“Many small people, who in many small places do many small things, can alter the face of the world.” – East Side Gallery, Berlin.
August 17, 2062
A Parallel Universe.
It despaired him. He had an arsenal at his disposal, yet He was banned from intervening in the timelines. They revered him for the technologies He had created and patented but refused to let him unveil their full potential. Hypocrites! In spite of them, He had explored the alternate dimensions, seen himself in the infinite universes. His life in one particular universe intimidated him more than he cared to admit. The violent death of his doppelgänger and the repercussions of a thoughtless albeit brave act were unfortunate. He, who had conquered every known disease and had defeated the death in this universe had suffered an excruciating fate in that particular timeline.
Fate. How He hated that word. A man who lives, not by what he loves but what he hates, is a sick man.He recalled his favorite lines and smirked as he unlocked his safe. An innocuous cloak lay neatly folded beside a knob. It was time to play God, he thought as he drew out his prototype. A contraption was constructed out of silicon nanowires attached to a gold painted semiconductor. The light from gold and silicon cancelled each other out, making the user of the device invisible. “Spectral cloaking…or as philistines would call it, the cloak of invisibility. Conceived by my imagination, constructed by my technology.”
It would do.
And He set out in the past, travelling via a pocket dimension, to alter a future in another world.
August 15th, 1962
18-year-old Peter sat by the floor of his workshop feeling as dull as the ditchwater. Another appeal by him to cross over to the west Berlin had been rejected. Not even jibber-jabber by his friend Helmut or the spicy aroma of Reibekuchen* in the air helped uplift his mood. I should have run away when I could, he thought to himself as he massaged his swollen ankle.
As a last effort to boost his mood, Helmut waved a battered day-old newspaper under Peter’s nose. “Did you read Der Spiegel?” Helmut read the headlines. “After the demonstrations commemorating the first anniversary of the Berlin Wall turned violent, the GDR* is under pressure to consider the plebiscite and allow the freedom of movement across Berlin.”
“Quatsch! *” Peter threw the envelope on his friend’s lap. “This is our truth. It does not matter that I am willing to pay the fine, that my ailing mother is going blind and craves to see her only son. In spite of the fact that my sister will deliver any day and they have no means of financial support, I am damned here. Slave to the Soviet.”
Helmut squeezed his friend’s hand with his Currywurst* stained fingers. “You are no use to your family if you die, Freund*. Remember that stab injury on your foot by the drunk guard near the Wall? You are in no state to flee.”
Peter slapped his swollen ankle in anguish and wept.
The Second World War had ended seventeen years ago, leaving colossal repercussions in its wake. Germany laid down her arms and tendered the world an unconditional apology. Allied Forces had marched on their soil, eager to share the spoils of war. The economic depression left every house penniless, forcing people to burn the candle at both ends in order to survive.
Then started a tug of war among the Soviet and American Forces, who had both received Berlin as the war trophy. The Soviet had sunk its claws in the east Germany and detested the American forces who seemed to rule the affluent, modern, west Berlin with capitalist agenda. Under the direction of the Soviet, the German communists started a dictatorial regime based on force, privilege, threats and incentives. The working class was forced to conform, comply and partake. The regimen sought an unrestrained access in all areas of public life. The air grew suffocating and the people grew destitute. That is when people started fleeing to West Berlin.
To stem the massive exodus of skilled and professional Berliners to the west, the ruling party built a wall that separated the west Berlin from the east side. The Soviet soldiers on the east side called the Volkspolizei fiercely guarded the check-posts. Any attempt to flee was treated as sedition. Hardly a day passed by without the radio playing news pertaining to bloody altercations and defensive firing across two sides of the Wall.
Peter stared at the monstrosity. The Wall cut right through the borough that had once been Berlin’s lively newspaper quarter. Peter had then been an apprentice bricklayer in the west. In spite of his father’s warnings, he had visited the east thirteen months ago with Helmut, his newfound friend and colleague. They had planned to buy some supplies from the east at cheaper rates for their workshop on westside. The next day, he and Helmut were detained by the Volkspolizei for bureaucratic reasons and asked to work at the Berlin Wall.
Since then, Peter had been working a gruelling ten hours a day earning a pittance, living under a constant threat of bullets and debts.
“I should have listened to you, father”. Peter limped away as news of another killing across the border played over the nearby radio.
He watched Peter from a pocket dimension and grew unusually agitated. The moment was approaching soon. The fool was going to try to limp his way across the wall and get himself killed. He needed to intervene.
An exhausted Peter lay wide awake in his bed that night. Gisela was due next week. The debts of cold war had already swallowed his father two months ago. Then, he had been denied the last visit to his dad. When he tried to skip past the guard, he had ended up getting his ankle broken.
There was a loud howl from Helmut’s bed. He was crouched on the ground, a wet piece of paper crushed in his hands. “My wife, Peter, my wife. Got the letter.” He rocked himself like a madman. “She died. Our young daughter has no one left to care for.” Peter saw misery in Helmut’s eyes. “I need to leave, Peter. I must leave.” He attempted to get up.
No advice could hold back Helmut. Peter tried, half-heartedly to persuade him, but he understood Helmut’s misery. He let Helmut blabber and cry out his anguish, spending the night holding his broken friend.
The next day dawned foggy. Helmut was a man with mission and had already charted out a rough escape plan. “There is a dilapidated building on Schützenstrassse that I inspectedlast week. It leads straight to the Checkpoint Charlie via our old workstation. The Polizei stationed at carpentry workshop was killed last evening and the site will be unguarded for some hours today.” The fervour in Helmut’s tone was undefeatable.
“From the checkpoint, it is just a few feet. I will make a run for it when one batch of Polizei break for lunch and another relieves them. The check post is undefended for about four minutes during the handover of duties.”
August 17, 1962
“There was another border skirmish last night. The US soldier has fatally wounded a soldier from the east post. The lookout will be stricter.” Helmut was tout as a bowstring. “Sabine needs me. Sabine, my baby.”
Peter held his friend’s trembling hand. “I understand your fear Ja*! I wish I could accompany you, but with this ankle, I am a liability. I can still accompany you to the carpentry workshop. Help you stay hidden and cause diversion if needed.” Helmut hugged his friend.
“Jetzt oder nie!*” They shouted in unison.
He watched the duo and sprung into action. “Yes, it’s now or never.” The moment to tweak the events drew near.
“Kopf runter*, Helmut!” Peter ducked as he saw a burly soviet guard approached them. They were still at some distance from the workshop.
He sported a menacing scowl, his uniform already stained with blood specks. Without warning, the guard spit on the ground and hit Helmut across the face. Peter heard a sickening crunch followed by a howl of pain as Helmut collapsed. Peter closed his eyes and braced himself. The next moment something whooshed passed him. A huge vortex opened in the air beside and out came the ‘Other Peter’.
“Um Himmels willen!*” Peter turned to his friend who was shaking his head and repeatedly rubbing his eyes. “His blow addled my brain, Ja.” With absolute disbelief, they saw the‘Other Peter’ point a steel gun atthe Soviet Soldier that vaporised him in an instant.
Peter grasped as the ‘Other Peter’ turned towards him. Helmut tried to punch the ‘Other Peter’ but was blown away at the distance by a mere flick of his hand, landing with a mild thud. As Peter tried to shield himself from ‘himself’, the ‘Other Peter’smirked and fixed a knob across Peter’s chest. The knob opened into a cloak.
Then the ‘Other Peter’ then stabbed Peter’s swollen ankle with a strange needle. He held a mirror and Peter realised he was invisible. The mirror then displayed images of Peter running across the strip of death.
The ‘Other Peter’ disappearedand the two men ran as if chased by the devil. They only stopped as they reached the rear of the workshop to take swigs of water from their flasks. Helmut panted as he spoke. “I cannot see you. The Schweinehund* must have hit my head hard. What just happened? I feel disoriented.”
Peter didn’t pay attention to Helmut. He was just realising the implications of what had happened. His ankle pain was gone. He could now cross-over to West. With a cloak of invisibility, what was to stop him?
“I am fleeing with you.” was all Peter said before the stunned Helmut looked around massaging his temples, unable to fathom where Peter’s voice came from.
They both sat below a window pointing to the west. Peter felt the cloak and pressed the knob at his chest.
“I can see you now, Peter. I must be having a concussion. Never mind, all the good doctors in the west can treat me if we make it. Are you sure your ankle doesn’t hurt?” Helmut spoke from a distance, as removed his shoes to massage his achy feet.
Peter nodded. He touched his healed ankle. No pain. He tried to recollect the moving images the man had shown him. The memory gave him grit.
“Peter…” The renewed panic in Helmut’s voice brought Peter to present. “Can you hear them?” Peter signalled Helmut to run to the window. The muffled voices were getting stronger. They hastily jumped out the front window, leaving their shoes behind.
“I see the checkpoint; the new shift starts in seven minutes.” Helmut looked back to address Peter but could not see him. Perhaps it’s the fog or the stress has me hallucinating. “I am right behind.” Helmut heard Peter as they both ran towards the post, their feet bleeding from the shrapnel scattered on the ground.
The Wall was just a few meters away when the first shots were fired. They dodged the bullets running to a small belt of land covered in sand, trenches, landmines and gravel that lay innocuously between the two posts. It was called the death strip- the only part of the wall that was under surveillance by armed soldiers from both sides.
Generally, the guards shouted a warning to anybody who tried to flee before the shooting commenced. Today however, the guards were distracted from the sleepless night before. The two fugitives were seen and shot at from both sides without warning.
Peter closed his eyes and ran for his life. He could hear Helmut chanting Sabine, Sabine… The American territory lay just a few feet away and Peter gave a whoop of joy. Beside him, Helmut ran like lunatic, twisting and jumping to avoid the bullets. The next instant, Helmut’s leg jammed in a trench wire.
“Peter…” Helmut’s cry had a petrified tenor as he struggled to pull his leg out. The invisible Peter almost raced past him, Helmut’s pleas getting feebler with every step Peter took. “Sabine…” Helmut’s anguish tore at Peter’s heart.” In a split second, he made up his mind. The invisibility gave Peter an edge over the guards. He turned and sprinted towards Helmut. He kneeled and tried to pull out his friend, as the firing continued around them. Helmut was overcome with such panic when he felt Peter’s touch, that he made a grab at the empty air and gripped the invisible Peter to haul himself out, all the while chanting Sabine… Sabine…
The knob at Peter’s chest became dislodged during this tussle and fell. Peter never realised that he was exposed to the full view of the guards.
Thirty-five bullets were fired from both sides of the wall in four minutes. Helmut made it to the other side dodging the last shrapnel. “We are safe Peter.” He shrieked, bloody and injured and in severe dolore, yet alive. Punching his fist in the air and kissing the soil from the west side of Berlin, Helmut turned to slap his friend Peter in the back.
But Peter was not there.
The firing had ceased. Helmut stood rooted in shock. Peter Fechter had not managed to cross. He lay struck in the barbed wire bleeding drop-by-drop over the very wall he had help build layer by layer. A bullet seemed to have pierced his waist and he stared at Helmut like a deer caught in the headlights.
The army on both sides was in frenzy. Instead of assisting the bleeding eighteen-year-old, the guards on the east seemed possessed and continued to fire as the American guards only pointed their guns at the Volkspolizei, reluctant to start another border skirmish after last night.
Another bullet pierced his leg as Peter started to scream in pain. His bleeding intensified.
“Stop firing. He is but a child.” The soldiers from the American check post finally fired in the air, threatening the Soviet side.
“He is my friend, He is dying. Help him.” Helmut continued to sob near the American side of the Wall.
The West Berlin police received the dispatches about the border guards’ shooting the two teenagers trying to flee at the death strip. They hurried to the spot to witness a terrible scene.
Berliners from both sides of the wall from had gathered to witness the tragic sight. Helmut had fallen silent, staring at the body that was entrenched in the wires. The American soldiers looked hesitant to provoke the Soviet soldiers by helping the young refugee. The Soviet soldiers on the other hand did not wish to enter the death strip that was full of landmines, where they were potentially vulnerable to attack by American side. The Peter was in extreme pain, crying piteously for help, the cloak of invisibility lay useless, just beneath his bleeding body.
Almost fifty minutes passed before the screams grew frailer and eventually stopped. The press crew, the police, the Berliners watched as silent spectators when the Eastern border troops finally disentangled his body from the barbed wire and carried him away.
The doctors officially declared the death of Peter Fechter in the evening at the East Berlin People’s Police Hospital.
He saw the events from his pocket dimension with a cold fury. The very inflection point that was supposed to change the past of his doppelgänger became the portent of his death. Fate had defeated him.
The news played in the background.
“…Peter Fechter’s funeral took place at the cemetery of the Resurrection Congregation. He lost his life on 17th Aug in a tragic shooting at the Berlin Wall…”
He could not forgive himself. He knew what would follow. The grieving family’s struggles had just begun. They would be subjected to retaliations and reprisals from the East German government for years to come.
The news continued to play…
“…The leaders across the world condemn the needless violence and hesitancy to provide first-aid to the refugees. Peter Fechter is the symbol of the inhumane regime in the East German lands. Herr Peter Fechter is a martyr…”
Peter Fechter would have lived. If it would not have been for his interference. It was the spectral cloak and the treatment administered for his ankle that gave Peter a false sense of security. He had showed Peter the images where Peter ran to his freedom. With a broken ankle, Peter would have never ventured crossing over. He realised that now.
A person often meet his destiny on the road he takes to avoid it. The ancient phrase of wisdom uselessly played in his mind as He slowly and methodically started destroying his ultra-modern lab.
35 years after Peter Fechter’s death, two former East German guards, Rolf Friedrich and Erich Schreiber admitted to shooting Peter Fechter . They were convincted and sentenced 20- and 21-months’ imprisonment. This story is based on true events that transpired in the GDR (Soviet occupied Berlin). The author has tweaked the incidences at some places for purposes of narration. The author does not intend to hurt any person or sentiments with this story and empathises with the tragic fate Peter Fechter suffered. This story is a tribute to over 100 individuals who lost their lives trying to cross over from east Berlin to the west during the Cold War with a hope for a better life, a free life.
Picture Credit : Unsplash and Pixabay.
Reibekuchen*: German spicy cakes, a regional delicacy.
GDR*: German Democratic Republic – A term for Soviet Occupied Berlin.
Currywurst*: German sausage
Jetzt oder nie: Now or never
Ja: Yes. A colloquial word often used to stress on a situation.
Kopf runter: Duck down!
Um Himmels willen !: Good Heavens!