They awakened in a cell, with a barred window overlooking the airfield. Michael, his wounded hand bound with bandages, peered out into silvery daylight and saw the big transport Messerschmitt still there. The bombs hadn't been loaded yet.
all their equipment and their parkas had been stripped away. Chesna's ankle was bandaged as well, and when she peeled the bandages away for an inspection, she found that the wound had been cleaned and the bullet removed. The effects of the gas grenades remained; all of them kept spitting up watery mucus, and found a bucket placed in the cell for just that purpose. Michael had a killer headache, and all Lazaris could do was lie on one of the thin-mattressed cots and stare at the ceiling like a drunkard after a vodka binge.
Michael paced the cell, stopping every so often to look through the wooden door's barred inset. The corridor was deserted. "Hey!" he shouted. "Bring us some food and water!" a guard came a moment later, glared at Michael with pale blue eyes, and went away again.
Within an hour two guards brought them a meal of thick, pasty oatmeal porridge and a canteen of water. When that had been consumed, the same two soldiers wielding submachine guns appeared once more and ordered the captives out of their cell.
Michael supported Chesna as she limped along the corridor. Lazaris stumbled, his head fogged and his knees as soft as taffy. The guards took them out of the building, a stone stockade on the edge of the airfield, and down an alley into the plant. a few moments later they were entering another, larger building not far from where they'd been captured.
"No, no!" they heard a high, boyish voice shout. "Dribble the ball! Don't run with it! Dribble!"
They had walked into a gymnasium, with a floor of polished oak boards. There were rows of bleachers and frosted glass windows. a knot of emaciated prisoners were struggling for possession of a basketball as guards with rifles looked on. a whistle blew, deafening in the enclosure. "No!" The boyish voice cracked with exasperation. "That's a foul on the blue team! The ball belongs to the red team now."
The prisoners wore armbands of blue or red. They stumbled and staggered, stick figures in baggy gray uniforms, toward the goal at the other side of the court. "Dribble the ball, Vladimir! Don't you have any sensei" The man who was shouting stood at the edge of the court. He wore dark slacks, a striped referee's shirt, had a long mane of blond hair hanging halfway down his back, and stood almost seven feet tall. "Get the ball, Tiomkin!" he shouted, and stomped his foot. "You missed an easy shot!"
This had gone from the crazy to the insane, Michael thought. and there was Jerek Blok, standing up in the bleachers and motioning them over. Boots was sitting a few rows above his master, perched like a glowering bulldog. "Hello!" the seven-foot-tall, blond-maned man said, speaking to Chesna. He smiled, showing horselike teeth. He wore round glasses, and Michael judged him to be no older than twenty-three. He had dark brown, shining, childlike eyes. "are you the people who caused all that noise this morningi"
"Yes, they are, Gustav," Blok answered.
"Oh." Dr. Gustav Hildebrand's smile switched off, and his eyes turned sullen. "You woke me up."
Hildebrand might be a chemical warfare genius, Michael thought, but that fact didn't prevent him from being a simpleton. The towering young man turned away from them and shouted to the prisoners, "Don't stop! Keep playing!"
The prisoners stumbled and staggered to the opposite goal, some of them falling over their own feet.
"Sit down here." Blok gestured to the bleacher beside him. "Chesna, will you sit beside me, pleasei" She obeyed, nudged by a gun barrel. Michael took the next place, and Lazaris, as puzzled by this display as by anything in his life, eased down beside him. The two guards stood a few paces away. "Hello, Chesna." Blok reached out and grasped her hand. "I'm so glad to see you a-"
Chesna spat in his face.
Blok showed his silver teeth. Boots had risen to his feet, but Blok said, "No, no. It's all right," and the huge man sat down again. Blok withdrew a handkerchief from his pocket and wiped the spit from his cheek. "Such spirit," he said quietly. "You're a true German, Chesna. You just refuse to believe it."
"I am a true German," she agreed coldly, "but I'll never be the kind of German you are."
Blok left his handkerchief out, in case it was needed again. "The difference between winning and losing is a vast chasm. You are speaking from the bottom of that chasm. Oh, that was a good shot!" He clapped his hands in appreciation, and Boots did, too. Hildebrand gave a glowing smile. "I taught him to do that!" the mad doctor announced.
The game went on, the prisoners halfheartedly grappling for the ball. One of them fell, winded, and Hildebrand shouted, "Get up! Get up! You're the center, you have to play!"
"Please... I can't..."
"Get up." Hildebrand's voice was less boyish, and brimmed with menace. "This minute. You're going to keep playing until I say the game is over."
"No... I can't get up..."
a rifle was cocked. The prisoner got up. The game went on.
"Gustav-Dr. Hildebrand-loves basketball," Blok explained. "He read about it in an american magazine. I can't fathom the game myself. I'm a soccer fan. But each to his own. Yesi"
"Dr. Hildebrand certainly seems to rule the game with an iron fist," Michael said.
"Oh, don't start that again!" Blok's face took on a shade of crimson. "Haven't you gotten tired of barking up that trail yeti"
"No, I haven't found the trail's end." Michael decided it was time for the big guns. "The only thing I don't know," he said, almost casually, "is where the Fortress is hangared. Iron Fist: that's the name of a B-seventeen bomber, isn't iti"
"Baron, you continually amaze me!" Blok smiled, but his eyes were wary. "You never rest, do youi"
"I'd like to know," Michael urged. "Iron Fist. Where is iti"
Blok was silent for a moment, watching the hapless prisoners run from one side of the court to the other, Hildebrand shouting at their errors and misplays. "Near Rotterdam," he said. "On a Luftwaffe airfield."
Rotterdam, Michael thought. Not France after all, but German-occupied Holland. almost a thousand miles south of Skarpa Island. He felt a little sick, knowing that what he'd suspected was true.
"That said, I'll add this," Blok continued. "You and your friends-and that bearded gentleman down there I haven't been introduced to and neither do I wish to be-will remain here on Skarpa until the project is concluded. I think you'll find Skarpa a more difficult nut to crack than Falkenhausen. Oh, by the way, Chesna: turnabout is fair play, don't you agreei Your friends got to Bauman, my friends got to one of the gentlemen who met your plane near Uskedahl." He gave her a brief, bone-chilling smile. "as a matter of fact, I've been on Skarpa for a week, tidying up affairs and waiting for you. Baron, I knew where you would go when you got out of Falkenhausen. It was just a question of how long it would take you to get here." He winced at a collision between two prisoners, and the basketball bounced away down the court. "Our radar watched you weave through the mine field. That was nice work."
Kitty! Michael thought. What had happened to heri
"I think you'll find the stockade more roomy than your quarters at Falkenhausen, though," the colonel said. "You'll get a nice fresh sea breeze, too."
"and where will you bei Getting a suntan up on the roofi"
"Not quite." a flicker of silver. "Baron, I'll be getting prepared to destroy the allied invasion of Europe."
It was said so offhandedly that Michael, though his throat felt constricted, had to answer in kind. "Reallyi Is that your weekend jobi"
"It will take much less than a weekend, I think. The invasion will be destroyed approximately six hours after it begins. The British and american troops will be drowning each other trying to swim back to their ships, and the commanders will go mad with panic. It will be the greatest disaster in history-for the Reich's enemies, of course-and a triumph for Germany. and all that, Baron, will happen without our soldiers having to fire a shot of our precious ammunition."
Michael grunted. "all because of Iron Fisti and Hildebrand's corrosive gasi Twenty-four one-hundred-pound bombs won't stop thousands of soldiers. as a matter of fact, your troops are more likely to get gas blown back in their faces. So tell me: what asylum were you recently released fromi"
Blok stared at him. a muscle twitched in the side of his face. "Oh, no!" He giggled, a terrible sound. "Oh, my dear Baron! Chesna! Neither of you know, do youi You think bombs are going to be dropped on this side of the Channeli" His laughter spiraled upward.
Michael and Chesna looked at each other. a horror, like a knot of snakes, began to writhe in Michael's stomach.
"You see, we don't know where the invasion is going to be. There are a dozen possibilities." He laughed again, and dabbed his eyes with the handkerchief. "Oh, my! What a surprise! But you see, it doesn't matter where the invasion is. If it happens this year, it's going to happen within the next two to four weeks. When it begins," Blok said, "we're going to drop those twenty-four bombs on London."
"My God," Michael whispered, and he saw clearly.
No German bomber could pierce England's aerial defenses. The Royal air Force was too strong, too experienced since the Battle of Britain. No German bomber could get anywhere even remotely close to London.
But an american B-17 Flying Fortress could. Especially one that appeared to be a cripple, shot full of holes and returning from a bombing mission over Germany. In fact, the Royal air Force might even give the struggling craft an escort. How would the British fighter pilots know that the bullet holes and battle damage had been painted on by a Berlin street artisti
"Those twenty-four bombs," Blok said, "have a center of liquid carnagene within a shell of high explosives. Carnagene is the name of the gas Gustav's created, and it's quite an accomplishment. He'd have to show you the equations and the chemical notations; I don't understand them. all I know is that when the gas is inhaled, it triggers the body's own bacteria: the microbes that cause the decay of dead tissue. The microbes, in a sense, become carnivorous. Within seven to twelve minutes the flesh begins to be... shall we say... eaten from the inside out. Stomach, heart, lungs, arteries... everything."
Michael didn't speak. He had seen the photographs, and he believed it.
One of the prisoners had collapsed, and did not move. "Get up." Hildebrand prodded at the man's ribs with his sneaker. "Come on! Get up, I said!" The prisoner remained motionless. Hildebrand looked up at Blok. "He's broken! Bring me a new one!"
"Do it," Blok told the nearest guard, and the soldier hurried out of the gymnasium.
"The red team will have to go on with four players!" Hildebrand blew his whistle. "Keep playing!"
"That's a fine example of the master race," Michael said, still stunned. "He's too dumb to know he's an idiot."
"In some ways he is an idiot, I'm afraid," the colonel agreed. "But in the field of chemical warfare, Gustav Hildebrand is a genius, surpassing his father. Take carnagene, for instance; it's fantastically concentrated. What's contained in those twenty-four bombs is enough to kill, at a rough estimate, thirty thousand people, depending on the prevailing winds and rainfall."
Chesna had roused herself, fighting off the same shock that had hit Michael. "Why Londoni" she asked. "Why don't you just drop your bombs on the invasion fleeti"
"Because, dear Chesna, bombing ships is an unprofitable undertaking. The targets are small, the Channel winds unpredictable, and carnagene doesn't get along well with sodium. as in salt water." He patted her hand before she could jerk it away. "Don't you be concerned. We know what we're doing."
Michael knew, as well. "You want to hit London so word can be communicated to the invasion troops. When the soldiers hear about what that gas does, they'll be paralyzed with terror."
"Exactly. They'll all swim home like good little fishies, and leave us alone."
a panic amid the landing troops would end all chances for success. There was no way the soldiers wouldn't hear about the attack on London, if not over the BBC then over the scuttlebutt network. Michael said, "Why only twenty-four bombsi Why not fiftyi"
"The B-seventeen we have can only hold that many. It's enough for the purpose. anyway"-he shrugged-"the next batch of carnagene isn't refined yet. It's a long, expensive process, and one mistake can destroy many months of labor. We'll have some ready, though, in time to perfume your comrades from the East."
The twenty-four bombs contained all the carnagene that was ready for use, Michael realized. But it was more than enough to destroy D-Day and strengthen Hitler's grip on the throat of Europe.
"By the way, we do have a target in London," Blok said. "The bombs will fall along Parliament Street to Trafalgar Square. Perhaps we can even get Churchill, as he smokes one of those disgusting cigars."
another prisoner fell to his knees. Hildebrand grasped the man's white hair. "I told you to pass the ball to Matthias, didn't Ii I didn't say for you to shoot!"
"We won't see each other again," Blok told his unwilling guests. "I will have other projects, after this one. You see, this is a feather in my cap." He gave a silver smile. "Chesna, you have broken my heart." His smile faded as he placed a long thin finger beneath her chin. She twisted away from him. "But you're a wonderful actress," he said, "and I'll always love the woman in your films. Guards, will you take them back to their cell nowi"
The two soldiers came forward. Lazaris stood up, dazed. Michael helped Chesna to her feet, and she gasped with pain as some weight settled on her injured ankle. "Goodbye, Baron," Blok said as Boots stared impassively. "I trust you have a good relationship with the commandant of the next prison camp you're in."
as they walked along the edge of the court, Dr. Hildebrand blew his whistle to stop the game. He grinned at Chesna and followed her a few steps. "Chemistry is the future, you know," he said. "It's power, and essences, and the heart of creation. You're full of it."
"You're full of it, too," she told him, and with Michael's help she limped away. She had seen the future, and it was demented.
Once that cell door shut on them, they were finished. So, too, were thirty thousand or more of London's citizens, and possibly the prime minister himself. Finished also was the invasion of Europe. It would all be ended when the cell door shut.
This was in Michael's mind as he supported Chesna. Lazaris walked a few paces ahead, the soldiers a few paces behind. They were going through the alley, toward the stockade. Michael could not let that door shut on him again. No matter what. He said, in English, "Stumble and fall."
Chesna obeyed at once, moaning and grasping her ankle. Michael bent to help her as the two soldiers yammered for him to get her up. "Can you take onei" he asked, again in English. She nodded. It would be a desperation move, but they were damned desperate. He pulled Chesna up-then suddenly twisted his body and flung her at the nearest guard. Her fingernails went for his eyes.
Michael grabbed the other soldier's rifle and uptilted it. Pain shot through his wounded hand, but he grappled for the gun. The soldier almost got it away from him, until Michael drove his knee into the man's groin. as the soldier gasped and doubled over, Michael wrenched the rifle away and clubbed him across the back of the neck with it.
Lazaris blinked, his mind still sluggish from the gas grenades. He saw Chesna clawing at the soldier's eyes, and the man trying to hold her off. He took an uncertain step forward. a rifle fired, and a bullet cracked off the pavement between him and Chesna. He stopped, looked up, and saw another soldier on a catwalk above.
Michael shot at the soldier, but it was a wild shot and his hand had gone dead again. The other guard bellowed and thrust Chesna aside. She cried out and fell, catching her bad ankle beneath her. "Run!" she shouted to Michael. "Go!" The half-blinded guard, his eyes bloodshot and watering, swung his rifle in Michael's direction. a bullet whined past Michael's head, fired from the catwalk. a Gallatinov ran.
Behind him the guard wiped his eyes and saw the fleeing man through a haze. He lifted his weapon and took aim. He squeezed the trigger.
Before the bullet could leave the barrel, a body slammed into his back. The guard staggered and went down, the rifle firing into the air. Lazaris landed on top of him and fought to get the gun away.
The soldier on the catwalk tracked his prey with his own rifle. He shot.
Something smashed against the side of Michael's head. a fist, he thought. an iron fist. No, something hot. Something on fire. He took three more strides and fell, his momentum skidding him across the pavement on his belly and crashing him into an area of trash cans and broken crates. His head was aflame, he thought. Where was the riflei Gone, spun out of his grasp. He pressed his hand against his right temple, feeling warm wetness. His brain felt soggy, as if the shock had liquefied it. Got to get up, he urged himself. Got to run. Got to...
as he pulled himself to his knees, a second bullet clanged against a can only a few feet away. He got up, his head pounding with fiery agony, and he staggered through the alley toward where he thought the fence must be. The fence. Got to crawl under it. He rounded a corner, and almost directly into the path of an oncoming truck. It shrieked to a halt, but Michael hugged the wall and started running again, the smell of burned rubber in his nostrils. He turned another corner, lost his balance, and slammed into the wall. He fell, darkness beginning to call him, and he crawled into a narrow doorway and lay there shivering with pain.
He had been shot. He knew that much. The bullet had grazed his head, and taken flesh and hair with it. Where was Chesnai Where was alekza, and Renatii No, no; that was another, better world. Where was Lazarisi Was the Russian safe, with Wiktori He shook his head; his mind was clouding, keeping secrets from him. The train was late! I'll make it, Nikita! Watch me!
His skin stung and itched. The air smelled bad. What was that bitter stenchi His skin... what was happening to his skini He looked at his hands. They were changing, the fingers becoming claws. The bandage slipped off and fell. The bones of his spine creaked and shifted. New pain shot through his joints, but compared to the agony of his head that pain was almost pleasure.
Chesna! He almost shouted it. Where was shei He couldn't leave her. No, no! Wiktor! Wiktor would take care of Chesna. Wouldn't hei
His body thrashed against the confinement of strange things that bound his legs. Something split along his black-haired back, and he flung that off, too. The things that fell aside had a terrible smell to them. a man-smell.
His muscles clicked and popped. He had to get out of this awful place, before the monsters found him. He was in an alien world, and nothing made sense. The fence. Beyond it was freedom, and that was what he craved.
But he was leaving someone behind. No, not only one. Two. a name came to him, and he opened his mouth to shout, but the song was harsh and ragged and made no sense. He shook away heavy objects that hung by strings to his hind paws, and he ran to find the way out.
He picked up his own scent trail. Three monsters with pale, hideous faces saw him, and one of them shrieked with terror; even a wolf could understand that emotion. another of the figures lifted a stick, and flame shot out of it. Michael spun away from them, a hot breeze ruffling the hair at the back of his neck, and he ran on.
His scent led him to the hole beneath the fence. Why was the man-smell here, tooi he wondered. They were familiar aromas; whose were theyi But the forest beckoned him, and promised safety. He was hurting badly. He needed rest. a place to curl up, and lick his wounds.
He crawled under the fence, and without looking back at the world he was departing, he leaped into the arms of the forest.