A Broken Pawn
by Michael Priv
          The rough throbbing of the descending Personnel Lander reverberates through my entire being, trapping me into its terrifying rhythm within my already rigid confines. Long descent. Too long, too vulnerable. I feel that desperate helplessness in my scrotum, as I usually do during long jumps. I should feel the powerful rapport of the automatic guns laying high-density fire cover for the landing. The guns are silent. Bad news indeed.
          Mia’s beautiful face suddenly emerges from that corner of my mind where nobody ever goes except me and takes over the world, shutting off everything else. Mia is smiling, trotting unsteadily toward me, reaching for me with her adorable little hands. I pick her up, press her little body to my heart… I feel that bottomless well of grief opening up in me—as always when I think about my little daughter, whom I knew for the whole of—what? Fourteen months? Mia, my only love, why did you leave me so soon?
2
Awareness is slowly worming its way through the chemically induced fog in my brain. My mouth is parched and my tongue tastes like a piece of a very old and dirty carpet. I smack my lips a few times disgustedly. Damn meds. Orderly on duty is energetically shaking me by the shoulder.
          “What do you want?” I croak.
          “Brams wants you in his office right now.”
          “His office? Just me?”
“Do’no, man, I was just told to wake you up and send you over.”
          Sounds like a one-man mission. One-man recon missions are usually suicide missions, although you never know—a lot of much more generously manned missions also turn into suicide missions. That is why I hardly knew any of the degenerates snoring on their bunks all around me. Here today, dead tomorrow. Why bother making acquaintances? I stay alive. I am that good.   
          The world is a very unpleasant place right now. We are in the middle of a hellacious war. We are defending Scandinavia, our homeland, against the invading Germanic hordes bent on destroying our way of life—or so we are told.
To powers that be war is just a game. If there is none around, some idiots will get together and start one. Human nature. What are we defending? Is our way of life any better than the enemy’s? Of course not. It’s all just PR. PR is a nicer way of saying that everything is a lie and everybody is lying. About what? About everything. Somebody is simply raking in tons of money, that’s all.  
          Just as any game, war has its game-masters, players and pawns—and also broken pawns. The snoring grunts around me are broken pawns. They hardly ever function as they are supposed to. That is the definition of “broken,” isn’t it? They meet every challenge with staggering unwillingness to participate. Stupid, larcenous, disloyal and virtually uncontrollable, they are fully dispensable. And they do get killed a lot.
          “What about Bishops and Kings?” you say, “Not every piece on the board is a pawn, right? There are higher ranking pieces on the board!”  No, there aren’t. They are all pawns. Is the chess King truly the ruler of pawns? He is just another pawn. Only players rule pawns. Only players rule Kings.
          I am a fully functional pawn and an ambitions one at that. At least I think so. As an aspiring Player, you see, I am blackmailing our Brigade Commander, a full Colonel. That blackmail operation took elaborate strategic arrangement and brilliant tactical execution. Have you ever seen pawns doing elaborate strategic arrangements and brilliant tactical executions? Believe me when I tell you—I’m not just another pawn.
3
          Jumping off my bunk, I land in nearly perfect darkness precisely in the narrow space right next to my boots, neatly polished as usual and ready for action.
          I get dressed quickly and make my way between the three-high bunk beds of the Recon Platoon crew berthing, pass the latrine. Homey stench of dirty bedding and three dozen rarely washed bodies, comingled with the latrine aroma, is not handled adequately by the exhaust system. Who cares? I brush the side of my head against the ID reader on my way out, soliciting a satisfying beep, wave to the orderly on duty and step into the gray, oppressive safety of the underground bunker corridor. The beauty of bare concrete is vastly overrated, if you ask me. Nobody asked me.
          Colonel Brams is a fat old hog with an enormous neck and heavy drooping face—more like a frog actually, than a hog. Selling military secrets to the enemy, are we? Bad frog, bad! It took brains to trap Brams. I knew he was doing something, just didn’t know what. Now I do. A little entrapment goes a long way indeed, if you know what you’re doing. I lost a friend in this op, a good friend, Ziggy, we grew up in Stockholm together. I used Ziggy as bait and then had to take him out. Damn Brams! I had to, you understand? I knew Ziggy well, he would’ve talked. I made sure he didn’t suffer. In a twin-sitter Personnel Lander during a long descent I thrust my knife deep under the base of his skull. He only twitched a few times and went still. I blew up the Lander with his body in it after I landed.   
          Brams’ office is located in the Officers Bunker, next to the General Staff quarters. I expected to be stopped for ID check at least twice on my way through the underground passages. Nobody stopped me. Anybody on duty? Can I just shoot the lazy bastards?  
          “Glory to the Emperor!” I salute and snap my heels, “Corporal Thunedal reporting, Sir!”
          “Glory.” Brams mumbles indifferently and waves his flabby hand in a parody of the salute gesture. “Sit down, Thun, knock off the circus, we are friends here.” Brams is playing with a spent anti-aircraft shell, which he uses as a paperweight. Just a show-off. He has never seen an enemy aircraft. To do that, he’d have to step out from this bunker first.
          Nobody off the psychedelic drugs would ever call Brams’ office attractive. Gray concrete walls, floor and ceiling, gray file cabinets, a bleak portrait of the unsmiling and pompous Emperor Edgar II with his hand on the globe of the world, an elevations map of the vicinities, heavy gray metal desk cluttered with papers, steel arm chair for the boss and a couple of cheap folding chairs for the visitors. No windows, of course. The stark light of a single bright light-stick overhead does not do anything in a way of making the office more inviting.
I sit down on the rickety visitors chair with a crooked smile, staring viciously straight into Brums eyes. Intimidating a man once and then just resting on your laurels is plain stupid. People are tough; they only seem to yield. Deep inside they never give up. You must keep intimidating them, if you want to get anywhere.  
          “Got a mission for you, Thun,” mumbled Brams averting his eyes. Must still be scared of me. Probably heard about Ziggy, too. Good. “I got you what you wanted: a top priority, top secret assignment from the General himself but, between us girls, I think it rolls much higher. It’ll push you over the top. Just don’t forget me, when you get there!” With a glance in my direction he pulls back his fat lips in a solicitous smile, exposing crooked yellow teeth.
          “We’ll see. Good boy, Brams! What’s the mission?”
          “Retrieve the Markabian Scroll.”
          “Ha-ha. Funny! The Scroll can’t be stolen or it would have been already—a million times, a million trillion times. It’s the most valuable object on Earth. It just can’t be stolen. That’s the only reason why it’s still there.”        
          “Nonsense!” Brams purses his lips and waves his hand dismissively.  “Anything can be stolen and most things should be—especially the Scroll. It is way overdue.” Brams finally looks directly at me with his gray emotionless eyes under drooping folds of flesh.
          “Why me?”
          “Because the General wants somebody he can trust, somebody to build a long-term relationship with.” Brams’ bushy eyebrows climb way up his fat forehead, stressing the immense significance of what he is saying. “You will go far, my boy, and you’ll remember old Brams when you get there.” The Colonel places the spent shell down carefully, keeping his eyes on me, and adds prosaically, “Plus you’re the best. So you have no choice. General’s orders.”
4
          The Marcabian Scroll would grant a wish. That’s all. One wish. One person gets his or hers one wish and thing is useless. It only grants one wish, period. That’s what it does. Anything you want—bam! Done! Riches beyond belief or power, or most gorgeous women, or a life of leisure, or even immortality—anything! All you do is rub it with your hands and state your wish aloud. Obviously, that made it the most coveted object in the world.
          The Scroll is not actually a scroll but I suppose it looks like a scroll. Marcabians called it so. Who knows, maybe it really is a scroll of some sort. Per the Scriptures, it is actually just a perfectly smooth metal cylinder forty centimeters long, six centimeters in diameter with eight short flexible bristles protruding at each end. Nobody has a clue how it works but supposedly it does.
          According to the Scriptures and history textbooks, the Marcabians visited Earth about a thousand years ago to see if we’d matured enough to accept their Scroll, the Ultimate Gift, and use it for the greatest good. Apparently, they found us idiots not ready here—surprise! We still aren’t and will never be. So these Marcabian bastards stashed it on Madagascar in the Forbidden Forest—a large forest they actually purchased for that purpose, paying a fortune in pure gold, hundred-fold of what it was worth. They set it up so that the Scroll is impossible to retrieve, particularly retrieve without destroying it.                 The Markabians declared that we’d be ready to receive their Gift, if we managed to actually get to it and use it. In other words, the very fact of anybody laying their hands on the Scroll would automatically mean that we were so good and responsible as to deserve it. Millions of people tried retrieving it but nobody ever succeeded—which supposedly meant that we were not ready for the Markabian Ultimate Gift. Nobody survived to give any first-hand accounts, either. Was I now supposed to go fetch the darned thing?   
          “Look here, Brams, first of all, we are talking extremes here. How could this possibly be a one-man mission?”
          “It isn’t. You will lead a Special Ops team. You’ll just be the only one coming home, you’ll have to make sure of that.  The mission is top secret, as you may understand, nobody wants any witnesses.”
          “Kill off my own team? Are you crazy?”
          “Do you want to drink brännvin with the big boys or not? Start thinking smart. Or do you prefer the riff-raff? Up to you.”    
          Colonel Brams truly is a scoundrel—the only personality trait I admire in the son of a bitch.
          “Well, in any case,” I continued with less conviction—was I really ready to kill the poor grunts who’d run interference for me? Yes, I was. I recently killed one already, a good friend, too.
          “Okay then, let’s consider the mission for a moment. The Scroll has been sitting there for what, a thousand years? More? Millions tried but nobody stole it yet. Do you know why?”
          “Yeah. Because they were all morons,” Brams waived his fat hand dismissively.
          “No. Because the ancients set it up that way. We can’t crack their defenses.” 
          ”Like what?”
          “A force screen, Brams, and a zillion pissed off little robots.”
          “Oh, come on, Thul! The robots are just a thousand years old machines! You can take’em!”
          “And the force screen?”
          “Okay, soldier, let’s start from the beginning. What do you know about the scroll and the defenses?” Brams cut me off, serious now, got up and started walking around the office.
           “Well, the Scroll is located inside a dome-shaped metal bunker, manufactured by the Markabians, surrounded by the force field, hermetically sealed and practically indestructible. The bunker is located roughly in the center of the Forbidden Forest, the 100,000-square-mile forest, untouched by human hand for a thousand years. No animal larger than a rat survives in the forest because of the force field surrounding the Dome at the distance of about one kilometer, and the bugs, the oblong self-sustained robots about a meter long that move fast and kill anything alive large enough to be of any theat. The number of the bugs is unknown but it is believed to be in hundreds of thousands if not millions. There is an underground charging and automated repairs facility for the bugs right next to the bunker. If someone were to make it through the forest, cross the force field, wade through the bugs and make it all the way to the Dome, he’d find the only entrance to be permanently sealed. Any attempt to blow up or open the door in any way activates a nuclear explosive device inside set for a 40-second delay. The explosion would destroy the bunker and the scroll. Nobody knows the interior layout of the Dome and the exact location of the Scroll in it. So this job is an abortion—is what it is.”
Brams kept walking, serious now, listening to me attentively and nodding. 
“Done?” he asked when I was finished.
          “Yes, that’s about it. I also heard that the Forest floor is covered with a layer bones and decaying bodies of millions of people who attempted to steal the Scroll over the centuries. The layer in some places is ten meters deep. All the bones are outside the force screen, nobody ever made it through the screen.”
          “Ten meters deep, hah? That’s a hellofalota bones.” Brams smiled. “So if nobody can get through the force screen, how do these robots get through? They patrol on both sides of the screen.”
Smug. Sure, he wasn’t about to leave the safety of his office. The furthest he ever traveled from his desk was latrine down the hall.
          “How do the bugs get you?” Brams asked, getting serious again.
          “They shot out a razor-sharp wire, about five meters long and it just uncoils and slices through whatever it hits with a lot of force. And they are fast and accurate with their wire. But they need a few seconds to reload before they shot it out again.”
          “Good, Thun, but you are mistaken on some important points. First, the force screen is fully penetrable at low speed. You can slowly walk right through it and you won’t even know you just did. That is how the bugs get across. Slowly. Second, the bugs do 12-14 kilometers per hour at cruise speed. You run faster. Third, bugs’ reaction time is not all that great. What’s your average reaction time per the last eval?”
          “I do point-two on a good day. Why?”
          “The bugs were set up to do point-three to begin with but now, a thousand years later, they’d probably be lucky to make the point-four mark. They are not all that fast, you are much faster, Thun.” 
          “Anything else?”
          “Yes. We also have intel of the layout of the Dome, done by superimposing the materials density imaging onto the electric conductivity scans. That’s top secret, man, you understand?”
          I nodded.
          “We know the exact location of the Scroll inside the Dome.” With a long and significant look he pulled out a floor plan from his desk. It was a scanner, gray-scale image of a round structure consisting of two chambers, the larger one clearly a power plant. The other, smaller chamber, irregularly shaped, had nothing but a table or a display of some sort with the Scroll in the middle of it. The Dome entrance led into the power plant room which opened into the small chamber.
          “See this?” Brams pointed at the Scroll.
Yes, I saw it. There was something else I saw, too. The wall to the right of the display was weaker than the rest of the shell of the dome. It contained what looked like some kind of ventilation equipment. An opening maybe? It was hard to tell. Why go through the door wired to trigger a nuclear frigging blast, if one could conceivably… I was beginning to warm up to the challenge. Crazy, hah?
          “The Scroll was easy to spot as an anomaly,” Brams continued, “because it’s made of extremely dense but totally non-conductive material. And the anomaly turned out to be exactly 40 X 6 centimeters. So here it is. The Scriptures are true!”
          The Scroll. Drinking brännvin with the big guys? If I laid my hands on that thing, they’d be polishing my shoes with their eyebrows every day, those big guys. I prefer to drink alone. 
          “And the evac, Brams?”
          Brams smirked indulgently. “Personal Teleporters. Two of them, calibrated one for the Scroll, the other one for you and operable only in that sequence: you first send up the Scroll and then yourself. And a C-336 transport circling some miles away would receive Scroll first, then you. You get 40 seconds to get out before the dome and half the forest self-destruct.”
          “And if the Scroll and I don’t turn up on that C-336? If I just skip from the Dome directly to the vine drinking part with the big boys? I could just wish for that, couldn’t I? I can wish for anything I want!”
          Brahms studied my face for a while with his expressionless eyes. I stared back at him waiting. I was sure that the idea that I wouldn’t be coming back, if I had the Scroll in my possession did indeed cross his mind. Sooner or later I needed to know about any traps they’d set up.
          “How long has it been since you read the Marcabian Scriptires?”
          “I don’t think I ever did. Just some bits and pieces that we studied in school.”
          “Well, that is exactly why you’d ask such silly questions. The metal that was used to build the Dome renders the Scroll useless. The Scroll is just a machine that operates on a near infinitely low wavelength, it’s just a receiver and a transmitter of sorts, you understand? The Dome works as an insulator. It won’t grant you any wish while inside the dome.”
          “How do you know? Can you prove that, Brahms?”
          “Don’t you trust me?” He showed his teeth in a mirthless smile.
          “No, I don’t.” I smiled back, matching his level of sincerity.
          Brams took out the Holy Scriptures from his desk drawer, quickly found the needed place and read the passage to me.
                                                                      “Then Konrad declared it so straight from God omnipresent 
                                                                                               that the place be known as The Dome
                                                                    which is above any place and to which every knee should bow 
                                                                    and the only place in heaven and on earth and under the earth 
                                                                 where The Scrawl be rendered powerless and so it will ever stand.”
           Brams keeps Holy Scriptures in his desk and knows his way around the holy book? Right! Who does he think he is dealing with here? An idiot?   
          “That Konrad is a prophet or something, right?”
          “A what?! What were you doing when everybody else was studying? Whacking off in the bathroom? Konrad is one of the Holy Apostles. Everybody knows that.”
          “Well, I don’t, so not everybody.”
          I did my share of whacking off in the bathroom, true, but mainly I was busy running Moon Dust for the Larsson family. Those were crazy days. I slept with two guns: one under the blanket, the other one under the pillow. I also had one under the bed. So three guns. That’s about the time I met Alva, the hooker sent by Micke Larsson once as a gift. We ended up going steady with Alva for a couple of years. I was kind of impartial to that slut. Got pregnant, gave me Mia. How does a hooker get pregnant, you ask? I’d say, on purpose. You could’ve checked with her, if she was still alive.
5
          The painfully familiar throbbing of Personnel Lender on descent. Nobody was shooting at us. Good thing we were not at war with Madagascar!
          The Special Ops unit they gave me consisted of fourteen toughest looking motherfuckers on this side of the Rhine River. Professional murderers. I liked that.
          I didn’t neglect before the mission to check the Scriptures and confirm once again that Brams was a liar and I could, in fact, activate the Scroll from inside and use it for escape. Turned out I was wrong. The passage was authentic. Konrad said I couldn’t operate it from inside. Brams wasn’t lying.

                                                                                                                      TO BE CONTINUED   
 
   
                                                                                                                                                                           © 2015 Michael Priv. All Rights Reserved.