“Anyone who has ever visited The Persian Cat in Vienna knows that there is no creature more deft, more supple, more responsive than a high-class courtesan,” Madame Waschbaer said. “And, as any who have attempted to cross me or my girls knows, there is no creature more dangerous and resourceful when angered.”

“Well, yes.” Inspector-General Baumkopf said, uneasily shifting in his mirror-polished boots. “So I’ve…heard, in any case. But still, what a remarkable ascent, from the whorehouses of our nation’s capital to sailing above the front lines for His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops, hm?”

“I think you’ll find that it’s quite a remarkable ascent from anywhere to flying in a heavier-than-air machine, Herr Baunkopf,” said Waschbaer. “Even your men.”

The madame and the inspector continued strolling along the line of Albatros D.III biplanes turned out for inspection. The latest fighter designs from the Empire’s erstwhile ally, they were newly-built by KUK Waggonfabrik. Baumkopf gave a curt nod to the women and aircrews standing at attention in front of their machines before turning back to Waschbaer. “Yes, I’m sure,” he said. “But I wanted to see how and know why. That’s why I came myself instead of sending an assistant.”

“Well, the how you’ll see in a moment, when we fly a sortie,” said Waschbaer. “No demonstrations, this will be a live-fire exercise, a special delivery to our dear enemies across the lines. No wasted fuel or girls’ lives.”

“And why?” Inspector-General Baumkopf jabbed his swagger stick at the nearest pilot, Erna Pichler. “We do not see fit to put His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s delicate flowers on the front lines, so why do they fly above them?”

“Why, to release more of His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s strapping young lads to die for their country in the Russian mud, of course.”

“And why…er…why empty the brothels? Surely there are virtuous women who could serve and not-“

“Oh please, Inspector-General,” scoffed Madame Waschbaer. “Call a spade a spade. You may call the girls dancers, courtesans, prostitutes, whores, whatever you like, it is nothing they haven’t heard before.”

“Why…courtesans?” Baumkopf continued, looking uneasily over Erna Pichler’s various and sundry assets with a foreboding sense of familiarity. “You say they are deft, and supple, and all that, but-“

“But they are also tough,” the madame shot back. “That toughness is what will win them glory in this war while freeing your boys to be in a frozen trench someplace. And, if you’ll pardon my Francais, these girls are used to men getting screwed over thanks to them.”

Baumkopf, red as a cherry tomato, sputtered in response.

“Relax, it is a joke,” said Madame Waschbaer. “I am a commissioned officer in His Imperial and Royal Majesty’s Aviation Troops if you wish me brought up on charges for speaking so freely.”

The inspector-general continued walking past Erna, who gave him a smile and a wink, continuing the inspection almost automatically.

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Commandant Schukov addressed the cadets as was his wont, like a general at a review with arms clasped at ninety-degree angles.

“What’s he got to say this time?” Viktor whispered to Pyotr. “Perhaps he’ll unclench and finally let that rifle he’s had up his ass go.”

“More likely a list of floggings,” Pyotr said. “I hear Feodor got it good for daring to talk back to old Lebedev in artillery class.”

“Cadets!” barked Schukov. “As I have said before this time, despite being from some of the finest families in this oblast, you are maggots unfit for service in the Emperor’s glorious army. The strong, proud soldiers of his great-grandfather the late Emperor, they who turned back Napoleon, are rolling in their graves at such a speed it’s a wonder they haven’t been harnessed to generate electricity.”

Pyotr snickered at this. Schukov would as soon beat the freckles off you as look at you, but he did have a colorful way with words.

“Nonetheless, it was my great misfortune to recieve this morning a direct order, which I hereby obey. And that order is direct from Stavka, and thus may as well have been written in the Emperor’s own hand. To free up men who are desperately needed at the front near Riga, effective immediately the Academy’s cadets are to take up anti-bandit patrol duties.”

An excited murmur rippled through the crowd. “Holy shit in an outhouse,” breathed Viktor. “They’re putting us into action!”

“Silence!” bellowed Schukov. “Total silence!” He waited until the hubbub had died to an acceptable level in his one good ear before proceeding. “You will be armed and equipped at government expense, to do something about the deserters that have been causing chaos in the oblast.”

The old commandant thumped a step to the right on his wooden leg and puffed out his chest. “I do not expect that you will be able to perform effectively in this task, but as we have taught you, obedience is key. You will be deployed, and the good men that you free up will serve the Emperor on the front.”

“Real weapons! Real patrols! We’re not even old enough to enlist, and look at us!” Viktor bubbled. “Like real soldiers!”

“TOTAL SILENCE!” screamed Schukov, loud enough to rattle the rafters. He brushed the resulting dust off his white epaulettes. Then, in an affect more akin to his normal bellow: “I requested reinforcements to ensure that you laggards aren’t all killed, as dealing with your angry parents would be more burden that int’s worth. And, as has long been evident to me, I have been put on this earth only to endure the trials of maggots and weasels. As such, allow me to introduce to you your reinforcements…”

“Maybe a Guards unit,” Pyotr whispered. “Or veterans from the front!”

“…the Women’s Battalion of Death, Reserve Youth Auxiliary Division,” Schukov continued, spitting out the title like a bitter peachpit. “Your next instructions, AS ORDERED, will be from its local coordinator.”

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It is in times of war, when modern men and modern machines move into uncertain spheres, that the most such strange encounters take place. A few notable ones:

1879: South Africa
A cavalry detachment that was assigned the pursuit of broken Zulu formations after the decisive Battle of Ulundi. The number of men involved are unclear, but 12 men–British soldiers and Zulu warriors with British equipment–eventually appeared in Portuguese Mozambique and were interned there. Despite repeated requests they were never returned, and a perusal of Portuguese records suggests that all 12 were incurably insane and remitted to an asylum in Lourenço Marques. An official report was tendered to the Foriegn Office by the Overseas Ministry in Lisbon, but it was sealed by order of the Prime Minister until 2100.

1915: Egypt
A raiding party of Turkish troops penetrated the Egyptian desert during the larger assault on the Suez Canal. A British force was detailed to follow them. Only five survivors were found despite extensive searches of the high desert, far to the south of the combat near the Dashur necropolis. Reports of strange lights in the desert by Egyptians corresponded with wild tales told by survivors of vicious attacks by luminous beings that could not be driven off with gunfire.

1942: New Guinea
A detachment of Australian troops fleeing toward Port Moresby and pursued by a larger Japanese force disappeared along with their adversaries. In 1945, the remains of a joint Australian-Japanese campside was found high in the Owen Stanley range far from the combat zone. Papers recovered by the investigators reported encounters with shadowy “tribesmen” in the forest. The descriptions matched no known tribes in the Owen Stanley range or the Kokoda Trail areas. No survivors were ever found.

1970: Cambodia
South Vietnamese and American troops moving into the dense jungles of Cambodia reported the discovery of an unknown temple complex from the late Angkor period via radio. There was no subsequent contact aside from a garbled request for close air support that could not be fulfilled. Subsequent searches failed to locate either the temple or the soldiers, with 10 Americans in one squad and a further 50 South Vietnamese troops being listed as missing in action. Examination of North Vietnamese records from the period indicates that an opposing force of 150 troops was also officially unaccounted for.

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White Star shells, they called them, equal volume of chlorine and phosgene to neutralize the disadvantages of both. They fired the shells hours before the men were to surmount the parapets. But often as not, the prevailing winds were from the east, carrying the men forward into a haze of their own chemical stew. Anyone whose mask didn’t have a tight seal was explosed.

It started with the intense scent of musty hay and green corn borne on the wind. A burning sensation like strong whiskey going down, eyes watering. They could still stumble forward, even fire, but within a day they’d be writhing on a stretcher, unable to breathe. Pink foam on the lips and water on the lungs.

Oxygen starvation does strange things to the mind. You see things that aren’t there, bright lights, phantoms. All too often, the man hasn’t the breath to tell you what specral horrors are coming to bear him away with them. He hasn’t even the breath to scream.

One who had survived his own phosgene dreams described it thus: “There was a crimson light falling like rain, like a rain of blood and light. I saw men stumbling in and out of it, dead men, men I’d seen blown apart. They were together with the other side in a rictus embrace, and they were dancing slowly to music I couldn’t hear. They reached out a finger to beckon me to join them in that angry, dead dance.”

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“It’s…good to see you again,” said the Baron. “You’ve been fighting, I hear. Avoiding the family name, the family lands.”

“It was the only way to clear my mind of what happened,” Pyotr replied.

The Baron nodded. “Feodor and Arkady, yes. A tragedy at the hands of those animals, the Socialist Revolutionaries. Arkady died a soldier’s death, and I saw to it he had a soldier’s burial, in the family plot.”

“That was kind of you,” Pyotr said. “A pity you couldn’t be more kind to him in life.”

“I suppose I deserve that,” said the Baron. “Though I hoped that, in the midst of all this madness, that you might understand.”

“What of the family lands? What of Feodor?” Pyotr asked.

“The lands are still ours. I’ve pledged to support the Provisional Government and promised the tenants what they need to get by. The Czar was weak, a weak fool, to let them come to power, but they’re better than the alternative. A bulwark against the Socialist Revolutionaries coming to power.”

“And Feodor?”

“Last I heard he took to the hills with about half of your old State Militia detachment. Joined the SRs, I imagine, though they say that his men took out a German patrol. So they haven’t forgotten their patriotism at least, and are still serving their betters even if they themselves do not yet understand it.”

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“You don’t get it, do you?” snarled Feodor. “I did what I had to do to protect the Baron. He is a noble, he is an important member of His Majesty’s imperial government, and his death would have thrown this oblast into chaos! Those are the kind of decisions a leader has to make.”

“Not with lives,” sobbed Viktor. “Not with human lives, not with people that we love. We fought together, Zinoviy. I would have died for you, and this is how you’ve repaid me? Look at what you’ve done!” He was on his knees, ignoring the still-burning fires from the destroyed automobile, the dead body of his younger brother clutched desperately to his chest.

Pyotr, stunned, could only watch. Rifles cracked all around them as Feodor’s detachment cut the assassins to ribbons. The Baron’s car and the remainder of the motorcade had sped off down the road, not knowing or not caring that his son was still at the site of the ambush with his companions in the State Militia.

Feodor approached Viktor. “I am sorry that he had to die,” he continued in a slightly milder tone. “Truly I am. But the only way to finally squash the Socialist Revolutionaries was to spring their trap, and placing him and the others in the Baron’s car in the motorcade was the only way to do it without endangering the Baron’s life.”

With the speed of a madly uncoiling spring, Feodor leapt to his feet, dropping his brother’s cooling body to the ground. He drew his bayonet–the same cruciform bayonet in the British style that he had made in his father’s shop–and held it to Feodor’s throat. “That’s not true,” he growled. “You could have sat in that car yourself.”

A hue and cry went up, and many of the remaining State Militia trained their weapons. Some aimed at Feodor, others at Viktor, while some like Pyotr simply held their weapons in stunned readiness.

“You wanted to lick the Baron’s boots,” Feodor continued, his words dripping with poison and pain. “Hoping to get him as a patron to better yourself. You used us, all of us, for your own selfishness. Especially him. Especially Arkady.”

“Think about what you’re doing,” said Viktor darkly. “By taking up arms against the State Militia you’re casting your lot in with those that just killed Arkady.”

“No,” spat Feodor. “You killed him. The SRs were simply to trying to wipe his filth off this earth. And you know what? Maybe they’re right.”

With a smooth motion, he drew the blade across Viktor’s throat. Gurgling and spurting crimson, the latter sank to his knees, whimpering as he bled out. Without so much as a glance at his corpse, or at Pyotr, Feodor turned to the militiamen.

“You all saw what happened here, comrades,” he said. “Who will join with me in deserting this rat’s nest and stomping them out, and who will put themselves in the service of those who butcher children for their own advancement?”

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“Cooper, I want to have a word with you about your essay.”

“Yes, Mrs. Chandler.”

“As you know, the essay was about the causes of World War I, which began one hundred years ago this year.”

“Yes, Mrs. Chandler.”

“And yet you say here in your essay that the war began when the duck of peace was stolen and ended when it was reclaimed.”

“That’s right, Mrs. Chandler.”

“And you don’t see any problem with this? What about the Archduke Franz Ferdinand?”

“Well, as I said in the essay, Mrs. Chandler, he had been given the duck of peace to hold onto and the assassins stole it from him.”

“But how could that be when Austria-Hungary was the first to declare war?”

“The Archduke had left the duck of peace to the King of England, so when he died whoever had it wasn’t the right person.”

“And I suppose that means that all future wars had something to do with this ridiculous duck of yours?”

“That’s right, Mrs. Chandler. World War II started when Germany stole the duck from Poland.”

“How in heaven’s name did it get to Poland?”

“It migrated. That’s what ducks do, after all, Mrs. Chandler!”

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Fighting for the man beside us
Seen through gas-mask lenses
Through phosgene clouds
Advancing silhouettes

Rifle’s jammed, a club only
Too long and heavy anyway
When death’s at arm’s length
Or from above, a thunderbolt

I grapple with my enemy
Hand to hand, war to the knife
Fumbling in chemical twilight
Blades though both our chests

Now-useless masks come off
Red foam on uniforms, lips
We clasp trembling hands
Enemies waiting for the end

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“If you gentlemen will just follow me,” said Thérèse d’Uturry, “I will show you where the Huns are billeted in our outbuilding so that you may surprise and capture them.”

Lieutenant Delacroix nodded, and motioned to his poilus to follow with bayonets fixed. They’d had put up with the antics of that crazy woman and her insistence on running her parlor as if she were in high society City of Lights Paris instead of in a ramshackle chateau with lines of combat trenches snaking around the heights it occupied. But soon they would be able to capture a store of prisoners and occupy that strong point as a fait accompli without any further fuss.

“Have I told you about my Paris season, in 1903?” said Thérèse as she led the French soldiers down a muddy and shell-pocked path to the icehouse where the Germans were supposedly holed up, their guard down due to the Uturry “hospitality.”

“Frequently,” grunted Delacroix.

“I would have made such a splash in the cabaret scene if I’d been allowed to stay,” sighed Thérèse. “Did I tell you that I was courted briefly by Clemenceau? I might have made an honest man of him had I not been called back to my chateau to care for my dear family.”

“I’m sure,” Delacroix muttered.

Thérèse slid open the icehouse door and gestured at the floor. “Run in when I open it up.” She gripped an iron ring in the floor and wrenched it up. The door thudded to the ground next to a canvas-covered lump that was the only other thing occupying the space.

Delacroix and his poilus rushed in, with the second man in line brandishing a light for the others to see by. The Germans were there, a scouting patrol’s worth just as Thérèse had said, seated on stools, huddled around the coals of a cold and dark furnace. There was no response to the lieutenant’s barked orders, in German, to surrender. His men looked at each other, bewildered.

The Huns were already dead, to a man. Someone had carefully posed their bodies, to the extent of even placing cigarette stubs and glasses in their hands, in the cool and dry environment of the icehouse.

“What is the meaning of this, Mme. d’Uturry?” demanded Delacroix. He turned to look up the steps…just in time to see that the canvas covering of the object upstairs had been swept away to reveal a loaded Hotchkiss machine gun. Grime from the battlefield still coated the barrel.

Delacoix began to croak an order for his men to open fire, but their full-length Lebel rifles with fixed bayonets were too unwieldy to maneuver in such a tight space…just as the Germans’ Gewehr 98s had been. The lieutenant tried to bring his own Chamelot Delvigne revolver to bear, but the sight of a bloodstained Luger on the floor told of a similar, futile action on the part of the German oberstleutnant.

Thérèse opened fire. These men would stay here, with her; they would join her ever-growing circle of admirers.

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Some people painted their cars with crude woodland camouflage. Rick painted his with authentic World War I pattern Royal Navy dazzle camouflage.

Yes, Rick was a bit of a WWI nut, dating from the day that he’d found his great-grandfather’s collection of war medals, including a German insignia said to have been taken from a dead man. World War II got all the press and all the movies since it was all black and white without shades of grey, but Rick reveled in the moral ambiguity of the older conflict and researched it compulsively in his spare time between menial jobs.

After all, going to reenactments usually meant a cross-Atlantic plane ticket at best.

Sure, people pointed and laughed and whispered a little. But was Rick any more eccentric than the Elvis impersonator who worked at Costco, or the body piercing and suspension fanatic who waited tables at Stuckey’s?

At least, that’s what Rick thought until he woke up one morning to the sound of air raid sirens and Zeppelin motors overhead.

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