Could Not Help Myself!
I could not help myself. Below is a piece that started as a flash fiction, quickly grew past 1000 words and is not yet complete. I could not resist posting it, unfinished, warts and all. It is a companion piece to The Phlogiston Precariousness. It takes place during the American Civil War, in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and North Carolina. When I finish it, I will post it under the steampunk section.
The woods were aglow with a nightmarish yellow and orange light. Even a stinging rain could not douse the fires that raged through a secluded camp in the Great Smoky Mountains. A lean silhouette flicked amongst the trees. The man ran hunched over, with a wobbling gait. He turned his head from side to side with great frequency. Through the air, the sound of confusion mixed in with much more guttural sounds carried to the shadowy figure.
Barely able to suppress a shudder of revulsion the man slithered over a fallen tree before he crashed headlong into it. Crouching behind the trunk, he listened to the growls, barks and screeches that rang out into the night. He knew the origins of those noises and the recollection made his knees weak. His grip tightened around the wood handle of a Beaumont-Adams revolver, seeking comfort and reassurance in its solid weight.
From his vantage behind the massive log, he could hear the roar of the fire punctuated by screams that trailed off to heart-wrenching moans as new victims perished. Using his free hand, he examined his pocket watch. The glowing hands showed him that it was just past four in the morning. The downpour permeated his clothes, chilling his skin. Colonel McWilliams needed to know what sort of mad science the Confederacy practiced in this wilderness.
The smell of damp forest reached his nose. A tranquil setting if it were not for the chaos pursuing him. Stealing another glance over the log, he saw the camp in stark contrast. Fully engulfed, the wooden structures burned wildly. A tall figure emerged from one blazing wall of fire peered in the direction of the woods and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. With the lights in his eyes, the man could not identify the person. He supposed it to be the man in charge of the camp, his real objective.
The gesture he understood. It signified the release of trackers and an organized pursuit. He had to leave. If he went North West through the mountains, he could reach Tennessee where there lived Union sympathetic communities. He would need to work his way around the camp to go that way though. Not knowing what would give chase if spotted gave him pause. Daybreak was near and that would give the searchers a better chance of finding him. Rising up on unsteady feet the man scurried ten yards further south of the fire into a copse of trees.
From the trees, he angled his way east. The bunkhouses at this end were just starting to catch fire. Because of that, they were deserted. He picked up some speed straightening out of his crouch to run favoring his left side. He continued to look over his shoulder trying to keep track of where people were forming fire lines or gathering for orders. It was during one such momentary survey of the enemy that he ran headlong into a person.
With a muffled grunt from both parties, they collapsed into the wet earth. He lashed out with a pointed elbow while feeling the sting of a fist against his temple. Rolling through the forest detritus the pair struggled against one another. Finally, by shear dint of weight he emerged on top, knee against the opposition’s chin, pistol leveled at their forehead.
Dark brown eyes flashed in the firelight. Something did not feel quite right. The man slowly eased off the other. It dawned on him that the other was a woman. The moment his weight shifted, she levered him off and drew a Colt pistol of her own. They faced each other over the barrels. Long dark hair was tangled. Twigs and leaves were collected in it from their rolling along the ground. She was compact and wore very serviceable clothes from trekking through the mountains. Her eyes showed surprise, probably at finding another person roaming the woods at night. He put a finger to his lips and tipped his head away from the camp. She nodded, sidling in the indicated direction. The muzzle of her gun never wavered from his head.
“What are you doing?” he said. His tone carried a note of hysteria with it.
“Just passing through the area,” she answered. “Who are you?”
“You may call me Ignatius. And you?”
“Angela.” She replied. “What is going on here?” she said.
“A wickedness you could not even imagine.
“Try me. I have a fairly broad imagination.”
“Do you serve the Confederates?” Ignatius said.
“Direct that’s refreshing. No, I do not represent them. I am more of a freelance specialist.”
“Ah, a mercenary,” said Ignatius.
“No need to take that tone with me. You should count yourself fortunate, had I been with the Confederates, we would not be talking right now. I had the drop on you.”
Looking at her pistol Ignatius asked, “Do you know how to use that?”
“Well enough, why?”
“You will need it before long. The rebs are stirred up and starting to scout around their camp. Plus there are other… things, out here.”
“Tell me,” said Angela.
“There is no time. I am heading toward the North West, you?”
I have a job to the South…” began Angela, but a heavy foot breaking a branch diverted their attention.
A massive shape heaved its way towards them. The legs swung awkwardly outwards then forward in a flopping gait. Firelight glinted off a metal cap fastened to the wearer’s skull. Something that looked vaguely man-like, dressed in tatters lumbered at them. Ignatius stepped in front of Angela and raised his pistol, firing a shot that slapped into the skull. The impact of the .44 caliber slug flung bone and metal fragments backwards. The creature took several more steps before toppling.
“Hell,” cursed Ignatius. “It is time we were off. They heard the shot. I would suggest coming with me for the time being. It will be safer.”
“Did you see that?” Angela asked. Some of the color had drained from her face.
“Unfortunately, yes. It is not alone either. We need to go, now.”
Ignatius grabbed her hand and dragged her away from the still twitching body.
“I am on a scouting mission for interested parties,” Ignatius said.
“You mean the Union,” Angela guessed.
“Yes. They wanted to know if there are any good passages through the mountains. I suggested a survey by airship, which somehow became a personnel-on-the-ground survey. I was not expecting to find the camp. When I saw its smoke, I knew that I would have to investigate it. Now I wish I had not.” Ignatius drew up short.
“You need to know this in case I do not make it out, someone has to tell the Union,” he said. “That creature I just shot is only the beginning. There are more. At least there were. The fire ought to have wiped out most of them.”
“Them? What do you mean? I do not understand,” said Angela.
Ignatius stopped and spun to look directly at Angela. “The camp. The Confederates are experimenting there. They are grafting machinery to humans. Live humans. Prisoners, slaves and worst of all, children.”
“Ai, Dios mio!” gasped Angela. “Es monstruoso! Forgive me, when I get excited I have a tendency to speak Spanish.”
“I was discovered and managed to subdue that person, set some rapid accelerating demolitions and make my way clear of the camp. One of the bastards winged me though. Right now, the majority of the soldiers are fighting the fire. The officer in charge unleashed the experiments. The good news is that they are not terribly fast. Dogged perhaps…”
“Who is in charge?” asked Angela.
“I do not know. I never got a chance to see his face or hear his name.”
“Incoming,” said Angela pointing off to their left.
A pair of experiments, more machine than man, shambled to intercept the fleeing pair. One of them had thick black tubes running from their back, over the shoulders and into their chest. The creature seemed to gain a measure of speed with every step. The face contorted in a mockery of human anger as the machine-man bore down on them. Ignatius fired from the hip at the same time as Angela. The crack of her pistol echoed throughout the woods. His shot flew wide striking a tree. Her aim was truer. The lead creature fell back, spurting blood and a bright yellow fluid from the wound.
They quickly outpaced the second as they crested a small rise and discovered the downslope of the mountain before them. They descended at breakneck speed, kicking loose rocks and sticks in their haste. A few rifle shots whistled past but then the woods fell silent except for the rain and their frantic steps. They reached the bottom of the hill where the ground leveled out and the trees were sparse.
“This valley floor runs north to south for a half mile,” said Ignatius. “We are about in the middle. If we go up the other side we will have the benefit of more difficult terrain and a superior height advantage.”
“How far is the other side?” said Angela.
“Less than a mile. We cross a stream several hundred yards before the next rise.”
“Let’s go then.”
Grimly the pair loped along keeping their eyes moving, trying to look in every direction all at once. Ten minutes dragged past when Ignatius stumbled into the creek, tripping and falling face first into the water. Thrashing out of the water, he cursed. The rain was a minor bother, being soaked to the skin in the very early spring in the mountains was life threatening. Wasting no time, Ignatius stripped off his jacket and shirt and started to wring them out, hoping to minimize the chance of frostbite or hypothermia.
An ugly red trough across his ribs showed just how close his escape from the camp was. Angela knelt at the creek and scooped some water into her mouth, and then she checked over her pistol, ejecting the spent shells and replacing them. With shaking hands, Ignatius redressed himself and tended to his own pistol. Somehow, the cartridges had avoided being soaked. The very first fingers of sunlight were beginning to tickle the tops of the mountains even though a drizzle continued to fall.
His head bobbed towards his chest, snapping up just as he realized how close to passing out he was. Fatigue was settling into his muscles. Getting rest now was not possible. They had to keep moving, had to get to higher ground. While rooting in his jacket’s pockets Ignatius appraised the young woman before him, keeping a watchful eye out over their surroundings. He instinctively liked her. She did not panic and kept up with him during their headlong flight from the camp.
His fingers finally found the smooth metal cylinder. Taking it out he unscrewed the top, a syringe and vial of milky liquid slid into the palm of his hand.
“What’s that?” asked Angela.
“A distillation of endurance I concocted for this sort of emergency. How are you holding up?”
“Very well, thank you.”
Ignatius filled the hypodermic with the chemical and slid the needle into his left forearm. The liquid felt hot as it rushed into his vein, drawn up to his heart and then pushed out to the rest of his body. Almost immediately, he could feel warmth spreading from limb to limb. His mind cleared the fog that almost settled over it.
He was about to say something when a squeak reached his ears. Angela froze and cocked her head listening too. The whoosh of steam escaping from a valve could be clearly heard. Soft footsteps added to the layers of noise that approached. Ignatius readied himself but then gasped in horror as the first of this new wave of assailants emerged from the darkness.