Men of War – a flash historical story

The Surrender of the Prince Royal by Willem van de Velde the Younger

“Master van de Velde!” I exclaimed as the artist walked up the gangplank. “How good to see you. Out sketching ships again?”

“Oh yes!” Willem van de Velde said, setting down a bag of paper and pencils. He pulled out a pouch of coins and passed it to me. “I wish to set out immediately. Will this suffice?”

I opened the bag, peered at its mix of gold and silver, and felt its weight.

“It certainly will,” I said, then raised my voice to reach the crew. “Boys, get ready to cast off!”

The younger Willem van de Velde appeared behind his father, just before the gangplank was stowed away. Then we unfurled the single sail of my little galliot and headed out, threading our way through the maze of merchantmen that crowded the docks of the Hague, their timbers creaking and rigging whistling in the wind.

“Where to today?” I asked.

“West,” van de Velde said, a strange twinkle in his eyes. “Towards England.”

“Isn’t that where the fleet went?” I asked, breaking into a sweat despite the wind. “To fight the English?”

“That’s why we’re going there,” van de Velde the Younger said. “To turn war into art, retrieve beauty from horror, and capture a moment of great patriotic pride.”

“Which men will pay dearly to hang on their walls,” his father said.

“We usually avoid battles.” I twisted my cap nervously in my hands. “On account of all the killing and sinking. I think you’d better find another ship.”

“Really?” van de Velde the elder said, tossing me another bag of coins.

“Patriotic pride, you say?” With that weight in my hand, ambition overcame fear. “Then it’s our duty as Dutchmen to help you.”

*

By the time we got near the battle, my ambition was sinking beneath the weight of my nerves.

The sea was thick with ships, great men-of-war with full sails and bristling gun decks. They edged towards each other in long columns, smoke billowing around them, cannons roaring. The smallest could have contained my poor boat a dozen times over.

“Surely this is near enough,” I said, watching war unfold before me.

The mainmast of the nearest ship shook, then toppled slowly over, hitting the deck with a crash. The screams of mangled sailors were far too loud across the open water.

“We must get closer,” van de Velde the elder said. He sketched as he spoke, leaning on a board that rested on the rail, pencil flying back and forth across the page.

“But the danger!”

“They’ll be shooting at each other, not us,” the younger said, adding a dab of watercolour to his own work. “We need to get in with the fleet, before and behind the ships, to see the timbers splinter and flames roar, to capture the giddy heart of battle.”

“I’m not sure that my heart can take-”

Another bag of coins landed at my feet.

“Well, when you put it like that.” I raised my voice. “Boys, we’re getting in close!”

*

Months later, I sat in a dockside tavern, sipping at a cup of warm ale. This stuff didn’t taste as good as it used to, but then, nothing did. The days seemed greyer, the songs less lively. Perhaps if I had been sleeping better, that might have changed, but I woke in the night dreaming of the cannons’ roar and the van de Veldes’ sketches.

An old shipmate came to sit with me.

“Did you hear?” he said. “There’s been more trouble at sea. Fleet’s heading out to give the English a bloody nose.”

My heart raced. I smelled gun smoke and heard the crack of shattering timbers.

“Excuse me,” I said, downing my beer and abandoning my seat. “I have business to attend.”

I ran down to the docks. Sure enough, there were the van de Veldes, bags in hand, eyeing up fast vessels.

“Excuse me, sirs,” I said, rushing up to them.

“Captain!” van de Velde the Elder said. “I thought that you were, in your words, done with our madness.”

There was a strange twinkle in his eyes again. I recognised it now, having seen it in my own reflection. He too heard the battle rage around him and felt his heart hammer at the thrill of it.

“I was over hasty,” I said, leading them towards my galliot. “In these troubled times, an honest sailor cannot afford to turn down business.”

“I understand,” van de Velde the Elder said, nodding solemnly. He handed me a bag of coins. “Here. I wish to sail west.”

* * *

 

This is one of those stories where the real history was so wild that I didn’t need to make it up. Willem van de Velde the Elder and Younger were 17th century Dutch artists who specialised in nautical scenes. During the Anglo-Dutch wars, they would sail with the fleet to make sketches of the battles, getting right in amid the action. These sketches became the basis for grand, dramatic paintings that celebrated the achievements of the Dutch fleet. They later emigrated to England, where they were employed by King Charles II.

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History, Emotion, and the Unwomanly Face of War

Human life is driven by emotion. Yet most history books show little feeling, focusing on facts over experiences. This is particularly true of military history, despite the intense emotions war evokes, from the exhilaration of combat to the depths of grief.

The Unwomanly Face of War breaks this pattern in extraordinary style.

A Powerful Read

The Unwomanly Face of War was researched and written by journalist Svetlana Alexievich. It details the experience of women serving in the Soviet armed forces during the Second World War. When it was first published in 1985, it was a groundbreaking work, revealing a side of the war that fitted poorly with the USSR’s official accounts. Extraordinarily, despite its huge significance and international impact, it only appeared in English last year, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.

Most of the book is filled with veterans’ own accounts of the war. These provide powerful testimonies to the experiences of these soldiers, sailors, pilots, and support staff. Their struggles, their traumas, their losses, their fleeting moments of joy, all are laid bare on the page. From saving lives by leaping upon burning tanks to losing a baby while hiding in a swamp, both the details and the way they are presented catch at the heart in a way that most military history doesn’t.

In this book, we read the human experience of war in a way seldom seen elsewhere.

The Author’s Shadow

Like any history book, this isn’t a simple presentation of facts, but their careful cultivation to prove a point. Alexievich is open about this, making her role explicit throughout. She describes finding and meeting these women, talking with them, and making difficult decisions about what to include.

Making the audience aware of the author can often create a sense of distance. In this case, it brings us closer to the story. Alexievich describes her own reactions and those of the women to being asked about their lives. The way the war still affects them decades later adds to the power of what these veterans have to say.

Another Side of Humanity

This book is important because it shows the underrepresented role of women in fighting the Second World War. It explores the extra challenges they faced and the way the war transformed their lives. It pays tribute to their courage, skill, and tenacity.

In doing so, it reveals how incomplete our view of military history is. These women struggle to express their stories, for a range of social, political, and personal reasons. Yet they are able to reveal aspects of war that few men could discuss, indoctrinated as we are to bury our feelings and hide our weaknesses. I have read dozens, probably hundreds of books based on men’s accounts of war, and never felt like I had a complete view of it as a human experience. The Unwomanly Face of War fills an important gap in that picture.

Reading these stories, it feels like an act of madness to have ignored them for so long. But perhaps that ignorance was protective, a way of hiding ourselves from the traumatic reality of conflict. Never having been a combatant, I’ll never truly know, and I’m grateful for that. But I’m also grateful to Svetlana Alexievich for revealing to me another face of war.

Reflections – a flash science fiction story

Opening night at the Painted House. Some said it was tasteless to bring back body art when soldiers were still digging corpses from the rubble. But we understood that liberation had to be celebrated. What was life without light?

I had the honour of displaying first. My transformation was boldness personified, a reflection of the bright times again. Pale skin had become holograms that shifted through red, blue, and gold. My eyes and smile were widened. Sweet scents drifted from my pores. My hair, a waterfall of silver threads, swayed to the rhythm of small muscles implanted in my scalp.

The audience applauded as they walked around me. As my time ended and I stepped down from the podium, they rushed to fetch my clothes and buy me drinks. In that bright moment, the war was forgotten.

Then I turned to see Sylvon take the podium. Silence descended as their robe fell away.

Thin flesh was stretched drumskin tight across Sylvon’s broken bones. Exposed wounds covered their midriff. A cluster of mismatched arms and legs stood exposed from their back like the maw of a charnel pit.

“I am war,” Sylvon said, and spread their arms wide.

We all stared, aghast. The joy I had conjured whithered away. The war we had just escaped confronted us in all its ugliness. I remembered my sister, lost in the fighting on London Street. My mother, crippled when they bombed our road. The Elderside school, tiny hands protruding from its blood-stained rubble.

“How dare you!” I bolted toward Sylvon, teeth bared, hands raised. “This is sick.”

“I reflect the sickness in the world,” Sylvon said, their face calm.

“Then go reflect it somewhere else,” I said. “We’ve seen enough of this shit to last our lives.”

“You try to just forget?”

“Yes!”

“And can you?”

“Shut up!” My fist collided with their face. Bone crunched. Blood spattered my skin.

Someone grabbed my arm. I stared at the fist, shocked that it was part of me, stunned by the fury that had seized my heart. As I was dragged away, Sylvon spread their arms again and stood, exposing their creation to a weeping crowd.

But I didn’t see Sylvon. I saw the bodies of those I had lost, the memories I had tried to escape.

I’m working on something new now. Bright colours still, but more angular, more irregular. I don’t know what I’ll call it. I don’t know what it represents. But it’s a part of me that I can’t ignore.

Every time I look at my changing body in the mirror, I weep. But every time, I weep a little less.

* * *

 

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When the Sleepers Wake – a steampunk flash story

Picture by amanderson2 via Flickr Creative Commons
Picture by amanderson2 via Flickr Creative Commons

The heat blasting from the train’s firebox was overwhelming. As we flung coal in, stoking the HMT Warrior to attack speed, the ends of my hair blackened and curled, while sweat soaking me from head to toe.

“Faster!” Commissar Meyer yelled over the rattle of steel wheels on vast tracks. Meyer’s hand was on her pistol, her eyes scanning the work crew for signs of dissent.

I glanced out of a porthole. All four trains of the assault fleet were accelerating over their freshly laid tracks, past the blasted bodies of the navvies who had prepared the way. There were worse fates for a poor labourer than a Leviathan’s engine room, though none of us would have chosen the lives the Party gave us.

The pain of a blow to the back made me twist around.

“Less gawping, more shovelling.” Meyer pointed her baton at the heaps of coal, and then at the gaping maw of the firebox, an opening wide enough for all six of us to shovel at once.

Beside me, Kemper began a shovelling shanty. We all joined in, the rhythm setting our pace, the singing keeping our spirits from collapse.

“Oh a brave new world will come

“When the sleepers wake,

“A world as cool and black as night

“When the sleepers wake…”

Our percussion was the bouncing of shells off the engine’s armour and the roar of explosions, a sound we dreaded hearing up close. It was hard to pierce a Leviathan, but the consequences were terrible for labourers, officers and technicians alike.

“And I know my day will come

“When the sleepers-”

A roar shook the engine carriage. We staggered as the whole machine swayed from side to side. It crashed down onto the rails and burning coals flew everywhere. Sebranek fell screaming to the ground as smoke poured from her body, and then fell silent.

“Keep shovelling!” Meyer had dropped her baton, but she still glared at us with the same ferocity.

Slowly, Kemper turned and began his song again. I stooped to retrieve my shovel, but that brought me closer to Sebranek’s body. The stench of burnt flesh turned my stomach. This was no way to live. I didn’t care what those rebels at the end of the tracks had done. I wasn’t willing to burn to death at the order of the Party and the whim of fate.

“No.” I crossed my arms across my chest. “Beat me as hard as you like, I’m not going near that inferno. Not wile we’re shaking like this.”

As if to make my point, another shell bounced off the roof and exploded close by, rocks rattling against the portholes.
Meyer glared at me. My fellow stokers looked away.

“Back to work, or I’ll blow your brains out.” Meyer drew her gun and pointed it at my head.

I hesitated. If I kept shovelling I might die. If I refused I was making it a certainty.

“Last chance.” Meyer pulled back the hammer of the gun, the click piercing the dull roars and low rattles around us. She looked so calm, she must have done this dozens of times before. I thought of all those men and women, of how they must have picked up their shovels again and decided to live. It was the only decision that made sense, but it was a decision that ensured the train would continue, stokers feeding the engine forever.

How could my death change that?

I stooped, fingers closing around my shovel. Shame filled me as I prepared to turn to the firebox.

An explosion roared outside. The Leviathan swayed, coals tumbling from the firebox’s mouth. We staggered across the deck. Meyer’s gun wove wildly through the air.

I leapt at her. There was a crack as my shovel hit her arm. The gun clattered to the floor. Another crack as I hit her across the side of the head. She fell to the ground, blood seeping through her hair.

The others stared at me in horrified amazement. Were they waiting for me to tell them what would happen now? I had no idea.

Kemper walked over to the door and slid his shovel through the handles, barring it from the inside. He pulled the emergency release and the firebox door slammed shut. The Leviathan slowed as he picked up the gun and came to stand beside me, a small smile on his calm face. Outside the door, authoritative voices were raised in alarm.

“Oh a brave new world will come,” Kemper sang.

Together we raised our voices, drowning out the fear with words of hope.

“When the sleepers wake.”

* * *

 

This story is set in the same world as ‘Broken Rails‘, a story I put out in December. My friend Si asked for more, so here it is. The tone is rather different, but I’m pleased with how the setting is shaping up.

If you’ve enjoyed one of these Friday stories and would like to see more like it then let me know – I’m open to requests. And if you’d like to read more of my steampunk then you can sign up to my mailing list for a free e-book of my steampunk collection Riding the Mainspring and a short story straight to your inbox every Friday.

Friend / Not Friend – a flash science fiction story

Lies snippetEl wormed her way, inch by stomach-clenching inch, across the field. To her left, a blood-smeared blast mark reminded her of what had happened to Hans.

Lights blinked on the screen of her smart bracer, showing a mine three meters ahead and two more possibles just beyond it. The wireless connections between the mines made detection easier, but it was still hard to be certain until she was up close. By then it could be too late.

Sweat beading her forehead, she wriggled toward the nearest mine. Drawing a slender extending probe from her belt, she slid it slowly through the dirt until she felt the first pressure of resistance. She plugged the probe’s wire into her bracer, took out her other tools, and set to work.

Anti-personnel smart mines were covered with sensors. Each movement, each shovelling away of dirt or insertion of a blade between plates, could bring death. El’s muscles cramped from lying still for so long on the uneven ground, but at last she was able to draw the device out of its hole, unscrew the firing mechanism and set the whole thing aside.

Letting out a sigh, sat up and stretched her aching limbs.

There was a soft thud, and something flew from the dirt a few meters away. In the second it took the device to arc through the air, she had to make a decision – risk running over another mine, or risk this one triggering as it landed near her.

Springing to her feet, she dashed back the way she had come.

An explosion smashed into her back, throwing her to the ground. Lying prone, aching in a hundred places, she waited for another blast to kill her.

The only sound was clods of earth raining down.

Curling up around herself, El shook with relief.

*

When she finally stopped shaking, El realised that the jumping mine might be a good thing. It had triggered when she deactivated the other mine, moving to fill the gap. That meant the whole minefield had been rigged with a collective decision making intelligence.

She could talk to the mines.

El had always been good with AIs. That was why the Blue Haven settlers had recruited her – to program tractors, maintain communications and train computers. Then they realised how many armaments the war had left in their new home, and priorities changed. She turned to mine clearing, to make a safer life for all of them.

Unfastening her bracer, she laid it on her knees and unrolled the silk-thin keyboard. It was a matter of moments to find the minefield’s frequency. Access options flashed up so quickly that she knew the intelligence must be lonely, left here decades after its owners were defeated. That gave her hope.

Forced hacks had never been El’s style. Besides, most armies relied on bullying machines through buffer exploits, cross-script trickery and other crude old approaches. The minefield would be primed against those. Instead she sent a series of careful queries, each one building on the last, coaxing out the attention of the simple AI.

Again, her muscles cramped as she sat unmoving, fingers trembling at the thought of what could happen if this went wrong.

“Friend / not friend?” The AI’s query flashed across the screen at last.

“Friend.” She followed the word with a string of confirmatory coding.

“Lies.” A mine exploded to her right. Shrapnel gouged her arm, blood running down her fingers and onto the keyboard. She typed frantically, hoping that the minefield was still listening, that it would have blown a closer mine if it really meant to kill her.

“Friends gone,” she asserted, in among the rest of the code. “War over. No need for AI to wait. No need to kill self / kill others.”

The cursor blinked as the AI processed the message. El smiled and wiped the sweat from her brow. She felt like she could have laughed with relief. The AI was listening. It was working.

“NO.” Just two letters on the screen, but it was enough to leave El rigid with fear.

“No,” the AI continued. “Category C hack. Network reset. User excluded.”

Her screen went blank. With a thud, another mine leapt toward the cleared ground where she sat.

Too stiff to run, El watched the cold grey box hurtle toward her on wings of death. Eyes wide, she waited for the end.

Another thud. The mine landed centimetres in front of her and burrowed into the ground. A single light blinked up from the hole, daring her to move and trigger it.

The minefield remained, but so did she. Taking out her probe, El returned to clearing it the slow, old-fashioned way.

* * *

 

The bravest person I’ve ever met was a civilian mine clearer. There are millions of unexploded mines littering old warzones around the world, killing innocent people decades after the wars have ended. This guy had lost half his right arm to a mine, but he still did the job, saving future generations from the violence of the past.

The idea for this story came from a conversation with friend and fellow author Russell Phillips. At one point the US military were exploring the possibility of self-repairing mine fields. Truth is stranger than fiction right up to the point where we turn it into fiction. If you’re interested in military history then check out Russ’s books.

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After Londinium – a historical flash story

Picture by Jorge Elias via Flickr creative commons.
Picture by Jorge Elias via Flickr creative commons.

The ashes of the city were still warm underfoot. They felt gentle against Luigsech’s skin, until she trod on something broken beneath them – a snapped bone or shard of pottery. Then she was reminded of the destruction they had brought to pass here, unleashing their rage upon the people living within the invaders’ walls.

She had thought that vengeance would help her feel better about losing Seisyll, but she was still as lost as she had been for months. The ashes were meant to hold something, anything to soften the blow. That was why she had come back here, axe still in hand, while the rest of the army formed up behind their queen and marched on. But the ruins were too empty, too quiet to bring any comfort. The black stain of ashes would forever scar this land, but it could not drive away her grief. Walking here just left her feeling hollow inside.

The wind blew, lifting ash from the base of a fallen pillar. Perhaps that was what she needed to do, to imitate the wind and dig deeper.

Kneeling, she sank her hands through the ashes, flinging handfuls aside. The air around her becoming a grey cloud, until her fingers touched upon something strange and angular.

Carefully now, she brushed the ashes from its surface, revealing a fallen statue. The man it depicted had been handsome before they tore him from his plinth, smashed chunks from his face and scoured his building with fire. What remained still had a stark beauty, with the remnants of smooth lines and perfectly carved muscles.

Tears ran down Luigsech’s cheeks. She had never seen such a breathtaking work of art, and she had played a part in destroying it. How many more things of beauty had they ruined? She had wanted to create balance for Seisyll’s death, but all she had done was bring more loss.

She pulled off the fur in which her chest was wrapped and used it to brush the ashes from that beautiful, broken face. Then she worked her way along the prostrate form, flinging aside the ashes that covered his belly, his pelvis, his legs.

At last she came to his feet and saw what he stood on. Another body, this time a rendition of one of her own people, trampled underfoot. She didn’t know if it was the way he was carved or just her fond memories, but this man looked so much like Seisyll that she wept again.

This time the tears were hot with anger, her breath coming fast in her rage. It sickened her to think that people capable of such beauty should use it to depict the terrible things they had done. She felt ashamed that she had wept for these people, ashamed and angry.

Snatching up her axe, she pounded at the smug face of the Roman, smashing away what remained of his beauty in a frenzy of blows.

She had helped to ruin something wonderful, and it had all been worthwhile.

* * *

 

If you enjoyed this story then you might also want to check out my collection of historical fiction, From a Foreign Shore

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