The Choice of a Trueshot Veteran
Between scorched sky and charred sand, sluggish, burning draughts sprinkle grains of sand in the air. Occasionally, a speck catches a glint from the sun.
The dunes are painfully hot, but if you endure that, and put your ear to the sand, you can hear distant rumbling. It’s not hard to locate the origin of the noise. Over there, a small streak of soot and smoke rises from a long streak of metal. Dozens of railcars, mounted with guns and ramparts and loaded with men, chug slowly behind a hulking, screeching engine, bellowing noxious fumes and clawing its way through the desolate wasteland.
You’ve seen daguerreotypes of these landships before, but they’re even more terrifying in person. The steam engines run extraordinarily well in the heat of the desert as barely any coal is needed to boil the water. The more the poisoned the sky becomes, the more men and metal these engines can lug, and perhaps, vice versa.
Sitting beneath a small sandy overhang, slightly shielded from the unbearable heat, you slowly turn your head as the landship makes its way through the desert. Finally having some time to rest and think, you stare at the crawling war engine, returning to your thoughts. You have no doubt you'll succeed, but there is a lingering sense of sorrow. You’ve survived battle after battle, only to be thrown back into the war again. The land further down will only become more and more barren, but Her Fearsome Majesty has a name to uphold, and you’ve a family to feed.
So many years... so many years... Your father before you fought, and you fight still. You've marched Northeast and saw the steam from your stovepot turn into snow. Three campaigns and a shattered arm later, you thought you could finally return to your family. Instead, they drilled and docked a gearbox on your shoulder, gave you a big promotion and a bigger gun (attached to said gearbox), and sent you out to brave the scorching deserts in the South. All the while the Queen, pardon, Her Fearsome Majesty, looks as if she hasn't aged a day.
You sigh as you stand up. Your bones crackle, some satisfyingly, and some painful enough to make you grimace. There is around an hour each day where the temperature here is passable. As the sun sets, that hour reaches its end. Best prepare to head back to the landship. Wait, what's that?
The sand shifts, someone is there with you.
You raise your gun and scan your surroundings. The rangefinder on your right eye ticking rapidly as it tries to focus. There! Something protrudes out of the sand! It's small, it's twitching, it's... a hand?
You move closer. Indeed. It's a hand, sticking out the sand. It's wearing a shabby looking half-glove, with a sad imitation of two fingers sticking out where the ring and little finger should be. Another damaged war veteran, just like you! Dear God!
You run up to the hand and start digging. Your gun arm is barely helping, but at least it doesn't get tired. It didn't take long to excavate enough to see the head. The buried man takes off his respirator as soon as his arm can move. He coughs as sand spills out of the tubes and his mouth. He thanks you in Turkish.
He finally manages to open his eyes, He freezes. You raise your gun. Should've bloody known! It's a Janissary! Before you can say anything, he screams with his parched voice: "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! I am come in peace!"
He seems harmless enough, though. He's got no weapons, his clothes is tattered, he looks like he can't even fight an urchin. You drag him out of the sand and towards the landship. Night is falling. You don't want either of you to freeze to death here. He seems to agree as he silently slides wherever you drag. The sand shuffles beneath him, like ash.
You two make it back and explain the situation to your commanding officer, who yells at you for bringing an enemy back. The Janissary watches guiltily as he sips tea in your blanket. Eventually, the officer tells you to lock him up, and orders you to keep watch until tomorrow morning, since you started this whole deal. The Janissary looks at you as you close the holding door and lock it.
"One thing." He says, "I tell you because I trust you." You look back. "Come closer!" You hesitate for a split second, before sitting down by the door to listen.
"It is no coincidence that you find me in the middle of nowhere. I come with message... If your landship continues on this path, in three hours it will be destroyed. Only minefields lies ahead. You got to stop this ship. Please."
You raise an eyebrow in doubt: why is he telling you this? He continues:
"I am... a deserter. War has taken enough from both sides. You lost your arm in it too, yes? Look at me, look at my hand." You hear a clinking from across the cell as he rattles his prosthetic. "It is best if suffering is avoided. I... I just want out of all this..."
His severed fingers, his lungful of sand, his dashing face cut and scarred like a balsa cutting board. You've seen this all too much. You've seen him in yourself, and so you know him like a book. A veteran should help a veteran, for no one is as beaten as they are.
"I'll help you, but you tell me the truth." You say to him, "There's no way you came all this way to warn us about a minefield."
He doesn't even act shocked. He just nods from beyond the viewport: "It's true that there's a small minefield, but your machines will crush them like splinters. It's just that... Beyond that lies a small, straggling village... Where I come from... I'm sure you understand."
You open the creaking vault door with some effort and motion the Janissary out: "I understand. Just be frank with me from this moment on." He nods and steps out.
You give him your uniform jacket, and he tosses his out into the sand. It's enough to convince the nightsentries. At least, enough for those who aren't passed out from drinking. You two strut all the way to the roaring engine room. You can feel the heat flush your body. The engineers always have it cushy during the night, but God, how horribly parched it must be in the day.
"Engineer!" You shout, jolting the lanky fellow up from his sleep, "Reduce the burn! Continue when the day is hot to conserve coal!"
"Roight, guv." He nods, "Thomas! Let the flywheel run the fan! Have a break!"
Thomas, who has been tirelessly cranking, wipes off his sweat. "Told ya so." He nods and heads to join the drunken crew. "Whose order these, guv?" Asks the Engineer.
"Mine." You tell him. The engineer nods and sits back into his chair again. You turn and whisper to the Janissary. "Alright, that'll buy you time, maybe a few hours. Run back to your village and get them to evacuate. Best of luck."
The Janissary raises an eyebrow. "What?" He stutters while eyeing you incredulously, "How is that supposed to... I thought we were to... I can't... This isn't..." He gestures and punches his palm, while clearly mouthing a "boom".
"What's wrong?" Asks the engineer. You wave at him dismissively. "Let me a way out, I'm doing what I can. I can't possibly do that and not be..." You gesture across your neck.
"But... There's no way..." the Janissary looks to you, then to the confused engineer, then to you again, "I... I'm sorry, I'll have to do it myself!"
In the blink of an eye, he grabs your gun arm, and before you can react, he yanks out several hydraulic tubes from your forearm. It goes limp immediately, and he points it at the engineer, with his prosthetic on the trigger.
"Open the stoker! Now!" He shouts. The terrified engineer scurries off his chair and swiftly pulls the lever. Gusts of hot wind rush out of the firebox. "Now hold it!"
He pulls the trigger on your arm. A hail of bullets pelt the boiler tubes within. Hot water springs from the leaks and instantly vaporizes. "No! The engine will blow!" Screams the engineer, but before he could even finish, the Janissary throws you on the ground, rips off his prosthetic fingers, and tosses them into the gearbox of the flywheel. It crushes the prosthetics and creaks to a halt.
"I've bought you some time. The fire will starve without the fan." He says. "Thank you, and sorry for all this." He salutes you earnestly. "I hope someday we meet again, in more peaceful times." You all turn as sounds of running echo from the cabins behind. People are coming. "I must leave now."
The footsteps get louder. The ringing in your ears gradually disappear. You look at the engine room door, and then back at the perplexed engineer. The Janissary already disappeared, leaving a only a light trail in the sand. You know what you must do.
You share a glance with the engineer, and rush to the door and open it, almost slamming it into your commander, who stops in his tracks. Before he can demand an explanation, you scream into his face:
"BOILER EXPLOSION!! OUT! GO! NOW!"
The lamplights of the landship illuminate the spattering of people rushing outside. Followed closely is a resounding BOOOOM: the boiler is shot into the sky like a rocket, as steam and sparks jet in all directions. Everyone scrambles as the locomotive falls. Thud. No one was hurt, save for some sprained ankles.
"Boiler malfunction." You tell your commander, who lays prone next to you, with a mouthful of cold sand, "L... likely caused b... by rust." The engineer adds as he sniffles, "Rivets dinged in the firebox like... Like bullets."
The commander lets out a weak "bloody hell". You tut half-heartedly. The engineer is silent. The steam in the air, the sting of water on skin, the rancid smell of kerosene. For just a moment, if you close your eyes, you feel like you're by the hubbub of the steel mills of Manchester, like you're by the filthy ports of Hasting, like you're back in London, squalid and glorious.
Your brothers-at-arms seem to think the same, as they wordlessly gaze at the flaming heap. You look again at the footsteps of the Janissary, and trace it to the top of a dune. He is gone.
In the following three days, your comrades walk around the crew cars, gambling their meagre earnings, and roasting their jerky over the burning engine. On the fourth, a chugga-chug-chug is heard over the horizon. Stokers take off their caps and wave them in the air. A rescue fleet of landships!
It took another half a month for the new engine to tow your locomotive all the way back to France, and then a steamer hauls you and your crew back to London. You have never missed the stink and rot of Father Thames so much. The company house collects your reports, the mechanics marvel at the supposed damage of fictional rivets, and the street urchins swarm your crew, asking for stories from the frontline. The engineer breaths a sigh of relief as the commander dismisses your crew until further notice.
"We got away." The engineer says to you. "It's over."
You look at your gun arm, newly repaired and polished. Indeed, this story will be over, buried under the dozen other reports of boiler explosions, but did anything really change? No one will know, but for now, you ought to go enjoy some proper crumpets not baked with engine fire and tea not brewed from coolant from your gun. The smog tastes just like the it did the day you left.