Something I haven’t done in a while… some new fiction. Assorted author’s notes (random and useless rambling) at the end of the tale. Saying more beforehand strikes me as pointless; if the story needs you to tell people what it’s about or why you wrote it prior to the audience reading it, you have failed writing forever.
Alfie Saves The Day
It was a Tuesday. Alfie remembered that, and he was pretty sure it was early August, though it might have been late July. It was definitely 1917, though. The version of his life that was public knowledge got that part down pretty well, even if it left out a lot of the other stuff. They were somewhere along the Argonne, dug in deep, as they had been for months, for years. They were hungry, hot, tired, scared, and bored, and Alfie had decided… or been volunteered, as he always was, because he was best at it… to see if he could get some chickens.
He had. The woods were a mix of abandoned trenches, barbed wire, half-burned or half-exploded trees, and roads turned to mud and gravel, but he moved through them swiftly and silently in the dark, needing to carry no light so long as there was a hint of moon or star to turn what the real men saw as a great black void of shadow on shadow into what he saw, a landscape of subtle grays and scents and motions that he could never have been taught the words for. The real men didn’t have the words, and it was a bad thing to make up words of your own, words the real men couldn’t understand. Alfie learned early on not to do bad things.
Occasionally, there would be the world-shaking rattle of an exploding shell. He couldn’t help but start at those, but the real men did, too, so it was nothing to be ashamed of. They had a little less to fear, though. There was that new policy they’d began, a year or so back. If they lost an arm or a leg or an eye, they could have another, from someone who had lost even more. The papers had called it a great thing, a triumph for the common man. Only the rich had been able to afford the treatments before, the nobles and lords and captains of industry, but now every soldier, if there was any hint of life left, could be given these gifts. Not the Mor, though. It wouldn’t do to sew the arm of a real man onto a Mor, and a crippled Mor was useless, could never earn back the cost of his life. They would have to go to sleep, and that would be that.
Unless he was very good. If he was very good, if he acted in all ways like a real man, then, it was said, he would become one when he died, that all of the beast would be flayed away and sent to burn below, while the pure man would ascend to heaven. Alfie thought that sounded like a wonderful thing, and had worked very hard on acting like a real man.
He smiled a bit and touched the patch on his shoulder with his left hand. “PFC”, Private First Class. Not many Mor got that; not many Mor even made private. He got pay and rations the same as the real men, and he supposed he could even give orders to a private, but he knew better than to try. The real men he served with liked him, even if some of them teased him; they teased each other as well, it was all about being a soldier, and they really liked him when he brought them chicken, like he was doing now. With his right hand, he reached up to grab a branch, intending to use it to help swing over a small crevasse, and then it suddenly struck him that both hands were empty.
He opened his mouth and dropped the chicken into his hands. You never carry things in your mouth, especially not prey… not food. That’s not how real men do it. There was an instant of anticipated fear and shame, but there was no one here to see him, and no one to punish him. He relaxed. The fur along his back flattened down — he hadn’t even realized it had stood up. Chicken in hand, he made his way back towards the trench, even as the rising sun began to splash color across his world of grays and motions.
He heard John Harolds’ voice. Private Harolds was a young man, with thick brown hair and a long face. “Halt, who goes there?”.
John’s voice was tired and worn. He’d likely been doing watch all night.
“Me. Alfie. Bringing chicken.” He held up the prize and jiggled it.
“Well, it you’re bringing chicken, I would care if you were some Kraut colossus, as long as you let us eat first! Come down, Alf!”
Alfie dropped into the trench.
Sergeant Wilkins grunted. “Yer’d better care, Harolds, more ‘n that, or I’ll ‘ave you go wander east and meet one of ’em face-ta-face.”
MacKenzie laughed. “Face to kneecap, more like!”
Harolds sighed. “Sarge, I was just…”
“Sergeant! Do you want another night of watch, Harolds? I’m sure Tormsby would be willing to give up his!”
Sergeant Wilkins smiled and nodded. He was a big man, red of face and formerly red of hair.”Y’can clean up that chicken our Alfie’s found, then. Good work, Alf.” There was something of a thin, ragged, cheer.
One chicken wasn’t a lot, but it was something, and everyone got a little bit. Alfie gnawed happily on a wing — cooked, he made it very clear to everyone that he ate food cooked, well done, preferably — and stared over the edge of the trench, looking out at the ruined landscape. Morning passed into dull afternoon, and dull afternoon into dull and rainy evening. There was shelling then, a new wave of it, heavy, the sky alight with falling fire. It was nearing nightfall when he saw it fall.
No one else could tell it was a plane. They all saw the flare and the falling light, but Alfie was the one who could see more than that, who could tell it wasn’t just another exploding shell.
“You see that?” he asked somewhat rhetorically. He was the only Type-F in the platoon, and enjoyed the chance to show off what he could do.
Private Jack Tormsby, black haired, black eyed, and thick jawed, momentarily stopped scraping at the empty tin of bully beef, the morning’s chicken quite forgotten. He stared at the can for a moment, then tossed it towards the rubbish bin. “No.”, he said, and turned away. Alfie ignored the gesture, his mind and eyes locked on his target.
“Plane.” Alfie paused, expecting a response, then continued when he didn’t get one. “One of ours. Sopwith.”
Tormsby shifted, trying to find a spot where the mud was slightly drier. He reached over to his pack and fished out a tiny bottle of Scotch, which may have had one, or perhaps two, molecules of beverage left in it. He hoisted it in a feeble toast, and said “To a quick death. Lucky bastard.”
John Harolds glanced up at him. “A good toast.” He took out his own bottle, slightly more full than Roger’s. “To death by flame!” A ragged series of similar toasts bounced around the trench. Alfie had heard that phrase a lot in the past few months. It had become a ritual, and more than that, a promise each man made to the others.
There was a disapproving harumph. Harolds turned in the direction of the harumph, more out of habit than any need to know who was grunting — there was only one harumph like that inside of a mile.
Wilkins snarled, something he did well. “Sergeant! An’ there’s that’s guard duty I promised for you again, Harolds! Show a little respect, private, to me and to the dead… and you’re all a fine lot of ingrates, calling for death by flame. Ten years ago, you would’ve given yer virgin sisters in trade for what Her Majesty’s Army has given all of you lot for free! Quitcher complainin’!”
“Ain’t got a sister, Sergeant!” quipped someone.
“I got one!” offered another voice.
“Aye, but she ain’t no virgin, not since my last pass back home!” came a rejoinder, followed by raucous laughter and some playful punches.
Tormsby continued to speak after the laughter ended. “Her Majesty’s got the pick of the daintiest murderesses in London, all fresh from the noose, and she gets the whole body, top to bottom, except for her Royal brain, of course. We’ve got to make do with bits and pieces from each other. Look at Harolds, there! He’s a good three inches shorter than me, how would I look with his left leg?”
“Better than you look now, by a leg, at least!” shouted back Harolds.
“And better’n you’d look without a leg at all!” Sergeant Wilkins added, turning a bit redder than usual. “My dad was in Crimea, they didn’t have the Replacement Policy then, not unless you were an officer, and he came back missing both his legs.”
Tormsby snorted. “And that’s why he came back at all. Us? We’re stuck here till we’re good and dead beyond what anyone can fix up, and even then, bits of us keep going on.” He peered into a doorway dug into the trenches side, at the poorly lit bunkroom within. “Collins! How many are you now, anyway?”
Corporal Collins was an immense man. He’d been immense when he was one hundred percent Corporal Collins, and all the parts of him now that weren’t Corporal Collins had been taken from people nearly as big. He claimed he’d been a stoker on the Clampherdown, claimed he’d been in the lead when they took that French ship in the Channel War back in the nineties. He claimed a lot of things, and some of them didn’t agree with the others, and he was happy to pound someone’s head against a wooden beam if they brought this up. His hair was a random spattering of colors, mostly grey and wiry, and his right arm was always more tan than his left, though both were gnarled and knotted with muscle, except for the left hand. That was new, and small, and almost dainty.
He folded the paper he was reading, quite slowly, as he was still learning to adjust to the new left hand, which moved too quickly and too agilely compared to his right. “Five, I think. Maybe six. Maybe more. They weren’t sure ’bout the lungs. I guess lungs all look alike. Why? You wanna see if I’m holdin’ together?” He shook a scarred fist. “C’mere, then, and I’ll show you how well I was stitched!” Tormsby ignored him and went back to looking at the empty can.
Outside, Alfie was still fixated on some distant point, his body shaking with barely controlled tension. He’d been having his own conversation, ignoring both what the others were talking about and the fact they had been ignoring him. “…not dead. Still twitching, sure of it. Saw it go down, didn’t go down like a bomb, didn’t fall, guided in, glided in…still there. I can see it. I think I can see it.”
Harolds finally took notice of him, and sighed. “Sarge…Sergeant… Alfie’s off again.”
Sgt. Wilkins nodded and looked around. He saw a tangled strip of metal, about six feet long, probably a bit of structural support blown loose in the last bombardment. He grabbed one end of it and gently prodded Alfie.
Alfie hissed, leapt, and spun, his face contorted in a furious snarl of shock. Inch-long claws had sprung from his fingers and his pointed ears were splayed back. He crouched, ready to spring, as soon as he figured out what he was going to attack.
“Private!” shouted Sgt. Wilkins. “Back off! Back off, or its the cages for you again!”
Alfie withdrew slightly, still hissing, then seemed to almost melt in reverse, the hunched animal posture straightening out, the claws receding, the ears unfolding from against the skull. He reached one hand to his face and almost licked at it, then, embarrassed, reached into his pocket for a semi-clean cloth and wiped some of spittle from his jaw. “Sorry, Sergeant. Got startled.” Alfie wanted to go run and hide in shame. He shouldn’t get like that, shouldn’t focus on the prey where the true men could see, shouldn’t do it even when they couldn’t see, but they liked him to hunt, he was here because they needed a Mor, not a real man.
“Roit. Good then. No one can say I’m not a reasonable man.” (“Not and not pull patrol duty for a month”, whispered Harolds to Tormsby.) “So tell me what was so bleedin’ fascinating.”
Alfie was about to speak when he was interrupted by Corporal Collins, who had emerged into the trench, clutching a piece of paper. His gait was only slightly off, as both his legs were nearly the same length, and he’s learned the trick of putting most of his weight on the stronger one. “He saw a plane, I’m guessing, probably a Sopwith. That right, Alfie? Ya saw a plane?”
Alfie couldn’t stop his reactions. Collins did that to him, more than the others. Something about him was just wrong, it made him want to either hide or attack. His eyes slitted. The claws jutted out, barely, perhaps a quarter inch showing. “Not a type-K, Corporal. Not stupid like that.”
Collins ignored Alfie’s reply. “We got this on the wireless, Sergeant. It’s from battalion intelligence. Says a plane was carrying some kind of courier, and the boys at HQ say it would’ve gone down ’round here. ‘Render aid if we see the pilot’, call in, that sort of thing.”
Wilkins looked at Alfie, who was still studying Collins with a feral glint he could not fully suppress. “Private Effmor, can you judge ‘ow far off that thing you saw was? Direction and distance?”
“Then you go ‘elp Collins. Corporal Collins, get out the maps and let Alfie point it out, then key it back to HQ. Who knows, we might get some extra rations or sumtin’ out of it.”
Collins grinned a lopsided grin. “Here kitty kitty. Tell me where the mousie is and I’ll find ya some milk.” There was some weak laughter from the others as Alfie’s fur stood up, but he dutifully followed Collins, who had taken out his ration of scotch as he walked and then tossed the bottle aside with an annoyed grunt. Private Harolds smiled and handed Collins his own. “Here, Corporal. Take a swig, if you want.”
Collins took the small bottle, downed a sip, then put it in his pocket. He looked at Harolds. Alfie knew that pose; the direct glare, the challenge of authority. Harolds chose to slink away rather than puff up and hiss, or at least, as real men did, to simply ignore the challenge, which was the same thing.
Behind him, Alfie heard Tormsby talking to Wilkins. “Permission to speak freely, Sarge…Sargeant?”
“Like you’ve ever kept your gob shut a moment in yer life. What’s on yer mind?”
“He’s getting worse. Collins, I mean. Sure, Alfie’s not real people, and there’s nothing wrong with a little fun with him, to make sure he doesn’t start acting all posh, but Collins just keeps pushing at him for no reason, and lately he’s been… well… ”
“A right bastard fer no good reason? A bit odd? Is that what you were going to say, Private Tormsby?”
Tormsby nodded. “You noticed it too.”
“I ‘ave. And there really ain’t nothin’ I can do about it. That man’s been blown apart five, or maybe six, or more, times now for Queen and Country, an’ he keeps comin’ back, and I’m not gonna try to pass him off to someone else just ’cause he’s a bit off, even more than a bit off. I’ve seen a lot worse than him from people who’ve still got all their original parts. It’s just what war does, Private, that’s all there is to it.”
Alfie studied the maps. Part of his mind was a whirling mass of sensations and instincts that defied words. He knew where the plane was, knew it in the same way he knew where his hands were, his hunter’s mind locked on to the prey, its position expressed in the feel of wind over his face, the strain of muscles, the time it takes to bound. The other part of his mind was human, thinking in symbols and values and absolutes, and years of lash and collar had taught him to use it, that using his other mind would cause only pain. He struggled to turn one kind of knowledge into the other, to relate the writing on the map to the instincts of his blood.
Collins shoved his face directly into Alfie’s. Supposedly, it was all his original head, except maybe parts of the scalp, but it always looked twisted and unbalanced, and his eyes, despite being the same color, always looked like the eyes of more than one person. “Hurry up, kittie-cat. Show us the mousie. There’s a real man dying out there.”
Alfie tried to stop the words from leaving his mouth, but too late. They dashed between the claws of his reason and bounded away, out of his reach. “Why so worried? Afraid someone else gets the good parts?”
The slap, which came from the immense arm of a man who had once shoveled coal into the bunkers of a dreadnought, sent Alfie tumbling back, as his instincts pulled him away from the worst of it, saving his teeth and jaw from certain annihilation. He landed on his feet, in a hissing crouch, and his entire body twitched in anticipation of the counterattack. Collins grinned his twisted grin. “Come on, then. You want to? You want to play with the mouse? I’m a big mouse, kitty. Think you can catch me?”
Alfie’s world compressed to that point, to Collins. Status! Position! Dominance! Power, Respect, Lust, Mating, Strength, Strike, Leap, Kill, Not Playing, Not For Show, Dominance or Death, and then came the counterpoint, the wave of pain and fear that accompanied those thoughts, the lesson taught, to be an beast is to suffer, to be a man is to be rewarded. If you die more beast than man, you burn forever. That was what they’d said. Without standing up from the crouch, Alfie spoke softly. “Superior officer. Court Martial. The word of a real man, the word of a Mor… it would be the sleep for me and then fire. No. Not playing with you, man-made-of-dead-men.”
He straightened up and walked, like a real man, radiating smugness, back to the map. “Plane is at 13.67, 29.98. Tell them. Sir.”
“Oh, I’ll tell them. Tell them you said so, so they know who to blame when you’re wrong.” Collins began tapping on the key, with his new left hand, a steady sequence of dash and dot. That hand knew the code better than the right, it seemed, though everyone said the parts didn’t matter, just the brain. That’s why the Queen was still the Queen, nearly a hundred years old and looking like she was thirty.
Collins finished keying the message. He paused, waited a second, then heard the response clacking in. “They got it.”, he grunted. As he began to slide the chair out, the key started clacking again, unexpectedly. He missed the first few, so he had to grab the paper tape as it came out, decorated with pale dots. The clacking went on a bit long than the last time, and Alfie, not sure if his business was done here, waited. He normally liked being inside, especially during the rain, but he didn’t like being anywhere Collins was.
The corporal looked at the message when it was finished. Whatever else he may have been, he was the best in the unit at deciphering codes quickly. “Says here ‘Priority mission. Retrieve pilot at all costs or verify death.'” Then he glowered at Alfie. “Kitty gets to hunt.”
Years of shelling had reduced the forest to little more than burned and splintered husks of trees, broken occasionally by a ruined wall or collapsed and abandoned farmhouse. It was all part of the vast no-man’s-land between the lines. Shells exploded every few minutes, perfunctory attacks by both sides that served only to remind each other they were still out there, still waiting, and to discourage either side from doing precisely what Collins, Alfie, and Tormsby were doing — walking about.
Alfie led. He struggled to control himself; each explosion blasted his sensitive ears and sent powerful signals to flee and hide and not come out. It was tempting, to become of the “willful missing”, to vanish… but to where? There were rumors that the woods, especially to the North, were full of Mors gone feral, hunting freely, preying on beast and man, but they were just stories, campfire tales, told by men to frighten each other and by Mors as either a heaven or a hell, depending on who was telling and who was listening. Alfie doubted the stories, and didn’t find the idea itself appealing… I’ll never see the next chapter of Sexton Blake, he thought.
The others followed very closely, in his footsteps as much as possible. No lights were permitted, lest someone decide to take a shot. Alfie’s vision was why the platoon commander had asked for him to be assigned in the first place, when an opening came up for a Mor. The moon’s glow, even through the drifting clouds, and the occasional light from the distant explosions was enough that he could make his way clearly.
There was a deep grunt behind him, followed by a curse. “You’re supposed to be leading us safely, you bloody beast!”
“Doing my best, Corporal. Your feet are bigger than mine. Snag more easily on the roots. Wait here if you want. Pick you up on the way back.”
“Hah! Not likely. Whatever’s there, I’m getting it. I could use a promotion or two. It’s got to be worth something, rescuing a spy, right?”
Private Tormsby shrugged, though neither of the other two could see him. “Could be. On the other hand, maybe we’ll see something that we ain’t supposed to, and then we just go and vanish one day.”
“Yer mad, Tormsby, and disloyal to boot. That kind of talk could get you in the stockade or worse. You becomin’ a Bolshevik? Spreadin’ bad morale to the men? Hey! Cat! Why’d you stop?”
“Heard something. More than you two talking. Something moving here.” Alfie’s eyes darted across the space in front of them, his instincts taking over, removing the names of things, removing the symbols, turning the world into patterns of not-important, could-be-food, and might-be-danger. Motion. Movement. Flickering between shadows, shape was odd, shape was not food, shape was moving, shape was getting closer, smell, scent of machine and heat, noise, noise of metal grinding, other smells, sweat and fear, not familiar, not near, getting closer, more movement…
“There.” Words came back. The world became made of symbols again, turning a thing into an idea, turning reality into clay. “That wall up there…. about twenty yards… something’s moving behind it. Something metal and… something else. Can’t tell.”
Tormsby dropped his voice to a whisper. “Can’t be a tank, the bloody wall’s too low, we’d see it… you’d see it, I mean… I think I see the wall..”
“Can we go around it, cat?”
“Not sure. Don’t know what it is, how fast it moves, how far it sees.” Alfie had no tail, but parts of his mind thought he should have one, and the phantom limb twitched as he tried to decide. “Can’t go too far off course. I could lose the way.”
Collins decided. “We’re not takin’ that chance. Forward, men… and you, Alfie. Ha!”
The trio moved cautiously onward, Alfie still leading. The movement of the thing had stopped; Alfie had its scent, but it wasn’t making any noise. Perhaps it was prey of some kind, hiding, frozen, hoping to evade him…
Then it burst forth, charging. It was not very high, somewhat shorter than a man, and about six feet long, a dark ovoid of thick iron plates and spikes, mounted on a dozen stumpy metal legs. It came quickly, spikes glinting, and Alfie leapt out of the way and struggled to get his rifle lined up with it. There was a scream from Tormsby, and the smell of blood exploded in Alfie’s senses, nearly drowning out everything else.
Corporal Collins fired twice, the booming roar of the shots almost covering the clang of impact. Then he tossed the rifle aside and made a noise that was part roar, part cheer, and got up next to the thing as it was trying to turn. His arms — one massive and scarred, the other nearly as large, but less scarred, the arm of a young man whose first hour of the war was also his last, and who had, according to a tattoo, loved a girl named “Lily”, wrapped under the spikes in the front. He tried to pull it up, to rip it from the ground.
Alfie’s instincts took over. He saw something under the thing’s belly, soft flesh, a weak point, and his claws came out as he pounced forward, slashing and cutting, feeling warm meat and hot blood instead of the iron plates that covered it everywhere else. The noise it made now was the squeal of a beast in pain. Alfie backed away, watching as Collins futilely tried to bend or tear the armor. Finally, the Corporal tossed it away in a frustrated fury. It tried to stand, and then collapsed, blood pooling.
Alfie hissed at Collins. My kill! I feed first! He loped towards it, crouching and low, then reached out to bat at it, to make sure it was dead. Then he heard Tormsby call for him. His name was a signal, triggering hard-learned control. He turned away from the meat, he could always split it up later, they’d be happy he’d found them food, he’d get a little respect and a little friendship for it, a good trade.
Then he looked at his hands, sticky and red, the fur already matting. He rummaged through his kit for some cloth and wiped at them, trying to get rid of the stain. Should have shot. I have my rifle. Should have shot it, real men don’t fight with claws, real men use guns, why didn’t I use the gun, not a real man, I want to be, I have to be.
Straightening up, he went back to Tormsby, whose uniform leg was a drenched in dark blood.
The wounded man coughed and tried to prop himself up. “Hate to be the Kraut that got you mad, Alfie. Good show.”
“Thanks.” Alfie extended his claws, willfully and controlled, a man using a tool, not a beast reacting, and used them to carefully cut away at the cloth, exposing the wound. “Bad one.” He opened his kit and took out the peroxide and bandages. “I’ll do what I can. Not a medic.” Suddenly, he realized someone was missing. “Where’s Collins?”
“Dunno, Alfie. You gutted that… whatever it was…and then he tossed it away and took off, wandering into the woods. I think… ow, watch it with that shit, it stings like hell… he might be over there.”
Alfie inspected his work. The spike had torn deep into muscle but had missed, perhaps, the major blood vessels. “Can you walk?” The scent of blood was strong. Tormsby’s, the thing’s… they had to get moving.
“Maybe. Give me a boost and… augh!” Tormsby forced a grin. “No. Looks like I can’t walk.”
Alfie quickly and gently lowered him back down. “Should take you back. Can’t leave you here.”
There was a rustle of leaves and the shape of Collins appeared, walking back from the woods. “No.” Corporal Collins’ voice was weirdly soft. “We ain’t goin’ back. We got orders. At any cost, they said.”
Tormsby forced a weak smile. “Look, no need to fight over me, girls. Get that flyboy, and the three of you can lug me back home. You think…. you think I’ll keep the leg?”
Collins grunted. “Doesn’t matter. You’ll get a new one. You might even like it better. They talk, you know. They don’t tell you that. Most of the time, they’re quiet, but sometimes, they talk. I can hear ’em, especially times like this, when there’s been a fight. It wakes ’em up, and they talk to you. They’re like friends that are always with you.”
“Corporal?” Alfie felt fear growing, as both instinct and reason wanted to back away.
“What?” Collins’ voice was normal now, its usual surly snarl. “You know what that thing was, anyway?”
Alfie looked over at the still creature, a beast of some kind wrapped in metal. He walked towards it, determined to not let the smell of a fresh kill drag the beast forward. “It’s a pig. Maybe. Heard of it. Some Kraut thing. Take a creature, a dumb animal, not a Mor. Stick it into a shell, drill its brain and put in pipes and wires. Jerry wants to make them fly planes, or drive tanks or collosi.”
Corporal Collins laughed. “Hah! Not a bad idea, they don’t talk back or start thinking they’re people.”
With effort, Alfie ignored him. He felt some pity for the thing. It was just an animal, it couldn’t know what it was doing or what was happening to it. “Heard it doesn’t work well yet. They’re hard to control. Go mad.” He saw some markings on the shell, German writing he couldn’t read. “Maybe it got lost or got let loose, wandered off.”
Tormsby nodded. “Krauts don’t like Mors. I heard they’re backwards with everything, that even the Kaiser and his kin just get old and feeble and die.”
Collins was looking around, as if trying to see another attack coming. “Serves them right. They tossed Lord Frank out, back a hundred years ago or so. We took him in, and we’ve got his work for us, and they don’t.”
“I got my schooling same as you did, Corporal, no need to act posh.” Collins face contorted for a moment; “posh” was the last adjective anyone would ever think to apply to him. It seemed, for a moment, he was going to simply smash Tormsby’s face in for being “cheeky”, but then he gave a mad, barking, laugh. “Oh, yer right there! Never catch me acting posh! Har!” The moment of joviality washed and faded, and he turned to Alfie. “Well, get walking, pussycat. Just us two now. Alone in the dark woods.”
Darker for you than me, Alfie thought, but said nothing.
Alfie looked helplessly at Torsmby. He couldn’t drag him back alone. “Be back soon, Private.”
Tormsby waved. “You’d better be. And if I’m stone dead when you get back, you burn me, right?”
Alfie and Collins moved on.
Collins didn’t speak much after that, except to occasionally grunt or curse. Alfie was pretty sure Collins would have liked to hit him, on general principle, but he made sure to keep a good bit ahead of the Corporal, though not so far ahead that Collins could ever claim he was trying to desert; an excuse to shoot him would be even better than an excuse to hit him, Alfie was certain of that.
The clouds shifted above them. Alfie thought back to the first books he’d been given to read, full of pictures of how real men lived and acted, or so he’d thought at the time — he remembered being disappointed when he first saw London and there were no princes or knights or even very many trees. One picture, in particular, came to him now: An illustration of brightly-uniformed soldiers bowing and standing back to let a princess pass between them. The cloud-soldiers were doing that, parting in unison, to let the moon-princess shine on the Earth.
He sighed a little. If he told Collins anything like that, Collins would laugh, and not in the almost-friendly way the others did when he did something they thought was silly or odd. He’d tried telling some of the other Mor these things he saw, the stories he found written in the world, but they tended to sniff at him or just look at him oddly, or simply grunt or snarl, depending on how well trained they were.
“We there yet, cat?”
Snapped from his memories, Alfie snapped back. “Private. Private Effmore.”
“Huh?” Collins seemed to have lost the thread of the conversation in a single sentence. He was getting worse, he really was.
“Name. My name. Private Alfred Effmore. Or Alfie. Not cat. Call you Corporal, not Corpse-That-Walks. You call me Private.”
That got Collins’ attention. “I’ll call you any bloody thing I want to, ya mangy cur. Yer a bloody pack mule someone stuck a uniform on, and back in Crimea we’d eat our mules once they’d stopped bein’ useful, and don’t you think I won’t!” Something like an idea seemed to work its way through his mind. “Yer not bein’ very useful now, are you, we’re still walking and…”
Suddenly, a shot rang out.
“Christ!” Collins dropped to the ground, simultaneously looking around and drawing his rifle. Alfie leapt upwards, grabbing a low-hanging branch and scrambling atop it, his sensitive ears still pained from the sound of the shot. With the clouds gone and the moon-princess shining brightly, the forest was like a newspaper photograph, all blacks and whites and greys, only sharper, much sharper.
The German soldier was crouched down behind a fallen tree trunk, his rifle braced on it. Was he here searching for the plane, too, or was he just wandering in the No-Man’s-Land for some other purpose? Maybe he was out looking for chickens for his friends. Alfie shook his head. It didn’t matter, really. Either he died or he would kill them. That’s how real men did it. You couldn’t just show your belly and then wander off to lick yourself.
Alfie felt the weight of his own rifle against his back. If he used it, he’d lose his grip on the tree; he couldn’t aim and hold. Damn it! Instinct sent him up a tree like a beast, and deprived him of the tools of men. If he dropped from the tree, he’d be almost in front of the German, an easy shot. Then he saw a path, from branch to branch. The German would hear him, no doubt, but how well could he see him in this light? He knew real men could see somewhat when the moon was full and the clouds were few, but enough? Enough to aim and fire and hit, through the branches, at a dashing pattern of shadow above him?
Could just wait here, he thought. Let him shoot Collins. Wait. See what he does. Maybe wander off. Maybe slip back, say nothing here, if Collins is dead. There was something heartwarming about that thought, but then he shook his head, very slowly. No. Both soldiers of the Queen. Collins doesn’t understand that. I do. To know there are things greater than yourself… That is what real men do.
His body moved almost before he was aware he’d reached a decision. He pushed and leapt, his limbs and spine twisting in ways that a human’s could not, his claws extending to provide a bit more grip, even the ones in his boots, though they’d been trimmed to uselessness. He landed and leapt before the branch beneath him could bend too far, the grey photograph world suddenly replaced with one of brilliant, unnamable, sensation and knowledge. Distances, degrees of safety, how much weight a branch could bear, which directions were viable after each leap, and which ones after that, a great spreading tree of pathways and probabilities, all compressed into a moment of pure instinctual awareness, guided him as he moved, and then he fell onto the German, mouth agape and hissing, claws out.
The German rolled aside and, following his own instincts, brought the butt of his rifle up, catching Alfie in the chest. Alfie gasped, the speed of his own attack making the impact of the wooden stock that much worse. His attack thwarted, he was knocked to the ground on his back. He coughed, tasting blood, and twisting daggers in his chest as he inhaled.
His enemy stood and spun the rifle in his hands. The clear light of the moon glinted on the bayonet. Then there was another shot, two, three, not quite as loud as the rifle. The soldier’s face went suddenly slack as his uniform became dark and wet, and then he fell, almost hitting Alfie.
Alfie scrambled back and struggled to his feet, each movement sending more stabs through his chest. As the fear and fury faded and his mind asserted more control, he could see the dead man as a man, and not as an unnameable sensation of Danger!Enemy!Threat. He was young, probably barely 20, with light brown hair and grey eyes. Alfie knelt down and batted gently at the man’s body a few times, to see if he’d get up again. He wouldn’t. Alfie didn’t feel particularly sad that the man was dead; after all, if it hadn’t been for those shots, it would be him lying there, impaled on a bayonet, dying slowly and gruesomely.
As more of the mad rush of emotion faded, Alfie suddenly realized he owed Corporal Collins his life. For all of his cursing and bitterness and cruelty, he’d saved him, and he’d have to be grateful for that.
Collins was approaching now, lumbering forward, tripping on the roots and rocks that Alfie danced over without thinking. Alfie did his best to look humble and grateful, and tried to salute the Corporal despite the pain of thrusting his chest out. “Corporal Collins. Sir. Owe you…”
Collins looked at him with confusion and his typical sneer. “Ya never even unslung yer rifle, ya bloody beast. Who shot him, then?”
Alfie mirrored his confusion. “You did. I thought. Sir.”
“Nah.” Collins spat at the ground. “Wanted ta see what you’d do before I showed him where I was.”
The brief feeling of gratitude Alfie had felt blew away in the winds of returning resentment and loathing. He turned from Collins and began to study the surrounding area, looking and listening and scenting… There was another scent here, a new one, not human, but where was it coming from.. Ears twitched, gathering up tiny noises and scurrying sounds, trying to tie noise to scent to sight..
Collins, meanwhile, had kicked the corpse over and was rummaging through its gear. “Always wanted one of these”, he said. Alfie turned a moment to look. Collins had found the man’s fighting knife, and was turning it over in his hands. Alfie got a good glimpse of it. About six inches long, with the image of a man in armor fighting a dragon carved on the blade. Alfie remembered how sad he was when he learned dragons weren’t real… It was the first time he fully understood the idea of lies. For some reason, that made his trainers happy. Collins saw him looking at it. “Kill yer own Kraut if you want a present, cat.” He slid the knife into his belt.
Alfie growled slightly. “You didn’t kill that one.”
Collins laughed. “Ya see anyone else who wants to say I didn’t? Our ghost has gone, looks like to me.”
A noise snagged Alfie’s instincts and he turned, focusing on it. There was motion and the scent, rippling in waves back to the source. “Not to me. There.”
After being shown where to look, Collins raised his rifle. Alfie had no idea if Collins actually saw the target, or was just making a show of it. “Speak up or get shot!” he shouted.
The voice was gruff and deep, and Alfie instantly knew what the scent was. “Gerrold! Special messenger, Gerrold. With message.”
Alfie rolled his eyes. Type-K. They had a lot of them doing messenger duty, as carrying something from one place to another was about all they were good for. That and drooling. If a war could be won by drooling, Alfie thought, every Type-K would have the Victoria Cross.
Collins lowered the rifle slightly, but didn’t shoulder it. “Right. Come here, then, and show it to me.”
“Not here. Plane. Back at plane. Hand it over when I land. To officer. No officer. Went to look.”
“You didn’t land. You crashed.” Alfie walked towards him, getting a clearer look. A hint of muzzle, black and white patches of fur, a pilot’s helmet not quite properly fitted to his not quite human head.
Gerrold shrugged. “Back to plane. Get message.”
Corporal Collins nodded. “Right, take me there.” Gerrold spun and dashed away. The other two followed.
The plane wouldn’t fly again, but given the number of holes Alfie could see in it, he had to be impressed it had landed in such a way as to leave any survivors. Whether by luck or skill, it had landed in a patch of marshland. Gerrold slogged into the muck and then rummaged a bit in the mostly-dry cockpit and found a few sheets of paper, carefully folded and sealed.
“You’re officer. Here.” Collins took the papers and cracked the seal.
Alfie’s eyes narrowed to slits, and he glared at Collins. “Those aren’t for you. You shouldn’t read them. For a real officer.”
Collins smirked back at him. “The seal broke in the crash, of course. And you can’t blame a man fer readin’ what’s right in front of ‘im.”
“Dumber that you look, Corporal. Hard to imagine. Gerrold knows. He’ll tell everyone. You’ll be punished. Knocked down again. Maybe to private. I’ll outrank you. Give you orders. Like that?”
Collins grin was much nastier than Alfie had ever seen it, and there was something very odd glimmering in the back of his eyes as he read the papers. From what Alfie could see, they were coded, just strings of numbers and letters, but Collins knew a lot of codes. “Gerrold. I say this seal broke when you crashed. What do you say?”
Gerrold made an odd sound, sort of a yip, then said “Yes. Broke when crashed.”
Alfie whirled on him. “What? You saw him! Saw him break it!”
Gerrold shook his head, his big ears flopping down out of his helmet. “No. Master said it broke in crash. Master always right.”
Alfie resigned himself to the inevitable. Type-Ks with alpha traits rarely made it through training, leaving only slobbering, servile, betas. Real men loved them. “So what’s it say?”
Collins grunted. “Classified.”
“Tell me. Or I fight this. Take him to a bigger master, make him tell the truth. People trust me more than you. Like me more than you. Cat beats corpse.”
Collins weighed this, then reached a conclusion. “The bloody Kaiser’s dying of throat cancer. He wants a new throat, hah. Doesn’t trust his own docs to do it, and he’ll trade peace for his life. ”
Alfie blinked. “That’s…good. War will be over.”
“Yeah.” Collins tore the sheaf of papers in half.
“Gone mad, corpse? What are you doing?” Alfie tried to grab the papers from him, but was swatted back.
“The war can’t be over. Not until we’re done. Not until we’ve killed them all and crushed them forever. We have to be avenged, or else it was all for nothing.”
“What, we? The British? Let the Queen decide! And Parliament! Not you! You’re less a man than me!”
“I’m more than a man, ya bloody stupid beast! I’m five men, six men, a dozen men, and we don’t want peace. Ya think I’m mad? Well, where better to be mad than here, eh?” With a practiced move, he drew his rifle and took aim. “Pity about the Kraut killin’ you. You saw it, didn’t ya, dog? Saw that stinkin’ Hun kill our poor Alfie before we shot him down?”
Gerrold shook a bit. “Master said it. Must be true.”
Collins fired, but Alfie wasn’t there. Alfie’s claws were out and he leapt at Collins, hissing and spitting. Collins dropped the rifle. The first slash caught the Corporal across the face, the second tore at his chest. The flesh was cold and when it was torn open, there was a hideous reek. Alfie coughed and nearly vomited in disgust, but he didn’t dare, his chest was already in agony and the convulsions of regurgitation would be unbearable.
Blood dribbled from Collins’ wounds. Some of it was red and some of it was another color, a dark and oozing liquid. “Corpse…” Alfie murmured. “Really a corpse…” Primal fear traveled from the tip of his non-existent tail to the pulsing core of his mind, the cat mind, animal always lurking beneath the man.
There was a hideous laugh from Collins. “Sometimes it don’t work right. Sometimes things go off. No matter. I’ll get new parts soon.” He grabbed Alfie and squeezed, the muscles of several dead men working in unison to commit murder. Alfie felt the pain in his chest increasing, knew that soon the cracked ribs would break, and then his hand brushed something even colder than Collins’ flesh. Collins was still ranting. “Bloody stupid beast. Too stupid to even know when to just be quiet and die.”
Alfie twisted. His body contorted in ways a real man’s could not, and Collins had not been trained to deal with it. He slid free of the crushing grip, and the German knife slid free of Collins’ belt. “Yes…” Alfie hissed. “Beast’s body…” He ducked under Collins’ lunging grab, then brought up the knife, slashing through the Corporal’s abdomen and across, then pulled it out as he moved under Collins’ arm and behind him, stabbing the blade down into the corpse’s back, feeling it slide between ribs to pierce the heart. “Man’s claws, though. Better than mine.”
Gerrold was huddled against the side of the ruined plane, trying to make sense of it all. Alfie, covered in blood and half stooped in pain, turned to him. “Master’s dead. Killed him. What’s that make me?”
Human knowledge and animal instinct fought in Gerrold, as they did in Alfie, and the instinct won. “You’re master.”
“Right.” Alfie wiped the blade, and his hands, on whatever part of Collins’ uniform was covered with mud, blood, or both, then gathered up the papers, the sequences of symbols that promised an end to a war. “Killed by a German. Rescued papers. Ended war. You died a hero, Collins. That’s what I’ll tell them. What I’ll have to tell them. Lie, as a real man. Hero should be me. Should be him, even” he added, pointing to Gerrold, even though the corpse could, finally, no longer hear or see him. “But it’s going to be you.”
After a moment’s thought, Alfie found the small bottle of scotch Collins had “borrowed” earlier. He opened it. Normally, he avoided alcohol… a drunk Mor was often soon a dead Mor. One thing, though. A soldier’s duty to a fallen comrade. “To death by fire!” he shouted, and took a small sip. Then he poured the rest on the body and ignited it with matches from his kit. “Not coming back again”, he whispered, watching the pyre.
London Times, December 17, 1986
Captain Alfred Fredricks “Alfie” Moore, retired Army officer and inspiration for the popular “Alfie” series of children’s books, was cremated and his ashes laid to rest today in Brookwood cemetery, attended by many who knew and loved him in life. Upraised in 1910 as part of the first wave of Mor experimentation, he showed remarkable talent early on and was one of the first Mor to be granted a true military rank, becoming a role model for many to come. Following his service in the First World War, he went on to distinguish himself further in the Second, earning the Victoria Cross for his actions at Normandy. He became the last person to be awarded that medal by Victoria herself, before her retirement from public life.
After the end of the First World War, he authored his memoirs, but they were not published due to the social conditions of the time. His friendship with author AA Milne resulted in a somewhat fictionalized version of his original memoirs published as a series of children’s novels, which have since become some of the most beloved classics of the genre. It is commonly claimed that upon the start of the Second World War, there was a royal decree to the press that any death or injury he might suffer while serving the nation would be kept quiet, lest it traumatize his young admirers, though this has never been officially confirmed.
Captain Moore was entitled to four full extensions, but refused all of them, citing personal and spiritual reasons.
Retired Army lieutenant Jack Tormsby, who has been acknowledged as the inspiration for the fictional Alfie’s close friend Private Thompsonby, and the last survivor of Alfie’s original platoon, offered this remembrance at the funeral:
“Alfie’d ask me, a lot, if he was doing it right, if he was being a real man. Oh, I know, it’s not polite to talk about that sort of thing anymore, but it’s how it was and I won’t lie while standing over a man’s grave. Usually, I’d just tell him yes or no or sometimes piss off, if I was in a foul mood. Near the end of the war, though… that story, the one you all know too well… He found me where he’d left me, just like he promised, and he helped carry me back despite coughing up blood all the while, and that’s when I told him, ‘Never mind if you’re a real man, Alfie… you’re a right proper Englishman, and you couldn’t want to be anything more than that.’, and I don’t think Alfie ever did.”
I’ve had an idea for this setting burbling in my brain for a long time, and in desperation at needing something for my writer’s group two months ago, I let the first half burble out, and then I got significantly more negative feedback than I usually did, mostly focusing on my lack of exposition, so I did something very, very, unusual for me and did serious editing and rewriting of that section, read the rewritten version last month, got a much better response, then, as is very, very, usual for me, wrote the remaining half yesterday in one two-hour-long desperate “have to have something to read, must write now” session, and people seemed to like it.
As is also very usual for me, I didn’t have much of an idea when I started writing precisely where it was going to end or what was going to happen; I just did what I always do, which is let the story unfold in my head and report on what I see.
The Internet is a wonderful tool for research; it was easy for me to check on a couple of things I wasn’t sure about, like “Did Germans carry knives?” (I found a great picture of a World War I German knife, with the dragon as described).
There’s two references to Kipling poems in here — I mean, really, can anyone in good conscience write a World War I story and not reference Kipling?