Doctor Crom/I, Crom
From Unofficial Handbook of the Virtue Universe
(The first few chapters of this story are available via the City of Stories podcast.)
My name is Doctor Lazarus Crom.
For as long as I can remember, I have followed but one goal.
In its tireless pursuit, I have witnessed wonders beyond belief.
I have suffered losses deep and terrible.
I have committed atrocities most men cannot imagine.
When obstacles barred my path, I removed them.
When foes stood in my way, I defeated them.
When the would-be defenders of truth and justice opposed me, I eliminated them.
My cause is nothing less noble than rescuing humanity from itself.
And while these so-called heroes scurry about, protecting a life here or there,
I toil diligently, determined to save the whole of Civilization.
As thanks for these selfless efforts, I have been called a monster.
But perhaps the world needs monsters to accomplish the tasks its champions cannot.
My name is Doctor Lazarus Crom, and I have a destiny.
And that destiny is to rule you.
Chapter 1: Beginnings
Paragon City, Rhode Island
January 7th, 1927
"It's a tremendous opportunity, Pappa," the boy said, holding the letter out in front of him like and offering to an angry god. He had spent the hours since he had nervously opened it and read its contents trying desperately to determine how to even broach the subject, and a frontal approach had seemed to be the best strategy. He liked to think that had his mother been alive, she would have been an ally in this, his most important endeavor. Pappa had always said she was a kind and understanding person.
His father's permanent scowl deepened upon seeing the paper in his son's hopeful hands, his thick, dark eyebrows encroaching over his narrowing eyes like advancing storm fronts. He snatched the letter from the boy and began reading it. Or, at least, he pretended to.
His eyes swept across the lines, methodical and all-seeing. Occasionally he would nod in comprehension or grunt in mild disagreement. The 12 year old knew that this was his father's most practiced lie—a performance he duplicated several times a day for strangers to cover his most shameful secret. His father, despite running a newspaper stand that had been a fixture in King's Row for over 20 years, had never learned to read.
"The Academy only takes a few students each year, and they've offered to cover my tuition. They saw some of my designs-- the ones I did for the science fair. They want me to be in attendance when the fall semester resumes next week," the boy explained carefully, warily elaborating on what was on the paper rather than actually repeating it.
"Quiet that dog," his elder growled absently as he continued to feign reading. The boy nodded dutifully and picked up the three month old puppy, silencing it with a much-needed tummy scratch.
"And where is this school, eh?"
"Salamanca," the boy blurted, then gauged from his father's face that he'd made an error. He'd said it too quickly, too eagerly—he might as well have said ‘far away from you and your stupid newsstand'. That was how it would be interpreted, after all.
"Too far," His father said. His voice said that the judgment was final, and he began crumpling the paper in one massive hand. The youth saw his hopes crushed with it.
"It's not too far, Pappa!" the boy protested.
"You won't be able to work the stand," his father stated. It was not an argument to defend his decision--that was inviolate in the household-- simply a statement of fact.
"I can take the train back on Saturday mornings—I can work the stand all weekend then and go back after we close Sunday night."
"And your shifts after school?" Father asked. "Am I to work 18 hour days now, eh?"
"Pappa, I've already worked that part out. I've calculated how much money we make during the day, and subtracted the cost of my room and board. You could hire someone to take my place after school. I've got a lot of friends who need an after school job."
This last part was a fabrication, of course. He had no friends at school, but he was gambling that his father had never bothered to notice. His father's dark eyes settled back on his son. The tenacity of the boy's desire was thus far unprecedented in their relationship. The father would lead and the son would follow; that was simply how it was. How it had always been. He had never considered—never dreamed that the child might someday simply refuse to follow. It was unsettling.
"No." he said again, flatly. "End of discussion."
The boy felt the anger rise in his cheeks as his father turned away, his mind already made up.
"It is NOT the end of the discussion," he heard himself say.
His father turned back around slowly, "What was that?"
For a moment, the boy faltered under the older man's gaze, then, somehow found his courage.
"I said," he repeated deliberately, "The discussion is not over. I'm going to that school, Father."
His father settled for the rebuttal that always worked—his hand. The boy was sent sprawling across the floor. He glared defiantly at his father as he wiped the blood from the corner of his mouth. The puppy, confused by the events, barked incessantly.
The boy stood slowly, dark green eyes never leaving his father's.
"Don't you see it, Father? I have a destiny. I have something I need to do, and this--" he pointed at the crumpled, discarded letter, "this is part of it. I know it."
Beneath his angry exterior, the older man's mind was panicking. The boy had never shown this much resolve for anything before, and he was at a loss on how to counter it. The confrontation had already become physically violent, and he did not relish the idea of striking his son again. Why couldn't the boy just accept his rule as absolute?
The dog's barking was making it difficult to concentrate, and then he realized the answer to the problem was literally right in front of him. The boy loved the dog more than anything else in the world, and that would be the leverage his father would need.
"What about the dog?" he asked coldly. "I suppose your fancy school will have kennels for him, eh?"
"No, they don't," the boy admitted. "There are no pets allowed. But he can stay here--"
"He will not," his father said. "Things will be hard enough without you to work the stand. I won't spend what little money I have to buy food for your dog, too."
The boy's mind boggled; the argument had taken an unexpected turn and he had no ready counter for it.
"Father, you can't turn him out on the streets! He's just a puppy!"
"The dog will stay only if you do. Otherwise, I cannot say what could happen to it," The older man shrugged. The gesture belied his father's feigned ignorance. They both knew what would happen.
Later that night, when he was certain his father had gone to sleep, the boy carefully lifted the sleeping puppy out of his box and cradled it in his arms. He sat down on the apartment's one stool and petted the dog until it groggily woke up.
"You understand, don't you, boy?" The 12 year old said to the puppy as it squirmed and nipped playfully at his fingers. "I can't take you with me, and I can't leave you here. Father would... He would do awful things to you, just to punish me. But I have to go. Do you understand?"
The puppy enthusiastically licked the palm of the boy's hand. After a few moments of this, he scratched the dog's head, then, reluctantly moved his hand to the dog's throat.
"We would have had such adventures together, you and I."
The sound was like the snap of a twig wrapped in velvet. The dog convulsed in his lap for a moment, then lay still.
"Such great adventures," the boy whispered through the unaccustomed flow of tears.
When dawn came, he was gone, along with whatever possessions he had deemed indispensable. He had, of course, left the dog's corpse behind, near the door, so his father would know what he had done and why he had done it. It was a message, a note left for a man who could not read, and it said simply that the boy would rather personally destroy the things he loved than let them be used against him.
He would never see his father again, and that came as a relief to them both.
Chapter 2: Worldview
Dandridge Academy for Boys
Salamanca, Rhode Island
February 3rd, 1927
"So, you're Lazarus, huh?"
There was a brief pause before the boy nodded, "Yes, that's correct. Lazarus Crom."
The affirmation was more for himself than for the tow headed youngster who had asked the boy the question. Even though he had been using it for the past two weeks, his new name still felt unfamiliar and strange, but the boy had realized that eventually his father would decide to come looking for him. Hiding under a pseudonym afforded him the best protection from that possibility, and it had the added advantage of removing the taint of his father's name from any future accomplishment or glory the boy might garner.
It had been a simple matter to forge a letter to the headmaster explaining that a clerical error had attached the wrong boy's name to the transcripts they had received, and thus the Academy had offered the scholarship to the wrong boy. The letter had gone on to explain that the situation had been clarified with the new boy, Lazarus Crom (Crom had been his mother's maiden name, and he had chosen Lazarus to reflect his new life), and they had already discussed the confusion with the wronged party and settled it to the satisfaction of all involved. As far as anyone at the school was concerned, Lazarus Crom was the brilliant son of a wealthy and somewhat aloof Austrian financier, and he intended to take careful steps to maintain that misconception.
"I'm Crispin Crey. Everyone calls me Chris. Looks like we're roommates," the other boy introduced himself, extending his hand with a friendly smile. Lazarus took it warily and shook it; his experiences in his former school had taught him that any pretext of friendship was almost certainly a trap intended to lower the boy's defenses.
"Pleased to meet you," Lazarus replied. The words seemed foreign in his mouth.
"Probably not what you're used to, right?" Chris gestured to the small room the two would share. There were two slim beds, a common desk area, and a few shelves for each of them to store personal belongings. Crom had not brought enough with him to fill even one of the shelves.
"No, no it's not," he admitted. Compared to his Spartan quarters in the Row, the room was practically palatial.
"You'll get used to it," Chris shrugged. "So what did you do to get sent here?"
"Do?" Crom's eyebrow arched.
"Yeah. What did you do that got your folks so mad they sent you off to boarding school?" Chris leaned in closer, as if sharing a secret. "I was playing with matches and burned down our boathouse," he admitted with a mixture of pride and embarrassment.
Lazarus tried to ignore the fact that Chris said "our boathouse" as if everyone owned at least one. He was very nearly successful.
"It was just an accident," Chris explained, "and we hardly ever used it anyway, but they sent me here anyhow. My dad said I needed something to build my character."
It hadn't occurred to him that there would be those who would view the tremendous advantage of attending a prestigious school like Dandridge as a curse. He would learn that his view of the situation was by far the minority opinion among his classmates.
"So what did you do to get here?" Chris pressed.
Crom looked his roommate in the eyes for the first time, his eyes jade green and utterly devoid of emotion.
"I killed a dog," he said simply. When Chris finally got uncomfortable and looked away, Crom continued unpacking in silence.
"Who can tell me what countries lie on France's borders?" Jennings scanned the room for the boy who looked as if he was paying the least amount of attention. As had been the case since he had joined the class a week ago, the new boy, Lazarus Crom, was intently reading a book that was not his textbook.
"Mr. Crom? If you'd be so kind?" Jennings said, his clipped British accent seemingly designed expressly for the occasion of voicing his irritation.
The boy looked up from his book and at his teacher, seemingly noticing him for the first time.
"Why?" Jennings sputtered, "Because I asked you to, young man."
"No, I mean why even have borders?"
"We use borders so we can determine which country is which," Jennings said patiently. The new boy was supposed to be smart, very smart, but thus far, Jennings had not seen him do anything to confirm that supposition.
"Why have countries, then? What makes an acre of land in Spain any more or less valuable or important than an acre of land just over the border in France? Why bother with the distinction?"
"Because they're different countries," Jennings said slowly. A few boys giggled at Laz's seeming inability to understand such a simple concept.
"But why? Don't people in France want the same basic things as people in Spain? Food, shelter, that kind of thing? Wouldn't it be better if they all worked together to address those needs rather than isolate themselves? Why draw a bunch of lines on a map and decide who you are depends on which side of the line you're on?"
"They are different countries," Jennings repeated. "They have different languages, different money, different everything."
"But that doesn't make any sense. It's... " he struggled for the word, finally settling with "inefficient." It was, however, clearly not the exact word he wanted, and he looked visibly irritated by having to settle for it. "Everyone should be working together. That way, they'd only have to learn one language, use one kind of money, one everything."
"It doesn't work that way, Mr. Crom."
"It has before," Crom pointed out quickly. "In 327 BC, Alexander the Great had united most of the ancient world under his command and introduced a common language and currency to the lands he conquered. Then there's also the Roman--"
"This is Geography, Mr. Crom, not History."
"That's my point," he tapped his desk. "Geography is meaningless without a context applied to it--your borders, for example, make an area of land into a country. But my point is that those borders themselves are largely inconsequential since they don't serve a purpose outside of acting as an arbitrarily imposed imaginary economic and cultural barrier. It's much more meaningful to know that, for example, Lille is a city of over 217 thousand people, the site of the discovery of the antiturberculosis vaccine, and it was annexed by Louis XIV in 1667 than to know that it's a city in France near the Belgian border."
"Rubbish," Jennings huffed, "It doesn't matter how much you know about a place if you can't actually find it on a map, Mr. Crom."
A few of his classmates giggled.
"That's what latitude and longitude are for," the boy shrugged. "At least THOSE imaginary lines make sense to me."
"So you're just going to memorize the latitude and longitude of every major city on Earth?" Jennings scoffed.
"I already have," the boy said matter-of-factly. "Haven't you?"
"Er... no," Jennings conceded.
"Then perhaps you shouldn't be teaching Geography," Crom shrugged before returning to his book. The class erupted in laughter.
Jennings eyes narrowed in fury. "See here, young man!" he fumed, instantly quelling the students’ laughter, "In my classroom, you will show me the proper respect!"
The boy's dark green eyes wandered off of the page he was reading to settle on the older man.
"Mr. Jennings, until you called me, I was content to sit quietly while you spouted your useless facts on a subject which I have demonstrably more knowledge about than you do. In point of fact, sir, just by being here, I'm already showing you more respect than you deserve," he said.
The other boys around him exchanged stupefied glances.
Jennings stomped forward and pulled the boy out of his desk by his arm. "If my class is such an imposition on your time, Mr. Crom, perhaps you and I can discuss a more productive use of your day with the headmaster."
"I think that's a capital idea," Crom agreed as the enraged teacher dragged him out of the class.
Dandridge Academy's library was an impressive affair--a haven of knowledge made enormous by generous endowments from generations of successful graduates. To most of the boys at the school, it represented a dreary, somber place, devoid of life or excitement, and thus it was the ideal location to exile misbehaving students so they could contemplate the error of their ways.
For Crom, however, it was the most wonderful place on Earth.
His illiterate father had, naturally, forbidden books in their meager household, and even when he had worked the newsstand he would be severely punished if he was caught reading the merchandise. "Nobody wants to read something someone else has already read," was his father's often-repeated maxim, one Lazarus realized was proven to be in error by the very existence of wonderful places like libraries. As an underclassman, he was only granted access to the library for a precious few hours a week, but now that he was being ‘punished', the Headmaster had vowed he would stay there for as long as it took him to pen an apology to Jennings.
That would be decades if Lazarus had anything to say in the matter.
He pulled a dusty tome entitled "On the Principles of Electrical Engineering" from the stacks and began to read, the hint of a smile traced on his face. He had already wasted enough time, and he did have a destiny to pursue.
Chapter 3: Courses
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
September 5th, 1938
Years passed, and Lazarus, like all boys, grew into a man. His father’s Slavic features gave him a dark and serious look, one which he rarely bothered to soften with a smile. His once-hairless face eventually sported a perfectly maintained VanDyke beard that matched his dark hair. He grew tall and strong; the former was genetics, while the latter was the result of a precise exercise routine he had devised. His green eyes, however, remained unchanged; they were as brilliant and focused as the mind behind them. It was as if they had always been mature, and the rest of his body was only now catching up to them.
Of the myriad distractions that would interfere with his plans in the years to come, none were more pleasant, nor looked back upon more fondly, than the one that visited him in his twenty-third summer. Her name was Eve Campbell, the daughter of Professor Noah Campbell. Professor Campbell was Crom’s mentor at MIT and one of the precious few people he respected on campus, and because of the Professor's position, his daughter often found her way into the normally restricted labs. Blessed with her father’s quick mind, the dark haired, nineteen year-old beauty was the only force of nature Crom had yet encountered that could pull him from his work.
He, of course, found this to be supremely annoying.
At least, he did at first.
"So, what are you making today?" Eve asked one day. He was in the lab, as usual, arms deep within a device that looked like a cross between a washing machine and an engine block. She had come in, unannounced as always, after completely disregarding the "No Admittance" sign on the lab's door.
"Diamonds," he replied, not bothering to look up as he wrestled with a particularly recalcitrant bolt.
"Really?" She sounded intrigued, brushing a lock of dark brown hair behind her ear as she looked at the struggling scientist.
He recognized that tone in her voice. He finally looked up, resigned to the fact that she was not going to leave him in peace until her curiosity had been sated. This was the way things went between them: she would ask endless questions and he would patiently answer them, and his answers would prompt additional questions until she finally got bored and left him alone. He had often suspected that it was some sort of game she played to amuse herself at his expense; if so, he had been unable to determine how to win, or if such a thing was even possible.
"Yes," he sighed, withdrawing his hands from the device and wiping the grease from them with a nearby cloth, "This device subjects ordinary carbon to enormous heat and pressure, similar to the situation that creates diamonds naturally, but in a much more controlled fashion. The diamonds it will create will be perfect."
"Provided you can make it work," she teased.
"I'll make it work," he vowed.
"Can you make me one? A diamond, I mean?" she asked, hopping onto the work table next to him. "A big one?"
Crom tensed as the beakers on the table clacked with the motion. Nothing broke or exploded, however, so he forced himself to relax.
"These diamonds aren’t for jewelry," he said.
She wrinkled her nose, "That seems like a waste, if you ask me."
"I don't believe I did," Crom pointed out.
She continued unabated, "Well, what are they for, then?"
"They’re bearings for the centrifuge I’m building."
"Why? Doesn't the school already have a centrifuge?"
"It's not fast enough. See, I have a theory that a centrifuge operating at extremely high rotations can separate isotopes of near identical molecular weight."
"What do you need to do that for?"
"I need the isotopes to assist me in building more tools," he explained patiently.
"Tools? Tools for what?"
"Tools to build better tools," he said, grabbing a nearby clipboard and furiously scribbling notes on it.
"I don't understand. Why not just build better tools from the beginning?"
"Because I can't." he said as he continued writing. "To get the isotopes I need the centrifuge. To get the centrifuge I need the diamonds. To get the diamonds I need the-- " he sighed exasperatedly, then put aside the clipboard and took another tack.
"Look, imagine you're on a deserted island. The only way off is to build a boat. So you have to use the husks of coconuts to make twine to affix a rock to a stick to make a hammer, then use the hammer to chip obsidian to make an axe, then use the axe to chop down the wood to fuel the forge to purify the ore to make the hull of the ship you need to leave the island. Every iteration is the creation of better tools to create what you ultimately need to achieve your goal. Do you understand?"
"No," she admitted. "Why not just make a canoe? That seems a lot easier."
"Because..." he sighed, "Look, it's complicated... Getting off the island... well... Imagine it's a huge task. Bigger than anything anyone else has ever tried."
"But you aren't on a deserted island," she pointed out.
Lazarus gestured forlornly to the laboratory around him, "I may as well be."
"Maybe," she said, bouncing off the table. Miraculously, nothing broke or exploded upon her departure either. "But this particular island is not entirely deserted, and you shouldn't be in such a hurry to leave."
With that, she kissed him on the cheek. Lazarus was, to put it mildly, stunned, and Eve found the shocked expression on his normally stoic face to be priceless.
"You work too hard, Laz," she giggled. "Maybe you should get out of this lab sometime and go see a movie. Maybe even ask me to go with you."
It was a few moments until he finally found his voice again,
"Um... yes, yes, maybe I will," he looked at her as if seeing her for the first time, and in a way, he was.
"Maybe you should try doing that, say, tomorrow? Like around seven?" She prompted.
"Yes," Lazarus nodded dumbly, "Yes, I think I'll try that."
She smiled dazzlingly, then skipped out of the lab, still giggling.
Crom watched her go, the feel of her lips still warm against his cheek. He realized that for the first time since she had begun playing her game with him, she had finally allowed him to win.
Alexander Adams, Crom’s lab partner, passed her on her way out of the lab, and the young man stopped long enough to give an appreciative view of her departure.
“I hate to see her leave,”Adams grinned wolfishly at Crom once she was out of earshot, “but I love to watch her go.”
Crom ignored the sudden and surprisingly intense desire to deck him and instead opted to return to his device. Adams and Crom were night and day. Where Crom was dark and vaguely European in looks, Adams was blond and clearly from no place more exotic than the American Midwest. Where Crom was secretive and withdrawn, Adams was charismatic and outgoing. The one trait they shared was an almost preternatural grasp of science; Alexander was the closest thing Crom had to an intellectual equal on campus. Even Crom was forced to admit that the young man was brilliant, if not quite as brilliant as he was.
“I have the lab signed out until three, you know,” Crom said.
“I know. I just came by to pick up some of my notes on induced decay rates,” Alex explained.
“They’re on the workbench, right side,” Crom said, not looking up.
Adams looked for a moment, and then pounced on them, “Thanks! You know, I think I’ve just about got everything I need for my experiment tomorrow.”
“I don’t think you do,” Crom countered, “I believe if you check your figures on page 32, you’ll find you’ve made an error in your calculations on particle vectors. I’ve made some corrections on the last page.”
“You looked at my notes?” Adams sounded almost betrayed.
“You left them out,” Crom shrugged. “In any case, it’s lucky for you that I did. If you had gone through with your experiment using your conclusions, you likely would have blown apart most of this building.”
Adams looked incredulously between his notes and the ones Crom had made. After a moment, he found the discrepancy. The mistake was subtle, but significant. After running through the calculations for a few minutes, he looked up, visibly shaken.
“You know, you probably just saved my life, Laz,” he said soberly.
Crom dismissed the man’s gratitude with a casual wave. “More importantly, Adams, I saved the lab. I have to work here, too, you know. Do try to be more careful in the future.”
Adams grinned his friendly all-American grin and clapped Crom on the back. Lazarus bristled at the contact, but Adams didn’t notice.
“I owe you one, Laz.”
“Don’t call me Laz anymore and I’ll consider us even.” Crom said sullenly.
“Well, looks like I’m going to have to put off the experiment until I can recalibrate the equipment. Hey, do you think Eve’s still in the building?” Alex asked.
“Why do you ask?” Crom’s voice was carefully neutral.
“Since I’m not going to be working late tomorrow after all, I thought maybe she’d to catch the new Errol Flynn flick with me at the Bijou instead.”
Crom’s eyes narrowed as he regarded Adams as more than a scientific rival for the first time in their relationship. Whatever lingering doubts he had felt about asking Eve out vanished under the possibility that Adams might yet beat him to the punch.
“I believe she already has plans,” Crom said evenly.
In the years to come, Crom would look back with irony that it had been Alexander Adams who had steeled his resolve to pursue Eve once and for all.
The next few years were the happiest in Crom's young life. His relentless mind absorbed whatever knowledge he could glean from the school, and he acquired multiple doctorates along the way. In fact, the only thing that slowed his unprecedented academic achievement was his romance with Eve Campbell. She tempered him, dragging him from the lab (physically, on more than one occasion) and forcing him to experience the world outside of facts and equations.
On summer afternoons, they would picnic on the Charles River. Crom would even serenade her from time to time. Unfortunately, of the many gifts he had been blessed with, a singing voice was not among them, but the attempts always amused her to no end, and he loved the sound of her laughter more than anything in the world.
In the evenings, they would see plays, or attend museums, or just stroll the streets hand in hand, reveling in the joy of simply being with one another. They became infamous in Boston cafes for their long, loud, but generally good natured arguments over the strengths and weaknesses of the great masters.
At night, they made love as if they alone had invented it.
Afterwards, in the darkness, as she slept in his arms, he entertained the idea that perhaps she would save him from the road destiny had put before him. The things he knew he would have to do, the task he knew he was born to accomplish, seemed to vanish under the brilliance of her smile, replaced by the image of them growing old together, surrounded by children and grandchildren. Maybe, he wished in these, his most private moments, I won't have to walk that path. Maybe, the world will find some other way to save itself.
Had he, just once, possessed the courage to speak his wishes aloud, he would have immediately recognized them for the foolish fantasies they were.
Chapter 4: Destinies
Massachusetts Institute of Technology
December 6th, 1941
"Doctor Crom? Doctor Lazarus Crom?"
Crom looked up from his work, clearly upset by the interruption. The man standing at the laboratory's threshold was in his 30's, with angular good looks and wearing a cheap but well pressed suit.
"I am Crom," Lazarus said, looking at the stranger cautiously.
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Doctor," the man said, stepping closer and extending a hand, "I'm Agent Richard Hart with the Secret Service."
Crom warily shook the man's hand. "Is there some problem, Agent Hart?" Crom had spent considerable effort over the past years to establish his false identity, and he suspected that there was nothing that could reveal that Lazarus Crom had once been a humble news vendor's son from King's Row. However, the presence of the Agent seemed to belie that assumption.
The stranger laughed, putting him at ease, "No, nothing like that, Doctor." He gave a low whistle as he surveyed the lab.
"This is quite an operation you've got here, Doctor. What are you working on?"
"I'm making a diamond," Crom said offhandedly, "A very large one."
"No kidding? You can do that?" The agent asked.
"I've had some experience with the technique. How may I help you?" Crom asked, although his tone clearly added, so you will go away?
"I'll get right to the point, Doctor," Hart said, taking the hint. "Your country needs you, Doctor."
"Does it?" Crom arched an eyebrow in curiosity. The United States was not the first government that had indicated an interest in Crom's skills, and, in fact, he was a little chagrined that it had taken them this long to approach him.
"Yes, it does,” Hart nodded, “There's a war going on out there, Doctor."
"I wasn’t aware that the United States was participating actively in the War, Agent Hart," Crom pointed out as he wrote some notes on a clipboard.
"It isn’t." Hart conceded, "Not yet, anyway, but it's only a matter of time. This morning, the President authorized the creation of a new weapon to insure that when the war comes to us, we'll be ready. Your name is on the list of scientists that we believe can produce that weapon for us." After a moment, he added, "It's a very short list, Doctor."
"I see," Crom said, contemplating the offer, "Tell me, what sort of weapon is it?"
"I'm not a liberty to say, Doctor, until you agree to join the project. However, I can tell you this: you'll be granted access to some of the finest minds in the free world, and you'll have virtually an unlimited budget to accomplish your task."
Crom considered this for several moments. "Hypothetically speaking, Agent Hart, let's say I create this superweapon for you, and with it, the United States wins the war. What will you do with it then?"
Crom's green eyes locked on the Agent's, "If this weapon is so powerful, what is to stop the United States from using it to extend its power over every nation on the planet? What is to stop you from conquering it?"
The agent looked uncomfortable, "Er... Well, nothing I guess. But we wouldn't do that, Doctor. We're the United States of America," he grinned, "You know, the good guys."
"Yes, we are, aren't we?" Crom agreed, then was silent for a while as he thought about the opportunity before him. Finally, he said, "Your offer is intriguing, Agent Hart. I will take it under consideration." From his tone, he might as just as well have said: You're dismissed.
That was obviously not the answer the Hart was expecting, but he was quick to cover his disappointment. "Um... Thank you. I can be reached at this number day or night, Doctor," Agent Hart handed him his card, "I hope you'll be in touch."
"Yeah, he came to see me, too," Alexander Adams confirmed later as he sipped his drink, "Some kind of hush-hush military program."
They were at the Wisteria, a tiny, shabby tavern just off campus. Crom held the place in disdain, but it was the most likely place to find Adams away from campus. However, if Agent Hart was going to try to entreat anyone else on the campus to join his mysterious program, it would be Adams. The two scientists had never been friends, never confidants, at least as far as Crom was concerned, but Adams seemed to believe they were, and that was a misconception Crom intended to exploit.
"Any idea what they're trying to build?" Crom asked.
Adams shrugged, "I'm not sure. Something big... Something very big."
I could have deduced that myself, dolt, Crom thought, "So, are you going to take them up on their offer?"
"I might," Adams said with a shrug, "The War is going to come to us one way or another, and if there's something I can do to end it quickly and save lives... well, I'd be honored to have that kind of opportunity."
"To be one of the good guys," Crom said thoughtfully, echoing Hart's words from earlier that day.
"Yeah, I guess," Adams shrugged, "Oh, by the way, are you going to be in the lab later? I was hoping to use the spectrum analyzer to examine the properties of an alloy I'm working on for Professor Campbell."
"Um.. I'm sorry.. I need the lab for another Campbell-related project," he said quickly, "However, I don't intend to be in the lab at all tomorrow."
Adams nodded, "Sure... I understand. What are you working on for Professor Campbell, anyhow?"
"Who said anything about Professor Campbell?" Crom asked with a sly smile as he paid his bill and left the bar. Adams just chuckled and shook his head.
The following day, he had all but forgotten Agent Hart or his talk of war and superweapons. He had bigger things awaiting him, and he checked for the millionth time to make certain that the tiny box was still safely tucked away in his suit pocket, and navigated the crowded streets towards Eve's apartment.
He was tired, having spent the entire night making the object within the box. It was, without a doubt, the single most important thing he had ever created, and he hoped she would recognize how hard he had worked on it. And it truly was perfect, or at least, as perfect as he could make it. Thus, he reasoned, it was as perfect as anyone could make it.
Because of his exhaustion and nervousness, he didn't notice the activity in the streets at first, merely thinking that it was unusually active for a sleepy December Sunday morning. Eventually, though, it seeped through to get his attention.
Something's wrong, he thought, noting the agitated state of the people on the street, Something's amiss.
He sought out a paperboy, finding one at the news stand just down the street from Eve's apartment.
"Wuxtry! Wuxtry! Read all about it!" the boy shouted, holding a paper over his head, "Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor! Nazis Strike Paragon City! The U.S. Enters the War!"
Crom snatched the paper out of the boy's hand, then gave him a five dollar bill before the child could protest. When the paperboy tried to give him his change, he waved it away.
"Keep it," he said absently. He knew, from personal experience, that the tip would appear to be a fortune to the child. Besides, he had no time to fiddle with money at the moment.
His green eyes scanned the newspaper, reading the startling story twice in a matter of seconds. Once the enormity of the day's events had fully sunk in, he dragged his eyes off the paper to the street at ahead of him. Eve's apartment waited at the end of the block, perched on the third story of an old brownstone. As he looked, he saw her silhouette pass by the window.
He stood there for several minutes, thinking. Then, slowly, he folded the paper, put it under his arm, and turned on his heel to walk down a different street, the box in his pocket forgotten.
The Wisteria was practically deserted on Sunday Afternoons. It was, as far as Crom was concerned, ideal for just such a meeting. The man sitting across the table was short, reedy, and unusually precise. His skin was scarred with acne pockmarks, and he looked at Crom from behind gold rimmed glasses.
"I must confess, Doctor, I'm somewhat surprised that you called us, given your previous... reluctance... to join our cause."
"The events of the day have forced me to reevaluate my earlier position," Crom said quickly.
"Yes, about that... Unfortunate situation," the man said sadly, "It is quite--"
"Tell me," Crom interrupted, "What is it you plan to do with my inventions? How will they be used?"
"Doctor, we only want your help in order to defend ourselves," the man said innocently.
Crom regarded the man across the table for a long moment, "You have invited me to work for you because you-- correctly, mind you-- consider me to be one of the most intelligent men on the planet. Please don't insult that intelligence by telling me lies."
The man seated across from him smiled, an act that threw shadows in unexpected patterns on his pockmarked face. "Very well, Doctor," he conceded after a moment, "We plan to use them to achieve our destiny." He lowered his voice and said, "We plan to use them to help us conquer the world."
Crom considered this, then leaned forward, "When do I leave?"
The man grinned, "We will leave tonight, Doctor, if that's alright with you."
Crom only nodded in agreement. Had the man been a little more observant, he would have noticed Crom's knuckles going white while gripping his untouched drink.
"Excellent. Then, on behalf of the Fuhrer, Doctor Crom, I welcome you to the Third Reich."
Days later, when she finally convinced Crom's landlord to let her into his apartment, Eve found it was empty save for one small box. The ring inside was beautiful, and she knew instinctively that had it been analyzed, the gold would be purer than any other gold on the planet-- the sort of purity only a high-intensity centrifuge could provide. The diamond, she knew, would be flawless and perfect. Etched precisely in the band were the words, "Eve, I'm yours to the ends of the Earth. With Love, Lazarus."
Eve stood, dumbstruck, tears streaming from her face as she looked desperately around the empty apartment for some hint, some clue as to where Crom had gone. But if the apartment held secrets to his whereabouts, it was not eager to share them.
Eventually, she was forced to accept the painful truth: Crom had finally found a way off of his island.
Chapter 5: Genius and Insanity
July 27th, 1943
Crom navigated the cafeteria and sat down with the facility's other scientists as he had every day for the past 18 months. He, naturally, spent long hours in the laboratory, breaking only when his body absolutely needed rest or food. Lunch with the other scientists was the only exception to this self-imposed routine. It was the closest thing to a social outlet he possessed; of the hundreds of other people on the base, they were the only people who approached him intellectually.
The Heeresversuchsanstalt was officially tasked with the V Rocket project; indeed, it had launched the first successful test of a ballistic missile the previous October. However, Peenemünde also served as a think tank for the finest minds in Germany. Dozens of experiments were underway within its extensive laboratories, all of them were kept far from the public eye, and some were secret to everyone but the men who worked on it and the Fuhrer himself.
He had enormous respect for the other men of the Spezielle Wissenschaften team, and learned everything he could about their individual areas of expertise. Through their tutelage, Crom absorbed volumes of information on chemistry, physics, engineering, biology and more. He had discovered that the members of the team all shared an interest in languages, and had made it a game to converse different tongues during lunch, mostly because it seemed to irritate the SS officers.
At 28, Crom was, by far, the youngest of the Spezielle Wissenschaften team, and considered the one of the most brilliant, too. Because of this brilliance, he enjoyed the luxury of determining his own projects-- he was given considerable latitude to pursue his own experiments provided they yielded tangible military applications. Once a quarter, he was expected to demonstrate what he was working on to a panel and they would determine if his projects would merit more attention. So far, they had not been impressed with his work; in fact, his 'superiors' were now at the point that they were attempting to direct the path of his research. Crom had ignored these edicts; he was convinced that he knew better than they did which courses of study were likely to bear fruit. It had been, in his experience, easier to ask forgiveness than permission. One way or another, Crom reasoned, he would find out at this afternoon's Quarterly Review.
"What shall it be today, Gentlemen?" Crom asked as he sat down, "Portuguese? Como é seu lunch, Doutor Schmidt? Perhaps Italian? State comparite bene, il Dott. Sperling."
The other men seated at the table didn't respond immediately. They just stared listlessly at their food.
"Where is Goldstien?" Crom asked, noting the tall, genial metallurgist's absence from the table.
Schmidt, a balding chemist in his late 60's looked at the other men at the table, then responded quietly in Cantonese.
"He's been reassigned."
Crom muttered a curse under his breath. Fortunately, he retained the presence of mind to translate it to Norweigan before it left his lips. Since his arrival in Germany, he had noted that the different subcultures of its society had all developed their own, more palatable ways to say "murdered". Within the intelligence community, it was "neutralized". High society preferred "removed". Among the scientists of the Peenemünde facility, the word was "reassignment".
"For what?" Crom demanded, loud enough to momentarily attract the attention of the officers dining at the adjacent tables. Schmidt shot him a warning look to keep his voice down; even if no one else within earshot could speak Cantonese, it would not be hard for an eavesdropper to gather the gist of the conversation from tone and body language alone.
"Does it matter?" Sperling whispered.
"I heard it was because the alloy he was working on for the new Panzers fell below expectations." Vogel supplied.
"No, I heard it was because he was selling secrets to the Allies." Bluhm countered.
"That's not it and you know it," Schmidt hissed, "You're sitting here, gossiping like schoolgirls, pretending you don't know why he was... reassigned, when you all know damn well why. For God's sake, the man's name was Goldstien."
Crom shook his head; certainly it couldn't be something as trivial as that. There had to be explanation for why they would remove a brilliant and important scientist beyond the fact he was simply Jewish. It seemed so arbitrary, so... wasteful. Still, when he had first sat at this very same table a year and a half ago, there had been eleven other men looking back at him, now there were only eight. Only now did Crom realize that the three who had been 'reassigned', Cohen, Levin, and now Goldstien, had all shared the same faith.
Crom looked at the officers dining at the next table over. "We've put ourselves in the hands of madmen." Crom realized aloud, "They're fighting a war and yet killing people on their own side. Murdering the very men who could give them victory."
Schmidt grabbed his arm and looked him in the eye, "Keep those thoughts to yourself, Crom." he warned, "Or they'll reassign you, too."
The room was enormous; so much so that it was used on rare occasions as a ballroom for official functions. Today, however, it was almost totally devoid of furniture save for a long table on a dais and another, smaller one that faced it on the floor. The review council sat at the long table, dour old men in crisply pressed uniforms. Crom sat at the other table, where, for the past hour, he had been extolling the virtues of the bizarre device that stood in the gulf between the two tables.
It was an ugly thing; a squat collection of tubes, gears and hoses assembled into something roughly approximating a humanoid shape. It would, after moving, occasionally vent steam from its joints. It moved clumsily, like a toddler, only much faster. The contraption's right arm ended in a gun barrel. Despite its haphazard appearance, it was probably the most sophisticated machine on the continent.
"As you can see, the robot is fully autonomous; once it receives its orders from the command unit, it will follow them without hesitation, without question." Crom flipped a few switches on the bulky box in front of him and the robot's eyes glowed red for a moment to acknowledge the new orders. It sprang into action and clanked across the floor, then halted and stood at attention, raising its hand in a German salute to the men seated at the review table. The men were not amused; from their vantage point, it looked as if the mechanical man was pointing its gun at them.
"Are we to believe that this is what you've been working on for the last three months, Doctor? A toy?"
Crom ignored the sneer in the man's voice, "It's not a toy, Oberst. This robot could be deployed in large quantities to the Front" --he was careful to use the singular here-- "within the year. It's stronger and faster than our current infantry, never needs to sleep, or eat. It can't be frightened, or cold, or fatigued. It can operate in climates that have thus far proven to be intractable to the army."
"We have been through this before, Doctor. I thought you understood. Germany does not need robots or flying harnesses or focused radium beams, Doctor. Those take materials, materials which are already in drastically short supply. When last you presented to this board with that-- that--"
"It was some sort of armored suit, I believe, sir" the man seated next to the Oberst provided quietly.
"--with your ridiculous armored suit," The Oberst continued, "We gave you a direct order. One which, I might add, you seem to have ignored."
Crom sighed and massaged the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger, "The men again."
"Yes, the men again!" The Oberst threw a sheaf of photographs at Crom; they fluttered to the floor like leaves. Grim, determined men in gaudy costumes stared at Crom from the glossies; even in black and white, it was obvious that they were wearing the colors of the American flag. "The Americans have their super soldiers. Only a few so far, but their impact on the battles they've been involved in is significant. We believe it's only a matter of time before they refine whatever process they use to create them and field them in much greater numbers."
"Or perhaps the reason you've only seen a handful of them is because they, like we, haven't the means to dependably create more. The current serum we've been working on kills 10 men for every one super soldier it creates, and those that do manage survive the process are inferior in strength and abilities to the Americans. All of my research on the subject indicates that the factors that create this so-called 'super soldier' phenomenon are unpredictable and cannot be reliably reproduced."
"Then you need to find a way to make them predictable Doctor. You need to find a way to reliably reproduce them."
"Shall I also furnish them with unicorns to ride into battle?" Crom asked, throwing up his arms in exasperation, "Or would you, perhaps, prefer Dragons?"
"Doctor, we are short on raw materials. We are short on fuel. We are short on food. Manpower is the one resource we possess in abundance."
"Then only resource you seem to have in abundance, Herr Oberst, is idiocy." Crom snapped.
"You forget your place, Doctor!"
Crom lept to his feet, green eyes ablaze with anger, "I have done no such thing! In fact, Oberst, of everyone in this room, I seem to be the only one who knows his place: firmly rooted in science! In facts!" His fist pounded the table, causing everything on it to jump several centimeters in the air. "These notions of an army of Ubermenschen are the fantasies of frightened dullards! It will never work!"
"There are other scientists who believe otherwise!"
"Then they are fools, too! Tell me, are you really so desperate to win this war, so blinded by a lust for victory that you would willingly give your soldiers a weapon which can never be taken away from them? Are you really so arrogant to believe that they will never turn against you?"
The Review Board exchanged glances; it was clear to Crom that they had not considered anything beyond the immediate threat of the War. Furious, he turned on his heel and stormed out of the meeting room.
"You have not been dismissed, Doctor!" The Oberst bellowed behind him.
"I have dismissed you." He shouted over his shoulder as he exited.
Idiots. Fools. Imbeciles. No, they're worse than that, Crom thought as he paced his lab in anger an hour later, to accurately describe them, I'll need to create my own term for them. They were shortsighted, arrogant, tainted by prejudice and fear. Instead of working with one another to further their goals, they competed against one another, fracturing what should have been a unified front into dozens of splinters, each with their own agendas. Had he really believed that these petty weaklings were to be his race of conquerors?
What's worse, Crom thought morosely, Is that I've helped them. How could I have made such a terrible error in judgement? He shook his head; no, if he had made any mistake, it was in believing the Nazis would act like rational human beings. Clearly, that was not the case, but who could have possibly predicted the level of insanity to which they had sunk?
What have I done? Crom thought. He cursed himself again for losing his temper at the review. How badly had he damned himself? His plans were obviously hopeless now, but at the moment, he was more concerned with his immediate survival.
The door to the lab burst open. A young, Nordic man in a black SS Officer's uniform entered, flanked by two soldiers. They held their guns in their hands, not slung over their shoulders; the barrels were pointing toward the ground but a flick of the wrist would aim them squarely at his chest.
"Doctor Lazarus Crom, you are to come with us immediately," The Officer commanded brusquely.
"What is this all about?" Crom demanded, knowing the answer all too well.
"You are being reassigned. Leave your things; you will not need them where you are going."
Chapter 6: Opening Moves
Ross Island, Antarctica
September 3, 1943
"Welcome to the Reich's best kept secret, Doctor," Oberleutnant Schaeffer said grandly.
Crom and the U-977's commander were standing on the deck of the U-Boat as it sliced smoothly through the frigid black waters. Ahead, still hundreds of meters away, a series of spotlights bolted to the cavern ceiling threw light on a hastily constructed pier. Crom could make out the conning towers of three other U-Boats sunning under their harsh glare, parked in the one spot where the cavern's ever-present gloom would not shroud them.
"Astonishing," Crom said, and he meant it. The subterranean cavern was gigantic; so much so that it seemed to hungrily swallow the blaze of the powerful sodium arc spotlights like so many pebbles thrown into a gorge. However, as Crom's eyes accustomed themselves to the darkness, he noticed that they weren't the sole source of light, only the brightest. Bioluminescent fungi and lichens clung in random patterns to the walls, giving some sense to the cave's enormity without revealing its true dimensions.
"We found this place quite by accident, actually," Schaeffer said drily, "As part of the Swabenland Expedition in 1938, we had several U-Boats tasked to explore the sea floor. One developed engine problems en route and was forced to surface. While they were affecting repairs, one of the men noticed a pod of orca emerging from a large cave entrance just a few meters beneath the surface. Once we knew it was there, we were able to map much of the cavern by sonar."
"It didn't show up on sonar before?" Crom asked.
"No. The cavern is at such an angle that only looking directly at it would reveal it on sonar. Otherwise, is simply appears as part of the island's coast."
"And you just happened to find it?" Crom turned to face the Oberleutnant, "The odds against that would be--"
The Oberleutnant nodded and smiled, "Yes... Astronomical. That's one of the things that makes this place so ideal for a base: it's virtually invisible from the outside. The Führer himself noted that it was as if we were destined to find it."
Obviously, Crom thought, someone was destined to find it.
"Astonishing," Crom heard himself say. He wasn't certain if he had actually said it again or if it had simply been his initial observation echoing off of distant walls.
He had been taken from the Heeresversuchsanstalt a month ago in a car populated with grim faced SS men, and after it had cleared the base's gates, Crom awaited the inevitable gunshot that would herald his ‘reassignment' in its most morbid and final sense. It never came. Instead, the car deposited him at the docks, where the U-977 waited like a crouched predator. Once aboard, he had been quickly remanded to a small, makeshift bunk, given a few sundries, and told to stay out of the way. His questions about the nature of his sudden voyage or even its ultimate destination fell upon deaf ears; indeed, after a few attempts, it became obvious that none of the crew knew the details of the journey, either.
The time aboard was hellish; with nothing to read and no one to talk to, Crom endured the time learning everything he could about their vessel. He would sketch improvements to the engines or the batteries, ponder the ways the ship's torpedoes or ballast system could be made more effective. He would pepper the crew with questions about their duties, which they usually answered reluctantly provided it wasn't the taboo subject of their course or destination. In short, he did anything he could to keep his ever restless mind busy.
One particularly effective diversion was the speculation of the two obvious, unanswered questions: where were they taking him, and why? He deduced they had crossed over into the southern hemisphere when the water in the small sink he used began circling the drain in the opposite direction to which he was accustomed. Intrigued, he manufactured a crude compass and surreptitiously took a reading several times a day. The needle always pointed to the rear of the ship. They were going south, never varying, never slowing. Calculating the average cruising speed against the number of days they had been at sea left only one possible destination: the Antarctic. At the time, he had several theories for why, none of them good, and certainly none of them close to this.
The U-977 glided to the dock. Crom only then noticed that Shaefer had left his side and was now barking orders and issuing commands. Crewmen scrambled to secure the vessel as a gangplank bridged the deck and the pier. A small shore party stood by to greet them.
The obvious leader of the party stood stock still as his functionaries hurried to assist the crew of the U-977. He had the ideal characteristics of an Aryan; his close cropped hair revealing just a fuzz of gold from underneath his cap. He was about Crom's height, but much more stocky, clearly the product of an aggressive exercise regimen. Crom guessed him to be in his mid 30's, and deduced that the fact he was wearing an Oberst's uniform at that age made him ambitious, probably dangerously so.
Once he was satisfied the submarine had been properly moored, the Oberleutnant stood at the gangplank and offered a crisp salute.
"The U-977 reporting as ordered, kommandant. Heil Hitler," Shaefer said.
"Heil Hitler," the Oberst returned the salute, "Welcome back to Neuschwabenland, Oberleutnant."
"Thank you, sir," Shaefer said, "We'll begin offloading your supplies immediately."
The Oberst nodded, then said, "And your passenger?"
Shaefer waved Crom over. "Oberst Bruckner, permit me to introduce Doctor Lazarus Crom."
An uncomfortable moment passed as the Oberst awaited Crom's salute. Crom, technically a civilian consultant, had neither the inclination nor the obligation to do so; saluting was something lesser people did. Bruckner, thinking it was merely an oversight on the American's part, extended his hand.
"It is a pleasure to meet you, Doctor. I've followed your work with great interest," Bruckner said with enthusiasm.
"I wish I could say the same, Oberst, but it seems quite evident that you've gone through great pains to keep your work a secret."
Bruckner grinned, his previous formality seemed to vanish, replaced by something that seemed almost like camaraderie. He actually considers himself to be my equal, Crom marveled with a mixture of horror and amusement.
"Indeed we have, Doctor. Please allow me to show you around."
Crom descended the gangplank and followed the Oberst, who was already striding down the dock.
"I'm the one saved your life, Doctor," Bruckner said matter-of-factly after a few paces.
"Oh?" Crom asked, deliberately keeping his voice neutral. Had Bruckner intervened on his behalf after the disastrous meeting at Peenemünde? And if so, why?
Bruckner made a tsk sound, "My apologies, Doctor, I just assumed you... I suppose I've forgotten how difficult it is to keep up with current events aboard a submarine," he shrugged, "The Allies have been carrying out a very effective bombing campaign on Peenemünde for the past several weeks. It's my understanding that the Spezielle Wissenschaften team is listed among the casualties."
Crom paused in his tracks as he absorbed this news. The loss of his friends seemed like a distant pain; he wanted to feel worse about it, knew he should feel worse about it, but somehow, he seemed to lack the ability to do so. The fact that he felt so little about their deaths concerned him far more than the deaths themselves.
"I see," he managed, knowing it was hardly the epitaph those brilliant men deserved. He realized he had been more outraged by Goldstien's death; perhaps because it had been so deliberate. Being killed by a bomb just seemed less personal, somehow.
"My apologies for your loss," Bruckner said and seemed to mean it, "However, you are alive and that is what is important to me at the moment."
"And why is that?" Crom asked, resuming his pace.
"You'll find that our problems here and the ones you faced in Germany are reversed, Doctor," the Oberst explained. They reached the end of the enormous docking cavern and entered a natural passageway which sloped gently upwards. It was cramped, and they had to stoop over to avoid the ceiling. "We have an abundance of raw materials here, veins of iron, copper, even tungsten. Unfortunately, we have no manpower. The only way in or out of the cavern is via U-Boat. Anything we bring in here has to either fit through the hatch, or survive being strapped to the deck. For complex machinery, we have to have it dismantled outside, shipped here, and reassembled. It's slowed down the construction of this base considerably. What you see here is the result of nearly three years of effort."
Crom was not impressed with the progress they had made so far. Cables and conduits had been strung along the walls, held in by fasteners that were hammered into the rock surface every few meters. A series of gratings had been placed on the floor to give a semblance of a flat surface, but it was clear that nature dominated the base; the Germans had only made the most basic inroads in taming it.
He gently touched one of the walls, its slight warmth confirming his suspicion to the origin of the cavern. "These are lava tubes," he noted aloud, "This area is volcanic." Crom thought a moment, then made a gamble.
"We aren't actually on the Antarctic continent at all, are we?" he ventured.
Now it was the Oberst's turn to pause in his tracks. "How could you possibly know that?"
"We'd have to be somewhere near an active volcano, one close to the coast of a land mass large enough to support a cave network of this size," Crom explained, "If I were to guess, I'd say we were near Mount Erebus."
Bruckner was still staring in amazement.
"As a child, I had a passing infatuation with volcanology," Crom said offhandedly.
Bruckner chuckled, "You're actually very close, Doctor. In truth, we're about 30 kilometers east of Mount Erebus, under the somewhat dramatically named Mount Terror. The two mountains are named after the ships that discovered them in 1841. However, you are correct, the area is volcanic. Our drills indicate that there are magma flows only a few hundred meters below our feet, in fact. We're hoping to use the heat to create a source of electricity... a sort of geo..." the Oberst's brow furrowed as he hunted for the word.
"Geothermal energy, you mean," Crom completed impatiently.
"Right," Bruckner seemed slightly relieved that he wouldn't have to remember the name. "We've run into a few snags so far, though."
"If you let me see the proposed designs, I'm certain I can help," Crom volunteered. After the time he had spent in the cramped confines of the submarine, his mind was eager to accept any challenge.
"I'm afraid that will have to wait, Doctor. We have a great deal to do here, and precious few hands to do it with. We're hoping you can build us some more."
"My robots," Crom said, making the leap in logic immediately. "You want my robots to build this base for you."
"Yes," the Oberst nodded, impressed, "Quite so. We can set up the facilities for you to manufacture them here, using the raw materials we have at our disposal, and you can instruct them to complete construction on the base. That will free me to direct the resources of the U-Boats here to focus on bringing in key personnel instead of ferrying menial laborers."
Crom considered this; an unspoken argument for this strategy was, of course, that the Oberst was reluctant to share the secret of the base with just anyone; it was obvious that they only wanted specific visitors. Crom had noticed during their walk that in contrast to his own coal black hair and green eyes, the men of the base were, so far as he could see, all exclusively blond haired, blue eyed specimens of Aryan perfection. He was aware that Nazi's flawed grasp of genetic purity favored these features over all others, postulating that generations of selected breeding would bear fruit in the form of a perfect human specimen, but why populate a base exclusively with them?
His musing was cut short as a cockroach the size of his fist skittered across the grating in front of them, startling him. He had thought that his old hovel in King's Row had been the home of the world's largest roaches, but they were dwarfed by this monster. Bruckner muttered a quiet curse and smashed it beneath his perfectly polished boot with a loud crunch.
"Damn things," Bruckner spat, "We have a bit of a roach problem here, I'm afraid. More towards the lower levels of the base."
Crom crouched and examined the smashed insect. Its ichor gave off the faint smell of rotten eggs. "They were here when you found this place?"
"We certainly didn't bring them from Germany. There's not enough room on the U-Boats for them," Bruckner joked. "Come along, Doctor. The command center is up this ladder."
It was a 20 meter climb up the shaft to the command center. Bruckner, who had obviously made the trek several times a day, ascended quickly with the ease of someone walking across a room. Crom, having spent the last month in a cramped U-Boat, was gasping for breath by the time he reached the top. An elevator would be one of the first orders of business once construction begins, he thought to himself.
"Air," he gasped at the ladder's apex.
Bruckner laughed, "You'll get used to it, Doctor."
Crom shook his head as he regained his composure, "No... I mean... what do you do for air? If there's... no ventilation to the surface... how have you survived here for three years?"
"That is one of my innovations," a thin man in a lab coat interjected. His blond hair was thinning, and his watery blue eyes peered at Crom from behind thick glasses.
"Ah, Doctor Johann Fischer, please meet Doctor Lazarus Crom. Doctor Fischer here is our chief scientist. You'll be working under his supervision."
Crom tried to hide his distaste for the idea and only partially succeeded. He shook the other scientist's hand reluctantly.
"The base relies upon an air purifier I invented," Fischer said proudly, pointing out a bulky box that had been bolted to the cavern ceiling. "They filter the air through charcoal filters to remove particulate contaminates, then use lithium hydroxide to cleanse the air of carbon dioxide. All the rooms have one, with the exception of the hydroponics area, of course."
"Wouldn't the use of alkali metal hydroxides remove water vapor from the air as well?" Crom asked.
Bruckner grinned, impressed that Crom had not only immediately grasped the concepts of Fischer's brainchild but had realized one of the inherent problems it possessed just as quickly. Fischer, however, did not seem amused.
"We reintroduce water vapor into the process before returning the purified air to the room," Fischer said, then added, "Obviously."
Crom hid his amusement well, "And water? Where do you get that?"
"We have no shortage of water, I assure you." Bruckner chuckled, "There vast sections of the cavern that are covered by glacial ice. We collect as much as we need and thaw it in tanks."
"I'm working on a more efficient collection and recycling method," Fischer was quick to point out.
"I'm sure you are," Crom said.
"Believe me, Doctor, our water here is among the purest on Earth, and it was last liquid millions of years ago. Our water, chilled over glacial ice, will spoil you against common tap water forever."
Crom nodded and looked around the room. The command center, like every thing else in the base, existed solely at the whim of the cavern it occupied. The ever-present steel gratings covered the floor, and on them were several rows of desks and chairs, a few chalk boards with various schedules and work details written on them, and a handful of small tables. A large map of the base dominated one wall. Each level was depicted, along with a cross section of the entire base. Crom noted that each of the rooms depicted on the map had holes for small electric lights. Most of the rooms had a red light, a few amber, and a handful had green.
"The green rooms are habitable and in use," Fischer explained, noting Crom's attention. "The amber ones are currently under construction."
"And the red ones?" it took him only a moment to count that of the 242 rooms on the map. 193 of them were red.
"Those are the ones you and your robots are to build for us, Doctor," Bruckner said, "You have 18 months to do so."
Bruckner didn't mention what would happen if he missed the deadline, perhaps feeling that the implied threat would be more than enough to motivate the scientist. Crom, on the other hand, simply didn't care; while he still didn't know all the details of the project, he was confident that he could complete it well within that deadline.
"Tell me, Doctor, do you play chess?" Bruckner asked after a moment.
"Pardon?" Crom blinked, still trying to understand the scope of this place, its vast potential.
"Chess," Bruckner repeated as he escorted him to a small table near the back of the room. An exquisitely crafted chessboard sat there, unused; a battlefield devoid of soldiers, eagerly awaiting conflict. "I'm quite an avid player myself, but unfortunately, no one here has the skills to give me an adequate challenge."
Behind Bruckner, Crom noticed Fischer bristle at the casual dismissal of his intelligence.
"I see," Crom nodded; if there was one thing with which Crom could empathize, it was the lack of intellectual equals.
"Before the War, I had dreams of competing professionally," Bruckner continued, the memory slowing his speech to a thoughtful ponder. "I even studied under Emanuel Lasker, the World Chess Champion. I like to think I could have followed in his footsteps, but..." Bruckner shrugged and gestured to his uniform, "Such was not to be, obviously."
Crom nodded, "Very rarely are what we want and what we must do the same things, Oberst." This, too, was something Crom understood all too well.
"Exactly!" Bruckner exclaimed, snapping his fingers.
Crom studied the board for a moment, "I look forward to the challenge, Oberst. I've never beaten the protégé of a World Champion before."
"Aha!" Bruckner seemed elated, "So you do play, Doctor!"
Crom looked up from the board and met the Oberst's expectant gaze.
"Not yet," he replied.
Chapter 7: Checkmate
Ross Island, Antarctica
July 7, 1944
"Ah, the man of the hour!" Bruckner proclaimed jovially as Crom exited the elevator and stepped into the Command Center. A smattering of applause greeted him as the staff rose to their feet. It was, after all a special occasion.
Like the rest of the base, the Command Center had undergone an extensive transformation over the past year; its uneven cave walls had been carefully carved and sculpted, covered in concrete and smoothed to perfection. The effect was not just cosmetic, either. Throughout the base, modern amenities had replaced makeshift solutions, converting the haphazard cavern system into a sprawling underground base easily rivaling any other man-made outpost in the world. Hot and cold water, fresher than anything in Germany, poured from facets, electricity generated by steam driven geothermal taps coursed through the conduits concealed in the walls, and cool, crisp air circulated throughout the base, carefully purified and always at a uniform temperature of 22 degrees Celsius.
Crom nodded, accepting the unaccustomed accolades, and took his spot next to the Oberst. On the base's master map, 241 lights glowed green, showing rooms in the base which were completed. One amber light, denoting an unfinished storage room, stood alone amidst a constellation of green stars.
"I must admit, Doctor, I had my doubts that your robots would be able to finish the job as quickly as they did," Bruckner said.
"I'd imagine your doubts were largely formed from poor advice, Oberst." Crom replied, shooting a glance at Fischer, who stood rigidly in the corner. Fischer had made no secret of his contempt for Crom over the year, and had wasted no opportunity to undermine his efforts on every front. It had taken Crom over two months to build his first robot, and a month to build his second. During that time, Fischer had quietly pointed to the lack of progress made on the base as a sign of Crom's impending failure. Another had month passed, and Crom now had six robots, two tasked towards mining and smelting ore, two machining parts, and two constructing more robots, leaving none to work on the base. Fischer's snide comments had become even bolder then, until another month had passed. By then, Crom's robots had tripled in number, and the first six trudged off to begin work on the base. They had continued to triple in number every month after that, until a small army of them were swarming through the base, taming rampant nature to man's design quickly and efficiently.
When Crom succeeded in spite of Fischer's sabotage, the base's head scientist attempted to claim the credit for himself, although it was apparent to everyone that the scientific wonders the base enjoyed were the products of Crom's mind, and not Fischer's. Crom had said nothing on the subject, preferring instead to add Fischer's transgressions to a mental list of slights and affronts he had suffered during his time at the base. After a year, the list had grown quite long indeed, and Crom took comfort in the knowledge that very soon the list of insults would be avenged.
Crom opened his pocket watch and watched the second hand complete a full orbit, then flipped it shut.
"Five." He said quietly, then "Four."
"Three," the men immediately around him joined him.
"Two," chorused everyone in the room, except, of course, Fischer.
"One!" they shouted.
Crom pointed at the map. There was a brief, expectant pause, and then the lone amber light on the map turned green. The crowded room erupted into cheers. Men shook hands, patted themselves on the back and shook fists in the air triumphantly. Bottles of Champagne, ‘liberated' from France months ago and kept chilled on glacial ice, made popping sounds in the background as they emptied their contents into tin cups of mess kits. Bruckner, who normally frowned on alcohol On Base, had ordered the Champagne's distribution among the men. It was, after all, a celebration.
The Base was finally complete.
Champagne flowed freely for the next few hours. The past months had been somber at the base as reports of the Reich's mounting defeats filtered in. The Allies had seemingly become unstoppable, seizing Rome the month before and then pulling off an unfathomably huge invasion off the coast of Normandy just two days later. Since then, Germany had shifted to the defensive, fighting to hold what land it still had rather than attempt to take more. The Antarctic Base, originally designed as only an unlikely contingency, was rapidly becoming a necessity in the eyes of the High Command. Now that it had been completed, the future of the Reich was secure.
Bruckner gave a speech, explaining that in the coming months the base would be flooded with new visitors. The best and brightest of the Third Reich would arrive at the base and create a paradise hidden from the eyes of the world. Beautiful women, the finest Aryan stock in the world, would be arriving as well, and they would need men to help them give birth to the next generation of Hitler's dream. The men in the Command Center especially seemed to appreciate that idea and applauded wildly.
Fischer also gave a speech, quick to point out that the completion of the base was not the work of any one man, but rather a team effort, and that everyone deserved an equal share of the credit.
Crom then lurched to the forefront, and, having apparently consumed too much champagne, gave a rambling and incoherent oratory peppered with half-remembered anecdotes and fumbled congratulations to the men of the base. He gestured to the map, relating slurred stories about some of the more difficult parts of the project, and sloshing Champagne from his cup and onto the floor as he did so. Finally, he just trailed off and stood quietly, eliciting a few confused and embarrassed claps.
Erikson, the base's gaunt Gestapo Officer, hovered near Bruckner and Fischer.
"Disgraceful," he whispered once Crom had finally wandered off.
"Some men just cannot hold their drink," Fishcer shrugged, careful to hide his smirk.
"Gruber," Bruckner hissed, pointing at a nearby Unteroffizier, "Escort the Doctor to his quarters and make sure he sleeps this off."
"At once, Mein Kommandant," Gruber saluted.
"Do it discretely, please," he added. There was no point in embarrassing Crom any further; it was, after all, his day.
Gruber nodded in understanding and went to intercept the inebriated scientist. Bruckner and Fischer watched as, across the room, the Unteroffizer spoke with Crom. At first, it looked as if Crom would cause a scene, but he finally conceded and wobbled as well as he could towards the elevator, Gruber following close behind in the event of a misstep. As he reached the threshold of the elevator, he suddenly stopped, as if he had forgotten something. He turned abruptly, somehow avoiding Gruber's attempts to guide him back towards the elevator, and stumbled towards the chessboard waiting on its small table.
For the past year, he and Bruckner had played against one another. Crom would come into the Command Center in the mornings for his preliminary assignments and would make a move on the antique chessboard. Bruckner would consider it throughout the day and make a corresponding move before he left the Command Center in the evening. So it had continued, move after move, game after game, for over a year.
Throughout their games, Bruckner was undefeated. However, to say that he had won each game would be inaccurate. In their first game, Crom absorbed the intricacies of the game, analyzed the strategies, and began to comprehend the underlying elegance of the board and its pieces. Bruckner had won that game easily. In all their subsequent games, however, Bruckner didn't win. Crom simply lost. Bruckner was oblivious to the subtle distinction.
As of this day, however, Crom was done losing.
Crom stood unsteadily by the board, contemplated a moment, then moved a piece. He gave a satisfied nod, then teetered back towards the waiting elevator.
"It's a shame to lose him," Bruckner mused after the elevator doors had closed.
"A shame," Erikson echoed quietly, "But this place is for cultivating the future of the Reich, not perpetuating halfbreed Slavics."
Bruckner nodded, conceding the point. Now that the Base had been completed, Crom's use to them was minimal. Fischer was confident he could reproduce Crom's robots and, given time, he could divine the secrets of his other inventions as well. Besides, it would not do for the High Command to visit their hidden stronghold and find it inhabited by a man they had ordered killed over a year ago.
"You'll do it tonight, yes?" Bruckner asked.
"Sooner than that," Erikson said, "I think it's safe to say that he's too drunk to pose a threat even if he did wake up in time. Although I am concerned about his robots; is it possible they may try to protect him?"
Fischer shook his head, "No. Leave that to me. In the event of a serious malfunction, any or all of the robots can be commanded to shut down from the Control Unit. Once that happens, they must be turned back on manually. Even if Crom tries to use the Control Unit in his lab, it'll be useless to him. His robots will be, for all intents and purposes, asleep and out of reach in the maintenance bay."
"And that will work?" Erikson asked.
"See for yourself," Fischer turned on the tiny black and white screen on the Master Control Unit, then dialed the camera in the maintenance bay. After a moment, the screen displayed row after row of robots standing idly in the gloom, red eyes glowing patiently and awaiting new orders. Fischer flipped several switches, fiddled with a few dials, and then pulled a large brass lever. On screen, the red eyes in the darkness winked out as one.
"See?" Fischer gestured to the screen, "Now he truly is helpless."
A half hour later, Erikson reflexively scanned the hallway as his skeleton key smoothly unlocked the door to Crom's Personal Quarters. He quietly slipped inside the room and waited until his eyes adjusted to the darkness. The room was neat and orderly; devoid of the chaotic mess that he had expected from the stereotypical brilliant scientist. In fact, the only item in the room that looked haphazardly placed was Crom himself. The scientist was sprawled on his bunk, face down, still in his clothes. The only sound in the room was his soft snoring. Erikson could see the back of a head of dark hair that easily identified him from rest of the base's decidedly lighter-haired personnel.
Erikson was no stranger to murder; he had initiated himself to the fraternity of killers long before he joined the military and learned he could make a career of it. He had been an enforcer in one of Berlin's youth gangs as a teen; his job consisted in making good on the gang's threats of violence, and he had been very good at his job, indeed. When Hitler introduced mandatory conscription in 1935, he had joined the army, quickly demonstrating an aptitude for killing that earned him a position in the elite SS. Shortly afterwards, he was presented with an opportunity to join the Geheime Staatspolizei, the Secret Police. The more widely recognized, and feared appellation was Gestapo. With the threat of direct combat removed, he had taken the job immediately. He was propelled through the ranks by his almost gleeful enthusiasm to undertake even the most horrific tasks, and his fellow Gestapo Officers often regarded him with equal parts admiration and fear.
Murdering a sleeping drunkard was, in Erikson's opinion, almost an insult to a man of his talents.
Still, he did pride himself on following orders. He drew his Luger, silently attached the suppressor, and drew a bead on the sleeping scientist. The gun made a sharp Thwip noise three times; one bullet for the head, two in the back to pierce the lungs and the heart. Crom jerked a few times, then simply bled.
Erikson grunted in satisfaction, then pressed a button on the intercom mounted next to the door.
"It's done, Oberst," Erikson said, "Crom is dead."
Chapter 8: Siege Mentality
Ross Island, Antarctica
July 7, 1944
"There," Bruckner said to nobody in particular after Erikson had signed off, "That was not so bad, eh?"
Bruckner had learned early on in his career that it was far more difficult to kill a man than it was to order someone else to kill him on your behalf; this had been a philosophy which had powered his ascent into the ranks of officer. Still, he did feel almost a pang of regret in losing Crom; the man had been brilliant. Too bad he was not German, he thought to himself.
With a sigh, he dismissed Crom from his mind and focused on mountain of tasks that awaited him. By as early as next week, the first submarines would be arriving at the base, packed with high ranking officials and the future of the Nazi regime. This place, this lone fortress secluded from the scrutiny of the world, would be where they wrote the next, and most crucial, chapter in the annals of the 1000 Year Reich. Bruckner's base would surpass even their wildest expectations, and he dared to hope that his success here at the end of the Earth would grant him access to Hitler's elite inner circle. Decades, perhaps even a century from now, when his base disgorged a new, genetically perfect Nazi War Machine upon an unsuspecting world, it would be Bruckner's children and his children's children that would be calling the charge.
He reveled in the daydream a moment, until Fischer roused him from it.
"Oberst, we have a problem," the scientist said quietly.
"Oh?" Bruckner asked, slightly amused. In his current mood, the Oberst felt as if there were no problems that he could not solve.
Fischer pointed to the monitor and instantly proved him wrong. The screen was focused on the now-empty maintenance bay.
"Crom's robots," Fischer whispered, "They're gone."
Erickson had only been away from Crom's quarters for a few minutes before he was paged over the PA. He walked to one of the intercom panels spaced every dozen meters on every hallway and reported into the Command Center.
"You are certain Crom is dead?" the Oberst demanded immediately after the connection went through.
Erikson's brow knitted in exasperation. Hadn't they just discussed this a few minutes ago?
"Yes, Oberst," Erikson nodded, "I saw it myself."
"And there's no way you could have made a mistake?" the Oberst asked.
"It was Crom." Erikson repeated, growing more irritated that the Oberst was questioning his craftsmanship, "His room, his clothes, besides, there's no one else on base with dark hair. What is this all about?"
"Did you see his face?"
"Did you see his face?" the Oberst demanded.
"No, but I... I shot him... I saw him bleed to death."
The Oberst was silent for several moments, then, in a quiet voice that barely contained his rage, he said, "Go back and make sure that the man you shot is Crom, Major. Report back with what you find."
"Yes sir!" Erikson said, before turning to run back down the hallway towards Crom's quarters.
Crom's body was where Erikson left it: still and cold amid a puddle of blood, face down in his bunk. Erikson approached gingerly, grabbed the shoulder, and pulled to bring the body to face him.
Gruber's pale, dead face stared back at him. Near the scalp, hints of his blond hair jutted out from under a hastily applied dark wig. From this angle, the unteroffizier's uniform was only partially obscured by Crom's lab coat, both of which were now soaked in blood. Erikson stumbled backwards is surprise.
Somewhere near Gruber's corpse, something whirred softly, a mechanical device awoken by the disturbance of the body. Erikson had only enough time to tilt his head curiously at the sound before it exploded, erasing him, Gruber, and the room in a torrent of fire and shrapnel.
"The idiot!" the Oberst raged after being informed of the explosion detected in Crom's Quarters. Crom had never been drunk at the party; he had feigned it to make them believe he was helpless. When they switched off the robots, it must have confirmed their intentions to him. While Erikson was busy murdering someone else-- probably Gruber--Crom had been long gone, reinstating his army of automatons.
"Sound the alert," Bruckner ordered, "I want all sections reporting in."
"Most departments are on a skeleton shift, sir, for the celebration," the Comm officer supplied.
"I'm aware of that, dumkoft," Bruckner growled, "I was the one who ordered it! Get everyone to duty stations NOW!"
"At once, sir!" the comm officer affirmed.
Within minutes, Bruckner's worst fears were confirmed: none of the stations on the same floor as the maintenance bay were reporting in. It was a given that Crom had already seized the lowest level of the base and a forgone conclusion that he would be working up from there.
"I don't see how it's even possible," Fischer muttered when Bruckner voiced his theories. Spread out in front of the mousy scientist on an unused worktable were a series of blueprints and circuit designs, "I shut down the master control unit myself! There's no way he could be controlling these robots remotely."
"Doctor, please don't argue against what is obviously fact," Bruckner said coolly, "Just because Crom taught you everything you know about robotics does not mean he taught you everything he knows on the subject."
Fischer considered this, then went back to his blueprints. Bruckner ordered the base's levels sealed and the elevators locked down, then approached the large wall map of the base and studied it thoughtfully.
"So, he's got the lower levels, which means the thermal generators and the laboratories."
"Yes, sir," Kauffmann, the base’s senior SS Officer acknowledged, "Although we still have the back up diesel generators if he tries to shut down power."
"How much fuel do we have?"
Hans, the Chief Engineer, paused as he made a mental inventory, "Enough for a week, maybe two on the outside."
Bruckner nodded in thought, then pointed at an area in the middle of the base's cutaway map. "This is area will be then next area that becomes contested. If his robots break out of the lower areas, and we must assume they will, they can take this level. However, the command level vault doors will not let them get any further. What's on this level that we need?"
"The armory!" Kauffmann said suddenly, "I’ll send my men to guard that immediately."
"No," Bruckner countered, "That ties them to a point on the map. It would be better to move whatever weapons that are there up here to Command so we can arm ourselves while denying Crom the opportunity to do the same. What else is there?"
"Communications?" Fischer offered.
"Do you really think he's planning to call for help, Doctor?" Bruckner sneered.
Fischer hesitated a moment, then found the courage to venture, "Should we?"
For a moment, Bruckner looked as if he would strike the scientist. Korvettenkapitän Fraatz, the commander of the lone submarine docked at the base, intervened between them.
"Oberst, in the... unlikely... event that the situation escalates, there's no point in giving Crom unrestricted access to the outside world," Fraatz said calmly.
"So, what do you suggest, Korvettenkapitän?" Bruckner asked, deliberately emphasizing Fraatz' lower rank with a scowl.
"The U-529 is fully fueled and ready to cast off, Oberst. If I can get my men to her, we can be underway in moments. The submarine pens are still in our control; the 529 represents an advantage that we should utilize while we can."
"And what advantage is that?" Bruckner asked.
"The 529 is Crom's only means of escape, should he try," Fraatz said, "Denying him that alone is a significant strategic advantage. Additionally, should you lose access to the Communications Center, the 529's transmitter will still be safe. We'll wait off coast; if we haven't heard from you by 0900, we'll appraise the High Command of the situation."
Bruckner eyed the Korvettenkapitän, not at all happy with the prospect of having to rely on a submarine to report his failure. However, he had to admit that Fraatz was right, and technically, the Korvettenkapitän and his submarine were not under Bruckner’s command in any case. Besides, he fully expected to have Crom subdued long before the 529 would need to make its report, and anything that Fraatz said to High Command after the fact would be lost against the fact that 529 had essentially fled the base to escape one man.
"Very well," Bruckner nodded finally, "But you'll need to move quickly. Crom will most likely be too preoccupied with consolidating his control over the lower levels to bother with securing the submarine pens yet, but that's only temporary. You and your crew should make your way to the sub when Kauffmann and his team go in; I'm certain that they will attract Crom's focus."
"Thank you, Oberst." Fraatz said, careful to keep the relief out of his voice.
"Kauffmann, I trust your men will give Crom and his robots something to do while the Korvettenkapitän and his crew are fleeing?" Bruckner asked. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Fraatz bristle at the implied slight against his courage and smiled inwardly.
Kauffmann snapped to attention, his boots clicking like a gunshot.
"Jawohl, mein commandant," he grinned wolfishly, "In fact, I think this will all be over before the Korvettenkapitän here can even reach his submarine."
Kauffmann and his team advanced cautiously down the corridor, keeping their sight lines clear and ready for any potential ambush, but aside from the German soldiers, nothing moved in the hallway. Whisper quiet, they moved forward, making it to the unguarded armory without incident.
The armory's thick steel door was still solidly in place when they arrived. Kauffmann and another officer used their twin keys to open the lock, then stood back and let the rest of the team cover the door as it slid open. Stacks of boxes and racks of weapons sat quietly in the darkness, waiting for them.
The base's armory was smaller than the traditional weapons storehouse for a German base, largely because the facility was supposed to be invisible to the outside world. The possibility that the base would need defending against a full scale invasion was considered too remote to do more than provide it with more than a handful of armaments, and certainly nothing more potent than grenades and a few squad serviced machine guns. However, the armory was also where the TNT and blasting caps used during the base's construction were stored; and thanks to the efficiency of Crom's robots, most of their original stockpile had been unnecessary.
Kauffman's men were well trained. Upon verifying that the armory was still secure, they entered and began distributing weapons. Those that only had sidearms grabbed rifles, and everyone made certain they had plenty of ammunition. Then, satisfied that they were adequately armed for the time being, they began carefully lifting the boxes of explosives. Dr. Fischer was certain that Crom's robots lacked the fine manipulators necessary to hold or fire a gun, but there was no telling what sort of mayhem could be wreaked in the base's confined corridors with the explosives.
The third box of TNT was leaving the armory when one of the men carrying it abruptly stopped. Kauffmann, who had move further down the corridor to establish a larger perimeter, was still within earshot.
"Do you hear that?" the soldier asked his comrade. They both looked down at the box quizzically.
As soon as he heard the question, Kauffmann knew with sickening certainty that the box had been booby trapped. He shouted a warning, then dove for cover. The explosion obliterated everything in or around the armory, catching him in mid-jump some 20 meters away and throwing him against the wall. The black abyss of unconsciousness threatened to claim him, but he forced himself to remain awake.
It came out of the fire and smoke like a knight of old, a figure two meters tall clad in black armor edged with crimson. It looked vaguely like one of the Teutonic Knights Kauffmann had studied in his youth, but it was clearly far more advanced. At the joints, thick cables and intricate mechanisms were evident, and the dark metal seemed to gleam as if freshly minted. The figure didn't move with the clockwork precision of the robots, but rather with the straightforward, efficient gait of—
"It's Crom!" Kaufmann yelled, only then realizing that there was nobody else on his squad still alive. He fumbled for his rifle, then took aim and fired. Bullets ricocheted off of specter's armor as it calmly advanced. Almost casually, he plucked the rifle out of Kauffmann's hands and tossed it aside, then grabbed the startled officer by the throat and effortlessly lifted him off of his feet.
The figure in the armor cocked his head to the side, regarding the helpless officer for a moment. Kauffmann tried to gasp for breath, but it was no use: the vice like grip around his throat was far too tight.
"I've often wondered, Oberleutnant," Crom said slowly, the helmet giving his voice an odd metallic ring, "For a man in your current position, with your death so painfully eminent, is there really anything you would not do for a few more gasps of air?" He brought Kauffmann closer, so the frightened soldier could gaze into the helmet's dark visor which obscured Crom's merciless green eyes, "Is there anything you wouldn't betray for just another handful of heartbeats?"
Despite years of training to the contrary, Kauffmann felt himself shaking his head, and suddenly the grip around his windpipe vanished. He collapsed to the ground, raggedly gasping for air.
"Good answer, Oberleutnant," Crom said softly, "You'll have them, but in return, I need you to deliver a message for me."
Kauffmann stumbled into the command center a few moments later, out of breath and clearly terrified.
"Report." Bruckner demanded crisply, seemingly oblivious to the soldier's condition.
Kauffmann took several gasps, then finally managed, "Crom's destroyed the Armory... He's taken over the entire level," he took a few more breaths, then added, "He killed all my men."
"How can this be? He's just one man---"
"Sir, he... He could have killed me, too. But he didn't... He said he wanted me to give you a message."
"Oh?" Bruckner's eyebrow arched, "What message is that?"
"He said to tell you 'King's Bishop to Queen's Bishop Four', sir."
Bruckner thought about this for several moments, then stalked over to the chessboard and examined it intensely.
"A chess move?" Fischer said as he joined him, his brow knitted in confusion, "Is it his next move?"
"No... he made his move before he left the party, remember?" The Oberst said distractedly, still staring at the chessboard.
"If it's not his next move, then what is it?"
The Oberst's face went pale.
"It's mine," He whispered, "King's Bishop to Queen's Bishop Four. It's the move I would have made..."
"I... I don't understand what--"
"It's a message, you idiot!" The Oberst shouted, "He's saying that he knows what we're planning to do before we even do it! He means to-- Oh, God."
He turned suddenly and pointed at the Comm Officer, "Call back the crew of the 529!"
"Call them back!" Bruckner shouted, "Call them back NOW!"
The comm officer turned a few knobs, then, after a few moments, he looked up, shaking his head.
"I-- I can't sir. They've already cast off."
"They... they did?" Bruckner said, daring to let relief creep into his voice. He had been certain that had Crom seen through their distraction, he would have stopped the crew of the 529 long before they had a chance to board the submarine.
"See for yourself, sir." the Comm Officer said, dialing a few numbers on his console. On the tiny screen in front of him, the U-529 had cleared the docks and was headed for the cavern's exit. Bruckner watched as it began to descend into the depths, feeling his hopes rise as the craft sank. Once under the water, there would be few things that Crom's robots could do to stop it. Maybe Crom was not so clever after all, he thought smugly.
Just as the U-Boat's conning tower vanished into the dark water, the screen began to darken, then went black. Bruckner looked up and saw that the effect was not restricted to that one screen; all of the Command Center's televiewers were out, and the lighting was beginning to fade.
"What's happening? Is he cutting the power?" Bruckner asked, wondering why Crom would try such an empty endeavor. Everyone knew that the Command Center had backup generators that could power it for weeks, if need be.
"No, sir," the young man at the Resources console reported, "The thermal generators are operating at..." he paused as he rechecked his readings, "er... They're operating at 120 percent capacity."
"One hundred twenty?" Bruckner asked as the lights dimmed more, "That's over twice what we've tested them to!"
"I know, sir. I can't explain it... We've got a huge amount of power coming out of the generators, and it... well, it just isn’t making it here." The officer gestured at the still dimming lights.
"Then where is it all going?" Bruckner asked aloud.
"We're at 10 meters and dropping, sir," Heinz, the pilot said as the U-529 sliced through the black water. "We'll be clear of the cavern in about three minutes."
"Excellent," Fraatz said. Like most U-Boat commanders, he didn't feel truly safe until his ship was safely surrounded by the armor of the ocean depths. Knowing that the 529 was fully underwater all but guaranteed their survival, and he would be more than happy to put this place as far behind him as possible.
"How long until we're in the open sea?" Fraatz asked, hoping his tone didn't convey what he was really thinking: How quickly can you get us out of here?
Heinz grinned, "Give me two minutes after we clear of the cavern and we'll be back in the ocean, sir." He turned back to his station, then gave a yelp as he touched the controls.
"Sorry, sir," Heinz said sheepishly, "A little static electricity."
Fraatz smiled, then stopped. He noticed a sound in the distance, a low hum. It was coming from outside of the ship, and was steadily increasing in volume, threatening to overtake the steady throb of the U-Boat's engines. He was about to ask if any of the bridge crew could place it, when he noted something else unusual: every hair on the back of his hand was standing straight up.
Behind him, another crewman cursed as he received a tiny shock from a nearby metal instrument.
And then, another.
The screens in the Command Center suddenly winked on, providing the only source of light to visit the room in nearly a minute. On the screen, the dagger-like prow of the U-Boat was barely visible in the depths as it forged through the dock's dark waters with steadfast determination.
Suddenly, a brilliant bolt of electricity leapt across the walls of the cavern, catching the fleeing submarine exactly in the middle. Within the space of a heartbeat, the intensity of the arc increased until the screens in the Command Center were washed out by pure white. Then, just as suddenly, it was gone.
When the screens came back, the U-529 was clearly in view, drifting lifelessly on the surface, surrounded by dead fish. Steam simmered from the water near the hull.
The staff of the Command Center stood dumbstruck. Finally, Fischer's whispered voice broke the silence.
"He's not going to let us leave, is he?"
Chapter 9: Last Man Standing
Ross Island, Antarctica
July 10, 1944
"Wake up, Oberst," a familiar voice called out in the darkness. There was a snap of something near his face, and his head jerked back as the scent of ammonia exploded through his nostrils.
Bruckner's eyes snapped open and he immediately regretted it; the light was bright and white and felt like daggers in his skull. Awareness seemed to lazily drag after his now wide open eyes, an unwilling participant to his forced consciousness. A dark haired man with green eyes and a precisely maintained VanDyke beard was standing over him, partially eclipsing the room's glare.
"Wha--" Bruckner attempted to ask, only to find his tongue dull and unresponsive. His hands wouldn't move, and only after a few tried did he realize that he was restrained to the chair.
The green eyed man-- why did he look so familiar?-- tsked quickly, then held up a glass of water and dribbled a few precious drops of water into the stricken man's mouth.
"Try not to drink too quickly, Oberst," he said as the first few, welcome drops exploded across his parched tongue, "You've been unconscious for quite some time."
The water stopped after a moment, and a few heartbeats more confirmed that no more was coming. "Do you know where you are, Oberst?" The man asked.
Bruckner tried to remember, but it the knowledge seemed to elude him, dancing just outside the outskirts of his consciousness. He shook his head slowly.
"You are in your quarters," the familiar dark haired man said, then chuckled, "Although, technically, I suppose they're my quarters now. Especially since my own lodgings have suffered an unfortunate... mishap."
Bruckner tried to place the man's comment into context and failed, although part of him found it mildly interesting that it had taken him this long to realize that the other man was speaking in English. Seeing his memory difficulties, the dark haired man leaned in closer.
"Do you at least remember what happened, Oberst?"
He cast his memory back, and it caught on something, dredging up a host of horrors that he hoped was just some half remembered nightmare, but knew, instinctively, that it wasn't. The memory of the past 48 hours crashed back in a dark torrent, and he shivered with the revelation.
He remembered it.
He remembered it all.
After the U-529 was destroyed, he had done his best to mobilize the base's defenses against Crom, but it had proved to be futile. Every plan they initiated, every strategy the implemented had been effortlessly dismantled. Sometimes, like when they had tried to escape through the air shafts to the surface only to find tiny, deadly machines waiting for them in the darkness, the defeat had been swift. Other times, like when Fischer tried to disable the robots with a makeshift electromagnet, it would seem at first to be a victory, only to be turned into a crushing defeat moments later. Always, however, their defeat had been decisive and total.
Or, at least, almost total. Crom always left one and only one survivor to return to the rest of them to explain how he had beaten them this time.
He was toying with them, Bruckner realized as he lost man after man in increasingly desperate gambits. It was not simply enough to take their lives; Crom was taking their hope, too. Crom was exacting payment for every insult, every slur, every dismissal they had ever heaped upon him, and he was demanding that payment in blood. In the lives of Bruckner's men.
In the end, when they had found the backup diesel generators were filled with a substance that only looked and smelled like diesel but in reality burned like water, when the oxygen scrubbers Crom had so ingeniously perfected and upgraded months before suddenly went quiet, when they had discovered that Crom's robots had honeycombed the base with hidden passageways, rendering their maps all but useless, the remaining handful of men under Bruckner's charge stood broken and terrified within the Command Center, awaiting his next order, his next plan.
Bruckner found he had nothing for them; he had not slept in 72 hours and the air in the Command Center was so bad that he was suffering the early effects of hypoxia. Every strategem he had was expended, and he had realized hours earlier that Crom's victory had been assured from the beginning. Everything they had done since then had, at best, only delayed the inevitable, and at worst, had probably brought some sort of dark amusement to the renegade scientist.
Suddenly, an idea seized him in that moment of utter hopelessness. Bruckner's hand was on the butt of his Luger before it had even fully formed in his consciousness. Despite the ghastly thought that now occupied his mind, Bruckner couldn't help but giggle at the poetic simplicity of his last and final tactic.
Crom would win, that much was inevitable, but Bruckner would not give him the satisfaction of killing any more of his men. That lone, final victory will be denied him, Bruckner thought as he lined the sights of his Luger on the Unteroffizier crouched near the doorway and pulled the trigger.
The pistol boomed in the close confines of the room, then again, and again. As the shells plinked to the floor, he wondered idly if this was what it felt like to be insane. It probably was, he concluded, lining up on Fischer and pulling the trigger. The scientist's startled protests were lost in the thunder of the pistol and the ragged howl of Bruckner's laughter.
"Your own, private Masada." Crom said, after seeing the horror of recollection in the Oberst's eyes.
"Ah, yes, I suppose they wouldn't teach you that particular chapter of military history in German Officer Training, would they? In 72 A.D., during the Great Jewish Revolt, Lucius Flavius Silva laid siege to the Jewish fortress of Masada on the Eastern edge of the Judean Desert. After more than a year of attacking the stronghold, the Romans finally breached the walls, only to find that the defenders had willingly killed one another to deny the Romans final victory." Crom paused, "It would seem that those who do not learn from history really are doomed to repeat it, eh?"
"Why did you..." he tried to put the words together, failed.
"Why did I spare you?" Crom asked.
Bruckner nodded slowly.
Crom shook his head in disappointment. "Despite your claims of being such an avid student of his, you really haven't understood the core of Lasker's techniques, have you? 'Study your opponent, not just your objective', that was his doctrine, correct? I find this maxim holds true beyond the chessboard, sir, and I studied you quite thoroughly this past year. I knew you didn't have the courage to take your own life, Oberst. I needed you alive, yet I also needed to safely neutralize the men around you. It was very kind of you to oblige me on both counts."
"Alive?" Bruckner asked, "Why?"
"As I understand it, Oberst, when a U-Boat approaches the base, they are granted clearance through a series of response codes. I can, most likely, decipher the codes myself, but that could take weeks, and I'm afraid I don't have the luxury of that sort of time. As you said earlier, the first U-Boats will be arriving within the week. Should I be unable to furnish the proper response codes to a radio challenge, no doubt your friends would deduce what happened and attempt to take this base back in force. Thus, I'll need those codes."
"So you can slaughter them? Like you did the crew of the U-529?"
To his surprise, Crom only nodded in agreement, "I'm afraid that they won't even make it to the dock. If circumstances were different, and were I to believe they would listen, I would simply warn them away. Unfortunately, I'll need the U-Boats for the resources their scrap will provide, not to mention whatever cargo they might carry."
"You're a madman. You'll never get them out of me," Bruckner vowed.
"I beg to differ, Oberst," Crom said quietly. Crom withdrew a small wooden box and placed it on the table in front of the soldier. He carefully removed the lid. Inside, a silver syringe waited on velvet.
"Truth serum?" Bruckner laughed, "That's not going to work on me. Everyone in the base's command structure has been trained to—"
Crom shook his head sadly.
"Truth serum? You insult me, Oberst. No, this is nothing so crude as that."
He tied a rubber hose around the Oberst's upper arm, then carefully cut away the sleeve below it with a pair of scissors. He then tapped the joint just above the forearm until a single blue vein showed beneath Bruckner's skin.
"It's a stimulant, of sorts. Schmidt was working on it for a time but couldn't seem to find a way to stop the serum from breaking down once it entered the bloodstream. That was a problem which I was able to solve. I'd explain it to you in more detail, but I doubt you could properly appreciate the innovations I've introduced to the original formula."
"One of the universal laws of human nature, Oberst, is that everyone has a breaking point. You might think that your training to resist drugs and torture has removed that quality from you. It hasn't, I assure you. Your ability to endure pain has simply moved it beyond the reach of conventional levels of torture. The problem, Oberst, is that the human nervous system regrettably lacks the requisite… resolution… to fully appreciate the levels of pain I intend to inflict upon you. This," Crom held up the syringe, "Will serve to rectify that unfortunate disparity for you."
"And am I to believe that if I tell you what you want, will you let me go?" Bruckner laughed incredulously.
"No, Oberst." Crom's green eyes were large, sad with resignation, "I'm afraid you're failing to grasp the scope of the game we're playing now."
"You won't ever leave this place, Oberst. However, I give you my word that if you tell me what I wish to know, I will let you die."
The needle hovered above the vein, then pierced it. The golden liquid surged into Bruckner's bloodstream. Crom returned the syringe to its box and then reached under the table to retrieve a well worn doctor's bag. Bruckner recognized it immediately: it had belonged to Erikson, the attaché from the Gestapo. It contained the tools he used to torture suspects. Erikson, Bruckner remembered, had told him once that they had been especially hand crafted to his meet his exacting specifications. He had also mentioned that they saw their first use on the unfortunate craftsman who had made them.
"I expect the serum will start to work in a few minutes," Crom said as he carefully unloaded the contents of the bag and neatly placed the metal implements side by side on a white towel. "You'll start to feel a growing pressure. That's the weight of your skin. The pounding in your chest will be your heart. The fire in you lungs is just air. All the thousands of little aches and pains your body normally ignores will be silent no more, I assure you. In fact, it is entirely likely I won't even need Erikson's toys."
"Why?" Bruckner whispered through cracked lips, "Why would you do this?"
Crom cocked his head in surprise; Bruckner couldn't determine if it was because the question was unexpected or if it was because Crom felt the answer was obvious.
"Because, Oberst, wars like this one will continue to erupt every few decades over land or ideology or religion; in this way, man has not evolved since Cain slew Able. However, the science of warfare will only serve to make certain that each one is more horrific than the last, until humanity itself is wiped from the face of the planet. I believe the only chance to avoid this, Oberst, is to see to it that everyone possesses the same land, the same ideas. The only chance Mankind has to escape death by its own hand is if the entire world is unified under one banner, once and for all."
Crom stood upright and turned away, hands clasped behind his back as he did so, "I, mistakenly believed that the Nazis would be the ones to do this, and thus I gave you the vast benefits of my intellect, my innovation."
He turned back, affixing his jade eyes on the captive Oberst, "I stood by, mute, and watched you twist and pervert my designs to pursue your agenda of hate and prejudice. I gave you the tools to commit crimes against your fellow man so awful that future historians will speak of you in ashamed whispers, and I did so without objection. You see, Oberst, I believe that in this case, the ends DO justify the means. There are few atrocities even you and your Nazi brethren could commit that do not pale against the threat of global extinction. I, perhaps naively, believed the more… repugnant aspects of your political doctrine could have been solved from within once you had achieved power, but by far, the most important task was to achieve the goal of uniting the world."
"In short, Oberst, I was willing to tolerate anything you did in your bid to conquer the globe, just so long as you did, in fact, conquer it. But here you are, fleeing to the ends of the Earth like whipped mongrels. You are a failure, and, having failed, my tolerance for you is at an end. Where once you aspired to greatness, now you and the rest of the High Command seek only shelter from justice."
Crom leaned in close, his voice, barely a whisper, was thick with contempt, "Only conquerors have the luxury of ignoring justice, sir. And you are not a conqueror. Not any more. You're nothing more than a fugitive, and I will suffer your ilk no further."
Crom stood up abruptly and straightened himself.
"We have much to discuss, Oberst. I'll be back in an hour, and we can begin."
Three days passed before the base's lights dimmed momentarily, signaling the channeling of a huge amount of electricity into the submarine pen. Despite the pain which had howled unabated throughout every nerve in his body for days, Bruckner managed a ragged grin. He was able to hold a thought together long enough to pray that Crom would fulfill his end of their bargain.
A half an hour later, Crom arrived, and proved to a grateful Bruckner that he was, in fact, a man of his word.
Moments afterwards, Doctor Lazarus Crom was the last living man in Antarctica.
Chapter 10: Departure
Ross Island, Antarctica
December 3, 1944
Mount Terror Ross Island, Antarctica
Solitude was nothing new to Crom; all his life he had eschewed the company of others to purse his own ends in peace. However, until now, people had always been nearby, so the choice had always been his to make. Since taking over the base, though, he no longer possessed the option of human contact. For the first time in his life, he was truly alone. He didn’t mind; aside from Eve, there was no one in the outside world he truly cared about. If anything, he felt relieved that he didn’t have to suffer any further distraction.
He had built ingenious devices to scan the outside world’s radio waves, and in this way he kept abreast of the changes that occurred in the World of Man. Over time, however, he found that the news his equipment gleaned from distant antennas to be of less and less interest, and thus rededicated himself to his work.
He was becoming increasingly successful at his work, too. He spent those solitary months pushing the boundaries of science with an alacrity which even astonished him. Free of all interruptions save the need to eat and sleep, he developed entirely new theories on energy, matter, even the very structure of the universe itself. He pioneered fields of science which would not even occur to the rest of the scientific community for decades to come.
In no case was his research theoretical, however. Every theory he pursued had been required by need or problem, and every hypothesis which bore fruit was given an immediate application. He devised weapons and equipment far beyond the grasp of his contemporaries, all of which were dedicated toward fulfilling his destiny.
The base also grew to suit his purposes. His ever-improving robots toiled endlessly in the depths, carving out new rooms as Crom dictated. Still more of them spent time building machinery and devices which had been nothing more than a random thought in Crom’s mind a few days prior. The base’s defenses were updated almost constantly as Crom’s relentless mind would determine some new vulnerability and just as quickly devise a way to counter it. If men’s homes were their castles, Crom’s home would be nothing less than a citadel.
He would often muse that it would take nothing short of an extremely powerful bomb to force him to leave his beloved Citadel against his will.
This is, ironically, is exactly what happened.
He had known the U-Boat was in the area for several hours. Robotic sentries, cleverly disguised to look and sound like whales, had detected the German submarine long before it reached the Citadel and relayed its position to the Command Center. Crom was, unfortunately, accustomed to the occasional visit from the German Navy, so much so that it threatened to become routine.
Five times since he had claimed the base, U-Boats had arrived, filled with frightened refugees, and five times, the automated response mechanisms in the Command Center had dutifully sent Bruckner's codes, supposedly proving that the base was safe and ready to accept them.
Five times, Crom had paused in his work as the Citidel’s lights dimmed and the docking cavern glowed with artificial lightning.
Five times, the Citadel had stunk of ozone and charred flesh for days.
He hoped each one would be the last; he didn’t enjoy killing defenseless men under any circumstances, but he knew he couldn’t let them go, either. So, he consoled himself afterwards with the thought that perhaps no more would follow. It was, after all, possible that the handful Germans who knew of the base's existence had finally run out. It was also possible that the remaining members of the High Command had deduced that there was nothing awaiting them at the base other than a swift death, and now sought new places to hide. However, a handful of weeks later, a chime would ring through the hallways of the Citadel to announce the arrival of a new submarine full of casualties.
This time, a second chime rang out a few hours later, announcing the need for his immediate supervision. Something was different with this visitor, and any departure from the clockwork routine he had come to expect from the German Navy was potentially dangerous.
Upon arriving at the Command Center, he scanned the transcripts of the U-Boat’s conversation thusfar with the Logical Operation Terminal Human-like Automated Response. Unlike the previous U-Boats, which had simply requested clearance to dock, this one was requesting—demanding, in fact-- an immediate audience with the base’s chief Scientist as well as the highest ranking Intelligence Officer.
Crom pondered this for several moments, then, sitting at the transponder, keyed in a response.
Permission Granted. Requested staff will meet you at dock.
36 hours later, the last survivor of U-734 woke up. He was seated in a chair in front of a small table inside of a featureless room. There was a man standing in front of him, holding a familiar looking folder. The man placed the folder on the table.
“Good. You're awake,” the man said, “Your name is Krieger, correct? Oberstleutnant Krieger, attached to Ausland-SD, Department B, yes?”
The survivor nodded, then asked, “What happened?”
“There was an accident which incapacitated the crew of your U-Boat, Oberstleutnant. Fortunately, you were close enough to the docks for us to effect a rescue.” This was partially true; Crom had harpooned the side of the U-Boat shortly before it docked and filled it with anesthetic gas.
The man seated himself at the opposite end of the table and studied Krieger with opaline eyes. He slid the folder across the table. “We're going to talk about this intriguing bit of intelligence you've picked up, Oberstleutnant, and by the time I leave this room, I expect to know everything you know about this 'Manhattan Project'.”
Chapter 11: Alibi
Ravensbürg Concentration Camp
December 22, 1944
Crom observed the Camp below him as he did every hour. It was close enough to his camouflaged temporary base of operations that he could easily make out individual guards and prisoners through the standard-issue Kriegsmarine binoculars he had enhanced for clarity, focus and nightvision. The “base” he had built secretly overlooking the German Camp was just a small room dug out of a few square meters of dirt, but Crom was certain that it would accomplish his goals without discovery. Furthermore, once he departed it for good and was actually On Site, a series of explosives would render the immediate area indistinguishable from a random artillery shelling.
The evening was unexpectedly chilly, and Crom noted the pain in his deliberately broken, imperfectly healed bones. He quickly recalculated his transit times to take into account his reduced mobility.
Timing, after all, would be everything.
His objective would be difficult even in the best of circumstances, but to his advantage, the Germans kept to schedules if they were part of a religion governed by a particularly unforgiving god, which, upon further reflection, he admitted was probably true in a sense. Still, as far as Crom was concerned, predictability was a weakness well evidenced by history. He was thankful that he Germans had seemingly failed to notice that particular drawback.
Robot drones, launched from the extensively rebuilt U-Boat Crom had taken from Ross Island to the coast of Europe, had dutifully mapped out the area surrounding Crom's target for days. They flew quietly on pulse jet engines, the champagne pop of their engines' firing every half second easily lost in wind between them and the surface more than a kilometer below. They obediently relayed their findings back to a heavily refitted U-Boat a hundred kilometers south. The Lothar unit aboard the automated vessel studied them and transmitted its suggestions back to the drones, which passed them back down to the portable Lothar system in Crom's makeshift, one-room base.
The drones also tracked the movements of axis and allied units, from bomber squadrons to individual platoons, and reported what they found back to Crom via a signal he had designed specifically to sound like common static. Crom took some grim amusement that among all the superpowers fighting in the conflict, he alone had the full view of what was happening.
The camp was moderately fortified, designed to keep people in and relying on the rest of Germany to keep them out. It wouldn't take much to get in, but it would take an army to get out. In that respect, Crom suspected he would have little concern.
Crom examined the output from Lothar, and considered it against what he was personally able to observe through the binoculars. Tonight, he noted, everyone was in their proper places.
Yes, he thought as he noted the positions of the nearby Allied forces, tonight is definitely the night.
He pressed a button, and watched the chaos unfold.
They seemingly came from nowhere, which was, of course, not true. In truth, the squad of soldiers erupted out of the ground as if given birth by it. They had been buried in the road, just over the rise of the hill, for over a week, dormant, quiet, but most of all, unexpected.
The soldiers trudged towards the gate of the camp, their guns firing occasionally, never needing more than three bullets to kill a given target. Round after round of enemy bullets tore into them, but they continued striding forward, killing anything that dared try to stand against them.
By the time they reached the front gates, their US Army uniforms were in tatters-- not surprising, since that had been more or less their condition when Crom looted off of a full platoon of former American “heroes” unfortunate enough to happen across his path to the Camp. The sophisticated rubber compound that composed their faces was enough to make them look human from a distance; by the time an observer noticed how lifeless their expressions were, or how empty their eyes were, they'd be dead.
Across the Camp, alarms sounded, and soldiers moved to counter the seemingly unstoppable American soldiers moving inexorably towards the main gate. Even as they did, drones above the Allied command post fifty kilometers north flooded the radio waves with static, and the Lothar system aboard Crom's refitted U-Boat began barking instructions in a surprisingly convincing imitation of the Allies' local radio operators.
Within the hour, every combat capable Allied asset within twenty kilometers would be at the camp. By the time they arrived, however, Crom expected there would be little for them to do.
Crom hurried down the ridge towards the Camp, sticking to a path he had selected days ago, and personally run enough times that he was familiar with every possible obstacle or snare. His very skeleton protested at this-- many of his hastily healed bones were literally grinding against his muscle tissue, but that, he conceded, was to be expected.
The night was briefly lit up as the invincible “American soldiers” detonated the camp's main administration building, precisely on time. From his current vantage point, Crom was able to make out the chaos in the camp a few hundred meters away. Guards, painted in amber hues by the flames from the burning building, were rushing to assist the dwindling defenders at the Camp's front gate. Once the flames died down, he crossed the 50 meters of no-man's land that stretched between the forest and the camp, then spent a few terrifying moments cutting away at the outer fence.
He expected that history would record this as being the the only time someone had ever willingly broken into a concentration camp, then chuckled and discarded the thought. If he was successful, history would never know his actions tonight.
Once in the Camp, Crom kept low, ignoring the protests of his malnourished body and battered frame as he ducked between the prisoner housing buildings, gagging at the pervasive stink of human waste and death. He finally made it to his objective: solitary confinement. The boxes were only a square meter in size, built by efficient German engineers to be too cramped to afford sleep to the occupant, too hot to ensure their prolonged survival.
There was still a guard there, although his attention was clearly directed towards the conflict at the main gate. Crom crept to within a few meters, then pulled what had once been Erikson's Luger and took careful aim. A sudden explosion gave him cover enough to fire the weapon, and the guard was dead before he hit the ground.
Crom examined the dead guard for a moment before turning his attention to the solitary confinement cells. There were no locks on them, just a U-shaped metal rod that kept the door's latch in place. Crom removed the first one, and opened the cell.
The stench hit him like a solid blow. The man inside was old, beaten, and covered in his own filth. Across his frail body were wounds, untreated and infected, seeping pus. He held up his hands defensively, assuming from long experience that Crom was another German intent on visiting violence upon him.
“Please, I am to be having no threat to you,” the man said in broken German.
“I know,” Crom answered in fluent Yiddish.
Upon hearing his native language, the man's eyes lit up with hope. “You're not a German?” he asked.
“No,” Crom replied, “I'm not a German.”
“Then you're here to rescue us?”
Crom considered the question for a moment.
“I'm here to rescue us.” He gestured to the prisoner quarters, and then to himself.
He waited until a protracted staccato of machine gun fire could cover the sound of the gun's report before firing the Luger at the prisoner's head.
“Unfortunately,” he whispered with genuine sadness, “I'm not here to rescue you.”