From the trench, No Man's Land loomed as blank, and, in the grey gloaming, as colourless as the maps portrayed it. Twenty paces out from the last, dubious shelter of a collapsed gun-emplacement, wisps of ground-fog had leached the colour even from the air; but where they parted, they revealed in the shape of the land, not that blankness so vexing to the cartographer and so enticing to the general, but the traces of a scriptio inferior: overlapping lines of advance and retreat, punctuated now by a dented Brodie helmet, now by a puttee fainting in coils, a boot lost to the sucking mud, a bayonet, a button, bibles, flasks, bandages, gloves, and all the layered detritus of the long habitation which had elevated this salient to singular status.
Over this scoured terrain, a pale young man traced a line of drunken S-curves through the mist, picking his way from one shell-hole's rim to the next, finding a path above the stagnant water that filled every depression.
Or nearly—the ray of debris beneath his feet ended in deep mud. He faltered, peering off into the fog. It roiled, white masses of cloud clotting out of the air and dissipating again. The silence was profound; and, when he at last charged ahead toward what he fancied to be solid ground, the squelching of the soft earth around his boots clamoured in his ears. He went at a near run, straining to listen over the the distant guns, and the more immediate noise of his own footfalls and heart-beat, for outcry behind him—or, more plausible and horrible, for the single rifle crack, and the rest silence.
He had meant to wait for full dark, perhaps even for the next night when the moon would be all but gone, but the chance to run had come, and he had taken it, without hesitation. By such intuition he had survived, longer than he or his superiors had ever expected; he knew the fatal danger of equivocation. And yet his mind teemed with second guesses, the charade becoming less sustainable with every step toward its end.
Somewhere behind the mist, the sun was taking a damnable time setting. In the watery twilight, he was exposed, but unrecognizable—entre chien et loup, "and," he babbled, "as well shot for the one as for the other." The fog had looked so promising from the shelter of the trench. In no other circumstances would it be called such; it drew in on itself, a wall of white against the charcoal sky. This was a killing fog; he had sent men to their deaths in in mists such as this. A man might wander in circles forever, or drown unmarked in the brackish mud.
Or, with luck, a single man in dusty Feldgrau might pass between the lines unnoticed—could even, with a compass and matches to see it by, hope to steer close enough to an English sentry-post to whisper the password before being shot.
The fog lay thickly over his path. The young man drew a compass from his pocket, and held it almost under his long and rather pointed nose for a good half minute before admitting defeat and risking a light. The brief flare showed the instrument's face, and nothing else; the mist was almost a solid wall now, veiling his own feet and hands from his sight.
But he had his bearing now, and needed nothing else; his head was full of maps, precious maps, and he knew to the step the extent of the sodden lacuna at the centre of this one. He plunged ahead into the cold mist.
Jack scratched a fourth tally mark into the cellar wall with the edge of a button. He could remember making two of the others, and assumed the last was also his doing, though he had no proof. His arrival at the farmhouse was still on the other side of the new hole in his memory.
He still had hopes of filling in the gap. It had taken him much longer than it ought—whole days—to even notice he had lost time again, and the memories he had recovered had come back piecemeal: a reconnaissance flight; a sudden, all-enveloping fog bank; a mental note to hunt down Trenchard and make the case for standard-issue parachutes again.
He didn't remember a crash, which he supposed was a small mercy. Probably not a deliberate one; he doubted whoever caused his amnesia had the skill. If it was the Time Agency, their standards were slipping. Certainly in his day, none of the officers here would have been Agency material. Well, perhaps Lieutenant Zucker—not as a field agent, but his air of cheerful surliness would have been right at home in Tech Support. But Captain von Weich, a bald little martinet who seemed to think his facial scar lent him sufficient gravitas to command, wouldn't have lasted a week.
The padlock outside clattered, and as if summoned by the thought (though Jack would have wagered his last bar of chocolate the man was no telepath), von Weich himself entered, flanked by Zucker and a stranger. The new man was another lieutenant, a slight man in his mid-twenties, with hair as pale as Zucker's was dark. Long silly nose; longer, sillier chin; fantastic hands, was Jack's straightforward appraisal; and in fact many less susceptible minds had found the newcomer's hands an incitement to lewd thoughts, though generally in more promising circumstances.
"Captain! I see you've brought a friend. Is this the good cop or the bad cop? No offence to Leutnant Sugarcheeks here, but I'm guessing bad."
"In case you should need a translator," said Zucker—and that was fishy already, for Zucker's English, though slow and heavily accented, was quite correct— "the Kapitän has sent for a language expert. Leutnant Adler, of—of—" He faltered, looking at von Weich for guidance.
Captain von Weich drew out the monocle he wore on a neck chain and screwed it in. He fixed hard narrow eyes on Zucker. "Er ist vom Hauptquartier gekommen." He turned the same look on Adler, who surely shouldn't need to be told where he'd just come from. "Vom Hauptquartier."
Both officers snapped to attention. "Getting your story straight?" Jack said. "Little late for that, don't you think?"
But von Weich ignored him, and left him to the two lieutenants, with a stern command to make him talk. To Jack's surprise, Adler took the role of the good cop. "Captain Harkness. We shall be great friends, I'm sure." Jack had the only chair in the room, a wobbling discard from the farmhouse kitchen; Adler settled comfortably on top of an empty apple-crate and offered Jack a cigarette, which he took. Zucker refused a crate of his own, but accepted tobacco. No one turned down tobacco. "Such fascinating lives you must lead," Adler began, "you pilots. I can never resist the chance to talk to one of you. I should love to fly in an aeroplane—I've ridden in a hot-air balloon, and I've driven a fast motor-cycle down a lonely road. Does it lie somewhere between the two, the sensation of flying? But," he went on, without leaving Jack a chance to answer, "you would rather talk about other things, I am sure. So much blatant Schwärmerei—so much hero-worship, one might say—must all get rather tiresome, yes?" Adler spoke a rapid Oxonian English; only the precision of his enunciation gave him away as non-native.
Jack puckered around the cigarette and took a long drag. "I dunno. Tire-ing, maybe, if you do it right." He leaned back on his chair's two good legs, stretching his own legs invitingly, and blew out a long stream of smoke. He considered winking for good measure, but there was no need.
Zucker scoffed. "You English—"
"Whatever you are, you are out of place here."
"Oh, I don't know," said Adler. "Motzstraße has given as many volunteers as Magdeburg—and, whatever slanders we like to spread about each other, vice is truly the same everywhere." Zucker looked unconvinced; Adler waved him into silence, with an imperious gesture that seemed to come easily to him. "But good conversation, unfortunately, is all too rare; and I imagine it does not flourish in an RFC barracks, does it, Captain Harkness?" He leaned back on his packing crate, stretching his legs in near-imitation of Jack's pose. "Are you fond of music? You must have been in Paris more recently than I. Tell me, has the Ópera yet been reopened?"
"I wouldn't know. Music-halls are more my line."
"Ah. Vienna is your city, then." And the rest of the interview, if so one-sided a conversation could be called such, passed in reminiscences of the Viennese music scene, with digressions on Wein and Weiber and some whistling of airs.
The next morning, a fifth tally mark took its place on the plastered wall, and soon after both lieutenants returned. This time Zucker, who despite his disposition was not temperamentally suited to being the bad cop, began, with a demand that Jack admit to being a spy.
"Since you caught me flying recon behind German lines, I don't think there's much else to confess." Jack watched their faces, wishing he had some prop to play with, but with Zucker calling the shots, there was no chance of a cigarette. "Where exactly did you catch me, by the way? I don't actually remember coming down." He worried his cuff distractedly.
"Oh, you do not remember?" Christ, Jack wondered, who taught this man how to run an interrogation?
"Yeah, that's right. I have to say, I don't like having holes in my memory. Maybe I'd remember better if I could see the crash site." Zucker's face was blanker than Jack had expected; perhaps he had some latent skill at this after all. "Or did I make the landing? You don't have my 'bus under wraps somewhere, do you?"
"I say—" Adler's English sounded even more fluent today. "You can't think we'll simply let you wander off to... to anywhere, do you? Not until you've been considerably more forthcoming, you know."
"How long has it been?" Jack asked. "See, I heal fast, so just the fact that I don't have any scratches doesn't tell me much." He held out his unscarred arms, shirtsleeves shoved up to his elbows.
Adler leaned in, peering at Jack's wrist as if expecting to see blood. He squinted one eye, and brushed the front of his uniform, automatically, a searching gesture.
"Of course, you're new here," Jack said, drawing back under Adler's intent scrutiny, which conduced to pleasant but entirely unhelpful lines of thought. "I suppose they might not have told you everything about me. How long have you been here?" And even though the man had been brought in only yesterday, he stammered and looked to Zucker for his answer.
Another tally on the wall, and another. The lieutenants came in at least once every day, together or separately, but Zucker's visits were perfunctory. Adler, however, settled in on his crate and stayed for hours at a time. He was a good conversationalist, with a remarkable knack for putting listeners, or at least Jack, at ease. Though he was still supposedly interrogating Jack, he did most of the talking himself—prattling about Paris and Vienna, mostly, before the war.
Adler spoke more of places than of people. He shied from answering any even remotely personal questions; but despite Jack's penchant for asking them, he kept seeking him out as a literally captive audience, and spoke in minute, eidetic detail about theatre he had seen, music he had heard, books read, meals eaten.
Shell-shock, or the desperate attempt to avoid it, was Jack's first thought—channelling the desire to retreat into his own mind into obsessively reliving his most pleasant and sensual memories. But Adler's prattle revealed more than incipient shell-shock, to Jack's ear. His accent wandered, on his flights of reminiscence, losing its icy precision—but it never wandered toward the German vowels.
"Where'd you study English?" Jack asked, once.
"Heidelberg," Adler said shortly. His posture straightened minutely, and the next words from his mouth were as crisp as ever. "And I travelled quite a lot before the war—a sort of Wanderjahr, you know."
"Where'd you go?"
He shrugged stiffly. "Here and there." Adler checked his watch, and left before Jack could pin him down.
The next day Adler was visibly nervous. His hands trembled as he extracted a cigarette from his case—nearly empty; he'd either been smoking feverishly or bartering for other distractions. He struck a match on the plastered wall. Jack, not without sympathy, seized his opening, and before Adler could open his mouth, launched into his own reminiscences. The beauties, both natural and human, of the English countryside were his topic; he did not think he was entirely convincing, but he dropped in enough references to his pilot training to keep Adler listening. Nothing new, of course; hardly any names at all except for Larkhill, and after three years German intelligence must have got wind of the closing of that venerable aerodrome. Zucker would have broken in anyway, hounded him on every point; Adler merely listened, his grey eyes half-lidded, like a cat that hears dinner being prepared several rooms away.
After a good long while, Jack brought his monologue around to the glories of the English public house; and thence, via pubs he knew, to the university towns. He did not, to his regret, know much of Cambridge or Oxford in this era aside from their better pubs; but Torchwood had got him into the Bodleian on several memorable occasions in the 'Nineties, and he doubted it could have changed that much. Start with Oxford, then. He nattered about architecture, drinking songs, whimsical student traditions he'd picked up from other people's nostalgia. Adler listened without comment or reaction—sat so stonily that when Jack dropped in a deliberate error, a reference to Lent term (which even Jack knew was a Cambridge thing), he was certain he saw him wince. "Sorry, did I get something wrong?"
Adler's face softened into a pleasant, foolish smile. "I've no idea, I'm afraid. But do go on."
He was lying. Jack knew it with a sick certainty. But why lie about that, of all things? Why shouldn't a German officer have visited Oxford, lived there, studied there, before the war? Now, a Time Agent... Jack knew, firsthand, the choice between feigning ignorance or displaying anachronistic knowledge. Some places, and he knew Oxford to be one of them, stay remarkably constant over time—but even they change enough to trip up the unwary traveller.
But tracking those changes was the first thing a Time Agent was taught. And mentioning the things he missed most viscerally about the future—cell phones, ubiquitous Indian take-away, teleportation—got Jack only blank looks, and a digression onto H.G. Wells.
If Adler was an agent, Jack concluded when he had gone again, he was very new at the job. Though he might have guessed that much from this farce of an interrogation. Someone—either von Weich, or someone above him—had given up on learning anything of military value from him.
It was another full day after that—nine tally marks—before it occurred to Jack to wonder what his captors had made of his wristband. The oversight, his and theirs, terrified him. On his part, it confirmed that the hole in his memory was no accident: he had been made, not merely to forget, but to shy away from the memories and even observations that remained to him.
And on theirs... Either his capture was some Agency ruse too Byzantine for even Jack to follow; or else his captors believed him to be exactly what he appeared, a downed RFC pilot—and still believed him of too little consequence to search his belongings, his person, much less to interrogate him seriously. And that was impossible, in the war Jack remembered.
Jack twisted the leather cuff around his wrist until he heard the padlock rattle. His skin was chafed; he must have been worrying it for days, almost constantly, to have kept the marks. He had never noticed.
But Adler had. Jack remembered, with sudden intensity, the straw-blond head bent over his arm, the force of his attention.
Angry at himself, not least for the ease with which he'd written off his disquietude at that episode as simple attraction, Jack stared at the cell door with undisguised venom; both lieutenants marked it as they entered, and shared a glance.
Jack rucked up his sleeve and surged out of his chair before the door had even shut. Let them shoot him; it would be another test, in fact the logical one after this. Zucker was nearer; Jack brandished his wrist under his nose. "What is this? Tell me—what do you see?"
"I see nothing."
"Nothing at all? Go, on—look! Look hard—what do you see?"
"Nothing! The-- the Handgelenk—"
"—wrist—" supplied Adler—
"—that is all."
Jack grabbed Zucker's hand and wrapped his fingers around his wrist. "How about now? Anything? Not even a wristwatch?"
He jerked out of Jack's grasp. "You are mad." He turned to Adler. "Er ist verrückt."
"Is he now?" Adler didn't see it either, or else didn't see it properly—his grey eyes darted up and down Jack's arm, searching, not seeing—but it wasn't Jack's sanity he was questioning. He brushed the front of his Feldrock again, as if searching for a pair of spectacles.
Or a monocle. A spotty subaltern opened the door for von Weich. "Was ist hier los?"
"Kapitän Harkness sagt—" Lieutenant Zucker seemed at a loss to sum up what just what he had said, but settled for saying he'd claimed to be wearing an invisible wristwatch.
For the first time, von Weich looked at Jack as though he mattered. His eyes lingered on the wristband, clearly all too visible to him. He screwed in his monocle and stared up at Zucker. "Es gibt keine da." He turned to Adler and repeated himself. "Keine." And when Adler looked again, he saw nothing, just as he'd been told to; his eyes slid right over Jack as though he himself was not there.
The lieutenants left at von Weich's command, obedient—conditioned to obedience. But Adler cast a searching look over his shoulder as he shut the door.
Monocle still in his eye, von Weich questioned Jack—professionally, at last—for hours. "You are in the resistance," he repeated, over and over, which made no sense to Jack—this was 1917, or at least it had been when he took off on his last recon—but at last Jack got his meaning. It wasn't the Germans he was supposed to be resisting.
Now that was fascinating.
He wanted to ask about his plane, about the crash he was beginning to doubt he'd been pulled out of, but he kept it in reserve. This would not be the last interrogation; he needed to have something left. Instead, he asked about his memory. "I don't like people interfering with my head," he said, as monomaniacal on his subject as von Weich was on his. "What happened before I was brought here, and why can't I remember?" But von Weich was silent; Jack cocked his head and considered him. "Because you can. Your lieutenants don't know how long they've been here either. But I'll bet you do."
A flash of light, faint but noticeable, fluttered below the edge of the door. Someone had been listening, letting his shadow fall into the cell. And he had just heard enough. Jack was quite certain it was not Lt. Zucker.
"If you know where you are—"
"—which I don't—" said Jack.
"—then you know about the resistance. You will tell me where you have met them. You will tell me the names of your leaders."
"All I know about the resistance is that it exists. And I only know that because you told me, today."
"You are lying."
Jack laughed, too tired to hold it in. "I'm really, really not."
"Your wristband, then. That is not a lie, and it is not a product of 1917. You will tell me where you stole it."
"Now, that's interesting. That tells me that someone here is capable of making something like this. You want to quit before you give away the whole game, von Weich? Right now I'm two for two."
But von Weich had a trump card—a scrap of paper, heavily crossed out in pencil and ink, and bristling with stars and annotations. "These names. These are not the names of reconnaissance targets."
Jack craned his neck to read— it was a list, in Jack's own hand. Many of its items had been struck through, but some remained in the clear: menin, poelcappelle, cambrai. They were interspersed, in no real order, between the crossed-out words under the heading Salient. Other lists trailed their own headings: Marne, Somme—
Captain von Weich snatched the paper away. "These are not official orders. This is a Resistance code." He slapped his gloves against his empty palm. "You will answer!"
"Sorry, didn't know it was a question," Jack said. "You didn't care if those were my orders. Those could have been targets for bombing raids, or mapping flights, or undercover missions, and you didn't give a damn, until you found out I had this." He waggled his wrist. "So what's so special about a list of—"he swallowed the word battles-- "villages?"
"Indeed," sneered von Weich. "What is so special?"
"It's my to-do list. Places I want to get laid before the war ends." He grinned. "Tell me where we are, and I'll add a line."
"These are the code names of Resistance colleagues. You will tell me their names."
And the questioning dragged on, the same questions, a barrage calculated to weary him. Jack had information to give, but not the information von Weich wanted to hear; and in time von Weich gave up and left him alone to simmer.
The rattle of the lock woke Jack from a doze. He expected von Weich again, with thumbscrews or worse. But it was Adler.
If the man had been courting shell-shock before, he was in the thick of it now. He'd gone from pale to fish-belly; Jack was cold just looking at him. "Is it good cop time again?"
Adler shook his head, and drew a pair of handcuffs out of his pocket. "Ihre Hände vor sich halten, bitte." This was new; he had always addressed Jack in English before.
"And if I don't?" But he was already holding out his hands. Jack had two stone on Adler, but Adler moved like a man with strength to spare; Jack might overpower him, but not easily or silently. And even if he could knock him down, what then? He knew nothing of the layout of the camp or the terrain beyond it, not even the direction of the British lines.
Better to bide his time. Adler locked the cuffs and drew his sidearm, and silently motioned Jack through the door.
The locked storeroom opened onto a wide plastered cellar, fitted out as a sort of scullery with a pump and trough along one wall. Two privates loaded canisters of motor-oil from a sadly paltry stack onto a wheelbarrow; they saluted Adler desultorily and turned back to their task.
"Mind telling me where we're going?" Jack said. "Did von Weich finally decide to let me have a look at the crash site, maybe jog my memory?" Adler waved him through a set of green-painted double doors; the guard on the other side nodded to him. Beyond was a rutted yard; the house's foundations were dug into the slope of a hill. "Huh. I don't remember this place, either; and not to brag or anything, but I've photographed an awful lot of your installations."
"Schweigen Sie!" hissed Adler. It was more a plea than an order, and Jack, obediently, fell silent, and let himself be frog-marched across the farmyard. It was midday, though grey and dull, and the compound was peopled: steam rose from the wash-house; mechanics in a cowshed heaved a field gun off its smashed and listing carriage; around a corner, someone was shoeing horses, whistling. Captain von Weich was nowhere in evidence. In the distance, guns rumbled.
At the motor pool Adler signed out a motor-cycle with side-car. The lack of a driver struck Jack as a good circumstance, but a bad sign; whatever Adler was up to, he wanted no other witnesses. The side-car was the kind with a bar in the front for securing luggage, or, more recently, for mounting a machine-gun; Jack held out his hands when instructed, and let his cuffs be undone and locked again around the steel. He kept his eyes on the key, as it disappeared into Adler's left tunic pocket. The revolver returned to his belt, and Adler kicked the bike into gear and drove them out of camp, returning the motor sergeant's salute with chill abstraction.
He made for the front, heading for the din of the guns. Jack had long since learned the trick of not hearing it with his ears. He sensed it in his skin, instead, the medium through which they moved, growing not louder, but denser and thicker around them.
"Where are we going?" Jack called; and, when that failed to elicit an answer, "Wohin fahren wir?"
Adler answered at some length in German, and while half his words were lost to the thrum of the engine and the swelling noise of the guns, Jack got the gist: the English had done something to him, to his memory. He could not speak of it in the camp for fear of spies. And so Adler must turn spy himself, and discover what they had done. Jack was his insurance.
Jack surreptitiously tested his handcuffs. It could not be long before Adler turned his paranoia on Jack himself. The only question was whether he would accuse himself first: if there were an undercover agent in the camp, Adler, with his fluent, educated English and inability to account for where he'd learnt it, was the best candidate for the role.
Nearer the front, they came across a hay barn, miraculously intact, on a little rise next to the shelled-out remains of a cottage, and here Adler pulled the motor-cycle off the road and stopped the engine. The rubbled farmyard overlooked an abandoned section of trench, its sides crumbled in, shoring beams projecting from the earth at drunken angles. Adler stared down at the wreckage, unblinking. The straight stillness of his back and shoulders suggested no resolve but the determination not to bury his head in his hands.
"Where are the men?" wondered Jack. The camp, the road, now the trenches—all had been far too empty. "That's recent-- there ought to be engineers, sappers, a shovel party—someone digging it out." He shook his head. "This whole landscape is wrong. It's not just a matter of a few lost days—this isn't the war I remember."
Adler turned frantic grey eyes on him. "Tatsächlich?" he began, followed by a burst of German too rapid for Jack to follow easily.
"Whoa, whoa, nicht so schnell. Can we try that in English?" Adler's avoidance of the language he had such facility with was beginning to seem ominous, and Adler sat silent for a long moment before replying.
When he did, it was with the first trace of accent that Jack had heard from him yet. "Then it is true. There is some unheimliche weapon—a gas, perhaps—that the English spy has turned on the camp. It is true, it is—you have experienced it, you also!"
Jack nodded, cautiously. "I've experienced something. I know the lay of the land of pretty much the whole Salient, and this place... it looks like I ought to be able to turn a corner and find myself someplace I recognize. It looks almost right."
Adler sighed, and at last let his head and shoulders fall. "And that is all?" he said, in a small voice. "Nothing else?"
Jack answered the tone, rather than the words. "What happened to you?"
"I— My name is Paul Adler. I was born in Charlottenburg, the son of a prominent attorney. I was an only child; we were well-to-do. I had the measles; I went to day-school in the city; I attended University at Heidelberg. I studied literature—English and French. I travelled: I lived in Vienna, I lived in Paris—those I am certain of, those I remember! I volunteered in 1914; I am certain of that, also.
"But the rest—I can hardly call to mind the faces of my parents, nor the names of my playmates or the view from my nursery window. My childhood is slipping away from me." His German accent settled, grew more fluent—a good fake, but still, Jack thought, a fake. "But when I allow my mind to wander, I remember scenes from a childhood somewhere... very far away. I remember a house in the country— almost a palace—and a stable full of horses. I remember a brother and a sister, though I never had either. I can remember, so clearly, the faces of my schoolmates and tutors at a college I know I never attended, while I cannot even remember the rooms I lived in at Heidelberg, or where I took my meals. I remember a girl—all gold and milk-white, with the sweetest face, truly an angel. I even know her name—she's called Barbara. I gave her a ring. I could tell you the weight of every stone. It's nothing I could afford on a lieutenant's pay.
"And all of this, all of these fantasies, I remember so much more clearly than my own life."
Jack had begun to have a horrible suspicion. "Shell-shock," he suggested, trying to sound confident. "You're having blackouts. Happens all the time."
"Oh, yes, it is the shell-shock." Adler pronounced it like a sentence. "I wish I were somewhere else, and I wish it so hard I begin to believe I am some one else—a man with a charmed life, a man whose most difficult choice is which silk scarf he should wear to the opera, a man who the rarest creature in the world condescends to smile on, who can heap her lap with jewels. I wish myself into this man's life, because he has no place in these trenches."
"But you remember the trenches." Jack's hands were going numb; he twisted them futilely in the cuffs.
"Yes. Damn them, I remember the mud, and the cold. They are the only things in my life, in my own life, that even compare to this fantasy I have created.
"But you," he said, turning and clutching Jack's sleeve, "if you are also affected, perhaps I am not—not solely responsible."
"Of course you're not," Jack said stoutly. "Look, you said you remember the trenches. Look down there—does that look like any place you remember?"
"I—it is hard to tell. I don't believe so, but it all blends together in the mind."
"There you are, then. We both remember where we've been fighting, and we both think this place looks fishy."
"Yes." A shudder went through him, but in its wake he straightened, alert, and dug in his pocket for the key to Jack's handcuffs. "Come. We will find the people who have done this to us."
Privately, while Jack echoed the sentiment, he doubted Adler was taking him in the right direction. Certainly von Weich had known something, more than the little he had let slip to Jack; while they might or might not find his opposite number behind the British lines, they would certainly not find some British mind-weapon capable of wreaking this sort of damage on two men's memories.
But he allowed Adler to walk him down the slope and across the fallen-in trench. The Time Agency, or whoever was responsible for this pocket of the War, were well hidden; and Jack preferred to hunt for them from the side that wore his uniform. He ought to be able to pull enough strings to keep Adler alive, for a few days at least; and if he was right about the source of Adler's intrusive memories, a few days should be all it took to identify the man properly.
They scrambled up the bank beyond the abandoned trench and through the broken tendrils of the barbed wire, and then they were in No Man's Land. "Walk ahead of me," Adler said, keeping his hand on his revolver. "You are my insurance."
"Yeah, I got that part," Jack said, with as much bravado as he could muster. "So let's go."
Between the lines, the landscape was still all wrong. Ravaged, yes—pocked with shell-holes, the few trees reduced to blackened stubs. But the ground was rocky and dry, and the human debris was too thin, and entirely military—there was no trace of houses or farms here, no silted-in drainage ditches, no cast-off mowing-machine teeth rusting where they fell, not even a horseshoe. This place's history began and ended with the War.
All Jack said to Adler was "Recognize any of this? 'Cause I don't."
Adler shook his head, thin-lipped, and gestured Jack up a rocky slope. "Perhaps from the top, we will see something. "
Jack scrambled up the loose scree—wrong, wrong, terribly wrong—and crouched on the crest of a little ridge. Below, at the bottom of the crumbling slope, stood the TARDIS. She loomed blue and solid over the edge of a shell-hole, a shallow spill of rainwater lapping at her doors.
Adler halted beside him and stared. "What is it?"
"You can see it?"
"Police Public Telephone Box," he read. "But what can that mean? There are no civilian police here." He saw Jack's face, and his mouth hardened. "You know what this thing is."
"Yeah." Of all Jack's memories, it was the most deeply graven; he'd imagined just this scene on his first night in the trenches, and almost every day thereafter. The TARDIS would shut out the guns and the filth, and take him far away; and the Doctor—
--was almost certainly not Jack's Doctor. That damnable almost had let him down before; he had loitered in alleys and watched in shop windows, waiting hours or days only to see a stranger return to the ship.
The risks, to his person and his timeline, were great; the chance of catching the right Doctor, in the right moment, were beyond slim. And still it took all the strength he had to step back. "Yeah, I know what it is. And we have to get away." He turned and stalked off ahead of Adler, heedless of the revolver trained on his back.
"This is dangerous, this box?" Adler caught him up. "Is it to do with the English weapon?"
"No. It belongs to—to a friend of mine who's looking for the same thing we are," Jack said, and swallowed a curse, for if there was one thing he could be certain of, it was that the Doctor would be up to his eyebrows in whatever was going on. "So we're going to leave him to it, and go reconnoitre someplace he hasn't been yet. Talk to me about Vienna some more."
"I beg your pardon?"
"Vienna. Talk to me. Your mental conditioning is wearing off—the, the mesmerism that's been keeping you from remembering things clearly. Remember how you had to learn to see my wristband? I'll bet anything they didn't want you seeing that box, either, but you did. So tell me something new about Vienna."
"I—there is—it is no good, I tell you! Everything I think I know is tangled in this other man's life."
"So tell me about him." Jack led them over a much-furrowed field of rubble to more solid ground. He could just about see the English lines.
"He—I think he is less patient than I am," ventured Adler. "He is careless. Or he likes to give the impression of carelessness." He laughed bitterly. "I believe he is one of those insufferable fellows who will spend an hour on the fold of his handkerchief and the knot in his necktie, to make it all look unconsidered. He will do nothing unless he can do it with sprezzatura, as the Italians say. Though," he added wistfully, "I believe that must make him a very fine musician."
"Playing? Singing?" said Jack. "Let me guess—he's got some instrument you've always..." Something near them was singing, high up, a whine in the air— "Down!" He grabbed Adler's sleeve and pulled him down with him; the ground shook beneath them. "Are they shelling us? Or are we just in the way?"
The barrage went on, but the tremors and the noise came no nearer. "They're not hitting us," Adler said over the din.
Jack lifted his head. They were on a spit of solid ground between two new lines of craters; as he watched, shells exploded behind them, on either side. "We're in a gap," he shouted. "Come on!"
Heedlessly, he waded out towards the English lines, Adler following. On this side as well, the trenches were sparsely manned; one gun-emplacement was silent in the barrage. Jack made straight for it. They ran the last yards hunched double, threw themselves over the edge and lighted in the damp packed earth.
"We must have been seen." Adler went at a crouch to the nearest turning of the trench, and peered around the corner. He turned back and shook his head, silently, finger pressed to his lips. Someone was here, at least.
On their other side, there was a long empty passage before the next manned section. Adler and Jack scrambled up the sandbag wall at its rear, and belly-crawled along the ground until they were out of sight of the trench.
There should have been ranks of field guns on the surface; communication trenches and a fallback line cut into the earth, dugouts riddling the ground beneath them. Instead, just as on the German side, they found nothing beyond the single trench but empty fields, and a narrow road.
"It is unheimlich," said Adler. "Uncanny." He looked pretty unheimlich himself by now—he'd been shocky and pale for hours, and Jack doubted he could stay on his feet much longer. The effort of memory, or of describing his alter ego, had been especially wearying.
"Yeah. Let's get away from here." The ground at their feet was heavily rutted in one direction. Jack set off the other way, away from the guns and the smoke. If these really were the British trenches, or even, as Jack thought more likely, a less-than-perfect mock-up, then the wheel ruts would lead to help, manned outposts, maybe a hospital. Heading into the hinterlands, they both risked being shot, Adler as a spy and Jack as a deserter.
But where the people were, where the noise and activity were, there the Doctor would be. In the thick of things, where he belonged. They went the other way.
After several miles, a fog settled in, and between one pace and the next, it blanketed the road completely. The fog, oddly, distressed Adler more than anything they had yet encountered; he planted his feet and refused to move another step. Jack opened his mouth to argue, and then remembered flying—the thick, white fog that had blown in, just this suddenly, around his plane, the last thing before his memory trailed off into blankness. "Adler, think. Have you been in a fog like this before?"
"The lines—" He grasped Jack's sleeve, his face nearly invisible even at arm's length. "Are they near?"
"You're having a flashback," said Jack calmly. "You've been in a fog just like this, haven't you? What do you remember?"
"Shh!" He leaned in on Jack's shoulder. "Don't make a target of yourself, man," he whispered. "Our gunners can't tell friend from foe in this mess, don't you know." The precise elocution he'd employed earlier was nowhere in evidence; he spoke like a man who had never doubted that anything he said could be less than pukka. That careless certainty was harder to put on than the Prussian attitude or the Oxford manner, and in it Jack thought he was finally hearing the real Adler.
The real Adler was a lot more nervous than the bloke with the accent.
"All right, come on," said Jack. "This way." He took another step into the mist. If this was the mechanism—if there were a timescoop, or even just a team of agents hidden behind this wall of cloud—then they'd have their answers.
Instead, three steps took them out of the fog, and out of the War. Jack spun around; there was neither fog nor trench behind them, but a Roman road in good repair. The landscape around them had never known shell-fire.
"I say," said Adler, "I know the Jerries are callin' up older men every month, but this is falling rather literally upon the triarii." Jack looked back down the road. A column of Roman infantry was marching, dust churning around their buskins. Two velites detached from the front rank and galloped toward them; another peeled back around the foot and rode back to report them to the centurions. "And for that matter, why not call up Barbarossa from his sleep? Or Dietrich of Bern, or Arminius? Unless these are our reserves, and some clever chap has woken up the vengeful dead from Teutoberg Forest."
"They look pretty lively to me." And the cavalry skirmishers were almost on them. "Maybe we should get off the road." Jack pulled Adler back by the shoulder. A step back, and the fog surrounded them again; another, and they were back in Flanders.
"Well," said Jack, "now I know why they wanted to keep me away from my plane. This must look pretty odd from the air."
"It's a bit disconcertin' from ground level, come to that." His tone came nowhere near insouciant; he sounded one or two good shocks from a breakdown.
And there'd been something else—"You said 'our reserves,'" Jack said. "Just now."
"Hardly. The reserves of Marcus Aurelius is more like it—"
"Have you remembered anything."
"I can remember a truly shockin' number of things. Go on, try my wit, lay the bent to the bonny broom. Though I wouldn't recommend asking what 'lay the bent to the bonny broom' means; that one's always been a poser—"
"Whose army are you in?"
Adler fell silent with his mouth still gaping. "That's a deuced uncomfortable question, old man," he said, after a moment.
Jack sighed. "Right, forget I asked." He kicked a clod of dirt morosely. Adler, or whatever his name was, had forgotten himself enough to remember which side he was on, and apparently a slew of trivia besides, and Jack had had to go and point it out to him. "All right," he said after a moment. "We're going back through the fog. Between javelins and artillery, I know which I'd rather get killed by." He had, in fact, had personal experience of both, though he kept this to himself; Adler was in no state of mind to appreciate those stories.
"Must we?" But Adler steeled himself and stepped back into the fog bank first.
The Roman column had turned off the road and struck out overland. Like the trenches, it was undermanned. "Maybe six centuries, none of them full strength," Jack said, squinting after them. "And the auxiliaries are worse off—one unit of light cavalry, a few camp-followers. Nothing like a proper baggage train, either."
"They turned off just before they came to the fog," observed Adler, peering at the track in the brush. "Speaking of laying the bent to the broom. Or, no—just before the place where the fog becomes visible. Suppose they don't fancy walkin' through it any more than I."
"They can't," said Jack. "They've been conditioned. Like we were."
"I think we've attracted the outriders' attention again." Adler pointed up the hill on the road's other side. "There's a footpath, or a cattle trail or something, that runs parallel to the fog barrier."
"Let's go." They headed up the hill; the trail was easy enough to follow, but steep, and Jack had to climb parts of it on his hands and knees. The wall of fog came into view twice, suddenly and shockingly, and he learned to hug the left edge of the trail or go off it altogether rather than risk activating the barrier with an outflung arm. Even so, he felt its presence, a low buzzing at the edge of his consciousness, steady and hair-raising. The Time Agency, to his knowledge, had never used anything like this.
The third time, it was Adler who tripped the barrier. Jack turned and saw him huddled against the stony ground, staring blankly into the roiling mist. "Adler. Adler."
He didn't respond, and Jack had forgotten his other name. "Adler," he snapped. "Nehmen Sie meine Hand; folgen Sie mir."
For a brief moment, a look of utter betrayal flared in Adler's eyes; and then he was taking Jack's hand, and letting himself be led back from the barrier. Jack silently stepped aside to let Adler take the lead, once the fog had dissipated, but Adler shook his head and patted his sidearm. Right. Jack was insurance again.
Cursing roundly under his breath, he led them over the crest of the hill. The other side was steeper, and there was no stepping off the narrow path. Halfway down, the path turned, and was suddenly blocked off by a rockfall; it would have seemed a natural spill, if not for the cave mouth ten yards further down, fortified by a stone-and-turf breastwork.
A lone defender rose from his crouch behind the wall: a French private, no more than eighteen, aiming a rifle with bayonet fixed. "Qui est là?"
"Captain Jack Harkness," Jack answered. "Royal Flying Corps-- Corps Royale de l'Air." He didn't offer a serial number; the kid wouldn't know what to do with one.
"Et lui?" he demanded, his eyes darting to Adler's Feldgrau and spiked helmet. His grip on the rifle seemed none too secure. "Toi -- tu es Résistance? Ou Boche?"
Jack stole a glance at Adler; he looked green and terrible, and the question, or its language, seemed to have stymied him altogether. His hand dropped to his revolver.
"Un pas de plus et je tirai!" the French private stammered, and levelled the rifle, with surprisingly good aim for the state of his nerves, at Adler's head. And then several things happened almost simultaneously. A voice from the cave shouted "Don't, you fool!"; Adler made an abortive step forward, his hand still fluttering on his sidearm; Jack realized it was time to put his unique talent to work again; and the rifle shattered the air.
Jack's leap came just too late to let him take the bullet in the shoulder. He caught it in his head, instead.
You've seen men's heads blown off before. The haze of blood, through which bone and flesh glint strangely and suddenly; the whole delicate arch of the skull crumbling, seams showing, a house of cards falling where a man had been.
Harkness crumples to the ground, falling while the blood is still stinging your face and soaking your collar. You've seen this before, you know what to do-- you catch him out of reflex, sinking to your knees like a Pietà even as you realize his wound is hopeless.
And then he begins to move.
Everything moves-- grows-- all at once, brains bubbling up like yeast, membranes skimming over them, skull knitting and rounding and the skin creeping across the fractures while they mend. Even his hair is trembling, quick. Even the blood moves— the clotting beads nearest the wound creep across the ravaged skin and burrow in, and as soon as a layer of meninges or skin grows shut, you can see it engorge suddenly with blood, blue and dark.
And then it's done, and the dead man gasps in a long, rattling breath, and sits up in your arms.
"Sorry about that," he says. He puts a hand to his breast, but only to pull a handkerchief from his pocket, and he reaches up and scrubs at the blood and brain and bone-- all of them his-- staining your collar, and cooling against your skin.
His fingers are warmer than yours.
The Roman soldiers who chased you at least had proper deaths, good, long deaths; they had grave-dust to shake off their feet.
Captain Harkness hasn't had time to get cold.
You shove the dead man away. He stumbles back into the arms of the men from the cave, English and French infantry. They make him stand-- you protest this; a man should surely earn a rest when he's dead. But they look daggers at you when you speak, and mutter Boche under their breaths, all except for a dark-haired man with sergeant's stripes, who kneels by you and says a word, a name, and helps you to your feet.
He's dead, too; you know this, just as clearly as you know that he was never alive, that he is a figment of your imagination. But here he is, flesh and blood, warm and breathing.
You've imagined the dead returning, of course. Even your glittering other self, with his music and his fast cars and his charmed life-- even he, you know, must have paused outside a familiar room and dreamed about hearing a long-silenced voice within. Et in arcadia ego, even when the ego is alter.
You have imagined the dead returning, and now they are—even men who have never lived, as though having once passed through that universal door, even in fancy, gives a man a body to bring to his resurrection. And how long will it be before the road below is choked with corpses; with living men walking up, not from the graves of antiquity but from this morning's trenches, and demanding audience with the man who sent them there? How long before the dead man at your shoulder turns and accuses you?
You struggle to throw off his hands, but he has you, his arm firm around your shoulder. "Just a little further, Major," he says. "I have you—it's just me, sir. Sergeant Bunter."
You lose some time—it's hard to keep hold of time, here— and in the gaps the sergeant settles you on a pallet of sacking and straw and covers you with a greatcoat. The other dead man, Harkness, is laid out next to you, saying all the while that he's fine, no lasting damage.
You try to crawl away, but the dead men on both sides won't let you; they pull you back and hold you gently down. They that won't with us comply, down among the dead men let them lie. They bathe the blood from your face, and unlace your boots, and chafe your hands until you begin to warm. You are colder than the corpses.
"Very good, Major," the dead sergeant says. "I have some water; here, why don't you have some?" He wraps your hands around a canteen, and you raise it mechanically to your lips.
You know the rules; not a bit will I bite, not a sup will I sip, till Burd Ellen is set free. You lower it without drinking and catch the sergeant's sleeve. One of his chevrons is new and stiff, as you had known it would be. "How can I know you?" you ask him.
He frowns, and his eyes dart toward the dead captain, but he answers you. "You're safe across the lines now, Major." And, with an effort at evenness, "Perhaps you've picked up something of an accent, sir."
You've used the wrong language, again. Careless—deadly careless, even. "I know you," you say, in English. "Sergeant Bunter. I remember your getting that stripe. I remember—but you're just a figment of my imagination, you know. Nothing but a pack of cards."
"Oh, dear." Sergeant Bunter sits up even straighter, though you'd have sworn he was kneeling at attention. "Major, have some water. After all, if the figments of your imagination are telling you to drink, you must be thirsty, sir."
You can't fault his reasoning. You drink. The water is stale and metallic and he was right; you are terribly thirsty. It reassures you. Dead men do not thirst.
Time fades in and out. You must have slept, if only for a second, because you have dreams, of men of all uniforms and nations crawling up out of the mud, a long parade of the dead, hale and warm and grinning like skulls, while you shiver uncontrollably.
This man you made up remembers things better than you do. He remembers words: literature and poetry; you can follow the lines into his thoughts like Ariadne's thread. And he remembers people: Sergeant Bunter, heading out into the fog on a moonless night.
You remember sending him. You don't remember him ever coming back.
There are more dreams, whenever you close your eyes, flashes of faces you should know. But if you hold your eyes open, they don't come. If you wait with your eyes open, you will see all the dead men's faces soon enough; but at least the dead men who come to you here are whole and smiling, not rotting in their own gore.
You hear them talking, the dead captain and the dead sergeant. "No one later than 1917?" says Captain Harkness.
"Not that I've heard of, sir. The main resistance squadron in this area is Marcus Octavius's—that's Romans, and some Gauls. We've worked from time to time with a group operating out of an American Civil War zone; they've got some men from the Crimea. And I have heard talk of a group of bandits from the war for Mexican independence operating from a base in that zone."
"But no one from—well, from any time period that has anything like the technology that brought you here."
Sergeant Bunter sounds almost wistful. "They told us this was the war to end war."
"Yeah. They told me that one, too."
"If you knew this was coming, Captain Harkness—"
"Why did I volunteer? You've seen what happens when I get shot, Sergeant. I can't die. I can't stop this—even if I had the power, I couldn't use it. This war has to happen. But at least I can get myself shot in place of one man who won't walk away from it. Maybe in place of five or six men."
He talks as if he's the only dead man here. You would correct him—you know Sergeant Bunter was listed as missing, you wrote it down yourself—but you can't spare a look or a breath from the effort of keeping your eyes open.
Sergeant Bunter sighs. "He'll be all right, if he can just sleep. If only we had some bromide, or some brandy."
The captain makes a coarse suggestion.
"I beg your pardon, sir, but I think you've a rather mistaken notion of a batman's duties."
"Never said it had to be you." From his tone, you can picture how he must be smiling; and how Sergeant Bunter must be looking at him. The image is an easeful one, and for just a moment, you let your eyes close.
This time you sleep for no more than a heartbeat before the blood and the smoke wake you, and the noise of your pulse roaring in your ears. The sergeant has seen it; he comes back to your side and you clutch at his sleeve again.
"Sergeant. How did you get here?" You get the language right this time; he answers immediately.
"Through a sort of mist, Major Wimsey, sir. That seems to be the usual method, sir; all the men who are able to recall their arrival here speak of similar weather conditions."
"A mist." You remember the mist, or you would, if your thoughts did not shy away from the memory as they shy away from the name he calls you. "You don't strike me, Sergeant, as the type to go wandering about in mists without at least one good reason."
Sergeant Bunter's eyebrows arch upwards, and you think he may have just smiled. "Indeed not, sir. You may recall the incident of Major Ashford's driver, who foundered his car in the mud directly behind our outpost. It was loaded with a variety of items looted from the chateau."
"Yes, he was supposed to meet that black market chappie on the road to Lille." You don't know how you know this, but you do, now you've said it. You can see the man, being led in to the denuded study at headquarters at bayonet-point, cursing out Ashford in three languages.
"Is that so, sir? I am glad you were able to identify the man. I regret that we seem to have misplaced the articles in question—we had loaded the artwork and the wine into our own 'bus, and were on our way to report back to you, sir, when the fog blew up around us, quite suddenly. I'm afraid that I've seen nothing of the vehicle or its contents since my arrival here, sir."
"Well, I wouldn't worry, Sergeant. The world can bear the loss of an indifferent Fragonard—though we will mourn the burgundy." The memories follow the words, as though you've called them into being. "What of the men with you?" you ask, with trepidation.
"Perkins bought it, sir, here. Sniper. I haven't seen Rogers or Wilkes."
The names mean nothing to you. You sent these men to their deaths, and they have made no mark on you.
Or on him—Major Wimsey, the glittering, chattering fool you have made up to armour yourself. But even his hands are bloodstained. Even his. Et ille; et in arcadia. He is no more innocent than you, and with that thought the memories rush in. Wimsey, whistling Bach and Handel and music-hall ditties in the dugout. Wimsey's hands, trained to horses, clutching at the air as a stable burns, the horses' screaming penetrating ears that had grown deaf to men's screams months before. Wimsey resettling his monocle and turning to give orders to the reconnaissance party, the sniper patrol, the stretcher bearers, and pretend for their sakes that they'd ever be back.
In that moment, you hate Wimsey.
"No good to anyone sittin' out in an open car all night, putting temptation in the way of the men, not to mention takin' on entirely the wrong patina from the damp and the mildew. Nothing stimulatin' to the artistic soul about mildew, except of course for that bit of Milton—'He called it Hæmony, and give it me, And bade me keep it as of sovran use ’Gainst all inchantments, mildew blast, or damp—' Though come to think of it, there's also a line about mildew in that sentimental piece about the robber-- you know the one, "Bring me a glass of good red wine, dee dumpty-dumpty-dumpty-dee."
"On that subject, Major Wimsey sir—"
In your mind's eye, the sergeant smiles. "I quoted Comus at you, didn't I, Bunter?"
And now he smiles in truth, and that's the worst of it, somehow, that you've made a man like this smile like that, for you. "You did, sir. You were also rather merry on the theme of the Gloucester Wassail."
"'Now Bunter, come fill us a bowl of the best.' And down you did go, bowl and all. Rather appallingly prescient of me—can you forgive me, Sergeant?"
He can, of course; he already has. "Just have a little more water, Major." He lifts the canteen to your mouth; this time the water is fresh, and cold.
Peter woke from another round of nightmares—the usual ones, which was its own sort of mercy. He was lying, as he'd thought, in a sort of cave, covered by a greatcoat. Not his own; he'd come in a German uniform that must have been soaked with Harkness's blood.
But there was Harkness, squatting over a lantern near the cave mouth, without even a scar.
Then again, there was Bunter, sitting across from him tailor-fashion with Peter's Feldgrau coat over his lap, blotting at a bloodstain with a handkerchief and a bowl of water.
Well. Head wounds did bleed. Peter sat up, head swimming as he did. Hunger, he thought—that, at least, was easy enough to identify. As if the thought had summoned him, Bunter looked up and hurried to his side with water and a piece of hardtack.
"Out of everything here, Sergeant, I am the most certain that you actually exist. Which is startlin', given your habit of appearing whenever I so much as think of you."
"Major?" The water was cool, and staler than he remembered; the hardtack was dusty and dry. They satisfied him of his own solidity.
"Ill-formed offspring of my feeble brain, and so on. But if you were a genie summoned by my unuttered thoughts, Bunter, I flatter myself to think you'd bring me more than bread and water, unless I have an unsuspected eremitic streak in me."
"We're on short rations, Major Wimsey, sir; just down to what we can carry off from the camps."
"Nothing to be found, sir; the countryside is curiously empty of animal life."
"Nobody here but us chickens, eh, Bunter? Wherever 'here' is."
"It's not Earth." Harkness sauntered over and dropped to his heels. "I'm sure of that. I've just been digging a pit in the ground outside. This place has been terraformed, and recently." He pinched the bridge of his nose. "Sorry. I mean, this place has had microscopic life forms, mites and bacteria, injected into the surface soil— just enough to support a very thin layer of grasses. Three inches down, there's no sign of life, no worms, no woodlice, nothing. Six inches down, I hit regolith—never mind. Suffice it to say this isn't the Earth."
"You speak," Peter said, "like a man of some experience. And not at all like a man who was shot in the head yesterday." Harkness's collar was deeply stained with blood, but Peter could see no trace of a scar.
"It's a long story," said Harkness. "Short version-- I was born in the fifty-first century; I used to travel in time and space, until I got stranded on Earth; and I can't die. I don't know why, or how, but I can't stay dead. This isn't the first time I've been shot in the head."
Wimsey looked at Bunter. Bunter nodded reluctantly. "We all saw it, sir. And not a trace of a scar on him now."
"Infuriating, that. I feel like I ought to at least be doing better than the dead man. Not that it isn't topping to see you in rude and ruddy health, old man." Jack laughed a little, voicelessly. "Meanwhile, we've all fetched up on—can you narrow it down at all beyond 'not the Earth,' Harkness? I mean, are we on Mars, or the near side of the moon— though I suppose in that case we should have seen the Earth in the sky, shouldn't we?"
Harkness shook his head. "I'm willing to bet this was a bare rock until a few months ago. There's nothing distinctive about it except our presence. And the Doctor's." He sighed. "That blue box in No Man's Land?"
Wimsey recalled it, through a haze of hysteria and frantic grasping after Paul Adler's nonexistent memories. "Yes?"
"It belongs to a man I used to travel with. The Doctor. He must be here now, probably asking the same questions we are. Solving this sort of thing is what he does. I wish I could talk to him."
Harkness had steered him away from the incongruous box, quite forcefully. "The problem's more than just logistical, I take it?"
"Actually, it's all logistical. The Doctor spent a lot of time travelling before I ever met him. The chances that he's met me yet aren't good; and I don't dare cross his timeline. I know too much about him, about his future. Everything I said would risk changing the course of his life. I can't risk it."
Peter thought this over. "I think I see. If some strange man my first year at Oxford had greeted me with "Flim, my old mangel-wurzel, I haven't seen you since Barbara gave you the chuck"— well, in my case I'd have assumed mistaken identity, but if I made a habit of meetin' people before I'd met them, as it were, then I'd have second-guessed everything I did after I met Barbara, wondering if this were going to be the thing that'd drive her away. Or I might have walked away first, before I could get my heart broken." He frowned up at Bunter. "She did give me the chuck, didn't she, Sergeant?"
"So you informed me after your last home leave, sir."
"Pity that part couldn't have been hallucination. Well." He sat up on his pallet and threw the coat around his shoulders, and was dressed. "So we have some party or parties unknown that have snatched us up from Flanders and dropped us on what, according to Captain Harkness, is some bare planetesimal that's been specially prepared to receive us." He looked up at Harkness for confirmation.
"If this is an asteroid, it's got some of the best gravity generators I've come across. I think we can assume we're on a planet of Earth's mass."
"Of course; a body of less weight would exert less pull. So, on this Earth-sized object, whatever it is, our unknown captors have built a superficially-convincing but imperfect replica of a battlefield of the Western Front, and peopled it with soldiers from both sides. They've surrounded it by a—well, there's another question—by a what?"
Harkness shrugged. "Some sort of gateway between the different zones. Whatever it is, we were all mentally conditioned to feel an extreme aversion to crossing it— probably as part of the same process they used to make us believe we were really on Earth, fighting the same war they took us from." He gave Wimsey an assessing look. "What happened to you must have been a side-effect."
"Making me believe my own cover identity," Wimsey said, lightly. "I'd almost done that myself, you know. Making sure I couldn't slip; couldn't betray myself."
"It's not a subtle process, whatever they're using," Harkness said. "Remember that Captain von Weich had to keep reinforcing your conditioning on the spot. They're probably treating whole squadrons at once-- a little patriotism, a little artificial loyalty to the officers, and a whopping chunk of selective blindness. They rely on the individual minds to paper over the holes, find a way to rationalize any gaps in their memories."
And how well he had done so. What would have been in his mind, when he was taken up, but a desperate insistence on the truth of Paul Adler? And without Harkness, how long would he have gone on, trying to construct a history and a soul for the man, to support his deep, and mesmerically assisted, conviction that they must exist?
All the same, it was startlingly difficult to give up on Adler, to look at a man's life, however incomplete, and call it all a sham, a self-perpetrated hoax. Wimsey felt something unaccountably like grief.
Bunter cleared his throat. "May we assume, then, that the Romans and the other historical figures have been indoctrinated in the same way?"
"I think we may, Bunter. So— we have several adjacent battlefields full of hypnotized combatants, led by officers who are doin' the hypnotizing, being made to fight much the same wars we were fightin' before being brought here at what must have been a rather staggerin' expense, for reasons unknown. And against this, we have—what? One chap in a blue box whom we can't speak to, or at the very least whom Captain Harkness can't speak to. One resistance cell, strength—what, twenty men?"
"Twenty-three, counting yourself and Captain Harkness, sir. Also a somewhat larger group led by one Marcus Octavius, operating from a camp some six miles to the north, cross-country, or a longer distance by the road. And rumours of similar groups operating elsewhere."
"Which makes not enough strength to do much more than keep yourselves provisioned."
"No, sir," said Bunter, and handed round the hardtack again in illustration.
After sun-up, Wimsey searched the little camp. He had little trust in his own reason—he'd believed himself quite rationally to be a figment of Paul Adler's shell-shocked imagination, and though Harkness's theories were quite ingenious, and did explain their situation quite thoroughly—still, how was he to know there wasn't yet another reversal in store; that Paul Adler, or some other man altogether, wouldn't begin to remember a life that encompassed all this?
Against these doubts, the evidence of his senses seemed a slender reed. "A little thing upsets them, after all. A fragment of an underdone potato—though even that recalls the fleshpots of Egypt just now. And what unpleasant hallucinations water and hardtack might induce, I shouldn't like to think. More crackers than cracked? Doesn't have the proper ring, somehow."
In this state of mind, Wimsey examined the blood on his coat, which support both his memory of the incident and Harkness's account— spattered across the whole of the left front and over the shoulder, smeared in a slanted line where the falling man had slouched against him, and soaked heavily into the breast (aligned with the stains on the tunic and shirt below) where he'd cradled Harkness's head. He found the narrow slice Harkness had cut into the hillside. As he had described, below a hand's width the grass roots battered and died against an utterly sterile soil, no more than rock ground finer than sand and compressed like table-sugar.
If Harkness was a figment of his imagination, he was at least an admirably consistent figment. Wimsey made up his mind to believe him.
He talked to the men, and found that here, too, Harkness had preceded him. Whether prompted or not, the men's stories fit together, or at least failed to fit in the ways Wimsey expected. They had all been taken in 1917, though that was the most specific date any of the men could give—none could remember just when Belgium's mud had given way to this place's dust, or situate the stark memory of cold, all-enveloping fog in any larger narrative.
One quartermaster's-assistant, the group's other French member, possessed a newspaper, a much-read Le Figaro of 19 May. Wimsey jumped on it eagerly, not knowing whether the date was before or after his own capture, but hoping that some item might rouse a dormant memory, or else that he might find some crack in the world, something else as out-of-place as Harkness's fantastical wristwatch.
But there had been no telling what was out-of-place in the world, or at least in the newspapers, since the start of the war; and when the scouts came in, Wimsey was reading out of the same blank hunger for home as all the other men whose fingerprints smeared the grubby pages.
"Hullo, Harkness. They've had another ballet riot in Paris—inflexible cardboard costumes and an orchestra including milk bottles, typewriter, and a foghorn. Despite which, reading between the lines of the review, it sounds like it might actually have been rather clever. Or at least one receives the impression that the reviewer would not recognize actual cleverness if it—well, blew a foghorn at him, in this case."
Harkness skimmed the page over his shoulder. "Keep your eye on the designer; he's going to be big someday. We've got company on the way."
"Romans. Irregulars; looks like it might be the local resistance coming to pay a call. Whoever they are, they're about an hour away, just coming down into the valley from the north."
The scout, an English corporal, piped up. "We was wondering, sir, if you might be able to translate, none of the rest of us here having what you might call a classical education."
Wimsey glanced up at Harkness. "No? You seemed familiar enough with the Romans' equipage."
Harkness shrugged. "Last time I was in Rome—well, Pompeii, actually—this gadget here still had a working translator." He tapped his wrist; Peter could focus on the glowing dials of the device now, but it made no more sense to him than before. "When I figured out I was going to be stuck here for the war, I learned some French and German the hard way, but I didn't think I'd need anything older."
"Well, I've done my share of Latin comp., though never, I must say, on the subject of plotting raids with a friendly resistance squadron. Rather an oversight, that. But I'll give it a go—has anyone got a pencil and paper on him, I wonder?"
Someone did, and Peter spent the hour listening to Harkness's fond and bawdy reminiscences of Pompeii and jotting down a crib—useful words, half-remembered hexameters that seemed apposite in some way. Sergeant Bunter preceded the embassage up the hill, a few minutes ahead and a little out-of-breath.
"The Roman resistance commander has come himself, sir—one Marcus Octavius, with ten men wearing a variety of devices, and two English-speaking resistance officers."
"Thank you, Sergeant Bunter," said Wimsey. "Just show in the leaders, we're not really set up for a pow-wow." Bunter saluted and ducked under the overhang of the cave mouth, and returned with an English sergeant in tow, and a Roman holding his crested helmet under his arm.
"Major Wimsey, Captain Harkness— Optio Centuriae Marcus Octavius." Trust Sergeant Bunter, even with no common language, to get the man's rank. "And Sergeant Russell of the Twenty-third."
Russell saluted smartly. "Major Wimsey, sir."
"At ease, Sergeant—sergeants. Now, Russell, what's this all about?"
"Well, sir, we—that is to say, my men and a fellow called the Doctor—" Harkness's fingers tightened in his overcoat—"are calling all the resistance leaders together for a meeting. The Doctor has a plan for how we can attack the aliens' command centre and make them take us home." His brow knitted. "Do you know about the aliens?"
"We know that this place isn't Earth," said Peter, "and that the people who have brought us here aren't from the Earth."
"Right, well, they have a headquarters, in the middle of all these different time zones; and they've got these machines—little green boxes on the outside, but big enough on the inside to carry thousands of men—that they use to travel there and back. I've been to their HQ; it's well-guarded, but if we get enough men together, we might be able to take it."
Harkness was pale. "Bigger on the inside?"
"I know it sounds unbelievable, sir, but I've seen it, with my own eyes."
"Oh, I believe you, Sergeant."
"A moment, Sergeant, Optio." Wimsey nodded at Octavius, who was still standing statue-like and patient, and drew Harkness aside to a niche in the cave wall. "What do you know about these little green boxes? Anything to do with the little blue box?"
Harkness looked panicked. "The TARDIS is bigger on the inside than the outside. She was the only ship of her kind when I knew her. But she wasn't always. The Doctor's people, the Time Lords, once had thousands of timeships just like her. If we've gone back before the War..." He swallowed. "If the Doctor's own people are involved in this, we could be in incredible danger. They were—are—more powerful than you can imagine."
"My imagination's been gettin' a bit of a stretch lately."
"I see." Wimsey turned back to the sergeant. "Russell. Tell me everything you know about these aliens' internal organization— what are their factions? Where did they get these green boxes? What does the Doctor know about them?"
But Russell had already said all he knew, and further questioning established only that the Doctor had two young travelling companions called Jamie and Zoe (Harkness rather drooped at that news), that he himself was a fussy little man with shaggy dark hair (Harkness's face fell even further), and that, after erecting a fog barrier of his own around an occupied alien landing point in the 1917 zone, had been kidnapped from it by the aliens' guards, along with the machine that carried out the hypnotic treatments—and, more to the point, reversed them.
"So," said Wimsey. "We are invited to a strategy meeting in the 1917 zone, at a place accessible to the enemy leaders though not to their troops—"
"—we've got a machine gun on the spot where those boxes land now, sir—"
"—at which we will discuss joining forces to attack the aliens, in the hopes of rescuing this Doctor, gaining the means of undoing the damage to our memories, and possibly forcing the aliens to send us all home."
"That's about it, sir. And, ah, if you could make him understand that, too," he said, with a nod to Octavius, "I'd be much obliged."
In the end, they were a party of seven: Russell and his bodyguard, an English private from the siege of Sevastopol; Octavius, who agreed readily to the parlay once Wimsey managed to explain it, and one of his officers; Wimsey himself, Sergeant Bunter, and Captain Harkness, who it was clear was going to come whatever Wimsey ordered him to do.
They went on foot through the wall of fog, and emerged back on the road in Flanders. The Resistance were based at a chateau well back from the lines, where the alien general had made his own HQ. A Resistance soldier met them near the barrier in an ambulance, and they rode the twenty miles in the back, stopping and swerving at unseen barriers. The sound of guns seemed closer with every turn.
Harkness was grim and unspeaking. But the Romans, now that they had some faith in their translator, were quite willing to talk. "Quisnam imperator est, tempore tue?" asked Wimsey.
"Vespasianus," said Octavius stoutly, at the same time his underling said "Vitellius."
"That makes it A.D. 69," he said to Harkness. "Year of the Four Emperors."
"That explains why the troops in this zone are mostly all Roman; they've been taken out a civil war."
"Et tempore tue ipso?" the officer asked.
"What's he want to know?"
"Who the emperor is in our day. At least I can say Rome is still thriving. What are we—2670 ab urbe condita?"
Translating this idea proved simple enough, but persuading the Romans to believe it proved beyond Wimsey's power, and he fell back on questions of home and family. He had just established that Marcus Octavius was in fact of that gens Octavii that had produced the divine Augustus, though of a plebeian branch and ultimately descending from a freedman of the family, when the ambulance rattled into the courtyard. Here Russell parted from them, and continued on in the vehicle to the barrier with the Crimean Zone. Wimsey, Bunter, Harkness, and the Romans were conducted into the chateau.
Like everything else here, it was almost right— a square house of elderly design, red-brick with stone lintels, grafted to an outsized portico of Ionic columns with portes-fenêtres above. The windows were taped where they were not broken, and the walls were pitted and stained with smoke.
Wimsey lingered on the porch. "Bunter. Come and look at this." He leaned against the brick of the façade and scraped at a mortared seam with his pocket-knife. "How old would you say this building was?"
Bunter ran his finger over the shallow, brilliant white streak. The mortar had scarcely crumbled. "Younger than its builders mean for us to believe, Major Wimsey, sir."
Wimsey nodded. "Confirmation. If they're tryin' to make us think this is Earth, they haven't got it quite right. If, for some reason more devious than any of us has thought of, they're tryin' to make us think it's all an imperfect plot to convince us we're on Earth, then they haven't made a mistake yet. D' you follow me so far?"
"Yes, sir. For myself, sir, I would rather believe our captors flawed but understandable, than infallible in the pursuit of an unknowable object. Sir."
"That is a positively theological way of puttin' things, Sergeant."
"It's an apt comparison, sir."
"Right. Well. Let's go in and meet our fellow sinners, eh, Bunter?" Wimsey wafted into the chateau and followed one of Russell's men upstairs.
Major Ashford's looted Fragonard hung opposite the staff room door; and it, Wimsey decided after a prolonged squint, was the genuine article.
"So. They know how to use what they can get," he mused. "But they're dependent on what they can steal."
He turned to find Harkness leaning in the staff room door, watching him. "Let's hope that applies to their tactics," said the captain; and with that, Wimsey fervently agreed.
The staff room was packed with soldiers of every century and nation, standing shoulder to shoulder like a colour-plate from the encyclopaedia. Bunter trailed Major Wimsey while he translated for the Romans, describing from where and when their new comrades hailed. Or so he assumed; Latin was Greek to Bunter, and Greek was gibberish, but he could see that Optio Octavius was satisfied with quick introductions to the Napoleonic troops of the Peninsular war, the Russians of the Crimea, and the Britons from Cromwell's time onward. The soldiers of the American Civil War, the bandits of the Mexican independence struggle, and the two Japanese soldiers from that nation's conflict with Russia all required long explanations and some sketching of maps on envelope-backs.
At length Russell arrived with the delegation from the Crimean Zone—the usual mixed bag of nations and ranks, all scanning the room for familiar uniforms. At the rear came a pair of Roman foot-soldiers, who fell gratefully on Octavius and his subaltern Felix, and on their translator. Major Wimsey made the round of introductions again, and the new arrivals, grinning at each other, launched into a spate of rapid Latin which left even the Major behind.
"What are they saying, sir?" asked Bunter.
"I think it's 'Wherever'd you find the bloke with the silly posh accent?'" said Wimsey. "Or sentiments to that effect, at least. My Vulgate's all a couple of centuries too late for them, and not terribly vulgar if it comes to that. Here, could you keep an eye on Captain Harkness for me? I'm going to have my hands full with this lot. Just let me know if he gets up to anything—or follow him."
"Very good, sir." Bunter made his way around the edge of the room and took a position between Harkness, perched on a narrow sill beside the French windows, and the doors to the hallway and the dead general's office. But Harkness did not seem about to bolt, or indeed to do anything but stare, without recognition but with a kind of yearning, at the two young people who had organized the meeting on behalf of the Doctor.
Bunter followed his gaze, trying to see what Harkness saw. Beyond the obvious, of course, but the captain's interest, for once, seemed other than purely carnal. They were very young, though no more so than many of the men in Bunter's own unit—the boy about twenty, the girl about the same, though with her bobbed hair and jodhpurs she was harder to place. They were both fresh-faced and healthy, with an innocence in their movement and expression that, even a few months ago, Bunter would have found pleasant to see. Now he merely wondered how long it would take them to lose it, to turn white around the nostrils and begin to twitch at small noises.
But there was nothing possessive in Harkness's gaze. Or, rather—
The boy, deep in conversation with one of the Mexican soldiers, looked over his shoulder at the door to the general's office. The girl, pinning up a map on a board, followed his look; when they moved on to their next tasks, and their next, their bodies kept turning to that door.
That was where the green machines landed and took off from; that was where the Doctor had been abducted. Harkness watched them watching the door, as though he envied them their care, their responsibility.
Bunter, who had unthinkingly taken up the one spot in the room that afforded him a view of both Harkness's windowsill, and Major Wimsey's chair, understood perfectly.
The girl, Miss Heriot, sidled through the crowd, picking out the leaders of the few largest groups like a well-trained sheepdog and summoning them to a small table at the far end of the room. The real meeting—the discussion of strategy—was brief, and neither Octavius nor Major Wimsey was invited to take part. This, to Bunter, seemed entirely reasonable; he wouldn't have given this crowd any space for argument either.
The major, too, seemed unconcerned, lounging in his chair amidst the Roman delegation as though the agreement of the ringleaders was a mere formality—and, sure enough, Russell and the English lieutenant in command of the chateau secured the support they needed in short order.
Miss Heriot, beaming, set up the map on its corkboard in the centre of the room. She cleared her throat. "If I can have your attention for a moment, we'd like to propose a plan. Lieutenant Carstairs?"
The English lieutenant stood at attention, chest puffed like a pigeon. "The plan is two-pronged. Small, mobile groups of resistance fighters will strike at the communications units in all zones in rapid succession. Disabling this equipment will cause the aliens to send their guards to the zones to investigate the disturbance. The strike groups will remain in the zones to engage the guards.
"Meanwhile, the larger part of our forces will muster in the American zone, in this barn—" he tapped the map, "half a mile east of the road through the time zone barrier. Once the greater part of the guard forces has been drawn out of the command centre, we will summon a travel machine to the American zone by sabotaging the communications unit there, and use it to take our combined fighting force into the command centre. Our goals there will be, in order, to secure the control area and the travel machine landing bays, recapture the mental processing equipment—" Major Wimsey sat straighter in his chair—"and rescue the Doctor.
"Are there any questions?"
There were not many, the Doctor's subalterns having sensibly devised a plan with very few details to quibble with.
Harkness brought up one issue. "Translators. If you're coordinating from here, every strike team should have a runner who can translate between the language of their command, and English or French."
"Oh, that is a good idea," said Miss Heriot. "It's rather worrying, actually—the TARDIS generally translates for us wherever we go, and when we were in the command centre, we had no trouble talking with the aliens. Only here in the time zones, there must be some sort of interference in effect. I wonder if it's not something to do with those travel machines."
Harkness appeared to be quite literally biting his tongue. The boy McCrimmon sauntered up behind her. "Oh, aye, probably. Now what about the watches?"
"Oh, yes—we'll need someone with a reliable timepiece in each strike team, and they'll all need to synchronize their watches with ours before leaving the chateau."
Nor were these the only constraints on the division of their forces. Sergeant Bunter did not like to let Major Wimsey go off on his own so soon after his nervous attack, the Major did not like to let Captain Harkness out of his sight whilst the Doctor was at large, and Octavius considered Wimsey to have been seconded to him as a translator. Their little group was clearly not breaking up.
In the end, watches duly synchronized, they attached four new men: the two Romans from the Crimean group; Belanger, a French soldier from Napoleon's Grande Armée, who had seen the disguised communications units in several of the time zones and knew what to look for; and Russell's bodyguard, Private Moor, who knew the American barn where the greater force was to gather. They set out on foot for the Roman zone with nothing established but the timing of the campaign.
Their own timing was none too good; at a crossroads near the time zone barrier, an artillery convoy overtook them, and they were forced off the road into the meagre shelter of a blasted wall, to wait while it passed. They huddled against the ground while night fell around them, talking in murmurs under the clang of the motor-lorries and the distant rumble of the guns.
"There's always the prisoner ruse," the major suggested.
"Captain Harkness and I would have some difficulty explaining the variety of uniforms, sir."
"S'pose so." The major chafed his hands and jammed them into his pockets, but he'd seen Bunter looking at them, eyeing them for tremors. He turned to Octavius and struck up a new conversation in Latin. It was tactics, this time— Octavius took up a nail from the rubble and scratched a rough map into the dirt—and a lot of what sounded to Bunter's ear like names.
His guess was accurate; midway through Octavius's recitation, Captain Harkness climbed nearly over him to interject himself into the major's conversation. "Did he just say Gaius Floronius Rufus?"
"Yes—" said the Major. "Octavius's old second; he's tesserarius to the first century of the legion."
"In charge of the watch on the commander's tent. Listen, Marcus—" the Roman narrowed his eyes at this familiarity—"Is this Rufus a sort of pocket-sized redhead, about up to your chin, dimples in his cheeks? Family owns a poultry farm outside Pompeii?" He waited for the major to translate, which took some time, dimples or poultry-farms, Bunter suppose, not having been frequent subjects in the major's study.
"He says you've clearly seen the man," he translated back, at length.
"You bet I have." Harkness smiled lewdly, a flash of white teeth in the gloomy dusk. "I knew him in Pompeii, my second or third time around. Listen, make enough noise to get him to take the watch himself, then send me in; I promise I can keep him distracted."
On the road, the last truck creaked by. Bunter let it go, scouted down the bank and back to the road, and hissed for the others to follow. They took the turning opposite the convoy, and slipped through the wall of fog.
The raid on the Roman camp was set for 0500, just before dawn. Thanks to their delay it was already full night. Octavius and Major Wimsey stopped in the road and put their heads together, and then summoned their men. "All right," said Wimsey. "Private Moor—can you lead Octavius's men to the rendezvous point on your own—without a translator?"
Moor seemed to give this question serious consideration. "I—I think so, sir. I know the place. Ain't likely ever to forget it," he added, shuddering.
"Well, in that case, why don't you go ahead with Felix here—" Octavius's subaltern looked up at the sound of his name— "and rouse his camp and bring the men to the American zone for the big push."
"Yes, sir." Moor gave a sloppy but sincere salute and set off overland with the young Roman.
The remainder of the party returned to the cave. "Sergeant," said Wimsey. "Do any of your men know the way to the American barn?"
"Yes, sir. Jenkins and Hutchcroft, and I believe some of the others could find it with a little direction."
"Then split the men however you see fit—leave us at least two or three sharpshooters, and send the others along to the rendezvous with the estimable Jenkins or the redoubtable Hutchcroft."
"Very good, sir. Shall I wait to send them on until we set out? They might confuse our track."
"An excellent notion, Sergeant. Carry on, carry on." He retreated into the dimness of the cave.
Bunter chose Hardwicke, Stokes, and Carter, all good marksmen who'd raided the Roman camp before; he briefed Hutchcroft, who was awake on sentry, on what to do with the rest. "Go wake your relief, get yourself a little rest before we set out. Who is it—Ballard? Good; have him rouse us at 0300."
Bunter stumbled over sleeping men, following the major's path to the very back of the cave. He stood and let himself acclimate to the dark—not merely his vision, but every other sense, heightening in the murk. The sound of men's breathing surrounded him, and that electric sense of the nearness of other bodies, which somehow conveys to the skin the feeling of tension, or easy sleep, even through the air.
The major lay wrapped in his German greatcoat, face turned to the wall. He was not asleep, and not tranquil; but the faint rustling of his twitching hands and legs was a better sign to Bunter than absolute silence. "Not asleep," he thought, "but not lying there petrified and too nervous to breathe, either."
Bunter lay down on the cold rock, near enough to put a hand out and shake the major awake if it came to that, and wrapped up in his own coat, hoping he was exhausted enough to sleep himself.
The alien commander of the Roman zone operated from the Vespasianite side. His troops were chiefly men of the Danuvian legions, supplemented by three centuries of Syrians. Their combined force made up a single legion, though one rather under-strength.
But they maintained proper Roman discipline; the castrum, his permanent camp, was defended by a palisade and ditch, and walked by guards specially trained to the duty, exchanging watchwords on a clockwork schedule.
But the schedule, and therefore its flaws, were known. Octavius led them through a stand of trees to the point where the woodland most closely approached the palisade. He murmured in Latin to the major.
"Floronius Rufus will be expecting to meet the next sentry there." Wimsey translated for Captain Harkness, and pointed; his hands were even less steady this morning. "If you wait in the shadow of that tent—or if you can take the other man out silently—you should be able to get Rufus away without notice. The moment he's out of sight, the rest of us will head straight for the commander's tent, Octavius and his men taking lead and point.
"If you can get the watchword and get away, do so and come back at once, and we can slip one of our men into the sentry round. If you can't—" Major Wimsey drew a breath; it came out steadier than it went in. "Don't let him give the alarm."
"Don't worry." Harkness patted the major's shoulder—Wimsey did not look reassured—and darted across the ditch. He pressed his back to the palings, counting the sentry's steps as he went by, and then bent the green saplings on either side and slipped through.
They waited, listening hard—another set of footsteps approached, slowed. It occurred to Bunter to wonder whether language would be a barrier; judging by the alacrity with which two sets of footsteps retreated behind a tent, it was not an insurmountable one.
"Now," said Wimsey, and they ran for the gap Harkness had made.
Octavius led, then Stokes, Belanger, Bunter, the major, Hardwicke, Carter, and the two Romans bringing up the rear. They reached the tent without challenge. Octavius took sentry outside, to better deal with any challengers; Bunter followed Belanger through the flap just in time to see him bash his rifle butt into a table set with dials and glasses.
The noise roused the commander from his cot; he levelled a entirely non-Roman gun at Belanger, a long black stock with a muzzle of green glass baffles. Bunter and he fired at the same time; Belanger and the commander both fell, dead at once. Stokes, on the ground, finished off the single bodyguard with his knife. The fight was over before the rest of the party even made it inside.
The major gave Belanger's body a long look, but didn't ask for a report. They laid him out across the tent from his foes and waited, in cramped silence, for the promised counter-attack.
It came, just as promised, from a green cabinet, which appeared out of thin air with a bellows wheeze. A panel slid out, connected at top and bottom, like the drawer of a steamer trunk resting on its side. Out came one black-clad guard, with a gun like the commander's, and one white-clad acolyte. Stokes and Carter fired, two good shots, and they went down.
Now the gunshots had roused the camp. The Romans were fighting their old comrades at the flap of the tent. "There!" The major fired at a flutter in the tent wall, and a man fell heavily on its other side, pulling the fabric taut.
They had expected more guards, and Bunter continued to look over his shoulder, waiting for more men to appear from the machine. But the tent was coming down around them—Octavius had lost one man—and there was no other cover. "Inside," he decided, and waved the men through the square arch of the door.
It was, as promised, bigger on the inside. Vastly bigger—a thousand guards might have hidden inside it. But the door was narrow—and, the most pressing concern, had no visible handle, and no way to slide it back into its place.
Wimsey darted inside, with Octavius and his remaining man hard on his heels, and the tent fell down around them, heavy swathes of cloth catching on the damned archway of the door. Swords ripped through, from both directions; the major's shot took one, and Octavius's short sword the other, but both men fell forward, and the fabric tore to shreds under their weight, and parted around the outthrust door.
With the tent lying puddled around them, they could see any attack coming; and it was easier to aim a revolver around the corner of the cabinet than for their besiegers to get a clear shot at the inside with a bow or sling. But numbers could still overwhelm them, and the legionaries knew it; they began to form up in force in the forum outside the commander's tent. Bunter accounted for a few, at long range; the major for a few more, but the Romans turned around and presented a shield-wall, and began to steadily advance.
They grappled in the doorway. Hardwicke was slain; Octavius's other man was stabbed under the arm, through the gap in his armour, reaching to drag the body inside. He pointed in explanation to the man's weapon and bullet-pouch and gasped out an explanation in Latin while Bunter unfastened his breastplate and bound the wound. It was deep, and bled in a sluggish stream; the Roman wouldn't be fighting for weeks, perhaps not ever.
He'd had the right idea, though; their ammunition wouldn't hold out against a whole camp of men, and if it came to swords against bayonets, the legionaries had armour and tall shields. They needed to close that door.
The communications unit, what little Bunter had seen of it, had been recognizable as an item of equipment—it had had knobs and dials, moving parts. The room behind the door was big and white and bare, partitioned by clear hanging curtains printed with abstract patterns. The only thing that might have been a control was a board on the wall, a little away from the door, set with raised blocks in simple shapes—lines, arcs, crosses, balls, all bright colours like a child's toy.
The scrum in the doorway was bloody. Bunter touched one of the blocks—it slid across the surface of the board, on no visible tracks. One of the partitions lit up like a cinema screen, with a moving picture of the camp outside, and the legionaries rushing in rank upon rank, straight at them.
And then a soldier came running from behind, shouting; their attackers retreated, wheeled and turned and ran for the palisade, leaving behind a mere dozen or so to guard the cabinet.
Bunter turned from the screen to the doors. Behind the double line of guards, the forum was rapidly emptying.
"I count fifteen, sir," said Stokes. "The rest just up and gone!"
The major suddenly looked up, his mouth thinning. "Sergeant, do you hear that?"
From very far away, there was a growing rumble. "Troops on the move, sir."
"They're attacking the camp," he said. "The legions of Vitellius. We killed their man and cut their lines of communication, and so they've ordered whatever cat's-paw they have commanding the other side to cut through this camp and bring us in." He looked up at Bunter. "Tell me I'm wrong, Sergeant. Tell me the cost is simply—"
But Bunter couldn't, and the major broke off. "If our chaps have got through all right in the other zones," Bunter said, "then the aliens are out of contact with half their strength, at least; and they'll know it's a co-ordinated attack. To capture one of us alive—they might decide the intelligence was worth it."
"Good god." Major Wimsey stared out the doors. "But why not simply fly this box back to wherever it came from? Why use conventional forces at all? Unless they don't know we're sheltering in it—and they couldn't, could they?
Bunter gestured with his chin to the screen inside, still lit up with the faces and shields of the Roman guards. "I'm afraid they must know now, sir. I was attempting to locate the control for the door."
Wimsey looked at the screen, and at the board with its incomprehensible blocks and bars. "If there are controls inside, we could fly it back ourselves," he murmured.
"Those men outside are on our side, Sergeant! They were stolen from the Earth just like we were. I can't—there are two thousand men there, Bunter. They'll cut each other down to nothing, just to get to us."
"If they're on our side, then they're fighting for us, sir. What are their lives worth if we're taken? I've heard about their interrogations, Major; if we're captured, the whole plan is—"
"Oh, god, this is intolerable, Bunter." Wimsey squinted at his watch. "The assault on the command centre should have begun by now; they might have a dozen of our men prisoner." He stepped up to the board, long brow furrowing, and experimentally moved a control. There was no effect that they could see. He moved it back. "Bunter, show me what you did to start that cinema thing."
They turned the pictures off and on again. The major had just found a control that did the same for the lights, when there was a commotion in the doorway. Captain Harkness had returned.
He had come around the edge of the cabinet from behind, but been jumped by three of the guard before he could slip through the doors. Octavius got one of his attackers, and two more men peeled off the shield-wall to engage.
The melee moved into the arch of the door. Harkness fell, spraying blood from a blow to the jugular; Bunter grabbed his shins and lugged him fully inside. But the legionaries, now they'd engaged, were seizing their chance, taking the battle to them. Octavius staggered back, a sword protruding from the seam between the overlapping plates of his armour; the legionary followed, and was shot from two directions at once before he could withdraw his sword.
And then a klaxon began to sound, and the door slid shut, bringing with it two dead legionaries and one still swinging his sword. The major did for him, and holstered his revolver slowly, surveying the battlefield this empty room had become. Stokes was gone, pulled out in the melee and left behind. Octavius's man was dead, still holding his bandage to his side. Bunter, the major, and Carter stood alone among the corpses.
Harkness breathed in a horrible rattling gasp and sat up. "Hey, good news! I got the watchword, though I suppose it's a bit late for that." He grinned at the major.
"Tell me how to fly this machine," Wimsey said. Harkness didn't answer. "Well, Captain? They're dying by the hundreds out there, and our men may be doing the same in the control centre. Treat your own death as a game—do what you like with it— I only have the one, and I prefer to use it where it can still do some good."
"All right." Harkness got to his feet; no one helped him. "I'll see what I can do." He scrambled blocks on the board. Another screen lit up, and this time the projection was accompanied by sound.
"This is the War Chief to all war zones." It was a dark-moustachioed man in a charcoal-coloured uniform. He looked human enough, except for the outlandish pattern of his whiskers and the large silver ornament, like the ecclesiastical regalia of some unknown religion, hanging from a chain around his neck. "This is a command direct from the War Lord: All fighting will cease." The major's hands shook; he gripped the edge of his tunic with white fingers. "I repeat, all fighting in the war zones will cease. You will stand by for further orders."
Harkness stared at the screen with the same yearning look he'd turned on the young people at the chateau, the same flat lack of recognition. This was not the Doctor, then.
"They're stopping the fighting," repeated Carter. "Does this mean we can all go home?"
Harkness shook the wistful look off his face. "It must. It has to—my man Rufus, the watch-captain? Never met me before today." Carter blinked vacantly. "Well, don't you see! That means I meet him in his future—it means we get home! We even keep our memories—or at least, that's the easiest explanation for why he's gonna hit me in Pompeii when I ask him where he learned how to—well." He twitched controls seemingly at random on the board. "Don't everyone cheer at once."
"Home," said Bunter. "And what there? A desertion charge?" The major's lips tightened; for once Bunter had said a thing he hadn't thought of yet. He rather wished he hadn't.
"You have a damnably suspicious mind, Bunter," he said. "But that's a thought. How long have we been gone?"
Harkness shook his head. "It doesn't work that way. Whatever year this is, it isn't 1917; if you can get back at all, you can get back to any point you want—even before you—hold on."
His hand stilled on a control. The klaxon sounded again, and then the bellows-wheeze that had accompanied the machine's appearance, and the floor rumbled under their feet.
The machine ground and shuddered its way to a very rocky landing. Jack knew that sound; it was the noise the TARDIS had made when they'd landed in Cardiff. This ship was almost out of juice.
He opened the door onto a utilitarian sort of landing bay. It was deserted, and deathly silent. The few green doors, spaced randomly to either side of their machine, were still and dead, completely out of power.
There'd been a battle here, too; bodies of the black-hooded guards lay on the landing over the bay. But the bank of travel machines was half empty spaces—someone had got away.
"It's clear." The others followed him out, single-file, weapons drawn. Jack left his own sidearm holstered; his ammo was spent, and one of those energy weapons the guards carried would do nicely.
He turned over the nearest body; the corpse rolled heavily to the side and revealed the face of the man below. "Wimsey. Come look at this."
"It's the what-do-you-call-him," said Major Wimsey. "The War Chief. Got himself killed for his trouble, poor devil."
"Damn. Damn it! I wanted to get some answers out of him." And then the man's face began to glow—to glow gold and to change, and that, that was an answer, that was the answer. Jack spread his hands on the man's chest, and as if in reply, felt two heartbeats spring to life.
"Help me drag him out. Well?" For Wimsey was looking as shell-shocked as he had in No Man's Land. "Look, help me get him into the open, and I promise, this is the last corpse you'll see revivify until doomsday. Which, trust me on this, is a long way away. Now come on!"
Bunter, who had appeared to take the Time Lord's shoulders, shot him a nasty look for his insubordination, but Wimsey heaved a dead guard off the War Chief's feet and got an arm under his knees. They carried him, uneasily; the man's mass was in flux.
When they laid him down on a bench, he was definitely smaller; and as they watched, the glow faded and his new body was suddenly solid: slight and narrow-shouldered, his face leaner, hollow-cheeked, his brow a little heavier. The fanciful side-whiskers were gone—and that was fascinating; how much control did he have over the change?—and there was grey in his simple goatee, and in his hair.
He opened his eyes; they were hazel now.
Bunter had one hand on Wimsey's arm and the other on his revolver. Jack drew his own weapon. "Don't waste another life finding out if it's loaded," he said.
The Time Lord—the War Chief—arched his eyebrows. "I am unarmed," he said, "and, I assure you, quite harmless."
"You're one of them," said Wimsey. "You and your compatriots have been feeding my men to the slaughter. You'll tell us why." His voice was high and strained, devoid of any expression but determination.
"My compatriots? These amateur knaves who shot me and left me for dead? They're nothing to do with me." He stood up, hands held compliantly before his chest. His clothes fell in wrinkles, too big on his new frame. "Now just let me walk out through that door," he said, nodding to the bank of timeship doors, "and I'll cease to trouble you."
"You'll talk first," said Wimsey. Alone of the humans, he had no weapon drawn. "Why abduct us, hypnotize us, set us to kill one another—for sport? As mercenaries, pawns in some conflict among your people—"
"—your employers, then, or your masters. What were we brought here for?"
"For? Why, to fight. To fight, and die; what else do soldiers do?" He glanced over his shoulder, beginning to look nervous. "The people of this place are building an army—the greatest army in history. They've been conducting war games among your people to find the most promising recruits, and to train officers to command them. I tried to put a stop to it—I ordered the cease-fire."
"A command direct from the War Lord, as I recall," said Wimsey. "You are his lackey; you are a prisoner of war, and you will accompany us back to 1917."
"You fool!" spat the man. "We are all prisoners here. Leave me, and when my people return—oh, yes, they've been here— I'll face a worse tribunal than your pathetic planet could ever imagine." He made an abortive move for the machines—Jack couldn't quite bring himself to call them TARDISes— but Bunter got there first. His revolver was almost resting against the War Chief's chest; he drew it back, slowly, out of the man's reach.
Jack caught his wrist. "Put the gun down, Sergeant. Let him go."
The sergeant looked to Wimsey. Wimsey's mouth drew even thinner. "This is insubordination, Captain."
"Report me," said Jack. He stepped between the War Chief and the others, and turned his back on the guns. "It's only got enough power for one hop, and not a long one. Choose carefully."
The War Chief smoothed the front of his tunic. "Thank you for seeing reason, Captain—Captain?"
"Harkness." He wasn't going to ask—he was muddying the timeline already, he knew, but—"Do you know a man called the Doctor?"
The War Chief's eyebrows climbed almost to his hairline. "Almost everyone does, it seems. May I ask...?" He trailed off delicately, perhaps sensitive to his own timeline.
"Just—give him my love," said Jack.
The War Chief nodded once, a look of grave and amused calculation, and was gone. The door slid shut on his heels, and the ship dematerialized.
Wimsey caught Jack's collar. "Explain yourself."
"You heard the man—his people are coming—the Time Lords! We've got our ride; he didn't."
"That man, whatever his race, was one of the criminals who brought us to this place; and I am not convinced your Doctor, and your Time Lords, aren't among their number as well."
"He was the last!' The words hung in the air, torn out of him without volition. "When I knew him—will know him—the Doctor is the last of the Time Lords.
"That man who just took off—he's dead. Wherever he went, where he ran to, he's going to die with all the rest of them in the War, the greatest War in history.
"I lost the Doctor. I couldn't save him, and I couldn't fix him. But I can give that man just another few centuries of freedom, out in the universe, before the armies roll in to his home."
He stalked up the exit ramp, making himself a target. "Well? If I'm under arrest come and arrest me."
Wimsey followed, the others in tow. "We are all dead to you, aren't we?" he said, quietly enough Jack wasn't sure he was being addressed. "Everyone you meet; we've all been dust since before you were born." He cocked his head, appraising Jack, and his hand again reached abortively for his monocle. "This war must be like every other day of your life, I should think— nothing but walking dead men, all around you, every day. Warm, grinning corpses. I confess I'm rather impressed, Captain. In your place I'd have a hard time so much as sayin' how-d'-you-do to a dead man." He didn't smile. He didn't need to.
Jack bit off a curse and shouldered ahead. There was no use in telling the man to go to Hell, not when any of them could have written the infernal Baedeker's.
They wandered through the control centre, finding the residue of battle—dead guards, dead Earthmen, burn marks and debris. Twice they hid from parties of guards—many of them, forming up and heading for the landing bay. Jack didn't try to stop them; they'd be lucky to find one ship with any power, and if the Time Lords had been here, they'd surely be watching the temporal approaches.
Their second time through the red-and-silver control room, Jack gave up, and pulled a chair up to what looked like a communications panel. "There's no one else here. The attack group must have been sent away; there aren't enough bodies here to account for all of them." He managed to call up reports from the few functional communications units left in the zones. "All quiet on the Western Front; and the Crimea; and Culloden—looks like it's just us. We must have just missed the Time Lords—probably shielded inside the machine." He set up a simple repeating SOS. There were no temporal comms channels, and no timescoops—the aliens must simply have landed a timeship in a fog bank, stunned their victims and dragged them in, not at all efficient. "I'm sending a distress signal. The Time Lords will know we're here." Or someone would. Jack found himself hoping for any other rescuer, someone who would get them back into the galaxy—and surely that was a better fate for the others than fetching up back in the mud of Flanders?
"I'll stand sentry," said Wimsey shortly.
"Major, hadn't you better—"
"For god's sake, leave me be, Bunter." Through the open door, Jack saw the major slump against the wall. He scrubbed his eyes with his hands, twice, before seeming to give up; whatever he was seeing wasn't going away.
"Carter, cover the other door," Bunter ordered, and the private saluted nervously and slipped away. The Sergeant settled heavily into the other chair, for once not even trying to stand at attention before Jack and his stripes.
"What are you going back to, Sergeant? After the war, I mean?"
Bunter looked out the door, long enough to make his answer superfluous. "I was in service to the Honourable Philip Atheling," he said heavily. "I suppose you knew him, sir."
"Shot down over the Somme. Good flier."
Bunter nodded. "So I've been told, sir. Major Wimsey—" another glance over his shoulder; the Major was sitting with his hands on his knees, motionless—"has been good enough to offer me a position, should we both return home."
"You know what I really miss about travelling with the Doctor?" Jack said. "Not being the most screwed-up person on the ship." Being able to subsume the wreckage of his career—the cynicism, the guilt, the unaccountable holes in his memory—in someone else's trauma. "Taking care of someone else is a damn sight more rewarding than just taking care of yourself. Cause when it's just yourself you're putting back together, you always see the seams." He rubbed his hands down his jacket front. It was nothing but gashes and blood; he'd been hacked to death three times making his way back to the commander's tent. "And I miss scars. Never thought I'd say that— 'cause I can be a little vain, I admit—but I want to see something break on my body and stop there. Just once."
Sergeant Bunter's face was expressionless. "I think there must be a limit, to how many times a person can break. Sir."
"Just between us, Sergeant, you don't have much longer to go. The War ends. Our guys win, and you go home."
"How much longer?" He spoke at a near whisper, angling his body between Jack and the major. "After our return-- how much time do we have, sir?" And the unspoken question: Do we make it out alive?
Jack never worked this period, when he was an agent. He knew people who had. He'd learned this history through osmosis: barroom debriefs with returning agents, incident reports, the war's reflection on decades he did know—memorials, war stories, half-remembered documentaries.
In 1913, Jack had spent a week with the Times Atlas, and from every name that rang a bell, he had constructed his list of known battles, the list von Weich found on him. He had crossed them off, one by one, as news had reached him.
Jack tried to remember what he had last written; to recall what he had seen, uncrossed, in the glimpse von Weich had allowed him: Menin Road. Poelcappelle. Polygon Wood. Passchendaele. Others, no doubt, that he would not hear of until they happened.
"I don't know," he said. "It's not my history."
Bunter looked at him, dark brows lowered. If he'd challenged him, Jack would have told everything, battle upon battle, war upon war, all the horrors of the future that this century couldn't even imagine.
But Bunter said only "Indeed, sir?" He pushed his chair back and stared out the door. "You'll excuse me." He crouched by the major's side—warm, grinning corpses, speaking too low for Jack to hear. And then the sound of materialization skirled up around them, and Jack stood to attention, and waited for the Time Lords to arrive.