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“The Corpsman’s Tale” by Iain Ishbel

The Flemish plain, scarred with ancient trenches, lay untouchable under its coat of diamond silicate, unchanged after two hundred years, a symbol of two centuries of peace. James Bowcott scanned the screens one final time, and leaned back with a satisfied smile.

“Still perfect,” he said.

“So sentimental, you English.”

Bowcott’s smile widened to a grin. “Right you are, Otto,” he said. “I’ll be more German next time.” He cleared his throat. “Yes! The historical battlefield is all in order, my overlieutenant Bowcott. This is as expected, so I am no emotion feeling. I will take over the watch from you.”

Otto Hillinger nodded, straight-faced. Then he cleared his throat, and the sound was unmistakably British. “Too right, leftenant,” he said. “Bloody gasping for a fag, I am, four hours in this bloody tower. Come on you Spurs.” It was East London, and it was impeccable.

“Crikey, you’ve been practicing.” Bowcott rose, and stretched. “It’s all yours, then.”

Hillinger settled into the twin chair. “Quiet watch?”

“In your dreams, mate,” Bowcott said. “Bloody school group came through after lunch. Ottoman Turks, all reverent. ‘Below this tower, O children of Allah, is a historical cusp point, where the world’s history remains forever vulnerable to manipulation.”

“What is miniplation, O teacher?”

“Aha, your Turkish accent is worse than my German. ‘This means, little Jimmy–'”

“Little Kemal.”

“‘Little Kemal, this means a Chronological Adjustment rig–'”

“‘O teacher, what is a criminalical–?'”

“‘–a time machine, mishandled, at this place could change the history of the past. So you must be respectful at all times to the Corpsmen who protect our peaceful world. Yes, Kemal, even the ugly Englishman.'”

Otto grinned. “Still, it is good that children are learning this.”

“Yes, you’d think that, wouldn’t you,” said Bowcott. “But from who?” He looked at Otto’s raised eyebrow. “From whom?”

“From their teachers, naturally.”

“Their teachers who told them, right in front of me, that this site, this historic site, this central site, this key to the peaceful history of the last two centuries…”

“Go on,” said Otto. “I can see you are irritated.”

“This historical battlefield, the teacher said, was the site of the Protestant Reformation.”

Otto turned completely away from the screens. “The what?”

“The teacher said Luther published his theses out there.”

Otto raised his eyes to the heavens, and turned back to the screens. “They are only mistaken by one thousand kilometres.”

“And eight centuries,” Bowcott said, settling his overcoat onto his shoulders. “Do we have a post protecting the Reformation?”

“Ah, no,” said Otto, after a moment. He sounded distracted, his accent strong. “It is a completely stable event. There is no cusp point. Nothing can be done to change the Reformation, and why would someone wish to?”

“Maybe the Vatican,” suggested Bowcott, tugging on his gloves.

Otto didn’t answer. Bowcott watched him, in silence. After a moment, the German looked up. “Green markers inside the fence,” he said. “Two of them.”

Bowcott stepped back toward the screens. “Do you want me to–?”

“No,” said Otto. “I’m sure it is all right. Probably only maintenance, for the broken wireless. I cannot find their authorizations, though the system says they’ve been cleared.”

“Call the sentry post anyhow,” Bowcott said. “They’ll know better than any system.”

“Of course, of course. Off you go now.”

“My dad’s coming over on the tube for Spurs against FC Brugge tonight. Come for a pint after the football?”

“Another day,” Hillinger said. “Say hello for me.”

“Right,” Bowcott said. “Cheers, then.”

Outside, he leaned on the railing, looking down at the fields of Ypres. How many ancient bodies lay beneath that churned earth? Each one by now just a denser distribution of calcium molecules that once were bones, a collection of gold and steel once a false tooth.

Some senior men on the highest committees, mostly the sentimental French, wanted markers where soldiers had fallen. No travel back, they said, of course not, but there’s no risk in video research is there. Mark the death of each boy, the ones as were there and didn’t see the Truce.

Personally, Bowcott was against the idea. Even if the boffins guaranteed no risk of changing history – and there were no guarantees in chronologics – the job was to preserve the memories of the sacred field, not present it all like a piece of Austrian theatre.

He shivered, as always. Right here, it had happened. Below this tower, the world’s last soldiers had risen from their trenches on Christmas morning, grasped hands with the enemy, and then begun the long walk home.

Here, the world had changed, for good and all.

Bowcott turned from the railing and started down the metal steps. His father’s train would just about be in, and it might be nice to start with a drink in the village pub, with that pretty new barmaid. If he could convince his father to try the red local beer, just once – for a sudden instant, Bowcott saw a streak of light from the side of his eye, and he began to turn–

***

Then he was lying on the ground. There was no sound in the world except a high whistle, and his eyes were gone all dark. He blinked, and blinked again, and with every blink he could see past the darkness for just a moment.

“Otto?” he said. Something was wrong with the tower. The walls were too short, and the roof was missing. “Otto?” Bowcott rose to his knees. A cloud of smoke above his head didn’t clear when he blinked. It must be real. He turned his head left, and right, blinking again and again to clear the darkness.

Over the fields of Ypres, an enormous humming dome, dull matt-grey.

Cooper Able rang in his ears. In his mind, or on the wireless? The Corps hadn’t declared a Cooper Able in years. Across Europe, throughout Asia Minor, the snow-covered North and even the Far East, the population of the Christmas Alliance was safe, well-fed, and contented – even happy.

Bowcott’s stomach clenched, and he wondered about vomiting. What people, anywhere, were troubled enough to risk changing the past?

***

Two men out across the battlefield, in dark uniforms. Hurrying, but careful. Corpsmen? Heading away from the towers. Carrying a box, a heavy box.

A Chronological Adjustment box.

Not Corpsmen. His hands moved without thought, tear the pocket pull the injector flip the lid. Pause and jab.

Then he was standing, his vision clear, rimmed with painful crystals of ice. Cooper Able. Stepping out onto the diamond-sealed battlefield, where centuries ago the boys had died, and then one Christmas had stopped dying, and changed the world instead.

Now he was walking toward the two men. His right leg wasn’t working properly, the ankle grinding with every step. Slow; he was too slow. They were too far away.

“Halt, you there,” he called. “I’m a Corpsman. Halt.”

***

The two men were moving slowly too, faster than him but uncertain of their footing. The Corps kept a secret to themselves: the diamond-silicate sealant was terribly slippery. Bowcott’s boots could grip it as long as their battery held a charge.

They didn’t halt; didn’t even slow. He kept walking, step after grinding step.

Maybe they were Americans. “Freeze,” he tried. “Police.”

The taller one looked up at that. “You ain’t police,” he called. “You go to hell.”

Well, they were Americans. He should keep them talking, because he certainly wasn’t about to catch them up. “The Christmas Corps is a national police force,” he said. “Have you heard of Interpol, there in the States?”

“True police,” called the American, breathing heavily, “are elected. By the people, for the people.” The shorter man said something low and angry, Spanish-sounding, and the American stopped talking.

“Are you Mexican?” tried Bowcott. The adrenalin was beginning to wear off. “Vienes Estados Unidos Mexicanos?” The short man turned his head and spat on the ground toward Bowcott.

And slipped.

***

The box began to fall.

Bowcott gathered himself, leapt one-legged for the trench on his left, over the sandbags and lumber. Too slow, far too slow. Was it a bomb? They were all dead if it went now, but at least history–

A pulse instead of invisible light and he stopped, in midair.

Headfirst above a historic fighting trench, arms spread wide, Bowcott floated like a swimmer in aspic, all unmoving. Upside down, between his splayed legs, he could just see the top of the box past the sandbags. A top corner. The bottom had hit the ground.

The short dark American was out of sight, but the tall one had flung himself backwards, and hovered at an improbable angle in the air, frozen in time. Definitely a Chronologic Adjustment rig, Bowcott thought. Cooper Able.

He started closing his eyes. Where would he be when they opened?

No – not where would he be: he would be right here, in the fields outside Ypres. But when? When would he be, when time started again?

Freeze! he thought, and decided that when he could move again, he might laugh.

***

Instead, he fell.

Headfirst into wet mud, a slap in the face and a blow to the chest. Bowcott rolled onto his back, and struggled to breathe. Nothing, nothing, nothing – then finally, finally his lungs drew in a gasp. The first breath was as sweet as life.

The second breath reeked of mud, mold, filth, and historical gunpowder. Bowcott filled in his lungs and emptied them, then gasped again. Finally his chest stopped heaving and he felt the pain come back to his ankle. He opened his eyes – to a dark world, lit with flickering candles at the edges, and a round, dark hole in space, blurred edges a bare inch from his nose. The end of an old-fashioned handgun.

“Bloody hell,” he said, in despair. “Give it a rest, I’ve only broken my ankle.”

The foreshortened barrel lowered, returning to its regular shape. “He sounds English, sergeant. London lad, even. You a Londoner, mate?”

Bowcott frowned down at the revolver, then the soldier holstering it. “No, I’m a Frenchman, aren’t I? Can you give us a hand?”

“Fair enough.” The small, dark man offered his hand. “French are on our side, I suppose.” He pulled Bowcott out of the mud, and up to his feet. “Coulson,” he said. “Lance-Corporal, London Rifles.”

“Bowcott.” He coughed. “Ambulance Corps.”

“Right then,” said Coulson. “Welcome aboard, Bowcott.”

Bowcott nodded, looking about him. Covered in woven wool and caked mud, the men could be from any era. But speaking English in Flanders, and that was a Webley revolver…and below ground level. They were down in the trenches. The Great War.

“Happy Christmas,” Coulson said, then he was gone.

Bowcott closed his eyes again. The Truce, of course. The Americans had come for the Christmas Truce. Which way from here? He turned, turned again. This was trench UK2C, from the length of it. If the Americans were north of him, by twenty metres, they’d be in G12. At its closest approach to UK2C, it was unusually shallow and – scholars differed – likely ankle-deep in water at the time of the Truce.

Where were the ladders in UK2C? He limped toward the nearest, lifted his bad ankle onto the firing step with a groan.

Then he was on his back again. A pair of unshaven faces, cigarettes glowing, glowered down at him from under filthy caps.

“None of that,” said the first. “Bloody Christmas Eve, this. Leave the pickleheads alone and they’ll do the same, right?”

“No,” he said. “There’s a pair of Americans out there. Got to fetch them back.”

“Yankees, is it? Do you know where they are?” said the second, a Welshman. “No? Then you just leave ’em until morning, sunny Jim. If they’re not safe, they’re dead already. And if they’re not dead, they’ll be safe. Right?”

Bowcott struggled to sit up. “You don’t understand,” he said. “Tomorrow’s Christmas.”

The Welshman sighed. “Morphine?” he said.

“Right enough,” said the other. “Hold his legs.”

“No,” Bowcott said. “If I don’t–”

Then he was silent.

***

Christmas morning was silent and clear. The familiar battlefield lay covered in frost, sparkling in the light, sprinkled with diamond powder. Here, in the past, it was an illusion of diamonds, about to be destroyed as the sun warmed the day.

Three men, out of time, stood in no-man’s-land.

“It’s not too late,” Bowcott said. “Call it off.”

“Reckon not,” said the tall American. The two were wearing German uniforms now. This close, Bowcott could see the blood-dark knife holes in the tunics. “What we came here for.”

“You killed two innocent German boys, though. Did you come for that?”

The darker one looked down. “It’s a war,” he said. His accent was Spanish, but not. A Mexican, sure enough. “Soldiers die.”

Bowcott wanted to be angry, but the murdered boys had been dead for hundreds of years already. “Why?” he said. “I don’t mean the ones in your trench. I mean, why are you doing this?”

“It’s orders,” said the dark one. “It’s just a job.”

One by one, English and German soldiers were emerging from their trenches, rising to the level of the battered plain, hands high and open, and empty. Their footprints reflected the sun of the morning.

The tall one shook his head, watching the Christmas Truce begin. “It’s more than that. We’re doing the right thing.”

Bowcott wanted to sit down, but was afraid if he did, he wouldn’t be able to stand up again. “Isn’t this right?” he asked. “They’re not fighting. They never fight again.”

“They will fight now,” said the Mexican. He spat. “You had your chance. You English and Germans and French and big Christmas Alliance. A government of soldiers, of heroes. And what do you build? A world of oatmeals. There is no honour, only order. No man is poor? Then who can be rich? It is empty, your world.”

“Your world too,” said Bowcott. He shifted, and gasped as his ankle shot a line of pain up his spine. The soldiers were mingling, slapping backs and grasping hands. Bowcott could almost see the recognition growing among them, hovering above the field. We could just stop. “Whatever you’ve done,” he said. “Just make it stop. Come on. It’s a good world. Let it be.”

A ration tin flew through the air, and a muddy grey soldier, in British uniform and a German cap, trapped it football-style on his thigh, and kicked it back. The soldiers turned into players. Young voices raised a cheer.

Bowcott’s eyes blurred. The football match, the centre of the Truce. The beginning of the Alliance, and two hundred years of peace. He was here, at the heart of the world’s change. He was breathing the same air the famous boys breathed, watching the same dawning hope.

Knowing it was about to be destroyed. “Please,” he said. “Please.”

“Sorry,” said the tall American. He was looking away from the football game, far behind the lines, high in the air. “It’s time for a change.”

In a stopped moment of life, beautiful and dreadful, the sound of fabric tearing, far overhead. The football game dissolved as the players threw themselves into creases in the ground, strips of bare earth or frozen paths of mud. They were soldiers again, and the Christmas Truce a memory.

Then the explosions began.

***

He woke, as if from a dream.

Several dreams. Half-dreams, swirling together strange foreign time terrorists, high-budget war films and broken ankles.

Cheese pizza – and his stomach turned – was a mistake before bed.

What time was it? Sitting up was a mistake, too. Bowcott swore quietly, swallowed to keep down the bile, and again. Cold wet cloth peeled away from his legs, and he groaned. Wet the bed? No – he hadn’t. Wet, but not a bed. His clothes were wet, the ground was wet. No bed at all – a field.

He was on his knees suddenly, then standing, rubbing his eyes. Weirdly, his ankle flared with remembered pain, just like the dream. Then the twinge was gone.

It was a field, still.

A flat, open field, ploughed dirt and what farmers called stubble. Chopped plants, basically. He looked up. No clouds on the day, but a haze all around, like a low mist fading down to touch the ground.

Or a dome.

“Hello.”

Bowcott jumped. “Christ,” he said. “Who the actual fuck are you, then?”

It was just a guy, his own age, in some kind of grey wool uniform with no straight lines, like a strange artisanal soldier from the future. A future where they still made clothes from sheep.

The soldier smiled. “Hello,” he said, and he sounded German, except not very. “How do you do, Leftenant Bowcott?”

“Super,” Bowcott said. “Only, just ‘Jim’, all right?”

The German guy looked sad. “You are not an officer?”

“Christ, no,” Bowcott said. “Who joins the bloody Territorial Army?” For a moment, the dream rose up again, and he shook his head. “I’m a graduate geologist. University of Warwick – except I’ve just woke up not in halls but actually in some sodden fields.”

“Flanders fields, in fact.”

“Yes, very good,” said Bowcott. Then he looked again at the German. “Oh,” he said. “Really. Well, there’s meant to be poppies then.” And wondered why he’d mentioned them.

“Poppies,” said the soldier. “Why?”

He hesitated. Was it–? “You know, ‘In Flanders fields, the poppies grow, between the crosses row on row.’ Or do they blow? I’ve forgotten.”

“What have you forgotten,” the soldier asked. “It is a poem?”

“Sure,” Bowcott said, though he wasn’t as sure now. “From the First World War.”

For a moment, the soldier looked sad. “And so, there is also a Second?”

“Not as much poetry by then, I suppose. Maybe your lot?”

“My lot?”

Bowcott scratched. “The Nazis, you know. Reichsfuhrer and Gestapo and the genocide. All that Schindler’s List stuff.” The strange dream was starting to fade now, true history clearer in his head.

The soldier blinked several times, and spoke quietly to a small black box, strapped to his arm.

“What’s that then?” Bowcott asked. “Mobile phone?”

“Cooper communicator,” the soldier said. “We send as much information as we can outside of the anomaly, before we decide to collapse it. Genocide, I told them. And a second war.”

Bowcott didn’t say anything. He looked up at the misty grey dome above him. Then he looked down again. “Where am I?”

“You are in Flanders, in the International Historical Zone. Your – body, but please, you have not died – has not moved in space or time since the moment two criminals from the United States of North America killed a Corpsman guard and set off a Chronological Adjustment rig nearly on a cusp point, prevented only by your individual heroism.” He breathed in with a loud gasp. “I have memorized that speech for ten years. I believe I was expected to take a breath in the middle.”

“I have no idea what it means.”

“This place is an anomalous sphere one quantum wide. Within this sphere, a different history happened. Your world’s history, Jim Bowcott of the University of Warwick.”

“What,” Bowcott said, slowly, “have you been drinking out here? You’re a time traveller, and this an alternative universe? Pull the other one.”

“No,” said the soldier sadly. “This is the real world. Your memories are from an alternate universe, one that doesn’t exist. If we do not continue to put energy into the field, it goes kaput.”

“Okay,” said Bowcott. “That’s super. Good for you. Can I go home?”

The soldier tipped his head. “Yes,” he said. “Though not how you mean. And so will I also, after waiting alone here for quite some time.” He stood, and Bowcott realized his legs were both mechanical.

“Christ,” he said. “Were you in the Philippines? I mean, sorry, just that Germany sent loads of troops to the Philippines, I thought. Anyway, sorry. Christ.”

“No,” the soldier said. “Not the Philippines. Closer to here, and a long time ago. Although,” he brightened, “in another sense, it was just yesterday.”

“Right,” said Bowcott. “Post-traumatic. So…” He wiped his hands on the thighs of his trousers. They were wet. “Should I just…?”

The soldier had started stomping across the flat farm field toward the mist rising from the base of the dome. His boots made hollow crunching sounds as they crunched the stubble. Then he turned back. “Of course,” he said. “But first, tell me how this Second Great War began.”

***

Several hours later, they had walked the perimeter of the dome several times, stopping and starting. Hillinger, the German soldier, was a good listener. After the first circuit, Bowcott started imitating the voice of old Parker-Jervis, his fifth-form history teacher. Hoarse with menthol cigarettes and whiskey, the hectoring lectures returned to him like long-forgotten films, filtered into ironic black-and-white.

Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf, the Internet Revolution, the nanotech plague, the California quake, the fall of Islam and the strange thing China did underneath Korea. The Americans – no, just the Americans, without Mexico – and their War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on Radicals. Women’s rights, black rights, gay rights, machine rights. Estate rights. Corporate rights. Tax farms and autonomous armed drones and England winning the 2090 Adidas World Cup.

“I was just a lad,” Bowcott said. “But I remember every second of that game, including eight minutes of injury time. Eight minutes! Best day of my life, that was.” He stopped walking, and sat on a small rise. His legs were tired now. “I think it was my dad’s last good day, too.”

“He was not well?” Hillinger sat too.

“He died,” Bowcott said. “He had the nanos, that one cloud over from Iceland. I was nine.”

“I am sorry to hear it.”

Bowcott shrugged. “Long time ago.” He wiped his nose, and looked up at the misty dome. “Yes, well. Right. Do you follow football? It’s a shit world, but German teams are very good.”

“I was born in Dortmund,” said the soldier. “But I studied in London and was, shall I say, converted. Now I support only the Tottenham Hotspur.”

“Spurs?” Bowcott said. “That’s my team.” He grinned, for the first time, and slapped his hands together. “All my life.”

“Yes,” the German soldier said, with a very un-German smile. “All your life.” He sat quietly for a moment. “I think,” he said, “I have done enough waiting. There is very little we can learn from this dreadful history. Let us return now, together.” He murmured something to his wrist box, and the grey dome crackled with blue light.

Then it began to fade entirely.

“I’ll see you soon,” Otto Hillinger told him. “James.”

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About the Author

Iain Ishbel is an ex-teacher who now enjoys the quiet life of a professional writer on Canada’s Pacific coast. He lives in a very small house with one rather small wife and two extremely small daughters. He loves them all very much, except the house.

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