Warm breath tickled his nose, a rumbling carpet pressed against his mouth, and Martin tasted stale fur and icicles.
Martin’s eyes shot open. The tickling in his nose worsened. He blinked against a swath of bristly fur and coughed. The fur rippled like a textured black wave.
His long fingers reached around the heavy mound and pushed it off under the glare of yellow eyes. He shuffled backward to sit up. Warm bristles shed all over his regulation pajamas.
“Oh,” he said. “Hello. What are you doing up at this hour?”
A tabby with a missing ear stared back at him, yellow eyes now framed by whiskers as long and thin as wires. A paw batted at Martin’s chin playfully.
Martin moved the cat away from his face. It landed between his crossed legs, purring. “Aren’t you a good cat?” He scratched behind its ears. Its collar felt like rubber welded to leather. “Have I seen you around? I haven’t seen any cats on this island.”
In response, it purred like a muffled plane engine. The nametag on the brown collar jingled as the cat curled into a bristly ball.
Martin fumbled around. He pressed a button on the barrack wall and the bluebell lights floated to the walls of his bed cell, assembling in fruity clusters.
“Buck,” he read aloud. “Your name is Buck, and you belong to Section E. Huh—we’re never allowed to go there. Greedy cat lovers! I’d like to come and pet you more often.”
More fumbling. He came up with a notebook with cream-colored paper, one they had given to him, and a nice graphite pencil. Military stamp on the front, embossed against an olive-green cover.
The cat rested in the crook of his arm. His pencil skidded off the page, leaving unwanted graphite scribbles.
Martin angled the pencil. The stars shone through the barracks window, offering slivers of light.
“I call him the Golem,” Martin announced. He flipped over the page of his large drawing board. “His real name is Ben Spiegelman. He is a man larger than life, who swallows medicinal clay to become a soldier. Now he leads a squadron of clay soldiers to fight Nazis.”
He stood in the general’s office, knees slightly bent in a regulation RAF uniform. One hand covered a missing button on his pants. Here the cylindrical lightbulbs beamed on him.
“Yes, yes, there’s potential,” General Ream said. “We could use him.”
General Ream had burns that ran from his forehead to his arms. It was rumored the general had a giant alpaca shawl, made from real wool, that had a flamethrower attached to thaw out the icicles that froze everyone’s bedsheets. He told people the scars were sunburns from a sojourn in Jamaica.
“So, is he going to be in a film?” Martin asked.
“Leave that to us. We’ll change his name to Ben Boom and take out the Golem references. We’ll say there was a magical sculptor that used alchemy to make the clay.”
“Excuse me?” Martin blinked. His fingers grazed the paper’s sharp edges.
“Spigelman’s a Jewish name. And the Golem is from Jewish folklore.”
“It’s the Jewish people who are most affected by this war,” Martin said. “Don’t they need a hero?”
“No one wants a Jewish hero,” the general said. “Don’t make it specific—that’s how you lose your audience. And who’s going to remember this guy’s name? It’s too long.”
Martin took a deep breath. This argument played out every time, like a terrible film reel.
“I would remember him,” he said. “He would protect those in the camps.”
“No one needs to protect anyone in the camps,” the general replied. “I’m sorry, Martin. The Red Cross went in and said things were fine.”
Martin ground his teeth. The general looked at the folder of drawings, charcoal smeared on his fingers.
“We’re still using your character. He’ll inspire people.”
Martin nodded, jaw aching. He knew the British had their own camps. So did the Americans, for Japanese ‘spy’ families. No one wanted to cast stones until it was convenient.
“And we need you to work on more posters,” General Ream continued. “The News Office needs more planes on the page.”
“Yes, sir,” Martin said through clenched teeth.
“Son of a bitch,” Martin grumbled. “Too Jewish. Too Jewish.”
The wind was blowing colder than usual, but Martin boiled on the inside, like a lobster in a pot. Anger bubbled through his veins. He kicked at the grass.
On Hirta, there were only seagulls and soldiers. The locals had given notice ten years ago, fleeing to the comfort of rainy English shores. Now, because of the war, the RAF sent people to Hirta because they were too valuable to face the London bombings. German planes always overlooked the island when dropping their missiles.
“You all right there, Lieber?” Clayton asked. He was the only black man on the island; some gauze was taped to his neck, and stubble marked where a razor had slid the wrong way.
“They said my creation was too Jewish,” Martin snarked. “So they want to change his name. And he can’t be called a Golem.”
“Man, I’m sorry.” Clayton grimaced. “If it makes you feel any better, I told them not to make a character named Black Pete with bright red lips, and my boss laughed at me. He said I’m not paid to give constructive criticism.”
They sighed in unison. Grass fluttered below at their combined breaths. The cliffs beyond them stood with crumbling solemnity. Some soldiers shot the gulls down to add to their rations. Feathers would pepper the cliffs afterward.
Miniature tanks scooted around the island, mailboxes welded to their fronts instead of machine guns. Martin watched a rusty tank wheel along slowly.
“I’m going to call my next creation the Windbag,” he announced. “Someone who talks too much so he bores his enemies to sleep. He will not be Jewish.”
“Mine’s going to be Aeolus the Blowhard,” Clayton said. “Someone who carries gusts in a bag to turn the Nazis into ice. Then we usher in a new ice age.”
Martin elbowed him. “Join my comic company after the war. We can have them team up, and run it together for a couple of years.”
“With our brains and your mulishness, we’ll be running all of the comics companies,” Clayton said. “Should we go fetch some brew and come up with our new team of war heroes?”
“Aye,” Martin replied. “Where’s the rum? Were you able to sneak out a bottle?”
“No, but the one in the canteen still has a few drops, last I heard,” Clayton said. “They better have some scotch too. My nerves are shot.”
The rusty tank whistled and fell on its right side. Martin and Clayton winced at the clanging sound and passed it by a wide margin. Last time either of them tried to help a tank, they had burned their fingers and another soldier had yelled at them for messing with “sensitive equipment.”
“What do you think is in Section E?” Martin asked.
Clayton considered this. “Probably some secret bomb that can take out the Nazis.”
“Why would they have cats there?”
“Why would they have cats there?” Clayton laughed. “Do they hope the cats will help them land on their feet? Or help them deploy bombs?”
“I don’t know,” Martin replied. “Just guessing. The Russians have dogs for their tanks, after all.”
“The Russians are also losing their part of the war.”
The tank’s moving belt struggled against the Hirta dirt. They left it twitching and clanking; the birds could play with it later.
Buck visited most nights. He woke up Martin the first few times by sleeping on his face until Martin learned to turn to the side and make room before he slept. The telltale purr would echo as he drifted off, adding some pleasant vibrations to the scenes of heroes that pounced across his mind. Martin loved waking up and spitting cat hair out. It was better than shaking the ice off his blankets.
He dreamed of the posters in the canteen coming to life, tanks gaining eyes and deciding to shoot all the humans. Riveter Rosie used her fist to punch Nazi soldiers in the face.
The worst nightmares made him wake up with sweat soaking his pillow. One night, he leaped out of bed, upending the cat. Then he realized, legs tangled among sheets, that he wasn’t being smothered in barbed wire and cut from all edges. Buck hissed from a corner of the barracks.
“Oh my God.” Martin fumbled for the lights. “I’m sorry, Buck. I haven’t even fought!”
Buck’s eyes narrowed and gleamed yellow in the semi-darkness. Martin rescued his bedsheets, pulling his toes out of the tangle. He sat on the bed. Buck hopped onto his knees, pressing his ears against Martin’s industrial white pajama top.
“Thanks, Buck,” he said. “What are they doing to you in Section E? What makes my humble hovel more comfortable?”
Buck’s purrs tickled his stomach. Martin cuddled him, careful not to trigger any claws. He didn’t want his last clean nightshirt shredded.
“Why do they have cats in Section E?” he went on. “Are they going to have you fight? Will you go against Russian dogs?”
Buck melted around him like liquid. His purrs grew louder. Martin found his eyes drooping and he slid back into bed without the blankets.
Paws padded over his stomach. He blinked. Buck stood, tail raised, glaring throughthe walls. Hisses escaped through his teeth. His eyes gleamed long after the blue lights winked out.
“He is Chaff Cat,” Martin said. “He’s a tall cat that enjoys playing the saxophone. He spends his time in Berlin performing at the local cabaret. While he plays his horn, he keeps his eyes and ears open for any information he can pass to the British.”
He handed the drawing for the concept art. The parchment paper, a rarity in London or New York, gleamed with ink and Crayolet. Chaff Cat was purple, tall and lanky, and he wore a patched, oversized trench coat. Black stripes streaked his face. His fangs clamped down on a large cigarette, and a saxophone occupied both of his hands.
“We can’t use a cartoon,” General Ream tossed the art. “It’s a nice idea, but Disney and Iwerk have exclusive contracts for animation.”
Chaff Cat’s page landed face down on the table. It sounded like the general had slapped someone across the face.
“Okay.” Martin’s teeth clicked against each other.
“Don’t take it personally, Private. Everything we choose is for the war effort.”
“Sir, with all due respect, you have turned down most of my ideas,” Martin said. “The ones that are accepted are edited greatly. I don’t see how I’m contributing any value to the reels if my characters aren’t even seeing the screen.”
He swallowed to make sure his tone betrayed no snark or bitterness. The tanks had delivered photographs that showed shorn, starving men and women gathered behind barbed wire. Martin wished he hadn’t studied the images before breakfast. Thoughts turned to Uncle Isaac, whom his mother had been trying to bring over from France. Or Isaac’s twin girls, who occupied a beaten photograph in the kitchen at home.
“But you are contributing,” General Ream wheedled. “Yes, they may not be the way you envisioned them, but they are serving their purpose.”
“I should be on the front,” Martin said. “This island is too far from the real battle. If I’m not serving any purpose here, then I may as well be liberating the camps.”
“You wouldn’t make it two feet past enemy territory.” General Ream pinched the bridge of his nose. “Do you know what landmines do to a man? They tear you apart! You’d bleed out before the nurses and ambulances could even reach you. Do you want that, Private? Your blood and guts staining the battlefield?”
“I can leap over landmines,” Martin replied. “I was the top in all my gymnasium classes in school.”
“Private,” General Ream said, “there is a reason that you’re not on the front. Do you know why we brought an American here?”
“No, sir.” Martin’s fingers twitched.
“We could have had any British cartoonist come over here and make characters for us. We created the art form, you know, with Punch magazine.”
“I see,” Martin said. He rested his hands on the table and grabbed his drawing of Chaff Cat.
“We saw your work, the stuff you were printing in that little company you own,” General Ream continued. “You write more comics in a week than others write in a lifetime. Not many have that productivity. Your fingers and your brains have ideas, ideas that can turn the tide of public opinion. What’s more, they can change the tide of the war.”
“You’ll see,” the general promised. “After the war, men like you will be treated as heroes. Not because you marched in the front, but because you created meaningful characters and assisted us here on Hirta.”
“Yes, sir,” Martin replied. He rescued Chaff Cat and eyed him. The crayon gleamed beneath his fingers.
“Keep working up these ideas. You can always keep the ones we reject.” The general pulled out a brass pocket watch and pressed some knobs. “Please don’t file for a transfer. Letters and forms sent off the island are highly redacted.”
Martin nodded. He tucked Chaff Cat into his coat pocket. At the very least, there would be saxophone playing after the war.
A bad mood accompanied the men coming from their meetings with commanding officers. Martin carried a bottle of smuggled-in rum towards his barracks, even though it wasn’t sleeping hours. He was too angry to care about drinking in public, against regulation. The retinue of men surrounding his barracks didn’t improve the stomp in his step.
He’d lost the cap of the rum, and alcohol sloshed from the dark green bottle. Martin licked the rum off the sharpened rim. It tasted like sugary airplane fuel.
He stopped in the doorway, boots digging into the island soil. More rum spilled onto his hand. Sourness gathered in his throat and head.
“What are you playing at?!” he snapped.
The men had tossed his sketchbooks and letters from home on the floor, in a messy pile. Two men pierced long needles through his bedspread and wiggled them.
“We had an escaped experiment,” one of the plainclothes soldiers said, in curt tones. His helmet had scratches all over it. “There are signs that it might have invaded your room while you were sleeping.”
“Experiments?” Martin’s tone became indignant. “Invading my room? What kind of security are you running? And who are you?”
“I’m Corporal Dwight.”
Martin swigged his rum and saluted. The stinging warmth made tears run down his eyes. If he didn’t drink, he’d be swinging his fists instead to rescue his letters from Mother.
“This experiment could shapeshift and take the form of any being that would appeal to the user. Like a whale, a human, or a cat.”
Martin spat the mouthful of rum. A glob of it splashed over a man’s shoe. He jumped away, glaring.
“Sorry,” Martin said, anger dissolving into twitchy nerves.
“We need to make sure that this experiment hasn’t affected your mind or hurt you,” Corporal Dwight went on, turning away from the splattered rum. “You’ll need to come with us.”
“To the infirmary?” Martin asked.
“No,” Corporal Dwight’s accent cut through the air. “Not yet at least.”
“You’re from Section E.” Cold ran through Martin, running against the warm buzz from the rum. The other soldiers approached. “At least tell General Ream?” he pleaded. “I’m still working on several assignments.”
The men took away his bottle. Then they marched him along. Martin wanted to protest about Buck’s happiness here with him, but had a feeling if he revealed what he knew, the cat would never again leave their sight. The rum buzz evaporated.
Section E was the newest building on Hirta. It was made from unchipped concrete and painted a speckled grey that resembled the cliffs on the mainland. Tanks with real miniature guns rolled around, pistols at the ready.
Martin in his head sketched the image of the building, of each painted exterior and a blob on the roof that resembled an out-of-focus gargoyle. His color palette changed when they marched him inside; everything gleamed silver.
One room had a door ajar; it showed a giant industrial printing press. Drums molded ink and resin into a figure within minutes that was stark-white with a clear mouth, face, and torso. It was like a partial sculpture of Martin’s Golem drawings.
“I am The Clay Soldier,” the figure said through a mouthful of ink. “I fight for the people.”
Martin stumbled to a stop. He nearly fell if not for the soldiers holding him upright.
“It’s quite remarkable, isn’t it?” Corporal Dwight said. “Ben Boom is going to tear apart the Nazis with his bare hands. But you’re not getting his autograph.”
He gestured, and the soldiers closed the doors. The bang brought Martin back to Earth. He was in deep shit.
They marched Martin to a room with padding on the walls and a single chair with a helmet attached to it. A dusty cable connected the chair to a large outlet in the wall that resembled a skull. Thick black leather made up the straps on the arms.
Martin’s boots slowed. Icy air rushed past his ears.
“That’s not an electric chair, is it?” he asked.
“Don’t be funny, Private,” Corporal Dwight said. “If we wanted you dead, we have a firing squad, rocks, and the English Channel. The crabs would pick your phones in hours. Please, sit.”
“Please don’t strap me in.” Martin eyed the restraints. “It makes me uncomfortable.”
The soldiers pushed him forward. Martin slipped into the chair. His elbows banged against the leather armrests. They attached the helmet, which had no straps. It reminded him of a bicycle helmet from his years delivering newspapers.
“What is this?” he asked.
“It’s a brain scope,” Corporal Dwight said. “The shapeshifter is meant to persuade anyone that sees it that they are friends. We have been testing it on rats—we’ve seen them leap straight into the shapeshifter’s mouth. If it wants to eat you, we would rather know before you jump.”
Martin moved his arms off the straps. He wrapped his hands around his middle, wishing that Buck was there to warm his belly and dissolve his worries with a single purr. But if Buck were here, then they wouldn’t have ransacked his bedsheets.
The helmet tingled. He waited. Lights flashed, blurring the soldiers. Martin squeezed his eyes shut and curled into his stomach. Electric currents zapped every hair on his head. Screams echoed around him, and he realized his mouth was open. He was screaming his throat raw.
“What is the meaning of this?!” Garbled words, distorted by anger.
The currents stopped. Martin opened one eye. The flashing lights died down to an annoying glow.
“That’s my man there, Corporal! As General, and your commanding officer, I demand you release him! Or you will be court-martialed!”
Soft hands helped Martin out of the chair. The general grabbed his shoulders. Concern colored his burn-scarred face.
“Well, congratulations.” Corporal Dwight’s voice came through muffled as if he were speaking through ten layers of glass. “The shapeshifter doesn’t seem to have altered your brain patterns. Guess it didn’t see you like something to eat. Peculiar.”
Martin managed a garbled chuckle. General Ream coaxed him through the door, out into the cold sun. Martin had never welcomed that light more, or the breezes that would turn his blankets to ice.
“Nasty place,” General Ream said. His disgusted scowl came into focus.
“Section E?” Martin asked. “D’I need to hit the nurses? O’be funny ‘n British?”
“I’m taking you to the infirmary,” General Ream said.
Something pinged in Martin that General Ream seemed warmer than usual, and his hands braced the younger man as they made it to the infirmary tent. The gulls’ screeching made Martin’s head throb. He tried to yell at them but only spittle came out.
A nurse with copper-brown pigtails set up a cot for Martin immediately and tucked him beneath thick sheets. They smelled like goat hair.
“You’ll be all right, son.” General Ream touched Martin’s cheek. “I apologize.”
“Wasn’ your fault,” Martin slurred. “Cat in bed. ‘S alpaca, y’shit? Shit, sheet, shi-sheet?”
“Shh.” General Ream said. He reached into Martin’s coat pocket and plucked out the drawing. “Here. Let me have this.”
Martin closed his eyes. Maybe it was a dream, but he felt Buck on his stomach, burying him in headbutts and purrs.
“I get a call saying Section E wanted to scan your head and did so several hours ago, leaving you unconscious. Isn’t that something they should inform their superior officer about immediately?”
Martin’s eyes shot open. Grey-purple dusk peeked through the infirmary windows. There was a glass of water and some pills next to his cot. He fumbled for them.
“Private.” General Ream stood there, stiff as ever. “Finally, you’re awake.”
“General?” Martin blinked. “Back so soon?”
“I just got here now.” Ream’s hands shook; he pressed them to his sides. “Section E should not have done that.”
“Thank you, sir,” Martin said. He pressed his cheek, where the general had stroked it. Then he checked his coat pockets. The drawing was gone. So it wasn’t a dream.
“What in the devil’s name happened?” General Ream asked the nurse. “The corporal is being interrogated but he’s stubborn. Who got him out of there?”
“What?” Martin’s brow furrowed. “Sir, you’re the one that saved me from Section E.”
“I did not.” General Ream shook his head solemnly. “I wish I was.”
“It was you, sir.” Martin made an effort to sit up straight. “You said I was under your command. And you took Chaff Cat. Can I have him back?”
General Ream stiffened. “Your brain’s still sound scrambled.”
“They are not!” Martin tried to protest, but the general turned to the nurse.
“Take care of him as if he were family,” he said. “Make sure he gets lots of bed rest. We cannot lose that brilliant mind.”
Martin wanted to protest, but the General turned on his heel and marched out of the tent. Martin sat there, open-mouthed.
Later, the pieces would come together. There’d be a red alert the next day on learning that the shapeshifter from Section E had swum across the English channel and vanished into German frontlines. But all Martin thought about that night was one thing: the General had liked his art. He dreamed of a cat holding a piece of paper in its mouth as if it were saxophone reed.
For Stan Lee
A 2016 MBA graduate and published author, Priya Sridhar has been writing fantasy and science fiction for fifteen years and counting. Capstone published her Powered series, and Alban Lake published her works Carousel and Neo-Mecha Mayhem. Priya lives in Miami, Florida with her family.