Estimated reading time — 32 minutes
Avraham looked about his new laboratory with both pride and trepidation. In the dim light, he could make out the shapes of tables, crates, and the special piece of equipment that he had requested – all draped under sheets to keep the dust off. He was excited to begin the project he had been tasked with, and yet he was having difficulty getting started. This always happened to him when he faced his biggest assignments. His innate fear of failure made it hard to begin worm, but once he dove in he quickly overcame his fears and completely submersed himself in the work. This time, though… He slowly shook his head from left to right… Was it even possible, or had he made a promise that he could never keep? You see, he had promised to deliver an angel.
Perhaps he was overthinking it. The idea of creating an angel was overcomplicating things. Surely, what he needed to do was a much simpler undertaking. Was it not? He had become so caught up in the idea when he spoke about it with his task masters. His thoughts had been racing – so many ideas – that he never stopped to consider if his promises were realistic. He knew exactly what he needed to do, he had just not considered how he could do it. In theory… In theory it would be easy.
If there was ever a man capable of achieving this miraculous feat, it was Avraham Strauss. He had been head of his class at the Kepler-Gymnasium Tübingen, where he had received the first of an impressive number of doctorates. Still, what arrogance! He, as a Jew, volunteering to work with the Nazis. Not just volunteering, but begging them to allow him to work for them. He pushed all thoughts of his hasty choice out of his mind as he began to uncover the equipment, slowly folding the white cotton sheets and stacking them on a shelf at the back of his lab. His lab!
Castle Colditz, or Schloss Colditz in German, is a Renaissance castle in the town of Colditz near Leipzig, Dresden, and Chemnitz in the state of Saxony in Germany. After the outbreak of the second great war, the castle was converted into a high security prisoner-of-war camp for officers who had become security or escape risks or who were regarded as particularly dangerous. Since the castle is situated on a rocky outcrop above the River Mulde, the Germans believed it to be an ideal site for a high security prison. Converting the courtyard and upper levels of the castle to serve as a prison had been easy, but more extensive work was performed in the space below Colditz. The scullery, servants’ quarters, and cellars had been reinforced with concrete. Electric cables and lights were run throughout, and the space was converted into a series of labs for experiments such as the one that Avraham was to perform – although none as complex and challenging as his research.
Schloss Colditz was perfect for the type of work that Avi was contemplating. It would supply him with the three resources that he required: security, isolation, and – unfortunately – Guinea pigs in the form of prisoners. He regretted that last item but it would be necessary and ultimately the ends would justify the means. Repeating that to himself would, at the very least, help him to sleep at night.
Doctor Strauss finally approached what was the largest single piece of equipment in his new lab. It was a device that had constructed especially for him. If all turned out well, it would play an integral part in his efforts. Even under the sheet, it was obviously massive. He reached out and grabbed a fistful of the soft cotton.
“Well, Avi. This is it. No point in prolonging the suspense.”
He yanked his arm backward with a theatric flourish to reveal the apparatus. He gasped. It was wonderful. It was perfect. They had built it to his exact specifications. Avraham craned his neck to look up at the five meter tall glass tank. Its walls were nearly fifty millimeters thick, and it had a brushed steel lid covering the top. There were ports in its base and sides, although nothing was attached to them yet. Right now, the tank was empty but eventually… it would hold his angel.
Avraham liked to refer to his creature as an angel. It sounded so much better than Übermensch. That is what the Nazis wanted. Übermensch was German for “beyond man,” hyper-man or superhuman. It would be a fulfillment of Hitler’s lifelong desire to create his master race. If the Nazis were looking for a typical blond-haired, blue-eyed, physically fit person then it would just be a simple matter of breeding – and they were trying that on their own – but they wanted something more. And they wanted it quickly. Hitler needed virtually indestructible soldiers, and he needed them quickly to implement his plans for world domination. Waiting for a new generation of babies to grow up or – even worse, multiple generations – was not a viable option.
What brought the term “angel” to Avi’s mind was his Nazi handler’s mention of Hitler love for the occult. Many thought that the link between Nazism and occultism was a thing of myth and legend. Hitler and his cronies allowed, and even encouraged, people to think that the stories they had heard about secret ceremonies and black masses were pure fiction – propaganda made up by the Allies. However, the truth was that in his desperation to fulfill his dreams of creating a race of Übermenschen, he was willing to try literally anything. Avraham considered the whole idea of “conjuring up angels” to be unquestionably absurd. The Nazis would have a better chance of finding a unicorn.
Avraham, however, would use science.
While Avi enjoyed the time alone that he had to revel in the glory of his new laboratory, he was beginning to become perturbed. His new lab assistant should have been there unpacking alongside him. Avi did not mind having to set up his equipment on his own. He sort of preferred it, actually. But he wondered if the absence of his laborassistent was an omen of what was to come. Would the man always be late? Unreliable? He was about to walk into his office and pick up the telephone when he heard a timid knock at the door.
Avraham allowed the man to knock a few more times. Let him wait for me now, he thought. He needed to assert his position as leader from the very beginning. The assistant would no doubt be a loyal German. No matter how good of an assistant the man may turn out to be, Avi would always wonder if he had been sent to spy on him.
“Um… Herr Doktor?” a muffled voice called through the thick door. “It is me. Willie. Err, Wilhelm, your laborassistent. Are you in there Herr Doktor?”
Avi thought that he had made the man wait long enough and was about to answer him when the catch snicked open and the door slowly swung inward. How dare he come into Avraham’s lab without permission! No one was supposed to have a key except for himself.
As soon as the man stuck his head through the crack in the door, Avraham pounced. “Exactly what do you think you are doing?”
“Oh. I… I am so sorry Herr Doktor. I thought that you might be out. I am…”
“Wilhelm! Yes, I am aware of that. I have just met you, young man, and you have already made two serious errors. You are late, and you have let yourself into my lab without my invitation. Where did you get a key, anyway? Your Nazi friends? They picked you for this job, didn’t they?” Avraham was becoming more agitated by the second.
“Um, no Herr Doktor,” Willie was nearly cringing as he approached. “The door was unlocked.”
Avraham’s shoulders drooped as his tension slipped away. He realized that he was too tightly wound. Maybe he had made the wrong assumptions about Willie. Avi was just waiting for the Nazis to turn on him at any moment. It all still seemed too good to be true.
“I apologize, Wilhelm… Willie,” he began. “But you are still late. I do not accept excuses. Perhaps this will not work out.”
“No, please Herr Doktor! I need this assignment. I may not be worth anything to anyone other than you. If I serve no purpose, then…”
Avraham knew all too well what that meant. The sole act of being admitted to Schloss Colditz had put Willie’s life in the hands of the Nazis. If he did not serve them, if he had no reason to utterly devote himself to the research at the castle. Then he would be nothing more than a liability and they would be quick to dispose of him at the first turn of fate.
Feeling sympathy for the man, Avi waved him in. “Eh. Fine. From now on, try to be prompt. No more entering my lab without permission, either. Now get to work.”
Willie smiled. “Danke, Herr Doktor.”
It took the men about two weeks to ready themselves for the commencement of their work. Avi did not want to admit it, but most of that time was due to his expected procrastination. Part of it, though, was a shared hesitation between Avraham and Willie. They knew that their first experiment would involve a test subject. Once they started calling for the POWs to be brought down to the lab, they would cross a line from which there would be no turning back. Avraham grew more nervous as the date that he had given the Nazis as a progress report approached. Sleep was slower to come. Willie seemed to be having an easier time of it, though. Avraham wondered if the laborassistent had been previously involved in similar experimentations. After all, Avi knew that he definitely was not the first to be using human test subjects.
Doctor Strauss had asked his handlers for chimpanzees to begin testing on. They rejected his requested, stating two reasons. First and foremost, anything resembling success would need to be repeated with a human subject, and it would save precious time by skipping over the additional step. The second reason was more practical and even Avi could not come up with a sensible argument. Chimps would cost money, need to be fed, housed, and cared for. What was the point when they had a garrison full of POWs literally at their doorstep?
At last, the morning came. They could no longer put off the inevitable. Avraham took a deep breath and called out to Willie. “Willie. Please call the guards and have them bring the three that we selected.” He could not even bring himself to say “the three men.” Avi and Willie had previously gone through a number of the prisoner profiles. The Germans were, if nothing else, excellent record keepers. They had thoroughly documented every prisoner’s personal information, including his physical, emotional, and moral makeup. With Willie’s help, he had selected three prisoners who met every one of the criteria that would match the traits of the Übermenschen. Unfortunately, these men also possessed traits that were undesirable, particularly personal desires and individual thought. The men had no interest in becoming “the perfect race,” particularly not if it meant helping out the German war effort.
Avraham’s first approach to creating his angels would be the simplest. Taking these men and removing their undesirable traits. In some cases, this meant those rogue thoughts but in other cases it also meant removing some physical “defects.” You see, Avraham thought that a man’s redundant organs – the extra kidney, lung, third and fourth chambers of the heart – were a drain on his physical strength. Other parts such as the spleen and several dozen feet of the intestines were pointless, too. Of course, once Avi knew that his plan would work, he would need to develop a way to breed these imperfections out of his angels, but first he needed to be certain that his theory was correct.
At first, the prisoners were not sure what to make of the fact that they had been moved into the castle proper. They were given warmer clothes, better food, and kept in a stone-walled room as opposed to the drafty wooden barracks that had been constructed out in the Kommandantur, the large outer court within the castle walls. They could only assume that it was because they were superior officers. In a way, this was true. As high ranking soldiers they were among the most intelligent prisoners. It wasn’t until Avi had them called to his lab that they became concerned. Then afraid.
“Right this way,” Willie instructed the guards. “Put them against that wall,” he said as if they were just more pieces of equipment.
Avraham thought that since the guards were here, they could be of more assistance. “No. Just put two of them back there. You can bring one to the table here,” he said, indicating a steel table near his prized tank.
The guards put two of the men into shackles that were affixed to the wall, and then duck-walked the third over to the table. His struggling was pointless. The two large men picked the prisoner up and slammed him down onto the table. Willie ran to his side and began fastening the buckles on leather straps that fit around the prisoner’s wrists and ankles. The last thing that he did before dismissing the guards was to insert a rubber bit into the man’s mouth in order to keep him from biting at the Doctor Strauss or himself.
“That will be all. Thank you,” Willie dismissed the guards with a wave of his hand.
The men chained to the wall began to scream at Avi and Willie, calling them all sorts of names. Fortunately, the scientists understood very little English. The man on the table continued to thrash about.
Another cost cutting measure that Avi’s handlers had imposed on him was a denial of his request for drugs that could be used a general anesthesia for his subjects. The Nazis had told him that as with the chimps, additional drugs would be a costly luxury. The subjects were only animals, as far as they were concerned. Avraham explained that the pain they would experience during some of his procedures may cause the subjects to go into shock, which could be fatal. However, his handler was not impressed by that fact. At least Avi had been able to steal some ether from a neighboring lab. It would not dull the pain of the more extensive processes but at least it would make his patient more compliant.
The first prisoner died within an hour of the beginning of Avi’s physical modifications. Perhaps he had moved too quickly. Although it would slow him down, he decided that the subject would need some recovery time between each organ removal.
“What do we do with it, Herr Doktor?” asked Willie, indicating the dead prisoner’s corpse.
Avraham thought for a moment but was hesitant to have the guards haul it away. He preferred to keep evidence of their failures within the walls of the laboratory. He looked around as if a solution would present itself, and as it so happened, one did.
“Aha! The tank. Of course. Help me, Willie.” Avi unstrapped the dead prisoner’s bindings. He ran up a scaffold to the top of the tank and lifted back a hatch in the lid, then scrambled back down. “Grab his ankles,” Avraham said as he hooked his arms under the man’s shoulders. The scientists were not burly men, as the guards were, and the corpse was quite literally dead weight. With some struggling and creative maneuvering they were able to haul the corpse up the scaffold and stuff it through the hatch. It fell into the tank and hit the bottom with a sickening thus, spraying gore up the glass walls.
“Are we to keep dumping bodies into this tank until it fills up, Herr Doktor?” Willie said crinkling his nose.
“Oh, no. No. Watch and see, Willie. I’ve planned this out well. I must say that I am proud of my foresight.”
Avi wiped his hands on his apron and bounced down the scaffold steps. He walked to a metal cabinet that was attached to the tank with a series of cables and hoses. There was a panel set into the top, and in the middle of it was a button protected by a glass cover. Below the button was the word “Löschen,” German for “Purge,” written in clear block letters. Avraham pulled up the cover and slammed his hand on the button. The corpse dropped out of sight and a jet of water sprayed down the inner walls of the tank in a swirling motion, washing all of the blood from the glass. Willie thought it resembled a toilet. A ghastly one.
“You see Willie,” explained Doctor Strauss, “There is a cesspit beneath this room. It empties into a ditch that runs under the cellar of the castle. I have designed my tank to be able to empty into it to…”
“To what, Herr Doktor?”
“Well, it is meant to be used if an, uh… urgent situation were to arise. No need to worry yourself about that,” he quickly shook off the thought. “I am confident that it will never be necessary for that purpose; but it seemed to solve our current problem very well, didn’t it?”
“Mmm… Yes, I suppose that it did.”
The next prisoner chosen did not put up a fight. He had been struggling for days with little food or water. He and his comrade seemed resolved to their fates. Avraham’s second attempt had slightly better results, but still not good enough. He made every effort to take his time and give his patient enough intervals of recovery between surgeries. However, the last step included opening the man’s braincase and that was not something that could be stretched out over a long period of time. Without general anesthesia, Avi had little hope that the man would survive.
Avi had Willie beg his Gestapo handlers for enough medication to make it through the critical step with their third subject. He testified that he and Doctor Strauss were very close to success, and that they could proceed no further without the proper drugs. As Avi had suspected, Willie did seem to have a little more pull with the Nazis. (Perhaps he was a spy after all, although Avi had begun to like the man.) Nevertheless, Willie was successful and managed to return to the lab wheeling a cart containing two tanks of nitrous oxide, one of oxygen, and a cardboard box filled with vials of local anesthetic.
With the additional help of the anesthetic to avoid their patient going into shock during his surgeries, Avi and Willie managed to achieve a measure of success. The prisoner had survived and even seemed to be thriving. Within a matter of days following the final surgery – the one during which Avi cut out part of the man’s brain – he was eating, drinking, and even on his feet for a couple of hours per day. He had remained silent but Avraham imagined that was to be expected. It was early in the process. Perhaps he had taken a little too much of the subject’s gray matter. With the next, he would try to excise a small amount within the limits that he had first tried. He wanted the subject’s speech and other normal functions to remain intact while still removing the twisted morals that made the prisoner an unacceptable candidate for his angel – his Übermensch.
About a week after the last surgery, a knock came at the laboratory door. Willie answered it without Avraham’s permission. It was Hauptmann Haltenbrunner, a captain of the local Kriminalpolizie and no doubt an envoy for the Gestapo. Doctor Strauss was now certain that Willie had betrayed him. There was no other way that Haltenbrunner could have known about the patient surviving.
Seething over the duplicity, Avi managed to smile. “Herr Hauptmann, to what do we owe the pleasure of your company?”
“Heil Hitler!” Haltenbrunner greeted him. He glanced sideways at Willie. “So, Strauss, I am just stopping in to check on your progress. It’s been weeks now. Have you made any headway?”
You know damn well that I did, thought Avraham.
Glancing over to the cot where Avi’s angel was resting, Haltenbrunner said, “I see that he… or it… is awake.”
Avi followed his gaze. He became excited and nearly forgot that Willie had informed on him. “Yes, yes. More than awake, dear Hauptmann. He is conscious and responding to stimuli. I think that we are close.”
“Well, there are things to be worked out.”
“He is loyal to the Fuhrer, though, is he not? Does he still maintain his old fidelity to the allies?”
Avi shook his head vigorously. “No! He has not challenged us on any front. He obeys every command. Perhaps too closely. With my next attempt, I want to give the patient a little more control over his emotions and self-awareness.”
“But not too self-aware, eh?”
Haltenbrunner cut him off. “What is he called?”
“Hmm?” Avraham was confused, then figured out what the captain had meant. “Oh. His name is Leopold. That was my father’s name. He was taken away by your…” Doctor Strauss caught himself before he could allow his anger to come out. The subject of his father still presented a sore spot in his heart.
“Leo, eh?” Haltenbrunner turned to the prisoner and called out. “Leo! Please stand.”
The man stood.
“Now step over here.”
The man walked to Haltenbrunner and stood in front of him.
“Are you loyal to our Reichsfuhrer?”
The man just stared straight forward. Avi felt the need to explain. “Haltenbrunner, he cannot speak. That is one of the things that still need to be addressed. As I…”
“Silence Herr Doktor!” the captain withdrew his Luger from its holster. “Perhaps we shall just perform a little test then.” He handed the pistol over to the man, who accepted it without question.
“Haltenbrunner, what are you doing?” Avi furrowed his brow. “I do not think that is a good idea.”
Haltenbrunner ignored the scientist and continued to address the prisoner. “Put the pistol to your head.”
“Herr Hauptmann! Are you insane?”
Yet, the man did as the captain had asked. He placed the pistol to his own temple. Avi noticed the man’s right eye twitching. He wondered if, perhaps, there was still some glimmer of the man’s old personality left.
“Now, pull the trigger.”
“No!” screamed Avraham. “Haltenbrunner, you are talking crazy! This is my work. This is my most successful advancement so far. You cannot allow him to destroy himself.”
Haltenbrunner did not stop though. “Pull. The. Trigger!” he screamed, spittle flying into the man’s face. The prisoner’s eye twitched again. Avi could see that he was fighting the urge to obey. Suddenly, he pulled the gun away from his own head and pointed it directly at Haltenbrunner’s. His finger tightened on the trigger. Avi could see that he wanted to pull it, but was being held back by some unseen force. He knew that it wouldn’t last, and yet the captain did not move. Suddenly, the man’s head exploded into a spray of bone and blood, bits of gray matter spurting straight into Haltenbrunner’s face and covering the front of his tunic. Avraham slowly turned to find Willie holding a gun out, still pointed at where the man stood.
“I… I am sorry Herr Doktor. All of our work, but… I could not allow him to do it.”
Avraham hung his head. “I know, Willie. It is not your fault.”
Hauptmann Haltenbrunner had found a cloth and was wiping his face. His jaw was set and his lips were twisted into an ugly frown. He threw the cloth down and turned to Avi, his face inches from the doctor’s. “Try again, Herr Doktor.” He turned on his heel and walked out the door without another word, leaving the two scientists speechless and afraid.
After his obvious failure, Avraham decided on another approach. If he really did remove too much of the man’s brain, as he suspected, then reducing the amount of ablation would not work. If anything, it would make things worse – leaving the subject with even more self-will. He needed to take a different tack.
Avi decided that instead of starting with a flawed man, he would build a perfect man. Just the thought of comparing this idea to Shelley’s Modern Prometheus made him cringe. Avraham knew that if anyone knew what he planned they would instantly imagine that he was attempting to build Frankenstein’s monster. His angel would be nothing of the sort, though. There would be no stealing body parts, no sewing them together (at least not much), and no thunder and lightning involved. He would start with a living creature – or creatures – and end with a living creature.
Avi once again had Willie help him select desirable men from the pool of men in the Kommandantur. This time, though, he needed a German soldier in addition to the prisoners. He would need to be loyal, intelligent, and – the tricky part – dispensable. Coming by a good officer who could be spared would be a challenge. There was no doubt in his mind.
Willie must have pulled strings with his Gestapo friends once again, because within a matter of two days they had a fine German officer. Fähnrich Hans Weber was young, just one year out of the academy, but on the fast track to becoming a commander. Avi did not know what Willie had done or said to acquire such a fine man, but the Nazis must have a good amount of faith in the scientists. That, or they knew as well as Avi that Hitler expected results and they needed to do whatever it took to get them quickly.
Weber was quartered in the upper level of the castle, given the finest of apartments, fed the best food, and given the comforts of women – more than one when he so chose. He was not, however, informed of what his role would be in their experiment. He was just told that he had been “selected especially by the Reichsfuhrer’s own men” because of his physical prowess and intelligence. How could he possibly have known that they were going to remove his head?
Avraham and Willie completed the first stages with relatively no problems. This time, they would only have one chance for success. If they “lost” the Fähnrich due to a mistake or their incompetence, there would not be another subject. In fact, the consequences might even be worse for them.
The scientists started with the fittest of the POWs. He would make up the largest portion of the Übermensch. He was well proportioned and muscular, but not very tall. Avi’s angel should be seven feet tall, or as close as he could get. For that reason, they maintained this specimen’s torso and upper body, but removed everything below the waist. Keeping all of the organs intact helped immensely and made things much easier for them. Avraham would investigate removing vestigial organs later, after a success had been achieved. The legs were taken from a second prisoner – a tall one. An experienced neurosurgeon, Avi had no trouble attaching the severed spinal column from the torso to the pelvis. Over a few days, this procedure had been performed and the patient was doing well. Avi gave him another week to recuperate and made sure that he could walk well enough before continuing.
Replacing the Übermensch’s head with that of the German officer would need to be done in a single, long procedure. The scientists started early in the morning after a good night’s rest. Fähnrich Weber was plied with alcohol the night before the procedure (a step that Avi had not approved of), and a generous helping of paraldehyde had been poured into a glass of his whiskey. By midnight, the officer was completely unconscious and could probably have even gone into surgery without anesthesia. Of course, that was not an option. Avi and Willie would do everything by the book.
The fähnrich was kept in a medically induced coma for days. Avraham wanted to be sure that his body had plenty of time to heal itself before enduring the shock of waking up in a different form – even though it was a better body.
Avi was restless as Willie removed the trach tube from the patient’s throat. Come on, he thought. Breathe.
At first, there was no movement. Then, Avraham saw the fähnrich’s chest rise almost imperceptibly. His first few breaths were shallow but then began to grow stronger. Within a matter of minutes, the man’s eyelids fluttered open and he looked back and forth from Avraham to Willie. He still had a glazed-over look but was starting to focus. Surely, he would be a bit confused for a little while.
“Leo,” Avi coaxed, “Can you hear me?”
He was met with silence. Willie addressed the doctor. “Perhaps he will not respond to being called…”
“Shh! Let me handle this, Willie.” Avraham brought his face near the patient’s and this time spoke with more force. “Leo! Can you understand me?”
“Wha… Are you speaking to me?” Leo croaked.
Avi clapped his hands with joy. “Aha! Yes! I am speaking to you my boy.”
“Where am I? Why did you call me Leo?”
“You are still at Schloss Colditz, recuperating.” Avraham ignored the second part of his question, so the man repeated it.
“But… Why are you calling me Leo? My name is Hans.”
“No,” Avi said soothingly, “It is Leo.”
Leo shook his head weakly. “I do not understand.”
“We will explain everything in due time. For now, just rest, son. Just know that you are a triumph. The Reichsfuhrer will be so proud of you.”
“What did I do?”
“What did…?” Avi took a deep breath. “As I said, everything will be explained later. Just take a little time to rest. Are you in any pain? Would you like something to help you sleep?”
“No. No, thank you. I would just like to sit for a while and gather my wits.”
“Ah,” Avraham nodded, “Of course. That is fine.” Avi took Willie to the side. “Willie, we must watch him carefully. I would prefer that he had more time to, er… become accustomed to his new form. I suppose that he will discover what happened eventually.”
“Yes, Herr Doktor. I will remain close by. You can go back to the lab. I can handle things here.”
Avraham walked out of the room, closing the door gently. He had barely made it halfway down the hall when he heard the blood-curdling scream. He rushed back to the room and threw open the door. Leo had removed his blanket and was staring, wide-eyed, at what he saw. He ran his fingers over the crude stitching that tentatively held his body together. He was hyperventilating.
“Now, now. Calm down, boy. Everything is fine.”
“What happened to me?” Leo demanded. “How was I maimed?”
“Maimed?” Avi looked at him quizzically. “You were not maimed, son. Quite to the contrary. You have been made whole!”
“You are my angel! My Übermensch. Well, not entirely mine. You are, of course, the property of the fuhrer.”
“Property? What have you done to me?”
“Willie?” Avi looked to his laborassistent, “Could you please explain our experiment to Leo?”
“Of course, Herr Doktor.” Willie began to describe the entire process that they had gone through, from their initial goal all of the way through to their current situation. Avi’s angel grew more and more upset as the man spoke. At times, he cursed at them. With his new large and strong body, Avraham thought him to be dangerous, and called in an armed guard from the hallway. At one point, Leo picked up a steel water pitcher from a table and crushed it with his bare hand. Avi was worried that Leo may be unstable.
“Leo, please calm down.”
“Stop calling me that! My name is Hans!”
“Leo… Hans, please. You will get used to your new body. You will see. Soon you will learn how to control it – how to use it – to grow even stronger. You are part of a new race.”
“My face,” Leo placed his hands on his face and began feeling it, hoping that there were no more surprises.
Willie went to a side shelf and picked up a polished steel mirror. “Do not be alarmed. Your face has remained unchanged. In that respect, you are no different than before.”
Leo grabbed the mirror and held it up, examining his face and twisting it to get a better look at his body. He cried out again and began sobbing.
“Well,” said Avraham calmly, “It may look a bit odd, I understand. Of course your head was much smaller than the body we have grafted it onto; but really, Leo… who will care what you look like? You are only the first step. Strength and intelligence was out first goal. We will try for a more,” he searched for the word, “handsome result with the next one.”
In fact, Leo’s head looked like that of a baby with relation to the size of his body. It was not just small, but grotesquely so. Avraham had not put that much planning into it, and was a bit disappointed with the result himself; but, as he had told Leo, a pretty face was not a priority at this time.
Avi’s attempt to comfort the man had no effect. Still screaming, Leo lunged for the guard and grabbed his rifle, twisting it out of his hands with ease due to his inhuman strength. Before anyone could say another word or attempt to grab the M1 carbine back, Leo placed it under his own chin and pulled the trigger. At close range, the thirty caliber round literally vaporized the man’s head. Everything in the room was covered by the fine mist of blood. The guard turned away and vomited – probably the reason why he was guarding the castle and not on the battlefield. Avraham and Willie just stared at each other, jaws dropped, crestfallen. Another spectacular failure.
After a number of days had gone by – days in which Avi and Willie spent in anguish, wondering when the Gestapo would come by to shut down their experiment – Doctor Strauss had an idea. Obviously, while the transference of a man’s head, when done properly, did not cause the body to go into shock physically; but mentally, it seemed to be too much to process. Seeing his own head on another body had broken Fähnrich Weber. He was a feeble minded man after all. To think, Avi had named him Leo. He did not deserve that name.
Avraham strolled around the lab, making ever tightening circles around Willie as he stood still in the center of the room. “Think, Willie. Think. We were so close. We need to put all of the steps together at once. Put them… That’s it! We will put them together before they are made.”
“Before, Herr Doktor? I do not understand.”
“Genetic splicing, boy! We will graft together cells from each man who possesses what we want, and let them grow into one being. They will be together from conception, not pieced together from the men available to us. We can isolate the proper cells for each trait.”
“There are special cells that. They are called stem cells. They are homogeneous cells that have the ability to differentiate into diverse types of specialized cells. Of course, it will take work. A lot of work… many hours; but we can do it Willie!”
Willie looked puzzled. “But… Then we wait until these… stem cells grow into a man?”
“But that will take years! In case you haven’t gathered from their weekly visits, Herr Doktor, the Gestapo are not willing to wait that long. They want progress. Instant progress. Sometimes unrealistic.”
“Oh,” Avraham chuckled, “No, my boy. That is what this is for.” Avi indicated his tank with a flourish.
“What is it? I thought it was just for disposing of, er… things.”
“No. It will ultimately serve many purposes, but its main purpose is to accelerate the process of cell growth. I did not think that we would be using it during this stage of our experiment. I thought that we would use it to duplicate or clone our successes, but perhaps it can be useful in the creation of life itself.”
Willie did not like the look on his master’s face. The way he laughed as he looked at the tank. He knew that Doctor Strauss was a good man at heart, but in this light he seemed diabolical. Even mad.
It only took several days to make the arrangements. Avraham was pleased on multiple matters. He was able to pool the genes of far more subjects than merely two or three; it was much easier to find a German corporal to harvest brain cells from; and mostly, no one had to die. A simple – perhaps painful – biopsy was all that was required. Although, it seemed that the German officer had some ill effects. Two days after his brain biopsy and he was still unable to talk.
The gene pool having been collected, Avi and Willie needed an unfertilized egg to begin the process. Avi’s own wife volunteered to provide one. Surely that would gain him some favor in the eyes of the Gestapo. While all of the preparation took a great deal of time, the scientists had reached the most difficult part of their experiment. Waiting. After the chromosomes from the donor cells had been introduced into the egg cell, Avi had provided a mild electrical shock to kick start the process of cell division. He allowed the cells to divide within a petri dish for two weeks before he moved them into his tank. Once inside, the cells floated in a viscous, pink-tinged liquid, as yet invisible to the naked eye. Avraham initiated his acceleration process, which he was unwilling to explain in much detail to his laborassistent. Two days into the process and Willie still did not see anything. He repeatedly asked Doctor Strauss if the process had failed but every time he questioned him, Avraham gave the same answer. “Patience, Willie. Patience.”
Willie arrived at the lab on Saturday morning. A courier had delivered a message from Doctor Strauss instructing him to come to the lab immediately. He thought it extremely odd since they did not normally work on Saturdays, as Doctor Strauss was an orthodox Jew and it was his Shabbat. If the doctor was at the lab, it must have been important. Willie was, by now, Avraham’s trusted colleague and had free access. He let himself in and noticed that the room was dark. At first, he thought that the courier had delivered the wrong message or there was some confusion as to its meaning. He shrugged and was about to leave when he heard the doctor’s voice.
“Willie,” whispered Avi, “Come over here.”
Now Willie could see his mentor silhouetted in the faint glow coming from the tank. He was staring intently at something inside and did not turn to look at Willie. He just beckoned him over with the wave of a hand.
Willie approached the tank and placed his fingertips against the glass gingerly, only to have them slapped away by Avraham. “Do not disturb him.”
Willie raised one eyebrow in confusion. “Him, Herr Doktor? Who?”
“Leo, of course.”
Willie stared closely into the thick liquid and, at first, saw nothing. Then he followed Avraham’s line of sight and finally noticed something. Something the size of a peanut.
“I see it!” Willie ran over to a lab table and grabbed a sheet sized page magnifier. He came back to the tank and held it close – but not touching, God forbid – to the side of the tank so that he could get a better look.
“Now keep in mind that he is only a fetus. He still has a lot of growing to do, and he may not look… normal right now.” Avi said defensively.
Willie tried not to gasp aloud when he looked at the thing. He had seen fetuses in all stages of development during his years of study. Fetuses with all sorts of defects and malformations, too; but he knew that what he was looking at was just not right. At its current size, it should look like a tiny human. Arms, legs, a head. At most, the only thing differentiating it from a human form should be a vestigial tail. This… thing looked like nothing he had ever seen. Its head was the size of half of its body – just a round bulbous end. Two slits which might become nostrils were on top of the head. Its eyes were placed almost exactly one-hundred-eighty degrees from each other and located around where one would imagine the ears to be. The mouth was another slit at the bottom of the round part. The most normal part about it was that it did have two arms, although they seemed to terminate in paddles rather than hands, and seemed to be articulated in the wrong direction. Below that, though, there was nothing. Its body just sort of tapered off. It had no legs – or perhaps it did have just one misshapen leg with no foot.
“Herr Doktor, I think…”
“I did not ask for your thoughts, Willie,” snapped the doctor. “Leo’s growth should accelerate exponentially now.”
Doctor Strauss was accurate in his assessment. The creature did continue to grow quickly. Every morning Willie recorded its size based on the displacement of liquid in the tank. In fact, after only a week it was already as big as a normal man. Willie asked Avraham if it was time to stop the acceleration process but Avi wanted it bigger, better, faster, stronger. He finally relented when the thing was two and a half meters tall. Unfortunately, it still did not look very different from what Willie had observed that first day. It was still grotesque, only bigger. It had also still failed to respond to any outside stimuli. Avi was now allowing Willie to perform physical tests on it, poking and prodding it, sending shocks through the tank’s liquid, directing sounds at it, and the like. It did not even react when Willie took punch biopsies, which should have been very painful.
Avraham would not give up. The scientists waited. It was not until three months had passed that Avi finally gave up hope. It was alive, but that was the extent of it. Just alive and absorbing nutrients and oxygen from the liquid in the tank. The only reason that it had not joined the other failures in the sewers beneath the castle was that Avraham thought that he might vivisect it in the hopes that he could find out what went wrong. He had not done that yet, though.
It was then that their experiment began to take a sinister turn – as if all they had done so far did not fly in the face of all that was natural.
Willie burst into the lab, sweating, and spoke the words that he had been dreading. “Herr Doktor, Haltenbrunner wants a report on our progress. No. More specifically, he wants to see what we have to show for our time and effort. Er, the Reichsfuhrer’s time and effort, that is.”
“What? We have nothing, Willie. Did you tell him that?”
“I alluded to it. All he said was that if we were not up to the task, then there were other scientists who were.”
“That is nonsense,” scoffed Avi, “I am the best and he knows it. Why else would they put so much faith in a Jew?”
“Nevertheless, he said that he will be sending around a man to help us.”
“Help us how?”
“I do not know. He is no scientist, I can tell you that. I looked into his records. He is an Austrian monk named Lanz von Liebenfels.”
Avi looked perplexed. “A monk? What use will a monk be to us?”
Willie looked at the floor and spoke sullenly. “He is a mystic, Herr Doktor. An occultist.”
“What?! I will have nothing to do with that nonsense!”
“It seems that it is not our choice. Either we work with the monk or they will shut down our… your lab. What happens to us afterward is… Well, I shudder to think of it.”
Avraham was exasperated. “Pater Liebenfels, I do not know what you are hoping for, but I can assure you that it will not work.”
The monk was soft-spoken but made it clear to Avraham and Willie that he was in charge. His word was gospel, so to speak. “Herr Doktor, I intend to summon an angel – something that you have been trying to build for months – into a corporeal form. Therein lies our Übermensch. Now, may I use your… your creature as a vessel or not?”
Pater Liebenfels had explained to Avi and Willie that his intentions were to use some form of his “magic” to command an angel to come to earth and do his bidding. It would of course need an actual body, as angels – if they existed – are ethereal beings. At first, the monk considered using another test subject, lobotomizing the man to make him open and compliant; but when he saw the grotesque living creature that the scientists had created, he thought it would be an even better solution, as it had never had a mind to begin with. There would be no conflicts between his angel and a mortal being – lobotomized or not.
“But it will be hideous, Pater. If you must perform this charade, at least use a person… er, subject that epitomizes the Fuhrer’s ideal man,” Avraham reasoned.
The monk dismissed him. “I merely require a mass of cells. The angel will, of course, re-integrate them into a reflection of itself and what better lovely creature could we hope for than an angel?”
Avi did not bother to argue. He would just go along with the monk’s gibberish and, when it failed, get back to his real work. Scientific work. Being an Orthodox Jew, though, he was familiar with the Talmud and pressed the monk out of curiosity. “And which angel do you intend to summon, Pater?”
“Ah, the greatest warrior of all. The archangel Mikhail! He who is like God. The prime seraph.”
“But…” Avraham’s eyes grew wide.
“Do not challenge me, Herr Doktor. My mind is set.”
Avraham was tempted to demand that the monk cease his foolishness, but… What harm could come of it? There was absolutely no chance that it could work.
“Now leave me,” the monk waved them away. I no longer require your assistance. I will send a messenger when I need you.”
The monk began pulling candlesticks, incense, and strange looking totems from his case. Avraham and Willie were more than happy to leave. The bogus claims of the monk made them uncomfortable.
Avi and Willie returned to the laboratory without being called. They had waited for an afternoon and decided to return. They assumed that the monk, having made no headway, would be ready to give up. He would no doubt come up with some excuse to remove the blame from himself and say that the task was impossible given what he been provided to work with. Avi eased open the door and immediately froze. His eyes went wide as he heard a voice speaking very rapidly, saying the same thing over and over in a tongue that he could not understand. It was loud, high-pitched, and induced so much pain in his head that he quickly placed his hands over his ears.
Avi did not recognize the language coming from the thing in the tank, but he knew what it was saying. As he had read in the Torah, “Day and night without ceasing they sing: ‘Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty, who was and is and is to come.'” Pater Liebenfels had done it. The bastard had done it!
Only… Avraham now regretted not insisting on correcting the monk. Liebenfels had called Gabriel a seraph. Gabriel was an archangel, not one of the seraphim. But by now, the Pater had surely realized his mistake. There was no doubt of that.
The thing in the tank was not a beautiful creature as most people imagine when they think of what they have been taught an angel is. Avraham had studied the Torah, the Talmud, the Tanakh, and other holy books. He knew what angels really looked like – at least from their biblical descriptions. What they all stared at now looked exactly as a seraph should. About three meters tall, it floated in the center of the tank. It had apparently absorbed Avraham’s creature because the mass of living meat was gone and the seraph was obviously a solid form, as they could tell by the thumping sound as its wings brushed the tank’s walls. It had six wings: two covering its feet, two covering its face (or what passed for a face), and two that it was using to fly. Just as described in the holy books, its wings were scaly and covered in eyes. An innumerable number of eyes that all blinked at once. As it shifted around, at times unfolding a wing or two, Avi could see that there were eyes covering the inner surfaces, also. It was the most frightening sight that he had ever seen. That any man had ever seen. Worse than any of the horrible experiments that he and his colleagues had ever performed.
“Get rid of it,” screamed the Monk.
Avi ignored his demand. “What in the name of God did you do, you idiot?”
“I do not know. Just make it stop. Please!”
Avraham looked around uselessly, as if he were going to see something that might help. His eyes came to rest on the Löschen button. Being flushed in the cesspit would probably have no effect on the seraph, but it may at least get it out of the laboratory. Its singing was piercing his eardrums. Apparently, Willie had the same idea and was already running toward the control panel. The devoted laborassistent lifted the glass cover, pounded his fist on the button, and… nothing happened! He pressed it again and again, hoping for a different result but alas, it was not working.
Avraham gazed up at the top of the tank. He could see that the main valve was in the closed position. Of course, he remembered, they had turned it off for safety when the cleaning woman and been inside. They must have forgotten to release it. Once again, Willie had also noticed and was the first to spring into action. He raced to the top of the scaffold, boots clanging on the metal steps. He stretched to reach over an open port and managed to turn the wheel on the valve, but realized his mistake at the last minute.
“Willie! No! Get away from the opening!”
It was too late, though. Although the port was only about half a meter in diameter, the young man was sucked through. Avraham could hear his bones crunching, even over the sound of the seraph’s singing. As the monstrosity devoured Willie, it grew until it filled the entire tank pressing against the walls and straining the metal top. Its leathery skin was even beginning to bulge out of the open port on top. Avraham ran up the scaffold steps and slammed the lid shut, screwing shut the levers that sealed it. Then he had an idea.
Avi ran to the central control panel in front of the tank. He activated the cell growth acceleration process that he had used to grow his third spectacular failure. Almost instantly, the seraph started growing even larger, if that was possible to believe. Now, every bit of empty space in the tank was filled. Every nook and cranny between the creature and the glass was filled. Remarkably, its singing stopped. Unable to swell, its countless eyes started to fill with blood – one by one – until they were all red. Then, without warning, they seraph burst with great force, seeming to deflate as the great pressure ruptured the walls of every cell in its corporeal body.
Avi knew that it was over but still did not hesitate to press the purge button and flush the sickening offal away into the cesspit. As the blood and gore was washed away, the liquid was replaced with clean water. Eventually, the valve at the bottom closed and the tank refilled, automatically measuring and adding the precise chemical mixture that made the liquid capable of supporting life. It was as if nothing had happened and the tank awaited another occupant.
“Not likely that will ever happen,” thought Avraham.
Doctor Strauss ushered the shaken monk from his lab and locked the door behind himself. He did not take the time to check the equipment, assuming that his lab would soon be taken away from him. If he had taken a closer look, he would have noticed two items. First, that in the midst of the terror and confusion following the termination of the seraph, he had forgotten to turn off the acceleration process. More importantly though, a very close look into the tank itself would have revealed a tiny blastocyst, rapidly cleaving and growing at a rate far faster than his previous disappointment had.
Avi returned to his lab – yes, it was still his, at least for the time being – after an evening of prayer. He felt it necessary to ask God’s forgiveness, not just for the latest insult to nature but also for his previous meddling. The lab was still dark and silent. Silent except for a buzzing noise coming from the direction of the tank. His heart leapt into his throat as he realized that he had not turned off the accelerator. Despite the tank water being as sterile as could be, there were probably some microbes in it. Just a night’s growth would have probably made the new batch of liquid unusable.
Even with the enhanced rate of growth, the microbes would not be anywhere near large enough to be seen with the naked eye. Nevertheless, Avraham peered inside at the thick liquid. It was then that something caught his eye. Floating near the bottom, he spied what looked like a lump of flesh – probably just some remains left over from the dead seraph, although he found that hard to believe given the thoroughness of the automatic tank purge process. He walked around the tank to where it floated. When he placed his hands on the glass and leaned in to get a closer look, the mass of cells quivered and moved away. Thinking it was merely a current in the water that was pushing it around, he tried again, and once again it moved away from him. Whatever it was, it was reacting to his presence!
Avi leaned over and put his face near the tank’s glass wall level with the mass of flesh.
“Well, well… What do we have here?” Dr. Strauss smiled. “I think that I shall call you Leo.”
(NOTE: This is a prequel to “Leo” – to read that story, click HERE)
CREDIT: Kenneth Kohl
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