touch the world
let your edges tingle
primed to be
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Mrs Nicholas (Clementine) Orenhauser-Crowell
The Italian Ambassador’s Residence
Saloniki, Thessalonika, Hellas
Mrs Clement (Irene) Orenhauser
97328 Chambers Road
Eugene, Oregon, USA
I must point out first of all that the above return address is very temporary. Since the Axis diplomats have abandoned their embassies and consulates, the Greek government has quartered us here. But I doubt that any missive you send, however promptly, will reach us here before we have returned to Athens; so send any reply to our house there.
I have no idea whether there is mail awaiting us back home, but I expected a letter from you at about the time we left, (April the 2nd) and so I write in anticipation of your expectations. I must imagine the questions you would ask, and answer them where it is possible for me to do so.
Why are we in Thessalonika? It’s complicated. Nicholas had to come, he was sent by the Government to take actions related to the defense against the Germans. Yes, they are on their way; in fact, it would surprise me if you did not hear of the fighting before you receive this letter.
Whatever the case, neither Eleanor nor I wished to be separated from Nicholas in such difficult times, and so we are all here, the children as well.
I can hear you already: why would we even consider taking the children into a city so soon to be a war zone? Nicholas’ point exactly, but...in the end he had to admit that there is (or will soon be) no safe place in Greece for a child of any age. Here at least my babies are under my own care, and in my sight at (nearly) all times.
It was the most difficult discussion of my marriage, and it hurt me deeply to insist, but I prevailed. If I must die defending Clem and Nicky, so be it.
I don’t really expect it to come to that, but... Such are the times in which we live.
Nicholas is buried in paperwork, mostly reading dispatches from the border and intelligence reports from Greek spies inside Bulgaria and Romania. Eleanor and Ysabet are drilling the children in German phrases. (Ysabet is the children’s Swiss nanny, you did not meet her during your most recent visit.)
I have begun firearms training for Nicolette.
Yes, of course I have. She is past seven years old; I was six when Daddy started me on rifles and shotguns. His logic—that the wild lands around our home had many bears and other savage beasts inhabiting them, and that I should be able to defend myself against such—was impeccable. That the beasts approaching our beloved Hellas are Italian soldiers and Nazis does not alter the equation. Indeed, if Clem were not so small a boy for a four-year-old, I’d have him shooting as well. He was such a large baby when he came to term, but he has not grown at the pace of most children. I suspect he is taking after me in that way. At any rate, I have shown him how: how to disengage a safety, chamber a cartridge, and aim. I hope he is never required to use such knowledge.
“Squeeze the trigger, don’t yank,” I told him. Such are the times in which we live.
Put down your blue pencil, mother. I repeated that sentence on purpose. It bears repeating, does it not? I repeat it in my heart all too often.
Anyway, we are scheduled to return to Athens within the week. Write to me there, for the time being. We will hope and pray for a better outcome than seems likely at the moment.
All our love to you and Daddy,
The house shook as a bomb went off, all too near. Nicky shrieked and burrowed in deeper beneath the bedding, while Clem stared at his hands, frowning.
Eleanor ran into the room and pulled Clementine to her feet: “Is anyone hurt?”
Clementine scooped her son into her arms and said: “I think not. Nicky?”
Nicolette kept crying. Eleanor pulled her out from her hiding place and said: “No blood. We must flee, Clementine. We must!”
“I know! I don’t want to go without Nicholas!”
“We must...” The entry door downstairs banged open and Nicholas’ voice boomed up the staircase: “Clementine! Eleanor! Nicole...”
“We’re here!” Clementine carried and led the children into the next room and unlocked the gun case: “Nicky, you take the shotgun. Remember that the first cartridge is a dum-dum round, and never...”
“I know, mama. Never point it at anyone I don’t want to shoot at.” Nicky had clamed down, as she usually did when given a task to do.
“Excellent. You take this pistol, Clem, but don’t chamber a cartridge unless I say to. Understand? Do both of you remember your colors?”
Clem spoke, unexpectedly: “Gray are Nazis, Black are SS, dark tan are Italians...” He pulled the magazine out of the grip and checked that it was full. He slammed it back in with a snap.
“...Light tan or khaki are Brits, and we shouldn’t shoot at them,” Nicky took up the litany.
“Yes, and we all know what Greek uniforms look like.” Clementine took up two rifles and handed one to Eleanor: “We go southwest, towards the port.”
They pounded down the stairs, and Clementine ran to Nicholas and embraced him. He turned from where he stood, watching the door, to accept her kiss.
“Second Panzerkorps is at the gates. Some Waffen SS units are already in the city.”
The explosions they could hear were far away, perhaps a mile: “That hit near the here must have been a fluke,” said Eleanor.
“It was an artillery round, at its longest range. But some smaller guns have been hitting the downtown area for a while now. And if we stay here we’ll be seeing tanks all too soon. I have a car, though. Get out of the house and get in it, I have to set an incendiary in the Library.”
‘Where he has been working,’ thought Clementine. ‘It’s best to take no chances.’ She wished she had secured some of the antique books that the Italian Diplomatic Corps had collected over the years. ‘But how would I carry them?’ She put it out of her mind.
In only a few minutes, Nicholas came running out of the house.
A muffled thump issued from the back of the Ambassador’s residence, and smoke appeared immediately from behind the house. Nicholas slid behind the wheel.
The tattered remnants of blue-and-white Greek flags on the aerials identified the vehicle as an official conveyance, and Clementine wondered where Nicholas had gotten it: ‘This is not his usual car...’
Soon they were barreling along the roads towards the sea, Nicholas driving with a controlled disregard for ordinary rules of the road.
In spite of the circumstances, Clementine found herself thinking about his embrace. She stifled the urge to grab him, and checked the load on her rifle.
For half an hour, they rode through the streets of Saloniki, dodging other traffic (a very few cars, and some military vehicles headed for the front) and shell craters and debris (by far the greater threat.) Nicolette held the map, and she and Eleanor called out alternate routes to Nicholas, Eleanor’s baritone alternating with Nicky’s girlish piping.
Nicholas’ visage grew increasingly grim.
They reached an impasse: too much debris blocked the street, and there was no other way to the docks.
He braked the car to a stop and punched the center of the steering wheel: “We’ll have to walk.”
At that moment they heard the squeal of tires from two directions: one vehicle, a delivery van, crashed into the rear of their car, throwing them all forward. Then a second car slammed into the front right quarter of the limousine, partially spinning the car around.
Nicholas cursed as he opened his door and rolled out onto the ground, bringing his carbine to bear.
“Nicky! Clem! Stay by me!” Clementine cried, disliking the way her voice broke under stress.
“I’m here, Mama,” said Clem. Nicky jacked a cartridge into the shotgun.
Eleanor fired her rifle and a man fell to the ground, screaming in his death throes. Nicholas shot the pistol out of his hands, causing a louder wail to fill the space between the buildings.
Clementine looked around, her head on a pivot, expecting more attackers. They came out of an alley, six of them, and reached her before she could aim her rifle. One man seized her and two others grabbed the children. All three men began an immediate retreat into the alley that had sheltered them; the two carrying Nicky and Clement traveled much faster and were almost immediately out of sight.
Clementine screamed and twisted in her captor’s embrace, turning herself and jabbing her fingers into his eyes. He yelled in Greek and fell to the ground, kicking at her, blinded by her attack.
Clementine grabbed him by the crotch and twisted: “Where are they taking my babies?” He shrieked but gave no information.
Eleanor ran by, rifle at port arms, following the kidnappers.
Nicholas shouted: “Get under cover, Clemmy, there’s another one on the rooftop!”
She rolled behind a wrecked car and watched in horror as the head of her erstwhile kidnapper exploded into shards of bone and a mist of blood with bits of brain within. Nicholas fired his carbine and a man fell from the roof across the boulevard.
She ran to the spot but found him dead. She stamped her foot in frustration.
Eleanor trudged out of the alley, tears flowing: “They got away. They had another car at the end of the alley.”
Clementine slumped to the ground weeping.
Eleanor spoke to Nicholas: “What shall we do?”
He drew a deep breath, considering for a very short time. Then he said: “I want you two to head cross-country. Go to the country house, wait for me there. The townhouse will be your fallback, and the docks at Piraeus after that. Angelos is already heading to the townhouse, to try to find Miriam and Stavros, and escape the country. If you run into them, go with.
“I am going to find the bastards that took our children, and all of the Gods of Mankind have mercy on their souls when I catch up with them.”
“I...I have to go with you!” Clementine struggled to her feet, and Eleanor hastened to help her.
“No,” said Nicholas firmly: “I will surely need to use Commonwealth technology to find the miscreants. You can’t go there, we’ve tried it several times. Three days at the estate, fallback, three days at the house in Athens. Then to the sea, and England if you can get there.”
“But, no, but…”
Eleanor interrupted her: “Clem, he knows what he’s doing. Let’s go. Kiss him one last time, and then we go.”
Clementine obeyed, kissing her husband: “Au revoir, my love. Bring me back my babies, or save them from their captors, at the least.”
She said nothing about vengeance; seeing the look on Nicholas’ face, she knew she didn’t need to.
“I will save them,” he said.
He watched as they gathered their arms, and all of the food that they could carry, and looted ammunition from the corpses of their enemies. Clementine kissed him once more, a brief but passionate kiss; Eleanor embraced him, saying: “Get to work, you big dildo.”
He nodded, the faintest trace of a grin on his face at her witticism. He didn’t linger once they turned the corner.
He slapped at his left wrist, activating his Multiversal Positioning System in emergency mode. That caused the invisible machine (invisible to all but Nicholas, that is) to connect via arcane means to the War Room.
He called up all of the information he could find on the situation in Saloniki, as it was at that moment. The machines red-flagged a lot of potential Line-splitting. He cursed, in several languages. ‘I shall have to be on tip-toes, when I want to be smashing the whole continent into splinters. ’Rairosine!’ He shut down the machine.
He dragged his rucksack out of the wreckage of the boot, and quickly emptied it of all but food, water bottles and ammunition. He snagged the maps that Eleanor and Nicolette had been using to guide him, and then set off at a trot down the alley.
When he reached the far end, he paused: “I don’t know of any other way to pursue those animals except the ‘Seven League Boots’ option.”
He shrugged, dismissing whatever damage he might do to the integrity of the Timeline. He touched the Shifter in his pocket, gazed at the end of the street and Saltated to the spot.
He had no trouble following the fleeing car; there was really only one way back north out of the City, when starting from that alley: ‘See the next open street, Jump, look around, repeat.’
When he’d reached the edge of town, happily at a place where there was not any active combat to deal with, he took cover temporarily in a ditch. There he turned on both the Shifter and the MPS, so as to get a real-time look at the landscape around him, as if from high in the air.
Swooping his Point of View over the area, he quickly zeroed in on his prey: “It helps that it is the only civilian vehicle moving in the area,” he grumbled. He prepared to Shift. He stopped short and cursed in an even larger number of languages.
“Ratshit on a plate in a feast hall,” he finished. He watched from on high as the car bearing his children swung around a curve and right into the clutches of a Waffen SS unit, tanks and infantry mixed.
He dropped the POV lower, so he could see what was happening: “Oh, dear,” he said, bereft of curses with which to express himself. He watched in helpless fury as his foes passed the children from the sedan to an SS staff car, which made a three point turn and sped off up the hill to the north.
As soon as the staff car was out of sight, the SS commander present drew a pistol and shot all three of the kidnappers dead.
He slapped the MPS again, contacting the War Room, and asked the techies there to track the SS car.
He stared into the distance, his expression bleak.
“I’d better get to the Commonwealth and start a real high-tech search. I will probably need my armor...”
Clementine stood trembling, her dress half torn away, her undergarments slashed. The man in front of her gestured with his knife, and she looked around the room in a panic.
The bedroom showed every sign of what it surely had been: a teenaged girl’s room in the house of an unusually prosperous farm family.
She drew a deep breath, and finished stripping away her clothes, except for her stockings and boots. She continued to breathe deeply, fighting for calm in the face of what was likely inevitable. Her eyes floated around the room, seeing no escape.
In one corner she could see an old dried out bloodstain, on the floor and walls: ‘No one could lose that much blood and live…’ The probable causes of such a stain flitted across her mind; she tried to dismiss them, they didn’t bear contemplating.
The thug stepped forward; he placed the blade against her breast, leering. He spoke in the lowest-class version of modern Greek, the demotiki as academics named it. She did her best to ignore---no, to not even hear---his words of admiration for her beauty and his intent to violate her. He expressed that intent as crudely as he could imagine, desiring to frighten her and by that means increase his foul pleasure, she assumed. His teeth stood out blotchy white and gray against his dirty face as he pressed her back towards the bed. She glanced behind: the bedclothes lay askew, the bottom sheet stained with blood and semen and whatever other dirt and scum its new owner carried with him whenever he laid himself down.
Her mind drifted toward Eleanor. She could hear no sound of any assault upon her lover; the other men among their captors had been obviously drunk, and they’d continued to imbibe after dragging the women into their commandeered dwelling.
‘Perhaps they will be too drunk to ravish Ellie tonight...But if we cannot escape, they will awaken with that in mind.’
Her attacker pressed her back onto the bed, then dropped his trousers, stepped out of them and climbed atop her.
She shuddered. The lout was uncircumcised, and filthy. Even with his foreskin in place, he had very little size to boast of.
‘Is this beast to put his tiny penis into me, where only Nicholas has been for so many years?’ She turned her head from side to side, trying to avoid his mouth on hers. She hated how high-pitched her protests were, thinking that her squeaking voice excited him.
She heard the knife clatter to the floor. ‘He has no need of it now,’ she thought: ‘His weight and strength are enough...’
She felt the touch of his sex on hers, and began to weep. He laughed and pressed her harder.
She turned her head to the right and saw a few items on the nightstand. She gazed there, to distract herself. Then she stiffened, seeing what she’d sought.
He laughed, thinking her terrified; the fear drained out of her and rage rose to replace it.
She relaxed, feigning submission; she turned her head and made as if to seek his mouth. She placed her left hand on the side of his head, pushing her tongue at him. He grunted and drove his tongue into her mouth, eyes closed. He let out a muffled chortle.
“Startin’ to like, missy? You like that big thing comin’ in?”
She relaxed herself all over, sighing as though she were some maiden, softening her defenses, though still keeping him at a slight distance.
She slowly moved her right arm, groping at the nightstand, and found what her hand sought: a pencil, left there by the former occupant of the room, she guessed.
She fingered it, finding the point with her fingertip and turning that point to make herself a dagger.
She arched her back and twisted, moaning: “Please,” she cried, then pressed her mouth against his, driving in her tongue yet again.
She held her weapon tightly and aimed it truly. With her tongue still dancing in his mouth, she rammed the pencil into his ear and through into his brain.
His back arched as he tried to pull away; she clung to him then, keeping his mouth occupied so he couldn’t make any noise beyond a strangled grunt.
She opened her hand and slammed her palm against the eraser end of her dagger. The point came out the other ear, just touching her left palm where she still held him near.
She fell back onto the sheets, pushing him away from her. He rolled off the bed, staggering, making grasping motions at his ears. Then he slowly sank to the ground and fell over on his back.
She got up, her fury still raging, and kicked his crotch repeatedly, hard enough to crush his testicles. She found his knife, cast aside in the midst of his animal pleasure, and cut his penis off and stuffed it into his mouth.
He bled profusely from the wound, so she knew that he hadn’t yet died. ‘Good,’ she thought, hoping that he was still conscious enough to have felt the cut.
She left him there to finish dying. She began to search in the drawers and the closet, seeking clothes to replace her own. ‘This girl was a bit of a tomboy, and not large...good thing I am so petite.’
She found trousers in a drawer that fit her well enough, and a long shirt and overcoat. A knitted watch cap completed her outfit: ‘It still gets cold at night, especially in the mountains.’
She belted on his gun and knife belt and sheathed and holstered her new weapons.
She soft-footed it along the hall, peering into each room as she passed. The brigands lay about the floors and on the beds, snoring and stinking of drink and of their unwashed states. At the end of the hall she found Eleanor, bound to a chair and gagged.
Eleanor’s eyes opened wide; she’d have grinned if she could have.
Clementine stepped over the prone form of a man, then turned and cut his throat with quick slash. She did the same to the other three brigands that lay about the room, and then began to cut Eleanor free.
“Three rooms,” she whispered, retrieving their weapons from the corners of the room: “Several men in each.”
Eleanor nodded, pulling the gag out. She said nothing, merely checking the magazine on the rifle and chambering a cartridge. They each flipped their safeties off and went into the hall. Each of them stood outside one of the rooms, and at a nod from Eleanor they shot their captors dead. The ones in the third room were too inebriated to rise and fight or flee. They fell even as they tried to stand.
One set of footsteps came banging up the stairs. Clementine raised her rifle to her eye and waited.
“Idiot,” she said, as the man fell back down the stairs, drilled through the forehead by her shot.
They didn’t need to speak. Eleanor went cautiously down the stairs to finish clearing the house. Clementine systematically looted the upper floor, recovering her rucksack and filling it with ammunition and holstered handguns.
She walked the hall, eventually finding a lavatory at the end of the L-shaped hallway.
She shuddered as stripped away her new trousers, then opened the cabinets and found what she sought.
“Medicinal alcohol first,” she muttered. She sat on the floor, leaned back, and soaked her privates repeatedly with the stuff wincing and occasionally crying out. She repeated the process with hydrogen peroxide, then used some unguent to ease the inflamed tissues.
“Clear!” Eleanor’s voice drifted up from the ground floor.
“On my way!” She donned her trousers again, and bloused them into her boots.
Her pack rattled as she trotted down the stairs. She tipped her head back at it and said: “Pistols and ammo.”
“I have as much food as will fit in mine,” Eleanor replied.
“Let’s get out of here,” said Clementine.
“Just a minute...did he...?”
“He didn’t penetrate, but he may as well have. Can we save this for later?”
“All right. But...”
“Let’s just say he was careless. If he’d decided to bind me, I’d have been helpless, but he was in a hurry to...enjoy...”
She shook her head: “Later, I said. Let’s go. We are less than a day away from the country estate.”
“We should push on while it is yet dark,” Eleanor agreed: “Look, I found a compass!”
They left the carnage behind and trudged back towards the road.
Nikodemos checked his MPS, and snarled. He pushed the right buttons and waited for the printout. It snaked out of the printer at a painfully slow rate.
He yanked the first pages out and stared at the long list of equations and variations, cursing continuously. He prepared to load the next scenario, and then stopped. He stared at the window, seeing the reflection of his haggard face. He checked the MPS again and cursed some more, halfheartedly.
“The Greek Army of Epirus is in full retreat, except for those who mutinied and surrendered...not much else they could have done, the German advance was cutting them off to the southeast. But that means...”
He pulled the rest of the printout free of the machine and read the parameters within which he could work: “Right. I can act, and do what must be done...if I’m careful. What must be done and not a bit more. This is a temporal choke-point; I can keep the descendent Lines down to twenty or so, if I stay within these parameters.”
He fed the final scenario’s schematics and prerequisites into the machine, and turned on his heels. He left the “quantum abatement-rebatement” calculator on, hoping it would ping him with an acceptable solution: ‘I dare not wait any longer...I must save my family.’
He reached the locker room, where he began to don his armor. He yearned for a better answer, but the machine did not call him back.
He carried his helmet under his arm. He had a memory crystal in his other hand; his weapons he’d checked and double-checked. He seemed grim indeed when he entered the War Room. Everyone there stared; no one had ever seen him in armor before. Some of his equipment was out-of-date, but seeing his visage, no one laughed or said anything.
A very young man named Megálos staffed the Jump Gate. Megalos was soon to be a Master in the Black Warrior Guild. He took the crystal from Nikodemos and raised his eyebrows.
“Sacred Band privilege,” Nikodemos said, tersely. He walked to the Jump-Point and stood fidgeting. “What’s taking so long?”
Megálos waved his hands, changing the settings: “The machine doesn’t like the coordinates. Here you go...stand ready...Jum…”
NIkodemos dropped into the lowest level of the dungeons in a castle in Bavaria. He knew exactly where he was; he stood still and silent, waiting for his vertigo to pass and his eyesight to adapt.
Before that could happen, he heard voices. The dim light wavered as though the source moved towards him.
He cursed, silently this time, and moved carefully forward until he could peek around the corner of the stone walled niche he stood in.
Heinrich Himmler himself stood there, a swagger stick in one hand, an electric torch in the other hand, and nasty expression on his face. He spoke. Nicholas was fluent, not even needing to translate the German: “Take them upstairs…”
Nicholas drew a deep breath, hearing his children’s cries of fear and the chortling of Himmler and the guards. They began to pace towards his hideaway, and he put his helmet on. He drew out his plasma sword and fingered the settings.
Clement walked between two SS men, his fists clenched and arms straight down. Nicky screamed continuously as another thug dragged her by her hair.
“We will put them on a train to Athens,” said Himmler: “We will send the mother a little token or two, and she will surrender herself and tell us where her husband is hiding.”
“I am not hiding,” said Nicholas, just loudly enough to startle the Nazis. He activated his APS and cut at the guard who held his daughter’s hair. The plasma blade sliced the man in two, his face contorted, his eyes wide, dying slowly as blood leaked from the half-cauterized wound that separated his torso from his hips.
Nicholas rammed his armored elbow into Himmler’s face, allowing himself just a touch of satisfaction at the splintering sound of cheek and jaw cracking under the assault. He pounded another guard’s face with the butt end of his sword, driving the thug back two paces, and then he shouted: “Nicky! Clem! Get in the niche behind me!”
The children recognized his voice and obeyed, scampering away from their captors and around their father. Nicholas swiped with the sword and removed the third guard’s arm, even as he was drawing a pistol. He then shoved the point of the sword into the eye of the man who remained standing; he kicked a Luger out of Himmler’’s hand and moved the sword to dispatch him.
‘I could so easily kill this wretch...I think I don’t dare…’
After only a moment’s hesitation, he stepped backwards into his hiding place: “Stand close to me, kids…” When the two were leaning against him on either side, he deactivated the sword and spoke to Megálos: “Pull us out, Spathos!”
They dropped in on the landing pad in Athino; Nicholas pushed the children off the pad and said: “Take care of the kids till I get back! Use the second set of co-ordinates!”
“I hear you, Magistros,” Megálos said. He waved his hands and touched the screens in front of him, not looking at the pad at all.
Clementine ran a hand through her hair, which had begun to escape the pins that held it in its bun. She jacked another cartridge into the rifle and peeked carefully out through the window.
“They coming?” asked Eleanor.
“Momentarily, I believe. Perhaps, anyway. I think even Hauptsturmfuhrer Schmoltz is hesitant at this point. Almost got the bastard on that last charge.”
“I saw that. Took his helmet right off.”
They laughed, the laughter of people who could clearly see their deaths coming.
Clementine said: “Schmoltz has made it clear that he has strict orders to take us alive…”
Eleanor shook her head: “Obeying that order has already cost him thirty men. His remaining force has to run around and over the corpses of their comrades. He may be ready to kill us when he gets in the door.”
“If he gets in the door. But I’m not getting captured.”
Eleanor rolled over to where Clementine lay prone, her rifle between them: “You have a bullet in that pistol still?”
“I do. Yourself?”
“I have one left…do you think they will try again today?”
“Maybe not. It’s nearly dark.” Clem peeked out at the stony slope that constituted the only approach to their home: “They haven’t tried to sneak up in the dark since that first time…”
Eleanor sighed: “They may try again tonight, though. Will you sleep first?”
Clementine shook her head: “You first. You stay awake better in the early hours. I’ll wake you at one AM or so…” She sighed sadly: “I wonder where Nicholas is...dead I suppose.” A tear trickled down her cheek: “And the children…?”
A fusillade of bullets hit the stone and adobe walls of the house and the remains of its surrounding wall. Eleanor rolled back to her post and Clementine snarled as she brought her rifle to bear. Schmoltz appeared at the broken spot in the wall, and she drew aim and fired.
The SS man stopped stock still, grasping at his side. She worked the lever on the Winchester and aimed again.
A purplish-black streak of light cut through the gloaming and sliced the man in two. Panic began among his subordinates, SS training or no, as they fell one by one to the uncanny weapon. Clementine saw a man in strange armor, scales and plates of some bakelite-like substance, as he wielded the plasma blade two handed, moving among the fleeing men. Their faces shone white against their black uniforms in the dark, terror and confusion evident in their expressions as they fired their weapons at their attacker, in utter futility.
One last Waffen SS man stood up, triggering a machine pistol at the armored man. That worthy stood for a second, bullets ricocheting off his armor, then cut his assailant in two, vertically.
The armored man then turned and approached the house, slowly. He spoke: “Clem? Ellie?”
“Nicholas!” Clementine arose, her thumb automatically activating the safety as she slung the rifle over her shoulder. She ran for the front door, unbarring it and flinging it open. She charged out of the house and threw her arms around him, weeping.
He lifted her off the ground and carried her back into the house:
He placed Clementine in a chair, saying: “Rest, relax, you are safe. I am going out to make sure that all of our foes are dead, and then we must talk. Bar the door again, just in case,” he said to Eleanor.
He strode out through the heavy, castle-like double doors that let into the front garden. Eleanor put the massive oak bar back into its place, then moved to the shattered window to the left of it. She watched as Nicholas wandered over the small battlefield, an intensely bright torch above his head, illuminating the rocky garden and broken wall. In his right hand he held a pistol, and each SS man got a double tap to chest and head. The pistol made no sound at all; whatever sort of bullet it fired did enormous damage to the dead or near-dead Nazis.
The stress and trauma of the last few days overwhelmed Clementine; she sat weeping, the rifle fallen to the floor at her feet: “He’s alive, Ellie,” she said, repeatedly: “He’s alive!”
“Oh, but what of the children? Where are my babies?”
“We may hope that Nicholas has news…” Eleanor’s stern and stoic mein gave some comfort to Clementine. Nevertheless she wept, and could not stop.
Nicholas came back to the house; Eleanor opened the door to let him in and he helped put the bar back in place.
He slowly disarmed himself, removing each piece with care and stacking them just so. At last he stood there, wearing the coverall that Hellenic soldiers customarily donned beneath their armor.
Clementine looked up at him, trying to staunch her tears, and said: “The children…?”
“They are safe.” He dragged a kitchen chair over in front of her and sat on it. He shook his head.
“When will I see them? Oh, darling, take me to them, now!”
He bowed his head. Clementine saw his tears falling onto the backs of his hands as they rested on his thighs. He looked up at her, shaking his head: “I don’t think I can. It’s…”
Eleanor drew a deep breath: “You took them to the Commonwealth Line?”
“Yes. There neither of you can go. I don’t...I couldn’t find another solution, one that would re-unite us all and yet not be disastrous for this Line.”
He drew forth a sheaf of papers from within his coverall: “Here, see…”
Clementine snatched them from his hand. She could feel the distinct texture of the paper that the Commonwealth produced. She flipped through the stack, her eyes dry now, scanning each page. She drew her own breath in: “Oh damn,” she said, and began to weep again.
Eleanor sat beside her, on the arm of the chair, and embraced her clumsily: “Whatever is the problem?”
“It’s...the equations...quantum rebatement options…” She broke down and her tears spilled onto the page in front of them. She shuffled through the documents: “Nick is right, I fear...Oh, my babies!” She slid to the floor, inconsolable.
Eleanor joined her there, beginning at last to weep as well. Nicholas sat where was, crying in his own way.
Finally, Clementine sat up, drying her eyes: “They are safe, though. Yes? In your home Line, where there is no war, nor any hunger or want?”
“They are safe,” he said getting a ragged handkerchief out of his pocket: “I daresay that Athino is the safest city in the Multiverse.”
“That must console us, for the nonce. If ever...”
He nodded: “If ever it seems possible to re-unite us all, I will endeavor to do that. I will work with every fiber of my being to accomplish that.”
An explosion interrupted his speech. They heard the sound of a powerful diesel engine growling up the slope. Another explosion followed, rattling the little remaining glass in the windows and startling them from the depths of their grief.
Nicholas dropped from his chair and rolled over to the window, out of which he cautiously peeked.
“What is it?”
“A Panzer, at least one. It seems to be methodically taking out every house in this end of the valley...typical Nazi trick, collective punishment.”
“One of the SS men must have called for support; with their comrades dead...” Eleanor pounded the floor with a fist: “...they will kill all of our neighbors, in vengeance for our stand against them here.”
“Yes, there’s an SS insignia on the tank.” Nicholas began donning his armor again: “You two pack: food water and ammunition, and have your weapons ready. I must take out that Panzer, and so give our neighbors a chance to flee. When I have accomplished that mission, I will return to you, and we’ll get you out of Greece, by one means or another.”
They sat together there for some time, until Nicholas returned. He stripped off his armor, and then used his Shifter to banish it to who-knew-where: “I can’t be seen in this armor again. Let’s go,” he said. He shouldered the largest of the rucksacks that lay at the ready, and took the carbine out of the gun rack.
Nicholas led the way, cross-country: “We can’t use my Shifter just now…”
“I know,” said Clementine. They spoke in murmurs, barely audible to one another: “If we can get to the Inn at Skaramagos by midnight, we should be able to Shift to the near edge of Athens at dawn.”
Eleanor said: “Why can’t we...never mind, I believe you two.“
They passed out of the valley and into the plain.
“Pssst!” said Eleanor, pointing.
“I see them,” said Nicholas.
They crouched behind a boulder. “I really hope they pass by. I don’t want to use my Commonwealth weapons again, and the firearms from this Line are so damn noisy…” Nicholas grimaced as the men turned in their direction.
Clementine peered out from behind their slight cover: “Those are Wehrmacht troops, with a couple of Italian additions. A small patrol,” she whispered. The sounds of the men joking as they walked along the road reached them, worrying them all.
Clementine thought: ‘This track is suitable for no vehicle larger than a pony cart, really. If German soldiers are patrolling here, they must have the main road secure…’
She glanced at her husband and saw him come to the same conclusion. ‘So much for a side trip to Skaramagos…’
He tipped his head ever so slightly. One of the soldiers was approaching their hideaway. Eleanor opened her bag and whispered: “Here, Clem, use this.”
She gaped for a second or two; she wondered where Ellie had managed to coin a hand grenade, but, forbearing to ask, she took it from her lover’s hand. ‘Pull the pin, count to three,’ she thought, recalling Nicholas’ tutoring: ‘...and throw!’
Her practice paid off: the bomb landed right in the midst of the patrol, even as she hit the ground behind the rock.
The explosion shook the rocks around them and deafened them, so close was it. As soon as the shrapnel ceased to fall, Eleanor was on her feet. She drove a knife into the nearest soldier’s neck and yanked it back and forth.
Nicholas stood silent, waiting for their ears to recover, as Clementine and Eleanor made sure of the others.
“Pretty much blown to bits,” said Eleanor, stoically knifing one of the more intact corpses.
Clementine felt a little bit sick: ‘We can’t be too compassionate in these circumstances,’ she thought: ‘but their poor mothers. How can we?’ She thought of the families driven from their homes all over Greece, all over Europe. She thought of the concentration camps they’d heard about. She thought of the man who had tried to rape her: ‘A traitor, one of those Hellenic fascists...those bandits are all over this part of Greece.’ She steeled herself.
“Well done, my loves...” Nicholas moved from body to body, taking what he could find intact: a Luger here, some magazines there, a map of the area with Waffen SS markings on its cover, rations and canteens. They divided the load.
“If possible, I will leave the killing to you two,” he said. “Less disruption of reality that way. I will use these looted weapons in place of my own, if I must take action, but…”
“...But it’s better that we women, natives of this Line, do the dirty work.” Clementine sighed, and stood as tall as she could: “I understand. We’ll do what we must.”
Nicholas peered at the map in the moonlight. “That way,” he gestured: “More or less directly to Chaidari, then on to Athens.”
Eleanor led the way, down the rough trail toward the plains.
Clementine led the way through the maze of narrow streets and winding alleys that was Old Town Athens. She had her Winchester, her favorite rifle, and she pointed it at each doorway as they passed. ‘Safety off,’ she reminded herself: ‘cartridge chambered…’
Eleanor carried her rifle at port arms, head pivoting around the streets, eyes on the balconies and rooftops. Nicholas took up the rear, his looted pistol in his coat pocket and his hand on the grip of it. He checked behind them frequently, and moved from side to side when possible to eyeball the route ahead.
Night slowly fell over the City. Eleanor whispered: “Soon it will be too dark to risk movement, Clem. Better find us shelter soon.”
“I know,” said Clementine. “I don’t want to bust in to just any shop, though. I want to get to Philippo’s, I know he already escaped the City and I know where his spare key is…”
“Keep going,” said Nicholas: “You know this part of the City better than either of us…”
“I do,” she agreed. “It looks so different with the lights all out and rubble everywhere. Oh, look!”
She pushed her way across and through some downed trees and shrubberies; she reached a door, and her free hand swept across a ledge nearby. The key fell to the ground and she retrieved it.
Soon they were ensconced in chairs near the back of the café. Nicholas had set his flashlight to barely bright enough to read by, then fetched food and drink from the kitchen nearby.
They ate as the famished eat, having had very little since four days before, when they had fled their home. Clementine leaned over the sheaf of calculations and code words that Nicholas had brought them; she made notes in the margins with a stub of pencil.
After a while, Eleanor asked, gently: “Any luck?”
“It’s...even worse than I thought. This part of the Multiverse is…” She shook her head: “Chaos.”
Eleanor turned to Nicholas: “Really?”
He shrugged: “If we are very fortunate, this Line will only fragment into a dozen alternates. Each of those will be---how to say this?---susceptible to further fragmentation for at least a century. Eventually…”
Clementine shook the sheaf of paper and said: “Eventually, the Lines we are creating now will diverge enough from one another that the whole mess will stabilize. But that’s only true if Nicholas—Nicholas in particular—takes pains to absent himself from all of the descendant Lines…”
Eleanor sighed: “I shall have to take your word for that. It seems a cruel jest by fate, but the world at war is not kind to lovers, ever.”
“It is not,” said Nicholas. “The Multiverse at war seems worse than unkind: a vicious practical joker, with a penchant for sly backhanded dope slaps.” He slumped in his chair, the first sign of despair he had shown them.
“Courage, my husband,” said Clementine.
“And to you two as well.” He grimaced: “Athens seems deserted, which means most of the people formerly resident here have fled the bombing, and likely most of those are in Piraeus, trying to flee the country.
“It’s by far the most likely escape route,” he concluded.
“You still mean to take us there?” Clementine had put away the pile of paper that sentenced them to separation; she had a map spread out and a compass in hand.
“I do. There must be English warships still in port...I’ve seen signs of British Commando work all along our route to here, so at least one ship must be there...to evacuate them, if England and Greece together fail to hold back the Nazi tide.”
“Do you see any hope that they will hold?” asked Eleanor.
It rained in sheets as Nicholas led them along the docks in Pireaus. Clementine clutched at her hat with one hand and her newly looted cloak with the other, as Nicholas, bare-headed, strode along, propelling her by a hand on the small of her back.
The chaos on the docks raged nearly complete. Men shouted orders, and women and children found themselves herded about from place to place by gruff, angry, and often nearly panicked men.
Eleanor heard English, French, Greek and even Polish voices, and at least a thousand people crowded each dock, desperately trying to flee the imminent occupation of Athens by the Italians—and their Nazi allies. Artillery could be heard to the northwest, where the front line lay, creeping inexorably towards the City.
Nicholas made no attempt to push their way through the crowds onto the docks themselves; rather, he approached the stern of a British warship, drawn up against the esplanade, and seeming to be nearly ready to sail. White letters across the stern read: ‘HMS Valiant’
A lone marine stood guard there, his rifle at port arms, his eyes scanning the crowd as it surged one way and then the other, each person within it seeking succor on any ship that might take them aboard.
“This is your escape, my loves. We may hope for nothing better than a rope ladder. Once I have seen you safely aboard...”
“You must leave us, for good.” Clementine stood dry-eyed, staring at her husband, sadness overwhelming her, but not a bit showing.
Eleanor shed a few tears: “I don’t underst...”
“I know,” said Nicholas: “But Clementine does. It is implicit in the abatement-rebatement equations that she has been studying.”
“It is true, Ellie my love.” Clementine lowered her head: “Will you ever be able to return to us?”
Nicholas said: “You saw the calculations...”
She nodded: “It is very unlikely, then.”
“Yes.” Nicholas turned to face the stern of the ship: “You, marine!” he shouted, his nearly perfect King’s English echoing over the disorder on the docks.
The marine shouldered his rifle and leaned over the rail: “Sir?”
“Do you recognize me, man?”
“Not sure I do, sir...”
“Then get Lieutenant Andrews to this rail, as soon as may be.”
“Don’t argue, man, time is of the essence!”
“Sir!” the marine cried, and turned and ran forward.
Within a couple of minutes, a very dapper Royal Navy officer appeared. He stared in wonder for a moment, then said: “Lord Crowell! We’d thought you must be dead!”
“I am likely to fulfill that prophecy yet, Andrews. I shall have to go in search of my children, with little hope of finding them or returning. Meanwhile, I want my wife and our companion out of Greece, yesterday if possible.”
“Sir! I am on the job!” Andrews turned forward and shouted orders.
Soon a rope ladder snaked down to the dock. Andrews cried: “Can your ladies climb this? I can get a...”
“I daresay we can climb, Lieutenant!” Clementine shouted: “Eleanor, you first.”
Eleanor went first to Nicholas and kissed him, more passionately that ever she had before. She turned then, and snatched at the ladder, climbing efficiently up toward the military men who awaited her.
Nicholas spoke: “Clementine, my love. My one true love...”
She bowed her head against his breast, the wet woolen coat chill against her cheek: “My only man...”
He embraced her and spoke into her ear: “You must tell everyone that I went to search for the children. It will seem as though I vanished, along with them, in chaos of Nazi occupied Europe.”
“Yes,” she said, rather matter-of-factly: “Can you...?”
He knew what she desired: “It is possible that you will occasionally receive...mysterious packages that contain photos, or letters, from some strangers.”
“Strangers who are my children. I will hope for whatever news that you can send.”
“Yes. Do hold on to hope, my love.”
He kissed her then, longingly. They separated slowly, until only their fingers touched; He took a step, and turned, disappearing into the crowd before she could say a final farewell. The ship behind her let loose a blast from its horns, bells rang, men shouted.
“Milady!” the marine called out: “Only a moment or two more before we sail!”
She stood for a few seconds, wavering: ‘I should go with him...’ She knew she couldn’t: ‘No telling what kind of madness would result if I did...’
She sprang to the ladder, seized the rung above her head with both hands and felt herself lifted off the docks as the ship began a ponderous forward movement. She swung forward, catching herself with her feet to keep from slamming into the ship’s hull. She looked up and saw sailors and marines heaving at the ladder, drawing it rung by rung up to the deck. She turned and gazed back at the docks, getting one final glimpse of Nicholas as he climbed the steep street towards the top of the nearest hill.
‘He will watch us depart from there,’ she mused.
“Milady!” Lieutenant Andrews grabbed her arm and pulled her bodily over the rail: “Your pardon, Milady.”
“Don’t mention it, Lieutenant. I am safe here, thanks to you; a little rough handling is not consequential.”
“Thank you, Milady...”
“Ma’am will do. Or Mrs Crowell. I am not actually a Peer in your country, you know.”
Andrews bowed a trifle: “I understand.” He had reddish hair and a bit of the Scots in his tone: “Will it please you to meet the captain, and warm yourself in the quarters we have prepared? Your companion has already...”
She looked at him, interrupting: “Soon, sir, but not now. I will stay here, I believe. Until Piraeus is out of sight...”
“As you wish, Mil—ma’am.” He removed his peacoat and wrapped it around her shoulders, over her cloak and hood. “If there is any more I may do to assist you, my post is just beyond that hatch. Door.”
“Thank you.” She turned to gaze at the port city behind her, silent, with tears running down her cheeks. ‘He’s there,’ she thought, staring at the hill, now hardly to be seen in the fog and rain. ‘Good-bye, my love, my one man, my children’s sire...I will endure the years, hoping to see you again, one day.’
A bank of fog enveloped the ship; all sight of the city vanished in that mist.
After a long moment, she turned and staggered towards the hatch, still weeping silently.
Nicholas stood at the top of the hill, looking down over the Port of Piraeus. He perspired heavily beneath his heavy wool coat. He watched the HMS Valiant sail into a thick bank of fog.
His stoic expression crumbled. He held back his tears, but his face showed every bit of his woe.
His Shifter pinged in his ear.
He sighed, controlled his emotions and expression; he reached into his pocket and touched the device,
“Magistros Nikodemos.” It was the voice of Vahvos, a Hellene of Finnish ancestry. He often staffed the Urgent Communications board at the War Room in Athino Prime.
‘The inevitable summons has arrived,’ he thought. He said: “I hear you.”
He drew a deep breath: ‘Nicholas Crowell is about to die, for all practical purposes. I will never be this man again.’
The voice in his ear babbled on a while; he hardly listened. ‘Same old stuff...another emergency in a Timeline where I have some expertise…’
“I hear you,” he interrupted: “Lock on to my Shifter and bring me home.” He realized that he would never again be fully, emotionally, all the way “home” again.
“I hear you, Magistros!”
A skinny mongrel dog came trotting over and sniffed about the spot where he had stood. After a while, it ambled off puzzled, the only witness to his final departure from that Line.
"Kneeling falls entirely under right of free expression and social protest. Anyone who tries to decry that it 'damages' the corporation a public figure works for, whether a sports team or a bakery, is an authoritarian idjit. Were I the manager of a sports team, the SECOND one of my players knelt in protest, I'd arrange to meet them, and ask what can help. Public outreach. More sports camps and mentorships for youth in poverty, who are disproportionately darker-skinned (but I'd be careful not to make skin color a requirement-- you've heard this rant before)."