The results of the poll were tied between yes, the Japanese are involved, and no, they aren’t. I accepted this challenge and hopefully this next chapter will satisfy that response as I try and balance these two extremes.
Once you’re done reading don’t forget to answer the question at the bottom to help decide what happens next.
His boots were uncomfortable. Clothes, which just yesterday hung loose on his withered old frame, now chafed, but the ill-fitting boots were the worst part. Iliya trudged a short way behind a handful of German soldiers, little more than boys really, at the rear of a larger column heading south. These were broken men, worn down by months of fighting. Poor diet, difficult terrain, freezing weather, and the enemy had taken their toll on these unfortunates. Iliya had watched the men for hours, they were but pale shadows of the eager young soldiers who marched north just a few months before.
He’d seen their kind before, many times over many years. From Charles the Twelfth and his Swedes, to the French under Napoleon, the Nazi’s weren’t the first enemy who’d been broken on the Russian front, and he suspected that they wouldn’t be the last.
He was thankful for their despondency, without it they might have noticed him shadowing them. Haunted by the things they’d seen and done, the men around him barely acknowledged one another. Their attention was focussed inward, each one reliving the horrors they’d witnessed and the depravations they’d suffered.
War was such a terrible thing, yet the humans seemed determined to fight them. Their short lifespans were a curse which allowed them to forget such horrors from one generation to the next, dooming them to an ongoing cycle of death and destruction.
More humans had died since the treaty of 1899 gave the world to them, than had ever been killed under immortal rule. On that terrible day, when Iliya and the others signed that cursed document, the world for him was lost. He retreated from society to grow old and die.
Instead he walked, love for his family driving him to return to this death filled world the humans had created. The discomfort of his clothing aside, Iliya marvelled at the strength he now possessed. The vibrancy of youth was a welcome relief from decades of aches and pains. Even his hearing and eyesight had improved. No longer was the detail of a flower denied him, or the call of a bird circling high above. Things the years had stolen away so slowly he never noticed their absence, yet he marvelled at their return.
He looked again at the young men ahead of him, all of them oblivious to everything their youth gave them. That anyone would waste such a gift on war was inconceivable. Yet here they were, another generation of the lost striding toward a future that Iliya simply couldn’t understand.
But his daughter and grand-daughter needed him, so here he was following this line of squandered youth like a vulture. Waiting for one of the men to fall so that he could take his place.
# # #
The sun was still below the horizon when he and Leonard stepped onto the flight deck. Dougie was already there, having woken up an hour or so earlier to ready the plane for take-off.
A chill wind whipped at their faces as they strode across the deserted wooden deck to the plane.
“At least it’s calm,” Leonard said. He was still suffering some nausea so Kade suspected he was looking forward to finally leaving the ship.
“Still cold though.”
“Better get used to it. It’ll be worse once we’re on the island.”
Kade hugged his coat closer at the thought.
“Climb aboard,” Dougie instructed, barely glancing at them as he continued with his pre-flight inspection. “As soon as they turn the ship into the wind we’re leaving.”
Kade took note as Leonard climbed up onto the wing then levered himself into the rear of cockpit. Once he was strapped, in Kade followed suit taking the middle of the aircraft’s three seats leaving the front position empty. Dougie took his place a couple of minutes later and soon had the engine started.
“How long will the Essex wait for us?” Kade asked, having to shout to be heard over the engine noise.
“They aren’t waiting,” Dougie replied. “As soon as we’re in the air this ship will turn back south to re-join the fleet.”
“Then how do we get back?”
“We’ll fly back over the islands to Alaska, then head back to Washington from there.”
Kade scratched his head. “Why didn’t we arrive the same way?”
“The closest intersection to Tanaga is out here. It’s important that we don’t waste time travelling after you have transitioned.”
“Why is that?”
“You become weaker the longer you spend among us. It progresses slowly at first, but a week or so of travel could make the difference between success and failure. As it is we’re already a day behind schedule. Now, if you don’t mind, I have work to do.”
Dougie turned his attention back to the aircraft’s controls, and left Kade to think about what he’d said. The discs made no mention of any weakness. He could appreciate that space was limited, but surely something so important would warrant a mention. Kade resolved to review the discs again in case he missed it.
He closed his eyes and focussed on the double spiral, willing the telluric energy into his body. Power flowed in, filling him with strength just like it did the night before.
If he was becoming weaker he certainly couldn’t feel it.
“Strap yourselves in, gentlemen,” Dougie called. “We’re about to take off.”
# # #
Leonard knew better than to try and engage Dougie in idle conversation, and Kade seemed deep in thought with his head hunched over that necklace of his, so Leonard amused himself by looking out the window.
About thirty minutes after take-off they flew over what he assumed was the Japanese fleet that had been dogging them since the night of the storm. They were well out of AA gun range but his heart beat a little faster as he watched the ships slide by. By the time the sun crested the horizon they were little more than specks on the horizon.
The dawn was spectacular. The way the sun’s golden light painted the sky pink and made the water sparkle almost made him forget his apprehension. He found himself wondering if any of Japanese sailors down there might also be admiring the sunrise. After all, differences in politics or ideology were irrelevant to nature. Meanwhile, people on both sides of the planet were killing each other over them. Perhaps if more of us took the time to focus on our similarities, the world would be a better place.
The next hour and a half was uneventful, without so much as a cloud or even a bit of turbulence to break up the monotony of endless ocean and clear blue sky. So it was with some relief that Dougie announced that their destination was just ahead.
Leonard peered ahead, and spotted a low lying bank of cloud pierced by a snow covered rocky peak. “That’s it?”
“That’s it. The runway is a short distance from Lash bay, we’ll need to wait for the fog to clear before I try to land.”
“But that could take hours,” Leonard pointed out.
“We’ve got plenty of fuel, and once the sun gets a little higher it should burn away pretty quickly. Don’t worry, there’s a saying around these parts; if you don’t like the weather, just wait.”
So Leonard waited. Not that he had any say in the matter.
They flew in a large circle, eyes fixed on the grey smudge below. At first nothing seemed to change, but after about fifteen minutes Leonard noticed the odd patch of green showing through. Soon after, a piece of the island’s rocky shoreline became visible and the blanket of fog thinned. As soon as Dougie sighted the runway, he banked the aircraft sharply and started his approach.
“Is there a boat moored down there?” Kade asked as they descended.
“It’s not one of ours,” Dougie said. They were close enough now to see the flag; a red sun on a white field surrounded by sixteen rays. The ensign of the Imperial Japanese Navy.
Leonard recalled his conversation with Commander McCampbell. He didn’t give his argument much credence at the time but that ship changed everything. Perhaps the Japanese were responsible for those missing US personnel. “What now?” he asked. “We aren’t equipped to deal with a Japanese occupying force.”
Dougie pulled back on the controls and increased power to the engines, putting their plane into a steep climb. In seconds the ground was a long way beneath them once more. “We’ll do a circuit of the island,” Dougie said as they levelled out. “Let’s take a look around before we decide how to proceed.”
“I didn’t notice anyone moving down there.” Kade pointed out.
Dougie nodded. “Neither did I, and it’s strange that nobody shot at us. Even with the fog they would have heard us coming.”
“Maybe they all hid.” Leonard suggested.
“And leave the boat moored in plain sight?”
“Yeah, I don’t think it likely either.”
They flew around the island. Leonard knew it was big, but he didn’t realise quite how big. Lakes dotted the surface which was mostly comprised of thick grass and rolling hills. They flew around, and then between, the twin snow-capped peaks of the Tanaga volcano, which last erupted as recently as 1914. From there Dougie took them east, over Gusty Bay, then the aptly named Rough Bay, where the Bering Sea threw itself violently against the island’s rocky cliffs.
They flew for another hour, all three of them scanning the land below them. If anyone thought they spotted anything, Dougie would descend to allow for a closer look. Kade spotted what looked like smoke, but turned out to be steam from several hot springs on the east side of the island.
As far as they could tell from the air, Tanaga was deserted.
“I’m going to set us down,” Dougie said once they’d come back to abandoned base near Lash Bay.
The landing was rough.
Leonard knew it had nothing to do with Dougie’s skill as a pilot, he’d touched down on the deck of USS Essex with less bumps. But after a year of neglect even the best makeshift runway would have issues.
Dougie swung the plane around at the end of the runway, and kept the engine running in case they had to take off again. The three of them sat for several minutes, staring out the window, searching the surrounding area for any threat. They saw nothing. It seemed the base was really as deserted as it appeared.
Dougie killed the engine.
The sudden silence only added to Leonard’s unease.
Dougie threw the cockpit open and climbed out, heading straight for the cargo hatch where their weapons were stored, handing Leonard and Kade a rifle and pistol each as soon as they managed to clamber onto the ground.
Leonard slammed a clip into the top of the M1 Garand rifle, cocked and shouldered the weapon then dropped to one knee, ready to fire should a target present itself.
Kade stood beside him, looking strangely at the weapons he held. “What am I supposed to do with these?”
“Have you ever used a gun before?”
Kade looked at him flatly. “How would I know? I can’t remember anything before my appearance on the deck two days ago.”
“Let me take these,” Dougie said. “You finish unloading our supplies.”
Dougie took up a covering position similar to Leonard while Kade set about emptying the aircraft’s surprisingly large cargo hold. He removed several backpacks, a medical kit, ammunition, and a backpack fitted with three cylinders, one smaller than the others, and a hose.
“What’s this?” Kade asked, holding the unusual contraption up for Dougie to see.
“Em two dash two flame thrower.”
“The loss of Lieutenant Gray’s team demonstrate that bullets have only a limited impact on necroi. Fire, however, is an effective way to deal with them. Particularly if encountered in large numbers.”
“You certainly seem to have thought this through.”
Dougie’s lips curved up slightly. It was the closest Leonard had seen the man come to a genuine smile in a long time. “I like to be thorough.”
“Tell me again why you need me?”
“Necroi are a menace, but one we can deal with. They are both resilient and strong, but cannot act independently. We need you to deal with whatever is controlling them.”
“Fair enough. So what happens now?”
“I was hoping to get started on tracking our target immediately. But the presence of that Japanese boat changes things. We need to make sure the base is clear before we head out. I don’t like the idea of leaving potential enemies behind us.”
Kade’s brow furrowed. “I don’t know about that.”
“What’s the matter?” Leonard asked.
“I’m not comfortable with the idea of killing humans.”
“And what if they decide to try and kill us?” Dougie countered.
“I’ll do what I can to protect the two of you, but this isn’t my war. No matter what might be going on between your two countries, the Japanese are not my enemy.”
Dougie nodded. “I can accept that, as long as you agree that the mission is our number one priority.”
Steve hurriedly entered the meeting room after returning from his first cigarette break for the morning, one of the hourly breaks the rest of the office staff used to synchronise their watches. “Okay, people. What you see in this room, what you hear, everything that is discussed, stays in this room. Got it?” He looked around at each of those present, looked them in the eye, seeking confirmation they understood. Read the rest of this entry »
Thanks to your input, Hunter has now been made available as a complete book on Kindle with a proper paperback version coming in a few weeks via CreateSpace. The story has undergone a few changes during the editing process and it has also had an extra few pages added at the end to better round out the story. So if you are interested click on the cover image below to head over to amazon and pick up your copy.
If you enjoyed Hunter I have started sharing the prequel / sequel on this site as well. It is called Returned and the next instalment will be out in a few days. If you are interested in spending some more time with Kade please follow the link below to take you to chapter one of Returned.
Kade woke up in the small compartment, the vivid dream still clear in his mind, and wondered where he was. Above him, he could hear what sounded like an aircraft taking off and the memory of last night’s arrival returned. He pushed the curtain aside and awkwardly manoeuvred himself out of bed.
“Good afternoon, Kade.”
“Hello Leonard.” He stretched and let out a big yawn. “Afternoon? What time is it?” Despite just waking up he still felt tired.
“Nearly three o’clock,” Dougie replied. “You’ve been asleep for almost eleven hours.”
“It doesn’t feel like it.” Again came the buzz of aircraft engines. “What’s going on up there?”
“The storm has passed, and Captain Ofstie has the air wing running regular patrols so we can avoid the Japanese ships.”
“You must be hungry,” Leonard said. “I’ll get you something to eat.”
“No need for you to go, I’ll get it myself.”
Dougie shook his head. “I’m afraid that the Captain has confined you to quarters, Kade.”
“It’s the best way really. The fewer people you interact with the better for everyone. I know we can’t entirely keep your presence a secret, but this way at least there’s more rumour than there is fact.”
Kade nodded. “Fair enough. So what now?”
“Now, Leonard will fetch you something to eat while I brief you on why you’re here. Though I suspect that dream you had may already have told you.”
His eyes widened. “How do you know about my dream?”
“It’s part of your nature. You have been brought here for a specific purpose, and your dreams help you achieve that purpose.”
Kade thought back to the dream, the details were still incredibly clear. “Are you sure?”
“I don’t see how an old man rescuing village women from Nazis is at all related to why I’m here.”
Now it was Dougie’s turn to be confused. “That’s what you dreamed about?”
“Well, that is interesting,” the older man thought for a moment. “But just because we can’t see the connection immediately doesn’t mean it’s not relevant.”
Kade couldn’t argue with that. “Fair enough.”
Leonard chuckled. “I’ll be back with some food in a few minutes,” he said as he exited the cabin.
“So, to business,” Dougie began. “Approximately twelve months ago a team of Seabees landed on Tanaga Island to build a base the US could use in its war with Japan.”
“What’s a sea bee?”
“The US Navy’s Construction Battalion. The name is derived from the letters C and B in the name. Hence the term Seabee.”
“Okay, carry on.”
“As I was saying, the Seabees were tasked with building an airstrip and bas. One day, not long before construction was due to be completed contact with the Seabees was lost. At first it was believed that they were caught unawares by the japs, but a surveillance fly over showed that the base was intact, and there was no sign of any damage.”
“That is unusual.”
“Indeed. A team of four marines was dispatched to the island to try and figure out what happened. Because the possibility of Japanese involvement couldn’t be ruled out, theirs was a covert operation meaning they had limited radio contact. But when they failed to make their third scheduled contact they were declared missing.
“A third force of twenty men was sent, this time with orders to report their findings daily. Transcripts from their transmission tell us that they found the base abandoned. A search of the immediate area also revealed nothing so the team leader, a First Lieutenant Michael Grey, instructed his men to break into smaller groups and search the rest of the island.”
“How big is Tanaga?”
“A little over two hundred square miles, with an active volcano on the eastern peninsula.”
“Wow, that’s a lot of ground to cover.”
“And difficult too, since the island is often subject to thick fogs.”
“Sounds lovely. Did they find anything?”
“Nothing at first. Then came reports of figures moving at the edge of their vision. Several teams even fired on the phantom figures, but there were never any bodies found. As such the incidents were written off as a trick of the fog. Despite this, the men were spooked and Lt. Grey decided to keep his men together from then on.”
“Good thinking. It would have been easy for him to dismiss those claims given the lack of any real evidence.”
“Even so it wasn’t enough to save them. The lieutenant’s last report, transmitted six weeks ago, was a desperate cry for help amid the sounds of gunfire. His team encountered what he first thought were the missing American soldiers. Details are unclear but the people he found attacked his men. They fought back, but apparently the attackers couldn’t be killed. That’s how we got involved.”
“I see. Any idea what happened?”
“We can’t be sure of course, but what Lt Gray and his team seem to have encountered were necroi, a type of immortal construct we call the returned. Returned are essentially reanimated human corpses, they have limited intelligence, but are strong and difficult to put down.”
Kade shuddered. “Who would make such things?”
“I don’t know. Necroi have been banned under the treaty of ’99, but such an agreement wouldn’t stop an immortal of malicious intent from creating them. Whatever the case, it’s our job to go to Tanaga and found out.”
“What do you mean?”
“You, Leonard, and I will fly out tomorrow.”
“These things killed what, must be at least fifty US soldiers, and you think the three of us are going to stop them?”
Dougie raised a finger. “Ah, but we have you.”
# # #
The look on the faces of men in the galley said it all. This was Leonard’s fault. They might not know why they were out here, alone and being hunted by the Japanese, but they all knew it was because of him.
“Agent Crane,” someone called.
Leonard looked around and saw Commander McCampbell waving him over from across the room. He carefully picked his way through the maze of sullen men to reach the charismatic Air Group Commander.
“Commander,” Leonard said with a nod. “What can I do for you?”
“Have you got a few minutes?”
“Great. Follow me, there’s something I want to show you.”
The commander took Leonard up to the flight deck teeming with men and machines. To Leonard’s untrained eye it was a chaotic scene, but after a few minutes he began to get some idea sense of the practiced coordination he was witness to. Commander McCampbell stood beside him, arms crossed as he surveyed he watched his men. Captain Ofstie might command the ship, but this was his domain.
“Why did you bring me here?” Leonard asked eventually.
“You seem like a reasonable man, Agent Crane.”
“Okay … Thank you, I think.”
“For a non-pilot of course.” He added with a smile.
Leonard snorted. “Dougie’s the flyboy I’m afraid.”
The commander’s lips pursed. “I know, and that fact alone has kept me from punching Agent Kirkland on more than one occasion … but I digress. I brought you here to show you this.”
“It’s definitely impressive.”
“I know. These guys are arguably the best in the Navy. Their dedication and professionalism is something I’ve been able to rely on through some pretty tough situations. But right now I am putting all of that at risk.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Everything we’ve done since this war started has been for something. No matter how bad things got, the men have always known that what they were doing was important. I can’t honestly say that they feel that way now.”
Leonard’s brow furrowed. “And what do you think, Commander?”
“I find myself agreeing with them.”
“How can you say that? You’ve been briefed, you know why we’re here.”
“I’m just being honest with you, I think this mission of yours is a waste of our time. Tanaga Island just isn’t worth it.”
“Sixty three men are dead. Navy men.” Leonard raised a hand to take in the scene before him. “Men like these.”
“Exactly, you’ve hit the nail on the head. Sixty three men.”
“You’ve lost me.”
He turned to face Leonard. “Why do you feel it is necessary to add another three and a half thousand to that number?”
“You were at Saipan were you not?”
The commander nodded.
“Do you know how many men died taking that back from the Japanese?”
McCampbell folded his arms. “Where are you going with this, Agent Crane?”
“Did you or any of your men question what they were doing there?”
“Of course not.”
“Of course not,” Leonard repeated. “The sacrifice made by those thirteen thousand men dead or injured was critical to the war effort.”
“That’s right. With Saipan under our control we now have a way to strike the Japanese mainland.”
“Then how is this any different?”
Commander McCampbell looked at him flatly. “You’re joking right?”
“The truth is we have no idea what happened on Tanaga. The soldiers could have been taken by Japanese forces. The ships we encountered last night could be part of a Japanese build up in this area.”
“If the War Department really believed that, they wouldn’t have sent us out here alone. I’m afraid you’ll have to do better than that to convince me.”
“The Essex is an important ship, Commander, and yours is an important squadron. Do you honestly believe that the government would put you and your men at risk if it wasn’t important?” The commander tried to respond, but Leonard continued before he could get any words out. “You said it yourself. We might not always understand why we are asked to do the things we do, but we do them anyway. You’re not out here for me, Commander. You’re out here because important people back home wanted the best, so here you are.”
# # #
Kade lay down in his bunk and stared at the ceiling just inches from his face. He was alone in the room, Dougie and Leonard having been summoned to the bridge an hour ago. The sound of planes taking off and landing above him had been constant all day, but he suspected that they’d have to stop soon as it was nearing sunset.
It was easy to lose track of time down here,
Being restricted to quarters was certainly dull, but he knew that what awaited him once they left the ship would make him long for such moments of peace. He swung the necklace over his head, mindlessly watching the way the light reflected on it as it spun when he spotted the seam down the middle of the metallic disc.
The necklace came apart somehow.
Desperate for any form of distraction he set to opening it. He soon had the two halves open, and found a series of thin sheets of metal tucked into the hollow of the two halves. He took one and held it up, surprised by the strength of the metal despite how thin it was. Each sheet was numbered, and lines of text covered both sides.
Did I make this? Whoever had done this must have had a very steady hand, Kade thought as he tried to decipher the tiny text. It was too dark in the bunk so Kade clambered down to take a seat at the table where the light was better.
He started with the first numbered sheet and read. The text contained a wealth of information, describing many of the things that Dougie had spoken about, but in much greater detail. Information regarding what it meant to be an aeimar, details on other types of immortals, and the telluric energy that gave them their power. The final sheet described a method by which he could tap into that same energy for increased speed, strength, or rapid healing. It all sounded so incredible, and were it not for his sudden appearance on the deck of this ship he would have had trouble believing any of it.
Kade placed the tiny sheets of metal back inside the locket and looped the necklace over his head once more. That was something he’d have to take great care of, he might always have men like Leonard or Dougie waiting for him when he arrived.
With the necklace safely around his neck once more Kade decided he’d try to establish a link to the telluric currents. Taking a deep breath he closed his eyes and pictured the endless spiral detailed on that last sheet. He visualised himself walking down one of the arms, moving around and around but never seeming to get closer to its centre. He became aware of a slight buzzing around him faint at first below the din of the planes coming and going on the flight deck, but growing louder.
It was very distracting. The more he tried to ignore it the louder it became until the buzzing was all he could hear. He was just about to give up when, abruptly, the buzzing stopped to be replaced by the sound of a thousand voices all speaking at the same time. As he concentrated he found he could push the cacophony of voices down and focus in on just one or two. Men talking, joking, and complaining about their work, the war, the food, their life. It took him a moment to realise he was listening to the conversations of the men on the ship.
All of them.
Kade opened his eyes. Everything in the room was more vibrant. His dull brown jacket now seemed deep and rich like molten chocolate. His skin seemed to glow a healthy pink dotted with thousands of deep black hairs. Without knowing how, he knew Leonard and Dougie were approaching the cabin. He could feel them outside the sense of them getting stronger as they drew near.
He’d never felt so connected with everything.
Reluctantly, Kade broke his connection to the incredible well of power and his heightened senses faded. His feeling of wonder dissipating as things returned to normal. It might have been only a brief taste, but for the first time since he’d arrived Kade realised what he was capable of and some of his earlier trepidation had left him.
The door to the cabin opened and Dougie walked in with Leonard close behind. Something in Kade’s expression must have hinted at his discovery because Leonard looked at him oddly.
“You seem pleased about something.”
Kade smiled broadly. “Just feel like I’ve found my feet is all.”
“That’s great news,” Dougie said. “Though I recommend we all get some sleep. We’re leaving for Tanaga before dawn tomorrow.”
“Have we met?” Leonard queried.
The newcomer blinked the rain from his eyes and peered closer. Whatever recognition Leonard thought he saw was gone. “I guess not, sorry.”
Dougie stepped forward and extended his hand. “I am Agent Douglas Kirkland, but I’d appreciate it if you call me Dougie. And this is my associate, Agent Leonard Crane.”
The man shook Dougie’s hand. “Nice to meet you. I’m … um … Kade.”
“Welcome to 1944, Kade. If you’d like to follow me, we’ll get out of this rain and go over the particulars of the mission.”
Kade looked between them and nodded. “Let’s go.”
A deep rumble reverberated through the entire hull as the engines roared to full power, and the three of them stumbled as the ship lurched to the side. True to his word, the Captain gave them their thirty three minutes and now had his ship underway again.
Once inside, Dougie led them back to their quarters, steadfastly ignoring the curious expressions on the Essex crew. Even on a ship with this many crew a new face stood out, especially one out of uniform.
Almost the moment they reached their cramped quarters on the officers deck, alarms rang out throughout the ship, and lights mounted on the bulkheads started flashing red.
“What’s happening?” Kade asked, his head turning left and right at the sudden flurry of activity.
“Enemy ships must be close,” Dougie replied as he pushed open their cabin door. “It doesn’t concern us.”
“Are you sure?”
“Captain Duncan and his crew are experienced sailors. They know what they’re doing. The three of us would just be getting in their way.”
“If you say so.”
“I just did. Now please, do come inside.”
Kade glanced briefly at Leonard then ducked into their tiny quarters. The beds, one above the other on each side of the room were cramped, but it was more luxury than most of the ship’s crew could claim. Photos adorned the walls, young women and children mostly, the loved ones of the officers they’d displaced with their arrival. Wherever those men now slept, Leonard was certain they’d be very happy once he and Dougie were gone.
Dougie indicated a stool next to the table fixed to the rear wall. “Please sit down, Kade. I’d like to tell you why you’re here.”
Kade did as he was instructed, and Leonard found a spot on the edge of the bunk, leaving the remaining seat for his partner.
“Tanaga Island,” Dougie began. “A snow covered bit of volcanic rock, at the very top of the North Pacific Ocean. It’s part of a chain of islands that stretch from the tip of Alaska toward Russia and Japan. Do you know it?”
Kade shook his head. “I don’t, my memory is a little foggy. Since you seem like you have the answers maybe you could start with a few basics like, how I got here, and where exactly here is?”
Dougie frowned. “Please, forgive me. They did warn me that you’d be disoriented after the transition. I guess I got caught up in the moment.”
“Let’s start with the easy part. You are aboard the USS Essex, a United States Aircraft Carrier attached to Task Force 58 in the Pacific Theatre of War. We are currently located about five hundred nautical miles south of Tanaga Island. As for how you got here, I cannot explain the process but what I can tell you is that you transitioned here from another time, as a result of a sybari ritual. I can’t say for certain where you came from but judging from your clothing I suspect it wasn’t too distant from today.”
“You used my name when you first came through,” Leonard said.
Kade looked at him, absently rubbing the pendant around his neck. “Did I? I can’t remember, I’m sorry. I know it was only a few minutes ago but the, ah, transition as you call it, is a bit of a blur.”
“Perfectly understandable,” Dougie said. “I am told that your memory loss stems from the need to protect the timeline. Any knowledge you might bring here from the future is removed. I’m quite sure the military personnel on this ship would be quite keen to know what the Japanese have up their sleeves.”
Kade closed his eyes and pinched his nose. “This is starting to give me a headache.”
Leonard turned and started to rummage through his duffel bag. “I’ve got some aspirin in here if you think it’ll help.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Leonard. An aeimar has no need of drugs, whatever is bothering him will pass in due course.”
Kade looked up. “What did you call me?”
Dougie’s reply was interrupted by a deep booming sound. At first Leonard thought it was thunder, but it went on longer than any thunder he’d previously heard.
The Japanese ship’s had found them.
The three men cocked their heads, all conversation forgotten as they listened. Eventually the barrage stopped, and the resulting silence was almost eerie by comparison.
The men were pushed sideways as their ship changed direction, and the firing began again. With every pause, the Essex changed direction, its powerful engines roaring in the depths of the hull.
Logically, Leonard understood that the odds of them being hit were very low, but that didn’t make the situation any less nerve wracking.
“Why don’t we shoot back?” Kade asked in one of the many lulls.
“Because that would tell them where we are,” Leonard explained. “Between the darkness and the storm, they have only a vague idea of our location. If we start firing our muzzle flares will show them exactly.”
“But that doesn’t mean that they won’t get lucky,” Dougie added.
Kade looked at him.
The deadly game of cat and mouse continued for what felt like hours, but according to the clock fixed to the wall of their cabin, was only thirty minutes. The Essex continued to duck and weave between bursts of fire from the enemy ships. Soon the sounds began to grow quieter, until eventually the shooting stopped altogether.
“All hands, set condition two throughout the ship,” came the voice over the loudspeaker.
“What does that mean?”
“It means,” Dougie said with a smile. “That we’re out of immediate danger but should be on the alert. It seems that our Captain has lived up to his reputation as a canny seaman. Now, what was I saying?”
Kade raised a hand to cut the man off. “Listen, I know you’ve got a bunch of important stuff to tell me and believe me I have questions that I’d like answered, but can’t this wait? I have a feeling I’ll need to concentrate fully on what you’re saying and I don’t think I can do that while there’s a chance we could all drown.”
Dougie seemed to think about that for a moment. “Perhaps you’re right. I should check in with the Captain and get an update. Stay here until I get back.”
Kade turned to Leonard after Dougie left the room. “Is he always like that?”
“Wow. That must be exhausting.”
Leonard chuckled. “You get used to it. It may not seem like it but he does mean well.”
Kade shrugged. “He said something just before the attack. He called me an aeimar. What did he mean?”
“It’s what you are.”
“You mean it’s some kind of title.”
“No, it’s your race. We live in a world inhabited by all manner of sentient beings. Humans are by far the most common, but there are others, immortals mostly, that live among us. In general we live in harmony, especially since the treaty of 1899, but there are still times when steps need to be taken. That’s where you come in.”
“Some of the dangers we face are too much for us humans to handle on our own. When we are confronted by such things we call upon immortals for aid, and occasionally that involves people like you.”
“I’m an immortal?”
“That’s right, and one of the most powerful of them.”
“I don’t feel powerful.”
Leonard shrugged. “All I can tell you is what I’ve been told. We have a few days before head across to the island, between now and then Dougie will work with you to help you access your abilities.”
“I’ve only been at this for a few months. Dougie has worked with someone like you before.” Leonard could see the disappointment in the other man’s eyes.
“I can’t explain it, Leonard, but I feel like I can trust you. Him, I’m not so sure about.”
“What’s that necklace you’re wearing? It looks like there’s something written on it.”
Kade took hold of the locket and held it up, laughing to himself as he read it. “Well that makes sense, it’s got my name on it.” He held it up for Leonard to see. “That might come in handy if I ever turn up in the middle of nowhere.”
“I expect so.”
“Listen, if it’s okay with you I think I’m going to get some sleep. I’m beat.”
“The top bunk on the right is free.”
Kade got up from the chair and climbed into the tiny bunk space. “Goodnight, Leonard,” he said as he drew the curtain across and rolled over.
Dougie returned about an hour later. “Where’s Kade?”
Leonard jerked a thumb in the direction of the top bunk. “Asleep.”
“Wake him. There’s stuff we need to talk about.”
Leonard sighed, there was no point in arguing. He stood up and pushed the curtain aside. “Kade, wake up.”
He reached in and nudged the man’s sleeping form. “Kade, Dougie wants to talk to you.”
“I can’t wake him,” Leonard said.
“Hmm,” Dougie rubbed his chin. “I had hoped to brief him properly before the vision started.”
“Aeimar get visions relating to the immortal they are here to deal with. It allows them to track their targets and gives insight into potential weaknesses.”
“I see. How long do these visions normally last?”
“It varies, but the first one is usually the longest.”
The world was definitely more complex than Leonard realised. “Did the Captain have anything to say?”
“Apart from his usual complaints about the mission, he told me that storm is beginning to blow itself out.”
“That’s good, anything about the Japanese ships?”
“They’re behind us for now, but we’re heading south, which means we’ll need to turn around to reach the island.”
“So we could run into them again.”
“That’s what the Captain believes. In his words, a US capital ship alone is just too great a prize for them to ignore. He has requested we contact the fleet to bring in support.”
Leonard cringed. He could imagine how that conversation must have gone. “And what did you say to that?”
“I said no. It will be difficult enough to keep what we’re doing out here a secret without including an entire fleet worth of personnel.”
“So what now?”
“We may as well get some sleep. Kade will be out for a while, and it’s been a long day.”
# # #
Iliya Tzarakov used the shadows for cover as he approached the brightly lit mansion at the top of the hill. Built a century ago it served as the summer home for a wealthy aristocrat. It stood empty for a few years after the revolution until the Commissars came, now it was home to their latest oppressors.
For weeks he’d seen them take their precious cargo in through the wrought iron gates and up the wide path to the house beyond. Every day they’d go in, and once a week a truck would come to ship it all back out again.
Iliya strived to live a simple life, to have a family, and grow old in peace. For a long time his dream had been a reality, a loving wife, a beautiful daughter, and even a grandchild to lend strength to his aged bones.
The arrival of the Germans changed all that.
They rolled into the village with their tanks and their guns, easily putting down what little resistance was offered. With the population cowed, they set themselves up in the best homes, taking what little wealth the people had for themselves and put the entire town to work. But these were a resilient people, used to the treatment of the old aristocracy, and the Commisary after them, so after a few weeks things began to seem almost normal.
Ivanka, Iliya’s wife, died in those weeks. Already a frail woman, the cold and lack of food became too much and she succumbed to illness and died. Anna, Iliya’s daughter, and his granddaughter, Irena, were all he had left. Anna understood grief, she lost her husband to the war, and the three of them made the most of their life under the Nazi yoke.
A few weeks ago, everything changed again.
To the north, the Red army began taking territory back from the Germans. With the threat of defeat looming life in his village had become hard. The belligerent indifference was gone, to be replaced by a spiteful hatred. Public executions became commonplace, even minor indiscretions were punished violently, and then they started taking people away. Death awaited anyone who tried to resist. Women and young children from the village and surrounding area taken from their homes, and two days ago they took Anna and Irena.
The Germans were preparing to go south, and they were determined to leave nothing of any value behind. Everyone he cared about had been taken to that house on the hill, and Iliya was going to get them back.
The rain made the cobbled street slippery, and he was soaked to the bone, but it also kept the guards indoors. He could put up with a little discomfort if it made his job a little easier.
With slow, deliberate, steps he approached the seven foot high wall that surrounded the century old residence. With the help of an ancient tree he levered himself up and over the wall. His knees complained when he dropped to the ground and he winced as he straightened.
This tired old body would not get him very far.
Using the overgrown lawn for cover he scuttled up to the house and pressed himself against the cold stone wall. After months of peaceful occupation, the Germans didn’t bother to patrol inside the grounds, but that didn’t mean Iliya could afford to take his time.
He placed one hand near the top of a darkened window and pushed. The glass was rippled by age, thicker at the bottom than the top, causing it to move slightly in the frame, barely enough for Iliya to slip a thin piece of wire through the gap and lift the latch.
With the window open, he slipped inside.
This was once a sitting room. Empty bookshelves lined the wall, and an old chair sat by a cold fireplace. Judging by the layers of dust on every surface this room hadn’t been used in a very long time.
He knew the mansion well, having lived there many years ago. There was no real cellar so Iliya figured the women were being kept in the servant’s quarters on the top floor. A large area beneath the roof with several small cubicles and a single corridor. Without purpose built cells it was the perfect place to house prisoners.
To get there he had to head to the rear of the house, where a narrow set of stairs spiralled up all three levels. It allowed the servants to move from floor to floor without using the main stairs. Thereby avoiding contact with residents and guests. It would be guarded of course, but the Germans would be unlikely to have more than one man guarding a bunch of peasants.
He climbed the narrow staircase slowly, partly out of a desire to be cautious, and partly because his arthritic knees wouldn’t let him move any faster. As suspected, a lone guard sat on a chair in the hallway, a rifle leaning against the wall beside him. Clearly bored, the man kept his head back, eyes closed while he smoked a cigarette. Iliya shuffled forwards hand reaching into his coat to remove his makeshift sap, little more than a handful of small rocks wrapped in a cloth pouch.
The guard’s eyes snapped open and he turned to look at him. Iliya took advantage of the moment of surprise and brought his makeshift weapon down on the soldier’s skull.
His first blow stunned the man, but didn’t knock him out, so Iliya struck again. This time the guard slid to the floor and didn’t get back up.
Once again, he couldn’t afford to dawdle. He stowed the sap back under his coat and walked across to the closest door. The doors were plain, locked with a single padlock, were made only of thin wood. A younger, stronger man would have little trouble breaking them down, but to do so would make a lot of noise.
The mind is far stronger than the body, Iliya thought as he moved back to the unconscious guard taking a ring of keys from his belt.
He returned to the first door and began trying to open the lock. Amid the jingle of keys he could hear frightened whimpers from beyond the door. Once he had the door unlocked he opened it and stood aside to let the light from the hallway shine in.
Inside were three people, all women from the village. Dark circles under their eyes from lack of sleep, with cuts on their lips and bruises visible on their arms and legs.
“Anna?” he said, keeping his voice low. “Irena? Have you seen them?”
One of the prisoners – Vorta, the baker’s widow, if Iliya’s memory served – shook her head. “They’re not here, Iliya.”
“Do you know where they are?”
“They took them, south,” she said her head sagging slightly. “A truck came this morning and took most of us away. They left only a few for the troops here.”
Iliya cursed, then turned and walked away.
“Wait,” Vorta called. “What about us?”
He shrugged. “I cannot help you.”
“Can you at least unlock the other doors?”
He thought for a moment, then nodded. These were good people, they did not deserve a future as Nazi playthings. He moved up to the next door and unlocked that, then repeated the process at the third. Eight women, ranging in age from young girl to elderly matron, remained of the dozens who’d been taken, and all of them looked to have been hard used. How the Germans decided who would stay and who would go Iliya didn’t care to surmise, but now that they were free he could do no more for them.
“Take those stairs to the ground floor. From there keep to the left wall until you reach the third door. The window to the room is open. I wish you luck.”
“You’re not coming with us?” Vorta asked.
“No. I must find my family.”
Vorta looked at him for a long moment before nodding. “Thank you, and God bless you. Come ladies, we must go quickly.”
Iliya waited until the last of them disappeared into the narrow stairway. It was unlikely that all of them would escape, he knew that, and they likely knew it too. A quick death in the pursuit of freedom was better than ongoing torment in German hands.
He looked down at the unconscious soldier at his feet. Iliya had hoped to rescue his daughter and grand-daughter without killing, but now it seemed he had no choice. This body was old, aches and pains plagued his joints, and his muscles were thin and weak. Adventure was a young man’s game, so this soldier would have to die for Anna and Irena to live.
With a heavy heart, Iliya crouched down. He turned the young soldier’s head toward him and placed a hand over the lad’s chest. “Your life to mine,” he whispered, and began to feed.
“Get up,” Dougie said in his usual abrupt way. “The Captain wants to see us.”
Most people would consider Agent Douglas Kirkland – or Dougie as he liked to be called – rude, and this assessment wouldn’t be inaccurate. But in the six months that he’d known the man, Leonard had come to understand that Dougie wasn’t trying to be rude. It happened quite accidently, stemming from a complete lack of social awareness. The fact he insisted on being called Dougie only served to validate that opinion.
Dougie just didn’t know how to deal with people, quite surprising considering half his job involved that particular task. Yet, despite that, he was Leonard’s boss, and when his boss told him to get up, Leonard did just that. Though getting up did prove to be something of a challenge right now.
“I’ll be with you in a minute,” he said, clutching his stomach as he climbed awkwardly to his feet. Leonard never thought he suffered from sea sickness. But that particular illusion was shattered the moment the storm hit. Riding out a storm in the middle of the North Pacific pushed his sense of up and down to its limit and before he knew it, he was throwing up this morning’s breakfast.
“We’re in the briefing room.” With that, Dougie turned and walked away.
Leonard smiled wryly as he watched the man disappear up one of the many ladders that dotted the interior of the USS Essex. He had a long and uncomfortable climb ahead of him.
On the way to the briefing room he was often forced to step aside to let others pass. Even at this late hour, with a storm raging there was still plenty for the ship’s crew to do. In truth he was glad of the opportunity to stop and brace against the wall for a moment. The effort of moving made him nauseous.
Eventually, after what felt like hours, he arrived at the briefing room. Dougie was already there, along with Captain Donald B. Duncan, the ship’s captain, and his Air Group Commander, David McCampbell, who both looked at him with undisguised contempt.
“Now that your man’s here, Agent Kirkland, can we please get started?” Captain Duncan said, his words clipped. “This fool’s errand has already taken long enough.”
Dougie nodded. “You’ve made your feelings about this abundantly clear, Captain, and as I’ve repeatedly mentioned they are irrelevant. You have your orders, and right now those orders require you to be here. So can we focus on the mission and leave this petty posturing behind us. Now why did you want to see us?”
The Captain took a deep breath. “We have arrived at the coordinates you gave us, and there’s nothing here.”
“Good.” Dougie looked at his watch. “You’re to hold position for the next twenty seven minutes.”
“That won’t be easy in this storm.”
“Can you do it or not?”
“We can, but I’d like to know why?”
Dougie shrugged. “We’re expecting someone.”
“You’re what?” Commander McCampbell scoffed. “There’s no way we can transfer passengers. No pilot in his right mind would attempt a landing in this weather, and a submarine couldn’t surface close enough.”
“Quite right. Which is why neither of those methods are being employed.”
Dougie raised his hand, cutting the man off. “Only your compliance is required, gentlemen, not your understanding. Suffice to say that our guest will be on board within the hour.”
Before anyone could respond a crewman appeared at the briefing room door. “Excuse me, Sirs.”
“What is it, Higgins?”
“Sorry to interrupt, Captain, but the XO thought you should know straight away. We have a RADAR contact about fifteen miles to the south west.”
“One, sir, but there could be more. It’s at the edge of our range.”
Captain Duncan nodded. “There’ll be others. We’re the only one’s stupid enough to be out here on our own.” He looked at Dougie as he said the last bit.
“Have they seen us?” Leonard asked.
“Hard to say,” the Captain replied. “Jap RADAR isn’t as sensitive as ours but they do have a better range. It’s best to assume that if we can see them, they can see us.” He turned to the crewman. “Tell the Commander to move us back south.”
“Belay that,” Dougie said. “We need to hold position for another twenty three minutes.”
“Are you insane? If that is an enemy fleet, then we’ll be sitting ducks out here.”
“And if it’s not you’ll have compromised this mission. I don’t need to remind you of your orders again do I?”
Both officers glared at him, while the crewman shifted from foot to foot at the door. He clearly wasn’t used to seeing the Captain spoken to like that.
“Fine,” the Captain said after a taking several deep breaths. “You’ll have twenty three minutes, and not one second more. I just hope to God you haven’t killed us all with this madness.”
Dougie inclined his head. “Thank you Captain, Now, if you don’t mind, Agent Crane and I have some preparations to make.”
“Did you have to be so rude?” Leonard asked, as he shuffled along behind his partner on the way to the flight deck.
Dougie shrugged. “I was merely being direct, Leonard. I would have hoped that a man of Captain Duncan’s rank would have more respect for the chain of command. I could have the man brought up on charges of insubordination.”
Leonard rolled his eyes. “I doubt that would make things any better.”
“Which is why I have decided not to do it. Once the man looks at the situation objectively I’m sure he’ll see I was right and appreciate my leniency.”
Leonard shook his head in disbelief. There was clearly no point in pursuing this line of conversation.
They arrived at the hatch leading to the flight deck, and each donned one of the waterproof jackets hanging on hooks beside the door. Rain could be heard hammering in bursts against the thick metal door. Despite the jackets, Leonard knew that they’d come back soaked to the bone, assuming a freak wave or huge gust of wind didn’t send them overboard.
Commander McCampbell was right. Nobody in their right mind would choose to be outside in weather like this. Dougie cracked the hatch and stepped outside into the tempest. Leonard grabbed another of the jackets and followed behind him, careful to close and seal the hatch behind him.
Outside it was every bit as bad as Leonard expected. Thunder rumbled overhead, and lightning streaked the sky, with heavy rain falling in sheets along the huge ship’s wooden deck. The wide expanse of the flight deck stretched away for as far as the eye could see, which admittedly wasn’t far in the storm, but it gave Leonard a sense of the size of huge ship.
The USS Essex was the first in a new class of aircraft carrier, fast tracked into service after the disaster that was Pearl Harbour. Normally a ship like this would be protected by a cruisers, battleships and submarines, as well as four full squadrons of planes. Now, however they were all alone.
Their orders had taken them away from their fleet and the bad weather had grounded the aircraft. For all its size, the USS Essex had only a few small batteries of guns to defend itself from whatever threat was approaching from the south west.
They might have their orders, but Dougie had put the lives of almost three and a half thousand people at risk. All for the sake of a mission that Leonard believed was too incredible to be true.
Six months ago he was asked to be part of a top secret division within the FBI. A department which reported directly to J. Edgar Hoover. Of course Leonard jumped at the chance. J. Edgar was a legend within the Bureau, and any opportunity to be recognised by the Director personally was bound to be good for his career.
He soon began to question that decision, and his sanity.
The induction into the program was incredible to say the least. Required reading included mounds of mythic lore and pseudo-science. Stories that could have been lifted from bad horror movies were sold as truth. Vampires, witches, and other monsters declared to be real, and his new department were tasked with policing this hidden paranormal world.
“How will we find the intersection?” Leonard had to yell to be heard above the howling wind.
Dougie retrieved a small device from inside his jacket and held it up to his face. The older agent studied the illuminated display for a minute then turned around and pointed over his left shoulder, toward the front of the ship. “It’s this way.”
Leonard trudged along behind, his nausea had abated in response to the fear of being swept overboard. Dougie continued to check the device as the pair traversed the empty flight deck.
“This is it,” he declared, stopping on the edge of one of the huge aircraft elevators in the centre of the deck. He put the device away and looked at his watch again. “Five minutes.”
With the wind and the waves it was almost impossible to keep the ship perfectly still. Even a massive vessel like the USS Essex was subject to the whims of Mother Nature, and Dougie was forced to relocate the intersection several times during the intervening five minutes. Apparently, the ship’s crew were skilled, and despite the heavy seas they managed to keep the Essex in place.
When the time came, Dougie reached beneath his coat again and retrieved another item, a small metal disc with strange markings around the outside. It was too dark to make out exactly what it was but Leonard saw it clearly when the Sybari handed them the object before they left the US. He placed the metal disc on the deck and stepped away.
The disc began to glow, only slightly at first then it grew very bright indeed. Leonard feared that it would burn its way through the wooden deck. Then came the flash, like a bolt of lightning, starting from the metal disc and arcing up into the sky. Leonard was forced to shield his eyes, and by the time he could see again he noticed that the metal disc was gone and in its place stood a man, tall, muscular, with shoulder length brown hair that whipped over his face in the wind and rain.
Leonard couldn’t believe his eyes.
It actually worked. Before him stood living proof that at least some of that paranormal mumbo jumbo he’d been told about was true.
The newcomer looked left and right, clearly unsure where he was, but somehow managing to retain his composure. The man reached up to finger a locket on a chain around his neck, when Leonard suddenly remembered the jacket he brought with him onto the deck. Numbly he stepped forward and handed it over.
“Thanks Leonard,” the newcomer said as he shrugged on the proffered garment.