by Jason J McCuiston
IT BEGAN WITH a low rumble that shook the ground. Like distant artillery.
“Are those our guns or Tommy’s, sir?” Corporal Kubel asked.
Lieutenant Hans Albrecht lowered the periscope and shook his head. The rumbling was joined by a loud, continuous sucking sound. “Neither.”
The two men were spotters for the artillery, assigned the task of setting new Sperrfeuerstreifen—barrage sectors for the fighting expected to renew in the spring. They stood on one of the forward parapets, surveying the blackened scar of no man’s land in the heavy morning fog. The new lines were a mere six miles behind where they had been five months before. Somewhere close to a million men had paid for that small stretch of precious ground with their blood, their limbs, their eyesight, and their lives in those 140 days.
The sucking, rumbling noise grew louder and was joined by the sound of grating and groaning metal. Deafening. Albrecht raised the periscope again. A black mass took shape on the ruined ground and began to move quickly toward them, like a great dark shadow. As it drew near, a hellish squeaking drowned out the unearthly rumble.
“Rats!” Hans cried as the first wave of the bloated black vermin tumbled over the parapet and into the trenches. There were hundreds of them. Thousands. The infantrymen below cursed and shouted, beating at the corpse-fed beasts with rifle-butts, entrenching tools, helmets, and fists. The rats, the only things to have profited from this miserable war, were fleeing no man’s land en masse.
“What is it?” the corporal asked, nervously eyeing the bleak November sky. There were no screaming shells descending from the fog-shrouded heavens, and yet the familiar fear of approaching death surrounded them. As the surviving rats vanished into nooks and crannies, Hans glanced into the filthy trench below, saw the haunted and hopeless eyes staring out from beneath two dozen muddy helmets.
The ground continued to shake, and that terrible tremor grew in intensity until he had to grasp the parapet’s edge to maintain his feet.
Men on other parapets stood and raised their hands like wanton suicides inviting the sniper’s bullet. They pointed into no man’s land with shaking fingers, staring with ashen faces. Hans turned to see what they saw. The periscope fell from his numb fingertips, clattered on the mud-caked logs of the platform, and shattered. Corporal Kubel screamed.
Hans gaped, trying to make sense of it. The blackened earth rose up in a titanic shape, emerging from the chill mists like the broad back of a man. As it continued to rise, filling the morning air with the noxious fetor of a thousand opened graves—the spongy smell of rot that clung to the back of the throat like an oily film—the ground rolled madly beneath his feet.
Hans clutched the muddy parapet, his eyes fixed wide on the horror that unfolded. The corporal retched beside him. The infantrymen in the trenches were accustomed to the stench of death that permeated the front lines, but a few cried out at the unearthly sight. Someone further down the line opened fire, a single rifle crack followed by a sudden volley. Then a Maxim chattered futilely, one quick burst before order was restored.
Hans Albrecht watched as the field that men now called the Bloody Somme—possibly the entire sixteen-mile stretch of it—rose up on two titanic legs, separating itself from Mother Earth, to stand upright like a misshapen man. The blasted soil and debris slid across the crater, climbing the unholy effigy like melted candle wax in reverse, filling it in and strengthening it, building it. In almost no time at all, the thing, the
anamorphic battlefield, stood over fifty feet tall or taller, its deformed head and hunched shoulders vanishing in the mists. Its stunted, claw-like hands flexed and grasped limply at its sides.
Hans stooped, picked up the broken periscope, wiped mud from the eyepieces, and quickly peered through the cracked lenses. Where he had resisted the urge to be sick at the noisome, unwholesome stench of the thing, his throat filled with hot bile at the details. The towering monstrosity was not exclusively comprised of muddy earth and shell-blasted trees. In fact, the black soupy sludge seemed to be nothing more than the bonding agent that covered twisted strands of barbed wire, unexploded shells, smoking gas canisters, broken rifles and tools, shattered caissons and wagons. Even bits of downed aeroplanes and the charred remnants of the odd British tracked war machines.
But the majority of the horror’s composition was made up of the writhing corpses of hundreds of thousands of men, horses, and mules, and the sundered fragments thereof. Bare bones shone bright and spilled entrails glistened wetly in the dull morning light.
When it began to scream in those hundreds of thousands of tortured voices, Lt. Hans Albrecht of the German Empire’s Second Army thought he would lose his mind.
* * *
THE FOG WAS clearing, so Captain Geoffrey Hollingsworth of the Royal Flying Corps prepared his reconnaissance camera for duty. The drone of the B.E. 2.c’s engine, accompanied by the steady roar of wind around the small two-seater plane drowned out all sound, so it wasn’t surprising that he didn’t hear his pilot’s initial exclamations. He was only aware of something unusual when the man turned in the cockpit and patted furiously at his windscreen.
Expecting to see a flight of Fokker Eindeckers swooping down from the clouds, his belly cinched tight and he reflexively reached for the Lewis mounted on its swivel turret. Hollingsworth was one of the handful of men who had survived the long and bloody “Fokker Scourge” until the new Airco and Nieuport fighter escorts had finally made it to the front. He had the drinking habit to prove it, and he was determined not to die on a routine recon mission mere weeks after the bloodiest engagement in British history.
What he actually saw was even more horrifying than a German patrol. When the noise it made reached past the cacophony of the aeroplane’s flight—past his leather helmet and rolled through his brain, Hollingsworth’s blood turned to ice-water. His heart lurched into his throat. Unbidden tears came to his eyes.
He saw what appeared to be the misshapen face of a man, though it was gigantic and at least a hundred feet above the earth. It was black and twisted, covered with mud. Gaping shell-holes for eyes, the withered wing of a downed monoplane the blade of a nose, a blasted crater filled with battered-helmet teeth for a screaming mouth, and twisted barricades and barbed wire for ears. The entire surface crawled and slithered with the shattered bodies of men and animals.
Its voice was the inarticulate cry of a million murdered souls, demanding to know why.
Wiping frozen tears from his face, Hollingsworth patted his pilot’s shoulder and pointed back to headquarters. He took as many pictures of the horror as he could while the plane winged-over and headed for home. “We’ve got to report this,” he said aloud, though his voice was whipped away on the wind. “God only knows what the generals will do about it, but we’ve got to let them know…”
* * *
“TWO WEEKS,” LIEUTENANT Hans Albrecht said through gnashed teeth. “The damned thing has stood there and screamed without ceasing for two weeks.” He huddled in his greatcoat and scarf against the chill December wind whipping through the parapet. His bloodshot eyes peered out from beneath his helmet at the monstrous titan standing between the lines. He reached for the new periscope, but decided against using it. His empty stomach twisted at the thought of what he might see writhing on the thing’s malformed body, the faces and uniforms he might recognize.
“And done naught else,” Corporal Kubel said at his elbow. He scratched at lice beneath his muddy tunic and lowered his voice. “I hear that desertions along the line have nearly reached a thousand men. There’s word that if the stockades grow any more crowded, firing squads will be formed.”
Hans grunted. “If von Falkenhayn were still in command, they would have commenced thirteen days ago.” He rubbed his face, utterly exhausted as every man in the trenches. “We’ll lose as many to our own rifles as we did to trench foot, frostbite, and dysentery. Good men, brave men who have faced and overcome the worst the enemy could throw at them.” He shook his head at the hideous, unending wail that drowned out all other sound in no man’s land. “But men who were driven beyond their breaking point by that… monster.”
“What do you think the field marshal will decide, Lieutenant?” Kubel asked. He raised his eyes, shielded them.
Hans followed his gaze, saw the tiny outline of the familiar British plane circling the monster before winging over and returning to its lines. He idly wondered if it was the same crew who had orbited the thing every day since its arrival. “I do not know. I suppose it depends—”
The distant thump of artillery cut him off. The sky let out a low sizzling sound that quickly turned to a high-pitched scream. The British had come to a decision first. Their artillery began a systematic bombardment on the hideous titan. Shells fell on and around the towering thing, exploding and filling the air with debris, shrapnel, and a carrion stench of burning filth.
Albrecht and Kubel ducked back into the trench as mud and splintered wood fell around their parapet like black rain. The riflemen in the trench hurried toward the dugouts for protection, though it was clear the Tommies were not shelling their position. It was ingrained in the men after two years of bombardments.
“Lieutenant,” an aide said, stepping from the forward command bunker. “Your superior asks your advice on the placement of his battery’s barrage sector. Orders have come in to commence fire on the giant.”
Hans looked over the muddy lip of the trench, could see the hazy
upper extremities of the colossus as the British artillery continued to pound it. “Tell him to fire at will. Our range is set.”
The ground shook and thunder rolled through the trenches as the man ducked back into the bunker. The other batteries were already firing. Hans followed Corporal Kubel into the shelter, and caught one last glance of the monster. It seemed to be wholly unaffected by the storm of burning iron falling upon it.
“God help us all,” he muttered as he passed into the reeking, rat-infested darkness of the crowded dugout.
* * *
THE COMBINED BARRAGE of both belligerents had done nothing.
“Well, not nothing,” Captain Geoffrey Hollingsworth muttered to himself. He craned his head over the side of the fuselage to watch the monstrous giant shamble northward from the Somme. Even above the roar of the wind and the plane’s engine, he could still hear the thing’s inhumanly wretched wail. “It got the bloody thing moving. But where does it go, and why?”
He clicked the camera’s trigger and took another photograph of the walking battlefield’s plodding progress. Since the British and the Germans had unilaterally opened fire upon it, the towering monstrosity had covered some twenty-six miles across the Western Front in three days, all but ignoring the continued shells and bombs hurled against it as it crossed between the two facing armies. It had just passed through the outskirts of Arras without any noticeable change in pace or direction.
“Pace and direction,” he thought aloud.
Taking one more picture, Hollingsworth pulled a map from his case, spread it across his cramped thighs, and tugged the thick glove from his right hand with his teeth. Taking a pencil from his pocket, he made a notation, some quick calculations, and came to an astounding conclusion. Letting the shortened pencil fall from his numbed fingers, he looked up into the chill December sun and muttered, “I do believe I know where it’s going.”
* * *
“LUCKY US,” CORPORAL Kubel grumbled, shivering in his sodden coat and wet gloves. They rode in the back of a cramped wagon, slowly maneuvering along a muddy road behind the lines at night. “We get to follow the damned thing into Belgium.”
Lieutenant Albrecht lit his last cigarette, took a deep draw and handed it to Kubel. He was thankful for the tobacco’s scent, which helped to mask the stench of unwashed uniforms in the wagon—of the field latrines and shallow graves they were passing in the dark. “At least we’re not in the trenches anymore.”
Kubel accepted the cigarette, took a puff and handed it to the artilleryman beside him. “I think I would be happy to transfer to the infantry if it meant I would no longer need look at or hear that monster ever again.” Even now the inhuman wail carried loud and clear on the chill December wind, drowning out the tinkle of harness and the nervous whicker of the horses.
Hans chuckled. “I’ll put in the paperwork as soon as we’re done.” They, along with three other observation teams, had been selected to chronicle and report on the thing’s movements. Ostensibly because they were among the few who had not shown undue hysterics in the past several weeks of observing the colossus’s existence. But in fact, Hans himself was the reason they were moving. He had deduced the monster’s destination and passed his theory along the chain of command. The higher-ups had “rewarded” his intuition by assigning him and Kubel to the observation detail.
“When we’re done!” Kubel scoffed. “When we’re done, we’ll be dead or the war will be over, sir. You’ve seen that we can’t destroy it with bombs or shells, and if it decides to make a go for one side or the other, mere mortals have got no chance at all against it.”
Hans shrugged at that. “Perhaps... I just wish I knew what the damn thing wanted. Why is it here? Where did it come from?”
A stone-faced Prussian captain seated across from him said, “It came from hell, Lieutenant, and it is here to warn our enemies of our pending triumph. It wants to punish them for their impudence in opposing us. The Tommies know this. That is why they opened fire on it first.”
Hans smiled at the man, preferring not to contradict his higher rank. “Yes, sir,” he said dutifully, though he wanted to bash the arrogant bastard’s brains in. If not for his kind, there would be no war, and that cursed thing would not exist. “I am sure that you are right.”
“Still doesn’t explain why it’s heading for Belgium,” Kubel grunted. “Sir.”
Hans shrugged. He was fairly sure he knew why, but he was not about to share any more insights on the matter.
* * *
“YPRES? ARE YOU certain?” Colonel Arrington demanded, his immaculate white handlebar moustache twitching. “On Christmas?”
Captain Geoffrey Hollingsworth, standing in front of the man’s desk, said, “Certain, sir? No, sir. But based on my calculations of the thing’s rate of movement and unwavering route, that is where I think it intends to go, and when it should arrive there.”
Arrington pushed the black-and-white photos of the titanic monster around on his desk and gave an unconscious shudder, as if to say, hideous. “But what on earth for, Captain?”
Hollingsworth cleared his throat and glanced at the major sitting in the corner in his crisp, clean uniform. He was clearly a staff officer to one of the higher-ups, possibly even to Haig himself, but no one saw fit to make introductions when he had been summoned to the battalion commander’s office.
“Because of the… Christmas Truce, sir,” Hollingsworth said, knowing it was a sticky subject with the powers-that-be among the British Expeditionary Force.
Arrington’s eyes boggled, his moustache twitching irritably. “The… Christmas Truce!” He glanced at the silent major. “And what does that two-year-old bit of near-rebellion have to do with this thing that crawled out of the muck of the Somme, Captain?”
“I really can’t say, sir. I just know that it somehow makes sense to me.” Hollingsworth shook his head, forced his voice not to crack. “If you could just hear it, sir, I think you might understand. Its voice is… it is the voices of all those poor men and boys butchered by bombs and bullets and left out in that field to feed the rats and the worms… and they all seem to be asking, why?”
Arrington sputtered, his mouth and moustache working but not making words.
“That is none of your concern, Captain,” the major said quietly from the corner. “That question, as well as its answer, are the province of your betters. And mine. You, like every other man serving the Empire in this war, need only concern yourself with doing your utmost for King and Country. Is that understood?”
Hollingsworth snapped to attention. “Yes, sir.”
“Very good, Captain Hollingsworth. Now, if you’ll prepare your crew, I think we’ll be needing more photographs of this… anomaly. Quite a few more, in fact. Until the issue is… resolved.”
Hollingsworth swallowed, understanding. “Yes, sir.” He saluted the officers and marched from the office. Donning his cap in the cold morning air, he knew they would keep sending him out until his number was up. They could not afford him spreading his theory, undermining morale. The fighting men themselves had almost brought the war to an end two years ago by celebrating Christmas along the Western Front. Brits and Germans putting aside their rifles and machine guns, exchanging gifts, singing carols, and even playing football.
It had taken nearly a week for the officers to get their troops to return to the business of killing their fellow man. They could not risk such a thing happening again. They were far too invested in the war now.
* * *
“MERRY CHRISTMAS, LIEUTENANT,” Kubel said as he climbed into the parapet with a tin cup of steaming hot, yet disappointingly thin porridge.
“Merry Christmas, Kubel,” Hans said with as much cheer as he could muster, which admittedly wasn’t much at all. He had not slept a wink all night and his exhausted body was one exposed nerve. He had crouched in the parapet, staring through the periscope at the towering monster in the silent darkness.
“At least the damned thing has shut its mouth, or whatever was making that awful noise,” the corporal said, handing Hans the porridge. In fact, it hadn’t made a sound since it had come to a complete and sudden stop at the edge of the Ypres battlefield just before sundown. “I’d almost forgot what it was like to be able to hear myself think, sir.”
Hans took a grateful spoonful of porridge, let it warm his body from the inside out before handing the cup back. “Thank you, Corporal. I know what you mean. I had almost lost the ability to hear—”
“What is it, sir?” Kubel asked as Hans gripped his shoulder.
“Do you hear that?” he whispered. He had only just noted the noise himself. “The sound of an aeroplane.” He craned his head and tried to see something in the black, overcast sky.
Kubel munched on a bite of porridge, swallowed, and said, “No, sir. I hear several planes… and machine guns.”
“Yes,” Hans closed his eyes and strained to hear. “A fight.”
The sky was growing pale in the east behind them and the first rays of the rising sun painted the clouds in wisps of silver and gray, and deep blues and violets. “Some Tommy fool has gone up before the dawn and run into one of our patrols.”
As he watched, the sky grew steadily brighter and Hans could finally make out the shape of three biplanes swooping and circling high in the air, somewhere near the giant’s head. “Two Eindeckers and a lone Brit recon plane,” he said. “I wonder if it’s the same one…”
“Surely not,” Kubel said around another mouthful of porridge. “That Tommy would have to be insane to keep coming back and looking at the damned thing up close every single day. He’d be in a madhouse by now.”
The sun continued its slow ascent behind them, and gradually Hans could make out a flash of white on the British plane. “I do believe that the man in the backseat is signaling a surrender,” he said.
The German fighters pulled off their attack, and the sputtering drone of the Brit’s engine grew louder as the pilot guided the wounded craft into an approach to the pock-marked stretch of no man’s land.
Hans raised the periscope to watch the plane’s ponderous landing, surprised to find himself hoping for the enemy crew’s survival. Believing them to be the same airmen who had circled the monster since its inception, he felt a strange but powerful kinship. He held his breath as the spluttering, damaged craft touched down, skipped back into the air, its tail careening around its left side, its wings dipping to the right. The propeller rose and the pilot got her back under control, touched down again, stalled the prop, and tried to coast to a landing. One of the forward landing gears disappeared into a crater, spinning the entire craft and driving the nose hard into the ground. The plane came to a sudden, bone-shaking stop less than a hundred yards from the German lines.
Hans bounded out of the parapet and sprinted toward the plane. “What am I doing?” he asked aloud, though he did not slow his stride. He tried to tell himself he intended to take prisoners and gain a commendation, but in his heart he knew he just wanted to make sure the two brave men were still alive. “And I must know if they have been observing the monster as long as I have.”
When he reached the aeroplane, which had folded in upon itself, he could smell the hot stench of spilled petrol and machine oil mixed with blood. The pilot’s face had gone through the glass windscreen, nearly removing his head at the level of his jaw.
The man in the back groaned and began crawling out of his cockpit.
Hans drew his pistol.
The British airman tumbled from the plane and landed on his hands and knees in the churned-up earth. Raising his goggled eyes to him, he managed a weak smile. “Looks like you’ve got me, Jerry,” the man said with characteristic British calm.
“So it does,” Hans said, motioning the man to stand with the muzzle of his weapon.
The airman climbed slowly to his feet and stretched. He winced as if something were not exactly in place, but gave no more indication of discomfort or injury. Hans noticed the layer of whale fat smeared on the man’s face and the heavily-padded aviator suit, thinking if nothing else, this Tommy was the warmest man on this particular bit of the Western Front this frigid morning.
“Pity about Jamison,” the Brit said, eyeing the dead pilot as he removed his headgear. He patted the fuselage beside the gore-splattered cockpit with an affectionate hand. “He was a good man.” Turning back to Hans, he took a deep breath and said, “And you speak passable good English for a Hun.”
Hans raised his chin. “I was attending my second year at Oxford when the war broke out.”
“You don’t say!” The man’s face lit up. “Geoff Hollingsworth, class of 1912. Now Captain in His Majesty’s Royal Flying Corps, BEF. And apparently your prisoner, Lieutenant?”
“Albrecht. Hans Albrecht, Second Imperial Army.”
“Pleasure,” Hollingsworth said.
“Care for a smoke, Lieutenant Albrecht?”
Hans’s mouth watered at the thought of a French cigarette. He lowered the pistol a bit and gave a curt nod. As Hollingsworth reached into his pocket, Hans asked him, “I have seen a plane circling that… thing for quite some time. Has that always been you?”
Hollingsworth’s charm faltered, as did his fingers as he tried to light the match. “Sorry,” he muttered before getting the two cigarettes lit. “Yes, as a matter of fact it was.” He handed Hans one of the cigarettes. “You say you’re Second Army, eh? So I guess you’ve been with it since the beginning, too. Followed it from the Somme to Ypres, have you?”
Hans nodded and inhaled the tobacco, held in its delicious warmth for a moment before letting it go. “Yes.” He licked his lips, motioned Hollingsworth around the wreckage of the plane so that they were both staring at the back of the towering monster. “So, what does Tommy England think it is, Captain?”
Hollingsworth took a long drag on the cigarette, admired the lit end for a bit, and said, “We have no bloody idea, Lieutenant. Same as you lot, I reckon, since both sides have given it hell for the past few days. So, if it’s not ours, and it’s not yours, what is it?”
Hans stared at the silent giant as the sun fully emerged from the eastern horizon. “It is ours,” he whispered. “The product of all our bloody labors.”
And the horror began to sing.
Hans lowered the pistol as tears filled his eyes. The voices were no longer screaming in tormented agony. They rose in a beautiful chorus of “Still Nacht” that became the only sound to be heard on the calm, crisp morning for miles. The voices grew strident and resonant as they sang:
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
Schlaf in himmlischer Ruh!
“Amen,” Captain Hollingsworth said in a quiet voice. Hans looked to see the man wiping tears from his own eyes. He had clearly heard the song in English. “Sleep in heavenly peace, indeed.”
When the carol was done, the giant stood for a moment longer in the overwhelming silence of the bright dawn. It seemed to shimmer like distant humidity on a hot summer’s day. A brisk wind washed over the field, and the titanic thing began to blow away as if it were no more than sand or fairy dust. In a matter of minutes, it was completely gone.
“If you hurry, Captain,” Hans said, wiping his nose and holstering his pistol. “You should be able to make it back to your lines before my side decides to come looking for us.”
Hollingsworth extended his hand. “Merry Christmas, Lieutenant Albrecht.”
Hans accepted the gesture, smiled at the pack of cigarettes given. “Merry Christmas, Captain Hollingsworth.”
Jason J. McCuiston hails from the wilds of southeast Tennessee. He has been a semi-finalist in the Writers of the Future contest, and has studied under the tutelage of best-selling author Philip Athans. With over a dozen short story publications, his debut novel, Project Notebook, will appear in early 2020. He lives in South Carolina, USA with his college-professor wife (making him a Doctor’s Companion) and their two four-legged children. He can be found on the internet at: facebook.com/ShadowCrusade and on Twitter @JasonJMcCuiston.
© 2019 Jason J. McCuiston