The ground shook with each falling shell. I crouched in our improvised bunker, worried that a direct hit might breech the earth, shatter our timber walls and blow me to pieces, or worse yet bury me alive.
Even amid this madness, Commandant Corpus was abroad. The door flew open and he strode in, red coat flapping. Behind him came another figure, its heavy tread shaking the floor. It was tall as a man, with two arms, two legs, a head, and rifle at its shoulder. But the smoke stack on its back and the gleam of its metal shell made clear that this was no man.
“Captain Abernathy.” Corpus glared at me.
“Commandant.” I forced myself to my feet and saluted. There were few things I feared worse than the rebels, but Corpus was among them.
“This is Mech Seventeen.” Corpus pointed at the mechanical soldier. “It will be joining your unit for field trials. You will report on its progress. Understood?”
“Yes, sir.” I avoided looking at my men. We all knew what field trials meant. With Mech Seventeen in our ranks, we were all doomed.
“Back!” I yelled. “Back to the line!”
My men streamed past me. Many were limping. More would never return at all. Our ninth assault in three weeks, and there were fewer and fewer of us left.
Mech Seventeen stamped along at the back of the unit, rebel shots bouncing off its chassis. Beside it, Torvig caught a bullet and fell, blood spraying from the ruin of his throat.
The hatred I felt wasn’t for the men firing those guns. It was for this terrible machine, with its blank eyes and its steaming smokestack, its body that could endure far more than any of my men. It was the reason Corpus was throwing us into every fight, to test the limits of Mech Seventeen. It was the reason so many of my men lay there in the mud, broken and scattered like the parts of some monstrous machine.
I spat at Seventeen as it ran past. The spittle hissed and evaporated from a pipe on its housing. It turned to look at me, and for a moment I imagined there was sadness in its eyes.
But there was no sadness in a waggon, a shovel or a gun. There could be no sadness in Mech Seventeen.
Something had to be done. So far I had separated myself from Seventeen, hoping to survive until it was sent away. For the tenth assault I ordered it to take position beside me.
The moment our artillery stopped firing we leapt from the trenches and raced across the ruined ground. I lost my footing on the edge a shell hole, was caught by Seventeen and righted myself. We kept running.
Just before the enemy lines, things went to hell. The rebels emerged from their bunkers and began firing. Stivins fell screaming. Bock’s head exploded. Habbly’s arm was ripped off at the elbow but he kept going, whether thanks to courage or to shock.
If my plan was to work I had to reach the trenches, and Seventeen with me. I ducked and kept moving, fired my pistol at a man pointing his gun my way, didn’t give myself time to think. Hesitation could kill us all.
Then we were there, looking down on trenches full of green coated soldiers. Their eyes were wide at the sight of Seventeen, this unstoppable mechanical monster. As it raised its rifle, I took a step back. Holstering my pistol, I shoved Seventeen as hard as I could.
It swayed for a moment on the brink of the trench, then fell forward, sliding down the bank. With wild cries the rebels fell upon it, battering at the fallen the machine with spades and rifle butts. It rolled over, and I saw that sadness again in its eyes.
But this was still no time for doubts.
“Back!” I yelled to my men. “Back to safety!”
We ran like madmen, hoping to be back before the rebels were done with Seventeen
As we neared our trenches a terrible sight met our eyes. The lines were full of green coats. Our own emplacements had been seized by the rebels.
I flung myself down in the mud as they opened fire. There was no way out. Even if we weren’t killed by rifle fire, we would be torn apart by the artillery that followed. I would die here, in the mud and horror, the half rotted body of another soldier inches from my face.
I almost wept as the ground shook, and I waited for a shell to rip me to pieces.
A metal foot hit the mud beside me. The shaking wasn’t artillery, it was Mech Seventeen. Scratched and dented, his smokestack twisted and the top of his head buckled in, he charged towards our trench, a rifle in each hand.
Whether it was courage or shock that overcame my fear, I do not know. I dragged myself from the mud and charged with him, yelling at my men to join us.
Again bullets ricocheted off Seventeen, and again the enemy gave fearful cries at the sight of him. But this time they were not in their own positions, pushed to a desperate last stand. This time they ran, and my men ran in after them, laughing in relief as they slid into the sweet embrace of their own familiar hell.
Seventeen stood on the edge of the trench, looking around for more targets. Behind us, I heard the first roars of rebel artillery. Thirty feet to my left the ground exploded in a shower of mud and shrapnel.
“Get down there, soldier.” I shoved Seventeen as hard as I could, and he fell forward, sliding down the bank. The men cheered for him.
I leapt in after and crouched in a corner, hoping to survive another barrage.
Seventeen looked at me, and I imagined I saw him smile.
* * *
While it has a certain WWI feel, this story was inspired by Ken Burns’s excellent documentary series The Civil War, which I’ve been watching for at least the third time. The American Civil War saw many precursors to the horrors of the Great War, though sadly no steam powered robots.
If you enjoyed this then you might also like my steampunk short story collection Riding the Mainspring which you can get for free by signing up to my mailing list.