Ian Sales has been a fan of Wilfred Owen’s poetry since his school days. He even writes his own poems—although science fiction, rather than war poetry. Ian appeared in the first issue of Alt Hist, and has also been published in Jupiter, M-Brane SF, Postscripts, New Horizons, PS Publishing’s Catastrophia anthology, and in the forthcoming anthologies The Monster Book for Girls from theExaggeratedPress, Vivisepulture from Anarchy Books, and Where Are We Going? from Eibonvale Press. He is also editing the anthology Rocket Science, due from Mutation Press in 2012. He reviews books for Interzone, and DVDs for VideoVista. He is represented by the John Jarrold Literary Agency. His website can be found at www.iansales.com.
A Light in the Darkness
by Ian Sales
The trench is six feet deep but already two feet of water fill the bottom. A cold clinging mud oozes from the shored sides, quickly soaking the uniform of any soldier exhausted enough to lean against it. It is late afternoon and the sky above is a deep clear blue. The sun is shining, yet there is a coldness which strikes at the bones with the sharpness of shrapnel. In the background, Boche machine-guns hammer efficiently and the occasional rifle lets off a feeble snap. Those soldiers keeping an eye on the Hun stare listlessly across No Man’s Land.
The men of B Company of the 2nd Manchesters, in clay-streaked greatcoats and helmets scored by near-misses, huddle in groups and pass around carefully hoarded cigarettes. There is little conversation—they are too busy coughing like hags, great hacking coughs that shoot bullets of phlegm from the depths of their lungs to the backs of their teeth.
It is March 1917, but Spring has yet to arrive on the Somme.
Second Lieutenant Wilfred Owen wades along the entrenchment to the Command Post. He swipes aside the hanging canvas and ducks his head as he enters. Doffing his steel helmet, he moves to stand before the lit stove. He stretches out his hands, clad in scuffed leather gauntlets, towards its warmth. Owen’s nostrils sting from the frosty air and are filled with the overpowering reeks of hot metal and damp decaying worsted.
‘They want to call No Man’s Land “England”, you know,’ he remarks to the officer busy scribbling at a makeshift desk on the other side of the Command Post.
Lieutenant (acting Captain) Sorrel carefully lays down his pen and looks up. ‘And why is that?’ he asks. A stern expression begins to form on his face. Sorrel will not bear filthiness or swearing.
‘Because we keep supremacy there,’ replies Owen, smiling wearily. It is an old joke.
Sorrel harrumphs and returns to his reports. Owen vaguely regards his commanding officer, a man he both likes and respects. A tingling in his fingers drags his attention back to his hands. It is barely warmer in the Command Post than outside but sensation is returning to his numb digits. He rubs them vigorously together to restore circulation.
Night falls quietly. Sorrel temporarily ceases writing to light a candle. Owen raises himself from the mental fugue he has entered, pulls back the cuff of his gauntlet and glances at his wristwatch. He is to go with a Fatigue Party at 1930 hours. His legs ache from standing unmoving before the stove. He stamps his feet. Sorrel looks up at him and glowers. Owen pulls his helmet onto his head and, with a last forlorn smile, leaves the Command Post.
It is a bright, cold day in March 1917 and a bitter wind is gusting over Wardenclyffe. The briny odour of the Atlantic lies heavy on the air. Nikola Tesla steps from his limousine and shades his eyes against the overwhelming Spring sky. Before him stands a skeletal tower, constructed entirely of wood and 154 feet tall. It straddles a squat brick building, with windows grimy from a twelve-year abandonment and a door sealed shut by rust. Tesla focuses on the platform atop the tower. Braces, like the rib-cage of some fantastical creature, curve up into the blue.
Tesla nods: all is as it should be. The tower has not been touched. It is waiting patiently for its new purpose, for the realisation of the innovative scheme Tesla invented only a few weeks ago. And on which he must work while the idea is still fresh in his mind.
His manservant strides past, carrying a wicker hamper. Tesla claps his hands once, and nods again in satisfaction. Unbuttoned coat flapping in the wind, he stalks after the manservant.
Together, they force open the door to the building beneath the tower. The manservant pulls a white tablecloth from the hamper and lays it across a length of bench-top he has swept clear of rusted apparatus and dust. Tesla deposits himself on a stool and sets about polishing the first of the many knives he will use during this meal.
‘There is much work to be done here, my friend,’ says Tesla, spreading pâté de foie gras thinly on a triangle of lightly-toasted bread. He carefully crams the toast into his mouth, dabs his mouth with a napkin, takes a sip of claret, and picks up a second silver knife and begins to buff it. ‘There is little we can use that is left over from the World Wireless System … And besides, it is doubtful that over ten years of inactivity will have done the apparatus any great good.’ Tesla peers critically at the knife.
‘Mister J. Pierpoint Morgan,’ he continues, ‘assures me we will not suffer the financial indignities of previously.’ He regards his reflection in the blade, head cocked, one eye closed, and nods with approval.
‘No doubt the approbation of the Institute will encourage investors,’ Tesla adds without irony—his opinion of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers remains low. They have just awarded him the Edison Medal, although he had initially rejected it. ‘You propose to honour me with a medal which I could pin on my coat and strut for a vain hour before the members and guests of your Institute,’ he had told them. It was only at the urging of his good friend, B. A. Behrend, that Tesla eventually accepted the honour.
Tesla picks up his glass of wine and raises it until the Spring sun, filtered through the dirt-smeared windows, shines muddily through it.
‘To the Stratospheric Lighting System,’ he says.