For Want of a Bolt

“So much for Her Majesty’s elite unit,” Lieutenant Nottingham said softly as he sank down into the canvas netting of the wall-mounted fold-up bench. The electric lantern above his head drifted lazily to and fro.

“It was a great idea, only suffering from a complete lack of execution,” I responded, trying to find some humor in the situation. We continued hearing the gentle pitter-patter of enemy fire against the outside of our behemoth. It sounded oh so distant.

“And to think, all for want of a bolt,” Nottingham continued morosely.

“A bolt, indeed,” I responded. I gave up on tinkering with the steam relay junction and sat across from Nottingham.

“What do we do now? Surrender?” Nottingham asked. He was leaving the decision up to me, even though he out-ranked me. The death of our commanding officer had shattered the chain of command. I could still picture the tortured look on his face as he sank down from the exposed cupola above the hatch, the fatal rifle shot having turned half of his insides to scrapple.

“And give them use of the behemoth? Never!” My resolve strengthened. I knew victory was no longer within our reach, but we could still avoid absolute defeat.

“Perhaps they’d find more use for it than we,” Nottingham said.

“No, we know what we must do,” I snapped, not in the mood for his attempt at gallows humor. The rain of lead against the outside of our hull abated slightly, passing into a more stochastic, syncopated murmur of clinks. Perhaps they were finally realizing our impenetrability. Perhaps they lost the pressing need for urgency upon realizing the complete hopelessness of our circumstances.

“We’ll die in the explosion too, you know,” he said. I could see a hint of fear in his eyes, which he hurriedly hid by slouching forward even more and resting his forehead on his palm. He was not ready.

“We only have one other choice then – set it in motion dead ahead, right into the river,” I resolved. “It won’t be recoverable after that.”

“Fine,” Nottingham hastily agreed. It was better than the alternative.

We set about the startup process with automaton-like efficiency. I slammed open all the intake relays leading to the boilers, material stresses be damned. The behemoth would find finally be unleashed to discover its maximum capabilities. Nottingham triggered the ignition and a loud whistling overtook us for a spell as the immense boilers began building up pressure. Evidently our enemies could hear it too, because the rate of ineffectual fire increased back into more steady volleys. I could sense their fear even through the two-foot steel armor surrounding us on all sides.

We waited as the indicator needles on the engineering panel slowly rotated to the right. I looked at Nottingham but he averted my gaze, too intent on attempting to discern some pattern from the now just-barely-audible reports of enemy fire.

When the majority of the needles passed the first marked threshold, I threw the main handle forward, and the behemoth roared to life. The control room creaked all around us as the first two locomotive legs began lifting up. The floor turned several degrees from straight down. I fought against the disorientation that proven to be the biggest hardship in finding a driver for the behemoth.

The needles continued rising as the automatic loader worked at full bore, delivering fresh lumber to the fireboxes as quickly as space permitted. The movement of the behemoth settled into a regular swaying motion, not unlike being at sea. I counted the movements across ten strides and satisfyingly noted that our speed was increasing at a brisk pace. I no longer heard any bullets pinging off the outside of our vehicle, but I could not discern whether that was because we had outrun our enemies, or simply because our steam engine was so deafeningly loud. As I reached for my earplugs, Nottingham interrupted me.

“One last word for Major Littlepage!” he shouted.

“Fine,” I shouted back, wincing as the mechanical noises around me grew ever louder.

Nottingham attempted to shout out some kind of eulogy or prayer for the late Major, I did not know which. I could not hear him over the roar of our furious machine. Instead, I pondered on his ill-fated mission, and the absurd flaw in the behemoth’s design. If I ever met the idiot that decided to put the spare parts locker on the outside of this rust bucket, I’d have a few choice words for him. Apparently the possibility of there being a need to make minor repairs to the behemoth in combat had escaped the designer’s mind. The courageous Major had died for want of a bolt, shot down as soon as he lifted himself through the hatch. He’d never even made it within twenty feet of the parts locker.

As soon as Nottingham stopped talking, I reached for my earplugs and jammed them in.

I peered through the periscope. The Rhine was still directly ahead of us, exactly as I had remembered. Except that now we were much, much closer to it, and drawing closer with an accelerating pace. Driving the behemoth deep into the river would guarantee its end just as much as detonating it from within, as no machine would ever be able to drag it out again save another behemoth — and after this travesty, there likely wouldn’t be another. Additionally, it would afford us some attempt at escape.

The pitch of the floor changed again as the behemoth entered the downwards sloping flood plain. It wouldn’t be long now. We picked up even more speed, running across the landscape at a rate I hadn’t even thought our behemoth capable of. She saw her fate before her and charged after it with a head full of steam. I glanced down at the boiler indicators, all of which were pegging against their final redlines so hard that the needles were bending. This would be the behemoth’s final blaze of glory.

I motioned to Nottingham, but he already knew what to do. He raced back to the hatch, stepping gingerly over the Major’s body in the process, and prepared to open it. With a tremendous splash, our first leg entered the edge of the river, throwing up a huge plume of spray. The other legs followed suit. Our forward momentum steadily dropped. The indicators sagged. Shortly enough we were in water up to the bottom of the main body. The boilers choked and died as they flooded with water, that infernal whistling giving its last dying gasp. Water began rushing into the cabin from a thousand different spots in the floor. The legs locked up and the behemoth began pitching forward.

“Now!” I yelled at Nottingham at the top of my lungs. He couldn’t hear me over the din, nor was he even looking at me, but he sensed that the time was right nonetheless, and with a giant push, he heaved the hatch upwards and clambered through it. I took one last look at the flooding cabin, sneering in disgust at the discarded steering wheel bobbing in the water, its sheered-off attachment bolt gleaming brightly in the newfound sunlight, and made to follow after him.

12 Responses to “For Want of a Bolt”

  1. Ed Says:

    Brilliant!

  2. Will (green) Says:

    Good stuff.

  3. Will not be published Says:

    I came across your post about zwinky when, in a fit of frustration, I decided to type a Google Search for “the internet sucks.” As amusing as it is, I find something rather disturbing about pompous blowhards insulting less than intelligent and naive 10-year-old children. Even more troubling is when pompous blowhards use their sites to bore the world with fiction that should, and in my humble opinion never will, be published. I have spent the past 10 years studying both American and British Literature, and am currently a graduate student, and I think if you want to get people interested in your adjective-laden, cliched, anachronistic work, you may want to begin by writing about events and characters that relate to people and events they’re familiar with. The only thing worse than bad fiction is, of course, a lack of criticism. “Brilliant!” and “Good stuff” are clearly attempts to garner lackluster praise from withered egos, starved by a lack of talent. Thus endeth the lesson.

  4. Cyde Weys Says:

    You betray yourself by admitting your lack of interest in speculative fiction. That’s fine if that’s your taste, but it doesn’t really leave you in a good position to judge it. And as for being anachronistic … Christ, that’s exactly the point of Steampunk. Not sure what to say other than I think you missed the point entirely. You can’t expect everyone to only write exactly the kinds of things you’re interested in, and then when they don’t, criticize them for it.

    As for the Zwinky stuff, I’m not insulting children. I’m not sure where you’re getting that from other than a purposefully biased misreading of my posts. I’m actually trying to warn them away from this shovelware game created by an unethical corporation that’s trying to exploit them.

  5. William (green) Says:

    I’ve been contentedly making fun of them, though. Maybe he/she didn’t see who wrote which?

  6. Cyde Weys Says:

    I think the other “Will” (hehe) should publish some of his work. It’s so easy to criticize … yet so hard to put your money where your mouth is (that cliche enough for you?).

  7. knacker Says:

    I don’t see anything wrong with this.

  8. William (green) Says:

    On the other hand, the ability to recognize the values or flaws in something does not necessarily come from the ability to produce it, I think. While they’re very often related. I mean, think about cooking for an easy example. The “If you don’t like it, you can cook/write your own food/story” is a valid response, but it doesn’t really address the specific issues raised, you know?

  9. Cyde Weys Says:

    Fair enough. We shall have to judge him on the merits of his “10 years studying both American and British Literature”, which does not necessarily correlate with writing ability. First I’d like to see some proof of his claim — but let’s be realistic, I don’t think he’s coming back, so this is moot.

  10. Eater of Broken Meats Says:

    You used all of your words correctly. Good job. That’s a start. Now, just write a story that makes sense and that someone might like to read at some time. This sucks. Sorry to be so “critical” but this sucks.

  11. Felix Pleșoianu Says:

    Dear troll,

    If you can’t make sense of this story, maybe the problem is your IQ. I think it makes just enough sense, and BTW, I loved reading it. And because a rational man has arguments for his opinions, I’ll remark that For Want of a Bolt is a slice of life. It creates a mental image that’s clear enough to give a starting point, but blurry enough to leave the reader’s imagination fly free. It *could* use a little more fleshing out, e.g. what do the characters look like? What about their enemies? What are they fighting for? Is this some kind of “forever war”? But overall I think it’s got more going for it than against. Keep up the good work, Cyde!

    P.S. Sorry for the late comment, I just discovered this blog,

  12. Will not be published Says:

    I’m sorry, but I’m not familiar with the term “speculative fiction”. Does this mean you speculate as to whether this will be popular or not, or whether you know how to put the words together to form a complete sentence? My next question is, obviously, do you consider putting your work on your own blog publishing it? I understand your lackluster defense of “those who can do, those who can’t criticize,” but you reveal too much with your comments. Since your incapable of taking any criticism, and can’t stand rejection, this has clearly not been “published” anywhere else, and the obvious reason for this is that this passage is anachronistic. Now, why would you want to write something that has no contemporary relevance? I also did not claim to have any writing ability, I am establishing my credibility as a critic. However, if you are interested, yes, I have been published, although unfortunately not by myself. I had to contend with editors – you should try it. To Felix the Cat, have you read anything besides Stephen King in the past five years? Oh, and by the way, three letter acronyms are for philistines.

    To paraphrase Woody Allen: Intellectuals are proof that people can be totally brilliant and at the same time have absolutely no clue.