Authors: Mack Maloney
Nauset Heights, Cape Cod
HE TWO NORSE SOLDIERS
thought they were dreaming.
One moment they’d been dozing on guard duty; the next, they were faced with a vision from Hell itself.
It was the heat that woke them first. A searing, hot breath, at first mistaken for just another part of a lusty dream, suddenly turned absolutely scorching. Then the noise came. A hundred claps of thunder, a thousand bombs exploding, a million screams of fear—they could not equal the unearthly howling these men heard this night, their last.
The heat and the noise were joined by the brightest light either man had ever seen, so intense, it seared their eyeballs.
They both screamed. Surely this was the Raven of Death itself hovering over them. Watching them. Now diving down at them!
They ran, but with legs of weaker men. They stumbled, one into the other, and wound up in a heap on the ground. There was a bright flash. A tongue of flame sprouted from this giant metal bird, leveling part of the nearby forest like a fiery scythe.
“Thorgils!” one screamed hysterically.
“Where are you now?”
The winged creature of fire and heat and noise roared again and then slammed down into the ground, obliterating the guards’ campfire and kicking up a storm of sand, dust, and flaming ashes.
It was black, with a metal body, and a large teardrop of glass that served as its eye. There were flashing red beacons on its tail and under its nose. Weapons of unspeakable terror hung from its wings.
Paralyzed with fear, the guards watched open-mouthed as the eye of the creature popped open. A man was emerging! In the light and the smoke and the exhaust, he looked like a creature, too. His armored skin was black, and he wore a strange helmet with lightning bolts painted in gold on its sides. In one hand he held a firearm; in the other, a long, gleaming sword. He turned and pointed the sword directly at them.
Trembling, crying, their teeth chattering so much their gums bled, the Norse guards drew their own swords. But not to do battle. To do so now would be against their religion. They had been bested by an enemy, and damn quickly at that. To die now on his sword would condemn their souls for eternity. Their only choice was to deliver the killing blow themselves.
With screams that equaled that of the banshee itself, the men plunged their long, razor-sharp swords into one another’s stomachs, waiting momentarily, and then applying the essential gut-ripping twist.
They were both dead within a second.
As they fell for the last time, one man dropped his field canteen, causing a thick, gooey substance to run from its mouth. The man stepped out of the airplane and onto its wing and then jumped to the scorched ground. He walked over the pair of still-quivering bodies, picked up the canteen, and took a tiny dot of the thick syrup with the tip of his finger.
He put the finger to his tongue.
The dozen Norse soldiers charged with guarding the small farmhouse on the bluff had scattered a long time ago, frightened away by noise and flame they’d spotted on the beach below.
The house itself was somewhat battered, but the roof had held through the stormy weather, and the inside had done the same. The hayfield was overgrown, as were the vegetable garden and the strawberry vine. The barn and the small storage shed looked a little worse for wear.
The boot on the front door was not so powerful as to do a lot of damage. It would have to be fixed later, after all.
A thin red beam of laser light searched the darkened rooms. All the furniture was gone—remnants of the chairs and couches could be seen in the fireplace. Even some of the floorboards had been ripped up, used no doubt as kindling. The walls were covered with crude drawings. Battle scenes. Ravens. Sea serpents. Some were drawn in chalk, others in charcoal or with burnt sticks. Some of the pictures had strange writing beside them, others, simply one or two letters. In one corner, someone had apparently started to write the English word “victory,” but never applied the last letter. Another wall was stained with what at first looked like blood, but on closer examination, turned out to be some kind of lager.
The pilot walked up the stairs without making a sound. At the end of the narrow hall was a closed door with a flickering light behind it. He pointed his firearm at the ceiling and squeezed off one round. The noise of the gun blast seemed to shake the whole house. The light in the room went off.
He walked down the hallway, not slow, not fast, but at an even gait. He heard the sounds of a window lock being hastily opened, and then the creak of a window being opened itself. He fired another bullet into the ceiling. The noises on the other side of the door became more frantic. Pushing. Shoving. A sharp, hushed argument. High-pitched whispered voices. A touch of panic.
He fired a third bullet and then kicked the door in, this time with such force it splintered on impact.
The only illumination in the room now was candlelight. There were probably a dozen of them in all, and half had blown out when the door broke in. The others were wavering in the breeze from the open window.
Two figures in black were halfway out the window, but were now frozen at the sight of the man in the opaque uniform and helmet with his gun raised at their throats. The breeze turned to a gust, blowing back the veils of these figures. They were women, one young, one old. Both unarmed.
The pilot raised the gun, but could not pull the trigger.
“Go!” he yelled at them. He was not in the business of shooting women.
They departed, leaving through the window as if they were witches, their feet never hitting the ground.
He turned and saw her on the bed. She looked peaceful, in a white gown, her hair braided and tied. Her head rested on a silk pillow. On the table beside her were a large plastic container and two glass beer mugs, their rims sticky with
He was frozen on the spot. He hadn’t seen her in so long—not since that horrible night in the spring when the world turned upside down. It was now early fall.
He lay down his gun and knelt beside her. He put his finger to her lips and felt a slight breath. They were also sticky with
He’d become all too familiar with the effects of this mind-altering, coma-inducing hallucinogen. A little meant an orgasmic experience unrivaled by any drug ever known. A lot meant a coma so close to death, a person’s metabolic rate was reduced to near-hibernation.
But the drug was not without its quirks. One of them involved the precise method for raising someone from its death glow.
He took a deep breath and removed the glove from his right hand. Then, with a firm pinch, he tweaked the woman’s nose.
Her eyes opened instantly.
“Dominique …” Hunter breathed, stroking her hair. “I’m back, honey.”
She smiled as if she was awaking from nothing more than a stolen nap.
“Hawk …” she said, putting her hand lightly to his face, “I was dreaming about you.”
One month later
THICK FOG COVERED
The harbor was nearly deserted. A Free Canadian minesweeper was performing routine patrol further out on the Strait of Georgia. Occasionally a helicopter gunship would sweep over the shipyard nestled into one corner of the recently-dredged bay. But other than that, there was no visible activity in the damp, fog-enshrouded bay. Yet in the gloom, hidden by both mist and shadow, was the enormous silhouette of an aircraft carrier.
There were no airplanes on her deck, no crew in evidence, not a light on her anywhere. To the eye, the huge hulk of a ship looked unoccupied, abandoned, forgotten.
But in this case, looks were very deceiving.
There were exactly one thousand, four hundred and ninety-two men aboard her, all of them well-trained, highly-professional citizen soldiers. All of them were also volunteers.
There were twelve airplanes inside its huge mid-deck hangar, a place big enough to hold eighty planes or more. At this moment, about five hundred men were working on or near these airplanes, several of which were in various stages of disassembly. The men—all of them air service technicians—were concentrating on the airplanes’ bomb delivery systems—or the lack of them, in many cases.
Though the airplanes were all jet-powered, not one of them was a true bomber. The majority were actually jet fighters—high-tech dog fighters and interceptors—not designed to carry an ordnance load very well. Yet the mission they were being prepared for called for aircraft to carry bombs, and lots of them. So most of the airplanes had to be adapted to do so—and fast.
It was just past midnight when the trio of open-bay tractor-trailer trucks pulled up to the pier next to the darkened aircraft carrier. Each truck carried a large wooden crate, tied to its trailer and covered with black tarps. The trucks were met by a contingent of Free Canadian Naval Security Forces, all of them dressed in civilian clothes and waiting in the shadows on the dock. With little fanfare or conversation, these soldiers helped the truck drivers unlash the tarps covering the rear of each truck, and then, with the help of a small portable crane, began unloading the crates themselves, placing them on the moving cargo ramp that led up to the carrier’s deck.
Within ninety minutes, the unloaded trucks had departed and the crates were sitting on the deck of the carrier. Two men were checking the list of serial numbers on the crates against a manifest one man had attached to his clipboard.
“Looks like they’re all here, Captain,” the man with the clipboard said, crossing out the last serial number. “Should I get the loading crew to bring them down to the hold?”
The other man shifted uneasily for a moment. He’d yet to get used to being called “Captain” again.
“Yes, let’s get them below,” he said finally. “And make sure there’s no unnecessary noise or lights.”
The man with the clipboard departed, leaving Stan Yastrewski all alone on the vast flight deck.
Yastrewski—“Yaz” to his friends—took in a deep breath of damp, foggy air and let it out slowly. He considered himself a simple man, yet in the past few years, he’d led anything but a simple life. He’d seen nightmarish combat. He’d been kidnapped by Norsemen. He’d been imprisoned by Nazis. He’d been kept as a sex slave by a woman who believed she’d one day be the undisputed “Queen of America.”
And now, in the latest twist in his life, he was captain of the huge aircraft carrier.
It was the USS
CVN-65, or least, it used to be. Its recent history had been as strange as Yaz’s. On the day the Big War ended, the ship was reported sailing in the Indian Ocean, launching air strikes on positions deep within Kyrgyzstan. Its crew vanished, and the vessel was apparently seized by black marketeers. It was refurbished to a degree, and eventually sold to the Fourth Reich, the so-called “Super-Nazis” who had briefly conquered the eastern section of the American continent. Indeed, a sneak attack launched from the carrier by the Fourth Reich against the battered United American Armed Forces paved the way for the Super-Nazi invasion of the eastern seaboard. Not two months before, the Fourth Reich had surrendered in the titanic battle of
more recently known as Football City and before that St. Louis, and their surviving armies had either been placed in POW camps or sent packing back to Europe.