CASTLE TARLETON, ARCHONA
APRIL I5, 1942: 1200 HOURS
Archstrategos Karl von Shrakenberg leaned his palms on the railing and stared down at the projacmap of Operations Command. Steel shutters rose noiselessly behind him, covering the glass wall and darkening the room, to increase the contrast of the glass surface that filled the pit beneath them. That white glow underlit the faces of the ten Archstrategoi spaced around the map, pale ovals hanging suspended, the flat black of their uniforms fading into the darkness beyond, the more so as few of them wore even the campaign ribbons to which they were entitled. Scattered brightwork glowed in soft gold stars against that background: here a thumb ring, there the three gold earrings that were the sole affectation of the Dominarch, the Chief of the Supreme General Staff.
Ghosts, jeered a mordant shadow at the back of Karl’s mind. Hovering over a world we cannot touch directly. Below them the unit counters moved, Draka forces crowding against the shrinking German bridgeheads south of the Caucasus, pushing them back toward the blocking positions of the airborne Legions at their rear.
Ghosts and dreams, he thought. We stand here and think we command the world; we’re lords of symbol, masters of numbers, abstractions. So antiseptic, so cool, so rational . . . and completely out of their hands, unless disaster struck. Twenty years they had planned and trained; worked and argued and sweated; moved millions of lives across the game board of the world.Or does the world dream us? Are we the wolf-thought-inescapable that puts a face on their fear?
Karl looked around at the faces: his contemporaries, colleagues—his friends, if shared thoughts and work and belief were what made friendship. Quiet well-kept men in their middle years, the sort who were moderate in their vices, popular with their grandchildren, whose spare time was spent strolling in the park or at rock-meditation. When they killed it was with nod or signature, and a detachment so complete it was as empty of cruelty as of pity.
For a moment he blinked: a fragment of song went through his mind, a popular thing, how did it . . .
“Frightened of this thing that I’ve become . . . ”
And yet we were young men once. Karl looked across at John Erikssen, the Dominarch. His head was turned, talking to his aide, young Carstairs. Ha. I must be nodding to my end—she’s forty and I think of her as “young.” John and he had been junior officers together in the Great War. He remembered . . .
The shell hole. Outside Smyrna: winter, glistening gray mud under gray sky, stinking with month-old bits of corpse. Cold mud closing about him, flowing rancid into his gasping mouth, the huge weight of the Turk on his chest. The curved dagger coming down, straining millimeter by millimeter closer to his face as his grip on the other man’s wrist weakened, and he would lie there forever among the scraps of bone and rusty barbed wire . . . There had been a sound like the thock of a polo mallet hitting a wooden ball, and the Turk had gone rigid; another crunch, softer, and his eyes had widened and rolled and Karl rose, pushing the corpse aside. John had stood looking at the shattered buttplate of his rifle, murmuring, “Hard head. Hard head.”
Now, that was real, the elder von Shrakenberg mused. The hands remembered, the skin did, as they did the silky feel of his firstborn’s hair when he lifted him from the midwife’s arms. John had stood godfather, to a son Karl named for him.
But the cobra of ambition had bitten them both deeply, even then. That was back when there was still juice in it, the wine of power, every victory a new birth and every promotion a victory. He had commanded a merarchy of warcars later in the Great War, Mesopotamia and Persia. Clumsy things by modern standards; riveted plates and spoked wheels and steam-powered, as only civilian vehicles and transport were today. Sleek and deadly efficient in their time . . .
Power exercised through others, men and machines as the extensions of his Will; the competition of excellence, showing his skill. Scouting for the Archonal Guard legion, vanguard of Tull’s V Army as it snapped at the heels of the retreating enemy. They had caught the Ottoman column by surprise on a plain of blinding-white alkali, swinging around through erg and dry wadi beds. For a quarter-hour while the rest of the unit came up they had watched the enemy pass beneath them, dark men in ragged earth-brown uniforms. Ambulance carts piled with the wounded; soldiers dropping to lie with cracked and bleeding lips; the endless weary shuffle of the broken regiments, and the stink of death.
The gatlings had fired until the turrets were ovens, the floors of the warcars covered in spent brass that glittered and shifted underfoot, the crews choking on cordite and scorched metal. That was when he had burnt his hand, reaching down to the gunner who sat slack-faced, hands still gripping the triggers as the pneumatics hissed and drove the empty barrels through their whirring circle. He had not felt the pain, not then, his mind’s eye seeing over and over again the ranks dropping in the storm of tracer, tumbled, layered in drifts that moaned and stirred; afterward silence, the sough of wind, bitter dust, and steam.
There had been nothing for John’s truck-born infantry to do but collect ears and bayonet the wounded.
The stink, the stink . . . they had gotten very thoroughly drunk that night, with the main body there to relieve the vanguard. Drunk and howling bad poetry and staggering off to vomit in the shadows. A step further, and another.
He had transferred to the Air Corps, valuable experience for one slated for Staff. The last great dirigible raid on Constantinople: Karl von Shrakenberg had been on the bridge of the Loki in the third wave, coming in at five thousand meters over the Golden Horn to release her biplane fighters while the bombardment ships passed below. The airship was three hundred meters long, a huge fragile thing of braced alloy sheeting; it had trembled in the volcanic updrafts from the tracks of fire across the city spread out below them like a map, burning from horizon to horizon, the beginnings of the world’s firestorm. Traceries of flame over the hills, bending like the heads of desert flowers after spring rain. Streets and rivers of fire, casting ruddy blurs on the underside of soot-black cloud; heat that made the whole huge fabric of the airship creak and pop above him as it expanded. Diesel oil and burning and the acrid smell of men whose bodies sweated out the fear their minds suppressed.
He had been calm, he remembered; yet ready to weep, or to laugh. Almost lightheaded, exalted: a godlike feeling; he was a sky god, a war god. Searchlights like white sabers, cannon fire as bright magenta bursts against the darkening sky where no stars shone, muzzle flashes from the antiairship batteries of the Austrian battlewagons at anchor below. The great dome of the Hagia Sophia shining, then crumbling, Justinian’s Church of Holy Wisdom falling into the fire. He had watched with a horror that flowed and mingled with delight at the beauty of that single image, the apotheosis of a thousand years. The ancient words had come of their own volition:
“Who rends the fortified cities
As the rushing passage of time
Rends cheap cloth . . . ”
Other voices—“Prepare for drop—superheat off—stand by to valve gas!” “Dorsal turret three, fighters two o’clock.” A new shuddering hammer as the chin-turret pom-pom cut loose. “Where’re the escorts—that’s Wotan, she’s hit.”
The ship ahead of them had staggered in the sky, a long smooth metal-clad teardrop speckled with the flickers of her defensive armament. Then the second salvo of five-inch shells had struck, punched through cloth-thin metal, into the gas cells. Hull plating blew out along the lines of the seams; four huge jets of flame vomited from the main valves along the upper surface, and then enough air mixed with the escaping hydrogen to ignite; or it might have been the bomb load, or both. For a moment there was no night, only a white light that seared through eyelids and upflung hand. The Loki had been slammed upright on her tail, pitched forward; he could recall the captain screaming orders, the helmsmen cursing and praying as they wrestled with the man-high rudder wheels . . .
One moment a god, the next a cripple, the general thought, shaking himself back to the present. Men told him he had been the only bridge officer to survive the shellburst that struck in the next instant; that he had stood and conned the crippled airship with one hand holding a pressure bandage to his mangled thigh. He had never been able to recall it; the next conscious memory had been of the hospital in Crete, two heads bending over his leg. A serf nurse, careful brown hands soaking and clipping to remove the field dressing. And the doctor, Mary, looking up with that quick birdlike tilt of the head, when his stirring told her he was awake. Fever-blur, and the hand on his forehead.
“You’ll live, soldier,” she had said. She had smiled, and it wiped the exhaustion from her eyes. “And walk, that’s all I promise.”
And that too was power, Karl von Shrakenberg thought, looking around at his fellow commanders. Strange that I never minded being helpless with her.
He flexed his hands on the smooth wood. He must be getting old, if the past seemed more real than the present. Time to retire, perhaps; he was just sixty, old for active service in the Domination’s forces, even at headquarters.
“Well.” Karl was almost startled to hear the Chief of Staff speak in a normal voice, overriding the quiet buzz and click of equipment and sigh of ventilators. He nodded at the map. “Seems to be going as well as can be expected.”
The German fronts were receding, marked by lines like the tide-wrack of an ocean in retreat from the shore. And Eric behind to stop an armed tide with his flesh, Karl thought. I wish there were gods that I could pray for you, my son. But there is only what we have in ourselves; no father in the sky to pick you up and heal your hurts. I knew, Eric, I knew that someday you would have nothing but yourself; we ask the impossible of ourselves and must demand it of our children. Harshness was necessary, sometimes, but . . . Live, my son. Conquer and live.
The Dominarch turned to his aide. “Appraisal.”
That woman frowned meditatively. “Second Legion can’t hold until we break through. Their bridgehead is contiguous but shrinking from both ends . . . ”A pause. “Basic reason things’re goin’ so well with First Legion over on the Ossetian Highway is the situation on the north. Century A of 2nd Cohort is savin’ it; they’re guardin’ the back door.”
Erikssen nodded. “Accurate, chiliarch. That’s your boy, Karl, isn’t it?” The elder von Shrakenberg nodded. “Damned good job.”
Karl felt a sudden, unfamiliar sensation: a filling of the throat, a hot pressure behind the eyelids. Tears, he realized with wonder, even as training forced relaxation on the muscles of neck and throat, covered the swallow with a cough. And remembered Eric as a child, struggling with grim competence through tasks he detested, before he escaped back to those damned books and dreams . . .
“Thank you, sir,” he muttered. Tears. Why tears?
The Chief of the General Staff looked down at the map again. “Damned good,” he murmured. “Better to get both passes, but we have to have one or the other, or this option is off. There’s always an attack out of Bulgaria, or an amphibious landing in the Crimea, or even a straight push west around the top of the Caspian, but none of them are anything like as favorable . . . ”
The strategoi nodded in unconscious agreement. It would not be enough to push the Germans back into Europe; to win the war within acceptable parameters of time and losses they had to bring the bulk of the Nazi armies to battle on the frontiers, close to the Draka bases and far from their sources of supply in Central Europe. The sensible thing for the Germans to do would be to withdraw west of the Pirpet marshes, but Hitler might not let them. The Draka strategoi had a lively professional respect for their opposite numbers, and a professional’s contempt for the sort of gifted amateur who led the Nazis.
“And not just good, unconventional,” the Dominarch said. “Daring . . . Where’s that report?” He reached around, and one of the aides handed him the file. “Your boy didn’t just freeze and wait for the sledgehammer, which too many do in a defensive position. Interesting use of indigenous assets, too—those Circassians and Russki partisans. That shows a creative mind.” A narrow-eyed smile. “That American has Centurion von Shrakenberg travellin’ all around Robin Hood’s barn for tricks . . . ”A hand waved. “Lights, please.” The shutters sank with a low hum, and they blinked in the glare of noon.
“With respect, Dominarch . . . ” Silence fell, as the beginnings of movement rippled out. An officer of the Security Directorate had spoken; the sleeve of his dark-green uniform bore the cobra badge of the Intervention Squads, the antiguerilla specialists who worked most closely with the military. “Ah’ve read the report as well. Unsound use of indigenous assets, in our . . . mah opinion. Partisans, scum, savin’ effort now at the price of more later. The internal enemy is always the one to be feared, eh?”
Karl leaned his weight on one elbow, looking almost imperceptibly down the beaked von Shrakenberg nose. An overseer’s sense of priorities, he thought. Aloud: “Most will die. This American seems anxious to remove the survivors; if that is inadvisable, we can liquidate them at leisure.”
“Strategos von Shrakenberg, mah Directorate’s function is to ensure the security of the State, which cannot be done simply by killing men. We have to kill hope, which is considerably moah difficult. Particularly when sentimental tolerance fo’ rebel-dog Yankee—”
The Dominarch broke in sharply. “That is enough, gentlemen!” Institutional rivalry between the two organizations which bore arms for the State was an old story; there was a social element, as well. The old landholder families of scholar-gentry produced more than their share of the upper officer corps, mostly because their tradition inclined them to seek such careers. While Security favored the new bureaucratic elites that industrialization had produced . . .
“Von Shrakenberg, kindly remember that we are all here to further the destiny of the Race. We are not a numerous people, and nobody loves us; we are all Draka—all brothers, all sisters.Including our comrades from the Security Directorate; we all have our areas of specialization.”
Karl nodded stiffly.
The Dominarch turned to the liaison officer from the secret police. “And Strategos Beauregard, will you kindly remember that conquest is a necessary precondition for pacification. Consider that we began as a band of refugees with nothing but a rifle each and the holes in our shoes; less than two centuries, and we own a quarter of the human race and the habitable globe. Because we never wavered in our aim; because we were flexible; because we were patient. As for the Yankee—” he paused for a grim smile “—as long as they serve our purposes, we’ll let his reports through. Right now we need the Americans; let this Dreiser’s adventure stories keep them enthralled. Their turn will come, or their children’s will; then you can move to the source of the infection. Work and satisfaction enough for us all, then . . . along with the rape and pillage!”
There was an obligatory chuckle at the Chief of Staff’s witticism. Erikssen’s eyes flicked to Karl’s for a moment of silent understanding. And if those reports make your son something of a hero in the Domination as well, no harm there either, eh, old friend?
The Dominarch glanced at his watch. “And now, gentlemen, ladies: just to convince ourselves that we’re not really as useful as udders on a bull, shall we proceed to the meeting on the Far Eastern situation? Ten minutes, please.”
The corridor gave on to an arcaded passageway, five meters broad, a floor of glossy brown tile clacked beneath boots, under arches of pale granite. Along the inner wall were plinths bearing war trophies: spears, muskets, lances, Spandau machine guns. The other openings overlooked a terraced slope that fell away to a creek lined with silverleaf trees. Karl von Shrakenberg stood for a long moment and leaned his weight on his cane. Taking in a deep breath that was heady with flowers and wet cypress, releasing it, he could feel the tension of mind relaxing as he stretched himself to see. Satori, the condition of just being. For a moment he accepted what his eyes gave him, without selection or attention, simply seeing without letting his consciousness speak to itself. The moment ended.
The eye that does not seek to see itself, the sword that does not seek to cut itself, he quoted to himself. And then: What jackdaws we are. The Draka would destroy Japan some day, he supposed; they saw nothing odd in taking what was useful from the thoughts of her Zen warrior-mystics. The Scandinavian side of our ancestry coming out, he thought. A smorgasbord of philosophies. Although consistency was a debatable virtue; look what that ice-bitch Naldorssen had done by brooding on Nietzche, perched in that crazy aerie in the High Atlas.
Stop evading, he told himself, turning to the Intelligence officer.
Cohortarch Sannie van Reenan held up a narrow sheaf of papers. “A friend of a friend, straight from the developer . . . They did the usual search-and-sweep around the last known position, and they found the plane, or what was left of it.” She paused to moisten her lips. “It came in even, in a meadow: landed, skidded, and burned.” The scored eagle face of the strategos did not alter, but his fingers clutched on the mahogany ferrule of his cane. “Odd thing, Karl . . . there was a Fritz vehicle about twenty meters from the wreckage, a kubelwagon, and it was burned, too.At about the same time, as far as it’s possible to tell. Very odd; so they’re sticking to Missing in Action, not Missing and Presumed Dead.”
He laughed, a light bitter sound. “Which is perhaps better for her, and no relief to me at all. How selfish we humans can be in our loves.” It was not discreditable, strictly speaking, for him to inquire about his daughter’s fate; it would be, if he made too much of it when his duties to the Race were supposedly filling all time and attention.
The sun was bright, this late-fall morning, and the air cool without chill; sheltered, and lower than the plateau to the south, Archona rarely saw frost before May, and snow only once or twice in a generation. The terraces were brilliant with late flowers, roses and hibiscus in soft carpets of reddish gold, white and bright scarlet. Stairways zigzagged down to the lawns along the river bank, lined with cypress trees like candles of dark green fire. Water glittered and flashed from the creek as it tumbled over polished brown stone; the long narrow leaves of the trees flickered brighter still, the dove gray of the upper side alternating with the almost metallic silver sheen of the under.
“Johanna . . . ” he began softly. “Johanna always loved gardens. I remember . . . it was ’25; she was about three. We were on holiday in Virconium, for the races; we went to Adelaird’s, on the Bluff, for lunch. They’ve got an enclosed garden there, orchids. Johanna got away from her nurse, we found her there walking down a row going: pilly flower . . . pilly flower, snapping them off and pushing them into her hair and dress and . . . ” He shrugged, nodding toward the terraces.
“Gardens, horses, poetry, airplanes . . . she was better than I at enjoying things; she told me once it was because I thought about what I thought about them too much. Forty years I’ve tried for satori, and she just fell into it.”
You’re a complicated man by nature, Pa, she had said, that last parting when she left for her squadron. You tangle up the simplest things, like Eric, which is why you two always fight; issues be damned. I’m not one who feels driven to rebel against the nature of what is, so we’re different enough to get along. She had seemed so cool and adult, a stranger. Then she had seized him in a sudden fierce hug, right there in the transit station; he had blinked in embarrassment before returning the embrace with one awkward arm. I love you, Daddy, whispered into his ear. Then a salute; he had returned it.
“I love you too, daughter.” That as she was turning; a quick surprised wheel back and a delighted grin.
“I may be an old fool, Johanna, but not so old I can’t learn by my mistakes when a snip of a girl points them out to me.” He touched a knuckle to her chin. “You’ll do your duty, girl, I know.” He frowned for unfamiliar words. “Sometimes I think . . . remember that you have a duty to live, too. Because we need you; the earth might grow weary of the Race and cast us off, if we didn’t have the odd one like you.”
She had walked up the boarding ramp in a crowd of her comrades, smiling.
And if she had wisdom, surely she inherited it from her mother. He mused, returning to the present. Eric . . . did I show my daughters more love because my heart didn’t seek to make them live my life again for me?
He jerked his chin toward the brown-clad serfs in the gardens below, weeding and watering and pruning.
“D’you know where they come from, Sannie?” he asked more briskly.
She raised a brow. “Probably born here, Karl. Why?”
“Just a thought on the nature of freedom, and power. I’m one of the . . . oh, fifty or so most powerful men in the Domination; therefore one of the freest on earth, by theory. And they are property, powerless; but I’m not free to spend my life in the place I was born, or cultivate my garden, or see my children grow around me.”
She snorted. “Jean-Jacques Rousseau has been dead for a long time, my friend; also, other people’s lives always look simpler from the outside, because you can’t see the complexities. Would you change places?”
“Of course not,” he said with a harsh laugh. “Even retirement will probably drive me mad; and she may not be dead, at all. She’s strong, and cunning, and she wants to live very much . . . ”
He forced impassiveness. It was not often he could be simply a private person—that was another sacrifice you made for the Race. “Speaking of death, for our four ears: I suspect that headhunter in green would like to do at least one von Shrakenberg an injury and the General Staff through him.”
Sannie van Reenan nodded decisively. Keeping track of Skull House’s activities was one of the Intelligence Section’s responsibilities, after all. “They don’t like that son of yours, at all. Still less now that he’s achieving some degree of success, and by . . . unorthodox means. The headhunters never forget, forgive, or give up on a suspicion; well, it’s their job, after all.”
The master of Oakenwald tapped his cane on the flags. “Sannie, it might be better if that man Dreiser’s articles found a slightly wider audience. In The Warrior for instance.” That was one of the Army newspapers, the one most popular with enlisted personnel and the junior officer corps. “Unorthodox, again. Things that happen to people in the public view provoke questions, and are thus . . . less likely to happen.”
The woman nodded happily. “And Security’s going to be overinfluential as it is, after the war. Plenty of work to do in Europe; we’ll be working on pacification and getting ready to take the Yanks, which is a two-generation job, at least. Better to give them a gentle reminder that there are some things they’d be well advised to leave alone.”
Karl looked at his watch. “And more ways of killing a cat than choking it to death with cream. Now, let’s get on to that meeting. Carstairs keeps underestimating the difficulties of China, in my opinion . . . ”
* * *
“You’ve assigned a competent operative?”
“Of course, sir.” How has this fussbudget gotten this high? the Security Directorate Chiliarch thought, behind a face of polite agreement. Of course, he’s getting old.
“No action on young von Shrakenberg until after we break through to the pass. Then, the situation will be usefully fluid for . . . long enough.”
The car hissed quietly through the near-empty streets. The secret-police general looked out on their bright comeliness with longing; a nursemaid sat on a bench, holding aloft a tow-haired baby who giggled and kicked. Her uniform was trim and neat, shining against the basalt stone like her teeth against the healthy brown glow of her skin.
Tired, he thought, pulling down the shade and relaxing into the rich leather-and-cologne smell of the seats. Tired of planning and worrying, tired of boneheaded aristocrats who think a world-state can be run like a paternalist’s plantation. He glanced aside, into the cool, intelligent eyes of his assistant. They met his for an instant before dropping with casual unconcern to the opened attaché case on his lap. Tired of your hungry eyes and your endless waiting, my protégé. But not dead yet.
“The son’s the one to watch. The old man will die in the course of nature, soon enough; the General Staff aren’t the only ones who know how to wait after all. The daughter’s missing in action; besides, she’s apolitical. Smart, but no ambition.”
“Neither has Eric von Shrakenberg, in practical terms.”
“Ah,” the older man said softly. “Tim, you should look up from those dossiers sometimes; things aren’t so cut and dried as you might think. Human beings are not consistent; nor predictable, until they’re dead.” And you will never believe that and so will always fall just short of your ambitions, and never know why. “Black, romantic Byronic despair is a pose of youth. And war is a great realist, a great teacher.” A sigh. “Well, the Fritz may take care of it for us.” He tapped the partition that separated them from the driver. “Back to Skull House; autumn is depressing, outdoors.”