The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 3, Scene 2.
“Mr. St. Eligius, with all due respect, are you insane? We are a Navy vessel, we can’t just conscript a band of pirates,” Captain Howard said. There was a look of consternation crossing his face.
“Captain, I know it is not necessarily the best choice for you…”
“The best choice? It’s career suicide if Commandant Lestrange gets wind of it I’ll be scrubbing the head at 1500 feet. What do we need them for anyway?”
“We do not need them as conscripted airmen. Rather, we are obligated to protect the citizens of this country from all threats both foreign and domestic. That is what we are really doing, protecting them. Ourselves also, there is safety in numbers after all.”
“Let’s say I buy the whole ‘protecting citizens’ argument. Can you explain what the threat is?”
Ignatius sat on a bench next to the Captain’s station at the helm. He rubbed his temples with the tips of his gloved fingers. “During the war, in the mountains bordering North Carolina and Tennessee there was a Confederate encampment. It was a research facility of sorts. Only they were not researching new surgical techniques to increase battlefield survival rates or a new form of conventional weaponry. The person in charge of the camp conducted experiments on prisoners and slaves, men and boys. It was in essence a factory of evil, which I destroyed with fire.
Unfortunately, two things came because of that. The mastermind behind the experiments escaped and I had no choice but to kill a number of children. Though the truth is, they were less children and more machine at the time. The program explored hybridization and enhancement of humans. The melding of machine and man was not nearly as smooth or precise as it can be now. As a result most all of the subjects lost their minds, becoming simply feral animals, augmented with steamwork parts and deadly instruments.”
“I was pursued through the woods and had to make a stand near a creek. It was there that I cast this gun into the water, vowing never to take a firearm up again. The relevance is this: Mousier Broussard described the crew of the pirate airship as moving like Automatons, yet appearing as men. This makes me believe that the hybrid experiments started again and that Mary Kendall may be involved. She certainly could improve the chance of successful attachment of mechanical parts. I assisted her in doing so with Johnathan Fawkes. I am sure that the madman responsible in North Carolina is operating here in Pennsylvania, now.”
“Your tale is a sad, twisted one. Can we be certain that what Mousier Broussard saw is in actual fact a crew of these hybrids?” asked the Captain.
“I do not know what else might behave as described. I know too that Mousier Broussard was not in the mountains with me at that time. I cannot think how he would know of the movement of a hybrid without seeing one. It is a classified secret that the government has kept all these years.”
“What ees the plan, mon Captain?” Mr. De La Croix asked.
Eugene Howard drummed his fingers against the ship’s console. “I see little choice but to continue our mission. We are tasked with examining the train wreck, and that is just what we are going to do. With two airships, we can cover the area and keep a watch while the landing party performs the investigation. We’ll drop from the Maudlin Rose. We have a greater lift capacity and maneuverability. Who will you take to site, Ignatius?”
“Just Jean Jaques and Wellsie. Mousier Broussard witnessed the attack, so he can help our investigation with his first-hand account. Wellsie has an eye for most things mechanical. I do not think we want to be on the ground for too long. Stationary we make an excellent target.”
“All right. In a pinch Smitty can operate the steam engine and lift controls. I will have him operating his weapon until otherwise needed. The pirates with us can rise up to their peak altitude to keep watch over as large an area as possible. The fog and weather aren’t going to make this any easier,” cautioned the Captain.
The two airships steamed back to the site of the attack. The afternoon was just beginning and over the ridge a new weather front arrived. Swirling mists slid down the hillside, dancing over the water and reducing visibility. The moving bank of fog carried with it the smell of snow and dropping temperatures. The first few pin wheeling snowflakes were falling by the time they reached the train. The pirate ship swooped in low, disgorged Mousier Broussard, and then climbed up into the fog as agreed during the flight back. The Maudlin Rose drifted low, Hines working the thrust and lift in order to bring the ship over the site, so Ignatius and Wellsie could jump out.
Wellsie managed to land well on both feet. He turned and took several steps after the airship, catching Ignatius as the inventor pushed himself out of the gondola. With his feet firmly on the frozen ground of the riverbank, Ignatius set off toward the train tracks. He opened his bag and took out a pair of goggles and several of his windup automatons. The small devices he dispatched quickly along the rails to gather information and clues. The goggles he placed on his own eyes and set them for thermal readings.
The train glowed blue to his lenses, showing it to be cold. This was hardly a surprise given the temperature of the air. Wellsie clambered onto the engine by means of a drive wheel and began looking at the gaping wound cut across the boiler.
“Whatever did this did it with heat, Ignatius,” called Wellsie. “The metal bubbled and cooled rapidly and when the boiler exploded bits of it flew out in all directions. The cut comes out on the other side of the engine.”
“That is disconcerting. I mean, boilers are built to withstand tremendous pressure.”
“This one is at least two inches thick,” confirmed Wellsie.
Jean Jaques wandered along the rails following the train towards its caboose. He came to several bodies of men, dressed as railroad workers lying splayed out on the ground. He saw that they did not wear bandanas as was common among the train laborers. A matching number of weapons were on the ground around them.
“Ignatius, zere is something here to see,” he called out.
Ignatius pushed his goggles up on his forehead and started in Mousier Broussard’s direction.
“Ignatius, what do you want me to do?” Wellsie said, standing on the narrow edge of the walkway’s side.
“I want as much detail as you can provide on what happened there. Check the terrain on the opposite side; see if there are any markings.”
Ignatius reached Jean Jaques, “What did you find?” he asked.
“Zee men here, they are not train men. I show you,” the Frenchman said. Squatting down next to the closest body, Jean Jaques showed Ignatius the man’s forearm. On it was a tattoo. It was a laughing devil’s head on a flag. Ignatius said, “Okay, we have one soldier, could be retired…” but stopped mid-sentence as Jean Jaques exposed more forearms. All three men had the same mark.
“I believe in coincidence, but this extends beyond mere happenstance.”
“Zere is zee weapons too, non?” Jean Jaques said holding up a pair of Colt .45 Army issue revolvers. “Notice, zey was gunned down by a large caliber weapon?”
Ignatius peered closer at the bodies. Jean Jaques was correct. Each man bore a large number of unsightly holes. “What do you reckon? Gatling gun?” asked Ignatius.
“Oui. From zee pirate ship.”
“See if you can find any of the spent ammunition. The lead has to be here somewhere. We might be able to use it to prove who did this, Jean Jaques.”
“Ignatius! Get over here,” hollered Wellsie.
“Coming,” he answered.
Using care, Ignatius negotiated his way through the wreckage to the other side. He found Wellsie a dozen yards away from where the engine was.
“Have you ever seen anything like this, Ignatius?” said Wellsie. He pointed at the ground and embankment next to the rails. Rocks had become runny and the dirt and sandy fused into brown glass. Ignatius got down on one knee and flipped his goggles back down. Jostling the lenses in and out of position he managed to get a magnified view of the ground.
“You know, I have seen something like this, on a beach after a storm passed. Lightning struck the ground in several places and left behind blobs of silica glass, proving yet again that Nature is the ultimate inventor.”
“So the Frenchman isn’t that mad is he? I mean he said ‘lightning’ and here seems to be the proof.”
“I concur. It looks like the weapon can fire a focused ray of energy a fair distance and destroy a significant sized target. Colonel Witmore and Commandant Lestrange are not going to like at all.”
“Are you sayin’ the enemy has a death ray?”
“It would appear so I am afraid. Try to collect some evidence before more snow covers it up. I am going to examine the boxcars.”
Ignatius left Wellsie digging pieces of glass out of the bank and began to search through the boxcars. The first two were nominally interesting. Constructed from wood they held smashed glass, the corpses of a couple of scientists and laboratory equipment. Each car was pierced through and through by bullets. The last boxcar lay on its side. The major difference between it and the previous ones was that it was in one piece. Ignatius found that the construction was not of wood.
Instead, it was metal painted in a wood slat motif so that it might pass as wood under a cursory inspection. The car’s surface was pockmarked with dimples from the heavy amount of gunfire. Why metal though? Awkwardly Ignatius managed to hoist himself up onto the boxcar’s side. The door buckled probably as the car rammed those ahead of it in the train. Lowering his head and shoulders inside with the goggles in place, he could see that the aft section was jail-like with bars and the remains of manacles mounted to the wall. The cell door hung open and the chains dangled, torn asunder at different places.
Opposite the cell, a couple of spindly chairs and a small table were kindling after the train halted. Two guards, again in plain clothes, crumpled together. This had to be the special room, which contained the mysterious cargo that Colonel Witmore did not wish to divulge. A second glance told Ignatius everything that he needed to know for the moment.
Whatever the cell contained was a biped and it had opposable thumbs. The shackles were standard, but not for animals. They were restraints that any prison or mental hospital would have. Inside the cell, food spattered the wall and a plate and spoon were in the corner. The bottom corner of the roof in the cell was pushed open, allowing whom of what a means of escape. Ignatius slithered backwards out of the hole and lay there pondering the scene inside the boxcar.
Ignatius rolled to the edge and lowered himself again to the ground. He walked to the backside of the boxcar and studied it for a minute. Casting his eyes downward with the goggles still on, he began looking at the rail bed. The ballast near the corner of the boxcar was disturbed; scraped and pushed out of the way It was as though something dug its way out of the confines of the boxcar. Drag marks in the ground showed the way, leading to the edge of the woods.
The escapee possibly sustained an injury preventing them from moving properly. If it was one of the hybrids, the entire operation was easy to explain. Ignatius applied Occam’s Razor to most approaches. The simplest answer is usually the right one. The band of hybrids had attacked the train in order to free their compatriot by using a new weapon their creator gave them, probably for testing just in case it exploded. Now the band of marauding creatures was drifting along back to the wretch who built them.
Without being able to explain why, perhaps subconsciously he heard something; Ignatius flipped down the thermal lens on his goggles and swept the forest and the rise up into the mountains. The hybrids were notoriously hot, with miniaturized steam engines mounted to their bodies; such a source would have to show up if it was anywhere nearby. The only thing that swam past his eyes was a sea of green and blue. Giving up, Ignatius turned in the direction of Wellsie to call out to the blacksmith. As he did a burst of yellowy orange flickered in his peripheral vision.
Twisting his head back, Ignatius peered uphill into the trees. A blur of orange faded off into the trees, moving quickly. Ignatius hastened to follow. Half a minute into his pursuit, Ignatius found the ascent taking its toll on him. He spotted a patch of residual heat ahead, amid a cluster of pine trees and made for it. Ripping the goggles from his face he found a makeshift bed or nest of some kind made from pine boughs.
The silence of the woods was complete. No jeering cries from a blue jay or melodic chirps of a chickadee. Nor was there the rustling from the underbrush of small woodland creatures. He could only hear the beating of his heart in his chest. The snow fell in enormous flakes coating the trees and forest floor. On the far side of the shelter, Ignatius found three prints in the snow. Squinting in disbelief, Ignatius lowered himself to one knee and traced the nearest print with his finger.
By his estimation, the dimensions of the footprint indicated a person standing at least nine feet high and weighing more than four hundred and fifty pounds. A chill ran from the nape of his neck, down through his spine to wind up in his bowels.
Ignatius drew the Beaumont-Adams revolver and cocked it as he rose and began his descent back to the train tracks. He suddenly felt like going home and locking the door behind him.