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  • Penance

    Washrooms, The Giant (“Der Riese” ), near Breslau

    Dr. Edward Richtofen

    June 4th, 1943


    The reflection in the cracked mirror stared back at Edward, uneasy in his presence. The fractured face was afraid of what he was seeing. He could not stand to see the reflection’s look of contempt and disdain, but looking away would mean he was alone.


    Edward splashed more water into his face from the faucet, rubbing it into his tired eyes before checking the mirror once again for the one person who would never leave him.


    He noticed a red stain around the collar of his officer’s uniform, present despite the days of washing and drying over and over. Turning to the side, Edward was satisfied as the darkness of the room and the shadow of his own head blocked out the stain; Surely no one would notice.


    Edward lifted his cap, ensuring his hair was presentable underneath, before checking his teeth for the third time. The auditorium would be dark and focus would be on the projection, however, Edward would know if something was wrong, and for that reason he must appear perfect.


    The stalls of the washroom seemed to all be empty, the room filled with complete silence; Yet, Richtofen felt a chill run up his spine as he sensed a presence in the room with him. Glancing past himself in the mirror, there was nobody, but his heart raced as he heard a whisper from someone immediately to his rear, “Looking sharp, Edward.


    He began to panic, searching the mirror for any presence, before turning his head towards the source. Richtofen fell to the floor at the sight of the older man standing just inches away from him. He stood at a similar height to Edward while standing, slightly taller due to an elegant black hat with a purple ribbon around the brim. His face was distinguished without any blemishes, and his smile was encapsulated by a perfectly trimmed white beard. He presented an aura of wealth and taste through his black suit and purple tie made of fine silk, unwrinkled and without any visible debris.


    Richtofen asked, “Who are you?”


    The man extended a hand to pull Richtofen to his feet, his other resting on a black cane, “You know who I am… don’t you ?”


    Prepared to accept his hand, Richtofen realized exactly who this man was. Instead, he placed his knees on the floor and bowed, “My… Lord…”


    The man in black insisted, reaching for Edward’s hand, “Please, Edward, you are embarrassing yourself. Pick yourself up from this filthy floor.”


    He did as the man requested, accepting his hand and rising to his feet. The mysterious man’s hands were cold and his grasp seemed weak, yet he lifted Edward up with great strength and force. Edward could do nothing but stare into the eyes of the presence before him, captivated by his appearance.


    He lifted his cane from the floor, walking with it as he paced around Richtofen in the middle of the washroom. “I know the death of your underling has troubled you… You believe it could have been avoided. You have allowed it to lessen your resolve… I am here to assure you, Doctor, that your actions were necessary. You have adequately proven yourself as our loyal servant, and I am proud to call you my apprentice.”


    Flustered, Richtofen acknowledged his compliment, “Thank you… I- I did not expect to see you here… in the flesh.”


    He smirked, “This form is one that beings like you find disarming. It garners attention and, most importantly, respect. As you know, the Apothicons are still trapped, however, the pyramid has allowed us to speak to you in this dimension. You made contact with its surface; You have touched the Aether. Your body acts as our vessel, our eyes through which to view this dimension. Only you can see me, Edward, and only you can hear me, but I am very real.”


    “Then you are… the voices in mein head?”


    “I am one of many, but you may think of me as a representative of the whole. I am your teacher, your guide… your master.”


    “I am honored to be in your presence… But, why today?”


    “Another lesson awaits you on this day. I cannot tell you what that lesson will be, as it may waver your path. The time to open the gateway is approaching, and you must be prepared for what lies ahead. Due to the nature of your path, you will have many enemies who seek to slow your progress. Before you can Ascend, these enemies must be dealt with.”


    “Enemies… Maxis?”


    “If Maxis succeeds and you do not, humanity is doomed. His deserved death will satisfy us, however, there are more who will stand in your way who must be dealt with accordingly. They are all seeking to harm you, Edward.”


    Richtofen’s chest began to ache, his heart pumping vigorously. The man took notice, “Fear not. The Apothicons will guide you. You will be protected as long as you keep your promise to us. Hans Wagner was the first of many. We trust you will do the right thing, as you always have.”


    Edward calmed himself enough to speak up, “Thank you, my Lord. I am grateful for your generosity… und your guidance. When Maxis scurries out from the hole he has dug for himself… I will strike. The gateway will open, und I will Ascend.”


    “Yes... and you will be remembered as The One who prevented the certain destruction of your world. Will you be ready to free us when the time comes?”


    “Of course, my Lord. My scientists have been working on a project at one of our airfields… We are prototyping radio towers to spread the Aether’s influence across the entire Earth once I have passed through. When the day comes, we will be ready.”


    He paced in front of each stall in the washroom silently, stopping to focus his attention on one in particular. He turned to Richtofen, “I must warn you Edward, the message from the Order was correct: The Americans are watching, and soon they will be coming for you. Humanity’s war will come to an end in their favor, and Group 935 will inevitably be no more. You will know with time what you must do.”


    “Thank you, my-”


    There was a sharp thump which emanated from behind the stall door the man stood before; Someone was inside. Edward immediately reached into his jacket for a blade he had brought from the labs, as the man in black smiled, offering a calming gesture to Richtofen. He approached Richtofen, saying, “Don’t worry about that, old boy. I believe you should be giving a presentation in a few minutes, no?”


    Edward glanced at the stall, its occupant now silent, “My lord, they heard-”


    Go. It will be alright.”


    He hesitated, but accepted the presence’s wishes, turning to the door of the washroom as he was beckoned to stop just before opening the door.


    “One more thing, Edward. As my apprentice, I feel as if I should give you a more appropriate title to address me by. You may call me The Shadowman.


    Edward turned to face him, but was surprised to see no one else where he once stood. The aura was gone, and the washroom was completely silent.


    Edward shoved the door open, pacing quickly towards the auditorium doors, contemplating the reality of what just transpired. The voices are not simply delusions; They are real, and they are powerful. It would be unwise to turn back now.


    Near the auditorium door was a German rifleman standing guard, now taking notice of Richtofen’s arrival. As he attempted to pass through the doors into the cramped hall, he was pulled aside by the soldier.


    Halt! I need to search you.”


    Oh, really? Do you know who I am? I am Doctor Edward Richtofen: I am to speak in this presentation! Who would I be here to harm? Have you ever heard of the Hippocratic Oath?!”


    “It is just a precaution, Doctor, calm down. I have orders from my superiors to check anyone that passes through. Even you.”


    Before he could protest, the soldier began man-handling Richtofen, patting down his pockets and running his hand along the inside of his uniform. He removed a foldable Doctor’s knife from the inside of the jacket, examining it closely.


    “What are you doing with this?”


    Richtofen reached for the knife, daring not to cross into the guard’s personal space as he flinched back. “That is simply a tool for my work, you simpleton! Give it back to me!


    “I’m afraid I can’t do that, Doctor. You can have it back at the end of the presentation. It will be safe with me.”


    Richtofen stepped forward, peering directly into him. The middle-aged rifleman did not flinch, placing the knife into his breast pocket and gripping his Gewehr as he stared back. The stand-off lasted for a few moments before the rifleman reached for a medal on Richtofen’s chest, viewing it closely before Edward pulled away.


    “That uniform… It belongs to men of honor and prestige; Men who would give their lives for the safety of the German people. How did you acquire it?”


    Richtofen adjusted his posture, reacquiring his jovial grin, “It was a gift.” 


    He pushed past the rifleman as he entered the concert hall, shrouded in darkness. 


    The booming voice of Doctor Porter bounced off the interior walls as the crowd listened intently, “ ... and despite these setbacks, our progress is unwavering! Together, united, we are strong, and our many facilities around the world strive to improve the human condition and secure a prosperous future for our race! Why, just last month, Group 935 celebrated twelve years at the forefront of modern technological innovation, and with each passing year we open new facilities while being presented with brand new opportunities to change the world for the betterment of all! Our exponential growth as an organization is due in no small part to our allies in the Reichstag and their support over the years! As this war for a powerful German people rages on, we must step forward and defend the principles of the Party with the power bestowed to us! If the war is lost, this power will fall into the wrong hands! Furthermore…


    Richtofen walked with purpose towards the front row of the audience, finding the empty seat reserved for him next to Doctor Lehto.


    Lehto leaned over to the seated Richtofen, whispering, “You’re late.”


    Richtofen replied at the same volume, “Fashionably, Doctor, fashionably.”


    “I need to speak with you in private, Doctor.”


    “It can wait, surely?”


    “It’s about the... Kino Facility.”


    Richtofen’s interest piqued, he considered leaving to discuss this with Lehto, “That’s… damn! I will be presenting in just a few moments, I can’t leave. What is this specifically regarding?”


    “Our agents believe they have a precise location. Maxis’ assistant, Sophia, seems to have found work elsewhere in Berlin, but she entered a closed theater last night with no escort. She may have been gathering her belongings.”


    “Sophia? Ludvig must be devastated… Extraordinary work, Doctor… Soon we will know what Maxis has really been up to.”


    “Thank you.” Lehto leaned back in his chair, whispering to Richtofen, “You seem tense, Richtofen. Are you prepared for your speech?”


    Richtofen found himself caught off-guard at the question; Of course he was prepared, but other troubles lay heavy on his mind.


    “It’s only nerves.”


    “I see… does it have to do with the boy?”


    Richtofen flashed a piercing glare, “What would it have to do with Doctor Wagner?”


    “I seem to recall our last encounter ending abruptly due to his presence. You said you handled it… How, you did not specify.”


    “The ‘how’ should be of no concern to a man in your place. I convinced him to leave Group 935 und keep quiet about what he heard.”


    “And you trusted him?”


    “And I… I’ve worked with him for years. We were partners. He did as I instructed without question.”


    Lehto said nothing, further frustrating Richtofen. How could Lehto ask such a presumptuous question? What was he trying to imply? What was he hiding? Edward began recalling his history with Lehto, clinging to any potential hints of betrayal. He claimed loyalty to Edward’s cause, but has he proven loyalty? Groph proved his loyalty when he executed the prisoners. Meier was both loyal and afraid, treating the village people the ways he demanded. Schuster… Schuster was an old friend. He would never betray Richtofen. Or… would he? The last time the two had spoken, Schuster questioned Richtofen’s morality. He simply does not understand what needs to be done; He is weak, like Meier, like Lehto, like Maxis, like… Wagner.


    Porter marked his final words by calling Richtofen to the stage, “... Today we have the privilege of hearing a word from representatives of various Group 935 facilities. Our first guest speaker comes from Der Eisendrache and is a former Der Riese alumnus. Doctor Edward Richtofen needs no further introduction. Doctor? ” He extended his hand to Edward in the front row as the crowd of scientists applauded his name.


    As Richtofen stood from his seat, Lehto pulled him aside, whispering, “Good luck. You will be alright.


    The comment sparked a panic in Richtofen: He would be alright? As opposed to ‘not alright?’ Why would he be in any trouble? From whom?


    The roaring crowd signaled him to approach the stage, and he did as they demanded, ascending a staircase before greeting Porter at the podium.


    Porter offered his hand, which Richtofen hesitantly accepted. Before he left the stage, Porter whispered into Edward’s ear, “Knock them dead, Eddie,” then patted his back.


    Eddie? Where had he heard that nickname? What does he know? Why are the stage lights so bright? Look at that crowd; What do they want? What are they waiting for? Who do they really work for?


    He felt as if the eyes of all of his enemies, past, present, and future, were now watching him, waiting to strike. Edward reached into his jacket, remembering his blade was gone.


    He placed his hands together, peering down at the wooden podium where his set of Reichstag-approved talking points were resting. The room seemed devoid of any life whatsoever, silent and enveloped in darkness.


    Well, I am positively filled with exuberance being here today. It seems just yesterday I began my tenure in Group 935 within these walls. Der Riese is where it all began, really. If not for Der Riese und its deposit of Element 115… where would we all be? Me, well, I would most likely be fine… Of course, I would have never met many of the great minds we have here at our disposal. I would like to start by offering… kudos, I suppose, to the great men of this organization. To Doctor Porter, of course, for his role as acting Chief Scientific Officer. To Doctor Blome, for offering us a smattering of his own independent research. To Doctor Groph, my protégé, and acting Chief of Operations at Der Eisendrache. To Herr Sauers, head of our excavation team; If not for him, we would not have the new supply of Element 115 at our Siberian Facility. And of course, to Doctor Maxis… wherever he may be.


    The crowd applauded his kudos, silencing as the slide being projected changed from Group 935’s insignia to an image of two massive coils at the top of Der Eisendrache . Richtofen continued, “At the castle we have been conducting research that we hope will aid each branch of the German military as the war grows in scale. Pictured here is an enlarged bipolar coil based on research from Nikola Tesla… credit where credit is due. Using the inherent electrical properties of Element 115, this coil can create a barrier that will destroy any foreign objects that pass within its range. We have also begun testing a feature which will destroy a target at a distance with a concentration of the coil’s energy towards a set of coordinates. This device would service the Luftwaffe as an aerial defense system and we are awaiting grant approval to continue pursuing the project.


    The slide switched once more to a blueprint for a mechanized suit of armor with bulbous, round joints and a view-port where the user’s head would be located similar to a diving suit.


    In collaboration with the excavation team, we have also begun prototyping what will be known as the Panzersoldat. What began as a suit designed for more efficient excavation and construction became armor that could turn any ground soldier into a living tank. The elbow joints are designed to have interchangeable, functional arms. Panzersoldaten could be equipped with extendable claws for lifting debris and moving heavy machinery, as well as an outfitted machine gun, wrist-mounted rockets, und a flamethrower. Once the prototypes are complete und the Reichstag sees their potential, the Panzersoldat will be essential to any ground-based offensive attack.


    The slide switched once more to an image of a prototype Wunderwaffe based on the original, modified and outfitted with a rangefinder at the barrel. Behind the weapon, Doctor Richtofen had an arm around Doctor Wagner, and the two were smiling as they looked over the weapon. Richtofen was flustered, staring at the image on the wall until a few members of the crowd began to chuckle, possibly at the uncomfortable nature of the photo and Edward’s reaction. This quickly snapped Richtofen from his daze, who turned back to his notes, daring not to look away again.


    Der Eisendrache… has also been at the forefront of Group 935’s weapon research, prototyping designs from our various research stations. Though Der Riese’s factory has halted its assembly lines, I am confident Group 935’s weaponry will change the ways in which warfare is conducted, more so now than any other time in human history. Project Thunder, Die Glocke, P-JG… the ‘Ray’ ‘Gun’... That one’s a work in progress…


    Richtofen paused for a moment, the fear and anger swelling as he thought of his enemies around him and the torment he had endured. He channeled his rage into his words, “I have a vision for such weaponry. The Americans see themselves as saviors, as heroes for their Western allies, yet they fail to see what awaits them within German borders. They will fail as they und the Russians push into our territory, where they will face the technology we have created with our minds und our spirits! We will send their armies back to the oceans... und one day I envision scores of Wehrmacht soldiers storming American beaches equipped with Wunderwaffen, empowered to fight with 115-imbued elixirs that allow for super-human abilities! They will fight to the last breath to stamp out America’s armies, their path cleared by an armored division of Panzersoldaten! Their people will beg for mercy under the Party, und they shall be provided for as loyal citizens of the Reich. If they would not surrender, then they would face complete devastation under the threat of a 115-Missile sent from their shores to major cities! Should any of our enemies seek to rebel, they would face our army of Untoten, trained und loyal to Germany und her territories! When the fighting has concluded und peace has been brought home, Group 935 shall be remembered as the Reich’s most trusted ally in the fight. This vision of the future will only be possible with our complete dedication und focus! If we should succeed, Group 935 will be humanity’s greatest achievement!


    The crowd began to applaud and cheer, the noise crackling and echoing throughout the auditorium like thunder. Richtofen’s mind began to calm, his face red and his throat sore from the volume of his speech. Though he knew his words were empty and Group 935 was doomed, he felt a moment of triumph as he received a standing ovation from scientists before him. He felt his confidence returning.


    Raising his fist into the air, the uproar of the crowd continued, putting a smile on Richtofen's face. Something quickly changed in the air, however, as whispers began to fill his head. They were short, cutting words in the back of his mind. Edward’s blood ran cold and his stomach dropped as the voices beckoned him to turn around.

    Edward turned from the roaring crowd and his ears began to ring. He gazed into the darkness beside the stage, noticing a figure standing within. He could not make out a face, only the silhouette of a man, roughly his own height. An arm abruptly cut through the darkness, a Luger in its hand pointed directly at Richtofen. Time seemed to freeze and the room became silent, Richtofen focused completely on the end of the gun before him. Cutting through the silence, the sharp voice of The Shadowman uttered one word, “Move!”


    Richtofen dove to the ground behind the podium, and just at that instant, a shot rang out from behind the stage whizzing just past Richtofen’s head.


    The entire crowd turned into a frenzy as members piled into the doorways at the end of each row of seats. There were screams of fear and anger as each man tried to push through and preserve his own life.


    Richtofen’s breathing was short and erratic, further constricting his thoughts while he searched his jacket for his blade. He had none; He was completely defenseless.


    He turned towards the people crowding the doorways, where he could see German soldiers attempting to push through into the auditorium to no avail. His heart pounded furiously, and with a moment of bravery, he glanced aside from the podium towards his attacker’s position. There was no one there any longer.


    The soldier who had confiscated Richtofen’s blade managed to push through the flood of humanity, raising his weapon and searching for anyone near the stage. He looked at Edward cowering under the podium, calling to him, “Doctor Richtofen!”


    Fearing conspiracy from the soldier, Edward leapt from his position and sprinted behind the stage to a back door, not stopping for a moment as he traversed the hallways and found an exit towards the courtyard. There were people running and screaming in every direction, but Richtofen had only one destination in his mind.


    He ran for the laboratories, ascending to the second floor after checking around each corner. He entered the lab-space temporarily assigned to him during his stay, the same space where he and Maxis had originally tested the MTD. Immediately upon entering, he slammed the door shut, activating the electronic locks. 


    He ran for his locker under a table at the opposite wall. As he prepared to input the combination, he realized the door was ajar already. His Luger was missing.


    Richtofen searched a drawer for any form of defense, only finding another Doctor’s knife. He gripped it in his right hand as he searched for his diary, the only source outside of his own brain that held the locker combination. He searched every drawer of the table, before taking notice of the MTD prototype against the back wall of the laboratory. The tarp meant to be covering it had been removed, and near the base on a stool was the diary, opened.


    Richtofen hurried to the book, and he began to shake as he realized what page he had written was now visible:


    Wagner had to die. The voices know what is best. There was no other way. Hans was a danger to our cause. I do not regret it. He was a servant to Maxis. 9:21 I hated him. I always hated him. He never believed in me. He would never have been my friend. You have no friends. Teddy did the right thing. It’s okay. Shut up. He was worthless. Just like you. I liked it. I would do it again. You were always The Butcher. He said ‘Ascend From Darkness.’ Maxis will pay, he and his daughter. When I see him again, I will cut his throat and watch him bleed like a pig.


    Reading words he himself had already written, Richtofen was still in shock. Whoever had read these words knew what Richtofen had already done, and what would be done.


    He ran to a nearby table with the diary, placing it down as he searched for a drawer with a container of baking powder. His shaky hands dumped the whole contents on the pages, as he fumbled in search of a small brush. Now in hand, he used the brush to wipe away excess powder, leaving behind outlines of fingerprints along the sides of the page. He used clear tape to grab an imprint of them, setting them aside.


    The prints now gathered, he turned to the back pages of his diary, comparing each individual print to the prints of Maxis, Groph, Schuster, Lehto, Wagner, Porter, Meier, Okitsu, but not a single print matched those he had found. 


    Finally, he compared them to his own. They all matched. Every single one. No prints had touched this page but Richtofen’s.


    He began to hear whispers all around the dark recesses of the lab, drawing his fears in every direction. Edward pulled the knife from his pocket, running to a corner of the room, tossing a table on its side to hide behind. His breathing became sporadic, and tears began to well in his eyes as he barricaded himself in the corner, knife in hand.


    He screamed to anyone that would listen, “Who did this?! Who tried to kill me?! Is it the Order?! Are you listening to me now ?! Why have you done this… why…


    There was a knocking at the door, and the voice of the German rifleman from before, “Doctor Richtofen?! Are you in there? It’s alright, we only have a few questions! We have not been able to locate the shooter. Doctor?”


    Richtofen said nothing, pulling the table closer and gripping his blade tighter. He felt the presence of The Shadowman nearby, though he could not see him.


    Richtofen whispered to him, “Was it the Illuminati? The Americans? Someone in Group 935? My own allies?”


    The Shadowman only chuckled, uttering in his refined, gentlemanly tone, “If only you knew, old boy.

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