Alternative History Science Fiction Preview: 1917 – “Dulce et Decorum est”

The following is an excerpt from a short story to be published in the forthcoming collection, Engines of Night. It was previously published in the series Tales From Beyond Tomorrow. 

“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?” he blustered.

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 in 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?” the man asked suddenly.

He blinked. “Yes, I am.”

Image: DADA art movement poster, artist unidentified.

“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, and the other soldiers soon joined in.

“He’s got a bomb!”

“They don’t sound like Germans.”

“Maybe the Angels sent ’em!”

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,” Blake said quietly, “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?” Kelsey replied. “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 …


This story is taken from the forthcoming collection, Engines of Night, which you can find here  …

You can also read this complete story, with many others, on the Excalibur Books Patreon – here!

Image above: “The Card Players”, by Ferdinand Leger.

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
This entry was posted in Alternative History, Dieselpunk, Horror, Literature, Modernism, Science Fiction, Short Stories, Weird World War. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *