“Calx in Rime”
by M. Keaton
It was snowing when the heroes came from the sky. Erika was returning from the funeral—another funeral—behind her Uncle Torvald, and before the farrier’s wife, whose name she did not know. It was the way of her people: the long procession through the streets, up the hill to stand as the dead were buried and the priest intoned the litany; the slow return of the mourners, back to their houses. Once, this had been tradition; now, performed so often it was merely habit, a rote reaction wrapped in dull numbness.
Erika made the shuffling trek to and fro with the remnants of her village regularly for three years. The first trip had been for her father. Now, of her family, only Torvald remained.
She was fourteen.
Into this tepid, exhausted moment, the roar of a jet stabbed like a knife cutting through a shroud. From a sky of slate and racing clouds, a bolt of blue and gold thrust itself into their lives with the careless arrogance reserved for the truly righteous.
The craft was a cumbersome thing with none of the grace of the white flakes which danced around it. Its nose was narrow, the cockpit, sleek; but the fuselage swelled behind the wings, a fighter’s fore welded to a transport’s body. The wings rotated horizontal to vertical and the jet descended, coming to rest on the heavy skids which extended from its belly. The jet was painted indigo with stripes and lettering in bright yellow. It looked, Erika decided, like a giant blue wasp.
The hulking transport landed alongside the ancient stone manor which served as the village’ s seat of government. Her uncle broke into a run towards the village and Erika followed.
Borne leaned across the back of the pilot’s seat, yelling over the roar of the engines. “Once we’re out, take her up. Get a full aerial survey—thirty miles around if you can—then get back to base. I don’t want to leave the Valkyrie on the ground here until I know the situation.”
The pilot leaned forward to throw the toggle controlling the hydraulics of the rear hatch.
“Ellen! You hear me?!”
The pilot responded with a mute thumbs-up.
Borne clapped the pilot on the shoulder, and followed his men down the transport’s ramp. Outside, he pinched his eyes against the snow thrown up by the turbines and waited as the ramp ground closed and the Valkyrie lifted.
A crowd was gathered, curious and tentative. Once, he would have envied them. Geographically isolated from the stresses of industry and the high crime of urbanization, yet part of a developed nation with its comforts and health care, they should have been a robust people burdened with nothing more complex than the social intrigues of a small town, but something had happened here. It was written across their faces, worn across their shoulders like a yoke. He had seen the look before, on the faces of men in POW camps. He had worn it himself. It was the faded look of those who could no longer afford the luxury of hope.
Borne pulled a toothpick from his jacket pocket and placed it in the corner of his mouth, slowly, one- handed, eyes front.
“You’re up. I don’t speak German.”
“We speak English,” volunteered a man, pushing forward from the crowd. Borne placed the man’s age near sixty or a hard-lived fifty. Wisps of gray hair encircled the man’s head. If he had not been emaciated his hang-dog face would have possessed jowls. Instead, the edges of his jaw stretched back to his neck in liver-spotted curtains of loose flesh. “You are British?” the man asked.
“Yanks,” replied Hollis. “The local CO up in the big rock house yonder?”
“I am Torvald, an alderman of the township. I… did not understand your question.”
“My fault, friend. I’m Hollis, Sergeant, US Army Scout Unit. We’re looking for the person in charge. We received word that you folks had a problem.”
Torvald nodded. “I do not know who has summoned you but I can take you to the burgomaster.”
“You have no military here at all?” asked Borne.
“No. Why would we?”
“Well then,” continued Hollis, “let’s go talk with your mayor.”
When her uncle led the foreigners to the manor, Erika followed. It never occurred to her to do otherwise, and no one sent her away. Other villagers followed them, muttering among themselves, hanging at the edges of the group hoping for some bit of gossip to pass. As they neared the looming stone edifice which served as town hall, seat of records, courthouse, and the mayoral home, all but a few fell away and melted back to their homes. Those who remained seemed logical—the other two aldermen, the village priest, and the farrier who would be an alderman when his father no longer held the title.
It was not unusual, her uncle explained as they walked, that the burgomaster had not left his home to meet them. He was old and infirm, barely able to walk unaided.
Erika studied the strangers as they entered the manor. They were large, not only in body but in carriage. They walked as men who knew nothing of fear or, perhaps, men who knew it so well that it had lost all hold on them. They seemed to her to be like the characters of legend and fable. Great heroes; she labeled them in her mind.
The largest of them, the one called Hollis, she dubbed the Bear. He was the height of her uncle, over six feet, and his body had the thickness and roping muscles of a stonemason. His head was shaved and his body tattooed—a panther climbed one bicep, a snake the other, black patches like sooty finger strokes underscored his eye sockets; when he turned his head, a cross, inked into the flesh, was visible on his throat.
Each of the strangers wore fatigues of canvas, gray dappled with white and brown, but the Bear wore his shirt without sleeves, a rough vest over a chest and back she imagined hairy, as befitted his ursine nature. He carried no weapons; none of the strangers did. They each wore a pistol on one hip and a knife at the other, but this was no more than any village hunter would carry, and she considered these tools, not weapons.
When he spoke, Hollis gestured broadly, like a bear swatting at midges. The motions seemed natural and contrived at the same time. Erika understood—this was his role, to be large and loud, to be seen so the others would not be.
Borne was the Old Wolf of the pack, the hunter who sees even when his eyes are closed. While Hollis spoke and gestured, the Wolf watched and studied. Here, she decided, was the leader, the cunning and the planning. He was only a little shorter than the Bear but thinner and older. His hands struck her as unusual, long with even longer fingers and red, swollen knuckles. His eyes reminded her of her uncle’s, drooping and permanently sad. The muscles on the side of his face rippled as he rolled a toothpick between his teeth. Where Hollis’ head was shaven clean, almost an inch of salt-and-pepper hair stuck out from the Wolf’s skull.
The third man was definitely the Tree. He was the tallest man she had ever seen, easily seven feet in height. His arms were long; his hands hung almost to his knees. Of all the strangers, this one alone had a neck that looked thin. His features were broad, his nose almost flat. His eyes were dark pools rimmed with yellow and his skin was the color of night; his head, shaved so clean it seemed polished. He surveyed his surroundings with a methodical gaze. She could almost here the ticking as his head turned slowly, side to side, with tiny jerks. His appearance frightened her, like the twisted trees of the deep forest.
The last of the four was the shortest and, if Erika were to guess, the youngest. He seemed jovial and relaxed, the kind of man good with locks and slight of hand, inclined to practical jokes and physical humor—the Rat or the Trickster.
Erika studied him intently. He seemed slack, like his skin and muscles were an old coat hanging on a frame. He held his hands half-open in a natural curl and the lids of his eyes were half-closed. His nose had been broken at least twice and, contrary to expectations, it made him better looking, almost boyish.
It was his eyes, she realized, which gave her pause. They took in everything, flicking about in their sockets, attracted to the slightest movement. When he blinked, he did so first with one eye then the other, always seeing. Not the Trickster, she decided, but the Knife, and very dangerous.
“The double doors lead to the main hall. The offices and storerooms open into it. We’ll go in through the back. Gossen—he’s the burgomaster—should be in the kitchen. He spends most of his time there.” Torvald shrugged then added, “It’s warmer. The heat helps his joints.”
“Not to worry,” replied Hollis. “As long as there’s no big brass around, we don’t stand on ceremony.” The small crowd filed through the side door and followed Torvald down a hallway and to another door.
Borne could barely tell it was the same building he had seen as they landed. The exterior of quarried stone and gothic architecture was at odds with the modern interior. Paneling hid the rock walls and carpet covered the floors. Electric lights illuminated the windowless corridors and rooms.
The kitchen felt expansive after the narrow halls. An old man leaning heavily on a tri-footed cane was tossing wood onto the fire as they entered. Torvald motioned to a long table near the room’s center and, at a nod from Borne, they sat—military on one side, civilian on the other.
The old man ignored them all until, satisfied with the fire, he turned and limped to the head of the table. His steps were slow, his left leg weak, slightly twisted. His face was like an apple late in the fall-squat, dried, and rimmed in white frost. It was the face of a man who lived with pain. Borne knew the face and respected the strength it represented.
The man sat with a huff. “What are you doing here?” he asked in German.
“They are Americans. Let us speak in English,” interceded Torvald.
“Americans. Too stupid and too arrogant to learn another language. The entire world has to learn theirs,” he growled then, in English, “I am Gossen. Why are you here?”
“Honored to meet you, elder Gossen, sir.” The role of speaker fell naturally to Hollis though the question had been addressed to Borne. “We are here to help if we can and determine what or who is needed if not.”
“We have no problems here. We do not need you.”
“I respect that. Perhaps there has been a misunderstanding or a mistake. Do you know if any of your people might have asked for us?”
“I did,” whispered one of the men who had accompanied them into the manor.
“Karstenov,” supplied Torvald. “He is our priest.”
“I spoke to the Monsignor in Berlin. I never believed he would send for…” Karstenov drew a breath to steady himself. “If they can help, we must let them. We must put our people before our pride.”
“Without our pride, we are nothing!” snapped Gossen dismissively.
“What of our children?” asked Torvald softly, staring down at his hands.
“You would make our children weak, puppets to the Americans!” Gossen waved at Borne’s men angrily.
“If something is not done, there will be no children!” shouted a man on the same side of the table as the burgomaster, slapping the table with his hand and partially rising from his seat.
“Enough, Karstenov.” Gossen’s tone was annoyed,but respectful. Then the burgomaster glared at Borne. “Leave us. This does not concern you.”
“We’ll wait in the hall,” Hollis said.
“Wait.” Torvald’s voice was stern, commanding respect and silence. “These men are our guests. Erika, since you have chosen to sneak behind me, you may make yourself useful. Go with these men. Find rooms for them. Get them food if they are hungry.” The girl leapt to her feet and hurried to lead them from the room.
Borne almost sighed with relief as he closed the door. The silence lasted a heartbeat before the muted thunder of angry voices hammered at the door behind him.
It was not difficult to find space for the strangers; the entire second floor of the manor was unused. They declined the offer of food and Erika tried to make herself invisible in a corner of the room and set about watching them.
“Cigany, get me a secure channel,” Borne instructed the Knife. “Hollis, sweep for bugs, just in case.” He nodded at the tall black soldier. “’Go ahead and fire up the laptop. We’ve electricity, don’t waste the battery.”
The strangers moved quickly to action, except for the Wolf who sat backwards in a chair, the quiet eye of the storm. Piece after piece of equipment emerged from voluminous pockets until Erika began to suspect they were magicians. Cigany drew small boxes from a half-dozen pockets and began to weave them together with a handful of colored wires. Hollis paced slowly through the main room, and then the two adjacent ones, with a comically small rod held in his wide paws.
The Tree held a flat black square in the palm of his hand. With a gentle pressure, he slid it apart horizontally and then, with a click, split it again, raising a paper-thin top. “Cigany, do you have an extra power cord?” he asked, and the other man passed one to him without looking up from his own work. He ran the cord and, a moment later, a whirring sound emanated from the device. He nodded appreciatively to himself and produced a slim metal rod from a pocket. He began to tap it against tiny buttons. “If we’re staying, I’m going to need a docking port and a real keyboard.”
“We’re staying,” replied Borne.
“You sure? That Gossen guy has some issues,” said Hollis, returning to the main room. He slid the rod into a pocket.
“Clean, by the way.”
“Pride? In my experience, that means he’s more afraid of his government and his own secrets than his enemies. Doesn’t matter what Gossen or anyone else thinks, we’re staying. Just because a man refuses to admit he’s sick, it doesn’t change the fact he needs treatment,” Borne replied with the obscure wisdom Erika expected of an old wolf.
“Primaries are up,” said Cigany over his shoulder. “I’ll need a few more minutes for the secondaries.”
“I can wait.” Borne looked at Erika and scowled. “What about the kid? Security risk?”
“Naw,” drawled Hollis. “We’re going to need a native guide and she’ll have less of a personal agenda than any adult we’re going to find.” Hollis squared himself directly in front of Erika. “Do you promise that what you hear and see with us will be kept secret and repeated to no one?”
“And that you’ll fight to uphold the principles of liberty, freedom, and honor?”
“Yes,” she squeaked, excited and frightened at the same time.
“Your responsibility,” said Borne and Hollis winked at Erika, making her giggle. He removed a cloth patch embroidered with the American flag from a pocket and fastened it to her shirt with a safety pin.
“Any idea what we’re up against?” asked Cigany.
“Same two words as always,” answered the Wolf. “Investigate. Resolve.”
“This cloak-and-dagger routine kills me.” Cigany held the earpiece of a headset to the side of his skull and tapped its microphone with his finger.
“But you get such a kick out of being one of those ‘darn meddling kids’,” Hollis teased.
The smaller man made a pained face and passed the apparatus to Borne. “The mountains are bouncing the signal. Best stay short.”
The commander nodded and pulled on the headset. “Angel, this is Nomad Actual. Acknowledge. Over.” Erika listened with fascination to Borne’s half of the conversation. “Copy that…Roger, oh-five-hundred…Full kit, I think. Yes, full kit.”
“Don’t forget Queequeg’s keyboard and super large print monitor,” interjected Cigany. The Tree scowled at him and Borne angrily waved the man to silence.
“No. No details…Say again…Copy that. Nomad out.” Borne pulled off the set and passed it back to Cigany. “Signal is horrible. Ellen says they’re already giving her fits . She had to pull rank to get priority refueling for the Valkyrie.”
“Sheesh, who’s the enemy here?” groused Hollis.
The Tree laughed, a warm tumbling sound from deep in his chest. “The only thing a Euro hates more than his enemy is a successful friend.” He turned a toothsome grin on Cigany. “And if you knew more about Melville, you would not be so quick to call me Queequeg, little gypsy.”
“Whatever you say, Libby. Too bad I can’t read.”
“Both of you, be still,” the commander snapped, rising to his feet and turning toward the hallway. A moment later, there came a rap on the wooden door. It opened and Torvald stepped into the room.
“The burgomaster is prepared to speak to you.”
“I can find my own way down,” said Borne said brusquely. Torvald stepped aside to let him pass then dropped in the vacated chair. “I trust my niece has been properly hospitable?”
“She’s an asset and a credit to her family,” replied Hollis. “If you have no objections, I’m sure we can use her help for the next few days. Nothing dangerous, I assure you, just directions around the areas, help with translating, small things like that. We’d pay for her time.”
Torvald scowled and gnawed his lower lip thoughtfully. “She will be in no danger?”
“We will care for her as if she were one of our own. “
Her uncle relented. “I doubt I could keep her out from under your feet even if I did object. She is irritatingly curious. So, who, exactly, am I blindly entrusting her safety to?”
“Well sir, we’re a light scout unit for the US Army, a kind of troubleshooting squad. We’re the flexible part of the inflexible military machine.
“Our commanding officer is Captain James Borne. You, ah, passed him on the way in. He’s a good man, solid commander. I’m First Sergeant Ragar Hollis. I’m a code breaker—math, languages, stuff like that—so the Captain keeps me around. Corporal Cigany there is our comms man and a demolitions expert. The tall chap behind you is Doctor Liberty Quijimere. He’s on special assignment with us as a field medic but he’s actually a professor of macrobiotics. The talented Ellen Trotman, RAP , is our NATO liaison and drives the big blue bus. Truthfully, I don’t understand her official rank. Since she’s our ride home, she pretty much does as she pleases.”
“Second Sergeant lance Major,” offered Liberty. “She has the equivalent pay grade of a Second Sergeant but she has the functional authority of a Major, hence the term lance.”
“You sure?” questioned Hollis.
“No.” Liberty returned to pecking at the keyboard.
“You are diverse,” said Torvald, “and highly ranked.”
“We’re all career men. And too, you can’t very well send rookies out to do our kind of work.”
“And we’ve all seen active combat,” added Cigany.
“Too much of it,” agreed Hollis. “We’re either the best of the best or the leftover misfits. Depends on how you look at it.”
“I hope that you are the best, for all our sakes,” replied Torvald.
“Sounds ominous. Look, Torvald, we have almost no information on the situation. Your mayor seems set on denying there’s a problem at all, and I doubt many of the other locals are going to be very helpful.”
“The priest will help. He is the one who summoned you.”
“Fair enough, but we need more than that. What is going on around here?”
Torvald cleared his throat uncomfortably before answering. “The sins of the fathers to the second generation. In the past three years, thirty men and almost that many women and children have either been killed or disappeared. The people are terrified but most dare not leave.”
“Why?” asked Liberty, closing his computer and turning his chair to join the conversation.
Torvald appeared not to have heard the question. “We have requested aid before but you are the first to come. The Burgomaster says that we are a small town and the government has more important concerns. The killers strike only at night, preying on outlying farms and hunters. Because of this Gossen believes we can ignore them, that if we are careful and huddle together like sheep, we will be safe. I can no longer believe this. They grow bolder. We tempt them with our weakness.” He stood and shook his head. “But what matters this to armies? It is a matter for the police, not the military.”
“Not anymore,” said Hollis. “It’s a different world now. Nations don’t go to war, men do, and sometimes the police are not able to handle it. War is about fear. One man can spread fear better than an army. A century ago, nations fought for land and resources. They even fought with rules, after a fashion, because they fought for a purpose, for a thing to have. Now? Now we fight wars for ideals. Your people aren’t being killed because someone wants your village. They’re killing because they can, to make you afraid, to break you. Because if they do, if the fear and dread grind you down until you can’t get up anymore, then they own you. Forever. It’s not about nations, it’s about power and domination. This is how we fight now, how we have to learn to fight, as an army of little armies—one town, one group, one man at a time—against evil.”
Gossen was alone in the kitchen, sitting at the head of the table like a Prussian king holding court with the fire behind him. Borne moved to the other end, spun a chair and sat, resting his crossed arms on the chair’s backing.
“It might prove better if you did not, but others disagree. I have been outvoted,” replied Gossen, the permanent scowl of his face deepening.
“The more I know, the faster I finish, the sooner I leave. What’s going on here?”
“Nothing. Frightened peasants and a priest with an over-active imagination. The winters have been unusually hard and the old priest died. It has made the wolves desperate and the people superstitious. The beasts have killed a few travelers, even attacked farmers. It is hard and tragic but nothing we cannot overcome. We need traps and hunters, not troops. Certainly not American troops.”
“I see. And your own government, why have they not helped you?”
“They have in the past. If our need were great, I am sure they would. This is a small matter.”
Borne stood and returned the chair to its proper place. “I’m curious. How long has it been since the government sent troops to help you?”
Gossen’s face clouded, his expression becoming guarded. “I forget. A few years.”
Borne waited, looking at Gossen. When the other man refused to meet his gaze, he turned and left the room.
“Cigany, I need the transmitter again. The rest of you men turn in.” Borne’s voice jolted
Erika sat upright from where she dozed. The motion caught his attention and he pinned her with a glare. His face softened and he spoke in a gentler voice. “Go home and hit the sack. We’re going to have an early start tomorrow.”
“Hit the sack?” she smiled shyly.
“Get some sleep.”
“Oh.” Erika slept smiling.
The roar of the Valkyrie ‘ s lift jets rattled the sleepy village into abrupt awareness. Newly fallen snow blew skyward in incandescent swirls. Warm air plumed upward when the loading ramp opened.
While his men offloaded supplies, Borne wedged himself into the co-pilot seat. Even with the engines idling, he had to shout to make himself heard. “Did we get everything?”
“No body armor and only half of the motion sensors you wanted. Everything else was pretty standard,” Ellen shouted back.
“That’s great. Really. You get any sleep at all?”
“Negative. You really believe we’re dealing with wolves?”
“No way. What about you?”
The Major shook her head. “The Germans are going into fits about us just being here. I ran the NATO database looking for troop activity in the region like you asked. Nada. Tried to check the German national records and got booted—a complete stonewall. “
“No surprise there. Everybody hates the big dog.”
“This could be dicey, James. There’s been a lot of bad blood with the Germans lately.”
“A united Germany is one step up from hell. Evil is in their blood.”
“Keep it at a simmer, Captain. There are good Germans.”
“Sure. I call them immigrants. Major, I was in Syria when they refused air support out of Turkey. We lost a lot of good men because of them.”
Ellen nodded. “Jewish grandparents, remember? Don’t let it get in the way of the job. We’re here to save these people, even if it’s from their own government. Stay frosty.”
“Roger that. Watch yourself.”
“No worries. There’s a squad of Aussies on base covering my back.” The pilot struggled against the straps that held her in her seat and produced a pair of silver discs. “Presents for Libby. That’s all the data I could burn before I got kicked. Maybe he can find something useful.”
“Thanks. Hey Major, check with command and see if we can just go scorched earth here.”
The pilot snorted. “You didn’t do very well in IRST, did you?’
Borne stood, bent forward in the shallow cockpit. “International Relations Sensitivity Training? Biggest waste of time since the UN.” He clapped her on the shoulder and moved to help unload the transport.
Erika rubbed her eyes and suppressed a yawn. The comfortable warmth of the one-room church conspired with the early morning to put her to sleep. The drone of Hollis’ voice as he spoke with Father Karstenov was a lullaby to her heavy eyelids. After the predawn rendezvous with the Valkyrie, Erika and Hollis had sought out the priest, leaving the others sorting through a host of new gadgets. Karstenov had tucked Erika into a comfortable pew with a mug of bitter chocolate and the two men settled into a tense discussion.
She inched closer to Hollis, trying to remain awake.
“You really think we’re only looking for one person?” the Bear was asking.
“A demon, good sir, or at least a singular creature,” the priest replied. “I have studied this matter most closely. These attacks occur only against individuals or very small groups. There is only one set of footprints—”
“Footprints, not paw prints?”
“Whenever possible, I have inspected the attack sites. I am no tracker but, when the soil is soft, there are very clear tracks made by no animal, perhaps by no man. They are like large boot prints if the boot had a completely smooth sole. Very nondescript. There is no tread pattern. “
“Depending on the soil. “
“No. I mean, if you compare them to the prints of the victims, are they deeper?”
The priest rubbed his jaw thoughtfully. “I have not looked for this thing but, yes. I believe so. There is also the nature of the injuries. The people are beaten to death. In every attack when a cause of death is recorded and every victim I have seen before burial—brute force, never any sign of weapons. I have reviewed Father Leon’s records as well and his notes match mine.”
“Father Leon was your predecessor?”
“Yes. I was sent here following his death.”
“This creature killed him as well?”
The priest sighed. At last he said, “I do not know.”
Hollis studies the man’s face then nodded. “This predates your arrival, but we’ve heard conflicting things. Do you know if any troops were ever stationed here?”
“I did not realize it was a mystery. There was a small outpost in the foothills, just north of the town. They sent out regular patrols. I do not know if it was large enough to be considered a base. Perhaps that is where the confusion has arisen.”
“Most likely. What happened to it?”
“I suppose it was shut down.”
They must have talked for much longer; it was after noon when Hollis shook Erika awake. “Time to go. I think the padre’s finally tired of us.”
“Not at all,” Karstenov objected cheerfully. “I only wish I had better answers for you.”
“You’ve been very helpful. I’m sure I’ll be back after I’ve had a chance to go over this with the Captain.”
“I look forward to it. And, Brother Hollis, how long has it been since your last confession?”
After years of grim quiet within the church, the Bear’s laughter echoed like peals of thunder.
Borne pulled off the headset and scratched at the stubble on his chin. “All quiet. The Major had the Krauts back to a dull roar,” he told Liberty.
“Won’t last,” the soldier muttered, staring at the spectral flicker of his computer screen. “They definitely had some kind of base here. It’s in their files—guilt by omission. Men are left off duty rosters for months then reassigned as though they were never gone. The operating costs of the three closest German national bases are almost twice what they should be. I guess we knew that all along though.”
“Suspected. How long ago?”
“Two years and ten months ago, forty-three men missing from the rosters reappeared across most of Germany. Within six months, every one of them was dead-heart attacks, accidents, a whole host of causes, but every one dead.”
Borne grunted and leaned his chair onto its back legs. “What an odd coincidence.”
“Still doesn’t answer the million dollar question. What are we up against?”
“Don’t know, yet. Hollis and the squirt are out setting cameras; maybe they’ll catch a break. I think Cigany’s tractor incident is a dead end.”
Liberty closed his laptop and knuckled his eyes. “I didn’t hear about it What’s this about a tractor?”
“Some farmer is claiming his tractor was attacked last night”
“Guy probably wants us to buy him a new rig. My head is killing me, Cap. I’m going to step outside for a dose of cancer.”
“Go smoke. I’ll watch the comms while you’re out.”
It took two entire days for Erika to work up the nerve to ask her question. She waited until the absolute end of the day. When she finally did ask, she spoke so softly she thought she had not been heard. She should have known better; the strangers had ears like bats.
“Kid, we can’t even find a target yet. When are we going to fight,” Hollis repeated with a laugh. “Why do you think we put out those cameras? This isn’t the old days. Us grunts fight smart now.”
“Ground pounders, green infantry bucks, GI Joes—Grunts, lowest of the low and everybody needs us.”
Hollis looked thoughtful. “Listen. First, we find the bad guys. Then we study them. Then we plan. Then we prep. And then we fall on ‘em like a mountain, all of a sudden. You have to get as much as you can out of that first punch because things start falling apart from there. You go in blind and you get hurt. Lesson over, it’s past your bedtime.”
Erika acquiesced, uncertain if her question had been answered. Hollis started to close the door then froze in mid-action.
“Captain!” He roared loud enough to wake the town, moving faster than Erika’s tired eyes could follow. “Fire!” He vanished into the main room and all four men were gone before she realized they were moving. She could hear it now too—the hungry rustling, the crack of timbers, the shouts of alarm. She raced after them.
Outside, the night sky was alive with light. Soft yellows flowed from open doors and windows onto the snow. The brilliant blue of halogens cut the darkness as men struggled to dispel shadows from their frenzied work. Fist-sized balls of flaming cinder rode high in the wind above the town and a raging crimson stained the sky. Gouts of red and orange licked upward from the village church.
Erika was pulled into a bucket line and the night dissolved into a timeless struggle fraught with heat and glare. Through it all, the foreigners met the fire like the legendary giants she knew them to be. While others collapsed from exhaustion or retreated from the suffocating heat and smoke, the strangers fought at the front, so close to the inferno they were often obscured by roiling plumes of smoke.
They broke away to pour buckets of water over their heads and marched again into the elemental battle, their clothes burned through to blistered skin. Like men who knew no weakness, they struggled on, immune to fatigue.
She tried to match them, through aching muscles and raw lungs. When she could go no further, she rested, just enough to breathe and quiet the trembling of her hands. When Hollis carried the priest from the blazing church, badly burnt yet still alive, she drew new strength from hope and returned to the line.
The church had walls of stone but the fire carved through its guts and spit them out as ash until, deep in the night, it could eat no more and, against the determination of the men and women who fought it, spread no further .
It was in the silence, as the firefighters sat littering the streets, too tired to return to their homes, that Torvald’s body was found among the ruins.
Borne sat on the ground near the shell of the church, legs apart, arms resting limply between them. His posture was like that of a child’ s toy cast behind the basement furnace and forgotten. Black lines of soot stripped his forehead and his right eye was pinched closed, tearing constantly from a bit of grime he could not dig out. He desperately wanted sleep but was too weary to stand and seek out his bed.
Cigany dropped to the ground alongside him. The younger man spoke softly. “We have a problem.”
“I know. This was friendly fire.”
“How’d you know?”
“Different MO. Half the town hates us. Karstenov and Torvald were our strongest supporters…it’s not rocket science, Holmes.”
“They won’t get away with it,” Cignay said matter-of-factly.
“No maybe. The fire was set. Amateurs. There’s a backtrail like a highway. They didn’t even try to hide it.”
Borne rubbed his sore eye with the back of his wrist. “You can track them?”
“If I don’t let the trail go cold.”
“Been a long night. You up to it?”
Cigany stood with a groan. “I’d consider it a privilege. I liked Torvald and they left that kid a total orphan. Makes it kinda personal.”
Borne was silent, thinking. At last he said, “Find them, but wait for my okay.”
“On it. Got any chocolate left? I’m out.”
“Yea, couple of glucose tabs too. Help me up.” Cigany pulled Borne to his feet. “Here’s your candy, little girl. Get to work.” Cigany sketched a salute and left.
Borne rolled his head from side to side, listening to the cracking, watching bright motes of light float in his eyes. He waited for his vision to clear then started for the manor. As he passed Liberty and then Hollis, he ordered them to bed. Liberty protested briefly but Hollis simply lifted the sleeping Erika in his arms and lumbered mechanically away.
The kitchen of the manor house was lit by the omnipresent glow of the cookfire. Gossen sat at the table, hunched forward. He motioned off-handedly toward the fire as Borne entered.
“Coffee’s still hot.” The burgomaster sipped from his own mug. “Your men did well tonight, Captain. They were a significant help. You should be proud. “
“I’m always proud of them,” Borne replied, pouring boiling coffee into a tin cup. He spun a chair and sat, his weight sagging forward against its backing.
“I warned you there would be trouble,” Gossen said.
“Sure. You know there’s a problem; you just don’t fix it. You’re doing a great job here.”
“You have no idea.”
“So why don’t you tell me?”
“Because it’s over, done and buried. Leave it so. You Americans are so quick to judge. You rush around ignorant like children, demanding action instead of thought. Then, like children, you cry and blame someone else when you must face consequences.” Gossen paused, drank again from his mug. “This is about more than you and what you want. This is about my people. If you succeed, nothing changes. People will still die; life goes on. But if you fail, I am left to deal with what you leave. You will make matters worse and more will die. The entire village may die. What do you care? You will be gone. You can leave when things become difficult. We live here. We remain.”
“You done?” Borne asked.
“Are you leaving?” The two men glowered at each other, each unrelenting.
Borne took a hot mouthful of coffee, swallowing without tasting. “It’s not wolves.”
“Perhaps Torvald was right. Perhaps there are terrorists or smugglers.”
“Torvald is dead.”
Gossen shrugged. “What is to be done? I am just a mayor.”
The radio on Borne’s hip chirped twice. He double-tapped the send button. “And if this is not your wolves? If it is a local matter?”
Gossen stood, leaning on his cane. “If it is, I will deal with it. But it is not, so, I will not.”
“And if I disagree?”
“It is out of your hands, commander.”
Borne downed the rest of his coffee. It sat burning in the pit of his stomach. “I don’t think that answer is sufficient.”
“I think it will have to be. You have no authority here.” There was an undercurrent of malice in Gossen’ s tone.
Borne pushed himself away from the table, standing with a sigh. He dug through his pockets until he found a toothpick. “It’s late and I’m tired. Let’s skip the lecture.” He placed the toothpick in the corner of his mouth and kicked Gossen’ s cane from under him. The old man fell, landing on knees and elbows on the stone floor. His mug shattered, spraying coffee.
“That’s authority.” Borne knelt, his knee deliberately coming to rest on Gossen’s outstretched hand. “And I think, not only did you know this was going to happen, you encouraged it. Now, are you going to deal with this or am I?”
Gossen cursed, lapsing into German in his vitriol.
Borne shook his head sadly and stood. He looked down at the burgomaster, shook his head again, and lifted the radio. “Nomad Actual to Nomad Four. The moon is down. I repeat, the moon is down.”
“You confuse power with authority,” growled Gossen.
“And you confuse authority with morality… call it even.” The radio clicked twice. Borne sighed and left the room.
Two more villagers vanished during the night of the fire. Their bodies were never found.
The Bear was weary in his bones, so worn that he was immune to the petty aches of joints and muscles. He arose slowly with small, stiff motions. Sleep draped his mind and he moved by instinct, without conscious thought. He scratched at the tee-shirt in which he had slept then ambled clumsily into the adjacent room, following the sound of muffled sobs.
Erika cried into her pillow, wrapping her arms around it as if to hold her world together. The Bear went to her, awkward in his somnambulism, sitting beside her on the cot.
She clung to him, sobbing into his chest. Tired beyond protest, he held the cub until she fell asleep and beyond.
No matter how dark the night, morning comes. Ash and snow mixed to paint the village with a layer of grime, stealing pearlescent innocence and replacing it with peccant gray. Frost wove soot into its lace and waited for dawn.
Borne squeezed Liberty’s shoulder until the other man awoke. “I can’t stay up much longer. Can you watch the comms?”
The medic rose, sitting on the edge of his cot. “Sure thing,” he said with a yawn. “Have you slept at all?”
“Going to now. Cigany just laid down. Wake Hollis if you need help.”
Liberty began to pull on his uniform. “I’ll be fine. I didn’t get a chance to tell you last night, it looks like Karstenov is going to make it.”
“Good. When Hollis gets up, have him pull in the cameras. If there’s anything to see, either we have it by now or we never will.”
“Will do. We’ll have a look at it—right after your nap.”
“Funny, Libby. Very funny.”
Borne was asleep within seconds, not bothering to undress. When he woke, he felt better but still a long way from truly rested.
He found his squad gathered around Liberty’s computer. The girl, Erika, saw him before the others and he nodded to her. Tough kid, he thought, holding up well.
“It’s fourteen-hundred,” said Liberty, answering the question Borne had not yet asked. “I didn’t see any reason to wake you until we knew what we had.”
“Look for yourself” Liberty tapped the keyboard. “This cut is probably the clearest.”
The video playback was the green and gray of night vision. The footage was interlaced, made up of a series of horizontal lines, striped and grainy.
A bipedal figure walked past the camera. Its movements were stiff, unnatural. There was no swing to the arms, no roll in the stride. Based on the surrounding trees and the camera’ s angle, Borne placed its height around eight feet. The body was blocky; the entire form, thick. The figure was nondescript and monochrome, no insignias, no loose clothing. The entire clip lasted five seconds.
“Hollis brought in a half-dozen shots, all about the same,” Liberty said. “Lots of wildlife footage too,” the sergeant added ruefully. “So what is it?”
“I can tell you what it isn’t,” interjected Cigany. “It isn’t a band of terrorist or smugglers or thieves or some rogue military squad.”
“Maybe,” countered Hollis. “Or maybe they’re only patrolling with a single scout.”
Cigany shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. Point is: one bogey, one target.”
“One big target,” said Borne. “Libby, what do you make of it?”
“Powered armor, or servo-assisted at least. The Japanese are selling a servo-assist units for emergency workers with an arm strength over one hundred and fifty pounds. I have no problem believing that the military ops are far enough ahead of commercial applications to already be on the black market.”
“Fits the MO,” mused Hollis. “Karstenov was pretty convinced about the consistent use of brute force.”
Borne chewed his lip as he thought. “Still doesn’t give us a why.”
Liberty grinned and spoke excitedly. “But which why? Why attack villagers? Why the German government refuses to help these people? Why is there a base that doesn’t exist? Or…” he paused for effect, “Why beat a tractor to death?”
“I’ll play. Why kill a tractor?”
“Because it’s automated!” Liberty folded his arms in satisfaction and let Cigany take over the explanation.
“I started asking questions and it turns out, this thing will smash cars and farm equipment as fast as it will people. No one has put the two together before. I got all the locations I could for attacks on equipment and had Queequeg punch it all into his magic box. We added in the people, connected some dots, I did a bit of scouting and boom-our missing military base.”
“You found it?”
“No, I found the entrance about an hour ago and shot back here for orders.”
“There’s more,” interrupted Liberty. “If I estimate times for the attacks plus use the time codes and locations from the cameras, I get a rough patrol path. It looks like, every night, this thing wanders out and starts making a spiral until it either runs out of time before dawn or finds something to hammer. That’s why attack a tractor; it can’t tell farm equipment from military equipment—automated system. And, that’s why it is starting to strike closer to town. There’s less stuff left in the way to slow it down.”
“So, the Germans seal the base and leave this two-legged tank behind to make sure no one goes in.”
“Except that it’s just a machine so it doesn’t know when to pull up and things got messy,” concluded
Borne closed his eyes, deep in thought.
“What if we lay in an ambush and blow this puppy away?” asked Cigany.
“No guarantee that there aren’t other contingency system in place even worse than this,” argued Liberty.
“We have to go in, “ said Borne, opening his eyes. “The clock is ticking. If half of what we suspect is true, it’s a miracle we don’t already have German troops all over us. How much sensitive equipment do we have in case we need to pullout in a hurry?”
“The computer, obviously, and the radio. Everything else is declassified, just really expensive,” replied the medic.
“Carry it with us. We’re going to let this thing go on its patrol and then we’re going into that base and get some answers. I don’t want it and blocking us in so we’ll give it a head start and then lay in an ambush on its return path.”
“I’ll do it,” volunteered Hollis. “You’ll need Libby for computers and Cigany for demo.”
Borne nodded in agreement. “Engage it. Kill it if you can but stay safe. Mainly I want it busy until we’re clear. Keep it interested and lead it around in circles. I haven’t seen any evidence that it moves very fast. Libby and Cigany will go in with me-full gear, squad headsets, bio-chem patches, all the toys.”
“And me?” Erika asked softy.
Borne stared at her and she refused to look away. “Hell,” he muttered, “I’ve been shot at by younger. All right, you’re with Hollis—but as a spotter only. When things get hot, you get out.” The girl nodded. “Prep what you need and get some rest. It’s going to be a long night.”
“Too bad we don’t have more moon.” Hollis’ flashlight bobbed in the darkness as he wrestled though the evergreen branches.
“The clouds would still block most of the light,” replied Erika. “I think I am done on this side. Come and check it.” She had become bold; she felt it in herself. The Bear treated her as if she were fragile, ready to break at any moment. She was not. She had lost her entire family in a matter of years and, at last, she could fight back. Erika took all the pain of her uncle’s death and bound it into a ball of rage and resolution. Beyond despair, she acted now from an angry hope.
“Looks good, kiddo. That’s the last of it.” Hollis adjusted his light and the beam from its tip vanished. It began to glow from the sides, illuminating their surroundings. “You ready?” At her nod he asked, “What’s our time?”
She checked the luminous dial of her new watch, a gift from the Wolf. “Nine minutes after ten.”
“Humph. We’re running late. The Captain should be going in soon. If this thing turns around when he does, we hit it here, where we’ve got a clear field of fire. You’re my spotter. I want you behind that big tree there with the binoculars. I’ll watch forward, you watch back. You see anything, sing out.
“You’re non-combat personnel, remember that. Just because this thing doesn’t seem to have guns doesn’t mean we’re safe. Stay down and under cover. If I can’t knock it down right off, you scoot out of here, head for town. This bogey seems to dislike crowds. Nothing fancy and nothing stupid, you hear me?”
Erika stared at him stubbornly and did not answer.
“Listen here, missy, this is no game. This thing killed your uncle as sure as the fire did and I’m not arguing your right to be here. Fact is, this is more your fight than mine. But you’re not trained and you’re not equipped and I’m sure as hell not going to let you get killed. Either you follow orders or you go back right now!”
Erika forced a tremble from her lips and nodded. Squaring her shoulders, she gave Hollis a salute.
“That’s better… and next time keep your fingers tight together; we’ll make a grunt of you yet. Now, I’ve laid an EM pulse mine there on the trail—”
“Electromagnetic pulse, a big burst of static. If it’s mechanical, the pulse will blow every fuse it’s got. It triggers like a landmine.”
Erika did not understand all of what Hollis was saying but she nodded anyway—everyone in Germany understood ‘landmine.’
“We’re going to stay well back from that and let the beastie come to us. You ran the lights, so, if you did your job, this place will light up like Christmas. I’m teasing, kiddo, the wiring is fine. If we’re lucky, the mine will fry it and we’ll be left grinning at the light show.
“The Captain always says ‘no plan survives first contact’ so, if it’s still moving, I’m going to try to take out a leg. Look here and I’ll show you how to reload for me.”
Hollis sank to one knee, holding his gun out. It was a short, boxy thing with unusually smooth curves on the stock and front brace. Less than two feet long, it looked absurdly small. The trigger guard was almost flush with the flat front of the gun and only a tiny stub, the size of a man’s thumb, poked out as a barrel. Even with the built-in scope, the front end of the gun was barely the span of Hollis’ hand in height and the butt shrank back to half that size. Just below the scope and above the center line of the gun, a semi-transparent bar of plastic revealed a horizontal row of brass cartridges.
“P-90, close quarters combat sub-machinegun. I’d rather have a carbine, but nobody asked me. Only fifty pops to a rack and on full auto I can empty it in less than a minute, so I want you to be ready to reload for me. If I need it, I’ll toss it to you like this…” He made an underhanded throwing motion, the gun flat and level. “Don’t try to catch it. I’ll toss it short and you run to it after it lands. Watch the muzzle here; it gets hot fast. Ejection is down, through the stock, so you shouldn’t have to worry about any hot casings. The magazine, here, is horizontal. Pull back on these two tabs and slide out the empty clip.” Hollis demonstrated as he spoke.
“Grab a fresh one, slam it back into the magazine. The action should be smooth but shove it in there hard; she can take it. If it doesn’t lock in, hit it again. If it still doesn’t lock, work this lever here to spit the current cartridge out. Anything beyond that is too jammed up for you to fix. Cigany says he can field strip one of these in five seconds; I don’t think you’re quite up to that yet. Just leave the clip half in and I’ll take care of it.
“This thumb lever below the trigger is the safety—all the way over to the left, see where the ‘S ‘ is? Once you reload, throw the safety on, just in case. When I call for it, pitch it back the same way as I did—flat and smooth. Throw it to land short but toss it high. I may be moving so give me height on the pitch. I’ll have a better chance of seeing where it lands.” He handed Erika a pair of the long clips. “You use both of those or if I yell run, you take off and don’t look back.”
He slung the short gun onto his back and hefted what appeared to be a cannon’s barrel to his shoulder. “While you reload, I’ll play with this.”
“What is it?”
The Bear grinned. “The Hammer of Thor,” he said fondly and Erika thought the name most suitable for a hero’s weapon.
The aperture was a gaping maw in the late twilight. Dense overgrowth encircled the opening like bruised lips; the jagged remnants of the metal blast doors curled outward, jutting forward like broken teeth.
“We shouldn’t need breathers,” said Liberty, his voice subdued, slightly distorted by the reception of Borne’s earphone.
“I hate breathers,” Cigany grumbled into his own pick-up microphone and turned on the flashlight taped to the side of his gun. The other two men followed his example and they made their way though the brush into the underground passage.
Beyond the shattered doors, evergreen scrub gave way to concrete, an arched tunnel running deeper into the earth and curving slowly to their right as it sank. Under the sweeping lances of their lights, the men could make out stacks of crates, some broken, some partially crushed, their contents indiscernible. Several yards further, the charred frame of a transport truck partially blocked the tunnel and the surrounding concrete was blackened and cracked.
“Captain,” said Liberty and Borne turned, his light coming to rest on a desiccated body, slumped at one side of the tunnel.
The medic knelt beside the remains. “Crushed ribcage, broken arm, cracked skull, probably more.”
“Let’s go.” Cigany’s voice was pained, tight with tension.
They followed the curve of the tunnel for several minutes before Liberty spoke. “Where does this put us?”
Cigany answered as he walked, light sweeping across the tunnel floor. “We’re curling back under the lake. That would explain why nothing shows up on the aerial recon.”
The tunnel widened into what had once been a warehousing area. Broken crates and fragments of equipment and vehicles were intermingled with equally broken and fragmented bodies. Black smears and pockmarks on the concrete gave mute testimony to a fierce firefight.
“Only one door, there on the back wall,” noted Liberty. “Pretty fancy for an outpost base, looks like it was an airlock.” Like the outer doors, the heavy ports had been torn open from the inside.
Cigany took point, leading through a series of destroyed ports and a larger chamber Liberty identified as a decontamination chamber. Beyond, they found tile floors and sheetrock walls. As they entered, fluorescent lights flickered to life.
“Automated,” said Liberty hopefully. A bulb popped and Cigany spun toward it, finger tight on his trigger.
“Easy,” growled Borne. “Libby?”
“Motion scanner is clear. Looks like we’re alone.”
“Cigany, can you raise Hollis topside?”
“Negative. The facility’s shielded. I doubt our signal could penetrate anyway; that lake is a real pain.”
“Not unexpected. How’s it look?”
“Hallway forward and right. Stairwell up to the left. “
“Stairs,” commanded Borne.
The stairwell opened into a horseshoe room, the arc of the wall decorated with shattered monitors above broken keypads. They had to step on the door to enter the room. It had been forced from its hinges, inward.
“Pretty thorough job,” noted Cigany.
“Maybe.” Liberty shouldered past him and knelt in front of one of the broken panels. He pried open the panel and began tracing the wires beneath.
“Control room,” commented Borne. “I wonder if they trashed it themselves before they pulled out or if someone else did it. “
Cigany lifted the scanner from Liberty’s side and scowled down at it suspiciously. “My money’s on something else. Why else bust down the door? And notice all the destruction seems to lead out. And the slaughterhouse in the tunnel? I hate to say it but I think Doctor Frank lost control of his monster.”
“Interesting analogy ,” said Liberty. “All the boards and wiring are intact; only the surface items are broken. I think we were right about the automaton theory except it looks as though the Germans either didn’t pull out in time or they tried to come back and couldn’t deactivate it.”
“Either way, we need to hurry. Can you get anything from this mess?” Borne asked.
“Patching in now. I’ll have to tie everything into my portable.” Liberty tapped his keyboard. “Floor plan first… hmmm, top floor is the command center, here… main floor—officers’ quarters, cafeteria, barracks, blah, blah… sub-floor one—medical and lab facilities, disturbingly large for a base this small… sub-floor two—power plant… ah, hell. It’s a prison camp. A prison camp with a very large med lab.”
“Just once I want to be wrong. Scorched earth, I swear,” hissed Borne furiously.
“No argument here,” added Cigany. “My folks were Rom. You know, the people they practiced on before they got around to the Jews.”
“It’s still circumstance and speculation,” said Liberty. “It will take me a while to get hard answers.”
Borne nodded. “Right. Do what you have to. Meanwhile, better safe than sorry—Cigany and I are going to wire the place.” He turned to his demolitions expert. “Where do we start?”
“Hold on. Queequeg, you got a pen?” Cigany craned his neck over Liberty to study the map displayed on the screen. He took the proffered utensil and jotted notations onto the back of his hand. “Nice to know where I’m going.” He passed the pen back to the medic. “We start at the bottom. Power plant and main structural supports.”
“Clock’s running. Libby, keep me up to date.” Borne tapped his headset meaningfully. “I’ll put a shrieker in the stairwell.”
The medic nodded without looking up from his keyboard.
Borne followed Cigany to the base of the stairwell then paused, setting a motion sensor wired to an alarm on the lowest step. He nodded to the corporal and they moved away before the delay timer expired.
“No record of what happened here,” buzzed Liberty’s voice in their headsets. “The last notation in the security log indicates a general disturbance on sub-floor two, then ends.”
Try to find out what this base was for. Cigany and I are headed down.”
“I have your scanner, by the way,” said Cigany. “Still doesn’t show any movement.”
“Not surprising. I doubt anyone is still alive in here,” replied the medic.
Sub-floor one revealed the now familiar pattern of carnage and vandalism. The lights were less reliable than the previous floor, leaving long stretches unlit and flickering in other places, casting more shadow than light.
“Libby, we’re on sub-floor one, headed for two.”
“What’s it look like?”
“As above, so below.”
“On your way through, check something for me. Are the refrigeration units still running?”
“Stand by.” Borne nodded at the waiting Cigany and they set off deeper into the hallways. “Cigany, worst case, how much do we need to bring this place down?”
“Probably just the power plant. The place is taller than it is wide. With the weight of the lake on top, it’s a lot like kicking down a tower.”
“Right. Libby, the lab facilities are smashed. The cooler doors are off, looks like the condensers have been torn out. Whatever was in there is gone now.”
“Good. The base has rebreathers and scrubbers that run up through the lake. If those units are off and open there shouldn’t be any bio-hazards.”
“That’s a comfort.”
“It looks like I’m going to have to come down and tie into the lab computers directly. I’ll let you know when I move.”
“Turn off the pick-up when you pass the shriekers,” interjected Cigany. Borne suppressed a spark of irritation. The younger man had a point; through the headsets, the alarms were almost deafening.
They continued through the flickering half-light, broken glass crunching under their boots, until Liberty’s voice crackled in their ears. “Either of you ever heard of a place called Majdanek?”
It was Cigany who answered. “Little town with a lot of Jews, mostly descendants of the Prague refugees in the fifteen hundreds. Turned out, they didn’t run far enough and the Germans turned it into a concentration camp in World War Two. That was about a century ago though. Why?”
“Because in a sick kind of way, we’re standing in it. Or its grandson at least.”
“I thought the Russians liberated Majdanek.”
“They did.” Liberty sighed loudly into his microphone. “Here’s what I have with some assumptions to fill in the gaps.
“After the war, the Allies divided up the Nazi scientists, but the Soviets weren’t taking any chances. They skimmed a few for themselves as they went along, including a batch of geneticists from Majdanek.”
“But the Jews were liberated?” interrupted Borne.
“Yes, thank God. The scientists they held in secret until after Yalta and then the Russians put them to work. Near the end of the Cold War, the Soviets started looking very seriously at biological warfare. They pulled all the surviving Nazis back together, gave them all their old notes and new equipment, and reconstituted Majdanek as a research base. The original guys were all pretty old by then so the Soviets sent along a crop of their best and brightest to keep the work going.
“When the Union fell and the Wall came down, the Russians couldn’t get their people out and couldn’t ask for them back without admitting what they’d been up to. The Germans knew a good thing when they found it and kept their mouths shut. They moved the men and equipment to a base north of Berlin and Majdanek went from a location to a project name. The only real change was that a united Germany wasn’t interested in bio-weapons as much as they were in technology and medical applications.”
“Stand by, we’re moving down to sub-floor two.” Borne followed Cigany into the stairwell.
At the bottom, the metal door had been torn free of its moorings and cast aside. In its place, a rough wall had been built, a rickety construct made from scraps of rotting wood, broken bits of furniture. Within the wall, its builders had set another door, this one thin and short like a passage for a child. Smears of dark brown marked the wooden posts and lintel.
“By these marks of sacrifice you see, Angel of Death, pass over me,” whispered Cigany and pushed the small door with the muzzle of his gun. The entire assembly, door and wall, collapsed with a shower of dust and a burst of cold air .
Beyond the debris, the ceiling was a mere five feet above a floor of cracked concrete. The air smelled of mold and the acrid bite of sweat. The glow of florescence gave way to a subterranean darkness broken infrequently by the yellow glare of bare bulbs.
“Scanner is still dead, Captain. No one’s left,” Cigany said over his shoulder, his breath visible in the chill air. “The power plant is near here. “
“Get started. I’m going to take a look around.” Borne’s shoulder scraped on the stunted ceiling. He cursed and suppressed a shiver at the cold. “All right, Libby. We’re in. Go ahead.”
“Not too much more to tell. About twenty years ago, someone made the decision that they needed to resume human testing. This base was built and the Majdanek project moved here. I need the med lab database now.”
“Right. Watch the shriekers and let me know as soon as you get to the lab.”
“Roger. Nomad Three out.”
Borne moved cautiously, finally finding closed doors, easing them open as he went. People had lived here. Simple furniture showed the wear of use, the marks of repair. Playing cards lay on tables, worn and dirty; threadbare clothing hung from pegs.
“I’m in position.” Cigany’s voice in his ear startled him in the eerie silence. “She’s big, Captain. When this mother goes, it’s gonna leave a big hole.”
“Good.” Borne’s voice caught in his throat and he could say no more. Framed in the halo of his light was a child’s doll. He pulled the door closed with a trembling hand and moved further into the prisoners’ quarters. In another room, he found notches on the sill. Alongside the marks were numbers, ages.
“This is Nomad Three. I’m in the lab.”
“Thanks, Libby. Cigany, if this base is shielded, how do we work remote detonation?”
“Already taken care of. I wired a bag full of signal repeaters. We just drop them on the way out.”
“Good man. ETA?”
“Ten minutes for the power plant, about five more for the support columns. This is not some of my most precise work.”
“Just bring it down. Any fallout risk?”
“Not with the lake overhead. We could fire this off standing in the tunnel entrance if you really want. I’d like a little more head start though.”
“Wire it all to my frequency. I’ll give you three steps.”
Cigany forced a laugh. “Will do.”
Liberty’s sudden outburst overloaded his microphone. The words were lost in static but the anger was clear. Borne flicked off his light and stood waiting.
“What did you find?” he asked.
“The prisoners—they weren’t prisoners. I mean, they weren’t criminals or anything like that. They were Jews!”
“Why!?” barked Cigany.
Liberty spoke with a tired calm. “I quote. ‘As previous exhaustive research has indicated, the Semitic people posses a unique genetic robustness. The inactive portions of their chromosomes evidence virtually no degradation or mutation from generation to generation and even between unrelated individuals. Their value as subjects, therefore, is incalculable. Via this genetic stability, a vast number of unforeseen and otherwise uncontrollable variables are removed.’ Here’s more. ‘Once genetic factors are isolated and identified in any Semitic subject, this information is immediately transferable to any other subject. By this we are able to bypass the mechanisms, cellular, bloodborne, and systemic, which trigger tissue rejection.’ Ah, mercy, there’s a lot of stuff here like that.”
Even in the darkness, Borne felt the need to close his eyes. “Why is tissue rejection important?”
“They were growing organs. Once they found a way to grow rejection-proof organs, they started artificially inseminating eggs, forced mitosis, and incubated them until the fetal stems could be extracted and the organ buds prepared. They could transfer the buds into an adult host, let it grow, and have the new organ ready to transplant to a recipient in about three months. I can’t tell for certain but I think they had a way to grow multiples by grafting them onto intestinal tissue.”
“Can you wire those terminals so that there is no physical way to recover any of that data?” Borne asked.
“Shaped charges set to your detonator? Even I can do that,” Liberty answered.
Cigany interrupted. “Shouldn’t we copy the data first?”
“Negative. The German government can manufacture plausible deniability. Besides,” Borne continued, “if we take that kind of information out of here, some Hollywood actor will start lobbying our own government to start the same program the first time they need a kidney. No way in hell.”
“I don’t even want to know what I already know,” added Liberty.
“Hey Liberty, how did they get these, erhum, subjects,” Cigany asked.
“Set your charges and get back to the control room,” Borne instructed. “Tie back in and find out how they got these prisoners. Then look for a radio circuit; this base has to have a surface antenna. Find it.”
He sighed and turned his light back on. The next two overhead bulbs were shattered-deliberately, Borne suspected. He shook off the suspicion that the shadows were moving behind him and pressed onward.
“Moving back upstairs now. Nomad Three out.”
“I’m on the move too, Captain. Power plant is done. I’m starting on the support columns.”
“Copy that,” said Borne distractedly. “I’m about done here. I can’t go much deeper.”
“Nothing I’m going to share. Let’s get this done.” Borne pushed open another door, swept the room with his light, moved on.
“Nomad Three here. Tapping back into the control room now.”
Borne found the passage blocked by another of the strange wooden walls and miniature doors. He squinted and tapped the construct. Like the previous one, it collapsed, filling the hallway with a swirl of debris. Borne let his light drift though the room as the scent of decay fought past the dust clogging his nostrils. Motes filtered the blue shaft of his light then cleared. Borne clenched his teeth and felt a tense shiver run across the muscles of his shoulders.
The room was thick with bodies, seated in rows, slumping against each other with the disrespect of death, the final stand of a people united, escaping the only way left to them. Borne stood hunched in the doorway, frozen by a paralysis of reverence and horror.
Liberty’s voice shook him from his macabre reverie. “They bought them. They paid to have Jews kidnapped and then the SOBs bought them like so many cattle. Oh and there were plenty of bastards just jumping to help—terrorists, crime syndicates, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Yemen… my God…”
“Stand by,” Borne said softly and moved into the room. He crossed it, stepping carefully in deference to the dead who did not care, and let his light center on the half-size wooden door leading beyond. A circle criss-crossed with an ‘X’ had been burned into the wood; below ran delicately painted letters.
“I need Hollis,” he radioed. “I’ve got Hebrew script here. I spent enough time in the Gulf to pick up a little but I don’t know what it means.”
“Try me,” replied Liberty, his voice thick with emotion as he fought to regain his calm. “It might be something I recognize.”
To Borne’s surprise, it was Cigany who answered. “Lord of the Earth. It’s one of the names of God. Is there a symbol near it like a railroad crossing sign?”
“Malkuth. It symbolizes man and creation; it’s the fruit of the Tree of Life.”
“Tell me what you know.”
“Not much. My mother’s people passed down everything by oral tradition. We had to memorize it all as kids. The Tree is a Kabbalah symbol, kind of an analogy for creation. The Kabbalah put a lot of emphasis on names and words having intrinsic meaning, even down to the way the vowels relate to the consonants in the Hebrew alphabet—major symbolism. Like, E-M-E-T is the word for truth so it’s also the Seal of God. M-E-T is the word for death. Since M-E- T is almost E-M-E- T and only different by a fluid vowel, death must be really close to the truth, or maybe a way to it. Sorry, Captain, it’s been a long time and I never really understood it to begin with.”
“It’s enough.” Borne reached out and pushed down the door.
Erika stared into the night, straining her eyes to separate the natural movements of a windy forest from those of something more ominous. A dusting of white made her job easier but, as time passed, the wind gained force and now the clouds were spitting snow again. Somewhere behind her, well concealed, she knew the Bear waited, watching the other way. Hollis surveyed the most likely path of approach but Erika knew her own venue was equally important. She watched the span leading to the base the rest of the squad had entered. It was her task, her responsibility, to insure that nothing came between them, that no one would be alone.
She heard a loud metallic double-click behind her. She turned at the signal, pressing her body tight against the bole of a tree, moving slowly. She saw nothing unusual but resisted the urge to leave her post. Long moments passed before she was able to make out the figure approaching.
The combination of size and stealth was astounding to her. Human in shape, the figure was well over eight feet tall and half that wide at its shoulders. Despite this, it made no sound, moving through the forest without disturbing it. The only sound as it drew close was the low crunch of snow beneath its feet.
Her first clear view of the figure came as it crossed the mine. The ground ruptured at its feet, spraying clods of dirt, sending gouts of flame lapping at its ankles. Blue lightning danced across its form, limning it in an elemental energy summoned to melt circuitry and overload fuses. In the same instant, Hollis opened fire, spraying bullets across the bulk of its frontage, seeking weak points in its armor.
There were none. Blinding spotlights came to life, drenching the figure in white brilliance. Hollis’ P-90 thumped to the ground alongside her as Erika’ s eyes still struggled to adjust and take in the unfolding scene.
The creature—the monster—stood transfixed in light. Its massive form was rough, an unarticulated caricature of a man, fashioned with the crudeness of a child from moist clay. Its feet were clumsy blocks; its hands, fingerless mittens. It barely possessed a head—a pumpkin-sized lump crested its shoulders. In the lump’s center, two red eyes stared, glowing coals plucked live from a fire. Above the glow, it wore an eyebrow of carved sigils.
To her own surprise, Erika found her hands moving of their own accord. The fresh clip slid cleanly into the gun and snapped into place. Fighting to think, distracted by the frenzied pounding of her heart, she pressed the safety lever.
The cry of a hunting hawk shrieked in her ears as the Hammer of Thor, Hollis’ M- 72 LA W , spat its fury at the monstrosity. For an instant, a lance of fire connected the warrior to the beast.
The rocket caught the creature high in the chest, engulfing it in light and heat. Tree limbs disintegrated into splinters and snow became steam. The force of the blast lifted the creature up, spun it, slammed it flat to the ground.
For a heartbeat, no one moved. Sparks hissed upward from its chest like holiday fireworks.
The monster stood, jerked upright and set upon its feet like a marionette lifted by its strings.
“Gun!” Hollis bellowed and Erika threw it, high and underhanded. He caught it in the air, turning with it, thumb slapping off the safety even as his fingers closed around the trigger, dropping to a knee—a pause to steady his aim and he opened fire.
Erika ran then stopped, pressing herself against a tree trunk and looking back, unwilling to leave.
The monster surged forward with astounding speed, too fast to outrun. Burning shrapnel jutted from its chest like a spear as it charged. Hollis fired in tight bursts, concentrating on where the creature’s knee should have been. The bullets struck, tumbled, mushroomed, tearing free gobbets of clay, chewing through the leg like a ballistic chainsaw. The gun hammered empty and Hollis’ hands flew with the speed of a charlatan, reloading with impossible dexterity, too slow.
The creature swept Hollis upward into a clench, its arms locking around his chest in a murderous hug, pinning Hollis’ right arm against his ribs. The metal imbedded in the red clay drove into the Bear’s gut with the shrill tear of cloth and the wet one of flesh.
Hollis screamed, an animal mix of fury and pain, battering desperately at the lump of the creature’s head with his left fist. The creature tightened its grip with a heaving jerk and Erika could hear the nauseating pop of breaking bones. Hollis sagged in its arms, his body rag-doll limp, his free arm drooping. Erika pressed her fist against her mouth to keep from crying out. Hollis’ arm curled behind his back like the leg of a dying insect.
An insect with a stinger—the warrior’s arm flashed outward then up. Light glistened across the serrated curve of his combat knife as it slashed downward, into the creature’s crude head, above the glowing eyes, cold steel splitting the first of the four letters inscribed in the clay.
Together, man and monster crumpled to the forest floor. With a hoarse cough, Hollis rolled free. The creature did not move.
Erika rushed to the man’s side, her eyes wide with fear at the pool of red spreading across the snow beneath him.
“Press,” he growled, fighting pain with anger. “Right on the h-hole.” She tried, laying her hand on the torn flesh of his stomach. “Harder!” She pushed, putting her weight against the wound. Hollis’ hissed in pain but nodded encouragement.
“I can r-read…read f-fourteen languages.” He fumbled clumsily with his left hand until he found his radio and lifted it to his chin. “Nomad t-to Angel. M-man down.” Hollis squeezed his eyes closed, his breathing shallow. He slid his thumb blindly and pushed against a recessed lever. Erika saw a tiny red light spring to life atop the device before Hollis let it drop to the ground. “This is Angel. I read your position and am en route. Can you respond?”
The Bear’s face split into a ferocious grin . “Hang in t-there, Erika. W’-be okay.” It was the first time he had called her by name. She did not notice. She stared at the blood seeping through her fingers, helpless to stop it.
For the first time, Erika realized, heroes were men, and men could die.
The floor beyond the marked door was bare. The concrete had been broken and pulled away to reveal the clay beneath. Spurred by a humble reverence he did not consciously understand, Borne crossed himself. It was a motion he had not performed since childhood.
Graves had been dug here, clawed from the unforgiving clay by hand, the marks of fingers still visible, pressed into the edges. The holes were open and small, the unsealed graves of children.
There were ten-a row of three, a row of four, then a row of three stretching forward from the doorway; the longer center row giving the cemetery a vague, diamond-like shape. If not for themselves, these prisoners had, at least, found a way nevertheless to return their children to the earth. Compelled by the desperate dignity of these people he had never known, Borne read the names scratched into the clay at the head of each primitive ossuary.
“Kether, Binah, Choknah…” The names hung in the air like the peals of a bell as he spoke them. “…Yesod; Netzach, Enosh.” Ten names for ten graves. Ten graves for, to Borne’s surprise, nine dead. The final grave was empty.
“Captain?” Cigany broke in timidly.
“I’m all set here. We can go when you’re ready.”
“On my way.”
“Hey, Cap? Why were you reciting the Tree? I thought you didn’t know it.”
“You just recited the names from the Tree of Life. Except for the last one. The last one should have been Malkuth, like on the door.”
Borne thought about the empty grave and started back toward the stairwell. “So what is Enosh?”
“The only Enosh I know of was one of Adam’ s sons, Seth’ s younger brother. Kind of a weird story .”
Cigany sighed, blowing across his microphone. “Let’s see. Enosh learned that God created man from clay so he decided to try it himself. He made a body from clay, inscribed the Seal of God on its forehead—”
“Right. Of course, Enosh wasn’t God so nothing happened. Then the Devil took over the body and said something like ‘Behold, I can give life too. Worship me for I am equal to God.’ Enosh told him to take a hike and the Devil shoots back ‘When your God fails you, you’ll be back,’ and stuff like that. It was a pretty spooky story to tell a kid. The line that sticks with me is ‘When your God fails to bring you justice, I will come to bring you vengeance.’ That’s all I remember, sorry.”
“Captain!” Liberty’s voice cut across their discussion like a lash. “I’ve got an outside line to the Major. She’s on the ground topside. Hollis is down and she says we need to get out of here now!”
“On our way.”
“Right. Go. We’ll catch up.” Borne met Cigany at the stairs and they ran through the facility together. The shrieker alarms blared at them as they went past, Cigany pausing occasionally, leaving signal repeaters like a trail of breadcrumbs.
Reaching the surface, they sprinted from the tunnel’s entrance then stopped, Borne placing his hand on Cigany’s arm. To their left, the lights of the Valkyrie lit the night and Borne saw the girl, Erika approaching them at a run. Snow and mud were splattered across her clothing and her face was streaked with tears. Her hands and arms were caked with drying blood.
She stunned Borne with a crisp salute then shouted over the wind. “Sir! The Major says we’re being jammed. She suggests going to… to…” The girl’s demeanor wavered. Anxiety showed on her face and her eyes filled with tears. She shook herself loose from her fear and pushed back the sleeve of her coat. She thrust her arm in front of him and Borne recognized Ellen’s spidery handwriting in the series of numbers written on the girl’s skin.
“Well done. At ease,” he said. She relaxed visibly and Cigany knelt beside her, checking for injuries amid the blood. Borne adjusted the settings on his headset, cupped his hand around the microphone to shield it from the wind. “Nomad Actual to Angel. Talk to me, Major.”
“No time for details. Here’ s your need to know: Hollis is down. Valkyrie is on the ground south of your position. When you breached the base, alarms went off all over Germany. I lifted off before the base went into lockdown. The German nationals north of here have been scrambled. No head start. Angel out.”
Borne pulled off his headset and jammed it into a pocket. “How’s the squirt?”
“Tough as nails.” Cigany stood and cocked his head. The sounds of men and machinery were audible now, louder than the roar of the transport’s jets. “Company’s coming.”
“Looks like the lights weren’t the only system automated. May as well meet them here.”
Handheld spotlights swept the area then fixed on the three. Borne shifted his sub-machinegun to his back and waited.
German infantrymen were taking up positions near the base entrance. A jeep drove forward, following the original access road to the base.
“Cigany, why don’t you and the little miss head over and see if the Major needs a hand with anything?” The two men stared at each other, sharing a conversation with their eyes.
Cigany broke the stare with an angry shrug. “Why not? Come on, kid, let’s go check on Hollis. Make sure ol’ Queequeg isn’t working any voodoo on him.”
Borne let them get several yards away before turning back towards the platoon of infantry clustering around the base entrance. He thrust his hands into his pockets and sauntered towards the Germans.
“Well if it isn’t the mother of Grendel. Any of you Krauts speak English?” he shouted.
A man stepped from the jeep. Tall, thin, sallow, crisp in his uniform—Oompah bands or Waffen, Borne thought, these guys only come in two flavors.
“Commodore Borne, I presume?” the man purred in smooth English with the hint of a British accent.
Borne started past the glare of the lights and identified him as a lieutenant by his markings. “You do indeed. Anything I can help your boys with?”
The German officer glanced at the retreating forms of Cigany and Erika. “The civilian, Commodore, the child—“
“Is with us. You were saying?”
“Commodore Borne, I am—”
“Captain,” Borne interrupted.
“Beg your pardon?”
“It’s Captain. I’m no Commodore.”
“Captain Borne,” the man began again, bristling. “I am under orders to—”
“Lieutenant, you may want to keep your men away from that opening. Could be dangerous,” Borne interrupted again.
The officer glared at the American then spat a series of orders in emphatic German. His men edged away from the fragmented blast doors.
Deciding enough time had passed for the others to reach the transport, Borne relented. “All right, lieutenant. You have my attention.”
“Captain Borne, I have orders to place you and your squad under arrest and detain you for questioning,” the man said in a rush.
Borne gave a non-committal grunt. “This would be about the Majdanek project then.” The sallow German flinched and turned a shade paler. “There has never been a so-called Majdanek project, Captain.”
“Fair enough.” Borne pulled his hands from his pockets and looked down at the detonator he held.
“Captain! These melodramatics—”
The muffled roar of a subterranean explosion drowned out the rest of his complaint. The ground heaved, shaking the men upon it like fleas on a dog, filling the air with snow and dirt. In the moment of silence which followed, a blanket of muddy water swept across them—the remains of the lake.
“Had to make sure that what never was still isn’t!” Borne shouted above the clamor as they struggled to their feet. “About that arrest, under whose authority?”
The German lieutenant was pale with fury. “The German government!” he roared.
Borne caught the other man’s gaze and held it. He pulled a toothpick from his jacket pocket and placed it in the corner of his mouth, slowly, one-handed, eyes front. He spoke slowly, his words deliberate. “I find your orders and your government immoral and illegal. There will be no arrests.”
The German officer dropped his hand to his service revolver, his eyes narrowing.
Borne stepped closer, letting his mask of calm fall to let the Wolf within show through. His voice became low and intense, barely more than a harsh whisper. “I’ve got a man down, my air support is on the ground, and my squad isn’t prepared. This is the best shot you’re ever going to get. And I have never been more ready to dance.” He turned and began walking toward the waiting Valkyrie.
The lieutenant stood, eyes boring into the American’s back, and watched him leave.
M. Keaton has, over the past three decades, done almost everything that involves words (spoken or written) for pay. He has written technical documentation, non-fiction articles, and the short-lived television show TTAR. He has served as Bard-in-Residence for two different Renaissance festivals, taught numerous writing workshops and classes including the Sanctuary Press Writers’ Workshop at ConClave and is a popular panelist at Science Fiction/Fantasy conventions. He has written short fiction for magazines ranging from Abyss & Apex to Ray Gun Revival as well as numerous anthologies. Concentrating on fantasy, sci-fi, and horror for young adult and adult audiences with the occasional foray into children’s, MK is best known for the critically acclaimed “Brass Africa” series of short stories and novella and his last adult novel was the space opera Calamity’s Child.