Aphelion Issue 275, Volume 26
August 2022
 
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The New Kultur

by Ian Cordingley



"They dreamed of a fusion of worlds, physical and spiritual. Indeed, as the technical accomplishment grew in direction it was correspondingly more prone to fabulation. Necessity may have fathered invention, but invention then brought forth intention. The technical became spiritual."

Modris Ekstein, Rites of Spring

Trying not to stare was difficult. Mothers guided children between their legs, hissing at them not to point. Other pedestrians were ready with a false smile and a bon soir. November this year was cold and wet and a distracting fidget of a coat collar was enough.

Antoine shuddered at the thought he couldn't have been much older.

The man was missing an arm. He supported his spindly body on a rickety cane. God only knew what horrors he had witnessed: gas, monsters biological or mechanical. Although his skin appeared stretched and leathery his face was intact; thank God someone had been able to repair that. His mouth had settled into a forced smile. After a few years this was still a common sight on Parisian streets. Would they ever become used to it?

The man shuffled off towards the metro station. The rain began to spit a little harder. Wretched night to be out but Michel wanted to meet him. It had been a couple of years, he had been in Zurich for most of it. Resuming his studies and pursuing what he described as "new avenues of research."

It always had gone over Antoine's head. All he knew was that he was made to paint. Atrocious math scores and bad memories of forced marches through the sciences. Antoine, Michel, David, Raoul and Claude in the days before the war: easels stationed in strategically beautiful parts of Paris, in Montmartre and along the Seine, trying to emulate the Impressionists or some other favorite art style. Michel was the odd man out. A determined amateur. All he had left of the old world now.

Zeppelins hung low in the sky. Cargo and passenger zeppelins but Antoine still felt a shiver, a reminder of the days when they were loaded with bombs. Leaflets advertising the exhibition of German war monsters; probably some bulls or cows with spines or wings stitched or force grown into their bodies in a dark room. Exterminating those creatures to the last was a high priority of the allies.

Several years on Germany was defanged, and after two years of service Antoine was back home. Trying to piece together his youth again. When not working he was painting. The veteran inside him wrestling against the temptation to go to Berlin. Trying very hard to ignore the talk in the artistic community: Berlin is modern. They're changing over there.

He found the café where Michel was waiting for him. Crowded and smoky, many absorbed in newspapers reporting Germany's groans. Inflation, reparations. Fitting punishment in his mind.

"Antoine!"

They shook hands. "I must ask," Michel said, "how your art is doing?"

Antoine smiled. Weak, the same way as a young man when he talked to his parents about school. "It is doing...reasonably."

"That's good. Progress."

Antoine shrugged. "If you insist."

He felt like an oddity at times. Older patrons praised his work. "Not enough of this these days!" Usually this would be followed by some terse comment about the horrible state of modern art reduced to smears of paint across the canvas or incomprehensible geometry.

Standing by his works at galleries or showings sometimes he envied the other arts. Bold, flaunting convention as artists should. Granted their paintings looked like shit.

"Well, it is good to see you back at the easel. So long during the war..."

"Yes."

Old friends lost, friends that made every walk along the Seine almost unbearable. The day Michel almost got tossed in by some over opinionated guardian of the arts. What had once been a source of vigorous laughter almost brought him to tears. All he had left of those days was Michel, darting back and forth between Paris and Zurich.

"Well," Antoine said, tilting his cup slightly, "to absent friends."

"Absent friends."

They made a weak toast.

"How have you been?" Antoine asked.

"Extraordinarily well," Michel replied. "I've been on the move a lot."

"For your research."

"Partially. Discussions of certain aspects of biology, science in general. Had an interesting one in Munich -- I won‘t bore you with the esoteric aspects. Fascinating research coming out of Germany."

Antoine winced a little at Germany. Granted they were toothless now--Clemenceau saw to that--with their monsters all murdered, their fleets lying under the Scapa flow or in a heap in Thuringia. Two painful years were hard to remove from his mind.

"Don't think back to those days," Michel said. "We live in new times. A new world."

"Yes," Antoine took another sip. "So, what tempted you away?"

"I'm back," he explained, "to display my research."

"Pardon?"

Michel scribbled down an address on a napkin. Two nights from now at eight o'clock. Some auditorium hidden deep within Belleville.

"Getting supporters: financial mostly. I think we were up to a billion marks for a loaf of bread when I left. Possibly worse now. Scientific too."

"Beast warfare is illegal now."

"No," Michel said. "They're not animals."

Antoine inspected the address. Nothing but rain and cold to look forwards to, and his apartment would become cool and unpleasant. At least other bodies promised a warm room.

"I'm game," he said. "You have my interest."

Michel patted him on the shoulder. "I look forwards to it."

####

Night time was the worst: the screaming only became more pathetic and pleading. Some monster was prowling out in No Man's Land, something created from the genes of some prehistoric monster. Fangs as thick as his forearm. One by one the screaming became a terrified cry and there was one less voice in the night. Raiding parties, men stranded between offensives too remote or wounded to be recovered fell prey to each side's sentinels.

Antoine pressed his head against his rifle as it rested on the sides of the trench. Please, God, make it stop.

The guns were quiet. In the distance artillery rumbled intermitted. A tarp thrown over the machine gun. No offensives planned: German zeppelins had left their Thuringia bases to menace Montreal and New York; walkers were kept under tarps, engines purring; only a few monsters dueled in the spaces between the combatants. Both sides were mutually exhausted. One night of ostensible peace---he preferred it when death rained from above, quick merciful death.

The terrain looked like a sea of mud and craters. Around the Belgian border there were creatures that slipped through the mud, pulling men off their duckboards and to their inglorious deaths. Some tanks, squat and square, sank into the mud, blackened by fire. Perhaps the Germans had given up on trying to break through here. The moon was out and full. Too bright probably for any attempt at an ambush. If they were coming they would have to be bolder than cunning.

A quick check: no one noticing. He dug around his gas mask's container. His crumpled, pocket sized sketch book and a grease pencil. Flickering through a few pages, past experiments documenting machines and men slouched in the trenches at rest.

In the moonlight, though mostly in his mind's eye, he could still see the farm. Just a few shattered walls, the roof long since burned up and fallen in. Marooned closer to the German lines, the surrounding terrain, the old fields and orchards, churned up by thousands of shells.

"They'll harvest more skulls than potatoes after the war," Claude had said.

A week since he died: a sniper's bullet. Nothing complicated, nothing glorious. One shot and Claude was lying at the bottom of the trench, a smile on his pale face while blood streamed from the wound.

Trees spindly like matchwood, branches almost collapsing under their weight. Pregnant with fruit once; the field was once a rippling sea of grain. Sheep and cows at pasture. A family had lived there, several generations worth, almost back to the time of castles.

"What do you think happened to them?" Antoine has asked.

Claude had shrugged. "Somewhere safe: Brussels, Amsterdam, Paris."

"America?"

"God willing."

Finally the Americans were in the fight. Were they prepared, really prepared? Probably not though boasts of applying fathomless ingenuity to the new tools of war were in all the papers.

A haze creeping in along the bottom, growing thicker....

"Gas!"

"Raid! Men out there, ten meters away!"

Merde. Clappers sounded along the trench. Antoine kicked the man closest to him. He rustled out of the canvas, searching for his gas mask. Shouts and warnings, hearts hammering. Of all the ways to die in this war gas was probably the most feared.

Antoine had his on in record time. He took an experimental breath. Leather and metal, musty and wet but preferable to what the poilu implemented in the early days: urine and rags. Fog made the glasses lenses harder to look through, not helped by the pictures faintly painted on their surfaces.

Before and after: two stern face young men on his left and right eyes. One standing sternly, comically long weapon and bayonet at his side; and on the other, a young man (the same? The speculation could not be denied) sitting missing a leg. His face was creased as if suddenly aged. American? Rumors of cheap old glass plates bought by the government, fifty years older or more, for gas mask eyepieces. Littering American post offices, welcome to be rid of old ghosts, sold for a song.

Antoine grabbed his rifle and pulled himself to the ready in case some advancing troops were following the gas. The tarp was hurled off the machine gun. Michel took his usual place behind it. Distorted by metal into something off of Picasso's canvases. Almost a creature composed entirely of right angles. He began to fire immediately.

Men were following. Spread out, growing thicker and closer. God, if any of them had flame throwers...

Stay back, stay back, stay back.

Snarling, panting: they were letting one of theirs lead the charge. Antoine ignored the figures in the mist; he wanted to find the profile of one of the monsters charging forwards. Good God, they were bred to withstand gas. There...

Large, panting, one massive leg before the other. Leathery skin, thick to withstand bullets and bayonets. Fangs as long as his foot, sharp and glistening. Set that thing loose in a trench...

He fired. He didn't kill it: it was knocked to the ground but picked itself up and snarled louder. Antoine fired thrice into the monster's face. It appeared to be immobile now; at least it was quiet. Then he fired at one of the German soldier's legs; he screamed as he went down. Someone else fired the killing shot.

Antoine struggled to reload. Yelps and cries were heard as Michel tore into them with the machine gun. Two creatures fell; one defiantly tried to struggle back to its feet but a stream of hot lead kept him down. It took all the bullets he had, and frantically the assistant gunner was trying to cool the device while Michel reloaded.

But they had held. The gas reached the trench and everyone had taken precautions. Someone was choking off to one side but Antoine couldn't tell who, and tried hard to dismiss the thought from his mind. Just his imagination.

The figures disappeared back into the fog. Shouts in German that experience had taught him were calls to withdraw. Some of their wounded were left behind, moaning and writhing. Too early to tell if a party would be sent across to retrieve them. Too early to tell if it would bother anyone if they did not.

Michel was the man of the hour. Usually he was, most of the men in the trench only hoping they could leave of heap of corpses on the battlefield. Antoine felt his arms rest; he had only expended a single magazine of ammunition. Michel was slowly stripping off his gloves, waiting for the gas to dissipate before he could remove his mask. A wide smile must have been on his face. A couple of men patted him on the back.

Antoine pulled his mask off. The gas had dissipated from lethal amounts to a horrible funk in the air; his nose still prickled and it seemed to travel down his throat like a burning liquid. The ghosts in the eyepieces still haunted him: the mirrored men, one mutilated and one whole. Frowning at him with displeasure. For a moment that was a fate he had avoided. Their disappointed eyes burned back at him.

Michel dug out a cigarette and lit it, taunting the men in the enemy lines. Antoine just sank against the damp wall of the trench, finally get the chance to catch his breath.

He hadn't heard from the larks in a long time. Perhaps one of the leathery creatures that nested in a ruined tank had eaten them all.

####

There was a large crowd. Antoine was surprised. Milling around a grungy theatre as if this was another clandestine exhibition. Antoine would not be surprised: perhaps Michel's discoveries were how to more convincingly milk money from bemused audiences.

Some were surprisingly well dressed. Apparently curiosity had compelled learned men to this corner of Belleville. They glanced around, stifling bemusement at their company and their surroundings.

He fingered the eyepieces in his pocket. Tainted a little green from the gas attacks. Souvenirs: others had taken something, or, if unfortunate, had something taken from them. The young man: on the left, proud and defiant; on the right, cowed and sullen.

Definitely American, half a century ago. Was he still alive? Scientific warfare had been in its infancy then. American biologists were limited to the availability of the continent's past. Shaggy mammoths, saber tooth cats used to take down cavalry. Ericsson's Monitor and Bradley's Iron Hercules, clumsy things both.

The crowd shuffled inside. Grumbling, cigarettes thrown to the wet streets.

The theatre was old, performing cheap plays by questionably talented writers. Not enough patrons to entice the owners to repair the tattered wood or repaint the chipping walls. The curtains had faded into a neutral tan. Antoine found his rough, uncomfortable seat. Jostling a couple of elbows who belonged to men on the opposite ends of the social spectrum.

The lights dimmed. A spotlight appeared on the stage. When the murmuring died down Michel walked through the curtains and onto the stage.

"Madames et Monsieurs," he began, "welcome. I understand that my invitation was a little vague, and I would like to thank you for your intrepidness."

Michel began to pace the stage.

"We live in a world that's different. Europe is changed. We can, regardless of our philosophy or our station in life, can agree upon that. We have for a continent a blank canvas."

Michel turned swiftly on one heel. "Consider Russia: the czar is gone, and a truly alien world is under construction."

"I didn't come to listen to a Bolshevist," someone behind Antoine grumbled.

"Oh, I'm no communist. The communists may be many things, but at least they have eyes on the future. They are creating a new world. In time, so must we."

"Evolution," Michel bellowed to head off anticipated protests, the nationalists in the crowd aching to drown out the raving of a Bolshevik, "states only the strong survive. For centuries we have applied this technique to our cattle and our crops. It is time we turn similar techniques on ourselves---husbandry for the human race!"

"I am an artist. I am, and people like me, are exploring a new medium: life itself."

"Interesting choice of medium," someone muttered. Laughter followed.

"Humanity," Michel said, "is art. A primitive form of art. Only the crudest and most inept sculptor has been working on us. An amateur: I can point out his many mistakes and flaws."

Along the back wall he got some applause. A few older specimens looked indignant. Too many young sacrilegiously indifferent to tradition these days.

"Please, now," Michel said to the back of the stage.

Curtains along the back wall parted. A figure walked forth at his beckoning.

Six and a half feet tall, skin olive and tight. Rippling muscles and a strong posture indicating the superhuman confidence within.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Michel said. "This is Adam. The New Man."

####

Finally the weather was fair. Their truck bumped over the filthy road. It was a welcome change to the trenches and a welcome boost to morale. Finally, four years in, the great advances they had been promised.

Antoine hadn't found the time to do any sketches. Too much land passed by before he could get an idea of what it looked like, and it was too similar. Life was returning as the fighting shifted towards Germany, but still nothing but vast fields of mud and spindly trees and debris.

A German walker stood almost completely erect like half a man. A scout walker, likely part of a flanking maneuver. Probably left over from the last offensive, running out of ammo and fuel. It was blackened and burned from an attempt to destroy it.

He made a quick sketch. Normally he avoided drawing modern technologies, weapons especially, but it was too tempting. Like half a suit of armor...it could work.

Antoine was drawn towards the impressionists. A touch of surreal maybe. But he wished he had seen it a few months later, after the ground began to be covered with grass. Renewal.

"The future," Michel said.

"Pardon?"

Michel pointed. "Look."

Not long down the road some other soldiers were heaping corpses of German abominations into a pile. Covering them with pitch and gasoline, setting them on fire. One moaned, it wasn't quite dead. Nobody stepping forward with a merciful bullet. Missed its chance to be taken alive to be vivisected.

"The future. Remember when it started and they rode through Paris on horses?"

"I was a boy then," Antoine said. "Hoping I'd start growing whiskers."

Paris was a riot of color and patriotism. When the Germans came closer attitudes changed, and when the streets became laden with coffins and choked with the maimed the atmosphere had evaporated.

But the poilu in their blue coats and red pantaloons marched proudly down the Champs Élysées.

"Sad fools," Michel said. "They kept our creations in reserve, off the streets. Too hideous; spooked the horses."

Antoine said nothing. He had made a few cheap sketches and watercolors during the early days of the war. Scientific warfare made for excellent pulp fiction, but this was a war of principles and honor. Tradition had not last long.

Michel snuggled deeper against the wood and canvas.

"It's finally ending."

"Think we'll go back to muskets and cavalry?"

"No," Antoine admitted.

"Wondering what we'll go to war with next? Or with who?"

"One thing at a time," Antoine said. "We still have this war to wrap up."

"I can only imagine," Michel grinned, "what I'll be doing after the war."

Antoine strangled a sarcastic retort that with fewer artists to clog the streets he would have a greater market share. Where had that come from? These truly were different days.

The truck trundled down along the dirt road. It felt great to be carried towards the horizon. Towards the end of the war and the future. The sun felt strong on his face and Antoine took it as a good omen.

####

The crowd was intrigued, but withheld judgment. Michel probably intended a vicious response: playing God, creating a monster. Bemusement threw him for a loop.

Mostly people talked amongst themselves.

Michel stood, keeping a confident look on his face. Waiting for some reply, any reply. Bottles hurled at his head or roses.

A hand along the front row stretched up. "Excuse me, but what is the purpose of this...mongoloid?"

Mongoloid got small laughter.

"Adam is many things, but a mongoloid he is not. Observe."

From backstage were produced clearly-labeled weights, the smallest 100 pounds. Adam handled them without great effort, almost tossing them into the air. Following that he performed several gymnastic feats.

"Peerless agility as you can see. Sharp and flexible intellect."

Adam smirked at the praise.

"Adam has been bred, carefully cultivated from amongst the finest of human stock. The genetic research of German biologists..."

Veterans in the audience stiffened. Faces soured in places either out of genuine knowledge of what the Germans had created or fear from second-hand information. Words like monster began to circulate through the audience.

"I can assure you that this has nothing to do with the monstrosities of the Great War. Quite the opposite: Adam was bred from men desiring only peace. We gave him these gifts to be used only for good."

That would be a tough proposition to defend. Some looked old enough to remember the siege of Paris by Prussia (they came in balloons, laughably tumbling through the air on imperfect motors but frightfully lethal when used well), let alone the last war.

"I shall let Adam argue his case. Adam?"

Adam cleared his throat. He reared his head back, with pride, squaring his shoulders as if he was preparing for some great work. He recited complicated formulas, calculated in seconds with Michel boasting of the superiority of his intellect.

Some in the crowd nodded; others looked confused. Where, exactly, was the point? Math would go over the heads of the majority of people---better to stick to physical feats, something easily understood.

"Nothing is beyond Adam's faculties," Michel continued to boast. "Nothing."

"Is...is that intelligence?" Antoine startled himself at his newly discovered boldness.

"Antoine, my friend, my fellow soldier," Michel said. "You must have something to contribute, please continue."

"You claim you are intelligent," Antoine said. "Please elaborate."

"I am intelligent, cunning and rational," Adam said. "My mind is perfectly aligned to create order out of chaos. I am discerning, focused."

"Chaos -- in the abstract. But not in the smeary sky, or in the night or fog. You can determine the concrete, but can you have true feeling?"

Adam momentarily broke his expression of placidity. But he recovered as quickly: "I look for the beauty that is absolute, concrete. What a superior mind can discern."

"Can you create?"

"I can create order."

"But not beauty?" Antoine asked.

"Order," Adam repeated. "Order is sufficient."

"Then is he a man then? If he cannot appreciate the small, the delicate? If he cannot understand that, well, have we created a man or a puppet?"

Michel did not have an immediate reply, and neither did the audience. Perhaps a few people nodded to themselves. Maybe a few were swayed; otherwise, Antoine was certain he was lost somewhere between the polarized sides within the theatre. Adam stood proudly: win or lose his point was proven.

"A point of contention, my friend," Michel said.

Michel continued for a few minutes more. The audience began to shuffle out but Antoine drifted towards the stage.

"What did you think?" Michel asked.

"Incredible," Antoine said. "Although some of the implications I think are a little...vague."

They shook hands. "I have to go back to Germany for awhile," Michel said.

"Certainly," Antoine said, trepidation in his voice. He followed the crowd out of the auditorium and into the night. Shuffling off fast as he could to the metro station.

It had grown colder. The portentous moon seemed fuller, larger and brighter. Almost like the dim, milky faces in the lens Antoine kept in his pocket.

THE END


© 2012 Ian Cordingley

Bio: Ian Cordingley's work has appeared in Bewildering Stories and Estronomicon and, of course, Aphelion (most recently, Vox, April 2012).

E-mail: Ian Cordingley

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