George R.R. Martin
George R.R. Martin is an American writer of fantasy and science fiction best known for his A Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series, now the HBO original series Game of Thrones. According to myth, he began his career selling monster stories to other neighborhood children for pennies. Subsequent work has won many awards, including the Hugo and World Fantasy awards. In this story, first published in Omni magazine in 1985, a wise-cracking mutant travels from the future to save the world from cataclysmic war.
On the high ramparts of Vargön, Colonel Bengt Anttonen stood alone and watched phantasms race across the ice.
The world was snow and wind and bitter, burning cold. The winter sea had frozen hard around Helsinki, and in its icy grip it held the six island citadels of the great fortress called Sveaborg. The wind was a knife drawn from a sheath of ice. It cut through Anttonen’s uniform, chafed at his cheeks, brought tears to his eyes and froze them as they trickled down his face. The wind howled around the towering gray granite walls, forced its way through doors and cracks and gun emplacements, insinuated itself everywhere. Out upon the frozen sea, it snapped and shrieked at the Russian artillery, and sent puffs of snow from the drifts running and swirling over the ice like strange white beasts, ghostly animals all asparkle, wearing first one shape and then another, changing constantly as they ran.
They were creatures as malleable as Anttonen’s thoughts. He wondered what form they would take next and where they were running to so swiftly, these misty children of snow and wind. Perhaps they could be taught to attack the Russians. He smiled, savoring the fancy of the snow beasts unleashed upon the enemy. It was a strange, wild thought. Colonel Bengt Anttonen had never been an imaginative man before, but of late his mind had often been taken by such whimsies.
Anttonen turned his face into the wind again, welcoming the chill, the numbing cold. He wanted it to cool his fury, to cut into the heart of him and freeze the passions that seethed there. He wanted to be numb. The cold had turned even the turbulent sea into still and silent ice; now let it conquer the turbulence within Bengt Anttonen. He opened his mouth, exhaled a long plume of breath that rose from his reddened cheeks like steam, inhaled a draught of frigid air that went down like liquid oxygen.
But panic came in the wake of that thought. Again, it was happening again. What was liquid oxygen? Cold, he knew somehow; colder than the ice, colder than this wind. Liquid oxygen was bitter and white, and it steamed and flowed. He knew it, knew it as certainly as he knew his own name. But how?
Anttonen turned from the ramparts. He walked with long swift strides, his hand touching the hilt of his sword as if it could provide some protection against the demons that had invaded his mind. The other officers were right; he was going mad, surely. He had proved it this afternoon at the staff meeting.
The meeting had gone very badly, as they all had of late. As always, Anttonen had raised his voice against the others, hopelessly, stupidly. He was right, he knew that. Yet he knew also that he could not convince them, and that each word further undermined his status, further damaged his career.
Jägerhorn had brought it on once again. Colonel F. A. Jägerhorn was everything that Anttonen was not; dark and handsome, polished and politic, an aristocrat with an aristocrat’s control. Jägerhorn had important connections, had influential relatives, had a charmed career. And, most importantly, Jägerhorn had the confidence of Vice-Admiral Carl Olof Cronstedt, commandant of Sveaborg.
At the meeting, Jägerhorn had had a sheaf of reports.
“The reports are wrong,” Anttonen had insisted. “The Russians do not outnumber us. And they have barely forty guns, sir. Sveaborg mounts ten times that number.”
Cronstedt seemed shocked by Anttonen’s tone, his certainty, his insistence. Jägerhorn simply smiled. “Might I ask how you come by this intelligence, Colonel Anttonen?” he asked.
That was the question Bengt Anttonen could never answer. “I know,” he said stubbornly.
Jägerhorn rattled the papers in his hand. “My own intelligence comes from Lieutenant Klick, who is in Helsinki and has direct access to reliable reports of enemy plans, movements, and numbers.” He looked to Vice-Admiral Cronstedt. “I submit, sir, that this information is a good deal more reliable than Colonel Anttonen’s mysterious certainties. According to Klick, the Russians outnumber us already, and General Suchtelen will soon be receiving sufficient reinforcements to enable him to launch a major assault. Furthermore, they have a formidable amount of artillery on hand. Certainly more than the forty pieces that Colonel Anttonen would have us believe the extent of their armament.”
Cronstedt was nodding, agreeing. Even then Anttonen could not be silent. “Sir,” he insisted, “Klick’s reports must be discounted. The man cannot be trusted. Either he is in the pay of the enemy or they are deluding him.”
Cronstedt frowned. “That is a grave charge, Colonel.”
“Klick is a fool and a damned Anjala traitor!”
Jägerhorn bristled at that, and Cronstedt and a number of junior officers looked plainly aghast. “Colonel,” the commandant said, “it is well known that Colonel Jägerhorn has relatives in the Anjala League. Your comments are offensive. Our situation here is perilous enough without my officers fighting among themselves over petty political differences. You will offer an apology at once.”
Given no choice, Anttonen had tendered an awkward apology. Jägerhorn accepted with a patronizing nod.
Cronstedt went back to the papers. “Very persuasive,” he said, “and very alarming. It is as I have feared. We have come to a hard place.” Plainly his mind was made up. It was futile to argue further. It was at times like this that Bengt Anttonen most wondered what madness had possessed him. He would go to staff meetings determined to be circumspect and politic, and no sooner would he be seated than a strange arrogance would seize him. He argued long past the point of wisdom; he denied obvious facts, confirmed in written reports from reliable sources; he spoke out of turn and made enemies on every side.
“No, sir,” he said, “I beg of you, disregard Klick’s intelligence. Sveaborg is vital to the spring counteroffensive. We have nothing to fear if we can hold out until the ice melts. Once the sea lanes are open, Sweden will send help.”
Vice-Admiral Cronstedt’s face was drawn and weary, an old man’s face. “How many times must we go over this? I grow tired of your argumentative attitude, and I am quite aware of Sveaborg’s importance to the spring offensive. The facts are plain. Our defenses are flawed, and the ice makes our walls accessible from all sides. Sweden’s armies are being routed—”
“We know that only from the newspapers the Russians allow us, sir,” Anttonen blurted. “French and Russian papers. Such news is unreliable.”
Cronstedt’s patience was exhausted. “Quiet!” he said, slapping the table with an open palm. “I have had enough of your intransigence, Colonel Anttonen. I respect your patriotic fervor, but not your judgment. In the future, when I require your opinion, I shall ask for it. Is that clear?”
“Yes, sir,” Anttonen had said.
Jägerhorn smiled. “If I may proceed?”
The rebuke had been as smarting as the cold winter wind. It was no wonder Anttonen had felt driven to the cold solitude of the battlements afterwards.
By the time he returned to his quarters, Bengt Anttonen’s mood was bleak and confused. Darkness was falling, he knew. Over the frozen sea, over Sveaborg, over Sweden and Finland. And over America, he thought. Yet the afterthought left him sick and dizzy. He sat heavily on his cot, cradling his head in his hands. America, America, what madness was that, what possible difference could the struggle between Sweden and Russia make to that infant nation so far away?
Rising, he lit a lamp, as if light would drive the troubling thoughts away, and splashed some stale water on his face from the basin atop the modest dresser. Behind the basin was the mirror he used for shaving; slightly warped and dulled by corrosion, but serviceable. As he dried his big, bony hands, he found himself staring at his own face, the features at once so familiar and so oddly, frighteningly strange. He had unruly graying hair, dark gray eyes, a narrow straight nose, slightly sunken cheeks, a square chin. He was too thin, almost gaunt. It was a stubborn, common, plain face. The face he had worn all his life. Long ago, Bengt Anttonen had grown resigned to the way he looked. Until recently, he scarcely gave his appearance any thought. Yet now he stared at himself, unblinking, and felt a disturbing fascination welling up inside him, a sense of satisfaction, a pleasure in the cast of his image that was alien and troubling.
Such vanity was sick, unmanly, another sign of madness. Anttonen wrenched his gaze from the mirror. He lay himself down with a will.
For long moments he could not sleep. Fancies and visions danced against his closed eyelids, sights as fantastic as the phantom animals fashioned by the wind: flags he did not recognize, walls of polished metal, great storms of fire, men and women as hideous as demons asleep in beds of burning liquid. And then, suddenly, the thoughts were gone, peeled off like a layer of burned skin. Bengt Anttonen sighed uneasily, and turned in his sleep …
* * *
… before the awareness is always the pain, and the pain comes first, the only reality in a still quiet empty world beyond sensation. For a second, an hour I do not know where I am and I am afraid. And then the knowledge comes to me; returning, I am returning, in the return is always pain, I do not want to return, but I must. I want the sweet clean purity of ice and snow, the bracing touch of the winter wind, the healthy lines of Bengt’s face. But it fades, fades though I scream and clutch for it, crying, wailing. It fades, fades, and then is gone.
I sense motion, a stirring all around me as the immersion fluid ebbs away. My face is exposed first. I suck in air through my wide nostrils, spit the tubes out of my bleeding mouth. When the fluid falls below my ears, I hear a gurgling, a greedy sucking sound. The vampire machines feed on the juices of my womb, the black blood of my second life. The cold touch of air on my skin pains me. I try not to scream, manage to hold the noise down to a whimper.
Above, the top of my tank is coated by a thin ebony film that has clung to the polished metal. I can see my reflection. I’m a stirring sight, nostril hairs aquiver on my noseless face, my right cheek bulging with a swollen greenish tumor. Such a handsome devil. I smile, showing a triple row of rotten teeth, fresh new incisors pushing up among them like sharpened stakes in a field of yellow toadstools. I wait for release. The tank is too damned small, a coffin. I am buried alive, and the fear is a palpable weight upon me. They do not like me. What if they just leave me in here to suffocate and die? “Out!” I whisper, but no one hears.
Finally the lid lifts and the orderlies are there. Rafael and Slim. Big strapping fellows, blurred white colossi with flags sewn above the pockets of their uniforms. I cannot focus on their faces. My eyes are not so good at the best of times, and especially bad just after a return. I know the dark one is Rafe, though, and it is he who reaches down and unhooks the IV tubes and the telemetry, while Slim gives me my injection. Ahhh. Good. The hurt fades. I force my hands to grasp the sides of the tank. The metal feels strange; the motion is clumsy, deliberate, my body slow to respond. “What took you so long?” I ask.
“Emergency,” says Slim. “Rollins.” He is a testy, laconic sort, and he doesn’t like me. To learn more, I would have to ask question after question. I don’t have the strength. I concentrate instead on pulling myself to a sitting position. The room is awash with a bright blue-white fluorescent light. My eyes water after so long in darkness. Maybe the orderlies think I’m crying with joy to be back. They’re big but not too bright. The air has an astringent, sanitized smell and the hard coolness of air conditioning. Rafe lifts me up from the coffin, the fifth silvery casket in a row of six, each hooked up to the computer banks that loom around us. The other coffins are all empty now. I am the last vampire to rise this night, I think. Then I remember. Four of them are gone, have been gone for a long time. There is only Rollins and myself, and something has happened to Rollins.
They set me in my chair and Slim moves behind me, rolls me past the empty caskets and up the ramps to debriefing. “Rollins,” I ask him.
“We lost him.”
I didn’t like Rollins. He was even uglier than me, a wizened little homunculus with a swollen, oversized cranium and a distorted torso without arms or legs. He had real big eyes, lidless, so he could never close them.
Even asleep, he looked like he was staring at you. And he had no sense of humor. No goddamned sense of humor at all. When you’re a geek, you got to have a sense of humor. But whatever his faults, Rollins was the only one left, besides me. Gone now. I feel no grief, only a numbness.
The debriefing room is cluttered but somehow impersonal. They wait for me on the other side of the table. The orderlies roll me up opposite them and depart. The table is a long Formica barrier between me and my superiors, maybe a cordon sanitaire. They cannot let me get too close, after all, I might be contagious. They are normals. I am … what am I? When they conscripted me, I was classified as a HM3. Human Mutation, third category. Or a hum-three, in the vernacular. The hum-ones are the nonviables, stillborns and infant deaths and living veggies. We got millions of ’em. The hum-twos are viable but useless, all the guys with extra toes and webbed hands and funny eyes. Got thousands of them. But us hum-threes are a fucking elite, so they tell us. That’s when they draft us. Down here, inside the Graham Project bunker, we get new names. Old Charlie Graham himself used to call us his “timeriders” before he croaked, but that’s too romantic for Major Salazar. Salazar prefers the official government term: G. C., for Graham Chrononaut. The orderlies and grunts turned G. C. into “geek’ of course, and we turned it right back on ’em, me and Nan and Creeper, when they were still with us. They had a terrific sense of humor, now. The killer geeks, we called ourselves. Six little killer geeks riding the timestream biting the heads off vast chickens of probability. Heigh-ho.
And then there was one.
Salazar is pushing papers around on the table. He looks sick. Under his dark complexion I can see an unhealthy greenish tinge, and the blood vessels in his nose have burst beneath the skin. None of us are in good shape down here, but Salazar looks worse than most. He’s been gaining weight, and it looks bad on him. His uniforms are all too tight now, and there won’t be any fresh ones. They’ve closed down the commissaries and the mills, and in a few years we’ll all be wearing rags. I’ve told Salazar he ought to diet, but no one will listen to a geek, except when the subject is chickens. “Well,” Salazar says to me, his voice snapping. A hell of a way to start a debriefing. Three years ago, when it began, he was full of starch and vinegar, very correct and military, but even the Maje has no time left for decorum now.
“What happened to Rollins?” I ask.
Doctor Veronica Jacobi is seated next to Salazar. She used to be chief headshrinker down here, but since Graham Crackers went and expired she’s been heading up the whole scientific side of the show. “Death trauma,” she says, professionally. “Most likely, his host was killed in action.”
I nod. Old story. Sometimes the chickens bite back. “He accomplish anything?”
“Not that we’ve noticed,” Salazar says glumly.
The answer I expected. Rollins had gotten rapport with some ignorant grunt of a footsoldier in the army of Charles XII. I had this droll mental picture of him marching the guy up to his loon of a teenaged king and trying to tell the boy to stay away from Poltava. Charles probably hanged him on the spot though, come to think of it, it had to be something quicker, or else Rollins would have had time to disengage.
“Your report” prompts Salazar.
“Right, Maje,” I say lazily. He hates to be called Maje, though not so much as he hated Sally, which was what Creeper used to call him. Us killer geeks are an insolent lot. “It’s no good,” I tell them. “Cronstedt is going to meet with General Suchtelen and negotiate for surrender. Nothing Bengt says sways him one damned bit. I been pushing too hard. Bengt thinks he’s going crazy. I’m afraid he may crack.”
“All timeriders take that risk,” Jacobi says. “The longer you stay in rapport, the stronger your influence grows on the host, and the more likely it becomes that your presence will be felt. Few hosts can deal with that perception.” Ronnie has a nice voice, and she’s always polite to me. Well-scrubbed and tall and calm and even friendly, and above all ineffably polite. I wonder if she’d be as polite if she knew that she’d figured prominently in my masturbation fantasies ever since we’d been down here? They only put five women into the Cracker Box, with thirty-two men and six geeks, and she’s by far the most pleasant to contemplate.
Creeper liked to contemplate her, too. He even bugged her bedroom, to watch her in action. She never knew. Creeper had a talent for that stuff, and he’d rig up these tiny little audio-video units on his workbench and plant them everywhere. He said that if he couldn’t live life, at least he was going to watch it. One night he invited me into his room, when Ronnie was entertaining big, red-haired Captain Halliburton, the head of the base security, and her fella in those early days. I watched, yeah; got to confess that I watched. But afterward I got angry. Told Creeper he had no right to spy on Ronnie, or on any of them. “They make us spy on our hosts,” he said, “right inside their fucking heads, you geek. Turnabout is fair play.” I told him it was different, but I got so mad I couldn’t explain why.
It was the only fight Creeper and me ever had. In the long run, it didn’t mean much. He went on watching, without me. They never caught the little sneak, but it didn’t matter, one day he went timeriding and didn’t come back. Big strong Captain Halliburton died too, caught too many rads on those security sweeps, I guess. As far as I know, Creeper’s hookup is still in place; from time to time I’ve thought about going in and taking a peek, to see if Ronnie has herself a new lover. But I haven’t. I really don’t want to know. Leave me with my fantasies and my wet dreams; they’re a lot better anyway.
Salazar’s fat fingers drum upon the table. “Give us a full report on your activities,” he says curtly.
I sigh and give them what they want, everything in boring detail. When I’m done, I say, “Jägerhorn is the key to the problem. He’s got Cronstedt’s ear. Anttonen don’t.”
Salazar is frowning. “If only you could establish rapport with Jägerhorn,” he grumbles. What a futile whiner. He knows that’s impossible.
“You takes what you gets,” I tell him. “If you’re going to wish impossible wishes, why stop at Jägerhorn? Why not Cronstedt? Hell, why not the goddamned Czar?”
“He’s right, Major,” Veronica says. “We ought to be grateful that we’ve got a link with Anttonen. At least he’s a colonel. That’s better than we did in any of the other target periods.”
Salazar is still unhappy. He’s a military historian by trade. He thought this would be easy when they transferred him out from West Point, or what was left of it. “Anttonen is peripheral,” he declares. “We must reach the key figures. Your chrononauts are giving me footnotes, bystanders, the wrong men in the wrong place at the wrong time. It is impossible.”
“You knew the job was dangerous when you took it,” I say. A killer geek quoting Superchicken; I’d get thrown out of the union if they knew. “We don’t get to pick and choose.”
The Maje scowls at me. I yawn. “I’m tired of this,” I say. “I want something to eat. Some ice cream. I want some rocky road ice cream. Seems funny, don’t it? All that goddamned ice, and I come back wanting ice cream.” There is no ice cream, of course. There hasn’t been any ice cream for half a generation, anywhere in the godforsaken mess they call a world. But Nan used to tell me about it. Nan was the oldest geek, the only one born before the big crash, and she had lots of stories about the way things used to be. I liked it best when she talked about ice cream. It was smooth and cold and sweet, she said. It melted on your tongue, and filled your mouth with liquid, delicious cold. Sometimes she would recite the flavors for us, as solemnly as Chaplain Todd reading his Bible: vanilla and strawberry and chocolate, fudge swirl and praline, rum raisin and heavenly hash, banana and orange sherbet and mint chocolate chip, pistachio and butterscotch and coffee and cinnamon and butter pecan. Creeper used to make up flavors to poke fun at her, but there was no getting to Nan. She just added his inventions to her list, and spoke fondly thereafter of anchovy almond and liver chip and radiation ripple, until I couldn’t tell the real flavors from the made-up ones any more, and didn’t really care.
Nan was the first we lost. Did they have ice cream in St Petersburg back in 1917? I hope they did. I hope she got a bowl or two before she died.
Major Salazar is still talking, I realize. He has been talking for some time, “… our last chance now,” he is saying. He begins to babble about Sveaborg, about the importance of what we are doing here, about the urgent need to change something somehow, to prevent the Soviet Union from ever coming into existence, and thus forestall the war that has laid the world to waste. I’ve heard it all before, I know it all by heart. The Maje has terminal verbal diarrhea, and I’m not so dumb as I look.
It was all Graham Cracker’s idea, the last chance to win the war or maybe just save ourselves from the plagues and bombs and the poisoned winds. But the Maje was the historian, so he got to pick all the targets, when the computers had done their probability analysis. He had six geeks and he got six tries. “Nexus points,” he called ’em. Critical points in history. Of course, some were better than others. Rollins got the Great Northern War, Nan got the Revolution, Creeper got to go all the way back to Ivan the Terrible, and I got Sveaborg. Impregnable, invincible Sveaborg. Gibraltar of the North.
“There is no reason for Sveaborg to surrender,” the Maje is saying. It is his own ice-cream litany. History and tactics give him the sort of comfort that butter brickle gave to Nan. “The garrison is seven thousand strong, vastly outnumbering the besieging Russians. The artillery inside the Fortress is much superior. There is plenty of ammunition, plenty of food. If Sveaborg only holds out until the sea lanes are open, Sweden will launch its counteroffensive and the siege will be broken easily. The entire course of the war may change! You must make Cronstedt listen to reason.”
“If I could just lug back a history text and let him read what they say about him, I’m sure he’d jump through flaming hoops,” I say. I’ve had enough of this. “I’m tired,” I announce. “I want some food.” Suddenly, for no apparent reason, I feel like crying. “I want something to eat, damn it, I don’t want to talk anymore, you hear, I want something to eat.”
Salazar glares, but Veronica hears the stress in my voice, and she is up and moving around the table. “Easy enough to arrange,” she says to me, and to the Maje, “We’ve accomplished all we can for now. Let me get him some food.” Salazar grunts, but he dares not object. Veronica wheels me away, toward the commissary.
Over stale coffee and a plate of mystery meat and overcooked vegetables, she consoles me. She’s not half bad at it; a pro, after all. Maybe, in the old days, she wouldn’t have been considered especially striking – I’ve seen the old magazines, after all, even down here we have our old Playboys, our old video tapes, our old novels, our old record albums, our old funny books, nothing new of course, nothing recent, but lots and lots of the old junk. I ought to know, I practically mainline the stuff; when I’m not flailing around inside Bengt’s cranium, I’m planted in front of my tube, running some old TV show or a movie, maybe reading a paperback at the same time, trying to imagine what it would be like to live back then, before they screwed up everything. So I know all about the old standards, and maybe it’s true that Ronnie ain’t up to, say, Bo or Marilyn or Brigitte or Garbo.
Still, she’s nicer to look at than anybody else down in this damned septic tank. And the rest of us don’t quite measure up either. Creeper wasn’t no Groucho, no matter how hard he tried; me, I look just like Jimmy Cagney, but the big green tumor and all the extra yellow teeth and the want of a nose spoil the effect, just a little.
I push my fork away with the meal half-eaten. “It has no taste. Back then, food had taste.”
Veronica laughs. “You’re lucky. You get to taste it. For the rest of us, this is all there is.”
“Lucky? Ha-ha. I know the difference, Ronnie. You don’t. Can you miss something you never had?” I’m sick of talking about it, though; I’m sick of it all. “You want to play chess?”
She smiles and gets up in search of our set. An hour later, she’s won the first game and we’re starting the second. There are about a dozen chess players down here in the Cracker Box; now that Graham and Creeper are gone, I can beat all of them except Ronnie. The funny thing is, back in 1808 I could probably be world champion. Chess has come a long way in the last two hundred years, and I’ve memorized openings that those old guys never even dreamed of.
“There’s more to the game than book openings,” Veronica says, and I realize I’ve been talking aloud.
“I’d still win,” I insist. “Hell, those guys have been dead for centuries, how much fight can they put up?”
She smiles, and moves a knight. “Check,” she says.
I realize that I’ve lost again. “Some day I’ve got to learn to play this game,” I say. “Some world champion.”
Veronica begins to put the pieces back in the box. “This Sveaborg business is a kind of chess game too,” she says conversationally, “a chess game across time, us and the Swedes against the Russians and the Finnish nationalists. What move do you think we should make against Cronstedt?”
“Why did I know that the conversation was going to come back to that?” I say. “Damned if I know. I suppose the Maje has an idea.”
She nods. Her face is serious now. Pale soft face, framed by dark hair. “A desperate idea. These are desperate times.”
What would it be like if I did succeed, I wonder? If I changed something? What would happen to Veronica and the Maje and Rafe and Slim and all the rest of them? What would happen to me, lying there in my coffin full of darkness? There are theories, of course, but no one really knows. “I’m a desperate man, ma’am,” I say to her, “ready for any desperate measures. Being subtle sure hasn’t done diddly-squat. Let’s hear it. What do I gotta get Bengt to do now? Invent the machine gun? Defect to the Russkis? Expose his privates on the battlements? What?”
She tells me.
I’m dubious. “Maybe it’ll work,” I say. “More likely, it’ll get Bengt slung into the deepest goddamned dungeon that place has. They’ll really think he’s nuts. Jägerhorn might just shoot him outright.”
“No, she says. “In his own way, Jägerhorn is an idealist. A man of principle. I agree, it is a chancy move. But you don’t win chess games without taking chances. Will you do it?”
She has such a nice smile; I think she likes me. I shrug. “Might as well,” I say. “Can’t dance.”
* * *
“… shall be allowed to dispatch two couriers to the King, the one by the northern, the other by the southern road. They shall be furnished with passports and safeguards, and every possible facility shall be given them for accomplishing their journey. Done at the island of Lonan, 6 April, 1808.”
The droning voice of the officer reading the agreement stopped suddenly, and the staff meeting was deathly quiet. A few of the Swedish officers stirred uneasily in their seats, but no one spoke.
Vice-Admiral Cronstedt rose slowly. “This is the agreement,” he said. “In view of our perilous position, it is better than we could have hoped for. We have used a third of our powder already, our defenses are exposed to attack from all sides because of the ice, we are outnumbered and forced to support a large number of fugitives who rapidly consume our provisions. General Suchtelen might have demanded our immediate surrender. By the grace of God, he did not. Instead we have been allowed to retain three of Sveaborg’s six islands, and will regain two of the others, should five Swedish ships-of-the-line arrive to aid us before the third of May. If Sweden fails us, we must surrender. Yet the fleet shall be restored to Sweden at the conclusion of the war, and this immediate truce will prevent any further loss of life.”
Cronstedt sat down. At his side, Colonel Jägerhorn came crisply to his feet. “In the event the Swedish ships do not arrive on time, we must make plans for an orderly surrender of the garrison.” He launched into a discussion of the details.
Bengt Anttonen sat quietly. He had expected the news, had somehow known it was coming, but it was no less dismaying for all that. Cronstedt and Jägerhorn had negotiated a disaster. It was foolish. It was craven. It was hopelessly doomed. Immediate surrender of Wester-Svartö, Langorn, and Oster-Lilla-Svartö, the rest of the garrison to come later, capitulation deferred for a meaningless month. History would revile them. School children would curse their names. And he was helpless.
When the meeting at last ended, the others rose to depart. Anttonen rose with them, determined to be silent, to leave the room quietly for once, let them sell Sveaborg for thirty pieces of silver if they would. But as he led to turn, the compulsion seized him, and he went instead to where Cronstedt and Jägerhorn lingered. They both watched him approach. In their eyes, Anttonen thought he could see a weary resignation.
“You must not do this,” he said heavily.
“It is done,” Cronstedt replied. “The subject is not open for further discussion, Colonel. You have been warned. Go about your duties.” He climbed to his feet, turned to go.
“The Russians are cheating you,” Anttonen blurted.
Cronstedt stopped and looked at him.
“Admiral, please, you must listen to me. This provision, this agreement that we will retain the fortress if five ships-of-the-line reach us by the third of May, it is a fraud. The ice will not have melted by the third of May. No ship will be able to reach us. The armistice agreement provides that the ships must have entered Sveaborg’s harbor by noon on the third of May. General Suchtelen will use the time afforded by the truce to move his guns and gain control of the sea approaches. Any ship attempting to reach Sveaborg will come under heavy attack. And there is more. The messengers you are sending to the King, sir, they –” Cronstedt’s face was ice and granite. He held up a hand. “I have heard enough. Colonel Jägerhorn, arrest this madman.” He gathered up his papers, refusing to look Anttonen in the face, and strode angrily from the room.
“Colonel Anttonen, you are under arrest,” Jägerhorn said, with surprising gentleness in his voice. “Don’t resist, I warn you, that will only make it worse.”
Anttonen turned to face the other colonel. His heart was sick. “You will not listen. None of you will listen. Do you know what you are doing?”
“I think I do,” Jägerhorn said.
Anttonen reached out and grabbed him by the front of his uniform. “You do not. You think I don’t know what you are, Jägerhorn? You’re a nationalist, damn you. This is the great age of nationalism. You and your Anjala League, your damned Finnlander noblemen, you’re all Finnish nationalists. You resent Sweden’s domination. The Czar has promised you that Finland will be an autonomous state under his protection, so you have thrown off your loyalty to the Swedish crown.”
Colonel F. A. Jägerhorn blinked. A strange expression flickered across his face before he regained his composure. “You cannot know that,” he said. “No one knows the terms – I—”
Anttonen shook him bodily. “History is going to laugh at you, Jägerhorn. Sweden will lose this war, because of you, because of Sveaborg’s surrender, and you’ll get your wish, Finland will become an autonomous state under the Czar. But it will be no freer than it is now, under Sweden. You’ll swap your King like a secondhand chair at a flea market, for the butchers of the Great Wrath, and gain nothing by the transaction.”
“Like a … a market for fleas? What is that?”
Anttonen scowled. “A flea market, a flea … I don’t know,” he said. He released Jägerhorn, turned away. “Dear God, I do know. It is a place where … where things are sold and traded. A fair. It has nothing to do with fleas, but it is full of strange machines, strange smells.” He ran his fingers through his hair, fighting not to scream. “Jägerhorn, my head is full of demons. Dear God, I must confess. Voices, I hear voices day and night, even as the French girl, Joan, the warrior maid. I know things that will come to pass.” He looked into Jägerhorn’s eyes, saw the fear there, and held his hands up, entreating now. “It is no choice of mine, you must believe that. I pray for silence, for release, but the whispering continues, and these strange fits seize me. They are not of my doing, yet they must be sent for a reason, they must be true, or why would God torture me so? Have mercy, Jägerhorn. Have mercy on me, and listen!”
Colonel Jägerhorn looked past Anttonen, his eyes searching for help, but the two of them were quite alone. “Yes,” he said. “Voices, like the French girl. I did not understand.”
Anttonen shook his head. “You hear, but you will not believe. You are a patriot, you dream you will be a hero. You will be no hero. The common folk of Finland do not share your dreams. They remember the Great Wrath. They know the Russians only as ancient enemies, and they hate. They will hate you as well. And Cronstedt, ah, poor Admiral Cronstedt. He will be reviled by every Finn, every Swede, for generations to come. He will live out his life in this new Grand Duchy of Finland, on a Russian stipend, and he will die a broken man on April 7, 1820, twelve years and one day after he met with Suchtelen on Lonan and gave Sveaborg to Russia. Later, years later, a man named Runeberg will write a series of poems about this war. Do you know what he will say of Cronstedt?”
“No,” Jagerhorn said. He smiled uneasily. “Have your voices told you?”
“They have taught me the words by heart,” said Bengt Anttonen.
“Call him the arm we trusted in,
that shrank in time of stress,
call him Affliction, Scorn, and Sin,
and Death and Bitterness,
but mention not his former name,
lest they should blush who bear the same.
“That is the glory you and Cronstedt are winning here, Jägerhorn,” Anttonen said bitterly. “That is your place in history. Do you like it?”
Colonel Jägerhorn had been carefully edging around Anttonen; there was a clear path between him and the door. But now he hesitated. “You are speaking madness,” he said. “And yet – and yet – how could you have known of the Czar’s promises? You would almost have me believe you. Voices? Like the French girl? The voice of God, you say?”
Anttonen sighed. “God? I do not know. Voices, Jägerhorn, that is all I hear. Perhaps I am mad.”
Jägerhorn grimaced. “They will revile us, you say? They will call us traitors and denounce us in poems?”
Anttonen said nothing. The madness had ebbed; he was filled with a helpless despair.
“No,” Jägerhorn insisted. “It is too late. The agreement is signed. We have staked our honor on it. And Vice-Admiral Cronstedt, he is so uncertain. His family is here, and he fears for them. Suchtelen has played him masterfully and we have done our part. It cannot be undone. I do not believe this madness of yours, yet even if I believed, there is no hope for it, nothing to be done. The ships will not come in time. Sveaborg must yield, and the war must end with Sweden’s defeat. How could it be otherwise? The Czar is allied with Bonaparte himself, he cannot be resisted!”
“The alliance will not last,” Anttonen said, with a rueful smile. “The French will march on Moscow and it will destroy them as it destroyed Charles XII. The winter will be their Poltava. All of this will come too late for Finland, too late for Sveaborg.”
“It is too late even now,” Jägerhorn said. “Nothing can be changed.”
For the first time, Bengt Anttonen felt the tiniest glimmer of hope. “It is not too late.”
“What course do you urge upon us, then? Cronstedt has made his decision. Should we mutiny?”
“There will be a mutiny in Sveaborg, whether we take part or not. It will fail.”
Bengt Anttonen lifted his head, stared Jägerhorn in the eyes. “The agreement stipulates that we may send two couriers to the King, to inform him of the terms, so the Swedish ships may be dispatched on time.”
“Yes. Cronstedt will choose our couriers tonight, and they will leave tomorrow, with papers and safe passage furnished by Suchtelen.”
“You have Cronstedt’s ear. See that I am chosen as one of the couriers.”
“You?” Jägerhorn looked doubtful. “What good will that serve?” He frowned. “Perhaps this voice you hear is the voice of your own fear. Perhaps you have been under siege too long, and it has broken you, and now you hope to run free.”
“I can prove my voices speak true,” Anttonen said.
“How?” snapped Jägerhorn.
“I will meet you tomorrow at dawn at Ehrensvard’s tomb, and I will tell you the names of the couriers that Cronstedt has chosen. If I am right, you will convince him to send me in the place of one of those chosen. He will agree, gladly. He is anxious to be rid of me.”
Colonel Jägerhorn rubbed his jaw, considering. “No one could know the choices but Cronstedt. It is a fair test.” He put out his hand. “Done.”
They shook. Jägerhorn turned to go. But at the doorway he turned back. “Colonel Anttonen,” he said, “I have forgotten my duty. You are in my custody. Go to your own quarters and remain there, until the dawn.”
“Gladly,” said Anttonen. “At dawn, you will see that I am right.”
“Perhaps,” said Jägerhorn, “but for all our sakes, I shall hope very much that you are wrong.”
* * *
… and the machines suck away the liquid night that enfolds me, and I’m screaming, screaming so loudly that Slim draws back, a wary look on his face. I give him a broad geekish smile, rows on rows of yellow rotten teeth. “Get me out of here, turkey,” I shout. The pain is a web around me, but this time it doesn’t seem as bad, this time I can almost stand it, this time the pain is for something.
They give me my shot, and lift me into my chair, but this time I’m eager for the debriefing. I grab the wheels and give myself a push, breaking free of Rafe, rolling down the corridors like I used to do in the old days, when Creeper was around to race me. There’s a bit of a problem with one ramp, and they catch me there, the strong silent guys in their ice-cream suits (that’s what Nan called ’em, anyhow), but I scream at them to leave me alone. They do. Surprises the hell out of me.
The Maje is a little startled when I come rolling into the room all by my lonesome. He starts to get up. “Are you…”
“Sit down, Sally,” I say. “It’s good news. Bengt psyched out Jägerhorn good. I thought the kid was gonna wet his pants, believe me. I think we got it socked. I’m meeting Jägerhorn tomorrow at dawn to clinch the sale.” I’m grinning, listening to myself. Tomorrow, hey, I’m talking about 1808, but tomorrow is how it feels. “Now here’s the sixty-four thousand dollar question. I need to know the names of the two guys that Cronstedt is going to try and send to the Swedish king. Proof, y’know?
“Jägerhorn says he’ll get me sent if I can convince him. So you look up those names for me, Maje, and once I say the magic words, the duck will come down and give us Sveaborg.”
“This is very obscure information,” Salazar complains. “The couriers were detained for weeks, and did not even arrive in Stockholm until the day of the surrender. Their names may be lost to history.” What a whiner, I’m thinking; the man is never satisfied.
Ronnie speaks up for me, though. “Major Salazar, those names had better not be lost to history, or to us. You were our military historian. It was your job to research each of the target periods thoroughly.” The way she’s talking to him, you’d never guess he was the boss. “The Graham Project has every priority. You have our computer files, our dossiers on the personnel of Sveaborg, and you have access to the war college at New West Point. Maybe you can even get through to someone in what remains of Sweden. I don’t care how you do it, but it must be done. The entire project could rest on this piece of information. The entire world. Our past and our future. I shouldn’t need to tell you that.” She turns to me. I applaud. She smiles. “You’ve done well,” she says. “Would you give us the details?”
“Sure,” I say. “It was a piece of cake. With ice cream on top. What’d they used to call that?”
“A la mode.”
“Sveaborg a la mode,” I say, and I serve it up to them. I talk and talk. When I finally finish, even the Maje looks grudgingly pleased.
Pretty damn good for a geek, I think. “OK,” I say when I’m done with the report. “What’s next? Bengt gets the courier job, right? And I get the message through somehow. Avoid Suchtelen, don’t get detained, the Swedes send in the cavalry.”
“Cavalry?” Sally looks confused.
“It’s a figure of speech,” I say, with unusual patience. The Maje nods. “No,” he says. “The couriers – it’s true that General Suchtelen lied, and held them up as an extra form of insurance. The ice might have melted, after all. The ships might have come through in time. But it was an unnecessary precaution. That year, the ice around Helsinki did not melt until well after the deadline date.” He gives me a solemn stare. He has never looked sicker, and the greenish tinge of his skin undermines the effect he’s trying to achieve. “We must make a bold stroke. You will be sent out as a courier, under the terms of the truce. You and the other courier will be brought before General Suchtelen to receive your safe conducts through Russian lines. That is the point at which you will strike. The affair is settled, and war in those days was an honorable affair. No one will expect treachery.”
“Treachery?” I say. I don’t like the sound of what I’m hearing.
For a second, the Maje’s smile looks almost genuine; he’s finally lit on something that pleases him. “Kill Suchtelen,” he says.
“Kill Suchtelen?” I repeat.
“Use Anttonen. Fill him with rage. Have him draw his weapon. Kill Suchtelen.”
I see. A new move in our crosstime chess game. The geek gambit.
“They’ll kill Bengt,” I say.
“You can disengage,” Salazar says.
“Maybe they’ll kill him fast,” I point out. “Right there, on the spot, y’know.”
“You take that risk. Other men have given their lives for our nation. This is war.” The Maje frowns. “Your success may doom us all. When you change the past, the present as it now exists may simply cease to exist, and us with it. But our nation will live, and millions we have lost will be restored to us. Healthier, happier versions of ourselves will enjoy the rich lives that were denied us. You yourself will be born whole, without sickness or deformity.”
“Or talent,” I say. “In which case I won’t be able to go back to do this, in which case the past stays unchanged.”
“The paradox does not apply. You have been briefed on this. The past and the present and future are not co-temporaneous. And it will be Anttonen who affects the change, not yourself. He is of that time.” The Maje is impatient. His thick, dark fingers drum on the tabletop. “Are you a coward?”
“Fuck you and the horse you rode in on,” I tell him. “You don’t get it. I couldn’t give a shit about me. I’m better off dead. But they’ll kill Bengt.”
He frowns. “What of it?”
Veronica has been listening intently. Now she leans across the table and touches my hand, gently. “I understand. You identify with him, don’t you?”
“He’s a good man,” I say. Do I sound defensive? Very well, then; I am defensive. “I feel bad enough that I’m driving him around the bend, I don’t want to get him killed. I’m a freak, a geek, I’ve lived my whole life under siege and I’m going to die here, but Bengt has people who love him, a life ahead of him. Once he gets out of Sveaborg, there’s a whole world out there.”
“He has been dead for almost two centuries,” Salazar says.
“I was inside his head this afternoon,” I snap.
“He will be a casualty of war,” the Maje says. “In war, soldiers die. It is a fact of life, then as now.”
Something else is bothering me. “Yeah, maybe, he’s a soldier, I’ll buy that. He knew the job was dangerous when he took it. But he cares about honor, Sally. A little thing we’ve forgotten. To die in battle sure, but you want me to make him goddamned assassin, have him violate a flag of truce. He’s an honorable man. They’ll revile him.”
“The ends justify the means,” says Salazar bluntly. “Kill Suchtelen, kill him under the flag of truce, yes. It will kill the truce as well. Suchtelen’s second-in-command is far less wily, more prone to outbursts of temper, more eager for a spectacular victory. You will tell him that Cronstedt ordered you to cut down Suchtelen. He will shatter the truce, will launch a furious attack against the fortress, an attack that Sveaborg, impregnable as it is, will easily repulse. Russian casualties will be heavy, and Swedish determination will be fired by what they will see as Russian treachery. Jägerhorn, with proof before him that the Russian promises are meaningless, will change sides. Cronstedt, the hero of Ruotsinsalmi, will become the hero of Sveaborg as well. The fortress will hold. With the spring the Swedish fleet will land an army at Sveaborg, behind Russian lines, while a second Swedish army sweeps down from the north. The entire course of the war will change. When Napoleon marches on Moscow, a Swedish army will already hold St Petersburg. The Czar will be caught in Moscow, deposed, executed. Napoleon will install a puppet government, and when his retreat comes, it will be north, to link up with his Swedish allies at St Petersburg. The new Russian regime will not survive Bonaparte’s fall, but the Czarist restoration will be as short-lived as the French restoration, and Russia will evolve toward a liberal parliamentary democracy. The Soviet Union will never come into being to war against the United States.” He emphasizes his final words by pounding his fist on the conference table.
“Sez you,” I say mildly.
Salazar gets red in the face. “That is the computer projection,” he insists. He looks away from me, though. Just a quick little averting of the eyes, but I catch it. Funny. He can’t look me in the eyes.
Veronica squeezes my hand. “The projection may be off,” she admits. “A little or a lot. But it is all we have. And this is our last chance. I understand your concern for Anttonen, really I do. It’s only natural. You’ve been part of him for months now, living his life, sharing his thoughts and feelings. Your reservations do you credit. But now millions of lives are in the balance, against the life of this one man. This one, dead man. It’s your decision. The most important decision in all of human history, perhaps, and it rests with you alone.” She smiles. “Think about it carefully, at least.” When she puts it like that, and holds my little hand all the while, I’m powerless to resist. Ah, Bengt. I look away from them, sigh. “Break out the booze tonight,” I say wearily to Salazar, “the last of that old prewar stuff you’ve been saving.”
The Maje looks startled, discomfited; the jerk thought his little cache of prewar Glenlivet and Irish Mist and Remy Martin was a well-kept secret.
And so it was until Creeper planted one of his little bugs, heigh-ho. “I do not think drunken revelry is in order,” Sally says. Defending his treasure. He’s homely and mean-spirited, but nobody ever said he wasn’t selfish. “Shut up and come across,” I say. Tonight I ain’t gonna be denied. I’m giving up Bengt, the Maje can give up some booze. “I want to get shit-faced.” I tell them. “It’s time to drink to the goddamned dead and toast the living, past and present. It’s in the rules, damn you. The geek always gets a bottle before he goes out to meet the chickens.”
* * *
Within the central courtyard of the Vargön citadel, Bengt Anttonen waited in the predawn chill. Behind him stood Ehrensvard’s tomb, the final resting place of the man who had built Sveaborg, and now slept securely within the bosom of his creation, his bones safe behind her guns and her thick granite walls, guarded by all her daunting might. He had built her impregnable, and impregnable she stood, so none would come to disturb his rest. But now they wanted to give her away.
The wind was blowing. It came howling down out of a black empty sky, stirred the barren branches of the trees that stood in the empty courtyard, and cut through Anttonen’s warmest coat. Or perhaps it was another sort of chill that lay upon him; the chill of fear. Dawn was almost at hand. Above, the stars were fading. And his head was empty, echoing, mocking. Light would soon break over the horizon, and with the light would come Colonel Jägerhorn, hard-faced, imperious, demanding, and Anttonen would have nothing to say to him.
He heard footsteps. Jägerhorn’s boots rang on the stones. Anttonen turned to face him, watching him climb the few small steps up to Ehrensvard’s memorial. They stood a foot apart, conspirators huddled against the cold and darkness. Jägerhorn gave him a curt, short nod. “I have met with Cronstedt.”
Anttonen opened his mouth. His breath steamed in the frigid air. And just as he was about to succumb to the emptiness, about to admit that his voices had failed him, something whispered deep inside him. He spoke two names.
There was such a long silence that Anttonen once again began to fear. Was it madness after all, and not the voice of God? Had he been wrong? But then Jägerhorn looked down, frowning, and clapped his gloved hands together in a gesture that spoke of finality. “God help us all,” he said, “but I believe you.”
“I will be the courier?”
“I have already broached the subject with Vice-Admiral Cronstedt.” Jägerhorn said. “I have reminded him of your years of service, your excellent record. You are a good soldier and a man of honor, damaged only by your own patriotism and the pressure of the siege. You are that sort of warrior who cannot bear inaction, who must always be doing something. You deserve more than arrest and disgrace, I have argued. As a courier, you will redeem yourself, I have told him I have no doubt of it. And by removing you from Sveaborg, we will remove also a source of tension and dissent around which mutiny might grow. The Vice-Admiral is well aware that a good many of the men are most unwilling to honor our pact with Suchtelen. He is convinced.” Jägerhorn smiled wanly. “I am nothing if not convincing, Anttonen. I can marshal an argument as Bonaparte marshals his armies. So this victory is ours. You are named courier.”
“Good,” said Anttonen. Why did he feel so sick at heart? He should have been full of jubilation.
“What will you do?” Jägerhorn asked. “For what purpose do we conspire?”
“I will not burden you with that knowledge,” Anttonen replied. It was knowledge he lacked himself. He must be the courier, he had known that since yesterday, but the why of it still eluded him, and the future was cold as the stone of Ehrensvard’s tomb, as misty as Jägerhorn’s breath. He was full of a strange foreboding, a sense of approaching doom.
“Very well,” said Jägerhorn. “I pray that I have acted wisely in this.” He moved his glove, offered his hand. “I will count on you, on your wisdom and your honor.”
“My honor,” Bengt repeated. Slowly, too slowly, he took off his own glove to shake the hand of the dead man standing there before him. Dead man? He was no dead man; he was live, warm flesh. But it was frigid there under those bare trees, and when Anttonen clasped Jägerhorn’s hand, the other’s skin felt cold to the touch.
“We have had our differences,” said Jägerhorn, “but we are both Finns, after all, and patriots, and men of honor, and now too we are friends.”
“Friends,” Anttonen repeated. And in his head, louder than it had ever been before, so clear and strong it seemed almost as if someone had spoken behind him, came a whisper, sad somehow, and bitter. C’mon, Chicken Little, it said, shake hands with your pal the geek.
* * *
Gather ye Four Roses while ye may, for time is still aflying, and this same geek what smiles today tomorrow may be dying. Heigh-ho, drunk again, second night inna row, chugging all the Maje’s good booze, but what does it matter, he won’t be needing it. After this next little timeride, he won’t even exist, or that’s what they tell me. In fact, he’ll never have existed, which is a real weird thought. Old Major Sally Salazar, his big thick fingers, his greenish tinge, the endearing way he had of whining and bitching, he sure seemed real this afternoon at that last debriefing, but now it turns out there never was any such person. Never was a Creeper, never a Rate or a Slim, Nan never ever told us about ice cream and reeled off the names of all those flavors, butter pecan and rum raisin are one with Nineveh and Tyre, heigh-ho. Never happened, nope, and I slug down another shot, drinking alone, in my room, in my cubicle, the savior at this last liquid supper, where the hell are all my fucking apostles? Ah, drinking, drinking, but not with me.
They ain’t s’posed to know, nobody’s s’posed to know but me and the Maje and Ronnie, but the word’s out, yes it is, and out there in the corridors it’s turned into a big wild party, boozing and singing and lighting, a little bit of screwing for those lucky enough to have a partner, of which number I am not one, alas. I want to go out and join in, hoist a few with the boys, but no, the Maje says no, too dangerous, one of the motley horde might decide that even this kind of has-been life is better than a never-was nonlife, and therefore off the geek, ruining everybody’s plans for a good time. So here I sit on geek row, in my little room boozing alone, surrounded by five other little rooms, and down at the end of the corridor is a most surly guard, pissed off that he isn’t out there getting a last taste, who’s got to keep me in and the rest of them out.
I was sort of hoping Ronnie might come by, you know, to share a final drink and beat me in one last game of chess and maybe even play a little kissy-face, which is a ridiculous fantasy on the face of it, but somehow I don’t wanna die a virgin, even though I’m not really going to die, since once the trick is done, I won’t ever have lived at all. It’s goddamned noble of me if you ask me and you got to ’cause there ain’t nobody else around to ask. Another drink now but the bottle’s almost empty, I’ll have to ring the Maje and ask for another. Why won’t Ronnie come by? I’ll never be seeing her again, after tomorrow, tomorrow-tomorrow and two-hundred-years-ago-tomorrow. I could refuse to go, stay here and keep the happy lil’ family alive, but I don’t think she’d like that. She’s a lot more sure than me. I asked her this afternoon if Sally’s projections could tell us about the side effects. I mean, we’re changing this war, and we’re keeping Sveaborg and (we hope) losing the Czar and (we hope) losing the Soviet Union and (we sure as hell hope) maybe losing the big war and all, the bombs and the rads and the plagues and all that good stuff, even radiation ripple ice cream which was the Creeper’s favorite flavor, but what if we lose other stuff? I mean, with Russia so changed and all, are we going to lose Alaska? Are we gonna lose vodka? Are we going to lose George Orwell? Are we going to lose Karl Marx? We tried to lose Karl Marx, actually, one of the other geeks, Blind Jeffey, he went back to take care of Karlie, but it didn’t work out. Maybe vision was too damn much for him. So we got to keep Karl, although come to think of it, who cares about Karl Marx, are we gonna lose Groucho? No Groucho, no Groucho ever, I don’t like that concept, last night I shot a geek in my pajamas and how he got in my pajamas I’ll never know, but maybe, who the hell knows how us geeks get anyplace, all these damn dominoes falling every which way, knocking over other dominoes, dominoes was never my game, I’m a chess player, world chess champion in temporal exile, that’s me, dominoes is a dumb damn game. What if it don’t work, I asked Ronnie, what if we take out Russia, and, well, Hitler wins World War II so we wind up swapping missiles and germs and biotoxins with Nazi Germany? Or England? Or fucking Austria-Hungary, maybe, who can say? The superpower Austria-Hungary, what a thought, last night I shot a Hapsburg in my pajamas, the geeks put him there, heigh-ho.
Ronnie didn’t make me no promises, kiddies. Best she could do was shrug and tell me this story about a horse. This guy was going to get his head cut off by some old-timey king, y’see, so he pipes up and tells the king that if he’s given a year, he’ll teach the king’s horse to talk. The king likes this idea, for some reason, maybe he’s a Mister Ed fan, I dunno, but he gives the guy a year. And afterwards, the guy’s friends say, hey, what is this, you can’t get no horse to talk. So the guy says, well, I got a year now, that’s a long time, all kinds of things could happen. Maybe the king will die. Maybe I’ll die. Maybe the horse will die. Or maybe the horse will talk.
I’m too damn drunk, I am I am, and my head’s full of geeks and talking horses and falling dominoes and unrequited love, and all of a sudden I got to see her. I set down the bottle, oh so carefully, even though it’s empty, don’t want no broken glass on geek row, and I wheel myself out into the corridor, going slow, I’m not too coordinated right now. The guard is at the end of the hall, looking wistful. I know him a little bit. Security guy, big black fellow, name of Dex. “Hey, Dex,” I say as I come wheeling up, “screw this shit, let’s us go party, I want to see lil’ Ronnie.” He just looks at me, shakes his head. “C’mon,” I say. I bat my baby-blues at him. Does he let me by? Does the Pope shit in the woods? Hell no, old Dex says, “I got my orders, you stay right here.” All of a sudden I’m mad as hell, this ain’t fair, I want to see Ronnie. I gather up all my strength and try to wheel right by him. No cigar; Dex turns, blocks my way, grabs the wheelchair and pushes. I go backwards fast, spin around when a wheel jams, flip over and out of the chair. It hurts. Goddamn it hurts. If I had a nose, I woulda bloodied it, I bet. “You stay where you are, you fucking freak,” Dex tells me. I start to cry, damn him anyhow, and he watches me as I get my chair upright and pull myself into it. I sit there staring at him. He stands there staring at me. “Please,” I say finally. He shakes his head. “Go get her then,” I say. “Tell her I want to see her.” Dex grins. “She’s busy,” he tells me. “Her and Major Salazar. She don’t want to see you.”
I stare at him some more. A real withering, intimidating stare. He doesn’t wither or look intimidated. It can’t be, can it? Her and the Maje? Her and old Sally Greenface? No way, he’s not her type, she’s got better taste than that, I know she has. Say it ain’t so, Joe. I turn around, start back to my cubicle. Dex looks away. Heigh-ho, fooled him.
Creeper’s room is the one beyond mine, the last one at the end of the hall. Everything’s just like he left it. I turn on the set, play with the damn switches, trying to figure out how it works. My mind isn’t at its sharpest right at this particular minute, it takes me a while, but finally I get it, and I jump from scene to scene down in the Cracker Box, savoring all these little vignettes of life in these United States as served up by Creeper’s clever ghost. Each scene has its own individual charm. There’s a gang bang going on in the commissary, right on top of one of the tables where Ronnie and I used to play chess. Two huge security men are fighting up in the airlock area; they’ve been at it a long time, their faces are so bloody I can’t tell who the hell they are, but they keep at it, staggering at each other blindly, swinging huge awkward fists, grunting, while a few others stand around and egg them on. Slim and Rafe are sharing a joint, leaning up against my coffin. Slim thinks they ought to rip out all the wires, fuck up everything so I can’t go timeriding. Rafe thinks it’d be easier to just bash my head in. Somehow I don’t think he loves me no more. Maybe I’ll cross him off my Christmas list. Fortunately for the geek, both of them are too stoned and screwed up to do anything at all. I watch a half-dozen other scenes, and finally, a little reluctantly, I go to Ronnie’s room, where I watch her screwing Major Salazar.
Heigh-ho, as Creeper would say, what’d you expect, really?
I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honor more. She walks in beauty like the night. But she’s not so pretty, not really, back in 1808 there were lovelier women, and Bengt’s just the man to land ’em too, although Jägerhorn probably does even better. My Veronica’s just the queen bee of a corrupt poisoned hive, that’s all. They’re done now. They’re talking. Or rather the Maje is talking, bless his soul, he’s into his ice-cream litany, he’s just been making love to Ronnie and now he’s lying there in bed talking about Sveaborg, damn him. “… only a thirty percent chance that the massacre will take place,” he’s saying, “the fortress is very strong, formidably strong, but the Russians have the numbers, and if they do bring up sufficient reinforcements, Cronstedt’s fears may prove to be substantial. But even that will work out. The assassination, well, the rules will be suspended, they’ll slaughter everyone inside, but Sveaborg will become a sort of Swedish Alamo, and the branching paths ought to come together again. Good probability. The end results will be the same.” Ronnie isn’t listening to him, though; there’s a look on her face I’ve never seen, drunken, hungry, scared, and now she’s moving lower on him and doing something I’ve only seen in my fantasies, and now I don’t want to watch anymore, no, oh no, no, oh no.
* * *
General Suchtelen had established his command post on the outskirts of Helsinki, another clever ploy. When Sveaborg turned its cannon on him, every third shot told upon the city the fortress was supposed to protect, until Cronstedt finally ordered the firing stopped. Suchtelen took advantage of that concession as he had all the rest. His apartments were large and comfortable; from his windows, across the white expanse of ice and snow, the gray form of Sveaborg loomed large. Colonel Bengt Anttonen stared at it morosely as he waited in the anteroom with Cronstedt’s other courier and the Russians who had escorted them to Suchtelen. Finally the inner doors opened and the dark Russian captain emerged. “The general will see you now,” he said.
General Suchtelen sat behind a wide wooden desk. An aide stood by his right arm. A guard was posted at the door, and the captain entered with the Swedish couriers. On the broad, bare expanse of the desk was an inkwell, a blotter, and two signed safe conducts, the passes that would take them through the Russian lines to Stockholm and the Swedish king, one by the southern and the other by the northern route. Suchtelen said something, in Russian; the aide provided a translation. Horses had been provided, and fresh mounts would be available for them along the way, orders had been given. Anttonen listened to the discussion with a curiously empty feeling and a vague sense of disorientation. Suchtelen was going to let them go. Why did that surprise him? Those were the terms of the agreement, after all, those were the conditions of the truce. As the translator droned on, Anttonen felt increasingly lost and listless. He had conspired to get himself here, the voices had told him to, and now here he was, and he did not know why, nor did he know what he was to do.
They handed him one of the safe conducts, placed it in his outstretched hand. Perhaps it was the touch of the paper; perhaps it was something else. A sudden red rage filled him, an anger so fierce and blind and all-consuming that for an instant the world seemed to flicker and vanish and he was somewhere else, seeing naked bodies twining in a room whose walls were made of pale green blocks. And then he was back, the rage still hot within him, but cooling now, cooling quickly. They were staring at him, all of them. With a sudden start, Anttonen realized that he had let the safe conduct fall to the floor, that his hand had gone to the hilt of his sword instead, and the blade was now half-drawn, the metal shining dully in the sunlight that streamed through Suchtelen’s window. Had they acted more quickly, they might have stopped him, but he had caught them all by surprise. Suchtelen began to rise from his chair, moving as if in slow motion. Slow motion, Bengt wondered briefly, what was that? But he knew, he knew. The sword was all the way out now. He heard the captain shout something behind him, the aide began to go for his pistol, but Quick Draw McGraw he wasn’t, Bengt had the drop on them all, heigh-ho. He grinned, spun the sword in his hand, and offered it, hilt first, to General Suchtelen.
“My sword, sir, and Colonel Jägerhorn’s compliments,” Bengt Anttonen heard himself say with something approaching awe. “The fortress is in your grasp. Colonel Jägerhorn suggests that you hold up our passage for a month. I concur. Detain us here, and you are certain of victory. Let us go, and who knows what chance misfortune might occur to bring the Swedish fleet? It is a long time until the third of May. In such a time, the king might die, or the horse might die, or you or I might die. Or the horse might talk.”
The translator put away his pistol and began to translate; the other courier began to protest, ineffectually. Bengt Anttonen found himself possessed of an eloquence that even his good friend might envy. He spoke on and on. He had one moment of strange weakness, when his stomach churned and his head swam, but somehow he knew it was nothing to be alarmed at, it was just the pills taking effect, it was just a monster dying far away in a metal coffin full of night, and then there were none, heigh-ho, one siege was ending and another would go on and on, and what did it matter to Bengt, the world was a big, crisp, cold, jeweled oyster. He thought this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship, and what the hell, maybe he’d save their asses after all, if he happened to feel like it, but he’d do it his way.
After a time, General Suchtelen, nodding, reached out and accepted the proffered sword.
* * *
Colonel Bengt Anttonen reached Stockholm on the third of May, in the Year of Our Lord Eighteen-Hundred-and-Eight, with a message for Gustavus IV Adolphus, King of Sweden. On the same date, Sveaborg, impregnable Sveaborg, Gibraltar of the North, surrendered to the inferior Russian forces.
At the conclusion of hostilities, Colonel Anttonen resigned his commission in the Swedish army and became an émigré, first to England, and later to America. He took up residence in New York City, where he married, fathered nine children, and became a well-known and influential journalist, widely respected for his canny ability to sense coming trends. When events proved him wrong, as happened infrequently, Anttonen was always surprised. He was a founder of the Republican Party, and his writings were instrumental in the election of John Charles Fremont to the Presidency in 1856.
In 1857, a year before his death, Anttonen played Paul Morphy in a New York chess tournament, and lost a celebrated game. Afterward, his only comment was, “I could have beat him at dominoes,” a phrase that Morphy’s biographers are fond of quoting.