“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.