Author: the old contemptible PM
An alternate WWI storyRated: Fiction T - English - Adventure/Fantasy - Words: 3,334 - Published: 03-08-11 - id: 2897234
|A+ A- Full 3/4 1/2 Expand Tighten|
The Gathering Storm
Gavrilo Princip was afraid. The sort of crippling, gut-wracking fear that starts in your stomach and works its way upwards until you can hardly move. He trembled in the too-large machinists' uniform; bought illegally (it was illegal to sell military uniforms on the open market). He tried to calm himself. Is this any way for the hero of the Revolution to act? That's what they told him he would be. A hero of the revolution. Right?
He reached the front of the checkpoint line. The mooring tower was set up in an open, grassy field, with fences set up around the area, a checkpoint entrance, and armoured cars set up every forty feet. Impenetrable. This was the only way, they'd told him. Princip squared his shoulders. Let's do this.
He stepped in front of the folding table, behind which a scowling officer sat. Flanking him were two Austro-Hungarian soldiers. Their unit patches identified them as Czech Legion, which had a well-earned reputation for brutality. Their Mannlicher rifles were unslung and bayonets fixed. Both looked as if they couldn't wait to gore Princip with them.
"Papieren, Bitte" the officer growled. Papers, please. With trembling hands, Princip placed the forged military ID card on the flimsy surface. To his relief, the officer didn't seem to notice the fear on his face.
"Oberflieger Heinrich Krause?"
"Ja, Mein Herr" said Princip, using the subservient tone of voice he'd always hated.
"Ja, Mein Herr"
The officer examined Princip carefully, as if looking for some sign of weakness. Quite suddenly, he threw the papers down on the table and growled "Durchlauf". Pass. Weak-kneed, Princip took the papers and, muttering his thanks to God, pushed through the checkpoint gate.
The officer thought nothing of the strange little man's demeanour, assuming he'd been intimidated by the big Czechs guarding the gate. Hell, he was intimidated by them. He chuckled slightly, then made a note in his ledger that Oberflieger Heinrich Krause, a machinist, had received clearance to board the Zeppelin Franz Josef, Archduke Franz Ferdinand's personal transport.
He would be leaving Serbia today, with his wife, Sophie. They had toured Sarajevo and seen the best Serbia had to offer, and now they were going home to Vienna. This was the moment in which the Black Hand decided to strike.
The Black Hand, at first glance, was little more than a group of Serbian students who liked to read Marx. In reality, it was a massive organization, with members in the provincial government of Serbia, the Serbian Brigade of the Austro-Hungarian army, and among Serbian members of the police force. It was extensively financed by Serbian businessmen, and the Archduke's death would serve as nothing more than a signal. A signal for a series of uprisings across Serbia, carefully planned to look spontaneous. A series of uprisings across the country. In other words, a revolution.
The elevator ride up the mooring tower was a harrowing one, and not just because the thing shook and rattled as if a giant was shaking it. Princip was sharing the elevator with two surly-looking Luftmarine officers. One of them seemed to scrutinise his face every thirty seconds or so. He couldn't know, could he? The picture published in the Austro-Ungarisch Zeitung (the state newspaper), had been extremely grainy. Besides, like the rest of the pictures in the Enemies of Our Country section, it was slightly smaller than a postage stamp. He couldn't know. Could he?
Either way, Princip was very glad when the elevator reached the top of the tower. He scurried up the gangplank and moved swiftly towards the engine room.
The engine room was huge, dominating most of the rear section of the airship. It was three stories high, full of churning machinery and yelling crewmen. Princip quickly pulled the small, unassuming package from beneath his machinists' leather jacket and moved towards the large, gasoline-powered engine bank. This machine took up most of the engine room. He skirted a navy-uniformed engineer, and, muttering apologies, ran up an iron staircase to the engine controls. Once there, he carefully placed the package (which in fact was three kilos of the latest, British-made, plastic explosive) on top of the main gasoline tank. The detonator had been pre-set for ten minutes. Now all he had to do was arm it. He pressed the detonator cap (which resembled a small silver pen stuck in the side of the package) and left it sitting on top of the tank. Now he had to get out. That part, at least, would be easy.
Quickly, Princip left the engine room, slipping onto a service catwalk that led from the engine room to the elegantly appointed foyer, where he entered a washroom. Inside, he stripped his machinists' leather jacket and navy blue wool pants to reveal a civilian worker's denim jacket and red work shirt. He also wore ratty brown corduroys under the heavy navy ones. Dressed as such, he made his way down the gangplank and elevator, then mingled with the workmen leaving on their lunch break. Once outside the "security sphere" surrounding the meadow, he broke with the group of workmen and moved towards a motor-car waiting along the highway back to Sarajevo. The car was right where they said it would be. He opened the door and peered inside. Sitting in the back, grinning expectantly, was Aljosz Nikolić.
Nikolić was a fellow student and good friend of Princip's. In fact, he had been the one who persuaded Princip to join the Black Hand. When Čedomir Belic, the former cell leader, had been assassinated, Nikolić had assumed leadership. He and Princip had remained friends throughout that time.
"Well?" Nikolić asked excitedly. "Did you do it?" Princip, just coming off his hyper-alert, every-nerve-alive bomb-planting high, collapsed in the seat and nodded. Nikolić laughed with delight. "I could kiss you!" he chortled. Princip grinned weakly and shook his head. Quite suddenly, Nikolić's voice became sober. "Today, old friend, the revolution begins. Serbia throws off the oppressive yoke of Austro-Hungarian dominance and becomes free once more!" His voice took on the cadence of a politician making a particularly inflammatory speech. Then, just as suddenly as it had gone, his good humour returned. "Come on" he said "Let's get you back to the safe house. It is time. Driver!" he called. The driver turned in his seat
Archduke Franz Ferdinand had seen the car pulling away, but thought nothing much of it. He was merely glad to be getting back to Vienna; getting back to LIFE, as it were. Serbia was fine if you wanted to see farms that were "producing twice as much as last year!" (according to the portly, moustachioed, landowner) or 500-year old temples (and mountains— by god, don't you forget the mountains), but it had nothing much in the way of culture. Vienna would be a welcome relief, Vienna with its symphonies and opera houses and art galleries. Yes, he was glad to be getting back to Vienna.
He had boarded the airship and was settling in an overstuffed armchair (halfway home already) with a newspaper and a box of gourmet cheeses. His wife was beside him, fretting cheerfully about whatever shall we do for supper, and how are the children getting along in their studies, and things like that. The Archduke grinned. The airship cast off from the mooring tower, and—THUMP! There was a muffled boom from the direction of the engine room. It was not very loud, but the Zeppelin lurched, and at that moment Franz Ferdinand knew he was going to die.
The bomb had gone off. It blew bits of the main fuel tank in all directions. One mistake the designers had made was putting the main fuel tank far too close to the engine bank, and the Black Hand made full use of that weakness. Shrapnel sliced through the delicate engine mechanism, halting the airship in its tracks. It severed fuel hoses, sending petrol spurting everywhere. It also sliced through several engineers, hurtling their internal organs through the air. That, however, was not the worst of it. When the bomb exploded, it also set the gasoline on fire, and now the gasoline in the severed engine hoses was on fire, and this spread to the auxiliary fuel tanks, stored against the outside wall of the airship. These also exploded, blowing several large holes in the airship. The skin of the craft also caught on fire, and this, at long last, hit the hydrogen gasbags.
The Archduke had grabbed his wife's hand when the first explosion hit. As the fire spread through the airship, he had clutched his wife's hand tight, and she had clutched his. Together, they had begun saying the Lord's Prayer.
There were five gasbags, each holding 20000 cubic metres of hydrogen gas. They all exploded more or less at the same time. The Archduke and his wife did not even feel it. There was a loud boom, a searing heat, and then they were gone.
Emergency workers, policemen and soldiers alike watched in horror as the burning wreckage of the Franz Josef floated gently towards the ground. Gallons upon gallons of flame-retardant foam, formulated during the Balkan Wars to suppress hydrogen explosions, were poured upon the charred, twisted hulk. When it had cooled sufficiently, police and emergency personnel were dispatched to comb the wreckage for survivors. They found none.
The Revolution had begun.
Bicycle messengers, sent from the Black Hand's headquarters in downtown Sarajevo, had quickly informed the other two cells in the city. The cell members had surged out of their safe houses (where they had been staying for the past two days in preparation) armed with stolen weapons, and made their way towards the Governmental Plaza, squarely in the centre of Sarajevo. This contained the Provincial Assembly, the Police Headquarters, the Garrison (used mainly for guarding VIPs) and the Governor's Residence. A ripe, juicy cluster of important buildings, just waiting to be plucked and eaten.
The Revolution could be compared to a hurricane or tsunami, slowly gathering strength as it advanced. As it advanced past the Commercial and Historical Districts of Sarajevo, ordinary citizens, sensing something big, flooded out of their houses or workplaces to watch. More often than not, they joined the revolutionaries.
If the revolution was a breeze, then as it passed the Commercial and Historical Districts it became a gale, and by the time it reached the Governmental Plaza it was a full-fledged hurricane. The Provincial Police, made up of mostly Serbian constables and their Austro-Hungarian officers, frantically mobilized to stop the tide. By the time the riot police had geared up and the weapons locker had been ransacked, the revolutionaries had reached the door of the fortress-like Police Headquarters.
"What the hell are you waiting for?! Open fire!" screamed Polizeirat (police captain) Konrad Bayer. Bayer was a small man, with a smudge of a moustache, a red face, and a disagreeable demeanour. This was Bayer in normal times. Now, however, he looked positively maniacal. His eyes were bulging, his face appeared to have been dunked in a vat of red paint, and his voice was a nails-on-chalkboard screech. "I swear to God I'll kill any man who disobeys me!" he screamed. "Now shooooooot!"
Bayer's rages were legendary and almost never taken seriously. This time the young constables, crouching by the windows clutching Steyr-Mannlichers (the Austro-Hungarian service rifle), knew he was serious. But it was impossible to ask them to shoot their own people. For all they knew, their friends and family could be among the crowd. And then, quite suddenly, it hit them. There was a revolution going on. They didn't have to bear this pathetic little man's abuse. They didn't have to bear anything. They were Serbians too. They could go out there and join the revolution. Who would stop them? Their gazes turned to one man: Bayer.
The ranking Serbian officer, Polizeihauptkommisar Bajić, got up from where he was crouched and approached Bayer. There was a strange expression on his face.
"Excuse me, Herr Polizeirat" he said softly. "I don't think we have to take orders from you anymore."
"What do you mean?" shouted Bayer. "I'm in command here, and you will follow my orders!"
"You forget, Herr Polizeirat" said Bajić. "We are Serbians too."
"What's that supposed to mean?" Bayer said warily. "Is that a threat?" His voice trailed off as he suddenly noticed the group of Serbian constables closing in on him, backing him against a wall.
"Why, Herr Polizeirat" Bajić said. He allowed himself a small smile. This was his moment. Serbia's moment. Bajić's hand gently caressed the soft leather of his pistol holster. He opened the flap and grasped the steel-and-wood grip of his C96 Mauser. He pressed it against Bayer's stomach. "Herr Polizeirat", Bajić said. "I think you should know exactly what it means."
Several minutes later, they flung open the double doors to great cheers and were swallowed up into the crowd.
There were four of them, crouching in the forested grounds of Archduke Ferdinand's Vienna estate. They had been code-named, rather unimaginatively, Eins, Zwei, Drei, and Vier. They were armed with the latest Bergmann MP14 sub-machine guns and Mauser Zig-Zags . They were, quite simply, a kill team.
They moved silently as they approached the house. Light from the large window that dominated one wall of the dining room spilled onto the grass. Inside, they could see the three children eating, a tall, gaunt, grey-haired man standing next to them, and a burly figure with his back to the window that had to be a bodyguard. Eins, the leader, allowed himself a smile. Too easy.
He signalled to his men. Masks on. The masks were a formality, but they provided shrapnel and bullet protection for the face, as well as ensuring the victims were properly intimidated.
Each mask was made of padded black leather, with integrated goggles and mesh-covered nose and mouth holes that helped to filter out smoke. The lenses of the goggles were red, for dark-adaptation. With the masks on, the only means of identification were large, red-cloth numerals stitched on the forehead of the masks.
Eins signalled: Zwei and Drei, take the door. Vier and I will cover the window. Go! He and Vier scurried to ten yards from the window, taking cover behind some hedges. Zwei and Drei stacked up beside the door. This would be a standard "kill" op. Nothing they all hadn't fifteen hundred times before.
Eins held up one hand, made sure Zwei could see it, and flashed five fingers twice. Ten seconds. Zwei nodded. Through the window, the bodyguard half-turned as if he saw something. Eins tensed. Fortunately, he turned back, and Eins resumed the countdown in his head. Five. Four. Three. Two. One. Go! Every nerve in his body seemed to explode. He threw himself upright, grabbed his MP14, and opened fire on the window. Simultaneously, Zwei and Drei blew the door.
The bodyguard twisted, going for his pistol, just before the window blew into a million pieces. The glass caught him in the face and neck, and he collapsed, bleeding out. A young, dark-haired boy who'd been sitting behind the bodyguard nearly fell out of his chair when the window collapsed, He tried to get his bearings and run. Eins put three bullets in his back. Signalling to Vier to cover him, he ran towards the window and vaulted in, just in time to see a young girl coming at Zwei with a kitchen knife. It was so pathetic Eins almost laughed, and he knew Zwei would feel the same. Zwei did. He allowed the girl to come three more feet before topping her.
"There's one more target!" Eins yelled. "He could be anywhere in this house! Split up and find him!"
The Innenministerium did not allow its assassins to learn more about their targets than their appearances, names, and if necessary, occupations. This was to prevent the assassins forming any kind of bond with their targets, to allow them to kill without empathy. As the four men mercilessly hunted down a twelve-year old boy, the youngest child of Archduke Ferdinand, the "need-to-know" technique, as it was known, seemed to be working. They split up, each taking a sector of the house.
Eins moved through the rooms, marvelling at the elegance. His Frankfurt apartment was fairly opulent, but nothing like this…no! He made an effort to focus. Don't think about the room. Think about finding the child!
His MP14 at the ready, he executed a classic door breach and moved into the next room. It seemed to have been the Archduke's bedroom. And— was that a family photo there, on the table? He moved toward it and picked it up. There was Franz Ferdinand, his wife, the children…Eins blinked away sudden tears. He had three children himself. How would he feel if they were taken? Damn it, think of the mission! The door squeaked suddenly and Eins turned, back into every-nerve-afire kill mode. He could see a patch of black hair protruding from behind the door. Whoever was there was trying, unsuccessfully, to hide. Could he fire through the door? No, it was too thick. He'd have to confront whoever was there directly. His Bergmann at the ready, he approached the door. A black blur leaped out at him and knocked him to the ground. It was the last target. A kid! A kid had managed to surprise him. And not just a kid either. A kid with a large, lethal-looking kitchen knife and murder in his eyes.
"Shit" Eins grunted. The kid grinned evilly. "I'm going to kill you" he informed Eins. There was a strange light in his eyes. Eins realized this kid had gone off the deep end. There would be no reasoning with him. But perhaps he could delay the inevitable long enough to get to his Zig-Zag.
"Hey" said Eins. The kid didn't respond, but raised the knife. "Hey" Eins said, louder this time. The kid cocked his head.
"What?" he spat.
"Why are you doing this?" Eins asked. The kid looked incredulous.
"You killed my brother and sister!" he screamed. Tears filled his eyes, then disappeared. "I'm going to kill you! And then I'll— I'll—" He started to cry hysterically. "I'LL KILL YOU!" he screamed again, then raised the knife for his final stroke.
"No" Eins said calmly. "You're not" And he shot the kid in the head, just through the bridge of his nose.
The kid stiffened, then collapsed across Eins' body. Eins pushed the kid off himself and sat up. He got up, holstered his pistol, and looked around the room. His eyes fell on the child he had just killed. The knife had fallen out of his hand, and he was stretched out. His face had relaxed in death and his eyes were half-closed. A strange despair came over Eins. For all of his career, he had rationalized his acts by telling himself they were honourable assassins. They were merely carrying on a German tradition that had lasted for five hundred years. Now he had just helped murder three children. Where was his code of honour now? It was one of the unwritten rules of being an assassin: We do not kill children. He just had. Eins pulled his mask off, sank into a chair, and began to sob.