Supercell - I
If you're here because of the link I posted on April 1, here is the thing you're looking for.
This chapter contains depictions of firearms, depictions of graphic injury and (mild) body horror, mentions of Nazis, mentions of war.
“Come back when the war is over. Then I might consider joining you.”
On that evening in April 1945, Captain Lovelace walked to the gates of the Dunkirk camp, keys ringing on her belt and two ex-prisoners in tow: a long-haired bodyguard and a child duchess. She did not speak to either of them as the trio forged through the wind, and they were content to remain silent.
As evening fell, not a lamp was lit across the campground, and their eyes glittered in the dark between the settling lights. She marched them wordlessly through the darkness, until they were at the security booth by the chained gate, and the plaque bearing the name of the camp.
Unlocking the chain, the Captain flung it aside, and waved them through. “The town of Dunkirk is an hour east on foot,” she said.
And they did not answer as they passed through the gates and returned to the wild.
“I’ll teach them a thing about being proper hosts!” Orobelle snarled through her teeth, once they had walked out of earshot. “With my own army, if I had to.”
They passed a signpost in the dark, marking the road down which they were walking. Orobelle stared at it, before reaching into the pocket in her silk skirt for her translation glass. It had occurred to her that they might need to remember the location if they were to return for Lovelace, who was a Core no matter how much she wished she were not.
Holding the glass up to the text, she filtered through the flickering amalgam of meanings, eventually reading it phonetically as: Rue Victor Hugo.
They diverged from the road onto the packed sand at the top of the beach, and began to descend the gentle slope into the salty roar of the sea, pulling their cloaks tight in the blustery night. Orobelle, ever light on her feet, drifted over the sand like a ghost. But Dorian’s metal-clad boots sank into the sand, so with every step he had to lift his knees twice as high. Still he kept apace with the young Duchess as they wound towards their landing point, marked by the jagged cliff peeking above the dark thicket.
Another of the Fourth World wire nets loomed, the same kind that had marked the boundaries of the encampment, topped by coils of metal barbs. They stopped before it’s height, peering up.
Orobelle planted her hands on her hips. “Dorian, turn.”
On cue, his form melted into pink light and contracted, the Two of Diamonds fluttering onto the sand where he had been before. Stooping, she picked him up and slotted him through a gap in the fence.
Before he had landed on the ground on the other side, Dorian had rematerialized in a spark-spitting flare of pink light. She vanished into card-form almost as soon, landing less than an arm’s length from him on the other side. Reaching out, he pulled her through the gaps.
They trudged back in the blue moonlight and the wind, towards the foot of the cliff where they had arrived. No more grumbles left the Duchess, for the wind would drown them out, but as it howled louder, she began to take more urgent strides, the fabric of her cloak gathered in her fists and pulled tight around her.
They crested the last sandy rise, and there, they came to a stop.
There was no one there.
The sea had advanced up the coast to swamp out the place beneath the cliff where they had left Honourless and the luggage. "Wh—" Orobelle barely managed to finish her cry; she was already racing across the sand, shouting for Honourless. Dorian hastened his pace after her. Turning to coast and then inland in turn, they called out Honourless’ name, and then increasingly vulgar epithets on Orobelle’s part, to no answer. Gritting her teeth, the Duchess scurried down the rest of the beach to the line of the swishing waves.
It was with a shriek of dismay that she spied three dark shapes rolling in the waves, straps caught on the rocks: she would not have recognised them for her luggage if not for the loose straps flailing about. “Honourless!” she cried, while Dorian flung his boots off and splashed into the waves, sand sucking his feet in. He lunged for all three of the sodden bags, and dragged them up by the straps to the dry sand, like drowned carcasses.
Dropping straight to his knees, he rescued the most important things first: her treasure box, the dresses, four bottles of liquid satiation each. As each one entered his hands, steam blossomed off its surface. Then he shook to dislodge the sand and salt.
Despite his best efforts, all the dresses dried stiff with salt. He raised each one before Orobelle for her inspection, each one making her face sink even farther as she shook her head in defeat.
“It's not worth it, Dorian. We will save the gems. And burn the rest.” Snatching the dress from his hands, she stumbled towards the nearest boulder, and dropped onto its flat top, barely beginning to sigh when her head perked up and she turned to him again. “Get us some material for the fire. Up the beach. There were some thickets.”
“Yes, my duchess.”
When Dorian had whirled away with a bow, Orobelle laid the dress on her lap, and set to work in the dark. Her hand closed around the pendant on her neck; she lifted the chain over her head with shaking hands and slid the blade out, squinting at the gems sewn into its hem. Pressing its edge against a thread, she sawed at it till it frayed and broke, and the bead of topaz came away in her hand.
Her protector returned when she had almost salvaged a full vial of sequins and gems, a bare dress lying on her lap. In his arms was a tangle of dry thorns and twigs piled almost past his face, which he crumpled together as best he could, and dropped into a natural pit in the sand.
He crushed the twigs and leaves into the sand with his boot, and twisted his heel in. A flame erupted from the point of contact, catching rapidly on the litter.
“Are you cold?” he asked, turning to her then. Arms still gripping her cloak tight about herself, she did not answer. “I’m sorry, I ask the obvious.”
As he seated himself, warmth suffused the air, and Orobelle finally let her fingers loosen, though her grimace did not soften. She gathered a dress from the ground and handed it to him. Taking it, Dorian drew his sword out of its sheath, its edge gleaming orange. He leaned it against his knee, point up, and began sawing its edge against a thread.
In the firelight, they picked the silk and lace bare, neither speaking as the fire crackled and the wind stirred around them, the chill now bearable.
Within the hour, they had filled three empty vials with glittering stones, and that was all they could save. Stormy-faced, Orobelle scooped her treasure box out of the smallest of the three luggage bags, and popped it open, unceremoniously adding the rattling glass bottles to her collection.
Then, standing with the dresses gathered in her arms, now drab and tattered, she flung them into the fire. “Honourless! You deserve your name!” she screamed as she did, the flames snarling and rearing up. “Why did I take her? Why did I think—”
She dropped back into her seat, head bowed. Her words were replaced by sobs.
Dorian turned. Her hunched shoulders were shaking. Cautiously, he shifted beside her, but stopped short of reaching out in comforting gestures, for it wasn't his place. “My duchess, I’m sorry,” he said simply.
She banged a fist on the rock and stamped a foot. “She hates me. That’s why she dumped my things and ran off. Everyone hates me.”
“She may not have meant betrayal, or any ill will at all,” said Dorian. “Perhaps she had no choice but to leave. We have been away a day.”
Orobelle threw her head back. “What are we going to do now?” Sagging backward against the rugged face of the next boulder and drawing her cloak around herself, she blinked tears out of her eyes and gazed out at the sea. “We can’t go forward without her. And she couldn’t even ghost back to the Third World. Useless.” She gritted her teeth, and raised her head, and some semblance of her ducal fierceness returned. “Since we are already here, we might as well continue. Starting with Lovelace. She is coming with us, whether she wants to or not.”
Dorian glanced up past the fire, in the direction of the encampment where they had been imprisoned. “How should we convince her?” he answered. "She was adamant about not leaving."
“You heard what she said,” Orobelle replied, voice hardening. “She will only join us after the war ends.”
“Do you mean that—”
“We shall end this war.”
It was clear Orobelle already knew what she would do, and she had decided this in no more than a word.
They had to find more information, and they could not know where to find it themselves, so someone else would have to take them there. She spoke of her ideas to Dorian, as rudimentary as they were, as he unrolled the salt-crusted pallets on the sand, and he committed them to memory.
With her plan in mind, she slept soundly on her pallet, the losses of the day drowned out by anticipation for the next. Dorian stayed up a little longer, to keep the fire stoked.
It was past dawn, and all was grey about them, when they made their move the next morning. The same trick by which they had passed through the fence last night let them back onto the encampment grounds with ease. When Dorian had pulled Orobelle through, she did not turn back on the other side. With her card-form held fast in his hand, he sprinted across the encampment, pausing once in the shelter of a tree to watch for oncoming guards. In the gap between their glances, he flew across the remaining length of the grounds, to where the metal carriages stood in ranks, their splotchy green bodies dusted with earth.
He dove under the closest, sliding across the dirt between its broad wheels, luggage and all. Rocks scattered in his wake and spattered his face.
It stank of some unnameable acrid chemical beneath, and there was no wind to waft it away. For a minute, he twisted and shifted in the tight space until he found a position where he could rest his head comfortably upon the ground while having a full view of the outside. "Let me see," said Orobelle's card. He stood her up against his arm, facing the gap.
Then, it was time for the wait.
The hours blurred into each other here beneath the arcing path of the sun, marked by the clockwork comings-and-goings of the encampment. The feet of several phalanxes of marching soldiers passed, footsteps in disconcerting synchrony. Many specimens of another kind of carriage, smaller than the one he hid beneath, rumbled by several times, coming to a stop to emit and admit passengers. Half of these carriages stayed. The rest left as soon as their business was done. They heard many a passer call out the names of the patrolling guards: Marks and Fieldtown—Leyton.
By the time the twelfth similar carriage had passed through the gates, Dorian was massaging a crick in his neck. It was no matter to him; he had stood watch over a volcano for half his life. If anyone had asked, he would have admitted he was getting rather hungry, but no one asked, most definitely not Orobelle. And silently he watched, and waited on.
Too soon, the long day began to draw to its warm close, and the sun began its golden descent behind curtains of rippling clouds.
It was in that lukewarm light that a new vehicle—the first of its kind—came hurtling through the gates, its two wheels screeching to an arcing stop before the head building.
The rider’s boots swung over the side of the odd mount and march away in a hurry, with a cry of, “Delivery for Lieutenant-Colonel Clarke of the Number Sixty Commando!” Those boots vanishing into the doorway, and his footsteps dwindled out of earshot, to leave just Orobelle, Dorian and Leyton on the grounds.
“This one,” Orobelle murmured from beside Dorian.
The man began to crawl out of hiding on his elbows, wincing with each crack of his joints. Then he saw that Leyton’s boots had begun in their direction, and recoiled an inch. He watched as the guard marched to a stop, turned, and finally followed the messenger into the building.
The moment those boots vanished into the shadow of the doorway, Dorian thrust himself out from under the carriage and sprung to his feet, luggage bag hugged close. Even with its weight, he flew across the stone, darting behind the wall of the officer’s quarters.
Now he was close enough to examine the messenger’s mount. It was an odd thing, this soulless metal horse, dusty green with broad black wheels instead of legs, dirt caked in its grooves. A chest was tied to its back, newly-unlocked for the retrieval of Clarke’s delivery.
“You stay here,” Orobelle whispered, re-emerging in a swell of light. She plucked the translation glass from her pocket and tiptoed towards the chest, flicking the lid open. Inside it, letters: a dozen white and brown envelopes, some of their edges trimmed in blue and red.
A door clicked behind her, and Orobelle choked on her breath, scooping as many letters as she could into her arms. She flew back into the lee of the wall.
A set of unfamiliarly even footsteps passed through the doorway: a soldier’s and not a messenger’s. They marched the other way in the crunching dirt, and quickly faded from audibility.
Letting go of her held breath, the Duchess thrust the pile into Dorian's arms and began to pluck them out one by one, scrutinising each one's addressee in turn with the glass, and each time with a deepening scowl. Every single one was addressed to a lesser leader of the military: a lieutenant here, a major there.
"Give me a proper lead," she interjected every few seconds. "Better than this."
She was quickly down to the last of the stack. Gritting her teeth, Orobelle held the glass up to its addressee's name. General Frank Kirk. Flipping it over, she found it sealed with wax.
Her heart doubled its pace. “Dorian,” she whispered, lifting her pendant to slide her blade out. “Help me unseal it.” Nodding, Dorian tapped the bottom of the envelope with his finger, and the wax softened, just enough for her to lift it without leaving an imprint. She shoved the rest of the stack into Dorian’s hands while she fished her translation glass from her pocket. “Put that back in the messenger’s case.”
They both worked quickly. Orobelle squinted through the translation glass in the purpling dimness. “Field Marshal Alexander requests your presence…” It was an invitation to a meeting at the military headquarters of the army of Britain—presumably the one Lovelace served—to be presented at entry. They were to arrive punctually, exhibit proper decorum, and not to bring any weapons nor drink.
Orobelle may not be of this world, but she knew that laborious protocol was saved for things that mattered.
This was the best they could do right now.
When Dorian returned at last from his brief task, she tossed the opened envelope into his hands, the letter returned to it. There was another click of a faraway door then, and the sound of approaching footsteps. The distant, shuffling pace set their eyes wide.
“Quick,” she whispered. “Put me in this envelope, and seal it. Return the envelope to the messenger’s chest. And once you have done that, hide yourself inside the chest. I want you to listen closely to everything that happens inside, because you may not be able to see it when it happens. If my envelope is removed, you must also leave, and follow me. Don’t lose me.” Dorian nodded fervently. “Follow me to wherever I might be taken. That is where we want to be.”
Before he could offer a "yes" in answer, Orobelle had vanished in a flash of pink, and a card had taken her place on the paving.
In the span of five seconds, Dorian did as told: slotted the card into the envelope, resealed it, tossed it into the chest—and then, leaning over the box, he shrank into a card himself and fluttered inside.
Thus began the voyage of one pair of cards, when the dispatch rider Jansen Baird returned to shut the chest he couldn’t remember opening.
The engine, after some half-hearted choking, roared to life and took off. All sound was drowned out by the bump and roar of the beast beneath them, and they were carried blind through unknown lands, losing their knowledge and sense of time. The chest was opened several times across the course of the journey, light flooding into the hollow. But Orobelle’s envelope was never removed.
They came to a place where the noise of the tides grew, and grew, till they were louder than the engine. There, the mount chugged to a stop, and its engine went silent, and remained silent for a day, its rumble replaced by that of the sea. The ground rocked; they must be upon the waters. The cards and letters shuffled about.
In time, the engine stuttered back to life, a mechanical coughing followed by the rumble they’d come to know like a friend. It woke for the day, and then died again for a night, a cycle of rhythmic stops and starts that told them they were moving slowly and surely across the world.
Two days later, the chest was opened for once and for all, the light pouring in to drown them. This time, Orobelle was lifted out.
Dorian saw and heard it happen, and within his card, his dormant mind lit up at once, the plans reawakening his thoughts.
When he was sure that he would not be seen, he reappeared, landing with one foot in the chest and a chemical aftertaste in his mouth.
He turned at the sound of birdsong. This was a different place: a road of trees, and a long fence holding a wild lawn in, and dark stone buildings beyond.
Becoming aware then of the nearby burble of conversation, he swung his foot out of the chest in a stumble.
The messenger’s mount was at rest beside a stone building whose glass door hung open. A mutter from inside it, the quality of the voice familiarly nasal yet animated, told him that the messenger must have gone inside, and the letter with him.
“Thank you!” He heard another voice reply.
“My pleasure, General, Sir!”
At the first sound of the door clicking open, Dorian sank into card form on the grassy earth. But must not have done a good job of being inconspicuous, for the thuds of footsteps neared him, and then he felt himself lifted through the air, to be held face-to-face with the messenger’s brown eye.
“You missing a Two of Diamonds?” he called out, turning back to the door he had exited. Now Dorian was staring at an overcast sky.
“Hand it to me,” the General answered. The sky blurred. Dorian found himself facing a moustachioed man. “It’s a pretty specimen, I might keep it.”
The man flipped the card over. The doorway flashed by Dorian, a shrub, a well-kept hedge, a corridor leading into a lobby, and then the General's boots.
It was a short-lived glimpse. The man slid Dorian into a sleeve of leather, and back into the unfeeling darkness he had yet to accustom himself to.
Not long after—or so Dorian thought it must be, though his sense of time was warped by the darkness and stasis—he heard an exclamation that seemed, from its intonation, one of amazement. A sliver of light split the darkness, and in it, he once again saw the moustachioed face and the bulbous red nose, wide eyes peering down at him.
From above, he watched the man’s hand slot another card—one with a familiar back pattern—into a pocket beside his own. Then he shut it, and the darkness returned, but not the silence.
“Fancy that,” an unmistakeable muffled mutter came from close by.
“My duchess,” he answered.
“This was simpler than I thought.”
Honourless was alive, but only just. She sat huddled on a mattress of folded blankets in the corner of a shack, and she had done nothing but breathe and blink in the past hour.
She had woken here for the first time just hours ago, only to discover several oozing gashes across her legs, and a livid fever burning her up. Then the effects of the fever had begun to set in, and she had found even moving through her sludgy dizziness a chore. Even if she had known the language of the people who owned this shack, she would not have been able to speak coherently, for the world brightened and the lights bloomed, and she could barely arrange more than one jostling thought straight.
Through the haze of her delirium, though, the visions of last night pierced, her mind an engine powered by her fever heat. She saw the silhouettes of three soldiers bursting through gaps in the dark, heard the booming of their alien magic, louder than thunder at the top of the Spire, louder than anything she had never heard. The first explosion—
She swayed to a side, head spinning, and she felt as if her stomach were trying to crawl out through her mouth. Shaking, she let herself sink to the ground, and curled up on the roughness of wood.
The first explosion hurt in her ears, and it told her these newcomers were not here to be friendly. Like a stag at the sight of a hunter, she bolted away, and sprinted and stumbled until she hit a swath of fence topped by barbs, the shouts bearing on her from behind. That was where someone else might have surrendered themself, but she was not one of them; she sprang up onto the fence propelled by the terror, fingers hooking the netting. She clambered up its height, panting with panic.
But at the pinnacle of the fence, with their spells booming behind her, she saw that the ground was too far down for a clean jump over the spikes.
So through it was. Between the snarls of wire she tore, the thorns biting into her legs and taking strips of skin with them. She clenched her jaw so she could not waste time on shouting, and flung herself onto the other side of the fence, twisting in mid-air where a barb gashed her cheek. Her feet found purchase on the netting in a jangle of steel, and her fingers hooked the wires like talons.
The soldiers may have had magic, but they—unlike she—obeyed the boundary of the fence. They stumbled to a stop and yelled at each other in their foreign tongue, another boom and a spark of flame erupting from their fire-staff before they turned back. Beside her, something erupted in the sand, throwing grit at her with enough force to abrade skin.
She heard engines roaring in the distance, beasts baying for her blood.
A gust picked up. She had to keep moving. Had to keep moving. Upon the wind, she sprinted away—to where she didn’t care—and all she felt for an hour were her feet pounding earth, and pain streaking up her legs.
There was no foliage for half an hour, but in the dark she made out a shadowy stand of trees deeper inland, black against the blue of night. Her course curved towards it, up uneven mounds and dips. She tripped to her knees every several steps before stumbling back into a dash.
Honourless threw herself into the shadow of the canopy, and landed in a trench among the trees, beneath a sheltering overhang of earth held together by roots. Curled up, she fit into the gap beneath the shelter of earth, where no one would find her unless they entered the trench with her.
She lay amid the scuttle of foreign earth creatures and the rustle of twigs falling through the trees, cuts smarting like fire raking across her legs.
It wasn’t till two hours later that she dragged herself back into the open. She would have stayed forever, chewing on bugs to stay alive, if she had not been able to feel the blood soaking between her toes.
So she continued her race with invisible enemies. As she surmounted the slope blotting out the sky ahead of her, the world began to spin, so dark and so bright she knew she must be about to collapse. She had to find somewhere; she had to find it fast.
Spots of her vision darkening, Honourless staggered over the crest of the hill. On the other side of the rise, there lay, at last, the silhouette of a town, sprawled across the valley. She trembled at the sight, but relief was quickly overtaken by a surge of pain so dizzying she lost sight of the roofs in a whirl of light.
Dragging herself there seemed to take days. She collapsed at the signpost at the village entrance, legs sticky with blood, mind bobbing up and down upon the surface of consciousness. She faded out. Then she felt four arms lift her. She faded out. She found herself here in a room, the hoarse rumble of the sea coming through the walls.
Someone must have brought her here, she thought dimly; someone must have cared enough to bind her wounds.
Her wounds. They stank of pus. They must be causing it. This. Her fever.
This was all the thinking Honourless could manage. The lights were swimming. She sank back into her slumber.
Time blurred in the silence and darkness. There was no way of telling how long they were inside that leather pocket, but they could tell they were moving again by noises from the outside: a new engine, this one more a buzz than a roar, like that of a great metal insect. They listened to General Kirk’s every grumble about the turbulence and the bland food, unaware that he was shuttling two others with him.
A day passed before the lights shone on them again. It was Kirk, and he was seated in a metal chamber, its walls punctuated by round windows. He was laying the pair of cards out on the desktop, perplexion written in his brow. “I don’t know why you came to me,” he whispered, “but lend me your luck.”
Evening glowed dim in shafts through the oval windows when they were finally returned to the leather sleeve. There they rode, the leather just thin enough for them to hear the commotion of landing, the officious tones of officers rummaging through bags, and Kirk’s jaunty interjections. The chattering, hollow tones of a new engine joined them, and accompanied them for an hour. They heard someone in proximity strike up a conversation with the General, about his station and the British Army’s formidable advances on the frontline, to which his answers were jovially unrevealing.
They left the carriage and the conversation. Others took its place: passed greetings, to apologies, to officials demanding that all bags and pouches be submitted for inspection. Dorian and Orobelle saw light briefly at the behest of one such official, a blinding torch flashing across their faces accompanied by a chuckled remark about sending them to Sotheby’s, before they were returned to their bearer.
So Kirk brought them to the inner sanctum, from which all eyes were shielded. The air changed. Silence drowned out all remaining talk for a time. All they heard were General Kirk’s footsteps.
Somewhere, a door creaked. The first snatches of conversation trickled back in, more hushed than any prior. In the General’s pocket, Orobelle narrowed her focus on the voices, as she fought to make out the intent they conveyed. A tabletop was knocked, and in a wave, the voices fell.
There were greetings. Greetings gave way to a stating of names and numbers: Field Marshal Alexander, Generals and other esteemed officers, Walsh, Mayhew, Hall, Kirk, Russell, Renan, Howard, a list of names too long to be properly remembered, some impossible to even make out. Generals around a table, each speaking in turn.
“Our first order of business," said the Field Marshal, "is Operation Amber.” A cordial smattering of voices swept the room. “We have all watched the recent developments of the Western Front: the armies landed along the Belgian coast in Operation Firefly have pushed the German defences back to the Belgian borders, except in Belgian Luxembourg. The last we spoke, we were uncertain of the fate of many key regions: French Flanders, Belgian Limburg, Liege. All of these regions have since returned to Allied control, thanks to your good work, and the work of countless other generals. With key staging points in our control, Operation Amber is now far more likely to succeed.
“There are five field armies at our disposal along the northwestern border of Germany. The Fifth Army in Maastricht. The Second French Army in Liege. The First French Army and the Fourth Army in Colmar, ready to cross the Rhine and tide into the first crack in the German hull. Dozens of agents are in place in Berlin, ready to nudge them in the wrong direction. All that remains is for us to decide how, and when, we shall push forward. Do we have any new intelligence on the Axis position, Renan?”
“Yes, sir. We have learned from radio interceptions in Belfort that the Germans are directing two armies to bulwark the front from North Rhine-Westphalia to—" Orobelle could not catch the next name. "We do not know how much they know, but this seems more a naïve tactical move than one made in knowledge of our plans. Even so, I would advise that we are not quite in the best position to push the front on such a scale. Not yet.”
“Well, if we must disorganise their front, the means are many: as I mentioned, a full military deception, a second Operation Bodyguard, is not out of the question. We have a bevy of double agents in Berlin, who could sow misinformation, and men across Europe to mislead them about the point of invasion.”
“Sir, that may not be necessary.” It was a new voice. Orobelle could not remember the name that matched it.
“If I may suggest, it appears the foundation of a perfect deception operation may already have been lain for us, by the Russians."
“Russians. What do you mean?”
“Interceptions all across the 'Y' service have given us a broad picture of the state of current German intelligence, and they appear to suspect a large Russian presence building on various points along the Eastern Front, as if they believed the Soviet Army were about to mount a large, coordinated attack.”
“You know rumours are not useful, Hall.”
“No, no, not rumours. Interceptions from the Germans, dozens of them, in Sardinia, in Canterbury. The Germans believe the Soviets are mounting a final offensive from several staging points along the Eastern Front. These suspicions are vague enough but either way, we are best off having them believe it were true.”
“What are you saying? That we—fly some soldiers over, run a deception operation there?”
“Either way,” a different General picked up the slack, “if there were a Russian force waiting…if, say such a coordinated offensive were to happen on the Eastern Front, and it were as grand as it sounds, then they would be forced to turn their eyes there. And then—then we would begin Operation Amber." He snapped. "We would have them in a pincer grip. And if not…”
Drifting into boredom till now, Orobelle's mind had returned all at once. Like fragments of a painting, the words of this back-and-forth were starting to build a picture of it all in her mind. Three factions involved that she was aware of: Britain, the Germans, the Russians. Britain and their allies were at war with the Germans. So were the Russians, but they advanced from the east. The Germans were caught between the two forces, on two fronts. Surely it was not as simple as this, but it was enough information for her to build her plans.
Meanwhile Alexander had begun to raise his voice, until the disagreeing general conceded, and the discussion subsided in a cloud of mutters. The Field Marshal sighed. “Second order of business. A full update on our work on interceptions and their decoding. Howard, last we talked you mentioned the breakthrough on the Lorentz cipher at Bletchley. Any news?”
“Oh, yes, sir, very important news in fact.”
“Let us hear it.”
“Just a moment...” A metal clasp snapped open nearby, and a rustle of papers followed. “Two weeks ago, the radio security service reported several messages encoded in the new cipher, which they say the Germans refer to as Gaertner-encrypted. We didn't think much of it initially, but last week, two of the service's members independently intercepted a message relayed between Berlin and Budapest—straight from Hitler’s office.” He slapped the papers onto the tabletop.
“The Gaertner cipher has proven...utterly impossible to decode. These messages are sparse, sent once daily at the most, reserved for top intelligence. And they’re quite something, I’ll tell you. Pages upon pages in one transmission. They cannot possibly encode a message all that long, these…they are costly to encode. No, this is completely novel. The Germans are clever, I’ll give them that, clever and ruthless. The glyphs are given in clusters that do not seem to correspond to any comprehensible lettering system; there is little correspondence between the messages we have gathered to date. And it wasn’t until three days ago that the sharpest minds at Bletchley figured it out: that these clusters of glyphs do not encode characters, but meanings, like images. A script of scripts.”
“So, what did the message from Hitler’s office say?”
“Sir, as I had mentioned, we have not,” he cleared his throat, “we have not been able to crack the code to date.”
The pause that followed was filled by a shuffling of feet and paper. “And why do you tell us about this message, if it is not deciphered?”
The recoiling guilt was palpable in Howard’s voice. “It seemed a development of utmost importance, sir, most definitely the most important thing I have to report…”
“That is Bletchley’s job. It is the job of you men who sit with your codebooks and machines all day to decode code. I can’t help you with your little numbers and figures, your scripts of scripts—”
Hidden away in Kirk’s wallet, Orobelle stirred.
“I’m going out to get that code,” she whispered amid the storm of words, and hoped Dorian had heard. “Join me when you can.”
Orobelle took a gamble.
Before Howard had completed his faltering ramble, she poured out of Kirk’s wallet in a pool of light. She lay on the ground behind his chair for a fraction of a second before condensing back into a card. Only Kirk himself could have seen her from this vantage, but she saw his silhouette from the back, and it seemed he was as intent as everyone else upon the conversation at the front.
She had only done this once before, for it had not been particularly enjoyable. But here she had no choice, so she did it again: reaching through the veil, she allowed only her arm to materialise out of the card.
It was like allowing an itch to persist unobstructed, except in this case the itch was a need to rematerialize in full. Trembling with the discomfort, she gripped at the carpet with her fingertips and bent her arm, crawling along in the direction of the fuzzy sound of Howard’s voice, like a bizarre jointed caterpillar.
But the generals were too absorbed in their plotting to notice the thing passing behind their chairs. It was as such that Orobelle arrived beside Howard’s briefcase, with just enough clearance should she need to form in full.
With an inward sigh, she finally pulled her arm back into the nothingness inside her card. From here, she waited until a trembling Howard bent down to slip the document into his case, and then returned it to the spot beside his chair.
His aim was awry; the briefcase toppled on its side with a thump. The man gave it a startled glance before deciding there were other things to pay attention to.
She let her arm reach out of the card and solidify again, and with only the sensation from her disembodied fingers to go by, she found the first clasp of the briefcase.
As soon as Orobelle’s hand closed around the edge of the document, she became aware of Howard’s gaze trained on her. From what little she could see past her elbow, he went very pale in the face, but pulled his eyes away, seeming eager to forget what he had seen.
At once, she snatched a bundle of documents out of the case, and withdrew back into her card in a flash, the documents with it.
Moments later, Howard bowed to take a second glance at the briefcase, and by then, Orobelle was a card again, safely sheltered from view by the briefcase. Once he was confident that the hand had been a vision, he stooped to shut his briefcase.
Now get over here, she thought.
Two hours of futile back-and-forth crawled by, and by the end of it, Operation Amber remained in a state of limbo similar to the one it had been in at the start. By the time the meeting was adjourned, spirits were low—and Dorian had yet to make a move.
Still lying under Howard’s chair, Orobelle felt fear creep over her, but still nothing happened as the generals began to file out of the room one by one, till only Field Marshal Alexander remained seated at the head of the oval table. From here, she could see nothing but his feet.
She knew moving from her spot would only make her harder for Dorian to find, and more likely to be caught. Against her instincts, she waited, till the lights went dark in the room, and the Field Marshal trod away, the heels of his boots clicking on the marble outside while he shut the door behind him.
Immeasurable minutes later, there was another click of the door mechanism.
“Orobelle?” whispered Dorian’s voice. He did not turn on the light, but she heard his footsteps, light as they were, grow louder, stopping feet away from her.
She lit up the room as she reappeared in a flutter. “Took you long enough,” she exclaimed.
“I’m sorry, my duchess,” Dorian said, but she waved the apology away. “What shall we do now?”
Orobelle held up the document in her right hand, eyes racing across the rows of inky black characters. “Here it is, their unbreakable code. Straight from the office of the enemy leader, they say. Could I have some light?”
For all that had happened, Dorian had not lost sight of Orobelle’s luggage, having never left his card since entering it on Kirk’s lawn. He dropped it on the nearby tabletop and pulled two crumpled gowns from inside it with one hand, unearthing her pocket lantern with the other. The translucent structure was held between metal rings. It sprung into its globular form when he released its catch.
Normally, it would be lit by a spark from tinder, but Dorian reached in through its opening to pinch the wick. A flame bloomed when he released it. “Thank you,” said Orobelle, reaching into her own gown pocket for her glass. “Lock the door, please.”
Holding the glass up to her eye, she sorted through the stack of documents one by one, their text blurred but comprehensible. Many were signed by Gregory Howard himself, and one by the Field Marshal, an order to the code-breaking station in Canterbury. Finally, she found the one that did not yield its meaning immediately: this one, she separated from the stack.
It was not easy work translating this document, even with her tools. It was intent that the glass read. But the imprints of the typewriter on the sheet did not bare the writer’s intent as immediately as pen strokes on parchment. When Orobelle lifted it over the words, they refracted into fuzzy clouds, glyphs floating in and out of comprehensibility. The encoding process didn’t only obfuscate meaning: it filtered the writer’s intent to its thinnest, replacing it with an unthinking machine’s soulless process. Still she pushed on through the text, running the glass along the ranks of printed characters.
“‘Russian plans for the upcoming operation…’” There followed a difficult word that flickered from one translation to another, between phonetic and semantic and connotative and denotative, so she could not see a clear one. “‘Upcoming operation…’ I’ll come back to this… ‘…have been leaked. All suspicions have been confirmed. The key attack is at Gerjen Bridge on the fifth month, on the fifth day. 103,000 cross the...’” The name here was of some river, that much she was certain. “‘...to take Kalocsa. Operation…marks the start of a final Russian advance. The Soviet Army outnumber us, but their supply lines are dismal. They are poorly-fed. They must want help…they shall not have it. Morale is our only requirement to defeat them, and keep…’” She waved the glass over the last words. “‘…keep Kalocsa and Budapest out of their hands.’ There we go!”
She paced back and folded her arms. Not only was this “final Russian advance” about to take place, it seemed it was far from certain to succeed.
If it did, however? If the words exchanged by Alexander and Renan before were to be trusted, it almost certainly meant the beginning of the end.
Feverish with thrill, Orobelle brought the glass over the word she had skipped over, the name of the operation, which burst into its several meanings at once. “‘Thunderstorm?’” Orobelle’s brow furrowed. “‘Superyachenka.’ ‘Supercell!’ Operation Supercell. The last I encountered such a term was when I thought I would never need it. Hmph. Now we must find a way to move some soldiers.”
“How shall we gain the authority to do so?”
Orobelle riffled through the documents in her hand, until her fingers stopped upon the one signed by Field Marshal Alexander, immaculately in ink. “We already have it,” she replied.
From this room, there was no easy escape. Century-old windows closed like slabs over the only openings, so grimy one could barely see through them. Wedging his fingertips in the gaps, Dorian tensed his shoulders and strained to budge them. He stepped back. “They are nailed shut,” he said.
“Burn it,” answered the card in his pocket.
Pinching his lips together, he stared at his reflection in the dirty glass, aware of Orobelle's impatience like a chill in the air. He pressed his fingers to the heads of the screws fastening the window in place, and channelled heat into them.
It took seconds for the room to reek of smoke, a minute before he began to feel the sting of heat rippling over his arms. The wood around the screws, hard but antique, began to char, and with every second of heat they burned more of it away. Again he gripped the edges of the window with his fingers, leaving smouldering trails on them.
Dorian wrenched the window up. It budged easily, the nails tearing from the frame. Cold wind gusted in. He pulled Orobelle from his pocket as he climbed up onto the windowsill with a boost from his free hand, crouching on the sill as he raised the window up over his shoulder.
He launched himself into the night air three stories over the pavement below, the window slamming shut behind him.
Two cards fluttered three stories to the ground, swirling away onto the square while a statue of a local duke, proudly astride a horse, watched over the silent grounds.