Wednesday, 19 November 2014

OHMCS: The Perfect Sage of Death

Welcome to the sixth and final part of On Her Majesty's Crooked Service. The longest of all six 7TV stories, we finally meet the master villain of the whole plot, the otherworldly invader known as the Guru. I originally conceived him as an homage to Doctor Who's Master, especially the Roger Delgado version; in the faux TV Times listing which accompany many of the 7TV sourcebooks, the Guru is played by an actor called Rodd Aleggero.

The character also has dashes of Fu Manchu, the Lord of Strange Deaths himself, as well as iconic Marvel villains Doctor Doom and the Red Skull. The scenes in the dormant volcano are call-backs to an earlier 7TV game You Only Live Dice, pitting the fiendish Dr Mao against the heroes of Department X.

For one last time, points will be awarded for spotting references to: a Stanley Kubrick film, a noted 19th century SF novel, a number of well loved British childrens' shows, a classic sitcom and Flash Gordon.

The unseen player mobilising the heroic Daredevils to oppose the Guru's machinations is in fact the Dare sisters' daddy, never seen on screen. A former adventurer (and some say astronaut), Dare senior issues his 'Devils' their orders from a speakerphone, much in the style of a popular US show from the 70s.

* * *

The Perfect Sage of Deaths

Nothing stirred in the chamber apart from the strange inky black smoke that curled and roiled lazily like a phantom hydra. It crawled across the concrete floor and slithered over odd stone protrusions that might have been the product of natural erosion deep beneath the waves or else sculptures carved by some lunatic hand. The smoke climbed the walls in heaving exhalations and drifted across the ceiling in blind, meandering tendrils. It clung to everything, obscuring all.
With a mechanical hiss a circular aperture large enough to admit a man opened in one rough wall. Dull red light seeped in through the airlock, casting an eerie light on the smoky chamber within. A figure stood at the portal, arms by his side, body erect. He wore an unusual jumpsuit that covered every inch of flesh, complete with hood, visor and breathing apparatus. The smoke billowed around the figure; crawling, probing.
The sound of the man’s breathing was amplified by his mask as he stepped through the aperture and into the chamber, the swirling black and red rendering everything beyond arm’s reach an amorphous mystery. Through his protective hood he could hear strange noises somewhere beyond sight. Low, shushing sounds like the sea, or a giant’s gurgling breath.
“Master,” the man’s voice came out muffled and oddly flat, as if the unsettling surroundings, which would surely have given even the most hardened pause to consider what strange forces were at work here, had failed to trigger in him that most primitive of human emotions: fear of the unknown. “The new recruits are ready for your inspection.”
He stood patiently as the seconds passed, the smoke continuing to caress the seals of his protective clothing. At length, the indistinct guttural sounds receded and a figure approached from the chamber’s depths. A bearded man, clad in simple loose garments of unrelieved black, he wore nothing that would ward off the smoke, nor whatever other hazardous conditions existed here. The masked figure bowed his head obediently and then swivelled on one foot to allow the man in black to pass unobstructed into the airlock.
As the heavy circular door sealed tightly behind them and the atmospheric purifiers whirred into life, the red lights in the ceiling reflected oddly off the bearded man’s eyes. His pupils seemed impossibly tiny, little more than pinpricks, which would have struck the masked attendant as odd for someone who had just emerged from such a dark place. Except that the man was not capable of forming such questions, nor of speculating on any other curious aspect of his master, the uncanny Guru, supreme leader of S.H.I.V.A.
“Inform the technicians to increase the ratio of smoke to atmosphere by twenty units. The current solution is too dilute for sustained efficacy.”
As he spoke in clipped, unaccented tones, the Guru’s pupils began to return to normal, though his eyes seemed to flash with a certain inner light.
“It shall be done, superior master.”
The outer door of the airlock cycled open and the Guru stepped out smartly, followed by the masked man at a respectful distance. The corridor outside was of plain concrete, brightened by functional strip lights overhead. The air held the suggestion of a chill, the hint of a breeze. Distant sounds of machines and men echoed off the hard walls. The masked man disappeared through a nearby door as the Guru turned the other way, his hands clasped lightly behind his back, slippered feet leading him through double doors marked ‘RE-EDUCATION CENTRE’.
A short bespectacled fellow in a soiled lab coat hurried up to usher him into a small viewing room.
“Ah, Great One, thank you for joining us. I know your time is, ah, precious at this time of-”
With a wave of his hand, the Guru cut the man short and moved to the long one-way glass that filled the room’s further wall.
“How does the new conditioning process fare?”
The technician hovered at his shoulder, sometimes addressing the Guru’s left ear, sometimes looking down at his feet. Nervous fear rolled off the man like sweat.
“Well, as you know we had experienced some, ah, teething trouble with the process early on, but now, with the ah, acquisition of the Brodsky method, I believe we have achieved some measure of success.”
He shuffled closer to the window, through which a young man could be seen, strapped to something resembling a dentist’s chair. Before him stood a small cinema screen displaying moving images one after another in swift succession, accompanied by taped classical music. Disturbingly, the young man’s head was held in place with a metal cap, his eyelids pulled open by cruel prongs.
“He is being administered the drug?”
“Yes Great One, in increasing dosages with each session. The cumulative effect is quite marked.”
The young man writhed in the chair, unable to turn his head away from the cinema screen or even blink. The images before him seemed innocuous enough - a couple holding hands, a child playing with a puppy, a English policeman helping an elderly woman cross the road – but they seemed to induce in him reactions of the most extreme distaste and even nausea, as if these examples of simple humanity were anathema to him.
“A week ago, he was an unaffected youth taken from the streets of an urban housing development, his head full of music and poetry. When the conditioning is complete, he will find all aspects of charity, affection and rebellion totally alien concepts. Only regular bouts of extreme violence will give him any pleasure at all.”
The technician stepped back, pleased with his pronouncements. Finally, the Guru turned to look him in the eye. The man instinctively flinched under the gaze.
“And the other crucial element..?”
“Ah, yes, yes Great One. If you will continue to observe?”
The images and music faded away to be replaced by a slide projection of the Guru’s head glaring unblinkingly at the young man. The single word ‘OBEY’ hovered over the projected face in large, bold letters.
“Excellent. Continue with the treatment and report back to me within the week. I have plans for him and his young friends.”
The Guru left the viewing room and continued on, passing several squads of guards who all stopped to bow as he approached. He halted at a door marked ‘Armoury’ behind which muffled gunfire could be heard. Inside, he was met by another technician, this one wearing goggles and ear protection. The room itself was a high ceilinged shooting range, where several masked guards were honing their skills with rifle and pistol. The deafening cacophony of the gunshots halted as the Guru entered and the men turned as one to acknowledge his presence.
He raised an eyebrow as someone continued to fire. Powerful reports came in regular bursts, punctuated only by the sound of the weapon being reloaded. It was the furthest booth, shielded from view. The technician gestured wordlessly and beckoned the Guru to follow him to the booth, where a man dressed in a charcoal suit and tie was firing a shotgun methodically from the hip.
The man did not seem to register the Guru’s presence, pumping and firing with robotic rhythm at a series of cardboard targets before him – childlike images of a beardless Viking, a portly pirate, a saggy cloth cat – each target was shredded by the city gent’s shot with cold, unemotional precision.
To one side of the man sat a small tape player, issuing a short flatulent sound as each target rolled in front of him. There was a slight twitch in the man’s eyes when it sounded, as if recalling some deep-seated hostility. The noise rasped again and he pulled the trigger at whatever stood before him.
The Guru nodded in approval and motioned for the technician to follow him out of the room.
“Impressive. Where was this one found?”
“Wandering naked on a beach, master. We tend to find quite a few like him. Middle-aged, frustrated, aimless. Crying out for direction and an outlet for decades of impotent anger. He will do well in our sleeper programme.”
“Indeed. Have him progress to targets of real humans. Strangers, then work colleagues and finally family. When he is ready, inform me at once.”
“It shall be done, superior master.”
The Guru’s slippered feet next led him to a large room something like a gymnasium, where the smell of sweat and blood mingled with the exotic spicy incense wafting up from braziers placed at each corner of the training area. Several robed men fought each other with wickedly sharp hand weapons, watched over by a muscle-bound slab of a man seemingly held together by scar tissue and scowls.
Most of the combatants were already bleeding from cuts to their bodies, and at least one lay slumped and writhing on the concrete floor, a tell-tale pool of red collecting beneath him. Another man took a terrible slash across his chest from his opponent, opening up a deep wound. But he did not scream, nor did he pause in his own counter attack. If the man even felt the pain of his chest injury, he did not show it.
At a tiny motion from the Guru, the scowling trainer barked to the sparring men and the flashing knives grew still. The men assembled into a line before their supreme master, panting, sweating, bleeding. The Guru passed along the line, gazing at each man in turn with narrowed eyes, taking in every detail.
He stopped at one man.
“You, what is your purpose?”
“I have no other purpose but to serve the will of S.H.I.V.A.”
“And what is your pleasure?”
“I have no pleasure, save to die for the glory of S.H.I.V.A.”
The called response, spoken with sufficient fervour, evidently pleased the Guru. He addressed another of the fighting men.
“And what should be done with their weak?”
“The weak cannot be suffered to live.”
At this the Guru’s head turned to where the badly wounded man continued to thrash and moan in his own pool of blood. The others understood immediately his intent and surrounded the injured man. A voice cried out. Knives rose and fell.
At length, he nodded and turned to their trainer.
“These four,” he indicated the least wounded of the fighting men, “will serve as my personal guard. Have their injuries dressed and report to me in the control room.”
“It shall be done, Perfect Sage of Deaths!” the scarred man replied smartly, using an archaic title from the Guru’s past, bringing a brief twitch of a smile to his lips.
His inspection of the trainees complete, he ascended several windowless floors, passing barracks, holding cells and generator rooms eventually emerging into the open air, the very summit of Mount Nirvana, his impregnable eyrie.
Frigid Himalayan air whipped around him, but the Guru barely registered the temperature difference, or the thinness of the atmosphere at such an altitude. He turned to take in the vista. Mighty snow-draped peaks surrounded the base on all sides, an impenetrable bulwark against land forces, should any be so cunning as to discover the location of this, S.H.I.V.A.’s most formidable fortress. Not to mention so foolish as to attempt a direct assault.
He stood on the flat, snow-blown concrete roof, overlooking Mount Nirvana’s central compound. Below him, men scurried like mice, unloading the cable car, carrying out routine maintenance on the radio mast, patrolling the vertiginous perimeter walls. He briefly considered his lieutenants, abroad in the outer world, but soon to return. The butcher Köhner and beautiful, deadly Kali should be here to witness his imminent moment of triumph.
It amused him to allow Kali to retain some measure of free will, of choice. To do otherwise would be to crush her spirit so completely as to eradicate that fiery wilfulness that made her so formidable. Making use of her was not unlike grasping a tiger by the tail, but he remained confident of his ability to tame her when the time came.
Köhner on the other hand was a different proposition. He would never accept the Guru’s control, not fully. The man was a born survivor and with that instinct came the inevitable whiff of betrayal. Still, he was useful for the time being, as long the Guru continued to place the man in the thick of danger where he would succumb to his violent nature.
So much for his own people, his pawns in the great game he played against the world. But what of those arrayed before him, he mused. The flamboyant double agents and enigmatic men of tomorrow? For the time being he was confident that none of his old enemies suspected S.H.I.V.A.’s presence up here in the remote icy heights. But that was not to say nobody was moving against him.
Unfamiliar pieces had begun assembling, moving, forming strange alliances. He had detected a distinctively feminine element entering the game. A woman… no, women, and with a strong connection to each other. A rival cult perhaps? The ties between them seemed as thick as blood, bonds as unbreakable as those of his own loyal followers once their re-education was complete.
These new pieces seemed to move across the board with ease and great speed, unfettered by restrictions of distance. Great Britain, the Alps, even here in the Himalayas themselves, he had glimpsed these new pieces gathering their own forces, their own sacrificial pawns. And always at their centre, a gap where the prime mover should be. Invisible, even to the Guru’s unearthly Game of Antares, this player was somehow shielded from detection. Truly a rival player to test his intellect.
But still… it would be well to draw his own pawns close. Just as a precaution. Perhaps an inspection of the base’s defences was called for.
The security office, tucked away in one corner of the wind-swept compound, was composed largely of flickering internal television screens, depicting almost every room, corridor, and sub-basement of Mount Nirvana. As the guard on monitor duty stood to attention, the Guru saw that he had been reviewing a muted film reel.
The angle was taken from high up in some vast natural stone chamber, a cavern perhaps, or dormant volcano. In the foreground atop a fragile gantry, a Chinese man screamed silently at hard-hatted minions, his fists clenching emphatically before him. The hands glinted with a tell-tale metallic sheen in the camera lens.
“Now, he showed promise,” the Guru mused out loud, and then addressed the security guard directly. “Maintain the utmost vigilance. Pieces are moving across the board in unexpected patterns.”
The man nodded in dumb compliance. The Guru stepped outside into the chill air once more and crossed the compound. A flash of metal low to the ground caught his eye, as a strange mechanical construct skittered across the stones and halted before him, buzzing with electronic intelligence. He stooped to inspect the foot-long mechanoid, an oversized steel and plastic arthropod with bulging silver globes for eyes and twitching, jointed cilia for locomotion.
Producing a small control box from inside his garments, the Guru briefly tinkered with the dials as the mechanoid reversed and turned at his command. He whistled as if to a pet robotic dog, and the bizarre construct scuttled away again, disappearing round the corner of a utility building. A robot dog? He dismissed the preposterous idea as swiftly as he had thought of it and headed for the building marked ‘CONTROL ROOM’.
Like all loyal followers of S.H.I.V.A., the technicians within the main control room leapt to their feet when he entered. Below long windows which looked out on the Himalayan range, large electronic consoles blinked and beeped. Nearby banks of computer tapes whirred back and forth with the constant motion of calculation. The Guru stood in the centre of the room and breathed it all in. Here was where he would reach out and change this world.
A technician with a clipboard bent his head in supplication.
“Great One, preliminary tests of the Weatherbreaker satellite have yielded one hundred per cent success, as predicted.
“Indeed. And the test target?”
“The English village you selected was completely devastated, master. Local meteorological patterns were warped to produce concentrated cyclonic and electrical conditions of unprecedented magnitude.”
A television screen to one side showed a news report of cottages and farm houses flattened and charred, a crying child clutching a tattered toy bear in the foreground.
“Excellent. Proceed with preparations for a large-scale demonstration. It is time the governments of the world learnt to respect our power.”
“Do you have a suggested target, master?”
The Guru considered.
“Somewhere large, well-populated. A capital city. London..? Washington..? Somewhere with a large lightning conductor to facilitate the destruction. Something tall and metallic…”
Then it came to him. It would be perfect.
“Align the satellite for Paris. I want it reduced to smoking rubble within twenty-four hours.”

Nothing on this planet could stop S.H.I.V.A. now. Nothing could stop him. Who would dare? 

Sunday, 9 November 2014

OHMCS: The Mountain

This fifth instalment of the On Her Majesty's Crooked Service collection takes us right up to the front door of the adventure itself, a remote, forbidding region of the Himalayas. At the end of the story, we meet the last of the three Dare sisters: Charlie, the tomboyish mechanic.

I was quite pleased with this story. Of all of them, this one started as the blankest canvas, with just a line in the original game about 'Charlie Dare and her mountain rescue team'. I tried hard to create a likeable group of credible, skilled good guys going about the business, whilst at the same time giving a decent impression of conditions up in the high peaks, and tingeing it all with a nameless menace lurking in the snowfields.

If anyone wants to to know what takes up the most time when writing a story for me, it's coming up with believable but not stereotypical names for the international cast of characters. You wouldn't believe how long I spent going through names of Sherpas.

* * *

The Mountain

Fabrizio cursed under his breath in his native Italian as he made his way slowly up the sheer mountain face. Below him were the rest of the hastily assembled rescue team, held together by lengths of rope which twisted distressingly in the high Himalayan winds. Tendzen’s rosy-cheeked face grinned up at him about twenty feet below his feet, with his brother Jangbu the same distance lower down. The others, Rikichi and Lorcas, were doll-sized figures even further below, slightly hidden by the outcropping rock. But he could feel the tension on the rope and knew he could trust them all. They were climbers, mountain men like himself. You had to rely on each other if were to survive the mountain. You just had to.
He repositioned his feet to get a better purchase and shifted his weight, probing with one hand for the next crevice. As he did so, Fabrizio could just see something above him. Something red and curved, quite out of place here in this land of grey and black and white.
“It is the tent. I see it!” he called down to the others. There were shouts of encouragement from below and reminders not to rush now that their objective was in sight. It was all too easy to forget yourself in the last few moments of any climb, to believe that all was well now. But the truth of the mountain was that you could never relax, never let yourself believe that nothing could possibly go wrong now, because that was when the mountain would remind you who was in charge.
He chuckled to himself at the superstitious, almost religious, way that he had come to think of life up here. But he knew he was not alone in that. They all had their little mental tricks or systems, things that they believed kept them safe from disaster. Rikichi had the polaroid of his girlfriend back in Osaka that he carried in his jacket pocket all times, fishing it out whenever they reached a summit, as if to show her the roof of the world. Lorcas would softly sing old Alpine folk songs to himself as he climbed, pretending he was still a boy, playing on the lower slopes of the Eiger. As for the two Sherpas, Tendzen and Jangbu often joked that their mother would kill them if anything were to happen to either of them. And having met their mother, Fabrizio knew that to be a threat even the mountain would have to respect.
Within the hour he had reached the tent. It clung to the side of the mountain like a barnacle, its brightly coloured man-made fabric bulging out and down from the weight of its contents. Fabrizio called out when he got closer, and was relieved to hear someone answering him from inside the tent, followed by a small but obvious shifting motion, like a baby in its mother’s womb.
The tent had been securely fastened to the rock wall at several points, but he could see that at least one of the pitons had worked loose, causing it to droop dangerously at one side. Surely the inhabitant was aware of the situation, but his reported injuries must have prevented him from reaching outside his flimsy shelter to secure the piton again.
Fabrizio positioned himself just to one side of the tent, forcing himself to look straight out from the rock wall at the cavernous nothingness that sometimes felt like a giant mouth about to inhale. He thought of Jonah and the whale, and of Pinocchio drawn into the great yawning maw of Il Terribile Pescecane. Then reminding himself that this was just another of the mountain’s mind games, he turned his head to one side, where Tendzen was making his way across the last few feet of rock to join him.
Together, they first secured the loose piton and then unzipped the tent’s flap carefully, all the while reassuring the man inside in a variety of languages. The emergency radio report they had received several days ago had been unclear as to his exact nationality, only that he was injured and in need of immediate rescue.
By a process of elimination, they determined that he was a Russian, part of a team attempting to claim the peak for the greater glory of the Soviet people. His injuries amounted to a broken leg, caused by a fall of some forty feet from a ledge above them, and a bloody gash across his shoulder, which looked more like someone had taken several knives to him than anything else. The man himself was cold, hungry and obviously in pain, but at least there seemed to be no hint of infection. Fabrizio and Tendzen both tended to his injuries as best they could, immobilising the leg and dressing the shoulder wound, then communicated to him that they were going to start lowering him down the rock wall to firmer ground, from where they would begin the long descent back to camp.
The man nodded, clearly eager to be moving, despite the inherent dangers in moving from his relatively safe position. He muttered something in Russian several times that neither he nor Tendzen understood, and then shook his head, as if dismissing a foolish notion. But he had spent days alone strapped to the side of a mountain, suspended above thin air, and Fabrizio knew full well how that might affect a man’s mind.
It took more than an hour to rig up a makeshift stretcher from the man’s sleeping bag, fixing extra pitons and carabiners, and passing extra rope down to Jangbu and the others to stabilise the bag as they lowered the man down. He winced and swore more than once as Fabrizio and Tendzen took the strain and played the rope out, trying not to let the bag bounce into the rock wall too often.
At length, and with more than a few close calls, the wounded man reached the firmer ground some hundred and fifty feet below, where Lorcas and Rikichi set about making a more thorough inspection of his injuries, breaking out the morphine and oxygen. By the time the others had climbed back down themselves, the Russian was much revived, though still unable to walk, and in deep conversation with Rikichi, who spoke Russian almost as well as his own Japanese.
Lorcas came over to Fabrizio and the two brothers, a puzzled expression on his weathered face.
“It is strange. The Russian’s injuries, they look like slash wounds, not from rocks, but blades. Or maybe a great cat or bear.”
“But there’s nothing that large at this altitude. Are you sure, Lorcas?”
“Definitely, mio amico. Three parallel incisions, some two inches apart. Claws, perhaps.”
At those words, Tendzen’s and Jangbu’s faces darkened and they exchanged worried looks.
“We go now. It is not safe here.” They both looked around as they spoke, and quickly set to collecting their gear.
As the team slowly descended to the pass, Rikichi moved up to join Fabrizio at the front, both of them planting their feet carefully on the packed snow. He looked eager to talk.
“What is it, Riki? Has he got worse?”
“His injuries? No. He will survive if we get him to the camp in time. No, it is what he says. About the attack.”
“Attack?” Fabrizio wasn’t sure his friend had used the right word.
“He says he fell because something was chasing him, that night in the snow. He had wandered away from his companions for some air, and caught sight of something strange in the distance. Lights, flashing on and off, high up on one of the more remote peaks.”
“Did he say which one?” Fabrizio knew there were still plenty of parts of the Himalayas that remained unconquered. But perhaps some other team was even now attempting the ascent of an as-yet unclimbed mountain.
“Mount Nirvana.” Rikichi replied, his voice flat. That particular peak was something of a local mystery, considered bad luck among the mountaineering community. Those who left to ascend it rarely returned, and those that did often spoke of freak accidents, avalanches and members simply… disappearing in the night.
“But what was chasing him? Did he see it?” In his mind, Fabrizio thought of the legendary yeti, the wen-di-go of the Himalayas, said to haunt these high, lonely valleys.
“It was dark, he said, but whatever it was moved quickly and softly, hunting him across the snowfields until it caught him on the shoulder as you saw. He staggered back to his team’s camp where they did what little they could for him, without medical training.”
“So they hung him over the side and left? Dio mio.”
“He said they were scared Fabi, in fear of their lives. Whatever it was had come for them twice more in the night. With their own wounds, they could not hope to move fast with an injured man, so they put him where they thought he would not be easily reached, and made their own way down at first light and headed for the nearest village. Whatever attacked them, it’s still out there, somewhere in the snows.”
They both shivered, and not from the cold.
The team pressed on, making good time in spite of their wounded burden, Jangbu making jokes in broken English and Lorcas singing his Swiss tunes to raise their spirits. But still they all felt unsettled, as if unseen eyes were upon them, from somewhere up in the rocks. That night, they took the watch in pairs.
In the morning, the sun glinting off the icy peaks above, they continued their descent, negotiating treacherous narrow ledges and crevasse-strewn ice bridges, ever aware that they were not quite alone. Even Tendzen had stopped smiling, and had his knife out as if expecting an attack at any moment. They were all tense, hardly speaking except to point out natural hazards.
They felt it first as a vibration, a low rumbling, and all feared an avalanche. Then it became a noise, grinding, squeaking and clattering. It was Rikichi who spotted it first, lumbering up the whitened slopes to meet them, belching smoke and churning the snow beneath its great treads.
Fabrizio drew his pistol, unsure what to expect. A vehicle, up here? But there was no such rescue machine within five hundred miles. And who would be mad enough to drive up here anyway?
As it rumbled closer, the team could make out a figure inside the snow-machine’s cabin, wrenching the steering controls left and right with seeming abandon. Unseen attackers on the mountain, strange lights on the peaks, and now this? Perhaps altitude sickness had claimed them all.
The vehicle ground to a halt and disgorged its driver, a smallish figure bundled up in a curiously designed jumpsuit. Twirling a large spanner as another might idly flip a coin, the figure stomped through the snow toward them, a pony-tail visible beneath her woolly hat. Fabrizio could only stare in sheer disbelief. A girl..?

“Hello chaps, Charlie Dare. I was in the area and heard you might need a lift. Hop in and I’ll explain what you can do for me in return.”

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

OHMCS: Soldier on Watch

In this short story, we meet Eric Köhner, late of the SS and now right hand man of the malevolent menace known as the Guru.

I thought it would be fun to write a piece as viewed through the eyes of the master villain's deputy, someone who is all too aware of the short life expectancy of your average 'baddie's minion'. Unlike the deadly Kali, Köhner is a pragmatic mercenary, rather than a brainwashed loyalist to the Guru's cause. He cares little for his employer's devilish master plan; he's only here for 'the money and the bloodshed' (itself a shout-out to an obscure mercenary character played by In At The Deep End's Paul Heiney in the comedy film Water (1985).

The title of the story is taken from the original German title of Lili MarleenKöhner's favourite song. Note the foreshadowing of the short story The Perfect Sage of Deaths, when Köhner muses on the Guru's apparent game-playing. Biberswald is the name of the town in a German textbook I read at school (hey, if Dr Who can reuse Latin textbook character Caecilius in Fires of Pompei...).

Köhner is one of those old Nazi officers who never quite salutes properly, as identified in this classic Smith and Jones sketch:

Points will be awarded for naming the homage to a classic 20th century adventure novel in the opening lines, as well as identifying the origins of Köhner's two dogs.

* * *

Soldier on Watch

Köhner returned to base at 1500 that midwinter day with a mood as black as the old SS uniform he kept in his quarters. He had now spent some twelve weeks in the mountains and was thoroughly sick of the place.
Disembarking from the cable car and stepping out into the frigid air of the high Himalayas, he scowled at his surroundings and stamped his boots in the snow.
Mount Nirvana was the base of his employer’s latest project, some nonsense to do with satellites that he only pretended to understand. That sort of thing was best left to over-educated scientists and the Guru himself, who seemed to revel in every little technical detail of his infernal schemes. To Köhner, it often seemed that his uncanny master saw these plots and schemes as little more than a game, some ridiculously complicated game of chess with thousands of pieces and a board the size of the world.
And what did that make Köhner himself? A pawn? Certainly not. Was he not a former Scharführer of the infamous SS, the so-called ‘Butcher of Biberswald’? Had he not commanded troops of his own, leading his men into the teeth of battle? Had he himself not ordered the deaths of countless others, be they armed enemy units, bothersome captives or simply intransigent local peasants? No, no pawn he, but not a king either, not while he leapt to the strange, often unknowable, whims of his cruel employer.
Köhner mused for a moment at his own self-delusion. To think of his relationship with the Guru as that of employer and employee, or even general and captain, was to put far too pleasant, far too civilized, a face on matters. Nobody ever left the Guru’s service, nobody ever mustered out or moved on to other opportunities, not even valued personnel such as Eric Köhner. To his knowledge, the only way anybody ever left S.H.I.V.A. was by their death.
As he marched across the icy compound to the bunker entrance, he found himself mentally tallying the staggeringly high mortality rate of S.H.I.V.A. personnel by the Guru’s own command: whether it was trial by deadly combat, to relieve his boredom or to blood a new assassin, as a hapless test subject for some new laser device or sonic cannon, or far too often, slain by the Guru’s loyal, beautiful shadow Kali as punishment for some failure to please.
How Köhner himself had survived this long in S.H.I.V.A. was nothing short of a miracle, though he liked to think it had a little to do with his unique combination of ruthless efficiency and a willingness to sacrifice an underling in case of disaster. Survival was all to Köhner, survival and the glorious roar of battle.
The bunker’s interior, shielded from the freezing temperature and merciless winds outside by several feet of concrete, was a welcome shelter from the elements, which Köhner had noticed had become even harsher since the Guru had begun experimenting with his latest electronic toy. He shook the snow from his outer garments as two guards saluted him sharply, as he had drilled them to do.
Köhner flicked back a casual salute of his own, too pre-occupied with his thoughts to register their faces, though it scarcely mattered. Why waste his time with the names and faces of men who could be dead by next week? Or tomorrow? Or within the hour, should the Guru’s mood take him? Besides, they were hardly soldier material, little more than uniformed thugs better suited to guarding the doors to some dingy Hamburg nightclub. Not like his old squad in Der Zweite Weltkrieg, his dogs of death. Now those were real soldiers; well-trained, well-armed, well-led. Not like this scum.
He turned down a concrete corridor and caught sight of a guard standing at ease by a laboratory door. Köhner came to a halt in front of him and looked the man in the eye. Snapping to attention far too late, the fellow fairly vibrated on the spot, beads of nervous sweat breaking out beneath his visor, his hand quivering against the butt of his shouldered rifle. He held the guard’s gaze for a few more seconds, leaning in slightly and breathing down his nose.
“As you were.” he drawled, and moved on. Spineless wretch. How could he hope to lead such as that into battle? Fear was a palpable presence in Mount Nirvana, as it was in all S.H.I.V.A. bases. It was something Köhner understood, and harnessed as best he could, though even he felt its debilitating effects scraping away at his well-ordered mind.
He came to the guards’ barracks and stood at the open door, nodding to his sergeant, an American brute called Cobb who had distinguished himself, though his former superiors in the U.S. Army might have said ‘disgraced’, by his bloody activities in Southeast Asia. A useful man, Cobb stood to attention, dropping an oily rag he had been using to maintain his sidearm, currently in pieces on an upturned packing case. Glad to see someone as eager as he for action, Köhner nodded to his subordinate and let the man get on with his work.
Before reaching his personal quarters, the Scharführer paused at some kennels, where two of the base’s savage attack dogs instantly leapt at the bars of their confinement, snarling and biting, their claws grating against the metalwork.
“Ach, you are hungry, yes?” inquired Köhner, squatting down to the beasts’ level, careful to keep just out of reach as they continued to snap and slaver with a near rabid fervour. He fished in the pockets of his outer coat and pulled out something red and ragged. “You like this, Struppi?” He dangled the scrap before one of the dogs, which lunged forward eagerly, teeth flashing inches from Köhner’s face. He grinned. “And you Blondi, you want this too, hein?”
Now both hounds jostled for the meaty morsel as he tossed it between the bars and let them fight for the treat, tearing it to pieces between them in seconds.
Seconds passed as he took in every detail of this ferocious, primeval scene. “We are not so different you and I,” he said, standing and idly wiping his reddened fingers with a handkerchief. “Like you, I hunger, for battle, for the glorious rush of the blood, the sound of men struggling for their lives, for their deaths!”
His voice had risen considerably in volume during his address, and a little self-consciously, Köhner nodded to the squabbling dogs and let himself into his quarters, closing the door with a satisfyingly well-oiled click.
The room was small - he did not require much space for comforts - but furnished according to his needs. A bed, a clothes stand where his old uniform hung, a wall-mounted rack for a few automatic weapons, a dog-eared, black and white photograph of Eichmann and an ageing gramophone player. He put a record on and moved the needle over. Scratchy, familiar words crackled out of the speaker as Köhner shrugged off his outer coat and sat down on the bed, closing his eyes to better take in the music.
“Ah Lili, it was always you, only ever you,” his mind drifting back across the years to a younger man, a soldier alone on the front. Köhner’s whole body began to relax, the months of inactivity up here in the mountains, the endless drills, the capricious cruelties of his master, the utter monotony, all melted away with the music. Now he was at peace, now he could-
The Mount Nirvana security alarm sounded, drowning out the tinny old record. Harsh, insistent klaxons which could only mean that there was a security breach. Köhner became instantly alert, eyes now wide open, hands reaching for his weapons with practised fluidity.
Bursting from his quarters, he raced along the stark corridors of the bunker heading toward his assigned defensive position, as he had long trained – dare he say hoped? – for.
Men scrambled from the barracks and other points, converging on Köhner, looking to him for leadership.
“You, you, you and you, with me, to the communications mast. Cobb,” the sergeant loomed at his side, “take two men and secure the radar array.” The American grunted and loped off across the compound.
“And somebody bring the dogs. Schnell!”