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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER SEVEN:

 

Schloss Rauenstein
Kingdom of Saxony, German Reich
September 12th, 1916(b)

 

“About a thousand men,” Luz murmured to herself—and to Ciara.

They were to one side of the group of German officers who’d disembarked on the hilltop two kilometers from the castle, and apart from a single glance and nod from Horst unacknowledged once they arrived. Colonel Nicolai and his two subordinates had immediately been swept near to Germany’s warlords and de-facto rulers.

It’s as if we had some peculiarly virulent and female form of head-lice, Luz thought. Or possibly just contagious girly-ness.

It wasn’t a novelty, but it was irritating, amusing and in this context, useful.

Whatever Ciara Whelan’s doing, thinking and thinking of doing, I need to know and quickly. She holds my life and the mission in her hands—she could always change her mind and at the very least make them do checks that would have them lock me up and eventually break my cover. She’s an interesting case. Quick-thinking, to keep Colonel Nicolai in the dark like that. ¡Me salvé por un pelo de rana calva!

The Boston-Irish girl nodded tightly, holding each of her elbows with the opposite hand. She was wearing a sleeveless calf-length cloak-jacket with a rabbit-fur collar and slits for the arms, good quality but altered to fit her and at least six or seven years old, and of a brownish color that clashed with the blue of her skirt and jacket. Like everything else about her it virtually screamed solid lower-middle-class respectability, of the sort that didn’t go hungry but had to watch the pennies relentlessly to keep up appearances.

Luz had on a camelhair trenchcoat, a female-styled copy of what British officers wore in the actual trenches, and for a wonder sturdy and useful as well as stylish—one of life’s little nuisances was that women’s clothing, while prettier than men’s and these days sometimes more comfortable, was usually less solidly made. It was moderately coolish on the top of this hill, with a steady wind from the north and patches of cloud in that peculiarly European whitish-blue sky. She estimated that they were at nearly two thousand feet, and autumn would come early to these upland valleys. The road to this location had been good graded dirt but also something hacked out recently along an old sheep-track, possibly by the very men they saw in the enclosures below.

“Mother of God, but I wish I didn’t have to see this. The animals were bad enough,” Ciara said softly, as if to herself, and in English.

American born, Luz confirmed to herself. But first-generation, with Irish parents, and raised in a neighborhood with plenty of other immigrants in it.

“Courage,” Luz said equally quietly; something perfectly in character... and necessary. “What will happen, will happen; it’s not in our power to change it.”

Who does she think I am? Logically, she must think that I’m someone impersonating Elisa Carmody. And logically, that would be an American government agent; a Black Chamber operative, in other words. ¡Ay! But I certainly can’t tell for sure... I think she’s intelligent, too, but she’s a civilian and under terrible pressure. Not out of the woods yet there, mi corazón. But best of all, she needs me to be her hope in a desperate hour, and people see what they need to see, if you give them the slightest help. Fortunately I’m usually very good at getting people to like me, but...

The question hammered at her, and she pushed it down with an act of will. It was utterly impossible to find out right now and she had other business.

So concentrate on what you can do.

She could observe.

The hilltop was crowded with about a score of German military men, von Bülow and Ciara and her; she had a distinct impression there would have been more hangers-on were it less secret. Von Hindenburg was unmistakable, a massive bemedalled figure with an even more massive square Baltic head on a bull neck and broad shoulders, graying blond hair cropped an inch long showing when he lifted his spiked helmet for a moment, and a huge gray handlebar mustache. There was a wart over his left eye, and with a different expression he could have been a plump indulgent grandfather; the one he had on now, and the context, made him a good model for a statue of the Archetypical Prussian Military Brute.

The Iron Titan, she thought. The hammer of the Russians and savior of East Prussia and conqueror of the Baltic and Poland and White Russia and the rest of OberOst.

He pointed downslope with his walking-stick. “These men,” he said. “They are not prisoners of war? That would be entirely unsuitable!”

“No, Herr General,” Nicolai said, prompted by a sharp glance from the other general.

Erich von Ludendorff—the von was a courtesy, since he had noble connections but no title of his own—was younger, shorter and slimmer than the senior of Germany’s ruling pair, in his fifties, and according to reports the brains of the partnership, the supreme military technician. He’d taken the citadel of Liège in Belgium by cool bluff, back in the opening days of the war, walking up to it and hammering on the front door with the hilt of his sword. His eyes were among the coldest Luz could remember ever seeing, and she had met some exemplary specimens.

Nicolai filled in the details: “They are Czechs who killed their officers and allowed themselves to be overrun at the beginning of Brusilov’s offensive, and then went over to the Russians—enlisting with them to fight against the Central Powers for separatist reasons.”

Which turned out to be a very bad bet by these Czechs, Luz thought. And letting themselves be retaken alive... even worse.

Brusilov was far and away the best of the Czar’s commanders, and his attack had gone well for almost exactly two weeks of chasing unenthusiastic Austrian troops taken by surprise amid what were for once meticulous Russian preparations. Then it had run into a force the Germans had been preparing for an attack of their own, under General Von Mackensen, the victor in Russian Poland last year and in Serbia in 1914, when a German commander had been Bulgaria’s price to enter the war on Austria’s side. The result had been rout and massacre.

Whatever this mystery Loki weapon is, I hope it’s quick.

The German faces all went bleaker as Nicolai told the tale; the Czechs had violated their military oaths to the Austrian Emperor as soldiers, something the breed around her took very seriously indeed.

“Ach, so,” Hindenburg said. “Traitors and rebels, their lives forfeit. Condemned?”

“To death, General,” Nicolai said. “By Austrian summary field court martial before being handed over to us.”

“Very well.” Hindenburg sighed mountainously. “This is not a knightly struggle, but we do what we must for the Fatherland. Proceed.”

He peered a hundred yards down the slope, to an apparatus simple to the point of starkness; a steel platform with an adjustable, pivoting rod of steel two inches thick jutting up from it. Troops with the black waffenfarbe branch-of-service of pioneers—combat engineers and likely to be tasked with any technically demanding job or new weapon—were, with extreme care, sliding a shell-like object onto the rod, which went into a tube in its base; there was a ring of fins around it as well. That meant a spigot mortar, with a charge in the base of the shell providing the propulsive force. Hindenburg peered with interest at the procedure.

“That shell the Pioneer-Versuchskompanie have set up is only about twenty kilograms,” he said. “It does not contain enough gas to affect such a large target.”

“This would not be a sufficient quantity of chlorine or even phosgene, no,” Von Bülow said, and cleared his throat. “But it is more than enough of the Breath of Loki agent, even mixed with some chlorine as a dispersant.”

There were a few quiet snorts at the code-name. Von Bülow flushed and added:

“This Vernichtungsgas... Annihilation Gas... operates on entirely new principles. The previous war gasses burn and scald, essentially, particularly the mucus membranes of the throat and lungs. Their action is... mechanical. This one is derived from a fortunate accident while experimenting with organophosphate compounds for killing insect pests in our African colonies under the Kaiser Wilhelm Gesellchaft. A laboratory accident in early 1914 showed its extraordinary effects on human subjects, though fortunately only on the clumsy native laborers who dropped the equipment.”

“You are saying the new gas does not cause direct damage to tissues, then?” Ludendorff said; he had a reputation as a patron of new technologies. “A true poison, systemic?”

Von Bülow nodded eagerly. “Its action is directly on the nervous system. Concentrations as low as five parts per million are lethal for any mammal, and need not be breathed—a touch anywhere on uncovered skin will do.”

There was a murmur of awe and horror at that. Commanders lived by numbers, and they were all mentally calculating the amount necessary to kill... which was one miniscule droplet too small to see, too light to be actually felt. A single shell could carry the death of a thousand men, if it was dispersed evenly enough.

“Essentially it functions by turning off, blocking, the operations of the nerves that govern the heart and lungs. Smaller concentrations can cause permanent paralysis, dementia and other symptoms. The agent is colorless, odorless, is not very volatile in pure form but divides readily into very fine particles, and is highly persistent on cloth, wood, brick or stone structures, vegetation and soil.”

“How persistent?” Ludendorff asked sharply.

You could see that von Bülow wanted to say: as was outlined in the technical reports you were sent! He didn’t, merely continuing:

“From days to months even on exterior surfaces, depending on how high the temperature, how much exposure to sunlight and how much rainfall. In a cool sheltered space that is not detoxified with steam or very hot water and chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, indefinitely.”

“Or at least,” he added pedantically, “as long as we have had the time to test. Up to a year. Decontamination workers require full protection, sealed rubber suits and air filters.”

The Quartermaster-General’s brows went up. “An ideal weapon for denying the use of an area to the enemy. And of very great effect on morale, particularly when first employed and unfamiliar. A terror-weapon of extreme frightfulness.”

Colonel Nicolai clicked his heels. “Exactly, Herr General. There were many problems with full-scale production, problems of purity of materials and quality control, but these have been solved. The shock and frightfulness is why it is important that the effect not be frittered away by piecemeal introduction as we did with the other war gasses, but saved for one massive, decisive blow.”

“Yes, yes,” Hindenburg said brusquely. “Carry on.”

Luz made herself look down to the hollow at the base of the slope more than a thousand yards away. The men there were sitting and standing or wandering aimlessly within a barbed-wire enclosure marked by guard towers at its four corners; within were crude board barracks, looking even from here as if you could stick your fingers through the gaps between the planks. There were German machine-gunners in the towers, but even as she watched they dismounted their light, easily carried Lewis guns, went briskly down ladders leading outside the encampment and joined the men at the gates in clambering into a Benz motor truck—itself evidence of the priority this had, given how short of such transport Germany was. They left quickly with an engine growl audible even more than a thousand yards away; they probably hadn’t been told what was about to happen, just to get out of the way without wasting time... and they probably also suspected something ghastly and were leaving just as fast as was physically possible. In their situation she’d have done exactly the same thing.

The Pioneers came up the hill, leaving the spigot mortar alone, which surprised Luz slightly. Ciara spoke softly:

“Electrical detonator,” she said, and pointed. “The wire leads up here, see?”

Luz did, and looked back at the younger woman with a raised brow.

“I’m interested in mechanical and electrical things,” she said, blushing and mumbling. “My brother was too. I studied his textbooks and took correspondence courses and we used to work on things together.”

“Good for you!” Luz said sincerely, and thought she saw surprise at the praise.

The sergeant in charge of the pioneer detail saluted an officer in his branch of service, who used a field telephone before turning to Colonel Nicolai.

“The metrological office still predicts a consistent strong wind from the north for the rest of the day, Herr Oberst.”

Nicolai looked at the switch in the man’s hand. For a moment Luz thought he was considering offering his commanders the honor of pressing it, then probably wisely thought better of the notion.

“Please take your observation stations, gentlemen,” he said instead.

Then turning his head towards Luz and offering his own field glasses, which she took: “And ladies.”

There were half a dozen tripod-mounted instruments, like binoculars with eyestalks that also acted as range estimators. The senior officers took them, while their subordinates used their own binoculars. In a formidable display of cool self-command—his reputation and position would be riding on this—Nicolai simply stood with his arms crossed, waiting.

“Ready?” he said. “Very well, lieutenant. Now.

The combat engineer did one last calm meticulous visual check that the area around the spigot mortar was vacant; it should be safe there anyway, and he’d done it before, but there was something to be said for an infinite capacity for taking pains. Especially when you worked with deadly things every day... though rarely as deadly as this.

The man’s hand clenched the pistol-grip-like mechanism at the end of the cord, and his thumb came down on the button atop it.

There was a sharp but not particularly loud metallic bamp! sound. The bomb from the spigot-mortar flew up in a long arc, just fast enough to be blurred, leaving a donut shape of dust behind on the ground. Luz didn’t try to follow it, focusing instead on the camp. The binoculars were fine Zeiss models and didn’t need much adjustment for her; evidently Colonel Nicolai still had excellent vision, though not as good as her twenty-ten. The shell burst about two hundred feet up, fine fusing but not very hard with plenty of time to adjust and a known range to target. Tendrils of green shot out in every direction, and she remembered von Bülow saying that they used chlorine to help disperse the heavier Loki agent.

The Czechs were unremarkable-looking men still mostly in ragged pike-gray Austrian uniforms, though with bits and pieces of Russian gear and the odd blanket roll over the shoulder. Most of them had been relieved of their boots, and had rags around their feet instead. You couldn’t tell a Czech from an Austrian-German to look at anyway, both being mostly generic Middle Europeans. The most notable thing about them was that they looked distinctly underfed, but that wasn’t very extraordinary these days either. They were alert enough, though: when the spigot mortar went off plenty of them hit the dirt with veteran speed. They recognized the green of chlorine gas immediately too. Despite shouts of rage and fear nearly every man had a wet cloth over his mouth within thirty seconds, some taking the direct approach and peeing on them... which actually worked, with chlorine, since urea helped neutralize it.

The invisible stuff von Bülow had christened the Breath of Loki fell, drifting downward in tiny droplets through the air. One man fell over, twitched, and went limp as his heart seized after a contraction. Others tried to gasp and found their lungs weren’t working and choked. Another, further towards the wire, twitched and then went into convulsions, his head nearly touching his heels in an arc that must have broken his spine. Others dropped and purged and vomited and frothed as if their bodies were trying to expel every drop of fluid from every orifice as they writhed. One ran into a guard-tower’s post... over and over and over again. More and more near the center of the camp simply fell, struggled to breathe for a few seconds, and died. Terror spread outward like the unfolding of a malignant rose, but few had enough time to run far.

The sound of screaming was audible even on the hilltop, but only for a little while.

“Let me have those,” Ciara said quietly.

Luz lowered the binoculars. “They’re dying, Miss Whelan,” she said flatly. “Badly but quickly. You don’t need to know any more.”

“I do. I came here. I volunteered to come here, though I didn’t know... I should see, deserve to see.”

Luz sighed and handed them over. She took calming breaths, holding them for a second and then letting them go. She was feeling lightheaded and more than a little nauseous herself, and she’d seen violent death in many forms for years now.

The memory that prompted was one that made her wince even now; the Revolucionarios had taken a Chamber operative and staked him out over an ant-heap with his skin slashed in sensitive places to start the process of being eaten alive. They’d found him about two days later.

So this is just... bigger. But it’s all new for her and I suspect self-punishing Catholic guilt added in, she thought.

Luz was technically Catholic herself, of course, but neither of her parents had been more than formally and unthinkingly religious, confessing and attending Mass when those about them expected it. She’d gone through a fervent phase at about twelve when she’d been full of the presence of God and the Virgin and sure she wanted to be a nun, specifically a Daughter of Charity, but it had worn off gradually. Her mother had seemed to expect that, as if it was something girls went through, and had humored her. What faith was left after time and education hadn’t survived her parents’ deaths.

This Ciara probably has a more serious case, grew up in a neighborhood under the thumb of strict Jansenist Irish priests where everyone or at least everyone female confesses and goes to Mass every single week. And I doubt she’s ever seen anyone killed before, much less a massacre. But it’s her decision.

Ciara leveled the binoculars, and gave a small gasp. Her hands were shaking; she lowered the instrument, then raised it again and held the view by main force of will.

“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death,” she said.

Then she dropped the binoculars—Luz caught them just before they hit the ground—ran a dozen paces and dropped to her knees behind a tattered bush, bending over and retching uncontrollably. None of the German officers spared her even a glance; but then, they were pointedly ignoring one of their own number who was doing exactly the same thing, with the addition of sputtering curses between the heaves, and he was a middle-aged veteran with a Merit Medal.

Luz handed the binoculars back to Colonel Nicolai, with a smilingly courteous:

Vielen Dank für alles, Herr Oberst. A most interesting demonstration, and everything that the Herr Privatdozent promised. A weapon of great power.”

That seemed to leave him a little impressed, and amused. Then she walked quickly over to where Ciara was kneeling, stopping only by a younger officer to snap:

“Your canteen and your flask, please, Oberleutnant.”

The man handed them over automatically, only starting to think about it once she had them in her hands. Then she knelt by the younger woman, holding her with an arm across the collarbones and with her other making sure her long hair didn’t come down into the way of the heaves. Those subsided to dry retches, and Luz wiped her face with a handkerchief—she always carried at least four clean ones, good practical sea-island cotton and of substantial size—and then let her hold it against her lips as the retching turned to quivers.

“Here,” she said, opening the canteen. “Rinse your mouth out with this, and spit. Now sip some of the liquor.”

She sniffed at it herself; it was pear brandy, and good quality; the sweet-strong scent cut through the sour stink of vomitus.

“Be careful! Now a little more.”

Ciara obeyed, took a swallow and coughed, then one more, successfully blinking back tears.

“Thank... thank you,” she said. “Thank you very much. I’m being such a noodle.”

Luz handed her a second handkerchief, sipped a little of the brandy herself, then helped her rise and sat her down on some trunk full of equipment, quelling an orderly with a glare and giving him the containers to hand back to their donor.

“I’ve seen some very bad things, Miss Whelan,” Luz said quietly. “And that was as bad as any of them. The more credit to you, in fact, that you can’t look on it unmoved.”

The officers had seen enough too; there wasn’t any more movement from the camp, except for a few figures hanging on the wire and going through what looked like epileptic seizures and one man crawling out of a barracks door, rising for two steps and then falling on his face. His legs kept running in that position for twenty strides, as if moved by some unseen machinery.

Luz walked back and waited until Horst had a moment to spare.

“That was bad,” he said. “No more so than a battalion’s worth of artillery catching the same number of troops in the open, just easier to do, but... bad.”

Luz nodded; objectively he was perfectly correct. When human beings fought to kill, there weren’t many good ways to go. She’d seen a man take a bullet just behind the eyes once, and have them both pop out of the shattered sockets and hang there while he ran screaming Mama! Mama! and bouncing off walls and doors until someone on his own side gave him a mercy-shot in the back of the head...

...but it didn’t feel very true. And if they were planning on using it as she suspected...

Horst’s eyes went to Ciara Whelan. “That was kindly done,” he said.

Luz shrugged. “She’s young and very naïve,” she said. “She’ll learn to deal with it. We do, ja? And then we go on. I’d better stay with her. I can’t attend your conference, after all.”

“Ja, it was decided that only military personnel should be present.”

She dropped into English for the American saying: “No girls in the tree-house.”

Horst nodded, missing the point. “I’ll get you transport... and tell you about the conference later. It’ll be just like being there, but without the boredom.”

 

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