The third novel in a World War I alternate history series where America's greatest weapon against Germany is Black Chamber secret agent Luz O'Malley and technical genius Ciara Whelan. Only they can protect America's best hope of winning the war.
The Great War is at a stalemate, and the only thing stopping Germany from striking America is the threat of the United States using their own Annihilation Gas against them. But America's supply is quickly decaying and the Central Powers know it.
A plant is under construction in the remote highlands of Mexico so that America can make their own supply. President Teddy Roosevelt assigns crack agent Luz O'Malley and her technical genius Ciara Whelan to watch over the plant operating under cover identities.
But German agent Horst von Duckler has escaped from the POW camp in El Paso, and he's heading in the same directionbent on revenge against Luz, and sabotage that will deprive America of its deterrent and kill tens of thousands.
About the Author
S. M. Stirling is the author of many science fiction and fantasy novels. A former lawyer and an amateur historian, he lives with his wife, Jan.
Read an Excerpt
Sierra de Cardos
State of Zacatecas
United States Protectorate of México
June 15th, 1917, 1917(b)
Horst von Dückler listened to the hollow clop of mule-hooves coming closer up the rocky slope where he lay, and the clatter of stones knocked free and bouncing downward. He picked up the ugly slab-sided Yankee CBSLR-13-Colt-Browning self-loading rifle, model of 1913, R-13 for short-with a slow minimal motion, winding a loop of the sling around his left biceps as he did. The guerillas had all concealed themselves with the same skill, or nearly.
He'd fitted a scavenged x3 telescopic sight to the helpfully provided standard mounts machined into the left side of the receiver, and wrapped a length of rough burlap around the barrel and stuck small bits of vegetation into it to break up the eye-catching outline. He brought it to his shoulder now and began carefully scanning, squinting against the bright sun. Nothing would show from below but another bit of mountainside. The Americans patrolled these mountains . . . and sometimes their Rangers, or even worse, their Filipino Ranger mercenaries, would infiltrate in small parties and lie up for weeks to catch . . . or just shoot . . . or otherwise kill . . . anyone unauthorized.
It was officially a national park around here now, Roosevelt's regime loved those, but he thought they also used it as a training ground with a chance of live targets that could shoot back to keep their troops on their toes. He had a good position, with a view through a narrow crack in the rock, several alternative firing points if there was a fight, and a covered path of retreat up a steep ravine that cut the bare pillars of the cliffs behind him.
And none of those verdammten cactus spines digging into me, for once, he thought.
It was a little hot in this afternoon of a summer's day, but the dryness of the high thin air made it easy to bear now that he'd adjusted to the altitude and learned how important it was to keep drinking water even when not thirsty; the heavy scent of baking pine sap and sweet yellow-flowered huizache trees and nameless spicy herbs hid his own sweat. Insects clicked and buzzed, much louder than in a European forest.
This was much easier to bear than August 1914 had been, in the endless thick brazen heat of the forced marches west and south that ended at the Marne.
Horst had been an Oberleutnant of twenty-six and in superb hard condition in that year, and sometimes his legs and feet still ached at the memory when he awoke from dreams of it. Dreams where he once more saw and smelled blood leaking from boots that marched and marched and marched, men staggering and falling in their tracks or moving with unnoticed tears cutting muddy tracks down their faces, tens of thousands of foundered horses stinking in clouds of flies by the roadsides, their blind eyes still seeming to beg. That even before they met the deadly stutter of the French Hotchkiss machine-guns. And the still-worse fauchage the 75 mm guns spat out, sweeping acres of ground at a time with shrapnel that cast up dust in a boiling cloud.
Racing toward you as if it were sudden hammering raindrops in a thunderstorm, sweeping across the stubble of the harvested wheat fields while the shells cracked like black flowers in the air above . . .
This was pleasant by comparison. And his recent and not-so-recent wounds had finally stopped hurting much, after a spell in which he'd kept going on drink and determination and awed the locals by the amount of mezcal he could consume with no visible effects. Hiding in these Mexican mountains like a field-mouse dodging owls and ferrets helped, climbing and running and carrying everything he needed on his back, because it sweated the poisons out and left him tired enough to sleep even through discomfort. And the process he'd noted since he'd lost his left eye to a Black Chamber agent's bullet in Boston last year had about finished, so that he could estimate distances fairly well again. Not as well yet, the world still looked flatter and he had to be more conscious and deliberate about it, but well enough.
The mules came into view around a switchback far below; beyond them through a gap in the twisted thorny trees he could see the plowed fields and pastures of the plain around Jerez in the distance, and the whitewash and colored stucco of buildings in the town, tiny around the dollhouse towers of the church. Cuitlacoches flew up out of the bush as the mules disturbed it, little red long-tailed birds he'd come to like for their sweet song.
There were a dozen of the pack-animals, plodding along with careful steps and big canvas-covered bundles in pairs wobbling on either side of their backs. Six men accompanied them, all in campesino garb of loose dirty-white cotton pants and blouselike shirts and straw sombreros and striped, fringed serapes flung back to lie down from their shoulders, different from ordinary peasants mostly in the way they also bristled with knives and machetes and bandoliers of cartridges and assorted weaponry. Three also wore boots instead of the ubiquitous huaraches . . . sandals. One of those halted and raised the brim of his hat, looking upward with narrow-eyed suspicion . . .
Ernst Ršhm! Horst thought as the face leaped clear in the reticle of the sight.
He smothered a gasp and a galvanic start by an effort of will and felt his mind gibber and slip; he'd have been more surprised to see General Ludendorff here in Mexico, but not much more.
The Sto§truppen have come to Mexico, by Almighty Lord God!
The square brutal Bavarian-peasant face with the distinctive scars on the cheeks and nose was unmistakable, despite the way he'd taken the sun and was as dark as a local. The stocky muscular body wasn't too out of place here either; much less so than Horst, whose six feet of narrow-waisted, long-limbed, broad-shouldered white-blond Nordic good looks and pale gray single eye were about as untypical as possible.
Neither man's scars were in the least unusual, in a country just coming off a vicious civil war and a massive foreign invasion.
Not far away one of the guerillas he was working with came to a knee and waved to the newcomers, calling:
"ÁHola, compadres! ÀC—mo estás?" Then he turned to the German.
"It is those we awaited, with our supplies," he said to Horst; his name was Miguel, and he was as much of a leader as this group of quasi-bandits had. "And . . . ah . . . Sehhh . . . eh . . . Ordo . . . Pablo is with them."
It had taken effort to get them to stop calling him "Se–or" and adopt the shortened form of Ordo–o for his name. Mexicans had respect for their social superiors beaten into them from birth, rather like peasants in Silesia, but even more so. These revolucionarios were careful about never using surnames, and often substituted nicknames or fakes instead of their real Christian ones too. Long before this the careless among them had ended up dead in battle, or in Black Chamber interrogation rooms squealing and babbling out everything they knew, or in the chain gangs of FBS labor camps building motor roads to remote villages for the next twenty-five years to expiate their membership in a terrorist organization.
Unfortunately, that means most of them are dead or breaking rocks by now.
"I must warn you, Pablo does not like gringos," Miguel said.
"But I am not a gringo," Horst pointed out in his excellent but occasionally slightly staccato Spanish.
Technically gringo could mean any foreigner; it had probably referred to Greeks, originally, back in Spain. In Mexico's variety of the Spanish language in the twentieth century's second decade it almost always referred to Americans, and it was not meant as a compliment.
"Yes, yes, of course . . . and you brave alemanes are our allies, allies of Mexico's sacred cause of freedom . . . but pardon me, Ordo, you do look a little like a gringo and Pablo is . . . ÁAy! ÁSacate, que! Pablo is a hasty man. And the gringos burned his village, everyone died . . . He is a busca sangre; un despiadado."
Which meant a seeker of blood; a man without pity.
"That is Pablo's problem," Horst said, and forced down the flush of eagerness, a feeling at once hot and cold in gut and groin. "Not mine."
It was unwise and he knew it; he wasn't in a position to go looking for quarrels with his local helpers. And while he'd long been a fighting man, and a ruthless one at that, who could kill with his own hands without hesitation or remorse when it was necessary, unlike the description of Pablo he'd never been the sort who went looking for blood . . .
Not before . . . her.
Not until the Black Chamber spy who was posing as Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez deceived him last year, the one actually called Luz. Even through the pain of his wounds and the blurring of a brain rattled by a steel-toed kick to the head he'd heard that and confirmed it later: Luz O'Malley Ar—stegui, which meant she was Irish-Spanish by blood in truth.
Oh, that was a clever touch.
That smooth deception had led to one disaster after another. She was the one who'd shot him in the face and cost him the eye back last October in Boston when she ruined the American part of the Breath of Loki. And later she'd been crucial to wrecking Projekt Heimdall.
Not to mention Horst being led by the nose through northwestern Berlin, nearly blown up by a bomb she'd left behind for her pursuers-a man had gotten his head chopped off by flying debris six feet away, within blood-spatter range-barely escaping exposure to V-gas, actually being shot in the shoulder, pounded on with a large rock by a fourteen-year-old girl, and that kick in the head by Luz had been hard enough that he still had headaches sometimes . . . though it must have been very cleverly gauged despite stress and haste.
And ending up in the dusty, oven-hot U.S. Army POW camp in El Paso, a name that in his opinion translated into plain German as the Godforsaken Arschloch of Texas, from which he'd escaped seven months ago after killing two guards.
I am free of the camp but I have become too much a prisoner of my anger, he thought, forcing his teeth to stop grinding; Miguel was looking at him oddly. Drinking doesn't seem to help enough; maybe I need a woman. Though mezcal is much easier to get here.
There were some soldaderas with the little band of guerillas, but all of them had commitments of their own.
And it was still all going to be Pablo's problem, if he chose to make it one. Horst had looked like a handsome, dashing, athletic young German nobleman before he met Luz, with no distinguishing marks except a dueling scar on one cheek. Now he looked like a man much battered by life and very, very dangerous, which was as the Yankee saying went truth in advertising.
"One of the men with him is a German too, a German I know," he said, to change the subject from hasty Pablo's possibly hasty prejudices.
"Ah!" Miguel said eagerly; Germany was the guerillas' last hope. "An intelligence agent?"
"Perhaps now," Horst said.
Colonel Nicolai getting my message . . . messages . . . and sending him is the only explanation I can think of for him being here now. Assuming Nicolai is still head of Abteilung IIIb. How I hate this isolation! The world is being broken and remade, and I know nothing of it except rumors and Yankee propaganda!
"He was a soldier, when I knew him-a leader of Sto§truppen, of special assault troops. A very dangerous man, fierce and cunning and fearless."
Miguel nodded respectfully. The war in Europe was legendary here . . . and even the American newspapers admitted that the German military had forced the U.S. Army out of France, which gave them major credit with the revolucionario remnants hiding in the wilderness. It was proof the gringos were not invincible, which was something these people very much wanted to believe.
Having been with these last sad holdouts for months, it was now Horst's considered opinion that Mexicans had joined Poles and Serbs among the irredeemably defunct ghost-nations of the world and that the remaining revolucionarios had about as much chance of driving the Yankees north across the border as Horst did of bedding the Kaiser's daughter Princess Viktoria Luise.
And doing it in the middle of the Unter den Linden at high noon on Sedan Day, he qualified. Mind you, it's always easier to think objectively about someone else's problem.
German help would get more of them killed and make things worse for their country as a whole . . . but he was here, instead of sitting out the war in a dusty camp, to do what he could for Germany, not for Mexico. The guerillas didn't need that depressing conclusion spelled out for them, since their wishful thinking would make them useful tools for the Fatherland. Whereas realism-despair-would just send them home . . . or somewhere they could assume a new identity . . . to make the best of things.
A man at the head of the mule-train waved, and a dozen guerillas rose from hiding and began sliding down the slope toward them. Horst came along a little behind, leaping from rock to rock with casual grace and landing with the battered and much-repaired pair of German Army Marschstiefel on his feet raising a puff of dust. He gave Ršhm a nod and got an equally cool and expressionless one in reply. They respected each other's abilities and had fought together and each knew the other was a good patriot, but there was no warmth to it for reasons ranging from the regional to the personal.
Horst didn't share the common Prussian prejudice against Bavarians in general, partly because he was Catholic himself; oddly, like something seen in a mirror, Ršhm was a member of heavily Catholic Bavaria's Lutheran minority. And a little because while Silesia had been part of the Kingdom of Prussia long enough to be reconciled to and even proud of the fact, Silesians were Musspreu§en-Prussians-by- conscription, as the joke went-due to Frederick the Great's conquests, not Brandenburgers proper.