Asleep in Zandalar

Zandalar

Asleep in Zandalar

by Rachel Acks

“Last batch for today.”

Lawrence eyes the battered satchel that has just been dumped on his desk skeptically. It is stained with mud and motor oil; wrinkled paper envelopes that were once white to peep through a tear in its side. “What did you do, run it over with a lorry?”

The soldier that brought in the satchel flips him a mocking salute. “It’s a bit of a mess out there. Don’t know if you heard, but there’s a war on.”

“I noticed.” He opens the satchel as the soldier departs, quickly sorting out the envelopes. Those marked as female – a lot of them this time – are set aside, while he puts the rest in a wire basket. Then he takes the stairs to the bomb shelter in the basement, follows a series of claustrophobic hallways to a metal door. He knocks quietly, gives the man on the other side the day’s password, and is granted entrance.

“Another batch,” he says, offering the basket to the white-coated caretaker.

“Just in time. I was about to get her settled for the night.” The caretaker waves him over to a small table topped with a typewriter.

It’s his normal task, and Lawrence is happy to stare at the lettered keys instead of the mass of wires and vacuum tubes that only the caretaker refers to as her and everyone else simply calls the device.

She was once a schoolgirl. Caught in a building collapsed by a bomb, comatose, brain dead, given over to the war effort. Lawrence knows that much and and desperately wishes he didn’t. She was also once very good at maths, something that enables her now to calculate probabilities of a very specific type.

The caretaker hands him a slip of paper with a name and identification number on it. The paper acts as a cover for a piece of card stock with a set of inked fingerprints. Lawrence threads the paper through the typewriter and determinately does not watch the caretaker move the thin, fish-belly-white fingers of the device over the smudged patterns of whorls that uniquely identify each citizen of the British Empire. He listens as the caretaker repeats her uneven, whispered message and summarizes on the typewriter:

WOOLHOPE 95.663%       FARMING ACCIDENT 65.999%

Then there is another slip of paper, another stuttering message to be simplified to a few keystrokes.
Midway through the stack of envelopes, Lawrence rereads what he has typed and murmurs, “Poor bastard.” Everyone is a poor bastard when you are recording the calculated circumstances of their death, but some have it worse than others, even among the flood of

NORMANDY 65.689%       GUNSHOT 99.919%

and

LONDON 98.332%       INCEINDIARY BOMB 97.980%

and

NIJMEGEN 75.000%       FLAK 88.133%

Lawrence can feel the caretaker’s frown at the interruption, but he doesn’t expect the man to understand. He hasn’t been briefed on the current mission.

“Well, Owen MacGill, I’m sorry to hear it, and I hope you’ve had a good life up until now,” Lawrence says as he sets aside the form, now completed with:

ZANDALAR 99.955%

HEAT EXHAUSTION 65.515%

‘DYSENTERY 21.332%

SHOT IN HEAD 8.875%

SLEEPING 4.200%

SUICIDE 0.078%

Zandalar button

The orphanage is cold, dreary gray stone and too-small windows, doors shut against the constant rain. It is surrounded by the remains of a lawn, which has been torn up and replanted with vegetables in an attempt to supplement the meager food supply. It is run by men who were orphaned in the last Great War, and filled with boys and girls who have been orphaned by the next.

Two men arriving in a black car driven by a chauffeur causes a minor panic, the children fighting for turns to peer at them through the murky windows. One of the men is gray-haired and wears a suit; the other, a fellow in his mid-thirties with hair the color of sand, wears an army uniform with a Captain’s stripes on the arms. The matron on duty rushes out to greet them.

The older gentleman, who also has a thick salt-and-pepper mustache, introduces himself as Oliver Claredon from GCHQ, with Captain Blunt at his back. He politely refuses tea and instead asks to see Mister Owen MacGill.

What he gets is a Young Mister Owen MacGill, perhaps twelve years old, a thin and serious boy with a curly mop of dark hair over a pale face, who clutches nervously at the arm of the matron even as his expression remains blank and impassive.

Claredon takes this in stride, and carefully steps on Captain Blunt’s foot when he opens his mouth to protest. “Well, Mr. MacGill, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I suppose you’re wondering why we’re here?”

Owen remains silent until the matron gives his shoulder a gentle shake. He glances at her, then turns his eyes back to Claredon. He seems to already sense that men from the government rarely bring good news. “Yes, sir.”

“This may come as a surprise, but you’re a young man with some special skills that are greatly needed by your King and country. Can we count on you?”

The boy stands up a little straighter, squaring thin shoulders. “Of course, sir.”

“Excellent. Then with the matron’s permission, why don’t you go collect your things. You’ll be coming with us.”

“So quickly, sir?” the matron asks.

“I’m afraid the war effort does not pause, madam.” Claredon hands her a sheaf of papers.

She purses her lips as if she wants to say something, then shakes her head. “Come along then, Owen. We’ll get you packed up while these gentlemen wait.”

When the door to the little waiting room closes and the footsteps of Owen and the Matron have retreated down the hall, Captain Blunt speaks: “He’s too young. I won’t allow it.”

Claredon smooths down his mustache. “I’m not particularly enamored with the idea of sending anyone to his death, but these are desperate times.”

“He’s just a boy.”

“And the decision is already out of our hands, Captain. He will die in Zandalar whether we act today or not.”

“Not will. Only probably will.”

“Over ninety-nine percent? We’ve assigned men with much slimmer chances to this project.”

“Men. That is the operative word. Sir.”

Claredon shakes his head. “The chance of any other fate for him is vanishingly small. We must take what little advantage we can from that knowledge. He may be the one that breaks through.”

“You don’t know it means during the war. It doesn’t calculate times.”

“And what other circumstances do you propose? Dysentery when it’s been turned so some damned work camp, a few years after they’ve pounded us into oblivion and we’re all speaking German? We’ve better straws to clutch at than that.” It is almost impossible to imagine a gentler future when the world tears apart nightly in a hail of bombs. And Claredon’s job, centered in a web of intelligence reports and experimental horrors, is to twist the strands of the most bloody situations into something that can be wreathed with laurels called victory so long as no one looks too closely.

Captain Blunt thumps his fist against the solid stone wall. “I will lodge a protest.”

“I’m certain that you will. You are free to be my conscience now that I can no longer afford to have one.”

Zandalar button

Owen doesn’t have enough belongings to even half-fill the tattered suitcase the Matron finds for him. It goes into the boot of the black car, and he into the back seat, next to Captain Blunt. The man smiles at him, tries to make jolly conversation as the gray countryside rolls by and Owen stares out the window. The view is almost identical to what it had been two years before, when he’d been brought to the orphanage in the back of a farmer’s truck, his mother dead from cancer. His father had already been buried for a year then, killed when a shell struck his field hospital.

They stop briefly for tea; rationing or no, the men still buy more food than Owen can imagine, and he eats everything that is put in front of him despite the burning knot that tension makes of his stomach. After that, they drive for hours longer, until he can’t help but fall asleep, his head pillowed on Captain Blunt’s well-starched pants leg. The Captain wakes him with a gentle shoulder shake as they drive into a courtyard.

There are guards everywhere, army uniforms and guns and salutes. Too-light suitcase in his hands, he follows Captain Blunt through a maze of halls, to a long room filled with bunks, and more men in uniforms.

“Owen MacGill, this is Special Service Team Five. Boys, Owen will be joining you. I know he looks a bit green,” and here Captain Blunt grins, though the smile has a bitter edge to it, “but he’s got what it takes. So keep an eye on him, play nice, and we’ll see you at dinner.” He musses Owen’s hair with one hand and leaves.

Owen stands as if glued in place, clutching the suitcase with hands gone stark white. The men in the room – there have to be at least fifteen – stare like he is a foreign curiosity, a displeased murmur running through them.

Finally, someone does speak up. “Well, Owen, I’m Ronnie Hill. Pleased to meet you.” He has bright red hair, freckles, the wide shoulders of a man born to play rugby. “Come on, let’s find you a bed.” He reaches out a hand; Owen stares at it blankly for a moment before realizing he’s offering to take the suitcase.

“Bunk above mine is spare,” another man says. He gives Owen a friendly smile from under a crooked nose, his green eyes twinkling. “Though if you’d rather, I’ll take the top and you can have the bottom.”

“I’ve had the top bunk before,” Owen whispers. He has to repeat himself twice before the other man understands him.

“Sorry, I’ve gone a little deaf…… I was in artillery before I got this plush job,” the man says. “Daniel Owens. So that works out, right? I’m Owens, you’re Owen.”

It is a stupid joke, but Owen laughs anyway. “We can be brothers. Everyone’ll be so confused.”

“Separated at birth, us.”

“So where do you come from, Owen?” Ronnie Hill asks.

“Orphanage. Near Tadcaster.”

“Guess you really do need a brother, then,” Daniel says. Ronnie punches him in the arm, but all Owen does is shrug.

“How desperate are things, if we’re raiding orphanages now?” one of the other men mutters.

Zandalar button

Ronnie is actually Captain Ronald Hill, the highest ranked military man out of the bunch. As such, that makes him leader of the team until someone tells him differently. So while the other men are getting ready for dinner, he leaves Owen with Daniel and seeks out the man in charge. Claredon is having a cigar and pouring a pre-dinner brandy as Ronnie lets himself into the office.

“Captain Hill, is something the matter?” Claredon asks.

“Permission to speak my mind, sir?”

Claredon’s bushy eyebrows creep up a little, “Of course.”

“Right. Then what in God’s name is going on here?” Ronnie asks, and immediately begins pacing, as if a little motion is all that stands between him and detonation. “The farmers, all right, I was a little surprised but thought there must be a reason. The shopkeeper from London that’s blind in one eye, I was more concerned about. But now a boy? A twelve-year-old orphan? This isn’t a Special Service Team, it’s a joke!”

Claredon listens patiently, nodding in time with his words, no surprise or dismay on his face. “I rather expected we’d be having this conversation, Captain, though I thought you’d wait until after dinner at least.”

“I’m a little too upset for dinner. Sir.”

“Remarkable.” Claredon takes a file from the desk in the room and offers it to Ronnie. The file is full of slips of paper, each with an ID number and a stark words:

ZANDALAR 99.955%