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The Air Pirate Affair: Chapter 5, Scene 2.

The gaping black maw looked poised to swallow Ignatius whole. Even with his light amplification goggles in place, Ignatius could not pierce the veil of darkness that shrouded the entrance. Taking the glasses off he went forward with his free hand outstretched. A few steps past the opening Ignatius touched something. It was rough burlap painted black, another piece of clever camouflage. Wellsie peered over Ignatius’s shoulder.

“Cloth?” he asked.

“Canvas,” replied Ignatius.

“Fuck it,” said Wellise, pulling a long knife out of his coat and slashing down through the black material.

A man-sized hole was now available for easy passage. Mousier Broussard tittered to himself, stifling the sound when both Ignatius and Wellsie gave him a look.

“Carry on, gents,” said the Frenchman grandly.

Ignatius pulled at the gap, tearing a larger opening. The trio entered the cavern through the slit in the burlap. Ignatius felt his chin drop. Laid out before them was a manufacturing site to rival even Ignatius’s most advanced factory. Lights hung from the ceiling like stalactites casting their yellowish glow in large pools on the floor. Taking up the middle of the floor was a metal scaffold. It rose more than twenty-five feet up from the floor and the sides were almost as far apart.

The crisscrossing supports glistened with condensation and pitted with rust. Ignatius took note of the air temperature. It was much warmer than outside but humid. Wellsie walked toward the back of the space and Jean Jaques investigated a table laden with papers. Along the far right side was row after row of cabinets filled with all manner of tools. Ignatius, whose knowledge of equipment was encyclopedic, saw tools that he did not recognize.

He peered into various cases taking stock of the sort of implements on hand. Many of the tools were for working with metal on any scale.

“Ignatius, back here,” Wellsie called.

Ignatius straightened up from inspecting the floor to see Wellsie standing in the back corner of the cavern. He hustled over to the blacksmith. “What did you find?” asked the inventor.

“Door,” said Wellsie pointing. A cleverly disguised door matched the natural rock and shadows of the cavern stood ajar. On the other side, a hall led further into the hillside. Lamps hung from the walls. They were glowing with a pale green light, like the phosphorescent lichens that grew in the woods. In the weak illumination, the outlines of other doors were visible.

“Jean Jaques, come here please. Wellsie, try to determine what they may have built. We do not have much time. I am sure they will return soon.”

Wellsie gave a curt nod and moved to investigate the foundry equipment. Ignatius and Mousier Broussard entered the hall and reached the first door. A few buzzing flies scattered at their arrival. There, a pervasive stench assaulted their noses. It was the sickly smell of rotting flesh. Ignatius slammed his shoulder into the door, but it was sturdy and refused to budge.

“Stand back,” he told Jean Jaques. Ignatius drew his pistol and fired two shots into the door’s locking mechanism.

In the confines of the hall, the gun’s report seemed especially loud. Ignatius then applied his shoulder a second time, now the door sprang open. Ignatius fell inside the room, bracing himself with his hands just before his face hit the ground again. He lifted his face from looking at the ground and his gaze met the corrupted flesh and rotting visage of General Louis Evans. Ignatius sucked in a breath and gagged on the smell that came with the intake of air. Jean Jaques helped Ignatius stand up.

“Eet looks like zey did away with zee General. Non?” said Jean Jaques waving a frilly handkerchief without effect under his nose.

“Yes, judging from his decomposition, I would say he has lain here since his disappearance. We will get nothing useful from him. Come, we must see if Mary has managed to elude Death’s chokehold.”

“Oui, Mousier.”

Yet Ignatius lingered, sweeping the room with his gaze, “This was no holding cell. There is no bed or any form of creature comfort. I would wager that the General was dead before he hit the floor.”

“To what end, Mousier?” asked the pirate as Ignatius drifted out of the cell and down the hall.

“I believe we are standing in the secret lair of a terrible genius, one who I have pursued since the war. He created these hybrid creatures originally to give the Confederacy a leg up in battle. Had I not stumbled across his mountain camp and sabotaged it there is a good chance the war may have gone differently. Nothing in my investigation led me to believe he was in this area.”

“Zee mystery man, he is clever, non?”

“Unfortunately. Come along Jean Jaques, we must press on. There is nothing we can do for this poor soul.”

Ignatius left the room and continued down the hallway. In his mind, he tried not to dwell on the possibility of finding Mary Kendall in a similar situation. The pair examined three more rooms. Each was a simple cell with no further atrocities contained inside. With each empty room, Ignatius felt a cold sphere inside his stomach grow in circumference. Finally, he gave in to the inevitable conclusion, “We are too late. She is no longer here…”

“Mon dieu, how could you have known?” said Jean Jaques as they walked back out to the main cavern.

“I suppose I could not. Go check outside and see if anyone is approaching. I am going to see what, if anything, Wellsie found.”

“Oui, mon Captain,” Jean Jaques said.

Ignatius spied Wellsie at a drafting table holding plans up to a lantern. Ignatius crossed the floor to him and took note of the two forges half dozen yards away. Both were glowing like twin eyes of a lurking dragon. Pushing that thought aside Ignatius gave the forges an appraising look not far away from them a series of valves and pipes came up from the floor. He meandered over to the closest one and inspected it.

“Some good stuff here, Ignatius.” With a rueful chuckle Wellsie admitted, “I can’t make hide nor hair of these, though,” he said giving the paper in his hands a shake.

“Let me see, Wellsie.”

Ignatius took the plan and turned them right side up. Ignatius then spread them out across the drafting table and traced some of the inked lines with his finger. What he saw amazed him, stunned him, and made him want to weep in agony and ecstasy.

“If I am reading this correctly, these plans are for a mechanized, bipedal war machine.”

“That’s not so bad, is it? We can take something like that on,” Wellsie said with confidence.

“Again, if I am interrepting this accurately, the machine built stands close to twenty-five feet in height and twelve or so across. So, pretty bad. The armor alone is near an inch and a half thick.”

“What could stop that thing?” asked Wellsie.

Ignatius snorted, “At this time? Nothing. No rifle or pistol will pierce the plating and no cannon is going to be able to move fast enough to aim and hit it. Look at this, the right armature; it seems like a socket at the end. That suggests that something will attach there. Perhaps,” he said tapping the blue prints, “a bombing campaign from a flotilla of airships, presuming of course that they could get close enough.”

“It looks like something’s gonna go through a meat grinder.”

“Why do you say that, Wellise?”

“It’s not here, is it? That metal titan is out there somewhere…”

“You point is taken though. We must rejoin the flotilla and get the word out. I am afraid that it poses a greater threat than anything our current ‘mission’ might. I want you to rig an explosion. The best we can do is ensuring this cavern is no longer used. Use the gas lines over there by the forges, get creative.”

The corner of Ignatius’s eye twitched several times. Things moved apace and he did not feel prepared for any of the outcomes that presented themselves to him. The dull ache in his lower back announced the onset of fatigue. However, he knew how the machine got its power, just like Johnathan Fawkes’s automatons, it used natural gas.

He called, in a soft voice to the Frenchman, “Jean Jaques, how are things outside?”

“It ees all quiet at zee moment,” came the hushed reply.

Ignatius cast his gaze around the cavern again, seeking information that he might have missed before. A series of depressions made a path from the scaffolding out to the forest. Tracks, Ignatius presumed from the machine that now strode out in the world. A sharp realization hit Ignatius: There must be a hidden room. Like the spare room in the factory was.  He is a cunning man, but ultimately a coward, hiding away out of the light and dreaming his twisted, sick evil dreams. What was out of place in the room? There was the foundry, the laboratory, the assembly site and the hallway.

Ignatius found himself staring at the one wall next to the cabinets. On it hung a massive picture of a wooded scene.

Ignatius grabbed a slatted chair next to him and flung it at the picture, narrowly missing Wellsie’s head as it sailed past.

“Oy!” The blacksmith threw a scowl in Ignatius’s direction.

Until the loud tearing sound of canvas splitting interrupted him. Shaking his head, Wellsie went back to his work leaving Ignatius to contemplate the massive hole he had just created. Out of the darkness behind the hole came the hissing of escaping gas. The chair triggered some manner of trap, Ignatius grinned in a manic sort of way, “Now we are getting somewhere,” he said.

He waited until the sound died off. Covering his mouth and nose with a handkerchief Ignatius darted into the picture. He took a moment, standing stock still in the new room. In the half-light, spilling in from the cavern Ignatius faced a stark room. A plain wooden table occupied the middle of the floor, behind it a lone chair. Across each wall, scrawled in jagged handwriting were sentences decrying the state of machine treatment in society.

Dead center on the back wall was the phrase: “The flesh will be torn asunder by the steel fingers of progress. No one, who denies the superiority of the machine, shall remain. Evolution will begin with Revolution.”

A bloody palm print punctuated the text. Ignatius stepped closer and discovered that the handprint was much smaller than his own, almost delicate. He drew in another sharp breath, Mary! The other bits of rhetoric hinted at the rise of machines, overthrowing the government and the weakness of flesh and blood humans. The concern Ignatius felt was whether coercion made Mary comply or if she had given herself over to her captor’s philosophy.

He turned back around and spied a small piece of paper on the table and a vial of a milky blue substance. He stumped across the floor to it and scooped both up. On it, written in the same jerky hand was, “Too late… Again.”

Filled with anger Ignatius thrust the paper into his pocket and inspected the vial. The liquid inside was viscous and because of his nose he could not determine in an adequate manner what the contents were. A nagging suspicion lingered in his mind as to what it might be. He shuddered with perverse pleasure, dropped the small bottle into his pocket, and left the room.

“How is it going, Wellsie?”

“About done, Ignatius.”

“Make sure this place is completely destroyed. I never want it used again”

Wellsie frowned, counting on his fingers. “That’s gonna take some more work,” he said with some uncertainty.

“See to it.”

The blacksmith nodded although Ignatius did not notice it. Wellsie went back to the chemical supplies and rooted around, collecting some of the more unstable accelerants that he could find. For his part, Ignatius stormed out to the entrance where Mousier Broussard stood keeping watch. In his left hand, Ignatius held his pistol.

“Jean Jaques, how fast is your airship exactly?”

“She ees one of zee fastest, why do you ask?”

“We are going to need to get to Harrisburg with all due speed. I cannot rely on the Army. They will question everything I say and waste time we do not have. All due haste is the only hope for the city. Do you have any means of contacting your ship directly?”

 “Non, I do not have any devices to allow such things.”

Ignatius placed a consoling hand on Jean Jaques’s shoulder, “I will see that you do by the time this is all finished. For now, reload your pistol. We may need it sooner rather than later. Wellsie, we are going outside to figure out which way to go, finish up.”

“You got it,” grunted Wellsie as he hauled a barrel of something over to the forge.

Ignatius stepped back out into the clearing in front of the cave’s entrance. Cold, damp wind washed over his face. A few stinging snowflakes careened into his cheeks. Looking up to, the sky Ignatius took in the pink streaks to the east, faintly making their way through the dense low-lying clouds. Dawn was arriving with fresh snow. The surroundings were still. Tomb-like, no ambient forest noise reached Ignatius’s ears. A faint whirring and clicking did disturb the morning. Ignatius spotted Mary’s clockwork Woodpecker on a branch, acting in an agitated manner.

“What do you suppose has upset the woodpecker?” he asked Mousier Broussard.

A strangled croak answered him. Spinning about, Ignatius came face to face with Elijah choking the life from Mousier Broussard. The hybrid’s hands clamped like irons around the Frenchman’s neck. Jean Jaques was turning an ugly shade of purple. Grinning wickedly, Elijah picked his captive up by the neck. Making eye contact with Ignatius and without any visible effort, Elijah wrenched his hands in different directions, breaking Jean Jaques’s neck. Contemptuously, he let the lifeless body of the air pirate fall to the snowy ground and stepped forward, leering at Ignatius.

“Now it be yer turn,” he said striding forward.

Without hesitation, Ignatius raised his pistol and pulled the trigger. The gun barked in the morning air and the slug smashed into Elijah’s chest, which rang like a bell. Laughing aloud, Elijah tore his shirt off. Underneath was a hodge-podge mix of flesh melded with iron. He turned several knobs jutting from his left side. A pair of trembled as some unseen fluid coursed through them.

In reaction to the influx of chemicals, Elijah’s body began to change. It grew larger as muscles swelled to double in size. Ignatius backed away from the looming creature. Elijah grew several inches taller and the normally wild look in his eyes became something otherworldly that Ingatius could not exactly name. Seeking to draw the machine-man away from the entrance where Wellsie would certainly be coming from shortly, Igantius raplidly hobbled across the clearing.

A hammer-like blow drove him face first into the ground. His broken nose cried out as he hit, pain reawakened. Sputtering and half-frantic already, Ignatius rolled over and thrust his gun forward squeezing the trigger again.  The second shot slapped into Elijah’s arm sending up a small spray of blood and other fluids. As the monstrosity loomed over him, Ignatius rapidly pulled the trigger. The hammer fell forward with a dull thud and nothing else happened. Elijah wore a malevolent, chilling grin, like a cat spying a lone kit rabbit.

Immediately, Ignatius thrust his cane forward and depressing the trigger to release the electricity. Nothing happened; he had not recharged the device since its last use. Elijah plucked the cane from Ignatius’s grasp and bent it in his bare hands. The wood splintered raining fragments down on Ignatius. The hardened metal sword also gave way to the pressure Elijah exerted.

“An’ nows I end you,” he rumbled.

A massive hand descended gripping Ignatius’s shirt and coat, pulling him up off the ground. Elijah drew his fist back and as it went forward, it exploded.

The booming crack of a gunshot rolled down into the dell. A second shot smashed into Elijah’s temple, whipping his head around. A third shot connected with the hybrid’s throat sending a nasty spray in all directions. Ignatius fell to the ground as a fourth shot connected with Elijah. Ignatius turned over on his side and looked to the top of the hill containing the cavern.

Something glistened in the poor morning light, a shape rose from behind a fallen log. Ignatius recognized the shape; it was Angela holding her favorite Henry rifle.

Three seconds later Wellsie charged out of the cavern screaming, “Hit the deck, it’s gonna blow!”

Fire and stone erupted in a deadly storm as a concussive blast smashed the hillside apart, flinging Wellsie and Ignatius like ragdolls into the brush. The top of the hill vanished in a ball of orange fire, black smoke and stinging hot debris.

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