The Gun-Blazing Marionettes of Blue Haven
by Richard Ong
Table of Contents|
parts: 1, 2, 3
The last thing twenty-year old Mary Jo remembered of her family started with those horrific explosions from above. She felt as if the wrath of God were raining down perdition on their path. They were on their way towards a new settlement in Colorado when the avalanche happened over the mountain pass.
“Lord Almighty,” Mary Jo whispered as she poked her head out of the makeshift canvas over their creaking wagon. The horses, exhausted and parched by their long trek, suddenly found the strength to rear up and give out an ear-splitting neigh.
“Whoa! Whoa!” cried her Pa as he struggled to keep the horses from toppling the wagon. “Dammit, Mary Jo, keep yer fool head down under the tarp. Josie! You and Mary Jo stay put inside no matter what hap—”
“Kevin, watch out!” cried her ma. But it was too late. Josie could only watch helplessly as the world tumbled around them with a deafening rumble. She tried her best to hold on to her daughter and despaired that her own slight body might not be sufficient enough to stave off the inevitable crush and suffocation which typically followed a landslide.
Mary Jo’s mind continued to record the unbelievable events as they unfold with terrifying clarity before her eyes. Her Pa disappeared under a pile of dirt and rubble that nearly obscured her view through an opening of the collapsed canvas. She found it difficult to breathe as Josie’s body pressed hard on top of her own. She could feel her Ma’s ribs against her own through the fabric of her torn blouse.
Suddenly, there was the sickening sound of a crack and her ma’s arms went limp around Mary Jo. She felt the last of Josie’s breath escape her collapsed lungs and Mary Jo knew that she had become an orphan by an act of God.
When Mary Jo opened her eyes, she mistook the blinding light on her face to be a beacon of the afterlife, until the silhouette of a man wearing a wide-brimmed hat partially obscured her “heavenly” vision.
“Please,” Mary Jo reached out towards the mysterious figure. Her throat hurt and her breathing was raspy in the dusty air. “Please don’t let me die.”
Other men came though she couldn’t see their faces through the fluid streaming down from the pain on her forehead and into her eyes. She felt the weight of the rubble shift away from her body and later felt herself being lifted by several hands. She couldn’t feel her legs.
The man with the wide-brimmed hat walked towards her and shook his head.
“It’s too late for your family, I’m afraid,” she heard him say. “But you, however... I promise that I will take care of you. Doctor!”
A second figure appeared beside the man with the hat. This newcomer seemed to be wearing a long coat. He leaned down towards Mary Jo and lifted her head. She felt a cup pressed against her lips.
“Drink,” said the man with the coat.
Mary Jo tasted a peculiar sweetness in her mouth and she started to cough.
“Take it slow,” he said. “It will help ease the pain.” She obliged and took a few more sips from the cup.
“Good. Now close your eyes and rest.”
Mary Jo did as she was told and darkness overtook her weakened form. She slept the sleep of the dead.
In her dream, Mary Jo’s body moved weightlessly across a long corridor. Somehow, her senses told her that she was no longer above-ground. The air smelled musty and her heavy-lidded eyes struggled to adjust against the string of yellow lights that dotted the ceiling above her face. There were straps that pinned her body on the moving platform. She could hear the deafening sound of metal striking and clanking against other metal reverberating against the walls around her. It was punctuated by the occasional sharp hiss of air escaping as if from a narrow tube. She could barely make out the voices of several men around her against the sound of a continuous hum that set her teeth on edge.
“Quickly... the gas.”
“Prepare her... operation.”
“...losing too much blood.”
Some kind of mask was placed over her nose and mouth. Mary Jo breathed something cool and sweet being forced down her lungs. She felt a strange heaviness come over her body as it became numb. She panicked and tried to struggle against her bonds. Before she could scream her dream ended in the blissful embrace of a deep slumber.
* * *
The town was uncommonly quiet for a settlement of that size, thought Captain Josiah Rainier. With the early afternoon sun beating down his back, he could smell the stale dampness of his uniform ripe from a two-day ride from the fort. He blinked at the stinging sweat from his brows and squinted into the spyglass from the top of the hill.
“Well, I don’t like this, Merrill,” said Rainer. “It’s too goddamn quiet for a mining town.”
“I heard the silver all ran out some time ago; least that’s what the boys are sayin’,” said Sergeant Merrill Howe, a man whose gruff mannerism was complemented by his burly form. He took off his hat and swiped at the flies that hovered around his head.
Rainier grinned at his friend. It had been a long hard ride across the mountain from Fort Perry for the mounted soldiers of the Joint Federated States of America. Their mission was to secure the perimeter of the town and they were authorized to use whatever means necessary to obtain the surrender of the town marshal and his deputies. It would be great to see some real action after months of patrolling the new Colorado settlements in search of the diminishing rogue Apache raiders.
“See somethin’ interesting, Captain?” Howe asked.
“Yeah, you could say that.” Rainier’s grin widened with glee. “I see something with black lace and stockings.”
“Whu-? Gimme that!” Howe snatched the spyglass from his commanding officer. “Beggin’ your pardon, sir. Just figured you could use a second opinion, what with this heat and all.”
Howe raised the spyglass and whistled. “Whoo-wee. You ain’t kiddin’ sir. We got some fine dames aching for some love in that inn.” The working girls walked along the balcony and porch of the Blue Haven Traveler’s Inn at the edge of town.
“Somethin’ ain’t right with those ladies, I think,” Howe said.
“You mean besides them walking back and forth without talking to each other and with the same expression on their faces?” added Rainier. “Take a good look at the blonde in the blue dress. Look down below her hips and tell me what you see?”
Howe refocused the spyglass and frowned as he saw the derringer strapped to her left garter. “She’s packing iron.” He checked the other girls on the balcony and the porch below. “Holy Mary and Joseph. They are all packing some iron and they ain’t hiding them.”
“The girls are not the only one,” spat Rainier. “Move your spyglass to the left at the stable.”
Half a block west of the inn was a red building with blue gables. A single hand worked inside with a blank look on his face similar to that of the working girls. He wore two revolvers slung on each side of his gun belt.
“You know what I think, Sergeant?” Rainier said. “I think that the entire townspeople are the deputies. This is why we needed the cavalry to pacify the place. And the town marshal is...”
Rainier did not get a chance to finish what he was saying as a pair of black leather boots a bit too small and narrow for a man landed on the dry grassy slope behind them. Few men had the ability to sneak up on Rainier, never mind on horseback.
“The town marshal is not someone you should underestimate, Captain Rainier.”
Rainier and Howe quickly got up and saluted their superior officer.
“At ease, gentlemen.” Colonel Harriett Cassidy swept a generous lock of sun-faded auburn hair from her face as the blowing wind continued to increase in strength.
She shielded her eyes with one hand and squinted in the distance against the sun. She spotted two of her men clambering up the hill towards them with an uncanny agility that would put to shame some of the most athletic soldiers in the army. Their long black hair was secured by a red bandanna that seemed out of place with the conservative lines of their blue and grey uniforms. These two brothers were her latest recruits from the New Mexican border.
“It looks like our Apache scouts have returned. Let’s go find out what they’ve learned about the town’s defenses.”
“Yes, sir!” Rainier acknowledged. Both he and Howe mounted their horses and followed Colonel Cassidy back to the camp.
* * *
Captain Rainier and Sergeant Howe listened in stunned silence with a growing agitation on their faces as the scouts described what they saw when they infiltrated the settlement at its borders.
In spite of their hunting skills and the ability to blend into the shadows in broad daylight, there were times when the Apache scouts thought that they had been spotted by someone, only to be ignored after a few moments of apparent curiosity while the townspeople continued to go about their business. Every single man, woman and child in Blue Haven moved with an unnatural gait and wore the same vacuous expression on their eyes. Some women even had the same smile frozen on their faces.
The scouts looked at each other and Harriett could see the fear, bred by superstition, in these brave warriors’ eyes.
“We do not think any of them are alive,” said the older of the two siblings.
“What?” cried Howe in surprise. “Hold on. What exactly are you sayin’ there, Chief? That we have a bunch of walking dead in Blue Haven?” He laughed and the younger scout looked at him with such indignity that Harriett thought the Apache soldier was going to reach for his knife and skin the portly sergeant’s own hide from where he stood.
“Have a care, Merrill,” said Rainier. He too was observing both the colonel and the scouts throughout the briefing.
“Colonel Cassidy, ma’am. I mean... begging your pardon sir. Perhaps this is a good time as any to share whatever intelligence you’ve been withholding from us before we send the men charging down the hill,” said Rainier.
Harriett nodded and removed her hat. She stared back at her men and saw the grim suspicion on Rainier’s eyes, the bewildered look on the sergeant’s and the determination of the Apache scouts not to give in to their deeply ingrained superstitious beliefs and bolt from the encampment.
“Yes, none of the townspeople that you see outside are alive, except for the town marshal and a few others which you’ll probably never see outside of those buildings. Anyone who walks with the characteristic gait of a wind-up doll is exactly that - a walking marionette that looks and acts like us.”
“Excuse me?” said Rainier in wide-eyed disbelief. “Are you saying, sir, that these ‘people’ are in fact, not real flesh and blood, but what? Some kind of a puppet?”
“The technical term is automaton, Captain, although the army has officially classified them as marionettes. You’ve been to the Boston exposition yourself, as I recall. You’ve probably seen those life-like dolls that moved behind the glass cases playing a musical instrument,” said Harriett.
“Gave me the creeps,” said Howe. “Begging your pardon sir, but I was there too. Didn’t care much for them clockwork thingies. They just ain’t natural is all I’m sayin’.”
“So we are going up against these marionettes?” Rainier blinked, trying to take it all in.
“Yes,” said Harriett with a grim seriousness on her face. “But don’t underestimate the danger, Captain Rainier. These are not like the simple crude dolls that you saw in the exposition. Blue Haven’s citizens have instructions to defend the town using some of the most sophisticated armaments that we’ll probably ever see in this country. The only way we are going to win this battle is not to hold back.”
* * *
Marshal Carter Donovan straightened his tie for the fourth time that afternoon in front of the long mirror. Years of worry and frustration over his many patents had permanently lined his face with deep crevasses like the canals of Mars. He sighed and put on his vest and jacket over the crisp, newly-pressed white shirt. He did a quick inventory of the bullets on his gun belt and made sure his Remington revolver is fully loaded. Well, this meeting was bound to happen sooner or later, he thought. He grabbed his hat and hurried down the stairs to the marshal’s office below his apartment.
“All right, let’s get this show on the road, boys. Is everyone in position?” Donovan asked.
Four men wearing white shirts, vests and visor caps keyed numerous instructions using a typewriter-like device. Their rapidly moving fingers were punctuated by the tapping sound of slender metallic arms hammering in coded instructions on an electrically conducting etched cylinder. Their eyes blinked constantly in spite of the visor caps they wore against the intense glare of arc lights above their stations. The floorboards vibrated underneath their boots from the sound and activity of the underground machines.
“All controller engines are now running at full capacity, Marshal. You might see the occasional light flicker every now and then as power is drawn from the dynamos. Otherwise, Blue Haven’s ‘citizenry’ is armed and ready,” said a middle-aged woman stepping out of a small room behind Donovan and the silent operators.
Laura Middleton nodded approvingly around the small office. It looked nothing like a marshal’s office. The room was filled with cabinets studded wall-to-wall with all sorts of dials and levers. In the center of the room were four cubicle stations where the young men sat, barely speaking to one another. They concentrated on their work as fingers flew over their electromechanical typewriter terminals. Rows of rotating registers displayed the status of their work on a low wall located at the center.
Laura put on her spectacles and walked towards a dimly lit alcove. She opened the cover of a bureau revealing a gleaming panel with a set of brass controls and levers. Laura turned a dial on one side of the panel and there was a sudden shift in the murmur of the machines below the building.
She turned around and faced Donovan with a wry smile on her face. “Well, Marshal, this should compensate for the glitch in the power surge by creating a miniscule delay between each individual turn of the engines. With luck, this should help sustain the marionettes till this... invasion, as you call it, is over.”
“Hmm...” murmured Donovan. “And how long do you think we have till we burn the grid out?”
“Hard to say,” Laura shrugged. “But I suggest you end this battle one way or the other after an hour or we may have to go to the stables and bring out some old-fashioned lamps. I doubt we have enough oil to keep the town from going dark if the power goes out before sundown.”
“Pray to the ghost of your mentor that we hold out, Laura,” Donovan winked. “After all, without your unparalleled expertise, Blue Haven would never have to come to exist.”
“Save the flattery for someone who cares, Carter. Just try not to destroy all the marionettes in one afternoon if you please.”
“I’m afraid I can’t promise you that, Laura. But I have the utmost faith in your work.”
Donovan watched his fellow engineer with a knowing grin on his face. They had become friends over the years when the former silver mining ghost town was rebuilt and augmented with the best machinery and scientific know-how that he was able to procure using his own personal wealth.
He first met the older woman years ago when he attended a lecture in Boston where she talked about advancing Charles Babbage’s original design for an analytical engine by electrifying its operation using a small motor instead of steam. But what impressed him the most was her innovative use of a perforated memory cylinder to store sets of instructions that could be dynamically fed into what she dubbed as her new controller engine. Donovan hired her that same afternoon for the position of Blue Haven’s chief engineer to give life to his marionettes.
Suddenly, the sound of gunfire on the street broke his reverie. The cavalry had arrived and begun their invasion of the town.
“Carter Donovan!” exclaimed Laura when she saw the gun belt around his waist. “You’re not going out there in the middle of a shooting war unless you want to get yourself killed by one of those soldiers.”
Carter tipped his hat to Laura and grinned. “Ma’am, I intend to go out there and play dodge. But no, I certainly have no intention of getting myself shot. Unfortunately, it is the only way for me to get a visual assessment of how our marionettes perform under fire, unless of course you’ve managed to cobble up some way of recording this battle from the safety of this room.”
“No, of course you know that’s not possible, at least not for a few more years,” Laura sighed.
“Well, I can’t wait for a few years, my dear,” said Donovan. “So, wish me luck.”
* * *
Copyright © 2015 by Richard Ong