A shape moved in the branches.
‘Who’s there?’ John shouted.
A naked man covered in paint leapt down. ‘Prohiba!’ he yelled as he landed.
‘Shit!’ John stumbled back.
‘Prohiba homusionem!’ the man’s wild eyes widened and he jabbed a three-pronged spear at John’s chest.
John was too surprised to be scared and his first thought was how lucky he’d just been for a piss or he would have ruined his trousers. The thought tickled him and he smiled.
‘Ego ridiculam?’ the man barked.
Who was this nutter? Probably some local farmer angry with the army for straying onto his land.
‘Sorry mate, I don’t understand you,’ John lifted the machine gun off his shoulder and checked the magazine was locked in. ‘Je na comprend pas.’
‘Quid agis homusionem?’ the farmer barked, hopping from foot to foot in his sandals.
‘Listen, I don’t understand you. I’m just trying to get back… home,’ John shoulders dropped: he’d had enough of all this fighting.
The painted man stared at John and twisted his head in a manner that unnerved him. He had seen it before: a lad in his battalion, Miller, had lost all emotion: no smile; no fear. The next day he bayonetted his commanding officer and was shot running across no-man’s land in his underpants.
‘Don’t you try nothing!’ John lowered his gun.
‘Tim-entes?’ the man growled and took a step forward.
‘I’ve had enough of this,’ John slipped off the safety and fired a burst of bullets into the dirt, showering the painted man with earth. The noise of the gun reverberated around the forest, silencing the nearest shouts. John didn’t care, he’d heard it a thousand times before, but it had set off a wave of angry energy. ‘Now fuck off or I’ll fill you with holes, you nutter!’ He shouted.
With narrowed eyes, the man backed away and disappeared through the trees.
Now John realised it wasn’t paint the farmer had been covered in but tattoos. He closed his eyes and could hear bells ringing in the distance. The trees were spread out here and he spotted a black object on the crown of a hill. ‘Must be where it’s coming from.’ Tentatively, John stepped into the open where people were walking to the hill’s crown. Who were they? Some carried guns, others held swords or spears and most wore armour. He recognised one man’s blue coat from a book his grandfather kept by his armchair.
‘He should be long dead,’ John whispered to himself. ‘So I must have died.’ He felt dizzy and leant on his gun. He had to get out of here. Somewhere safe. He turned to go back into the forest when a thought came to him. ‘If I’m dead, maybe Rosie’s here too?’ But where were his friends and the soldiers who had died during his war? Where were all the Huns he had shot from the crater? He hadn’t seen one uniform from his war yet. A bemused smile crept across his face as new warriors came into view: a Roman centurion with a rectangular shield; a Mongol archer; a bronze-armoured spearman and a tall African warrior holding an incredibly long spear and wearing little more than a jock-strap.
‘Must be some kind of soldier heaven,’ John spoke out loud as though he was in a dream. ‘Either that or the gas has set me hallucinating.’
He felt like he was watching a play. This couldn’t be a dream because all these people were interacting in ways he couldn’t imagine. Soldiers weighed up their nearest neighbours with scorn or derision. Some fought and some talked. The warriors from ancient times inspected their neighbour’s weapons with confusion, while modern soldiers eyed their ancestors with suspicion, fearing a practical joke. They were all heading to the summit, towards the black tip, which wasn’t a building after all, but an obelisk, like the one back home by the Thames, only this one was covered in white writing.
‘That should give me an idea of where-,’ John stopped and turned his head like a deer sensing a predator. He heard someone speaking English.
‘Hello?’ He turned to locate the voice, staring at the people around him
It was no good. The voice came and went.
‘Station command… Delta… read me?’
John side-stepped through the crowd.
‘Can you read me?’ the American voice was clear now.
John saw movement inside a grove of blue-leaved trees and pulled the branches back to see a crouching man talking to his wrist.
‘Do you copy?’ the man sounded anxious.
John studied him before venturing any nearer. He wore a grey, skin-tight suit, a shiny helmet and a small backpack. No weapon? John relaxed: this man was the least dangerous person he had seen yet – maybe he was a communication officer?
‘Station command this is Delta-Six. I repeat: the enemy have transported me from my position. Current location unknown. Positioning systems down. No satellites or orbit stations located. I may be under sedation or captured in a virtual world. I will make contact on the hour, every hour. Delta-Six, out.’
‘I was starting to think I was the only English speaker around here!’ John’s throat felt dry.
Delta-Six jumped to his feet and strode over, pointing his clenched fist at John. ‘Stay there,’ he demanded.
‘Oh… I guess I can’t look too friendly walking ’round with a machine gun, can I?’ John froze as Delta-Six turned a blue torch on John.
‘Where are you from?’ the American snapped mechanically.
‘Woodsham, London but…’
‘No. Where exactly have you come from?’ Delta-Six asked with his arm pointed at John.
He was taller than John, which he was used to. ‘Well, Belgium - Flanders.’
‘Nineteen Seventeen, April the…’
Delta-Six sniffed and walked out of the trees.
‘Wait! Where are you going?’ John shouted, fumbling through the branches and back into the open.
‘Stop! Please – I just need some answers and you’re the only one I can talk to… the only one I understand.’ Swinging his gun under his arm, John chased him. ‘Wait!’ He reached out to touch the American’s shoulder and an electric shock blasted through his hand, throwing John backwards and everything went black.