A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 1, Scene 1
Ignatius St. Eligius awoke with an anxious feeling prickling at the nape of his neck. Gradually he cracked his eyelids. The room appeared blurry, the light from outside pale and diffused. As objects swam into focus, he made the first attempt to sit up. Bitter disappointment rose in him when his body refused to comply. Only the upper half of his torso moved.
Everything from his navel to his feet failed to respond. An inexpressible sadness drifted over him every morning at this time. It was the daily realization that he could not move about unassisted. Pushing himself into an upright position with his arms allowed him to reach the call box. Flipping the switch, he rang the Valet’s quarters.
“Billy, are you awake?” he asked.
“Yes sir. Good morning, sir,” answered his Valet.
“Would you come please and help me into the braces?”
“Of course, I will be only a moment.”
“Thanks. Oh, bring some coffee if you do not mind.”
“Very well. Anything else, sir?”
“That is all for now.”
“I’ll be right there.”
The call box clicked and went silent. Through a parted curtain, Ignatius could just see the Susquehanna River drifting past his property. On his side table, a dossier from Colonel Sanderson Witmore lay open. Penciled into the margins were some notes. Ignatius plucked at the down comforter sighing wistfully. A few minutes later, a rap at his door announced the arrival of William Ghendurwald his Valet.
William pushed his glasses further up on his nose with his free hand. The other balanced a silver tray laden with coffee, cup and saucer, toast, a fruit cup and the morning paper. With care, he placed the tray on the sideboard. He poured a cup of coffee and gave it to Ignatius. Leaving his employer to sip the hot beverage, William opened the great chest at the foot of the bed.
“Which suit shall I lay out for you, sir?” he asked.
“Let me have the gray one,” Ignatius said.
“Excellent. Do you wish for me to assist you with the braces now?”
The braces were a device Ignatius made several years before, just after receiving the injuries that prevented him from walking. They were a metal framework that locked in place around his legs, hips and lower back. Connectors from the mechanical drives plugged directly into his spinal column through a series of six ports running up along his spine. Working efficiently, William placed the front halves on the bed lined up with Ignatius’s legs. Together they rolled him into the front halves. William then attached the back halves and carefully plugged the connectors in.
Once the electrical impulses started flowing from Ignatius’s body into the braces, he could manipulate them using mere thought. The results were at times herky-jerky and this morning was no exception. Ignatius thrashed his way to the water closet, evacuated his bowels and returned to the master bedroom. In a few minutes he and William succeeded in getting him dressed.
“Pack my formal wear, the black suit and a full travel kit. This morning I depart by airship for Pittsburgh and return on the Pennsylvania Railroad Main Line.”
“Certainly. Business trip?”
“In a manner of speaking. It is another investigation for Colonel Witmore. You had better pack my special cane. I am going to go down to the workshop and get a few other items. What time is it?”
“It is just past seven o’clock, sir.”
“Right, the next flight out is at nine-fifteen. I want to be packed at in the coach no later than eight-fifteen.”
Ignatius smiled. He knew William would not let him down. He left his suite, walked down the hall, and descended the grand staircase. Kevin, the jack-of-all-trades (kitchen boy, groom and so on) came out of the dining room and smiled politely at Ignatius.
“Good morning sir. I trust you slept well.”
“Well enough I suppose. Come along, I am heading to the shop to get a few things for my trip. I might need your assistance.”
Ignatius went through the dining room and butler’s pantry into the kitchen. Kevin jogged ahead and threw open the heavy steel doorway that led into a passageway. Ignatius heaved each leg forward as fast and best he could. Just because they attached directly to his central nervous system did not mean the braces were efficient. Upon entering the workshop, Ignatius paused for a moment to drink it all in. The floors, shelves and counter tops were spotless.
Phials, jars, containers of dry ingredients of all sorts neatly sat in row after row. The forge in the back corner growled low and soft, idling as a slow draft blew over the coals. On his desk, there were three brass disks. Each one was just larger than a pocket watch. Ignatius swept all three into his vest pockets.
“Kevin, get some of my prepared Luminescent sticks. Let me think, magnifying glass, yes… Unstable compound that may or may not explode, leave it. Bring me the small tool kit if you please lad, I’ll fetch a few items from the desk and then I should be well prepared.”
Ignatius slid open the middle drawer of his desk and took out a notebook, identity card for someone who vaguely matched his description but not name. The lower right hand drawer yielded a lock picking set and a collapsible spyglass with several lenses that were interchangeable. He finished building the spyglass last week as the result of studying the special goggles he took from an assailant.
Kevin put the last items into a leather satchel and handed it to Ignatius. Three weeks passed since Ignatius had identified Beauregard Hunley as the culprit guilty of sabotaging a number of factories in Harrisburg. The Southerner’s ploy intended to draw out Ignatius so that the young man could extract revenge. It had backfired with a cruel twist of irony. The saboteur wound up skewered by a beam he weakened with his chemical mayhem. Now Ignatius was moving forward on this latest endeavor for the Colonel.
The dossier outlined a new technology that would save airships from one of their main drawbacks: Electric Storms. They seemed to draw lightning strikes more often than not in foul weather. The inventor, Ernest Hornby, sold his plans to the government. Somewhere in transit the drafts vanished. Ignatius used his network of associates, business partners and more than a few criminal types to uncover that the plans were going up for sale on the black market.
The sale would take place on the PRR main line to Harrisburg. On his way to Pittsburgh, Ignatius decided that he would investigate one of the airship crash sites. It was outside of Pittsburgh by some distance, a little county called Somerset. What was notable at the site was who perished in the crash. Johnathan Fawkes had been on the passenger list with a shipment of Automatons for Harrisburg when the dirigible fell to a lightning strike.
The locals talked of strange lights and noises emanating from the wreckage for several days following the disaster. Tracking down information on both the stolen plans and dirigible crash took several weeks. Ignatius disliked waiting for information with a great intensity. He filled his time studying the goggles and making the spyglass. Truth be told he wanted to examine the valve recovered from his factory that Colonel Witmore kept from him.
His agitation manifested in taking long walks along the river. The silent water flowing by always gave him a sense of peace. Moving to action made his blood flow a little bit quicker and he cheerfully lit a cigar while walking back through the walkway to the kitchen. His revere broke when his left leg twisted uncontrollably underneath the weight of his hip and he lurched forward. Ignatius managed to spit out his cheroot before landing on the kitchen floor. The leg shook, jostling Ignatius and spinning him half around. Kevin rushed over to the inventor and pulled him up into a sitting position.
“What’s the matter, sir?” Kevin asked.
“Damned if I know, lad. Quick, unplug the left leg!”
Kevin pulled up his employer’s shirt and carefully extracted the left leg’s jack from its receptacle. With a last jerk, the leg stopped moving. Ignatius took the wire lead from Kevin and peered at it. He wiped it against his pants leg, squinting again at the tip of the wire. Grunting to himself, he gently probed his back and the open hole.
“Kevin, go back to the lab and get a cotton swab. One of the small ones, I think perhaps a bit of grit may have gotten in the receiving unit.”
“Right away,” said Kevin, then he dashed back to the workshop.
Moments later the young man returned carrying several swabs of varying sizes. Ignatius selected the most likely one and reached around behind himself. With precision, he slotted the tip of the swab into the tiny hole, twirled it around, and drew it back out. Ignoring the bright red blood and yellowish connectivity gelatin, he peered at the stick.
He found black flecks of coal or another mineral substance. He ran the swab in and out several more times until satisfied. Then he plugged the wire back in. This time nothing happened. Kevin assisted Ignatius in returning to his feet. Moving slower than before, Ignatius crossed the kitchen. He made his way to the foyer and sat down on the stairs in order to catch his breath.
“BILLY!” he shouted.
The Valet appeared at the top of the grand staircase.
“Sir, may I remind you that my given name is William,” he said.
“Of course it is. Can you do something for me while I am away?”
“What can I do to be of service, sir?”
“I would like you to see if you can locate a woman by the name of Mary Kendall. She has ties to Johnathan Fawkes both romantically and as a mechanical engineer. According to the research I have, Mary is a top-notch biologist, punch card coder and bio-mechanical interface designer. She is responsible for the new generation of features in Mr. Fawkes’s Automatons. I would like to talk to her about my own interface. I am afraid it is not quite as good as required. Since we are talking about finding people, any word from Selena yet?”
“No word yet sir. I will make inquiries regarding Ms. Kendall just as soon as I am able.”
“Excellent, thanks Billy. Is Myron ready?”
“I believe that is him just now sir, pulling up in front of the entrance.”
William was correct. The sound of Ignatius’s coach rolling to a halt preceded the noises of workers calling out directions for loading Ignatius’s bags. William handed Ignatius his employer’s favorite walking cane. Smiling his thanks up at the Valet, Ignatius rose to his feet leaning on the cane more than usual.
“If all goes according to plan, I shall return in less than a week. Take care of the place, Billy.”
“Do be careful out there sir, we would certainly be aggrieved to lose you.”
Ignatius gave a jolly wave of his cane as he passed through the doors into the bright sunshine of the morning.