They had made a meager effort to fill up the hole he'd dug under the fence, but it was obvious their shovels had been lazy. It took him a few minutes to scoop the loose dirt out, and he winnowed under again. The thumping heartbeat of the plant was in operation again, light bulbs glowing on the catwalks overhead. He went through the alleys, threading his way toward the edge of the airfield, where the stockade was. a soldier came around a corner and strolled in his direction. "Hey! Got a smokei" the man asked.
"Sure." Michael let him get close and dug in a pocket for cigarettes that weren't there. "What time is iti"
The German checked his wristwatch. "Twelve-forty-two." He looked at Michael and frowned. "You need a shave. If the captain sees you like that, he'll kick your-" He saw the blood, and bullet holes stitched across the jacket. Michael saw his eyes widen.
He hit the German in the stomach with the gun butt, then cracked him across the skull and dragged his body to a group of empty chemical drums. He took the watch, heaved the body into a drum, and put the lid on it. Then he was on his way again, almost running. Forty-two minutes after midnight, he thought. But of what dayi
The stockade building's entrance was unguarded, but a single soldier sat at a desk just inside the door, his boots propped up and his eyes shut. Michael kicked the chair out from under him and slammed him against the wall, and the soldier returned to dreamland. Michael took a set of keys from a wall hook behind the desk and went along the corridor between several cells. He smiled grimly; the log-sawing snore of a certain bearded Russian reverberated in the hallway.
as Michael tried various keys in the lock of Lazaris's prison, he heard a gasp of surprise. He looked at the cell two doors down and across the corridor, and behind the barred inset Chesna, her eyes brimming with tears in her dirty, haggard face, tried to speak but couldn't form words. Finally they burst out: "Where the hell have you beeni"
"Lying low," he said, and went to her cell door. He found the right key, and the latch popped. as soon as Michael had pulled the door open, Chesna was in his arms. He held her as she trembled; he could feel her ribs and her clothes were grimy, but at least she hadn't been beaten. She gave a single, heartbreaking sob, and then she struggled to gather her dignity. "It's all right," he said, and kissed her lips. "We're going to get out of here."
"Well, get me out of here first, you bastard!" Lazaris shouted from his cell. "Damn it, we thought you'd left us to rot!" His hair was a crow's-nest stubble, his eyes glaring and wild. Chesna took the submachine gun and watched the corridor as Michael found the proper key and freed Lazaris.
The Russian emerged smelling of something more pungent than roses. "My God!" he said. "We didn't know if you'd gotten away or not! We thought they might have killed you!"
"They gave it a good shot." He glanced at the wristwatch. It was creeping up on one o'clock. "What's the datei"
"Hell if I know!" Lazaris answered.
But Chesna had kept count of their twice-daily feedings. "It's too late, Michael," she said, "You've been gone for fifteen days."
He stared at her, uncomprehending.
"Today is the sixth of June," she went on. "It's too late."
Too late. The words had teeth.
"Yesterday was D day," Chesna said. She felt a little light-headed, and had to grasp hold of his shoulder. For the last twenty-four hours particularly, her nerves had been worn to a frazzle. "It's all over by now."
"No!" He shook his head, refusing to believe it. "You're wrong! I couldn't have been a... couldn't have been gone that long!"
"I'm not wrong." She held his wrist and looked at the watch. "It's been the sixth of June for one hour and two minutes."
"We've got to find out what's going on. There must be a radio room here somewhere."
"There is," Lazaris said. "It's in a building over by the fuel tanks." He explained to Michael that he had been forced to work along with some other slave laborers to unclog an overflowing cesspool near the soldiers' barracks, which accounted for the reek of his clothes. While up to his waist in shit, he'd been able to gather information about the plant from his fellow laborers. Hildebrand, for instance, lived in his lab, which was at the center of the plant near the chimney. The huge fuel tanks held oil to heat the buildings during the long winter months. The slave laborers were kept in another barracks not far from the soldiers' quarters. and, Lazaris said, there was an armory in case of partisan attack, but exactly where that was he didn't know.
"Can you get in that man's clothesi" Michael asked Lazaris, once they were back to where the guard lay sprawled. Lazaris said he'd give it a try. Chesna went through the desk, and found a Luger and bullets. In another few moments Lazaris was in a Nazi uniform, the shirt taut at his shoulders and the trousers drooping around his legs. He pulled the belt to its last notch. at least the guard's flat-brimmed cap fit. Lazaris still wore the boots that had been issued to him when they'd left Germany, though they were encrusted with indelicacies.
They started toward the radio room, Chesna still hobbling but able to walk on her own. Michael saw the radio tower, two lights blinking on it to alert low-flying aircraft, and steered them in that direction. after fifteen minutes of dodging through the alleys, they reached a small stone structure that was, again, unguarded. The door was locked. One of Lazaris's shitty boots kicked compliance into it. Michael found a light switch, and there was the radio under a clear plastic cover atop a desk. Chesna had had more experience with German radios than he, so he stood aside as she turned it on, the dials illuminating with dim green, and began to search the frequencies. Static crackled from the tinny speaker. Then a faint voice, in German, talking about a diesel engine that needed overhauling: a ship at sea. Chesna came upon a Norwegian voice discussing the king-mackerel catch, possibly a code being transmitted to England. another change of frequencies brought orchestral music into the room-a funeral dirge.
"If the invasion happened, it ought to be all over the airwaves," Michael said. "What's going oni"
Chesna shook her head, and kept searching. She found a news report from Oslo; the crisp German announcer talked about a new shipment of iron ore that had just sailed for the glory of the Reich and that a line for milk rations would be formed at six o'clock in front of Government Hall. The weather would continue unsettled, with a seventy-percent chance of rainstorms. Now back to the soothing music of Gerhardus Kaathoven...
"So where's the invasioni" Lazaris scratched his beard. "If it was supposed to happen on the fifth-"
"Maybe it didn't," Michael said. He looked at Chesna. "Maybe it was canceled, or postponed."
"There'd have to be a damned good reason to postpone something of that magnitude."
"Maybe there was. Who knows what it might bei But I don't think the invasion's happened yet. If it had begun on the morning of the fifth, you'd hear something about it on every frequency by now."
Chesna knew he was correct. The airwaves should be burning up right now, with news reports and messages to and from various partisan groups. Instead, it was simply another morning of funeral dirges and milk lines.
It was clear to Michael what had to be done. "Lazaris, can you fly one of those night fighters out on the stripi"
"I can fly anything with wings. I'd suggest the Dornier two-seventeen, though. It's got a thousand-mile range if the fuel tanks are loaded, and it's a quick little bitch. Where are we goingi"
"First to wake up Dr. Hildebrand. Then to find out exactly where Iron Fist is being hangared. How long would it take us to fly from here to Rotterdami That's almost a thousand miles."
He frowned. "You'd be cutting it damned close, even if the tanks are brimmed." He thought about it. "The Dornier's maximum speed is over three hundred. You might be able to sustain two-fifty, on a long flight. Depending on the winds... I'd say five hours, give or take."
There were too many if's, Michael thought, but what else could they doi They began a search of the building. In another room, full of filing cabinets, he found a map of Hildebrand Industries Skarpa Chemical Installation thumb-tacked to the wall next to a portrait of adolf Hitler. a red X indicated the radio room's location, and the other buildings were marked "Workshop," "Mess Hall," "Testing Chamber," "armory," "Barracks Number One," and so on. The development lab was about a hundred yards from their present position, and the armory was way over on the opposite side of the plant from the airfield. Michael folded the map and put it in a bloodstained pocket for later reference.
The development lab, a long white building with a thicket of pipes connecting it to a series of smaller structures, stood near the central chimney. Lights glowed through narrow windows of frosted glass; the doctor was at work. atop the lab building's roof stood a large tank, but whether it held chemicals, fuel, or water Michael didn't know. The front door was barred, and locked from the inside, but a metal-runged ladder ascended to the roof and that was the path they took. On the roof a skylight had been opened. Michael leaned over its edge, with Lazaris holding on to his legs, and peered in.
Three men in white coats and white gloves worked at a series of long tables, where microscopes, racks of test tubes, and other equipment were set up. Four large, sealed vats, like pressure cookers, stood at one end of the lab, and it was from them that the pulsing heartbeat noise came. Michael assumed it was the noise of an electric engine, stirring whatever was in the devil's brew. about twenty feet off the floor a catwalk ran the length of the lab, passing within a few feet of the skylight and going to a panel of pressure gauges near the chemical vats.
One of the three men was almost seven feet tall and wore a white cap over blond hair that flowed down his back. He was engrossed in studying a group of microscope slides.
Michael pulled himself away from the skylight. The pulse made the roof throb. "I want you both to get back to the airfield," he told them. Chesna started to protest, but he put a finger to her lips. "Just listen. Lazaris, if that Dornier isn't fueled up, you and Chesna will have to do it. I remember seeing a fuel truck on the field. Can you handle iti"
"I used to fuel Warhammer myself. I was my own ground crew." He shrugged. "There won't be much difference. But there might be guards watching the planes."
"I know. after I finish here, I'm going to try to create a diversion. You'll know it when it happens." He looked at his watch. It was thirty-two minutes after one. He took the watch off and gave it to Chesna. "I'll be at the field in thirty minutes," he promised. "When the fireworks start, you'll have a chance to top the Dornier's tanks off."
"I'm staying with you," Chesna said.
"Lazaris can use your help more than I. No arguing. Just get to the field."
Chesna was professional enough to know that she was wasting time. She and Lazaris hurried back across the roof to the ladder, and Michael strapped the submachine gun around his shoulder. He eased himself over the skylight edge and caught hold of an iron pipe that snaked across the lab ceiling. Hand over hand, he guided himself toward the catwalk and stepped over its railing.
He crouched down and watched the three men. Hildebrand called one of them over and showed him something on the slide. Then Hildebrand shouted and slammed his fist on the table, and the other man nodded docilely, his shoulders slumped in submission. The work was not going well, Michael thought. What a pity.
a droplet of moisture plunked to the catwalk next to him. He looked up. Set at intervals along the iron pipe were spray nozzles, and one of them was leaking. He held out his palm and caught a few drops, then sniffed at them. The odor of brine. He licked his palm. Salt water. From the tank on the roof, he realized. Plain seawater, probably. Why was there a storage tank of seawater on the tab roofi
He remembered something that Blok had said: Carnagene doesn't get along well with sodium. as in salt water. Perhaps salt water destroyed carnagene. If that were so, Hildebrand had set up a system so that if any of the gas escaped into the lab, nozzles would deliver a saltwater spray. The system's controls had to be within easy reach of anyone working below. Michael stood up and walked to the control panel near the vats. There was a row of red switches, all at the ON position. He began to flip them all off. The heartbeat noise faltered and began to die.
a beaker crashed to the floor. One of the men shrieked. It was Hildebrand. "You fool!" he shouted. "Turn the aerators back on!"
"No one move." Michael walked back toward them, the Schmeisser's barrel upraised. "Dr. Hildebrand, we're going to have a little talk."
"Please! The switches! Turn them on!"
"I want to know where Iron Fist is. How far from Rotterdami"
One of the others suddenly bolted in the direction of the front door, but Michael shot him down before he could take three strides. The man fell, crimson spreading over his white coat.
The noise echoed within the lab. Someone would have heard it. Time was growing short. He trained the smoking gun barrel on Hildebrand. "Iron Fist. Where is iti"
"The..." Hildebrand swallowed thickly, staring up into the Schmeisser's eye. "The Luftwaffe airfield at Wassenaar. On the coast, sixteen miles northwest of Rotterdam." He glanced at the vats. "Please... I'm begging you! Turn the aerators back on!"
"and what will happen if I don'ti Will the carnagene be destroyedi"
Michael heard the sound of metal buckling.
"It'll explode in its raw form!" Hildebrand shouted, his voice choked with panic.
Michael looked at the sealed vats. The lids were bulging, and pressure blisters had appeared along the seams. My God! he realized. The stuff was swelling within the vats like yeast!
The other lab technician suddenly picked up a chair and ran toward a window. He smashed the glass with it and screamed, "Help! Someone help-"
Michael's gun silenced him. Hildebrand lifted his arms. "Hit the switches! I'm begging you!"
The vats were buckling outward. Michael started toward the control panel, and at the same time Hildebrand ran to the broken window and began to try to squeeze his long body through it. "Guards!" he yelled. "Guards!"
Michael stopped, ten feet shy of the switches, and turned his weapon on the architect of evil.
The bullets shattered Hildebrand's legs. He fell, writhing in agony, to the floor. Michael put another clip in the Schmeisser and started to finish the man off.
One of the vats split open along its seam with a blast of popping rivets. a flood of thick yellow liquid streamed out, spewing across the floor. a siren began to shriek, overwhelming Gustav Hildebrand's screams. a second vat burst open, like a swollen tumor, and another yellow tide rolled across the floor. Michael stood, transfixed with horror and fascination, as the liquid coursed below the catwalk, its sludgy weight shoving chairs and tables before it. In the yellow swamp of chemicals were streaks of foamy dark brown that sizzled like grease in a frying pan. The third vat exploded with such force that the lid crashed against the ceiling, and the sludge drooled over the rim as Michael retreated toward the skylight.
The chemicals-at this stage an unrefined muck instead of a gas-surged across the floor. Hildebrand was crawling desperately for a red flywheel on the wall; the saltwater-tank release, Michael realized. Hildebrand looked back and gibbered with horror as he saw the flood almost upon him. He reached up, straining to grasp the flywheel. His fingers locked around it, and wrenched it a quarter turn.
Michael could hear the water coursing through the pipes, but in the next instant the raw carnagene rushed over Gustav Hildebrand and he screamed in its acidic embrace. He writhed like a salted snail, his hair and face dripping with carnagene. He began to claw at his own eyes, his voice a wail of agony, and blisters rose and burst on the white flesh of his hands.
The nozzles erupted their saltwater spray. Where the drops fell, the chemicals hissed and melted. But it was of no consequence to Hildebrand, who was a mass of seething red blisters thrashing in the mire. Hildebrand sat up on his knees, the flesh falling from his face in strands, and opened his mouth in a silent, terrible scream.
Michael took aim, squeezed the trigger, and blew most of Hildebrand's chest away. The body slithered down, smoke rising from the ruined lungs.
Michael strapped the Schmeisser around his shoulder again, climbed up on the catwalk railing, and leaped.
He grabbed hold of a pipe at the ceiling and clambered along it to within reach of the skylight. Then, his shoulder muscles cramping, he pulled himself up to the roof. He looked back down again; the carnagene was evaporating under the seawater shower, and Hildebrand lay like a jellyfish that had washed up in the wake of a storm.
Michael stood up and ran for the ladder. Two soldiers were climbing up. "The carnagene's gotten out!" Michael shouted, in a display of terror even Chesna might have admired. The soldiers leaped off the ladder. There were three more Germans, trying to break the door open. "The gas is out!" one of the soldiers cried with genuine horror, and all of them scattered, yelling it at the top of their lungs while the siren continued to shriek.
Michael checked the map and ran toward the armory. Everywhere he saw a soldier, he hollered about the carnagene being loose. In another few minutes he could hear shouts from all over the plant. The effects of the carnagene were well known, even by the common guards. Sirens were coming to life from every direction. By the time he got to the armory, he found that a half-dozen soldiers had already broken into the building and were making off with gas masks and respirators. "The carnagene's out!" a wild-eyed German told him. "Everyone in Section C is already dead!" He put his mask on and stumbled away, breathing from his oxygen cylinder. Michael entered the armory, broke open a crate of concussion grenades and then a crate of.50-caliber aircraft machine-gun bullets. "You!" an officer shouted, coming into the room. "What do you think you're-"
Michael shot him down and continued his work. He placed the crate of grenades atop the crate of bullets, dragged over a second crate of grenades, and broke that open, too. Then he yanked the pins on two of them, dropped them back in with their brethren, and fled.
Over on the airfield, Lazaris and Chesna crouched near the fuel truck as the sirens wailed. a guard lay about twenty feet away, shot through the chest by a Luger bullet. The truck's pump chugged, delivering aircraft-engine fuel through a canvas hose into the right wing tank of the Dornier night fighter. Both wing tanks, Lazaris had found, were about three-quarters full, but this would be their only opportunity to fuel and it would be a long flight. He held the nozzle in place, the octane flowing under his hands, while Chesna watched for any more guards. Thirty yards away was a corrugated-metal hut that served as a briefing room for pilots, and after Chesna had broken its door open she'd found a reward inside: maps of Norway, Denmark, Holland, and Germany showing the exact location of the Luftwaffe's airfields.
The sky lit up. There was a mighty boom that Chesna first thought was thunder. Something big had just blown up. She could hear the noise of firing, what sounded like hundreds of bullets going off. There were more explosions, and she saw flames and the orange streaks of tracer bullets rising into the night over on the opposite side of the plant. a hot wind rolled across the field, bringing a burning smell.
"Damn!" Lazaris said. "When that son of a bitch says diversion, he means it!"
She looked at the watch. Where was hei "Come on," she whispered. "Please come on."
Within fifteen minutes, over the continuing noises of destruction, she heard someone running. She flattened down on the concrete, her Luger ready for a shot. and then his voice came to her: "Don't shoot! It's me!"
"Thank God!" She stood up. "What blewi"
"The armory." His cap was gone, his shirt almost torn off by the concussion's winds that had caught him just as he'd flung himself into an alley. "Lazaris! How much longeri"
"Three minutes! I want to run the tanks over!"
In three minutes it was finished. Michael sent the fuel truck on a collision course into the Messerschmitt Bf-109, wrecking a wing, then he and Chesna got into the Dornier while Lazaris buckled himself into the pilot's seat. "all right!" Lazaris said as he cracked his knuckles. "Now we'll find out what a Russian can do with a German fighter plane!"
The props roared, and the Dornier left the ground in a burst of speed.
Lazaris circled the plane over Skarpa's fiery center. "Hold on!" he shouted. "We're going to finish the job!" He pressed a switch that started the machine guns charging, and then he dropped them into a shrieking dive that jammed them back in their seats.
He went for the huge fuel tanks. The third strafing pass sparked a red cinder that suddenly bloomed into a white-orange fireball. Turbulence bucked the Dornier as Lazaris zoomed for altitude. "ah!" he said with a broad grin. "Now I'm home again!"
Lazaris circled one last time over the island, like a vulture over a bed of coals, and then he turned the plane toward Holland.