He reached into his pocket and retrieved a small ball. The pale, flesh-tone leather was scratched and sooty. With his thumb, he fastened it in his palm. Shifting and twisting, he freed his shoulders from the tweed jacket and wriggled, letting the patched-up garment drop into the muddy bank.
Unbuttoning his chequered shirt to his waist, he readied himself and threw the shirt after the jacket. He wormed his trousers down to his ankles and then kicked off a pair of mud-caked leather shoes. He stepped barefoot into the cold mud. As it oozed around him, his heart stammered with anticipation and sweat ran down his forehead.
Stepping on the smooth rocks, he dipped his toes into the water. He looked around, his eyes following the tree line. The early morning light bathed the leaves in an autumnal glow. Above, a flock of blackbirds wheeled, their chorus breaking the quiet of the isolated clearing. Their eventual departure returned a stillness that was only disturbed by the odd fish splashing in the shallows. Looking down, he saw the pebbled bottom of the lake through the clear water. He wiggled his toes in delight. The algae growing on the rocks left a soft resin on the soles of his feet.
He couldn’t put it off any longer. With a sharp tug, he stripped off his boxers. Naked and shivering, he fixed his eyes on the middle pool of sunlight. He stepped backwards. Four wide, measured steps. Gripping the little ball, he struck out towards the lake. With a nail, he scratched a new mark on the leather ball and blew on its aged surface. He pulled his arms back to his sides, inhaled and burst forward with great leaping strides. His toes hit the edge of the water and he jumped, somersaulting upwards then pirouetting head first into the rocky bed of the lake.
The crown of his head smacked into the glassy water. Three inches below the surface, the water became solid metal. His body reverberated with the agony of shattering contact. For a moment, he was suspended upside down, legs scissored inelegantly. The shockwave snapped his spine and blood poured out of his nose. Fluids rushed to escape his broken body. He sagged like a burst balloon. His innards dissembled into a black silky stream like an oil slick on the water.
He still gripped the leather ball fiercely and as he plunged into the void, the growling harmonics of unwoven vibrations pulled him apart. The small ball pressed tightly was all that remained of his sensations. Even the pain signals were silent. His mind spiralled, unhinged and uncertain. Memory a fog of fading thoughts. He ignored the ragging stream of nostalgia. Instead, he established one by one the axioms of his new bodiless reality and opened the World Way.
“I think,” his thumb pushing hard against the ball, “I am!”
Out of a notion into a solid idea, he reformed himself with trigger words arced through the nothingness like lightning seeking a positive charge. The blackness gave way to a misty grey. The stench of saltpetre and decaying bodies permeated the smudged canvas. Growing more confident, he begun to flex his body, willing his hand to reach out. His palms spread guarding his face. His tongue tasted iron-soaked mud. He lifted his head to spit. Through the bloody filter of his eyes, he glimpsed multitudes of bodies twisted, pierced and torn, ground into the trodden earth.
His sight and smell overloaded, he gave an exhausted smile and collapsed back into unconsciousness.
The Traveller awoke to the sound of a man talking nearby, as cold acidic rain fell on the nape of his neck. His eyelids remained heavy but he listened. The man’s voice shouted in a language the Traveller didn’t yet comprehend. The reverberations of heavy boots came closer, followed by the lighter steps of a second person nearby. The Traveller gripped the small leather ball in his hand. Peering through his mud soaked lashes, he saw the two uniformed men circling around the carrion towards him. He waited for his moment.
One of the soldiers pressed down on him and tilted his head slightly towards a mirror. The smudge of breath on the mirror’s surface gave him up for being alive. There was an excited report from the soldier but it wasn’t followed by an immediate act to snuff out the Traveller’s light.
He allowed himself a crooked glance upwards past the bootlaces of the soldier, beyond the ochre trousers until his eyes settled on an olive-toned jacket made of a machine-woven fabric with a red-cross patch.
The Traveller rolled himself onto his back to get a better look at the face. The burly medic looked with concern at him and tried a smattering of utterances in distinct languages, looking for a shared lexicon. All the Traveller could manage in return was an enthusiastic smile.
The medic seemed pleased at that, grinning back. He bent to one knee to examine the Traveller further, gesturing with his hand to introduce himself as “Michele.”
Gritting his teeth, the Traveller allowed Michele to gently probe his limbs. He watched Michele’s face crease with concentration, his large moustache giving him the appearance of a walrus. Plummy, melodic words were spoken over to his boy companion. The medic pressed his flesh like a butcher trying to find a prime cut. The Traveller’s body was unbroken. The medic squeezed a shoulder and held out a hand, helping the Traveller up to his feet.
The young assistant was studying the Traveller. The boy’s face sweaty and stained with filthy black tar. All around them the dead rotted, their numbers too great for counting. The Traveller was forced to sit down again, winded by the scene. He received a coaxing pat from the medic and again stood up, reeled and emptied his stomach into the mud.
“Brother,” Michele offered him a fur-covered, hard canister, “Drink.”
He took the canister to his mouth, noting the Decipher had done its job. First a trickle then a flood of cool clean liquid dripped down his parched throat.
“My thanks,” the Traveller said with an accent from the rural south of Frankia.
The boy’s face was lit by signs of relief at the use of a shared tongue. His wariness of the stranger seemed to ebb a little. Whatever the cause of the carnage, they had helped him without first trying to identify him. Even supposing a living prisoner was worth more, he credited them with at least this much humanity. He didn’t know what potential malice he had avoided. The relief on their faces told him it would not have been negligible. At least that burden would not be added to their souls.
The uneven, sinking mud clawed at him with every step. The boy steadied the Traveller as he struggled for a sure-footed balance. The realisation his hairless body was exposed came slowly. He shivered and the medic unbuttoned his own jacket and put it around the Traveller despite the biting wind. A mature fermented odour clung to the soft lining. He hid a flash of nausea and fastened the buttons, taking in the landscape of industrialised savagery.
“Wait,” Michele pulled around his backpack and pointed at the Traveller’s naked lower half. “I usually carry a spare pair. Plenty of boys shit themselves first outing. Though I have not seen many completely naked after the fight.”
He pulled out standard issue soft-plastic waterproof trousers, unrolled them before presenting them for the Traveller’s approval. Michele’s arms were thick with black hairs. The tattoos covering his shoulders and biceps marked him as a member of the 14th Brigade, the lover of a big-busted lady called Denise and a perennial believer in the Eternal Light. The Scripture quote inked beneath the Cross was a poor translation, its sentiment barely concealed code for violent intolerance of a maligned minority. Michele noticed him appraising the words and shrugged, waving the plastic trousers at him.
“Young and stupid,” he gave a dismissive touch of the markings, “Not that you have to worry.”
The Traveller took the trousers. Stepping into them, he pulled the cord around his waist. He thought across the axis of events stretching over human history, on the many possible worlds he had travelled before. The clothes, the technology, the mass-produced death, placed him at the turn of the 20th Century. He tried to identify the battle from its aftermath. There was no ruined city. No blanched white tree stumps. There were no visible tracks made by colossal land-ships. The flat field was nestled between the rough mounds of sundered hills. Verdun or Somme, he guessed.
Slight panic gripped Michele as he scanned the horizon for the source of several flashes of light. Inevitably, the sound of projectiles broke overhead, their piercing descent followed by thunderous shattering. Then followed the serpentine hiss of canisters as they released billowing clouds of sulphuric powder.
The two Frankish men raced into action. Burdensome gas masks were pulled onto their faces, the older man helping the panic-stricken youth. They checked the integrity of the enclosure before they had remembered the Traveller, standing before them unprotected.
The boy gripped by fear, stared and wept, a stream of piss staining his trousers. The Traveller’s face remained serene. Behind the boy’s mask the tears turned red as the yellow death wrapped around them. Desperate sobs followed as the gas irritated exposed arms. Then blistering pustules of puss bubbled and burst. A haunting agony on the boy’s face as he manically scratched the exposed skin. The Traveller could do nothing for him.
Michele had ripped off his own mask at the first sign of the violation of his flesh. His lungs had flooded with blood and quickly extinguished the light on his face.
The Travelled focused his willpower on cauterising the lesions on his skin against the invading chemicals. All he could think of was that he had never learned the boy’s name. He watched as the seeping, heartless molecules disintegrated first their clothing and then any semblance of personhood. The Traveller’s mind retreated into a quiet cocoon.
The mustard clouds ebbed away and released him from his paralysis. His body gave way and he doubled over. He heard a distant sobbing, unrecognisable and alien at first. The whelping sound crept closer until he felt it pounding from his own throat. He reached out to the twisted corpses and cried until his dehydrated body offered no more tears. Then eventually, anger ebbed away as well. He stowed the grief with all the other horrors he had witnessed.
“Thank you,” he looked beyond the field, “but it didn’t have to be like this.”
He got up and walked.