Klaus had always wondered how he would hold up under torture.
It was not an academic question, in his profession. The value of the information in his head could have made even Russia’s more humanitarian agents overcome their scruples. Sometimes that had saved his life, because his opponents had hoped to take him alive and plunder the riches in his brain.
To be sure, he had been trained to hold out. Boot camp was as bad as everyone said, but after Klaus had been put through advanced espionage training, he felt a stab of condescension every time he heard a soldier talk about it as if boot were the worst thing that could happen to him.
And growing up, searching for answers about the cloud that hung over his beloved country, he had refused to spare himself any bit of painful knowledge, as if he could somehow atone for deeds done before he had been born by forcing himself to face them. When his own calling had made itself clear to him, he had had to prepare for what he would someday risk, and to know the face of his enemy.
So the Major knew how he would react to several days of hard physical exertion with minimal food and rest. He knew how he stood up to sleep deprivation. (Eventually, he had passed out and slept so soundly that buckets of ice water, boom boxes turned all the way up held next to his ear and several punches to sensitive areas hadn’t made him twitch an eyelid.) He knew how he would react to having his head held under water for progressively longer times while he fought to hold his breath, to tear gas, and to beatings of some intensity. And while his rage at Mischa’s slurs about Nazism was genuine, it wasn’t actually as strong as he pretended, because he had heard every possible variation on those slurs, some complete with visual aids, from his fellow German officers during an especially grueling week of training in a remote installation which had once interned Allied soldiers. The slurs weren’t as effective without a combat boot resting on your head once you’d heard them with one there.
But no amount of training could really compare with the real thing. The only way to really know how you would withstand torture was to do it. Given the hazards of his life, sometimes he had thought it was not so much a matter of if, but when.
Now, at least, he finally knew when.
Very soon, he would find out how.
“You talked to Agent Klein after his visit to us, didn’t you, Major?” Mischa asked, an uncomforting smile creasing his face. Klein had been another of NATO’s West German agents. Two years ago, Mischa and his goons had caught him and subjected him to Mischa’s famous electric currents before returning him to NATO. Fourteen informants and undercover agents had been shot or sent to prison because of what the KGB had gotten out of Klein, but no one could blame Klein after seeing his condition. He had since been retired to the country and spent his days playing Solitaire.
Klaus didn’t answer. Securely strapped to the table, still aching from the injuries he’d received as they apprehended him, he was mentally reviewing all of the reasons for him not to talk, once they started in. His country, which he loved. Democracy, which stank but stank less than all the other systems that had been devised. His family name, which he pretended to forget had been founded by a pirate. Dozens of men like him who were depending on his silence, whose silence might one day save his own life.
“You could make this easy on yourself, Major,” Mischa offered in a generous tone. “No one would blame you in the least. You know exactly what I am capable of, old friend.”
Klaus said nothing. Mischa shrugged, pleased, and two of the goons took scissors and cut off his clothes. His shirt was already in tatters anyway, and he’d lost his jacket at some point in the fracas. Klaus kept his face stony as if he had no idea he was naked. He would put off his own humiliation for as long as he could, though he had no illusions that he would not lose his dignity before the end of this day.
Electrodes were fastened onto his genitals. He supposed he really should have done his duty about producing an heir. Now even if he survived this day, it was unlikely he would be able to. But marriage was one of the few things he had never been brave enough to face.
Then they started.
No matter how you looked at it, pain was bad.
He tried to grasp some remnant of self-control, concentrating on that as a way of distracting himself, though really, there was no distraction from having red-hot jolts poured into the most sensitive areas of one’s body. Still, he tried. First he tried not to scream. That didn’t last nearly as long as he had hoped. Screaming was actually more of a relief than he would have expected. Then… well, after that, all he could do was not tell them the names they wanted, names of people who were risking life and limb to fight the very fiends who were tormenting Klaus, people who Klaus was sworn to protect.
So many deaths this century, like dominos under the twin evils of fascism and communism. Millions, beyond counting. Really, Klaus asked himself, what did one more drop of blood in a sea of it matter? Even if it was his.
He thought it was at least a couple of hours before he heard his own voice, rough from countless screams, gasping out, “Bitte.…” He was not sufficiently far gone not to feel humiliated.
The current was stopped at once. “Did you hear that, comrades? And we thought he was made of iron.”
The others laughed. Klaus drew in lungfuls of air, as if he’d been drowning.
“Are you going to talk to us now, Major?”
“Nein.” Klaus did not allow himself to hesitate.
The Russian chuckled. “You do understand that we are going to keep right on with the electric currents until you tell us what we want to know?”
“It must be true what they used to say about the Ubermensch!” Mischa sneered to his goons.
With difficulty, Klaus marshaled his Russian. “At least my country has stopped committing atrocities. That is… the half that you people aren’t controlling has.”
The taunt hit home. Mischa’s face twisted, and the current was turned back on. The voltage must have been increased, because the pain was far more intense. Klaus’s back arched as he let out another full-throated scream.
He had only one hope. Rescue seemed unlikely. What he knew of the alphabet’s position, and that of the other operatives in the area, made it unlikely in any case. But if it had been possible, if they’d known where he was or that he’d been taken, they would probably have already broken down the door.
That left just one possibility.
Klaus knew far more than he cared to about torture. Many survivors of torture, he learned, spoke of a trancelike state they reached after which their nerves simply refused to register any more pain. The sensations were transmuted into a bizarre form of almost-pleasure, and they could in that state hold out for hours.
He hoped he would reach that state soon. If he didn’t…. If he didn’t, unthinkable.
As it turned out, he was nowhere near that elusive state when they changed their tactics.
The current was switched off and Mischa leaned over him, chummy. “Now, Major, you know what it is like. Do you think you could do this to someone else?”
“Lie down here and we’ll find out,” Klaus said. In fact, he was quite certain he couldn’t do this even to Mischa. Not to anyone. He had surprised himself unpleasantly more than once in his career, but not that unpleasantly.
“Oh, no. I had something else in mind.” He signaled to one of the goons, who went to the door, opened it, and said something Klaus couldn’t hear. A minute later, two more brawny uniformed thugs entered, bringing with them….
Klaus closed his eyes. “He’s just an idiot civilian,” he muttered. “Let him go.”
“As soon as we have the information we require,” Mischa answered sweetly. “Are you ready to talk?”
Klaus glanced at the captive. Eroica, manacled, tearstained, bruised, and not even able to try to hide his terror. He looked like he would fall over if the agents released him. He was staring at Klaus in complete horror.
“Why should I give a shit what you do to him?” he forced himself to say. Dorian shuddered.
“Come now, Major. The whole world knows the two of you are lovers.”
“The whole world is wrong. I’ve never touched that faggot except to hit him,” Klaus growled, truthfully.
“It’s true,” Dorian spoke up, his voice thin with panic. “He doesn’t give a damn about me, it’s no use-“
“The thief cares a great deal what we do to you, Major,” Mischa interrupted. “We let him watch on the surveillance camera. He found it most distressing.”
Of course. Scare the hell out of the victim before beginning the actual torture. Made the work so much quicker.
“You let him see me naked?” Klaus growled, trying to sound angry. Though really, he cared much more that Dorian had seen him scream. If he’d known the thief was watching, maybe he could have held out a few minutes longer.
“I tried to get them to stop,” Eroica began babbling. “I begged them and I told them everything I know, but they-“
“You’d better not have told them any secrets to save me!” the Major yelled, his throat raw.
“Oh, he did,” Mischa assured him.
“You fucking traitor!” Klaus snarled for the benefit of the Russians. Dorian stared at him, looking if possible even more frightened than before.
“Alas, he had almost no knowledge we didn’t already have. I can see you’ve kept him ignorant. A pity, as he’d have told us everything if he’d only known it himself.”
“That is why he is not a spy and I am.”
“We all have our limits, Major. And now I am about to use an approach I’ve found very effective on stubborn subjects like yourself.”
Dorian struggled ineffectually as he was strapped onto another table and stripped as Klaus had been.
“I’m telling you right now,” Klaus said, “this won’t work. You might as well not bother. I won’t talk.”
“We shall see. If this doesn’t work, we’ll simply resume work on you.”
“Go ahead, then.”
“After we’ve spent some time working on your lover.”
“He is not my lover.”
Dorian was already half-panicked. He’d never been trained for this sort of thing, and he’d just spent God knew how long watching the man he loved being tortured. It could hardly be expected that he would be able to refrain from screaming. Klaus was only disappointed that he could not conceal his own cringe at the sound.
“So you do not care, do you, Major? You know exactly what this feels like. How long can you endure watching him feeling it?”
Klaus did not answer. He silently tallied the people who would be arrested, tortured, killed if he revealed their names. Then there were the names he didn’t know, that they would give up. And what would that do to the hope for some reasonable degree of freedom and security for entire nations?
Today I am going to save thousands of lives, Klaus thought bleakly, as Dorian’s cries tore the air.
“Please,” Dorian gasped. “He doesn’t care.”
“Oh, but he does,” Mischa replied. “The question is, how much?”
He was expecting it, but it was too soon for him nonetheless. Dorian had been trying to resist this, he could tell. He could even hear a tone of apology in the thief’s voice when Dorian started begging him to talk. He didn’t blame the thief at all.
“I’m still not going to talk,” he informed Mischa wearily. “You might as well spare him.”
Mischa only sneered.
“Major? I’m sorry, but please, I can’t….” Dorian’s words trailed into another scream. Klaus closed his eyes.
“Watch or we’ll start cutting his fingers off,” Mischa announced casually.
Klaus opened his eyes, and watched, and kept his lips pressed together.
“There are tears in your eyes, Major. Do not pretend you do not care what we do to your thief.”
“He is not my thief. Stop it.”
“The power to stop it is in your hands.”
“Leave him out of this. He’s a civilian.”
“Do not play naïve, Major.”
Dorian had mostly stopped screaming and was just sobbing quietly when there were loud thumps outside the door. All the Russians looked at the door and readied their weapons, but before they could take any action the door was suddenly reduced to splinters with a loud report. Two tear gas grenades were immediately pitched through it. There was a brief muddle of gunshots, coughing and punches, and only a minute later a figure in a gas mask and combat fatigues was standing beside Klaus, placing a gas mask over his face. It was a blessed relief; coughing increased the pain horribly.
“You idiots are always late,” he mumbled as the agent draped a sheet over him, knowing that the alphabets would understand that this meant, “Thank you.”
“I’m just sorry we didn’t find you sooner, Major.” It was A’s voice. Another agent, a tall one, was standing by Dorian’s table.
“If that’s Z, tell him to stay away from that pervert,” he mumbled, his voice echoing oddly in the mask. He felt strangely lightheaded and found his usual remarks quite funny in the circumstances.
“Please lie quietly, sir. We’re putting together stretchers for you both. You’ll be in the hospital in no time.” The agent’s voice was shaking with anger.
“Hope you took Mischa alive. He knew so much that…. How is Eroica?” he demanded, straining to make himself heard through the mask. He had to know.
“Not nearly as badly hurt as you are, Major. Please just rest. You’re safe now.”
“There’s no such thing as safe,” Klaus informed him before passing out at last.
The drugs they gave him were very strong, but it still hurt. He spent long days lying in the hospital bed, staring at the ceiling. At first only his father was allowed to visit him. He looked twenty years older than the last time Klaus had seen him, and as if he were seeing a vision of hell.
A few days later, they allowed other visitors in. The Chief came in first, that morning. He promised him medals and a promotion. Klaus had been hoping desperately for a promotion for years and years now. Every medal he’d earned thus far had filled him with a schoolboyish pride he’d been embarrassed to feel. Now, he was oddly unenthusiastic about both.
“If you’ve had enough of the field, we can find other uses for you,” the Chief had assured him.
“You’re going to try to chain me to a desk.” Klaus was too exhausted to keep his eyes open. “It won’t work.”
“Be reasonable, Major-“
“We’ll talk about it when I’m well,” Klaus cut him off. He didn’t have the energy to argue. But he wasn’t quitting until he was carried out.
The Chief had looked exasperated and admiring. “You,” he pronounced, “are insane.”
He left, and someone else entered.
Klaus opened his eyes. He knew from the soft tread that it was Eroica who had entered, but he wanted to see what kind of shape the thief was in.
Very good shape, it seemed. Eroica was a little pale, but that probably had more to do with his state of mind than with the physical injuries. He was moving easily, with his usual grace, and there were no visible scars or bruises. But his expression was thoroughly melancholy.
“You’re all right,” Klaus mumbled.
The thief tried a smile, which didn’t quite work out. “No thanks to you.” The tone tried to be joking and didn’t make it. He gave up on the smile. “You look terrible.”
“I see you haven’t lost your sarcasm.” Dorian paused. “Are you… in a lot of pain?”
“I’m sorry.” Another hesitation. “Are you going to be all right? They wouldn’t tell me.”
“Think so. Not sure.” Saying so much wore Klaus out. He let his eyes slide back to the ceiling and concentrated on breathing. The thief didn’t answer, and Klaus let his eyes drift shut.
“They must have given you ten times what they gave me,” Eroica said eventually. This time there was no artifice in his tone: he was appalled. Klaus opened his eyes a crack and saw that the Englishman was regarding him with horrified concern, shaking his head slightly. Klaus must look pretty bad. He hadn’t seen a mirror since coming to the hospital.
In fact, the ratio was more like twenty times, but Klaus saw no reason to mention that.
“I can’t believe you didn’t talk,” Dorian was saying. “I never could have held out.”
If Klaus had had any energy, he might have told Dorian about what he had been through in training exercises. Not just at the beginning of his career, or when he had finished basic Bundewehr training to learn to be a spy, but at least once every damned year, to make sure he hadn’t lost his edge. Not that even the worst of it could compare with the reality of communists who wanted you to do something that you didn’t want to do. He had spent his entire life preparing for this eventuality. And it hadn’t been quite as difficult as Dorian seemed to think, considering some of the other sacrifices Klaus had made for his country. Klaus realized that his eyes were straying over the Englishman’s pretty face and looked at the ceiling again.
Klaus eventually said, “I never wanted you involved in NATO missions. I was worried something like this might happen.”
“And here I thought you just didn’t like me.”
There wasn’t much Klaus could say to that. He wondered why they hadn’t painted the ceiling more evenly. How difficult could it have been?
“I suppose I can’t really blame you,” Dorian continued, his voice catching. He lifted his chin, trying to sound brave. “For not talking, I mean. I know there were a lot of people at risk if you did.”
“Do you really understand that, Lord Gloria?” he asked quietly.
He heard Dorian swallow, then take a big breath. Working himself up to something. Klaus braced himself.
“You – were going to let them keep right on torturing me, weren’t you?” Eroica’s voice was almost steady. “Until they killed me.” Klaus said nothing. He didn’t have an answer the Englishman would want. As the silence stretched, Dorian tried to laugh, tried a self-deprecating shrug that wouldn’t have fooled anyone. “It shouldn’t surprise me, I suppose. You always said you hated me.” Dorian folded his lips, girding his self-control before continuing. “It’s just that, I really believed that underneath, you secretly loved me.”
Klaus sighed, very deeply. And answered, very softly, still staring at the ceiling.
In his peripheral vision Klaus could see as much of Dorian’s expression as he could have stood. It wasn’t an expression of shock or horror or hurt or anger. It was completely blank, as if nothing his face could do would be adequate to express what he was feeling.
After a minute, Dorian turned and walked out of the room without another word, taking all of the warmth in the room with him.
Through the closed door, Klaus could hear the Chief’s voice. He caught the words “perfect job for you.” And then Eroica’s arch tones: “Sorry, Twitterswell, old boy, you’ll have to find some other way of annoying the Eternal Major. This doesn’t amuse me anymore. And don’t get any ideas about talking to Interpol; I know where too many bodies are buried.” Then, a little farther from the door, that refined lilting voice continued: “I’ve neglected you shamefully, haven’t I, Jamesie? I’ll make it all up to you tonight, my lamb. And then, I’ve found out about a lovely painting we simply must attend to….”
A little while later, a nurse came to give him an injection. It was an improvement on the day.
A couple of weeks later the Major was taken home. When the car pulled up, he gave an exclamation of surprise. There on the stately lawn of Schloss Eberbach was a Leopard tank. His Leopard tank. The one Eroica had stolen, back when they first met.
“It was here when we got up this morning,” the butler explained as Klaus eased himself out of the car and into the waiting wheelchair.
“I see.” He’d have to call A and have him collect it. He wondered where the thief had been hiding it for all these years.
“There was a note with it. I didn’t open it, since I knew you would be coming home today.” The butler offered it to him. It was a small envelope, with the words “Major von dem Eberbach” written in a familiar hand. He looked at it, somewhat dazed, for a while before opening it.
It contained only one thing, a lilac calling card similar to many he had seen before. It read: