After the End of the World by Jonathan L. Howard is the second book in the Carter & Lovecraft series, which brings the H. P. Lovecraft mythos into the 21st century (available November 14, 2017).
The Unfolded World is a bitter and unfriendly place for Daniel Carter and Emily Lovecraft. In this world, the Cold War never happened because the Soviet Union ceased to exist in 1941. In this world, the Nazi Großdeutschland is the premier superpower and is not merely tolerated but indulged because, in this world, the Holocaust happened behind the ruins of the Iron Curtain and consumed only Bolsheviks, Communists, and others the West was glad to see gone. In this world, there are monsters, and not all of them are human.
But even in the Unfolded World, there are still bills to pay and jobs to do. Carter finds himself working for the German secret security service to uncover the truth behind a major scientific joint project that is going suspiciously well. The trail takes Lovecraft and him to a distant, abandoned island, and a conspiracy that threatens everything. To fight it, Lovecraft must walk a perilously narrow path between forbidden knowledge and soul-destroying insanity.
Fortunately, she also has a shotgun.
Joe Stalin was never happier than on the day he died.
Friedrich-Werner Graf von der Schulenburg was suspicious of the Soviet leader’s joviality that afternoon, just as he was suspicious as to the speed and ease with which the meeting with Stalin and all the rest of the 18th Politburo was agreed to and organized. He felt very sure they knew why he had requested it. It seemed likely that the Führer wanted Stalin to be in no doubt as to the very unexpected visit of Foreign Minister Ribbentrop to Moscow; why else would Schulenburg have been informed by telephone rather than an enciphered telegram? He had no doubt that the line was less than secure; indeed, it would be astonishing if agents of the NKVD or NKGB or whatever they were calling themselves that week were not listening in on every call made to or from the German embassy. From there to Stalin’s ear via the secret service chief. That must really have made Merkulov’s day, vicious dog that he was, and always eager for his master’s favor.
But then, it was momentous news by any stretch of the imagination. Schulenburg had been getting a distinct sense of hostility from his government toward the Soviets, an offhandedness from the Foreign Ministry with respect to his own efforts to foster good relations. For six years he had tried to encourage the Führer to see past dogma and into the very real advantages of an alliance in the East. Stalin could see them easily enough; it was always the NSDAP’s ideological distrust—loathing, almost—of Bolshevism that proved the obstacle. Briefly, Schulenburg had entertained hopes that pragmatism was prevailing in Berlin as rumors of offering a place in the Axis to the USSR grew, a logical extension to the pact settled by Ribbentrop and his Soviet counterpart Molotov. Such hopes had guttered and failed some time before, however, and Schulenburg had feared his last official act in Moscow would be to deliver a declaration of war to Molotov’s desk.
Then, the telephone call. The wonderful, unexpected telephone call.
In the space of twenty minutes, Ribbentrop had tersely laid out to Schulenburg how the Führer had weighed up the situation in Eastern Europe and decided the only sensible solution was to bring the Soviet Union into the Axis, how Ribbentrop would shortly be flying to Moscow to present the offer himself, and details as to how Schulenburg was to prepare the ground. If all went to plan, an agreement could be ironed out very quickly, and then it was merely a case of arranging the signing; Goebbels would lead on that to liaise with the Soviet education authority, education and propaganda being interchangeable there. It would be a grand event, no doubt. Bands, photographers, pretty girls handing over bouquets of flowers. So much smiling.
Schulenburg was smiling. He was chatting with Molotov in the grandiose meeting room that Stalin had decided would be best suited to greeting Ribbentrop. He and the other members of the Politburo were sitting or standing in ragged groups—candidate members, underlings … it had become a little party, and the drink was flowing. In a pause in the conversation, Schulenburg looked at the scene before him and, unaccountably, shuddered. There was something wrong here, he was sure. He had a nebulous presentiment that refused to come into any real focus, a feeling that all was not quite how it seemed. It was a curious and unpleasant experience, a form of déjàvu in which one has not merely been through the present moment before, but … last time it was different.
Molotov was looking at him curiously. “Are you all right, my friend?” he asked.
Schulenburg looked at Molotov and realized that, to an extent, they really were friends. They had spent many hours discussing relations between their great states and discovered many commonalities in their personalities and interests. Schulenburg understood with a small shock that there was a kind regard between them, a mutual respect, even a fondness.
The presentiment niggled at him, telling him that—in all worlds—that friendship was doomed. “The time is out of joint,” he said quietly to himself.
“What was that?”
Schulenburg shook his head and smiled, embarrassed. “Ach, just a line from Shakespeare. ‘The time is out of joint.’ Hamlet says it when he is thinking of the current state of affairs in Denmark. How things are not right, but may be repaired.” He raised his glass and saluted Molotov with it. “May today’s meeting mark the beginning of that healing and presage a golden age between my Fatherland and your Motherland.”
As Molotov raised his own glass, an attaché appeared at Schulenburg’s elbow. “Excellency,” he whispered, “a telephone call for you. From Berlin.”
“Here?” Perhaps they really did not care about confidentiality at all. They might as well transmit the conversation in clear Russian over the airwaves as expect a borrowed line in the Kremlin to be secure.
Making his excuses, he made his way to the small office that the Soviets had put aside for his use. As he’d left the meeting room, he’d seen Merkulov lifting a telephone receiver, no doubt to tell his eavesdroppers to be ready. Schulenburg pursed his lips as he picked up the handset in the office. Very well. He would have an unseen audience.
“A moment, please.”
As he waited to be connected, he briefly wondered what might be so important. Perhaps the deal was off. It had seemed too good to be true, after all. It would hardly be the first time the Führer had changed his mind as peremptorily as he had made it. He hoped that wasn’t the case this time; quite apart from souring an already problematical relationship, it would be left to him to go back to the meeting room and tell Stalin and his cronies the bad news. Even a diplomat has his limits.
“Schulenburg? This is Wilhelm Ohnesorge.”
Schulenburg frowned. Why was the state secretary speaking to him? One of the Führer’s inner circle to be sure, but nothing to do with foreign policy. He racked his memory: Ohnesorge was responsible for the Reichspost, too; something to do with radio propaganda; some other technical interests. There was no denying that the man was a polymath, but Schulenburg could only assume he was involved with the matter at hand by dint of his friendship with the Führer. That, he supposed, should please him. Everyone wanted to be part of what was coming.
“Is everyone assembled?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Herr Stalin and his … and the Politburo—are they all in attendance?”
“Excellent.” Even over the telephone wire, Ohnesorge’s nervous excitement was plain. The ambient sound over the line became muddied for a moment, as if a hand had been placed over the mouthpiece. Then Ohnesorge’s voice returned clearly. “Excellent. The aeroplane … Ribbentrop is aboard the Führer’s personal aircraft. Apparently there were some hydraulics problems and he is about fifteen minutes behind schedule. The Condor will be arriving at Khodynka Aerodrome shortly.”
Schulenburg had organized the landing clearance at the nearest airfield himself through Molotov’s offices, but he knew it would not be diplomatic of him to point that out, so he only said, “Yes, Minister. Everything is in place.” The detail that Ribbentrop was traveling in the Führer’s personal aircraft, however—the beautifully appointed Condor Fw 200 V3, designated D-2600—was new to him. They really were pulling out every stop in order to impress the Soviets.
“This is very exciting, very exciting.” Ohnesorge seemed to be talking to himself. Then he said more clearly, “I have somebody who wishes to speak to you. Hold a moment, please.”
Schulenburg heard a click on the line; it could have been the sound of being transferred to another telephone, or the sound of an incautious NKVD eavesdropper making his presence known. Each was equally likely.
“Schulenburg?” The voice on the telephone broke into his reverie, and momentarily startled him. That voice … surely not? “I wanted to speak to you personally today, Friedrich. Today, everything will change for the better, and it could not have happened without you.” There was a pause, but Schulenburg knew it to be a rhetorical one. It was just as well; he had no idea what to say. “The hand of history is upon your shoulder. Can you feel it? For Germany, and for the Soviet Union, nothing will ever be the same again. I wanted to speak to you now, to thank you for all you have done. I truly do not believe this could have happened without your abilities and your excellent working relationship with Foreign Minister Molotov. The German people will honor your name throughout the coming ages.”
Another pause. Schulenburg was not so sure that this one was rhetorical, but he found it difficult to speak all the same. The Führer’s emotion was clear. Any lingering doubt that he had in Hitler’s dedication to an alliance with the USSR was dispelled.
“Thank you, my leader,” he said, fighting to control the emotion in his own voice.
“You will always be remembered.”
The line went dead.
Schulenburg took a moment to steady himself. Then, filled with a confidence born of certainty, he left the office to return to the meeting. He had no doubt Merkulov would be smirking, but that didn’t matter. Finally the German people would be able to turn their undivided attention to the war in the West, to affirming ties to the Japanese in the Far East, and perhaps giving more thought to the United States, dithering on the sidelines in a posture of old-maid-like isolationism. Good. With the Axis made unassailable by the addition of Soviet forces, the Americans could stay like that forever, and do so with his blessing.
* * *
At 20:14 local time, and barely an hour of sunlight left, a Focke-Wulf Condor bearing the name “Immelmann III” and the registration D-2600 approached Khodynka Aerodrome, a civilian airport less than five miles to the northwest of Red Square. All other traffic had been redirected by the Soviet authorities, and a fast car with a good driver was awaiting the Condor’s landing to rush the distinguished visitor aboard directly to the Kremlin as quickly as was safely possible in the company of a senior apparatchik of Molotov’s ministry. The Germans had insisted that no formal welcome beyond that was necessary—only that SS-Obergruppenführer Ribbentrop be taken to meet Comrade Stalin with all reasonable dispatch.
Things will always tend to go wrong when pressure is at its greatest, however, and the flight director at Khodynka was deeply relieved when the trouble turned out to be outside his control or responsibilities. D-2600 radioed the tower to ask for visual confirmation that its tail wheel had deployed correctly. Binoculars were raised to watch the aircraft as it performed a flyby; no, the rear wheel was not down and locked although the main port and starboard wheels had done so correctly.
The Luftwaffe pilot sounded pained rather than worried. “It’s not my aeroplane,” he told the tower. “I don’t really want to upset the owner by scratching the paintwork.”
This was received gleefully by the flight director and his staff, who had already identified exactly whose aeroplane it was.
“I think there’s a kink in the hydraulics,” the pilot reported. “I’ll fly around for a few minutes and see if it sorts itself out. I don’t want a bumpy landing.”
Khodynka cleared D-2600 for five minutes of orbiting in an attempt to clear the problem even as the political officer was putting in a call to the Kremlin to inform his superiors of the delay and its root in inferior capitalist engineering.
* * *
Oberleutnant Hugo Trettner felt no emotion as he closed the radio link and settled himself down for a very short flight. He was a dead man in any case, and had become reconciled to the closeness of his final moment for some time. There had been the usual stages of disbelief, denial, and so forth when the specialist that the Gruppe medical officer had sent him to had confirmed he had cancer. Inoperable, terminal cancer. He would feel fine for a few more months, and then his strength would leave him, and the pain would start. The doctor offered his sympathies, but that was all he could offer. There was no hope, and the doctor considered it a cruelty to even suggest it.
Trettner had expected to be cashiered out of the air force—a bomber pilot with little life expectancy and who knows his time is short cannot be considered an asset in most situations—and that was how things had gone for a while. But then the Oberst had come visiting and told him that, while his death was a certainty, the manner of it was still in his hands. There was a mission, the Oberst told him in great confidentiality.
Even the Oberst hadn’t been briefed on exactly what it involved, only that it required a good pilot used to larger aircraft, and that he be entirely expendable. The Oberst did not use exactly those words, but that was the gist of them, and he had the grace to look embarrassed as he said them.
“It is of the utmost secrecy and importance. That is all I can tell you.”
It was all he needed to; the Fatherland might expect its children to shed their blood for it, but it would only ask for a volunteer for certain suicide under the most extraordinary of circumstances. Trettner did not ask for time to think. He agreed then and there.
It took another two months before everything was in place, two months during which he fretted and worried that the cancer might accelerate and make him too ill to fly before things were ready. He was certain they would have other volunteers, but feared they might be able-bodied. Better him than they. Every day he was examined, and every day the illness progressed as predicted. He would be at Death’s door in six months if left alone, but Oberleutnant Trettner planned to call upon Death long before that, in his own time, by his own terms.
The Condor he flew was not Hitler’s personal aircraft, simply a similar one that had been repainted and numbered to mimic it. The interior was not at all luxurious, bare metal and struts where the real D-2600 was the epitome of comfort. It would have been an unpleasant journey for his passengers, if he had been carrying any. Trettner, however, was the only soul aboard.
In the main body of the Condor that the Soviets believed was stuffed with Ribbentrop and a coterie of diplomats, functionaries, and bootlickers, there was only the thing that the Reich had been at such pains to hide from all its enemies, its rivals, and even its friends. The thing that would change all.
* * *
Schulenburg was at the window. The word had just come in that the Condor was suffering some minor mechanical problem and was trying to clear it before landing. He saw the unmistakable lines of the aircraft, the low sun illuminating it in fiery orange. Molotov joined him at the window and they looked at the approaching aircraft together.
Schulenburg pointed at it. “That’s Ribbentrop.”
* * *
Moscow was outlined in fire, the setting sun blazing the buildings in orange and deep shadow. Trettner had exhaustively examined maps and models of the city until he felt sure he could have found its heart if he had parachuted into it blindfolded. Its geography held no mysteries to him now; he knew exactly where he had to be.
And now here was Red Square. Still feeling no fear, no regrets, and wondering how that could be, Hugo Trettner lifted the cover from the button mounted by him, flicked the arming switches as he had been shown, and—almost exactly two hundred meters above the onion domes of the Kremlin—he triggered the great gray steel sphere that everyone in the know described as “the device.”
* * *
At 20:19 local time on the twenty-first of June, 1941, the world entered the atomic age with the airburst detonation of a weapon yielding a blast equivalent to twenty kilotons over the center of Moscow. The fireball touched the earth, vaporizing the Kremlin to do so. Schulenburg, Molotov, Stalin, and the rest of the Politburo ceased to exist faster than the mind can process a thought. The violently superheated air snapped outward, causing an overpressure wave to propagate at twenty pounds per square inch upward. Glass splintered, the fragments traveling like bullets. Stone shattered. Concrete ruptured. Any human caught in it stood next to no chance of survival. After all, if the pressure didn’t kill them, the fierce pulse of radiation that accompanied it surely would.
Five hundred rem of radiation bathed the area out to perhaps a mile, enforced by a million, million tiny motes of uranium borne away from the casing of the device. The scientists who had built it had known this would happen, and, indeed, had been ordered to make it happen. It wasn’t enough that the heart of Moscow be cut out, but the land must be salted in the newest, most modern way to make it a wasteland for years to come.
The pressure wave carried on outward, carrying the killing dust, still powerful enough to bring down buildings a mile and a half from the detonation site, crushing, burning, and poisoning any Muscovites there. Even where the pressure dropped to merely a howling gale, it carried a heat that would cause third-degree burns to anyone it touched.
An estimated forty thousand died in the initial detonation with three times that many injured. The death toll had barely begun to climb.
No one understood what had happened. The German visit was known only to a few, and most of them died in the explosion. The only ones who might have been able to give a reasonable clue that D-2600 had somehow exploded like a small star and decapitated the Soviet Union in a burning moment were the flight direction staff at Khodynka Aerodrome, and they had no opportunity to talk to anyone who mattered before it all became far too late. As the country flailed without comprehension or leadership, in the West the massive armed force assembled by the Third Reich for Operation Barbarossa started to pour eastward. With the 18th Politburo eradicated to a man, any likely successors were already dead thanks to Stalin’s murderous paranoia, and the Russian people terrified into hopeless dismay by the inexplicable events and rumors of what had occurred and might happen again, the defense of the country was sporadic and feeble.
Years, decades, generations later, the newsreels survive. Heroic Wehrmacht troops streaming across undefended kilometers of Russian countryside, while unopposed Messerschmitt Bf 109s of the Luftwaffe soar overhead to hunt and strafe isolated pockets of the Red Army. Leningrad, fallen. Stalingrad, fallen. The Ukraine, the Baltic states, falling one after another under German control.
The human cost was hidden from the watching world. The inhuman cost was hidden from almost everyone.
Copyright © 2017 Jonathan L. Howard.
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Jonathan L. Howard is a game designer, scriptwriter, and a veteran of the computer-games industry since the early nineties, with titles such as the Broken Sword series to his credit. He is the author of the Johannes Cabal series and Carter & Lovecraft, as well as the YA novels Katya's World and Katya's War. He lives in the United Kingdom with his wife and daughter.