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Christmas Truce

by Harry Turtledove

Messines had been through hell, but it looked like heaven to the men of the 16th Bavarian Infantry Reserve Regiment. They’d gone through hell themselves. They and their comrades hadn’t quite driven the Tommies out of Ypres, but too damned many of them had died trying. Many more were too badly shot up ever to go back into the meat grinder of war again.

Half of the ones the rifle and machine-gun bullets had missed, the ones who hadn’t got torn to rags by shrapnel balls or shell fragments, came out of the trenches and back to Messines with weary relief. Battle had shattered the little Belgian town, but it made a soft billet all the same. Not even the biggest English guns could reach it now. If you were going to celebrate the Christmas season anywhere in this world gone mad with murder, Messines made a better place than most.

Soldiers sang “Stille Nacht, heilige Nacht.” They improvised Christmas trees by using cartridge cases to hold candles on evergreen boughs. Most of all, they stood straight when they walked. You skulked through the muddy trenches, hunched over like a chimpanzee. You did if you wanted to live, anyhow. If a limey marksman got a glimpse of the top of your head, even for a second, he’d splatter your brains against the trench wall behind you.

Folks back home did their best to make the Landsers as comfortable as they could. Cards and letters poured forward. At Christmastime, so did packages. The Feldpost worked miracles, getting socks and mufflers and cakes and hams and sausages to the men for whom they were intended.

A brewery in Munich shipped beer to the regiment to help it celebrate victories against the Russians. A man with a few marks in his pocket might get sparkling wine from the Belgians. A man who didn’t mind knocking them around with his rifle butt might, too. The military police would come down on you if you were too blatant about it, but they took a broad view of such things.

Not everyone in the regiment cared about Christmas. Most of the men were good Catholics—most, but not all. Most of them poured down all the beer and wine and schnapps and applejack they could get their paws on—once more, most, but not all. Every outfit will have its handful of white crows.

Sometimes they get grief from their comrades. Sometimes, if they’re brave and eager in spite of being strange, they earn the right to be left alone. Sometimes their strangeness blends with their bravery, and they even win respect.

A Gefreiter with an upswept mustache sat under the shelter of overhanging eaves, working on a watercolor of the battered monastery across the way. The subject was gloomy. So was the watercolor. The Gefreiter nodded to himself, pleased with the lines’ lack of sharpness. That showed something of the way the monastery’s sharp lines had been abraded by time and by shellfire, and also something of the way the mist in the air blurred his view.

Of course, there were other ways to get your view blurred, too. A soldier from the regiment staggered down the street, one of those liters of Munich beer clamped in his right fist. By the way he stumbled along, and by the sozzled grin plastered across his mug, it wasn’t his first liter, or his second, either.

To the Gefreiter’s annoyance, the drunken Landser spotted him in his little half-dry niche. “Adi!” the fellow exclaimed, and waved so enthusiastically, he almost fell over. “What are you doing there?”

“Hello, Klaus,” Adolf Hitler answered reluctantly. “I’m trying to paint a picture.”

Would Klaus take the hint? Too much to hope for; Hitler had feared it would be. “What are you wasting your time on rubbish like that for?” the drunk demanded. “Grab some beer, man, some beer! Christ only knows when we’ll ever get our mitts on more.”

“That’s all right. I don’t really want any.” The Gefreiter despised beer and wine and spirits. He hated the way they turned men into leering apes.

“Don’t want any?” Klaus dug a fingertip into his ear, as if he couldn’t follow Hitler’s Austrian dialect. “You’re a queer duck, Adi—no two ways about it. Don’t get me wrong. You’ve got balls. Nobody I’d sooner have beside me when the bullets fly. But sweet Lord Jesus, you’re a queer duck.”

Hitler shrugged a tight little shrug. He knew Klaus was only saying what most of the men in the outfit felt. He was one of those white crows, one of those green monkeys. The soldiers had had a bellyful of war by now. They wanted to go home to their parents or their wives. He had no one like that to go home to. And he liked it at the front. He’d never felt so alive as he did when he went into action. Wasn’t survival of the fittest what life was all about?

Klaus sighed. “Well, if you won’t drink, at least you can snag something to eat. They’ve got goose and ham and roast capon and all kinds of goodies. You’re too skinny, Adi. Gotta fatten yourself up.”

Fatten myself for the slaughter, Hitler thought. Aloud, he said, “I’m fine. I had something before I came out here.” And he had—some prunes and some hardtack. He ate meat only when he couldn’t get anything else. It made him feel heavy, greasy, bloated.

With a shrug, Klaus lurched off. His attitude seemed to be that he’d given it his best shot. If his Kamerad didn’t feel like listening to him, well, that was just Hitler’s tough luck.

Muttering under his breath, Hitler went back to the watercolor. He muttered some more when he made a brushstroke he didn’t like at all. He’d let that drunken idiot distract him, dammit. READ MORE

 

Cloud

by Michael Swanwick

“Oh, and I should warn you that Aunt Céline is going to make a pass at you.”

“What?” Most of Wolfgang’s attention was on the road. Its surface was slick, and it wound through a forest of misty trees, twists of pale water vapor that faded indistinctly into the surrounding night. “Excuse me, you said what?”

“She’s hit on all of my beaux,” Judith said. “Well, almost all. The ones she didn’t, I always found out later there was something wrong with them. In retrospect, I probably should have run them past her before going to bed with any of them.”

“Wow.” The sign for I-87 floated out of the darkness and Wolfgang took the ramp. “I guess I’d better hope for the best, or we’ll have to call off the wedding.”

“You’ve got nothing to worry about, handsome.” Judith patted his thigh. “Trust me.”

They drove on in silence for a bit. The interstate was more heavily traveled than the Parkway had been, but straighter and better lit. A bridge rose up before them, and they crossed over a deep chasm caused by a fold in the cloudbanks. Down at its bottom was a bright ribbon of roads and buildings where the surface was flat enough to build upon. “Aunt Céline sounds like quite a character,” Wolfgang said.

“Oh, I told you about her! Céline was the family scandal. She married a man thirty years older than herself—”

“Harmon Anderson, I know.”

“—and I forget how many billions richer. Then, when he died, she spent years defending the estate from his children by the first two marriages. She fought them down to scorched earth. There were headlines. But no one can deny the good she’s done with that charity she founded.”

“You’re proud of her.”

“Darling, who wouldn’t be? Wait until you see her place.” Judith leaned forward and turned on the radio. A scatter of clacking notes of light jazz led into Terry Gross’s voice:

Today on Fresh Air: Is the Cloud trembling on the brink of a rainstorm that will dissolve our world beneath us? Some scientists say yes. I’ll be talking with Dr. James L. Stafford, who—

Wolfgang flicked off the radio. “We don’t have to listen to that. I mean, Christ. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof, right?”

“You’re nervous!” Judith crowed in delight. “My big bad woof is nervous about meeting the family.”

“Don’t be absurd. I’ve faced down the best the Department of Justice could throw at me. Families are nothing.” He shifted into a higher gear and gave the Jaguar a taste of speed. It wove around and through the traffic. Meanwhile, the cloudbanks swelled up and up and up and the road went with them. Far above, at their peak, shone the bright skyscrapers of New York City.

*   *   *

The door opened onto a comfortable haze of conversation and laughter. A string quartet was playing Bach. A valet took their coats.

Before they could plunge in, a tall woman in an Issey Miyake gown swooped down upon them. “Judith!” she cried, adding after an almost imperceptible pause, “and you must be Wolfgang. How delightful, come in, come in.” With hugs and air kisses, Céline drew them out of the anteroom and into the suite. “I don’t think you’ve been here since I redecorated? Let me show you around.” She took Judith by the arm and led her through the penthouse, Wolfgang tagging after. This room had a variety of features and the tapestry came from Spain and hello, it’s been so long, you know Judith, don’t you? Guests loomed up and melted back into the party.

They drifted through the library, the media area, and the spa, their brief confrontations with a famous cinematographer, his jailbait companion, and a politician on the way down dissolving to nothingness the instant they turned their backs. Wolfgang could not help reflecting on how good Céline looked for a woman of her age. Her vivacity was a part of it, of course, but so was her gown, cut low to show off her freckled breasts. They looked as if they’d been sprinkled with cinnamon. Small silver stretch marks showed at their tops, so he had to assume they were natural. It was easy to see why her late husband had been moved to acquire her. Wolfgang could vividly imagine those breasts naked, beginning to sag but not so much as to be a problem, could picture himself cupping them in his hands, could all but feel their warmth and weight on his palms.

“. . . should warn you that Radford’s in a sour mood,” Céline was saying.

“Oh, Radford!” Judith cocked her head and launched a dismissive eyebrow. “Nobody takes him seriously.”

The tour wound up where they’d begun, in what Wolfgang now learned was called the commons. A table had newly materialized with hors d’oeuvres to one side, sushi to the other, iced oysters in the center. The caterer—or, no, Céline would have a full-time cook, surely, so this would be another servant—stood by it in respectful silence. On the wall opposite was an oil painting that Wolfgang had somehow failed to notice when he came in. Now his eye went straight to it.

“But this is—” He stopped. “Surely it can’t be.” READ MORE

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