as he lay on the filth-clotted hay in the foul darkness with the other prisoners mumbling and moaning in their sleep, Michael felt a sadness creep over him like a silken shroud.
Life was a precious thing; what was it about men who hated it so muchi He thought of the dark smoke belching from the chimneys and tainting the air with the smell of burning flesh. He thought of pinewood boxes full of hair, and how someone-a mother, a father-in a kinder world had combed that hair, and stroked it, and kissed the forehead it fell upon. Now it was gone to the wig makers, and the body up in smoke. More than humans were being destroyed here; whole worlds were being charred to white ash. and for whati Lebensraum-Hitler's vaunted "elbow room"-and Iron Crossesi He thought of Mouse, lying dead in the thorns, the little man's neck broken by a quick and merciful twist. His heart clutched: perhaps killing was his nature, but it was far from his pleasure. Mouse had been a good friend. What better epitaph was therei To mourn a single human being in such a death-torn land seemed like standing in a flaming house and blowing out a candle. He sheered his mind away from the memory of Boots crushing the dead hand and plucking the medal from it. His eyes were wet, and he realized he could lose his senses in this hellhole.
Something Blok had said. What was iti Michael tried to concentrate past the carnage. Something Blok had said about a fortress. Yes, that was it. Blok's words: No one knows where the fortress is but myself, Dr. Hildebrand, and a few others...
The fortress. What fortress had he meanti Skarpa Islandi Michael didn't think so; it had been simple enough for Chesna to find out that Hildebrand had a home and workshop on Skarpa. That fact wasn't a closely guarded secret. So what other fortress could Blok have meant, and what might that have to do with how Iron Fist was going to be usedi
Bullet holes on glass and green-painted metal, Michael thought. Olive-green-painted metal. Why that particular huei
He was pondering that when fingers touched his face.
He jumped, taken by surprise, and grabbed the slim wrist of a crouching figure outlined in dim blue. There was a muffled gasp; the figure thrashed to pull away, but Michael held firm.
another figure, this one larger and also silhouetted in blue in Michael's night vision, uncoiled from the gloom to his right. an arm shot out. at the end of it was a fist, which cracked against Michael's skull and made his ears ring. a second blow grazed his forehead as he ducked beneath it, crouching on his knees. They were trying to kill him, he thought. a surge of panic rose within him. Were they that hungry that they wanted raw human fleshi He let go of the first figure, which scurried to the safety of a far corner, and concentrated on the larger, stronger one. a third blow was swung; Michael chopped at the open elbow and heard a satisfying grunt of pain. He saw the outline of a head and faint facial features. He slammed his fist into the face. a bulbous nose exploded.
"Guards!" a man shouted in French. "Guards! Help us!"
"Mercy of God! Mercy of God!" the shrieker began again at the top of his lungs.
"Stop that, you fools!" This man's language was German with a thick Danish accent. "You'll use up all the air!"
a pair of sinewy arms twined around Michael's chest. He rocked his head back and smashed his skull against another man's face. The arms lost their strength. The large figure with the burst nose was still full of fight. a fist hit Michael's bruised shoulder and drove a cry of pain from him. Then fingers were on his throat, the weight of a body pressing down on him. Michael brought the palm of his hand up in a short, vicious blow against the tip of the man's bearded chin and heard the crack of his teeth hitting together, possibly catching part of the tongue between them. The man groaned but kept squeezing Michael's throat, fingers digging for the windpipe.
a piercing scream overwhelmed all the other frantic voices. It was the scream of a young girl, and it rose to a hysterical crescendo.
The kennel door's small inset slid back. The brass nozzle of a fire hose was pushed through.
"Watch out!" the Dane warned. "They're going to-"
a high-pressure flood of water shot from the nozzle and hit the prisoners, its velocity flinging Michael and his combatant away from each other. Michael was driven against a wall, the water battering his flesh. The girl's scream became a strangled coughing. The shrieker had been silenced, his frail body hammered by the deluge. In another few seconds the water stopped, the fire hose was withdrawn, and the door's inset slid back into place. It was all over but the moaning.
"You! The new one!" It was the same gruff voice that had told Metzger to shut up, except now the man was speaking around a badly bitten tongue. His language was coarse Russian. "You touch the girl again and I'll break your neck, understandi"
"I don't want to hurt her," Michael answered in his native language. "I thought I was being attacked."
The other man didn't reply for a moment. Metzger was sobbing, and someone else was trying to soothe him. Water trickled down the walls and pooled on the floor, and the air reeked of sweat and steam. "She's out of her mind," the Russian told Michael. "about fourteen years old, is my guess. No telling how many times she's been raped. Somewhere along the line, somebody put out her eyes with a hot iron."
"Whyi" the Russian asked. "Did you do iti" He snorted blood from his broken nose. "Gave me a hell of a knock, you son of a bitch. What's your namei"
"Gallatinov," he answered.
"I'm Lazaris. The bastards got me at Kirovograd. I was a fighter pilot. How about youi"
"I'm just a soldier," Michael said. "They got me in Berlin."
"Berlini" Lazaris laughed and snorted more blood. "Ha! That's a good one! Well, our comrades will be marching through Berlin soon enough. They'll set fire to the whole damned city and drink a toast to Hitler's bones. I hope they catch that bastard. Couldn't you see him dancing on a meat hook in Red Squarei"
"It's a possibility."
"Never. Hitler won't be taken alive, that's for sure. You hungryi"
"Yes." It was the first time he'd thought of food since he'd been thrown in this hole.
"Here. Hold your hand out and you'll get a feast."
Michael did. Lazaris found his hand in the dark, gripped it with wiry fingers, and put something into the palm. Michael sniffed it: a small clump of hard bread that smelled bitter with mold. In a place like this one didn't turn down handouts. He ate the bread, chewing it slowly.
"Where are you from, Gallatinovi"
"Leningrad." He swallowed the bread, and his tongue searched his teeth for crumbs.
"I'm from Rostov originally. But I've lived all over Russia." That was the beginning of Lazaris's recitation of his life history. He was thirty-one years of age, and his father was an "engineering specialist" with the Soviet air force-which meant, basically, that his father was head of a team of mechanics. Lazaris went on about his wife and three sons-all of them safe in Moscow-and how he'd flown more than forty missions in his Yak-1 fighter and shot down twelve Luftwaffe aircraft. "I was working on my thirteenth," Lazaris said wistfully, "when two more dropped out of the clouds right on top of me. They shot poor Warhammer to pieces, and I hit the silk. I landed less than a hundred yards from an enemy machine-gun nest." Michael couldn't see the man's face in the dark, but he saw the blue-outlined shoulders shrug. "I'm courageous in the sky. On land not so much so. and here I am."
"Warhammer," Michael repeated. "That was your planei"
"Yes, I named her. Painted her name on the fuselage, too. Plus a swastika for every kill. ah, she was a fine, beautiful beast." He sighed. "You know, I never saw her come down. That's for the best, I think. Sometimes I like to believe she's still up there, flying circles over Russia. all the pilots in my squadron named their planes. Do you think that's childishi"
"Whatever helps keep a man alive is not childish."
"My thoughts, exactly. The americans do the same thing. Oh, you ought to see their planes! Painted up like Volga floozies-especially their long-distance bombers-but they can fight like Cossacks. What our air force could have done with machines like those!"
Lazaris had been shipped from camp to camp, he told Michael, and had been in Falkenhausen for what he thought must be six or seven months. He'd only been thrown into this kennel recently-maybe two weeks, he thought, though it was hard to tell the passage of time in a place like this. Why he was in here was anyone's guess, but he missed seeing the sky.
"That building with the chimneys," Michael ventured. "What goes on in therei"
Lazaris didn't answer. Michael could hear the sound of the man's fingers, scratching his beard. "I do miss the sky," Lazaris said after a while. "The clouds, the blue freedom of it. If I could see one bird, my whole day was happy. But not many birds fly over Falkenhausen." He lapsed into silence. Metzger was sobbing again, a terrible, broken sound. "Someone sing to him," Lazaris told the others, speaking a crude but serviceable German. "He likes being sung to."
No one sang. Michael sat on the sodden hay with his knees drawn up to his chest. Someone groaned softly, followed by a diarrheic bubbling noise. From across the cell, which couldn't be more than eight feet or so, Michael heard the whimpering of the blind girl. He could see six figures, silhouetted in faint blue. He lifted a hand and touched the ceiling. Not a crack of light entered the kennel. He felt as if the ceiling were moving, and the walls, too, the entire cell constricting to smash them into bones and juices. It was an illusion, of course, but never in his life had he longed so much for a breath of fresh air and the sight of a forest. Steady, he told himself. Steady. He knew he could withstand more pain and hardship than the normal human being, because those things had been integral parts of his life. But this confinement was torture to his soul, and he knew he could break in a place like this. Steady. There was no telling when he might see the sun again, and he had to keep control of himself. Control was the wolf's theme. Without control, a wolf had no chance for survival. He could not-must not-give up hope, even here in this den of hopelessness. He'd been successful in diverting Blok's attention to the fictitious nest of traitors at the Reichkronen, but how long would that lasti Sooner or later the torture would begin once more, and when it did-
Steady, he thought. Don't think about that. It will happen when it happens, and not before. He was thirsty. He licked the wet wall behind him and caught enough moisture on his tongue for a satisfying sip.
"Lazarisi" Michael asked, sometime later.
"What is iti"
"If you could get out of here, is there a weak point somewhere in the campi a place where the wall might be climbedi"
Lazaris grunted. "You must be joking."
"I'm not. Surely the guards change, the gate opens to let trucks in and out, a tunnel can be dug. Isn't there an escape committee herei Hasn't anyone tried to get outi"
"No," Lazaris said. "People here are fortunate to be able to walk, much less run, climb, or dig. There's no escape committee. There's no thought of escape, because it's impossible. Now put that out of your mind before you go insane."
"There's got to be a way out," Michael persisted. He heard desperation in his voice. "How many prisoners are herei"
"I don't know for sure. Possibly forty thousand or so in the men's camp. Maybe another twenty thousand in the women's camp. Of course they're always coming and going. The train pulls in with a new load every day."
Michael was stunned. Sixty thousand prisoners, by a conservative estimate. "and how many guardsi"
"Hard to tell. Seven or eight hundred, maybe a thousand."
"The guards are outnumbered six to onei and still no one's tried to escapei"
"Gallatinov," the Russian said wearily, as if speaking to a troublesome child, "I don't know of anyone who can outrun a machine-gun bullet. Or who would care to try. The guards have dogs, too: Dobermans. I've seen what their teeth can do to human flesh, and I'll tell you it isn't pretty. If, by some astounding miracle, a prisoner was to get out of Falkenhausen, where would that wretch goi We're in the heart of Germany. From here, all roads lead to Berlin." He crawled away a few feet and rested his back against the wall. "For you and me, the war is over," he said quietly. "Let it go."
"The hell I will," Michael told him, and he screamed inside.
The passage of time was hard to judge. It might have been an hour or two later that Michael noted the prisoners were getting restless. Soon afterward he heard the sound of the door to the next kennel being unbolted. The prisoners were up on their knees, shivering in expectation. Then their own kennel door was unbolted and swung open to let in the excruciating light.
a small, black loaf of bread, shot through with veins of green mold, was thrown in among them. The prisoners fell upon it, tearing chunks out of it. "Bring your sponge!" one of the soldiers who stood in the corridor said.
Lazaris crawled forward, a gray sponge in his hand. He had at one time been a husky man, but the flesh had shrunken over his large bones. Dark brown hair spilled down his shoulders, his beard clotted with hay and filth. His facial flesh had drawn tight over his jutting cheekbones, and his eyes were dark holes in the pallid skin. His nose, a formidable beak that might've made Cyrano tip his hat, was crusted with blood around the nostrils, courtesy of Michael's fist. He glanced at Michael as he crawled past, and Michael shrank back. Lazaris had the eyes of a dead man.
The Russian immersed the sponge in a bucket of dirty water. Then he withdrew it, swollen with liquid. The bucket was pulled away, the kennel's door slammed shut-a brutal sound-and the iron latch slid back into place. The next kennel down the corridor was opened.
"Dinnertime," Lazaris said as he crawled past Michael again. "Everyone gets a drink from the sponge. Hey, you bastards! Leave something for my comrade!" There was the noise of a quick and decisive struggle, and then Lazaris nudged Michael's arm. "Here." He put a damp bit of bread in Michael's hand. "That damned Frenchman always tries to get more than his share. You've got to be fast around here if you want something better than a crust."
Michael sat with his back against the rough stones and chewed on the bread. He stared at nothing. His eyes stung. Tears crept from them and trickled down his cheeks, but who they were for he did not know.