It was a gloomy dawn in the year 1949. On the small side roads of the northern French towns the mud, churned up by boots during last night’s storm, had not begun to dry.
A soldier froze in a corridor between bunks, the hairs on his arm standing in a surge of static as a new set of footsteps thudded up towards him from behind, steady as a metronome beat. Gulping, he turned to show his face to the newcomer, all his past offences suddenly springing to the front of his memory. “Good—good day to you,” he mumbled.
With nothing more than a nod to acknowledge him, Captain Lovelace strode straight by, hands clasped behind her back. “Well, I do hope you are having a good day,” the officer answered. Every soul in the corridor trembled in his boots.
As she walked by, her fingers curled around the chain at her waist, and they leaned away, shivering.
Vesper was not having a good day.
She’d been made a huge fool of in the battle of last night. She wasn’t even on the Western Front, and she’d managed to fuck up this bad. In fact, thank God she wasn’t on the Western Front.
Last night, the Nazis had come with rubber in their hulls. And right on the day she'd decided to allow herself just a little complacence.
She couldn’t let this become a habit. The great gash in the right sleeve of her camo uniform would be good motivation—the gash, and the memory of the second bullet ever to come this close to killing her.
For now, she had to busy herself with cleaning up her act. It was for this that she presently headed towards HQ, attempting to massage the beginnings of a headache out of her temple.
Before she could make it to the exit, another set of footsteps joined hers. She rounded the corner to discover their owner: Thomas Hart. Hands loosening from her chain, Vesper groaned quietly.
“Morning, Captain Lovelace,” said Hart chirpily, leaning back on the balls of his feet, wearing the dirtiest shirt she’d ever had to look upon. His hair was crusty with greyish dirt from last night; she smelled the rainy mud on him, even three feet away. She had a good mind to yell his ear off, but knew she was simply feeling irritable today.
Hart inclined his head as she passed. “Are you well? You don’t look well, if I may say.”
Vesper pursed her lips. “Your concern is appreciated,” she answered, “but I am quite fine.”
“Well...well done keeping us alive last night.” He laughed uneasily.
She glowered, squared her shoulders and marched straight on by. She saw his shoulders slacken. Oh, but he’d be mistaken to think she was letting that comment slide. An accidental jab to the elbow wouldn’t go amiss.
Air snapped briefly as she passed and stuck a finger out. “Ouch! Hey!” yelped the private, like a little boy. Little boys, all of them.
Her lips curved. “Oh, I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“But how? That was one point of contact—”
“Grounding. You’d think my comrades would know to avoid leather slippers.”
Vesper left him no chance to answer. No doubt he was contemplating the purchase of a pair of rubber slippers right now.
Precisely the problem. They learn.
By the time she’d exited her company’s building, she was wishing she’d taken her medication with her. Unfortunately the only cure left to her use was deep breathing, and so she went breathing like a fool all the way up the quadrangle.
The air was swollen with wind and the smell of brine. All the buildings of the camp were of hewn stone, slanting in the dim predawn and following the undulations of the ground beneath as if grown out of that very earth. She surveyed the grounds briefly: the layout of the camp was near identical to the one where she’d trained, and the headquarters were at the head of the bare quadrangle, a surly grey figure nestled atop a swell of land with its back to the grey Dunkirk sea.
She wrestled with sea wind as she marched up the grounds, eyes stinging, and thought the brooding morning grey could almost have been Fairford, were it not so blustery. But this is not Fairford; this is France.
She was glad to come into the lee of the building, and even gladder when the door opened without a clatter. She invited herself inside and peered about. The tiny lobby was empty, except for the smell of untouched concrete; a corridor turned right from the entrance.
Only two doors stood along its length: she knew the office door was the nearer one. On it she knocked thrice, then awaited invitation. Here in the army, one always waited for orders. The people above were the ones with the intelligence, the ones who knew if you were charging straight into your doom. The ones down here, where she was—they were pins on a map. Pieces on a big black board.
Vesper stared at the edge of the wall, where the dark wood met concrete. She liked to flatter herself with the idea that she was not merely a piece. That perhaps her skill—her efficiency—gave her some significance to the men at the top of the chain. God knew, they might have noticed that she occasionally immobilised more enemy soldiers than did the rest of her company combined.
But really, she was as special as any other soldier of her rank, wasn’t she? That she’d been left defending Dunkirk, this long way behind the Front, was proof of that sentiment. No more than a piece, passing beneath hands.
Not that that mattered. Not really.
“Come in?” The lilt of the question through the door accompanied another pang shooting between her ears. She winced as she took the doorknob and entered. Lieutenant Colonel Clarke blinked. “Oh, Captain Lovelace. Just the person I wanted to see. And you look terrible, if I may add.”
“Good morning, sir, I might need an aspirin, if you don’t mind,” she answered. An unwholesome pain had wrapped itself about her head. “These haven’t been the best of days.”
The colonel began arranging his files and books. A rifle round rolled halfway across his map. It pointed at the southern tip of Italy. “Why?” The man picked it up and stood it on its end with a metallic chink. From his left palm he produced a brown medicinal bottle and pushed it across the tabletop. “You did a good job last night.”
Vesper was quite sure this was no joke, he being LTC Aldrich Clarke and not another goof like Thomas Hart. “Thank you, sir,” she said. “If you will excuse me for saying so, I consider last night a failure on my part. Which brings me to my reason for approaching you—I believe it is time I get posted elsewhere. I couldn’t harm the tanks before the storm.” She touched the table’s edge. “They installed some form of insulation. And you can bet your badge that by next week they’ll be waterproofed as well.”
To her surprise he smiled, and propped his chin up on his right elbow, much the way schoolboys did to stop themselves yawning. “Oh, then they’ll be insulated wherever you go, won’t they?” he said. “Never mind last night, the battle was won.”
“It’d have been lost if not for the storm.”
“Yes, and you still took a tenth of their tanks.”
“I was completely useless before then.”
He sighed, tilting forward so his shadow blurred across his map. “Do you think yourself so crucial to my battalion?” he inquired, uncapping his flask.
Recognising the weight hanging upon that question, Vesper shifted on her feet as water rang on the bottom of Clarke’s drinking glass. “I’d say I lend it some weight, sir,” she answered finally.
The colonel sniggered inwardly. “That you do,” he said amidst the last traces of his laugh. “But you seem to think it your responsibility to lead us into every battle, or that you are to blame for my company’s every failure. My company’s.” Another chuckle. His whiskers, paled by age, rippled with the laugh. “Give the rest of the men some credit for their training, won’t you? We’re not helpless without you, and not every failure is your liability alone.”
“Yes, sir. I will. But the matter remains. I’m obsolete to the army as long as the tanks are insulated.”
“Oh, then we’ll develop something to counter their development! War is a competition of technology as much as it is of strategy. We have military researchers for that, and last I heard, they’re profoundly enjoying the challenge you pose. A bit of variety, they say.”
Smiling earnestly, he lifted the drinking glass, filled to the brim with water. She took it, and scooped the bottle of tablets off, unscrewing it with her thumb and index. She fished a tablet out with a finger; it dropped and rolled across the colonel’s papers. She snatched for it. A paperclip shot her hand. “I’m sorry,” she muttered and dissipated the currents in her hand; the paperclip dropped like a dead insect. Clarke laughed.
“You really are an oddity,” he murmured as she downed two bitter tablets. “And I don’t mean it in a completely benign sense either. If it weren’t for the war, you’d be of great interest to biologists. They’d like to pick every secret of your ability apart. But war machine is better than experimental subject, isn’t it?”
She raised an eyebrow. “I serve in whatever way I best may,” she said, “and if this is the better way at this time, then it is the one I prefer.” It wasn’t a lie. Though maybe she wouldn’t be professing such blind loyalty when she was strapped to the operating table.
“Don’t fool yourself. You’re a natural on the field.” Clarke breathed a sigh. “But this begs another question. You know you’ll be a public threat once the war is over, don’t you? That there are fears that you will use your powers to best law enforcement and even…seize power?”
“Me? I’d never.” I am the King’s. I am England’s.
He steepled his fingers. “Your prowess on the field is only telling of what you’d be capable of in a civil environment, and believe me, it is not reassuring. Most war machines can be locked away. You pose an ethical dilemma.” He sighed. “But that for another time—”
“We’re all pieces. We’re no more important than each other, to Prime Minister Churchill, to Field Marshal Alexander.”
“Pieces? Oh, no. Perhaps you are but a piece to Churchill. But the Nazis certainly don’t think so. Why else would they have upgraded their tanks for you?” He lifted his head. “Do you know what the machine gun did for World War One? It changed the course of warfare. The trenches were blood fests. The war became a bitter race of technology. You aren’t the machine gun exactly, but you’ve thrown them a challenge they’re having a hard time responding to.”
Vesper frowned. “Then why am I here, defending this dingy outpost in France?” she asked. “With all due respect, sir.”
A change came to his face that was at the same time heartening and terrifying. His eyes were wide and his smile unnerving.
“That brings me to the reason I wanted to see you,“ replied the Lieutenant Colonel. ”Do you know when Dunkirk became ours? This slice of land was captured from France by Henry the Sixth, centuries ago.” He paused. “What most don’t know is that this dingy outpost was taken—and has been defended—for a reason outside war and politics. Scientists suspect it of possessing certain qualities that we intend to look into after war has ended.”
“We?” she asked, straightening.
He smiled. “I suppose I did have vested interest in this area,” he answered. “We all have our lives outside the war.”
“I was no one.”
“And so was I. Or rather, we were.” Clarke’s inward chuckle came again. “No one will believe strange claims like ours. In our proposal we said we were certain there are tunnels between worlds. Know what their answer was? The entire council laughed. Laughed a good five minutes, then had my colleague and I chucked out of the lab for good.”
He gazed off pensively at the door in the right wall, likely leading to the bedroom. “Nevertheless, I am lucky to have convinced some higher-ups to take their chances with my well-evidenced conjectures. And you, Vesper, are here defending Dunkirk because it holds secrets. Secrets more crucial than this little tiff over territory. We need it safe. The Allies could lose, but this land must remain ours.” Again the colonel fixed his eyes on hers. “You understand now why you’ve been posted here?”
“I’m guarding something I don’t understand.”
“The sooner the war ends, the sooner you will understand.” Then he had found some papers to busy himself with, and Vesper was left watching the rapid back-forth of his pen, wondering how she should excuse herself.
She cleared her throat. “Thank you, Sir,” she said. The ache clawed at her skull. “I will leave.”
Lieutenant Colonel Clarke nodded at his papers. “Go have yourself a good rest,” he said. “You did well last night.”
Instead of returning immediately to the quadrangle—there was half an hour before any business of import—Vesper decided on a detour. She rounded the perimeter of the shack, crossed the bumps of a few rocks where the sparse grass blades broke up and sand took their place. Her eyes swept the grey expanse where it faded into the ocean, at a line that rose and frothed white and receded, at the span of battered fence that slanted three metres beyond the tide. In the lull of each wave, she breathed.
Vesper only went as far as the tide line. Rocks and shells rolled aside at the tips of her grimy boots, seaweed squelching. Her soles grew damp. Looked like she’d have to leave them out tonight; good leather had a habit of spoiling in moisture.
After a short survey of the coastline, she made for a tall rock that gazed out over the ocean, sunken in the sand. In the dawn it looked like a curled-up man.
Vesper knew more than enough about scaling rock walls. She scanned the little rocky rise for footholds, then picked her way to the top, three metres from the ground but dizzying enough. There she gazed up into the sky, imagined the shadows of the Luftwaffe buzzing by, specks of bombs sinking through the cloud layers. She imagined smoke blooming upon this very beach.
It’d been in the news, the Dunkirk Evacuation, the television glaring grey footage of the carnage into the room where she’d once played. Nine years ago. Almost half her life ago. Half my life has been war.
She wondered upon that miracle, when three hundred thousand soldiers had been spared by misjudgment and chance. What if the Nazis had made a slightly different judgment of the situation? What if he had called a full attack? Just like sorcerers, the men at the top. One flick of a finger and the world was dead.
I do not think it is easy, being the one to whom others pledge allegiance.
A throat was cleared nearby.
“Good morning, knave,” said a voice, feminine and neutral.
Vesper started. Something about the voice was unbearably odd. Aside from the fact that there should be no other females at this camp…
“Who’s there?” she called back, and dragged herself to her knees—rapidly unwinding her chain from about her waist and shuffling over to the back edge of the rock, crouching close.
When she peered past the rock, she almost let her chain fall from her grip. There at the bottom, half-lost in shadow, stood a girl—barely twelve by her looks, blue-gowned, and huddled inside a hooded grey cloak almost too large for her.
Don’t trust homeless waifs you meet by the sea, the thought crossed her. Too many stories began this way.
Still holding her chain at ready, she let herself inspect the apparition. The hands that clutched at her cloak were pale and slender. Light hair pricked out from beneath her hood.
Without warning the girl looked up, and their gazes caught hold of each others’. Her gimlet grey eyes glittered from beneath the shadow of the hood and her gaze seemed to skewer Vesper’s thoughts straight through.
Then she saw movement up ahead, and glanced up beyond her. The girl’s eyes followed. Another person was approaching from some far part of the beach, red robes swaying beneath a cloak that might have looked more at home a millennium ago.
Bright alarm filled her. “Who are you?“ Vesper shouted, swinging her feet over the edge of the rock and hurrying down its face; even then those great grey eyes followed her unfazed, like a scavenger’s. “Identify yourselves! What business have you here?”
“And why should I disclose any information to you?”
“Because, ma’am, you are trespassing on a camp of the British Army.”
The man had arrived beside the girl by then, long brown hair waving in the wind. Seeming completely heedless to Vesper’s words, he offered up what looked like a charred crab to the girl, who refused it with a curt “later”.
“We are not spies,” she resumed tonelessly, turning back to Vesper. “But did you state that this is an army camp? Is there a war in progress?”
“Don’t you see the planes about? Are you hermits?” They couldn’t be hermits. At least the girl couldn’t be. Not with a dress that glittered the way it did.
It was the man who spoke this time; his voice was peculiar. A gleam of light peeked from beneath the folds of the man’s robes.
Armour? Surely they aren’t performers–
Narrowing her eyes, Vesper pointed her hook at them. “What do I misunderstand?” she shouted. “Why are you here in the camp?”
“There is too much to explain,“ said the man, “could we secure lodging nearby?”
“Camps are out of bounds to all but military personnel,” she persisted. “Clarify your cause. What are you doing here?”
“We require rest immediately. We only just arrived. The journey through the tunnel has left us without a drop’s nourishment.”
“Tunnel? There are no tunnels here. Tell me, where from?”
“Is this the world of Alice Liddell?”
“Stop it with your gibberish.”
“Was this world founded by magic?”
“You have ten seconds.” She released a surge of electrons through her fingers so they sparked and crackled. “Tell me who you are.”
The man glanced at his liege. “I thought not,” he muttered, and his hand flew to his belt, where hung a scabbard glittering with gems both red and pale.
Vesper gripped the hook tighter, preparing to fling it. Who first, the girl or the man?
"You imbecile!” yelled the girl all of a sudden. “Take us to find lodging at once!”
“I don’t take orders from spies!” Vesper said.
“Then let us settle this honourably,” answered the man, eyes flaring.
Morning was rising; it stained the sand pink. There was some of last night’s storm left in her. She felt the electricity race to her hand, tingly as hot sand.
With a snarl, she flung the chain.
The hook snagged the man’s cloak before he’d drawn. Vesper tugged so it dug through the cloth and bit his armour. The girl yelled. The man’s eyes widened.
As the first shock travelled through the taut links, he stiffened like a corpse, eyes wide. Again the girl shouted, something like “stop”—and Vesper thought she heard the rasp of tears in her voice—then for seconds she wondered how a twelve-year-old could be a spy.
An immense coldness came to seize her from nowhere, like a bitter winter wind. Her fingers ached and grew numb. She shivered, teeth chattering against each other. What—
It was the chain. The chain—frost was crystallising on the chain. Gasping, she uncurled her fingers and let it drop, shivering the deathly cold away.
“Don’t you understand? We’re not of this world!” shouted the man amid her daze, eyes narrowing as he dislodged the hook from his shoulder, dazed but lucid enough.
Vesper clenched her teeth. “I’ll believe you when you can prove it.” That sudden—cold. Was that proof? No one in this world could do anything like that. No one else.
The girl snarled. “I’d have you arrested for your insolence.”
“Arrested? And this is not your country.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You attempted to murder my protector, did you not? That ought to be punishable in any land! Unless, of course, you are so uncivilised a people.”
“The way the world has been the last ten years, it’s hard to say,” answered Vesper.
A moment’s harsh silence proceeded. Then the girl smiled, almost kindly. “Do you still want your proof?” she whispered.
“Proof? Do you think I’ll ever believe your tale?”
“Believe this,” she answered, and with a fiery crackle a swoop of flame consumed her.
Vesper blinked at the space that the girl had once occupied, now empty. Then she noticed the card that rested upon the sand, where her footprints lay. She bowed to pick it up. The Ace of Diamonds. She flipped it over. The girl’s face stared back, wreathed in red curlicues outlined in black.
“Impossible,” muttered the captain.
“Quite possible,” answered the face on the card.
And that was about when Vesper realised what precisely was so strange about her voice. She’d never heard that accent before. Anywhere. Not in this world.
A swirl of hot red erupted from her hand, and recreated the girl on the sand ten centimetres from her. “You—have yet to clarify your cause,” said Vesper blankly. It was like a gale had ransacked the shelves of her mind and thrown the thoughts everywhere. Was she going mad? How should a soldier respond to these revelations? “What—business do you have here in Dunkirk?”
The man lowered himself to his knees, picking her chain up off the floor; he inspected it like a bloodied knife before rising. When he turned to her again to return the tool, she no longer found his gaze so serene.
“We are here to find you,” he replied.