She stood shivering in her thin, patched-up coat as the child was brought to her. Her vision blurred with tears, she rushed to him and felt his body, stiff and unyielding like a board, in her arms.
“Karol!” she cried.
“Klaus,” the boy said.
The fifth installment of Captain America was a flop. The movie was panned by critics and slipped out of theaters as unobtrusively as a whipped dog, to lick its wounds in the limbo of Netflix and Amazon Prime where only the perpetually stoned, the terminally bored, and the true aficionados ever clicked on the “Stream” button. World War 2 was losing its allure, people said. We have terrorists today; who is afraid of Nazis?
The nurses in the Lebensborn home in Katowice in Upper Silesia did their best to cope with the influx of Aryan children who were taken away from their inferior parents in the Polish Generalgouvernement area. There was a science to it, of course; not every blond and blue-eyed baby was automatically of pure blood. The resident physician, Doktor Franz Kluge, did his best to examine every item in every incoming delivery. Those whose washed-out complexion indicated nothing more exciting than malnutrition, were terminated. The rest were parceled out to the overworked nurses in crowded wards who did their best to quieten, feed and clean up the screaming toddlers on whose frail shoulders the future of true humanity rested. Sister Gerda was trying very hard – she genuinely loved children, especially Aryan ones – but there were so many, they blended into an indiscriminate mass of flesh to be processed.
All but the boy with hair like golden stubble left on the fields in the fall and eyes the color of sky after a thunderstorm. He was less than a year old but his bone structure was already sharp and clean in his narrow face. He looked at Sister Gerda and smiled.
“Mine!” she said.
The Plot of Captain America: The Future Race concerned the resurrected superhero fighting an invasion of neo-Nazi villains who have been building their millennial Reich in the jungles of Amazonia and cloning legions of identical soldiers to take over the world. Blogs immediately pointed out the similarity of the hackneyed plot to the 1978 Boys from Brazil. Couldn’t they come up with something new? Was the general outcry. The single professional historian who bothered to watch the movie pounced upon a gross historical inaccuracy: the hatchery for murderous clones in the film was called Lebensborn. People thought it was a made-up word that sounded menacingly German but in fact, Lebensborn, meaning “fount of life”, was the name for an actual Nazi program during World War 2. It had nothing to do with cloning, of course; Lebensborn homes were a combination of orphanages and nurseries where children of “superior blood” were reared by the state. The children were either the product of officially encouraged liaisons between SS members and suitably vetted mothers, or were kidnapped from their parents in Eastern Europe. In any case, slapping this sad name on a ridiculous special-effects lab with bloody embryos in menacingly lit test-tubes was insulting and inappropriate. This is what the historian, named Paul Martin, said. Of course, nobody cared.
“I am your mother!” Malgorzata yelled. “You’ll do as I say!”
The boy looked at her with his closely-set indigo eyes. The color was so saturated that he looked as if her were wearing a mask. His hatchet-like nose jutted from his narrow face, cleaving the mask in two.
She knew he could understand Polish – she had sung songs in język ojczystyto to him when he was in her belly, but he pretended he did not. And she would be damned if the cursed language of the invaders who had raped her country, killed her husband, and taken away her son, would cross her lips!
He turned around and walked away, his posture ruler-straight. In the starving country, people muttered ominously when they saw him – so tall, so healthy, so strong!
“The court gave you back to me!” she screamed at his retreating back. “That German bitch is dead!”
There was a tiny hitch in his metronome walk but he did not stop and as he moved away from her, he was shrinking and distorting like a reflection in a running stream, retreating into some inaccessible continuum where she could not follow.
The ratings started going up in a modest trickle when a clip on YouTube went viral. The clip was not the official trailer: that had flopped as miserably as the movie itself. Rather, it was a sedate scene in the middle which did not feature the protagonist or any of the fight and mayhem sequences. In fact, the reasons for its popularity were unclear. All it showed was a minor character of the evil Nazi scientist Ludwig von Aschenbach in the Lebensborn hatchery inspecting the test-tubes in which cloned embryos rotated in tune to the March of the Valkyries. The scene was no different from any other such in any other bio-horror flick: the lab equipment was ridiculously outdated; the embryos looked – and were – fake; and the score was hackneyed to the point of embarrassment. The only striking detail was the appearance of the unknown actor who played the Nazi scientist. He was as narrow and tall as a whip; with eyes so closely set that the bridge of his nose appeared as an afterthought. He was clearly wearing tinted lenses because his eyes were of a piercing indigo color that no human iris could acquire naturally. People argued whether he was strikingly handsome or strikingly ugly, with the majority leaning to the ugly side. The same historian who had bothered to comment on the film’s misuse of the term “Lebensborn” pointed out that the actor’s appearance perfectly fit the Nazi concept of the Aryan-race type. At least in this the director paid tribute to history as he clearly used some computer magic to enhance the actor’s physique.
When they tore the baby from her arms, Malgorzata did not cry. She just lay on the icy sidewalk for a very long time, so long, in fact, that when she finally dragged herself up, her frozen coat crackled and split along its rotten seams. The infrequent passers-by stepped over her with the indifference of the chronically starved. A polizai lingered by, but seeing her corn-blond hair and the absence of a yellow star, walked on.
The sequel to Captain America: The Future Race stole into the forgotten corners of the Internet with little fanfare. Uploaded on YouTube, it garnered a couple of thousands of views but then unaccountably disappeared, removed, it was said, for infringement of copyright. It was strange because, in fact, nobody claimed any rights on it. It was not made by any major studio, nor was it an indie production. Some said it was made in China for no better reason than the fact that everything dicey seemed to be made in China. This was hardly credible, as no actor in the movie looked remotely Chinese. Except for the same creepily handsome actor who had played the evil Nazi scientist in the previous Captain America, all the rest were totally unknown. A hysterical woman who had seen a clip from the new movie posted on a friend’s Facebook page went to the police to claim that she recognized one of the actors as her son who had been missing for over five years. The police did not take her seriously.
The subtitle of the new Captain America movie was The Last and the Just.
When the British bomb tore through the ceiling of her apartment, Gerda crouched over Klaus, futilely trying to shield her adopted son’s tender flesh with her own. The flash of the explosion burnt her retinas and she slipped into the velvety darkness. Her last thought was The Lord’s Prayer, even though she was officially gottgläubig, a German believer, having rejected the religion of the crucified Jew. But then a pale blue light miraculously dawned in her empty sockets and she realized she was going to Heaven. A man reached out to her and she was almost ready to bow down to the Messiah of her Catholic childhood, especially when she saw, with relief, that he did not look like the dark Semitic painting in her old church but rather like an adult version of her son. Klaus was such a clever boy; when they played hide-and-seek, he found impossible nooks in their tiny apartment to squeeze himself into and she could never find him! She had great hopes for his future until she realized that her country and her people had no future. But perhaps God had gathered the pure and the faithful in Heaven, just as the Lebensborn was meant to gather the lost Aryan sheep!
“Mother,” the Messiah said, the blue of his eyes so intense she had to look aside.
“Son?” she whispered, uncertain. Somehow the word seemed blasphemous but she squelched the thought. “Where are we? Is it Paradise?”
“It is the Alpha and Omega. The Fount of Life.”
“You are all grown-up. Where is my little baby? I wanted more time with him.”
“There is no need for time anymore.”
The Last and The Just had gone viral. Deleted from one site, it would instantly pop up on another. People downloaded a free copy of it and posted it on the social media. In no time it became the most watched movie of all time. In the process the title mutated, as Captain America was dropped, and the movie became known by its subtitle only. It was only logical as the titular superhero who did not look like any of his previous incarnations anyway, was killed in the opening credits. The Last and the Just sounded better, even though nobody was sure what the title actually referred to. Since it had become such an online sensation, a couple of obscure academics presented papers at conferences trying to analyze its appeal, but they were stumped. It was a cheap, dumpy little movie, utilizing the hackneyed ploy of “found footage” interspersed with long-winded speeches, given by the Aschenbach actor who was billed under the improbable name of Klaus Adamszyk. The gist of the speeches seemed to be a parody of Nazi propaganda, with lots of invocation of pure blood, true humanity, and escape from the corrupt and polluted world. The historian Paul Martin who had been the first to pay attention to the actor and the franchise had become quite obsessed with both. For a while he basked in the glory of having drawn attention to that online phenomenon but eventually he became an embarrassment to his home university and was forced to take an unpaid leave. Invitations to conferences dried up. The reason was that he published an incoherent rant on his blog, in which he argued that The Last and the Just was a symptom of a profound malaise sweeping the modern world. Discredited ideologies of the past were coming back to haunt the present. Nazism is no longer a menace, he said; it is a utopia. But utopias used to be precariously located in the future; now they are safe in the past. And so history becomes a Moebius strip, constantly turning back upon itself, until time is no more.
The title of his rant (which, as opposed to the movie, did not go viral) was The Past Piper.
Malgorzata carefully chewed a piece of bread, rolled it up in a clean rag, and gave it to the baby to suck. Her milk had dried out and the ration card was stolen. But little Karol was as good as gold; despite everything, he had not succumbed to any of the fevers that felled children in occupied Poland. Healthy and strong, he was as beautiful as the Infant in the Virgin’s arms in the Church of the Immaculate Conception which the invaders had turned into stables. His sapphire eyes focused on Malgorzata’s face and she felt as if she were falling through an infinitely long tunnel lit up by misty blue light. Something waited at the end; something wonderful; but she could not make out what it was. She came to with a start and realized she had spent more than twenty hours gazing into her wonder boy’s eyes. Time had stopped; and mother and son were united in blissful eternity. But it broke apart when the tearful neighbor knocked on the door to tell her that her husband Adam, Karol’s father, was shot dead for violating the curfew.
More versions of The Last and the Just appeared; nobody called them sequels because they seemed to have no discernible plot. They repeated episodes from the first movie spliced together with no rhyme or reason. The common theme seemed to be a promise of some utopian refuge or shelter. There were long sequences of marching youths reminiscent of the Hitlerjugend but without the obtrusive swastikas or any other blatant symbols of the Third Reich. And Klaus Adamszyk appeared in every scene, mesmerizing the viewers with his indigo eyes. The role he played was hard to make out because he seemed to shift freely between a victim of some unspecified and profound wrong and a charismatic leader calling upon the just and the pure to follow him. A couple of op-eds speculated that this combination of victimization and forcefulness was precisely what attracted young people to this online cult phenomenon. However, such speculations fell by the wayside when a much more immediate and pressing danger took over the Internet. The abductions had begun.
When Malgorzata hobbled to the kitchen to put the kettle on, her rheumatic knee gave way and she sprawled in the filthy corridor. Her neighbors in the communal apartment were at work, except for the drunken Yatzek who would soon be arrested for parasitism – and not a moment too soon! Socialist Poland had many problems – mostly connected to the absence of basic commodities – but at least people had jobs! Malgorzata herself had retired only a couple of months ago and though her pension was minuscule, what did a lonely old woman, with not a soul in the world, have to spend her money on?
She scrabbled ineffectually at the floor like a squashed bug when she sensed somebody standing over her. She craned her neck, ready to give that wastrel Yatzek a piece of her mind, and met the piercing blue eyes of a tall stranger. With the only electric bulb burnt out, the corridor was dark but she knew instantly who the stranger was.
“Karol!” she whispered.
“Klaus,” he corrected.
“You came back, son! It’s been so long….”
“It’s been no time. No time for me.”
“Years, and years, and years, so long, so weary…I waited and waited.”
“Time does not exist. I can step anywhere in time as easily as I can step through this door. But this is no big deal. The thing it to step outside time. Where everything is as should be. As it was supposed to be, was, will be again…”
“Outside time is eternity,” Malgorzata said. “And God is waiting for me there. Your father is waiting for me.”
Her son frowned.
“No,” he said. “Outside time is the Fount of Life. Where only the pure and the just can be admitted”.
He turned around and again she saw that weird misty-blue tunnel at a right angle to her very existence. Her son stepped through.
“Karol!” she cried. “Wait! Take me with you!”
He shook his head.
“No,” he said. “You are not pure enough.”
The abductions swept through every Western country, reducing the population by as much as 60 percent on the average. Eastern Europe, Germany, Austria and the Nordic countries were the worst affected. In North and South America whole counties were depopulated while others remained untouched. China experienced no impact at all while Japan was left with old people hobbling disconsolately through empty towns. All the abductees were children and young people up to the age of twenty five.
There was no known physical way in which it could have been accomplished. Many abductees disappeared from locked rooms or from a company of others. A sideways glance, a blink, a momentary loss of attention – and it was as if a short period was excised from time-flow and when the edges rejoined, the young person was gone. Some left text messages, social media postings, or even hastily scribbled notes explaining they were going out of their own free will. Some raved about “bright future and brighter past.” Some taunted their parents with lists of grievances. A few seemed to be sad.
All had been watching The Last and the Just before their disappearances. By this time it was no longer a movie or even a franchise. It had mutated into a many-headed hydra that had taken over the Internet. Clips, scenes, sequences, familiar characters would pop up on any site, overwhelm Google searches, clog up the social media, take over individual computers and cloud servers alike. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason in these scenes. Mostly they seemed to be threadbare utopia images, sad remnants of the future of the past, in which bright-eyed boys and girls marched in circles across some vaguely defined pastoral landscape. Occasionally they just sat and stared into nothingness. Some sang. They did not seem to be unhappy, though; nor were they happy, just enthusiastic. Parents and siblings would cry and beat at the computer screen, calling out the names of the abducted. Occasionally the image on the screen would start and look around when it happened; but then they would go back to their circular, repetitive, recycled motions. Klaus Adamszyk was still around, popping in and out of the visual stream, occasionally accompanied by an older woman with iron-grey hair and ramrod-straight back. He made speeches but they were pure gibberish, in no known language.
Historian Paul Martin, working as an adjunct in a community college, was writing the history of the Lebensborn. He was told by several presses that the subject was of no interest, especially considering the astounding and unparalleled events taking place in the present and the danger they posed to humanity’s future. But he persevered.