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Like the sad-presaging raven,
The sick man's pass-port in her hollow beak;
And, in the shadow of the silent night
Doth shake contagion from her sable wing.
On August 14th, 1944, the Maid of Orleans steamed from Portsmouth Naval Yards on the morning tide, negotiating the English Channel under escort from two Allied Vosper motor-torpedo boats. When the flotilla reached international waters she turned her rust-flecked prow toward the port of Belem on the north-eastern coast of Brazil, while the mtb's turned back to resume their patrol duties.
But the Maid met the Raven and neither she nor her crew returned home to England.
The disappearance of yet another ship was no isolated incident in the chaos of World War Two, but the Maid had been re-commissioned a hospital ship and wore her new livery with pride over salt-scarred iron bones. Her final voyage had been to the aid of a British scientific station situated in the green flooded lowlands of Amazonia. Four months after leaving England she and her crew were officially posted as missing. The scientific team never emerged from the forest.
The War ended and the Maid of Orleans took her place as a statistic, one recording tonnage lost in the Atlantic. Those pages yellowed with the passing years.
‘...Call me Ishmael...’
They met in a West London restaurant, Doctor Theodore Hubbard and ex-Sergeant Jonathan Harker.
Hubbard picked at a badly-constructed Caesar salad and sipped bitter coffee while Harker wolfed down a generous serving of grilled bacon and fried eggs. They conversed between his mouthfuls, Harker gesticulating with a well-used fork. ‘What makes you sure this station will still be intact? It's been sixty years!’
Hubbard put down his cup. ‘According to a War Office memo the project was put on indefinite hiatus, not cancelled. They would've shut the station down following strict procedure. It protects work in progress, or completed. They thought they'd be going back.’ He put the cup to his lips, then remembered the taste of its contents and returned it to the table. ‘But it was forgotten. My company's willing to gamble that enough of the station is still there to be of use.’ Hubbard stirred his coffee. ‘We only need the base as a starting point on the ground; Wyndam's original notes provide the co-ordinates to direct us to areas of forest they studied. All the actual research will be carried out off-site. We have use of a company research vessel.‘
Harker raised a scrap of impaled bacon. ‘Your call. Your money.’
Hubbard rested his palms on the tabletop.
‘I take it you fully appreciate the need for secrecy in this matter? Discretion is paramount!’
Harker arched an eyebrow as he chewed.
‘I doubt you realise just how much this research is worth to a biotechnology company like Brandt-Spicer? If even a fraction of what's in Wyndham's journal is correct, then he was halfway to finding cures for some of the most devastating diseases known to medicine. There's little chance Wyndham could've grasped the significance of his findings; viral research was in its infancy.’ He took an unconscious sip from his cup. ‘Antibiotics are failing worldwide, more and more bacteria are becoming resistant. Medicine needs something new, something radical.’
Hubbard stared Harker in the eye. ‘Wyndham's notes could point medical science to that next step. Some of what's written is only now being properly examined. The man was fifty years ahead of his peers. I want… need to locate the species from which he isolated his samples. My company is willing to put funds into finding and exploiting them. Bio-prospecting is very big business.’
Negotiations had proceeded to the satisfaction of both parties. Harker would receive his usual daily fee, plus any reasonable expenses; for which he would assist a group of biochemists and virologists on an expedition to the forested lowlands of the Amazon Basin, with the intention to remain for a month to allow for the gathering of samples and to run preliminary tests. Their transport would be the oceanographic research vessel Whistler, which would act as a support base; it's small but extensive on-board laboratories at their disposal.
Harker and Hubbard shook hands as they parted.
A refitted 58 metre stern-trawler, the Whistler now saw service as a research vessel for Hubbard's employers. She caught high tide from Tilbury Docks on a clear, autumn morning and, though none were aware of it, she carried the Doctor and his team in the long vanished wake of the Maid of Orleans.
Two days out, Hubbard found Harker standing on deck in the shadow of the ship's MDX Explorer helicopter, intently studying sea birds through a pair of compact binoculars.
They stood silently for a moment, Harker watching the gulls wheel and soar, Hubbard listening to the steady rhythm of the Whistler's diesel turbines. When the moment seemed appropriate, Hubbard gestured at the churned water trailing behind the ship.
‘Do you like the sea Mr Harker?’
Harker shook his head. ‘Nope; not particularly. I wasn't born with gills! I'd rather be on terra firma’. He lowered the binoculars but remained staring skyward. ‘I don't have wings either’.
‘Jennings informs me that you were a marine.’
‘You don't need to be a fish.’
Hubbard took hold of the top rail, rocking on his heels. ‘So how does a marine sergeant become an… adventurer?’
‘You get bored with military routine’. The binoculars were returned to their watertight case. ‘I get bored real easy. And I like to keep my responsibilities short-term’.
‘And you enjoy a challenge?’
‘I enjoy the adventure. Don’t see any harm earning a living’. Harker returned his gaze to grey-green horizon. ‘I'm curious. How did Wyndham find this place in the rainforest?’
Hubbard remained silent for a moment. ‘Actually he didn't. A Lutheran priest named Ernst Gregori visited the region in 1910. The man had an extraordinary collection of skulls, bones and aboriginal paraphernalia. Amongst other things he was a naturalist; mostly interested in botany. He brought out some specimens of a fungus that had anti-bacterial properties and several previously un-recorded plants.’ He paused again. ‘Wyndham met and studied under Gregori at the Lutheran University in Cologne for eight years. He returned to England in '38. I believe Gregori was detained indefinitely for attempting to leave Germany in 1940.’ A frown momentarily clouded his face. ‘There are vague rumours that Gregori colluded with the Nazis during the war, but I don't think Wyndham believed it.’
‘So this Ark Station was Gregori's idea?’
‘No; he was vehemently against Wyndham setting up the project. There were apparently a number of very isolated tribes in the region and Gregori thought they were best left alone. The two fell out over it.’
Hubbard gave a quiet laugh. ‘No Mr Harker, just hunter-gatherers who'd only ever seen one white man. These days that's a rare thing.’ He made a hesitant gesture at the pistol on Harker's left hip. ‘Do you think you'll need that?’
‘Truthfully, I sincerely hope not, but it pays to be prepared. Amazon's relatively new territory to me. I'm taking no chances’. He drew the burnished steel Beretta and sighted on a gull. ‘Didn't I see a couple of Remingtons in your team's gear?’
‘As you say, Mr Harker. Be prepared’.
Arrival at Santarem in the Amazon river system was, to Harker at least, an anti-climax. The eight-day journey upriver from the coastal port of Macapa allowed Harker to see how the hand of man had touched the river.
In stretches it seemed comprised of liquid mud decorated with coruscating slicks of unidentifiable pollution. At times logging convoys and ore freighters hauling iron and manganese were the only traffic on the water, but at no time did they leave the garbage behind.
Even at its widest, when the far bank was no longer visible, the river was alive with flotsam and jetsam of every kind; plastic, glass and sodden paper. Harker hated it. He was no environmentalist, but he could appreciate that the visible despoliation only hinted at an even greater damage that lay out of sight.
The all pervasive heat and humidity on the equator conspired with numerous insects to shorten tempers among the science team. When the thermometer recorded 33 Celsius, Harker took to sleeping on deck in a shelter composed of mosquito netting. The foldaway cot wasn't as comfortable as a static bunk, just cooler. Being early-November, it was still the dry season, and the rainsqualls were infrequent and mostly light.
The Whistler remained docked in Santarem long enough to take on fresh supplies and fuel, then she penetrated deeper into the river system, on a course to the vicinity of a smaller settlement called Araguia.
It would be a further ten days journey down the Madeira tributary and Hubbard had no wish to delay reaching the location of Ark Station any longer than absolutely necessary. An urgency made all the more acute by a lack of communication from the advance team. The satellite phone gave back nothing, though the GPS locator signal came in strong and steady.
Consequently Captain Willis took his ship eighty kilometres past Araguia, first along the smaller Orellana tributary and then into a series of ever narrowing river channels; before finally dropping anchor when the GPS and sonar-return indicated they were as close to Ark as they could comfortably reach. He stationed the boat in mid-channel to avoid grounding; the echosounder registered only a metre-and-a-half clearance beneath the keel.
The sounds of the forest had accompanied the Whistler on its journey; the shrieking calls of toucans and parrots, the booming shouts of howler monkeys. At night tree frogs and insects took up the chorus, even the fish made a noise, but when the engines died after the anchors were deployed, a silence settled over the river.
Harker stood at the bow and absorbed the stillness with his eyes closed. Even flying insects seemed to have shunned the area. Of its own volition, his hand wandered to the butt of the Beretta.
They hadn't anchored until nearly four in the afternoon and despite having several hours of daylight left, the decision was made to postpone heading for Ark until morning. Hubbard wasn't pleased; he wanted to fly out immediately in case the advance team needed urgent assistance. Both Harker and the helicopter pilot, Lagland, counseled otherwise. Harker set each member of the designated ‘Touchdown Team’ to checking his or her own equipment for the next day's journey. He gave the radio handsets a final battery and signal test.
Christopher Madden and Mervyn Parker were designated to carry the Remingtons. Harker had given them some training while at sea; shooting at clay pigeons launched from the aft deck. Parker hadn't fare too badly and definitely had some skill with the weapon; Madden was probably limited to barn doors at point-blank range.
However, the guns were only to be used for scaring inquisitive wildlife; Harker really didn't want amateurs hauling firepower.
He relented at the look of sadness that settled over Madden's face. ‘Just keep the safety on and don't chamber a shell unless I tell you to.’
That evening’s meal was a subdued affair; conversation suffered as all of the scientific staff sat wrapped in their own thoughts. The saturated air punished the air-conditioning, bringing no relief to the diners. At a loss amongst such morose company Harker retired early, with his much-thumbed and dog-eared copy of Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick and the single-malt contents of his hip flask.
vivid…black wings shrouding all light; circles within circles within darkness, within pain and fear of infection; eyes; crushing jaws rising from the abyss; talons of steel ripping corrupted, pliant flesh; razor-sharp beak tearing at thudding heart; Jonathan Harker watching jonathan harker watching clouds roil, watching boiling waters cover land blighted by the crooked cross; a dead hand beckoning; staring eyes: drowning, screaming, howling, wailing, suffocating…Immediate.
Harker jerked awake on his narrow bed, fingers grasping at the mosquito net adhering to his sweat-slick face. Phantoms faded with each ragged breath he dragged into his labouring lungs; vapours dispelled by gathering awareness. He ran a hand across his eyes, trying to focus on the motes of light pin-wheeling through the air before him.
At 08:26 the next morning, the Explorer lifted smoothly from the pad, downdraught patterning the water's surface then snapping at the leaves on the trees. Lagland orientated on a compass bearing and accelerated to cruising speed.
Harker, facing to the rear on a bench seat, momentarily caught a glimpse of the activity now claiming the Whistler's aft deck. He could see Chuck Mendez, the vessel's chief diver, directing the launching of Zodiac One. Aided by Pete Roberts, a huge Australian and Second diver, he was off to check on two solid contacts picked up on sidescan sonar. Any excuse to get wet! That view soon vanished behind the lush green of the rainforest canopy.
Though designed to carry eight people in relative comfort, the helicopter was cramped, crowded by the overspill of equipment from the rear cargo space. Hubbard rode up front with Lagland, constantly scanning the trees for a first glimpse of Ark Station. The other six passengers faced each other on two bench seats.
Harker sat opposite Scobie, one of the Whistler's two engineers, released to Hubbard's team in faint hopes of getting limited power installed at Ark. Seated beside Scobie, Mervyn Parker was looking distinctly uncomfortable and Harker wondered if the biologist had also suffered a sleepless night.
Christopher Madden and Maxine Hefford, facing each other across the cabin, were deep in animated conversation, this time discussing the relative merits of gradient and differential centrifugation for purifying virus cultures. Harker tuned it out. He glanced at Susan Chapman who sat quietly beside him.
She noticed his attention and gave him a shy smile. Like Parker, she looked far from comfortable.
‘Not into flying?’ Harker raised his voice over the droning thud of the rotor blades.
‘No. I'd rather be back in the lab'.’ Chapman kept her gaze away from the windows.
‘Not the adventurous type then?’
‘'Fraid not. I'm no explorer. Sussex Downs on a Sunday are about as wild as I like to get.’
Harker offered her what he hoped was a reassuring smile. ‘Don't worry. With all the gear we're packing, this is a cakewalk. No problem. I promise.’
After they'd been in the air a little over eight minutes a hole appeared in the canopy; Lagland declared they'd arrived. The clearing was about ten metres across, with one edge draped irregularly over a jumbled of drab green objects that may once have been a cluster of box-like buildings. The advance team had taken out sixty years of re-growth with chainsaws, bowsaws and billhooks, restoring Ark Station's assembly ground and providing the space to pitch their makeshift camp.
Even from the air Harker could see the camp was in disarray. Loose tent fabric whipped about in the miniature cyclone stirred by the Explorer; smashed supply crates tumbled away into the surrounding treeline. Harker released the passenger door and jumped clear as the helicopter touched down.
He drew the M93R and did a thorough scan of the area. Assured of no immediate threat, he signalled Lagland to kill the engines. The Pratt and Whitney turbines wound down into the silence.
Reluctantly the science staff dismounted from the relative safety of the Explorer. With eyes casting furtive glances at the encircling wall of green, they gathered their bags and boxes. Only Hubbard seemed unfazed by the condition of the campsite.
He strode over to Harker. ‘Well Mr Harker, how do we proceed?’
‘As planned. Split into groups as we discussed. We add searching for the advance team to our agenda.’ He clapped his hands for attention, voice projecting calm authority. ‘OK people, let's shake a leg. Don't forget - report any snakes you see, doesn't matter how small they are.’ He patted a pouch at his waist. ‘Once again, I'm carrying the antivenin. And stay from the stream that runs to the west of the base. Caiman aren't going to announce their presence.’
…Something wicked this way comes
Watching the teams compose themselves, Harker was aware of a hollow feeling settling in the pit of his stomach; his sixth sense shaking itself awake; a dog growling at approaching thunder, a cat spitting at an unseen foe. He kept his face neutral, even managing another smile of encouragement for Chapman. When the earliest opportunity presented itself he approached Hubbard, talking softly to hide his disquiet.
‘Tell me about the viruses Wyndham found.’ He glanced around. ‘Just how dangerous are they?’
Hubbard shook his head; a schoolteacher admonishing a particularly slow pupil. ‘Viruses come in many forms, Mr Harker. The common cold is a virus. Well actually, there are over one hundred distinct serotypes… different strains of virus, in the common cold. It's what's known as a rhinovirus.’
Harker just looked blank.
Hubbard finished hitching up the straps on a battered canvas shoulderpack. ‘My point is that you can't summarise viruses in one neat sentence. I've spent a lifetime studying them. Some are harmless; others are pathogens. But to answer your question: the species we're seeking are beneficial.’ He patted Harker's shoulder. ‘I'm not looking for a new terror weapon if that's your worry.’
To hide his unease Harker whistled loudly to the rest of the group. ‘OK, let's move it. And keep alert. Radio check in fifteen minutes!’
Scobie and Parker, both carrying jerrycans of diesel fuel retrieved from the Explorer's modest cargo compartment, headed off to where the advance team had set up a compact portable generator. Scobie's first project was to rig the compound and several of the tents with light. Lagland waited by the helicopter, unloading more fuel and other consumables. Harker let Hubbard lead the way into the ruin of the main laboratory complex, though he was comfortably familiar with the layout of Ark from Hubbard's copious notes and plans.
In a canvas lean-to erected beside the first of the structures they found the satellite telephone.
The uplink was still operational, its silver mesh dish antenna pointed toward the cloudless blue sky. Harker dialled Whistler; Bates, Willis' XO, answered on the first ring. They exchanged pleasantries and a brief situation report. Having established contact, Harker closed the connection and waved at Hubbard to proceed.
The scientist needed no further prompting, he stepped between the vaguest hint of warped wooden doors and ventured into the gloom that held dominion within the long-abandoned building.
In truth the interior was only dark when compared with the brilliance outside. Plenty of light penetrated through innumerable holes in the single-storey structure; enough to make torches a help rather than a necessity. The group proceeded slowly, most of its members marveling at how the climate had set its mark upon the very fabric of the station. It was crumbling away, being consumed by myriad species of rot. Every surface bore the stain of decay, and no surface retained its original shape; the warping of the outer doors was mirrored within, on wall and ceiling. The floor, being dirt, had succumbed to shade-tolerant plants, fungi and entwined, twisted roots.
Laboratory Number One had been the largest room within Ark, a space for ten scientists to conduct their research. Given the time that had passed, Harker was surprised that any of the wooden benches still stood, but some of the fittings retained a remarkable solidity. As Harker stood idly by, the rest of the Team began poking into piles of debris that may once have been cupboards and drawers, showing each other their discoveries; cracked test-tubes, the broken remains of a Liebig condensor, sample jars.
Despite his misgivings a smile creased Harker's features; his thoughts conjured visions of children in a toy shop. Chapman caught the ghost of his smile and was returning one of her own when her face froze. Harker caught it too, the faint but unmistakable sound of a shotgun blast. A second boom chased the heels of the first.
Harker headed for the door, drawing the Beretta as he moved. He'd taken only a handful of steps when he was overcome by a wave of nausea; bile rose in his throat and a bolt of pain tore through his chest, doubling him over. His fractured wits were trying to frame a coherent thought when part of the laboratory's inner wall crashed apart. The sound galvanised him; he looked up into the lifeless eyes and slack jaw of a South American native, whose skin hung in shreds from a body so emaciated the sutures of the skull showed through. Behind the moving corpse, other figures shuffled silently into the room.
As the splintered fingers reached for him, Harker reacted. Military training overcame numbing shock; fight response overcame that for flight. He put two rounds from the pistol into the face of the nearest zombie. The staggering monstrosity jerked and collapsed as the back of its skull exploded into fragments.
Harker had seen people die violently before; witnessed the terrible carnage wrought by weapons on a battlefield. Here the most unsettling aspect was the lack of blood. The foul taste in his mouth was replaced by an urge to laugh, to deny the reality of the creatures threatening him. He stood motionless, looking down at the twice dead corpse sprawled by his feet.
The shots, however, broke the spell of silence that had fallen over the rest of the group. Maxine Hefford backed herself into a corner of the ruined laboratory and died screaming, hands over her face.
Christopher Madden had trouble releasing the safety on the Remington; fear and disbelief robbed him of his usual dexterity. Another grey-skinned Indian almost touched him before Madden pulled the trigger with any result. The shotgun was deafening in the confined space but its effect was less than the technician would either have imagined or prayed for. The blast carved a piece out of the zombie's chest and knocked it backward to the ground.
The wound was a ragged crater, exposing the shriveled internal organs, now ripped asunder by 12 gauge shot. But no blood flowed and the creature climbed laboriously back to its decaying feet, shoulders canted to a strange angle by the damage. Madden chambered another cartridge and fired again, this time destroying the misshapen head. Harker shoved Hubbard out of his path and put half the M93R's clip into a third dead native who blocked the laboratory door. The bullets stitched across the figure's chest and forced it out through the doorway, to land heavily on its back.
Mere seconds elapsed and the creature began to stand once again.
Superstition, folklore, the works of Marlowe and Goethe among others, conspire to remember how Faust made a deal with the Devil. And so it was that Dr Georg Johann Faust of Ingolstadt discovered an elemental power, one that frightened peasants would come to look upon as a sign of the Devil's favour.
Four hundred years later, Reichsfuhrer-SS Heinrich Himmler read Faust's journals, and with half-truths and damned lies, cajoled Hitler into sharing his authority. Eager to harness any force that could help the Reich reign for its prophesied one thousand years, Hitler gifted the heart and soul of the Schutzstaffel to Himmler.
Himmler sat upon his favourite chair where it stood in the exact centre of a sparsely-furnished, half-finished circular chamber. His windowless room was situated within the tower that formed the focal point of his newly constructed castle in the small town of Wewelsburg. The castle itself formed the focus of this brand new town, intended to be the spiritual home of the SS. The tower's crypt would provide an absolute foci, the obscure carvings upon its floor and walls the channels to amplify the power.
Himmler hadn't seen fit to tell Hitler of the true reason behind the castle's construction. The small-minded Austrian wouldn't approve.
On Himmler's lap lay the private journal of a Lutheran priest named Ernst Gregori. The densely written pages made for an interesting read; the man's discoveries during his journey through the Amazon rainforest the most stimulating of all.
A knock sounded on the chambers heavy oak door, its aged wood deeply etched with ornate glyphs. Miss Friederika Hauser appeared to announce that the SS had retrieved the Lutheran priest. Himmler removed his pinz-nez, nodding slowly. Another cog fell into place; the machine continued to grow.
‘The common cold doesn't do this, Hubbard! These people don't have runny goddamn noses!’ The abomination in the door was almost upon its decayed feet. Harker put the Beretta against its head and fired; it jerked back, face a ruin. ‘They're dead! D-E-A-D!’
Dr Theodore Hubbard, virologist and biochemist, stood silently in the chaos. There would be a scientific explanation for what he was witnessing, he just needed time to formulate and test each hypothesis as it presented itself. He began by considering which potential viral infection would produce the results he was seeing… The zombie crouched over Maxine Hefford finished tearing out her throat then turned toward him. Harker wouldn't be able to see it and Hubbard couldn't get his mouth open to say anything; lethargy had spread through his body, his larynx and tongue were numb, coherent thought receded into mindless wonder. He felt the lifeless eyes of the creature fix themselves upon the veins in his neck. Harker was stepping out of the laboratory and still Hubbard hadn't made a sound. He could see crimson bubbles bursting on Maxine Hefford's lips and her life diminish through the devastation of her throat. He could hear Susan Chapman hyperventilating and Madden being violently sick. The details of the room around him returned to sharp focus, incising themselves forcefully into his mind.
Stepping through the ruined wall, Harker could see more figures moving down the central corridor and through the space once occupied by Laboratory Two. The forest had encroached through the right-hand wall, thick branches displaced then replaced the ceiling panels. It was no exit, the approaching zombies were already passing the invading plant life. Harker changed magazines; the last round from the first magazine still unfired in the breech.
Hubbard remained paralysed as the creature stretched its broken hands toward his throat. He could see the colours in the feather pushed through its earlobe as some form of decoration; he could trace the stigmata left by broken blood vessels in its now milky eyes; a healed scar marred its cheek.
Harker adopted a two-handed firing stance. Breathing deeply he steadied his aim, opened fire on the approaching creatures. Slow and methodical, he fired at the heads, the only place that seemed to produce any immediate effect. For seven shots he was rewarded with four fallen corpses.
As he lined up on a fifth target another shotgun blast shook the room behind him. Harker spun on the balls of his feet to see Madden firing at a zombie that had its fingers buried in the flesh of Hubbard's throat; blood pulsing thickly from the wounds. Madden's shot had severed the creature's spine and all but cut it in half; its weight dragging Hubbard to his knees. Harker shot the zombie through the head. It went limp but maintained its grip.
Kneeling by Hubbard's side, Harker rapidly assessed the damage to the scientist's throat. Hubbard's eyes reflected his anguish, but their light was already fading. Harker knew he could do nothing to help; could say or do nothing that would defy the inevitable. So he retreated, hiding his own shortcomings in direct action of a kind he understood. He grabbed the shotgun from Madden's nerveless fingers and strode toward the door.
The remaining zombies were almost upon him when Harker began firing. The Remington only contained another four shells, but they downed three of the creatures. He then drew the M93R and vented some of his growing pain and anger on the final zombie, repeatedly pulling the trigger, emptying the magazine point-blank into its face. The fleshless head disintegrated, fragments spinning away into the mottled twilight.
As the gunfire died away the room became still, punctuated by Harker's ragged breathing and Chapman's quiet sobbing. Madden stood motionless next to his colleague, his eyes staring as if blind. Harker gestured vaguely with the pistol.
Four floors below Himmler’s chamber Dr Franz Six led the thirteen knights of the Raven's inner circle in mental exercises drawn from Faust's writings. Each man clutched his rune-inscribed dagger, concentrating upon the sonnenrad symbol on the hilt. The daggers linked the men to the greater focus of the chamber itself, to the sacred flame that burned ceaselessly in its centre. The fire consumed no fuel, being sustained by willpower alone, each knight vying with his companions to influence the intensity of the flame. With each passing day, Himmler's stranglehold grew tighter.
Taking the lead and almost dragging the non-cooperative Chapman, Harker ran for the imagined safety of the helicopter. The MDX Explorer stood intact, but their hopes were short-lived; Lagland lay sprawled in the grass, his throat clawed into crimson tatters, his left brow laid open to the bone, the ruin encompassing his eye. Harker struggled against rising panic. Without their pilot, they had to walk to the Whistler, a prospect he had no wish to even contemplate. Chapman collapsed onto her knees and began sobbing brokenly. Madden stood quietly, his haunted eyes continuously flickering from the buildings to the trees. It was Madden who first spotted Scobie running toward them.
The engineer was being chased by a jaguar, its sleek hide ripped to expose ribs and skull; slowed in its pursuit by a missing hind leg, the remains of the thigh bone protruding from its hindquarters.
Having retrieved the cartridge belt from Madden, Harker took aim on the animal and tore it apart with three blasts from the Remington. Even in pieces the jaguar continued to convulse, the detached head still snapping its jaws.
In breathless gasps, Scobie stammered how the jaguar had dropped from a roof onto Parker's shoulders, bearing the man to the ground, ripping and gouging with teeth and claws. The shotgun had gone off on impact, Parker having ignored Harker's admonishment to keep the weapon's safety engaged. The second shot had been Parker's attempt at retaliation, but the man was already half-dead from the initial assault, the shot harmlessly emptied into the trees. Scobie had run when the animal turned its attention toward him.
They were all looking to Harker for salvation, but this was too far outside the reality of his previous experiences, however bloody. Nothing he'd ever seen or heard had prepared him for the situation he now faced; no amount of army training covered this eventuality.
The helicopter's radio elicited no response from the Whistler. They had only one course of action.
‘We have to head for the Whistler. We don't have any other options. We head toward the river.’ He glanced at the compact GPS strapped to his wrist. ‘The ship's due west of here.’
It was clear from the expressions that met his announcement, that the small group didn't find the idea attractive. Harker didn't relish it either, but given their present location, the ship was the only safe haven available. If it was still there.
Madden pointed past Harker toward the tree-line. Shapes were gathering, some human, others hunched, lower to the ground. Harker caught a movement and saw a reddish-coloured figure climbing the trunk of a kapok tree; a howler monkey, its dried-out entrails dragging after it like a second, misshapen tail.
Harker gestured at the unobstructed route west.
‘Keep together and keep moving.’ He propelled Madden forward with a shove, then stooped to lift Chapman to her feet.
Moving through the forest proved difficult. The canopy closed above them like the vaulted ceiling of some vast green cathedral, plunging them into a dim twilight. Root buttresses and loops of hanging vine required careful navigation in the gloom. Haste to escape the creatures trailing them caused the entire party to continually stumble or fall. Harker thanked their luck that the zombies were no faster, even those on four legs.
Slowly, the terror of what pursued them faded, replaced by the necessity of paying full attention to the terrain they were traversing. Only Harker paused to glance back, the others seemed fixated on their next step forward. In the twilight under the canopy time was meaningless, the sun a lost ally, held captive somewhere above the trees. Travel became a mechanical movement, one foot placed carefully in front of the other.
Another problem was the number of small streams that crossed their path. From the air the extent of the waterways was hidden; on the ground it was all too apparent. After the first few hundred paces, the water was a near continuous obstacle, varying considerably in depth.
Chapman showed signs of exhaustion almost as soon as they started out, but Harker was unwilling to call a halt until they reached the Whistler. He still carried three full magazines for the Beretta and a dozen or so shells for the Remington; a pitiful arsenal if it came to a fight. Madden was walking as if lost in thought, stumbling over every minor irregularity in their path. Scobie retained his composure, striding with purpose and pointing out pitfalls to the others. Harker debated giving the engineer the Remington, deciding against it as Scobie's abilities with such a weapon were totally unknown.
Christopher Madden died in the blink of an eye.
Unseen in a narrow channel, disguised by fallen leaves and other debris, a five-metre caiman lay in ambush. As the group slogged through the water, it erupted from hiding, jaws gaping wide. Long head twisted sideways it snatched Madden across the waist, teeth biting deep. The reptile lurched backwards yanking Madden from his feet and dragging him toward the water. Harker caught a fleeting glimpse of exposed flank and fired; the shot went wide. Madden screamed until he disappeared into the churning water.
Harker rapidly scanned his surroundings; other caiman were approaching, their exposed eye ridges and nostrils forming bow-waves, their powerful tails stroking from side-to-side, powering them through the water.
‘Keep moving!’ Harker shouted, pushing the hysterical Chapman ahead of him. Scobie reached higher ground and helped drag Chapman from the muddy stream. Harker scrambled up, propelling the woman into a run.
The caiman came to a halt, watching from their partially submerged vantage as the remaining three people vanished among the trees.
Harker only slowed when he was certain the reptiles weren't venturing out onto drier ground. Ahead he could see a shaft of light penetrating through the canopy. The false sense of security it offered was overwhelming, against his instincts, Harker steered toward it.
The glade had been created by a fallen cecropia tree, its demise allowing myriad flowers to flourish in the sunlight. A riot of colour spread across the undergrowth, the vegetation growing in all manner of fanciful forms; trumpet-like blossoms, magnificent fans of emerald green leaves, tiny fronds more delicate than the finest lace. Broad-leaved saprophytes had colonised the cecropia's horizontal trunk, drawing sustenance from its decay fibres.
The bedraggled travellers stood silently, breathing deeply, each isolated within their own thoughts. Scobie raised his face to the dry warmth of the sun, welcome after the dim humidity of the forest. He closed his eyes to the brilliance radiating down, trying vainly not to see Parker fall once more to the jaguars’ savagery. A slight breeze cooled his sweat-soaked face.
Wrestling his own torment, Harker kept scanning the edge of their small haven, expecting any moment to confront a deathmask.
When the movement came, it came from above.
A streak of living darkness and a black-collared hawk stooped upon Scobie, wings snapping open as it flashed past his head, talons raking his shoulders and scalp. Within seconds blood had soaked the man’s shirt, flowing freely from deep gashes his head and neck. Wings beating hard the hawk gained height for a further attack, but as it circled overhead, Harker shot it. Wings broken the bird tumbled to the ground. Harker walked over and stamped viciously on the still-snapping hooked beak.
The startled engineer dropped to his knees, hands raised in a futile gesture to stem the red tide spilling down his face. Running across to Scobie, Harker pulled a field dressing from a belt pouch; tearing open the sterile package he set about binding the engineer’s wounds.
After several minutes and the application of three dressings Harker had managed to staunch the flow from Scobie's injuries. The engineer sat quietly throughout, snared in the outer fringes of shock. Harker kept talking to the man, trying to engage him in conversation, however inane. Scobie wouldn't be drawn out, but neither did he succumb. He remained impassive, breathing deeply. Harker was contemplating his next step when Chapman tugged at his sleeve.
The zombies had appeared at the edge of the glade. They stood motionless, making no effort to enter. Harker realised that they were hanging back deliberately and it wasn't the light keeping them from entering the clearing. It felt as if someone or something was controlling their movements.
Harker realized he and his companions were being herded; but they didn't have much choice. For the time being, following the line of least resistance was keeping them alive. He hauled Scobie to his unsteady feet and propelled him back into the forest, on a path directly away from the waiting creatures.
Harker was first to reach the river channel. The churning brown waters rose to his thigh as the warped and stunted trees thinned out. He stopped; the others bunched up behind him.
A huge, dark shape rested in the river; embedded in silt and foliage, canted a few degrees from vertical, almost hidden by overhanging branches.
Chapman found her voice. ‘It's a ship!’
Harker shook his head. ‘It's a U-boat.’
As with Ark Station, the rainforest had tried to erase the submarine; tendrils had wrapped themselves about the railings of the stepped conning tower and around the snorkel tube and periscope. The forward deck gun was a mass of twisted metal crusted in oxides. Rust held dominion everywhere. Humidity and rain had conspired to rob the vessel of its grey water-repellent paint; holes like sores pitted its flanks and clustered beneath the waterline. Harker let his eyes roam the submarine's superstructure, settling upon the stylised black bird barely discernible on the side of the conning tower; a raven, clutching a swastika in its talons. Gossamer vestiges of nightmare returned to defeat the heat and wrap his heart in ice.
Hugin and Munin
A slow breeze carried the deep throb of diesel turbines back toward the shore, where a small group of uniformed figures stood upon a rocky headland watching as two submarines departed the military harbour at Point 144. The grey North Atlantic foamed against the U-boats blunt prows, salt spray dashing over their decks. The sea made no impression upon the night-dark ravens drawn upon the grey metal. Their fierce red eyes stared resolutely toward the horizon, heavy beaks open, wings spread wide.
Lowering his binoculars Himmler exchanged pleasantries with Major Franz-Joseph Delitzsch, Captain Jacob Brucke and several of their aides. Hitler stood apart from the gathering, hands clasped behind his back, thoughts in turmoil. He was used to clarity of thought, priding himself on his ability to rapidly assess any situation and make a swift decision. The army hated him for his bold judgements, but around Himmler he could feel his thoughts slowing, the otherwise surgically-precise ideas congealing in his mind like cooling blood.
Hitler wondered whether he had seriously misjudged Himmler, both the man and his motivation.
For his part, Himmler firmly believed the Lutheran's diary held the answer to their needs. With patience and analysis he could unlock the power that could subjugate the forces of nature itself and pluck angels from the air.
Bored with the view, Hitler turned back to Himmler's group. A Waffen-SS corporal stood beside the Reichsfuhrer, relaying the transcript of a radio message from SS-Oberfuhrer Weisthor - Dr Six had arrived safely in Canada with his escort.
Reaching deeper water, Thought and Memory descended in unison to snorkel depth.
Giving free reign to a compulsion he couldn't comprehend, Harker climbed carefully into the submarine through one of the larger holes that gave access to the inner pressure hull. Deck plates creaked alarmingly as he pulled himself up toward the control room, using the machine's exposed ribs and the remains of ladders and hydraulic pipes. He gave no thought to how he knew which direction to move; the screams of his abandoned companions reached his ear as no more than a gentle murmur.
Beams of light transfixed the submarines interior, pools of stark illumination throwing everything into bright contrast. The one constant that drew Harker's eye were the geometric designs etched everywhere, upon the deck, the bulkheads, even the ceiling panels; circles and pentagrams, triangles and octagons. Every surface carried its share of the pattern, some now almost lost beneath the patina of decay. The entire optical puzzle eventually found its focus in a series of concentric circles carved by some manner into the deck.
A corpse lay within those etched circles, a shrunken scarecrow of rag and bone; precious little skin clung to the cadaver; its hair but a few wisps of grey springing haphazardly from the remains of the mottled pate; mouth a slack hole beneath the decayed ruin of the nostrils. The eyes remained intact, defiant, and they tracked Harker's slow progress with unwavering intensity.
A susurration reached Harker, then an aged voice filled his mind and Harker felt that had the words been spoken aloud he could never have understood them. Quavering word-forms ebbed across his consciousness, waves breaking across a pebbled beach at low tide; an echo within his skull.
‘I have neither the inclination, nor the luxury of time to explain.’ The eyes locked upon Harker; the corpse lifted one gnarled fist, skeletal fingers framing an adjunct to the pattern that lay all around. A Gordian knot of agony struck Harker behind the eyes, dragging words and images in its train.
Immediate...jonathan harker drowning, screaming, howling, wailing, suffocating... Vivid.
Long years were condensed to the briefest instant; presque vu - a million experiences chased like phantoms in the flicker-fire of a single neurone's pulse. Harker collapsed to his knees, blood starting from both nostrils; eyes stinging, tears spilling down his face. A pressure wave of nausea waxed through his body and he vomited onto the canted deck. He lay in a fetal curl for many a slow heartbeat. As the spasms passed he raised his now heavy head; a head filled with alien thoughts; a thousand voices whispering in the deepest recesses of his mind.
In a moment of intense clarity, Harker understood everything; the force animating the dead, the threat it posed to the living should it spill out from this remote location; the pain and sorrow Gregori had suffered across the interminable years he lay trapped in the rotting hulk. He understood everything and it scared him.
Through a multitude of unconnected words, Harker followed a single thread and asked the question. ‘Why me?’
‘You held a spark of self-preservation missing in the others. I need you to survive. I need you to carry me from here.’
March 21st 1943
It fell to Himmler and Friederika Hauser to oversee the binding ceremony at the Feldherrnhalle; Dr Six and Weisthor were still at Point 106, on the north Canadian coast and wouldn't return for nearly four months. The rites had to be performed at the spring equinox, binding another group of thirteen hand-picked SS men to the ever-increasing ranks of the Raven Society. It was their induction to the Outer Circle. Their new oath superseded that made to the SS or to Hitler - there was no going back. Himmler doubted that many of the uniformed men truly understood the magnitude of the step they were taking, but that didn't matter; they'd learn eventually. Most would die; that was the nature of the deal they’d struck.
Major Franz-Joseph Delitzsch, Captain Jacob Brucke and Dr Johann Schokke handled the logistics; the Raven had nearly a thousand men at its disposal, both military and academic. Himmler's empire was growing steadily, in both men and materiel. The two submarines would soon be joined by a flight of Heinkel Bombers, converted for long-range transportation.
August 11th 1944
Claus von Stauffenberg and the other conspirators lay in their graves; their bodies would shortly be exhumed and then burnt, Hitler's twisted notion of revenge. The bomb-plot had thrown the dictator into a monumental rage; all of his generals feared for their lives, even Geobbles felt insecure and attempted to stay out of the Fuhrer's sight. Only Himmler was immune; his self-confidence an armour to deflect Hitler's wrath. His plans remained unchanged despite the turmoil enveloping the upper echelons of the Reich. He had his own plots to nurture.
Himmler no longer required Hitler's patronage, the Raven had long-since reached the capacity in technology and men to become self-sustaining. The Reichsfuhrer-SS had built himself a war machine; but not for the petty wars that the likes of Napoleon and Hitler had envisaged. He had much grander schemes in mind.
Memory lay alongside the concrete dock in the submarine pens at Vittegen. There were no crewmen aboard, just Heinrich Himmler and Ernst Gregori.
Himmler walked slowly around the cluttered confines of the control room, long fingers stroking condensation-frosted pipes. Before him Gregori lay spreadeagle upon the deck, manacles locked about his wrists and ankles. The chains were for show, merely a physical demonstration of just how helpless the priest really was. It was the designs etched into the steel decking that truly held Gregori down.
The would-be sorcerer stopped his pacing; nudged the priest with his booted foot.
‘Where is your God now, old man?’ He stepped closer. ‘And when exactly do the meek inherit the earth?’
Gregori lay silent and still, only his gaze shifted.
Himmler crouched by Gregori's head. ‘You touched the demons before and you shall touch them again.’ He sat back on his heels. ‘Actually, this will be more of a lasting embrace.’
Memory departed the submarine pen on August 12th. The Maid of Orleans set forth from Portsmouth two days later. They met briefly in the Amazon's turbid waters thirty miles south-west of Manaus.
The warmth of the day had waned with the setting of the sun when Harker descended from the corroded shell of the submarine. A stillness had fallen across the rainforest, carrying a heavy silence with it. There were no signs of either Chapman or Scobie, but the person who had once been merely Jonathan Harker barely registered the fact.
Gregori whispered incessant words of encouragement, uttered promises of wonders untold if only Harker would carry him away from here. Gregori spoke of the power and the horror that had been unleashed in the Amazon among the indigenous peoples.
To give order to a universe that ignored them, they stole the concept of a god from the tribes of the northern savannah. The Aztecs had called it Tezcatlipoca, Yohualli Ehecatl, Necocyaotl; the forest tribes called it Smoking Mirror and committed racial suicide in trying to satiate its appetite. A thousand souls tortured and killed to appease a phantom of their own devising, a psychic gestalt spawned of pain and fear, the animus in its turn birthing a near-physical entity. Himmler's interference altered the balance and severed the links that bound the darkness to the site of its creation. The monster was loose and no one knew the patterns that could once again lock it away.
Gregori pleaded, promised, threatened and cajoled, and his knowledge, given a corporeal form to act through, carried Jonathan Harker across the rainforest toward civilisation.
The priest's link to the darker pattern kept the dead at bay, but it couldn't keep the dark and despair from suffocating the light in Harker's soul. Drawn to the malevolent shadow of Smoking Mirror and the vindictive shade of Ernest Gregori, the dead trailed in Harker’s wake; the collective became a host which, in its turn, became an army, an ever-growing blight. No cure came from the forest, just a miasma more devastating than the worst virus; the hate and death spread. Himmler’s war had begun. Smoking Mirror, a god of discord and strife; his legions emerged, the killing escalated, his following grew.
Somewhere beneath the shroud of trees, between Ark Station and the edge of the forest, Jonathan Harker ceased to exist. The homonculus that walked out of the Amazon rainforest had shed its humanity; the tattered remnants of the man called Harker were lost deep inside a machine carved of flesh and bone, a construct shaped by the warped, unstable will of a long dead priest called Gregori; a revenant bent on exacting revenge from a man long dead. Gregori’s unrelenting retribution fell upon the living.
There were to be no more silent nights as the raven’s sable wings visited contagion upon the world.
© John Henson Webb 2016
I liked the way the different time periods came together to create an avenue for the Raven to come into the world. Nazi Zombies - what's not to love.
esullivan240 - I enjoyed it. The world building was excellent. I feel like this was the wrong size work for this story. It goes on too long for a short and ends too abruptly for everything we are giving for a lead up. This would make a good full length work. Still I am glad to have read this. It was a marvelous concept and very entertaining.
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