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.
“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.
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.
“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.