Painter squeezed her knee, acknowledging her effort.
Lisa continued her act. "You mentioned one out of six babies showed these short-lived improvements. What about the other five?"
Anna nodded. "Stillborn. Fatal mutations. Deaths of the mothers. Mortality was high."
"And who were all these mothers?" Painter asked, voicing the outrage for both of them. "Not volunteers, I'm assuming."
"Don't judge too harshly, Mr. Crowe. Do you know the level of infant mortality in your own country? It is worse than some third world countries. What benefit do those deaths gain?"
Oh, dear God, she can't be serious. It was a ludicrous comparison.
"The Nazis had their imperative," Anna said. "They were at least consistent."
Painter sought some words to blast her, but anger trapped his tongue.
Lisa spoke up instead. Her hand found his atop her knee and clutched tightly. "I'm assuming that these scientists sought some ways to further fine-tune the Bell, to eradicate these side effects."
"Of course. But by the end of the war, not much more progress was made. There is only one anecdotal report of a full success. A supposedly perfect child. Prior to this, all the children born under the Bell bore slight imperfections. Patches of pigment loss, organ asymmetry, different colored eyes." Anna glanced to Gunther, then back again. "But this child appeared unblemished. Even crude genetic analysis of the boy's genome tested flawless. But the technique employed to achieve this result remained unknown. The head researcher performed this last experiment in secret. When my grandfather came to evacuate the Bell, the head researcher objected and destroyed all of his personal lab notes. The child died shortly thereafter."
"From side effects?"
"No, the head researcher's daughter drowned herself and the baby."
Anna shook her head. "My grandfather refused to talk about it. As I said, the story was anecdotal."
"What was this researcher's name?" Painter asked.
"I don't recall. I can look it up, if you'd like."
Painter shrugged. If only he had access to Sigma's computers. He sensed there was more to her grandfather's story.
"And after the evacuation?" Lisa asked. "The research continued here?"
"Yes. Though isolated, we continued to keep a finger on the scientific community at large. After the war, Nazi scientists had spread to the winds, many into deep black projects around the world. Europe. Soviet Union. South America. The United States. They were our ears and eyes abroad, filtering data to us. Some still believed in the cause. Others were blackmailed with their pasts."
"So you kept current."
A nod. "Over the next two decades, great leaps were made. Superchildren were born who lived longer. They were raised like princes here. Given the title Ritter des Sonnekonig. Knights of the Sun King. To note their births from the Black Sun project."
"How very Wagnerian," Painter scoffed.
"Perhaps. My grandfather liked tradition. But I'll have you know all experimental subjects here at Granitschloft were volunteers."
"But was this a moral choice? Or was it because you didn't have any Jews handy in the Himalayas?"
Anna frowned, not even dignifying his remark with a comment. She continued, "While the progress was solid, decrepitude continued to plague the Sonnekonige. The onset of symptoms still generally occurred at about two years, but the symptoms were milder. What was an acute degeneration became a chronic one. And with the increased longevity, a new symptom arose: mental deterioration. Acute paranoia, schizophrenia, psychosis."
Lisa spoke up. "These last symptoms…they sound like what happened to the monks at the monastery."
Anna nodded. "It's all a matter of degree and age of exposure. Children exposed in utero to a controlled level of the Bell's quantum radiation showed enhancements, followed by a lifelong chronic degeneration. While adults, like Painter and me, exposed to moderate amounts of uncontrolled radiation were struck by a more acute form of the same degeneration, a more rapid decline. But the monks, exposed to a high level of the radiation, progressed immediately into the mental degenerative state."
"And the Sonnekonige?" Painter said.
"Like us, there was no cure for their disease. In fact, while the Bell holds promise of helping us, the Sonnekonige are immune to the Bell. It seems their exposure so young makes them resistant to any further manipulation by the Bell—for better or worse."
"So when they went mad…?" Painter pictured rampaging supermen throughout the castle.
"Such a condition threatened our security. The human tests were eventually halted."
Painter could not hide his surprise. "You abandoned the research?"
"Not exactly. Human testing was already an inefficient means of experimentation. It took too long to judge results. New models were employed. Modified strains of mice, fetal tissue grown in vitro, stem cells. With the human genome mapped, DNA testing became a faster method with which to judge progress. Our pace accelerated. I suspect if we restarted the Sonnekonige project, we'd see much better results today."
"So then why haven't you tried again?"
Anna shrugged. "We're still seeing dementia in our mice. That's worrisome. But mostly, we've declined human studies because our interests over the last decade have turned more clinical. We don't see ourselves as harbingers of a new master race. We are indeed no longer Nazis. We believe our work can benefit mankind as a whole, once perfected."
"So why not come out now?" Lisa asked.
"And be bound by the laws of nations and the ignorant? Science is not a democratic process. Such arbitrary restraints of morality would only slow our progress tenfold. That is not acceptable."
Painter forced himself not to snort. It seemed some Nazi philosophies still flourished here.
"What became of the Sonnekdnige?" Lisa asked.
"Most tragic. While many died of degenerative conditions, many more had to be euthanized when their minds deteriorated. Still, a handful have survived. Like Klaus, who you've met."
Painter pictured the giant guardsman from earlier. He remembered the man's palsied limb and stricken face, signs of degeneration. Painter's attention drifted over to Gunther. The man met his gaze, face unreadable. One blue eye, one dead white. Another of the Sonnekonige.
"Gunther was the last to be born here."
Anna pointed to her shoulder and signaled to the large man.
Frown lines deepened, but Gunther reached and rolled the loose edge of his sleeve to expose his upper arm. He revealed a black tattoo.