Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark! (Swords Versus Tanks Book 2), page 1
Swords Versus Tanks 2: Vikings battle Zeppelins! Clashing cultures spark forbidden desires!
Swords Versus Tanks 2:
Vikings battle Zeppelins while forbidden desires spark!
M Harold Page
(c) M Harold Page 2015
This episode is dedicated to Tiggs, because all writers need friends like that.
With special thanks to the eagle-eyed Neil MacCormack for yet more editing help, and for creating the authentically awful poetry.
Cover art (c) Cassie Mayo 2015. http://www.lintpress.com/
Let us cast aside our bourgeois qualms: it is common sense that "hard questioning" should produce quick, accurate results.
— General Hamilton, "Post Office Security Handbook" (Post Office Internal Publications, 1930)
Hinges squealed. Archbishop Grossi drew himself up and took his stand on the dungeon floor.
Light flooded the bloodstained rock floor and threw shadows from the chunks of cement left by the escape of the Arch Heretic Dacre and his witch. The Archbishop squinted into the unnatural illumination. He didn’t belong in this tainted place.
A black shape advanced through the glare.
"You cannot scare me," said the Archbishop, falling to his knees. He threw open his arms. "For I am ready for my Martyrdom. If you slay me, you slay just one man, but you raise up a Holy Saint to war against-"
"Silence!" The silhouette resolved into a white-haired man leaning on a silver-tipped cane. "I am Lowenstein, and I am your best hope of salvation."
The Archbishop struggled to his feet. If God would not grant martyrdom, then the Archbishop must be His Chosen Evangelist. "Salvation, my son? Do you know its meaning?" he wheezed.
Lowenstein’s cane flashed.
The Archbishop found himself sprawled on stinking straw. For a miraculous moment, he felt nothing. Then an icy pain scoured his cold hands and face.
"Your nose is bleeding." Lowenstein dropped a handkerchief at his feet. "Let us start over." He was speaking loudly now, as if to one who was either deaf or stupid. "Tell me about the runes. Do not pretend you do not know about the inscriptions that protect the aristocrats’ armour and fortifications, and make their weapons sharp enough to cut armour plate."
"Blasphemous inscriptions!" gasped the Archbishop, struggling back to his knees. He balled the handkerchief and pressed it against his nostrils. "They invoke the powers of darkness..."
"Enough!" Lowenstein’s cane prodded the Archbishop’s cheek. "Your priests can neutralise their effect, can they not?"
The Archbishop put his hand to his cheek. Neutralise sounded like the Ancient neuter; "neither one nor the other". Effect was just another way of saying "end result". But runes had so many different end results.
Lowenstein’s eyes became piercing. The cane swung back. "Well?"
Sweat broke out on the Archbishop’s brow. His interrogator wanted to know something about runes… something to do with Mother Church. The official truths were always the best. "The Lord in His Infinite Wisdom has granted His priests the power of His Blessing, against which-" He caught himself gabbling, and finished his sentence at a more dignified pace. "-no Necromancy may prevail."
Lowenstein held out his hand to help the Archbishop to his feet. "So, the ‘blessings’ of your priests make the runes stop working?”
The Archbishop nodded.
"My theory is that runes operate by telekinesis," said Lowenstein.
"A fair description," said the Archbishop. This time he had no idea what the terrifying man was talking about.
"So, somebody must be projecting a telekinetic field using the runes as a focus," continued Lowenstein.
The Archbishop hesitated, thinking it was a rhetorical question.
"Well?" barked Lowenstein. "Who makes the runes work?"
The Archbishop flinched. Perhaps the Invaders did come from another world after all. "The Runecasters of Thule, vulgarly known as the Rune Isles."
"We both hate the runes," said Lowenstein. He gestured towards the open cell door. "Help the Egality destroy them."
The Archbishop drew breath. A bargain with the Devil, indeed. He pictured the ironclad war engines, and the grey liveried troops pouring through the streets of Kinghaven. Lowenstein’s people were here to stay. Perhaps they would be amenable to the Word. "Very well."
As the crowd settled into their benches, Field Marshal Williams smiled. Everything seemed to be falling into place. Even so, he palmed one of his special pills from breast pocket and swallowed it. You never knew when things could turn stressful.
Kinghaven Town Hall had been a bastion of Proto-Elitist mercantilism. Now the stained glass windows of its council chamber lit the weathered faces of the soldiers of the Egality, chosen by lot to cram into its tiers of ornate seats.
"Bring forward the prisoner, please."
Two Post Office Security Workers marched Jasmine Klimt the length of the room so that everybody could see her shame. She covered the distance in a confident swagger, burning eyes fixed straight ahead.
Postmaster General Hamilton ducked closer and muttered, "She walks like an Elitist Stormwarrior."
Field Marshal Williams nodded gravely. "She must be decisively dealt with," he said. He settled back into the carved oak chair. It was good that his closest friend was also his most ideologically sound comrade. Hamilton was a major improvement on the false sycophants of the past. He winced at a memory. Shocking how so many high-ranking soldiers could turn out to be members of the Crypto-Elitist so-called "Veterans Alliance"! And, thank goodness for the pills that helped him cope with all of this.
Klimt halted under one of the model ships which hung from the painted beams of the high ceiling – hateful symbols of mercantile avarice.
Postmaster General Hamilton twitched a hand at Smith. "Go ahead, Colonel Smith. Say your piece."
Smith’s remaining eye met his, then flickered away. It was indeed, thought Williams, truly amazing how the stubby little fellow kept going, despite having lost an eye in the recent capture of Kinghaven, and a hand at Castle Dacre.
Smith turned to his fellow soldiers. The maimed man’s voice was surprisingly loud for one so slightly built. "Fellow Force Application Workers of the Glorious Egality…"
Ragged cheers issued from the benches.
"I come before you to broach a grave matter. Yesterday, I saw primitive weapons destroy tanks, and primitive armour shrug off machine gun bullets. For too long have we-"
Hang on, thought Williams. He coughed. "I’m sure we could do without this sort of defeatism."
Colonel Smith hesitated and looked, not at Williams, but at Hamilton.
The Postmaster General said mildly, "He has a right to speak, Field Marshal. It is for the Army Council to judge, not stipulate, his words."
Field Marshal Williams regarded Smith. Though the one-handed, one-eyed Colonel commanded the Experimental Tank Brigade, he also wore the Post Office standard issue blue coveralls. He was one of Hamilton’s people.
Now things were becoming stressful. Williams s
The crowd shifted restlessly. Somebody shouted, "Shame!" Somebody else disagreed, and the meeting dissolved into an arguing mob.
Postmaster General Hamilton sprang out of his seat, his blue Post Office uniform making him stand out amid all the field grey. He raised his hands and the Council Chamber fell silent.
Williams regarded the man. Short, he realised, just like his running dog Smith. Williams had made Hamilton, now he would break him. All he had to do was wait for the right moment.
"It’s mental powers," declared Hamilton. "Telepathy or mentalism –" he made a moue of disgust, "- pick your own bourgeois Crypto-Elitist term."
A growl issued from a crystal-wearing Artillery contingent in the front row. Ibis-Bear, their general, snorted and shot to her feet with a rattle of worry beads and translucent geological specimens. "True Science is politically neutral," she declared. "We can all attain Full Spiritual Empowerment. It is your contempt which is Elitist, Hamilton." The artillery general folded her arms across her amble bosom, as if that closed the issue.
Field Marshal Williams’s brow furrowed. Perhaps he shouldn’t have tuned out whenever Martha Higgins – or, as she now called herself, Stella Ibis-Bear — talked about her crystals. Now it seemed her Theosophy wasn’t really a Crypto-Elitist construct after all. "Postmaster General,” he said. “This is no place to rehash old debates. Or, have you forgotten that the Xeno-Elitist Alien Aggressors are coming?" he said, which earned him a wise nod from Ibis-Bear.
Rain rattled the windows. The lights flickered. A perceptible shiver went through the crowd.
Postmaster General Hamilton coughed. "General Ibis-Bear will forgive me my egalitarian ardour." He continued in a louder shrill, pawing the air to emphasise his words: "The heroic Post Office Research Resource has ascertained that the culprits are a gang of Proto-Elitist… mentalists based on an island in the northern seas. We only need to send a flight of airships-"
Again General Ibis-Bear shot to her feet. She opened her mouth to speak then stopped.
"The Artillery General wishes to make a point?" said Hamilton.
Ibis-Bear glanced around her, looking for somebody to rescue her. People in the audience started tittering.
Field Marshal Williams watched with the perception granted him by his pills. Mystic that she was, Ibis-Bear was chafing to explore the Rune Isles, but if she mentioned them, she’d be giving away a Compartmentalised state secret: nobody was supposed to know that the Egality had invaded its own past. If she did that, Williams would then be forced – reluctantly – to have her shot.
Jasmine Klimt's voice broke through his thoughts. "Won’t that be a suicide mission?" She flexed her fingers. "How will airships be any safer than tanks?"
Postmaster General Hamilton shuffled from foot to foot. The ordinary soldiers shifted nervously and whispered to each other. General Ibis-Bear quietly sank back into her seat.
Colonel Smith pointed his stump at Klimt. "She’s a prisoner," he said. "She’s not supposed to speak."
Some of the crowd yelled encouragement, but a knot of grizzled experienced soldiers — more former Veteran’s Alliance conspirators, no doubt — started chanting, "Let Klimt speak!"
Williams leaned forward. With that sort of power base, the Klimt girl was the perfect counterbalance to Hamilton. "Innocent until proven guilty," he declared.
Klimt shot him a surprised look.
Williams smiled back at his new ally. Though a bourgeois, she had a good peasant physique. Hard-working. Not afraid of getting her hands dirty. He’d always known she’d go far. Now she’d proven herself commanding in the heat of battle, it was time to advance her career.
Klimt cleared her throat. "I want to hear from the expert…"
General Ibis-Bear’s shoulders straightened. Everybody knew who that was...
"…Lowenstein," finished Klimt firmly. A knot of veterans parted to reveal the ex-Elitist Scientist.
Lowenstein strode into the middle of the floor. The white haired scientist rapped his cane on the tiles. "I am quite sure Postmaster General Hamilton was about to disclose that the native priests are also mentalists, and that they can neutralise the Anomaly locally. A few clerics would be enough to protect an aerial expedition to the Rune Isles."
"Details, details!" said Hamilton.
Field Marshal Williams seized his moment. "The expedition is an excellent proposal," he said. "It is sure to make a difference going forward." Heads nodded. "It’s within my remit to make it an Independent Command."
"I salute your clear thinking, comrade," said Hamilton.
Field Marshal Williams inclined his head. "Obviously it should have proper leadership."
Smith took a step forward. Ibis-Bear practically bounced in her seat.
Field Marshal Williams paused, enjoying the moment, letting them build up their expectations. Then, he said, "Lowenstein would seem to be the appropriate choice of expedition leader."
The former Elitist spun to face him, a glorious look of shock on his usually graven features.
Ibis-Bear went purple with rage. Hamilton's gaze became very fixed.
Now Field Marshal Williams did smirk. He'd shown them who was boss. He cleared his throat. "It also lies within my remit to recommend Lowenstein to the role of Colonel of the new Long Range Air Reconnaissance Command." Just to rub it in, Williams added, "Assuming you are elected, you will report directly to me." Say goodbye to your pocket scientist, Hamilton! The only problem was that the former Elitist was hardly trustworthy.
Postmaster General Hamilton’s face contorted into what might have been a smile. "Good news for the Glorious Army of the Egality, I’m sure," he said brusquely. He clapped his hands. "Now. What about that trial?"
Field Marshal Williams returned the smile. He had the solution to Lowenstein’s untrustworthiness. "Let us not be hasty to condemn a soldier of the people," he said. "If the Egality is about anything, it is about fairness."
The crowd made encouraging sounds. This was something they could all agree on.
"The complex events of the liberation of Objective Two require careful investigation by a specially constituted committee. In the meantime, Jasmine Klimt is assigned to Artillery-"
Klimt’s head jerked around.
"-but I ask that General Ibis-Bear approve her immediate secondment as Colonel Lowenstein’s military adviser, since she has served as an Air Marine."
Williams sat back in his chair, satisfied. Postmaster General Hamilton was punished for his Elitist power-hunger. As was fair, General Ibis-Bear had an Artillery representative on Lowenstein’s expedition. And the grateful Klimt would surely keep an eye on the former Elitist war criminal.
What could possibly go wrong? thought Williams as he popped another pill.
Integration Worker Tom Fenland raised his goggles. High in the darkening sky, a pair of tiny airships soared out over the Ocean of Thule, their Flexiglass gun turrets bloodied by the sun as it impaled itself on the spires of Kinghaven Castle. Would Jasmine return in one piece so he could make things right again? Not that they’d ever be right again, now Marcel was dead.
Behind him, a truck revved and somebody shouted, "What the fuck you playing at, mate?"
Tom waved over his shoulder. He kicked his bike through the checkpoint then chugged out across the kill zone into the royal castle’s long shadows. No, things would never be right again.
The drawbridge rattled under his wheels. Tom opened the throttle. He roared past the startled guards, through another gatehouse and into the inner courtyard. He revved one last time to shatter the silence. Kinghaven Castle was too pretty and white to exist in a world where Marcel rotted in a field grave.
Ahead, bathed in the glare of electric lights, stood the glacier façade of the Royal Apartments, craggy with buttresses and dripping with crude sta
He and Marcel had always imagined that when the fighting was done, when they’d settled in some cosy apartment in the ramshackle tenements of Kinghaven, that they’d buy their own house gryphon and call it “Little Beak”.
Talking about it had always made Tom homesick for a future they would share together. Now there was no home to look forward to. And he had even lost Jasmine’s friendship.
I love you, but I need space.
Jasmine was right, that was a crappy thing to say to anybody in the middle of a war. But, how was he supposed to react when his boyfriend had turned him into an accessory to murder? Sure enough, Brown deserved to be punished, but after a trial. If the medievals had had the grace to admit defeat, Tom would have had a chance to explain to Marcel. And more.
He swung out of his saddle and stomped the cobblestones. "Integrate the king!" he growled. "They should just shoot the fucker."
Mustn’t think like that. If grief messed up his professionalism, he’d have nothing left.
Tom counted the paces to the outside stair, then the steps up to the main entrance. While the bored Post Office Security Worker checked his papers, he counted the heraldic nails that studded the planks of the great doors. He could have cheated by counting down the sides and multiplying, but instead, he enumerated each nail head. It was like a crash-course in heraldry – no two bore the same beast. He caught himself smiling. I must get a picture of this for Rosetta.
By the time the Security Workers swung one door open just enough for him to squeeze through, Tom was calm and ready to work.
With its shutters closed against the autumn cold, and a huge fire burning in the monumental fireplace, the entrance hall of the Royal Apartments was as hot and dark as the inside of the tank that time he and Marcel had… ah well. At least he had some good memories.
"Tom Fenland!" A one-armed man with an eye-patch broke away from the group of Post Office Workers — mostly Integration and Security — lounging by the fire.
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