Text copyright © 2007, 2015 P.K. Lentz.
All Rights Reserved
SIXTEENTH YEAR OF GERMAN OCCUPATION
Victoria Yarbrough was crazy.
Fortunately no one knew that yet, and she hoped to keep it that way. To that end she took two buses and walked a quarter mile to an East End psychiatrist far removed from her parents’ home in Chelsea. The doctors here did not approach the calibre of those in the West End, of course, but such was the price of secrecy. And worth it, too, for God forbid London’s upper crust learn that Hugh Yarbrough’s little girl had anything less than a perfect life.
And her life was perfect, but for the nightmares. They varied little from a common pattern: she awoke on a bed in some dank, fetid cell with scars and strange markings upon her skin. Sometimes there were fresh wounds, as from some unremembered torture, throbbing and seeping through bandages. Then her dream-self would scream, tugging frantically at the restraints until it seemed her wrists would snap. Usually someone came, but not to help—only to stuff her mouth with a gag and leave.
Victoria had told her third-rate East End doctor all this already, wishing to God he’d just prescribe something and be done with it, but he only ever wanted to talk.
Her time came, and Victoria was summoned by her assumed name into the office. As in each of her three prior sessions, she waded through the doctor’s endless questions—how did this and that make her feel, how had her week been, what were her relationships like—as if any of it mattered to her condition, before getting to her real problem, the dreams.
Recently one had broken the pattern.
“I was on a filthy bed in an empty room,” Victoria said. “I wasn’t tied down. The only light came from a small pane of glass in the door. I heard voices in the hall so I pretended to sleep. But when I dared to look, I found a man watching me through the glass. Someone I’d seen before—the man I’d woken up beside once, the one who fought me when I tried to sneak away. I thought at first he would come tie me down, but there was something else, something soft, in his eyes.
“I was scared, but his look gave me courage. ‘Why?’ I asked him. I guess maybe I screamed it. ‘Why are you doing this?’ He didn’t answer, didn’t react except to look away. I ran to the door, put my hand on the glass and begged him, ‘Please just let me go. What did I do?’ But he turned and walked away. I didn’t want to be tied and gagged again, so I just climbed back into bed and waited for it to end.”
Finishing the tale, Victoria waited eagerly for the doctor’s reply. More accurately, she stared eagerly at the prescription pad beside him, willing him to pick it up.
“Interesting,” the doctor said, dashing her hopes. Time was up. On her way out Victoria’s alter-ego confirmed her next appointment, same time next week. Her last, she decided, if it didn’t earn her a prescription.
Looking up, Victoria found the speaker and screamed. She tried to turn and run, but to no avail: she was bound hand and foot to a chair.
The speaker waited patiently for her to stop. “It’s alright,” he said. He talked like her psychiatrist—too calmly. “No one will hurt you.”
Despite the reassurance, Victoria cried herself blind. When she’d tired out, something soft dabbed at her tightly shut eyelids. She cringed from the touch, but it persisted until the stinging in her eyes subsided enough to let her open them. She wasn’t sure she wanted to.
She did look, for what other choice was there, and found herself in a filthy basement room, fluorescent lights buzzing overhead, plastic card table in front of her, empty but for a foam cup. Across the table sat the captor who’d just finished wiping her eyes.
“You’re safe, Victoria,” he said. The man was younger than her father but old enough to have streaks of grey in his beard. “I know you’re scared. Anyone would be, in your position. But it’s important you calm down so we can talk.”
Victoria noticed pain in her wrists and realized she hadn’t stopped struggling with her bonds. “Untie me. I’ll be good, I promise.”
“That’s for your safety as much as mine, Victoria. Just relax. I told you, no one will hurt you.”
Reluctantly Victoria let the strong, scarred arms that weren’t quite her own go limp. She blinked back residual tears and lifted her chin high in an attempt at dignity. “Please just tell me what’s happening.”
The grey man said, “We need your help.”
Victoria’s first reaction upon hearing this was outrage. How dare this dirty little man ask the help of someone he treated in this way. But her second and far more powerful reaction was, anything, if only you make this stop.
Her captor continued. “It’s your father, Victoria. He works in the Ministry of Communication. We’re fairly sure he’s loyal, but we need to confirm it with a little test.”
“Loyal?” Victoria said. “Of course he’s loyal. So am I! We all are!”
Too late she realized that the object of her father’s questioned loyalty hadn’t been specified. Presumably it was to the Government, but what if he had some other cause in mind?
Evidently her assumption had been correct, for the man said next, “We know you’re loyal, Victoria. And we’re nearly sure about your father. We just need one more small proof.”
Victoria realized something just then. She whispered in terror, “You’re Gestapo.”
The grey man, whose English bore no trace of a foreign accent, German or otherwise, confirmed with a curt nod. “Do you think you might help us clear up our doubts?”
Knowing now with whom she was dealing, Victoria abandoned any thought of resistance. “How?”
“We need you to ask him something for us.”
“You’re the only one who can. Will you do it?”
Since there was little other choice, Victoria nodded.
“Good. What we need you to get from him is the location of the secret facility known as Kondor.”
Victoria said quietly, “I don’t understand.”
“No need to. Simply get the answer and pass it to me the next time we meet. Then your father’s name will be cleared. It’s as simple as that.”
Though the task made no sense, Victoria agreed. Looking well pleased with himself, the grey man produced something tiny and white from his shirt’s breast pocket. He stood, rounded the table and came up beside Victoria, free hand reaching for the foam cup on the table.
“We need you to take this,” he said, and held aloft the thing from his pocket, a little round pill.
“What is it?”
The pill passed Victoria’s lips. The cup was raised and tilted for her, and she did the only thing she could, which was to swallow.
Next morning Victoria spent her car ride to the Communications Ministry, in which she held a low-level clerk position she owed entirely to her father, in a bleary-eyed fog. Hardly a wonder, considering she’d spent a largely sleepless night obsessing over what to do.
The night had brought her to something of a decision. She would mention Kondor to her father. Most likely he would look at her askance and wonder what she meant, in which case she’d laugh it off and change the subject.
If he did recognize the name, though—
The thought paralyzed her with fear. If he knew about Kondor, then it was something real. And if Kondor was real then her dreams weren’t dreams at all, but something far worse.
She might never have conceived of such a possibility if her own Ministry hadn’t just last month published new accounts of the American and Soviet Psychic Weapons programs. No one knew just what those weapons were or how they worked, but their existence was all but proven fact. Using them, spies a continent away could obtain information through the eyes and ears of unwitting pawns—but maybe they could do more than that. Sabotage, terrorism, assassination—who knew their limits? The Sovs had sent a man into space, and for all Victoria knew they could fry her brain at any moment with the turn of a dial.
She forced that train of thought to an end. No sense making herself sick with worry before she knew for sure, before she’d spoken to Father.
Victoria spent her shift fetching, updating, alphabetizing, filing, and planning. By quitting time, she’d concluded that there wasn’t really any subtle way to bring up the subject of Kondor in conversation. But she did conceive of a potential angle.
Arriving home before her father, Victoria was waiting to pour him a whiskey in the sitting room when he walked in. She exchanged small talk with him for a few minutes and then went for broke.
“Someone was talking today about a place called Kondor,” she ventured.
Father’s hand, which had been absently swirling the whiskey in his glass, fell still. “Really,” he said with a casualness that was clearly feigned.
So there it was. She had her answer. Though her heart had lodged in her throat, there was no choice but to press on. Maybe she could get away with bringing up Kondor once, but not twice. If she was going to probe for its location it would have to be now.
Her father seemed content to let the topic die, so Victoria summoned her courage to keep it alive. “It seemed to me” she said, “that it might not be a very safe place. So I wondered if anyone we knew lived near to it.”
Hugh Yarbrough’s lined but handsome features hardened. As he rose and crossed at a leisurely pace to the bar to refill his glass, Victoria could only wait and listen to the blood pounding in her ears.
“No one should be speaking to you about that,” Hugh said when he’d set down the bottle. “Who was it? I want a name.”
As quickly as that, Victoria was defeated. “Father…” she said. “It’s nothing.”
Hugh drained his glass and set it on the bar. “Darling,” he said, and lowered his voice as if to foil eavesdroppers real or imagined. “No acquaintance of yours should even know that name. It’s only by chance that I do myself. Tell me everything, and I’ll decide what’s to be done.”
Disaster. Not only did Victoria now have proof that she was the target of some fearsome dream weapon, she was certain to fail in the task assigned her by its wielders. Her hands began to shake with dread at the thought of laying down her head tonight. She remembered the scars, the wounds on her body in that nightmare world and realized now those were intended as a threat. By sparing her the actual torture while showing her its effects, they were dangling that fate over her as a promise of things to come.
Or could they punish her even here in the waking world? Maybe they were watching and listening now.
Father was staring at her. She had to say something. She couldn’t, though, so fearing she might erupt in tears she turned away and raised shaking hands to cover her face.
Hugh came to her side. “Darling,” he said with a firm grip on her arms. “I can help. But you must tell me everything!”
Terror and exhaustion overcame Victoria then, and tears spilled from her eyes. This was too great a burden to bear alone. She needed to tell someone at least a fraction of the truth, and here was someone demanding it. Willingly, she gave in.
“The secret police,” she confessed, wiping her eyes. “They came to me and told me I had to ask you where Kondor was. I don’t even know what it means!”
Hugh Yarbrough had no quick answer. He drew his daughter to his chest, holding and comforting her. For a few seconds Victoria almost began to believe everything might be alright, but it wouldn’t be. For who could possibly save her from the Dream Police?
“It couldn’t have been Gestapo,” Hugh declared at length, though he sounded less than confident. “Were they German? Did they show identification? They must be KGB. Or terrorists. It makes no sense for them to ask that of you.”
It made less sense than he knew, of course, for Victoria had made no mention of the fact that her tormentors, whatever their origin, had come to her in dreams.
“Whoever they are, darling,” he went on, “they’re using you to get to me and I won’t have it. Starting tomorrow you’ll be under private guard twenty-four hours.”
The pronouncement only deepened Victoria’s despair. Not only was earthly protection useless against the dream ray, but now she would be unable to seek help or even slip away for her secret sessions in the East End. Assuming she lived until her next appointment, for she had failed the grey man, whoever he was.
Victoria tried her best not to sleep that night, but sleep she did.
“Victoria,” said the grey man across the table. “Did you get what we needed?”
Victoria’s response was to scream and then cry. What followed was a replay of the previous night’s encounter, with the grey man drying Victoria’s tears until she regained composure. When she was calm, or something like it, he asked again, “Did you get what we needed? Did you find out where Kondor is located?”
She stared at the table for a while, flesh crawling in anticipation of whatever torments awaited it. Finally she shook her head.
Surprisingly, the grey man reassured her. “It’s alright, Victoria.” Yet the reprieve was short-lived. “We can give you another chance. But only one.” The single index finger the grey man extended might have indicated the number—or a gun barrel, or a knife blade. “Whatever it takes, Victoria, you must get that information.”
“You can and you must.”
“There’s no way!”
“There is a way. You will find it, or face the consequences.”
The threat of violence sent Victoria into a fresh spasm of tears. Before they could choke her she screamed, “Why are you doing this! I’m a human being!” From there she descended into a fit of sobbing, peppered with desperate pleas for release.
The man came around the table and wiped her tears once more. He said, “I know you won’t let us down.” He gave her the pill and left the room.
The next day for Victoria was much like the last, but made worse by the fact that her every move was now shadowed by the bodyguard her father had hired. At the Ministry he followed her down into the archives, waited outside the bathrooms, hovered near her desk. His presence was inconvenient to the new plan she’d devised. To make that plan work, she would have to deal with him somehow.
All day she devoted thought to that question, with no result, and began to resign herself to facing the grey man in defeat.
Then, as she arrived home ahead of her father, the answer came. It did not emerge from any amount of planning or conscious deliberation, but rather struck as if by divine inspiration. Victoria suspected, if only vaguely, that were she to pause and reflect upon this course of action for any length of time she would have rejected it out of hand. But she didn’t pause, and did not think. She only acted.
She told the bodyguard: “I want to go in through the back.”
Acknowledging, the guard followed her down the well-lit but secluded alley between their building and the next, into the garden behind. Approaching the rear entrance, Victoria handed the guard her door key and stepped to one side. The guard bent to slide the key into the lock.
A precision blow with her fist to the back of his skull took him down instantly. To her mild surprise, Victoria didn’t break a sweat or lose her breath. Her heart didn’t miss a beat, not even as she fished a brooch from her handbag, jabbed its pin into her index finger several times and smeared blood on the doorframe. Nor did she panic as she upturned her bag, emptying its contents onto the ground before throwing it down.
Only as she walked back to the street did Victoria’s pulse begin to race, at which time the shock of realization of what she’d just done kept her from breaking into a run. It kept her from breathing, too, as she walked calmly, at least as far as onlookers were concerned, to the corner and hailed a taxi.
Two hours and three postal codes later, Victoria placed a call to her home from a public phone. The strange calm with which she had devised and executed the first, more violent half of her plot had long since departed, meaning there was little need now to fake the panic in her voice as Father answered her call.
Hugh’s ‘Hello’ was breathless; he’d been expecting this call.
“Daddy!” Victoria sobbed.
“Darling, are you alright? Where are you? Who’s taken you?”
“They’re going to hurt me, daddy.” She paused, gasped, swallowed loudly. “They’re going to… to cut me until you tell them!”
“Tell them what, darling? What do they want?”
Silence. Then, “I can’t do that, darling.”
Not surprised by his reluctance, Victoria voice-acted, “Please, daddy, please! They have a knife at my throat! I don’t want to die…”
“Let me talk to them.”
“They won’t, daddy! Please just tell me.”
She sobbed and cried and begged for her daddy to save her, and in the end Hugh Yarbrough caved. He told her. Once he had, Victoria slammed down the receiver.
Now to sleep. But where? She was so tired. Almost anywhere would do. She wandered until she discovered a niche in a secluded back alley. She curled up on the concrete and slept.
She wasn’t surprised this time to find herself bound to the chair, looking across a table at the greying agent of the Dream Police who’d promised consequences for failure.
“Did you get it?” he asked without prelude.
Victoria passed along the answer her father had given, and she prayed it was the right one.
Hearing it, the grey man rose from his seat, walked to the door and left.
Victoria let herself breathe. He’d accepted it, she told herself. It was over.
Minutes later he returned. “Thank you, Victoria,” he said. “You’ve done well.” But the pity in his smile said something else. It was a promise of more unpleasantness to come.
He resumed his seat. “I want to tell you about someone,” he said. “Her name is Violet. Two years ago the Gestapo came to her house and took her and her family away. They separated them so they never saw each other. They held Violet without charge, questioning her about things she couldn’t know and torturing her. When they finally dumped her in the street six months later, broken and alone, she found her way home. But it was empty. She couldn’t take the pain of staying there, so she lived on the streets instead.
“She was taken in by an outreach charity. But not just any charity; it was run by the social works division of a Resistance cell. They got her healthy again and within a year had recruited her. They didn’t give her much training, just threw her out there with a gun, really. But it worked. She was a natural. She made a name for herself, started taking charge. The higher-ups didn’t like it much, but then they couldn’t argue with success.
“One day she took up a sniper position near a German checkpoint and took down six soldiers in three minutes. They sent out troops to hunt her down. Under fire, she found a new position and killed nine more before walking away clean. That got her the nickname Iron Violet and made her the most wanted terrorist in Britain. A few months later a barracks bombing she set up in Normandy killed fifty-three troops and made her the most wanted on the Continent, too. Those torturers who dumped her like rubbish in the street that night had no idea what they were throwing away.
“The ending isn’t entirely happy, though, or I wouldn’t be telling you this. Her mind is still broken. She talks to herself, talks to her lost family, has some chunks of memory missing. She has a certain affinity for pain. And sometimes while she sleeps, she has episodes. Last year she married one of the men who recruited her, but the last time they tried to sleep in the same room she nearly tore his head off. Medication is helping her now, but she still has a long way to go.”
The grey man paused and hung his head as if considering how or whether to continue.
Victoria seized the opportunity to interrupt, pleading, “This has nothing to do with me. Can’t I go home now?”
“I’d like nothing more, Victoria. But there’s more to tell. I’m not sure if it will matter in the end whether you know these things or not, but I believe it’s worth trying.”
Victoria shut her eyes tightly. “I don’t want to know any more!”
But the grey man pressed on. “Violet isn’t her real name, of course,” he said. “She had to change it so her family members couldn’t be used as hostages, if any were still alive.”
Victoria heard the gentle rustle of a sheet of paper being set in front of her. She resisted the temptation to open her eyes and look for as long as she could, which was perhaps twenty seconds.
She found before her a black-and-white broadsheet with a tear at the top where it appeared to have been fastened to a wall or lamppost. A headline above the grainy duotone picture read ‘HAVE YOU SEEN THIS WOMAN?’
“That’s her,” the grey man said. “I realize it’s not a very good picture—fortunately for her—but look closely.”
Victoria did as instructed, if only to get the encounter over with more quickly. The image was hardly more than an arrangement of shadows falling in such a way as to produce the vague impression of a face and upper torso. Victoria focused on the dark hair, the cut of the chin and nose, the contour of the cheek and one visible eye socket until the lines fell into place and became familiar.
“It looks like my sister,” Victoria said spiritlessly, knowing that this was the answer the grey man desired of her. It was also one she could easily refute. “I saw Angela at Christmas. She’s at university. It isn’t her.”
“Read the rest.”
Reluctantly, Victoria cast her stinging eyes on the smaller block of text beneath the photo.
‘WANTED: For ACTS OF TERROR resulting in the deaths of more than 200 in Britain and Germany.’
‘“VIOLET”—Female—5’5”—age 18-28—brunette. Markings—tattoo: barbed wire, left wrist.’ ‘EXTREMELY DANGEROUS! DIAL 999!’
Finishing, Victoria looked down the scarred left arm which was hers and yet not hers, to its tattooed wrist, bound to the chair. She studied the photo again, reassessing the shadowy face there until her vision began to glaze with tears.
“It’s fake!” she screamed, and tugged hard against her bonds. “My family is alive! I work at the Ministry! I’m not a terrorist!” Under the force of her struggles, the chair beneath her rocked back and forth.
“Victoria!” The grey man leapt up in alarm, but too late. Her chair toppled over, sending her hard onto the floor.
Victoria awoke early, as she always did, without the need for an alarm. She rose from bed and washed and dressed and groomed herself. She decided to wear her hair up today, since that always got her the most compliments. Ready for work at the Ministry, she descended the stairs. The scent in the air said Cook had one of her favourite breakfasts waiting.
She found Father in the sitting room, reading the morning paper.
“Good morning!” she chirped, gliding over for a kiss.
Hugh Yarbrough looked up and smiled warmly. “Kondor!” he said.
Victoria froze, her lips hovering above Father’s hairline. “What?” She must have misheard.
“Kondor,” Hugh repeated with a bemused smile.
Victoria retreated a step, shaking her head. She tried to laugh but for some reason felt only terror. “Why are you saying that?”
Father’s brow wrinkled. He set his paper down on the end table and stood. “Kondor-Kondor-Kondor-Kondor,” he said with obvious concern. “Kondor?”
“What does that mean?” Victoria screamed. She backed away at his approach.
“Stop it! Stop saying that!”
But he didn’t listen. He kept on speaking—that one word and nothing more, in alternating tones of sympathy, bewilderment, and stern command, his expression changing to match. And though Victoria didn’t recognize the word, it filled her with dread.
When Hugh lunged forward as if to grab and restrain her, she sidestepped the attack with unnatural ease and sent him sprawling onto the carpet.
“Kondor!” he begged as Victoria swooped down and straddled him, gripping his shirt collar.
Cook ran in from the kitchen.
“Stay back!” Victoria warned, and the man obeyed.
“Kondor?” Cook said dumbly.
One more utterance of the word by her father drove Victoria over the edge. She brought her fist down hard into his face, again and again until the knuckles were slick with blood, both his and her own.
When her father was still and silent, Victoria rose, wiping hands on her pristine work clothes. A glare at Cook dared him to come near, dared him to say “Kondor” just one more time.
He didn’t. Victoria walked out of the house and into the street. Though she looked a bloody mess, no one gave her a second glance.
“Yes, Crow, it’s me. Just get me untied.”
Violet’s husband of eight months, the man who’d recruited her into the Lions of Albion and now was her subordinate, did just that. She rose from the cot to which she’d been strapped.
“Did she tell us?” Violet asked.
“Is it where we thought?”
“Then we strike tomorrow. Get word out.”
Violet lowered herself to the hard floor for a few dozen push-ups on her knuckles. The exercise—the pain—usually helped to clear her mind and make her herself again after yielding control to that weakling Victoria who, having never been tortured into the realisation that England must be free, remained a loyal servant of the Reich.
“Doc told her everything,” Crow said, when he should have been off relaying her orders. Beneath one green eye, his face bore the ragged scars left by Victoria’s panicked assault on him some months ago.
“Really,” Violet said without real interest. “How’d she take it?”
“He says now that we’ve shocked her we should take advantage, get you into therapy before she resets her little fantasy world. He thinks the edges are bleeding. Maybe he can put you back together.”
Violet didn’t bother to answer. The suggestion didn’t deserve one. She would never accept Victoria as a part of her. Ideally, her old blissfully ignorant self would be destroyed, but barring that, better things stayed the way they were.
The only therapy Violet needed was killing Germans, and there would be plenty of that tomorrow night, at Kondor.
Kondor. The place of which her father Hugh had accidentally learned two years ago and let slip to his daughter Victoria, whose subsequently fractured brain had lost track of the information.
Kondor. The black hole. The secret Gestapo prison where maybe, just maybe, she’d find Angela.
BY THE SAME AUTHOR:
“It is the best book I have read in the last fifteen years and easily makes it my top 10 of all time (most of which are Hugo and/or Nebula award winners).” – Amazon review
GREECE 425 BCE. Four hundred Spartans are besieged on an island by the wily Athenian general Demosthenes. Fate has decreed that Athens shall win this battle, but that victory in the long, grinding war shall go to Sparta. When a woman’s corpse washes ashore before the battle and springs to life, Fate is undone, history unwritten.
ATHENIAN STEEL is a unique, violent, and sexy blend of gritty historical fiction and classic sci-fi set during the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta. The story is rich in historical detail, featuring bloody and brutal battles, but at its heart is the complex, dysfunctional, and ever-evolving anti-romance between Demosthenes and his starborn ally Thalassia.
The first volume of The Hellennium, ATHENIAN STEEL begins a saga of altered history that will span centuries. Unique. Twisted. Bloody. Epic. Iron Age Sci-Fi.
THE PATH OF RAVENS
Thamoth died once in Atlantis. He’ll die again in the armies of Ares or Odinn, if the world-devouring Myriad has its way. Epic Fantasy steeped in Norse and Greek Myth.
"In some ways it's one of my favorite manuscripts of the past few years, and I'm dying to read the sequel. [PK Lentz is] on the highest professional level when it comes to creating a scene, whether it's a blood and guts action scene or a tender scene of hairwashing.... [T]hose kick-ass female characters ... are among my favorites of all time. This one is perhaps the best because [he shows] such genius in creating all the complexities of her character ... without giving her a single word of dialogue. This is a bravura performance." - R. G., early reader & SF/F publishing industry veteran