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At Heidelberg University, Part 6

September 23, 2009

The Sheep’s Head, December 3, 1903, 7:35 p.m.

Dr. Werner had developed a habit of going to the Sheep’s Head for dinner in the past few years. It had nice wood walls, well-lit, didn’t see a lot of riffraff of the city but wasn’t too expensive, either. Since his famous lab accident he’d gotten to working in the lab at all hours, and, well, it was not much of a surprise that he was still a bachelor. He had moved on to other projects than the teleportation machine, of course. It had been too spectacular a failure, too public, to continue the work. It was only because he’d had such a solid reputation at the University that he’d been allowed to keep his job at all. Oh, well.

He scissored away at a veal cutlet across the table from one Dr. Reed, a very new assistant professor who’d barely been added on to the University the year before last. Werner had taken him under his wing so the department would not eat him alive. He had some very promising ideas about the nature of the atom. Werner sighed to himself. He was getting old, wasn’t he? All the good ideas were coming from somebody else now.

“I just received the latest Rutherford paper about radioactivity,” Reed was saying. “He thinks it happens in a mathematically predictable manner. The hazards of the work are enormous, of course, but if the burns–“

“Have you ever done something you regretted, Klaus?”

His friend was so startled by the sudden change of subject that his train of thought stalled. It took him several seconds to decide what to say. “What do you mean?”

“Oh, just an idle thought.” Werner paused, looking at the color of his drink by the light. “Probably brought up by all this talk about radioactivity. We live in dangerous times. The physicists are on the verge of making actual progress in the field. We’re scientists, we’re supposed to be pure, right? Knowledge for its own sake.”

“I should hope so,” said Reed, with a puzzled look.

Then Dr. Werner brought up what would have looked like another non sequitur. “Have you noticed how the great powers don’t do anything but shake their swords at each other anymore? They’re wound up so tight that they will absolutely have to fight each other. Maybe not next year, maybe not for another ten years. But when it comes, it’s going to be the end of the world.”

“You’re acting very strangely tonight, and I wonder if we had not better go home right now.” Reed very nearly stood up from the table. “All this talk about the end of the world. Europe is a civilized place. A few wars would help to blow off steam.”

“That’s because you haven’t seen war, my friend. War is hell.” He put his drink back down. “They left me for dead, you know.”

Dr. Reed gave up his plan to leave the table and blinked. “The German unification?”

“I had to crawl all the way back to camp with a couple of French bullets in my ribs. I was furious with them for it and nursed a grudge for decades.”

“I didn’t realize you were a war hero.”

At that Werner laughed. “There aren’t any heroes in a game like that. Every year the powers develop ever more sophisticated ways of killing each other. And we scientists unwittingly serve them. There is a lot of energy inside an atom. The year we figure out how to get it out, that is when the end of the world will come.”

Reed was beginning to look really frightened. “We work for peaceful purposes!”

“The teleportation machine works!”

“But it was a disaster. And begging your pardon, Dr. Werner, but your career–“

“It works perfectly, on rats and humans. I’ve done it on myself many times. What a miraculous technology, right? We could move food and products across the ocean in the blink of an eye. Troops. We could teleport a bomb into the inside of a certain world leader’s home… But you know how these things go. I had an accident. The machine was a dismal failure, it got put on a shelf, and everybody forgot about it.” He paused to sip from his drink, seeming to remember things from long ago. “I shall have to answer for that someday. Somehow I thought it would be more fun.”

He really shouldn’t have done that, Werner thought. Not out of any fear of getting arrested – it was quite impossible – but the poor assistant professor looked just about ready to flee the restaurant.

Reed calmed himself. “Dr. Werner,” he said finally, looking the older doctor intently in the eyes. “You must tell me something in the utmost of confidence. Have you murdered that convict who disappeared?”

Werner gave that some consideration before he answered. “Probably not. It depends on how smart he is. But with every year that goes by, I think more and more that I have.”

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