A Dirigible Disaster: Chapter 2, Scene 2
As it turned out, the Captain was incorrect. For an hour, Ignatius stared over the end of the gun and saw nothing but forest, clouds and fields. The unknown airship made no further contact with the Maudlin Rose. Several minutes later in the distance, the deep boom of canon fire reached them.
The crew exchanged looks of concern, but no one said anything aloud. Lewistown hove into sight just a short while later. The city bustled with workers at the new foundries working to supply the railroads with track and train parts. From the burgeoning city, the Maudlin Rose turned due west, cruising along barely skimming the upper tips of the forest trees.
“What is it that you think you’ll find at the USDF Stalwart site?” the Captain asked.
“I am hoping to illuminate some of the stranger rumors surrounding events just after the crash,” answered Ignatius.
“Such as,” Franco asked.
“To start, what made the drag marks? Another question: where did the blue light come from? Is there a naturally phosphorescent light source nearby? Some lichen will glow in the proper circumstance. Whose footsteps are all over?”
“Wouldn’t the rain mess some of that up?” asked Smitty. “An’ all those folk, wandering around the site already.”
“Yes. This will not be an easy investigation. However, I think with some assistance it will go as best it can. Captain, how many men will you need to manage the Rose at the scene?”
The Captain answered immediately, “Three. Christian, Franco and myself. I can only spare Smitty.”
“That will be fine, thank you.”
Lewistown fell away to their stern while they gained elevation in order to negotiate the mountains. A lull fell over the gondola as each crewmember performed whatever duty needed that presented itself to them. The Maudlin Rose turned south with the hills off her port side. The chugging of the steam engine beat a mechanized cadence. Ignatius found himself drawn aft, back to Franco and his whirring, hissing engine. The engineer frowned at Ignatius’s approach. His jaw was set and mouth turned down at the corners.
“What?” said Franco dourly.
“I am sorry Frank. I just wanted to discuss the engine with you.” replied Ignatius.
“It’s Franco, not Frank, Frankie or Fran. And I don’t want to talk to you.”
Ignatius blinked in surprise. Usually folks of a tinkering persuasion were keen to talk with him about anything mechanical.
“Have I done something to offend you, sir?” asked Ignatius.
“Something?” Franco said incredulously. “You don’t know. Damn right, you have. You took my youngest brother from my family. Oh sure, you probably didn’t even know exactly what you achieved in Front Street Park. ‘The Butcher of Front Street’ is how those who sweat, bleed and die working for a living call you. Surely no one in your social circles ever expired laboring in a factory.”
Ignatius sat back against the wall of the gondola hard, shock crossing his face.
“Why so surprised? Did you not consider the possibility that you might run into a relation of one of the men you slaughtered?”
“I…” stammered Ignatius. His mind reeled. It was something that he had not dwelt on, not during his trial, or throughout the length of his incarceration. “I do not know what to say.”
“There is nothing you could say, nothing that would interest me at any rate. Just sit over there and don’t talk to me.”
“I have come to regret my actions that morning,” said Ignatius.
“What do your regrets do for me, or my sister-in-law and her children?” Franco shot back
“See here, it is not like your brother was some sweet angel of mercy. What was he doing with that pack of filth anyway? They attacked me first,” snapped Ignatius, all of a sudden his face flushed and anger rose in him. The memories of the assault, which left him crippled, came darting back to him.
“They left me to die in that park, if it were not for the timely arrival of the police, I surely would have. As it turned out, I am now crippled. Forced to live in these metal braces,” he said.
He rapped the braces under his pants with his cane to illustrate his point.
“At least you live. I cannot excuse my brother’s choices in life, but you who live so well could have afforded to.”
“I cannot excuse my actions, but I will not seek your forgiveness for them,” said Ignatius coldly.
He turned his back on Franco and moved down the bench toward the cockpit.
“Captain, how much longer will it be to the crash site?” he asked.
“Christian?” said the Captain.
“By my estimate we are slightly less than five hours away, unless we hit up against a headwind. That doesn’t seem likely.”
“There’s your answer Mr. St. Eligius. Will that be all?” asked the Captain.
“I suppose so, thank you.”
“Just steer clear of Franco,” advised Captain Howard. “He’s bitter and upset. Seeing you obviously isn’t making things better. We’ll get you to you destinations in due order.”
Ignatius nodded in acknowledgment. He settled back into the unyielding bench and closed his eyes, ignoring the occasional glares the engineer sent him. The next thing Ignatius knew, an insistent hand shook him awake.
“Mr. St. Eligius,” Smitty said. The gunner took his hand away from Ignatius’s shoulder and smiled at the investigator. “We’s here sir, at your destination.”
Ignatius’s eyes flew open and he sat up. The airship gracefully descended from the sky into a large open field. From his position above the ground, Ignatius studied the remaining structure from the USDF Stalwart. Iron beams that once made up the rigid framework of the cargo carrier lay in heaps. Rust stained the metal bars. A few stray planks from packing crates lay cast about in the long grass. The crew brought the Rose within several yards of the turf. Christian turned to Ignatius.
“You’ll need to climb down from this height. We can’t risk trying to actually touch down. Are you up to it?”
Ignatius nodded. The mate waved to Smitty, who opened the small door and unfurled a rope ladder. Ignatius handed his cane over to the gunner.
“Toss it down when I reach the bottom and bring that small bag with you,” he instructed Smitty.
Ignatius sat down on the edge of the doorway. Then he rolled onto his stomach and managed to hook a foot into a rung. Climbing down was not a graceful venture, nor one that would instill a sense of dignity in anyone. However, Ignatius managed to climb down unscathed dropping the last two feet as the Maudlin Rose bucked in the breeze.
Smitty scampered down the ladder like a squirrel, joining Ingatius in the meadow. Smitty waved to Christian and the ship lifted away from the ground. Ignatius watched, transfixed by the airship’s maneuvering. He took a moment to orient himself amid the wreckage.
Standing approximately midway along the gondola’s frame Ignatius held a notebook and pencil. The turf under his feet was charred black from the fires that tore through the airship after impact. Ignatius walked along the beams toward the tail end of the ship. All around the main cargo doors were depressions in the ground. Large square ones showed him where a crate might have sat.
There were oval ones too, about the size of a man’s foot. He presumed they would be the Automatons carried by the ship. The cargo manifest had multiple crates of the machines listed. That conflicted with local reports from the sheriff. According to the authorities, there were only a few spare parts on site. The manifest said that twenty-five Automatons were on board when the ship left Chicago.
It docked in Pittsburgh to take on some extra supplies and lifting gas. Nothing left the ship, again according to the official manifest. Examining the fading patterns close up by lying on the ground Ignatius noted that most of the Automatons stood in a line. Then at some point, they walked away in single file. All around the formation there were crisscrossing tracks of varying depths.
“Look here, Smitty.” Ignatius said. “The tracks are shallow going to the ship, but heavier coming back. What does that say to you?”
“It was carrying something,” answered the gunner after a moment.
“Exactly. All of these tracks going around the formation. Back and forth. Do you know what I think? I think that one of the Automatons reassembled as many of the others as it could. Then they all marched away.”
“What about these tracks, coming back?” asked Smitty.
Ignatius looked at the beaten grass. Several pairs of feet had come back to the midpoint of the wreckage.
“Follow those foot imprints please. At least to the woods there,” Ignatius asked Smitty.
Smitty bobbed his head and jogged off, eyes on the ground, following the markings. Ignatius wandered over to a pile of discarded personal effects from the crew. Most of the belongings were gone. Anything salvageable vanished into the gray mists of the recent past. A few buttons, a broken pocketknife and some soggy papers. Curious, Ignatius delicately picked at the papers. He was mindful not to pull too hard, lest he destroy them.
They were a stiff card stock, perhaps 3 inches wide by eight inches long. Oblong little holes speckled the card in a pattern that Ignatius could not discern. Notes written in smudged pencil ran along the margin. By his estimation, there might be seven or eight cards in the sodden mass. He would need to let them dry out before performing a closer inspection.
The African gunner returned. Pointing to a spot directly opposite of the formation line there were several broken saplings, each about 3 inches thick. The tracks continued into the woods. Ignatius made note of the direction that Smitty indicated.
“Does this sound right? They walked to the woods, broke some trees, came back and then walked away again. Why would a machine do that?” Ignatius wondered.
“If I might, Mr. St. Eligius. Back in the war, we were on our own lots of times. We had to take care of our wounded as best we could, until we came across a medical unit. Most times, we made a litter to carry the wounded on from some sturdy trees.”
“You think they came back for the badly broken machines? While that sounds plausible on the surface, we have to remember, these are just machines with simple instructions.”
“You don’t think an Automata could have done this?”
“I will not discount it completely. I know better than most what can be done with a ‘simple’ machine. Look here,” he said indicating the card stock, “I believe these to be instruction cards for the Automatons. I might be able to discern what the instruction codes are with a little time. It will give me some idea of what the machines would be capable of.”
“Are you finished here? Mr. De La Croix is signalling that he wants to pick us up,” asked Smitty.
“Yes, I cannot be late for the train. There will be time enough to examine these findings later.”
The crew brought the Maudlin Rose down so low that she almost scraped the grass. With Smitty boosting him from behind, Ignatius managed to clamber back up into the gondola. Within moments, the airship was gaining altitude and heading in a slight northwest direction toward Pittsburgh.