Well, this is the second to last instalment, at least for this run. Want to start at the start? Head here.
Keeping up with the ships was hard work and, in spite of Nadeen’s best efforts, they were rapidly pulling ahead of her.
They had been a fair distance in front as they took off anyway. Now they were up and flying, their big, powerful engines were making all the difference. The best Nadeen and Number Six could hope to do was just about keep them in sight as they headed for the horizon.
On more than one occasion, Nadeen found herself mentally tweaking the aerovelocipede’s design in the hope of wringing more speed from it. What if she’d set Number Six to pedal with his hands, while she manned the pumps? What if she tweaked the ether mix? Each time a question like this popped up, she tried to dismiss it as fast as she could. Each time another question would creep in in its place.
It was far too late to change the set up now. Time was a factor, and her desire to stop Rivière helped ensure her leg’s didn’t give up. Through sheer force of will she kept going and, somehow, just kept the ships ahead of them in view.
As dusk began to set in, Nadeen was able to pick out a dull glow on the horizon. At first she wrote it off as a trick of the light. The light of the setting sun bouncing off a body of water she hadn’t seen or something. But it wasn’t long before she could see where the ships in front of her were heading; the settlement on the horizon was burning.
With this, Nadeen felt her hopes that the ships ahead of her were with Rivière ebb away. She was already too late to save Nam Định.
Determined to carry on, she told herself it wasn’t Nam Định. Perhaps these ships lead her astray while on their to their mission to help fight a fire in another town. Then she realised that, too, would ensure she was too late to stop the bloodshed.
She kept pedalling, unsure of which scenario she dreaded more.
Deciding that she had to assume Rivière was in the middle of his assault, she set about trying to work out her next move.
She could talk to the crew. No, not with the enthusiasm they had as they followed him. Besides, they never took her seriously anyway. But she couldn’t shake the feeling that, in hindsight, if she’d trusted them, maybe none of this would have happened.
She could go to the Chinese or the locals. Though they’d probably have no reason to trust her, seeing as she was a member of the French Navy’s Air Fleet, just like the poor souls Rivière had sent marauding through the Red River Delta.
The more she thought about it, the fewer options presented themselves.
Acrid smoke was filling the air now, while sparks danced all around. With her visibility decreasing, Nadeen was forced to set the aerovelocipede down. She could hear distant explosions as the airships she’d followed opened fire on the fortifications. As she dropped through the forest’s canopy, she caught a glimpse of one of the Chinese ships getting knocked out of the sky by a single, well-placed shell. Return fire from the fort.
Nadeen hopped off the vehicle as it touched down. For the smallest of seconds she thought about bringing Number Six, but she was exhausted and still had some potentially difficult terrain to cover. The last thing she needed was to have to carry him.
She ran into the trees, the glow of the battlefield’s fires lighting her way.
As she dodged branches and willed her legs to keep going, the air became even more thick with smoke and dust. She was forced to stop and catch her breath. As she did so, she realised how quiet it was. There was still sporadic gunfire, but not nearly as much as she’d have expected for a battle in full swing.
She pressed on, only slowing down as she reached the edge of the trees. There was no sense in charging in when she didn’t know what was going on.
She crept the rest of the way to the edge of the forest. Using the trees to conceal her, she took in the area ahead.
The fortress was actually smaller than she’d suspected, nestled behind a sizeable wall. But it loomed large over the surrounding area thanks to its location at the top of a considerable limestone rock formation. It jutted a little way out into a particularly broad part of the river, with a narrow set of stairs running from the bank up to the fort; the other sides were sheer, dramatic cliff faces.
A location with obvious strategic advantages, thanks to commanding views and limited access.
The land near the fortification was scorched and ashen; presumably the remains of the city itself. Craters and skeletal, burning building frames dotted the landscape along with the remnants of a few trees. Broken parts of numerous Chinese air ships littered the ground. One of their distinctive black flags was solemnly fluttering from a wreckage, undamaged by the nearby fires.
Nadeen had never been entirely convinced by religion, but this place looked about as close to Hell as she’d ever want to get.
Everything was quiet. All she could hear over distant waves was the breeze and the crack of burning wood. She breathed hard, scanning for any sign of life.
She was too late.
She couldn’t bring herself to think about the number of lives that must have been lost here. She wondered how different things would have been if she had simply told the others Rivière had died. Maybe they’d have believed her when she said she hadn’t killed him.
It was pointless thinking about it now. She may as well have killed all these people herself. The sight of this battlefield, and the failure of hers it represented, would haunt her in this life and the next. She knew it.
She thought again of the village where she’d met the old lady. Maybe she could disappear somewhere like that. Nobody would ever need to know about the monster she had unleashed on the world.
There was nothing to be done here.
Fighting back tears, she made her way back towards the aerovelocipede and Number Six. He’d never judge her, despite knowing all the things she’d done. He’d never tell anyone about what he’d seen. He didn’t even hold it against her when she accidentally kicked him from the ship.
Nadeen couldn’t be sure the rest of the world would be so forgiving.
Something made her stop in her tracks as she neared the contraption. She dropped to a knee and listened. It was faint, but she could definitely make it out in the night air.
“Yes… I’m sure it’s one of ours.”
It was a voice, speaking French. If there was a reply, it was too quiet to hear as Nadeen took off towards it.
It didn’t matter now if they were a bunch of loud-mouthed, unsociable, rude ruffians. If any of her crew survived they might have news that would make her feel better. Maybe this wasn’t Rivière’s doing. Maybe he was dead already.
As she crashed into the clearing she’d landed in, two shadowy figures instantly levelled weapons at her. She stopped in her tracks, raised her hands and said, in the calmest voice she could muster between gulps of air, “It’s Nadeen”.
She felt she knew the outline of the figure nearest the aerovelocipede as he shoved his pistol back into a loop on his belt. As he spoke, she finally placed him. It was Claremont, the second in command on her old ship.
“We thought you’d died in the crash”.
It would be a lie to say Nadeen had ever thought she’d feel as relieved as she did in that moment. She couldn’t recognise the other figure in this light, but she knew he was keeping some kind of rifle trained on her. Perhaps he was convinced he was seeing a ghost.
Claremont said something to the figure in French. He didn’t move until Claremont said something in a more local dialect, with a downwards motion Nadeen could just about pick out in the gloom.
The figure lowered his rifle, and Nadeen put her hands down.
On Claremont’s request, Nadeen explained what had happened after their ship crashed. She explained how she’d hid under her workbench, cannibalised the ship for parts, and built the vehicle they’d found. She told them about her journey here and how she’d followed some Chinese ships at a distance to try and find them.
She elected to leave out the part where Rivière passed away and she had built an automaton to take his place, causing the crash in the first place. Part of her wanted to blurt it all out there and then, but there was nothing stopping Claremont putting a bullet in the back of her head if she did.
Still her silence on that front made Claremont’s praise of her ingenuity hard to bear.
They had left the aerovelocipede in the clearing and carefully picked their way through the dense forest as she spoke. What wasn’t lit by the glow of the burning city was lit by the moon, but it was still hard to see where they were going. Nadeen kept her voice low, unsure of the situation regarding positioning of the enemy, or if there even was an enemy at all now. Claremont lead, but Nadeen had the unmistakable feeling that the man behind her still had his rifle trained on her, despite being given orders to the contrary. She couldn’t see in the gloom to make sure. Maybe she was being paranoid.
Within minutes of her finishing her story, they arrived at a small camp.
There were maybe a dozen or so people around the fire. A few faces she recognised from her ship, but several were Chinese, or at least from the Tonkin area. As she was ushered to sit down with the group, Nadeen recognised the other figure from their walk. He was the airman who had been at the cannon that had drawn level with her porthole when this all began.
She silently hoped he hadn’t seen anything that could incriminate her.
Surely he didn’t.
Banishing the thought, Nadeen took a seat. Everyone looked tired, beaten and bloodied.
Claremont explained how the Commandant had noticed the cannons on the Chinese ship were levelled at all their weak spots. A request to move them in order to continue negotiations in a more civil manner was aggressively rebuffed, with the fighting starting from there. They took the ships and, seeing their own was crashing, pressed on. Apparently, considering the scale of the damage caused before it fell from the sky, the crew assumed that whoever hadn’t been killed in the initial Chinese cannon barrage had been killed in the crash.
But it wasn’t long before Rivière was talking about taking them on an almost-suicidal charge towards China itself. Following the Commandant’s orders to push into Tonkin or pacifying the Red River Delta was one thing, but actively trying to punish the whole of China for one cautious – or cunning, depending how you looked at it – commander, was wrong as far as Claremont was concerned. Not least because Rivière was getting increasingly comfortable with the idea of terrorising and intimidating locals for information. “Efficient intelligence gathering” he called it, apparently. A cold shiver went down Nadeen’s spine.
“What was he looking for information on?” she asked.
Nadeen felt herself relax. At least it wasn’t something to do with his creation. “Who’s Liu Yongfu?” she offered, realising everyone was looking at her.
A man a little way around the fire shifted his position a little. It was just enough to get everyone to look at him, but he stayed silent.
Claremont nodded in his direction, “That’s Liu Yongfu.” Then he said something to the man in a vague approximation of the local tongue before turning back to Nadeen as Liu relaxed. Nadeen assumed Claremont was just telling him what he was saying about him.
“He’s a general in the Black Flag Army. We fought the Chinese ships to start with, but it was a token force based in the area. The Black Flags were a mercenary flotilla, engaged by the local authorities and the French government to track us down. It seemed everyone wanted Rivière stopped.”
He stared into the fire before telling her that he’d had enough of Rivière’s rampage by the time they’d finally reached Nam Định. As they neared the city, Claremont launched a mutiny. It was unsuccessful, but fortunately coincided with the arrival of the Black Flag flotilla.
Long story short, over a bloody battle, Rivière had ended up fighting off both his own crew and the Black Flag ships to take the fort. As soon as Liu Yongfu had seen Claremont’s actions, it became apparent they were on the same side.
Somehow, the Commandant had won the fight. Claremont looked Nadeen dead in the eye.
“He’s not human.”
She fought to keep her face blank. It was hard to resist the urge to act shocked to compensate. Instead, when it became clear Claremont was waiting for a response, she tried to give the onlookers a convincing impression of coming to the end of a lengthy train of thought. She breathed in slowly and leaned forwards, bringing her hands together in front of her with a small nod.
“Well… It would explain some of his more erratic behaviour.”
Claremont slowly returned her nod. He then proceeded to attribute all sorts of things the real Rivière was responsible for to the fact he’s not really a man.
Nadeen tried hard to not burst into tears as she heard how this small, rag-tag group huddled around the fire were all that remained of numerous attempts to retake the fort and capture Rivière. The only others left were the ones watching to fort to make sure Rivière didn’t get away.
Claremont looked at the floor. “Even those last Black Flag reinforcements, the ones you followed, were made up nearly entirely of volunteers from local villages. We’ve thrown everything at him.” He let the sentence trail off, making his lack of new ideas for dealing with the Commandant apparent.
Nadeen felt a pang of terrible guilt at knowing she’d effectively wiped out a village, and doubtless several others like them.
There were no ships left that could mount a convincing assault, and Rivière would see a ground force coming from a long way away. Nadeen knew that, even if they got close, he could think faster than all of them. He was stronger and tougher. And now he was acting like a cornered animal.
Nadeen swallowed hard. So many lives were lost or ruined because of her. They weren’t likely to believe her that Rivière had died of a heart attack. Why would they believe her story of replacing him to save some face in front of the Chinese and keep flying? If she owned up now to causing all this, they’d surely kill her. Claremont had always been the most approachable of a pretty unapproachable group of people, but even he would want her dead.
Yet, despite all that, she had to do something to stop Rivière. She took a deep breath.
“If he isn’t human, what is he?”
Claremont fixed his gaze on her again.
“Come now, you can’t surely believe that. No, if I was going to try and fight an army and my own crew, I’d want to be a machine.”
Claremont’s expression changed as she realised she was going somewhere with this. She continued, hating herself for using yet more deception, but only too aware of what was at stake if she couldn’t steer them round to her idea.
She got out her notebook. “I’ve heard of some experimental procedures. Essentially a deceased head can be given a mechanical body, using the flesh-”
She was interrupted as she flipped through the notebook by a wall of disgusted noises, disbelief and cries of how it was against God. Inhuman. Evil.
All it did was remind her of how wrong she’d been in the first place. But they had to stop Rivière. She could worry about coming clean and living with her guilt later.
Mercifully, Claremont managed to calm the group with a commanding wave of his hand and a steely glare. If this was going to give him a way to beat Rivière, he wanted to know. He motioned for Nadeen to continue.
“If that’s the case here, and Rivière is the result of mechanisation like this, I think I have an idea.”