Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Stung" Part 3 of 3

The appointed night came, and as darkness fell, Mort found himself again uncertain, despite his brave words to his intended, wishing himself that there were a way out, another way to make his fortune. The weather had him worried as well; there had been a stiff warm breeze all afternoon, and the rising moon was intermittently obscured by scudding clouds. He was certain there would be a storm, possibly a bad one, before morning.

Rupert could read the signs of the weather as well, and when the grizzled man arrived at Mort's cabin, he looked worried. He was carrying two large packs, and had an odd contraption looped around his waist. One end of it was a glass mason jar containing some kind of wire and mirror assembly, and this was attached to the other end to a hand-sized miniature bellows, by what looked like a length of wire wrapped in untreated wool, still greasy with lanolin. He grunted at Mort's questioning look. "The torch. Don't ask me how it works, I just know how to use it. Can't use it too long at a time or the wool fetches up an allmighty stink, though. Shouldn't come to that anyway, hopefully we won't be in there that long a'tall."

Glancing again at the sky, Mort hesitated. "Are you sure we should do it tonight? Weather's getting mighty chancy."

Rupert shook his head stubbornly. "Still our best chance. Weather should hold off for a bit yet, and once it comes through, we're like to be stuck with clouds for a few days, and we'll loose the moonlight. I don't trust this stash enough to wait another month to go after it, somebody else'll find it, sure as rain." He gave the younger man a gruff but not unkind look. "C'mon, boy, I've sat out on nights worse'n this trying to chase down a panther what was terrorizing these parts before you was born. Tonight at least we're trying ter avoid the critters what can bite back."

Nodding, Mort shouldered his pack. Though he was still frightened, he resolved not to show it, and set his face stubbornly. "Right. Let's get a move on, then, it'll take some hiking to get there." Rupert slapped him on the back in silent recognition of his stoicism, and they set off into the woods. Mort tried to ignore the whimpering his dogs set up as they left, unused as they were to their master setting off into the night without them.

It was late, though not yet the middle of the night, when the two men neared their destination. Motioning for quiet as they neared the top of a rise, Rupert dropped to his hands and knees to crawl the rest of the way through the underbrush, Mort following his example. Laying along the ridgeline, they looked down into the hollow below.

Mort strained his eyes to spot the still amongst the constantly moving silvery shadows of the forest floor. Finally, catching the glow of the low fire powering its boilers, he saw it, nestled quietly under a tree on the opposite side of the dell. In this, its resting state, it looked innocuous, though anyone born and raised in the mountains would recognize immediately that something was unusual about a still out in the open, unshielded by even the most rudimentary structure. He started to whisper something to Rupert, laying in the brush beside him, but the mountaineer raised a finger for silence, and mouthed a single word, "wait." Mort nodded and made himself comfortable, settling in for the stalk as every hunter knows how to do.

The night wore on, and the shadows danced in the wind and moonlight, but slowly their positions shifted as the moon made her way across the sky. By Mort's best guess, it was about 2AM when the creature in the hollow below them began to move. The fire crackled to life as its embers were stirred by some unseen mechanism, and both men heard the hiss of escaping steam and the creak of joints as the machine unfolded itself for locomotion. The still itself rose up on eight spidery legs, and arms extended themselves, snapping and waving in the air about the device as it tested all of its parts. Satisfied with its warm-up, the arms snapped back into place and the machine began to slowly amble, crab-wise, out of the glade. Finally getting a sense of scale as it passed in front of some brush, Mort gulped. Though they were of a human height when fully retracted onto the ground, the legs had been designed to allow the stills to pass over undergrowth rather than crashing damagingly through it, and the device took on a gargantuan size when in motion, with a height of nearly twelve feet, and a spread of legs with roughly the same diameter.

Quailing at the sight, Mort cowered into his bush, frozen until the thing passed. He might have stayed there all night, petrified, but as soon as the sounds of the machine's passage had faded, Rupert grabbed him by the front of the shirt and pulled him forward. They slid down the side of the hill together, until they stood in the bottom of the hollow.

Rupert nodded towards a dark shadow in the face of the cliff at the back of the dell. "That's the cave. When we find the cache, you're gonna have to load up your pack and mine. I need both hands for this daggum torch, one to point the thing and one to work it. Let's hurry, that thing ain't gonna be gone too long." He strode towards the cave, one hand pumping at the bellows of his device, and the other pointing the jar, which was emitting a watery, diffuse beam of light, still brighter than any lantern, but dimming every few seconds as he released the bellows for another squeeze.

Following closely behind Rupert, Mort looked over the cave entrance. Unlike most caves in the mountains, which were only accessible via cracks and tunnels, this one had an entrance full wide and tall enough for one of the stills to walk into, which was clearly why they had chosen it. The floor of the cave was sandy, and Mort strongly suspected that it had been the outlet for an underground stream sometime in the distant past. There were signs here and there that animals had used the place, small nests, little yellow bones, but no recent tracks or scat. Mort could only assume that the animals found the smell of the machines somehow objectionable; he had never heard tell of one shooting at or attacking anything smaller than a human child. Come to think of it, he had never heard of one attacking anything that wasn't a human, period, as they'd been known to selectively target farmers but not livestock when they raided farms for grain or other supplies. He shrugged to himself, and tried to return his attention to the task at hand.

Looking ahead, Mort and Rupert realized at the same time that the electric torch wasn't the only source of light in the cave. There was a soft glow, as from a banked fire, coming from around the next bend. Rupert stopped pumping his bellows and let the light die out, as both of them stood still for a moment, letting their eyes adjust to the lower light. Mort shifted from foot to foot impatiently. "What now, Roop?" he whispered.

"Well, shee-it," muttered the other in reply. "I kept an eye on em, every one I saw goin' in I saw comin' back out, I ain't never thought that there might be one in here all the time." He shook his head. "They weren't bringing no supplies in, though, just the likker. Can't imagine what the damned thing would be running on. C'mon, we already came all this way, we gotta at least take a closer look."

The men edged carefully towards the glow. Peering around the corner, they were both struck dumb at the sight in the enormous cavern below them. "Sweet Jesus," breathed Rupert. "You was right, they are just like honeybees."

Beneath them, in the glow of moving fires, they could make out an enormous pile of jars of what must have been high-quality moonshine. But what rendered both men incapable of thought or movement was the machinery itself. There were several stills in the cave, all moving about, stacking jars, moving piles of parts, and tending various other tasks - including, in the center of the cavern, a device three or four times larger than any of them. It had clearly been a still at some point, but so many ancillary parts had been welded on, either by itself or by its attendants, that it could no longer move. At one end, smaller machines were pouring the moonshine into tubing that lead to some kind of engine, larger and more sophisticated than the simple steam boilers used by the other devices. At the other end, multiple arms were welding, soldering, hammering, and the half-finished device it was working on was clearly another mobile still.

Mort felt sick. "They are. And that thing there's the Queen. Roop, we gotta get out of here. Forget the liquor, forget the haul. We gotta tell the sheriff. We gotta tell the guvvermint. They gotta blow this place up."

Backing slowly away from the cavern's portal and into the tunnel leading to the entrance, Rupert and Mort prepared to run, when both their hearts dropped at a sickening sound behind them. While they had been staring at the enormous device, blinded by the sights and sounds of the inhuman workshop below, another still had entered the cave's mouth, and was making its way up the tunnel towards them, blocking their escape.

"Devil's tits," muttered Rupert. "Boy, I'm gonna distract it. You run for it, get back to town and tell them. Then you get Emily and you get as far away from here as you can. Tell her I love her." With that, he ran bellowing down the tunnel towards the machine. "I'm Roop Heller, the son of a wildfire and a thunderstorm, and I'm -!"

Mort, following closely behind, winced as Rupert's words were cut short by a heavy blow to the midsection from one of the still's waving arms. He was flung across the tunnel, slamming into the cave wall and cracking his head with such force Mort had no doubt he was killed instantly. Taking the opening provided, Mort ducked under the creation, weaving between its legs, and out the other side, legs pumping as he ran for the mouth of the cave, marked by a silvery splash of moonlight.

He had nearly made it when he heard a sharp crack from behind him, and knew nothing more. The still lowered the rifle that it had leveled from amongst its waving arms and continued its way up the tunnel as Mort's body fell lifeless to the floor, a neat bullet hole piercing its skull.

It was assumed that the two men had died in a hunting accident, though considered somewhat odd that no sign of their remains was ever found. Rupert had told no one the location of the cache, for fear of competition, and only his immediate family knew that it had existed at all. They encouraged the hunting story, to avoid any whiff of legal trouble. Emily married a traveling preacher the following summer, and left the area for good.

In the cave, two more sets of bones mouldered and yellowed, as the Queen Still continued in her relentless drive to create.

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