Chapter 1: Theophany
Arc 1: Revelation
Glancing at his watch to check the time, George tried to keep the film canister balanced on his knees steady. Not a simple task with the way the plane shuddered from turbulence but he managed. In block letters he wrote on the label: Yellowfin Raid 19:30-20:30 23 February 1945. Stowing that canister safely away he ensured that the fresh reel was ready in his camera. There was little chance of more action tonight but he wanted to be prepared in case anything did occur. Taking his place by the window once more George looked out through the viewfinder.
It was an striking image. The bombers trailing along behind his plane silhouetted against the glow of the firestorm consuming Pforzheim. Such a shame that this footage would never see the light of day. Maybe a few brief clips would make their way into training movies but it was on the morbid side for the news reels. Still to George it seemed like something that needed to be recorded. Even if he might be the only one to ever see it.
George had never dropped a bomb, only filmed others doing it. A nasty business but a necessary one for winning the war. All the same he took the time to utter a short prayer for any poor soul caught in Pforzheim tonight. Even if they were Germans in the end they were still people and, from the great column of smoke rising into the sky, they would need all the prayers they could get. Eventually enough bombs would be dropped to break what was left of Germany's industry and spirit. Then George could finally go home and get on with his life. Until then he would keep on doing his job the best he could.
A tap on George's shoulder gave him a start. Turning he saw one of his fellow crew members, Miles, wearing a grim look on his face. With the noise of the engines masking his footsteps Miles had managed to sneak right up without George noticing.
“You'll want to keep a sharp eye out for fighters,” Miles shouted over the din. “Major Swales just confirmed that one managed to knock out a few of his engines before we started the run.”
“Christ, they going to make it?” George asked. Swales was the master bomber tonight. It was incredible that he had led the raid in a damaged plane.
“Doesn't sound good. Major is going to trying to keep them aloft long enough that they can bail out over France, better chance of survival.” Miles shook his head and muttered something that George did not quite catch. He added Major Swales and his crew onto his impromptu prayers.
Before either of them could speak again George saw the strangest thing. There was a flicker of light across Miles's face, the man looking towards the window in confusion. Just as George went to look for himself a blinding flash split the gloom of the night. Reflexively shutting his eyes George could hear Miles stumble back, cursing the whole while. The plane shuddered and began to list to the side, the floor no longer level. Forcing one eye open again George pressed it against the eyepiece of his camera. What he saw he could scarcely believe, much less explain.
Outside there was light, burning white hot light tinged blue around the edges. A great sphere hanging in the air towards the rear of the formation, with little bolts of blue lighting arcing off it towards the surrounding planes. Then it moved. Fast as the eye could follow it swept across their rear. The bombers that were directly in its path simply disappeared, consumed. Others were caught in the web of energy that twisted around the sphere, wings and fuselage catching fire as they began to fall from the sky. It was painful to behold but George did his best to keep the camera focused on that blinding light. He was forced to grab hold of the wall as the plane continued listing.
This is it, George realized. I'm about to die. Watching that sphere sweep back and forth he could not even think to pray, just follow along its path of destruction. Closer and closer until it was almost upon them.
Then it was gone. The night rushed back in to fill the void where the light had been, leaving only the fires of the doomed planes to break the darkness. Falling back from the window George clutched the eye he had watched through the camera with. After images, scars of what he had seen, still haunted his vision. Looking around with his good eye he realized that Miles had disappeared. More importantly the plane had righted itself.
As soon as he could force himself to his feet George made his way forward to the cockpit. Miles had taken over there, with their pilot James sitting off to the side blinking and staring at his hand. Watching James move his hand back and forth George realized that he too must have been partially blinded by the light.
“What the bloody hell was that? Lighting?” Miles asked, gripping white knuckled to the stick.
“No, that was something else. Heaven help us, that was something else.” That was all George could think to say. He honestly did not have the slightest idea what he had just witnessed. A new German weapon? That seemed unlikely. Some freak weather incident, previously unknown? Or perhaps it was the wrath of God himself, striking them down for their sins. If it was the last George could only imagine what was happening to the Germans at this moment.
The three sat there in silence, only breaking it to confirm that they were still in the air over the radio. Keeping track of the confirmations coming in George realized how badly they had been hit. There had been over three hundred planes on the mission, less than a third had checked in. This was a disaster the likes of which had not been seen for years.
With the plane heading back towards the safety of France George returned to his camera, carefully packing away the film inside. He was certain that it would be of great interest in the coming days as they tried to discover what had caused this calamity. With that done he collapsed against the wall and began to pray once more. He prayed for the dead and prayed for the living but mostly he prayed for himself.
A lone figure stood on top of a rise, watching the storm of light tear through the bombers far above. From her eyes blue lightning, matching that in the sky, poured forth to form a halo around her head. Wherever she moved her gaze the sphere of destruction followed, darting around the flight of bombers and leaving devastation in its wake. Looking towards the furthest planes she willed the sphere to move but it would not. They were hardly more than specks in the darkness of the night, barely visible even with her vision. It would seem she had finally reached her limit. Her halo of light blinked out of existence taking the sphere with it. All that was left now were the few trails of fire falling towards the ground. Motionless the blonde woman stood there watching until the last had faded from view.
Her name was Klaudia Hoch. She was twenty-three years old and had learned that morning that she was a widow. Taking a step she stumbled, catching onto the trunk of a great old oak to support herself. Not trusting her legs to carry her at the moment Klaudia clung to it. Half of her wanted to scream at the sky in rage, the other half to fall down and weep. Caught in the middle all she could do was keep on leaning against the tree in silence.
What is wrong with me?
What would Leon have made of her, if he could see her now? More than likely her husband would have complimented her on her aim, a dark joke meant to bring a smile back to her face. Or maybe he would have stood there horrified. He had been a member of a bomber crew himself after all and even if the British had been his foes would he have approved of hundreds of planes being torn from the sky in under a minute? Whenever he had spoken to Klaudia about flying he had always made it sound like such a noble endeavour, knights of the sky charging back and forth in honourable combat. Even the bombing had sounded righteous in its own way. She knew much better now.
On the day of Leon's last mission Klaudia had begged him not to go. She had just felt that something terrible might happen. As always he had swept her off her feet, cradling her in his strong arms as he promised that he would come back. It had been reassuring. Every time he went on a mission he had made the same promise, that even if he had to walk back to Germany he would return to her, and every time he had kept it. Klaudia had stretched up to kiss him and after that blissful moment he had gone. Good as his word he had come back. Though this time with a piece of shrapnel through the back of his skull. No more did he laugh and smile and make her feel that she was the centre of the world. Instead Leon sat in a chair staring blankly ahead, unmoving save for the trails of saliva that would drip from his lips.
It had taken a terrible toll on Klaudia to see her husband in such a condition. Leon had been everything to her. She had planned her life around him and her marriage to him. After the war they were going to get a big house out in the countryside. They would fill it with laughter and many German children who would give them many grandchildren. There they would grow old together watching Germany take its rightful place at the helm of Europe and the world. Even with Leon so terribly injured so long as he still lived Klaudia held on to the hope that one day he could recover, that one day he would come back to her and she could start living again. Without fail she had spent at least an hour of every day sitting by Leon's side, whispering to him as she tried to coax him back to her.
A terrible thought occurred to Klaudia, drawing her from her reminiscing. How many planes had she struck from the skies just now? Surely it had been over a hundred, though by how much she could not tell. For each plane how many men were on a crew, five, six? That made for at least five or six hundred dead at the very least. How many of those men had wives that they had promised to return to? How many widows had she just created? As a feeling of nausea came over her Klaudia tried to fight it off. Those men's deaths had been quick. They had died in instants, not been left to waste away to nothingness in front of those that they loved. It was merciful in its own way. Every man she killed tonight could not go on to bomb another city, drop fire onto the defenceless, go home and kiss their wives...
Letting out a tortured cry Klaudia felt the trunk of the oak tree shatter within her grip. Her fingers had dug so deep into the wood that it could no longer support itself. Taken aback she held up her hands. Not so much as a single scratch. The top of the mighty old tree came crashing down as Klaudia stood there untouched.
I agreed to this, didn't I? To become a goddess of vengeance for Leon and Germany?
Klaudia had not been the one to speak those words though. It had been Sankt. She could still remember first meeting the General. His doctors had come to run tests on the patients at the hospital where Leon was and she had been caught up in their net. Out of all the people they had tested that day only she had been chosen, as something had marked her as particularly special. That was when Sankt had started to outline his vision to her. It had sounded entirely mad to Klaudia at first. He spoke of ubermensch and of powers beyond reckoning. How she could become a goddess of vengeance. After all of it she had agreed. Not so much because she had believed in anything that he was saying but, well, Klaudia really was not sure why she had gone with him. A sense of duty to her country or just to see if he was telling the truth perhaps. Or maybe she had gone simply to get away from Dresden and Leon's living corpse for a time. In the end it did not matter as she followed Sankt to his camp in the middle of nowhere and, as it had turned out, left her husband to die.
What had come next was mostly boredom at first. Sitting around and waiting while Sankt ran his experiments, trying and failing to perfect the process. By the time he had achieved success the project had been reduced to a fraction of its original size. Klaudia remembered seeing the first panzermensch, as Sankt called them, men transformed into living weapons. Then it was her turn. The process had been longer and more painful for her but the power she had gained much greater, or so Sankt had claimed. Thus she had become the first living Battleship. Two others had joined her later and none of them had been given much of a chance to explore their full strength. Sankt had been too concerned with maintaining secrecy. Instead they had all been tested in other ways with Klaudia always undergoing the most dangerous trials.
This was all Sankt's fault, Klaudia decided as she began to walk back towards where her escort was hopefully still waiting. Had he not been so concerned with holding them back until they were 'ready' then Klaudia might have been able to prevent the attack on Dresden. If he had never found her in the first place then she might have at least died alongside Leon. Whatever might have happened all of those deaths could be placed at Sankt's feet. The great pillar of smoke rising from Pforzheim caught Klaudia's attention for a moment as she trudged along. She considered making her way to the city but dismissed the notion. The last thing they needed right now was another weapon showing up, too late to protect them. Besides, she was unsure if she could manage the sight of charred corpses again.
Following the trail of destruction she had left earlier, shattered tree limbs and gouged earth under the snow, Klaudia realized that while she was unharmed her uniform had not been so lucky. Both of her shoes were missing, torn off during her run or disintegrated from the force of her footfalls. Across the heavy canvas of her shirt and pants there were many other rents and tears. That brought on a sigh. Not even her own clothes were safe from her. Even with all her exposed skin the chill of winter barely touched her.
Thankfully the truck was where she had left it, the two men that Sankt had sent along as escorts for her standing outside. By now she had made up her mind that it would be best to return to the camp. What she would do afterwards was still a mystery. Klaudia's sight and hearing were not as incredibly improved as her strength but she could still hear the men's conversation before they were aware that she was there.
“This is great, just perfect,” The first man was pacing back and forth as he ranted. “Her little outburst in Dresden could be kept under wraps but that? No one is going to miss that little display. The General is going to have us hanged.”
“Relax,” The other was leaning against the hood of the truck. “He'll understand that if we didn't do what the crazy bitch wanted she would have killed us and gotten someone else. You heard him before we left, he knew she was hysterical.”
Klaudia could feel her anger starting to spark up again and smothered it the best that she could. While she was fairly sure that you only needed one man to drive a truck she had no idea how to drive one herself and the camp was far enough away that walking was not an option. Taking a deep breath to calm herself she stepped out onto the road where the men could see her. They both gave a start at the sight of her. She walked right up to them, forcing them to crane their necks up to meet her gaze. Then she just stood there, silent, watching.
“Take me back to the camp.” Klaudia ordered after a minute or so. Staring up at her both men appeared relieved that she left it at that.
While they got back into the cab Klaudia climbed into the covered rear. Trying to stretch herself out the best she could on the wooden floor, the benches being too narrow to accommodate her, Klaudia listened to the engine rumble to life. What the men had said echoed through her mind. Sankt. When she had heard about the bombing of Dresden she had gone to him to confirm it. At first he had just brushed it off, saying that it was not nearly as bad as people were saying. Only after Klaudia had pulled him from his chair and left him dangling a few feet from the ground had he finally, after a great deal of additional shouting, agreed to let her go see the city for herself. She needed to have another conversation with the man.
Tired, hungry and uncomfortable; rest escaped Klaudia as they drove along. A plan began to form in her mind at least. Return to the camp, eat, sleep and see what the good General had to say for himself. Perhaps not in that order though. Another urge became clear to her, one that filled her with equal amounts of satisfaction and disgust. She had been forced to drink from a bitter cup and part of her wished nothing more than to see that everyone else drank from the same.
Chapter 2: The Lies We Tell
In a drafty little room far from anything that still mattered in the Reich, General Sankt sat at his desk planning how to pull this whole mess out of the flames. By this point in the night he should have already gone to bed but he found himself in a foul mood. What troubled him was not the British and Americans with all of their planes and ships. Nor was it the fact that Germany's allies had been reduced to the shattered corpse of Italy, propped up by Wehrmacht blood and steel, and a besieged Japanese empire on the far side of the Earth. Even the vast Soviet juggernaut inexorably rolling forth out of the east did not concern him. No amount of men, planes or tanks would be able to stand against his discovery. The advantages that the Allies held would soon be swept away and those nations themselves would be brought to heel.
What was bothering Sankt at that moment was the chill that had managed to work its way past the heavy curtains over the windows. Not only was it uncomfortable but its very existence was a reminder of the insults that had been dealt to him. Once there had been over a dozen facilities at his disposal, with hundreds upon hundreds of personnel. Now he had but one run down camp to work on not only the salvation of Germany but the future of mankind as a whole, all because of the lack of vision that the so-called leaders of the Reich exhibited. Time, all he had needed was a bit more time. That still remained the problem. Every day meant more miles of German soil lost to the enemy, more lives lost along with it. Land could be reclaimed but out there among the masses of the German people were valuable potential weapons that would be painful to lose. Action needed to be taken soon.
Closing his eyes for a moment Sankt envisioned how glorious it would be. When his former colleagues realized their error and came crawling to him, begging for whatever scrap of relevance he would grant them in his new order. His name would be above even Hindenburg and Bismark when the history of Germany was written in the future. Lost in his fantasies of revenge Sankt did not notice the sound of engines breaking the silence of the night. Engines for more vehicles than were present in the entire camp. Neither did he hear the front door of the building opening or the echo of footsteps down the hallway. Not until the door to his office was thrown open did Sankt snap back to reality. There he found himself facing a wall of heavily armed men, none of whom he recognized. Not a welcome realization in a camp that was supposed to be a complete secret from all outsiders.
One man calmly continued forward out of the group, smiling slightly as he met Sankt's shocked gaze. Some lower officer, a colonel it looked like, one so lacking in manners and decorum that he did not bother to introduce himself. Before Sankt was able to issue a suitable reprimand the Colonel began to speak.
“Something strange happened in Dresden the other day. A woman was reported to be searching for her husband, to see if he was still alive. Now that wasn't the strange thing, given the circumstances that is sadly a common sight these days. What was strange about the whole incident was that this woman was said to be over nine feet tall.”
The man's tone might as well have been describing a trip down to the local market yet Sankt felt as though he had been struck. There was only one woman in the world who could have matched that description, vague as it was. Of all the stupid, asinine things that could have brought down the veil of secrecy that he had so carefully built up it had to be that idiot girl Klaudia and her childish demands. He had told her that the chances of her husband being among the dead in Dresden were slim, not to mention the fact that the man had been half dead already. Klaudia had not appreciated either sentiment. There were still bruises around his neck from where she had grabbed him and Sankt knew that he was lucky she had not wrenched his head off in her anger.
“Of course the officials there were a bit incredulous of these reports at first. After all no one was able to produce this giant woman for inspection. But once the sightings started to pile up they began digging a bit. They found that there had indeed been a woman named Klaudia Hoch who had lived in Dresden and that she had indeed had a husband convalescing in a hospital in the city. Now no one had seen her for nearly a year and a half, not since she had been recruited for some project, but those who remembered her all agreed that she had been utterly normal prior to her disappearance.”
Maintaining his composure as the Colonel droned on was becoming ever more taxing on Sankt. Already his mind was working on how to regain control of the situation. Yet none of his options were particularly promising. Some of the rank and file among his ubermensch would side with him but he feared that the majority would slip back into comfortable servitude to the government. Of the most powerful the two available to him both presented risks. Werner was in agreement that Hitler needed to be removed but also whined on incessantly about the importance of 'maintaining stability,' whatever that meant. Markus was an incompetent bootlicker but was also so thoroughly indoctrinated that Sankt doubted that the boy could even speak against Hitler, much less rise up against him.
“Without being able to question the woman herself and without any clue as to what she had been involved with the officials in Dresden made the decision to pass along what they knew to Berlin. Now luckily they were able to convince the first person that they reported to in the capital that it was indeed a serious inquiry. So he passed it along up the chain of command until it finally reached the desk of someone who happened to be familiar with the hitherto nameless project that Mrs Hoch had been part of,” The Colonel's voice changed tone suddenly, into what Sankt recognized as a mocking imitation of his own. Raising one arm as if making a toast the Colonel continued.“Gentlemen, Projekt U represents not only the future of warfare but the future of humanity itself. What we will achieve is not just victory in this war but a means to secure the supremacy of Germany and its people forevermore.”
Those words brought Sankt's attention back to the man across the desk from him. They had been part of a speech he had given to a select circle of military and party officials after he had initially secured Hitler's support. In those days Sankt had been respected and even admired for his genius and daring in undertaking such an endeavour. Before the cowardice of lesser men had brought him low.
“You don't remember me, do you General? Not that it matters, I remember you and the promises you made very well. I also remember the considerable amount of resources and manpower that were made available to you. How it was never enough, even when you had made no discernible progress towards your goals. And how in the end, after everything, all you had to show for it was a few men dying as they bled from their eyes. At which point your Catalyst might have at least made for a decent chemical weapon but it was not even suitable for that.”
Finally Sankt was able to recognize the Colonel's face, if not recall his name. It was an unpleasant reminder of the worst day of his life. With the High Command breathing down his neck to show something for all of his efforts Sankt had arranged for the activation of several Ubermensch to be observed. This Colonel had been one of those present. Sankt had been assured by his researchers that the difficulties in processing the Catalyst had been overcome. Something that had been proven wrong when each test subject died, taking with them Sankt's dignity and standing within the military. What had come after still made him seethe.
“We were prepared at that point to not only dismantle your little sideshow but court-martial you for being such an impediment to the war effort. But the Leader stepped in personally to let you keep your rank and this camp. A small gesture of goodwill to allow you to spend the rest of your career in peaceful obscurity. Until now, of course.”
The pissant standing before him could hardly understand. Sankt had always been loyal to Hitler, even from the early days when being a member of the Nazi party had been detrimental to one's military career. When he had found the Codex and the crude translations of the first vital pages that loyalty had gained Sankt control over one of the largest weapon programs in all the Reich. He had truly believed that Hitler understood his vision of the future. Then the war had started to turn and the pressure to produce something of use steadily increased. Hitler had become ever more derisive, until that last meeting where Sankt had been forced to get down on his knees to beg Hitler to leave him some resources. That had been the moment when Sankt realized that once he was successful he needed to ensure that his new weapons were not wasted by his superiors. Ultimately they would have to be removed for Germany to flourish.
“So now not only do we have this report out of Dresden but another from near Pforzheim. Almost an entire Allied bombing force destroyed by a storm of light. Add in the rather large fellows you had guarding the door and I would say that you have been hiding something from us, haven't you?”
As shocked as he was it still only took a moment for Sankt's mind to catch up.
“Colonel, while this story that you have woven together is certain to entertain those who enjoy such sordid tales I can assure you that it is far from the truth. If you would allow me to explain-” Sankt began to work his charm, suppressing the rage in his belly, until the Colonel held up a hand to stop him.
“It is not I you need to convince, but rather the Leader. He made it clear that if it appeared that you had been successful in your efforts you were to be brought before him immediately,” Waving a few of his men forward the Colonel bowed his head to Sankt in a mocking nod. “I am certain that after all this time out here in the wilderness a trip to Berlin will do wonders for your health. Things here will be in good hands, you needn't worry about that.”
As the men picked him up by his sleeves and pulled him from his chair Sankt's mouth worked wordlessly. He made some effort to try and regain his feet but it became clear that he was to be dragged from his own office. Passing the guards out front Sankt saw them look away, both the normal men and the ubermensch. Ungrateful bastards. This display was meant to signal to everyone in the camp that not only was he not in charge anymore but that things were to change drastically.
At the waiting car outside the men escorting him allowed Sankt to stand long enough for them to relieve him of his pistol and knife, before then cramming him into the back seat between two men who could have passed for exhibits in a zoo. Sankt did not even attempt to speak to them. It would not be worth the effort. Instead he focused on what would be waiting for him in Berlin. If he could drive a wedge between Hitler and some of the others there might be enough room for him to regain control. Hopefully Werner and the few in the project that knew Sankt's ultimate designs would be intelligent enough to work towards securing his freedom without his direction.
Driving through the cold night the darkness was broken every now and then by the headlights of trucks heading towards the camp. Only a few at first but more and more the further north they went. Soon enough Germany would realize the treasure that Sankt had discovered. The rest of the world would know shortly after, much to their despair.
It was moments like this that made Werner wonder if he would have been better off staying dead. Being dead had been simple, just lay down and embrace the darkness. No more pain, no more war, no more anything. Yet he had chosen life in the end, forcing himself up out of the eastern mud and making the long journey home. He did not regret that choice even after everything that had happened since. Here in the safety of solitude Werner allowed himself to indulge in the fantasy of what might have been. There was no harm in it so long as one remembered what was real. Though that had become increasingly difficult these days. Simply looking around was enough to remind him of how much things had changed.
Werner was seated with his legs crossed on the floor of a small room. It was sparsely furnished, like almost all the others in the camp, with a plain table in the centre and a few chairs. The furnishings were not what reminded Werner of reality but rather that he could comfortably rest his arms on the top of the table. He was tall enough now that even seated on the floor he could almost look someone straight in the eye. That was just scratching the surface of what he had become. Strong enough to shatter steel with a single blow, tough enough that bullets could not even mark his skin and then there was the terrifying destructive power of the energy field that they called the halo. It had been years ago that Werner had first heard the term 'wonder weapon.' Never in he wildest dreams did he ever think that he would become one.
Part of Werner was glad that this room had been picked for the interview rather than one of the larger ones. The cramped interior reminded him of the inside of a tank. Closing his eyes he could hear the roar of the engines, smell the sweat and oil. Comforting to remember the feeling of riding around shrouded in tonnes of steel. Sobering to remember that such feelings of safety were ultimately illusory. Men who did not remain wary, who felt invincible as they rode across the battlefield, usually ended up dead from an enemy they had never even seen. No matter how powerful he had become Werner could not, would not, allow himself to become complacent.
He could hear footsteps approaching. Rising Werner stood at attention, his head barely a foot from the ceiling. In these last few seconds he took a quick look to make sure that his medals were still pinned on straight. How much they would count for anything here was hard to say, but they might help provide the edge that he needed.
A single man entered the room. Older than Werner, old enough for his hair to have started to turn grey. His rank marked the man a colonel. Dutifully Werner saluted the officer, holding position as the man inspected him.
The seconds seemed to stretch on forever with the Colonel looking up at Werner and Werner trying to appear as calm as he could. Never before had he been so thankful for whatever quirk of the process had rendered him unable to sweat. Otherwise Werner was certain that his shirt would have been soaked through. Finally the colonel took his seat and motioned for Werner to do the same.
"Good evening Unteroffizier Frei. I am Colonel Hagen. As I am certain that you have heard by now I am here on behalf of the High Command and the Leader to investigate the success of General Sankt's efforts. A success which has been unknown to us until tonight." The Colonel spoke as he laid out a few pieces of paper in front of himself. With his enhanced vision Werner could make out some of what was written on them. Service records for the most part. Even Sankt would not have been foolish enough to write down any of what he knew about Werner's true past.
"I will assist you however I can sir." Werner spoke carefully. There was a certain image he wanted to project here. Polite but not servile. Intelligent but not subversive. If he managed to walk that tightrope then the rest should be simple. He had lied enough over the course of his life to become rather good at it, though the stakes were higher now than they had ever been before.
"Good, good. No less than I would expect from a soldier of your calibre. Served with distinction in the Ukraine and Russia in the war against the Bolsheviks. Fought valiantly at Kursk, saving the lives of many men in the process," Colonel Hagen read from the file, looking up at Werner's Iron Cross after the last part. Clapping his hands together and leaning back Hagen continued in a conciliatory tone. "Your loyalty to the Reich is not in question here. Just that of your commanding officer."
If only the man knew the truth of it. More than anyone else in the project Werner was twisted up in Sankt's schemes. By the time that he had realized that Sankt was every bit a fool as Hitler it had been too late to change course. Now he had to ride things out and see how they went.
"Sankt's idiocy in hiding your existence has led to a great deal of hardship. The last few months have taken quite a toll on the Wehrmacht," Frustration flashed across Hagen's face as he described how the war was going. "Though we cannot undo what has been done we can look to the future. So I would like to hear your thoughts on the Ubermensch project, as a soldier who lived through it. Will this be enough to win the war?"
"Our victory is now inevitable sir," Werner said with confidence. This at least he knew to be true. As Hagen leaned forward expectantly Werner explained further. "Not just victory over the Bolsheviks or the British but the Americans and anyone else who stands to face us. It will not be instantaneous but I would think that in no less than a year we should be able to end all resistance."
Such a statement must have seemed boastful as Hagen sat there in silence for some time. Finally he pulled out a map from his papers and began to motion over it.
"In the east the Soviets have broken through Poland and now threaten to encroach upon Danzig and Berlin. Romanian treachery has cut us off from their oil and the Red Army has advanced far enough into Hungary to risk those supplies as well. On the western front the Americans and British defeated our attempt to break out and recapture Antwerp. Fuel reserves are almost nonexistent, the airforce is a shadow of itself, the navy a bunch of half finished hulls. Only the Army still stands defiant but we are outnumbered. Given this information do you wish to change your assessment?"
"No sir," In the light of the situation it was hard to understand how victory could be achieved when even survival seemed impossible. Unless you had seen what Werner had. "One of the basic panzermensch can do everything a tank can and even more. Better accuracy, better manoeuvrability. All they need are solid rest periods and rations. As for myself and the other Battleships, we have not had a chance to test our full abilities but they should be much greater."
“Battleships,” Hagen muttered to himself, shaking his head. Werner could not fault him for that. The names that had been chosen for them were grandiose if they were anything. "Any idea as to how much greater?"
"A panzermensch takes three Catalyst treatments to make. Klaudia, Markus and I have all had twenty-five treatments. In more concrete terms, if a panzermensch punches a tank his fist will go clean through the steel. If he punches me he gets a bruised fist and I barely feel a thing." It was the truth, Werner knew from experience. Sankt had always had intentions of much grander tests of the full extent of their abilities but the limited funds and space had prevented those from occurring.
"A shame there are only the two of you here." Hagen mused as he stroked his chin, obviously now seriously considering that the course of the war might be reversed by a handful of individuals. It was the way he said it that worried Werner.
"Sir, has something happened to Klaudia?" Again he had to phrase it just so. Werner did not want to appear too concerned but over the time they had spent together he had become fond of Klaudia. Certainly more so than the third Battleship. Having to spend time with Markus was the only thing that made Werner regret that he was no longer capable of getting drunk.
“We suspect that she was behind the destruction of an Allied bombing mission north of here hours ago. As of now we are unsure of where exactly she is,” Hagen looked at Werner closely. “You two are close, I take it?”
“Just as friends,” The insinuation in Hagen's words was obvious and Werner wondered what Klaudia would have made of it. Nothing good, he suspected. “I know that Klaudia went to Dresden to find out if her husband was still alive, do you happen to know...?”
“From what information we have it would appear that the hospital that Leon Hoch was a patient at was indeed burned during the bombings. Records are hard to come by but there is no indication that he survived.”
“I see,” Werner purposefully took a long pause before speaking again. “Given the situation it might be prudent if I am one of the first to speak with her once she is found. Klaudia can be temperamental and given her strength it would be best if I have a chance to calm her down. If that is at all possible, sir.”
“A noble request, one that I will see if we can accommodate.”
Hagen shuffled through his papers once more, making it clear that he wished to move onto further questions. As hard as he tried to focus on the meeting Werner was distracted by thoughts of what Klaudia might be doing.
Just make it back in one piece my friend. For all of our sakes.
“Shit, you got a lighter on you Willy? I must have left mine back at the barracks.” Hans asked his fellow guard, still searching hopefully through his own pockets with one hand while holding his depressingly unlit cigarette in the other.
“No. Why don't you go in there and see if she has a light?” Wilhelm jerked his head to the doorway behind them with a smirk. Hans grimaced as he shook his head.
“That bitch looked about ready to take my head off when we went in earlier. I'll just do without,” Looking up from his search Hans saw a particularly tall man approaching. “Dammit, looks like one of those panzer-things. Stay sharp.”
Things were rough enough that they had been dragged out here to the mountains in the middle of the night to take over guarding this camp. That it was full of seven foot tall super soldiers was just the kind of surprise that Hans had wanted waiting for him. At least this one was not one of the two even larger men that had been shown off earlier. The dark haired man crossed the distance to the building that they were guarding in little time. Reaching them he said with a broad smile, “Good evening gentlemen, or would good morning be more accurate now? Its been quite a night for all of us. I just need to get into the labs.”
“I'm sorry sir, they have been locked down on Colonel Hagen's order.” Hans responded cautiously. Not just because the man outranked him but from what he had seen in the few hours since they had arrived at this god-forsaken corner of nowhere these living wonder weapons were capable of incredible things.
“Ah, what am I thinking! The Colonel has requested that an inventory be taken of everything we have on hand at the moment,” The tall man tapped his forehead and turned the clipboard he was carrying towards Hans, who could make out Colonel Hagen's signature on it. Then he motioned to Hans's still unlit cigarette. “Need a light?”
Before Hans could respond light erupted from the other man's eyes, forming a twisting halo of around his head. Looking down at his cigarette Hans watched sparks form around the tip, setting it alight. It was all he could do to not drop it. Beside him Wilhelm let out a shocked swear.
“I should not be too long, you both make sure to keep warm out here.” The dark haired man clapped Hans on the shoulder as he passed through the door into the lab.
Inside Lupin made his way into the first room on the left, flicking the lights on and checking that no one else was present. Seeing that he was clear the panzermensch let out a long breath as he turned on the taps, splashing some of the ice cold water onto his face. This was the second time in under a year that his whole world had been turned upside down and he was handling it a poorly as the first. Having recovered some his nerves Lupin made his way out to the first storeroom, ticking off the canisters of chemicals from his list. He knew perfectly well what was present but he had needed an excuse to get into the labs. Now that he was here there was no harm in making sure that everything was indeed accurate.
There was a light on in one of the rooms further down the hallway. As Lupin approached he could smell cigarette smoke coming from within, an almost sure sign that the person he was looking for was here. Out of all the researchers at the camp there was only one who was comfortable smoking in the presence of the unstable chemicals stored here. Her quarters had been empty, which meant that she was either here or had already fled. It was the sad state of affairs he found himself in that Lupin had almost hoped for the second to be true.
Opening the door Lupin could see that he had indeed found her. After the project's funding had largely dried up there had been three types of scientists that had stayed on. First were the true believers, the ones who were completely convinced that Sankt had uncovered some kind of miracle. Next were the cranks, whose unorthodox ideas and methods afforded them little opportunity in regular research. Finally there was Doctor Freya Bergen. A Norwegian Nazi sympathizer, the chemist had worked at one of the project's satellite camps when they were still in operation. No one seemed willing to say just what the doctor had done there but she had a particularly chilling reputation. The look that the petite blonde gave Lupin over the top of her glasses was a good reminder of just why most people at the camp avoided interacting with her unless they absolutely had to.
“You took longer than I expected.” Was all that Bergen said before returning her attention to the paperwork on her desk. She was ever the master of the cutting understatement.
“Well I'm sorry but it took time to convince the man in charge of this lot to let me in here. We need to figure something out. They aren't very organized at the moment but give them a few days and they will be looking over everything with a fine-toothed comb. Sankt has already been dragged away to Berlin, I'm sure that they will suspect the rest of us as being complicit,” Lupin's mind was racing as he spoke, making his way to Bergen's desk. How could the woman seem so calm? “I've managed to hide what we have been doing so far but I can't say that a new set of eyes looking over the records won't figure it out.”
“Calm down Lupin. Everything is still well in hand.” Bergen did not even bother looking up at him as she spoke around her cigarette.
“Well in hand? Its all well and good for you to say that, you're a foreigner. They'll just execute you if they figure out you've been spying on them all this time. My family is still here in Germany. When they find out I've been sabotaging this project they will go after everyone related to me!”
That got her attention, though Lupin worried that he had gone a bit too far. It had been entirely an accident that he had found out that Bergen was actually impeding the project. He had been making similar efforts of his own, though he had known from the start that their reasons were much different. The night Lupin had confronted her about it had been the first time since he had undergone the change that he had felt vulnerable. Something about Bergen's demeanour seemed to say that him being bulletproof would not be much of an impediment to her killing him. As luck would have it they had been able to find an accord.
“Yet you chose to assist me rather than turning me in when you discovered my activities. The risk to your family was just as great then. Has your mind changed so much, now that we are about to see these weapons unleashed?”
“No,” Lupin admitted as he lowered his head. “No it hasn't.”
“Good. I've made preparations, so all we need now is an exit plan. We can either go quiet or loud. I would much prefer that we do it quietly. Keep your eyes and ears open for the next few hours. If an opportunity presents itself we will slip away without anyone noticing. Otherwise I'll make sure that they have something to look at while we make our escape.”
Resisting the urge to gawk at Bergen's confidence Lupin pressed the palms of his hands against his eyes and let out a long sigh. “Simple as that?”
“You would be surprised. Now, if you've made yourself useful to the new bosses you should continue to do so.” Bergen's attention returned to her papers, a clear sign that he was being dismissed. It was like another whole command chain for him to appease.
Leaving Bergen to her work Lupin continued to take stock of what the camp had on hand. He did not have access to much of the Catalyst needed to create ubermensch itself but there were still reasonable supplies of the various precursor chemicals. Most of them leaned towards the volatile side of things. If they needed a distraction it would not be too difficult to cause a suitably large explosion. Lupin mused that he might yet make it out of this alive. Whether anyone else would was another matter.
Chapter 3: For Lack of a Better Plan
After hours of traveling Klaudia was feeling the full downside of her enhancements. While rested she had strength and speed beyond anything she would have thought possible. Once hunger and fatigue set in it was a different story. Eight hours was what had been determined to be the safe limit for any of the ubermensch to operate for and so far the best any of the Battleships could manage was four. Exertion beyond that period had lethal effects in the panzermensch, effects that should have manifested hours ago for Klaudia. With greater strength must have come a greater stamina. Not that it comforted her much. Her skull felt as though someone was driving nails through it, her stomach like it was about to collapse in on itself. Everything else took its turn sending spasms of pain along. Trying to close her eyes only brought forth memories of the last few days.
The horror of losing her husband and seeing Dresden in ashes. How satisfying it had been to watch those Allied planes fall from the sky, how good taking revenge had felt. Followed by Klaudia's revulsion at how much she wanted to do it again. A whirlwind of emotions that threatened to consume her. She did the one thing that she could to survive, she gave in.
Rage. The coals of the roaring fire that had coursed through her mind earlier still lingered. Piece by piece Klaudia fed them her revulsion, her sadness, her pain. Soon enough all that was left was her well kindled anger, ready and waiting to be unleashed. Klaudia knew exactly who she planned to sacrifice to it. What exactly Klaudia would do to the unctuous bastard she was not sure other than that it would be unpleasant. As the truck jostled over a rut in the road another shot of pain lanced up her aching back. Her fist shattered through the wall beside her, sending splinters of wood out into the darkness. From then on the ride was smoother.
Caught up in her own mind Klaudia was able to ignore how long it took to reach the camp. The truck passed through the gates after a hurried conversation that she did not care to listen to before finally coming to a halt. Resisting the urge to just burst through the wall Klaudia made her way out of the back.
It would be dawn soon yet there were more men awake and in the yard than there should have been at this hour. More vehicles than she remembered as well. Not that it mattered much, Klaudia had already locked her gaze upon the building where Sankt kept his offices and quarters. Men and panzermensch alike took one look at her face and moved out of the way. Reaching the front door part of Klaudia remembered breaking it off of its hinges after meeting with Sankt days before. That part took some satisfaction in tearing it loose again. Tossing the door off to the side Klaudia ducked through.
Most of the buildings at the camp had been built without knowing how tall the various ubermensch would become. The panzermensch were only around seven feet and could still fit in most places comfortably. Standing closer to nine feet herself Klaudia always felt terribly claustrophobic in most places. Sankt had forced her to come in here anyways, likely to use her discomfort against her. Tonight she stood up straight inside, her head just missing the ceiling. There were more people inside the building than there should have been. Most froze in place, with only two making a sound.
“Klaudia?” Lupin asked, almost dropping his papers in shock, at the same time that the woman across from him let out a far less enthusiastic, “Klaudia.”
The pair were, in Klaudia's opinion, the embodiment of everything right and wrong with the camp. Both were administrators, both were panzermensch. Lupin Schultz was one of the few people here that Klaudia cared to converse with. A bit fussy at times but his heart was usually in the right place. Anita Scheele, on the other hand, was a frigid bitch on top of being Sankt's personal adjutant. It had always struck Klaudia as odd that with so few women at the project she could not stand any of them. Something about the work they did must have drawn unpleasant characters in.
Klaudia held out her arm as she passed them, resisting the urge to drive it through Anita's face. She needed to stay focused on her goal. Sticking her head into Sankt's office Klaudia could see that he was not there though a half-dozen men were, digging through every drawer and shelf. Then into Sankt's bedroom. He was not there either, though the room had been thoroughly ransacked.
“Where is he?” Klaudia asked as she turned back to Anita and Lupin. If she had to tear through the rest of the camp she would but asking would probably be the faster way to locate Sankt.
“The General was recalled to Berlin some hours ago. The Leader wanted to personally question him about the success of the project.” Cold as ever, Anita was the first to reply. As if Klaudia would trust one of Sankt's lackeys.
Silently Klaudia turned her gaze to Lupin for confirmation.
“He was apparently dragged out and shoved into the back of a car. It seems that the High Command was rather cross with him.” Lupin was being diplomatic but Klaudia understood his implicit message.
Everything she had just walked through suddenly became clear. All of the extra men and vehicles were here to take control of the project. Sankt's rooms were being torn through to see if any evidence of his treachery could be found. Klaudia realized that she was laughing. Whatever physical pain she could have dealt to Sankt would be nothing in comparison to the wounds that would be dealt to his body and ego in Berlin. A fitting end to the man. However learning that he was beyond her grasp left Klaudia's rage without a target. The coals that she had carefully stoked for hours went cold, leaving behind only flickering embers. Their time would come but for now all that Klaudia could feel was how exhausted she was.
“I'm going to bed.” Klaudia announced to no one in particular as she stumbled out the door. Her head broke through the frame on her way out. Against the migraine she already had that barely bothered her. She had only made it a few steps when she realized that she was not alone.
“God in Heaven Klaudia, you look ready to collapse,” Lupin said as he fell in beside her. “Just tell me if you feel like you're going to fall over, I'll help you make it the rest of the way if you need it.”
“I'm fine,” Klaudia tried to wave Lupin off, all the while ignoring the spasms in her thigh muscles. Instead he caught her hand and began to lead her. Too tired to make any more fuss Klaudia gently squeezed his hand. Even if she could not admit it, she really did need someone right now. “Have you ever been in love Lupin?”
“Love? Not quite. I was married though.” From what Klaudia could see Lupin looked taken aback by the question.
“What happened to your wife?”
“She loved another man more than she loved me. Requested a divorce about six months before the war started. We had been married for four years.” Lupin ended that with a sigh, obviously looking back at his own memories.
“Maybe that was for the best.” If morose thoughts were going to overtake her she might as well share them. After that they finished the walk in silence.
The building that housed the three Battleships was a plain affair. Three bedrooms, a washroom and a communal dining room all built of the same whitewashed wood. It was still Klaudia's favourite building in the camp. Between the height of the doors and ceiling and the size of the furniture it was the one place where she felt like she fit. Werner was waiting for them there.
“I'll take it from here Lupin,” Werner nodded in thanks to the panzermensch before holding the door open for Klaudia. Once they were inside he continued. “Markus is out showing off to some of the officers they brought in so no worries about him disturbing you for now. I've got some rations prepared if you want to change into some clean clothes.”
Werner continued on to the dining room while Klaudia entered her own quarters. A bed and nightstand, a wardrobe and a mirror. The sum of her worldly possessions. Catching sight of herself in the mirror Klaudia realized just how worn out she looked. From the state of her uniform to the dark circles under her eyes it was clear that the night had taken its toll on her. Mechanically she stripped out of her tattered uniform, which tore even further as she removed it. Using the remnants to clean the mud from her feet Klaudia was tempted to draw a bath. Maybe in the morning if there was time. Checking that her necklace was still intact she went to the wardrobe to fetch a new outfit.
Inside were six identical copies of the uniform that she had just removed, one for each day of the week. None of them fit particularly well. Klaudia was certain that she was the first woman that the camp's tailor had ever made clothes for. It seemed so long ago that she had been able to pick between different cuts and colours. She doubted that those days would ever come again. Balling up the rest of her old uniform she set it off to the side. Years of rationing had left their mark, even if the uniform was beyond repair someone might be able to use the scraps for something.
By the time that Werner returned carrying a large wooden bowl Klaudia had sat down on her bed and begun to work the braid out of her long blonde hair. It was tricky work as her hair was every bit as tough as the rest of her. Combs tended to bend or break as soon as they hit a bad tangle. Klaudia left her hair half undone and accepted the bowl when Werner offered it to her.
“Thank you father.” Klaudia added before beginning to eat, eliciting a small chuckle from Werner. As much as she had hoped that it would be something else the bowl was filled with the yellowish glucose paste that all of the ubermensch were forced to eat. Something about increased energy requirements, no one had ever really explained it to her properly. All Klaudia knew was that the paste was as sickeningly sweet as it was devoid of texture. It was also in short supply. This bowl held a double ration which Werner must have had to twist someone's arm for. Before she had left the camp the main concern had been buying, begging and stealing as much plant matter as possible to continue paste production. Most of the panzermensch only got half rations regularly.
While Klaudia was occupied eating Werner retrieved a chair and sat down across from her. “Were you going to kill Sankt?”
That was certainly not the question that Klaudia had expected first. She knew that Sankt had spent the most time with Werner out of all three of the Battleships but she had never taken him for one of the man's flunkies.
“Probably. Maybe. I don't really know. Why do you care so much? The man was a complete ass.”
“That he was, but he was also the commanding officer of this mess and the only one who really knows what is going on with all of this Catalyst nonsense,” Werner folded his hands as he looked for the right words to say. “We are still at war Klaudia. If we start turning on one another then we are going to lose.”
Poor Werner. Still following the ideals of a soldier. Obey your orders and everything would turn out all right in the end. Klaudia had seen how well that worked out.
“We already lost the war Werner. The Allies bomb our cities freely, the Soviets are about to waltz right into Berlin and the worst we can do is spit in their faces on our way out.”
“I know that you don't really mean that Klaudia. They told me about Leon. You're hurting right now but you have to remember how much we've all had to sacrifice to get this far. We can't just-” Werner was speaking very quietly, intending to sooth her, when Klaudia sent the bowl flying past his head to shatter against the wall. He remained annoyingly still.
“My husband is dead, Werner. Dead! I spent the last year and a half hoping, praying for a miracle and what do I get at the end? All this power and I wasn't even there to save him, from the fire and...” It took the last of Klaudia's energy to keep herself from crying. Werner might be a friend but she would not let him see her in such a state. No one had ever seen her cry since she was a child.
“Your family, your other friends? Surely there must be some people left in Germany worth fighting for.”
“I've made more friends at this camp than I have in my entire life,” Klaudia returned to undoing her braid as she spoke. At least pulling the knots out helped her keep her voice steady. “As for my family they told me to choose between Leon or them. I chose Leon.”
This conversation was obviously not going the way that Werner had hoped. He chewed his lower lip as he considered what to say next, which he only did when he was stumped. In the end as much as Klaudia had found Werner to be a good and decent man there was always a distance between them. Not just because he saw everything through the eyes of a soldier. Personable as he was Werner managed to keep the details of his life largely a mystery.
“We are all soldiers Klaudia. We have a duty to Germany.” If that was the best that Werner could come up with then he was obviously not as convinced about the possibility of victory as he seemed.
“You are a soldier Werner, a good one too. Markus is a soldier, even if he is an idiot. But me? Do you see any rank on this uniform?” Klaudia motioned to her lapels. “No. Because I was always the experiment. Sankt activated me first to make sure that he didn't screw it up when he went to activate you two. He put me through all those trials so that if he accidentally killed or maimed me, he would know how to avoid it with you.”
“Then look at it this way. We are all weapons. A gun, a tank, a knife, it doesn't matter,” For just a moment something in Werner's demeanour changed. A crack appeared in his mask. “Every weapon exists to destroy. You don't ask your gun how it is feeling or what its opinion on the war is. You just point it and pull the trigger. In war that is how you need to think if you want to survive.”
This had happened before. Klaudia suspected many things about Werner. He was always vague when talking about his past before the war and even before coming to the camp. In moments like this Klaudia got a glimpse of the true Werner Frei. Whether he realized it or not he was agreeing with her. The only difference between them was that he was able to suppress the knowledge that the war was as good as lost. There just was not anything that Klaudia could really say in response. They just sat there in silence, looking at one another.
“What are you going to do?” Werner asked once his mask was back in place.
“Now? I'm going to sleep. After that go west and kill as many of those Allied bastards as I can. There is something I need to find out.” If Klaudia let on what she truly intended then she knew that Werner would certainly try to stop her. Best to keep it vague for now.
Seeing that there was little point in furthering the conversation Werner rose from his chair and walked to the door. With his hand on the knob he paused and looked back at her.
“I've been where you are Klaudia. Just remember, make yourself into a weapon. You can always become human again later.”
With that he was gone and Klaudia was alone once more.
Stretching out along the bed Klaudia fished her necklace out from under her collar. A simple chain bearing her wedding band. Turning the ring over in between her fingers Klaudia could hardly believe that it had ever fit her. Maybe Werner was right on that count. With all that had happened maybe Klaudia Hoch did not really exist anymore, just a weapon that looked like her.
Closing her eyes sleep came to Klaudia quickly. The world could wait for now.
Leaving Klaudia's room Werner had to hold back the urge to curse. He had handled that conversation poorly. If he had been talking to another man then perhaps that might have been more successful. When it came to dealing with women Werner had always been hopeless.
Lupin was pacing outside of the building. He took one look at Werner's face before asking, “That bad?”
“Yes.” Werner had always had a difficult time figuring out Lupin as well. Technically the man outranked him but he had never actually been in combat. He was certainly friendly enough but Werner could never bring himself to see Lupin as a true fellow soldier.
“Well, maybe once she has had a full rest cycle things will be better.”
“Somehow I doubt that,” Werner knew that once Klaudia made up her mind about something she could be unreasonably stubborn. There were other things he had to attend to tonight. “Where was Anita when you last saw her? I need to ask her about something.”
“Last I saw her she was heading back to her office. I'll stay here for now in case Klaudia needs anything.” Lupin went back to leaning against the door frame. He might not be a true soldier but he was a good man.
Anita's office was in the building next to Sankt's. As he passed the main building Werner could see men trying to repair the front door. Tearing the door off a building was not an action that Werner would condone but he could understand Klaudia's frustrations. He had enough of those on his own. Getting in to see Anita was easy, though she hardly looked happy to see him. Her desk was practically overflowing with notebooks and file folders.
“The child has finally finished her tantrum I take it?” Anita asked. Werner had never figured out why she held such a dislike for Klaudia. Nor did he appreciate her taking her frustrations out on him.
“That's not helping. Am I the only one who remembers that we are all on the same side here? Besides, that is not what I came here to talk about. We need to decide what to do about Sankt.” Werner replied out of exasperation. He could hardly be the only one still keeping the big picture in mind.
Out of all the people at the camp Anita was one who should have been more sympathetic. She was as caught up in Sankt's schemes as Werner was. There was little doubt in his mind that Sankt would be in for torture at the very least when he reached Berlin, even less of a doubt that Sankt would turn on them all in a heart beat to save his own skin. Germany and Werner would both be as good as dead if that came to pass.
“What do you propose? A daring jailbreak to see him installed as the new leader of Germany? The Allies might at least think that we've all gone insane and take some pity on us.” Anita's response was in a much more measured tone than before. She might have her moments but she was level-headed most of the time.
“I think we need to go farther than that. Installing a new government at the moment seems ill advised,” That was particularly painful for Werner to admit. He had little love for Hitler but what Germany needed now was stability and getting rid of Hitler meant cutting a bloody swath through the existing power structure. “And it isn't like either of us would be able to get to him without being noticed.”
“Luther?” Anita asked.
“Luther.” The last major member of Sankt's conspiracy was another of the General's experiments. As it turned out the Catalyst was good for much more than just making people stronger.
“You'll likely be the one to see him first. Hagen wants me to put together a comprehensive report about the project,” Anita swept her hand across her overloaded desk. “He didn't outright say it but I think they want something to check against whatever they get out of Sankt. I am to leave in a few hours. In the meantime you had best sort Klaudia out. We don't need her rocking this boat more than she already is.”
That was something Werner was not sure of how to do. In the end the simplest solution might be the best.
“She wants to go pick a fight with the Allies. I'm going to try and make sure that she has some support. Hopefully once she has had her fill of vengeance she will fall into line.” Not much of a plan but it was the best that Werner could think of at the moment.
“Or you and Markus could give her a little convincing. Even if she is a bit further into her maturation than either of you it is still two against one.”
“Even if it is two against one if she decided to fight how much of this camp do you think would be left?" Just when Werner thought that he had been making headway Anita had to backslide on him. “That wouldn't just be rocking the boat, that would be breaking the boat into pieces then setting it on fire.”
“She doesn't want to be saved you know. Since the day that she came to this camp she has had one foot in the grave. If you aren't careful she will drag you down with her.”
“Have a safe journey to Berlin Anita. And good luck.” Werner left the room before she could get another barb in.
At the very least that conversation had gone better than the one with Klaudia had, if not by much. All Werner could hope for at this point was that Hagen would be receptive to his suggestion. If their earlier interview was anything to judge by then it should go smoothly, though tonight Werner was not about to take anything for granted.
“As far as plans go this isn't one of the better ones I've seen.” Bergen said as she finished checking over her pack. Hidden within various mechanical casings and chemical bottles was the entire trove of Catalyst that she had managed to pilfer over the months. Seeing it all laid out at first had shocked Lupin. There had to be enough to make over fifty panzermensch. He had not thought that Bergen's efforts would be so successful.
“If you have a better one I am all for it. Besides, you wanted quiet. We are about to be driven directly to the front under Hitler's orders. What more could you ask for?” Lupin replied as he went over making sure that the contraband in his own cases was well concealed.
“Not escorting one of the most powerful weapons in the world to attack my own side.” There Bergen did have the point. This plan was the best that either of them could come up with. That it involved following along with an attack on the Allies was not comforting.
When Lupin had heard that Werner was looking for volunteers to go along with Klaudia to the west he had known that it would be the best chance that they would have of getting out of the camp undetected. Already the chaos was dying down as more troops and officers arrived. If they were to get their load of stolen materials and research to the Allies now would be their best chance. As for how long the ruse would last afterwards was anyone's guess.
Nothing that they had taken would be missed outright. Research notes, translations and copies of pages from the source Codex had all been carefully transcribed with the originals left untouched. The Catalyst had been trickier to get but in the end Bergen's position in producing it had given her ample opportunity. Drawing on the stores of improperly made Catalyst from the project's early days she had been able to slowly swap it for the good stuff without anyone ever noticing. Finally there was the tests to see if a person could become an ubermensch, taking a large number of those had been simple. No one paid much mind to the tests at all seeing as they were useless without the Catalyst itself.
All in all it was everything that the Allies would need to set up their own program, with the advantage of already knowing where the Germans had misstepped. Lupin had spent months getting to this stage but now that he was here looking over it all made him nauseous. Up until now he had been committing treason, that was for certain. It had just seemed more academic, almost harmless. There was always the hope that things would fall apart and the war would end before anything here was put to use. A fools hope, Lupin knew. This was always the way that things were going to turn out. At least in betraying his country he might be giving better nations the ability to fight back. Or so he prayed.
Latching the travel cases shut Lupin picked up the load as Bergen held the door for him. Outside the sun was up, it was hard to believe that it was almost noon now. Even though he had only been doing light physical work Lupin would have to try and complete a rest cycle during the drive to the front. He did not fancy joining the ranks of the panzermensch who thought that they could push past their limits.
Trucks were waiting for them along with eighteen panzermensch. A decent showing all things considered. Werner and Colonel Hagen were conversing with some of the gathered soldiers, likely informing them of just what they were walking into. Finding the space that had been assigned to them Lupin put the cases up into the back of the mostly empty truck. Lighting up a cigarette Bergen looked suspiciously inside.
“An awful lot of room for just the two of us.”
“That's the thing,” Lupin had been able to avoid mentioning this so far but there really was no more time to hide it. “The men are apparently uncomfortable with riding next to you or Klaudia. Mostly you. So we all get our own vehicle. Think of it as extra legroom.”
Bergen arched an eyebrow but did not comment further. Already a few of the panzermensch were giving her sidelong glances. She knew full well what they thought of her. If anything it would give them more room to slip away once they had reached there destination.
Silence fell over the gathered soldiers and Lupin could see why. Klaudia had emerged from the Battleship quarters looking better than she had during the night but still carrying an air of grim determination. She approached cautiously, even with Werner waving her over. Looking around Lupin realized that this could easily be read as an ambush rather than an escort. At the very least Klaudia seemed to be giving them a chance to explain.
After Werner exchanged a few words with Klaudia she seemed to relax, taking a place standing next to him. That must have been the cue for Hagen, who drew himself up for a proper speech.
“Men! And women,” He added after a moment. “Today you will be writing new chapters in the history of Germany and the history of warfare. During the early years of this war the French and the British found themselves helpless against our tanks. They were not prepared for the new face of war. Eventually they learned and through their treacherous ways dealt us terrible blows. No longer! You will show them that war has changed again and this time there will be no chance of them regaining the upper hand. From this moment on we march towards Germany's inevitable victory!”
A short cheer went up from the watching soldiers, with Lupin joining them. Some of the men were ardent believers in Nazi ideology. Others cared more for upholding Germany's honour. Almost all just wanted to be on the winning side again. What would Hagen think when he found out that in the very mission that was to show Germany's unbeatable weapon had delivered it to the Allies? Lupin had no intention of being anywhere nearby when he found out.
“Today you will march on Strasbourg and join our forces there. With them you shall reclaim what is rightfully German soil from the hands of its invaders! The Leader himself has ordered this mission and personally told me that with you rest the hopes of Germany! Do not fail him! Heil Hitler!”
It had been a rousing little speech for certain, if inaccurate. Hitler very well may have ordered the mission, but only after he was told that Klaudia had been set upon attacking westwards anyways. That would have been a sight to see, the great leader forced to acquiesce to the whims of his weapons. It struck Lupin that this would be the way of the world from now on. Those with power, not just traditional power but tangible almost godlike power, would dictate the terms to everyone else. If there was even the slightest bit of justice in the world they would act responsibly once the war was settled.
With the speech finished everyone began getting into their assigned transports. Klaudia gave her farewells to Werner and Hagen before making her way over to their truck. From the way that she looked at Bergen Lupin knew that she was hardly pleased with the arrangements. Reaching them she stopped for a moment before getting into the truck.
“I don't smoke.” Was all that Klaudia said, calmly looking down at Bergen. In reaction Bergen took the half-finished cigarette from her mouth and nonchalantly extinguished it against her forearm, returning a calm look of her own to Klaudia. All of the sudden Lupin greatly feared for his chances of leaving Germany alive.
“I heard about Leon. You have my deepest sympathies and I will be certain to add him to my prayers.” Lupin said quickly, trying to salvage the situation. He worried that reminding Klaudia of her dead husband might not have been the best move until she placed a hand on his shoulder.
“If you hadn't told me that Dresden was bombed then who knows when I would have found out. So thank you, Lupin. For everything.” With that Klaudia made her way into the truck, just in time to miss the look that Bergen gave him. Lupin was certain that he would be hearing more about this later.
Getting himself and Bergen inside as well Lupin folded his legs and tried to find a comfortable position to rest in. He could hear Bergen pulling out her notebook, followed by the all too familiar scratches of her pen.
“It will be a long journey Klaudia. Would you mind if I asked you a few questions? With Sankt having hoarded away all of the secrets of developing Battleships the rest of us are scrambling to catch up.”
That caused Lupin's eyes to snap back open. When Klaudia looked over to him he gave her a sympathetic smile. It was even genuine. Just how had he gotten himself caught up in this?
“Why not? I'll answer as best I can.” Klaudia's reply to Bergen was hardly warm. Not that the chemist seemed to mind as she began to rattle off questions that she must have been sitting on for months now.
Leaving the other two to their conversation Lupin tried to find rest again. So far as he could see there were two possible futures for him: one where he got very little rest at all for the next while and one where he ended up resting eternally. Silently he prayed for the former, however tempting the latter seemed.
Chapter 4: Into the West
Stretching her limbs Klaudia surveyed the situation around her. They had arrived in Kehl a short time prior. Across the Rhine lay Strasbourg, held by Allied soldiers. It had taken most of the day to get here and there was little light left. Perfect for Klaudia and the panzermensch, who could all see in the dark better than any normal person could. Not so good for the conventional forces that had been mustered to meet them here. Though Klaudia could hardly believe that they were going to send these men into battle at all.
If the soldiers they had linked up with were anything they were tired. Some looked too old for the battlefield and even more too young. Most seemed too weary to even look at the giants in their midst with much surprise. It gave Klaudia pause, made her reconsider her plan for just a moment, but she had to know.
At the camp Sankt had subjected her to all manner of dangerous experiments meant to test just how durable a Battleship was. Klaudia had been fed poison, lit on fire, had explosives go off in her hands. Nothing had so much as scratched her. Out here though there was far more firepower. Once the Allies got a glimpse of what was going on they would either flee or swarm in to try and crush the German excursion. In Klaudia's opinion the latter seemed more likely and then she would have a chance to test just how far her supposed invincibility went.
Suicide was a sin, this Klaudia remembered well from the religious instruction her father had given her. Being killed in battle, even a battle where you intended to die, surely did not count. If there was even the slightest chance that she could be reunited with Leon she would take it. Should she make it out of this then it would be clear that another path had been chosen for her. Leon had always told her that she should let go of her Catholic upbringing, replacing the old superstitions with faith and loyalty in the Leader, but she had never been able to fully leave it behind. Tonight she would find out if God really would answer her prayers.
Bringing herself back to reality Klaudia continued to half listen to the mission plan being laid out by the local commander, whose name she had missed, and Alois, the appointed head of the panzermensch that had accompanied her. Others were standing in the background, including Lupin and Bergen. The doctor's questions had been good for one thing at least, keeping Klaudia awake the whole journey. Still she hoped that one day Bergen would get what was coming to her.
“Klaudia?” She gave a start as she realized that Alois was looking at her expectantly. Collecting herself she motioned for him to continue.
“As I was saying,” Alois must have decided to repeat himself rather than draw attention to Klaudia's lack of focus. “Klaudia will be patrolling the perimeter of the city, taking out anything that could threaten us. Artillery, tanks and so forth. The panzermensch will divide into teams of six each on an eight hour rotation. We go in ahead of the regular troops and crush all points of resistance. We move fast and we stay together. Remember to look after yourselves. If you start feeling fatigued then the whole unit will rotate out early to go on their rest cycle. If we do this right then we always have one unit attacking, one defending and one resting. Any questions?”
A few of the men began asking about various details that Klaudia had little interest in. Her role was fairly simple. They had pointed out everything that needed to be destroyed that they knew about. Once she had the attention of the Allied forces Klaudia had her own plan for how to proceed.
The local commander had wanted to wait for daybreak but Klaudia was willing to go on her own if she had to. They all knew that without her taking the city would be a far more daunting task, no matter their advantages. Klaudia waited for the briefing to end to give a bit more confidence to the men gathered there. No need to trouble them, especially if Werner had been meddling.
Then it was time to start. Klaudia went on ahead of the rest, slowly increasing the speed of her strides until the landscape was nearly a blur around her. When she came in sight of the bridge she stopped. Even in the dim light it did not take long for the soldiers there to notice her. One called out something in English as the others got into position, well entrenched behind walls and a few tanks.
In an instant Klaudia summoned her halo and unleashed its power along the riverbank.
That was all it took, a few moments and there was little left of the Allied forward position. Advancing Klaudia prepared to attack the far side of the bridge. As she passed the remains of the men she stopped cold in revulsion. There a man, now little more that bits of tendon and muscle clinging to exposed bones, the rest of him forming a pool of gore below. Inside the gutted shell of a tank another, barely older than herself, had been fused to the hull beside him. Bloody scratches marked where he had tried to claw his flesh away from the steel in his last terrified moments of life.
Her halo blinking out of sight, Klaudia bent over and vomited. Regaining focus she forced the halo back on and sent more distortions among the corpses, removing any trace that they had been there other than bloody smudges along the ground where they had lain. From then on she made sure not to look too closely.
Crossing the bridge was easy and making her way around the city even easier. Rarely was anyone able to get off a shot before she could lay waste to their positions. Flashes of white and blue split the night and behind her Klaudia could hear a growing chorus of shouts and sirens. They realized that they were under attack, just not by what. She could recognize what was English though the accents escaped her. Mixed in were many French voices. That brought back more memories.
Leon had distant family in France, cousins that he had visited once years ago. As much as the French were supposed to be the hated enemy it had always been a her dream to go to Paris one day when the war was over. There had even been times when Leon would speak a few lines of broken French to get Klaudia into a romantic mood. Over the tops of the buildings around her Klaudia could make out the spire of the cathedral, the Tricolour waving in the wind from its peak. By the end of the night another flag would likely be waving there. Pushing away the memories of her husband she instead focused on the advice that Werner had given her.
Become a weapon.
Klaudia Hoch was not killing these men, destroying these machines and breaking this city. It was a weapon, one that bore her face but not her. The killing was easy enough as she barely needed to exert herself to clear an enemy position. Repeating the mantra just served to ease her conscience and that made the killing all that much more simple.
After nearly an hour Klaudia had torn a bloody path around the city. As she approached the start of her circuit she could see that German forces were already streaming through the gap she had created. Her part here was done. Now she began to move away from Strasbourg, letting distortions flicker here and there along her way. A trail for the Allies to follow. Soon she would have the answer to her question.
Many miles south of Strasbourg, following the roads along the Rhine, Lupin was fashioning a sling to carry the large cases they had brought with them on his back. He could easily bear their weight but they were a bit too cumbersome to hold all at once. From the front of the truck a stream of curses, in German, English and what he could only assume was Norwegian, was coming from Bergen.
“Of all the trucks we could have stolen we get the one that hasn't had a bloody oil change in God knows how long!” Bergen exclaimed as she flung the wrench in her hand at a nearby tree. Clearly she had given up on trying to fix the engine. She had barely said two words to him since they had made good their escape from the rest of the force. That had been simpler that Lupin expected, everyone had been too busy trying to take advantage of Klaudia's attack to pay much attention to the scientist and administrator who had tagged along.
This was not the first time that Lupin had left Germany. He had been to Belgium, the Netherlands and even Switzerland on business before. It felt different all the same. The first thing that he had done once they were out of sight of the others was take off his uniform jacket. Until they explained their mission to whatever Allied forces they met technically they were still the enemy, and even if getting shot would do him no harm he would like to avoid it if all possible. In his head Lupin went over his English. Somewhat rusty from disuse but he should be able to converse easily enough. Though hopefully Bergen would be the one doing most of the talking.
Having grabbed a thick jacket for herself Bergen stormed off the road, obviously assuming that Lupin would follow. Which he did, not intending to be left behind. Even with his greater speed it felt like he was constantly struggling to catch up to the woman.
“It shouldn't take too long to find some Allied soldiers, not with the racket Klaudia will be raising. Are you hoping for Americans or British? I mean we might even get some Frenchmen but from what I hear-”
“Do me a favour and keep your mouth shut for once!” Bergen snapped back at him, struggling to light another cigarette as she did. Lupin stopped, waiting for her to notice and do the same. It only took about another twenty feet.
“Now I must assume that I have somehow offended you. If you could please let me know what I should be apologizing for then we can get on delivering the war winning contents of these cases to the Allies. Together.” If there was a time to take a stand it was now. Lupin had no intention of being thrown by the wayside on this. He had already put everything in his life on the line and Bergen could at the very least respect that.
“Offended me? Oh, if only that was what you had done,” Bergen snatched the cigarette from her mouth as she stabbed her finger towards him through the air. “You are the one who managed to set this whole chain of disasters into motion. Do you know how many plans I had to abandon when we left the camp? We are not half as prepared as we should be and all because you had to tell that blonde psychopath that her damned home had been bombed!”
“Come off it!” Lupin shouted back at her. If that was the way that Bergen wanted to play it, he could do the same. “I thought that you had everything well in hand still? That whole camp was just waiting for a spark to set it off. We might not have been fully prepared for this but Sankt sure as hell wasn't. And furthermore a woman that got nicknamed 'the executioner' doesn't really have room to go around calling other people psychopaths!”
Rather than making Bergen angrier that made her go very quiet. She turned and continued walking ahead once more. Lupin charged after her. He had already pushed his luck this far, why not a bit further?
“Might I remind you of who it was that got his hands on more than half of the research documents we are carrying? Me. Also who is actually carrying everything we stole? Me. Who left his parents, his brother and probably even his aunt and cousins to their likely executions? Me! So in the grand scheme of things I find it hard to believe that I am the one at fault here!”
What Bergen would have answered that with Lupin would never know. Just that moment a shot range out, hitting him square between the eyes. It stung but he was otherwise unharmed. Placing the cases in his arms onto the ground he made sure his body was between them and the direction the shot had come from. Bergen had taken cover behind a tree nearby.
“Friendly, we're friendly! We want to defect!” Lupin called out in English, the response another few bullets making holes in his shirt. He was certain that he had gotten the words right but a German accent was obviously not helping his case. Holding up his hands he waited for the men to quit shooting. Looking at Bergen pleadingly he added, “A little help perhaps?”
It was a long few moments before Bergen rolled her eyes and shouted out to their assailants, “Quit bloody shooting! I'm a British operative coming home!”
At the very least Lupin now knew just who Bergen was working for. The bullets stopped coming as well. Slowly men began to approach them, guns still held at the ready. Americans from their uniforms, if Lupin could remember his field manuals.
“Search 'em for weapons! You two, stay nice and still. Especially you big fella.” That, Lupin presumed, was the leader of this unit. He did his best to comply with the orders, hardly moving a muscle.
“I put one right between his eyes, how the fuck is he still standing?” One man was quietly asking another further back. The man who had come to search Lupin looked extremely nervous. He tried his best to give the man a comforting smile but felt that the effect was lost considering the situation.
“You've heard about what is happening north of here?” Bergen was asking the American commander, the soldiers having relieved her of a pistol from her jacket and another tucked into her boot. When the man nodded vaguely she continued. “What is in those cases is the key to putting a stop to it. They and I need to get to London as soon as possible.”
No mention of Lupin there but considering the conversation a few minutes before he counted himself lucky that she was not recommending his execution. Not that it did either of them much good.
“Well that is nice and all but you aren't going anywhere for a while. Bad enough I have to take time out of my night dragging you two back to the lockup, you'll just have to cool your heels until someone has the time to confirm what you're saying.” The American signalled for his men to take them into custody. Seeing as it had gone so well for him so far that night Lupin decided to try his luck once more.
“Sir, if you could please have your men point their weapons at me I can confirm that what is in these cases needs to reach London immediately,” That had the desired effect, the entire squad swinging their weapons to react to what they probably saw as a threat. “Whatever you do, don't shoot her or the cases. Or my face.”
Activating his halo Lupin braced himself. It was the major weak point of the panzermensch that had been discovered. A sufficiently large disruption to the active halo, say by a bullet, could cause a lethal chain reaction. Now it was either do or die. Focusing on a tree beyond all the men Lupin formed a distortion that disintegrated most of the upper branches and left the rest as flaming mess. As quickly as he could he released the halo. Not a single shot had been fired at least, with all the men now gawking at the smoking tree trunk.
“Jonesy, get on the radio. Tell HQ we got something that they need to see. The rest of you grab that crap and get ready to double time it back to camp.” The lead American said after he managed to pull himself together. His men rushed to fulfill their orders as soon as they recovered from their own shock.
Keeping his hands in the air Lupin considered offering to help carry the cases. One look at the trembling hands of the men pointing their weapons at him made him reconsider. From that moment on he did his best not to even look at anyone. As they ordered him to move Lupin could hear Bergen cursing under her breath. He was not sure whether her stream of invective were aimed at him, the Americans or the world in general and he hoped to remain blissfully ignorant for as long as he could.
After hours of frantic activity the camp had finally begun to settle back down. It was only temporary, Werner was well aware of that. Even as he sat stretched out on his bed, looking through the briefings that Hagen had arranged for him to receive, he knew that it would never last. A day, two at the outside, and the ubermensch would be packed up and shipped to capital. From there they would be delegated out to Germany's overstretched armies in an attempt to reverse the tide of the war. Already research and materials were being made ready to follow along with them. Werner knew where he would be headed. The Westerners were not the pressing concern, there was even the hope that Klaudia's attack might help to halt their advance through shock alone. The east was another matter entirely.
All the time that Werner had spent at the project, waiting while Sankt plotted and schemed, he had known that it would come to this in the end. Once more he would be sent out to face the Soviet hordes but this time it would be different. This time the Bolsheviks would meet their end once and for all. It was not a task that Werner looked forward to, no matter how necessary he knew it to be. An ocean of blood had already been spilled over those muddy steppes and soon another would be unleashed. Any sane man would hesitate to return to that meat grinder. Of course Markus was looking forward to it with great anticipation. If he were feeling charitable Werner would have chalked that up to youthful inexperience rather than the boy's sadism. Tonight he was not feeling very charitable at all.
There were steps in the hallway. Too soft to be Markus or even one of the panzermensch. As Werner turned to look a solitary officer slid into the room, closing the door firmly behind him.
“Sir, how may I help you?” Werner asked as he began to rise.
“You could start by telling me what in hell is going on?” The officer replied. Werner recognized the voice immediately and lowered himself back down to the bed, setting the folder in his hand to the side. He had been preparing for this encounter since his conversation with Anita earlier.
In an instant the officer changed. One moment he was one man, the next another. Luther was the crown jewel of one of Sankt's side projects. Werner knew that the man's ability to change his appearance and voice at will came from the Catalyst somehow but Sankt had never deigned to share how it was done. There were a few more, from Werner's understanding, though they had not been directly included in Sankt's plot. That was how Luther had come to be the favourite. Other than the fact that the man was an insufferable brown-noser.
Luther was well into middle age, though he refused to say just how old he was. He had an expressive face that was perfect for conveying his overblown mannerisms. Yet for all that Werner found the man to be a blowhard he was a good actor when he set his mind to it. From the few actors Werner had been acquainted with years before he knew enough to see that Luther was a man past his prime. There was a lurking suspicion in his mind as well that Luther's goal here was not to help save Germany but rather to get himself back onto the centre stage.
“You're the spy Luther, go take a look around. It is rather obvious.” Werner replied. As petty as it might seem it was just all too much fun to get under the other man's skin.
“You are just hilarious, you know that?” Luther said as he walked over to the bed. Lacking any chairs in the room he chose to find as good a seat as he could get from the clean half of Werner's bedside table. “First Sankt misses a check-in, which he never does. Then when I get here the place is crawling with soldiers and neither Sankt nor Scheele are anywhere to be found. So rather than me spending the rest of my night trying to piece together what the hell is happening could you please just spit it out already?”
A fair enough request. Werner watched a bead of sweat roll down Luther's brow. He was still mostly human, just one with a few more faces than normal.
“We got found out. Not everything,” Werner added quickly when he saw a look of fear come over Luther's face. He did not need the other man to try running. Mostly because there would be absolutely no way to catch him if he did. “Just that Sankt never told them that he had been successful. They hauled him back to Berlin a few hours after midnight last night. Anita left early this afternoon to advise the High Command on what an ubermensch is and what we can do.”
“Shit. Shit! We need to do something, enact the plan or, I don't know! Shit!” Cursing up a storm Luther leapt up from his seat and began to pace around the room. Endless half plans seemed to spill out of him, each disregarded before the idea behind it was even fully formed. If Luther had indeed been an actor Werner doubted that he had been involved in improvisation. He waited patiently for Luther to run out of steam. Then would be the best time to hit him with what needed to be done.
“You could try to go along with the plan,” Werner said once Luther had quieted. “Except that Anita and I have decided that neither of us wants to be a part of it anymore.”
“You what? You can't just-”
“We can and we have. So either you can join Sankt on a sinking ship or you can help us cut our collective losses,” Shaking his head Werner let out dry chuckle. “Let's face it, that plan was never that good even from the beginning.”
“Do you know how many weeks of practice I put into this?” Luther spat back at him, his appearance and voice suddenly changing to another familiar pairing. Hitler. Even knowing that it was just an illusion Werner felt repulsed. He forced that back down. The time would still come eventually, just later than he had hoped.
“Well I imagine that Sankt is a bit more upset about whatever it is that they are doing to him. Things that might cause him to start saying names. My name. Your name.”
That got Luther's attention. All of the sudden his face was his own again and almost as white as a sheet. The look of realization dawned upon his face. “We need to shut him up.”
“If only we knew someone who could slip into wherever it is that they are holding him and make sure that he keeps quiet. Forever.” Werner was not proud of suggesting this. As great a fool as Sankt was even he deserved a cleaner death than this. However, desperate times called for desperate measures.
“They still might be suspicious, even if I frame it properly.” The gears were clearly turning in Luther's head.
“You're the only one of whatever Sankt decided to call you lot that anyone of us has ever seen. Anita is going to tell them that she had no idea that Sankt was successful in creating any of you and that she wasn't aware that he ever tried. So by the time that you and the others come in from the cold Sankt will already be fading from their minds. Think you can manage it?”
“Its doable. I should even be able to convince the others to keep their mouths shut about everything,” Luther thought a moment more before continuing. “But why stay here? We've been practising whenever we can. Building up some funds, other things. It is really quite easy with our abilities. Once Sankt is out of the way I could get you and Scheele out with us. Enough money and no one would even think to ask any questions. A nice place on a beach down in the sun with nothing but relaxation and all the women we could ever want. Or men for Scheele and yourse-”
Werner had indulged Luther quite enough by that point. In an instant he had rolled out of the bed and was in front of the man, seizing hold of him by the jaw. Just firmly enough to keep him from talking anymore.
“Don't push your luck Luther. If we don't win this war we are all dead. Think all the money in the world would help you once the communists control everything?”
His eyes bulging in fear Luther nodded as best as he could. Werner released him after that. He had made his point.
“Fine. For Germany!” Luther threw up his arm in a mocking salute as he stepped back towards the door. Never one to know when to call it quits. “But I'm still going to keep an eye on my retirement fund.”
“Just take care of Sankt then report in to command. Don't make me come looking for you!” Werner called after him. It was an empty threat but he needed to do something to give the man some spine. In the end he could only hope that Luther and his fellows would come through. They would be a powerful weapon in the coming days.
Laying back down onto his bed Werner returned to reading his briefings. He knew the only person he could truly rely on was himself. With everything around him teetering on the edge of disaster that would have to be enough.
Chapter 5: Storm Over the Rhine
“Stephanie. That is a rather nice name, though I admit that it will take a while for me to think of you as anything other than Doctor Bergen. Are you a real doctor as well or was that also part of the persona? Given your skills with chemistry I imagine that you must have some formal education along those lines.” It was not the first time that Lupin had tried to start up a conversation with his compatriot and it went as well as the rest. The woman he had known as Freya Bergen did not even bother looking at him as she focused on her cigarette and journal. From the brief interrogation they had undergone so far Lupin had learned that her actual name was Stephanie. He did not think it wise to ask after her surname.
They were sitting in a tent many miles to the south of where they had been captured, far past where any German assault could be expected. Lupin did not think that they would remain here long. Already the American forces around them were buzzing with activity. So far they had been kept in the dark as to how successful the German push had been but Lupin could only suspect that it had come as quite the shock to the Allies. After the demonstrations he had given to a group of officers while Stephanie was off trying to get through to her handlers in London there was no one on the ground here who did not take this new turn of events seriously. Enough so that men armed with the American version of a panzerschreck circled the tent that they were seated in.
A rustling at the door drew Lupin and Stephanie's attention. In stepped the American who had taken over most of their questioning so far, a Major Sumner. As professional as the officer was Lupin was somewhat embarrassed to admit that he had a hard time following the man's drawling accent. Taking a seat facing them Sumner held up a glass cylinder a little over an inch in length. Suspended in the buffering solution within was a small piece of glowing red crystal. A piece of Catalyst.
“So this here is what made you bulletproof son?” The Major addressed his question to Lupin, who nodded in affirmation. Before he had a chance to speak Stephanie had already begun.
“I hope that none of your men have opened any of those vials. Or touched anything else that was packed away in those cases.” Finally looking up from her journal the woman was as icy as ever. What Lupin had thought to be a front put up to help hide her activities from the Nazis was quickly revealing itself to be her actual personality.
“Why is that?” Sumner asked her. It had been clear from the beginning that he did not think much of spies, a position which Stephanie's tone and attitude only helped to harden.
“The Catalyst degrades very quickly when exposed to regular air. Plus it only reacts positively to about one in five thousand humans it comes in contact with.”
“And the other four thousand nine hundred and ninety-nine?” Sumner did not seem to appreciate the game that Stephanie was playing.
“For them the Catalyst begins the process of activating them into an ubermensch but lacking whatever it is that is present in positive candidates the process inevitably fails. This causes severe seizures followed by the failure and eventual liquification of the organs and muscle mass,” Stephanie took a drag from her cigarette. “All told the process takes about a hour if someone does not step in to end the subject's misery.”
That had been the origin of Stephanie's nickname among the German panzermensch. When the activation process began to fail she had been quick to put a bullet through the unlucky candidate's skull. Some of the men she had written off as failed activations might have only been to cover her covert attempt to make sure that there were a few less panzermensch coming into the world. From the other rumours that Lupin had heard about her it would hardly be the worst thing that she had done during her time under Sankt's command.
For his part Sumner took a cautious glance at the little vial in between his fingers. Carefully he rose and walked over to Lupin, handing the vial to him.
“You just hold on to that for now,” He added before sticking his head out the tent flap, having a quick conversation with one of the men outside. When he returned Sumner looked far more sombre. “No one will be going anywhere near that stuff without supervision, don't you worry about it.
“That would be best. Though I hope that you didn't come here just to ask more questions about the science. Has a decision been made about my travel arrangements?” As ever Stephanie was not one to beat around the bush, at least when it came to her own goals. She was singularly focused on getting back to Britain.
Lupin was content to stay silent in the background for now, not protesting Stephanie's lack of concern over his own circumstances. From the discussions so far he was somewhere above being a prisoner without being precisely a free man at the moment. That was likely the best outcome for now, at least until he had a chance to prove that he was committed to seeing his own nation defeated.
“There has been. The British want you back as soon as possible but General Eisenhower would like for you to stay with our forces here on the continent for a while. If the threat of these ubermensch is as bad as you say then they want to use the materials you brought out with you to get testing started right away so we can get some into the field ourselves. As soon as we have a team trained then you two can head off to Britain.”
“That is unacceptable,” Much like a boulder rolling down a hill Stephanie looked ready to bowl through whatever objections the Major could raise. Somehow Lupin doubted that it would be as simple as she thought. “There is a very brief window before the Germans realize that they no longer have a monopoly on Catalyst creation. Every hour that is not spent getting out own facilities online will be far more costly than not having a few panzermensch to meet them directly for a few weeks longer.”
“The decision has been made ma'am so you'll just have to deal with it.” Sumner appeared ready to get up and walk away from this meeting, satisfied that he had gotten the upper hand in the end.
“Sir, if I might interrupt?” Lupin said as he finally felt that it was time to enter the conversation. Once Sumner's attention was on him he continued. “It won't be necessary to keep both of us here. I can stay and train your people while Stephanie continues on to Britain to get the production started.”
“Lupin, would you-” Was all that she was able to get out before he continued on over her.
“This is what makes the most sense and you know it. Not only have I received training on the testing and activation procedures but I've lived through them. I can even help them with the field training. It would be the best use of both of our time.” What the Americans would have to say about that was beyond Lupin's control. At least he had tried his best.
Both Sumner and Stephanie went very silent. In her case it was obviously to contain her simmering anger while for him it was more contemplative. Finally the Major got up and approached Lupin. “Lets take a walk.”
Lupin rose to follow, seeing that Stephanie had flipped open her journal again and was already losing herself in her notes without a glance at him. At the very least if this worked then he could have some space from her. Outside the Major waved for the men surrounding the tent to keep their positions, leading Lupin far enough from the tent and everyone else that they could talk privately.
“I didn't want to undercut you in front of the lady, figured she's gotten enough licks in on you for one night. But I need to know, you telling me the whole truth?” Sumner asked Lupin.
“I am,” There was no point in holding off on the rest of this any longer. “Though I have one request in exchange for my assistance.”
“I'll listen, just be careful now. The higher-ups are still pretty shaky with where exactly you stand at the moment.”
“My parents live in Bremen. I can get you the address of their house and my father's firm, hopefully they should still be in the same place. I know it will be difficult but I need someone to get word to them to get out of Germany, maybe even help them do it. Then get them as far away from this war as possible. I have a brother and a few other family members but its been so long that I'm not sure where they might be. The more we can get out before the Nazis figure out what I did, the better.” Lupin tried to keep as calm as he could but it was difficult. The last letter he had received had been months ago. With the communication black out at the camp getting that had been difficult enough and sending one out had been an impossibility. Whether his parents were still alive and residing in Bremen was unknown to him.
“That's all? Get your family out safe?” Sumner's face was difficult to read.
“Do that, even just try your best, and I will do everything in my power to make sure that you have a panzermensch force as soon as possible.”
“I think this is going to work out just fine. You just told me everything I need to know, for now at least. I'll have to get someone to sign off on it, you want to wait in the tent or should I have someone find you a bunk?” Sumner smiled and clapped Lupin on the back. It came as a great relief.
“A desk and a typewriter would be better. I can start typing up the testing protocols for distribution to your forces.”
“I don't know about in Germany but that kind of spirit will take you far America.” Sumner called over a few men and instructed them to find Lupin a secure place to type.
So Lupin found himself in another tent under the watchful eyes of a few well placed soldiers. Once the typewriter was in front of him he lost himself in the clicking of the keys. No more worrying about Stephanie, or Sankt, or anything else. At least not for a few hours. For the first time in a long while Lupin was able to truthfully say that he believed was doing the right thing.
It had been a few hours since Klaudia had begun her assault at the bridge leading into Strasbourg. The accumulated fatigue of not eating or resting properly on the journey here and the exertion of the attack was beginning to take its toll. Her plan was coming together perfectly. Out here in the countryside she had gone out of her way to draw in more American forces. Rather than destroying them outright she picked off a tank or artillery piece here and there, leaving ample signs behind her as to which way she had gone. Just as she had hoped they had taken the bait, drawing forces away from Strasbourg and towards herself. Now all that remained was to get an answer to her question: was it even possible for her to die?
Tossing a truck and its unfortunate passengers off of the road Klaudia began to take heed of the numbness in her legs. Whenever Sankt had tested her he had made sure that she was at peak condition. Even if he only considered her a test subject he did not care to lose a Battleship if he could help it. After feeling how weak she had been the night before Klaudia knew that if it were possible for harm to come to her, now would be the time. Letting off a few last distortions she stopped to inspect her work.
Unlike a panzermensch's halo, that would burn away material and twist some of what was left, Klaudia's left behind patches of a strange substance. It had some properties of both stone and metal simultaneously and seemed to form strange twisted shapes without rhyme or reason. Sankt had tried to figure out exactly how the process worked but had never come very far. Another one of the many mysteries surrounding what she had become. Whatever it was at the very least it formed an excellent trail of breadcrumbs to lead the Allies straight to her.
A little further down the road Klaudia noticed a small clearing. It was a picturesque little spot, some trees beside a frozen brook and a small shed. In the summertime she had no doubt that it was the kind of place that would draw lovers and families alike to enjoy the beauty of nature. She had always been more comfortable in the city but Leon had loved going on little outings. Not only had they shared many picnics but the seclusion of some spots had been perfect for other things. Looking around for a moment she reached up to her neck, for the necklace that was no longer there. Before leaving the camp Klaudia had left the chain and her ring in the drawer of her nightstand. Even if she met her end tonight she would rather that it not be destroyed.
A quick look in the shed revealed that is was abandoned save for a few tools piled in the corner. Taking a seat against one of the walls there was enough room for Klaudia to stretch out her legs at least. Leaning back against the wall she waited. Rather than let her memories consume her once more Klaudia lost herself in imagining all the things that she would never get to see. Holding on to her firstborn son, looking at little eyes that were so much like his father's. Calling Leon and their children inside for dinner from outside where they played in the grass. Standing at the top of the Eiffel Tower, Leon holding her in his arms as they looked out over Paris. The pain of these daydreams was enough to keep her awake.
It did not take long for Klaudia to hear footsteps approaching the shed. Closing her eyes she pretend to lay there asleep. The door creaked open a crack, followed by a suppressed curse and slow, quiet footsteps in retreat. For a while it was so quiet that Klaudia worried that they had abandoned the chase after all and that this would have all been for nothing. Then she heard it. There was a low rumbling of engines in the distance. More footsteps carefully approached the shed, this time followed by the sound of heavy packages being lain on the ground all around. Keeping track of the seconds as they passed Klaudia could hardly contain her anticipation.
Fire consumed her world.
From all sides at once Klaudia was buffeted by the force of explosions, the shack and her uniform pulverized. Neither pierced her skin so she struggled to her feet to present a better target. Over the initial roar she could hear something above, the whine of a shell descending. Not a direct hit but the force was enough that she was sent flying off to the side. Still she was unharmed.
Come on, I am standing right here. Just do it! Klaudia thought to herself as she stood upright again, taking a look at what surrounded her.
Machine guns opened fire alongside tanks in the distance. Bullets and tank shells whistled through the air. Her vision was slightly blurred but that seemed to be from the fatigue more than any of the blows. Not a single cut or bruise could be felt along her skin. As more artillery shells fell around her the trees shattered and the ground split open. No lovers would ever find solace in this little corner of the world again.
“Just fucking kill me already!” Klaudia cried out as she felt her anger rising. They had been able to kill the man she loved, could they not show her the same courtesy?
As Klaudia walked forward they obliged, or at least attempted to, as the night was split by a cacophony of explosions. The machine guns might as well have been the breeze against her skin for all they managed to do. Between the big guns the direct hits from the tanks at least could cause her to sway if she did not brace herself against them and the artillery could actually knock her over when they exploded in the air above her. None of them succeeded in harming her.
Stumbling forward Klaudia threw her arms open wide, standing there naked amidst the flames. There, in front of her was a tank. Lining herself up with it she could almost stare down the bore of its gun. Another crack and she had enough time to register the shell speeding towards her before her head snapped back, her body slammed down onto the ground.
Laying there Klaudia looked up at the sky. Between the smoke and the clouds she could still see a few stars twinkling far above, almost mocking her. She had her answer. There was only one thing left to do now.
Slowly she rose up a final time. No point in rushing towards this next part. Once she was back on her feet Klaudia summoned her halo. Forming as large a distortion as she could manage she spun around, forming a circle of destruction around herself. Again, further back this time. It was all that she could do to not keep going, tearing apart the world around her until the strain broke her. This was enough.
The guns were silent now, aside from one last artillery burst that fell a ways off. It was not silent for long though. A few screams began to fill the night. Klaudia tried to block them out.
Walking along she noted that waves of the strange material now rippled out from where she had stood. It made the going a bit rough, her feet constantly catching and breaking through the bits that stretched up out of the rest. Passing near to a still running tank, the barrel melted away and the tracks fused to the ground, Klaudia saw a slight movement from the top. The hatch shifted a bit, as if someone had been looking out from it. Steeling her stomach against what she might find inside Klaudia made her way over to the stuck vehicle. Sinking her hands into the steel she managed to tear a good sized hole open in the side.
Within frightened but still living faces looked out at her. Snapping her fingers Klaudia motioned for all the men to get out. Soon enough the crew stood facing her. A few of the men were praying, another with his eyes shut waiting for the blow to fall. The last simply stood staring up into her eyes. She decided that there had been enough killing for one night.
It was in that moment that Klaudia realized that she was standing completely naked, staring down at a group of strange men. Even through her pain and anger the absurdity of this moment struck her. Staring back at the one man who actually met her gaze, almost daring him to look at the rest of her, Klaudia decided to try and salvage some of her dignity at least.
“Your coats, give them to me.” When a blank stare met her demand Klaudia began to make the motion of removing a jacket. Eventually all of the men figured out what she wanted. When one made to remove his pants as well Klaudia motioned for him to stop. Not only did she not care to see any of them naked from the smell most of the men had soiled themselves in fear.
With a bit of effort Klaudia was able to fashion some basic covering for herself from the confiscated jackets. There was no way to just wear one, her arms would not have even fit through the sleeves now. Satisfied that she could return without being totally humiliated she began to make her way back to Strasbourg.
That the prospect of being humiliated or feeling immodest still concerned Klaudia actually comforted her in a way. It meant that some part of her still survived under all the pain and anger. Though compared to the latter it was a very small part of her.
It was slow going. Fatigue was now setting in worse than Klaudia had ever felt before, making it a struggle just to put one foot in front of the other. Still she forced herself to continue on. In time she made her way back to the outskirts of Strasbourg.
The streets around her were abandoned, people likely choosing to hunker down in their homes rather than trying to flee in the confusion of the darkness. In the distance Klaudia could hear the echos of gunfire and if she looked closely she could see what had to be the flashes of halo distortions flickering in and out of existence. Focusing on those she made her way towards them. As she came closer the gunfire became louder and more persistent. Coming around a corner she found herself face to face with a group of soldiers. Not Germans either.
After staring up at her in shock for a moment one man aimed his rifle and fired a shot at Klaudia. Without thinking she back handed the man, out of annoyance more than anything, sending a spray of blood and bone fragments over his companions as his skull disintegrated. While the other soldiers made a quick escape, none daring to fire upon her, Klaudia stood there trying to shake the blood and bits of flesh off her hand. At this point she was too exhausted to even feel sickened by it. Squatting down to use some snow to clean the rest of the mess off of her she realized that she was very close to the cathedral. Looking up, straining her vision to make out the flag above in the dark, she saw that it was still the Tricolor. They had held out for this long at least.
A few streets over Klaudia finally found some Germans, cautiously advancing along. Still barely able to care where exactly they were taking her she followed along as they lead her through back alleys and along secured boulevards until they were finally on the eastern outskirts of the city. Here German forces seemed to be firmly in control. In the end Klaudia found herself in the new German headquarters, men rushing around to bring her blankets to cover herself as well as rations and water. That was where Alois met her.
“Well you certainly held their attention.” Alois commented as he sat across from her. He looked tired, not nearly as tired as Klaudia felt though. Taking spoonfuls of the paste in she waited a while to respond.
“How is the attack going? I see there are still Allied soldiers in the city.”
“French soldiers. The rest have already started to pull back to where they have artillery cover but a decent sized French force is hunkered down around the cathedral. They seem determined to hold out until the last man,” Alois sighed. “The next panzermensch shift should be able to break them. Not a single panzermensch casualty so far and even the regular soldiers have had few losses. Whether it stays that way once you are gone is debatable.”
“Where am I going exactly?” Klaudia had no intention of leaving her seat any time soon, much less the front.
“The Leader wants all three Battleships moved to Berlin. While all this was going on the Allies launched another bombing raid on the capital. He has declared that not another bomb is to reach the city.” Alois was looking at her cautiously, waiting to see her reaction.
If it had just been an order to return to Berlin to sit and wait while the generals tried to figure out a plan Klaudia would have disregarded it. However the chance to stop another bomb from shattering another person's life was something that she could not pass up. Even if she felt as though she was about to fall over then and there.
“When do I leave?” She asked, forcing down the last of her meal.
“There is a car waiting in Kehl but if you want to rest first I am sure that a few hours would not make that great a difference...”
“I can rest on the way to Berlin.” Klaudia replied, forcing herself to her feet. Alois got up himself, running off to get a hold of her escort. It took about twenty minutes but soon enough Klaudia found herself crammed into the back of a car. While it was far more elegant looking than the trucks had been she found herself missing the space. Laying back the best she could she closed her eyes and tried to sleep.
In her exhaustion all the events of the last few days began to collide together in Klaudia's dreams, her mind unable to keep things separated into their proper order. Fantasies mingled with reality, horrors and triumphs masquerading alongside one another. At the centre of it all sat the diminutive figure of what she had once been, still clinging to the memories of a dead husband and an impossible life. Around that was the larger form of the seething weapon that wanted to destroy the world that had created it. For now in her dreams Klaudia let the weapon take over her, taking solace in its strength. Once she awakened she would enter the struggle again but at the moment submitting was more comforting.
The world had extracted a dire toll from her and she intended to do the same to it.
Chapter 6: A Day in the Lives
Arc 2: The Strange War
People who met Leah often believed that she was much older than she actually was. Not that she looked old, with her dark hair cut in a short and practical style above an unlined face. She just had a presence about her that gave the impression of far more seriousness and experience than most people would expect from a woman of twenty-five. Those who got to know her discovered the reason why soon enough.
Like most mornings in the Cohen household Leah was the first to rise, silently making her way downstairs to get breakfast started. No one ever asked her to, it was just something that she had always done. With the hectic schedules of her family members it was one of the few times of the day where she could reliably get everyone to sit down for a meal together. So Leah made certain that there was always something waiting to keep them there for a little while at least. These days it seemed more important than ever.
Her father was the next person down as always. David Cohen was a successful doctor who held a position at one of the more prestigious hospitals in London. With that came long hours of work that kept him largely absent from his children's lives. He would take a seat at the table, glad to have the tea that Leah made sure was just the right temperature. They would talk about work while she cooked and they waited for the others to join them. Leah had followed her father into medicine, though as a nurse rather than a doctor, working long hours herself. Sometimes they would speak of shared colleagues or the latest developments that one or the other had heard about. No matter the subject the conversation was always lively.
When Leah's mother made her way downstairs they would quiet down. Suzanne Cohen was a woman of many causes which kept her as occupied as her husband. She always made sure to compliment Leah on whatever it was that she had chosen to cook that morning before taking over the direction of the conversation. As usual she informed them about what was going on in the philanthropic community that day, to which Leah and David listened politely while infrequently adding a comment of their own. There were two issues that had occupied almost all of Suzanne's time recently. The first was seeing that families of both returning and fallen soldiers were provided for, both things that were close to Leah's own heart. Today the conversation was largely about the second of her mother's passions, the caring for and resettlement of the European Jews that had survived the horrors that had been visited upon them by the Nazis. That always made Leah unsettled.
To Leah it was unthinkable that anyone could just stand there while atrocities were committed against their neighbours, much less to join in. As a Jew it also gave her great concern over whether it could ever happen in England. The people she worked with everyday, the neighbours who smiled and waved at her as she passed, would they one day turn their backs on her? Leah hated to consider such things. She much preferred to believe that people wanted to do good, at least until she saw evidence proving otherwise. From the things that she could see on the newsreels and hear on the radio there was an abundance of evidence that something had gone terribly wrong in the hearts of the Germans.
So it went for a while as Leah served up toast and eggs, waiting and hoping that the fourth member of the family would appear on her own. Carefully she steered the conversation towards less dire topics for when Deborah joined them. Yet the clock kept on ticking on the wall and her younger sister was still nowhere to be seen. Walking over to the bottom of the stairs Leah called up, “Deborah, breakfast is getting cold!”
Turning to go back into the kitchen Leah saw her father placing his cup in the sink. He passed her apologetically. “I really must go get the car started dear. I'll need to drop your mother off before I head to the hospital. Have a good shift at work today.”
The look he gave Leah said far more than he ever could. As much as she loved her father Leah knew that they shared the same flaw. Successful as they were outside of the house neither of them was capable of discussing how they really felt with each other. So when she saw the pain in his eyes, mixed with the sorrow that he could not express it, Leah hugged him and let him go. No matter how much she wanted to make him stay and face this with her.
Her mother followed closely behind, stopping to hug Leah before she had a chance to say anything. Suzanne carried the same pain though she expressed it differently. “I know that things have been difficult for you and your sister ever since we heard that...that news. Deborah has taken it so hard and I don't know what we would do if you weren't there for her. I'm so proud of you.”
Leah returned her mother's hug and let her walk out the door. Inside she wanted to scream. All Leah needed was for someone to help her carry this burden and neither of her parents seemed capable. Family friends liked to joke that she had been a serious child that had grown into a serious woman but they did not realize the truth of it. She was more of a mother to her siblings than their own mother had ever been for any of them. Yet she could not bring herself to say a thing. This was just how it was and she would do what she had always been expected to do.
So Leah walked back into the kitchen and sat down at the table, around which there was five chairs in a house with four people, waiting for her sibling to come down for breakfast where it had once been siblings.
Four months now since the letter had come to tell them that Benjamin had died in France. That had been the event that had finally exposed the cracks in the Cohen family. Try as she might to understand everyone's pain, to rationalize her parent's evasiveness and her sister's anger, Leah had come to a conclusion that she could scarcely stomach. She had tried, she truly had, to hold everyone together. In the end she was only one person, one who had a life and ambitions of her own. As much as the realization hurt her Leah knew that the time to leave home had finally come. She had initially postponed any plans until the end of the war but with it seeming all but settled Leah had to get out if she was to retain her own sanity.
There was the familiar creaking of the stairs as Deborah finally came down. It was obvious that she had been waiting for their parents to depart. Watching her sister wordlessly come in and start to eat Leah wondered if there was even anything that she could say that would help.
People always said that they looked alike and it was true enough in a physical sense. Deborah tended to wear her hair much longer than Leah but otherwise they were very similar in height and appearance. Though looking at Deborah all that Leah could see was Benjamin. The two had been closer in age to each other than either was to Leah and had been constant companions. She had been their sombre minder while they shared their carefree laughter. Leah felt like she had lost a son rather than a little brother. For Deborah it was as if she had lost her only sibling. That created a gap between them that Leah was unsure that she was capable of crossing.
“Any progress in looking for work?” Was the best thing that Leah could come up with to ask. It still amazed her that Deborah was now as old as Leah herself had been at the start of the war. Up until the news about Benjamin had reached them Deborah had been eager to get out into the world, eager to make a difference like all of her family members. His death seemed to have taken away much of Deborah's own life.
As much as she wanted to press further Leah kept her silence. A cold dismissal was better than the fiery tirades that Deborah was all too capable of descending into. Finishing her plate she went to the sink, thinking on what else to say while washing up. To her surprise Deborah was the one to break the silence.
“Will you be home in time for supper?” There was a bit of hope in Deborah's question. Turning from the sink Leah could see her sister looking at her expectantly.
“I might be a little late depending on how the end of my shift goes,” Leah could see Deborah's expression fall and quickly tried to recover. “But there is everything that you'll need to make soup in the pantry. I'll pick up a fresh loaf of bread on the way home and we can have it together.”
That perked Deborah back up a bit. It was so hard to tell with her these days as her mood was prone to shifting quickly. At the very least she had been the one to approach this time. Maybe she was starting to come to terms with things. Leah began to rethink her earlier decision. How could she leave if Deborah still needed her?
“I can do that. Just,” Deborah took a moment to clear her throat. “Just promise me that you won't forget?”
Walking over to her sister Leah wrapped her arms around Deborah's shoulders. “Don't you worry a bit. I wouldn't miss it for the world.”
It might be tricky to keep that promise. Usually Leah was the one to take care of a lot of little things around the ward that all too often caused her to get home late. For her sister's sake she would have to entrust those duties to someone else for tonight.
Holding on to Deborah for a little while longer Leah planted a kiss on her sister's forehead just like she had always done years before. It seemed silly, Deborah was an adult now after all, but all that Leah could see before her was a little girl looking for reassurance. Leaving the last of the cleaning up for Deborah to finish Leah headed upstairs to change for work. Giving some of the housekeeping duties to her sister might be a good way to keep her occupied until she decided if she wanted to work or pursue further education. Hard as it was for Leah to let go of any of the things that she did in this case it seemed like it might be for the best.
Checking back in on Deborah before she left Leah found the girl dutifully scrubbing down the counters. It gave her some comfort as she went out and got onto her bicycle. Riding through the brisk winter air Leah felt a bit of hope for the first time in weeks. The war was nearly over and her family might just survive it intact. After everything that had happened that at least gave her something to hold onto. Maybe things would turn out all right after all.
“Katyusha provides!” The slight, dark haired woman proclaimed as she passed a handful of trinkets to the burly man in front of her. It was the usual type of stuff, a few rings and a good quality watch. All small valuable things that people might try to hide away or leave behind in their panic.
Maria did not know why everyone had taken to calling her Katyusha. Not matter how she thought about it she could not make the connection. She was a sniper, the whole point of which was being quiet and accurate. The rocket artillery was decidedly none of those things. Still it seemed to make people respect her so she was happy to play along.
The man in front of her was one who did not care about names in the slightest. All Stepan cared about were things he could actually touch, namely valuables and women. He was the pack leader of the mangier dogs around. Most men knew better than to try and touch a sniper even if she was a woman. Men felt vulnerable when they had to walk out to the latrines in the dark but when they towered over a woman whose rifle they could take away with little struggle, some might forget their fear. Better to make sure that none were tempted in the first place. Making herself invaluable to keeping Stepan's pockets full was one way that Maria made sure that those few men got the message. Even if they would risk taking a bullet from her not even the mangiest dog around would risk crossing him.
Stepan looked at what she had brought him before nodding and slipping it into one of his pockets. He would make sure that no one thought to bother her. From the muffled cries that were coming from the house behind him it sounded like his men had found some other sport.
Stupid Germans, Maria thought to herself. Did they not know to lay still and silent? She knew what this kind of man wanted, how they enjoyed the crying and screams. If you just lay there doing nothing they might hit you a few times to try and get a reaction but they would leave you alone in the end. Not that it was any of her business. Maria was a happy person and preferred to think about happy things. Thinking about those cries made her think about her past. A past which could not be changed and was so full of sadness that she tried to ignore it as best as she could.
Much the same could be said of the future for Maria. It was a frightening thing, one full of uncertainty. So she tried to ignore it the best that she could as well. That just left her the golden moments of the present.
All in all Maria had enjoyed the war so far, which was why unlike most she found little joy in the approaching end to the fighting. They were almost to Berlin now. Another month or so and the German menace would be no more. Until then Maria intended to enjoy things as much as she could.
Life was simpler out here. The enemy had bodies that you could put bullets into and take loot off of. Loot, that was the best part of it all. Everyone had something and everyone wanted something. Some men favoured valuables and others keepsakes. A whole web had developed along which men with one thing could trade with those who had another, all the while evading the watchful eyes of the commissars. Not that the watchful eyes were all that bad either so long as you knew which ones liked gifts. Maria was almost as skilled at finding things as she was at shooting people. So she carved out a little corner for herself in the web that kept her safe and happy. Much better than it had been back home. Try as you might it was hard to shoot hunger and its pockets were always empty.
That made Maria realize that it was time to check if the field kitchen might have finally decided to serve a midday meal. Sure enough as she approached a line had already formed. Spotting a few men she was friendly with Maria sidled up to them, flashing a toothy smile at a man behind them who spoke up in protest. That quieted him well enough. Why make an enemy of a mad sniper over saving a minute of standing in line? She could not figure out what Lev and Pyotr found so funny about the situation.
“Look at this, there is actually meat in this stew!” Lev held up his bowl after it had been filled. As usual it came with a piece of particularly firm bread, which may have actually been a soft rock, that was left to soak in the brown juices.
“I think it might be horse.” Was Pyotr's observation, eyeing the meat suspiciously. He ate it all the same. A suspicious man about almost everything.
“Definitely not horse. Cow for sure.” Maria added once she had been able to get a chunk of the tough meat into her mouth. It felt like leather but she was certain it was beef.
“How are you so sure?”
“Katyusha has eaten all kinds of meat! Cow, pig, chicken, horse, dog, kulak,” Maria jostled Pyotr in the ribs as she snapped her teeth at him. “All kinds!”
“You're one crazy bitch Katyusha, just be thankful you can shoot that rifle straight.” Pyotr took a step back to avoid being jabbed by Maria again. He was lucky she considered him a friend.
This was when Lev stepped in, separating the two of them for the moment. “Lets all settle down before before someone spills their stew.”
Much as she would have liked to get another shot in at Pyotr Maria quieted down. One of the few paths into the future that she had spent time considering went straight through Lev. He was a good man who worked hard, was polite and did not drink too much. Unlike most men he actually seemed to like Maria even though he rolled his eyes at some of her antics. Over the last month Maria had taken to dropping little hints to him, pieces of bait to see if he would bite. So far there had only been nibbles but it was promising. A smart man, Lev wanted to get himself educated after the war. As far as husbands went Maria had seen much worse options. At least he would give her smart children.
“Drink?” Lev asked as he pulled a bottle out from inside his coat, passing it around their little circle.
Maria got the first swig. The taste of apples accompanied the burning sensation down her throat. Schnapps. How the Germans could stand to drink that piss she did not know. Taking a second gulp she gave the bottle to Pyotr. He just looked glad to have something to wash the taste of the stew from his mouth.
How many more moments like this would they get to enjoy together? They were just behind the front. This village had not been well defended but the Germans were holding on to every inch they could. Soon enough the big push would come. There was a risk that any or all of them could die then but that was the same as it had been for every push so far. Death was not so frightening to Maria as life could be. So she decided to take a more direct approach.
“Lev, you on watch tonight?” Maria asked, wrapping her arm around his side.
“No, no I am not.” He replied. At first he looked a bit shocked but soon enough his arm wrapped around her shoulder. Pyotr let out a snort of laughter and left them, shaking his head as he went. Maria stuck her tongue out at his back. Some people just did not understand romance.
Even if she did not like to think about the future Maria was always looking for things that could make it a little less uncertain. Lev would make a fine foundation for the rest of her life. He might even like it too.
Patrick O'Connor considered himself a man of many talents. He was a big guy, tall, broad-shouldered and strong as an ox. Which came in handy for the frequent times that his big mouth decided to get carried away. Even his own mother would not have claimed that he was a smart man but his friends all agreed that he was clever. A bit too much so at times. Tonight though only one thing mattered. That he was lucky.
With a grin Patrick laid his cards down on the table. “Anyone beat a straight flush?”
The chorus of groans and swears that came as the other men at the table tossed their hands down was all the answer he needed. Complain as they might nobody took it too hard. Even though they all came from different backgrounds they were alike in the important ways. Every man here found himself thousands of miles from home, drinking cheap brandy and playing poker in some Frenchman's dining room, all because some jackass had decided to set Europe aflame again. What made it worse was that every time that it looked like things might finally be over the Germans found a way to drag it out a little longer. Even if Patrick was not the smartest man he considered himself smart enough to know when he was beat. For all their talk of superiority the Germans clearly were not.
“Anybody hear any more about what happened up north? Sounds like the Germans tried to break out again, dumb fuckers don't seem to learn.” Al asked no one in particular as he waited for the next hand to be dealt. Almost as big a man as Patrick the former farmer was never one to mince his words. Patrick respected that enough to finally lay off with the hayseed jokes. Most of the time.
“They didn't just try, they were able to grab Strasbourg,” That came from Steve, usually as good a source on information as any given that he worked in communications. Even indoors he was still wearing a jacket. The temperature difference from Texas to the French winter did not agree with him. “Bunch of weird shit getting reported too. Bulletproof soldiers, guys getting torn apart by light. Sounds like some people have gone loopy.”
“Can we cut out the gloom and doom talk? The whole point of this is to forget that we are in the middle of a war, right?” Patrick said as he took a look at his cards. Not as good as the last hand but he could work with it. He was a practical kind of guy and all this talk of strangeness just annoyed him.
“Well then you heard any more about your brother?” Al asked Patrick, a smile forming. If there was one thing that all the guys found funny it was the stories that Patrick could pass along from home about his brother's trials in the Pacific.
It did not bother Patrick at all, hell he found the stories funny as everyone else. His younger brother Eamonn was almost the opposite of him in every way. Not as tall, and lanky rather than solid to boot, it had been a surprise to everyone in the family when he had decided to join up at the same time as Patrick. While Patrick respected his brother's decision what he heard from his mother was too good to not pass along.
“What more can I say about him? Last letter I got just said that he was still recovering from getting that sunburn on his hiney. If only we were so lucky to have those problems!” Patrick raised his cup.
“I'll drink to that!” Steve added and soon enough the whole table had given a toast to Eamonn's red ass.
So long as he did not look too closely Patrick could almost have thought he was playing cards with some of the guys down at the docks back home. That was all he really wanted, to finally get back to living his life. He would never admit it to anyone but the whole war had been hell on his nerves. Even if he was a tough guy Patrick valued his life. Never knowing if tomorrow would be your unlucky day was something he would be glad to leave behind. Though from the sounds of things as the game went on it looked more and more like they would be deployed to help stop this new German push in its tracks. Right when he had started to relax.
“Fellas, as much as I would love to stay here and take more of your money I have to call it a night.” Patrick got up from his seat as he put his winnings into his pockets.
“Ah, you guys hear that? Guess we aren't as good of company as O'Connor's lady friend!” Al piped up, making mock kisses at Patrick.
“Knock it off, she's a classy lady.”
“Usually classy ladies don't ask for the money up front.”
“I don't know about back in Podunk but where I come from, nothing is free.” Patrick gave a mock bow as he left the room.
Outside it was a chilly night. Not as bad as it could get in upstate New York in the winter but still pretty cold. The family had managed to get out there for a little vacation a few times. Patrick had heard that the skiing in the Alps was supposed to be great, maybe he would get to enjoy that himself before heading back home. Making his way through the streets of the town it did not take him long to find the house he was looking for. At least this town was in better shape than some of the others that they had passed. Only a few buildings on the outskirts were burned down.
A quick knock on the door and Patrick found himself whisked inside, face to face with Amelie. She had done up her hair and gotten made up for this. Certainly she was as attractive a woman as Patrick had ever seen.
“Mademoiselle,” He said as he kissed her hand, pressing bills into it before letting go. More than the usual amount but that felt right. Reaching into his pocket he also brought out a few chocolate bars. “I figure your kids might like them.”
“Thank you Patrick,” Amelie said as she tucked away her payment. Her English was much better than that of most of the Frenchwomen he had met so far. All the same she played up her accent because she knew he liked it. “Though what has brought on this generosity?”
“We might be getting reassigned soon and I though you would like a little parting gift. Not to knock on your neighbours but they don't seem like a very friendly bunch.”
“They think that I am a whore. Let them. At least my children have full bellies. But that is not anything for you to worry about. If this is going to be our last meeting I will make sure that you remember it.” Amelie lead him by the hand into her bedroom.
True to her word Patrick quickly forgot about both her troubles and his own. The war could wait for tonight he was in good company.
Chapter 7: In Berlin
Despite Hagen's claim that Hitler wanted to see Sankt immediately he had now spent several days in Berlin without seeing the man. Instead he had been brought to a dingy little room full of Gestapo thugs with questions for him. So many questions. What had he discovered and when. Who knew what and for how long. When Sankt failed to answer as quickly or thoroughly as his captors wanted they were not shy about using their fists to encourage him. Still he had been able to keep back most of the important things. How long he would be able to maintain his silence was questionable. Between his captors and the sound of bombs exploding above the city Sankt had barely slept since he arrived. Finally he was making progress, though whether it was progress towards anywhere he wanted to be was yet to be seen.
It was still dark out when they had dragged Sankt from his cell and into a waiting car. Speeding through the streets of Berlin he could barely see what state the city was in. They parked in a lot adjacent to the Reich Chancellery and made their way underground. He knew these tunnels and who would be waiting in the bunker below, passed the well manned checkpoints and reinforced doors. So the group that awaited him when he was finally brought to his well lit and finely appointed destination was of little surprise. Sankt was sat down in a chair facing the rest, one man staring defiantly at a semi-circle of the most powerful men in Germany.
Rat-faced Goebbels shared a sofa with Speer alongside one wall. Opposite them was the idiotic Himmler next to an apathetic looking Guderian. That raised Sankt's hopes. If anyone could understand his motives it would be Guderian. The man's writing on armoured tactics had been the inspiration for most of Sankt's own work on ubermensch tactics. Guderian looked less than happy that he had been dragged in here to mingle with this riff-raff, which could only help Sankt's case. Bohrmann was standing to the right of the Leader like a child not straying too far from his mother. Facing Sankt directly, seated behind a heavy oak desk, was Hitler.
A lesser man might have been intimidated by the cold stares being directed at him but Sankt was no such man. With the exception of Guderian and perhaps Speer he regarded each of these men as a fool or an imbecile in their own way. They had already managed to piss away most of Germany's strength. Without his discovery they would likely end up looking down the barrel of a gun or at a hangman's noose. Keeping his silence for now Sankt waited for one of them to make the first move. He would remind them all in good time how much they owed him.
“I gave you everything that you asked for. Even when others were calling for your head for wasting those resources I allowed you to carry on. And this, this is how I am repaid?” Hitler began quietly but his voice quickly rose to a shout. It was clear that he would be wasting no time in getting to the point. Not that he had much time left to waste. “You have had these weapons for months, almost a year, and you chose to do nothing! All the while Germany, my Germany, was torn to shreds by our enemies!”
Once Sankt had been enthralled by Hitler's speeches, marvelling at their clarity of purpose. Hearing the Leader speak now he could hardly remember why he had been so impressed. Even though the war had obviously unsettled the man's nerves it was now clear that the foundation had been anything but firm. At their last encounter Sankt had considered that Hitler was becoming unhinged. Now he looked and sounded far worse. It confirmed to Sankt that he had made the correct decision. Germany needed strong leadership and anyone could see that Hitler was no longer capable of providing it, if he had ever been able to.
“The weapons needed to be tested and allowed to mature. Even now the Battleships are hardly halfway to their full potential. I needed to be sure that they were ready before allowing them onto the battlefield.” Sankt kept a level tone as he spoke. Let them see him as a reasonable man next to Hitler's ranting. Even the lapdogs among the group would turn vicious once they smelled blood coming from the Leader.
“You 'needed?' You needed to obey your orders! It was not your decision to make!” Hitler slammed his palm onto the table. Everyone's attention was on him. Time for Sankt to make his move.
“How many of our soldiers have you sacrificed on foolish ventures? Had I revealed the ubermensch before they were properly prepared then they would have been little more than another casualty of your ineptitude,” Watching Hitler's face turn even darker with rage Sankt moved on to addressing the other men. “Surely you can all see the wisdom in this? Would any of you want to be responsible for wasting the advantage that will win us the war?”
No one answered him. They could barely even look at him. It seemed that they were still more supportive of Hitler than Sankt would have thought. Finally Guderian broke the silence, much to Sankt's relief.
“You swore an oath of loyalty to the Leader. Keeping this discovery from him was a violation of that oath. Not only have you besmirched your own honour but that of the whole Wehrmacht.” Every word that came out of Guderian's mouth was like a blow. This was nothing like how he had envisioned it. How could Guderian of all people not see the truth of Sankt's words?
“Yes! Exactly!” Hitler barely waited for Guderian to finish speaking before beginning again. “So as of this moment you are stripped of your rank. There is no place for a traitor like yourself in my army!”
After all that he had endured getting here Guderian's words had chipped away almost all of Sankt's calm. What Hitler said finally shattered it. Sankt shot up out of his chair, the guards forcing him to the ground before he could take a step.
“Cowards! All of you! You would rather follow this fool into oblivion than risk reaching for true greatness. You are the true traitors here and history will remember it!” Sankt managed to say before he was struck across the face by one of the men holding him down.
“As a traitor,” Hitler acted as if nothing had been said in the interim. “You will be executed at the soonest opportunity. After you have told us every last thing that you held back all this time! Get him out of here!”
One flick of the Fuhrer's hand and Sankt found himself being dragged out of the room, off towards what was certain to be a grisly fate. Bloodied as he was Sankt continued to shout denouncements at the group, hardly deterred by the repeated blows of the guards. Once the door to the room was shut again the group inside watched Hitler closely to gauge his mood. There was a look of satisfaction on his face. No one spoke until the sound of Sankt's yelling faded away.
“Colonel Hagen has arrived with the confiscated materials from the project camp and is sorting through them as we speak. We will compare what they say to what we get from Sankt's interrogation to see if he is trying to hold anything back..” Guderian was the first one to speak, getting a nod of approval from a much calmer Hitler.
“Good. How long until the last Battleship arrives?”
“She should be here within the next few hours. Even without her presence Strasbourg is now completely under the control of our forces. So far the Allies have only retreated further and made no moves towards counterattacking. There were no ubermensch casualties and even among the regular troops casualties were surprisingly low.” All good news so far as Guderian was concerned. It seemed to undercut Sankt's claims that the ubermensch had not been ready to see use in the field.
“I want to inspect them later today. Have a lunch prepared,” Hitler ordered. As usual it was unclear exactly who was expected to see it happen. “General, you may return to your duties for now.”
Leaving the rest of the group behind Guderian could not help but feel that this did not bode well for the future. Politics had never been his strength but he knew when he was being cut out of the loop. Every man in that room only cared for securing as much power as he could get and if even half of what was said about these ubermensch was true they might be the greatest source of power in existence. Sankt had believed that he was a good liar but in the end he had been transparent. Whoever ended up with the loyalty of the ubermensch, especially the Battleships, would have the world handed to them on a plate. Any fool could see that Sankt must have thought that he could seize control somehow. For his part Guderian thought about the estate he had been given, now behind Soviet lines in Poland. Soon enough it would be German soil once more and there was the opportunity to greatly expand it. He just needed to take care not to end up like the soon to be departed Sankt. Too much ambition was usually deadly.
For now Guderian was content to sit and see how things played out. The special payments were still making their way into his accounts so he had little to complain about there. Sankt's adjutant had been brought in to give a presentation on just what could be expected from the project. He had only met the tall, steely-eyed woman once so far and truth be told she did intimidate him. Her loyalty was still uncertain but from what Hagen had been able to discern she was cooperative and truthful. More than could be said of her former employer. It was hard to see a path to victory with the way things were but Guderian was willing to give a listen. Maybe Sankt really had discovered a miracle.
For the first time in days Klaudia allowed herself to relax. A proper bath in an actual bathtub with steaming hot water and good soap had helped immensely. The first tub full had turned black just cleaning off her legs and feet, the second had done the same for the rest of her. Now she was content to just soak for a little while. If only the tub was large enough that she could actually stretch out and fully enjoy it. Given what she had seen on her way to Berlin Klaudia was not inclined to complain about anything. She had far more than most did these days.
The parts of the country that she had passed through looked much like the inside of her head felt. Everything was in disarray and hope was in short supply. Towns seemed to barely be in working order with every train station flooded with people searching for someplace safer to ride out the rest of the war. Others moved along the roads, rarely in vehicles and most often on foot. Apparently people had begun to flee from the east of Germany to the west so that they could surrender to the Americans rather than the Soviets when defeat inevitably came. Remembering what Werner had told her about the war in the east Klaudia considered that to be a wise decision. One that would likely be unnecessary now but a wise decision all the same.
As much as she would have loved to lay there for the rest of the day Klaudia reluctantly pulled herself out of the tub. Her presence was demanded elsewhere. Drying off her upper body she let her feet rest in the water for a bit longer while turning her attention to her hair. It had been neglected for too long during all of her running around. Getting all of the tangles out had only required the destruction of a few combs. Putting it back into a neat braid Klaudia took a look at herself in the mirror. A touch of makeup and she might actually pass for a normal person again. So long as one ignored her height.
A new uniform had been prepared for her. It was identical to the ones that she had worn in the camp save that the canvas had been hastily dyed black. Klaudia could smell it from across the room and hoped that it had dried properly. Having finally gotten clean again she was in no hurry to get dye smudges all over her skin. Thankfully it had and soon enough Klaudia was putting the last finishing touches on her appearance. Someone had left a pair of earrings for her but when she tried to put them on she discovered that the holes for her piercings had begun to grow over. The steel pin of the earring was no match for the toughness of her skin or the strength of her fingers and Klaudia ended up flattening the whole thing. Tossing it down onto the counter Klaudia just shook her head. So much for the illusion of normalcy.
Outside her minders were eagerly waiting for her to emerge. They had had been as amazed as everyone else at her appearance at first but now they impatiently rushed her along. However strong Klaudia might be she was still only one soldier, one that was late for an audience with the Leader himself. She was lead outside to the car that would take her to the Chancellery. Crammed into the back seat there was little to do but look at what had become of Germany's capital.
She had been to Berlin a few times before and Klaudia had foolishly believed that the capital might have been spared some of the chaos that was running rampant through the rest of the country. Looking out the window dashed that hope as the damage the city had endured was plain to see. Nowhere seemed to have been safe from the bombings. Even here in the heart of the city there was still rubble from collapsed buildings waiting to be cleared away. Seeing this senseless destruction helped to reignite Klaudia's rage. Every weapon needed ammunition and this would be hers.
Arriving at the Chancellery building Klaudia felt apprehension for the first time in months. Like every other woman her age she had been a member of the League of German Girls and she had even volunteered to continue on as part of the Faith and Beauty Society. Never one to make friends easily those rallies and retreats had been a comfort to her. Her parents had disapproved of course but they had done that for almost everything in Klaudia's life. Once she had been at one of the Leader's speeches and she remembered the feeling of that day well. A whole crowd thousands strong all focused on one man, completely in harmony with him and one another. Today he would be right in front of her. If only Leon could have been here to share the experience. He would have been ecstatic.
A few people were waiting inside the entrance hall, two of which Klaudia recognized right away. They were the only two people in the world like her after all. Werner, black hair matching his uniform, stood apart from the others with his arms crossed. Markus was bent over listening intently to a pinch-faced older woman in a dated dress. Oddly enough this was one of the few times that the young blonde man did not have an idiotic grin on his face. His mouth even hung open a bit until the older woman reached over and forced it shut with her fingertip. Very strange. As soon as Werner noticed Klaudia he walked over, looking glad to see her.
“I see that you're still standing. Thank god for that.” Werner said quietly. The way he jerked his head slightly towards Markus explained why he was so happy to see her. Had their situations been reversed Klaudia would not have wanted to be stuck relying on the boy.
“Well, we can't die so I might as well live.” Klaudia responded. Macabre as it might be it was the truth. Her little excursion outside of Strasbourg had proved that.
Reaching into his jacket Werner pulled his hand out and held it towards Klaudia. In his palm was her wedding ring, still attached to its chain. “I thought that you would want this when you returned. Just remember that there are things worth living for.”
“Thank you Werner. For everything,” Klaudia took the necklace and put it back on. It was not a subject that she wanted to dwell on so she began to look around. “I thought that I was running late but it looks like we are just standing around anyways.”
“I have never been to a single official function that started on time. It seems that the higher up you go the less people are able to check their watches.” Werner's comment carried further than he had intended, as the woman beside Markus glared over at them and sniffed loudly. As a nervous looking Markus tried to usher his companion further away Klaudia was able to make out what the woman was saying to him.
“This is to be your support? Some halfwit common soldier and an up jumped hussy? Just what has our nation descended to if this is all that we have left to defend it.”
The sheer vitriol in the stranger's voice was enough to take Klaudia aback. She was not even angered by the comments as she watched Markus pleadingly move the woman towards the far side of the room. Looking at Werner she did not even have to vocalize the question in her mind. Just who was that woman?
“Now you too have had the pleasure of meeting Mrs Wilhemina Jung, the answer to every question that I have ever had about Markus. Don't let her get under your skin, she has already made a number of colourful comments about how most everything is wrong in the world.” Werner looked upwards as if beseeching the heavens for patience.
Having lived in close quarters to Markus at the camp Klaudia could see the difference in his behaviour. Generally he was either arrogant or servile depending on if he though whoever he was addressing outranked him. In neither case was he actually loyal, with perhaps the exception of the Leader. Watching him with his mother was the first time that Klaudia could say that she had ever seen him show genuine deference to someone. If anything he seemed frightened around his mother. That certainly would explain why he treated others with such cruelty when he thought he could get away with it.
“They apparently wanted to bring all of our families in for this but mine all passed years ago and they couldn't find yours.” Werner watched for Klaudia's reaction.
It was for the best that they had been unable to drag her father and mother here, or even her sisters. Not only did Klaudia think that she would have been unable having to handle a sudden reunion with them this would have been the worst place in the world to bring her father. In his opinion Hitler and the Nazis were little more than a bunch of pagans running around destroying Christian decency in Germany. His frequent and vocal outbursts had caused enough trouble in Dresden with the authorities and he would have been too proud to hold his tongue here.
Before they could discuss things further the door at the end of the room opened. Through it came the distinct figure of Joseph Goebbels. Werner motioned for Klaudia to follow him as he went to line up alongside Markus. Reaching them Goebbels stood there without speaking, looking over each of them in turn. Finally he motioned for Klaudia to switch places so that she was standing directly beside Markus before inspecting them once more.
“Good Aryan features on the two of you, I can work with that. Not a slight against yourself,” Goebbels said in a placating manner towards Werner. “But there are certain appearances that we need to keep up. We'll need to have you all fitted for proper uniforms. Her hair needs to be lighter to match his. Won't matter much for the posters but it will on film. This practically writes itself. 'The emergence of superior beings from the superior race.'”
Having her appearance picked apart was a distinctly unpleasant experience. Klaudia noticed that Goebbels lingered in front of her for longer than the others before moving on to Markus's mother.
“Mrs Jung, I must say that it is a delight to have you. The ride into Berlin was pleasant I hope?”
“It was, Mr Goebbels.” The woman actually smiled as Goebbels kissed her hand. This must have been the type of treatment that she expected.
“I had wanted to bring some of all of your loved ones to Berlin to share in this momentous occasion but Mrs Jung was the only one to be found in time. That and I understand that some of you have lost people recently. You have my condolences.” Goebbels nodded towards Klaudia before his smile reappeared and he lead them all back through the door that he had come through.
Her first encounter with someone who really mattered and Klaudia was already terribly uncomfortable. Hopefully meeting the Leader would be enough to dispel the bad taste that Goebbels had left in her mouth. Dealing with Sankt had been tiring enough, she did not need others trying her patience. Finally Goebbels led them to a well guarded set of double doors. The soldiers opened them and the Battleships ducked through into the room beyond.
There was the Leader standing beside a large table talking with another man. From what Klaudia could see the entirety of the tabletop was taken up by a set of model buildings, long columned halls and great soaring domes. Noticing them the Leader approached smiling broadly.
“Look at you!” The joy in Hitler's voice was like that of a child receiving a new toy. “Siegmund, Siegfried, Sieglinde! My Battleships, my vengeance!”
Inside Klaudia let out a groan. Of all the things that he could have kept from Sankt the Leader had chosen to keep those ridiculous names. During operations Werner was to be called Siegmund, Markus Siegfried and herself Sieglinde. That she shared a name with a woman who had poisoned her own husband made Klaudia suspect that it had been a sly insult on Sankt's part.
Beside her Werner and Markus raised their arms in salute, with Klaudia joining them after a moment. She would have to get Werner to give her a quick overview of military protocol, seeing as Sankt had never seen fit to. Much like Goebbels had the Leader walked back and forth in front of them, studying their faces. His gaze did not linger on any of them for too long. Finally he waved for them to take their places on the couches arranged around the room.
“You three,” Hitler began breathlessly as servants brought trays into the room. “Are to be the head of the spear that will once and for all destroy the Judeo-Bolshevik menace and their puppets. The Soviets, the British, the Americans. With your power we will win this war and ensure the thousand year Reich! No, the eternal Reich!”
Trays were placed beside them all, bearing sandwiches and coffee for Hitler and the other humans and bowls of glucose paste for the Battleships. At first Klaudia let hers sit, waiting for Hitler to pause so that they could begin the lunch. Minutes soon passed and it became all too apparent that he had no intention of stopping any time soon. Following the lead of Goebbels, who had begun to take polite bites from his sandwich, Klaudia quietly picked up her bowl and took the occasional spoonful while listening to the Leader continue.
“Their armies will be wiped away like dust in the wind! Let Stalin press forward thinking that we are weak, that will be his undoing!”
Carefully looking to her sides when she could Klaudia glanced at the expressions of her fellow Battleships. Markus was hardly a surprise. He had not even touched his bowl so far as he was too busy leaning forward, eagerly hanging on the Leader's every word. The smile that was spreading across the boy's face was an unpleasant one that betrayed the little sadists inner thoughts. Beside him his mother nodded along, grim satisfaction painted across her face. Werner was completely the opposite. He did not show even the slightest hint of emotion. Neither pleased or displeased he sat there perfectly still with his hands resting in his lap. Another one of the man's little mysteries.
The longer that Hitler spoke the more that Klaudia found herself disappointed. His speech was hardly coherent as he frequently switched topics. As he went on she also could see that his hands, which he had kept carefully folded at the beginning, were trembling now. Almost as if he could not help it. All in all it was a far cry from the man she remembered watching years before, much less the image she had built up in her head. He still had fire in his voice but it seemed like the war had taken the same toll on him as it had on all of them. For some reason Klaudia had assumed that he would have been beyond that, reigning over them untouchable. Seeing Hitler before her all she could think of was how small he looked. Like a normal man.
Whenever Hitler stopped to take a breath Klaudia could hear the faint ticking of the clock on the mantelpiece. For all that the Leader spoke about taking vengeance there was apparently no need to hurry in his mind as he continued on and on. Unable to keep track of just what he was saying Klaudia found her thoughts drifting to Leon.
Would he have been disappointed upon meeting the Leader? No matter what he thought he would have sat attentively at least. Klaudia knew that she should as well. She was a weapon now. It hardly mattered what she thought about her leaders, she just needed to follow their orders. Still as time dragged on she found it harder to pay attention as daydreams took over her mind. Leon sitting beside her, his hand reassuringly placed on her thigh. Her own hand ventured to the cushion of the couch beside her, where his leg should have been. Thinking about her dead husband Klaudia was content to sit there and nod along. Certainly they would put her to use soon enough.
Chapter 8: Necessary Discussions
Out of everything that reminded Stephanie that she had finally come home it was the smell drifting in through the window that truly did it. Not the sights or the sounds of London but the particular smell of the imperial metropolis. After years of breathing in the chemical fumes of the labs and the far worse stench of the research camps the smoke of London might as well have been the freshest spring air. Shaking her head Stephanie tried to focus her thoughts. Here she was, about to have meeting that would be the culmination of all her efforts, and her mind was wandering off onto the smell of London. The events of the last few days were a greater strain on her than she cared to admit.
Her personal motto could be summed up in a single word and that word was control. Discipline had been what had gotten Stephanie this far in life. It had allowed her to achieve her success in chemistry and then in espionage. Freya Bergen had been less of a persona that she had adopted and more of an expression of her baser instincts, allowed out on a very tight leash. Getting into a position of trust in Sankt's program had required intelligence, guile and a willingness to completely abandon conventional morality. No one need ever know that she had enjoyed it, some of the time. The lack of constraint from above, the ability to do whatever was needed for the research. Still she had gone too far at times as the nightmares that visited her every few nights could attest. So long as Britain achieved victory it would all be worth it.
This was no time to let her guard down. There could be no more self-indulgent outbursts like the ones she had levelled at Lupin and the Americans. Too much was at stake.
“Ma'am, they're ready for you now.” A well-groomed secretary said as he approached. With a tight grip on the pouch of documents that she had brought along Stephanie followed after him into the room next door.
Waiting inside the office were two men, both of whom Stephanie was familiar with even though she had never met them before. She doubted that there was anyone in the world who would not recognize the stout figure of Winston Churchill. The other man would be a mystery to most. Stewart Menzies was in charge of Britain's military intelligence and was theoretically who Stephanie ultimately reported to. From the hasty debriefing she had endured before this meeting she gathered that he was more than a little upset with her actions in the field. That he had a low opinion of special operatives like herself to begin with hardly helped matters.
“Our returning hero!” At least Churchill was smiling as he rose from his desk to greet her. So long as she could keep him happy then Menzies could think of her whatever he wanted.
“Mr Prime Minister, General.” Stephanie bowed her head to each in turn as she approached.
“Winston will do just fine,” Churchill said as he moved over to the sideboard. “Might I interest you in anything? Brandy, or would you rather I had some schnapps brought up?”
“Brandy sounds delightful right now,” It really did. Pulling out her cigarette case she eyed Churchill. “May I?”
As soon as he nodded in affirmation she lit a cigarette, shortly after accepting the glass of brandy that he passed over to her. Taking a good swallow Stephanie thanked God for proper liquor. She had only been able to barter a quarter bottle of whisky off of the Americans for the flight over. There had been a distinct lack of readily drinkable alcohol at the camp. While the industrial stuff could always be made safe the taste was never quite right. Soon enough Churchill was puffing away on a cigar himself as Menzies sipped at his brandy. The latter had a large leather portfolio propped open on his lap that Stephanie could not see inside. No doubt it was all the information that she had passed on so far.
“Stewart just finished telling me the latest that the Americans sent over about that German fellow that you brought out, Lupin. Seems that they have taken quite a liking to him. I would have liked to have seen his abilities in person but he was the price we had to pay to get you back here,” Churchill took a long sip from his glass, regarding it as he swirled the brandy around his mouth. Returning his gaze to Stephanie she felt that she was getting the same appraisal. “We got off easy there, I think. From what I understand what is inside of your head is priceless. Since time is of the essence why don't you tell us just what we are up against.”
Stephanie had spent a considerable amount of time thinking about how to break the news to them. In the end she had decided that being blunt would be for the best.
“Some time ago I was assigned to infiltrate German military research. Taking on the guise of a Nazi sympathizer I was able to get an entry level position with-”
“You can skip to after you stopped reporting in.” Menzies interrupted. From the look of him it was almost as if he had taken this personally.
“Very well. At some point before the war General Sankt found a partially translated text that alluded to the improvement of humans into something greater. This Codex is the basis of everything that his program created. I've never seen anything other than partial copies of particular sections and neither has anyone outside of Sankt's inner circle for that matter. Most of the early text lays out the mathematical and scientific notation required for understanding the rest. Then it goes onto to how to identify candidates, which we only have a rudimentary understanding of, followed by how to prepare various types of catalyst. Which, so far, only one kind has ever been successfully completed. In short we are working from a source that I have never seen to create something that we have no idea as to how or why it works. Just that it does.”
“So it is to be the blind leading the blind then?” Churchill quipped.
“While all of this Codex and Catalyst business is fascinating I was rather hopeful that you could explain why they were allowed to get this far? Seeing as you managed to get quite deep into the project it seems that a great many lives could have been saved had action been taken sooner.” That was Menzies again, questions sharp as a knife. Stephanie had known that this would come up and still did not have a great answer for them.
“I passed along all that I could in the early days but at that point it was all conjecture. I could see that there was something there but it was nothing concrete,” That was the truth. Even with what little information she had been given at the beginning the sheer strangeness of what they were working with was readily apparent. The more Stephanie had learned about the Catalyst the less it had made sense. “Sankt only had success after the project had been greatly downsized. By that point he was so paranoid about someone else taking over that he restricted all communications with the outside world.”
“Reasonable enough but that doesn't answer the meat of his question my dear. Why did Sankt not meet a little 'accident' after his success was apparent?” Churchill was leaning forward now, his gaze fixed on her.
“Without access to the Codex itself even killing him would not have been enough to put the program to rest. In fact a suspicious death might have drawn more attention to what he was doing. There was no way that I could ensure that everyone with knowledge of the research was neutralized so I did the next best thing, sabotage production as best as I could while securing information and Catalyst for our own use.” It would have to do. For a painfully silent few moments she sat there as they looked on.
“Well, not like we can change the past. You did the best that you could given the circumstances and I am certain that you will continue to do so,” Churchill leaned back, tapping his hand against the arm of his chair. His signet ring made a distinct clack every time it hit the wood. “You left enough of this Catalyst with the Americans to make fifty of these panzermensch and brought us enough for roughly twenty. Versus some eighty German tanky fellows and these three Battleships. How long before we can match their numbers?”
“The Germans have considerable stores of Catalyst to draw upon that I could not access. I would expect around four hundred at the low end and perhaps twice that for the high end. Production of more Catalyst and activation of more panzermensch will both be hindered by the utter mess that Germany is in right now. So long as we can take advantage of this early period where they don't know that we can make it ourselves, then we should be able to start outproducing them in around six months,” Now was the time to break the worst news. “The real problem is not the panzermensch. Its the Battleships.”
“If the Germans found three with such a small pool of candidates we should outnumber them rather quickly.” Even as Menzies spoke Stephanie could see that he already suspected what she was about to say.
“Unfortunately Sankt had the devil's own luck. I have seen the segment of the Codex that lays out how many ubermensch candidates one should expect to find. Panzermensch occur at a rate of one in five thousand people and battleships at roughly the same rate among panzermensch candidates,” Stephanie could see them working out the math in their minds. One man in twenty-five million, one hundred or so in the entire population of the world and far fewer potentially useful to them. “So while it is unlikely that the Germans will find another Battleship, it will certainly be a while until we find one of our own. And much, much longer before they are ready to face them.”
“Why is that now?”
“There is a maturation period before any ubermensch reaches their full potential. For panzermensch it is about a month, for Battleships considerably longer. At the moment from the information we have to go on it looks like the German Battleships are around the halfway point and they were activated three to four months ago.”
“What are our chances of taking one of them down without a Battleship of our own?” Churchill asked, his words coming out slowly.
“So far as conventional weapons go almost everything is useless. Naval cannons might be able to slow them down but I doubt they would leave a lasting injury. Nerve agents and poison gas might have some effect but are too slow acting. Theoretically they could be overwhelmed by a sufficient number of panzermensch utilizing their halo abilities but there is no way to know just how many would be necessary.”
“So we are facing an enemy that we can't kill at the moment and that will only get stronger as time goes by. You've certainly brightened my day,” Churchill downed what little was left in his glass. “No sense in us dawdling along here. Your request to oversee the set up of our own ubermensch program is granted. Given what you've told us so far today we will play this as close to the chest as we can. We'll have to find some better names for when we finally go public. Can't be going around spouting a bunch of German gibberish.”
“Thank you Winston. General Menzies.” Stephanie rose and was walked over to the door by Churchill.
“The man outside knows where you'll be going. We will be in touch of course,” Churchill patted Stephanie on the shoulder as she went out the door. Closing it he waited a good minute or so for them to be far down the hallway before heading back to his desk. “She was much more pleasant than your files said.”
“From what we've dug up about her past she is good at passing for normal. There are holes in what she's admitted to doing in her time undercover. Big, bloody holes.” Menzies replied. Even if he did not want to say it outright Churchill knew what he was alluding to.
“Keep a close eye on her for now. She's all that we've got after all. I'd best get to work on Mr Roosevelt, he'll want to bring Stalin into this straight away. With any luck I can convince him that this should information stay in the civilized world.” Churchill brought the brandy bottle over to the desk this time, filling up their glasses once more.
“I've just the man in mind. At the very least we'll know the moment that the Germans figure out that they've been had. Hopefully by that point we'll have a big enough shield to weather the storm.”
Churchill only raised his glass to that, with Menzies meeting him in a toast. Both men drained their cups. It was an uncertain world that they faced once more, but if they had survived this long then certainly Britain could face whatever else was in store for it.
“This chart shows our progress in translating the Catalyst variants. Column A contains variants where the process have not been fully translated. Column B is for problems with the chemistry, such as the necessary elements and chemicals being theoretically possible but having never been observed or synthesized. Column C contains the sections where both of those are true and Column D is for the variants that we should have the capacity to create.”
The blank looks from the officers gathered for this presentation showed Anita that they were about as interested in the science behind the ubermensch as she was. Most were far more interested in the battle capabilities of the panzermensch and Battleships than anything else. There was a group of logistics officers towards the back with their heads together, no doubt still going over how to feed any large number of enhanced soldiers. Barely enough glucose paste could be made for the existing forces with the current facilities. All in all these presentations felt like they had been a waste of time for everyone involved.
After all Anita could hardly tell them the full truth. There were things that the High Command was determined to keep quiet such as the low chance of finding another Battleship. Then there were things that she was not supposed to know, such as that of the potential variants that they had the knowledge to create one was already successful. Hopefully Werner had managed to talk with Luther. Once the existence of the face-changing geltmensch was revealed it would be one less thing that she had to keep silent about.
“This brings me to the current work of our researchers. Code name 'Lightning' holds the potential to alleviate out anti-aircraft and anti-ship needs. Currently we believe that it will take another month or so to begin trials of that Catalyst preparation and that the first Lightning units should be completed in around a month after that,” If only they would be so lucky. Considering how well the panzermensch trials had gone they might not see production for far longer than that. “That brings us to the end of this presentation.”
There was a brief round of applause before the officers began to talk among themselves. Anita had done some teaching before the war and considered this to at least have not been a total failure on her part. Even if the ubermensch themselves were endlessly fascinating it took a certain kind of person to find this arcane science interesting. The men began to get up to mill around, handing in the sensitive notes they had been given to look through. Sorting through her own papers Anita could see one man approaching her. Strange, she did not remember seeing him enter the room.
“Everything will be dealt with by tonight.” The man whispered to her in a familiar voice. Luther, wearing another man's face.
“Thank you, it was my pleasure to provide you with this information. Should you have any questions do let me know.” Anita did her best to react as though he had just paid her a compliment. Without any further acknowledgement Luther turned and lost himself in the men around the tables. That was one loose thread trimmed then. If only there were not dozens more that threatened to strangle her if she made a wrong move.
“Well at least someone appreciated all the work that you put into this.” Hagen said as he came over to stand beside her. It would have been more comforting to Anita had she not known that he had been comparing everything to his own notes as a test of her loyalty. Not that she had anything to worry about there. Even if she could kill every man in this room and try to make a run for it there was no way out now. Anita had every intention of living for as long as she could and if that meant sucking up to the military and the party, so be it.
“All the work that we put into this. Your assistance was invaluable.” More so that he had allowed her access to things that Sankt had kept secret. A few of which had made Anita's feelings towards the former general turn from ambivalent to malevolent.
Having been allowed access to the source Codex for the first time Anita could not help but notice that there had been a glaring omission on every copy that Sankt had made. At the beginning of every page was the same phrase, one that translated roughly to 'know all or know none.' As desperate as the war had made things seeing that had filled Anita with a sense of dread. They might have already stumbled headlong into a trap and completely missed it. Too late to go back now, all that was left was to keep charging forward blindly.
“How much headway have you made on the tactical side of things?” Anita asked to clear her mind.
Hagen took a moment to reply, choosing his words carefully. “There is a good reason that Sankt never held a field command. I will leave it at that for now.”
“If you want to know which plans he thought were truly bad ideas just find the ones that he marked 'Use Klaudia.'” While that got a chuckle from Hagen he did not realize just how low of an opinion Sankt had of Klaudia, even before everything had spiralled out of control. Not that Anita had much love to spare for the overly dour Battleship. So far as she was concerned neither of the pair was long for this world and all the better for everyone else.
That was when Guderian entered the room. His face could have reasonably passed for a thundercloud as he made his way through the group of saluting men. It was Anita that he addressed once he reached the front of the room.
“I hope you are ready to give this speech again. Gather all your materials. You are heading over to the SS headquarters.”
“The SS?” Anita asked. This was certainly not something that she had expected. From her own observations and what little Sankt had told her the Army and the SS tended to zealously guard their respective domains from one another.
“The Leader has decided that as Reichsfuhrer Himmler is in command of Army Group Vistula he will take command of the majority of the ubermensch forces until the Soviets have been pushed back a safe distance. So you will be dealing with him for the time being.” Guderian's tone made it clear that he was not pleased with this decision.
Anita did not give further comment but began to pack up her notes as quickly as she could. Getting caught up in a power struggle between the army and the SS was not something that she wanted. Beside her Hagen was muttering some truly creative curses about Himmler under his breath. He would have to accompany her of course, to provide information that Anita was not qualified to give. Things were just shaping up wonderfully, Anita thought to herself. What else could the world throw at her?
Observing his surroundings while the guards looked over his documents Luther resolved to bath thoroughly when this was done. Just standing in this building made him feel terribly unclean. Not that his outer face showed it. Maintaining a different expression from his own had been tricky to learn at first but now felt almost natural. Same with the altogether blank identity documents that the guard was pouring over. To any external observer they looked every bit as real and complete as the should. It would have come as a complete shock to everyone in the room that his accomplice was not actually a square jawed soldier but a rather attractive young woman.
Luther had been cautious about bringing his fellows into this but in the end it could not be helped. Else was beside him acting as a bodyguard while Herman waited out with the car. Sankt had christened the three of them as geltmensch. He had chosen to only directly involve Luther in his schemes but the others were not stupid. It did not take much to figure out why they were being held back while everything went to hell around them. Unlike the regular ubermensch it was next to impossible to keep the geltmensch contained. They had been much better informed about Germany's situation than the rest of Sankt's experiments.
Giving the man a polite nod after he received his papers back Luther marvelled at just how lucky he was to have been chosen for this. At first he had been jealous of the superior strength and durability of the panzermensch. He had since discovered that his powers were even more useful than those of Werner and the other Battleships, if not so flashy. There was a certain invincibility to being able to become anyone after all. So long as he kept his halo active Luther could make people see and hear almost anything that he wanted to. Faked faces, faked documents, faked phone conversations. So many opportunities all without anyone being able to guess what was going on in the slightest. He would not have traded this for all of Werner's vaunted strength.
Walking down the poorly lit hallway Luther approached one of the cell doors. He had been able to convince the guards to let him in here unsupervised. Amazing what borrowing the right rank let one get away with. Even through the solid door the smell coming from the room was terrible. Else took up a position beside the door to make sure that he would not be disturbed.
Inside was Sankt, huddled up in one of the corners. His shirt was torn and bloodied, his face not much better. From what Luther could see Sankt was chained to the corner. Firmly closing the door behind him Luther watched Sankt's head jerk up in alarm. Putting one finger up to his lips he dropped his disguise.
“Finally!” Sankt croaked in a pained whisper. “You've no idea what these mongrels have been putting me through! Quickly, get me loose. What is the plan?”
“That is what I have come to talk about.” Luther did not bother to add a 'sir' to that. Sankt was not even a general anymore from what he had heard. Taking careful steps across the disgusting floor he carefully squatted on his heels in front of Sankt.
“Spit it out! Where is Werner, has he already taken care of things out there?”
“I am afraid that Werner and Anita have both chosen to leave you to your fate. As have I.” Luther watched the emotions going across Sankt's face. As his expression twisted with rage Luther sprang forward, clamping his hand over the other man's mouth to prevent him from raising a fuss. With his own hands bound there was nothing that Sankt could do save for glower and let out muffled noises. It did not take long for him to quiet down once more.
“Miserable bastards, after everything that I gave you, traitorous whores...” Sankt managed to sputter once Luther removed his hands.
“You gambled and you lost. Don't make this any harder than it has to be,” Luther said as he reached inside of his jacket. Pulling out a small glass capsule he held it up in front on Sankt's face. He recognized what it was, most anyone sufficiently high up in Germany would. “Now are you going to do it on your own or shall I have to?”
Sankt simply stared at the cyanide capsule for a few silent moments before meeting Luther's eyes again.
“I could have saved Germany. You just remember that when your time comes.” With that Sankt opened his mouth wide and spoke no more.
Placing the capsule on Sankt's tongue Luther made sure to wait for the sound of it cracking between the other man's teeth. When the convulsions began he looked away. Unlike many at the project Luther was not enamoured of death. Once Sankt had gone silent Luther reached down and closed the man's eyes. At the very least he had earned that much.
Putting his face back on Luther left the cell. Else took one look inside to confirm Sankt's fate then followed along. One more man to kill tonight and then the Gestapo would be left with a cold trail in trying to figure out just what had happened.
If only they could all just fade away after that. Werner and Anita could hardly admit that they knew of the geltmensch's existence without incriminating themselves. The three of them had discussed it at length and in the end patriotic sentiment had won out. Besides, Luther mused to himself, what was the point of being the world's most capable actor and not putting your abilities to use? Everything would work itself out. He could secure victory for Germany and a fortune for himself at the same time where he planned on heading. He just needed to keep his head above the water for the time being.
Chapter 9: Unknown Possibilities
Klaudia was seated in a small wooded clearing, her mind focused on a single image: that of a simple wooden chair. One with a solid square base rather than legs and similarly solid arms. She could see every little detail in her mind's eye all the way down to the grain of the wood. Opening her eyes and engaging her halo she tried to make that image reality.
There was no difference in the light of the distortion whether it was used for destruction or creation. What Klaudia had found was that when used for creating things it had a different feeling, almost as if she could reach out and shape everything within the sphere. It was as if even the tiniest parts of existence had been laid out before her just waiting to be put back together however she wished. Not that it was that simple of course. Letting go of the halo Klaudia inspected her handiwork.
The first thing she could see was that while the chair she had created was covered in a pattern of wood grain it was most certainly not made of wood. It was of the same material that she had been able to produce so far, somewhere between metal and stone. Other than that it was mostly correct in shape save for a few small flaws. Compared to the others that graced the clearing it was her best work thus far.
Getting up from her previous attempt at a seat Klaudia went over to her newest work. Not that she had only been making chairs. She had tried basic shapes at first, spheres, cubes and pyramids. It had taken a little while to reliably produce those instead of a twisted mass. The trick seemed to be concentration. Even the slightest distraction crossing her mind could cause the final product to be warped far from what Klaudia had intended. At least it seemed to get easier the more that she practised. If there was something that she was going to have plenty of in the coming days it would be time to practice.
Over the treetops Klaudia could make out the hulking form of one of the three massive flak towers that provided air defence for Berlin. For the time being one of the cramped concrete rooms inside of its interior was to be her home. One Battleship per tower, each taking a shift to make sure that the city could not be attacked. Soon enough it would solely be Klaudia's responsibility. A better use had been found for Werner and Markus than waiting for the enemy to come here.
She had seen very little of the other Battleships since their meeting with the Leader. Most of their time not spent watching the skies was taken up by the planning of the counterattack on the advancing Soviets. The military men were similarly absent from most of Klaudia's time. If only the same could have been said for Goebbels. Even though she was every bit as powerful as the others, if not more so for now, it had been decided that Klaudia's role was to be 'the epitome of German womanhood.' While the others went out and warred against Germany's enemies she would stay behind and make sure that the capital was safe and the people reassured. As much as she relished a chance to strike down Allied bombers once more the whole arrangement did sting her pride more than a little. Her father had never been one to forget a slight and much as she hated to admit it Klaudia took after him.
That was why Klaudia spent most of her free time hiding out here in the remains of the Berlin Zoo. Close enough to be of use if they really needed her but far enough away that everyone knew to let her have her space. These little experiments with her halo were one of the ways that Klaudia filled her days. Some thoughtful souls had found some gutted tanks that she could use when she wanted a physical engagement and there were other little things that she did to try and challenge herself. Anything to keep her mind from wandering off to the dark corners that it was fond of. Too fed up to seek company and yet frightened of being alone. It was no wonder everyone tried to avoid her anyways as she could hardly stand to be around herself these days.
“Impressive work,” Werner's voice snapped Klaudia out of her musings. Turning she could see him walk into the clearing. If there was one person she did not mind seeing it was him. “I actually considered becoming a carpenter when I was young. Maybe I can take it up once all this is settled.”
“They finally gave you some time for yourself?” Klaudia asked as Werner took a seat on one of the chairs facing her. She tried to picture him sitting at a workbench covered in tools but it seemed wrong. Werner was a soldier through and through.
“I insisted on taking some time to come see you, seeing as we haven't been able to properly talk. How are you feeling?”
That made Klaudia smile briefly, that there was at least one person around who cared how she felt.
“No worse than before,” Klaudia said as her smile slipped away. “No better either but no worse. I'll have to make sure to keep a smile on my face though. Goebbels wants me to become the embodiment of 'every wife, daughter, sister and mother that the men are fighting for.' The uberfrau, I guess.”
“Come now, you'll also be making sure that everyone in this city can sleep safely at night in their own beds without having to fear if they will have to run for shelter. If they can set up a system then they might be able to have you cover the skies of other cities too. Think of all those lives, men, women and children, that you will be saving.” Werner's reply was as passionate as always.
“That's the thing Werner, I have thought about them. I think about all those people I could be protecting and I still just want to run off and kill someone.”
“I know the feeling,” Werner grew quiet for a moment as memories returned to him. “The same thing overtook me the first time that some of my friends died on the battlefield. I can't even imagine what it would be like considering what you've lost. You just have to keep it in check. Men who let it consume them end up dead as those they tried to avenge. There will be blood enough in the coming days without us going out and searching for it.”
“Why would you have ever wanted to work with wood Werner, when you have such a way with words?”
To that Werner just smiled, then cupped his hands in front of him. “You would be surprised the things I've learned.”
His halo flashed just for a few moments and something appeared in his hands. He gently tossed it her way. Catching it Klaudia found that she was holding a disk made of wood, smooth and perfect as anything.
“I've been practising myself whenever I can find the time,” Werner pointed to what Klaudia had made in the clearing. “But I just can't seem to make anything larger than about a foot or so. Even something like one of these chairs I doubt I could get it to come out quite right.”
“Perhaps the activation is not so consistent as they told us.” Klaudia replied as she rotated the disk between her hands.
Both of them were quiet as they considered what this could mean. The panzermensch were all alike in size, whether they had been fat or thin, tall or short prior to activation. Similarly Klaudia was the same height and weight now as either of the male Battleships despite having started much smaller than both. At the camp it had been assumed that the halo was as evenly distributed as the physical enhancement. Of course all that had been drawn on was checking the destructive effects that the panzermensch were capable of. A sample of two was hardly enough to draw conclusions from but perhaps there was far more to the Battleships than just being a better version of the panzermensch.
“I wonder if Markus has noticed anything similar.” Klaudia asked aloud, causing Werner to snort with laughter.
“The only time that he has used his halo was to blast apart a building as part of a demonstration. He prefers actually hitting things. Provided that they can't hit back.”
“He'll have plenty of those soon,” A thought occurred to Klaudia, spurred by their discussion of the halo. “I have a question for you Werner, one that is going to sound silly.”
“Ask away.” Werner replied as he leaned forwards.
“I noticed the other day that the piercings for my earrings had grown over. Could you try opening them up again with a distortion?”
“Ah, vanity,” Werner joked as he got up from his seat and came towards her. Seeing her face darken a bit he added. “Its a welcome development. People who've given up on life tend to stop caring about how they look.”
“Just get on with it. And be careful!” Klaudia admonished him as she pulled back her hair.
Out of the corner of her eye she could see the light of Werner's halo, followed by a strange feeling on her earlobe. It wasn't as if he was burning through it like she expected but like the skin was being moved around.
“That looks like it about does it,” Werner said after a minute or so, closely inspecting the work.”Not even a mark to tell that the halo had touched it otherwise. I wonder...”
Werner trailed off as he moved on to her other ear. Today had been a day for discoveries at least. The new possibilities were nowhere near enough to replace what Klaudia had lost but it was enough to keep her going for a little while. Her future lay with destruction but the possibility of creating a few things that might outlast her was most tempting.
There are few things as invigorating as a fresh start, Stephanie thought to herself as she reviewed the progress that had been made in setting up the Allied Catalyst production. Events had been moving at breakneck speed for the last few days and so far things had gone much better than she ever could have anticipated. It certainly helped that rather than skulking around behind the back of the government like Sankt had here she had their full support.
All the necessary supplies had been gathered. Chemicals were undergoing their last tests to ensure purity. The equipment had all been calibrated to the exacting standards that would be required. Most importantly the staff, who collectively had a far better pedigree than those Stephanie had worked alongside in Germany, were already being trained on their parts of the process. It had been decided that in order to prevent any possible leaks of information the lab was to be kept as compartmentalized as possible. Only Stephanie and a select few others would know how the process went from beginning to end. In some ways it would actually improve their ability to produce the Catalyst. With the additional manpower each section could concentrate on perfecting their own segment of production. Given how little margin for error there was forcing people to focus was for the best.
To the outside world this looked like another manor house in the countryside, utterly indistinguishable from the hundreds of others that dotted England. Nearby there was a small military base that would serve as the training ground for the first British tankmen, as they were calling the panzermensch in English. It was all very mundane and secluded looking. Hopefully it would remain that way long enough to make a difference. By the time they needed room to expand they should be able to hold their own against the Germans.
Upon moving in to her fashionably appointed office Stephanie had discovered a special gesture of appreciation that had been arranged for her. A well stocked liquor cabinet rested in the corner of the room, courtesy of the Prime Minister himself. Sitting at her desk Stephanie hoisted her glass in a toast to the picture of him hanging on the wall. It was wonderful to have someone understand proper working conditions.
Of course not everything was exactly as she would have liked it. Understandably the government did not want to put too much power into the hands of someone who had been, until recently, working in the midst of the enemy. The titular head of the project was not herself but be a Captain Nathaniel Weathersby, who chose this very moment to enter the room. Well into his middle years the Captain was the very picture of a cultured and urbane officer. Stephanie had quickly deduced that underneath that perfect exterior was a man every bit as willing as herself to do whatever was needed for victory. He had done military intelligence work before and proved to have some clever ideas on protecting the project from infiltration. Other than the fact that he had banned smoking inside the manor Stephanie found herself getting along with him well enough.
“A little early for that, isn't it?” Weathersby pointed to Stephanie's glass as he sat down.
“We might all be dead soon depending on how this goes. I intend to enjoy what time I have left.” Stephanie replied, punctuating the statement by taking in a mouthful of the brandy. Not that she intended to get drunk before the sun went down. Throughout the day she preferred to imbibe a small but steady intake of alcohol, enough to keep her mind limber. Getting drunk was kept to preparing for bed. To keep her dreams from going places she did not want them to go. Weathersby just shrugged before getting on with whatever he had come in her for.
“I've a few questions for you about this secondary line that you want to set up. Production of the Catalyst is only going to start in the next few days, is this really the best time to be experimenting on the side?”
“Given the nature of the experiment, there is no better time,” Stephanie took one of her journals out from the locked drawer of her desk, opened it to the correct page and passed it to him. “This is a section of the Codex that Lupin was able to get me a copy of early on. It was one that Sankt had little interest in so it was not very well secured.”
“If it was of little interest to him then what makes it of any interest to us?” Weathersby asked as he looked over the page. As sharp as he was usually the arcane nature of what was before him caused him to not see it for what it was.
“First of all it means that should we get this into production first then there is a good chance that the Germans will be forced to play catch up as they won't have been working on it. Secondly is that Sankt had an obsession with the halo effect. He tended to discard anything that did not relate to it somehow.”
If there was any sort of fairness in the world that would help lead to the Germans undoing. Sankt had been driven but he had also been careless. Anything that had not precisely fit in with his vision for the ubermensch had been ignored. Word had reached Stephanie that Sankt was no longer in control of the project but his shadow over it should prove long enough to give them this window of opportunity. After all even with the advantages that Germany had concerning the standard Catalyst they would need as much time as the British to start branching out into new forms.
“No halo effect? So not a tank man then?” Weathersby's eyes narrowed as he asked the question. He was starting to understand.
“Not quite. The tank men are a truly a balance of two separate enhancements rather than a single discrete one. One part provides their halo and the other their increased physical attributes. A normal dose of Catalyst gives one half of each, making a tank man a 1:1 ratio after two doses and a Battleship 12:12 after twenty-four doses. So far as I can tell this section of the Codex describes how to make Catalyst that is purely physical.”
“So twice as strong. Twice as fast, twice as durable,” Nodding as he spoke Weathersby weighed the possibilities. “But no ranged abilities.”
“It might turn out even more than twice. The effect doesn't seem to scale linearly.” That was Stephanie's hope at least. They needed anything that they could get to reduce the German advantage. Having a stronger and hardier front line soldier might just be the edge they needed to survive. There were other ideas that she was entertaining as well. Seeing as the chances of them finding multiple Battleships were low depending on how well the physical only enhancement worked it might prove to be the key to gaining the upper hand in that arena as well. Purely conjecture at this point but Stephanie preferred to be prepared.
“Alright, that all sounds well and good. Still the question remains why now?”
“To make this preparation we will have to take the standard Catalyst at a point where it is almost complete and subject it to an additional period of treatment. It will take longer to make but the results should be sufficiently rewarding.” With all that was riding on it Stephanie certainly hoped that it would pay off.
“That is a big risk to take. We are going to be short on Catalyst as it is,” Leaning back Weathersby brought his hands together as he thought it over. Stephanie took another sip as she waited for a response. Finally he spoke again. “You have tentative authorization for the time being. I will have to get the Prime Minister to approve before you can proceed fully.”
“Of course. There is no great rush as it will be at least two weeks before we could even branch the production anyways. In that time if you could have someone take a second look at the translation it would make things go smoother. Enough of the section crossed over with the original Catalyst process to make sense of the recipe but there are a few spots where I had to make an informed guess. Seeing as you won't let me meet your little den of geniuses, wherever they are.”
That was something that did bother Stephanie immensely. While she was focused on the production side of things she still would have preferred to be able to watch over the effort to translate the parts of the Codex as well. Weathersby had hinted at the existence of some sort of group of codebreakers but would not say anything else.
“Too many cooks in the kitchen ruins the soup. You just concentrate on things here. Unless there was anything else you needed I would think that I should go make some calls.” Weathersby waited long enough for Stephanie to shake her head before leaving.
On her own once more Stephanie went to freshen her drink. One victory looked secured for now. If only things were not so uncertain.
It was painfully quiet in the offices where Hagen and his team had set up shop. Everyone was on edge as events seemed to keep on spiralling out of control. First Himmler had been able to convince the Leader to give him at least temporary control over the brunt of the ubermensch forces. All that was directly under control of the Heer at the moment was a handful of panzermensch here in Berlin and those holding Strasbourg in the west. Klaudia for the time being was solely at the Leader's disposal here in Berlin. There was no guarantee that the numbers were going to drastically improve any time soon either.
Word of the new weapons had spread fast and given the nature of the ubermensch the struggle for control over them had begun immediately. Every single branch of the military and the government was making up lists of reasons as to why their members should be the first ones to undergo testing. Goering had stuck his head up and was fighting for the Luftwaffe to get their own units and Doenitz was doing the same for the Kriegsmarine. Himmler was trying to get permanent control over the two Battleships under his command while placing the SS, Waffen or otherwise, at the front of the line. Then there was the Gestapo and numerous other ministries of the government, some of which had no plausible reason to want the ubermensch other than to confirm their status. So far the only time at which the Leader had entered the fray was to decree that the dedicated old fighters of the party should all be tested for their potential first and foremost. Other than that he seemed content to let everyone else squabble over how large their share would be.
In a month or so it would be less of a problem than it was now. The stores of Catalyst and testing doses exceeded the possible demand and once new production started in earnest even more would be possible. It was still concerning that the ubermensch might end up too spread out and diluted to be brought to their full effect. Those who did not get a seat at the table right now might find themselves cut out further down the line. When one man had destructive potential equal to that of a whole army it begged the question of whether a proper army was still needed at all. Here and in other offices around the country the Heer was hard at working justifying their future existence.
General Guderian had personally come down that day to look through the latest paperwork that had been produced about the ubermensch. There were tactical assessments and possible strategies in abundance. His presence had made the tension all the more keen. The General was ever one to speak his mind and right now he was furious over having been effectively sidestepped.
The door to the hallway opened and Hagen looked up briefly to see who it was. His head then jerked up as he dropped his pen. In through the door strolled General Guderian, followed by General Guderian and General Guderian. Three identical copies of the General now stood in front of the gathered staff.
“Good afternoon gentlemen, might we be able to have a word with General Guderian? I understand that he is here today.” The lead Guderian asked sounding exactly as he should, though Hagen did not think that he had ever seen the General smile in such a manner. For a moment no one spoke. Hagen was certain that they, like he himself, were currently wondering whether the stress of the war had finally broken their minds. Finally someone bolted up out of their chair and charged into the next room to fetch the actual Guderian.
“What the hell are you talking about-” The man himself was asking, obviously annoyed as he came back through the door. As soon as he laid eyes on his three doppelgangers his jaw fell open.
Just like that the trio changed. The leader became a sharp featured middle aged man, the second a younger and portlier fellow and the last a young woman of all things. It had to be something to do with the Catalyst, Hagen realized. There had been something in Sankt's notes that spoke about a possibility of someone who could control light and sound but it had been purely theoretical. That these three stood in front of them right now meant that there must have been projects that Sankt kept strictly off the books. A chill went down Hagen's spine with that realization. Just what other surprises were waiting for them out there?
“I do hope you will forgive the intrusion but I have always believed that dramatic entrances are the best way to make a first impression. We have much to discuss.” The lead man spoke strolling forward with his hand extended to the General.
Like a spell had been broken everyone in the office was on their feet now, some drawing weapons just in case. One way or another they were going to get to the bottom of this.
“Fucking actors and their need to make a fucking spectacle. Now what, eleven people know about the existence of these geltmensch who had no need to know.” Guderian grumble as he downed the rest of his drink. He was referring to Luther, the apparent leader of the shapeshifters who had interrupted their day.
It was many hours later in the day and Guderian and Hagen were now sitting alone trying to digest what they had learned with the help of copious amounts of alcohol. There had been a side-project kept secret from everyone but Sankt himself. Run out of a chateau thirty miles from the camp itself the geltmensch had been trained without anyone besides Sankt and a handful of researchers knowing.
“Let's hope that he shows better judgment as a spy then.” Hagen replied. At some point his coat had ended up entirely unbuttoned and now sagged against the seat of his chair.
“What about that woman, Anita? You think she is telling the truth?”
“Maybe. She seemed as surprised as us that Sankt had been running an additional site. Most of all she wondered where he found the money,” Hagen could not help but add what had been bothering him since the revelation, alcohol loosening his tongue. “It is rather convenient, isn't it sir, that these shapeshifters show up a few days after Sankt takes a cyanide capsule? Then the man who gave it to him shoots his wife and himself that night, what if...”
Guderian made a hard slashing motion with his hand. “Enough. We speak no more of this. Bringing these geltmensch to Hitler's attention got us some of the leverage we need to keep in control of things. Unless we find hard evidence of anything we do nothing. Maybe even then, we bury it.”
“Understood.” Hagen nodded along, drooping down towards the table.
Unspoken between them was what they both already knew. There had been something unsavoury going on within Sankt's project. Speaking to the panzermensch had given them reports that Sankt, Anita Scheele and Werner Frei were particularly close. The expert they needed for the time being and one of the greatest weapons in the country's arsenal both tied closely to a traitor. For now the boat needed to be kept steady. Leverage, that was what all of these disparate coincidences could become later if needed. Provided it did not blow up in their faces before then.
Chapter 10: The Tide of War Turns
Now that the time had come to return to the front Werner found himself wishing that he had never left the camp. Painful as the experimentation had been the rest of his time there had been relatively peaceful. This moment had been something that he had feared for months now. He had barely slept the night before on account of the memories that haunted him. What he had done to others and what had been done to both himself and the men he knew. That he returned to the war a much different man than he had left it could not change some things. Sitting alone in the back of a truck Werner took deep breaths to calm himself.
There had been a ceremony before they left Berlin, in the early hours of the morning. Hitler had been there to heap praise on them before a gathering of the usual crowd of officials and generals. A whole lot of optimistic talking without a single enemy having been slain. Markus had been slack-jawed with wonder through most of it as Werner forced himself to swallow his contempt for the whole thing. More attention had been paid to arranging them all for the photos and film recordings than anything else. In the early years he had been as attracted to the promises of restoring Germany's pride as anyone else, despite other reservations that he had. For all that had been regained even more stood to be lost now due to the ineptitude of the leadership. How else could one explain the state the country was in? Right now there was little that Werner could do to change the situation. Too many things were like that for his taste.
Klaudia had been there as well, though Werner had barely had time to exchange a few words with her. Since their last visit it seemed that his schedule had become so full that he could barely find time even for rest. He had been kept away from Markus as well, though that hardly bothered him. It was almost as if they were each being segregated from one another. Politics was something that Werner had always tried to ignore. Now he was caught up in it.
The previous day Himmler had unveiled the entirety of his plan to Werner. While he made no claims towards being a strategic genius Werner had picked up enough knowledge over the years to know when a plan spelled trouble. Not so much for him given his invulnerability but for everyone else. There was to be a wide front with the panzermensch spread out along it in ones and twos to reinforce the conventional forces. Each Battleship would penetrate the enemy lines independently and break up the major Soviet formations while the rest advanced to mop up what was left. Too few men trying to do too many things against an enemy that outnumbered them. Werner had done some of the math in his head for how many men he and Markus would each have to kill to even things out. It was not a promising number.
Finally the truck came to a stop. Getting up Werner banished all of his doubts. He was a weapon and he had his mission. That was everything that mattered now.
“Battleship Siegmund, it is an honour to accompany you today!” The commander of this section said as he approached. After everything Werner found himself struggling to remember the man's name. It was awkward enough having to go by a designation but that was what had been decreed by the High Command.
“I hope that I live up to the expectations, Colonel Weber.” Werner replied once the officer's name came back to him. It seemed to make the man happy enough and he barely noticed the pause.
Walking through the camp the men all around them stopped to gawk in amazement at Werner. There had been an announcement that the new wonder weapon would be revealed today. Not like the Soviets could do much to prepare even if they knew what was coming. Still it was one thing to hear the promises of a weapon that would change the tide of the war and quite another to see it walk right through the camp. What Werner saw concerned him though.
“Will they really be necessary?” He asked Weber quietly, nodding towards a group of young soldiers. Werner used the term 'soldier' loosely to describe them. Not one of them could be eighteen yet and they had the unmistakable air of fresh recruits. In fact there were few people in this entire formation that looked like proper soldiers to him.
“The Reichsfuhrer ordered that all available forces be brought up for the attack,” The Colonel sounded sympathetic at least. “We've tried to put the less experienced units behind yourself and Siegfried. There is likely to be less resistance there than in other parts of the line.”
“Right. I'll be back in a moment.” Werner left Weber and walked towards the largest group of boys. As he approached it looked like more than one was ready to piss themselves. When he had been as raw as they were at least he had been a volunteer rather than a conscript.
“I want a show of hands. Who here has actually shot their rifle at someone? Not just a target during training?” Not a single hand raised. “Who here has a sweetheart waiting for them back home?” That got over half the group. “Those of you who don't have a sweetheart, hopefully you still have your mothers?” Every hand was now raised. Motioning for them to put their hands down Werner continued. “Picture them in your minds. They are why you are fighting. They are why you are going to be careful out there today, so that you can make sure that you go home to them safely.”
“We-” The boy who had spoken up stumbled over his words as Werner looked at him. “We aren't afraid to fight!”
“Of course you aren't. But I have seen what you will be facing. The average Bolshevik was born and raised in a hut that you would not keep a pig in. His whole life has been a chain of violence and treachery and mercy is something alien to him. As wretched as a single one is there is a whole horde of them out there just waiting for you to stumble into them. Now to prove a point I want you to take your rifle and shoot me. Just don't hit the uniform.” When the boy hesitated Werner turned towards Weber, who had made his way closer to them. “Colonel?”
“Soldier, you are to do as Siegmund commands.” There was a hint of uncertainty in Weber's voice as well. From his briefings he would have known that Werner had nothing to worry about but again, there was knowing and there was seeing.
With trembling hands the boy raised his rifle. At first Werner doubted that the boy would even be able to shoot straight if he kept on shaking so but eventually he found his nerves. There was a bang and Werner felt a little prick along his cheek. It was a strange thing, a sensation of being hit without pain. Looking down he could see the flattened bullet in the snow. Picking it up he held it out in front of him. By now an even larger crowd had gathered.
“I am bullet proof. You are not. There are many ways to be a hero and most of them don't involve dying face down in the muck. I fully expect that you will all be able to tell your grandchildren about this one day. Remember, the Reich has lost too many of its sons already. It does not need to lose you. Take care and keep your wits about you and you will live to see another day.” Leaving it at that Werner went back to Colonel Weber and continued to walk along.
“A fine speech.” Was the Colonel's only comment.
“Just keep them from rushing off to do something stupid. Germany will need them to rebuild after all this,” Werner took out his pocket watch to check the time. He would have to keep a close eye on how long he was going to be active. Running out of energy in the middle of the enemy was not an attractive thought, even if Klaudia had proven that they had more leeway than the panzermensch. “Looks like it is time.”
Reaching the front of the force Werner took one last deep breath before charging forward. Like with any weapon he had been pointed at the enemy and his trigger pulled. Now he just needed to do what he was meant to.
There were flashes in the distance, almost like lightning except that it was a clear day and still winter to boot. Maria had thought that the first one was a trick of the light but then there were more. Strain her ears as she might there was no sound of thunder either. Distant booms of tanks and artillery but no thunder. It seemed liked more and more of the booms went silent after each flash. Something about it made the little hairs on her arms stand on end. Today was going to be a strange day.
Word had come earlier that the Germans would be trying to attack. The whole unit had taken up positions around the village that they were in. Tanks were half hidden in the streets and men were waiting behind anything that could be used as cover. Maria had chosen a spot up under the half-collapsed roof of a building to make herself a little sniper nest. There was a bell tower attached to the church but that tended to be the first place that people shot at when they thought there was a sniper about. That there was more than one way out of this building was the other reason that Maria had picked it. She despised feeling backed into a corner.
Reaching down she grasped the pistol that she kept on her belt, just checking that it was there. Everyday Maria made sure that it was clean and in good working order. In this war she had no intention of surrendering if it ever came to that. A bullet through the head would be quick. What the Germans did to her corpse afterwards was none of her concern. Just so long as they could not tough her while she still lived.
Glancing down at the men below Maria wondered where Lev was. The night that she had spent with him had proven fruitful and she would hate for him to do something foolish like dying on her. A good potential husband was one who stayed alive. Returning to scanning the horizon Maria let out a little sigh. Patience was one of a sniper's most important skills but it would have been nice to have some company. She had tried talking to herself before but found that she could not stop doing it even when there were people around. There were more than enough strange looks directed at her without the added attention.
A movement in the trees caught Maria's eye. Sure enough it was a man, creeping forward. Bringing her cheek tight against the butt of her rifle Maria lined up a shot and waited for the men below to open fire. No point in announcing her presence so soon into the battle.
It only took another minute for someone to see what Maria had. Gunfire from below, now was her time to shine.
The first shot caught the man in the shoulder. Boy was more accurate though. A shame that it had not gone through his pretty face but he was good enough as dead. Then the boy who tried to drag the first one back joined his friend on the ground. Sentiment was a sniper's best friend.
That was when Maria saw one of the strangest things so far in the entire war. A particularly large German came out of the trees and made his way forward. Taking aim at the man, thanking him for presenting a considerately wide target, Maria was not able to press the trigger before he charged forwards like a shot. Swinging her rifle to try to keep up with him she did not think that she had ever seen a man move that fast. Firing off a round she was certain that it had hit him even though he showed no sign of slowing. Then all hell broke loose.
A ring of blue lightning appeared around the man's head and next thing Maria knew a flash of light hit one of the tanks below. When it cleared most of the gun and half the turret had been left a melted mess. Another flash took out a second tank as the man reached the edge of the village. Leaping over a wall he grabbed hold of the first soldier there and sent him flying metres through the air to collide against the side of a building with a sickening crunch. With the men firing wildly at the German giant Maria swivelled back to the main German force. They were taking advantage of the chaos to try and charge forward. Maria made sure that they reduced their pace back to a cautious crawl.
Eyes flickering between the advancing Germans and their seemingly bulletproof friend Maria wondered if the rest of the world had finally joined her in madness. Men were literally being taken apart below her. The big German stopped his assault for a moment, looking up towards the rooftops and second floor windows. He knew that there was a sniper. A great crash announced the fall of the bell tower. Once more Maria's instincts had been proven right. Some kind soul decided that it would be a good time to lob a grenade at the big man. Maria would have to find that person and kiss them afterwards. By the time the German looked down and tried to move it was too late. A few steps and boom!
It was a decided let down from what you usually saw. The big man was thrown onto his back and Maria went back to taking shots at the far group. One of the remaining tanks joined in. Glancing down again Maria saw the big man staggering back onto his feet. Just what was he? Struggling to load another magazine into her rifle Maria ended up locking eyes with him as he wavered to and fro. When the blue light came back she knew that he had seen her. Caught halfway through reloading there was little that Maria could do but stare down her doom. Above her the ceiling began to fully collapse as the light encompassed it. A falling chunk of debris hit Maria in the shoulder as she tried to protect herself.
A shot rang out below and the light quaked. The big man screamed and reached for his head while the circle of light collapsed inwards violently. In a moment his head was gone in a terrible spray of blood.
Even with her shoulder aching Maria forced the magazine into the rifle and focused once more. One dead enemy did not end a battle. Having lost their freak the Germans were now caught out trying to cross the field at the edge of town. Very few made it back to the treeline.
With men shouting below her Maria decided that now as as good a time as any to go take a look. Making her way through the rubble she was able to descend to the ground floor and out onto the street. A crowd had gathered around the corpse of the big man. As Maria elbowed her way forward into it she could see someone trying to slice the body with his bayonet. The blade just bounced off without leaving a mark.
“Make way! Move damn it!” Came the shouts of Popov. Red faced as always the blustering officer forced his way through to the body. “Who was the one to bring him down?”
“It was the light, I just shot at that damned light...” Maria thought that it was Reginov who answered. Once things died down a bit she would make sure he got his kiss.
“Grab the body and pack it up! Someone is going to want to see whatever that was!”
Men went forward to pick up the body. Checking how much ammunition she had left Maria started to look around for another spot to shoot from. Somehow she knew that the battle was far from over. Walking passed Reginov she planted a kiss on his cheek. The man was so shocked from the battle that he did not even acknowledge her. All around them men were looking to see who was dead and who was just wounded. Once things were safer Maria would take count of how many friends had survived today.
Looking out to the distance she could still see the flashes of light every now and then. Thinking of what the man here had been able to do she wondered how much those flashes were destroying every time they went off. For the first time in this war Maria's instinct was to run before she could find out.
“That will be their undoing, a lack of belief, a lack of conviction! Where would we be today if I had not believed in the abilities of our scientists to create exactly what we would need to win this war? Yet again the superiority of the German spirit has been made manifest.” The Leader was in fine form tonight. Dinner had begun over an hour ago and he had maintained his monologue at the same pace throughout.
Familiarity had certainly lessened some of Hitler's mystique in Klaudia's eyes. That and she was knew most of the details of how the ubermensch had come about, having been there herself. There were many things that he said that were stretching the truth at the very least. What else might he have done that with?
Taking a sip of her wine Klaudia looked at the guest of honour for this meal. She was mostly here for his benefit after all. Mussolini was much to her surprise a quiet and withdrawn man. He sat there and nodded along with what the Leader was saying, adding very little to the conversation himself. The few times that he had met her gaze gave Klaudia the feeling that he had already been defeated. More than half his nation was under control of the Allies and the rest depending on Germany. Seeing the former firebrand sitting there dejectedly made Klaudia wonder if anything could ever bring the Leader to such a state? Now that Hitler had the ubermensch at his disposal defeat did not seem likely but still she wondered.
The Leader continued on his speech and Klaudia slowly but steadily drained glass after glass of wine. Had she still been human she was certain that she would have been a tangled mess on the floor by now. Immune to its intoxicating effects at least she could enjoy the flavour. Which did wonders for banishing every hint of the sweetness left over from the bowl of glucose she had dined on.
For Mussolini's benefit she had put on a little show outside of Berlin upon his arrival. A half dozen tanks, an impromptu bunker and near an acre of empty land all turned to twisted remnants by Klaudia's gaze. Having been treated to the sight of just what the halo could do on a large scale the Italians had then been promised that they would have panzermensch of their own soon enough. All of the testing and training would be done by Germans of course. There was no need to guess just what the relationship between the two fascist powers was.
A messenger entered the room, approaching Goebbels at his seat. Klaudia was starting to recognize all of the members of Hitler's inner circle as the same crowd seemed to attend every event. The man who had been at the first luncheon and every event after was Speer, an architect and labour leader from what she knew. At least he seemed genuinely interested in her while he had been discussing her experiments with the halo.
Whatever the messenger had said to Goebbels the propaganda minister nodded and rose from his seat. Approaching the Leader he was able to lean in during a pause and pass along the message.
“Ah, it seems that the British have decided to provide some entertainment this evening. A large group of bombers is making its way towards Berlin as we speak,” Hitler rose and looked at Klaudia. “Battleship Sieglinde, you have my leave to deal with these interlopers.”
Getting up and saluting the Leader before leaving the room Klaudia found herself strangely apprehensive. As much as she had looked forward to a moment like this having it framed the way that the Leader had done somehow tarnished it. Focusing on the image of Leon amidst the flames helped her overcome that feeling. The Allies dared to attack this city and its people under her watch. They needed to be made to pay.
The journey back to the flaktower was silent as Klaudia worked to feed her apprehension to her anger. By the time she began to make her way up to the roof she could barely contain herself. The gnawing hunger for revenge had been reawakened in her.
Upstairs the crew was working to get the flak guns loaded. Not that they would be necessary tonight but Klaudia supposed that it was a sign of good training. When the alarm sounded they rushed to do their job whether they were needed or not. Just like she would. Walking over to the commander of the crew she leaned against the lip of the wall that surrounded the tower and waited. He would be in contact with the nearby radar station and would tell her when the Allies were almost upon them. For now Klaudia closed her eyes and tried to preserve her strength.
It was unfortunate that they Allies had chosen today of all days to do this. The period that an ubermensch could remain active for was a tricky thing to decipher. Generally it began as soon as a major expenditure of energy was made whether it be in the form of using their superhuman physical abilities or the halo, setting the clock ticking. Having done the demonstration for the Italians earlier Klaudia had already used up some of the preciously short period of the day where she could truly act as a superweapon. Right now she was able to stay active for four consecutive hours but they had never tried breaking up the activity. There was no doubt in her mind that she would have enough strength left over to defend the city. She would push herself as hard as she needed to in order to make sure of that.
“Sieglinde, we have confirmed that they will be here soon. The radar and spotters report that the attack is coming in waves. We will want to wait right until the first wave is over Berlin to attack otherwise the latter ones might break off the attack before we can strike them.” The commander explained to her.
Nodding Klaudia turned to face the direction that he had indicated the attack would come from and began to watch the horizon. Much as it had been at Pforzheim she could see at night well enough for it not to be a hindrance. This time at least she would be waiting for them rather than having to try and chase them down. For once she was not too late. Even being called that idiotic designation did not bother her that much while she imagined what was about to happen.
At first they were little specks that were barely visible at all. As the minutes passed they became clearer. More planes than had been at Pforzheim. For that matter, more planes than Klaudia had ever seen in one place before. With the flak crew running around behind her she gripped the wall she was leaning against, her fingers piercing the concrete. It was agony waiting like this.
The guns began to fire. From the brief training that Klaudia had been given it had been decided that having the flak guns fire as usual would lull the Allies into a false sense of normality. No German interceptors would be going up tonight though in order to make sure that Klaudia could act without having to hold anything back. With the spotlights and tracers up in the air it made it all the easier for Klaudia to see the advancing bombers. When she strained her eyes she could almost make out most of the details on the planes. She wondered just how close they would be allowed.
“Now Sieglinde!” The commander relayed to her as the radio crackled to life. She did not hesitate for a moment.
Once again the light of the halo wrapped around her face. Then Klaudia let loose all of the anger and frustration that had been building up inside of her.
The guns fell silent as members of the crew stopped dead in their tracks to watch what was happening. Above them the sky was filled with the light of the distortions. An entire field of them spread out along the front of the bombers. Even Klaudia was taken aback for a moment when she saw the number that she had managed to summon. It was so bright out that looking across Berlin one would almost think that it was daytime. Those sequestered away in the radar control saw a much different picture. Watching the readings from the radar they saw droves of contacts disappear in moments as the first wave was decimated.
Caught up in the moment Klaudia barely realized that she had destroyed the bombers in less time than it had taken at Pforzheim. Watching all of those planes carrying all of those bombs destroyed before they could drop even a single one was enthralling for her. The commander was shouting at her about something. Snapping back to reality for the moment Klaudia listened.
“Move on to the second wave before they have time to turn around!”
Dismissing the nearby distortions Klaudia repositioned the new ones further back. The strain was more pronounced now. Not only was the scale of what she was doing incredible but the increase in distance made it all them more taxing. She was not going to let that stop her though. Even as their pilots tried to take evasive action the second wave began to suffer the fate of the first. It was not as complete, already some managed to veer off in time and Klaudia was having difficulty keeping such a large field active.
“The last waves are starting to turn, it's over,” The commander sounded grateful. “See if you can take out the last few then you can rest-”
“No!” Klaudia was not about to let these murderers slink back home to lick their wounds. Filled with bloodlust and unable to reach her targets she did the only thing that she could think to do. Leaping up onto the wall she jumped.
For a brief moment as she plummeted to the earth the sober part of Klaudia's mind began to scream at her. Clenching her eyes shut she ignored it and waited for the impact. Slamming into the ground below Klaudia stumbled forth out of the crater and got back onto her feet. She was unharmed even though her knees had not appreciated the sudden jolt. Now she began to run.
That most people were already hidden away in their basements or shelters made maneuvering through the city easier. At the speed she was going Klaudia doubted that vehicles or people would be able to survive a collision with her. Trying to focus on both the distant forms of the Allied bombers and the obstacles in front of her Klaudia was able to gain more ground until she felt that she was within range to use her halo once more.
This time she did not use the wide field. It had been successful in reaping sudden destruction but it took too much effort. Instead she did what she had during her first attack and fashioned a single large distortion. Wielding it almost like a club she swung it back and forth through the Allied planes. There were still more in the air trying to escape but now even Klaudia's rage was starting to fall prey to her exhaustion. Her earlier exertion was amplified by her attempts to continue moving as quickly as she could while using the halo. Soon enough her pace slowed and the movements of the distortion above became erratic.
With the muscles in her thighs screaming in pain Klaudia roared in frustration as she stumbled to a halt. Some planes, not very many compared to all there had been at the beginning, had escaped her. Letting go of her halo she slammed her fist through a nearby brick wall in frustration. Only then did her rage subside enough for the gravity of the situation to set in.
She had lost control. Panting from exertion Klaudia looked around as she squatted down with her hands on her knees. That only lasted for a few moments as she fell back onto the ground. Her surroundings were completely foreign to her. Looking back the way she had come Klaudia could make out the wide spread holes that her footfalls had left behind. Just how far had she run and where was she exactly? Those questions were quickly lost as the blinding pain of a halo-induced migraine flooded her head.
Just like after Pforzheim Klaudia was equally satisfied and disgusted with what she had accomplished. There had been no need to do this, no need to go charging out into the night like a fool. What if she had run right through someone who could not move in time? Some defender she would have been. Trying to clear her head of the pain and the doubt Klaudia rolled on to her stomach and pushed herself up with shaky arms. It took time to get back on her feet, stopping to rest once she was there. Slowly she took a tentative step to see if she could even walk without falling. Her legs continued to complain but Klaudia remained upright. That was a small victory at least.
The buildings around her were blacked out but still Klaudia could make out small movements behind the windows here and there. No one came out into the streets to get a better look. They must have seen enough already. Right now a few words of thanks would have been welcome. As she slowly began to walk back none were forthcoming.
It was fine. If they wanted to cower inside, just as she once had, let them. After tonight Klaudia doubted that the Allies would ever try to bomb this city ever again. If they did then she would be waiting.
The sounds of trucks reached her soon enough as they followed the path that she had left during her charge. Almost as soon as one came to a screeching halt near her Klaudia's legs finally buckled on her. Soldiers approached cautiously to pick her up, waiting for her to motion them forward before actually touching her. They were afraid of her and Klaudia was fine with that too.
With her aching body lifted into the back of a truck the last thoughts that Klaudia had before she blacked out were of Leon. If this had not been vengeance for him then she did not know what would be.
Chapter 11: The Hero
When Leah had decided to become a nurse her father had given her a piece of advice that had shaped her entire career:
“Be strong. You will see people at their worst. In pain, exhausted, frightened and angry. Not at you, but at whatever circumstance brought them there. They will need your strength so that they can regain their own.”
With the war coinciding with her entry into nursing there had been no shortage of people to care for. Early on Leah had discovered that she had a particular knack for helping people with recuperation. Her father had been able to give her recommendations, as both of them had agreed that it would be for the best if they did not work at the same hospital, and helped her get placed in a ward that dealt with soldiers returning from the war. By the time that her patients reached her they had usually been stabilized but Leah had found that they were really only beginning their path to recovery.
So many of the injuries that were inflicted on soldiers left them missing parts of themselves. Toes, fingers, legs and arms. Once handsome men were marred by scars and once strong men were left as withered shells of themselves. Young men faced struggling for the rest of their lives while the older ones had to cope with changing how they had always lived. Bringing them back to health and normalcy was difficult but there were few things so rewarding as watching a man walk when he had believed that he never would again. Or seeing a man have the confidence to kiss his wife again and hold onto his children. If only the mental scars were as easily overcome as the physical ones.
Finishing her tea Leah checked her appearance before leaving the nursing station to do her rounds. Appearances were incredibly important here. The right look and attitude made men her own age look up to her as if she were their mother and men twice her age follow her orders as if she were their wife. At least she had some experience with the former having effectively raised her siblings. Some men still thought that they could give her trouble but unlike her family life here Leah knew that she was in control. Even the surliest man soon realized that it would be easier to break through a wall than to make her back down. Putting on a pleasant smile Leah entered the ward as though it were a battlefield.
Today the metaphor was more apt than most. Bad news tended to put everyone on edge and the headline of today's paper had been the worst news that anyone had heard in a long while.
NEW GERMAN WEAPON CAUSES DISASTER OVER BERLIN! CHURCHILL TO ADDRESS THE NATION.
An entire flight of bombers lost during the last raid. Added to that the similar attack on the Pforzheim mission a week or so before and the Germans recapturing Strasbourg at the same time and a pattern began to emerge. Having sacrificed so much already no one wanted to believe that Germany had found a way to drag out the war even longer. Yet men liked to talk to pass the time and invariably the conversations turned to theorizing just what the nature of the new weapon was. Stopping to check on men as she went down the ward Leah ended up hearing most of these theories and it seemed as though each was more outlandish than the last.
“They took a page from the Jap's book. Got every plane they had left and sent them up on a suicide mission, spit in our face one last time. They won't be able to do it again.” One legged Thomas said, seemingly to reassure himself as much as anyone else. Had it only been Berlin that might have been plausible but it did not seem very likely given the multiple attacks. If only this had been the last gasp of a dying regime.
“It was a heat ray, like out of that radio show. War of the Worlds. Jerrys are obsessed with their wonder weapons, figures that they finally made one that works.” That came from Gerald, the bandages still covering most of his burns making it clear what consumed his thoughts. Leah made a mental note to keep an eye on his state of mind. Suicide attempts had gotten rarer but still came far too often for her liking.
“A wonder weapon for sure, one even more far fetched than that. They call it an ubermensch, a super man.” Martin added on top of Gerald. To look at him you would never guess how long the doctors had taken fishing all the pieces of shrapnel out of his belly.
Here Leah paused. Not for the theory, which was as odd as any of the ones that she had heard, but for who had said it. Martin was an officer and usually had a good feel for the pulse of the war through the connections he had still in the army. It was worrying that he would join in with the speculation, especially with such a far fetched idea.
“There is only one Superman and he ain't no damn Kraut. His name is Clark Kent and he's American!” Came a loud retort from Jack, one of the few American patients. As Martin and the others focused on him Jack tried to explain further. “From the comics, you know? I used to read them a couple years back.”
The whole group got a laugh out of that, Leah included. Sometimes she forgot how young some of these men were. Much like herself they seemed far older than they were. It could be disconcerting to see a man barely able to grow a moustache trading war stories with men far his senior. While Jack continued to protest his maturity Leah caught Martin's sleeve and led him a few steps away.
“Is it true, what you heard?” She asked quietly. There would be the announcement from Churchill but that was still hours off. Leah did a good job of hiding it from the patients but there were as many butterflies in her stomach as anyone's. Maybe even more, all things considered.
“The only thing I know for certain is that it seems that no one knows for certain what is going on,” Martin began cautiously, matching her quiet tone. “But everyone I spoke to who knows even a little bit has used that word.”
“I guess we will have to wait for the Prime Minister's speech then. The man certainly knows how to build drama.”
“That we will. It is a bit funny though, isn't it? In a morbid sort of way. All this time Hitler and his cronies have been ranting on about ubermensch and untermensch, maybe they were on to something after all,” No sooner had the words left Martin's mouth did he click his teeth shut. “Sorry Nurse Cohen, didn't mean it like that.”
“I know you didn't Martin. Don't worry, I'm not made of glass,” Once people realized that she was Jewish, though Leah hardly tried to hide that fact, they did often try to avoid talking about things that they thought might upset her. News of the camps had been difficult to hear but Leah preferred that everyone know what had happened. Refusing to acknowledge terrible things invited them to happen again. “Though I could use your help. Just try to defuse as many of these conversations as you can. We don't need everyone getting themselves worked up when we don't know what is actually happening.”
“Yes ma'am.” Martin actually saluted her before making his way back to the group, a man with a mission once more.
Leah just smiled and continued along her rounds while trying to not look at the clock too often. There was enough work to be done without getting herself worked up as well.
It was hours later that Leah found herself out in the crisp evening air. Atop her bicycle she made her way through streets that were much quieter than usual at this time of the day. She had left work late as usual and feared that she might miss Churchill's speech. While she could have tried to catch it at the hospital Leah suspected that Deborah would be home alone tonight and did not want her sister to sit through it on her own. Most other people must have already rushed to find the nearest radio so she was able to make good time.
Pulling up to her family's home Leah could see that indeed the car was still absent. Tucking her bicycle away beneath the stairs she double checked whose shoes were present in the mudroom on the off chance that her mother had arrived home early. No such luck. As was happening more and more lately Leah felt a twinge of frustration. Their mother had taught them how important it was to help other people so why could she never be there for both of her daughters? No sooner had the thought occurred to her than a feeling of shame followed along. She had never been able to voice her frustration so why would her mother expect anything other than what had always been. Following the sound of the radio into the den Leah went in.
Deborah was there, legs pulled up to her chest and arms wrapped around them. She looked frightened. Rushing over Leah took a seat next to her on the sofa and put an arm around her. Seemingly reassured by Leah's touch Deborah rested her head against her sister's shoulder and relaxed slightly. Neither made a sound as the broadcast continued on.
There are many sacrifices yet to come, though our resolve cannot waiver. The Germans believe that these ubermensch will lead them to victory. To that, I say that they are not gods but men. Men with incredible abilities but men nonetheless. Already we have begun to develop countermeasures and though the coming days may be dark I am certain that we will prevail. Years ago I told you that we were at the end of the beginning. Now I can say with certainty that we have entered the beginning of the end and that we will pass through it victoriously.
“So Martin was right.” Leah muttered aloud. Of all the things it could have been that was one of the most outlandish. Just how could a man be changed so that he could destroy entire bombing missions? The answer to that was not forthcoming, though something even more shocking was.
It is now with a heavy heart that I must relay to you another piece of bad news. Earlier today my friend and close ally, President Franklin Roosevelt, passed away suddenly.
“No!” Deborah gasped at the news. Even if the man had not been their leader he represented one of the pillars of Allied strength. Leah could hardly imagine how the Americans must feel at the moment, having lost their long time leader and facing a renewed Germany.
His Vice-President Mr Harry Truman has succeeded him. I have already spoken with President Truman and we are in agreement that we are resolved to see this war through. No German superweapon will be powerful enough to save them. So to each and every one of you I say fight on. Our soldiers on the continent and elsewhere will continue to press the enemy at every step. They will need the support of every factory worker, every doctor, every farmer, every teacher and even every paper boy. So long as each of us works as hard as we can we shall overcome this as we have every other disadvantage in this war.
The speech drew to a close and Leah sat there holding on to Deborah as the news followed. Neither of them caught much of that as they thought about what had been said.
“Do you think...” Deborah spoke suddenly, her voice cracking. As Leah looked at her sister she could see the tears forming in her eyes. “Do you think they could really win? After everything that they did? All those people that they killed and even Benjamin...”
As Deborah broke down into wordless sobs Leah embraced her even more firmly. Stroking her sister's hair she made soothing noises until Deborah had quieted.
“You heard Churchill. We have already fought them and we are going to keep on fighting them. You and me and father and mother. They won't win because we won't let them win.”
That seemed to calm Deborah a bit, even though Leah was not so sure that she believed what she was saying. In the end she tried to treat her sister like she would one of her patients. Right now she had to be the strong one so there was little time for doubt.
“You're right. You usually are,” With a few last sniffles Deborah began to wipe away her tears on the back of her hand. “I made you some sandwiches. Father called earlier and said that he would be home late and so would Mother so not to worry about them. I still thought you might want something.”
“Thank you Deborah, that sounds wonderful. But first lets get you off to bed. You'll feel better about all of this in the morning.” Gently guiding her sister up off the couch Leah managed to get her up the stairs and to her room. It was strange, Deborah was technically an adult now but Leah still could only see the little girl that had fearfully listened along to news of the declaration of war years earlier. Leaving Deborah to ready herself for bed Leah returned downstairs to retrieve the promised sandwiches and then retreated to her own room.
When working on the ward Leah felt like a strong and confident leader. Working around the house she at least felt like a reliable rock that everyone else could lean against when they needed to. It was only here in the solitude of her own room that she felt like she could stop worrying about others for a while and focus on herself.
She kept things well organized which was a small miracle in and of itself. Spending all of her waking hours outside of this room hard at one form of work or another it was a terrible irony that she kept herself just as busy while alone. Various handicrafts and projects graced her shelves and desk. Usually coming home meant trying to figure out just which one she wanted to work on first. Today there was only one thing that it could be.
Stopping first to eat part of the sandwich Leah then got out the paper she had picked up earlier. Getting out scissors and paste she took one of her many scrapbooks down and flipped through it. These had always been a way for Leah to organize the memories of her hectic life. This particular book had been begun at the start of the war and chronicled the major events throughout. It was almost full and now she worried that she might run out of room before the war was over. A silly concern considering what was at stake. Carefully clipping out the headline she got to work on cleaning it up and mounting it precisely on the next blank spot available. Finishing she had the rest of the sandwich as she tried to figure out how to occupy herself next.
Inevitably Leah's gaze turned to the nearly completed scarf that rested half-hidden at the far side of the shelf. It was supposed to have been a holiday present for Benjamin, something to keep him warm while he was deployed. He had been in North Africa previously and on his last visit home Deborah had teased him mercilessly about how he would freeze solid having to march through the snow. News of his death had come before Leah could finish the scarf and now it sat there, taunting her. There were some problems beyond her power to fix.
Flipping back through the scrapbook she looked at the last photo they had taken with him. Between his pale sisters Benjamin's deep tan and ill-advised attempt to grow a moustache looked almost comical. Even Father had laughed about it. That had been the biggest source of tension before Benjamin's death. Neither of their parents had approved of him joining the army. Though both had suggested different options they had felt that he would have been much more valuable working here on the home front than carrying a rifle around on the battlefield. He would have been much safer too. Yet Benjamin had been determined to serve his country. To her deep regret Leah had sided with him during the argument and encouraged him to join the army. Even though he still would have done it without her approval she wished that she could take those words back.
Further back there was the picture of Benjamin right before he had been sent off for training. He was in his uniform, smiling and standing tall with his arms around Leah and Deborah's shoulders. Seeing him like that had been why she could not bring herself to try and talk him out of it at the time. Nothing in his life had made him so proud as standing there ready to fight not just for Britain but for his people everywhere. After all he had said that if everyone just stayed home then the Germans would never be defeated.
Finally Leah picked up the framed photo that she kept on her desk. It was older, from when she had still been taller than both her siblings. All three of them standing there without any worries about the world at large. Long before any of them had ever heard of a death camp or the word genocide. Carrying the photo with her Leah walked over to her bed and sat down on the edge. Cradling the photo to her chest she felt tears start to roll down her face. Tears for her dead brother and the innocence that they had all lost. She had to stay strong but how could anyone be strong enough to face this?
“Why in God's name did you let me drink so much last night?” Patrick asked Al as he sat with his head cradled in his hands. It was far too early in the morning to be walking around with this kind of hangover but they had been roused from their beds and marched down to this infirmary. As to why was anyone's guess and Patrick was not in a guessing mood.
“You're a grown man, you can decide when you've had enough to drink. Besides you were pining after your French girly so we thought you might as well have something to keep your mind off of her.” Al responded plainly as ever. Sometimes Patrick wanted to sock the man in the jaw for being so practical.
“I was not pining. You meet somebody special over here you want to remember it.” Truth was he did miss Amelie. Considering that they might all be facing their deaths now who would not want to focus on one of the bright spots.
When they had been told about the German enhanced humans at first Patrick had thought it was some kind of weird joke. The way his sergeant had come down on him for cracking a remark about it convinced him that it was not. They had been rushing to be deployed until this sudden stop.
“Marshman, Al.” The nurse called and Al got up and followed her into the next room.
That meant that Patrick was next. He wondered what was going to be done. There would probably be a needle involved considering that there was a nurse. God only knew how much Patrick hated needles and that was when he did not already feel like his stomach was trying to crawl back up his throat. Taking deep breathes Patrick wondered if it was possible for him to recuperate in the few minutes before it was his turn.
It seemed like he had barely taken the first breath when Al was coming back out holding a cotton ball against his arm. Needles it was.
“O'Connor, Patrick.” The nurse called. She was a looker at least.
“Keep everything down and I'll get you some hair of the dog.” Al was monotone as ever but Patrick flashed him the two finger salute that he had picked up from the Brits as good measure. He was supposed to be the funny one.
“Alright Mr O'Connor, you can take a seat on the table there. I'll need you to roll up the sleeve on your right arm.” The nurse said as she prepared a new syringe.
“Ah, not to be a complainer or anything but I'll let you know I really hate these shots. Any chance you could just say that we did it? I am sure that I could find some way to repay you.” Patrick tried turning on his charm the best that he could. It was a bit difficult when the room seemed to sway a little bit every now and then.
“Well that might be tricky as this isn't a shot. I need to take a blood sample,” When she came over to him she did not look particularly sympathetic. He really must have been off of his game today. “I just need to tie this off and you'll been done quick enough.”
Wincing a bit as the needle pinched his arm Patrick looked away. He had seen men die and get torn up but the sight of his own blood being drawn still made him queasy. “So what are they hoping to find in there? Cause mine might still have some whisky in it.”
“I'm afraid that's classified soldier.” She replied before taking the needle out and setting to the side.
“How about your name?”
“You can go and wait with the others, we have a lot of men to go through today.” At least she smiled while taking him out the door. Sitting back down next to Al Patrick just shook his head. Hung-over, getting blood drawn and striking out with a lady. This day was already shaping up to be just dandy.
“Does this all seem a bit coincidental to you?” Al asked all the sudden.
“First they light a fire beneath us to get up north and fight whatever these German tank guys are then they pull us all off to the side to get some blood drawn? Is there something else we should be worried about?” It was a day for surprises after all. Al had now cracked a joke and sounded worried in the same conversation.
“You think to much pal. The only thing you should be worrying about is getting me something to squash this hangover with.”
Al just snorted beside him then they sat there and listened as other men were called up. As dull as it was it sure beat racing headlong towards some kind of new enemy weapon. At least until someone screamed in the back. Everyone waiting looked around, worried about what had happened. Not a minute later a few officers came barrelling out.
“Which one of you is Patrick O'Connor?” The lead man said. All of them looked shaken up.
“That would be me sir,” Patrick cautiously stood up. “What's happe-”
“Come with me.” Without a word of explanation Patrick was grabbed by the arm and marched along into the back. As they went along the hallway another nurse was being rushed along, her face covered in cuts and blood.
“Is she going to be alright?” Patrick asked as they kept up a brisk pace. Just what was going on here?
“Don't you worry about that. Now they are going to need to draw another sample of blood. Just sit down and keep quiet for now.” The officer ordered as he brought Patrick into a room where a few doctors were waiting. At least Patrick assumed that they were doctors given the white coats, one of which was also flecked with blood.
“This should just take a moment.” One of the doctors said as he came over with another syringe. Unfortunately he did not have as gentle a touch as the first nurse had. As soon as they had the sample everyone save for an MP disappeared out into the hallway.
Sitting there in silence Patrick started to sweat. What if Al was right? Maybe he had caught some kind of crazy disease but that would not explain whatever had happened to that nurse. There was a small boom from nearby, Patrick jerking his head towards the source. He felt like he had been woken up into some kind of terrible nightmare.
The man who came in next was new but the first thing that registered in Patrick's mind was a whole lot of stars on his lapels. Getting up to his feet he saluted the general though he could not place who the man was exactly.
“At ease son. Now I know that you are bound to be a bit confused right about now but we'll be telling you everything that you need to know soon enough. I just wanted to be the first to tell you that you are going to be a hero. God knows we need one right now.” The General said as he stepped forward and clasped Patrick's hand, giving it a hearty shake.
Standing there shocked Patrick could hardly make sense of anything that had just gone on. All he was able to get out was one word.
Chapter 12: Concrete Hope
“I just want to make sure that I've got this all correct,” Patrick spoke slowly as he leaned forward. “In twenty-five days I am going to be one of the strongest people on earth. Like out of a comic book. Throwing cars around and shooting lightning out of my eyes.”
“That's accurate, more or less.” Stanley replied.
“Well, neat.” At this point Patrick could not think of any other way to respond.
General Stanley Morton had been the one to proclaim that Patrick was going to be a hero. Over the last few hours Patrick had discovered that Stanley was, despite that intimidating first impression, an easy man to get along with and considerably less up his own ass than might be expected. A small comfort while trying to process the barrage of information that had been sent his way.
The incident at the clinic had only been a few hours earlier but to Patrick it might as well have been another lifetime. So far he had been briefed on what the German Battleships had shown themselves to be capable of of and therefore what he would be able to achieve in the near future. Most of that education had come in the back of a jeep heading south, away from the fighting. From what the General had told him they did not want to risk what little of the Catalyst they had anywhere near enemy lines. Not that Patrick had been informed of just where they were heading.
Sitting back in his seat Patrick pressed his eyes shut. His hangover had disappeared quickly only to be replaced by a sense of dread. He hated letting down people who relied upon him but now the expectations were far higher. If he understood Stanley then he was going to be the linchpin for holding off a superior German force long enough for Britain and the US to even out the odds. Just being a soldier was bad enough and Patrick had never wanted much more responsibility than that.
“Now I know that this is a lot to take in. We're all in the same boat right now. What I figure is that even if the means of war have changed on us all of the sudden our reasons for fighting haven't. So why did you join up?” Stanley asked in a calming tone.
“It was something to do,” Patrick's flippant response brought a snort of laughter from the older officer, who raised an eyebrow as he silently pressed for an actual answer. “Well it's the truth isn't it? I'm a big guy, I'm young and I'm healthy. If I hadn't volunteered I would have been drafted. Not like I was some big shot back home, I worked down at the docks for Christ's sake!”
“Would have figured you for a navy man then, instead you come and play in the mud with the rest of us.”
“I worked on the docks. As in I moved stuff after it came off the ships. It was bad enough having to survive on that tub on the way over here. My stomach gets a bit tender from the waves.” That was a face-saving understatement on Patrick's part. He had spent most of the voyage to Britain dry heaving in his cot. It had taken a full week for his health to return once his feet were firmly on dry land again.
“Happens to the best of us,” Stanley clapped him on the shoulder. “How about your family, anyone else come along for the ride?”
“My little brother, Eamonn, he's over in the Pacific the lucky bastard. Getting to enjoy the sun and the surf. He does pretty good on ships considering that he's a scrawny little guy. Mary, she's the oldest of us, her husband has a crap leg but I think he got some sort of desk job back home and Colleen, she's the next oldest after me, her husband is a transport pilot.” It was calming in a way to think about everyone else in his extended family who were fighting as well. Made Patrick feel a little less like he had been singled out.
“Just how many of you O'Connors are there?”
“It goes Mary, then me, Colleen, Siobhan, Eamonn and finally Annie. Plus Ma,” Seeing the unspoken question on Stanley's face Patrick added. “Dad died about eight years ago now.”
“Sorry to hear that. Always a rough thing to lose one of your parents,” After a moment Stanley's face brightened up. “ But I have two beautiful daughters so I know what it is like to be outnumbered in a household. Let me guess, are you the one who always has to get things off the top shelves?”
“That's the story of my life pal, I mean sir.” Realizing that he was getting a bit too familiar Patrick belatedly added on the honorific. Surprisingly Stanley just waved him off.
“In my books you are about to risk your ass to save a whole lot of people Patrick,” Stanley nodded to himself as he spoke. “So I won't get hung up on protocol. Now to get to why I've been dragging you down memory lane for this little trip, I firmly believe that if we are going to win this war then we need to fight for concrete things. Freedom and liberty are lovely ideals but you can't reach out and hold them. You can hold onto your family, your friends and your home. Those are what is at stake. I don't think you'll let any of them down, will you?”
“No sir,” Patrick slipped back into routine despite the General's assurances. “No I would not.”
That ended the conversation for now. After all it gave Patrick a lot to think about.
Half of the guys back on the docks were assholes so he was not too worried about letting any of them down. Then there were the folks who frequented the bars where Patrick spent most of his free time. That crowd was mostly friendly and he would hate to see the iron fist of the Nazis reach out and clamp down on the vibrant, though often chaotic, underbelly of New York. What worried him most was unsurprisingly his family.
Ma was usually a tough lady but she had cried her eyes out before Patrick and Eamonn had left. The last conversation they had before he left had involved her switching between making him promise to stay safe to making him promise to be a 'good Christian boy' over in Europe. He had already lapsed on the second promise too many times to count but he was not going to break the first one. Besides, his mother had known well enough that he would find some way to have fun just like he did at home. More than once he had considered asking one of the girls he had gone steadier with over here to marry him just to see the shocked look on his mother's face when he came home with a blushing bride. Smiling Patrick mused that at least his sense of humour still seemed to be working.
His youngest sisters Siobhan and Annie were innocent enough that they still looked up to him. They never pointed out his flaws and he loved them for it. Both had been as teary eyed as Ma while saying their goodbyes and Patrick considered his promise to come back home to them just as important.
Colleen was the odd one out of the family. She was quiet and not given to showing much emotion. With her husband having already gone off to training she had other things on her mind when Patrick was leaving. It turned out that she had been three months pregnant and that Patrick now had a chubby little nephew to meet when he came back home. That really struck him. Even if he had never met the kid he would be damned if he let him grow up in some kind of screwed up world.
Mary, well Mary just was. Over here guys thought that Patrick was tough and when he told them that they should meet his older sister they laughed at the joke. Patrick had never had the guts to tell anyone that he was not joking. Even if he was about a foot taller and a good bit heavier than Mary he held no delusions over who would win any fight between them. It had been a bit of a relief when she had gotten married and moved out. Now she ran her household as tightly as any that Patrick had ever seen, keeping her husband and two young daughters on a short leash. He could still remember what she had said to him during his send off party. Pat, don't get yourself shot now. Think of all your bastard children that you've yet to meet. She had laughed and after a moment he had laughed too. Funny how she was the only one who had not made him feel nervous about going to war.
Then there was Eamonn. Patrick's kid brother wanted nothing more than to be like him. God had other ideas though. Where Patrick was tall and broad shouldered Eamonn was shorter and lanky. While Patrick could go out into a crowd of strangers at the bar and be laughing alongside them like an old friend within an hour Eamonn never knew what to say and usually just sat off to the side nursing a pint. Though not one to go looking for fights Patrick could lay out almost any man that decided to challenge him. Eamonn was always one to stick up for people but he could not hold his own as well as his brother could.
Still Patrick wondered if Eamonn had only joined up to emulate him. Even though he was as likely to get his ass kicked as he was to win a fist fight Eamonn had always stood up to bullies. That was what this whole war boiled down to in one sense, standing up to the biggest and roughest bullies of them all. Only this fight had ended up with millions dead and God only knew how many more injured or displaced. Patrick liked to laugh about Eamonn only battling sunburn in the Pacific but he knew that there was just as much danger there as here. Much as he felt responsible for putting his little brother in danger Patrick knew that the younger man would never have been able to just sit idly by.
If Eamonn was sitting right where he was now there would be no hesitation, no doubt. Patrick was sure of that. Since he was the one sitting here he knew that he could not let Eamonn down. Terrifying as the whole prospect was Patrick would fight to the bitter end if he had to.
While Patrick had been lost in thought they had covered a few miles. Now the jeep pulled up to the gate of a small camp out in the middle of nowhere. Stanley was leaning out the window talking to the guard, who then waved them through.
“We're here.” Stanley told Patrick as they got out of the jeep.
Looking around Patrick could see nothing special about this place. A few buildings and a couple of larger tents. The usual mishmash of equipment and supplies laying around. All in all nothing that he would not have expected to see anywhere else.
“Is it crazy that I was expecting something, I don't now, a bit more imposing looking?” Patrick asked as they entered the main building.
“Discretion is the word to remember. The Germans don't know that we managed to get our hands on their secret weapon just yet and we want to keep it that way. This station was set up for us to get the process started before we move you back to safer grounds. I won't lie to you, it is going to hurt like a son of a bitch and you're going to be blacked out for a good long while. First dose seems to do the biggest number on folks.”
“Any chance I could get a drink? If I'm going to be blacking out anyways.” Patrick asked, followed by a nervous chuckle.
“Sorry son, you'll have to face this one dry. I'll see you on the other side.” Stanley held out his hand and Patrick embraced it. Once that handshake was over Patrick was in the care of the doctors who had emerged to meet them.
“This way Private O'Connor.” One of the men said as he was ushered along into the building. The interior was every bit as plain and unassuming as the exterior. There was nothing to distinguish it from any military building that Patrick had seen. Until they got into the back room.
Sitting in the centre of the room was a sturdy looking chair. Unlike most it had padded straps hanging from the arms, legs and back. Looking closely Patrick realized that it was bolted to the floor as well.
“Fellas, usually I take someone out to dinner first before I let them tie me up.”
“First time I've heard that one,” The lead doctor let out a laugh before shaking his head. “The process induces some pretty nasty seizures. This is all for your own safety. Only the first one is that bad, the later doses seem to cause less severe attacks and you'll be tougher then. For now we don't want you to hurt yourself while you're under.”
“If you say so doc.” Patrick took a seat in the chair.
They strapped him in tightly, to the point where even when he tried to move one of his limbs he could not get it more than a half inch. Next his head was secured against the padded rest so that he could not look anywhere but straight forward. There was even a broad belt placed across his stomach that kept him pressed against the back of the chair. Finally Patrick was gagged. At that moment how helpless he was right now struck home. Unable to move or even shout for help if something were to go wrong.
Putting on a pair of gloves the doctor pulled a small vial from a lock box. Inside a small piece of red stone floated in some kind of liquid. It might have been a trick of the light but Patrick could have sworn that it was glowing. The doctor cracked the seal and pulled the stone out with a pair of forceps. Freed from its liquid containment the stone was indeed glowing, like a coal right out of a fire. There was something malevolent about the light coming from that stone. Stuck as he was Patrick could feel the sweat run down his face.
“Now Private O'Connor, take a deep breath in for me and then release. That's good, just like that. This will be over before you know it.” The doctor instructed Patrick as he moved towards him. Raising the stone the man aimed it right for the middle of Patrick's forehead. Watching the man carefully move it forwards Patrick was just glad that it was not another needle. Then he felt it touch him.
The stone did not feel like a burning coal. It felt like the heat of a raging inferno had been compressed into one tiny point and now was racing freely through Patrick's body. Immediately every muscle in his body seized up. Had it not been for the straps then in all likelihood he would have launched himself right out of the chair and onto the floor. It seemed like every single nerve in his body was screaming with the worst pain imaginable. Patrick himself was screaming against the gag.
The pain just got worse as time went on. Had it been seconds or hours since it had begun, Patrick did not know. Only that he would have given anything to make it stop. So when he felt the darkness closing in on him it was more of a blessing than anything. As his conscious mind slipped away his body continued to struggle against the straps. All the while the doctors kept a close eye on the progress, making sure that he did not hurt himself beyond a bruise or two. Once the seizures finally subsided they prepared him to be transported. There was little time to lose.
Sitting in the office that the Americans had granted him Lupin could not help but compare them with their German counterparts. Overall the brief glimpse that he had been given into how the Americans operated had left a positive impression. Even if they had been the least organized army in the world they would have gotten high marks just for not being up to their waists in atrocities. If anything they were being far more pleasant than Lupin expected or wanted.
There had been plenty of questions for him but Lupin had been prepared for that. Once they had discovered that he would answer any question as fully as he could, even when the answers did not paint him in the best light, his interrogators had become less adversarial. They still checked every word that came out of his mouth as best as they could but had ceased measures such as having him sit on a crate of live ordinance. After all they had few other ways to threaten a panzermensch. What measures remained were often at Lupin's request. As much as the Americans might have seen him as a hero for helping bring knowledge of the Catalyst to them Lupin knew what he was. A hero was about the furthest thing from the truth. He deserved to be treated as a prisoner.
In the end it came down to the fact that with Stephanie having gone back to the British the Americans were desperate for an independent source of information on the ubermensch. More than once Lupin had noticed that there were some sour feelings over that. It seemed that even among the Allies there was a fear of just how badly the ubermensch could upset the balance of power. Anyone stuck without the knowledge of how to create their own would be left a second rate power at best once the dust settled. That was worrying too far ahead in Lupin's opinion. If Germany was not stopped then there might not be a Europe left in a few years. Still the circumstances were such that even if he had been as slimy of a malcontent as there ever had been the Americans would have treated him like gold for what he knew. He did not like it but he had lived with worse things on his conscience.
There was a knock at the door.
“Enter.” Lupin replied as he stood up from his desk and stood at attention. After all what kind of prisoner would go about his work when a guard approached him? Seeing who entered the room Lupin raised his hand in a salute, quickly correcting the straight arm to the American style. General Morton was overseeing this project and though he might not stand on ceremony, Lupin did.
“At ease,” The General ordered as he took a seat. “And you might as well sit down. You'll need it.”
“What's happened sir, I thought that you were not due back for another week?” Lupin asked. The plan had been for the General to oversee the testing of as many of the American forces as possible before they were redeployed. Not that the regular forces would stand much of a chance against a Battleship or even massed panzermensch. At best they could only give their lives to slow any German advance. Once enough candidates had been gathered and activated they would be brought together for training.
“Well, that was before we found ourselves a Battleship.” Morton smiled as he replied.
It took a moment for Lupin to process that. He knew the odds and it hardly seemed possible.
“Not to be disrespectful sir but this is not a joke, correct? I do have some trouble telling when you Americans are trying to be funny.”
“No joke. He's already had the primary activation and is sleeping off the aftermath. I came back here with him so that we can start training him and the tankmen that we've found so far. Sooner he is trained the sooner the boys back in Washington can sleep a bit easier.”
Lupin clapped his hands together in a moment of joy before bringing himself under control again. Perhaps he had managed to steal Sankt's luck along with his research.
“This is incredible news sir. I shall finish translating the training materials at once and will be ready to begin when needed.” Lupin was almost trembling with excitement. He had condensed all of the most successful parts of the panzermensch training program that they had developed at the camp into a more streamlined version for the Americans. It was mostly to get the new tankmen acclimatized to their powers. Tactics and strategy would be decided on by Allied commanders based off of watching what successes the Germans had.
“You'll have a few days for that. Once everyone has had their three doses we will start the training. We want a cohesive unit ready to hit the field as soon as they have matured,” The General paused as he looked Lupin over. “Now there is something else that I want to ask you to do. Something that I think is vital to the success of this whole endeavour.”
“I am at your disposal sir.”
“So our new Battleship, his name is Patrick O'Connor. You know all three of the German Battleships, maybe not well but you know them. What I want you to do is to let Patrick know that he is not going up against Sieglinde or Siegfried or what have you, but that is is going up against people just like himself. They have flaws and they have weaknesses. He needs to see them as humans that he can beat in a fight, not some sort of unstoppable weapons. You get me?” The General relaxed slightly when Lupin nodded, though the German did often have trouble following the American's little figures of speech. “That's good. I've already reminded him of what he is fighting for, you need to give him an accurate picture of what he is fighting against. He has a big enough family that the first one might be all the motivation he needs but I hate leaving things to chance.”
“Family?” The word had brought something to Lupin's mind. He even dispensed with his usual care as he rushed to get the question out. “How many? Siblings, children?”
“A brother and four sisters.” The General's eyebrows narrowed as he tried to figure out what Lupin was getting at.
“It was in one of the documents that I handed over, surely someone else would have made the connection soon enough, we need to test all of them immediately,” Lupin rambled breathlessly until he realized that Morton was still looking at him confused. “We never had a big enough selection to really figure out how it worked but siblings have a much higher chance of testing positive. There were three sets of brothers at the project. This might not just be one Battleship, with five siblings and who knows how many cousins we might be sitting on several! This could change everything, having found even one so soon...”
“Christ Almighty, just when I thought that this little miracle could not get any more miraculous. The brother is deployed in the Pacific right now but he shouldn't be too hard to track down. All the sisters will be at the front of the line for the first tests that make it back stateside. You just made my day son!” The General slapped his palm across his thigh as he channelled Lupin's excitement.
Even as the General continued to praise the turn of events Lupin felt his own happiness wither. He kept a smile on his face of course. When he had come to terms with betraying his country Lupin had hoped that his efforts would help make the coming bloodbath a little more manageable. Now there was a genuine hope that the worst might be avoided. Perhaps that would be enough to make up for everything that he had done. It was a terrible thing, praying that you could help build up weapons to defeat weapons you had already had a hand in making. In the end it did not matter how Lupin felt about things. A life saved was a life saved and this had the potential to save very many lives.
Chapter 13: An Important Decision
Flipping through the sketches that Speer had given her Klaudia tried to decide which project she would try next. Some of the plans were just of specific architectural elements, mostly columns and arches. The kind of things that cropped up frequently in the monuments that the Leader wanted to build across Berlin. Those were the simpler ones to create but Klaudia found that her interests lay in a different part of Speer's notes. He had drawn up various models of housing that he thought she might be able to efficiently create. These ranged from simple single dwelling buildings to multi-story apartment tenements. Those who survived the Allied bombings all too often found themselves without a home to return to so new homes was one of the many things that Germany critically needed.
The aftermath of Klaudia repelling the Allied air raid had not been pleasant. She could not even remember being taken back to the flaktower and had spent most of the next day laying in bed. Everything had hurt from her head down to her toes. Worse for Klaudia's temper was that Scheele had been put in charge of the team of doctors that came to inspect her condition. Sankt's former adjutant had barely been able to hide her satisfaction at seeing Klaudia in such a state. As much as she had wanted to send the other woman through a wall she had been able to swallow her anger. After all she had been able to protect the city in the end. That gave her a measure of satisfaction that no one would ever be able to take from her.
While the extent of her condition was a closely guarded secret as soon as Klaudia no longer outwardly appeared unwell the visits had started. The Leader had come to congratulate her and soon after there had been a positive deluge of high ranking government officials and Party members. Speer was the only one that Klaudia cared to remember. A well spoken and polite man he had heard about her experiments with using the halo for creation and was very interested in how her gifts might be used to help the Reich outside of warfare. Their conversation had even been able to pierce the depression that had fallen over Klaudia. Hearing Speer lay out plans for new communities built entirely through the power of the halo had given her a measure of hope that there might be something worth living for after all. While Klaudia's thirst for revenge was nowhere near sated it was still welcome to hear about other possibilities. She would never have the life that she had wanted but maybe she could build something else.
Pushing aside those thoughts of the future Klaudia set her stack of drawings down and began to walk around one of the test houses she had already created. Her technique still needed much more practice but the walls were largely square and the measurements nearing the tolerances needed if she was to mass produce these at any point. While the floor, walls and roof were all simple enough to make Klaudia had been unable to create anything approaching glass so windows would need to be installed later. Other elements like electrical wiring and plumbing would also have to be added in by regular means as they seemed too complex to create with the halo, at least for now.
“Mrs Hoch?” A well dressed man asked as he approached her. Looking him over Klaudia did not recognize him.
“Yes?” Klaudia replied. Turning away from inspecting the building she walked over to him, seeing the all too familiar fear in his eyes as she stood towering over him. For those not used to it being in the presence of a Battleship would be an awe inspiring moment.
“I,” The man took a moment to clear his throat. “I have been sent by the Reichsmarschall to inquire if you would be available to have dinner with him this evening. He has some matters of great urgency that he would like to discuss with you.”
It took a moment for Klaudia to realize just who he was speaking of. Goering wanted to meet with her? After her experiences over the last few days that was not particularly shocking, it seemed like everyone who had the slightest scrap of power wanted to speak with her. As the only Battleship not on the front it was to be expected she supposed. What came as a surprise was that this was an invitation. Most of the others had demanded access to her.
“Certainly. Tell the Reichsmarschall that I am at his disposal.”
“Excellent. We will have a car sent round to pick you up.” The man saluted her then turned and walked away, no doubt to get everything prepared. Also undoubtedly relieved to be away from the presence of a living god.
Watching the man depart Klaudia wondered what she had just agreed to. She had appreciated Speer as he had seemed genuinely interested in her. The others who had been successful in getting some of her time had all been varying degrees of charming but in the end none of them were interested in anything other than what she could do for them. Klaudia had realized that for them she was the lever by which they could elevate themselves or dislodge their foes. That so many in the government could carry on with such politicking while Germany burned sickened her. Yet she held her tongue and saved that displeasure for use on the battlefield. Even if she could not strike out at them she would make certain that someone felt her ire later on. Goering, the fat bumbling fool that he was, would likely provide plenty of fuel for Klaudia's anger.
It was almost certain that he would want a demonstration of her halo so Klaudia did not bother creating anything else today. She would push herself as hard as she could in battle but for now she had no intention of exhausting herself so thoroughly again without a good reason. After all what if another Allied attack came and she was laying there barely able to move? Not that another attack on Berlin was likely. The Allies were not stupid enough to send more men to their certain deaths for no gain.
Returning to inspecting the buildings that she had willed into existence Klaudia continued to note where improvements needed to be made. If she were to begin making large numbers of these houses paint would be the first thing they needed. The substance that she used to make the walls was strong but also depressing to look at in any large amount. So far no matter how she tried Klaudia had been unable to figure out how to make anything else. That made her think of Werner. How when they had compared their ability he had been able to create such detailed little things but had been unable to match the scale that Klaudia was capable of. She wondered how he was doing.
So far all that she had been told was that good progress was being made pushing back the Soviets. Details were scarce. Thinking back to his confession that he had once wanted to become a carpenter Klaudia wondered if one day he might join her in repairing Germany. Too much had been sacrificed to ever call the war won but they might yet be able to prevent it from becoming a loss. At the very least seeing how exhaustion effected her they would know not to push the others too hard on the battlefield. Though part of Klaudia very much wanted to see Markus knocked down a few pegs. The little sadist's smile at the ceremony before they had departed had been unpleasant to look at. He would be in his element now, fighting against those who had no chance to fight back.
Not that she was any better Klaudia knew. At least she had enough decency to be disgusted by the satisfaction that it brought her. Some of the time at least.
Time flew by and before long the car arrived to take Klaudia to her promised dinner. Some observant individual had removed the passenger seat so at the very least she could stretch her legs out rather than having to bunch them up like usual. It was strange how such a little things made her happy these days. Living in a world that was too small and frail for her was taxing on her nerves.
As they travelled into the heart of Berlin Klaudia smiled to see that more and more rubble was being cleared away. Now that the safety of the city had been secured efforts to remove signs of the previous damage had been doubled. They arrived at an opulent residence that was largely untouched. The inside was just as grand as the exterior, a display of wealth that caused Klaudia some discomfort. What was she doing rubbing elbows with the rich and powerful elite of Germany? No matter how much they might disgust her at times these were the people who ran the country. After seeing the names in the papers and hearing them on the radio for years it was disconcerting to be dropped into their midst. Seeing them up close, much like seeing the Leader up close, filled Klaudia with a sense of dread
for the future.
Then she found herself ushered into another room and face to face with Goering, the door shutting behind her and leaving them alone with each other. At first glance she wondered how the man had even managed to fit himself into his uniform. With a skip in his step the corpulent man strode over to meet her, moving with much more energy than she would have thought a man his size would be able to muster.
“Mrs Hoch, it is a delight to meet you at last. Or would you prefer Klaudia?” Goering asked as he took her hand in both of his, pressing a kiss against her ring finger. Looking into his eyes Klaudia could not see even the slightest hint of fear. If anything he looked amused and ever so slightly unfocused.
“You may use whichever you like,” Without really thinking Klaudia added a little barb onto the end. “So long as I may call you Mr Meyer.”
For a moment Klaudia worried that she had pressed her luck too far until Goering burst out in laughter. Covering his mouth as he recovered the man was still all smiles when he spoke again.
“I admit that was a poorly thought out boast and one which I do deserve to be reminded of. If you wish it then Mr Meyer I shall be tonight! For now, let us start with some wine,” Goering led her to the centre of the room where a table and chairs had been laid out. Notably one was large enough for Klaudia to sit in comfortably if so low that she had to extend her legs out in front of her. It almost felt as though she was reclining on a sofa. Picking up the crystal decanter from the table Goering poured them each a glass, with Klaudia getting hers in a large and heavy looking metal goblet. “A toast to Germany and her saviours!”
Meeting Goering's toast Klaudia took a sip of the wine to cover her shock. So far this was like nothing she had dealt with in the last few days. The other men who had come to meet her had been many things. Imperious, desperate and scheming were some of the more common attitudes. None of them had been even a fraction as jovial as Goering seemed to be. For certain none of them would have taken an insulting joke near as well as he had.
“Quite good isn't it? An Italian vintage, one that was particularly difficult to acquire even before most of their country fell into enemy hands,” Goering settled himself into the other chair, leaning heavily onto the arm as he swirled the wine in his glass and looked at her. The smile on his face slipped into a more sombre expression as he continued. “That, if you were wondering, was what I wished to speak about tonight. If you were to look at a map of Europe only a few years ago our control stretched from the English Channel almost to Moscow. Now we barely hold the our own country. If it were not for the miraculous discovery of you ubermensch I shudder to think what would have happened.”
“Well I can make certain that the skies are safe at least.” Klaudia replied. She kept back a remark about how he had not been able to do so. No need to antagonize him any further given that his reasons for this meeting seemed genuine.
“Indeed you can. Which is why I would like to offer you a place in the Luftwaffe. With a suitable rank of course, I was thinking Lieutenant-General.” Goering looked absolutely serious as he spoke. Which made no sense given what he was saying.
“What?” Was all that Klaudia could muster. Of everything that she might have expected from this meeting this was so bizarre, so outlandish, that she could hardly believe that it was happening.
“You hold no position in the Wehrmacht currently so there would be no conflict there. Don't be intimidated by the rank either, you'll be provided with a staff that will plan your missions and the like for you. We need you out in the field after all, not cooped up at headquarters. It is more about showing the proper appreciation for your role as one of the most powerful weapons in the Reich,” Goering took a sip of wine and continued on. “Besides, your late husband was an upstanding member of the Luftwaffe. I have looked over his service records and they were impeccable. Certainly he would have been proud of you picking up the torch?”
“Do not speak of Leon.” It was a simple flat statement that carried an implicit threat. Klaudia was not about to have her dead husband be used as a string to lead her around. The metal goblet deformed as her fingers tightened around it. When some of the wine slopped over the side Klaudia set it on the table rather than risk destroying it utterly.
“I meant no disrespect. After all I have been through the same as you. You know of my first wife?” Still showing no fear Goering waited until Klaudia nodded before he continued. She had heard only a little but she knew that the woman had died over a decade before. “Carin was the light of my life. It is no boast when I say that without her I would not be even a shadow of the man I am today nor would this nation have achieved half so much as it did. Without her support our rise to power would have been far more difficult. But as noble of a woman as she was her health was frail. Watching her slip away over the last days of her life almost undid me. Not a day goes by when I do not think about her.”
Far from the lighthearted tone that he had sported earlier Goering now spoke slowly and deliberately, looking directly into Klaudia's eyes as he did. She could see that he meant every word that he said. His story resonated with her too. After all the pain that was apparent in his voice all these years later echoed what she felt now, of watching their spouses waste away before finally losing them.
“I apologize for snapping at you. It is just that Leon's death, well, I have not yet had a chance to come to terms with it.”
“It's quite alright, I understand completely. Having him torn away from you so suddenly. When Carin died I cursed nature for the illness that took her. For Leon you have a much more concrete target to direct your rage against. Which is why I made this offer in the first place.”
“Truly, it is a flattering offer but I am not sure how it will help me.” Klaudia was certain that there was something more that Goering was fishing for, no matter how candid he was with her.
“It will give you something to focus on. The pain of loss eats away at us if we let it. If you turn on it, use it to motivate yourself, then not only can great things be achieved but you will come to terms with your grief much quicker.”
“That does make sense,” It was in keeping with what Goering had said so far, though Klaudia still wondered what his play was exactly. “I would presume you have a plan?”
“Of course. Though I did also promise you a dinner.” Goering clapped his hands and the doors opened, a group of Luftwaffe officers coming in and setting up for a presentation. They were followed shortly by servants bearing plates of food.
Unlike her meetings with the Leader here Klaudia was not given a bowl of glucose paste. What was on her plate was the same that was on Goerings, some kind of pork in a heavy sauce.
“I'm not sure if they told you but we can't eat regular food anymore. It won't do anything to touch our hunger.” Klaudia began to explain before Goering cut her off with a wave of his fork.
“You can still taste though, can't you?” He asked before taking his first bite.
Klaudia honestly could not remember the last time that she had eaten a regular meal. She had been given the paste for so long that it had become second nature to think of only it as food. Up until now she had not even really considered that she could still eat normal food just for the enjoyment of it. Feeling embarrassed at the sudden revelation Klaudia followed Goering's lead and had a piece of the pork. Having something savoury, that had actual texture, was rapturous. By the time that the officers were ready to begin speaking Klaudia had already cleared her plate. It was quickly replaced by another.
“With the supervision of the Reichsmarschall we have formulated this plan of action. Over the next few weeks it will allow us to greatly strengthen our position on the Western Front while also keeping you in range of the major cities of Germany should another air raid be launched. After your last performance there is a very low likelihood of the Allies risking so many planes at once. We expect the bombing to be kept to smaller missions that will be more of a nuisance than anything.”
The plan was bold and would require an incredible amount of effort over a short period of time. It was to strike past the front to free pockets of captured soldiers from the recent failed counter-offensives. With Klaudia providing cover the Allies would be unable to respond to this with a large organized force, lowering the risk to the soldiers. Once they had gotten as many prisoners back as they could she would be free to damage Allied supply lines and camps. If luck was on their side Klaudia might be able to punch all the way through to the Channel, cutting off the enemy forces in the Netherlands and leaving the potential for taking vast numbers of American and British prisoners. Should that happen between the ubermensch and such a loss the Western Allies would be put into a untenable position.
When all was said and done Goering looked at Klaudia expectantly. For a moment she hesitated. There was Speer and all of his ideas for rehousing Germany. Yet what point was there to rebuild the country when it was still at risk? If Klaudia could shatter the Allies in the West now then it would make things so much simpler later. As well she did yearn for another opportunity at vengeance.
That was the deciding factor. She did not need anymore time to think about her decision.
“Reichsmarschall, I would be honoured to accept your offer.”
“When I was a kid my dad saved up enough money that we were able to go out to Atlantic City for a week. On the second day I begged him to buy me this big thing of cotton candy. He did, then I ate it until I got sick and threw it up all over the boardwalk. For some reason this reminds me a lot of that day.” Patrick said as he tossed his spoon down into the bowl. The glucose paste in his gut twisted a little as he thought about all the sugar forcing its way back up out of him all those years before. This was even worse than trying to keep things down after a dozen beers.
“Well that put me right off eating. Thanks buddy.” The large man across from Patrick was a fellow New Yorker who went by 'Top' Spinelli. Caught up in all this craziness it was nice to have someone from back home to share it with. They both came from the same background so it was also nice to have someone's balls to bust.
The mess had fourteen men in it other than Patrick, each and every one of them seven feet tall. Even though he had been subjected to the same number of treatments as the rest of them Patrick had barely grown two inches. He also was not as fit looking as them and considering that he had been in fine shape before that was saying something. Maybe they had gotten something wrong?
Over the last few days there had been a lot of time to wonder about things. Every morning they would get Patrick up and give him his dose of Catalyst. When he finally came to around six hours later it was off to the mess hall of a bowl of paste followed by some time to relax and recover. Another bowl of paste in the evening and then into bed to start it all over the next day. They had been letting the guys all get to know each other but everyone knew that some kind of training was coming soon enough. As good soldiers they all relished the time to relax as best as they could.
Seeing Stanley come in Patrick stood at attention like every other man. The General had come in to check on them every day and had spoke to all of them in private at one point or another. This felt different though. He had the look of someone about to issue an order.
“At ease,” Stanley waited for them all to relax then continued. “Now I know that all of you have had a lot of questions about was has been going on and what we will be doing in the near future. I have not been able to give you much when it comes to answers. That is going to change right now. If you'll all follow me the training of the 1st Enhanced US Army Corps is about to begin.”
Everyone fell into line behind the General as he lead them down the hall into a large meeting room. Patrick still was not sure where they were exactly. It might still have been France but there was a decent chance that it was somewhere in Britain. The base was kept locked up tight so there was no chance to take a stroll out and chat with the locals.
Taking a seat Patrick watched as Stanley went up to stand beside another tankman that he had not seen before.
“This here is Lupin Schultz, formerly of the Wehrmacht. He is the reason that you are all sitting here and why we actually have a chance at fighting back against the Germans. Everything that a German tank man knows, Lupin is going to tell you. He risked his ass and a lot more to get here so listen up and listen well.” Nodding to the tank man Stanley took a seat to watch the presentation.
This answered some of Patrick's questions about how they had managed to get a hold of whatever the Germans had created. There was a sense of unease around the room as everyone looked at the German turncoat. After all it was his former buddies that were tearing apart Europe. Despite the harsh looks he was receiving from the crowd Lupin looked relaxed as the lights dimmed and a projector began to run.
“Thank you for that introduction General Morton,” Lupin bowed his head to the general. “So almost all of you have finished your activation and are feeling very strong, yes?”
There was a murmur of agreement through the crowd. No one had really had a chance to do anything to really test how much they had changed but the little things were already apparent.
“I want to start by telling you a little story. One of the first tankmen that we managed to activate in Germany was a fellow by the name of Wolfgang. Now Wolfgang completed his activation just like you men and a week later he was feeling better than he ever had in his life. They were changing an engine out of a truck that day so he decided to make himself useful, and to show off a bit, by lifting up the engine without a hoist or anything. This is the aftermath,” The slide behind Lupin changed to show a man laying on a table. His head was a bloody mess and his arms both appeared to have been badly broken. “The strain of lifting the motor over his head caused the bones in both of his forearms to simultaneously break, which in turn resulted in the motor falling on his head and fracturing his skull. He spent the next few weeks in a coma until it became clear that he would never recover. So you are wondering now, how did that happen? Until a full month after the activation is complete all tankmen are in a state of flux called the maturation period. During this period you may notice sudden fluctuations in your durability, strength and endurance. My advice is to be certain avoid any physical activity beyond what you would have attempted before your activation during the next two weeks and to still remain cautious for the remainder of the maturation period. Do not even think about using your halo outside of training exercises as it can be even more unstable.”
Looking at the body in the photo was a sobering experience for Patrick at least. So far all they knew was that the Germans had been able to use their tankmen very effectively. Seeing that they could still die to some stupid thing like that took some of the wind out of everyone's sails.
“My second word of warning is that even when the maturation period is over none of you tankmen will be able to fight a Battleship one on one. We are not certain of the numbers we will need just yet but once you are in the field remain aware of your surroundings and do not engage unless they are utterly outnumbered.”
“I'll add something on to that,” Stanley stood up and swapped places with Lupin. “We are going to be outnumbered by the Germans for a while even after all of you are ready for combat. So we will be playing this smart. Wherever the Battleships are, you will be somewhere else until we are certain that the odds are in our favour. I would advise all of you who are not used to hiking to get ready for it.”
Patrick had heard stories about some of the commando units that they had running around even if he had never met any of them. That sounded a lot like what they were going to be doing. Looking for soft targets, hitting the Germans then falling back before they came under fire. It was a riskier kind of war than Patrick was used to but he could see how it would be an advantage considering their new abilities.
“Indeed General. Though it is not all gloomy. We do have a Battleship with us right here,” Lupin gestured towards Patrick, bringing everyone's eyes towards him. “He might not look it but in a month he will be running circles around all of us.”
“The way to look at it is that even though we are calling you all tankmen you should still think of yourself as infantry. Very well equipped infantry but the point remains. Now O'Connor here is going to be the artillery. Your job is to keep the enemy off him so that he can kill the enemy before they kill you.”
Smiling weakly Patrick waved to the rest of the guys. This was a lot of pressure to have foisted on him all of the sudden. Though the metaphor was welcome. Who did not love artillery, at least when it was not being fired at you? At least now he knew why he was not as large as the other guys. It was just a matter of time.
The presentation carried on in a much less dire fashion. Lupin must have decided to load all of the shocking stuff at the front to get their attention. He and the General took turns speaking, with Lupin telling them mostly about how their abilities worked and Stanley talking about how they would be put to use. Patrick noticed that for as many things that Lupin told them what he knew there were twice as many that he admitted that no one knew. They all really were together in the dark on this. Between all the little details, land speeds and distortion halos, Patrick did recover some of his confidence. American success had come in great part from facing the unknown so far as he understood it. Just like those who had come before him he would face this challenge and overcome it.
Chapter 14: Casualties
“What a fucking mess.” Hagen did not bother looking up from the casualty reports as he spoke. From where she was sitting Anita saw no reason to contradict his assessment.
The attack on the Soviets had been successful in terms of ground gained and forces captured. Where it had been an utter disaster was how many ubermensch lives it had cost. There had been casualties among the conventional soldiers as well but that did not concern Anita beyond how many of them had not been tested yet. Rather than terrorizing the Soviets into submission this assault may have inadvertently shown them that resistance was still possible, at least for the time being.
“Himmler had fifty panzermensch and two Battleships. He had the rest of the forces in Vistula. How the hell did he manage to get nine panzermensch killed and another fourteen injured? Over a quarter of our ubermenschen gone in a few days. There were twenty at Strasbourg and they did not lose a single one taking the city!” Tossing the papers down onto his desk Hagen looked towards Anita, as if she could explain whatever tactical blunders Himmler had made. Sankt had given her a decent enough overview of his thoughts on the use of the panzermensch that she could at least point out a few flaws.
“You already said the key word: city. Strasbourg was one contained area where the panzermensch could move in groups and be safe from most of the weapons capable of harming them. Here they were attacking across open country and into small towns alone, with the nearest panzermensch reinforcements near a kilometre away most of the time. You were there when I warned Himmler that the panzermensch were not a miracle. They needed more time on full rations to build their strength. It is a wonder that we did not lose even more.” Anita rattled off the things that immediately came to mind. All of them were things that Himmler had been cautioned about but he had chosen to forge ahead anyways.
“Is it possible that there was something wrong with the activations? Even with everything that you said to lose that many...”
“The activation works just as it is supposed to,” Anita might have only been an administrator at Sankt's project but Hagen's subtle accusation still annoyed her. Given that she was also a panzermensch it felt rather personal. “As far as weapons go the ubermensch are perfect. But they are still humans. Some of those reports say that there were panzermensch using their halos at point blank range. That close someone would not need much luck to disrupt the halo with a bullet. We trained them not to do it but I am told that combat is much different from a drill. I would be surprised if they remember even half of what they learned."
Hagen seemed to accept that as he went back to looking over the reports. No doubt he was certain that the Wehrmacht would have done a much better job than the SS. From what Anita had seen that opinion was probably accurate. Despite all of his power Himmler seemed to be hard pressed to come up with a coherent plan for using the ubermensch other than just throwing them at the Soviets. Even as they sat here Guderian was having an audience with Hitler. The attack might have been a success overall but there were enough rough edges that the Heer could try and pry some ubermensch free from Himmler's grasp. When it came to the grudges between the various factions Anita paid close attention. These were all things that might be useful when it came to finally replacing Hitler.
“Is there any chance that the Soviets might be able to learn anything from the bodies they recovered?” Hagen's head shot up as if he had just thought of that. Had he paid closer attention to Anita then he would have already known the answer.
“None. Even if they had a sample of the Catalyst itself I doubt they could reverse engineer it in a thousand years.” Knowing the chemicals needed to create the Catalyst was only scratching the surface. The process of creating it was so convoluted and counter-intuitive that even chemists who had made dozens of batches failed every now and then. All that the Soviets might learn from the bodies was that the panzermensch did have certain vulnerabilities. Anita would make sure that countering that knowledge was put at the forefront of training the next wave of ubermensch.
Germany's victory was all but assured at this point no matter what the Soviets did. Testing had been slow to begin but soon enough every panzermensch lost would be replaced by ten new ones. Without access to the Catalyst itself all the Allies could do was prolong the war. Given how much of their Catalyst stores Hitler had seen fit to give away the Allies would be having that problem on every front soon.
The Italians had been the first to benefit from Hitler's generosity, though in truth it would only serve to bind them even tighter to the Reich. In the mountainous terrain of northern Italy the panzermensch would be devastatingly effective at stifling the American advance until a Battleship could be sent to remove them from the peninsula entirely. It was the decision to furnish Japan with two hundred panzermensch activations worth of Catalyst that troubled Anita. While it would not delay their own efforts by long the journey to get it to Japan would be dangerous. Several u-boats had been dispatched to reduce the risk of any single one being sunk but a few lucky torpedoes could waste months of effort.
While Anita might not think the risk was worth it she did appreciate the logic behind arming the Japanese. The Soviets were the immediate threat but the Americans would need to be dealt with eventually. Forcing them to divert more of their forces to the Pacific could only relieve the pressure here in Europe. In that window of opportunity Germany would do everything that it could to regain control of the continent.
“At the very least General Guderian should be able to get Siegmund back under Wehrmacht control. Seeing these numbers he is obviously the more valuable of the pair. Cleared more ground in less time.” Even though Hagen might not care much whether they had Siegfried or not Anita knew that the military wanted full control over all the Battleships. Something they were not likely to get anytime soon. Markus was too much of a true believer to ever be torn away from Hitler and Himmler's mad schemes and Klaudia had managed to get herself wrapped around one of Goering's fat fingers.
For Werner's sake Anita did try to give Klaudia some benefit of the doubt but that self-absorbed child did not even seem to realize that Goering only wanted her as a pawn to reassert his waning power over the Reich. If Klaudia wanted to spend the next month running around Belgium and the Netherlands Anita really did not care. Not a day went by that she did not wish that their situations were reversed though. The power of a Battleship needed a clear thinking mind behind it, not some moody girl trying to avenge a boy who had been dead for years. Sadly the Catalyst did not give them that choice.
“It's simple to see what happened. Werner destroyed his targets and moved on. Markus likes to get close and take his time.” She could not say it here but Anita was sure that Hagen knew that one was a professional soldier and the other a pathetic sadist. Klaudia might have been a poor choice for a Battleship but Markus was an utter waste of flesh. It spoke volumes about the state that Germany was in that he was well on his way to becoming Hitler's favourite. Once Markus realized that he actually had some authority it would just make his excesses even worse.
“There is something else that I have been wanting to talk to you about,” Anita waited until she had Hagen's full attention. As it stood she had been removed from all of her supervisory roles to act as an advisor on the ubermensch. Project Lightning was completely out of her hands. On some level Anita believed that they suspected her of being complicit with Sankt but for now they had nothing to prove it. She needed to make herself useful not only to keep safe but to keep sane. “It has to do with the injured panzermensch.”
“I'm listening.” Hagen said as he folded his hands and leaned back. Nonchalant as he looked Anita knew she had a possible solution to what would only be a growing problem. Try as they might panzermensch would continue to get injured and they were still very much like ordinary humans in that their wounds did not heal on their own.
“The halo might be useful when it comes to repairing their injuries. While most of our research focused on its destructive power it does have the ability to create and also to rearrange.” Anita left out that the process would be slow and painful. Panzermensch durability was insufficient to make them invincible but it did render them beyond the help of all known means of anaesthesia. There simply was not a drug in existence powerful enough to relieve the pain from any injuries that an ubermensch received. That should be incentive enough for most to be extra cautious in battle once they realized the full consequences.
“Are you certain about that? I know that you did some sculpting before the war but putting a person back together is a bit harder than messing around with a lump of clay.”
“At the camp Sankt brought in a few of the Poles from the testing program, ones who had been found to be potential panzermensch. Once we had the means to contain them we fully activated them and were able to carry out some experiments. It is how we learned most of what we know about the limits of panzermensch durability. While there was not enough time to fully investigate it then I was able to make some rudimentary repairs. Enough to extend their usefulness.” Messing around with clay? That got under Anita's skin. Just because she had been forced to take secretarial work to make ends meet did not mean that she had lost any of her passion for the arts. She might not know as much as a doctor but she knew far more about anatomy than Hagen could ever hope to.
“I've not gotten around to reading those reports yet. How exactly did you 'contain' a panzermensch?” Hagen looked rather incredulous at the thought. How little he knew.
“There are precautions that can be taken prior to the activation. Namely that the halo is directly linked to having functioning eyes. Someone without eyes cannot produce a halo. Similarly any tendons that you cut in the arms and the legs do not grow back. Without the halo and much, if any, mobility containment is a simple affair.”
Hagen looking away in revulsion reminded Anita of just how morbid the work had been. She had derived no joy from it and merely remembered it in a clinical manner. They had needed information and enough German potentials had been lost just trying to get the activation to work correctly. It was not as if those Poles could have been left alive anyways given what they were. Everyone had been forced to make sacrifices in this war.
“I will ask if there are any volunteers,” Hagen replied once he had pulled himself back together. “If we find anyone then you can work on them but only under strict oversight. These are German soldiers after all.”
“Of course.” Anita had gotten what she wanted. Hagen was fooling himself to think that any of the injured panzermensch would not leap at the opportunity to stop their pain.
Eventually they would find some potentials who had actual medical experience. In the worst case those who had an aptitude could at least receive medical training. Having just won the right to try Anita was not about to reveal her doubts as to how far her own abilities would stretch. Surface injuries would be the simplest to fix. Deeper wounds such as broken bones would require far more effort. Halo distortions were next to impossible to control without direct line of sight to their target. They would have to burn their way down to the break, repair it and then rebuild all of the layers up to the skin. All while the patient was entirely aware of what was happening.
It would be difficult work but it was necessary. Even after the war was won there would still be occasions where a panzermensch might hurt himself. Without knowing how to fix their own injuries the new superior form of human would have difficulty showing their full potential.
Both of them gave a start as the telephone on Hagen's desk rang. Listening in to the brief conversation that followed Anita was able to surmise that Guderian was calling in new orders based off of his meeting with Hitler. If only Luther had not already been sent off. She was not supposed to know anything about the geltmensch and their missions but he had checked in with her before departing. All three were to proceed to Britain, where Luther was to remain while the others went on to the United States. Information about what the Western Allies were up to would be critical for making the German counter-offensives proceed smoothly. No matter how powerful the Battleships were there were only three and they were limited in how long they could remain active. Knowing where and when to strike would make the use of the Battleships far more efficient.
It was slightly amusing to Anita that in spite of their general disdain for Sankt everyone seemed to have agreed with his assessment of how the geltmensch should be used. There was little point in training one to speak Russian when it was shortly to become a dead language. Already the testing process was searching for more candidates who could speak English or had the skills to make a good infiltrator. A single geltmensch in the right place could be worth hundreds of panzermensch, a dozen of them working in union might be able to bring the United States to its knees with little bloodshed. Germany had bled enough already.
“We get Siegmund at least.” Hagen sighed as he put the receiver down.
“I would assume that Himmler keeps Siegfried then?”
“And the bulk of the panzermensch. They are to continue into Poland while Siegfried joins the assault into Hungary and Romania. Sieglinde gets the twenty in Strasbourg to cover the whole Western front,” Even though this was essentially what the Heer had wanted Hagen hardly sounded happy about it. “Though I doubt Siegfried will make much progress even with all those panzermensch.”
Anita did not need to ask why. Bundled with the casualties were the reports on the number of prisoners taken. She was fully aware of what would happen to those men. Not that she was overly squeamish about it, the Soviets needed to be destroyed if Germany were to survive, it was just not something she cared to be directly involved in. Markus though, he would relish every moment of it. The war effort would depend on how quickly he could be made to take care of the problem and move on.
Considering who still ruled the Reich Anita did not know if speed would even be a priority. A desire for vengeance still ruled the day.
From the crest of the hill Markus beamed with pride as he looked down over the mass of Soviet prisoners below. His first real battle had been an incredible victory. All those long hours of war games and reading the classic manuals of warfare had finally born fruit. The Soviets that were not sitting disarmed in the muck below him were either in camps very much like this or retreating back into the East. Soon enough they would be dealt with too. There would be no escape for the cowardly Bolsheviks this time.
Anyone who looked closely would see that it was not meant to be a permanent enclosure. The guard posts were makeshift and the barbed wire insufficient to hold back the prisoners if they made a concerted effort to escape. A few displays from the panzermensch deployed around the edges of the fence had broken what little will these men had left. Now they just sat there docilely, like pigs waiting to be taken to market. If only they knew what was in store for them today. They were to be given a spot in the history books.
“Siegfried, the Reichsfuhrer is coming this way!” One of the men below shouted up towards Markus. While he would have preferred that the man show more respect for his position that was quickly overwhelmed by his excitement that Himmler had finally arrived. They would be starting soon now that he was here.
During the few days that he had been in Berlin Markus had been given the opportunity to speak with the Leader and the Reichsfuhrer daily. Himmler was every bit as much a genius as Markus had thought he would be. The vision that the man had painted of the future had taken Markus's breath away.
The cities of the east would be swept away under the might of German halos while the masses of Slavs, Jews, Gypsies and other undesirables that shelter within them would be culled. All that would remain would be vast stretches of land to be inhabited by the renewed German Volk. Once more the people would be connected with the land and the struggle that had shaped the Germans into the strong race that they were today. Best of all Markus would be central in these efforts.
Running down the hill to meet Himmler's approaching car Markus snapped to attention as soon as he was at the bottom. Noting that the men around him were a bit sluggish in following his lead Markus resolved to speak with their commander later. The troops should have been reinvigorated in Markus's opinion as this was the hour of the Reich's triumph.
“Markus, a great victory for the German people!” Himmler had barely excited his car when he began speaking. “The Leader is overjoyed. He plans to personally present you with the highest honours once you are able to return to Berlin.”
“Thank you sir!” Markus could barely speak. His mother had been overjoyed that he had secured a luncheon with Hitler, what would she say when she saw her own flesh and blood receive a medal from the Leader himself? It was a shame that this war would be over so soon. Even though he had only really been a part of it for the last few days it had already been the highlight of his life.
“Let us go see these prisoners of yours.” Himmler took the lead heading back up the hill. Markus was careful to stay close behind without his longer legs overtaking the smaller man. It would hardly do for Himmler to think that he was being rushed up the hill.
Back on the crest they stood for a moment as Himmler surveyed the squalid expanse in front of them. When the wind blew the wrong way the stench of the collected mass of Soviet soldiers was overwhelming. Far worse than any farm that Markus had ever been near. Truly they were worse than animals.
"It is time then. There can be no more half measures in this war. The injuries that Germany has sustained are proof of that. From this moment on no mercy, no quarter,” Himmler leaned towards Markus, lowering his voice so that only the Battleship could hear what he was saying. “You have the full trust of the Leader and myself in this. The others do not share your clarity and drive. We will be counting on you.”
“You honour me again sir. Heil Hitler!” Markus saluted Himmler before turning back to the camp.
No accurate counts had been made so far but Markus had heard that there was anywhere from thirty to forty thousand prisoners in this camp alone. Activating his halo he could feel a smile begin to stretch across his face. The first distortion appeared just inside of the fence. Markus waited long enough for the men closest to it to shout in alarm and try to run before he began to move it. His gaze followed along the perimeter leaving nothing but bloody smears on the ground behind it. Completing the circuit Markus then began to spiral the distortion inwards, slowing down as he approached the centre.
Most of the men screamed incoherently as they watched their doom approach. There was nothing they could do to escape it after all. The few that had not been caught up in the initial pass were picked off by the panzermensch when they tried to run. Only a few minutes after he had begun Markus found himself looking down at an empty field. Hints of red mixed in with the mud was the only sign that anyone had ever been there.
When Markus looked beside him he saw that Himmler had his hand over his mouth as though he was about to sick up. There was no shame in that, after all they were entrusting Markus with this duty for a reason. He would be able to perform the difficult actions that others could not. All for the good of the Reich.
As they went to move on to the next camp the corners of Markus's smile felt as though they might touch his ears. Today would surely be one of the best of his life.
Stuck in a dingy little bathroom Nikolai found himself gripping the edges of the sink with white-knuckled hands. No matter how he tried he could hardly catch his breath. Every time he managed more than a gasp another fit of coughing started up. Finally, with some difficulty, he managed to still himself. Tasting blood in his mouth Nikolai spat into the sink. None visible at least, a small relief. Turning on the tap he splashed his face with the cold water before catching sight of his reflection in the mirror. The last few years had aged him to the point where he looked a good decade older than he actually was and Nikolai was not a young man. His cheeks were sunken, his eyes surrounded by dark shadows and his hair thinning. Most days he thanked God that his darling Natasha had not lived to see him like this.
Picking up the still-lit cigarette from the edge of the sink Nikolai took a careful drag from it. His lungs quaked slightly but he did not start hacking again. It was one of the few vices that he indulged in and even if it was responsible for his current predicament he was hardly about to stop now. Not like quitting would make the tumours in his lungs go away.
Nikolai had been a doctor long enough to know a dead man when he saw one. That he had lasted this long was the biggest surprise.
Nine-hundred days. That was what really pissed Nikolai off. He had survived nine-hundred fucking days in the closest thing to hell on Earth. Leningrad had devoured two of his sons and three of his
grandchildren. After all that some foolish little thing was going to be his undoing. What little time he had left on this earth would be spent making sure that his remaining family had a secure future. Which was why he was here. In a place that did not exist working on a project that no one could speak of.
Nikolai had lived through the revolution. He had cheered for the Kronstadt men when they had marched into what had then been Petrograd in support of the Soviet revolution. A few short years later he had privately wept when those same men where crushed by the Bolsheviks. Through it all Nikolai had learned the lessons to surviving in the new world. Agree with those above you, follow their every command and try to not draw attention to himself. Over the years those lessons had served Nikolai well. Up until the war he had managed to carve out a comfortable existence as a chief surgeon.
While Nikolai had always stayed away from the spotlight he knew that no one could survive in this world alone. He had many friends who had made their way into high places over the years. So long as he did not associate with any of them too closely he could enjoy the benefits of their patronage without risking too much should one of them fall. Several had during the purges. One day a man could be a hero, the next he was denounced a villain. Such was life.
Confident that he had his breathing under control once more Nikolai stepped out of the bathroom and walked back to the operating theatre. This was undoubtedly one of the most important scientific undertakings that was going on in the entirety of the Soviet Union. When one of Nikolai's old friends had asked him if he might be interested in taking part he had leapt at the chance. It put him right under Stalin's gaze but if they were not successful then a show trial and a bullet to the back of the head would be the least of his worries.
Somehow the fascist Germans had managed to produce a miracle. Men who could kill with a glance, who could withstand gunfire as if it was a cool breeze. Nikolai and the others here were to discover how they had done it.
The inside of the operating theatre looked more suited for repairing an engine than performing an autopsy. It had been discovered quickly that the bodies of the panzermensch retained their resilience in death. When surgical saws took too long to cut through bone someone had decided to bring in more industrial equipment.
All around the room doctors and orderlies were hard at work dissecting the bodies of the German supermen. Looking up into the gallery Nikolai could see the ever-present watchers making certain that everything was recorded. The one that concerned him the most was a young man who went by Ivan Ivanovich. Whether that was his real name or not Nikolai did not know but the man was the chief NKVD officer overseeing them. There was a direct line leading from him all the way back to wherever Beria was making his lair these days. Nikolai nodded politely up to him before getting back to work. His goal was to protect his family, not get them all put in a camp because of his distaste for certain instruments of the state.
Picking up a length of intestine with his bare hands Nikolai wrapped it around one and then the other, pulling what remained taut. Having this little impossible piece of guts in his hands helped to make this fantastical situation real to him. The owner of this particular organ had been struck by direct fire from a tank. There had not been much left to be scooped up and brought back here but even after that trauma the length would still not tear not matter how Nikolai pulled at it. It felt exactly as it should except far stronger.
Another pair of bodies had come in without heads. The reports attached to those both said that the men's heads had imploded while using that strange lighting. No solid explanations as to why but there were a few theories going around. Word was being given out for snipers in particular to try and fire at the eyes. Enough data from the field and they would have an answer.
Passing a small glass dome that had been set up Nikolai stopped to peer inside.
“How are our maggots doing?” He asked the orderly watching over the experiment.
“Starving.” The man replied. It was what they had expected but still, no detail could be overlooked.
There were all sorts of samples being collected and packaged for further testing. Muscle, fat, skin and bone. Nikolai had no idea how the chemists were going to learn anything from it. Any concoction powerful enough to dissolve any piece of these men would disrupt any test that he knew of. Still it had to be done if they were to replicate the procedure. Better that he was here where the results were far more observable.
“Doctor Malynkov, we almost have it.” One of the orderlies beckoned him over to the cadaver they were working on.
This one had an interesting story. He had taken a round from an anti-tank rifle to the back of his head then proceeded to wander aimlessly until they had put another one through his temple. For the last few hours the orderlies had been trying to cleanly open up his skull so that Nikolai could take a look at what sort of damage had been inflicted to the brain.
So far that sort of thing had proven to be common in between the corpses they had inspected. These panzermensch had all sustained injuries that should have been debilitating but had continued on beyond what any normal man could. That they could be injured and killed was of little consolation when a far larger threat loomed. The so called Battleships appeared to be invulnerable from everything that had been seen so far. Nikolai was certain that they too would have a weakness that could be exploited. They had to.
As the men finally managed to remove the upper portion of the skull Nikolai waved them off as he went in for a closer inspection. Trading his length of guts for a pair of forceps he grasped the edge of the crumpled bullet lodged in the brain and pulled it free. What was left was an indent no longer than Nikolai's thumb. A bullet of this size should have done far more damage to the brain. No wonder the man had been able to stay on his feet, even if his functions had been impaired.
“Remarkable.” Nikolai said as he dropped the bullet into a sample pan.
Everything about this was wrong. These men should not exist. He should not be here. But in the midst of all these impossibilities Nikolai would find a way to put a stop to this German threat. There was no other option.
Chapter 15: Old Friends and New
“You have been found guilty of the crime of desertion. The punishment for desertion is death by firing squad, to be carried out immediately.” Popov sounded hoarse as he read out the conviction. So many orders had been shouted over the last week. All around him every soldier who was not needed elsewhere had been gathered to witness what happened to cowards. Having the punishment serve as a lesson to others was just an efficient use of time. “Firing squad, ready your weapons!”
Maria had already checked her rifle but she made a show of doing it again. Appearances had to be kept up after all. As everything fell apart around them the officers increasingly took refuge in insisting that everything be done by the book. Regulations provided a safe haven from thinking about just how doomed they all were. While Maria had always enjoyed flaunting her independence even she realized that right now falling in line was the best course of action. What was endearing during victory could be annoying in defeat. Annoyances where never something that the Bolsheviks had been good at tolerating.
Ever since the Germans had unleashed their freaks the whole of the Red Army had found itself stuck in a cycle of retreat, dig in, retreat again. Sheer luck had saved Maria's unit from facing another of the tankmen or meeting one of the more powerful ones that they heard rumours of. Not everyone had shared that luck. The crowd was filled with new faces. As formations were broken the survivors were folded into whatever forces could take them in. At least the smart ones were. The stupid ones tried to run and all too often got caught. Which is why eight stupid men were tied to old fence posts on the other side of the field, waiting as much as Maria was for the order to be given.
Maria had never really enjoyed executions. There just was not much challenge in shooting a man bound to a pole with a target marked on his shirt. That they had recently been allies rather than enemies caused her little grief though. All that running could do now was give them the illusion of freedom until the Germans finally caught up with them. It did surprise Maria a bit that Stepan was one of the men tied up across from her. He and a few of his mangy dogs had tried to steal some supplies and make a break for it. Meeting his blank stare Maria just felt annoyed. She had put a fair amount of effort and loot into staying in his good graces and now she would have to start all over again when someone rose up to replace him. In the meantime she would have to take extra care around the camp. Men who thought they were soon to die might not worry about what she would do to them if they took too many liberties. Being vaporized by the Germans was fine so long as she got to keep her dignity intact.
One squeeze of the trigger and it was over. The bullet went straight through the white square of cloth that had been pinned over Stepan's heart and he slumped forward against the ropes. An officer went out to confirm that each of the condemned was indeed dead but that was just for show. None of the soldiers on the firing squad were about to waste a second bullet.
That was it. The men were ordered to disperse and return to their duties now that the message had been delivered. They were to not take a single step further in retreat than they were ordered to. Maria did not really need that warning. From the very start of the war she had not been sure if she would live to see the end of it. Might as well try and take as many Germans with her as she could rather than desperately scramble for a few more weeks of life. Not that there was anything to look forward to after death either. It was like something that one of the great writers would have said, that in Russia life and death held equal promise. Not that any of those noble ponces had known much about anything in Maria's opinion.
As Maria prepared to leave she caught Popov's eye. Under the officer's gaze she saluted perfectly, her expression utterly serious. He shook his head in disbelief and almost looked disappointed as he turned away. Perhaps he had grown so used to her antics that seeing her act as a proper soldier was a sign of just how much trouble they found themselves in. Shrugging Maria made her way from the field. She was not about to dwell on it too much.
The whole business of the retreat had cast a definite pall over the troops. Victory had been so close and now it seemed as if there was not any force in the world that could save them. Most of the men spent their every free moment trading rumours and theories about just what the Germans had made. Maria thought that it was all about as accurate as when she tried to piss standing up. A bunch of fancy names did not change what they were facing. Angry gods shattering the world of the mortals that dared to defy them. Since she had never believed in any god the fact that she was likely to die at the hands of one was almost hilarious. Almost.
No matter how powerful these Germans were Maria was not about to let them change how she lived. She had avoided thinking about the future so far and she intended to continue doing so. If her days were to be numbered then Maria was certainly going to enjoy them. Looking around she finally spotted Lev and Pyotr sharing a cigarette, shielding themselves from the wind alongside a truck. Maria joined their little huddle.
“That was a good shot.” Lev commented as he exhaled a mouthful of smoke. Ever the gentleman, still finding time to pay her a compliment in the midst of all this. If there was one little hope that Maria held onto it was that he would make it out of this alive even if she did not.
“Would have been better if it had been going into a Nazi-pig but what can I do?” Maria said with a wild smile. Here, with the closest people to a family that she had in this world, Maria felt safe enough to let her irreverent humour loose. Lev and Pyotr looked far too dour for men who still had their lives.
“You'll have your chance soon enough. They won't have us retreat forever. I doubt we'll even make it all the way back home. I'm going to die in this shit hole of a country.” Pyotr replied. He had a wife and child back in his village near the Black Sea. Torn between never seeing them again and wondering if they would survive the coming German storm had left Pyotr the most miserable of them.
“At least we don't have many tanks with us. That is what brings the big ones, the Battleships, down on you. Vasily, one of the survivors from that guards unit, saw one. Over three hundred men died in an instant. Just one flash of light and they were gone. No warning or anything.” Lev tossed his cigarette to the ground and extinguished it with his heel.
“What use is there in standing around worrying? If it is our day to die, we die. Just like before but now, more likely.” Maria wrapped an arm around Lev and squeezed his ribs. Not wanting Pyotr to feel left out she pulled him in too with her other arm.
“You have a point.” Lev did not sound very convinced though.
“Of course I do. Now should we just stand around here or should we go find a bottle and forget our woes for a while? I know that none of us is on sentry duty tonight.”
“Now I know that we are doomed. Maria is the one making sense.” Pyotr let out a chuckle as he came to the realization. It even sounded genuine. Maria might not have liked him as much as she liked Lev but still, a friend was a friend. If she could help keeps his thoughts from the dark place it was a victory in her mind.
Arm in arm the trio went off in search of enough booze for a peaceful night. Maria was satisfied that she had been able to stave off the thunder clouds for now, though that storm would break over them soon enough. Live or die, the three of them would face it together.
Training. Somehow Patrick had hoped that with all that had been said about the incredible changes that their bodies were undergoing, the training would also be spectacular in its own way. He had been sorely disappointed. It was still too early in the process to do any physical exercises that would really challenge them so the waking hours of the First Enhanced Army had been filled with a lot of the same old standard drilling that they had received back home. Someone up above had decided that it was a good time to make sure that everyone remembered their discipline. Might have to do with the fact that a bunch of infantrymen could now blast tanks apart with a glance. That Patrick actually looked forward to the moments where they got handed the new field manuals to read said a great deal about just how tedious everything else was.
A full week had passed since Patrick's initial activation. The dose of Catalyst that they gave him every day went down a bit easier each time and he was starting to catch up with the others. While still smaller than a tankman the gap was closing rapidly, which made it a bit tricky to get a properly fitting uniform day to day. Besides the extra height none of them really felt all that different from before though. It was the little things that helped show that they had indeed changed.
Accidentally breaking the spoons at chow time. Not being able to get the stubble off when shaving. Nearly breaking some poor doctor's hand while shaking it. Worse yet was that almost all of the vices that a soldier might enjoy to pass the time were effected. There were few women at the camp and all of the enhanced men had been warned that with their new strength relationships with a regular person would be dangerous to say the least. No one really wanted to risk it yet. As for liquor and cigarettes the same improvements that rendered medication useless also impacted all forms of intoxication. Having a smoke might satisfy the craving for one but it no longer helped take off the edge. Similarly the amount of booze it took to make a tankman feel tipsy for a couple minutes was bordering on ridiculous.
That left only the mainstays of gambling and gossiping. With such a small group there were only so many times that the guys could win the same few bills off each other so the latter activity was more popular by far. It was what Patrick was doing with Top as they sat on their own outside of one of the buildings, enjoying a free hour later in the day. Soon enough it would be time for the evening bowl of sugar slop before an early bedtime. In someways it was like being a kid again, though Patrick no longer felt any desire for sweet treats. The paste had driven that off quickly enough.
“You know, I can see that I'm doing this, I can feel that I'm doing this, but I still can't believe that I'm doing this.” Top said as he bent a short piece of iron rebar that he had found somewhere into a spiral with his bare hands.
“You're telling me. I'm supposed to be able to do the same thing with a solid steel beam pretty soon.” Soon was a word that Patrick had been hearing a lot lately. The great worry was that his strength would outpace the ability of his body to regulate it. So until his activation was complete he had been more or less forbidden from doing anything that would endanger him. He was sure that if he had agreed to it they would have had someone spoon feed him just to be safe.
That was something that was starting to bother Patrick. Not the being treated like he was made of glass but the increasingly apparent differences between the enhanced soldiers and the normal people. Already it was affecting who tended to socialize with who. Part of it could be explained as making sure that no one got hurt while the tankmen learned to control their strength but there was an unpleasant undercurrent that Patrick could feel. As hokey sounding as it could be he did believe in the American dream and what he had heard about the enhancement process so far made it sound anything but equal.
“Been trying to figure out how to tell my wife. Started that letter a dozen times and I still don't know how to put it.”
“Not like you could say much anyways. General Morton told me that he's working on getting something secure set up so that we can finally let them know what's going on. For now the censors will have a field day if you say anything more than 'I'm fine.'” At least for everyone else that was the case. Patrick had been given the opportunity to write a letter to his family explaining things, on the condition that he tell no one else about it. The worry was that all the sudden everyone would want to spill the beans to their loved ones. When Patrick had asked just why he had been given the privilege it had been let slip that his whole family were first in line for testing to see if they were like him.
Patrick honestly did not know how he wanted that to go. If any of them tested positive then at least he would have someone that he could really trust to share this journey with. Yet that would almost certainly entail them being deployed as well. Eamonn had signed up to be a soldier but the thought of their mother or one of their sisters having to face down the Germans on the battlefield filled Patrick with dread. On the other hand if none of them tested positive then they would be safe from having to join the war but the same divide between regular folks and enhanced ones would have crept right up into Patrick's own family. Should it end up being a mix of the two he could only hope that it did not drive them all apart.
“Hey, its the Kraut,” Top nudged Patrick and gestured to the tankman walking nearby. Patrick did not think that he had ever seen Lupin alone. There was always someone trailing behind him, even while he took his little walks around the camp. “Still wondering what his story is. Am I the only one who finds it weird how good his English is? Its like was he supposed to be a spy or something. Against us I mean.”
Before Patrick could respond the German looked over to them. There was no way that he could have heard them from that distance but Lupin began to make his way over. The men tailing him kept up while staying a respectful distance behind.
“Thank you Mr Spinelli, I often worry that my English is not up to par. I do appreciate the compliment,” Lupin said once he was closer. Seeing the shocked looks on the men's faces he tapped one of his ears. “Enhanced hearing. Yours has not developed yet, but it will. As for why I speak English so well the answer is much less exciting than you would think.”
If Lupin had heard the last part then he had certainly heard the first, though he seemed content to not mention it. Every time that Patrick had seen the man he almost went out of his way to be polite to everyone around him. It did not seem to be an act either. That he had been an enemy soldier was a little bewildering. Patrick just could not envision Lupin trying to kill anyone but he knew that appearances could be deceiving. Some people had a past that they were trying to atone for and he suspected that the German had a few skeletons buried away somewhere.
“Alright, so what is this unexciting answer then?” Top asked as he crossed his arms. He certainly knew how to apply the good old New York charm.
“My family owns, or at least owned, a firm that deals in chemicals. We always envisioned trying to grow larger and my father was of the opinion that foreign contracts would be a valuable path to pursue. Britain and the United States are the largest markets around so it only made sense for me to learn English during my schooling. So in the end I know English so that I could sell you things.” Lupin looked bashful as he finished his story. It really was a rather mundane explanation.
“Well it worked out in the end,” Patrick replied. “Never had much of a chance to talk to a German before. What's it really like over there?”
It had been a question that Patrick had been considering ever since he had signed up for the army. He had seen the the newsreels and heard enough from here and there to put together that Germany had not been a pleasant place to live even before the war. Yet Lupin did not appear to be a goosestepping drone as Patrick would have expected.
“That is a difficult question to answer,” Lupin began as he took a seat on the bench beside Patrick, leaning forward so Top could hear him as well. For once the smile on his face slipped a bit. “I would think that the best way to explain it would be that it was like being in a prison. You had to assume that everything you did was being watched and that everyone you spoke to might be an informant. There was never enough of anything, not even in the army. I worked in logistics so I know better than most. The time since my defection has honestly been some of the least stressful days I've had in years.”
Neither of the Americans really knew how to respond to that. It was not the answer that either had expected.
“You are both from New York, yes? I've seen it in the movies. I hope to see it in person someday.” Lupin resumed displaying a cheerful demeanour as he changed the subject.
“I tell you what, you make it over there and I'll personally give you a tour of Hell's Kitchen.” Patrick offered. Now it was Lupin's turn to look confused as he tried to puzzle out the name of the neighbourhood.
“A guided tour of mick central from an authentic Paddy, I'm sure he'll love it.” Top piped up on the other side.
“What, should I take him round Little Italy so some greaser jackass can pick his pocket?” Patrick shot back, adding a gentle fist to Top's ribs.
“Try as I might there is just something about Americans that escapes me.” Lupin shook his head as he watched the younger men trade insults.
“You'll get used to it,” Patrick clapped Lupin on the shoulder. “Look at us sitting out here like a bunch of bums. You know how to play poker?” Lupin shook his head. “Its pretty easy to learn. We could always use a new player.”
Lupin shrugged and got up to join them as they headed inside. Patrick was sure that he would have to defuse a few attempts at trying to get under the German's skin from some of the other guys but this was a great opportunity to find out more about just who he would be fighting. He knew of no better way to get to know a guy than taking his shirt off him in a poker game.
“This is twice you've saved my ass Werner. I'm going to have to rename one of my sons after you.” Olaf said as he continued to smoke his cigarette.
Werner just smiled in return. Olaf was one of the men that Werner had saved during his heroic moment at Kursk. By chance their paths had crossed during his reassignment to the Hungarian front. It had seemed the least he could do to help his old comrade get out of another deployment. Olaf would get to return home to his wife and children soon enough. Once Werner had a chance to ask him a few questions.
That was why just the two of them were talking on their own away from the rest of the men, alongside a burnt out tank. Olaf was sitting up on the deck while Werner leaned against it. Ostensibly it was to commemorate their time together as a tank crew. It was also conveniently away from prying eyes and ears.
“Well there isn't much point in sending you back into the field right now. If I had my way more than you would be heading home right now. You'll be more useful there but I'll warn you, it's a mess. It is going to take a lot of time and effort to restore Germany to the way it was.” Werner replied as he finished his own cigarette. The force of habit was stronger than any enhancement that he had received.
“So long as no one is shooting at me I'll be a happy man,” Olaf chuckled then looked at Werner in a serious way. “Though truth be told when you disappeared I always thought that they had figured out one thing or another and thrown you in prison or worse. Yet here you are, a wonder weapon and hero of Germany and all that other rubbish.”
Keeping his expression still Werner pulled out another cigarette to buy a moment to think. He had been hoping to approach this in a more circumspect way but Olaf had done it for him. Now it was just a matter of seeing what else the man would say. Werner did not look forward to having to kill someone whose life he had saved. It seemed like a waste all around.
“Why would you have thought that?”
“You can wipe that look off your face, I'll carry your secrets to my grave. No need to hasten that either,” Olaf shook his head as Werner shifted uncomfortably. “As I said, you saved my life. If any of us were going to rat you out we would have done it right after the battle.”
“Who all is still alive?” Werner knew that he would not like the answer to that question. The front had grown even worse during his time away at the project.
“Kurt took some shrapnel through the shoulder and got discharged a few months ago. Not sure where Otto ended up but he was reassigned. Everyone else is either dead or enjoying the hospitality of the Soviets.” Olaf and Werner both knew that life in a Soviet prison camp would be as bad as anything that they had ever seen. Especially considering what had happened to the Soviet prisoners that had been in Germany. Himmler having Markus run around 'liquidating' prisoners was just a few more drops into a full bucket. If anything it would just give the Soviets an excuse to step up their own atrocities.
“Well at least I can make it all worth it. Not sure if we will be able to call it a win in the end, not after everything.” Werner activate his halo for a moment to light his cigarette, motioning if Olaf needed the same. The other man just shook his head. There was the look of wonder in his eyes as he watched though.
“Can that thing really do all that they say?”
“Watch.” Werner pointed towards another wrecked tank further out. A moment later a distortion engulfed the whole thing. When he released it there was nothing left but a bit of the track melted into the ground.
“I'll be damned. I think it is safe to say that with you and the others, we'll win. Besides its not like the Hungarians or the Romanians are going to be much challenge for you. Bunch of backstabbing pricks.” Olaf spat on the ground to drive home his point.
It was true that the armies that Werner and his handful of panzermensch were being sent up against would have no chance but the scale of the mission still gave him pause. First they had to break the Red Army in Hungary, then drive on into Romania and secure the oilfields there before finally pushing onward to Odessa. By that point Markus and the main force would have theoretically made it to the Ukraine and they would join together again. Werner had not been into this part of Europe himself but he was certain that it would be slower going than anyone expected. The Carpathian mountains in Romania especially would provide ample hiding spots for Soviet soldiers and partisans alike. With the supply lines already stretched it would be hell for the men left to garrison the path behind them.
Unless of course the orders came down that, much like Markus, they were to pacify the countryside as the went along. Which might quell things in the short-term but would create nothing but problems later on. It was not work that Werner had ever enjoyed, though he had done enough of it in his time in the army.
“Ten packs of cigarettes that I make it to Odessa before Vistula crosses the Bug.” Werner offered Olaf, who promptly began to laugh.
“You make that sound like a fair bet but I'll not lay anything down against you. You do have a habit of beating the odds,” Olaf hopped down off the tank. “We should be heading back before anyone get too suspicious.”
Following along after his comrade Werner looked at the wreckage as they passed. The first charge into the Soviet Union had been backed by the same optimism that was being projected by Hitler now. Werner could not shake the feeling that the same of reversal of fortunes was laying in wait for them. He would keep his wits about him and play it safe for now. Walking back to the rest of the soldiers he prepared himself for another night of telling tales about the scrapes that he had gotten into during his first tours in the East. At least the ones he could talk about. All to help shore up the morale of an army that felt much like he did.
There was a light at the end of the tunnel at least. It was far off but Werner could see it. They had needed a miracle and had been granted one. No amount of nervous feelings could change that.
Chapter 16: Know Your Enemy
Once the shock of the ubermensch's disclosure wore off the Allied High Command came to the realization that powerful as the new weapons might be they ultimately would have little effect on the result of the war. Germany remained outmatched in terms of numbers, resources and production. With the secret to creating the Catalyst secure in British hands what should have been a miracle for Germany was reduced to a brief window for them to cause more destruction. The more cynical of the Western military commanders noted that if anything this temporary renewal of Germany's fortunes might serve to put an end to the Soviet threat. After those two nations had finally bled each other dry the rest of the Allies would be able to advance with their own enhanced armies and restore peace to Europe once and for all.
This was not to say that it would be an easy victory. The German ubermensch forces might be limited but there was still nothing in the Allied arsenal that could hold back a Battleship. For now they had to figure out how to preserve as many of their conventional forces as possible until the First Enhanced Army was finally ready to enter the field. There were three main advantages to the Allied efforts that were being discussed at the highest levels in Washington and London.
The first was of course the Catalyst itself. Production continued to proceed in Britain, with well-vetted experts being flown in from the United States to learn the process themselves. It was slow going, making sure that every person and site involved was secure, but the British did not want to fall victim to the same sort of espionage that had garnered them the Catalyst in the first place. Already forward thinking individuals had realized that keeping control over the Catalyst in the hands of as few nations as possible would be the only way to ensure any kind of stability after the war. A little caution now might prevent immeasurable suffering later.
It was also known to a select few that the Allies had been working on a 'wonder weapon' of their own. Hidden away in the New Mexican desert the scientists working on the atomic bomb were now facing a new set of challenges. The bomb had been meant for use against large targets such as a city, preferably being deployed from a bomber to take advantage of the incredible force of the air burst. Battleships were a distinctly smaller and more mobile target and rendered aircraft useless within the range of their halo abilities. Alternative delivery methods needed to be explored. Frantic calculations were being performed to figure out exactly how much force was delivered at any given distance from the initial explosion, though what would be enough to actually injure or kill a Battleship was still anyone's guess. Combined with the need to test the plutonium bomb in order to ensure that it worked at all left the scientists with few restful moments.
Finally there was perhaps the greatest advantage in the Allied arsenal. Through the work of the decryption teams at Bletchley Park and elsewhere it was possible to read almost all German communications shortly after they were sent. Troop movements, Battleship movements, numbers of candidates found, amount of Catalyst being produced. That the Japanese and Italians were to be furnished with their own enhanced forces, with naval forces being dispatched to try and intercept the shipments to the former. All this information and more was being freely given by the Germans themselves, who remained convinced that their secrets were safe and secure. While the Allied leaders had to remain cautious in how they used this information, careful to always have a plausible alternate source so that the Germans would not grow suspicious, it was a godsend for planning how to neutralize the ubermensch threat.
All of that intelligence did not come without certain problems though. There was the mountain of decrypts that had already been filed away that needed to be sorted through again in order to check for any mention of Sankt or his project. If they could find everywhere that he had visited and everyone that he had spoke to it might help fill in some of the blanks in what Stephanie and Lupin had reported. The nature of the Battleships in the field also made them difficult to address. It was well and good to know that Sieglinde had been dispatched to disrupt the Western Front and to recover German captives but the mobility of the Battleship made it difficult to tell just where exactly she would be at any given moment. Troubling questions were raised by the new information coming out of Germany. What exactly was Project Lightning? One could surmise that it likely had to do with some new use of the halo ability but details were in short supply. Why were certain candidates being diverted to the 'Opera House?' That might be for a new form of Catalyst or for a specific type of training. Everything was recorded and cross referenced time and time again in the hopes that Germany's next step would reveal itself.
Politics played an increasingly troublesome role. With the loss of Roosevelt the United States found itself bereft of a skilled leader of many years. It also felt the sting of the aftermath of Roosevelt's tight control over foreign policy and his lack of concern over keeping others informed about the details of agreements and decisions that had been made. In Truman the British found themselves saddled with an allied leader who was relatively inexperienced and unknown, needing to be brought up to speed on almost all of the sensitive developments of the war. There was potential now to move the balance of power between the two nations back towards Britain, at least to the point where they were nominally equal, so long as the new President was still learning the ropes. Above all was the issue of what to do about the Soviets. No one thought it a good idea to give them the secret to making the Catalyst but it was clear that if the Germans were to be kept occupied in the East there would have to be some kind of enhanced forces to hold them. Just how many should be provided and how remained a point of contention.
While the generals and politicians bickered and planned the average soldier sitting along Germany's western border was faced with a much more immediate threat. Sieglinde had a relatively small area that she could attack during her active hours but that was of little comfort for anyone caught in it. Entire units lost in the blink of an eye, supply depots and transit camps going dark suddenly. All things that made the soldiers increasingly nervous. Orders to retreat had been given but moving tens of thousands of men and their supplies took time. The single Battleship with a few panzermensch to cover her could outpace any large formation and had more than enough firepower to be devastatingly effective.
Bill Harper was one of the unfortunate sets of boots on the ground that had to deal with this situation. The sun had gone down for the day but he was still hard at work, one of a number of men trying to get as much of the supplies around them packed up as they could. There had been reports that the Germans were taking advantage of the cover that Sieglinde provided to send out lightly armed convoys to commandeer what the Allies left behind. Harper's orders were to save as much as he could and burn the rest.
For his part Harper could barely believe what was going on. He could understand retreating because you were outnumbered or at risk of being outmaneuvered. All they were facing now was one woman. It was not that he did not believe the briefings that had been given about what the ubermensch and Battleships were capable of, it was that it was happening at all that made him question reality. Any minute now he expected to wake up from some terrible dream. Had anyone told him a few months before that he would soon miss how the war was going Harper would have thought that they were crazy. At least when it had just been Germans shooting at him there was something he could do. What exactly was the way to deal with someone who could shrug off artillery fire?
The precautions that had been put in place around the depot did serve to ease Harper's mind at least. They had sentries posted and a few tanks dug in at key points. That would be enough to keep anything short of Sieglinde herself off of them. All that remained was to get everything loaded up and by morning the depot could be abandoned. He might not get much sleep over the next few days but putting more miles between him and Germany was worth it. Sieglinde's last reported location had been moving away from them so there was little chance that they would be meeting the superwoman. It was almost a shame, Harper had heard that she was a real looker.
When the sound of gunfire broke out Harper nearly jumped out of his skin. Everyone dropped what they were doing, running to grab weapons and take up better positions to defend themselves. Picking up his rifle Harper told himself that it was just one of the German convoys trying their luck. The Krauts had picked the wrong camp to mess with, that was for sure.
At least that was what Harper thought until he saw one of the tanks go sailing overhead.
“Jesus fucking Christ.” Was all that Harper had time to get out before he heard the sickening crunch of metal as the tank slammed into the forest on the far side of the camp. There were shouts of alarm from behind them too. It looked like they found themselves surrounded.
That was when she strolled up, surveying the scene around her with as much urgency and concern as if she were out at the market. Sieglinde was a lot bigger than Harper had thought. She was a pretty woman even with the severe look on her face. Which turned to anger as a few men opened fire on her. There was a flash of blue light as those men were burnt away to nothingness. Harper froze up himself, watching as Sieglinde brushed off the heavy overcoat she was wearing. From the numerous holes and tears in it this was not the first time she had come under fire. Clearing her throat she shouted one word in a heavy German accent.
It did not take long for one of the officers to call out for everyone to comply and lay down their weapons. The order was passed around the camp even as screams continued from parts of the perimeter. Slowly, carefully, Harper laid down his rifle and put his hands up. As they stepped out into the open Sieglinde pointed for them all to line up in an open spot where she could see them.
A few more Germans walked up, larger than regular men though not nearly as big as Sieglinde. One still had the blue light flickering around his head. The newcomer said something in German to Sieglinde that she did not respond to. Though Harper did not speak a single word of the language from the tone he could guess that it was an insult levied at himself and his fellow soldiers. Sieglinde just stared the other German down until his halo of light flickered away and he hurriedly made his way elsewhere. If she had looked angry during the attack now she just looked uncomfortable. Grabbing a metal barrel to use as a makeshift seat Sieglinde continued to watch over them as the rest of the survivors were corralled to the same spot.
As time passed Harper felt sweat begin to trickle down his forehead and neck. Knowing now what a glance from Sieglinde could do he wanted to be anywhere but under her gaze. From the looks of it she did not particularly care whether they lived or died. Finally the sound of engines approaching caused her to stand up and look away. A collective sigh of relief passed through the men around Harper. Whatever the Germans had in store for them at least they would keep their lives for now.
The trucks that pulled up looked American and had American markings on them. Even the men who got out of them were wearing American uniforms. Except these men raised their weapons to cover the prisoners. One began to speak in passable English, his accent making it apparent that he was most certainly not American.
“You load all of this,” The man waved his arms around at the supplies. “You drive, you follow us. Try to fight, run? We kill you all.”
So that was to be it. The Germans got themselves supplies and trucks complete with prisoners to do the heavy lifting for them. Harper had to admit that it was a smart move. Using stolen American vehicles would keep these convoys from getting fired upon immediately. Somehow he figured that the Germans did not much care that it was also illegal under the rules of war. Hopefully they retained enough decency to not reward their captives with a bullet to the head for playing along. Nothing was out of the question by this point.
With the situation under control Sieglinde and the other super-Germans disappeared off into the night. Harper wondered if they were running around on their own or if they had just left their transportation far enough away that it had not alerted the sentries. With his new taskmasters starting to shout he stopped thinking about that and returned to loading up the supplies.
From beginning to end the attack itself had taken no more than five or ten minutes. About that much more waiting for the trucks to arrive. His uncle had told him about fighting in the trenches during the last war. The fighting that Harper himself had experienced so far had been much faster paced than that and now it appeared that they already had entered an even faster era, with battles measured in minutes instead of hours or days. If he survived to see it the future was going to be right damned terrifying.
Tucked away in a small room at the base Patrick found himself studying a table covered in maps. Marked on them was every target that Sieglinde had hit so far. It was a wide and varied list. Supply depots, POW camps, columns of tanks and even a couple of airfields. Casualties ranged from a handful to near total with little rhyme or reason. With Lupin looking at him expectantly Patrick leaned back from the table.
“I still don't see a pattern,” Patrick said as he finished looking at the maps. This was all meant to help tutor him in the kind of tactical and strategic uses that a Battleship might have. Lupin, having been party to the initial German training program, was now passing his knowledge on to Patrick. “She's all over the place, hitting anything that she can.”
“For now, yes, she is going after targets of convenience. But there is a greater plan behind her actions.”
“What, just to steal a couple of trucks and some food? Even those guys that they sprung aren't exactly going to win the war for them. It kind of seems petty considering what she's capable of.” Patrick replied, still trying to see what Lupin was getting at.
“Every soldier freed is another possible panzermensch, maybe even a Battleship. As for the rest,” Lupin circled his finger around the area where Sieglinde had been active. “The supply situation in Germany is desperate enough that what they are taking will help alleviate problems for the forces on the front lines. Especially the trucks, there were never enough of those even at the best of times. There is the morale effect to consider as well. It feels good to be eating a meal that your enemy should have been.”
“I guess. I still don't see how it is supposed to win them the war.”
“Right now it is more about buying time than anything. After the last attempt at a breakout there aren't enough forces left for a proper assault. Once everything is in order again.” Lupin placed his finger on Strasbourg then drew a line across the map to Dunkirk. The maps were vague about the numbers and placement of Allied forces but a push like that would leave a sizable pocket trapped in Belgium. Fortifications were already being put in place around Antwerp to try and hold the vast harbour there as long as possible.
“Could they really pull it off?” Patrick asked while he considered how much effort would be needed for such an attack.
“It is ambitious. With the state that Germany is in anything that isn't an ambitious plan wouldn't even be considered. Drive to the Channel, destroying every railway and road leading south out of Belgium. Trap as many American and British soldiers as possible and then use them as leverage to force a ceasefire. Temporarily of course, until the time comes to press for a total victory.”
“This might seem like a stupid question but what is to stop them from just going straight across the Channel to London? It isn't that much farther and would take Britain out of the war for sure.”
“I can only speculate on what the High Command is thinking right now but I know what Sankt's opinions were. Even with his disgrace and death his writings on the ubermensch are all that the rest of the Wehrmacht has to go off of for now. Defeating Britain itself is not enough. The government could just move to one of the colonies and there would still be America to worry about. Even with all of the Battleships and a much larger force of tankmen your homeland will require a significant amount of naval and airpower to invade, much less to subdue it. Both of which Germany currently lacks. Besides,” Lupin let out an uncomfortable sigh. “There is a much more pressing matter for Germany.”
“Well don't keep me in suspense.”
“The reason we got into this war in the first place. Lebensraum, living space. Now more than ever Hitler has the capability to realize his dream of an empty east for Germany to expand into. Annihilating the Soviets fulfills that dream and has the added benefit that the Battleships can walk to Moscow if they have to. For now he thinks he has all the time in the world. So why not go after the target he has coveted for years? Revenge can always be dealt out to the Westerners later.” Lupin laid his hands down on the table, lowering his eyes as if he were looking over the maps.
“That why you decide to jump ship?” Realizing that the question might be a bit of a sore spot Patrick muddled on. “Not to pry or nothing but I take it that you weren't too happy about the situation. I know I wouldn't be.”
Lupin raised his head and looked Patrick in the eyes.
“It was a bit more complicated than that. When you look at the war like this, maps and charts and tables, you can almost fool yourself into thinking that it is clean somehow. I know I did. It was all just numbers on a sheet of paper. I never shot a rifle outside of training and the closest I ever got to the front was when I crossed it to defect. But I still heard things. Men would come back from duty in the Soviet Union and after they had a few drinks they would start to talk. In part I think they wanted to show us logistics fellows just what it meant to really be a soldier.
I have heard a man talk about, with pride mind you, setting fire to a Russian farmhouses with the owners still inside. Gathering up all the women in a village and raping every last one of them. Then the things that were done to the Jews... Some men at least had the decency to talk about their actions with shame but for all too many it was just something that they had done. They would describe it no differently than digging a latrine or getting a truck out of the mud. That was what finally made me realize just what my country had become and that I had to do something. Of course by the time I did anything it was too little, too late.”
Patrick found himself at a loss for words more often than not lately. For someone who had always been a quick wit is was not a pleasant experience. But listening to Lupin recall the horrors he had heard his fellow soldiers boast about filled Patrick with an honest to God sense of revulsion. It was something that he had never even considered having to go through.
“Listen to me Lupin. I've been around the block a few times and I know how to tell a good egg from a bad one. You, my friend, are one of the good ones. From what I heard if you hadn't helped that British spy out then we all would have been up the creek without a paddle. Now we can fight back and put a stop to that insanity. You haven't killed nobody. Hell, if you'd have tried to stop them earlier then you'd probably have gotten yourself killed and then were would the rest of us be? So don't beat yourself up about it.” Leaning over Patrick slapped Lupin on the shoulder, resting his hand there to help reassure the other man. He might have only really gotten to know the German over the last few days but he had a good feeling about the guy. After all Lupin had shown a heck of a lot of bravery to get this far.
Taking a breath Lupin looked as if he had something else to say before shaking his head ever so slightly. The smile returned to his face as he spoke.
“You're right Patrick, thank you. I should apologize. This is supposed to be for your training, not for me to go over unpleasant memories. Did you have any further questions?”
“Don't sweat it pal. That actually did teach me a few things,” Such as just how messed up Germany was on the inside. “I have been wanting to ask about the German Battleships. Since it sounds like you knew them pretty well when you were still over there.”
“Well, I was familiar with them all. Markus, Siegfried that is, is the one that I would be least worried about you facing. He is a sadistic young man but not one who is accustomed to fighting people who can hit back. Still dangerous but undisciplined. Werner, Siegmund, is probably the greatest threat. I never got to know him too closely, mostly because he preferred it that way. Still he has been a soldier for years and on the battlefield his experience would make him very dangerous to face.”
“What about Sieglinde?” Patrick asked. Given the disposition of the German forces it seemed almost certain that Patrick and the First Enhanced Army would be pitted against Sieglinde when the time came. Even knowing all that she had done Patrick was still a little leery of fighting her. His mother had brought him up to never lay hands on a woman. This situation was different from anything that she would ever have envisioned but it still remained in the back of Patrick's mind.
“Klaudia worries me, though not for the reasons that you might think. I was the closest to her out of all of them but I would not go so far as to say that she was necessarily a good person. If anything she was self-absorbed and indifferent to anything that did not effect her directly. But the war took her husband from her and that has left her with more rage than the other two combined,” Lupin leaned in to emphasize his next points. “More than that she was the first Battleship to be activated. She has had an extra month of maturation and while most of an enhanced individual's strength seems to develop by the end of the activation period their endurance and durability still needs that extra time. In a straight up fight if she gets a good hold on you or if it drags on I fear that the outcome will be your death. Even if she does not have the combat experience of Werner once you put yourself in front of her you will become the focal point of all her anger and hatred of the Allies.”
Patrick had fought people who had lost it before. Sometimes it made the fight easier as he could keep his wits about him while the other guy swung away with abandon. Other times the rage could help them shrug off blows and give their own punches more force than they would have been able to conjure otherwise. How the halo would play into it all was another question entirely. The key to that was concentration so if he could get Sieglinde hopping mad then maybe she would not be so effective with that particular power. With all the unknowns about the Battleships it was hard to say what the best plan would be.
“Thanks Lupin, you've given me a lot to think about.” Patrick knew that the odds were against him right now. Best case scenario he would be walking away from this with some major scars. Worst case, well he was not about to consider that. He had promised his mother and sisters that he would make it back home in one piece and he was not about to make himself a liar.
Chapter 17: The Home Front
CHAPTER 17: THE HOME FRONT
“Good night Mr West.” The secretary said as the old man passed her desk. Unsurprisingly he did not bother to respond.
Over all the years that he had worked for the Home Office Clarence West had gained a reputation for being a solitary curmudgeon, a condition that had only worsened since the death of his wife some years before. Tucked away in his little office within the ministry building he did his job well even if he rarely spoke to anyone. With the war raising all sorts of concerns about information being leaked that made him the perfect employee so far as his superiors were concerned. If he rarely spoke to anyone there was that much less of a chance that he would let something slip.
Lately Clarence had been even less sociable than usual. Not that he would tell anyone but he had been troubled for the past week by unusually vivid dreams of his dear departed wife. It had been nearly eight years since she had passed and Clarence could not fathom why she now featured so prominently in his mind, asking all sorts of pressing questions about his work and the war. She had never been that interested in that sort of thing even when she was alive. He chalked it up to overwork in the end.
Arriving at his home Clarence entered and walked past the dusty sitting room. Living alone for so many years had its advantages. Not having to worry about family or acquaintances trying to stop in at all hours was rather liberating. Clarence might have been a solitary man but he had all sorts of diversions to entertain himself, not having to spend any of his salary on anyone else. By the time he had wound down for the day and finished his last cup of tea he only hoped that his sleep was better tonight.
So when he awoke, bound and gagged in what appeared to be his cellar, it came as an incredible shock. Though not so much as who was standing above him. Himself.
“You thought you were clever, eh? Thought you could sneak right in here and take over my life. Well luckily I saw right through your trickery. Now you are going to tell me everything. You changed the combination of my filing cabinet, didn't you? What is it now?” The dreadful mirror image rattled off questions while pressing a pencil into Clarence's own hand.
None of this made sense. Had he been drugged? The way that the world seemed to waver and the pain in his arm made him suspect it. Yet the other Clarence knew things, from his questions. Could it be that he was an imposter? No, the other must be. It was so very hard to tell.
“Just tell him what he wants to know.” A woman's voice whispered into his ear. It was the voice of his wife, at least as it had been in his dreams. It did not really sound like her but it must have been.
Adrift in confusion the old man found himself scribbling down answers if only to get the infernal questions to stop. Every answer he gave just caused more questions to pour forth from his damnable doppelganger. Or was he the doppelganger? He could not even tell.
“I can't breathe through this damn thing.” Nikolai complained once more after finishing another bout of wheezing. The thick cloth over his face was making it even more difficult for him to catch his breath than normal.
“Fine, if it will stop your damn coughing,” His attendant muttered as he pulled the hood up to Nikolai's nose, letting the older man take a few deep breathes. “No further though.”
That his escorts were willing to make that compromise gave Nikolai hope that he would live to see the end of the day. Being hustled out of his office and into a blacked out car by a couple of NKVD thugs had not exactly been how he wanted to start the day. Having a hood shoved over his head once they started to drive had made him fear for the worst. They had been driving for hours now, just where were they taking him?
Seeing as the other men in the car were not much for conversation Nikolai was forced to sit there quietly and wonder just what the hell he had been thinking to volunteer for this disaster. He knew what this was all ultimately about. Effectively no progress had been made so far in studying the German tankmen. No matter how they cut and probed the corpses that had been recovered they were no closer to understanding how they worked than they had been at the start. It was of little consolation that the other teams had not fared any better than his had. All that meant was that when Stalin decided to start blaming people they could all cozy up in a single grave.
Finally the car came to a halt. Pulling Nikolai's hood down again the NKVD men guided him into a building. At least the carpets felt like they were of a high quality, better than he suspected graced the floor of the Lubyanka. After being lead through several sets of doors the hood was pulled from his head and Nikolai could finally get a look at his surroundings. There was not much to go on. The room was well decorated but the curtains were all tightly drawn. Guards were posted beside the doors. Other men were already waiting seated against the far wall. Nikolai could only recognize the lead chemist from the facility he was in, the others were a mystery.
While his original escorts left the same way that they had come another soldier pressed a sheet of paper into Nikolai's hands.
“Memorize this. The meeting will begin soon.” The man motioned for him to join the others.
Pulling out his cigarette case and reading glasses Nikolai lit a smoke before beginning to read. There was barely anything typed on the page but after taking in the first line he felt his heart skip. Hurriedly he worked down the rest of the paper.
1) Remove test from buffering solution. Test will degrade upon contact with atmosphere. Do not leave test exposed for more than ten minutes. CONTACT WITH TEST WILL CAUSE DEATH IN NEGATIVE CANDIDATES AND SEVERE ILLNESS IN POSITIVE CANDIDATES. OBSERVE SAFETY PRECAUTIONS.
2) Collect blood sample from candidate via syringe. Protocols should be in place to prevent contamination.
3) Place one drop of blood from sample onto test. A positive response will produce a small amount of light and residue. All other results indicate a negative response. Test should not be physically held during testing procedure.
4) Prepare positive candidates for the activation procedure. Dispose of the test via incineration to prevent risk of exposure.
There were a few more lines, technical information mostly, but there was only one thing that this could possibly be instructions for. Nikolai could now hope that his failure would not be so harshly punished given that the way to make tankmen had been found. This was of course assuming that the components of the tests themselves had also been discovered. It seemed unlikely that he would be seeing this if they had not been. He could only wonder whether they had managed to steal it from the Germans directly or if one of the other Allies had beat them to it.
Everyone in the room sat in silence, no doubt going over the possibilities in their minds just as Nikolai was. Finally the double doors were opened and soldiers ushered them down the hall and into another room. The men waiting for them there were the ones that Nikolai had suspected.
Marshal Zhukov, Lavrentiy Beria and Stalin himself. It was the Premier who addressed the assembled men once they had been lined up in front of him. From behind his desk he looked like a judge inspecting criminals awaiting their sentences.
“I have been told that you are each experts within your respective fields. Yet so far you have been able to show nothing for your efforts in studying the Fascist's living weapons. Luckily for you our allies were able to succeed where you failed. Now I am willing to give you all a chance to redeem yourselves.” Stalin nodded to Zhukov as he finished speaking.
“The British have furnished us with the instructions for testing for tankmen, with the first shipment of tests arriving shortly. The actual material required for the transformation will be sent later. We had already been preparing reinforcements for the front. There will be a short window to test them in before the negative candidates,” Zhukov looked a bit bewildered at the term. “Are sent on to perform their regular duties.”
A sensible if morbid measure. If the tankmen were to be the new face of warfare then those who could not be transformed were expendable. Nikolai would not be surprised if that was the way that the Stavka viewed the average soldier for the whole war, casualty counts being what they were.
“That we are at the mercy of the capitalists is unacceptable. Not only are you to ensure that we have sufficient tankmen to throw back the fascist aggressors but you will also determine how we can produce them ourselves.” Beria would of course be the one enforcing punishment if they failed. A nasty little man with a nasty little mind and far to much power for anyone's good.
“One in five-thousand men are said to be capable of becoming tankmen. I will be expecting the first report on how many you have discovered the day after the tests arrive. Should the numbers be insufficient then more motivated men will be found to take your places.” Stalin folded his hands as he looked at the men sweating in front of him. With the stakes that were riding on success he was not mincing words.
“If I may Comrade Stalin,” An younger man further down the line from Nikolai spoke up, still looking self assured when Stalin's gaze focused on him alone. Must have had good connections to stick his neck out like that. “The test may sound simple but it will take time to secure the necessary equipment. Men will have to be trained on taking the blood samples correctly.”
This was obviously not the answer that Stalin was hoping for. Watching the gears turn in the man's head Nikolai decided that he might as well through caution to the wind. He had assumed that everyone else had noticed the same flaw in the instructions but perhaps not.
“Why bother drawing blood? The test only needs a drop and you can get that by pricking a man with a pin or the edge of a knife. Both of which are plentiful and simple enough to sterilize.”
“You think that you know better than the Germans how to run their own test?” Stalin asked Nikolai. Everyone was staring at him now. Might as well charge ahead.
“If I had to guess I would say that these instructions were written looking at subjects in a lab. But this is not an experiment anymore. You don't make tanks in a lab, you make them in a factory. We must look at the tankmen in the same way. Why waste the time on the first selection if only one in five thousand will have what we want? Once we have identified the candidates then we can investigate them properly.” Nikolai was rather impressed that he had made it so far without coughing, though his lungs felt as if they were barely able to breathe as it was.
Stalin was silent for a few achingly long moments before clapping his hands and smiling.
“Very well comrade. We shall see if you have outsmarted the Germans at their own game,” Stalin turned to Beria. “Give him what he needs. Set the others up with the procedure as listed.”
As Beria took Nikolai by the arm to lead him off to plan the endeavour the true enormity of what he had just done struck him. He had willingly thrown himself right into the line of fire. If he failed, hell even if he just did not meet Stalin's unspecified expectations, it would spell doom for not only him but likely his remaining family.
That left only one course of action. To not fail.
Entering General Morton's office Patrick had to duck a little as he passed through the door frame. He had finally surpassed the other tankmen in height and was now noticing just how low everything felt. It might not hurt him if he hit is head but the building would feel it.
“There you are son, take a seat. I've got some news for you that I figured should be delivered in person.” Stanley waited for Patrick to get himself comfortable. Chairs were another problem now, it always felt like his knees were pressed up against his chest with how low most were. Small problems all things considered.
“Thank you sir. I just hope that it's good news.” Patrick replied once he had finally found a reasonable position.
“It's a bit of a mix. I have the results of your family's tests.”
“Well how did they do?” Patrick knew it was not that sort of test but he could not resist the opportunity. General Morton just chuckled and shook his head before speaking.
“All four of your sisters tested positive as tankmen. Your mother and the cousins that they could get their hands on all tested negative. Right now the policy is that unless they are a prospective Battleship all female candidates will be deferred and put on reserve duty. So they won't be shipping out anytime soon, you can rest easy there.”
At first Patrick did feel a wave of relief run through him. For now his sisters would be spared having to endure the hardships of the battlefield but at least they would all have some kind of enhancement in the future. Once the war was over then they could all at least share that bond. He would not be left completely alone in this. After that relief had gone then Patrick realized that Stanley had forgotten someone.
“What about Eamonn? They not have a chance to get him stateside yet, I mean I know that you can't just send the tests out to the Pacific with the chance of a submarine or what have you.”
“That is the bad news. As it stands right now your brother is officially missing in action.” Stanley continued on hastily as he watched Patrick's face fall. “Now that doesn't mean that he is really missing. Just that he isn't with the unit that he should be. No one remembers him getting killed, just not being there one day. We believe that he was transferred but the proper paperwork wasn't filed. There are men looking for him all over, I'm sure that they will find him pretty quickly.”
“Yeah, that's probably it. I knew a guy that happened to over here, damn pencil pushers just weren't paying attention. If that's all sir?” Patrick knew that he was not being all that convincing when Stanley rose to see him out.
“Don't worry yourself about it Patrick, your brother will show up safe and sound soon enough. Probably sitting on a beach somewhere with no idea about what's going on.” Stanley clapped Patrick on the back as he went back out into the hallway.
Thankful for the reassurance but smart enough to know that it was largely bullshit Patrick nodded to Stanley before heading outside. He needed some fresh air after that news.
No one remembered Eamonn getting killed, that was all well and good unless if he had been captured at some point. What if he was out there somewhere waiting for rescue or had been shot up and was laying in a hospital bed unrecognizable? It was all Patrick's fault. He should have convinced Eamonn that there was plenty of things to do back home. Not that it would have worked but he should have tried at least.
At home when Patrick was faced with moments like this he would either get drunk or get into a fight. Usually the first then the second. After that his head would be clear enough that he could make a rational decision. Now getting drunk was impossible and there was no one around that he could fight without killing them. He would just have to bottle it up until they finally got a chance to get back into the fighting. Until then he just had to hold on and hope for the best. Just under two more weeks until he was fully activated, maybe Eamonn would turn up before then. Patrick could hold on for that long. Or at least he was pretty sure that he could.
With all the chaos and destruction being visited on the world Leah had been searching for a way to really help with the new war efforts. Rushing home she could barely contain her excitement that today she had been given the opportunity to do so. It would mean that she could not continue with her current duties of course but chances like this came along once in a lifetime.
The atmosphere at home had gotten a bit better. Deborah had at last found some work volunteering at their father's hospital. It helped force Deborah to confront her feelings about Benjamin's death, though she still had the occasional explosive moments. With time it might even help her decide whether she would follow Leah and David into medicine of some sort. For now all that mattered was that she was keeping herself busy. Suzanne had taken on even more charitable work to the point that Leah hardly ever saw her at all. In the rare moments where they did have time the conversations were almost overwhelming. Leah doubted that she could ever match her mother's efforts when it came to giving back to the community. As for David he stayed busy as ever. Which is why Leah was shocked to see the car parked in front of the house. By some miracle he must have gotten off early tonight.
As Leah took off her shoes and coat she could hear quiet conversation coming from the kitchen. Entering she found Deborah sharing dinner with their father. Both stopped to greet her.
“I'd hoped that you would also be home at a decent hour,” David reached out and grasped Leah's arm as she passed. In return she put a hand on his shoulder . “Doctor Benson decided that he wanted to pick up some extra hours so I managed to sneak away.”
“I made soup!” Deborah added. Tonight she looked rather happy. The prospect of having an evening meal with three family members in attendance was certainly rare these days and Leah was determined to cherish it.
“It smells wonderful Deborah,” Leah placed her bag next to the table and got herself a bowl. Sitting down she took a deep breath before making her announcement. “I was planning on telling everyone at breakfast tomorrow but as you two are here I might as well tell you now. Mother is going to be late I assume?”
When David nodded that she would be Leah continued.
“Doctor Haverly visited me earlier today. You remember him father, I worked on his ward a few years ago. He was so impressed by me that he wanted me to join him at a new ward they are opening for men who have been injured by the German supersoldiers.” It would be difficult work, essentially investigating new kinds of wounds with unknown long term effects, but Leah was ever up for a challenge. That her hard work had garnered such an invitation in the first place was a confirmation that she was on the right path.
“That is an incredible opportunity,” David looked impressed himself as he considered the implications of the new position. “It will be a great responsibility of course but I cannot think of many people more qualified. From everything that I have heard the injuries that some of these men are coming in with are bizarre to say the least.”
“Yes, Doctor Haverly gave me a packet they have prepared for everyone. I only had time to skim through it but the information is wide ranging to say the least.” Leah pulled out the thick sheaf of paper that had been given to her. A lot of it was on known conditions that might be related with a few hastily written reports that had been gathered from the field. As David began to flip through the stack he commented on some of them while Deborah sat quietly off to the side. This was where Leah's bond with her father was strongest, when they both could share their passion for medicine. It was something she hoped they could soon include Deborah in as well.
“Burns, that seems understandable. Removal of foreign objects, I say those examples are a fair bit larger than one would expect,” Stopping on one paper in particular David looked up quizzically at Leah. “Conjoined twins? I cannot see how that would be related at all.”
“He didn't say, just that I should be prepared to see anything and everything.” Leah shared her father's puzzlement over some of the cases that had been included. There was a very brief mention of a halo of some sort but what it had to do with everything else was still a mystery to her. As they continued to talk it over Deborah suddenly entered the conversation.
“Leah, what's this?” When Leah saw the piece of paper that her sister was holding she nearly panicked. Doctor Haverly had not been the only one to give her information today. Without realizing it Leah had also pulled out the list of possible places that she could rent from. Asking around the hospital had garnered a number of respectable establishments that she could afford on her salary.
“Its nothing,” Leah lied as she carefully tugged the paper out of Deborah's hands and placing it back in her bag. “I was supposed to pass this off to Cynthia at the reception, with all the excitement I must have forgotten.”
For now Deborah kept her silence but Leah could see the disbelief in her sister's eyes. Caught up in trying to decipher just what Leah would be working on David continued without noticing the tension brewing between his daughters. The conversation continued, if somewhat more stilted than before as Leah felt her sister's withering gaze.
“Well, no matter how terrible their injuries may be these men will be in good hands,” David smiled at them both before reaching out and grasping their hands. “I know that things have been... difficult in the past few months. With everything that has happened I want you both to know just how proud I am of you.”
“Thank you father,” Leah began to gather the dishes once he let go of her hand. “Since Deborah cooked I'll wash up.”
“Indeed, I'll help you dry them. Why don't you go and relax Deborah? If you end up training as a nurse you will learn to cherish every moment of rest you can get.” David offered, leading to Deborah making her way upstairs. Once she had gone David turned to Leah and continued quietly.
“She seems to be doing a lot better. It means so much to your mother and I that you have taken the time to help her. I don't think that we let you know that often enough.”
“It's really nothing.” Leah lied through her teeth as she plunged her hands into the soapy water. How could she tell him the truth when he had just finished complimenting her on how well she was handling everything?
There were few enough dishes that it took little time to finish them. Leah excused herself and went up to her room. No sooner had she sat down at her desk than the door flew open as Deborah stormed in.
“'Oh its nothing.' What sort of an idiot do you think I am! How could you even think of leaving us, after everything?” Deborah was not quite shouting but her tone was still frantic. Getting up to placate her sister Leah tried to treat the situation the same as being confronted by a distraught patient or one of their family members. No matter how she tried she could not bring forth the same calm. This was too personal.
“Deborah, I've not made any plans to do anything yet. Its just that I'm reaching a point where I could use a space of my own where-”
“Where you won't have to put up with the rest of us, is that it? First Benjamin dies then everyone tries to pretend that nothing happened and now you're going to abandoned me too!” Deborah was screaming by the end. After long months of holding everything in something in Leah snapped.
“What am I supposed to do Deborah? Benjamin is gone and nothing is going to change that. I keep on trying to be the strong one and to hold everyone together but I can't. I can't fix this and I can't keep being the only one willing to try. I have given everything that I have and I just want to have a life of my own. Is that too much to ask?” As the emotions came tumbling out Leah found herself quivering. “You lost a brother? So did I, and a son. Because that is what the two of you are to me Deborah, my siblings and my children. I've been picking up after you your whole life, can't you finally stand on your own?”
Without a further word Deborah turned and stomped down the hallway to her room, slamming her door behind her. Leah did the same. The moment the door shut every muscle in her body felt as if it had turned to water. Leaning against the door Leah could not even bring herself to cry. Just to try and stay standing.
Those had been terrible things to say. Of course everyone else was trying to work through their grief over Benjamin's death. She did have a life of her own.
Those had been terrible things to say and it was even worse that deep down Leah believed every last one of them to be true.
There was a creaking of footsteps coming up the stairs. Quietly they came down the hall until they stopped in front of Leah's room. Even with the door closed Leah could see her father standing there in her mind's eye. Perhaps his hand was floating just above the wood, struggling to cover that last fraction of an inch and make contact. Much the same Leah tried to reach for the doorknob. All she had to do was open the door and then the two of them could finally confront their feelings. Yet her hands remained where they were and no knock came from the other side. Both father and daughter remained frozen. They were only inches apart and there might as well have been a whole continent between them.
Finally David's steps continued down the hall, stopping for the same minute of silence in front of Deborah' door before giving up and continuing, not into his own room but into Benjamin's. Hearing that door shut Leah was able to find the strength to take the few steps back to her bed.
What bizarre twist of nature had convinced them all that they could help other people when they could not even help themselves? It just seemed so much simpler when Leah was at the hospital. Even when she had dealt with the same patients recuperating over months there was still the necessary distance to address the issues.
As Leah laid down she could not even bring herself to cry. She had lost control and let out a monster that should have remained chained up within her. It would take months to heal the wounds inflicted by those few words. In the face of that she remained numb, staring up at the ceiling as sleep refused to claim her. What had she done?
“Good morning Mr West.” The secretary said as the old man passed her desk. Surprisingly he tipped his hat to her in response.
“Morning.” Clarence replied, if in a curt and manner of fact way before disappearing down the hall into his office.
“Would you look at that,” One of the other secretaries said to the first. “Wonder what has gotten into the old codger?”
“Whatever it is I hope it sticks, I might actually get a full sentence out of him!” The first let out a little laugh at the thought and then went back to her work.
Such a small thing as it was neither thought much about it. Surely neither would have believed that it was as great a turning point in the war as unleashing the ubermensch had been.
Chapter 18: Complications
Chapter 18: Complications
If there was one thing that Klaudia was grateful for, as she stretched her legs out in front of her, it was that they had altered this car to properly fit her. Taking a note from Goering in Berlin her field support would remove the front passenger seat of any vehicle she would be using. The breeze whipping around her face as they drove along was a welcome trade-off for using an open-top model. At least it served to alleviate her constant feeling of claustrophobia. With all the chaos surrounding her mission even small sources of comfort were few and far between. Klaudia attempted to nap the best that she could, even though the way the car bounced over ruts in the road prevented her from truly falling asleep. It had been days since she had managed to complete a full rest cycle and the fatigue was catching up to her. With all that was left to do there would be little chance for proper rest any time soon.
In some ways the assault was everything that its planners had hoped it would be. Klaudia, accompanied by a few panzermensch, had broken through the Allied lines at one point while the rest of the small force of enhanced soldiers here in the west attacked another. Both had the support of the conventional forces that were in any shape to commit to an assault. Focusing on destroying as much of the armour and artillery as possible the ubermensch had managed to blunt the Allied advantage. Having seen what Klaudia could do to any large group of men the British and Americans were leery of concentrating their forces. While the front lines had barely moved on the map that had not been a major goal. For the initial attack at least.
As it had been explained to Klaudia the primary focus of the war at this point was to secure Germany, with the Soviets being the more pressing threat. Since Berlin there had been only a handful of air raids, mostly small in scale and having little lasting effect. It had been hinted to Klaudia that there was another project in the works that would soon secure the skies. Her mission was to make sure that there was no renewed attack from the west as Germany rebuilt its armies. Should the rest of the Allies continue to persist by the time that the Soviets had been destroyed then they would be threatened with the same fate.
Goering had seemed certain that it would not come to that. After all the British were already well bloodied from the war and the Americans would not have the stomach to take on the kind of casualties that the Battleships could inflict. With a strong enough show of force both would be convinced to accept Germany's terms. Without the secret to creating the Catalyst there was simply no way for them to win. It was only a matter of how many deaths would be needed to prove it.
For her part Klaudia had found the plan to be rather underwhelming. What she had wanted was the wild abandon that she had felt at Strasbourg, a chance to smother her sorrows with the anaesthetizing qualities of rage. She had been able to capture that wonderful feeling of emptiness a few times so far but it seemed more fleeting now than before. This assault was more properly a series of raids. Steal supplies, take captives, destroy heavy equipment, free German prisoners. Each a vital element to the ultimate success of the war effort, each failing to give Klaudia the revenge that she truly desired. Though that would surely come in time. Goering had promised her that once victory was secure she would be given her pick of the Allied leaders. Soon enough she would be able to put her hands on Churchill, Harris and every other monster that had ordered fire dropped onto Germany.
So long as Klaudia got them in the end she was willing to be patient. For a little while at least.
A familiar sound reached Klaudia's ears. That of hundreds of boots trudging through the dust. Opening her eyes briefly she spotted the column of freed Germans marching along the road ahead. This was the major reason that she got such little rest. These newly liberated soldiers may have been rearmed but they were hardly in any shape to put up much of a fight if they came under attack. With Klaudia out and about at all hours it made their march back to Germany a little safer. As they got approached the column Klaudia closed her eyes. She knew what she would see and did not care to see it again.
In what she suspected was a ploy to play off of her remorse over Leon's death Goering and the others had told Klaudia that she would be greeted as a miraculous saviour by the men she freed. There were a fair number who had done so, cheering and applauding at Germany's renewed fortunes. It was the men who had kept quiet that had caught Klaudia's attention. Most of them carried a look of resignation that they had been pulled back into the war. Klaudia recognized it as the look she saw in the mirror every morning, the acknowledgement that this hell around them might never end.
Part of Klaudia felt regret over bringing them back into the conflict. Many were old enough to be her father, some far past that even. She was quick to suppress that emotion though. After all she had not asked for any of this to happen to her but it had anyways. If she could live with it, so could they.
“Shit. Some fool went off the road.” Klaudia's driver said, causing her to look up from her nap. Sure enough there was a truck in the ditch. Men were milling about trying to figure out how to get it back on to the road.
“I'll take care of it.” Klaudia told him. It was a straight stretch of road, just how had they managed to drive off it? There were few enough trucks available that they could afford to lose any to such simple errors.
Getting out of the car Klaudia barely acknowledged the soldiers who parted in front of her. Some had the presence of mind to salute while others just stood there gawking at their first sight of a Battleship up close. Her lack of concern over enforcing discipline was something that drove her aides to distraction. They had told her many times that the rank Goering had given her came with certain responsibilities. Klaudia's reply that she had accepted it for the opportunities, not the obligations, was hardly what they had wanted to hear. They would have to make do as Klaudia was the one with the power, not them. Besides, she doubted that many other generals would stop to help a truck back on the road much less do it themselves.
“Put it in neutral.” Klaudia instructed the man behind the wheel as she got in front of the truck. She needed to learn how to drive herself one of these days. Still she had picked up some of the basics from the previous times she had rescued vehicles from whatever idiocy their drivers had mired them in.
Reaching down Klaudia spread her arms wide to take hold of the frame of the truck beneath the front bumper. She had torn off a few of those figuring out the best way to do this. As sturdy as they might look most trucks did not react well to being suddenly lifted from the ground. Carefully lifting it up she walked the vehicle back onto the road. Setting it back down she brushed off her coat, stopping for a moment beside the cab once more.
“Pay more attention to what you're doing. Next time I'll make you pull it out yourself.” Klaudia told the driver, who let out a long chain of apologies and assurances. Not caring to listen to the rest of it Klaudia returned to her car.
Werner had warned her about this, how mundane war could be. “Most of war isn't shooting. It's waiting, or marching, or fixing things. All leading up to that terrifying moment when you hear the first shot.” Wherever he was right now Klaudia hoped that he was well. She did miss his advice at times.
It was a strange kind of war anyways. One of the greatest weapons in Germany finding herself out saving men who did not want to be saved. Strong enough to break an actual battleship into scrap and using that strength to get trucks back on the road. Able to kill an entire division with a glance yet most of the enemy soldiers she encountered pissed themselves and surrendered before she even had a chance to threaten them.
As Klaudia had discovered it remained easier to destroy machines than it was to kill things that left bodies behind. Making sure that the distortions she created were strong enough to not leave a mess behind did require some extra effort. Once a man had surrendered it changed things. The Allies were the ones who killed the defenceless. Proving that she was better than they were made victory a little sweeter. When it came to the question of what exactly to do with the prisoners she took Klaudia left that to the leaders back in Berlin.
Not everyone agreed with Klaudia's assessment. There had been reprisals against both Allied soldiers and Germans who had been deemed too helpful during their brief captivity. Often enough these ended up being lethal affairs. With persistent rumours that the Allies were executing prisoners rather than let them fall into German hands tempers were running hot. Strangely enough Klaudia found that she could barely bring herself to care one way or the other. So long as no one was stupid enough to disturb her directly with this nonsense she figured that it was something else for the army leaders to take care of.
The rest of the patrol passed without incident and soon enough they were pulling up to the latest command centre. It was really just a collection of a few tents around an abandoned farmhouse. These field outposts had all been hastily assembled. There was little point in putting in too much effort when they would all be moving on in a few days or so. As soon as the soldiers and captives had cleared the area it would be time to strike the next target.
A gangly young soldier approached Klaudia with a canister in hand. “Your rations Herr General... Sieglinde.”
Taking the container from the flustered boy Klaudia suppressed a smile. Seeing as none of the officers particularly cared to look after her upkeep themselves unfortunate soldiers found themselves ordered to do it. So far two days was the record for how long one had lasted before they had begged the duty off on someone else. This poor boy could not even bring himself to look her in the eye. Klaudia would be amazed if he made it through the afternoon.
“What's your name soldier?” Klaudia asked before taking a mouthful of glucose paste.
“Its, ah, Bernd, ma'am.” He managed to stutter out.
“My name is Klaudia. Sieglinde, General and all those are just things that I do. Not who I am. So you can call me by my name, understand?”
So he could listen at least, and the Wehrmacht had not yet had a chance to shove a stick too far up his ass. Perhaps she would give him a chance to prove himself.
“Good boy. Now while I eat why don't you tell me about what all happened while I was on patrol?” Klaudia took a seat under one of the tents as Bernd began to stutter again and rushed off to find the briefings. She had nearly finished eating by the time that Bernd came running back up with a small stack of notes.
“Reconnaissance reports that the enemy continues to retreat towards Antwerp, as expected. There is an infantry force thirty miles to the north of us but Command thinks it best to let them go for now. It seems that the Americans are trying to move prisoners further back from the front and we are to renew our efforts on recovering them. Every man we save might be another panzermensch.” Bernd was breathless by the time that all of that came tumbling out of him. He had not looked up from his notes at all during the report and now continued to look down at the ground.
“I'm certain that my boots are overjoyed by the news,” Klaudia said. That brought Bernd's eyes up to her belt buckle at least. Passing him the empty container Klaudia asked, “Have they tested you yet?”
“Yes Klaudia. I wasn't a candidate.”
“Lucky you.” This time Klaudia could not hold back the smile from seeing the look of utter confusion that came across the boy's face. That raised another question. “How old are you Bernd?”
“Seventeen.” He replied, speaking to her boots once more.
Not that much younger than herself then. It was an odd realization for Klaudia. Bernd just seemed like he should be a child. It might have just been the great difference in their heights. Or the difference in what they had seen.
A faint sound in the distance caused Klaudia to hold back her next questions. She would have enough time to make Bernd squirm more later. For now there was something much more pressing to attend to.
“Do you hear that?” Klaudia asked as she stood up.
"Not really-” Bernd replied, just as a nearby officer lifted his head up.
“Plane. Only one so must be another recon flyover.” The officer went back to his work. He knew better than trying to talk Klaudia out of what she was about to do. Bernd began to search the skies for a sign of the approaching aircraft.
“There it is,” Klaudia pointed the small craft out to Bernd, waiting for it to come into focus for him. The information to be gained about the German positions must have been enough for the Allies to keep on risking these planes and pilots. Klaudia had been instructed to leave them be. All destroying them would do was give the Allies a much better picture of where exactly she was at any given time. She, however, disagreed. “Watch this.”
A short distance in front of the plane, just far enough away for the pilot to react, a distortion large enough to swallow it whole appeared. The man was paying attention at least as he quickly veered off to his right, only to find a new distortion blocking his path. This one was much closer. Another hairpin turn into another distortion and the plane was now heading back the way it came.
“Maybe next time.” Klaudia remarked as Bernd stood there staring and the officer just shook his head.
A waste of effort and a detriment to operational security they called it. Good fun was what Klaudia saw it as. So far it was about half and half whether a pilot managed to navigate her little obstacle course or went down in flames. What was the harm in it really? All it did in the end was provide another example of how the Allies had no means to defend themselves against Klaudia. Putting more stress on them now would just increase the chance that they would shatter when she finally struck them directly. Turning her attention back to Bernd Klaudia thought on how to best get under the boy's skin. Not like there was anything else for her to be doing this afternoon.
Emerging out of the bunker and into the evening light Anita took a deep breath, as much to banish the infernal stench as to clear her nerves. Behind her, wrapped in layers of reinforced concrete, was the first clinic in the world for the treatment of injured ubermensch. It was not really that much of a clinic but that sounded much better than laboratory or charnel house.
It was hardly the first time that Anita had gotten her hands dirty. Most of the experiments she had overseen for Sankt had been messy affairs. The major difference was that now they were trying to fix people rather than take them apart, a much more difficult endeavour that prevented the use of a number of techniques that she had employed previously. More and more Anita found herself longing to go back to being a simple sculptor. Clay smelled wonderful compared to blood and was far easier to wash off at the end of the day. As usual Anita would enjoy a scalding hot bath before retiring for the night. Perhaps employing some caustic substances to ensure that she felt completely clean.
Things were progressing though, painfully slow as it might be at times. Quite literally so for the patients. Most of Anita's concerns about the difficulty of making repairs to a living body with the halo had proven accurate. At least they had discovered a way to burn off the nerve endings around wounds. It was a crude means of pain management but all of the men welcomed the lack of feeling over constant pain. Eventually Anita hoped that either she or another would develop enough control to perform the work in a single treatment. She suspected that the Battleships could manage it but they were needed elsewhere of course.
It was a short walk from the clinic to where Anita had been given quarters. Initially they had wanted her to just bunk down in one of the spare rooms above the surgery but she had been successful in arguing against that. There had to be at least a few hours of the day that she could enjoy for herself away from her work. Besides it was almost certain that her every action was being observed and recorded no matter where she was sleeping. Even if she had wanted to run Anita doubted that she would be able to make it out of the city. Starvation was all that would await her if she did manage it.
With all this in mind Anita was not at all surprised to hear footsteps behind her. Closer than usual, whoever they had sent was sloppy. Eventually the steps caught up to her and Anita was surprised to see that it was Hagen himself.
“I hear that your efforts are proceeding well. Congratulations. Let's take a little walk to celebrate.” Hagen motioned for her to follow along, heading into the abandoned street nearby. Tired from the day's work Anita considered just going back to her quarters anyways but decided to see what Hagen was up to. There was one possibility that came to mind.
“You're a married man aren't you Colonel?” Anita asked. It would not be the first time that she had been propositioned. Providing those men foolish enough to ask with an excruciatingly detailed picture of the likely results of such an act was enough to dissuade them so far. She would have considered Hagen to be smarter than that.
“What? Of course I am, what-,” Hagen shook his head to clear the surprise from his voice. “This is not about anything like that.”
“Then why are we walking out here, just the two of us?”
“Difficulties have arisen.” Hagen said mysteriously as he ducked into an alleyway.
“I've already told you everything I know. There is not much more I can do I'm afraid.” Anita replied as she followed him in. This area had been hit hard and there was no one in sight.
“The difficulties aren't anything to do with the Catalyst itself. That is actually proceeding on schedule. This is a much more sensitive set of problems,” Lowering his voice further Hagen continued. “The losses that Himmler incurred did not have as much of an effect on his popularity with the Leader as we might have hoped. The others are just as eager to grab control of whatever part of the project that they can. If this continues then all of this might have been in vain. For all of Sankt's faults keeping the project under a single vision was the correct course of action.”
“I fail to see how I can help you with any of that. I'm no politician. I'm not even one of the scientists. Surely if you manage to snag one of them-”
“You might not be a scientist Anita but you did oversee everyone involved in the Catalyst breakthrough. Those that I interviewed spoke highly of your organizational skills. More than anyone else you know the people involved. Their strengths, weaknesses. You know the system behind the ubermensch.” Hagen was being unusually earnest. Things really must have been looking grim for the Wehrmacht to stoop to this level.
If Anita understood him correctly what they wanted was a spy of sorts. Someone who would be able to tell them which of the former project members might be leaned on in order to gain an edge on all the others involved in this squabbling. Loathe as she was to get involved this did seem to be the best way to help ensure a victory for Germany. As Hagen had implied all those involved might tear each other apart and take Germany's chances with them.
“If I were to agree to this then I will need some sort of assurance that I will not be thrown to the dogs as soon as you have what you want.”
“That you've not been imprisoned for being too close to Sankt should show you that we've already been looking out for your well being,” Hagen let out a sigh when he saw Anita getting ready to protest. “Come now, everything points towards Sankt trying to put together some kind of putsch. He would need help to pull that off and you were closer to him than anyone. No one else has figured that out yet and no one else will so long as you cooperate.”
It would be too much to ask that Hagen truly had come alone. No doubt there were watchers hidden all around this seemingly abandoned alley. Almost certainly a few loyal panzermensch in case if Anita were inclined to try anything. Still she considered it for a moment. Kill Hagen, kill whoever had accompanied him, try and make it out of the city before the alarm was raised. The question was what to do afterwards. Run to the Allies? Even if she had the supplies to make it Anita hardly had the stomach to consider it. For now it seemed that fate had chosen her path for her.
“Alright Hagen. I'm your woman.” Anita smiled as she thought, at least until something better comes along.
It did not take long for Anita to regret agreeing to assist Hagen. Rather than soaking her cares away she found herself in a secluded room pouring over everything that the Wehrmacht had managed to find out about the various new branches of the Ubermensch project. Finding the flecks of gold amidst all of the dross was maddening. Yet Anita was persistent if she was anything. Particularly when her life was on the line.
Deaths among the new activations were higher than predicted. It was possible that the Catalyst supply had been tainted at some point. Great care had been taken to label every batch produced at the camp. With all the chaos of trying to implement testing on a grand scale most of those records had been ignored. Now it would be all but impossible to track down where any particular impurity had come from.
The number of candidates was still promising, even if there were no Battleships as of yet. Anita knew that it was a fool's hope to wait for another to be found. Imperfect as they were the current batch of Battleships was probably all that would be found for a generation.
That left tracking down which researchers had ended up where. While none of the ones that Sankt had managed to hang on to when everything went to hell had been particularly genius they all had a distinct advantage. They had practical experience with the arcane procedures of the Catalyst. So far Anita had noted a few who could be turned. Idiosyncratic lifestyles seemed to go hand-in-hand with that lot of misfits. There was a slight problem with continuing down that route. A few of the project members seemed to have fallen through the cracks.
Particularly of note were the chemist Freya Bergen and Anita's fellow administrator Lupin Schultz. No one seemed to know where they had been reassigned to after Klaudia's excursion to Strasbourg. Lupin was not a major concern, as Anita could not think of anything that could be used against him. The man had been straight-laced through and through. Bergen on the other hand...
The Norwegian had been talented but equally unpleasant to interact with. Bergen would not even have to have done anything to convince those around her to turn on her. After which point she could be forced into the same situation that Anita found herself in, running to the Wehrmacht for protection. It would be rather poetic in a way.
Scribbling down a note for Hagen to focus on finding Bergen Anita turned back to the stacks of paperwork. Everything she needed to save herself was here. It would just take a little time.
Chapter 19: The Tragedy of War
To say that working with men injured by the ubermensch was a learning experience would be a gross understatement. In the short time that she had been dealing with wounds caused by the distortion halo Leah had seen that they defied most modern medical knowledge. Sometimes even all pretense of rationality as well.
The patients of the new ward could be divided into three groups. Firstly there were those who had not been directly injured by exposure to a distortion but still suffered injuries due to being in the vicinity of one. Temporary or permanent loss of vision was the predominant ailment for that group. Their presence was more of a precaution to make sure that no lingering effects cropped up later.
The second type of patient had either touched a distortion or the energy that was given off by them. Leah still was not entirely clear how it worked, the men spoke of balls of light with little bolts of lighting arcing into their surroundings. Either way the results appeared like a burn at first glance. Closer inspection revealed that the skin had actually been melded with tissue below it, the fat, muscle and nerve all the way down to the bone in some cases. For some of the patients it was excruciatingly painful while for others it was perfectly comfortable other than the warped appearance. In almost all cases no matter how bad the damage the limb was still functional, if not in the same manner it had been originally.
Then there was the final group, whose injuries were truly bizarre.
Leah was holding the tip of a feather near the 'arm' of one of those patients, a soldier named Michael. From shoulder to wrist his arm looked normal save for a few distortion marks along it. Past the wrist was another story entirely. Michael had been holding on to a rifle when the distortion grazed him. His hand had now become one with the wooden stock. It was difficult to tell exactly where the flesh ended and the wood began.
“And now?” Leah asked as she lightly touched the feather to what appeared to be completely wood. Michael had been blindfolded so they could test just how much feeling he retained.
“It's about five inches down from my wrist, on the bottom side.” Michael replied. So far he had been shown to have full feeling throughout his new stump. This had initially been discovered when a surgeon in the field had attempted to amputate what should have been an unfeeling foreign object. Michael's screams had been enough for them to abandon the attempt until a closer examination could be conducted.
“Remarkable, simply remarkable,” Doctor Haverly added as he finished marking the findings down. “This narrows our options but I still believe that we should be able to remove most of the, shall we say additional matter, so long as you are under anaesthesia.”
“Get me a bottle of something strong and a carpenter and I'll save you the time. Just whittle it down a bit until it can hold a glass and it'll give me something to show off down at the pub!” Compared to most Michael was taking his disfigurement with good humour. It gave Leah hope for his recovery.
“Well I shan't make any promises,” Haverly looked at Leah where she waited holding onto the feather. “That will be all for now Nurse Cohen, thank you.”
Before Leah left she patted Michael on the shoulder. It was good to be able to help someone. God only knew that she could hardly help herself.
Ever since her outburst at Deborah life at home had become even worse than before. Deborah had hardly spoken two words to her since the incident, no matter how Leah had apologized. Their father had remained silent and even more absent than unusual. Leah would have thought that he had suppressed all memory of the night except that he had clearly told Mother, who had cornered Leah the next morning. They had not had a conversation per se, as that would have required Leah to be able to get a word in, but Suzanne had managed to tearfully list off the many reasons why Leah could not possibly move out on her own right now. Most of them had to do with how busy Suzanne was herself and if Leah were not there to take care of things then who would? Afterwards Leah had promised that she would not consider moving out for a year or two.
It was deeply unsatisfying but Leah asked herself what other choice did she have? Her whole life had been devoted to putting the needs of others ahead of her own, another few years of doing so would not hurt.
Pushing thoughts of her home life aside Leah refocused on her work. As strange as the new ward could be it still represented stability. She knew how to help make men whole again no matter how they had been broken.
Not everyone was so simple as Michael. He was content to joke about his new oddity of an arm. Others were in far worse spirits and condition.
A few men had take more direct hits from distortions. Not straight on of course, no one survived those. Leah would have wagered that they would have gladly traded a wooden arm for the twisted mess that they had been left with. Veins and arteries pulled to the surface where they threatened to rupture with little force, muscle and bone twisted in ways that defied anatomy. That was the truly maddening part of all this. The distortions forced natural patterns into new artificial ones with little connection between incidents. Still Leah was certain that with time and enough patients the doctors would be able to reason it all out.
The mental injuries had not changed at all and were as difficult to treat as ever. Leah had never been anywhere near a battlefield but she had heard many stories. Artillery literally tearing men apart as it rained from the sky and machine guns cutting down anyone foolish enough to expose themselves. One thing that every patient so far had agreed on was that the distortions were even worse. Particularly those made by the Battleship Sieglinde. Only two men here had survived an encounter with her. Both told of red skeletons left slumped against walls as their flesh pooled onto the ground and men melded into whatever they had been using for cover. It was so nightmarish that Leah could only hope it was an exaggeration brought on by shock. But given the atrocities that had been carried out so far she feared that this was just the latest bit of human decency to be sacrificed on the altar of war.
Heading back towards the nursing station Leah checked in on one of the survivors of Sieglinde. Dennis was worryingly quiet most days. Much like Micheal he had been struck by part of a distortion while holding something, though in his case rather than a rifle it had been another man. Leah had not managed to get the full story from him but with the little he had mentioned she could surmise that the other man had been a friend. Sitting up in bed Dennis kept his eyes downcast, his remaining hand moving up and down along the bandaged stump where the surgeons had separated the fused pair. Only Dennis had survived the operation. Looking closely Leah could see spots of fresh blood on the bandages.
“Dennis, may I see?” Leah asked softly, causing the soldier to give a start as he realized someone else was there. When he saw her looking he jerked his hand away from the stump.
“Its nothing. Just itches sometimes.” Dennis, not meeting Leah's eyes.
Gently she took his stump to check the dressing. Sure enough it looked as though he had been picking at it for a while now. It would need to be changed.
“I'll go get some fresh bandages and see if we can do something to make it more comfortable. Alright?” Holding on to Dennis's injured arm Leah was able to get him to glance up for a moment as he nodded. A small step, but every step forward took him closer to recovery.
The only thing with small steps was that they took time and that seemed like it might run out any moment now. All Leah could do was keep on striding ahead. Small steps, she reminded herself, be strong.
It was all so easy in her head. If only it could be that way in the real world.
Maria's unit had chosen a small field under a hill to make camp in. From the hill the lookouts could see anything happening in the surrounding area and would hopefully be able to alert the tanks below before too much damage could be done by an attack. Any German tankman wandering this way would be in for an unpleasant surprise. All of the armour crews were running on little sleep and had twitchy fingers.
So far it had all just been an unpleasant pain in the ass for Maria. Being the premier sniper of the unit she had been assigned sentry duty every night of the retreat so far. Long, cold nights spent searching for the feared sparks of blue out in the dark did not make for a happy sniper.
Maria was good and she made sure that everyone knew it. But a shot at a target the size of her palm, in the dark at this distance? It would be a miracle. Best she would be able to do was make sure that there was plenty of warning for those sleeping down below. Such as dear Lev, whose warm body would have been a great comfort to Maria as she lay there hidden in the bushes. Soon enough she would be able to enjoy him again.
Though the cold did not worry her now so much as how the days were warming. Mud was beginning to replace snow in more places than not. Spring would be upon them soon and that would make any further retreat even more of a fiasco. Things had already been mucked up too much as it was for fate to add actual muck to the works. Not that they could change the weather. Maybe if they got their own gods one day.
There had been attempts to gather the main forces at the rail heads to whisk the bulk of the army back to where they could prepare a proper defence. A lot of effort had gone into putting out screens of men and tanks to protect these movements. Most of those men would have had to remain behind too, to slow down the German advance. Not that it had worked at all. The Battleship had ended up dancing around those forces to wreak havoc on the staging areas themselves. Casualties had been enough to abandon the idea for now. No major gathering of men was possible so long as they were within reach of one of the infernal German god-men.
Siegfried. It was a name that every man and woman in the army had grown to loathe. There was another Sieg-something making life hell to the south but for now that was not Maria's problem. She was just counting down the days until she got a visit from the grinning angel of death. He had been delayed so long that she almost hoped that they would really be able to escape his clutches. This area had been quiet so far. Only a bit further and they would be far enough into Poland to consider trying for the railways again.
Looking onto the camp below Maria was worried about how much noisy clanking metal had been gathered here. Tanks, artillery guns, rocket launchers, everything that the Germans were rushing to destroy could be found in the camp. The men throughout were there just as guards mostly. Machines were expensive to replace after all. Also in most cases these were the only things that could actually kill a German tankman so it made sense to try and protect them. Even Maria could agree with it and she generally had little positive to say about the stinking engines.
The sun was starting to peek over the next hill. Soon enough Maria's watch would be over and she would be able to stumble back into the camp, down a ration of vodka and pass out in the back of a truck. All she had to do was keep awake for the next hour or so. Her relief would be here soon enough. Then they would be moving, another step back towards home. Until they stopped again for some silly reason.
That was when she spotted him. A too tall silhouette cresting the hill with the sunrise at his back. For a moment Maria thought it might have been another of the sentries but the speed with which the man moved convinced her otherwise. At least the idiot was making a good target for her.
Putting her eye up to the scope Maria focused on the man. With the light at his back she could hardly make out his features, other than that he was blonde. Not much of anything to go by. Aiming as close to his head as she could Maria waited for the telltale blue light. It was the only time that a normal bullet could take one of these monsters down.
As the lightning poured from the man's eyes Maria's finger moved to the trigger. The idiot must have thought he would pick off a tank or two on the outskirts before running away. If Maria had any luck she would save the Germans having to care for such a stupid man. It might have been her imagination but she could swear that he was smiling.
Just before Maria's finger tightened on the trigger the light devoured her world.
Clamping her eyes shut Maria found herself blinded by that terrible light. The afterimages floated across the inside of her eyelids as screams and the sounds of explosions drifted up towards her ears. Every muscle in Maria's body froze. Her finger trembled a hairsbreadth away from the trigger, so stiff it might as well have been carved from stone. She dared not fire as this was no tankman. It was the Battleship.
It felt like an eternity as the light flashed and the horrible roar arose from the camp. Then it was over. The only light remaining was that of the rising sun and silence was only pierced by scattered screams and cries for help. Hidden away on the hill Maria was still frozen in place.
Shut up shut up shut up, Maria shouted at the men below with her thoughts. Quiet, or he might come back. Just be quiet!
The Battleship had to be gone by now but Maria dare not open her eyes. She feared if she did that he would be standing right in front of her, just waiting for the moment to strike.
When she finally did part her eyelids ever so slightly there was no one in front of her. Opening them more fully she was relieved that at least there was no permanent damaged to her vision. Taking the smallest breaths that she could Maria began to scan the surrounding area, moving as little as possible in case the Battleship was still somewhere out there waiting for any stragglers to reveal themselves. First with her eyes and then through her scope she was able to find no sign of the man. It was only then that Maria dared to look at the camp below.
There was little left other than a great scar marring the landscape. Barely any sign of the tanks or other machines save a few of the supply trucks towards the rear and even those were all split open and thrown about. Even less sign of the tents where the soldiers had been sleeping. Just like that almost everyone that Maria knew was dead. Again, Maria thought before beating that voice back down into the depths.
As Maria forced her stiff limbs to move she realized that she had pissed herself during the attack. Not that it mattered much now. Getting up to a crouch Maria carefully left her nest, rifle clutched tightly in her hands as if it could offer some kind of protection. Making her way down the hill she tried to present as small a target as possible. By the time she reached the outskirts of the camp Maria rose up. It was clear now that the German had done his dirty work and then left. The mess that he had created was like nothing that Maria had ever seen.
It was the smell that got to her first. Blood and burned flesh and shit all mixed together. Pulling her shirt up over her nose Maria entered the ruins. The smell still pierced through the sweat-soaked fabric but it was not near so bad. There was no chance that Lev or Pyotr had survived but she felt compelled to go and look for them all the same. They would have done it for her.
There were strange piles of sticks everywhere surrounded by pools of red mud. Looking closer at the first one that she passed Maria recoiled in horror. Not sticks. Bones. Each man reduced to a sad puddle. That was where the stench was coming from. Choosing her steps carefully Maria steered clear of the little red rivers that were starting to trickle along. Some of the ground had been turned into long twisted roots that felt like stone when she put her boot on them. Rough as they were to walk on they kept Maria's feet far from the gore. Maria continued to the heart of the camp, where the ground had been turned entirely to the strange hard substance. This was where her friends would have been.
Finally Maria's legs gave out from under her and she fell to her knees. Her hands lost their grip on her rifle and let it fall as well. Maria lost her grip on her thoughts soon after. It was not fair. They were all supposed to go together. She had promised herself that they would all go together this time. Not like when mama had left her, then her brothers, then papa at last laying there holding her hand as he choked on his own breath and they had left her why had they left her why why why.
The dark things that Maria struggled to keep chained up deep inside of her broke free. All semblance of reasonable thought left her mind as her pain and fear consumed her. Fear of being left alone. Memories of what had happened the last time she had been alone, what she had done to survive and what had been done to her. Ragged cries tore from Maria's throat as she knelt there sobbing amid the ruins of her life.
Until her right hand clenched into a fist and slowly rose up on its own accord. Suddenly, viciously, Maria struck herself across the face. Once, twice, then again and again until the repeated blows left her cheek raw and bleeding. Crying like a stupid little baby. Stop it! The sudden burst of violence cleared her mind.
“Survive.” She growled to herself. Things had been worse before. Then she had only been a child, helpless and alone. Even if she was alone now she was no child. The scars that she bore proved that.
What to do. There was only one real answer to that. She could not even remember her family's names but she could remember watching them waste away from hunger and disease. Those were intangible things that could not be fought or killed. While the god who had done this might have been as untouchable those around him were not.
“Kill. Kill them all. Kill every last fucking German!” Maria shouted. Her tears had stopped now. No more feeling sorry for herself. There was killing to be done.
Picking up her rifle Maria made her way to the wrecks of the supply trucks. Crazy as she was she knew that if she went off on her own without supplies then the only one who would be dying would be her. She needed to find another unit so she could rejoin the fight.
There were a few men at the trucks already. Some must have been on the very outskirts of the camp, the others were a couple of the scouts. Maria knew as soon as she looked into their eyes that they would be of no help to her. They looked broken. All they would do now was run. She kept her distance from them and they from her. Neither party wanted anything to do with the other.
Tearing through the broken crates and bins Maria was able to fill a pack with the most essential supplies. Food and ammunition, fresh water. Her hand hovered over a bottle of liquor she found for a moment before leaving it. Getting drunk would only serve to dull her pain and Maria wanted nothing of the sort. With the pack as full as she was able to carry Maria walked towards the road. She began to move alongside it, where she could still see anyone moving on it without being seen herself. Other units had passed this way. If she moved quickly she should be able to catch one of them.
They had gone into the wolf's den and paid dearly for it. Maria swore that the same would happen to the wolves.
It's going to be a beautiful day, Markus thought to himself as he left the wreckage of the Soviet camp behind. If only there had been enough time to really enjoy himself tearing that miserable place apart. He had been given strict orders, by both Himmler and the Leader, to do as much damage as possible as quickly as possible. That meant relying on the halo even if closing to melee was far more satisfying.
Looking around at the melting snow Markus was relieved that winter was finally coming to an end. Spring was his favourite time of year and it would make the remaining campaign against the eastern mongrels all that much more enjoyable. Hopefully the mud would dry up soon as it made a terrible mess on his boots.
Heading back to his escort Markus scooped up a handful of snow and compressed it into a ball. Soon as he came into sight of them he wound up his arm and sent it whizzing past one of the men. Not straight at the man of course, no need to kill anyone on his own side. Still the force of it caused the man to drop to the ground as the others scrambled for cover. It must have sounded close enough to a projectile that they thought the Soviets were upon them. Once they noticed Markus approaching and laughing they got back onto their feet. Even with his enhanced hearing Markus could not quite catch what some of the men muttered to themselves. Such a surly bunch at times. Who could not be overjoyed to be here on the battlefield, securing the future of the German race?
Getting into the truck Markus looked at the map of the other targets he was to hit today. He could scarcely wait until his maturation was complete. Given what he could accomplish with a window of under four hours it would be marvellous when he had the full eight at his disposal. By then they should have finished crushing the Soviets and it would be time for the more delicate work that Himmler had discussed with him. Things that would take an iron will and constitution. A fine soldier Werner may have been but he was lacking when it came to devotion to the cause. Klaudia was a woman and hardly suited for that kind of work. Only Markus could be relied upon for it. That was why he had already become the Leader's favourite. As they drove along Markus realized that he had been wrong. It was not going to be a beautiful day, it was going to be a beautiful year.
Chapter 20: A Cause for Celebration
The moment that the smell of smoke reached Werner he knew that they were too late. It had been three days ago when the haze of black soot had begun to drift over them, carrying with it the all too familiar scent of burning oil. By that time he had already been ordered to leave the main force behind and to advance into Romania. Once the smoke had appeared that advance had turned into a mad dash to reach Ploesti.
Taking the oilfields had been easy. The few remaining Soviets had been there to finish the sabotage, not to guard them. All of the railway stations and most of the refineries had been blasted apart with explosives. Nearly all of the holding tanks had been set fire to, with the flames still so intense at a few that Werner was the only one able to safely approach. He could put out the fires but repairing the damage was a much more difficult proposition. These were only the most obvious signs of the Soviet efforts and Werner was certain that there was more waiting to be discovered. Prior experience made him suspect that many of the remaining buildings had been trapped in some fashion to extract more casualties later on.
One of the technicians that had been brought along to check the wells came ambling up to Werner. The man was covered near head to toe with grime. Even though Werner was not officially in charge most of the civilian and military personnel liked to keep him appraised of the situation. As much as he appreciated it there were times where he would have preferred to be left in the dark. Too much knowledge was a depressing thing.
“Just wanted to let you know that the wells we just checked were like the others. Fucking Russians dumped concrete down every single one. It will take months to clear out all that mess,” Looking around the man corrected himself. “Clean up all this mess. Once the rest of the army gets here to keep the partisans from slitting our throats at night.”
Much as Werner had expected the attack into Hungary had become bogged down. Breaking up the main Soviet formations had just caused a flood of men and weapons fleeing into the hills. He hated to admit it but Werner knew that the average Soviet soldier was not so stupid as the propaganda made them out to be. It did not take a genius to realize that Germany did not have enough soldiers, enhanced or otherwise, to fully pacify the countryside. Even at the height of the original invasion of the East years before there had never been enough men. So the enemy had taken to breaking up into smaller groups, hoping that they would be able to bleed Germany with a thousand cuts. For now it would be enough to keep many of them alive though eventually they all would be hunted down.
“That's not the worst either,” The technician added. “I imagine you'll be getting the official report soon. When we went into town to get the refinery workers to come out and repair this shit we got some bad news. There aren't any. Before they left the Soviets rounded up near every man who worked with anything to do with the oilfield and forced them to retreat with them. We'll have to bring in replacements from home.”
So now there were no facilities to drill for oil or to refine it, no safe route to get it back to Germany and no one to work on fixing it. This was all shaping up exactly as Werner had feared. Still, it was a poor time to be a pessimist.
“Any chance that I could at least clear out those wells for you? They go straight down don't they, I am sure I could keep a distortion on course for that long.” Werner asked. Any bit he could do to help would save a lot of man hours down the line. Fuel might not be as critical now that masses of tanks were no longer needed but an air force and navy would be needed to deal with Britain and America. Both of those things sucked up oil like nothing else.
“Maybe,” The technician worked the idea over in his mind. “The big thing is that you would have to do it without nicking any of the pipe casing. It's a son of a bitch to replace. Plus if anything caught fire that deep I don't know if we could put it out.”
It had been worth a try. Werner knew little about how they got oil out of the ground so he would wait until someone with the proper expertise could be consulted. No point in rushing in to action if it just made more of a mess to clean up.
“Well, I'll go do another patrol around then. Might as well make myself useful.” Werner bid the man farewell before starting a lap around the area.
It should have been different, with how much he had changed, but the battlefield seemed the same as ever. His powers helped the war move quicker than before but the very foundations of conflict remained unchanged. Werner could not help but wonder if they would be able to forge something better once this was all done. He still hoped to see Hitler dead for the things that the dictator had done but there was a large distance between the two. So long as he did a good job Werner suspected that he would have his opportunity eventually. Once Hitler was removed then saner elements might prevail.
A world without the looming threat of communism. One with Germany at the helm rather than the overbearing British, haughty French or hedonistic Americans. If he kept his wits about him Werner might have a strong hand in shaping how that world turned out. So long as he could focus on what he was doing right now.
As a car raced towards him Werner stopped his patrol. He recognized the man in the passenger seat.
“What do you have for me Uwe?” Werner asked as his communications officer hopped out of the vehicle. If they were rushing after him like this it must have been important.
“New orders came in. We won't be able to act on this until the panzermensch reinforcements arrive in a few days to secure things but I thought you would want to know.” Uwe's face told Werner that he would not like what he was about to read. Taking the paper he read the short instructions on it.
“Proceed to Bucharest at the earliest opportunity. The Leader has commanded that the city be razed- for fuck's sake. Is this really the best they can come up with? It'll turn the country even more against us and give the Soviets time to lick their wounds.” Werner cursed Hitler's stupidity. He could understand some measured reprisals to punish the Romanians for turning their coats but this just seemed counterproductive. Not to mention a waste of time.
“If it's any consolation the High Command agrees with you. Sounds like they are arguing for something less dramatic. Maybe they'll be able to convince the Leader to reign in his temper by the time the reinforcements arrive.”
“Is the King even in the country anymore?” Werner asked in frustration. That was really who should be punished for this debacle.
“No one seems to know. The Soviets have been broadcasting support for his government so he might have gone along with them when they retreated.” Uwe looked a bit amused by that. It was a strange thing, a monarch in bed with the communists who would have seen him overthrown in any other circumstances. War was funny that way.
“Well here's hoping that Guderian and the generals can get us back on course to the actual enemy.” Somehow Werner doubted that it would happen but he could hope.
He was certain that Markus would have been overjoyed to receive such an order but the little sadist was busy murdering prisoners in Poland. Werner was the one who would have to deal with this in the end. Maybe if he put on a good show, destroyed a palace or two and the military headquarters, then Hitler's blood lust might be appeased. It would be a much better way to cow the populace than burning the whole city down. There had to be a way to pull it off and Werner had enough time to think up a proper plan.
Lighting a fresh cigarette with the last embers of the old one Stephanie let out a long stream of smoke before giving the order. Weathersby's orders against smoking in the labs be damned, she needed this.
“Begin Modified Catalyst Preparation Twenty-Seven.”
It had taken weeks to get to this point and now that success was so close Stephanie found herself more anxious than ever. Getting here with the modified Catalyst had required a fair amount of trial and error though it had progressed far more smoothly than the original German efforts. All that remained was putting the finishing touches on and then figuring out what exactly this modification would produce. A physical isolation still seemed to be the most likely but what that would entail was a mystery. Not that the final stages were proving simple to produce either.
From what the cryptographers had managed to decipher in order to complete the fermentation process the Catalyst had to be subjected to a very specific series of physical blows. Already the modified process had required far more extreme heat and pressure during that fermentation than for the normal Catalyst. The sticking point was that there were several ways in which the final sequence could be interpreted. For now all they could do was run through each possible sequence until they found the right one. Provided that they found it in time. There were more possibilities than there were samples of the Catalyst at this point. If they did not find the right one then it would be another week of waiting before the next batch was ready.
As Stephanie looked on the hydraulic press that had been modified to carry out the procedure sprang into action. The first blow fell on the piece of waiting Catalyst, producing a small burst of red light. Then the second blow caused a brighter flash. With each drop of the upper plate Stephanie made a tick mark to track how many had passed. Finally it dropped and there was no corresponding flash. When it lifted this time the crystal had been reduced to powder.
“Clean it up and prepare the next trial.” Stephanie instructed as she resisted the urge to burst out cursing.
Time was not a resource that the Allies had much of. Already Stephanie considered it a miracle that the Germans had not figured out that she had stolen their trump card. The veil of secrecy that she was working under could not last for much longer and she needed to have something impressive ready for once it came down. Though it might not be the Germans who managed that in the end.
By Stephanie's rough estimate the American tankmen would be finished their maturation soon and the American Battleship might already have been fully activated. Freshly produced Catalyst had been shipped to the American forces in France to assist in that, considering that most of her original stolen batch had gone into the tankmen themselves. Once that force was operational Stephanie could not see the military holding it back for long. After all she had warned them herself that the window of opportunity would be narrow. Germany would not have been idle all this time.
Taking her cigarette Stephanie rolled up her sleeve and extinguished it against her forearm. A little bit of pain to remind herself that she was still in control, no matter how much it felt like she was not. Everything that she had done was to ensure an Allied victory. This was no time to lose her head. Seeing that the men had readied the next trial Stephanie lit another cigarette and gave the order.
“Begin Modified Catalyst Preparation Twenty-Eight.”
Hit, flash. Hit, flash. Stephanie counted every strike. Passing the point where the last trial had failed, then passing the furthest point that they had achieved so far. Her heart fluttered a little as the number of strikes approached the theoretical end point. The plate fell once more and there was a terrific burst of red. Leaping up from her seat Stephanie watched intently as the press pulled up. There on the lower tray sat the Catalyst. It glowed a much deeper red than the usual samples did. That could mean only one thing.
“Finally,” Stephanie said as she let out a victorious stream of smoke. “Someone inform Captain Weathersby.”
Now all they needed to do was make a few more successful pieces and there would be enough to start activations. Then it was just hoping that it did not kill the poor fools chosen as the lab rats.
A few short hours later Stephanie found herself standing in the entry hall of the manor, waiting for those first subjects to arrive. There had been a few additional failures but the rest of the modified Catalyst had been successfully completed. This was the closest to feeling giddy that Stephanie had been since she was a child. She had not had a chance to work directly on the breakthrough of the original Catalyst. In some ways it felt like this discovery was legitimately her own.
The door opened to admit Nathaniel and two soldiers. One was a blocky looking enlisted man with hands like hams, the other a much more debonair lieutenant. Stephanie could understand activating the first man though the second looked a touch out of place.
“Here we are, this is Stephanie. She'll be overseeing your activation,” Nathaniel said as he brought the men over. “Stephanie, this is Private Morrison and Lieutenant Archibald Smythe-Jones. I've already given them the basics of what will be happening today.”
“Ma'am,” Morrison nodded. As tough of a man as he appeared Stephanie could see the nervousness in his eyes. An understandable response to what Nathaniel would have told him.
"Delightful to meet you, though do please call me Archie. As Nathaniel should know by now.” Smythe-Jones added as he reached out to shake her hand, winking to Nathaniel as he did. “No last name though Miss Stephanie?”
“I'm afraid I misplaced it. If you two would head into the next room we will begin shortly.” Stephanie instructed. Once the men had disappeared through the door Stephanie arched an eyebrow at Nathaniel.
“I know what you're thinking but even if he doesn't look it Archie is a damn fine officer and an even better fighter. Was head of the boxing club at Cambridge. I've never lost money on him,” Nathaniel lowered his voice. “Besides we need more enhanced officers. The ratio to the enlisted is getting a bit out of hand.”
Stephanie was well aware that Nathaniel did not just mean any officers. No doubt this Archie was from the same blue-blooded background as Nathaniel himself. For all that she loved her country it did have its own quirks. Though none so bad as those she had witnessed in Germany.
“Then I would assume that I should activate Private Morrison first? Just to ensure that there are no complications?”
“Good girl. I knew I could count on you. Let me know once they've made it through the activation.” Nathaniel was giving her the benefit of the doubt that both men would survive.
Rolling her eyes as soon as the Captain's back was turned Stephanie followed after the two soldiers. So long as she got the credit for pulling this off she had no qualms about going along with whatever would make the upper crust more comfortable. It was hardly the first time she had been given ridiculous orders.
This was it. Having endured the hellish pain of the Catalyst twenty-five times Patrick was finally complete. If only they had found a better way to celebrate the occasion.
“They've got you in their sights, just stay still!” General Morton shouted from where he and his fellow observers were standing. Lupin was there as were an assortment of American, British and French dignitaries. This demonstration was as much to prove that Patrick was fully activated as it was to improve morale among the Allies.
Across the field from where Patrick was standing was a fully operational heavy tank. In fact with his improved vision Patrick could almost see right up the bore of the gun as it was levelled at him. Earlier there had been some similar tests with regular guns and Lupin had assured him that this would be no different. Strong as he might have become Patrick still had well-attuned survival instincts. Staring down the business end of a tank just felt wrong.
Someone started shouting out a countdown and Patrick braced himself. Five, four, three, two, one...
There was the boom of the cannon firing, the slightest whistle of the shell in the air and then Patrick found himself stumbling backwards as the explosion engulfed him. A direct hit and the worst thing that had happened was that his uniform had disintegrated. Which was a little traumatizing while in front of a group of foreign dignitaries. Once the smoke began to clear Lupin ran over with a new uniform while General Morton distracted the observers.
“Congratulations.” Lupin said as he passed the bundle to Patrick.
“You know I would have accepted a cake too. Or a couple of beers. You guys really didn't have to spring for a tank shell to the face.” Dressing as quickly as he could without destroying the fabric Patrick mused about just how far he had come over the last few weeks. It was rather amazing.
“If it is any consolation once the crew clears out you'll be destroying the tank. Though we do still need to do the halo resilience test on you so you can look forward to that.”
“You're all heart Lupin.” Patrick replied as he clapped the German on the back.
To pass the time Patrick had taken it upon himself to help Lupin loosen up a bit. There were a lot of differences between both men, Patrick having come from a poor working class family while Lupin's folks were well off business owners, but in the end they got along well. It gave Patrick hope for the world after the war. Even with as screwed up as everything was maybe everyone would be able to come back together and find common ground once the dust settled.
“There's the signal. Just don't do anything too showy. No need to let the whole countryside know what we are doing.” Lupin instructed before taking off to rejoin the observers.
This was not the first time that Patrick had used his halo. Over the past week he had slowly been introduced to using the strange energy field. He may, quite unintentionally, have gotten a little carried away at one of the previous trials. It was probably going to be one of those things that he never head the end of, especially once his mother and sisters got wind of it.
Unleashing the halo Patrick made a small distortion at first, placing it right at the tip of the tank's cannon. Then he slowly moved it back, much like fire moving along a cigarette. That would show them that he had plenty of control. Once the distortion reached the front armour Patrick increased its size drastically until the entire tank was consumed. All that was left was a twisted mound of slag on the ground.
Applause went up from the watchers as Patrick released the halo and turned to give the crowd a bow. Walking over he could see that champagne was being broken out.
“You're quite the showman.” General Morton congratulated him, passing along a glass of champagne as well.
“I figured it would make everyone feel a bit better.” Patrick admitted. Taking a sip out of the glass he winced at the taste of it. He had never had champagne before and it apparently was not for him.
“Well anything to lift morale is a good thing right now. So I hate to say that they still haven't found your brother.”
“He'll show up eventually. I know he will. Thanks for keeping me informed though.” As much as Patrick tried to project that he was not worried about his younger brother's whereabouts it was one of the things that continued to eat him up inside. Looking around the celebrating group Patrick made sure to keep a smile on his face. If he was supposed to be the hero of this operation then he needed to make sure that he looked the part.
It would not be long now. Already the First Enhanced Army had nearly finished its field training in preparation for deployment. The only question was where could they hit the Krauts the hardest. Patrick trusted that Stanley and the other generals would come up with something good. All he had to do was be ready when they said go. Lupin approached and tugged on Patrick's sleeve.
"If you're ready we can go take care of the Halo resilience trial. We'll do it where there is a bit more privacy."
This was one thing that Patrick had not been looking forward to. Every tankman so far had been hit by a small distortion so that they would know what it felt like. Everyone agreed that it hurt like hell. Draining his glass Patrick fell in behind Lupin.
"Lead the way buddy. I'm ready for anything."
Striding towards Hagen's office Anita was confident that the folio she held was the key to her continued safety. This should provide the Wehrmacht with enough ammunition to knock Himmler from Hitler's good graces. That the man had been foolish enough to put himself in such a situation spoke volumes about his arrogance. Once the military felt more in control of the continuing ubermensch efforts then they might finally leave Anita alone to focus on more important matters.
It had been Project Lightning that had provided this opportunity. Anita had been able to track one of the researchers from the original project, Wilhelm Metzger, there. Metzger was capable but was also a serial philanderer. During the period that the camp had been cut off from the outside world he had propositioned every single woman there. Even Klaudia before her transformation, which had led to the worst explosion of the young woman's temper anyone had seen up to that point. The lech had deserved every bit of it. While Metzger's infidelity might have been overlooked by the SS given the vital nature of the project that he was working on the fact remained that his wife was an unforgiving and well connected woman. Threatening to inform her of his activities had caused Metzger to be very forthcoming with details about the project.
Contrary to what Himmler had informed everyone else the first panzermensch had already been activated using the new form of Catalyst. It was just that they were deeply flawed as Himmler saw it. From Anita's investigation of the project notes it seemed less of a flaw and more of a consequence of the transformation. These new ubermensch had far greater halo abilities than a regular panzermensch but no increase to strength. The preliminary medical examinations seemed to suggest that they actually had worse endurance and resilience than they had before the activation. So Himmler had decided to cover it up while trying to figure out what had gone wrong. He had promoted the possibilities of the project too much to present anything other than a distinct improvement on the panzermensch to Hitler.
Entering the outer offices Anita noted that they were a flurry of activity. She wondered if the Allies had managed to pull something off. Given how spread out German forces were at the moment it would not surprise Anita if something had slipped through. Though any Allied attack would only last as long as it took to move one of the Battleships into position to counter it.
Spotting Hagen hunched over his desk Anita triumphantly presented him with the folio.
“A little gift for you. It should help with that problem we discussed.”
Hagen did not even bother looking at the folio before dropping it onto his desk. “It will have to wait. We finally found Bergen and Schultz.”
“Is that what all this is about?” Anita asked as she motioned to the men scurrying about around them. After all the effort she had put into getting that information seeing it brushed aside without even a cursory examination smarted. “Just what have they gotten up to that warrants all this?”
“They defected. Actually it seems that Bergen was a double agent the whole time. Schultz we aren't so sure about,” At first Anita thought it was a poorly timed joke but from his expression she could see that Hagen was dead serious. “The Allies know everything Anita. Everything.”
With those few words it felt like all the air had been sucked out of the room. Anita stood there speechless, her mind racing to consider a possible solution. It seemed to her that nothing short of the most extreme measures would be able to save them now.
Chapter 21: The Battle of Antwerp
The feeling of unease was palpable as the men of the First Enhanced Army filed into the room. Training had been called off early. While no explanation had been given for this meeting every man was certain that they would finally be getting deployed. The nature of their first mission had been a matter of speculation in the barracks for weeks. Would they be pitted against the German enhanced forces directly or a softer target? Both scenarios had been covered in their training and both presented a unique set of challenges. So far command had not given them the slightest hint of what the greater plan was. Patrick took a seat and watched General Morton walk to the front of the room. Once everyone was settled the General began.
“Now I think that most of you have figured out why I called you here,” Morton said as he scanned the crowd. “For the past month the Germans have been kicking your fellow soldiers around and we haven't been able to do much anything to stop them. Tomorrow morning we are going to show them that Americans don't take too kindly to that. We are going to stand up and sock those Kraut sons of bitches so hard that it will send them reeling back to Berlin!”
A roar of cheers went up from the assembled men with Patrick as loud as anyone. This was what they had been waiting for. All the mind-numbing hours of training had led up to this. After everything that the Germans had done no one was ready to let them run rampant again, especially not with this sort of power. Behind General Morton an aide flipped over the cover on an easel to reveal a German propaganda poster. Right in the middle was the blonde Battleship Klaudia Hoch.
“You've all heard about this little lady. Battleship Sieglinde. She has been causing all kinds of trouble up north and we are going to put a stop to it. Day before last she went quiet all of the sudden. The boys over in intelligence discovered that she is going to be dispatched on a new offensive, one that will give us the opportunity to take her out.”
Another page flipped over to reveal map of a city next to a large harbour.
“Sieglinde is being sent to attack Antwerp. That is the largest port that we control on the continent. Having it put out of commission is not an option. A whole lot of blood was spilled getting the Germans out of there in the first place. Ever since the ubermensch showed up our men and equipment have been moving back towards the port in case an evacuation was needed. The defences are strong enough to hold off even a massed panzermensch attack but a Battleship is a whole different story.”
From what was marked on the map Patrick could see that there were indeed some serious layers of defence around the city. That was one thing that had come up during their training. The best way for a conventional force to take on an enhanced one was wear them out in protracted engagements. Fatigue was the number one enemy of a tankman in the field. Battleships seemed to have more leeway but no one could say how much for certain.
“The Germans are going to use one of their captured American trucks to try and sneak Sieglinde and a small panzermensch escort through as much of the defences as possible. Once she is inside the city she is going to disable the harbour, with the panzermensch watching her back, before breaking out. They don't know that you all exist and they don't know that we know that they're coming. The plan is to allow Sieglinde to proceed to her target here at the northern section of the docks. It will be early enough in the day that the majority of the workers will still be at home. Should keep the civilian casualties down. Our conventional forces armed with anti-armour ordinance will be positioned throughout the area to take care of the panzermensch. Every last one of you is to focus exclusively on Sieglinde. Take her out and both German fronts find themselves in one heck of a bind.”
Patrick would have a little over forty American tank men alongside him for the fight. Even if Sieglinde was more matured than him those were pretty steep odds for her to face. Especially if she was not expecting any kind of serious resistance. Why would she, given that she had run roughshod over every Allied force she had faced so far? Even with the odds in their favour Patrick knew that far fewer men would be sitting here the next evening. It was going to be a dangerous mission for sure.
“There are some packets coming around for each of you. They have all the details on what to expect in the engagement area. You will all have some time to rest before we ship you out to Antwerp. Need to get you there early enough to have you in position. If you have any questions now would be a good time. Otherwise godspeed to every last one of you. We are finally back in this war.”
Patrick stayed quiet as he looked through the booklet he was handed. Some of the other guys had questions but for now Patrick was just letting it all sink in. There were more detailed maps, showing all the streets with their strange Belgian names. Where Sieglinde was most likely to approach from and where she was supposed to begin her attack. What they were to do in case she did not make it to the ambush site. That was where things could get out of hand quickly. It was risky letting her all the way into the city before engaging. If she started her attack early a lot of innocent people could get killed. Not like it was the first time that would have happened.
Still once Patrick considered that numbers and surprise were on their side he was confident that they would be able to pull it off. Just a question of how much it would hurt.
“I just want it on the record that I advise against this plan in the strongest terms possible,” Lupin said to General Morton as they sat in his office. The briefing had been overly positive in Lupin's opinion. No major engagement between enhanced forces had been observed so far and pitting two Battleships against one another seemed a poor place to start. “Patrick has barely begun to mature while Klaudia is theoretically half way through her's. There is too much of a chance that something will go awry.”
“You've said the same thing about a dozen different ways now. Don't worry, its on the record. The decision has been made and this attack is going through come hell or high water. Sieglinde is going to be completely exposed and isolated. There might not be an opportunity like this again once we put our enhanced men into action. We need to make the most of all this secrecy and hit hard and where it will do the most damage. I have faith that Patrick can get the job done. You said yourself that the situation is only going to get worse as time goes on. Might as well press what little advantage we have.
“I have as much faith in Patrick as you do but the science is not on our side here.” Lupin was stretching the truth slightly with that one. Pitting a freshly activated tankman against one with a few weeks of maturation was the closest analogy they had and the odds there were not completely one sided. While there had not been a chance to do full combat trials, seeing as the chance of damaging both men was too great, it did appear that most ubermensch gained the majority of their offensive potential early on while their durability lagged behind until later. It was a toss of the coin as to whether Patrick could kill Klaudia or she him, not to mention the significant chance of both dying.
“You're a good man Lupin. But you have to know when things are out of your hands. I'm grateful for the job you've done here. Everyone all the way up to the President knows that we wouldn't be in half as good of shape as we are if you hadn't cooperated on designing the training program. So you should be proud that you got these men this far. And be ready to let them go fight the war you trained them to fight.”
Lupin knew that he had pushed further than he had any right to. After all he should have been a prisoner rather than a trusted advisor. Maybe the Americans were right. They did always seem to be optimistic about their chances.
“Yes sir. I just can't help but worry. I've never really had people's lives relying on me in this way.”
“It's a hard thing to handle. But I do have something that should ease your nerves some,” Morton smiled as he continued. “You've done about all that we need you to do here so they'll be transferring you back stateside to get training going there. Catalyst production still hasn't really taken off but testing has begun. Tomorrow you'll be stopping over in Britain and there will be some folks waiting for you there. I don't know how the Brits managed it but they got your parents out of Germany safely.”
“They made it? They actually made it,” Lupin could hardly think as relief flooded over him. With all the stress of training the American tankmen he had hardly had time to worry about his family. It left his brother in harm's way but if this miracle had been achieved then there might still be hope. Reaching across the desk Lupin held out his hand. “Thank you General Morton. It truly has been a pleasure working with you.”
“Well lets not pat each other on the back just yet.” Stanley said, though he still shook Lupin's hand.
“Is there anything else you'll need me for? I suppose I should go pack.” Not that Lupin had much at all for possessions.
“I'm certain that O'Connor is probably still awake right now. Give him a final pep talk, let him know not to worry. Just don't say anything gloomy. If he believes he can take Sieglinde down, then he will take her down.”
“I'll do my best.” Lupin rose to leave the office. He had spent enough time lying to Patrick about little things that this one last time could not hurt. Especially as it was for a good reason.
Staring at the paper in front of him Patrick read back what he had written. He hated writing letters. Something about putting words to paper robbed him of his usual wit. Not that this was the usual sort of letter that he would have written home anyways. Just what tone should a final farewell have anyways? Putting his pen down Patrick just sighed and folded the letter up. No use getting too worked up over it as the chances of this ever having to be delivered were hopefully slim.
On the off chance that things went completely wrong the next day Patrick wanted to be prepared. He would be damned if he died without leaving behind something for his family. There had only been one letter that had made it through from home since he had been here. Written by his mother and signed by all his sisters it had mostly been about their confusion over what was happening. At the end had been a reminder for him to stay safe and make it home. It had not said it explicitly but Patrick was certain that by now his mother must have known that Eamonn was missing. That would be eating her up inside. Much as Patrick hated to contribute to her worries he knew that this was possibly the most important thing he would ever do with his life.
Carefully putting the letter in an envelope all that was left to do was find someone to entrust it to should it need to be delivered. As luck would have it a knock at the door preceded Lupin, who looked less sure of himself than usual. The stress of the upcoming attack must have been weighing on his nerves too. Still he should be able to get the job done if need be.
“You really should be resting. Tomorrow is going require everything that you can give.” Lupin said as he leaned against the inside of the door frame.
“I'll admit it, I've got the jitters. First time back in combat in a month and this time I can wipe out a city block by giving it a stern look. Kind of hard to believe.” Patrick replied.
“You'll do fine, I am certain of it. After all you did promise to show me a good time in America. I will have to hold off until you make it back there.”
“They sending you over?” Patrick asked, to which Lupin nodded. It was the perfect opportunity. “Now this is kind of an awkward thing to ask but just in case anything happens to me tomorrow, anything that I don't come back from, could you please get this to my family? It'll probably just end up gathering dust but just in case.”
Lupin looked taken aback as Patrick offered him the envelope, standing there silently before taking a step back. Not the reaction that Patrick had been hoping for.
“I'm sorry Patrick, I really couldn't-”
“Come on Lupin. I know it's a lot to ask but I would rather it be somebody I know instead of some stiff. And anyways, it's just a precaution.” Patrick interrupted the German, who still refused to take the letter. A strange look came over Lupin before he replied.
“There is something that you need to know about me Patrick. I should have told you at the start but there just never was a good time. I'm not the man you think I am and I am certainly not the type of man you want to give this responsibility to. I am a Nazi Patrick,” Lupin held up his hand as Patrick opened his mouth. “Just listen to me. I need to say this. You have to understand.”
“When I say a Nazi I mean it. Had a membership number and everything. I joined the Party in 1932 with my father. He wanted us to join because of what happened in Bremen after the last war. There had always been a lot of socialists in the city and once the empire started to fall apart they seized control. The uprising was crushed after a few months but it still frightened my father terribly. That everything he had worked so hard to build, that he wanted to leave for my brother and myself, might be taken away from him. So when it came time to cast a vote he went with the option that spoke the loudest against the communists. Even then it was clear that there were some dark things beneath the surface but we told ourselves that it was just to make sure that the family business was safe.
So as Hitler took more and more control for himself my father and I just looked the other way and said that it was all just good business. We got some contracts to do with the rearmament and then even more. One of our closest competitors was owned by a Jew. Max Rosenstein, a nice man, we had been to each others homes on a number of occasions. When the Nazis decided that it was too dangerous to allow a Jew to run a business in a critical industry we did the neighbourly thing and bought his business for a fraction of the cost. When I talked it over with my father we actually managed to convince ourselves that we had done Max a favour, all because we gave him a bit more than others would have. Really we were no better than the communists grabbing at things that weren't ours. At least Max managed to get his family out, even if he had to leave behind his whole life's work.
Then the war started and my marriage had just fallen apart so I joined the military to clear my head. Remember how I told you about men coming back from the front and telling me all those awful stories? I would sit there and listen to them brag about shooting women and children and then I would go back to filling out requisition forms to make sure that plenty of ammunition was heading east. All the while I told myself that my hands were clean just because my finger was never on the trigger. When I was chosen for the ubermensch project at first I helped out because it just seemed like some puffed up general's mad waste of time. At least it wasn't contributing to the war effort at all.
Once we had actually begun to be activated there was a small window of time where I could have stopped all this. I had been activated but the Battleships hadn't. If I had just killed the three of them and Sankt the whole thing would have fallen apart. But I was scared. So I just misplaced supplies and fouled up batches of the Catalyst and convinced myself that I was doing all that I could. My whole life for over the last decade has just been one long chain of telling myself that there is nothing I could do. And now every fibre of my being is screaming at me that this mission is a terrible idea and still I try to say to myself that there is nothing I can do. You are in much greater danger than you think. I won't sugar coat it any longer. At least I can do that much. To tell you the truth.”
Lupin's shoulders sagged as he finished his story. It filled in a lot of blanks about him. Patrick let the silence sit between them for a minute or so before holding the letter out again.
“Take the damn letter,” Patrick rode over Lupin's objections. “This isn't a reward Lupin. This is a sacred fucking duty. You want to beat yourself up over what you could have or should have done? Here is some penance for you. If anything happens to me you give this to my family and then you look after them. My ma, my sisters and Eamonn when, not if but when, he comes home. You look out for them Lupin. Consider that something to help you get even with the universe.”
After a moment's hesitation Lupin carefully took the letter. “If you're certain that is what you want.”
“I am goddamn certain. Now since you seem to be in an honest mood tell me what I can do tomorrow so you don't have to deliver that letter.”
“You need to hit Klaudia as hard as you can before she can put up a defence. Get behind her at the start of the attack and stay there. She won't be able to hit you with her halo if you're behind her,” Lupin looked grim as went over the details. “Klaudia has a lot of anger but she was never given much training on how to fight. In fact I would be surprised if she had ever been in an actual fist fight in her life. Try not to let it come to that though. The longer that the fight goes on the better her chances get and the worse yours will be. As callous as it might sound let the tankmen hold her attention. The more damage you can inflict before she realizes what is going on the better your chances. Don't show mercy and don't let up.”
Patrick had never hit a woman in his life. His mother would likely have murdered him if he even considered it. Yet now he was going to have to kill one. Everything that Lupin had said was sound advise that Patrick had no qualms about using in a fight but there was still that little bit of hesitation. Thinking back to Lupin's story he realized that he was in the same position. Now was a time where he needed to act, even though the consequences would be dire. The world could not afford another man ending up feeling like he had missed his chance to make a difference.
"Just to let you know Lupin, you aren't alone. I've done some things that I'm not very proud of. Hell, there are a few things in this war that I'll take with me to my grave. At least you have the guts to own up to your mistakes. A lot of guys wouldn't. I might even be one of them.”
“Good luck tomorrow.” Was all that Lupin said before he disappeared out the door. In a way it was all that could be said at this point.
Rubbing his temples Patrick made his way to his bunk. It was going to be a son of a bitch to get some rest now but he had to find a way. Too much was riding on him not to.
It had been an uncharacteristically quiet morning among the American enhanced soldiers. They were quiet as they loaded onto the plane that would ferry them to Antwerp. One final meal of glucose paste before the battle was not met with the usual chorus of complaints. When they landed outside the city and transferred to the trucks that sent them speeding off to their destination things still remained silent. It was only once they had reached the final point before heading off to their positions that everyone began to wish each other luck for the coming fight. Even then that only took a few minutes before everyone dispersed.
Patrick and five tankmen found themselves cooped up in a room without windows. There were still a couple of hours before the German attack was slated to begin so each man tried to get as much rest they could. Even with his eyes closed Patrick could not help but listen to every tick and buzz that came over the radio. The operator spoke quietly whenever the channel opened up but Patrick's enhanced hearing let him eavesdrop. Nothing of importance. As the minutes ground by Patrick found himself wishing that he could still sweat. It felt like the pressure was building up beneath his skin without any way to release it.
Silently, barely moving his lips more than he had to, Patrick began to pray. To the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost. To the Blessed Virgin Mary. To every saint he could remember with an apology to all the ones that he could not. He had never been overly concerned with religion outside of going to church on Sundays. Now seemed like an appropriate time to make up for any slack he had let build up. It might make the difference as to whether he would live to walk off the field at the end of the day.
The radio crackled again and this time the operator looked up at them.
“They think they've spotted the German truck. It is heading into the ambush zone. Still waiting for confirmation.”
That was it then. Patrick stood up and stretched, cracking his knuckles and flexing his neck. All the anxiety fell away. He knew what had to be done. No use worrying about it anymore until it was all finished. One last silent prayer passed through him. It did not hurt to be cautious. From here on out it was up to Patrick what would happen and the Almighty might just put a thumb on the scale for him if he did well enough.
“Confirmed eyes on the target. She is about three blocks north of us heading towards the harbour. Time to move.” The radio crew grabbed their equipment and the group set out. They only made it about one street before the first flash appeared.
“Looks like she's started the party without us.” Patrick said as he picked up the pace. The whole point of this was to protect as much of the harbour as possible so they needed to move. An explosion, a regular one at least, echoed through the streets. Someone must have engaged the German panzermensch.
“What?” The radio operator asked in confusion as he struggled to keep up, holding the phone to his ear as he ran. Dropping the headset he called to Patrick. “Sounds like some of the Germans wandered right into our guys. We gotta engage now while we can still get the drop on the bitch!”
Flashing the man a thumbs up Patrick took off. It only took moments to clear the last few streets before he was out in the open looking out at the harbour. Unfortunately it meant leaving the tankmen behind for the few seconds it would take for them to catch up but every second would count now. Already thick spines jutted out from this part of the wharf, some stretching out as far as four metres and all looking razor sharp. Looking for the source of the distortion Patrick saw Sieglinde ahead of him with her back turned. Activating his halo Patrick willed a distortion of his own into existence.
Sieglinde must have had some intuition of what was about to happen as she began to turn just as the distortion materialized. Rather than hitting her square in the neck it ended up enveloping the back of her right shoulder. From the anguished roar of pain that she let out Patrick knew that at least he had done some damage. Before he could even take a step to try and keep behind her Sieglinde finished whipping around, focusing her own halo upon him. Reflexively Patrick sent another distortion towards her.
Rather than appearing at their intended targets both distortions slammed together halfway between the two Battleships. To Patrick it felt like he was in a wrestling match, both arms locked with his opponent as they each tried to force the other off balance. Sieglinde took a step forward, pushing the distortions back towards him. This was exactly the situation that Patrick did not want to be in.
At that moment the tankmen who had been following him came in from the side, their own halos active and momentarily drawing away Sieglinde's attention. It was that slight lessening of the pressure against him that allowed Patrick to leap to the right, covering such distance that he was now in line with Sieglinde's side. Without an apparent target her distortion split and tore apart a few of the unfortunate tankmen. Determined to make their sacrifice worth it Patrick leapt forward. By the time Sieglinde could process it Patrick cracked her right across the jaw.
The light of Sieglinde's halo sputtered out as she staggered from the blow. Taking advantage of the moment's reprieve Patrick looked for where his tankmen backup was. They should have been here by now. Other than the few who had followed him there was no one in sight. A great plume of blue light rose from further back in the city. A halo distortion for sure and one much too large for a tankman to have made. If it had not come from Sieglinde...
Something had gone terribly wrong. Patrick could not think about it as Sieglinde was steady on her feet once again and coming at him fast. At the very least she was neglecting to use her halo for now. Still that left Patrick looking straight into her rage filled eyes. Dancing back he barely managed to avoid her fists as she swung at him with wild abandon. Each punch was thrown with such force and speed that it sent the wind whistling through the air past him. But Lupin had been right. Sieglinde had no idea how to fight beyond charging forward with everything she had. Her punches were sloppy and telegraphed. Waiting for a window Patrick responded with another blow to her jaw, staggering her again. This time his focus remained solely on her. Grabbing hold of her injured shoulder he dug his fingers into the warped skin while driving his fist into her stomach.
The blow sent Sieglinde down onto her knees and Patrick wasted no time getting behind her. He could see the damage that his halo had done to her shoulder. It was not pretty. Putting his boot onto her back Patrick managed to force Sieglinde down onto the ground. Seeing the flickers of blue appear again around the back of Sieglinde's head Patrick wrapped his hands around her throat, preventing her from turning back towards him. With his knee on the small of her back Patrick tightened his grip on her throat. It caused her halo to disappear again at least. Glancing up he could see the distortions still tearing through the city. Either the rest of the force was tied up fighting whoever was causing those or there were far more Germans around than anticipated. Just how had they managed to pull that off? Once he had taken out Sieglinde should he try to engage the other or retreat?
Thoughts racing Patrick felt Sieglinde's hands scratching at his wrists, trying to break his grip. He needed a plan, a course of action. Everything was turning to shit real fast. At least he would be able to complete the primary objective. As Sieglinde's hands finally fastened around Patrick's wrists he braced himself to keep hold of her. Then the world went white.
When his vision came back Patrick realized that someone else must have hit him from behind. A German panzermensch or the other Battleship or whatever the hell it was. Did not matter. He had lost his grip on Sieglinde and he needed to get it back. In fact he must have stumbled back as she was now getting back onto her feet in front of him, throwing something to the ground from each of her hands. Trying to get up and engage her again Patrick realized that she had taken the arms off of some poor sod.
That was when it dawned on him. Looking down, his head feeling like it was moving through jelly, Patrick saw that blood was pouring out of a hole on either side of him. Sieglinde had managed to tear off his arms at the shoulder. Gagging, struggling for air Patrick could hardly believe what was happening. He could not even feel that his arms were gone.
Lord have mercy on me. That was the only thing that Patrick could think of. He tried to summon the halo again but could not. Looking at Sieglinde he saw her face twisted with animalistic rage. She did not have trouble bringing her own halo forth.
As the distortion hit him Patrick remembered when Lupin had done the test on him. Every man had undergone it just so they could feel what being hit with the halo was like. A distortion about the size of the quarter on the forearm. It felt like when he had accidentally touched a hot pan. Searing pain that left a dull throbbing behind. This was different.
A thousand hands reached out and took hold of every part of Patrick's being, every muscle, every bone and every inch of skin. Then they moved.
Patrick was helpless as the hands began to push and pull and shape and twist. His skin crawled and opened to allow his muscles to seep out. His chest parted as his ribs blossomed outwards and his organs danced along with them. Finally Patrick managed a short scream with the last bit of air left in his lungs.
Then his jaw melted and his throat opened to the point where it could make no more sound. Yet Patrick still screamed in his mind, an ever-rising dirge that marked the end of his life.
Just as his skull split apart one last thought cut through the pain.
Mother forgive me. I couldn't keep my promise.
Then Patrick's mind was gone. All that remained was the silent cry echoing through the ruined vessel of his skull.