The traveler kneels in the dust, screaming silently, lungs contracting and expanding uselessly, limp bags of tissue flapping against each other. His body is trying so very hard to get out through his skin. His arms are bulging, his blood vessels are popping, his eardrums burn, and he’s so very cold. His hands claw into the dust, tiny rocks puncturing his skin. Bubbles of blood rise to the surface and boil away into the vacuum.
There isn’t much time, maybe twenty seconds. The edges of his vision are already sparkling and going dark. It’s becoming harder and harder to push thoughts through to completion. Most of his mind is occupied with sheer, stupid disbelief. No fucking way. What, God ran out of lethal places on Earth? The Moon? The fucking moon? As though the Nazi’s weren’t enough.
And now he’s going to die, here, on this godforsaken fucking chunk of rock. He’s the first man on the moon, and in a very few seconds he’s going to be the first man to die on the moon. The world is receding away, at the end of a very long tunnel, dissolving into colored sparks.
The button. There was a button. With a monumental effort of will, he leans forward, shuts his eyes, and buries his face in the freezing dust. It has the same effect as a splash of cold water. Tiny rocks with razor edges gash his face, but he doesn’t care. The dark recedes a little. He’s got a few seconds. He gropes in the dirt, looking. The high-contrast blacks and whites disguise details and distance. Plus, his eyeballs are freezing. His fingers touch something metal. He tries to pick it up, but his fingers are numb, and he loses it.
He turns, hands desperately turning through the soil, looking for it as he blacks out. He loses his balance, and topples silently onto the ground, a cloud of dust blooming around him. It’s over. The darkness has overwhelmed him, and the sky overhead is a distant black speck at the end of a long, black tunnel. One of his hands comes to rest on something. Almost out of instinct, he brings his thumb down on the end.
There’s a sense of motion, and then the faintest hiss.
Fade to black.
“Failures. So, now we are failures. And now, gentlemen, we have to make a choice. Sometimes in a man’s life, it is necessary to make a distinction, between what can be, and what will be. Sometimes, a man must dig deep, and bring something out that might not be the most comfortable thing in the world.
“Humanity, for all its virtues, does not accomplish miracles, and it is miracles that we are after. So, I ask you, gentlemen, and the good doctor especially, is this it? Do we give up? Or are you willing to kill, to die, in the pursuit of miracles? I know what kind of man I am. I have lived in this head for a long time, and I know what it is capable of, and right now, I know that I can do more. So, what’ll it be, gentlemen? What’ll it be?”
A flash of light, the sound of a voice, somewhere a long way off.
“I hear our Austrian friend gave quite a speech this morning.”
“Yes, sir. That’s one way to put it.”
“And did it work?”
“Frankly, sir, I’ve never seen men work as hard as they did after that speech.”
“I don’t doubt that at all. It’s amazing what men can be persuaded to die for.”
“I’d have thought you’d be happy, sir. You don’t think we’ll make it?”
“I have absolutely no doubt that we’ll make it. I’m just concerned about how badly we might tarnish our souls in the process.”
“Are you - are you drunk, sir?”
“Drinking. Not drunk. It’s a fine distinction that many fail to make. Ahhhhh. Private, I’m going to tell you a secret. It shouldn’t be you hearing this, but here it is anyway. I never wanted to be assigned to this project. I’m not a scientist. Neither are you. We’re both here for just one reason, and that’s that they want a public face.”
“People like a hero, you see. So if it works out, and we make ships invisible and we win when the war comes, who are they going to put up in a press conference? Germans? I have nothing against our two fine guests, but they’re hardly hero material. Our Austrian friend is a mad old electrical fetishist, and I mean that in the fondest and most respectful possible way. And the physicist? He’s a pacifist, and he can hardly remember to tie his shoes. No, they want a corn-fed, all-American hero. You’re perfect. Spotless military record. Tall, good looking, broad shoulders. Smart enough not to fuck up a good thing.”
“So if I’m the big hero, what are you supposed to be?”
“Insurance. People like a good villain, too. They’ve been looking for a way to scuttle me for years.”
“That seems cynical, sir.”
“Yes. Yes, I suppose it does. Listen, private, and I mean this. If you get a chance to get out, do it. You don’t owe this country anything, and at least, however all this goes down, I get to go home. You might not.”
Biting cold. Drops of red fluid pooling on reddened, swollen hands. Men in surgical masks. Eyes closed again.
“Are you sure about this, sir?”
“Listen to the boy, Black. This equipment is untested at this scale - there is simply no predicting how far the backlash could stretch if containment fails. Umber is right. There’s no reason for you to be here. We have a hundred technicians who-”
“I appreciate your concern, White, but we’ve done all we can theoretically. It’s time to test it, and we need someone to be in the thick of it. I’m certainly not risking one of you.”
“But, sir, after that happened to Maroon-“
“-ESPECIALLY after what happened to Maroon. I’m not losing another man, White, and that’s all there is too it. Now, I know how to regulate the equipment as well as anyone. Get your men to a safe distance and start the device. Umber, How’s the chimpanzee faring?”
“Seemed nervous, but basically okay. He’s harnessed in, and we’ve got the lamp in place in the rig. You reviewed the new control scheme?”
“Of course. Okay, I’m ready. Get out of here, Umber. The machine’s starting up.”
“Good luck, sir.”
“Unnecessary, but thank you. Let’s do this, gentlemen.”
Eyes open. Round white walls, a glass window, shapes moving past. Air is wrong, pressurized. Too tired. Gone.
“Jesus, What a way to go. Did you see the body? There wasn’t anything left but blood and teeth.”
“I knew the field would be unstable. Black… Dear lord. Did anyone see what happened to the chimp?”
“Gone. Didn’t settle on the trap. I still can’t believe he’s gone. ”
“Well, maybe he’s alive, wherever he is. The chimp I mean.”
“No, never mind, just got the call, they found him. Other side of the base. In about a dozen pieces.”
“I wonder what’s going to happen now. Will they shut us down?”
“I doubt it. Maroon was a mess. All over the walls. If they were going to shut us down, they’d have done it then. I suspect they’ll be sending us a new Black, soon. I shudder to think who they might pick.”
“It might not be too bad. Right?”
Hands and knees. Gagging. Lungs hurt, eyes hurt, ears hurt. Alive. Somehow. Alive and hurting. Thrown up everything. Stinks. Back to sleep.
“How do you feel, son?”
“Not so good, sir. Been coughing up blood since the latest shot. Listen, I… I don’t know if this is a good idea. I just keep remembering what happened to that poor mouse.”
“Relax, son. This is normal. I’m told every particle in your body is shifting into a new state of something or other. It’s only natural it might play hob with some of the moving parts. Listen, son, I don’t want you to worry about a thing. I’ve been putting a team of people together- good, solid, reliable people. They’ll be keeping an eye on you, you got that?”
“Huh! Recruited them right out from under those squinty old bastard’s noses. It’s like the old days. Draw away their support, hit them where they’re weak. Hell, you’ve seen combat, you know what I mean.”
“You listen to me now – as far as White and Grey are concerned, you’re home sick with the flu, until you get better. Got that? Good. Now, I’ve got something that might cheer you up. As of now, you’re being promoted. Check out this card. When all this is over, this card will open any door for you that you need it to. You’re going to have a bright future ahead of you, my friend.”
Days later? Fever. Not thinking right. Gruel being spooned into the mouth. On a bed, now. Can’t focus. People shouting. Choking on gruel. Nothing left.
“What have you done?”
“Mr. Grey, if you don’t back off, I’m going to have security restrain you.”
“The boy came to me this morning, Black, bleeding from his eyes. Now, you’re not the old Black, and I’m prepared to make allowances. I’ve put up with a lot from you. Reckless, dangerous tests, abuses of power. I’ve put up with a lot more than I should have. This is a stroke too far. You’re killing the boy by degrees, and you know it. This ends, now.”
“Mr. Grey, step back, or I will call security.”
“Don’t you dare play the innocent with me. You were going to send the boy to god knows where, without informing anyone who might object to this… insanity you’re perpetrating.”
“I sent him over an hour ago.”
“Furthermore, - what?”
“I already sent the boy.”
“Dear god. Is he alive?”
“I don’t know. He could well be, wherever he is. We lost him. He lost coherency in the trap.”
“You’re a monster.”
“Mr. Grey, get out of my office. We’ll find him. One way or the other.”
“Mr. Black, you don’t deserve to share that name with a great man. You’re a miserable excuse for a human. Consider this my resignation, and you can shoot me if you don’t like it. You could hardly have more blood on your hands.”
“Mr. Grey, I did what I had to do.”
“No, Mr. Black, you did what you wanted to do. I hope you learn the distinction some day. Good day, Mr. Black.”
The traveler wakes up. He’s in his bed, in the cell. An IV is hooked up to his arm. Both arms have angry red lines of burst blood vessels crawling up them, but seem otherwise none the worse. He coughs. His lungs still hurt, but it’s tolerable.
He sits up, slowly, checking to make sure all his limbs are there. No surprises. His head hurts. No mirrors, can’t see what happened to his face. He can see, which surprises him. He knocks on the wall with two knuckles. He hears the tap. Not even deaf. He got off easy. The noise makes a bundle of blankets next to him stir.
He turns to look at it. The French girl sits up slowly from under her blanket. She’s sitting on a stool beside the bed. Her hair is a sleepy halo around her face. The left side of her face is still bruised, but the damage is much less than it was. She almost smiles when she sees him, but then doesn’t. He coughs again. When he speaks, his voice rasps.
He looks at her.
“We’ve got to get out of here.”
“Enfin, si quelqu'un parlait du sens.”
He shakes his head.
“They sent me to the moon. To the moon. I know the kind of person who would do that, and I’m not going to wait for them to kill me again.”
She hesitates, mouthing words as she translates. She blinks.
He nods. She mulls that over. After a moment’s thought, she raises an eyebrow.
“It’s a long story. I’m going back to bed. Wake me when the food comes.”
He lies back down. Within moments, he is asleep.
“You think he’s dead?”
“Forget that, where’d he come from? We’re fifty miles from the nearest road. You don’t generally find naked guys lying in the mud this far away from a reliable source of alcohol.”
“I bet he’s dead.”
“Maybe. Damn it, I knew this trip was a bad idea. Should we take him with us? It's going to be a pian in the ass to drag a corpse ten miles to the trail. Hmmm maybe – no, wait, he’s breathing again. Hey, man, you okay?”
“Hey, man, try not to move, you’re pretty messed up.”
“Shut up, he’s trying to say something.
“-- ----- -- ---- ---”
“Argh. I. Said. I’m going. To kill him. I’m going to hunt him down. And I’m going to kill him.”
“That asshole, Black. Now, could one of you point me in the direction of – oh shit, what happened to my eye?”
“Looks like you split your cheek on a stick. You should get that looked at. I've got some first aid stuff in my pack.”
“Fuck me. Okay. Well. Bandages first, then I need to know which way to Philidelphia Naval Base.”
“It’s um… about seven thousand miles that way.”
“Seven thousand? Really? Well, in that case, do you mind if I tag along with you?”
“No, go – hey, what is that?”
“What’s wha- agh! What is that?”
“I dunno, it looks like some kind of bubble. Get out of it.”
“I can’t. It’s kind of… following me around.”
“Hey, don’t touch it. You don’t know what it is.”
“Guys. Guys. Help me. What’s going on?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t- It’s getting worse. Let’s get out of here.”
“Don’t you leave me here.”
“I’m sorry. We’re sorry.”
“Whoa. Whoa. Help me, you sons of -!”
“What the fuck was that?”
“I have no goddamn clue. Let’s get out of here.”
“Right behind you.”
The traveler opens his eyes again. He’s starving. The French girl is still curled up on the stool, arms around her knees, sleeping. He pulls the sheets off of himself, and sets his feet on the floor experimentally. A little shaky, but they support him. He limps to the bars of the cell, looks out across the darkened hallway, and then turns around and limps back to the bed. He finds a glass of water by the bed, and drinks some. He’s amazed his lungs survived.
He coughs, and spills some water down his front and onto the floor. Well, mostly. There’s a scraping sound at the door. He turns around. It’s the woman from the kitchen. She’s dressed in a faded cornflower blue dress, and she’s carrying a tray of food and syringes. She has a gun, but doesn’t look prepared to use it. He frowns. Even like this, he could probably beat her head in with a tray, get the key off her body, get the gun, get the French girl, and run, and… find himself stranded on the deck of a ship in sub-zero weather. Yeah, nice plan. He relaxes against the bed.
She sets the tin tray down on the table. The French girl doesn’t wake up. The traveler wonders briefly how long she’s been awake. She turns to him.
“I… have to give you some morphine and some…” her face screws up for a moment, “… polytesaethatate-inhibitors? Something like that?”
She pulls out the syringe. He stares at it. He knows that color.
“No. Not here. I could fry everyone on this deck.”
“This one is… better. He told me. More refined. Safe.”
“Okay. Do it.”
He offers her his arm. She injects the morphine first, and then the other syringe. The fluid rushes into his skin. He prepares for the discharge, and then feels… warm. He raises one hand. Light is crawling around under his skin, intensely bright, hot almost to the point of pain, but not quite.
It spreads from his hand up his arm, across his torso and face, down his legs. One of the patches of light reaches his eyeball, and for a moment everything on one side glows with intense brightness, then it passes. He blinks away the floating specks. A few sparks crawl between his fingers, but don’t hurt much. He shakes himself. The lights are fading.
She’s backed up against the French girls’ bed.
“What are you?”
“I’m just some guy. Look, do you need anything else?”
“Your face. I need to apply first aid.”
“Ah. Yes. I bet they want me to be in perfect health when they vivisect me.”
Out of curiosity, he leans over the steel tray, and inspects his face. It looks like he took a face full of rock salt. The cuts are scabbed over, and healing, but there’s no way that that isn’t going to leave some scars. The woman leans over and rubs his face down with a cotton swab soaked in antiseptic, and then with some kind of cream.
“So what’s your deal? Why are you here?”
“Ah. What about your friend?”
She hesitates, and then goes back to wiping his face off. She doesn't look at him.
“He’s a good man.”
The traveler nods at the French girl. From this angle, the fractured nose and cheekbone show up in stark relief.
“He did that to her.”
She pauses again, and then resumes.
“I know. She provoked him.”
The traveler nods.
“Yes, she did.”
She gets a towel, and begins wiping the cream off of his face. She avoids his gaze.
“Does he usually do that when people provoke him?”
She doesn’t answer. She pushes a tray of food towards him.
“You should eat something.”
There’s a hard metal banging at the door. They turn around. The Nazi is standing there.
"Du solltest nicht hier sein. Ich habe diesem Idioten von Doktor genaue Anweisungen gegeben. Ich schwöre bei Gott, wenn er sich nicht auf seine Arbeit konzentriert anstatt auf die Zwillinge, dann
erschieße ich ihn höchstpersönlich."
The French girl stirs, opens her eyes sleeping, sees the Nazi. She freezes. The cook composes herself.
"Ich hab ja bloß..."
“Ich weis, was Du getan hast. Raus hier. Ich schicke jemand anderen, der sich um sie kümmert."
"Was ist? Raus hier!"
She turns hurriedly, collects the tray, and walks up to the door. He unlocks it, and she leaves. He glares at the traveler and mutters something that he doesn’t catch.
"Komm schon. Ich werde mich mal mit dem Doktor unterhalten."
He takes her by the arm, and they vanish down the hallway. The French girl hasn’t moved. The traveler reaches onto the tray, picks up half the sandwich, and eats it. Then he offers her the other half.
She takes it without comment. She stares thoughtfully after them.
“Vous avez gardé la seringue, bien sûr.”
The traveler reaches behind him, and produces the syringe that he palmed from the tray. The French girl smiles, and walks to the end of the cell and inspects the look.
“Bien. Je peux probablement crocheter la serrure. Je crois que je peux trouver la salle d'armes d'ici. Combien de temps nous avons à tenir?”
“About twelve hours.”
“Très bien. Nous partirons sur dix, et essayer de les tenir à distance pour les deux derniers.”
“Alright. Sounds like a plan.”
She walks back to her bed, and lays down.
“Il est bon de vous revoir. Ne le laissez pas aller à votre tête, though. Tu es encore un connard.”
“I know. Anyway, with any luck, we can grab the dog on our way out.”
He studiously hides the syringe in the crack between the carpet and the wall. The he lies down on his bed. Time passes. It doesn’t pass quickly, but it passes. He rolls over, scratches his leg, counts to a thousand, can’t fall asleep. Perhaps an hour, perhaps two, perhaps forty minutes. No way to be sure. This could be a problem. He’ll have to wing it.
He begins to pace, legs still unsteady. The French girl watches him morosely. He walks. Her head tracks him back and forth across the room. He keeps up the walking for nearly twenty minutes. She’s on the verge of growing angry with him, when they hear footsteps in the hallway. After a moment, the doctor and two soldiers turn around the corner and walk down to the cell.
The doctor nods at him. He turns to one of the soldiers.
"Sie werden für ein anderes Experiment gebraucht..."
The soldier recites a few seconds behind him.
“We’re going to perform another experiment…”
"...Sie müssen mit uns mitkommen. Das Mädchen wird zurückgelassen."
“… and you need to come with us, but not the girl.”
The traveler stands up.
“As you might recall, your last experiment ended with me asphyxiating on the goddamn moon. I don’t get a day’s reprieve?”
The soldier turns.
"Er will einen Tag Aufschub."
The doctor shrugs.
"Du hast zehn Tage gehabt. Bewegung."
The soldier turns.
“You’ve had ten. Move.”
Muttering a low stream of curses, the traveler allows himself to be lead out of the cell. They stomp down the hall with him. They arrive at the hatch to the outside world. The Nazi is waiting there. He gives him a short look that conveys total contempt, and then hands him heavy winter clothing, the lead vest, and the mask. He tucks his sleeves into his gloves, this time.
They open the hatch. There are no people out here, now. It’s late, the sun nearly set, and the compound is deserted. The fires in the barrels are extinguished, and the ice is already building up on them. A fierce wind comes in from the left, buffeting them. At night, the cold is even harsher. The traveler’s mask fogs up quickly, and he is left stumbling across the ice on the deck, near blind, shivering from the cold. The cold gets through the heavy coat without even the grace of hesitation. The mask begins to unfog as the air inside cools. Droplets of condensation form, blurring the thin slat of vision.
The traveler breathes slowly. He’s propelled down the stairs, taking each step not quite carefully enough. Some snow falls away under one foot, and he nearly slides into the black water, but catches himself. The whole ship behind him hums with the motion of people and machines inside him. They walk across the surface of the iceberg. They walk across the slushy ground. They reach the henge. It seems to be running hotter than normal. The whole structure is shuddering. Each antenna is shooting jets of phosphorescent, ionized air into the upper atmosphere. The sky over it pulses with surreal green lighting, rolling and crackling.
In the odd green illumination of this display, they walk slowly into the tents. The snow settle around them, like tiny green leaves descending from a neon sky. The tent opens. The technician is standing there, barely visible behind his radiation gear.
"Es ist bereit. Sind Sie sich damit sicher?"
The Nazi smiles. It’s all teeth.
They walk through the foil rooms until they finally reach the room where the Bell is stored. They’ve been busy. A large metal cage has been assembled, n the shape of an flattened sphere. Tubes of red fluid are arranged at six points around the center. The Bell stands in the center. In front of it, a rack that reminds the traveler of a stockade has been erected. Tubes and wires run down from it, and into the Bell. Four seats covered in leather are arranged at equidistant points inside the cage. Tubes and wires crisscross the floor.
The traveler turns to the Nazi, who smiles at him under his radiation mask. When he speaks, his voice is muffled, but filled with unexpected joy.
“I understand, it now. Two nations, chasing their tails, for so many years, both attempting to solve half a puzzle! The moon was an accident, but it taught us so many things. We have it now. We’ve done it. There is nothing left to stop us.”
He stops for a moment, smiling behind his mask, then repeats himself.
“There’s nothing left to stop us, and we are going to change everything.”
He turns to the others. One of them walks over to a series of switches and dials arranged along one wall. There’s a hiss, and a sudden, eerie silence. The traveler allows himself to be raised into the stockade. No point in fighting now. He’s going to die, but the Nazi is going to die with him. The two soldiers drag spring-loaded booms down to his sides. They lock around his arms, and pull them away from his body. The soldiers push something down on the cuffs and there’s a sharp pain as a dozen needles stab into his arms. He jerks away, but can’t move much. The soldier too the right pulls his helmet off. Someone presses something. The cage begins to hum. He hears the Bell begin to grind to life behind him. Something cold happens to his arms, and he suddenly realizes that they’re pumping something into him.
"Wir haben flüssigen Kontakt."
"Hervorragend. Laden Sie nach der Reihenfolge die ich Ihnen gegeben habe."
The cage is shaking. The traveler feels his stomach spasm. Then, another shudder. He convulses in the stockade. The air inside it seems to have taken on a subtle green glow. The air in the room has begun to hum like a transformer about to explode. The Nazi nods to one of the soldiers, and he retreats gratefully from the cage. The others sit down. The technician takes the seat closest to the control panel, and leans over. He pushes a button.
"Wir haben Versatz."
There’s a sudden feeling of connection. The traveler doubles over in pain. His torso ripples visibly. He screams out in pain, as his skin bulges with pressure. The air begins to shiver inside the cage. He feels an immense weight pulling on every fiber of his body, as though his body is being used to drag an immense weight through the water. Something clicks. Membranes like greasy crystal snap into being in the gaps between beams in the cage. The weight intensifies so dramatically that the traveler can’t even scream, can’t think, can’t breathe. Pinprick droplets of blood form on his hands.
The weird, geometric bubble shimmers and crackles. It’s much larger than it should be. He can feel the weight of every pound tearing him apart. The Nazi speaks, voice steady, eyes shining behind his mask.
There’s a thunderous wet noise behind him, like God’s toilet flushing. Gallons of red fluid plunge out of the Bell, flooding the tubes underneath them, climbing up the cage. The whole contraption lights up like a burning flare for a microsecond. The traveler is trapped in a frozen instant of agony, screaming.
Then, suddenly, the cage is gone with an explosion of air and the tent is empty, except for one soldier. The soldier stands in the falling wreckage of the tent, snow coming down in drifts around him, a cold wind blowing in from the North, and green lights snapping in the sky overhead.
The traveler stops screaming. The weight is suddenly lifted. The traveler slumps in the stockage, body aching from the strain. The cage falls about two feet, crashing into position on the ground. The traveler looks around as much as he can from the stockade. They’re in a bedroom of some kind. Not especially opulent, but nice. There are signs of wealth, subtly applied. He notes a distinctly Russian sensibility, and swears under his breath. Russia…
There’s a four-poster bed, and a man climbing out of it. Even frightened, in the dark room, black hair and long moustache in disarray, the traveler knows his face. The squat, bulldoggish face, the prominent brow and nose. It’s the dictator of Russia. The Nazi stands up, and turns calmly towards him, face obscured by the radiation mask. He pulls a pistol out of his pocket, and points it towards the dictator.
The dictator opens his mouth to say something and the gun fires, impossibly loudly and his face crumples inwards on itself, leaving a dark red hole in the side of his face. His body drops to the ground, blood squirting obscenely onto the carpet. Men with guns are already rushing into the room, shouting. One of the technicians pushes a button. The bubble leaps back into existence, and the pressure is back. There’s another moment of timeless weight, and they are gone. The guards stand around the body, exchanging glances, eyes empty in horror. The dictator is dead.
BACK *** NEXT
Flashback episode this week. For those of you who've been emailing me insisting I add more back story, you'd better be bloody well happy.
That said, I'd be remiss in my duties as an author if I didn't provide at least a little plot movement forward. So I did.
Credit for the inspiration and several direct quotes for the Austrian's speech go to Jamie, at the Giant Robot Project, a god among (crazy) men.