then again maybe not: that Dimitrios claimed to be a Greek from Izmir. He fit our Dimitrios’ description, but who can say? And the rumor is the documents were stolen by the Croats on behalf of France — even more complicated, then. A few months after his arrest there is a violent uprising in the prison, and many of the prisoners escape. Dimitrios is among them.

“There is a drug smuggling ring in the mountains north of Thessaloniki run by a Greek named Dimitrios who is never caught. This is in 1937. Was it him? We believe so—but we cannot be sure. We don’t pick up his trail again with certainty until he is sighted by one of our agents at the Athene Palace hotel in Bucharest. There, we know it is him. Our Dimitrios. Now he’s playing the role of a Greek freighter captain, but what he is really involved in is selling Black Sea naval intelligence to the Nazis via their emissaries in Rumania. This is 1940. We have our eyes on him until 1942, when our services are” — he paused, considering his words — “compromised. We catch a glimpse, perhaps, of him again. The port town of Varna, in fascist Bulgaria. First mate of a salvage vessel. He approaches one of our double agents embedded with the Axis Bulgarian government with information he says will alter the course of the war. This is 1943. The course of the war, by then, is largely unalterable. It took you Americans a few years to crack any of the technology you found on that saucer that crashed in your Western desert, but by 1943, things were much more certain.”

Ashes, ashes, you all fall down, I thought. And Turkey wakes up from its semi-Fascist dreams and joins the winning team to make sure it gets a slot in the U.N. But what was Turkey up to before that?

“And then?”

“And then our double agent in Bulgaria is compromised. And shot.”

There was a long beat of silence, with only the seagulls screaming over the Golden Horn to fill it.

“That was over fifteen years ago,” Alvin said.

“Yes. Two lifetimes, for a man like Dimitrios. The war ends. He disappears. Where does he go? His world has changed—where once there was the disarray of the period between World War I and II for him to play in, now there is the Allied Occupation. Does he go East, to places still in flux? The Caucasus? Transoxiana? Mongolia? It seems too far for him. I think perhaps he just puts his head down. It could be he even becomes what he says he was—a sailor, a freighter captain, under an assumed name. Maybe he goes from playing the part to living it. Whatever it is that happens during those years, we don’t hear of his existence again until he tries to contact a double agent of ours at the Russian Consulate. But by the time we share that intelligence with you, as we are obligated to do by our U.N. protectorate status, Dimitrios Makropoulos is face down in the Bosporus with a jellyfish in his lapel pocket.”

“What was he offering the Russians?” I asked.

The Fisherman grinned. “Your OSS boys know as well as I do. He was offering them a second flying saucer.”

“It’s preposterous, of course,” Alvin said. “But not the kind of thing we can let pass by without checking up on it.”

“By checking up,” the Fisherman said, again with that flash of white teeth, as immaculate as his shirtfront, “Mr. Greenly means dragging priceless equipment and an even more priceless woman halfway around the world to dig into a dead criminal’s brain. Surely, Mr. Greenly, you do not expect us to believe you think the existence of a second saucer ‘preposterous’ if you are willing to make those kinds of investments.”

Alvin shrugged his All-American shoulders. It was easy, with his cornhusker good looks and aw-shucks demeanor, to forget who Alvin was. To forget that the OSS had parachuted Alvin into a shattered, Fascist Yugoslavia in 1942 to help organize Serb resistance. It was hard to imagine the midnight knifings and garrotings he must carry around in the nice-guy bone structure of his skull. It’s hard to imagine a man like Alvin killing someone at all—but I had personally seen him do it, on two separate occasions, and he had not even flinched.

“I guess we just like to be thorough,” Alvin said.

The Fisherman gave a slight bow. “Indeed. As do we—especially in the maintenance of our relationship with our American allies, and in our U.N.-obligated sharing of relevant intelligence with your OSS. We consider this a sacred obligation.”

He turned to me. “Ms. Aldstatt, I hope my briefing will be of some assistance in your work here.” He gave a slight bow.

“I will take my leave of you, then.”

“A sacred obligation,” Alvin said once the chief inspector had left, “to be fulfilled only when they see fit. They waited until the Russians had murdered Dimitrios to tell us they had a line on this second flying saucer. They thought his mouth was shut for good, so it was safe to let us in on it. They had no idea we have the tech to pull information out of dead minds. You can bet if they’d known, they would have made sure his body never turned up.”

*   *   *

A hotel lobby. Rust-colored marble walls inlaid with gold-framed mirrors. Chairs and settees covered in raspberry plush surround heavy yellow marble pillars. Clusters of people are talking quietly. There is no band in the lobby, as in most great European hotels, so I can hear the creak of shoe leather, the hum of conversation. A man with a face like a sick greyhound is leaned in to talk to me: I note the red ribbon of a Legion of Honor in the lapel of his coat, the yellowed moustache clinging to a face made fragile with age. Another man, gray-haired and heavy eyed, with a pointed beard, is eyeing me over his Turkish coffee. He is holding a copy of the Voelkische Beobachter. I cannot see the date. And I cannot guess the time of year from the light in the lobby: it is all electric. There is not a window to the outside anywhere in this seasonless place.

Pointed beard says to me, leaning in conspiratorially: “You had said you wanted to meet Frau von Coler, and we have arranged it.”

The loop winds immediately into another: I am in a salon, filled with gilt chairs arranged at conversational angles. A door is open to the warmth of a summer night. Before me stands a woman with hair the color of bamboo, braided and pinned flat to the back of her head like a Black Forest peasant child’s. Moonstone earrings dangling from her ears rhyme with her blondness.

“I cannot tell you how happy I am that the French have declared Paris an open city. Can you imagine having to bomb the Louvre?”

Her perfume has the edge of jasmine in it, but I—Dimitrios—am more interested in the expensive German radio near the most comfortable table in the room. I have been amusing myself by devising ways in which I could steal it and have decided I could pay one of the hotel staff to do it for me.

“I am on my way out,” the Frau is saying, “to attend a movie screening at the ministry. A banned French film. I do wish I could invite you, but you know how it is, darling. You are entirely too Greek for a party of Rumanians. They’re bound to start asking questions. Couldn’t you just give me the information now?”

I am back in the lobby. A man in the uniform of a German general is leaning into me, over his sharp nose and the Pour le Merite and Ritterkraus military decorations at his throat.

“You can bring this back to your friends, as a sign of my sincerity. Just a tidbit of information: Molotov was unhappy when he was in Berlin in November. Hitler has refused, you see, to recognize Russian claims on Turkey. The Balkans, he says, including Turkey, are a German ‘zone of interest.’ This has cast a certain cloud over Russian-German relations. Perhaps the presence of several German divisions in Poland and the Balkans will be enough to keep the friendship between Germany and Russia intact,” his gray eyes squinted through a nest of fine wrinkles. “But somehow I fear it will not.”

“And what of my information?”

He raises a glass of mineral water to his lips. “There is so little time for the speculative, Mr. Makropoulos, in the middle of a war. We have time only for the practical—and barely enough time for that. And even if the research vessel you are asking for was under a flag of convenience, there are risks some find unacceptable. Also they are asking where you came by this information and what evidence you have to back it up. Perhaps there is something you could allow me to see? A map? This might help me to convince them.”

“I’m afraid that’s not part of the bargain,” I say.

I am just a boy, tending goats on the side of a mountain. There is hardly anything here but stone and thistle and sun, but crossing that sun is a biplane tumbling, burning, through the sky. I hear the thump of the plane hitting the ground in the distance—the same sound a sack of flour makes, when tossed from a truck to the pavement.

I am sitting on the floor of a barren, whitewashed little room. A trapezoid of sun through the window lights the page where I am drawing. Now it is not a biplane: it is a rocket. And it is not falling: it is roaring upward into space.

I am in the water. On the horizon, a ship burns. I can hear myself praying.

Then suddenly I am looking at the face of Dimitrios himself.

This is a Dimitrios much younger than the man on the refrigerated slab. He is slender, with a thick head of curly black hair. The mustache that was preposterous on his corpse now seems rather dashing. He is not looking directly at me: he gazes over my shoulder, somewhat absently.

In immaculate King’s English, he says: “Groppi’s in Cairo had a splendid sort of decadence. Morning coffees and éclairs among the silver-spotted, ancient mirrors. The women in their expensive furs, and the men eying one another’s chromium cars. Cairo. A city as old and still as the desert itself. It seemed as if nothing could happen there. The war would never truly start. We blamed the light: the flat white desert light made everything unreal.”

I turn in my seat. The Cairo café is filled with British soldiers chatting over plates delicate and yellowed as slivers of bone.

“They thought I would be useful to them, perhaps. And that was enough. I imagine their intelligence services were stringing along thousands of informants, in those days. Everyone was buying and selling information. The market was flush with it. But this war—it had been declared, but what of that? Still there was no fighting. It was all theory. All a game. The phony war, they would later call it. Hitler and Stalin had divided Poland between them, yes, but what of that? Who cared about the Poles, in the end—who cared enough to die for them?

“In England they ran advertisements in the paper: ‘At the Royal Victoria Hotel at St. Leonard’s on the Sea, the ballroom and the toilets have been made gas and splinter-proof.’”

He took a sip of his coffee, and now his eyes found mine. (Mine? What eyes were mine? I was supposed to be him, here in the tangles of his mind . . . what was happening?) “Of course, in Finland the wolves were already eating well that year. But they invited me to England to tell them my story. It was another world, there: Everyone seemed to be determined to get in one more set of tennis before the storm descended. Cricket on a village pitch. Smoke rising not from burning huts, but chimneys. England, behind her sea barrier, smugly content.”

He took a bite of his éclair. I could even hear the clatter of silverware on plates and tables in the café, the hum of conversation. Someone, in that dead man’s mind, laughed at a clever joke.

“They invited me, and they listened, and they nodded and considered. Then they sent me away. Theoretical. Impractical. No proof. The same things the Nazis would say to me later, in Bucharest. The Brits smuggled me out by merchant ship. Dropped me in Athens. My contact there was a good man and kind to me. I think he believed me: I remember that last day—at the Acropolis, rain streaming from shattered eaves. We had our waterproofs on, of course, and good rubber boots, very English. Very practical. We were quite drunk on raki, but I got him back to his hotel all right. I remember his last words to me. He was insensibly drunk, sitting on the edge of his bed as I toweled his hair dry:

“‘Tomorrow, Dimitrios,’ he said, ‘I’m almost sure, if it stops raining, our war will begin.’”

*   *   *

“What else?” Alvin asked. We were sitting in a couple of pseudo-antique chairs in the salon of my room at the Pera Palace. Along with his team, Alvin had meticulously swept the room for bugs. “Tell me exactly what else he said.”

I closed my eyes. “He said, ‘I told them exactly where it was, as had been told to me. As had been shown to me on a map. The wreck had been discovered by a French ship exploring along the Rumanian coast with a Rouquayrol-Denayrouze diving apparatus in 1934. They sketched pictures of it but didn’t know what it was. The captain kept the sketch. I bought it and the map from him in Trabzon in 1939 for a hot meal. He hadn’t put two and two together, but I had: I used to read the stories when I was a boy, reprinted in Greek from the American magazines. The rockets and the ray guns. It was an Ιπτάμενος δίσκος—a flying saucer.’”

“There has to be more,” Alvin said. “What else did he tell you?”

“Then he smiled across the table at me and said, ‘Come visit me again sometime.’ And snapped his fingers. The loop broke, and I was out.”

Alvin shook his head. “This isn’t the way the loops are supposed to work.”

“No, it isn’t. I’ve never had a conversation with a dead person in the loops before: I am supposed to be them, reliving their lives. But this isn’t that: Dimitrios is somehow . . . there. Speaking to me directly.”

“It’s impossible.”

“You know as well as I do we don’t really know the first thing about how the loops are supposed to work. We don’t understand what we’re doing with this tech: we just know the uses it has for us. But you’re right: I’ve never experienced anything like it. Not only are there loops within loops—a whole maze of them inside his head—but somehow he knows I’m there. He’s telling me his story himself. And he knocked me out of his own head.”

“Does your head hurt?”

I shrugged. “It always does, after a loop session. But it doesn’t hurt more than when I think about how I have to defend my doctoral dissertation to Professor Freud once we’re back in California.”

“You’re finished with your dissertation?”

“Mostly. Do you think if I was a doctor, our ambassador here would hesitate before calling me ‘girl’?”

Alvin shook his head. “Probably not.”

“I didn’t think so. Look, I’ll take another shot at it tomorrow. For now what I need most is a drink at the hotel bar, some food in my stomach, and a good night’s sleep.”

*   *   *

I got the first two on the list (four of the first one), but in the middle of the night I found myself bolt upright, staring into the dark in terror, trying to will my eyes to adjust to the darkness faster.

Once they had, the fear got worse: a figure stood in the middle of the room. There was an icy chill in the air, and the ghost of a breeze across my face although I knew the balcony doors, now open, had been closed when I went to sleep.

“Do not be alarmed,” the figure said. “Do not call out to the guards in the hall.” There was a strange modulation to its voice that drained it of inflection. “We simply need to speak, you and I. You may reach over and turn on your lamp.”

I did so. It was hard to make my hand move: fear had locked my muscles. The bedside lamp cast a dim parchment glow into the room.

The person was in a sort of fur-lined jumpsuit, something like a bomber crew’s suit, with a thick belt crowded with canvas and leather pouches that all seemed wired together. I could make out that the figure was a woman. But above the collar, the face was a blur—like the play of sunlight on the eddies of a rocky stream, or leaves shuddering in a breeze. Colors writhed. There was no face. I had to clap my hand over my mouth to stifle the scream that tried to push its way out.

The figure put a gloved hand up.

“It’s just a device. A way of disguising one’s identity. We call it an abglanz. It changes the voice, as well.”

“It’s . . . it’s a bit disconcerting.”

“Yes,” the strangely flattened voice said. “I agree. But precautions are necessary. Now . . . I need you to listen to me. Please.”

Half of my mind was thinking of the disintegration pistol in my nightstand. The other half was listening.

“All right.”

“We know what you are looking for. And we’d like to ask you . . . very politely, you see . . . not to find it.”

“You mean—not to do my job. Not to do what I came here for.”

“No—we think you should continue to do your job. You should gather as much information from Dimitrios as you can. But in the end, you should pretend to fail.”

“Who is this ‘we’? . . . Maybe you’d like to tell me a bit more about just why I should do something like that for someone who won’t even show me their face.”

The figure was still for a moment. Then they brought a hand up and tapped something at their collar, and the blur streamed away.

“You’re right,” Eleanor Roosevelt said. “This is no way to have a conversation.”

She was wearing a tight-fitting black rubber hood over her head, covering her hair, and pilot’s goggles pushed up on her forehead. Her face was pale, the cheeks red as if windburned. The goggles had left red indentations on her cheekbones and circles around her eyes. She sat on the edge of the bed.

“Anyway, I came here personally, to have a talk with you woman to woman, and then I try to do it through that damned device. What was I thinking? This is better—face to face.”

Once I got over the shock, I said: “Everybody is looking for you. They say FDR didn’t leave the White House for a month, in grief.”

“I’d like to think it was grief, but I think anger is more like it. When I finally left, I was running for my life.”

“Surely FDR would never hurt you.”

Mrs. Roosevelt smiled sadly at me. “I hope you are right. But regardless, there are men around him who are very determined to hurt me. I’m not sure how much he would be able to do to stop them—or if he would even try, at this point. There is so much bitterness between us now. Even before I decided to leave—for years before, it was clear that Franklin and I had grown apart, built too much scar tissue up over the years. Especially since the Japanese internment. I fought hard against him over that. And I had to fight him more and more, over everything afterward: the suppressions at Manzanar, the way he tried to put down the Rosie Riots, when women just wanted to keep the jobs they had earned, the treatment of our former allies the Russians in the Afterwar, and now this trumped up trial of Martin Luther King, Jr.”

“But he blew up a church!

“Dear, there’s so much you don’t understand. So much is going on behind the curtains of power in Washington. Our country . . .” She paused, considering. She ran the palm of her hand over the fine Pera Palace sheets, the densest silk I’d ever slept on. “Our country, ever since the crash of that saucer in ’38, has been in danger. Month by month, year by year, it has fallen further and further under the control of paranoid men. They did not start out that way: they started out as practical people, who aimed to use what we found to help stop the Nazis and the Japanese Empire from destroying our world. And they did that: we swept them away. And that gave these men even more power. One would think that our power in the world, our defeat of the evil of the Nazis and the Japanese Empire, would have given us comfort, made us secure, made us determined to build a world where everyone can live in peace. But that isn’t what power does. It didn’t make us feel more secure. Instead, it has made us all feel more and more paranoid. And most especially, it has made the men who hold the power more paranoid. Once you have power—unstoppable power, such as our country was given, such as they have, you become afraid to lose it. You become certain that anyone else who wields it will do it wrong—that only you can lead the way. And you begin to rot, inside. I’ve seen it, eating away at our country.” She paused and looked at me. “And eating away at my husband.”

I thought of FDR’s comforting voice in his fireside chats every week. He didn’t seem like a man being eaten away inside by power. He seemed like a man in perfect control.

“What’s the alternative? Letting the Russians take over? We saw what they did in Poland. Or letting Germany loose again?”

“That’s just it,” she said. “There are so many more alternatives than that. But we have stopped being able to see other ways of going about things. Fear is a tunnel. Anyone knows this who has been afraid: your peripheral vision shrinks to only what is in front of you, and what is in front of you becomes warped, exaggerated.”

Her words brought me back to places I didn’t want to go—striding across Operation Overlord beaches melted to glass in which you could see the skeletons of Nazi defenders trapped like flies in amber. Ashes blowing through the Tiergarten.

As if she could sense the images in my head, Eleanor said: “And the things we have done eat away at us. Winning, too, has a terrible cost. It is paid by the soul.”

“Yes. Yes. It has a terrible cost,” I said. “Every veteran knows that.”

“I’m not here to threaten you, Sylvia. Or to frighten you into doing what we ask. I’m appealing to your better nature. What we ask is that, whatever you find in Dimitrios’ mind, you tell the OSS you found nothing. That there is no saucer. That Dimitrios was lying: the saucer was never there.”

“And then tell you where it is so you can hand it over to the Russians? As much as I might hate some of the things that are going on in America, I still love my country,” I said. “And I believe that, even though we have made mistakes, we are good. Good enough, anyway. There isn’t anyone better out there.”

Eleanor Roosevelt stood up. She was in her mid-seventies but moved like a woman of no more than fifty. “No. No. That isn’t what I am asking. I don’t want you to give up the secrets you find. I want you to tell us nothing at all. We’re not looking for the saucer, and the last thing we would want is for the Russians to find it. You are right: they would do the same things with the technology that the Americans have done, only worse. Power would never be safe in Zhukov’s hands. Especially after what we did to them. We want peace, not yet another war. But you should know . . .” she was moving to the French doors open on the balcony.

Like a sleepwalker, I stood up and followed her, sensing that there was something she was about to show me. “. . . The Russians are looking for the saucer as well, and every day you stay here you put your life in jeopardy.”

“There isn’t much I can do about that,” I said. “And the Russians are everywhere anyway. They tried to kill me in my own house a few years ago, all the way out in California.”

“I know.” Eleanor walked through the French doors onto the balcony, and her voice fell to a whisper. “But here in the Istanbul Protectorate, even a friend like Alvin may not be able to save you.”

She clasped my hands in her gloved ones. I could feel the warmth of her, even through the lined leather. I expected to see a terraplane waiting over the balcony rail, idling silently. But the streets and courtyards were empty. The car that must have brought her there was nowhere to be seen.

“Think on what I said, Sylvia. What would we do with more power? How would we use it? What would it do to us?”

And with that, her feet left the ground, and she floated into the sky.

 

Read the exciting conclusion in this month's issue on sale now!

Copyright © 2020. A Rocket for Dimitrios by Ray Nayler

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