GENERAL PUBLIC, PART 5

SOME ASSEMBLY REQUIRED

Detroit, Michigan March 1, 1957

The irony of joining a union so soon after the debacle in Chicago was not lost on Brock. But this was the UAW, one of the most powerful unions in the country, and the benefits and pay were nothing for an honest laborer to sneeze at. If he lasted the first year, and he had little doubt he would, his bonus would outstrip even the hazard pay the Army had shunted his way after his most harrowing super-ordeals.

He liked the work, too. Manual labor suited him, as did the efficiency of the assembly line, a point-to-point system of men in near-perfect tune with the automation, a precision-dependent work regimen that was perfectly suited to the muscle-memory mindset of a soldier. And indeed, most of the men he shared the line with were veterans, too, though it was unlikely any of them had ever faced Captain Panzer, the Human Tank in the North African desert, or fought the Rising Son in the sky over Hiroshima as Little Boy did his dirty atomic business below. For their benefit, Brock invented a backstory for himself that included storming the beach at Normandy, fighting at Market Garden, and surviving Bastogne, all as a regular grunt.

Every so often, he’d hear a couple of the other men discussing General Public, wondering what had become of him, or swapping stories–mostly secondhand tales retooled to support the claim that they’d been there–about accompanying him on wild exploits.

“He saved my ass at Guadalcanal, I tell ya,” one man would say.
“How could he? He was in the ETO then, leading my squad on a raid against the MechaKraut!” another man would argue.

“What, you think he can’t be two places at once?” a third guy would ask. “He’s freakin’ General Public!”

“I hear there’s more’n one of ‘em.”

“Nah, that’s a lot of malarkey. They broke the mold makin’ that guy.”

“I hear he broke it himself, just to keep them from makin’ more.”

“It’s just an expression. You think he came outta a mold, like he’s Jell-O?”

“Sure turned to Jell-O in Chicago, didn’t he?”

And with that, they’d grow mostly silent, kind of morose. Even the ones that poked fun at the guy in the ridiculous outfit (“Ain’t even regulation colors? What makes him so special?” “Uh, everything about him, ya ultramaroon!”) seemed disturbed at his disappearance. Apparently, he’d underestimated the impact of the living symbol of their harsh struggle and ultimate victory in the face of evil suddenly losing his shit and vanishing into the wind. If life back home could break the General, what was going to become of them?

“What’dya think, Stone?” someone would inevitably ask as he sat silently in the breakroom, just taking in the chatter with a bemused half-grin. “What become of the General?”

“Maybe his job was done. Ever think of that? Maybe he just wanted to come home, settle into a nice normal life out of the glare of the public eye. Find some peace, start a family. Isn’t that why you guys did it?”

They’d get quiet again, a couple of them nodding, a few others shaking their heads.

“He coulda said something,” someone would say.

“Ah, he didn’t owe us nothing. Stone’s right. Guy gave plenty. I say wherever he’s at, God bless ya, Pubby! You done right by this old soldier.”

Words like that, when they reached his ears, were better than any medal.

Every so often, he and a few of the other vets–the ones with the heaviest combat experience–would get pulled off the line for a special detail. It usually had to do with a clean-up in the crash test room, or occasionally an accident during a test run of some new experimental vehicle or another, the thinking being that men who’d seen much worse in combat wouldn’t lose their lunch over a chimpanzee or human cadaver that had just been turned into a hundred-plus pounds of ground chuck.

Brock never said no, but every time, he prayed it wouldn’t be an ape of any kind. The very first time he’d had to pull the limp remains of a dead chimp with absolutely no say in how his life turned out from the crumpled wreckage of a Vanderbuilt Shadow sports coupe, he’d found himself right back inside that Austrian mountain lab, with the helpless ape-boy strapped to the table waiting for the horrors to come. At least that time, he was able to save the animal-man. On the Vanderbuilt test floor, not so much. So as he made his way with a couple of his workmates to the exterior test field, a Jeep-ride away from the rear facility entrance, he found himself chanting his strange new mantra, “Please be a corpse. Please be a corpse. Please be a corpse.”

As they came upon the scene, Brock knew this wasn’t the normal test-crash scenario. The way the vehicular wreckage was strewn far and wide, the fact that there were medics and nurses at the site performing what amounted to battlefield triage, the evidence of more than one or two “test bodies” and more than likely actual collateral victims told him that something had gone terribly wrong here. He imagined the only reason they hadn’t heard it all the way inside was the roar of their own machines. He also knew that there would be visits from legal after this, papers to sign, sworn oaths of confidentiality in this matter. And he would sign them dutifully and without protest because all he wanted was to keep a low profile and this job.

A couple of men were running around barking orders like a two-headed dog, both acting like they were fully in charge while not challenging each other’s authority. One of them, balding and sweat-stained, his expensive suit smoke-blacked and blood-spattered, his threatening cigar aimed like a weapon at whoever crossed his field of vision, was Carlton Fuller, company president. Brock recognized him from the portrait and accompanying bronze bust in the lobby. The other, in full dress regalia, a bloom of medals on his puffed-out chest splayed like peacock feathers, Brock recognized from his other life. General Beauregard Flagstaff, formerly Colonel Flagstaff, one of Dwight D.’s most trusted advisors during the war. A real bastard, who clearly brimmed with simmering resentment every time he’d had to defer to the wishes of the honorary super-officer General Public. Technically, Public never outranked him, because the title had more to do with image-creation than any actual position of command, but time and again, Eisenhower, Patton, MacArthur and the others had happily taken his lead, largely because Public got battle-tested results, and in no small part because it took the heat of potential operations failure off of them.

When he spotted the civilian workers approaching, Flagstaff puffed up even more, and Brock was sure the big man was in danger of providing a secondary explosion by spontaneously bursting from his own skin.

“Fuller, what is the meaning of this? Why are these men here!”

“They’re our designated clean-up crew, General. You got a problem with that?”
“Yes I do! This is a military exercise, and it’s our job to not only clean this up, but to keep as tight a lid as possible on what happened here. And that means not bringing in another half-dozen looky-loos to get a gander at this godforsaken mess!”

“No, General, what this is, or was, is a commercial test of an experimental technology for the purpose of securing a government contract. You are guests here, and this disaster is completely our responsibility. My responsibility. I appreciate whatever help your men can provide, of course, and believe me when I say, the Vanderbuilt board wants this to get out even less than you do, and we’ll do everything we can to ensure that. Won’t we, boys?”

With that, he turned his attention directly to Brock and the others. But mostly to Brock. His eyes fixed him with a laser-like stare, his face a mask of phony camaraderie and genuine impatient expectation.

“That’s right, sir,” Brock said, nodding solemn agreement. Luckily, his own carefully cultivated obsequiousness in the face of authority figures served him well when he had to knuckle under and make them look good. Brock certainly didn’t fear, and didn’t even particularly respect, the so-called authority that a uniform or a title supposedly imposed upon a man, knew that these separations between individuals were arbitrary and frequently decorative, relying entirely on a tacit agreement between multiple parties that such distinctions did in fact exist. His main reason for bowing to the whims of leaders, be they worthy of respect or just petty tyrants-in-training, was expediency. The quicker he said yes, or appeared to acquiesce to their expectations, the sooner he could get on with the job at hand. Sure, part of it was duty, but the larger portion was simply a means to lubricating the engines of progress and forward motion.

“See, General. I may be no more than a businessman, but I run a tight ship. Just like you. My men are loyal and true. Just like yours.”

Also, in this particular instance, in light of his history with Flagstaff, a despot in military finery, helping Fuller look good came with its own minor reward.

“Let’s get to it, boys,” Brock said, taking charge without a second thought. “Jessup, Ralston, you take the West end of the field. Any debris too large to be picked up by at least several men, tag it for automated retrieval. Everything else, sweep toward the center and create a pile…”

“Hang on a sec, Stone,” Jessup chirped. “Who made you boss?”

“I did,” Fuller said, and gave Brock an approving nod that seemed to come from a place of sincere, if noncommittal, admiration.

A young junior executive ran up, breathless. “Sir, the technicians are having some difficulty retrieving the…” He glanced at Brock and his team and carefully considered his word choice. “…essential materiel.”

“What’s the problem?”

“The cockpit pod’s more or less intact. But the hatch lid fused in the heatblast.”

“Can’t we burn it open or something?”

“So far it’s resisting all their best efforts, sir.”

By the time Fuller turned his head to say something to Brock, he was already halfway across the field, approaching the scorched and blast-twisted metal pod.

The lab-coated techs were working feverishly, the ground around them littered with broken bits of wrenches, screwdrivers, crowbars. Now they were trying to burn through the hatch cover with some kind of superheated torch.

“You’re just welding the welding,” Brock said, his voice steady and commanding, trying his best not to make them feel like assholes.

“You got something better, worker-bee?”

“Maybe.”

The snippy tech stepped aside with a “be my guest” flourish. Brock cracked his knuckles and stepped forward. He had a moment of self-doubt before he put his hands on the thing. He’d torn the hatches off Panzers with his bare hands, punched through cockpit glass on Kamikaze jets over Midway, but with the chemicals out of his system, what made him think he could do this now?

“Hands? Is that your plan? You think we haven’t all tried that? Thing is, all that steel and glass is still cooling down from a toasty 1000 degrees or so.”

“I have gloves,” Brock said, and pulled his work gloves from his back pocket.

“I hope they’re made of lead.”

Brock placed one hand on the steaming glass and the other on the jagged metal lip where it once met the body of whatever kind of craft this was and gave it a tentative tug. Nothing. Not even a millimeter’s budge.

“How much oxygen you figure he’s got left in there?” one of the techs asked rather casually, lighting a First Strike off the side of the pod.

“Does he even need oxygen?”

“He…?” Brock murmured. “You mean there’s someone alive in there!?”

“Someone? Arguable. Something. Yes. Alive? Eh, that’s a question for a higher authority than me.”

Great, Brock thought. Another dead ape. But that did it. Not on my watch, he thought. Not if I can do a damned thing about it.

He took hold of the heat-fused hatch edge and pulled with all his might, feeling the gloves start to sizzle, feeling the burn right through them, smelling the mixture of leather and flesh as they sizzled. Wondering, will the gloves fuse to me like this hatch to itself? He tore the gloves off and went again, and this time, something moved. There was a terrific rending of steel and popping of glass, but even so, it was barely a hairline crack when he reached the limit of his exertion. Ignoring the pain in his fingers, he took a deep breath–not as helpful as he’d hoped, with the air full of smoke and reeking of jet fuel–and went again. This time, the edge started to curl back and someone behind him, maybe Jessup, let out a low wolf-whistle.

“Holy shit, he’s doin’ it!”

Another foul breath, another tensing of his shoulders, another reaching all the way down to the core of his being to do what he did best. Or used to. And what he’d always done best, really, was persevere. Against the odds, in the face of brutal, unrelenting elements both natural and manmade, he’d been the steadfast uncompromising rock, the true spirit of the American fighting man, beating the odds, cheating death and laughing in its face. His vision went red from the pain and the exertion and he saw MoMo again, the helpless creature in chains and in pain, saw the faces of the half-starved and half-dead children at Dachau, saw the terrified Londoners trying to make it home from the corner shop as V2’s rained on quaint, cobbled streets. Saw the faces of all the people he’d saved and all those he couldn’t and screamed from the memory and the moment, a bellow of rage and despair and defiance that mingled with the whining shriek of resistant metal and the angry crackle of splitting super-thick glass as the hatch buckled and gave way and he twisted it free and hurled it without thinking, sending it spinning toward a cluster of soldiers who managed to scurry out of its trajectory just in the nick of time.

“What were you in a past life? Circus strongman?” the formerly snippy tech asked, crushing out his cigarette and giving Brock an approving clap on his aching back.

“Goddamn hero, this one!” Ralston said.

“Screw that, Stone. Yer a goddamn superhero!”

“I hate to burst your bubble, boys, but whether he saved anyone’s day is still up for debate,” the tech said, peering into the shattered interior of the ruined cockpit.

Brock looked over his shoulder and what he saw made him shudder all the way down to his rock-solid core. The thing in the pilot’s seat was neither man nor beast, but a little bit of both, a grey-fleshed mass of scar tissue and stitches with milk-glass eyes, looking very much like one of the crash test cadavers, but without the mummy-wrap of bandages that were used as much to hold them together as for a kind of discreet acknowledgement that hey, this guy was human once. But this was no ordinary corpse because in spite of its many injuries, past and immediate, in spite of the metal strut through its torso and the chunk of instrument panel protruding from its cheek and the right arm hanging loosely where the forearm had snapped in half, this test subject was moving, trying to free itself with a kind of flailing determination, but no hint of panic or pain. The wild-rolling eyes, lifeless yet strangely mischievous, fixated briefly on Brock, or maybe something just behind him.

“Did I do good?” it asked in a dry, terrible rasp that turned Brock’s shudder into a cold fear-spasm.

And then it got worse.

“You did very well, mein junge,” said a voice from behind Brock. “And we’ll have you back in fighting form in no time.”

Cold fear became hot panic, and Brock stiffened in place. He knew that voice. He’d heard it in his nightmares.

From the cockpit, the crash test monstrosity grinned idiotically and gave the Nazi at Brock’s shoulder a twitchy, spastic thumbs-up.

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PUBLIC CITIZEN

Detroit, Michigan Early December, 1956

He came awake in darkness, the sounds of street life and the neon flicker interrupting another one of his dreams. Dream, hell, he thought, another nightmare. But he felt vaguely human now, still tired but not the same bone-deep exhaustion that brought him here. 

He dragged himself to the bathroom down the hall and splashed water on his face, badly in need of a shave now. Strange to see. Even during the war, he had to take the razor to his cheeks everyday. Part of the image. Five o’clock shadow just didn’t fit with the steadfast superman. Ragged glory was okay for the enlisted men, but General Public had to project a magazine-ready picture of stoic male perfection at all times. 

His eyes were bloodshot and faraway, looking inward at the pictures of his action-packed past, all those mental images that looked like adventure to everyone but him. To him, it was just endless fear and anxiety stretching back as far as memory would walk him. But as he stood there in his sweat-gray undershirt, shy of the costume that had consumed his identity for so long, he gave his shoulders a shrug and could feel the new lightness, the freedom that came with laying down a heavy burden. 

He dressed in the clothes he’d stolen off a Chicago clothesline–just a simple plaid workshirt and chinos–and the hobnail boots he’d taken off a sleeping hobo on the freight train and made his way downstairs, passing the man behind the bullet-proof front desk glass.

“You leaving? You owe me two more nights, pal!”

“Just going out for dinner.”

“Yeah, well, much as I hate to cut into your liquor fund, how ‘bout you pay up first?”

Brock straightened to his full height, squared his shoulders, and gave the man the same look that froze Rudolf Hess in his tracks when he and Buck Private brought down his plane over Scotland. The desk man’s inert expression didn’t change, but Brock detected the motion of his hand clenching around something out of sight. A revolver? A bat? An axe-handle? No matter. Brock turned up one corner of his mouth and shook his head ever-so-slightly, his signature “Don’t even think about it” look. Worked like a charm. He may have ditched the persona, but General Public was still inside him. He wasn’t sure how to feel about that, but he was willing to work it.

The desk man relaxed and turned his full attention back to his crossword puzzle. “Enjoy your ‘meal.’”

Brock relaxed too, shrinking back into the shape of a solid citizen, just another regular Joe. 

As he headed for the street, the desk man called after him. “Hang on a second, mister!”

Brock tensed, ready for trouble, if there was going to be any. 

“What’s a seven letter word for ‘freedom from tyranny’? Last letter’s a ‘y.’”

“Liberty,” Brock said without hesitation.

The desk man counted silently on his fingers, nodded.
“Liberty it is.”

As the desk man put pencil to paper, Brock turned and walked out into the cold night of a strange town.

 

Brock found a greasy spoon half a block from the flophouse and figured he had enough pocket change–also lifted off his sleeping hobo friend–to afford a cup of coffee and the pork chop special, which turned out to be decidedly less special than advertised. Still, it was the first food he’d put in his belly since Chicago, and for that alone he was grateful. 

In spite of his disheveled appearance, he was easily the most normal-looking patron in the place. The rest were an assortment of late-night street life types, probably a few fellow flophouse guests, a couple of streetwalkers and their “management,” and a guy slumped in the far corner booth who could easily have been that poor disenfranchised gent from the train, but more than likely just wore the same standard-issue hobo uniform. Either way, he took no notice of Brock, lost in a private reverie that almost definitely included memories as bleak and strong as Brock’s own, and nearly as bitter as this joint’s awful coffee.

He didn’t know if it was boredom or if he really just looked that much better by comparison, but the waitress took a special interest in him almost from the moment he sat down.

“You’re not one of my regulars,” she said, pouring him a refill that had to be at least his sixth.

“Just passing through,” he said, and tried his damnedest to smile.

“On your way up, or down?” she asked, and he found himself enjoying her brutal frankness.

“Too early to call,” he replied, smiling for real this time.

“Well, it ain’t gettin’ any earlier.”

She wasn’t exactly pretty, but she had an offhand, seen-better-days sexiness about her, the sort who didn’t seem to mind that life hadn’t exactly served her up its most generous portions, or at least wasn’t going to let you know if she did.

 

On the way up to his room, the desk man cleared his throat and jerked a thumb at the sign behind him: 

NO GUESTS AFTER 10 PM.

“I’m his sister,” Dinah the waitress said.

“Well, Romeo here owes me four and half bucks, sister.”

She slapped a five on the counter and pushed it toward the desk man. “Family takes care of its own,” she said.

“Well, for half a saw, I hope he takes care a ya real good,” the desk man sneered, until he caught Brock giving him the look again.

“Keep the change,” she said, grabbing Brock by the bicep–which she gave an admiring squeeze, purring low in her throat– and leading him toward the stairs.

The desk man started whistling and it took Brock until they reached the landing to call the tune: “Just a Gigolo.”

Once she got him upstairs, she made sure she got what she paid for. Now he knew how the ladies felt, rented by the hour. Still, it was a relief. He thought sure he’d be paying her.

 

She didn’t leave right away, even though he got the idea that she wanted to. In a strange way, she reminded him of the army nurses, the ones who saw the wounds in your eyes before they noticed the ones in your flesh. He sensed that it didn’t come naturally to her, this nurturing thing, but she could tell he needed someone just to be there for a little while, and with an inward sigh, she bit the bullet and stayed.

She kept herself interested marveling at his musculature, and fetishizing his scar tissue, caressing every bulge and ripple, lightly touching and tickling every starfish-shaped bullet entry point, jagged knife wound, and miniature railroad line of battlefield surgical repair. The fleshy topographic map of his Euro-Asiatic world tour of pain.

“So, what’s a nice girl like you doing in a shitbox like this?” she asked him finally, taking the cigarette they were sharing from his lips and inhaling a lungful.

“Reinventing myself,” Brock said. It was a mildly diverting game, telling the truth without giving anything away.

“You looking for work?”

It hadn’t even crossed Brock’s mind yet, oddly enough. He’d known where his paychecks were coming from for nearly two decades now, and even though he was stone broke, where the next wad originated wasn’t yet among his concerns.

“Guess I am.”

“What can you do? Big strapping guy like you, I’m guessing it ain’t gonna be poetry or folk songs.”

“I’ve done a lot of work with my hands.”

“Auto industry’s always hiring. Nice cushy union gig. A year or so on the assembly line, you could buy yourself a sweet little house, wife, kids, maybe even a dog. The whole American dream.”

“I guess I could do worse.”

“My husband’s got a cousin, union shop steward over at Vanderbuilt ‘Motives. I bet he could fix you up.”

Brock gave her a hard look. “Husband?”

“Oh c’mon,” she pressed into him, her fingers tracing the old, appropriately lightning-strike-shaped wound from Die Ubermensch’s blitz-rifle just below his left ribcage. “Like you care.”

The fact was, he did care. He didn’t want to think he was the kind of man who played other men for fools, or consorted with spoken-for women. But as she moved back into him, he didn’t have the will to push her away. Who was he to say no? After all, she’d paid for it.

Finding MoMo

Zugspitze, German Alps May Day 1945

As General Public and his men rode the Tyrolean Cable Car that would deposit them at an arête just below the summit, there was much speculation about whether they would encounter any meaningful resistance on the mountain. Though word of Hitler’s suicide a day prior was spreading rapidly, and the war was all but won, Germany had yet to surrender officially, and it was entirely possible that whoever was stationed way up here had no idea that the end was nigh. Worse, maybe they did, and were willing to fight to the last man in some misguided attempt to preserve German honor.

General Public had decided against bringing a sidekick. He’d already lost three Buck Privates during the course of the war, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice another eager youngster to the vagaries of combat with only days, maybe even hours, left in the contest. After all, you could fight-train a teenage kid to your heart’s content, but when it came down to a heavy-duty firefight against challenging, if not impossible, odds, they tended to be cannon fodder. The first Buck died before they even left Camp Turtleton, killed by a live round during a training exercise. The next one was crisped alive in midair during a drop-in behind enemy lines, and the third committed suicide a couple days after the liberation of Auschwitz.

When they reached their destination, it was a quick but dangerous climb around the mountain and down to the cave entrances that led to the secret Nazi labs. With the exception of one frozen German soldier, fourteen years of age at most and probably dead of starvation by the look of him, they encountered no sign of the enemy. That held true all the way through the winding tunnels, which grew smoother and warmer as they approached the main entrance, signs of work and a hint of civilization slowly emerging from the unyielding rock. The men’s nerves began to ease as they continued on their way, some of them even joking a little about what they might find, or who was going to be the token unlucky guy who never made it home after getting so close. The typical dark yet playful humor of guys who’ve seen too much too young and still didn’t know if they’d live to tell about it, or if they’d ever tell about it even if they did. The General had to shush their giggling as they rounded a bend in the tunnel and came face to face with a hinged steel door decorated with a bas relief Iron Eagle and a sign reading:

ACHTUNG! NUR WESENTLICHE PERSONAL.

GEBEN SIE AUF EIGENES RISIKO.

“Whattaythink, boys? We essential enough for ‘em?” the General asked his men.

“Hell yeah!”

“Damn skippy!”

“We’ll show ‘em who’s takin’ the big risky-o!”

“Stand back, fellas,” said an over-enthusiastic corporal. “I got this one!”

“Corporal, don’t!” Public shouted, but it was too late. The corporal let loose with his Thompson and the bullets ricocheted off the reinforced steel, lighting up the cave with muzzle flash and sparks, filling it with auto-chatter and stray lead. The General managed to get the three men closest to him down and out of the way, and the two on the other side of the corporal ducked of their own accord. When the chaos cooled, only the corporal was still on his feet, but his mad grin was gone, replaced by a look of stunned surprise, and creeping fear.

“P…Pubby?”

“Son?”

“I’m sorry.”

The General choked down his fury and tried to say something reassuring, but before he could, the boy turned to him, and Public spotted the wound. Just below the right eye, a black smoking hole that only now began to cry blood, mixing with the soldier’s frightened tears.

“I killed me,” he said, and the rifle dropped first, then the rest of him.

The men were somber after that, unsure of themselves all over again, stealing only superstitious glances at the corpse of their comrade slung across the General’s shoulders like Christ’s own cross. A stark reminder, in war you didn’t always need a live enemy to do you in. Public did his best to keep them focused on the mission at hand. Until the corporal’s untimely death, it looked like a simple mop-up operation. Probably still was.

The steel door opened with a simple twist of the wheel in its center, probably the least amusing irony in history as far as this little unit was concerned, and they crossed the threshold with the tenuous pace of someone stepping for the first time through an interdimensional portal, or the doors of a new homeroom class. Every one of them waiting for the booby trap, the accidental fate-changer that might spell their doom, the invisible Jerry-rigged dealer of death.

From the look of the place, it had been abandoned in a hurry, no time to gather everything, no time to destroy it all, maybe a dim hope that it would remain undiscovered, and its inhabitants could return to their work at leisure sometime after the hostilities ended.

“Quiet as a church in here,” Foster piped up.

“When you ever been in a church, Foster, you fuckin’ heathen?” Spitz wanted to know, but the others shushed them before the exchange could go further.

It was a lab alright, but Public couldn’t wrap his head around what kind of work the Nazis were doing here. It was just glass and tubes and steel all formed into instruments and tech that was beyond his nuts-and-bolts comprehension.

“Lookit the size of these things,” Large muttered, and Public turned to see.

In the West wall of the cave-lab were rows of enormous glass containers, ten across, four high, reaching nearly two stories. Large stepped forward and wiped the glass.

“Oh. My. God,” he said. A second later, he jumped back.

Public was there in a heartbeat, not even pausing as he set poor dead Corporal Risetti on a lab table. He pushed Large out of the way protectively and looked through the glass. Inside the big tube, afloat in some green liquid that looked like dirty seawater, was a man. Or kind of a man. It looked like parts of several men, really, the way it was all stitched together at the joints, the way the skin tone of the forearm didn’t match the hand or upper arm, a mosaic of human pieces, a living puzzle. And it was alive. Its eyes were open and underneath the breathing mask affixed to its nose and mouth it seemed to be trying to communicate something to him, one discolored arm trying feebly to reach for the glass. When the arm rose a little, General Public saw the tattoo, a string of blue-black numbers running upward from the underside of the wrist. That should have been the worst of it right there, that and the lonely terror in its eyes, but there was more. There were dials on its chest and knobs below that and some kind of Frankenstein bolts in its forehead and something that might have been an on/off switch near the armpit, an amperage meter over the heart, tubes coming out of one end and going back into another and a spigot—a goddamned spigot—coming out of its groin.

“Holy shit,” Large said, stepping up beside him. “This is worse’n Auschwitz.”

“What do we do with ‘em, Pubby?” Foster asked.

The General looked deeply into the pleading eyes of the man-like thing in front of him. “We set them free.”

It wasn’t a great idea. Most of the ones that weren’t already dead didn’t last long outside of their containment tubes. Apparently the viscous sewer sludge they were floating in was key to keeping them alive and even Spitz, the closest thing they had to a field medic, didn’t have a clue what to do with them. Even the ones who showed signs of life—mostly feeble twitches and the occasional violent spasm—didn’t register normal pulses or heartbeats or any recognizable hints of genuine mortality. As for the rest…

Three of the test subjects, including the one that had seemed to plead for its freedom, weren’t exactly grateful to be on the outside, if their actions were any indication. That first one went straight for Large, and since Public was determined not to lose any more men today, he stepped in and delivered a one-two punch meant only to pacify the thing, but wound up with one gloved fist sunk deeply into its torso while his other knocked its head almost clean off its shoulders. The stench was incredible, a hellish reek of rot and death, but it kept fighting, so the General, figuring his hand was already in there anyway, reached further in and got a grip on its spine, trying to snap it. To his surprise, he found it was reinforced, a spindle of jointed steel, so he had no choice but to rip the whole thing out from the front, reducing the living dead thing to a jelly-like blob that continued to twitch and writhe until Large unloaded a clip into it.

Behind him he heard a scream, unmistakably Durazzo, and Public sprang into action. But by the time he turned around, Durazzo was gutting another of the test subjects with a Fascist Youth knife he’d picked up in Italy.

“Guys! Help me out here!” Foster this time, frozen in fear and looking down at something.

“Whatcha waitin’ for, Foster! Shoot it!” Large screamed. But Foster didn’t move until the thing knocked him over and they all saw why he couldn’t react.

It was a child, a little girl, at least the head was, maybe nine years old, all done up in the house style with gears and dials and mismatched patches of half-dead flesh.

Spitz jumped on it from behind and plunged a morphine syrette into its neck, which only seemed to make it angrier. It clamped its little fingers onto Foster’s neck not so much to choke as to dig, tearing at the skin like it wanted something inside of it. Maybe it did.

“Spitz, outta the way!” the General roared, as he leapt across the space between them and cleaved the thing in two with his battle sword in one fluid motion.

“Jeezus loweezus,” Large muttered when it was over. “I seen my share a’ weird shit travelin’ with you, Pubby, but that may just bake the cake right there.”

“Can we get outta here now?” Foster asked, as Spitz was tending to the deep but superficial scratches on his neck.

“Stifle it, ya pussy, I’m tryin’ to work here.”

General Public nodded solemnly. “Sure, Foster. We can go. Just as soon as we wire every inch of this place so we can blow it to kingdom come.”

And that’s what they did. Setting charges, rigging detonators, packing the whole thing with enough explosives to take the top off of the Zugspitze. He knew the brass at Strategic Command would be pissed, and maybe if he felt like it he’d even come up with a lie about what happened up here, but whatever there was to be learned from this place, whatever secrets they’d want to send their scientists up to pry out of the mountain rock, this was knowledge that no one needed. This kind of shit couldn’t help a soul.

They were almost done, almost out the door and ready to reduce this living hell to rubble, when he heard Durazzo, shouting from one of the anterior research rooms where he’d been planting his bombs.

“Hey, Pubby! I think you better see this!”

Public and the others stopped what they were doing and made for the small room, where they found Durazzo standing over a metal surgical table, looking down at something—or someone—on the table.

“Is that a gorilla?” Spitz asked.

“Sure looks like it,” Durazzo replied.

“Not like any gorilla I ever seen. Too pink.”

“When you ever seen a gorilla, Foster? Lemme guess. Church?”

“Brooklyn Zoo, you dumb fuck.”

“Save a guy’s life and that’s the thanks.”

General Public ignored them and stepped toward the table, taking in the beast that was strapped there, which did resemble an ape in all the most notable ways, but something about it, maybe it was just that its black hair wasn’t as thick as it should be, made it look very human. Not it. Him, Public noted, glancing down at its impressive nethers. Definitely a him.

He lowered his ear to its chest and there was no mistaking the weak but steady thump beneath the fur and flesh.

“He’s alive,” he informed the others.

Large racked his carbine. “Maybe we oughta fix that,” he said.

“No.”

“C’mon, Pubby, we seen what these things can do.”

“He’s not like the others. Look at him.”

And it was true. There were no gears, no dials, no meters, no tubes. Clearly no spigot.

“You think maybe they just didn’t get finished with this one?” Spitz asked.

“He may be some other kinda experiment. No reason to think he ain’t dangerous,” Durazzo added.

“Look, they already shaved his head. Looks like a friggin’ monk. Why’d they do that? Huh? Bet they did something to his brain, filled him fulla Nazi hate juice or something.”

“How fuckin’ scientific.”

“I say we leave it where it is, blow this shithole and be done with it,” Large said, then spit on the beast. “Fuckin’ Natzees.”

“Not your call,” Public said, cutting a towering figure that blocked the others from the table and made his intentions clear. Just then, the beast’s paw jerked in its leather strap and closed around the General’s wrist.

Large raised his rifle, Durazzo yanked his knife, but General Public held up his free hand to stay them. He turned and lowered his ear again, this time near the beast’s lips.

“Hilf mir,” the ape-thing whispered. Help me.

The cigarette in Spitz’s mouth fell from his lips. “Fuck a duck. That monkey just said words.”

Four hours later, General Public marched with the survivors of his unit into the Tyrol, a dead corporal slung over one shoulder, and a live ape-man on the other.

General Public, Part Two

Aside

BROCK STONE

Detroit, Michigan Thanksgiving 1956

General Public—no, Brock Stone; the General was dead to him now—made it as far as Detroit before the withdrawals started. While there may not have been any magic super-serum that transformed him from regular Joe to G.I. Jehovah, there had been a lot more than extra ammo and mystic weapons tech in those belt pouches. On the streets of Chicago, he’d left a pharmacopia of substances that had made General Public possible. The stimulants to improve his speed and agility, not to mention keep him conscious and in so-called fighting form for days at a stretch. Also the senso-enhancers that let him notice absolutely everything within the parameters of his sight, touch, hearing and smell, the mood stabilizers that allowed him to appear the perpetual paragon of unwaveringly upbeat virtue and fortitude, the constant synth-tosterone injections that increased his strength exponentially but made maintaining that supposed virtue off the battlefield that much more unlikely. Not to mention the powerful painkillers that were meant to dull the negative effects of the sensos, which had the unfortunate side effect of making every injury feel even more profound than it was. Problem was, he had to keep taking that stuff in regular and frequently increased dosages pretty much all the time in order to keep up the image. And if/when his supply went dry, which was wont to happen in the privations of a wartime setting, he was well and rightly screwed, crashing into an exhausted gibbering shivering wreck until he could sleep off the comedown or reach a resupply station. He once hid in a Bavarian barn for nearly two weeks waiting for a drop, more afraid of being found out by his own men than caught out by the Nazis. He finally managed to regain enough strength to make his escape by castrating six of the farmer’s bulls and devouring their testicles as a midnight snack.

Now he was going cold turkey, a strung-out ex-hero on the run, if not from actual justice, at least from the burden of being its living symbol.

He found a hotel—a flophouse really—in the heart of downtown, rented a room with the two dollars he’d found in the hollowed-out bootheel of a snoring hobo on the freight train that carried him away from his final battle and deposited him here. Dragged himself up six flights of stairs, kicking at rats with the last of his strength, their rodent hisses and snarls putting him in mind of Doktor Spleisser’s hideous mutant Dobermenschen. Staggered to the door past a sneering whore who briefly transformed into the uber-bitch Sister Hitler, the hapless sailor boy john on her arm never knowing the tortures that awaited him behind her door. Belly-crawled to the bed across a carpet of the dead and dying, trying not to put his hands in the guts and gore that spilled from yawning wounds. Climbed into the bed using the thin blanket like a hastily made rope ladder trailing from a speeding gyrocopter, a hateful face staring down at him from the cockpit, trying to kick him loose with a savage boot. He made it anyway, and threw himself down on the lumpy mattress before the hallucinations kicked off in earnest.

The neon sign blinking outside his window became the red flash of battlefield explosions, and Brock jerked away in spastic reflex. The shouts of people passing by down on State Street were the shocked and terrified screams of doomed soldiers who just wanted one more chance to see their mamas, or kiss their best girls. Brock prayed for unconsciousness, to a God he was sure had abandoned them all, but open or shut, all his eyes could see were nightmares.

All fighting men were witnesses to the unspeakable, but as the appointed savior of the free world, General Public beheld things that regulation dogfaces could scarcely comprehend.

At the entrance to the Hollow Earth, dead Nazi foot soldiers rose once again from the Antarctic snow, mindless killing machine-men with crudely implanted electrodes sending orders to their otherwise thoughtless brains. In his memory, he’d overcome them easily, knocking out servo-motors and pulling wires and watching them slow and still like unwound clocks, frozen statues in full uniform. But now they surged and swarmed, many more of them than he remembered, and it was they that were undoing him, one piece at a time. And he was helpless to stop them, helpless to reach the laughing bastard that created and controlled them, unable to stop the man as he removed Public’s silver helmet, and then his brittle skull…

As fingers sank into soft gray matter, he was transported to the skies over Luxembourg, onboard a dirigible filled with deadly nerve gas, as Air Marshal Bludwulf pumped round after round from his Luger into his impenetrable chest armor. Only this time, the bullets punched through like his uniform was tissue paper, sinking heavily into his torso and taking on lives of their own inside, not just puncturing organs or smashing against bone, but changing him in some terrible way. Bludwulf took the last parachute and jumped free—again, this wasn’t how it happened last time—laughing and falling away and firing one last shot right into the zeppelin’s hull. Just before it exploded and the world went white, Public saw that he wasn’t alone. The laughing maniac from the Hollow Earth expedition was there again, perfectly happy to sit behind the controls and let this play out, as long as it meant watching America’s Last Best Hope die in searing agony as he failed to save even a corner of the world.

The KamiNazi got the best of him on Iwo Jima, delivering a blast of energy that sent him flying nearly two hundred feet. “I’m okay,” he told the medic that rushed to his aid. “I was carried to safety by the explosion.” That was just as he remembered it. Until he looked down and saw that his legs had been blown off, one below the knee and one at the hip. The KamiNazi cheered his own victory and exploded, an orange-yellow blast of rising sun that swept across the island, flash-frying every hopeless soldier in its path. Even as the mushroom cloud turned the skies to winter night, the laughing man was there again, a strange pair of someone else’s legs tucked under his arms, and this time, he spoke. “Not to worry,” he said, and the General was pretty certain he was speaking German, but he understood the creep just fine. “I can fix you. You will be better than ever when I am through with you.” As he shoved the spare body parts against Brock’s bloodied stumps, they fused instantly into place, and he screamed in agony as his hypersenses felt every bit of the unnatural melding, and his body struggled to reject the unwanted limbs. As the shockwave and heat blast from KamiNazi’s self-destruction rolled over him in agonizing slow motion, his new foreign legs were forcing him to stand and walk…

…into a laboratory, high in the German Alps, enormous glass tubes filled with liquid, skinless bodies bobbing within like tropical fish specimens in an alien aquarium. He’d been here, too, after the fall of Berlin. There’d been no resistance then, no one to fight. Just him and a squadron of exhausted soldiers, hoping to find a comfortable bed to sleep in and maybe a hidden cache of fine European liquor, not more horror. But the horror never ended, even when the war did. And even if they were lucky to be alive, they hadn’t really escaped anything. Just moved to the next level of shit.

“It disturbs you, does it not?” The little sneering Nazi fuck again, emerging from the shadows in his labcoat, peering out from thick goggles, holding something under one arm, not a severed limb this time, but a strange jar of some kind, with dials and switches and an electric crackle emanating from one end, filled with thick green liquid and something floating inside, maybe some kind of mutant monster thing, and in the other hand, a giant steel syringe. “To know that in spite of all of your efforts, you have lost? That your own country has managed to handily snatch defeat from the jaws of victory? But did you ever believe, even if you truly managed to save it, that you would return to the same place you had left? It is not America that changed. It was always a dark and terrible place. It is you. The veil has lifted. For the first time, your eyes are truly open. And you are able to see Hell for what it is. And while it believes it has no more need of you, the hard, sad fact is, America needs you more than ever. But it is too late. And in a way, it always was…”

The Nazi rambled on, even as he plunged the syringe into the neck of the jar and drew some of the green stuff into it. When he did, the thing inside seemed to stir, and rolled toward Brock with a pair of wild staring hate-filled eyes on stalks. Eyes attached to a brain that was somehow miraculously alive in there.

Brock tried to say something. He’d been trying the whole time, but nothing would come. It was like he didn’t know any words. The brain in the jar was alive, but his was dead. And what did it matter, really? This was just a hallucination. In a few hours, or days, or weeks, all of this would end, and he’d be able to go downstairs, outside, grab a pint of whisky, eat some pork chops, find a girl to bang. And everything would be fine. Just fine.

“We are here, you know? Even as we speak—well, even as I speak—we walk and work and live among your people, occupying homes on your streets, enjoying the view from corner offices meant for you and yours, brought here on America’s dime, ready and willing to direct your future, to manipulate it to our own ends. To re-orient the path of history and bring the Reich back on track. This is not your homecoming. It never was. It is mine. America is the Fatherland of the Future. And you are a memory.”

His limbs were weak and heavy and even his new self-determined legs were buckling as the sneering Nazi scientist plunged the big needle into his neck, and Brock Stone let out a scream to beat the band.

the dept.

For the next few weeks, for those that follow (and event those that don’t) I’m going to be posting excerpts from my big magnum opus novel “the dept.: creation myths.” It’s a sprawling tale of superheroes, fugitive Nazis, atomic secrets, undead armies and Hitler’s disembodied brain set in the mid 20th century and will serve as the prequel to the modern-day series that started with “The Villain’s Sidekick.” Here’s the first blob of it, in which me meet the original supersoldier, General Public. Please to enjoy!

GENERAL PUBLIC

Chicago, Illinois November 1956

General Public stood on the steps of the Holy Name Cathedral, trying his best to look both menacing and reassuring, a near-impossible facial task to accomplish under the low-brim of his silver helmet and the domino mask over his eyes. Before him were throngs of clergy, nuns and their devout supporters. They were currently demonstrating for unionization. The Brotherhood of Catholic Priests Local 3:16 or something. The General wasn’t really sure of all the issues. Despite his supersoldier status and his public image as the living embodiment of the American fighting ideal, politics weren’t really his thing. But between the Vatican strikebreakers, the Teamsters, and the more radicalized nuns, things were threatening to get ugly in a hurry, and the General was on hand to keep the peace. He hoped against hope that his mere presence would be enough; his back hurt like hell and his bum knee had been giving him trouble ever since the weather started to cool.

Folk tales and hero worship aside, General Public, aka Brock Stone, took a serious beating doing his part for the war effort. After all, it was hard work being not only a symbol, but a guy who was expected to more or less perform as a one-man army, or at the very least a one-man platoon, especially if you had no superpowers to speak of. Oh, sure, the government made a big deal about the so-called “Project Olympus,” trotting Brock out in his impressively gaudy costume and making all sorts of claims to irradiation, liquid hydrogen infusions, and animal hybridization, but the fact was, Brock was just an incredibly fit, well-bred, and highly trained specimen of ordinary manhood. Never mind the fact that he was just north of forty when he was recruited to lead the all-American super-squad to allied victory, and hadn’t spent a minute in uniform since he’d been discharged from service during World War I for being fifteen at his time of enlistment.

Now here he was, in steel-blue and silver, medals decorating his broad chest like Christmas ornaments, .45 on one hip, saber on the other, grenades and ammo on his crossbelts, birth name secure behind a tiny strip of black cloth over his eyes, staring down a bunch of angry priests and their righteously indignant flocks, who were striking for a cut of the collection plate, higher quality wine, and fewer midnight masses, as near as he could figure. He found himself wondering if all those sermons preaching tolerance and compassion would hold sway in these circumstances, or if a bunch of men who had willingly chosen to deny themselves sex for the remainder of their lives would find their emotions overwhelmed by the lesser angels of their nature.

Then the chanting started. Demonstrators. Always with the chanting.

“We want raises to sing his praises!”

“If you want last rites give us our rights!”

Not bad, as angry chanting went. Maybe not as clever as the anarchists, but infinitely more poetic.

“Our Father, who art in Heaven, we don’t want to work past seven!”

Okay, that one was pretty lame. But more heated.

“Fathers, brothers, sisters, everyone, please, calm down!” General Public shouted in his best authoritarian timbre. In spite of his name, public speaking really wasn’t his thing.

“Who asked you to come?” asked a priest near the front, possibly the ringleader, voice hoarse from long hours shouting to be heard by the Archdiocese in the morning chill. “This is an issue of the church, not the state!”

“Archbishop Stritch himself!” Public replied.

“Where the Hell is he then?” the priest wanted to know.

“He’s assured me that he’ll address all of your issues, once you’ve placed a formal request with the…”

Something hit him in the chest. A can of beans maybe, or a chunk of lead pipe. Whatever it was, it hurt, but years of perfectly honed reflexes kept him from letting the crowd see that. And his keenly sensitive nerve endings told him that the bruise was already forming, even beneath the armor. Damned senso-enhancers, making sure nothing got past him, not even the pain. Especially not the pain.

“That wasn’t very Christian of you,” General Public said calmly but firmly, doing his best to keep things light.

Something else hit him, on the side of his face, a wet slap of soft, spongy matter, hopefully food, maybe something worse.

“Turn the other cheek then!”

“Let he who is without sin…” Public began.

And then came the barrage, a sudden incoming flurry of objects small and large, hard and soft, sharp and blunt, rank and perfumed. And General Public lost his cool.

He dove from the top of the steps, headlong into the collared and habited crowd, and was met with a rain of fists and shoe heels, the weak, ineffectual blows of angry men and women with little real fighting spirit, and zero training. They were no match for his speed and agility, however diminished by age and injury, and between their pained cries were genuine gasps of astonishment at the brutal fact of his own battle-hardened fists and the savage kick of his steel-tooled army boots as he brought down an earthly taste of the torments of Hell on the insurrectionists. He hadn’t doled out this kind of punishment to a practicing Catholic since his mano a mano tussle with Pope Ignatius IX, the Gangster Pope, in Vatican Square during the fall of fascist Italy.

His pistol and sword remained safely sheathed, at least for the first several minutes. The angry onslaught, threatening to overwhelm him through sheer numbers, began to diminish as priest, nun and supporter fell to his might; soon, he’d have them on the run. But even as he landed blow after blow, he felt hands scrabbling at his utility pouches, scabbard and holster, and pretty soon a pair of hands came up clutching his nickel-plated .45, firing wildly and taking out a Benedictine monk and Father Chadwick from the South Side Parish. A nun had his gun. Without thinking, he snatched out with one hand and broke both her wrists as he wrested the pistol back into his own possession.

This was not going to look good in the papers.

“The door, it’s unguarded!” someone shouted, and there was an eternal microsecond of hesitation before the mad crush of pious protestors swarmed the steps. They didn’t get far.

The doors to Holy Name burst open and Public wasn’t entirely sure what poured out. Were they Chicago cops, Vatican-sent security forces, or a private army hired by the Archdiocese? Maybe they were all bishops and cardinals under that heavy steel armor, peering out from the eye-slits at their own people as they formed a tight line and marched forward, down the steps, firing through small weapons ports into the crowd. It was like the famous scene in that old Russian movie, as enacted by a battalion of clanking robots. The General even had a panicky moment where he had to make sure there was no baby carriage rolling down the steps. Thank God for celibacy.

It was pure pandemonium, and for the first time he could remember, in an all-out melee situation, General Public had no idea what to do. Just a moment ago, he’d been busting jaws and flattening noses out in the crowd, and now he felt more inclined to protect them and take down these armor-wearing goons, no matter their affiliation. But was he any match for them? He couldn’t be sure; he wasn’t currently sure of anything. Truth be told, he was terrified, and when something exploded just a few feet away it didn’t help matters one bit. He had to do something; he had to move. But where? At what? Against whom? Nothing made sense, and he was literally petrified, frozen in place, hearing the screams from dozens of battles, hundreds of secret missions, thousands of men dying for the cause in far-flung corners of the world. He remained that way, stuck between the gun-toting thugs and the now-helpless lambs of God, until a chunk of brick or something thudded against his helmet, literally ringing his bell, and he suddenly knew what to do.

He threw off the helmet, dropped it really, not wanting to hurt anyone, no longer interested in fighting back. He unhooked the utility and cross-belts, tore off the mask, hunched his shoulders and slunk into the crowd, away from the bullets, away from the madness, away from the rage and the pain and the fear, running now, through the wintry streets, stripping off bits and pieces of his living fiction, leaving it all behind.

By the time he reached Lakeshore, he was down to his skivvies. The biting wind off the water felt like a baptism.