The first time Howard debated human nature with a German, he hadn’t been Howard Stark for long. He had made money of his first patents, he’d changed his last name to a form that was supposed to demonstrate All-American-ness to everyone, and he was currently attending his very first international engineering conference in Basel, Switzerland. It still felt like everyone was seeing through him to the kid from the Lower East Side whose parents could never, ever have afforded to send him to college, when everyone else present had degrees to dazzle the stars. Still, Howard knew how to dazzle as well, primarily by talking, charming people and throwing money around, so he talked faster, threw more money, and at first avoided the quiet, dignified Dr. Abraham Erskine who reminded him of his father a little too much. And even more of his mother with similar eyes that pierced you and exuded bewildered disappointment every time they blinked. Besides, Dr. Erskine was a chemist, which wasn’t Howard’s primary area of interest. And most of Erskine’s lectures were in German anyway, which Howard didn’t speak, though knowing Yiddish enabled him to catch the gist of it. But then, Howard Stark, All-American wonderboy, wouldn’t be able to speak Yiddish, would he?
Then Erskine actually approached him, to Howard’s amazement. “Mr. Stark”, Erskine said, his English accented and slow, but correct, “you have a car at your disposal, yes?”
Howard did. The conference took place in various university buildings, but he was damned if he didn’t enjoy what passed for night-life in Basel in between, so a car had been essential, and besides, rich people always had several, didn’t they? Especially abroad. As it turned out, Erskine wanted to visit someone he referred to as a “sick colleague” who was in town, but unable to attend the conference, instead being confined to his hotel room.
“And those suckers from the university won’t spring for a limousine?” Howard asked, surprised. After all, Erskine was one of the star guests, a scientist with decades of reputation behind him.
“They would ask me why. They would tell others, and I would rather not have the press follow me”, Erskine replied politely.
“I’m not known for discretion, either, Doc,” Howard said, intrigued.
“No, but you are known for leaving the conference quite often to enjoy, well, the country and the locals,” Erskine said, and was there a twinkle in his eyes? “Nobody will wonder when you do it again.”
“Well, then, by all means,” Howard said. “But I’m coming with you.”
He was simply curious, and besides, chemist or not, Erskine was a living legend, this was a rare chance to talk to him, and apparently Howard had misread the expression with which Erskine observed him.
As it turned out, the sick friend Erskine wanted to visit was even more of a legend, and once Howard learned of his identity, the need for discretion became very clear. It was Fritz Haber, known even on the Lower East Side of New York for two things: having won the Nobel Prize for creating literally food out of air was one of them. In more technical terms, he’d invented a method to synthesize ammonia from nitrogen gas and hydrogen gas, which allowed the production of nitrogen fertilizers, which the food production of half the world was depending on by now.
The other thing Fritz Haber was famous for was being the father of chemical warfare. That was the nickname Howard had first heard used about him, “The father of chemical warfare”, or, more bluntly, “the Father of Death”, the inventor who had developed and weaponized chlorine and other poisonous gases in the Great War. As far as the US, Great Britain, and France were concerned, Haber was probably the most despised scientist of all time. Recently, Ernest Rutherford had made headlines refusing to shake his hand. If the press knew Haber was in town, they’d have a field day.
“Fritz was my mentor”, Erskine said gravely, before Howard could ask. “We’ve worked at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute together. And yes, I, too, worked on gas weapons. Fritz used to say that in peace time a scientist belongs to the world, but during war time he belongs to his country. As a young man, I believed this utterly.”
“But not anymore?” Howard asked, though it was more a statement than a question. Erskine, as indeed Haber himself, had had to leave the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for being Jewish. That, too, had made headlines. Back home, people were still saying that one should give Hitler a chance because at least he wasn’t a Communist, and that the unemployment was going down, if they were talking about Germany at all. Previously, Howard hadn’t paid all that much attention to international politics, or politics in general; he’d been too focused on the politics of creating Howard Stark and making Howard Stark succeed. But from what he’d heard, the Nazis were glorified thugs, and if there was one thing growing up with a friend like Joe Manfredi had taught him, it was that thugs who got power didn’t become less brutal for it.
“Now I think that no man can give his conscience away, not even to his country”, Erskine said to his surprise. “We all carry the burden of our decisions. We ourselves. Every single one of them.” He sighed. “You’re still so young, Mr. Stark. Pray that you never find this out the way Fritz and I did.”
Haber, it turned out, had been travelling with his sister, and had in fact been en route to Palestine when his ill health had overpowered him.
“But why?” exclaimed Erskine in German, sounding baffled, when the sister told him this. “Fritz has never…”
“No”, Haber’s sister retorted. Her eyes were red and swollen. “But Chaim Weizmann offered him the directorship of the Sieff Research Institute. Oh, how Clara would have laughed. If she wouldn’t have cried. He wants her remains to be removed from Dahlem and reburied in Basel, you know. So that they will be buried together here.”
“It is that bad, then?” Erskine asked.
“It is. I’m glad you could come.”
Howard thought he’d been careful not to give any sign that he’d understood most of this, as far as the words were concerned, though he’d no idea who Clara was, and hadn’t been aware there was a research institute for Chaim Weizmann to offer in Palestine , which was ruled by the British. While Erskine was rushed inside the bedroom, Howard remained in the living room of the suite the Habers had rented and attempted in vain to make conversation with the nurse, who spoke no English, only the incomprehensible German the Swiss did, and French, of which Howard knew exactly three phrases. But when Erskine emerged from the bedroom again, he said, not in German, but in Yiddish: “I need a drink. You knew where to get one without reporters near, Mr. Stark, yes?”
For a moment, Howard kept his face blank and considered trotting out his tried and true “I don’t understand, sorry, buddy, what was that?” reaction. But then he decided it wasn’t worth it. If Erskine was so concerned about his privacy, he wasn’t about to spill the beans on Howard Stark to the next reporter, either. So Howard shrugged.
“Sure thing,” he replied, took his leave from Haber’s sister, and drove Erskine to a joint where the girls didn’t speak English, either, but could communicate rather well, and there wasn’t a reporter in sight.
“Fritz wasn’t dismissed from the Institute,” Erskine said, still sticking to Yiddish once they were sitting on plush red seats and served Schnaps, “he had been ordered to dismiss the rest of us. All the Jewish scientists. Now he’d converted to Christianity decades ago, and he’d always considered himself a German first and foremost. But this was too much for him. He tendered his resignation in April last year. He’s been homeless since.” He blinked. “Have you converted, Mr. Stark?”
“No, but I’m not – I don’t believe in God, Mr. Erskine”, Howard retorted. He hadn’t spoken Yiddish since he had told his parents about the name change, and it felt wrong on his tongue. Switching back to English, he continued. “And I don’t believe in letting your past tell you who you are, okay? We’re what we make ourselves into. That’s what I think.”
His parents hadn’t bought that argument. They’d been immigrants from Russia, and no one had ever allowed them to forget it, not that they could have, between factory work and fruit selling. They’d wanted him to do better, sure, but on their terms.
“I think we can change”, Erskine mused, following the change to English, and downed his Schnaps with a speed that startled Howard until he recalled the way his own father had drunk when depressed. “But I also believe what we become will be defined by what we were before. The two aren’t mutually exclusive. I know.” He blinked at Howard. “What if I told you there’s a way to change human physiology itself? To make man into the superman Nietzsche has envisioned?”
Howard didn’t know who Nietzsche was, but he did what he always did when people threw out references to an education he hadn’t received; he played along.
“Super how?” and filled up Erskine’s glass with the bottle that had been brought to them. While he was at it, he filled a second glass for himself as well. “More clever? Stronger?”
“Perfect health”, Erskine said. “A very high healing factor. Great strength. I started to work on this when I first saw what our gas did to our soldiers, and the others. If the human body could be molded like this in the negative, there had to be a positive. There had to be.”
The US hadn’t been in the war long enough for many soldiers to be afflicted by gas, so Howard hadn’t seen any veterans affected by it. But he knew what it could do in theory, and he was starting to feel the challenge of it. To regard the human body as basic material the way you did metal. To dissolve and rebuild.
“If you could pull that off, you’d put a lot of doctors out of a job, that’s for sure,” he said, stalling with a joke, while trying to imagine how to get around the most obvious danger for such a project, which was that surely, people would die before one could get anywhere. All inventions needed experiments, failures to learn from. And you couldn’t experiment with people.
Erskine shook his head. “No, I wouldn’t. This is not an invention you could give to everyone. Not like the Haber-Bosch process. There would not be food for the world coming out of it, Mr. Stark.”
“But why not?” Howard asked, honestly surprised. Surely making people eternally healthy and able to heal with great speed would be an incredible benefit to mankind?
“Because of human nature”, Erskine said. “You haven’t seen what I have seen, Mr. Stark. Not just in the war. But in the last year. You haven’t seen a country throw away all its values for the promise of strength, give away its freedom to a vulgar man putting on a show of hate like a bad comedian. If this is what we are, we will become even more so if the disadvantages of nature are taken away.”
“No offense, Dr. Erskine, but aren’t you generalizing? What happened in your country is bad, I don’t doubt it. But there’s no way that would happen elsewhere. And definitely not in mine.”
“An optimist and a patriot”, Erskine said, and though his lips formed a smile, his eyes remained sad. “That’s how we all begin.”
The war was over for exactly three days when Howard travelled to Europe, to England, to be precise. Peggy had asked for him. She was at Farm Hall, it turned out, where the British had stored the German nuclear scientists as soon as they’d captured them. For various reasons; to find out how far the German nuclear project had gone, to salvage what scientific advances the Germans had made for themselves, and to keep the Germans from telling anyone else about nuclear research, most of all their current allies and guaranteed future rivals, the Russians.
Howard was still hung-over from celebrating VJ-Day when he arrived. He was slowly coming out of the giddiness of relief that the bloody war was finally over and tiptoeing into the widening chasm of considering quite how it had been achieved and who hadn’t been alive to see it done. The data from Hiroshima and Nagasaki had still been incoming when he’d left Los Alamos behind, for good, he hoped. He was painfully aware that if all of this had happened just a few months earlier, Steve Rogers would still be alive.
If Peggy was thinking the same thing, she didn’t say it. She exuded fury, though tightly compressed, as Peggy’s darker emotions tended to be.
“How’s your German?” she asked, after they’d hugged and he’d produced gifts, perfume, which had been scorned, and nylons, which weren’t.
His German had been much improved through the years. Peggy was fluent, naturally, having studied the language properly. Howard had decided he couldn’t wing it based on Yiddish any longer by the time Enigma had become an issue, before the Brits had solved it, and had learned from the growing number of German language scientists he’d worked with, Erskine first and foremost.
“There are some transcripts I want you to read”, Peggy said. The transcripts, it turned out, were of conversations between the Germans after they’d learned about Hiroshima. All of their rooms had been bugged; of course they were.
“Major Ritter told Hahn first”, Peggy said, referring to Otto Hahn, the chemist who’d first managed to split the atom, “and Hahn fainted. Ritter had to revive him with gin. The rest of them found out through the BBC news. And that’s when we got” – she gestured with disgust at the transcripts – “this.”
Howard read. It seemed the Germans at first hadn’t wanted to believe it actually had been a nuclear bomb. And then, once they’d started to accept it had been, they’d started to discuss the ethical implications.
Weizsäcker: I think it is terrible of the Americans to have done this. I think it is madness.
Heisenberg: That’s not how I’d put it. You can just as well state it was the quickest way to end the war.
Hahn: That’s what comforts me.
Heisenberg: We didn’t have the moral courage to suggest to the government in 1942 to provide us with 120 00 people just to build the basics.
Weizsäcker: I think the reason why we didn’t was that no physicist wanted to, for reasons of principle. If we all had wanted to win the war, we’d have had success.
Hahn: I don’t believe that. But I’m glad we didn’t have success.
Weizsäcker: History will tell that the Americans and the British have built a bomb and used it and that at the same time the Germans, led by Hitler’s government, built a functioning reactor machine. In other words, the peaceful development of the Uranium machine happened in Hitler’s Germany while the Americans and the British developed this terrible weapon of mass destruction.
At this point, Howard understood why Peggy was fuming.
“The unmitigated gall,” she said. “Did you see the footage from the concentration camps?”
He had. It still turned his stomach.
“Why did you want me here?” he asked.
“Look”, Peggy said, “I’m a good interrogator. But I have my limits, and I think I’ve just about reached them. We need to know they’re not feeding us with lies, though. This could all be an act. One of them even wondered out loud whether they were bugged, and then Heisenberg said no, the British would never use Gestapo methods. So I want you to talk to them. Find out whether that reactor thing we’ve found is just a cover and they’ve hidden something far more dangerous elsewhere, and whether they’re ready to sell it to the Russians.”
“And why should they tell me the truth?” he asked, genuinely curious. He wasn’t being modest; it wasn’t in him to be. He simply knew his areas of expertise. Interrogation wasn’t one of them.
“For two reasons”, Peggy said. “You’re Howard Stark, millionaire in search of talented employees, and they’re currently out of a job. I don’t suppose someone already told you about Operation Overcast? It started last month, when our governments thought this lot could help shortening the war in the Pacific. But now there’s talk that German scientists will just be used like German tech. To be given to the Allies in compensation for war losses. The American government will open up the grabbing to the private sector before the year is over, mark my word.”
The expression of disgust hadn’t left her face. In fact, he had heard rumors. Usually connected to all the debates about what was supposed to become of Germany now. Henry Morgenthau had suggested it should be deindustrialized entirely, turned into an agrarian country. Taking all the scientists along with the tech fitted with that.
Erskine would have been horrified, Howard thought. He’d hoped to go back after the war, to help rebuild Germany into a better country. But Erskine was dead, murdered by a Nazi. And it did make sense.
Besides, he’d never been able to resist debates with scientists. All but one. He’d avoided Armin Zola so far, after the first debriefing immediately after Zola’s capture.
“And the second reason?” Howard asked.
“You succeeded where they failed”, she said. “You did help build a functioning nuclear bomb. They’ll want to know how.”
Peggy knew her scientists, Howard thought. His admiration for her, which was sincere, still carried a degree of resentment with it on this occasion. While they were talking, he’d kept looking at the transcripts, and there were other things that stood out for him than just German scientists considering themselves his moral superiors after working for the biggest butcher in modern history.
“Peggy,” he said, “if the Germans considered achieving a bomb hopeless by 1943 already and were going for a reactor instead, and a reactor only, how come none of our spies figured that out?”
“I was busy with Hydra,” Peggy said, and her beautiful face became utterly expressionless. “And they were busy with far worse weapons. You know that.”
“Yes. But I didn’t ask about you. I asked about Allied intelligence in general, pal.”
Peggy looked away, then looked at him again. Her utter exhaustion was palpable. She should take a vacation now, but knowing Peggy, she wouldn’t. She’d only get herself into more work now that the war was over, and she didn’t have saving the world anymore to distract herself from what she had lost.
“I can only guess,” she said. “But many of the scientists at Los Alamos are Jewish, aren’t they? Maybe they did find out, and thought it would take away motivation to share this information with anyone involved with the Manhattan Project. If they’d known there never was a danger of Germany getting the bomb first.”
If true, that had been an assumption both insulting and patronizing. It also made a horrid sort of sense. By now, Howard’s own secrets had accumulated. There were things he’d never tell Peggy about, not unless forced by dire circumstances, and not telling them necessitated lies, both lies by omission and more direct untruths. The dead of Finow came to mind. Still, he heard himself ask: “You would have told me, wouldn’t you?”
“I would have”, she affirmed, all steely sincerity, and most of him believed her, because despite her occupation, Peggy Carter was one of the most truthful people Howard knew. But he wasn’t quite as young as he used to be anymore, and he also thought that forced to choose between an earlier end to the war that saved thousands of lives and being honest to a friend, Peggy would choose the former.
“Right,” he said. “Then introduce me to the German failures.”
Heisenberg was playing the piano when Howard was led into what apparently had become a kind of living room for the Germans to gather, and he did it well enough that even Howard noticed, who couldn’t read a note and liked music only to listen to, on the radio while dancing or seducing someone else or both. He had never met the man, but of course he’d seen pictures of the most famous German physicist. He’d also have been able to identify Otto Hahn, but Hahn wasn’t in the room. Peggy pointed out young Weizsäcker to him, Heisenberg’s protégé who’d passed such judgment in the transcripts, and the son of the second most influential man in the German foreign office. Three of the others were there as well; one, Walther Gerlach, who’d been described to him as the most overt Nazi, left once Howard had identified himself by name.
“So tell me one thing”, Howard said, both because he wanted to shake them up a bit right at the beginning, and because he wanted to know, “if you lot were the most brilliant nuclear scientists Germany had to offer after better men had been kicked out because of their heritage, how come Schmidt didn’t grab you for Hydra? “
They looked at each other. Then Heisenberg continued playing. Weizsäcker said: “To be honest, we thought that Hydra was a fairy tale. Something like Himmler’s Tibetan expeditions to find super Aryans. Nothing real. It just made no sense.”
“Made no sense?” Howard asked, one eyebrow raised.
“None at all”, Weizsäcker declared impatiently. “Look, we had to evacuate into holes in the ground to do our work because our cities were flattened. Everyone had to beg and compete for any money at all with Speer, and the only one who got any considerable sums was von Braun because he promised results in less than six months. And there was supposed to be this whole other science division swimming in cash, petrol and cars when we had trouble organizing bicycles for ourselves? Led by someone who practically declared independence and yet Hitler let him live? It had to be a propaganda story, either one by Goebbels or one by your lot. Just like the miracle weapon which was supposed to let us win the war. Now we knew that one wasn’t real.”
He hadn’t expected this answer. Then again, he hadn’t lived in a paranoid dictatorship where anything the government told you could be a lie, which surely anyone with half a brain had to have figured out at some point.
“I’ve seen the result of Hydra’s work”, Howard said. “They’re real.” He paused for a moment. “Just like our two atom bombs.”
Heisenberg finally stopped playing and turned away from the piano.
“How is Niels Bohr?” he asked, with a slightly husky voice.
Howard hadn’t interacted often with Bohr in Los Alamos, but enough to be aware that the Danish physicist had once upon a time had a close relationship with Heisenberg.
“Glad to be alive,” Howard said. “Given he literally had to crawl his way into safety. Also glad you weren’t able to provide Hitler with the bomb.”
Weizsäcker bristled. “If we had truly wanted to…”
“Then let’s hear it”, Howard interrupted. “Let’s hear the science.”
“You’re not a physicist,” Heisenberg said coolly. “You’re an engineer. Are you sure you’d be able to follow it?”
Howard was neither surprised nor flattered nor insulted that they knew who he was, and what his qualifications were. He expected name recognition at this point of his life, and after all Stark Industries had provided the Allies with, he expected the enemy to know what he could do as well.
“Given this engineer helped create what you couldn’t, I’d say so,” he replied. If all they knew about the Manhattan project was the BBC news about Hiroshima, they wouldn’t know he had participated. Then again, Heisenberg had known that Bohr had, another thing which hadn’t been mentioned on the air.
That statement got their attention, all right. They fired off questions which did tell him a lot about their own knowledge, which was indeed far less than anyone in Los Alamos had anticipated, and it was hard not to let himself be carried away with the flow of showing off for an audience that understood the full magnitude of what they’d done, unlike the military which could just see the explosion. But that wasn’t why he was here. He finally said he had no intention of providing people he didn’t have under contract with state secrets. This brought on some terse statements along the lines of “Germany will need us”, though at least one of them, Diebner, who seemed to be in some type of feud with Heisenberg, was eyeing Howard with downright hope.
“Germany might only need farmers in the near future, if Morgenthau has his way,” Howard said brutally. “If you want to try reinventing the wheel, good luck. On the other hand, you could end with well equipped labs in the good old US of A. If you convince me you’re worth hiring, despite the attitude and the lack of success.”
Playing hard to get might not always work, but he thought it was worth trying in this particular case. Diebner promptly launched into a speech of how his approach actually would have been far better than Heisenberg’s. Weizsäcker said something about soulless American capitalists. Heisenberg abruptly asked Howard: “Have you ever walked through a bombed city?”
“London”, Howard said. “Coventry, too.”
“But not Hiroshima?”
“I wouldn’t go there if I were you,” Howard said. “Hiroshima would never have happened if your Führer and the Emperor had not started this war.”
“Yes, it would have”, Heisenberg retorted. “Because once the idea was out there, someone had to try. You know that. Just to see whether it could have been done.”
There it was, that feeling of kinship to another scientist he’d successfully held back until now, aided by their arrogance and the memories of the reports about the camps, and of Erskine, Erskine who’d rather have gone through hell than do that these people would have been willing to. And yet, and yet. It was true. Not all of the monsters Howard had created had been deliberately monstrous; Midnight Oil certainly hadn’t been, had been meant to help, nothing else. But there had been other inventions where he’d always known they could do only damage, and he’d gone through with them regardless, simply because he was so damn curious to find out whether he could pull it off.
“The city in which I was born is in ruins, and I walked through them. And I’ll never know whether I contributed to this by what I did, or by what I didn’t do. But that uncertainty is still better than knowing for sure, Mr. Stark, and I would, if I were to work for you.”
Howard hadn’t meant his offer; it had been a lure to get them talking, nothing more. Though of course if push came to shove, he would not have exactly said no if a Nobel prize winner were to be on his payroll. It still felt absurdly like judgment, being turned down for the offer he hadn't seriously intended to make, and who were they to judge?
Maybe the only people who truly could, that was the rub of it. He thought about Finow again, and the fact it had been an American general who’d given that order. About the fact he’d stepped away from his army contracts afterwards but hadn’t been able to call it quits with the army entirely, and not just because there was still a war to be won.
He remembered Erskine in Basel then, and the unseen Fritz Haber, dying, simultaneously the most admired and cursed scientist of the world for what he’d done.
“Someone once told me a scientist belongs to his country in war time,” Howard said tonelessly, “but in peace he belongs to the world.”
If Heisenberg recognized the quote, he didn’t show it.
“I used to think that, too”, he said. “But what if you can help neither your country nor the world, Mr. Stark? What if you can do only damage to both?”
Howard thought about Steve Rogers then. Steve had been good. And incredibly good at causing damage, that, too, but as opposed to all the weapons Howard had created, Steve had had his own moral judgment, and thus he’d remained good till the end. Maybe that was the solution to that sense of quagmire he felt increasingly around him. Create, not another Steve Rogers, no, that was impossible, but – someone, some thing which would be able to keep itself from the taint of being misused. “That’s too much European doom and gloom for me”, Howard said carelessly. “I’m an American, pal. Believing in having it both ways is our birthright.”
The last time Howard debated human nature with a German, he was on the run and trying his best at not being Howard Stark. While he had every confidence that Peggy would succeed in clearing his name and find out whoever framed him, there was only so much she could do to retrieve his babies, especially those who’d been sold overseas. When he found out that one of them had ended up in Germany, he groaned. He hadn’t intended to go there again, not for a very long time, at least if he could avoid it. Besides, the official story was that he’d sold out to the Russians, so going to Germany and crossing into the Russian-occupied zone was one of the first things they’d suspect him of, and he was sure every G.I. patrol had his picture.
But there wasn’t anyone else he could ask, the prospect of the beautiful but lethal Stark-47 making the rounds on the black market that currently ruled everywhere in Europe was unendurable, and thus it was Howard ended up in a bad blond wig and Lederhosen tied to a German who didn’t speak a word of English but evidently had been captured by a ganglord with pretensions to international arms dealing lurking in a region named the Allgäu.
“Zuse was supposed to dismantle and replicate that device for us”, their captor said, accent not quite German but more like Armin Zola’s, which probably meant he was Swiss, “but now we have you, that’s all going to happen so much faster, won’t it… Mr. Stark?”
Once he’d left, with an ominous reminder that Mrs. Zuse and little Horst would want their Daddy back, and the US army most certainly would be interested in the whereabouts of Howard Stark, Howard had a look at his fellow captive. Not tall, hair already receding despite the man not being that much older than himself, he reckoned, glasses, and a frown on his forehead. Something about the name “Zuse” rang a bell. In any case, the man was the sole potential ally he had in this situation.
“So you’re qualified to recreate the Stark 47?” Howard asked in German, going for a friendly and amused tone.
Zuse shrugged. “I’ve constructed more complicated machines. No offense.”
Howard didn’t take any, as he finally remembered where he’d heard the name before. “You’re the Henschel engineer who build the S1 and S2 computing machines for the glide bombs,” he exclaimed. “The ones who computed aerodynamic corrections to the wings of radio-controlled flying bombs! Let me tell you, I had a hell of a time figuring out how you pulled off the analog-to-digital converter under program control”, he enthused, paused, and added at his arrogant best: “By which I mean I needed all of three days. I’ve constructed more complicated machines. No offense.”
Zuse blinked. Then he laughed. “Maybe you have, Herr Stark, but those weren’t the machines I’d meant”, he returned. “I made those just because I needed the money, and the DVL would have pulled their funding otherwise. No, I’ve built machines that will truly change the world. If we get out of here.”
“To that end,” Howard began, but unfortunately, that was when a guard joined them who was supposed to ensure they worked on dismantling the Stark 47, and that was when Howard found out Zuse didn’t speak English. Or French. Or anything else they could use to communicate in without tipping off the guard.
“I had Latin in school,” Zuse said apologetically. “I hated it. Those were the worst moments in my life, when I had to go through Latin tests. I’m just not made for languages.”
Except for their respective right and left hands which were handcuffed to each other, they could move quite freely, and Howard tried another approach while removing the various parts of the 47 ever so slowly.
“Ever watched Metropolis? “
“Have I ever,” Zuse said indignantly. “That film inspired my entire life! When I was still trying to become an architect, I wrote a paper about how the city of Metropolis should be constructed, and I would have named the Z1 Maria if it wouldn’t have made my mother suspicious I might have had a secret girlfriend.”
“And that would have been a problem because…”
“…Because I constructed the Z1 in my parents’ flat. Their space, their rules.”
At least his parents had had a flat large enough to construct something in, Howard thought. His parents hadn’t. Which was besides the point right now. Guessing that Zuse had watched Fritz Lang’s picture hadn’t been much of a gamble; every engineer of his own generation Howard knew had done so, and because it had been one of Lang’s last silent movies, this was true independent of anyone’s language the world over. But given Lang was currently busy shooting movies in Hollywood, and had been so throughout the war, Howard was willing to bet that his movies had not been allowed in Germany for at least a decade. Which meant the young thug guarding them had to be unfamiliar with it.
“So, Brigitte Horney”, Howard said, referring to the actress who’d played both the saintly heroine of Metropolis and the evil yet seductive machine woman formed in her image, “did you want her as Maria or as the machine?”
“That is a very American question.”
“You’re just too chicken to admit to the machine. Now me, I’m standing by my tastes. That scene where she incites revolt alone…” Howard said and didn’t have to fake a leer, but the true reason why he had brought it up had nothing to do with Brigitte Horney’s attractions, and to his great relief, Zuse caught on. Only a few hours later they escaped following the Metropolis model of having made Howard’s baby explode, the way Horney-as-the-machine-woman had done to the heart machine of Metropolis, and causing a flooding in the tunnels where their captor’s gang was hiding out. Once they were safe, Howard realized he still had a problem; his blond wig was gone, and Zuse didn’t have any reason to keep his secret. On the contrary. If you lived in an occupied country where any technology could only be accessed via the occupying forces and you were an engineer, you had every reason to ingratiate yourself with your new rulers by handing over someone they dearly wanted to get their hands on. Which Zuse now knew they did, given all their captor had said when busy threatening both of them.
Howard looked at the other man and made a decision. “You still haven’t told me what the Z1 actually was,” he said.
Zuse regarded him thoughtfully. “Don’t you have an escape to make?” he asked, slowly.
“Maybe I don’t have to make it alone. Have you ever heard of Operation Overcast – nah, that’s not what they’re calling it anymore these days. Operation Paperclip?”
Zuse’s face grew very still. “Yes,” he said. “You see, I was living next to Wernher von Braun for a while. We were both evacuated to the same place here in Bavaria. Only he’s not there anymore.”
Von Braun, along with a great many from his team who’d built the V2s devastating London, had been transferred to Texas by the end of last year, as far as Howard knew, von Braun’s membership in the SS and use of slave workers to build the V2s notwithstanding. As Howard remembered very well how impossible it had been for Edwin Jarvis to legally get papers that allowed his Jewish wife to leave Hungary and enter the US, this latest bit of policy had heightened his growing cynicism to larger and larger proportions. Though he could see the army’s rationale. Von Braun was brilliant. And had also been inspired in his life choices by a Fritz Lang movie, in his case, Woman in the Moon.
“Well, Mr. Zuse, it’s true that due to a big misunderstanding, I’m currently a wanted man. But a friend of mine is working on clearing that up. Which means I’ll be returning to Uncle Sam’s arms very soon. At which point I’ll be one of its richest industrialists once more, and you, pal, could be Stark Industries’ latest employee. Now unless I misheard earlier, you’ve got a wife and a kid. Wouldn’t they be happier living in a country that’s not full of rubble and death? Where you could be an engineer again, not a – what are you currently doing anyway?”
“Painting”, Zuse said. “I’m painting Kitsch and selling it to American soldiers. Your soldiers have terrible taste.”
Unexpectedly, Howard remembered Steve Rogers sketching in his very limited spare time, and the pain he felt was acute. Then he remembered that all that was left of Steve Rogers was the blood currently residing with the SSR which had no idea what it was, but not for much longer if Howard didn’t get back in time, and his mood hardened.
“No argument there,” Howard said. “So, what do you say?”
“That one man can be on the run better than two,” Zuse replied. “I won’t betray you, Herr Stark. I’ll return to my wife and son and pretend none of this happened. But if it happens as you predict, then I would be grateful if you came back for me.”
He could, of course, be lying. Could track down the next G.I. patrol as soon as Howard’s back was turned. Just because they had escaped from danger together and because they were both engineers didn’t mean they were now friends. Only a little more than one and a half years ago, they’d been busy creating ways in which their people could annihilate each other, and that wasn’t touching the question of whether Zuse, like von Braun, had used slave workers from the camps.
“So what exactly was the Z1?” Howard asked.
Hours later, he and Zuse were still talking. The Z1, it turned out, had been a floating point binary mechanical calculator which read instructions from a perforated 35 mm film. Used, discarded film Zuse had gotten cheap from his local cinema. It had indeed been built in his parents’ living room and occupied it entirely, and there it had been destroyed along with his parents’ flat and many other buildings during a British air raid. The Z2, which had impressed the German Research Institute for Aviation, the DVL, so much that they’d funded Zuse from this point on provided he built those handy devices for gliding bombs, had suffered a similar fate, as had its successor, the Z3, but not before Zuse had been able to present it to the public: a binary 22 bit floating point calculator featuring programmability with loops, with memory and a calculation unit based on telephone relays.
“Another air raid,” Zuse said gloomily. “But,” he added, cheering up. “The Z4 still exists. In parts and pieces, all carefully packed away. I won’t be able to work on it further until the country is back on its feet again. Or…”
His words petered out.
“Oh ye of little faith,” Howard said. “I’ll be rehabilitated in no time. You’ll see. And I keep my promises.”
He didn’t lie. His fingers were practically itching with the desire to get his hands on the Z4. He didn’t think Zuse was bluffing. Somehow, in complete scientific isolation from the English speaking world, the man had managed to create something more advanced than anything IBM in New York had done, to the best of Howard’s knowledge.
They were, by now, sitting in the small farm where Zuse was staying with his wife and child; Howard had been introduced as another American intent on buying paintings, only in his case something more demanding than sappy landscapes, which was why he supposedly needed time to make his choice.
“I don’t think faith is scientific,” Zuse replied, taking him literally. “My theory is that the universe itself is running on a cellular automaton or similar computational structure. We’re all parts of a machine. It’s only that we don’t understand yet quite how it works.”
“Calculating space. Hm. I like it. But to be honest, I’ve seen things these last few years that are so irrational that I can’t believe our existence is structured in any way. I know machines. I trust machines. They work better than we do. In fact…” Howard took a deep breath. “The machine woman in Metropolis,” he said.
Zuse shook his head, confused. “What about her?”
Howard held his gaze. “Did you never want to build her?”
“You haven’t listened properly,” Zuse said angrily. “My machines need so much space by now, I had to rent a workshop that stretched through the block of the Methfesselstrasse to the Belle-Alliance-Straße to build the Z3! You couldn’t possibly put all that into the tiny frame of a human shaped body!”
“I listened,” Howard said. “And you avoided the question. Did you want to build a machine like the one in Metropolis?”
Zuse sighed. “Yes. Yes, of course I did. I’ve seen Capek’s drama, too, you know. Robots. Artificial intelligence. Of course I wanted to. But it wasn’t practical. So I thought, why not build a calculating machine instead?”
“Mr. Zuse,” Howard said, “I’m great at inventing my own stuff, and even better at improving other people’s inventions. Ask the late Dr. Erskine. And you know, if I look at our world, I think it might direly need artificial intelligence very soon.”
He remembered the bodies in Finow again, and General McGinnis saying, “but for God’s sake, Stark, they were Russians, so shut the hell up about this already!”
“Artificial intelligence wouldn’t be driven by greed,” Howard said, “or cowardice, or hate. It would sort us out in a rational manner.”
“Who is us?” Zuse asked, and hearing his wife coming up the stairs to serve them heated water because coffee was impossible to get here if you weren’t an Allied soldier, he produced another painting to hold under Howard’s nose. It wasn’t a landscape; it was abstract, of the type that surely would have been called degenerate in Germany not that long ago. “Americans? Germans?”
Howard made a dismissive wave with his hand. “Everyone. The world. The war is over. Well, the last one. We have peace now, for as long as we’ll be able to to keep it. And in peace time…” The echo of the past came to him then, and Zuse finished the sentence with him. “A scientist belongs to the world.”
They looked at each other. Then Zuse took the hot water from his wife, thanked her and waited until she’d left before he spoke again.
“When I first got the order to evacuate and store the Z4 where bombs couldn’t get to it,” Zuse said not looking at Howard, “they told me to bring it to one of the underground places where Speer had relocated arms manufacturing. I went there to check it out. And I saw – you probably know what I saw. There were over twenty thousand prisoners working there. They looked like walking skeletons. I went to General Dornberger and convinced him to change my orders so I could bring the Z4 to the countryside instead, here, to the Allgäu. But understand, I didn’t ask him for a single captive. I was not a hero. I simply wanted to be as far away from that place as I could be.”
Howard’s parents had each left big families back in what they’d referred to as “the old country”. Siblings, nieces, nephews. It wasn’t impossible, was in fact quite likely, that a lot of them had died in places like this. Not bearing that name anymore he’d shortened to “Stark”, bearing a number, tattooed on their skin.
“Why are you telling me this?” he asked.
“Because,” Zuse said, “because you’re wrong and right at the same time. Artificial intelligence wouldn’t hate, that is true. It would not give speeches. But it would calculate. We were all calculating back then. I was calculating the petrol I needed to get away to Bavaria, a thousand litres, and how to justify that to General Dornberger. What I would do to get it. Von Braun was calculating the same thing, and he had calculated earlier. How far can you use human force to speed up a work process? A machine would tell you. It would not have compassion, any more than it would hate. It would simply calculate. Tell me that I’m wrong.”
“But it could be programmed to stick to certain parameters”, Howard pointed out.
“Then the programmer would be in charge, and not the artificial intelligence,” Zuse replied. “And we’re back at human nature. I think my machines will change the world, make it easier to live in, yes. But no more than that. Because as long as we haven’t figured out on which parameters the universe runs, we can’t create anything more sensible than us.”
But Erskine and I once created someone better than us, Howard wanted to say, and didn’t. Steve hadn’t been a machine. He had created himself. Erskine’s formula and Howard’s addendums had simply provided the tools.
“The inventor in Metropolis is one of the villains,” Zuse said quietly.
“That’s because the goddamn movies keep giving us a lousy image,” Howard said. “I think I’ll have to get into the pictures myself to change that. When I’m back home.”
“I don’t think I would work as a film character,” Zuse remarked. “Not now that there is sound. The soldiers buying my paintings, they say that anyone with an accent is a mad villain in them. Especially if they wear coats. I would not wish to become that, and I still have no ear for other languages, so my English would be terrible. Better to stay here, even if I have to wait longer to put the Z4 back together.”
“It’s your decision,” Howard said, and didn’t know whether he was relieved or regretful while saying it. He wouldn’t have been able to look at Zuse without thinking about those underground hellholes if he’d worked with him on a daily basis, spoke German on a daily basis. But at the same time, he hadn’t felt as much drawn to another scientist since Erskine, and if the Z4 was all that Zuse said it was, they might be able to do amazing things together.
Great things, terrible things. Maybe he truly couldn’t tell the difference anymore. Maybe creating artificial intelligence was yet another way to give his conscience to someone else, have someone else carry it, and Erskine had once told him that it was impossible to do so. Not to your country. Not to another person. And not, it seemed, to something far better organized and structured than he would ever be.
Unless, Howard thought, unless it was not artificial, not human, but both. Not a person. Not an AI. Not a country. But an organization. Peggy Carter was one of the wisest people he knew, and if she subjected herself to working for the SSR despite the way they were currently treating her, it spoke of a need to belong as well as to channel what she had to offer into something larger than herself, that would both bind and challenge her. Something to talk with Peggy about. If and when he made it back, and they had a quiet moment, and he’d managed to come clean about certain things he’d kept from her without her killing him first.
“Go, Adam,” Zuse told him with a smile, quoting the last line from R.U.R., Capek’s play about artificial beings winning themselves the earth. “The world is yours.”