This is an excerpt from “Dulce et Decorum est”, a Dieselpunk short story from the Futurist Manifesto series of Alternative History tales by John Paul Catton. The story is available as an ‘e-short’, and is published in volume 1 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow”. Learn more about the world of the Futurist Manifesto here!
“Halt! Who goes there?”
Captain Martin Blake pointed his revolver at the figures moving at the end of the trench.
“Don’t shoot!” came a voice. “Don’t shoot! We’re from the War Office!”
Blake kept his gun trained on the shadowy figures, their boots thudding on the duck boards of the trench, advancing into the half-light cast by the shielded electric lanterns. Blake could feel the tense silence of the soldiers behind him as they watched and waited.
The first person to advance was a tall, sandy-haired man, in a greatcoat with a Sergeant’s pips on the shoulder, and the second …
Blake stared in shock. “Good God, what’s a woman doing in No-Man’s-Land?”
She stood blinking in the night’s last shadows, her face pale, long dark hair tied back, her slender frame wrapped in an ill-fitting greatcoat.
“We’re from the Royal Engineers,” the man said, his voice urgent.
The woman stepped forward. “We’ve brought a message for you. We have papers.”
“It’s five o’clock in the morning!” Blake yelled.
The woman sounded British, and well-educated. Blake put down the accent as West Country. The man was definitely American, and he was staring at Blake, and grinning. The Captain had seen quite a few men smiling in the trenches, and some laughing. It usually meant that the war had got to them, unhinged them, cut their minds loose to flap in the wind.
Blake realized that if these two were spies, and he had accidentally captured them, he’d be a hero. If they were genuine Ministry Officials, and he bungled their treatment, he’d be court-martialed.
But either of those outcomes depended on them getting back to allied lines alive …
Blake cocked his revolver as the man slowly put his left hand into his inside coat pocket and withdrew a tiny booklet and several tightly folded sheets of paper. He handed them over to Blake, who holstered his gun and quickly scanned them, turning them over while the soldiers behind him kept their rifles trained on the newcomers. It identified the newcomers as Doctor Alan Kelsey and Miss Virginia Browning; he was attached to the Royal Engineers, and his companion was a driver to the Royal Ambulance Corps.
“These are fake,” announced the Captain. “The texture and color of the paper, they’re all wrong.”
“Would you be Captain Blake?”
He blinked. “Yes, I am.”
“Please, Captain Blake, we are here to help.”
“We weren’t able to request any help. We’re cut off from the Communications Trench and our radio isn’t working.”
“We have an urgent message and we have a machine that can help you.”
For the first time the man indicated the large black box he’d been carrying. He set it down gingerly on a pile of sandbags. He was about to click the two brass handles open, when Blake’s fear and tension returned. He drew his revolver again and waved him away from the case.
“Captain,” Kelsey said patiently, “this is a Mark V Ultra computing machine. We’ve brought it here because we believe you’re all in great danger.”
“Danger?” Blake coughed out the word in disbelief. “We’re in the middle of a bloody war!”
Someone at the back started to laugh, and Blake felt the situation slipping out of his hands.
“They’re spies, sir! Lock ‘em up!” This was Private Gerrard’s Welsh voice.
“He’s got a bomb!”
“They don’t sound like Germans.”
“Maybe the Angels sent them!”
Kelsey was on to the remark like a flash. “Did you say Angels?”
“Be quiet.” Blake leveled his revolver. “Both of you will be confined under close watch until we find out who you really are.”
Blake waved to Corporal Ford, and the soldier advanced. “Wait,” said Kelsey. “You must listen to us! You need to see this machine, and see what it can do …”
“And I must insist.”
Blake had turned away to give his men orders but at the tone of the woman’s voice, he looked back. The woman had a gun. A Webley self-loading pistol, by the look of it.
It was unfair. Most of the time, Blake was fighting the weaknesses of his own body. Fighting the turmoil in his bowels, the urges of his bladder; constant activity, within and without, constant stimulation. There was never a moment when he could not think, could not feel; the nervous engines within him never allowed him to rest. Suffragette, he thought, his mind furiously working out possible outcomes to the situation. I see. The woman was one of those Emily Pankhurst types.
“You are not confining me anywhere,” she said.
“Madam. Put the gun down.”
Blake could sense the men behind him tensing and getting ready to fire – but none of them, he was sure, would shoot a woman. Blake himself was revolted at the very idea. He caught himself doing what he always did when stressed – holding his breath. It was like shifting gears; quieting his emotions, keeping him within range of his own sanity.
“Please listen to us,” the woman said. “We are not spies, and we do not want to hurt anyone. We are here to help.”
Blake finally drew in some of the foul, smoky air. “My men will shoot you if I order them to.”
“Your men? You don’t seem to have many of them, Captain. Where’s the rest of your squad?”
The situation was insane. Of course, the whole bloody war was insane, so Blake shouldn’t have been surprised at anything.
It was October 1917, just outside Ypres.
For the last two months, home to Blake had been this elaborate trench network, a web of trench lines, concrete pillboxes, dugouts, firing bays, and underground tunnels. Over the parapets of the trenches, and between the Allied encampment and the Germans, lay a desolate muddy wasteland strewn with rain-filled craters and barbed wire. The Germans had their firing lines higher up on the Passchendaele Ridges, closer to Ypres and overlooking the Allied encampments.
For the last few weeks, it had been like toiling in a slaughterhouse.
Three days ago, on the twelfth of October, Blake and his squad had been part of the advance on Passchendaele. Amidst the chaos of the shelling, they had been cut off from the main battalion of the British Fifth Army, and forced down here, into the salient – a zig-zag maze of assembly trenches and dead-end saps, situated perilously close to the enemy.
“Sir!” called Tate, on sentry duty. “Movement near the German lines.”
Blake shot a furious glance at the woman and decided that discretion was the better part of valor. In a way, he was grateful for the interruption. He holstered his revolver, grabbed a pair of binoculars from the shelf next to the useless field telephone and climbed up the filthy rungs of the trench ladder.
He cautiously eased his head over the parapet and into the lookout hole, protected by sandbags and steel plating.
Around him in the cold darkness before the October dawn stretched a landscape of dislocation and dismemberment, a ravaged vista of splintered trees, flattened farmhouses, and craters full of stinking water. To the right, a few yards away, squatted the massive dark lozenge of the Landship in silhouette, the ironclad vessel that was now an injured giant of clogged caterpillar tracks and useless, seized-up gears. The bombardment from heavy artillery had stopped – no, paused, for nothing ever stopped in this godforsaken war, nothing ever ended, nothing was ever silent. Blake and his men were always surrounded by noise; the crack of the carbines, the moaning of the wounded.
He saw the first flickers of morning light through shadowed coils of barbed wire. Ripped fragments of flesh and uniform hung on the wire like quavers and semiquavers on a page of sheet music. He could see, as well as hear, the music of the trenches; the shrieks and groaning, the bangs and cracks, the whistling and hissing – and with the crimson dawn would come the shells, like drums played by a berserk god of war.
A starshell burst overhead, white trails showering down in jerky, swooping rhythms. They were to light targets for night-snipers, and Blake put down the binoculars hastily, wary of reflections. The starburst trails fizzled to the ground.
He was still alive.
In the light of the flare, with his bare eyes he could make out running figures, carrying backpacks and holding rifles. Most likely a wire-cutting party, getting ready for the next bombardment and raid, running across the parapet with frenetic, marionette-like movement.
Then he saw it. The gas. Curling in from the east, a rolling cloud of thick, yellow-green smoke.
A movement to his right made him start, and he saw Kelsey, climbing up on the neighboring ladder. From somewhere he’d got his own pair of binoculars – the woman with the gun, maybe, and he looked nervously at Blake.
“The Hun’s got a new secret weapon,” Blake hissed. “First it was those godawful flame-throwers, then mustard gas, and now this. It’s a poison gas that … eats people. Like acid. The gas attacks have kept us here, unable to get back to the reserves.”
“And the Angels he mentioned?”
“Be quiet. I think you’ll see for yourself.”
The hideous miasma rolled along the shattered landscape. The Germans tried to outrun it, but they were too slow. The mist enveloped them. They floundered, limbs waving, their twisted figures reeling through it, the sound of their screaming voices growing more and more distant, until they disappeared.
“You told me that’s a German secret weapon,” Kelsey said.
“So why are they killing their own troops?”
Blake stared ahead, thinking. He’d been wondering the same thing himself. “The wind must have changed.”
Kelsey gave a quizzical look.
“Now look. Over there,” Blake said.
In No-Man’s Land, materializing at the heart of the swirling yellow cloud, was the figure that haunted Blake and his men. Shining metal, barely recognizable as human. It seemed to be composed of reflective surfaces, moving in small jerks, grouping together, then splitting apart and reforming, diminishing and enlarging, forming columns and lines. The armored shape was surrounded by a brilliant glow that illuminated the churned-up mud.
“Good God,” Kelsey whispered. “Is that what you saw before?”
The figure melted back into the cloud, and Blake felt his skin crawl as he saw the opaque mist churn faster, and shift direction.
“Captain, do you see that? It’s coming this way.”
“Yes. By God, it is. We found a concrete bunker back there, and for the last couple of days we’ve been holing up during these gas attacks. It’s a room we can make air-tight.”
“Excellent. Let’s get moving!”
Blake turned his head and glared. “I am giving the orders, Dr. Kelsey,” he snapped.
TO BE CONTINUED IN …
“DULCE ET DECORUM EST!”
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