©2020 William A. Lasher
“It’s not like they hold any malice towards us, we just look like an easy meal.” – Major Bartholomew Saxby, Commander of the Mutant Eradication Forces
Henry Winterborne introduced me to Axel J. Knightingale from outside the offensive smelling jail cell where I had been incarcerated for over a week – I had lost track of time, and could only estimate how long it had been since Molly and I were arrested by the peculiar looking automated police officers. Mr. Knightingale had arrived by steam train from Hainford, the capital of this strange inland territory that had sprung up from the ashes of the America Molly and I had once known, somewhere west of the Rocky Mountains, in a region both higher in altitude and more arid than our home in the bucolic Appalachians of western Virginia.
The cost of Knightingale’s representation had been paid by Winterborne, and I felt unable to adequately express my appreciation. Henry said, “Don’t fret about it, we’ll find a way you can pay me back once your innocence has been proved.”
I had so many questions to ask as I stood there in my filthy red union suit, my unwashed hands wrapped around the thick iron bars that separated me from my visitors, and how was Molly holding up? The sawing and hammering had stopped, apparently the gallows had been completed – was our execution scheduled to take place soon? And where in the world did those infernal robots come from? The automated police were far beyond anything we had ever contemplated in Leacock Corners.
“Your execution is scheduled for Thursday at high noon. That gives me 48 hours to come up with a stay.”
“What are the chances of our being exonerated?”
“I should be able to get at least one delay, and will argue for dismissal. After that, we can’t presume anything.”
We can’t presume anything. Was this the end? Would I ever get to see Molly again?
“Don’t worry about a thing,” Winterborne with a wink and a grin, “One way or another we’ll get you both out of here.”
Knightingale spoke in the haughty tone of the British upper crust: “The police robots are the property of the Pendlebury Gas Company. Pendlebury fled Philadelphia at the beginning of the Hydrogen War. They got out just before the Confederacy destroyed the city with an accelerated hydrogen gas detonation. The post thermal firestorm obliterated half of New Jersey too – it was a lulu.
“When Pendlebury arrived, Dunkwell was a nameless frontier outpost. A stagecoach stop on the riverbank. Nothing but a general store, a saloon with a bawdy house, and a handful of hog farmers and sheep herders. The economic boom that created Dunkwell was brought on by the gas extraction in the two decades since the Hydrogen War.”
The Hydrogen War. It was hard to fathom how western Virginia could be gone. What about my parents and my sister? And how did Molly and I end up out here in the arid mountain west as middle-aged criminals? None of it seemed to make any sense.
The nattily dressed English attorney adjusted one of his his skull and crossbones cuff links and carried on: “Pendlebury brought the robots in to keep the workers in line. The purpose of the robot police is to keep Dunkwell proper the quintessential company town you might say. The recorded phrases that come out of their mechanical voice-boxes are limited in scope but the strength with which they’re delivered seem effective in keeping the working class focused on their livelihoods. Dangerous bastards they are – disagree with one and you’re likely to get your head torn off.”
“We haven’t figured out precisely how they work yet,” added Winterborne, “if there’s some form of intelligence within their metal heads, or if they’re somehow remotely controlled.”
“We do know that Pendlebury brought in the robots on the pretense of maintaining law and order,” said Knightingale, “They’re manufactured in Hong Kong, constructed of intricate clockwork, and powered by hydrogen gas. The original Dunkwell sheriff and his deputies were ostracized by Pendlebury when the new robots arrived. Down along the river, the workers are under constant scrutiny from the metal beasts. Mechanical bully boys is what they are. The working class live in fear of the robot police.”
The mechanical contraptions were seven feet tall, and had a humanoid form – a head, two arms, and two legs. Constructed of brass, silver, and copper, they wore blue military uniforms. Each one looked the same, from their mustard colored suspenders, to their tall Central European style military hats. Regular puffs of exhaust smoke came from a curious looking stub of copper pipe that protruded from each one’s rear end – apparently a by-product of the hydrogen gas combustion that powered them.
The ghostly robots brought me a plate of buckwheat biscuits and a can of sour tasting water twice a day. Emotionless phrases like “Keep your hands where we can see them,” and “Stand back from the door,” were the only words that emanated forth from their metallic sounding voice boxes. How the metal giants could see me was something I could not fathom. The glass eyes on their metal faces looked vacant, like something a taxidermist would implant on a stuffed animal’s dead face.
Imprisoned by the robot police, I anxiously awaited either my execution or my exoneration, and I hadn’t seen Molly in over a week.
Two more nights passed, and on the morning of the following day, I was placed in shackles and led out of the jailhouse by a squad of the towering robots. It was the first time I had been outdoors in a number of days. I was unable to shield my eyes from the sun as both of my hands were bound and strapped to my torso, and I was only able to take small steps forward as the chain between my ankles was short. As I struggled to keep up with my mechanical captors, one of the robots pushed me forward – I stumbled, and came close to falling on the ground.
They brought me into an open area, and the lead robot swept its arm in front of me forcing me to stop cold. There in front of me were the freshly built gallows, constructed of hand-hewn raw timbers, a set of stairs rose up before me. A crowd of rowdy townspeople were gathered round, and standing on top of the platform, with the hangman’s noose already around her neck was Molly, her face concealed by a hood. Under my breath, I swore to Jesus Christ our savior – it looked as if Molly would hang first, and I would be forced to watch.
The hangman was a Welshman named Trombley, a silver prospector. The executioner job was a sideline. Something to throw a bit of pepper into his life, he said. In truth the man was stark raving mad, a thrill killer. He derived ill satisfaction from dropping the condemned through the trap door. You could see it his demeanor.
Trombley checked his pocket watch. The execution was scheduled for high noon. I could see the face of a street clock at the edge of the red brick square, and the minute hand was closing in on twelve. As beads of perspiration welled up and rolled down my strained mug, I became aware of a shouting man’s voice growing closer, “Stop! Stop! Don’t pull that handle!” It was Winterborne, trotting across the pavers with Axel J. Knightingale on his heels.
Trombley made for the lever with his hand, as if he was going to pull the handle anyway.
“Don’t do it my good man,” bristled Knightingale sidestepping Winterborne, running up the stairs, and waving the writ in his hand. “The execution has been canceled. Now be a good chap and remove the noose from the lady’s neck at once please. ”
A stay of execution had been acquired from a district judge. A week’s reprieve that would allow Knightingale time to prepare for a hearing where he would argue for our vindication. Molly and I would remain incarcerated, but we had dodged the executioner’s noose, for the time being anyway.
I was unsurprised to learn the judge was a Scotsman, Duncan S. Brumfield. It seemed most of the residents of Dunkwell Heights were British Islanders. I asked Winterborne about it, and he said it was true, though the ethnic make-up of the working class in Dunkwell proper was more varied.
The courtroom had no windows, and was illuminated by the eerie orange glow of hydrogen lamps. Molly and I sat with Mr. Knightingale at the defendant’s table. Seated in the front row of the gallery, Winterborne was surrounded by a boisterous crowd of townspeople. The same crew that was in attendance at the aborted hangings. They seemed anxious to get back to the gallows after having their morning entertainment so rudely interrupted by Knightingale’s stay of execution.
The court’s recorder was seated at an undersized desk to one side of the bench. Attractive in her thick framed eyeglasses, Miss Moorehouse had an ample bosom, and a freshly cut black rose pinned to her starchy white blouse.
Two of the Pendlebury robots stood behind Molly and I, and when I tried to whisper a few words to her, one of the robots ordered me to, “shut your trap.”
It was apparent that the prosecutor felt it was his duty to object to every statement that our attorney made, and Brumfield spent an inordinate amount of time extrapolating on the content of Mr. Greenblatt’s objections. He over ruled him on almost every one.
Knightingale rose to his feet, “At this time, I would like to present my argument for the dismissal of all criminal charges against my clients.”
Greenblatt sprung up out of his chair, “I object!”
“On what grounds, Mr. Greenblatt?” Brumfield with a sour expression on his face.
“On the grounds that the defendants have already been convicted of their crimes and sentenced to death.” The prosecutor adjusted his tie, glanced at the papers on the table before him, and continued, “Backus and Keagan wantonly murdered two innocent citizens in the commission of their crime, the armed robbery of the First Bank of Shellingford, and the money they stole has never been recovered.”
“Yes, and Mr. Knightingale filed a proper appeal of their convictions, and I subsequently ruled that I would hear his appeal.”
With an expression of alarm, Brumfield paused to observe a sudden flurry of white smoke puffs rising up from his automated bailiff’s posterior exhaust pipe. “You’re out of order, Greenblatt – have a seat.” As suddenly as it had started, the flurry of exhaust smoke abated. Raising his eyebrows and frowning, Brumfield continued, “You may proceed, Mr. Knightingale.”
“Thank you, your honor. The fact is, my clients had the misfortune of stumbling into a distortion in time. They have no recollection of any of the events that resulted in their convictions, therefore they are innocent of the charges.”
Greenblatt lept to his feet: “I vigorously object! Counsel’s statement makes no sense. A distortion in time? This is unheard of! And what precedent will Mr. Knightingale cite to support this malarkey?”
Brumfield paused, and then looked towards Knightingale, “A distortion in time? Have you taken leave of your senses, my good man? What in the name of god are you speaking of?”
“Mr. Backus and Miss Keagan have no recollection of any of the events before the day they were arrested by the Pendlebury robots. Just three weeks ago they were teenagers in western Virginia in the year 1851. They followed a trio of otters into a cave, and after stepping through a waterfall, found themselves to be wanted outlaws here in present day 1881.”
“Teenagers in western Virginia?!” exclaimed the prosecutor with an evil grin now, “Is Mr. Knightingale under the influence of some type of medication? What in the world is he talking about?”
“It’s all here in Mr. Backus’s journal,” said Knightingale holding up my diary for the judge to see, “all of the details of their extraordinary journey through time. I would like to enter Mr. Backus’s journal into evidence.”
“I object! There was no notification of discovery prior to this hearing taking place!”
“The lives of the defendants are at stake. I hereby ask the court to consider this evidence thoroughly before any ruling is made.”
“A delay tactic, your honor. And a pigeon-hearted one at that! Mr. Knightingale’s postulations are absurd and have no basis in fact. Nonsensical rubbish, and a waste of the court’s valuable time.”
“I will call an hour’s recess and consider the presented evidence.”
“I object! The people have not had a chance to consider the alleged evidence. This is a blatant violation of the rules of discovery.”
“Then you may read the journal after I’m through. Would counsel care to join me in my chambers?”
“Yes,” said Greenblatt, “I will gladly join you to have a look at this dreck Mr. Knightingale has dredged up.”
“Not I,” said Knightingale turning slightly in his seat to observe the unruly crowd of townspeople in the gallery, “I think I shall stay here with my clients.”
“As you wish,” Brumfield exited the courtroom through a door behind the bench. Greenblatt tidied up his paperwork, stuffed it into his weathered attache, and then silently followed the judge into his chambers. As Knightingale had feared, the townspeople in the gallery grew more disorderly once the door had closed behind the prosecutor.
“To hell with all this legal mumbo jumbo,” called out the hangman Trombley with his black bowler cocked rakishly askew, “I say we hang the bloody murderers now!”
“Shut your trap!” exclaimed the bailiff from its automated voice-box.
A wave of agreement rose up from the crowd, “Oi! Let’s hang them now!”
The two robot police standing behind us turned and faced the crowd: “Shut your traps!” said both in unison.
The crowd’s raucous shouts changed to muttering and mumbling, and then, “I’m with Trombley!” called out a defiant Rathburn, one of the carpenters who had constructed the gallows, “I say we haul them back to the square and string them up with no delay!”
One of the robot police took a step towards Rathburn, “Shut your trap!” with more vigor than before. That served to silence Rathburn, who quickly regained his seat. A minute later, more of the Pendlebury robots marched in, taking up various positions around the courtroom, and with four more of the mechanical bully boys in the room, the townspeople grew as quiet as lambs at the slaughter, clamming up completely.
Knightingale sat patiently with his hands folded on the table while Miss Moorehouse read through her work, and then after a half hour or so, she closed her bulky ledger, removed her eyeglasses, and set down her fountain pen. She looked towards Molly and I with a small smile of sympathy. Quite a beautiful young lady, more so I thought when she was not wearing her thick black spectacles.
And how I wished I could talk to Molly without the robots telling me to shut up. I was quick to notice my feelings towards her had changed in many ways. I certainly did feel more sensual in the body of a mature adult, and in my late night fantasies, my bricky girlfriend did things I had never dreamed of her doing before.
An hour and a half passed, and finally, the door beneath the clock creaked open once again. Greenblatt returned to the oaken table to our right, and Brumfield regained his seat on the bench, “I’ve considered the presented evidence thoroughly, and I must say the defendant’s plea is rather original. The claim of disassociation with the charges by accidental time travel is unique, but hardly believable. There is no corroboration with any tangible evidence whatsoever. All I have to consider are the words in his journal, and there’s no reason for me to believe this is anything more than a work of fiction. A product of the author’s imagination, and therefore I deny Mr. Knightingale’s appeal, and hereby reinstate the defendants’ death sentences.”
I resigned myself to a fate which seemed inevitable. It appeared that Molly and I would be executed for crimes we had no recollection of ever committing. In another day the wretched waiting would be over, I was almost looking forward to the end of it – and then Winterborne appeared outside my jail cell.
“Cheer up, mate, I need to have a chat with you.”
“More legal maneuvering by Knightingale? What’s the use?”
“No, Axel returned to Hainford after the dismissal of the appeal.” Winterborne looked from side to side and then took off his tall top hat and held it before him in both hands, “Come closer to the door.”
I rose from my seat on the uncomfortable metal bench that was my bed and went to the door of the cell. “At least I’m permitted to talk to you without the mechanical bully boys telling me to shut up.”
“Yes, we’re all alone. The robots are outside.” He moved in closer, and then suddenly, out of thin air, a clear glass goblet appeared, balanced precariously on the crown of his hat. “Quickly, Bertram – take the glass and drink, we don’t have much time.”
“What is it? What’s in the glass?”
“Magic potion. It will help me to get you out of here. There’s no time to waste – drink it.”
I took a small sip first. It tasted delightful, like sweet apple cider. I downed the whole glass, and when I lowered it, I was startled to discover Winterborne had suddenly disappeared. I looked about the anteroom grasping the bars of the cell door in both hands. Henry was gone. He had inexplicably vanished.
“Over here, Bertram,” I heard his voice now, “Look over here.”
I turned in my tracks to look back inside the cell and saw the strangest thing. The heavy cobblestones of the back wall had parted to reveal an opening. Winterborne stood outside the opening, “Quickly, Bertram. Step through the hole in the wall and join us.”
I stepped through the wall and found myself in an entirely new location, on a mountainside far above town. Molly was there, standing next to two horses, and when she saw me, she ran over, threw her arms around me, and kissed me passionately. “I’ve missed you so much, my love.”
“What’s happened? Where are we?”
“Magic, my boy,” said Winterborne grinning, “I used magic to break you out, you’re free now.”
“But won’t the guards connect you to the jailbreak?”
“They never saw me. I conjured up enough magical power to appear inside without ever actually entering.”
“Can you use your magical powers to return us to our home in western Virginia?” asked Molly.
Winterborne lost his smile, “I’m afraid not, my dear. Time travel is beyond my abilities. Moving from place to place in our current era is not so difficult, but traveling backwards in time is something I can’t quite pull off. ”
“What do we do now then?” I said, “Where shall we go?”
“Anywhere but here,” said Henry, “Take your horses and ride. The further away from Dunkwell, the better you will be.”
“We know nothing of this land, how will we get along?” said Molly.
“With courage, my dear. Follow the trail over Ketterly Mountain and leave this place. There’s no time to waste. Farewell and off with you.”
The trail over the top of the mountain led us northward, and we decided to continue on in the same direction. We weren’t sure if it was a good idea or not, just that we should heed Winterborne’s advice – put as much distance between Dunkwell and ourselves as possible, and as quickly as we could ride.
Henry’s magic had outfitted us with a fine pair of horses, and somehow we already knew their names. I rode a painted stallion named Jimbo, and Molly, a Morgan mare. Our saddlebags were loaded with camping gear, cooking and eating utensils, and thankfully warm wool blankets. We built small fires and slept under the stars at night.
Molly chose to dress as herself instead of as the fictitious Elmo Gould. On the wanted posters, she was more notorious as a man. It was such a joy to be back in her company, even though we were both so much older now. Our relationship had indeed grown more mature, and on more than one sunny afternoon we made love as the lustful middle aged adults we had suddenly become.
We rode for days in a northerly direction, using the path of the sun as a guide to stay true to our course. Purposely avoiding contact with anyone, we took the long way around when we saw settlements in the distance. We stuck to the highlands, and before long our supply of jerky and hardtack was beginning to wear thin. Surviving the approaching winter alone in the outback would be impossible. Sooner or later we would need to find some new friends.
The dry Autumn weather held out. A week into our journey, the mountains began to give way to wider basins. The high altitude ranges became more isolated, and we rode out across golden brown grasses in the expansive valleys. Water became harder to find.
We came upon a grassy treeless divide between two of the basins, and looking down the other side we saw a settlement in the distance. I used the Burnwell Quadoptical device to have a closer look. Lowering the extra set of lenses into position, I examined what appeared to be a military outpost of some sort.
“What in the world is that contraption above the buildings on the other side of the basin?” said Molly.
“I’m not sure. Let me have a look.” I scanned the hill Molly had pointed out, and brought the strange apparatus she had noticed into focus. It looked like some type of giant gun that was mounted on a circular turret with an array of gears. There was a pipeline connected to the metal contraption, and flights of stairs on a framework.
“Should we ride down and say hello? We’re extremely low on water.”
“I think so. We seem to be a long ways from anywhere. Hopefully far enough from Dunkwell that we won’t be recognized.”
“Henry said the territory is full of outlaws, and there’s nothing to make us stand out from the rest. Let’s come up with assumed names. I’ll be Margaret Abbotsford – what about you?”
“That’s a good one. Let’s see. What about Donovan Highgarden?
“I like it. Let’s go find out where we are.”
The outpost was surrounded by a fence built from narrow logs, and the buildings within were constructed of heavier logs painted brown and chinked with grey cement. The gate at the front entrance was open. We rode through, and came to a building that appeared to be a command post. A British Union Jack was flapping in the breeze out front. Smoke rose from a stone chimney, and I smelled the enduring scent of burning coal.
As we dismounted, the front door of the building flew open, and a soldier briskly strode out to greet us, “You must be my reinforcements, and they sent a lady I see. Well, that will be perfectly fine, I have nothing against women in the military. You’re dressed in street clothes – where are your uniforms?”
“We’re not soldiers, we’re travelers,” I said. “We were hoping you might have water to share.”
“Yes, I have plenty of water. Travelers, are you? Are you gainfully employed? Do you have jobs?”
“Not just yet,” said Molly, “as a matter of fact, we’re hoping to find some way to get by.”
“Then I will conscript you into the military service. We need all the help we can get, there’s plenty of work for you here.”
I looked towards Molly, caught her eye, and noticed a small smile at the corner of her mouth, “I’m Donovan Highgarden, and this is my traveling companion, Margaret Abbotsford.”
“Jolly good, quite pleased to meet you.” The soldier grasped my hand in a bone crunching handshake. “I’m Major Bartholomew Saxby of the Mutant Eradication Forces, and this is my command. We suffered a chilling giant bat attack a fortnight ago. I lost three of my gunners, carried off by the bats, and in the resulting panic, the rest of my men deserted their posts – the cowards ran off into the hills, never to be seen again.”
Saxby looked us over more carefully, “a fine pair of horses you’ve brought. We have stables behind the barracks and barrels of oats. Do you have firearms to present for inspection?”
I looked towards Molly with apprehension and hesitated to say anything in response.
“Oh come now, I’m not going to confiscate your weapons. I just need to have a look and record your weaponry in my day log.”
We handed our .50 caliber pistols to Saxby, and he looked them over, quickly opening the firing chambers and peering down the barrels on both. “Cleaned and oiled. Very good. I prefer a soldier who knows how to handle his personal weaponry.” He looked towards the door, “I hear my tea kettle whistling. Let’s step inside for a spot of tea and continue with our conversation.”
Saxby wore a khaki uniform and he removed his safari helmet as he strode inside the building. He poured us cups of strong black tea, and opened a bakery tin and set it on the middle of the table where we took seats. “Fresh date cookies – they’re very good, help yourselves.”
“When you say giant bats, how big do you mean?” Cup of tea in one hand, cookie in the other.
“Quite large. Wing spans of twenty yards or more. A normal sized bat feeds on insects, and to the mutants, we appear to be the size of insects.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Molly as she took a sip of tea.
“It’s not like they hold any malice towards us, we just look like an easy meal.” Saxby raised his eyebrows and fiddled with his handlebar mustache. “And the bats only appear for three nights a month, when the moon is full. Nothing to be afraid of really, no reason to abandon your post.”
“The machinery on the hilltop,” I said, “Is that some sort of gigantic gun?”
“It’s a flamethrower. We light it up when the moon is full and though the bats are hard to hit, it keeps them away from the compound. It was built as a last line of defense against a human zombie invasion. That’s the purpose of my command, to fight the swarms of human zombies migrating out of the Forsaken Zone.”
After tea, the major showed us around the remote outpost that was nicknamed Rosethorne Station. To the east of the fenced in compound, there was a rail line and switching yard. A line of unusual looking steam locomotives sat idled on a spur. Each one pulled a single coal car, and had a hydrogen gas tank mounted on the roof. In front of the tank, there was a flamethrower on a revolving turret. The weapon looked like a smaller version of the immense contraption on the hilltop with a seat that was accessed by a ladder attached to the side of the locomotive.
“The rail line extends 300 miles to the north and 600 miles to the south.” Major Saxby held out his hand to gesture towards the north, and then looking towards the south, he used his hand to shield his eyes from the bright sun. “It follows the Front Range of the Rockies, at the edge of the high plains, the de facto border between the Forsaken Zone and the Western Territory. When one of our airships locates a swarm of human zombies, the captain sends me a telegram, and I deploy our steam engines to assist in the extermination.”
“Where do the zombies come from?” said Molly.
“Straight out of the Forsaken Zone. Everything to the east of the mountains was rendered a toxic wasteland by the Hydrogen War. The people who survived the detonations were poisoned by the degraded environment and became walking dead. In the last couple of years they’ve begun to migrate west, we’re not sure why, but thousands and thousands of them have begun to appear on the high plains, all of them slowly and methodically plodding due west.
“We’ve got a fight on our hands, and once my reinforcements show up, I can get you two trained and our battalion will be back up to snuff. Let’s walk up the hill, and I’ll show you how Big Winnie works – that’s what we call the king-sized flamethrower.”
The hydrogen gas to power Big Winnie was piped in from an extraction plant to the west. The flamethrower operator sat on an elevated seat high above the ground. Access was by multi-storied stairway. An array of knobs and levers controlled the weapon’s various functions. The apparatus could be pivoted on its turret by pulling one lever, the elevation and vertical angle controlled by two additional levers. The mechanical functions were powered by a steam plant located at the base.
Molly and I settled in at Rosethorne Station, and at night had one of the barracks houses to ourselves. I had never dreamed of sharing a bed with her at home in Leacock Corners, but at our current place in time it seemed natural, and the Major had no complaints in regard to our cohabitation.
We went to work on various cleaning and maintenance jobs around the compound. Reinforcements were scare and Saxby was growing more and more perplexed by the lack of manpower as the days went by.
One morning he called us into his office for a meeting: “I’ve received word of a change in strategy in our zombie eradication campaign. Easterbrook Robotics in Hong Kong has developed a new automaton specifically designed to operate the steam engines and shoot the flamethrowers.”
“You’re going to replace us with robots?” said Molly.
“Yes, but have no fear, her majesty Queen Victoria needs you two elsewhere. You’re not going to lose your jobs in the military service. I’m giving you both a raise in pay grade from private to corporal, and I’m enlisting you in a newly formed expeditionary force. You’ll fly on airships into the Forsaken Zone and search for nests of human zombies.”
“Sounds like a dangerous assignment,” I said.
“It’s a dangerous assignment alright, and if you two aren’t up to it, just say. We might be able to find you jobs at the extraction plant.”
“What do you say, Molly? It sounds exciting.”
“Who wants to work in a gas plant? Let’s go be real soldiers.”
“We’ll say yes, then Major.”
To Be Continued …