Darwin's Fist

Chapter 6

Almost time...

Marasco glanced at his watch, a costly fabricated time piece that had been a gift for his appointment to Sergeant from his father, then nodded, pleased.

It was just about time for the annual post-mission Sergeant's Conference.

He put down his book (a copy of the Manual of Aeronautics, which he had been reading mainly for a chance to laugh at the inadequate British fabrications in it), retrieved Click from its small bowl near his bed, and grabbed his off-duty jacket. His battle-dress one was currently getting tailored to sew up the bullet hole, and probably getting cleaned too to remove the blood.

The lack of his uniform was a bit annoying to Marasco. It had more pockets than his off-duty one, which meant that he had to carry Click manually whenever he wanted to go somewhere with it. Which was not exactly an easy proposition, as anyone who's tried to handle a fish could tell.

"Meeting?" Click chirped, looking up at Marasco with its large, black eyes.

"Yep. Always." He put the dolphin on his shoulder, the normal place he stuck it when he couldn't put it in his pocket. Click liked being able to see and hear as he walked, picking up on random conversations as Marasco walked the halls and chattering with other dolphins and the occasional random message creature.

"Sharp?" The dolphin asked. Marasco's face turned hard.

"No, she's not going to be joining us."

"Good. Spagger."

The Sergeant grinned as the dolphin swore. Apparently the dislike of the Scottish girl wasn't only present in humans...though how the dolphin KNEW about her so quickly was beyond Marasco's comprehension. Heard it from another dolphin most likely. Harkness's if he had to guess.

"Yeah, she really is...but she's British, remember." He shrugged, making Click grab his collar with a fin to keep from falling off.

"Limey. Worthless wannabees." The last part Click said in Harkness's voice. Marasco remembered that very conversation, two days earlier during the other Sergeant's rant against having to retrieve the British delegation from the meeting. No Darwin ever wanted to do rescue ops. They all wanted the chance to fight and kick dorsal regions.

"That's them. Poor Sharp, having to pretend to be a boy to fight with them...she shoulda joined us."

"Females are just as, if not more, effective fighters in every respect except muscle build." Click added in Lt. MacPherson's clipped tones. He changed to Halsey's a moment later. "And that, my dear Lieutenant, can easily be rectified in many ways."

"Too right." Marasco glanced at the dolphin and felt the tiny shiver he usually got when it went on like this crawl up his spine. Halsey has assured everyone, both within Darwin's Fist and the American fabrication community, that the dolphins had not broken the First Law of Fabrication, but sometimes Marasco got the feeling that they had...and were just too damn smart to let it be known.

And it scared the clart out of him sometimes.

He slid the door to his quarters open and walked out, looking up and down the hallways out of pure habit. It wasn't like he was sneaking somewhere. And even if he HAD been, there wasn't a rule against a soldier walking the halls during the down time between missions. Hell, exercise was mandatory for most Dreadnought personnel, to help eliminate boredom and cabin fever and keep them in fighting shape.

But Marasco liked to make sure he wasn't followed ANYWHERE, be it to a secret meeting or simply to the bathroom. Mental exercise, he liked to believe, like a walk for the brain.

And, as the Marine Corps liked to say; "semper fidelis." Latin for "Always ready."

Sounded more like Darwin's Fist than the Corps to Marasco. The Marines sure as hell hadn't been ready for the Germans to attack them.

The hall was clear, and the Sergeant slipped out into it, sticking his hands in his pockets and waking somewhat slowly and carefully so Click didn't go tumbling off him. It would not be the best entrance to meet his fellow Sergeants with a frustrated, swearing dolphin. And, of course, Click would promptly tell the other dolphins there what happened and they would start glaring at him and things would just do downhill from there.

Though useful, memory dolphins had a tendency to be somewhat...temperamental.

This time, the conference was being held in Harkness's quarters. The location of it rotated as missions passed. Last time it had been Marasco's room, next time it would be Sergeant Nile's, who's quarters were a bit to the stern of his own.

He arrived quickly, checking the hallway to make sure it was clear (it was, as it should be at that time) and knocked quickly, a series of raps that sounded random but were actually a specific pattern.

The door slid open, pulled by Sergeant Niles himself.

"David. Good to see you, sir." He said, stepping back to let him in.

"Marcus."

This was the important thing about the Sergeant's Conference; it gave the three Sergeants of the Fist the chance to be themselves and not the hard-driving soldiers that they had to be. That meant a first name basis and a bit more relaxation than normal.

Marasco still tried to stay professional during them, but even he relaxed a little bit.

Inside the room were the rest of the usual group. Sergeant Harkness and the three Corporals attached to the Sergeant's, Shaw, Crumb, and Sixx.

This was standard as well. Even though it was technically the "Sergeants Conference", the other three soldiers had their place there as well. As Marasco himself liked to say; "A Sergeant is only as good as his Corporal".

As he moved inside, the four other soldier raised their heads in interest. Shaw, by the window, nodded to him. Harkness, Sixx, and Crumb, all of who were at the table, glanced at him at the same time and then went back to what they were doing, which was (at that moment) Crumb's apparent attempt to do something to Sixx's arm.

That wasn't a surprise either. Harkness's Corporal had lost her right arm and left leg in a training accident, and they had been replaced by biological prosthetics. They worked fine...most of the time. They were technically experimental devices, with Sixx being one of the first recipients of them. This was obviously one of the times that they didn't perform as advertised.

Harkness was clenching Sixx's other hand in a death grip as the Corporal looked away from her fake one. Crumb was busy under its fabricated skin with a long-handled probe, muttering to herself and occasionally shifting her dual-colored eyes to check something else.

"Well, all present and accounted for. Wonderful." Marasco said, sitting down. "Unless anyone has any problems, I'd like to call this meeting begun."

No one complained, as always. Marasco didn't even really need to say the words, but he liked to.

"So, what's the situation, David?" Niles asked, taking a chair next to him and passing out glasses and a bottle of whiskey to every member.

"Not good." Marasco cracked his neck then downed a slug of whiskey, feeling it burn on its way down his throat. "Barlow's getting nosy already."

"That was fast." Shaw noted darkly. No one disagreed.

"But expected." Harkness added. "I mean, she is a boffin isn't she? Of course she's going to show interest in us after what she's seen us do."

"Yeah; a BRITISH boffin." Niles noted. "Which means she's all high and mighty about it."

"Heard that when we rescued her." Sixx muttered quietly. She sounded on the verge of meal arcing, something that didn't surprise Marasco or anyone else in the room. Manual adjustments to biological prosthetics were not fun in the least, even when the person WASN'T wearing them at the moment. Hence Sixx's death grip on Harkness's hand.

"Easy, Izzy, she'll be done soon." Harkness soothed. Crumb made a dismissive noise and kept working.

"Barlow certainly seemed "high and mighty", as you called it, when you retrieved me." She said to Marasco. "How is she anyway? Still complaining about my rationality?"

"Haven't heard." Marasco shrugged and took another drink with a groan. "Haven't run into her since then. And honestly, I hope that I DON'T see her again, at least for a little bit. She gives me the creeps, and I ain't just talking about how she looks at me."

The other two Sergeants nodded in agreement.

"You've heard the rumors about her, right? What she did create those loris fabs?" Niles said quietly. More nodding.

"Lies though, I'd guess. Myths. I mean, you don't think she actually, you know…went surrogate with them." Harkness said, face paling and betraying the deep-set Clanker mindset within him.

"I don't know what to believe anymore with her." Niles answered. "I mean, she says she made the loris's to STOP the war and then when they aren't accepted she sends a god-damn BEHEMOTH after the "Ottoman" navy…why didn't she do that in the first place, huh?"

"Or call America to flatten Istanbul." Marasco agreed. "Would have given us a chance to show off and strike fear into the Clankers BEFORE Mexico."

More nods. The three Sergeants of the Fist usually thought along the same lines, admittedly with minor differences, but more or less solidly the same. It was one of the reasons they were so good at what they did. Lt. MacPherson had called it "near-telepathy".

"Not much of a target though." Shaw added from the window. "A full unit of us against two ironclads and a bunch of elephant walkers? That fight would be over in HOURS."

"Barely a FIGHT, more like a SKIRMISH, if you want to be entirely correct." Crumb said, twisting something with her probe and making Sixx yelp like a country girl with her skirt caught in a gust. The rest of the soldier ignored Sixx's moment of weakness.

"Haven't most of the "battles" so far been skirmishes in this war?" Marasco grumbled, a strange, dark mix of anger and want coming from where the whiskey had hit his insides. "I mean, everything the papers are touting the Leviathan did as so great were over in minutes. That air battle over the Alps, the Behemoth attack, that fight in China with the kappa, the Goliath incident…nothing over an hour."

Still more nods of agreement. Secretly, Marasco had figured that most of the soldiers in the room wanted a chance to be in the papers. Not him of course, he HATED publicity. It always meant REPORTERS.

He shivered inside his jacket and took another drink. This looked like it would be one of the shorter meetings, one where the majority of the conversation was mainly gripes against the current situation. That was fine. If they got it out of their systems now, then they wouldn't use it when they were on the battlefield as an excuse to do something stupid. Like what had happened to Shaw's face in Mexico.

He took another drink as the image of Shaw laying face down in the mud, hair singed off and blood running down her face, or what was left of it, came back to him. He hated that image.

"Why're they saying the Leviathan's so damn powerful right now anyway? "Britain's greatest airbeast" they're calling it." Nile noted. "It got shot down by eight German aeroplanes. INFERIOR ones too. Doesn't sound that great to me."

"Heh, yeah. Dreadnaught woulda swatted them outta the sky and chewed up their base for good measure." Harkness agreed with a grim chuckle.

"Depends on where the base was." Sixx said. "I mean,what if it was in Berlin and they'd been using drop tan-OW! Damn it Fever!" She swore as Crumb made another adjustment.

"Quit your whining. Its just pain. I'm 98% finished here." Crumb replied, still calm as ever. Marasco grinned. If there was ever a person that could exemplify Darwin's Fist training making a person better, it was Fever Crumb.

"Just finish up." Harkness noted.

"Aye, you want to snog Izzy again don't you? Bet that quivering lip of hers gets the synapses in your head firing off." Shaw snarked with a crooked smile.

"And you want David, don't you Hester?" Sixx snapped back. "I heard your dolphin quoting you when you sleep."

Shaw laughed, a bark more than anything else. "You say that like its big news." She noted. "You've slept with him before, you know he's damn good at-"

"Quiet." Niles barked, cocking his head to the side. "Hear that?"

Every soldier paused, Marasco included, listening. He couldn't hear anything out of the ordinary-

No, wait, there. The slight hissing, rippling noise of the ship uncloaking.

"What the hell? What's with the cloak drop?" Shaw asked.

"Something BAD I'd wager." Harkness noted darkly. Crumb finished with Sixx's arm and pulled the probe away, storing it in her chest pocket.

"Good. I need some action." She said.

"Be careful what you wish for-" Marasco said, only to be interrupted by a sudden, angry blaring, whooping noise that made him clap his hands to his ears, a move mimicked by the other two Sergeants and the three Corporals.

"You just might get it!" Marasco finished, standing so fast his chair went tumbling backwards.

They knew what the noise was; the alarm for an imminent air attack. THAT was why the cloak had been dropped;

Someone knew the Dreadnought was there, and they were coming to get her.

"DARWINS! BATTLESTATIONS!" Marasco howled, nearly as loud as the alarm. The other soldiers scrambled for the door, Niles practically pulling it off its hinges in his eagerness to get out. The rest of the Fist soldiers clambered out like civilians fleeing a house fire, running for their gear and their stations.

Marasco let the rest of the group pass, grabbing Click from its place on the table. His station was on this floor anyway, or rather, the dorsal section above it, so they had a longer way to go. As soon as the two Sergeants and two Corporals managed to clear the way, Marasco himself left, hearing Shaw fall into step behind him they broke into runs, heading for the closest ready station, mid-way along their deck.

"You talk about me in your sleep, huh?" The sergeant noted as he pulled the ready room locker open and grabbed his gear from within. Dorsal combat suit made of fabricated leather and wool, reinforced with hemp fibers for defense against bullets and shrapnel, coral helmet with goggles and a breath-mask and a built-in dolphin holder that he put Click into, and a web gear belt with weapons and clips for fighting on the sheer back of the Dreadnought. From the very back he retrieved a Winchester Model 1912 pump-action shotgun, slipping it into the holster build into the back of his coat.

"ONCE. I talked about you in my sleep ONCE." Shaw replied with an eye roll. She retrieved her near identical gear as well, donning it quickly, the only difference being an EDR on her back rather than a shotgun.

"How cute." Marasco noted with a dark smile. Shaw returned it, an entire conversation passing between them without a single word being spoken. "I didn't know you cared."

"Yes you do! You care too! You barking love me!" Shaw said.

"Do not."

"Do too!"

"Do not!"

"Do too!"

Marasco's response was cut off as the floor rumbled and he felt his ears pop slightly; the airship was rising, probably climbing to combat height. He glanced at Shaw, then hurried for the stairwell that led to the very top deck, Shaw hot on his heels. Their ready station they were supposed to be at was directly ahead of them, wedged between the stairs leading to crows nests and several of the larger gun turrets, their individual armament indicated by the ammunition feeds snaking up next to the stairs.

More alarms were blaring as he ran, shattering the stillness of the air around them and making his head ring.

"You'd think they'd tone those alarms down a bit…" He muttered angrily, holding his ears.

"Aye! Bring it up with MacPherson next time you get the chance!" Shaw shouted back. The two soldiers made it to their ready station and moved inside the tube-like structure of it, catching their breath quickly. Their job now was simple; wait for orders to ride the station topside and help defend the gun turrets there. Or, if they weren't needed, a stand-down order.

Marasco glanced over at Shaw, who smiled crookedly again. Without hesitation, they pulled close to each other and Shaw pressed her lips to his.

It was not an awkward kiss by any stretch of the imagination. Both Marasco and Shaw had done this many times before. Their pre-battle ritual, for luck and for courage and for who knew what else. For them, the dance of Darwinism was as well known as stripping a weapon or patching up themselves after a fight.

The Sergeant sighed against the Corporal's mouth, sliding his fingers into what was left of her hair following her last trip to the barber. She did the same, and leaned back, letting him press against her with more aggression. He took it greedily, as always, forcing her against the wall.

"Been wanting to do that for a while, haven't you?" He asked, catching his breath and grinning, body humming with a mixture of adrenaline and hormones. Shaw smiled back and laughed.

"Course I have, David. It's been too damn LONG…like I told Sixx."

"Agreed. Three days is too long." He whispered, kissing her deeply again for a second. "We need to rectify that…"

"After this alarm is dealt with I assume?" She asked, cocking her good eyebrow and smiling dirtily.

"Why not now?" He countered with a growl, gripping his sides possessively. "Any complaints to that, Het?"

"I wish we could…" She said quietly, sadness in her voice. "But I'd rather not, you know, DIE because we were…busy."

"Me either." He backed away from her and calmed himself with a couple breaths, letting the clear, collected personality that was normally him return.

Shaw was right though…he'd have to see her again when this was all finished.

Speaking of THIS…

"What the hell's going on anyway?" She asked, looking around. Marasco agreed; neither Click nor Shaw's dolphin Tom had made a peep.

"Not a clue…maybe we can stand down?" He guessed. That would be nice; being able to go back to his cabin with Shaw and finish what they'd started…

But of course, the war had other ideas. The alarms, which Marasco had tuned out until then, changed their pitch and urgency, going from "air attack" to "all hands to combat positions."

For Marasco and Shaw, that meant the line of turrets on the spine of the airship.

"Do it!" He shouted to her, strapping his breath mask over his mouth and pulling down the goggles over his eyes.

Shaw nodded and pulled the door of the room closed. There was a loud click as the door sealed, and the floor rose, hydraulic pressure forcing it upwards. Marasco and Shaw looked up, watching as the ceiling above them split along a seam and retracted backwards.

Cold, high-altitude air rushed in, making Marasco's few inches of exposed skin instantly numb. Click and Tom made twin noises of complaint and snuggled deeper into their holders, effectively putting them in the perfect position for them to hear their master's voices. Up here, the wind caught any unamplified words and snatched them away to the stern.

"Com check." Marasco noted, directing his comment to Click. The dolphin heard it and transmitted it instantly to Tom, who relayed it to Shaw.

"Clear!" The Corporal's voice came through Click. Loud and clear; no transmission problems. Perfect.

"Got you. Move out!" Marasco stepped off the platform and moved along the foot holds in the skin of the airship. This wasn't a British airbeast with their web of riggings and horror stories of careless middies falling to their deaths. This was an American hybrid machine, made for efficiency and tactical superiority. Shaw came behind him, unlimbering her EDR as she did.

"You got something?" He called. She nodded.

"Speck, out of the corner of my eye! Mighta been a fighter, not sure."

"Probably wasn't…why would they decloak for one enemy bird?" Marasco asked, finding his position between the twin bow anti-aircraft guns. The gunners within were testing their weapons, the steel and reinforced domes of spinning full around and the four M2 .50 caliber machine guns mounted around them swiveling to their full extents. Marasco waved to the gunner of the rear bow turret, and he waved back, making a circle with his index finger and thumb.

"Rear turret is green!" Marasco barked, knowing that the words would not only go to Shaw but to the gun control dolphin. He returned the circle and moved on to the next turret, which was doing the same thing. Except the gunner in this one was obviously very angry, turning around in his seat and shouting at one of the crew behind him.

Marasco rapped on the glass, and the gunner nodded to him, shaking his head. He made another sign with his own fingers; all five fingers raised.

Five. That meant there was something wrong with the fifth important system in the turret; the ammunition feed.

"Front turret has a feed problem!" He reported. This time, he got something back from Click.

"Marasco, MacPherson. Be advised, Petty Officer Rack's feed manager is currently in the infirmary. I'm redirecting you to his place until we can get a replacement up there. Corporal Shaw will take up your position on the bow."

"Copy, ma'am! I'll be down in a second!" He clambered up higher, reaching the next set of foot holds easily. He barely had enough time to get into them before the Dreadnought plowed through a massive cloudbank, partially blinding him in white. After a full minute, his vision cleared, and he was able to move again.

The cloud bank also seemed to be hiding something else; as he moved to the far forward ready station to return inside, he glanced out over the side of the Dreadnought. Visible against the clouds were one, two, no, THREE long, grey shapes. He recognized them easily;

ZEPPELINS.

THAT was what the ship had decloaked for; this was a show of force! There were reporters aboard now; undoubtedly, Halsey would take this chance to prove once and for all just how ready America was for this war. And an American airship coming from seemingly nowhere and destroying three zeppelins would certainly make the Clankers start quaking in their tin cans even if they didn't read the papers…

Marasco clambered onto the ready station plate and paused, looking at the grey splotches.

He saluted them, for as long as he could while the plate retracted inside the Dreadnought and the hatch sealed over him again. An acknowledgement for the many unlucky young German men about to meet their maker.

The door unlocked and Marasco hauled it open, hurrying out towards the forward bow gun. He yanked his helmet off as he did, taking Click from its place inside it and stuffing the dolphin into his collar. The dolphin made an angry squeak and shifted right side up, glaring at Marasco before settling down against the fabricated wool.

"Flying cigars." It noted, quoting one of the Army Air Service Generals on zeppelins. Marasco just nodded, climbing the ladder to the turret.

From inside he could hear swearing and an argument underway. Someone (Probably PO Rack) was practically howling for "some splicing reject to clear the feed."

Marasco knocked on the hatch that sealed the turret from the rest of the airship.

"Sergeant Marasco! Open her up!"

The hatch opened out towards him, making him duck as it did, lest it crack his head. He scrambled inside and up.

The turret's interior was more spacious than it would appear on the outside. The glass dome and the four guns were only the parts that could be seen from the outside. Inside, there was room enough for four people to stand comfortably; the gunner, the fire control relay, and the two feed managers, each of whom doubled as a replacement for any of the other personnel should something happen to them in combat.

Three faces looked down at Marasco as he climbed in. He guessed the man already in the gunner's chair was Petty Officer Rack, a theory confirmed moments later by the sight of the man's name tag.

"Damn." Rack muttered. "When I asked for a replacement, I didn't expect them to send a Darwin."

"I was closest. Adapt and survive." Marasco replied. The phrase was basically the Fist's rallying cry, same as the Marine's "semper fi".

"Damn right." Rack agreed. He tilted the chair and unbuckled himself from it, gesturing for Marasco to take his place.

"Hold position, Petty Officer. I've got the feed manager spot covered for you."

Rack shook his head. "Straight orders from the loot herself. She wants you in the hot seat on this one."

Marasco blinked, shrugged, and climbed into the chair. If Lieutenant MacPherson wanted him to be gunner for this turret…then he was gonna be the splicing gunner for this turret.

He took a moment to reacquaint himself with the controls. Main control yoke directly ahead of him; thumb-triggers for the right MG's on its right, left MG's on its left, ammunition counter for both directly above them. Crosshairs directly in front of his eyes.

Perfect.

"Sound off!" Marasco barked.

"2, green!" That was the fire control officer.

"3, green!" The primary feed officer this time.

"4, green!" There was Rack, now in his new position.

"Solid copy! Turret is fully operational!" Marasco barked this last one to Click, who sent it on down to the main fire control center, buried somewhere in the bowels of the airship.

There was silence for a long moment as everyone readied themselves for their orders.

"Firing timer incoming!" The FCO shouted up. "T minus one minute thirty and counting!"

Marasco gripped the triggers eagerly, hands clenching against the fabricated wood of their construction. Once more the only sound was the shifting of the turret crew and the creaks and groans of the metal canopy above them as it passed through pockets of dense and then less dense air.

"Marasco, Shaw." Click spoke with Shaw's voice. Marasco shivered; it always gave him a strange chill to hear her voice come from the dolphin's mouth.

"Go ahead."

"You in position? We're getting barking close to those German gas-bags…"

"Affirmative. Countdown to firing is…"

He glanced at the FCO who mouthed "90"

"90 seconds." He finished.

"90? The hell is the el-tee thinking? That's practically a broadside!"

"No practically; it IS one." Marasco slowed, running over the design of the Dreadnought in his head. "Shaw, where are you?"

"Just behind your turret, sir. Standard position."

"Move higher. Over and onto the starboard side if you have too. When we fire at that zeppelin from this close, who knows what's going to come flying off it."

"Yes sir! I'm Oscar Mike!"

The sounds of Shaw's footfalls echoed through the turret like someone striking a metal pan with a wooden spoon, then faded as she made it across to the starboard side.

"Fifteen seconds!"

Marasco glanced up and out the glass canopy, watching the dark shape of their first target slowly approach. DAMN it was big…had to be an Albatross glider carrier or something of the same size. Maybe even a Kaiser-class assault zeppelin! What a prize THAT would be to blast out of the sky…

The other two air enemy airships hung back slightly. They were smaller, probably Kondor troop carriers or Luftpanzer walker transports. Must be part of an air convoy, maybe bringing fresh troops and machines to the Eastern Front against Russia.

"Ten! Nine! Eight…"

The Sergeant snapped his attention back to the steadily approaching airship. His fingers twitched.

"Four! Thee! Two! One! FIRE AT WILL!"

With a dark grin, Marasco squeezed the triggers.

There was a click; the first rounds sliding into the quartet of machine guns around him. Then glorious, horrific noise. Four guns spitting half-inch incendiary rounds at who knew how many hundreds of rounds a minute. A rattle joined the sound of gunfire as the spent shells rained from the MG's ejection ports, forming a golden stream down and out through the now-open shell vents on the floor.

The Sergeant tracked his line of fire up and across the side of the zeppelin, starting tiny fires along her black flanks. Lines of fire lit the sky like a lighting storm, dazzling him. The flaming lines of his tracer rounds, the fire from the other turrets to the aft of him, and the Clanker airship's own turrets returning fire against the Dreadnought. He felt his mouth moving, but if he was saying anything, he couldn't hear it over the cacophony of battle.

Then all at once the noise from his turret stopped. All four guns fell silent.

"CLART!" He shouted, squeezing the triggers again to no avail.

"Mate!" Came the responding curse in Rack's voice from the feed station. "Bad shell jammed the autoloader! Can't clear it!"

"Switch to manual!" Marasco barked. Rack cursed again but obviously replied, as the sound of a heavy lever being pulled filled the turret, and a moment later the guns clicked again, indicating their ability to fire. Which Marasco promptly did.

He changed tactics as he did. Now, his rate of fire was limited to what ammunition could be cranked into the storage bays of each turret by the two feed operators. No more spray and pray; he'd have to aim now. Easy enough.

He glanced through the sight, looking over the body of the zeppelin. She was aflame but not falling, her fire-control teams obviously keeping the blazes under control. She was moving too, trying to pull ahead of the Dreadnought and escape.

Marasco shifted and swiveled the turret around, tracing fire along her skin until he found the housings for one of her engines. Half-inch rounds pounded the metal armor of the pod until it split open like an over-ripe melon and pealed away in the fierce wind. He drilled more shells into the open hole until smoke and fire belched from it and the entire pod sheered away from the airship, a great ugly comet of metal whirling away towards the earth. The propeller wrenched itself free at the last moment and spun into the Dreadnought's side, cutting deeply amidships and making the whole craft shudder.

"Mate!" Marasco spat. THAT hadn't been his intention…hopefully the damage control teams could deal with that.

From below him came a knock on the hatch. Marasco turned back to the battle, letting the feed managers deal with it. They were closest. He kept his attention on the enemy, continuing to fire bursts at anything he figured was important. Gun positions, external hatches, hangers. Once he was out of those he waited, letting the feed boxes refill fully.

"Middie Sharp, reporting!" Came a female voice from below. Marasco cranked around in his seat to look behind him. Sure enough, there she was.

"Sharp? What the clart are you doing here?" He asked, giving a quick spray at the enemy airship to make sure he could talk for a moment without taking a round.

"Brought your replacement! And you're boffin wants you in the hanger!"

Halsey wanted him in the hanger? Strange, why hadn't she called via Click…

But better safe than sorry. If the turret had a full crew again he wasn't needed. And there were things he could be more useful at than spraying a zeppelin.

He scrambled out of his seat and slid down the ladder, landing with a grunt and standing. The replacement feed manager climbed up the moment he was clear and the hatch closed behind him, leaving Marasco alone with Sharp.

The Scottish girl looked far different than he remembered her; now she was clothed in a black and grey officer's uniform, and her hair was mostly gone, shaved down to regulation length. She looked like a proper Darwin's Fist officer now.

With the exceptions that Marasco towered over her by a good two feet and she was obviously not happy with her outfit. As he watched, she adjusted the front again, apparently trying to make it stretch and hide her breasts, something it wasn't doing even though it looked about a size too big for her and her tits weren't anything impressive either. Shaw and Sixx had her out-sized by at least two cup sizes.

"Uniform too big?" He noted neutrally. Click chuckled from his shoulder and noted "if she's a girl, where's her tits?" in the voice of Flight Officer Thursday.

"Aye." Sharp replied, looking down quickly and (Marasco swore) blushing. "Couldn't find a smaller one."

"Seriously?" Marasco cocked an eyebrow. "Strange."

He started walking for the hanger, Sharp taking to her heels to catch up. She practically had to run to keep up with him he noticed.

"They said-something about-the Leviathan's rations-being less effective-at maintaining body mass-than yours…" She said, panting as she ran. The Sergeant nodded, then, after a moment, grabbed her by the back of the collar and her pants, pulling her upwards and onto his shoulder like a sack so he didn't have to slow down. Sharp complained loudly, but he ignored it.

"I would say that makes sense. Too many potatoes and greens, not enough protein. He said neutrally. Personally he figured that there were a lot of other things about the Fist that were better than whatever the British Air Service had but he didn't mention them. "You're bound to loose body weight from that alone, not to mention the exercise you get climbing rigging and the stress…"

"I like potatoes." Sharp said quickly, earning a grin from Marasco.

"What good airman doesn't?" He chuckled. He shifted her, frowning. "You feeling alright? You're light as a shark rocket.

"Aye, fine. I've always been skinny." She replied quickly, but he noticed she looked away as she said it. He didn't press the issue.

The Dreadnought shuddered, and he hauled her onto his shoulder like a sack of grain, breaking into a full-on sprint.

Even in full dorsal combat gear, the Sergeant could keep up a damn fast pace. Having Deryn on his shoulder didn't slow him in the least.

He took a corner and ran down the hallway to the main hanger, the main interior door of which was wide open. From inside, the sounds and smell of an intense firefight were evident.

A couple random bullets zinged by Marasco's head, missing Sharp by inches. She cried in surprise, and Marasco dropped her, shouting "keep your head down and don't move!" at her before dashing into the hanger.

"Intense firefight" didn't cover what was going on; apparently the hanger's external doors were open as well. Somehow the Germans had managed to land a good number of their troops on the Dreadnought. They were currently engaged with the ship's compliment of Marines and all of Third Squad. The battle looked relatively even at this point; both sides had good cover and plenty of combat gear to use.

Quickly, Marasco spotted Sergeant Niles behind a mounted M1895 Colt-Browning machine gun and joined him, sliding into cover behind a crate that used to hold combustible lemons but was now thankfully empty.

"Sitrep!" He barked, pulling out the shotgun from his back again and making sure there was a shell in the chamber.

"Someone opened the bay doors and these bastards came in!" Niles roared back, firing off a long burst from the gun. A pair of Germans who had been running at his position dropped in a spray of red, helmets falling with twin clatters.

"What's our tactical position?"

"We're holding out easily enough, but they're latched onto us. Some new toy of theirs, grappling hooks fired by steam catapults."

"Brilliant. Has anyone managed to get them free?"

"Not yet, they're too busy dealing with the Clanker ground-pounders!"

"Sounds like a job for me. Keep them busy!" He ordered, standing and getting ready to move. Before he could, something came arcing his way from the German lines. It bounced with a metal "ding" and rolled to a stop by him. A live stick grenade.

Without hesitation, Marasco dashed over and punted the device high and over him, sending it flying back into the German lines. It exploded above them, doing no real damage but making several Clankers duck their and slacken their fire, long enough for Marasco to dash over and behind them.

Two saw him move and turned to engage, one howling "Amerikaner!" before Marasco fired at him and sent him tumbling away into his buddy. He vaulted a set of boxes, kicking aside the machine gun crew who had set up there and knocking over their weapon (a Maschinengewehr 08) as he did. With that last obstacle cleared, there was nothing between him and the lines holding the two airships together.

Nothing…except the fact that the "lines" were made of high-tension steel, the same as was used to haul artillery emplacements behind walkers.

And all Marasco had with him was a shotgun and a memory dolphin.

He glanced around, swearing. He needed something that could deal with steel quickly, and he needed it-

Ah, that would work! In the corner, another crate, bearing the logo of Aperture Combat Technologies. More combustible lemons probably. Just what he needed.

He yanked the slide on his shotgun and fired the fresh shell, blasting open the crate and letting its contents spill to the floor. Just as he'd hoped, a smell of citrus filled the air and several dozen yellow objects came to rest at his feet.

Marasco grabbed three, pulled their pins, and hurled them with all his might at the cables.

They soared away, hissing, before popping open seconds later and spilling a flaming, acidic mixture into the air. The goop slashed across the cables and an unfortunate Clanker who got too close and began dissolving everything it touched. Marasco put the Clanker out of his misery before it could truly begin with a shotgun round.

The cables smoked, then began to groan, the stresses of holding two airships close together beginning to pull them apart. One snapped and whipped back, slicing open another set of crates and nearly taking the head off a Marine charging the German lines.

The noise seemed to reach the soldiers in the bay, and it seemed like half the Clankers turned and spotted Marasco.

The Sergeant had just enough time to think "oh, this is going to HURT" before they opened up.

He dodged and weaved, seeking cover, but before he could one of the machine guns opened up. He howled as bullets chewed up his back and legs, throwing him to the floor and sending his shotgun flying away and out the open hanger door. He bounced, and his arm shattered, sending fresh agony through him.

He rolled to a stop, uniform smoking, and coughed. Blood came up. No surprise there, he was sure he'd probably lost a lung. Yes, now he was BEYOND sure; he couldn't breath right.

Again. Great.

Marasco closed his eyes and waited. Two seconds, three, four…

Then it started. The pain stopped coming, turning off like water from a tap. His mind cleared, and he stood, shakily. A look down at himself showed the many holes that would have killed a normal man slowly beginning to close, blood drying over them and flaking off into the air. Strength returned to him, and he clenched his fists, smiling darkly.

Something tickled the back of his throat and he coughed, forcing something solid into his mouth. He spat, and a bloodied German machine gun round fell to the deck with a clatter. Gross. Now his mouth was going to taste like chordite for the rest of the day…

He'd worry about that later. Right now, he had a hanger to clear and several more lines to sever.

His shotgun was gone, probably now stuck deep in the earth the twin airships were passing over. He had his utility knife, but it was just a fancier, more useful model of the British rigging knife, barely useful in a fight. He had the lemons, but they were out of reach, and more than likely if he made a run for them another Clanker would fire on them and set the whole crate aflame. He had his fists, but the Germans had guns. Not a good combination. He needed a firearm.

His uniform writhed, and Click poked its head out from a bullet hole, sucking on the bullet that had made it contentedly. It was unsurprisingly not hurt. Memory dolphins were tough little fabs, biologically hardened against just about anything.

"Mmm…lead." It said around the round. Marasco grinned then picked up the dolphin and squeezed it till it spat out the bullet.

"Sic em." He told the dolphin, then reared back and hurled it at the nearest German.

The unfortunate soldier had enough time to mouth "Was-" before Click latched onto his face and started biting everything it could reach with its tiny, sharp teeth.

The soldier fell backwards, swiping at his face and screaming something that roughly translated into English as "It's eating my nose!"

The Sergeant rushed forward and grabbed the German's dropped rifle, not bothering to check what model and manufacture it was. It was bolt action, and it had a bayonet. It would work.

Click still had the German occupied, and Marasco used his distraction to stab the bayonet blade deep into his chest and through into the floor plating. The German fell still, and Click made a disappointed noise. He grabbed the dolphin and stuffed it back into his coat, retrieving the rifle with a grunt and a spray of blood. A quick examination proved it to be a Gewehr 98 again, like the one carried by the last Clanker he'd killed face to face. A weapon Marasco, like the rest of the Fist, was cross-trained in the use of, even if he wasn't a marksman with it like he was with the M1903 and EDR.

He gave it a quick shake, sending a shower of blood from the bayonet and barrel. A second let him see that the magazine was mostly full, missing only a couple rounds that he feed back into it with stripper clips taken from the dead German. He cycled the bolt, ejecting the metal backing of the clip away, then grabbed Click again.

"Open call!" He ordered. Click nodded, connecting with every dolphin within it's range.

Marasco grinned, then spoke.

"Darwin's! Its time to push these bastards out of our hanger! KILL THEM ALL!"

A chorus of shouts answered him, and the fire from the Darwin controlled side of the hanger intensified, bullets pinging in all directions. Germans danced and screamed and dropped, the smell of blood and cordite and voided bowels filling Marasco's nose.

The Sergeant joined them, sighting up an enemy at the far end of the hanger and blasting his helmet clean off. On instinct he reloaded, feeling the heat of the spent shell as it went hurtling by his hand.

He glanced around for another target, but found none. The few remaining Germans in the hanger were retreating, leaving behind their dead and wounded and quite a bit of their gear. A few Darwin's fired parting shots, to no avail.

The last of the Clankers leapt aboard their airship, and with bursts of hot gas the anchors holding the two vessels together were released, letting them drift apart.

Marasco safed the rifle, slung it across his back, and walked to the edge of the hanger to watch the enemy flee. The zeppelin grew smaller by the second, falling away from the Dreadnought like a stone as she lost altitude. Streams of gunfire from the turret's followed, and after a long moment one of them found something important.

With a dull boom, the zeppelin erupted into a scorching, snarling cage of flame, sinking faster and leaving a long trail of debris as she sank.

The Darwin's howls and hoots followed her down, mixed with the happy cries of the memory dolphins watching.

Smiling, Marasco turned away, his job done for the moment. Now all he had to do was report to MacPherson on what happened, drop off the captured rifle at the armory, get himself checked out in the infirmary and return his dorsal combat gear, and he'd have nothing between him and a night with Hester except-

He slowed, combat senses tingling again. Someone was watching him...

A glance out the door showed who; Deryn, still where he'd left her and apparently unharmed.

But plastered on her face was a look that Marasco interpreted as shock, fear, and revulsion. Like she'd just seen something horrifying.

OH CLART. She'd been in the door. She MUST have seen him get shot...

Before Marasco could call out to her, to explain, do ANYTHING, the Scottish girl turned on her heels and ran.

"CLART." He spat.

So much for his night with Hester.