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At Heidelberg University, Part 3

September 23, 2009

Second Floor of the Natural Sciences Building, August 9, 1897, 2:30 p.m.

Dr. Werner’s laboratory was a dusty and ill-lit room, mostly full of books. There were shelves of them, stacked badly, and scattered among the books were clipped-together chunks of a manuscript the doctor kept meaning to write about the structure of the atom. On balance it didn’t look like a physics laboratory at all: not with the bad light and the cages of rats, a whole wall full of them. The doctor also had a habit of collecting things that his naturalist friends gave him and displaying them in jars of preservative. His laboratory was decorated exactly the way he wanted it.

Right now, Albert was sitting on a cleared-off space on a table in the middle of the room (he’d had to push aside some electrical equipment whose function the doctor alone knew) and Dr. Werner was listening to his heart with a stethoscope.

“Just some routine tests. The procedure is completely safe, but we wouldn’t want you to get hurt, would we?” His ironic tone was quite obvious.

Albert just sat there with a horrified expression.

Dr. Werner removed the stethoscope and smiled. “It’s been a long time, Commander.”

Still no response from Albert.

“What? Is something the matter?”

“Franz, I’m sorry!” he burst out. He covered his face.

“I’m not. Not at all. They told me you were court-martialed for cowardice in battle,” Dr. Werner said, as if making small talk. “That’s appropriate, isn’t it?”

“I swear, I’m going to call this whole thing off! I didn’t know the doctor was going to be you!”

Dr. Werner fell into a chair with a satisfied sigh. “Oh, it’s just too wonderful.”

Albert looked defiant. “You’re going to kill me now, aren’t you? All right, get it over with.”

“No. Not now. When you land in my lap like this, it’s more proof that a just God rules the universe. This is going to take planning.” He became very still. The rats rustled in their cages. “I’m going to make you feel the way I felt in 1870.”

Albert looked mortified. “Franz, I really am sorry. It was wrong.”

“Then you should have told them I was still alive!”

Heidelberg Prison, August 9, 1897, 1:45 p.m.

The jailer was making conversation while he led Dr. Werner through the prison cells. It should have been a disturbing experience for a gentleman such as him, the sunken faces, the cries, and that all-pervasive smell. But the doctor followed along with equanimity, listening politely. Prison was far, far less gruesome than some of the sights he had seen earlier in his life, in the Franco-Prussian War.

“He’s really a very well-behaved prisoner,” the jailer was saying. “When the word came down that you needed a volunteer for your experiment, and that he would be pardoned for his contribution, we immediately thought of him.” He stopped at one of the barred alcoves. “Here we are.”

Dr. Werner stopped abruptly, mouth open. There was his volunteer, sitting on the edge of his cot, chin in his hand and looking gloomy. Their eyes met and the prisoner went pale.

“No.”

“If there’s something wrong we can go with another man,” the jailer said.

Dr. Werner’s mind was racing. He had to choose exactly the right words because he could not, could not allow the prison to replace this man with somebody else. Not when oh, good God, it was Albert who was going to be his volunteer!

“I think … I think he will do just fine,” he said. That was an understatement if there ever was one. “It’s only that … you said he used to be a commander? I am amazed something like this could happen to somebody so high up.”

The jailer gave a curious look to Albert, then to Dr. Werner. “Do you two know each other? I can’t let you go on if you do. It wouldn’t be ethical.”

Albert started to say something, then closed his mouth. Typical of him. He’d been a coward before, and he still was now. He was too afraid of the gallows to back out of the experiment even now – afraid enough to put himself on the doctor’s mercy. This was going to be precious.

“I’ve never seen this man before in my life,” Dr. Werner said flatly.

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