George S. Walker
An explosion like an artillery round blasted a hole through the thick wall from the outside, sending shards of stone flying through the hall. Behind Maxwell, the equipment-laden hall was already filled with smoke.
He felt like he'd awakened in the midst of battle. Where the bloody hell was the rest of his tank crew? He wore his uniform and leather tank helmet, but his gas mask was gone. He patted the Webley revolver in his holster. Small comfort.
"Harry?" he shouted. "Edmund?"
He didn't see a soul. None of his side, no Germans, either. He must have hit his head badly if he couldn't remember where he was. But it didn't hurt. Was this a hospital? He'd never seen equipment like here in the hall, delicate and sleek like Swiss wind-up toys, not a field abattoir. He'd been along the trenches on the Western Front two weeks before Christmas, in the middle of a blizzard. Where the hell was this?
A wail like air raid sirens sounded through the hole in the wall. He made his way to the wall and crouched by the edge, peering out. Hot air blew in, not snow. He was fifty feet up, looking out at streets and buildings. This was the top floor of an old stone building, a palace by the look of it, regal as Buckingham Palace. But no Union Jack flying in front.
He saw a shattered glass pyramid in the courtyard. People ran for cover in the distance as aeroplanes darted above the buildings. He'd never seen aeroplanes like these, too small to hold a pilot and translucent like blown Venetian glass. They were agile as birds and shooting at people and each other. Narrow beams of light, too bright to look at, glittered through black coiling miasmas.
One of the aeroplanes turned toward him, and he ducked away from the opening.
With a blast of thunder, the floor collapsed beneath him. He tumbled with the rubble as it slid into the open sky. There was nothing to grab onto.
Immediately something grabbed him. Not a net. Dark-skinned arms were wrapped around his chest, fingers locked tightly together.
He was still falling, but slower.
A boy's voice by his ear gasped, "You're so heavy!" The boy panted from exertion.
And overhead, huge silvery wings beat the air.
The boy wasn't swinging from a rope: he was flying. Leveling off over pavement.
This was either heaven or hell, and judging by the smoke and flames... The thing with its arms around him must be a demon.
"English?" gasped the voice. "Francais? Deutsch?"
"English," Maxwell answered. Maybe that was the wrong thing to say, and the demon would drop him. The occupants of hell were surely German. An Englishman like himself didn't belong here.
But the demon didn't drop him. It swooped past the glass pyramid and along a river. The river was dry, a drifting bed of sand, and the city heat was like a desert. In the distance, he saw the Eiffel Tower, adding to his confusion.
"Where am I?"
What was EU?
Suddenly the demon gave a shriek of pain, banking sharply away from the dry riverbed toward the street below. The two of them tumbled to the pavement, rolling. He was glad for his leather helmet and thick uniform, in spite of the heat.
As he got to his feet the demon grabbed him by the arm. It was five feet tall and naked from the waist up, with dark skin and curly black hair. Below the waist its shorts looked like a quilt of pockets. Its face was young and soft, not old and cruel. The folding wings shimmered in the sun like silver, but the left one was cut all the way to the trailing edge, as from a knife. Smoke wafted from the cut.
"Run!" shouted the demon.
He saw one of the little glass aeroplanes darting down from the sky above the riverbed. The demon tugged him toward the opposite side of the street and he broke into a run, boots clopping on cement. The demon ran barefoot on long-toed feet like a monkey's. It led him between buildings, a space that could barely be called an alley, too narrow for the glass wings of the aeroplane. Too narrow for the demon's wings as well, but they'd shriveled to nothing. The demon now had two manes of gossamer silver hair flowing down its back, swishing from side to side.
Enough of this. Maxwell stopped, leaning against the wall, his uniform already damp with sweat.
The demon, noticing the absence of footfalls, stopped and turned. "We can't stay here!"
"Stay where? Where is this place? Where's the Front?"
"You're a long time from your war."
"What do you mean?" Maxwell asked.
"You're a DNA reconstruct," the demon said. "Cloned from burial remains and given artificial period memories."
"What's that gibberish? Your words make no sense at all."
"You died. They were putting you together in the Louvre."
"The doctors?" Maxwell asked.
"You're still not making any sense."
"What year do you think this is?" the demon asked.
"What are you? Who are you?" Maxwell asked.
"Bloody hell. That's a girl's name!"
"I'm a woman, not a girl. I'm twenty-two."
"But you... Begging your pardon, but you're as flat-chested as any boy."
"Breasts are an anachronism like menstrual periods."
He stared at it - her, trying to figure out what the hell was going on. "Your face could be a girl's, I guess."
"Well, thank you," she said sarcastically.
He looked down at her long toes, gripping the cobblestones in the alley. "But those feet..."
She rolled her eyes. "And my wings?"
Demon was the description that fit best, but better not to offend it - her.
"They're nano-reinforced air," she said. "They're... an accessory, like stockings."
"Wings aren't accessories. Birds have them. People don't." He didn't mention demons. "One of them got cut," he observed.
"Laser from a drone. The drone would have killed me, but you're worth something." She looked up at the sky, watching.
"Worth what? To whom?"
"The Artificials. We're at war."
"Not the same war. Your's was World War I." She cocked her head, seeming to hear something. "They say the Artificials have someone on the ground after us. We have to go!"
"Who says? How?"
"My friends. I have wireless in my head."
"You have a Marconi telegraph inside your skull?"
"Run, man! The Artificials have sent a Luther after us."
"What's a Luther?"
But she was loping down the alley. He jogged after her. He heard booms in the distance, just like at the Front. There, he'd ridden a British Mark I tank with cannons and machine guns, better than anything the Germans had. Here he had only his Webley and a demon for company.
She turned at the next street, looking up at the sky and then back to make sure he was following. "Stay close to me, not in the open."
"I'm a soldier," he snapped, "not a child."
"You only think you were a soldier. All your memories are false."
He followed her through a maze of streets, having only a vague sense of where the dry river behind him was. Not that he had anything to go back to. She was his only connection in a world turned upside down.
"Down here," she said, hurrying down stairs.
"Catacombs. No wireless. The Luther can't radio to find out where we are if it follows."
Which meant she couldn't radio her friends for help, either. As they spiraled down the stairwell, the light faded quickly.
"We need a lantern," he said.
He felt her hand take his in the darkness.
"I can see," she said. "Infrared from our body heat."
"What's down here?"
"Bones. They ran out of room for graves in Paris centuries ago."
That didn't inspire confidence. "What's a Luther?"
"The twelfth model. They're alphabetical: Alice, Byron, Cassandra, Diego and so on. The Luthers are the newest Artificial model. If it catches us, we're dead. Or I am, at least. They'll put you back in the Louvre while they finish you."
She could have simply left him and saved herself. Why hadn't she? "What's it look like?"
"A man. In his twenties like you, but completely artificial."
Said the woman with no tits and no periods.
She stopped him and he heard the creak of a rusty gate opening. In the catacombs he smelled only dirt and stone, not fear and death like in the trenches along the Front. His sweat cooled in the darkness.
They descended another level. Blindly, he let her lead him through the labyrinth of tunnels, his boots clomping on the hard earth and stone.
"Who won my war?" he asked.
"Your side. That led to World War II."
He'd fought the war to end all wars. They shouldn't have needed to number them. Still, he felt a swell of pride that they'd beaten the Huns. He'd been convinced the tanks would turn the tide. "I haven't seen troops or trenches. Where's your front line? Where are the armies?"
"The front line is everywhere." Suddenly she squeezed his hand.
"What?" he whispered.
"I heard the gate," she hissed. "The one we came through." She muttered swear words he'd never heard from a lady. "Take your boots off. It can hear every step you take."
He crouched to untie them, remembering her bare monkey feet, silent on the stone floor. He started to take off his wool socks, too, but she stopped him.
"You'll cut your feet," she whispered.
"I've walked hundreds of miles in these boots, with the calluses to prove it."
"Feel the bottom of your feet."
He took a sock partway off. His soles were as soft as a baby's. "But I remember..."
"Come on!" she hissed, pulling him as he tried to get the sock back on.
She led him in darkness, the only sound their own breathing. He wondered if the Luther breathed. The woman said nothing, and he didn't dare speak. If the Artificial came up behind them, she'd at least have some warning. In the trenches, there'd always been some light from the night sky. But strain as he might, he couldn't see anything at all down here. He remembered her words: They ran out of room for graves.
Abruptly she stopped and let go of his hand. He heard a quiet clank of metal.
"Locked," she whispered.
"Yes." For the first time, he heard despair crack her voice. "We have to go back, find another branch."
He tried to reassure her. "If we meet the Luther, I have my revolver. Though I can't see."
"I don't think a gun will help."
"They're hard to kill."
If she'd ever felt the kick of a Webley revolver, she wouldn't say that. Or did she mean his museum bullets were blanks?
She took his hand again, and he felt hers trembling. She pulled him faster now, running in total darkness. He had to trust that he wouldn't trip on something he couldn't see.
They turned, she dragging him around walls or other obstacles he couldn't see. He had no choice but to trust her. Then she stopped again.
"Oh, no," she moaned.
"We can go back and-"
He couldn't hear anything. Her hearing must be keener than his. He unfastened the safety strap on his holster and drew his revolver. Straining to hear, straining to see.
She pushed him behind her and he stumbled against a stack of bones piled nearly as high as he was.
"Where?" he whispered, cursing the dark.
Then he heard a crunch of sand ahead of Priscilla.
Light flared, blinding him.
He saw Priscilla's wings expanding before him, then her whole body went limp, sending bones crashing from a pile beside her as she fell.
"Are you all right, Max?" asked the man in the tunnel. He seemed genuinely concerned. The man had kind blue eyes like Reverend Jenkins in Newcastle. He looked ordinary enough, wearing a shirt, trousers and soft leather shoes. Above his left shoulder floated a light with no flame, no smoke. "She didn't hurt you, did she?"
"You're the Luther. What did you do to her?"
"Yes, my name's Luther. She put you through a lot. She's not badly hurt. She has wireless in her head. Did she tell you about that?"
Maxwell nodded. He didn't lower the revolver.
"She tried to use it as a weapon, but it backfired. She'll come to after a while."
Maxwell wanted to check her pulse, to see if Luther was telling the truth, but didn't dare take his eyes off him.
Luther took a step toward him.
"Stay where you are!"
Luther stopped. "What lies did she tell you, Max?"
"She said you're an Artificial."
Luther sighed. "I'm afraid we're all a bit artificial these days, Max." He nudged Priscilla's shriveling wing with the toe of his shoe. "Including this woman, if you'd call her that."
"Why were you hunting us?"
"I wasn't hunting. I came to rescue you."
"She's the one who saved me."
Luther shook his head. "The rebels broke into the museum to tamper with you, release you prematurely. They wanted to see what you are, what makes you tick."
"I'm just a man."
"Are you?" said Luther with a sigh. "What letter comes after L, Max?"
He froze. "I'm not... M."
"Yes, the M series, Max. You're one of us. A new experiment."
"I'm not a machine."
"You're better than any machine, Max. You're like this creature, but also like me. The best of both worlds. And we've given you the past, made it an integral part of you. We've fought so long we've forgotten how wars should be fought, and why. But you remember war. You know that peace is stagnation."
"What happened to Britain?"
"Countries don't matter anymore, Max. Kings and queens have faded into history."
"I fought Germans in trenches, not women with wings."
Luther's eyes narrowed. "Did the rebels already corrupt your memory implant? War isn't about honor and chivalry, Max. It's about the rule of Mankind."
"What about women like Priscilla?"
"You can have her if you want. Or we'll find you better ones."
Wrong answer. Maxwell squeezed his finger on the trigger.
The boom was deafening as the Webley kicked. Luther jumped, but Maxwell saw the bullet strike his abdomen.
Then the man was on him, faster than he'd ever seen anyone move. The force slammed him backwards against the stack of bones and onto the hard floor.
"This experiment's a failure," snarled Luther, his hands around Maxwell's neck, strangling him.
Maxwell pulled the trigger again and again, point-blank shots to Luther's chest. Thunder echoed in the catacombs and smoke stung his eyes.
The revolver was empty, but Luther's thumbs were still squeezing into his windpipe.
Hand-to-hand is never a fair fight, and Luther was far stronger than he was. Maxwell used every dirty trick they'd taught him in infantry, gouging the man's eyes with the barrel of his revolver.
Maxwell's own vision was going dark when Luther finally stopped fighting him. The man's hands were still tight around his neck. Desperately Maxwell broke Luther's fingers one by one and wheezed for air. His heart was pounding.
Luther's, too. Blood spurted from his wounds, soaking Maxwell's uniform. Maxwell pushed the corpse off and it thudded to the floor. Luther's light still floated in midair, illuminating the bloody carnage. Gasping, Maxwell reached up for it and put it in the pocket of his trousers. It glowed through the fabric.
He knelt by Priscilla. She was facedown against the packed earth, her wings only loose manes. He wiped bloody hands on his pants, then felt the underside of her neck. She had a pulse. He felt warm breath from her lips. When he picked her up, she was light as a small girl. Or a bird.
He'd find a way for them out of the tunnels.
Out of the trenches.
It was a different war, but some things didn't change.