Last month’s Shell Case Shorts was all about Steampunk as the prize was a signed copy of Dystopian Wars by Spartan Games. There was some strong entries which just goes to show much passionate the community is about this growing genre. But as ever there can only be one winner, mainly because I only had one prize.
And that winner is James Wilson (@ChairmanAsheth).
Traitor – by James Wilson
Yeoman Wilson leant against the fore turret of the MKII Tribal Class cruiser HMS Aggressive and stared out into the soupy night. The mid watch was not amongst his favorite duties mainly because nothing ever happened. Just a few late night arrivals, usually drunk and rowdy after a days shore leave. This time of year was especially poor for it. The smoggy haze of Plymouth docklands obscured any possible view, not even the dockyard lights were visible, just an ugly, oily yellow haze creeping through the fog. To make matters worse the December chill had him hankering for the warm beef stew he’d packed away below deck earlier that evening. And the dumplings, the thought of them warmed him briefly. Navy cuisine was hardly fine dining but he’d happily chew his way through the gristly scraps that passed for meat if it meant not being out in the cold.
Further along the dockyard raucous singing echoed through the air. He couldn’t make out all the words but he gleaned enough to know it was a typical Navy tune about a woman named Suki from Bangkok and her surprising anatomic abilities. Wilson couldn’t make out any shapes in the fog and the voices and their colourful ditty didn’t appear to be coming any closer so he allowed himself to relax slightly. He jumped as a chorus of bells start to chime across the dockyard. Wilson moved to the ships bell and began to sound the six chimes that marked the third hour of the watch. 3am rang out for anyone foolish enough to be able to hear it, which was mostly the other poor souls on watch like him on their respective ships. Plymouth was all but empty. Normally a thriving military and civilian port space was usually at a premium. But with a big push in the Pacific to deter the Japs from harassing her Majesty’s interests in that region it was all but empty. The Aggressive was only docked here for a few days maintenance, refitting its ailing shield generator. The MKII substituted fire power for the protection afforded by the shield generator and Wilson had been more than happy with that choice on several occasions over the last year.
Wilson was glad of the relative peace and quiet as it meant time away from the front lines, time away from being shot at and time away from tipping his dead friends over the side wrapped in a Britannic flag. The Britannic empire had mobilised like no other point in history and was involved in some of the most brutal engagements. It was not for the faint of heart. They say that a soldier’s life expectancy drops by 20% with each tour of duty. He was only his forth. He and theAggressive had beaten the odds so far but he knew it was only a matter of time. He loved England but not in a chest puffing salute the flag kind of way that the Yanks beheld their upstart nation. He could see little point in the wars breaking out the world over. Wilson had joined the navy as a way to get an education and learn a trade, now he embroiled in a war that he just wanted to survive. He felt no particular hatred or ill will toward his enemies. He had no doubt that most soldiers serving on the other side felt the same way. That they wouldn’t shoot him on sight or vice versa but that was the business of war. Survival was all that mattered.
Wilson paced the polished oak decking, moving port aft towards the gangway. The early morning chill nipped at him as his oppo on this watch, Bob, appeared with a mug of tea in each hand. Bob came from the furthest reaches of the Empire and his real name wasn’t Bob but it was much easier than trying to pronounce his real name. Bob was we well liked through the ship for the most part but Wilson kept his distance, despite having to share a billet. It wasn’t prejudice, Wilson couldn’t care less where Bob was from so long as he did his job. It was just he was too…good. was just… too good. Too nice. Too popular. It made James suspicious which he suspected was more like jealousy. He Headed toward the Foc’sle and called back to Bob,
‘Gonna do a circuit.’
Bob nodded his response from behind his cup, not saying anything as he watched Wilson disappear into the murk. Moving slowly around the deck lost in his own world, Wilson half heartedly checked the mooring lines with a slight kick to each one. As he completed his circuit he noticed a shadow near the gangway. Probably Bob. He Wilson approached he saw the shadow break up into two distinctive shapes. One moved quickly to the gangway and down off the ship, the other remained in place. Wilson moved closer to it to see the familiar form of Bob emerge from the curling fog.
‘What was that about?’ he asked.
Bob shrugged as he moved towards the stern of the vessel, flinging the remainder of his cold tea overboard. ‘Just some drunk. Got the wrong ship.’ He soothed placing one hand protectively in his pocket. Wilson grimaced at the creeping sensation he felt as Bob spoke. He returned his attention to the cup in his hand, now half drained and took a sip. Cold. Typical.
Wilson continued his circuits around the ship, pausing only to hastily smoke half a cigarette despite light and noise discipline being in force, resigned to yet another tedious night until frantic alarm bells started ringing across the base, the alert bells of those ships at anchor quickly adding their voice to the tumult. Wilson rang to follow suit, grabbing the grimey, rigid rope and clanging the clapper against the sound rim with jarring force. He didn’t know what was going on but the base was on high alert. Moments later a deck hand came scrambling up to Wilson and hurriedly informed him that enemy spies had been spotted on the base and anyone attempting to board was to be shot on sight.
The next day, when James awoke, the vibrations running through his birth told him the ship was moving at speed. He hauled himself out of his cot, washed and dressed. As he buttoned up his tunic the familiar and foreboding klaxon blared through the ship signifying the beat to quarters.
‘Action stations, action stations, action stations.’ Wilson frantically tugged on his boots as the ship made a sharp turn to port, throwing him into the bulkhead. Cursing the pain and the helmsmen he made for the hatch as another sharp turn knocked him off-balance. Behind him he heard an exclamation as Bob was thrown clear of his bunk, rolled up papers spilling onto the deck below. Wilson instinctively went to help his comrade scooping up one of the rolled up bits of paper. Bob, fully dressed, scrabbled on the floor scooping up the spilled scrolls as they slide across the ship with the yaw of the hull. Stuffing the papers into a battered satchel Bob eyed the on clasped in Wilson’s hands jealously. The two men stared at each other, neither moving, the scroll still in Wilson’s grip.
The distant report of cannon fire and the screech of incoming shells caused Wilson to flinch instinctively. Bob seized his chance, snatched the paper from Wilson’s hands and ran through the hatch. Wilson wanted to chase after the man but his better judgement prevailed. HMS Aggressive’s own guns roared into life, the recoil vibrating through the ship as Wilson grabbed his tool belt and ran through the hatch to take his post.
Running through gangways he squeezed past fellow crewmen on their way to posts throughout the ship. As Wilson took his position with the rest of his damage control team he heard the spitting report of Aggressive’s ack ack batteries turned the sky above it into a death trap, a rasping counter point to the boom of the main guns. Wilson leaned his weight against a bulkhead as the ship pitched heavily to port, at moments like this there was no chatter. A tense silence was the only thing shared between the damage control team, along with the nervous stares. The saying was that the waiting is the worst part. It was said by people who had never served aboard a ship of war in combat. The worst part came next.
Wilson’ hearing was reduced to a high-pitched whistle and he was thrown to the deck as the cruiser took a direct hit. As he pulled himself to unsteady feet he saw water start to floor from the adjoining corridor. The Aggressive had been holed just above the waterline and the swirling ocean was spilling through the gaping wound in her flank.
‘Move!’ The order snapped the stunned crew out of their shell shock. They moved as one, training leading them to the feeling of rushing air. Rounding a corner they were met with a spray of water as the motion of the ship placed the damage just below the water line. ‘Get that shored up!’ Wilson still couldn’t hear properly but it scarcely mattered, the training was working well. The damage control equipment, such as it was, consisted mostly of wooden wedges, planks and their own mattresses. Wilson hammered a handful of wedges into one of the smaller holes, as the others placed a folded mattress against the largest hole and placed a disc of wood against it before jamming it in place with a wooden beam against the bulkhead. James looked about him and saw Bob passing through the section the bag still clutched in his hands. Abandoning ones post during once action stations had been called was a capital crime. Whatever Bob was up to it must be pretty important to risk a short drop and a sudden stop.
There was a shudder as an enemy shell exploded just metres from the hull jerking the ship to starboard throwing Bob from his feet, hitting his head against a strut, his grab spilling from his grasp. Leaving his team behind him, Wilson closed the distance between the prostrate Bob in moments, scooping up the bag. Injured but not incapacitated Bob whirled from his prone position and caught Wilson’s feet with a sweeping kick, bringing him down hard on deck. The grab burst open spilling files, equipment and photos into the ankle-deep water that now flooded the corridors. Realisation crept into Wilson’s consciousness, it was all too clear what Bob was. Bob was on his feet and looking for a way out but Wilson’s team had seen the exchange and rushed to Wilson’s aide. Another explosion rocked the ship and the damage team stumbled and Bob took his chance, darting through the nearest hatch.
Wilson wanted to go after him but duty overrode his personal desires. A series of bangs signalled the Aggressive’s torpedoes taking to the water and the ack ack batteries opened up once more. The tannoy squawked ordering crews to recovery boats. The small task force had taken losses. Wilson wasn’t surprised, the rest of his team were talking about fleet strength opposition. The Britannians were being taken to pieces. Then the tannoy went again.
‘Brace! Brace! Brace!’ Wilson went cold, they were under rocket attack. Even below decks a faint whistling could be heard over the general din of war and the sound of panicking crew. The hairs on his arms stood on end as the Aggressive’s shield generators flickered to life and a serious of vibrations reverberated through the hull, then the ship lurched as it was struck hard then the world turned white as the magazine exploded. Wilson’ world exploded into fire, heat, blood and pain. He had a sickening sensation of flight then the air was forced from him as he landed on what felt like concrete. He then sank into it. As his body was engulfed by the freezing ocean some coherency was rammed into him but it did no good. He tried to swim but all his energy left him and he stopped struggling. The waves engulfed him. Then he felt rough hands and the sensation of being lifted. Then felt nothing at all.
Wilson woke up with a jolt. He was in a hospital bed. God only knew how he got there but he thanked Him all the same for his salvation. Looking around he could see he was in a private room. A small window let in a warm breeze and he could hear the sound of birds singing outside. His arm was in a cast and strapped close to his chest and his head was bandaged.
He tentatively got to his feet, feeling the cool of the floor on his skin. He turned his head, taking in his surroundings causing a sudden wave of pain shot through him as the bailiffs in his head repossessed the energy his body had borrowed. Unable to pay up, his body gave in under him and he collapsed. Crying out, both for help and in pain, he tried to prevent the ground striking him as guards entered the room and rushed to assist him.
Wilson’s pain turned to horror. He quickly redacted his thanks to God as he realised the guards were belonged to the Empire of the Blazing Sun. He tried to fight them but it was futile, his strength quickly leaving him. The guards lifted him back onto the bed and a nurse was summoned. He felt a spreading warmth on his side and realised in his struggle he’d torn some stitches. He lay there paralysed by a cocktail of fear, pain and panic as the nurse entered the room with a trolley. His sense of anxiety rose as he saw a charged syringe. His body refused to act as the nurse swabbed his neck injected him.
A sense of calm swept through him as the sedative took over and he returned to the darkness of his mind, a happy place full of quiet, peace and a complete lack of soldiers. His dreams eventually became fevered and polluted by the leering features of Bob. He had the sense he ought to do something. When Wilson came to days had passed and he’d lost weight. The guards brought him to a mess room where he found there were prisoners from all over the world eating. Most were Britannic. Wilson ignored the rest as they would be of little help or comfort. When he joined the Britannic prisoners they shied away from him. Some stopped eating and asked to be taken back their cells. Wilson was horrified, their bodies looked wasted and broken. He tried to speak to the nearest prisoner. He didn’t look round. None of them would look at him. These prisoners had been treated like unwanted pets. Tolerated. Fed just enough to stay alive and punished ruthlessly for the slightest infraction. Wilson wondered why he had not suffered a similar fate.
As the days passed his strength returned and his wounds healed and all the while Wilson was waiting for the interrogations and gruelling tortures that the Blazing Sun was infamous for. Finally the waiting was over as after his morning meal he was taken to a different part of the detention camp. He was marched down clean brightly lit corridors, guards flanking him every step of the way. He was halted outside an office, the script on the door was unreadable to him but his imagination filled in for his lack of knowledge. One of the soldiers knocked on the door and lead him in.
‘Ah! Yeoman Wilson, welcome.’ The voice had a heavy accent but it was easy enough for Wilson to understand him. ‘You have been made comfortable?’ Wilson nodded, not saying a word. ‘We, of course searched your person when we found you Yeoman Wilson.’ The officer paused and drank a yellow liquid from a small grey cup. ‘You had a number of intriguing items upon your person.’ He opened a draw and began to lay out documents. ‘These papers, specifically, were of great interest.’ Wilson had no idea what he was looking at but they were important enough to have kept him alive. ‘We are gratified you should bring this to us Yeoman Wilson. It seems you intended to defect?’ Wilson’s mind reeled. No wonder the others hadn’t said a word. He’d thought they were broken men. Not so. They thought him a traitor to Queen and Country.
The enormity of it dawned on him. Were he to attempt escape and by some miracle make it home questions would be asked. He would be branded a traitor. He’d be hanged. Wilson’s thoughts came quickly like gunshots, each piercing his soul. The realisation of what had happened shocked him to his core. ‘Did…did you find others near me?’ It was his only bargaining chip. Someone, anyone from the damage control party, someone who had seen what had happened with Bob or whatever he was called would destroy any hope of salvation.
‘You were found floating amongst your…former colleagues, clutching a bag Yeoman Wilson. None was alive but you.’
Nobody would believe he hadn’t betrayed his country now. The thought sickened him. He had no choice but to go along with this officer’s assumption, nnauseating as it was. The officer lit a cigarette, taking a long pull before puffing the smoke into the air.
‘What is it you hope to gain from this Yeoman Wilson? You do not speak Japanese I presume?’ The officer asked clearly not entirely convinced by what had happened or that lowly sailor would want to swap one master’s yoke for another, let alone one where he couldn’t function or even speak to anyone. Wilson’s head, still rushing, went through several possibilities.
‘Peace!’ He said suddenly, truth breaking through the dullness he’d felt since being rescued.
‘I do not follow you Yeoman Wilson.’ The officer took another long drag on his cigarette. Wilson’s brain was cartwheeling through ideas. Being a prisoner was not a good idea, being worked to death had possibilities but it was known that the Empire of the Blazing Sun was not very humanitarian to its own, let alone foreigners. The path of peace was the best he could hope for. To be put somewhere and forgotten. ‘I seek only somewhere to live, away from the fighting, sir.’
Realisation came across the officers face as he pieced together a language he did not fully command. ‘Ah! What is the word for this? …Coward I believe?’ Wilson flinched. A vestige of his sense of honour made its presence felt but he was getting desperate. He needed this officer to believe him, to relent a little. He couldn’t go home, it was too late, too many would suspect him a traitor now, he couldn’t shake the feeling that everyone at home knew already or would find out soon, then he would be hanged. The Japanese would kill him one way or another unless he could pull off the biggest con in history. He couldn’t let this officer think him dishonourable, that was important to these people, to the officer class at least, so far as he could remember. If they found out that this was all an accident he’d be sent to work, tortured to death or just shot as an example to others.
Everything was about survival now. The words flowed from him; ‘No sir. Not coward. Were I a coward I would not have gone to sea. I would not have stayed with my ship. I would not have gathered those items. I would have fled the fighting, not sign up. . Cowards do not go to war. Sir.’ The officer pondered this. Wilson kept up the pace, his conscience quieting down to allow his mind to clear. ‘Tired is the word sir. Tired of fighting. Tired of death. I seek a peaceful life before I die, preferably of old age.’ The officer strolled to his window and looked out. ‘We all seek this Yeoman Wilson. I too am tired of the death. I am inclined to grant your request. Find somewhere quiet to place you. But first,’ he wheeled round to face his prisoner ‘you will speak with me of everything you know about Britannian movements, tactics and procedures.’ The officer motioned to the door. ‘Please, this way.’ Wilson stood and went through to be flanked by his guards. He had no choice. He was already thought a traitor. He didn’t want to die. He would tell them everything. Survival was all that mattered.