Northern Gobi Desert
Ikh Mongolyn khaant uls
(Khaganate of Great Mongolia)
Övög deedsiin dakhin töröltiin erinii doloo dakhi jil
(Seventh Year of the Era of the Ancestor Reborn)
April 28th, 1923 A.D. – 1923(b)
“Ilüü ikh us!” Ernst Röhm said flatly, aware that his Mongol was vilely accented but comprehensible for simple things.
He’d said: “More water!”
The Mongol shot him a look and poured more from the skin into the canvas bucket. Bringing horses along on a camel caravan through the Gobi was an affectation—but one believable in a wealthy Russian merchant like Mikhail Fedorovitch Vasiliev. The Mongol caravaneer resented the cost in precious water, particularly since they were away from the usual routes with their marked wells, and despite being well-paid in gold.
Röhm decided that it just offended the man’s sense of efficiency, and he suffered a brief, disconcerting flash of amused fellow-feeling.
A herd of saiga antelope with their bulbous noses was cantering in a plume of dust eight or nine hundred meters to the north, and one of the four caravanners slapped the butt of his slung rifle in question. Röhm kept his face grim and shook his head—fresh antelope liver was a treat, but their supplies were sufficient, and he wasn’t going to attract attention even if the risk was low. Paying attention to details saved your life and more important, the mission.
And Mikhail just didn’t smile much; it was one of the few things Röhm liked about the man.
Röhm looked around at the afternoon landscape while his pony drank with slobbering enthusiasm. They’d gotten out of the steppe proper, where grass covered everything and there was the odd small tree or large bush in a depression that collected water: now the dirt was mostly bare, with here and there scattered clumps of thin-stemmed Gobi feather grass, stunted bushes of creeping kumarchik with its thorn-tipped leaves, olive timuriya, snakeweed and cold wormwood across a huge expanse of barren rocky upland, olive-green to yellow against the brown dirt and lighter stones.
The sky was cloudless, and it was mild—about ten celsius—but he knew by bitter experience that early May here often brought freezing cold and a last flurry of snowstorms, and he simply wore his padded deel a little loose right now and had the fur earflaps of his round hat turned up. Even in the high summer the nights in the Gobi could be chilly, but then the days got hot enough to fry an egg on a helmet.
And the air had an odd, slight odor that was somehow medicinal, or perhaps metallic, under the usual scents of unwashed human and horse and the sour musk of camels. Perhaps it was the strange tough growths, dry and waxy, that struggled for life in this wasteland, and perhaps the very dust was alien… or both.
Probably both, he thought. This is almost as otherwordly to a European as the jungles of Africa.
Ahead nearly a kilometer away was a low ridge; Ernst Jünger’s pony was at the base, and he was lying at the crest sweeping the ground to the southwest with his field-glasses. As Röhm watched he stood, made a waving gesture for all clear and then beckoned.
Röhm swung into the saddle; nobody here walked if they could ride. It was Cossack style, with high paddle-shaped horns for pommel and cantle, a sort of stuffed leather bag-thing tied across the seat, and short stirrups. Röhm had been riding all his adult life as an officer must do, or anyone who traveled in rough country, but he had to admit that actual Cossacks—there were plenty of cheap imitation would-be Taras Bulbas infesting Mongolia these days—were extremely good at it. The Mongol style of gear and horse-management was just as skillful and seemed closely related.
I suppose the Cossacks picked it up from the Tatars they fought all those centuries.
His horse broke into its smooth canter gait as soon as his right foot hit the circular pad of the stirrup. A few minutes later he swung down again, ran his reins through the loop at the top of the tethering-stake Jünger had used, and went up the slope in a graceless stumping rush that was still fast and efficient, and went to his belly beside the younger man.
“There,” Jünger said.
Commendably sticking to Russian even though there was nobody within two thousand meters of hearing distance.
Röhm slid the Mauser 98 rifle off his back; it had a x3 scope fitted to it, the standard combination for sniping work in the German army, introduced towards the end of the Great War and quite common in Mongolia these days. The scene leapt close; a trio of big black vultures with odd white stripes at the base of their beaks pecking at something on the ground, mantling and squabbling with each other, and a steppe fox with its yellowish-gray fur and white belly resentfully darting back and forth in the background but unwilling to come within operational distance of beaks and claws.
If any of the local wolves showed up, they would of course run the lesser beasts off while they feasted.
“Might as well be international politics,” Röhm said, and Jünger chuckled, following the thought effortlessly.
“Vultures, jackals and the hovering threat of wolves,” the younger man said with a nod.
“Any sign of company?”
“Nothing that doesn’t have feathers or fur,” Jünger said, casually confident.
Röhm accepted that with a grunt—the younger man was very good at all forms of fieldcraft—but since they weren’t pressed for time used his telescopic sight to do a full three hundred and sixty degree scan himself from this fairly high point.
“Nothing, except some wolves who’re probably scenting an easy meal and thinking of coming our way, but don’t like the thought of rifles or becoming a wolfskin coat.”
“So it’s really like international politics now,” Jünger said.
And then—oddly—said something else in English, of which the older man knew just enough to recognize it, though it had always reminded him of Dutch spoken with a French accent.
Röhm looked a question. Jünger paused to translate mentally… probably to translate twice, since he continued to speak in Russian… and went on, in the voice of a man quoting a proverb or a poem:
Because the good old rule
Sufficeth them, the simple plan,
That they should take who have the power,
And they should keep who can.”
“Then let’s do a Great Power intervention—you take point.”
They both laughed and stood, Jünger shifting his rifle—a Russian Mosin-Nagant, not much different from the Mauser and a product of the same decade—to the crook of his left arm. Röhm carried his at a casual port-arms; every hundred steps he turned and walked backwards for half a dozen paces, scanning carefully, and in unconscious reflex Jünger slowed down while he did it.
They’d both survived the whole Great War from 1914 to the Armistice and beyond as front-line fighters, after all, where tens of millions had not.
The whole Great War minus the time we both spent in field hospitals, of course.
“The third one,” Jünger confirmed when they were close enough for the rank-oily, rancid-sweet odor of decaying human flesh to be detectable. “Like Hansel and Gretel, only with corpses instead of breadcrumbs.”
They were both intimately familiar with that smell, and this wasn’t a particularly bad case, what with the dryness and the cold and only a few days to rot.
Jünger cocked his head to one side. “Two days?” he said; the way the corpse had been ripped up by the scavengers made it a little difficult to estimate.
“Poor little bitch,” he added somberly. “They didn’t even leave her clothes on or finish her off, just stripped her and left her to die of cold or thirst when she got too weak to keep up.”
Röhm shrugged. It wasn’t important, but Jünger had a point—a blade cost nothing but the effort to wipe it. Why not take a moment for a mercy-stroke? He wouldn’t leave even a hurt dog so. A hated enemy, perhaps… but a Chinese bitch wasn’t important enough to be anyone’s enemy.
“Two days at least, maybe three or even four in this climate,” he said. “Check the tracks.”
He went to one knee with his rifle ready and kept an eye out to all sides as Jünger went around the site in widening circles. After a moment he halted, went to his hands and knees to peer at something on the hard dry ground, repeated the process several times, then walked back.
“Wheel-marks and camel-sign,” he said. “Fresh, and older as well, and going both ways. Northeast to southwest and back.”
“Well, that’s fairly definite,” Röhm said.
They walked back the way they had come, with the vultures circling lower behind them as they did. An odd thought struck him: the Mongols in the caravan shepherding the Chinese women wouldn’t have thought anything of leaving a dead body for the vultures. It was what they did with their own dead usually, out on the steppe. One of the local names for vulture was ‘spirit carrier’.
Wagons, he thought. Hmmm. They’d have to use them—none of the Chinese bitches would have lasted this long if they had to walk, and they couldn’t possibly use enough camels for them all to ride. And if there’s heavy or bulky or heavy and bulky cargo going to wherever-it-is…
The Mongols and even more the Chinese had always used camels to pull carts occasionally, usually the two-wheeled ones that Han peasants further south drew with a pair of oxen. Lately, over the past couple of years, the Yekhe Khan’s servants had come up with a novelty, something like a heavy European transport wagon but camel-drawn, with up to ten pairs pulling a draught-chain. The ones he’d seen reminded him of what veterans of German South-West Africa described of Boer ox-wagons used for logistics in the war with the Herero, back ten years or so before the Great War started, when the Reich had African possessions. They could haul five tones or so each over open country, if the terrain wasn’t too rough, and more on a made road.
“Those ruts aren’t native carts,” he observed as they crested the rise and walked back down to their horses.
“No, they’re smooth wheels—rubber on iron, or plain iron.”
Native carts here had spike-like studs on their wheels, which improved traction at the expense of tearing up any roadbed they traveled.
“So, heavy wagons, then,” Röhm observed.
They pulled out their maps from their saddlebags, along with a sextant and a miniature chronometer and a pad for calculations. A few minutes work and they had their position—traveling over most of the Gobi’s central plateau had much in common with navigation at sea. Röhm knelt by the fluttering edge of the map they’d held down with rocks and listened to the small rustling flapping, and the soft sad moan of the eternal breeze through the shrubland beyond. Mountains were a pale blue line at the edge of sight.
Sometimes thought proceeded best if you got out of the way and let it happen.
After a while he drew in the route they’d followed today and then sketched a circle beyond it with the graphite mechanical pencil.
“There?” he said, tapping it.
Jünger made a sound like the first syllable of Jawohl, and then changed it to:
Then he added, also in Russian: “But is there any water there?”
Röhm nodded. “There’s water underneath a lot of the Gobi here—most of it’s a basin surrounded by mountains. The caravan routes follow shallow aquifers so they have a well every twenty miles or so, but with modern drilling equipment you can get water nearly anywhere. A bit salty in some places, but drinkable.”
“Though salt might be a problem for a chemical plant,” Jünger said meditatively. “If I understand it properly. Do you think we should go on? Get a definite sighting?”
Röhm barred his teeth in what wasn’t a smile, and would have been an unpleasant expression even without the scars that knotted it.
“I would very much like to, I think… but no. Too risky if we’re getting close. Maybe later, if we have reason. They’ll certainly have patrols, and maybe even aeroplane scouts too, or an airboat on station.”
“Though if you do too much of that, you’re making yourself conspicuous. Like hanging up a sign: dangerous secret thing here.”
Röhm grunted agreement; it was a balancing act. Being inconspicuous could mean blinding yourself as well as those you were hiding from. You couldn’t hide anything among the thronging masses of humanity here, that was for certain. And with flying machines so common sheer empty immensity wasn’t nearly as effective as it had been when he was an officer-cadet.
“God alone knows what the Khan’s men would do if they thought Germany suspected them,” he said. “Dealing with him is like juggling live grenades anyway. Whether he’s actually mad or just plays at it for advantage…”
“It is an advantage,” Jünger said.
One of the advantages of everyone present being unquestionably brave was that you didn’t have to keep unbuttoning and showing your balls around to prove their size. You could do what you were supposed to do in the first place: concentrate on the mission. Courage was a pleasant thing to contemplate in itself, but it was meaningless unless it was used for a purpose. Otherwise you were a play-boy, a dilettante sticking your toe in real life rather than plunging in headfirst as a man should.
“I wish they did suspect him back in Berlin,” Jünger said with weary resignation, and Röhm spat aside in agreement. “And not just you and me and the vultures over there. And maybe that fox if it’s in a reasonable mood.”
“If the General Staff did, we might be able to get some long-distance air surveillance assets here—we have hidden bases near the Dzungarian Gate that could do it.”
“The Khan’s men don’t have the means to detect it,” Jünger agreed.
You’d need a Telemobiloscope network to do that, and coming in low could fox those sometimes too. Especially in rough country, and Central Asia had plenty of it, though you wouldn’t think so from the bug-on-a-plate part they were going through right now. The fancy electro-detection systems were only six years old and still worked best at sea, which was what they’d originally been developed for, though they improved every year.
“Except by luck,” Jünger qualified.
“Sometimes you get lucky. The question would be if they had the balls to shoot down an unmarked airboat getting near their great secret—we couldn’t send one with Die Fliegertruppe markings.”
“Not hardly. But that would be evidence itself. Any chance of getting Berlin to commit?” the younger man said hopefully. “With what we’ve found?”
“Not much. General Nicolai is reading my reports personally, and he may recommend it, but it would need approval from higher up and the evidence… even what we’ve seen on this trip… isn’t conclusive. It can be interpreted in other ways. If whoever’s reading it wants to, that is. You know how it is.”
“Those Geheimpolizei idiots are convinced that it’s a Yankee plot to drive a wedge between us and the Khan,” Jünger said sourly. “They’re hypnotized by his name. Amazing how some people can’t help going zu befehl when they hear von in a name, even if it’s a foreigner.”
Nobody in Section 3(b) thought much of the Imperial Secret Police. Nobody who’d been in Mongolia long thought much of the lunatic on its throne, though you did develop a healthy respect for his animal cunning. And both of them were from the middle classes, though from opposite ends of that category; Jünger’s father was a wealthy industrial chemist based up near Hamburg, and Röhm’s was a railway official in Munich of no particular distinction.
“As if he didn’t hate our guts anyway,” Röhm said. “His name may be German, but his heart’s Russian. But try convincing the Geheimpolizei of that.”
If we say the sun rises in the east, they think it pops up out of the Channel. Or at least they say it does, then talk themselves into believing it, Röhm thought
“They’re good enough for hunting Russian bandits in the Pripet Marshes and hanging dumb Polacks trying to run underground printing presses, or finishing off the French survivors in the labor gangs, but why does anyone listen to them on foreign intelligence?” Jünger continued.
“And too many of the swine are Jews,” Röhm said.
Jünger looked at him a little oddly. Not many German officers had much use for Jews on an individual basis, and they were still informally and largely (but not completely) barred from the Regular army’s officer corps, though plentiful enough in the Reserves and the technical branches. But there was no doubt that collectively they were very useful indeed to the Greater Reich.
Röhm thought so himself; he just didn’t like it, or them.
“Why would that be a problem?” Jünger asked. “The Jews are loyal to Germany, even the smelly Ostjuden in those weird black coats and hats, and they’re clever. Rathenau saved our asses during the war, organizing our raw materials when the British blockade bit us hard. His company helped develop the Telemobiloscope, too.”
Röhm snorted again.
Rathenau had gotten a baronage out of all that, and an estate and castle in the Dordogne where he went and hunted deer and walked around with a shooting-stick, wearing tweeds and a feather in his Alpine hat and having tenants and their laborers knuckling foreheads as he went by. When he wasn’t busy running his giant Allgemeine Elektricitäts-Gesellschaft AG, the General Electric Company.
It was Freiherr von Rathenau now.
Pardon me, an estate in the Grand Dutchy of Westgotenland, he thought. The reason I fought for four years and got half my face blown off at Verdun. Or at least a by-product.
He went on aloud: “Of course the sheenies are loyal—until we stopped the pogroms the Polacks and Russkis used to slaughter them every time their Slav bowels got blocked and they couldn’t take a dump, and the Romanians hated them even more.”
Here in Mongolia Yekhe Khan von Ungern-Sternberg carried on old Russian habits with a vengeance, and killed every single Jew he could catch with torturous ingenuity. It was one of his manias, though not many of them were foolish enough to set foot here. He didn’t kill every Muslim he saw, but he didn’t like them much more either.
Maybe because they clip their cocks too, Röhm thought.
Jünger went on lightly: “Maybe the Romanians were dyspeptic because of all that cornmeal mush they eat. Mamaliga, they call it. Spoon down a bowl of that and it’s like swallowing a cannonball. And I doubt they learned that from their Gepidic ancestors.”
“Very funny. I laugh. Ha. Ha.”
It is a little funny pretending the Romanians are descended from the Gepids and the Russians from the Varangians and the Poles and Ukrainians from the East Goths and they’re all as Germanic as be-damned even if they’ve forgotten it and need to be reminded with whacks in the face from an entrenching tool, though the younger generations will learn it in school and believe it like Gospel, Röhm thought as he watched Jünger incline his head and smile.
And he is charming, damn it!
Then the senior man went on aloud: “And yes, they’re clever—too clever by half. They outsmart themselves a lot of the time and it shows when they get a theory between their teeth and run with it. Nothing like a smart Jew for coming up with more and more reasons to believe whatever bit of lunacy he started with. Then they end up with their women shaving their heads and wearing wigs and their men having beards to their balls because some goat-fucking madman said something about haircuts three thousand years ago.”
“The Secret Police certainly do have a bee in their bonnets about the Yankees and English manipulating us,” Jünger said, which wasn’t precisely agreement but close enough. “What shall we do?”
Röhm rose and started stowing the instruments and folding his maps. His voice was meditative when he went on:
“What we need is to find something more concrete than tracks in the desert and dead Chinese bitches with their guts hanging out. We’ll be looking at the warehouses back in the city, for a start. Then we’ll see what Berlin says to what we find. They’re cautious about doing too much here for fear of pushing the Japanese towards the Yankees. They need strong reasons to take a risk.”
Copyright © 2021-2022 by S.M. Stirling