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Otto Hahn Speaks to the Dead

A garden is a beautiful place to die. It was the only beautiful thing about Clara’s death, which otherwise was a bullet and a broken chest, blood spilling over everything, the red scent of iron.

Had he been there, he might have vomited. Only might, because the revulsion he felt for death had lessened a little in the immediacy of the war, and he’d done so much to increase that death that it didn’t do to be squeamish just because the dead in front of him now was a woman. One connected with him, and her death was a repudiation not directed at him—Otto wasn’t the one married to her—but he had some responsibility nonetheless. He’d helped in the work she’d felt such revulsion for; she had seen the choice he’d made and refused her coexistence.

“Of course I did,” she says after they took her body away. She’d been covered after it happened, the suicide kept from sight, but not all of the blood she’d shed had soaked into dress and dressings. The rest had soaked into earth, was scatter-droplets on petals, and in the moonlight no-one could see it anyway, or was even out searching. Some things were too terrible to look at and her husband was inside, avoiding mirrors. The ghost of her stayed in the garden, with the closed-up blossoms, so she wouldn’t have to look at him. “No decent person would be part of this.”

Chemical warfare, and Clara a chemist herself. “There are some things I will not stoop to,” she says, and it disgusted her that Otto had. That her husband had—that he’d covered his hands with burning, with suffocated blood, and brought them home to her afterwards, as if she were expected to touch them, to kiss them and be grateful for their presence.

She couldn’t bear to be touched by him ever again. Hence the bullets, the garden death, and the house still in a mess from the party Haber had held to celebrate chlorine gas in trenches, and how he’d done it first.

“Better than the alternative,” Otto argues. It’s not exactly heroic, coming up with ways to slaughter at scale, but he’d rather cause others to choke and suffocate than do so himself. “There’s nothing wrong with self-preservation,” he says, because war is a terrible thing, yes, but sometimes scruples do nothing but extend it. Best to get it over with as quickly as possible, and with as little damage as possible. The rest he doesn’t look at too closely.

“You should have the decency to look at what you’ve done,” says Clara. She slips her arms out of her dress, lets the fabric fall to her waist. He doesn’t want to look. It feels disrespectful, somehow, with her bare breasts slick with her own blood, and that gaping ruin between them. “Look,” she says. “Look at what I think of you.”

He’ll go to his own grave swearing that he never got hard at the sight of her.

She’s there every time he goes to sleep. A nightmare come to life. “You traffic in nightmares, don’t you?” Clara asks him. “Well then. This is what you invited in.”

She’s a monster.

No, she isn’t.

That’s one accusation Otto will never have the right to make again. Monstrosity comes in many forms but Clara isn’t it, and he thinks as long as he can hold to that then there’s something in him human still, something the gas hasn’t changed.

He has a gas mask of his own now. It was only a matter of time. There is argument out of Britain: “We cannot win this war unless we kill or incapacitate more of our enemies than they do of us, and if this can only be done by copying the enemy in his choice of weapons, we must not refuse to do so.”

It is an escalation that was entirely foreseen.

His face in the mirror is masked and wheezing. Clara stands behind him, the front of her blood red and dripping, but her face is innocent of canvas and charcoal. “It suits you,” she says. “But it won’t make a difference.”

She comes to him at night. He wakes to her kneeling on his chest, the breath being pressed out of him. Blood runs from her shattered chest, drips into his mouth, pools in the back of his throat. It’s copper and iron and choking, the warm sweet scent of it. When she smiles down at him her teeth are rimmed with red, like they were in the garden when she coughed up the last of her own life.

“Poor baby,” she says. “Did you have a bad dream?”

Her hair smells of flowers. That’s always what sets him to weeping. If it were grave dirt, trench dirt, the scent surrounding him as he lay in his bed, he thinks he’d be able to treat her as revenant. To push her off him, to let horror take the place of bitterness and grief. That would be protection, of a sort, because the gas mask never is. He wears it to bed, when she’s come too often for sleeping and sanity, but it smothers him regardless. It’s too warm, too close, and he comes to gasping consciousness, slick with sweat, that same taste of salt.

Flowers are better. At least with flowers he can tell himself that what’s waking him is external, the product of a grief he’d never admit to having, because what would that make of his life? His involvement is not peripheral. The responsibility for chemical warfare falls on him as much as anyone. Edith tells him not to worry, tells him he is doing his duty, and thank God his wife is not as dramatic as Haber’s was, he does not think he could bear it. Flinches now when she goes into the garden. Pastes a smile on his face for her, makes of his features a smooth clean warmth, because she’s never woken to ghosts in the bed and he doesn’t want her to fathom what his work has brought them.

There are masks for horses, too, and dogs. All the innocent, useful beasts. Otto is useful but not innocent, and when he sees himself in surfaces, the canvas shifting with every breath, he wonders if this is what he looked like all along.

He’s so sick of seeing her. “Why don’t you haunt your own husband?” he snarls, an angry whisper because Edith is asleep beside him and he’d never admit it, never, but this night time atonement is nothing to do with her. Edith was never a chemist, she could never know what it was to have elements at her fingers, to be able to manipulate the very stuff of matter.

Clara’s face freezes at him. Her red mouth, her red chest. Her red breath, because whenever she speaks small droplets spray out and smear the sheets, and he has to tell Edith he had a bloody nose in the night. “It will make no difference,” she says. “Not to him.”

Fritz Haber had left the day after the garden party, left to go back to the front. Left the garden still sticky with protest, left his young son still trembling with the feel of dead mother in his arms. Otto knows about necessity and the price of power, he’s excused a lot for it, but he’s not sure that this betrayal is ever one which could be excused. “Would you leave your son after such a grief?” Clara hisses at him, sibilant, with liquid in her chest.

He doesn’t have a son. Is newly married, and children have not yet been gifted to him. “I’d never hurt a child like you did,” he says, knowing it will hurt. He is good at hurting, has developed a proficiency for it. The thought of that child, alone, having found his mother in the garden, a garden he’ll now have to look out onto every day . . . “Perhaps you are a monster,” he says.

It’s always so easy to condemn others.

“Do I look monstrous to you?” says Clara. In the moonlight the blood shimmers and fades, seems to seep back into skin, and the whole broken chest of her knits itself together, pale and gleaming. She’s perfect, so perfect, and close enough to touch, and the entire bedroom smells of flowers now instead of iron, and the stars behind her give enough of a shine for halos and Edith is a pale thing in comparison, insipid, and part of him hates her for it because he’s planning the murder of hundreds, of thousands, trying to make entire armies choke and suffocate and suffer, and this is something she can just skim over, like it’s nothing. In their marriage bed, sleeping, peaceful, like it’s nothing.

“Do you want her to open herself up for you?” says Clara, smirking, and this is revenge, he thinks, for the cruelty of her son, for the way that Otto used him as reminder. “Do you want her to open herself up because of you?”

What a thing it would be to be so powerful.

(What a thing it is.)

Verdun, Zone Rouge.

A hundred years after World War 1, the place is still uninhabitable. 1200 square kilometres, saturated with ordinance, and with chemicals. The soldiers hit with chlorine gas, with all the gases that came after chlorine, they lived, some of them. Or died. Either way their stories were short ones. Packed off in stretchers, packed off in ambulances, buried not far from where the gas got them.

Not all the gas got sucked into lungs. Not nearly all of it. Most floated down, a gentle sinking. Soaked itself into soil, got sucked up again by plants, got eaten through plants by birds and mammals and gentle creeping things. Chlorine. Arsenic.

In some places 99% of the plants are dead. A hundred years later, they are still dead. Nothing can survive the contamination those shells left.

Chlorine. Phosgene. Mustard. Nausea, vomiting, headache. Blindness, asphyxiation, blisters. Lungs filled with fluid. Suffocation. Drowning.

Otto dreams himself awake to skin full of pustules and streaming eyes, irritation in his mouth and throat. Watery eyes, wheezing. The fluid in his lungs reacting to chlorine, forming hydrochloric acid. A burning, choking, agonising death, membranes leaking blood.

Clara takes her ghost-self through the undergrowth of Verdun. There are dead trees there, dead skeletons. Nothing smells of flowers, but when the blood spills down her front—a smooth, endless gushing—it drops upon the earth like poppies, and for a moment the dead ground blooms. Then the soil gets them, drags them down, bleaches the petals to nothing and leaves them curled up and brown. Withered.

A ghost has light footsteps. They don’t disturb the bombs, all the unexploded pieces, but sometimes when an animal wanders passed, one too lost and mazed to be frightened by the dead, it sets off a small blast and dies, twitching, in soil that is anathema to it.

Little bones are everywhere. It’s nothing like a garden, Clara thinks, but at the same time it’s her own, left to go wild because no-one can stand to go out in it anymore.   

It’s walking in a wasteland. Otto will never come here, so she scrapes the dirt up into her mouth, the dead dirt, whole horrible sterile handfuls of it. She is dead herself, so there’s no danger of it. But when she goes to him at night, this man she never knew that well but can still see some worth in, worth that by the end she could never see in her husband, she breaths the scent of Verdun over him. The dusty, empty scent of it, crammed in her teeth, between canines and clogging up the hole in her chest.

There will be no escape. Not for either of them.

How to survive a chlorine gas attack:

1) Leave before it starts. Be somewhere else entirely.

Otto spends much of his time scouting for appropriate places for slaughter. Gas is a finicky thing. Climate and geography can make it less effective. Less lethal. This is war, after all, and it is best to be efficient. He is at Flanders before the second battle of Ypres, but when men are being gassed there—with the prevailing wind—he is off looking at another site, and then another. Belgium, Poland, Italy . . . he gets to see them all. Clara is never with him, but whatever field he stands in smells of flowers.

2) Try not to run. Exercise exacerbates the effects of the gas.

He thinks the travel sees her off, that if Clara can’t find his bed at night it’s because she’s no longer able. Hatred is a difficult thing to hold on to, perhaps. But he volunteers himself as human guinea-pig, standing with gas mask on—it’s like a second skin, now—and waiting for the gas to take him. The one disadvantage to using chlorine on the other side is that it’s harder to get hold of their bodies. He could get out of testing, if he wanted—there’s not so many scientists of his calibre that they couldn’t find someone as German and much more useless to take his place. But the responsibility nags at him, the sense of horror he feels at the sight of the gas clouds seeping towards him . . . this is what he has helped to inflict on others, and there is something in him that feels he must face the same. So he reports for testing, wears his mask and locks his knees together, hopes the protection he has is protection enough. If not, perhaps that is justice. When he forces his eyes open, Clara is standing with him, her face pressed against his gas mark, staring in. He can feel the chill breath of her through canvas. When he sees her watching, feels the strain in the legs that are not running, he understands that hatred finds a way.

3) Get to a high place. Do not lie down, not in the trenches. Chlorine gas is heavier than air, and it sinks.

Otto feels he is justified. He feels it over and over. The fit of the gas mask, the stink of chemical, of charcoal and urine . . . he has done his part. Self-respect staggers on, but it is nowhere near as close a justification as necessity. “We must break this deadlock,” he says. “Better for everyone the sooner it’s over. I’d not do this if I had the choice. No-one would.”

“Lots of people would,” says Clara. “Don’t tell me about choices.” She made hers, in the garden, with her husband’s service pistol, and everyone around her paid, is paying for it.

“Hard choices take strength,” he says, but secretly, in himself, he wonders more and more if what made his choices for him is weakness.

Otto has a son. His only child, and when he wakes one night to screaming he decides to let his wife sleep, see to the boy himself. Clara is hanging over the crib, and cooing. Her breasts are leaking over him, a mixture of milk and blood, and the room smells of dead earth and dead flowers.

“Strange how their screaming affects you,” she says. Little Hermann screamed when he found his mother, Otto is sure of it. He’s spent more nights than he cares to collect picturing the young boy and the shot and the screaming, the small hands trying to stifle blood and flailing, frantic, as his mother dies in his arms.

“Even when they’re old, you don’t forget it,” she says. Hermann must be nearly a man now, and later, much later, when Otto hears that he has killed himself, taken to suicide just as his mother did, he’ll remember this conversation and wish . . . for what? That he’d been kinder, to the creature overhanging his life? That he’d had sympathy for the devastation she’d caused? That he’d reached out, somehow, to another family’s horror, and one he wasn’t quite innocent of?

He isn’t, and doesn’t, and never does. She can’t expect kindness, hovering as she does, like a ghoul. A hag. “You leave my boy alone,” he says, snatching the child out from under and wiping his face clean with fingers that are smeared with old blood. “He’s got nothing to do with this. With us.” If her visits have waned somewhat there’s an us, still. A relationship closer in death than ever was in life, when she was the wife of his colleague and not much else. Why she’s latched on to him he’ll never guess, and refuses now to try.

Mostly he doesn’t think of her at all. As time passes the trenches get further away. The nearness of death recedes, and it’s easier to think well of himself. Easier to think on other things. Different things.

“There’s a lot you don’t think about any more,” says Clara. “You made the world he’ll live in. You think that’s nothing to do with you?”

“He’ll have a better world than Hermann,” says Otto. A better mother. A better father.

“All those boys you killed had fathers too,” Clara reminds him, and then she’s gone, the nursery still as if she was never there, and the baby choking in his arms.

The little chest is heaving, the little cheeks red, at first, then redder and redder then paling down to blue, and if Otto’s work has taught him anything it’s taught him the signs of suffocation, of gasping for breath that won’t come. Of lungs clogged up and drowning, of no strength left to cry and tears coming regardless.

It’s croup, he tells himself, only croup, and the baby lives and it’s a small alarm only, a common ailment or so the doctor tells him, but Otto could swear, he could swear, that with his head pressed closed to infant chest to detect the signs of life he could smell nothing but chlorine.

(Hanno Hahn does not die from croup. He does not die in World War Two, not from gas nor from bombs. He and his wife are killed in a car accident, leaving only a young son. The boy is the same age as Hermann was, when he found his mother dying in the garden and his father left him to go on alone while he arranged the murder of other men’s sons.

Otto cries and cries where the boy cannot see, and wonders to himself if this loss is justice come at last.)

The War, the Great War, and he thought it was over. “The world we create is never over,” says Clara, because there’s another war coming, one bigger and more gaseous than the last, and now the responsibility is even more his because Otto has found something more dangerous than chlorine, and its name is fission. He and Lise Meitner discovered it, working together, and war will make of their work a wasteland worse than that ever seen in Ypres, or Verdun.

Lise is Jewish, and Germany is no longer a safe place for her. Otto helps her escape, because he has seen enough of blood saturating through the women of his acquaintance, and he was too proud, too stupid, too pleased with himself ever to help Clara. If he even could have. The only thing that could have saved Lise from the taint of her blood was the willingness to work, but work can only buy so much freedom and he has no belief in her ability to push through.

He knows she will abstain. Clara shot herself rather than give the approval of her presence. Lise has removed herself as well, and she will not work on the bomb. Not ever. Not for the Germans and not for the Allies. Such things, she says, are too hideous.

Otto thinks he may have forgotten what hideous is.

He digs out his old gas mask, the first one. There are better ones since, he knows them and has them, but the first is impregnated with nightmares of suffocation, and when he wears it he can feel his throat closing. When he wears it to bed he wakes to find Clara crouched on his chest, the way she used to in the war gone by. It’s been over twenty years and she’s still wet with blood, still warm with it, and this time he licks it out of her mouth so he can remember what death is, what consequences it has. What his responsibilities are.

“I don’t want to be that man again,” he says. He can’t tell when science stopped being a wonder to him and started being a horror, but in the back of his mind now is a fear that the chemical death he brought on so many is a small thing. A small and burning thing, and what is coming is holocaust. “I don’t want to be that man again.”

“Then don’t,” says Clara.

He does not work on the bomb. It’s that easy.

The war drags on and on.

He cannot forgive himself for it.

About the Author

Octavia Cade is a New Zealand writer. She’s sold around sixty stories to markets including Clarkesworld, F&SF, and Asimov’s. She’s a Bram Stoker nominee and four time Sir Julius Vogel award winner, and was the 2020 visiting writer in residence at Massey University. Her latest book, the climate fiction novella The Impossible Resurrection of Grief, came out recently from Stelliform.