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Sam Bellotto Jr.
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Eric M. Jones
Science Editor

Carol Kean
Associate Editor


Fiction

Blood and Bone
by Joseph Green

Inseparable
by Evonne M. Biggins

Captive Skin
by Eric Del Carlo

Terra Forms by Jennifer Campbell-Hicks
and Justin Adams

On the Snark Watch
by Karl Dandenell

Pitching a Bug
by Chet Gottfried

Fly, Robin, Fly
by C.E. Gee

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Tesla's Death Ray Wall
by Eric M. Jones

Alien Argument
by J. Richard Jacobs


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Blood and Bone
by Joseph Green

THE SMALL BOY SITTING STIFFLY erect in the straight-backed wooden chair tried hard to be brave as the blade approached his face, but couldn’t stop himself from first flinching, then turning his head away. The knife stopped. His father, a heavyset farmer of about thirty, standing behind his son with his visibly pregnant wife beside him, gripped a small shoulder. His mother, a thin, red-headed young woman, spoke a low word.

Johann and Axel, watching from the kirk attic, saw the boy take a deep breath, then turn back to the audience. When the blade started forward again, he shut out fear by closing his eyes. But Johann saw that his little hands, gripping the arms of the chair, were white with strain.

Johann had drawn the eleven-millimeter autopistol from his sidepak when the knife appeared. He eased it forward in a two-handed grip, carefully aiming at the shoulder of the black-robed Vitharian priest holding the blade.

“Don’t!” Axel said in a whisper. “It’s just the marking ceremony. Now give me some room.” He had taken their camera out of his own sidepak.

Johann hesitated, but then lowered the pistol and slid to one side, careful to keep his butt on a sturdy ceiling joist. He could still see the priest between two of the vanes in the ceiling heater outlet. The elderly man placed his free hand on the boy’s head and semi-sang some ritual words. Axel focused the camera and Johann heard it click. Both the shutter and manual film forwarding mechanisms were especially designed to operate quietly. The sound would not be noticed three meters away.

It was just past midnight on a Thursday, but the lights shone brightly in this little All Gods country kirk. The unlocked building had been dark and empty when the two Ansvar Internal Security agents arrived at nine. A quick survey had proven the attic the one place where they could observe without being seen. It had been a hot and sweaty job to disconnect a heating duct, then reposition the movable vanes in the ceiling outlet. The attic was still uncomfortably warm, and the dusty air stifling, but they had gained a good view of the upper nave and the first several benches.

The Vitharian priest, a tall, lean man with thinning gray hair, a lined face, and wire-rim glasses, pulled the boy’s head forward and to the side. Johann saw that three fingers held the upper earlobe, bent sharply forward. The knife came back and made a short semicircular cut in the skin close behind the ear, then a second, parallel line. A strip of bloody flesh came free. The priest handed it to the father.

The boy’s mother placed an alcohol-soaked cloth on her son’s wound, and held it in place. The boy had opened his mouth to cry out in pain, but managed to stop himself. The priest tilted the small head the other way, made a second permanent mark, and handed the strip of flesh to the mother. The father attended to the second cut. Both parents were smiling, though tears trickled down the thin woman’s tanned cheeks.

The priest put the knife away without cleaning it and went into another sing-song invocation, his hands waving in front of the child’s face. This time Johann caught a few words; the language seemed to be Old Norse. The black-robed man placed his right hand on the boy’s thick yellow hair in a final benediction, then turned away, ending the painful but thankfully brief ceremony. Only the new initiate’s barber would notice the two small scars, well hidden behind the earlobes. And Johann would have bet ten to one that if this youngster’s hair was cut by anyone other than his mother, that person would be a fellow member of the local Vitharian cult.

About twenty people, farmers and several folk from the nearby little town of Ingleberg, had been sitting quietly on the forward benches. Most wore workman’s clothes, but a few, middle-aged or older, were better dressed. Now they crowded around the family and heartily congratulated them, especially the seated boy. Johann saw him smile, pleased at all the attention, trying manfully to suppress his tears of pain. One woman handed the mother a girl of about three, apparently a younger child she had been holding for her. The father took over keeping the second cloth in place, checking to see if the cuts were still bleeding.

Axel kept shifting the camera back and forth to focus on and capture faces in the crowd. Experts at Internal Security Analysis would try to identify them, determine if any had open Arrest Orders. Johann already knew there was one on the priest, whom he had recognized immediately. The man called himself Eiger Helgenstadt, but a year ago Analysis, routinely checking fotographs of members of the large Vitharian kirk in the national capital, Trondheim, had matched him to a known no-collar Catholic priest. Helgenstadt had vanished before the order could be served.

The crowd began to break up, still talking but drifting out the door. Most had come as couples, though there were several single men. Johann noticed that one group of four, dressed in town clothes, seemed to be traveling together. He saw no unaccompanied women.

The two men settled back to wait. The priest of Vithar had already vanished, probably to the little priesthaus behind the kirk; he was staying there with the local All Gods cleric. That information had been included in the anonymous fonecall to Ansvar Headquarters in Trondheim two days ago that had brought them here.

The family of the newest Vitharian initiate was the last to leave. The boy stopped trying to be manly, once their friends and neighbors were gone, and began openly crying. The farmer, looking disgusted, picked up his son and carried him out the door, while his wife turned off the lights. A minute later the two agents heard the sound of their little truck, receding into the distance.

It was dark as pitch in the high-roofed, windowless attic. Johann turned on his electric lantern. They realigned the outlet vanes and put the duct back in place. It was twisted from where they had forced it aside, but no one should be coming up here anytime soon to notice.

They checked carefully, making certain they had all their weapons and tools, then Axel led the way down the narrow access stairs. Johann followed, turning off the lantern as his partner opened the door into the back room. A few steps in the dark took them to the rear door. They emerged into a clear night, bright with stars, an almost full moon riding high in the early May sky. The clean, fresh air tasted good after the dusty attic.

The kirk back door was visible from front windows in the priesthaus, but they were dark. Their black clothes made the Ansvar agents hard to see as they walked around the main building and onto the unpaved but well-graded country road that passed in front. It was a ten-minute hike to their hidden autovan, during which their eyes adjusted to the moonlight. There were no houses on this stretch of road close to the kirk. They walked rapidly, and in silence.

Johann was remembering the face of the initiate under the knife. A small boy, struggling with fear and pain but determined to be brave; not shame his parents in front of their friends. That was a heavy burden to lay on a child who looked about five or six The farmer and his wife had both encouraged and forced their son through a traumatic but unforgettable experience, impressing on him a belief in Vithar that would probably last the rest of his life.

Vithar, Johann remembered from extensive studies of this cult, was a god of vengeance; also one of the strongest in the Norse pantheon. He was ordained to avenge the prophesied death of his father Othin by killing the great wolf Fenrir at Ragnarok. His followers believed they would survive the final battle along with Vithar and becomes as gods themselves, living forever in the “new age.” And most accepted the recent declaration of war by the Catholic States Alliance as a sign Ragnarok was coming. Nyscandia had entered the greatest conflict in its nine-hundred year history, against half the western world. The Vitharians might be right.

This was the first new assignment for Johann and Axel since the surprise invasion from Aztecland eight days ago. Officially, their southwest neighbor had declared war to reclaim territory they claimed Nyscandia stole from them in the Treaty of 1762. Unofficially, after two decades of undeclared war, the Pope in Rome had decided it was time had for a direct assault on the largest non-Kristian nation in the western world.

The disputed treaty had ended frequent local conflicts between Nyscandian and Aztec settlers in the southwest, establishing the longest part of the official border along the river system then renamed the Rio Dividir. But a sizable Azteca population remained on the northern side, forming the largest known group still secretly practicing Kristianity.

On the same day three divisions of armored infantry crossed the Rio Dividir into the disputed area—part of the huge Karlskroner Province—Incaland and a dozen more strongly Kristian nations declared war on Nyscandia, citing treaty obligations. The supposedly new group, which included half of Europe, had immediately named itself the Catholic States Alliance. The four Scandinavian countries, plus those from which large Viking groups had emigrated to Nyscandia —France, England, Russia and a few smaller nations—remained neutral.

The invasion force, all Aztec at present, had rolled over the scant local defenses with ease. The Nyscandian army units stationed in the southwest had hurried to meet them, but at the moment could barely slow their advance.

Nyscandia had a population of 200 million in the year 1900, but a small standing military. The nation's real strength lay in its huge reserves, and units were being called to active duty as fast as people could be notified. But Johann and Axel had been informed within a day that Ansvar agents would be exempt from the call-up. And Axel had protested immediately that he didn't want an exemption.

Adelbern Hendricks, Ansvar Branch Chief for Illinoi Province, had called the two agents into his office the morning after the invasion to give them a new assignment. A big, balding man who had put on weight after being promoted to a desk job, Hendricks gave Axel a hard look. “Haraldson, no one can make you use your exemption. If you want active duty, just wait; you’ll get your notice soon enough. But this could be the first war in history where infiltration and sabotage hurt a country as much as an invading army! Analysis says no-collar priests and other spies have been penetrating the big Vitharian cult for twenty years. Their kirks are scattered all over Nyscandia. In more than half, secret Catholics have taken over the priesthood—making it worse than even we knew. They’ve had years to plan for major acts of sabotage, once open war broke out. In the meantime, these fake priests of Vithar have been convincing gullible draft-age men to go into hiding, wait for Ragnarok. Since the Alliance forces already outnumber ours three to one, large-scale defections could seriously hurt us.”

Axel just looked stubborn. “Sorry, chief; I’m going.”

Hendricks shrugged, and pushed a thin folder across the glass to Johann. “Can’t stop you. But in the meantime, here’s what we know about a growing Vitharian group centered on a kirk near the little town of Ingleberg. Analysis recently sent us a report that says it's likely master spy Sebastian Silvestri is hiding under a well established identity somewhere nearby. Taking him could break up the whole Illinoi network. We just received an anonymous fonecall that said a Vitharian initiation will be held in that kirk tomorrow night. Maybe Silvestri will attend .Get down there and see if you can find him. And arrest a few more spies while you're at it.” He dismissed them with a wave of his hand and returned to the paperwork always waiting on his desk.

Johann had driven home through the bustling streets of Trondheim, a city at war. In the year 1700 the Nyscandian Althing, in recognition of the fact the constant flood of immigrants had occupied the entire north continent, had decided to move the capital inland from the east coast. For the more central location they chose a small port at the bottom of Lake Illinoi, named Windyberg for the constant strong breezes that blew south over the longest of the five stórr lakes. Windyberg had been flattened, rebuilt, and renamed. The new national capital had been in a steady growth pattern now for two-hundred years.

Next morning Axel picked up Johann in an Ansvar autovan, and they drove 400 kilometers south and west to Ingleberg.

Axel had parked their vehicle behind a small but thick grove of oaks, twenty meters off the road. The bright moonlight revealed the large branch Johann had dragged to the edge of the shallow ditch to mark the place. When they reached the vehicle Johann focused the lantern light for Axel, and he unlocked the driver’s door. As Axel withdrew the key they heard a sudden crackle of breaking brush, and several forms rushed headlong at them from the nearby trees.

Johann swung the lantern around. In the seconds they were in the clear he saw four husky young men, the ones from town who had sat together in the kirk. They were followed by a tall form in black robes—the supposed traveling priest of Vithar. Johann could see the attackers carried only light clubs—not a pistol or edged weapon in sight.

“Don’t kill anyone!” Johann said aloud as he dropped the lantern. His answer was an angry growl.

Apparently some cult members in town had seen through their cover story of being farm machinery salesmen. Someone had observed them when they drove to the kirk after lunch, guessed they would be coming back that night. They had gone ahead with the planned ceremony anyway, in the certainty they could destroy the usual Ansvar fotographs afterward. In addition, the agents who took the fotos were in for a beating that would discourage other snoops. Killing them was not a good idea; that would just bring in a flood of agents.

Johann never knew in advance what he would do in a fight. Something faster than his brain seemed to take over, and he reacted or struck without conscious thought. In fact his mind could be off on a tangent, and that happened now. As the two who had selected him came close enough to hit with those raised clubs, he was thinking they must know a lot about Ansvar. There had been time enough for them to draw the pistols in their sidepaks. These young men were risking their lives on the assumption Ansvar agents wouldn’t use deadly force. That assurance had to have come from the priest.

Johann leaned forward and put one foot ahead of the other. Before the clubs started downward he jumped hard between the charging bodies. Both swings aimed at his head missed, but the one on the left still caught him a solid blow on the upper arm. The men skidded to a stop, slightly past Johann. He took a quick step back to stay between them, pivoted on the ball of his left foot, and planted his right fist just below the belt of the man who had hit him. It was a short punch, but he put all of his ninety kilos behind it, pushing upward. The fist went deep, the man’s breath whooshed out, and he bent sharply forward. Johann was ready, and caught him with a right knee under the chin. He heard teeth crunch. The blow straightened the attacker up, hurling him backwards against the side of the autovan.

Johann knew that one was out of the fight as he followed him, jumping left past the remaining man, crouching again as he spun around after one step, trying to avoid the swing of the second club. He failed. The blow caught him on the left upper temple, a glancing impact that went on over his head because he was ducking. Still pivoting on the left foot, he swung into a right kick that caught the second man in the ribcage as he raised the club again.

At the last second, realizing where his foot was going, Johann held back a little; if his thick boot heel broke bones, they might puncture a lung. But in one of those oddities that happen when the action is very fast, the kick threw the man against the back of one of Axel’s two, who was stumbling backwards toward them. Johann heard their heads crack when they met. Both went down, and lay there.

The wide beam from the lantern Johann had dropped happened to be on the first of Axel’s attackers, already on the ground. Bleeding profusely from a smashed nose, mouth open wide, the sound of his heavy breathing became clearly audible in the sudden quiet.

Johann picked up the light and flashed the beam around, looking for the priest. He had vanished.

Axel wanted to arrest the four, but Johann pointed out that attacking an Ansvar agent brought an almost automatic sentence of five years in prison. These young dupes could better serve their country in the military.

The agents dragged the four to one side, out of the path back to the road, and Johann checked to see if anyone was likely to die from his injuries. All four appeared to be between eighteen and twenty, healthy and muscular, with tanned faces and arms. Not one wore a wedding band. Johann would have bet they were recent high school graduates, killing time before entering compulsory military service at age twenty-one. Except that these four, as Vitharians, were probably planning on going into hiding instead.

Two of the men on the ground were semiconscious, and groaning with pain. The remaining two were breathing well. They should all live to enjoy their visits to the hospital, when one felt able to drive. At least two would need to see a dentist.

Johann considered letting Axel leave in the autovan while he hid, in hopes Helgenstadt would emerge to help his four volunteers. He decided it would be a waste of time. The priest, knowing he faced a long prison term if caught, was probably already on the way to his next assignment. The fate of four young men he considered idolatrous heathens meant nothing to him.

***

Axel parked the Ansvar autovan in front of their room at the Traveler’s Friend, on the north side of Ingleberg and the town's only autohaus. Johann lost the toss for first shower, and decided to start on their report while waiting. His head hurt, and he had large, swollen bruises on the left temple and arm. When Axel came back, wearing pajama bottoms, he went straight to one of the two beds and got under the covers, mumbling a good-night.

But Johann refused to let him sleep. “Axel, are you really going to let them call you up? I’m not. I think Hendricks is right; what we’re doing now is more important.”

Axel rolled over to look at Johann. “We hide in attics and take fotos. I want to fight.” He turned back the other way, ending the conversation.

Johann tucked the incomplete report away in his lockcase, showered, brushed his teeth, and got into the other bed, while wondering what he could do to change Axel’s mind. His partner was by nature as stubborn as the mules being steadily replaced by tractors on Nyscandia’s ten million small farms. Anything he said now would only make Axel more determined. He decided to wait for a better time.

***

Next morning over breakfast, Johann and Axel agreed to split up for the day. They needed to get their film developed quickly, and couldn’t chance turning it over to a local fotography shop; its owner might be a Vitharian. Axel would drive 60 kilometers northeast to the small city of Kateberg and find a safe shop; they could pick up the fotographs on the way home tomorrow. Johann would visit the local high school. The headmaster was on the short list of people they were supposed to see, and they needed copies of the school yearbooks.

Any Vitharians at the initiation who had recently moved here and not attended the school were going to be lucky. But this was a settled farming community; there wouldn’t be many. Also, the agents had been told to break up the cult, not put every member in jail.

Axel dropped Johann off at the high school before heading out. Johann found the office of the headmaster and presented his credentials to the secretary. The day was warm, but he had dressed in tie and the usual summer jacket. The latter concealed the holstered pistol under his left arm, mandatory Ansvar routine when on duty. His nice clothes didn’t prevent the thin old woman from looking at him as if he were a rabid dog, but she took the credentials in to the headmaster.

Loren Holmstader, a plump, balding man of average height, about fifty, with sharp gray eyes behind dark-rimmed glasses, came out of his office to greet Johann with extended hand. He had a strong grip; some muscle beneath the fat. The headmaster ushered Johann into his cluttered office and closed the door.

Holmstader seated himself behind his large desk, giving Johann a stern look. Then he suddenly smiled, and leaned forward. “You can’t imagine how glad I am to see you, Agent Kirkwood. I was starting to think Ansvar was going to just ignore my letters.”

No, sir; we’ve kept a file.” Johann and Axel had read the headmaster’s two letters, along with several more. “A few other people in Ingleberg have also written. But the matter didn’t seem that urgent until the war started. Now we have reason to think Aztec and Inca priests have infiltrated our home-grown cults, and are persuading young men to hide from the draft.”

Holmstader nodded. “The Illinoi Superintendent of Education sent me here two years ago to replace a retiring headmaster who'd been almost openly proselytizing for the Vitharians. He was fairly successful; maybe twenty percent of the faculty, many students. The cult can be very attractive to the young and restless. The adult townspeople are pretty much against them, and a good majority of the local farmers. But these misguided folk are a big minority here; they are also our friends and neighbors. We want to stamp out the practice, not hurt the people.”

Johann had noted that Holmstader’s unfriendly secretary sat at a desk only two meters from his door. He leaned forward and lowered his voice. “Were you the one who foned in about last night’s initiation ceremony?”

Holmstader shook his head. “I didn’t know about it until this morning. The news of what you did spread pretty fast, though. It’s all over town today.”

Ansvar would probably never know who had called in, but that wasn’t important. Half the people who provided information to Internal Security refused to give their names.

I need copies of your yearbooks for the past two decades,” said Johann. “We have fotos of maybe ten of the adult hard-core members, male and female, and about the same number of young men. I think we can arrange for most of the latter to be immediately drafted. The older ones will be identified and enter our ‘watch’ file. Then we’ll have the group declared a threat to internal security, and order it to disband. That’s usually enough to break up a local cult. The older members will quietly drop out, hoping people will forget they were ever involved. Attendance will improve for Sunday services at the main kirks, and there will be no more midnight gatherings.”

Holmstader nodded. “I’ve heard that's how Ansvar deals with cults. It’s what I hoped for. I like this little community. These are good people, Agent Kirkwood, honest and hard-working. I don’t think jailing a lot of them is the answer.”

Holmstader rose and walked to the door. He opened it and asked his secretary to get the yearbooks from 1880 through 1899 from the library. They talked a little more while waiting. When the books arrived in a little pushcart, 1897 and 1898 were missing. The secretary said there were no spare copies left.

Holmstader gave the gray-haired old woman a hard look. “Then bring me the file copies, Miss Erlanger. Tell Mrs. Bolton I want them. And I want them now!”

Miss Erlanger left again. Five minutes later she was back with the missing years.

I’d like all these returned when you’re through, please,” Holmstader said, as he sent the now subdued Miss Erlanger off for a box. Johann assured him that he would.

Miss Erlanger called him an autotaxi, and Johann lugged the somewhat heavy box out to it. Back in their room at the autohaus, he thumbed through ‘97 and ‘98. He quickly found two of the young men who had attacked them. Which meant the sour Miss Erlanger, the librarian, or both, were Vitharians.

All the books had class fotos of the sophomores, juniors and seniors, and individual portraits of the graduates. The identification experts in Analysis were going to have a fairly easy job here.

The telefone rang. Johann answered with a cautious “Hello” and heard the familiar voice of Emily Grayson, Hendrick's long-time secretary. “Johann? Identity code, please.”

Johann gave it to her, and a moment later Adelbern Hendricks came on the line. “Hello, Johann. Have a little more data for you. Analysis just sent over a refinement from the original possible location report on Sebastian Silvestri. Six of his coded telegrams we found during arrests around the province show a pattern. It indicates he's driving to different telegraph offices from somewhere between Ingleberg and Kateberg. Most likely an isolated farmhouse."

As a spion, the Aztec head of operations in a given province, Silvestri had to communicate regularly with his primary subordinates; usually the heads of small cells, or well-trained Catholic priests masquerading as leaders of Vitharian kirks. The file on SS indicated he had been in Nyscandia for well over a decade, setting up an elaborate spy network in Illinoi Province; primarily in and around Trondheim.

Ansvar had a twenty-year old fotograph of Silvestri in its files. Apparently he knew this, and took elaborate precautions to prevent them from updating it.

Johann told Adelbern about the twenty cultists of whom they had fotos, how they had gotten them, and the school yearbooks. “The yearbooks won’t help with SS,” Adelbern pointed out. “But he could possibly be one of the other people you mentioned. Get those fotos up here and into Analysis as quickly as possible.”

Johann said that was already in work, and after the usual warnings to be careful, Adelbern went on to his next call.

Axel made it back by one o’clock. Johann shared the new information on SS as they drove to the nearby small restaurant where they had been taking their meals. The menu featured plain country cooking, well prepared. Johann noticed on entering this time that they drew quick looks and smiles from several customers, though no one spoke to them. Cults could be frightening. This one might be based in that little country kirk, but some of those people lived in town, and the rest traded there.

***

Next morning they checked out of the autohaus and headed for Kateberg. The trip northeast was uneventful, and quiet. Axel frequently glanced in the rearview mirror as they followed the two-lane blacktop road. But after a half hour he grunted, “Nobody,” which Johann knew meant they were not being followed.

A sizable nearby electric parts plant provided employment for much of Kateberg, a town three times the size of Ingleberg. Axel parked on a side street, in front of a cheerfully bright storefront window with the words “Friendly Fotography” and “Commercial and Family” in smaller letters, painted on the glass. When they stepped inside Johann saw the usual framed portraits and wedding groups on the walls, several glass-fronted display cases spread around the room, and a young man with thick, curly black hair standing behind the service counter at the rear.

Axel handed over his ticket, and the clerk read it with slow care. When his gaze rose again to meet Axel’s, his professional smile looked pasted on.

There’s, uh, been a problem with your order, sir. Nothing major I think, but the owner said he wanted to talk with you. Would you mind?” He gestured toward a door behind him, near the center of the wall that ran the full width of the building. Johann could hear the muted sounds of machinery operating behind it. “Just follow the aisle to the rear, and it’s the desk on the right.”

Axel growled in disgust, but started around the counter on the right side. Johann looked at the clerk again, and that insincere smile and nervous manner bothered him. He hurried after his partner, almost running, and was only a step behind him when Axel opened the door.

Developing, printing, and other machines and worktables occupied most of the large room, with what was obviously a darkroom in the left rear corner. A clear aisle led to a back door in the rear wall. Several of the machines were running, but Johann could see no one except a stout, almost bald man with a thick gray mustache, sitting behind a desk just to the right of the back entrance. He looked up at Axel and waved for him to enter.

Axel, not aware Johann was close behind him, took a step through the open door. Johann looked back at the clerk, his gaze fixed intently on them, but one hand reaching into the glass case in front of him.

And Johann knew. As surely as if he could see through the wall where they hid on either side of the door, Johann was certain two killers waited, pistols ready.

Even as Johann sprang after Axel, his mind veered away from what was happening now. In a flash of intuition, he understood how the trap had been set. Someone thoroughly familiar with how Ansvar functioned had gone into action, after the attempt to destroy their camera failed. They had been watched every minute. When Axel left for Kateberg Friday morning, that someone had foned ahead. A local Vitharian in some inconspicuous vehicle had been stationed by the single road from Ingleberg, with a description of the Ansvar autovan. Once inside the city, Axel would have stopped checking behind him. Yesterday afternoon this unseen hand had assembled an assassination squad. They had been ordered to take over Friendly Fotography this morning and prepare an ambush.

Which confirmed with near certainty that Sebastian Silvestri had been in that gathering at the initiation. Only he had the authority to order the killing of two Ansvar agents. He wanted the new fotographs of him destroyed, no matter how much Ansvar attention that brought to the Vitharians around Ingleberg.

Axel was taking his second step into the room when Johann caught up and slammed into his upper back with both hands, arms extended and stiff. At the same time he shouted “Ambush!” A third step would have brought Axel past the point where the waiting killers were in each other’s line of fire, and they would have been shooting.

Axel, thrown suddenly and violently off balance, tried to turn his forward stumble into a controlled dive. “Your left!” Johann yelled, and took a more deliberate header to the floor, moving enough to the right to avoid hitting his partner.

Axel managed to reach under his jacket and draw his pistol as he hit the floor, softening the impact with his left arm alone. Johann caught a single glimpse as Axel rolled over, raising his weapon, seeking a target. He too got his gun out as he went down, slid ahead, and stopped beside the comforting steel bulk of a printing machine, a full four meters into the room.

Johann heard the first loud hiss of a silenced pistol firing, and almost instantly the thunder of Axel’s 11-millimeter replying. The printing machine hid him from the assassin on the right, but not the one on the left; and his partner lay on the open floor. Johann took a chance the right side killer would be ignoring Axel to concentrate on him, got to his knees, and crawled rapidly ahead for a meter. Then he rocked back on his heels, grabbed a convenient corner of the machine with his left hand, and rose to where his head and shoulders were above its steel frame, pistol extended.

Johann searched the area where the killer should be, and saw him. A short man, in dark clothes and a cap, crouched behind another machine, pistol gripped in both hands. The assassin got off the first shot, and Johann felt the bullet slam into his left shoulder, just before he pulled his own trigger. The impact jerked his right arm enough to make him miss.

Johann heard Axel’s second shot, and his own an instant later. The crouching man also got off another bullet, but it went over Johann’s head. He had shifted his aim and shot faster, the slug catching the assassin in the center of the neck, knocking him backward.

When Johann saw his opponent going down, dead or dying, he swung his pistol around to cover the other side of the room. A man dressed in a dark suit lay on the floor between two tables, kicking and convulsing. Axel still lay in the center aisle, gun trained on the downed man.

Johann continued turning until he faced the rear, where the heavy-set man with the mustache had produced another silenced pistol from his desk drawer. The older man hesitated, as though uncertain whether to fire or surrender—but then the black-haired young clerk charged inside, gun in hand. The seated man decided they could still win. The pistol, held in a firm two-handed grip, steadied on Johann.

The pain from the wound in his shoulder had been delayed a few seconds by an adrenaline rush, but it hit hard as Johann jumped left into the aisle, firing without consciously taking aim. Shooting that way was a highly developed skill, but he had put in the needed days and weeks and months on the practice range. That work paid off now. The bullet caught the bald man at the top of his bulging stomach. His went through the space Johann had occupied a half-second before.

Johann heard Axel yell “Drop it!” But then his gun fired again. The supposed clerk had ignored the order.

Johann raised his pistol one-handed, this time aiming, and waited. If rushed to a hospital, the mustached man stood a good chance of surviving that first bullet. He chose to swing the pistol barrel toward Johann instead.

Johann shot him again, this time in the center of the upper chest. The impact jarred the seated man backward as his finger pressed the trigger; the bullet went into the ceiling.

The gun fell from nerveless fingers as the thick-bodied man hit the back of his chair, then bounced forward, to slump over the desk. It was safe to turn around and check on Axel. Johann saw his partner still on the floor, gun extended back down the aisle. The clerk had been knocked backward by a bullet in the center of his chest. He lay flat on his back, almost at the door, staring wide-eyed at the ceiling.

Only seconds had passed since Johann yelled, and pushed Axel. It seemed much longer.

Johann took another look at the man between the tables. The wire-frame glasses had come off when the Rev, Helgenstadt fell, and were lying on the floor by the gray head. As Johann watched the priest shuddered, a final strong seizure that ran the length of his lean body—then relaxed into stillness.

Helgenstadt had to be sixty or older. Johann knew his background. A fully qualified priest, he had received a college-level education at a Catholic seminary—much of it taught in Latin. He had then tackled the much more complex Norse mythology, learned to speak Old Norse as well as New, become knowledgeable enough in both dogma and ritual to qualify as a Vitharian priest. By education and training, he was a scholar. Yet all those years of study and devotion, the celibate dedication, had led him at this mature age to end up trading shots with expertly trained Ansvar agents in their thirties. And that had cost him his life.

Axel scrambled to his feet. Johann saw he also had taken a bullet. Blood ran off his left arm, starting at the height opposite his heart. Ten centimeters over and he would have died. Helgenstadt had been well trained with the pistol.

The clerk on the floor gave a long sigh. He took a last deep breath and exhaled, making the awful sound of the death rattle. Neither of the other two had made such a noise.

Ignoring the pain in his arm, Johann hurried to the pot-bellied man. “Time to call the local police,” he said to Axel as he lifted the seated man’s upper body off the desktop. “And an ambulance. This one’s still alive.”

Johann let the mustached killer lie back on the desktop and went to check on the last assassin, though certain the man was dead. That second, fast shot he had gotten off had gone through the spinal cord.

Johann proved to be half right. The prone body wasn’t breathing, but the black cap had fallen off in the tumble backward, and a tangle of blonde hair framed a face that must have been pretty when alive and animated. She wore a man's shirt and pants, and some type of tight undergarment that flattened her breasts. Young, she appeared about the same age as the dark-haired man.

By the time they heard the first siren in the street outside, the seated man had also died.

Two uniformed local police came in with drawn pistols. Johann and Axel had holstered their weapons and wore their Ansvar shields, large silver badges that seldom saw light outside the Headquarters Building. The two officers were cautious, and made them show foto i.d. as well. Johann saw them glancing around at the four dead bodies. Both young men, they seemed equally admiring and appalled. They finally holstered their weapons, just as a second set of sirens announced that the medical people had arrived.

A police sergeant came in, an older man with gray hair and a commanding presence. He saw the abundant blood on the Ansvar agents, and told the two women medics following him to take them to the hospital. As Johann and Axel refused the offered gurneyss and walked out, they heard him ordering his men to leave the bodies where they were. The district coroner would take charge of the crime scene.

***

The bullet through Axel’s triceps muscle had missed the bone, and cut only small blood vessels. He was out of the hospital on Sunday, with his arm in a cast. But the doctors decided Johann needed an operation to repair the damage to his left shoulder, and scheduled that for Monday morning.

The Kateberg Chief of Police came to see Johann on Tuesday, as soon as he had recovered enough from surgery to talk. Axel had been forced to tell the chief about the importance of their fotographs, and enlist the help of his men in searching for them as soon as the coroner opened up the crime scene. They soon found them—in the large wastebasket under a cutting board. The assassins had chopped both prints and film into small useless fragments, impossible to reconstruct.

One good fact the chief shared with Johann was that the three people normally employed at Friendly Fotography had been found alive. They said the Vitharians had entered just after they opened at nine. No other customers were present at the moment. The assassins had herded them into the darkroom, and warned they would be shot if they yelled. They hadn’t uttered a sound until the police opened the door.

Was one of the three from here—or from Ingleberg?” Johann asked the Chief, whose badge gave his name as Manheim.

Manheim gave Johann a sharp look. But it was common practice for spions like Silvestri to use cultist dupes familiar with a given area. “The young woman, Angelina Kretchman, grew up here. She’s been working in Trondheim for the past two years. Left to live with the dark-haired one, Helmut Schoderskin. One of my men recognized Kretchman, which gave us Schoderskin. He was a Vitharian priest in training, studying at a seminary in Trondheim. Your partner identified Helgenstadt. No i.d. yet on the last one.”

Only the fact Johann had shot faster than Angelina Kretchman had left him alive, and her dead. It could easily have been the other way around. But he found little comfort in that thought. A gullible young woman fell under the influence of a fanatic lover. She gave up home, friends and family to join his kirk—unaware, as was he, that Catholic spies had deeply penetrated its priesthood. She took weapons and tactics training, thinking this was glamorous and exciting preparation for the coming Ragnarok. When called on by someone in the Trondheim kirk she trusted, probably Helgenstadt, she took a final, fatal step—agreed to commit murder.

A moment had passed while Johann remained silent. He looked up to see Chief Manheim studying him, as though trying to read his thoughts. Having no idea of how much Axel had shared with the chief, Johann decided to say no more than required. He gave the short answer of, “Sorry; national security” to the next two questions. Manheim gave him a disgusted look, and left.

Axel came in an hour later. Johann shared his thoughts with his partner, who nodded in agreement and said, “But at least we flushed out Silvestri. The local sheriff put on an all-out manhunt, and they found his house this morning. An isolated farm home, as we expected. He'll have to set up again in a new identity, and that will take time. We hit them a hard blow.”

Axel hesitated a moment, then added, “And I've changed my mind about the call-up. Adelbern is right. What we're doing is more important.”

Johann assured Axel he was happy that their long partnership would continue.

Axel left for Trondheim, leaving Johann alone with his unhappy thoughts. He had been in Ansvar for seven years. Angelina Kretchman was the third person he had killed in a firefight—but the first woman. The image of that long blonde hair, falling to the floor around the pretty, dead face, would haunt him for the rest of his life. Johann had three sisters; the youngest looked somewhat like Angelina, and was about her age.

The big irony here was who they had probably saved, the four husky dupes from Ingleberg; young men who had tried to beat them up. With luck, they would survive the war and finish their five years of compulsory military service, followed by sixteen in the reserves. That was usually enough to make loyal citizens of the pliable young.

Silvestri had escaped for now, but they had eliminated two spies, along with the sad necessity of killing two young dupes. The Ingleberg Vitharian cult would break up, ending the likelihood of more gullible young people being corrupted.

This was one of the underappreciated but frequent results of his job in which Johann took the most satisfaction. The strength of religious conviction could be an overwhelming force, capable of subverting sound judgment and normal good sense. They had witnessed a compelling example of that, the midnight initiation ceremony in the little country kirk. As a non-believer, he had never quite understood why anyone would willingly accept a set of unproven and unprovable beliefs, and shape their lives around them. But they had just seen how the power of faith could affect a sizable number of the otherwise sound and sensible people of Ingleberg.

Johann knew the image of the still pretty but dead face of Angelina Kretchman was seared indelibly into his memory. But if her death led to a hundred others being saved from a similar fate ... he found comfort in the thought. It wasn’t enough, but he’d take what he could get. END


. 
authors
Johann and his partner Axel, agents in the anti-terrorist agency Ansvar, 
have been rooting out deeply concealed spies in Nyscandia for a decade. 
But a long-planned open war breaks out when the Catholic States Alliance 
invades Nyscandia, and they find themselves in a desperate race to find 
the terrorists before they sabotage vital production facilities. If 
Nyscandia falls, theocracy rules the world.




green


Midnight, a country kirk, a
small boy, an initiation—and
hell to pay later if he grows
up believing what’s planted
in his brain!





Joseph Green is a charter member of the SFWA. He retired from NASA as Deputy Chief of the Education Office at Kennedy Space Center. He has written five novels and his short stories have appeared in “F&SF,” “Analog,” and many other publications. This story was excerpted from his 
novel “Spies of Nyscandia,” now available at Amazon and elsewhere.