“Asleep in Zandalar”
by Alex 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%
LONDON 98.332% INCEINDIARY BOMB 97.980%
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:
HEAT EXHAUSTION 65.515%
SHOT IN HEAD 8.875%
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.”
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.
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% HEAT EXHAUSTION 65.515%
ZANDALAR 95.443% SHOT IN BACK 84.338%
ZANDALAR 97.361% EXPLOSION 92.001%
The papers crackle as Ronnie flips through them. “If this is a joke, it’s an even worse one than Owen MacGill.”
“I wish that it was, Captain. I will explain all, but on the understanding that you will not be passing on this information.”
Ronnie closes the file and hands it back. “I have a feeling I’m not going to like this.”
“This is your chance, then. You can leave this room, and trust that we have good reason for what we do.”
Ronnie bows his head, hands clenched behind his back. “Never been one for blind faith, sir.”
Claredon sits, fingers steepled in front of him. “We have a . . . device that is able to calculate the circumstances of a person’s death.” There are the requisite protests from Ronnie, but eventually Claredon continues: “And more importantly, the scientists who created this remarkable device have been abducted. We have sent team after team to recover them; what they know is far too valuable to allow the Germans unfettered access, and we need them back home now. We don’t even know the precise location where the scientists are being held – all we’ve got is a name: Zandalar. Every team we’ve sent has vanished without a trace.”
Ronnie’s swallows, fighting a sudden twist in his stomach. “I think I begin to see.”
“You’re an intelligent man, Captain. I trust I don’t have to spell it out further.”
“So that means . . . even Owen . . . .”
“Yes, Captain. He will go with you, whether you like it or not. It’s already a fact.”
Ronnie scrubs at his face with his hands. “I wish I hadn’t asked.”
“It’s too late, Captain. For all of us.”
Ronnie frowns. “You’re in that file?”
“I’m afraid not. But any day now, I’ll be the victim of an unfortunately timed bomb.” Claredon levers himself to his feet. “Let us have dinner, if you’ve the stomach for it.”
Ronnie shakes his head. “If it’s all the same to you…… I need to go think for a bit.”
“As you like, Captain. Obviously, we know you’re not going to starve.” Claredon smiles.
Dinner is more food than Owen quite knows what to do with. They give him the same portions as all the adults, and he eats until his stomach hurts. When it’s time for lights out, Daniel gives him a boost up into the top bunk, even though he doesn’t really need it. Owen’s caught between feeling indignant and thinking how nice it is to have someone just paying attention.
“You need anything in the night, just give me a shout or a kick,” Daniel says. “Do your best to sleep, since tomorrow will be busy.”
Owen laughs. It feels good, though the sound seems a little rusty. “What’s tomorrow?”
“Tomorrow’s always busy. Training, training, more training. You’ll love it. Or you’ll hate it, but do it anyway.”
“Does that mean I’m a soldier now? I get to shoot a gun, join the war?”
Daniel’s smile fades a little. “I guess so, little brother.”
Ronnie is halfway through a packet of cigarettes, hiding under a black awning that does nothing to protect from the damp chill of the night breeze. It’s a stupid, selfish waste, but with his thoughts chasing in circles all he can really do is pull the next cigarette from the pack, light it on the butt of the one he just finished. He’s long since missed dinner, but the thought of food puts a sour taste in the back of his throat.
The first time he took a wound, during a mission in France, he’d sat down and written letters to his family, his parents and sister and nephew, to be sent upon the event of his death. Just to clear the air, give himself a little comfort. It’s funny, how the certainty that death is coming, and soon, has dried that comfort up. There is not enough paper and ink in the world to say everything that he needs, not enough seconds remaining to write I love you, I miss you, I’m sorry a million times until it is an indelible mark on the earth.
He lights another cigarette, stubs the dying one under the toe of his boot.
Part of him says that he should tell the rest of the men, Claredon and his secrecy be damned. Honesty is the best policy; he’s lived and breathed that since he was a child. Only he knows this feeling now, can already taste food turning to ashes in his mouth.
He thinks of Owen, twelve years old and already dead, and wonders what is worse – seeing fear and resignation in the boy’s eyes, or seeing that horrifying, dawning hope at a new life and knowing that it is a lie.
Ronnie grinds out his last cigarette and crumples the empty packet into a ball. Everyone is asleep when he enters the bunk room, changes, climbs into bed, careful and quiet.
In the end, it’s an easier decision than it should be. Every man knows he is mortal, that life will some day end, and that is crisis enough. It is a subtle, important, horrible difference from a man knowing he will die. After that, how can he continue to live? Whether Ronnie perpetuates Claredon’s lie or not, they will all still die. But this way, he’ll be the only one that quietly bleeds to death inside.
He stares into the darkness, searching for the ceiling, until morning comes.
Tomorrow, there is training. Owen learns to shoot a gun, how to hold a knife, how to crawl under barbed wire and how to cut it. He sticks with Daniel, listening to any advice that gets whispered his way. He also tries to stand with Ronnie once in the morning, but the man moves away, looking through Owen without ever really seeing him. The final member of their team arrives in the afternoon, an elderly deacon. No one seems capable of surprise any more.
After dinner, they have a briefing. Owen sits next to Daniel, which also puts him next to Ronnie, who gives him a sickly smile in keeping with the fact he’s only picked at his food all day.
Mr. Claredon shows them pictures of scientists, important men who have done much for the Empire, but have now been captured by the Nazis and are held somewhere in North Africa. They will be rescuing these mental giants, and they will do it by allowing themselves to be captured and breaking out from the inside.
Claredon silences protests, his voice like the crack of a whip: “Trust me, gentlemen, if conventional methods had worked, none of you would be in this room right now. And the reason you seem like such a motley crew is the second part of the plan – equipment vital to your escape will be implanted in your bodies. Each man here has the exceptionally rare components in his blood to make this surgery possible.” There is no need to shout for order this time; grim silence has descended. “This will allow these items to escape detection by the prison guards. The scientists will know what to do with the equipment; once you’ve provided it to them, you will make your escape together.”
“And what if we still can’t escape, if this place is so secure?” one of the men in the back row asks.
“Then you will neutralize the scientists,” Claredon says.
Owen glances at Ronnie; the man’s face has gone dead white, the muscles of his jaw working as he clenches his teeth. But it is Ronnie that silences the uproar, shouting for discipline and quiet until he has both. All he says then is: “This is war, gentlemen. We no longer have any choices.”
During the disorder, Daniel puts his arm around Owen’s shoulders, pulling him close. “Don’t worry, little brother,” he murmurs into Owen’s hair, “it won’t come to that.”
A little shamed at being treated like a baby when he’s supposed to be a soldier, he tries to shrug off Daniel’s arm. The man just holds on to him tighter, and something twists in Owen’s chest, tears prickling at his eyes.
The next day, they see doctors, who measure everything about them with lengths of tape. In the days after, they are all put under anesthetic and implanted with bits of transmitters and bombs and other things that no one explains the purpose of.
It hurts much less, and much more than Owen imagined. There is no searing pain every time he moves, but the stitches pull, his arm and his side throbbing with each heartbeat. He is out in the garden, curled up under a barren apple tree when Daniel comes looking for him. Daniel has bandages wrapped around both of his arms and walks slowly, like an old man. He sits down carefully next to Owen. “How are you bearing up?”
“I’m all right.”
“You’re taking it better than some of the men, that’s for certain.”
Owen props himself up on his good arm. “Does Ronnie . . . I mean Captain Hill . . . does he hate me?”
Daniel laughs. “No! What a question to ask -“
“He just doesn’t want to talk to me any more. I thought I made him cross.”
“Ronnie’s got a lot on his mind right now, is all. He’ll be in charge of this mess once we’re out in the field.”
“If you say so.,” Owen doesn’t bother to disguise his doubt.
“Tell you what. I’ll talk to him tonight for you. Just in case, since I know he’s got a funny temper.”
“Thanks.” Owen lies back down, one hand idly playing with the bandages on his side. “We’re going to have scars, right?”
“But not big ones. Some new medicine stuff . . . the same scientists we’re trying to rescue put it together.”
“I know. Big scars impress the girls more.”
Owen laughs. “Except there aren’t any girls around to impress anyway.”
“There will be, some day. Have to think ahead, Owen. Advice straight from me to you.”
Owen frowns. “Once we’re done . . . once we’ve rescued those people, am I going to have to go back to the orphanage?”
“I shouldn’t think so. You’re a soldier now, right, if a short one. I don’t think they’d just send you back to the countryside.”
“Don’t sound so disappointed. Did you want to go back?”
“No. Maybe. I don’t know.” Owen shrugs. “Guess I’m glad I get to fight now, instead of having to wait.”
Daniel rubs his nose with one thick finger. “If the war ended tomorrow, what would you do then?”
“For real, or if I could do anything?”
“If you could do anything. Let’s make it big.”
“Go to school, I guess. I want to go to University. Be a doctor, like my dad.”
Daniel laughs. “That isn’t such a big dream.”
Owen smiles up at the empty branches of the tree. “Depends on where you’re dreaming it from, big brother.”
Ronnie isn’t surprised when Daniel follows him outside after dinner. The man’s been trying to corner Ronnie all day. He tilts the packet of cigarettes at him, eyebrow up, then shrugs and lights one for himself after Daniel waves them away. “Something on your mind?”
Daniel stares at him, eyes narrow. “Something wrong?”
Ronnie laughs. “Have you looked around recently? It’d be easier to tell you what’s right.”
The corner of Daniel’s mouth twitches. “Owen’s worried that you’re angry with him.”
Ronnie frowns, but he knows he’s been avoiding Owen. It’s hard enough to think about leading good men on a suicide mission. The reminder that he’s leading a good boy on that mission is too much to bear. “I’m not. It’s fine.”
“I don’t know you that well, Captain Hill. So I don’t know if you’re normally the standoffish sort. But you’re not the only one who’s worried.” Daniel clears his throat. “I think most of us understand. We don’t need hand holding. But Owen’s . . . just a boy. He deserves better.”
More like a sacrificial lamb, Ronnie thinks bitterly. “You’re right. I’ve got a lot on my mind, but I need to watch myself.”
Daniel seems satisfied with that answer. He claps Ronnie awkwardly on the shoulder and turns away.
“Do you believe in fate?” Ronnie can’t stop the question from slipping out.
“I don’t think I follow.”
“Fate. Destiny.” Ronnie shakes his head. He has no right to put this on Daniel’s shoulders. “Stupid question. Never mind.”
“I wasn’t much for philosophy in school.” Daniel clears his throat. “But I think we’re all going to the same place eventually, right? So maybe that’s fate. But that doesn’t mean there’s only one way to get there.”
Ronnie really looks at Daniel for the first time since his talk with Claredon, and he wonders how much he’s guessed. There are no answers in Daniel’s earnest green eyes, just determination and will, and something stronger: compassion.
He thinks about the way Daniel has taken Owen under his wing, about the boy smiling and laughing so much that sometimes he can almost, almost forget why they’re all really here.
Maybe, if you can’t find the balls to live in the shadow of your own death, it doesn’t matter so long as someone else does. “I’ll tell him it’s all right myself.”
Daniel smiles, salutes.
And maybe that is answer enough.
More special treatments and their scars heal, fading into the faintest of white lines. More training, maybe a month longer, and then they’re in an airplane, then another airplane, then being dropped into Algeria, close to the nebulous location that has consumed the other rescue teams.
It is hotter than Owen ever dreamed possible, the sunlight an intense, living thing that attacks the eyes and skin. He soaks through with sweat as he hikes along behind Daniel. Twice, Daniel offers to take some of his equipment, but Owen refuses.
They take shelter in a canyon as night falls. Ronnie orders them to light fires, saying, “If we’re supposed to get ourselves captured, we ought to be as obvious as we can.” That gets a lot of laughs.
The sky is still black and full of stars when Ronnie shakes Owen awake, one hand firmly clamped over his mouth.
“Not a sound,” Ronnie whispers. “Just get up and come with me.”
Owen follows Ronnie to the mouth of the canyon. There, Ronnie squats down to look him in the eye. “If I’ve got us right on the maps, there’s a village about ten miles that way,” he whispers. “Just follow the dry riverbed.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I want you to run for it. I couldn’t do anything back home, but this is my outfit now. And I don’t give a shit what Claredon’s said. I don’t believe in fate. You shouldn’t be here.”
“Don’t argue with me,” Ronnie hisses. “You’re too goddamn young. So you run for it, and you make nice with the locals, herd goats, whatever you’ve got to do to get through this damn war, and you survive.” There is a lot in Ronnie’s voice, fear and anger and things he’s just not saying, and it scares Owen, sets his heart hammering. Ronnie pulls a little purse from his pocket and pushes it into Owen’s hands. “Silver and gold coins. People will take them as bribes. Use them. Don’t look back.”
But Owen does look back, glancing into the canyon. “But Daniel–“
“Daniel knows exactly what I’m doing. He scrounged up most of the money.” Ronnie grabs Owen by the shoulders and turns him, gives him a shove in the right direction. “If you stay with us, you will die. We’re all going to die. Go.”
The absolute certainty in Ronnie’s voice is the most terrifying thing. Chased by that specter of death, Owen runs into the night, the money clutched in his hands.
Owen finds the dry riverbed by the simple expedient of falling into it. He tumbles down the bank and lands with his leg twisted under him. A choked scream makes it out of his mouth before he bites down. His leg aches, knee and ankle, and he drags himself awkwardly onto his feet. He can walk, the joints can hold his slight weight, but it hurts. Tears slowly oozing from his eyes no matter how angry he is at himself for crying, he limps along in the direction Ronnie pointed.
Ten miles shouldn’t be more than an three hours; he’s a lot stronger than he was in the orphanage. But with his pace constrained to a slow limp, it’s an eternity. The sun is up, and his mouth has gone as dry as an old leather shoe when at last he hears the sounds of civilization – goats, people talking, someone singing in the distance in a language he can’t understand. He can’t see over the bank of the river, can’t imagine trying to climb it, so he shouts, “Hello, can you hear me? Help! I’m stuck! Please help . . . .”
The singing stops. A moment later, a woman with deep black skin peers over the lip of the river bank, sending a cascade of dry sediment down. She shouts behind her and disappears.
Owen shields his eyes, his knees going weak with relief. She must just be getting help, to haul him up.
Another face appears over the bank. A white face. And he shouts something down, something that Owen can’t understand because it’s not English.
A shock runs through him, from his feet to his fingertips, turning his insides to water. Owen jerks around and tries to run, arms flailing wildly to compensate for his limp.
The man laughs and shouts something else. There is a thump as he jumps into the riverbed, the quick thudthudthud of heavy boots. And suddenly Owen is face down, grit filling his nose and mouth and eyes and he can’t breathe from the weight crushing him and the man laughs again, shaking him like a dog shakes a toy, yanking him upright. Owen drags in a breath and gags, spitting dirt, scrabbling at his eyes with one hand as his other searches for the combat knife he just learned how to use, except that it’s back in camp.
He tries to kick the man, to squirm, elbow, anything to just make him let go. He gets a ringing slap for his trouble, and then another, the back of the man’s hand swooping up to his face in an almost casual, graceful movement.
He tastes blood and electricity and stops fighting.
Ronnie is the first to see the Germans coming, rounding the mouth of the canyon. He has one second to panic – they came from the direction of the dry river, the direction he sent Owen – then he shouts the alarm.
They put up a convincing enough fight and shoot two of the Nazis before they are forced from the canyon by a volley of gas canisters. Coughing and choking as they try to pull on their gas masks, they don’t put up much of a struggle as they are thrown to the ground, as their weapons are taken, as they get kicked and hit with rifle butts.
Ronnie presses his face into the dirt, trying to ignore the ache in his ribs that stabs every time he draws a breath. He knows some German, but it’s school German and he has a hard time following native speakers. But he does catch something, about a boy, about a trail in the river, and he knows.
Hands feel through his pockets, a knee planted in his back sets his ribs screaming. Ronnie grits his teeth and hates himself for having hope to begin with.
The soldiers blindfold them, sit them close together and prod them with the muzzles of their rifles. After hours in the burning sun, their mouths desiccating and skin crisping while the Germans laugh and joke, a truck approaches. They’re loaded into the back, driven like cattle. Every bump in the road – and it’s more bumps and ruts than actual road – knocks the breath out of Ronnie like another kick to the side.
There’s no way of knowing how long the drive is, between the blindfolds and the pain. It feels like eternity. Men are muttering about how badly they need to piss, how thirsty they are when the truck rumbles to a stop and there’s the distinctive clang of a metal gate being shut. The British soldiers are all dragged from the truck, made to kneel, and their blindfolds are removed.
The sunset makes everything look like it’s painted in blood.
Buildings and a guard tower and barbed wire. It’s a prison camp, which can mean only one thing: they’re in Zandalar. Ronnie clenches his teeth, arms straining to find any sort of give in the rope around his wrists. This may be the last moment, the last breath of his life, of any of their lives because this place is where they will all die.
The muzzle of a rifle comes to rest on the back of Ronnie’s head. A man in a German Army uniform with silver braid for his epaulets steps forward. “You are spies,” he says in heavily accented English.
“We were on a routine patrol,” Ronnie says.
“No patrols come here. You are spies.” The man walks slowly down the line, inspecting them. “We execute spies.”
“We’re prisoners of war.”
The man smiles. “You are a long way from Geneva.” He inspects his fingernails. “We have work that needs to be done. You are lucky. Work hard, and you will live.” He walks down the line again, pausing in front of Deacon Anders, their final recruit. “Except you. You are far too old.”
Ronnie is on his feet, then the butt of a rifle hits the back of his head and he’s down, unable to hear anything but a high pitched squeal in his ears as the dirty, metallic taste of blood floods his mouth.
Except for the gunshot. He hears the gunshot.
Deacon Anders is a sad sprawl in the middle of a red puddle when they haul Ronnie back up to his knees.
“No more protests. Or you will be shot as well.”
Owen is a sodden pile in the storage shed the soldiers shoved him in to; it’s like an oven, no windows and only one door, not a breath of air stirring. He can’t understand what anyone says, can’t beg for food or water, and there’s nothing in the shed but a few empty crates. So he lays out on the floor and tries to think cool thoughts, wonders where Daniel and Ronnie are, until there’s a commotion outside, a single gunshot.
The door opens and Owen huddles back in a corner, wondering if this makes him a coward now because he doesn’t want to take the next shot. But instead of Nazis coming to put a bullet into his head, it’s the other soldiers, shoved in one at a time.
He runs unsteadily to Daniel and throws his arms around his waist, for a moment not caring if that makes him a baby instead of a man.
“Owen? How did you get here?” Daniel pats at his damp hair.
There’s murmuring about yes, where was Owen, and then Ronnie speaks up. “I told him to run for it. And it didn’t matter, so let’s just stick to the plan.” At his words Daniel’s face crumples with confusion, betrayal, and Owen knows that Ronnie lied last night.
The door opens again and they all fall silent. “Send out the boy,” a gruff voice says.
“What for?” Ronnie demands.
“You want food or no?”
Ronnie beckons Owen forward and whispers, “They want you since you’re so small; they think you can’t cause trouble. Be good. Look at everything but don’t be obvious.” He jerks his head toward the door.
Owen clutches at the rough bottom of his coat to hide the shaking of his hands, but keeps his head high as he walks out of the building. He follows the Nazi soldier, looking around as surreptitiously as he can. He notes that four older men in white coats are being herded from one building, in the same direction as him. As he passes the men, one exclaims, “Good lord, a little young to be a soldier, isn’t he?”
But Owen looks back at the man, makes sure to meet his eyes, and nods, ever-so-slightly. The scientist – he has pale blue eyes behind his glasses – nods back.
The Nazis load Owen down with a bucket full of soup and a second bucket full of water. He carries that to the shed with the guards at his back, then makes another trip for bowls and spoons, a third trip for some burnt bread. As the British soldiers eat, he whispers everything that he saw to Ronnie between mouthfuls. Ronnie nods, smiles, and says, “Keep it up. If they want to make you fetch and carry, boy, be the best you can possibly be at it.”
And Owen does do his best, when he has to carry the buckets and dishes back to the kitchen, to smile at the guard and pretend he hasn’t a care in the world. Because he’s a child, after all, and surely he can’t understand how desperate the situation really is.
Owen becomes the default messenger boy for the camp. He is is quick and sweet and everything he can think to be, and is rewarded by the Nazis deciding by the fourth day that it’s not worth having a guard follow him around as he runs to and fro in the heat. They are more occupied watching the other soldiers, lounging in the shade with their rifles ready as Ronnie, Daniel, and the others dig ditches and start constructing a new building.
He finds out exactly where the scientists are kept at what times, how he might be able to steal a moment to speak with them, though he doesn’t try yet, not wanting to attract attention.
The day the British soldiers finish the walls of the building, Daniel gets in a fight with one of the Nazis. Or rather, the man picks a fight with Daniel, tripping him as he carries rolls of tar paper, then kicking him on the ground and cursing him.
Daniel curls up into a ball at first, but after the fourth kick he scrambles to his feet, fists flying.
Then all of the guards are on him, he’s on the ground, one of the Nazis shouting as he presses his pistol against the back of Daniel’s head.
Owen drops the bag he’s carrying and runs over. A Nazi grabs him by the arm and jerks him back, but Owen struggles against the iron grip and screams, “He’s my brother, don’t kill my brother, don’t kill my brother!” All of the feelings he’s kept bottled up, all that terror comes out in a rush at the sight of Daniel with his face in the dirt, and he bursts into tears.
The Nazis don’t seem to know quite what to make of it, their messenger boy crying and screaming with snot bubbling from his nose, falling to his knees as the soldier releases his arm.
Then they start to laugh. The man on Daniel’s back stands, gives him one final kick, and says something that sounds like a joke. The soldier hauls Owen up to his feet. “Back to work.”
Owen backs away, but his eyes are fixed on Daniel until he stands, scrabbles his load up into his arms, and continues on his way. Only then does he turn, shoulders tensed up to his ears as he waits to hear another gunshot.
It doesn’t come today.
“I don’t know if that was brave or stupid,” Ronnie says. “Both, I think. Definitely both.” He kneels down next to Owen, rests one hand on his head for a brief moment.
“They’re getting casual about hitting us,” Daniel says. He lists to one side, nursing bruised ribs. “It’s going to end with one of us getting shot. They’re bored. We’re targets. And we’re almost done with the building.”
Ronnie closes his eyes as he thinks. “Owen, do you think there’s any more you’re going to find out, just wandering around the camp?”
“No. The last few places, I can’t go to without them noticing.”
“Then let’s get this done. Tonight. We need to . . . dig . . . the parts out. And Owen, I need you to get everything to the scientists. However you can.”
“I see them, sometimes. I can bury it all, tell them where it’s at.”
“Alright, I’m trusting you. We wait for lights out, and then we do this.”
It is dark and horrible and messy. The only light they have is from matches and flickering, improvised torches. The only knife they have is a big nail from the building frame that they’ve sharpened as best they can. Each man has to bite his jacket cuff and not make noise as he is cut with the heated blade, as the little pieces that the surgeons in London put into his flesh are extracted. They hide their new wounds with makeshift bandages and wrap the bloody metal bits in someone’s shirt; Owen ties it around his waist and waits for morning.
Everything stinks of blood. Owen is shocked that the Nazis notice nothing when they send him to get breakfast. On the way he finds the perfect place to bury the little bundle, by the outhouses. No one likes going near them with the stink from the heat and the countless flies, but it’s a place even the scientists must go sometimes. When he next crosses paths with the scientists, one of them says hello, asks how he’s doing. It’s become so commonplace the Nazis no longer notice. But this time, instead of just giving a cheerful non-answer, Owen says, “A bit sick this morning. Left a load at the loo.” Everyone laughs, but the man with blue eyes looks thoughtful, and Owen knows he’s gotten the message.
He’s over on the opposite side of the camp when he hears the gunshot. He runs, knowing it must be too late. Two of the Nazis carry off another soldier, the back of his head missing, while one of the few who has English shouts, “No more lazy! No more lazy!”
Owen ducks to catch a glimpse of the dead soldier’s face. It’s not Daniel, and it’s not Ronnie. A surge of relief leaves him dizzy, then he throws up his breakfast in the shade of one of the buildings.
The scientist with blue eyes hisses at him from a window. Owen looks around to make sure that no one is watching, then sidles up.
“I got your . . . message,” the man whispers.
“Good. We are ready any time,” Owen says, as Ronnie told him to.
“There are components missing.”
“Deacon Anders had three parts. We don’t know what they did with his body.” Owen’s stomach twists. “And I have two. They didn’t take them out of me yet.”
The scientist doesn’t seem surprised, but what other conclusion could he have reached from a dirty shirt full of bloody metal pieces? “Tell them to be ready tonight. I need you to come here during dinner, and we’ll extract from you. Go.”
Ronnie is silent as Owen passes the message along, his face gone gray around the edges. Then he draws himself up, crossing his arms over his chest. “Tonight, then.”
Owen does as he’s told; he brings the soldiers their food, then pretends that he forgot something so he can make one last trip. Instead of the kitchen, he goes to the building where he saw the scientist earlier. The man hauls him up through the window using a knotted electrical cord. It’s a tight squeeze and Owen leaves some skin behind, but then he’s standing in front of the man with blue eyes and his three associates.
“We don’t have much time. Sit,” the man says.
Owen sits. He tells himself he’s ready, pulls off his jacket and rolls up the sleeve so he can bite it.
“This is barbaric,” one of the other scientists says.
“Be quiet and don’t distract me.”
It hurts more than Owen had imagined, with no anesthetic. Tears burst from his eyes, and he can’t stop the scream that’s muffled by his jacket. Two of the scientists hold him down so he doesn’t squirm. Even then, some rational corner of his mind reminds him that he’s got it easier than the others, than Daniel, because at least they’re cutting him with a scalpel.
He passes out the second time the blue-eyed man cuts him. He wakes up with them splashing water on his face. He feels dizzy, black specks dancing in front of his eyes, his side and arm throbbing and burning.
“This is what we need,” the scientist says. He has two tiny, bloody things in his hands. Owen can’t imagine something so small being so important. “Detonator, and the modulator for the transmitter.”
“Can you stand?” another scientist whispers. “It’s been nearly ten minutes. You need to go.”
“I think so.” Owen feels dizzy, like he might throw up or pass out again as he stands. He does neither, but is wobbly.
“Tell your commander–“
“Captain,” Owen whispers. “Captain Ronnie Hill.”
“Fine. Tell Captain Hill that all will be ready for a night-time escape. We can get out of our quarters on our own with what you’ve given us. We’ll come get you, and then it’s up to you to do the rest. Understand?”
They lift him back out the window, and he clings to the electrical cord one-handed as they lower him to the ground. He’s still so pale and wobbly that one of the friendlier Nazis asks him if he’s all right. He makes a stupid joke about the food, and it gets the man to laugh and not ask more questions.
Ronnie only gives a few orders when Owen tells him the news. They’ve been planning for this all along; they know who will go for weapons, who will sneak up on the nearest guards and silence them.
There is nothing left to do but wait. Owen sits next to Daniel, leaning against his side, trying to ignore his new aches and the blood that’s started to seep through his jacket. Ronnie crouches next to them. “Keep your head down, Owen. Stick with the scientists. You’ll make it out of this.”
Owen gives him a sickly smile. “Last time you said something like that, it didn’t go so well.”
Sometime after midnight, the lock on the storage shed snicks and the door opens. Instead of Nazis, it’s the blue-eyed scientist. The men are on their feet in an instant, rushing past him. Only Ronnie and Owen remain behind. Ronnie salutes.
“Captain Hill, I presume,” the scientist says. “Withers.” He ignores Ronnie’s salute.
“We’re going for some weapons now,” Ronnie says. “What do you have to add to the pool?”
“We have a transmitter. It should be set off once we’re at a safe location. A bomb. The lockpick we used to get in here. Those are the three items we could complete.”
“Then that’s what we’ll make do with. Give me the bomb.” Ronnie takes the device; it’s no bigger than a hand grenade, but looks far more dangerous, sleek and black. He’s never seen munitions like it. “What’s the blast radius like on this thing?”
“It will destroy the entire camp. Press this button for instant detonation. You can set a delay on it, here, though only up to five minutes. But that should give us enough time to get away.”
Ronnie nods and tucks the bomb into his jacket. “I’ll trust you on that.”
“You should. I designed it.”
There is shouting outside, and then the chatter of a rifle.
Daniel sprints up to the door. “Someone failed on a guard. We’ve got rifles, let’s go!” He throws a rifle to Ronnie.
They run, Ronnie leading. Lights burst on across the camp, a siren wails. The rest of the team thunders toward them, the men at the rear gunning down two Nazis with short bursts of bullets. Another shoots at the lights, knocking them out in showers of sparks. They run for the gate, and now men are pouring from the barracks buildings, none wearing their uniforms – but their rifles, they have their rifles. The night explodes with bullets and ricochets and screaming.
Daniel shouts: “Keep going, just get to the gate and run, we’ll hold—–” Then the side of his head blows off, and there’s blood covering half of Owen’s face. He stops, staring, trying to understand with a head gone light and far away until someone grabs him by the collar and drags him along. Then that man is down too and Ronnie shouts to run goddamnit, and that’s all he can do.
Withers points something at the gate and the scientists push it open; one flops over, shot through the back. Ronnie turns, finding the source of that fire, sprays it down with bullets. “We’ll hold here. You lot, run!”
The scientists run, faster than sheltered academics should probably be able to. Owen hangs back, scrabbling the rifle from the hands of a dead soldier. Ronnie slaps it away from him, drags him up by the collar. “You run too. Stick with them.
Protect them. Just go.”
Ronnie shoots another man; then he’s down on one knee, a bullet in his leg, blood shining in the unsteady light. “It’s an order! Go!“
Owen grabs the rifle again, and this time Ronnie lets him, because he turns and runs after the retreating backs of the scientists.
There are only seven men left including Ronnie, but they give the Nazis hell. There are plenty of rifles, plenty of bullets to go around. And as is fitting, Ronnie is the last man down, a bullet slamming through his chest, piercing his lungs.
Ronnie hits the dirt, looking up at the impossibly wide, dark sky with all its stars. One hand fumbles for the bomb that Withers handed him as the constellations ripple, falling to pieces in the tears that flood his eyes.
Hope we gave you fellows enough time, he whispers, but no sound comes from his throat, it’s full of blood.
His thumb finds the button. And he manages a small, bitter smile. Because he knows which of those papers in Claredon’s folder was him, now, even if it’s all bullshit because Owen got away, Owen gets to live—–
Captain Ronnie Hill makes himself the heart of an inferno.
Owen runs after the scientists, rifle clutched in his hands, regardless of the pain in his side, of the tears streaming down his cheeks. Just once, he hears a shout of German behind them. He turns and fires, just holding the trigger down and spraying because he doesn’t know what’s coming. The recoil knocks him into an awkward half-spin and he sees dark shapes, three men, who crumple to the ground.
Then Withers knocks the rifle from Owen’s hands because he can’t seem to make himself let go of the trigger. He says nothing as Owen picks up the rifle again, and they resume running.
There is a flash that turns the world to washed-out day for an instant, and Owen half turns, back toward the camp. The shockwave hits, slamming them all into the ground. Blood trickles from Owen’s ear as he reels back up to his feet, unable to hear anything but a high-pitched, unending squeal.
Withers leads them away from the dirt road that goes to the camp, toward the distant mountains. They run, then walk when they can run no more, and finally take shelter in a grove of spiky, dry trees as the sun comes up. Withers triggers the transmitter then, saying, “We’re not going to make it to the mountains today, so this is as good a place as any.” Owen can barely hear him.
The other scientists huddle together and talk. Owen doesn’t care; he just clutches the rifle as if it’s his only friend in the world and stares red-eyed back the way they came, watching for anyone following them, friend or foe.
No one comes.
Withers sits down next to him at some point, claps him awkwardly on the shoulder. “You’re a very brave boy.”
Owen sniffles; he doesn’t feel brave. He feels empty, as if his heart has bled out and nothing remains. “I’m a soldier,” he whispers.
There is a memorial where the Zandalar prison camp once stood, paid for by the British government to commemorate the men who rescued the Zandalar Three, scientists of incomparable value who improved life for all mankind with their inventions during and after the war. Tourists visit it with surprising regularity, for all it’s in the middle of the Algerian desert; this is the site where the father of artificial intelligence was rescued, where the man who cured seven different cancers was saved by Special Service Team Five.
Owen visits every year, on November 18th, the day after the escape. On the 17th, there’s always a ceremony and press and tourists, and it grates on him, stirs up an anger he normally keeps buried, the ghost of a scared little boy that whispers: it’s not fair.
He brings flowers, one for each of the fallen soldiers, and a little something besides for Ronnie and Daniel, a bit of chocolate and a packet of cigarettes. And he sits at the memorial, which is also their grave since there never were any bodies, and tells them about the life he’s lived since the last year. He tells them of medical school, of his family practice, of his wife and his daughter and his son. He tells them of an intervention, of meetings and nights spent in trembling agony. He tells them of returning to Africa with Médecins Sans Frontières, of war and dysentery and children with hopeless eyes who offer him the shy present of their smiles. He tells them of his grandchildren, of his daughter taking over his practice, of his retirement party where the staff made him wear a silly hat and he drank too much punch.
He tells them that he still has nightmares, and that he still has dreams.
And one day when he is old and gray and two months away from his first great-grandchild, he lies down on one of the
benches in the Zandalar memorial park, and sleeps.
Alex Acks is a geology grad student, cyclist, and writer. He’s also an associate member of the SFWA and part of the Northern Colorado Writers Workshop. Find his other works here: “Entangled” in Specutopia issue #1 (July 2012), “Comes the Huntsman” in Strange Horizons (July 2, 2012), “The Jade Tiger” in Penumbra (March 2012), “Transportation” in Anotherealm (September 2011), and “The Book of Autumn” in Beneath Ceaseless Skies #49.