For Fandango’s Flash Fiction Challenge #122, where we write about this image from Nicolae_Balt at Pixabay:

John Hall was enjoying the morning, in a state somewhere between awake and risen. “Enjoying” is the wrong word, for John was nervous. Today would be big, he’d been told, decisive. Something had to be. Nothing yet had changed any of this madness. He gazed into the darkness of the early morning through the open tent flap. A stiff breeze blew in, and for a second, John hoped it might dampen Paul’s resolve.

He was interrupted when a tall man, hair still dripping, appeared at the entrance, a wet towel draped around his neck. In his mid-twenties, he might normally be considered handsome, but he was haggard, aged beyond his years. Paul. His comrade. Thrown together at the start of all this, they had been through so much. The man he trusted with his life, Paul entered the tent, and carelessly threw the towel onto the next camp-bed.

“Ready?”, quizzed Paul, straightening, stretching. Then, with an air of resignation, adding “it’s time we started”.

John ruffled his boyish blond hair. Fully dressed under the lightweight blanket, he rose from his bunk, following Paul into an open field. As their comrades too began to awaken, some lanterns were visible amid the silhouettes of eight identical tents placed neatly into two rows.

Paul checked the weather-beaten windsock. Not ideal, but they would fly today. Nodding, the pair were adept at their preparation, and in thirty minutes, they were watching the grey balloon steadily inflate. John checked his watch – 4:30. They were making good time today.

Their tasks complete, John disappeared in the direction of one of the tents, returning shortly afterwards with a cup of tea in each hand, and the two men sipped strong, lukewarm cups of tea before their ascent. No words were exchanged. The sky was lightening now behind the hot glow of the filament, the meadow taking on an idyllic appearance in the October morning light. An oasis, destroyed by the men’s invasion. A brief respite for Daydreamer John.

A tap on the shoulder. “Come on, buddy. Can’t be late today.”

A final ground test, confirmation that the man at the other end of the relatively new telephone received them loud and clear, they started to lift. A steel-cored cable, which tethered the balloon to the ground quickly became taut in the wind.

At 800 feet, the spindle stopped rotating: it had dispatched as much as it was able Their only protection being the relative camouflage of the balloon in the grey sky, the men readied themselves for the task ahead.

A damp autumn day began to unfold, and when the light allowed, the sharp-eyed John peered eastwards through his field glasses. Seeing movement on the ground, perhaps four miles away, he glanced at his compass. “120º at four miles”, he murmored. Studying the now-unfolded map in his hands, Paul relayed the co-ordinates down the telephone. It didn’t matter, these first numbers, anyway. They’d be able to hone in shortly.

Keeping the glasses glued doggedly to his eyes, John’s watch crept slowly towards six o’clock. John did, however, observe the cotton-wool puff as the first shell landed, followed a split-second later by an almighty crash. As though a starting pistol was being fired, more pockmarks began to appear on the landscape below.

The barrage had begun.

From the outset I had in my mind that these guys were First World War artillery spotters, being used at the start of a barrage. But I wanted to unfog the image gradually, so I hope you got that in the end.


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