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militsa

Magnet

chapter 1.

Schematic designs showed how things were constructed, showed where every rivet, every groove, every channel fit together. Perfect and harmonious, a complete machine was a thing of beauty. If he allowed himself to get carried away-and he did, in his mind, sometimes-he was like a God himself, bringing form and substance to an idea.

He was perfectly aware of the arrogance in that, thank you. It was the only thing that he had ever felt he could take pride in.


"Good work, Heiderich," said Klaussen, running his eyes over the schematic for what seemed to be the twentieth time. "You're so accurate, that's what I like about you. "Klaussen rolled up the sheet of paper and tucked it under his arm. "That's enough for today, you look exhausted. Go home and get some sleep. We'll start working on the propulsion system design tomorrow."

"All right. "Alfons Heiderich reached for his coat and watched Klaussen as he turned back to the drafting table. "Aren't you going home?It's nearly ten o'clock."

"Oh, I don't get tired," Klaussen said. He turned to Alfons and gave him one of those thin-lipped smiles that Alfons was never sure whether to take as sincere. Klaussen had thin lips, narrow teeth and a wide mouth, giving those smiles of his a feral look. His long, thin fingers drummed on the surface of the drafting table. "You go on now."

Alfons muttered a guten nacht and left the dockland warehouse that served as an improvised rocketry lab for AstraTechnologie AG. He always left Klaussen feeling sort of dismissed, disposed of. Klaussen often abruptly decided that their work was over, as if he had suddenly gotten his fill of him, and then he would send him on his way.

He told himself that he should be flattered, that Klaussen had chosen him of all the team to work closely with, that he thought he showed the most promise. But when he had asked Klaussen to sponsor him for a government job, he had said he couldn't.

He boarded the tram and watched Munich pass by as he made his way home. These late nights with Klaussen were becoming a nuisance, and something didn't feel right about it. Hardly more than a month had passed since Metzger, the project manager who had hired them for his invisible boss Herr Gottschalk, Director of Astra, had come into the lab to announce that Klaussen had been permanently hired, and that the rest of them, as casual workers, would now report to him.

As soon as Metzger had left, Klaussen began reminding everyone that he could now hire a team as he liked, and if they were all nice and proper to him he might just hire them.

"You're not going to take us, Klaussen?" said Becker. He regarded Klaussen darkly.

"I don't think so. You haven't brought anything particularly new to our work here in quite a while. I just may have to look elsewhere. "Klaussen pulled himself up to sit on the surface of one of the work benches. "The lot of you have been a disappointment in terms of innovative ideas, except maybe for Heiderich there. Metzger said that Gottschalk recommended we keep him on."

Alfons' stomach flipped at the mention of his name. "Gottschalk mentioned my name?" he asked.

"Sounds like a load of shit to me," growled Reinert. He looked over to the drafting table where Alfons and Edward were both bent over the schematics. "What do you think, boys?"

Edward completely ignored him, but Alfons could never pull off being rude. Compelled to find something pleasant to say that wouldn't annoy either Klaussen or Reinert, Alfons thought for a moment before saying, "I'm sure he didn't mean for Herr Klaussen to sack everyone. Metzger wouldn't do that, wouldn't he?"

Reinert snickered.

Klaussen slapped the wooden table with his hand. "See?What was I saying?Reinert, you're insubordinate. But you're a politician, Heiderich. You'll be the first one I hire."

Alfons half-smiled and turned back to the table.

"Just because you went to university doesn't mean you can lord it over us, Klaussen," Reinert continued to grumble. "You think you're better than us because you have a degree, but you didn't get your skills in combat like me and Becker did. While we were out rigging up bombs in the trenches and fixing planes in airfields, you were sitting on your ass in the library at Heidelberg, you fucking pussy."

The insult was jarring enough for Alfons to look back at Klaussen, but the man was smiling his crooked, thin-lipped smile.

"I have fallen arches. And now I have a degree, you stupid ox. "Klaussen slid off the table onto his fallen arches. He crossed the room to the drafting table and came to stand behind Alfons and Edward. Alfons tried to suppress a chill that ran down his spine, and ended up shuddering when he realized that Klaussen had spread his arms and put one over each of their shoulders. "My boys," he began rhetorically. "Under me this team will reach new heights!We'll be doing exhibitions for the government, the world's fair in Rio, the sky's the limit, eh, boys?What do you think?" He squeezed them then; Alfons ducked away but Edward pushed Klaussen's arm away forcefully.

"Congratufuckinlations. We're working here," he said testily, never taking his eyes off the table for a moment.

Alfons suppressed a smile as Klaussen backed off.

"You're working with me this evening, Heiderich," he said as he began to cross the warehouse. "We're testing fuel composition in the induction engine."

"Yes, sir. "Alfons looked down at the paper and halfheartedly moved his pencil but didn't make a mark; his hand felt cold and numb. He was tired, and as much as he loved to work, he didn't cherish a late night with Klaussen.


Since then, Alfons had spent more late nights than he cared to count, alone in the lab with Klaussen. Even Edward couldn't bear staying so late, and everyone left while Alfons sat with Klaussen's hand clamped on his shoulder.

"Tell me everything you did with Oberth," Klaussen had said. "I want to know everything he's been working on. We'll use that as our base, and improve upon it."

"But, sir," Alfons had said. "Some of what I did with him was for his thesis, and that's his property, isn't it?I don't know if I—"

"What's the matter with you, Heiderich?" Klaussen had said then. "Don't you want to do the best work we can?Don't you want us to be successful?To keep Germany at the forefront of technological development?We're not doing anything wrong, building on others' work. This is science. It's our obligation to go as far as we can. "Klaussen had caught his eyes then, and held them. "Am I right?"

Alfons had said, "Yes, sir," but he wasn't so sure. Giving him Oberth's formulas, the designs that had come out of his lab team, didn't feel right. He felt like he was betraying the man who had given him the opportunity to be his apprentice, with nothing more than a high school education. Oberth had encouraged him to go to university, but when he had come to Munich, he hadn't had enough money to study and had been seduced by paying jobs. One day, he'd go.

Until then, he'd do the best he could. He held a fair bit of power in the small universe of the Astra laboratory. As Klaussen's favorite, he got to do all the most interesting projects. Nobody begrudged him, as far as he could tell. Maybe they knew what he himself suspected; if they saw him trying to catch his breath when going up a flight of stairs, or if they knew that he was no longer capable of running even a short difference-maybe they cut him some slack.

Everyone, that is, except for Edward.

"That's the fifth night in a row that you've come home after ten," he said, throwing a ceramic bowl down onto the only table in their flat, which served for eating, working, and anything else. The empty bowl clattered and spun several times before coming to rest. "Huh, look at that torque. . . I made soup but it's all fucking cold now. I couldn't keep reheating it because I ran out of matches to light the stove. "He tossed a spoon onto the table and left the room.

"That's silly. You could have asked a neighbor," Alfons said, following him into the bedroom.

"You could have remembered to bring some home."

He stood in the doorway and smiled at the scene; Edward sitting on the bed, undressing. He liked coming home to this. This and his work; he was so happy. Life seemed a balanced equation: he had his work, and he had this, at home. It had only been a couple of months since their friendship had grown into something else, but it was difficult not to be pleased with himself; it had been what he wanted. Although he had always been told, Pride goeth before a fall.

In the book on the kitchen table, there was a poem that fit him like a jacket:

And if this should be arrogance, so let me

arrogant be to justify my prayer

that stands so serious and so alone

before your forehead, circled by the clouds. [1]


If he left this book open, just so, the pages fell open there, and these were the words. He underlined them in pencil, because he liked them;he was a scientist and not a poet, and he certainly didn't know how to say things as elegantly as that.

He wanted Edward to see.


They couldn't speak very well with one another, because they were young, and they weren't Romantic, and words that weren't scientific didn't come easy to the mind or to the tongue. Words never just slipped off his tongue, not in this foreign language, unless he happened to make a childish grammatical error, he never said what he did not mean, and didn't want to be mistaken.

This book had appeared on their kitchen table, just innocently lying, waiting in the stack of otherwise scientific books. When Edward discovered it, he had been looking for something else, of course.

Never, never in his life had he so much as even read a poem, let alone a whole book of them.

Edward found the German tongue inelegant, and elegance was not something he was used to appreciating. At least his native tongue had soft elisions and musical tones; he'd never bothered to notice that before he had had to try to master Deutsch. He spoke like a foreigner, he knew he made errors and could only imagine what sort of accent he had; he couldn't detect it himself. Speaking a foreign language all the time was frustrating; sometimes he felt as if it was impossible for people to understand him, even if the words were correct. He wasn't sure how to be funny in German, and rarely tried it. He had no cultural references for humor or sarcasm. Sometimes he wondered if it appeared that he had no personality at all, although Heiderich seemed to like him. Even more than he deserved, he thought.


This is the equation for calculating rocket thrust:

F=mVe + (pe—p0) Ae[2]

It is one of the first things an engineer or physicist learns when designing rockets or aircraft.

Thrust is produced by Newton's Third Law of Motion:for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Thrust is also produced when Alfons puts himself inside Edward and tries to make himself come. Similarly, thrust is also produced when Edward is inside of him. He likes applying the thrust himself, he thinks, because usually it means he can put his hands all over Edward, because he likes to do it draped over him like a quilt. When Edward does it to him, they sit facing each other, and Alfons has to sit on Edward's lap with his legs on either side of him, or they stand, he, facing the wall or draped over the bed, Edward behind him. Because he can't touch Edward when they are doing it this way, it's not his favorite.

Thrust is also produced by less strenuous exercises; for example, if he happened to touch Edward's nipple with the tip of his tongue, he would get a smack on the head; but soon after, he would usually get something equally exciting, like Edward's mouth at his ear, whispering his name.

It had never been particularly hard for him to immerse himself in the seamless grace of this relationship. Everything about it tasted right; Edward's mouth, skin, even the way his hair smelled after not having been washed for days. There wasn't anything to question. They were Scientists; this was Nature. They were Modern; God is dead.

Well, that's what Alfons tried to tell himself, anyway.


Twitchy. That's how Edward felt the first time he let Alfons touch his body. The hands held the back of his neck and then slid down his back and then pulled his shirt out of his trousers, then the hands wandered up the bare skin of his back and he had spasmed like he had had an electrical shock.

They were kissing as this happened, and Edward had found his left hand grasping at Alfons' short hair. He had never really touched someone else's hair before, and was marveling at that. His right arm just hung at his side, he didn't know what to do with it, all he knew was that he didn't want to touch Alfons with it because—because he just didn't.

He twitched when those ten fingers met at the base of his neck, under his collar, and then again when they went off down his back,meeting the hard surface of the contraption holding his arm on, then kept going down to meet the waist of his trousers.

"Do you want to get undressed?" Alfons had asked in his ear. His voice was different, raspy, urgent.

He hadn't known until that moment that he was self-conscious of his body, not just hiding it because it was a secret-because it wasn't to Alfons—but because of how it had gotten that way, and because it was not like everyone else's, not how it should be, not harmonious according to the rules of aesthetics. He had read in one of his father's books that

Beauty = Symmetry

that the faces and bodies of people considered most beautiful actually conformed to metrics that demonstrated near-perfect proportion. According to that law, he must be horrible to look at.

"I don't—" But Alfons had stopped him with an unexpectedly aggressive kiss on the mouth.

He wasn't vain, he wasn't, but all he could think when he was peeling off his clothes was Don't look at me.

Alfons was perfect; pale and white and smooth and perfect, not a mark on him. He felt like he didn't even deserve to touch him with his one stupid hand. He kept on his artificial limbs, not ready to be entirely naked.

He nearly jumped out of his skin when Alfons reached out and touched his fake arm. He tried to relax as Alfons ran his fingers along the straps and then rested on the buckle fastening the harness.

"Don't you want to take it off?" Alfons said, sounding uncertain.

"Not really," Edward said, looking away. He felt utterly exposed now, and he had never in his life felt like this, so naked and imperfect. It had never mattered like this before. What had mattered was how he was able to assimilate and dominate his disabilities, but when he suddenly found himself undressed for someone. . . not a doctor or a mechanic, but someone who was going to really touch him. . . he wanted to disappear, and if that was a trick he was capable of, he would have done so. He was disgusted with himself for being shy. He had always thought himself better than that. He had always expected, when the time came, that he would have been braver.

"Don't. . . it's all right, it doesn't bother me," Alfons said. His voice had contained in it a hint, a timbre of something, pity maybe, or maybe it was some high emotion that had made it soft but thick, and he had almost whispered, that quality of voice people use on the sick to soothe them. Or to lie.

"Fuck this. Just forget it," Edward found himself saying, and at the same time found himself pulling his shirt on. He couldn't look directly at Alfons, but he saw him sitting close to him with his mouth hanging open. Edward got up and left the room.

He was appalled at himself; he didn't know what else to do but stand in the darkened kitchen, look at the shadows on the floor, feel himself burn with shame, and think What the hell is wrong with me?A wide yellow plank of light from the street lay across the table where several books and dirty dishes sat, but only one book was open, and the light was on it. Ed stepped closer, leaned over to see the book. His eyes scanned the lines on the page, and one stuck.

It said:

“Being apart and lonely is like rain. ” [3]

Ed thought, "What's that supposed to mean?It doesn't mean anything. Poetry is just stupid. "He leaned over the book and turned the page, scanned the lines again.

You make me feel alone. I try imagining:

one moment it is you, then it's the soaring wind;

a fragrance comes and goes but never lasts.

Oh, within my arms I lost all whom I loved!

Only you remain, always reborn again.

For since I never held you, I hold you fast. [4]

His mouth twisted to the side. Even the words embarrassed him. It was so damn. . . sentimental. He didn't like sentimentality. His father was getting sentimental, and it sometimes made him seem deranged. Being sentimental led to feeling lonely and sad, here. It was a weakness he could bloody well not afford.

He read the words again though, his eyes and mind dwelled on them, turned them over. He spoke them aloud, at the lowest volume possible, and tasted the words with his tongue.

For since I never held you, I hold you fast.

He felt an unfamiliar pain in his stomach, like it was being squeezed or like he had swallowed a handful of nails. Then, arms came and circled him from behind, a body came close and pressed against his. A mouth's soft lips against his ear.

"Is this all right?Please say it's all right."

Edward let himself lean back, tipped his chin up, his head on Alfons' shoulder.

"It's all right. You didn't do anything wrong."

"I'm sorry," Alfons said softly. "I didn't mean to hurt your feelings. . . I don't know how to say it right. . ."

He let himself be supported by Alfons, reached out and flicked the book closed. Alfons laughed softly.

"What?"

"It's your turn to apologize," Alfons said, but his voice was light, soft, on the edge of laughter, teasing.

"What the hell for?"

"You swore at me."


Like magnet to metal, it had happened like nature, like physics, like it was how the Universe worked. It was in response to a natural law. It was surprising, how their flesh fit together. Edward had not expected it to feel so natural. There were a thousand things wrong; they were both men, they were just friends, they had never said anything special to each other. And the face of Alfons. There was that. It was both a torment and a pleasure to look at. If he were being honest, he would have to admit that he wasn't entirely sure that Heiderich actually really did look like his brother.

It seemed that he did. The shape of the face, the eyes, but not the color, not the color of the hair, either; not the precise shade of skin. . . but it had been so long since he had seen what his brother looked like, he couldn't be sure. He suspected that he might be delusional about this; he suspected that he might be delusional about a lot of things, among them that Alfons Heiderich actually liked him.

Because there was himself. So imperfect as to be a joke; not just his body, although he started out in a state of disbelief that anyone could find him appealing with his clothes off, but also everything that came out of his mouth. He knew he wasn't lying, but he also knew that Alfons thought he was lying, that he was crazy. How did he know that he wasn't?Isn't that what insanity is, not knowing what's real and what isn't?

It worried him. At any moment the whole thing could come crashing down;the dream-state could be shattered as easily as he awoke from sleep. Suddenly, it would all be gone. He'd be alone in this world without anything, without anyone. Although he never said anything about it, secretly he was clingy. Every time they parted ways, Edward felt some anxiety about whether Alfons would come back to him.


Reinert grunted as he lifted a defunct engine from the neighboring worktable and carried it over, setting it down gently before Edward and Alfons. The engineers studied their failed work before Edward handed Alfons a screwdriver.

"Might as well take this one apart."

Alfons hmmed in agreement and they set to work. Together they removed screws before separating the engine's components.

There were other men in the shop, so it was difficult to do something that put them so close together. Edward could feel the heat of Alfons' skin as they bent over the engine together. He would have liked to lean forward and kiss the creamy white skin behind his ear. It was torture, but it was also nice, nice to know that they would go home together and later, later, he could have anything he wanted.


Later than morning, Metzger entered the warehouse pulling something, covered by a piece of oilcloth, in a small cart. He set it in the middle of the largest worktable and dramatically removed the cloth, as if he were revealing a magic trick.

"Here it is, as promised. Gentleman, the electromagnetic generator!"

Their assignment was to develop a way to use an electromagnetic field in a rocket's mechanism that would enable the operators to control the rocket from a distance. This was a tantalizingly difficult puzzle. The engineers were salivating over the opportunity to play with the magnetic field. The generator stood less than a meter high, but it was quite powerful, and for a while the team played with the machine by throwing coins, belt buckles and other small metal objects at the wand. A coin, when tossed at the generator, would stop in any trajectory and almost hover in mid-air for a moment, before being drawn in the straightest of lines to the wand with a snap. Everyone whooped with delight, like children at a carnival.

It had taken Alfons a while to notice that Edward wouldn't go near the thing. He hung about the edges of the workshop, far away from the machine that had attracted everyone else like a sideshow. Of course, he told himself, he's avoiding the magnetism. He felt stupid for not realizing it. Eventually the others noticed too and starting imploring Ed to join them. He begged off, shaking his head and moving toward the door. Alfons wished they would all just shut up and turned to wave his hand at them. When he turned back to the door, Edward had already slipped out.

The workshop was one of several along a pier at the edge of the city. Outside there wasn't much to look at but a dull, industrial section of river, polluted by factories or out the back, the road that led back into town, which here was populated only by a few automobile repair shops, breweries and warehouses.

Alfons walked along the waterfront, until he saw Edward sitting on the end of a pier, looking out over the river. It was an unusually warmish, early spring day and Alfons was already flushed with the excitement over the magnetic generator. When he sat down next to Edward, his face felt hot and having to clear his throat, he coughed into his hand.

"Come back in," Alfons said. "Everyone's wondering why you left."

"I can't be near that thing," said Edward." There's too much metal on me."

Alfons said, "Becker claimed it would pull him in by his steel pocket watch, and he wasn't exaggerating."

"I know! I saw him hold it up from three meters away and it jumped out of his hand."

"It's amazing!" Alfons enthused. "I've never seen anything like it."

"It's brilliant, I'd love to play around with it," Edward agreed.

"So come. You don't have to get too close."

"I can't."

Alfons seemed to give up and he shrugged. "Well, we'd better get back, we're still on the clock, you know," and stood up. He reached down and offered Edward his hand. "Come on, if you make me wait another minute I'm going to fling you at that magnet, I swear."

"Do not tease me, or you may not live to regret it."


They were paid at the end of that week, and Edward and Alfons joined the rest of the team as they all treated themselves to a proper meal, and two rounds of beer at the biergarten. Everyone was drunk and cheerful, pleased with themselves-they patted each other on the back for a successful start to their electromagnetism project. The first draft of plans seemed to work well with the model they had designed.

Metzger left early but Reinert and Becker were severely drunk when the group rose from their table at eleven o'clock. As they all tumbled out the door, Becker fell to the ground, and stayed there on his back, laughing about how drunk he was. Big Reinert bent down to help him stand, throwing Becker's arm around his broad shoulders, he began dragging him home.

"Goodnight boys!" The other men waved and hooted as Alfons and Edward started off in the opposite direction. In an uplifted, sated mood they ambled home, not feeling the cold. They walked side by side, Alfons longing to take Edward's hand, but contenting himself instead with watching his friend in a good mood, whistling to himself. His cheeks were red and his eyes bright from the cold. Under the gaslit streetlamp, Edward's eyes were an otherwordly color, dark gold and shiny, and Alfons wanted more than anything to kiss him.

But they didn't dare do that on the street. They couldn't even touch on the street, unless they were wasted drunk and hanging off each other's shoulders. It was funny, what people would accept. The rules made no sense, but Alfons knew them intuitively. He also knew how important it was that they be followed.

Alfons felt the roll of bills in his trouser pocket, thinking that they would give Miss Gracia the rest of the rent tomorrow. They'd be all caught up-that would be a first. He glanced at Edward as they walked, smiling. He felt like celebrating some more.

"What?"

"Nothing. "Alfons moved closer, bumped his shoulder and stepped away again.


When he was in those moments, caught up in the act of making love, every part of his body sang with the best kind of stress-the exertions made his skin warm and his breath quick but regular, so he could forget how it sometimes hurt-in a disconcerting, unfamiliar way, sharply, deeply, like something foul had buried itself in there, or burnt the delicate lining of his insides, around that precious space where the heart beat and the lungs took air-lately it often hurt to take a deep draught of air outside. But here, inside, in their bed, where it was warm, nothing hurt when they were doing this. When he ran his mouth, his tongue over Edward's pale gold skin, he didn't think about what might be wrong inside him.

Making love made him feel like he thought he should:strong, attractive, young.

Edward was on his front, his knee bent under him so that little behind was up in the air, his arm stretched out in front. Alfons took a moment to appreciate how his loose hair spread across his back and over his shoulders, how his fingers kneaded the sheet like a cat's paw, how the blond hairs on his arm seemed to be standing up in anticipation.

"Come on!" he urged, his voice raspy and begging.

Alfons couldn't help throwing his arms around Ed's middle, laying his head on his back. He squeezed him, overwhelmed with affection.

"Are you going to—"

"Yes, yes. Be patient," admonished Alfons. Before pulling away he kissed the smooth curve of Edward's spine. "I was just enjoying the view."

"The view of my butt? Damn, Alfons, you are weird."


Later, Edward was asleep next to him, but the exuberant feeling of making love had been followed, in Alfons, with a feeling of over-exhaustion. Every part of his body ached and twitched, and his chest hurt. Lately, while Edward slept like the dead, Alfons had found himself waking from an unsatisfying, shallow sleep, bathed in sweat. He would get up and go into the kitchen, pump cold water into the sink and rinse his face. Tonight he found himself hunched over the sink, coughing, coughing, and for the first time he felt like he would bring something up. He waited to vomit, but nothing happened. Another wave of coughing convulsed him and he felt like needles were embedded in his lungs as he strove for a satisfying breath. His heart beat too quickly; he was panicking.

Oh my God, my God. Make it stop.

Unexpectedly, there was a feeling of movement in his chest and liquid in his throat. He coughed again and expectorated into his hand. It was dark; he held his hand up to the light coming in through the window.

It was red.


It took him a while to calm down enough to get back into bed. He drank some hot water while sitting at the kitchen table. The book was open, and he flipped through its pages.

When he returned to bed he was shivering. As if sensing his need but without seeming to wake, Edward moved close and slammed into him, still snoring. He was so warm. Alfons lay next to him, waiting for the dreadful shivering, that was so violent as to make his teeth chatter, to subside.