A war story is a black space.
Deathless, by Catherynne M Valente
Bletchley Park, 1942
The sound of the typewriters was deafening on the midnight shift.
Carol Danvers paused to lift a cup to her lips. The bitter liquid was almost cold, but it did the trick. Two hours until the shift ended. Just two hours. She swallowed the tea and kept hitting the keys.
Next to her Jessica Drew pushed her dark hair out of her face, her eyes narrowed with concentration. She looked pale and drawn in the yellow lamplight. The midnight shift was the worst.
Almost a year they had been at this. Receiving pages of coded messages, decrypting them, passing them on, returning to freezing billets to sleep until it all began again. Six days a week, shift after shift, for as long as the war should last.
Carol reached for a pile of papers and a cloud of dust flew into her face, causing a coughing fit that made Maria Hill frown at her from across the desk. Plucked from a mathematics degree at Cambridge, Maria had a keen analytical mind and Carol was convinced she could direct armies should Churchill call on her. Carol mouthed an apology and went back to her decryption.
She had just finished copying out a sentence when Jessica tapped her on the arm. “This name repeats several times,” she whispered, holding up a piece of paper.
“What do you mean?” Carol looked over Jessica’s shoulder.
“See?” Jessica continued, pointing at the words she had typed. “This tank unit appeared here in a town in France, and then within a day the same name is being mentioned in another part of the country altogether.”
Across the table, Maria’s roommate, Natasha Romanoff, looked up from her typing. A Russian-born language student from London, she could crack codes with astounding speed and had the advantage of speaking fluent German and Italian. “Let me have a look.”
Jessica handed her the slip of paper. Natasha scanned it, cross checking her own pile of papers on her desk. “It could be a new code word. A weapon or an army division, maybe. Maria?”
Maria frowned. “Could be something. It would make sense for there to be layers of code within the code.” She shrugged. “It’s what I’d do. Run it up to Welchman and let’s hope it isn’t a false trail.”
Jessica hesitated, like her confidence was wavering, and Carol took hold of the paper. “I’ll do it,” she said firmly.
Welchman barely looked up when Carol stepped in between the labyrinths of poorly lit desks and waited in front of him. “What have you got, Miss Danvers?” he grunted.
“Unusual repetition in the code, sir. Might be of note.”
He scanned the papers Carol handed to him. “Might be of note indeed,” he observed, his face changing from tense to impressed. “I’ll run it up to intelligence. Who caught it?”
Carol fought to keep the pride from showing in her voice. “Drew, sir.”
“Well.” Welchman cast an appraising look across the crowded room. “Pass on my compliments.”
Carol grinned as she went back to her seat. Jessica looked up from her typing. “What did he say?”
“It could be something. He’s run it up the line.”
Jessica nodded quickly and turned back to her work, a flush colouring her cheeks.
The work after that went on as normal, code after code after code. By the time the next shift finally arrived to relieve them Carol’s head was pounding and her eyes watered so much it became hard to read.
Carol waited as Jessica buttoned her coat. Natasha and Maria left, waving as they headed towards the drive. Heavy mist carpeted the Bletchley grounds, and soon only the faint beams of torches were visible in the gloom. Jessica’s brow was creased and she drew a deep, shuddering breath before pushing the door open.
“Everything all right?” Carol asked, watching Jessica closely.
“Yes.” Jessica shoved her hands deep into her pockets. “I’m just tired. Nothing a few hours sleep won’t fix.”
“I should hope so, we don’t have that long,” Carol couldn’t help chuckling bitterly as they made their way out into the freezing air.
They were halfway down the drive when Jessica took her hand out of her pocket, reached over and squeezed Carol’s fingers, secret and out of sight.
“What’s it like to fly?”
“Do you want to get your pilot’s licence?”
“No. I was wondering what it felt like.”
Carol’s fingers slipped between Jessica’s thighs. “It feels a bit like this.”
Kate Bishop’s eyes blurred after the endless stream of index cards, and she raised a hand to rub her face. It always became a strain after five hours, not that she could afford to give in to the weariness. Lack of attention cost lives. The words had been drilled into her from the moment she arrived at Bletchley, only days after her eighteenth birthday, when she finally found out what that odd letter from the Foreign Office meant.
Her woollen skirt scratched against her stockinged legs, and Kate could feel the tell tale tickle of a loose thread in the seam. It would need stitching, since she would not be able to save enough clothes ration coupons for a new one just yet. Kate had adapted to the shortage of new clothes far better than some of the other debutantes, but some new stockings and a skirt that had not been darned a hundred times would be nice.
She was sorting through another stack of index cards, coughing at a cloud of dust that flew up as she opened one of the boxes, when she heard a footstep behind her.
Kate turned and came face to face with Cassie Lang, a messenger who ran between the huts.
“Hi yourself,” she answered. “Got more cards?”
“How did you guess?” Cassie laughed, handing over a bundle of papers. Her blonde hair was tied into two long plaits that hung over the shoulders of her threadbare grey cardigan.
“I’m just about to go on my tea break,” Kate offered, placing the papers down on her desk. “Want to come with me?”
“Give me five minutes, I just have some things to drop off.”
The tea room was cramped, but it did boast an excellent set of armchairs and Kate fell into one with relief. The wooden chair at her desk was certainly not the most comfortable piece of furniture.
Cassie wandered in a few minutes later, holding her cardigan closed around her body against the chill that was inescapable this time of year. She seemed glum.
“Cassie,” Kate said quickly to lighten the mood. “There’s a play showing at one of the villages. Do you want to go?”
Cassie’s face brightened, but her words were hesitant. “I don’t have the money.”
“That’s fine. I can pay.”
“Oh, right. I keep forgetting you’re really rich.”
Kate stuck her tongue out at Cassie, making her giggle. “I save my money, same as you.”
“Sure. How many letters did your father send about attending balls this time?”
“Five. Stupid waste of money, those balls. Especially now.”
Cassie smirked. “How does your mother feel about that?”
“My mother was a nurse during the Great War. She encouraged me to do something for the war effort rather than sit at home and pretend everything’s as it was before. But I don’t know if she would expect this.”
“Yeah.” Cassie looked down at her hands. “Pity no one can know.”
“Kate, think about this. Wouldn’t you rather stay here, with us?” Her sister’s voice was frantic.
“I got a letter from the Foreign Office, not an invitation to tea.”
Susan clutched Kate’s hands. “Come to the country with us, Kate. You can still do your part. My tennis club is putting packages together to send to wounded soldiers.”
Kate shook her head. “It’s my decision.”
“Is this about what happened at the garden party last summer?”
Kate’s fingers tightened around the handle of her bag. “Be safe, Susan.”
Taking the train to spend time in a busy pub in London on your day off was not considered particularly ladylike, but Carol took some pride in being unexpected, a trait that had served her well when she decided to stay on in England and go to Oxford after leaving finishing school, to the horror of her family back in Boston. Jessica enjoyed the company, Natasha genuinely did not care what people thought of her and Maria just wanted a drink.
Discussing work was out of the question, so instead the conversation drifted around films and plays they had seen or wished they could have the time and money to see, men they knew fighting in the war (without violating the Official Secrets Act, of course), how their families were coping, when they could next afford an outing now that their savings had been spent and the state of food and clothing rations.
By the third glass of watered-down sherry Jessica was giggling and Maria looked slightly pink. Carol felt fine, but Natasha seemed unaffected and Carol had learnt not to even try to match her in drinks. It must have been the Russian blood.
The pub door opened, blowing in a gust of cold air, to reveal a group of young men wearing smart brown uniforms. Maria, who had spotted them first, leaned over to nudge Natasha in the ribs. “There’s your American soldier,” she whispered.
Natasha took an all too casual sip of her sherry. “He’s not my soldier.”
“Isn’t he?” Jessica joined in, craning her head around. She had stuck a bright red cloth flower in her hair and it stood out against her black hair when she moved. “Then why is he on the way over here?”
“I can’t imagine.” Natasha set down her glass, stood up from the table and smoothed out her skirt. “I’m going to get a lemonade.”
She squeezed past Jessica and made her way through the crowded room, like she hadn’t a care in the world. Sure enough, one of the soldiers split off from the group, weaving his way past the other patrons towards where Natasha was now leaning on the bar. He was slightly older than the average GI, with sandy blond hair and rough features that somehow managed to create a handsome face. Carol watched as he approached Natasha with an easy smile and said something that made her laugh.
“He’s written to her a few times,” Maria revealed, grabbing Natasha’s abandoned glass since her own was empty. “Man must be smitten.”
“Let them have their fun,” Jessica said. “Who knows what might happen tomorrow.” She pressed her leg against Carol’s under the table.
Someone put on a gramophone record and a scratchy melody filled the room. In the corner of her eye Carol saw the soldier lead Natasha out onto the floor for a dance.
They made a pleasant picture in the smoky light. Natasha was a good dancer and her partner moved confidently enough, spinning her into his arms while his friends cheered. A few more couples moved to join them, and Carol finally turned to Jessica. “Want to take a turn?”
Jessica looked at her in surprise, but accepted the hand Carol held out to her.
Jessica’s cheap dress was rough under Carol’s fingers as she placed her hands on Jessica’s waist. They did not attract many second glances; it was not that unusual for two women to dance together these days when there were so few men to go around. Carol nodded over Jessica’s shoulder to Maria, who was dancing with another American soldier, and spun Jessica around to the music until her dark hair flew and Jessica giggled.
Carol and Jessica danced to another song on the gramophone until someone changed the record to a slower piece of music. Around them couples pulled each other close, winding arms around each other while a grainy male voice sung about goodbyes and long partings, the wish to meet again one day.
“Um,” Jessica mumbled, her eyes flicking around the room. “Let’s sit back down.”
Maria was already seated back at their table, sipping a glass of lemonade. Natasha was missing.
“She went outside with the soldier after the dance,” Maria said before Carol could ask.
The street was damp with drizzle when they walked out into the cold night air. Natasha was still nowhere to be seen.
“Should we go?” Jessica asked.
Carol looked around and lit up another cigarette. “We can’t just leave without her. Anyone have a light?”
Maria fumbled in her purse and brought out a matchbook. “Natasha’s a big girl, she can make it back by herself.”
There was a scuffling sound from the alley, followed by a man’s dark laugh. “I think I see something,” Maria said. “There.”
Maria looked into the alleyway and Natasha reappeared around the corner without a hair out of place, but Carol could detect a slight flush under her friend’s makeup.
“What are you all standing around here for?” Natasha asked, as if nothing had happened. Carol looked around for the American but there was no sign of him. “We’ll miss the train!”
They walked to the station between heaps of rubble and hollow shells of buildings, bricks and timber sprawled out onto the streets like houses had belched out their contents. The blackout screens in the windows meant that the streets were dark, only the occasional light falling on the damp pavement, creating puddles of silver in the gloom.
“Aren’t you worried they’ll come looking for you?”
“You mean, they find me up against a wall with a man I just met?” Natasha bent her head to taste the skin below his earlobe.
“Hmm.” He kissed her again. “If I was a local you could say you were serving your country.”
She nipped his bottom lip to punish him and felt him shudder in appreciation. “I’m not British.”
“And what are you then?”
“I’m in between. Neither here nor there.”
Maria propped open the window and lit up a cigarette while she waited for her turn at the mirror. One of the advantages of being billeted above an inn was a landlady who did not mind smoking. It wasn’t as if the wallpaper could get any more stained. Natasha was perched on the narrow bench in front of the glass, removing the pins from her hair. She had been reluctant to talk much after they had parted from Carol and Jessica, and Maria would be concerned if she didn’t know that that was simply Natasha’s way sometimes.
“His name is Sergeant Barton and he thinks I do clerical work for the Foreign Office,” Natasha remarked as she worked her red curls into a plait. “I can tell you were dying to know.”
“What you do with your time is your own business,” Maria retorted, surprised by Natasha’s sudden candour, but she spotted Natasha’s grin in the mirror and rolled her eyes. “All right, yes, I’m curious.”
“It’s nothing, really,” Natasha said, scooting over to steal the cigarette from Maria’s lips and taking a drag before climbing into her own bed. “Just some fooling around.”
“Oh?” Maria took back the cigarette and sat at the mirror, frowning at the lipstick stain Natasha had left on the paper. “I don’t suppose your reputation is in peril?”
It was meant as a joke, but Natasha’s eyes hardened. “Reputation. I hate that word.” Natasha rolled over to face the wall and Maria cursed silently. She was not naturally inclined to form friendships and her university colleagues had described her as blunt at best when her attempts at humour fell flat.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “Is he good to you?”
Natasha’s shoulders rose and fell as she let out a sigh. She did not turn around. “He is. We… understand each other.”
“Well,” Maria considered. “That’s all that matters.”
“How’s work at the factory, Maria?”
Maria swallowed her morning toast. “It’s fine. You know I can’t talk about it.”
“Yes, well. Still seems hardly proper, a young lady working in a munitions factory.”
Maria glared at her father. This was why she could not wait to get to work in the morning. “Would you rather I stayed at home sipping tea while Paul and John fight?”
Her father furrowed his brow and turned back to his newspaper. “Paul and John are doing their duty.”
The room Carol and Jessica were billeted in was small and cold, but comfortable enough. It had one bed by the door and another against the opposite wall that was officially Carol’s, but she hardly ever used it. Instead they crammed into Jessica’s bed and folded their arms around each other, Jessica’s back to Carol’s front.
That night Carol put her arm around Jessica’s waist, and Jessica reached for her hand, holding on tight. “Do you ever dread going into the hut?” she whispered.
“What do you mean?”
“Everything relies on us. We make one mistake and our boys over there could die, or a city might not be prepared for an air raid. Does it ever bother you? To know you have lives in your hands?”
Carol swallowed, bringing up her free hand to run her fingers over Jessica’s soft hair. “Does it bother you?”
Jessica clutched her hand tighter. “Sometimes. But I don’t let it stop me.”
“That’s the spirit…” Carol’s words were cut off when Jessica turned and kissed her hard.
“Let’s not think about it,” Jessica gasped, her hands fumbling with the buttons on Carol’s nightgown. “Not tonight.”
“Have you ever thought about what you’ll do after the war?”
Jessica stretched out beside her on the picnic blanket. “Assuming we win.”
“I don’t know. I certainly don’t want to go back home to my parents.” Jessica sounded bitter. She always did when she talked of home.
Carol looked out across the sunny field towards the village. “I think I’ll go back to Boston. Find a house, maybe a cat. Finally buy that plane I always wanted.”
Jessica’s face fell. “Oh.”
Natasha read the newspaper every day, as soon as she got the chance. It was hardly an unusual pursuit; the entire nation was leafing through broadsheets and huddled around the wireless. There was a constant desire for news, even among those at Bletchley whose job it was to know things before the papers did.
Natasha traced over a headline and tried to picture the city of her birth.
There was not much she could remember about Stalingrad. She recalled fleeing with her parents at the age of four, clutching her mother’s hand as her father led the way. He was wearing an old overcoat, and more than houses and city streets, Natasha remembered that coat, a black smudge shuffling through the early morning light. They had disagreed with Mother Russia’s regime once too often, so they fled to new lives in a new country with a new language that stuck to the roof of Natasha’s mouth like glue.
It didn’t matter, really. Whatever she remembered would no longer be there, and Russia was not her country anymore. Her parents made that clear when she started school, her father reminding her that she was Romanoff now, not Romanova. “The English don’t have names like we do,” he said, straightening the collar of her coat. “We wouldn’t want to confuse them.”
Boarding school made for a good training ground. Natasha learnt to shake off her accent, smooth her vowels to mimic the tones of her classmates, put on whatever face was needed and lock herself away.
Many girls had already been at Bletchley when the bombs fell on London. Natasha had only caught the beginning of the terror called the Blitz, huddling in a shelter with her mother and their neighbours, holding their hands over their ears. The children cried and it felt like the end of the world. When they emerged from the shelter they found the street in ruins, ash falling through the air like a storm of burning snowflakes.
“Natashenka,”her mother said, “this is not what I wanted for you.”
With all the headaches, lack of sleep and terrible food, Bletchley was not the worst place to spend a war.
And there was Clint. When he had offered her his hand at a dance organised by the American army she had almost said no. He smiled easily but was not as clear-eyed as some of the other Americans she had encountered. Shadows lurked beneath, like he had seen a lot of life before signing up for war. She found it strangely intriguing, like a code that she could not break.
He kissed her first under a darkened streetlamp, then again in a boarded up shop front. Natasha pressed her hand to his chest and wondered if her heart beat as hard as his.
“How are you with a gun?”
“I’ve got good aim.” His fingers slid up her skirt. “Maybe one day I could teach you.”
She leaned into his touch and blew a cloud of smoke into the air. “I’m not a soldier.”
“Here.” Kate handed Cassie a sandwich. “The bread is stale but I’m told it builds character.”
“Thanks.” Cassie took a bite, grimaced, and then took another one. No one turned down food these days.
Kate studied her friend while they chewed their sandwiches in silence. Cassie seemed distracted, playing with the end of her plait and keeping her eyes cast down on the table. “Is something wrong?”
Cassie put her sandwich back down on her plate, nibbling her bottom lip. “I haven’t heard from my dad lately. No letters, nothing.”
Kate swallowed against the sudden dryness in her throat. She remembered the fear when the telegrams began to arrive in London, the terror at the thought that one day they might be knocking at your door. We regret to inform you…
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” she said quickly. “A lot of girls go a long time without hearing anything.”
“I know. I’m trying to not let it get me down, but…” Cassie was biting her lip in earnest now. “He’s done so much for me, Dad has. I was sick a lot as a kid. He did everything he could to see that I was looked after.”
The sandwich crumbled in Cassie’s fingers and Kate reached out to take her hand.
“I don’t know what I’d do without him,” Cassie whispered.
“We can hope for the best. That’s all we can do.” Kate swallowed. “And besides, the work here has got to do some good, doesn’t it? It might not be a direct way to help, but it’s something.”
“I guess. It’s something.”
There was dirt all over her hands.
Her reflection blurred in the mirror. Her stockings were stained.
“Kate, why have you locked the door? Come down, dinner is served.”
A final look. Wipe your face.
“I’ll be right down.”
There was always a particular air of excitement when Bletchley held a dance for its employees. Carol had drawn the short straw for the last dance and had to work, but this time she was free to attend. She rolled her blonde hair into a style the fashion magazines swore was the latest thing, changed into her best dress and even borrowed some lipstick from one of the other girls.
The hall was packed with people, and Carol had to push through the crowd until she found Maria by the refreshment table. Jessica seemed not to have arrived yet, though the heavy blackout screens in the windows made it hard to make out people in the yellowy light.
“Good music,” Carol remarked, helping herself to some watery punch. Maria lifted her glass in a toast. Her hair was down from its usual severe bun, falling softly over her shoulders. “Your hair looks nice.”
“Natasha did it.” Maria waved her hand in the direction of the dance floor, where Natasha was in the middle of the throng. Her skills made her popular at dances.
Eventually Maria was asked to dance and she walked out onto the floor, flashing Carol an apologetic smile.
“It seems a shame, to see a girl standing all alone,” a voice said behind Carol.
Startled, Carol turned to see a well-dressed man about her age, with neatly combed black hair and sparkling eyes. He gave her a tiny nod and Carol smiled, reminded of the boys who approached her back in her college days.
“It’s not alone if you’re surrounded by people,” she teased, cocking her head.
“Oh, you’re American!” The young man seemed delighted. “I spent some time in New York when I was eighteen.”
“Fancy,” Carol acknowledged. “I’m from Boston myself.”
“Boston, you say.” He grinned, leaning towards her. “I always wanted to see the location where our two nations decided to part ways. Name’s John Bulmer, by the way.”
Carol raised an eyebrow but did not move back. The man was clearly trying his luck, but she would not give him the satisfaction of shrinking away. “Carol Danvers. If you ever end up in Boston, remember it’s strictly coffee.”
Bulmer laughed. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind. Can I get you some punch, Miss Danvers?”
Carol was about to reply when suddenly Jessica appeared by her side, tugging on Carol’s sleeve. “Can I talk to you for a minute?”
Jessica’s eyes flicked warily towards Bulmer and her grip on Carol’s sleeve grew insistent. Carol tried not to let the concern show on her face as she excused herself and followed Jessica into an empty corner.
“Bulmer’s been trying to chat up every single girl at the dance,” Jessica hissed under her breath, folding her arms across her chest.
“So? It’s not like I’m stepping out with him. But I’d like to see him try with Maria, she’d give him a scolding—“
“But you’re not single,” Jessica blurted out.
“No,” Carol said slowly. “No, I’m not.”
Jessica set her jaw, her face flushed. “You seemed to be acting single.”
Carol tried to keep her voice calm, but a tinge of anger crept through. “You can’t dictate who I can and can’t talk to.”
Jessica’s face crumpled. “I hate doing this,” she whispered, and pushed past Carol and headed for the door.
Carol leaned against the wall, trying to sort out her muddled thoughts.
“You should go to her.”
Carol’s breath caught. “Maria?”
Maria flicked her head in the direction of the back door. “Go. She needs you.”
Maria’s eyes softened. “Oh, Carol. I’ve always known.”
The night air had the chilly bite of late autumn when Carol stepped out into the tiny courtyard, closing the door against the wave of music inside. She looked about, pulling her coat around herself for warmth, until she spotted Jessica leaning against the garden wall, the faint glow of a cigarette between her fingers as she stared off into the darkness.
“When did you start smoking?” Carol asked, in lieu of something better to say.
“Since now. I smoke and I drink and I get into awful trouble at parties. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?” Jessica blew a haze of smoke out of her mouth, but she did it too quickly and ended with a tiny cough that she failed to cover. “Besides, that Parker boy told me smoking calms your nerves.”
“You’re listening to Parker now?”
Jessica coughed again, her brows furrowing as she dropped the cigarette on the ground, crushing it beneath her heel. Her hair swung like a curtain, hiding her face. “It won’t happen again, I’ll tell you.”
“I am smart,” Jessica snapped.
“I never said otherwise,” Carol replied, choosing her words carefully.
“No, it’s just…” Jessica looked up at the sky as if the answers could be found there. “I’m sorry about earlier,” she began. “I overreacted.”
“Thank you,” Carol answered guardedly. “I’m sorry too. I try to act the part, like we should. Does it really matter when we know how we feel about each other?”
“It matters.” Jessica’s voice cracked, and Carol rushed over to her, catching her under the elbows as her heart pounded. “I hate that I need to look over my shoulder before I kiss you,” Jessica mumbled into Carol’s shoulder. “I hate that we can’t be ourselves.”
Carol brushed the hair out of Jessica’s face and pressed her lips to her mouth. “It doesn’t mean I love you any less.”
Maria was deciphering a line of code when the notebook landed on her desk, startling her out of her state of concentration. “Break that as fast as you can,” Welchman ordered, his voice grim. “Bring in Romanoff to translate.”
“Yes, sir,” Maria answered, swallowing. Moving her papers aside, she reached forward for the notebook. It was small, bound in navy cloth, with a dark stain spreading out from the centre.
She leant close. The stain had dried brown-red at the edges in a crooked outline, and the middle was still damp.
Maria’s head spun a little as she breathed deep to regain her composure. She flicked open the first bloody page, took up her pencil, and tried not to think that somewhere in custody a German airman had bled and was bleeding still, while she read code in his neat, clipped hand.
“All right,” said Natasha firmly. “Let’s get this over with.”
The notebook took hours to decode. Maria and Natasha made a good team from the beginning, Maria’s method and focus complimenting Natasha’s uncanny ability to spot the most unexpected patterns. Their allotted times for tea breaks came and went, and when Maria finally handed over several sheets of paper full of decoded messages at the end of their shift, her head was thrumming with pain.
“You’ve done good work,” was Welchman’s only comment.
It was already beginning to get dark when Maria and Natasha buttoned their coats and stopped to collect their mail. The walk home was a long one and Maria could not wait to crawl into a warm bed and shut out the world for a while.
Up in their room Maria changed into her nightgown, taking care not to rip her worn stockings, and turned to find Natasha seated at the little table, frowning at a piece of paper she held under the light.
“Everything all right?”
“Yes,” Natasha answered, her voice dropped to a whisper. “I mean… It’s from Clint. He’s got two days leave and then he’s being shipped out.”
Maria pressed her lips together. Natasha typically did not reveal much, but she was folding the letter and smoothing over the paper, and Maria could have sworn that if Natasha was the kind of person to have shaking hands, her fingers would be trembling.
Oh, what of it. Natasha was of age and if there was ever a girl who knew her own mind, it was her.
“I wanted to go out for tea with some of the girls. If he wants to travel up here, that should give you a few hours.”
Natasha said nothing, but she nodded.
“But whatever you do…” Maria reached into her bedside drawer and brought out a small, plain cardboard box that she held in Natasha’s direction. “Be smart and use one of these.”
Natasha accepted the box. Opening the lid, she seemed to regard Maria with renewed respect. “Maria Hill, you woman of mystery.”
Paul wore a glaringly new uniform and a stiff smile. John grinned openly, clapping their father on the back, kissing their mother’s cheek.
“Maria,” John said at last, hugging her. “Keep your spirits up, girl.”
Paul came over and gripped her hand. “Take care of Mum and Dad for us, will you?”
Maria took a deep breath. As if she hadn’t taken care of people for years. “Stay safe and make us proud.”
Kate was sipping her tea in the lunch room when Cassie dropped the letter she had been reading with a soft cry.
“Cassie?” Kate exclaimed.
Cassie was as white as the paper clutched in her hand. “No,” she kept whispering, eyes wide, her chest rising and falling rapidly. “No.”
Kate had heard all the variations. No, this can’t be happening. No, there must be a mistake. No, let this be a lie, some sort of cruel joke, because the truth will be too much to bear.
There was a screech of a chair being pushed back as Bobbi Morse from Hut 8 got up from her table, coming to stand behind Cassie. Carol Danvers and Jessica Drew were doing the same.
They had all seen it before. They knew what this was.
“My dad,” Cassie choked out, like something huge was trying to tear from her throat. “My dad is…”
She took a huge, shuddering breath and the floods broke.
Danvers and Morse each took hold of Cassie’s arms and pulled her upright, supporting her as she staggered between them. Kate watched, helpless, words stuck in her mouth, as the women lead Cassie outside and her cries echoed from the walls.
Kate’s limbs felt heavy as lead, she was bolted to the floor, too heavy and useless to move. Should she follow? What did you say? What good would any words do? She kept staring at the hut door like it would provide her with the answers.
We regret to…
There was nothing to be done.
Sergeant Clint Barton was not an especially tall man, but he seemed to fill Natasha’s tiny room as he stood before her, his garrison cap held loosely in his hand.
“What’s this about, Tasha?”
He leaned into her space, close enough to touch, but his hands stayed by his sides.
Natasha caught his gaze, holding it. “I’m through playing games against walls.”
She heard his soft gasp and his fingers rested on her hips, not moving further. “Have you ever done this before?”
She wrapped her arms around him and he pressed his forehead against hers. His hands splayed across her back and she felt a shiver of anticipation that made her breath catch.
“I don’t want to get you in trouble,” Clint murmured, his lips brushing the shell of her ear.
“Oh, that.” Natasha played with the collar of his shirt. “I’ve got condoms.”
The corner of his mouth twitched. “I was going to say I had some in my pocket, but I like a girl who plans ahead. Tasha… you sure you’re ready for this?” he asked, his lips a breath from hers.
He was no gentleman and she no lady.
“I’m sure,” Natasha replied. “Kiss me.”
Natasha traced her fingers across Clint’s chest as she lay in his arms. She didn’t feel any different, just an ache between her thighs and a yearning that spread throughout her body.
Shouldn’t she be ashamed? What is a girl without her virtue?
She is human, she is whole.
She pressed her lips to Clint’s skin and she felt his hand come up to stroke her hair. “Hey,” he said, smiling at her. “How’re you feeling?”
He rolled her on top of him and held her face in his hands. His eyes seemed to search for something. “I won’t ask you to wait.”
She turned her face to kiss his palm. “You can try to find me.”
Natasha leaned over to look at the clock on her bedside table. Not much time. “You have to go.”
“I’ll write to you,” he said. “I promise.”
She said nothing, kissing him instead. Words would trip her up, and she would not make commitments she might not be ready to keep.
Clint pulled his uniform on, leaning down to press his lips to hers one last time. “I’ll see you,” he breathed, his voice rough. He did not say when.
Kate found Cassie sitting on a bench at Bletchley Station, a battered leather suitcase at her feet and a felt hat crushed in her hands.
Kate swallowed the lump in her throat and forced herself to walk across the platform, the heels of her shoes clicking on the concrete. She stopped next to Cassie, who did not turn around. “They told me you were here,” Kate offered.
“I got the telegram from my mum when you were working, I didn’t have time to tell you,” Cassie stammered. “I left a letter, did you read it?”
“Not yet.” Kate didn’t want to mention how she felt as if the floor had fallen away beneath her when Cassie’s landlady told her that Cassie was leaving. She sat down next to Cassie on the splintery bench, watching her friend’s face. Kate reached out a hand but held back at the last moment. “So, Bristol, then?”
“Yeah. My mum needs help now with…”
“I’m sorry I couldn’t say good bye.”
“It doesn’t matter.” Kate laid a hand on Cassie’s back, feeling her shoulders shake. “I’m here now.” She pulled a scrap of paper out of her pocket. “Here’s my address in London. Give me yours. When the war is over, we’ll visit.”
They stayed like that, Kate’s arm around Cassie’s shoulders and their hands clasped, until the familiar low rumble announced the train coming into the station. Cassie took a deep breath and squeezed Kate’s fingers as she stood. Her hands were tembling. “Thank you,” she said, her eyes filling with tears.
Kate threw her arms around her friend and held her close, determined not to let Cassie see her cry. This was not her grief to have. “See you after the war.”
She waved from the platform and Cassie pressed her hand to the train window, her breath fogging the glass as the train pulled out from the station.
Years shifted by in numbers, code words, red lines on maps.
Natasha received letters that she hid in her handbag; a smile flitting across her face that Maria pretended not to notice.
Jessica and Carol held on to each other in the dark, certainty against chaos. Carol dreamed of flying.
June 1944 and all hell broke loose. Travel bans prevented anyone from moving on their days off, and then the order came down that no one was allowed to eat meals in the dining hall either. The food wheeled into the huts was, if possible, even worse.
Carol gritted her teeth and did not look up from her codes. The end was coming. Breathe deep and carry on.
One April day in 1945, Carol fell in step beside Maria and Jessica as they joined thousands of women and men on that walk to the lawn outside the Mansion to hear the announcement.
War with Germany was over.
There was a thump as Jessica went crashing into Carol. Her mouth was filled with Jessica’s hair and she could not speak, could not breathe, could only hold on to Jessica like a lifeline, her cheeks wet. This happiness was too much to bear.
Normally stoic Maria was clinging to a laughing Natasha, several people around them wept openly. The air rang with cheers.
Carol never felt more alive.
War with Japan drew to a close and people drifted away from Bletchley Park. Girls left Hut 6 in steady droves and papers were burnt in bonfires on the grounds. No trace of their work would remain.
It was a rainy Tuesday morning when Carol closed her typewriter and met the others outside to walk back to their billets one last time.
Maria had her collar pulled up against the cold and Natasha had tucked her curls under her dark blue hat. Carol finished buttoning her coat and for a moment they stood frozen on the doorstep, as if each was suddenly unwilling to make the first move. Then Jessica opened her umbrella and Carol took her arm, and the mood broke.
A figure passed them on the way down the drive, and Carol recognised it as Kate Bishop, the girl who looked so lost in the dining hall after Cassie Lang had been called home. Officially they had now never met.
“What will become of that one?” Jessica murmured.
Carol answered, “Probably not what you expect.”
The four women stayed silent until they reached the village and stopped under an awning.
“What will you do now?” Jessica asked.
Maria shrugged. “Back to university. If that doesn’t work, I don’t know. Maybe knit booties for my nephews.”
Carol snorted. “Ah, the life of a spinster.”
“Indeed.” Maria nudged Natasha in the side. “What about you, Romanoff?”
Natasha stuck her hands in her pockets. “London.”
“You’re not going to tell us more, are you?” Natasha met Maria’s inquisitive look without comment. “All right then. Carol, Jessica? Plans?”
Carol glanced at Jessica, and saw the corner of her lips turn up when their eyes met. She felt warmth spread throughout her chest, and her voice was strong when she said, “Take a train and go from there.”
“Right.” Maria pressed her lips together and stuck out her hand. “Ladies. It’s been an honour.”
They shook hands, silent in the truth. The world would not speak of them. Their war story was an empty space.
Natasha gave them a final nod and then turned away, heading out into the rain. Three years of working shoulder to shoulder and Carol still had the feeling there were depths in Natasha’s soul that no one would ever know. Maria followed a moment later, waving as she went.
Carol turned to Jessica as they slowly began to walk down the street towards their billet. “I was thinking about Boston.”
“There are ways… I have a bit of money from my mother. Enough for a house, Jessica.” Carol stopped and took hold of Jessica’s hands. “Do you want to come with me?”
Jessica froze, her wet hair plastered to her face, eyes wide with disbelief. Carol swallowed, heart pounding, and Jessica grabbed her coat collar and kissed her, right there in the street, like she did not care who saw.