Trial By Winter

When the pipes in the house froze they started to get really nervous. The snowstorm in the New Mexico had surprised them a little, more because it rattled the thin walls of the house like a ghost rattled chains than anything. The sense of high flying altitude had been unsettling too, but after a while they got used to it. But when they got thirsty and realized they couldn’t get any water out of the pipes, that’s when they started to get really nervous.

They had just made their third complete round of all the faucets in the house and come back to the kitchen sink to try and think up something to unfreeze it when they noticed someone was coming.

It wasn’t like they heard footsteps or anything. But there, on the edges of their minds, like a small weight, something pushed down on the edge of the cold. It was getting warmer in a small area. That usually happened when people wandered into an area they had frozen, usually attracted by the snow. But if they weren’t prepared for the cold, and in New Mexico who would be, they tended to leave pretty quickly. But this warm spot was making it’s way in to the house and towards the door.

The two girls exchanged a glance. “Do you think Frau Nagel is back?”

Her sister shook her head. “She can’t move the cold. She wouldn’t come here alone.”

“When she finds out that we made cold without her permission she’ll be mad enough it won’t matter,” the first girl said.

They shared a knowing nod and started to move towards the laundry room at the back of the house. They hadn’t gone far when the door to the house rattled. The girls stopped and exchanged another glance. Both Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt had keys, had the only keys to the house. Anyone who didn’t have a key wasn’t supposed to come in.

Reluctantly, the sisters stepped back to the kitchen counter and set their water glasses there. They were still thirsty, how could they not be after so long in the cold? But robbers breaking into the house couldn’t be tolerated. Herr Schmidt had been quite clear on that. It was one of the few things he and Frau Nagel agreed on.

The girls had gone half way to the door when the sound of the lock clicking brought them up short. They didn’t have time for anything else before the door swung open. It wasn’t Frau Nagel, which made things a little easier.

Things like lock picks were beyond the two of them, so they simply assumed that the two men at the door had gotten a key from somewhere – most likely, Frau Nagel, as she had gone out to “look in on someone” before the cold. One of them was fairly short, only a few inches taller than they were. He was saying, “How often do you have to do that, anyway?”

The taller man tucked something into his jacket pocket and then shrugged. “Often enough that it’s better not to talk about it.”

Once again the sisters exchanged a dubious glance. If these were the people Frau Nagel had gone to look in on they were certainly a strange pair. The taller man was plain, except for his goatee. The shorter man had light brown hair and blue eyes, except for his height he looked every bit the good German, so that was something at least. But they were both speaking English. With a silent nod, one of the sisters stepped forward.

“Excuse me, sir,” she said. “May I ask why you are here?”

The shorter man jerked, as if surprised. On closer inspection, the girl decided he couldn’t be that much older than they were. He didn’t have lines on his face like Frau Nagel or Herr Schmidt did and, of course, he was not that tall. Surely he must be young then.

The plain man murmured, “Field work means being on your toes, Double Helix.” Then he knelt on one knee and rested his hands on the other and gave the two sisters an evaluating stare. “Now what do we have here?”

“Has Frau Nagel sent you for the eugenics test?” The same girl asked.

“Eugenics?” An eyebrow went up on that plain face. “I’m not sure. I’ve never met Frau Nagel, is she around here?”

“Oh.” The other sister shrank back behind the one who had been talking up until then. “Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt are very insistent that we not talk to strangers.”

The shorter man rested his hands on his hips and nodded. “That’s really good advice, ladies.” The girls blushed slightly at being called ladies. “I don’t suppose Herr Schmidt is here either?”

There was a short pause for a whispered conference between them, then the girls nodded solemnly. The older sister swallowed once and said, “He’s in the back room. Do you want me to take you to him?”

“That’s all right, honey,” the plain man said. “Why don’t you just ask him to come out here? We can wait.”

“I will take you to him,” the older sister said firmly. Then she wavered a bit. “Unless one of you would rather remain here?”

The plain man stroked his goatee once and looked at her thoughtfully. He seemed to be wondering why she was suggesting that rather than seriously considering staying behind. “No,” he said finally. “I’m afraid that without my friend close by it would be a chilly here for me.”

“You can push the cold?” The younger sister asked. Both girls gave the shorter man an expectant look.

“Well…” The young man wavered for a second, and it was time for the two men to exchange a glance. But his older companion just gave a quick shrug, leaving him to figure out an answer on his own. The girls leaned forward a bit, eager to hear the answer. “I guess it’s something similar. Close enough that it doesn’t make much difference, probably.”

“Did Frau Nagel really not send you?” The older sister asked.

“Never met her,” he said. “I’d like to, though.”

It was a hint and the girls knew it. The sighed and started towards the back of the house. The younger hesitated as they reached the kitchen, and her sister stopped and gave her a gentle nudge towards a chair, saying, “Wait here.”

“We’re not getting you into trouble, are we?” The young man absently cracked his knuckles as they walked, although it seemed more like a nervous habit than anticipation.

“We are already in trouble,” she answered.

“Well, maybe when we talk to Herr Schmidt…” His voice trailed off when the girl opened the door.

Herr Schmidt stood there, his skin a pale blue, two fingers snapped of the brittle end of his hand. The girl looked back at the two men and said, “We are not supposed to move the cold unless someone is here to supervise us. My sister is worried that Herr Schmidt won’t recover. We’re keeping him cold until Frau Nagel can tell us what to do.”

The older man swallowed hard. “Uh. I don’t think that’s going to help any.”

“Agent Templeton,” the younger man said, resting a hand on his shoulder. “Can I talk to you for a second? Outside?”

——–

“Double Helix, you’re in over your head.” Darryl Templeton folded his arms and gave the kid a hard look over. “Maybe you should head back to the van.”

“Aren’t you the one who just told those girls you’d freeze without me around?” The kid planted his hands on his hips, a posture he used whenever he was feeling stubborn. Darryl had only known Double Helix a few days, but he’d spent a lot of that time being stubborn. “I’m not going to wander off and let you freeze. And I’m worried about those girls.”

Darryl sighed. “And it’s not a bad thing that you are. But do you even have any idea what’s going on here?”

“My best guess is they’re related to Jack Frost.” Helix glanced over his shoulder, back at the house, where the two blonde girls were waiting, huddled in the doorway. “The names of their guardians and their German accents, along with their talking about eugenics, all make them-“

“Wait.” Darryl held up a hand. “You’ve lost me. Who’s Jack Frost? Outside of fairy tales, I mean.”

Helix looked back, seeming a bit surprised. “You’ve never heard of him? Do you know anything about Sergeant Wake or Operation Underworld?”

“I’d never heard of Sergeant Wake until I read about him in your file. I suppose this has something to do with the founding of Project Sumter during the Second World War?”

“Yeah.” Helix grew more animated. “He was assigned to-“

“Hold up.” He wasn’t glad to cut the kid off, it was the most positive expression he’d seen out of Helix since they met. The kid seemed to brood a lot, although that might not be surprising given all the scrutiny he was under at the moment. But rules were rules. “You probably shouldn’t tell me anything more about the Sergeant or his activities. I’m not cleared to know it and you’re not even a part of the Project, so you might get in trouble for even thinking about it.”

“Whatever.” Helix snorted and chewed his lip for a second. “This is bad stuff, Agent Templeton. These girls are so brainwashed and out of it they think keeping Schmidtsicles in the back room is a good idea. The kids need help-“

“Kids!” Darryl laughed. “They’re maybe twelve. That’s what, five years younger than you?”

“Not the point.” Helix fumed for a minute. “Look, they’re identical twins with talent and-“

“They both do?” Darryl’s jaw sagged a bit. “That’s… the file only has one codeword…”

“You’re worried about your paperwork at a time like this?”

“No, it’s just…” Templeton hesitated. “Identical twins, with the same talent? The eggheads will have a holdiay with this.”

“That’s part of what I’m worried about.” Helix folded his arms. “These girls have been a commodity all their lives. If my grandfather was right, the remains of the Nazi talent management program have been trying to get talents to pass from parent to child for nearly a hundred years. These kids are brainwashed and they plan to use them like they just won the National Dog Show. Breeding, or something. What they need is to learn to use their abilities from someone with a conscience.”

“Did you have someone in mind?”
“Clear Skies taught me the ropes.” Helix spread his hands. “I figure she’ll do for these two, as well. Cold spikers and heat sinkers are close enough in nature that at least she won’t get herself the liquid nitrogen treatment.” He gave a quick glance at the dusting of snow around them. “And Project Sumter won’t have to try and explain why winter has shown up in the middle of the desert.”

Templeton thought about that. Clear Skies may have been able to handle a young and rambunctious Double Helix, but she’d been younger then. He’d never met Helix’s grandmother, but he was willing to bet she wasn’t as spry as she used to be. And there was the whole disturbing question of what had happened to Herr Schmidt in the first place. At least there, the girl’s conditioning was likely to play in their favor.

Darryl walked back to the door of the house and motioned for the girls to come out and join them. After a moment’s hesitation, they did. He dropped into a crouch to get a little closer to their eye level, hoping to engender a little trust, and said, “Okay. My name is Darryl Templeton, and my friend here is Double Helix.”

The girls nodded solemnly but didn’t say anything, so he pressed on. “We’re going to take care of Herr Schmidt.” True, although ‘taking care’ would probably involve a plain coffin and quiet burial. “Then I’m going to go and try and find Frau Nagel. Double Helix is going to go with you somewhere, but where depends on your giving me a truthful answer to one question.”

“Of course. Anna and-“

“No names,” Helix said quickly. “Agent Templeton is going to give you new names, and we need you to use those as much as possible.”

“Oh.” The girls nodded sagely. “Yes, we always get new names when we move.”

That made Darryl feel a little queasy, but he did his best to ignore it. He pointed to the girl on the left and said, “From now on you’ll be Frostburn.” He turned to her sister and wavered. There had only been one new code name for a talent opened. “You can be…”

“Coldsnap,” Helix suggested.

“Coldsnap,” Darryl repeated. “Okay?”

“Those are funny names,” Coldsnap said, wrinkling her nose.

“You could be stuck with Double Helix,” Darryl pointed out. Helix grumbled something but Darryl ignored it. “Now, I need you two to tell me what happened to Herr Schmidt.”

There was a moment of embarrassed silence from the girls, then Coldsnap said, “It’s because of the eugenics.”

“Huh?” Helix’s question wasn’t the most intelligent, but it did kind of summarize Darryl’s reaction as well.

“You see, Frau Nagel and Herr Schmidt say we are some of the best Germans there are,” Frostburn said, sounding a little proud of the fact. “So we must be very careful not to look at men who aren’t also of good Aryan blood.”

“That was why, last year Frau Nagel told us very strictly not to go into a room with Herr Schmidt if she was not there,” Coldsnap added, sounding a bit apologetic. Darryl realized she was probably referring to the fact that, from what he’d seen, Herr Schmidt had dark, curly hair that didn’t really mesh with the Aryan ideal.

“So when Herr Schmidt came into her room,” Frostburn nudged her sister, “we were surprised. And…”

“It was an accident,” Coldsnap hastened to add. “We were surprised, and rushed out and he grabbed at me and…”

The girls trailed into silence and Darryl sighed. The worst part was, he couldn’t tell if this was just some kind of simple misunderstanding or if the man had actually been some kind of pervert or if it had been some kind of combination of the two. Probably the latter, with the idealized position the girls held in Schmidt’s twisted ideology not helping matters at all. “All right. If the two of you will turn down your cold and let the desert go back to normal, Double Helix will take the two of you to meet his grandmother.”

“Really?” Coldsnap seemed surprised. “Will that be all right?”

“Relax,” Helix said. “If there’s one thing Clear Skies has always wanted and never gotten, it’s more grandchildren. She’s only got me, and I think she always wanted a granddaughter or two.”

Darryl took his arm and led Helix off a few paces, then lowered his voice. “Look, kid, I know this is a big deal for you, but seriously, in my book you’re already qualified for field work. If you want to work for the Project I think it’s just a matter of finishing the paperwork. You’ve made it past the Senate Committee and kept a level head in the field. The deal isn’t going to fall apart if this doesn’t work out, so don’t put too much pressure on your grandma, okay?”

Helix just gave a wicked smile. “Agent Templeton, all I can say is you’ve never met Clear Skies.”

The girls flanked Helix as he led them back towards the waiting vans, which had to park half a block away to stay outside the worst of the girl’s unnatural cold. Of course, with the girl’s cold spikes gone, the temperature was rapidly climbing back up to desert norms. Frostburn was saying, “Your Grandmother must have very good German blood as well, if you could make it through the cold. It’s too bad Frau Nagel couldn’t give you the eugenics test. I think you’d have good, German children.”

Helix gave a nervous chuckle. “Listen girls, let’s not mention eugenics tests or children around Clear Skies, okay?”

“Why not?” Coldsnap asked.

“Because if there’s one thing Clear Skies wants and hopes to have in the near future, it’s great-grandkids.”

Darryl just shook his head and started back into the house. There was still a lot of clean-up to do, and the mysterious Frau Nagel to look for. One thing he was certain of, if Double Helix did come to work for Project Sumter, whoever his supervisor wound up being would have a lot more paperwork than normal to deal with. Not an appealing prospect, that. Not appealing at all.

Fiction Index

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