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Sinews of War
by Mark Greener
Private Jack Kane didn't mind the noise of the heavy artillery. He didn't mind the whiz-bangs. He didn't mind the Lewis guns' death rattle. He'd worked in the Tyne shipyard's deafening cacophony since he was 14.
Private Jack Kane feared silence.
Silence meant he'd soon go over the top. Kane swigged his tot of rum to wash away the lingering fatty taste of the primus-burnt sausages, washed down with tea as brown and thick as Belgian mud. He listen, bored as he was at Chapel last Sunday, to the company commander's encouragement to "give the Huns a good bashing". Then Kane waited. And waited.
* * *
For the third time in as many moons -- although that no longer guaranteed regularity -- all that remained of the human race lay dead, dying or maimed. The Trolls had won.
Humans and trolls joined battle as first light crept slowly over the Jasper Mountains and began to illuminate the ravaged valley below. By noon, the mountains no longer protected the warriors from the sun's ferocity and humans and trolls alike succumbed to exhaustion almost as often as the blade.
At dawn, those who'd chosen to be trolls welcomed their weighty, ornate armour's protection from the hails of stones, javelins and arrows. Now the same armour hindered their movement in the intimacy of face-to-face combat and, despite their troll strength, made exhaustion inevitable. So the trolls cast their armour aside, which left them vulnerable to the homestead kitchen knives, antique pikes and makeshift spears that the humans wielded with anatomical exactitude born in their farms' slaughterhouses.
A troll looked down, breathless, into the dead human's glassy eyes. As he contemplated the coils of intestines slowly unravelling, steaming slightly, from the human's bowels, a mace shattered the troll's skull mixing his brains and blood with that seeping from his slain victim.
"How many times have I told you Son, never let your guard down," the tall, muscular human advised the dying troll.
"Yes father. I'll do better next time," the troll managed to mutter before he
Looking around him, the human warrior recognised that any war-plan, any hint of formation, any lingering pretence at strategy had become another of the battle's victims. He watched as a human maiden -- who seemed too young, too innocent for such horror, blood from numerous cuts darkening her rough hemp-cloth tunic -- use her hunting knife to pierce the eye of a grey-skinned troll. The troll died trying to pull the knife free. Picking up the troll's now-dull sword, the human girl hacked ferociously, frantically at anything that moved, never stepping backwards until a spear split her ribs.
On the edge of the field, a few feet from freedom, a troll galloped towards an archer fleeing from the terror. The troll dropped from his battle-dragon and dragged the archer to the ground. They struggled for a minute by the edge of a red-tainted brook flowing around dozens of corpses, until the troll crushed the archer's skull with his sword's plummet.
But by the time the Jasper mountains again tamed the sun, the battle was over. The last remaining trolls half-heartedly slaughtered the final few, fleeing humans. Their commanders stood around their flying-dragon standard, trying hard to maintain the dignity and bearing appropriate for conquering nobles, albeit of a minor skirmish -- a bloody gloss on the pages of Earth's savage chronicles.
"A wonderful melee, Libitina." The troll shimmered, then blurred entirely as the molecular structure shifted around the stable quantum field core. "I do enjoy being a troll. It's so ... liberating." The disembodied voice seemed to come from the centre of the cloud of swirling matter. "Same time, next moon?"
"Of course, Baron Malory," Countess Libitina nodded, watching as the cloud
breached the molecular decoherence barrier, forming into a seven-foot human. The muscles -- overlarge for Libitina's taste in lovers -- twitched as they took shape beneath the Baron's copper skin. "Same time, next moon." But only she held the power to decide when the next moon would be. "I'm glad you enjoyed the game. I based the scenario, somewhat vaguely to-be-sure, on an obscure text that was gathering dust in the British Library -- the 19th Century as I recall. Peasants were fighting against the taxes imposed by the King of Prussia to fund his expansionist ambitions. Of course, I developed the scenario to appeal to our cognoscenti's somewhat jaded palates and make one side trolls, to fit the theme for this series of encounters... " She paused. " But I see you don't share my passion for history, Baron Malory ..."
"I'm a man of action, not philosophy, my lady."
"Or at least you are this week," Libitina said in a voice she liked to consider velvety, sensual, and mysteriously foreign. "Next week, who knows how you'll redefine your character?"
"You of all people know that time has no meaning. Your anachronistic temporal references -- and your accent -- are afflictions you should reconsider." He turned on his heel, determined to have the last word. "Adieu."
* * *
You wait your turn to go over the top. The only sound, the bomb-born tinnitus lingering in your ears.
You patiently wait your turn to climb the ladder; as patiently as you once waited for the bus. You walk in long, orderly lines, a regular two feet from the next man. You walk slowly. Proud of King, Country, and Empire. Contemptuous of the German guns.
You walk almost 100 yards before the massacre begins. It's almost as if the Hun commanders were reluctant to order their men to fire. It's almost as if the snipers were reluctant to squeeze the trigger. It's almost as if no one wants to be the first to move the machine gun's sight slowly along the thin khaki line. After all, there's no skill to test the sniper's eye. There's no challenge to his nerve. There's no glory in cold-blooded murder.
But soon the first gun starts and the others follow in a heartbeat. The man besides you falls. You begin to run. You dodge through no man's land, keeping low, moving from crater-to-crater, to stop the Huns getting their sights on you. You know you'll never make it to the next trench. You just hope you'll make it back to your own.
Kane had been lucky. He'd avoided the infections that killed more men in his
regiment than Hun lead. He'd survived the three times he'd gone over the top. The first time they'd made it to the next trench -- with barely a bullet passing and a few sprained ankles the only wounds -- they found it empty. Hurst, the company's cynic, suggested it was a training exercise.
The next time it was real. Shrapnel knocked out Hurst, dazing Kane with a glancing blow. Kane, struggling to cling to his senses, dragged Hurst to the nearest crater. He linked his belt inside Hurst's and, crawled, dragging the unconscious man to the field dressing station, joined at the hip like that strange foetus he'd seen at the freak show. The commander mentioned Kane in dispatches, but Hurst still died a few days later on a sheet soaked with sweat, urine, and blood.
On the final attack, he'd been shot through the thigh muscle and spent a fortnight in the field hospital. The bullet missed Kane's bone -- and he missed the chance to go home. The doctor called him lucky. But as he waited for the whistle, Kane wondered if he was lucky after all.
Only six of the several hundred who started out from the Quayside with him survived now. A few invalided home; everyone else was dead. Arthur. John. Keith. Samuel. Too many to remember. Kane knew Joan and his mother would soon wear black. And not only for him. Edwin, his idiot of a younger brother, couldn't wait to take the King's Shilling to buy his death.
The shelling stopped. The British didn't want their shells blowing their own infantry apart. They left that to the Huns. The smoke mixed with the last remnants of morning mist.
Kane felt sick. Yet, despite his fear, Kane was eager to "get it over with". However, time hung heavy in the silence. No one dared move.
"Put out that light," the second lieutenant hissed at a smoker further down the line. Kane couldn't see the point of denying the condemned their last Woodbine. The Germans knew they were coming as soon as the British guns fell silent.
Flanders mud seeped into his boots. A thin drizzle dampened Kane's face. He opened his mouth to catch some rain, tainted with the slightly acidic taste of cordite. But his mouth stayed fear-parched.
Kane thought he'd heard a bird. But it was a distant whistle. At first barely perceptible, the whistle came closer. He saw a wave of men mount the ladders and scramble over the top. His captain pulled his revolver out, less as a defence against the machine guns and more as subliminal encouragement to his men. Everyone knew what happened to traitors -- and cowards were as good as traitors. The second lieutenant -- fresh faced from Halingbury's playing field -- blew his whistle.
* * *
"You're a lucky man, Private Kane. A very lucky man, indeed. In fact, you're nothing sort of a medical miracle." Doctor Carlyle looked at Kane more with professional curiosity than concern. But at least Carlyle remembered Kane's name and attended to his medical needs, which wasn't always the case for the other ranks on the ward. The medics tended to the officers and, if they weren't too busy, the NCOs. All too often, the other ranks were left to the mercy of nervous nurses -- or God. "The bullet passed straight through your skull. You'll need to live with a plate in your head and you won't challenge Adonis for looks. But you're incredibly lucky to be alive at all."
Kane didn't feel lucky. The band of intense pain around his head refused to slacken, even to morphine. The scar tissue that distorted his features into a grimace felt tender and tight. He couldn't stop his fingers from picking at the bandages, often damp with blood. Every time the nurse redressed the wound, he'd feel part of the scab tear lose and fresh blood flow over his face.
But he'd rather live with the pain than endure The Other.
Kane couldn't put his finger on what it was that made him even more uncomfortable than the pain and pressure. He couldn't define The Other that was more irritating than the itching around the metal plate or the contracting scar tissue. Something vague, but more terrifying than the nightmares of the trenches, seemed to be constantly with him. Watching him. Influencing him. The Other.
Kane tried to ignore The Other. He tried to distract himself with thought of the days he'd spent with Joan walking at the beach at Cullercoats or watching the fishing boats dock at the quayside. He thought of his drinking mates down the club. He thought of his mother squinting over her needlepoint as the pease pudding, which always seemed to be on the stove, boiled away, filling the house with a faint smell of his father's allotment-grown onions. He thought of his brother, still naive. Still trying to survive on the shipyards, growing harder by the day, learning to take the knocks and survive the drinking sessions.
But Kane felt it was someone else's life. It was almost as if he was watching a cinematograph. Kane looked at the corporal laying in the bed beside him, his left arm and leg blown away. He felt more closely related to the corporal than to the John Kane who once worked, loved, and fought on Tyneside. Any
lingering remnant of the John Kane he grew up with seemed gone.
At times, the feeling became more explicit. Kane felt as if he was standing outside himself, looking at his body in the hospital bed. When he looked in the mirror, even his face seemed different, his countenance subtly changed. He told himself that it was scar tissue distorting his face. (Would Joan -- even his own mother -- look at him now?)
But that wasn't it.
And it wasn't the head wound. After a decade on the shipyards, Kane knew how dangerous blows on the head could be. Billy Jones was never right again after he'd fallen from the girder. When he had that look in his eye, you'd better give him a wide berth. But Billy was one of the first to take the King's Shilling. He'd bought himself a hero's death and a posthumous Victoria Cross single-handedly taking out a German machine gun despite being mortally wounded.
No, Kane knew that something was different behind the scars and wounds. He couldn't put the changes into words. But he knew in the deepest part of his being that some thing had changed.
After a few weeks -- Kane lost any sense of time -- he was able to sit up and an orderly or another patient occasionally pushed him around the decaying, neglected gardens of the condemned chateau given new life as a makeshift hospital. However, he never lost the feeling that The Other was watching, waiting.
The general moved from bed-to-bed, exchanging a few words with each of the men, trying to boost their morale. The general felt sure that he was neither a butcher nor a bungler, criticisms levelled at some of his colleagues. He was a soldier doing his duty for King and country. And that meant that he had a duty to his men.
"This is Private Kane, our resident medical curiosity," the doctor said, gently guiding the general away from Private Powell. His family had been born within the sound of Bow Bells for generations. But when he was found huddled in the corner of a dug out, Powell was convinced he was the reincarnation of Robert the Bruce reborn to lead the Scots to victory. "Today the Germans, tomorrow the Sassenachs," he'd shout in a strong Cockney accent. And that was in one of his more lucid moments.
"A bullet passed through Kane's brain. This was no glancing blow; the bullet went straight through the frontal cortex. Took part of his skull the size of a saucer with when it exited." The doctor turned aside and spoke to the general in a stage whisper. "It's remarkable he survived. He appears to be reasonably healthy, mentally and physically. However, we have no idea as to the long-term effects..."
Kane felt something compelling, even seductive, rise inside him as he looked at the clean-cut general. He felt an urge he could neither prevent nor control. The pressure grew irresistible. Suddenly, he felt that he was looking down from the ceiling. He saw himself lying on the bed. He saw the doctor and the general beside him, the nurses and orderly an appropriate, reverential distance behind. He saw his bandaged head, surrounded by a halo of dried blood and pus. He heard himself speak...
* * *
Libitina watched her war game wind down from the chaise longue, covered in a tapestry influenced by William Morris's Arthurian phase, as Baron Mallory walked away. Floating a few inches above piles of randomly scattered books, Zip cartridges, and memory crystals, Libitina gazed down over her castle's battlements. She always felt slightly numb, almost empty, following a war game.
All that careful planning over in a few savage hours. Still, developing the role-playing scenarios staved off boredom and maintained her position as the queen of war gaming. Nithoman would have problems topping this with one of his complex space battles. But even she conceded that Nithoman's last battle was a masterpiece. Halfway through the allocated time, he released a genetically modified syphilis bacilli into the star-ships' life support systems. Almost everyone died, but not before a rapid descent into violent madness induced by tertiary syphilis. Dr Polidori was supposed to have cured her. But Libitina still felt a touch of madness and believed she could still see pustule scars -- a relic of her time as captain of the battle cruiser. Or perhaps that was just vanity. Nevertheless, Nithoman space games represented a real threat to her position.
Dr Polidori -- who in a romantic moment styled himself after Byron's house physician -- tended to the wounded and the slain. Androids could easily manage the task. But Polidori insisted that he was a doctor and he would treat the patients. The rest of humanity acquiesced: virtual immortality meant he couldn't do much harm. The treatment was simple: regenerative injections of growth factors and cytokines, along with a local time loop to speed healing or take the person back to the point before death, soon restored the maimed's limbs and put the dead back on their feet. And it stopped him from writing poetry.
"You seem to have another success, Countess," said Elcmar, his French-tinted accent betraying his irritation at inactivity. Libitina chose not to notice. She glanced at her obese partner, who'd decided to take on the role of a late Roman emperor. His toga was a little too short and a little too tight, so areas of pale flabby flesh kept escaping. Elcmar would push them out of sight with a hint of annoyance. That accent: he never could get the details right.
Libitina took his obese facade as a barbed comment at having to take his turn as a games master. Usually, Elcmar ensured that Polidori gave him one of the best physiques on the battlefield. Elcmar found invigilating dull. He'd tried boredom once and didn't like it. He could never understand Libitina's lack of desire to fight; why she was content always being the games master."A success," Libitina replied. "But rather pedestrian, I fear. I think you're beginning to understand the stratagem. I need something new."
* * *
Kane heard himself speak in a voice that sounded drier and better educated than he knew it to be. The Tyneside accent was softer and tempered with a vaguely foreign tone. Kane grabbed the General's arm, pulling him towards the bed.
" I know about the offensive at Bapaume," Kane heard himself say.
The doctor motioned to the orderlies. "Quickly, he's delirious."
"I know you were at Mons. I know you saw the angels. And I know you've told no one. In fact, you'll tell only one other soul what you saw. In many, many years' time you'll tell your grandchild. And he'll preserve the memory in your biography," Kane whispered.
The orderlies gabbed him, pulling him hard back against the bed. "Shell shock " the doctor stammered. " I'm sorry, General. He's never been aggressive before. Quite the reverse."
The General stared at Kane, who lay passively pinned to the bed by the orderlies. He looked uneasy. "I'm not married. I don't have any children."
"Please General don't encourage him." The doctor tried to pull the general away. But from his bed, Kane and the General had locked their gauze.
"No, your first wife died of TB. Everyone knows that. But they don't know you're secretly engaged to her sister and plan to marry when the war's over. You'll tell your grandson that since the war began, since Mons, you saw much
you couldn't explain. You'll admit your rationality took a severe knock. It'll remain somewhat shaky for the rest of your life."
"There are more things in heaven and earth, .. " he muttered.
"Than are dreamt of in your philosophy Horatio. Hamlet, Act I scene V. It's become your motto. But we'll have time for metaphysics later. I consider Cicero's Nervos belli, pecuniam infinitam more apposite to your current problem."
"You can't possibly know what that means," the doctor said. "You must have heard one of your betters say it. You're a talented mimic."
Kane looked contemptuously at the doctor. "The sinews of war; unlimited money." He returned his gaze to the general. "You know you don't have the resources you need to win on this field of the war. There's a new offensive planned and you're struggling with Whitehall for more men and arms. Haig personally intervened to refuse you the resources."
The general looked at the orderlies. "Unhand him."
"But he could be dangerous," the doctor warned.
The general patted his pistol. "Unhand him. That's an order doctor. Only three or four people know about the Haig debate. And no one outside Westminster. Only Rebecca and I know about our plans to marry."
The orderlies released Kane.
"What was this man's occupation?"
"Riveter on the ship yards," the doctor replied.
"Barely. He can write his name. Just."
"Was this man at Mons?"
"No, sir," the doctor said glancing at the records. "He didn't come over here until October 1916."
The general moved his ear close to Kane's mouth.
"What's the offensive we've discussed?"
"A breakout from Bapaume, with 30 French and 27 English divisions. The high command plan to push at the strongest place, rather than the weakest. You opposed this, suggesting we attack at the weakest point. But you were overruled. You fear you don't have the resources to prevent slaughter among the men under your command."
Kane had no idea where the words or the ideas came from.
"You lack the sinews of war. I can strengthen them."
"How do you know this?"
"Remember the angels? Consider me someone who's fallen to earth to help you."
"I should have you shot as a spy."
"But what if you're wrong? In any case, I was here with a hole in the head when you had those discussions. How could I have known? How could I have
known about your engagement? Use some of that faith you lost in the Boer War but rediscovered at Mons."
The general moved close to Kane's ear, so he'd be the only one able to hear. "You don't look like much of an angel to me. If you don't prove yourself, I'll have you shot without a second's hesitation. But after what I saw at Mons, I'm prepared to believe -- for now." He rose. "I'm commandeering your office doctor. Kane and I have much to talk about."
The orderlies helped Kane into a wheel chair. Kane's spirit remained by the bed and watched as they pushed his body away. Kane's spirit felt warmth envelop him. Then saw a light at the end of a long tunnel -- as, a few miles away on the German side of the lines, did a wounded Austrian runner...
* * *
"Why alter a winning role-playing formula?" Elcmar asked. "As a theme, pitting humans against trolls ..."
"... Is becoming somewhat stale," Libitina said. "I have a feeling we need to raise the technological content to make war interesting again."
"But would that not take the skill away? Replacing hand-to-hand combat with a bullet or a bomb?" asked Elcmar. "Those quaint frissons as you take a life or watch yours drain away." His eyes glazed as he reminisced. "The sound of a skull shattering. The feel as the flesh distorts then gives under a knife's pressure. The joy of emerging from the melee scarred, blooded, missing a limb or two, but victorious." He paused, then said firmly: "Shooting someone from a distance just wouldn't be the same."
"You don't object to the archers protecting you or softening the opposition up?" Libitina continued before he could answer. "In any case, these may be entertainments for you, but they take an enormous amount of research and I'm running out of material. I base my scenarios on numerous, temporally insignificant experiments where I manipulate history, changing one variable here, a single parameter there, ensuring one side wins a battle rather than loses, for example. As you know, I'm careful to ensure that the changes are small enough not to significantly alter the time lines. My next war game series will use a series of temporal experiments to explore what I believe was the key change in the history of warfare. When both sides could employ weapons of mass destruction, but in which the battle still relied on men taking ground step-by-step and, finally, engage hand-to-hand combat. "
"So have you game plan in mind?"
"Indeed, I do my dear Elcmar. Indeed, I do."
* * *
The stench -- a curious mix of gore, fear and cordite -- surprised even the hardiest soldier. They felt emotions they'd never experienced before. But as the guns feel silent, even the battle-hardened soldiers felt panic. They felt, and then heard, a tank rumble forward. Then the sound they soon learnt to dread, the whistle. And they revelled in the new emotions.
Libitina was proud of her latest war games. She could vouch for the scenario's accuracy. She'd given those who found death by blade somewhat dull a new frisson: being blown apart by a shell or sliced in half by a Lewis gun. For the aficionados of the blade, the bayonet made a reasonable substitute. Dr Polidori warned the combatants to ensure that their individual time fields were switched on -- otherwise even he might not be able to restore them after a shell blew them apart. There'd even been a real death -- something that hadn't happened for generations. But it gave the battle a hard, realistic edge.
"Even a physician as wonderful as I needs something to work with," Polidori remarked as he pondered the remains. He kept a few cells to clone. The world might witness a new birth, if he could get the technology to work.
"The historical veracity is remarkable, Libitina."
"The research was difficult, Count, but worthwhile. Changing only one experimental parameter at a time proved particularly challenging. Despite -- or perhaps because of -- their limited resources, 20th Century people learn quickly. It was a remarkably adaptable time. I had a struggle to maintain their traditional cavalry strategies in the face of new technologies that I deployed on both sides. And to look at the impact, I had to ensure the sides were evenly balanced."
"Time travel must be a boon for your historical scenarios."
"Oh, but how I wish I could be there in person. That our ancestors could have found some way to breach the decoherence barrier and move macromolecular structures rather than having to travel by altering my quantum field essence. I'd rather be there in person than have to inhabit Kane like a parasite and manipulate the time streams indirectly. I'd prefer a more direct intervention."
She looked down at her recreation of Flanders. The noise was deafening. Half what was left of humanity was advancing slowly in thick mud, bayonets fixed, against a machine gun post defended by the remainder. She watched as the guns tore them apart. A tank lumbered over the broken landscape.
"How did you terminate the experiment?"
"I ensured the Germans lost their collective nerve -- a place called Amiens."
"I plan a sequel. I'm still with the Austrian. If I manipulate the time streams right, the next moon we'll host a return match, set about 20 years after this. Indeed, the 20th Century should prove a rich source of war game scenarios."
Story copyright 2002 by Mark Greener firstname.lastname@example.org
Illustration copyright 2002 Georgi Ostashov email@example.com
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