The blond boy hanging from the lampost couldn’t have been more than eleven or twelve. Someone had taken the time to tear the diamond swastika from his jacket sleeve. Grey dust and specks of rubble powdered his shoulders as though he’d come in from the snow. Flies rested over his unseeing, glassy eyes like coins for Charon.
The Crimson Comet could hear the creak of the cord as the child swayed in the weak winter wind, even with the rumble of mortar and gunfire in his ears. His fist tightened. “Why?”
The two black-coated German officers behind the hero stumbled over each other’s words in their attempts to explain themselves to the Soviet army men and the rifles brandished in their faces. A gaggle of Hitler Youth were watching, stiff with terror, by a nearby wall of sandbags, guarded by a pair of scowling soldiers.
Ralph’s commanding officer, one Commissar Fyodor, raised his hand, silencing the officers. He turned to the Comet. “They say the boy was a deserter from another unit.”
Ralph didn’t take his eyes off the child. “A what?”
Fyodor scowled back at the officers. One was trying to look stoic, the other was begging with his eyes.
“They mean they found him hiding in the alley with some bullets in his pockets.”
“Bring ‘em here.”
Fyodor cocked his head towards Ralph, spurring his comrades to frog-march the Nazis before the superhero.
A globule of spit hit the Comet on the cheek as he turned to face the officers. One of them was cringing with his hands clutched protectively over his head, but the other was standing damnably tall, screaming and cursing at Rivers in German.
Ralph pressed the pair of them against the wall. A hand to each of their windpipes. The fearful one cried as he died. The other simply fought. It didn’t help.
The children screamed and wept, only kept from rushing forward by the soldiers forming into a wall of menace and gunmetal in front of them.
Fyodor stood beside the Comet, and looked up at the dead boy. Behind his little round glasses his eyes were sympathetic yet weary. “I could have had the men do that, you know.”
“Wouldn’t ask anyone to do something I wouldn’t do myself.”
Fyodor smiled joylessly. “Trust me, Comet, killing Nazis is no burden for us.”
“Besides, you would’ve used bullets.” Ralph kicked one of the dead Nazis in the chest. “Why should they get better than the kid?”
Ralph looked back up at the hanged child. “Have your men take whatever they can use, and tell the kids to wait here with their hands up for someone to surrender to. Reckon it’s their best chance at not getting shot before this is over.” He stepped over to the base of the lampost. “I’m going to get the boy down.”
“We don’t have time—”
Ralph bent the lamppost about the middle, as easy as folding a coat-hanger. He lowered it until the boy’s shoes were almost touching the ground. “Well, help me out then.”
Fyodor sighed as he removed his combat knife from its sheath. “Damn you, Comet.”
Once he was cut down, Ralph laid the boy down in the doorway of a relatively intact haberdashery, draping one of the Nazi’s jackets over his face. He didn’t want to leave the child out in the open, the ruins of his home looming all around him like the graves of giants.
“All right,” Ralph said as he turned away from the boy, “let’s move.”
The Race to Berlin was over. The Nazi war-machine was running on fumes and spite, but the Western Allies had little interest in throwing more men at a city that would soon fall into Soviet orbit. That wasn’t to say the western powers hadn’t contributed to the final push—the USAAF1 and RAF’s Mosquitos2 had softened up Berlin with over a month of raids and bombings. The city had been hollowed out before the ants could even reach it.
That wasn’t all. Whether so America and her allies could say they had boots on the ground, or just to keep an eye on the Soviets, Eisenhower had sent the bulk of SHAEF’s3 “meta-corps4” ahead to help storm the city. Not that it made a difference. The Nazi’s people and industry were exhausted, and they could no longer pillage enough from “the Greater Reich” to keep going. Nothing short of a miracle could save Hitler now.
Unfortunately for the führer, the Crimson Comet was here to kill his miracle-workers.
The Crimson Comet gave the Youth members one last look as they left them behind. A few of the younger ones were kneeling on the road by the dead Nazis, weeping.
Those two were probably their den-leaders, Ralph realized. The bastards had dragged those poor lads into war like they were men, and they were still crying for them.
…Had they helped string up the boy?
Ralph shoved the idea down as deep as he could. He couldn’t let his rage anywhere near children. How long had it been, since he hadn’t been angry?
Rivers, Fyodor, and his men marched through the broken streets. Ralph saw snatches of civilians peering from the windows of bomb-scarred homes and buildings like frightened ghosts. Every city-smell was tainted by the stink of gunpowder and concrete dust. Smoke and ash rose to mingle with the clouds above. Ralph had seen many cities so reduced since he’d shipped out. The war in Europe was like two waves of death colliding by the shore.
Until Auschwitz and Bitburg, Ralph had wondered if it was worth it. He still wasn’t sure.
They passed the skeleton of a townhouse almost completely buried in a mound of rubble. An arm jutted out from the foot of the hill like some morbid flower. A gold watch glinted against the grey-dusted flesh.
Fyodor pulled the watch off and slipped it onto his own arm, revealing alternating bands of silver and gold beneath his olive drab sleeve.
“I thought looting was punished by death,” Ralph remarked coolly.
The commissar shrugged. “The dead have no use for jewelry. I do.”
“For a political officer, you’re not a very good communist.”
“I’m not getting lectured on socialism by an American, friend.”
“I’ve told you, I’m Australian.”
Honestly, Ralph couldn’t judge Fyodor too harshly. The man did have his principles. Just the day before, Ralph had watched him shoot one of his own men in the back for trying to “loot” a Berlin woman.
Ralph shook his head. Why couldn’t anyone be decent?
The platoon trudged on. At one point, they hunkered down in a deserted hotel lobby so Fyodor could make a call on his bulky field-telephone.
The commissar spat some irritated Russian down the line before slamming it back into its cradle.
The Comet asked, “What’s the latest on Hel and Baldr?”
Hel and Baldr (the man who couldn’t die5) were the exemplar Nazi super-soldiers. Conveniently for Goebells and his propagandists, they were the only ones to make it to 1945. Baldr—Hans Sommer to his mother6—was the golden boy, not only because of his archetypically Aryan good looks. Reputable sources even outside the Reich proved he’d served in the Great War, but he didn’t look a day over twenty-one. Given the man had survived gas-attacks, headshots, and being bathed in napalm, it wasn’t difficult to believe.
Hel, on the other hand, was the wildcard. Nobody could agree on what her powers were. All anyone really knew for sure was that she could send a man’s head flying with the back of her hand7, but some people reckoned she had healing powers on top of that. Confirmed German casualties had been spotted again on the frontlines mere days after she passed through. Others claimed mind-control: Allied soldiers had been spotted fighting alongside her to their deaths.
“It’s bizarre,” said the commissar. “Reports say they’re killing indiscriminately.”
“…Wouldn’t it be stranger if they weren’t?”
“I don’t just mean our boys, Comet. They’re killing Germans, too. Soldiers, civilians, doesn’t matter!”
“Really? For the love of God, why?”
Christ, had the Nazis finally stopped discriminating? Did all those people have bullets in their pockets, too?
Fyodor shook his head. “I don’t know!” Noticing the questioning looks from his soldiers, Fyodor loudly repeated his explanation in Russian. The men all shouted back.
“Your boys have any ideas?” asked Ralph.
Fyodor frowned, “Best they’ve got is… how you say it? Ah, ‘paranoia,’ but something—”
A scream shattered the air in the lobby. It was loud enough to make ears bleed, but the noise itself was poisonous. It was grief and hate, entwined with rage and every other foul thing in the world. It was what pain sounded like.
The sound forced Ralph to his knees. He clamped his tight over his ears, but it did nothing to muffle the shriek. It wasn’t only noise. It was images, too. His first kiss calling him a faggot in front of his friends. His father changing the locks on the front door.
Most vivid of all was Finch, dead and burnt. Oh God, Finch. He could smell the roasted flesh of his lover.
Ralph wanted his eardrums to burst. He wanted to die.
The sound of gunfire pulled Ralph out of his pain. One of the soldiers was lying on the floor, blood seeping from a new hole in his head, sidearm in hand.
The scream continued, more shots accompanying it. One soldier was pulling out his knife, raising it to his throat.
Ralph lunged for the poor man, but it was too late. The soldier cut a red line across his neck, gushing blood down the front of his shirt.
Ralph turned to Fyodor. The commissar was leaning against the reception desk, knuckles white. His right hand was drifting towards his pistol-holster.
“Not you, too!”
Ralph exploded forwards, stumbling to a stop a few feet to Fyodor’s left. He whipped the gun out of the officer’s hand and crushed it like a beer-can.
Before Fyodor could do anything else, Ralph threw his arms tight around him. “Don’t you dare!”
The scream faded. The horror subsided. Fyodor shook in Ralph’s eyes, murmuring softly to himself in Russian before taking a deep breath.
“…I think you can let go of me, Comet.”
Ralph let go of the commissar. Fyodor looked around the lobby. All but one of his men were dead, and the survivor was curled up on the floor moaning.
“Those poor men…”
“You two are strong,” a feminine, teutonic voice drawled behind the pair. “But I don’t need you to volunteer for my army.”
Ralph and Fyodor swung around to find a crowd amassed at the hotel entrance. It appeared to be a mix of civilians and soldiers—German and Soviet. At the head of it were a man and a woman dressed in black leather SS coats8. The man was six-foot five, sculpted blond-and-blue-eyed perfection. The woman was only a foot shorter, and her blonde mane gave way to darkening roots. Hel and Baldr. Baldr looked like a child at the gate of a carnival, while Hel regarded the Russian and the superhero imperiously.
“Just so you know,” said Ralph, “me and the commissar are with the Allies. You’re not. We heard you two were getting fuzzy about which side you’re on.”
Hel chucked and smiled coldly. “Trust me, Herr Comet, Baldr and I know exactly what side we’re on.”
Baldr folded his arms, unconsciously spreading his legs ever so slightly. “We’ve been doing some recruiting.”
“Bull,” said Ralph. “You can’t even feed your real army!”
Hel’s lip curled in a smirk. “When you join my army, Comet, you don’t need food. Or rest.” She looked back at the crowd with some disdain. “Or doubt.”
“Look at the rest of them,” Fyodor hissed out the corner of his mouth. “They’re all… broken.”
Ralph’s eyes scanned over the crowd. Everyone behind the two super-soldiers looked bloodless, with blank, unfocused eyes. Many were grievously injured. Bullet wounds, deep bruises, and even missing limbs abounded. One man was missing half his head, resembling a living, gory Picasso painting. They were deathly silent, too. Ralph couldn’t even hear them breathe.
“Good God,” said Ralph. He glared at Hel. “You’ve turned your own people into vampires!9”
Hel wagged her finger at the Comet. “No, no, no, Comet. My soldiers are no parasites.” She spread her arms out for emphasis. “They are the peak of selflessness! Serving their race even in death!” Hel allowed her arms to drop back to her sides, affecting a poor imitation of an easy smile. “And if those of lesser blood can pitch in, who am I to deny them the chance?”
Ralph and Fyodor both turned at the sound of whimpering and boots scraping against the damask linoleum behind them.
Fyodor’s surviving soldier was scrambling away from his dead comrades, who were all climbing back to their feet, guns in hand. The corpse closest to the survivor aimed his rifle at him.
The commissar tried to run towards his man, shouting, “Yahontov!”
A gunshot. Yahontov fell backwards dead, a rose of blood blooming on his chest.
Then, he got up.
Fyodor stopped in his tracks, his shoulders slacking. He turned to glare at Hel. “Suka! Gnúsnyj vedma10!”
Baldr cracked his black-gloved knuckles. “Don’t worry. You’ll be joining the rest of your Slavic dogs soon enough.”
Fyodor’s troops and the armed corpses flanking Baldr and Hel all took aim.
Ralph pulled the commissar into his chest, swinging around to try and shield Fyodor from the bullets striking him like hailstones.
Ralph could feel Fyodor swearing against his pecs. They were being fired on from both sides; a stray round could strike the commissar any second.
Rivers looked past the undead Soviet firing squad. There were two banks of elevators at the back of the lobby. One of them was open.
The air around the Crimson blurred and glowed. “Brace yourself, mate.”
A muffled, “Wait, what—”
Ralph became a streak of red light, blasting between two of Fyodor’s ex-men.
With all the discomfort of a hard-braking car or a man cutting off a piss halfway through, the Crimson Comet stopped dead just before he hit the sea-scape hanging up on the back wall of the alcove.
Ralph felt Fyodor’s fingers dig into his ribs.
“Zhizn’ ebet meya1…”
He was still alive. Good.
Ralph threw the commissar into the open elevator, hopefully not hard enough to break anything. Before Fyodor could pull himself together, Ralph pulled the gilt doors shut with his bare hands, a new storm of bullets spraying against him all the while.
Ralph felt sorry for Fyodor. Being tucked away like a puppy in a cage couldn’t be good for his pride. But this was no moment for mere men…
A fist slammed into Ralph’s temples, sending him hurtling sideways into the painting at the back. Reports of Hel’s strength had not been exaggerated.
“Look at you,” said Hel as the Crimson Comet slid down the wall, ruined painting draped over his shoulders like a cape of canvas, “nurse-maiding these untermensch!” The living dead amassed behind the superwoman, numbly moaning “Heil Hitler” with rotting vocal-cords. “But soon you’ll serve a worthier cause.”
Baldr forced his way through the throng of dead, rushing over to Ralph and kicking him savagely in the chest and groin. Ralph barely felt a thing.
“Can’t wait to see the look on the swine’s face. The Crimson Comet: soldier of the Reich!”
Ralph found himself laughing. This joke of a super was trying to hurt him with what might as well have been human blows. Idiot was a puppy nipping at the heels of a Great Dane. He wondered why Hel kept him around. Was this the team-up equivalent of a pity-fuck?
Baldr noticed the hero’s amusement. He scowled. “What’s so funny?”
The Crimson Comet shot to his feet and grabbed Baldr by his thick blond hair. He grinned evilly right in his wide-eyed face. “Man who can’t die, eh?”
Ralph wrenched Baldr’s head from his shoulders, pulling a length of bloody spine with it. The Nazi’s body reached up and tried to snatch its head back, but the Comet punched it in the mid-section, sending it backwards into the crowd of corpses.
Baldr’s head silently mouthed at Ralph, robbed of lungs with which to speak. The Comet smirked and threw the head into the army of the dead. If he was lucky, the poor fucks would eat it12.
Before Ralph could bask in the satisfaction, he was hit head on by another of Hel’s screams.
Ralph stumbled backwards a few steps, back to the day Dr. Mazur’s stun-ray finally ran out of juice. The day he had to start killing.
The horror subsided. Hel was bent over, out of breath.
Ralph straightened himself and spat in her face. “You think you’re the first person to make me want to die, Nazi?”
Hel mutely touched the spittle on her forehead like she’d suddenly grown a horn.
Then she roared.
The dead surged forward into the alcove like a flood through a drinking straw. Soldiers, bakers, bankers, housewives and schoolchildren all pulled at Ralph—maenads trying to tear apart an adamantine man.
Ralph looked down at one of the corpses pawing at him. The hanged boy. He’d cut the poor child down just so he could be made a puppet.
Hel struck Ralph in the face. Unlike his decapitated ally, she could punch worth a damn. A blood vessel burst in Ralph’s eye. She hit him again. He felt the cartilage in his nose crack and break. He tasted salt and iron.
Hel clutched the sides of Ralph’s head. “I will make you peel back your face, scum! You’ll be a horror!”
Ralph smiled. “Sure, honey.”
The Crimson Comet glowed and burst forward like his namesake, barreling over Hel and smashing through body after body like they were walking water-balloons.
He emerged out the other side back onto the street, covered head-to-toe in cold, rotten blood and torn strips of clothing. As Ralph wiped the blood from his face, a shouting Hel leapt onto his back, sending them both falling onto the road.
Ralph managed to get on top of the woman, wrapping his hands around her wind-pipe. “What’s the fucking point of winning if you’re all fucking corpses?”
Hel arched her back and bit the Comet on the pectoral, hard enough to draw blood. As the superhero grimaced in pain, she used the opening to knee him in the chest, shoving him off her. “If one German man and one German woman live to see our victory, it shall be worth it!”
Ralph fell into a sitting position. “From what I’ve heard about Baldr’s family, I believe ya!”
Hel screeched and lunged forward, scratching long red gashes across the Comet’s face.
Baldr’s headless body stumbled out of the hotel. Something was bulging under his shirt…
The Nazi’s chest exploded, a small red shape tumbling to the ground in a gush of gore. The mass unfolded into a naked little girl, completely slick with blood. She beamed toothily at the Crimson Comet.
Hel frowned in deep shock and confusion. “Was zur hölle13?”
Ralph was gaping. The girl again. He’d seen her on and off ever since France. His strange little fan. “You…”
The bloody girl started trotting down towards the two supers, Baldr’s split open body staggering around blindly behind her.
“No!” shouted Ralph. “Stay away!”
Hel screamed at the child with all her hellish might.
It washed over the little water-nymph like a chill-breeze. Stinging images of the man who tried touching her months ago returned to her mind’s eye, but she pushed them away with ease. Hel’s scream was meant for humans.
Hel seized Ralph by the hair.
“What is she!?”
He gave her a grim laugh.
“If you’re looking for the ubermensch, love, she’s right there.”
The girl kept walking.
Hel stared on in horror. Does she not have a soul? she asked herself, not knowing how right she was. She grabbed the Crimson Comet by the neck. “Don’t come any closer… I’ll break his neck!”
“Don’t listen to her!” cried Ralph. “Just run!”
The girl pouted. The lady with the funny hair kept trying to hurt her pet. It was fun to watch at first, but now it was getting boring.
An idea was born within her. She grinned. Father would be so impressed.
Behind the child, dozens of human forms popped.
A wave of blood rushed towards the hotel doors, rearing upwards and spewing out into the street like a great scarlet serpent. It loomed above Hel and the Comet, casting a red shadow.
The blood poured down on the two in a torrent. Ralph was ejected from it within a second. Not Hel.
The Crimson Comet sat there for a couple of minutes, watching the child impassively regard the nightmare she had wrought. Once or twice Hel’s arm or head forced its way out of the blood-tower, only to be pulled back in near-instantly. Each time she did so, it had a little less of its skin.
Eventually, the blood collapsed, spilling across the road like raspberry syrup. Hel lay in the middle of the enormous puddle, dead.
Ralph Rivers staggered up to the little girl, putting his hands gently on her shoulders. “I told you to stop following me! There’s things—a child shouldn’t…” He gave up trying to chastise the girl and hugged her.
The child nuzzled her head against the Comet’s stomach. “Ralph…”
In the pitch-black of the elevator, a crack of light cut through the middle of the darkness. A second later, the doors were shoved open.
Commissar Fyodor looked up at the Crimson Comet. He appeared to be drenched in blood. Double-crimson…
“Good God,” he said, “what happened to you?”
A little girl stepped out from behind the Comet. She too was covered in blood. And nothing else.
“And who the hell is she?”
Ralph helped Fyodor to his feet. “This is…” She looked down at the girl, who smiled up at him. If she had a name, she’d never told Ralph.
“Fran,” the hero said on a whim. “Françoise.” Well, they had met in France. He grinned. Might as well have some fun. After all that blood… “Françoise Barthe. She… dealt with Hel. And Baldr. I think.”
“Fran” tilted her head in confusion.
The commissar looked down at her with some interest. “Well,” he said, “she’s red.” He smiled. “That, I like.”
Ralph laughed till he cried. Then he kept on crying.
1. United States Army Air Forces. ↩
2. The de Havilland Mosquito, a British twin-engine combat aircraft introduced during the Second World War. ↩
3. Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force, the headquarters of future US president General Dwight Eisenhower, supreme commander of the Allied forces in Western Europe during the latter half of World War 2. ↩
4. A nickname for the superhuman agents employed by the Allies during WW2, referring to both the superheroes (along with the odd well-compensated supervillain) who volunteered their services, as well as superhuman members of the regular armed forces and intelligence services. ↩
5. Until he did. ↩
6. In order to cover for some potentially murky ancestry, official sources claimed Sommer was the son of his mother and maternal uncle, not so subtly implying the concentration of Aryan blood was responsible for his apparent immunity to death. A baffling decision to most eyes, but not an unprecedented one by the Nazi regime, as Field Marshal Erhard Milch could attest. ↩
7. Enhanced strength and durability is disproportionately represented among superhumans. Some researchers attribute this to survivorship bias, due to the often extreme circumstances that accompany superhuman transformations. ↩
8. In comparison to Allied superhumans, the Axis super-soldiers weren’t overly fond of colourful, personalized costumes. Some cultural theorists have speculated this is due to an inherent incompatibility between the individualism of superhero personas and the conformity demanded and celebrated by fascist regimes. ↩
9. In the 1960s, Soviet-influenced or simply paranoid presses would frequently accuse the United States of having sourced its necromancy program from studies of the Nazi program, or even having “papercliped” Hel to the United States in secret. This is simply not true: America’s necromancers were all homegrown. ↩
10. Roughly, “Bitch! Vile witch!” ↩
11. “Life is fucking me.” ↩
12. Fortunately for the International Court, he was not. ↩
13. “What the Hell?” ↩