To Use A Gun No More
The forest was aglow with a nightmarish yellow and orange light. Even a stinging rain could not douse the fires that raged through a secluded camp in the Great Smoky Mountains. A lean silhouette flicked amongst the trees. The man ran hunched over, with an unsteady gait. He turned his head from side to side with great frequency. Through the air, the sound of confusion mixed in with much more guttural sounds carried to the shadowy figure.
Barely able to suppress a shudder of revulsion at the sound, the man slithered over a fallen tree before he crashed headlong into it. Crouching behind the trunk, he listened to the growls, barks and screeches that rang out into the night. He knew the origins of those noises and the recollection made his knees weak. His grip tightened around the wood handle of his Beaumont-Adams revolver, seeking comfort and reassurance in its solid weight.
From his vantage behind the massive log, he could hear the roar of the fire punctuated by screams that trailed off to heart-wrenching moans as new victims perished. Using his free hand, he checked the time on his pocket watch. The glowing hands showed him that it was just past four in the morning. The downpour permeated his clothes, chilling his skin. Colonel McWilliams needed to know what sort of mad science the Confederacy practiced in this wilderness.
The smell of damp forest reached his nose. A tranquil setting if it were not for the chaos pursuing him. Stealing another glance over the log, he saw the camp in stark contrast. Fully engulfed, the wooden structures burned wildly. A tall figure emerged from one blazing wall of fire, peered in the direction of the woods and made a sweeping gesture with his hand. With the lights in his eyes, the scout could not identify the person. He supposed it to be the one in charge of the camp, his new objective.
The gesture he understood. It signified the release of trackers and an organized pursuit. He had to leave. If he went northwest through the mountains, he could reach Tennessee where there lived Union sympathetic communities. He would need to work his way around the compound to go that way though. Not knowing what would give chase if spotted gave him pause. Daybreak was near and that would give the searchers a better chance of finding him. Rising up on unsteady feet the man scurried ten yards further south of the fire into a copse of trees.
From the trees, he angled his way east. The bunkhouses at this end were just starting to catch fire. Because of that, the occupants were fighting the fires elsewhere. He picked up some speed straightening out of his crouch to run favoring his left side. He continued to look over his shoulder trying to keep track of where people were forming fire lines or gathering for orders. It was during one such momentary survey of the enemy that he ran headlong into another person.
With a muffled grunt from both parties, they collapsed into the wet earth. He lashed out with a pointed elbow while feeling the sting of a fist against his temple. Rolling through the forest detritus the pair struggled against one another. Finally, by shear dint of weight he emerged on top, knee against the opposition’s chin, pistol leveled at their forehead.
Dark brown eyes flashed in the firelight. Something did not feel quite right. The man slowly eased off the other. It dawned on him that the other was a woman. The moment his weight shifted, she levered him off and drew a Colt pistol of her own. They faced each other over the barrels.
Long dark hair was tangled. Twigs and leaves stuck out of it from their rolling along the ground. She was compact and wore very serviceable clothes from trekking through the mountains. Her eyes showed surprise, probably at finding another person roaming the woods at night. He put a finger to his lips and tipped his head away from the camp. She nodded, sidling in the indicated direction. The muzzle of her gun never wavered from his head.
“What are you doing here?” he asked. His tone carried a note of hysteria with it.
“Just passing through the area,” she answered matching his whisper. “Who are you?”
“You may call me Ignatius. And you?”
“Angela.” She replied. “What is going on here?” she said.
“A wickedness you could not even imagine.
“Try me. I have a fairly broad imagination.”
Ignatius hesitated. Coincidence is not a luxury he could afford. This woman’s appearance near the outpost was no happenstance.
“Do you serve the Confederates?” Ignatius said.
“Direct that’s refreshing. No, I do not represent them. I am more of a freelance specialist.”
“Ah, a mercenary,” said Ignatius.
“No need to take that tone with me. You should count yourself fortunate, had I been with the Confederates, we wouldn’t be talking right now. I had the drop on you.”
Looking at her pistol Ignatius asked, “Do you know how to use that?”
“Well enough, why?”
“You will need it before long. The rebs are stirred up and starting to scout around their camp. Plus there are other… things, out here.”
“Do tell,” said Angela.
“There is no time. I am heading northwest, you?”
I have a job to the South…” began Angela, but a heavy foot breaking a branch diverted their attention.
A massive shape heaved its way towards them. The legs swung awkwardly outwards then forward in a flopping gait. Firelight glinted off a metal cap fastened to the wearer’s skull. Something that looked vaguely man-like, dressed in tatters lumbered at them. Ignatius stepped in front of Angela and raised his pistol and fired a shot that slapped into the skull. The impact of the .44 caliber slug flung bone and metal fragments backwards. The creature took several more steps before toppling.
“Hell,” cursed Ignatius. “It is time we were off. They heard the shot. I would suggest coming with me for the time being. It will be safer.”
“Did you see that?” Angela asked. Some of the color had drained from her face.
“Unfortunately, yes. It is not alone either. We need to go, now.”
Ignatius grabbed her hand and dragged her away from the still twitching body.
“I am on a scouting mission for interested parties,” Ignatius said.
“You mean the Union,” Angela guessed. “You could be more specific you know.”
“Yes. They wanted to know if there are any good passages through the mountains. I suggested a survey by airship, which somehow became a personnel-on-the-ground survey. I was not expecting to find the camp. When I saw its smoke, I knew that I would have to investigate it. Now I wish I had not.” Ignatius drew up short. He considered the young woman next to him.
“You need to know this in case I do not make it out, someone has to tell the Union,” he said. “That creature I just shot is only the beginning. There are more. At least there were. The fire ought to have wiped out most of them.”
“Them? What do you mean? I don’t understand,” said Angela.
Ignatius stopped and spun to look directly at Angela. “The camp. The Confederates are experimenting there. They are grafting machinery to humans. Live humans. Prisoners, slaves and worst of all, children.”
“Ai, Dios mio!” gasped Angela. “Es monstruoso! Forgive me, when I get excited I have a tendency to speak Spanish.”
“I was discovered and managed to subdue that guard, set some rapid accelerating demolitions and made my way clear of the camp. One of the bastards winged me. Right now, the majority of the soldiers are fighting the fire. The person in charge unleashed the experiments. The good news is that they are not terribly fast. Dogged perhaps…”
“Who’s in charge?” asked Angela.
“I do not know. I never got a chance to see his face or hear his name.”
“Incoming,” said Angela pointing off to their left.
A pair of experiments, more machine than man, shambled to intercept the fleeing pair. One of them had thick black tubes running from their back, over the shoulders and into the chest. The creature seemed to gain a measure of speed with every step. The face contorted in a mockery of human anger as the machine-man bore down on them. Ignatius fired at the same time as Angela. The crack of her pistol echoed throughout the woods. His shot flew wide striking a tree. Her aim was truer. The lead creature fell back, spurting blood and a bright yellow fluid from the wound.
They quickly outpaced the second as they crested a small rise and discovered the downslope of the mountain before them. They descended at breakneck speed, kicking loose rocks and sticks in their haste. A few rifle shots whistled past but then the woods fell silent except for the rain, their frantic steps and labored breathing. They reached the bottom of the hill where the ground leveled out and the trees were sparse. Fog intertwined around the trunks, hovering just over the forest floor.
“This valley floor runs north to south for a couple of miles in either direction,” said Ignatius. “We are about in the middle. If we go up the other side we will have more difficult terrain and the benefit of a superior height advantage.”
“How far is the other side?” said Angela.
“Less than a mile. We cross a stream several hundred yards before the next rise.”
“Let’s go then.”
Grimly the pair loped along keeping their eyes moving, trying to look in every direction all at once. Ten minutes dragged past when Ignatius stumbled into the creek, tripping and falling face first into the water. Thrashing out of the water, he cursed. The rain was a minor bother, being soaked to the skin in the very early spring in the mountains was life threatening. Wasting no time, Ignatius stripped off his jacket and shirt and started to wring them out, hoping to minimize the chance of lowering his core body temperature into dangerous territory.
An ugly red trough across his ribs showed just how close his escape from the camp was. Angela knelt at the creek and scooped some water into her mouth, and then she checked over her pistol, ejecting the spent shells and replacing them. With shaking hands, Ignatius redressed himself and tended to his own pistol. Somehow, the cartridges had avoided being soaked. The very first fingers of sunlight were beginning to tickle the tops of the mountains even though a drizzle continued to fall.
His head bobbed towards his chest, snapping up just as he realized how close to passing out he was. Fatigue was settling into his muscles. Getting rest now was not possible. They had to keep moving, had to get to higher ground. While rooting in his jacket’s pockets Ignatius appraised the young woman keeping a watchful eye out over their surroundings. She did not panic and kept up with him during their headlong flight from the camp.
His fingers finally found the smooth metal cylinder. Taking it out he unscrewed the top, a syringe and vial of milky liquid slid into the palm of his hand.
“What’s that?” asked Angela.
“A distillation for endurance I concocted for this sort of emergency. How are you holding up?”
“Very well, thank you,” said Angela.
She frowned as Ignatius filled the hypodermic with the chemical and slid the needle into his left forearm. The liquid felt hot as it rushed into his vein, drawn up to his heart and then pushed out to the rest of his body. Almost immediately, he could feel warmth spreading from limb to limb. His mind cleared the haze that almost settled over it.
He was about to say something when a squeak reached his ears. Angela froze and cocked her head listening too. They heard the whoosh of steam escaping from a valve from somewhere in the fog. Soft footsteps added to the layers of noise that approached. Ignatius readied himself but then gasped in horror as the first of this new wave of assailants emerged from the darkness.
Ignatius leveled his pistol and fired a shot at a shadowy figure without hesitating. As the bullet tore through its target, realization hit Ignatius: these were children. Horrible transformations altered the shape, size and walk but they were clearly young slaves perhaps between ten and fifteen.
“Madre de Dios!” exclaimed Angela, “What manner of God-forsaken bastard could do this?”
“The unforgivable kind,” said Ignatius.
The fire at the camp had not caught all of the experiments, that much was obvious. There was an obligation to his country here. The oath he took entering the service was explicit. Any target of opportunity must be destroyed. None of the experiments could survive. They were a shocking force and judging by the variety of armaments, a dangerous one. If allowed to enter the general conflict the damage against the Union forces could be immeasurable.
Tiny smoke stacks puffed sooty black clouds into the morning while pincers clicked in agitation. One child swung a razor sharp saw blade back and forth. The hundreds of teeth made a whistling sound through the air. On the back of each individual was a square box with the chimney rising up. It has to be a power source much like a steam engine, supposed Ignatius. The group hovered at the stream’s edge. They did not seem inclined to cross the running water.
“Get out of here Miss Angela. You have to reach the top of that hill. The rest of the Confederates are not far behind.”
“What do you intend?” she asked.
“I have to do my duty. These abominations cannot exist. I have to destroy every one of them.”
“If you must, I suppose. Take this,” Angela said.
She tossed Ignatius a Colt Navy .44 handgun. He nodded thankfully.
“When we have more time, you will have to explain where this came from,” he said.
“I’ll look forward to it. You bring the brandy, I’ll bring the cigars.”
One of the taller clockwork children wrestled the corpse to the creek and threw the body across the water. With and splash and hiss an impromptu bridge was built. The leader put one foot gingerly on the back of the fallen one. Sizzling rose from the metal pack as the skin touched the near red-hot surface. Face frozen in a tortured grimace the experiment crossed the running water. Ignatius and Angela backed away.
Ignatius squeezed the trigger twice in rapid succession. The young man flopped over into the creek. Groaning, Ignatius saw that he inadvertently created an even better bridge. The pack of monstrosities surged forward. Shouts rose from behind the children, in the direction from which they had just come. Ignatius looked at Angela and jerked his head at her. She nodded, dropping a belt of ammunition on the ground and sprinting away.
Ignatius spun and snatched the belt from the floor and headed northeast hoping that he would lead the pursuit away from Angela. His Beaumont was out of cartridges. He jammed the Colt into his waistband and worked the release on his gun. Brass shells fell to the forest floor in glittering pinwheels. With a certain amount of composure, Ignatius slid fresh bullets into the empty cylinders. He dodged past tree stumps and fallen logs. The edge of his vision started to get blurry, while the center remained sharply focused.
A moan sounded from just behind him. Glancing over his shoulder Ignatius saw two of the younger, lighter children were keeping pace with him. Tubes ran, curving out, from behind to plunge into their thighs. The steady noise of pumps working chased after Ignatius. Part of him was deeply curious. The call of the mechanics felt tangible at times. Using his left hand, he pulled the Colt out and fired a hasty shot over his back. The round grazed the right leg of a pursuer popping the hose loose. Bluish fluid sprayed in all directions.
Ignatius wheeled around and thrust the Colt forward, catching the remaining child in the forehead. The clockwork child lost his footing and fell to the ground. Ignatius grimly put his foot down on the abomination’s chest and squeezed the trigger. The bullet made short work of it. Ignatius found himself caught in the wide-open gaze of brown eyes. They glazed over in moments.
Fire flickered across his thigh.
Leaping back in surprise, Ignatius realized that the other experiment had dragged itself to him and sliced his leg with a keen edged machete. Ignatius quickly finished off the second sprinter then checked on his leg. The cut was shallow, not deep enough to separate the muscle. It might bleed a bit, but otherwise he would be fine. Flipping the pistol locked its cylinder back in place. He took a second to scan the surroundings. To his left the valley wall, where Angela would be, rose up. To the right was the creek and ahead lay a thicket of briar bushes so dense even a rabbit would give second thought to heading into it.
He moved to the right, hoping that the water would again form a barricade preventing the rush of steam-driven monsters. His skin tingled in the breeze as he dashed toward the water. The endurance serum was nearing its peak. All of his senses were overloading with stimuli. A chirping bird came across as loudly as the whistle from a train. The wounds ached and flared white-hot with pain. A shape emerged from the mist to his right. Several quick shots brought it down and left his ears ringing. He entered the cold water flinching at the pins and needles that erupted along his lower legs.
The realization of the situation he was in crept into his brain slowly. He could not help but cross an ethical line. Fatigue and chemicals made processing the thoughts tricky. Ignatius could not imagine the horrors that must have transpired in the Confederate camp. Soldiers, trained men, were one thing. They knew that capture would not be a pleasant way of spending the war. They understood the consequences of their actions, the ramifications of an enemy desperate to gain any advantage. Children were another matter.
He would do a great many things to advance science and technology. However, the harvesting children as hosts for ghastly mechanical upgrades went beyond anything sane. The innocent used in such wicked ways showed a lack of ethics that is staggering.
A mechanized army would bolster the flagging soldiers who were fighting against the Union. The mere appearance would be demoralizing and frightening to regular troops. The war could be lost to attrition by desertion if not by outright victory.
The remnants of the pack charged out of the woods, howling with raw voices as though it were man learning to scream at the dawn of time. Ignatius leveled both revolvers and fired into the group until both hammers fell on spent cartridges. The last feral youth leapt across the intervening distance and ploughed into Ignatius. The pair tumbled over into the icy creek water with Ignatius on the bottom. Sharp rocks jabbed into his back and neck. The water’s temperature added clarity to his vision.
He could see the youth raising a club-like hammer overhead and managed to roll his shoulder and dodge the blow. Somewhere in the contact and struggle, Ignatius lost his grip on the Colt. He swung the Beaumont up and against the side of the boy’s head dislodging the wiry youth. Both splashed wildly in the water in order to regain their feet.
Ignatius sized up his opponent. The lad was thin but completely muscled. A mass of dreadlocks, which were interwoven with beads, dripped creek water, forming a curtain around his face. The large metal box on his back crackled with the vaporizing water. The club fell from his fingers and tattered flesh dropped off the left arm revealing a steel frame from which a blade sprang forward. He grinned lopsidedly at Ignatius and lunged with the blade.
Ignatius sidestepped the charge and met his opponent’s face with a clenched fist. Like lightening the clockwork child spun following up with a series of lunges, thrusts and cuts. Ignatius found himself giving up ground. Panicking he resorted to ungentlemanly strategy kicking the nearest knee with great vigor. He then whipped the Beaumont around by the barrel and slammed it again into the side of the youth’s head. Sensing the young man’s balance was off, Ignatius seized the joint just above the sword blade and flipped his attacker face forward into the creek.
Falling on top of his opponent, Ignatius viciously and repeatedly brought the pistol down on the dreadlock-covered head. White-hot pain seared through his right knee and leg. He rolled away realizing that he had knelt on top of the firebox. Before the lad could rise up again, Ignatius drew his holdout weapon, desperate to end the struggle, a small derringer and squeezed both triggers at once. The tiny popping discharge of the weapon seemed inadequate for the grief it caused. The body twitched and shuddered in the swift current.
He emerged from the water for the second time that morning. Cold, wet and despondent. The values and reasons he fought, spied and lived for lay destroyed all over the valley’s floor. The youth were not free in the manner that he wished. They were not returning home or emigrating to the north. All he had done was speed up the experimental process to its inevitable conclusion. Ignatius felt the bile rising inside of him and closed his eyes as he vomited along the bank.
Sitting on his knees, he regarded the derringer in one hand, and the Beaumont in the other. The consequences of his actions weighed on him. His heart ached with sadness. He could not allow the corruption of science for any better purpose than to perpetuate intolerable cruelty. Humans, all humans have the right to be free. Not in some tragic fashion such as the one, he instigated. Free in the sense that life is a glorious celebration, worth living well and fully.
Frowning with disdain Ignatius let the guns drop into the creek. Better to allow the water to destroy them than to ever use a handgun again. The ridge, he thought, I still must reach the ridge. Standing up and then wading through the creek one last time, Ignatius moved westward. Minutes later, he heard a howl, grossly inhuman echo up from the south. Still more monstrosities survived, the remaining adults. He would destroy each one he vowed and track down the scientist that created them. The blemish of this inhumanity would end here in the mountains.
Two weeks later…
Ignatius lay on his stomach under a bush on top of a ridge. He held a pair of field glasses to his eyes and swept the area below him. The charred remnants of the camp were cold and still in the late morning. A steady drizzle continued to fall as it had for the past week. It was as if God was trying to wash the mountain clean.
Angela was waiting for him on top of the valley when he finally climbed out of it. He told her of the situation and of his duty. No trace could remain. He was surprised when she volunteered to join him. They stalked the mountain and valleys, tracking down the last experiments and eliminating them. Now under cover several hundred yards away, she was watching too.
Rations were low, game scarce yet they persisted. They had grown close in the desperate situation. He relied on her hunting skills, steady nerves in tight spots and good humor. She accepted his plans offering improvements when necessary, which he gladly accepted. The time might have passed by pleasantly, were they not stalking and eliminating the Mad Science abominations.
Each morning Ignatius came to the vantage point above the camp. Like the mountain lion native to the region, he stealthily crept into position and watched. For a couple of days after the fire troops swarmed around the area. They picked over the rubble and removed the dead.
Confederate airships moved through the skies in greater frequency. Some dropped supplies to the forces on the ground while others served as observation posts. Today was no different. The drone of an engine in the distance signaled the arrival of the day’s first observer from the east. Strangely, a second engine sounded from the west. A third ship, a bloated gray sausage arrived overhead from the south.
The gathering of multiple airships was not a coincidence. They gathered for a reason. Minutes later, that reason became evident. A pale figure stepped from the cover of the woods and approached the burned out camp. Focusing the glasses on the person, Ignatius saw a man in his early forties. The left side of his face bore blisters, from the fire no doubt. The man was hairless and had soft doe-like eyes.
He picked his way through the burnt timbers to the middle of the camp. In one hand, he carried a pickaxe and shovel. In preparation, the man hung his broad floppy hat over a timber. For several long minutes, the man dug. He tore through the destroyed timbers with a singular purpose. The sound of the shovel hitting another metal object reverberated up to Ignatius.
Out of the ground a strong box appeared. Watching the man, Ignatius saw him take a brass key from around his neck and unlock the box. Engraved on the lid were the initials ‘S.V.’. Looking into the box itself, papers billowed out of it. Ignatius could not make out any of the writing on the pages facing him. He had to presume that it was detailed notes on the experimentation. A flicker of motion from Angela’s position drew his attention.
Pointing the glasses at her revealed only leafy coverage, so complete was her camouflage. Several branches parted allowing the barrel of a Henry rifle to poke through. She intended on taking the shot. Checking the mystery man at the camp again, Ignatius knew she could make it. The drone of the airships changed. The engines slowed, becoming deeper, more of a low growl. Ignatius looked up to see one descending towards Angela, a rope ladder unfurling from the gondola.
They spotted the barrel poking out, surmised Ignatius. A few seconds more and she will take the shot, but if left alone Angela would be captured by the Southern forces. Somewhere inside his chest muscles tightened, he quickly squawked like a common crow, loudly. Peering through the field glasses, he watched the gun withdraw and the leaves rustle. Returning his gaze to the camp, Ignatius found the man staring up at him with a pair of modified glasses.
These glasses were thicker and multi-lensed. Ignatius knew he was visible to the other man. Rather than retreat hurriedly, Ignatius took a few extra seconds to commit everything he could to memory. Height, probable weight and the hook of nose everything that might identify the man later on. Only then did Ignatius back away.
He would find this man, this S.V. again. When he did, an accounting would take place.