Captain Simon Rosencreutz, an engineer officer in the Holy Army of the Revolution of Zoorland (HARZ), stood on a slight rise that overlooked the swiftly flowing, brown River Kosovo. Through binoculars Rosencreutz observed White zeppelins in the distance. Great fat silver clouds of death in the clear winter sky, they idly scudded along, dropping loads of explosives and napalm on helpless Red troops. The muffled crump of still distant White seventy-fives punctuated the cold wind’s whistling. Nearby stood an ancient stone bridge, the only crossing point in fifty kilometers. His mission was to destroy it.
Months ago, in summer when the Kosovo flowed gently and Red fortunes were ascendant, a HARZ division with the grandiloquent title “The Sword, The Arm and The Covenant of the Lord Bog” marched across the bridge, intent upon destroying Kranski’s Whites. Ostensibly led by an ex-Imperial Army colonel general, but actually closely supervised by Religious Commissars, the division was poorly handled. Outgunned by seventy-fives and without air power, the Reds were chewed to pieces. The colonel general (a polite old gent whom Rosencreutz once met at a champagne supper) was thrown to the soldiers’ bayonets. This briefly improved morale, but otherwise didn’t alter the situation.
After long consideration (with considerable lamentation the colonel general wasn’t kept alive as a scapegoat) the commissars decided upon retreat. This too was an unmitigated disaster. Swollen by an early thaw, the Kosovo flowed too swiftly to string pontoons. The only hope for the division’s tattered remnants was the stone bridge.
Men and pack animals queued up, covered with filth and weary to death, waiting to slowly shuffle across to safety. Was their stoicism due to exhaustion or the selfless fanaticism Religious Commissars instilled in peasant soldiers? That this zealotry was real Rosencreutz knew for a fact. He’d seen men run headlong into mine fields to clear a path for comrades with their shattered bodies. Why they did so was a Zoorian mystery he couldn’t fathom.
With a professional eye he watched sappers smash holes in the bridge to place charges. He pulled off his gloves to rub circulation back into his hands. They were long and thin, the hands of a concert pianist, a female friend once remarked. His face was also long and thin with delicate features that betrayed education and intelligence, two dangerous qualities in those times. He had black eyes and sleek, black hair reduced to gray stubble by a HARZ haircut. Slender, of medium height, he carried himself with a poise instilled by five years in the Imperial Corps of Cadets. In spite of his seeming sensitivity and delicacy, an iron core of discipline and nerve couldn’t be shattered. At the time of these events he was 25 years old and knew he would never see 26.
Defeated soldiers straggled past. Occasionally one had enough spirit remaining to shoot the gaze of utter contempt HARZ soldiers reserved for ex-Imperial officers. Buoyed by a perverse humor, Rosencreutz was flattered to receive such attention even in a desperate moment.
“Sergeant Yagoda, report.”
Fat Yagoda walked over slowly, bursting from his shoddy HARZ uniform, making sure Rosencreutz knew he cared little for him. The surly Yakutian was an insubordinate oaf and a consummate barracks lawyer. Rosencreutz yearned for the old Imperial Army when Yagoda could be reduced to the ranks and thrashed with a birch cane before the regiment on parade. Better not to remember things from a lost time. It could lead to a loss of temper that might prove fatal.
Yagoda slouched to a halt and saluted poorly. Rosencreutz was dwarfed by his bulk.
“Well, what is it?” Yagoda barked in the voice used for particularly stupid privates.
“Yagoda. How much dynamite in each charge?”
“Why, one stick.”
“Forgive my slip in memory, Yagoda, but isn’t five sticks the standard charge?”
Yagoda insolently grinned. “I discussed it with the men. We took a vote.”
Rosencreutz grimaced. How many times had that insipid remark been the preface for certain disaster?
“And what did you decide, Sergeant Yagoda? To pray to Bog to smite the bridge with his lightning?”
Sarcasm was lost on Yagoda.
“No, Comrade Rosencreutz, we decided to save for the war effort and use less dynamite.”
Infuriated, Rosencreutz was about to strike Yagoda, but thought better of it.
“Carry on, Yagoda.”
With the superb condescension of a career NCO to a junior officer, Yagoda shrugged his beefy shoulders and walked off.
Rosencreutz walked back to a hillcrest used as a vantage point. White armored cars could move quickly. The troops moved slowly, but in six hours would be safely across. He only hoped there was enough dynamite in place to adequately destroy the bridge.
A poorly maintained staff car coughed and sputtered. Rosencreutz groaned upon sight of the car. Now he was really in the shit. A higher-up, probably a Religious Commissar from the rear, come to stick his nose where it didn’t belong. The mud spattered black roadster shuddered to a halt and a fat, bald Commissar lurched out, Hojatoleslam Nikita, who’d always borne a grudge against Rosencreutz.
The junior Commissar gazed about, spotted Rosencreutz, and headed toward him. Nikita had come to see him personally, a certain sign of trouble. The Commissar was ambitious, intent upon advancing his career. A sure way to promotion in the Holy Revolution was to arrest ex-Imperial officers as traitors and saboteurs. Despite his fear, Rosencreutz maintained his habitual icy demeanor and stood to attention.
Nikita slowly plodded up the hill. The two men were markedly different. The uniforms of both were filthy but Nikita wore his sloppily with undone buttons while Rosencreutz’s was neatly arranged. The Commissar wore a long, black leather trenchcoat and a huge religious medal around his neck, standard issue for Religious Commissars, while Rosencreutz had a simple wool Army overcoat. Rosencreutz was clean-shaven while Nikita’s round, ugly mug was covered with a thick stubble.
Rosencreutz saluted. Nikita didn’t bother to return the salute.
“Well, Rosencreutz,” he panted, slightly out of breath, “why isn’t the bridge destroyed? Are you incapable of following orders?”
Years of military service, imprisonment, and frequent brushes with death had schooled Rosencreutz in servility.
“Please, Hojatoleslam, the mission is nearly completed. The charges have been set and wired. All that’s left is the evacuation.”
Nikita snorted. He peered down at the sappers, now stringing wire to a nearby trench where Sergeant Yagoda squatted with a detonator.
“Why aren’t you down there with your men?”
Before Rosencreutz could answer Nikita walked away, gesturing for Rosencreutz to follow. He tagged behind the fat man like a dog at his master’s heels, wanting to do nothing more than pull out his service revolver and kill the uncouth priest. Upon sight of the Commissar, Sergeant Yagoda snapped off a sharp salute and ordered the platoon to attention. Nikita, who obviously fancied himself as a troubleshooter, waved at the men to carry on.
“Sergeant, is this bridge ready for destruction?”
“Praise to Bog and his Prophet, Thanatos. Let Him rain fire and death on the Whites,” intoned Nikita solemnly, holding his arms skyward.
This show of piety greatly impressed the platoon and nauseated Rosencreutz. Nikita looked at the bridge. Discipline had collapsed long ago. Several hundred men were crammed onto the narrow arch, crowded in a hopelessly snarled tangle of miserable, tired soldiers, mules, and horses caught on the treadmill of war.
“Captain Rosencreutz, give the order to destroy the bridge.”
“What? But the evacuation isn’t finished. There are two thousand men on the other side. They’ll be stranded.”
“There are always more mojahedin willing to give their lives for Bog. The enemy forces are near. They must not have this bridge. Destroy it.”
“Enemy forces? They’re hours away. At least give me time to clear the bridge.”
Nikita came close to Rosencreutz. He stank horribly. The Religious Commissar looked the young officer up and down, sizing him up.
“Do you mean to say you won’t obey my order, Captain Rosencreutz?”
Rosencreutz’s guts knotted with fear. His next words might sign his death warrant. Yet he was tired of playing a tedious, ultimately futile game. His neck was already in the noose; it was only a question of when it would be tightened. And he was damned if he would order the senseless destruction of soldiers in his own army even if they did despise him.
“Yes, I do, you bloody minded bastard.”
The Commissar recoiled, disconcerted by the loathing in Rosencreutz’s retort. He recovered his aplomb and smiled, victorious.
“Funny how you Imperials always get moral in the end. It’s your undoing. Sergeant Yagoda.”
“Arrest Captain Rosencreutz as a saboteur and traitor to our holy cause.”
Yagoda snatched Rosencreutz’s sidearm away. He backhanded him across the face. Rosencreutz fell to the ground. Nikita stood over him.
“In addition to a distressing lack of religious faith, Rosencreutz, you do not believe in your comrades-in-arms.”
The priest walked back to the hillcrest. He raised his arms commandingly over his head. A church-bell voice drowned out the retreating army’s tumult.
“Soldiers of the Holy Army of the Revolution, hear me.”
This phrase, drilled into the wretched troops’ minds, provoked an automatic response. They stood stock still and fixed their attention on the fat Commissar. Nikita’s trenchcoat flapped about him in the sharp wind, a dramatic effect that increased his prophetic mien.
“The enemy is upon us, brothers. He is at the gates clamoring to get in. And woe to you for failing the Revolution. You did not defeat him or die in battle. You ran like cowards. Cowards will never see Pardis.”
Upon hearing this, the men groaned and wailed with grief. HARZ soldiers believed death in battle ensured entry into Pardis and union with Bog. After a crushing defeat, it was devastating to be told by a Religious Commissar that Pardis was denied.
Nikita silenced them with an abrupt gesture.
“The Whites will be here soon, brothers. This bridge must be destroyed now. There is no time to clear it.”
“Do you wish to see Pardis?”
Men on the bridge screamed with joy at the prospect. Frightened animals balked and howled.
“Are you ready to be united with Bog?”
Another prolonged fit of ecstatic screaming. A few with common sense saw what was coming and tried to leap off the bridge but were pulled back by their comrades and clubbed senseless with rifle butts.
“Are you ready to die?”
The HARZ soldiers pounded their chests in unison, the ancient Zoorian sign of readiness for martyrdom. Hallelujahs filled the air. Tears of gratitude streamed down their faces. Soldiers on both banks tried to struggle onto the bridge. Rosencreutz was certain he was the only sane man there.
The Commissar blessed the HARZ troops, by now completely lost in religious frenzy, and signaled to Yagoda. The NCO ordered the platoon to take cover, unceremoniously threw Rosencreutz into the trench, and jumped in after him. Careless of ecclesiastical dignity, the priest also dived for shelter. The death song of the HARZ soldiers grew shrill. Yagoda hooked up the detonator. Rosencreutz covered his ears with his hands. The howl of men giving thanks for their own destruction was unbearable.
“For Bog’s sake, man, do it. Do it!”
A deafening explosion engulfed the trench in a fine spray of dirt and pulverized stone. In the confusion, Rosencreutz thought of escape, but abandoned the idea. There was nowhere to run. Yagoda shouted.
“Sorry about the slap. You’re not a bad sort for an officer. Make a full confession and they’ll probably just shoot you, no torture.”
“Thanks, you fat swine.”
The dust cleared away to reveal a scene of grisly destruction. Twisted, shattered pieces of HARZ troops were scattered along the riverbanks. Swirls of scarlet in the Kosovo’s eddies marked where fragments had fallen. The bridge was only partially destroyed, however. Its pylons still stood, a mistake that would make reconstruction simple for the Whites. Rosencreutz couldn’t resist the chance to rail at Yagoda.
“One stick of dynamite. Conserve for the war effort. You stupid, enlisted scum. I hope the Whites catch you and cut your ballocks off.”
Enraged, Yagoda stood up, fists clenched, ready to beat Rosencreutz to death, but was interrupted by Nikita.
“Sergeant, have that traitor bound and thrown in the boot of my car. And be quick about it.”
Yagoda decided against personally assaulting Rosencreutz and had two privates tie his hands and feet and put him in the trunk. Nikita clambered in and ordered the duty driver to return to the rear. Clumsy with the clutch, the driver coaxed the auto into jerky motion. They departed from the front; the car’s churning wheels spitting a fine spray of mud behind it.
* * *
It was cold and uncomfortable in the trunk. Hammered and jolted as the car drove along unpaved roads, Rosencreutz ached miserably. After much effort he was able to roll over onto his back. He was reminded of his confinement in a 1.5 by 1.5 meter cell in the Lubianka. That lasted a week. This particular bout of claustrophobia would be shorter with the promise of extinction at the end. An imminent demise seemed a blessing.
His thoughts drifted back to other times. Rosencreutz was the only child of a primary school teacher in a small, rural village. His mother died giving birth to him. While Rosencreutz ‘s father, a gentle, meek man, was technically considered one of the local gentry, he was entirely without means and despaired of providing his intelligent child with a decent education. Rosencreutz grew up in isolation, kept from other village children by a snobbish father who considered him too good for them. He’d been drilled mercilessly in languages, mathematics and music, his father’s special interests. A quick learner, Rosencreutz proved outstanding in all three fields, much to his father’s gratification. As a result of his academic excellence he was given an appointment to the Imperial Corps of Cadets to earn an engineer’s degree. Rosencreutz recalled his tearful parting at the railroad station from his father, full of pride, yet bereft at his son’s departure.
Rosencreutz arrived at the Cadet Academy a naive, introverted child, totally without social skills or graces. Other cadets, bluebloods, self-assured scions of an ancient aristocracy, bullied Rosencreutz mercilessly. He made an abrupt transition from the pampered only child of a lonely widower to a despised outcast, the victim of beatings and the butt of a thousand cruel practical jokes. Rather than cave in and admit defeat, the thin, nervous boy drew on inner resources and continued at school. He adapted to the iron military discipline of the Corps. Over the years his quick mind and natural charm earned him high grades and eventually the acceptance and admiration of most of his peers.
His proudest moment came on Graduation Day when the Commandant of Cadets, white haired General Pokrovskiy, buckled a saber around his waist and presented him with the Blue Fleur-De-Lis, the award for outstanding students. The Corps of Cadets cheered and Dr. Rosencreutz, hatless in the crowd, saw his life’s dream come true. To Rosencreutz the world seemed ready for conquest.
A few months after that, while on his first assignment with a labor battalion building a canal, the Revolution destroyed everything. Convinced the Emperor’s modernization program would finish the ancient way of life that had sustained the cult of Thanatos for so long, the Thanatite Orthodoxy made its move. Mullahs at all levels of society urged the populace to rise and destroy the godless, secular scum who threatened the true religion. Evil technology and depraved Western ways were decried by a thousand street corner preachers. The people of Zoorland revolted. Illiterate, moody peasants filled with boundless rage overwhelmed the thin facade of civilization that had been constructed by the aristocracy and fledgling bourgeoisie in a tidal wave of ignorance and loathing.
Arrested, Rosencreutz spent seventeen months in a concentration camp. He learned there his father had been stoned to death for “pro-Western tendencies” by the people of the village whose children he’d taught for 25 years. During the first six weeks he wasn’t allowed to sleep, ate garbage, and was beaten every day as part of the interrogation process. After that he was ignored, except for periodic bouts of terror when the camp administrators, to solve overcrowding, executed every tenth man.
One day Rosencreutz was led to an open field, the revolutionaries’ favorite spot for such frolic. A shovel was thrown at his feet and the camp commandant ordered him to dig his own grave.
“Kiss my ass,” Rosencreutz snapped.
A guard, eager to impress the commandant, moved to strike him. Quick as a cat, Rosencreutz brought up the shovel. The metal head caught the man directly beneath the chin and broke his jaw. He took out two more with the shovel before he was wrestled down by sheer weight of numbers. Rather than shoot him in the head like a dog, the commandant was amused by Rosencreutz’s spirit and returned him to the camp.
Two weeks later an order came from Central Revolutionary Command (CRC) to release all ex-Imperial Army officers for immediate service in HARZ penal battalions. Rosencreutz moved from an environment where murder was committed on a regularly scheduled basis to create fear to one where death struck out everywhere, haphazardly, for no discernible reason at all. For the past two years, he’d been a front line officer, exposed to danger from all sides. Now a bullet would end his short life.
The roadster stopped. The trunk lid flew open. The faint light of the evening sky hurt Rosencreutz’s eyes. Rough hands hauled him out of the trunk and pulled him erect. His limbs had fallen asleep from lack of circulation.
“Weak with fear, eh? You’ll meet justice soon enough. The Ayatollah Commissar himself told me to bring you back. Now you’ll meet him. I guarantee, you miserable atheist, it’ll be the last moment in your foul life.”
The Commissar had Rosencreutz frog marched by two burly guards along a maze of planks that weaved through the muddy HARZ Corps cantonment. They passed three concentric rings of barbed wire and sandbags, the protective perimeter of the Front Center for Religious-Political Operations (FC-RPO). Nikita shoved Rosencreutz into the tent where Ayatollah Commissar Barko sat, putting in another twenty-hour day.
Barko was a legendary Commissar in the Corps, famed for efficiency and ferocity. A soldier priest of the old school, head shaved, turquoise earrings hanging from his wrinkled lobes, he peered closely at a file through pince-nez, periodically making notes. His huge grey moustache was waxed into extravagant curlicues.
Barko looked up from his work to take in the triumphant Nikita and the bound Rosencreutz.
“You’re late, Nikita. It’s been twelve hours since I sent you off. It took that long to perform your mission? Is this the man I sent for?”
“Yes, Ayatollah Commissar, I arrested him.”
“Did you? What initiative. What was his name again?”
Nikita struck him savagely in the face.
“Shut up, you Imperial scum.”
Barko pored through a thick pile of flimsy dispatches, found what he wanted, and read the document slowly, moving his lips as he did. The quizzical look on his face dissolved into a broad smile. He laughed aloud.
Nikita laughed as if he shared the joke.
Barko’s merriment abruptly ceased.
“You shouldn’t laugh, Nikita. It appears you’ve made a serious mistake.”
Nikita’s face, contorted by his braying, collapsed into an expression of dismay.
“What do you mean, mistake? He’s an Imperial, isn’t he? I arrested him, right?”
Barko looked at Nikita with utter contempt. He laughed sharply, mirthlessly.
“You idiot. I never said to arrest this man. Listen to the order: ‘By decree of the Holy Patriarch, the Revolutionary Ulema and Central Revolutionary Command, HARZ officer Rosencreutz, Simon M., Captain, is promoted to the field grade of full Colonel with all the appurtenant rights and privileges of the rank and is to be transferred from the front to Byzantium for special duty.’ You must always anticipate, mustn’t you?”
Rosencreutz couldn’t believe his ears. He was stunned. Nikita also stood agape, utterly crestfallen. Barko shook him from his reverie.
“Don’t just stand there, you oaf. Release Colonel Rosencreutz.”
Nikita scurried to Rosencreutz. The cruel ropes were cut. He was free, thrilled and confused by his unexpected reprieve.
“Please, Colonel, forgive me. I had no way of knowing, you must understand, circumstances of war…”
While Nikita mouthed desperate platitudes, Rosencreutz was so full of hatred for the man he couldn’t speak. He regained self control, laughed heartily, and shrugged his shoulders.
“Come, comrade Nikita. You made a mistake, but it was an honest one and in what you thought was the service of the Revolution. I can hardly blame a man for that. Relax. There’s no problem.”
Greatly relieved by Rosencreutz’s assurances, Nikita took the liberty of slapping him on the back.
“Congratulations on your promotion.”
Rosencreutz ignored him. He walked to the front of Barko’s table and stood at parade rest.
“Permission to inquire, Ayatollah.”
“No need to be so formal, Colonel. What is it?”
“Am I a colonel in name only, like other ex-Imperial Army officers or does this position come with the full military authority customarily associated with the rank?”
“You heard the orders, Rosencreutz. Yes, you’re a full colonel, all right, fit to do just about anything you please.”
Rosencreutz snapped to attention and saluted.
He executed an about face to confront Nikita.
Still reassured by Rosencreutz ‘s previous remarks, the fat priest grinned at Rosencreutz.
“I say, Nikita. I’m frightfully cold and it wouldn’t do for a senior officer to catch a chill, would it? Give me your coat, there’s a good fellow.”
Happy to get into Rosencreutz’s good graces, Nikita shrugged out of the heavy leather trenchcoat and handed it to Rosencreutz who pulled it on. His thin nose wrinkled in distaste.
“Sweet Christ, Son of Bog, you smell like a billy goat, Nikita. Is your devotion to the Revolution so boundless you have no time to bathe?”
Nikita was taken aback. Barko watched them silently like an old lizard following insects with obsidian eyes.
“I could also do with a sidearm to replace the one you took from me. That Mauser of yours will do for the moment although I prefer a Colt .45.”
Nikita looked around the room for help but found none. Barko had returned to his paperwork. The two giant Yakutian guards who’d escorted Rosencreutz to the tent understood the situation and would offer no aid. He had no choice. With a trembling hand he passed the weapon to Rosencreutz butt first.
Rosencreutz inspected the big, awkward pistol. He grasped the ugly automatic by its broom handle and pulled back the slide to start the action. The mechanism jammed. It took a few seconds to clear it.
“I see you’re not much on maintaining your arms either. Ayatollah Commissar Barko.”
“Senior officers in the field have the power of summary execution, do they not?”
“Yes, quite so.”
“Commissar Nikita, you are guilty of gross incompetence and fear in the face of the enemy. These are capital crimes. I will carry out sentence immediately. Get down on your knees.”
Nikita blubbered and moaned. Ayatollah Barko scribbled on his reports. Rosencreutz clubbed Nikita over the head with the wooden pistol grip. The fat Commissar fell to the ground.
Rosencreutz yanked Nikita up by the collar, pressed the muzzle of the Mauser to his temple and fired. The report was tremendous in the small tent. The dead man lay twitching, his head a grotesque wreck from the .30 caliber shell. Barko’s hawk nose wrinkled at the stench. He looked at Nikita’s body.
“A good thing there’s a dirt floor or I’d never get this mess out, eh, Colonel?”
Mark Mellon is a novelist who supports his family by working as an attorney. His short fiction has recently appeared in Thuglit, Crimespree, and Over My Dead Body!. Four of his novels and over forty short stories have been published in the USA, UK, and Ireland. A horror novel, Roman Hell is currently in print. A novella, Escape From Byzantium, won the 2010 Independent Publisher Silver Medal for fantasy/science fiction.