What Doctor Gottlieb Saw

What Doctor Gottlieb Saw

3.8 5
by Ian Tregillis

Gretel has wires in her head. Gretel likes to pick wildflowers. Gretel is one of the subjects on the farm, and she is Doctor Gottlieb's responsibility, but she knows something she isn't telling -- and if Doctor Gottlieb doesn't figure it out, it may be his body in a ditch next. This story is set in the world of Ian Tregillis's Milkweed series, which began with

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Gretel has wires in her head. Gretel likes to pick wildflowers. Gretel is one of the subjects on the farm, and she is Doctor Gottlieb's responsibility, but she knows something she isn't telling -- and if Doctor Gottlieb doesn't figure it out, it may be his body in a ditch next. This story is set in the world of Ian Tregillis's Milkweed series, which began with Bitter Seeds.

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What Doctor Gottlieb Saw

By Ian Tregillis, Gary Kelley

Tom Doherty Associates

Copyright © 2010 Ian Tregillis
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2669-0


"Do you suppose it's possible to murder God?"

Gretel was Gottlieb's most troubling patient. She was clairvoyant. She was also, he feared, quite mad.

He paused in the midst of jotting a note in her file. Capping his fountain pen and setting it on the desk, alongside the blotter, gained his scattered thoughts a few seconds to catch up with her. "I beg your pardon?"

"If He is omniscient and infallible, then surely He would see the moment and manner of His own passing. Knowing this, and being infallible, He could prevent it. Yet to do so would imply His prescience was imperfect. While not doing so would mean He is not eternal." She sighed.

Gottlieb said, "The death of God is a metaphor. It isn't meant as a literal, corporeal death. It represents the overthrow of God through modern man's diminished need for external sources of wisdom."

Nietzsche was required reading at the farm. But only the approved works, of course.

Gretel frowned and turned her gaze to the open window. The wool of her peasant dress rasped across the wires draped over her shoulder. The wires emerged from rivets in her skull, spiraling down through her raven-black locks to dangle at her waist. Sunlight glinted on the copper connectors; like the other subjects, she wore a battery only during tests. Her hair had grown thick and lustrous since Dr. von Westarp finalized the locations of the electrodes in her brain, and thus suspended the surgeries.

It was the last day of May and the first sunny day in a week. A breeze fluttered swastika banners atop the farmhouse. Moments later it ruffled the papers on Gottlieb's desk, filling his office with the loamy smell of rain-damp earth. Birdsong twittered through the forest surrounding the former orphanage, punctuated by steady hammering from a nearby construction project. If Gottlieb strained, he could just make out the rhythmic crunch of shovels and picks from the Schutzstaffel squad trying to recover Oskar's body.

Gretel said, "But for the sake of argument."

"Very well," said Gottlieb. He leaned back, crossed his arms. "There is no paradox if He chooses to die."

Gretel shook her head. "I'm not talking about Jesus Christ. And changing the question from murder to suicide doesn't avoid the problem. If He is omnipotent and infallible, He can end anything permanently, including His eternal life. But if He is in fact eternal, He cannot die."

"In that case, I suppose He would choose to be permanently mortal."

"Nobody can know the mind of God, Doctor."

Gottlieb saw a way to turn the conversation back to the topic at hand. He said, "You've developed an interesting preoccupation, in light of yesterday." But she didn't take his opening, so he forged ahead: "Did you have foreknowledge of the accident, Gretel? Did you foresee Oskar's death?"

"I couldn't see anything after the power went out."

The power surge had shorted out Gottlieb's desk lamp. It had been a gift from his father; the base was Meissen porcelain, from the works near Dresden. But the farm had electrical engineers on staff. Perhaps they could fix —

Gretel had changed the subject again. She was good at that. Which was consistent with his diagnosis.

He started to confront her deflection, but stopped to listen: Plop. Drip. Plop.

Gottlieb peered over the desk. Mud caked the soles of her bare feet and the spaces where it had squelched between her toes. And now clumps of it plopped to Gottlieb's office rug as her feet dried. Morning dew had wicked into the hem of Gretel's dress, darkening the pale blue wool. She'd been to the meadow again.

Gottlieb pointed to the sprig of lavender tucked behind her ear. "I see you've gone back to picking wildflowers."


"You were hunting mushrooms yesterday, as I recall."

"Yes. But I prefer flowers." She took the sprig from behind her ear and gave it a sniff.

"What did you do with the mushrooms you found?"

"I threw them away, of course. Wild mushrooms can be very poisonous."

"Then why pick them?"

"I like the sensation when nature loses its grip."

Gottlieb uncapped the fountain pen, jotted another note in her file. He tried to make it look casual. He hoped the tremble in his hand didn't betray his unease.

A knock at the door derailed his train of thought. The door swung open. Standartenführer Pabst barged in.

"I'm with a patient now," said Gottlieb.

The colonel glanced at Gretel. "Leave us."

"As you wish." She stood. "Good day, Doctor." Off she went, trailing mud and the scent of lavender.

Pabst closed the door. He said, "Dr. von Westarp has been summoned to Berlin. Reichsführer Himmler wishes to know how we lost one of our most valuable test subjects."

"I'm sure the doctor will give a thorough explanation."

"Himmler isn't the only person upset about yesterday's fiasco. The doctor and I had a long talk before he departed. He blames you for Oskar's death."

The words pierced Gottlieb like an icicle to the heart. These days, the doctor's disapproval was a death sentence.

"I had nothing to do with this," he whispered.

"Yes, you did. Your job is to hone their minds. Not to hold their hands and coddle them with Jew science." He spat the words like venom.

"Psychoanalysis is —"

"Discredited. Von Westarp has latitude to run the farm as he sees fit, and thus far, that has been to your benefit. But Oskar died from a failure to concentrate, to visualize, to anticipate. All things you were meant to teach him." Pabst turned for the door. "The doctor returns tomorrow. In the meantime, I'd advise against trying to leave."

Gottlieb sank into his chair, shivering. His gaze passed over the notes he'd made during Gretel's session.

"Standartenführer, wait." The colonel paused with his hand on the doorknob. Gottlieb said, "What if I told you Oskar's death wasn't an accident?"

* * *

On the evening that Oskar died, Gretel had spent the afternoon picking mushrooms in the forest. Gottlieb knew this because he'd taken to using his bird-watching binoculars to track her solitary wanderings around the Schutzstaffel facility. He carried a notepad where he recorded — amongst excited notes of Bohemian waxwings and spotted woodpeckers — observations of Gretel's behavior and speculations about her state of mind.

Mushrooms were a new interest. Usually she picked wildflowers in the meadow behind the former orphanage, such as the corn poppies that dotted the field where unsuccessful test subjects had been buried.

The daylong thrum of spring rains had finally subsided, and now a setting sun emerged beneath the gunmetal gray clouds that had hidden the sky for several days. But the sun was too feeble to bake off the damp. The cleansing scent of rain still permeated the farm, along with a tang of ozone wafting from the shed where electricians made final adjustments to the new diesel generator.

Gretel cocked her head, as if listening to something faint. The corner of her mouth quirked up. She cast her sloe-eyed gaze across the campus of the Reichsbehörde für die Erweiterung germanischen Potenzials, the Reich's Authority for the Advancement of German Potential.

Gottlieb slewed the binoculars. His magnified view panned across the training field where Hauptsturmführer Buhler buckled a leash on Kammler, the mentally deficient telekinetic. Past workmen erecting a new laboratory before the chemists arrived from IG Farben. Past the man hovering unsteadily a few inches above the earth.

It was, in other words, a typical day at the farm.

Rudolf dipped, wobbled, then landed with a soggy thud. "Concentrate," said the technician filming the session. "What is wrong with you today?"

Farther away, Oskar, Klaus, and a trio of technicians had gathered around a standalone brick wall in a distant corner of the training field. Gottlieb stopped, and refocused the optics. Klaus was Gretel's brother.

A mottled yellow bandage still covered the stumps of the fingers Klaus had lost in a recent training accident. Like Gretel, Rudolf, and the others, he and Oskar each had an assortment of wires trailing from their skulls. Klaus kept his hair shorn close to the scalp. Oskar's hair had grown back as a mass of thick blond curls, though it had been straight on the day he was sold to von Westarp. These two young men were unusual in that they'd manifested identical abilities. But like the rest of the subjects, they were still coming to terms with their abilities. Neither had yet attempted full-body dematerialization.

Oskar spoke to a technician. The tech flicked his thumb, and something glittered briefly in the golden sunset. The tech caught the coin and slapped it to his wrist. It wasn't difficult to read his lips: heads. Oskar cursed. Klaus had won the toss.

Cameras had been positioned to cover both sides of the wall. The cameramen gave the all-clear. Klaus plugged his wires into the battery at his waist. An unsteady shimmer enveloped his body as he called upon his Willenskräfte. But it lasted only a fraction of a second. Orange sparks fountained from the battery, followed by a plume of green-black smoke. Klaus flinched, disconnected his wires, and hurled the defective battery to the ground. Oskar laughed; the honor of the breakthrough would be his after all. But the cameras were running, so the technicians barked something at him, and Oskar became serious again.

Oskar saluted the camera. Faced the wall. Took a deep breath. Connected his battery. Shimmered.

And immediately sank into the earth.

Klaus fell to all fours, retching; cameramen screamed for help; technicians demanded shovels. But Gottlieb knew it was too late. Oskar would live only as long as he could hold that one lungful of air. And if he were still falling, he was already deep beneath the farm.

Gottlieb scanned the forest again. Prim satisfaction had settled across Gretel's face. He realized, with nauseating certainty, that she had anticipated the catastrophe. And it pleased her.

He remembered a term recently introduced to the scientific literature of psychoanalysis.

Gretel caught him watching her. She winked.

The term was sociopath.

* * *

Rudolf was scheduled for the session after Gretel, but Gottlieb canceled it, and reshuffled his other appointments.

One day. He had one day to prove his value.

Sunlight flashed on shovel blades in the forest, where soldiers dug shallow graves. The technicians behind the test for Klaus and Oskar had — in their haste to earn favor through a major breakthrough — overlooked basic physics. Insubstantiality did not confer immunity to gravity. Worse yet, without Oskar's corpse, von Westarp couldn't recoup the loss by studying physiological effects of the Willenskräfte. The technicians' execution had surprised nobody.

Moist earth sucked at Gottlieb's boots. He passed the new generator hut. A low mechanical whine, followed by much banging and cursing, emanated from inside. The ozone smell lingered here, though it was overlaid with the hydrocarbon cloy of diesel fuel.

The air in the battery lab carried the eye-watering stink of ammonia. A technician looked up from what appeared to be a circuitry test stand. He wore a jeweler's loupe over one eye. "Yes?"

"I'd like to speak with somebody about Klaus's battery," said Gottlieb. "The test yesterday?"

The other man set the loupe to rest on his forehead. He squinted. "You're on the medical staff."

"Yes. I'm Gottlieb. Hello."

"Shit. Was Klaus hurt?"

"I doubt it," said Gottlieb. The surviving test subjects had endured far worse than the occasional shock over the years. "But I'll see him this afternoon."

"I'm Osterhagen," said the technician. They shook hands. "Why are you here? We're busy."

Gottlieb said, "I'm curious about what happened. It would have been Klaus they're trying to dig up right now if his battery hadn't chosen that moment to fail."

"Ah. So Pabst made you his dogsbody." Osterhagen paused to unleash a wet coughing fit into his handkerchief, then gestured at the test stand. "This is Klaus's."

The device had opened to reveal a tangle of circuitry surrounding a pair of glass bulbs. Each encased an ingot of metal, one dull gray, the other coppery. Paste like curdled milk coated the dull ingot. One bulb had cracked.

"I don't know why it failed," said Osterhagen.

Gottlieb indicated the cracked glass. "That looks bad."

"No. That happened when Klaus tossed it on the ground. They're like trained apes, Gottlieb. 'These prototypes are fragile,' we warn them. But they never listen. Overmen? Ha." Osterhagen hacked into the handkerchief again. It came away from his mouth stippled with rusty phlegm. "I suppose you'll report my seditious attitude to Pabst."

"Hardly. I have my own problems with him right now."

Osterhagen blinked. "You're on the hook, aren't you?" Gottlieb nodded. Swallowed.

"You poor bastard," said Osterhagen. "I'm sorry."

He indicated a smudge of soot near the junction of a thin wire and a ceramic disc. "This looks like a faulty connection. But a flaw like that would have been identified during final testing." He pointed to a nearby cabinet. It had a slot about the size of a battery, and leads similar to those embedded in the skulls of the test subjects. Beneath two lamps (one red, one green), a sequence of names had been painted around a dial: Heike. Reinhardt. Oskar. ...

"We test each battery immediately after construction."

Gottlieb said, "I thought all batteries were alike."

"Perhaps someday. That's why we're recruiting the extra help from IG Farben. The Verfügungstruppe has mandated complete interchangeability."

"But they're not interchangeable now," said Gottlieb.

"Nope. Each subject draws on his or her battery uniquely." Osterhagen tapped his temple. "Different arrangement of the electrodes."

"When was this battery built?"

"We can't keep up with demand. But we managed to squeeze this one in just before the test. Klaus wasn't happy about the delay. He complained we were making him late. I closed it up, ran it through the test rig, got a green light, handed it to him. And off he went."

After passing inspection, the battery had gone directly from Osterhagen's hands to Klaus's. And Klaus, concerned about being late, would have gone straight to the test site.

Where, moments later, it failed. Thus saving his life.

Gretel hadn't come near the battery. Another icicle caught Gottlieb in the chest, stole his breath. What if he had been wrong about her? What would he tell von Westarp?

* * *

Gottlieb retrieved a film from the archives before returning to his office. He finished preparing the projector just as his next patient arrived.

"How are you feeling, Klaus?"

"Perfectly well. Why wouldn't I be?" Typical bluster.

"I understand you had a close call yesterday."

Klaus shrugged. "Accidents happen."

"I think you're being insincere. You became physically ill after Oskar's accident, didn't you?"

Klaus glared at him. After a pause just long enough to conjure a plausible excuse, he said, "My battery malfunctioned. I got a shock. It made me sick."

"Ah. I thought it might have been a reaction to seeing Oskar buried alive. I'm glad to know I was mistaken."

Von Westarp's successful methods carried a price. Kammler wasn't born a stuttering imbecile; the Twins weren't born mute; Klaus hadn't always suffered from claustrophobia.

"It was —" Klaus cleared his throat. "— my battery."

"Terrible way to go," said Gottlieb. "All that stone and soil." He shuddered. "How long can you hold your breath? It's what, about two minutes now?"

This was central to Klaus and Oskar's training.

"I suppose. Why?"

"Well, I worked through the arithmetic, you see. Morbid curiosity, I suppose. Do you know how far Oskar might have fallen, assuming he lasted that long? I was astonished. It's miles, actually." Gottlieb paged through his journal. "I have the figure here, somewhere."

"I couldn't care less," said Klaus. His voice echoed.

Gottlieb stopped. "Apologies. I get carried away at times." He pretended to make another note. Then, as casually as he could manage: "Have you spoken with Gretel recently? I think she worries about you."

Rapidly: "We're not close."


Excerpted from What Doctor Gottlieb Saw by Ian Tregillis, Gary Kelley. Copyright © 2010 Ian Tregillis. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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What Doctor Gottlieb Saw 3.8 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 5 reviews.
patart 12 months ago
Good and intriguing, but didn't realize that it was a short story. I wanted more.
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