June 3, 2016 — Eric
There was something special about the final bell of the final day of school. It passed through Eric Schroeder like a tall wave, lifting him up as it carried away the worry and stress of a semester. If he was not the first one out of the door, it was only because his spare, fourteen-year-old frame couldn't build up enough momentum to push through the full mass of a student body rushing to escape. Summer vacation was upon them, and who'd want to stay in school a moment longer than necessary? Not Eric, and not his friends. They sat around his desk and chatted for exactly as long as it took the throng to dissipate, and then school was behind them like last week's student barbeque — busy, messy, crowded, and full of things that were arguably edible.
Eric grinned as an afternoon breeze riffled his short brown hair, and blue eyes shone with excitement. This summer, he'd already decided, would have to be one for the record books. Nothing else would do.
"Ready for this weekend?" asked Saumer, his best bud and all-around partner in crime. In strict defiance of the school dress code and good taste, he'd wasted most of a tube of hair gel styling the mop atop his head into a crazy mass of black spikes. The overall effect made it look like he'd jammed his pinky into an electrical socket. None of the teachers had batted an eyelash at Saumer's eleventh-hour tonsorial rebellion; maybe they needed the break more than the students.
"Ready and packed!" Eric replied. In fact, he'd been ready all week. The tall frame of his hiking pack was waiting next to his bed at home, and thoughts of the upcoming trip had buoyed him up even as the final gantlet of exams had tried to bring him down. Math had been the worst by far. Science and history were only middling bad. German was, as always, a cakewalk. Or as Opa would call it, a Kinderspiel.
He said goodbye to Saumer as they rounded the corner near his house. Walking down the street, he looked ahead — and stopped in his tracks. Three cars were parked out front. It was odd enough for Oma and Opa to both be home at this hour, but the third car, a sleek new Volvo in jet black with tinted windows, didn't belong to anyone he knew. Eric momentarily entertained the hope that his mom had finally gotten that rich boyfriend she'd always wanted, but he shook it off easily. Their last communication with his wayward parent had been over a year ago, when she'd been schmoozing her way through Los Angeles. The two of them hadn't lived together in over a decade, and it was a bit much to expect that to change anytime soon.
Still, the black Volvo was right there, a bulky presence beside Opa's little yellow Volkswagen and Oma's red Ford pickup. He was only halfway down the street when the car's owner emerged from the house. Two tall men in identical black suits and blond crewcuts flanked an elderly figure in white. The old guy was too far away to see well, but Eric could swear he saw the glint of a monocle over the man's left eye.
Some instinct told him to get off the road and out of sight, into the little pathway that ran alongside the Masterson's house, three doors down from his place. If anyone asked, he could say that he wanted to talk with Mr. Masterson about the rates for summer mowing. The man's front lawn was practically a jungle.
No one noticed as he waited, and Eric let five minutes go by before he continued on his way. The black Volvo was long gone, but from inside the house came the sounds of a heated discussion. He couldn't quite make out the words, as Opa and Oma had lapsed into their colloquial Bavarian dialect at this point. He might be acing his German finals, but it still took Eric a while to work through the accents when his grandparents got hot under the collar. He knocked three times, loudly and firmly, before he opened the front door.
<"What is the matter?"> Eric called out in his best school German. <"Opa? Oma? Why are you shouting?">
"It's nothing, liebchen," his grandmother said, patting him on the shoulder as he dropped his school bag on the floor with a whoomph.
"An old colleague of mine came calling," Opa explained as Oma pursed her lips in distaste.
"From the university?" Opa had taught biology and genetics at the local state college for years while Oma kept her own aerobics studio going even now. The two of them didn't look like they were in their mid-sixties, and many mistakenly assumed that Eric was their son. Only silver hair and the occasional laugh line betrayed their actual ages. They both had the same blue eyes, the exact same shade as his left eye. His brown right eye, he liked to joke, must have come from his father.
"Nein, nein... from before my school days, when I worked for my father..." Opa might have added more, but a glare from Oma stopped him. Instead, he finished lamely: "It was not a nice time, and I did not wish to work with him again. Simple as that."
So why is Oma staring daggers at you now? Eric thought but wisely did not ask.
"Und how was school?" Oma asked, steering the subject away. Her accent, usually so slight, was thick as she said it. Whatever had happened must have shaken her up badly, her grandson realized.
"It was a little cloud of hope surrounded by a big thunderstorm of stress," Eric replied, aping his grandmother's penchant for strained metaphors. She grinned back at him. "So... about what one would expect of a day full of exams, while you know freedom's just a few hours away."
Opa laughed at that. "Spoken like a true schoolboy. Now, did they bother to feed you anything today, or are you starving as usual?"
This was the portrait of a family in Little Rock, Arkansas: two proud (grand)parents sitting with their (grand)son around the table, chatting about the day as he plowed through a large plate of obatzda and cottage fries. As usual, Oma had mixed some of the extra spicy chili peppers in with the soft cheese. Eric sometimes wished he could take it to school for lunch everyday, but the administration didn't approve of the amount of beer that Oma included in the mix. The table and dining room fixtures were all formica and linoleum, and the blue gingham tablecloth only completed the image of a 1950s happy home circa 2016. The only thing missing was an apple pie to lay cooling on the counter — but that was only because Oma preferred to make strudel instead.
It wasn't until half an hour later that Eric went upstairs and officially rejoined the twenty-first century. In his own room, he set the rules for decor, starting from the age of ten when he'd decided to paint the walls with abstract patterns. Opa had bought him the paint, helped him move the furniture, but after that he was on his own. That project had lasted an entire summer, and the results could still be seen behind posters of rock bands and superheroes.
The defining element of the room was the desk. A monster hunk of old oak with high bookshelves to either side, it had since had much of its innards removed to make way for computer cables and stereo speakers. His friend Saumer was a major audiophile, and with a little pleading Eric was set up with a killer sound system, complete with a dial that went from 1 to 11. He'd only cranked it up all the way once, and Oma's decorative plates had vibrated straight off the shelves downstairs. Now he was only allowed to bring it up to 4 at the most, but that was enough. He loaded up Skype, located his friends and settled in for an hour or four of solid exploration and monster-whacking. The group of them had been running a homebrew D&D campaign using the voice-chat client all semester, and Saumer was a whiz at finding just the right tunes and sound effects to really spice things up.
The roar of dragons and screams of demons filtered through the floorboards, reaching the kitchen as a vague wash of sound. From time to time a particularly large explosion would punctuate the buzz with a sharp spike of bass. Hans and Winifred Schroeder sipped their tea in silence for a few minutes, letting the muted throes of digital combat surround them. Once they were satisfied that their grandson wasn't going to come down till supper, it was time to continue their little argument.
<"I don't like it one bit,"> Winifred said in colloquial Bavarian. <"Achziger was never trustworthy in the old days, and I doubt that he's changed. He's after something.">
<"True, but what? He was always a frontman, a manager, but never the one with the big ideas."> Hans considered for a moment. <"The man's got to be in his second century by now. Someone's pulled him out of the retirement house, and it must be for his connections.">
<"The Schattenkriege are long since finished,"> his wife reminded him. <"We helped end them, remember? All that's left are a few old relics like Achziger.">
<"We're not relics, we're survivors. Achziger's just lucky I didn't take out his right eye to match the left."> Winifred grimaced. <"I'd hoped we'd put all this behind us long ago.">
<"Such is life, liebchen,"> said her husband. <"We have to plan for the worst.">
<"We're not cleared for that sort of equipment anymore.">
<"You know what I mean. Whoever's behind Achziger will try again. I'll contact Adolf. If you could tidy up the hobby office?">
<"You always were the best, liebchen.">
Winifred graced her husband of forty years with a kiss on the cheek. <"You always were such a romantic.">
Eric slept well that night. His party on Skype had faced down a servant of the campaign's Big Bad, completing a major step in their ongoing quest. Out in the hallway, his hiking backpack was leaned against the wall, ready to go. The troop was supposed to meet at the nearby Lutheran church at 8 AM, which meant they'd all arrive by 8:30, just as planned. After a week of final exams, a few days in the mountains along the Buffalo Springs River sounded like a good idea. He'd set his alarm and was sound asleep by 11.
His grandparents weren't having nearly as good an evening. Down in the basement Hans had his "hobby office," full of tools, materials, and half-finished handyman projects. The only completed project in evidence was the back wall, which had been artfully designed to look like an absolute mess of pegs, hooks, and things to hang on them. The hinges were so skillfully hidden that Eric had never once suspected their existence.
Behind the wall was Hans's real hobby office. A computer tower that put his grandson's to shame sat on a desk not far from a centrifuge and a sequencer. A thermocycler, smaller than Winifred's crockpot, shared space with much larger and more complicated devices the nature of which was not easily determined at first glance. Many of these had a home-built look to them, bristling with external wiring and blinking irregularly. A few had uses that were not to be found in any scientific journal of the sane variety. On one shelf, a series of beakers, cuvettes, and more exotic glassware were lined up as neatly as pawns on a chessboard. Each was filled with a different color liquid, which upon closer examination would prove to be sugar water. Hans Schroeder was a big believer in appearances, and when fate and the advances of technology robbed him of the need for bubbly beakers of questionable solutions, he'd simply whipped up a mock set for show. That no one but he and his wife ever came here was of no importance. It mattered to him.
<"Why did I ever let you continue this craziness?">
<"Because I was insufferable after retirement?"> Hans gave her his best grin.
<"You're hardly better now.">
<"But at least I am not bored and trying to fix everything in the house, regardless of need, like Masterson down the street.">
<"And so I trade a monkey with a hammer for a monkey with dynamite,"> said Winifred. She finished unscrewing the outer case of the computer. In her hand was a scrambler, a portable electromagnet whose size belied its strength. Press it against a hard drive and — pop, crackle, snap!— no more hard drive. The inner disc would make an excellent centerpiece for a wind chime, though.
<"You knew what I was like when you seduced me, and you married me anyway."> The grin never left Hans's face. All their arguments eventually devolved to this point. It was an old argument, well worn and polished from years of repetition. In less pressing times it might lead to a reenactment of the original seduction, but for now neither of them could get in the mood.
Not enough information, he mused as he poured vial after vial into the disposal unit. Today's courtesy call could have been just that, or it could have been a prelude to something nastier. And so they had to throw it all away; every test tube, sample, and file had to be destroyed. It was a shame, really.
<"And the backups?">
<"Destroyed, liebchen, except for the encrypted copy I sent to Adolf. I would trust no one else with it.">
<"Good. Then I can trust Margit to sit on him if he does anything funny.">
<"It's so nice when we're in agreement, liebchen.">
The data could be used to recreate his work later — maybe, possibly, if he wasn't just schimmelhorning like they used to do in the bad old days. That was his bigger fear, really, that the one great success of his life was a true, irreproducible fluke. Even though he hated to admit it, he was getting to be an old man, and old men were always worried about their posterity. Destroying it was one of the most difficult decisions one could make.
Which is why it was understandable, if not exactly smart, that he palmed one, and just one, of the sample vials while his wife wasn't looking. For posterity.
Saturday, June 4th, 2016 - Eric
It was 6:59 AM, and Eric slept the sleep of the just. Visions of victory from his D&D campaign danced through his brain. That had been the perfect end to an adventure that spanned most of the last quarter. All his school friends had been involved — Saumer with his wild-eyed crusader, Maxwell with his acrobatic rogue, Kyle with his short-tempered alchemist — as well as a few from out of state, gathered for a righteous purpose. In his dreams they faced down an onslaught of imps, did battle with a horde of gruesome mongrelfolk, and finally laid siege to the enemy fortress. Then the enemy lord had leapt from the parapets, coming down to the field of battle to eliminate them personally.
The lord's fearsome bulk dropped slowly through the air, time itself seeming to pause in admiration of the beastly demon's style. Dream!Eric was there in his armor, watching as the lord fell through empty space in measured, dramatic increments.
5... 4... 3... 2... 1...
And this is where the boss battle music should have begun. There'd be drum rolls and barrages of brass and weird chanting in dead languages. The theater of the thing was important. Instead...
"Eat my face off! Eat your face off! Eat his face off, too!"
Instead, there was the cacophonous blast of a dozen instruments deliberately played out of tune in nine-point discord, accompanied by incoherent screaming in a language that his friend Kyle insisted was English. Frankly, Eric had his doubts about that. He'd never been able to pick out more than a line or two from the jumbled stream-of-consciousness rants that passed for lyrics with Brass Monkey.
"Vermicious wallaby, squamous opossum, rugose kangaroo!" ... And there were times when he really thought his ears were conspiring against him to make sense out of the chaos. The one good thing about this band, in his opinion, was that it was impossible for him to sleep while one of their tunes was playing. This made the group perfect for early morning wake-up calls.
Despite everything his high school teachers might say to the contrary, Eric Schroeder knew how to manage time when it was necessary. By 7:10 he was out of the shower, reasonably clean for the experience. He'd shaved the day before, and to his annoyance it looked like he wouldn't have to again until Monday at the earliest. The rest was just soap, rinse, and dry.
By 7:30 he was fully dressed in his "Class A" Scout uniform: olive green shorts, khaki shirt, regulation socks, and hiking boots. His First-Class rank badge hung slightly askew on his left breast pocket. Oma had made him sew it on by himself last summer, and he'd kept in practice since then. He was going for Star rank this year, and he was determined to get the thing on his shirt right.
His grandfather was already sitting by the kitchen table when he came downstairs at 7:35. Eric wasn't terribly surprised; Opa had kept odd hours when he worked, and nothing had changed since retirement. The look on Opa's face now, that made him pause. There was worry written across that face, and something else, something deeper that he'd never seen before.
While he lugged his pack over to the foyer, Opa poured him a bowl of cereal, which was more surprising. Breakfast had been a self-service affair at their house since third grade. The old man caught the look on Eric's face and winked. "Just wanted to make sure you ate right before heading out. I know you'd just waste money on fast food otherwise."
"Oh, Opa..." That was sort of the point of going on a road-trip, no matter how short, wasn't it? He accepted the bowl of granola and yogurt gracefully, and tucked in. It was Oma's special blend, and as healthy as it was delicious. He never needed much convincing to have some.
Eric half-expected Opa to leave at this point, but the old man just sat there, staring into space with a worried wrinkle creasing his forehead. He was even fidgeting! His hands, normally so slow and steady, now fiddled with something, a thin grey cylinder about four inches long. It flipped through his fingers, flick-flick-flick, spinning and twirling. The morning sunlight occasionally glanced off its surface.
The granola crunched between his teeth as Eric considered the scene before him. Flick-flick-flick, the fidgeting continued. After three spoonfuls, his curiosity could take no more.
"Opa? Was ist das?" he asked in his best German. Hopefully that would get the old man to say more.
"This?" his grandfather replied in English. "Just a memento. Haven't I shown it to you before?"
"Oh. Well, I usually leave it in a box of other keepsakes, but I came across it last night while cleaning up and... well, the memories."
Eric wasn't sure how one properly went about scrutinizing another person, but he tried hard to, nonetheless. Normally, he was a good judge of his grandfather's moods, but this morning he wasn't sure what he was seeing in the old man's face. He stared as he crunched his granola, but Opa didn't elaborate.
"When you're finished with breakfast, go kiss your Oma goodbye," his grandfather said instead. "You know how she worries when you go on trips with your friends."
His grandson rolled his eyes. That was Opa's way of saying that he worried and cared — as opposed to Oma, who was generally fine with any trip, regardless of length, as long as no capital crimes were committed for the duration. Her usual farewell was "Have fun, and stay off the front page." Still, he went upstairs to give Oma a peck on the cheek before leaving. By the time he was out the door, the little grey memento had passed completely from his mind, so he didn't find its absence from his grandfather's hands remarkable at all.
"Will they go after him?" Winifred asked as she watched her grandson walk down the street.
"Possibly. We're not even certain who 'they' are, much less that they'll be after us," her husband pointed out. "He'll be with friends, and in public, so it's less likely they'll make a grab for him."
"But this isn't the Schattenkriege, or even the Cold War, not anymore. All these big, flashy super-antics these days..." Winifred sighed. "Times change, and I'm never sure if it's for good or bad."
"Jenseits von Gut und Böse," Hans said thoughtfully. "How would Nietsche have reacted to a world full of actual Übermensch, I wonder."
"So what shall we do when they come calling?"
"Stall. And pray."
The pack was a comfortable weight on Eric's back as he walked the four blocks to the Lutheran church where his troop had its regular meetings. The bottom of the pack frame conformed to his lower back and hips, redistributing the weight so that it didn't all hang from his shoulders.
For a wonder, he wasn't the first to arrive. Saumer and his dad were already parked in the church lot with the troop's camping trailer hitched to the back of their blue SUV. An egg McMuffin was crammed into his friend's mouth, but the boy still managed to force a series of sounds out and around the edges that might possibly have been "Good morning." Some attempt had been made to wash, flatten, and tame the mess of hair upon his head, but the black spikes still poked defiantly upwards.
"How are the folks?" asked Mr. Saumer in between more modest bites of his own McBreakfast. The forty-year-old car salesman had his troop leader uniform unbuttoned at the top, and under it was the red t-shirt that passed for the troop's unofficial "Class B" uniform. He had black hair just like his son, only far less of it. What was there had been combed and shellacked into place.
"They're well," said Eric, joining them where they leaned against the side of the SUV. He and his friend chatted about the previous night's gaming session while Mr. Saumer listened on and pretended to understand what they were talking about. Soon enough Maxwell arrived, and then Kyle. The conversation expanded to include them, and the air filled with discussion of stats and variables, of class advantages and exploits. Their dads joined Mr. Saumer in the zone of resigned incomprehension and talked about cars and football instead.
Their offspring paid them no mind. The four boys of the Crusader Patrol were momentarily lost in their own little world. Maxwell and Kyle were cousins, but could have passed for brothers, having somehow inherited the same sandy blond hair and hazel eyes from their mothers. They'd gotten their noses from their respective fathers, though; Kyle's was long and narrow while Maxwell's was flatter and rounded.
With only five minutes to go, the Lightning Patrol arrived, all in one van. Jackson, Terry, Miles, and George were one grade older than Eric and his friends, but sometimes it didn't seem like it. The Crusader boys had joined the troop just last year, after the dissolution of their old one. The Lightning Patrol had been the junior group then, but the Eagle Patrol had all moved on, leaving the Lightnings as the senior scouts. Would that they acted like it. The four of them were always late, always distracted, never helpful, and rarely in uniform. Eric had to wonder why they bothered at all. He was just thankful they were traveling in separate cars for the trip.
Mr. Saumer's blue SUV was the Crusader's conveyance of choice. It had roomy seats, good air-conditioning, and enough space in the rear to stow a dozen packs. The only thing lacking was the sound system, in that it had just the one CD/MP3 player to cater to the boys' tastes. Kyle voted for Brass Monkey, as usual, while his cousin voted for something country-western, also as usual. Saumer was going through a weird Japanese alternative punk phase, and Eric just wanted to preserve his eardrums. Mr. Saumer's suggestion of the classic rock radio station was turned down unanimously. In the end they went for the staple of the teenage male road trip experience: Weird Al Yankovic. With all major albums on MP3, not to mention several unreleased tracks pulled off of download sites, there was enough zany music to last the entire drive up Highway 84 to the Buffalo River campgrounds. Saumer loaded the entire discography, set the order to "randomized," and hit the play button.
"A long, long time ago... In a galaxy far away..." As Weird Al began his dual spoof of Star Wars and Don McLean, Mr. Saumer pulled out, and the little caravan was on its way.
"The grandson has left." The tall man with a blond crewcut and black suit was parked across the street from the church. He'd sat there unnoticed as the Saumers had driven up, had reported in once the Schroeder boy made an appearance, and had listened in via long-range microphone to confirm the details of the trip. No one had noticed him or the little Mazda he was in. It was a knack he had.
"Follow, but make no attempts yet." The voice that came through his headset was old and dry. The weight of years had squeezed the juice right out. "We may not need him at all."
"Understood, Herr Achziger."
"Gut. Report hourly, Glas, or if anything unexpected occurs. Sandmann will meet up with you at your destination."
Glas made the appropriate noises to end communication, then cut the transmission. Herr Achziger annoyed him, but so did most people. As his car moved to follow the blue SUV, he let his mind go into autopilot. A few hours of quiet driving suited him well today.
They waited for two hours.
Waited for no good reason, which annoyed Winifred professionally. There was no point to it. She and Hans weren't going to run. Running was for when other people were still searching. They'd been found, and were presumably being watched even now. The circumstances were against them, and in any case it wasn't like she had an AK-47 hidden under the floorboards anymore. Stall and wait, that was all they could do.
So when Achziger and his two blond goons finally came to the front door, she had tea and cookies ready. The look on the goons' faces was almost worth it. Whatever they were expecting, whatever intelligence they'd received about her, it did not match the image of a kindly grandmother serving refreshments. It made her wish that she'd been able to poison the tea, but alas, that was another tool no longer at her disposal. Instead, she hid a grin at the nervous looks the goons gave the beverage, and sipped from her own cup. The chamomile helped steady her nerves.
Unlike his underlings, Achziger wasn't the least bit nervous about the refreshments. He took a large bite out of a macaroon and followed with a gulp of tea. Winifred couldn't fathom the man. Either he was oblivious to risks, or he simply didn't care. Considering his age, it might well be that Achziger was unkillable by any means, except possibly rust. That was one thing that could be said of the old man before her: he was a survivor of pretty much everything, and he looked the part. Never a big man, Achziger's flesh had receded with age until he was just the frame of a man upon which a suit was hung. Where visible, his skin fell in layers, and even in the impeccable white suit he gave the impression of dust and the grime of ages. He'd kept his own hair, heavens only knew how, though it no longer looked like he colored it with shoe polish. Rather, it resembled a thin steel plate braced to his skull.
And then there was his left eye. The thick gold monocle he wore there was no ornament. Upon closer inspection one would find that, unlike his hair, this was a feature that had in fact been riveted onto him. An intricate devise filled the ocular socket, replacing the standard functions of sight and adding more in the process. The piercingly blue eye seen through the lens was nothing more than an image projected upon it to make others less nervous.
Achziger coughed twice, clearing his throat. "This is more hospitality than I was expecting," he began.
More than you deserve, Winifred thought but did not say. She let her husband speak for her instead.
"It's always a pleasure when old friends stop by," Hans lied smoothly. "Especially in our retirement years."
"You did not seem so happy yesterday."
"We were caught up in the surprise of it all, I assure you."
"And you have considered my offer." That particular wheeze wasn't a question, nor was it really a statement. The dusty old man said it with all the quiet finality of a court sentence.
"As I said, it's a pleasure in our retirement years — particularly if they remain our retirement years."
From Achziger's throat came a long, dry sigh. "I had hoped you would say otherwise. I knew that you would not, but at my age hope is all I have sometimes. Hope, and younger associates who are not as polite as I."
There it was. Winifred tensed. The gloves were about to come off, and only Gott im Himmel knew what was under them.
"You see," Achziger continued. "There are parties interested in your work, and the one whom I represent would much rather that you would continue that work for her."
Her? Winifred's ears pricked at that. One personal pronoun, and the list of potential puppeteers in this guignol dropped sharply.
"And," cough wheeze. "My employer insists that she should state her case to you in person."
"Well then, she can come herself," said Hans.
"Nein, nein." This time, the wheeze was more of a chuckle. "Hans, my dear lad, you know better than that. Nothing in this world of ours is ever so simple."
"It's no longer our world, Herr Achziger."
"That is where you are wrong, lad. Once you enter the Schattenwelt, you can never leave. The shadows will always find a way to pull you back. Accept that."
Winifred took this moment to tidy the table. Her husband and the unwelcome guest had long since finished their tea, and the arrangement of tea cups and saucers upon the tray created a welcome break in the conversation. The cheap porcelain rattled lightly as she picked the tray up and turned towards the kitchen, and then made a loud crash as she pivoted and slammed the tray straight into the nearest goon's face.
The tray broke into splinters before it met the man's forehead. Even as her eyes began to doubt themselves, she knew it to be true. Half an inch from the target, the tray had stopped, had been stopped. It felt like she'd hit a concrete wall.
The blond goon didn't react. He didn't even raise an eyebrow.
"If you are finished assaulting Mauer, we should be going." The look on Achziger's face might have been satisfaction, if only by the process of elimination.
"...but he's scarier without it on!" The four scouts of the Crusader Patrol sang along in something resembling harmony. Mr. Saumer and Mr. Coombs, Maxwell's dad, shared a look and then shook their heads. They let the song continue to its end before turning the music player off.
"Next stop, Ponca!" Mr. Coombs announced. "Centerpoint Trailhead, the Goat Trail, and Big Bluff, coming up! The next convenience store will be the last for the weekend. Everyone good?"
"NO!" came the shout. The four teenagers had big grins on their faces. Turn down one last chance for candy bars and cola? Never! Clean-ish restrooms would be a plus, after two hours on the road.
The little rest stop on Hwy-84 had all three. The mom'n'pop store looked like it had grown out the hillside, formed of good old Ozark granite. Its roof was a mishmash of brown and black where different sorts of shingles had been patched in. Two modern gas pumps stood out front, half as old as the building but looking far worse for wear. The parking lot was little more than a patch of gravel along the side of the road, and Mr. Carlson's minivan barely fit in next to Mr. Saumer's SUV. The Crusaders and Lightnings piled out in a mad rush to grab the best snacks or to secure a spot in line for the toilet.
A Mazda zipped by, but no one really noticed. Little Japanese cars weren't that memorable. Terry Carlson getting busted by his dad when he tried to buy a copy of Hustler? Timeless.
"Huh? What's this?" Eric and Saumer were in their tent, getting their packs put away. It was just past 11, and they needed to get going if they were to finish the Big Bluff trek before nightfall. The tents were up quickly, the bedrolls unfurled, and the daypacks loaded with canteens and trail food for lunch.
"What's what?" asked Saumer, who was busy with his own things.
In the side pocket of Eric's pack was an unexpected weight, about the size and shape of a lipstick case, but heavier. It was wrapped in printer paper, with the edges carefully folded in and around like the ends of a burrito. A thick brown rubber band held it together.
"Someone must have slipped this into my bag."
"Not I, said the cat!"
"Ha, ha. Take it to Branson, why dontcha." Eric slipped off the rubber band and unfolded the paper to find the little grey cylinder from this morning. That answered the "who" part, at least. Opa must have put it in there. The better question was "why?"
Saumer grabbed the paper and gave it a glance. "Looks like a letter," he said. "Ick geeb ess dear. What's that mean?"
"It means you're not getting an A in German this year."
"Hey, passing with a C-minus is still passing, y'know."
Eric grabbed the paper back, skimming quickly. Ich gebe es dir: I'm giving this to you. Schütze es: Protect it. Bewahre es sicher auf: Keep it safe. Sie kommen...
"It's my Opa's good luck charm," he lied quickly. "He always worries about me on these trips. I guess he was too embarrassed to give it to me directly."
"If you say so..." Saumer gave a trademark "none of my business" shrug.
Slipping the note and the cylinder into his pocket, Eric stepped out of the tent. "C'mon, Big Bluff's not going to climb itself."
There were times he was glad his best friend was almost failing German. It meant fewer questions right now, for one. He wasn't sure what Opa was about with this, and until he knew for certain he wasn't going to worry anyone with it. If his friend had understood the note, then the afternoon would have been ruined by wild imaginings and conspiracies, all based around a note that was completely innocuous.
Well, except for the end...
Sie kommen. They're coming. But who?
Glas did not smile. He did not frown. His face did not do much at all, at any time. He was, as always, blankly placid as he observed the young men through his binoculars. Eight boys had set up six tents with the help of four adult men. His eyes took in appearances, and he was near certain that he knew the dynamics of the group. The older boys, he dismissed. Typical high school males, one step away from delinquency. The younger boys met with more approval, if only the form of a nod. That group had set up fast and was ready to go.
Sandmann was not the calm or placid type. While identical to Glas in height, build, hair, and wardrobe, he still managed to look nothing like his partner. Where Glas was blank, Sandmann was florid, his face flush with life and emotion. Glas lived his life with eyes half-lidded, but his brother's were wide and lit with a manic fire. They were the same icy blue, but no one would ever mistake one set for the other.
"We should just grab him now."
"To hell with that scheisse." The German expletive fell through the man's broad Midwestern accent with all the grace of a potato.
"Orders were given. Observe. Prepare. Kommandeurin was clear on that. Act only when necessary, and do not attract undue attention."
"Yeah, like anything's going to happen here."
"Rio Matando." Two words, one place name, and silence from his brother. The memories of that fiasco were not good ones. Another man would have grinned, would have pressed salt into the wounds that still hurt his brother in the pride. Glas continued his observation.
Hans had to give Achziger credit where it was due; his underlings were efficient and thorough. In less than an hour a team had set up a fumigation tent around the entire house, providing an excuse for the Schroeder family's absence as well as the perfect cover for a complete investigation of the home.
It took only fifteen minutes to locate his real hobby room, much good that it did them. He and his wife had been very thorough themselves the night before. The computers were so dead that they'd need necromancers to get any data out of them. Herr Achziger treated this as a matter of course.
And it was, Hans realized after a moment's thought. All the precautions had been second nature to him, so naturally did they come to mind. The old man was right, in his own verdammt way. No one ever really left the schattenwelt, especially not him. Hans had practically been born to it. There were dozens of tricks he'd learned while growing up that had seemed quite normal for the time. Things like silent code.
<Understood?> he tapped against his wife's hip. He and Winifred were squeezed into the back of Achziger's vehicle, with his wife stuck between him and the second goon. While not quite comfortable, it gave him an excuse to keep his arm around her at all times. Winifred obligingly snuggled in closer to him.
<Heard,> she tapped back via her left hand, which rested upon his thigh. The code was similar to Morse, but leaner, more of a shorthand that dealt with individual words instead of spellings. The basic vocabulary was limited, though they'd expanded it over time. It was good for quick communication, but would never be a poetic medium.
<Too crap. Waiting. Help comes.>
<Hope. Help self maybe?>
<If/when help can.>
"I hope the seats are comfortable," Achziger wheezed from the front.
"As long as it's not a long trip," Hans replied. "There's not much room for my legs back here." The first goon, Mauer, was in the driver seat, and didn't leave much space behind him. <Need more intel,> he tapped.
<Always.> "I don't suppose you could tell us where we're going?" Winifred asked sweetly.
"Oh, no need to worry about that. Mauer knows the way quite well."
Half an hour passed in silence. Achziger had apparently used up his verbal allowance for the morning, and his personal assistants might as well be mute for all Hans knew. He and his wife had kept their own discussion strictly nonverbal.
<Old man down quick can. Others, unknown?> he tapped on her hip.
<Other first, down quick can't,> came the reply. <Other second, unknown. Situation no-change. Fucked.>
<Heard.> They sat in silence for a while longer, Winifred's head resting against his chest.
<Adolf come?> his wife tapped, quietly breaking the silence.
<Come late. Old man base unknown. Adolf know can't. Message Adolph can't.>
<Adolf find can,> Winifred assured him. <Because Adolf.>
That thought was a comfort. Wherever they went, Adolf would catch up eventually. That was what the man did best. Hans kept telling himself that as Achziger's car pulled into a private airstrip where a plane was prepped and waiting. Somehow, Adolf would find them. He and Winifred would just have to hold out till then.
In Arkansas, it was sometimes said that it wasn't the mountains that were tall; it was the valleys that were deep. From the top of Big Bluff, Eric could believe that. At three hundred feet and more in height, the rocky cliff seemed to plunge deep into the valley below. The Goat Trail was true to its name, with twisty curves and narrow passages around rocks that only sure-footed mountain beasts could cross easily. It had been a challenge, but they'd made it to the top. Even the goofs in the Lightning Patrol had been on their best behavior. The Big Bluff did not tolerate horseplay.
They were having a late lunch on the rocks, in the shade of a natural cavelet near some scraggy juniper trees that somehow managed to cling to terrain where no tree should fit. Crackers, summer sausage, and smoked cheese formed crunchy, ersatz sandwiches to be washed down with copious amounts of water or orange Tang. Big bags of gorp — a mix of dry cereal, raisins, and nuts — were available to all. Some went to feeding the local bird and squirrel populations, but not much. Everyone was too hungry to waste food.
Digging through his day pack, Eric's hand found the little memento once again. He'd managed to forget about it for the entire hike, but there it was, waiting patiently. He examined it as he chewed on some jerky. The grey cylinder wasn't perfectly smooth. He rolled it between his fingers, noticing a rough patch. The faint traces of letters, grey on grey, were barely visible.
"Hey Saumer, got a pencil?" Eric pressed his grandfather's note against the spot, took the proffered writing implement from his friend's hand, and rubbed the graphite firmly against the paper. Letters appeared, all uppercase and in a blocky, serifed print style that reminded him of the older medical texts in his grandfather's collection. A couple of T's, a couple of S's, at least three R's... after a moment, he had a single, long word, compounded together as only German could manage.
"Are you going to tell me what this is all about now?" asked Saumer.
"Would that I could."
"Then could you at least translate?" Saumer said between mouthfuls of gorp.
"Y'know, I could make you do it for homework." Eric held the cylinder with both hands and twisted it one way and then the other until he felt something give way. A thin line appeared halfway along the length of the cylinder, widening as he unscrewed it. The interior was lined with black velvet, and nestled within was a small glass vial capped with a cork. Its contents were dark red.
"Was ist es?" Eric muttered. "Scheisse, opa..."
"Oh! I understood that part!"
"Saumer, quiet." He quickly screwed the cap back into place. "I don't know what it is, don't know why I have it, but I've got a bad feeling about it."
"Cool, I always wanted to be in a spy movie."
"Pft, you're no James Bond."
"And you're no Bond girl, either."
"Take it to Branson, why dontcha. Still... shouldn't we check in with your dad?" Eric asked.
"Oh yeah, almost forgot about that!" From his belt, Saumer pulled out his communicator, as he liked to call it. To Eric, it looked like a glorified walky-talky. Mr. Saumer had picked up a set on the home shopping network from some east coast company specializing in odd electronics. Instead of a radio aerial or antenna, it had a pair of semi-flexible rabbit ears.
"Hey, Dad! Reporting from Big Bluff, over!"
"Roger that. How's the view?" The troop leader's voice came through loud and clear despite the fact they were were all in the middle of a mountain range. The Bunny Rabbit company did good work, at least. "Over," Mr. Saumer added sheepishly, ten seconds too late.
"Bright and clear," Saumer reported. "Lunch is almost over, so we'll be heading down in a bit. See you by suppertime, over!"
Glas lowered the long-range mike and made a note. From his vantage point near the campsite, the sound of the boy's voice had been crystal clear. He needed to check the manufacturer's brand on the handheld and get some for himself and his brother. Their current equipment just wasn't as good.
Orders had just come in, but it had taken a bit of effort to convince Sandmann not to go after the boy right there and then. A few satellite photos of the terrain had sufficed. Why carry a heavy load so far when their quarry would return of his own accord in three hours, after all?
He stowed his equipment and checked the area around his car. When they left, it would be in a rush. And what was it the Scouts said? Always leave the scene of the crime cleaner than you found it?
Going down a cliff presented a unique conundrum. Technically, you could descend much faster than you could climb, but on the other hand, a quick descent was the last thing anyone wanted when talking about a three-hundred-foot precipice. So the trek down took a while. Eric had heard that there were some superpowers out there that let a person drop from heights with no damage at all. As he hopped from rock to rock, he wondered how that would work.
Once they were back on the main track, it was easy going. Centerpoint Trail was a mild trek through the woods. A former wagon road, it was broad and level, with little undergrowth along the sides. It should have been a short, fun hike. The other scouts were joking and laughing and goofing around, but Eric just didn't have the heart. There was a sense of foreboding hanging over it all, like a stormcloud only he and Saumer could see. The two of them stayed at the rear as the group hiked onward.
In his head, a single, long word continued to bounce around. Starkkräfteserum. All in all it wasn't a difficult word to parse, just oddly redundant. Starke and kräfte were both words for strength or power. The umlaut over the A in kräfte meant it was a noun, while starke was an adjective, but "strong power" still sounded strange, like whoever had named it was just bad at that sort of thing. Add to that the word "serum," and it just sounded bad.
They were about a mile from the trailhead when Saumer's communicator crackled into action. From it came the sounds of shouting, of rushed steps, and finally a regular beeping: short-short-short, long-long-long, short-short-short....
All eyes were on Saumer. There wasn't a Scout who hadn't had to memorize that particular bit of Morse code. S.O.S. The boys looked to the adult leaders, who looked at each other. Quick words were spoken, and then everyone dropped their packs and ran for camp.
Eric and Saumer held back for just a moment. The spiky-haired boy pulled a map out of his bag and presented it to his friend. "There's a microwave tower a ways up-slope," he said. "Good place to lay low."
"No buts. Spy movie, remember? And it looks like you've got your hands on the MacGuffin. Oh, and take this." From a different pocket he pulled a small metal disk, about the size and shape of a silver dollar. Taking it in hand, Eric could see it was something else entirely. Printed circuitry glinted softly across its surface, and one side was dominated by the face of a happy, smiley bunny rabbit.
Saumer shrugged. "You're not the only one with strange good luck charms," he said. "Now, git!"
Eric nodded and took off running perpendicular to the trail. His friend watched him go, then raced after the others.
He'd changed his mind, Glas had. He didn't want one of those annoying walky-talkies. The thing beeped and squawked from where it had been dropped, even now. The pudgy, balding man had put up more of a fight than expected. Only a few seconds more, but that had been enough. A scowl almost broke the blond agent's face. Who built deadman's switches into commercial hardware, anyway?
Sandmann thought the same as his brother, but he felt far different. Their cover was blown, but so what? Grab the kid, get out fast; it didn't get simpler than that. All the cloak and dagger scheisse could be gleefully abandoned, so he did.
Seven Boy Scouts and two leaders came pounding down the trail before him, and he grinned. It was a wide, toothy smile that reached sideways until it almost met the corners of his eyes. It spoke volumes about its bearer's sanity, and it was enough to stop all nine in their tracks.
He was ready for that moment. The black velvet pouch on his belt was open, and a hand dipped inside. In a well practiced motion he grabbed a handful of the pouch's contents and threw. A cloud of grit surrounded the scouts, stinging and blinding their eyes as flecks of sand sliced through the air. The cloud hung in place for several seconds, defying the laws of gravity as it swirled and twisted. By the time it all reached the ground, seven boys and two leaders were already there.
Saumer was right; the microwave tower would be a good place to hide, except for one minor issue. Eric eyed the fence. And what a tall issue it was. Eight feet high with barbed wire along the top, it was only minor because the rest of the verdammt situation was just insane. Barely a day out of school, and he was running through the forest trying to escape... who? Hell if he knew. Foreign agents? Mutant extremists? Nazis? Alien broccoli from the planet Brassica?
And it was all because of that little bottle of whatever that Opa had saddled him with. It felt heavy in his pants pocket, stretching against the fabric to remind him of its presence with every step. He'd never been angry at his grandfather before, but now Eric felt like screaming every obscenity he knew, in English and in German, right into the old man's face.
He'd come around the right of the tower enclosure, where a small maintenance shed stood just within the protection of the fence. There was a gate there, padlocked, but he tried his best to open it anyway. Unfortunately, the Swiss Army had neglected to include bolt-cutters or lockpicks in his pocket knife. The gate stayed shut.
Eric slumped down behind a large rock and buried his face in his hands. This was it, then. He had nowhere to run and no time to get there before the mysterious "they" could catch up. Now he wished he'd asked Oma for more special language lessons. He'd never learned how to say "I am so screwed" in German.
Schütze es. Bewahre es sicher auf. Take care of it. Keep it safe. "Nice words, Opa," Eric muttered to himself. "But how?" The mysterious "they" would know he had it. If he hid the vial around here, it would be found soon enough. He could pitch it over the fence, but he had a hunch "they" would have better tools available than a simple pocket knife.
He took out the vial and the note. The rubbed-in letters stood out on the white paper. Starkkräfteserum. It sounded like a doping formula, but if he were really in the middle of a spy thriller, then that meant only one thing. No telling how or why, but Opa had a super-soldier formula in there. His mouth went dry and a cold sweat broke out as the reality dawned on him. His grandfather had shown him articles in scientific journals about things like this. Inevitably, the article had ended with the story of the formula's spectacular failure. Still, this was Opa's formula, and he'd trusted Eric with it. Even the half-baked varieties mentioned in the journals had proven exceptionally dangerous in the wrong hands. If "they" got it....
The little glass vial was a translucent scarlet in the afternoon light. Eric took a deep breath, popped the cork, and sucked the contents down in one slurp.
It tasted like Oma's raspberry jello mold.
"Target is still at large."
"What?" It was hard to tell over the comm, but Sandmann thought he heard the slightest bit of emotion in his brother's voice. A point for him, then.
"Just what I said," the blond agent said. He glanced down at the nine limp forms lying on the ground before him. They looked so peaceful, all covered with a light frosting of sand. If only he had the time to stay and play. "Seven boys, two men. Target is not with them." Glas's response was barely audible and not printable. Sandmann's grin widened. Two points. "I'm continuing up the trail now. He must have bolted when the alarm went out."
"Hurry." His brother's voice was urgent. "That S.O.S. went out on all emergency channels. We're going to have company soon."
It did not take him long to find the spot where the scouts had dropped their bags. The ground was scuffed with boot tracks, but he soon found what he was looking for. A single set of tracks veered off to the side, leaving a small tumble of stones where their maker had scrambled up the embankment, only to head straight into the woods.
"On his trail."
"Good. The car is ready to go."
His eyes darted left and right, taking in the little details. A twig snapped here, a log overturned there, old leaves thrown in disarray as someone had raced through them. Sandmann tsk'ed and shook his head. What were they teaching the Boy Scouts these days? His quarry would have failed the test for an Evasive Maneuvers merit badge. At least this would be quick. The local terrain map had noted a microwave tower on this hill, and Sandmann found it just as described. He slowed down to a stroll as he came to the fence and walked around to the left. No breaks, no crawling spaces, and no spots where the barbed wire had been pushed away.
Sandmann spotted the target first. The kid was hiding behind a boulder and looking in the wrong direction. He sighed. Too easy. His tread, slow and almost silent in the soft ground, did not reveal his presence as he closed in and clapped the boy on the shoulder.
He tried to fight back, the kid did. The agent had to give him that much credit. His form was sloppy, his punches weak, but he did put up a fight. Unfortunately, in Sandmann's school for survival, there was no A for effort. All the kid got was a sucker punch and a face full of sand.
Winifred had never been one to get airsick. This had always been good for her, considering some of the contraptions she'd flown or flown in over the years. The propellor plane that awaited them at the airstrip was nicer than most. If she felt queasy now, it had nothing to do with the transport.
"Are you sure you wouldn't like some?" Achziger said as he poured himself a glass of schnapps. "Young Hans?"
"No, thank you," said her husband. "Winnie never liked alcohol, and I've learned to accommodate her."
"Suit yourself." The old man sipped his with relish. "It would help you relax, though."
"When are we arriving?" Winifred asked again. They'd been in the air for at least two hours now. Even with a slower plane like this one, that was a lot of distance.
"It won't be long now," Achziger wheezed. "I was just having one last tipple before we descend, in fact." He put away the glass and bottle, then returned to his chair.
"Could you at least tell us who it is who's waiting for us?" Hans pressed.
"Someone with an interest in your old genetics research."
"Not the mutant supremacists?" Hans asked, surprised.
"Pft. Do not believe everything you see on 'Tales of the MCO.' Most of those groups folded years ago." He waved a hand dismissively. "No staying power. No core identity. But what else might you expect of genetic filth?"
"You seem ready enough to use their powers," said Winifred, nodding to the cabin door. She knew Mauer and his partner had to be right behind it.
"Ah, but they are not mutants, my dear." The old man grinned. "They are the great potential of the master race, realized and actualized. Much care went into their conception and birth, as you should know, Hans. Or don't you remember?"
"Gott in Himmel," her husband swore. She sent him a curious look. "They're what, thirty-nine, forty years old?" Hans asked. Winifred had thought them considerably younger, but Achziger nodded. "Late thirties, apparently the Aryan ideal, empowered in one way or another... They're von Groenwald's boys, aren't they?"
"Den Nagel auf den Kopf treffen!" cried Achziger. "You have hit the nail on the head right there. They are in fact the fruits of dear Eugen's final experiments at the old Castle Groenwald. I'm sure you recall now?"
Oh yes, she remembered. Winifred had mixed memories of that place, hidden in the deserts of Chile. It hadn't looked much like a castle; it had been designed as a sort of arcology, all concrete and glass. And girls, dozens of young girls.
"Eugen had finally gotten it right, you see. The process worked one hundred percent of the time, and every child a potential Thulean. He was so proud."
"It was an ugly building and an ugly program," said Hans, echoing Winifred's thoughts. "It was better off gone."
"Or on fire," she mused. "It looked very pretty, all ablaze."
"So I was told," Achziger chuckled dryly. "Young Eugen was very impressed, you know. He thought he'd screened everyone for explosive chemicals. Whatever did you use, dear Winifred?"
"The janitor's closet," she replied flatly. "Plus three five-kilo packages of super-fine wheat dust smuggled in with the kitchen supplies."
"Dankeschoen. That has been nagging at my curiosity for decades." The old man turned his attention to the cabin door, where Mauer now stood at attention. "It seems we're beginning our descent at last. We should save this conversation for later, yes?" He chuckled again. "My employer will be most interested."
Matthias Brooks, Screech Owl when he was in uniform, was not prone to rash action. Even before he'd been possessed of the Owl Totem in his teens, he'd been one for calm deliberation and careful action. His life as an Avatar had only made him more nocturnal. The screech owl may not be the most intelligent of birds, but it knew how to bide its time and strike fast when the opportunity presented itself.
That was all well and good, but most of the time it meant he got saddled with the leadership duties for Arkansas's loose-knit community of super-powered individuals. When the emergency alerts had gone up on all frequencies in the northwest part of the state, it had naturally fallen to him to investigate. It hadn't taken long to fly in, and he'd made note of all the traffic just in case. Still, his keen eyes somehow overlooked a little Mazda that was traveling at well over the speed limit.
He landed a few yards from the campsite, his wings folding and deflating until they were little more than a feathery cape that flowed down his shoulders. Once he'd adjusted his day-vision goggles, he approached the crime scene. Others had arrived first; the county sheriff and his deputy were cordoning off the area, and he could see Ozarka tending to a man farther in.
He nodded to the lawmen. "What have we got here?"
"Still working on the details," the sheriff replied. "When we got here, these two guys were out cold, and their handheld was making the worst racket imaginable. You ever seen anything like this?" The man handed him a sleek white walky-talky, functional but oddly pseudo-futuristic, though the rabbit ears were a touch out of place. He didn't recognize the maker, but the style was obvious.
"I'm pretty sure I've worked with folk who make similar tech."
The sheriff snorted. "Figgered as much. We couldn't get the damn thing to shut up until the owner came to. Locked onto his biometrics, he said. Also according to him, he and the other man were setting up for dinner when this guy — or guys, we're not sure 'bout the number — well, the campers got jumped and laid out pretty quick."
"Anyone else hurt?"
"Well that's the thing, no one was actually injured. Two guys K.O.'ed up here, and a bunch of scouts and two leaders up the road got hit as well. We're doing a headcount now."
Matthias thanked them and walked over to where Ozarka was working triage. "Hey lovely, how's everyone doing over here?"
The nature mage gave him a sour look. He grinned back. By his best guess, their on-again, off-again romance had another few weeks before things warmed up once more. Summer solstice always seemed to do the trick. Until then, he could weather her moods and pretend she wasn't trying to stab him with those lovely hazel eyes.
"No physical damage on anyone so far. There's evidence of some kind of psionic attack that might account for the blackouts, and one of the boys seems to be reacting poorly to it."
"How poorly is poorly? Do we need to get a medevac out here?"
"Nothing so dire, thank Goddess," she said. "Temporary synesthesia. He's smelling sounds in Technicolor."
"Trippy." He saw her mouth twitch at that, almost a grin.
"Um, Mr. Screech Owl, sir?" Matthias turned to find the sheriff's deputy waving at him. "Someone to speak with you?"
Standing near the sheriff was a man. In stark contrast to the senior lawman's avuncular facade and generous paunch, the newcomer was tall, spare, and about as friendly as a hatchet. A snow-white buzz cut topped a head at least three inches higher than the Screech Owl's own six-foot frame, and a pair of cold sapphires shone from his eye sockets. The man's sleet-grey suit was out of place in the forest, but must have been professionally tailored for him. The Arkansas hero's eyes did a quick check for all the usual holdouts. Eight, nine... twelve. Very professionally done. The last three he would have missed entirely if he hadn't known what to look for.
As he walked over, he noted that the newcomer was scrutinizing him in much the same way. Somehow he doubted those eyes missed much. At a guess, the man looked to be in his 50s, but Matthias's gut told him that he'd be wrong. There were lines on that face as deep and chiseled as the Ozark valleys. Under the suit was a lean frame, not out of shape but not heavily muscled. This wasn't a man who carried unnecessary weight. The suit's only ornament was a bolo tie, a figure of an eagle in silver and turquoise mounted on black leather strips.
"How may I help you, Mr...?"
"Stein. Adolf Stein." The man's voice was a rich baritone with the barest burr of an accent.
"Well, as you can see, we're a little busy at the moment. Unless you can shed some light on this mess, you'll have to wait a bit."
"There were two attackers," the man said casually. "One stayed here to guard the two adults at camp. The other went after the rest. Both men would be about six feet tall, blond, athletic builds, in black suits — though one of them might be difficult to recall." He might as well have been reading the evening news for all the emotion he put into the words.
He had Matthias's attention, however. "Okay, even assuming that this is all true, Mr. Stein, that still doesn't tell me why you're here."
"Last night I received a request for help from a retired scientist living in Little Rock. By the time I arrived there this afternoon, both he and his wife were gone and their house was sealed up. There was a grandson, however, who was supposed to be on this excursion." The man surveyed the scene. "Alas, I seem to be an hour late. I assume the boy is missing?"
"Does he have a name?"
It took the Screech Owl a moment to find and confer with Ozarka. All of Mr. Stein's facts were accurate — suspiciously so. However, the two troop leaders swore up and down that they'd never seen Stein before, and that was a man who left strong impressions. Matthias sighed and adjusted his day-vision goggles. He and Ozarka returned to the edge of the campsite where Mr. Stein was still waiting. "You seem to be correct on all counts," he began. "But I'd still like to hear how you know all this."
"I had the scientist's own descriptions to work with, and as well I'm familiar with a good number of independent agents and their modus operandi," was the man's reply. "For instance, was there any unusual sand found on or around the victims?"
"Why, yes," said Ozarka, looking surprised.
"Then one of the assailants was a man known to my office as Sandmann. Spelled with two N's at the end," he mentioned to the sheriff, who was busy scribbling notes. "Sandmann employs a close-range psionic disruption attack that quickly disables opponents. The sand acts as a somatic component to the attack. He is usually in the company of his fraternal twin brother, a man known as Glas. With one S."
"Thanks," said the sheriff.
"Where is this going?" asked Matthias.
"I'm simply presenting the information at my disposal in the hopes that you shall do the same."
"Well it sounds like you've got all the answers already."
"Unfortunately not. I do not know where they are taking the Schroeder boy."
"Tell us why we should help you." The Screech Owl stared the man in his frigid blue eyes.
"Because I have asked."
"Who the hell do you work for?" It wasn't very professional, but Matthias had run out of patience.
"I am sorry," said Mr. Stein. "My bona fides." He pulled a small case out of his suit pocket, extracted a single card, and presented it to the superhero. Matthias took a look and felt his eyebrows reach for his hairline.
"Homeland Security?" While that explained a lot, Mr. Stein did not match the image he had of that agency.
"Currently," was all the man said.
"Currently," Matthias parroted back, hoping for a better response. The man just nodded. Christ, he hated working with government agents, but he didn't have many options beyond either taking Mr. Stein at his word or throwing the man out. And something told him that the latter idea would be a very bad one indeed.
Ozarka placed herself between the two men. Matthias didn't mind, since it gave him a great view of her butt through her leaf-pattern dress. "I wish we could help," she said, "but we don't have anything to go on. We can't even be sure what their getaway car looked like, and the signs are telling me that it was parked right across the road for hours."
"That would be Glas's handiwork," Mr. Stein noted. "He's a hard one to notice."
"Good for him," said Screech Owl. "So how do you normally track this guy, Mr. Government Agent?"
"Generally, we would start by locating all potential hideouts for him or his associates within a two-hundred mile radius, and then bombard them all simultaneously." To the audience of dropped jaws, he added, "That's not a viable option here."
A short cough turned their attention to a middle-aged man in a Boy Scout leader's uniform. Mr. Saumer, flushing under the sudden scrutiny of the law and government, passed a hand across his combover to calm his nerves. Beside him stood a young man who was obviously his son — a carbon copy that was a few pounds lighter and topped with a porcupine-like mess of hair.
"Is everything alright, Mr. Saumer?" asked Ozarka. "Have Hiram's symptoms returned?" She stepped over to examine the boy's pupils.
The younger Saumer blushed furiously from neck to ears, but his father shook his head. "No, no," he began. "He's doing fine now, thanks. In fact, he just told me something that might help."
"We're all ears," said Screech Owl. Beside him, Mr. Stein nodded.
"Well... you already know 'bout the communicators, right? The place that sells those is really amazing; you wouldn't believe half the stuff they've got available on there. I mean, if I had the money..." His son elbowed him in the ribs. "Er, well. I got a few more goodies from them. Got my own car dealership, y'see, and it never hurts to have more security. The crooks are getting so brazen these days, what with all these powers cropping up all the time and making it hard for the working man and..." Another elbow jab, harder this time. "Well, long story short, I bought a half-gross of these tiny GPS trackers. Cute little things, remotely activated. Always make sure my son carries one on treks, just in case, y'know? Don't want him ending up like that hiker in Utah..."
"I gave Eric my tracker," the son said, cutting his dad off. "He'd got some note from his Opa that was weirding him out, and when the sh... er, crap hit the fan, I passed it to him."
"Does he know what it is?" asked Mr. Stein.
"Nope. No time to explain."
The man in the grey suit nodded. "That may be for the best, depending on who Glas is with right now. And you said that it can be activated remotely?" he asked the other Saumer.
"No point otherwise, eh? Not like a thief's gonna turn it on. I mean, I've met some dumb ones in my time, but..."
"Mr. Saumer, do you have the tracker with you right now?" Matthias asked.
"Er, no. It's a hefty thing, so I keep it in my office."
"I doubt it would pick up the boy's location immediately," Mr. Stein added. "Glas's knack extends to electronics. Once they've reached their base it should work fine." He took out another card and wrote a phone number. "Mr. Screech Owl, if you would be so kind as to notify me when contact is confirmed?" The man turned and walked away.
"Hey, where are you going?" Screech Owl demanded.
"I have a plane waiting for me in Little Rock. As soon as you can tell me where to aim it, I shall be gone." With that, Mr. Stein got into the passenger seat of a sedan nearly the same shade as his suit. For the first time, Matthias realized that there was a driver — a severe, older woman who reminded him uncomfortably of his high school math teacher. He caught the glint off of a silver Star of David pinned to her lapel just as she put the car into gear and drove off.
"Adolf, you said you would play nice this time."
"I did, Margit dear."
"Really now," said the woman beside him. Her frizzy hair had gone mostly silver, but here and there traces of russet were still visible. "No blood shed does not equal being nice. I should have gone instead."
"We went over this before, schatzi. You're officially retired now. There was no authority to back you up."
"Like you're one to talk. Homeland Security? Really, Adolf."
"It was a real and valid connection."
"Just please, Adolf. Please tell me this is the last time." Warm brown eyes met his frosty gaze and held it for a long moment. "We get Hans, Winnie, and their boy out of trouble, and then we leave it all behind us?"
Adolf had heard variations of this plea dozens of times before, but this time he listened. He listened to his body, with all its aches and pains. More scars than he cared to count crisscrossed his flesh. In the safety of the sedan, away from everyone but his Margit, the fatigue of years slowly crept in.
"Yes," he said slowly, finally, after several minutes of quiet. "We do this. We do it well and good, and then we say goodbye to the shadows."
Margit smiled, and Adolf felt warmth again. "Good," she said. "I've called ahead to our supplier, and everything should be ready by the time we get to the airport. Let's make our final adventure loud and dangerous for someone else, shall we?"
Adolf grinned. "And this is why I love you, schatzi."
Winifred's first experience upon debarking was one of disorientation. The mountains, longtime backdrop to her life, had vanished, leaving behind a wide, flat space that stretched past the horizon in all directions. Kansas, she thought. Or Nebraska. The broad expanse of sky was completely clear, without a cloud to break up the blue. It was a thing to make one happy for gravity's comforting hold.
The land around the little airstrip was equally uniform. Outside a mile-wide circle of development, the world was swallowed up by field after field of yellow wheat. The eye was drawn to the building less out of interest than out of need for a break from the monotony. It was a singularly dull building, a two-story grey block in the center of a green circle of Bermuda grass. Too small for major industry, too large and featureless for farmwork, and too few windows for an office, it was just there in all its lumpen glory. To her eye it was most likely a secondary base or staging area. No self-respecting villain would use it for anything else.
"This way, please," said Achziger, motioning them to a waiting golf cart. She guessed it was more for his benefit than theirs. Even in the late afternoon it was pretty warm outside.
"No welcoming committee?" asked Hans.
"There are always pressing matters at hand. My employer is a busy woman."
A loading bay opened just long enough for them to zip inside, and Winifred saw that the old man wasn't kidding. Jumpsuited laborers were in constant motion, sorting and organizing boxes of supplies.
"A cargo plane arrived not long before we did," Achziger explained. "Every organization must travel on its stomach, after all."
The normality of it all was almost reassuring, but it was the details that mattered. Winifred's gaze darted about, confirming a few things. All were blond, blue-eyed, and aged thirty or less. No identifying marks could be seen on the clothing, no insignia, company marks, or other ornaments. There was a nostalgia to this that she was not happy to feel.
Beside her, Hans shifted uncomfortably. She wasn't the only one with a long memory.
Mauer and his partner ran ahead of them, easily outpacing the golf cart and clearing the way for their entrance. On the inside, the concrete cube was as open as a warehouse, with only catwalks and suspended offices where a second floor should have been. Moving equipment was everywhere in use, loading and piling great stacks of crates.
The golf cart zigged and zagged through the maze, then rolled down a ramp to a lower floor. They passed through a security defense gate and into a wide corridor. Everything was white on chrome — very polished, very futuristic, in a neo-Gernsbackian sense. Winifred suppressed a yawn.
"We're here." Achziger's dusty voice seemed suddenly out of place, a decrepit relic of the old world included within someone else's brave new one.
Winifred took a long look at the door before her. It was a broad, mechanical portal of the sort that opened along the center line, much like an elevator or airlock. Instead of a doorknob there was a round device in the center. At Achziger's touch, it rotated, producing several loud clicks. The door split in the middle, retracting into the doorframe. Achziger said his goodbyes as she and her husband entered. The room beyond was dominated by a huge oaken desk. It was massive and ancient, an old-world heirloom passed down through the generations, perhaps violently. One could hardly miss the scorch marks and bullet holes. The desk rested on a thick red rug that matched the banners draped behind it. Impressive as it all was, it served only as a means to display the woman who sat behind it.
So, this was the mystery hostess. As the woman stood, Winifred tried to get a good measure of her. Tall, but wearing high-heeled boots, she was probably not more than five foot seven at most. She wore a jumpsuit, but unlike any they'd seen so far this one was a deep red. It was belted with a large buckle, and some sort of rank insignia adorned her left breast. A sturdy military jacket draped over her shoulders much like a cape, with empty sleeves hanging limply below gold-braided epaulets. Long, platinum tresses were covered by a neat cap bearing an old-style iron cross in green over the brim.
Then she came to the woman's face, and froze. There was a hard, cold beauty to it, like a valkyrie carved in alabaster. And those eyes... Winifred had seen those electric blue orbs before, but in a man's face.
"Herr Abendritter, so good of you to come." The woman's voice was a low alto that purred with satisfaction. To her ears the accent was vaguely German, but forced, not a natural reflection of the woman's mother tongue.
"It was a difficult invitation to refuse," her husband replied with a straight face. "And it's Schroeder, please. Father created that name for the sake of his own ego, and I never liked it much."
"A pity," said the woman as she returned to her seat. She waved them over to where a pair of chairs waited. "It has such character, that name. And so unique."
"Well, there was only one Baron Dämmerung," Hans replied.
Thank goodness, Winifred added silently.
"Oh yes!" The woman clapped her hands. "Vater always did look up to him, didn't you know. Considered him to be the best of the post-war theme operatives in action. It was the Baron's shining example that has led us this far, he always said." There was a faraway look in her eyes when she mentioned her father, and for a moment her face softened with emotion.
"Your father?" asked Winifred, who feared she already knew the answer.
"Eugen von Groenwald, known and feared under the unfortunate name of the Green Death," said the woman with pride. "And I am Lilian von Groenwald, also known as the Green Cross. But you may call me Lily."
Inside Hans's skull, a thousand thoughts clamored together, each vying for a chance to be heard. When had Eugen had a daughter? That one came first. Von Groenwald had been obsessed with perpetuating the family name. That was one of the few psychological holds that had ever worked on him. Every child to come from his enhancement breeding programs was supposed to have been a boy. There was no denying that she had her father's eyes, though, even more so than the agents who must be her half-brothers.
"You are confused, I'm sure. Vater was very focused on patrilineage, wasn't he? But my mother wanted a daughter, and he always had a soft spot for her, even after her betrayal in Chile."
"Her..." A name sprang to mind. "Your mother was Daisy Frances Pritchard?" Now that he said it, he could almost make it fit. There was a resemblance, though his last memory of Daisy had been of her as a pregnant teenager catching the last train home. She'd helped them then because she was too tired to support her crazy boyfriend any longer. That would make the woman before him just a little older than his own daughter.
"Yes, I forgot that you must have met her at some point."
"Not in over forty years. I'd wondered from time to time about how she was doing."
"Badly," the Green Cross said, her eyes sparkling with emotion. "Alas, her story turned out to be a sad one. She could have been a queen of a new master race, but instead she went home to my grandparents, who never let her forget that she was a wicked girl who'd run away and returned as a harlot. They disowned her, and she worked herself to death providing for me."
"Oh," he said quietly. "I'm sorry to hear that."
"You thought you were sending her to safety, yes? Don't be sorry. Mama was weak, otherwise she'd never let her inferiors drag her low like that." The woman cocked her head and smiled, as if at a pleasant memory. "When Vater finally came for me," she said, "it was the happiest day of my life. Mama had passed away, and I was stuck living with my grandmother. Vater was so wonderful, so forceful." Her face softened again. "He even let me pull the trigger on the old bitch. Then he took me away for enhancement. He made me powerful, beautiful." A sigh escaped her lips.
Hans shifted uncomfortably in his seat. In his experience, it was always a bad sign when the megalomaniac began ranting, and doubly so if she got lost in the emotion. Such people were to be treated like old dynamite. He shared several nervous glances with his wife before von Groenwald recovered her composure.
"But enough of the past," said the Green Cross, waving away the last few minutes as if they'd never happened. She lost the soft look around the eyes, suddenly serious once more. "To business. Herr Abendritter, you were a very difficult man to find."
"Just Hans, please," he said. Anything to have her stop using his father's verdammt stage name. "And I can honestly say I never expected to be found. However did you manage it?"
"Purely by luck," the Green Cross admitted. "We have recruitment centers in many cities, which we use to gather the purest Aryan stock. Of course, we must put them through a genetic screening first. There would be no point if we also included aberrant genetic filth."
"Of course," his wife commented. He could just barely sense the irony in her voice, so well did she hide it.
"Last year," the woman continued, "Our Los Angeles center found a prime candidate in her mid-thirties. Once cleaned up and weaned of her more degenerate habits, she would be ideal for out purposes, we thought. The genetic check came up with an anomaly, however, and the more closely we examined it, the more anomalous it became."
Hans slumped back into his chair. "Danielle," he said.
"A good guess, Hans. It took us some time to realize what we had, though we're still not sure what you did to her."
"I cured her," he said. "She was barely six months old, and she was dying of a congenital disorder. Her lymphatic system wouldn't work right. So, in a fit of desperation, I whipped something up." Winnie took his hand and stroked it. "She's my daughter," he continued. "I couldn't let her die so young."
"Laudable, Hans," said the woman behind the desk. "Commendable, even. But do you realize what you accomplished with that? At first we thought she was one of us, one of the Groenwald experiments. The genetic tags on her DNA were perfectly aligned and prepared for enhancement, which with Vater's process could only be done if treatment began at conception." Her voice began to rise with every word. "Yet you did it to your own daughter six months after her birth. You've accomplished what Vater never could. If we could prepare adult subjects in the same manner, our mission could be finished in this generation!"
"Mission?" he asked.
"Yes." She straightened and suddenly, somehow, became more. More regal, more commanding, more everything. "It was after the incident in Chile that Vater realized that his true mission was not solely to establish a thousand-year Reich for the master race. It was the Seventies, and the world was changing, mutating both culturally and genetically. He saw this, saw the rot that had set into every facet of our world. The master race had failed, and mother earth has no space for failure. Just as we were meant to push out the inferior races, so now did the mutants threaten to supplant us. The rate of appearance for the basic mutant gene complex had started as less than one in ten, and today in some regions it is as much as one in three. While few of those ever become active, it is only a matter of time. Vater swore that we would not go silently into the night. We would empower ourselves, we would fight, we would overcome and prove ourselves the true inheritors of this green earth."
More everything, but at the same time far less sane. Hans recognized the light in those eyes. The resemblance to her father had never been stronger. The problem with her insanity was that it was a sticky, cloying sort of madness that reached into the nooks and crannies of his psyche and found the remnants of his father's pedagogy. The feeling came in waves, and though he shook it off each time, he could feel his resolve eroding.
"And so, I ask for your help, dear Hans. Bring your talent, your genius, to the fore. Help our people survive."
"Why?" The syllable broke through the fog of emotion that threatened to smother him. He felt the gentle squeeze of his wife's hand, and it all became bearable. "We stood against your father at every turn," Winnie continued.
"Yet he never thought of you as enemies," said von Groenwald's daughter. "You were fellow Aryans, equals in his eyes. His enemies were the weak-willed lesser peoples who feared our strength. He would tell me of the times you fought, of the victories and defeats, and be proud that he had such powerful rivals of his own race. He was a great believer in Darwin's laws, as you know."
"I recall," his wife said. This time she didn't bother to hide the sarcasm.
"In fact, you were a major part of my education," said the Green Cross.
"Vater wished for me to be the best of the best, but he had no idea how to train a woman in the ways of the schattenkriege. He kept extensive records, however. Every time he fought, he had pictures and video footage, debriefing reports and first-hand accounts, all to reconstruct just how he'd lost." The woman fixed his wife with an electric stare. "And of them all, his greatest collection was of you, Winifred Manning, the famed Eisenmädel."
"No one's called me that in a long time," his wife demurred.
"Perhaps not to you personally, but your exploits are still discussed in European intelligence circles. Have you heard," the woman said, "that an illustrator in Berlin created a graphic novel series based on your declassified files? That the German hero registry office receives almost a dozen requests a year for the use of your codename? That they must turn down every request only adds to your legend. You could be the shining light our people need to survive the coming strife."
Hans could feel the full force of the woman's charisma being brought to bear on his wife. He squeezed her hand, bolstering her as she had done for him. "It has been a long and hectic day," he said. "Might we take advantage of your hospitality for the night?"
"Of course, dear Hans." Lily pressed a button on her desk, and two agents entered, Mauer and the other one. Hans and his wife stood and followed the blond strongman out of the room.
Lillian von Groenwald
"You were listening?" Lilian asked the remaining agent once their guests were gone. He nodded. "What did you feel?"
The man thought for a moment. "They're resisting. I could feel that at every level, from the very first meeting with Herr Achziger. They haven't said any untruths so far, but the dissonance of doublespeak hangs on their every word."
"Of course it does. They've been in the shadows longer than either of us have lived." The Green Cross looked to her half-brother. "The question is, can we win them over?"
"They reacted to your words, even when they didn't want to. With time, it may be possible."
"Have Glas and Sandmann reported in?"
"Yes," said the agent. "The grandson should arrive later this evening."
"Good. Thank you, Wahrheit."
"An honor as always, Kommandeurin." The man named Truth raised his arm in salute. "Heil Groenwald."
It was just past midnight, and a small Mazda compact winded its way past mighty waves of grain. Except for a sole pit stop in Joplin, Missouri, it had been in motion for six hours. Glas did not mind the drive; he often found such long excursions to be relaxing. The company had not been too tiresome, either. For all his bluster, Sandmann was a professional, and in any cases his attention was focused on their guest. Thus Glas had the pleasure of a long, reasonably quiet journey.
"How much longer?" asked his brother from the rear seat.
"Perhaps ten minutes."
"Good. I'm running low on juice." While Sandmann's psionic effect was potent, its duration was not as good. The Schroeder kid had woken up every half hour or so, and his brother's reserves were finite.
No other cars drove on this spur of highway. Beneath the starlit sky, the compound was the only light for miles. Glas headed straight for it, stopping a moment at the security checkpoint before continuing to the main building. He pulled into a cargo bay, parked, and like that, the job was done. Simple, straightforward, with minimal issues; that was how he liked his operations to be.
"Hruh?" came a noise from the back seat. Their guest was rousing himself, right on time. The boy struggled, both with the agents and with his own balance, as Sandmann dragged him out of the car. One of the operation custodians ran over to help.
"Put him in one of the candidate rooms," Glas ordered the jumpsuited man. "Got a knockout patch?" He nodded as the man pulled a foil wrapper from his security belt. Breaking the seal, he rolled back the outer layer and applied the adhesive strip directly to the boy's forehead. Young Schroeder seized up for a moment, then slumped into the ready arms of the custodian.
On someone that size, a patch would last at least twelve hours, and give the kid an awful hangover as well. Glas walked away. It was no longer his problem.
As the boy left his immediate sphere of influence, something happened. It was a small thing, insignificant and unnoticed by the agent or the custodians. Inside the boy's pocket, the good luck charm he'd received from his friend began to shimmer, and the bunny's happy smile quietly laughed at a joke no one else could hear.
Elsewhere, a cell phone started to play the Brandenburg Concerto No. 1. Adolf answered it before the end of the first measure. "Yes?"
"I've got coordinates." The Screech Owl's voice was chipper for such a late hour. Then again, owls were nocturnal. Perhaps the Avatar had simply been grumpy in the daytime.
"Good, where is the boy now?"
"Not so fast, Mr. Stein. I have some conditions."
Adolf sighed. "Of course you do. What are they?"
"First, I want your word that the Schroeder boy will be your top priority. No matter what shit hits which fan, we get him out alive."
"Believe me when I say that I will let no harm come to him no matter what."
"So that's a yes?"
"Yes, yes. What else?"
"I'm coming with you. You need overwatch, tactical and legal. With me along, you've got eyes in the sky and connections on the ground."
"You'd be willing to risk yourself with that?"
"Damn straight. No one grabs a kid like that on my watch and gets away with it."
"And I am in charge of this operation."
"It's your rodeo, man. But if you pull any bullshit moves, I'll call you on them."
"Well then." Adolf checked his watch. "If you can be here in ten minutes, we have a seat for you. If not, then no deal." He was already seated in the cockpit, ready to do pre-flight checks.
"Look out the window, old man."
Out on the tarmac, walking towards the plane, was the Screech Owl. The Arkansas hero waved with his left hand while keeping his cell phone to his right ear. Adolf Stein let out a brief sound that might have been a chuckle, then waved the man to come in.
It hadn't been hard to find the government man's plane. There were only so many airstrips in the area, and as Matthias already knew, Mr. Stein always left an impression. The little Cessna was a surprise, though. The man hadn't been kidding about having his own plane. Inside, the lights were bright enough that he flipped down his dayvision goggles for comfort's sake. The Cessna would never be described as a roomy vehicle, but this one was crammed full of everything. Crate was piled upon crate, then tied down with bungee cords. Along their sides ran ugly, blocky lines of letters in Cyrillic, Hebrew, and Chinese. He was probably happier not knowing what was in most of them.
Sitting by the door to the cabin was the woman he'd seen earlier that afternoon. Now that he had a good look at her, there was no mistaking that she and Adolf were a set. She complemented the man too well. Her hair was auburn fading to silver, but that was about the only thing to betray her age. She was every bit as spare of excess weight and motion as her partner, all whipcord muscle working as efficiently as possible. The fact that she was in the process of stripping down an AK-47 only reinforced the impression.
"I'm going to have to turn a blind eye to a lot of stuff today, aren't I," he said.
"Oh, do not worry, we have permits." She flashed him a feral grin.
"Are they legit?"
"Enough for our purposes!" Her voice was higher than he expected, and her laughter like bells. She proceeded to reassemble the entire assault rifle before his eyes, continuing to talk as she did so. "Sure, we could have paid another grand or two for airtight documentation, but there is a point of diminishing returns, even in forgery." She looked straight at Matthias as she talked, but her hands continued their work without pause. "And let me tell you, it's embarrassing when a mission falls apart because your papers were too good."
"If you say so, ma'am."
"And where are my manners?" She put away the gun, finished for now. "I am Margit Stein. I would apologize for my husband's behavior this afternoon, but that would be like apologizing for the sea being salty."
"I can imagine, Mrs. Stein." Married? He didn't know much about the intelligence agencies personally, but a husband and wife team struck him as odd. More and more, he suspected that these two were from the power mercenary set, former heroes or villains turned soldiers of fortune. They certainly weren't military.
Adolf stepped out of the cockpit and waved to his wife. "Pre-flight check is finished," he said. "Time to get seated."
"Do we have a destination yet?" she asked.
"Wichita, ma'am," replied Matthias. "At least, that's the closest city. I called ahead to the local superteam, left them a message to say we were coming," he told Adolf.
The man in grey nodded. "Arrange a meeting when we get there. Any ally would be helpful right now."
"Ten-four. Um, where am I sitting?"
Margit waved to the chair she'd just vacated, next to the crates of arms, ammunition, and God-he-hoped-it-wasn't-explosives. "Don't forget to strap in," she said. "Adolf has never been one to waste time for comfort."
She grinned as she said it. To him, that was the scariest part.
Sunday, June 5th, 2016 - Eric
Tucked into a narrow bunk and covered with thin white sheets, Eric Schroeder slept like the dead. The knock-out patch across his forehead would not allow him the luxury of dreams. Even so, his body moved beneath the sheets, twitching and jerking like a puppet guided by inexperienced hands.
Only his grandfather knew what had been in that vial. It had been more than just Oma's raspberry jello, though. For the past few hours it had worked its way through his system, preparing, laying a foundation, massaging the genome to get certain results. Some sequences of genes reacted more than others. Now that the subject was settled and sleeping, it was time for the real work to begin. Chemical reactions washed through the boy's body, triggering some things, suppressing others. It did everything it was supposed to.
And one or two things it wasn't.
Two hours later, and Matthias was safely on terra firma. It was all he could do not to kiss the tarmac. After this was over, he resolved, he would fly himself home.
Matthias loved flying, but he hated to fly. Every time he tried to explain this little quirk, though, he was met with confused looks. He was the Avatar of the Owl Totem, they would say or think. A feathered cape literally turned into wings upon his back. How, they wondered, could he not like to fly? For him, it was simple. There were some people who got carsick any time they were in a wheeled vehicle, but were perfectly fine when driving, right? The ability to steer, to control the movement of the vehicle was enough to help them counter the usual nausea. It was the same for him. Matthias loved nothing more than the feel of wind in his face and the quiet beat of his wings behind him. Strapped into a tiny seat on a Cessna for a late-night flight with a pilot who had no concern for comfort? He was far less sanguine about that.
"Come on, now," said Adolf from behind him. "The flight wasn't that bad."
"True, true," said his wife, "but most people prefer their flights to be less exciting than the Berlin airlift." She walked over and patted Matthias on the back. "Feeling better yet?"
"Yes, ma'am. Thank you."
"What a polite boy!" She turned to Adolf. "Shall we keep him?"
Matthias thought he might just turn green again at the thought, but thankfully Mr. Stein shook his head. "Business first, schatzi." While not the definitive no he was hoping for, it would have to do.
He'd sent a message ahead to the Wichita Warriors, the super group that was contracted to watch over this part of Kansas, but no one had responded yet. Matthias dialed the number again.
"Hello?" The voice on the other end sounded tired, and he was reminded once again that most people did not share his personal hours. "Wichita Warriors HQ," the voice continued, mumbling.
"Hey, this is the Screech Owl, from down in Arkansas. I left a message earlier? Yeah, I'm in town now and could use an assist."
"Oh!" There was the sound of mad scrambling and a dull thump of someone falling out of bed. "Sorry, I must have missed that." The person on the other end was a woman, and sounded young. That might just be the sleep talking, though. "You're in Wichita now?"
"Yup, just landed at the airport, getting a car now." At least that's what he assumed Adolf was up to. The man had vanished.
"Okay, you know the way?" She then rattled off a series of directions. Matthias repeated it back twice to make sure he had it right. "It's 0230 now. Meet me here at 0315." There was another thump in the background.
"Is everything okay over there?" he had to ask.
"Situation normal, all f... oh, you know how it is. Screech Owl, right? You can call me Ruby. See you in forty-five." With that, she hung up. He stared at his phone for a moment. While he'd never had to work with the Wichita Warriors before, he'd heard good things about how they were professionals. It certainly didn't sound like that now.
A few minutes later, Adolf drove up with a Lincoln Continental. He really didn't want to know how the man had gotten his hands on it at this hour. Margit Stein winked at him and said nothing. As he got in, he saw the car rental tags and decided the lady was messing with him.
"Here," said Adolf, handing him a map of the city. "Navigate for me."
The following half-hour was a blur. Mr. Stein drove very much like how he flew, and only the late hour let them get from Point A to Point B without a traffic citation or five along the way. Wichita was a nice enough town, or so he'd heard, but damn if he couldn't remember a single thing about it for this trip. It all went by too fast. When they finally came to a stop, it was 3:15 on the dot. The Lincoln was parked in front of what was once a firehouse. It had since been repainted in red, white, and blue. The sign above the front door read "Wichita Warriors," so this had to be the place, but he still felt disappointed somehow. He walked up to the door and knocked.
"Coming!" The door flew open. "Are you Screech Owl?" A pretty young black woman stuck her head out to look around. She wore a blue-trimmed jacket with white piping that hung slightly askew on her shoulders. "Who are your friends?"
"Yes, er. Yes, I'm the Screech Owl. These are the Steins..."
"... And they are helping me, pursuant to a kidnapping case in my home state," he continued without pause. "May we come in?"
"Of course, where are my manners...." The woman moved aside, then secured the door once they were in. Beyond the foyer was an office that had seen better times. Items had been removed in a hurry, and faded spaces on the walls gave testament to pictures that no longer were there.
"Um, where is everyone else?" asked Matthias. The last he'd heard, the Wichita Warriors was a six-man operation.
The young woman, presumably Ruby, cringed. He guessed she'd been dreading that question.
"Heard much about local politics? The stuff with the state legislature?" He nodded, but kept the curious look on his face. "Well, we all had mixed feelings about it, but we kept on trucking. When our budget came up for renewal last March, things got a bit heated, and well..." She waved a hand around, letting the room speak for itself. "The others were good guys, but not local, and not feeling very welcome, what with the way things have been going in Topeka. So they decided not to re-up."
"But you stayed," said Margit.
"Kinda had to," said Ruby. She pounded on her thigh, producing a dull clang. "State government owns the balance on my legs. Sure, I could walk out, but I wouldn't be walking out, if you catch my drift."
Now that she'd called his attention to them, Matthias saw there was something odd about her legs. They were slightly too long for her body, and sported a pair of bright red boots that were integrated into the main structure of the appendages. It took a moment to realize that she was not wearing trousers, only the appearance of them. The prostheses maintained a natural-looking profile all the way up the thigh, where it met the lower hem of her uniform jacket. Then he realized that he'd spent almost a full minute staring up and down a beautiful woman's legs, and blushed.
Adolf cleared his throat. His wife's smile was wide enough to crack her face.
"Ah, shall we get the paperwork over with first?" asked Ruby. She looked every bit as flustered as he felt. "Not that I don't trust you guys, but I need to verify your credentials before I can officially give assistance. Official rules from the state legislature, you understand?"
Oh yeah, the Wichita Warriors was state-sponsored, with all the red tape that implied. He'd heard good things and bad things about that sort of arrangement, and it looked like Ruby was getting the worst of all possible worlds here. He handed Ruby his MID. She scanned the chip inside it, and voila!, there were his records up on the screen. The photo was particularly nice, he thought, rubbing his chin. Nicer than he looked now, he feared.
"What about you, Mr. and Mrs. Stein?" she asked. "Are you here to provide support?"
"In a way," Adolf began.
"We're here to end things," Margit finished.
That got Matthias a strange look. "You're taking civilians into a fight?"
"More like following them into one," he admitted. "Those two are hardly civil."
Ruby shook her head. "Sorry, rules are clear here. Any investigation involving powers — and I'm assuming this is one — has to be run with trained operatives. I don't care what their stake is in this, they're going to need to show me some credentials."
"Understood," said Adolf. "Do you have access to the DHS database from here?" Ruby nodded. "Good. Access the personnel files and look for the codename TAGINBERT." He jotted down a long string of numbers from memory. "Here is the password. Be sure to enter it in under twenty seconds, or else the failsafes will activate."
A short burst of frenzied typing followed, and a face appeared on Ruby's computer screen. It was several years out of date, but still recognizable as Adolf. "What are we looking at here?" asked Matthias.
"My curriculum vitae. I don't bring it out very often. Those who wish my services know who I am well enough."
Ruby was reading the file out loud. "... born Adolf Abendritter, Castillo de la Noche, Venezuela, 1949. Training certifications — wow, that's a lot of hardware... is that one for artillery pieces?" She pointed to a patch of numbers on the screen.
"Team affiliation: Project Shadow Hunter, 1966-1975. See also: MORGENSTERN, SILBERSTERN, EISENMÄDEL. Organizational affiliations..." She let out a long whistle. "Man, I haven't seen this many random letters since Mama stopped making alphabet soup for me in grade school. APS, ARC, BFV, BIS, BND, CIA, CSIS, DAS, DGSE, DHS, DPA, DPS, ICPO, MAD, MCO..." Matthias glared at the old man. He'd thought better of him, somehow. "... MI6 — oh, there's a number! —MIVD, Mossad, MUST, NCIE, NEXT, NSA, SVR, XQVW... um, what's XQVW?"
"Above your pay grade and you're better off not knowing," Adolf said calmly.
"The better question is, which one are you working for now?" demanded Matthias. "Yesterday you told me Homeland Security and I didn't call you on it. Nor did I bother to ask your wife why she was here." He turned to Margit. "Do you have a file like his?"
"Of course I do," she said. "I'm listed right there under Team Affiliation. SILBERSTERN." She hooked a thumb under her lapel, flipping it back and forth to make her pin glitter. "It reads about the same as his, but with more demolitions certification."
"Christ." They were crazy, the both of them. "And back to my original question, who are you working for?"
"At the moment? No one," said Adolf. "This is personal. Hans Schroeder, the kidnapped scientist, is my brother."
The white sheets were now soaked with sweat. Twitching had turned to spasms; legs flailed and teeth ground. The knockout patch had become a blessing in disguise. Without it, Eric would have been victim to the worst growing pains of his life. The sedatives did their job, thankfully. Changes were already apparent. The clothing he'd worn to bed now hung looser in some spots, tighter in others. His legs stretched farther, forcing his shorts to ride up above his knees. He'd popped more than one button on his uniform shirt as well. Where flesh was bared, ripples of muscle could be seen twisting into new configurations.
And the night's work was far from done.
"The Green Cross?" Above the brim of her coffee cup, Ruby's eyes were wide. "Seriously?"
"Adolf is always serious," Margit confided in a stage whisper. "It is one of his many foibles. It comes from having no sense of humor."
"Ah, stop that, schatzi. You'll give the girl wrong ideas."
She held onto her cup, shielding her face from prying eyes while she thought. The four of them were planted around the table in the team lounge. It was one of the few nice bits of furniture in the place, and belatedly she wished she could make a better first impression on her guests. That ship had sailed, however. Ruby hated to admit, but her team was defunct. She'd been on the roster less than a year when the walkout happened, and in no position financially to follow suite. So she was stuck in this hollow old building, doing pointless administrative work to justify work that the folks back in Topeka would rather have passed on to the Knights of Purity. That was what she was reduced to. She was a round peg fitting uncomfortably in someone else's square hole in order to buy just a few more months for any kids unlucky enough to show mutant powers in the area. Because once the MCO or the Knights got here... She tried not to think about it.
"All kidding aside," said the Screech Owl, steering the conversation back. "We've got a lock on where they're hiding. Now we just need to find a way in."
Now the cup helped her hide something else — excitement. The Wichita beat was actually rather dull. The police handled most of the regular crime, and she rarely had much to do on her nightly patrols. There hadn't been a real need for her at all, which didn't make her feel any better. Though if the likes of the Green Cross were keeping bases around, it might be in their best interests to keep the area quiet. That was a worrisome thought.
"I can get some plans of the building from the city planning office," she said.
"Don't bother. They won't be anything near accurate," said Adolf with tired fatalism. "The Green Cross tends to rent Syndicate bases for staging areas, and those places are mostly underground, like termite mounds."
Well, damn. There went that idea. "Would it show up on Google Earth?"
Mr. Stein — he'd insisted on that name — frowned. "Normally I'd say no, but on the other hand people tend to notice when sections of maps show up blank. If they did block part of the area on that service, it could bring more attention than it diverted. Either way, we could still learn something."
"I should do a flyover before sunrise," said the Owl. She still couldn't call him Matthias, even in her head. That wasn't professional, and Lord knew she needed all the professionalism she could muster right now. "If they have anti-air defenses in place, then that would be the best time to avoid them."
"We need a solid means of getting in," said Adolf. "We don't want to attract attention too early."
"What about getting out again?" she asked.
"Ruby, dear," said Margit. "If you're packing enough ammunition, getting out is rarely a problem. Our biggest concern is the safety of Winnie and her family."
"Well, if you can get me to them, I can get 'em out toot-sweet." That got the attention of everyone. She took another hasty sip of coffee.
"How?" was all that Adolf said.
"With these," she replied, tapping her legs. She set her coffee down. Her prosthetic interface chip was warm against the nape of her neck as she called up the proper subroutines. Standing up, she activated the devises stored in her legs and felt the familiar rush of motion sickness.
And suddenly her guests were staring at an empty couch seat.
"Over here!" Ruby called from the far side of the room. She tried not to skip with excitement as she returned to her seat.
"Impressive," Mr. Stein said. "What is the range?"
"Well, it's effectively line of sight. The saying 'Look before you leap' is really important here. I don't have any regenerative powers, so if I splice myself on something then I won't be living with the consequences for long." There'd already been a time or two that was too close for comfort, but she wasn't about to mention those. "The teleporter devises also have an emergency exit command that will zap me to a safe room in this building from anywhere in an eighty-mile radius. I figure we can use that to evacuate the grandson at least, maybe one other person."
"So there's no place..." began the Owl.
"... like home. Yeah, yeah," she interrupted. "Full codename is Ruby Boots, but I don't use it much."
"Your real name's not Dorothy, is it?"
"Dolores Gardner, so I got the initials right, and before you ask," she said, slowly drawing a Beretta from her shoulder holster. "This is Toto." Placing Toto on the table, she popped the clasp on her hip holster and drew her other gun, enjoying the way the Owl's eyes bugged out as it became apparent that the second weapon was much longer than the space she kept it in. The holster had been a parting gift from her team's devisor. She presented the hand-cannon to her audience. "I call this one the Very Hungry Tiger. She's got an autovoltaic charger, which in devisor-speak means that the batteries charge themselves over time. Depending on the settings, she shoots accelerated flechettes, short electric bursts, or she can even double as an arc-welder in a pinch. Got her name 'cause she eats through her energy reserves really fast if I'm not careful. She's also locked to my biometrics," she added, noticing the envious look on Margit's face.
"So we've established how we're getting out, sort of," said the Owl. "Any more thought on how to get in?"
"I'm going to make some calls," Mr. Stein said. "I should have something by the time you return from reconnaissance."
The Owl's face was not happy when he heard that. Ruby wondered if she ought to be worried.
The pain had come and gone; the tremors quietly faded into the extremities of Eric's body. Like a fire in the wilderness, the changes had passed through, burning away the unnecessary and leaving the rest stronger. His body was only now catching up.
Upon his forehead the sedative patch, wrinkled around the edges, slowly fell away. Designed to be adaptive, its built-in monitors had recognized increased stress and metabolic levels over the last few hours. It had made a valiant effort, increasing the flow of numbing chemicals into its target as needed. Now, it was spent and useless.
The sedatives were soon flushed from his system, but consciousness was slow to return. Eric's first feeling was thirst. His brain couldn't manage that thinking thing just yet, but the rest of him was happy to point out how dehydrated he was. He got out of bed, stumbling and tripping over legs that suddenly felt alien and stilt-like. His head was swimming, and it took three tries before the bed was behind him.
He didn't ask whose bed it was, or where it was, or who he was, for that matter. The forward portions of his brain were still in the midst of a complete reboot, but the rest managed to point him towards the sink and washstand in the corner of the room. Shamble, shamble, stumble, save, and he was there. Two cups of water went down his throat in close succession, and a third was on its way when his conscious mind caught up with reality. Unfortunately, he was looking right at the washstand's mirror when that happened.
*Splut* That third glassful suddenly reversed course, coating the mirror with a fine spray of water and mucus. The sensation of tepid liquid flowing through his sinus cavity was proof he was not dreaming. Except, he had to be dreaming. In the waking world, mirrors only showed the people looking at them, and the person he saw in the mirror was not Eric Schroeder. This stranger was taller, with a rounder face, pale skin lacking his Scout's tan, and a shock of yellow gold on top. The mirror person was also, quite undeniably, female.
He kept his eyes locked forward, and the girl in the mirror matched him stare for stare. She had a long, elegant neck that stretched upwards from the collar of her red t-shirt, arching to meet the back of her skull where her hair was buzzed short. Longer strands of hair radiated from the crown of her head in a sort of bowl haircut that was uncomfortably similar to the one his Oma had made him get last week. Weird though, it didn't look half bad on the girl. The bangs fell to either side of her oval face, framing it in gold. Her ears stuck out slightly, with only the tips hidden by hair. A snub nose, cute chin... She was easily prettier than any of the girls in his class. In the back of his mind, part of him wondered why certain sections below the belt weren't reacting as expected, but several other parts quickly sat on it to shut it up. He didn't want to think about that yet.
From the face, his gaze returned to the neck, following to the collarbone that was just visible behind the collar of the red t-shirt. The red class-B uniform shirt, with troop number and Crusader Patrol emblem clearly visible on the front. The fabric was stretching in new and unfamiliar ways.
Don't look down... Don't look down...
Curiosity warred with a rising sense of horror and panic, with curiosity winning out. He looked down. That red shirt was in fact his. Logically, it followed that the the rounded things beneath it were also his. Which meant the face in the mirror was his, too.
He'd avoided looking the girl, his mirror self, in the eyes before now. The twin orbs were both the color of the sky, instead of his normal mismatched brown and blue, and much like his grandmother's. They blinked as he blinked, reddened and teared up just as his did. A single line of moisture traced its way down her cheek, the mirror to his own. More followed.
"Scheisse, opa!" Not even the voice was the same. It was higher than his had ever been, and it squeaked on the high notes.
Freaking out in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1...
As far as hysterics went, it wasn't much of a performance. Eric had never been one for explosive shows of emotion, and he... she? — no, he! — he was no different now. Fifteen minutes were spent curled up in a fetal position, tears flowing down her — his! — face. It didn't help much. Every time he tried to fold his knees up against her — definitely her — chest, he was reminded that all was not right in the state of Schroeder. He hadn't dared check the condition of his trousers yet.
Soon enough, he was thirsty again. Getting a drink was easy enough with his eyes shut. His body somehow remembered the layout of the room perfectly, guiding him around a chair and to the sink without the need to crack an eyelid and risk a glimpse in the mirror. Four more cups of water, drawn blindly from the faucet without a single drop spilt, and he felt calm enough to face her again.
His left eye opened, and then his right. In the mirror, his doppelganger was a soggy mess. Her eyes and nose were puffy and red, and the tears had left track lines across her cheeks. She looked like she needed a hug. Correction: He looked like he needed a hug. Because he was he and she was he and they were he and they were all together. A giggle escaped his lips as the misappropriated song lyrics flashed through his head. Whatever balance he'd achieved, that giggle broke it. High, clear, and absolutely feminine, it had nonetheless come from his throat.
Eric held onto the sink for dear life as his legs threatened to collapse beneath him. Except they weren't his legs, right? Except they were, a treacherously logical voice in his head asserted.
He needed to sit down, but not on the bed. He'd spent enough time there, and the sweat-stained sheets smelled odd to him. The room had a chair, though, and a sturdy metal desk set into the wall by the bed. He tugged at it, but the thing had been riveted in place. Pulling the chair up, he rested his elbows on the cool metal surface with his face in his hands.
So, what had happened? Hell if he knew. Whose fault was it? Probably his, but maybe the weird secret agent guys. How did it happen? In his head floated the image of a glass vial filled with raspberry gelatin - and what else? The "How" of the matter was filed under "stupidity." It made sense at the time, but had it really been necessary to drink Opa's magic potion of whatever? Who should he be angry at? Opa for making the stuff, the agents for scaring him into drinking it, or himself? D: All of the above?
No, no, no. This was his mistake; he needed to admit it and take it like a....
Every ounce of emotion left in his body leapt upon that thought, and tears of anger and frustration boiled out of him. Scheisse, scheisse, scheisse! He slammed an arm down.
The desk was reinforced and permanently braced to the wall. This was all that kept it from buckling under Eric's fist. His forearm left a neat indentation in the metal about an inch deep, but when he pulled the errant appendage up for examination, there wasn't a mark on it. Not a bruise, cut, or scrape was to be found on the entire length.
"Scheisse," he said again, but this time there was no anger in it, only wonder. He flexed, watching the muscles rise beneath the pale skin. They disappeared as he relaxed. He prodded his skin with a finger, not finding anything out of the ordinary. So... he had super-muscles that were only obvious when in use, and were a lot stronger than they looked? How'd Opa manage that?
The first rays of the sun were lighting up the horizon when Matthias returned from recon. He was in a bad mood, and not only because his totem spirit was a grump in the morning. The more he'd seen of the Green Cross's base, the less he liked the thought of storming it. The highway practically dead-ended at the spot, making an excellent bottleneck and fire zone. The area around the building was clear for a long ways, which made it difficult to sneak in under the cover of wheat, and he wasn't even considering that route after his thermal scanners had picked up evidence of construction hidden in the cropland. He'd bet his boots that the Syndicate owned the surrounding area as an extra security zone.
As he landed and entered the Warriors HQ, he wondered what the old man would come up with. He'd been afraid to ask earlier, and after his look at the defenses he couldn't begin to guess what it might be. The only thing he could be sure of was that it would be dangerous. Why, they didn't even know what the layout inside was like!
Then he walked into the planning room to find Adolf, Margit, and Ruby poring over a number of detailed blueprints. One had been pushed to the floor, and on it he recognized an aerial view he'd seen not half an hour before with his very own eyes.
"Do I really want to know?" he asked.
"Of course you do!" Margit cried. "First, because it's pertinent to the mission, and second, because your curiosity would kill you otherwise."
He hated that she was right. "Am I going to like the answer?"
"Most likely not." The grin was back in place.
"Adolf had a rendezvous with someone and came back with this and some other stuff," said Ruby, pointing to some boxes on the floor.
"Adolf?" he addressed the old man.
"I called in some favors," the man said. "Not as many as I expected, though."
"And...?" Matthias was waiting for a real answer.
"And," said Adolf. "Would you suppose that I know many people of the military or intelligence service persuasion?"
"And that many of these people might be of an amoral or mercenary nature?"
"I would expect no less."
"And you would not be surprised if some of these people now work for the Syndicate?"
"Not really, I... wait, you're saying you asked the Syndicate for help?"
"No, I asked my old friend Colonel Cranston for help. He just happens to be a ranking Syndicate officer."
Matthias facepalmed. It was the only way to keep his jaw from dropping off his face entirely. "HOW!?" He tried not to shout the word, but he couldn't contain it all.
"At first he wouldn't. Cranston is a professional, but he's also an honorable man in his own way. I was afraid I would need to bring up certain unsavory subjects of times long past, but as soon as I said that the Green Cross was the target, he was much more amenable," Adolf said. "I should also mention that the Colonel could pass for Ms. Ruby's father."
"The person who hates my enemy's guts is my ally?"
"At least for the moment," said Adolf. "And the moment is all we need."
Matthias shrugged. He would have to live with it. "So what's the plan?"
"According to this intel," said Margit, picking up a neatly typed report, "the Green Cross moved in a little over a month ago. These floorplans are current as of then, and so it's likely they're still accurate. Before her, the base was rented to one of those shadowy science cabals, the latter-day Technocrat imitators. The Syndicate insisted they leave after one of their Dynamorph experiments nearly wrecked the place. Repairs were made, but apparently there are lingering issues with the electrical systems."
"Which is how we get in," Ruby said, picking up the conversation. "Y'see, the Green Cross's been bitching to the Syndi guys for weeks about these problems, but they've been giving her the old red-tape runaround in the hope she'll move to a smaller base up north. I get the feeling the Wichita base has a lot of time and money put into it," she added. "They're afraid she'll attract too much attention and ruin the sweet deal they have going on here." She flashed him a bright, white smile. "Too bad they don't know I've got these plans now."
He eyed the boxes. "Those wouldn't happen to contain Syndicate repair personnel uniforms, would they?" he asked.
Margit clapped and let out one of her tinkly laughs. "I knew you were a smart one! We really do need to keep you after this is over."
Crap. He was doomed now.
Eric stood in front of the washstand mirror, hands on the hem of his shirt. He could look himself... his mirror self in the face now without flinching, but his brain was still working in circles to avoid the real situation. He realized this even as he refused to realize anything else. Grasping the edge of the t-shirt, he took a deep breath, then pulled the whole thing up to his chin.
Yup, those were breasts. He was no connoisseur, but he could still tell that much. He poked the left one, watching it wobble slightly in the mirror. Then he poked the right one for good measure. So, fact number one: he had boobs, smallish ones at least. Fact number two: he apparently could no longer blush, because he should be bright red with embarrassment. He rolled down the t-shirt, wincing as the cheap cotton rubbed against his now-sensitive nipples.
Fact number three... He paused. In order to check that one, he'd have to drop his shorts. Was he ready for what he would find? More importantly, was he ready for what he might not find?
Screw that, he could imagine Oma saying. Fear is worse than fact. Just do it! He undid the bar on his Scout belt buckle and let his shorts fall to the floor.
Fact number three... verified. Eric let out a slow breath. There was no doubt about it now. He was a she. Once he'd admitted this to himself, everything else clicked into place, and a cord of tension seemed to unravel within him— her? It wasn't anything close to full acceptance, not yet at least, but he didn't think he'd freak out again.
"GOOD MORNING, GIRLS! RISE AND SHINE!"
Correction: he wouldn't freak out over his current anatomy. Right now, however, he couldn't peel himself off the washstand with a spatula.
"IT IS NOW SIX AY-EM!" continued the voice, loud and suspiciously cheerful. "UP AND AT 'EM! BREAKFAST STARTS AT SEVEN!"
What, was he at a summer camp now? Eric relaxed, releasing the poor sink from a stranglehold. The whole thing shifted slightly, like it wasn't firmly attached to the wall any longer. Crap, he'd done that. He'd have to watch his strength. Securing his shorts in their proper place, he searched for the source of the cheerful squawk. A small intercom box was affixed to the wall next to the door. No more noise came from it, so he had to assume whoever it was had finished for now.
Wait. The voice had said "girls," plural. Eric still didn't know where he was, but he was pretty sure that no one else knew he'd just defected to the other side of the gender war. Hell, he was still having trouble believing that. Bottom line was, they were looking for a boy, which Eric no longer was. Even if they knew about the change and were looking for a girl, they wouldn't know what she looked like yet. And where was the best place to hide a snowflake? In with the other snowflakes, that was where.
He took a deep breath. No, correction, she took a deep breath. If this was going to work, Eric knew, then he'd have to work to maintain some level of reasonable girliness, and self-referential pronouns were the best place to start. It was the only place, in fact. Eric couldn't think of anything else. She. She. She...
She turned the handle on the door. Locked. She turned it harder.
This body was turning out to be pretty handy after all. Slowly he... she opened the door and peeked outside. Up and down a long corridor, other girls were exiting their own rooms amidst a lot of yawning and stretching. Eric blinked. She'd never realized there was an entire spectrum of blondness, but that was what she was seeing: everything from dark honey blonde all the way to a platinum so fine it was almost white. Her own bowl of gold would pass without notice.
Most of the girls were around her age, with one exception. There was a woman, maybe twenty-five years old, standing a ways down the corridor with a clipboard in hand. Past summer camp experience helped Eric identify her type instantly: camp counselor.
Okay, this was it. Commencing Operation Snowflake.
"Excuse me? Ma'am?" She walked right up to the counselor woman and gave her best confused-and-lost impression. It wasn't too difficult. "I just got in last night with the clothes on my back, and I dunno..."
"Oh! No one told me!" This was obviously the source of the morning wake-up call. No one should ever sound that chipper and energetic without chemical assistance. "Name?"
"Eric...a. Erica Brown."
"Brown, Brown..." The woman checked her board. "Nope, you're not on here. You said you came in last night?"
"Yeah, really late." She slumped in place a bit to show how tired she was. "These two guys in matching suits dropped me off and told me to report to someone in the morning."
"Oh dear," said the woman. "You don't remember any names, do you?"
"No, ma'am," Eric(a) said truthfully. "I mean, it was really late and I was pretty out of it."
The woman sighed. "Men." A lot of exasperation went into that one syllable. She scribbled a note on her clipboard. "Well, I'm Ms. Baumgartner, but the girls all call me Miz Bee. Let me see here... Penelope!" She grabbed a girl who passed too close. "Penelope, this is Erica. She's new here. Could you take her to the quartermaster to get her some new clothes? Thank you, dear," she concluded before Penelope could get a word in. Miz Bee continued on her rounds, leaving the two girls to sort things out.
"So... er, hi?" the newly christened Erica said. Penelope was half a head taller than her, with honey-blonde hair and the well-fed, athletic look she'd associated with cheerleaders back home. Like everyone else in the hall, Penelope was dressed in a silvery jumpsuit.
"Hi," the girl said back without much enthusiasm. "C'mon, let's get this over with."
The quartermaster's office wasn't too far away, but it took a few minutes to rouse the woman in charge. Not everyone in this crazy place was as much a morning person as Miz Bee, which was somehow reassuring. Once inside, Erica was faced with the sinking realization that she didn't know how certain critical items of clothing actually worked.
"You don't know your own cup size?" Penelope cried in amazement when Erica finally admitted that much of her ignorance.
"Sorry!" She felt like crying again. "I... I went through a growth spurt recently, and I never got to check."
"I know how that goes," said the quartermaster sympathetically. "It's always little changes, nothing too noticeable, and then all of a sudden it's all come together and boing!, like the booby fairy visited while you're asleep."
Erica nodded, not mentioning that it had in fact happened overnight.
"Why didn't your mom check it for you, at least?" asked Penelope. Her face had settled into perpetual annoyance.
"If you can find her for me, I'll ask. Haven't seen her since I was six," Erica said with depressing honesty.
"Oh." That took the wind out of Penelope's sails at least. And from the way she and the quartermaster treated their charge after that, it seemed they'd identified Erica as a tomboy in dire need of girling up. Again, this wasn't so far from the truth. By the time they were done, Erica was fitted with a proper training bra that felt more comfortable than she would like to admit. She fumbled with the clasp a few times, but the odd body memory that had helped her navigate blindly before proved useful again. It was just important that she focus on the clasp, and not on the fact that she was wearing a bra and matching panties now.
Her standard-issue jumpsuit wasn't as much of a hassle, though it did come with instructions. "These buttons on the collar," said the quartermaster, pointing them out, "these have RFID chips in them that have been keyed to security level 1. You can go where the other girls go, but you'll need an escort for anywhere else."
"So where exactly can I go then?" she asked.
"The girls' dorm, the cafeteria, the seminar rooms, and the showers," Penelope rattled off. "Speaking of which, we need to get you washed up. You reek." The honey blonde wrinkled her nose.
Unfortunately, Erica couldn't argue with that. She'd caught a whiff of herself earlier and thought the same thing. The prospect of public showers was a daunting one, but it was nothing she hadn't had to deal with at summer camp as a boy. It was all the same, right? Right? She kept asking herself that question as her reluctant guide led her straight into terra very incognita.
Winifred stared at the ceiling. It wasn't particularly interesting. Painted silvery grey to match the walls and fixtures, in the low light its smooth plane lacked any distinguishing features. There were no flaws in the color or cracks in the paint to give her mind something to latch on to. If she were in a more pleasant frame of mind, it would make for a great insomnia cure. As it was, she stared because she had nothing better to look at, and her sleep had been short and troubled.
<Awake?> she tapped to her husband, keeping her arm beneath the sheets.
His hand moved to hers, tapping in reply. <Sleep, can't>
<You me together> she replied. <Sleep, need. Sleep, can't. Crap.> There were too many thoughts, too many worries running through her head. <Opinion: Boy okay?>
<Opinion: no. Find, need. Ask crazy woman?>
<Crazy woman lie, can. Truth, need not.> She felt her husband shift beside her. The bed they shared would have been good for one but was a little cozy for two. She sighed and turned on the desk lamp. The low lights mounted below the bed faded away as the brighter lamp drowned them out. Her wristwatch said it was six forty-five now, which was a decent enough hour to wake up officially. Moving to the center of the room, she began her calisthenics routine. After a few minutes of stretching, Hans got up to join her, and the two of them did a waltz around the room.
"Spotted any cameras?" he whispered in her ear.
"Not yet," she whispered back, forcing down the frisson of excitement that had run from her ear down her neck and spine. It had been so long since she'd been in action; she'd almost forgotten the rush that came with playing the shadows. She allowed Hans to twirl her around. As she spun, she quickly catalogued the room's details in her head. The most likely spot for a camera was in the washstand. Nothing else would serve half as well, though in her opinion it was more likely that the room was sound-bugged only. Those were easier to hide.
They had just begun a foxtrot when somebody knocked on the door. "Good morning," came Achziger's familiar wheeze through the intercom. "Lady von Groenwald would like to know if you wished to bathe before breakfast? She's offering the use of her personal washroom for the two of you."
She looked to her husband, who shrugged. "That is very kind of her," she answered loudly. "Could you show us the way?"
The door opened, revealing the dusty old man and Mauer. Following the two down the corridor, Winifred continued to take notes in her head. The guide signs hanging from the walls were all in a specialized shorthand code full of random letters and digits, but from them and the evening's experiences she guessed they were two levels underground. The other designators on the signs meant nothing to her, though one might have been a safety marker. Teenage girls passed them by in groups of two or three, all freshly scrubbed and kitted out in jumpsuits. Most didn't give her a second look, and she returned their lack of interest.
Just as she and Hans arrived at the baths, a pair of stragglers came racing out. The taller of the two was a dark blonde in a darker mood, who was not happy about something. The girl repeatedly pointed to the clock, then at the shorter girl, who'd apparently made them late. The second girl was shaking her head, apologizing as wet strands of gold clung to her scalp. Then the two saw that they had an audience. The taller one turned bright red, while the shorter one had the strangest expression on her face as she looked at them.
As they ran off, Winifred wondered that had been about. For that matter, why had that second girl seemed so familiar?
Opa! Oma! she'd wanted to shout. That would have broken her cover, though. All through this ordeal, she'd repeated to herself: stick to your cover. This was a spy movie turned real, and survival depended on fitting in, even where it was most difficult. Still, she wished she could have tipped off her grandparents somehow. It looked like Oma almost recognized her, even through the girlification.
"What is your problem?" Penelope was still yelling at her, like it was her fault they were late for breakfast. Well, technically it was, if only because they'd had to get her new clothes. She'd even tried to wash up as quickly as possible to make up for it, only to get bawled out by the older girl for not doing things in the proper fashion. So really, the other girl's strict adherence to feminine procedure had lost them just as much time. Erica didn't require womanly intuition to know that would be a bad thing to say, though.
At the cafeteria, Erica could see what the fuss was about. The room was tiny for how it was being used. It may have been a conference room at one time. Along one end was a train of catering cars left half empty in the wake of several dozen teenage girls. They scrounged through the leftovers and then Penelope dumped her in favor of a gaggle of her friends who sat at one end of the conference table.
Looking left and right, no available seats could be seen. Erica was about to lean against the wall and eat standing up when a group in the corner waved to her. Again she was thankful for that strange inability to blush. Eric could never have walked up to a group of blonde bombshells just like that, and Erica had to quell the butterflies in her stomach en route. Stick to your cover. Her personal mantra continued over and over in her head. Stick to your cover, be friendly, be a girl, fit in. It would help if she knew more about how those last bits worked. These others had been girls for a lot longer. Hm, there was a thought. What if she weren't the only boy to be girlified here? What if that was the point of this place? She'd heard about mad scientists doing that sort of weird stuff, like Dr. Pygmalion a bunch of years ago. How best to ask?
Of course, if she were wrong, then there went her cover. She had to be careful.
"Um, do you mind if I sit here?" she asked the group of girls. There were four of them, in various shades of blonde, sitting around an end-table. Trays of fruit and cereal were crowded upon it.
"New girl, right?" The blonde on the far right scooted over to make room on the mini-sofa. "I'm Talia. And they're Mary, Bethany, and Imogene," she named the girls from right to left. They waved.
She waved back. "Yeah, I'm Erica. Just got in last night, late," she added to reinforce her story a bit.
"Bet you're starving, then," said Mary. She offered Erica a donut. "Here, last one as a welcome gift."
"Thanks!" Now that her stomach had been sufficiently roused, Erica realized she wasn't starving; she was ravenous. The donut was gone in two bites, to be followed by a handful of apple slices, a bowl of cereal, two slices of toast — "What?" she asked, realizing that the four girls were staring.
"I always figured 'starving' was just a figure of speech," said Mary. "But you really were, huh?"
"Um..." Again, her skin failed to blush when it was supposed to. Should she be worried there? She hoped the rest of her wasn't acting more embarrassed to make up for it. "My last meal was yesterday, early afternoon, and it wasn't much." She didn't stop eating, though.
"Penny dropped ya pretty fast," Bethany said. "How'd you manage to get on her bad side?"
"I showed up this morning and made her late for breakfast," she answered truthfully.
"Well, pay her no mind. She's a grump to everyone but her friends," Bethany said with a wink. "So, any questions, new girl?"
"Um. Are there any boys around here?" That was the best way she could think to ask. It wasn't like she could ask if they used to be boys, right? The question got her some laughs, at least.
"Nope, at least none that are worth the trouble," said Talia. "Like, some of the worker drones up top, or the dudes in the black suits, but they're all too old. No one our age, at least."
"Lady Groenwald says the boys are at a different training camp," said Imogene. "Says keeping us all separate keeps things simple."
Well, that sorta explained why Eric had been put where he was last night. No other space available. And it looked like she was alone in her post-boy status. The question had cemented her girl image in their heads, which was one good thing about it all. She let the four girls continue their conversation as she ate. It was mainly gossip about the other girls in the room or tales from their regular schools, but she took mental notes anyway. Oma always said that no knowledge was ever wasted, and if she was stuck as a girl for now, it was a smart idea to remember what Oma said about a lot of things. Every bit of info gained now was one more brick in her cover story.
The room quieted down as Miz Bee walked in. "Morning, girls!" She waited as the mumbled replies rolled through. "I hope you all slept well! If you didn't already hear, we have a new candidate with us this morning, Erica Brown from... oh, where did you say?"
She hadn't. "Murfreesboro," she said. It was a town in southeast Arkansas with an actual diamond mine turned state park nearby. Eric had been there dozens of times, so Erica should be able to field questions about it.
"From Murfreesboro!" Seriously, this lady had an addiction to the exclamation point. There was no other way to describe it. "Now, I'm sure you all have questions for her, but it's time to get going! We've got a seminar!" The entire room let out a low groan. Whatever this was, it didn't seem to be very popular.
There was a small auditorium farther down the hall with a huge projection screen set up. Once the girls shuffled into their seats, the lights began to dim, but Erica didn't notice until the room had gone almost completely dark. Everything was clearly visible even in low light, as if her eyes had adjusted really quickly. Now that she thought about it, she hadn't turned on a lamp or anything in her own room when she'd woken up. In a way, this hidden change in her eyes was more disturbing than the rest of it, more alien.
Then the show began.
"Welcome everybody, to Public Safety Seminar 3." The announcer's voice was a bright soprano, with that vague, neutral tone reserved for public service announcements. Somewhere off to her right, Erica could hear Penelope grumbling "What, again?" The subject for the day was all about how young women needed to be careful when walking at night. There were some good tips sprinkled here and there that Erica took careful note of, but on the whole the film seemed more concerned with outlining all the dangers than in offering useful advice.
About two minutes in, she noticed something else. When she focuses on the screen, the show began to break up into distinct, choppy images, like a video shown at a very low framerate. When she relaxed, the images sped up, blurring together to form the motion picture effect. She was about to chalk it up to yet another weird new thing about her eyes when the other images began.
They weren't obvious, these new images, and if she let the video flow properly then they couldn't be seen at all. But when her eyes did the frame-by-frame trick, they were painfully visible — pictures of young blonde women, girls, being threatened, beaten, dragged away to be raped by shadowy thugs drawn from a broad caricature of non-Aryan examples. Only one frame in ten, at most, contained these violent graphics, but that was enough to make her uncomfortable. All around her, other girls were squirming in their seats, reacting to the pictures they were not consciously seeing.
Subliminal imagery. Eric's best friend Saumer had done a video presentation on that last fall. He'd even gotten his dad's help with the AV equipment and embedded pictures of food in the presentation to see if the class would react. Then he'd sold snacks right after class, the jerk. Erica tried hard not to smile at the memory.
"Now it is time for your relaxation exercises," the female announcer said as the video came to an end. "Everyone, please lean back in your seats and close your eyes."
Open your mouth and close your eyes, and you will get a big surprise. The rhyme popped into Erica's head. In all the old cartoons Eric had watched with Opa, that had been the lead-in to a dirty trick of some sort. Erica expected no less now. So when the relaxing music began, she closed her eyes and focused on listening, in the hopes that her ears had picked up a trick or two as well. At first it didn't seem so, but then she caught just a bit of a word here and there. Fragments of sound came together to form phrases, like "obey the Lady" and "fear the black man." It took a lot more focus to keep up with the sounds, but knowing that they existed helped. She could separate the words from the music. Hopefully that would be enough.
"Hm, we've got an aberrant reaction here." The technician could have been discussing the weather for all he seemed to care. He pointed to one corner of the video feed. "This girl."
Agent Baumgartner leaned over. "That's the new recruit." The girls would not have recognized their camp counselor in that voice. "It's her first time with the control protocols, so some deviancy is to be expected. We'll keep an eye on her for the next few seminars. I'm more concerned with Ms. Rose." She pointed to a different screen, where Penelope was staring at the ceiling with a bored expression on her face. "She should not be giving us this much attitude now. Her resistance to the subliminals is outside the parameters, and we're already far enough behind schedule as it is. Command will be wanting a report soon on the higher-level protocols, and we still have a subject who's not ready for them."
"There are always a few outliers," said the technician. "Some people just refuse to be hypnotized."
The man had a point, though Baumgartner hated to admit it. Any failures here were her responsibility, as Lady von Groenwald had made clear. She did not need some bimbo cheerleader from the middle of Nebraska falling behind and queering the entire group with her bad attitude and lack of discipline.
At the other end of the complex, breakfast was served. Hans eyed the spread carefully. Glazed ham, four sorts of eggs, toast with a jam assortment, bagels and lox, six boxes of cereal — there was a little something for everyone on the long table. He waited for Lillian and her brothers to serve themselves before he tried anything. With eight people around the table, it was possibly an unnecessary precaution. Any poisoner who could take down one person in a group like this wouldn't be stopped by the basic avoidance techniques.
His wife had come to similar conclusions, and was sticking with toast covered in the same strawberry jam the Green Cross preferred.
"Isn't it a wonderful morning?" Lillian was saying. "We so rarely have everyone in for a single meal like this. It feels like family, doesn't it, Hans?"
"Er, yes. Quite," he said, somewhat honestly. He really had despised some of his late father's relatives, including Eugen and his deranged father, but he'd dined with them anyway. Looking around the table, he retrieved names from memory. Mauer, he knew, and the man who was tearing into a breakfast ham next to him was Sandmann. The dour man who was having only porridge would be Glas, he thought. Hans hadn't really noticed him before the introductions. And then there was the fourth brother, Wahrheit. Like the rest, that had to be a codename, and a worrying one at that. Truth was always a potent weapon in the shadow wars.
"In fact," said Lillian, clapping her hands together. "We should make this truly a family occasion. Glas, would you go check and see if young Eric has woken yet?"
Something inscrutable passed across the man's face, but he placed his spoon down and left the room quietly. Hans watched closely, but couldn't pinpoint exactly when the agent faded into the background. It was like he became psychically transparent. Glass, indeed.
"I hope your men weren't too rough on him," Hans said to his hostess.
"You are not surprised he is here?"
He and his wife shook their heads. "We considered it a likely possibility."
"Yet you allowed him to go on that trip without any precautions?"
Hans shrugged. "We could have been wrong. And what precautions we could manage would not have been enough." Unfortunately all too true, that was. He'd hoped that Adolf would get to the boy first.
The lights dimmed and flickered for a few seconds. The Green Cross sighed. "I am sorry, but we've been dealing with electrical issues for a while now. A repair team should be arriving today."
"It's not interfering with anything, I hope?"
"No, no. All our critical experiments are at Neue Groenwald. This is a training and supply facility... yes?" she suddenly added, staring at the air beside her. Agent Glas popped into the foreground and leaned in to whisper a message.
She had a great poker face. Hans could barely tell that she was upset.
"I'm sorry to say that your grandson is feeling poorly. Yesterday was undoubtedly too exciting. He is still resting and should be meeting us at lunch. Achziger?" The old man nodded. "Show our guests to the recreation hall, if you'd please. I have some business to which I must attend."
That was as blatant a dismissal as Hans had ever seen. He made sure to grab a bagel before he and Winifred could be ushered out. Secretly, he hoped Eric had lived up to the family tradition and somehow thrown a monkey wrench into the Green Cross's plans, but he couldn't see how. After all, how much trouble could one boy get into?
We are in so much trouble, Matthias thought to himself. He blinked in the mid-morning light and resisted the urge to don his day-vision goggles. Adolf had put his foot down on that matter, had said the goggles were too non-standard and too recognizable. That made sense, confound the man, but Matthias didn't have to like it. In the back of his head, the Owl Totem stirred and grumbled in discomfort at this daylit, landbound exercise. He ignored it and concentrated on driving. Beside him in the passenger seat, Ruby fiddled with her Syndicate uniform, which was also a distraction. None of their disguises fit particularly well, but Ruby's in particular was tight in all the noticeable spots.
The base checkpoint wasn't much to look at, though he didn't doubt it was armed to the teeth. Their paperwork was impeccable, with every last signature double-stamped. The guards accepted them without question, though Ruby warranted a double-take. Of all those official John Hancocks on those sheets, not a single one read "Colonel Cranston," which didn't surprise him. No one in their right mind would want their name associated with this insanity. Whoever owned those signatures was going to be in a world of trouble soon enough.
For an evil, secret lair, the place was hideously normal on the outside. Seeing it from ground level for the first time, Matthias felt disappointed. It was a generic, grey, blandly geometric building, one that would blend into the safe anonymity of an industrial park without the least bit of effort. The only odd things about it were one, that it was in the middle of nowhere, and two, that it only employed blond people.
"Everything ready back there?" he called through the little window behind his seat.
"All set and stowed," came Adolf's voice in reply.
"Okay then, here we go."
"This room is empty."
"It's not supposed to be empty."
"Tell me, then. Why is it empty?"
Glas had no reply for that one, and unfortunately it was the one that mattered. All he had was the room before them, and it wasn't the sort of thing that gave answers. Quite the contrary. The lock had been broken from the inside. Not picked, not jimmied, not even forced. Broken. Its innards jingled lightly when he tapped the handle.
The room had been dark when he checked it. Only the dim lights at the base of the bed had given any illumination, and it was hardly enough to see by. With the lights on, the damage became evident. A desk bent in the middle. A washstand pulled halfway off its setting. Large dents in the wall around the bed that looked suspiciously like fist and foot marks. The boy's Scout uniform shirt draped across the chair.
Precious few answers, but far too many questions.
"Do we have any video footage of the room or the hallway?" asked his half-sister, with the resigned tone of someone who already knew the answer.
"No," he said. "The damage left behind by the Dynamorph has been limited but hard to work around, and the Syndicate countermeasures only complicate the issue. Given what happened to Agent Brenner, we've had to take it slowly. The dormitories were considered low priority." He shrugged. "The boy was a weakling before he was drugged, so we put him where there was space. We took what precautions seemed necessary."
"It's okay," said his dear Kommandeurin. She examined the room again and shook her head. "The grandson showed no abilities at all yesterday?"
"None. No strength, no training, nothing. As normal as apple pie." His stomach gurgled quietly. He wanted to finish his porridge. "If Herr Abendritter experimented on the boy, we would have seen something."
"Then perhaps he picked it up here," she murmured to herself. "Did those verdammt kludgefuckers ever catch that Dynamorph?"
"The reports would have us believe so."
"Well check them again. The last thing we need is an empowered teenage boy running around half-cocked. Oh, and tell the technicians to get out that sensor suite we used to track Shocker Zulu last year. If young Eric's got a Dynamorph now, he should be emitting some sort of energizer radiation."
"Understood, Kommandeurin. Shall I alert the custodians as well?"
His half-sister nodded, but her personal phone rang before she could say anything else. Glas stayed silent as she answered.
"They're here? Good. It's about damn time." A pause. "They sent a what? No, no. Let her in with the rest. I won't give these Syndicate mongrels the satisfaction of a response, even to an insult like that."
Glas kept quiet, but now he projected an inquisitive sort of silence. Most would not notice the difference, but Kommandeurin did. That was why she was in charge, and why he accepted that.
"The Syndicate repair crew is here." She was not particularly enthusiastic when she said it. "One of the technicians is a Negro."
Which would explain the sour face, he thought. She could hardly turn them away — not when they were needed for any serious system repairs. Efforts to fix the problems without assistance were... well, young Brenner would grow his eyebrows back eventually.
The Previous Night - Ruby
"Why would the Syndicate booby-trap their own systems?" Ruby had asked before they left the Warriors HQ. "Doesn't that sound counter-productive?"
"That depends on your view of the business," Adolf had replied. "Many villains like to add their own kludges to the electrical systems, and this discourages them from compromising something by accident."
"And there are also the heroes to consider," Margit had added. "Neither the Syndicate nor their clients wish to make it easier for some technically-minded soul to take the place over. So they make sure any sort of sabotage hits the saboteurs first."
"So this stuff is supposed to help?" Screech Owl had commented, jerking a thumb towards the unmarked crates now loaded in the van.
"With the tools at our disposal, we can safely access key parts of the base infrastructure. We could probably even make the repairs without blowing anything up."
"But where's the fun in that?" Margit had asked. "Instead, we're going to make every booby-trap in the place go boom!"
Present - Ruby
The toolbox was heavy in Ruby's hands as the security guard walked her and Margit down the corridor. Her heart was even heavier as it sank down into her stomach. It was one thing to talk about breaking into a compound full of Nazis, and quite another to actually be doing it. Ruby was raised to be proud of her ancestry, of her daddy and grandaddy who'd served their country. Heck, Grandad had went head-to-head with the original Nazis over in Europe, so she was following tradition right there. It didn't change the fact that her own skin made her a obvious target.
It was also hard not to giggle when one of the Green Cross's staff saw her for the first time. Those blue eyes looked a lot better bugged out of their skulls.
The operation had split them up, much to her dismay, but the logistics of the sitch called for it. On their end, Adolf and Owl were managing the control room, making sure that the overly complicated systems acknowledged their right to be there and didn't fry them prematurely. Her job was to cover Margit and make sure no one saw what the old lady was actually doing to those power conduits. Every eight yards or so, she and the security guard would remove a wall panel, and Margit would crawl in for a few minutes.
At 10 AM by her watch, a line of women filed through a door near them, led by two minders. All young, all blonde, all quite healthy, though a little tired. Some of them were wringing their hands or rubbing their shoulders. A whiff of gunsmoke wafted by as they passed.
Ruby had a harder time keeping a calm face. What the heck was up with this madhouse?
She was in some sort of asylum, Erica had decided. She was trapped in here, and the inmates had taken over. The only thing going in her favor was that no one had realized she didn't belong. Yet.
The seminar, weird as it had been, was only the tip of the crazy iceberg. The deeper she went down the rabbit hole, the bigger the whole thing got. After the video ended, they'd all been directed to the other side of the complex, and into a gun-nut's paradise. Racks upon racks of firearms. Cases upon cases of ammunition. Eric hadn't been much into hunting or guns, so the variety before her eyes meant nothing to her. It blurred together into a single mess of metal. From the nearest wall, a woman's face, masked and imperious, stared down from a poster.
That face scared her. There was an intensity in those blue eyes that burned, even though it was just a photo. Above the face were the words "Rahrheit macht frei," which bothered her, but not so much as her final realization. Here was a poster of a knockout blonde bombshell in a form-fitting jumpsuit. Her shape was flawless, her body perfect. This lady was as hot as any pinup in the girlie mags that Eric and his friends claimed never to read. And yet, when she looked at this vision of beauty, Erica felt nothing. No rush of hormones, no teenage lust, no inappropriate bulges or tinglings — and that horrified her.
It'd only been a few hours since her change, and already the things that made up Eric Schroeder were quietly slipping away without her noticing, to be replaced with... what? Who was Erica? Who would she be? Her brain was split down the middle with one side shouting "Freak out!" and the other yelling "Keep to your cover!" In the real world, she stood there frozen.
"Hey, new girl!" And then Penelope was beside her, looking as cheerful as ever. Her frown hadn't changed one iota since breakfast. "Miz Bee-Happy told me to show you the ropes again. What are you standing around for?"
"Sorry, I was... ah, distracted." She pointed to the poster. "Who's that?"
"That would be our Fearless Leader," said Penelope. The girl rolled her eyes. "Lady von Groenwald. You'll meet her eventually. All the other girls think she's great."
"She terrifies me."
The frown lightened up, twitching along the edges and almost inverting completely for just a moment. "You've got more sense than I thought. Don't waste it. Now," she said, grabbing Erica by the elbow, "we come to the fun part of the day."
Eric had been to the gun range a few times with his fellow scouts, though he wasn't good with guns. Here, Erica recognized the general setup as well as the protective earphones and other equipment. The handguns the other girls were firing were new to her admittedly limited experience.
"Dart-chargers," Penelope explained as they walked over. "Shoot tiny bits of metal with a really strong shock behind 'em. The bits are cheap to make, and the shock's about the same as a taser, so Fearless Leader considers them cheap and practical for stuff like target practice and general security. And they don't trust us with anything bigger yet," she added, nodding to the bulk of the arsenal. "At most they give demonstrations before shipping it elsewhere."
The next few minutes were spent with the older girl drilling her on the basic safety rules on the range. That part was easy enough. Aiming and sighting seemed to come naturally to her new eyes as well. The hardest thing was mechanically the easiest — pulling the trigger. Instead of the usual paper cut-outs, this range had life-size cardboard replicas of leering thugs in every color of skin except for north-central European pallor. Several were close copies of the marauding stereotypes in the seminar subliminals. Up and down the range, girls were shooting their targets with gleeful abandon. Some of them were frightfully good at it, laughing to themselves as they hit nonstandard targets like the eyes or groin.
Penelope sighed. "We're going to be here all day, aren't we."
"Nah, 'sokay." The older girl took Erica's arms and brought them into firing position. "I don't much like the choice of targets, either. Gotta shoot 'em though, or you'll get noticed in the wrong way. Trust me, you don't want that."
Erica gulped, then carefully squeezed the trigger. There was hardly any kick to the little gun at all.
"Hm, not bad," said Penelope. "Got it right in the chest. That's better than most of us on our first tries."
"How'd you all get so good at it?"
"Way too much practice," came the reply. "Every day, a seminar and training. We used to complain about it, but..."
"Dunno. The other girls started enjoying it. Look at 'em, having the time of their lives. Oh, keep shooting," Penelope instructed. Erica put a few more bits into the fake thug before she continued. "It started slow enough, but now all of them are crazy for Fearless Leader. It's like they're brainwashed or something."
"Subliminals in the seminar, video and audio." Erica fired off three more bursts while Penelope was mute from surprise. "A friend of mine back home liked to play with that sort of thing, so I recognize some of the signs." She kept her voice low, letting the regular noise of the gun range drown it out.
From the far end of the stalls came the clap of an explosion. Heads turned to where a tall blond man was lowering his weapon. There wasn't much of his target left standing, so he stood at attention while the range systems automatically replaced it. He sort of resembled the two guys who'd grabbed Eric, but taller, with a squared jaw and blunt nose.
"That's Mauer," whispered Penelope. "One of the big guys around here. There are four of 'em, all dressed the same. I don't know what their deal is, but they're bad news." A chime rang over the intercom. "Okay, time's up here. We should wait for a minute or two. The others won't notice us talking if we're at the end of the line."
"Thought you didn't want to be seen with me?"
"Aw, I can be a grump in the morning, and I thought you'd be as goose-stepping as the rest. You're still weird, just not crazy weird."
"Thanks, I guess."
Passing into the hall, Erica spotted a splash of color that was well out of place in this Aryan chrome-plated wonderland. Two women in plain beige work overalls were making repairs under the watchful eyes of a security guy. The older one was a brunette going grey, while the younger was a beautiful black woman in her mid-twenties. Erica blinked, unsure that her eyes were seeing true. Nope, the woman was still black, and looked none too comfortable at being here. The other girls walked right past her without even a first glance.
Erica hesitated a minute or two longer before moving on. Penelope was tugging on her arm, urging her to follow suite and pass by without notice. That made sense; that was safe. And as the older woman stood up and stared straight at her face in shock and recognition, she realized that it wasn't going to happen.
Margit was always mindful of her work. A professional, that was she. When you were married to a man like Adolf, it was important to ride life, to move with its ups and downs and respond appropriately. Even so, as professional as she was, she still enjoyed the day's work oh-so-much. The last job of her career, and it was going to go out with a bang!
She fiddled with some tools, taking care not to touch any of the trick spots in the mess of wires and conduit before her. This was the tenth station she'd serviced, which was about four stations more than she needed. That was the nice thing about cascading effects; you only had to get the ball rolling once.
Her knees creaked as she crawled backwards out of the maintenance space and stood up. Ai-yah, she was getting old. That was a nasty surprise, to be sure. She never thought she'd live long enough to complain. Back when she and Winnie had begun training, the destinies in their imagination had always involved either immortality or a quick blaze of glory. Now here she was, and Winnie was....
Winnie was right in front of her. Wait, that couldn't be right. The girl before her wasn't more than fourteen or fifteen at most. But her mind was remembering that day in the spring of 1965 when she and her partner, best friend, and future sister-in-law-and-mayhem, had left on that first mission. Memory and reality overlapped in her sight, with the girl as the only constant.
Reason said it was impossible. Intuition said otherwise. Margit knew her intuition had the better track record, and quickly jumped to the least likely conclusion. She grabbed the girl by the shoulders, stared her right in the eyes, and shot off four statements.
"Your initials are E.S. Your grandparents are Hans and Winifred. Your best friend has spiky black hair. You used to have one brown eye. Yes?" She didn't need to hear the answer. The girl's wide eyes told all.
"What's..." the Green Cross's man began to say. He never got the chance to finish; Margit punched out his larynx first, then stabbed him with a stunner needle.
She felt like laughing. Alea jacta est!
Grabbing the honey blonde who was next to the presumed Eric Schroeder, Margit put her pistol to the girl's temple. "Okay, Blondie," she said. "I promise I'm not going to hurt you, but the rest of the world doesn't have to know that. Stick to the script and we all get out of here, okay?" The girl nodded. "I'm Margit, by the way."
"Nice to meet you, Penelope. Let's go for a walk."
The two of them slipped through the door to the shooting range. Ruby followed with presumed-Eric in tow. It was hard to tell who was the most shocked and awed: her comrade, her hostage, or her nephew/niece.
Regardless of who got the gold, silver, or bronze, the honorable mentions went to the two men still in the shooting range. Margit's eyes took them in, and their images bounced around her skull for a fraction of a second. The nearest, she recognized as Mauer, and dear Adolf's dossiers had a lot on him. Pertinent to now was that the man was a brick, with a PK repulsion field and strength boost of somewhere between one hundred and one hundred fifty pounds. That was enough to deflect a low caliber bullet.
She put her pistol right in his face and pulled the trigger anyway. There was a *bam* and a *ping* as the projectile ricocheted and lodged in the ceiling, but no matter. The muzzle flash and ejecta went straight into the man's eyes. PK fields could block many things, but bright lights, loud noises, and superheated gasses weren't usually counted among them.
Mauer screamed and fell back a step, giving Ruby a chance to hit him with an electric burst from the Very Hungry Tiger. He fell all the way back after that, hitting the floor with a loud thud. Margit didn't break stride as she stepped over the agent's body and put a pair of bullets into the jumpsuited range assistant.
"Ruby, if you could be a dear and bring that security man's body in here as well," she said. "We don't want it to be obvious, out in the hall."
"Whew! I think he pissed himself. That'll be easy enough to spot."
Margit grinned and shook her greying head. "Not for long." Taking one particular button on her shirt between thumb and forefinger, she pressed hard. Warmth and pressure activated the piezoelectric switch, and the one-use broadcast circuitry woven into her undergarments sent its signal.
Syndicate security was a maze of redundant, interlocking systems. Without the proper keys, the odds of getting through more than two layers of electrical lockouts were slim to none for normal people. A tripped failsafe would alert its neighbors, bringing the full force of several energy conduits to bear on the point of intrusion.
But that was only from the outside in. When seen the opposite way around, the protective layers were more like an eggshell, able to withstand a great deal of force from every direction but within. Just one trick, planted securely behind the defenses, could be disastrous.
Margit had been a busy lady. At her signal, a half-dozen saboteur modules came to life, each one grafted into a security sub-control station. To the main security nexus, it seemed as though its sub-units were hacking each other, and it responded to these intrusions as programmed. The sub-units, sensing attacks on themselves, responded to the intrusions as well. In a biological system, this would be classified as an auto-immune response. In a Syndicate system, it was Bedlam.
The security roost was warm, dark, and cramped. Matthias's inner Owl was quite comfortable, even as his legs were getting cramps. Beside him, old man Stein was focused on the laptop readouts. He didn't like splitting the party — no one had — but it was the standard procedure when the Syndicate made house calls to its rented properties. Two for maintenance, and two for overwatch.
He'd watched with Adolf as Mrs. Stein covered all the points on the first sub-level and then moved to the second. After that, he kept a closer eye on the door and the two security goons just visible beyond it. The lights were bright out there, while in the roost they'd kept things dim.
Matthias closed his eyes to keep them dark-adjusted. Margit had already set the last of the modules, so it was only a matter of time...
The fob on his borrowed car keys began to vibrate. Three seconds later, the lights went out. Five seconds after that, he was standing over the bodies of two tased security guards, securing them with zip-ties and looting their pockets.
The Screech Owl passed a dart-charger to the old man as he pulled himself out of the roost. A pair of night-vision goggles were stretched across Adolf's silver scalp. Without a word, the two of them slipped into the darkness.
The Schroeders had spent an hour in the rec hall, and by Winifred's count that was fifty-nine minutes too long to be in Achziger's presence. The dusty old man was a font of dry small talk — all sound and no substance.
Normally she had a high tolerance for such things. In the bad old days, she'd attended many social and cultural functions where her entire purpose was to feign interest until the mission was complete. Later in life, the same skill had served her well at PTA meetings. Now, though... it wasn't the small talk, it was the small-talker.
The old man's incessant droning was some sort of interrogation tool, of that she was sure. It varied not one bit in tone or pitch, regardless of the subject, inexorably wearing down the will of the listener. She found herself wishing for an excuse, any excuse, to make the man shut up.
Then the rec room lights sputtered and went out.
"Thank you, Lord," Winifred muttered under her breath as her chair suddenly met with Achziger's skull. There was a satisfying clang in the darkness, followed by the dull thud of a body falling to the floor.
After thirty seconds of Stygian darkness, emergency lights flickered into existence along the base of the walls. It wasn't much, but it gave her her bearings. Taking her husband's hand, the two of them navigated a maze of sofas, chairs, and tables which the low lighting had reduced to inky lumps blending into the background darkness. Following along the far wall, they came to their destination.
The janitor's closet. She'd noted it earlier as they came in, mostly out of habit. Know her surroundings, as her trainers had drilled into her so many years ago.
<Think Adolf?> Hans tapped on her wrist. <Distraction?>
<Adolf, Margit, together,> she tapped back. <Plan, Adolf. Style, Margit.>
On the inside of the closet door were two emergency flashlights. Liberating one, she took stock. Professional detergents, bleaches, astringents, a first aid kit... Oh, how this took her back.
"Ready, liebchen?" she whispered in her husband's ear.
"Then let's make chemistry."
Lillian von Groenwald
"What the FUCK is going on?" The Green Cross's vaguely Germanic accent receded, to be replaced with the flat, midwestern accent she'd come to loathe. Her underlings were too busy for any of them to notice the slip. It was only luck that she'd been in the central command office at all today, observing as the technicians assembled the telemetry to track energizers and Dyna-hosts.
"Vital systems are on lockdown," came a voice in the darkness. Brenner, she thought. Emergency lighting came on a moment later, confirming that.
"Is it an attack?" she asked, then shook her head. "Nevermind. Assume that it is. How did they hit us?"
"We can't determine that yet," Brenner replied. "All the diagnostic tools the Syndicate loaned us are locking up from the strain. Half of them are analyzing themselves, it seems."
Lillian considered the possibilities. "Could anyone hack into the system from the outside?"
"A high level cyberpath or digital devisor, certainly. Anyone else, it's really doubtful." The agent's digital pad blinked on, casting a bluish glare. "Shall I draw up a list?"
"No, but thank you." The timing was too suspicious here. "Call the agents watching those Syndicate workers. They're our primary suspects."
There was a moment's silence, then: "No response."
"Ladies and gentlemen, it looks like we've been betrayed," Lillian von Groenwald said calmly. "How badly were the intercom systems affected?"
"Those are low on the internal priority list, so the security is really light. We should be able to bring them up without any trouble."
"Good. Call Agent Baumgartner and tell her to activate Project Walkuren. This should be a good test."
Erica and Penelope sat on a crate of ammo and watched as the crazy lady and the black lady hog-tied and gagged the three prisoners. Neither girl budged so much as an inch.
"What are they doing now?" whispered Penelope.
"Breaking thumbs, I think." Erica winced as her low-light vision let her see the action in excruciating detail. The changes to her eyes weren't an advantage now.
The black lady finished her part of the job quickly, then turned to her partner. "What the hell was all that?" she yelled. "I thought we weren't starting shit until after we found one or more of the targets!"
"We did," the crazy lady, Margit, said. "Target Gimel. Alef and Beth will be around here somewhere."
Erica blinked as a red-painted nail was thrust in her face. "That does not look like the picture you showed me of the target! And what's with the codewords all of a sudden?"
"Ruby, dear," said Margit. "When you've been through as much craziness as I have, you come to realize these things sometimes happen. We'll figure out the how later. All I will say is that she—" Erica's ears picked up the slight stress on the pronoun. "— looks exactly like her grandmother at that age."
"And the other one?"
"Let's ask her." The crazy lady turned to Penelope. "What is a young lady like yourself doing in a place like this?"
"Um." This was the first time she'd seen Penelope hesitate. "My foster parents told me that I was selected to attend a charity summer camp somehow. It sounded dodgy, but I figured it was better than the foster home. Then I got here, and it was nothing but seminars, range practice, and hand-to-hand stuff."
"They put subliminals in the seminars," added Erica.
"Yeah, what she said. I'm all weirded out, but everyone else is ready to drink von Groenwald's kool-aid anytime. It's like she's building an army or something."
"An army and breeding stock, most likely," said Margit. "Your hostess is better known as the Green Cross, so-called last of the great Nazi theme operatives."
Penelope let out a low whistle. "No shit?"
By the door, the intercom crackled into operation. "...esting... Okay! Hello, girls!" The cheery voice of Miz Bee had never seemed less appropriate. "Now, I know it's all dark and scary right now, but it's alright! Just listen to my words! Valkyrie strength! Got that? Valkyrie strength! Now, it's time for a pop quiz! Somewhere in the base are four people who don't belong! Find an agent for full details, and then go get 'em, girls!"
Margit had her gun in Penelope's face before the second "Valkyrie strength." Erica thought the girl was going to faint.
"What is she talking about?" the crazy lady demanded.
"I don't know, ma'am!"
"Margit, please. Call me Margit."
"I don't know, Margit ma'am!"
"Not feeling murderous or anything, are we?"
"Just scared, ma'... Margit."
"Stop, please!" cried Erica. "She was acting different from all the others. Maybe it didn't affect her?"
"A possibility." Margit sighed. "And what will you do if we let you go, Penelope?"
"Get the hell out of this madhouse as soon as possible."
"That would be our plan as well." Margit holstered her weapon, but didn't take her eyes off the girl. "What weapons are you trained for?"
"Just the dart-chargers, Margit ma'am. They wouldn't let us girls practice with anything bigger." Penelope walked to the rack of weapons, struggling to keep each motion slow and telegraphed. She pointed to a dart-charger, but didn't touch it. "This is what I mean."
"And they're all kept in here?"
"Some of the security guys use them, so I guess they've got others in lockers here and there."
"What are you thinking, Margit?" asked Ruby.
"If this is the main stock, we're going to have visitors very soon. And if there are secondary stocks, blowing this lot up won't do us as much good." The old woman sighed. "Everyone, grab as many dart-chargers as you can tuck away without encumbering yourself. Yes, Penelope, you too."
"You're going to trust her, just like that?" Ruby yelled.
"What can I say? I've mellowed in my old a..." Margit stopped speaking as the sound of voices filtered through the door. "Penelope," she whispered. "Could you go see what that's about?"
The girl gulped and nodded. She tightened the gun harness across her waist and headed to the door. Margit quietly picked up an assault rifle from the rack and aimed it that way. Erica's ears picked up the conversation outside easily:
"Hey, girls. What the hell's going on? I got the newbie back there peeing herself in fright."
Oh, she was going to get Penelope back for that one. From the replies, it sounded like there were three or four of the other girls out there. Then there was a muffled shout, the sound of a dart-charger firing repeatedly, and finally one, two, three, four low thumps.
The honey blonde girl dashed back inside, panting. She didn't seem to notice how close she came to getting shot just then.
"Four of 'em stunned," she reported. "What do we do next?"
Margit grinned. "Now, we place charges, shut the door behind us, and get away before the boom happens. Don't worry about your friends," she said to Penelope. "We'll move them a ways down the hall. The way this place is built, nothing we've got could breach more than one wall at most."
"What about the guys in here?" Erica asked.
"Leave 'em," said Penelope. "They're Nazis, and more than that they're scumbags who use kids as weapons. Let 'em get what they deserve."
"Oh, this one's a keeper," Margit murmured, so low that Erica could barely hear. In a louder voice, she added, "Okay, let's move!"
There was a knack to mixing chemicals. Some people had it, and others did not. Back in the bad old days when he'd been known as Morgenstern, Hans had had plenty of opportunity to exercise this knack of his. The things he could do with household cleaners and an aluminum plate would amaze some people. Likewise, he was amazed that others found it so hard to match his results. To an extent he had his father to thank for that, as much as he hated to admit it. Baron Dämmerung's experiments in human enhancement had been ham-fisted and crude, but occasionally things had gone right. Hans's peculiar ability to skip steps to reach a desired result was just one example. It wasn't quite a Schimmelhorn effect. To himself, he thought of it as his MacGyver trait.
Oh, how he'd enjoyed that show when it first ran on television.
"Keep your mind on the present," his wife whispered as the chemicals before him began to smoke. He quickly poured the mixture into a large tupper container and fitted the lid. The rec room kitchen had been full of them, so he doubted anyone would mind if he melted a few. Beside him, Winifred was soaking some cleaning rags with bleach. The scraps of material had been cut into narrow lengths and then bound together to make fuses. Stabbing a hole into each container, she inserted the scraps one by one. In a few minutes they had a small array of tupper-bombs, ready to go.
He waited as they searched. He waited as they mixed. He waited as they left. Achziger was good at waiting. He waited a few minutes more before standing. Parts of his head and neck went -click- as they fitted back together properly. The lenses of his monocle rotated clockwise and counter, adjusting to the dim light. He activated the heat sensor with a thought. When all was in order, he followed the heatprints out of the room.
"Are the RFID trackers online yet?"
"Not yet, Lady Groenwald. Anything that high on the priority list will be locked up for hours still." Not for the first time, Agent Brenner was glad that his commander was not the type to shoot the messenger. It made such a difference after his years in IT at that insurance firm.
"Last known locations of my brothers?"
"We've contacted Glas and Sandmann," Agent Fox said. "They're upstairs helping to organize the cargo crews. One of the security turrets went rogue and started sniping at people. Ten injured, but Glas says he's got it under control now."
"What about Wahrheit and Mauer?"
"Wahrheit appears to be locked inside the men's toilet on the third sub-level. A team is trying to cut him out without triggering any Syndicate surprises. Mauer's last known position was the shooting range."
The floor shook. There was the faint impression of a -boom- that bypassed the ears, traveling through the feet and legs to arrive at the back of the head as a troubling vibration. The screen on one of the functioning work stations turned red, bathing the dim room with the color of blood.
"We've got structural damage reports from the area of the shooting range," Brenner said slowly. "The system isn't giving any more data than that, however."
"Damn it." The Green Cross checked her holsters, then pointed to the custodians. "Come with me."
Matthias stumbled as the floor shook briefly. He looked to Adolf, but the old man just shook his head. "Margit's having her fun," was all he said.
Jesus, how could the man stay so blasé? Running around in the dark, shooting first or risk being shot, sudden explosions... Matthias had thought he'd left this craziness behind after graduating high school.
The light was just dim enough to mess with the baseline sense of colors and shades. Beige and silver had about the same level of contrast against a dark background, making it hard for the defending team to tell that he and his partner didn't belong until it was too late for someone. After that, a couple of custodians were stuffed in a closet, and he and Adolf had proper, silver jumpsuits to wear. As long as he kept his head down, the two of them would be able to go anywhere.
Well, for as long as the lights stayed off.
Two custodians stood at a T-intersection with their backs to the wall. The Lady herself had ordered them to watch over these corridors, and they took that command as sacred. What was going on, they did not know. Nor did they want to. These two had been chosen for their tenacity, not their intelligence. Somewhere in the Green Cross's files on the new generation of Aryans, their names were inscribed with the words "Do not include" noted in the margin. Their commander appreciated their utility, but had no illusions about their benefit to the gene pool.
They'd served well so far, directing teams of lovely young women to their destinations with a shared leer on their faces. Once the groups had retreated down below, the two of them were left to their own devices. They stuck to their posts, weapons in hand, ready for anything.
As a tupper bomb skidded across the hallway floor, fuse lit and malevolently fuming, they learned the hard way that life will always have a surprise or two left over.
Agent Baumgartner could feel the false cheer of her public persona wearing thin. The bubbly emotions were dripping away, evanescing under the harsh light of the task at hand. A mental shrug cleared the last of it away. Her little Valkyries were well in hand now; there was no need to fake it anymore.
"Squads, report," she called into the walky-talky. It was a piece of junk, but it worked. That was more than could be said of a lot of things right now.
"Squad One here," came Helena's voice. "Sector B2-Alpha is secure."
"Squad Two here," Adele called in. "Sector B2-Beta is secure."
The other groups followed: Talia, Roberta, Stacey, Patricia... but not Marlene. "Squad Six," please respond," Baumgartner called.
There was a wash of static and a few odd beeps before a voice came over the walky-talky. "Squad Six here. Problems with the equipment, ma'am. Sorry. Er, Sector B2... Eta? B2-Eta is secure." Something was wrong with that voice. It was tinged with uncertainty, timidity, which none of her girls should be feeling now. Valkyries took their orders as absolute, and were never lacking in faith. Marlene would have made her report with pride. Even through the static, Baumgartner could tell there was someone else at the comm. Someone who couldn't count in Greek letters.
"Who is this? Where is Marlene?"
"Um, well, um... she had to use the little girls' room?"
Baumgartner sighed and shook her head. Really? Was that the best this person could do? She flipped the transmitter to all channels. "All squads to B2-Zeta. I repeat, all squads to B2-Zeta. Locate Squad Six and apprehend intruders."
"Seriously, you suck at this." Penelope grabbed the walky-talky from her hand.
"I'm sorry! It's not like they teach this sorta thing in junior high school, y'know?" Erica pulled nervously at her bangs. "What do we do now?"
"We prepare for company," Margit said calmly. "Strategy 101, girls. If the enemy is obliging enough to come to you, don't be shy about giving them a good welcome."
Two idiots, again
One floor above, the T-intersection was an awful mess. Scorch marks and bits of molten plastic splattered the walls like bad guerilla street art. The two luckless custodians were splayed out upon the floor, disarmed and disoriented. Vaguely, they recognized that footsteps had come and gone, and that somewhere between the two they'd been relieved of their weaponry.
Now a new noise was coming up the corridor, something almost like footsteps. Shuff-click, shuff-click, shuff-click.
Agent Wilson recognized that weird half-step and knew who made it. Raising himself up on his elbows, he called blindly into the shadows. "Herr Achziger, izzat you? Somebody jumped us, and..." His voice trailed off.
There was something wrong with the old man. Well, more wrong than usual. Achziger twitched and shook with every step, his joints making the damnedest clicking sound. The man's head was turned in an odd direction. At first, Wilson could only see the right side of Achziger's face, so battered and bruised that the eye was swollen shut.
Twitch-click! Then the head snapped around, so sharply it hurt to watch. Now the man's monocle, was staring at Wilson. There was nothing behind it, no cold blue eye, just a empty darkness. It was like staring down the barrel of a gun. The old man's mouth was fixed into a corpse's smile, and his body trembled, the clicking noises coming louder and faster.
Of the two custodians, Agent Wilson was generally considered to be the brighter one, if only by comparison. It didn't take too bright a man to realize he'd better not stick around. He stumbled to his feet and ran.
Agent Dade, still stunned by explosions and electric shocks, didn't have a chance.
"We had a small setback, Lady Groenwald."
"I can see that." The evidence was littered all across the conference room: overturned chairs, lengths of twine and duct tape, and what looked to be half the armory's dart-chargers scattered and spent. Her honor guard had already dragged out the unconscious bodies. "The dots are numerous, but if you'd be kind enough to draw me some lines?"
"Yes, Lady Groenwald." Every inch of the agent's body felt cold and dry, except for her palms. She wiped one on her suit leg, leaving a smear of sweat. Taking a deep breath, she continued. "About twenty minutes ago, we became aware that one of the Valkyrie squads had been taken down, and their communication device suborned. Using the triangulation function on the master set, we... I traced them to this room."
"But they weren't here."
"No, Lady Groenwald. The walky-talky, er... comm unit was taped upright to the center of the table. I sent the girls, the Valkyries around the perimeter. I thought perhaps the intruders were using the table or chairs as cover."
"And then one of the girls found a tripline, the hard way."
It had been chaos, glorious chaos, she was sure. Margit was proud of herself. Duct tape and twine were such simple things, but oh-so-useful. The pilfered dart-chargers were small and light, and when tucked beneath chairs or attached to the underside of a table, they were so difficult to spot. And in the dim half-light, so were the trigger lines. Keeping them properly taut had been tricky, but with all the excess furniture and those catering carts, it wasn't too difficult. Once the panic had set in, all that crashing around would set off even more of the weapons.
The only pity was that she and her girls were long gone by then, so she couldn't see for herself.
"So you did not see who did it?"
"No, Lady Groenwald," Baumgartner replied. "But we know they have some inside help."
"The voice on the comm unit was young, a teenager, and female. From what I have been told, that does not match any of the intruders." The Green Cross nodded at this, so she continued. "I have two girls unaccounted for. Neither was properly indoctrinated yet, and I thought they were simply hiding somewhere. The first is Penelope Rose. She's naturally resistant to hypnotic techniques, it seems, and she's been a troublemaker for some time now. The other is Erica Brown, the new girl. She only arrived this morning, so she's had just one exposure to the control protocols. The two of them were last seen together at shooting practice."
"Yes, that does seem suspicious... wait," said Lillian von Groenwald. "What new girl?"
Adolf's eyes may not have been a match for the Screech Owl's in the darkness, but his ears were sharp for a man his age. They picked out the footsteps ahead, could tell there were two pairs of feet in those slippers that came with the outfits around here. Each footfall was slow and soft. Either they were not in a rush, or they were trying to sneak past. He signaled to the Owl, and they took positions. The owners of those footsteps would be arriving around the corner in a few seconds. His finger rested lightly on the trigger button, ready to fire.
A small plastic box skidded across the floor, coming to rest between them. From its top a small fuse fizzled. With a curse, Adolf booted it down the corridor, where it slammed into a wall and exploded. He'd seen homemade bombs like that before.
"Dammit, Hans!" he yelled into the shadows. "Check before you chuck!"
"Sorry, we weren't expecting a friendly encounter," came his brother's voice. Hans and his wife peeled themselves away from the wall and walked up to hug him. "We should have, though. Today has your mark all over it."
"Where's Margit?" asked Winifred as she embraced him. "And who is your friend there?"
"Margit is currently somewhere on the second sub-level making things blow up," Adolf said with pride. "My companion is Screech Owl, of the Arkansas superhero community."
"A pleasure," said the younger man. He adjusted his goggles. "We should get moving. That bomb of yours wasn't exactly subtle."
"We make do with what we have," said Hans.
"So which way are we headed?" asked Winifred.
"The exit to the surface is that way." Adolf pointed to the right. "At this juncture, they'll probably expect us to go there."
"And so we'll go elsewhere," finished his sister-in-law.
"Just so. We should try to rendez-vous with Margit and her partner first. Since the fireworks have already started, I must assume she's found your grandson." He pushed a small button on his watch, setting the timer. "We should all be together before the contingency plans come into play."
"Wait, what contingency plans?" asked the Screech Owl as they hurried down the corridor.
"You must not have worked with Adolf for long," Winifred observed. "He always has something to fall back on."
"He ain't crazy; he's my brother," quipped Hans. "And we're all still alive, at our age, which says a lot about his planning skills."
"Greetings, intruders." The voice came loud and clear from every intercom on the three sub-levels. "My name is Lillian von Groenwald, and it is my base that you are currently sneaking about like vile little cockroaches. They were my chosen daughters whom you brought low not long ago, and it will be my hand that crushes the life from your bodies if you do not immediately give yourselves up."
"Poser," muttered Penelope. The two girls were huddled around a table in a side room while Margit and Ruby checked the hallway ahead. "Who does she think she is, a Bond villain?"
"Probably," Erica whispered back. "She had to get it from somewhere."
"Does that make us Bond girls?"
Erica's reply was cut off. "To the young Schroeder — or would you prefer Brown? I must applaud your ability to hide in plain sight, but the charade is over. We know what you look like now. If you wish to see your grandparents ever again, come to the main entrance hall on the first sub-level. You have fifteen minutes." With that, the intercom buzzed with static for a second and then was silent.
"Yeah. That's my real family name. Not Brown." No need to mention the Eric / Erica thing right now, she decided. "I needed a place to hide, and Miz Bee's summer camp thing seemed like a good idea."
"Makes sense," said Penelope. "So what are we going to do?"
"Do I have much of a choice?"
"Well, if Margit were here right now, she'd probably say something like, 'You may not have a choice of what to do, but you can choose how you do it.'"
"Okay, it's kinda scary how you do that."
"And it's good to see I've passed some good sense on to the younger generation," the old woman said, poking her head through the door.
"But how?" Erica raised her voice as she threw her hands in the air. "What can I do, really? I'm a just-post-junior high girl," she hissed the noun, "with no training and no idea what I'm doing!"
She spun around, knocking a knee against the table. There was a loud bang as kneecap met metal. It didn't hurt, but never had Erica hated a piece of furniture so much for simply being in the way. Every little bit of anger and frustration tap-dancing across her grey matter began a lively jitterbug, and the poor table was their outlet of expression. With a low growl, she heaved it out of the way. It didn't slide easily; it was a heavy thing that resisted with all the inertia it could muster. A metallic groan shook the floor as that inertia lost out against Erica's skinny frame.
Huh, she'd almost forgotten about the muscles. The early morning seemed so far ago, now.
"Tell me, Erica dear," Margit's voice rang through the sudden silence. "How long have you been able to do that?"
Lillian von Groenwald
Lillian lowered the microphone and released the big red button of the intercom. However calm and assured her voice may have been, the roiling emotions seen in the depths of her eyes would put the lie to it. For all its intensity, it was a wonder that her gaze hadn't struck anyone dead yet.
Mauer was gone forever. She'd confirmed that herself. Most of her fledgling Valkyries were indisposed due to poor leadership and massive electric shocks. Instead of four intruders running around, it seemed they had six. And right now, Brenner was walking up to her with a print-out and a green tint to his face. That did not bode well.
"What is it this time?" she asked, with only a little fury leaking out around the edges of the words.
"Three casualty reports, Lady Groenwald." The agent handed her the paper. "Dade, Matthews, and Quincy. All three look to have been stunned, most likely by the intruders."
"And then something else got to them." The unpleasant color of his face deepened.
"Shot, stabbed, or exsanguinated?"
"Er, mostly the last one, Lady Groenwald. Well, not blood so much as... there were signs of tre... trepanation."
A weary sigh escaped her lips. "Three, you said?"
"He must have been hurt more than usual. Blunt trauma to the skull, most likely."
"Tell everyone to keep an eye out for Herr Achziger. If they see him acting strangely, and especially if he does not speak, then they have permission to shoot. Understood?"
She watched Brenner scurry off, then sighed once more. Herr Achziger... the man was a bulwark of her organization, practically a grandfather to her, but she'd always understood that one day he might become a liability. Now, it looked as if the old man's enhancements had gotten the better of him again. Lillian hoped he got himself back together soon, but if not... Well, he would be missed.
Achziger had heard it said of old age that it was like one's mind were trapped in a body not its own, at the helm but not fully in control of the course it took. He felt that way quite often, watching while his body went through the motions.
Watching himself eat and drink.
Watching himself make small-talk.
Watching himself die. That had occurred more often than it should.
Watching himself get back up and go on a murderous spree. He rather enjoyed that part, actually.
One by one, his various parts accounted for themselves. The self-repairing bio-ceramic laminate bones, a parting gift from Doctor Graves. The monocle that replaced his left eye, a reward from le Mechanicien. Various synthetic internal organs, replacements for those lost to time, wear, or shrapnel. Meters of artificially grown and maintained epidermis. Achziger hadn't survived this long by being timid or retiring, though that would have been less painful. No, he'd survived because every time he'd been brought to death's door, some crazed, brilliant mind had been there waiting for him, saying "I can fix this. I can replace that. I can make it better." It was around the time that his entire circulatory system was replaced that things became strange.
His body continued down its chosen path, still in pursuit of Herr Abendritter and his wife. It was a slow chase, but inexorable. The gestalt of devises that formed his body knew nothing of fatigue. In the back of his head, his mind settled in and enjoyed the ride. He would regain control eventually. There might even be a bloody good entertainment before then.
In one corner of the first sub-level, four intruders heard the Green Cross's speech, but were no more enlightened now than they'd been before. "Funny," said Winifred. "I don't feel captured right now."
"She's playing games, liebchen."
"Of course she is, but with whom?"
"Well, she obviously doesn't know where you are," said the Screech Owl. "So if she's trying to mess with you, she's making a hash of it. Your grandson's the only one she knows is running around like this."
"Assuming he's with Margit," Adolf said. "Though that seems likely. But he wouldn't know that you two are safe with us."
"So, time to crash a party?" asked the Owl.
"Perhaps..." Adolf snapped to attention, bring his weapon to bear on the shadows behind them. "Did anyone else hear that?"
Winifred had, and not for the first time. A shuffling of feet followed by a faint click, it had been a part of the background noise for some time now.
And it was getting closer.
To Matthias, the corridor might as well have been fully lit. His owlish eyes had no trouble piercing the darkness. As such, he was the first to see the hunched figure round the corner. The shuffling gait, the arms hanging limply, the head tilted at a bizarre angle, all reminded him of zombie movies he had watched as a kid. With each step, the figure led with a different part of its body — shoulder, chest, forehead — making the rest shudder and jerk about. Then, right at the verge of where a baseline's vision could see, the body came to a halt. It crouched, joints bending to painfully acute angles as the clicking grew louder and louder.
"Um, guys..." That was all that got past his lips before, like a spring released, the thing leapt at them.
Four of them. That was unforeseen. Had his prey already been taken? But no, his hyperosmic implants responded from their nest within his sinus cavity. Two unknown scent profiles, one young, one old... but familiar. It tickled at his memory. He'd met this scent before, prior to his implants. Similar to young Hans, but with a dash of spice that lingered like cologne. Ah, yes. He remembered now. Adolf.
The part of him that thought said to hold back, to wait a moment longer. The part of him that raged would have nothing of it. He'd waited during the repair cycle, and his targets had moved on. He'd taken time to replenish his stocks of precious bodily fluids, and let them gain distance. No matter, he'd thought. Slow and steady goes the knife, after all. But now Adolf was a part of this; now there was no time to wait. Bad things happened when Adolf appeared. His body ached with the memories.
Joints, prepare. Clik-clik-clik.
Muscles, coil. Creak....
Target acquired. Spring!
The slow shuffle had been a movement born of physical economy. Energy saved was now energy spent, launching him across meters of shadowy space towards his prey.
Eisenmädel, he thought. So poetic that she should be the one to die now. Her husband, he would not be allowed to harm, and her companions were dangerous, unknown quantities. He would pluck the flower of her life as he should have done fifty years ago.
She had only the young man's brief shout as warning, but that was enough. Barely. Winifred caught the clicking thing in motion, channeling its velocity smoothly as she slid back and left. She grabbed a wrist as it passed by, letting the momentum guide her as she threw it into the wall.
It landed feet-first upon the vertical plane, using it as a springboard to attack again.
In the secluded nook of his mind, Achziger exulted. The thrill of the fight surrounded him, tickling the edges of his psyche. He had never been the one to rush into battle; no, he left that to the themaagenten and their goons. It was not until his later years that he had realized what he was missing, and by then he was too old, too decrepit to enjoy the rush of adrenaline or the joy of physical victory. When his body took over for him, however, that was when he felt most alive. It moved in ways he could not, doing things he would never try.
Through his own eyes he watched, a spectator to the coliseum cheering on his favored gladiator — himself. His body leapt and bounced, taking advantage of his shrunken stature to worm its way around his opponents, tripping up the younger man and pushing him into Adolf. In the close confines of the hallway, Baron Dämmerung's little toy soldier couldn't shoot for fear of hitting everyone but Achziger, and the fighting spirit which filled him now was eager to press the advantage.
Eisenmädel proved difficult to hit, sliding and dodging everything he threw at her. Every time ended in a throw or a hold, and while he escaped and recovered from each, his muscles were paying the price. The pain of overexertion lingered like sharp spangles of light, just beyond the haze of battle lust. He would have to finish this soon.
The feeding apparatus shivered from its pocket in the folds of his esophagus. The thin needle spike was a crucial tool for his internal repair systems, and a doughty weapon in its own right. He felt his face and neck contort as it slid into position, extending inches beyond his lips. One chance, one stab, and he would have her.
He went for the jugular.
The soft style was not working. Winifred had determined that much. The thing's body lurched and rolled through everything she threw at it, in ways that made her doubt that it even felt pain the way a human would understand it. The thing spun around, changing tactics as it came straight for her throat. The heel of her hand slammed into its head. That worked, though for a moment she feared to have broken something. For such a small thing, it was quite solid. Resilient, too. Already it was twitching, picking itself up off the floor. It needed only a second to attack again.
That was a second none of them would allow. Four pilfered dart-chargers were brought to bear, and four times four charges were emptied into the attacker. Its body shuddered and arched, but made no cry. The only sound was that infernal clicking. And soon enough, there wasn't even that.
"Anyone we know?" Adolf asked as she tilted the thing's head towards her flashlight.
"It's... Herr Achziger?" she said in surprise. The monocle gleamed in the light, but there wasn't anything behind it. No eye, no spark of thought or life, nothing.
"Old man Achziger? He was pretty spry for someone pushing his second century."
"I always suspected he had hidden depths," said Hans. "Stygian, perhaps even infernal."
"Save the banter for later, boys," said Winifred. "I'm late for my own hostage crisis."
Lillian von Groenwald
Tick-tick-tick, went the gears in Lillian's pocket watch. It was an heirloom, passed down from her father, who'd received it from his in a long line of succession stretching back to the time of the Prussian kaisers. It had been carried through numerous wars, in the Lorraine, Poland, the Crimea, the Sudetenland, and many others since. She knew its history by heart. Its beat was hers, and she kept it meticulously wound. Tick-tick-tick, it counted the seconds. Three minutes until time was up. Idly, she wondered who would show first, Hans and Winifred or the grand... son? Daughter? Nobody seemed to be sure. All her prior information said that young Schroeder was a boy, and Glas and Sandmann swore up and down to the intel's veracity, but Baumgartner was equally sure of her being a girl.
There would be time for that later, she supposed. Likely the Dynamorph was involved in some manner. Two minutes now. She nodded to the remaining custodians, and the dozen men took their places in the corners of the room. Fox and Brenner were manning the jerry-rigged security system they'd placed in nearby corridors.
Her smartphone beeped. Someone was in sight of the cameras. At her side, Baumgartner stiffened, and for a moment the room was filled with the soft clicks of safeties being switched off.
The entry hall was well lit, though the rest of the floor was still on emergency lighting. It was hardly an ideal situation, but at least the bright lamps would dazzle anyone running in from the shadows. There were two entrances to the hall available, and both were covered. One minute to go....
Someone was definitely out there. Her ears picked up two sets of footsteps, one strong and sure, the other hesitant and dragging. Then the owners of those feet came into sight.
There was the bright head of yellow gold that Baumgartner had described, and the sapphire eyes. The face... it was as if she were leafing through one of Vater's albums. The girl did not look a thing like Eric Schroeder, but she was a perfect Eisenmädel in miniature, a vision of Aryan beauty and power. It took the Green Cross an extra moment to notice the darker blonde girl behind Erica, or the dart-charger she was holding far too close to the young Eisenmädel's right ear.
"Penelope!" shouted Agent Baumgartner. "What on earth are you doing?"
"Getting out of here!" the honey blonde girl shouted back. "You all want Erica here, right? Well she's my ticket out of this fucking summer camp! Oh, pardon my German," she added sarcastically. "I mean this verdammt cesspool of a mental laundromat. This is one brain that's not gonna sit still to be washed!" Penelope gripped Erica's arm harder, making the girl squeal. "I'm serious here! Let me out the front gate, give me some wheels, and she's yours."
"You do not want to do this," Lillian purred, her tones carrying a wave of emotion straight at the girl. Of all the power bestowed upon her by her doting Vater, the ability to negotiate and get her way every time was the most useful. She could flood a room with her words and her will, then watch the receptive mind absorb it like a sponge.
"Like hell I don't! This place sucks Vienna sausage, and I'm sick of it!"
Or it could break against the rocks of a stubborn resolve. Baumgartner had said the girl resisted hypnosis, and that often meant the person had problems with authority. Ms. Rose should have been dealt with well before she reached this point.
"Now, clear the way in front of that ramp!" Penelope jutted her chin at the sloped entryway. "Anyone comes within three yards of me, and Erica here gets it!"
"You do know there's no way you're getting away with this," the Green Cross said, abandoning the soothing charisma for a more blunt approach.
"Tut-tut, you almost sound like a good guy there, oh Fearless Leader!" the girl called back. "Treating me like some big bad, when in fact I'm just small potatoes. Let me go, and I'm gone — no muss, no fuss, and there's nothing I can do to you after this. You get Erica for whatever nefarious purpose, and I get to leave this crappy secret lair behind and live my own life."
It was tempting, Lillian had to admit. As simple as it would be to kill the girl, there would be a mess afterwards. Penelope knew nothing of importance, and would most likely come to a bad end without any assistance. Still, it set a bad precedent. The girl could always be silenced later.... Lillian made a quick motion of the hand, and the custodians opened a wide path for the girl and her hostage to follow. every hand was on a holster; every eye was on Penelope. If the girl was at all nervous, then it couldn't be seen in her face or stride.
"Penelope, please!" Baumgartner cried.
"And Miz Bee! Fancy meeting you here. I barely recognized you with that frown on your face. Whassa matter? Run out of happy dust? We all figured you were on the nose-candy, y'know. No other way you could be so cheerful at oh-fucking-God ay-em every morning."
The ersatz camp counselor turned bright red with indignation. Lillian pretended not to take note. The habits of her underlings were not her concern until they came into conflict with the mission. Baumgartner had many issues, but whatever chemical dependencies she had were tiny in comparison.
"Is there a point to this name-calling?" she asked the girl with the gun. "Or are you having second thoughts?"
"Maybe I just like being the center of attention."
There was a flicker of red, barely visible out of the corner of her eye, followed by a flash of translucent ruby. A loud clap of thunder rang out from the entry slope, startling the custodians. An attack? The Dynamorph? Lillian's gun was the first to fire at the entryway, only to miss the two figures who dashed away in opposite directions. Air displacement, she realized. Teleportation. Just who were these intruders?
"Showtime!" Penelope hissed in her ear. Erica swallowed the lump in her throat and nodded. Ruby and Margit's entrance had pulled everyone's attention away, and she was realizing now that the older girl's comment about being at the center of attention was partly true. Penelope took the dart-charger from her hostage's head, pushing Erica away as she reminded the guards of her presence, ballistically.
Erica herself was not armed. She didn't feel comfortable with a gun in hand, and Margit understood the sentiment. The old woman had instead spent several precious minutes instructing her niece in how to properly throw a punch. Tensing her legs, she picked out one goon whose back was still turned, launching into him in her best linebacker imitation. The two of them hit the ground with a crunch worthy of the NFL. This guy wouldn't be getting up anytime soon. She bounced to her feet, meeting the next goon's face with a wild roundhouse punch. This time there was a snap, a wet, low crunch, and the second goon dropped like a stone.
She... she... took a deep breath, and tried not to think about it. There was a time for freakouts, and it most certainly was not now. Eyes on the prize, as Oma would say. She had to survive the next few minutes if she were to have any regrets at all.
Crouching low beside her two goons, she got her bearings. Penelope was back in the doorway, taking the occasional potshot but otherwise playing it safe. Margit was in the process of schooling one guard in front of his gun-toting buddies. Ruby was 'porting around the room, stopping only long enough to fire a shot before blinking out again.
Wide blue eyes took this all in, and then the oddness happened. The scene slowed down to a crawl, until she was living in a claymation world. Only, she was still moving at a normal pace. Like at the seminar, the framerate of life dropped, making everyone else's moves choppy and robotic. A glance around the room told her that everything was affected — her friends, the Green Cross, Miz Bee, the goons...
Wait. Who was that behind Margit?
Agent Glas ambled through the firefight with his usual lack of concern. Experience had taught him that even when his power was at its peak, people would notice him just enough to avoid collisions. In a fight such as this, the side effect extended to mental targeting as well. People, ally or enemy, would recognize his presence without realizing it, and thus never aim directly at him. There was still the risk of a ricochet or poor aim, but he'd always had amazing luck.
His stomach gurgled. Why couldn't this have started after lunch? The morning's half-bowl of porridge was wearing thin.
Glas hovered at the edges long enough to assess threats. The two girls were amateurs — lucky, but not for long. The Negro woman was a difficult target. It would be necessary to lure her in. The old woman was a definite danger, and also an opportunity. Take her down, and the teleporter would come to the rescue. Two birds, one stone.
The old woman had been dancing with one of the custodians for a minute now, toying with the man even as she used him as a shield against bullets. It was a ploy for attention while her partner worked. On one level, Glas approved. He loved to see a professional at work, just not enough to let it continue. As he came up from behind, matching her every bob and weave, his estimation of her increased. Each motion told him that Agent Wexler should be on the floor regurgitating his breakfast at the least, except that he was more useful on his feet. This woman was a credit to whatever organization she worked for, and he was proud that his was the knife that would now cut her down.
It was a good knife, as keen and focused as its wielder. Like it, Glas's attention was on a single point, biding his time until the right opportunity arose.
"Margit!" A high-pitched shriek hit his ears.
The slip of a girl hadn't come out of nowhere; Glas was aware of her presence in the chamber, but had dismissed her along with the rest. That she was running towards his position was of no consequence. He trusted in his psychic shield of obscurity.
And then, for the first time in his adult life, the agent was completely blindsided. The girl's fist caught him in the gut, folding him in half. All of a sudden, his focus was on one small patch of floor, a circle surrounded by a converging darkness. He never felt the impact as he collapsed.
Lillian von Groenwald
Lillian had chosen this chamber because there was no cover for an opponent to hide behind. With guns pointing at all exits and the high ground hers, there should have been no contest here. So why was she hiding in a doorframe with a small hole in her arm?
There was a -zing-. A flechette whispered the answer into her ear as it passed. Any closer, and it would have taken her earlobe as well. She kept her head down, knowing that the shooter was already gone. The verdammt teleporter was far too accurate for someone who was jumping between locations every five seconds. She gripped her arm, grimacing. Blood oozed from where a flechette had perforated the muscle. It was only a flesh wound, thank goodness. Beside her, Agent Baumgartner wasn't as lucky. The Negro had shot her twice in the arm and once in the shoulder, all in one brief spread.
It was not a good feeling, knowing that one was currently on the losing side of a fight. Lillian risked a peek through the door, just in time to see Glas get knocked off his feet by the young Eisenmädel. Oh, that girl was better than she'd imagined. What she wouldn't give for an hour alone with her, a chance to bring her to the proper path. There was so much the girl could do for the master race... it was a shame, really, that the girl had to die.
She aimed as well as she could with one hand, waiting till the golden crown of hair was exactly aligned before pulling the trigger.
Erica saw the shot coming, though she wasn't sure how. Like the rest of the room, the bullet moved frame by frame, visible once or twice along the bee-line it made for her. This wasn't bullet-time, however. There was no chance to dodge; her body simply could not move fast enough. Most of these thoughts came to her after the fact, however. In the moment, there was a sense of motion, a flash of light, the roar of a gun following close behind, and finally the -ping- of something small and hard falling to the ground. It took her a second to realize that someone had shot her, and another second to realize that the bullet had bounced. Off of what, she wasn't sure. Not her; she hadn't felt a thing.
What the hell was that? By chance, Ruby was looking right at Erica when the shot rang out, but even so she wondered. There'd been a flash of silver, the faintest impression of a veil of light fading away, and the bullet falling to earth. To her, that said force-field, only she knew the girl couldn't have a projector on her person. That didn't leave many possibilities, and she didn't have the time to worry about them. In fact, as the manic smile of Sandmann appeared in front of her, she realized she had no time at all. Then the sands of sleep caught her.
Lillian von Groenwald
The teleporting Negro was out of action, but the young Eisenmädel was still standing. Lillian considered this a net gain, though far from perfect. Two-thirds of her custodians were lying injured on the floor, as was Glas. At the far end of the chamber, the older woman was finally finishing off the gang of custodians she'd kept occupied for so long. That Penelope girl was no longer shooting either. Most likely she'd wasted all her bullets.
Her gaze returned to the young Eisenmädel, noting the fear and confusion on the girl's face. She didn't seem to know what had happened, though the Green Cross could guess. A Dynamorph might possibly have achieved that effect, might even have altered the color of the girl's hair and eyes. If both Glas and Baumgartner were correct, however, then a mousy brown boy had become a golden blonde girl overnight, and that was a different matter entirely. Even with a Dynamorph, that degree of change should not be possible. That left only one real possibility in her mind.
Mutation. Nothing else could account for the entire package, though it sickened her to even consider the noble bloodlines of Dämmerung and Eisenmädel polluted in such manner. It was the ultimate afront to her sainted Vater's mission, all the more so because it came wrapped in the body of a perfect Aryan. She could almost hear the masterminds of the mutant threat sniggering in the shadows, gloating over the contamination they were injecting into the genetic core of the master race.
She was on her feet.
How they must be laughing at her Vater's memory, at his legacy which they were corrupting so boldly.
She had her weapon drawn.
And to make their hidden serpent, their secret gene born of Lilith's perversion, to make it cleave unto the image of purity and power that was the great Eisenmädel! The woman she had taken as her ideal, the woman her poor, broken mother could never have been... the woman who, in young Lily's warped heart, had taken on the role of an Aryan madonna.
She had a round chambered.
For that, she would never forgive. For that, she would kill. So that the purity of mankind would be safe.
She pulled the trigger. Then she fired again, and again.
Even at her current framerate, to Erica's eyes the Green Cross had come with frightening speed. The woman's legs carried her so quickly that they blurred. The Nazi's weapon, a wicked pistol, had appeared in the woman's hands between frames, like sleight of hand. The girl stood there, frozen like a deer in the headlights, as the Wagnerian huntress let out an anguished stream of laughter that went on and on even as it was punctuated by gun-shots. Erica covered her face as the heat and sound of each small explosion washed over her.
Four... five... six shots. And none of them had hit her? She opened her eyes a little, but then surprise opened them more. Between her and the crazy Nazi lady, a delicate veil of grey light had appeared, perhaps two feet from her body. Six large bullets shone like chrome as they floated. Then it was gone, and the bullets answered the comforting call of gravity, clattering upon the hard floor.
For once, the Green Cross seemed completely surprised. With mouth agape and gun hanging loosely from her hands, she was, for the first time in a long while, completely open.
Erica didn't give herself a chance to chicken out of this. Her fist flew straight and fast, just as Margit had taught her. It smashed that Nazi bitch right in the nose, spinning her body around and knocking her a few yards away at the same time. Everyone in the else in the room stopped still. No one said a word as the Green Cross pushed herself up on her elbows and glared daggers.
The girl cringed as a flood of anger and hatred rose in a mighty wave to swallow her whole. The emotions surged across her body, burning like ice. They picked at her brain, found the little insecurities, the doubts and worries, and amplified them. Why fight? they said to her. It's pointless. The Green Cross will win, so why not submit? There's nothing you can do. You're just a poor little girl/boy who doesn't know anything. Worthless...
It took everything she had to stand tall, to not fall to her knees and beg. These weren't her thoughts, she told herself. The Green Cross was getting in her head somehow. It was all a trick... She repeated this over and over, even as the emotional assault battered against the walls of her conscious mind. On the other end, the Green Cross was shaking, her electric blue eyes the only steady points on her body. Whatever the woman was doing, it was taking its toll on her as well. It became a contest to see who would cry first, the one who received the vitriol or the one who produced it.
"Alright, I believe this has gone on long enough." The man's voice was large, booming, commanding. It filled the spaces of the room and crowded out all the negative vibes by force of presence.
A few minutes before, Penelope was pausing to reload when a heavy hand fell upon her shoulder. The cool, metallic snout of a dart-charger kissed her temple. By now, she knew well enough not to fight. Seriously, twice in one day? Did her head have a sign on it that said "Place gun here"?
"Now, girl," a stern, older voice whispered in her ear. "Tell me, in five words or less, why I shouldn't stun you into next Tuesday."
"Um. I'm with Margit?" she gambled.
There was a pause, and the weapon removed itself from her skull. "Good answer," said the voice. Its owner pulled her up, face-to-chest. Man, this guy was tall. And old, with his hair all silver. The way he moved wasn't old, though. He reminded her of Margit.
"Now, tell us what's going on." Behind the man, she could see three other people. One was a guy in his late twenties, kinda cute except for the nerd-goggles. The other two were old like the first guy or Margit, which was to say, only in the white hair and wrinkles department. She felt like she'd seen them before, maybe in passing.
"Well, me and Erica, we were working with Margit and Ruby 'cuz we all wanted out of here, only Fearless Leader said she had Erica's grandparents, so we had to come this way. So I pretended to hold Erica hostage to distract Fearless Leader and her goons, then Margit and Ruby teleported in behind them, and then —"
She was interrupted by a very loud gunshot. Whipping around, she couldn't see Erica's protective veil in action the first time, but there was no missing it a short moment later as the Green Cross lay into the blonde girl. Penelope stared wide-eyed as the bullets were stopped, then cheered when von Groenwald had her clock cleaned.
"Whoo! Go Erica!"
"Erica?" she heard the older woman whisper behind her. "We'll sort this out later, liebchen," she heard the older man say in reply. Did they know Erica? Maybe they were her grandparents? She was going to ask, but then the Green Cross did... something. It was hard to explain afterwards, and she was only getting the edges of it anyway. Erica looked like she was getting hit repeatedly with a baseball bat to the brain, but she kept standing somehow.
That's when the sorta-scary old dude cleared his throat and stepped past her and into the room.
"Alright, I believe this has gone on long enough."
Lillian von Groenwald
The words were cold and hard, patriarchal in a way that hit Lillian square in the hindbrain. She would never admit it, but the Green Cross was particularly vulnerable when she resorted to emotional flares as an attack. She pushed hard to overwhelm her targets, and anyone else in the room, precisely because she knew that a single sharp word could break her out of it. And now, a whole sentence came at her, chill and distant, as commanding as her father had ever been.
The man coming towards her could have been her father. Tall, silver, Aryan, strong. But the face... the face, she remembered now. The face, she could put a name to. "Adolf von Abendritter," she croaked. It hurt to speak. Her nose was the source of a red river flowing down her face, and the vibrations hurt it so.
"It's Stein, actually. I took my wife's name over thirty years ago. And you are Eugen's daughter. The family resemblance is remarkable."
"What are you doing here?" She fixed him with her best glare, but the pain in her nose ruined the effect.
"Leaving." The man checked his watch. "You should be, too."
The nerve of the man! "You seem awfully sure for a man who is still outnumbered." She snapped her fingers, and Sandmann appeared behind her with the remaining custodians.
"Miss Groenwald, your father often assumed that force of arms was everything. Please do not make the same mistake." He checked his watch again. "Then again, mistakes once made are difficult to recover from."
"And what mistakes have I made?"
"For one, your men did not properly check our vehicle as it came in, or else they would have found..." His watch began flashing red. "Ah, there we are. Only three minutes late. I tell you, the agencies have gone downhill in recent years."
"The distress beacons."
"Lady Groenwald!" Brenner's voice erupted from the intercoms. "We have multiple aircraft inbound! Front gate reports that the FBI and ATF have shown up with warrants and guns!"
"I'd advise you leave now," said Adolf. "You're currently out of bullets, injured, and I know the Syndicate emergency escape shuttle takes at least five minutes to prepare properly."
"Damn you to hell."
"Ladies first." Up past the entry ramp, a klaxon sounded. "You'd best hurry."
Oh, how she wanted to kill him now, but the old man was right. Revenge would have to wait. "Sandmann, take Glas and organize the defenses. Evacuation plan Drei."
"Don't think that this is finished," she hissed. Damn, that hurt her nose.
"I wouldn't dream of it. Auf Wiedersehen." The man had the gall to wave as they retreated.
The torrent of emotion vanished, like someone had turned it off at the tap. The lingering thoughts of negativity sloughed away, draining into the ether. Erica's body, so tense from fighting the doubt and despair, collapsed in relief. The room spun and blurred, then snapped back to normal so fast it felt like a slap. When she finally looked up, the Green Cross and her goons were gone. Even the stunned and injured had been pulled away, for which she was thankful. She really did not want to know how much damage she'd caused.
"Yo, Erica." Penelope was kneeling down beside her. "You gonna be okay?"
"I... I think so."
"The old folks over there said you're supposed to be a boy?" Doubt and curiosity tinged the other girl's voice.
"Huh. Coulda fooled me, though it does explain a few things."
"I'm a freak," she said, ending on a low sob.
"Nah, you're just weird, and I already knew that much." Penelope gave her a once-over. "Need a hug?"
Erica nodded. She didn't trust her voice right now. The older girl had her arms around her in an instant, squeezing and holding tight. "Dunno what it was that Fearless Leader was doing," she said in Erica's ear, "but you did good in standing up to it. And that punch! I was cheering for you, really. I mean, the look on her face!" The grin on Penelope's face was contagious. Erica had to smile back.
"Feeling better now?"
"Ready to face the folks?"
"In a minute...."
"It's okay. Take your time. Mr. Adolf — that's Margit's husband — he's going over what we're telling the FBI as soon as they show up."
"Long story. We'll make them tell the whole thing later, deal?"
"So why didn't we call in the cavalry earlier?" Matthias had to ask. He was sitting on the floor of the entryway, cradling Ruby's head in his lap. She'd taken a nasty fall when Sandmann had blasted her, and was still knocked out.
"First, because there are limits as to what they could do. While we" — he meant himself and his wife — "are free agents, and you are a licensed hero in hot pursuit, they are federal agents, and thus have a tighter definition of habeus corpus. On the other hand, if they were to be called in to assist an operation in progress, perhaps via distress signal...." The old man shrugged. "Normally, the base's electronic countermeasures would interfere with unauthorized broadcasts, but we took care of that detail early on."
"It was most impressive, Adolf," said the second old woman, Winifred. That lady was pretty impressive, herself. Matthias would've laid even odds that she'd have escaped within a week, even without assistance.
"Opa? Oma?" And then there was that odd detail. The frail little blonde who was timidly walking their way did not look a thing like the Schroeder kid. Margit said she was their boy, girl, whatever, so he'd have to trust her word on it. The Schroeders definitely trusted Margit, and had plenty of hugs for their grandchild.
"So what are we going to tell the Feds about, er, her?" he asked.
"The truth," Adolf replied. "In the most limited, obfuscatory way possible. Erica was kidnapped, we tracked her here, she managed to hide with those poor Valkyrie girls, etc. We do not mention any physical changes on her part."
"The super-strength might be hard to cover up, dear," his wife reminded.
"Okay, we downplay that part until we can determine just how young Erica came by these changes." The old man's phone beeped twice. "Ah, that should be my FBI contact. Everyone, remember that we're telling the strictest truth about today's activities, and conveniently forgetting one small detail. Is that clear?"
Three retirees, one superhero, and two teenagers nodded.
Lillian von Groenwald
There wasn't much time left. Lillian had rushed to her office, dragging Baumgartner the entire way. Brenner, Fox, and Wahrheit had already opened the secret passage to the shuttle dock, and she could hear the engines warming up as she boarded.
"Preparations are almost complete, Lady Groenwald," Fox reported. "We can launch in two minutes."
"Not any sooner?"
"Sorry, Kommandeurin," Wahrheit said. "I have checked the specifications. The only way to move it sooner is to detonate the entire base and use the explosion as a kick-start."
That was very tempting, but certainly fatal to Glas and Sandmann. The Green Cross mentally vetoed that option. "Anything else we need to take care of?"
"Yes..." came a dusty wheeze from behind, followed by a whirring noise and a faint click. "A matter of seating..."
"Herr Achziger." She turned slowly to the shuttle airlock, making no sudden moves. "How nice to hear your voice. You've come to your senses, I see."
The old man was filthy, his neat white suit covered in dust, blood, and other fluids better not considered. His pale, papery skin was bruised and torn, and his good eye was swollen shut. Only his lips had any real color to them, a suspiciously deep red.
"As I was saying," Achziger continued, every word as dry as parchment. "The forward compartment of this shuttle has four seats, but we are six." His left hand jerked up and down in an attempt to wave at his leader, her half-brother, and the three agents. "Now I," wheeze, "am comfortable strapping myself into the rear compartment, but I could use..." There was a long pause. "... company."
Lillian's bright blue eyes were locked with Achziger's single, dead monocle. The infernal algebra of necessity worked its dire equations in her head, and with practiced ease she reached a decision. She squeezed Baumgartner's arm, pushing a thumb into the hole of a flechette wound. The agent groaned and froze up, unable to move for the pain.
"I'm sure Agent Baumgartner wouldn't mind spending time with you," she said smoothly. She pushed the woman towards the back.
Achziger caught her, showing a strength his fragile body should not possess. "Ah yes," wheeze, "Janice, isn't it? A pleasure to make your acquaintance...." The old man dragged her into the rear compartment, closing the hatch with a sepulchral thud.
"Time to launch?" Lillian demanded. She wanted this to be over as soon as possible.
"Um, right now, if it pleases..."
"Of course it does!" Lillian seated herself, quickly fastening the restraints. Brenner, Fox, and Wahrheit followed her lead. "As soon as we reach low orbit, contact Neue Groenwald on a secure line. Inform Antlitz and Sänger of what's occurred, tell them to pick us up at Site Vier, and to make sure that Kessel is available. Herr Achziger will be in need of a tune-up."
The launch was fast and dirty. A large stretch of cropland vanished as the exit gaped open, and then the acceleration hit. The roar of the engines thankfully drowned out any noise from the rear.
Sandmann grinned as the shuttle's fire lit up the sky for an instant. The smell of scorched wheat wafted through the air and tickled his nose. Kommandeurin had made it out safely. That was important. The rest of the base would not be so lucky. The remaining custodians had set up an admirable last stand, leading the Feds in a merry chase while the technical crews fled in the short-range flyers. Some might be caught, but most would stay below the radar long enough to ditch their vehicles and make their way to Neue Groenwald safely.
The Valkyrie girls were a write-off, under Evac Drei. It pained him a little, as he'd been looking forward to increasing the numbers of the next generation with a few of them. Perhaps Kommandeurin's recruiters would pick them up again in the future, perhaps not. There were always other fish in the sea, though.
"Wakey, wakey." He prodded Glas with a finger. His half-brother groaned. "Now, now, tell Sandy where it hurts."
"Everywhere," the other man gasped. "Like I was hit by a truck."
"Close. It was a petite little girl."
"You're never going to let me forget this, are you?"
"Oh, I might in a few years," he chortled. "Time to get your voodoo working. We have cars to steal, miles to drive, and Feds to avoid." He was grinning ear to ear. The future would be dangerous, but danger was nature's way of letting you know you were alive, after all.