The Broken Heart Machine: Conclusion

This is the conclusion of The Broken Heart Machine, a short story set during World War II. Here are the links to parts 1, 2 and 3.

 

August 1, 1945, Pearl Harbor

Paul Wiezerski sat at his desk, reviewing a set of data on barometric pressure readings and precipitation tables for the home island of Japan. His head felt foggy. The Quonset hut where he worked with other weather analysts was poorly ventilated, and the humid, noonday heat made concentration difficult. He rose to go outside to catch an ocean breeze and smoke a cigarette. He winced as he stood, pain shooting through his left leg.

“You all right?” asked Grayson, his desk mate.

“I’m OK. Just need some fresh air,” said Paul.

Grayson smiled. “Right, fresh air. Smoke one for me while you’re out there.”

Paul smiled back. He was the only purple heart recipient in his unit. His fellow weathermen hadn’t seen any combat, so they treated Paul with deference.

Paul limped out the door. Though his left leg had healed well, he would probably limp for the rest of his life. Shrapnel from a German grenade had blown through his thigh, leaving a chunk of his quadriceps muscle in the sands of Egypt.

He leaned against the warm metal of the hut and lit a cigarette. He could see the harbor from here, a carrier and two battleships in dock, and beyond them the blue Pacific surging and rolling. The sight of the ocean carried his mind back, as it often did, to Helen, and his final moments with her.

“My father is not a Nazi sympathizer,” she had said. “It was an act.”

“An act?” said Paul. “Why would someone pretend such a thing?”

“He was approached by the United States government in the 1930s,” said Helen, “and asked to publicly support the National Socialists. The government hoped his public support might garner the Party’s trust.”

“You’re telling me your father was a spy?”

“Of a sort, yes,” said Helen.

“And when you and he traveled to Berlin, did he steal state secrets? War plans?”

“The United States never intended him to steal anything from the Nazis,” said Helen. “He was meant to lead them astray.”

“About what?” asked Paul.

Helen sipped her tea, and then clutched the cup between her hands, as if to draw its warmth into her. “There is a race going on between the United States and Nazi Germany. And likely the Soviet Union as well. The race is for a new weapon, one that will surely guarantee victory for the first nation to build it.”

“Your father’s weapon? The one that killed the submarines?” asked Paul.

Helen shook her head. “Father calls that a toy compared to the other. This weapon, if discovered, can annihilate an city in a single stroke. If the Nazis find a way to build it, London and Moscow will be obliterated. Hitler will conquer Europe—perhaps even the world.”

“And your father knows how to build it?” asked Paul.

Helen shook her head. “Several of my father’s ideas may prove useful, but no single person could build it alone—the physics and the engineering are far too complex. Dozens of great minds are at work on it in the United States. But the Germans are the giants of physics. And so the Roosevelt administration asked my father to lead the Germans astray.”

“Astray?” asked Paul.

“German scientists regarded my father quite highly. When we visited Berlin, he suggested avenues of research, offered tantalizing clues that would, in actuality, throw them off the scent. The U.S. government hoped the Nazis would pursue these leads, and by the time they realized it was a blind alley, the U.S.’s program would be well enough ahead. We simply tried to steal a march on the Nazis–three months, perhaps half a year.”

“Did it work?” asked Paul.

“Father says we won’t know until one government uses the weapon first.”

Paul put his head in his hands. Exhausted and heartsick, he was having trouble grasping what Helen was telling him.

“That sounds too patriotic for your father,” said Paul.

“He’s rational, not patriotic,” said Helen. “No government, or country, or race should have the power of that weapon. But it will be built, so it’s better for the Allies to wield it than Hitler.”

“But you don’t know if you—if your father—succeeded?”

“No,” she said.

“And yet, he drags you down into this…this exile?”

Helen smiled grimly. “For my father, it’s not exile. It’s a refuge. He’s weary of the world and all the people in it.”

“But what about you?” asked Paul. “You’re willing to hide yourself away with him? To bury yourself beneath ice and water before you’re dead?”

Helen looked at the floor. “He needs me,” she said. “I won’t leave him alone.”

“Why?” shouted Paul. “Look at what you’ve sacrificed for him—play-acting as a Nazi sympathizer when I know they sicken you! Then shut away from the sun and the world and companionship! What about a life of your own? You have no more duty to that man!”

Paul saw the color drain from her face, felt for a moment the heaviness that weighed on her heart, and it nearly made him cry out.

“Perhaps I have my father’s melancholy,” she said. “I don’t want to be in the world either. There’s a sickness out there. I felt it in Berlin, like the heat of a fever. And in Chicago and Washington too. The human race is possessed by a malady; it wants to see how high the bodies can be piled, how vilely human beings can be treated. How well it can perfect instruments of slaughter. I can’t bear to be in the world while the sickness rages.”

“So you’ll just hide here? For how long?”

“I don’t know,” said Helen.

“No,” said Paul, a fierce hope rising in his heart. “Come with me. Right now. We’ll take one of those craft that brought me here. We’ll find an island, someplace small and secret, you and I. We’ll go away from the world together.”

Helen shook her head. Her eyes were wet with tears, but her voice was firm. “No Paul. I’m going to stay here. And you have to go.”

“Please…” he started, but Helen rose from her seat.

“My father will pilot you back to a location where the Navy can retrieve you. Give them the package. Tell them it’s everything. Tell them to leave us alone. Goodbye, Paul.” She walked out of the study, her hands over her face.

Paul sat in the arm chair for a long time, the tea going cold in his cup. Then a noise in the doorway made him turn his head. It was Professor Strand.

Paul stood, seeing the Professor’s eyes on him—watching to see if Paul would take the bundle of papers. Paul thought about leaving them on the floor of Helen’s study. But even now, with a broken heart, he would honor her request.

He strained for a glimpse of her as he followed Strand through the corridors of the faux house, and then through the tunnel of ice, but she was hidden away.

He climbed down into the belly of the submersible and went the stateroom. Fresh food and water waited there, but he ignored it. Instead he opened the flask and drank the burning liquor. He watched out the porthole as Strand brought the vessel to life. Would Helen appear on the dock? Raise her hand to him in a final farewell? The waters rose up and covered the ship. She didn’t come. Paul drank until he fell into unconsciousness.

Sometime later he heard Strand’s voice.

He rose woozily, embarrassed that Strand could smell the liquor on his breath. He forced himself to stand upright, as if at attention, though he would never salute that man.

“I’ve detected activity on the surface,” said Strand. “Several boats are nearby.”

“Allies?” asked Paul, wondering if Strand had devious plans of his own.

“Yes of course,” snapped Strand. “Do you think I’d turn my work over to the Germans?”

He thrust a bundle into Paul’s hands.

“This is an inflatable raft. Pull the cord once you’re through the hatch. You’ll see a small radio beacon when the raft inflates. I’ll be gone before the boats arrive. Try not to drop my papers over the side.”

With that, the Professor turned and went back to the control room. Paul went and stood by the ladder that led to the top hatch. He felt a strange lifting sensation in his stomach as the craft rose through the depths.

“Now!” called Strand. Paul went up the ladder and opened the hatch, then went back down to retrieve his bundles. He climbed again and squeezed through the opening. The submersible bobbed on the iron-gray surface of the sea. A cold wind whipped down from a dark sky, the sun lost behind stacked rows of cumulus clouds.

He pulled the cord. The raft unfurled and inflated with a long, flatulent hiss. He lashed a painter on the raft to a cleat on the submersible and pushed it into the water. It seemed terribly small, bobbing in the vast expanse of the sea. Paul gritted his teeth and then slid down the side of the sub into the raft. It rose and fell with a sickening wobble on the choppy surface.

Strand appeared at that moment, knife in hand. He slashed the painter, and then dropped back inside the hatch, pulling the door after him. Moments later the submersible slipped beneath the water, gone from sight.

Paul found the radio beacon. He activated it and then sat, waiting, his arms clutching the oilskin package tight against his body. Rain began to fall.

The package of papers was hurried away, probably to Washington. Paul was interrogated for seven days by the British and Americans. He told them only of his conversation with Strand, told them everything Strand had said about his acoustic weapon, and delivered Strand’s message—that there was no more information to be had, and to leave him alone. But he offered no information that might help the Allies track down Strand or Helen.

After the interrogation he spent several weeks in a brig at a naval base in Norfolk. Then invisible decision-makers decided the military wasn’t through with him–though Paul’s work on sensitive projects was over. He was busted down to a private and sent to the front in Africa as a radio operator. He served for a year and a half until he was wounded during a firefight. After being treated, he was shipped to a post at a weather station on Oahu.

It was an inglorious position, but didn’t really care about his rank or his job. He wanted to stay in the military because he could keep his ear to the ground, sift through whatever information sources he could get his hands on, both military and civilian, for hints of the weapon that Strand and Helen had spoken of—and for clues as to whether their location had been found.

But no news ever surfaced, and the war went on. When news of Hitler’s suicide reached him, Paul realized that he had been holding his breath, waiting for the Nazis to unleash a weapon of terrible destruction on the world. But Hitler was dead, the Nazis all but finished. Perhaps Strand’s deception had worked.

He wondered if Helen knew. He ached to send her a message—her fear of annihilation hadn’t come to pass. No one had used the weapon. Would she see it as a sign of hope? That the sickness she felt in the world might be broken? Would she rejoice? Might such news cause her emerge into the world again? If so, would she seek him out? Would she know how to find him, here in the middle of the Pacific?

Paul considered his plans. Once the war in the Pacific was over, and Paul had his discharge papers in his hand, he would return to Chicago. She might she be there, standing in the window of the manor house, free of her father. Free of her despair.

And if she wasn’t in Chicago? Then he would search for her elsewhere, starting with Slea Head.

But all that would have to wait. There was still much to do. The Japanese weren’t giving up, forcing the army to roll them back, island by island. There was a lot of talk of invasion of Japan itself.

And Paul knew where it would happen. No one had told him, but he’d pieced it together from the cloud of military noise. Why else might the Air Corps be so interested in the weather around a couple of minor shipping ports? He said the names to himself over and over, like a totem. Hiroshima. Nagasaki. Hiroshima. Nagasaki.

The End

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