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“Walter!” shouted the captain of the K-129. “Clean-up in the mess!”
I would make my mark on the world, even if it was only in removing the marks others had made on the mess floor.
I remember the day perfectly. It would be hard not to, after all, in the face of everything that happened that day.
Life aboard a submarine is universally recognized as brutal. It is an environment entirely unsuited to humans, where the machine is the only thing keeping you from a grisly and sudden death. That we then proceed to lob explosives at each other from the lack-of-safety that is our vessel just goes to show. I’m unsure what, exactly.
I was twenty by then, serving aboard one of the ships keeping the world safe from the westerners. If we were ever forced to fire, it would mean the end of the world. That was a prospect that thrilled and sickened, in approximately equal measures. But it was easy to forget about that, on the long patrols, the 70 day trips out of sight of land, away from people. Away from women.
There were plenty of messes to clean up.
The captain was a good man. Married back home, with a great future in the party if he kept his eyes on the prize. In the bloom of middle aged respect-gathering, salt and pepper beard, a father to his men. Well-trusted, and supremely capable. I was proud to work under him. Perhaps the best commanding officer I ever had.
The Captain didn’t make it.
In the mess, someone had spilled their breakfast, and a sticky mass of cottage cheese, honey, and jam was congealing on the floor. Submariners ate well, as was tradition; a fine meal was the best way to keep up morale in one of the most vulnerable and powerful positions in the sea. Bronski stood with his back against a wall, one foot up, his chocolate bar in one hand. The Kola was packed with roasted coffee beans and cola nuts, and tasted like a tiny slice of heaven. I personally hadn’t gotten my ration yet, and was feeling more than a little bit envious. “You don’t have something to do, Bronski?”
“Just finished cleaning the heads.”
I winced at that. That’s right. He’d drawn the short straw. Everyone on the ship had to clean something, and that roster was the same for the entire patrol. The meals were delicious, but what they left behind, not so much. “Right. How’s that treating you?”
“The next sixty days will be eventful.”
Bronski was a good man. He joined the navy, and put his pay towards his little sister’s treatment, making sure that she’d survive her tuberculosis as long as possible. His work on this submarine meant she was given a certain extra level of care that might well mean she’d have a real life.
Bronski didn’t make it.
“Hey, you two lovebirds, if you’re going to flirt, do it in your bunk,” said Yuri, leaning in the doorway, grinning. “Captain’s got an announcement for the men. Something to do with our orders this time around. Something different going on.”
“Hey, maybe we’re going to be exploring, eh? Finding some nice island full of cute native girls, all of whom are being exploited by capitalists,” said Bronski, grinning.
“Who knows?” said Yuri, lips quirked. He was a man of good humor, never afraid to clip the wings of the confident, or hearten those who were strained or stressed. A man of infinite patience with those around him, who met even the sharpest remarks with disarming good humor.
Yuri didn’t make it.
The intercom crackled to life as I cleaned. “Gentleman.” The three of us stood to attention, listening. “First, I want you to know how proud I am of you, as a crew. Of your actions in defending the State, of your loyalty and quick wit on each of our missions together. We exist to protect the world from an existential threat, an unchecked Western decadence that would crush us all. A lingering threat we know will die, but which hangs over us, threatening to drag the rest of the world with it.”
There was no shortage of patriotic fervor in the breasts of me and my companions. And then it all went wrong.
“But there is more to our world than that. Threats that hang below the surface. Earlier this year, two Western submarines went silent, only to be found destroyed. The INS Dakar, and the French Minerve. Nearly simultaneous disappearances, across thousands of miles, in the Mediterranean and off the coast of France.”
The three of us exchanged bewildered looks.
“This ship has been equipped with a piece of American technology, recovered and reverse-engineered from the wreck of an experimental vessel. We are to attempt contact with the force believed to be responsible, to ask their purpose, and if need be, to take swift- punitive- action. I will be honest with you, men. Our chances of survival are low. Please secure yourself for turbulence. In twenty… nineteen…”
“Is he joking?” asked Bronski, eyes wide.
“I don’t think we should count on that,” said Yuri, nervously eying the bulkheads.
“Oh, shit,” I said, articulate as ever.
There was a humming sound that built gradually, like a capacitator charging. The sensation of biting into a ball of tinfoil filled my head, and there was a moment where everything tasted off-blue. I tried to keep my balance, and found that I was already lying on the ground, feeling as though I’d been worked over in a boxing tournament. I tried to pull myself to my feet, feeling the submarine shake and shudder around us, as though vibrating very gently, small pieces of loose equipment rattling and shuddering on the ground. It slowed, gradually, until things were still again. I opened my mouth to ask if it was done.
There was a ferocious sound of screaming metal, and suddenly, water was pouring into the room. The submarine roared, and groaned, and the water pounded down, slamming me and Yuri and Bronski against the wall. I saw as a wrench flashed down and sank up to the handle in Yuri’s skull.
All that good humor and charm, gone in a flash, as a length of pitiless steel cored his head like an apple.
I was prepared to drown, but the water pouring into the vessel was strange. I opened my mouth, choking on seawater, only to find oxygen flooding my lungs, the darkness receding from the inside of my head. I pulled myself up, and kicked off the wall, Bronski following me up and out of the butchered vehicle. We reached the halfway point of the vessel.
The front half of the majestic boat was gone. The metal was sheared cleanly through. I had no idea where it had gone, nor the men aboard it, but I did not think either were in good shape. Men- some injured, some dead, some still moving- floated in the water above us, and more were streaming out of the stricken vessel constantly. I couldn’t do much more than stare in shocked silence as the men gathered together.
My first warning that something new was wrong was when blood curled into my view, spreading through the water. I turned, and found Bronski clutching at his chest. A brightly colored piece of jagged coral emerged from just between his ribs on the left side. He opened and closed his mouth, trying to say something. I thought I recognized the word ‘sister’ on his lips.
She died in the hospital. I never got to see her to tell her how her brother died.
They moved through the water like sharks. Sleek black bodies, vaguely piscine and vaguely humanoid, and notably refusing to commit to either extreme. Coated in what looked like black tar, glowing yellow eyes flashed in the murky water, coral-tipped spears and strange saw-toothed blades in their hands. They set upon the men. Blood filled the water.
A human being is not designed to fight in water. On land, I thought the crew might have stood a chance, though perhaps we would have been decimated anyway. There were a lot of the strange swimming monsters. But underwater, where leverage and balance and gunpowder failed, we were cut to pieces.
“We surrender, damn you!” shouted the captain. “Do you understand me, you butchers?! We surrender!”
The blade went through his throat. I never found out what happened to his family. What they did without him. I tried to find out. But many loose ends went unsatisfied in my life.
One of the creatures lunged towards me. I brought my fist across in a right cross, stunning it, but another one came in from the side. Its spear went into my chest on the left side, and blood filled my mouth.
I shouldn’t have made it. But I did. I have always been cursed that way.
I awoke, an unknown time later. The cage was roughly spherical, formed from bars of coral that grew in uneven patterns. More like a thorn bush than a prison, but so dense that it nonetheless would be impossible to escape. The coral was razor sharp, forcing me to float, and punishing any thoughtless movements with incredibly painful slashes and cuts. It was a cruel form of captivity, which told me everything I needed to know. So I hung in the water, and practiced regulating my breathing.
“Well,” murmured my captor, in impeccable Polish, his eyes fixed on me. “You are still alive, then?”
I didn’t dignify that with a response, simply breathing in and out.
“We found the weapons in your vessel. Such malign gods you brought into our realm. And the trickery you used to ease your way past our Keeper of Gates. You humans have been busy indeed, haven’t you? Had we not sensed you coming, you could have done us great harm. Unfortunately, your power is rivalled by your hubris. You did not even attempt to hide the passage, did you?”
I looked up. The… thing, was vaguely humanoid. Resembling little so much as a swordfish given human shape. The sight would have been almost comical, the fin rising along the head like a shock of hair on some absurd aristocratic figure, the long and sharp-edged bill jutting out a good three feet. A scar ran down the right side of the creature’s face, through its right eye. That eye was a brilliant iridescent color, a pearl. The whole thing could make me laugh, if I hadn’t just watched everyone I worked with, everyone I knew and cared about, butchered by these things.
My hand tightened into a fist. I watched the creature silently, as it waited for a response. When none was forthcoming, it sighed, and continued.
“You aren’t of much use, are you? You wouldn’t have any information that we can use. Look at you. That cranium probably can barely carry a thought. We would be doing you a favor to wipe you all out.” He leaned his head to one side. He was not clothed, simply standing there, mostly naked, his skin tattooed in patterns I did not recognize.
“We came here in peace,” I said.
“Did you, now? Forty years of probing, attacks, and then butchering our citizens, and you came in peace, bearing malign gods meant to salt our lands, to savage us?”
“Only butchering I saw was what you did.”
“Hah! Your kind. Your… filthy, disgraceful kind.” The thing narrowed its eyes at me. “We used to be supreme in your world. You know that? We ruled, wisely. Justly. We controlled your Earth, ruling across the oceans. We watched you develop on the dirt. We watched your kind build your puny little imitation cities. Mocking us. We did not care. We were above it. But then, you grew proud. You drove us out.” He let out a slow sigh. “And what have you done with the stewardship of our world? Polluted its lands. Wasted its resources. Vermin.”
I didn’t answer him. I was not a talker. I was not an arguer. I just memorized the contours of that inhuman face.
“It really only makes sense. You pollute the seas relentlessly. Even if we return to the Earth, it will not be ours while your kind still dwells there. We need living room. Space to grow.” The thing chuckled. “It is not our way, but you have left us little choice.”
“We don’t even know you exist,” I said. “You could speak to us.”
“Does one negotiate with the feral beasts inhabiting a building? Does one consult the bacteria in one’s gut before taking a shit?” The thing sighed. “You started this war. Your kind. You are responsible for this. Do you think I want to make the deals that I have? To see good, decent Atlanteans, those who have died- corrupted, by that thing? That embodiment of all that is loathsome and foul?” He shook his head silently. “We have been forced to desperate acts by you. You will take responsibility for that. And all it costs you shall be on your head. Don’t worry, though. It will be over quick for you. The rest of your kind… less so.”
“What for me, then? Public execution?”
“Not quite. Do not be frightened. You are an impure thing, but that is a temporary state of life. A punishment for some crime you committed in a past life. When you die, your soul properly cleansed, you will become one of us. If you are fortunate, at least. You may wind up as a mindless animal, confessedly. But you will still be better off than being a human.”
He opened the cage. I kicked out, ignoring the lashing pain as my shoes were torn to shreds, bloody cuts opened in my feet as they struck the coral, lunging for the thing. He swished his nose through the air, and caught me a blow on the side of the head that would leave a hell of a scar, and which pitched me into unconsciousness. The last things I heard were his voice, fading out.
“When all of your kind are gone, we shall be free to grow once ag-”
When I came to, I knelt in the middle of a massive chamber. My arms bound behind me in something tight, painfully so. I looked up at an unfamiliar group. More of those fish-things. They spoke uncertainly. There seemed to be some disagreement. Standing over me was a woman- broadly, anyway- with long, kelp green hair, and a saw-toothed blade like the one that had killed my companions. My eyes danced across the room, taking in countless trophies, objects that stood out to me. I’m not sure why, but one of them stood out more than the others. Something like a mass of black caviar, or the world’s worst piece of jerky.
“Fascist sons of bitches,” I growled, because a man’s last words should be spitting defiance. Her eyes flicked from me, to one of the other things, and then back. She said something in a language I didn’t recognize, but it sounded apologetic. I braced myself for the end, whatever shape that would take.
The sword swept down, to one side, and tore open the sea. The water rushed, yanking me to one side, and I tumbled, end over end, falling onto the ground. Surf rolled loudly, and cold assaulted me, vicious and frigid. I was dressed only in my jacket and my pants, both inundated in water. I shivered viciously, and when the sound of an alarm went up, I whispered a silent thanks to the gods.
The next twenty years were a special kind of hell. The kind of hell where you learn how deep corruption and disloyalty can go. I did not think of those days much, if I could manage it.
The KGB had either not believed my story, or not cared about it. I was blamed for the sinking of K-129, and the loss of all hands. The specifics did not matter. They put me in a hole in the ice. For twenty years, there were only two things that kept me sane. Only two things that let me avoid breaking into screaming fits, that kept me from breaking on the ice.
One of these two things was the threat. The fucking fascist fish. Their excuses were all too familiar, things I’d learned about growing up, things that had scarred everywhere I had ever lived. They had to be stopped. Someone had to know about them. Or else, what they had done to the K-129 was just the beginning. They had murdered everyone I cared about, full of overweening pride because they’d butchered flailing sailors who hadn’t known what to expect. But the next time, I’d know.
The other thing was the lingering question of what had saved me. How I had wound up on that beach, and why. What had intervened to save me, and what it had seen in my life that made it worthwhile.
Every day, every night, I dreamed of breaking those things. I fought, a lot. I trained, a lot. It’s not easy to build muscle in a starvation climate, but I found ways to earn the extra rations. Every night, that comical swordfish face swam before me in my dreams. Every day, I fought bare-knuckled. I grew old, and hard, like teak. Hair turned grey by the time I was 30.
In the face of certain things, there can be no discussion. No compromise. No conversation. The fish were such a thing. Like Nazis, you could not converse with them, because that requires equality. You have to believe your foe has something to tell you in order to solve things nonviolently.
They would have to be destroyed. Torn down. They would take back our world, and kill us all, if they were not. Every day, I feared that I would awake to find they had done it, that we were going to be destroyed. That I was too late.
It may be odd to gloss over twenty years in Siberian prison. But that is the nature of such prisons. It may seem strange to you that I was not more enraged at my imprisoners, my own people. But they did not matter so much to me.
The Soviet Regime fell. Capitalism won, more merciless and more predatory than Communism could ever hope to be. It won the souls of the country. And it won me. Because when the Soviet Union fell, corruption reigned. And into that corruption came my savior.
It was late one night when he arrived. It had been a rough day. I was bleeding, as I often did. I could take more abuse than other men. Ever since that day when the things had attacked the ship, when I should have died but did not, it seemed as though I would recover from almost anything. Perhaps you could recover from anything, if you refused to die. That which could not kill you makes you stronger, and if nothing could kill you…
Or perhaps I could not die while I knew those things were still out there.
“Hello,” said a man, in perfect and unaccented Russian. He was tall, handsome, white-haired, and he had one arm. He wore a jacket with the arm pinned to the side, and a hunting rifle was slung over the stump. His face was lined, leathery, his eyes the most striking blue. He looked down at me. I looked back up at him. He nodded his head towards my face. “That looks like it hurts.”
I reached up, and found a trail of blood running down slowly, tracing a line around my nose. I breathed out a sigh, and found blood flecking my lips. I shrugged.
“Not good to ignore pain. It tells you when something’s damaged. Keeps you from damaging it worse.”
“Pain’s fine. When it’s useful. When it’s not…” I leaned back, staring up at him. “This a ‘Most Dangerous Game’ thing?”
“You going to hunt me? Take me to a tropical island, I survive three days, I get away? Read that book once. Contraband, but a great story. Always disappointed, though. The American beats the Russian in a game of death?” I grinned. “Where’s the realism in that?”
“I’m not here to kill you.” The man studied me silently. “I read your files when they were declassified. Well, I say declassified. More of a bribe, but you know how things are.”
I chuckled. “Respect the honor of his youth,” I said in Polish, and saw the lack of comprehension on his face. “Old habits die hard,” I explained, back in Russian.
“Aaah. I know that well.” He smiled, shrugging his stump. “When I lost my arm, I had a lot of people try to convince me to learn how to use a pistol, instead. Something that I could fire one-handed properly. Instead, I taught myself how to fire and load a rifle with one hand.”
“Same reason you refused to tell those KGB agents what they wanted to hear. Same reason you stayed in this prison, fighting and making yourself stronger, for decades, as the world ran past you. Same reason everything worthwhile in this world is done.” The man grinned. “To spit in the eye of those who think they know better.”
I stared at the man slowly. “What was it that took your arm?”
“That?” He grinned. “Nasty thing. It would’ve been around the same time that your submarine went down. On a mission with an organization, into Canada. we came across this cannibal cult. They worshipped an object. A piece of meat, blackened, desiccated, about the size of a fist. Sound familiar? It was mentioned in those debriefings.”
I stared at him.
“I believe you. I believe you because one of those fucking things was with those cannibals. He was making humans into these… fucking gigantic white-furred monsters, with that thing. Turning them into cannibalistic psychopaths. He found it funny, making us kill each other, watching us eat each other.” He was silent for another few seconds. “That make sense to you?”
“What do you want?” I asked, my voice low, the heat burning in my chest, my hands clenched into fists, remembering that sword-nosed prick.
“I want to stop them. I want to break them. I want to crush their civilization, break their bones, and make sure that they never threaten humanity again. Bring them to heel. That’s what the Order of Set does. We make the monsters sorry they ever left the dark.” His fist was clenched, mirroring mine. He stared down at me. “You’ve been waiting for a long time for this chance.” He held his hand out, through the bars, into the darkness. I loomed up, and stepped towards him. He didn’t flinch for a moment. I took his hand, shook it once, and nodded.
“What is your name?”
“John Pertwee,” the man said, and grinned. “You?”
“Walter. Walter Kravitz.” I looked up. “I suppose I will have to go to America.”
“Yes. It would be helpful if you have some skills that you might use to stay unnoticed.”
“I am handy with a broom,” I suggested, head tilted to one side.
“Well, I’m sure we can make something out of that. At least your heart’s in the right place.”
“Horace?” asked John. His voice was rougher, nowadays, but twenty-five years could do that to you.
“Yes. Horace Creed. The one you told me about.”
“Haven’t seen her.”
“Doesn’t surprise me. My contacts tell me that the Esoteric Forces have some big operation going down in the Caribbean, in the middle of that god-fucking hurricane. Considering that one of their code-words was ‘Queen of the Jungle’, not hard to guess where she is. Damned shame, she would have been a game-changer for this one.”
“They’re making their move.” I looked down at the body, rolled up in the carpet and balanced on the edge as I stood on the bridge at the river-mouth leading into the reservoir. Old Zeke. The man had eaten himself to death. “I had to kill a man.”
“You know what it’s like. Once someone becomes one of those things… Nobody comes back from that.”
“I know.” I sighed. “Sad.”
“Isn’t it always?”
“Yes. Doesn’t get less so.” I gently kicked Zeke’s body off, into the water. It vanished down into the black water.
Old Zeke didn’t make it.
“No way to find the contaminant?” I asked softly.
“None. Still haven’t determined how exactly they’re poisoning the food. I’m sorry.”
“We should’ve been able to do more for him,” I growled. “But just another reason to make them pay.”
I sighed, and looked up at the cold black night sky. The dog days of summer were about to end, and there was a cold bite in the air. It reminded me of home, and that made me angry. But most things did, nowadays.
“So. No Bastet. Can we still stand a chance?”
“Maybe. If we get everything into place. They’re accelerating their timeline, and that’s not good news. I think we can still win this if we get a decisive first strike in. I was in talks with an arms-dealer, but- Well, suitcase nukes, they’re not exactly common.” He was quiet for a moment. “I don’t like the idea of sacrificing you, Walter.”
“One man dying to cripple a hostile nation. Those are good odds.” I leaned back against the old, rusty pick-up truck that reminded me so much of home, and kicked it in the fender for good measure. “The boy. Is he of any use?”
“He could turn the tide.”
“I don’t know about that. He nearly got ripped open by the Wendigo-”
“Don’t say the name. Never know who might be listening.”
“Alright. But he’s no fighter.”
“He makes people stronger. Gives them something worth fighting for. That boy…” John was silent for a moment. “If he’s anything like his old man, like his uncle, then he’s our best hope.”
“Doesn’t seem much like it, from what little I saw of those two men. That boy is crying for his mother.” I snorted. “Mind you. When it was not his life in danger, but that of someone around him… He hobbled the thing. Good swing.” I was quiet for a moment. “Wrong start, bad end.”
“Let’s hope not,” chuckled John. “I’ll see you soon.”
I hung up the small flip-phone, and leaned back on the pick-up’s hood, staring up at the sky. The faces of the men who I’d been friends with flashed before me. All the men I’d lost. They didn’t make it.
I wouldn’t make it either.
But neither would the fish.
And I could accept that.