by Andre Infante
The jail cell smells like shit. The traveler wrinkles his nose in disgust, and leans back on the bed. That's not hyperbole. There's a fresh smear of human feces on the floor near the door. It's been cleaned, but not very well. The traveler isn't really all that bothered by the smell. Men who bathe at intervals of weeks have a pretty high tolerance for that sort of thing. He's more concerned by the loss of his dog, his gear, and the French girl, in that order. He has a nasty black eye from where the police officer tried to bully the combinations out of him. He didn't give it to him, and in the end they ended up cutting most of his equipment off of him with a pair of boltcutters. They were unable to get the central harness off, though, due to some cleverness with braided steel cables. The traveler is perversely proud of this. He's wearing the vest now, though they've stripped him of all the weapons and equipment they could fine. He'd still got a very sharp shaving razor tucked under one armpit, and a pair of brass knuckles against his belly.
At the moment, his bigger concern is that he's due to go plummeting through the mantle of the Earth at the speed of light in about twelve minutes, abandoning the girl, the dog, and his stuff. Best case, if that happens, his dog dies, and the French girl is left to her own devices in Germany. Worst case, he winds up in the arctic ocean and dies of hypothermia, and then all the other stuff happens. Okay, assess. Clear time limit in place, he has a few resources. This is doable. If he times it right, he might be able to tunnel through the wall of the cell, if he's willing to risk a brain aneurysm. Once on the other side, he could use his weapons to stage an assault, take out a few of the cops, and either take a key, or tunnel into the French girl's cell, and take her away. No, that's no good. He doesn't know where they're keeping the dog, or his stuff. Definitely get a key then. Maybe kill one, and-
Someone is talking.
"Er ist es. Du hast doch den Aushang gesehen -"
"Jaja, schon klar. Aber wenn wir uns irren, werden sie uns möglicherweise erschießen."
"Wir liegen schon nicht falsch, mein Freund. Hab ein wenig Vertrauen. Hast du die Spritze?"
"Jaja, ich hab sie. Hast du überhaupt eine Ahnung, was das für ein Zeug ist?"
"Keine Ahnung. Ich habe versucht zu fragen aber der einarmige Kerl hat so ausgesehen als wollte er mich erschießen."
"In Ordnung. Wie packen wir's an? Du hältst ihn, und ich verpasse ihm die Spritze?"
"Klingt gut. Brich bloß die Nadel nicht ab, sonst sind wir geliefert. Wir warten noch immer auf Antwort vom Oberst?"
"Ja. Sein Adjutant meinte, er würde gleich kommen. Bist du bereit?"
The traveler does not speak German, but this is not promising. He is, in fact, reasonably sure they're about to try to jump him. Well, this could be a good thing. It might get him out of walking through any more walls than he has to. He sits up slowly on the bed, to get a better angle. He quietly twists a lock open, unfolds a bit of the harness, and pulls out the straight razor. He flicks the razor open, and tucks it under his back. He closes his eyes. He hears the sound of someone attempting to open a jail cell, quietly. Then there are two incredibly long seconds, and then he feels the air of someone breathing very, very close to him. Well, this has gone on quite long enough.
He kicks off the baseboard, and jams his head up into the face of the prison police officer hovering over him. There's a yell of pain. His foot hurts from the impact, but he's got enough morphine in his system that he can afford to ignore that. He pulls the razor out, and makes a few slashes, hacking his forearm open and getting a shallow body gash. The police officer, one hand to his face, retreats towards the door to the cell, blind.
The traveler body blocks him, and makes a run for the door. The other police officer hits him from behind. The traveler pitches forward and slides on his knees for a foot across the floor, the uneven edges of the bricks cracking against his kneecaps and shins. He rolls over awkwardly under the police officer, flailing wildly with the razor. He feels the edge of the razor hit soft tissue and cut through it. He feels it go through fabric again, and then the police officer has his arm. He clutches the razor with a deathgrip, and wrenches one leg loose from under the police officer, kicking him awkwardly in the chest and gut, trying to force him off. The police officer sinks one clawed hand into his chest, holding on, wrestling for the knife.
The traveler can distantly hear the French girl yelling something. He brings his head up again into the police officer's face, sending him sprawling. Ears ringing from the blow, he staggers up. It's coming, he can feel it. The floor feels oily under his feet, and the air is starting to hum. He turns, back against the French girl's cell. The first police officer is back in the mix. He's pretty cut up and bleeding, but looks pissed. He looks at the second one, and sees where he got him. He nose has been split in half horizontally, and is bleeding profusely. He's got some cuts on his chest, but not deep.
The second police officer rushes him. He gets a pretty good cut into the police officer's chest, and then gets mashed in the face with an open palm. His head slams backwards into a bar. He sees stars, and sinks to his knees. The traveler tries to fight his way back to his feet. The second police officer kicks him in the chin. His teeth clack together, his neck creaks dangerously. and his slumps backwards against the wall. The second one stabs something into his arm, and pushes down on the plunger. Oh good. Maybe they're going to kill him.
They wrestle him back into the cell, kicking him repeatedly in the ribs and throat. He winds up curled up on the floor as they lock it and leave. Some time later, he drags himself back onto the bed. His nose is bleeding, but he can live with that. One of his ribs might be broken. No, just bruised. He leans back against the wall. The air around him is pulsing, but it's different. The bubble is forming in fragments, in rags. He reaches out to touch one, floating past. A horrible jolt of electric shock shudders up his arm. He inhales slowly, staring at his hand. He laughs, in short jerking breaths.
"Well. This is new."
He leaps to his feet and takes a step. The world grays out. He tries to focus. His hands are shuddering in and out of clarity. He can see bone and muscle under his skin as it flickers. He stares. He can see the floor through his hand. Then, it slams back into reality, with a terribly cold, clammy feeling. Electric pops are going off in the air around them. He reaches up, and grabs one of the bars. He jerks away at a burning sensation. He looks at the bar, and see's a red-hot metal print of his hand burned into it.
He falls onto his ass, causing the floor beneath him to begin to shudder violently.
He climbs back onto the bed and closes his eyes. He realizes suddenly that he can see through his eyelids. They're as transluscent as rice paper. A horribly hot, electrical ache is crawling up his spine.
There's an electric scream, like every nerve in his body is a fuse plugged into too much voltage, an instant before burning out. Then, suddenly, with a noise like a gunshot, it's over. He crumples back onto the bed. He can hear the dog barking a long way off. One of the police officers sticks his head in, glances around, and then withdraws. In the distance, a phone rings.
Across the room, in the box of his equipment, his watch dings. Absolutely nothing happens.
Before he can really start to worry about this, he hears the French girl hissing ar him from across the cell divider.
"Are you alright?"
He rolls off the bed, which is smoking, and crawls towards the cell doors. He coughs up a lung full of ozone.
"French girl, I couldn't even begin to answer that question."
"Vous êtes en vie. C'est un bon début. Pouvez-vous passer le mur et fais-moi sortir d'ici?"
He gets onto his knees.
"Doesn't work that way, French girl. Can't do brick. Besides, whatever they injected me with is doing something really weird."
"Eh bien me baiser avec un ouvre-boîte. Je vous tiens personnellement responsable."
"French girl, they just fucked me up pretty good. You figure it out."
He waves her off, and crawls back onto the bed. He lies down. Off in the distance, one of the police officers has picked up the phone. He listens, to see if he can pick up any words. He can't, just a meaningless blur of consonants.
Then, they come to the cells. They go for the French girl first. One of them throws a pair of handcuffs to her. The traveler hears silence, then a gob of spit flies through the bars, missing the officer. The officers shouts something, and then pulls a gun on her. There's some tense negotiation, her part in broken German, and then he hears the sound of handcuffs being engaged.
She emerges the cell, with a face like an iceberg. her hands are behind her back. One of them shoves her against the wall, and the other comes for the traveler. He points at the vest, and pantomimes its removal. The traveler gives him a look. He produces a gun, and shoots at the French girl. One of the shots lands about an inch from her head. He gives the traveler a significant look. With a sigh, the traveler undoes the last four locks, pulls the cables apart, and the harness comes off. The brass knuckles fall from his stomach onto the ground. He's bare from the waist up, now. Even aside from the red marks on his ribs, his body is a shocking roadmap of scars and muscles.
One of the police officers throws him a pair of handcuffs, which he puts on. Then the officer lets him out. Together, he and the French girl are led at gun point out to a car. They're locked in the back seat, and after a moment, the two offficers return with two boxes. One of them is piled with the traveler's gear, and the other has his dog in it. They close them into the trunk, and then drive off.
The traveler and the French girl don't talk. They searched her, but didn't offer to change her dress, so she's still dressed in the blue gown. At least for him, after they finished dissasembling his gear, they at least gave him a pair of trousers. He feels oddly free without the weight. He's not even all that concerned by being arrested. It's happened before, and he's always come out okay. Admittedly, the injection and its effects are a little worrying, but things tend to work themselves out. He just needs to stay aware and wait for an opportunity to arise.
Outside, German countryside rolls past. The French girl turns around in the seat awkwardly and look at him. He's aware that he doesn't look his best. His hair is burned, and his skin is red from whatever the hell the injection did. She nods at the cops up ahead.
"Think they'll shoot us?"
"No. Something else is going on."
She nods, and goes back to looking out her window. The city peels away, revealing raw German countryside for a while. After a while, the traveler begins to smell saline and decay. Must be a coastal city. That's interesting. Why are they driving towards the ocean? Then he sees it, up ahead. It's not a big dock, just thirty or forty square meters of concrete and wood. The sun is starting to come down, but against the evening sky, he can see the outline of a U-boat moored in the water next to it.
The car drives down the dock, and they are forced out onto the deck. A bunch of german soldiers are sitting on the machinery in the dusk, looking at them with a measure of curiousity. The U-boat captain and one of the police officers walk a distance away, and talk quietly for a while among themselves. The other one keeps a gun on the traveler and the French girl. After a while, another truck pulls open. A team of men climb out, and begin to transport metal rods and welding equipment into the U-boat. After about twenty minutes of this, the team emerges, get back into the truck and drive away. The captain returns, and instructs the crew to go back into the boat, which they do. Then he says something to the two officers, who turn and begin to walk back towards their car.
The French girl begins to look around, examining the possibility of escape. However, the captain already has his gun out. With a look of distinct unhappiness on his face, he points the gun at the two officers, and shoots twice. The bodies drop. He calls the crew up, puts a round into the back of both their heads. One of the crew keeps a gun on the traveler, and the others help the captain load the body into the car. They take the stuff out of the trunk, including the dog. They then disengage the parking brake, lock all the doors, and push it off the end of the pier into the water. It floats for about twenty seconds, before finally flooding and vanishing beneath the black water.
The traveler is quite willing to accept the possibility that they're going to try to kill him. He readies himself for this. If they shoot him in the head, he's got half a chance. He's not at all confident, thought, not on whatever drugs they shot him up with. One of the soldiers takes the dog out of the box, and pets it. The dog barks excitedly, then rolls over. The soldier strokes its belly. Then it walks over to the traveler, and curls up at his feet. After a while, an unmarked black touring car arrives. A Gestapo officer climbs out, and his driver turns around and drives away. He walks up to them. He barely even glances at the French girl or the dog, but walks up to the traveler, and inspects him. He turns to the captain.
"Ist das der Mann?"
The captain shrugs.
"Ich glaube schon. Wer sind Sie?"
The Gestapo officer smirks.
"Mein Name ist nicht wichtig. Ich bin Ihr Begleiter. Bestätigungscode zypern-königlich-albtraum. Ich bin hier, um den Transfer der Gefangenen zum Ziel zu überwachen."
The captain gives him a bitter look.
"Ja, darüber habe ich mich schon gewundert. In meinen versiegelten Befehlen war kein Ziel angegeben."
The Gestapo officer begins to survey the length of the boat with a cautious eye. His answer sounds offhanded.
"Das Ziel ist geheim. Ich werde Ihnen die Route unterwegs mitteilen."
The captain walks over to him, closer than is comfortable. His face is red in the dusk, and his voice is low and clipped. The crew of the U-boat are now watching with interest.
"Hören Sie zu. Ich will ja nicht unangenehm werden, aber gerade eben habe ich zwei Männer umgelegt, Sie verdammter Dreckskerl. Ich denke, Sie können das besser. Ich will wissen, was hier los ist."
The Gestapo officer puts his hand on his shoulder. He seems almost friendly, and then says quietly.
"Die beiden Männer am Grund des Sees hatten etwas damit zu tun. Glauben Sie mir Kapitän, Sie wollen es nicht wissen. Wenn Sie intelligent sind, und ich habe keinen Grund anders zu vermuten, dann machen Sie genau wie Ihnen gesagt wird, bringen uns wohin wir müssen, kehren dann um und vergessen was passiert ist. Verstanden?"
The captain seems to deflate a little.
"Ja. Ich... verstehe."
The Gestapo officer smiles.
"Gut. Machen wir uns auf den Weg?"
The captain shrugs.
The crew push the traveler and the French girl into the boat. They're surprisingly gentle. One of them carries the dog and the box of clothing and equipment with him.
Inside, the U-boat is about as broad as a wide hallway, and this part is lined with bunks. Two adjacent top-row bunks have been modified with a grate welded on top of them. They're pushed up into the bunks, which are padlocked behind them. The crew, with some confusion, return to their posts. The captain and he Gestapo officer sit down some distance away and talk in low voices. The engines start up. Someone closes the hatch. After a few minutes, the traveler feels them descending, and moving. They must be under the water, now.
He rolls over next to the French girl. He gives the bars an experimental kick. No luck. At least the beds are soft. He looks at her. He's expecting her to look furious, but mosty she just looks scared. He puts on hand on her, and she shakes it off.
Scared and angry. Definitely angry. The U-boat shifts slightly. Underneath him, the dog sits whining. A younger officer with close-cropped brown hair, a narrow face, and wire rimmed glasses sits down next to it, and pets it. He looks at them.
"French and American, right?"
His English is pretty good. The traveler nods. He can't quite manage his usual smile, under the circumstances, but there's no point in being rude.
"Bon jour. Pleased to meet you. Sorry for all this, someone up there wants to talk to you, and we've got to transport you. I just wanted to let you know, on behalf of the crew, that we have no grudge against you, and that this is strictly business. Keep on eye on the that Gestapo guy, though. Those guys give me the creeps."
The French girl rolls over against the wall. The traveler shrugs apologetically.
"Don't mind her, she's... been through a lot. Plus, you know, we are your prisoners. I've got no quarrel with you lot either, but you know that that tends to create an adversarial relationship."
"Oh sure, I don't expect you to like us or anything, I just wanted to clear that up. Plus, it's been about six months since we've had any company at all, and you get a little desperate. So long as you don't try to get out, we should be fine."
"And even if you did, we're crossing a lot of fairly cold arctic ocean, based on the chart I saw. Not much of anywhere to run to."
"Sure, I get that. Say, you're English is pretty good. How'd that happen?"
"Oh, I learned it before the war. Thought being bilingual might help me get into a good university. I tried to learn French and Russian as well, but it didn't work out. Ended up getting drafted before I could graduate anyway."
The traveler nods. A scholar, then. After a few seconds, a clock rings and the captain says something in German. Most of the crew begin to file towards their bunks. The scholar smiles, and stands up.
"I believe that it my cue to leave you. Goodnight. Also, to you."
He nods at the French girl's back, picks up the dog, and pushes it into the bunk. He smiles, and tips his hat. Then, with a wave from the traveler, he climbs into his bunk. After a moment, the lights go out. The captain and the gestapo officer don't go to sleep, but keep talking. In the silence, between the breaths, the traveler can make out the conversation.
"Das ist Laternenträger. Wollen Sie das etwa bestreiten?"
"Laternenträger ist ein Mythos, Kapitän. Es existiert nicht. Und selbst wenn es existieren sollte, könnte ich ihnen nichts darüber erzählen."
"Schön. Wie Sie meinen. Sie können jedoch nicht leugnen, dass wir Kurs in polare Gewässer genommen haben. Von der Ausrüstung zu schließen die wir an Bord nehmen mussten würde ich behaupten, dass wir sogar tief ins Polarmeer vordringen. Wenn die Glocke da draussen ist-"
"Ja ich weiß. Aber ich bin für die Sicherheit meiner Leute verantwortlich. Ist die Glocke gefährlich?"
"Hören Sie mir ganz genau zu, Kapitän. Ich will Sie nicht töten, wenn wir unseren Hafen erreicht haben. Aber wenn Sie nicht den Mund halten und sich ruhig verhalten für den Rest unserer Reise, lassen Sie mir keine andere Wahl. Und wegen Ihrer Leute darf ich anmerken: selbst wenn es diese Glocke wirklich gibt, kann ich mir nicht vorstellen, dass ihr Feld groß genug wäre um sie zu gefährden."
The captain sits back for a long moment, as though struck. When he speaks, he is very quiet.
"Ah. Ja. Ja. Selbstverständlich. Bitte verzeihen Sie mir. Ich denke, es ist Zeit für mich. Wollen Sie nicht auch eine Mütze voll Schlaf nehmen?"
"Nein danke, Kapitän. Ich denke ich bleibe noch etwas wach."
"Wie Sie wünschen."
The captain walks to his bunk and lies down. After ten or twenty minutes, the Gestapo officer extinguishes the light with a click, and walks down the dark U-boat to his bunk. He turns over for a few minutes, and then his breathing slows and becomes even. The traveler nearly drifts off, but is poked awake by the French girl, who is looking at him, eyes reflecting distant point of light in the dark. He feels her breath on his face as she whispers.
"What is Lanterntrager?"
The traveler feels his face set.
"Lanterntrager is a myth."
"Oui. You are sure?"
He exhales slowly.
"Not anymore. God, I hope they don't really have it."
The French girl can't think of anything to say to this, and rolls over. After a moment, she is asleep. The traveler lays awake for the longest time, the bed shifting slowly underneath him as the U-boat cuts through the dark water, headed north. It is nearly dawn before he finally drifts off to sleep.
BACK *** NEXT
This is technically on time. Admittedly, it's only Thursday for approximately another nine minutes or so, but I'll count it as a victory. Also, holy broken-formula Batman! Enjoy the story. Or don't. That's between you and your conscience.