Upon The Mountain, A Valentine Treat.
Happy Valentine’s Day, I hope you are all well and enjoying the day. For you all, I present a short story for your enjoyment. It represents the beginning of another slice of Steampunkery, one that I have mulled over for a while. The main tale is yet to be told, but in this story you are introduced to two of the main characters. Keep your eyes peeled for references to some familiar people from the Ignatius St. Eligius stories!
Happy Valentines again,
Upon The Mountain
The mountains rose up like thick stubby fingers, jabbing at the sky above. The air was crisp and laden with the scent of pine and lush grasses. Sunlight fell in a slant across the forest’s edge near the snowline. Leading out of the snow and into the trees were footprints and dark stains, blatant against the white background.
A wheezing sound cut through the still forest air. Slumped against a limber pine Mark checked his wound for the fourth time. Nothing had changed. It was still there in his side and still gushing. Resolutely, he plugged the hole with a finger.
A custom revolver lay on the ground several feet away from his right hand. He ignored the weapon for the time being. Survival was foremost on his mind. Perhaps, he might give in to the temptation to relax and allow himself to lose consciousness. Odds were that if he did so, he would not wake up.
Mark realized that he was okay with that.
The drone of an airship caught his attention. It sparked something in him. Part recognition of the ship and more important, the sense that help might be arriving. He knew the pine branches obscured him from sight. If only they could find him in time.
The world around him grew vague, blurry as though looking at the landscape through dirty glass. The mountain slope tilted and rolled and time came in choppy waves. One thing stood out, the engines were getting louder. Mark focused on that, the sound of the airship’s propellers cutting the air. His vision improved a bit.
Time refused to play nicely though. Short bursts of black came and went. The next thing Mark knew the airship must be directly above him. A garbled noise repeated itself, hidden among the sounds of the engines and props. Mark listened intently.
“Marshal Mark…This is Airship Conesus…Are you there?”
“Is that a voice from Heaven? No,” Mark thought, “Heaven would send angels and their wings probably don’t make much noise. However, the Seraph would probably have a choir along with them. It is odd that I would consider that.”
Mark slowly reached up and adjusted his hat, tipping it back on his head. Looking up through the branches he could just make out the sleek gondola and cigar shaped lift bladder of the Conesus. The twin thrusters on the stern hummed and twitched making minor adjustments for the breeze and air currents.
The ship sank down toward the treetops. Mark found that he could discern the seams and joints of the gondola. Mark’s head rolled forward and his hat slid back into place. He was running out of energy to keep himself upright and alert.
A strange sort of sound came from forty yards away. A heavy thud resonated as something hit the forest floor. Another blackout washed over him. A hollow echoing voice called to him from the black void. He recognized the voice. It became an anchor to him. He followed it back to the forest.
Kneeling next to him wearing coveralls and a concerned look was Kevin. Limp dirty blonde hair hung forward giving Kevin the appearance of a sheep dog. His lean frame bent over Mark, examining the wounds. Kevin sat back on his heels and gave a low whistle.
“You sure got the raw end of the deal, didn’tcha?”
Mark found his voice weak, but managed to speak. “It is a pleasure to see your face, Kevin.”
“Jus’ lay back, alrigh’? I can patch you up, enough to make it worthwhile to lift you outta here.”
Kevin extracted a knife and cut away a portion of Mark’s shirt, to expose the gunshot. Carefully he moved Mark’s finger, took a quick glance at the hole and then pressed a bandage overtop of it.
“Hell, you’ve had worse than this,” Kevin said. “Remember that time in New York, poking around the Hudson near Poughkeepsie?”
“This time was different,” said Mark. “This time the quarry is intelligent, logical even.”
“Damn, really? Should I be worried?”
“No, the danger is past. I think.”
Kevin slid the gun closer to Mark, “Just in case, let’s have this hawgleg handy.”
“It is good to see you again, Kevin.”
“You too, it’s been what, three weeks?”
Kevin opened a satchel and took out more bandages and a couple of brown glass bottles. He set about cleaning and fixing the wound, while at the same time trying to listen for any disturbance in the forest.
“How’d you wind up shot? I thought yer target was supposed to be passive,” said Kevin, while he worked on Mark’s side.
“I think he feels cornered, frightened. Obviously he is armed, which is contrary to what my data indicated.”
“When’d it go sideways on you?”
“Past the snowline there are a series of caves where the group has setup an encampment. He is not used to such heights. He prefers the lower slopes since there’s better foraging below. Some ranchers banded together and drove them across the snowline.”
“So he’s up there all stressed and feelin’ particularly aggrieved, when you show up.”
“Correct. I had no real desire to terminate him, but I knew continuing conflict with the ranchers would result in tragedy.”
Kevin nodded and continued working. “Looks like a pretty big gun he shot you with.”
“Yes, it was a Henry rifle. I was ten yards away.”
Kevin’s face took on a look of concern, not over the wound in Mark’s side but it was something else. Mark could tell, after spending the past three years working closely with Kevin, he felt that he knew the other’s facial expressions.
“What is on your mind, Kevin?”
“A lot has been going on, while you were up here. The Congress is taking up the Tin-Man Act for a vote next month. You know what that means don’t you?”
“It means that Colonel Witmore failed in his attempts to lobby the Senators.”
“Right. When that bill passes into law there won’t be a safe Automaton from any of the series 2, 3 or 4.”
“What does that mean for us?”
“Well, that brings up the other piece of news. There is an amendment to the bill, which will cover hybrids since they started out human.”
“I am not a hybrid,” responded Mark slowly, as though to a child.
“I know that. I heard from Father.”
Although Kevin knew it was impossible, Mark’s voice seemed to take on a sullen tone, “What does Father want?”
“He passed a directive to me. Leave the country before the law takes effect.”
“Leave? Why should I leave?” asked Mark.
“We need to protect you for one reason and because Fawkes said so for another.
“I don’t understand. I am a U.S. Marshal. I enforce the laws.”
“You are a Marshal. However, you are an Automaton in the Cryptid branch of the Marshals. It isn’t a publicly acknowledged group. It is staffed by sentient machines, which are in the process of being banned for the plain fact that your intelligence and independence scares the Hell out of folk.”
Mark laid his head back on the pine needles, silent. Overhead the Conesus circled like one of the Bald Eagles that pin-wheeled through the skies looking for prey. This job as Marshal was all that Mark knew. He could not see leaving it, even if Father wanted him to. Tracking, researching and hunting the Cryptids was what he knew, what he was good at doing. They programmed him to do it. Kevin said this was a directive though, that changed everything.
Kevin removed the side plate from Mark, exposing the interior clockworks and fluid tubes. Mark sensed Kevin winding a patch around the punctured hose and then checking the rest of the mechanics to ensure that no further damage occurred. Kevin replaced the panel after a few minutes’ worth of work.
“What do you think, Mark?” he asked.
“I don’t know what to think,” Mark said. “Look there.” Mark pointed to Kevin’s left. In the soft ground, there was a fresh footprint. It looked to be twice the size of Kevin’s foot and a good half-inch deep.
“What do you make of that, Kevin?”
“I’d say that’s a Bigfoot track. Is there something else I should see?” Kevin asked.
He was confused. How did the track have anything to do with the Tin-Man Act? It was the spring of 1905, and everything was in the process of changing.
“Sasquatch took flight and retreated into the snow range. He ran and what happened? I was sent in after him, because the unexplained are not allowed to rub against humans. We Automatons perform dangerous and unpleasant tasks. We are good enough to keep in reserve, hidden until needed. Someone, somewhere is displeased for some vague reason. Then they publically decide we need regulation and then decommissioned. The public decries us and chases us to the scrap pile. How then, are we any different than the Cryptids that we hunt?”
“For one thing, I don’t believe you pose a threat to society. Second, we both know that the majority of Cryptids are mutations that shouldn’t exist but for some reason do. They are dangerous without cause. The Automatons provide defense and intelligence gathering. It stinks to high Heaven that some fat bastard Senator got a bee in his bonnet and wrote this bill, but we have to move on until the situation can be rectified.”
Kevin was breathing rapidly, a fervent light in his eye. Decisively he connected a can of oil to the adapter and fed it into Mark.
“The crew onboard the Conesus is ready, they all stand with you. We have enough fuel and supplies to go anywhere. I sorta stocked up in Denver last week, when I got the message from Father. I suggest we head west, past the coast on a course for Australia.”
“Australia? Why there?” asked Mark.
“Well for one, I know a good kiwi bloke there. Runs a ‘shipyard in the north near Queensland. We’ll go there and find work.”
“Doing what?” asked Mark, his voice was despondent.
“There are Cryptids a-plenty in the Pacific Rim countries. I’ll bet we’ll have more work than we could shake a stick at.”
Mark remained silent, calculating the words.
“Kevin, why would we shake a stick at it?”
“Sorry Mark, not a literal stick. I just meant that we would have more work than we could imagine.”
“Ah, I understand, it is a speech pattern designed to measure an imaginary quantity in an attempt to exaggerate.”
“Yes, something like that. What do you say, Mark?”
Mark considered all of the possibilities. It did not take too long, his difference engine brain worked exceptionally fast and of course, Father had issued a directive.
“The government can track me using my RFID tag,” he pointed out to Kevin.
Kevin grinned and produced a screwdriver from seemingly nowhere. He helped Mark sit up, and in a few seconds took the tag off. It allowed the tracking of the Automatons using wireless frequencies and a bunch of other technical terms that Kevin did not fully comprehend. He knew that it worked since he used it to find Mark.
He passed the chip forward into Mark’s waiting hand. Making a fist and squeezing tightly, Mark crushed the chip and scattered the pieces onto the forest floor.
“I am ready, Kevin.”
“Let’s get you aboard the Conesus, and we’ll set a course for Australia.” Kevin grinned and set off a green smoke bomb to signal the waiting airship.
Together they’d sail across the rest of the continent and the ocean that followed. Kevin imagined they would have a grand adventure tracking down natural wonders and learning about them, while from time to time saving the world.
The harness landed next to them and Kevin lashed Mark into it. Ten minutes later, they were aboard and the airship pivoted one last time, facing west the thrusters grew louder and the ship slid up over the mountain and into the setting sun.
At the entrance to a snow-crusted cave, a thirteen-foot tall biped stood up and stretched. It thrust its pink nose high into the air and sniffed vigorously. The Sasquatch chortled and went back inside, feeling secure and pleased with itself.