Sympathy for a Stranger

Ashen labors.

Ashen is a squirrel. He is white. His paws are almost as flexible as hands. He has a tiny hammer. He pounds metal into place. He has a tiny screwdriver. He twists tiny screws. He is building something. It is large. It is imposing. It has a shape much like a bear’s.

One ear twitches.

“Come in, ” Ashen says.

The door opens. It’s a walking dog. He has his hands in the pockets of his trenchcoat.

“Hi, Joe, ” Ashen says.

“Here’s a tough spot,” narrates the dog. “Ashen’s a top government scientist, but he’s using the knowledge he picked up through military research for a personal project.”

“I’m not using any government resources, Joe,” Ashen says. His tail twitches. He looks a bit nervous.

“Good, Ashen,” says the dog. “But what would you do if communists approached you and asked you to put your knowledge to their ends?”

“I’d bite them! Then I’d run away!”

The dog hesitates. His eyes narrow. “That’s not what you’re doing, then? You’re not working for them?”

Ashen shakes his head vigorously. “I’m a loyal American!”

The dog’s suspicion fades. “Well, that’s the right thing to do,” he admits. “If communists approach you for a project, bite them. Then run away! Then tell your local police.”

“Thank you, Joe.”

The dog leans against the wall. “That’s how you can take a bite out of communism!”

Ashen nods.

“But what are you working on?” the dog says. “I mean, if it’s not a secret communist project?”

“I’m building a mechanical bear,” Ashen says. “I call it Mecha-Smokey.”

The dog looks sad. “Oh, Ashen.”

“It’s legitimate!” Ashen says.

“How is that legitimate?”

“I’m going to send it to Germany,” Ashen says. “It’s going to challenge, and kill, the Black Forest Bear.”

The dog hesitates. “Ashen,” he says, “you know that I can’t give my official support to projects involving the assassination of foreign nationals.”

Ashen blinks. “I thought you did a commercial promoting it.”

“As a last resort,” Joe says. “If you’re caught in a foreign country and can’t get home and a duly authorized agent of the U.S. government says, ‘Hey, since you’re stuck here anyway, could you kill this guy?’ Then it’s okay, sure. Mindless loyalty helps you take a bite out of communism! But you can’t just sit in your lab and build anti-Smokey robots. That’s the kind of thing that might damage our diplomatic position.”

“You miss him,” Ashen says.

“He’s a [censored] Nazi!” storms McCarthy.

Ashen watches him for a moment.

McCarthy’s shoulders slump, under his trenchcoat. “Yah,” he says.

“I miss him too,” Ashen says. “That’s why I’m doing this.”

McCarthy raises an eyebrow. He doesn’t actually have eyebrows, being a dog, but the gesture is pretty much the same.

“Even the Germans don’t want him any more.” Ashen’s nose twitches. He’s not happy. “He was the one weapon that the Allies could never defeat, the one terror not even nuclear weapons could stop. But one weapon wasn’t enough. They lost the war. And now he’s just an unpleasant reminder of their temporary sojourn into cultural insanity. They don’t like Nazis over there, Joe. Not any more. But they can’t kill him either.”

“It’s his own fault,” Joe says stubbornly. “If he’s miserable, good!”

Ashen fondles a nut in his little squirrel hands. Then he screws it into the robot bear. “Joe,” he says, “he’s our friend. We have to give him peace.”

“Not any more,” Joe says. “He betrayed our country. He betrayed us!”

“He meant well.”

Joe sneers. “You believe that [censored]?”

“It was true,” Ashen says. “At the time. Only U-boats could prevent forest fires. And . . . say what you like about him, but the Black Forest Bear is dedicated to preventing forest fires.”

“And Auschwitz?”

Ashen hesitates. Then he shrugs. “It’s not about forgiving him, Joe. It’s not about him at all. It’s about doing what I think is right. And I’m not vengeful. I just want closure. I want to give him a grave somewhere with a headstone reading, ‘He Shall Put Out Hell.'”

“I’ll stop you,” Joe says.

Ashen laughs. “I’ve got a good lawyer, Joe. I’d like to see you try.”

“You haven’t seen legal pressure until you’ve seen the Communism-Fighting Dog at work!”

“I’ve signed on with the owl.”

McCarthy bares his teeth. He growls, softly. “The owl?”

“‘Give a hoot. Don’t prosecute!'”

“Damn it, Ashen!”

Ashen turns back to his work. “You know the way to the door.”

Joe turns. He strides away. He reaches for the doorknob. Then he hesitates. “Will it really,” he says, and then pauses. “You know. Be able to kill him? Not even Mothra could take down Smokey.”

“Mecha-Smokey will be invincible,” Ashen says.

“And he won’t run amok?”

“He’ll walk through the sea, all the way to Germany. Then he’ll emerge. He’ll be dripping water. He’ll roar. He’ll begin crushing towns. Not because I ordered him to. Simply because they’re there. And Smokey won’t be able to resist.

“He’ll wake.

“He’ll stretch.

“He’ll stand.

“He’ll march to face Mecha-Smokey. And they’ll take one another’s arms in a great bear hug, and they’ll wrestle.

“Then Mecha-Smokey will rip him, limb from limb. Its quantum hydraulics will be unstoppable.

“And blood will pour from the stumps of Smokey’s arms.

“And in the spring, where that blood fell, flowers will grow.

“They will be Mecha-Flowers. They will be the color of blood and steel. And they will remember him.”

Joe sighs.

“Go,” Ashen says.

“I still have to stop you,” Joe says. “But . . . if I don’t . . . have it tell him . . .”

Ashen nods. He turns back to the machine. He pounds. He screws. He twists. Then he buries his head against his hands.

Joe opens the door. Joe walks out. Joe begins to close the door.

“What could it possibly tell him?” Ashen asks.

The door slams closed.

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