The Halhatalans

17 Jan

Count Miklos Szorny believed he had conceived a means of winning the World War. Austria-Hungry was in its tenth month of conflict in the spring of 1915 when he traveled to Budapest to meet with a certain biology professor. This was the most important matter he would ever be involved in, the noble landholder told himself, one that promised to decide the outcome on the battle fields.

The two men had been in correspondence since early after war with Serbia had broken out in the Balkans. Now, the Duel Monarchy faced vast Russian armies on its eastern front in Galicia. It had become a general fight engulfing all the great powers of Europe. How long the war would last and what the outcome would be remained unanswered questions.

Can my secret project become an active factor? The landed aristocrat asked himself repeatedly on the train ride to the Hungarian capital. Would he succeed in convincing Dr. Lajas Boreger to become his partner?

Once settled in a hotel, Szorny took a horse cab to the university. Asking for directions to the Elettan Department, he found his way to the office of the biologist. A typist showed him into the private sanctum of the professor, who rose to greet the towering, massive visitor wearing a hat of bear fur on his boxlike head.

Boreger, a surprisingly small man with short blond hair and large blue eyes behind pince-nez, shook hands with Szorny, then showed him to a comfortable leather chair. When both of them were seated, the Count rushed directly into what had brought him there.

“I was intrigued by the article that you wrote a year ago, Professor. It was necessary for me to contact you once the war began. What if we Hungarians could successfully bring about what you proposed in that work? The repercussions on all aspects of the struggle would be incalculable. I predict it would change the entire strategic balance radically, ensuring victory to our Fatherland and the Central Powers.”

Dr. Boreger gave a sorrowful grin, as he replied.

“No one in the government or the army perceives the possibilities as you and I do, sir. The bureaucrats and the generals are so blind! They have no sense of what science can provide us, if we only had the courage to make the attempt.”

“Yes, I completely agree with you. That is why I came to Budapest, to make an offer I pray you accept. My estate is just south of Lake Balaton. If you agree to set up a laboratory there, I promise to pay all the expenses. The aim will be to prove that what you foresaw in your article is realizable.” Szorny grew excited. “We, together, can change the balance of forces on the war front. Austria-Hungary shall possess a resource that no one else has, or even dreams of. One of the main problems of modern warfare will have been solved. Our armies will enjoy military supremacy. We shall be able to match the unlimited numbers the Russians have and defeat them on the battlefield.”

Suddenly Boreger frowned and licked his lower lip.

“I cannot guarantee quick accomplishment, Count. Problems are sure to arise. This is new area for biology, as we know it today.”

Szorny sent him a stubborn, determined look.

“Several of my large warehouses are at your disposal. I promise to pay for all equipment and materials. Just ask, and you shall receive whatever may be needed. And there will be total privacy. No outsider has the right to interfere.”

Silence ensued as the biologist considered the offer.

“Very well,” he said at last. “My classes soon end and I am free all summer. When can I begin assembling my resources and working on them?”

“Immediately,” replied the visitor, his spirits soaring.

He had won what he had come to Budapest to obtain: agreement to attempt what most scientists in 1915 considered impossible.

The immense Hungarian steppe ranged east of the Danube, as flat as a table. Scattered windmills and wells with long poles for drawing out water rose between the grain fields and the white dwellings with thatched roofs. From nests on roofs and chimneys rose large, high-flying golya-storks.

Lajas Boreger rode by train to Kecskemet, where a horse wagon had been sent by Szorny to take the biologist to the enormous estate of the land magnate.

The Count greeted his guest upon arrival and showed him the storage building being prepared for his experimental work. After a lunch of gulyas in the dining room of the great residence, Szorny took the biologist into the library for thoughtful consideration of their plans.

“Over the next several days,” began the aristocrat, “the devices you ordered will all arrive. The next business will be obtaining a suitable dead body. I have conferred with the regional health officer, and he has promised to inform me when a soldier without family or relatives is killed. The corpse of the person will be made available to you within days of death. I asked that no major organ damage be visible. Every portion of the deceased must be salvageable. My explanation was simply that some secret medical testing was to be carried out on my estate for the imperial army. No more, at present, could come from my mouth. At a later date, we will explain everything to this official. The bureaucrat accepted all that I told him, not asking for any additional information.”

“So all is set to go into operation,” smiled Boreger with satisfaction. “It gives me great happiness to carry out a project that can bring such benefits to the fatherland.”

The nobleman’s gaze turned remote and abstracted.

“I think of all the fighters we can provide our army, as well as the laboring hands that will be growing the food to feed them. I dream of the doubling of the manpower at the disposal of our civilian and military leaders. It will change the balance of military power.

“What we are going to do can become the seed of victory.”

“How was it that you came to be inspired by the idea of the halhatalan?” inquired the biologist.

Szorney’s blue eyes came alive with a strange sparkle in them.

“As you know, this estate of mine lies in the Kiskunsay, the area invaded and settled in the thirteenth century by the Cuman tribes. These wild, fierce pagans were fleeing the Mongol horde. Our King Bela IV invited them to take refuge in Hungary. These people, though, brought horrible trouble into the land of ours.

“The Magyar nobles accused their own king of favoring these non-Christians over them. They killed the Cuman leader, Kuthen. The pagans attacked and plundered, and our Hungarian ancestors fought back. The son of King Bela even married a Cuman tribal princess. She and her sons went so far to take part in pagan sacrifices performed by the Cumans.

“In time, the invaders converted to Christianity and gradually melted into a greater Hungarian nation. But they left behind many of their beliefs and folk ways. One of these was the legend of the halhatalan warrior who can return to life and fight again after being killed on the battlefield.

“You have heard of that strange Cuman tradition? The rebirth of dead warriors?”

“No,” answered Boreger. “No, I have little knowledge of such history.”

“In an uncanny way, you and I are attempting what the Cumans claimed was possible for their pagan wizards to accomplish,” slowly mused the Count. A sly grimace came to his face.

“But we shall be applying modern biology, not heathen magic,” said the scientist. “I am ready to go to work at once. We have to find out what can be done to resurrect the recently killed. If possible, we will then proceed to a large, mass scale of operation.”

The first body was that of an infantry captain brought down on the Galician front. No one had claimed the corpse, so that it was a simple matter to have it shipped by military truck from where the officer died.

Count Szorny read the telegram informing him of the shipment to Lajas Boreger.

“The organs of the officer have suffered no major damage, except for the fatal bullet that struck the heart. It was removed by the field doctor, but the captain still died from his wound.”

The landowner looked up at his confederate. “You will be prepared to operate at once?”

“As soon as the body arrives here,” replied the biologist with impatience.

An estate camion was sent the next day to the local rail station.

Boreger was present to receive the coffin holding the remains of Captain Geza Arany.

As soon as the load was brought into the converted warehouse on the main farm of Szorny, the box was opened and the corpse removed.

“There is not a moment to lose,” said Lajas to the nobleman. “I have to begin with a complete transfusion of the blood. That shall be necessary.”

All that afternoon and the following night, work went on without interruption.

Peasants who worked for Szorny did the heavy physical labor.

Electrical current in the form of pulsing charges came from huge apparati brought from Budapest. Wires carried the energy into the arms, legs, and injured heart of the dead body. Voltage was increased to incredible levels.

Boreger, though exhausted, carried out the program he himself had conceived. The Count took only an hour of sleep, then returned to the warehouse laboratory to watch, inspect, and supervise.

Tenser and tenser grew the suspense. Could the flesh of the soldier be restored to life?

It was early on the second day that biotic revival occurred. Captain Arany opened his eyes. The light of life shone out of them. Lajas turned to the Count with a smile of success. “We have done it!” he proclaimed with rhapsodic emotion.

The reawakened officer was led through exercises of his arms, then his legs. On the third day he stood upright and took a few initial steps. His pale blue eyes began to brighten.

By the fifth day the person addressed as Captain Arany said a few words.

“Where am I? What am I doing here? Take me back to my unit at once.”

Slowly and patiently, Boreger explained to the halhatalan what had happened to him.

“You were shot and killed on the Russian front. They sent your body here for emergency surgery and bio-electrical treatment. The bullet in your heart has been removed and all the injured organs brought back to life. They now operate satisfactorily, with full strength and vigor.

“You are as if reborn, Captain.”

“I must return to the war,” he said solemnly. “That is where I am needed. My men are there and I must lead them.”

Count Szorny, silent till now, decided to speak.

“There will be additional resurrections carried out. More of the dead will be brought to this place to be restored. A new, special unit of halhatalans will be formed. No other nation can equal what we have done.”

“I shall be in command?”

“That depends upon the decision of your superiors,” said Szorny with a smile.

“I believe that I deserve to be in charge,” grumbled Arany. “I have earned such a command. Only one such as me, with my battle experience, can lead the reborn soldiers.”

The Count turned about and left the warehouse, certain that the project was moving rapidly in the right direction.

From then on, each day saw the arrival of new dead soldiers.

Two lieutenants, four sergeants, four corporals, and ten privates underwent resurrection the next month. The pace of operation grew swiftly.

Boreger and Szorny were excited by the successes. The halhatalans began to be drilled outdoors by their superiors. They grew strong and vigorous. Each night, the two organizers met and talked in the Count’s library. “We soon will have a full contingent for a company under Captain Arany,” said the landlord with unconcealed pride. “I must inform Budapest of their readiness. The telegram will go out tomorrow morning, as soon as possible.”

Lajos wrinkled his brow. “I wonder whether more time should be taken, whether more testing of the halhatalans is needed. We have no way of knowing how they will react to conditions of combat.”

“All of them have already experienced war and suffered the worst it has to offer. Why any delay at all? The Captain is eager to face the Russians again.”

“Yes, that is the truth. But who can predict the effects of having died? There is always the chance, however small, of the unforeseen. Things may not happen as we hope they do.”

Szorny waited, not replying immediately.

“For me, the risk is acceptable,” he said with iron in his voice. “We have come so far and accomplished so much I see no reason to hesitate.”

“It is up to the commanding generals, then.”

“Correct,” nodded the Count, biting his lower lip.

A telegram from the Hungarian capital notified them that an Oberst Vitez was being dispatched to the farm to take command of the new unit. This individual of colonel rank had the war experience needed to take control of the resurrected warriors and utilize them as a special squadron on the eastern front.

Both the Count and the biologist were surprised at the decision by the military authorities. Neither of them had foreseen such a development, an outsider taking charge.

“I shall inform the Captain,” volunteered Szorny.

The reaction of Arany was one of anger. His face reddened. He gasped for breath with visible outrage.

“That can not be so,” he shouted with indignation. “Only a halhatalan can command others of our kind with skill and understanding. Anyone like this Oberst who has not gone through what we have will only mess up the activities of my men on the field of battle. We halhatalans have unique knowledge of war.

“Did you bring us back from death in order to make us fodder for the officer corps of Emperor Franz Joseph? Only one like themselves can have any sense of what is possible for the reborn to carry out. Others cannot do so.”

“But that is what the General Staff commands,” calmly said Szorny. “What can anyone do except obey? That is your duty, Captain, and that of all your men as well. We shall have to prepare the unit for transport to the Russian front. They will have to be leaving at once.”

“What can I tell my men? They know what war entails. Their lives have already been sacrificed once for the fatherland. Must they face cannon and bullets all over again, under the command of someone who has never died?”

Szorny and Boreger stared at the resurrected officer, both of them puzzled and unable to comprehend such a hardheaded attitude bordering on insubordination.

Arany turned and departed, returning to his halhatalan troops.

Colonel Vitez arrived early the next morning in a long command car with a driver. He possessed extraordinary height, towering over both the Count and the scientist. His uniform gleamed with medals, citation, and golden buttons.

“I wish to see the men of my new company,” he growled at the two initiators of the project. “Call them to formation for an immediate inspection.”

“Let us proceed first to the building where they are quartered,” softly said Szorny.

The trio made their way to the converted warehouse where the resurrected ones slept.

Arriving at the entrance to the building, Boreger opened the door to a sight that petrified all three of the visitors.

A scene characteristic of an agricultural slaughterhouse lay before them.

Bodies arranged in company formation were spread in regular formation lines, equidistant from each other on the earthen floor.

At the head of this pattern of death, facing the company, lay the body of Captain Arany.

What horror hid behind this ghostly panorama? wondered the onlookers who slowly, cautiously entered the structure in breathless terror.

Boreger was the one who first saw and understood the method that had been used. “Look at all the throats! Every single one of them used his own shaving razor to kill himself. All did it exactly the same way, from the same angle and position, as if ordered how to take his own life.

“I do not at all understand. Why such a self-massacre? What was the reason for it? Wasn’t life at all precious for these poor souls?” asked Boreger.

Szorny had already come to some conclusions of his own.

“These men were ordered by Captain Arany to cut their own throats. I can understand that death holds no horror for them. All had already gone through and beyond it. They possess knowledge of war that no one unlike them has. Who else could be as familiar with its nature as them?”

Vitez voiced an opinion. “They are disobedient traitors, every one of them.”

The Count, ignoring him, went on as if thinking aloud.

“We ourselves witnessed how opposed Arany was to giving up command to an officer who had never died like him. If he ordered his company to follow him over the edge, they felt a duty to obey. All of them were familiar with the opposite of life. They had no fear of another end, none at all. This was so easy for them to do!”

Boreger asked a question. “What do we do now? Produce more halhatalans?”

“I shall recommend to the General Staff that such dangerous experiments not be continued. They are, as we see, too risky,” trembled Vitez.

Szorny and Boreger exchanged glances that communicated in silence.

As they exited from the scene of blood, both realized that neither of them was ever going to be involved with halhatalans again.


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