FORTRESS CITY OF BRESLAU, POLAND
The body floated in the sludge that sluiced through the dank sewers. The corpse of a boy, bloated and rat gnawed, had been stripped of boots, pants, and shirt. Nothing went to waste in the besieged city.
SS Obergruppenfuhrer Jakob Sporrenberg nudged past the corpse, stirring the filth. Offal and excrement. Blood and bile. The wet scarf tied around his nose and mouth did little to ward off the stench. This was what the great war had come to. The mighty reduced to crawling through sewers to escape. But he had his orders.
Overhead the double crump-wump of Russian artillery pummeled the city. Each explosion bruised his gut with its concussive shock. The Russians had broken down the gates, bombed the airport, and even now, tanks ground down the cobbled streets while transport carriers landed on Kaiserstrasse. The main thoroughfare had been converted into a landing strip by parallelrows of flaming oil barrels, adding their smoke to the already choked early morning skies, keeping dawn at bay. Fighting waged in every street, in every home, from attic to basement.
Every house a fortress.
That had been Gaufefter Hanke's final command to the populace. The city had to hold out as long as possible. The future of the Third Reich depended on it.
And on Jakob Sporrenberg.
"Mach schneff,'he urged the others behind him.
His unit of the Sicherheitsdienst—designation Special Evacuation Kommando—trailed him, knee-deep in filthy water. Fourteen men. All armed. All dressed in black. All burdened with heavy packs. In the middle, four of the largest men, former Nordsee dockmen, bore poles on their shoulders, bearing aloft massive crates.
There was a reason the Russians were striking this lone city deep in the Sudeten Mountains between Germany and Poland. The fortifications ofBreslau guarded the gateway to the highlands beyond. For the past two years, forced labor from the concentration camp of Gross-Rosen had hollowed out a neighboring mountain peak. A hundred kilometers of tunnels clawed and blasted, all to service one secret project, one kept buried away from prying Allied eyes.
Die Riese…the Giant.
But word had still spread. Perhaps one of the villagers outside the Wenceslas Mine had whispered of the illness, the sudden malaise that had afflicted even those well outside the complex.
If only they'd had more time to complete the research…
Still, a part of Jakob Sporrenberg balked. He didn't know all that was involved with the secret project, mostly just the code name: Chronos. Still, he knew enough. He had seen the bodies used in the experiments. He had heard the screams.
That was the one word that had come to mind and iced his blood.
He'd had no trouble executing the scientists. The sixty-two men and women had been taken outside and shot twice in the head. No one must know what had transpired in the depths of the Wenceslas Mine…or what was found. Only one researcher was allowed to live.
Jakob heard her sloshing behind him, half dragged by one of his men, wrists secured behind her back. She was tall for a woman, late twenties, small breasted but of ample waist and shapely legs. Her hair flowed smooth and black, her skin as pale as milk from the months spent underground. She was to have been killed with the others, but her father, Oberarbeitsleiter Hugo Hirszfeld, overseer of the project, had finally shown his corrupted blood, his half-Jewish heritage. He had attempted to destroy his research files, but he had been shot by one of the guards and killed before he could firebomb his subterranean office. Fortunately for his daughter, someone with full knowledge of die Giocke had to survive, to carry on the work. She, a genius like her father, knew his research better than any of the other scientists.But she would need coaxing from here.
Fire burned in her eyes whenever Jakob glanced her way. He could feel her hatred like the heat of an open furnace. But she would cooperate…like her father had before her. Jakob knew how to deal with Juden, especially those of mixed blood. Mischlinge. They were the worst. Partial Jews. There were some hundred thousand Mischlinge in military service to the Reich. Jewish soldiers. Rare exemptions to Nazi law had allowed such mixed blood to still serve, sparing their lives. It required special dispensation. Such Mischlinge usually proved to be the fiercest soldiers, needing to show their loyalty to Reich over race.
Still, Jakob had never trusted them. Tola's father proved the validity of his suspicions. The doctor's attempted sabotage had not surprised Jakob. Juden were never to be trusted, only exterminated.
But Hugo Hirszfeld's exemption papers had been signed by the fuhrer himself, sparing not only the father and daughter, but also a pair of elderly parents somewhere in the middle of Germany. So while Jakob had no trust of the Mischlinge, he placed his full faith in his fuhrer. His orders had been letter specific: evacuate the mine of the necessary resources to continue the workand destroy the rest.
That meant sparing the daughter.
And the baby.
The newborn boy was swaddled and bundled into a pack, a Jewish infant, no more than a month old. The child had been given a light sedative to keep him silent as they made their escape.
Within the child burned the heart of the abomination, the true source of Jakob's revulsion. All of the hopes for the Third Reich lay in his tiny hands—the hands of a Jewish infant. Bile rose at such a thought. Better to impale the child on a bayonet. But he had his orders.
He also saw how Tola watched the boy. Her eyes glowed with a mix of fire and grief. Besides aiding in her father's research, Tola had served as the boy's foster mother, rocking him asleep, feeding him. The child was the only reason the woman was cooperating at all. It had been a threat on the boy's life that had finally made Tola acquiesce to Jakob's demands.A mortar blast exploded overhead, dropping all to their knees and deafening the world to a sonorous ring. Cement cracked, and dust trickled into the foul water.
Jakob gained his feet, swearing under his breath.
His second in command, Oskar Henricks, drew abreast of him and pointed forward to a side branch of the sewer.
"We take that tunnel, Obergruppenfuhrer. An old storm drain. According to the municipal map, the main trunk empties into the river, not far from Cathedral Island."
Jakob nodded. Hidden near the island, a pair of camouflaged gunboats should be waiting, manned by another Kommando unit. It was not much farther.
He led the way at a more hurried pace as the Russian bombardment intensified overhead. The renewed assault plainly heralded their final push into the city. The surrender of its citizenry was inevitable.
As Jakob reached the side tunnel, he climbed out of the sluicing filth andonto the cement apron of the branching passageway. His boots squelched with each step. The gangrenous reek of bowel and slime swelled momentarily worse, as if the sewer sought to chase him from its depths.