Copyright © 2014 by Byron Cornell Bellamy
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without written permission from the author.
Look, right over there. Rebecca Ternus sparked this. Bob Ternus and his highly strategic eldest son Peter threw it against the wall until it stuck. Mary Ternus provided the reference library and moral support, Eric Jones the photography. These are my excellent in-laws, and I love all of them.
Over here, Frank and Dale Hill, The Elder Wizards. Beside them, the Magical Janee Brown, along with Sean, Heather, and their associated small humans, all of us brought forth by Zilmon and Debbie from Texas dust. I love them too, and Janee Frivaldsky as well. My Family.
Behind my shoulder, Joe Smith, who once turned his great-grandson loose in his woodshop for a day and sat back to watch him with a smile.
For Will and Jane and Anne.
Ah! foolish-diligent Germans, working so hard, thinking so deeply, marching and counter-marching on the parade grounds of the Fatherland, poring over long calculations, fuming in new found prosperity, discontented among the splendor of mundane success, how many bulwarks to your peace and glory did you not, with your own hands, successively tear down!
-Churchill, Winston S. (1923). The World Crisis.
New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (p.26)
“They are everywhere, the not-feeling.” Abbot often heard the old man’s words when he was under stress; the Good Grandfather, who had spoken to him of survival in the world, all the basic ideas, passing along everything a competent man learned in long lifetime of learning. There was also the So-So Grandfather, the one with the sharp tongue and sharper backhand that sped like a viper toward any child not holding himself erect and grimly silent. This was the way of most human beings of his era, and of those from the era before that, and before that one as well, all the way back in fact, and So-So Grandfather came from a village where no one had never been encouraged to change, or to make choices like the Good Grandfather had made – to alter one’s actions based on complex information, to study, to ponder, and to learn. To think one’s way through life. Instead, while Good Grandfather grew wiser and therefore happier, So-So had driven everyone away and grown a hard but brittle shell, withdrawing inside to grow more lonely and shrill with the passing years, as most people who live without growing do.
Abbot loved him anyway. He had learned how to reach through So-So Grandfather’s shell and nudge him in just the right way, so that a toothless smile would break out on the old man’s face for a moment, enough to make Abbot smile back. After awhile the old man’s pathways would snap back to full tension, eighty years of stress and disappointment flooding back to his face in an instant, disapproval and disregard his customary pose, a violent temper his primary response to stimuli. The temporary smile on the old man’s face was enough to make it worthwhile for Abbot to keep trying, and in his last year Abbot became the only member of the family So-So would let near him.
But it was the Good Grandfather’s voice that always came to him at times such as these, moments of extreme physical and mental stress such as he was periodically subject to, when he had to fight to not lose himself altogether. Abbot thought this singular experience might count as such a moment.
This is why:
Doctor Abbot Hoffman, lately of Paris, recipient of the Grande Médaille from the French Academy of Sciences and recent nominee for the Nobel Prize in Medicine, was floating just beneath a dark brown sea, embedded in a viscous chocolate pudding that surrounded his body and pressed into every corner and crevice desperately seeking to pull him down to oblivion. The saturated earth was hungry for his body; it felt alive. The only reason that he had not already drowned was that he was encased in a stiffened brown oilskin sack of sorts, a small flattened chamber buried beneath the mud in the very center of ‘no man’s land’, the ever-moving strip of destruction that spanned the width of a worldwide war. He and his friend buried in a similar container somewhere just to his right were probably the only living things that were not flesh-eating insects within this fetid square kilometer of battlefield.
The manta-ray shaped oilskin sheath was stretched across a frame that supported the six-inch thick top layer of mud that rendered him invisible in this sea of mud; it also possessed several stiffened passages through which he could view the terrain in front of him, and even a sealed swiveling tube that he could aim and fire his rifle through. The idea had popped into Abbot’s head in an instant: a personal mud-submarine, a design which had seemed brilliant at first but now made him feel a little stupid. Six hours so far in this contraption seemed like a lifetime of floating in this evil stew, the seams steadily leaking because he hadn’t the time or facilities to make proper seals. He and Joe had been given orders at 3 AM, and Abbot had designed and sewn the two suits out of a discarded naval tarp and some scrap wood by four. He hadn’t been prepared for actions in which his commanding officer intend that he die uselessly, which this clearly was. It was true they had survived so far in this the most hostile environment on the planet – but how long did they have before the suits filled with muddy water and they drowned? The little breathing tube seemed way too small now, and he fought off the onrushing wave of claustrophobia with effort.
“Proceed center combat zone, assume prone surface position, remain until relieved.” Precisely written orders for a death sentence, Abbot thought. Clearly Captain Studtendorf had taken the original matter far too seriously. Joe’s attempt to talk him down had set the captain off for some reason on a quest to find a way to murder them both without shooting them himself.
The mud was oozing in slowly around him, he could feel cold fingers down his legs and back. Not normal mud at all, but mud blended with cordite, steel shards, human bodies, horses, wood, blood – bandages, food, coffee, wire, paper, pets, cots, blankets, kerosene, gasoline, sewage — Belgian kings and Danish monsters, all whipped into a frothy gel like chocolate pudding but with an odor that made the hair on your skin stand straight up. Men had never seen anything like this mud before. Utterly putrid, chemical mud, mud that made you sick. Mud that drove you mad and pulled you down, always further down.
Mud that Abbot could feel seeping through the stitches. He scanned the ground in front of him through his little viewport, slowly sweeping the concealed gunshroud from side to side – nothing but miasm, fog, and thousands of perfectly round pools of water hiding all sorts of horrible nightmares in their rotting black depths. This particular portion of the front had been severely fought over in the early days; there were at least ten human bodies ground by artillery and eventually liquefied into every square yard of this sector, if one accepted the official numbers for the missing.
Inside his sloshing, reeking shelter, Abbot turned his head and spoke into a small cone. “Joe”.
The voice responding from the tube was clear and resonant from inside the other sack. “See something?”
“Tell me about it. Claustrophobic. Like a grave.”
“What are you thinking about?”
“Lena’s little pear pastries. With the sugar. How does she make the crust puffy like that? So beautiful,” Joe sighed from the tube.
Abbot grinned and gave a small laugh that set little waves going through the shallow pool he was lying in.
“Well, that’s not fair. Now I have to think about it.”
“I thought you were going to answer with some deep thought or something.”
“No. Pear pastries. Ultimate wisdom.”
Abbot sighed, and nodded.
“And with the coffee, the swirl of thick cream curled on the surface in that little shape,” he said.
“Now you’re talking.” Joe paused. “Abbot.”
“Check your left.”
Abbot gripped his rifle, looked along it and out through the small muddy gap to see –
“Joe, there’s a herd.”
“Moment of truth. What’s it to be?”
Abbot thought for a few breaths, nodded. He’d gotten to be pretty good at this kind of thing, but he never felt good at it. Deep at heart he was still the little smart Jewish kid that couldn’t fight. So many years later, he had grown to fill that gap by learning how to fight the way he had learned to learn everything, by singular focus, a serious mind, and reading every single book ever written on the subject. These days, though, he felt like he was just pulling it out of his ass, to use one of the American phrases Joe seemed to love so much. Nothing worked twice, everything changed, and there weren’t any safe places at all. One just had to hop, skip, and leap over the teeth of the devil, every moment of every day. And today was the worst of all.
“Take the last half after they walk over us, then up and over for the first half from behind. More than twenty, stay dead.”
“What, you afraid of twenty one?”
“Okay. Give the word, little pony.”
Abbot trained his rifle through the shroud and watched as the shapes moved forward, cautious, stumbling in the dawn fog, sometimes getting stuck in the softer spots. The sight made him glad for a moment that he wasn’t walking through the stuff, just buried and soaking in it; small favors.
A lot. There were a lot of them. Abbot swore.
From the speaking tube – “Relax.”
Abbot pulled his head up slowly and checked his cartridge feed device. Five of his special chemical darts gleamed through the thin slots. Neither he nor Joe were using standard Mauser Gewehr ninety-eights; Abbot had spent much time modifying both weapons into something entirely new. The rifles were made to look standard, on purpose, except for the removable long black silencers. That much Abbot had been able to plan for. The German Army took a very dim and stiff-necked Prussian view of anything non-standard. And these days, they were already drawing enough attention to themselves, what with their supernatural penchant for surviving the unsurvivable. It was a strangely embarrassing fact when in the presence of Prussian officers who suspected cowardice, and who were prone to dwell accusingly on the illogic of continuous invulnerability. Everyone died but them. What else could it be but cowardice?
The group of British raiders drew within thirty yards and Abbot instinctively quieted his breathing, although there wasn’t much chance of being heard from beneath his shallow grave in the dark mud. But certain behaviors were hard to control, he thought; thirty million years of conflict written into his cellular structure urged him to BE QUIET.
He and Joe had missed the catastrophe on the Marne, when a critical center of the German force had inexplicably turned north away from Paris and allowed the French to make their stand on the Marne River. Both sides had become locked since then in a hellish new phenomenon, truly a New Thing On Earth: static, industrialized, long-term mayhem. Men were dying in numbers the planet had never seen before. Here in the advanced year nineteen-fifteen, science laid low nearly as many as had ever been saved by it. The German Kaiser had been forced to call up the deep reserves, which ended up including one Josef Schmidt, a master carpenter from the little coal-mining town of Bochum with a penchant for pear pastries and American history. His pregnant wife and two children had cried as they watched him put on his uniform and leave their house, perhaps forever. And now here he was in the middle of it, literally.
For Abbot, there was no sense in it all. He was an internationally well-known physician living in France; only occasionally did he make the journey to visit Joe and Lena at their home in Bochum, perhaps once a year. When he did, he always brought gifts from all over Europe, the finest English tea, American brandy for Joe, and all sorts of stories about life in the outside world. He didn’t even seem German anymore. And so for this man to travel back to Germany when the war broke out and join the German Army as a private so that he could serve in the same unit with his childhood friend — many of his friend in Paris thought he had gone insane. Most of them hadn’t ever thought of him as German, all the more to their shock at his decision.
Now, here, literally buried in the field of death, Abbot finished counting to twenty-five and swore again.
Joe from the tube – “What do you think?”
Abbot closed his eyes for a second. When he opened them, the shapes were closer, rifles ready. He leaned to the side and whispered. “All right. We’ll have to reload in the middle. I’m first five and you go next while I reload, and just keep going. I count twenty-five.”
“Holy fish bucket,” came the whispered answer from the narrow rubber tube. “This sets a record.”
“We’re about to get stepped on. Get ready.”
Abbot braced himself –
Heavy British boots stomped down hard on his back, shoving him further down into the mud. He couldn’t see, the water inside the sack was splooshing up all around him now, and his little shrouded viewport was shoved deep down into the mud. Four more thousand-pound boots down his back, then one right onto his helmet –
A small break in the stomping let him lift gunshroud clear of mud, shake it off enough to see. He quickly drew a bead on the approaching second wave –
Quietly – “Go.”
Abbot pulled the trigger gently – a click, and loud pffft –
Four more times, aiming through the smeared tiny window with extrasensory precision at a cluster of dark shapes directly in front of him.
Abbot pulled a cartridge from the bottom of the weapon with a click, then slid it into a small fitted pouch tucked just beneath his neck. He wriggled his hand around and pulled out a matching fresh cartridge, plugging it into the rifle with a satisfying snick –
He could hear Joe firing though the little tube, amazing that the flimsy port was still intact, three, four, five, and –
From the tube – “Out.”
Through the tube, he could barely see the remaining men, now only two or three, stumbling around in confusion, wondering why ten of their numbers had just collapsed into the mire. He aimed carefully, fired three more times –
“I’m turning –”
Abbot twisted in his sack hard until he was lying on his back. He was still deeply embedded in the mud and had to wrench himself up a little, flip the gunshroud all the way forward, take aim –
He could see through the little window that the leading wave had no clue as yet that their entire rear had been dropped, and were marching forward as it everyone behind them had not just fallen into the mud. He fired twice –-
“Out”. He hoped Joe could still hear him, thought about repeating it to make sure, but then Joe’s rifle echoed from the rubber tube, and Abbot took a deep breath and started to reload. For an agonizing moment the pouch became lost somewhere down in the watery depths of the sack. If he couldn’t find it, he knew they were going to die; but he ruthlessly shoved this idea from his mind and focused on the details – not here, not to the side – there. He found it lodged in a crease along the seam of the sack, set it on his lap, jerked the old cartridge from the rifle and replaced it with the new one, aimed –
From the tube – “Abbot, they’re catching on, pull this out –”
Abbot fired the rifle four times from inside his cold and muddy bag, and then stopped to see if anything was still moving. He twisted in all directions, rolling around until he was certain he hadn’t missed anyone.
“I should double the cartridge size. At least.”
“He’s nowhere in sight. We should look for him if we don’t want to deal with a full house.”
“Anything to get out of this goddamned sack.”
It took a few minutes to pull themselves out of the poisonous muck and unfasten and remove the bizarre-looking oilskin sacks; the contraptions collapsed into muddy heaps beside them as they stepped out. Both of them were filthy and soaked from their hours beneath the mud. Joe Smith stretched his arms up to the gray sky, groaning with stiffness from the cold. He was a solidly built man in his late twenties, with a thick head of brown hair and piercing green eyes that had led his wife to fall for him, a good mechanic who had a way with steel and wood. If he had gone to school, he might have become an engineer; but the family had had no such resources, and he had learned well enough on his own, being open to everything, curious, and drawn to invention. Farmer-sense handed down from his hard-working ancestors had served him well enough.
Abbot looked around at the field of fallen men, a little astonished at their success. He had black curly hair inherited from his Jewish father, who had also been a doctor; but the brown eyes came from his English mother, and the combination had served overall to leave him reasonably tall, dark and handsome. These qualities never crossed his mind, which always seemed to be occupied with nothing but science, mathematics, chemistry, and anatomy. He and Joe were absolutely nothing alike, but events had made for an excellent life-long friendship, as constant mortal danger will often do. Together, they combined their talents to make one highly competent human being, and here in these deepest of dark woods, this most hostile and alien of landscapes, it counted a great deal to have someone next to you that had fought alongside you many times before.
Joe was searching the mud field around them for tracks of the survivor. The twenty-three that they had downed were breathing quite normally; they were unconscious, and a couple had fallen in awkward positions that Abbot and Joe had to relieve by pulling them around into different postures, lest they all wake up with awful kinks. As they worked, they removed the spent darts from each man and stashed them in their pockets – no need to leave any evidence behind. Joe pulled one of the collapsed soldiers away from a shell hole with too much water at the bottom of it, then he straightened up a little and peered at some tracks he had just seen. “Got him,” he said. “He’s headed back. We’ll never catch him.”
Abbot nodded. “And then they’ll all be here.”
Joe wore a serious expression as he made a quick survey of the land outside their shell hole. “It’s a long way home.”
Abbot looked at him, nodded, and the two packed up and moved out of the shell hole and into the deepening fog hanging like gray skin over the death and metal-encrusted fields.
The long walk back was uneventful. Several times they had to cross sentry-guarded points at which passwords were required; each time their responses were accepted. Finally, they arrived at the barracks from which they had emerged the day before, Abbot stashing the remnants of the mud-suits in a trunk next to his bed.
By the time they arrived, the sun was rising, and breakfast smells rose with incredible attraction from the mess tents. Abbot and Joe were unalterably pulled into their orbit, and finally captured, although they seemed to sneak in, hugging the tent wall and hiding their faces, trying to blend into the large groups of men who had begun to flood the tent.
It did not save them. Joe had just shoveled a mouthful of delicious apple-laced oatmeal into his mouth when he looked up to see a terrible sight; that of their commanding officer, Captain Herman Sobelius Fesfurt von Studtendorf, a man so filled with Prussian military bearing that he appeared cartoonish and unreal to any normal person. Thick-necked, bemedalled in his officer’s tunic and possessing the absolutely-required scar extending from his left lip to just beneath his eye, the captain was obviously on a personal mission. The mess tent fell into absolute silence as he strode dramatically between the tables, aiming himself at Abbot and Joe.
Joe managed to swallow just before Captain Studtendorf arrived, heels clicking together like a pistol shot, arm flying up in the air like a missile, his beady eyes fixed on Joe’s now-morose face.
Abbot looked cautiously up at the captain, then pushed back his chair and rose to his feet, snapping his heels and arms exactly as the captain had done. Joe turned his gaze from the captain to Abbot and rose slowly to his feet, unsure as to whether to copy Abbot’s response or to mildly hunch his shoulders and avoid the captain’s direct gaze. In the end he chose the latter, slumping guiltily next to his friend, who maintained his stern pose without breaking character for a moment.
The captain glared at Joe only for a moment, then turned his scarred visage to Abbot. He smiled, which for a Prussian officer is the most frightening facial expression of all.
“I’m so very pleased that you have seen fit to return to barracks against specific orders, and to have the gall to sneak into the mess tent, and to be discovered consuming breakfast alongside men who understand how to follow orders and remain at their posts in the military fashion. You, however, I think are most unmilitary and as such deserve not only further scrutinous training, but some measure of corporal punishment which I shall personally conceive of,” said the captain in a clipped and professional tone. Prussians as a rule did not raise their voices; they reserved their rage for the act that would accompany the voice, this characteristic having been drilled into their young men since the Huns had first begun to overrun their small series of valleys west of the Neman river centuries ago.
Abbot, if possible, drew himself even straighter, and responded to the captain’s words with the same menacing air of gentle nobility.
“Captain, we returned with vital intelligence concerning the sector in which we were assigned. We successfully defended ourselves against a raiding party composed of twenty-five soldiers, twenty-four of whom will not be returning to combat. One man escaped and returned to his lines, and we felt it necessary to return to report this large patrol as swiftly as possible, obviously a probe before a main assault –”
The captain’s hand swept out like a knife to cut Abbot off. “You were to remain at your post until relieved. You are a liar, Private Hoffman, and I intend to see you whipped and or hanged along with your sad-dog friend here for the direct disobeyal of orders given to you by your commanding officer.”
Abbot clicked his heels forcefully once again.
“Captain! That is your prerogative as the commanding office of the German company I am proud to call my brothers in arms! I cheerfully admit my error and await your disposition of our fate! Hail the Emperor!”
The captain leaned his head to one side and looked knowingly at Abbot.
“You are so very intelligent, Dr. Hoffman, but I think the gray dawn of the firing squad may rob you of your humorous bent. Enjoy your last breakfast, gentleman. Then report to the sergeant-at-arms for disposition. And don’t try to run.”
The captain whirled and strode back through the aisleways of the tent. Every face in the mess tent now turned to Abbot, who shrugged and sat down next to Joe, who had already collapsed into his chair the moment the captain had turned his back.
Abbot lowered his head a little, and whispered to Joe. “What do you think our chances are, hey? I thought that went pretty well. Are you still hungry? I am.”
Joe stayed silent, shocked by Abbot’s nonchalance as he turned back to his still-heaping plate and began to devour it. After awhile Joe began to nibble at his own breakfast again, nodding to himself. “If we’re in the kettle or they kill us, at least I’m not sinking into that mud buried inside that damned sack.”
Abbot snorted. “You know you don’t mean that. The sack idea was pure gold. C’mon.”
Joe shrugged. “What?”
Joe took another bite without answering, then relented, nudging Abbot with his elbow.
“All right. Wonderful, lovely, happy little leaking sack in the mud, thank you for that. Saved my life. Still — I need a rocket. A rocket that will take my whole family to somewhere where there is no war, just until it all blows over.”
Abbot nodded. “Okay. But let me ask you — if it was another planet? Like this one?”
Joe smiled. His face was still smeared with lined dirt and grease and The Mud, but his teeth flashed as he replied. “Absolutely, Abbot. Our own Earth, with maybe less bugs, and a few less things like leeches, or mosquitoes, or –”
Abbot interrupted him. “Everything goes together, you know, Joe.”
Joe acknowledged this, in the way old friends do when they share an uncomfortable truth, by smirking. “Abbot, you would take the side of a virus if it seemed oppressed.”
Abbot thought this over. “No. Yes. One has to be aware of bias. Anthropocentric logic, you know.”
“No. I don’t. Do you have a plan for us yet?”
Abbot had just taken a huge bite and nodded as much as he could. “Shuh. Ho on.” He finished eating, wiped his hands, and leaned towards Joe in an attempt at privacy.
“We don’t run. We go back.”
“Go back? Into the mud? Under fire?”
“We slip in, grab two of the guys, they’re all still down. Swap uniforms. Well, we take ours with us as well.”
“I speak perfect English. Neither of us look particularly German, we could pass for Brits. You play dead, I’ll do all the talking, we get back behind British lines, and find out what time the advance is, whatever else we can find out. Then we come back, maybe with some papers, code books, maps — they won’t shoot us after that, right? Even Studtendorf wouldn’t, he’d get all the credit. They’ll probably give us another medal. At worst the stockade. And that’s safe.”
“Abbot, this idea of yours, this crazy idea of yours — do you — do you –”
“Yes, and it’ll work. You just have to stay quiet, act shell-shocked. I’ll do all the talking.”
Joe exhaled for a long time, and put his head down on the table. “Is it all right if I sleep a little bit before I die?”
Abbot looked at his watch. “We’ve got a few hours.”
Abbot leaned forward. “But I don’t trust the Sergeant-at-arms to be so patient. We’ll have to hide. Can you think of a place to lay low?”
Joe raised his head and nodded. “That pile of crates out behind Six Trees. Flat. And dry. We’ll stack ‘em and make a hole for ourselves.”
Abbot smiled. “You mean the pile of crates full of howitzer shells?”
Joe squinted. “Yeah. Scared, little pony?”
Abbot shook his head. “No, it’s perfect. We’ll make a little fire to keep warm, flirt with fate.”
Joe laughed. “Make your little fire far from me. I’m not flirting with anything. I’m married.”
The world on the verge of catastrophe was very brilliant. Nations and Empires crowned with princes and potentates rose majestically on every side, lapped in the accumulated treasures of the long peace. All were fitted and fastened – it seemed securely – into an immense cantilever. The two mighty European systems faced each other, glittering and clanking in their panoply, but with tranquil gaze… Words counted, and even whispers. A nod could be made to tell… Would Europe thus marshaled, thus grouped, thus related, unite into one universal and glorious organism capable of receiving and enjoying in undreamed of abundance the bounty which nature and science stood hand and hand to give? The old world in its sunset was fair to see.
But there was a strange temper in the air. One might think the world wished to suffer.
-Churchill, Winston S. (1923). The World Crisis.
New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (p.97)
2 the barrels
They slept like logs for a few hours in the wooden cocoon of crates they had made for themselves and then woke up in the gathering darkness of early evening to slip stealthily through a weak spot in the wire that Abbot knew about. Before he had even returned to full consciousness, Joe found himself looking out over the same fog-shrouded gray doom he’d been buried in last night. The light was nearly gone now, they were out of time, and he and Abbot were searching frantically for the men they had brought down the day before.
“Look, is that the Barrels? See that?” Joe was pointing ahead into the depths of the mist, where a ridge could be barely viewed, festooned with vast coils of razor wire. It was named for the small barrels with rocks inside that served as sound detection devices, hung from special parts of the coiled mass of metal.
Abbot nodded. “We’re way east,” he said. “And that’s the hooked salient from last week where they picked off Verfelt.”
They moved in the right direction, without speaking, threading their way through the ruined alien landscape. Within twenty minutes they arrived at the scene of the prior night’s action. They moved silently, gracefully through the supine ranks, alert for the slightest twitch – but, nothing. Twenty three men lay prone in various positions on top of the mud.
Abbot and Joe searched among the bodies in the near darkness for uniforms that would fit. They carefully stripped two candidates, put on their uniforms, and wrapped the men in blankets Abbot had thought to bring along. All of their own clothing and weaponry went into a spacious single duffel that floated in the muck next to Abbot.
“How long do you think?” Joe grimaced at the clammy feel of another man’s muddy clothing. Everything felt wrong, but especially the English underwear. Abbot had insisted in case they were arrested and searched, but Joe found it grotesque. Everything made him itch. They finished bundling the last man carefully, and Abbot glanced at his watch.
“Minimum four hours left,” Abbot replied after thinking it over.
Joe sighed as he finished buttoning up the British wool jacket. “And that will be that.”
Abbot smiled. “Always the vocalization thing. Why do people all sing with the 858? Every last one. No other formula I’ve ever tried does that,” he mused. “It’s strange. Amines are very strange. I sense design.”
“I sense that this guy had lice, damn it,” Joe replied. “I appreciate the silencer, and all the other little tricks that’ve kept us alive, believe me. But your chemistry seems kind of hit or miss right now, because I have news for you, British lice do not respect it at all.”
Abbot made a face. “Give it time.”
Joe rolled his eyes and scratched at himself, turning away to pick up a British steel helmet, settling it down on his head with a look akin to religious suffering.
Abbot finished dressing, shouldered one of the British Lee-Enfields and looked through the deep mist at the dark mass of the British line. “We’ll have to hide our bag somewhere in the British forward trench system, someplace we can get to again.”
He looked at Joe with deep seriousness. “We’re going to have to learn fast. We don’t even know the doors.”
Joe scratched at his privates furiously. “We have to wait for sentries to turn over, get close. Should be soon, right? ”
Abbot nodded at Joe, and both men seemed to think it through. Without another word they began to work their way through the thick morass toward the British wire.
A few hours later, Abbot and Joe were lying on the edge of a vast shell crater directly in front of an eight-foot high section of cyclone razor wire that guarded the approach to the first British parapet. It was now a pitch black and moonless night, and cold. Joe shivered in his stolen clothing; but at least he had stopped itching. Abbot lay next to him, his eyes barely above the lip of the crater, his gaze trained intensely on the section of wire that lay not ten feet from them. Only the blazing starfield over their heads revealed any detail at all in the depthless mass.
Presently two British sentries could be heard approaching the section. They crept along the edge of the crater with a slithering sound that gave away their exact position; it was nearly impossible to move silently in this environment. Abbot and Joe stayed absolutely still, and so were essentially invisible. In the blackness, only sound gave shape to anything. One of the sentries crawled forward in the mud to the very edge of the wire, and Abbot heard him shake it gently. “Boulogne,” whispered the sentry. Immediately Abbot heard the sound of several sections of the wire being drawn back, the bottom of the coils scrapping wetly across the mud. The other sentry followed closely on the trail of the first and Abbot heard the sound of the wire being pressed back into place. He nudged Joe, and together they oozed themselves over the edge of the trench and up to the very edge of the wire as quietly as possible.
Abbot reached forward and felt for a coil, found one, shook it gently. “Boulogne,” he whispered in an English accent.
Nothing happened. The wire stayed put. Joe tugged at Abbot’s jacket to indicate that they should withdraw, but then a voice whispered back at them from the other side of the wire.
“Who the bloody hell are you supposed to be, mate?”
Abbot responded immediately in perfect West End. “One-Fiftieth King’s Division, sir. York. We got hit with some sort of damned new knockout gas, never even smelled it. One man made it out. We just woke up. There’s twenty two of us still out there, I’ve only been able to bring back me mate Kevin, but every man’s still breathing. I need a party to pull ‘em in.”
Joe nudged Abbot, and whispered almost imperceptibly, “Kevin?”
A long moment of silence from the other side.
“Right,” came the reply, and Abbot heard the wire in front of him being withdrawn. He crawled forward through the hole, reaching to grab Joe by the front of his coat. Joe went limp and started wheezing a little, playing his part perfectly, and Abbot had to strain to pull him through the dense muck and into the darkness behind the wire belt.
Abbot dragged Joe forward until he hit a slight rise; he called out. “Give’s a hand, mate. ‘E’s heavy as a dead cow.”
The tactic worked; two forms emerged from the parapet to help with Joe and guided the two through the darkness into the deep front-line trench. Abbot and the two others carried Joe down a stretch of the trench, finally turning down a rammed-earth corridor and into an administrative area. They laid him down onto a canvas stretcher as a bespectacled officer carrying a trench lantern hurried over to investigate. Abbot stood up and saluted as the other two men left to return to their posts.
For a moment the officer said nothing, but just looked at Joe and Abbot, mystified. Finally, he shook his head.
“We assumed you were all dead. Hendricks came back without a wound and reported that his entire platoon had been wiped out. Said some creatures came out of the mud and got ‘em, he’s gone right south. We haven’t had a chance to find the bodies.”
Abbot relaxed his salute. “About six hundred yards, due southwest. They’re all alive but dead out. We still don’t know what it was. Kevin sounds like he’s breathin’ hard, maybe it was gas, but no odor, no color. I never seen nothing like it.”
The officer appeared shocked. “Good lord. We’ll assemble a team immediately. Can you guide us there?”
Abbot nodded. “Of course, captain sir. Let me just get Kev to the medics first, and I’ll be right back.”
The officer shook his head. “No, no, let me get a few orderlies.” He turned away and gave orders to a group of staff officers to call for an orderly team. But when he turned back to make further inquiries of the new arrival both he and his unconscious friend had already disappeared, and the mystified look returned to captain’s face.
It took Abbot and Joe an hour to work their way into the British rear areas. Along the way they had to contend with a kitchen crew, a belligerent Scottish artillery officer, and endless procession of filthy and exhausted sappers (the military term for trench diggers) and one extremely suspicious and nearly fatal Irish major, who seemed about to arrest them both on principle before being reluctantly called off by a distant gas whistle.
Abbot and Joe wandered through the massed tents and temporary wood structures, passing under the gaze of hundreds of filthy, weary soldiers, their faces black with the accumulated grime of life in the forward trenches. Many of them were trembling slightly, with dazed expressions. The smell was much the same as it had been out in no man’s land, but the thousands of live men stuffed into a small space added a certain spice not present in the battle zone, where death was the dominant scent. Abbot saw boys, here and there, and men of fifty, hair graying at the sides, circles under their eyes. In his mind he could easily place them from his time living in London: here was the suburban schoolboy chasing his dog home, excited to be free of the stern pressures of English public school life; and over there, the bookshop clerk over on Charing Cross, thinning hair combed directly east, dreaming about a pint and a successful game of darts.
Now they were dressed alike, the boy and the clerk, and would be machine-gunned alike as they were thrown by thousands into the cauldron, murdered or maimed in the latest ghastly fashion. They were — units. Units of force. And from what Abbot could see, spent. The fighting had been severe lately; Abbot knew his own side was about to launch something big, and the artillery duels had been steadily increasing in intensity for weeks. A lot of German infantry divisions were massing, depots full of crates, trucks roaring in and out. And if the attack was to fall on this sector, he didn’t see much hope for the men manning the ramparts on this side, who by and large looked like pale walking skeletons. There were no signs of any impending British assault that he could see; they looked like they were barely holding on here.
He gave Joe the eye, and Joe shook his head. By now they were nearly telepathic in such situations; they’d been close since elementary school, and had been through enough misadventures together that they could hear each other’s voices without speaking. Joe knew what Abbot was saying; that what the two of them were doing would probably prove fatal in the end to these men they were so casually strolling though. Joe had replied in his way by reminding Abbot that these men would likely shoot them on the spot if they could see them in their original uniforms. Abbot shrugged – still, they were human beings.
Abbot twisted his upper lip by way of indicating that this was a moral quandary that required processing, and Joe dropped his head slightly and widened his eyes to remind him that his friend Joe had a wife and children at home, and would prefer to return to them without the standard debilitating wound or mortal injury, and could they please just steal some British maps and get the hell out of there. Abbot pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes – they would have to find a way to make their effort seem valuable enough to Studtendorf that he would spare their lives, but at the same time render the intelligence useless somehow, and without letting the captain know it was useless. Abbot wasn’t about to have a few thousand corpses dwelling in his subconscious, and Joe thought it might nag at him as well in later years. Conscience could prove expensive, even fatal, on the Western Front; Joe hoped they could continue to afford the luxury.
Abbot veered right down a main thoroughfare to a large tented area with radio antennas and regimental standards protruding from each peak. Joe followed, eyes alive, head on a swivel, ready to react to the moment. Abbot slowed down as they approached the chewed-up thoroughfare that led through the tents, and maneuvered around a line of horse-drawn wagons carrying ammunition and shells. Inside the first tent were a large number of men seated at desks and in front of equipment; the second and third tents were dark, but the fourth and largest tent was well-lit, and was full of tables with maps on them. It was toward this tent that Abbot steered, pausing a few feet from the doorway, surveying the scene inside with his eyes.
From behind them, a voice: “You little Yorkies lost yer way, ‘av ya? This is no-go territory without a ticket, boys.”
Abbot and Joe whirled to find a sharp-featured man in his thirties, well-built, a major with Queen’s Own patches. He had his hand resting on his pistol. Joe looked caught, with wide guilty eyes; but Abbot recovered quickly and snapped back into his role as a humble British soldier from the wrong side of London.
“Excuse me, sir, but we was lookin’ for someone to report to on what happened on our trench raid,” he said. “Some kind of new gas, sir. We’ve got to head back and guide ‘em in, but the captain thought we should report on it directly.”
“He did, did he?” Abbot nodded, but the man was clearly suspicious. “Come with me, then. Let me introduce you to someone.”
Abbot and Joe followed the major into the center of the main tent. In the center of the room, a man in a colonel’s uniform frowned deeply over a map, muttering to himself as he occasionally penciled notes into a small book.
The major waited until the colonel looked up. “Hullo, Winston. I’ve brought you two Yorkies, what say they were gassed on a trench raid, something new, they say. This should interest you of all people.”
Abbot’s face changed expression as they approached the map table. Now he looked stricken, lagging behind Joe, trying to hide his face. Joe looked at his friend, not understanding. Abbot had dropped out of character, and at the worst time –
“Val? I’m sorry, what did you say?” The colonel straightened and appeared distracted at this interruption.
“Colonel Churchill, sir, these two boys say they’ve been gassed. Something new. And they were looking to talk to someone about it. So their officer sent them — here.”
The colonel now turned his full attention on Abbot and Joe. Abbot was now very nearly turned sideways, away from Churchill.
“Is that so, Major Fleming? Really? And they made it all the way without interference? Fascinating.”
“Well, at least I was in the way, Winston.”
“Yes you were, Val. And a good thing, too.”
Colonel Churchill looked at Joe carefully, examining his uniform, and then peered at Abbot, who seemed to be shrinking further into himself with each passing moment.
“Dr. Hoffman? Is that you?”
Abbot turned, embarrassed, utterly caught. He tried to make the best of it. “Hello, Winston,” he said. “Wouldn’t ever have expected to see you here. Lords of the Admiralty usually reside in London, not at the Belgian front.” Abbot then nonchalantly placed his hands in his front pockets, and posed as if poking fun at an old friend.
Winston looked at him for a moment, grunted. “Major Fleming and I are on a fact-finding mission here, just visiting. Frankly, I must say that it is you that I would never have expected to see in the uniform of the Yorkshire Brigade of the Second Army. The last we met, you were still a citizen of Germany.”
“Yes, that’s true.”
“And — have you renounced your nation, then, and joined the British Army? As a private? A man of your scientific prowess?”
Abbot did not answer. Joe looked back at him.
Winston turned his gaze to Joe. “And you, sir, are you a recent addition to the great tradition of the 50th Northumbrian Division as well?”
For a long moment, Joe said nothing. He looked up at Abbot, who would not meet his gaze, and then back at Winston, and then to Major Fleming.
“Absolutely, sir,” said Joe in a heavily German-accented tone.
Winston smiled. Major Fleming suddenly had a pistol in his hand. “I take it the operation’s been penetrated, Winston,” he said. ”Hard to believe, with all our new ultra-security.”
Winston made a chuffing sound, and walked around the two men to look Abbot directly in the face. The light from the flickering trench lanterns hung up on the poles of the great tent revealed an intelligent, deeply thoughtful face. He pursed his lips, and thought at length before speaking.
“Dr. Hoffman, I would appreciate your honesty in this matter. We have been colleagues, and I must offer you the opportunity to square matters. Otherwise, I must immediately turn you over to Major Fleming’s cadre for interrogation and imprisonment. How on earth do you happen to find yourself here? And who is this other man, the one with the distinctly West German accent?”
Abbot pulled one hand from his pocket and held it out, palm up. “All right, Winston, it’s an odd story, but algorithmically speaking, let me condense it. This is Joe Smith, born Josef Schmidt, but he prefers everything American; he’s my best friend from Bochum, where we grew up. One day everything was fine, and the next thing we knew, the Kaiser called up the reserves, he had to report for duty, and his wife Lena wrote to me and made me promise to take care of him. ”
Joe seemed shocked by this statement. “What did you say?”
Abbot glanced at him briefly, then turned back to Winston. Joe continued to frown at Abbot.
“And so here we are.” Abbot smiled inscrutably, as if this statement explained everything.
Winston was frowning now. “Dr. Hoffman, I’m disappointed to find that you’ve fallen so far into dishonor as to become a spy. And I must now insist that you answer in detail my questions concerning both your mission and the disposition of German forces near this juncture.”
“Of course, Winston. Is this a map of the Ypres salient?” Abbot extended his free hand to gesture at the table containing the map Churchill had been studying. Both Churchill and Major Fleming turned their heads to look at the map, and when they did, Abbot suddenly pulled his other hand from his pocket and thrust it at the large trench lamp hung over the center of the table like a magician casting a spell.
A fistful of dust filled the air over the table, and FWOOOM – a blinding actinic flash filled the tent. Joe and Abbot were prepared for it, but Churchill and Major Fleming were not. They had been looking in the direction of the map when Abbot had moved; their gaze had followed the cloud of dust Abbot had released, and now they were directly blinded by the flash. When their eyes cleared, the gun that had been in Major Fleming’s hand was now in Joe’s, and Churchill and Fleming found the situation neatly reversed.
Churchill raised his hands. “Clever magic trick, Dr. Hoffman,” he said.
Abbot brushed the flash powder from his hands, looked Winston in the eye. “Winston,” he said, “I want you to know that we’ve only done this because we were facing execution by our commanding officer. I’m taking some maps from this table to try to bargain for our lives, and you should immediately make drastic changes in your dispositions, as we have no wish to be responsible for the deaths of any of the stouthearted British lads manning these lines. As I said, I promised Joe’s wife I’d look out for him. It’s the only reason I’m here, and you must know I would never otherwise engage in these activities.”
Joe interrupted. “That’s the second time you’ve said that. I can’t believe Lena wrote to you. How humiliating. I don’t need a bodyguard. I can take care of myself, you know.”
Abbot looked back at him, shrugged a little guiltily, spread his hands out. “Every man needs a friend in the darkness, Joe. And I wasn’t about to let you go off without me. What if something happened to you? I just couldn’t bear the thought. We always go through these things together. You know that.”
This statement failed to mollify Joe, who was still glaring mildly at his friend.
Major Fleming moved slowly toward a black wooden desk next to him –
Joe waved at him with the pistol. “Please. I haven’t killed anyone yet, but this could be the first time if you don’t just quit it right now. I’ll probably just shoot you someplace extremely painful, yet not quite fatal. Right in the buttocks, perhaps. Ouch. So long to heal, sleeping on your stomach.”
Fleming raised his hands slightly, then took a deep breath, relaxed and leaned away from the drawer. Winston lowered his head and looked piercingly at Abbot from deep, dark eyes. “Doctor, I assure you that no escape is possible,” he said. “You will be apprehended. If you stop now, I can still intervene. Internment in Switzerland, perhaps.”
“That would not deter the risk to Joe’s family. Winston, do you remember the nights we spend drinking in the Folie Paris?” Abbot answered. “We talked about world peace.”
“And the role of great men in both. I am well aware that you are the man for these times. I respect you, and support you, and I have always accepted your rougher and indelicate edges. Your mother is American, my mother is English. I therefore consider us in this oddly circular fashion to be brothers. We’ll meet again in better days, and laugh about this.”
“I accept the possibility, although military prison can rob even the most dedicated of their humor.” Churchill’s expression was dark.
“Well, for now I am more worried about your sense of humor. Because we have to tie you up, I’m afraid. Old boy. Please understand.”
Churchill snorted, and looked quite irritated as Joe jerked the gun up and down to indicate that he should turn around. He and the captain complied, after which Abbot trussed both of them up using tent rope with a surgeon’s precision, making sure not to interfere with their circulation, securing the bindings with intricate knots designed to tighten if they struggled. He then quickly examined all the maps in the room, picking up four or five of the most impressive; he then folded them into a small flat block of paper that he stuffed in his jacket along with a code book and unit lists.
He nodded at Joe, and they prepared to leave. On the way out, Abbot knelt to face Winston and Major Fleming, who were now seated on the earthen floor facing away from each other, their hands tied behind them around the thick central tent pole, their mouths gagged with thick strips of tent canvas.
“I do apologize, Major Fleming,” he said. “Terrible circumstances under which to meet. You seem very nice and quite competent. And Winston –”
Abbot now leaned forward and placed his hands on Winston’s shoulder, and spoke quietly and seriously. “You and I both know Germany’s going to lose this war. In victory, I trust you’ll be magnanimous. Forgive us for this rude act, if you can.” He rose, and without another word, he and Joe exited the tent through a rear flap, crouched down, moving with speed and silence.
Winston struggled for a moment with his bonds. No good. He looked over his shoulder at Major Fleming, and raised his eyebrows with exaggerated dismay. Fleming rolled his eyes, and comically pretended to go to sleep with a mock snore. Then his eyes flashed open, and he began to work furiously at his bindings.
Winston nodded, and began to try his best as well.
Abbot and Joe were near the front trench when a klaxon began to scream, a long, winding wail that echoed over the darkened death fields, unearthly, vengeful and bitter to their ears. They rounded a corner and paused, out of breath. Joe looked at Abbot with the obvious question, prompting Abbot to reply, apology in his voice. “He’s just really smart. That’s the nature of Winston. Plus, that other guy was some sort of super-soldier, I could tell, just by the way he moved. Those bonds were perfect. You and I would still be there, I swear. It was the best I could do.”
Joe grinned. “Way too careful. Next time, I tie, you hold the gun. Let’s go.”
One more blind corner led them to the sapper’s cut that opened into the trench where they had been. When they had left the mystified major behind, it had been scarcely occupied; now it was full of British soldiers. The siren still howled somewhere from the rear; every face was looking anxiously upward. The approaching crump of artillery from the horizon signified the reason.
“Oy, they’re ‘ere!”
The British lieutenant who had helped them through the wire trotted towards Joe and Abbot with obvious relief. “You’ve been gone almost a bloody hour! We dug up Atkins, the only bloke who made it back. He’s coming with us.”
Abbot gave Joe a look; this was positively dangerous. They couldn’t hang around waiting to be identified as impostors. To the lieutenant, Abbot tersely said, “That barrage is coming this way. We can’t wait another moment. Let’s get going.” Then he turned to the assembled trench and called out in a loud, British voice: “Right! Let’s go bring our boys back!” Then he turned away and darted up the parapet steps toward the front, closely followed by Joe.
The faint response he could hear behind him was clear proof that this sector was beaten down, chewed up, and probably the prime target for the next of Ludendorff’s offensives. The muddy soldiers lining the wall shuffled toward Abbot’s voice with a fatalistic depression. The lieutenant had been startled by Abbot’s sudden declaration of action and was slow to follow as well. As Abbot worked his way toward the passage through the front wire and out into no man’s land he thought they might perhaps stay ahead of trouble, but then he heard a man’s voice calling from behind him, “Hullo! Wait for me, it’s Atkins!”
Atkins had surged ahead of all the others, including the lieutenant, and managed to get close enough to snag Abbot’s coat, making him turn to face the shorter British soldier. “Fellows, it’s me, Atkins!”, said the smiling soldier, but the smile faded from his face as he looked at Abbot’s face, and then at Joe, who had now stopped a stride ahead of Abbot.
“Hold on, who are you?” Atkins was one of those slightly pudgy former pub-dwellers who would probably return to the pub after the war and never leave again. His expression registered absolute and total confusion.
Abbot snapped back, “we’re the guides, mate,” and turned quickly back to finish winding the last few feet of the maze through the front wire. Atkins stayed in his tracks, mouth open, watching with a dull amazement as the lieutenant and the other men followed the two strangers into no-man’s land. He asked someone in a confused tone, “Who was that? Do you know?”
But the man simply shook his head and pressed on, leaving Atkins to struggle to catch up with the group, the look of incomprehension deepening with every second. Once the party had entered the combat zone, Abbot and Joe set the pace, while the lieutenant followed them with a masked trench lantern, the light bobbling all around as he tried to keep up. The other men were all hard-pressed to stay within the general circle of light cast by the lantern, and Atkins himself fell hopelessly behind.
The never-ending artillery barrage just over the horizon became a white noise that helped to mask all other sounds in the vast empty battlefield, making the men less cautious about keeping silent. Dawn was still many hours away, and the lantern and the stars were the only light available. Abbot and Joe stayed on the path they had taken to get to the British lines, and they moved fast. Occasionally one of the men following them would curse as he slid off the path and sank to his hips in a concealed shell crater, and everyone would have to halt as the fellows nearest the man pulled him out. The men carrying the folded-up stretchers had the worst time it, losing their balance at the worst moments. The ground was chaotic, smelled awful, and in the darkness one never knew when one would find themselves suddenly plunged into a substance that would make raw sewage seem sterile.
It took them an hour to find the spot, by which time almost everyone but Abbot and Joe were coated with the thick, caustic brown pudding. Abbot navigated the last solid switchback that led directly to the field where the men he and Joe had shot still lay, prostrate, unharmed, some now snoring. The detail circled around them, realizing with astonishment that all these men appeared to be sleeping peacefully in the middle of no-man’s land. The bearers began to assemble the stretchers at the lieutenant’s command, and he moved through the unconscious men checking vital signs and looking for any sign of wounds.
At the far edge of the neatly laid-out grid, the lieutenant found that two of the men were nude, wrapped in blankets, their uniforms missing. He thought it odd that they would have been out of uniform in the combat zone – why would anyone bother to take off their clothes in this hell?
He went to ask the two soldiers that had led them here; the two survivors might know the reason — but they had vanished somewhere into the muddy night. A few minutes later Private Atkins caught up to the main party, still going on about not recognizing either of the two men as being from his platoon. By the time the lieutenant actually figured what had happened, Abbot and Joe were halfway home.
Which, Joe pointed out to Abbot as they made their way toward their own wire, was probably the safest place they had been all day.
Stumbling around in no man’s land in the pitch black without a lantern was indeed a simple proposition compared to getting back across their own lines. The password would have been changed at midnight, and Abbot and Joe had to creep forward and whisper to the startled sentry manning the forward listening post, and try to convince him that they were the remains of a returning lost patrol. They were forced to wait in a half-filled shell hole until the watch officer could be summoned, and for an hour after that while the watch officer found and consulted with Captain Studtendorf.
It was almost dawn by the time a sergeant with a detail arrived to address them mockingly from behind the coiled wire that ringed the end of the listening post.
“Hoffman! Is that you?”
“Oh, crap,” muttered Joe. “Sergeant Credenza.”
Abbot answered in a clear voice. “Yes, it is, Sergeant Kremer.”
“Captain Studtendorf said running away was the smartest thing you’ve ever done. He said you should just keep going.” Kremer was having a hard time keeping his mirth in check, and some of the men in the detail snorted with suppressed laughter.
Abbot made his voice sound serious and commanding. “Please tell Captain Studtendorf that we have tried to restore his faith in us by penetrating the enemy headquarters in disguise, and that we have brought back many stolen maps and plans for fortifications and intelligence briefings on the status of enemy units in the area, as well as a complete list of their current strengths and dispositions. All we want is a chance to regain our honor and be pardoned for our earlier offenses, which is the only possible reason we would return, since we are likely to be shot anyway.”
Silence was the only response as Sergeant Kremer thought this mass of words through. “We’ll wait,” Abbot finally called out.
Within ten minutes the wire was parted, and they were allowed through. They were immediately hustled down the saps to the main lines and brought before Studtendorf, who appeared quite anxious to examine the information Abbot had stuffed in his coat. As he pawed through the stack, his eyes gleamed with incredulity. When he looked up at Abbot and Joe, there was an awed look on his face, and a suppressed giddiness in his manner.
A delighted Captain Herman von Studtendorf was trying hard not to hop around and dance with glee. “This — this is incredible! But how did you do this? This is everything! Their maps for the entire front! It’s a treasure-trove!”
Abbot maintained an even tone, watching the captain carefully. “Captain Studtendorf, we undertook this espionage mission to attempt to restore your faith in our abilities as German soldiers. We hope you will forgive us our past transgressions, and allow us to continue to serve with our unit.”
The captain nodded happily, was more than agreeable. “Of course! Of course! Return to duty, by all means! General Falkenhayn will want to see these materials instantly! You’ve done well. Dismissed!”
As the captain turned back to inspecting his newfound wealth with little suppressed snorts and high giggles, Abbot and Joe stepped back and out of his presence, brushing through the tent flaps and out into the bright blue dawn. They stumbled in silence to their former bunks where they collapsed, still caked in mud, and fell instantly asleep to dream of pear pastries, swirled coffee, and summer afternoons on the river.
Thank God we had the time to make the changes in our lines, and thank God the Kaiser still led the German Army. We narrowly escaped the disaster that Hoffman had plunged us into.
-Churchill, Winston S. unpublished notes from The World Crisis, 1920
“All right, it worked. Apparently. So far. But there’s no telling what’s going to happen next. Everyone’s gone crazy. Except for me. Maybe you. Sometimes.” Joe was clean, drinking hot tea, and consuming gargantuan quantities of eggs, potato pancakes, and oatmeal when he tried to speak these words to Abbot, so it really came out as “Msh msh shor vat”. But Abbot knew exactly what he was saying.
“Every moment has an infinite number of divergent courses, but our consciousness stays with one branch of the growing tree. I think I understand,” replied Abbot, who was clean as well, and eating for six, but at least with some semblance of human restraint. Joe had gone long beyond this point, however, and had taken to stealing plates of ham and giant German pancakes from other tables. The entire room was watching them; but the two men seemed oblivious to the attention, just utterly happy to be alive and having dinner. These were, after all, men that had been condemned to death or imprisonment twenty-four hours ago in this very tent. Such discontinuity was rare in the German army, especially when a Prussian such as Studtendorf was involved.
Joe just gave Abbot the Silly Look, which was Joe’s way of dismissing Abbot’s long-winded scientific explanations for simple words that could say the same thing. Abbot in turn chewed with his mouth open, a slack glaze passing over his eyes as if his intelligence had just dropped fifty points. Joe leaned over and punched him in the arm.
“Primate,” muttered Abbot, and turned back to stuffing himself.
The mess tent grew suddenly silent; Captain Studtendorf and several officers had suddenly appeared at the entrance. They strode in a tightly-packed double line between the jammed tables, heading directly for Abbot and Joe, who did not see them until it was far too late. Abbot looked up to see Studtendorf towering directly over him and froze, and spoonful of eggs thrust into his mouth. But he managed to recover soon enough and rose to his feet to salute, struggling to swallow, breath and focus on the captain at the same time.
“Private Hoffman, Private Schmidt, you are to be remanded to these officers forthwith and transported to headquarters on the express order of the Chief of Staff. Your things have been collected for you. Good day.”
Captain Studtendorf said not another word; he just saluted, clicked his heels smartly, and strode purposefully from the tent. Although the captain did not appear as giddy as he had been the previous day, he was still gleaming with positivity as he walked from the mess tent, his normally pinched and cruelly indifferent face now bright and refreshed, his eyes set with a heroic cast that let everyone around him know he had just personally won the war. Clearly, Abbot and Joe had somehow managed to make him a happy man at last.
The two officers that remained behind were quite abrupt and cold as they bundled Abbot and Joe into the back of a staff car and drove them away from the battlefield. Abbot knew the attitude well, and knew not to take it personally; Prussian militarism in general required of its adherents a certain emotionally-brittle, idealized hyper-masculine stance, and after all these two officers were clearly uniformed Prussian General Staff officers, inheritors of an institution descended in style from the days of Helmuth von Moltke the Elder and Bismarck Himself. As the journey wore on, however, the officers confounded the stereotype and became positively pleasant, gruffly offering Abbot and Joe cigars and brandy. Neither of them was interested in the cigars, but both accepted the brandy.
Joe suggested quietly that things seemed to be looking up. Abbot, however, felt oddly pessimistic. He had thought it through by now, and decided that all the signs were bad. The closer to headquarters they got, he said, the more dangerous everything was going to get, the brandy notwithstanding. Joe suggested that the brandy was indeed outstanding, and demanded that they cease talking and start seriously drinking. Abbot agreed to this, and the staff officers leaned back and closed their eyes, relaxing as their two captives drank half the bottle. An hour later they all had their eyes closed, one of the officers even snoring, his ripping snorts bouncing in time with the car’s rattling suspension.
They drove for hours on heavily-rutted roads and finally arrived at Supreme Headquarters, which was a beautiful Belgian estate captured in the first hours of the great Schleiffen wheel through Belgium that had so shocked the world in 1914. Schleiffen had not lived to see his masterwork carried out; and just as well, because it had failed miserably to achieve its main goal. Moltke the Younger had been compelled to send an army to the East by a seemingly critical threat to the Prussian homeland, and their absence from the Great Wheel had permitted the British and French forces to bring about the ‘Miracle On The Marne’, when the thereto undefeatable forces of the German surprise attack had been pushed back, not the least of which by French soldiers that had been rushed to turn the tip of the German spear in hundreds of dilapidated taxis requisitioned from Paris. The story was known by all now, and most men still alive on both sides now thought of it as the good old days, before everyone around them had started dying and shriveling up. Now, the war had become a furnace, a machine that was consuming men at a faster pace each day in brand-new ways that no one had even conceived of a year ago.
Abbot watched the shredded countryside roll by, and thought about the years he and others had watched German nationalism and jingoistic ideology spread and grow stronger. Nothing anyone did or said could stop it; it appeared to be a pattern unfolding unto itself, a poisonous flower of Teutonic resentment carried all the way from the Thuringian forest through the sons of Charlemagne, to burst upon the world with a vision of a darkly modern future that toppled nations and consumed lives at a dizzying pace. Abbot had written, and spoken out, and been largely ignored, mostly because he was considered by many as an outsider, a ‘Jewish intellectual’ who wasn’t as fully ‘German’ as say, Joe’s family, who had been simple tradesmen and farmers living in Bochum for centuries. Most of Joe’s family had embraced the trend while Joe had stood apart, more informed by his years of hanging around with the likes of Abbot Hoffman than his backwoods family, and naturally suspicious of the politics of monarchy to begin with. Joe’s obsession with all things idealistically American had made him immune to the stark nationalism that had swept Germany like a modern plague, a fact for which Abbot was eternally grateful. It would be hard to remain friends otherwise.
When they arrived the gates of the estate were lined with many levels of security, culminating in a full battalion manning a deep trench system that fully encompassed the central houses. At each level, the two officers had to present passes and be carefully scrutinized; once they reached the final inspection post they left the car behind, and proceeded on foot. Joe and Abbot were searched numerous times, and with great care. Abbot was found to have any number of unidentified packets of chemical substances secreted in his pockets for which he was sternly questioned. His answers, however, were verbosely scientific, and the endless words left the train of interrogating officers falling asleep on their feet, their hawkish gazes melting into torpor as Abbot told them the absolute and very complex truth. Eventually they were released into the center of the estate, and guided by a series of neatly-dressed orderlies into the private office of General Erich von Falkenhayn.
Falkenhayn was a man of sharp features with a sharp personality to match. He had been born in Prussia, and had been destined from birth to a lifelong military career, beginning with service in the German army during the Boxer Rebellion. He had not been immediately attracted to the idea of war after the assassination of Ferdinand; but it had grown on him, as it had on all who saw the possibility that the military machine they lived their lives inside might actually be capable of making all Europe a German province. He was an intelligent man, but not immune to such visions. After that, they all thought — the world! Why not? Were they not the strongest, and was that not the Natural Way? The Germans could rule the globe for all mankind, bringing peace and prosperity to every dark corner. Thus, Erich Falkenhayn.
As with all the Prussian leaders, he kept his romantic and artistically-sensitive sides well-hidden. Falkenhayn loved music, and could dance and sing; he even loved small animals, and kept a diary in which he wrote little love poems to his childhood sweetheart. But today, as Abbot and Joe approached his great desk, carved with love from the dark Belgian oak that once covered the province he now occupied as warlord, he wore the Mask Of Command, the stern face and crafted gaze of the Prussian Minister of War for Kaiser Wilhelm. The scowl with which he now studied the stolen British maps in front of him lifted only slightly as he finally acknowledged Abbot and Joe, and bid them to be seated.
Falkenhayn sat down on the other side of the massive desk, and pointed at the papers strewn across it. When he spoke, his tone was pleasant, and totally out of sync with his expression: “I must hear the story of how you accomplished such a feat. Do you understand how valuable these materials have proved to be? We are preparing a massive assault on the Ypres salient, beginning with Gravenstafel. Albrecht is euphoric over this find; these documents are amazing. We’ve had no luck with intelligence lately, the British have someone new running security now, someone very prescient, very competent, restricting information flow. “
Abbot nodded. “Winston Churchill. And his friend, Major Valentine Fleming.”
Falkenhayn was struck by this. “Lord Churchill? What is the First Lord of the Admiralty doing at Ypres?”
“Certain things he said made me believe he is now helping to organize and enhance their security procedures. All of these documents were taken from the tent where we were captured by him,” Abbot replied. Falkenhayn sat forward in his overstuffed leather chair, eyes suddenly bright with interest in the tale.
“You were — captured by Lord Winston Churchill? Behind the British lines?” said Falkenhayn. “And then? How could you possibly escape?”
Before he could answer, Falkenhayn waved his hand for pause. “Wait. Begin at the very beginning. Captain Studtendorf sent you on this mission — what were his instructions?” To a group of aides waiting patiently by the door, he gestured impatiently. “Food! And coffee!”
As Falkenhayn sat back in his chair to listen to the story, Abbot and Joe glanced at each other. What had been Captain Studtendorf’s instructions? Abbot thought he should rewrite the narrative somewhat, to make the whole thing fit better in the Prussian Box. He quickly adjusted the story to try to draw attention away from themselves.
“Captain Studtendorf suggested we steal two British uniforms, and make our way into the British positions by any means necessary,” Abbot began. Joe nudged him. “Don’t forget the flash powder. It was very exciting. Abbot’s really smart about this stuff, you know,” Joe gushed out without realizing that he should probably just let Abbot do the talking as usual. These chattering interruptions for content color seemed to become much easier for Joe once the pastries and refreshments arrived, and after the fifth or sixth such interjection Abbot just let it go.
Abbot spoke for about an hour, skillfully leaving out as many details as possible. You could never tell what mistaken turn of a phrase might set off a man like this. Prussians considered themselves a breed of human apart; and with good reason. They had been a plethora of tribes living in a sealed series of valleys, unknown for millennia in the surrounding lands. The early versions had fought each other for centuries in the most brutal internecine war, constant and bloody. The survivors had finally emerged from seclusion and entered the European scene with an insecurity and thoughtful capacity for ultra-violence unseen in any other European combination.
There had always been a Spartan edge to Prussia, and for logical causation. As Europe had become populated the Prussians found themselves sometimes invaded and outnumbered, and their response was to militarize their entire society, their families, their loves, their thoughts. When they had finished the process, they burst upon the world stage like an unstoppable new virus. No one had ever seen their brand of adaptive military style before, and the experience was alien to their opponents; instead of leading the charge from horseback or observing the battle from a nearby hill in some noble pose, the Prussian generals had quietly played whist in a railcar with their mastermind, the Elder Moltke, while their armies had skillfully spread out across the railways first to unify Germany, then to conquer France.
Abbot knew many Prussians quite well. At his first university he had practiced the art of fencing with the cream of the Prussian crop, and had excelled at it out of pure survival. The Prussians revered swordplay, and seemed to treasure the occasional mutilation in the pursuit of its excellence. They had not approved of a Jewish student to begin with; and while they certainly did not approve of one with serious martial skills, his mastery at least earned him an eventual grudging respect. Thus it was, so many hundreds of years later, that a son of Israel found himself trained up by direct competition with large numbers of exceedingly aggressive and highly skilled young monsters, all forged in the high flame of Modern Prussia.
He’d managed to avoid the scarring part, at least. Not that they hadn’t tried. In the end, though, he’d even made a few friends after his skills with the blade began to tell – if one could actually be ‘friends’ with a Prussian. One could be friends with a rabid Rottweiler as well, but one still did not quite relax around them.
And so it was that when Abbot spoke of their adventures to Falkenhayn, he knew what the story was required to contain, and offered it up. And the gleam in the general’s eyes revealed that Abbot told a good story indeed, one that could stir the heart of even this man, the most Prussian of them all. Daring exploits, populated by certain characters surviving on wit and skill — all the essential elements were there. The only things missing were dragons and lovely maidens in danger, perhaps a mythic faun playing a lute in a glade.
The story of the escape left Falkenhayn hooting and slapping his knee, utterly captivated by the brazenness of it all. The two aides standing like statues in the corners of the room behind the general were consistently startled by his outbursts, which were clearly rare. He simply could not contain his delight, acting much as Captain Studtendorf had acted; the odd duality of the Prussian revealed, the boyish herder popping out for a moment from behind the warlord’s mask to deliver a lopsided goofball grin. “Oh, I would have loved to see the look on Churchill’s face! And right in front of their noses,” he said. “What a tale!”
From beneath the general’s stiff brush of gray hair his narrow gray eyes gleamed knowingly at them. “They will of course have changed the dispositions of their lines by now. But the other information is priceless. You have done an exceedingly important deed.” The general rose, and personally poured out brandies for the three of them, a mark of high honor within the ultra-stratified world of the German General Staff. He then settled back into his chair and thought to himself for a moment before leaning forward to look both Abbot and Joe over with a calculating gaze.
Here, Abbot thought, comes the other boot.
“Our intelligence efforts have been completely stymied as of late, apparently because of the work of this Churchill. We are planning the largest offensive drive of the war, a direct assault on the Ypres salient. We intend to drive the British into the sea and end the war. I must ask you to go out again, to re-infiltrate the British lines and gather information about their reserves and any force that might be held back for a counter-stroke. We believe Gravenstafel and St. Julien are held only by green Canadian troops and a few French training brigades, but there is evidence that the British may be massing to the north for some sort attack of their own. I must know the state of the British lines behind Havrecourt. And you must retrieve this knowledge for me.”
Abbot was silent for a long time; Joe looked as if he were about to faint.
The German warlord grew impatient. “Well?” he demanded, “are you prepared to serve your nation or are you not? You might save tens of thousands of lives if you succeed. You would be heroes to your people.”
Abbot cleared his throat. “General, neither Private Schmidt nor myself have any training for this sort of thing. We just sort of stumbled into it, because we’d gotten ourselves in some trouble with the captain …” Abbot trailed off.
“Excellent! It’s done, then. Good luck, gentlemen.” The general became suddenly quite busy, motioning to one of his subordinates to move Abbot and Joe along.
“General?” Abbot said. The interruption made the General bristle with the delay. He began accepting and signing a long series of command orders, each pegged onto a thin wooden backing. The nib of his pen scraped across the paper with a rhythmic flair, half-stroke UP stroke down stroke curl.
“What is it, soldier?” Falkenhayn said. “I must return to my duties and you to yours.”
“Sir, they’ll be waiting for us this time. To penetrate the British lines a second time will require a new and devious plan. I will require certain materials and tools, and space in a workshop. I can work quickly, but I’ll need some things.” Abbot’s gaze was now squarely set upon the aging general’s hardened face; Falkenhayn felt physically impacted by the look and wondered for the first time just who this man was. A doctor, yes, a scientist — but such men would still not lock eyes with a German general, who commanded the absolute power of life and death within his scope, according to the German way. It was unheard of, even rude, for the man to look at him this way. So this Hoffman was more than he appeared at first — he and his small-town friend had penetrated the British lines and returned somehow, this was true, and many had assumed it was pure dumb luck; but now Falkenhayn could see something else, and thought that perhaps this wasn’t a case of luck at all. Perhaps they might actually succeed. If they could, he might be able to turn the next day’s events to his will. The strategist in him seriously doubted they could survive, it was just one of a thousand plans afoot, but still –
“Of course,” waved Falkenhayn. “We have a large development team on the premises. I’ll have one of my orderlies guide you there. The lead scientist is a man by the name of Hyndman. He’ll help you with anything you need.”
The general signaled to an orderly, and spoke briefly to him. He dismissed Abbot and Joe with a gesture, but then turned back a moment later. “I’ll set Major Hilfstadt to help you get what you need. But by tonight, Dr. Hoffman. You must return tonight, not tomorrow,” he said, and peered back at them with a perfectly cold gaze. “You must leave as soon as you can.” The general nodded in regal command.
Abbot felt himself nod back; there was no other permissible response. Joe was quietly hyperventilating, still staring at the general as if he might say something. Abbot touched his arm and led him out of the room, following the orderly to whatever fate awaited.
Dr. Kelten von Hyndman proved to be a dynamic older fellow with a balding head and stained soldier’s greatcoat who strode purposefully between rows of munitions assembly tables, leaving Abbot and Joe to trail behind him. Under the dark rafters of this great converted barn, hundreds of men and women toiled stuffing shells or filling grenades, preparing fuses, machining casings or mixing high explosive. Great scaffoldings rose into the air above them with men and women perched on crossbars above strange vats, doing mysterious things in near-darkness. The air was filled with the acrid tang of chemical manufacture mixed with smoke and sweat. Abbot could dimly see a second row of human feet far above the crossbar people, and realized that the vast framework was essentially a three-story building, with so much volatile activity stuffed into every dimension that Abbot wondered what a stray spark would do. Like the moon, he thought. Craterous.
The good doctor was leading them to his office, which turned out to be a steel cube welded into the second story like some nest at the center of a spider’s web. As he ascended the sharply-angled steel stairs Abbot looked out over the bustling scene, saw the design of the activity, and contrasted the absolute order it represented with the catastrophic disorder the end product would bring when it was fired at the enemy. This was truly a factory of death, a place where mayhem met industry, and it gave him a chill.
He and Joe had been on the receiving end of enough of these devices to give him a perspective that most of these workers were perhaps less aware of. High explosive shaped a man; altered his senses, perhaps his very genetic pattern. One needed to feel the concussion in one’s chest to grasp the real meaning of this massive effort. It was the sheer volume that bothered Abbot. All too much.
The office was cramped, and everything in it smelled like cordite or benzene, or burned metal. Papers were stacked everywhere, orders, demands, recipe notes — it looked like a college professor’s office, which is probably what Hyndman had been before the war: a chemistry professor somewhere in northeastern Germany, henpecked and underpaid until Fate and a few connections had lent him a hand by making his knowledge of chemical explosives suddenly very valuable. No rifle for him, no trench, just a seat in a metal box hanging over the world’s biggest bomb. And power – he was the Death Master himself, commissioned and respected. Still, Abbot would not trade places with him.
Dr. Hyndman gestured that they should sit in the two chairs on the other side of his small but heavily-piled-up desk. Abbot handed the doctor a folded piece of paper, the order from Falkenhayn directing him to assist them. Dr. Hyndman looked it over peremptorily and then let it fall to the desktop, where it lay balanced on the edge of a stack of accounting ledgers. Abbot thought about reaching over and retrieving it; instead, he sat down.
“More of Mr. Blockhead’s pets to babysit,” said Hyndman with an arrogant irritation. “I suppose you have some half-cocked idea for a telescope that can see over the horizon, or a flying machine that is impervious to bullets, or a spray that turns soldiers into rabbits,” said the Doctor. Abbot looked at Joe, momentarily startled, then turned back to address the doctor, whose scowl was growing ever deeper.
Abbot leaned over and laid a small piece of notebook paper on top of the delicately-balanced pile. “This is all we require. These things and a corner of a shop somewhere.”
Hyndman snatched up the list from the top of his desk-pile, and his brow furrowed as he reviewed Abbot’s list. “Nonsense!” he roared. “I am a scientist, not a rag-man! I have created the most powerful war weapon ever conceived of, and it is to be employed for the first time in the coming operation. I’m too busy for this.” He threw the piece of paper over the pile. It fluttered to the floor at Abbot’s feet, and he picked it up.
Hyndman saw Abbot do this, and reacted badly. He stood up suddenly and leaned over the piles on his desk. His entire face had changed somehow. Instead of the aging professor, the stained greatcoat somehow helped make him look like the devil, his shiny face flushed, his expression that of a truly mad scientist. He grinned, and it was evil. His bald head gleamed as he leered maniacally at Abbot and Joe. “I’ll tell you what — you can go scavenge these things for yourselves at the depot. I’ll assign an orderly to you so you don’t get shot. Take whatever you need from there, that’s all I can do for you. You can use the empty test room in the northeast wing. Thus I’ve done all I could for you. Good day.”
Without another word, Dr. Hyndman walked around the desk and pushed past Abbot to leave the room, slamming the door as he exited, plunging down the steep and narrow steel steps to the floor of the factory to disappear into his vast machine of doom.
“I think you could have been nicer to him. Don’t you?” Joe asked after Hyndman was gone.
“I wanted to shoot him,” said Abbot. “Formula eighty-nine. Full dose.”
“Well, then he wouldn’t have been able to finish his great war-weapon he was talking about. I wonder what it is? Maybe he’s made a giant mechanical man or something,” Joe mused.
“I remember that story,” said Abbot. “About the little boy. That was our favorite of all the stories Go-Go told, the one we liked the most. Remember the Catastrophic Angel? And Eagle Boy?”
Joe laughed. “Your grandfather was a nut. A highly intelligent nut. I loved him dearly.”
Abbot nodded. “I miss him. I wonder what he would think of this place?”
“Considering the highly explosive contents, probably that it would be an intelligent choice to exit the premises quietly and quickly.”
Abbot smiled. “Let’s go-go, then,” he said. Joe punched him. “That was an awful pun. Uncalled for,” he said. “Yes,” said Abbot. “Yes it was.”
But they ended up waiting in the office for several hours until the orderly was sent to retrieve them; then they were driven in a truck to a massively overstacked supply depot full of shell boxes and food, gasoline and fodder, arranged in half-pyramids that sometimes teetered eighty feet high. They arrived at a marked-off area, a vast city of tent-roofs surrounded by barbed wire and marked with a sign: “II ARMY SPECIAL STORES”, in the full Official German Script. A thin and cadaverous man with needle-like teeth and a perfectly clean uniform manned a counter at the end of a security corridor patrolled by four Prussian Guards, who watched Abbot and Joe walk past with a practiced glare of obvious suspicion and disapproval. Prussian Guards served as the finest security force in the German Army not just because of their expert training, but also because of their genetically-rooted general tendency toward suspicion and disapproval of all other human beings. Four rifles were suddenly at the ready, and Abbot could feel the bristling gaze of the guards, the tension crackling in the air.
Abbot approached the cadaverous clerk and presented the letter from Falkenhayn, and then the orderly ordered to escort them thought the depot passed over another set of orders from Doctor Hyndman. Despite his appearance, the counter-man proved to be pleasantly agreeable once certain documents were signed and counter-signed, and after that allowed them to wander freely throughout the Special Stores tents in search of anything they needed. Abbot and Joe took several hours to search every aisle in every tent, and managed to fill up the entire truck with equipment of all kinds. By the time they returned to the factory, where they were given a small corner of a welding and stamping area to work in, it was already nightfall, and Abbot was starting to feel the pressure.
Abbot was used to spinning plans and assembling the necessary materials in absurdly short periods of time. Such were the vagaries of the front line, where minutes always counted, precious minutes of life spent preparing to survive. Still, one had to eat and sleep. Abbot and Joe unloaded the truck and then made their way to the worker’s barracks where they took the time to shower, and to wash and disinfect the British uniforms they’d brought back with them. Then they found a mess tent, slipped in and filled their tins with some chemical-tasting but hot stew and huddled in a dark corner, savoring what would probably be their last quiet moment of repose for some time to come.
The mess served more than guards or garrison troops; it was packed with soldiers in full combat gear on their way to the front, many of whom looked as nervous and worn as their counterparts had in the British trenches. They were mostly in their twenties, though; unlike the British, Germany could still call on a vast population of stout young men for combat duty. The British were already calling up every last available man under the age of fifty, and losing them fast by launching constant and fatal offensives against prepared positions.
The Germans were dug in, and now the French were dug in, and soon it became apparent that the war was with them all to stay, perhaps for a lifetime. There could be no permanent breakthroughs in this type of warfare. Gaps could be plugged, salients could be reduced, but the line always seemed to return to almost exactly the same positions, albeit with tens or hundreds of thousands of newly dead men behind them. The scale of the trench system that spanned the continent from North Sea to the Mediterranean meant that local victories were meaningless unless they could roll up the entire front, and such a task was now clearly impossible for either side. And so was born the modern war: a massive meat grinder, an awful style of conflict that recognized the matching of casualty numbers with those of the enemy as the only way to determine success. It was all math. The counters might say “We lost thirty thousand to their seventy thousand, therefore the operation was a success.” But the hundred thousand faces that would never come home to their loved ones, the hundred thousand completely unique human beings whose words would never travel through air again to reveal their thoughts — this part of the calculus was ignored, because after all this was war, and such impractical concerns do not win wars. With this logic the fates of millions of men were sealed, and a static and enormous Machine of Death was created, invulnerable to moderation, drawing every human endeavor toward it with screaming ferocity, darkening everything it touched with no end in sight. An entire world made out of war.
After Joe had sopped up the last bits of his kerosene-tasting stew with a piece of brown bread as hard as stone he and Abbot retired to their small corner of the factory, which was still roaring with incessant manufacture, being manned as it was in three shifts that ran twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. The foundries had been burning day and night since this area was seized from the Belgian Army in the first few days of the war, and would probably stay running until the whole war was over. The orderly, having had enough activity for one day, now disappeared and left Abbot and Joe to unload the items from the rickety truck by themselves, trundling them into the space on heavy carts they stole from the stamping area.
An hour later, their private factory was in full swing. Joe was welding together some sort of frame with an arrangement of pedaled shafts and seats; Abbot was painting an enormous stretch of thick gray fabric spread out across the floor with a deep black wash. Joe pulled off his goggles and looked over at Abbot. “I still don’t see how this is going to work,” he said. “No one could miss this thing landing, not even in the dark. They’re going to be everywhere, Abbot.”
“We’re not going to land.”
Joe was mystified by this. “All right.”
“You and I are going to jump out using the parachutes, and I will have lit a fuse that will destroy the whole apparatus after it has traveled forward a bit. Meanwhile, we float down to earth while it blows up above us. Every eye in the sector is going to be looking at the flaming balloon. While they’re all distracted, we’ll just drop down into some empty area, and melt right back in. Perfect.”
“Parachute? You mean with the strings, and the little tablecloth overhead? We’ll drop down and make a crater, you mean. Those things are just toys, Abbot. They don’t work. That poor man on the Eiffel tower –”
“– was the victim of poor design. These are army-issue, Joe. They use them all the time now to jump out of the balloons when they get shot up. Perfectly safe. I’ve repacked these ones myself, they’ll work just fine, I promise.”
Joe was speechless for a moment. “You know I’m afraid of heights. You know that.”
Abbot stopped painting and turned to face him. “I know, and I’m sorry, but I can’t think of any other way of getting over there. We’re out of options. If we’re caught, we’ll be shot as spies. If we don’t, we’ll be shot as cowards. Winston is crack-smart, and I guarantee he’ll have something in place to catch us. We won’t get away with it a second time. Plus, we’d never get through before daylight. This is the only way.”
“I’d rather take my chances in the dark in no man’s land than jump out of the sky in nothing but a tablecloth.”
Abbot started painting the balloon fabric once more. “Fine, we’ll do it your way.”
Joe shook his head, put his goggles on, and prepared to continue his work on the frame. “I don’t think so,” he said. “I know what I’m good at, and what I’m maybe not so good at. And I remember when we used to try my plans.”
“Some worked,” Abbot suggested.
“Some were nearly our end,” Joe said seriously. He looked off into the darkness of the factory, and shook his head. ”Really? I have to jump out of a balloon? How high up are we going to be?”
“Maybe ten thousand feet. Maybe lower. Lower.”
Joe turned and began welding again, the sparks spraying on the concrete floor all around him. “I’m sorry I asked,” he muttered loudly.
They didn’t finish building until well after two A.M.; by then they were already pushing the general’s deadline and had to race the last thirty minutes, abandoning all sorts of side schemes to finish the masterwork. They dragged the entire apparatus outside of the factory with ropes, got dressed in their British uniforms, and prepared to launch without further delay.
Joe was morbidly concerned about being in a British uniform behind German lines, but Abbot reminded him that they were in a highly secure area, and therefore oddly safer. Patrols were unlikely here; the Prussian Guard owned this entire area. Still, there was reason to be concerned, so they threw waterproof ponchos on as a temporary disguise while they rigged the last improvisations. So far, this side of the factory remained deserted; they could hear the roar of machinery from the active buildings, but the yard they were launching from was eerily deserted under the clear, star-filled sky. Abbot reasoned that it might take another hour to inflate the balloon and launch. Hopefully no one would walk by to ask them what they were doing, since every minute counted.
The worn and patched observation balloon Abbot had found under a pile of surplus overalls in one of the darker storage tents required over three hundred cubic meters of hydrogen to fully inflate. This meant that twenty incredibly heavy hydrogen tanks had to be trundled out and hooked up, each taking five minutes to discharge its contents. Abbot and Joe puffed and sweated, cursed and hurried. With each tank the balloon grew larger and larger, and it was this that Abbot was concerned about. Once the top of the balloon cleared the factory, they needed to board and gain some altitude before a trigger-happy sentry could let loose a warning volley and perhaps blow his own men out of the night sky. That sort of thing happened all the time, every day, all up and down the Western Front, especially around the Prussian Guard, who had a longstanding reputation for often shooting at anything that did not resemble a Prussian Guardsman.
The final tank was discharging its contents. Joe tinkered with some last minute adjustments to the pedals and gears in front of the seats, and then helped Abbot drag over an enormous propeller constructed of wood strips and fabric about eight feet in diameter. The balloon was growing huge now, unfolding to reveal the entire bottom and sides painted a pure black, straining through its ropes against a large number of stakes Abbot had sledgehammered into the ground. They lifted the propeller up and placed its hub over a shaft that protruded a few feet out to the rear of the platform from a nest of gearing behind the two seats. Joe wrenched in a bolt that held it, checked it twice, checked a few other bolts, and looked suddenly very nervous. The work was over. They were ready. Now for the part he dreaded.
The moon had risen, and hung in its half-smile over the still-silver top of the balloon. The platform suspended beneath the monstrosity was also painted as black as the balloon’s underside, except for two dark green duffel bags stashed directly between the back of the seats and the propeller gearing. Abbot pulled himself into the right-hand seat and looked up admiringly at the massive expanse of black fabric hanging over his head. Joe stood next to the left side and stared at the makeshift chair he was supposed to climb into.
“I do not want to get in that seat, Abbot.” Joe’s face had gone a little white.
Abbot inclined his head in the odd way that said “What’s up, little pony?” in the comic vernacular of their adolescence. Joe snorted. “Yes yes yes. I know, you got us covered. Thought of everything. But this is really a pain in my ass, Abbot. I hate this, I truly do,” Joe said as he stepped up and hooked a foot on the deck and then swung himself up into the inclined black seat. “You know I don’t like heights. Especially at night. You know that.”
Abbot took a deep breath. “We’re going to be fine, pony. Kicking up our heels, soon. Fields of grass. Curse if it makes you feel better.”
Joe grimaced in reply, looking pale and fragile in the dim reflected light of the half moon. “Release,” he said. He pulled at a rope tied next to his seat as Abbot did the same thing on his side. The network of stays unraveled, the rope hissed through the stakes, and the balloon suddenly jerked free and rose smoothly into the air fast enough to make Joe start hyperventilating.
“Breathe,” advised Abbot. “Take a couple of deep breaths. We’re fine. Having fun. I’m taking care of you. We need to get up fast before the guard starts taking potshots, so let’s get rid of some weight, one at a time. Help me out. Ready?”
Abbot pulled at a knot tied to a bar next to his seat, and one of the heavy sandbags weighing the balloon down dropped to the grass below. Joe did the same, and the balloon hovered up a few feet and then steadied. “One more,” said Abbot, and both of them pulled at a second knot. The sandbags dropped and thumped into the ground, and the balloon began to rise more swiftly.
The platform soon cleared the roof of the factory, and then cleared everything, flying up higher and higher into the sparkling clear moonlit night. The only sound was the light wind caressing the massive balloon over their heads, and the twanging and rubbing of lines as they constrained the fabric. Joe felt the platform creak beneath him, and cursed inwardly, trying to cram himself back into his chair and not look down.
A few minutes later the vast factory complex was a series of tiny rectangles far below them. The air became fresher, and Abbot breathed in deeply. They’d been huddled over their projects in a stuffy, high-explosive environment, and he felt like he hadn’t really breathed at all for hours. He leaned forward, trying to see in the dim moonlight, and placed his feet carefully on the pedals in front of him.
He looked over at Joe, who wasn’t breathing at all, but who was shoving himself down into his seat, both hands gripping the convenient handles bolted to either side. “Joe, we’re doing fine. Safe as a daisy. Can we just test the propeller now?” Abbot said with a gentle tone.
But Joe was in the deep grip of his primordial acrophobia, and replied through clenched teeth. “Abbot — how — much higher are we going to go? Because I am really panicking right now. I do not like this.”
“Couple more minutes, I promise, and if we’re going to cross those lines, we want to be out of effective rifle range. Plus, the parachutes work better higher than lower. It’s a lot safer the higher you go,” Abbot added. “More time for the principle to work.”
“Screw the principle,” was all Joe could say. Abbot thought it would be a good idea to distract him, since he knew he would eventually have to talk Joe into jumping over the side of the platform into the empty dark void beneath them. So he chattered quietly for awhile about familiar things from home; Lena’s cooking, and the way Joe’s little girl Elizabeth had learned to play chess so easily at such a young age. Joe said nothing, but Abbot kept talking.
He talked about chess for awhile, and reminded Joe of a few classic games between them, the ones in which Joe had almost not lost, a tremendous showing considering Abbot’s standing. Then he talked about the incredible chessboard Joe had made for his boy Karl, seven different woods, a masterwork of design, and worthy of display at the next county fair. All the while the black balloon above them rose steadily into the night, pulling them high enough that Joe could see the curvature of the earth, a fact which made him suffer another rush of total panic and washed away all of Abbot’s comforting words. The moon began to sink in their perspective, and was soon hanging even with them, and directly in front of their view.
This seemed to be the final straw for Joe, that they appeared to be as high as the moon, and he started to have trouble breathing; even though Abbot knew they weren’t nearly high enough for that to be the case, he made a quick estimate, called it good enough, and began to pedal. After a minute, Joe managed to edge his cold and dead-numb feet onto the pedals like two frozen hunks of beef, and jerkily started pushing the pedals in a forward spin. He found the activity helpful in containing the mad scramble of his terror, and was soon pressing himself back into the seat, working his legs with a will.
Behind them, the propeller whoofed in the night air, the long vanes pushing gently against the deep darkness until the balloon began to drift forward, still rising, but much more slowly. Abbot had his left hand on a wooden lever that operated as a tiller; when he moved it, the propeller shaft tilted left or right. He held it slightly to the right for a moment, and the airship slowly turned until it was aimed a little to the right of the half-moon that filled so much of the sky.
“That moon is huge up here,” Joe gasped. “I’ve never up been so high in my life.”
“We could head for it and check it out. Maybe circle around it, if you want. We’ve got a little bit of wind behind us,” suggested Abbot.
“No thanks. You’re already enough of a lunatic,” Joe said, a hair more relaxed now that he had something to do, pedaling with a rhythm and keeping his eyes on the floor of the platform. Phobias can paralyze a man, but there were other ancient neural pathways that could help overrule the panic; among them the comforting pulse of repetitive motion. For a few moments at a time he could forget he was pedaling toward outer space, at least until he glanced to one side or the other. Then the stroking, numbing thrill of absolute fear would race through him once more, sapping his strength to the point of dizziness.
“Someday we’ll go,” suggested Abbot in a philosophical tone. He was keeping a close eye on his friend, and wondered how he was going to approach the moment of decision that would soon be upon them. “But for now we’re going someplace far more dangerous, I’m afraid. I’d rather greet the moon-men than run into Winston again, frankly,” he said as he leaned out over the platform to scan the land ahead of them and made the platform shift slightly, enough to give Joe another jolt of dizzy panic. Most of the ground beneath them was pitch-black, the huge moon failing to reveal any detail of the countryside at all; but here and there Abbot could see long lines of spaced lights, clear evidence of the beginnings of the rear of the German trench system. He realized that he could hear trucks below him, and other general sounds; the only artillery or rifle fire he could hear was somewhere miles away, a dim roar from the northwest that barely masked even the milder sounds of feet walking over duckboards and laughing conversations. If anyone cared to look up, they might or might not notice the small oval blot obscuring the brilliant stars above them.
← ballooncapitalia →
It took them almost an hour to pedal far enough over the front lines and into the British rear area for Abbot to be satisfied. There were fewer and fewer lights beneath them, and less sounds of traffic and men. Joe released his grip on the bars at times, and after awhile he managed to pedal with an almost steady pace, and even occasionally interrupted Abbot’s light banter with a joke. His body was screaming at him that it was absolutely weird and strange and wrong to be up here, floating so high over the death-engines, so incredibly high up that they were somehow invisible to the masses of men beneath them. He was cold and he was numb and his heart was pounding, and he was grateful for Abbot’s voice.
When Abbot saw nothing but darkness beneath them again he knew the time had arrived, and deftly concluded a long lecture on the making of pies, remarking on a new design he’d worked out for an oven that would evenly circulate heat thereby lessening the baking time as well as preventing partial burned spots, and he ended by admitting that nothing could possibly surpass Lena’s pear pastries, baked in her rickety and rigged-up woodstove oven. He kept talking but he stopped pedaling, which made Joe start to hyperventilate all over again, because he knew what this meant. His fear was shocking, deep and uncontrollable; anything, anything else but this.
“Abbot, I’m sorry to act this way. I would gladly face off the entire British Army with you with nothing but a whittling knife and you know that. But this air — this space — I can’t stand it. And I know you’re going to say I have to jump off this thing and down into that darkness, but my body and mind are telling me that I would rather die. Can’t we just – go down somehow, then make it go up again when we get off?”
Abbot leaned forward and twisted around to pull at the large green bag behind Joe’s seat. “Listen, I’m just going to help you put this on. And I’ll tell you exactly what we’re going to do, and we’ll just do it. Do you remember the dance?”
“Well, you just have to know, I’m not going to let you down, not ever. This is the easy part of the whole thing, easy as falling off a log, Joe. We’re going to put on these harnesses, check everything over, and you’re safe until you land, I guarantee it. After that is when it gets dangerous, and this is going to give us an edge, so don’t fight it. You’re perfectly safe.” Abbot pulled a folded leather harness out of the top of the bag and straightened out the straps. “Lean forward.”
Joe leaned forward about a quarter of an inch, and Abbot down behind him and settled the harness on to Joe’s back.
“Arms.” Joe sort of stuck his elbows out. “Arms”, said Abbot, in a motherly tone, as if he were dealing with a recalcitrant five-year old. This time Joe reached back and put his right arm through the harness, and then his left arm, gasping with adrenaline, struggling to contain his terror. Abbot had to use a commanding tone to get his friend to stand up from the seat just enough to slip the crotch straps through and connect them to the front straps. Once this was done, Abbot reached back into the big green bag to loosen up the chute itself, and then turned it around so that the opening was facing out into the night air, the dark main straps trailing upward to connect to shoulder rings embedded in the leather of Joe’s harness.
The last detail was to retrieve a second bag from behind the seat and place it on Joe’s lap. Abbot attached it to Joe’s harness using a long canvas strap.
“Throw this over first, then roll out after it. Don’t even think about it. Your chute will open automatically, and you just float down. Try to roll to one side when you hit the ground.”
Abbot then stood up on his own seat and turned completely around. This made the platform tremble gently, which made Joe reach for the bars next to his seat again, hissing through clenched teeth as another wave of electric shocks ran up and down his entire body.
“Sorry”. Abbot quickly pulled out his own harness and put it on, turning his bag to face the empty night sky before settling back down into his seat.
“Joe,” Abbot said quietly after a moment, “we have to go at the same time, exactly. The balloon’s going to shoot up when we do, and if one of us delays at all, we’ll be separated. In the dark. Behind the British lines. So – when I say, go, all you have to do is push that bag off your lap, then follow it. Just roll over and fall out of that seat, that’s all. The parachute bags are connected to the platform, and the chutes are set to open up without a hitch, packed ‘em myself. Just roll out, right when I do. Do that one thing, and we’ll be back on the ground in a couple of minutes, safe and sound.”
“Oh god. Oh god. Okay. Okay.”
“When you hit, don’t hit like a stick, straight up. Roll to one side. I’ve seen it done. You just have to lean, and then sort of turn into a ball, and roll along the ground until you stop. Distribute the force of impact, got it?”
“Okay. All right.” Joe took a deep, deep breath and blew it out.
“If we get separated, make the little honking noise.”
“Okay. All right.”
“Can you still make the sound? Let’s hear it.” Joe gave out the strange little flattened honk that they had used as a signal in their childhood, using the roof of his mouth to imitate a milk wagon’s horn. Abbot replied in kind; it sounded like some sort of mysterious bird, and didn’t seem like a noise a human would make.
Honking actually cheered Joe up for a few seconds, but as Abbot leaned out over the edge of the platform, peering down with binoculars to scan for any landmarks in the moonlight, Joe clenched up once more, his teeth clamped together, face white with tension, trying not to faint.
Abbot turned back to Joe. “Once we’re down we get rid of the chutes and move out of the area fast. If we run into anybody, let me do the talking.” He stopped and looked at Joe closely. “Joe, you have to do this one thing, and I promise I’ll never make you do anything like this ever again. We’ll find another way from now on, forever.”
Joe was trembling all over with the exertion of holding his body rigid for so long. “Abbot,” he managed to croak out. “I have to say something.”
“You said Lena made you promise to make sure nothing happened to me. She made me promise the same thing about you. But I feel like this is going to do it for me, and I have a terrible feeling. I can’t help it, my whole body is telling me this is it for me, this is the end. So I’m going to just say it out loud.”
“Joe, we’re going to be down on the ground in about five minutes, can we just go?”
“Whenever I feel like I’m going to die, I mean really feel it, which has been about twice a day for the last five months leading up to this exact moment, which is just the worst of them all, damn it – at that moment I always see Lena’s face. Her beautiful face. I would never have met her if you hadn’t made me go to that dance, and I never would have asked her to dance if you hadn’t prodded me, and we never would have been married — Abbot, no matter what happens tonight or tomorrow, I married Lena and we had kids and that makes my life perfect and I owe that to you.”
Abbot was listening, his head down, the light breeze of the night sky over the Western Front brushing his hair around slightly. He looked up at his friend’s face with a half-smile, and shook his head. “Joe — ”
“No! You listen! It’s been ten years, and you haven’t done anything about it! I know who you think about when you think you’re really going to die, and her name is Madeleine, and she doesn’t even know you exist! And that is absurd! You won’t allow anyone else in your life, no friend of Lena’s, no society women, nobody! Ten years! If it’s her, and you’re really that deep into it, you’ve got to do something about it! You have to at least try! I want you to promise me you’ll try once. Just talk to her.”
Abbot sighed a long, frustrated sigh. Every word Joe had said had been true, but he kept most of that stuff locked away, and usually never thought about it, except for the Bad Moments, times he thought he and Joe had finally been caught on one of the endless rows of devil’s teeth they seemed to be able to skip across so lightly, teeth that took hundreds of thousands of other lives around them and shredded them back into the earth from which they came. Joe was right; he could see Madeleine’s face etched in his mind right now, a bright mental image that was composed as if she were a deity, because that was the only way he knew her, the only way he could think of her, as the Face From Heaven.
It was silly and childish of him, he knew, to harbor such useless primal urges without dealing with them somehow. He was a victim of his own nervous system; some deep circuit of his medulla oblongata had kicked him hard, permanently hard, the moment he had first seen the face of Madeleine Clemenceau. He recognized that his feelings were probably nothing more than a three million year-old mating command triggered by her genetic characteristics. Yet his awareness of these facts never freed him from its power. He did not know her, would likely never meet her; and yet he could not bear to spend his life with anyone else.
“I’m a dead end, Joe,” Abbot said quietly. “I know it’s crazy. There’s just no path. Most grown men throw away such nonsense, this boyish romantic drama. She is unattainable, impossible to approach — there’s just something about her that turned on some biochemical switch in me, I can’t turn it off, I wish I could. All those years in Paris, I never even wrote her a letter. I’ve just — I’ve given up on it, Joe. I can’t imagine ever actually talking to her. I just think about — work. I don’t think I could – actually – say the words –”
Joe leaned toward Abbot a little, his eyes showing the intensity of his effort to master the edge of panic running though him. The half moon loomed behind him, hanging in the air like a vast floodlight now, illuminating their little carriage and providing Joe with a heavy-duty halo. The lunar craters were sharply visible, and it made the entire scene unearthly. “Abbot, that’s exactly what I mean. I want you to promise me right now that if I jump out of this stupid balloon, live or die, you be brave enough to go to Paris, and go right up to wherever Madeleine is, and you demand to see her, and you make a fuss until she comes out to talk to you, and then you tell her that you love her.”
“Joe, she’s the daughter of a famous man. They’ll just throw me out.”
“That’s the point! Get thrown out! You have to finally take the risk! You made me take the risk at that dance, but I’ve been a bad friend and just let you go on all these years without kicking you in the butt and making you take the chance!”
“All right, all right,” said Abbot, spreading his hands in a conciliatory gesture.
“No! You’re Doctor Abbot Hoffman, the famous scientist, and she should be honored that you even notice her! And if she isn’t, then to hell with her!”
“Joe, I promise. All right?”
“Swear it to me.”
“I swear. Double-die. I’ll go right to Paris, soon as it’s all over. I’ll find her, go right up to her, and tell her. And that will be that.”
“All right, then.”
Abbot smiled in the darkness as he leaned forward to put Joe’s harness on, securing the buckles, making him raise up from the seat for the crotch-straps. Joe hyperventilated the whole time. Abbot finished, checked everything over, patted his friend on the shoulder. “Is there any other tactic you can think of for delaying the jump? Some philosophical point, some political treatise you need to opine about?”
Joe sat back in his seat. “No.”
“I’m going to count to three. I’m going to pull a fuse when I go over, and if you get stuck, you’re not going to having any more moments when you feel like you’re going to die, because you’re going to be dead.”
“Wait a minute.”
“Abbot, wait. This feels loose.”
“Two. Push the bag over, then roll out after it.”
“Don’t you dare say three. Don’t say it.”
“Three.” And Abbot pushed the bag on his lap over the side, rolled out of his chair and tumbled into the blackness, followed a micromoment later by Joe, who found himself falling out of a perfectly good chair past a perfectly good floor into the endless black sky that loomed below the vast, bright moon.
Joe fell, with a little scream that barely escaped his gritted teeth. He would have been cursing a blue streak had he been able to. As it was, the act of leaving the apparent safety of the balloon’s platform was viewed by his central nervous system as a suicidal act, and it therefore hit him with a bolt of adrenaline which locked every muscle in his body and forbade any self-expression whatsoever.
He fell, and fell further, and fell forever, and he waited for any sign that this parachute contraption was going to do anything at all; nothing. The thin cords that led from his shoulder rings to the edges of the fabric were being pulled out above him, but still he fell, accelerating into his own personal definition of hell — a yawning darkness beneath his feet without any means of support. Joe’s acrophobia was tremendous, and wired to the core of his being. Once his father had taken him to an outdoor theater in Dusseldorf, and they had climbed the stands to the highest point, at which moment Joe’s father had swept him up and held him out over the back edge of the wooden bleachers, only perhaps forty feet above the ground. Then he had shaken his son out over the abyss, and yelled out ‘I’m going to drop you!’, which had triggered the first episode of Joe’s raging fear of heights. Joe’s screaming had caused several ladies to lecture Joe’s father, to which he replied by shrugging nonchalantly. It was a tradition, passed on to him by his father, and his father before that. This was the way of things.
Still, Joe’s father had refrained from doing it again, the ladies having left their mark on his conscience. And until now, Joe had managed to avoid all circumstances that might lead to another such event. He and Abbot had faced a long stretch of dangerous trials together since childhood; they had survived combat both personal and impersonal, knife fights and shelling, fists and grenades, firestorms and blizzards. Joe had proven himself time and time again to be a solid companion, and not one prone to panic; he had but one fatal flaw, the Achilles heel that was his mortal acrophobia. And now Abbot had talked him into jumping out of the sky and using the equivalent of a handkerchief to slow his fall. It was the worst thing that he had ever had to do in his entire life, the very definition of his deepest dread, and he was both terrified and ashamed of his terror all at once, to be so powerless over this one perfect Fear.
A slow pressure under his arms made look up, and his terrified eyes searched the darkness for some sign that anything at all was going to stop this awful plunge — all he could see was a vast black blot against the stars, but then he heard a series of sounds as the cords drew tighter, and pulled the parachute free of its bag. More seconds of dropping through the sky – he heard a billowing, and then a dull pop as the invisible parachute expanded above his head. He could see only a starless expanse over him; Abbot had been typically thorough and had dyed the parachute fabric to match the underside of the balloon. Suddenly he was hanging, not plunging; he found himself twisting around to the right in a spin that made him deeply nauseous, so he kicked his legs in an attempt to stop the whirling that made the strings twang and the whole assembly tremble and jerk in a way that made him decide to stop kicking and wait it out.
Soon enough he was stable and floating down into the darkness with a smooth glide that did nothing to make him feel more secure. He looked for Abbot but couldn’t see a thing in the pitch-darkness, not even the moon, so he honked.
Abbot honked back from not too far away, and then shushed Joe — they were directly over an armed encampment of the enemy, could they please observe a little combat silence? — is what the sound said. And Joe was fine with that, but the thought made him look down, which was a mistake, because he realized suddenly that he would have no idea when he was going to be smacking into the ground. It could come at any second, or be another minute; he had no idea how fast he was dropping, although he could feel a breeze rushing up past his face. He was falling into a black nothingness without end. He instinctively stiffened and braced for the impact, but then remembered Abbot’s instructions and instead prepared himself to roll. ‘Don’t hit like a stick,’ Abbot had said.
A flash of something beneath him — a flare? A campfire? But then — a roaring cataclysm from above him drowned out all other sensations, and he strained his eyes upward, hands now clutching the bundles of cords coming from his shoulders. What was that terrible sound? An enormous concussion struck him, and he felt himself drop faster for a few feet, which made him gasp.
Above him, the roaring only increased. Joe managed to swing himself around a little to see bright streaks in the sky, like rockets or something — of course, Abbot had set up some assembly with the big signal rockets in the back, he had wondered about that. Now he could see that the rockets were thrusting the platform back the way they had come, a dim shadow of the giant black balloon deforming as it plunged up into the evening, now free of their weight and the weight of all their equipment. Their former airship was almost a mile away and impossibly far above them when it finally exploded, or rather, became visible as a gold-blue sun that gleamed with sudden brightness like some sort of medieval comet or solar event. BOOM – the sky seemed to tremble, and the shock wave that struck moments later made Joe’s parachute partially collapse, causing him to drop fifty feet in an instant and forcing a tight scream from his lips that was lost in the aftermath of the explosion.
When the parachute recovered Joe forced himself to look down again. This time he could see the ground faintly, hundreds of feet below, a dark broken mass of earth and wood and wire. Their balloon continued to burn in the sky above with an impossible fury, and the reflected light was enough for Joe to glimpse a row of trucks or wagons beneath him, coming up fast — he looked up, caught a glimpse of Abbot, just a gray figure forty feet away from him. Joe looked down again to see the ground rushing at him, time frozen in the moment when he could suddenly see the texture of the brown earth, see the protruding roots of grasses and trees from a newly-graded road-edge – and then he hit. He didn’t roll so much as crumple, and the landing knocked the wind out of him enough to make him pass out for a few seconds.
But when he recovered, he was on the ground! In pain, nothing broken, his side jammed into the sodden earth – joy split Joe’s heart. The Ground! He was on the sacred, beautiful solid earth. Never had he been so ecstatic to see dirt. He rolled back and forth and tried to stand up, but he was trapped in parachute that had collapsed over him. It took him a long time to work his way out of the maze of black fabric, but his euphoria made him feel absolutely patient. In fact, he felt like he would never be impatient or irritated again for the rest of his life, just as long as his feet were on the ground.
Joe managed to free himself and stand up just as the gold-blue silhouette of the flaming balloon finally fell from the sky like a fading fireworks display, right on time. Abbot had probably planned for that as well, Joe knew. He’d probably drawn up a chart in his head for the whole thing, calculated their rate of fall and determined burn rates by estimating oxygen levels at the height of the explosion. It was, in Joe’s estimation, his friend’s most useful skill, this penchant for detailed planning. He bundled up and pulled the parachute to him, rolling it up around his arms. Abbot had cautioned it wouldn’t do to have anyone to figure it out, to decipher at length that men had perhaps fallen out of the sky from the flaming balloon using these parachutes, and to then commence a search for the survivors. He finished rolling, looked around, and gave out one of their special little honks.
But instead of a honk in reply, he heard Abbot groan out “damn this wire”. Joe reckoned on the direction in the darkness, and stepped forward slowly until he finally brushed against the rustling steel of a wickedly sharp wire belt. The Western Front sometimes seemed made of nothing but wire belts and holes in the mud, on both sides, everywhere, and Abbot had landed right in the middle of the worst of it.
“Abbot?” Joe decided to chance a whisper –
“Joe, I’m stuck,” came the whispered answer. “Came right down in the middle of the belt. Can’t reach my cutters, can’t move. You’ll have to cut through to me, quick, before somebody comes along.”
“I can’t believe that stupid flimsy parachute thing worked,” Joe muttered as he found his wire cutters in a side pocket of his pack and commenced snipping at the rolls one by one, working a path through them in the total darkness. He cut himself frequently, suppressing curses each time. But he was still on the ground, and just remembering that fact made him utterly content with the tedious task of clipping through the belt.
“That balloon blowing up was like nothing I’ve ever seen. That was an amazing sight. You’ve probably got ten thousand Limeys looking for the wreckage right now,” Joe said, as he snicked another coil of barbs and gingerly pushed the section to one side.
“Yes, and not for us,” Abbot managed to say in a croaked whisper. “They’re all going to be over that way for a while. Can you hurry up? I’ve got barbs sticking in me from all angles.”
“I’m coming, I’m coming.”
6 the canuckian
It took Joe fifteen precious minutes to extract Abbot whole, along with his equipment; and as he was bleeding profusely, they’d had to spend another ten minutes in a dead-end sap with a masked lantern patching him up. Thankfully, this whole section of communication trenches appeared to be deserted for the moment. Soon enough, Abbot was good as new, sort of, and started checking the stars to get a sense of direction. His plan was to head east, toward the front, since the balloon must have drifted well past the town of Ypres itself. They were now several miles behind the front lines, and any command post which might contain useful intelligence that they could steal would surely be forward of where they were now. There would be valuable materials much farther back, near the division command, but that was not the sort of security Abbot thought they could penetrate. It was best to try for a forward battalion command bunker and hope for a lucky bonanza that Falkenhayn might find satisfactory.
Now that the balloon-light was gone the darkness had grown deep again, the moon barely casting dim shadows on the roiled path next to the wire belt. Abbot gave Joe a nod and set out down the path at a quick pace. Joe fell in behind him, and stuck to his friend like glue. Joe had a spring in his step and a song in his heart; the happiness of being in contact with the ground again making him light as a feather. He swore to never agree to such a nightmarish journey again. No matter what the fates had in store for Joe, it was not going to involve falling, and he was certain that all would thus be a simple matter since he now felt virtually invulnerable, having just leaped out of the sky and survived.
They wound their way around the trench path, zigging and zagging and hopping over narrow saps until they finally approached a concentration of tents, some sort of camp — a rear dressing-station, it looked like. There were stretchers leaned outside the tents, and a steady stream of orderlies moving between the rows. Abbot slowed and then crouched for a moment to scan the scene.
“Let me do the talking,” Abbot whispered.
“But surely everyone is my friend,” Joe whispered back. “And they’ll be so glad to hear my lovely German coal-miner accent that they’ll invite us to tea.”
Abbot gave a little grin, just a flash of teeth in the darkness. “Tea and crumpets and a down comforter for you, Joe. The Brits, I hear, treat their spies with great care and hospitality.”
Then he turned around and walked toward the nearest cluster of tents. Abbot began to saunter a little, getting into character. Northumbrians were not known to be sniffy types, certainly not the privates, which is what their captured uniforms identified them as. Abbot strolled between two of the largest adjacent tents and turned into a main open area next a large bunker. It proved to be a dressing-station after all, with a few canvas shelters drawn over rows and rows of sleeping, groaning, and snoring patients. Beneath a vast suspended stretch of dark canvas a young captain with glasses in a Canadian uniform was watching intently as a surgeon bent over a young man on a field operating table, cutting away at a profusely bleeding wound. Blood was everywhere, streaming down the table legs, pooling on the ground. Brilliant lanterns were suspended all around him, and lit the scene well-enough that Abbot could see details from where he stood. The tableau drew him like a moth to the flame, and Joe shook his head warningly in vain as his friend led him helplessly into the circle of bright lights.
As Abbot approached the captain, he could see the surgeon’s desperate, shaky hands, and the captain’s grim, drawn face, and he instantly knew that something bad was happening, something that smelled like War, This War, the Only War. It all felt the same deep down. Sometimes Abbot could sense a common thread to it, a central theme that that smelled like burnt metal, sausage, spiced wood, old grease, and that looked like something from the wrong future, a world where the human race had taken a hard right and fallen over the edge into some alien’s nightmare. They were all stuck together in this steel storm, all these men and creatures from all over the earth, and it would feel like a miracle were any of them ever to escape. The young man on the table did not appear destined to be one of the lucky ones.
Abbot drew up next the captain and saluted with a deep weariness that wasn’t much of an act. The captain glanced at him briefly; then his eyes returned to the table, and to the surgeon. This moment was clearly of great intensity for him, clearly someone he knew well or loved, and he wasn’t about to be distracted by a pair of Second Army drunkards.
“Yes,” the captain said in a clipped manner, his eyes on the operation.
“Sir, I beg your pardon, we got turned around here. We’re lookin’ for battalion command, sir. Orders.”
The young captain turned to fix Abbot with his eyes, which were quite blue behind the gold-rimmed lenses. The gaze then flicked in Joe’s direction, and then back to Abbot.
“Really. Command. Second Army, aren’t you? You’re supposed to be fifty miles from here. Not deserters, are you?”
“No sir, just on a special detail, sir. Captain Fleming told us to find forward command. We’ve got intelligence on German positions in front of St. Julien.” Abbot returned the captain’s probing with a steady gaze, revealing not a hint of anything but solid Northumbrian stock, as tough as a brick wall and raised by his mum to be a scrapper and a hauler of heavy loads, nothing more.
Abbot got the sense that the captain was tired, dead tired and full of grief, and had they stumbled across his path at any other moment they would have been done for. This was an intelligent Canadian, a well-trained and sharp-as-a-tack Northwoodsman who would likely have made a better combat commander than a captain in a medical unit; something about the way he held his head, Abbot thought.
The head dropped, the eyes closed. Not today. Not now. The captain’s voice was defeated, dark, and full of masked despair. “Right over there, take that branch about half a mile. Cut to the left over the copse and you’ll run right smack into HQ.” He turned away and failed to return Abbot’s salute.
Abbot nodded, and Joe moved off in the direction that captain had indicated, but Abbot stayed right where he was and looked at the captain rather directly. Joe returned and nudged him gently; but Abbot often did things just this way, making instant moral decisions that were certainly going to plunge them into awful and unplanned-for scenarios. Joe could nudge him, or complain in some private way through their standard semi-telepathic channels, but always Abbot would steadily ignore his attempts to redirect the action towards personal safety. This was Abbot’s way. Joe shrugged and gave up.
“Friend of yours, sir?” Abbot asked the captain calmly.
This time the full attention of the man’s gold-rimmed eyes was placed squarely on Abbot, and Joe inwardly swore. They’d been doing just fine until now. And here we go, he thought. Poking in on an enemy captain in distress somewhere behind enemy lines, just to see if there was some way they could help. They might end up being shot as spies, but they were damned well going to solve all someone else’s problems first.
“Yes,” was all the captain answered.
Abbot glanced at the surgeon. “I have some medical skill. May I help in some way?”
The surgeon heard this, and glanced back over his shoulder in a harassed way, but in the sense of being perfectly willing to accept a little help if the captain thought it prudent.
The captain, however, was not immediately convinced. “Northumbrian? Private?”
“I’m a private so I could stick with my friend here. I’m a doctor in civilian life. I studied at the Sorbonne, and I practiced many years in Paris and London before the war. I’m a licensed surgeon.”
The captain paused for a moment to soak this in, the incongruity leaping out at him from the uniform of a Northern trench rat; this was all suspicious, he knew, but he also knew the other surgeon was in trouble here, and he would take any help that might help keep young Danny alive. “Go on, then,” he nodded at the table, and Abbot dropped his gear and walked directly to a sterile washbasin a few yards past the head of the surgical table.
Joe sighed and dropped his gear; the captain turned around to glance questioningly at him for this reaction. Joe responded by looking away, nodding nervously and shuffling back a few paces. The captain turned back to watch the table as Abbot walked around to the other side of the table and began to ask the surgeon questions in a low, professional fashion. Abbot then turned away to wash his hands in a portable rubber basin set back from the table, and returned to begin to work on the prostrate and severely wounded young man lying on the table. The captain briefly glanced back at Joe once more, eyes flicking over his uniform; Joe tried to smile convincingly and nodded, pointedly looking back in the direction of the table, as if to suggest to the good captain that all would be well, just watch.
As the captain turned away Joe breathed a sigh of relief, and allowed the merest shadow of irritation with Abbot to return. Always like this. He had to admit that they were still alive, and that somehow Abbot’s chosen paths always seemed to lead back to safe ground somehow, even though the twists and turns were often sharp and far more dangerous than Joe would have preferred.
For instance, jumping out of balloons with handkerchiefs tied to their backs.
For two hours, Abbot worked with the Canadian army surgeon, tying off blood vessels and suggesting techniques that drew respect and finally frank subordination from the battlefield physician. And all the while the young captain watched intently; all the while Joe fidgeted. While the army surgeon was knotting the last stitch of the closure Abbot peeled off his blood-soaked gloves and retrieved his pack, from which he withdrew several vials.
He handed them to the Canadian captain, who was waiting for some sort of pronouncement of imminent death for his friend, and said, “He’s in good hands, there. You’ll want to inject him with these every four hours, two cc’s of each. Don’t worry. He’s going to be fine.”
And with these words the young captain looked for a moment like he was going to burst into tears of relief; he had to turn away to regain his composure. By the time he recovered enough to thank them, Abbot and Joe had disappeared into the darkness. He looked around in confusion for a moment, then remembered the vials in his hand and gave them to the army surgeon, who had just finished cleaning up everything and was pulling a rough brown blanket over the young man on the table.
For the rest of the night, the two of them watched over the young soldier, and talked about the strange Northumbrian roughneck with the advanced surgical skills, and his strangely silent and somewhat nervous-looking friend. Later it would all make sense, but for now the Canadian captain confessed to the surgeon that he was beginning to believe in angels.
There was no novelty about the idea of an armoured vehicle to travel across country and pass over trenches and other natural obstacles while carrying guns and fighting men. Mr. H.G. Wells, in an article written in 1903, had practically exhausted the possibilities of imagination on this sphere. The general principles of applying the idea were also fairly obvious. Bullet-proof armour had been carried to a high point of perfection by various hardening processes. The internal-combustion engine supplied the motive power. The Pedrail and Caterpillar systems were both well-known, and had been widely applied in many parts of the world. Thus the three elements out of which tanks have been principally constituted were at hand to give effect to the idea.
–Churchill, Winston S. (1923). The World Crisis.
New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (p.317)
Abbot and Joe sped down the communications trench until they reached the point where the captain had instructed them to emerge and cross overland, at which point they paused to plan. Abbot thought the ruse of reporting intelligence was thin in their case, since it had just been made clear that their uniforms marked them as scarce in this sector. The Second Army had moved along with the two British soldiers whose insignia they wore, both of whom probably had new kits by now. They would have to try stealth, at least until they found a few isolated Canadian privates wearing something in their size.
So they spent some time in the bare-moon dark exploring the communications trench looking for unused or partially-shelled-in saps, and were rewarded by a thin slit of a trench only three feet deep that ran directly past the woods the Canadian captain had spoken of. Joe reverently hoped the sentries had forgotten it altogether. It appeared to have collapsed in places from German shellfire, and it was possible that there were sections they would have to cross that would leave them exposed. Nonetheless, they had to move fast. Already, a false dawn was spreading in the east, and the glow made Abbot and Joe virtually scramble down the narrow cleft, their rifles strapped closely to their backs.
Joe had plenty he wanted to say, but knew silence was truly golden here in the heart of Allied territory. Abbot led the way, beginning with a crouched posture that soon dropped to hands and knees, and within ten yards down to the snake crawl, that belly-deep partially-buried pushing through muddy loam that Joe found so familiar, since he was always doing it right before or after bullets began to trim the wheat stalks. But, he thought, I’d rather crawl like a snake than tweak the senses of some god-for-glory itchy-fingered green lieutenant fresh from the rugby fields. Second Army wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near here, and they were definitely marked as Second Army, no way around it. This was an all-Canadian division, which made them stick out dangerously. Ripped-off or obscured insignia would be even more suspicious; it was a bad break for someone trying to work their way into the heart of the beast.
Abbot paused, and Joe stopped with him as if they were wired together. Abbot went completely still, and Joe stopped breathing. Voices from ahead — Abbot tilted his head just slightly to one side — ‘on, slow’ — and began to crawl again, this time in full-stealth mode. Joe started breathing again, very quietly, and stuck to Abbot’s heels. When Abbot paused once more, Joe knew they were as close as they could get.
The voices were loud now, coming from just over a blown-in section of the shallow sap — they must be directly next to a deeper and larger trench, perhaps one that led directly to the headquarters they were looking for. The voices were getting louder — someone traveling by. A patrol perhaps. Joe could hear what they were saying now more clearly with every moment.
“Every vehicle with a six-pounder. Ernest has been working so desperately to solve the linkage problem, but frankly, if we can’t fit the firepower into the vehicle, the linkage won’t matter.”
Joe’s eyes widened — the voice was utterly familiar. The man who had captured and lost them the last time they’d been in these parts — Winston Churchill himself. More superbly bad luck.
Another voice answered. “I agree, sir, six-pounders at least. Set a great big hole in the Boche bunkers after the wire belts get crushed. Machine guns and flamethrowers to sweep the front trenches. Pound his guns from all angles while on the move — and all he can do is try to hit a moving target.”
Joe recognized the second voice as well. Captain Valentine Fleming. Joe swore inwardly at their awful luck. They’d only narrowly escaped last time, pure chance and Abbot’s secret stash of flash powder, and under ordinary circumstances Joe had no doubt that Winston wouldn’t let it happen again. In addition, Fleming was clearly a well-trained operative; Abbot thought they might be better off walking down the line to another division than risk being caught by those two again. Joe tried to settle down deeper into the trench. This wasn’t turning out to be a very good go. At least there were no more balloons involved, he reflected, and his heart rose at the mere thought. Far better to meet death wedged in the mud than falling through empty space to a distant earth.
Winston was sounding a cautious tone. “Little Willie was effective at crossing trenches, but I do not believe the speed we can generate will overcome the advantage of a swiveling gun carriage. If the tanks are not used in force, but thrown in piecemeal by cavalry officers prepossessed with jealously guarding their traditional fiefdom, I fear they will be swiftly picked off one by one. And until we can solve the problem of hauling fifty tons of iron over the mud at some decent clip, they’ll be a fragile helpmeet.”
“I agree, sir. Do you think the engines will bear the extra thousand pounds?” Already, Captain Fleming’s response was fading as he and Winston trudged down their deep trench. Winston’s reply was inaudible as the two men turned the sharp corner at the regulation zig-zag. Abbot waited for a minute in utter stillness, and then crawled slowly up and over the pile of blown-up dirt that separated them from the main trench. Joe followed, and within moments they found themselves standing on the duckboards of a deep and well-built communications trench whose walls looked almost brand-new.
“Sometimes I feel like the universe has a sense of humor,” whispered Abbot, as he turned to follow in the direction Winston and the captain had gone. “What in the hell were they talking about? ‘Little Willie’? And what does a water tank have to do with six-pounders and machine guns?”
This time it was Joe who had the answer. “I thought they were talking about some sort of new armored vehicle, maybe a shielded tractor that could carry a lot of weapons. You remember that cart thing you made when we were going up against Lucien. Something with giant wheels or a caterpillar tread that can go over wire, I don’t know. That’s what it sounded like. It’d be a good idea, if they can figure out an engine and linkage that could drag enough armor around to make it worth it. You’re going to have to choose thick and slow or fast and vulnerable regardless.”
“You think?” Abbot put on his thinking face for a second, then shook his head. “We could make something like that, I think. Come in handy. We’d have to make it not leak.”
And then they were off and headed down the big trench, both men moving as silently and swiftly as they could, thinking to themselves that dawn would probably bring the vast barrage of shells that would commence the German attack, and they’d better not still be here when it did. From the look of the sky, they had at most one hour to infiltrate the command post and get back across the line. Both men began to have doubts about getting anything worthwhile within that time span. But to return empty-handed — Abbot had gambled with Falkenhayn to keep them out of no-man’s land, but warlords (at least in the German Army) have a habit of disposing of failure in the furnace so as to avoid tarnishing their reputation. They’d have to come up with something or not return at all.
A few hundred yards on, Abbot stopped before rounding a turn in the trench and produced a small mirror on a stick that he used to peer around the corner. Joe hugged the mud wall behind him and waited for the word. But Abbot just stayed put, angling the tiny mirror in different ways, looking at something just around the bend, reflected light flashing from the mirror in the pitch-blackness of the trench. He finally pulled the mirror in and turned to whisper directly to Joe, “This is it. Three sentries this end. We have to go up.”
Joe peered up the dark mass of the trench wall. “Up?” he said with a shade of doubt. “Unless you want to put on a wild west shoot-em-up show,” Abbot replied. Joe patted the wall with his hand. “We’ll have to dig steps,” he assented. The two men pulled knives from their belts and commenced carving a ladder into the rammed earth of the trench wall.
Within five minutes Abbot was peering over the edge of the trench, and then they were over and once more wriggling through cold and stinking mud under the setting moon. They were forced to skirt the very edge of the trench by wire belts forcing them to the left, and several times they stopped after twanging one of the coils to listen for any sound that might indicate the sentries below might have heard them.
Soon enough they were plastered against a wall of sandbags that had risen up out the ground next to them, the beginnings of a reinforced roof that ran directly over some sort of command bunker dug out deep beneath the Belgian plain. Several steel-sheltered pipes protruded from the soil like mushrooms; Abbot checked each in turn, identifying two as heater or stove vents before discovering one that was apparently a clean air intake. Joe could hear voices echoing up from the bottom of the metal tube, and as they both edged up closer to the pipe, the voices resolved into those they had heard earlier. Winston and Fleming were directly beneath them, perhaps only ten feet down.
Joe could hear them talking about calibers, angles, rhomboids — Winston was apparently at odds with someone on a project, and Fleming was attempting to suggest a compromise of some sort. Soon the conversation devolved into talk about the pacifists in London, coal, the Prime Minister — primarily gossip. Nothing useful, and no more mention of a ‘tank’. Winston began to chatter on about the condition of Hyde Park, the Boer War, armor thickness comparisons between the German High Seas Fleet and the British Grand Fleet, Haig, French, tents, the United States, finally landing on a deep analysis of the Battle of Coronel, and the utter foolishness of the admiral to have rushed forward like that without the modern-class vessels at hand.
Abbot grew impatient. It was apparent that Winston was beginning the daylong affair that was his customary whiskey-drinking, a habit he had picked up in the front lines of South Africa and the hills around Omduran where most of the water could cause dysentery if not disinfected with a healthy dose of scotch. Soldiers of his era had learned to survive on lightly alcoholic water, and in Winston’s case, in larger and more concentrated doses long after the war was over. But this meant that Abbot and Joe were stuck; they couldn’t risk running afoul of Winston and Valentine behind enemy lines again. Abbot finally sighed and shrugged his shoulders. What to do?
Joe leaned forward and whispered, “Diversion.”
Abbot’s eyes widened; then he nodded. He rolled over in the muck and pulled off his pack, then dug into it and produced a strange-looking device of sorts, something clearly homemade, certainly not standard issue German trench hardware, with several black tubes sticking out and parts covered with some sort of tape.
Joe nodded. “Finally, huh?” he said. They wriggled about in the darkness, scanning the horizon for any shadows or shaped that might indicate a patrolling sentry, and then Abbot quickly rose to his knees, pulled at a lever on the device, and threw it far over the trench toward the rear lines. The device arced up and disappeared into the darkness, and Abbot and Joe both squirmed back toward the edge of the roof of the bunker to a point directly over the entrance, a doorway cut into the earth of the deep trench.
Within a moment, a strange sound rose from the direction that Abbot had thrown the grenade. A whooping, wailing sort of scream rose up and split the night air; then the sound of machine-gun fire, then the sound of shelling. From above the doorway, Abbot and Joe watched as the command post erupted in a frenzy of disoriented activity. Winston and Captain Fleming burst from the doorway and stood peering into the darkness, then loudly grilled the three sentries; when the five of them began to walk down the trench in the general direction of the sound of the guns, Abbot reached down with both arms and grabbed an edge on the inside of the thick wooden lintel. He hauled himself over the edge and swung neatly down to land in the doorway, landing with a soft thump. Joe followed the same procedure, landing directly behind Abbot, and the two of them slipped noiselessly through the heavily reinforced and sandbagged entrance into the bunker.
A young lieutenant with glasses was reading; he didn’t notice them at first, but then absent-mindedly lifted his head and peered up at them from the stack of documents he was leafing through. “Hey, what’s this now? This is a restricted area, you know. Second Army? What –”
Abbot had pulled out a handgun and was pointing it at him. “Oh,” said the lieutenant. “I see.” He put his hands up slowly and appeared complacent, then suddenly took a deep breath to shout with – but Abbot had pulled the trigger, and there was no time for a shout. There was only a short pffft, and a dart appeared in the front of the lieutenant’s uniform with the consequent result that he immediately slumped down and rolled from the chair onto the floor. Abbot quickly moved to his side and retrieved the dart. He checked the young man’s pulse — fine. He pulled back one of the man’s eyelids, and reached for something in his pocket; but Joe was already backing up to the edge of the doorway, whispering “he’ll be fine, get the stuff! Come on! Let’s go!”, so Abbot gave it up.
He nodded, rose and dashed throughout the room, grabbing up maps and other documents, stuffing them into his jacket front, while Joe kept an eye out from just inside the doorway. Within sixty seconds, Abbot had picked through the contents of several large tables, and turned to let Joe know he was ready. Joe led the way through the doorway, and they took the right-hand path, running in the opposite direction of Abbot’s sound-grenade. Churchill and Fleming would eventually realize that they had left the post unguarded, and if Abbot and Joe were not well on their way to the front by that time, Abbot felt certain that Winston had set certain safeguards in place to insure precisely against such a security breach like the last time. The man was nothing if not thorough, whiskey or no whiskey.
Then they were out the bunker door and racing off down the right-hand trench-line, away from Abbot’s ‘diversion’, and in the direction of the front lines. It might have been Joe’s imagination, but he felt like the sky might be getting lighter, and it that was true, they were indeed going to be in terrible trouble, caught behind the lines or in no-man’s land after the German barrage had begun to fall. Abbot was moving like lightning now, turning corners like a banked race car, and Joe had to press himself to the limits to keep up with him.
They hit a large junction, at least five different paths — a wooden side hanging next to each identified them by names like ’Rotten Row’, ‘Pig And Whistle’, ‘Blind Man’s Bluff’ — Joe could appreciate the British sense of humor, a quality generally not found in the German Army. The men responsible for such levity in the German army would have been hunted down and imprisoned after a formal trial. The German Military Way was iron discipline wrapped round a nationalist heart, and German generals believed that looseness and comedy were inherently weakening influences on the fighting man. Joe thought it was exactly the opposite; treating men as machines only made them more prone to break down eventually. Eliminating all practices which were not required for combat made men hard, more willing to risk injury or death — and eventually more prone to catastrophic decision-making, especially once the battle was over, and the war done. Bad long-term strategy in Joe’s opinion, which is why he was just a private.
Abbot chose the trench labeled ‘Rotten Row’, which Joe thought of as a bad omen even though the name implied that the trench would bring them closer to their own lines than the others. As soon as they were past the first corner they ran into a group of Canadian soldiers leaving the trenches after a four-day stint at the front, all of them grimy but uninjured and in the best of spirits. “Halloo, fellows!” called out a skinny young private as they crossed past each other, “I didn’t know the Limeys were comin’ back! Thought you were all gettin’ your yearly bath back in old Paree, hey?” Abbot looked back at the private and smiled. “Nah, six months to go, you know,” Abbot replied in his fake English accent, and kept going, Joe right behind him, head down, looking neither right nor left.
The young private gave a wave behind them, puzzled by the speed with which these two soldiers were headed for the front. Who hurried toward the front without a sergeant yelling right behind them? Strange. Later, at an inquiry, he would claim that he thought they might be traitors, running to cross over no-man’s land to surrender to the Huns, and had dutifully reported it to his sergeant, who had scoffed at him. But the truth was, he just hadn’t thought about it any further than the odd feeling, because he was coming out of the line after four days of being shot at, and his mind was on whiskey, hot food, and a warm place to sleep that evening. And after all, they had looked the part, and man had sounded just like a Northumbrian, even he was a bit dark-haired for it, he would later say he’d thought at the time.
8 rotten row
Rotten Row proved to be a seriously fought-over front line trench with a no man’s land of less than fifty yards in depth between the two sides. Abbot and Joe could hear desultory rifle fire but no artillery bombardment yet, and as they rounded the last corner Abbot knew they had arrived. He and Joe stood at one end of a large gallery at least thirty yards long, with a long firing parapet built up against the front wall, and a planked floor that had been smashed to bits and rebuilt a thousand times. The smell was overwhelmingly bad, feces and gore and chemicals and rot, cordite, and above all, unwashed and utterly stressed human bodies. At least a hundred men were in this first section of Rotten Row, mostly French and Algerians, some manning the parapets, some lounging against walls or pressed into protective caves carved beneath the front edge of the trench, which was heavily sandbagged and fronted with a few remaining tangles of barbed wire that had been shelled into a muddy mess. Near Abbot, leaning against the rear wall of the massive trench, a tired Canadian lieutenant with sharpish features eyed them appraisingly, wondering why two Brits should be wandering up to the front in this sector. Was Second Army rotating back in? That would be good news indeed. The lieutenant was smoking a thick French cigarette, and his gear was hung next to him on a strangely-shaped post protruding from the trench wall.
Joe suddenly realized that the post was a blackened human leg, long buried but with the boot still attached and bent hard to the left, and then he saw that the entire trench section was full of similar bits and pieces of bodies poking out from the walls, many of them being used to keep gear and rations out of the bottom of the trench, which was sort of mud mixed with smashed wood, walkable, but very sticky, and perhaps less made of mud than other more objectionable elements.
The whole place smelled like the worst kind of death, creeping and malignant, dark suffering in a moldy drain. The lieutenant followed Joe’s gaze, then looked back and nodded. “Yes, I know,” he said quietly to Joe. “But they’re everywhere, all through the system. This was a big long burial pit for the Germans for awhile, and then for our side, and then they took it back, and then we took it, and we dug in. Easy digging in a graveyard, you know. Not much fun, but useful when the Huns are on about you. And we’re pretty certain the chaps don’t mind. Probably having more fun about it all than we are.”
The lieutenant puffed on his cigarette, and blew the smoke up into the air above his head, and coughed a little. He fixed Joe with a deep, inquisitive gaze from his dark eyes.
“But you fellows built most of it, anyway, didn’t you? Is Second Army on its way back? I haven’t heard a thing about it, but I’d certainly be glad.”
He addressed this to Joe, but it was Abbot who answered. “We’re ordered to scout out in front of this sector. For Lord Churchill’s staff.”
The lieutenant raised his eyebrows considerably at this.
“The First Lord of the Admiralty is here? That Churchill? Really? Well, by all means. Scout away.” His gesture indicated that he found Abbot’s words somehow insulting, an affront to the dignity of the Canadian Thirteenth, that this Limey muckety-muck would order a couple of Second Army goons to show them up as cowards by going over the top alone. Abbot read all this quite clearly in his eyes, and thought about telling the man that it was a punishment detail, change up the story a little; but then he realized that a couple of Brit bluenoses looking to show off wouldn’t exactly be missed by the men in this trench, and that was exactly what he wanted, to be left alone.
Abbot asked the man for directions to a decent place to get through the wire and the lieutenant described a passageway at the end of the section, pointing out a ladder that seemed to have grown from the earth, a structure that had carried terrible burdens, perhaps thousands of men that had climbed its rungs to perish in the Belgian mud to join with all the other things that would become part of this vast battlefield forever. The ladder looked ancient, as if made in a past millennium, although men had never needed to climb from a hole in the mud to kill each other before. Joe wondered if the wood kept a tiny bit of soul from each man who stepped up on it, and if it was now dark from sorrow, as the small parts remained behind never to be rejoined with the whole, lost in the ladder. It was a strange thought, and he brushed it away.
To Abbot, the ladder looked like freedom. He nodded to the lieutenant with a cordial grunt and nudged Joe forward. As they stepped past the officer he suddenly gave a great smile and called out past them to someone further down the trench, “Criswell! Hoy, Criswell!” A head turned around – a massive head, connected to a massive body. A man turned toward the lieutenant, a man fully two feet taller than any of the men near him, and twice as thick. Abbot at first thought it must be acromegaly of some form; human beings generally do not top five hundred pounds without some genetic disorder involved, but this fellow seemed perfectly formed, and bore none of the other symptoms of giantism other than his enormous size.
Both Abbot and Joe took a step back as a tremendous bellow echoed over the din of the trench. “Wazzat Henley?” said Criswell from his six-inch wide lips.
The lieutenant gestured at Joe and Abbot. “These fellows are from Lord Churchill, sent to make us all look like fools. Say they’re goin’ ‘a-scoutin’ out in front of Rotten Row, just to have a lark, so to say. All by themselves. In the middle of the day.”
Abbot, looking nervous suddenly, started to say something – “No – we, uh –”
But Private Criswell had already stepped across the center of the trench, his eighteen-inch long boots sinking deep into the muck with his weight. His eyes were wide, and as he suddenly towered over Abbot and Joe they could smell the whiskey on his breath, and the odor of his makeshift uniform that had been sewn together from five regular uniforms and had not been cleaned in a long while. He was a handsome man, it was true, with a nose that fit his face, and two broad blue eyes that might each be the size of a normal man’s fist. In days gone by, this sort of man would be a prized warrior, set forward in front of the army to strike fear into the enemy’s heart. Here and now he hid himself down in the sheltering earth with everyone else, hiding from the steel breeze.
“Did you say, Henley,” bellowed the giant, “that these Blightys are sent by Lord the Bloody Winston Bloody Churchill to call us cowards? Did yoooo say thet?”
Abbot looked at the lieutenant, who was grinning wickedly at him now, eyes dancing with the knowledge that an excellent joke had been played; and then he looked back at the massive face of Criswell glaring down upon him, and feeling the panicky moment of quick decision upon them he and Joe slowly backed away from the towering monster of a man. Abbot found his voice and said the only words he thought might buy them a little mercy — “Punishment detail.”
It worked. Criswell processed this new information, and Abbot watched the wheels turn for a moment before the eyes turned bright and the smile grew broad. “Punishment detail? You got yourself in that kind of trouble, that the High Lord Shitebreath is sendin’ yoooo out for the long walk in the vale? Yer in it that bad?”
Abbot nodded hopefully. Joe had latched onto his sleeve and was attempting to pull him slowly back away from the giant, but Abbot shook free and smiled up at Criswell, who reached out and grabbed him by both shoulders, nearly knocking his rounded British helmet to the floor.
“Punishment detail! Oh, well, this has to be told. What’d you do? Huh? Huh? What did yoooo do?”
Abbot began to answer, but Criswell suddenly pulled him close and hugged him tightly, so that Abbot looked like a child being clasped to his father’s chest, and all the air left his lungs. His feet now dangled far from the ground, and he felt strangely that it was not altogether a bad thing, that this man was a fine and good human, radiating an aura of invincible good nature, and that it actually would be a wonderful thing to know him. He smelled very bad, but so did everyone who had spent more than twenty-four hours in a front-line trench. Nothing in this place could smell good.
“Aw, you probably did something druly awful to get Rotten Row. This place is the bloody worst, nothing but Frogs and cooties and cruel, smart rats the size of my head. And you’re goin’ over the top, and walkin’ around out dere? Yer daft! Yer dead. And so — you’d better have a drink with me instead!”
Joe was standing back watching Abbot be pressed into the giant man’s enormous pectorals, shaking his head back and forth a little — but then he noticed the sharp lieutenant grinning at him, and nodding his head up and down; then the giant released Abbot, leaving his arm around once shoulder, half leading and half carrying the now wobbly and much shorter man to a depression near the front wall, where Abbot suddenly found himself with a large bottle of whiskey thrust into his hands, and the expectant, enormous eyes of Private James Criswell fixed upon him.
Joe was still shaking his head a little as Abbot had been marched away and forced to drink; now the lieutenant was up and urging Joe to follow his companion, pushing him a little from behind with insistent, polite little shoves. Joe had no choice but to join Abbot and Criswell next to the parapet, at which point the whiskey bottle was thrust into his own hands as Abbot wiped his mouth on his sleeve and burped. Joe hesitated only a moment before putting the bottle to his mouth and tilting it up.
“There, you see?” said the giant, in whose hands the vessel had seemed like a child’s toy, but now in Joe’s grip seemed like a really, really huge bottle of whiskey. The Canadian whiskey burned his throat, seared his sinuses, and immediately began to incapacitate him. It was actually pretty good whiskey, Joe thought, and began to have a liking for this Canadian Paul-Bunyan fellow, who was now switching the bottle back to a mildly protesting Abbot. “Drink!” commanded Criswell. Joe was beginning to feel like Rotten Row wasn’t the worst place to be, certainly better than out there in no-man’s land. Maybe they could just stay here for awhile, take a break.
Abbot, however, was worried about the fact that it was now past dawn, that they had failed to return to their lines – and that the standard artillery barrage hadn’t materialized. These were serious facts that nagged at him, but even as he began to feign drinking from the bottle he felt sad that they were only passing through, and that this camaraderie was an illusion. They still had a fifteen-hour window before the lieutenant Abbot had shot with a dart would wake up and identify them to Churchill and Valentine; but Abbot knew Winston would have figured almost everything out by now anyway, and even perhaps guessed at the identities of the thieves. Certainly the area would be locked down tight, and every stranger examined, especially if they seemed eager to get to the front line. They’d have to move quickly if they wanted to escape the noose.
He could see that Joe was chugging down the whiskey, getting into the spirit of things, so to speak, and gave him the telepathic nudge with his eyes that signaled ‘we’re still on the job, buddy, slow down’. Joe nodded a little, and started faking it as well. Abbot tried different ways to pry themselves out of the giant’s hands, first insisting on their need to satisfy honor, and then suggesting that they would certainly survive, since they were skilled and quick; but Criswell was a persuasive host. He and the lieutenant borrowed a small sterno stove from an Algerian resting at the back of the gallery, and cooked up a massive meal of British sausage and bread for Joe and Abbot, who sat glancing up at the front edge of the trench with their mouths stuffed full of the delicious and aromatic flavor while Criswell told them stories about his adventures in the Canadian wilderness. It became clear they weren’t going anywhere.
Abbot could clearly see this vast man roaming among giant trees, among giant wolves and giant bears. His stories were all about giant events, and it almost seemed as if he came from some impossible fairy land that remained undiscovered up in the vast Canadian forests. He claimed that he was the runt of his family, and that they had never come from anywhere but had been living in the same valleys forever, a breed apart, in country that respected and encouraged size as a survival tactic. And in truth, neither Abbot nor Joe had ever seen anyone like him.
Here, in this foreign hell, Big Jim Criswell was just a big target. “I been hit — twelve times. Got nine out,” he said between giant mouthfuls of sausage. “The others hurt alla time. But everybody who was with me on the first day — everyone — all gone. I’m the very last. Now I’ve gone through — six — waves o’ replacements. And I’m still bloody alive.” He took a massive draft from the bottle and smiled up at the rising sun. “It’s a miracle, that. And I miss ‘em all that’s not been lucky.” Jim’s huge head dropped down, and he stared into the center of the trench, suddenly melancholy.
Abbot felt a sudden surge of friendship for the man, and reached over and patted Criswell on the shoulder. “It’s good to be alive. You’re alive!”
“I’m alive!” Criswell roared out, looking back up into the sky, making Abbot jump back a little and startling everyone in the trench. A platoon of Moroccans edged away from the big Canadian. Not one of them understood English, and mistook the gesture for war fury. To them, it was good to have a giant on their side, but they thought it wise to stay wary, lest he accidentally crush them.
“I’m alive,” he said, looking back down and releasing a sigh of utter exhaustion. Abbot saw clearly that this kind of man was not made for this kind of war, and although Jim Criswell had proven himself a strong and capable survivor, everyone involved on both sides would eventually have to pay a heavy price just to have survived being anywhere near the Western Front in some deeply-scarring and permanent way. Jim’s morose face made Abbot feel his own damage more keenly, and what he said next struck him to the core.
“Not much of a life, is it, fellows,” Jim said. “I haven’t seen a real live tree in a long time. I don’t remember what my wolf-dog even looks like. My family doesn’t know how to read, and I can’t see my way back to them, no matter how hard I want it. I — I’m not — I’m sorry,” he said, and his massive frame drooped, making him suddenly look more like an overgrown boy than a mountain man. A deep sob issued from him, and he trembled a little with released stress.
Joe and Abbot had no words. But from either side of the giant man, each of them turned and without a word embraced him. Their arms could not quite reach around and enclose him, but they could do nothing else for the morose private. After a moment, the lieutenant stepped forward with an air of surrender and tried to put his arms around all three of them. The four men stayed that way, silent, for a long moment, until Criswell lifted his head and looked at the other three. “Thank you,” he said hoarsely, “the whiskey sometimes makes me homesick. I’ll get myself together.”
The Moroccans and Algerians looked upon this scene with mild astonishment, and wondered what this display could possibly portend.
After this, Private Criswell’s spirits picked up again, and he began to ask questions about Northumbria. Abbot spun a few stories that basically transplanted events that had happened to him and Joe in Germany into the wilds of England, but he knew that none of the details would bear close examination, especially if anyone had been to Newcastle. As the afternoon wore on, he began to work out some way for him and Joe to be allowed to climb the dark ladder in the corner to freedom. Ironically the lieutenant and Criswell thought of it as the ladder to their certain death, and seemed so taken with these new friends that they thought it their duty to prevent this very action.
Jim pointed his massive finger at Joe. “Why does he never talk? I ask things to him, and you always answer. Is he all right?” asked the big private, in a voice that was beginning to slur.
Abbot answered as if the matter was a sensitive subject. “He’s got — nerves. We were in no-man’s land for a few days, trapped in a shell-hole full of water and shelled day and night. The hammering just finally got to him, I guess. He’s still in good shape. He just doesn’t talk anymore.” Abbot told this prefabricated tale with extra seriousness. He felt like he was lying to good people, people who deserved the truth, but that was the nature of this situation. He had no choice but to lie. Abbot had no illusions as to what would happen to their newfound friendship were they to find out he was actually a German spy with a coat stuffed full of stolen maps.
Criswell leaned over and hugged Joe tightly to him, squeezing him so hard that Joe looked like he was about to pass out. “I had a pal of mine go that way, old Chesney. The first time we took on the Huns here he got too close to a big one, shook him up, it did, and he never talked again. Last I saw him, he was full of shrapnel. Just sliced up all to hell. Especially –” Criswell made a cutting motion, across one side of his head. “At the end he started making noises like an animal, snuffling and grunting and the like. They carted him off, and that was the last of dear old Chesney.”
From the corner of his vision Abbot suddenly caught a flash of movement above them at the lip of the trench, something white – an inquisitive white face was looking down on them. A cat, perfectly white, with one green eye and one blue eye, and a bright expression. Criswell followed Abbot’s gaze, and made ridiculous little mewing sounds to draw the cat down, but the offer was refused, and the white cat disappeared from view once more. “That’s Blank. He’s the company mascot,” Criswell said. “Lives out in no-man’s land and eats the rats. He’s got a lot more than nine lives, that’s for sure, but he’s only got three legs left. I’ll warrant he outlives us all, though. Tough fellow. Sweet disposition, when he’s of a mind.”
They snacked and drank and talked. By four o’clock in the afternoon Abbot and Joe were sure that the German attack had been cancelled. Falkenhayn would assume they were dead or captured, and write them off. Perhaps the whole show had been delayed for a full day, not an uncommon happening in any military adventure. If the attack had truly been delayed, then Abbot and Joe might still be able to slip across no-man’s land under cover of darkness and get away with this preposterous plan after all.
Meanwhile, though, they were both trapped beneath Criswell’s massive arms. The lieutenant had gone to fetch chow from the rear kitchens, and Criswell seemed to be falling asleep, using Abbot and Joe to prop himself up. Ten minutes after the lieutenant had gone Abbot began to try to slowly work his way out from underneath the enormous bicep, and within twenty minutes, they were both nearly free, Criswell obliviously snoring just like his counterpart in Jack and the Beanstalk as Abbot and Joe gently shifted his body to lean the man against the earthen wall of the trench.
They were moving toward the ladder when the lieutenant returned, but with a serious face and no chow. Directly behind him was the Canadian officer with the gold-rimmed glasses, the very same young captain whose friend Abbot had helped to save. The captain had a platoon of men with him this time, and they looked like they were on a serious quest. From the entrance to the gallery, the lieutenant pointed Abbot out, and Joe inwardly groaned. They’d waited too long. Here came trouble.
The captain stepped carefully over the center duckboards and made his way to where Abbot and Joe stood flanking the sleeping Criswell. The Moroccans and Algerians nearby watched with incurious and half-lidded eyes while the fresh Canadian platoon filed in behind the captain to stand with rifles ready as he stepped forward across the smashed planking to face Abbot. The captain had a difficult look in his eyes, as if he did not want these two men to prove to be the object of his search.
“One has to wonder,” said the captain, “if the two of you ever made your report to headquarters.”
Abbot remained silent, furiously thinking of something, anything to say.
The captain continued. “Because, you see, they never received any such report. What they did receive was a very advanced diversionary device set off on top of a neighboring trench, and a mysterious visit from someone who knocked out a young aide and made off with a stack of important maps.”
Abbot cleared his throat and saluted. “Yes sir, captain. No one wanted to talk to us, and then we got lost on the way back, and we ended up here.”
The sharp-faced lieutenant interjected. “But you said you were from Lord Churchill’s staff! Punishment detail, you said!”
Abbot spread out his hands diplomatically, knowing that they were now caught dead to rights – but still trying to think of some way, any way, of getting up that ladder without being shot.
On April 22, 1915, the Germans, violating the Laws of War, made their first poison gas attack, and the second battle of Ypres began. This crime and folly was destined in the end to expose them to severe retaliation from those who had the advantage of the prevailing winds, and in the end of the superior science; but who hitherto had been restrained by respect for the international usage from turning their favorable position to account.
-Churchill, Winston S. (1923). The World Crisis.
New York, NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons. (p.320)
8 pineapple and pepper
They were rescued by an event difficult to describe as a rescue. The German attack Abbot and Joe had expected at dawn arrived instead at this very moment, and not in the form of an artillery barrage, but in the form of Something New On Earth. Abbot sniffed the air, dropped his hands, and stopped trying to seem reasonable and misunderstood. He looked up at the air over the trench. For a moment, everyone just stared at him.
The captain knew that he had to act; he had been told that the dark-haired surgeon who had saved his friend’s life was also the reason for the full security lockdown that had blanketed the entire sector. Strict orders had been issued by a man whose very name radiated overwhelming authority: Lord Churchill. John French might be the supreme commander of the entire British army, but Winston Churchill was on the spot, a man who had the power to overrule reality by sheer force of personality. It was his way, his destiny, to command absolute authority in moments of supreme crisis; those closest to him identified the spark as a childhood quirk brought on by an inordinate affection for his American mother and an intense dislike for the stream of handsome officers who had replaced his father, the late Lord Randolph. Winston was a man driven, unrepentant, pugnacious, and quick who always considered himself the smartest man in every room, who would not permit or admit defeat, ever; he was a man who forged his own archetype.
And now Winston had recently experienced a severe breach of security that had embarrassed him. Two men had infiltrated the front lines by sheer brass and taken him and his security chief hostage, and had made off with many critical documents, including plans for a now-useless attack on the German positions in front of St. Julien. And now the exact same sort of thing had just happened again, exactly as before. It was an intolerable situation to such a man as Churchill, who had immediately issued set and well-trained orders to search all units in this sector. Both the Canadian captain and the lieutenant had reason to like these men; but it seemed unfortunately clear from the description that they were indeed the spies Lord Churchill was looking for.
When he had returned to find his headquarters ransacked again, Winston had needed only to examine the still-unconscious aide to immediately suspect the elusive Dr. Hoffman and his rough companion, and a thorough canvas of the bunker revealed that they had made off with an equally valuable set of documents as before. Winston had gone red in the neck, a condition he was not generally known for, and he had now shut down the entire front with an iron curtain.
Winston was also quite aware of the recent case in which a German balloon had exploded in the night sky past the line at Ypres, and had pondered the balloon’s meaning at length. Now, an intelligence bunker in the middle of the British front line had been successfully looted, the perpetrator using a sound-making device as a diversion – and the diversionary purpose of the exploding balloon became suddenly clear. What made him most angry was that he himself had been taken in as he had wandered toward the sound like everyone else, leaving seriously valuable papers at risk. The device had destroyed itself and left only a charred chunk of metal to examine, but some intuition made him think of Dr. Hoffman and the handful of photographic powder he had produced from a pocket to escape the last time. Add in the balloon, and Winston thought he could make the case that this was a task no ordinary German spy could pull off. Every bit of it pointed to Hoffman.
Winston and Abbot had spent more than a few nights wandering through the various pubs in London together, and later in Paris, pondering the complexities of the human condition while consuming mass quantities of ale and brandy. Churchill had been fascinated by Abbot’s ability to sketch out possible futures, weaving technology and philosophy in a deft framework that emphasized eventual travel in outer space, a subject which had at first subconsciously disturbed him, but had later given him ideas of which he had written and spoken of, and which had seemed to impress everyone who had thought about it at length. Truly Abbot had seen a new world approaching, and warned that they had all better be prepared for it. Considering the last four years he had proved to possess a detailed prescience. Drinking with him had consisted of trying to keep up with an ever-accelerating intellect while one’s own thoughts grew diffuse, but Winston had never shrunk from the task.
Winston had never really had contact with any of Abbot’s work other than through these conversations, but his reputation for experimental biochemistry was unparalleled. It would be child’s play for such a man to turn his attention to the devices of war, and a chill came over Winston at the thought of someone like Dr. Hoffman designing weapons for the Germans. Thankfully he had not gotten hold of any of the plans for the new caterpillar vehicles, referred to only as ‘tanks’ so that listeners would think of special water or fuel tanks and be confused. No documents discussing the project were allowed outside the top-secret manufacturing and testing park at the Motor Machine Gun Corp outside Surrey, and Churchill had therefore brought none with him to the forward headquarters.
The super-secret armored vehicle programme had been going on only for a few months now. The idea was not original with Winston; one had to credit Leonardo da Vinci, or even the Roman phalanx for its true origin. But a young major named Ernest Swinton had taken on the project after Winston had wondered aloud about the possibility of armored tractors crossing trenches and barbed wire, carrying infantry over the lines to invade German-held territory without the terrible loss of life which the Western Front seemed to demand for every inch of ground either side gained. Churchill knew now that Swinton and his associates Hankey and Rigby were at a critical stage and close to a working prototype, and yet here was this German superman raiding their forward headquarters twice within a fortnight, seemingly with impunity. It was a situation that had to be addressed, and Churchill knew just how to address it: with Great Authority.
And so the medical unit captain had been briefed with all the other officers; and after quizzing the sharp-faced lieutenant currently holding down the observation station at Rotten Row, he had hurried up with a platoon of his best to try to head off the two suspected spies, one of was the man who saved his own Corporal Huff from the brink of death while the two men were on their way forward to loot a British HQ. This was a fact that continued to defy the young captain’s imagination. What kind of spy would pause to intervene in an enemy surgery? Yet Churchill had set the place on fire looking for someone with exactly this fellow’s description, and it was Captain Scrimger’s duty to find and hold the two men who had helped him. There was nothing for it but to do the job.
Abbot, however, was not acting the part. He had been about to say something smartly misleading when he thrust his nose into the air and sniffed loudly. “Pineapple and pepper,” is what Abbot said, and both the lieutenant and the captain were momentarily taken aback by this complete non sequitur. Had the man chosen this moment to pretend insanity? Was it some sort of trick? Then Abbot reached out his hand and placed it on the captain’s arm, and said, “I’m sorry, captain, we’ll have to deal with this later – there’s a gas attack coming.”
Abbot whirled around to face the length of the trench, and shouted in an authoritative voice that filled the entire gallery. “We’re under poison gas attack! They’re using chlorine gas, which is going to fill this trench and kill every living thing in it! Get any kind of cloth, get it wet, and hold it over your mouth! It helps to urinate into the cloth, or use bicarbonate of soda, but water will do! Move! Move! You only have a few seconds! Wet cloth over your face! Do it now!” He switched to command French and repeated the short version.
He turned back to the captain. “Get your men out of here, now, or you’re all dead. Wet cloth, over the face, urinate on it if you have to, I know it sounds ridiculous but it could save everyone’s life! Please sir, you have only moments. Chlorine gas is absolutely lethal, but it is also water-soluble. You have to trust me! Wet cloth over your faces! Now! Please!”
Abbot then turned back to the gallery. “Joe!” he shouted. “Masks in my pack!”
Joe was still standing next to the sleeping giant but he moved instantaneously to respond, having known Abbot long enough to know when to just move. He grabbed Abbot’s pack and began to pull out equipment as Abbot proceeded to shout his entire address to the gallery again, but this time in French. The Moroccans were at first restless about the whole thing, but then something in Abbot’s manner made them grab their gear and look for something to make a wet mask with just like the man had said.
Captain Scrimger and the lieutenant both hesitated, reacting to Abbot’s bizarre outburst with initial disbelief. But the captain had seen Abbot rescue the life of his best friend; he suddenly found himself reconsidering, willing to give the man the benefit of the doubt for that service. “Platoon! Clear this gallery! And find wet cloths to put over your face!” he shouted, and his men surged past him to carry out the order. The captain realized suddenly that he could smell a peculiar odor, and that it was indeed pineapple mixed with pepper, just as Abbot had remarked. This convinced him that something bad was indeed about to happen, and he began to urge the men in the trench on with loud and sudden sureness.
Meanwhile, Joe had fished out a small bag full of heavy gauze masks, and pulled out a handful. Abbot now leaped back across the trench in a single bound, seized a rubber bottle from his pack, and poured it over the stack in Joe’s hand. “Get the goggles out,” he whispered to Joe. He put one of the masks on himself, and then grabbed another and fitted it on to the still-passed-out Private Criswell. Once he was certain that Joe had his mask secured, he turned back to the captain.
“We have to carry this man out! He’s unconscious! Get him out! Get everybody out now!” Abbot shouted through his heavy gauze mask at the captain, who uncertainly gestured at the lieutenant to comply. Abbot pulled out more of the masks, doused them with the solution in the bottle, and began to pass them out to other men nearby, including the lieutenant, and then he jumped back across the trench to give the last one to the captain. The lieutenant was frowning. “What is the meaning of all this? What the bloody hell are you talking about?” he demanded, now beginning to think Abbot’s urgent and strange demands might be a trick after all; but then a sound grew in the gallery that made everyone grow silent and look up at the edge of the trench.
A vast chittering sound grew, coming from somewhere in no-man’s land. As the horrified soldiers stood frozen they saw a sight no one had ever seen before: a vast flood of rats and all manner of other creatures pouring over the lip of the trench, thousands of them, all of them shrieking and writhing with panic. The flood of rodents poured over the men manning the parapet like a shower and tumbled down over Private Criswell, nearly burying him and the squad of other men struggling to move the unconscious giant out of the plunging waterfall of squirming gray fur.
Most of the men in Rotten Row had a severe distaste for rats. They infested the rear areas, relentlessly preyed on packs and field kitchens and food stockpiles and trucks, and were a general fact of life in the trenches; but they lived in even greater numbers out in the middle of no-man’s land, where they feasted on the dead and severely wounded, making sounds that chilled the blood of every sentry that monitored a listening post. These men hated and feared the sound of rodents, knowing that friends of theirs had been stripped to the bone while lying helplessly under the leaden skies of their muddy domain. Now it seemed to them as if tens of thousands of the giant rats had launched an assault on the trench, streaming over the edge of it in an unstoppable wash. The entire mass was screaming as if they were all in severe pain; they writhed and chewed at each other and anything around them as if trying to snap at invisible mites.
This event decided the issue of whether or not to listen to Abbot for the remaining men in the trench. The Moroccans had slowly begun to gather their belongings as Abbot had urged them to clear the gallery in elegant French; now, they fled headlong, throwing everything down and vaulting for the exit. Within fifteen seconds the last soldier was scrambling down the communications trench and out of Rotten Row as fast as their feet could carry them. Only Abbot, Joe, the lieutenant and the captain remained to drag the limp form of Criswell through the deepening carpet of snapping rodents, desperately trying not to trip and fall. Some of the captain’s platoon returned in shame at having abandoned their leader, and as they helped take over the burden Abbot and Joe fell away from the group and slowly pushed their way back through the hellish mass of boiling gray fur that filled the bottom of the trench to their knees. Abbot could see that there were other creatures besides rats writhing in the mass, some recognizable as moles and even gophers; but all of them seemed to be gasping for air, unable to do anything but twist and blindly bite each other.
Just as the crew had hefted the unconscious Criswell out of the teeming gallery Captain Scrimger noticed that Abbot and Joe had faded back, and turned back himself. He reappeared at the entrance to the front trench and saw them pushing their way back through the tide of rodents, toward the front – he let his mask drop and called out after them, “Come back! I have to take you in!”, then pulled his revolver from his holster and pointed it up in the air. He seemed reluctant to point it directly at them, at least for the moment. Abbot and Joe were already at their packs, and turned back to look when the young captain had shouted. He could see that they were now wearing some sort of strange-looking goggles over their gauze facemasks – like something out of a science-fiction story, he thought. Why would they be wearing goggles?
In the next moment the captain had stopped looking at Abbot and Joe, and was now looking behind them and above their heads. The flood of rats from no-man’s land had ceased, but now the captain could see something much worse had arrived, something that no one on earth had ever seen before, and which put a chill all through his spine at how strange a sight it was. A wall of thick greenish gas perhaps seven feet high and looking like some sort of unearthly veil arrived at the edge of the trench and began to spill smoothly over into the gallery. Abbot and Joe looked up and watched as the thick green wave poured down over them. They both adjusted their goggles, clasped the wet masks tightly over their mouths and noses – then shouldered their packs, glanced briefly back at the captain, and moved out. The captain watched them wade through the sea of rats to the ladder near the end of the gallery, and so he fired his weapon into the air and shouted “Stop!”; but then they disappeared into the thick wall of gas that now threatened to envelop him as well, and so he turned and fled by pure instinct from the viscous tide, the awful smell of pineapple and pepper driving him to flight as much as his stinging eyes.
Abbot and Joe walked about twenty yards into no-man’s land through the bizarre green fog before Abbot stopped Joe with a tap on his arm. He reached up and squirted the rubber bottle directly at Joe’s facemask, which made Joe splutter, shake his head, and back away from the stream.
“Hey!” said Joe through the streaming gauze. “Sorry, but it needs to stay wet,” said Abbot, and then turned the bottle on his own mask as Joe re-adjusted his goggles. A moment later they were moving through the greenish cloud, looking like two antique space men walking on Venus. “We have to change uniforms quickly — they’ll be following this cloud, and I don’t want to get caught out looking like a Tommy before they get here. Let’s find a dry shell-hole,” said Abbot, the words blurred by the thick saturated gauze of the facemask.
Abbot took a bearing using a small compass he pulled from his pocket, and started across no-man’s land. The gas was thick all around and visibility was near zero, but he moved as quickly as he could, making sure Joe stayed right behind him. Thirty feet out, Abbot spotted a flash of white on the ground, and passed the white cat – Blank, the big private had called him – lying dead in the mud, his body contorted with his death throes, three legs thrust stiffly out. Blank the cat had possessed just one more life after all, and Abbot felt a deep pang of sadness for the fate of this creature, whose expressive face had peered down at him a few hours before.
Abbot paused and bent down to stroke the cat’s head, rubbing the ears lightly, feeling the matted fur. “In some other life, you’re sitting on a little girl’s lap. What a good kitten. What a strong kitten. Sleep.”
Joe watched this with understanding; he had left a gray cat back home that he and his family loved very much, their sixth member of the family, Isabel. He hadn’t seen a cat since, certainly not out here in the battle zones. Wildlife and domesticated animals tended to have much higher casualty rates than the soldiers, probably because they had no idea what was going on. They just knew it was loud and smelled bad, and an artillery barrage would immediately find any natural creature running away at full speed along with some of the men who could not bear to stay buried in their holes in the ground. Most of the time digging proved to be the only successful survival strategy, as nothing could outrun a curtain of jagged steel screaming through all the available air; more often than not the counter-intuitive action of burying oneself in the earth was the only way to avoid certain death, an act that required some measure of thought and self control. Horses on the front often died simply because they ran the wrong way, away from their own guns and into the sheeting steel fusillade above the trenches.
Within thirty yards they found a place to change their uniforms, a slight rise where the gas had thinned somewhat with a deep crater behind it that would give them some momentary privacy. They stripped off their clothing, pulling out standard German gear from a sealed false bottom in their packs, stuffing the British uniforms back in their place. They kept the rifles, but wrapped them in cloth and threaded them alongside their packs so as to hide them from view. Within a few minutes Abbot and Joe looked like German soldiers again (except for the goggles and face-masks), and they climbed out of the crater to slog through the still-greenish air toward the German lines.
Moments later they saw an eerie sight. From out of the thickening fog directly in front of them emerged a figure with a black rubber face mask set with two respirator ports in the front and glass eyepieces that made him look like a giant insect. Directly behind him, a formation of other men in masks, and all dressed in German uniforms. Abbot and Joe stopped and hailed them, saluting as the lead figure approached them.
“What in the hell are you doing out here, private?” The mask made the voice echo and boom in the still sick green air, and the man’s eyes gleamed with the nervous energy of combat through the clear, polished lenses set in the mask. A lieutenant, Abbot could now see, carrying a Luger P08 and jumpy enough to perhaps use it on any strange shapes looming up out of the chlorine mist. Now a full platoon of men in similarly strange praying-mantis black rubber facemasks emerged from the deep fog behind him ready to cut down anything in their path; Abbot knew his next actions would mean life or death.
Abbot and Joe immediately came to attention and saluted in the German style. Joe answered the bug-faced lieutenant in flawless High German. “We’re forward operatives for General Falkenhayn, carrying maps stolen from British headquarters. It’s vital that we get these back to the General Staff immediately.”
Even through the hazed eyepieces the Joe could see the lieutenant’s astonished eyes. This was the last thing they had expected to be coming at them out of a field of deadly gas. The lieutenant became immediately impatient with the whole conversation; he had to reach a certain objective by a certain time, and any unexpected delays could easily throw off the flanking platoons and draw the ire of the captain. He waved the Luger in the air peremptorily. “Back that way,” he said. “There’s a wire gap right behind us, about fifty yards. Three miles back is the staging area. You can get transport to headquarters from there.”
Joe thanked the lieutenant, and started to walk, but Abbot paused and addressed the gas-masked lieutenant. “The trenches were clear when we left them. Everyone has fled for the moment.”
The lieutenant looked suddenly serious through his eyepieces, and then nodded. Beckoning his men forward with the Luger, he passed Abbot and Joe by and disappeared into the green mist. The platoon followed in a staggered skirmish line, all of them swiveling their strange black faces to look at the odd sight of the two strangers in their gauze masks and leather goggles still standing at attention in the middle of a hazy green no-man’s land. Joe caught glimpses now and then of the wide, staring eyes behind the masks and felt sorry for them; he and Abbot had been in at least seven full-scale assaults on British positions, and he had never gotten used to it. One always knew that anything could happen, anything at all, but the odds favored the defender. Many men they had known and trained with were gone, just as it had been with Private Criswell’s experience, and any other man who had survived on the Western Front for any length of time. It was the common tale of 1915 for everyone involved that life was cheap and ground expensive, poison gas notwithstanding.
The last gas mask vanished in the green cloud, and Abbot and Joe moved swiftly in the opposite direction, dodging shell craters and staying low until they found the gap in the wire from which the platoon had emerged. Abbot identified himself and gave the password; they were swiftly admitted to the rear area and assigned an orderly to guide them to the truck depot. Everyone around them wore the black rubber gas masks; thirty yards behind the wire Joe and Abbot passed through an endless row of eight-foot cylinders, each manned by five men, and each belching forth a blast of concentrated chlorine gas. The roaring sound pounded at their ears, and Joe felt suddenly that he could not breathe at all anymore; and then they were through the row of cylinders and into rapidly clearing air, moving now through hundreds of trucks and towed carts stacked with thousands more of the dark green containers.
With a few minutes of walking they were able to stop and take their masks and goggles off. The slight breeze was blowing the chlorine gas directly towards the British trenches, and the air behind their lines became progressively clearer until at last Abbot could no longer even detect the scent. The road back to the rear areas was now choked with men and trucks, and several times Abbot and Joe had to wedge themselves into the thick woods flanking parts of the narrow road to allow more trucks to pass. All of the trucks were generally either full of giant dark green gas canisters or dark gray men in rubber masks. Eventually, the road led to a massive field full of tents and temporary buildings, batteries of silent artillery and a field hospital, with muddy streets full of soldiers preparing to follow up on the first wave.
As they passed the edge of one of the medical tents Abbot looked over at the hospital personnel winding their way through the mostly-empty rows of beds beneath their massive brown canvas roof. He saw something that made him frown, and altered his course to move through the tent and between the rows toward the men; behind him, Joe sighed, and followed along behind him with a shrug.
Abbot could see that all the men in the tents seemed be suffering from the same malady; they were all struggling to breathe, gasping as if each breath was precious, occasionally coughing with an awful, liquid sound. As he approached the section, a medical orderly changed direction and cut them off. “Sorry, no visitors,” said the orderly, and made a pre-emptive motion with his hand that would normally end the conversation, a professional and polite ‘get out’. But Abbot stood his ground and unsoldered his pack. “I’m a physician, and I’d like to know what these men are suffering from.”
The orderly looked at Abbot now, directly, weighing whether or not to invoke his limited authority and try again to evict the two privates. But if the man really had any medical training at all, he could be of help. Both of the unit commanding physicians had been delayed because of the troop trains, and they had not really expected casualties to start rolling in until the morning. It would be a relief if any other authority could share his burden; he had never seen symptoms like this in his life. So instead of putting up a fight the orderly drew himself up and spoke directly, hoping perhaps for just a little help from any quarter, even a hint as to any possible treatment. So far it had all been pure misery.
“These men were part of a unit that suffered exposure to the gas, either from defective masks, or in some cases, improper release methods, local air currents, we’re not sure. They are all dying, and we don’t seem to be able to do anything for them but supply them with morphine. If you are indeed a doctor, any help you could provide would be quite useful.” Abbot nodded, reshouldered his pack and followed the orderly to the occupied section. He showed them several of the worst cases, discussed the layout of the facilities and the supplies; then he excused himself to report back to the triage tables, leaving Abbot and Joe to wander alone among beds full of slowly drowning men.
Abbot had read more than a few papers on the effects of chlorine gas on the lung tissue. Every military-minded scientist and engineer had discussed the use of gas as a weapon of war, and had pondered available gasses that would possess effective qualities, and considered possible defenses and countermeasures. Everyone Abbot knew had hoped that no one would ever go so far as to actually try it; clearly someone had signed the order. The world was now living in science-fiction, Abbot thought; there would be no going back from this, and it had been a German act. As Joe followed his friend through the rows of beds, he felt a certain horror that he thought had left him after the first few months on the front. This new style of war seemed unfair; actually ‘evil’ was a more fit word, and now he found himself fighting on the side of the nation who had leaped to this awful new method of burning men to death with the very air they were breathing. It was unconscionable, brutal, primitive; his consciousness was repelled, and he felt ashamed of his own culture. What was he doing wearing the uniform of monsters? He shuddered, and not for the first time, thought about running for it.
The way things worked in Germany made that act virtually impossible, however. Joe would refuse to stay behind, and the first thing the army did to deserters was arrest their entire family; after that they would harass or arrest anyone else who knew them, had ever known them, had ever done business with them or owed them money. It was a spectacle of public terror, and an effective method for keeping soldiers sharp and in the line. For many such as Joe, a bullet in the head was to be feared far less than the local police showing up at his home, arresting Lena, humiliating his children, interrogating his parents, rousting out his old foreman. He was trapped here along with everyone else, and his friend was trapped with him, and now that trap itched badly as Abbot watched these dozens of young men die horrible deaths on a beautiful spring day in Belgium. In his mind Germany had now jumped the rails of civilized behavior entirely, and it was time to go. Only the fact that his nation held Joe’s family hostage kept his feet from moving.
The boy was gasping for breath, and failing at it. He seemed about to die at any moment, and when Abbot took his hand, the young man gripped it with fervor, desperate to speak. “Is there nothing that can be done for me?” he gasped out. “I don’t want to die. Don’t let me die.” His eyes were wide with the fear of death, and he was near to hysteria. Abbot spoke to him gently. “Hold on, I’ve got some things in my pack. I’ll see what I can do, soldier.” Abbot’s tone and words seemed to make the young man relax, and he released Abbot’s hand to let him rummage through his pack. A few moments later he emerged with a small case of hypodermic needles, several flasks, and a small bottle of pills, piled them all on the empty bed across the aisle, going back for a stethoscope and a light to examine the boy’s throat with. Midway through the examination the boy had a coughing fit, spitting up brown fluid and blood; Abbot quickly cleaned him up and finished the procedures with calm deliberation, using his eyes to ask Joe to hand him various items.
“What’s your name?” he asked the trembling, pale, gasping boy.
“Kurt Weber,” came the bare reply. “I am from Dusseldorf. My mask did not fit me, the straps were loose. The gas came in.”
Abbot swabbed a small spot on the young man’s arm with alcohol and bit of gauze. Then he prepared a hypodermic, inserting it into a port in one of the flasks held upside down, and withdrawing the plunger. “Well, Kurt from Dusseldorf, I am Abbot from Bochum. That makes us neighbors. Let’s see what we can do. Joe, get the orderly. Ask him to come here.” Joe put down his things, and went off to find the orderly. Abbot put his hand on the young man’s arm, and looked into his eyes. “This won’t hurt very much, I promise,” Abbot said, but the boy grimaced anyway as Abbot delivered the injection into the inside of his elbow. “That’s to help you breath,” said Abbot. “You’ll feel better in a moment.”
“I know a girl in Bochum,” said the boy. “Her name is Lisl. I met her at summer camp. Do you know her?”
“Lisl Rothmueller? She’s about your age. Brown hair, tall?”
“Yes, that’s her. We held hands on the river boat, and talked about the different birds.”
Abbot nodded his head. “She’s very pretty, your Lisl. You’re a lucky man, Kurt.”
“Yes. Yes, yes I am. She kissed me, you know. When no one was looking. She’s wonderful.” The boy smiled weakly.
By the time Joe returned with the orderly, the boy was resting comfortably, still wheezing, but now relaxed. Abbot had given him a second injection, and had asked him to swallow one of the white pills. Although the young man’s improvement seemed remarkable, Abbot’s face was grave. He took the orderly aside and spoke to him quietly.
“It’s possible that some of those less affected by the gas will survive if they receive proper treatment. I’m leaving you two serums, dosages marked on the bottles, one a bronchodilator, the other something to alleviate their suffering,” said Abbot. He held up the bottle of pills. “These also may help increase oxygen absorption and lessen inflammation of the alveoli for a longer period of time. One each, no more. Do you know what a nebulizer is?” The orderly nodded attentively. “A nebulized solution of sodium bicarbonate may help the damaged tissue, although there is no hard evidence for the treatment. If you can find a way to fabricate a large-scale nebulizer with such a solution, or even just several large boiling pots of it kept underneath the tent, perhaps seal off this section — who knows. It may help them somewhat.”
The orderly was eager to receive these words, and nodded enthusiastically. “Right away, doctor. What about the young man you’ve already treated? He appears to be recovering.”
Abbot shook his head and looked down. “He’s not going to recover. I was just able to make things easier for him. I’m sorry. The gas is insidiously damaging to the lungs, and he’s done for.” Abbot nodded in the direction of the boy. “Just keep him comfortable. He’s very young, really just a child. It won’t be long.”
The orderly nodded. “Yes, sir. But can you not stay?”
Abbot shook his head. “My friend and I are due at headquarters. We’re already late. You’ll be able to carry out the treatment. When the physician arrives, explain to him what I’ve told you. I’ll inform General Falkenhayn how to supply you with more of the serums and pills. Good luck.”
The orderly drew up into a formal military salute, snapped his heels, and said “Long live the Kaiser!”
Abbot looked at him silently for a moment, with a gaze that made the orderly suddenly feel ashamed of himself for some reason. Without another word, Abbot walked over to the dying young man, who seemed to be sleeping peacefully now, and squeezed his hand. He handed the orderly the two flasks and the bottle of pills, shouldered his pack, looked at Joe, and walked away from the orderly, who watched them leave with a growing uncertainty in his heart. Had he said something bad? Was it wrong to praise the Kaiser? The orderly shook his head as if to clear an unpleasant thought, and walked down the aisle toward the supply area, already thinking about how to scare up some large pots, at least until he could rig up some sort of nebulizer, and about how to give every man in the tent the two injections and the pill as swiftly as possible. It was good to have some sort of answer, any kind of answer. Strange that a doctor would only be a private, though. Clearly the man was a physician. Perhaps he had been in some trouble somewhere, to have to fight in the line?
Behind the orderly, Private Kurt Weber quietly ceased to breathe.
Joe kept an eye on Abbot as they walked on down the muddy road to look for the transport area. Finally, after an endless silence that could be borne no longer he spoke up. “Awful stuff, Abbot. Lucky you had those pads and goggles handy, or we’d be just like that kid.”
Abbot turned and looked at Joe with dark eyes, rimmed with red. They were the eyes of a man who had divined some awful future, and now wished to unsee it. Abbot’s jaw flexed repeatedly as he spoke. “I always had a feeling someone would cross that line eventually,” he said. “I just didn’t know it would be Germany. They’ve officially gone mad with war, Joe.”
Joe sighed. “So much for Captain Hyndman’s ‘secret weapon’. What a nightmare. You know what? I’ve got some chemical war for him. That man’s getting a dart when I see him next. He’s the perfect candidate for a little 858. That’ll solve his particular problem. Fix him right up.”
Abbot smiled grimly in agreement, but did not reply. The two men walked along the road, each alone with his thoughts, each coming to grips with the memories of the taste of this hazy green New World they had just experienced. When they reached the motor pool, they talked their way on to the back of an empty truck, and spent a few hours bouncing around on the bare wood of the empty bed, grateful for the chance to do nothing but try to hang on. Abbot was taciturn, and Joe knew he was deeply angry. When Joe got angry, he usually did something, like kick a wall or punch somebody, just like his father. Abbot’s family had been different, and so Abbot’s rage was always confined to silence, the only sign a tightly-controlled flicker in his eyes. Joe hoped he would not confront Falkenhayn over the decision to attack with poison gas, because he knew that would probably mean another stint on a forward post in no-man’s land; but he knew Abbot would probably say something anyway. Joe resigned himself to this fate and then reminded himself that Abbot was only here because of him.
As the truck jounced along, Joe waited for a long time before deciding to try to get Abbot’s mind off the dying boy. “So, then, Paris,” he finally said.
Abbot looked up at him. “Paris?” he asked. Joe nodded with sincere solemnity. “You swore if I rolled out of that balloon into the sky that you would go to Paris, march up to Madeleine, and confess your feelings for her,” he said. “Up or down. Yea or nay. Get it over with.”
Abbot looked down for a moment and didn’t answer. Then he raised his eyes to meet Joe’s, a soul-weary half smile on his face. “First chance we get, Paris it is. But we’d better have your family with us before we go. And I’m not sure Lena will approve of my approaching a woman I haven’t been introduced to. That’s considered very rude, you know. She might just overrule you.”
“I’ll deal with Lena. But the promise stands. I jump out of the balloon, you get over this dreamy romantic obsession and talk to that woman. And if she won’t accept you, then it will be time to settle down with some good solid German woman, one of Lena’s friends, or one of your nurses or something. I can name a dozen offhand who would jump at the chance, although I don’t know why.”
Abbot nodded as if this were a serious statement. “All right, brother. If Madeleine shakes her head and turns on her heel, I’ll find myself a strong-boned cow-tosser of a German maid, and we’ll settle down in Bochum and make beer and rocket ships, I promise.”
Now it was Joe’s turn to laugh. “I’d drink to that. I bet we’d make a damned decent beer, what with all your chemistry. I’ll be your willing taster. And honest about it, too, if you don’t measure up.”
“That’s how it’s supposed to work, right?” said Abbot, now thoroughly distracted. “I bet I could get a good Brinkhoff Pilsner going, something light and refreshing, with a rounded tone, subtle. But I’d have to use less hops. Those northern noble hops have a high calcium carbonate content. So there’d be a lot of tasting involved. A lot.”
Joe grinned widely. “I’m your man. I’m a Dortmund Export expert, you know that.”
“I know that,” replied Abbot.
The truck went through six layers of security before being admitted to army group command headquarters. Abbot and Joe piled out of the truck and asked for directions to the main building, which turned out to be another vast chateau set among completely incongruent fairytale shrubbery and whimsically sculpted forest, now swarming with greycoats and rifles. They were admitted after much delay to the interior, which was literally buzzing with prussive activity, streams of officers and messengers whipping along in perfect organization down the long, white, crowded halls of a vast Belgian chateau, the whole system humming with energy like a powerful machine. The odors of pipe smoke and leather mixed with those of fine carpet and antique wood to lend a modern, exotic air to the whole place. Through this engine of military perfection walked Abbot and Joe, tired, smeared with trench grime, still stinking of chlorine, stumbling down hallways until they finally found someone who knew where the General was. Five minutes later they were ushered (with a clear look of distaste on the orderly’s face) into a war room, at the center of which stood General von Falkenhayn hovering over a map table surrounded by ten or so subordinate commanders, all of whom were pointing out various points on the grand map, receiving communications from the field and leaning forward to adjust positions with pencils.
A flood of messengers, adjutants, assistants, and junior officers streamed to and from the table as if from a beating heart. But Joe immediately noticed one participant, standing a few yards from the main table crew, quietly watching the action with a clearly arrogant and poorly suppressed glee. Dr. Kelten von Hyndman was floating on air, watching the map move moment to moment as his new weapon cleared the British from trench after trench. With each new line drawn his eyes beamed with pride and his hands struggled not to clap.
As Abbot began to grasp the clipped conversation taking place over the table, he started to understand the larger story. With only a few casualties, not more than fifty men who had suffered from ill effects of the gas, the Germans had taken more ground and had such a complete success that the commanding generals were primarily concerned with desperately shifting men from other sectors to exploit the tremendous breach. No one had thought the gas would work so perfectly; new estimates were rolling in suggesting that at least ten thousand of the Algerian, French and Canadian troops in front of them had simply died outright, and that tens of thousands more were incapacitated, or fleeing the gas as fast as their legs could carry them. It was a complete rout, and Hyndman’s weapon was responsible for the victory.
Abbot and Joe stood at the back of the room for a good ten minutes, completely ignored by Falkenhayn. The only man who noticed them at all was Kelten von Hyndman, who alternated between scowling and smirking at them as new reports of his personal success continued to march in pencil across the massive table. It was clear that he considered them adversaries, pleased to have them present at the event of his glory. Hyndman acted as if they must somehow find his success unbearably enviable, and was trying to increase the imaginary burden by gloating. Joe thought Hyndman looked like a crazy man; but this was apparently the day of the Crazy Man, and the doctor’s nomination for King Of It.
At long last, Falkenhayn looked up and pulled his attention away from the maps. He blinked with frustration and fatigue then turned to look around the room until his gaze landed on Abbot and Joe. He seemed to be so shocked to see them that he was speechless for a moment.
“Hoffman?” said the general. “Where the hell have you been? You should have been back yesterday!”
Abbot met the general’s reproach with a steady gaze. “We were detained by events, general,” he said. “I hope these meager offerings will suffice for you to forgive our lateness.” Abbot strode forward, at the same time pulling the sheaf of folded maps and documents from inside his coat and offering them directly to Falkenhayn.
Several of the generals stepped forward reflexively as if to stop Abbot from approaching too closely — what, did they fear that he would attempt to assassinate Falkenhayn? One in particular, a short, brushy-haired man with a thick white moustache stepped directly in front of the general to receive the documents. “Thank you, private, I will take these,” he said smoothly. “Please wait over there,” he said, in the clipped Prussian officer’s tone that assumed they would immediately obey.
Abbot bowed, formally saluted, and moved back to stand next to Joe. Together, they marched in order over to the area of the room that the officer had indicated, near some perfectly-arrayed black drapes that reached to the high ceiling, and stood firmly at attention. The brushy-haired officer, dressed in a perfectly creased gray uniform with mirrored black boots, whirled around and formally presented the documents to Falkenhayn as if presenting him with a personal gift. The general accepted them and turned to spread them out on top of the map, separating the documents and unfolding them one by one.
Abbot watched as the generals began to murmur, and then gasp with astonishment. One document in particular made the entire group go silent as they studied it; then one general broke the tension with a barking laugh and a firm “My God!” that drew an immediate reprimanding look from Falkenhayn. But it soon became apparent that the documents were having the same effect on the staff as the first batch they had stolen from Winston had had on Captain Studtendorf. Several of the generals began to paw at the pile of documents as if they were million-dollar chips on a blackjack table, and Falkenhayn actually had to slap at their hands to prevent their being snatched up, barking out a remonstrating order and indicating that the documents should be immediately taken to the Intelligence Room and analyzed.
Once the documents were collected up a dead-serious orderly took them from the room, accompanied by several thin-faced majors with even more extremely-serious expressions. Falkenhayn turned to watch them go, and then turned again to face Abbot and Joe. The entire room did the same thing, all eyes on the two grimy privates standing in the corner, even the fading eyes of Kelten von Hyndman, who did not like this development stealing his thunder one little bit. For a moment, the assembly paused in tableau; then Falkenhayn cleared his throat.
“Very good work, Private Hoffman,” he said, emphasizing the ‘private’ slightly as if to note to the room that he had somehow been directly responsible for this famous man’s low rank, that he controlled him utterly, that this had been his idea the whole time. It is the nature of military staff officers in any armed force to immediately take credit for every success that they could possibly be involved in, and even though Falkenhayn was the highest-ranking officer on the Western Front, his early days at Calvary command had ingrained the habit in him. This is how it was, this is how promotions were obtained, how power was consolidated; and of everyone in the room, Falkenhayn was the grandmaster of all such things.
Abbot saw all this and groaned inwardly, but indicated nothing in his manner, waiting patiently with a simple expression for the further orders of his commanding officer. Falkenhayn was obviously deeply impressed with the documents. His eyes were alight, and he was struggling to conceal his joy; it was if he had been handed the keys to a kingdom, and now felt expansive toward the lowly creature who had brought him such a treasure. Abbot realized that, as happy as this warlord seemed to be over the maps they had stolen, the other warlord — Winston Churchill — would be equally as enraged. Hopefully they would not be asked to do something like this again, Abbot thought, flinching a little with the sudden realization that he might have trapped them both into a life of espionage in exchange for their reprieve from a death sentence. But then he thought that being shot by the British in a military prison was probably a hair’s breadth more desirable than being facelessly interned in the dark organic soup of the middle of no-man’s land, and sighed a little. One way or the other, it seemed.
Falkenhayn approached Abbot, and clapped him on the arm. “Well done! What kind of difficulties did you experience? We’ll need a full debriefing from you later, but please, sketch for us how you came to possess these incredible documents. They are — astounding. You may have just changed the course of the entire war. Please.”
Abbot answered in a neutral soldier’s tone. “We infiltrated the enemy’s front lines by jumping from a painted black balloon at night using the new parachute devices, sir. We made our way through the enemy trench system, located the forward headquarters between Ypres and St. Julien and created a diversion that allowed us to enter and secure the documents.”
Falkenhayn seemed amazed by this. “Outstanding! Outstanding! And no one tried to stop you?”
At this moment, Dr. Hyndman propelled himself forward and interrupted with a loud voice. “They needlessly destroyed a weather balloon! A very valuable piece of equipment, deliberately destroyed in a cowardly act of shirking from the face of the enemy!”
Falkenhayn turned to look at the now red-faced doctor, who felt he had been forced to say something by having seen his newly-supreme status with the German General Staff threatened by this upstart, a Jew as well –[_ _]it had been too much too bear; but now the Doctor was regretting the outburst, considering the look that Falkenhayn was giving him.
“Surely an old gasbag is worth the value of the incredible trove of intelligence Dr. Hoffman has brought to us. Perhaps you will allow him to answer my question, Dr. Hyndman?” Falkenhayn had a genteel quietude in his voice that masked a viperous temper; it was well known to all that the softer the general’s tone the more the staff had to watch their step. Decisions flowed from the hands of a German general like electricity, and any officer or private could find himself posted to a point of no return within the span of a breath. Absolute control of a vast machine like the modern German army lent the man who commanded it a zenlike transcendence, a relaxed and utter confidence; to the properly-trained Prussian, a raised voice was evidence that one lacked power.
The effect on Hyndman was instantaneous. He clapped his heels sharply together and thrust his body straight up into the air, the arm flying from him to point to the sky. He had forgotten himself. “Yes, of course, my general!” shouted Hyndman, and stepped back several paces to stand with the lesser staff, seething. Falkenhayn turned back to Abbot and Joe, his gaze calm and collected.
Abbot continued. “The British First Lord of the Admiralty, Winston Churchill, is in the sector behind Ypres, and has now successfully restructured the security of the British positions. I do not believe we can repeat the action a third time. We were nearly apprehended at the forward trenches.”
Falkenhayn was thunderstruck. “Churchill? Here? Opposing us?”
Abbot nodded. “Yes. He and his security chief, a Captain Valentine Fleming, were discussing some sort of new weapon. They called it a ‘tank’ by way of a code word, but we believe it to be some type of armored tractor, something that can cross mud and trenches and roll over the wire. Churchill talked about fitting it with a ‘six pounder’, which I believe is a very large British naval gun.”
“Preposterous!” shouted Hyndman from behind the general.
“Please continue,” said Falkenhayn to Abbot, utterly ignoring Hyndman’s outburst. “This is a most interesting tale.” The snub was severe, and all of the staff in the room seemed to hold their breaths.
Hyndman seemed to shrink into himself. All the glory of his great success with his new weapon of war was disappearing before his eyes, and he hung his head, trying to hide his burning face from the disapproving looks of the entire staff. To interrupt a general once was dangerous. Twice, and consequences would certainly follow. The officers on either side of Hyndman moved instinctively and unobtrusively a few inches further away from him.
Abbot went on. “I believe they’ve constructed a prototype of this tractor. They referred to it as ‘Little Willie’. I can tell you with certainty, sir, that if Winston Churchill is organizing this project, he will have found the brightest minds and attacked the project with great insight and intelligence. I consider him a serious threat, and by extension, this ‘tank’ idea, whatever it is. Joe and I have always thought that if such a device could be successfully designed, it would change the nature of warfare forever, as have the airplane and machine gun.”
Falkenhayn was struck by this thought, and turned away to ponder the idea.
Abbot looked around at the staff, and glanced at Dr. Hyndman, who was staring fixedly at the floor. Abbot had a sudden inspiration, decided to go with it. “General,” he said, “if Joe and I could be provided a small workshop, I think we could easily get the jump on the British and French on just such a vehicle. Give us thirty days and we’ll come up with something fast and maneuverable, easy to make and maintain, a troop-carrier that can roll right over trenches and wire belts, armed with a moveable cannon and some machine guns. Joe’s the best mechanic in Germany, I know we can do it. Let us try, sir. It might change the war.”
Falkenhayn stared at Abbot for a second, then at Joe, and then shook his head. “Gentleman, this discussion is for another time. Please, go get some food and some sleep. Report back to Captain Studtendorf in a few days. Perhaps I can think of another mission for you by that time. And again, thank you for this — blessing. Now I will have to ask you to pardon me. I have a war to fight.” With this, Falkenhayn turned away, the matter resolved, his mind already returning to the map.
Abbot’s voice cut through the space of the large room, startling everyone, including Joe, who had been eyeing the door with a mind to immediately following the general’s direct orders concerning food and sleep. “General? Sir?”
Falkenhayn turned back, seeming surprised to see Abbot and Joe still standing behind him. “Yes?” he said, oh-so-gently. The rest of the room went silent once more. Abbot stepped closer to the general, and spoke to him in a personal tone. “I realize the gas was effective, and that the attack has been unopposed and seems successful. But on the way here, I stopped to treat a young German man who had been issued a defective gas mask. His name was Private Kurt Weber, from Dusseldorf. He’s dying horribly, drowning in his own lungs. I promised the orderly that I’d provide you with a list of supplies needed to treat the remaining victims.” Abbot paused, then continued. “The British are excellent chemists, and you can be sure that the inevitable reprisals will involve gases much more effective and devastating than chlorine. All soldiers should now be issued effective gas masks immediately, and trained to respond to the use of gas as a standard weapon of war.”
Falkenhayn’s expression froze; he seemed shocked by this statement. He said nothing. Abbot continued. “The world will eventually view this act as a violation of the honorable conduct of the war, and this will give the British and French a perfect justification for engaging in similar reprisals. We should at least prepare ourselves for that reaction.”
Erich von Falkenhayn refused to look directly at Abbot now. The truth was, he had not thought of this possibility. Dr. Hyndman had seemed so focused, so persuasive, so intense about the idea. For the first time the general felt misgivings about the act, especially about the possibility of the British using gas against his own soldiers. He said, “Thank you for your opinion, Dr. Hoffman. We shall consider your words. You are dismissed.” The general turned away, glancing briefly at Dr. Hyndman with a contemptuous flicker of attention and returned to gazing down at the map of the battlefield. But his attention was false; Abbot’s words had shaken him. He appeared distracted as he reached forward to touch a small flag-piece that represented the forwardmost advance of the attack on the smooth pale vellum of the giant map, wiggling it back and forth with an absent-minded air.
Abbot and Joseph saluted, and marched from the room. As they strode back down the long hallways, replete with all manner of balustrades, carved corners, ceiling reliefs and flowered tables, junior officers ducked across the hallway in front of and behind them, dodging each other automatically, and glancing with obvious admiration at the now-famous duo. The general had personally complimented them on their work, unheard of – one of the captains had been heard to mutter that there might be a medal in it for them. The younger officers who had been present were all terribly jealous, and dreamed of someday carrying out similar brave deeds. Already the embellishments to the tale were taking place in the subconscious of the minions to the General Staff.
But Abbot and Joe just felt exhausted and demoralized, and did not return the glances. Instead they dragged themselves along with their gaze trailing the floor, trying hard not to collapse on their way to a much-required rest. They asked around for the location of Studtendorf’s regiment — some said it was in combat just behind Ypres, and then one corporal with a lazy eye remarked that he had seen orders for their battalion putting them into the reserves behind Spriel, and showed them the position on a map he was carrying in his pocket.
9 the chemical life
A few hours later they arrived at their regiment’s area, packed into a meadow inside a thick forest that had somehow remained unshelled. The air was clear, and fragrant with pine and the smell of deep woods; it made them dizzy with dissonance, as if they had been plucked from the depths of hell and placed in the romantic garden of some earth/mother/goddess. They breathed deeply for awhile, and just that; the chlorine had starved them for good air, for natural air, untainted by the chemistry of the battlefield, and while they had it, they consumed it in great quantities.
They finally found their way through the grassy lanes to battalion headquarters, where they were immediately brought to Captain Studtendorf’s bunker and sternly quizzed, although it seemed nothing more than a routine grilling, without any of the shouting or dire threats they had previously endured. Apparently word had come down from Falkenhayn himself that they were to be permitted to rest, and so Abbot and Joe found themselves treated with some measure of celebrity. They were released to collect their belongings, find bunks and food, and get cleaned up. The main mess tents weren’t serving yet; but Abbot and Joe were ushered into the officer’s mess without delay, were they were treated to a delicious hot meal prepared specially for them by a star-struck cook who had heard the whole story already from a cousin who served as a messenger for one of the General Staff combat planners. Sometimes even the Western Front seemed like a small world, Joe thought.
The meal was overwhelming, various roasted meats and freshly boiled potatoes, sautéed greens and fresh bread, a thin but nourishing vegetable broth, and even slices of a cherry pie that had been baked just for them. Abbot and Joe said not a word as they sat at the table, eating slowly, heads hanging down with exhaustion. After packing away enough food to hibernate for a winter, they thanked the cook, dragged themselves to an empty corner in one of the big green tents flanking the mess and threw themselves down onto the ground, pulling their coats around them and using their packs for pillows. They slept this way until morning, oblivious to the world.
Joe dreamed a long and involved narrative in which his wife Lena was angry with him because the house was somehow deep underwater; the children ran around him as he tried hard to patch holes where the water was leaking in. It was a fitful, nonsensical dream in which many strange things happened; the least of all was which the part where little Elizabeth had opened the front door, and the water had not poured in, but had stayed in a glassy wall, poised at the threshold. She had poked her arm into the water and swirled it around, laughing, until Lena told her to shut the door. This she did, and Joe gave a sigh of relief at the fact that at least the water was perhaps somehow being held back by some kind of negative pressure from inside the house. As he dreamed and snored, his face relaxed a little, and his hands moved back and forth slightly as he went back to patching holes in his dream.
Abbot had a very different dream. Madeleine was lying in his arms, her brown hair flowing across his bicep, her breathing even and easy as she slept, curled against him, her scent that of orange flowers from the Rue Cler mixed with sun-dried linen. It seemed as if she smelled somehow of good future, of a happy life of work, love, and children. It filled his heart, made him feel warm and safe, and he spent the night dreaming that he was sleeping next to Madeleine, and having wonderful dreams. When the cold light of morning began to seep through the heavy canvas flaps, and the sounds of soldiers making their way to breakfast began to penetrate his reverie, he grumbled and burrowed his way back into the dream, unwilling to part with such a pleasant vision.
Joe finally woke him up. “Abbot. Abbot, are you awake yet?”
Abbot gave out a low pretend snore, refusing to surrender to the prodding. Joe reached over and smacked him on the shoulder. “I know you’re awake,” he said. “I need a bath, Abbot. And some food. You’re just lying there, doing nothing, and I have to wait. Let’s just go.”
Abbot groaned, and then rolled around, making a frustrated sound. “I’m not awake.”
“Well, I’m going. And the crepes aren’t going to be hot anymore by the time you get up.”
“Yes, and waffles and eggs and bacon and coffee, right now. The morning orderly said we’ve got officer’s mess privileges. And — that’s in ten minutes,” Joe said, consulting his wristwatch. “And we both smell.”
This made Abbot think for a moment. He reconsidered. “Okay. You go get cleaned up and grab a table. I’ll be right along.”
“Come on! Just get up! ”
Abbot pulled himself irritatedly from his fading, glorious dream and sat up.
“Abbot, do you think they would actually let us build something? Because I had some really good ideas last night, in my dream. About the shape, and how it should move.”
“Yeah, and we could do it pretty quick if we got to go to that depot again, get some space in the factory. I could make something really fast, a real mud-jumper. It could be crazy fast, with a balancing suspension. I saw it all clear as day.”
Abbot rubbed his face. “Really? You were thinking about all this in your dream?”
“Well, and other things,” said Joe. “And then I finished it when I woke up.”
Abbot shook his head. “Joe, I watched the reactions of some of the staff in the room when I mentioned the project. Falkenhayn was interested, but the rest of the staff hated the whole concept. I don’t — I can’t imagine he can do much in that direction.”
“Well. I was just hoping. I just — it’d be nice to get out of the mud for awhile, and away from the balloons, and all the rats, and the lice — I just, I want to be somewhere that’s not that, just for little bit. Even that dark factory seemed like heaven. Is that understandable?”
Abbot nodded. “That’s why I tried to pitch him on it. Otherwise, there’s sixteen levels of command between him and us, and all of them positioning for their careers, and most of them are cavalry. No way, I had to do it in person. And I could see that he was thinking about it. He just couldn’t say so in the staff room. Maybe he’ll change his mind. Maybe he had a dream that made him figure it out. It’s either that or a new kind of airplane, and I know your answer to that one.”
The look on Joe’s face was clear enough, and Abbot rose unsteadily to his feet with a reassuring smile/grimace, groaning at all the myriad bruises and aches.
“I need chemicals,” he muttered. “Salicylic acid at least.” He stretched his arms up and his back popped, which made him drop to his pack and fumble through a maze of pouches inside that were full of endless little bottles and packets.
Ten minutes later, they had cleaned up a little and found their way to the officer’s mess. The crepes were in fact all cold, but the star-struck cook was still there; he insisted on immediately refiring his oven, and was soon turning out a steady stream of incredible delights, strudels and pastries and crepes of all types, complete with whipped cream and honey and giant steaming mugs of hot coffee made tan with cream and sugar. Then came sausages, and eggs, all kinds, each course different, and each tastier than the last. Within an hour they were both too stuffed to move, and the chef was proudly posing with them for a comical photo in his huge chef’s hat with Abbot and Joe on either side of him, a table full of empty plates between the two, leaning back in their chairs, barely conscious.
They had been allowed to eat in the officer’s mess, a heady compliment for two privates who were usually in trouble. Now that they had stuffed themselves to the limit, they discovered that they also had the rights to the officer’s bath. Soaking in large wooden tubs of heated water drawn from a nearby lake they reached the epiphany of physical comfort, scrubbing away dirt and the last of the chlorine residue. The sky began to darken, and they found that the entire day had been spent in feeding and cleaning themselves, and that they were now released to an evening with nothing to do. No orders emerged, no assignments arrived by special messenger; just the sound of crickets in the deep, cool forest, and brush of a breeze through the tree tops. So they slept again, and this time, neither of them could remember their dreams at all.
The next morning, however, at the crack of dawn, the serious-looking major that had escorted the precious captured documents from the main staff room arrived, respectfully woke them and asked if he could discuss an important matter with them. Joe was immediately apprehensive but unwarrantedly so, since it turned out that the major had been charged with orders for them to report to the factory floor to design and build the vehicle that Abbot had discussed with Falkenhayn. There were innumerable sheafs of warrants permitting them access to all materials they might need, the right to requisition help from any quarter, including a copy of a letter addressed to Dr. Hyndman that instructed him in no uncertain terms to fully aid Privates Hoffman and Private Schmidt in any way they requested, signed by Falkenhayn himself.
The major explained in a low voice, however, that the politics of the situation required that they keep as low a profile as possible, and that the general expected to use the authority they had been granted with circumspect diplomacy. The project was to be carried out in absolute secrecy.
Joe smiled. Perfect! No mud, no combat, no balloons; just design and material problems. “The good doctor is not going to be happy about this at all. If we get stuck, can’t get what we need for mysterious reasons, get knifed in the bathroom, things like that?”
The major nodded. “That’s why I’m here. My name is Major Hilfstadt, and I have been appointed your liaison to the General Staff.” He paused, leaned forward, and spoke quietly. “Your balloon idea was magnificent. I saw it explode, it was glorious even from ten miles away. And the intelligence you brought back! I look forward to watching your prototype vehicle in action. Many of the other officers feel that such projects demean the role of the cavalry, but I personally saw what happened to the Uhlan riders when we hit the Belgian lines, and I will personally and quietly tell you that cavalry has no place on the modern battlefield. We should have been thinking of these kinds of things a long time ago. We’re supposed to be the smart ones, right? And this business with the gas. Just all wrong, a terrible decision. We’ve surrendered all ethical equity.”
Abbot suddenly found himself liking this straight-laced-looking fellow. He leaned forward and spoke honestly. “We’ll give them something workable, no problem. Whether they allow it to be used, that’s another thing altogether. You heard Dr. Hyndman’s prejudice towards intelligent warfare. ‘Cowardly’, I believe he said, as though the chlorine he unleashed was somehow noble. And they’re on both sides, Major. It would be so much better to put all this energy into something more worthwhile, something that builds to peace instead of war. All this is foolish, the gas just the height of it.”
The major grinned. “If I were to agree with you, Dr. Hoffman, I should be in hot water with my commanding officers. They might make me a private and send me out into the middle of no man’s land to wait for further orders, or make me jump out of a balloon over the enemy lines with a sheet tied to me, but I do not think I have your luck. Or is it truly in your skills?”
Joe laughed. “My great skill is in letting Abbot talk me into doing crazy stunts.”
The major laughed as well, and then stood up, shaking hands with both of them and nodding his head. “Report tomorrow morning to the factory. I will get you everything you need, I promise. A lot of people on the staff are behind you all the way. Good luck.” The major exited through the tent flaps, leaving them feeling quite happy with themselves.
“First crepes, then to the depot and the mills! Armor plate and engines!” Joe loudly exhorted with great satisfaction. “Something normal I can get my hands on, finally. I’m a born builder, and you’re a born — some kind of freakish human-shaped brain, whatever it is, whatever wonderful thing it is you are. Breakfast! Beds! No shells, no bullets, no balloons. All right, I admit, you pulled this one off.”
“We only get a month, Joe. Thirty days. And somehow I think if we win, we lose. You know?”
“Well of course. Politics. But a month of regular sleep and hot food! And if we build something really, really good, something that just makes their heads explode, we might actually talk them into leave! I could go home, see Lena and the kids. And you could go out with Spretzel.”
“Lena’s friend. The one with the nice hair. You know.”
“Lora Hermsmeyer? She could throw me over the house. And she never liked me.”
“She just has to warm up to you. Spend some time with you. And a strong woman is a good woman to have.”
“No thanks, old friend. I’m carrying a torch.”
“For that Paris high-lifer? Don’t forget your pledge. I earned that pledge.”
“Yes, you did. Very brave of you. And Major Hilfstadt thinks you’re the shiny one for being so brave.”
“And I am indeed, little pony, I am indeed.” And with this the two went to find the star-struck cook, to ask him to make them one last overwhelming breakfast.
That night they snuck two bottles of an excellent Belgian wine out of the officer’s mess and had a long, deeply philosophical conversation about the fact that they were drinking Belgian wine, and the significance of that act while actually being on captured Belgian ground. It didn’t seem right; yet they finished both bottles, getting sloshed to the point that Joe began to get weepy about missing his family, which made Abbot think too much about Madeleine, who was truly less a woman to him than the gossamer idea of a woman, but still the occupier of his center. He didn’t even know what she smelled like. Perhaps upon meeting her he would find her grotesquely barbarous and disgusting, with coarse ideas about relationships, or a general penchant for emasculating mockery or something.
He didn’t think so. He had spent most of a year in medical school, indeed the most difficult year, living two lives; one, spent in Professor Palenen’s Surgistry Lab, and the other gathering every detail he could about the life and opinions of Madeleine Clemenceau. Well aware of the psychological implications of his obsession, he had nevertheless collected endless photographs of her and articles about her, read all her opinions in the Paris Le Temps, and even managed to get his hands on a private phonograph recording of her singing selections from various modern French musicals. All along the way he knew he had been building up an accurate but completely detached portrait of her that would not only shatter upon meeting her for the first time, but that would likely make it impossible for her to forgive him the obsession once she discovered it; only crazy, creepy men did what he had done. All those years of absolute focus upon this one love, excluding all others except one – Science — and he had never (not even once) written to her or attempted to arrange either a chance meeting or formal introduction. He could have; he literally knew hundreds of people who would have happily arranged a personal introduction with the young woman, people who had known her father since he was a poor professor with holes in his shoes, and who also considered the young Abbot Hoffman to be the finest young doctor to emerge from the Sorbonne in their lifetime and certainly a catch, clearly destined for great things. Important people could have paved the way with his praises.
It would have been so easy to do this and yet Abbot had never once considered it, or even mentioned her name to anyone. Only Joseph knew anything about it, Joe and his wife Lena, who teased him with it even more mercilessly than her husband only because she felt that Abbot deserved to feel what she and Joe had felt when they were married, the sense of belonging to something larger than life, that thrill of true love. Lena was worried that Abbot’s heart would drift away into nothingness, and that this French faux-Queen who so ruled his heart would never even get to choose one way or another; Lena thought this was just as sad, since she knew Abbot to be an excellent man, intelligent and honorable. She agreed with Joe that Madeleine should be given at least the chance to think it over, but she also knew that such decisions belong to those with the most to lose from them, and that sometimes these things could take a lifetime to resolve.
And so Abbot sat underneath the Belgian stars, drunk on Belgian wine, ruminating on the sterility of his life so far, the lack of human fulfillment in it, and the probability that he would be killed by stray metal long before he would ever have a chance to honor his pledge to Joe to seek out Madeleine, to try. The very word chilled him. And this made him sad, sad enough to have to suppress the tears that seemed to be seeping through the wine, and as Joe sat and rocked and quietly sang old songs to himself from their childhood Abbot joined in, and the two men communed in this most primal way until they both fell over into deep slumber.
The next morning they bid goodbye to their now-favorite cook, who made them a last quick series of masterful pastries before sadly waving goodbye to them. “May you be blessed, and find yourselves unharmed in all things!” he called out as they trudged toward the transportation depot. An hour later Abbot and Joe sat in the back of another bouncing truck, watching the dust roil out from behind them and cover the trees with another layer of pulverized soil. “It has to be able to go anywhere, this vehicle,” Joe was saying. “Rivers, lakes, mountains, everywhere, right? All-purpose. Is there a way we could make it fly? In the air?” Joe sat forward suddenly, excited by the thought. Abbot thought about it for a moment, a deep frown on his face.
“I don’t know about that,” Abbot answered. “Armor against an eighteen pounder? Three point seven inch howitzer? Five inch artillery shell? The Brits have heavy batteries with sixty pounders. We can’t depend entirely on speed. We’ve got to have at least three inches of good armor plate, even with a deflecting surface. That means at least ten tons. Twenty, should be. Make that small, and fly? On truck engines? I don’t think so.”
“Well, at least we could make it swim, then. It needs a hull, everything sealed, air, paddles, maybe?”
“Water jets. In-line propellers. Could be done.”
“Could we have like, little feet that explode out and jump the whole thing up, and then, like, rockets to make it go forward? That way we could just jump over trenches, not have to worry about getting stuck in them.”
“Uhh. No. No way. Even the really big rockets don’t have that much thrust. Not to push ten tons. Explosive feet, maybe. But what’s it pushing off from? No man’s land mud? Ehhh. No way to make that work.”
“All right.” Joe sighed.
“One month, Joe. That’s all we get. We should focus on the practical. Try to think like Prussians for once.”
“No thanks. I’ve had my fill of that mindset. Always just about gets me killed.”
They arrived at the factory a few hours later. An orderly was waiting, and took them to a portion of the factory that proved to be exceedingly dim and polluted, having been sealed off for months after a massive chemical explosion had ruined it. A pacing Dr. Hyndman was waiting for them, wearing his stained gray greatcoat once more, a look of utter contempt on his face. Twenty or so factory workers were standing in a group next to him, their faces sullen and hostile, their postures indicating a serious resentment. All of them looked filthy and exhausted, faces smeared with grime, hands black from charcoal and soot and grease. Abbot realized these were the men to be offered to them as assistants. He didn’t know what they’d been told, but it was clear that none of the workers wanted to be where they were. Their eyes beamed out of their dark faces with a clear and absolute disgust for Abbot and Joe.
Hyndman stopped pacing and formally saluted, and Abbot and Joe came to attention and returned the salute. “Private Hoffman,” he said in a dark tone, “I have been instructed to provide you with certain facilities and personnel for the prosecution of your ridiculous ideas. These are precious resources that will jeopardize other projects I am engaged in, but I follow the orders of my commanders and have therefore assembled this team of able men to assist you.”
Abbot dropped his pack and leaned his rifle against it, and rubbed his hands together thoughtfully. He walked forward to look at the group of men, nodding greetings to their unresponsive faces, examining them with an apparently casual air. He finished his inspection and walked between the group and Hyndman as he did so; apparently a little too close for comfort, so that Hyndman reacted with an obvious physical flinch of detestation and clenched fists.
Abbot walked back to his pack, and turned to face the doctor. “We do not require any help. But thank you very much for the space.”
Hyndman was astonished. “You propose to design and build a tracked armored vehicle in thirty days with just the two of you?”
Abbot smiled. “We’re used to working alone, just the two of us. Thank you, but we require no help. Some tools, though, and some time in your steel plant, perhaps, only when it’s not being used of course. We don’t wish to intrude.”
Hyndman shook his head. “All facilities are running two shifts. There is no time available, unless you want to work between two and five A.M., when the bellows are being ashed.”
“Of course, doctor. That will be fine. Thank you.”
Behind Abbot, Joe groaned inwardly. Two o’clock in the morning. Bleah.
From behind the group of workers, a voice piped up. A woman’s voice. “I will work for them. Excuse me, sir — I would like to help with your work. I will do it. I am very strong and skilled.”
The entire group of workers stepped back from the woman, who was dressed just as they were and just as grimy, but with her hair tucked up underneath her cap. Her face was smeared with grease and sweat, and she looked just like one of the smaller men; Abbot hadn’t noticed her at all during his inspection. Her expression was tough and flat, and there was an insistence in her voice that commanded acquiescence.
Hyndman smiled. “By all means, take Greta. She can’t weld and she’s not as strong as most of the men, but she’s good for mixing powder, and for a few other things as well.”
The group of workmen all chuckled knowingly. Greta glared around at them from the center of the group, and they all stopped. She stepped forward, glanced over at Hyndman with a look that made him stop smiling, and addressed Abbot in a determined voice. “I cannot weld, it is true, but I am very strong and I work hard, and I’m tired of getting all the shit jobs. So let me work for you. Come on. Give me a chance. I can run the foundry.”
Abbot nodded. “All right,” he said. “We could use a little help, I suppose. Doctor, we’ll accept this one.”
Kelten von Hyndman snorted sarcastically. “What a relief. Well, it’s your neck, and you’ve made your choice. The rest of you men return to work, and that is that, and I am done.”
The group of workers broke up slowly and walked away with obvious relief, muttering quietly to each other as they glanced back at the two strangers. Greta strode purposefully over to stand in front of Abbot, who nodded at her and turned away to survey the space. Joe dropped his pack and rifle and smiled at the grimy and somewhat stocky woman; she didn’t smile back. Hyndman strolled away, seeming to inspect the room, glancing back unobtrusively at Abbot with ill-concealed satisfaction. To him, the idea of choosing a woman for such work was a sign of complete failure. He knew now for a fact that that this upstart’s project was doomed to failure, and that he could now dismiss the threat from his mind. He had only been concerned with the possibility of a serious rival, nothing more. The doctor dropped his shoulders and relaxed, giving a half-salute to the retreating mass of workers as he left the room.
A small group of the workers hadn’t left at all, and for a moment Joe thought that perhaps they were staying to volunteer; but it soon became clear that they were only intent on having a little fun at Greta’s expense. The largest of them, a coarse-looking man with a heavy beard-shadow, called out to Abbot. “Hey, you ought to know, she doesn’t do it with men!” He laughed harshly, and the men beside him laughed as well. Others had been about to leave heard the comment and turned back at the doorway to watch the show.
It was Greta who responded. “Gunther, it’s just you I don’t do it with. I prefer men who like women.”
Gunther seemed struck by this statement, and as the men around him suppressed their laughter he flushed, his face slowly turning bright red. “What do you mean? What are you saying?”
Greta was unrepentant. “You should be honest about it. I’ve seen the way you look at Michel’s ass. You should just tell him.”
Gunther gave out a small, involuntary, horrified scream and froze. An instant later he was vibrating with rage, propelling himself forward across the floor toward Greta, fists up and forward, clearly prepared to commit violence against her. He moved fast, and Greta reacted just as quickly by falling into a fighting stance, fists held up in defense, clearly not afraid of the man rushing toward her. Gunther closed the gap between them — but Joe stepped in front of him at the last moment and did three quick things that changed the situation entirely.
Gunther felt a quick blow to his stomach that stunned him, then a hand that clamped like a vise around his right wrist, then a violent twisting accompanied by a helping foot along his instep, and he suddenly found himself turned around somehow and at the mercy of the oddly quick man now doing something directly behind him. The last thing he felt was a hard blow to the right side of the base of his skull, and an unconscious Gunther fell like a rag doll to the filthy factory floor.
The rest of the men behind Gunter, five of them, froze as Gunter fell. They had not expected this at all. Joe was smaller than Gunter, and they hadn’t seen the interaction clearly; to them it appeared that Joe had simply made Gunter fall down without doing anything at all. The hesitation lasted for about three seconds; then they rushed forward as one body. These were not timid men, but a hard-working industrial crew, used to fighting, usually when drunk, but willing to back up their friend anytime. Gunter had always been the loudest and drunkest of all of them when they fought, and although this stranger had somehow disabled him, he was only a man – and now it was now five to one.
Five to two. As the men charged Joe, Greta leaped to one side of him and leveled the first man with a knockout punch that echoed throughout the big room. Joe would have looked to figure out who had thrown the punch, but he had two others to deal with now, and they were sure that they had him. Abbot stepped back a little from the whole event, and appeared to have no interest whatsoever in helping Joe, but Greta now moved to his side and became a whirl of fists and feet. The two of them fought a fast-paced and furious battle against the remaining four men, smoothly cooperating as if they had always fought together in just this way.
Twelve seconds, and it was over. Five men lay sprawled around and on top of Gunter; Joe was breathing hard, his face stinging, nose a little bloody from a lucky fist; but Greta was untouched. Abbot had seen her in action, thought she fought like a trained professional, fast and light on her feet. He smiled as he watched the last three men who had lingered near the door just to see the fight now edge backwards in a clear demonstration of their pacifist nature, hands raised placatively as Greta looked them over. Joe leaned over and put his hands on his knees, spit a little blood on the ground, then turned back to look at Abbot. “You could have helped just a little,” said Joe in a disapproving tone.
“But you had Greta. Did you see her go? I don’t think she needed your help at all,” Abbot chided.
Greta glared. “Of course I didn’t need his help,” she replied. “Although, I must agree, you fight very well for a man,” she said aside to Joe.
“For a man?” wheezed Joe, but Greta just reached over and patted him on the shoulder. “Thank you for protecting my honor. It was a very kind thing to do.”
“Well,” said Joe, taking a deep breath, “that fellow was being very rude. Good workout, though. Can’t believe I got hit. Distracted.” This made Greta give Joe a funny look that made him laugh, and the flash of her smile in return made him instantly like her.
Abbot was already back to work, surveying the destroyed space with a calculating eye. The workroom they had been given had essentially been blown up at some point. The chemistry of high explosive is unforgiving, resulting in a low population of people who actually survive to know what they’re doing. Many students were tested and failed permanently, usually taking along with them other more successful students; this was how things worked out when it came to volatile elements: only the truly focused survived. The walls stood, the doors remained, bowed but workable, but the entire interior was coated in a thick black soot, including the overhead cranes. A series of half-melted, half-burned worktables lined one wall. The floor was littered with scrap and debris; later, Joe would find a desiccated part of a human hand behind one of the workbenches complete with wedding ring, a sight that made him swear to triple-check himself, move slow, and stay present. A pile of burned equipment filled one corner of the room, and Joe made a mental note to sort through it for useful parts and materials. He came from thrifty German artisan stock, and had a knack for converting junk into useful items; he had been raised to believe that one man’s trash was always the essential piece of another man’s Complex Device.
They immediately went to work. Greta helped them clear a section to make a temporary living quarters, using tent panels hung on cables to lend herself some semblance of privacy, as close to a private room as was possible under the circumstances. Joe added ‘bedframes and mattresses’ to his list for the supply depot. He had no intention of skimping on the finer things in life while living in this wonderful dream-world. A few days ago he had been knee-deep in dying rats and chlorine gas; now, he was as close to heaven as a man like Joe could get without being home with his family, and nowhere near a combat zone. As he cleared away a cluttered area near the far wall and laid out his blanket he continued his conversation with Abbot about the general design characteristics for their vehicle, discussing suspensions, transmissions, caterpillar track design, viewports, and possible vulnerabilities. Within an hour both of them knew what it would look like, what it would do, and what it might mean to the nature of modern war. They intended to do the job right; but they meant to have fun doing it.
Greta puttered around them, stacking and beginning to clean, seeming to be quite useful and preoccupied while carefully listening to every word they said. This is because she was a spy; and not just any small-timer, but the best France had to offer, at least in her own opinion. Her real name was Donleve Jerault. She volunteered for Abbot and Joe’s project because it seemed to be mysterious; Hyndman had spoken of the dangers, and the incompetent cruelty and cowardly acts of the two men who had thought it up, but his knowledge of what the machine would actually do seemed to be oddly lacking, which made her think someone competent might have finally arrived on the scene.
She knew Dr. Hyndman to be a pleasantly intelligent fool, a mediocre scientist, and a barbarian. He had kept the chlorine gas project under extremely tight wraps from the beginning, and although she had eventually succeeded in penetrating the wall of security by posing as a trained industrial lab worker from Hamburg, the gas attack along the Ypres front had made the front pages and all her fine efforts in espionage go to waste. She’d been too late to prevent that event from happening; but she now she had a line on this new project, a hunch that said this one might be big, direct from the General Staff, and a slap in Hyndman’s face to boot. Maybe this one was a chestnut she could pull from the fire after all, she had thought. Her commander in Paris was getting restless, and she knew she needed to Get Something or Get Out.
Donleve had been trained at length by the French military intelligence elite in hand-to-hand combat and weaponry of all kinds by the kind of men who disdained to wear the bright red and blue uniforms of the regular poilu, preferring dark, mottled combat fatigues that looked like foliage under the moonlight. She had always been multilingual; German was her second language, Belgian, Russian, English and Spanish her close thirds, which had given her an automatic advantage over other candidates as soon as the war broke out. The Belgian served to get her past the German lines, and her acting skills and perfect High and Low German had gotten her the rest of the way. She could play fifteen different characters, some of them male, and had documents for all of them sewn into the lining of her duffel. Now she was in as deep as she could get without actually running the show, and she need desperately to make it pay off.
There had been a few bad moments and close calls. Hyndman was heavy on security and long on suspicion; he also chose men like himself to run his various projects. She’d nearly been caught once in Hyndman’s office, escaping only by slipping out a window and dropping ten feet to the concrete floor, and she’d almost had to kill one of his project leaders after her flirtations had seemed to him to be an open invitation to rape. His rage at her refusal and his subsequent serious groin injury had made it a bad business for her to stay on with the special projects section. She had smoothed it over by claiming to have a venereal disease and then subtly blackmailing him, suggesting that he would not want the puritanical Hyndman to discover that one of his senior officers now had The Rot, as she called it, saying in a reasonable tone that her motive had been to protect him, and what about his wife? – hopefully she would never have to find out? This combined push-pull approach had served to make the fellow’s face turn white, and he ended up by being grateful for her willingness to compromise on the matter. Nonetheless, her professional efforts in this direction had now hit the rocks, and she was forced to seek other means of getting past Hyndman’s wall of secrecy.
She watched Abbot and Joe as they finished getting their packs opened and various items laid out. They seemed nice enough for Germans, she thought. An odd couple, though. The dark-haired handsome one was clearly smart, and the other fellow could fight, but she could see there was more to them than that. As they took a break and chattered on incomprehensibly about steel chemistry and track linkage, she realized that they were occasionally speaking a different language, some sort of personal code between them developed between them for years, almost as if they had done all of this before, forever.
She could follow some of the technical jargon, having had an early education in science from an uncle who taught in Brussels, and who had insisted that girls could do anything as well as boys if not better, which had made him the only male she had ever met in her life who believed that, and which had made her pay close attention to everything he had lectured her about. Her uncle would always meet her in their private spot at the end of the afternoon before dinner, and he would sit and drink wine, and give long dissertations on an endless variety of technical subjects, and in great detail. Her favorite topics had been outer space and zoology, but all of the ones involving electric circuits, telephones and radios had also stuck with her, and had served her well in her climb through the ranks of Hyndman’s workforce. It wasn’t true that she couldn’t weld; she had just seen that welders often got pulled out of the special projects section and assigned to vehicle repair when the big attacks were under way, and that this might prevent her from being at the right place at the right time to pierce the veil of secrecy surrounding the gas project, which was the target her Deuxième Bureau handlers had emphasized.
She continued to help clean up while listening, steadily converting chaos to order. Some of the banter she understood clearly, but then the two men would descend into a blizzard of small word strings with accompanying gestures that left her mystified and unable to decode in any way. What the hell were they talking about? These were clearly some new breed of German that didn’t seem to fit in with anything she’d seen so far from the General Staff. She hoped they weren’t just crackpots, as Dr. Hyndman had implied. It would be hard for her to make her way back in with the regular crew now, especially after smacking Gunter’s second-in-command down with one punch like that. Gunter and his crew were a bunch of roughnecks, but they were also the life of the parties that sometimes roared in the workmen’s mess tents, and humiliating them hadn’t been the smart thing for her to do. A burned bridge, there.
But she had found herself compelled to smack him down harder than she normally would have, partly because it had galled her to be defended by a man. This Joe fellow might have leaped in front of her the way he did for noble reasons, but she had a strong pride in her martial skills and could not allow him to interpose himself without demonstrating her own proficiency. It was a warrior thing. She might have had trouble taking on the whole group, it was true. And things might have taken a nasty turn, in the end, with those kind of men. A vindictive gang of rough men had few limits; anything could have happened. Plus, she had to admit, this ‘Joe’ could fight. Clearly the dark-haired one was just along for the ride, however. The Brain.
She suddenly realized that Abbot had stopped talking to Joe and was now looking directly at her in silent contemplation. She smiled back at him disarmingly, and returned to what she hoped looked like helpful activity.
When he spoke, it was with disturbingly calm alacrity. “Greta – I’ve never seen fighting skills quite like that. Where did you learn those moves?”
She shrugged. “I have eight older brothers.”
Abbot laughed. “I understand how that works. Joe’s got five older brothers, and his two sisters are both tougher than all of them. Still, I thought I recognized some of the open-hand style popular with the Chinese monks, and maybe some — savate? Did you grow up in Paris? Do you know the chausson?”
Her face reddened, and she felt herself unnerved, stunned. He had spotted her so quickly. How? Quickly recovering, she made up a story on the spot, kept it short, said it with conviction. “My oldest brother spent much time in Paris, did a lot of street-fighting. He showed me a bunch of things to do, but I don’t know what they’re called.”
Abbot’s eyes widened a little. “Interesting,” was all he said.
Joe glanced at him, and Abbot glanced back, and she realized that they had just had an entire conversation about her without saying any words – she turned away to hide her expression, found a broom and started sweeping, hoping to escape further grilling. This man Abbot was way too sharp, seemed to be psychic, and was certainly dangerous to her mission – she could sense all this, instantly, but also instantly found him mildly attractive. All right, she admitted, very attractive, which was a horrible risk. She would have to watch herself much more closely from now on. He was clearly far more perceptive than she’d first thought, and she didn’t want to have to kill someone she liked. But this was the job she had been given, and the rules were the rules. Lives were on the line, French lives.
Joe made an extensive list for the depot, and they discussed acquiring transportation. Joe suggested they try to find a pair of Daimler diesel trucks that they could use for transport and then later cannibalize for parts for their vehicle, which they were starting to refer to as a ‘tank’, just because it was easier to say than ‘possible-flying certainly-submersible trench-hopping armored artillery and personnel carrier’. They were going to need all the prefabricated stuff they could get their hands on; it was going to be hard enough to forge and assemble an armored shell.
By the time they were ready to start food seemed more important than starting, and it was about standard chow-time. So Abbot and Joe set out to find the officer’s mess, or at least the equivalent for the factory complex. They dragged Donleve with them, who protested that she should stay and continue cleaning; Abbot would not hear of it. He insisted that they operate as a ‘cohesive unit’, as he called it, and sketched the basic principles of his idea of teamwork for her. She shrugged her shoulders and agreed to go along. Cooperative teamwork theory? Here was another in a series of unexpected moves from these two, and she was being given no choice but to stick close to the source. Plus, she was hungry. “Maybe we’ll find another cook who’s heard of us,” Joe said wistfully. “Someone who makes good crepes.”
Donleve didn’t get it; what did he mean, ‘heard of us’? Joe caught her expression, and tried to explain that he and Abbot were a little bit famous with the local crew for something that had just happened, and they had gotten lucky when the division chef had taken a liking to them, and that he’d made the best food in the whole world except for his own wife, Lena – but Donleve hadn’t heard anything but awful things about them from Dr. Hyndman, so she took it all with a grain of salt. Joe mentioned something about having to jump out of a balloon that didn’t make any sense to her at all, and then he finally gave up trying to explain and they left to go find something to eat.
Donleve knew the factory pretty well by now, but the director’s dining hall was in a restricted area she wasn’t supposed to know about, so she kept her head down and stuck close to her new employers. Abbot and Joe finally flagged someone down in the endless maze of buildings and tents who could tell them where to go to find the ‘officer’s mess’. When they reached the first security screen they were ushered in without comment and walked through several other checkpoints, all without being challenged. They were being immediately recognized and passed on, as if a photograph had been circulated; it was all so easy that Abbot began to suspect that Major Hilfstadt had smoothed out a path for them.
But when they were finally ushered into the beautifully-appointed officer’s dining room, the sense of well-being disappeared along with the conversation at the sumptuous tables. Abbot and Joe stood at the entrance to the room with Donleve hiding behind them while everyone stared at the sight of them as if a serious breach of etiquette had been committed, some code of honor broken — finally, a man sitting at the head of the largest table rose and addressed them, and Abbot was startled to recognize that is was none other than Dr. Hyndman himself. His face with dark with fury, he seemed almost apoplectic, and at a loss for words. He stuttered incoherently once and then managed to overcome his state, adopting a strained faux-normal tone that grated on Joe’s ears. “Private Hoffman, Private Smith, I’m afraid enlisted men are not permitted to eat in the director’s hall. I must insist you refrain from entering again. Stefan, will you please escort them to the worker’s tables,” Hyndman said to a young man standing next to him. “And thank you,” the doctor said with a clearly fake graciousness, waving his hand to indicate that he was finished with the matter. He sat down without looking their way again and launched himself back into the conversation at his table as if there had been no interruption. Stefan was apparently one of Hyndman’s most junior lieutenants, since he looked not much older than twelve; he approached them and touched both of them lightly on their elbows to indicate the direction they should travel (out) while the rest of the room returned to talking amongst themselves, drifting away from the spectacle and digging into their very delicious-looking courses of prepared meats and pies.
Joe smiled wryly and nudged Abbot’s elbow. “I’d rather eat with the peasants anyway,” he said. “You never know when oppressed cooks are going to poison the food of the oppressors, or maybe do something even more disgusting to the food that can’t be traced back, just because. Happens all the time, and I bet the good doctor gets more than his share.” Lieutenant Stefan heard this and seemed momentarily taken aback by Joe’s frankness, but managed to recover sufficiently to continue guiding them from the restricted zone.
Abbot and Joe let themselves be led back through the many layers of security, each time receiving a full salute from the ranking officer. This irritated Stefan, apparently enough so that at the last station he muttered “they’re just privates” to the officer on duty. At this point in the cordon the young lieutenant decided to leave them to their own devices, pointing them in the direction they were supposed to go with childlike impatience. “It’s the barracks in the center, down this row, about three sections down. You can’t miss it. Good day,” he said, and turned to go, completely ignoring Abbot and Joe’s departing salute. “Prickly little fellow,” said Joe, “and he probably used to really enjoy the food until he thought about the angry chef, I shouldn’t have said anything,” and they set out to find the worker’s dining room, which Donleve knew the exact location of, since she ate there everyday.
They stood in line with the other workers for a bowl of barley and beans with a large chunk of thick brown bread. “Mmm, regular chow,” said Joe. All three of them were silent for awhile as they ate with gusto. No one at the tables around them seemed to know or care who they were, and as their bowls emptied they began to relax a little. Donleve found herself wishing she could just be herself around these two men; the way they talked was so open, so rational – they seemed almost French. She was reminded of her uncle, and had to suppress the urge to join in the verbal freedom. It became even more difficult when they revealed that they both considered women to be absolutely the equals of men, and pressed her for her philosophy on the subject. She admitted that she agreed, and listened as Joe launched into a history of the women’s suffrage movement, and Abbot described his experience dining at the London home of the famous Pankhurst family of suffragettes and pacifists. After awhile they lined up with the other workers to accept mugs of beer, still talking; and when they sat back down at their table she caught herself chattering away about an old friend of hers in Marseille, completely out of her current espionage character. She actually almost said the name of the town out loud, and then quickly changed the name to ‘Marburg’ at the last second. She took a long draft of beer by way of getting hold of herself and glanced over the mug at Abbot; he had a faint smile on his face, as if he had just figured something out. Damn him. She had to fight to stay in character. What was wrong with her? This unsettling and irritating man and his solid friend were up to something, she thought, and she had to find out what it was, and that was that.
Once they were done with dinner, Abbot suggested they try to rustle up the trucks that night if they could, and then get up early and drive them to the supply area. They decided to take their papers signed by Falkenhayn and talk their way into a ride to the nearest big transport depot, which Donleve identified as being about twenty miles east of them. “You’re coming in handy already, Greta. Glad you volunteered,” Abbot said, which made her blush a little and then inwardly curse herself for blushing. She was getting irretrievably confused about everything to the point of making serious suggestions that would actually further the project, suggestions that Abbot and Joe immediately agreed with, a fact which made her like them even more and made her get excited about the project, which some other part of her knew was an absolutely ludicrous thing for her to be feeling.
Abbot said that he had a notion that the quickest way to get a line on any available trucks would be to go directly to the only people who had thus far treated them with any respect: the intelligence staff manning Hyndman’s security checkpoints. So they finished up their tankards in a leisurely fashion and strolled out of the worker’s dining hall to go back to the first checkpoint, where they instantly found a very friendly and cooperative lieutenant named Horvath Petersen on duty, who not only sketched a detailed map of possible truck parks in the area but provided them with a personal car and driver to go search each one. Then he decided that perhaps he should come along to flash his security credentials and clear the way. By the time the conversation was finished, almost an entire platoon had been assembled for the purpose and the lieutenant had already called ahead, located two nearly-new matched trucks with the largest Daimler diesel engines ever made in them, and demanded that they be held until their arrival under threat of severe administrative consequences. Abbot and Joe found the entire matter settled within minutes of making their first simple inquiry.
“My pleasure, Dr. Hoffman,” said Petersen. “Major Hilfstadt gave us the word, anything we can do, you name it, we’ll take care of it. You know, I heard the whole balloon story, and frankly just thinking about jumping out of a balloon gives me the willies. Couldn’t do it myself. And then it blew up. Marvelous. What a tale.”
Joe gave Abbot a look, who rolled his eyes. Joe laughed and said, “I had the willies, believe me, but he’s the one that pulled the trigger.” Donleve was mystified by everything that was happening – here was this balloon reference again – but when she asked Abbot about it later, he demurred. “Just a big long story. Nothing. Silly stuff,” he said. But Donleve was not about to let go of it. A week later she got the whole tale out of a slightly drunk private she cornered on a trip to the restroom, but by then the narrative also included a long description of how Abbot and Joe had gone shooting around in the sky with rockets on their backs and single-handedly defeated an entire company of British commandos to take Winston Churchill prisoner, and how General Falkenhayn was interrogating the villain at this very moment. She had scoffed at this fairy tale and pressed for specific details about the balloon from the man, but he simply kept making the story bigger each time. Many years later, she would read one of Churchill’s many volumes on the war and how he had personally won it, and find herself amazed at how near the truth the private had been about the events. At the moment, however, it sounded like complete balderdash.
11 the secrets in steel
It was dark by the time lieutenant had secured the car and a truck for the accompanying platoon and arranged for a replacement to take over his duties at the security point, so the entire entourage immediately embarked and drove directly to the truck park. They passed a checkpoint with a wave from the lieutenant, and pulled up next to a well-lit garage area in front of a vast area full of vehicles of all types that stretched out into the darkness. A very nervous depot quartermaster was only too happy to introduce Abbot and Joe to their two massive new trucks, both with still-gleaming gray paint and shiny new rubber mud tires. Joe popped the hoods, and swore to himself. Such wonderful engines, so well-designed — Abbot had to agree as he climbed up on the huge front tire for a closer look that they were indeed beautiful. Donleve peered in and snorted, which brought one of those oddly appraising looks from both men that made her suddenly nervous. From that point on she expressed nothing but admiration for the genius of Daimler, even though she knew for a fact that the French made far superior engines.
The lieutenant had disappeared for a few minutes and returned with the quartermaster. “They have several more of these available. You should take at least four. My men can drive them. That way you will have two spares.”
Joe was of course thrilled by this sort of thinking, and so their growing contingent of military men and hardware made off with four brand-new heavy trucks as the relieved quartermaster waved them happily goodbye. Abbot drove one of the behemoths himself, taking second in the line behind the lieutenant, who insisted on personally driving the lead vehicle. Donleve sat next to Abbot and Joe beside her, hanging his arm out the passenger window, sometimes keeping a beat on the outside of the smooth pearl gray door, laughing. These trucks were marvelous machines, state of the art, he thought as they roared smoothly over the dirt roads through the evening air, making him feel as if they were all on holiday.
Ahead of them, Lieutenant Horvath Petersen had an enormous grin on his face. It was a good feeling to make one’s authority count, he thought. The look on the quartermaster’s face. And these trucks! Gorgeous. And he liked these two balloon-jumping super spies. Real down to earth people, in their way, although he had to wonder about the grubby worker-woman who tagged along with them everywhere. He hadn’t liked the look in her eyes. She acted almost as if she was their bodyguard or something.
Once they arrived back at the shop the trucks were parked in front of the main loading door, four in a row. Abbot invited the lieutenant in to see the working area, but he declined; he would station a few men outside to make sure no one made off with the new trucks, and to serve as drivers to get them to the supply area in the morning, but the inside of the factory was above his security clearance, he said, or anyone else’s for that matter, except for Abbot, Joe, and the dour, stocky woman who accompanied them everywhere. So it was that the lieutenant bid them good night and good luck, leaving four of his men near the trucks with strict instructions to seal the this room of the factory off completely, and to make sure no one and nothing disturbed the two men at their work.
Abbot and Joe were quite pleased with their success; they were also exhausted. Donleve directed them to the men’s locker room at the other end of the building, where they were able to shower, chattering on in their strange code about all things involving armored vehicles (and possibly flying, Joe kept adding). While they were gone, before she went to use the much smaller but cleaner women’s facilities, Donleve searched everything they owned. Both packs had all sorts of normal things in them, underwear, shaving materials, socks; and then also a bewildering array of items that Donleve did not recognize and could not understand. There were endless small bottles, especially in Abbot’s pack, and a large number of cases full of small metal darts that looked almost like bullets, but had short steel needles projecting from the tips and felt light in the palm. Donleve thought she could hear a liquid swishing inside them when she shook them.
This discovery made her examine their rifles, and this simple act completely changed her idea of who she was spying on, and made her face freeze with astonishment, her eyes wide open as she looked down the barrel of a standard German infantry Mauser that was not a Mauser at all, but a clever forgery with a completely different mechanism apparently connected to machinery in the stock. The stock, she realized, was only covered with a very thin wooden veneer glued to metal. Why would they do that? She reasoned for a moment — steel darts, machinery in the stock — darts propelled by compressed air, some sort of gas held in a steel chamber hidden in the stock?
The mysteries deepened, and she finally gave up, returning everything to its original state, making sure that even the position of the blankets was exactly the same. Then she left, and went to take a shower. When she returned an hour later both Abbot and Joe were quietly relaxing on their blankets, waiting for her. When she simply nodded at them and crossed to where her blanket-barrier was, as soon as her hand moved to draw back the blanket, Abbot spoke.
“Greta,” he said. She stopped, turned back to look at Abbot, feigning a subtle impatience and hoping like hell this wasn’t going to be something bad. He looked very serious, and when she glanced at Joe she knew something was up, obviously wrong, so she just waited for it.
“We know you searched everything,” Abbot said.
Donleve’s face flushed, and she felt ice-cold water pour down her spine at the same time. They had set traps somehow, little things no one could notice — how could she have been so stupid? She should have known the moment she saw those rifles. These men were ten steps ahead of her somehow. And now they knew what she was. And tomorrow she would be shot for it.
She drew her breath in sharply, momentarily panicked — caught red-handed, this was the end of her life, and she could feel it all telescoping in to this one moment, such beautiful moments in her life, and then so many dark ones, and now, here, to end. Regret filled her. She knew she would have to accept it all calmly, for professional pride and the pride of her gender; they would be expecting her to break down hysterically, confess everything. But her training had been thorough, and it took over now, freeing her from the shock of Abbot’s words, and the foreknowledge of her death. She would give them nothing.
“You are very sloppy. Someone has to look after you. And you are dragging around a bunch of useless junk. And bottles. So many tiny little bottles, you are like the peddler that used to bother us everyday in Hamburg,” she said, and thought ‘ha! you’ve got nothing on me!’, and in fact shook her head in that fashion, to drive home the point.
Abbot smiled, and glanced over at Joe. “All right,” he said. “Keep it up. But Joe and I both think you’re Second Bureau, absolutely certain that you are an agent of some branch of French intelligence, and a very talented one. Really, you’ve got everyone fooled. You’re perfect at this. The best. No one would ever believe it.”
“But I don’t fool you? I’m a spy, you say,” she said, reeling, struggling just to keep in character. Her thoughts were chaotic, she’d never been nailed down so easily, and there seemed to be no place to hide. He could see her, clearly, she felt it. No one could see her, had ever seen her, but he could. It was an awful feeling for a deep-cover agent. Panic kept rising in her, and she kept shoving it down.
Abbot shrugged. “Between the two of us, we figure out people. You were the lone volunteer for a new experimental project ordered by Falkenhayn himself. You fought alongside Joe like a French intelligence operative, not like a factory worker from Hamburg. Your brother the French street-fighter taught you Savate in Hamburg, right? Or your friend from Marseille, not Marburg? Then you search our things while we’re in the shower. You’re really good, though, we both agree. A true professional.”
She began to protest, but he interrupted her. “Wait. Just wait. Hold on,” he said. “Allow me to complete the thought.”
She lapsed into silence, slumping a little. What a complete mess she had made of this. She’d walked right into it, never suspecting. What a fool I am, she thought. She thought fleetingly that it might be possible to grab her hideaway pistol, get the drop on them. Three, two –
Abbot held up his hands in a gesture of conciliation. “Truth is, we don’t care. We’re going to design and build an armored vehicle that will cross trenches and stand up to a decent amount of shock –”
“And fly,” said Joe, interrupting him.
“That is just not going to happen,” said Abbot, “but it’s irrelevant right now. We want you to know that it’s fine that you take everything we do and get it back to your people. We understand perfectly, we’ll give you detailed plans when you go. Actually, it’s going to make us feel better. We’re really just taking a break from the trenches. They’re not going to pay attention to whatever it is we build, I assure you. It’s just the Prussian way, they’ll never accept such a thing unless they build it themselves, and I bet your commanders are the same way deep down. All right? But — what we want in return — what we need from you, for us to extend some trust, you understand — is help. We could use some competent assistance from you. We’ve got thirty days, and truth is, this is a little over our heads. So. We work it up together, then you can have the plans and walk away. We’ll all be honest with each other and get along and make this thing work, even if it’s just for the fun of it, and a little vacation from the boom-boom. Is it a deal?”
He was looking at her with this open expression, so honest and direct, and Joe was beaming at her with a confident grin, and the situation was so novel, so unusual, that she felt she had to abandon protocol, and make it up as she went along. If Abbot was being truthful, she had everything to gain, and easily so. In fact, she had no choice. They could have her shot at dawn at this point, she thought — she would have to trust them. Everything she had learned about them today told her so.
“My name is Donleve Jerault. And I can weld,” she said.
“Of course you can,” said Joe. “And now, excuse me while I get some sleep.”
He and Abbot both turned in without further conversation and were immediately asleep, leaving Donleve to her own thoughts. As she tried to fall asleep in her semi-private compartment (the tarp wall failed to block their increasing snores), she wondered at the fact that she had surrendered her mission so easily to men whom she felt she knew less about with each passing moment. She was still in shock, lost in completely new territory, identified as a spy by the enemy — but she still fell asleep quickly, and had pleasant dreams all night long.
In the morning, no one said a word about the events of the night before. They managed to make it to the worker’s dining hall before it closed, to get the last of the oatmeal and coffee. An hour later, Joe was still building his list for the depot while they warmed up the trucks. Abbot drove again with Donleve sitting between them, the big engine of the truck making the earth tremble as it hauled the solid steel frame across the ground-up roads. The other three trucks were driven by three of the guards; one stayed behind to keep the workroom sealed. Abbot thought this was kind of silly, but the lieutenant had insisted, the senior guard said. Top security procedures, he had said, no excuses, no lapses.
They ended up being at the depot all day, loading up on everything they could possibly need, and some things they didn’t. Another quartermaster and his assistant stood by and grimaced now as their best stores were cleaned out, making an inventory ledger entry with each item and not uttering a word about it. Falkenhayn’s signature brooked no refusal, and Lieutenant Petersen’s men were a very serious and professional lot that backed the whole thing up. Abbot, Joe, Donleve and the three guards loaded sheet steel, scrap steel, tools, gunpowder, high explosive chemicals, welding equipment of all kinds, saws, drills, and lathes; canvas, seats, needles, bolts, all kinds of rubber, cotton stuffing, drafting equipment and paper, spare jeep seats, tires, wood, nails, anvils, rifles, light and heavy machine guns, and a hundred other things that broke the quartermaster’s heart to part with. They even took a pair of brand-new 7.7 cm FK-16 field guns along with twenty cases of shells for each one. The array of materials mystified even the guards who helped load it; what in the world, for instance, were these men planning to do with all of the exotic chemicals on the list they had given him? The quartermaster hadn’t even heard of most of these substances and had to call in a specialist, an orderly who had been a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Stuttgart who promptly informed them that most of the chemicals would have to be specially ordered from the Hoechst AG facilities in Frankfurt, and would take at least a week to get.
Abbot nodded his head, indicating that this timeframe was acceptable. He wouldn’t be using them for at least a week, he thought, so the timing would be good. The orderly became very inquisitive about the purpose for such an array of chemicals and equipment, but got no further than to be told to mind his own business by Donleve. She gave the young man a look that made him immediately refrain from further questions; still, the array of chemicals left his mind reeling, trying to come to grips with any possible use for their combination. Abbot and the quartermaster stood next to the young orderly as he called in the order to Hoechst, with the authority of General Falkenhayn’s command provided by a terse Lieutenant Petersen. The man on the other end of the phone seemed suitably impressed and promised to expedite the order forthwith.
The field guns were hooked up behind two of the trucks and the expedition set off after getting signatures from everyone including Donleve; this particular quartermaster had a reputation as a meticulous man, and his devotion to procedure had landed him his current post in command of this stupendous collection of war material. But once his papers were triple-signed with copies he waved a professional if not cheerful goodbye to them and allowed himself to wonder just what it was they were up to. He thought he might recognize the one private with the dark curly hair from the Paris newspapers he used to read before the war. Surely not, he thought. It couldn’t be him, or else he wouldn’t be a private. The man he was thinking of had been a famous physician.
In the lead truck, Joe was checking his list. “There’s some stuff here we didn’t get that won’t be easy to find. We should ask Major Hilfstadt if he can’t nail some of this down for us. Might take a little official swing, and he does appear to have a chunk of that.”
Donleve nodded. “Hilfstadt’s the Chief of Security for the entire sector, not just the factory, a very powerful fellow. He reports directly to General Falkenhayn, but actually has most of the German command network firmly in his hands. Top of his class at the Prussian War College, but he opposed the attack through Belgium. Highly intelligent, married, two children. His oldest son had tuberculosis, but seems to have recovered.”
Abbot drove the truck with a steady hand, seemingly at a loss for words. He just shook his head a little, to indicate his amazement. Joe nudged Donleve a little – “What’s his birthday?”
Donleve nudged back. “September 15th, 1887.” Joe grinned at her answer. “What’s my birthday?” he asked.
Donleve gave him a quizzical look. “I have no idea whatsoever who you are or where you came from, but I do intend to eventually find out, I assure you.”
Abbot laughed. “Just ask Winston. He’ll tell you a thing or two.”
Donleve looked at him oddly. “Winston Churchill? The First Sea Lord? Does he know you?”
Joe nodded. “Oh yes,” he said. “We’re old friends by now.”
The rest of the morning and afternoon were spent unloading the materials from the trucks into a corner of the room and then completing the rest of the cleanup, which took until evening. As soon as the dining hall opened they went to dinner, except for the guards. Abbot tried to insist that they all go together, but eventually relented in lieu of a promise to bring back food for them. None of Petersen’s men ever displayed the slightest sign of fatigue, impatience, or hunger, and Abbot saw in them the powerful esprit de corps that often binds elite military groups together, the respect for their commander’s will, the grounding of serious and severe training. These guards were not ordinary German soldiers; they were the edge of the blade, combat-hardened veterans, and both Joe and Abbot paid them respect for their even-handed and intelligently-guided sense of duty. One could not pull them away from their duties, and they were inflexibly formal, but at least one could bring food back for them; they would agree to that. Joe thought it was a good sign.
At dinner Abbot and Joe continued their discussion of design details in quiet voices, leaning forward to gain privacy in the crowded dining hall. Donleve leaned in with them, and found herself in a rollicking brainstorm session to which she felt she contributed a great deal. She had done almost every job in the factory except weld, including operating the smelter and the big Bessemer steel-making converter, stamping shell cases, mixing high explosive, and assembling finished shells. She knew exactly where everything was, who supervised what area, what the internal politics were, who to threaten, who to plead with. This information made her an even partner in the success of the project, and now that she felt reasonably certain she could get the vehicle designs back to Paris, she threw herself into the operation with refreshing honesty. She discovered that Abbot spoke French with a perfect fluency, and soon found that he not only spoke it, he understood it. He recognized her description of the Out-Of-The-Bird coffeehouse on Montmartre, and then finished it, shading in the details she had completely forgotten, like the red-and-blue carved wood strip that ran around the tops of the walls, an incredibly ancient antique from Old Paris, from the time of the Fronde, when the citizens had chased the royal family from the city.
After that they chattered back and forth in a light French that made Joe irritable, since his French sounded horrifyingly German, his tongue trapped in the harsher tones of his native language, unable to make the French phonemes flow over his palate like they could. He missed most of the idiomatic references, and as a result, became quickly bored with the patter of his two partners, preferring to work alone whenever they were in their French-World, as he called it.
That first evening, Abbot asked Donleve to take them to the foundry so that they could examine the Bessemer converter and look over the ore stock. Abbot said he would prefer to stay out of Hyndman’s way completely, so they waited until it was very late, when Donleve knew for sure the floor would be closed for the few hours it was idle each day. They stuck to the edges of the hallways, and Donleve led them through the back passages of the enormous facility with unerring prescience, almost as if she had spent a lot of time sneaking around the place already.
Both of the men looked everything over, touching each dial, handle, and lever as if knowledge was a tactile thing somehow to be gained by physical contact. Abbot was impressed with the setup. It looked like Krupp had shipped an entire factory from Berlin to this Belgian plain, complete with the finest in German steel-making and casting equipment. There were very large hot-rolling machines and quenching pools, small re-working furnaces, and a bewildering array of shaping tools. Recoilless cannon barrel sections were strung by the dozens from a circular ceiling track that transported them through the various finishing areas. This part of the factory was so large that one could not see clearly to the other end; the dark industrial haze consumed the far wall as if it were miles away.
By the time they returned to their room, the sun was almost up. They missed breakfast, but talked a cook into letting them take a few loaves of bread and a giant hunk of cheese for lunch. Joe slipped the cook a few bills and received a case of Belgian wine; all of this they brought back with them and divided between themselves and the guards, who refused to come inside, preferring to eat by themselves at their posts but clearly appreciative of the gift. As Donleve opened the second bottle of wine Abbot and Joe set up a makeshift draft table and began to sketch shapes, later progressing to more detailed drawings and then to lists of tasks and materials. By the time the afternoon rolled around they felt they had a solid handle on the project, although Donleve only understood about half of what they talked about. Joe was insisting on a cast steel ‘hull’, as he called it, in which to set the engines and transmission, and a crew compartment, and a machined edge that they could weld an armored superstructure onto. Abbot talked at length about the need for a quickly rotating armored platform that would house the field cannons, and Donleve saw the logic clearly; regardless of the vehicle’s position, the guns could be fired at anything in the field this way. She could not as yet understand how the caterpillar track system was supposed to work, or how the thing could possibly cross a trench or flatten a field of wire, but she could see that they had extensively thought about these kinds of things before, and asked why this was so.
“Abbot and I used to get into trouble in our hometown,” replied Joe, as he continued to sketch parts and linkages. “We were always in trouble, on the run. Kind of a rough place. There was one fellow we had to deal with, a gangster called Lucien, who was an extortionist, dealt in prostitution, murder-for-hire, that kind of thing. He tried to make my father pay protection money, just to be able to work in the mines. Abbot and I found out and decided to deal with him ourselves, got in over our heads. Lucien brought in a whole bunch of gunmen, and so Abbot thought up this sort of armored cart we could pedal right up to them, let us get close enough to spray them down with Formula 322 without getting shot, and that was that. It worked great. We always thought about making something bigger, something with engines and other stuff. Just for fun. But we never got around to it. Abbot went off to medical school, and I got married, and that was pretty much that.”
Donleve watched Joe’s face for some sign that he was joking, but he seemed quite serious as the pencil scratched out shading marks to render a sketch of the hull three-dimensional. She frowned in disbelief. “What’s Formula 322?” she asked.
“Oh, that’s an early version of 631, like an anesthetic liquid with some nausea components, and something that suppresses testosterone production for a few years. Made them all stumble around with dead arms and legs, throwing up,” Joe said, a small smile coming to his face as he thought back to the scene. “Funny to see such a scary bunch of thugs acting like overly drunk scarecrows. Real monsters turned into comedy.”
“How old were you when you did these things?” Donleve said, even more unconvinced.
Joe looked at Abbot, who narrowed his eyes to think. “Twelve?” said Joe. “Twelve,” said Abbot. “The same year Mr. Heydrich came after us for what happened with August.”
Donleve shook her head. “I don’t believe two twelve year-old boys took on a gang of gunmen. I think you might have read that story in a book. And this chemical 342 –”
“322,” corrected Abbot. “It was crude but effective. The stuff we’re using now is far more advanced.”
“Now? We’re going to use chemicals?”
“Oh, yes,” said Abbot.
“But the guns? And machine guns?”
“Well, those all get converted. Gas shells, liquid darts. You saw the darts.”
“What is in those darts? And why? Why not bullets, like everything else?”
Joe stopped sketching and leaned on the table with his elbows, giving Abbot an amused glance. “Abbot doesn’t kill people,” he said. “So neither do I. We use one of Abbot’s formulas, the best ever, 858. The darts are very accurate – silent, quick and they all just drop — then they wake up singing a day later, and then they won’t pick up a gun for a long time afterward. The cannon, though, I think we’ll use one of the five hundreds in the shells, 537, general anesthetic, the slightest touch, down everybody goes for a full day. 858′s only for people. We have to be careful with it. Can’t just spray that around. Abbot doesn’t want us to forcefully enlighten any field mice.”
Donleve was utterly skeptical of this ridiculous statement, so much so that she simply snorted and turned away. Obviously these two were smart and had some special training, but she refused to believe that they had come through the whole war without using bullets. This was an impossible concept for her to come to grips with at the time; later, she would come to understand that every word Joe had uttered was the truth, but for now she just smiled and nodded her head somewhat sarcastically.
“Of course,” she said. “I see. We wouldn’t want to make the little birds go to sleep and then wake up singing.”
Joe and Abbot both nodded as if this were common sense, and went back to their design. Donleve shook her head with incomprehension at their reaction, gave up, and went back to work as well.
12 first things first
At some point in the planning, sketching, and discussing they discovered that they had drunk far too much wine and needed to go to sleep. Joe was like a kid on Christmas Eve, visions of spinning sprockets in his head, still occasionally talking to himself. Abbot was just exhausted and was asleep within minutes. Donleve went behind her privacy blankets and got ready for bed. She could hear Abbot’s breathing get slower and slower, and Joe making small settling sounds as he finally drifted off. Donleve crawled into her makeshift bed — they all had thick layers of cotton padding stuffed into sewn blankets that now served as mattresses — and stared up at the black ceiling barely lit by the sputtering lantern she kept in her area. With the big overhead electric lights off, the still-black walls of the room seemed nonexistent, more like a universe without stars, empty space in nothingness. She felt a little vertigo, the excellent Belgian wine surging through her, and she went over images from the day.
She thought about Abbot. Joe deferred so much to him, but not in a servile way; more like a loved older brother. She tried to think of them at twelve years old, defending themselves against a gang of criminals; she failed. Still, she had seen the darts, the rifles, the small stoppered bottles full of liquids — could there be such men, men who refused to kill, yet who seemed so capable of it? Her uncle had been such a man, she thought. And the project, the possibility that she might bring back something big to the Bureau. This would put her way ahead of Jean Poulan, in line for running a team. This made her think about the fact that, after this assignment was over, she would probably never see either of these two men ever again. Why did this bother her? She closed her eyes, and breathed deeply, almost a sigh, and her thoughts spun around her in the darkness as she tried to drift away into sleep.
Abbot dreamed as always that Madeleine was in his arms, her dark hair flowing over his bicep as she kissed his neck. She was naked against him, warm and lithe, and he felt himself respond. Her breath against his ear brought him alive; his dreams of her had never been so real, he had never dreamed so clearly in his life, and this made his mind turn back on itself.
He woke up on his pad at the edge of the vast dark workroom, could tell from the reflected sound somehow that nothing had changed — except that there seemed to be an actual woman in his arms, her body wrapped sensuously around his and her warm lips nuzzling his neck, and thought that it felt exceedingly, amazingly good. A moment later he wondered how Madeleine might possibly come to be here in this dark room of the factory. Not likely. The daughter of a famous French civil servant in German territory, in the arms of a German soldier. Had he missed something? He was still a little drunk –
Donleve. Donleve in his bed, moving against him. Donleve, whose scent was overwhelming every locked-down primal circuit he possessed, reaching down to grip him with lightly trembling furor, as she moved to lay astride him in the darkness –
Not Madeleine. “Donleve,” he whispered, as quietly as he could, knowing that Joe was maybe ten feet away.
Donleve froze, nearly on top of him. “Yes?” she whispered back. She had not been thinking about any of this at all, in fact could not quite recall how she had managed to wind up in Abbot’s bed. She was still drunk, and the word slurred slightly as it emerged from her lips, still poised as they were to complete their final contact with his. She breathed, into his mouth, her skin hot against him, and for a moment he saw visions, an entire human lifetime, wreathed in cinnamon and beaches, chocolate and holiday ribbon. This startled him, because he had never felt such a thing before this moment; but the rush of destiny was now broken as they both came fully awake, and she waited in the pitch black for his answer.
“Donleve,” he repeated. “You are so perfect, and I just — saw — a lifetime with you, and what it would be, and it was so sweet, so incredible, that I was swept away in it. I have — my – I can’t. I love someone.”
Donleve stared through the darkness as if she could see Abbot’s face, but there was nothing, just green flickers in the nothingness that she felt must be his eyes somehow, though that was strange to think, that his eyes were alight. She was shocked by his words, utterly struck by their meaning. Never, never in her entire life, not in childhood, nor in womanhood, nor at any moment of her career had a man refused her. Beneath her worker’s costume she knew she was beautiful, had always been beautiful, and was so certain of its effect on him that Abbot’s denial of her passion stung like lemon juice in a wound, worse, like a deep and unutterable loss, like something she loved had just died. A torrent of shame crashed over her, and her body retracted from his; seconds before she had nearly merged with him, in the primary and arguably most satisfying communion two human beings can experience from within their finite and immutable shells. She practically leaped away from him, taking most of the blanket with her and making him gasp with the loss of warmth. She realized that she was stealing the blanket, and dropped it back on to him.
“Donleve,” he said. “I’m sorry.” She rose and stood above him in the pitch-black now, entirely nude, and the shock of the night air on her skin made her shiver. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what I was doing.” She covered her eyes with her hands and turned away.
From ten feet away in the darkness, Joe’s voice was quiet. “He’s a hopeless storybook romantic, Donleve. Don’t take it personally, he’s been like this forever. Any man that would turn you down is automatically a fool in my opinion; so just forget about him, he doesn’t deserve you. All right?”
With this, Donleve unfroze, and walked quickly back through her blanket barrier to plunge into her own bed. She still burned from the rejection, but she knew that the wine had played a large part, that she found him attractive but that he was also the subject of her general orders; and that he was apparently taken with the object of his affections so deeply that he could do something no other man could do or had ever done and turn away the affections of Donleve Jerault. This had never happened to her ever before, and so logically there must be something wrong with him, just like Joe had said. A man-child. A man with a boy’s heart.
He had smelled quite good, she thought. The memory of his scent sparked a flood of images for her. Until he woke up, his body had told her everything she needed to know about whether or not he found her attractive.
She found herself smiling, and burrowed deep beneath her blankets to dream about oranges and grass, chocolate and ribbons.
The next morning, no one said a thing about it. They talked about mud viscosity, the Pripet Marshes, steel stamping and forming, rubber chemistry and an idea Joe that had for a suspension system that involved torque placed on a fixed steel bar, but never did the conversation hint at what had happened the night before. However, Joe noticed that Abbot and Donleve seemed to sit fractionally closer to each other than before, their heads often inclined unconsciously toward each other, and it made him wonder just what had happened there in the darkness, not that he felt any need to preserve his friend’s near-virginity for some unknown French dream-princess; but apparently, something had happened between them.
Certainly, any underlying tension served only to propel the work forward, far from being a distraction. The three of them developed a daily rhythm based on eating, sleeping, and what time the steelworking section would be idle. Donleve never complained, in fact drove them incessantly, driven by her growing enjoyment of contributing to the design. Abbot and Joe often deferred to her, especially when it concerned steel. The base of the vehicle was to be a shallow tub with a smooth base and then a gradually slanting wall that then curved sharply horizontal to form a full rim around the whole thing, with a series of axle-ports arranged along its length, and its width based on the dimensions of the axles of the two massive Daimlers. Joe had originally thought they should try to cast it as a single piece, but Donleve suggested a stamping arrangement, using three of the big hydraulic presses to drive a thick molten steel billet-plate into a shaped base, followed by a quenching process and then a ‘carburizing’ treatment that would face-harden the steel, she said, making the surface extremely hard while ‘preserving a ductile interior to the plate’, she said. These ideas left both of the men speechless, and it was agreed that Donleve would handle the steel-working theory from that point forward, although Abbot’s chemistry skills helped a great deal when it came to determining exposure time and the chemical makeup of the carburizing powder.
She explained that carburizing was a way to insert carbon into the outer layers of the steel, making it far more impact-resistant. The base of the machine would be buried in a chamber full of the powdered carbon mixture, and then heated to almost a thousand degrees. Carbon and other trace elements would be absorbed from the powder to a depth dependent on the length of the exposure; this would help make the face of the steel impenetrable, allowing the thickness of the plate to be significantly decreased. It was a relatively new process as yet practiced only in laboratories, but Donleve said she had witnessed it done at the big Krupp factory in Germany where she spent three months fleshing out her cover as a highly-skilled industrial worker.
Abbot asked Lieutenant Petersen if they could have a few captured British artillery pieces brought in along with a supply of shells for them. They quietly arrived a few days later, and the testing done by firing these pieces into steel plates they had cast and stamped gave them valuable information that allowed them to adjust the carburizing process and the steel thickness. The resulting hull would be light, strong, and proof against most of the light artillery the British could wield; these were the primary characteristics Joe had listed as required for something that could survive the flooded shell holes and vacuumous mud of no-man’s land under fire.
As the days went by they worked even faster. Conversations at dinner proved to be exclusively about the vehicle, every detail being pored over in the most free-form creative problem-solving process Donleve had ever taken part in. Her opinion was not only accepted but valued, the machine was as much her creation as theirs, and she found the process exhilarating. The making of the base-piece and its subsequent treatment in the carburizing box had been highly successful, even if it had been made difficult by the limited amount of time they had available in the forge. Everything had to be planned in the slightest detail beforehand to make it all work, and often the hours when the factory became available were made random, either by the chaos of workflow or the machinations of Dr. Hyndman, who could say. Donleve would direct the operation, peering out through the scratched and grimy lens of her hood, while Abbot and Joe would hop to, adjusting and wrestling things into place, working with sledges and winches, riveters and giant wrenches. She could tell they were fascinated by the process, and her pride drove her to further and further heights; she knew that no one on earth was as close to a perfected steel as they were right now, and she regretted this only when she was alone, late at night and falling asleep; she would remember her true role, and that it would end soon enough. She would take the plans back to her superiors, accept their commendations, rest and relax, and then — back into the field. Her next assignment would likely be as seriously difficult and dangerous as they all had been until this one. This one — this time, she admitted to herself, she was actually having fun. A lot of fun. Way too much fun.
By the time the first week had passed, the base of the machine had been finished, Joe was installing the engines and drive trains, and Abbot had done a thousand mysterious things that made absolutely no sense to her until they all came together later, like a cloud coalescing to make obsidian. The big room was now divided into basic fabrication and assembly areas, and more lights had been added to the ceiling, making everything gleam, accented by the constant shower of welding sparks, and the blue fluorescent light flashing off the flat black ceiling. The characteristic smell of metalworking, hot oil and burned coke, kerosene and acetylene, filled their senses all day and as they slept, finding relief only in the occasional plunge out into the clear air. The chemicals that Abbot had ordered finally arrived from Krupp, and to celebrate, Abbot bought a tankard of Belgian beer and dinner for the guards, who again refused to be entertained in the room, but this time actually suppressed smiles as they accepted a delicious pot of roast beef stew and several loaves of fresh bread with actual butter. They also accepted flagons full of beer which they set down behind them, as if uninterested. Abbot never saw them take a drink; but somehow, the next morning, the entire tankard had been drained, and perhaps all four guards seemed a little worse for the wear and tear than usual.
For Abbot, Joe, and Donleve the beer that night was the most excellent they had ever tasted, the food even better, and far from making them sleepy or too drunk drove them into a ten-hour stint of work that left all three collapsing into their makeshift cots after a worthy trip to the showers in the morning. Normally, every morning was the same — up at seven, breakfast over by eight, and then work until dinner, with a few short breaks during the day. After dinner, they would work on different things, Abbot now spending much of his time in the ‘chemical corner’ mixing and heating solutions, sometimes sitting in a chair and tinkering with one of the mysterious pieces of machinery she had seen him carting around. Often, he seemed lost in his own mind; she would try to get his attention only to find herself talking to a wall. So she would gently punch him in the stomach or pinch his waist, which startled him but would always make him smile. She would return the smile, and unconsciously lean in to breathe in his scent, something that he did as well. Both of them privately knew they were flirting, but both of them also knew it could never work out, which strangely served to make them closer. Joe was aware of everything that was going on, of course, and thought it interesting that Abbot was clearly drawn to this other woman, the first and only since he had seen Madeleine from afar.
The pace of the work seemed to accelerate each day. The electrical system was a mystery to Donleve, ‘not in my wheelhouse’ as she termed it, and so they set her to work fabricating links of the track system. Abbot and Joe had designed an intricately interlocking belt of ridged steel plates that were faced with embedded rubber pads and flanged with intermittent folding steel spikes, controlled by a spring-loaded mechanism with an ingenious switch on the inside of the belt, triggered by a push-rod from inside the hull. The track was a complex machine in and of itself, designed to be resilient and self-cleaning. Donleve threw herself into the labor with a fury, making improvements as she went, spending hours alone in the foundry stamping out parts, discarding any piece that had the slightest defect. The tracks grew, each ten feet, then twenty, and both Abbot and Joe would often wander by and marvel at her mechanical skills, to which she would respond sometimes with a grin and a vulgar retort that would embarrass them both and send them scurrying back to their own little areas of the room.
By the third week the working relationship had evolved into an easy pranksterism, practiced in every combination and in concert on the guards. Donleve made a series of noisy snappers that would spring open and pop loudly when Abbot or Joe picked up a tool, so Joe devised an exploding mat for Donleve that made her scream, and all of these had eventually been used on the four guards, who proved to be both imperturbable and mildly unamused. Lieutenant Petersen had asked them with some concern to respect the guard’s professional stature in the future, and they all agreed, and apologized by providing them another delicious dinner accompanied by a small keg of beer.
The design of the top of the tank (as they all now referred to it) was human syntactic synergy at its best, the three of them having grown into an easy process that allowed the best ideas to float to the surface, absent of typical primate politics. They would hot-roll and shape armor plates, trying out various configurations and stylistic forms to test. The consensus became that the top of the tank body should be as low as possible, preferably level with the top of the track system, and with a rotating turret containing the main guns protruding just above, so that the entire assembly could swivel in a full circle. The entire vehicle would end up being less than six feet high, which Abbot thought would be a good compromise between room for the turret to move around and still stay below the fully-depressed line of fire of any of the British or French heavy batteries. A direct hit from one of the big 75mm French guns or a British six-incher was not something mere steel could survive; better just to make a smaller target.
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A brilliant young doctor living in Paris joins the German Army in 1915 as a private when his childhood friend is called up from the reserves by the Kaiser; together they struggle to survive the horrors of the Western Front. He and his friend (who calls himself by the Americanized name Joe Smith) use their talent for invention and other skills left over from a childhood of survival on the mean streets of a German mining town to navigate their way through some of the worst action of the First World War, from the mined tunnels of Messines to the gas attacks at Ypres. Their exploits become the subject of an illustrated series of pamphlets that brings them unwanted attention from both Kaiser Wilhelm and the British Security Chief Winston Churchill. After being arrested for treason, the two friends are forced to accept a secret mission to kidnap the French Premier along with a young and dangerous corporal named Adolf Hitler. Upon accidentally discovering the gruesome secret of a French family's underground meat factory, they face their worst trial yet.