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Timely Gloomy Return (Part of the Dark Aether Saga)

Fri Oct 7 ….

I have returned home. Apparently my return was well timed. I had laid out numerous preparations and had planned to retreat to safety during the seasonal outbreak I had heard that New Babbage was subject to. Once the infection reached its apex, I had planned to then sally forth to lend my services to those afflicted. As Gretchen floated gently into the Port area, I could see the diminishing glow of chaos spent in various parts of the city. Here and there were dwindling snarls and cries of antidote syringes. However, the general panic associated with these outbreaks seemed to have abated. Upon landing, a poorly pasted poster informed me that apparently these defiant citizens had scoffed at danger and actually held several public social gatherings. Ahhh, I remember such youthful and naive hubris. Will they ever learn in time? I must remember to hold a few public courses on hygiene.

Gretchen creaked as I turned her toward Clockhaven. My short lived comfort shrank back into the gloomy smog of my recollections. The trip had been marked by this foul mood. There was nothing for it. Although my absence had saved me the worry of whether my fortifications would hold against a zombie attack, it had utterly failed to save my client. They were dead. Those who were not, soon would be.

It was not the illness which had killed them. Their madness was to blame for that. How I had hoped that upon my return to Smyrna I would find their health improved! It had appeared to be doing so before my short trip back to Clockhaven. I remember discussing with Ms. Comeford my hopes that the tide of illness might be changing. I should have known better. The fact that three quarters of their leadership had passed during my initial visit warranted further investigation. Unfortunately, my assistants, the Sisters and myself were too busy tending to those remaining to mount a thorough investigation at the time. By the time things began to calm down I had barely the stamina to return home for a brief visit.

Once business at home had been tended to and I had replenished my medical supplies and my energy, I had set off for Smyrna again. Unlike my earlier arrival, the harbor was almost empty this time. A fetid stillness hung over the ancient city, like the breathless air from a lamia’s lungs. Arriving back at the make-shift hospital, I saw far fewer occupied beds. I also saw far fewer of my assistants. A weary, red-eyed Sister shuffled along a wall near the entrance. She looked silently up at me with those sorrow swollen eyes in response to my inquiry. After a moment she turned her eyes down and quietly told me of the secondary outbreak – and the death of the Mother Superior. She responded to no further questions, but slowly turned and began shuffling away with a low, mournful Ave Maria on her lips as she pushed another bead of her rosary through her old fingers.

I finally collared one of the few assistants left who had taken a break to fetch some clean water. As we walked to the closest reliable well (which now was several streets further than when I had left), he told me what he could. Despite the initial casualties, the illness had seemed to break. The new recruits to the client’s facility had seemed to be clearing things up quite well and the few cases of illness were all quite mild compared to the early onset. That was when I had left. A day or so later, the assistants were all roused in the middle of the night to the pounding and cries of some of the Sisters who had stayed up to watch vigil over the sick. From their imploring screams someone had determined that something had happened to some of the sick. Rushing to the hospital they had found many of the sick gone. The Sisters then explained that someone had taken them.

In the still of night, while the ill tried to find some comfort through their labored breath, a hoard of figures in gray rags had silently entered the hospital and started pulling them away. They had slid in like fog and smothering the cries of their victims in their tattered garments, had removed several before the Sisters were alerted. Apparently, even a few of the Sisters had been taken as well. Yet, that was not the most disturbing. Some of the Sisters reported that they had seen some of the faces of the attackers. They described scarred visages further deformed by infections of the skin and spasms of the facial muscles. Despite these horrible alterations, a few were recognized to be members of my client’s management. Indeed, they were the heads of the facility who had gone missing some time before I had gotten there. It had been assumed that like many others in those first days that they had been stricken suddenly and not made it home. Many bodies had been found in the first three days of infection washed in by the shore or along city walls where they had fallen in their last gasps.

Once we returned from the well, further inquiry of the Sisters indicated the group had come from one direction – the east wall of the facility. Taking a few of the more well rested assitants, we armed ourselves and set off to explore. This area had been left unused during the illness because it was supposed to hold only old machinery and be mostly in disrepair. The roof over the oldest part of it was already partly collapsed. As we wound our way through mammoth metallic shapes, broken gears with teeth as tall as a man, cracked brass encasements for vehicles or titanic automaton, we began to see putrid combinations of blood, machine oil and tallow smeared along some of the metal shapes, or dripping from an odd piece of flesh caught on a sharp broken spring or sheet of scrap. Several of the assistants passed out on the spot. This reduced our party as I ordered them removed back to the hospital by some of the others. This was no place to stop or to leave someone.

Once we had penetrated nearly to the oldest portion we came upon a large metal enclosure which, despite its grimy exterior, was completely intact. The small porthole windows were mostly smeared from the inside with more of the offensive fluids, but a clear spot here or there gave a glimpse to the depth of the window wells. The walls of this structure were likely a solid foot thick! After removing enough debris from its circumference so that we could manage to walk around it, there was clearly only a single point of entry. It was a small door much like those I have seen between bulkheads in some of the submersible craft I have had the pleasure of traveling in. Looking at the placement of the hinges, it was likely that this door would have to be less thick than the walls it was mounted into. Never the less, it was likely to still be quite thick. Fortunately, we had ample chemical supplies.

We decided to attack the hinges. Using some of my most corrosive acid, we managed to weaken them enough to succumb to sledge hammer blows. Breaking through with a sickening crack, the door groaned and swung slow backwards out of its mounting. It landed on the floor outside the enclosure with a deafening thud-clang.

The stench which rushed to meet us almost choked our senses from us. Flies buzzed out of the gaping hole where the door had stood. Covering our noses and mouths we pressed on. Those of us with goggles pulled them over our eyes and what we could cover of our ears. Not only the flies but the very atmosphere of the place seemed to threaten to crawl into any exposed orifice to die and rot.

Inside the chamber we found a ghastly scene. A few flesh striped corpses lay draped about crates or lying almost as if in repose at a party. A couple were in an almost obscene posture. In the center was a large metal staircase descending below the facility. It was as if we had stumbled into an orgy in Sheol at the gates to Gehenna. Completing this display of macabre decadence were discarded goblets and decanters amongst the dead. Ordering that no one touch them, I carefully collected a few samples from these. Our heads beginning to feel a bit dizzy, we decided to retreat to the hospital to allow me to analyze these. We rolled one of the large gears in front of the doorway like a tomb stone and posted a half a dozen guards.

My analysis confirmed my suspicion. All of the drinking vessels were filled with a mixture of blood, various alcoholic beverages, tallow, and various oils. The blood was all uniformly infected.

It was then that we heard the commotion back by the chamber. When I got there, the guards were restraining a limp bony figure in several layers of the gray rags described earlier. The almost skeletal limbs which exposed themselves when the guards moved the figure were covered in a pale, almost translucent skin which was showing a few large pustules here and there. Keeping our weapons drawn and pointed at the figure, I ordered the guards to release it and to sanitize themselves immediately. The figure sank to the floor, drooped over in a kneeling position.

Then it began to shake with an almost springing oscillation – like someone laughing. It let out suddenly a hideous, but quiet cackle.

I demanded in the Lord’s name that it identify itself. It stopped laughing and raised its head. The rags fell back revealing a disfigured face with wild eyes and only patches of stringy hair left. His smile, for it was clearly a man, only lent it a more horrible appearance. His cracked and swollen lips parted. “Dead”, he said. “Who is?”, I demanded. His smile grew. “You are” he croaked. “Nonsense! Don’t toy with me!”, I commanded as we drew our armed circle closer around him. His smile vanished. Almost as suddenly he began to whimper. “I can save you…”, he implored. Dumbfounded by this statement we stopped. His limp body suddenly sprang with vitality. He leapt to a heap of rubble near the chamber. The air rang with the sound of a few bullets hitting the chamber’s metal walls. We stopped.

As the ringing died, we heard a horrible chorus of groans from deep below the floor. Then our captive giggled. He had not been hit. “Oh now WE will save you! They are coming to save you.” he uttered nonsensically. “What do you mean?” I ordered. “From the plague. You must drink our medicine to live.” he responded holding up a grease smeared bowl. As we watched in disgust he broke one of the pustules on his wrist and let the diseased fluids pool in the grease of the bowl. Stirring it, he then raised a bony finger covered in the horrid mixture and said, “Medicine!”

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That poor soul did not last the night. By morning he was nothing more than a pool of fluids, flesh and bone. We began evacuating those in the hospital. It took three more days to clear the remainder out, even though so many had been taken or had died before I had returned. What became clear in that time was how it had all started. Apparently a few of the proprietors had been the first infected. They were also apparently a bid ‘off’ before this. The combination had led to a horrible situation. They had been working to ‘save’ the factory workers from the beginning with their ghastly concoctions. Managers would be called together for meetings where they were served cups. At first it was just wine, then it became wine and a bit of blood from one of the infected. Then it devolved from there.This explained why the senior staff were the first to go. The leaders apparently feared any cure which was not their own and controlled the situation to utter ruin.

Two days before returning to Clockhaven I had barracaded the factory. We had left food out for those inside hoping some would survive. Eventually the food stopped being taken. That is when I order everyone out and blocked up the entrance. I pray they have found their peace.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Now I must turn to bed. The preparations I made before my departure seem to have kept my little tower secure. Please Lord, let me sleep. Let me forget, at least for a few hours.

 

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