One of the soldiers is pulling the French girl, kicking and screaming, out of her bunk. She's got hold of a metal dinner tray, somehow, and is beating the shit out of the soldier carrying her. Her face is marked with bruises, and her hands are bloody. The traveler, briefly remembering the bloody noses and stooped postures of the crew seen around the U-boat suddenly realizes that she must've been fighting incessantly since the escape attempt.
She hits the soldier again over the back of the head. He cries out.
He twists her to the ground and gets the cuffs on her, dragging her back to her feet.
"Keine Ahnung was Du an der findest," chuckles the Nazi.
The traveler doesn't look at him. Another soldier unties him from the chair. The traveler considers making a run for it, and then hears the click of a gun at his back. A pair of handcuffs winch shut around his wrist. A stony-faced soldier with odd white patches over the front of his face march him up the ladder. The French girl, silent and half-supported by the soldiers, follows close behind. A final soldier carries the dog out.
The traveler emerges into a nightmare of cold and water and steel. The sky overhead is aching black of a night without stars. The snow comes down like ashes. It whirls in thick clouds around them, turning the horizon into an indistinct dark blur. The traveler crosses a plank bridge, frosted with snow and ice, to the deck of a large ship, moored to an island in a sea as black as motor oil. Nearby, he can see a dozen men, dressed in seal-skin jackets, clustered around an oil drum with a fire raging in it. He can see other fires burning in radial lines away from a central point somewhere off the ship. On the other side, he can see a distant point of blue light.
He turns towards the center of the circle, and he thinks he can see something in the dark. He squints, peering through the whipping snow and dark. He catches glimpses of a huge circular shape, with columns arranged around it.
He looks over at the French girl. She's shivering, in ratty shoes, on the deck of the ship. He turns to the Captain, who's been standing on the deck for a while. His beard and mustache is coated with ice, and his face is red in the cold. Snow is piled on his shoulders, and in the linings of his coat. His facial expression as he stares out at the compound is one of naked fear.
Then, after a moment, a soldier emerges out of the dark, leading the U-boat crew. The scholar catches the traveler's eye, but then looks away. They file into the boat. The Captain and the Nazi have a brief conversation, forever lost to the howling of the wind. Then, the dim shape of the Nazi nods and walks away. The Captain walks back onto his boat, pauses for a moment to look around, and then vanishes into the hatch. A few minutes later, the boat vanishes beneath the surface without a sound, and it is gone.
The traveler feels suddenly very alone. He can feel the soldier's breath on the back of his neck. There's snow in his eyes, and the fires along the deck of the ship are blending together into an unbroken ribbon of light. His lungs hurt from the cold. Snot is freezing to his lip. His clothes are cracking with accumulating frost.
This is killing cold, and he might as well be naked for all the protection the clothes they gave him offer. With his old coat and his gear, this sort of weather wouldn't be a problem. As it is, he stands to lose even more toes if they don't get him out of the cold soon. The French girl, who's fairly thin, ill dressed, and probably losing body heat like mad, will be dead in under an hour.
The Nazi comes walking out of the curtains of snow like grim death. Snow sticks to his uniform, but he doesn't seem overly bothered by the cold. He points, and the soldiers move. The traveler limps on his bad foot across the deck towards the door. The door is already covered with ice. Two of the soldiers pick up metal poles and smash the ice off the latch, then open it. The traveler descends into well lit warmth. He expects the steel confines of a military ship. Instead, he wanders into what, were it not for the snow and freezing air still pouring down the back of his neck, he would assume was a suburban kitchen. A soldier, carrying the dog, walks past. It whines. The traveler looks after it with regret.
He blinks and stands stock still for a moment to appreciate the look. The bulkheads have been wallpapered over, or covered with wood panneling. An old iron stove, belly red hot, is fuming away in one corner, pushing back the cold by sheer force of will. Wood cabinets filled with crockery stand out on every wall. A large window stares out over a pleasantly rural German valley somewhere far away. The traveler spends a few moments staring at it before he realizes that it's an extremely clever illusion with miniatures and mirrors. There's a hard shove from the soldier behind him, and he stumbles into the middle of the room.
A pretty but worn looking German woman is standing in the middle of the room, holding a pan and looking puzzled. Stray strands of pale hair protrude from her bun and collar, and she has the desperately fading look of an attractive woman finally succumbing to age.
She seems confused, glancing back and forth between the French girl and the Nazi. The Nazi gives her a smile that conveys far more than a professional relationship. She turns to him.
"Wer sind diese Leute?"
"Keine Angst. Man wird sich darum kümmern."
Her voice wavers ever so slightly.
"Das ist nicht wonach ich gefragt habe."
He doesn't blink.
He points to the couch, and the traveler sits. The French girl doesn't move. One of the remaining soldiers moves to give her a push, but the Nazi stops him with a gesture.
"Let his bitch stand. It makes no difference to me."
He gives her a pleasant smile, which evaporates instantly as he turns to the traveler. He begins to pace, boots making marks on the carpet.
"Let me explain to the two of you how exactly it is that this is going to work."
The traveler tracks the motion of his nose back and forth across the room.
"You - " he point to the traveler, " have something that I want."
He walks up to the traveler and pokes him in the stomach with the tip of his rifle.
"It's in your body. Somehow, it's inside of you. I wouldn't have believed it was possible if I hadn't seen it myself. You have something that I need inside of you, and I will take it from you, if I have to cut it out of your dying body."
He turns to the French girl.
"You have nothing I want. I know who you are." He spits. "I would have absolutely no compunction about sawing your face off if, for instance, your friend tries to escape or does anything exceptionally stupid."
The traveler's face doesn't change.
"You're threatening her?"
"So direct! So serious! Where is your poetry now? Your jokes? You seemed to think it so very funny-"
The Nazi's voice has taken on edges of a kind of humorless irony a single misstep away from violence. He pokes the traveler with the end of his rifle again.
The traveler speaks very, very softly.
"Do you think I'm stupid?"
The Nazi simply looks at him.
The traveler continues to speak.
"Do you really want me to believe that you're going to let us live? I know what it is that you do here. I won't cooperate."
The room freezes. There's a ringing silence. The French girl doesn't make a sound but some raw, wet breathing. The traveler lifts his face out of the carpet.
"What do you want me to do?"
The Nazi smiles. He walks back to the sink, picks up a towel from the counter, and wipes the blood from the frying pan. The French girl slowly struggles to her feet. Blood runs from her eye, her nose, her ear. Deep red marks are spreading across the left side of her face. She chokes, and coughs up black blood. She doesn't quite make it all the way to her feet, clutching her side and gagging. Blood runs down her dress, staining it an unappealing purple color. She leans back against the side of the room.
She looks at the German. He walks across the room to her. She keeps eye contact with him. Out of the corner of her mouth, she mutters something in French that the traveler doesn't catch. Then she says, in broken German,
"Irgendwann wird Deine Aufmerksamkeit nachlassen. Du wirst einen Fehler machen. Und dann werde ich Dich töten. Du wirst dafür sterben, du Nazischwein."
The Nazi laughs, and hits her in the ribs with the butt of his gun. She sinks to the ground with a strangled cry of pain. He stands over her for a long moment, then turns and walks away with a quiet mutter.
He turns back to the traveler.
"A room has been prepared for you. It's probably better than you're used it. Tomorrow morning, we'll start the experiments. I'll personally be supervising the study."
Behind him, the French girl heaves one knee under her body, and struggles unsteadily upright, teeth grinding together. The Nazi turns around slowly. He voice is mild.
He hits her so fast the traveler barely registers it. Her head slams against the wall, cracking a wood panel, and she crumples to the ground. He turns back towards the traveler, shaking his head. The quiet is ringing in the traveler's ears.
"As I was saying, you'll be providing me with a complete list of everything you know, in the morning. Tonight- "
The French girl stirs. With a strangled moan she pulls herself up, leaning against the wall, choking up more blood, and slowly pushes her way back to her feet. The traveler almost yells at at her, gesturing frantically.
The Nazi whirls around.
"Did you not hear me?"
He strides over to her and brings his knee up into her gut. He grabs her by the hair and throws her into a round table, which goes over as she slams into it, showering knicknacks. He runs up and hits her again in the chest with his boot. His face is bright red. The soldiers exchange glances and take a step backwards. One of them rubs the back of his head nervously. The Nazi is sweating. The quiet in the room is very, very, quiet.
The traveler stands there, heart beating very fast in his chest. His legs feel weak. The Nazi speaks first.
"What is wrong with that woman?"
The traveler shakes his head. Almost absently, he replies
"If you find out, let me know."
She stumbles to her feet, crying, blood dripping from her face, breathing in short, high gasps.
The Nazi runs around the couch, swings his rifle across her body, cracking unpleasantly against her arm and sending her across the room. Her face strikes off the wall, leaving a blood print on the wallpaper. She starts to go down, but clutches at the cabinet with her restrained hands, hanging from them, barely upright. The Nazi's hair is in his face. His face has taken on the pale lines of someone trapped in a nightmare they don't understand. He grabs her and throws her to the ground and kicks her again. She yelps as he hits a broken rib. The traveler is shouting something in English, fighting against the soldier holding him. The soldiers are looking around, looking to the side, looking anywhere but at the scene in front of them. The Nazi is almost screaming in German.
"DRUNTENBLEIBEN, DRUNTENBLEIBEN, DRUNTENBLEIBEN - WIE SCHWER IST DAS VERDAMMT NOCHMAL?"
The French girl starts to get up again. He grabs her by the back of her dress and her hair and throws her into the wall again and again and again. He drops her, and she hits the ground limply. His hair is a mess. Sweat is standing out on his forehead. His hands are shaking. He gets control of herself, pulls the hair out of his face with one hand, backs away.
"Bringt sie hier raus."
There's a second of silence.
After a while, they pass over a catwalk over a large open lab area, made of several rooms interconnected. Then they reach the brig. One of the cells has been equipped with paneling over the bars. Two beds have been arranged in it. There's a small wooden table between them. No sharp objects. Not even any heavy ones. The traveler sits on his bed. The French girl is dropped onto hers. Their handcuffs are removed. The traveler gets out of bed, and walks over to her. She's awake, more or less. He checks her for injuries. About ten minutes later, an German medic comes in. The traveler gets out of the way.
"Her arm's broken. She's got a concussion, a broken cheekbone, and three broken ribs. She may be bleeding into her lung."
The medic nods, but the traveler isn't really sure if he actually speaks English or not. He checks her body for injuries, notes the big ones, and gets to work. He splints her arm and wraps it up, and puts an ice pack on her head. He cuts a long slit down her dress on the side. The traveler averts his eyes out of respect, then refocuses as he sees the damage. The whole side of her body is an ugly purple, turning green around the edges. The medic repositions the ribs, producing yelps of pain from the French girl, then tapes them in place. He gives the French girl an injection, and puts bandages over her forehead and eyes. Then he stands up and leaves, locking the cell behind him. The lights go off, leaving the room dark except for a small light a long way down the hall outside. The traveler sits on the French girl's bed and watches over. She doesn't move. After a few hours, she wakes up. She puts her hand on his arm.
He turns slowly towards her. The bed squeaks under him.
"Why did you do that?" he whispers.
"Pour lui montrer qu'il ne pouvait pas me faire mal."
He raises an eyebrow and looks up and down her.
"Considérez-moi pas convaincus."
She shakes her head.
She gives a little smile.
" D'ailleurs, ces taches de sang sont en cours de ne jamais sortir. Ce tapis est perdue à jamais."
He laughs, perhaps harder than is really deserved, but it feels good anyway. She laughs a little too, but it degenerates into a pained cough.
He smiles at her.
"What are we going to do, French girl?"
"Je ne sais pas. Attendez une minute. Qu'est-il arrivé à ma robe?"
He winces. There isn't much left of her dress at this point. He lifts the sheet for her, and she pulls it over herself.
"Sorry about that."
She waves at him dismissively.
"Yeah, yeah, shut up."
She smiles at him, a bit sadly.
"Dormir un peu. Je veux que vous le tuer dans la matinée."
"Vous savez que je ne peux pas faire ça."
She nods, slowly.
"Quais. Une fille peut rêver, though."
He gets up and walks back to his own bed.
"Goodnight, French girl."
The traveler blinks. The metal ceiling swims into focus high overhead. He raises his head and glances around. Nobody in sight. Still pretty dark. A few lights on in the hall. He rotates his head at an uncomfortable angle. French girl is still there, sleeping. The left side of her face is a scabbed, bloody mess, bruises and cuts layered on top of bruises and cuts. There are bloodstains on her sheets from the ribs and arm. She's still nice looking.
Right, focus. He sits up, slowly, and unwraps his foot. The three toes between the biggest and the little one terminate abruptly a few millimeters after the end of the foot, with a series of tiny red stitches. They've stopped bleeding, and the pain is getting to the point that he can manage it without morphine. Still aches and itches like crazy, but he can live with it. He re-wraps the the foot.
Quietly, he pulls his shirt off. His skin is a dry, scabby gray patchwork across most of his torso, and his arms in particular. The top layer of skin has simply died. That is what happens when your veins don't line up. He rubs it. It feels like lizard skin. He scratches at a spot on his arm until he peels some of the skin away, revealing new skin underneath. He picks at the edge, and gingerly peels away a flaking strip of gray skin down the length of his arm, prickling at it goes. Underneath, the skin is still a bit red and hairless, but doesn't hurt much. He begins to peel more of the grey skin off in the dim light, He can't quite reach his back, so he lies down on the carpet and rubs back and forth until it begins to be scratched off by the wool. Finally, when he's got as much of it off of him as he can, he sits up and puts his shirt back on. He feels oddly clean and refreshed. At least he's been able to sleep in an actual bed, which he hasn't done in years, the bunks in the submarine not included.
He gets up, and begins to check the cell, just in case. In spite of the pleasant furnishings, it is very, very secure. He taps on the bars, and limps back to his bed. He lays back down, and begins to systematically pop every joint in his body. He rolls his neck with a satisfying series of cracks. Then he sets to work on his spine, then finger, second and third joints. Then shoulders. Then fingers again, in case he missed any.
Then he stands up and makes the bed, taking care to tuck everything in. He straightens the items on the bedstand. He tightens the bandages on his foot, and trims his fingernails with his teeth. He lays back down in bed. He stands up. He begins to pace. He goes to wake up the French girl, and then doesn't. He sits down on the bed again. He lies down on the floor and begins doing push-ups, mostly out of reflex. He starts to crack his spine again, but can't.
The minutes drag. They even took his watch. He straightens the crappy clothing he's still got on. He can't see any clocks. He bite his fingernails don to the quick, then scratches at the raw skin on his arms until it bleeds. Wiping the blood of his nails, he begins to sing quietly under his breath. He keeps this up for what seems like a long time.
Then, finally, he sees someone move at the end of the hall. A figure is moving slowly down towards them, white coat hanging around its knees. It crosses bars of light and shadows, flashing briefly and then retreating back into the gloom. He crosses the room, and gently shakes the French girl awake. She rolls instinctively up into a ready position, and instantly folds in on her broken ribs. Blinking in pain, she glances around the room, then realizes that she left the sheet behind, and pulls it up herself.
He leans over next to her ear and whispers.
"They're coming to get me. Don't get yourself killed today, okay?"
She shudders, and rubs the side of her face.
The man reaches the cell door and unlocks it. The traveler's eyes flit briefly over his face. No. Couldn't be. That would just be stupid.
But it is.
"Do I know you?"
The doctor smiles. He pulls his coat aside, and lifts his shirt to reveal a healing bullet wound in his gut. It's not pleasant smile. He's carrying a bag. He sets it down, and pulls out two identical gray shirts, two identical gray pants, and two pairs of handcuffs. He puts the gray clothing back.
He throws one to the French girl, and one to the traveler.
"Legt die an und folgt mir:"
The traveler puts his on. The French girl looks at the doctor with a facial expression of sheer, inexpressible hatred. For a moment, he's afraid that she's going to rush him, but then she, with slow deliberation, clicks the cuffs on. She keeps them in front of her this time.
The doctor gestures. She slides reluctantly out from under the bloody sheet, dress hanging in rags around her, and walks, masking a limp to the front of the cell. The traveler begins to look away but then doesn't. What the hell. They're probably going to kill him anyway.
The doctor turns, slowly, and backs out of the cell. They file out. The doctor removes a pistol, which strikes the traveler as an exceptionally bad idea in confined spaces with metal walls, but he's not one to criticize. The doctor gestures, and leads them down the hallway.
After some walking, they arrive in a large metal room with holes in the ceiling. The doctor slams the door behind them, and they are all alone in the dim of the room. The traveler briefly contemplates an unsavory possibility, but then hot water begins to pour from the ceiling in thick, guttering streams. The water is uncomfortably hot, but the traveler doesn't complain.
The French girl walks into the far corner, turns her back on him and disrobes, running water through her tangled hair, down her arms, her back... The traveler shakes himself. He notices a pool of bloody water forming around her feet and filtering towards the drain in the middle of the room.
Focus. He takes his thin shirt and pants off, turns his back, and begins to clean himself as efficiently as he can with no soap. Then he wrings dirt out of his clothes under one of the water streams, then puts them back on. After a few more minutes, the water shuts off, and the door opens. The traveler steps out into the hall, shivering in wet clothing. The French girl follows, limping. The water's washed most of the blood off, but she still is pretty beat up. She's holding what's left of the dress together with her hands. The doctor sets the gray clothes on the floor and takes a step back.
The traveler and the French girl dress themselves as quickly as they can. The clothes are cheap but reasonably warm. They feel like prison uniforms.
French girl looks very small in the over-large clothes. They hang off her bones like dingy drapes. The doctor marches them back down the hall. A soldier is waiting for them at the corner, and takes the French girl back in the direction of her cell. The traveler is led down yet another hallway, down a stairwell, and into the open laboratory area.
The place has about a dozen scientist-types and soldiers sitting around. Machinery in various stages of assembly or disassembly lie here and there. The traveler recognizes most of it. There a tesium lamp, not quite right, but close. There an aether still, with some severe design flaws. There a parabolic array, there a hand-cranked calculating mill for the math. They're not close, but they're not very far, either.
The doctor points to a chair, and the traveler sits down. The doctor points to a soldier who's been sitting at a table nearby, drinking a cup of coffee.
The soldier walks over to the traveler, pulls up a chair, and sits there, giving him what he probably imagines to be a dangerous and authoritative look. To the traveler, it looks like he's attempting to pass a gallstone. He starts to laugh, and then stops himself. No point in making enemies. And, after all, the man does have a gun.
After a few minutes, the doctor returns with the one-armed Nazi. The Nazi walks over him, and looks him up and down. The traveler's hair is flopped around his face, still drying. His clothes are spotted with moisture, and they don't fit. He does not look particularly threatening.
He nods to the doctor.
"Steckt ihn in den Tank."
He turns back to the traveler.
"Get up. You're going for a trip."
The traveler blinks. That has one of those ominous rings to it, the kind you get right before somebody tries to kill you.
"Where's my dog?"
The Nazi gives a brief chuckle that has never met humor and wouldn't know if it had.
"It's alive. Get up."
The traveler gets slowly to his feet. He keeps eye contact with the Nazi all the way up. The Nazi turns around.
The traveler is frog-marched up some stairs onto a catwalk, and from there up to a hatch. He can feel the cold radiating through the metal and wood veneer. He's given a wool shirt, which he puts on over his old one. Then, the doctor hands him a heavy grey vest.
He puts it on. It's a fairly standard radiation jacket. He puts it on, stooping slightly under the weight, and then does up the buckles. This is really not good.
More clothing is passed to him. He puts on a seal-skin jacket, lambskin gloves, wool socks, heavy winter boots with fur linings, and a hat. He puts them on without complaint. The others finish suiting up, and begin putting on masks. One of them sets one over his head.
Really, really not good. The mask smells like old sweat, with a rank undertone of bile. It also limits his vision down to a thin slat of dirty glass. He turns slowly to look at the others. They all look pretty comfortable in the gear. Actually, it's not all that bad, he reflects. Weighs about as much as his usual equipment.
The door opens. In spite of the layering, the cold hits him like ice water. It finds the tiniest gaps in his clothing and invades his body. He stumbles out into the sunlight, the gap between his sleeves and his gloves burning with cold. The snowstorm is gone, and so is the night. He can see to every horizon, nothing but dark water and ice. He turns his head slowly, surveying the horizon as a bitterly cold wind sends him stumbling.
The helmet glass has an odd, oil-slick quality to it. It takes him a second to place it. Leaded glass. Joy.
The deck of the ship is slick with icy patches and frozen motor oil. The doctor and the Nazi get in front of him and lead the way. Two of the soldiers bring up the rear. The traveler laughs quietly inside his helmet. He wonders where exactly they think he's going to go. Then he gets a grip on himself and surveys the compound.
He's walking down the deck of a large battleship. The oil drums are still burning, and the men are still sitting around them, carrying binoculars and other gear that the traveler doesn't recognize. The end of the ship is moored to what is not an island, but an iceberg. The iceberg has been modified. The surface has been planed down nearly flat perhaps ten feet above the surface of the water, then covered with something red. In the middle of it, the traveler again sees the shape he saw the previous night. It's a huge henge of cement, with steel equipment bolted to each pillar, sticking gigantic needles up into the sky. Huge power cables extending straight down into the ice. The entire arrangement hums at the edge of human hearing. It sets his teeth on edge.
In the middle of the henge, a cluster of gray tents have been erected. They're half buried in snow, and they're organized around a taller tent, isolated in the center, with a series of yellow flags arranged at intervals around it. The traveler tears his eyes away from this for a moment. There are ships arranged radially from the back of the iceberg for about fifty percent of its circumference, strung together with frozen bridges improvised from steel cables and boards. On the other side of the ice berg is a Nazi battleship. He's never seen anything like it. It has the deck space of an aircraft carrier, the armor of a battleship, and massive guns that must've been capable of launching a modest house. A tall pole with a blue light at the end of it rises out of the deck. It looms over the whole arrangement like a specter, like grim death.
He looks up ahead and sees the Nazi smiling at him through his faceplate. He speaks, fogging up his visor. Though his voice is muffled, the traveler can hear him perfectly.
"Welcome to Laternenträger."
The traveler doesn't say anything, just keeps walking. They reach the end of the deck. The iceberg has grown organically over the end of the ship, like a breaking wave frozen in time. Someone has been at it with an axe, and has chipped steps into the ice and piled snow. The traveler climbs carefully down. The ground grits under his feet. He looks down. Rock salt and red sand. For traction, probably. He keeps moving. They're headed directly for the henge.
He looks up at one of the antenna. it's humming with such intensity that it feels like he's biting tinfoil, and the air around it appears to be experiencing a localized Aurora Borealis effect. A couple of half-remember lectures from the physicist come back to him, and he's suddenly glad for the radiation gear. One of the soldiers behind him gives him a shove.
He stumbles across the threshold into the interior space of the henge. He suddenly feels very different. The air is slicker, here. It moves slower. It's like walking through thin oil.
They approach the first tent. It's unzipped from the inside, and they step inside. A tall, thin technician with messy blond hair steps up. He's wearing a radiation suit, but not the helmet.
He nods at them.
"Beruhigt euch, es ist ausgeschaltet."
The Nazi barks something indistinctly in German, and the company remove their masks, while the technician seals the tent behind them. The traveler cautiously counts to ten to see if the others drop dead, and then takes his off as well, hanging it around his neck on its strap.
When he takes his off, he takes a closer look at the technician. There's something wrong with his face. The right side of it is completely white. Now, he's a Nazi, so his skin is pretty pale to start with, but this is parchment under the full moon white. Even his eyeball. It doesn't seem to move, either, and the facial expression on that side can only be described as mortal terror. The traveler shudders. Even the Nazi seems to be avoiding looking at it.
No, not plants, something else. They're entirely white, like they're made out of pale glass and ashes. He shakes his head, turns around, and sees a figure hunched on the ground. Some kind of sculpture. No, not even that.
What he's seeing suddenly becomes clear to him. It's a man, squatting, head bowed, one fist on the ground, made out of what looks like gray plaster. Except it's not a whole man. It's the skin, and the tendons and the bones, but nothing else. All of the musculature and organs are simply gone. Some of the skin has crumbled away, and he can see the nest of tendons and sinews underneath, between the shell of the skin and the bones. The eye socks are empty, and he can see into the empty skull. The face is frozen in a mask of a scream. The traveler feels sick and somehow suddenly very lucky.
There are animals, in various stages of disassembly. In a glass case, he sees a cat, curled up and apparently sleeping. To the far right are the bones, and to the far left is the skin, and each layer is arranged in steps in between, muscles, organs, vascular system. An exploded diagram of a cat, made solid. It appears to be made out of some kind of metal, maybe tin, and he'd think it was a sculpture, but for the unimaginable level of detail. He's not sure what it is, but he has the disturbing impression that it was once alive.
The others don't spare a second glance for the shelves, and walk on through the room, pausing only to grab him and take him into the next one. The technician bounds along like a small dog, and begins talking to the Nazi.
"Was habt ihr vor?"
"Wir stecken ihn in die Maschine."
The technician freezes.
"Du hast mich schon verstanden. Ich will das der Harnisch vorbereitet, die Leine angelegt und die Glocke gestartet wird."
"Verzeihen Sie mir, aber haben Sie vergessen was das letzte Mal passiert ist?"
The Nazi rounds on him, voice hard.
"Das war keine Bitte. Beweg Dich. Wir haben nicht viel Zeit."
The technician scurries off. The others open another tent flap, and they walk out into the clearing in the middle of the tents. The traveler looks out at the tent in the middle. He feels a terrible sense of fear clutching at his guts. The cold stings his unmasked face.
They cross the circle of yellow flags, and walk into the tent. The traveler ducks under the flap, and looks up. He sees it, and feels very, very sick.
The Bell is huge, at least fifteen feet tall, a massive cylinder of gray metal, capped with a dome, with a seam down the middle. Four huge orange portholes blast light out onto the walls of the room. Tubes and cables snake across the floor, leading into it. A hugely complex socket arrangement sits beneath it. The metal has the dull, featureless pallor off an alloy of depleted uranium and lead. The traveler knows this because he saw it, once, on a piece of graph paper.
Power turns somewhere, and the machine begins to hum. The technician returns, and removes two bolts. The two halves of the machine open. Inside three concentric sets of bells, arranged like Russian dolls, is a final container. As the Bell opens, the technician wheels up a pair of steps to the central container. There's a harness there, made of leather, clearly intended to hold a human.
The traveler begins to back away.
"No fucking away. Are you insane? You think I'm going to get into that thing?"
The Nazi shrugs, and nods to one of the soldiers.
"Go cut the girl's legs off."
The soldier stares at him blankly. The Nazi begins to translate into German, and the traveler stops him.
"Take off your clothes."
The traveler strips down to his underwear with fast, angry motions and stands shivering on the floor.
He walks up the steps. With half of an apologetic look, the technician tightens the straps around his body, then rolls the stairs away, leaving the traveler hanging inside the machine, feet dangling the air. The technician returns with a vest with three metal discs on it, and hangs it over the traveler. The discs stick to his skin, and then light up with an electrical tingle. The technician pushes a button into his hand, wired to the vest.
The Nazi steps forward. The technician grabs a mouthpiece, and puts it into the traveler's mouth. The traveler takes a breath.
"When you get to the other side, counts to ten seconds, then push the button to get back. If you don't, your friend dies. If you wait too long, you'll be stranded when the magnetic line decays. Now, if my math is correct, you're approaching the jump threshold as we speak, is that correct?"
The traveler checks. He touches the metal buckle of the harness. It definitely feels rather slick.
"Good. You're going to Washington DC. Have fun."
He turns to the technician.
"Versiegel den Behälter, starte das Gerät und flute mit Xerum 525. Ich gebe die Sprungsequenz ein, aber ich will dass du Dich um die Pulsreihenfolge kümmerst. Fang an mit fünf-eins, dann erhöhe auf fünfzehn-vier über sechzig Microsekunden. Versuch diesmal die T-Werte innerhalb akzeptabler Grenzen zu halten." The technician pushes the Bell closed. It seals with a metal clank, and the traveler can hear the scraping noise of the bolts going in. It's very dark and claustrophobic inside the Bell. His only illumination and view of the outside world is a small, dingy, and orange circle visible through the porthole nearest his head.
There's a hiss. Something blurry is being pumped into the cylinder, something that shimmers and blurs. Aether. He sucks hungrily on the mouthpiece. There's a click, and an orange light above him turns on. His hairs stand on end. Then a gurgling noise, and he suddenly realizes that the floor is a grate. Liquid begins to rise through the grate. It's a deep, blood-red color, but it doesn't move right. The surface is totally smooth, without ripples. It rises at an alarming rate, pouring into his shoes, rising up his legs. It' impossibly cold, metallic. He begins to panic in earnest, thrashing around in the harness, hammering on the walls with his feet.
The liquid continues to rise inexorably, rising over his arms, up his chest. Finally, it reaches his face. He shuts his eyes, tries not to inhale through his nose, and breathes slowly through the mouth piece. The liquid swallows his head.
There's a long minute of tense, cold, metal silence, in the dark, and then an odd electric feeling crawls down his skin. Then another. Then it begins to come in accelerating waves, thumping like music in the fluid around him. Then a grinding sense of motion. The bells are spinning, by the feeling of it, at opposing directions. The pulsing of current becomes faster and faster and faster as the spinning accelerates, building to an unbearable crescendo. The liquid begins to light up as the current pulses, flashing red and and black. The traveler hears a mosquito whining noise in his head that makes every bone in his body itch.
The whine, the flashing, the spinning, and the shocks reach their inevitable crescendo, blending together into a nightmare of light and noise and motion, and then, suddenly, there's a feeling of electricity grounding.
The liquid is torn away from him by a feeling like a knife being ripped from a wound. The traveler feels an indescribable agony in his chest and spits out the mouth piece, letting the air explode out of his lungs in an unheard hiss. He opens his eyes, which instantly begin to freeze. He can feel the spit boiling off his tongue as he falls to his knees in the pale, freezing grit. This is not Washington D.C.
Over the course of an infinite, breathless second, his open eyes takes in the dunes and rocks, lit up in impossible contrast, blackest blacks and whitest whites, and the dark sky full of stars that don't twinkle. His ears burn like they’ve been filled with molten lead. His lungs are already aching.
On a hunch, he looks up at the sky directly overhead. The blue globe of the earth hangs over his head, half-covered in darkness.
BACK *** NEXT
By my math, we've got about two entries left, plus the epilogue. Getting close!
When it's done, I'll take about two months to revise to hell out of it, then self-publish it through CreateSpace, if there's a demand. If you're interested, send me an email.
Buy me a cup of tea!