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The Shoebox Pursuit - Part 3 - Poppies and Warpaint

 

 

 

 

 

THE SHOEBOX PURSUIT

POPPIES AND WARPAINT

 

 

 

 

By

Benjamin Maxwell

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright © B.Maxwell

INTRODUCTION

 

As the colourful yet tragic history of humanity will no doubt agree, time and time again, the greatest of heroes can conquer the most deadly of villains. They can overcome struggles beyond their capabilities, and wow us all with acts of incredible bravery and selflessness. Their adventures are recorded, honoured, regaled and even reanimated for entertainment, for they are held above all else as our saviours. But one thing should also be considered – sometimes heroes can get lost.

Vampire slayers, warring wizards and galactic fighter pilots, they all walk the same lonely path with a trail of blood laying behind them. Forced to make decisions and sacrifices past their comprehension, the thin line between good and evil can rapidly become blurred. The knight in shining armour is not always what he claims to be – kinks form on his suit, his shield breaks and his sword rusts. Just as Sleeping Beauty is not as innocent and pure as she appears – her pretty smile cracks, whilst the life in her eyes begins to fade.

Whatever your intentions, if enough time passes by, mistakes will be made, errors will occur, and the win will barely outweigh the losses it cost. But dragons need to be slain, dark armies need to be crushed, and masterminds need to be thwarted – because Wonderland needs to be saved, Oz needs to go on, and because, for the briefest of moments, everyone is innocent, everyone is good and everyone deserves a chance of freedom.

There is however, one exception to this rule – a man with a soul like no other, that has never known goodness or purity. He is the thing of nightmares, the voice in your head telling you to misbehave, the shadow in the corner leading you astray. He comes from the darkness, a mania of laughter and madness enticing you down the wrong path. Fairy tales do well to avoid him, whilst horror stories barely scrape the surface of his terror. He is a being of sheer wickedness, clear and simple.

But luckily there are always people who oppose evil in its purest form. People who put themselves between the good and the bad, for the greater good. For when the lines of morality become blurred, when people speculate what really lies beneath Wonderland, and when people start to question a madman’s reasoning, the extremity is all that remains – the right thing to do, and the wrong thing to do. And at this very moment, a small group of individuals who do just that were busy doing what they do best…

It is now late November, in the tragic year of 1944. Christmas is coming, but the overwhelming mass of death and destruction makes it impossible to tell. The mission was still in Germany, though trailing very close to the Polish border and pushing upwards towards the Baltic Sea. The location was nothing but ordinary – a plain stretch of land, snow on the ground, foliage and rockery sporadically decorating the area. Whilst in the heart of it all stood a seemingly small and insignificant looking hangar – a square, breeze-block built structure, with two Nazi soldiers placed either side of the large aircraft doorway, its only entrance and exit.

Captain Charlie Crumble, leader of the Alpha-Omega missions, knelt low, hidden in an abundance of bushes, a fair distance away. With busted binoculars pressed up against his face, this was not an explosive reintroduction for the man, nor did he look like the hero he was once revered as. His hair was longer, almost scruffy, brushed back behind his ears. His face looked gaunt, as if he hadn’t eaten a good meal in months, and a greying beard was gradually pushing through. Yet his uniform remained rather well-kept, and his holster still had the same pistol resting in it. He lowered the binoculars and passed them to the young soldier laying low on the ground next to him.

The raggedy looking man snatched them away, lifting them to his eyes and analysing the scene for himself. There he was, the boy who fell to earth – Billy Random. He looked the same as he always had done since the day he made his impressive entrance into their lives. Characteristically moody, ever strange, dark hair and pale skin, with his heavily-armoured bionic arm looking awesome in the fading sun, and white light of the snow. His typical shirt and tie were present of course, but now hidden underneath a ‘borrowed’ uniform jacket, with the right sleeve ripped off, revealing, and perhaps even boasting his magnificent abnormality – the squad’s rather large and bulky handiwork of an add-on, making the thing look even more deadly than ever. Truth be told, he didn’t like the jacket one bit, but it shielded him from the bitter winds that the harsh German winter was bringing this season. He dropped the binoculars, giving Charlie a concurrent nod of the situation.

Behind the pair sat the small geek, Specks. His legs were crossed, his helmet and uniform looked big on him, and his glasses were slowly sliding down his nose, as they had a tendency to do. He automatically pushed them back up, jotting down his findings in his notepad, repeatedly checking the compass in Billy’s arm without his permission, whilst muttering things under his breath that only he could be bothered to understand.

Charlie almost mustered a smile as Billy tried to snap his arm away from the pesterings of the small science officer, the pair slapping each other away in silent argument. But the Captain was preoccupied, and his intent deadly serious. Quietly, he pulled some branches out of his way and peered a few hundred yards to his right to a large cluster of rocks. After a few moments of waiting a big hand revealed itself signing the thumbs up. The hand it seemed, belonged to Yankee, who was lying flat down in the dirty snow next to his brother, Doodle.

Both looked first-rate. They were still suited and booted, looking All-American, and sporting large grins on their faces as they beheld the instruments of destruction laid out before them. Any cuts or scars the brothers had procured over the passing months and masses of missions, were hidden beneath their suits, yet often talked about to lighten the mood and show off to anyone willing to lend an ear! Both had their entire – yet small – armoury lined up before them, as they quickly gave them the once over, reloading them in the process. Instinctively they placed them on their person, before turning their attention to their latest additions, a pair of sniper rifles, positioned directly in front of them, already aimed at the guards below. All they were waiting for now was Charlie’s signal!

A long while had passed since the isolated squadron’s last encounter with Shoebox Stone. In the time between, things had been very tough indeed. They had been on countless adventures, all the while tracking Shoebox’s signal, using Billy’s compass in his arm as guidance. Battles had been won, lives had been lost, weirdness witnessed on multiple occasions, and ‘His’ projects thwarted many times over. But today was significant. Today, according to the tracking device, encumbered with Speck’s calculations, they had finally reached their target. And ready or not, it was time to make their move.

Yet in their travels, they hadn’t noticed the war around them turning from sour to savage, like nothing the world could have imagined in its darkest ideas. Of course, if they happened upon a battle by chance that was outside the constraints of the Alpha-Omega missions, the squad had always helped out – after all, they were elite soldiers and beneficial to the cause. But truth be told, Charlie had become somewhat obsessed with his pursuit, losing sight of what was really going on, relentlessly chasing a man some would even debate exists! His humour and wit had been drying up over the passing months, replaced instead with a ruthless determination, which was only rarely broken by the occasional forced attempt to alleviate the tension with a one-liner. But they were few and far between nowadays.

The obsession was taking its toll on him, and it was taking its toll on his men. But Billy, Specks, Yankee and Doodle were committed to Charlie, no matter how questionable his behaviour. They were all in this to the last.

So with everyone accounted for, we should begin again…

CHAPTER ONE

 

‘I don’t like it. Seems too easy,’ whispered Billy to the Captain, thinking out loud and stating something rather obvious. Charlie heard the words. He even agreed with them. But that didn’t change anything. Suspicions aside, he was eager to end things, one way or another.

Charlie gave the signal – a quick whip of his hand – and the boys knew it was time for action. Without uttering a thing he and Billy burst from their hiding places, and charged forward, their boots crunching through the snow. At once the guards caught sight of the rampaging pair, swinging their rifles round from their shoulders. But before either of them could take aim, two almost silent bullets, a big, yet oddly subtle hello from the American brothers, whizzed through the air and put the bad guys down instantly. Charlie and Billy caught the deceased limp bodies, before they had the chance to hit the ground and cause a ruckus. Silently they rested them down, before tucking themselves up tight either side of the doorway, Charlie – gun in hand, Billy – Quick Shield at the ready. Mutely, they counted down from three and opened the door.

They rushed in expecting the worst. A big finale. An epic showdown. A fight to end all fights. But what they found was not what they had expected. There was no one in sight. No helicopter. No army of soldiers. And definitely no master villain. The room was sparse, large metal girders stemmed from the floor to ceiling, blank and bland walls stretched four ways, with no windows or exits of any kind. It was immediately obvious to them both that the metal exterior they had been studying from outside was merely a disguise to cover up a square-shaped, brick-built structure. But for what purpose? The hangar was virtually empty, yet with a somewhat strange setup in the middle of the space. A single glamorous rug lay in the centre, with pompous decorations and long tassels. Upon the rug sat a red leather chair, which was facing away from them in a considered manner, whilst next to it on a small wooden table was an old gramophone.

Charlie stayed low, edging towards the chair with swift and silent steps, risking the moment but not daring to waste a second. Billy followed closely, bringing up the rear. Within a few brief steps they were upon the chair. All too fervently Charlie spun it round, ready to pull the trigger, and shoot to kill – but the chair was empty. Instead all there was, was a small device taped to the backrest – to be more precise, it was the tracking device Charlie had planted on Shoebox’s helicopter all those months ago, during their last clash. The mood quickly deteriorated.

Exasperated, with a belly full of fire, Charlie ripped the device from the chair, twisted Billy’s arm around, took out the makeshift compass and put the two items together. The twelfth and final light stopped flashing, and glowed constant, meaning only one thing – target acquired. Charlie threw the two now utterly useless contraptions to the ground and stamped on them repeatedly until they were in pieces, before immediately erupting into a full scale rant.

Specks entered the building quietly and stood with Billy, who retracted his Quick Shield. Both silently watched their Captain demonstrating irrational behaviour that they had seen more and more of over the passing months. He angrily stomped around the room, conflicted by his wants and needs. Both Billy and Specks thought about saying something, intervening in some way, but neither bothered. Billy wasn’t one to get involved, his almost teenage attitude getting the better of him, and Specks was just plain scared! Besides, they had grown accustomed to it. Instead Specks’ eyes began scanning the room, his gaze eventually falling on some wires that seemed to be connected to the door. He began to investigate, scurrying off on his own. Meanwhile, whilst Charlie calmed himself down and took a moment, apparently attempting to reason on the situation with himself, Billy made his way over to the oddly placed gramophone.

The music player was very old, and very grand. The wood of the base was dark and hand crafted. The horn looked ridiculously over the top – shiny gold metal, encrusted with what appeared to be diamonds along the edges, laid out in a beautiful fashion. Next to the gramophone sat a single black record with a note stuck to it.

‘Play me,’ read Billy aloud, as he pulled the note off and picked up the record.

Charlie turned, his hand in his mouth, camouflaging the last of his agitated words, and watched Billy turning the record over in his hands, looking rather perplexed at the offering.

‘These wires seem to have unknown purpose…’ spoke Specks, in consideration. ‘They aren’t connected to the light switches.’ He moved along the length of the building, following the wires as they led away from the door. ‘And they are very large… as if designed to pass an extremely high voltage…’ But no one was paying attention to the small man. ‘In fact…’ Specks moved further still, as the wires led him towards the gramophone, more specifically running up the leg of the table. But his deductions would not come in time.

Curious rather than suspicious, Billy put the record on the turntable, picked up the tone-arm and placed the needle, flicking a rather obvious power switch without thought.

‘No, don’t turn it on,’ exclaimed Specks in a fluster, noticing the action. But Billy looked at him in bewilderment. ‘I think… I think you may have…’

Yet all that happened was what would be expected – the record began to turn.

‘You worry too much,’ said Billy, slapping the geek on the back a little too hard. ‘Take it easy.’

‘Taking it easy is an impossible act,’ he muttered in reply. ‘The complex brain activity required to merely stand here… the constant pumping of our heart, the immeasurable amount of blood running through our veins, breathing without consciously thinking to do so… the constant regeneration of our cells… the mere idea that a person can take any moment easy, at any point is simply… is simply…’ But Billy’s rather cantankerous face suggested the man should quickly finish his speech.

Specks silenced himself, pushed his glasses up his nose, and stepped closer, his eyes watching the record as it slowly turned, a crackle emerging from the horn. But then a loud, ear-splitting noise erupted from the thing, causing all three men to cover their ears. A clank, a boom and a shudder drew their attention to the doorway of the hangar, and all they could do was watch as a large metal shutter suddenly dropped down, slamming down into the floor without mercy – sealing them inside. Outside, Yankee and Doodle, who had remained hidden in their spot, under orders from their Captain as lookouts, now looked rather concerned at the sudden change of circumstance. With a quick glance of concern at each other, each began to gather their things together in a great hurry. Whilst back inside, the noise from the record had subsided and the men now looked confounded at the sealed door. Yet before any of them could react, before any of them could swear or deduce or order, a distinct voice, a crackling voice of evil incarnate began to unravel from the gramophone behind them. It was he they hated the most. It was Shoebox Stone.

‘Good evening, dear gentlemen. And welcome… to your tomb.’ Charlie’s eyes lit up with the fire of a thousand suns as the words pierced his soul. The three trapped men slowly circled the gramophone, almost hypnotised by the record as it slowly turned around. ‘I express the most sincere regret for the insolence of my absence. But… please understand, I just could not justify the excursion.’ The voice was casual and irritating. Charlie lifted his fist to smash the contraption, already tired of the fiend’s games. But the recording pre-empted his actions. ‘I would think it prudent that you don’t do anything irrational. Your circumstances are far more delicate than you may yet perceive. Permit me to give explanation.’ The group looked to each other as the record began to read them their fate. ‘As you may or may not be able to see, this music box has a series of wires running to and from it. Firstly, the door. Playing the record triggered the signal, and caused lockdown of the building.’ Charlie threw a glare in Billy’s direction. ‘Secondly, the bomb.’ The group’s eyes widened. ‘The wires running down the leg of the table and into the floor below, lead directly to a bomb of considerable size, capable of extensive damage, located immediately beneath the building you are currently trapped in. Heed my warning. Any interruption of the record playing will cause the bomb to explode instantaneously. So, Charlie and friends, unless you want to die right now, I would suggest you relax, be quiet, and listen to my words very carefully.’

Charlie, Billy and Specks all looked to one another as the distinct sound of Yankee and Doodle hammering on the locked-down door bounced all around them. None of them dared to move or call back or do anything other than listen. The clatter had been going on for a while, yet none of them had noticed. The record continued:

‘The fact, dear Charlie, that you thought your simple tracking device would go unnoticed by a being such as myself, shows just how little you know me, and it greatly insults my intelligence! Such a mundane, basic contraption is a considerable joke! But… perhaps I am being overly demanding. You are, after all, only human.’ Charlie took a few steps backwards, resorting to a pace of the rug. Specks was quickly jotting down the patronising monologue, word for word, whilst Billy collapsed himself into the leather chair and listened. ‘Your little scavenge has amused me to the highest degree. And you have thwarted my trivial projects many times over. But don’t praise yourself too soon. My modest ventures are but hobbies, experiments if you will, a means of examination to see what the human pests are capable of.’ A sly laughter cackled from the gramophone for an indulgent amount of time. ‘Do not consider your endeavours as any kind of success. All you have done is educate me, if such a thing is possible. I have learnt far more about you by the decisions you have made when faced with my distractions, than you could ever hope to learn about me.’ Charlie was struggling to contain himself. He could barely even hear the calls from Yankee and Doodle outside anymore. ‘Nevertheless, I sense I have digressed. Charlie, old boy, I thank you for your unremitting interest in me. I am flattered. And I thank you for keeping Mr Random so closely involved. He’s fascinating. Wouldn’t you agree? The lost boy following the great hero, for the poignant and simple reason that he has nowhere else to go. His life seems a waste in the eyes of myself. And perhaps, even his death at your side is a shame.’ Billy looked down at the carpet, ensuring he made no eye contact with anyone. ‘But for now I must go. For while I record this in a secret location that you had hoped to find today, and instead you find yourself entrapped in my little snare, I will tell you two things.’ The record crackled momentarily. ‘As you are all such big fans of my work, I have left you with a little farewell gift. A gesture of gratitude, if you will. One last old romp.’

A loud crank sounded as a piece of the floor to their left slowly began to slide away, the stone slabs grinding on one another. Slowly, a platform elevated from beneath, raising from the depths of Shoebox Stone’s latest design. It was a man of sorts, or at least once it was. The basic human form remained, but it was deformed by some kind of insane surgery. All its limbs were enlarged beyond belief, with stitches running all over its exposed muscular form. The facial features were cemented in place, with any sense of self-awareness wiped clean long ago, all encased in a permanent helmet. The being towered in height, with metal boots and various implants pushing its extremities in unnatural ways. The man was armoured with flat pieces of metal that looked grafted directly onto the body, whilst clear plastic tubing ran in and out of the flesh, pumping what appeared to be blood, and a strange blue liquid. Like a twisted conglomeration of abnormal, the being was waiting for them.

‘It’s a prototype… of sorts,’ continued the recording. ‘I call him – the Manipulated Man.’ Charlie repeated the title under his breath, cursing the man’s love for dramatic flare. ‘In the meantime, just to ensure everyone is taken care of, a group of Hitler’s soldiers have been alerted, and are now on their way to your location. I imagine the building will be surrounded in mere minutes.’ Charlie clenched his fists in fury. ‘So, I bid you farewell, my sour annoyance. There are things brewing on the horizon, and my thoughts are required elsewhere. As always, one is pressed for time. Enjoy yourself Charlie. It has been a pleasure to mislead you.’ The record crackled for a moment, until one last token was relayed. ‘Oh, one final detail. You have until the end of the song before the bomb goes off.’

As the speech ended an eerie song began playing. A clanking piano performed the same pattern over and over again, until a female vocalist began. Her beautiful tones fell on deaf ears, but the rather accurate words she wept about cast a dreary atmosphere among the men. All the group could do was imagine what kind of torture that poor woman had suffered at the hands of Shoebox Stone.

Charlie snapped himself out of his own self-pity, looking from the gramophone to the Manipulated Man to the locked down door, and repeating the process many times.

‘We played right into his hands,’ he said through gritted teeth, annoyed at his own stupidity.

‘We?’ spurted Billy, undoubtedly irritated at the remark.

Out of the blue, the sound of surging power resonated around the room. All eyes fell on the Manipulated Man, as slowly but surely he began to come to life. His head raised. His stature straightened. His fists clenched. His stance spread, the metal boots clanking on the floor beneath. And lastly, the pupils in its eyes sparked with a pale blue light. Charlie wasted no time in organising their escape plan.

‘Specks. Get inside this gramophone and defuse the bomb. By my guess, you’ve got about three minutes.’ The science officer nodded, putting his pencil and pad away and pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘I’m going to get the door open,’ he said, marching towards his mission.

‘Well, what do you want me to do?’ asked Billy in haste.

‘You? You’re taking care of Tiny there,’ Charlie replied, pointing at the Manipulated Man without even bothering to look.

‘But this things got ten inches on me!’

‘Yeah, but you’ve got a great personality. And don’t let anyone tell you any different.’

‘But… why me?’

‘Because you played the record. Idiot boy,’ snapped Charlie, raising his voice, his tone deadly serious. Billy glared at the man as he walked away from him, angered by the truth. ‘Here,’ Charlie pulled his pistol from its holster and emptied the entire barrel into the thing’s head without a glance. ‘That should help.’ But the bullets had barely even pierced the man’s protective helmet.

‘Yeah? Well… it doesn’t,’ replied Billy in a slightly elevated voice, as he eyed up his overwhelming undertaking.

Charlie slammed his fist on the door and shouted out to his men. ‘Boys. You’re going to have company out there very soon. Prepare yourselves.’

‘What kinda company, Cap?’ the brothers asked in unison from the other side of the door.

‘The kind you shoot at.’

The information brought both worry and excitement to the boys, as they stewed on their Captain’s words. Yankee and Doodle quickly registered the problems the oncoming threat would bring, shoving their backs up against the wall of the hangar and scanning the snowy horizon for any sign of movement. There was none.

Meanwhile, inside the chaos of the lockdown, the trapped men were working with speed, whilst the tragic record played out their destiny with distressing tones. Charlie ran his fingers along the seams of the door, hopeful of a gap or weakness or overlook of any kind that might be helpful. But there was none. Behind him, Specks had already removed the front panel of the gramophone and was investigating a conglomeration of wiring and mechanics with shaky, nerve-wrecked hands. His typical mutterings and mumbles sifted him through the mess, all the while ensuring he didn’t interrupt the playing of the record. At the same time, in the centre of the room, Billy and the Manipulated Man very slowly paced around, circling each other like an extreme version of David and Goliath. Billy didn’t know what the thing was waiting for, but he was happy for the stall. But time was short, and all too soon the fight began.

The mutated thing lunged forward, but Billy was small in comparison, and fast with it, dodging the attack with ease. The latest project seemed slow and clunky. Billy spun round and wasted no time moving close, jumping high, and cracking the thing across the back of the skull. His metal fist collided against its metal armoured head. The blow was powerful: any other recipient would have been killed instantly. The impact resonated around the room, denting the thing’s head. The Manipulated Man crumpled, falling to a knee and seemingly powering down.

‘Ha. Well, you’re a big disappointment! Easy work,’ sparked Billy, brushing his hands off, turning his back on the thing and walking away condescendingly. ‘Hey, Charlie. I’m all done here. Need a hand?’ he offered. But a rather loud noise behind him stopped him dead in his tracks.

‘No. I think you’ve got your hands full for the moment,’ replied Charlie, who was looking beyond Billy.

The anti-hero spun around to see what Charlie was gawping at. The Manipulated Man was glowing from all cracks and crevices. Then a strange mechanical voice, that was once human, sounded. ‘Grade one insufficient. Upgrading to grade two.’

‘Grade two? What’s grade two?’ asked Billy. ’Grade one was good. Why don’t we go back to grade one? I love grade one. Grade one is totally fun. But grade two makes me need a…’ his voice trailed into a pathetic nothingness.

The Manipulated Man didn’t speak again. Instead it got off his knee, and found its footing. Very slowly it turned on the spot and faced Billy, who was looking sheepish. The blue liquid running through its tubing illuminated, and ran faster as it pumped through the being’s deformities. The padding on its boots extended, giving the man even more height. Its armour stretched out across its chest and torso even more so than it already was. Lastly, a pair of goggles emerged from its helmet, covering its glazed-over eyes and glowing red as they targeted the young man.

Without further warning it sped forward with swiftness, catching Billy unawares, punching him square in the chest, and sending him flying across the room. Billy smacked his side into one of the metal girders, spinning him round, before he smashed into the far wall, collapsing to the floor in a cloud of dust and pain and anger. For the briefest of moments nobody moved. Charlie and Specks stopped what they were doing and watched, waiting for Billy’s limp body to budge.

‘Ouch,’ came Billy’s injured response. ‘Anyone get the license plate? I think I got hit by a truck!’ Billy winced and swore and spat, picking himself up and glaring across the room at the Manipulated Man. ‘Finally. A challenge.’

Outside, Yankee and Doodle were almost about to give up on the surprise attack, when the distant sound of charging men came into earshot. A grin began to spread across each of their faces.

‘A buck says I kill more than you,’ declared Yankee.

‘Make it a buck fifty,’ replied Doodle, nodding his helmet to his brother.

All of a sudden the attackers appeared. They were a typical group of Nazi soldiers. They looked tired, but experienced, and despite the weather conditions, they were charging at an alarming rate. Their rifles were raised, bayonet blades jutting out, and the boys counted eight in total.

‘I tell you what. Let’s make it two dollars. And for that… I reckon I can kill my half with no more than three shots,’ stated Yankee, swapping his sub-machine gun for his rifle.

‘What? Are you insane?’ exclaimed Doodle, looking at the oncoming assault. Quickly he considered the bet against the oncoming attack, before turning back to his brother. ‘Make it two shots and you’ve got yourself a deal!’

The brothers grinned at each other, shaking hands.

BANG. BANG. They both took their first shots. Yankee sent a bullet straight into the torso of the first soldier, whilst Doodle, with his shotgun, sent a nearby bad guy ten paces backward. Instinctively they shot again, BANG, BANG, taking out the next two without trouble or anything too flashy. Yankee took a few brave steps forward, snatching a helmet that had rolled from the last dead soldier and threw it like a Frisbee at the next foe. It spun through the air with grace and accuracy, straight into the closest Nazi’s neck, dropping him instantly. Doodle, not liking the idea of being bested by his brother, picked up a dead Nazi’s rifle, and threw it like a javelin straight into the chest of the next unfortunate fellow. He fell to his knees, clutching at the thing and screaming in agony, rather dramatically.

The boys looked all too pleased with themselves, but they still had two soldiers left, and no bullets to dispose of them with. They rapidly took cover around the side of the building as a spray of bullets came their way, and ricocheted into the brick wall instead.

‘Do you ever think we should take these things more seriously, bro?’ asked Yankee, peering round the side of the building, and catching his breath.

‘Na. Where would the fun be in that?’ replied Doodle.

Back inside the hangar the disheartening song was getting dangerously close to its end. Charlie had not yet had any luck with the door, nor the room, which with its basic design and simplicity had allowed for zero error, boasting perfect containment. Specks was still fumbling his way through untold amounts of wires, which he had now learnt had been riddled with a wealth of dummy wires to keep him busy, as he anxiously tried to work out which would disarm the bomb. As for Billy and the Manipulated Man…

The fight was epic, yet all the while enclosed. Billy bounced around the room, using the walls and girders like a playground, leaping, swinging and striking the thing like a ninja soldier, appearing here, there and everywhere with deadly blows. But the Manipulated Man was much stronger and much quicker than before, and every time it managed to hit Billy – it really hurt! Billy couldn’t keep this up for long. He wasted no time bothering to use his ‘normal’ arm, instead opting to fast hits with his bionic armoured right instead. He ducked left, and dodged right, before moving in beneath the thing’s enlarged frame and punching its gut tens times a second. Disgruntled, the Manipulated Man whipped the annoyance away with a simple swing of its huge arm, sending the young man backwards a few feet, who skidded himself to a halt and headed straight back in. Billy was nimble and swift, flicking out his Quick Shield and thwarting a sudden punch, as the attacker’s gigantic fist collided against the metal, causing Billy to struggle to stand his ground as the thing pushed the blocked hit down on him with great weight and power.

But then something strange happened. The Manipulated Man raised his right fist, and a series of syringes emerged from the knuckles. Inside the clear shells he could see the same blue liquid that ran through the thing’s tubing. Without warning it started trying to jab Billy in his left arm.

‘What. The. Heck. Is. Going. On,’ said Billy, confused by the change of approach, dodging the attacks. ‘What are you trying to do to me?’

The punch came close, the syringes missing Billy’s arm by a hair’s breadth, instead embedding themselves into the wall behind him. The man was momentarily stuck, and Billy seized the opportunity. He lifted his bionic arm and came down hard on the thing, destroying the syringes, but releasing the man from the wall. The fight was back on.

‘Specks. Any luck?’ called out Charlie, finally giving up on his search.

‘No, sir,’ he replied, all too quickly, still working his way through the wiring.

‘Yeah. Me neither.’ He watched the fight playing out in the room. The beast took a huge swipe at Billy, who jumped into the air and vaulted over the mountainous hulk. He landed on his feet, smiling at his own brilliance. ‘But I’ve got an idea,’ said Charlie, suddenly realising their only solution. He called out, ‘Billy.’

‘Yeah,’ he replied as the Manipulated Man smacked him round the back and sent him to the floor. He rolled over, just in time to see a humungous clenched fist coming for him. Swiftly he dragged himself backwards, missing the strike by mere inches, and witnessing the floor crack instead of his bones.

‘I want you to get that thing as far away from this door as possible.’

‘What? Why?’ replied Billy, as the thing finally managed to get its hands on him, pulling him into a painful and intense bear grip. ‘You know, I’m pretty busy here, Charlie.’ The grip squeezed tighter and tighter, Billy struggled to breath. ‘And you really are distracting me from my work!’ he wheezed.

‘Just do it, Son.’ The order was firm and unyielding.

‘Yes, sir.’

Billy wasted no time, head-butting the thing square in the face, causing it to release its grip, dropping Billy to the floor.

‘Specks. Stop what you’re doing and get yourself over here right now,’ ordered Charlie.

The geek didn’t need telling twice, dropping the wires and hurrying over to the Captain, as across the room Billy threw a dozen rapid punches into the Manipulated Man’s chest, the blood dripping down his left hand, as each blow against its armour ripped into his skin. But he didn’t care.

‘You know, as far as Shoebox’s projects go… you’re pretty tough.’ He punched it. ‘Yeah. Think I’d give you a seven out of ten, based on sheer irritation value.’ He booted it. ‘That being said, I much preferred the Tiny People of Village Zero.’ He pushed it. ‘The black whirlpool of White Wall Cave.’ He dragged it. ‘And maybe even the Demon Birds of No-Mans-Land!’ Until step by step, thump by thump, he had the thing right where he wanted it, in the far corner of the room, dropping down to its knees from the attack.

‘Good lad. Now get yourself over here.’

Billy hustled back, joining Charlie and Specks at the doorway.

‘What’s the plan?’ he asked, rather breathless.

As the last few lines of the haunting song echoed around the hangar, Charlie turned Billy around to watch. The Manipulated Man rapidly picked itself up, grunting. All too quickly its cogs turned, its systems rebooted and it repaired its damage. Menacingly it turned around and locked eyes on Billy across the room. Its stance changed, hunching, jutting its head forward, and bending its legs.

‘Target acquired,’ said the Manipulated Man in an indifferent voice.

Abruptly it broke into a full-out charge, heading straight towards them all. Billy and Specks went to move, but Charlie snapped them straight back.

‘On my signal, boys,’ he ordered in barely a whisper.

The tank of a man raced towards them, its pace fierce, its speed daunting, and only when it was right upon them did Charlie and the boys jump out of the way. The man smashed into the doors, obliterating them into pieces, and thrusting forwards into the outside world, creating a much needed escape route for the group. Charlie, Billy and Specks followed with haste as they heard the record nearing its dangerous climax. As the woman’s trailing voice faded into nothingness and the final clanking chord of the piano played on the song, the needle reached the centre of the record, a signal was sent from the gramophone through the wires to the bomb below, and with that, the hangar exploded, sending a huge volume of flames and debris in all directions, and scattering the boys, who were barely a few yards from the building, like they were paper aeroplanes. The three escapees were lifted into the air against their will and thrown along the ground at great momentum. Coming to a stop, all three of them were in bad shape, but Billy lifted himself up and locked eyes with the Manipulated Man, who was standing unaffected by the explosion, and glaring right back at him.

The young man wasted no time. He picked himself up, burst into a run, jumped into the air and landed on the thing, placing a beautiful punch with his armour plated fist square in its deformed face, repeating the process over and over again. The Manipulated Man manoeuvred around, trying to free itself of Billy, but it couldn’t. Finally, perhaps by mistake, Billy grabbed hold of some of the tubing running in and out of its body and ripped it out – that was the answer. Instantly the Manipulated Man went senseless, lashing out without direction, and falling onto its back. It clutched at its throat like it was struggling to breath, coughing and spluttering up the blue liquid, mixed with its own blood. Billy took a step back, both disgusted and surprised by what was going on, until at long last the Manipulated Man stopped coughing, stopped moving and died, his mechanical and fleshy parts going limp by his side.

‘Nice show,’ said Yankee, who was sitting on a stacked up pile of the entire group of Nazi soldiers, passing two screwed-up dollar bills to his brother.

‘Yeah. Good job,’ added Doodle, who was leaning against the heap, accepting his brother’s money, before passing it straight back.

Charlie stood over the latest of Shoebox’s creations and pushed its face to one side with his boot, getting a close look at the thing.

‘Damn. That guy sure is ugly,’ commented Yankee, peering at the downed man.

‘Cap’n. What the heck even is that?’ asked Doodle.

Charlie stepped over the Manipulated Man and walked over to the flaming hangar, watching its remains burn to the ground. Gradually the rest of the squad joined him, quiet, pensive and cautious of their Captain.

‘So, what do we do now?’ asked Billy, with unusual sensitivity.

But Charlie didn’t answer. He just shook his head, clenched his fist and stared.

CHAPTER TWO

 

The mood was low. The atmosphere was tense. The squadron promptly left the smoking debris of the exploded hangar, wary of another potential attack from Nazi soldiers, or worse! Charlie led the way, without a word, without an order, keeping himself a fair distance ahead of his men, who were following him in an awkward silence. The snow was light on the ground, and covered everything in sight, making the landscape bright, yet plain. Their boots crushed it as they trekked onwards, and for the longest of times no one dared utter a word.

Specks was preoccupied with his notes, constantly reviewing the scruffy information of numbers and sums and scrawling, whilst occasionally tripping over any unseen tree stumps or rocks, as he went. The brothers seemed happy enough, fooling around with a loose version of Rock-paper-scissors, which, quiet as they played, was getting more and more aggressive with every passing challenge. To the left of the trek, straying on the outskirts of the group, was Billy. He was busy stretching out his aches and pains and new-found bruises from his recent fight, muttering infuriated words under his breath. Ahead of them all marched Charlie. His walk, though determined, lacked his usual manner, and his eyes were fixed on the horizon, but without cause or direction. Around them sparse fields spread in every direction, with nothing out of the ordinary or untoward in sight. Truth be told, the men were finding the walk positively boring! Finally one of them broke the hush.

‘Ah, screw this stupid game. I don’t get it. I don’t like it. I mean… how can paper beat rock? It’s insane! Whoever invented this thing was do-wacky. I quit. Game over, man,’ yelled Doodle, finally sick of constantly losing against his big brother, snapping his hand away from the contest.

‘Damn right, game over. Game was already over the second you started playing, you big horse’s ass,’ remarked Yankee. ‘You suck more at this than you did when we got stuck in that treacle mine!’

‘Treacle mine? Treacle yours! Get outta here, man,’ replied Doodle, in a pathetic attempt to defend his loss.

As quickly as the din sounded, it was gone, and the group fell back into its ongoing silence, the men ill at ease with their Captain’s march. And for a time they continued that way. At some point down the line Specks noticed a small number of cogs and springs and other such components, sticking out from the snow. He snatched them up and began to study them as the squad pushed ever onward, the group paying him no attention, as he shoved them in his bag for later investigation. At long last, Yankee couldn’t bear the silence any longer, and all too soon his mouth was moving once more.

‘So, Billy. On a scale of one to ten, one being as weak as little Specks over there. And ten being me and my biceps. How would you rate that Mummy Man guy?’

‘I believe the recording aptly entitled it… the Manipulated Man,’ corrected Specks, who was still scribbling away in his notepad.

‘Yeah, yeah. Right. The Mutated Man,’ continued Yankee. ‘What would you give him? Was he funny scary, like those wind-up clockwork guys we fought that one time? Or weird scary, like when we crossed paths with that English guy claiming to be a Doctor, with the blue box, and those rolling tin-can laser men things, chasing him in every direction?’

‘With the hot assistant?’ enquired Doodle.

‘That’s the one.’

‘Eight out of ten?’ speculated Billy, uncertain. ‘He was strong and fast. And at one point the bugger even tried to stab me with some syringes.’

‘Come again? Syringes? Why would it do a thing like that?’ asked Doodle.

‘Beats me.’

‘Normally, the simplest of answers is the correct answer,’ said Specks, not bothering to take his eyes away from his notebook.

‘Meaning?’ asked the brothers in unison.

‘Meaning,’ he replied, in a huff, ‘it was trying to use them on Billy.’ They waited for the geek to deliver more information. ‘And syringes do one of two things. They extract.’ He momentarily lifted his eyes from his work and looked at the young man, inquisitively. ‘And they inject.’

‘But, why would it want to extract Billy’s blood?’ asked Doodle.

‘I would be far more concerned with what it wanted to inject him with.’

The squad went quiet. They were all more than aware of what Shoebox and his demented projects were capable of. Weird, twisted ensembles, that could only be created by the most damaged of minds. It was enough to send a shiver down the bravest of men’s spine. The mood went dour, and Charlie’s silent and distant stride wasn’t helping matters for the men. Onwards they pushed. Over a few hills, and jumping across a couple of streams, there was nothing to report other than the scenery. Specks’ bored eyes once again found something untoward in the snow. To his right he could see a blue stain amongst the purity of the white. Ignored by his group, he quickly leant down and found a syringe jutting out of the snow, its remnants now diminishing quickly. Carefully he picked it up, wrapping it in some cloth and shoving it in his bag, making notes in his pad as he continued with the squad. No one even seemed to notice his brief break from the march.

‘Oh, I got one,’ said Doodle, unable to bear the silence within the group. ‘What ya’ll gonna do after the war is over?’

‘Well, I know exactly what I’m gonna do,’ began Yankee, eager to voice his own thoughts. ‘The first thing I’m gonna do is go round and see Ma. I’m gonna get myself a slice of her famous blueberry pie. Snag a bottle of Farmer Joe’s homemade root beer, that she keeps in the fridge for special occasions. Put my feet up in front of the radio, and let the old girl make a fuss over me!’

‘Ha. You know better than me that putting your feet up can only lead to one thing,’ said Doodle. The brothers looked knowingly at each other, their grins imminent. ‘Two clouts round the back of the head and chores till sundown,’ they said together. The pair laughed heartily at the reflection, allowing themselves some much needed enjoyment. ‘What about you, Specks?’ asked Doodle, jabbing the small man with the butt of his shotgun.

‘Me? Oh, I don’t know,’ he closed his notepad and looked towards the horizon in quiet contemplation. ‘I imagine… that is, if they’ll be so kind as to have me back… I will probably head back to Kent… Canterbury University… and continue with my work.’

‘Damn. You some kind of teacher?’ giggled Yankee, not quite capable of grasping the concept. ‘No way in hell can you control a classroom full of kids!’

‘Actually, they have an excellent science program there. I rarely leave the laboratory.’

‘Rarely find your way out of the laboratory, more like,’ Yankee retorted.

‘Yeah. Can you imagine him with a group of kids,’ said Doodle, preparing his best impression of Specks. He crouched low, pulled his helmet further down his head and began. ‘Erm, you there… sit down… please,’ he stammered, pushing an imaginary pair of glasses up his nose, all the while trying to keep a straight face, as Yankee chuckled. ‘Pardon me, I said sit yourself down… please… thank you. Otherwise it’s… it’ll be detention. Now… detention is the detaining of people forced upon them due to…’ Doodle could barely contain himself. ‘Now, would you all please excuse me… I have a time machine to build, and… a sandwich to make.’ But Doodle finally cracked up, joining his brother who was beside himself. Even Billy was grinning at the impression. After a jovial chortle, Doodle composed himself and continued with the game. ‘And what about you, Billy, my boy? What you gonna do with yourself? I mean, you could do anything you want. If you ask me, you’re turning into a bit of a legend.’

‘And a bit of a threat,’ said Yankee, with a hushed tone.

‘You what?’ asked his brother, lowering his voice even more so.

‘Well, no offence to Billy. But half the soldiers we come across are scared stiff of him,’ he whispered in reply.

For a moment Billy didn’t answer the question. He could hear what the brothers were whispering about, but he took no umbrage from it. Truth be told, he’d never thought that far ahead in his own timeline. The young man still had no idea where he came from, so how would he have any plan where he would move on to?

‘I don’t know,’ he answered, finally. ‘All I’ve got is you guys, and my dreams… or memories… or whatever the stupid things are! An image of a pretty girl in my head. A voice of an annoying boy in my ear. And that’s it. And what the heck is that exactly?’ He stopped for a moment, taking a long deep breath. ‘You lot… you all have your memories. You have your life before all this. You can go right back there. Even if it’s changed.’ None of them noticed, but Charlie had tilted his head ever so slightly, listening to the boy’s rare reveal. ‘Me? I was born in war. It’s all I know. Perhaps it’s all I can do.’ The men were silent, utterly focussed on the poor young man’s feelings. ‘Besides,’ he raised his arm into the air, slowly turning the armour-plated device from left to right. ‘In case you hadn’t noticed, I kind of stick out. I’m not going to be blending in at family picnics any time soon!’

Momentarily no one said anything, stewing on the sincere words. But the brothers weren’t having any of it for long.

‘Nice one, Random. You are hilarious,’ said Yankee, slapping Billy on the back. ‘Trying to kill the mood like that and ruin Doodle’s game. Shame on you.’

‘Yeah. Screw that. You can come straight home with us,’ added Doodle.

‘Great idea,’ continued Yankee. ‘How’s about it, Random? You, me, Doodle here? Adventures across the United States of America. Old Lady Liberty waving us in? Think about it. We could hit Broadway. Billy Random – the eighth wonder of the world!’

‘We live nowhere near New York,’ whispered Doodle.

‘I’m just trying to paint the boy a nice picture,’ said Yankee. ‘Specks, get out the list of Billy’s awesomeness.’ But he couldn’t wait for him to deliver. ‘Let’s see, we’ve got your super speed.’

Very quickly the brothers began to trawl through all of their adventures throughout their journey, reciting the various abilities they had witnessed from Billy as a result.

‘Super agility,’ added Doodle.

‘Super crazy ninja fighting moves.’

‘Super recovery.’

‘Super memory of anything and everything… and also nothing.’

‘Super weird arm. Now with customised super armour, made from super metal, from his super ship, found in that super crash!’

‘You two really need to expand on your vocabulary,’ suggested Specks.

‘And let’s not forget his super strength,’ finished Yankee.

‘He ain’t no stronger than me,’ remarked Doodle, defending his own credibility.

‘Little girls are stronger than you,’ snapped Yankee, nudging his brother joyfully. The pair could see a grateful smirk spreading across Billy’s face. ‘You’d love Arizona, mate. Sun on your back. Beer in your hand. Pretty ladies round every corner,’ he shoved the man playfully. ‘Besides, it’s either that, or teaching Algebra at boring-bury university with stuttering Professor Specks over there.’

The three men fell into a fit of laughter, dragging the small irritated geek into the embrace, taking pleasure from the well-needed distraction.

‘And Cap’n? Don’t think you’re getting out of this. What are you gonna do after all this?’ asked Doodle, who was wiping a tear from his face, thoroughly forgetting the man’s dismal mood.

The men hoped for a colourful jaunt about their Captain’s wife and beloved son, Caleb, and perhaps a whimsical future tale of a typical English day out – that somehow always managed to put a smile on their faces and make things bearable. But instead they got a short, sharp answer – something far more sinister. And even giving his standoffish mood of late, it was markedly more concerning than they were expecting.

‘Depends who wins the war,’ he muttered, in a grim response.

The answer was poignant, and killed the conversation dead in its tracks. So they continued their trek in quiet contemplation, each man deep in thought about just what the future may hold for all of them. Time rolled by, and Doodle tried to reignite the conversation with other juvenile questions, the most favoured being which time period all of them would like to be born in. He and his brother were more than enthusiastic about visiting the Wild West, whilst Specks muttered interest in the Egyptian Empire and the Industrial Revolution. Charlie didn’t even bother with a participating reply, and Billy, reluctant as he was, hinted at Pirates and Vikings. Though he couldn’t recall how he was even aware of such a thing – his memory, and more importantly, his existence prior to his collision with the squadron still being the universal mystery it was. But soon enough the low spirits of the group defeated the game and the conversation filtered off.

A light snow began to fall, bringing with it an icy chill. Almost immediately Billy took off his jacket and flung it over Specks, who was clearly suffering from the wintry weather a great deal more so than himself. Without word they walked on, crossing white fields, passing deserted buildings and pushing their way through sparse woodland. Every now and again Specks noticed discoloured snow in the distance, red to be precise, but all too soon the weather wiped away any and all blemishes. He quickly summed it up to him being cold and tired, and his imagination getting the better of him, so decided to keep his thoughts to himself, not that that stopped him taking notes.

‘So, Captain,’ spoke Yankee, after half a day’s walk, at long last breaking his peace. ‘I’ve been doing some thinking. And, seeing as our pursuit of the tracking device didn’t end up exactly as we planned. Let’s face it, the thing was a big old red herring. We’ve been pushing north all day, and I’m not sure why. I don’t wanna question your leadership, sir,’ he tilted his head in respect. ‘But the way I see it, we have zero clues as to where that S-O-B might be. For all we know, he’s sunning himself in the Caribbean, whilst we freeze to death out here in the blistering cold. So, I don’t mean to be rude Captain, but just where in hell are you leading us?’

Charlie finally stopped, causing the squad to do the same. Slowly he turned and looked at them all, and they all looked back. He went to answer, but something stopped him. He lifted his hand to his ear and narrowed his eyes as the something trailed on the icy wind. They all listened intently, as they tried to distinguish it from the breeze. It was a voice. A call. A plea for help. Charlie turned in the direction of the holler and burst into a run.

CHAPTER THREE

 

Charlie charged towards the call. Over a hill, through a small cluster of foliage, a jump over a small stream, and he was there. The remnants of a camp, placed quite shrewdly in and amongst a grouping of trees, sat in front of him. But things were very wrong indeed. A battle had very recently taken place. The tents lay flat, collapsed and damaged. Mud and debris littered the area, whilst smoke rose into the air from the centre of the camp. But what was most horrible of all was the casualties. The entire vicinity was covered in uniformed bodies. The Captain slowed his run to a walk, pulling his pistol, preparing himself for the worst.

Cautiously he walked into the camp, his sharp eyes darting everywhere, apprehensive of an attacker lurking somewhere close by. He was very careful not to tread on any of the dead, which were strewn everywhere in disarray, stepping over them one at a time. It didn’t take him very long to realise – each and every one of the dead men were wearing the British uniform. There was no enemy amongst them.

‘They’ve been obliterated,’ he said, in a hushed voice.

He stopped and knelt down, studying one of the deceased. The soldier was armed, his gun still in the grip of his firm dead hand, the barrel was empty. The man looked so young, his horrified eyes still staring vacantly into the sky. But there was a touch of strangeness as well. His skin was tainted with a blue ink colouring, and his veins were incredibly prominent, swollen and purple. Most bizarre of all was that the dead boy had no bullet holes or knife marks on him. Instead, in his chest was an empty syringe, embedded deep into the body, its shell jutting out of him. For a brief moment Charlie contemplated the scenario, looking around and seeing the other men laying all in the same manner. He carefully folded the boy’s arms across his chest, and closed his eyes gently, before muttering a short prayer under his breath for him.

‘Hello,’ he called out, in a dispirited voice, that bounced off the surrounding area. There was no answer. ‘Hello,’ he called again, much louder this time.

‘Over here,’ came a feeble reply.

Charlie turned and walked towards the source of the call, treading his way through the slain men. On the edge of the camp stood his own squadron, safe and intact, all looking absolutely shocked at the grave situation laid out before them. Careful as they went, they joined their Captain, until together, they found the caller. Squeezed together between a group of dead bodies was a lone man. Muddied hair, bruised face, bloody uniform. He looked completely exhausted, and on sight of Charlie his reaching desperate hand buckled, collapsing on the bodies next to him.

‘On the double, boys,’ ordered the Captain.

Yankee and Doodle moved fast, levering the dead bodies apart as Charlie and Billy grabbed the man and dragged him out, propping him up against a large crate of supplies.

‘Water. Now,’ he ordered a second time, holding an impatient hand out, in the direction of Specks. Promptly he passed the Captain his flask, who poured the remaining contents over the soldier’s head and into his mouth. ‘Come on. Wake up.’ Within a moment the soldier woke – startled, dazed, confused. He coughed on the water, choking it back up, looking wide-eyed and terrified, gasping for breath. ‘Easy, easy boy. It’s alright, soldier. You’re safe. Now, take a moment and catch your breath.’ Charlie’s voice was calmer and more friendly than the squad had heard in months. ‘I’m Captain Charlie Crumble.’

‘Private… Wallace Campbell, sir,’ he wheezed, in a thick Scottish accent.

‘Good to meet you, Campbell. Specks, make yourself useful and check the man for injuries.’ The small geek moved in close and began with his duties. ‘Now, just what happened here?’ asked Charlie.

‘We were ambushed, sir. Came out of nowhere, sir. Took us all out in barely a few minutes.’

‘How many were there?’

‘Just one, sir.’

‘Just one? Who did this?’ he enquired.

‘Not who. What!’ His reply was gripped by fear, and he shook his head feverishly. He winced as Specks started to bandage a large bloody wound on his left leg. ‘Big hulk of a man. Built up like a tank. Bloody thing charged into the camp like a bulldozer crashing through hay! Knocked us all down with tree trunks of arms! Shooting syringes into everyone. Bullets just rebounded off him.’

‘Damn. There’s more than just one,’ whispered Billy.

‘Where did it come from?’ asked Charlie, paying no attention to Billy’s comment.

‘It all happened too quick. Bloody thing caught us unawares. But if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say it came from the north-east, sir.’

‘Did you see where it went next?’ pressed Charlie, his voice raising a little.

‘No, sir. Didn’t go anywhere.’ The Scottish soldier began to laugh to himself, clutching at his ribcage in pain as he did so. ‘Managed to pull a grenade on the bugger. Thing went down. But… blew myself halfway across the camp in the process. Ha… worth it though.’

The soldier leant his head against the crate and let out a pained sigh as Specks discovered more and more wounds over his body – the situation was far graver for the lone survivor than everyone had hoped. Yankee and Doodle, ever the optimists, offered complimentary words on his solo accomplishment, as a fruitless attempt at distraction.

‘Good job, soldier,’ added Charlie, patting the man on the shoulder, before standing up. ‘Where are its remains?’

‘Somewhere in that direction, sir,’ he pointed a wobbly arm over to the left of the camp. ‘Saw… it go down… and everything… fell on top of it…’

‘Rest up. We’ll take a look. Specks, you keep an eye on him. The rest of you, you’re with me.’

Charlie, Billy and the brothers walked over to the heap of debris pointed out to them. Mud, dirt and a group of large shattered tents made up the majority of the mess. Together they removed some of the heavier items, throwing rocks and wreckage to the side until all that remained were the tents, which housed a rather large, and rather obvious dead lump underneath. The men were a little dubious about getting too close, Billy clenching his fists and the brothers resting their fingers on their triggers, so Charlie leant forward and pulled the debris away without due caution.

The noise was ear-splitting and horrific, but the sight was worse. On the floor lay another one of the Manipulated Men. But its legs had been blown clean off, and now all that remained was half of the creation – its entrails sprawled out on the floor behind him. It reached out for them, clutching at the snow-covered dirt, and dragging itself towards them in an automatic and all too desperate attempt to kill them. It screamed inaudible words with its damaged robotic tones, its goggled eyes cranking clumsily from one man to the next.

The men were quick to back away, as the thing dragged its tattered remains towards them all. It was clearly finding it difficult to manoeuvre, but nonetheless it still tried, lifting itself up to an awkward angle, leaning on one hand inelegantly, before lifting its other balled-up fist and revealing several syringes protruding from it. All but Billy looked confused. It instinctively aimed at Charlie and fired the syringes. The Captain dodged the first shot, but more were coming. Billy snapped his quick shield to life, jumping in front of Charlie and deflecting the remaining syringes to the ground. Enraged, the Manipulated Man swiped at Billy, sending the young man bouncing across the camp at an alarming rate. The thing lurched towards Charlie, but Yankee and Doodle stepped forward, unloading half a clip each into its torso. It screamed and gargled, but at no point stopped in its mission. But Charlie wasn’t scared. To the shock of his men he moved forward and began taunting the thing with words best left unsaid. The words soon turned to occasional kicks to the thing’s upper body, and that in turn, sadly, progressed to Charlie stamping on the thing’s head as it looked up at him with its strange goggled eyes. All the men could do was watch on in horror as their Captain let himself have his twisted fun. After too much of a time he was finally finished, giving in to exhaustion, wiping the sweat from his brow and glaring down at the thing in disgust.

‘Boys. Go get me some rope, and do what you do best,’ he ordered.

‘What’s that, Captain?’ they asked in unison.

‘Be cowboys!’

The brothers did as instructed, quickly ploughing through the camp in search of supplies, whilst Charlie kept the Manipulated Man occupied, as Billy watched on, much to his dislike. Charlie was literally toying with the thing, allowing it to almost catch him time and time again, before pulling himself away at the last minute. Billy shook his head in repugnance as he watched his Captain tease and torture it. But then, Charlie tripped over one of the dead bodies, and for a very brief moment he thought he saw one of them move. The Manipulated Man went to grab him, but Billy appeared, moving rapidly towards the situation and dragging the monster backwards with its fleshy mechanical entrails. It arched its head and awkwardly began reaching out for the young man.

‘You know… I should just let this thing get you!’ exclaimed Billy.

‘Well, why didn’t you?’ demanded Charlie, immediately.

‘Why are we not just killing it?’ asked Billy.

‘Because I wish to better educate myself, boy,’ he replied.

The beast clawed its way towards Charlie, dragging Billy with it like he weighed next to nothing. Just then Yankee and Doodle reappeared on the scene, loud, proud and all too excited.

‘Ride ‘em, cowboy,’ screamed Yankee at the top of his voice, who was now perched on a large branch of a nearby tree, holding one end of a long rope and saluting the men, idiotically.

‘Yee-ha,’ yelped Doodle, who was spinning a lasso above his head and dashing towards the tail end of the Manipulated Man. ‘Better move yourself, Billy.’

Billy did so, and just in time! Doodle threw the lasso with skill and enthusiasm, snagging the bottom of the beast on his first attempt.

‘Nice catch, brother,’ shouted Yankee, who instantly jumped from the tree with the rope firmly in both hands. His descent was slowed down by the taut rope as it dragged the thing across the ground against its will. And as the American reached the floor the Manipulated Man’s body was lifted, dangling upside-down, violently lashing out at them all. ‘Easy there, fella,’ said Yankee, tying the rope around the tree and securing their little project.

‘He is way more ugly than the last one,’ added Doodle, who began swinging the creature back and forth with his brother. ‘I think his name is Dave.’

‘Na. It’s Phil,’ replied Yankee, straight away.

‘You’re both crazy. His name is Thomas,’ added Billy, eager to get involved.

‘Specks. Here, now,’ barked Charlie, who remained distant from the capture. The geek hustled over, leaving the Scottish solider to rest up. He approached Charlie, ready to give him his diagnosis of the injured man, but Charlie had other ideas. He pushed Specks towards the upside-down Manipulated Man. ‘Study it. Do what you do. I want to know how it works. How it doesn’t. And if possible, where it was manufactured.’ His voice was flat and without sentiment.

‘But, Captain…’ stuttered Specks, looking over at his patient.

‘You’re my Science Officer. So, just do it,’ he snapped, finishing the conversation.

Specks hustled himself into a rapid fluster, as he got to work on the dangling Manipulated Man under the watchful eyes of Charlie, who was simply glaring at the creation in cold silence. Billy and the boys did their best to hold it in place as it reached out at the small probing man, quickly concentrating his attention on its back, more specifically its spine and head. He began trying to remove the metal plating that was grafted immediately into the skin either side of the spinal column, but to no avail. Gradually he made his way round the entirety of the thing’s torso, and slowly but surely, over a course of painstakingly long minutes, Specks’ deductions began to mutter from his mouth.

‘Its muscles seem to have been influenced somehow… most likely by the constant use of a powerful drug… at a guess, whatever it is that’s being pumped in via these tubes…’ But whilst they listened to the science officer’s theories, no one noticed what was going on around them. All the bodies littering the camp had started to twitch. ‘But muscle mass pushed to such extremity would require continuous dosage… otherwise it would not have the energy to keep functioning…’

‘Meaning?’ asked Charlie.

‘They have a battery life, sir,’ answered Specks.

‘Well, that’s good right?’ posed Yankee.

‘This armour is not a suit… it’s grafted directly onto the flesh… with stitches…’ he probed further, ‘… and soldering… it must have been agony…’ Meanwhile, in and amongst the pile of dead men, arms and legs began to spasm awkwardly, going unnoticed by everyone but the Scottish soldier, who suddenly thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. He shook it off, and summed it up to exhaustion.

‘You mean to say this guy is technically naked?’ suggested Doodle.

Billy smirked and shook his head at the statement, before Charlie pressed Specks for further information. But behind the group, the bodies were gradually starting to shift, bloody red and blue hands were reaching out clumsily in all directions, grasping haphazardly at one another. Bewildered, the lone soldier watched on in awe, speechless at the remarkable act unfolding before him. All the while the squad concentrated on the Manipulated Man, that was now speaking in an inaudible language to them, as Specks poked around its helmet with a knife. Perhaps by mistake, he managed to reveal a small compartment on the right side of the head, pulling it open with the tip of his knife and revealing a series of cogs turning in quick succession.

‘What the heck is that?’ asked Doodle, peering in at the clockworks.

‘If I had to speculate… and that is exactly what I’ve been doing this entire time…’ Specks looked almost as dumbfounded as the rest of the men. ‘I’d say… wow this is incredible…’

‘Careful there, Specks. Or Billy is gonna get jealous!’ laughed Yankee.

‘Forgive me… it’s merely an impossible guess… but I’d think…’ Behind them a small group of the dead men had managed to drag themselves up to their hands and knees. Blood and blue liquid oozed from their open mouths, their eyes were dark black and their exposed skin was tainted with the sight of a manifestation of veins. ‘Based on where this device runs in and out of the head…’ With his knife, he carefully pulled back a grouping of wires, revealing that they were running directly from a drilled hole in the head. In turn they ran into a small electrical boxed device, immediately coming out the other side and back into a secondary drilled hole further back in the skull. ‘I believe this design is for the purpose… to bypass…’ continued Specks, ‘… more precisely, for the means of bypassing this man’s own self… his decision making abilities… but without affecting the brain’s other directives… such as walking, breathing, moving of the limbs… things we do without consciously thinking about. Unbelievable!’

But no sooner had Specks stood back from the examination and taken a moment for himself, quickly jotting his findings down on his notepad, than things suddenly got a whole lot worse.

‘Captain Crumble,’ called the Scottish soldier from across the way.

Charlie turned and saw the poor fellow pointing a quivering finger at something. The squad turned, but instantly froze to the spot, forgetting about the hanging Manipulated Man immediately. They were unable to speak, unable to move, as the revelation in front of them overwhelmed all of their senses all at the same time. All they could do was watch in horror as little by little every single dead man in the camp got up to their feet. They shuffled clumsily from side to side in every direction. They moaned and groaned like sleep-walking idiots. Their heads were lop-sided, their faces devoid of character, and a mixture of red and blue liquid dripped from their bodies. Their sunken, soulless eyes suggested only one thing – somehow, the dead had risen.

‘What the…’ said the brothers in unison.

‘Oh my…’ stuttered Specks.

‘Uh-oh…’ exclaimed Billy.

But no one finished their sentences. The squad were in too much shock. The Scottish soldier tried to get up, unfortunately for him causing a considerable amount of noise in his direction, and drawing attention to himself. The horde of the dead men turned and watched, intrigued by the struggling man. Immediately they began to shuffle towards him, and before anyone realised what was happening, they had surrounded him. Yankee stepped forward to help, but Charlie put a firm hand on his chest, stopping him and pushing him straight back. But it was already too late, anyway. The horde wasted no time showing the men exactly what they did. They fell over each other, ham-fisted and docile in their actions, but the end result was still the same. The squad weren’t sure if they heard it first, or saw it first, but the horde began to eat the poor man. Astounded, the squad watched as a trio of dead men feasted on the Scots legs, whilst several more chewed on each arm, and the rest ripped away at his stomach, desperate to feed their all too obvious appetite. It was only when poor Wallace Campbell’s terrorised voice stopped screaming and the man was no more that the men were finally able to blink. Wide-eyed, the frightened squad looked on at the horrendous feast that was hurriedly running out. Charlie lifted a hand, ordering his men to remain still and quiet.

‘Did they just… eat that guy?’ whispered Doodle.

The horde turned and locked eyes with the squad, quickly dropping the leftovers of the Scottish soldier and shuffling towards them. Everyone glowered at Doodle, who cringed back at them in embarrassment.

‘Weapons at the ready,’ ordered Charlie. Yankee and Doodle grabbed their respective favourites, Charlie and Specks pulled their pistols and Billy snatched Yankee’s spare rifle from his back. ‘Drop them, now,’ ordered Charlie.

Quick as a flash the squadron shot at the horde, each man firing generously into the approaching wave. The dead men were close, easy to target, and dropped like flies one after the other. Before long they were once again a pile of bodies.

‘That was weird,’ said Doodle.

But the horde immediately began to move, clawing and crawling along the floor in unnatural ways. They struggled back up to their feet, their bullet holes oozed blood, their shot-off limbs hindered their movement, but that didn’t stop the horde from coming. Slow, unsteady, they approached once again. Dozens of the dead, hungry and crazed, edged ever closer. Charlie and his men were hesitant, hastily reloading their weapons, all the while keeping their eyes on the impossibility. Charlie was first at the ready. He raised his gun, ready to unload a second barrel. But he stopped himself. Right in front of him was the dead boy he had not long ago laid to rest and uttered a short prayer for. He didn’t know what to do. The guilt overwhelmed him as the dead man shifted closer, looking at him with cadaverous black eyes. It leant forward, eager to get its hands and teeth on Charlie. The Captain couldn’t wait any longer. BANG. A shot straight to the heart. It did nothing. BANG. A shot to the leg. The thing went down, but continued to crawl, slowly picking itself up and trying again, all the while limping. It reached out for the Captain, barely inches away. Charlie aimed his gun directly into the things forehead.

‘I’m sorry,’ he whispered.

BANG. He took the shot, sending the bullet straight through its skull, passing through its brain, and straight out the other side. For Charlie it felt like an eternity as he watched his own bullet pass through the skull of such a young soldier on his own side. But the dead man went down, and there he stayed, without twitching, and without returning to life.

‘Head shot,’ said Charlie, loudly.

The squad were grateful for the information, and wasted no time. Specks was useless, missing almost every one of the dead as his shaky hand sent the bullets astray. Billy had his fair share, taking pot shots and flooring a handful of the men. But it was Yankee and Doodle that did the most, wiping out the dead men by the bucket load. Doodle stepped forward, keen to use his shotgun at close quarters, whilst his brother rarely took his finger from the trigger, finishing off the last of the horde within half a minute. Once the firing had stopped the men went quiet. They reloaded their guns, looking sorrowfully at what they had just done. Charlie walked through the twice-dead bodies. One reached out, looking at him with soulless eyes. The Captain put his pistol to its head and pulled the trigger.

‘Yankee,’ whispered Doodle to his brother. ‘Did those dead guys just come back to life and try to eat us?’

‘Yes, little brother. That’s exactly what just happened,’ he whispered in reply.

‘Specks,’ called out Charlie, as he continued his search. ‘Theories.’

All eyes fell on the little geek who was quickly working his way through his notepad.

‘Erm… yes… that is to say… the men may well have been infected with something. The vessels… syringes, found in their chests… the blue liquid… it must have some poisonous properties, as well as … yes… a virus that perhaps, when mixed with the bloodstream, causes this reanimation into these… mindless… flesh eating… drones.’

‘Could we have saved them?’ asked Yankee.

But Specks only had time to shrug his shoulders in response, as Charlie barged his way through his men and marched off, leaving the camp behind him.

‘Let’s go,’ he ordered.

‘But, what about this thing?’ called Billy, pointing at the Manipulated Man.

‘We leave him. He’ll be a warning for passing soldiers of a potential threat in the area.’ Charlie’s reply was cold and logical, not even bothering to turn his head.

With reluctance, the squad started to follow their Captain, but the atmosphere was tense and Yankee was clearly fuming about something.

‘You know I could have saved that little Scots man,’ he said. ‘But you just let that soldier die.’

‘I needed to see what they were designed to do.’

‘That ain’t right, man. That ain’t right.’

‘The boy was as good as dead anyway.’

Yankee stewed on the words for a moment, struggling to swallow them.

‘And just where the hell are we going this time, Captain?’ he yelled, unable to contain himself.

‘North east.’

‘Why? What’s north east? Some other stupid fool’s errand you want us wasting our time over? You ask me, we’ve spent too long letting the war pass us by. Seems a group of guys as talented as us should have our skills put to good use.’

The Captain stopped his march, turned on the spot and faced Yankee head on.

‘When I say you’re dismissed, that’s when you can do what you want. You can be an idiot with your brother. Drink beers down by the lake, shoot tin cans off a fence post, ride horses till you fall off and waste your time as best you please. But until that time, until I say we’re done, you will follow my orders, without question. Now, do I make myself clear?’ His words were resolute, his voice unyielding, his stance daunting. The men had never seen him act in such a way.

Yankee didn’t reply. He was too angry to speak. Doodle placed a friendly hand on his shoulder but he pushed it off. Instead he lowered his head and waited for Charlie to move off. Once he did, Yankee fell into line with the rest of the men and followed. Without word, or eye contact, the group moved along, leaving the strange ordeal behind them. They hoped that was the end of it. They hoped things would ease up for a while. And they hoped their Captain would return to them. They were wrong.

CHAPTER FOUR

 

The squad marched for a day and a night without rest. They talked from time to time, and the brothers even attempted a few games here and there, but the mood was permanently grim, and as yet, their Captain wasn’t offering any clue as to where they were heading or why. Snow came and went, and the men’s hunger grew rapidly, their critical thirst only exacerbating their exhausted state. Dirty snow shoved into their mouths quenched their needs, it was barely enough to keep them on their feet, but it was their best and only option at this time – they couldn’t keep going like this for long. So, as the second day was nearing its end, the squad were more than grateful to discover what they were just lucky enough to happen upon.

Charlie was the first to see it, instantly dropping to the ground and ordering his men to do the same. They grouped together and peered down the rise they found themselves upon, and into a great and vast valley below. They had finally reached the coast. The water was calm and beautiful, as the fading sun glistened off its lapping waves. Just before the shore sat an undersized village, in a derelict state, apparently uninhabited. Buildings stood with roofs missing, walls were half destroyed, allowing insight into the abodes within, and windows smashed, broken, glass scattered across the streets. A single German tank – a Tiger 1, to be more precise – sat wrecked, slightly askew in the centre of the village square, with three abandoned trucks parked next to it, whilst out on a shoddy looking jetty poked the tail end of a half sunken boat. In fact, all that remained complete was an old church, standing tall and rather sinister within the confines of the village.

There were, however, a few rather more unusual things about the settlement. The most striking was the colouring. A beautiful red littered the area, flourishing and scattering along the ground throughout and around the village. Charlie snatched the binoculars from around Specks’ neck, half strangling the poor fellow. He studied the peculiarity fast.

‘Poppies,’ he said, rather perplexed.

He was absolutely right. Throughout the snow and dirt and debris, a host of red poppies were pushing their way through the snow, tinting the entire locale with a hint of pretty. But amongst the beauty, things far more sinister dwelt. On a free standing wall, at the very front of the village, a large amount of tally marks, painted in what appeared to be red paint were prominent – and there were a lot of them. As the oddity caught Charlie’s eye, he felt a shiver run down his spine, as he contemplated its meaning. But there was one other thing that worried them all.

Near the back of the small town, close to the coast edge, stood an incredibly tall water tower. In no way did it fit in with the rest of the village’s rural design. Charlie surveyed the scene with quiet inspection. The construction looked brand new, glimmering a bleached white light from the evening sun bouncing off of it. The construction was simple enough, but beautifully crafted. An incredibly thick pipe ran from the ground directly beneath the tower, all the way to the centre of the tank above, with what appeared to be pumps actively working either side. Yet what was most concerning were the tower’s legs. There were six of them in total – large, hefty girders of metal, keeping the immense device stable, each with a multitude of much smaller pipes running down the length of them. And connected to the bottom of all but two of the legs, encased in large metal units, were the Manipulated Men. They stood erect, unmoving, with their heads, arms and legs strapped at their sides. Charlie lowered the binoculars and breathed a long sigh of strain.

‘There are four more of those… things, down there,’ he said, handing the binoculars to Billy, strangulating Specks even more so. He took them and looked for himself.

‘Oh. Brilliant,’ he remarked. ‘That’s just brilliant. Do you know what that is?’

‘No. What is it?’ asked Doodle, innocently.

‘That’s just bloody brilliant!’ Billy snapped.

‘What do you say, Cap? Go down there, take ‘em out?’ suggested Yankee. He had raised his sniper and was scoping the village for himself. Immediately he eyed up the tower and the Manipulated Men. ‘Those things look like they’re sleeping. Could be the opportune time.’

‘There’s four of them and only four and a half of us.’ All eyes rested on Specks, who was still struggling with the binoculars wrapped around his neck. ‘I don’t know about you, but in our current condition, that doesn’t seem like a fair fight right now.’

‘Based on the sheer intensity and jeopardy Billy faced with his encounter,’ harped up Specks, ‘multiplied with our own current physical state… odds of a successful attack are highly against us.’

‘Well, maybe if you hadn’t marched us half way across the Goddamned country, in the middle of the Goddamned winter, without food or drink or stopping…’

‘We wait,’ ordered Charlie, cutting off Yankee mid-sentence.

The two men glared at each other, both stubborn as mules, neither willing to back down, whilst Billy and Doodle watched on quietly.

‘Yes, sir,’ Yankee answered, through clenched teeth. He returned to his scope and moved his focus throughout the rest of the village, finally resting on a wagon that had lost one of its wheels, and was mashed up against a rather distressed wall. Its previous hold, a wealth of apples, now lay scattered all around it. ‘Hey, hey. I spy me a broken wagon of apples. I need to get me some eats.’

‘I said we wait,’ ordered Charlie for the last time, ending the awkward conversation once and for all.

 

And so they waited, and it wasn’t too long before their opportunity arose. It was abrupt, with the sudden sound of chains and cogs clunking away, waking the squad from their mistaken slumber and immediately seizing their attention. From their vantage point they observed the unfolding of events. With an excruciating sound, the Manipulated Men were released from their harnesses, as the restraints holding them snapped open. In perfect synchronisation they took a big step forward, right away stopping and standing motionless. From such a distance it was hard to make out the specifics of what exactly was going on, but the four designs were making a high-pitched whirring sound between them, that was carrying along the air. The noise ceased, and straight away the four Manipulated Men turned, and began to walk off in their robotic fashion, a plodding march, each heading in a different direction, quickly leaving the parameters of the village.

No sooner had the Manipulated Men left the area, than a handful of people appeared, out of the blue, scurrying from one of the derelict buildings. Charlie and the squad watched in surprise, a little taken aback by their unexpected emergence. There couldn’t have been more than half a dozen of them down there – mostly women, but with one man and a small child in tow. Their clothes were in tatters and their faces dirty with black. They headed straight for the apple cart and began crawling around the floor, filling their faces with the rotting fruits. Even from this distance, it was obvious how hungry they were.

But just then one of the Manipulated Men reappeared, marching round from behind a large building. The group of scavengers instantaneously froze, looking at the thing with fearful eyes as it towered over them. For a brief moment it did nothing, but then it raised its fist, and revealed a wealth of those same syringes filled with that same blue liquid. The women raised their hands in surrender, instructing the child to do the same, whilst the man did little more than cower behind them all, shielding himself with their bodies. But the Manipulated Man showed no sign of remorse or even thought as it fired a single syringe into each and every one of the scavengers. A syringe straight in their chests put the women and child down without difficulty. The man tried to run, but his effort was futile, and within moments a final syringe landed in the square of his back and put him down. All were dead, motionless on the floor. The Manipulated Man turned 180 degrees on the spot and began its march once again, leaving the village for good this time. Charlie followed its path through binoculars, watching it stride off into the snowy terrain, leaving in its wake great massive footprints, until finally it disappeared over a hill and was gone.

The Captain swiftly turned his attention back to the village and watched in even more surprise as this time a profusion of people begin to fill the village. Out of every house, every doorway, every hiding place one could imagine, people emerged in bunches. A few men were scattered here and there in the growing crowd that gradually began to fill the village square, but the majority were women and children.

‘Friendly’s?’ asked Billy.

‘Perhaps,’ replied Charlie, scrutinizing the scene very carefully through the binoculars.

‘We’ve gotta get our butts down there before those dead ones come back and start eating the live ones,’ said Yankee, jumping to his feet and swinging his sniper rifle round his back. ‘And some of those little punks have already got their mitts on my apples!’ But Doodle grabbed him by the scruff of his uniform, delaying him just enough to see the look on Charlie’s face. He stopped himself and stood to attention, though there was a swagger about it. ‘Unless you’ve got a problem with that, sir?’ His voice boasted brawn, but hinted at poorly disguised sarcasm.

Charlie took a moment, considering the village and considering his men. After a fair length of time, he made the order:

‘Keep your weapons lowered, but to hand.’

He led the way down the hill, and as they approached the village a small boy, dirty as mud, clocked eyes on them all, immediately pointing in their direction and yelling something in German at the top of his high-pitched voice. The crowd were quick to look, both curious and dubious of the appearance of strangers. The squad slowed their pace, but continued their march.

‘Ladies, trust me on this one. You do not want to go anywhere near those dead bodies,’ said Yankee, who was desperate to break into a sprint and save the day.

But as the squad closed in, they could see the villagers were already taking care of things. Three rather gaunt looking ladies ushered the squad back, and although their language was foreign, their body language was universal – back off. So the squad stopped and watched. A second group took the bodies, awkwardly dragging them across the street and behind a nearby building, followed by a third assembly who were all carrying large sharply pointed sticks. Even from this distance the noise was easy to make out, the squelching sound causing Specks to gag, and leaving very little to the imagination. As the women re-emerged from behind the building, their clothes were splattered in blood, and one walked directly over to the free standing wall and added six new marks with her blood-covered hand.

The squad stood in the centre square, surrounded by onlookers who were now giving them their full attention. Eyes clocked on to Billy and his arm, and swiftly whispers turned into frantic hollers, escalating around the crowd. The squad shifted uncomfortably as the circle became more and more agitated. Charlie took a bold step forward.

‘Who’s in charge here?’ he requested, in his most bellowing of voices.

There was a considerable amount of fuss, mutters and hand gestures were thrown about, until finally the crowd parted and an Old Woman, who was relying heavily on a scruffy and aged walking stick, gradually came forward. She approached them in her own good time, with unwanted assistance from a few of the more fretful women, whom she repeatedly shook off. She began to hobble around the five soldiers, sizing all of them up one by one. She was wrapped up in bundles of torn clothing, her eyes were little more than dark squints, and her face was wrinkled and well-worn. She began muttering things to herself in German, too fast and too quiet for any of them to even take a guess at. She stood in front of Specks and pushed his glasses back up his nose for him. She whacked Billy’s arm with her cane multiple times. She completely bypassed the brothers altogether, though they were sure they heard her mumbling something about ‘bloody Americans,’ under her breath, until finally she stopped in front of Charlie and looked him up and down. She gestured to him to move in closer. He did as instructed.

‘Are you… with him?’ she whispered in a scratchy voice, with a thick German accent.

‘Miss?’ asked Charlie in reply.

‘Don’t you Miss me, soldier,’ she shouted with surprising volume, smacking Charlie with the top of her cane, causing a knee-jerk reaction from both Yankee and Doodle, who instinctively reached for their weapons. Charlie raised his hands and eased the brother’s nervousness. ‘Just answer the question, soldier.’

‘I fight for the British army. My name is Captain…’

‘That is not what I asked you,’ she interrupted him in mid-flow. She tapped Billy’s armoured arm again. ‘This. This contraption. Is it one of his? Is this made by the hands of the devil?’ She moved in close to Billy, studying every line on his face in great detail, even sniffing him – causing him to sniff himself. Quickly she snapped her gaze back to Charlie. ‘Do I have reason to tell my people to fear you? Are you working with the man responsible for this?’ She pointed her cane towards the water tower. ‘And those?’ She pointed in the general direction of the Manipulated Men. ‘Are you in alliance with the long grey man? And answer with truth. For I will see through your lies.’

The tension was thick and the situation unusual. So Charlie was very careful with his next words.

‘Miss,’ he spoke, clearing his throat and standing to his full height. ‘The… long grey man you speak of, is our primary objective. His demise is our goal. We have been on route to apprehend him for longer than I care to remember. I have lost countless men and seen untold insanities on this journey because of him. We will stop at nothing to see his reign end. And that… is the truth.’

The Old Woman looked at them for a long time. Once again she hobbled around, apparently taking into account the facts. She turned her back on the squad for a moment, uttering a few broken sentences here and there in German to her people. As she spoke the squad could see the villager’s eyes widen and their heads shake, as they muttered between themselves. Until at long last the villagers seemed to calm down a little. The Old Woman hobbled back and rested on her cane for a moment, catching her breath and taking her time. Behind her the children of the village had pushed their way through the crowd, and all their curious eyes were staring at Billy’s unusual arm. They moved ever closer still, until they were all hiding just behind the safety of the Old Woman.

‘Go on. Go ahead. It’s safe,’ she whispered to the children.

With grins on their faces they rushed forward. A few grabbed at Yankee and Doodle’s helmets, who were more than happy to let them play with them. A small group had surrounded Specks and were already trying on his glasses and rummaging through his notebook. But the biggest crowd had circled Billy. They were going wild about his arm, tapping on it, lifting it up and down, and much to his noticeable annoyance, even dangling off of it.

‘Forgive them, please. They have gone without toys for a very long time,’ said the Old Woman to Charlie, as they both watched the ordeal. ‘Now, follow me. You’re just in time for dinner.’

CHAPTER FIVE

 

Within an hour or so the darkness of the night had fallen upon the village, and the exhausted squad were now sat around a long wooden table in one of the more sturdy buildings. Snow and damp dominated the interior, due to the roof being half destroyed, but it was warm enough, thanks to a very small log fire burning away in the corner of the room. A tattered old flag with the Star of David highlighted the area, hanging from the back wall.

Yankee and Doodle were gorging on bread and hard boiled eggs, whilst Specks enjoyed some warm soup, the heat from it steaming up his glasses with every spoonful. Billy was eating a whole bushel of apples, snatched from the cart outside, whilst Charlie sipped some tea with the Old Woman, who had not bothered introducing herself properly, nor asking for any of their names. It wasn’t much, but it was still more than the men had seen in months, and they were enjoying it thoroughly. As hungry as they were, Yankee and Doodle were doing their best not to play with their food, and instead had preoccupied themselves with making eyes at a few of the more friendly girls, who were crowding out the room, intrigued by the guests. Meanwhile, the bolder children were still buzzing around Billy, or more specifically his arm, who was shooing them off with great annoyance whilst cramming his mouth with fruit. They were pulling it in every direction, and peering down the seams at Billy’s even more interesting bionic arm, hidden underneath the armour. In a naïve attempt to rid himself of the pests for good, Billy resorted to his only solution, releasing his quick shield, which immediately startled them, making them all jump back a few feet. But this only intrigued them more, leading to ‘Ooo’s’ and ‘Ah’s’ of astonishment, as they tried to push it back inside his armoured sleeve and release it for themselves. Finally he gave in to their endless interest, and slumped in his chair, resting his head in his hands, letting them play all they want.

‘Forgive their silence. Their English is broken at best. They understand few of your words,’ said the Old Woman on behalf of the room.

‘How many of your people are left?’ asked Charlie, watching the proceedings, tentatively.

‘The number changes. People come and go. But those of us that leave never return. As for those of us that stay, the number slowly fades.’ Her voice was filled with sorrow, but delivered with the strength of an ox. ‘Of course, when the war started the majority of the men were taken to the army, whether they wanted to join or not. Others fled to the fields. We are divided, you see,’ she put down her cup of tea and looked at the fire, prodding the logs into place with the bottom of her cane. ‘We rest on the borders of both Germany and Poland. We are all either German, Polish, or both. When the war came… it was troublesome times for all, but it was complicated for us.’ She sipped her tea, wiping the dribble from her chin on her sleeve. ‘As they do, the years passed us by. Soldiers came and went from both sides. But I suppose they saw no great threat from us and left us to our own devices, merely indulging on our resources as quick as they could.’ Yankee and Doodle felt an overwhelming sense of guilt, and immediately slowed their eating, thanking the women hovering around them over and over again for their warm reception. ‘But then the long grey man came, and things changed rapidly. He didn’t even seem to notice us. Literally, like we were nothing more than ants. No, he was so much more interested in what this village has to offer. Or, perhaps more appropriately, what it offered.’

‘And what is that?’ enquired Charlie.

‘Its waters.’ The men looked a little bewildered at the words, Yankee and Doodle looking suspiciously at their filled cups. ‘Surely you must have noticed the flowers growing outside.’

‘Poppies…’ specified Specks.

‘Incapable of growth under normal circumstances, at this time of year. But these aren’t normal circumstances.’ She finished her cup of tea and poured the remaining drops onto her palm, leaning forward and staring deeply at all the men, who gave her their full attention. ‘You see, the water here has very valuable properties. Once upon a time, if you and your men had drunk your share, you would feel revitalised, energised, and at the peak of physical health. Once upon a time the village was covered in a multitude of flowers, trees and fruits, boasting colours you couldn’t even imagine. Once upon a time, this place was a small paradise.’

‘Highly improbable,’ interrupted Specks.

‘Shush. Can’t you see the crazy lady is telling a story?’ snapped Doodle.

‘You said… once?’ pressed Charlie.

‘Indeed. Once. The poppies are the last to remain. Remnants of this village’s gorgeous past. You see… the long grey man found a way to taint its use,’ she continued. ‘Once there was a beautiful well that sat in our village. No one took more than they needed. Everyone respected its purpose. The water was a gift. But when the long grey man discovered its wonders, things changed. And over time he erected that tower outside, drilling a hole deep into the heart of the earth, beyond the depths of the well. There was little we could do. And we thought that was it, we thought he just wanted to source it. But somehow he found a way to abuse its gifts, to corrupt its purity. And then came his mechanical monstrosities.’

‘The Manipulated Men,’ said Charlie.

‘Call them what you will. They are not made by the hands of God.’ The mood went sour, even Yankee and Doodle had stopped eating. ‘Their existence is very simple… and completely unnatural. They return every three days for three days. They feed off the waters beneath, revitalising themselves to dangerous levels. And then they store it in those vessels they have, contaminate it with some unholy poison, and use it against the living.’ She began to wipe her hands clean of the tea. ‘It would seem even the greatest gift of goodness can be used to harvest evil in the wrong hands.’ The squad swallowed the story hard, the atmosphere in the room growing increasingly heavy. ‘In the beginning, when we didn’t know any better, a few of the braver men tried to speak to the machines. But… they died. Only to be reborn as mutations of their former selves. Puppets of evil.’

‘What did you do to them?’ asked Charlie.

‘We disposed of them. As we do any and all that turn.’

‘Pardon me, but why don’t you leave?’ questioned Charlie.

‘Where would we go?’ she asked straight back, forcing a smile on her wrinkled face, looking lovingly at her fellow villagers. ‘We are old and we are young, and so far from anywhere of safety. I have a responsibility to these people, to keep them alive, and to keep them together. No. There is no place for us to go. Besides, as long as we live by our rules, stay alert, hide when they come, we survive.’

‘Ain’t no way to live,’ remarked Yankee.

‘When was the last time you saw Shoe…’ but Charlie stopped himself mid-sentence. ‘When was the last time you saw the long grey man?’

‘Several days ago, now,’ she answered.

‘And which way did he leave?’ His voice sounded eager.

‘Tomorrow, perhaps,’ she brushed him off. ‘For now I am weary, and need to rest. You yourselves must be tired. After you’re done here you should get some sleep. The church is yours to use for the night. We can talk more tomorrow.’

‘But, Miss, if I may. It’s critical that I…’ pushed Charlie, but the Old Woman smacked him on the head once again with her cane, interrupting his flow. He rubbed it, obviously irritated, but ever the gentleman. ‘We thank you for your hospitality, Miss. We really do. But…’

‘It’s no bother. For the next few days at least, you and your men are safe here. And you are more than welcome to stay. Looking at the state of you all, I would suggest it a good idea.’ She struggled to her feet, helped by two of the closer women, who she shooed away as soon as she was up. ‘I’m just glad to get a meal inside you all. Especially the scrawny one with the glasses. Rest up, the lot of you. You’re safe.’

‘Miss. I don’t think you are understanding the gravity of the situation. I really need to get…’

But she raised her hand and silenced the Captain. She turned her head and listened. Old as she was, she heard it first – there was some sort of commotion coming from outside, and it was getting louder. A worried looking girl entered the building, rushing over to the Old Woman and whispering something in her ear.

‘Is there a problem?’ asked Charlie.

‘The dead… again.’ She cleared her throat and stood as upright as she could. ‘It seems we have a small horde approaching the village from the west.’

‘Me and my men will take care of it. It’s the least we can do,’ said Charlie, the words instigating all but Specks to stand to attention, though he was quickly dragged up by Yankee and Doodle, who were more than eager to get shooting again.

‘We are grateful for the offer, soldier, but we have the situation well in hand,’ she replied, hobbling to the doorway and out into the open air.

Charlie and the squad hurriedly followed, ignoring the Old Woman’s casual words and arming themselves. They ran outside just in time to witness it all. As said, a small horde of the dead were pushing their way into the village. By Specks’ count there were eleven of them, and from this distance it was just possible to make out they were all wearing the remnants of the French uniform, though all were covered in blood and guts. The Old Woman gave a nod of approval – and it began. A cluster of the village women were holding improvised torches – a long stick with a flaming piece of rag at the very top, and with it they were enticing the horde towards them. As they did this a second group came up behind the horde. Silent and quick they moved, rushing towards the dead men in pairs. It was simple, rehearsed well, and executed precision-perfect – one tripped an undead soldier to the ground, before immediately holding it down, with a knee on its chest and gripping the thing’s skull. Whilst the other delivered the kill shot – the sharp end of a pointed stick straight through the centre of its head. Charlie and the boys watched the course of action, speechless, awe-struck.

‘I think I’m in love,’ remarked Doodle, gazing at the fearless women.

‘Get in line,’ replied his brother.

Suddenly Charlie had a realisation, and stepped forward, bellowing at the top of his voice:

‘STOP.’ The women stopped immediately and looked at him with confused eyes. ‘I need that one left alive,’ he said, pointing at the very last of the undead, which was currently laying on the floor, reaching up in hunger at its executioner, who was standing over him, ready to make the kill shot. Everyone, including his own men, waited for Charlie to explain himself. ‘I want my Science Officer to examine this man. See if there is anything… see what we can learn from him.’

All eyes fell on the Old Woman for a decision. She hobbled around the suggested study, who was desperately trying to sink its teeth into its captor, before tottering over to Charlie, muttering under her breath. Finally she spoke:

‘Very well. But you are entirely responsible for it. And when you’re done, you will finish its life with dignity. Yes?’ Charlie nodded in reply. ‘You can use the church. That’s the most equipped place in the village. But try not to disturb the injured.’

‘The injured?’ asked Yankee.

 

A few minutes later the squad found themselves in a very strange situation indeed – strange even for them. They were heading towards the church, which stood dark and looming above them. The snow sat on its many rooftops, the moon glinting upon its pallor, creating a slight glow around the edges of the building, and making the state of affairs feel like some kind of twisted Christmas nightmare. Yankee and Doodle were carrying the spared undead man on a stretcher between them, whilst Billy held the thing still as best he could, as it growled, and shrieked, trying to reach out for them all and sink its teeth into their flesh. The Old Woman led them away from the villagers, who had all been very vocal about their disgust of Charlie’s suggestion, and into the church. Immediately they were faced with a curtained-off path, which led them through the building and into a free space at the far side of what was apparently the main hall. They moved awkwardly along the way, thankful to place the stretcher and dead man on a metal framed bed. Charlie was eager to get to work, ignoring the chatter and goings-on that were coming from behind the curtains.

‘Hold it down,’ Charlie ordered to the brothers.

‘And just what do you intend to find out from this little experiment, Cap?’ asked Yankee as he clung on to the thing’s ankles, whilst Doodle drew the short straw and held down its shoulders – infinitely closer to the thing’s bite attempts.

‘Damn. This guy must have fallen off the ugly tree,’ the younger brother struggled to joke, unable to look away from the man’s decaying, nauseating face, as its sunken eyes glared at him. ‘Hit every branch on the way down, stopped at a bar for a bottle of ugly juice, and landed straight into a massive steaming pile of…’

But the Old Woman smacked him over the head with the top of her cane, silencing him before he could finish his tease.

‘There’ll be no blasphemy in this church, young soldier,’ she snapped.

‘Yes, Ma’am,’ he replied, rather sheepishly.

‘Just try not to look at it,’ sniggered Billy.

‘Good idea.’ Doodle turned his gaze from the thing. ‘Yep, try not to look at the dead guy,’ he whispered to himself, ‘the undead guy wriggling between my fingers.’ But all too quickly his eyes flickered back to the thing, unable to help himself. ‘Billy, I’m looking at it again!’

The Old Woman shambled over to a stone bench and sat down, resting wearily on her cane and watching the examination unfold.

‘Specks, I need you to examine this thing.’ Charlie grabbed the small man and placed him directly beside the undead specimen, snatching his notebook from him and putting it in his pocket. ‘Find something. Find anything that might give us a clue as to what that treacherous fiend might be up to next. And where I might be able to find him.’ Charlie’s request seemed confusing, almost desperate.

With great hesitation, Specks began, as Charlie almost bullied him into his work, his watchful eyes burning into the back of the poor fellow’s head, pushing him further than he cared to go. On several occasions Billy and the brothers turned away, as the sheer grossness of the procedure became too much, too rapidly. Sure enough, the small geek was in way over his head, cutting skin and muscle with shaky hands. Incision after incision he looked to his Captain for release from the tragic chores, but it never came. And no matter how deep he went, the undead man continued to growl and groan, its hungry eyes flickering between each potential meal. Specks pressed himself on, handling veins and organs tainted with the same blue liquid whilst muttering things about expiring and regenerating cells, that made no sense to anyone but himself. Until finally, he was so incredibly distraught, so awfully covered in bloods of red and colours of blue that it was all he could do to fight off tears of distress.

‘It would seem… the blue liquid serves two purposes,’ he began, with choked up words, seeing a look of demand on Charlie’s face. Specks held a hand to his mouth, refraining from vomiting over the floor. ‘Firstly, it incapacitates the victim. Based on the state of the specimen’s organs… which have all shut down… it leads the sufferer to almost absolute death.’ The man was a quivering wreck. Billy took his arm and steadied him. ‘But then… just before the body completely shuts down… it reanimates. But the reanimated being is devoid of its original personality, and more importantly, its prior higher functions.’ The men looked at him in puzzlement. ‘Functions that we have spent thousands of years evolving to have. Like compassion and thought. Instead… all that remains is the animalistic human. It is a bag of muscles and bone. A human with two very basic functions. Feed and survive.’

‘Why do they only go down with a shot to the brain?’ asked Charlie.

‘I don’t know, sir.’

Out of the blue Charlie did something no one would have expected. He pulled a small knife from his belt and thrust it into the undead man’s wrist, severing its hand clean from its body. Almost instantaneously it began scurrying around the floor, like a giant spider running on adrenalin. Within a moment it pounced on Specks’ leg, who screamed like a girl, as it climbed its way up the poor geek.

‘Eww. That’s nasty,’ said the brothers in unison.

‘Get it off. Get it off. Get it off,’ cried Specks.

Billy stepped in, grabbing the dead hand just before it got its fingers round Specks’ neck. The hand went rigid, and then shrivelled up, apparently dead.

‘What the hell did you do that for?’ demanded Yankee.

‘The man needed motivation,’ replied Charlie, cold-blooded. ‘Specks. What does that tell you?’

‘Erm… I can only hazard a guess. But…’ He took off his glasses and wiped his eyes. ‘The reanimated body must require only two things. The blue liquid… and connection with a functioning brain,’ his reply was stuttered and exhausted. ‘Hence the hand had momentary lifespan once separate from the body. The blue liquid sustained it temporarily.’

‘I need to know more,’ said Charlie, abruptly.

‘But… Sir, what else do you expect me to find?’

‘You’re my Science Officer. I expect anything I ask for.’

‘Cap, that’s a bit much,’ interrupted Yankee, standing up for the small man, letting go of the dead man’s ankles, forcing Billy to intervene and grab on to the thrashing things. ‘Little Specks is doing his best. And you know what? I totally agree. Don’t know what else you think he can find out from this thing. As much as you want it to be, this ain’t no clue for us to follow!’

‘When I want your opinion I’ll ask for it,’ snapped Charlie, taking a bold step forward.

‘Ain’t that the truth. Only opinion that matters nowadays is yours, Captain.’

‘Remember your place, soldier.’ Charlie’s words were stern and powerful, and his glare was even more so. ‘Specks,’ he bellowed, returning his focus. ‘I don’t care what you need to do. Cut further. Go deeper. I need more information.’

The situation was too much. Charlie and Yankee were glaring at one another, Billy and Doodle were gripping on to the undead man, who was thrashing about more and more, and poor Specks was shaking in his boots as he re-approached the thing. But suddenly the Old Woman stepped in and changed everything. She moved with surprising speed, getting up from her resting place, walking forwards, raising her cane high above her head, and piercing the dead man’s skull, without hesitation, immediately killing it and silencing its moans. Charlie looked at her for an answer.

‘He’d suffered long enough,’ she retorted.

She tapped her cane on the ground three times, and quick as a snap, two nurses emerged from behind the curtains. They hurried over, the Old Woman said something to them in German, and they picked up the stretcher between them, struggling with the thing’s dead weight. Without delay they took the remains of the man through the curtained path and out of the building. The Old Woman turned and faced all the men, obviously disgruntled.

‘Now, you five men will quieten down. And all of you will get some sleep.’ She looked at Specks with pity, who was staring at his bloodied up hands. ‘And you young man, I will see to it you are properly cleaned up.’

The Old Woman shuffled over to the curtains and gradually opened them, revealing to the squad the true purpose of the room. Over time, the church had been turned into a rough and ready hospital, and all around them a select group of the more experienced women of the village, and one or two of the men, dashed around doing their best to look after a large amount of patients who were laying quite helplessly on some metallic crude beds, which were lined up in six rows. But it was the patients that were truly concerning Charlie and the boys. All had injuries that needed tending to. Bloody eye patches, gunshot wounds and even missing limbs were among some of the damage sustained. Nurses tended the grievances, whilst others fed them, and brought water to all. But the problem was the ethnicity of the patient – for each and every one was a Nazi soldier. For a very long time the boys were speechless.

‘This… is your injured?’ asked Charlie.

‘Nazis,’ whispered Billy.

‘I feel so… conflicted,’ remarked Doodle, who, along with his brother was holding his gun a little tighter. Even Billy’s fists were clenched!

‘There are no sides here, merely different uniforms,’ she said, turning to the squad, and resting on her cane. ‘We try to consider people as individuals. And it is in our nature to help those that need it. You are our guests, and are welcome to stay. As are these equally fine people.’ She hobbled over to the Captain and stood next to him, admiring the work of her people. ‘We have no interest in what side you fight for. You are all soldiers. Whatever the reason, you have all committed terrible acts against your fellow man. As long as you don’t bring your war here, we welcome you. Now, do I need to ask you all to leave, or are you going to behave yourselves, and act like civilised adults?’

The men looked between themselves. Quietly, slowly, they nodded.

 

A few hours later the men sat rather uncomfortably in the church. The stone walls were wet and the moonlight was shining through the windows, filling the place with a ghostly light. After Specks had been cleaned up by a few of the nicer women, he was lucky enough to find an old, but working, typewriter, and so he busied himself retyping some of his more damp notes, keeping himself well away from the Captain. Billy was walking amongst the injured Nazis, who were merry enough, and although they looked at him and his arm with great curiosity, they smiled and politely nodded as he passed by, none showing any interest in conflict. The rest of the men had dragged some of the benches together and formed a small area to sleep in, even making a tiny fire in the middle using a bowl, a metal stand and some discarded wood that was dry enough to burn. Yankee and Doodle sat with Charlie who was extremely quiet, and not contributing to the conversation.

‘This sure feels weird,’ said Yankee. ‘Getting shut-eye under the same roof as the Goddamned enemy. Don’t sit right with me. No, sir.’

‘It’s pretty do-wacky, if you ask me,’ contributed Doodle, who was resting his shotgun on his knee and eyeing up the room. ‘Doubt I’ll be getting much sleepy time tonight. What do you say, Captain?’

But Charlie said nothing, instead staring deeply into the fire. Yankee and Doodle looked between themselves, finding their Captain’s behaviour more and more intolerable.

‘Looks like this place got hit pretty bad. Was thinking I could fix up that wagon out there. Maybe repair a few of the rooftops,’ suggested Yankee. He nudged his brother to contribute.

‘Yeah. Good idea. I could fix the doors. Board up the windows. Stop the Goddamned cold freezing up the little kiddies,’ he added.

‘What do you think, Captain? Like the old lady said, we’ve got a few days before the Maniac Men…’

‘Manipulated Men,’ interrupted Specks.

‘Right, till the Mystery Men come back. We could get some rest. Eat some food, drink some water, make some friends, present company not included,’ he whispered, glancing at the Nazi patients, ‘and help these people. You heard them. They ain’t going nowhere anytime soon. Maybe we could make things a little more comfortable for them. It don’t seem right, good people suffering like this. What do you say?’

Charlie thought for a while, but didn’t look at the brothers. He watched Billy walking amongst the enemy, he watched Specks occupying himself on the typewriter, rewriting misadventures and decisions he didn’t care to remember. Until at long last he answered:

‘I think we should all get some sleep. Billy, it’s time to turn in,’ he waved the young man back over. ‘Specks, enough typing for the night. Get yourself some kip.’ Charlie saw Yankee glowering at him for an answer. ‘And that is an order,’ the Captain emphasised.

As instructed the squad got themselves as comfortable as possible. Billy was quick to sleep, though his typical nightmares were already waiting for him as he drifted into his restless slumber. Specks fell asleep with his head in his books and his glasses on the end of his nose. Whereas Yankee and Doodle took a good long while to drift off, with one eye on the Nazi patients, and one hand grasping their weapons, fighting off their indefatigable fatigue. Until finally, all that remained was Charlie, awake, deep in thought, staring at the fire, and trying to remember who he really was.

CHAPTER SIX

 

By the time Billy and his comrades had woken up, Charlie was already outside. Slowly, they yawned themselves awake, stretching out their aches and pains from the harshness of the stone church floor. The Nazi patients they had bunked with were doing much the same, though they had the luxury of the village’s makeshift nurses caring for their needs. And although the four men felt an automatic resentment towards them all, they couldn’t help but notice just how non-threatening the opposition were being towards them.

Grabbing their things they made their way outside, in search of their Captain. The day was beautiful – dazzling light hit them, a glorious blue sky, a fresh layer of snow on the ground, and a stunning sun looking down on them. The magnificent red of the poppies broke through the white snow, and coupled with the lapping sound of the nearby waters, the men couldn’t help but feel slightly relaxed.

The villagers were going about their day, as was apparently typical for them. People were working hard. Men were picking the closest trees clean of the few fruits they had left to offer. Women were chasing and ensnaring field mice, rabbits and even foxes, whilst all the children were kept busy, scraping up snow into buckets, in turn pouring it into large cauldrons, perched above small fires, being boiled for drinking water. There were even several chickens fenced off in a small area, and a single goat tied to a post.

Charlie was talking to the Old Woman beneath the water tower, and they appeared to be in deep conversation. So, led by Yankee, the squad marched over, politely nodding to the villagers they passed.

‘What’s the happening, Cap’n?’ asked Yankee, who was sounding rather cheerful.

Charlie and the Old Woman immediately ceased their conversation. She gave them all a well-wrinkled smile, before hobbling off towards some of her fellow villagers. She tapped a rather skinny woman, dressed in little more than rags, with no shoes on her feet, on the shoulder, ordering her towards the men. As instructed the woman came over, holding up grotesque looking cooked rats on sticks – breakfast offerings, it would seem. The men quickly declined. They wished it was because they were being gentlemanly, sparing the food for the other villagers, or better yet because they were already full. But it was purely because of just how disgusting they thought it was. Shamed, they all said no.

‘No, thanks,’ said Doodle. ‘I already had rat for dinner.’

‘Trying to… watch my figure,’ replied Billy, awkwardly.

‘Bleuh…’ retched Specks, who still had a somewhat weak stomach from last night’s episode.

‘She’s given us a point in the right direction,’ said Charlie, finally answering Yankee’s question, but getting straight to the point. ‘The facts are solid enough, and it’s our best lead. She has informed me that every time the long grey man, Shoebox to you and I, arrives, he comes from south by south west. To which he always leaves.’

‘What? That’s it? Whole Goddamned world is to our south by south west, Captain. Besides, I thought we were gonna clamp down here for a few days. Get some chow and help out these good folk,’ said Yankee, who’s mood was swiftly changing.

‘I said no such thing,’ responded Charlie, checking his pistol and placing it firmly in its holster. ‘The Old Woman has offered us limited food supplies for our journey. But it helps our cause. Chances are, if we keep tight to the directions, and luck is on our side, us and Shoebox will simply cross paths. So get your gear. And let’s get moving. I want to be on route within the hour.’

‘You can’t be serious, Cap,’ remarked Yankee, following Charlie as he marched off to prepare supplies. ‘We only just got here, and now you want us heading off into the Goddamned oblivion because of some vague chance.’

‘Get your things, Yankee. That’s an order.’ Yankee stopped dead in his tracks, and dropped every single one of his weapons to the ground. Charlie turned, looking at the action with great curiosity. ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘I can’t speak for these fine guys, but I’m done. I ain’t going nowhere,’ exclaimed Yankee.

Charlie took a moment, looking off at the horizon they’d be heading off into within the hour. He glanced at Billy and his other men, who were standing behind Yankee, all of whom had their heads lowered, desperately avoiding eye contact. And then he looked at Yankee, who was staring right back at him, waiting.

‘You ain’t going nowhere?’ repeated Charlie, very slowly, emphasising every syllable.

‘Permission to speak freely, sir,’ requested Yankee.

‘Granted.’

‘Sir, I’m tired of following your crazy orders. Captain, I would willingly follow you to the ends of the earth, and I would gladly lay down my life for you, as long as there was good reason for it, as long as your orders made sense. But there ain’t no good reason for this. And your orders haven’t made sense for a long time.’

Charlie processed the information quickly and without empathy:

‘Fine. You are no longer required. I relieve you of duty. Doodle, I’ll assume you’re with your brother. So, that leaves Billy and Specks. And that’s all I need. Now, let’s go.’

But before Billy or Specks could speak or even move, Yankee spoke out again:

‘If you think I’m letting you march my friends off on another one of your suicidal missions, without me to look out for them, then you’re even more crazy than I thought. You’ll end up getting them killed. Or worse yet, dead!’

‘You don’t have jurisdiction over these men. They are mine to command,’ whispered Charlie, stepping forward so he was face to face with Yankee.

‘You’ve lost it, old man. You lost it months ago, ever since the spook house,’ replied Yankee, his speech slowly spiralling into an uncontrolled rant. ‘You’ve become obsessed with your Alpha-Omega mission. And you’re completely mad with finding Shoebox. So much so that you’ve forgotten why we’re really here. We’re still soldiers, Goddamnit. I’m here to serve a purpose. It’s like you’re on some kind of personal vende… ven… ve…’

‘Vendetta,’ helped Specks.

‘Right. Vendetta.’

‘Maybe you should take it easy, Bro,’ suggested Doodle, walking forward and resting a hand on Yankee’s shoulder, who instantly pulled away. ‘Or not.’

‘I think it best you remember your place, soldier,’ said Charlie, slightly raising his voice and getting the attention of the villagers.

‘Charlie. I don’t know, maybe if we…’ began Billy, but Charlie raised his hand, silencing the young man.

‘I am still a soldier,’ continued Yankee. ‘I am meant to be ridding the world of evil. Not ignoring it. Can’t even remember the last time I actually felt like I was aiding the war, or any other human being for that matter. I’m just busy helping you with your stupid personal vendetta. Ignoring the calls for help from others, whilst we chase down some mysterious madman, that half the planet don’t even know exists.’

‘That’s enough out of you, soldier.’

‘You used to be a hero, man. I used to look up to you. But not anymore. No way. Not anymore.’ Yankee looked around the village, admiring all the people working in harmony about him. ‘I’m done. I quit your stupid Alpha-Omega missions. We’re through. You go off on your fairy tale adventures. I’m gonna do something far more worthwhile with my time, however long that may be. I’m gonna stay. And I’m gonna help these people.’

‘You’re a deserter, and a coward,’ roared Charlie.

‘And you’re a selfish bastard, whose family would be ashamed of.’

Charlie punched Yankee. THWACK. There was no warning. There was no chance to move. Within a blink of an eye, the Captain had balled up his fist, drawn back his arm and walloped Yankee round the side of his face, instantly flooring the man. He hit the ground hard and everyone gasped in shock. All eyes were now completely devoted to the two soldiers. Gradually, Yankee picked himself up, wiping the blood from his lip with the back of his hand.

‘I’m gonna give you that one for free,’ he said, struggling to remain calm. But Charlie punched him again. Another swift balled up fist straight across his face, taking the man off guard. Yankee took it well, staying on his feet this time, pacing backwards from the power of the blow. He looked back at his brother and fellow soldiers, all of whom were slowly shaking their heads as if to deter him from succumbing to his own temptations. He turned back to Charlie, grinning. ‘Now that one is gonna cost ya.’

Yankee went for a wild strike, but Charlie saw it coming, blocking the force of the blow with his forearm, before quickly pushing the American backwards, buying himself a little bit of breathing space. Doodle and Billy moved to break up the fight, but the Old Woman appeared, holding out her cane and stopping them. They both looked at her, perplexed by her intervention.

‘Let them fight,’ she said. ‘It is something they need to do.’

And so they did, allowing a strange set of affairs to play out in front of an ever-growing crowd, who had all but stopped in their daily chores, astounded by the brawl. Even a few of the Nazi patients had limped their way out of the church to see what all the commotion was about.

‘Let’s settle this like men,’ said Charlie, pulling his belt off, and dropping his holstered gun to the ground.

‘I intend to.’

‘Well obviously you aren’t going to shoot each other,’ commented Billy and Doodle in unison, both utterly annoyed at their actions, undecided in who was being the more stupid of the two.

Charlie and Yankee slowly paced the arena that had formed, both sizing the other one up. They’d worked together for years. They’d saved each other’s lives countless times. But none of that mattered right now. All there was, was anger. The pair charged, and collided. The fight was on.

But from a great distance away, someone else was watching the fight unfold. Upon a high hill, laying low on the snowy ground, camouflaged in a white and grey uniform, was the One Eyed Man. In silence he watched, enjoying the clash through a sniper scope, grinning to himself broadly. He pulled a portable handheld transceiver from his backpack and turned it on. Static crackled from the speaker. With a bit of fine tuning he cleared it up and spoke:

‘Master. I have news. The Alpha-Omega squad survived the hangar attack.’

Somewhere, far away, in an unknown location, waiting in a dark ghostly room, sat a red leather chair, in the red light of a tall stained glass window. The occupant lingered in the shadows, hidden in the darkness – it was Shoebox Stone. His bony hand, resting calmly upon the armrest, drummed repeatedly. On a table next to him, sat a large transistor radio, the recipient of the call.

‘Their current whereabouts?’ came the composed, collected voice.

‘Master, they’ve stumbled upon Project Elixir. But the Captain appears to be losing control of his men,’ said the voice through heavy static. ‘Your orders, Master?’

The hand stopped drumming on the arm of the chair, as the evil mind mulled over. All that could be heard in the large empty room was a quiet, shallow breathing.

‘Have units one, two and three return to the village, post haste,’ he answered, dispassionately.

‘Yes, Master. Given their current locations, they should by upon the village in approximately thirty-six hours.’

‘As for unit four, I have a job for it to do. Have it round up a horde. It doesn’t matter who they are. Whomever is closest. I want it to lead a bread-crumb trail straight back to Charlie and the others. Their persistence in surviving is starting to become… irritating.’

‘Yes, Master. Very good.’

The transistor radio ceased, and the room fell back into silence. Shoebox stood up from his chair, his long, slender frame stretching high, and gazed out at the fragmented landscape through the red tinted glass of the stained glazed windows. His cruel eyes pierced through the shadows, and very slowly, he began to laugh a long and sinister chuckle, allowing himself a moment’s enjoyment, as he considered the ruthless death sentence he had ordered.

Back on his vantage point above the village, the One Eyed Man stood up, picking up his sniper and swinging it round his back. With one last grin at the brawl playing out below him, he turned and walked off, keen to fulfil his Master’s orders.

Meanwhile, down in the heart of the village, Charlie and Yankee were going at it as best as they individually could, whilst the crowd surrounding them watched in silence. It was difficult to tell who was winning, as blow for blow they were matching each other. Yankee was moving faster, hitting harder, but Charlie was being smarter, biding his time, dodging stray punches and landing a few himself where he could. Boxing turned to wrestling turned to martial arts turned to straight up dirty fighting. The Captain landed three punches into Yankee’s gut, almost lifting him from his feet. He grabbed the man, holding his body with all the strength he had and threw him across the area. Yankee went down, rolling through the snow. Fuelled with anger and embarrassment, Yankee got back to his feet and charged. But Charlie was swift, kicking him backwards, instantly winding him.

‘Come on, old man,’ coughed Yankee, catching his breath. ‘Gimme everything you’ve got.’

‘Oh, I intend to, you American buffoon. We English are always happy to oblige.’

Once again they slogged it out, so much so that the crowd began to become disturbed. Children pushed their way to the front to get a better view, but Billy and Doodle covered their eyes, sparring the young ones the worst of the violence. Suddenly the fight changed, as Charlie got lucky – a collide with Yankee ripped the American’s uniform open, his buttons scattering everywhere. Charlie was quick to think, grabbing the opened jacket, pulling it over Yankee’s head, covering his eyes and locking up his arms. The man was momentarily helpless, stuck, and Charlie was in no mood for sympathy. He stepped forward, and wasted no time punching the hell out of his opponent. Blow after blow came without stop, to the ribs, the stomach, the face, anywhere he could land a strike. Until finally Yankee dropped to his knees. Charlie took a moment, composing himself and regaining his energy. He pulled off Yankee’s jacket, ready to deliver the final blow, to finish the fight once and for all. But he froze. His balled-up fist was tight. His arm was raised. But he daren’t move. All he could do was look at Yankee’s bloodied, beat-up face looking straight back at him. His own man, beaten by his own hand, on his knees, by his doing.

‘Go on,’ retorted Yankee, spitting blood from his swollen mouth, looking up at his Captain with a bruised eye. ‘Finish it. You win.’

But Charlie released his fist. He dropped his arm. He stepped back. He pulled his stare from Yankee and looked around at the crowd of people. The men, the women, the children, the Nazi patients were silent, watching in shock and horror. He looked to his men for comfort, but there was none. Specks’ head was low, hiding himself from the atrocities. Doodle was staring at his brother, grieving, desperate to aid him. Whilst Billy was looking right back at him, slowly shaking his head in disbelief.

Charlie took a few shaky steps backwards, feeling his head swim, his mind race. He didn’t know what else to do, so he turned and fled, dashing down the street and out of sight.

CHAPTER SEVEN

 

Charlie couldn’t think straight. Blinded by overwhelming emotion and anger he stumbled his way through the town, and into one of many abandoned buildings. As expected, the place was wrecked, but he didn’t notice a single detail. Instead he fumbled his way across the room and sat down on a large pile of debris, that was once an inside wall. He rested up against a window, enjoying the cool glass against his bruised and sore skin. His mind was racing with rage and confusion and shame and endless thoughts. He scratched his scalp hard, before intently studying his bloody hand. What had he just done? Finally he closed his eyes. Time passed.

A quiet tapping sounded, raising Charlie from his short-lived forced slumber, and drawing his attention. He looked up through the dirty glass of the window, and saw a boy standing on the other side. He was very small, very skinny, and looked very cold, wearing little more than rags for clothes. But nonetheless he was still smiling broadly at the Captain. The boy moved forward, closer to the window and pressed the palm of his tiny hand against the glass. He waited, staring up at Charlie, who did nothing but watch. The boy muttered something in German, or Polish, or perhaps a mixture of both – Charlie couldn’t be quite sure. But whatever the language, the tone was evident – he was asking him for something. Unsure and hesitant, Charlie pressed his own hand against the glass, meeting the boy’s spread palm. No sooner had he done so, the little boy giggled a high-pitched reply and dashed off.

Charlie looked out the window and down the street, but the small boy was already out of sight. Just then a voice in the room called to him, causing the Captain to jump – the boy had returned, standing in the doorway, spouting excited sentences that he still couldn’t understand. But again, being a father himself, he could sense the tone – playtime. The boy burst into the room, running around, doing a brilliant impression of an aeroplane. If Charlie had been in a slightly better mood he would have smiled, or even laughed. The boy circled around, making engine noises. He turned and began heading towards Charlie, shooting at him with his make-believe weapons. Charlie did nothing to respond. So the small boy tried once more, again circling round and firing upon the man. This time Charlie returned fire, though rather unenthusiastically. The boy took the shots well, staging a dramatic death, falling to the floor in a fit of explosions, letting out a final tragic cry.

Charlie had already had enough, putting his head in his hands, frantically trying to clear his mind, but the boy wanted his undivided attention. He got up, dashed over to the debris, and began clambering over Charlie, as if he was a great big tree. Charlie allowed him the recreation, ignoring him as best he could. The boy began to play with his shoelaces, flick his jacket buttons, root through his pockets, until by chance he stumbled across something very precious indeed. It was Charlie’s photo of himself and his family. At long last, the Captain turned and paid proper attention, allowing the boy to look at it. He grinned, pointing at Charlie in the photo, then pointing to him in person. He then pointed to Caleb, Charlie’s son, before pointing at himself. Charlie shook his head – no. The boy looked around the room, wondering where the character in the photograph was. He looked up at Charlie with big hopeful eyes, but the Captain shook his head again.

‘He’s not here,’ spoke Charlie, in barely a whisper.

Another voice called out. The child’s father stood in the doorway, looking at the odd pair. Immediately the boy jumped up from Charlie’s lap and dashed over to him. Yet before he could get there he skidded to a halt, turned on the spot and returned to Charlie, gently passing his photo back to him. Again he muttered something in German or Polish, that Charlie couldn’t understand, before boasting a massive smile at him. Charlie nodded a thank you at him, slipping the picture back inside his jacket pocket. But then something unexpected happened. Without warning, the small boy hugged him. It was simple and innocent and real. He wrapped his small arms around his broad neck, and held on tight. Charlie couldn’t help himself, and embraced the hug with gratitude, like he was hugging his own son back home in England – it was exactly what the tortured man needed. He stood up and carried the boy to his waiting father, carefully passing him over. The child’s mother appeared next to them, kissing the child on the top of the head and stroking his hair. The boy made a finger pistol and took one last shot at Charlie, who played along, grasping at his chest and making the appropriate noises as the make-believe bullet hit. The boy giggled, nuzzling his head into the nook of his father’s neck and closing his eyes. The father smiled politely at Charlie, before putting a loving arm around his wife’s shoulders and leaving.

And so the Captain stood alone, watching quietly as the family slowly walked up the street, the boy waving at him with a big smile on his face. Charlie couldn’t quite grasp how something so beautiful, so simple could survive in such a place. And suddenly, all he could think about was his own distant family, and just how much he missed them.

Meanwhile, over the other side of the village, things were loud with activity. Yankee was sitting on the stone steps of the church with the rest of the squad, whilst three of the more willing women cleaned up his bloody face as best they could.

‘You sure got your ass handed to you,’ remarked Doodle, who was sitting immediately next to his brother. ‘Glad I didn’t think to put any money down. Would have lost my last few bucks,’ he added, offering him a little sarcastic support.

‘Goddamned man just got lucky, is all. Bring on round two I say. I won’t go so easy on the old fool next time. I’ll show him just who the boss is,’ Yankee replied, jerking his face away from the nuisance of the fluttering women.

‘I’m afraid the figures aren’t quite in your favour,’ began Specks. ‘Calculating the history of Charlie’s individual accomplishments, measured against your own… Multiplied with his attention to detail, and not forgetting your haphazardness…’ But he stopped just in the nick of time, seeing all the men staring gob-smacked at him, and realising his mistake.

‘Specks. Finish that sentence, and I swear to God, next time we run into trouble I’ll be using you as a human shield,’ snapped Yankee, flapping the women away in annoyance. ‘Ladies, as pretty as you are, as good your intentions, and as much as I’d like to take you all out for fine dining and dancing, right now you’re just pissing me off. Kindly leave me be.’ Muttering irritated remarks between themselves, the three ladies tottered off, leaving the men to their own devices. ‘Just wait till I get my hands on that man again!’

‘Looks like you won’t be waiting long,’ spoke Billy, who was pointing down the street at something.

Lo and behold, much to their surprise, Charlie was walking their way, and heading straight for them. He wasn’t marching like the soldier they had come to know. Instead it was far more hesitant, and so far he wasn’t looking in their direction.

‘Son of a…’ exclaimed Yankee, throwing his bloodied-up rag from his nose to the floor, and standing up. All the men joined his action.

‘Just take it easy, Yankee,’ suggested Billy, delicately.

‘I’ll take it easy. Easy like a fox!’

‘That makes no sense,’ replied Billy, Doodle and Specks in unison.

Charlie stopped a few feet in front of them all, and waited. The situation was tense.

‘May I…’ He cleared his throat. ’May I address you all?’ he asked.

‘You got some Goddamned cheek coming back here,’ erupted Yankee, stepping forward and standing tall. ‘I ought to knock you right on your ass, old man.’

‘I think what Yankee really means is… Yes,’ said Billy, making a desperate effort to relieve the situation. ‘We’d love to hear what you have to say.’

‘Fine. Make it quick,’ barked Yankee. ‘I got places to be.’

‘I’m sorry,’ stated Charlie. It was short, straight to the point, and not what the men had expected. He took a moment, resting his hands on his hips, and taking a deep breath before speaking openly. ‘I didn’t want to go to war. And I’d hazard a guess that none of you truly did either. It wasn’t a choice we were given. It was a responsibility thrust upon us. A responsibility that no man should ever have to bear. The burden is too much for any person, any nation to take. It is nothing more than a hideous disregard for the treasure that is life. Life that we take so easily from another man, yet forget to be grateful for our own on a daily basis.’ Charlie strolled from left to right, his hands behind his back. ‘Yankee, everything you said about me was true. I lost sight of what was important. What was right. Somewhere along route, I lost my way, and I’m sorry.’ He took another long breath, clearly struggling with the circumstances. ‘I’m not fit to be your Captain anymore. And I haven’t been for a very long time. I don’t deserve it. Heck, truth be told, you’ve all outgrown me. Now I can see things clearly, it is I that needs you, and far more than any of you have ever needed me. So, I step down, and I hope, no, I pray that you will all forgive me and accept me as your fellow soldier.’

The group said nothing, speechless at their Captain’s sincere words, who was exposing himself like never before. He approached Billy and smiled affectionately at him, reaching around the young man’s neck and pulling out his dog tags.

‘Billy Random,’ he read aloud. ‘I wonder if perhaps that’s an abbreviation for William. That’s a good strong name. Either way, you’re the boy who came from nowhere. I know you struggle with your memories, and you even fear that you might be one of Shoebox’s projects. God knows I thought the same when I first met you. But… not knowing who you are, or where you came from, or why you’re so different from everybody else, I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels for you. But trust me, I know good and I know evil. And you are good, through and through. I know we haven’t given your origins the attention they deserve. But we will. I promise you that. Billy, you are a phenomenal fighter, greater than any I have ever come across. Your powers never cease to amaze me. And the mysterious knowledge and skill you have for mechanics and other such things is unyielding. You, my boy, are an incredible enigma. But you’re an even better friend to me. And that is the simple truth of who you really are.’

The pair smiled at one another, but said nothing more. So Charlie left Billy and moved towards Specks, standing in front of him, shamed.

‘Arthur. For last night’s unforgivable torture I needlessly put you through, I apologise, sincerely. I cannot make it up to you. And for the years of loyalty, smart ideas, and sheer brilliance you have given me, I thank you from the bottom of my heart.’

Specks didn’t reply. He didn’t know what so say to such a thing, instead opting to take off his glasses and clean them. Charlie took a side step to Doodle, whose friendly face eased his pain.

‘Steve. Sometimes I haven’t given you the credit you are due. You are a skilled soldier, with an amazing American talent to lighten any situation, no matter how grim. And I know you’ve always had my back. I’m certain there are a fair few bullets that would have found their way into my skull, had it not been for you. Simply put, I couldn’t be without you.’

Doodle smiled, but it quickly cracked, causing him to look away, wiping something from the corner of his eye, trying to be a man about things. So, finally, Charlie walked over to Yankee. The two men met each other’s eyes straight on.

‘Scott,’ Charlie looked at the bruises and cuts he’d inflicted, wincing at the sight of them. ‘For everything I have done to you, I plead your forgiveness. But in truth, I don’t deserve it, and I certainly don’t expect it. But nevertheless, thank you for helping get all of us through this mess. Thank you for fighting alongside me every damned day of this God-awful war. And thank you for questioning my actions, my orders, and myself. You, sir, deserve nothing but my absolute respect. And I am forever in your debt.’

Charlie took a few steps back and looked at them all, looking like he could break down in tears at any moment.

‘The Alpha-Omega squad stands before me. And I am humbled by it. You are all without a doubt, the bravest, craziest, most brilliant soldiers I have ever been fortunate enough to fight alongside. I am proud of every last one of you. And I consider you all my brothers.’

A moment passed. The men said nothing. Silent looks were exchanged. Until at long last, Yankee took a bold step forward.

‘Takes a brave man to get into a fight with me,’ he said. ‘But takes an even braver man to admit when he is wrong… and face up to it like that.’ Slowly but surely he began to chuckle, quickly turning into outright laughter, causing the other men to do just the same.

‘Who’s up for a group hug?’ suggested Doodle, enthusiastically.

Every single one of them, apparently! They embraced for a long time, forgiving each other of their sins. Apologies quickly turned into gratitude, and before long jokes were being exchanged and hands were being shaken. All was forgiven.

‘So, what do you wanna do now, Captain?’ asked Yankee, wiping the tears of laughter from his face.

‘None of that, anymore, Scott. We’re equals. As we always have been. You just call me Charlie from now on, please.’

‘Okay, Charlie. What’s the plan?’

‘More group hugs?’ suggested Doodle, once again.

‘What was it you boys were talking about last night?’ asked Charlie.

‘Helping these people,’ replied Specks.

‘Right. Helping these people.’ Charlie looked around the town, watching the locals rushing around, desperate for survival in the cold bitter winds of the winter. ‘These fine people have made the very best of a very bad situation. They haven’t asked for our help, but undoubtedly they deserve it.’ Charlie’s eyes fell upon the three abandoned trucks sitting in the village square, then over to the tail-end of the sunken boat. ‘Scott, Steve, Arthur, your idea sounds like a great idea to me. But if I may… I think we can help them out a little more than just a few fixed doors and windows.’

‘Yeah? What have you got in mind?’ enquired Billy, who was looking a little excluded.

Charlie looked at the squad, smiling gleefully. He whistled, and moments later the same small playful boy appeared carrying with him a football, and running with excited strides towards them all. ‘I have a few ideas. But first things first. If you all concur, I think there’s just about enough time for one last game!’

 

It was a strange sight to behold. Any onlooker would have had to look again just to check they weren’t hallucinating. Yet somehow, the event was a beautiful mess of delight. Within an hour of apologising to his men, Charlie and the boys had rounded everyone up, literally everyone, and dragged them out into the cold light of day. Men, women, children, from the incredibly old, right down to the youngest and smallest, even the Nazi patients had been pulled from the confines of the church and into the square. The English, the Americans, the Germans, the Polish, and everything in between were out, and thanks to the enthusiasm of Charlie and his friends, all were increasingly more excited and ready to enjoy themselves.

And so a messy, but thoroughly enjoyable game of football played out. Everyone had a turn on the pitch. Guns were put down, replaced instead with hand shakes, pats on the back and rounds of applause. Those not able to play were helped, carried around on backs or pushed on chairs, causing eruptions of laughter, as goal after goal was scored on both sides, though no one was keeping count. Those not playing forged a supportive crowd, smiling, joking and hurling friendly abuse in all directions.

Of course, Specks, being the most revised on rules and regulations, refereed the games, endlessly blowing his whistle and reciting the set of laws, word perfect over and over again. He paid special attention to Yankee and Doodle, who kept picking up the ball and charging, reverting to American football tactics at any given opportunity. Charlie, as expected, got stuck in, playing alongside the Nazis in unity, as if he were playing a Sunday afternoon game in his own home town. All the while Billy was in goal, struggling with an abundance of children dangling from his arm as he moved from side to side. Every so often he’d manage to shake them off, just in time to release his quick shield and defend the shots with ease.

As the sun began to set, food was cooked, and water was handed round, with refreshing drops of fruit squeezed into them. The simple game gradually turned into a party, a gesture of friendship and equality between the variety of guests. Laughter filled the air and dancing filled the streets, as the more elderly people took turns hammering on an old blue piano, with the more tuneful of women forming a small group and singing their hearts out. Occasionally Yankee and Doodle would join in, but their out-of-time, out-of-tune vocals were quickly silenced by Charlie and Billy, who took it upon themselves to muffle their dulcet additions and drag them away, only all to later return with scruffy bouquets of poppies, offering their apologies and adoration.

Before long the sun set and the day was done. Slowly but surely, one and all went to their respective beds with food in their bellies and joy in their heart. The day had been fun, and full of life, and re-energising. But their energy was greatly needed, for tomorrow there was work to be done.

CHAPTER EIGHT

 

After the festivities had subsided, the five men found themselves fair shelter and built a small fire to huddle around. Now the fun had come to an end, all consideration turned to their rather bleak situation, and together, as equals, they discussed tomorrow’s options. Charlie had fallen quiet, enjoying the respite of leadership, allowing the men to discuss the plan he’d suggested to them. It was their willingness to help the innocent that had spurred his mind to come up with such a feat, so he had decided to make it their decision as well.

‘Are we sure about this?’ asked Billy, from across the fire, his concern obvious on his face lit up in an amber glow.

‘The calculations add up,’ replied Specks. ‘The plan has the potential… and the capacity to work.’

‘I don’t know about you guys, but I like it,’ grinned Doodle, who was munching on the last of some burnt meat delight.

‘And what do you think, Scott?’ asked Charlie, looking to Yankee, who looked atypically pensive.

‘Well Charlie, let me just get this whole shindig straight in my mind before I commit. I just wanna run through it one last time, just so I’m absolutely clear on all the different… stuff.’ Charlie sipped warm water from a tin cup he had kept hanging just above the fire, and listened to his comrade regale the proposal. ‘We’re gonna drag the boat or ship or whatever you call it, up from the seabed. Pray to God it’s salvageable. We fix her up, good as new… or useable at least. We then strip two of the engines from the trucks, and attach them to the back of the boat. We siphon off as much petrol as we can and fill the boat’s tanks with it. Meanwhile we get these kind folk to store as much food and provisions on board to last for a good few days’ journey. Then we get everyone onboard, and head for merry old England. Oh, I almost forgot… before we go, we’re gonna blow the water tower to pieces, removing the Masked Men’s…’

‘Manipulated Men,’ corrected Specks.

‘Right, the Music Men’s chances to recharge. Thwarting one last time one of Shoebox’s little projects. Is that everything?’

‘That’s about the size of it,’ answered Charlie after a moment’s reflection. ‘It’ll be a dangerous journey. The risks are high. Extremely. It’s likely to be a series of adventures on its own. If… sorry, when we get back to England, any Nazis that have decided to come with us will be immediately taken as prisoners of war. And we will likely be court-martialled as deserters, and imprisoned ourselves.’

‘But these nice folk will be safe, right?’ asked Yankee.

Charlie nodded yes. The men went quiet, all contemplating the incredible tasks that awaited them, should they decide to go ahead with the plan. Doodle went to say something countless times, but kept losing his thread. Specks was thinking fast, jotting down calculation after calculation in his notepad, whilst Billy stared deeply into the fire.

‘I don’t know, Charlie. Sounds like you need an A-team or something to pull off a scheme so huge,’ said Yankee, but slowly, a long wide smile was spreading across his face. The decision was already made. ‘Hell, sounds like fun to me. I’m in. Small price to pay to see these good people in the safe and civilised circumstances they deserve. We can be all-out heroes again. This will make my mumma proud of me!’

‘I’m sure she already is. Of both of you. I know I am,’ said Charlie, resting a hand on Yankee’s shoulder, and smiling at them both. He glanced over at Billy, seeing a troubled look on the boy’s face. ‘What’s wrong, Billy?’

‘It’s just… all I know is this country. All I know is this war. I don’t… I can’t… I’m worried that…’ But the words wouldn’t come to the young man. ‘Oh, just tell me to shut up, already. I’m getting on my own nerves! Is England nice?’

‘Billy, it’s the best.’ Charlie’s answer was short, but he truly meant it. ‘Boys, in the morning we have a great deal to accomplish. More than we have ever done before. We’re not running from a pack of werewolves. Burning down a haunted house. Or beating the living daylights out of Robo-men. This isn’t about destruction. This is about being more than that. This is about coming together, and rising to the occasion. And that’s a far harder task. But I know together we can do it. Rest up and sleep well. For tomorrow we cease to be soldiers of war. Tomorrow we become soldiers of peace.’

For a short while they laughed and joked, listening to one another, as they regaled stories and yarns. Until one by one they lay down, their chat became mumbles, their mumbles became snores, and all of them drifted into a well-deserved sleep.

 

In the morning, Yankee and the rest of the men nominated Charlie with the task of addressing the town with their proposal. Their argument was sound, pointing out that even though he wasn’t their Captain anymore he was still by far the best motivational speaker, and their best chance at convincing these people they could pull their plan off. Charlie approached the Old Woman, who, after last night’s events, was more than happy to lend a listening ear. It was easier than he thought, and with a surprise kiss of approval on his cheek, she gave her permission and showed her gratitude for the offer. Immediately she hollered for the children, instructing them to rally everyone to the square. So with the sun breaking over the horizon, Charlie took his place, standing upon the German Tiger Tank and watching the ever-gathering crowd surround him. Everyone was there, men, women, children, his own squad, and even the Nazi patients from the hospital. Nervous, and with the Old Woman by his side ready to translate his words, Charlie cleared his throat and made his speech.

‘I know we don’t know each other all that well. We have come to you as strangers, and you have welcomed us in with open arms. You take people in from any side,’ Charlie gestured towards the Nazis and his own squad, ‘without prejudice or judgement… it’s inspirational.’ Charlie smiled for a moment, looking at all the kind faces before him, who were listening to his every word. ‘But that doesn’t change the facts. Food is scarce. Danger lives on your doorstep. And this winter is relentless. Impressive as your survival is, I cannot imagine you can endure these conditions for much longer. So, if I may, I would like to offer you an alternative. Myself and my friends have devised a plan. We aim to fix the ship,’ he pointed to the sunken remains at the end of the jetty, ‘and head back to the sanctuary of England. Thankfully the war has not yet ravaged its lands.’ Muttering began. ‘We offer this to all,’ he continued, raising his voice a little. ‘But know this, if you are a Nazi, you will be imprisoned. In that country you are the enemy. I’m sorry, but that is just the way it is. The rest of you, you will have the safety and privileges of every Englishman of the land. Your children will be free to enjoy a safe haven. Your elderly can rest up, as they deserve. You will be far from the reach of the Long Grey Man. Far from Hitler and his armies. And far from all the dangers they offer. But the choice is yours. Until evil completely engulfs these lands, this is still a free world, and every human being has the right to make up their own mind. If we do this, we do it together. If you stay, we will stay with you, and fight for your survival until our dying breath. But if you choose to leave, perhaps we can do more than just survive. Perhaps we can live again. And I promise you this, when this war is over, and peace reigns true, if it is what you wish, you will be returned to your homes.’ All throughout the crowd people exchanged whispers to one another, considering the offer. ‘We’ve all been given a second chance here. We find ourselves in the midst of a chaos the world has never seen before. Yet somehow, you people have retained pure humanity, where borders and race are meaningless, as they always should be. Enemies treated as friends. Friends as family. You represent what it is to be human, by offering a helping hand. And I wish to do the same in return. So please, I ask you, will you take this chance with me?’

Charlie waited, and for what seemed like the longest of times there was no response. His squad looked around the crowd waiting for some kind of sign. The Old Woman rested on her cane, looking at the faces before her. Until finally, at long last it happened. No one saw who went first, but very, very gradually, applause began. Moments later it erupted and didn’t stop. People cheered, children clambered on to their parents, the elderly wiped tears from their eyes, and the Nazis saluted the former Captain. The crowd went wild.

‘That was beautiful,’ jested Yankee, ecstatic from the enthusiasm.

‘Brought a tear to my eye,’ replied Doodle, somewhat sarcastically.

Charlie stood proud, tall, feeling a great weight lifted from his shoulders, and he couldn’t help but smile at the cheering people before him.

 

The day quickly became horrendous with work. Charlie, Yankee, Doodle, Billy and the Nazis had got stuck straight in with the hardest of chores. They had jump-started one of the trucks and driven it down to the jetty. Over the next few hours, following the rough blueprints that Specks had drawn up, together they built a winch on the end of the jetty, and with Doodle driving the truck, they dragged the ship from the depths below. It was a small ship of sorts, capable of carrying fifty to sixty passengers at most. And with the ship, apparently called ‘Antillia’ dangling on the surface of the waters via ropes, Yankee and Doodle had gone on board with a handful of Nazis and got to work securing the hull of any damage. Billy grabbed the remaining Nazis and got busy removing the other two truck engines from their respective places and attaching them to the back of the boat, insisting he was most qualified for the job. Still, he was more than grateful for the Nazis’ mechanical know-how, as they rigged the engines up to the ship’s fuel tanks, that were quickly being drained of water. Specks, however, was doing something far more delicate, working in isolation and quiet. With his genius working to its limits, and scavenging material from the tanks and trucks, he swiftly manufactured six explosive devices, carefully attaching them to each leg of the tower.

Meanwhile, everybody else was busy doing their part. Children gathered snow, throwing it into cauldrons, before melting it down and pouring water into any and every container they could possibly find. Men climbed trees and picked them bare of fruit. Women hunted livestock, collected the last of the eggs and even the chickens themselves. The elderly helped load the ship with supplies – bedding, fishing equipment, whatever could fit onboard.

The only people not running around endlessly were Charlie and the Old Woman, who were standing on the jetty overseeing the proceedings.

‘It certainly will be a tight squeeze,’ he commented.

‘We’ve endured worse,’ the Old Woman replied.

‘That you have.’

‘Here you go, sir,’ yelped Specks, who looked dirty and out of breath, passing his notebook to Charlie, who proceeded to look through it with puzzled eyes.

‘Arthur, what the heck am I looking at?’

‘Oh, it’s just the set-up for the tower.’

‘It’s ready to go?’

‘Yes, sir. The charges are… all attached to the legs,’ he stuttered, pointing towards the tower. ‘The trigger switch is located at the very end of the street in a small building, the safest place I could find with the limited materials I had to use.’ He guided Charlie’s sight along the narrow street, pointing to the building in question. ‘If I’ve done my job correctly, which I have, when the explosives go off the… the tower should come straight down upon itself, rather than topple. Minimal damage… in theory.’

‘Good work, Arthur,’ Charlie replied, passing him his notebook back and pushing his glasses up his nose for him.

Yankee and Doodle marched towards them, greased up, smiling and chatting with their Nazi colleagues.

‘Well, sure was a doozie, Charlie. But with the boy’s help here,’ Yankee slapped a hand across the back of the closest Nazi, ‘I’ll be damned, the hull is sound, patched up, and, well, we pretty much pulled a Christmas miracle out of our asses. The old girl will float like a trooper for ya.’

Charlie smiled appreciatively, handing out cups of water and fruit offerings to all the exhausted men before him.

‘And Charlie, what do you think of my handiwork?’ Doodle pointed to the back of the ship, where its name ‘Antillia’ was present. Somehow Doodle had got his hands on some red paint and taken it upon himself to rename the vessel, so that it now read – ‘Antillia’s Revenge’.

‘Isn’t that supposed to be bad luck?’ asked Charlie.

‘Luck is a scientific improbability,’ remarked Specks, before starting to explain the meaning of the word ‘Antillia’, informing them it was named after a phantom island of sorts from a 15th century exploration.

‘Where do you read this junk?’ interrupted Yankee.

‘In things called books. Have you heard of them?’ replied Specks.

‘Charlie, I’ve got a bit of a problem,’ came Billy’s voice, breaking the conversation before Yankee and his open mouth could retort to the surprise sarcasm from the small geek. Billy was covered from head to toe in filth and walking towards them all, looking a little miffed. ‘The engines are in place, and connected to the fuel tanks to perfection. These men work like machines! But the steering system is completely stuck, and the accelerator is jammed at half throttle. I don’t know what happened to it, but it’s broken, big time. It’s going take me at least a good forty-eight hours to fix it.’

‘We don’t have forty-eight hours, Billy,’ said Charlie. ‘But what we do have is two Americans, one brainiac genius, and an abundance of trained soldiers from the most impressive army the world has ever seen, at our disposal. See if you can turn that forty-eight hours into twelve. I want us out of here by daybreak.’

But before anyone could move, or even take a moment to relax, the sound of a blood-curdling scream echoed throughout the village, stopping everyone in their tracks and hooking the attention of all. Charlie spotted the screaming young lady right away, who had dropped what she was doing and was now running haphazardly towards them all, pointing her hand south, inland, and up towards the hill, shouting things the men couldn’t understand. Charlie’s eyes were sharp and followed the pointed trail, clamping sight on the fear monger. It was unfortunate, and dampened his pluck, but the conclusion was inescapable – the distinct silhouette of a Manipulated Man was standing upon the horizon, looking right down at them all.

‘Give me eyes on the horizon,’ ordered Charlie, instantly falling back to his leadership ways. ‘… Please,’ he hastened to add.

The men did so. Yankee and Doodle spotted another Manipulated Man, positioned to the east of the village. And no sooner had they reported it than Billy and Specks spotted a third, situated to the west.

‘You told me we had three days,’ remarked Charlie to the Old Woman, forceful and confused by the bombshell arrival.

‘Always. Like clockwork,’ she replied, trying to calm the hysterical young lady.

Charlie looked to the Manipulated Men, one situated in each direction, then he glanced at the sea behind him. All too quickly he reached the correct conclusion.

‘They’ve been ordered back,’ he spat, understanding the situation and his nemesis all too well. ‘They’re trying to corner us. Damn that man.’

The entire village went quiet, and literally every soul was looking towards the lone squad for an instruction. Charlie gazed around at his men, who were nodding back at him, already well aware what they had to do, whilst the Nazis stood to attention, standing in line, casually saluting their allegiance to him and his cause. As much as he hated it, he knew the decision had already been made for him.

‘It’s fight or die right?’ he asked the crowd surrounding him, who were all already in accord. He took a long deep breath, clenched his fists and spoke the words – ‘Then we fight. We fight one last time.’

CHAPTER NINE

 

With a foreboding and perfected synchronisation, the Manipulated Men began their march, slowly, powerfully, moving forward, bearing down upon the isolated village. There was little time to spare, so the plan had to be short and sweet, and somehow work! The brothers, along with a handful of the more able-bodied Nazis, snatched up their weapons and headed towards the opponent approaching from the east side of town. Billy, wanting to go it alone, but followed by a rather insistent group of Nazis and village men, took target with the foe pushing in from the west. Charlie and Specks, along with the last batch of Nazis, headed through the centre of the village, ready to confront the adversary coming from the south. Those that remained behind formed a final line of defence at the jetty, whilst assisting the ill, the elderly, and the women and children onto the waiting ship.

Yankee and Doodle were first to make contact, and their attack was a simple no-brainer for them – aim and shoot. On route they’d handed out their weapons amongst the men, three pistols and two sniper rifles, leaving Yankee his sub-machine gun, and Doodle his favourite shotgun. All of them being well-trained soldiers, they had smartly set down roots behind a small, half-fallen wall, that allowed them both defence and attack strategy. Almost immediately they had engaged the Manipulated Man, as it plodded round the corner and into their line of fire. A good old-fashioned shoot out began – their bullets against the hulk’s ever deadly poison-filled syringes. The battle was brutal from the get-go, and steadily, despite their wealth of ammo, the monstrosity began to bear down on them, gaining ground, their bullets either bouncing off its metal plates, or the occasional lucky stray sinking into its flesh, but to zero effect.

‘Damn, thing sure can take a hell of a lot of damage. I’ll give it that!’ remarked Doodle, as he swiftly reloaded his shotgun for the umpteenth time.

‘You’re telling me,’ replied his brother, over the noise of his own weapon.

The Manipulated Man made a bold march forward, advancing on them all the quicker, forcing the group to abandon their ground, darting down a nearby street, falling back to the side of a small outhouse.

‘This is bad, Doodle,’ remarked Yankee.

‘We’ve had bad before.’

‘Yeah. But this is worse!’ Yankee looked down the snow-filled street, ogling the Tiger Tank that was still sitting unused and abandoned in the near distance. ‘But I’m sure this thing has a limit! You just… keep him busy for a minute. I gotta go check something out.’

Without another word, Yankee burst into an all-out sprint down the road, heading straight for the tank.

‘Where the hell are you going?’ called out Doodle, in shock-horror.

‘I got a Goddamned plan,’ he yelled wildly, not even bothering to look back.

Elsewhere, in the centre of the village, Charlie and his own team were having even less luck with their own Manipulated Man. The battle had gone from bad to worse, to nigh on impossible. As all else failed, the group of men had spontaneously darted inside a building for cover, jumping clear of the fight and resting up against the wall, staying very quiet indeed. They could hear the Manipulated Man’s big, heavy footsteps on the street outside, causing all to hold their breath in anticipation. But none of them could have expected what happened next to ever transpire. Out of the blue, and with a loud crash, one of the Manipulated Man’s huge clenched fists punched straight through the wall they were all leaning against. Its arm reached in and clamped round, clumsily pinning them all against the wall. They felt it squeeze them against the cold hard brick, before proceeding to drag the entire structure down, and much to their pain, ripping the men from their hiding place literally through the crumbling wall, spreading them onto the cold, snowy streets outside. The monster was already on top of them, so their only option was to engage – and it was at high cost. It thrashed about, smashing the Nazis away without remorse, sending their limp bodies crashing through the streets, like they were rag-dolls. Charlie stepped forward, raised his pistol at the Manipulated Man’s head and fired. But before he could finish emptying the chamber into its heavily guarded skull, the monstrosity swung round and swiped the weapon away with the back of its hand. Charlie yelled out, undoubtedly in a great deal of pain, clutching at his hand.

‘I think… I think my hand is broken,’ he said to Specks, forgetting himself.

The Manipulated Man raised an arm – aiming directly for Specks. But Charlie was fast, pushing the small geek out of the way just as the arm came crashing down, barely missing the strike himself, as the impact crushed the paving below. It jutted its head round, locking eyes on Charlie, who was trying to get back on his feet, and tried again and again and again to pound him into the ground, but somehow the former Captain managed to dodge every blow, but just barely.

‘Arthur. Get yourself out of here,’ he shouted.

Charlie scrambled to his feet, but before he could move the Manipulated Man picked him up by the hair, completely lifting him from the ground. He screamed out in pain, clutching at its grip, but there was no way to release himself. The thing placed its other fist directly into Charlie’s lower back and prepared to fire a syringe. But just before it could release the deadly poison, the Nazis reappeared, just in time to save the man. They all charged past the quivering Specks, jumped on the targeting arm and dragged it out of the way just in time, the syringes shooting off harmlessly. Enraged, the thing twisted around with jerked movements, scattering the Nazis in one direction and throwing Charlie in another. He flew over the rooftops and out of sight. And all of a sudden, just like that, Specks found himself very alone, with nothing but the Manipulated Man for company. There was silence. Neither moved. Then, with a mere grunt from the thing, the nervous wreck of a man, shaking uncontrollably, dashed to the right and out of the thing’s line of sight.

Over the far side of the village, Billy had finally made contact with his target. He didn’t have a plan – he never thought that far ahead. And as the Manipulated Man, standing at the end of a long street locked eyes on him, he heard its distinct voice echo down the way:

‘Upgrade – level four.’

There was no more warning. The thing broke into an all-out charge, heading straight for them all. Billy couldn’t help himself. He didn’t think about his fellow soldiers next to him, or the sheer stupidity of his actions, instead he broke into a fast, determined run, directed straight at the Manipulated Man. As the pair closed in on each other, and the collide was inevitable, Billy sprung into the air, soaring high with elegance and majesty. He twisted upside down, clenched his armoured fist and punched the thing straight down upon its head with all his might. The clang of metal upon metal was ear splitting. Billy somersaulted away, landing deftly on his feet, skidding smoothly through the snow, whilst the Manipulated Man crumpled chaotically to the floor, sliding across the ground and stopping at the feet of the Nazi’s and villagers. Stunned, amazed, impressed, they all grinned at Billy, prematurely yelling excited compliments of victory. But:

‘Upgrade – level five,’ came the same strange voice yet again.

‘Er… fellas, I’d back away if I were you,’ suggested Billy.

But it was already too late. The Manipulated Man stood up with unanticipated speed and agility, immediately smashing the men away, sending them in all directions. Billy moved on instinct, sprinting the distance in mere seconds, jumping onto the thing’s back, aiming to rip out its tubing piece by piece. But it was so much stronger this time, shaking him off and throwing him aside, landing the young man face down on the floor this time. Billy rolled himself over, aggrieved, just in time to see the thing clench its fist and release a wealth of syringes in his direction. Billy was spry, as he opened his quick shield, deflecting the attack, watching the syringes ping off all around him. He scrambled to his feet, broke into a charge, planning on smashing through the Manipulated Man with the brunt of his shield. But just as he was about to make contact, the thing picked him up, stopping him dead in his run, and turned the tables, charging, running with him in the opposite direction, ploughing through the buildings, with Billy at the forefront of each collision, like some kind of human shield.

‘That didn’t hurt,’ he yelled. But through another building they smashed. ‘Okay, that one did!’ Then another came. ‘I’m gonna fix that,’ he joked, trying to alleviate his situation. They went through a fourth. ‘Who put that one there?’

And together, the pair smashed through an entire half of the village, continuing with their brutal and vicious fight of titans.

Meanwhile, back with the brothers, Yankee had now climbed upon the tank, cranked open the hatch, letting it slam down on the metal, the sound resonating around the surrounding buildings, and jumped inside – all within a matter of a few excited seconds. The cockpit was cold and damp, as he landed thickly inside the hull. He sat himself down and with heavy hands immediately started reaching around, familiarising himself with the massive weapon suddenly available at his fingertips.

‘Looks like Christmas has come early this year! Thing still works,’ he said, rubbing his hands together. ‘One thing I will say about you German boys, you sure do know how to make stuff!’ Yankee scrambled up from his seat, poked his head out of the hatch and called to his brother. ‘Dood, bring the Minnesota Man down this way, like now.’

‘Yeah, I’ll get right on that,’ Doodle replied, absolutely sarcastic, whilst hiding behind a building, still busy keeping the Manipulated Man preoccupied to the best of his abilities.

Yet, despite the hardship it entailed, Doodle and the Nazis did as instructed, keeping heavy, well-timed fire on the thing, whilst gradually retreating down the street, leading the monster towards Yankee and his apparent plan. Doodle really hoped his brother had something good hidden up his sleeve!

In the meantime, amongst the maze of streets in the centre of town, Specks rapidly darted from building to building, in an anxious search for Charlie. His breathing was shallow and sharp, and his glasses were fogging up as a result, but finally, a bit of luck, as he stumbled into a half-standing house with a large hole in the roof, instantly seeing his ex-Captain lying facedown on the floor within.

‘Captain. Wake… up, Sir’ he stuttered with fear, falling to his knees, struggling to pick the man up with his tiny hands.

‘Arthur, get yourself out of here,’ mumbled Charlie in a scarcely coherent reply, as he just about managed to roll himself onto his back.

‘Captain, no.’

‘You need…’ He struggled to breathe. ‘You need to stop that thing from getting to the ship.’

‘But… But… But, I can’t do it without you.’

‘Yes, you can,’ answered Charlie, grabbing Specks by the scruff of the shirt, pulling him in close, and looking him square in the eyes. ‘You’re the smartest man I know. So do what you’re good at. Just outsmart the bugger.’

But before Specks could respond, Charlie passed out, his head flopping to the floor, and once again the Science Officer was alone. He contemplated things for a moment, quickly tallying up all the information to hand. With Charlie out for the count, and the Nazis nowhere to be seen, the fact was conclusive – it was down to him to save the day. His mind was working a mile a minute, and his body was shaking just as fast. Just then, a nearby sound outside caught his attention, bringing his thoughts back to the room and the here and now. He scurried over to the doorway and peeked round the corner, perhaps not as stealthily as his fellow comrades would have managed. Outside, patrolling the area, the Manipulated Man scanned the streets, looking for him, his thick head robotically turning from left to right, as its soulless eyes checked the area for any signs of life. Specks took off his glasses with trembling hands, cleaned them and pushed them straight back up his nose. He went to run, but an overwhelming amount of fear kept him rooted to the spot. He tried again, but he froze. He was just too scared to move. But then he looked over at Charlie, lying helpless on the floor – he had to do this. His moment was now, and ready or not, this was happening. Specks clenched his fists, gritted his teeth and went for it. Without another thought he darted from the doorway and out into the street. But the thing spotted him instantly, watching the little man scurry away in the opposite direction. The Manipulated Man opened fire, releasing a wealth of the syringes at the small geek, but Specks was light on his feet, fuelled by fear, and somehow managed to mistakenly avoid them all as he skidded round a corner and out of sight. But this wasn’t over by a long shot – the thing took chase, hot on his heels.

Across the village, Billy was now riding his Manipulated Man like a prize bull in an all American derby. The scene looked insane, the thing thrashed around, knocking down buildings like tin cans, whilst Billy did his best to hang on, his arms and legs gripping tightly around the contraption’s neck. With increasing desperation he tried to grab at its tubes and unplug the power, like he had done the first time round. But this one had upgraded several times over now, and as a result was much faster and much stronger than ever, ripping away from his every attempt, clawing at its own back, frantic to remove Billy from it. Not to mention its big, grotesque, mutated muscles were now bulging so much that they were starting to engulf the tubes themselves, making it an almost impossible feat to complete. The pair collided with walls and buildings, causing absolute chaos and devastation in their wake. Billy was bleeding all over, swearing his head off, and the Manipulated Man was beyond berserk, a terrifying sight to behold, but neither was ready to submit to the other. One way or another, things would end very soon, very dramatically – but which one the victor, only time would tell.

Across the way things were just as bad, potentially worse, depending on which way you looked at it. Doodle and the Nazis were now almost entirely out of ammo – they were surprised it had lasted this long! And the Manipulated Man was showing no signs of slowing down.

‘Yankee, you ready with that thing or what?’ shouted Doodle, rather desperate, clearly aggravated with his brother’s ever ongoing delays.

‘Absolutely,’ replied Yankee, from inside the tank, fiddling around with levers and handles, sounding both excited and prematurely pleased with himself. Taking things a little bit too casually he got himself comfy in his seat. ‘Just bring him a tad closer.’

‘What?’ exclaimed Doodle. ‘Just bring him a tad closer? Where are you currently residing? Bizarro world? He ain’t a stray dog I’m trying to snatch up, bro! He’s a big ass bad guy!’ But there was no reply from within the tank. ‘Well, you heard the man. Idiot, or no idiot, he’s still my brother,’ remarked Doodle to his comrades. ‘Just keep him off me for a few more seconds. I got an idea of my own.’

And with that, Doodle did something rather strange indeed. With no bullets left, he slung his shotgun round his back and dropped to his knees. And whilst the Nazis did their very best to provide him with cover, using every last speck of ammunition, Doodle proceeded to scoop up the snow, proceeding to make as many snowballs as he possibly could, piling the things up, one after the other, like an excited child on Christmas morning. And no sooner had the last hopeful bullet been shot, than Doodle continued the onslaught… with the first snowball straight to the thing’s face. It was weird to watch – as the Manipulated Man received the strike square in its face, it tilted its head, bewildered by the activity, stopping for only a moment. Quick as a flash, Doodle generously handed out the snowballs to the equally puzzled Nazis. But together they furthered the strangeness of affairs, as they all began shouting at the top of their voices, throwing snowball after snowball at the thing, blocking its sight and blinding its shots, as they gradually pulled back, drawing the thing closer to the tank and the waiting Yankee. Until, finally, at long last, the Manipulated Man was in place.

‘Hey, Mr… Man. Up here,’ came Yankee’s enthusiastic voice.

Everything happened rather fast. The Manipulated Man looked to its left, just in time to see Yankee duck down into the hatch and disappear. With a crank and a groan, the barrel of the tank arched round, stopping directly pointed at the thing’s face. It peered down the barrel, grunting a questioning sound into its long chambers.

‘Showtime,’ whispered Yankee, as he wasted no time, pulling the trigger and firing the shell.

BOOM! Nobody quite saw the impact, but it was very loud, very explosive and very impressive. And as the Manipulated Man hit the floor with its head missing, the team knew success was finally theirs. The Nazis burst into cheers whilst Doodle instinctively high-fived their sky-bound hands, laughing and yelling in delight. Yankee jumped down the tank and joined in with the celebrations.

‘Greatest. Shot. Ever,’ exclaimed Doodle, overjoyed with admiration for his brother.

‘Yeah. I am pretty awesome, right?’ asked Yankee.

Together they looked down at the dead Manipulated Man and began nudging each other, ready to lay a few choice words on the downed bad guy.

‘Hey man, don’t lose your head,’ joked Doodle at the lifeless body.

‘Yeah. Or you might…’ but Yankee struggled.

‘Clean yourself off man, you dead?’ added Doodle, chuckling at his own words.

‘Yeah. Or maybe…’

‘Say hello to Satan for me, and give him a little kiss,’ finished Doodle.

‘Yeah. Or… Damn it, I’ve got nothing!’

‘Damn right you’ve got nothing. I win,’ Doodle lifted his arms and began running round in small circles. ‘Three points to nothing. Doodle is supreme. Yankee bites the big one!’

But all too suddenly the celebration was over, as Specks abruptly tore onto the scene, skidding through the street, followed closely by his Manipulated Man. The bizarre chase passed the brothers by without even a notice, before disappearing down yet another street.

‘Did you just see that?’ asked Yankee in shock, peering down the street.

‘Sure did,’ replied Doodle, peering round his brother.

‘Didn’t know the little guy could move so fast!’

And he was. Specks and the Manipulated Man were scurrying around the place like cat and mouse. The small geek moved fast, his tiny frame for once benefiting his precarious situation, as he managed to buy himself just enough breathing room to complete his mission that he was relaying over and over again in his mind. His breathing was quick, shallow, and his legs were little more than quivering members. He snapped left and darted right through the streets, twisting and turning his chase pattern, confusing the Manipulated Man, who was gradually losing track of the science officer. Finally, exhausted, trembling, Specks reached his target -the water tower. He stopped briefly to catch his breath. Then he began. Without deliberation, and a little too reckless for his own liking, he removed three of the six explosive devices, all from the east standing legs, his shaky hands barely managing to keep hold of the things. A noise startled him, he turned, seeing the Manipulated Man marching towards him. There was no delay, so with that the small man darted down the road, heading straight down the street, towards the house at the very end of the street where the trigger switch was lying in wait. The syringes came - but he jumped left, ducked right, avoiding them with scarcely an inch to spare. One syringe came so close that it physically went into the sole of his boot - too close! But somehow he’d made it, he was there! He scrambled into the building, throwing the explosive devices onto a pile of rags - someone’s bed perhaps. Breathing to the point of hyperventilation, Specks grabbed the trigger and began muttering something. It was numbers. More specifically, it was a countdown. He prayed to the science gods that his calculations were correct! He ended his countdown, held his breath and pressed the trigger. It took only a few seconds to detonate, as the three closest tower legs exploded, snapping to pieces, and destabilising the entire thing. Slowly, but definitely, the water tower began to lean, tilting in their general direction. Specks looked out of the window with wide eyes. It was a sight to behold - the Manipulated Man was almost upon him, marching unforgivingly towards his hideout. Whilst behind him the tower was beginning to fall, coming down, heading right for them, and it was coming down fast. Specks couldn’t move: he was rigid with fear. This was it. All he could do was watch through the dirty glass as the proceedings unfolded. The Manipulated Man advanced, it raised its fist and prepared the syringes, it couldn’t have been more than a stone’s throw away. But before the thing could release another shot the water tower finally hit the ground. The impact was huge, instantly crushing the Manipulated Man flat, along with a few of the closer buildings, and sending gallons and gallons of the tainted water everywhere, slushing through the streets. Finally a cloud of dust rose into the air and everything gradually went still.

As the dust settled, and the waters ran away, Specks, the most unlikely of heroes, slowly emerged from his hiding place, coughing and spluttering his way through the mess, cleaning his glasses free of the grime. Sheepishly he looked at the carnage he himself had caused, feeling rather guilty for the damage.

‘Specks. I must say, I am impressed. That was… intense,’ came Yankee’s voice, as he sauntered up the street with his posse.

‘Damn straight, boy,’ added Doodle. ‘You’ve got far more style than I ever realised! Gotta give credit for that.’ The men slapped him on the back, proud of his achievement. ‘What you reckon, Yankee? Bad guy kill of the week?’

Specks was about to raise his concerns about Charlie and his somewhat unstable condition, when just then Billy and his own Manipulated Man erupted onto the scene, smashing through the remains of the water tower, still in the midst of their ongoing ferocious fight.

‘Upgrade… level ten,’ came the distinct voice of the creation.

‘That’s really not required,’ yelled Billy, still clinging on for dear life, his arms and legs wrapped around the thing’s head. ‘I can assure you, that is definitely not required,’ he continued to joke. ‘I do not get paid enough for this!’

The thing looked insane, beyond huge, its proportions were freakishly wrong, and its movements fast and powerful. It ripped Billy off its back, and threw him across the way, sending the young man crashing into a rubble of bricks. Without thought Yankee and Doodle charged to attack, but it thrashed out its arms, sending them to the floor with the utmost of ease. Any and all Nazis in sight ran forward to help, jumping over the fallen men and attacking, but it was hopeless, as quick as a flash every single one of them reached the same painful fate. Even Specks charged, but the Manipulated Man simply flicked him away, dropping him just as easily as the rest. Billy sprung back to his feet, eager and angry. The Manipulated Man threw an instant punch in his direction, but Billy was still quick, barely managing to block it with his armoured arm, getting pushed several feet backwards in the process. He skidded through the snow, twisting his body with precision, despite his exhaustion, preparing to retaliate, but already a second punch was heading in his direction. It hit, straight in his chest – something had surely broken! Billy soared backwards, crashing harshly into a wall, and falling to the ground below. Everyone was down. Everyone was out. No one had the energy to move, let alone attack. And so the Manipulated Man stood above them all, clenched his fist, preparing the lethal injections of deadly syringes. This was it.

But then something happened that surprised everyone. It was quiet, and minor, but all of a sudden a long wooden stick stabbed into the Manipulated Man’s exposed flesh. It was such slight effort, given the scale of things. But then it happened again, and again, and again. And within a few seconds there were dozens upon dozens of the sharp pointy sticks sticking into it, and all were held in place by the village women. The floored soldiers watched in awe as the Old Woman slowly hobbled onto the street, directing her people, barking orders in German and Polish. The Manipulated Man lashed around, lifting the majority of its attackers from the floor, but they held on with all their might, earnestly trying to keep the thing in place, paying special attention to its arms, keeping them both high, rendering its shots and swipes ineffective. It snapped some of the sticks off, only to be replaced by two more. It roared at them, growing frustrated, desperate to gain decent movement, but it was no use. The people of the village were not giving up without a fight! Finally, after much struggle the Manipulated Man’s tubes began to run dry, steam began to burst out of its armour, and its ridiculous muscles deflated like empty balloons. It began to make coughing noises, spluttering on the air itself, whilst a hissing sound filled the air. At long last it fell to one knee, the jerky movement frightening some of the closer women. It looked around at them all, it tried to speak, but nothing more than an inaudible mechanical noise protruded from its gullet. Until it was all but done – its head dropped and it powered down into a pathetic dead droop. Hurriedly the villagers released their sticks and ran to the soldiers’ aid, helping them all back up to their feet.

‘Ladies, I don’t care what my Mother says, I’m marrying every last one of ya’ll,’ remarked Yankee, as he leant on their offered shoulders of support, barely capable of anything by himself. ‘I got a special place for each of you in my heart! And that’s the great thing about me… there’s room for everybody! Yankee loves you all.’

‘What happened?’ asked Billy, with a hand on his heavy head.

‘One can only assume…’ began Specks, ‘that level ten, as our subject informed us he had reached, was the highest setting. And erm… being on the… maximum power level… running at a higher rate… and demanding vastly more energy,’ he stuttered, wiping the snow from his lenses, rather flummoxed by the amount of people actually paying him attention. ‘We can safely assume that it simply ran out of energy.’

‘No way. Dead batteries? That’s weak,’ commented Doodle. ‘Hey, where the heck is Charlie?’

But just as he spoke, Charlie appeared, heavily assisted by a group of the village men, who were holding him up as he limped onto the street. Charlie was clearly in a bad way – his hand was bent inwards, blood was running from his scalp, and he was walking with obvious pain with every step, whilst trying to discreetly clutch at his rib cage.

‘Jesus, Charlie. You look like you’ve been through the mill. You okay?’ asked Billy, who was shaking off his own ailments rather quickly.

‘Fine,’ he replied, clearing his throat and doing his best to stand tall again. ‘Nothing a cup of tea wouldn’t cure. Looks like you all handled this far better than I did. What’s the situation?’

‘All down and accounted for,’ replied Billy.

But things were just about to go from bad to worse. As they stood amongst the chaotic remnants of their battles, chatting between themselves, regrouping, no one could deny a strange and very ominous sound, carrying on the wind, slowly filling the village. People began to look around, confused by the dull eerie tones filling the void. And then everyone spotted it, on the horizon – the distinct silhouette of the fourth and final Manipulated Man standing on the hilltop, looking down upon the village. But it wasn’t that thing that was making the unsettling noise. It was something more, and it was very, very slowly emerging behind it. There was movement. A scruffy, staggered shuffling march of what looked like people began to appear on the hillside. But from the unnatural way they moved, clumsy and unstable, it was obvious that they weren’t just people – it was the dead, the reborn, the infected, and they were heading straight for the village below. Gasps resounded through the crowd as the sheer mass of dead revealed themselves, sending shivers down the spines of even the bravest of men. There were hundreds of them! Charlie snatched the binoculars dangling round Specks’ neck, wincing in pain from his broken hand, and half strangling the poor geek. He scanned the issue as quickly and thoroughly as he possibly could in his current state – it was clear as day, they were definitely dead, and all were in soldiers’ uniform – Nazis and French, to be precise.

‘Son of a gun. Blasted thing must have strolled right into a battle and put down anyone he could find,’ he remarked, dropping the binoculars and releasing Specks. He could see from the look on everyone’s faces that they terrified. Truth be told, so was he. He thought for a moment, but it was obvious what they had to do. They only had one choice now. ‘This is one fight we can’t win. Get to the ship, immediately. We leave now.’

Immediately the crowd began to surge, maybe from the terror on the horizon, or maybe from the former Captain’s order. But all were hustling towards the ship. Yankee and Doodle were shepherding people towards the ship, whilst Specks was simply being bounced from left to right from the sheer force of the moving mob. Billy pushed his way through the mass, heading towards Charlie, who was barely capable of standing.

‘But she’s not working properly yet,’ Billy remarked.

‘Then we’ll just have to fix her on route,’ he replied, looking at the horde on the hill.

With great struggle, Charlie began heading in the opposite direction of the rest of the town, inadvertently catching his entire squad’s attention. Limping all the way he walked over to the last remaining truck, that had been used for winching up the ship. He got in it and started up the engine.

‘Charlie, what the hell are you doing?’ yelled Yankee, who was rushing over with the rest of the men, struggling against the crowds.

‘Yeah, ship’s that way, mate,’ said Billy, pointing at the heaving mass of people gradually emigrating towards the ship.

‘I’m going to buy you all some time,’ replied Charlie, careful not to make eye contact with any of his men. They waited quietly for him to continue, all confused by his actions. ‘You’ve all done an amazing job.’ He paused for a moment, closing his eyes and catching his breath. ‘But you’re not done yet. Now get these people to the ship, and get them to safety. We’ve still got a job to do, and I’ll be damned if we’re going to fail them this late in the day!’ Charlie nodded to himself, and looked like he wanted to say a lot more. But he didn’t. Instead he released the handbrake and pushed the gearstick forward. ‘That ship leaves with or without me. That’s my final order.’

Without giving them a chance to stop him or say anything back, Charlie floored the accelerator and sped off, leaving the squad behind him, speechless and in shock. As the truck bounced and skidded through the empty streets he knew he was now on his own, a feeling he did not desire. Within a few moments he was on the outskirts of the village, and racing through the snow at the bottom of the hill, heading straight towards his target. He looked through the dirty windscreen at the swiftly approaching army of dead, as the Manipulated Man stood patiently on the hilltop, watching the proceedings. Charlie had to buy the villagers a chance to escape, as much time as possible, and he only had one likelihood, one option of slowing down this demented mass. He was almost upon them, travelling into a head-on collision, the truck zooming with ferocity. He took a deep breath, thought of home, remembering just what he was fighting for – then he took action. With expertise he shifted the truck down a gear, yanked the handbrake up, and turned the steering wheel full lock to the left. The right side of the truck breached round, forming a kind of travelling wall. It hit, smashing sideways into the walking dead, knocking them down like skittles. The attack was working. He ploughed through the army, messy and dangerous, but he struggled to maintain any kind of control, as the skid began to head straight towards the Manipulated Man. The truck spun out of control, turning and turning through the masses. The steering wheel shook uncontrollably as Charlie struggled to grip it. The vehicle bounced and ricocheted as its wheels recoiled over hordes of dead bodies, the whole thing becoming unstable. Charlie gritted his teeth, squeezing the steering wheel, desperately trying to maintain control. But it was already too late.

‘Caleb…’ he whispered as his eyes widened, and he caught his breath, finally realising this was it.

The truck flipped over, smashing onto its side, its haphazard skid continuing as it pummelled into the heart of the horde, crushing bodies, sending limbs flying in every direction. Ultimately, and with an almighty SMASH, it collided into the lone Manipulated Man.

Down at the jetty all the men could do was watch in horror as the collision came to an epic and abrupt stop. Flame and debris bellowed from the collision, engulfing the hill in a thick black smoke.

‘We should get up there,’ yelled Yankee, impatiently, starting to move.

‘No,’ shouted Billy, stopping the man before he could get going properly. ‘We do that, and his sacrifice was in vain. We do not disobey Charlie’s last order, Captain or not. He told us to help these people, and that’s exactly what we’re going to do.’

No one had time to argue. As much as it pained them – Billy was right. Getting everyone on board was a big task, time was ever shortening, and what was left of the horde was already beginning to emerge from the wreckage and black smoke, slowly making their way down the hill, ambling onto the streets of the village. With heavy hearts the squad swallowed the facts.

‘Let’s move,’ bellowed Yankee, in his most authoritative of voices.

‘Yeah, let’s get these turkeys on the boat pronto,’ added Doodle.

The brothers snatched their snipers back from the Nazis, reloading the weapons and taking pot-shots at the closest of the shuffling dead, whilst retreating towards the jetty. Billy pushed Specks and the remaining villagers towards the ship, punching away any of the horde that got too close, as the occasional straggler appeared as if from nowhere, scaring the living daylights out of Specks. The last of the crowd quickly moved through the streets and onto the jetty, anyone and everyone helping each other onto the over-populated ship. But Billy noticed the Old Woman looking longingly at her village. He stopped, stood by her and took her arm.

‘We need to go now,’ he insisted, but with a delicateness unfamiliar to him. She didn’t pay him any attention, her eyes filled with tears ready to fall. ‘I promise you,’ continued the boy, ‘when all his is over, I will bring you back. And I will return with you, and help you rebuild the home you have lost.’

She turned to him and smiled, placing her cold wrinkled hand against his pale skin.

‘You’re a sweet boy. Remember that the next time you doubt yourself. But it’s just a place,’ she said. ‘These people are my real home.’

Billy smiled at the comment. But then reality dawned on him, and he snapped back to the moment at hand: ‘We’ve got to go,’ he said resolutely.

He gently hurried her down the jetty, and onto the boat, where Specks was eagerly waiting to leave. Yankee and Doodle had taken position just shy of the jetty, taking a knee and shooting at the approaching wave of dead, that, despite their best efforts, were still surging towards them all.

‘Is everyone on board?’ called out Billy to the crowded vessel.

But the desperate cry from a mother and child suggested otherwise. Billy turned, looking across the way, at the plea for help. He fixed eyes on them straight away, through the insurmountable mass of dead soldiers, the unmistakable sight of the stranded pair, mother clutching child tightly amongst the twisted turmoil that surrounded her. And he wasn’t the only one to have noticed her, as very quickly, dead sunken eyes were turning, as a small group of the dead were closing in on the victims.

‘What? Did you sleep through the team meeting? You’ve got to be kidding me!’ Billy remarked, peeved at the scenario, slamming his metal fist down on the rear of the ship. There was zero time. So he made no plans. Instead, he turned from the ship and sprinted up the jetty, heading straight for the cut-off pair. ‘Boys. Clear me a path, NOW!’ he shouted as he passed them by with incredible speed.

The three men charged into battle one last time. Yankee and Doodle raced alongside Billy, shooting directly in front of his sprint, opening the smallest of pathways for him to hustle himself through, as the undead fell either side of him. Bites from grotesque jaws still came, but he dodged, weaved and punched his way towards his target. He was approaching mother and child rapidly, but a muddled, shuffling group of the horde stood before him, surrounding the pair, reaching out towards them both, desperate to eat their flesh. Billy didn’t think. He just ran on impulse, and he was amazing – taking a gigantic leap, flipping over the shuffling wall, and landing deep in the heart of the circle.

‘Erm…’ he said, bewildered as to what to do next, releasing his quick shield, and putting his other arm around the pair.

Teeth and dirty reaching fingers were coming from all angles, and truth be told, Billy didn’t quite know how to get them all out alive. Charlie would be useful right about now! He smashed away a few of the closest, flooring a couple and cracking open a skull. But it wasn’t enough – the circle was getting tighter! But just then an American miracle unfolded, as Yankee and Doodle materialized, smashing and bashing their way through the horde with the butts of their guns. Bodies fell left, right and centre, creating a much needed, yet rather risky escape route for them all. Billy grabbed the mother by the hand and forcibly dragged her through the crowd of dead soldiers, with Yankee and Doodle either side of them, fending off the attack, flooring the oncoming assault, allowing mother and child to escape.

‘You know bro, I reckon I could take this entire group of deadheads on by myself,’ remarked Doodle, somewhat enjoying himself.

Yankee grinned, but before he could retort the last Manipulated Man emerged onto the scene with enormous strides, trampling upon the horde without a care. The men had no time to react, as the thing clenched a fist and punched Doodle straight round the face, instantaneously rendering him unconscious. He fell to the floor, out cold.

‘Doodle,’ called out Yankee, in complete desperation.

Yankee dropped his weapon without thinking. His brother was heavy-set, but his own adrenaline was enough to take the strain, as he picked him up, slinging his lifeless body over his shoulder, before the undead could get their jaws on him. He turned and sped off, following Billy towards the jetty.

‘We got incoming,’ called out Yankee. ‘And if we ain’t careful, these things will swamp the ship,’ he shouted, struggling to keep his brother in place around his shoulders.

Billy looked to the ship. Specks was ready, standing on the stern, looking with great desperation in their general direction. And everyone else was on board and waiting, reaching out helping hands. But the dead were in front of them, on the jetty, and getting dangerously close to the ship.

‘Damn, you’re right,’ replied Billy.

Everything happened so fast. Together they ran up the jetty, knocking aside any that stood in their way, splashing into the water, whilst more of the horde followed their retreat, hot on their heels and ravenous. The waiting villagers grabbed mother and child from Billy, whilst Yankee jumped on board, dropping Doodle to the floor. He turned, ready to clear the back of the ship of the multitude of dead that he knew were right behind them, but instead he received a strong punch in the face from Billy, knocking him clean out, sending him slumping over his brother.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Billy in a sad yet firm voice.

Billy turned the ignition, jumped off the ship, pushing the closest of the dead soldiers back, allowing himself a few feet of breathing space. Somehow, through the chaos, he managed to release the ropes harnessing the ship, and with the bottom of his boot he pushed the vessel out to sea.

‘What… Billy… what are you doing?’ fretted Specks, who was standing wide-eyed at the back of the ship, reaching out a trembling hand.

‘Don’t come back for me,’ he replied, looking the small geek square in the eyes.

The ship began to move out to sea, quickly leaving the jetty behind. Specks tried to turn the steering, but it was jammed, just like Billy had said. With all his strength he attempted to pull back on the accelerator, but it was stuck, just like Billy had said. Thinking rapidly, he went to turn off the ignition, but the key was snapped off in the chamber, rendering it utterly useless.

‘I can’t… It won’t…’ fretted Specks, almost on the verge of tears.

‘Goodbye,’ whispered Billy, as he threw the other half of the key into the water.

Billy stood on the edge of the jetty watching all he knew, all he had come to love over the last few years, drift off into the horizon, and he wondered if he would ever see them again. He suddenly felt more alone than he had ever known. Specks stood, looking back, silent, bereaved, trembling with a concoction of emotions, whilst the brothers remained unconscious on the deck next to him. He cleaned his glasses, pushing them back up his nose, desperately running through calculations, somehow trying to change things. But it was useless. The small geek looked as if he were about to pass out, but just as his legs began to cave, the Old Woman came and stood next to him, she held his hand tightly, and gave him an eloquent nod. The sacrifices had been high, but they had escaped, and that was exactly what Charlie would have wanted.

But for Billy, this battle wasn’t over quite yet! He turned away from the ship and back to the village, seeing the swarm approaching fast, clumsily making its way down the jetty, some even reaching out from the waters below. He breathed deep, tired of their onslaught. He prepared his stance, and released his quick shield, ready to attack. This was it. For a brief moment he leant back on his hind foot, before bursting forward, charging, screaming like a wild man, fuelled by rage and pain and anguish and anything else you could imagine. With his quick shield raised high he made contact, and it was truly brutal. The dead fell in his wake, smashed out of the way, splashing into the waters either side of the jetty, stamped beneath his feet. Billy pushed his way off the jetty and into the streets, finding himself in the midst of the multitude which seemed to just go on and on. And they came at him, hungry for his flesh. But Billy was crazed, and seriously pissed off! He wasn’t ready to die today. He punched them back, cracking jaws from skulls. He kicked them down, knocking holes through stomachs. He spun round them, twisted, weaved, snapping necks and breaking limbs. He somersaulted through the air, slid across the floor, bounced off walls. He was like a one-man army, but there were just so many of them, and they wouldn’t stop coming. Suddenly an idea came to mind.

Billy hopped onto a small wall, and jumped onto a nearby rooftop. He stood over the crowd, looking down at the drooling, hideous dead beings, desperate to eat him. He looked across the village – if he stuck to the rooftops, there was a chance he could get to clear ground and make a break for it. So he began, running and jumping, rooftop to rooftop, safely out of the reach of the mass, which had now completely engulfed the entire village. Despite his exhaustion he was still spry, and made the leaps with ease. He was nearing the edge of the town, he could see clear ground, there was a chance he might make it! But all of a sudden the Manipulated Man appeared as if from nowhere, marching its way through the flock, crushing the things as if they were nothing. Billy didn’t see it coming, he was far too preoccupied with his escape. Billy dashed across a rooftop, making another amazing jump for the next. But just then, and with an almighty THWACK, the Manipulated Man struck the corner wall of the house Billy was leaping for, sending it crumbling to the ground, and Billy along with it.

Dust filled the area, nothing was moving from the rubble. Already, the horde had begun to approach the debris, surrounding it, smelling the living flesh of man. But Billy was one step ahead of them. He appeared from the dust with a wealth of roof tiles at his disposal, and began flinging them with incredible speed and even more incredible accuracy at the heads of the dead soldiers. One after another they went down. He was so fast it was unbelievable to watch. But this would only buy him a short amount of time.

The swarm was still advancing. Billy backed off, spinning behind the closest wall he could find. Putting his armoured shoulder against it he pushed the wall with all his might. It toppled, falling over and flattening a dozen or so of the undead. He smiled, pleased with himself. But there were still so many more to fight. He had no other choice, he had to make a run for it. So he broke into a sprint, dodging and darting his way through the masses. A mound of the dead things were laying on the ground before him, so he used it to his advantage. He raced with everything he had, whipping through the crowd, with a bold step he leapt onto the pile, before jumping high into the air. The area in front of him was so densely packed with the things that there was no ground to land upon. So as Billy came down, he kept spry, hopping from head to head, shoulder to shoulder, using the horde like a living, shuffling floor, keeping as quick as a flash, not stopping for a moment. He was nearing the edge of the mass, he was going to make it! He took his chance, making the biggest jump he could muster. He lifted into the air, soaring like a majestic bird, feeling the cool air against his skin, and knowing that as soon as his feet hit the ground, all he had to do was run and not look back. But things were never that easy. The Manipulated Man reappeared, reaching out one of its huge hands, brutally grabbing Billy by the ankle and slamming him straight down to the floor, ending his beautiful escape.

‘Well, that hurt,’ Billy remarked, rolling onto his back, wondering just who the hell was there to listen to his sarcasm.

The multitude came for Billy, immediately overwhelming him. He screamed at them with ferocity as they seized him by the limbs, ready to devour his body, dragging him in every direction, opening their hungry, gaping mouths, starving for his flesh. This was the end for him. Or was it…

It was strange, and made no sense, but the Manipulated Man charged in, pushing the dead back with violent and careless swipes, before lifting Billy up by the throat. He gasped for air, struggling to free himself from the immense grip. His dog tags fell to the floor, resting delicately on the blood-soaked snow beneath him. Billy struggled to free himself, clenching his armoured fist, repeatedly hitting the thing square in the face. The Manipulated Man grunted, lifting Billy up high over his head, slamming him into the ground again. It balled up both fists and continuously smashed down on Billy’s body over and over again, as the poor boy reached out a desperate hand for help. But it didn’t stop the process until he went limp, until he stopped struggling, until he lost consciousness. Until it was done.

So, without feeling or remorse, the Manipulated Man picked up Billy’s lifeless body, slung him over his shoulder and marched out of the village, up the hill and into the horizon, all the while slowly followed by the relentless horde of the undead. Billy had lost the fight.

EPILOGUE

 

It was done. The audacious and bold escape plan had worked. But as with anything worth fighting for, sacrifices had been made, and the cost had been extremely high for the Alpha-Omega squad. Things were very different now indeed. The village stood devoid of life, there was no movement, and all was quiet as a graveyard. Snow began to gently fall from above, gradually cleansing the area of all its bloody and horrific impurities. However…

The sound of sluggish, irregular footsteps came into earshot, the gentle crushing of snow underfoot breaking the twisted peace of the village. It was laboured, random, slow. It stopped, and there he stood. Charlie Crumble appeared in the forsaken village, alone and broken. He was huddled over, clutching the left side of his ribcage with his broken hand, and wiping blood away, that was dripping from his forehead down and onto his jacket. He limped over to some stone steps and rested up briefly, wincing as he bent his right leg. He struggled to catch his breath, wheezing, swallowing the air in gigantic desperate gulps, as he stared at the snow beneath him with great intent, watching his own blood stain its perfections.

The place was completely void of life. There were no people to be seen. The walking dead were all but gone, leaving their executed cohorts behind, along with the remains of the Manipulated Men, lifeless vessels, whose bodies were slowly being covered by the snow. Charlie braced himself and stood up, staggering forward, barely able to stay on his feet, as he gazed out to the open water, hopeful. It was almost impossible to see now, but the truth was clear – just about to disappear onto the horizon was the distinct and beautiful outline of the ‘Antillia’s Revenge.’ He smiled in glee, and leisurely began to chuckle to himself. He perched himself on the remnants of a wall and enjoyed the moment, his chuckle swiftly turning into absolute laughter – it hurt his side, he could barely breathe, but it was worth it. He was alone, and he was in dire need of help. But together, united for the greater good, they had succeeded in their mission. With the help of the enemy, and the persecuted themselves, they had rescued the innocent from the clutches of evil – and that felt really good. As the ship vanished onto the horizon, heading for safer shores, Charlie knew that no matter what happened next, today was a good day.

Time passed. Charlie could feel himself getting weaker. He was cold, hungry, injured, and he felt a wave of fatigue ebbing at him with every passing minute. He didn’t mind if this was his time. It felt right. But then something caught his eye, something that really worried him. It was shiny, sticking out of the snow, and it twinkled in the glint of the sun. Pained, he fell to the floor, crawling towards it and picking it up – they were dog tags. He let them dangle from his fingers as he read the unmistakable name on the metal plates – Billy Random. Charlie looked curiously at the horizon, suddenly worried that somehow, for some reason unbeknown to him, Billy might not have made it on board. He looked at the rapidly vanishing tracks in the snow – a massive skirmish, almost impossible to track anything properly. But his keen eyes could see that there was something a little more to be discovered – there was a definite set of tracks leading away from the town.

With enormous effort, Charlie struggled back up to his feet, placing the precious tags in his pocket and shuffling himself forward. The snow was coming down heavier now, and the trail wouldn’t stay visible for much longer. He moved further through the snow, the messy tracks showing a clear-cut trail of something much bigger walking with the horde – the fourth Manipulated Man! And the entire shuffle of imprints were leading to the south-west. He stopped and thought for a moment, unsure how clear his thoughts really were. He was concussed and had lost a lot of blood. For all he knew he was dreaming all this, still stuck in the truck he had just crashed! But he thought, taking a moment and clearing his mind. He knew the horde had come in from the south, and these tracks were sticking close to the shore, and they were most definitely heading away from the village. He shuffled forward a little more, curious, and then he saw it. A simple find, but one that eradicated any uncertainty he may have had – an unambiguous clue – Billy’s tie resting in the snow.

Charlie moved forward, looking at the seemingly never-ending tracks that lay before him. He gazed longingly at the horizon, wishing all his friends had made it on board. But the facts were right in front of him, too many to ignore, and he was never one to back down from anything. He was so alone, and he himself needed help. But his friend needed it more, and was alone with the enemy. His eyes narrowed, his broken fist clenched through the pain, and his stance straightened, despite his rib cage and knee agonising him. His mission was far from over. It was crunch time.

He moved with surprising speed, telling himself to ignore the pain. He shredded a loose rag, tying it tightly around his torso and knee, wincing as he went. He tied his hand up as best he could, swearing as the useless appendage pained him. He grabbed a bag and filled it with whatever food and scraps he could find. He found an abandoned flask and filled it with water. And finally he picked up the straightest stick he could find, to aid his long, long walk.

And so, bag around his back, bandaged badly, and clutching a walking stick, he began his trek into the snowy unknown, not sure where it would lead him, or if he would even survive the journey. But Charlie was resolute – the Alpha-Omega missions were over, but he was still a soldier, and his friend needed his help.


The Shoebox Pursuit - Part 3 - Poppies and Warpaint

At the end of a perilous trek, leading them into yet another deadly trap, the Alpha-Omega squadron are lost within the insanity of Shoebox Stone’s games. As their brave Captain, Charlie Crumble, falters in his leadership, the group quickly become undone. A strange infection, causing the dead to rise from the grave, spreads across the land threatening everyone in its wake, and stories of robotic monstrous men haunt the area. The people need a hero. The squad need a leader. But he is lost…

  • ISBN: 9781310727078
  • Author: Benjamin Maxwell
  • Published: 2016-01-10 15:05:10
  • Words: 38657
The Shoebox Pursuit - Part 3 - Poppies and Warpaint The Shoebox Pursuit - Part 3 - Poppies and Warpaint