Archive for September, 2011
The partially working opti-telegraphic was hidden away in what remained of a former second floor bedroom, whose ceiling had partially collapsed at some time in the distant past. A century’s accumulated peat covered most of the ruins, pressing down upon the stronger remnant of the stone ceiling. Underneath, the resulting irregularly-shaped triangular space angled slightly to the right as the castle’s ruins had settled into new positions. Fortunately, this made for an excellent hiding place.
Of all the original fixtures in the room, only a narrow window, framed in a gray-blue marble and still bearing faint engravings of intricate knotwork remained. The window overlooked a well-lit work area. A crude, yet effective factory, it had been excavated from the castle ruins into an artificial cavern beneath the wide Highland mountains. Ian Tonks Wilkerson peeked out of the window again, careful to keep himself in the shadows of the room so as not to be spotted by anyone happening to glance upwards. Behind the pilot, using a single small candle to light their work, two men from the Fair Winds – a midshipman and an ensign – worried over the battered opti-telegraphic.
In the cavern, Fomorian sailors labored feverishly like army ants. Brass cylinders – each roughly two feet long – were being loaded into crates; the gaps between the cylinders were packed with straw. Once the crates were filled, another group of Fomorians hammered their lids tight, then loaded them into one of the waiting wagons. Smaller boxes, each marked as explosives, were then packed carefully between the larger crates for their trip. Half-empty wagons collected near the cavern entrance, steadily filling with their deadly cargo. Meanwhile, the wagon drivers methodically inspected their horses in preparation for the coming trip.
No more than ten yards back from the wagons, the clank and rattle of metal accompanied five enormous vehicles. They bore a startling resemblance to a Seamstress Spider, but for the fact that the normally diminutive, hand-held clockwork device stood larger than a team of four horses and a flatbed wagon! Brass and steel glinted nastily in the blue glow of arc lanterns that hung in the dozens around the entire cavern; dark, curved glass served as the eyes of the machine.
Through the glass, Ian could just make out the shape of at least two crewmen piloting it. One, naturally, controlled the motion. The other apparently was responsible for the twin set of barrels that bore a nightmarish resemblance to smaller versions of lightning cannon that Ian had only ever seen aboard a relay station, fort, or an airship – until now.
The pilot shook his head in amazement. He, like many others, had heard of the “Land Ironclads” that the Americans had built to use against each other in their prolonged civil war. Though, from what he had heard, they were still a wheeled vehicle. Chains wound between the wheels gave the American Land Ironclads traction over rough terrain when necessary.
From what Ian had heard, the thick armor of the Land Ironclads were backed by a pair of well-made Gatling guns; a modified design that could use the .50-140 Sharps ammunition instead of its usual .45-70 cartridges. In the end, the pilot assumed the result made for a formidable sight.
These fiendish creations were far more than that. Tonks mused over the ugly possibilities with a dark expression. Suddenly, the metal monstrosity sidestepped, then squatted slightly. The twin cannons atop the spider crackled with lightning, and before Ian could blink, a pair of finger thin, high pressure streams of electrified salt water shot towards a set of wooden targets shaped like the silhouette of soldiers. What the high-powered jet of water did not slice apart, the unfettered lightning burnt to a rapid crisp. Tonks frowned. These “Spider Ironclads” were easily as lethal as their wheeled American counterparts.
Ian turned impatiently away from the morbid display. Feeling his hands shake, he clutched them together tightly to make them stop, but with only passable success. It was a subtle, manic twitching spawned from the addictive cravings that gnawed at the back of his mind. Much like a rat, the withdrawal he suffered from the elixir was trying to slowly chew away the wooden walls of his reason.
“Ya got that battery wired in?” he growled irritably. “We don’t have much time here.”
One of the sailors – a young midshipman with brown hair, dingy naval uniform and a round face – nodded vigorously while he ignored Ian’s snappish mood. “Aye, Sirrah, just got it wired into that old arc motor. Gears are turning steady as if she was being cranked proper.” He glanced at his friend next to him, then gave Tonks a concerned look. “Sure ya don’t need us to stay?”
“No cause for it,” Ian replied curtly. “The Fomorians had to have seen us duck into that cell. Only be a matter of time before they batter down that wall and come through the hidden tunnels. Ya both will be of better use elsewhere.” He forced a smile, even though his mood did not share the emotion. “Don’t worry over it. Once I’m done, I’ll get myself out and join ya, quick as a blink.”
Mr. Thomson rushed into the room. “Are ya done? They’re already roundin’ up the others into a room downstairs! Another set of Fomorians are already batterin’ through the hidden door!”
The sailor nodded, then nudged the ensign. “We’d best shove off.”
Once the two young men had left, Mr. Thomson shut the door before Ian could stop him. The sailor shook his head when Ian started to protest.
“Sirrah, someone needs to watch the door while ya work the opti,” the sailor explained. “Yer not able to do this alone. Dr. Von Patterson mentioned ya might not be feelin’ well.”
Tonks silently considered the young man a moment, then nodded. “I’ve not the time to argue. Did the charges get set?”
Mr. Thomson lowered the wooden bar across the door, securing it from the inside. “Just as described: opti-telegraphic receiver wired to a quarter a stick of dynamite, then hidden away. It was hasty work, but they should all get signals.”
The pilot knelt next to the opti-telegraphic. He flexed his hands when they began to tremble again; his lips were dry, and his tongue felt a little thick when he swallowed from anxiety. In front of him, the device sat open and waiting. The crank and battery, both harvested from a burnt-out arc lantern, together eliminated the need to wind the motor inside the opti. For now, until the battery was exhausted, it was self-wound. He tapped quickly on the keys.
Amid the bustle in the artificial cavern, a voice called out for ‘Captain Bauer’. Hidden away in the dark room, Ian glanced over curiously at the midshipman. Thomson cautiously peeked out the window, then quickly returned to his post by the door.
“Looked like someone was runnin’ with a paper in their hand,” the midshipman said with a grin. “I’m thinkin’ he picked up yer message of an upcoming attack.”
Ian chuckled. “Perfect. Now we wait a few moments, then we change what channel we’re sendin’ to,” he explained, reaching over to adjusted a worn black knob. Silently, Ian counted to himself, then tapped a single key.
Immediately, he was rewarded with a muffled explosion near the back of the cavern! Dust from the fragile stonework drifted down like a dirty snowfall, while outside the air was filled with panic-stricken shouts of alarm. Somewhere there was the distant, ominous crackle of flames.
Inside the triangular room, Ian covered his mouth and nose, suppressing a sneeze from the dust cloud. He tried an experimental slow breath, wishing the next moment he had not. The pilot collapsed forward, mouth covered as a fit of wet coughs clutched at his chest with razor sharp fingers. He moaned as the fit subsided and pulled his hands, shaking like leaves from the renewed attack of withdrawals, away from his mouth.
“Sirrah, ya whole?” Thomson asked, concerned. “Take in somethin’ ya shouldn’t?”
Quickly, Ian wiped the spot of fresh, wet blood from his lips and then rubbed a bloody palm on his trousers. “Somethin’ after a fashion. Matters little, we’ve work yet to do.”
Through force of will, the pilot got his shaking hands under control, turned the dial, and tapped a key. Immediately, another explosion shook the cavern. He dialed again, then tapped another key; once again, Ian was rewarded with yet another explosion, this one more destructive than the last. Flames licked at the wooden crates in the wagons and chased Fomorians sailors as they ran to form a bucket brigade, or fled to save themselves. Either way, the Fomorians rushed into the main work area while an alarm shrieked distantly, warning of a supposed attack.
“Brilliant!” Thomson whispered with a victorious grin.
Ian smiled despite his foul mood. He turned the dial once more and tapped a key, yet nothing happened. He tapped the key again, and still no answering explosion. The pilot’s smile melted from his face, leaving an expression dark as a thundercloud. He immediately jumped up and rushed over to where he could peer out the window.
“That the last one? Fine enough, we should have ourselves enough time to meet the others,” Thomson said reassuringly.
Ian angrily shook his head. “No! That last one was to go off near the horses and send ’em runnin’! Bloody hell!” The pilot squinted through the billowing black smoke that threatened to fill the cavern.
Finally, he saw it: near the thick of the wagons, the small box that had concealed the opti was on its side. The segment of dynamite was a good foot or more away: far enough that Tonks just knew the wire had disconnected. The pilot slipped his revolver free.
“What are ya doin’?” Thomson whispered in alarm.
“Settin’ it off,” Ian replied firmly. Despite careful aim, the smoke was too thick, and his hands shook too fiercely. The pilot rubbed his eyes, trying to clear them.
Thomson muttered under his breath, then listened at the door. “If you do that, they’ll know we’re here and we’ll lose our way out! It wouldn’t take much for ’em to cut us off at the stairs!”
“We need those horses spooked, man!” the pilot snapped. “They’ll be quick to realize what might be happenin’, if they already haven’t! Loose the horses, and they’ll have to stay here to get them good and managed!”
The midshipman rushed over to Ian, then peered out towards the last explosive. “I can barely see it from here,” he said, “but I do see that box of dynamite and what looks to be nitroglycerin bottles close to it. Give me yer revolver.” When the pilot hesitated, Thomson riveted him with a stern look. “Ya said it, we don’t have time to mess about.”
Ian slapped the revolver into the midshipman’s hand, stepping out of the way. Thomson instinctively checked the weapon, took careful, steady aim, then squeezed the trigger once, twice. For a second nothing happened; suddenly, a wall of hot air hammered them both as a crate of explosives ripped open! A bright, searing fireball washed out in all directions across wagons, gas canisters and Fomorians alike.
“Now we leave!” Thomson said with a triumphant grin.
“Up there!” shouted a voice from outside.
“Down!” Ian said in alarm. The pilot dove toward the midshipman while a hail of gunfire rained through the window. Bullets snagged at Ian’s shirt, hot metal cutting grooves along his arm and back as he crashed into the young man. The pair collapsed to the floor under the cover of the window’s lower stone edge.
Ian sat up, his hands and chest covered in blood, but not his own. Thomson blinked while crimson stains spread slowly out from his left shoulder. The young man managed a smile, then winced in pain as he tried to sit up.
Ian eased the wounded man to the floor. “Keep still a moment.” Quickly, the pilot tore off a section of his shirt and tied it as a makeshift bandage on the sailor’s shoulder wounds.
“Bloody hell, that hurts,” Mr. Thomson said with a grimace while Ian rushed to the door to listen. The pilot returned a moment later. “We got all the explosives, though,” he said weakly. “They should be runnin’ properly scared now.”
“Pipe down, now. Save yer strength,” Ian carefully pulled the wounded midshipman to his feet. “Sounds quiet out there. Let’s try for it, eh?” Thomson nodded, but was unable to reply, his face screwed tight with pain.
Tonks half-led, half-carried the young man to the door. Leaning him against the wall, he pushed the wooden bar aside with a loud scrape. Immediately bullets pounded the wood from the hallway outside!
The pilot released the wooden bar as if it were white hot. He glanced at the window, seeing the fire and smoke clouds billowing angrily outside. In the cavern, he watched a group of Fomorians grab a dilapidated wooden ladder and rush towards the window of his room. When the gunfire beyond the door subsided, he carefully lifted the bar – more quietly this time – and set it on the floor. Quickly, he cracked the door open a sliver to peek out. A few yards away where the short tunnel ended and a set of stone stairs began, four sailors lay on the ground with guns trained on the door, waiting for it to open.
A sharp pain stabbed behind Ian’s eyes from frustration, then the shakes and withdrawal renewed their assault upon his resolve. He could try and fight back against the Fomorians in the hallway, but he only had four shots left in his revolver. If he were in better condition, and Thomson not badly wounded, he might manage it. However, he was not nearly the shot someone like Moira was; Ian was better with his fists.
The pilot clutched his chest, his breath coming in ragged gasps, his face a twisted mask of frustration and despair. He glanced at Thomson, the young sailor’s face had already turned an unpleasant shade of gray-white. In Ian’s estimation, the midshipman had precious little time left; he needed proper medical care, which the Fomorians would likely not bother to offer. Ian had to get them both free without getting either of them killed in the process. His hands shook more as the withdrawal raked its claws through his fractured mental resolve yet again. Desperate, Ian ripped the twin vials from his vest, yanked the corks free, and drained them both dry.
The fluid burned down Ian’s throat, then his entire body twitched. His breath caught, and his chest felt like it was compressed in a steel vise! Hands shaking, he clawed at the door in a blind panic, no longer fully aware of his surroundings. His vision distorted into strange shapes that his mind refused to identify. He tried to scream while he lost control of his body, although all that came out of his mouth was an unearthly, gargled cry somewhere between a sob and the giggle of a small child. Only one thought burned in his mind: escape!