The surgeon hesitates, bathed in the harsh lights of the operating theater, scalpel poised above the patient’s exposed abdomen. The patient’s skin is slick and yellowed by the antiseptic swabs, not really human at all-–like the flesh of some alien creature. Now, as with every surgical procedure, he senses a moment, a turning point where outcomes are yet to be determined–and briefly revels in the uncertainty.
He will know soon enough. Just one touch will tell him. Success or failure, life or death–and all before an incision has even been made.
Distantly, he hears the drone of another wave of bombers heading out on a night raid, delivering their payload of terror and destruction by order of Bomber Command. Whose turn tonight, he wonders? Hamburg or Dresden or perhaps Berlin itself?
Around him, the anesthetist and theater nurses wait patiently for him to begin.
He feels paralyzed; unable to move. He cannot bring himself to touch the body. Seconds tick by. Minutes. There are anxious glances but no one dares disturb the silence.
At last he takes a long, shuddering breath, wills the trembling in his hands to cease, and makes an incision. He draws the scalpel downwards in a smooth motion, a line of red beading behind it. He repeats the movement, this time parting layers of subcutaneous fat with deft strokes. As he does so, the strangest feeling comes over him: the sensation of something pushing back, struggling to free itself from the body, slipping and wriggling out through the wound. For an instant he thinks he sees something move past his blade; insubstantial and tenuous, like a barely perceptible waft of smoke.
Hesitating, a nurse steps closer to swab sweat from his brow. He resumes his work, but now the tremors are back.
This will all be for naught, he thinks. The patient will die no matter what I do.
Ah yes. Just another turn of the wheel.
But one word crowds into his thoughts.
John knocks and enters. He is at once struck by the gloom. Small windows set high in the wall and cross-hatched with blast tape admit little of the wintery afternoon sunlight. A single, underpowered bulb hangs from the ceiling, casting its jaundiced, ineffectual light onto the jumble of manila folders on the desk–some, John notices, bearing the unmistakable stamp of the War Office.
He makes it a rule never to touch bare skin, but old Postlethwaite has already risen from behind the desk proffering a hand, and ingrained social habits die hard. Before he can stop himself, John reaches out. Briefly he has time to wonder if his superior will notice the hand tremors which seem to have worsened.
Such irony! Under different circumstances, this might be the affliction to end his surgical career. But it’s nothing more than a nervous tic; the façade behind which his true demons lurk.
Their hands clasp and the curtain drops momentarily across John’s vision as it always does at the touch of another’s skin. There is no real tactile sensation, no tingle or spark of electricity–merely a dimming of his sight, like a slow blink. Then a moment later, vision returns. And like an after-image burnt onto his retinas, the number is left behind.
Ah. Long enough, John thinks. No need to trouble himself with a calculation. Enough, perhaps, even to outlive this interminable war. Dr Postlethwaite may yet enjoy a peaceful retirement. You can, after all, live a long time in twenty five thousand heartbeats.
The Senior Registrar nods at the vacant chair and John sits.
“I have the papers, John,” he begins without preamble, “but I won’t approve them.”
John blinks away the last remnants of the number. “I’ve made my decision.”
“And a bloody silly one it is too. If it’s danger you want, you can find it right here. Half of London is charred rubble. We’re digging people out with our bare hands some nights. It takes just as much courage to stay behind and fight on the home front, you know.” He sighs. “You’ve all the makings of a fine surgeon, John. We need people like you.”
John passes a hand across his face but he cannot wipe away the tiredness he feels. He wants to shout, Can’t you see that my nerve has gone? Surely you’ve heard the rumors? Instead he says, “I’d stay if I could. But they need medics at the front too. Maybe I can be of some use after all.”
Dr Postlethwaite lays the papers aside. He removes his glasses and polishes them absently on his sleeve. “Look. The damned Luftwaffe has us all under strain, night after night. You have family? Go and visit them. Take yourself out of the city for a while. We can spare you for a week. Then we’ll talk again.”
After a moment, John gets up to leave. This time they do not shake hands and he is at least grateful for that.
John walks the streets without purpose. It’s easy to become lost, the familiar London side streets transformed by the bomb craters that now pockmark the city. Gap-toothed rows of grey tenement buildings push up from piles of still smoldering rubble, where bustling thoroughfares ran only days before. He thinks, all I have ever wanted to do is help people. Make them better if I can. And now it’s all slipping away from me.
The advent of war has finally explained a mystery that has puzzled him since his schooldays. Why the curiously low number of so many classmates, seemingly destined never to see thirty? Now he understands the chilling certainty of so many lives pre-ordained to be cut short. He suffers the knowledge in dreadful silence. What else can he do? Who would believe him?
He has watched for other signs in his behavior and thoughts, for hints that what might only be self-delusional beliefs are metamorphosing into true insanity. But how would he know? Could he ever trust his own judgment?
Then too, he has prayed for this ability (no, this curse) to wither and fade, or to be proven erroneous–anything that means he no longer sits in judgment over others, knowing merely from the briefest touch the span of their lives.
And what of his own number? Ah, but cruelly that is beyond his reach. The one person in the entire world that he cannot fathom in that way is himself.
He turns his collar up as the rain falling out of low-slung grey clouds becomes heavier. He is on the point of turning for home when ahead of him a young woman stumbles on a broken paving slab and falls. For a moment she lays sprawled in a puddle as rain soaks into her winter coat. Then she is uttering a string of unlady-like curses as John instinctively reaches to help her up. A bus rumbles by, seemingly only inches away, its spray soaking them both.
Her wrist is slim and delicate like a child’s. He has time to see her flash a tired, grateful smile and then–-unbidden–the curtain drops across his vision. When it rises the young woman is standing awkwardly, reaching down to massage her twisted ankle, still muttering under her breath.
John frowns. He must have made a mistake. Such a number cannot possibly be right. The woman (girl, really) can be no more than early twenties; fit, healthy, vibrant with youth. He closes his eyes, tries to catch the number again, but it has gone.
“Thanks,” she says, brushing ineffectually at the scuff marks on her coat.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” John asks.
“Fine. Bloody coat is ruined, though.” She shrugs, laughs lightly, obviously unharmed, the flush of embarrassment still in her cheeks.
Hope surges through John. If he can be wrong about this number, he can be wrong about any of them! All of them, maybe. Thus the spell breaks–
She girl is turning to leave. John reaches out, wanting to touch her skin again, to put his hand on her cheek. Instinctively she steps back from him, suspicion and anger on her face.
“I’m sorry, I just–”
The girl hurries away leaving John standing in the rain. She crosses the road, turning back to glance suspiciously at John halfway across. She does not see the taxi hurtling out of the gloom, but the squeal of tires is loud above the hiss of the rain. The girl is spun round and tossed into the air to land in a crumpled heap in the road.
For a long time, nothing in the world seems to move. Not John, the rain drumming against his skull as he stands motionless. Nor the taxi driver–frozen into immobility, his eyes wide and staring, hands gripping the steering wheel convulsively. And certainly not the girl lying in the road like a lifeless rag doll. Only the rain keeps falling.
Eventually John turns away. He finds a quiet alleyway and is violently sick until his stomach is dry and aching.
They come pouring out of the cinema—grumbling, grim-faced or just plain scared. Against the blaring of the air raid sirens, an ARP warden is shouting orders. “Down the street. Turn left. Down the steps into the Tube. Come along, now. Get a move on! Nearest air raid shelter–down the street, turn left–”
John tries to push his way through the crowd. On impulse, he seizes a woman’s hand.
“Oi!” A rough-looking man in uniform with a day’s stubble on his chin shoves John backwards. “Keep yer hands off my girl.” John reaches up to touch the man’s forehead, for all the world as if taking his temperature.
“What the hell–”
John is thrust sideways, colliding heavily with another man. John seizes his bare forearm, partly to stop himself falling.
“Don’t go that way!” John pleads. “Stay away from the shelter.”
Two young women stare at him open-mouthed. He grabs at them, like a drunkard.
“Bloody disgrace,” someone says. A fist jabs at him. There is a sharp pain in his chest and suddenly he is fighting for breath. “Not down to the shelter,” he wheezes. “Not safe.” His legs are kicked from under him. As he goes down, he reaches for a bare ankle just in front of him. A woman shrieks.
Someone kicks him hard in the ribs and the world seems to recede. More blows follow. Moments later he is hauled upright again. “What’s your game?” the ARP warden demands.
“Got to get people away from here. Not the shelter–”
“Not bloody likely. Safest place for all of us. Been drinking, have we? Best you come with me, mate.” A hand slips inside his jacket and withdraws his ID papers and ration book but John wriggles free. He crashes into more cinema-goers, cannoning off them like a pinball until at last he is free of the crowd, running, tears streaming down his face.
Now the wail of the air-raid siren is supplemented by the drone of aircraft overhead. Moments later comes the banshee shriek as the first bombs begin to fall. He keeps running, even as explosions begin to rock the buildings around him. He only stops when the blast wave from the biggest and loudest explosion close behind sends him sprawling. Tomorrow he will learn from the grim report in The Times that it has destroyed the road outside Balham Tube Station, bringing water and sewage tunnels crashing down onto the northbound platform where several hundred people have sought shelter. 68 people die on this grim night.
Perhaps, he thinks, I should have gone done there with them.
When John returns to the hospital the following week, Dr Postlethwaite does not ask to see him. Instead, John finds a brown envelope stuffed into his pigeon hole. Inside are his call-up papers. He leaves the hospital without saying goodbye to a soul.
Two thirds of the way up the forest-covered slope, John spots movement to his right. Private Walton is gesturing urgently. Enemy ahead. Close. Walton’s eyes are gleaming with excitement.
John finds cover behind the thick bole of a pine tree and peers out cautiously. He can see nothing but waist high ferns covering the slope, a blanket of dappled greens and browns. Mature pines rise upwards every few yards, spreading their canopies high and wide. All day they have been blundering around in this shadowy twilight, playing their game of cat-and-mouse with the Germans.
He looks again where Walton is indicating.
Then, like one of those trick drawings that suddenly shifts to reveal a different image, something. The tank, a MkIII Panzer most probably, is draped with camouflage netting, only the squat black muzzle of its 50mm cannon showing. Just an hour ago they heard the growl of its engine, tracking it through these endless woods, trying to circle round from behind.
The engine is quiet now, the whole forest unnaturally still. Then there is the unmistakable rasp of a match flaring, two or three syllables of muttered German ending in what might be a tired laugh. Yes, close.
Further to his right, Lieutenant Jackman rises to a crouch gesturing Private Walton to follow. The rest of the company is to stay put. The blacking on Jackman’s face makes his expression unreadable, but his eyes are burning brightly with cold determination. John knows him to be a taciturn, domineering man whom he does not entirely trust. The two men move away soundlessly and are lost to view.
Seconds become minutes. The silence settles more deeply over the forest. Then–a flurry of movement, a startled cry, the clang of metal. A figure scrabbles up through the hatch, only to be flung to the ground by an unseen assailant. But the falling German pivots and looses a burst of sub-machine gunfire, shockingly loud. More shouts. Fire is returned from somewhere out of sight, three short rifle shots. Then the muffled crump of a hand grenade exploding and from inside the tank a column of thick, oily smoke pours skywards.
John begins to crawl towards the burning tank. At any moment he expects to hear the rattle of a machine gun and feel bullets tearing through his tunic.
“For god’s sake, stop crawling around on your belly like a bloody worm.” John looks up to see Jackman standing over him, cradling a German MP-40 sub-machine gun like a new-born infant, his own rifle slung nonchalantly over his shoulder. “Over there. Quickly.”
It is Walton, his face white as a ghost’s, eyes closed. Blood is soaking into the ground from the front of his tunic which has been shredded.
“Work fast,” Jackman says. “We can’t stay here. Where there are scouts, the main division won’t be far behind. What can you do for him?”
John lifts Walton’s pale, limp wrist, not even making the pretense of checking the pulse. The soldier’s eyelids flutter and he moans feebly. After the necessary few moments, John lets go of the wrist. “Nothing I can do for him. Maybe if we were nearer a field hospital…”
“You’re sure of that?”
“Nothing? You’ve barely examined him.”
Jackman’s cold blue eyes stay on him for a long time. They both know that carrying a wounded man will slow them down. The very survival of the company depends on speed.
John makes no reply.
Jackman unbuckles his service revolver, checks there’s a round in the chamber.
“Wait–!” John says.
Jackman raises an eyebrow. “The boy doesn’t deserve a lingering death. He doesn’t need to suffer.” On impulse, he flips the revolver, presenting the butt to John. “It’s the least you can do for him.”
John stares at the revolver. Eventually he says, “I’ll do what I can to make him comfortable.”
Jackman holsters the revolver again. “You do that.” To the rest of the men, he calls, “Move out!”
They assemble a makeshift stretcher from branches and tunics. John is surprised when it is Jackman who helps him ease Walton onto it, hoisting one end with John taking the other. Wordlessly, they move off into the forest.
By candlelight in their makeshift bivouac, he changes Walton’s dressings again. He’s running a fever, yet the boy is wracked by uncontrollable bouts of shivering. In one of his more lucid moments, the young soldier’s hand grips John’s and their eyes meet briefly but uncomprehendingly. Then Private Walton slips into something resembling sleep. The only sign that he is indeed still alive is the occasional soft moan.
A touch on John’s shoulder makes him start. “How is he?” Jackman asks.
“Still dying,” John says. “Same as before.”
“You’re pretty bloody sure of that, aren’t you?”
John freezes in the act of repacking his medical kit. The words hang in the air between them as if reluctant to depart.
“I’ve watched you,” Jackman continues. “Been watching you for a while now, in fact. And you know what troubles me? You fight like crazy for some of the wounded lads. You’re like a terrier then. You just won’t let go. Even when it seems hopeless, when you’re beyond exhaustion and having to shove their guts back in with your bare hands or sew up some tattered stump in the mud–you don’t give up. You’re a genuine miracle-worker. And then there are the other boys you barely look at. Oh, maybe you check their pulse or mop their fevered brow, but not much more than that. You just turn your back on those men. And then they die, almost as if you know it’s going to happen.”
John makes to stand up. “Just leave me–” but Jackman pulls him down again. “What’s your secret, eh? Do you enjoy deciding who lives and dies?” he whispers in his ear. “Are you getting your kicks playing god out here on the battlefield?” After a moment he lets go and John pulls free.
John stares out into the darkness. How could there possibly be a god in this forsaken place? “Do you think I’m some kind of monster?”
“I don’t know what you are.”
John checks Walton is comfortable and squats down in the shadows. “Long ago,” he says, “I was told a story about a strange little boy, a bit of a wild boy, who grew up out in the country. He didn’t have many friends but that didn’t matter to him. He liked his own company best. Some of the villagers thought he wasn’t right in the head, and that may have been true because after a time he came to believe he possessed a weird, impossible talent. Not the kind of talent that most young boys develop–an aptitude for sport or climbing trees or farting the first verse of ‘God Save The Queen.’ Something much darker, a kind of forbidden knowledge: an ability to foretell death. He believed he could tell–to the exact number–how many heartbeats were left in a person’s life at any given moment. All from one brief touch.”
Jackman is watching him with the same intensity a hunter regards its prey. “Ridiculous.”
“Oh yes. It’s that alright. The boy was clearly deluded, or just plain mad. Because to live with that kind of knowledge, to be reminded each day with just a casual touch, or a handshake, or a brush of lips on the cheek, which of your friends and family will be taken from you and when–to the nearest hour or minute–that kind of knowledge would drive anyone to insanity, wouldn’t it? Pity that boy.
“Once he dreamt of studying medicine. How pathetic is that? He wanted to cure people, make them well, yet nothing he did could ever make a difference after he discovered the terrible truth. You see, he believed–no, he knew–that everyone has a number, a secret number. No one knows what that number is–except for him. Quite literally he could tell you when your number would be up. But try as he might, he couldn’t find a way to change it.”
“Who was this boy?”
“Oh just a boy in a story. It’s a tale my father used to tell me around the camp fire, probably the same one his father told him.”
“What kind of idiot do you take me for?”
What kind would you prefer? John thinks, but wisely stays silent.
Jackman takes a long, deep breath. Eventually he says, “This isn’t finished with, but now isn’t the time. Get some sleep. We’ll move out under cover of darkness and begin the attack at first light.” He looks over to where Walton lays. “Maybe you’re right about him, maybe not. It doesn’t matter. We’ve come too far to turn back. I have the mission to think of.”
“No turning back,” John echoes.
When the screaming starts, the timing can hardly be worse. The company is scattered just below the ridge line. Beyond lies the iron trestle bridge spanning the deep gorge which bisects the landscape. The men are tense, keyed up for battle. Jackman’s pre-dawn briefing is stark. This is one of only two possible crossing points for Hermann Göring’s army on its relentless push westwards. There may be no better chance to halt its momentum, even if only temporarily. Document remnants recovered from the Panzer hint that the bridge is only lightly defended but heavy reinforcements are less than a day away. This, Jackman emphasizes, is their moment for glory. Generaloberst Gerhardt Weckmann himself is expected to be at the head of at least five divisions intent on making the crossing, most probably within the next 48 hours. Denying them this bridgehead will stall progress for days if not weeks, giving the Allied forces a key advantage. This may be, Jackman says, his eyes gleaming, a crucial turning point.
‘Lightly defended’ turns out to mean a garrison of at least forty German soldiers, with more patrolling on foot through the wooded slopes on either side of the valley. Pitted against them is Jackman’s platoon of fifteen exhausted men, one of whom is stretcher-bound. It hardly seems a match.
At the sound of Private Walton’s tortured screams, Jackman, some fifty yards ahead, signals frantically and John rips a sheet of muslin into strips, stuffing them into the man’s foaming mouth. He has nothing better to offer. The effect is negligible. Whatever private hell Walton is enduring continues in muffled fashion, threatening to bring down a different kind of damnation on the rest of the platoon.
As the cracks of rifle shots begin to echo around the valley, John takes Walton’s pulse again. Weak, erratic. The man’s flesh is cold and lifeless. And the number…
He remembers Walton telling them about home, the farm somewhere in the Dales that will one day be his upon his father’s retirement. And of the pretty brunette in the next village he was courting when his call-up came, the girl he plans to marry. Dreams of a different life in the midst of this nightmare.
He feels a sudden, desperate anger. Walton, the rest of them, don’t they deserve their chance of happiness, of a life?
John closes his eyes, summoning the number.
Change, damn you! He pushes harder than he has ever dared push before, harder than he thought possible. He senses something slipping from his grasp, greasy and elusive, close yet just out of reach. Again he pushes, but it’s like going up against some rusted mechanism that will not budge; a wheel that will only turn in one direction no matter how hard he pushes against it. If he can just find a way to squeeze another hour’s life back into the boy. It might be enough to get him back to proper medical facilities in time.
He can’t do it.
The number ticks downwards with each fluttering beat of the boy’s heart. He will be dead soon; certainly by nightfall. As might they all.
Suddenly Jackman flings himself down next to him. “A lightly armed patrol,” he shouts into John’s ear above the crack of rifle fire. “We’ve lost the element of surprise, but we still might be able to push them back to the bridge. We can pin them down while a couple of the men rig explosives. If I’m right about Weckman’s division… Imagine if we could throw a spanner in his works! Damn! It’s a gamble but we won’t get another chance like this.”
Yes, a gamble that could cost all of them their lives.
Jackman casts around, noting the dug-in positions of the platoon with a practiced eye. Then he turns to John and says quietly, “Which is it to be?”
John stares at him in astonishment. “What?”
Jackman grabs John’s arm and brings his hand up until it is touching the side of Jackman’s dirt-streaked face, like a lover tenderly caressing a cheek. Unbidden, the number swims into John’s head. “Tell me!” Jackman shouts above the rifle fire. “Do I order the men to press on? Tell me if I survive the next hour! Will the attack succeed?”
John pulls his arm back. “It doesn’t work like that.”
“Just tell me the damn number!”
But Jackman’s number means nothing. Suppose he lives? The price for this might be a heavy one paid by the rest of the company. And if he dies, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are all lost or that the sabotage fails. There is no way of knowing the outcome, but the wildness in Jackman’s eyes tells John that rationality counts for nothing at this moment. Heroes are not forged in moments of bravery and courage, John thinks, but blind stupidity.
“Pull back,” John says quietly, knowing it really makes no difference. Somewhere, the future is already written in heart beats.
Jackman’s eyes bore into him but, swearing under his breath, he gives the order and the men begin to retreat. Jackman glances at Walton, begins to unclip his revolver. They both know everything now depends on speed. Alerted, German patrols will be hunting tirelessly for them. Two men to man-handle a makeshift stretcher, two men less to fight with–the odds are poor.
“No. I’ll stay behind with him,” John says.
“Don’t be a bloody–”
“I said I’ll stay.” John’s rifle is raised, pointing at Jackman. The barrel wavers in his trembling hands. Just as well the safety catch is still on.
“Can you do anything for him?”
“No. But I won’t leave him either.” The faint after-image of Jackman’s number is still blurring his vision. It should be Walton’s number, too. He wishes there was a way to swap them.
Swiftly, the company is gone, the crack of rifle-fire receding with them. John turns back to Private Walton, grasping clammy hands in his. He closes his eyes.
Is he beyond help now?
Come on! Come. On.
In all his years of experimenting, first with a pet rabbit, later with creatures that he trapped in the woods, he has never found a way to add to the number. The wheel turns only one way; the grains of sand do not flow back into the hour-glass. Yet still he tries, concentrating, reaching through and beyond those clammy hands to push at the coldness creeping into the other man’s soul.
Walton groans. His eyelids flutter. John pushes once, briefly, in a different way. Walton settles, becomes still and calm.
The next thing he feels is the barrel of a rifle pressing into his neck. “Hände hoch oder ich schieße!”
John raises his hands slowly. A knee in the small of his back forces him down and he lies prone next to the Walton. “I have information,” John says urgently, in broken German. “Important information. If you spare my life.”
“What information? Tell me!” the German soldier replies in equally fractured English.
“I can only reveal that to Generaloberst Weckmann himself. Take me to him immediately.”
The soldier casts a sneering look at John. “You are nothing but a lowly medic. Not even a real soldier. A disgrace to your homeland. What could you possibly have of value to him?”
“Allied troop movements. Our army is not as weak as you believe. A trap is being set for your divisions. Are you prepared to explain yourself to Generaloberst Weckman if this information is not disclosed to him in time?”
The soldier glares at him. The barrel of the rifle pushes deeper into his chest. It could still all end here, John thinks. But the soldier is weighing up what he has said. He is thinking, if I shoot him now, will it matter if this isn’t a bluff? Weckmann will never get to know.
They leave Walton lying in the undergrowth. Could I have done more? John wonders. Did he really believe he could bargain for more time? The wheel turns only one way.
Generaloberst Weckmann is an important man. Popular with his men, he is also influential amongst the Wehrmacht High Command. His opinions are listened to, his abilities respected as a ruthless tactician. He is the sort of man that events and battles hinge upon.
When I meet him, John thinks, he will be suspicious. I will need to convince him I am a traitor. But before he can uncover the truth, I will congratulate him on his clever strategies and ask to shake his hand.
Then–a push, because now I understand the deal that has been made. It’s as I’ve known all along: the wheel turns only one way.
And I will take from him as much as I can.
David Cleden works as a technical writer and lives not too far from London, UK. He grew up on a diet of science fiction, fantasy and horror. Previous writing credits include runner-up in an Omni short story competition (yes, it was a very long time ago), and fiction published more recently in Bewildering Stories, Betwixt and Jupiter magazines. He is also the author of two business-related books published by Gower in the UK.