High on the west wing of Alexandria Hospital, a door creaked slowly open. Staring nervously into the pitch-black corridor that stretched before her, a young nurse struggled with her nerves. She knew she had only to reach out and flick a switch and the lights would banish the darkness. But she somehow felt this to be a betrayal of those that lay dying nearby and so persisted with her unfounded anxiety.
It was her first night session in the Terminal Illness Ward and she was dreading making her early morning rounds. There were, of course, other staff members awake across the hospital at that hour, but she was the only one who would be travelling the lonely hallways of TI. She had been worrying about it since starting her shift, just before midnight, and even while bussing in from her student lodgings in Shipley Terrace, southeast Washington. In fact, it had been playing on her mind while she had been straightening her afro at home; flushes of apprehension ebbing and flowing as she slowly combed the chunks of hair section by section, using smoothing cream and hair oil to remove the curls until she could finally tuck it all tidily behind in a short straight pony tail. She was especially on edge in case an emergency might arise that would call into question her medical ability. Professional fraud syndrome—she was aware she suffered from it. Still only a student, she felt almost paralysed by the prospect of devoting most of her young life to building up the necessary experience to allay those irrational fears. She knew there had to be a better way of viewing her beckoning career path, but she hadn’t found it yet.
As she stood there, peering out, her thoughts began to scatter: 1977 was proving to be a year of weather extremes here in Virginia… what started with an extreme blizzard across the entire Eastern seaboard (which almost froze New York City to a standstill) had, by June, turned into a sweltering summer meltdown, causing tarmac to blister and AC units in businesses and homes across the State to burnout… Politically, the country was in great flux, with Jimmy Carter replacing Gerald Ford as the 39th President just as the global energy crisis hit its peak and when a fundamentalist backlash against gay rights was busy gaining momentum… Creative forces were hard at play, with George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’ science fiction debut blazing a trail across the nation’s movie houses, while Apple Computer and Oracle were both being incorporated in California… Even the outside world was in transit: the Congress Party of India had split into factions, Spain had finally moved from decades of fascism to democracy and, in quaint old England, Queen Elizabeth II’s Silver Jubilee Celebrations had been smeared with a veil of anarchy by punk rockers, the Sex Pistols…
Stop, stop. Focus your attention on the task ahead, girl.
Taking several deep breaths, she stepped cautiously into the corridor. The windows had been mostly left half-open due the heat and a host of cicadas whirred merrily in the trees not far below, their sound blending with the gentle whoosh of the ceiling fans spinning overhead. The lack of absolute silence somehow fortified her and gave strength to her resolve to carry on with her duties. Dragging her entire skeleton like a deep-sea divers outfit, she set out slowly down the long passageway, carrying a torch that she swung in a ‘u’ pattern between the path dead ahead and the patient names on the private rooms to her left. Everything was quiet; the patients happily sleeping. Because of the stillness, she found that her courage was mercifully restoring and even her breathing was returning to normal. Yes, I can do this.
She had made it almost halfway down the corridor when she first heard something. She froze, not daring to make a sound. Straining through the gentle whirring and whooshing that surrounded her, she thought she could detect a low, continuous stream of noise. What was that? Was it a TV or radio playing? Sliding silently forward another couple of paces, the sound became clearer. Yes, she was sure there was someone talking in one of the rooms a little further down the corridor.
Halting just before reaching the room, she strained to listen more carefully. Although she couldn’t make out the exact words, she could tell that the talking was calm and very matter of fact, as if a casual conversation were taking place. Except that she could only hear one voice. She cautiously raised the beam of her torch and saw the patient name ‘Brown’ written on the door panel. Gently twisting the handle, she started to enter the room and the talking stopped immediately. Leaning her head around the door, she found herself smiling at a man lying half-upright on a pile of several pillows. He was not elderly, yet was clearly beyond middle aged. His hair was grey and receding, and he had a medium-length grey beard, but there was still a sparkle in his eye. She imagined him as perhaps a Santa Claus-type character in a better period of his life.
“Good morning, Mr Brown. Are you having trouble sleeping, sir?” He simply stared at her, seemingly unsure exactly how to answer. “May I ask, who were you talking to, sir?” she continued.
“To him,” he replied, pointing towards an empty corner of the room. He chuckled quietly to himself.
“That’s okay, sir. It’s just your medication,” she said, while approaching the bed. “Would you like me to tuck you in or re-stack your pillows?”
“No, I’m fine,” he replied. His voice had quite a strong European tone, she thought, but she was never good at picking accents.
“What language were you talking?” she asked, as she smoothed down his bedding.
“Well, I’m sure I heard foreign words that I couldn’t understand.”
“I can speak many languages, you know: bon journo, comment allez vous? tudo bem? buen día, señorita.”
“No, it was none of them.”
“Ah, then it was Deutsch—my mother tongue.”
“Oh, you’re Dutch?” He chuckled again.
“Já, dat klopt. I’m Dutch. But I can’t understand his language,” he said, pointing to the empty corner once more. “No one can. When we talk, we speak in Deutsch. Do you know he’s been talking to me pretty much my whole life?”
“What do you mean, Mr Brown?” Her inquisitive, student brain suddenly clicked into gear and began to take a deeper interest in the patient. She picked up a chair from the edge of the room and placed it at the end of his bed.
“May I?” she asked, waiting for him to nod before sitting down.
“Since I was a young man, he came to me and filled my head with wonders,” he said.
“I don’t understand, sir?”
“Ha! That’s what I’d say to him. When I was very young—just a child—I had dreams… strange dreams that always included these mysterious characters. Not him, but like him. Sometimes I’d dream about them while I was awake. I’d hear them talking, but my brother standing nearby couldn’t. I’d even ask him ‘can you hear that?’ and he’d just look at me as if to say ‘don’t be stupid.’”
“What did you hear?”
“I don’t remember the very early ones, I’m afraid. But the one who comes now, I can pretty much recall it all.”
“What does he say to you, sir?”
“Do you really want to know?”
“Yes, I’d love to.”
“Okay, but don’t get scared, now. He talks to me about other times, other places, other worlds.” Suddenly a chill went down her spine. Was he talking to a ghost? She was fast becoming fascinated with this man, particularly since her latest research specialism concerned documenting patient reports of paranormal or out-of-body experiences during illness.
“The one who comes to you now, what was the first thing he ever said to you?” she asked.
“I remember it so well. I was 16 years old, attending boarding school at Spiekeroog on the North Sea coast. I was allowed to stay up late to use the beautiful telescope my parents had bought me a couple of years previously. My mother was a keen amateur astronomer and she surely gave me the bug.”
“That’s a lovely gift for a son to receive from his mother.”
“She was such a special woman, my mother, in so many ways. I absolutely adored her. Anyway, there I was, awake in the middle of the night, as usual, and suddenly there was a glow in the corner of the room—there’s always a glow when he comes. He started talking to me but, as I said, only I could hear. It always seemed to be in my head, because there were three other boys boarding in my room and they never even woke up.”
“And you spoke to him in your head as well?”
“Yes, while there were others around. But he usually did all the talking, I was only doing the listening.”
“So what did he say?”
“Oh, it was truly wondrous… so magical to me, being still a teenager and all. It blew my mind, as you young people say these days.”
“Please go on.”
“You have to picture a youth with a small telescope and enormous dreams… that was me. I loved nothing more than to spend all night staring at the moon, the planets and the stars. My school was on the coast and it was sometimes foggy, especially in the winter months. But during spring and summertime, the night sky was usually cloudless… and then you could see them in all their glory…”
“See what?” she asked, somewhat uncertain.
“Millions and millions of stars,” he replied. She watched his eyes light up with the thrill of the memory.
“It felt like I was looking straight into the heart of the universe, through my telescope,” he continued. “I wondered if he saw me looking up at him, because he came down with all his tales of interplanetary travel. Imagine how that sounded to an excitable young man—absolutely miraculous. You know, I pride myself on having an extremely good memory and I believe I can recite word-for-word each message that he brought to me. Would you like to hear the first one ever?”
“Oh yes. Very much,” she said.
“Okay, here goes…”
‘The ancient traditions of exploration describe an epoch before humankind ever fixed its gaze to the stars. Beyond your deepest pre-history, perhaps more than 1.5 million years ago, a vessel moved in the icy depths of space. Legend records that an autonomous factory ship entered the northeastern quadrant of the spiral galaxy known to you as the Milky Way. Its 200-year automated mission was to conduct a 'grand tour' of the star systems evaluated to have the highest probability of producing intelligent life. This formed a cohort of some 500,000 stars, representing approximately 0.005% of the total.’
The nurse was dumbstruck. She watched in utter fascination as he spoke, barely daring to breathe. He paused momentarily between sentences and a thought jumped into her head: how on earth could a terminally ill patient be so lucid and coherent? Even putting aside the ravages of his illness, surely the medication alone would muddle his senses and make intelligent conversation difficult? Yet here he sat, defying all rationale and speaking as if he were an eminent astronomer presenting a lecture at a national convention. The only problem was that she could make no sense of what he was talking about.
‘The vessel’s route was programmed to utilise an elaborate wormhole network established by distant ancestors some 450 generations earlier. The precise timings of the placement of sentinel monitors within each of the solar systems varied, dependent on the median spread of candidate planets around their individual stars, as well as the mean grouping of each star cluster relative to another. In, in…’
He paused and a look of bewilderment came across his face. He seemed confused, like a small child lost in a strange location. His awareness of the fading of his faculties clearly appeared to be disturbing him.
“Are you okay, Mr Brown?”
“I’m so sorry, I thought I knew it all by heart. It seems to be eluding me…” He shook his head in disbelief.
“Please, please don’t apologise, sir. It was marvellous, the things you said. I was amazed by it.” He seemed buoyed by her approval and a calm returned to his demeanour.
“Can I confess that I was a touch confused, as well…” she added.
“There’s more, so much more. I’m sure it will make sense to you when you’ve heard it all,” he said.
“No, please don’t worry. You should rest now.”
“Please, I’d really like you to hear it. There’s a diary beneath my bed, can you see it?” She peered below and lifted up a thickish book with worn black covers, about the size of a typical hardback. She handed it to him while he reached for his glasses, which had been sitting on the sideboard next to his bed.
“Would you mind if I carry on reading it to you?” he asked, flipping through the first few pages of his diary.
“Of course.” She smiled patiently at him.
“Let me see… ah, yes…”
‘In one outer system, the wormhole entry point delivered the spaceship at a distance roughly 100 million miles from the star itself. Larger in diameter than the bottom half of Manhattan and taller in height than the depth of the Grand Canyon, the object now barrelled towards the centre of your solar system at breakneck speed. Its mission plan detailed the deployment of sentinels at planets three and four within the system, as well as at two of the larger moons of planet five and one of planet six, with an estimated flight time of eighteen Earth hours in total.’
“This is a science fiction book, right?” she asked.
“No, this is Ober describing the history of his people. It’s wonderful, isn’t it.” She looked at him in growing bewilderment, trying her hardest to concentrate on the baffling narrative unfolding.
‘A few of the most keen-eyed humanoids on the surface of your world would have noticed a large light glowing ever brighter in the night sky, as the ship drew inexorably closer to your planet. A small fleet of drones were deployed to begin mapping the surface. The 12 surveillance devices, orbiting in 90-minute ellipses, soon detected primitive life forms capable of evolving into advanced intelligent life—some insects (mostly spiders and ants), dolphins and orca whales, a number of simian humanoids and a variety of birds—but estimated that it would take perhaps another million years to determine which, if any, would succeed. That would be the function of the sentinel; its mission was simply to sit and wait.’
He paused momentarily to see if she was still following. She, in turn, looked up to check why he had stopped. They both smiled at each other and he continued:
‘The sentinel would orbit passively for millennia, monitoring the celestial body and detecting the emergence of any significant life phase upon or within the surface. It would then wait until certain key evolutionary or technological milestones were achieved, such as the ability to transmit intelligible signals past the bounds of the upper atmosphere or to project living entities beyond the planet’s gravitational field. Once these actions were detected, it would begin broadcasting a signal to a suitable receiving station belonging to the life forms below, thereby announcing its presence.’
The nurse continued to listen, struggling with all her might to hang on to the words he spoke. She watched him read excitedly from the book, but with each new sentence, the meaning became increasingly strange and nonsensical, as if he was describing some fantasy world that she had never even heard of.
‘When contact had been established with the intelligent society, the sentinel would begin to transmit an elaborate instruction sequence regarding further communication protocols. From the responses received, it would assess the suitability of the life forms for inclusion within the collective consciousness of its parent civilisation. If deemed acceptable, they would undergo an intense orientation program to allow them to follow in the wake of the sentinel’s creators.
Finally, the fledgling society (you humans) would need to accelerate your technological capacity at a rate previously unknown. The ability to create and harness energy of the form required to enable interstellar flight also comes hand-in-hand with the need to avoid the dangers of self-annihilation. The increase in scientific intelligence demands an equivalent heightening of emotional intelligence, to provide the essential negotiating and compromising skills required for conflict resolution. It also demands the subjugation of all greed, selfishness or ego at an individual level and to a degree of control that most civilisations find more arduous a challenge than the technological achievements themselves.’
The nurse raised her head from the edge of his bed.
“My dear, I do apologise. It seems I’ve talked you to sleep,” said the patient.
“I’m so sorry, I must have drifted off for a few seconds,” she said. “I remember talk of deep space and sentinels, but I couldn’t piece it all together?”
“Haha, I’m not surprised. It’s all pretty boring stuff.”
“Not at all… it was fascinating. I’m impressed by your command of the subject. You’re really quite an expert.”
“So you’ve never heard of me before?”
“I’m afraid not, Mr Brown. Should I?”
“Actually, it’s Dr Brown.”
“You’re a doctor?”
“I’m a doctor, a baron, a professor, a major, an engineer, a manager, an architect, a pioneer, a visionary—I have be given so many titles, my dear. May I ask, what is your name?”
“My name is Savannah… Student Nurse Savannah Douglas, to use all of my titles.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Student Nurse Savannah Douglas. Thank you for listening to the rantings of a dying, old man.” She sensed that he really was grateful for her presence or, at the very least, was genuinely enjoying her company.
“You’re not old, Doctor… just deeply unwell. And so you must rest. Let me draw your curtains so you can close your eyes in peace.”
“But I was enjoying talking with you.”
“Me, too. Let me complete my rounds and if you’re still awake when I come back, I’ll drop in on you again. Is that a deal?”
“Yes, ma’am. You have a deal.” With that, she settled him down and checked that his morphine feed was administering the correct dosage. She made her way to the door and, turning to see that his eyes were closed, slipped quietly out of the room.
The following afternoon, Savannah arranged to meet with Bradley, a male University colleague who she knew was keen on astronomy, as she wanted to pick his brains about her special patient.
“His name’s not Brown, it’s von Braun,” said Bradley. “I read somewhere that he has cancer and is being treated at your hospital. And he’s not Dutch, Savannah, he’s German. They brought him and his entire team over here after World War 2 because he was a kind of rocket pioneer for the Germans. He built the first missiles for the US Army, then went into the space programme. He was a big shot for NASA—he helped put Man on the Moon.”
“Wow, that’s surprising. He said that ever since he was a boy, he was dreaming about the stars. It makes sense that he was building rockets. I’m gonna try find out more about his life, about what drove him to do the things he did.”
“Be careful. You may not like what you find…”
“What do you mean?”
“Just sayin’—be careful what you ask for.”
Savannah arrived early for her shift, intent on continuing her conversation with Dr Brown. While considering his case during the early evening, she had hit upon a diagnosis that his imaginary character might be some suppressed aspect of his personality. She knew it was most likely a breach of hospital procedures but she was keen to explore his unusual disposition further, provided he was happy to do so and while he appeared to have the necessary strength. He had said he was enjoying talking with her, after all.
While she was still completing some of her paperwork at the Nurses Station, she noticed an elegant woman emerge from the Doctor’s room as visiting hours came to an end. The woman passed nearby and Savannah managed to smile briefly at her. She seemed much younger than the patient, she thought, but was obviously taking his demise extremely badly, judging by the pained expression she wore while no-one was paying attention to her. Still, her dignity was clear to see.
Shortly after midnight, Savannah approached his door. Again she heard talking and fancied she noticed a faint glow through the frosted window pane. As before, the talking stopped when she knocked. On entering, she saw the dying patient sitting a little more upright than he had been the night before, as if he was keen to see her.
“Good evening, Doctor. How are you feeling tonight?”
“Good evening, Savannah. Thank you for asking, I feel a bit nauseous, to be honest… from my medication, I expect?”
“I’m sorry to hear that. According to your med chart, they’ve increased your dosage at some point during the afternoon,” she said, examining the data. “Have you been experiencing even more pain today?”
“No, nothing more than usual. It’s always painful, to be honest…”
“Of course it is, sir. And you should never have to suffer unnecessarily. Increasing the medication is an unfortunate response as the illness progresses.” She paused to examine his face. He eyes were bright and he appeared surprisingly content to her.
“Doctor, you always look so wide awake at this time of the night,” she said.
“Yes, I suppose I’ve always been a bit of a ‘night owl.’ Do you know what I say: ‘Nothing in world history has ever been accomplished before ten-thirty or eleven in the morning.’” He let out a little chuckle at his own joke.
“It’s astonishing,” she said, “you seem so remarkably lucid to me. I’d love to continue our conversation from yesterday, if you’re willing?”
“Of course. It’s very nice to see you again and it was a pleasure talking about my past with you. I think it helps to make sense of it all, looking back on events.”
“That’s wonderful. If you don’t mind, I’d also like to take notes, as some of the topics you touched upon yesterday might have a bearing on my final year thesis.”
“Indeed you may. And what is the subject for your dissertation?”
“It’s called ‘The Illusion of Paranormal Activity and Associated Phenomena via General Anaesthesia and Post Intervention Medication’… not exactly a catchy title.”
“I don’t know—you’ve caught my attention,” he said, winking at her with a charming smile.
“Can I first ask about the person who speaks to you: were you talking with him when I arrived tonight? What’s his name?”
“Yes, he was here when you knocked. I call him Oberlänge, or Ober for short. He’s already told me I can go with him when my time here is done.”
“And is he here now?”
“No,” he said, half laughing. “He never hangs around when someone comes. It’s always private what’s said between us; one-to-one.”
“But you don’t mind telling me about it?”
“To be honest, I was planning on telling you more about when I first met him and all the incredible things he said, that fired my young imagination.”
“Okay, so he sounds like a mentor or a motivator for you?”
“Very much so. Who would not be inspired by his extraordinary discourse? Let me recite another one of his early messages… I have my diary handy in case I get lost,” he said, patting the book by his side.
‘Throughout the narrative of human history, a combination of myth, legend, folklore and fairytale have mingled and entwined with facts and realities. Over the millennia, they blended to produce a lexicon of half-truth, unreality and disbelief regarding the precise origins of your species. Since the dawn of time, the urge to find a true meaning for your lives has provided the pivotal driver to an already vivid imagination. In the modern era, the desire to define your existence in a literary form runs parallel to that search for identity. It offers a backdrop against which you can attempt to explain the purpose of your actions.’
As with the previous night, he paused to look up and check that she was following, before continuing:
‘You draw ever closer to the time when humanity will be ready to take the next step up the evolutionary scale. You will soon perfect the construction (in your own image) of mechanical structures both strong enough internally to last a thousand of your lifetimes, yet incredibly delicate externally in order to endow the provision of all of the ‘animal’ senses: sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. Most crucially, you will inexorably achieve the breakthrough into non-silicone, organic-based machine memory, allowing for the uploading, storage, retrieval and permanent protection of your soul, spirit and very life force itself. This measure will, in effect, make your kind immortal.
However, this priceless gift also bestows upon that golden generation the ability to play the ‘Game of the Gods’—making it their pleasure to indulge in the creation process itself. They will learn to mix the most productive human DNA donor strands with suitable ‘receptor’ genes within indigenous life forms located first on some of the outer moons of your solar system, before moving on to seed the more favourable host planets in adjacent star clusters within your galaxy.’
Savannah noted that Dr Brown appeared to have gone into a kind of trance-like state as he recited the message, verbatim this time, from memory. She also observed his spacial awareness returning immediately to the room on completion of the recital.
“My dear, are you crying?” he asked, as he looked up at her face. Tears were rolling down her cheeks that she had apparently been oblivious to.
“That was a wonderful message, doctor. I guess I must have been affected by it in a way similar to you.”
“You see? I was just a child full of dreams of interplanetary travel and, because of Ober and his inspiration, I ended up sending rockets to the Moon.”
“That certainly is quite an achievement, doctor. Which rockets are you talking about?”
“The Apollo Missions—I was once part of NASA. I led the team that developed the Saturn V rockets that took the Apollo astronauts to the Moon and back. He was always there, Ober, watching just beyond the clouds or somewhere out of sight. He would report back to me from his god’s-eye view, telling me how high the rocket had reached or how far down range it had travelled. He never actually told me how to do anything, even from the beginning. He would simply shake his head when my thinking was flawed or smile mischievously when I’d hit upon the right approach.”
Even though she had been told about it, Savannah was suddenly filled with pride to share a room with someone who had been so deeply involved in America’s Space Race. She felt deep sorrow that this once powerful man had been reduced to a shadow of his former self by the cancer eating away inside him. She also felt an overwhelming need to be honest with him about her perspective on what he had achieved.
“I’m from Houston, doctor,” she said. “I was born in 1957 and I remember my family watching the Apollo launches and space missions on our little ‘ole black & white TV. I was just a kid and I remember hearing them say things like ‘Apollo 11, this is Houston’ or ‘Houston, we have a problem,’ so that caught my attention. I didn’t really understand what was going on, though, and didn’t even notice when they stopped. If I’m being honest, I’m afraid I didn’t really care, either. Of course, I wanted those Apollo guys to get home safe to their wives and children. But I was a young girl, more focussed on listening to the radio and dancing to my favourite songs, or putting up posters of The Monkees and The Jackson 5.”
“Fair enough, Savannah. I understand that the American public got bored with the programme while so much else was going on in the ’60s: the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights Movement, the inner city riots, the Summer of Love…”
“But for you it must have been incredible… to be right in the centre of it all. Can you tell me about it, please? Can you take me back to those times?”
“When I was a young man, Germany was crazy for thoughts of space travel,” he said.
“Ah, so you’re German, then?”
“Yes, I was only joking about being Dutch.”
“That’s okay, please continue.”
“There were books written and films made that really inspired young people like me. I joined the Spaceflight Society, a group of enthusiasts, and soon we were launching rockets of our own: little, feeble ones that often failed miserably, I might add. But it was all a magnificent learning curve and I was totally committed. Ober made me realise that there is a lot of science involved in space travel, so I worked extra hard at mathematics and physics, because they didn’t come naturally to me. I earned a Diploma in Mechanical Engineering and then went straight on to graduate with a Doctorate in Physics. I was 22 years old.”
“That’s extremely impressive, Doctor. I’m still only 20 and I don’t expect to qualify for my nursing degree for another three years, let alone a doctorate.”
“Berlin was a city on the move in those days. The air crackled with energy. We were coming out of the Great Depression and the hyperinflation of the old Weimar Republic. I was working with Walter Dornberger at Kummersdorf, just outside the city… the Army was already involved in our work.” He stopped to gauge her reaction to this piece of information, but she merely continued writing her notes.
“The Nazis were in power by then,” he went on. “So you could say we were working for them.” Now she looked up and considered a response.
“The Nazis were the bad guys, right?” she said. “They led your country to war and, eventually, to defeat. How could you work for those guys?”
“Yes, it’s true they were bad—evil, in fact… we knew that by the end of the war. But not then, not in 1934. Back then, my only truth was that I wanted to make rockets that would fly into space. There was a growing interest in rocketry on the margins of society at that time, much as there had been for aviation before World War 1. We had no illusions about the amount of money needed to convert what was essentially an exciting toy into a serious machine. We wanted to blaze a trail for the spaceships of the future. The only people who had the enormous resources required were the military. So, there was no other choice—we either built for them or not at all, plain and simple. I’m sorry if that seems selfish, Savannah, but I had to be absolutely unwavering about achieving my dreams.”
“I think it’s very admirable, Doctor. Can you describe how exactly your relationship worked?”
“My partner, Dornberger, was already an officer in the Army Weapons Department, developing rockets as long-range replacements for artillery. They needed to build rockets because of the restrictions placed on the use of artillery by the Versailles Treaty. The Army were desperate to get back on their feet, so we continued on from where he’d first started.” He looked up, with a glint in his eye and some colour coming back into his usually grey pallor. He was clearly enjoying reminiscing about it, she thought.
“I was a true pioneer,” he continued. “Spaceflight soon became a subject of popular interest in Germany, especially when Fritz Lang made the beautiful film called The Woman in the Moon. Everyone came to see our experiments: generals, politicians, film stars, actresses. I was very popular with the ladies, you know. I never really had to try and always had my pick of the bunch.” She smiled shyly at him, trying to imagine him as a dashing young twenty something. Again she sensed his happiness at being with an attractive young woman, even at this closing stage of his life. “I couldn’t ever let them close, though,” he said. “Not until Maria…” She watched as his thoughts drifted. He closed his eyes and she saw a tear fall as the eyelids came together.
“Is she the lady that comes to visit you every day?” He nodded as he fought back the tears. “She’s very beautiful. I can tell she loves you very much.” He seemed comforted by her words and raised a tissue to dry his eyes. She suddenly felt an overwhelming wave of compassion for him, seeing him so close now to the end of his journey. Yet, the research student in her wanted to stand back and hear more about the intriguing path his life journey had taken.
“Can you tell me more about your experiments, doctor? You mentioned that everyone came to see them.”
“We had been experimenting with liquid fuels, something never done before in rocketry. The only problem was that it was highly combustible—there was a genuine chance you could blow yourself up! Within 6 months we had built a rocket that could fly. We started building larger and larger engines, providing ever-greater thrust. The rockets started increasing in size, as well. Eventually, we reached a point where our facilities were no longer adequate for our growth in development. The Air Force stepped in and offered 5 million Reichsmarks towards a new establishment to make rockets for them. Not to be outdone, the Army offered 6 million Reichsmarks for us to build for them. So we did both. In total, it was the equivalent of about 4 million dollars in those days—an enormous sum of money. I told them I knew the perfect location and the government went out and purchased the land for us immediately. They literally raced up there in a sports car and bought it outright. We named it Peenemunde and built the whole place from scratch. We constructed design and engineering blocks, research laboratories, ultra high-speed wind tunnels, launch pads, harnesses for engine tests… we even had our own power station. If an important general needed persuading about our work, we would invite him to witness a live firing of one of the thunderous rocket motors in a harness and the result was always complete intoxication. My word, Savannah, it was the most audacious development centre in the world. It was eventually outdone by the Manhattan Project but, at its height, it was the epicentre of a major munitions programme employing thousands of workers and worth billions of marks.”
“You seem immensely proud of it. Is it still there?”
“No, it was destroyed in a massive attack by Allied bombers during the war. But we achieved our goals, in the end. After numerous failed test versions, endless explosions on the launchpad, partial launches that spiralled out of control, even those that flew a few hundred metres up and then came thundering back down again, eventually we successfully launched the first ever man-made vehicle to go into space. It was the 3rd October, 1942—the birth of space travel.”
“Well done, Dr Brown… the space pioneer!” she laughed and applauded his achievement. “But the Allied bombers, you say they attacked Peenemunde and destroyed your centre?” she asked.
“Yes, don’t forget we were locked in a deadly conflict with our enemies. It was total war, Savannah, with most people on both sides directly engaged in the fighting or in war production. Even if they weren’t, they were still targets for the bombers and the tanks.”
“That must have been terrifying, knowing they were deliberately trying to kill you…”
“I knew that they were hunting for me. They had spies and agents spread all over Europe, looking for people like me. Everyone was searching for the technological edge that would win the war for their side. You can be sure that all the while I was working in Germany, there was someone in England plotting my death at that exact same moment.”