Here it is, folks. The grand finale. If you’ve enjoyed reading , let me know! If you have feedback, let me know! If you want to read more, let me know! If you hated it and don’t have a constructive reason why, do one!
As ever, if you want to start at the start, just head here.
Nadeen was careful, while she explained the various weak points on automatons, not to reveal the design sketches that had helped her reanimate Commandant Rivière. Of course, the chances of anyone present looking at them, understanding then, and working out what had happened were remote. Nevertheless, Nadeen still felt compelled to be somewhat secretive, at least until Rivière was dead. Again.
A plan was quickly drawn up, based on her suggestions. Claremont, Liu Yongfu and the remaining men would cause a distraction to try and hold the automaton’s attention. They didn’t have the means to get close to the fort, given its elevated position in the river and single entry point from land, but they just needed to give Rivière something to shoot at.
Nadeen and Number Six, meanwhile, would use the aerovelocipede to drop into the fort and deactivate Rivière. She maintained she was the only one who could do this, for some technical reasons she chose to gloss over. The truth was, as the automaton Rivière’s creator, she wanted to deactivate him – but the others didn’t need to know that.
Claremont had offered to accompany her. An insistence that the vehicle would not be able to support his weight, and that none of them but Nadeen would be able to keep it flying, killed that idea.
It wasn’t long before Nadeen was in the air, making the most of what little darkness was left to approach the fort. She could already see the first orange rays of morning slip over the horizon from her elevated position on the aerovelocipede.
She’d used some scrap scavenged from near the camp to try and lighten the craft. Any part that couldn’t be replaced by something lighter, and wasn’t immediately vital to the mission, was simply stripped out. Bamboo had replaced some of the less vital framework. Even Number Six’s lower section was removed, with just his upper body bolted to the frame so his arms could work the pump.
These tweaks made for a significant reduction in weight and a dramatic increase in potential lift. Seeing as the vehicle only had to survive one trip now, and a short one at that, Nadeen opened up the pump as much as possible to allow the system to be flooded with ether. Again, this was to provide the maximum amount of lift, even if it meant she’d effectively be dangling under a huge floating bomb.
Nadeen hoped that this extra height would be enough to reach the fort, which overlooked the area from the top of a large rock formation. The height was certainly enough to make her nervous as this newer, lighter model got relentlessly buffeted by winds whipping through the delta off the sea.
It wasn’t long before she was at least high enough to again see the fort Rivière was occupying, some distance away. The modest structure and its dramatic base were silhouetted against the night sky by the glow of nearby fires and drifting clouds of blue-grey smoke.
She leaned on the pedals and started moving towards it.
It wasn’t long before she heard the first meagre salvo of shots from Claremont’s group. They’d worked out timings for their attack before getting into position, somewhere on the opposite side of the front, while she worked on the aerovelocipede.
An almighty cannon shot was returned in their direction, away from Nadeen, swiftly silencing the noise.
Shoot and move. Spread out. Once Claremont had been given the slightest hint of a way to stop Rivière, he’d revelled in the tactical challenge of making it happen. He’d long since started exchanging fighting tips with his new Black Flag comrades, and relished the opportunity to put some skirmish tactics into practise.
Claremont, Liu Yongfu, the remnants of the Black Flag mercenaries and Rivière’s crew were aiming to make it appear as though they had more numbers than they did. The ramshackle group were split in two, with Claremont and Liu Yongfu both taking a mix of French and Asian troops. The plan was that each member of Claremont’s group would simultaneously fire a shot from cover. They’d then move to a new position while Liu Yongfu’s group fired. Then it would be their turn to move as Claremont’s group fired again. Repeat.
Ultimately though, as long as Rivière was focused on that direction, it didn’t matter how they got his attention. At least, unlike the airships that had been previously used to try and wheedle the bloodthirsty automaton out, Nadeen’s aerovelocipede was practically silent. In theory it should be easy to sneak up on the fort from behind, over the sea, if the others were causing enough of a din at the front, near the only stairs up.
Another barrage rang out somewhere in the darkness below. Once again, Rivière returned fire with dramatic, but hopefully negligible, effect.
Nadeen’s little craft pulled up alongside the rock the fort sat upon. When she looked up, she could just pick out its stone walls, still some way above her. She flicked a switch on Number Six and he obediently began to feed more ether into the balloon. The pump rattled and gurgled as the last of the ether in the tank was forced into the system with the steam from the moisture converter. The volatile fuel mix made them begin to slowly rise, just as Nadeen had hoped.
Then they stopped, several feet short of the top of the fort’s wall.
Nadeen started pedalling, swearing under her breath. They were perilously close to a height where Rivière would see the highly explosive balloon over the wall if he happened to look. It didn’t take a genius to realise that loitering in this position was dangerous.
So Nadeen frantically looked for a way in, taking care not to go too close to the side Claremont’s troops were attacking from. She had even removed her saddle when she was trying to make the aerovelocipede lighter, and now the strain of powering this thing standing up was beginning to take its toll. Adrenaline helped her forget her exhaustion to an extent, but every muscle was starting to burn and protest while her head swam. Yet still she kept pedalling.
She saw the smallest of openings, the bottom of it virtually level with her shoulder. It must have been where a cannonball had come during an earlier attack and took a sizeable chunk out of the top of the wall.
Rivière was still firing off towards the front of the fort, around the next corner. Nadeen approached the opening with no small amount of trepidation all the same.
She stopped next to it before shifting her weight to try and stretch out, reaching for the broken bricks. The movement was enough to make the craft wriggle violently underneath her. She froze while the momentum of her trying to correct her balance carried part of the craft’s rear section into the wall with a harsh, metallic scraping noise.
She stayed totally still while she waited to be shot at. The gunfire so far had been sporadic, but now the silence was too much to bear. It was an agonising wait, but she finally eased up when she heard the ground troops and Rivière exchange fire again.
She took a deep, steadying breath and swung her foot over the aerovelocipede’s frame, sitting side-saddle on the bare metal.
She hesitated. Then she noticed the sea breeze starting to carry the craft away from the wall. She threw herself towards the opening.
Her hands lashed out at the ruined stone, easily finding chunks to grab on to. The laceration in her hand harshly reminded her it was still there. The air was knocked out of her lungs as the rest of her body slammed into the wall. Her feet wriggled as they looked in vain for a place to get a purchase.
She flattened her soles against the wall and forced her feet to take small steps upwards, until her feet were near her hips. As slowly as she could, keeping her muscles tense and maintaining as much grip on the wall as her boots would allow, she heaved herself high enough over the opening to get another handhold, further in.
It was a draining few minutes of repeating this process that finally saw her collapse onto the grass just inside the wall.
She breathed hard as she lay on the ground, staring up at the slowly brightening sky. Her experience in the engine room and on the aerovelocipede had got her used to dealing with the humidity and heat of the region at this time of year, even at night. This was something else, though. She fought to catch her breath, while her legs and arms screamed in protest and sweat soaked her clothes. Through the opening in the wall, she could see the force of her leap had combined with the sea winds to start sending the aerovelocipede drifting away from the fort. Nadeen momentarily thought about trying to somehow catch it and tether it in position, but it was already too far away for her to reach without a rope and a lot of luck.
Besides, in her current state she doubted she could have moved fast enough even if it was in reach.
The bark of a cannon echoed around the large, empty space. The noise snapped her back to the job in hand.
She forced herself up, and slowly made for the nearest doorway. She waited in the shadows, steadying herself on the building while she listened and took in gulps of air as quietly as possible.
The cannon fired again. Convinced he wasn’t lurking just beyond the door, but higher up in the structure, she headed inside.
Carefully, she made her way further in, closing in on Rivière’s position with every shot he fired. It soon became clear the structure was unpopulated except for Nadeen, the Commandant, and several bodies, so it didn’t take long for her to find him.
As she crept up the final few steps she could see how, like Claremont’s men below, he was moving between different firing positions. Each overlooked the area he was being attacked from, while a vast cache of ammunition and gunpowder was piled up in the middle of the floor, out of reach of any lucky shots.
Confident he had no idea she was there, Nadeen moved behind the pile of explosives as he fired again. She was finally within striking distance.
He moved to another cannon. She took some deep breaths as quietly as she could as she removed a screwdriver from her belt. Someone outside fired. The moment Rivière shot back, she moved.
She leapt at his back, flinging her arms around the front of his neck and gripping with all the strength she could muster. She fought to bring her screwdriver into a position to swing, but before she could he grabbed the clothing on her back and threw her with terrifying ease.
She felt her head jolt as she hit the base of a cannon and crashed to the ground.
Slow, heavy and deliberate footsteps approached as she struggled to get to her feet and unblur her vision. As everything slid into focus, Rivière stepped within reach. As he did so, the dull light from the fires outside illuminated his pale features through the window the cannon defended. Nadeen looked at her creation and his vacant, distant expression. Time and the Tonkin heat had not been kind, and now this mimicry of humanity had taken on an altogether more terrifying, decayed form. Anyone who looked at him now could be forgiven for thinking he was a demon, rather than an automaton.
He stopped in his tracks the moment he saw her face.
“The maker” he breathed with a disarmingly reverent tone.
Nadeen struggled to her feet, unsure of whether or not she should actually engage this abomination in conversation.
He stood tall over her.
She could reach in and sever the pipelines and cogs that kept his brain alive right now. But she had to know.
“Why are you doing this?”
He looked at the ground, almost ashamed.
“It was my mission. I’m protecting French interests in the region.”
“You’ve killed so many people…” Nadeen was surprised at how hard it was to force the words out. It was as if doing so was finally, and irreversibly, admitting her own guilt to the world, even though the only ears to hear it were Rivière’s.
“They posed a threat to French interests in the region.”
She wondered if his death had caused more damage to his brain than she’d initially thought. Now it was fixated on a notion that must have been ever-present in his living mind. A core part of the man’s being; he had some kind of obsessive sense of national duty.
She wondered what else he did and didn’t remember. Did he recall his own death? Did he remember his old life at all? The scientific significance of finding out something like that would be enormous.
But what if it caused him too much distress and provoked him into lashing out more? He’d caused enough chaos as it was.
He had to be stopped.
She knew the precise weak spot to aim for; the right of the base of the neck, where flesh joined the mechanical frame. She rammed the screwdriver in before wrenching it to one side hard enough to sever one of the major pipelines. The automaton lost its link between its mechanical parts and its brain. This swift action from its creator caught the automaton off guard and was just enough to effectively paralyse it.
It crashed to the ground, silently mouthing the same syllable over and over again. The repeated motion of his jaw and the distant look in his eyes combined to give him a bizarrely fish-like look.
Nadeen didn’t hesitate this time. She walked over to the pile of munitions. It didn’t take her long to rig up a long gunpowder fuse heading down the stairs.
Within seconds Nadeen was racing away from the fort’s main building as a tremendous explosion destroyed what was left of the automaton.
She gradually made her way down the fort’s now-unguarded front steps towards the river bank. Everything ached, and her ears were ringing, but it wasn’t long before she could hear cheers and applause. Black Flag and French Air Fleet troops left their hiding places to greet her as she staggered away from the fort. Clearly, the explosion was a mercifully unambiguous signal to Claremont, Liu Yongfu and their men; the fighting was over.
A second, distant explosion grabbed everyone’s attention.
Number Six and the aerovelocipede dropped out of the sky as burning debris from the fort tore into the ether balloon. Nadeen turned just in time to see what was left of the two contraptions shatter as they hit rocks in the shallower waters. What was left was quickly swallowed by the river.
Nadeen mutter a silent thank you to Number Six for his help, and an apology. In some small way, it felt like he’d taken her secrets to the grave.
Word of their success travelled fast.
For her hand in stopping the rampaging automaton, Nadeen became a hero, both in the Far East and back home in France. As far as the public were concerned, she had helped diffuse a situation which, left unchecked, could potentially have seen the outbreak of war between France and China.
The French authorities suffered huge embarrassment and international outrage, given how the automaton had so spectacularly misinterpreted Rivière’s orders to start quietly forging the new Tonkin protectorate. It was enough to force them to abandon their plans to bring their colonies together as a united Indochina, with all the navy’s air fleets soon heading home. There was even vague talk of handing back control of Cochinchina to local authorities one day.
The fame and glory of her new-found status as a folk hero frustrated Nadeen. The way she saw it, she was being praised for fixing a situation nobody knew she created. For helping to liberate a nation from colonial rule without knowing it. For avoiding a war by allowing hundreds of lives to be taken by her creation.
She got older, and it became harder to ignore the secret of how she caused the incident. It was increasingly difficult to force smiles at events in her honour. It was harder still trying to not burst into tears during services to remember those who died during her automaton’s one-man invasion. She knew she’d be crying for the wrong reason; guilt.
Claremont and the remaining crew disappeared. Nadeen had stayed in contact for some years, going so far as to insist she could get them pardoned; the way they helped her stop the automaton would count for a lot. They’d refused. One rumour said they had joined Liu Yongfu and the surviving Black Flag troops. Another said that, having learned the mercenary trade from their new brothers-in-arms, they had gone on to work as soldiers of fortune in central Africa.
The relentless march of the years saw the burden of her guilt weigh heavier. She didn’t deserve to be a hero, nor did she want to be. She’d even travelled back to the area more than once on some kind of private pilgrimage, but it was struggling to recover, and there was little solace to be found in doing what little she could to help it.
Ultimately, all she wanted was to go back to when Rivière died. If she could stop herself panicking, or possibly even stop him dying in her engine room at all, maybe then she could find some peace.
By December 1912, Nadeen was living alone just outside Paris. She certainly didn’t have as much money as she’d had at the height of her ill-gotten fame, but it was enough to keep a roof over her head. She didn’t have many possessions any more, nor furniture beyond the necessities. None of it seemed to have much of a purpose now, and none of it had bought her any real happiness.
One thing would bring her happiness now.
She leaned back in her chair, the piles of notebooks with mechanical designs and ideas taking up most of the desk space. It was the one luxury she afforded herself, if only because it afforded a slim chance at rectifying a moment of poor judgement from her youth.
Various collections of papers were stacked in piles in the spare space. One was perilously close to the naked flame of the single candle that illuminated her cold workspace.
She looked at the sheet she’d cleared space to work on. It was a complicated collection of pumps, winches and pipelines all feeding off her own mix of fuels, running a huge number of gyroscopic stabilisers and motion generators. All designed to do one thing; create a huge amount of velocity in a tiny space.
This was the culmination of years of thought. Her greatest creation yet.
Her time machine.