Story Snippet — Operation Renfield by Steve Johnson

A special treat! A snippet of Operation Renfield by Steven Johnson. (First novel any child in my family ever finished was: Up In Smoke by Steven Johnson.)


Up in smoke

A different book, also by Steven Johnson. ;-)


King in the Morning

The morning report listed sixty-six effectives in K Company. Of the names I recognized, half were dead or missing. That wasn’t a big slice of the sixty-six.

“I hear they got the new six-inch mortars up at Essen now,” Willie told me. He tilted his head down to keep his cigarette going in the rain, but his massive nose was doing that all by itself.

“Good,” I said. “Maybe they’ll grind up some decent potions for once. That stuff they sent up last week didn’t do anything but make my teeth green.”

“Ah, that’s the fungus, Joe,” Willie suggested. “Only greens we’re likely to get our teeth into for a while.”

I scratched at the gap between my front teeth. There wasn’t anything to say to that; it was the truth, pure and simple. Not “God’s honest truth”, though. Nobody would use God’s name to talk about Waldorfsbruck.

We were on the reverse slope of a hill, which was good and bad. Good, because the Austros couldn’t tell exactly where we were without sending over a broomstick, and with our drake-jockeys watching over us, they weren’t likely to survive the attempt.

Bad, because the rain went past like a babbling brook, curling over every little rock and tent peg. Sure, the grass and bushes would hold the dirt down, but that was before the U.S. Army came stomping around in our shoe-pacs. We weren’t knee-deep in gluey mud, which was something. But we were ankle-deep in cold water, which isn’t any picnic either.

Plus, whenever the Enemy settled in for a while, everything else went gray and died. It takes a lot of cursing to keep a vampire officer up and at ‘em night after night. Takes even more to keep their mortal soldiers in line, when every decent instinct is trying to leap right out of their skulls and drag the rest of them along for the ride.

The Austro-Hungarian morale problem was less like our Army’s and more like our prisons’, or our psycho wards. There’s one, count ‘im, ONE Angel of Mental Stability in the whole of the Heirarchy, and don’t think for a minute he’s not half buggy himself from the flood of prayers he gets from our Invocational Warfare boys. Fighting the undead, we wind up with blasted near more head cases than neck wounds.

Of course they’re not all vampires. For one thing, who would they eat?

So all those evil spirits churning around gets into the soil, and the trees, and whatever lived around here, and it wears ‘em out. Can a germ feel despair? I don’t see it, myself, but I did know that an open cut up at the front lines never got infected. Guys got sloppy about cleaning their mess kits, and never a bellyache. Docs didn’t have to wash their gear in alcohol, even, although they did anyway.

Waldorfsbruck was dead.  Deader than Caesar. Deader than chivalry, in fact, because there are still a few Knights of St. John around, holding back the Dark with their bulletproof crosses. Everything natural except us was dead, and we were trying mighty hard to make the UN-natural dead, too.

The unnaturals on the Enemy’s side, of course. Our golems and dwarves are just good Old Folk.

“So,” I said after I tracked down the last piece of breakfast, “how many guys do we really have?”

“Forty-some,” Willie allowed after a pause for thought. “Simms and them’re at Mine Warfare School until, uh, the 28th. What’s today?”

“It’s right there at the top of the report,” I groused, to keep from having to admit I didn’t know the date, either.

“Can’t the Old Man get ‘em back early?” Willie said. “I thought we had dwarves for all that underground stuff.”

I chewed my lip, where a baby moustache was boldly defying regulations.

“Yeah, but dwarves,” I said. He knew what I meant. There aren’t many of the Old Folk left, although they’re more common in Europe than back home in America. We’d been around them some since coming Over Here, and they weren’t bad guys, just different. You literally never knew where they’d pop up. We have maps, because the ground is flat and we can’t fly. They got map rooms, layered with different colors like a Dagwood sandwich. Always looking up, always crouching with their hands in the dirt. Always tasting everything. Not twitchy, like some guys get on the Line. The exact opposite, in fact. So quiet and calm that when they finally did speak, you couldn’t believe that down-in-the-well rumble was actually coming from them.

Also, I could never understand their accent.

“We gotta get better at this tunneling bit,” I opined. “There ain’t but so many dwarves to go ‘round. And the other side’s got most of ‘em.”

“Zat why their dwarves’re so much better’n our dwarves?”

“Mebbe,” I allowed. “And they’re trained better. Cuz they’re really trained, like a dog. Ours are free to do whatever they want.”

“S’what we’re fighting for,” Willie drawled out. “Ain’t it?”

“Not getting bit in the middle of the night’s the main thing,” I countered. “But, yeah, freedom. I guess. Hope someone gets some, somewhere. Cuz there ain’t an eye-a-newt of a lot of it in th’Army.”

I hear back home some guys think the way we cuss Over Here makes us sound sissified. Back there you hear “damn” and “Hell” even in the nice places. They can go tell the Marines, the way I see it. Why give the Enemy any more ammunition?

I scratched a little – at least the lice died up here on the Line – and stood on an ammo crate to see through the rain. There weren’t any trees left; the boys burned them for warmth before the place went gray. So it wasn’t hard to make out our tents, three twelve-man rigs and a Baker for the captain. We were down in a shallow swale that was pretty good concealment before the bushes died. As it was now, it was still cover from the chest down.

To our right was the pavilion of the Excellent Master of the Oaken Hunt. The carbon-arc spotlight filaments were smoking hot; Elves like it bright. The stovepipe chimney was roaring, too, because Dwarves like it hot. And there were piles of slime in the corners, with a Troll wriggling fat and happy in each one, half in and half out of the tent.

I hear they call it coalition warfare.

On the left were three trucks with tarps over the sides for a lean-to. Those British guys with the berets. Bred to command. They can make you do whatever they want. Tell you to eat a live grenade and you'll think it's the best idea ever. Doesn't work so hot when your enemy speaks one of eleven languages, though. The Austros deliberately kept their nationalities separate; you never knew if you were up against a Serbian regiment, or Galician Poles, or Ruthenians, whatever they were. Can't understand your Voice, can't obey it. There wasn't generally a lot of work for the Commandos.

 An infantry regiment has nine rifle companies, A through I. Headquarters is J-for-Juliet, the artillery is L, M and N, and Oscar Co. is transportation. Sometimes there’s a tank company attached, but they’re all numbers instead of letters. What with most of the fighting being at night, every regiment’s had a reconnaissance company authorized for a while now. That’s us, K-for-King.

That is, we’re a reconnaissance company in theory. Most times, we’re the regimental reserve, the Colonel’s bodyguard, military police and rock-straighteners. But once in a while, when the gremlins stop hexing our Jeeps, we go out and poke around to find out where the Enemy is, and what he’s up to.

The Austros, we know about. They have to have a vampire to keep their men in hand, so they move around in company-size clumps. Officer likes the night, but the men can only see in the day. So they don’t move around all that much. Our overlays show every enemy unit in the valley. Every day.

But the real Enemy supplying the Austros with their magical oomph? They’re a little beyond my pay grade. nobody knows how many Dark Forces there really are, or what they can do. We don't even really know what they want. When every demon with any influence is both smarter than us and a psychotic liar, how can we trust anything we hear?

Well, yeah. We can trust one Source. But He doesn't issue morning reports.