KNACKERKNACKER BANG BANG by Alec Sillifant

Sir Gilchrist Temple pulled the telescope from his impeccably tailored frockcoat’s pocket and put it to his eye. It whirred to half-length then stopped. Sighing loudly, Temple lowered the optical device and wound the small key in its side. ‘Why the buggery hell do they have to mechanise every bloody object whether it’s needed or not,’ he thought with some annoyance. With the mainspring primed once more the telescope opened fully upon being raised, the view it afforded was unwelcome. “They’re gaining on us, Webb.”
“Bound to be, sir, we’re running out of floatcoke,” said Webb, wiping the back of a soot blackened hand across his sweaty and equally soot blackened forehead. “Won’t be long before the balloon sack starts to deflate.”
“That is a cold hand in the showers after rugger,” said Temple, still sweeping the sky from the rear hatch of the gondola. A streak of steam was closing in fast. “Egad, looks like one of the infernal aero-wasps has released a stinger. The floatcoke may outlast the sack yet.”
Webb lowered his head to take in the view from the glass bottom of ‘HMS Knackerknacker’, so named because of the noise the Mark II steam-converter made, a swarm of three dozen copper insectoids carpeted the canyon below. “The mechano-mites are still keeping pace with us. If we land amongst that lot we’re goners, sir.”
“Determined little blighters, I can’t believe they’ve followed us so relentlessly.”
“I know,” said Webb. “From the deserts of Sudan, through the gardens of Japan; from Milan to Yucatan, you’d think they couldn’t but they can.”
Temple lowered the telescope, which compressed itself noisily. “Brace yourself, Webb, we’re about to experience a sudden loss of altitude.”
“Through the docks of Tiger Bay, down the road to Mandalay; from Bombay to Santa Fe, little bastards find a way,” said Webb, still mesmerised by the shifting platoon below him.
“Webb, stop reminiscing and bloody well hold on!”
The stoker looked up, his slack face soon animating as he saw the approaching stinger, piston rod and beam mechanism going like the clappers, come into view and slice a huge rent in the canvas of the balloon sack with a jabbing blade on a flywheel that spat boiling water droplets as it rotated. He clamped his hand upon a rail fractionally before ‘HMS Knackerknacker’ began a rapid diagonal descent. “We’re going to die!” said the sooty stoker.
Temple’s forehead wrinkled deeply. “Pull yourself together, Webb, such cheerlessness is unbecoming of an Englishman.”
“I’m Welsh,” said Webb, his face grimmer than a slate mine on a wet Bank Holiday.
“Oh,” said Temple, “carry on then.”
“We’re going to die…and it looks like rain.”
Sir Gilchrist, pitching himself back and forth across the slanting glass hull with the aid of the many pipes that wove around the gondola, was yanking on levers, turning dials and knocking on gauges.
Webb watched this frantic business with dull eyes. “What are you doing, sir?”
“Formulating a plan to - BUGGER,” said Temple, a jet of steam scorching his hand as he loosened a valve. “You might be happy to go to the green, green grass of home, Webb, but we old boys from Ellers Road Comp. were taught to never give up, whatever the odds. Vita est asinus refunderet wasn’t the school motto for no reason. There, that should do it; get ready to shovel for all your life’s worth.”
“What have you done?” said Webb, his grip on the rail tightening as the rushing canyon floor and the ever increasing in size mechano-mites came into clearer view.
“You wouldn’t understand, Webb.”
“Try me, sir.”
Temple puffed up his chest and began his lecture that he decided would be animated by several knowledgeable points to various crucial parts of Knackerknacker. “I’ve rerouted the steam flow from the airscrew to the landing gear, thus giving the rolling chassis an increase in power by five hundred percent. The heat exchanger has been filled with rivets from the ‘Just in Case’ box of spares and connected to the blow valve housing to which I have attached our water induction hose, thus creating a very crude but serviceable Gatling gun. It is my belief with these modifications we can land safely, continue locomotion and defend ourselves against the undoubted assault we shall be treated to by the tenacious horde we are approaching at some speed.”
“Five hundred percent?!” said Webb. “She cannay take it!”
“I thought you were Welsh, Webb?”
“We’re pretty interchangeable with the Scots, sir, something to do with the similar terrain and climate, but this is still madness.”
“There’s two choices, Webb, madness or death…ness. Which do you want to take?”
A glove of steel gripped Webb’s heart and, even to his surprise, he felt a surge in his Rorke’s drift. He stood as tall and as straight as he could allowing for the angle of descent, took a deep breath and opened his mouth wide. “Men of Har-”
“Stop!” said Temple. “You need to resist your genetic urge to sing, we’re about to make impact with terra firma. We both need to stand at the back of the gondola, use our weight to lessen the angle of contact. Hurry man and bring your shovel with you, as soon as we touch down you need to get the fire too hot for Satan himself.”
The Anglo-Celt alliance heaved themselves astern and Knackerknacker pitched herself enough to raise the bow from a destructive nose-first collision.
“Wait,” said Temple. “Wait…any second…NOW!”
Both men were wrenched free of their anchorage and barrelled down the gondola as Knackerknacker landed, bounced on its running gear and destroyed several of the mechano-mites in the process. Red hot gear cogs from the rendered copper bodies hail-stoned against Knackerknacker’s wood and brass body, some burying themselves deep enough to protrude into the cabin space. Webb was first to his feet and he went to his duties like a rutting elk, stoking the fire until flames licked out from the confines of the firebox and singed his beard.
“Top man, Webb, let’s show these blighters what’s what, what?” said Temple. Lifting the hose and rushing to the stern he kicked open the observation hatch. The sight that greeted him was something he imagined was from the second circle of Hell…possibly the forth. Copper bodied machines, their three pairs of legs pumping frantically, pursued the grounded airship with little regard for the terrain or their fellows. On they came, clambering over everything in their path, be that rock or brother mechano-mite; Temple was frozen in awe for a second, wondering at the sight of all this piloted metal purely employed to hasten his demise. With a shake of his head, that shimmied his auburn sideburns to sparkle impressively in the setting sun, he gathered himself aimed the mouth of the hose and let loose a spray of superheated rivets. He felt like singing ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ but decided Webb might be too critical.
Crimson rivets sliced through the air, a deadly projectile and tracer at the same time. Most ricocheted harmlessly off the body casings of the creepy-crawly regiment but some buried themselves in or sliced through limb joints bringing the machine down in a ball of flame. “I’ve found their weakness,” said Temple, over his shoulder, “but I don’t think I’ll have enough ammunition to take them all out.”
“Not to worry,” said Webb, directly into Temple’s ear, the proximity of which made the hose-gunner jump and by luck take out another mechano-mite.
“What are you doing back here?” said Temple. “You should be stoking.”
“Can’t, sir, we’ve used up all the float-coke. We’ve got about two minutes of this speed and then we’ll start to decelerate.”
“Well, shouldn’t you be steering or something?”
“Can’t do that either, sir, the landing gear linkage must have been damaged on impact.”
Temple kept the hose pointed at the pursuing horde but his mind was elsewhere. “Here, take this. Aim for the legs, I’ve got to do some planning.” He handed Webb the spitting hose and raced to the forward viewing window. Behind him he could hear Webb chuckling and shouting something in a language that seemed to be mostly made up of phlegm.
Knackerknacker was barrelling headlong, its course altering only slightly if her wheels were jolted by a rock. The ride was not a comfortable one but another jolt rocked Temple’s head, fortuitously changing his view and gifting him an idea in the same instant.
“Webb! Webb!”
“Yes, sir,” came the stoker’s reply, so close to Temple that the Brythonic Celt’s breath tickled the hairs in his ear.
“Stop doing that, man,” said Temple, “it’s decidedly creepy. Why aren’t you still manning the hose?”
“Run out of rivets.”
“Damn, did you manage to take many of them out?”
“Look for yourself,” said Webb, gesturing with open hand to the rear of Knackerknacker.
Temple did a quick tally of the still advancing mechano-mites. “Impressive, only six left. Good shooting that man.”
“It’s nothing really,” said Webb, with a shrug, “just like bagging Welsh rarebits in Llanelli; it’s all in the wrist, you see.”
“I have no idea what you just said but no matter; see that forest over there?”
Webb nodded.
“That’s where we’re going, we might shake the little blighters yet.”
Web scratched his beard. “And how are we going to do that with no steering to speak of?”
“Like this.” Temple unscrewed a pipe coupling and separated a tubular length of brass. He looked across the gondola’s floor and with an exclamation reached for the rope he was after.
“Not sure that’s a good idea, sir,” said Webb. “That’s the main boiler pressure release system you’re messing with there. If that fails, it’s boom-boom out went the lights for us.”
Temple was stuffing the rope down the open neck of the pipe and continued to do so until the four tined cast iron anchor tied to its end was sealed tightly in place. “When I give the order open that valve as quickly as you can, Webb.” Temple pointed at the red wheel at the base of the boiler housing.
A metallic clang took both of the men’s attention to the rear of Knackerknacker where one of the mechano-mites had clamped a pair of gleaming pinchers onto the framework and was beginning to haul itself inside the steamy confines.
“Hurry, man, to your station,” said Temple. “We have little time to play with.” He rushed to the side of the ship and bracing himself thrust the makeshift harpoon out of the port side viewing station.
Webb sprinted to the release valve and as he arrived a vicious projectile thudded into the oak panel mere inches from his head. He noted the mechano-mite had clawed half its body into the gondola and was aiming for his next shot of deadly hardware.
“Now, Webb! Now!” said Temple, his body tensed in readiness.
Webb, one eye on the invading machine, turned the round handle in an anti-clockwise direction as quickly as he could. A cloud of steam protested around the flange as pressure was released into the pipe to build up behind the blockage denying its passage.
Temple felt the pipe heating in his hands and set his feet against the impending release. “In God’s name fly straight,” he said in muttered prayer. With a recoil that knocked the gentleman off his feet the anchor was launched, the uncoiling rope the flickered like the tail of a Chinese dragon spirit, a pattern of a spinning spring, as the missile headed for the treeline. With a thud the anchor pierced the substantial trunk of a birch, biting deep into the fibres.
Knackerknacker continued on its trundling path until the distance travelled pulled the rope between tree and iron ring anchor point taut with a whip-crack. Lurching sharply to the left in a smooth, accelerating arc Knackerknacker changed direction. Temple and Webb barrelled across the gondola floor and the invading mechano-mite lost its grip to be bowled against the hard terrain and explode as the delicate balance of machinery was upset.
Captain and stoker regained their feet. “The fire axe. Get me the fire axe!” said Temple.
Webb did as he was bid and placed the axe in Temple’s hand. “Maybe now would be a good time to share your plan with me?”
Temple his eyes fixed on the rotating horizon and axe raised above his head obliged. “The first bit you know.”
“Aye,” said Webb. “You went all Captain Ahab on the Great White Tree.”
“This is no time for the flowery language of an Eisteddfod, Webb, what I did was secure us as passage toward the cover of the trees. In a second I shall sever the rope and we should continue on a direct route into the forest.”
“Should?”
“Nothing’s guaranteed in life.”
“What about death, taxes and the madness of the English?” said Webb. With little to lose, assuming he was going to die any minute soon, a bit of underclass cheek seemed apt.
Temple dropped the axe and freed Knackerknacker from the hemp bondage to allow it to speed toward the approaching trees. “If I’m correct the old girl should be able to take the massive assault on her integrity far better than those accursed insects. She could end up mortally damaged but we should survive relatively unharmed.”
“Any chance you could say that again without the ‘if’, ‘should’ and ‘relatively’, sir?”
“Hang on, Webb,” said Temple, “things are going to get interesting.”
“Interesting?” muttered Webb. “Bloody English, a tenor short of a choir the lot of you.”
Knackerknacker smashed through the younger saplings at the edge of the treeline but soon began to bounce and career off the more mature trees, ricocheting with severe changes in direction. Temple and Webb, despite their best efforts to keep their grips, were tossed about like pebbles in a tsunami. Behind them the mechano-mites followed at speed and realised their mistake too late as the thinner bodies were crushed and critically dented by impacts with the unforgiving, unbending hard woods.
For thirty seconds the forest resounded to the symphony of crashing collisions and exploding fireballs. Metal twisted and wood splintered turning the area into a deadly firing range dealing death to man, birds and squirrels alike.
Knackerknacker burst free of the forest and after twenty yards of noisy and spark spitting sliding, which half buried the gondola into the dirt of the clearing, came to rest at the edge of a severe vertical drop that plunged down into the ocean one hundred feet below. “Webb!” said Temple, standing and straightening his back out with some loud skeletal clicking. “Are you alright?”
Webb lay next to a small fire that had taken hold of the hull. “I’m not sure,” he said. “Is that my detached leg by the wheel housing or yours?”
Temple looked at the jagged edged thigh bone glistening white against the dark flesh surrounding it, blood soaked the inferior tweed of the half-mast trouser leg. “Not to worry, Webb, I’ll get you home safely.” Temple hoisted Webb’s upper half by hooking his arms under the stoker’s and dragged him backwards free of the wreckage. They collapsed in a heap. “Looks like the old kettle’s buggered.”
“Knackerknacker’s knackered,” said Webb. “Admiral James Pullen will not be happy.”
“Quite,” said Temple, standing up. “But at least the mechano-mites got the worst of it.”
Webb coughed meaningfully.
Temple frowned but caught on when he saw Webb directing attention to his missing limb. “Oh yes, of course, your leg. That’s dashed bad luck too. Chin up, they do some rather good prosthet-”
The sound of hissing steam and struggling pneumatics accompanied the emergence of a very unstable mechano-mite from the trees. It halted and swayed uneasily on its five remaining legs, the copper hull was dented in numerous places and the pilot’s windscreen was shattered into a frost of diamonds.
“Don’t move,” said Temple, “he might not be able to see us. If things change get ready to run for it.”
Webb coughed again.
“Sorry, sorry, recently acquired monopodial status, of course. It slipped my mind.”
A rhythmic squeaking broke the silence as a metallic thread in need of oil was employed and then a hatch in the top of the body opened up to release the coughing, cussing and oily head of the mechano-mite’s pilot. Blackened goggles were ripped off and tossed to the floor and it was at this point the man noticed his troublesome quarry. “You bastards, you’ve killed all my mates.”
Temple squared up. “You started it, you tried to kill us first.”
“In an honourable way,” said the pilot, between airway clearing coughs. “Not by any devious mean available.”
“You didn’t have to follow us into the woods.”
“Like we had a choice. Do you know how bad the visibility in one of these stupid things is? By the time we realised where we were it was too late…and now all my mates are dead. I’ll get you for this Temple, you’ll pay. I just need to adjust this…and connect this to that…”
Temple turned his attention to his faithful companion. “It looks like he’s doing some repairs. Once he does we’re in trouble.”
“I know, sir,” said Webb, coughing up just the right amount of blood required for the situation. “It’s been an honour serving with you, sir…well, honour might be pushing it but it was better than mining…marginally.”
Temple’s face screwed up into that expression that offers an apologetic ‘actually’. “Actually,” he said, to get his point across without doubt, “when I said we, I actually meant…you.” He began to undo the buttons of his frockcoat.
“I don’t understand, sir?”
Temple dropped his coat to the ground and turned his attention to his waistcoat. “The thing is, Webb, these chaps have been chasing me, well, you too by association, for a reason.”
“I know, sir, it’s because you’re English. Everyone on God’s good earth has a reason to want you dead.”
“It’s not only Johnny Foreigner’s jealousy,” said Temple, his waistcoat discarded and his disrobing sequence now moving onto his shirt. “The thing is, I have a secret weapon up my sleeve…quite literally in some sense, and everyone blighter wants to get his hands on it.” 
“A weapon? Well, use it on the bugger over there swearing at his machine.”
Temple removed his shirt to reveal a brass box covering the front of his torso and harnessed in place by a lattice of thick leather straps. “This is what they’re after, Webb. The absolute cutting edge of personal defence technology.”
“You stay right there, you bastards,” shouted the feverishly grafting mechano-mite pilot. “You’ll regret tangling with me.”
“It doesn’t look very protective unless you take a direct hit in the chest,” said Webb, his eyes rolling as he continued to bleed out.
“Watch.” Temple retrieved a key from his trouser pocket, inserted it in the side of the mechanism, turned it three times and then sliding a concealed panel back depressed a deep set button in the body of the box. Torsion springs began to release their energy and gears whirred, keying together. Panels opened and levers slide across pinions. With heavy clunking, metallic scales began to drop from the box and mesh into each other. First Temple’s torso was encased, followed quickly by his arms and legs as sliding plates of red, white and blue interlocked and took their positions. Feet and hands were covered. Finally Temple’s head was encased in a helmet that folded forward from the back of his neck like a perfectly tailored monk’s cowl masking his facial features. The captain of the fallen Knackerknacker had been encased in a figure-hugging, metal Union flag, making him look like a very patriotic Armadillo loyal to The Empire. At the left hand side of the helm a small stovepipe began to blow wisps of smoke.
“Beth wy’r fuck?” said Webb, reverting to his mother tongue, an impressed tone to his voice.
“Spiffing, what?” said Temple, his voice given a ringing echo by the emotionless red, with white piping, mask. “Highest quality cast iron.” He knocked his metal fist on the leg with a satisfying clang. “It’s officially called ‘Exoskeleton 567’ but I’ve nicknamed it ‘FeC Man’ because that’s-”
“I get it,” said Webb curtly, “Iron and carbon.”
“Ah-ha!” said the mechano-mite pilot, straightening up from his toils. “Finished. Now you’re going to pay Temple.” He began to turn the body of his vessel, albeit very slowly, so the weaponry was facing his foes. “Any second now…”
“Don’t worry Webb,” said Temple, “he hasn’t got any ordnance that can pierce my defences. And once my assault capabilities come on-pipe, when the boiler reaches working temperature, he’ll be nought but a pile of swarf.”
“What about my defences?” said Webb.
Temple turned his head with a whirring noise. “Well…since you’ve lost a leg, you’re a smaller target. Besides, I shall defend you.”
“Eat lead, Temple,” said the pilot, before clarifying himself with, “actually it’s more a steel alloy compound…but you’ll eat it anyway.” He pressed a button and the small-bore cannon barrel at the front of the mechano-mite recoiled as it spat out a projectile at speed.
Temple flicked out his left arm and deflected the shot away harmlessly. “Is that the best you’ve got?”
“One down, one to go,” said the pilot.
“What?!” said Temple. He glanced at Webb and the Welsh rarebit’s head sized hole in his stoker’s chest.
“You really are a dick,” said Webb and went to join his ancestors wandering the slate heaps of Blaenau Ffestiniog in spirit-drizzle form.
“Not the most pleasant of last words,” muttered Temple inside his helmet.
“And now for you,” said the pilot, struggling to lift something from the confines of his cockpit.
“You can’t hurt me,” said Temple, “FeC Man is impregnable.”
“Maybe so,” said the pilot, hoisting up a large metal lance from inside his cabin. “But I intend to roast yo canned ass, bitch.” A jet of flame spewed from the nozzle of the lance.
Temple dived aside, rolled and gained his feet again in one smooth movement. The patch of ground he had been standing had blackened and it crackled as the oil-fuelled fire burnt deeply. “Missed me.” A small whistle sounded in Temple’s ear. “Jolly good,” he muttered. Then to his adversary, “Guess what? Tea’s up…T for trouble!” Jets of pressurised steam thrust down from the soles of Temple’s iron boots and propelled him up and forward to land with a clang on the damaged cockpit of the mechano-mite.
The pilot swung the flamethrower’s lance but Temple gripped it in his left hand and, with the aid of hydraulic rams built into the FeC Man suit, bent the hollow tube back until its one black eye stared into those of the panicked pilot. “Mercy! Mercy!” he screamed, releasing the lance and raising both hands. “I have a wife…I have kids…I am only halfway through a part works of the Taj Mahal and I cannot cancel the subscription!”
“Steady on, old bean,” said Temple, his voice enhanced with a deep resonance afforded by his helmet, “I’m not going to kill you. That would be damned unsporting.”
“Oh, thank you, thank you.”
“But I am going to have to knock you out; can’t have enemy combatants left to cause havoc when you least expect it and you did kill old Webb, which was terribly bad form.”
“Hmm…I am grateful for the not killing me and all that but it was you that deflected the bullet meant for you into your colleague,” said the pilot, shrugging his shoulders.
“I’ve got no time to quibble over who did what to who,” said Temple, raising his right fist. “Any preference as to which side of the chin I hit?”
The pilot thought for a second. “The left I think. I’ve been getting a little trouble with a wisdom tooth that side lately.”
“Fair enough,” said Temple. “Good night, sweet prince.” FeC Man swung a lazy back fist across the pilot’s jaw and watched in some amazement as the decapitated head dropped to the floor, bounced a couple of times and then span over the cliff edge. Temple gave an embarrassed cough. “Might need some minor adjustments when I get back to base.”
From above his armoured form a voice turned Temple’s attention skyward. “You bastard!”
The headless corpse, blood spouting from the open neck, dropped into the damaged mechano-mite. FeC Man raised his hands and appealed to the swarm of hovering aero-wasp pilots. “It’s not what it looks like,” he said, “I only meant to knock him out.”
“Yeah, right, you knocked his block off!”
“I didn’t mean to; it was an accident,” said Temple.
For a moment there was silence as if the dozen aero-wasps were assessing the validity of the explanation then a single shot rang out and a projectile pinged off FeC Man’s shoulder plate. “Hey, there’s no need for that,” said Temple.
“Sorry…it was an accident.”
“Well, alright, I can-” another dart glanced FeC Man’s leg.
“Oops, butter-fingers,” said a different voice from another aero-wasp.
“You did that on pur-” the remainder of Temple’s protest was drowned out by the rain of darts the aero-wasps launched in his direction. ‘Right, you bounders,’ thought Temple as the darts ricocheted off his metal exoskeleton, ‘you’ll pay for that because…’ he decided to vocalise the last three words, “I’m FeC Man,” and he wasn’t unpleased by the deep, gravel laden tones it came out in. Employing his boot’s steam jet system once more, he took to the skies and engaged the foe in combat.
At first Temple struggled with the nuances of aerial warfare, finding it difficult to control the suit but because the aero-wasps’ arsenal could not harm him he grew in confidence and as the one-sided battle progressed so did his prowess. Soon he was barrel-rolling and looping the loop, expertly weaving his way through the squadron like a Bayeux embroiderer’s needle and bringing his own devastating, state of the art, armaments into play. Aero-wasps began to fall like flies to FeC Man’s wrist rockets and knee cannons but by far the most effective weapon was his groin cannon which could destroy the integrity of an aero-wasp with one well aimed shot. With each kill Temple would growl, “I’m FeC Man.” He experimented with a variety of pitches, sometimes tenor other times baritone. Once he tried castrato but that just made his eyes water. By the time he had downed the last aero-wasp he had decided on bass with a little reverb as the perfect vocalisation.
Hovering over the view of the downed and wrecked aero-wasps, watching the burning wrecks and fleeing injured, Temple felt powerful…invincible…invulnerable. “Run you fools,” he shouted, “there is nothing but defeat and shame for you here. Run back to the rocks you crawled from under and remember this should you ever think of leaving your shadowy places again…I’m FeC Man…and I’ll be waiting for you.” Inside the suit he was shaking with adrenalin and wondered if this was the kind of utter might the ancient gods had felt in their dealings with mankind. With a single metallic glove he could crush men, or at least punch their heads off. FeC Man could rule this world of mere mortals.
When the shaking got worse, rather than calming down after the battle as Temple suspected it should, his mind plucked a grain of concern out of the ether and planted into the rich soil of uneasiness. “Something’s wrong,” muttered Temple and that was when he started to hear the rhythmic thumping of a large engine…a very large engine. Turning his attention back over the forest that had seen the demise of Knackerknacker, Webb and many other men, Temple could see two enormous towers of smoke dwarfing the trees. Next came the blackened stacks from where the smoke was rising and they were quickly followed by the largest airship he had ever seen.
The balloon sack was as large as Crystal Palace and the heavy gondola slung beneath it would have dwarfed even Mr I K Brunel’s imagination. Whole forests of oak had been felled to plank this leviathan and mines exhausted of their ore to plate and rivet the monster together. Deck stacked upon deck, numbering four in total, each bristling with heavy cannon pointing to each quadrant of the compass. Atop of the imposing gondola a glazed command bridge glistened in the sun, it’s crystal confines displaying uniformed men, some with telescopes, all concentrating on the airborne man in front of them.
“Steady, FeC Man,” Temple told himself, as the massive warship smoothly cut through the air and the space between them. “Nothing to worry about; a volley from the old crotch canon will see them off.” He fired and waited, watching the projectile scream toward its target and afforded himself a smile as the balloon sack depressed on impact. But then it merely billowed back into shape, undamaged, discarding the useless missile onto the top of the gondola. The men inside looked up at the rattle on the roof, then at each other and began to laugh at the pathetic assault.
The airship was close enough now for Temple to make out the man with the most burnished braid on his shoulders turning to a subordinate and gesturing with his arm to where he hovered. The man saluted and shouted into a brass mouthpiece. A split second later a cannon muzzle flashed and a 42 pound cannon ball whistled past Temple’s encased ear.
The man with the golden dandruff picked up a tube and spoke, his voice projected into the air. “Treat that as a shot across your…do you have bows?” The man smiled as a thought occurred to him. “Maybe that was a shot across your bowels?” Everyone on the command deck laughed dutifully, if they got the pun or not. “Surrender yourself and all this can be done in a civilised manner.”
Temple, still hovering in place on the high-powered steam, straightened his back. “You know I can’t do that, I’m English and therefore-”
“As sane and as popular as an asylum with the pox,” said the airship’s commanding officer. 
“Why does everyone have it in for the English? That, sir, is racism!”
“It’s not,” said the officer, “and for many reasons, none of which I have time to go into now. Are you going to surrender yourself and the suit or not?”
“No!” said Temple, puffing his chest out even further.
“Very well,” said the commander, “we’ll cut it off your body.” And lowering the speaking device he added, “Fire,” to his crew.
Every canon on the massive airship that had the hovering metal man in its firing arc belched crimson embers and smoke, filling the air with enough iron to put a six foot ornate fence around the grounds of Blenheim Palace…twice. FeC Man twisted and dodged to avoid the deadly hail but it was if the whole sky was a solid mass of metal and a ball caught his foot putting him into a vertical spin. Another shot hit him square in the chest driving him back with a force his steam powered boots were unable to resist or counteract. A second and third cannonball joined it, their combined moving mass propelling Temple beyond the cliff edge and over the cold lapping waters below. Within a second he was 200 yards off shore, continuing to travel out to sea and completely powerless to remove the 120 pounds pushing against his chest.
Temple was doomed and he knew it. The massive ship that had engineered his downfall was getting smaller as he was pushed further away by the irresistible force of the cannonballs. Soon, he knew, the kinetic energy would fail as friction and deceleration took effect and his speed would begin to drop. Then the cruel mistress gravity would get her claws into him and he would be earth bound…or worse still in this case, sea bound. Temple smiled with calm acceptance as he felt his trajectory begin to fall off, he was arcing into the sea hundreds of yards from shore and wearing the least appropriate swimwear ever imagined.
When the impact came, the break through the water tension at such speed was painful even wrapped in the exoskeleton. As Temple descended into the depths all the energy from the cannonballs was spent and they rolled off to begin the journey to their final resting places alone. Even so the weight of the suit continued to drag its pilot on an express sea voyage that only sold one way tickets. He noted a hiss as the tiny boiler was extinguished by the salty water and began to feel the chill as the same brine found its way through plates and rivet holes to wash over his skin.
Knackerknacker’s captain was about to make his peace with the world when the echo of a Welsh voice rang in his head. “…the madness of the English…”. “Of course,” said Temple, “if I was bloody Scottish I’d have thought of this ages ago.” Moving his hand through the water he found the secret panel in the breastplate, slid it open and pressed the button. Then he prayed to all the saints who had even the most tenuous links to engineering, like St Ero de Nomics and, as the intense water pressure squeezed his head, took a deep breath.
Slowly, Exoskeleton 567, began to dissemble itself starting with the helmet which panicked Temple for a moment before he regained his composure and calmed himself with the opening bars of ‘God save the Queen’. Plates slid back, latches disengaged, gears turned easily on shafts until all the armour and trickery had been rehoused into the box on Temple’s chest. He continued to sink, the weight of the mechanism remained the same even if in more compact form. Reaching round, spinning in the water, Temple struggled to reach the buckles on the leather webbing. The strain on his lungs was agonising and the massing pressure of the increasing depth fogged his thinking. Knowing he was defeated he gave up and accepted his fate. ‘Buried at sea,’ he thought, a smile playing on his lips, ‘at least that’s fitting for a naval man.’ His failing eyes became aware of a light piercing through the dark water from below. ‘Maybe down is the way to Heaven after all,’ thought Temple…his last thought before darkness.
*
Coughing up two lungs worth of seawater was one of the most unpleasant things Sir Gilchrist Temple had ever experienced but in comparison to not coughing up two lungs worth of seawater it was preferable. Resting on his hands and knees as he was, he noticed the tightly packed wooden planks onto which he was spewing Neptune’s piss; either Heaven had had a make-over by Harland and Wolff or he’d been rescued from a very deep, watery grave. If it was the latter, he had a good idea by whom.
“See, gentlemen, the English can’t hold their liquor.” This statement was accompanied by a rumble of laughter and a great deal of ‘Arrr-ing’.
Temple raised his head and saw a group of men who were mostly eyepatches, wooden legs, hooks for hands and parrots, at the head of them stood a striking man of dark complexion, wearing a turban; he had a bearing Temple had only seen before in aristocratic circles. “I suppose I owe you my thanks for saving my life, sir?”
“Not me,” said the man, “some of my men were out exploring the seabed and espied a sinking man who appeared metal at one moment and then flesh the next. Quite curious, they fished you out of Poseidon’s net and brought you to me. Speaking for myself, and you one of Victoria’s devils, I would have let you drown in a heartbeat.”
“Lucky for me then your men’s hearts beat with more compassion...Captain Nemo,” said Temple, rising to his feet. “Cowardly scourge of the oceans and sworn enemy of The Empire. Attacking from the mists and fleeing into the fog, finding Nemo is at the top of every patriotic Englishman’s to do list.” 
“Ah, my fame precedes me, how gratifying.” The man stroked his neatly trimmed beard. “Welcome aboard Nautilus. However, now you are here it is I that finds myself curious…curious about the presence of that box on your chest.” He pointed a finger that was heavily weighted with a large diamond ring. 
Temple fixed eyes with his interrogator. “It’s nothing…just a front backpack or something. A frontpack.”
Nemo smiled. “Talking and lying, it’s all one and the same to an Englishman.”
“If you think it’s so important why didn’t you take it off me while I was between life and death?”
“Oh, that reality were so simple.” The bejewelled finger was employed once more. “The thing is, we couldn’t get it off. The straps, yes, easily. But it appears the…frontpack is fused with your torso. The boat’s surgeon knowledgeably informs me if I was try to remove it you would most likely die.”
“Another scurvy-dog I owe my thanks to, it seems,” said Temple.
“How did he know the doc’s name is Scurvy Dog?” whispered one of the crew.
“Lucky guess I suppose, Bilge Rat,” said another.
“Perhaps you should save that gratitude for my chief engineer who suggests removing it would damage the item itself.”
Temple looked down at the metal box on his chest, it had indeed become part of him. It was impossible see where flesh ended and metal began, even without the leather harness it stayed anchored in place. ‘It must have been the impact of the cannon balls,’ he thought. ‘Driving the mechanism into my flesh and bone.’ As his head became clearer, the effects of nearly drowning wearing off, he could feel his heart pumping but something more…like it was turning something with each beat.
“Which leaves us with a problem,” said Nemo, “Either you tell me what it is and how it works like a decent and polite chap or I have to persuade you to tell me, which could be painful…for you mostly, just so we’re clear.”
“Make ‘im walk the plank, Cap’n!”
Nemo rubbed the bridge of his nose between forefinger and thumb. “For the last time able seamen Nelson, we’re on a submarine…are you sure you’re a relation of the Nelson?”
“Aye, Cap’n…and that’s just use the one aye to prove it”
“I’ll never talk,” said Temple.
Nemo smiled broadly. “I was hoping you’d say that, it’s so much fun breaking down the reserve of the English with a hammer and quicker than using tea laced with bootlegged potcheen too. But before we start it would be highly impolite of me to peel off your skin an inch at a time with a butter knife without knowing your name?”
Temple’s heart was beating harder, he could feel it winding the mechanism that was now part of his anatomy. “Me?” said Temple, finding the concealed panel once more, sliding it back once more and pressing the button once more. “I’m FeC Man!” Perfect pitch, perfect reverb.
 

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