Some of the men around him called the HMS Obstinate, a Floating Fortress, but in truth, it was so much more than that. Because while its purpose was primarily defensive, the great lumbering beast provided the kind of aerial support that their enemies could only dream of. It was somewhere between an airship and a fort. Its great armoured shell had its beginnings deep in the resurgent mines of Northern England but the alien core that allowed it to move so impossibly in almost any direction came from the heart of the Grey Watch where men and women sought tirelessly to understand a legacy gifted to them by beings long gone.
It also didn’t help that they made the Airclad’s corridors a maze to navigate. More than once he had got lost, either heading to his barracks or to the mess hall. He served as a gunner, which meant controlling the great mass driver cannon that could tear apart anything unfortunate enough to be in its path. He didn’t know what went into the gun, he just knew that it blew shit up and that was all that mattered. After wandering lost for a while, he soon found the mess hall shared by some officers and fellow gunners. He joined a small queue of men intent on having their bowl of slop. It would probably be their last meal until the horn blew. He also knew he was lucky. The HMS Obstinate was one of a few dozen serving Airclads and those not fortunate enough to be assigned to it had to navigate the war below by fighting trench to trench. And sometimes not even that. He only knew that they were advancing to Maubeuge and from there they would provide aerial support to other parts of the French army and the British Expeditionary Force. That was what he had been told. But that’s the thing when you’re a grunt with a big gun.
They don’t tell you the whole story.
Things started well enough. The Obstinate’s gunners used their high-powered cannons to chip away at the advancing German army, but that was the thing. For every crater made, they plugged the hole. He didn’t know how many had been sent to halt their advance. But it left a bad feeling in his gut and his chest tightened as he, with help from a support gunner, carried another missile and loaded it. They returned the simplistic interface setup beside the cannon and imputed the commands. The sound it made as it launched its payload would be enough to deafen anyone. So they had to wear specially designed ear muffs that would dampen the worst of it. It still left his head ringing. They communicated in hand signals and the task had become so monotonous that when it happened, the shock of it alone might have killed him had it not been for his support gunner who all but pushed him into the corridor, not that it mattered. They were as good as dead.
Whatever the Germans had brought with them, it was made to bring down the Obstinate. Explosions ripped through the hull and sucked the air, men and anything else out into the open sky. The integrity of the ship gave way to a barrage of heavy artillery fire. He threw off the muffs and darted down a nearby corridor, remembering that the airship had pods for this exact situation. He would have his war. Unsurprisingly, he was not alone in this goal as men crowded the pod launch room. The sounds of chaos, swearing, and desperation led him to push his way back through the crowd.
There has to be another –
And all at once, the floating fortress floated no more.
He gasped for breath, but it only made his lungs hurt more. He lay on a scorched earth as heavy gunfire echoed off in the distance. All around him were the cries of dying men swallowed by the fires of the felled fortress. In his blur, two people approached, one spoke in German. The other, a more deformed-looking thing, had once only existed in his nightmares. He knew they had existed. They had all heard the stories but to see one in person and like this. He was almost thankful for his blurred vision.
“This one still breathes. They call these machines of war. Sloppy,” scolded the German as he pointed the barrel of the rifle down at the dying man. “If this is all you have. This will be a quick war!”
From where he lay, the soldier lifted his clenched fist.
“Oh, it’s still got some fight left in it.”
He lifted his middle finger, and the German grinned, stepping back.
“Fido, dinner’s ready.”