Superhero versus villain, 18th century style
| Catastrophe With A Capital Cog
William J. Jackson
August 25th, 1798
Deacon Schwartz found the hero in tatters where the sand dunes separated Palermo from the crystalline Meditteranean. As he fumbled down to the masked body, he thought of the infamy acquired during the hellacious journey from chilly Stuttgart to balmy Sicily. Poor weather conditions, carriage stuck in the mud, an inn full of brigands. Relatives along the way who scorned a Jew for joining the Protestant faith. The Sun cooked exposed skin on the defeated hero below and rotund preacher alike, yet Schwartz persevered. He had to, for what Schwartz required could come only from this extravagant being tossed into the sand like so much rubbish.
Schwartz let the slipping sand carry him down to stop at the torso of the vigilante. He knelt beside him and tried to feed the man water from a flask. The deacon applied water to the brow. "There, there, Mein Herr, recover your vigor."
Suddenly, a radiant sphere appeared in front of the vigilante, coaxing the eyes to open and stare at it in wonder. It pulsed in variations of red and orange. The battered man sat up, coughed, grabbed his ribs, looking anything short of heroic.
"Deutsch?" Schwartz asked. When the man shook his head, the deacon asked about English and, upon receiving a nod...
"Ah. Zehr gut. Then we might have a discussion. My name is Deacon Schwartz. I am looking for Orrazio Infantino, this island's foremost blacksmith and, a very special man, I think. I believe you are closely attached to him? I followed breadcrumbs from his shop, to you."
"My father is the man. If you know these things, then you know he deals with the British and this is how I speak English. I am Li Servu Ordu, 'The Blind Servant'."
"Do all of your father's children practice pugilism in masquerade?" the deacon laughed.
"This?" the Servant waved a hand over the shreds of tight silk, ruffled sleeves soiled with blood, torn stockings. "This is no ball costume. It is a vow, made by blood oath to Rusulia the day Cavalieri Antonio Messina kidnapped my father and still, to this day, holds him prisoner!" In his anger, he struggled to get on his feet.
Deacon offered the young man a shoulder to lean on. "So he is a captive, in his own land, no less? This is distressing, for I had hoped to have him forge an item for me, at no small expense, mind you. But I see not how you would have saved him out here."
The Servant shoved the deacon away. "Ah! Yet another selfish man out for my family's blessing! I see word of our gift from above has reached the North. And, so you know, I called out Messina's best man, Vesprini. If I had beaten him, they would have given me what I wanted out of fear. Out of respect!"
"I...suppose. Well, if it is the Lights which penetrated from Heaven five decades back and has since been the origin of many a mighty feat by certain individuals, then yes. One fell in my land as well."
"And you want my father to enrich your own house? Ha! Like so many before you." Servant spat blood.
"Though the news of Signor Infantino's argyroppeia for Siciliy's benefit has sabbed many an economy, I have no desire for silver, or gold, Blind Servant. My needs are more personal."
"Well, if you should seek anything at all from my lineage, you may do so only if you swear to aid my cause, and free my father from Messina and his legions."
"Swear, you say?"
The Servant kneeled on white sands, ruffling through the uncountable grains for something. "Yes! Are you a man of worth, or no?"
"I am a man of the cloth, though I do not use it as a proof of righteousness. Will an offer suffice instead? Say, my services are yours, but I must be allowed to act freely?"
"Very well," the Servant pulled a staff from the sands, one of copper, or bronze, perhaps mercury? It seemed to shift form to Schwartz's old eyes. The vigilante spun it behind his back and to the left hand with such swiftness as to impress the deacon. "We must go now! I will not let anything stop me, not even the beating given to me by Vesprini." He marched on, slowed by the elusive beach.
Though the deacon was older, rounder, and less ambitious than the ragged hero, he possessed great mental faculties, wit, awareness, and a none too shabby flaxen wig.
"Oh? Why so fast? You need considerable rest and, might I add, definitely a bath and fresh accouterments."
The Servant scanned the horizon once he conquered the indomitable dune. "What I need is vengeance! There! Do you hear?"
Schwartz could, at the lowest level a human can discern a sound. "Machinations?"
"Machinery most foul, Deacon. Messina has forced my father to design and build his monstrous Master Cog, a thing which will enslave all of Sicilia if I do not stop him and save my father!"
Deacon held up a finger. "Ah, if I may, your attire is ravaged. If you, and I, intend upon smashing such a force, might I advise that appearances can be as much a weapon as a well-crafted sword."
The Servant, fists on hips, out of breath, pained, waited. "I am listening." Truth be told, he exhausted all of his options in the beach battle, and aside from force, pondered little else outside of it.
"Good, good...very good..." now Schwartz tackled the dune and lived to regret it. "Then allow me to also educate you on the dual arts of timing, and making an entrance. At night, we strike!""
The Master Cog roared like an imperial mammoth. The gray stone walls of the Abatellis could not dampen its bellowing. It spread across every section of this once dignified church. Twelve thousand cylindrical bars of fitted brass piping. Twenty elevating platforms. One dozen static electricity machines. Innumerable brass cogs, turnscrews, pressure gauges, and control levers strewn all about to build this labyrinthine construct. It went up and over, seizing control of nearby streets and shops, steam boilers huffing, perspiring as six speaking trumpets howled at the indecent summer Sun. It conquered the citizens of Palermo, first brought in as workers just above the average wage. Then, as numbers swelled, wages plummeted. Happy subjects willing to put the city on the path to tomorrow became indentured servants.
"Business is akin to licorice candy," the Cavalieri Messina said in a light voice.
"One must pass it out as a dark thing, threatening, cryptic. But allow the person to partake of it, to take the chance to taste its makeup, and the sweetness fills the brain with delight. People want to help build, Orrazio. They want Sicilia to be on the map, and I will feed it to the world!!"
Orrazio Infantino, gray in hair and bereft of hope, rubbed an extensive beard and viewed the monstrosity he was forced to create with disdain. "This thing will bring about an invasion for certain. If not from the Italians, then the French."
"Oh, will it?" The Cavalieri turned about with flair and grimaced. "Because you, a common anvil beater, are well versed on the tactics of Clive and Suvarov?"
Infantino looked away.
"I thought as much. That Light may have allowed you to transmute the elements, making you a most valuable commodity, but you are this and nothing more. I would have your three spawns as well, yet they are nowhere near as skilled in switching the atoms of God as their parent. The Master Cog is information storage, security, and armament in one brutal, beautiful work of art. I shall see it work, and grow to the level of the Titans themselves."
Orrazio felt the back of Messina's gloved hand. "Why? Why! You inquire of things above your station. Education, worldly affairs, tactical advantage are matters for the enlightened. Class, Signor Infantino, is the curtain of the Almighty, sectioning the innumerable cockroaches of humanity from we few who need free minds to labor on how best to move the world forward. In this corner of the globe, blacksmith, I am such a mind. Sicilia has slept as a cumbersome beast of yore since Man first stepped upon her restful back. The civilization here, for lack of a better word, has done naught but farm, graze like cattle and reproduce. But with the Master Cog, I shall make Sicilia resound across Europe. Kingdoms will empty their vaults to have me build them a lesser version of this magnificent metallic blasphemy. What I do with the Cog I do for our betterment, our safety, and to take hold of my long overdue glory."
Messina clapped. Guards in crested brass helmets surrounded Orrazio, a man already sickened by lack of a full meal and broken in spirit.
"Return him to his lair, put on the shackles, and bolt the door. Signor Infantino, I expect next time we meet for you to have at the ready those rifle barrels of greater strength and firing range. Do you hear me?" Gloved hands curled up. Messina sneered.
Orrazio nodded. What else could he do? The guards escorted him away. Messina took one last look at the enormity of the Cog. A spray of sparks from a steam-saw cutting pipe. Men in leather armor hoisting a siege mortar on a wagon up an incline to a reinforced section of the Palazzo's northern wall. The glint of a copper shell for a war balloon in the midday sun. He had the greatest war machine in history. Caesar, Alexander, Khan. He felt the jealousy in their long-dead spirits.
"If spiders wove strands of metal they would live in Master Cogs of their own. I am the Great Weaver and tonight, all other arachnids will bow before me."
Dusk brought a sensational display of auroral reds and golds across the atmosphere and just a touch of deceit mixed with dread. House Messina had sent out the invitations like a flock of doves to the great lands across the Mediterranean. Those who deigned to respond came to the Palazzo Abatelli for merriment, wine, and perhaps, to witness a new creation. Ornate ceremonial coaches crowded a street patrolled by the Messinian Guard, plumed helmets bobbing up and down amid throngs of spectacular guests.
Men of note entered the Palazzo as a servant uttered names and titles. The third man called Honor Prince of Monaco, arrived. Charles Emmanuel the Fourth of Savoy, King of Sardinia, entered, surrounded by a retinue of women, attendants, seven sleek Levriero Sardo hounds on jeweled leashes. Even the Americans, more curious than inspired, sent an envoy to this soiree in the form of Secretary of State John Jay. Of the twenty invitations delivered to seminal figures in the Old and New World, these three showed in person to attest to the might of Cavalieri Messina. So he hoped.
He made sure to have the best for them. The finest seafood, caviar from Russia, Viennese musicians. Messina flooded the Palazzo with gorgeous women of grace and charm to turn men of stern note into boyish fops. He even ordered sliding walls so that no one could view the Master Cog in its entirety. No, not yet. Let them perceive it in bits and pieces, allow their minds to wonder what lay outside, churning, breathing, pulsing behemoth.
Messina kept them titillated for four hours. Then, as the music lulled and stomachs were full from feasting, men's minds turned toward ethereal thoughts under the haze of tobacco smoke. Power. Borders. Martial skill. Destiny. They removed the women, pushed guards out to watch the perimeter, and attempted to make the existential tangible.
"What is it, Messina?" Honorasked through sucked teeth. "What is this DaVincian prototype you have keenly revealed only in shadows to tickle our Muses, hmm?"
The cavalieri grinned as he eyed royals and the American. "Ah, your eyes were not as enticed as your ears. Can you not hear it? A thousand varied outcries both triumphant and domineering. You men exist upon a platform, one elevated in the branches of the immortal World Tree, where the business of the common man is but microscopic. I, however, have ascended as well, from diligent work, though not quite as high as my esteemed company. But I have an ambition like no other. Should I remove the barrier, unlock the balcony door, you would have unveiled before you the next stage in nobility. The Barbary States, uncouth revolutionaries? These things shall be no more."
John Jay swirled madeira in a snifter. "Sir, if I may, my country has proven itself against the greatest military might on the surface of the Earth. I doubt you could sell us a thing so great as to bowl over President Adams."
"Perhaps. However, once the smaller kingdoms of Europe, no offense, my lieges, have their own Master Cog, why, America shall seem as but a flea on a dog's back once more."
King Charles' eyes swelled from the tension. He would have a great barrel of juicy gossip to spill once he returned home. Perhaps the journey here would be worth it after all.
"One machine to rule an entire society? It smacks of monarchy. No offense." Jay sipped madeira before snickering.
"Rule? No. One magnificent device to allay the fears of divine rulers. No more invasions. No more uprisings by the indigent. Peace and security in our time." Messina clapped. At once, two guards entered and pulled back the decorated wooden walls along a set of rollers. The cavalieri strode for the balcony door, unlocking it with a steel key worn about the wrist as a bracelet. "Gentlemen."
"Do my eyes deceive?" Charles rubbed them and looked again. "Daylight in the evening?"
"I promise the Sun by night, and much more. Shall we?"
They followed him out onto the balcony, built just for this moment. Men of noble blood, plus one American, gazed out and down at a veritable world of brass, turning gears, laborers in fanciful metal masks and leather gloves. Bullhorns sounded outwork orders in the native tongue. Fires raged all around. At the center, on a raised dais, a French-style hot air balloon, encapsulated in the copper shell, was being heated for flight by two workers. Along the walls were secreted rotating turrets carrying mortars, others ballistas with special bolts.
"Am I seeing this right?" Jay asked, pointing at a stock of bolts.
"Explosive heads, yes. And my ballistas can load ten at once, firing one after another. Now, to the left, you will notice two great cylinders? Steam boilers. Much of the power comes from them. The selfsame technology lies inside the horseless war wagons to the far right."
"War wagons, yes. Operated by two levers and a skilled driver. With the steam power I have personally seen them move faster than a racing horse."
The three men began to conjecture on how these things might best be put to use.
"Yes, the rest of the world might gaze upon the Cog and see it as nothing but a threat, a clockwork dragon ready to scorch their lands, but I assure you, with this, you will keep your borders safe from those who cherish chaos. Your people will all have vocations. Those lacking families, trades I have working for me down below. Truly this benefits all, and not a soul in Sicilia would dare speak against it."
Jay smirked. "Perhaps a single soul might."
"What?" The cavalieri searched about. On the grounds, along the wall. "I think you jest, Signor Jay."
"No, I do not. Look up, dear sir. The heavens doth protest."
Messina faced Jay, aghast. "Is this American humor, a Protestant joke about--"
A voice above cut him off, a loud, passionate voice over the insanity of the machinations below.
"Cavalieri Messina! What you have wrought by force and cunning, I will cut down with truth and right!"
The guests failed to deduce the identity of the masked man who stood on the rim of a basket beneath a hot air balloon, one piloted by a large man in a broad hat. But Messina knew. He knew all too well and rushed off to get answers.
"Li Servu Ordu? Guards! Vesprini! Vesprini! You swore to me you had this fool killed on the beach this very morning!"
As he threatened, storming off the balcony to summon men to arms, the Servant, staff in hand, dropped down to begin the liberation of Palermo.
He listened to old Schwartz. Timing is critical. Poised to uproot the Master Cog at the moment outsiders were deciding whether or not to buy in, this revolution would sour their appetite for despotism via mechanics. To sweeten the deal, Schwartz lowered the balloon enough that the men on the balcony might hear him.
"Guten abend, friends! Greetings from a German wanderer. I have come from afar to warn you! Cavalieri Messina plans to force his monster on you, even to the point of imprisoning you should you refuse to support his madness. Might I offer you an escape?" He fumbled a tad with the control for the balloon but hoped they wouldn't notice with him covered in a touch of shadow.
Meanwhile, the staff held out with both hands, transmuted just enough to allow it to spring as the Servant fell between two brass support bars. The tension gained from the spring allowed him to be propelled up at a forward angle. The Servant performed a flip, landing behind a trio of guards running out from the rear door.
Here, warfare of appearances helped. Before, the Servant disguised himself in frills and tights, a dressed-down version of a nobleman. Schwartz offered him something more symbolic, an ideal beyond merely the irate son of a captured laborer.
The guards turned to see a combatant in light layers of silk, white, blue, and gold, half draped in a flowing cape of shimmering metallic silver. He wore a wide-brimmed preacher's hat in blue. The face was hidden behind a golden mirror mask lacking features. They knew not how to attack. Curious, at the chest, elbows, and knees the silk appeared to slither into metallic strands, resembling armored webbing, Just enough to protect the wearer while avoiding being cumbersome.
"What is this? Is it a statue?"
"Is it a mechanical man?"
The Servant's swing with the staff, cracking a guard's jaw, assured them that this was no construct. They were in for a fight.
"People of Palermo!" The Servant yelled. "We are not warmongers! Let go of your chains and help me to end this devilish scheme!"
Those who heard him over the many dins ran for fear of death. A few stood, watching him as he took on the other two guards, besting them with a flurry of acrobatic moves and rapid staff swings.
More guards poured into the courtyard, forming a row of two men at a time due to the voluminous space taken up by the Master Cog. But many of them were divided when a duo of frothing canines appeared from the darkness to chase them. Men were now screaming, scaling the Cog's rafters for safety as the animals hunted in silence.
Vesprini, captain of Messina's crested guards, rushed out to face the Servant. He was a slender yet barrel-chested man, an accomplished pugilist, and fencer. He entered the scene as the Servant sent a third man to sleep.
"Is it you? The same boy I trounced by the sea?"
The Servant turned to face him, staff spinning. "It is the same man. Surprised?"
"On the contrary, I always wanted to pummel the same fool twice!" He lunged with a saber, going for an abdominal thrust.
But the whirring staff countered. The Servant swung to the left, guiding the blade away from him and in between brass pipes, then kicked at Vesprini's wrist. The captain of the guard wasted no time. Fighting was his way of life. He let go of the sword and closed in, ignoring the wrist pain. He launched a hail of jabs offset by an occasional left hook. Though he managed to back up his masked opponent, Vesprini found none of his blows managed to do any noticeable damage. The Blind Servant's unique armor did its work.
"Hide behind your armor, coward! I know you must, for you cannot withstand a hit!" Five jabs. Seven blows. A short uppercut.
The Servant, try as he might, was not an expert in the martial arts, save for prowess with the staff, now useless as the fight pushed him into a narrow region. Vesprini, naturally full of rage, became a fury of fists the Servant could not evade. Only the webbed armor offered protection, though every passing second Vesprini's hardened knuckles were feeling out the weak spots. Bruises were forming under the new costume. The hero blocked as best he could, as visions of his father dying in this hellscape filled his mind.
Vesprini frothed at the mouth. He knew Messina would be watching his every move this night, that his career and reputation were on the line. Both men fought for their lives this treacherous evening.
But the Blind Servant fought for more. His father, trapped like an animal. Sicily, blissfully unaware of Messina's despotic aims. The same blows from Vesprini that were finding inroads to hurting the Servant now fortified his ire. He grew red. Anger heated into a white-hot rage, as the power to transmute the elements turned the gloves into iron. Black, knobby, crusted, flaking iron he used as the focus for that animosity. The Servant erupted. He converted blocking forearms into an all-out offensive, roaring behind the faceless mask. Vesprini blocked and dodged the first flurry with ease, but he too had little room to maneuver. The Servant pushed forward, raw anger taking him over.
Heavy metal fists found their target, but Vesprini had no armor to soak the damage. As his chest and then face were pounded to breaking, the Servant's power, fueled as much by pathos as logic, turned more silk into iron, filled the bloodstream with a preternatural level of chemicals to feed the muscles. Pain vanished. Perspiration became a gelatinous layer of vinegar, alum, and talc. So much ferrous material was being generated that it heated, flaking off in sparks so that, once the Servant had beaten Vesprini down to the earth, a bloody pulpy, mess of a captain, he stormed out of the narrow crevice, not unlike a spirit of wrath. Smoking, gunmetal, orange flares wisping off the illuminated costume. His entire exterior had become a new material, flexible iron weave, as his determination was folded and hammered into a newer, sharper weapon for him to wield.
The indentured servants to the Cog, trapped inside, saw the Blind Servant as a terror.
He regained the staff and surveyed the scene. Seemingly invincible canines had cornered the guards. Schwartz conversed with royalty above. The workers, beleaguered, filthy, distrustful, eyeing him as if he were the monster. He allowed much of the iron to fall off by feeding it oxygen. Rust powder filled the courtyard. The Servant looked now like an avatar of Autumn as his hand stretched out toward the people.
"This machine is madness. Join me. We are a people of the Sun and sea, not warfare, not murder."
When they offered protest, begging him as to how they could overturn Messina, he showed them the way.
"We are many! You built these scaffolds. Tear them down. All of them! Let us beat these swords into plowshares! We are with you!"
The Servant rushed to the copper war balloon readying for flight. He climbed one of its ropes and used the last of his embers to ignite the fragile balloon under the armor canopy. This symbol of House Messina crumbled in flames.
The people, revivified, began to revolt.
"Good sirs, this balloon has a mind of its own. Please decide your next action quickly," Schwartz advised. By this point, his mind was divided into three parts. Negotiating with blue bloods for what seemed like an eternity. Manning the infernal balloon, which, regrettably, he realized had been his idea. And, assisting the Servant in his own peculiar way.
"With all due respect, preacher," King Charles admonished, "one might simply walk out the front door. After all, we are not here against our will. Good day to you." He exited, as his security and those for Honorstormed in, followed by Cavalieri Messina, with the captive and shackled Orrazio ahead of him as a shield. A pistol pointed at the blacksmith's weary head.
"Thank you, esteemed guests, for your interest this evening but, I am afraid I must attend to matters of state. You know how it is. Please see yourselves out. My guards await you on the street." He waited for them to exit. "Now then, foreigner. I know not who you are, but the charade ends here. If you want Signor Infantino, you must have him sans brain. Can you comprehend the veracity of my threat?"
Schwartz held his hands up. The balloon remained in place by miracle. "Mein Herr, I am but a vessel of the Lord. I believe He sent me to speak plainly to you. The work you are performing is abysmal. The man you are holding--"
"Is mine! Great works are performed by great men! I am such a man, unrecognized by these petty locals! You may keep your prayers. I am an empire builder! One old ingrate has nothing to offer me that could ever outdo my vision!" He pressed the end of the barrel into Orrazio's temple.
"What if it were more than one?"
Messina turned left, shoving Orrazio ahead of him. In the far corner of the room, he perceived another Deacon Schwartz. His vision moved back and forth, from the man in the room to the man in the balloon. One and the same.
"More than two? What would you do?" A third Schwartz, this time right behind Messina.
Messina broke into a sweat as he threw Orrazio to the floor and began spinning, attempting to keep the pistol aimed at all three targets at the same time. "How? What sort of trickery has the Blind Servant wrought?" One of the Schwartz's advanced. Messina fired, the spark igniting the powder in the pan, that sinister delay of time from ignition to the explosive release of the projectile. It struck the wall, splintering it. Yet Schwartz remained standing. Undaunted. Unfazed. Without wound.
"This is preposterous!" Those were the cavalieri's famous last words. From the balcony, the tip of a hurled fighting staff struck his temple, rendering him unconscious.
"Signor Servant," the many Schwartzes said in unison, "I see the new appearance proved useful."
The Servant considered them for a second but turned his attention to Orrazio.
"Father!" He knelt beside Orrazio and removed the shimmering gilded mask. "Father, it is I, Fulgenzio. You will be safe soon. I will take you away from here."
Orrazio looked up, exhausted, eyes tearing. "Fulgenzio...why are you so, shiny?"
The Servant could only laugh a little and clutch his father's head to his chest. "Thank you, Deacon. I would have come here much earlier, and much less prepared, without your council."
"All well and good, my new friend, but, if I may, might you hurry it along? Maintaining this damnable balloon in place is a wearisome feat."
Grains of days funneled down into the past of the universal hourglass. Palermo regained its passive charm, its people demolished the Master Cog and resumed their livelihoods. Everyone had more brass than they could handle. Cavalieri Messina could be heard, moaning in the Palazzo Abatelli, trapped in a room that had been walled up, with only a slot to give the man a plate of food twice daily.
Fulgenzio opened the smithy while his father took a well-deserved sabbatical, working out marvelous new elements and compounds thanks to the wisdom of Schwartz. The deacon asked for but one favor in return. That, upon full recovery, Orrazio should fashion for him a rather unique astrolabe with a specific purpose they would swear to never discuss with anyone. The old man agreed, and a prosperous union formed between the families of Schwartz and Infantino.
On his final day in Sicily, Schwartz and Fulgenzio walked along the same beach where he had found the young hero in dire straits.
"I cannot thank you enough, Deacon. I am a man renewed by your teachings."
"Oh, my dear boy, you've fed me so much gratitude that I shall suffer indigestion for the next three years. But don't let me stop you." He offered a playful smirk.
"However, there are still matters from that day I have yet to comprehend."
"Oh? Such as?"
"The ball of light. We never attacked the Palazzo with dogs. Where did they come from?"
"Dogs, you say? Strange. I never saw a single canine."
Fulgenzio's head swiveled in confusion. "But...well what of the multiple images of yourself inside the room? Surely you saw that!"
"It was quite an event, wasn't it?"
"You are toying with me!" Fulgenzio wagged a shaming finger. "How could you do such a thing, be so friendly, so amicable, only to become evasive and lie?"
Schwartz chuckled. "Oh my. It is comforting to know this island will be in good hands. Your passion for truth is admirable. So very few put it into practice. But you, a child of one touched by the Light, should already have the answers, Fulgenzio. We all have our gifts."
The old man's body faded out of sight as the words were spoken. Fulgenzio jumped back, thinking Schwartz disintegrated. He was speechless.
Meanwhile, in the low-lying clouds, a hot air balloon headed north for the Fatherland.
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