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Present Tense

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In the midst of the horror of the First World War, a stranger falls from nowhere into the mud and death of Flanders battlefield--bruised, babbling, and stark naked?with a remarkable story to tell. The Great Game, the timeless diversion of human gods, a ruthless contest of treachery, magic, betrayal and manipulation, created to relieve the tedium of immortality goes on, weaving through the centuries and across dimensions. After three unaccounted years, bearing scars and secrets from a place he calls Nextdoor, Edward Exeter, wrongly accused murderer and fugitive from the law, has reappeared on Earth. Leaving behind a war of spears and arrows, he has come to do service in a war of artillery and poison gas, fleeing powerful forces on both sides of the guarded, mystical border who have other plans for the young patriot, and ancient prophecies they wish to see fulfilled. In another realm, Edward is Liberator--the one who is to "bring death to Death." Edward wants no part of the prophecy and flees the murderous pursuers from two different worlds. But there is no escaping Destiny and there are obligations to the past and future alike that must be met if civilizations are to survive?and the dead will arouse D‘ward Liberator to new actions--as it has been foretold.

Review

" We can be grateful to Dave Duncan for allowing us to share such experiences. " - Locus

" Duncan writes succinctly, avoiding the verbiage that bloats so many other contemporary fantasies. His novel features gritty, well-developed characters, several of whom change and grow believably in the course of the book." - Publishers Weekly

" A completely different fantasy adventure, full of intrigue and surprise. . . . opening up an entirely new level in fantasy literature." - SFX

Sample Chapter

THE INCIDENT OCCURRED ON AUGUST 16, 1917, DURING THE BATTLE of Third Ypres. The following day, Brig.-Gen. Stringer instituted an informal board of inquiry, consisting of Capt. K. J. Purvis, the medical officer of 26th (Midland Scottish) Battalion, and Capt. J. J. O‘Brien, the brigade padre. This procedure was highly improper. The choice of Father O‘Brien implies that rumors of a miracle were circulating already.

Apprehension of a suspected spy should certainly have been reported at once to division headquarters, and from there it should have been relayed to Corps and Army, and eventually GHQ. In this case there is considerable doubt that the news ever reached higher than brigade level. Published dispatches and official histories contain no mention of the bizarre affair. Apart from a few cryptic comments in some of the diaries and letters of the period, the only documentary evidence resides in the Stringer family archives.

The four witnesses were examined separately. All four were privates in C Company of the Royal Birmingham Fusiliers, which officially had been held out of the battle on the sixteenth. All four were either eighteen or nineteen years old, and all from the Midlands. Stretcher-bearing duty, to which the four had been assigned, was little less hazardous than combat. They had been on their fourth mission of the day and had been under fire almost continuously. Without question, they were all physically exhausted. Their mental and emotional condition should be borne in mind when evaluating their evidence.

Of the four accounts, that of Chisholm is the most detailed and seems the most convincing. He was the eldest by a few months; he had been a printer‘s apprentice and had benefitted from two more years‘ education than the others, Pvts. W. J. Clark, P. T. White, and J. Goss, who had all left school at fourteen.

Considering the danger, the inhuman conditions, and the extreme fatigue under which they had been laboring, the witnesses‘ evidence is remarkably uniform. They disagree on a few minor details, but--as the board observed in its report--completely identical accounts would be cause for suspicion.

They had paused for a rest in the lee of a fragment of masonry wall, probably the remains of a church which the maps showed in approximately that location. Over the roar of the heavy guns they could hear the repeated ping of bullets and shrapnel striking the stones; from time to time a shell would come close enough to spray mud at them. They lay in pairs, two men on either side of a flooded shell hole.

Chisholm later claimed that he had risen to his knees and called on the party to start moving again. None of the other three mentioned this, but in the racket and their own fatigue, they might not have heard or noticed. The important point is that Chisholm was apparently looking toward the rear at the crucial moment, and he insisted that the newcomer did not come from that direction.

The men were unanimous in stating that the fifth man fell into the shell hole between them with considerable force, as if he had dropped "out of the sky." No amount of questioning could shake their testimony on this point. They all claimed to have been splashed by the water thrown up. Three of them insisted that he could not have jumped or fallen down from the top of the wall. The fourth, Pvt. Clark, considered that he might have done, but did not think it likely.

The newcomer floundered and struggled, apparently unable to stand. Clark and Goss waded into the water and hauled him out, choking and still struggling, and completely coated in mud. It was only then that they realized just how remarkable the mysterious newcomer was.

"I saw the man had no tin hat," Pvt. Clark related in the sort of bloodless prose that has obviously been clerically improved. "But the rest of him was just mud. I reached for his arm and at first it slipped through my fingers. I realized he had no coat on. When we got him out, we saw that he had no clothes on at all."

The witnesses agreed that the stranger was having some sort of fit. His limbs thrashed and he seemed to be in considerable pain. He was incapable of answering questions, and they were unable to make sense of what he was saying.

Each of them was asked to report whatever he could remember of the man‘s words. There the testimonies diverge. Chisholm thought he heard mention of July, railways, and bed socks. White opted for cabbage and ladders and Armentières. The other two had similar unlikely lists, and we can only assume that they were equally mistaken. They all agreed that some of the talk was in English, some of it was not.

They did all agree on a few words: spy, traitor, betrayed, treason.

They had come to rescue wounded soldiers. This man had no visible wounds except some minor bleeding scratches caused by his convulsions. He was apparently incapable of standing, let alone walking, even had he been suitably clothed.

That he was a British soldier must have seemed extremely improbable to them, even then. That he was a German soldier was even less likely. Under questioning, they admitted discussing the possibility that he was a spy. Any man apprehending a spy automatically received leave in England, and they did not deny that they were aware of that regulation, although they all claimed that it had not influenced their decision.

Whatever their motives, they loaded the stranger on their stretcher, tying him down securely. They covered him with muddy greatcoats taken from corpses, and waded off through the bog to deliver him to the regimental aid post. It is difficult to see what else they could have done.

The report wastes little time discussing the conditions on the battlefield, which were only too familiar to the examining officers.

Those conditions can be reconstructed from other sources, although at this distance in time the reader‘s reaction is mostly incredulity. Superlatives pile up in a mental logjam, and the reader is left wondering if any words could ever be adequate. Even the photographs fail to convince. The mind recoils, refusing to believe that men actually fought over such terrain or that any of them could have come out alive to tell of it.

By the summer of 1917, the Belgian plain had been contested for almost three years, and yet the front line had scarcely changed position. The trenches, like insatiable bloody mouths, had subducted the youth of Europe. For three years men had marched in from east and west with intent to kill each other. On both sides they had succeeded. On both sides they had died in hundreds of thousands, yet still they came. Since 1914 the introduction of aircraft and poison gas had improved the technology of death tremendously, but repeated campaigns had barely changed the maps. At the opening of the battle of the Somme, in the previous year, the British Army alone lost over 57,000 men--killed, wounded, or missing--in one day. (This is numerically equal to the death toll suffered by the United States in the whole of the Vietnam War, half a century later.)

The battle of Third Ypres lasted for months and much of it was fought in torrential rain. The monotonously flat ground was completely water-logged, repeatedly churned up by shells. Nothing of the original countryside remained. Nothing at all remained except mud, often thigh deep and in some places capable of sucking men and mules down to their death. It was laced throughout with broken timbers and old barbed wire, with rotting bodies of men, mules, and horses. There was no cover, for every hollow was filled with slime and water, commonly scummed with blood and fragments of flesh. Old corpses thrown up by the explosions lay amid the dying.

Over all this watery desolation hung the reek of death and decay, the garlic odor of mustard gas, the stench of the mud itself. Even a minor wound could cause a man to drown, and in those days there were no antibiotics to combat the frightful infections. The soil was poisoned by gas and virulent microbes. The roar of artillery never ceased. The ground shook as if Earth itself were suffering. Mule trains struggled forward with ammunition; the walking wounded staggered toward the rear. The British Army was attempting to advance across the desolation, while the Germans tried to mow it down with howitzers, machine guns, shrapnel, and poison gas. The field was swept by unrelenting fire and unrelenting rain.

Through this maelstrom of death went stretcher parties looking for wounded. Four men to a stretcher was a bare minimum. Often eight or ten were required, and even then it was not uncommon for the whole party to stumble and tip the wounded man to the ground. After a journey back to the field dressing station--which might take hours--the stretcher-bearers would go back for another. The work had to be done in daylight, for at night there were no landmarks.

Peculiar as the incident itself was, the subsequent behavior of the Army command structure was even stranger.

Suspicion must be directed at the brigade commander, Brig.-Gen. J. G. Stringer, although in all other respects his reputation is unclouded. The son of an Army of India officer, Brig.-Gen. (later Major-Gen.) Stringer had a distinguished career as a professional soldier. Born in India in 1882, he was educated in England at Fallow and Sandhurst. He was a noted athlete, playing cricket for Hampshire and serving as master of the Dilby Hunt. When war broke out in August 1914, he held the rank of major in the Royal Fusiliers, which formed part of the British Expeditionary Force dispatched to France. His subsequent rise was dramatic. He was well-thought-of by both his superiors and his subordinates. He was to die tragically in a motor accident in 1918, shortly before the end of the war.

One man did not testify at the inquiry--the mysterious stranger himself.

Even when the stretcher party had set off with their mysterious patient, their troubles were not over. The British began bringing up reinforcements. The Germans laid down a barrage to stop them. The stretcher-bearers had to run the gauntlet of high-explosives, shrapnel and, at one point, poison gas shells. They took a gas helmet from a corpse for their patient, but some of his exposed skin was blistered.

Their estimates of the time this journey took varied from two and a half to three and a half hours. By the time they arrived at the dressing station, the unknown man was unconscious and incapable of explaining anything.
* * * *

2

TWO MEN SAT IN A GARDEN AND TALKED ABOUT HELL. ONE OF THEM had been there.

The time was a Saturday afternoon in early September 1917. The site was a sunny corner in the grounds of Staffles, which had been an English country house since the seventeenth century and was now a hospital for wounded returning from the Great War.

The two sat side by side at the top of a short flight of steps leading up to a set of glass doors. Inside those doors, a row of beds prevented anyone from coming out or going in, so the speakers would not be disturbed. It was a sheltered spot. The younger man had found it, and it was probably the best place in the entire hospital for a private chat. He had always had a knack for coming out on top like that. He was not greedy or selfish, yet even as a child he had always been the one to land the best bed in the dorm. Draw a name from a hat, and it would almost always be his.

The steps led down to crazy paving and a lichen-stained stone balustrade. Beyond that, a park sloped to a copse of beeches. The grass badly needed cutting, the rosebushes were straggly, and the flower beds nurtured more weeds than blossoms. Hills in the distance were upholstered with hop fields, their regular texture like the weave of a giant green carpet. Autumn lurked in the air, although the leaves had not yet begun to turn.

Once in a while a train would rush along behind the wood, puffing trails of smoke. When it had gone, the silence that returned was marred by a persistent faint rumbling, the sound of the guns across the Channel. There was another big push on in Flanders. Every man in Staffles knew it. Everyone in southern England knew it.

Men in hospital blues crowded the grounds, sitting on benches or strolling aimlessly. Some were in wheelchairs, some on crutches. Many had weekend visitors to entertain them. Somewhere someone was playing croquet.

In front of the two men stood a small mahogany parlor table, bearing a tea tray. One plate still bore a few crumbs of the scones which had come with the tea. The sparrows hopping hopefully on the flagstones were well aware of those crumbs.

The younger man was doing most of the talking. He spoke of mud and cold, of shrapnel and gas attacks, of days without rest or relief from terror, of weeks in the same clothing, of lice and rheumatism, of trench foot and gas gangrene. He told of young subalterns like himself marching at the head of their men across the wastes of no-man‘s-land until they reached Fritz‘s barbed wire and machine guns scythed them down in their ranks. He told of mutilation and death in numbers never imagined possible in the golden days before the war.

Several times during the tea drinking and scone eating, he had reached out absentmindedly with his right sleeve, which was pinned shut just where his wrist should have been. He had muttered curses and tucked that arm out of sight again. He chain-smoked, frequently reaching to his mouth with his empty cuff. At times he would try to stop talking, but his left eye would immediately start to twitch. When that happened, the spasms would quickly spread to involve his entire face, until it grimaced and writhed as if it had taken on an idiot life of its own. And then he would weep.

At such times the older man would tactfully pretend to be engrossed in watching other men in the distance or studying the swallows gathering on the telephone wires. He would speak of the old days--of the cricket and rugby, and of boys his companion had known who were now men. He did not mention the awful shadow that lay on them as they waited for the call that would take them away and run them through the mincer as it ran their older brethren. A war that had seemed glorious in 1914 was a monster now. He did not mention the ever-growing list of the dead.

He was middle-aged, approaching elderly. His portly frame and full beard gave him a marked resemblance to the late King Edward VII, but he wore a pair of pince-nez. His beard was heavily streaked with gray, and his hat concealed a spreading baldness. His name was David Jones and he was a schoolmaster. For more than thirty years he had been known behind his back as Ginger, not for his temperament or his coloring, but because in his youth Ginger had gone with Jones as Dusty went with Miller.

The gasping, breathless sobs beside him had quietened again.

"The swallows will be heading south soon now," he remarked.

"Lucky buggers!" said the young man. His name was Julian Smedley. He was a captain in the Royal Artillery. He was twenty years old. After a moment he added, "You know that was my first thought? There was no pain at all. I looked down and saw nothing where my hand should be and that was my first thought: Thank God! I am going Home!"

"And you‘re not going back!"

"No. Even better." There was another gasp. "Oh, God! I wish I could stop piping my eye like this." He fumbled awkwardly for a cigarette.

The older man turned his head. "You‘re not the worst, you know. Not by a long shot. I‘ve seen many much worse."

Smedley pulled a face. "Wish you‘d tell the guv‘nor that."

"It‘s the truth," Jones said softly. "Much worse. And I will tell your father if you want me to."

"Hell, no! Let him brood about his yellow-livered, sniveling son. It was damned white of you to come, Ginger. Do you spend all your weekends trailing around England, combing the wreckage like this?"

"Paying my respects. And, no, not every weekend."

"Lots, I‘ll bet." Smedley blew out a long cloud of smoke, then dabbed at his cheeks with his empty sleeve. He seemed to be talked out on the war, which was a good sign.

"Ginger..."

"Mm?"

"Er, nothing."

It wasn‘t nothing. They‘d had that same futile exchange several times in the last two hours. Smedley had something to say, some subject he couldn‘t broach.

Jones glanced at his watch. He must not miss his bus. He was running out of things to talk about. One topic he had learned never to mention was patriotism. Another was Field-Marshal Sir Douglas Haig.

"Apart from school, how are things?" Smedley muttered.

"Not so bad. Price of food‘s frightful. Can‘t find a workman or a servant anywhere."

"What about the air raids?"

"People grumble, but they‘ll pull through."

Smedley eyed the older man with the ferocity of a hawk. "How do you think the war‘s going?"

"Hard to say. The papers are censored, of course. They tell us that Jerry‘s done for. Morale‘s all gone."

"Balls."

"Oh. Well, we don‘t hear rumors at Fallow. The Americans are in, thank God."

"They‘re in America!" Smedley snapped. "How long until they can build an army and move it to France--if the U-boats don‘t sink it on the way? And the Russians are out! Good as. Did you know that?"

Jones made noncommittal noises. If the Hun could finish the Russians before the Yanks arrived, then the war was lost. Everyone knew it. No one said it.

"Do you recall a boy called Stringer? Before my time."

The schoolmaster chuckled. "Long Stringer or Short Stringer?"

"Don‘t know. A doctor."

"That‘s Short Stringer. His brother‘s a brigadier or something."

"He drops in here once in a while. I recognized the school tie."

"A surgeon, actually. Yes, I know him. He‘s on the board of governors. Comes to Speech Days."

Smedley nodded, staring out over the lengthening shadows in the garden. He sucked hard on his cigarette. Jones wondered if the unspeakable, whatever it was, was about to be spoken at last. It came in a rush.

"Tell me something, Ginger. When war broke out I was in Paris, remember? Edward Exeter and I were on our way to Crete. Came home from Paris just before the dam broke."

"I remember," Jones said, suddenly wary. "Dr. Gibbs and the others never made it back, if that‘s what you‘re wondering. Never did hear what happened to them."

"Interned?"

"Hope so, but there‘s never been word."

Smedley dismissed the topic with a quick shake of his head, still staring straight ahead. "Tough egg! No, I was wondering about Exeter. We parted at Victoria. I was heading home to Chichester. He was going on to Greyfriars, to stay with the Bodgleys, but he wanted to send a telegram or something. I had to run for my train. Next thing I knew, there was a copper at the house asking questions."

He turned to look at Jones with the same owlish stare he had had as a boy. He‘d always been a shy, quiet one, Smedley, not the sort you‘d have ever expected to be a hero and sport those ribbons. But the war had turned thousands of them into heroes. Millions of them.

"Young Bodgley was murdered," Jones said.

"I know. And they seemed to think Exeter had done it."

"I didn‘t believe that then and I don‘t now!"

"What innocents we were ... fresh out of school, thinking we were debonair young men of the world..." The voice wavered, then recovered. "Wasn‘t old Bagpipe stabbed in the back?"

Jones nodded.

Smedley actually smiled, for the second time that afternoon. "Well, then! That answers the question, doesn‘t it? Whatever Exeter may have done, he would never stab anyone in the back. He couldn‘t stab anyone in the back! Not capable of it." He lit a new cigarette from the previous butt.

"I agree," Jones said. "He wasn‘t capable of any of it--a stabbing or killing a friend or any of that. A quick uppercut to the jaw, yes. Sudden insanity even. Can happen to ... But I agree that the back part is conclusive proof of his innocence."

"Bloody nonsense," the young man muttered.

"Even Mrs. Bodgley refused to believe he killed her son."

The owlish stare hardened into a threatening frown. "Then what? He escaped?"

"He totally vanished. Hasn‘t been seen since."

"Go on, man!" Suddenly the pitiful neurotic invalid was a young officer blazing with authority.

Jones flinched like some lowly recruit, even while feeling a surge of joy at the transformation. "It‘s a total mystery. He just disappeared. There was a warrant issued, but no one ever heard from him again. Of course things were in a pretty mess, with war breaking out and all that."

Apparently none of this was news to Smedley. He scowled with impatience, as if the recruit were being more than usually stupid. "The copper told us he had a broken leg."

"His right leg was smashed."

"So someone helped him? Must have."

Jones shrugged. "An archangel from the sound of it. Or the Invisible Man. The full story never came out."

"And you genuinely believe it was a put-up job? Still? You still think that, Ginger?"

Jones nodded, wondering what lay behind the sudden vehemence. After being through what this boy had been through, why should he brood over the guilt or innocence of a schoolboy chum? After seeing so much death, why become so agitated over one long-ago death? It had been three years. It had happened in another world, a world that was gone forever, butchered in the mud of Flanders.

The mood passed like a lightning flash. Smedley slumped loosely. He leaned his arms on his knees and reached for his cigarette with the wrong arm. He cursed under his breath.

Jones waited, but he would have to run for the bus soon or he would not see his bed tonight. Nor any bed, if he got trapped in the city. Not the way London was these days.

"Why?"

"I don‘t know," Smedley muttered. He seemed to be counting the litter of butts around his feet.

Nonsense! The man needed to get something off his chest. Well, that was why Jones had come. He crossed his legs and leaned back to wait. He‘d slept on station waiting room benches before now. He could again.

"Shell shock, they call it," his companion told the dishes on the table--slowly, as if dragging the words out of himself. "Battle fatigue. Tricks of the mind. Weeping, you know? Facial tics, you know? Imagining things?"

"Maybe. Maybe not. Man has to trust something."

"There‘s lots here worse off than me, you know?" Smedley jerked his thumb over his left shoulder. "They call it the morgue. West wing. Don‘t know who they are, some of them. Or think they‘re the bleeding Duke of Wellington. All lead-swingers and scrimshankers, I expect."

"I doubt that very much."

Smedley looked up with a tortured, frightened grimace.

Jones‘s heart began to thunder like all the guns on the Western Front. "So?"

"There‘s one they call John Three. They have a John Two, and there was a John One once, I expect. No name or rank. Doesn‘t speak. Can‘t or won‘t say who he is or what unit he was in."

Jones sucked in a long breath of the chilling air.

"I‘d forgotten how blue his eyes are," Smedley whispered.

"Oh, my God!"

"Bluest eyes I ever did see."

"Is he ... Is he injured? Physically, I mean?"

"Nothing major. Touch of gas burn or something." Smedley shook his head. With another of his abrupt mood changes he sat up and laughed. "I expect I was imagining it."

"Let‘s just pretend you weren‘t, shall we? Did you speak to him?"

"No. He was with his keeper. Being exercised. Walked around the lawn like a dog. I wandered over. He looked right through me. I asked his keeper for a light. Said thanks. Trotted off."

Of course Exeter would have enlisted as soon as his leg had mended. It was impossible to imagine him not doing so. False name ... Tricky, not impossible...

"One thing you should know," Smedley said shrilly. "He doesn‘t look a day older than he did in Victoria Station, three years ago. So a chap really has to assume that he‘s just a little bit more shell-shocked than he hoped he was, wouldn‘t you say? Imagining things like that?"

"You‘re all right, man!" Jones said sharply. "But Exeter? Amnesia? He‘s lost his memory?"

Smedley‘s eye had begun to twitch again. He threw down his cigarette and stamped on it. "Oh, no! No, no, old man, that‘s not the problem at all. He knew me right away. Turned white as a sheet, then just stared at the horizon. That‘s why I didn‘t speak to him. Chatted up the keeper to keep him busy till Exeter got his color back, then left without a glance at him."

"He‘s faking it?"

"No question. Unless I imagined it."

"You didn‘t imagine this!"

"Oh, I wouldn‘t say that!"

"Don‘t be a fool, man!" Jones snapped. "Have you had other delusions? Seen any other ghosts?"

"No."

"Then you didn‘t this time. He can‘t reveal his name without going on trial for a murder he didn‘t commit!"

The eye twitched faster. "He‘d better find himself a name pretty soon, Mr. Jones! Very soon! I‘ve been asking a few discreet questions." The twitch had spread to his cheek. "He turned up at the front line under very mysterious circumstances. No uniform, no papers, nothing. They think he‘s a German sp-p-py!"

"What!"

"That‘s one th-th-theory." Smedley was having trouble controlling his mouth now. "So he‘s got the choice of being hanged or sh-sh-shot, do you see?"

"My god!"

"What‘n hell‘re we going to do, Ginger? How can we help him?" Smedley buried his face in one hand and a sleeve. He began to weep again.