By Phaedra Mintun
Scottie stood on deck, leaning over the railing, hoping to get the first glimpse of the chalet. The gray stone peaks welcomed them with their snow white hair, puffy cloud hats and trousers of fresh green meadows. He smiled as he watched for the familiar landmarks. It had been more than a year since they had last visited Oscar's good friend and fellow inventor, Didier Bixle, and Scottie was looking forward to their stay. While Oscar and Didier worked in the laboratory, making improvements on the ships engine, the crew would be busy chopping wood, mending fences and doing any other chores that would help the elderly inventor until they were able to return again. There was nothing Scottie loved more than flying, but the fresh mountain air and the wide open fields, paired with the vast, inviting house full of fascinating inventions, thick books, happy dogs, and huge, comfortable chairs brought out a childlike glee in him.
The winding river they had been following swelled into the little lake that Didier fondly called Cog Pond. The balloons chuffed as they sank closer to the tree tops. The mountains stood so tall, the ship barely had to drop altitude to reach the chalet nestled in the meeting place of the high growing pines and the low growing oaks. As they floated past Cog Pond, the trees opened up to a wide meadow, and Scottie got his first sighting of the peaked roof snuggled amongst the trees above the clearing.
Scottie stepped up onto the railing and took a breath to prepare before he leapt off the railing and snapped open the fabric webbing between the arms and legs of his squirrel suit. His free fall slowed and he leaned side-to-side, weaving through the air. He pulled up on his rudder-like tail and adjusted to make a running landing. The soft grass caught him like a pile of pillows and he tumbled and rolled, laughing as his poor landing finished with him flat on his back. Scottie breathed in the fresh earthy smell of the grass, admiring the dark form of the ship against the bright blue of the morning sky.
A thick rope dropped over the side of the ship and coiled on the grass a few feet away. Scottie jumped to his feet and grabbed hold of it, dragging it to the first docking crank. There were a million different ways to bring a ship to land, but only at the chalet could a single man on the ground dock a ship alone. The docking crank was a simple contraption. Two posts stood out of the ground with a rotating rod between them. A hole large enough to thread the rope through had been drilled in one side of the rod and another rope was coiled around it. Scottie tied off the rope from the ship and grabbed hold of the coiled rope, unspooling it as he walked to the next crank. The rod gave a sleepy creak, then rotated smoothly. Another rope dropped from the ship and he threaded it and the rope he had brought from the last crank and tied them both off. He grabbed the end of the next spool of rope and paced across the soft spring grass, continuing the process two more times, until he had four ropes that ran from the ship to cranks placed at the four corners of the meadow, and rope stretched out, connecting the four docking cranks, making a large three sided square. The last docking crank had a large, slightly rusty wheel attached, which Scottie slowly turned. He had to dig his heels into the soft soil and push with all his strength to get it to start, but once it had let out a soft mechanical groan, it rotated easily. Every rod turned, letting its rope feed to the next and spooling up the ropes from the ship, bringing it closer to the ground. Scottie marveled at the ingenious system that Oscar and Didier had created.
The ship came down softly on the spongy grass and Scottie locked the wheel in place. The ship would be safe and secure until they were ready to fly. The cargo door came down and Oscar was first off the ship. He pulled down a set of thick lenses from his hat, locked them into his goggles, and surveyed the surrounding woods. "This is very strange. I sent word that we would be arrivin' today, and I'm sure Didier would 'ave seen us land."
Rick came out behind him, stretching out his muscled arms and ruffling his dark blond hair as he yawned. "Don't worry Oscar, I'm sure he just got caught up in something." He patted the small balding man on the shoulder and strolled out onto the grass.
The sound of barking echoed through the trees from the direction of the house and grew louder as the crew gathered in the field. Rick grinned back at Oscar. "See, somebody noticed we arrived."
A large black and tan dog, with a white blaze up its chest and over the bridge of its nose, charged into the clearing. The dog's deep barks shifted into happy woofs as it recognized them, and it bounded and wagged in greeting. Scottie knelt down and tussled with the dog. "Nona, where're your sisters?" He reeled back. "An' what did ya roll in!" The fur on the dog’s face and shoulder was caked with something thick, dark and pungent. The dog tucked her tail between her legs and waggled her tan eyebrows anxiously. Scottie stood up. "Oscar's right, somethin' isn't right here. Didier would never let the dogs get this dirty."
Everyone exchanged worried looks and headed for the house. Before the chalet was in view, they could hear the herd of goats baaing. Nona barked and ran back and forth along the path, getting ahead of them and then rushing back, as if trying to hurry them along. When they finally reached the front of the house, everyone stood in stunned silence.
The large house was set back into a hill, built from a blond colored wood and the rough gray stone of the mountain. Its front was wrapped in wide porches. They found the front yard a mess of partially eaten throw pillows and scattered papers. The front door was wide open and goats were running in and out. Scottie was shocked to see the usually tidy house in such disgusting disarray. Dylan let out a low whistle. "I've heard of letting things go to the dogs, but letting them go to the goats seems a bit too far!"
Nona whimpered, as if she was embarrassed to bring guests to a house in such a condition. She nuzzled Scottie's hand and he patted her head.
Cook shook his head. "We better go in and see if we can find Didier. Oscar, you head to the lab and see what he was workin' on. Dylan, Edwin, check upstairs. Scottie and S'more, go in and check the downstairs, and try to get the goats out. Stick, Finn, Rick and I will start wranglin' the beasts out here."
Everyone nodded and went to their tasks. The porch was coated with a thick layer of goat droppings and the crew had to be careful to keep their footing. As they came under the porch’s roof, the sharp scent of farm animals leapt on them. Scottie's face scrunched in an autonomic attempt to protect him from the assault. A goat barreled out the door and eyed them suspiciously with his bright yellow eyes and elongated pupils. It shouted a loud "MEEAH!" And dropped its head to butt them. Nona barked and rushed forward, chasing it off the porch and out into the yard.
Scottie stepped forward through the doorway. The smell was worse in here. Mixed with the ripe scent of animal was the dull, dusty smell of rotting food. The sounds of goats chatting amongst themselves filled the living room and, from somewhere deeper in the house, there was a cacophony of rhythmic mechanical clanking. The large windows were covered by drawn curtains that had been chewed to tatters along the bottom. Scottie and S'more worked together to push them back, as Oscar picked his way through the wreckage on his way to the lab. The living room was demolished, most of the furniture was turned topsy-turvy and several goats were playing king of the mountain on the large comfortable couch. Scottie and S'more moved in to flank them and then there arose a racket of clapping and shouting. Nona joined in, barking and nipping their heels as she chased them out of the house.
Scottie turned the nearest chair back up onto its legs. He looked, around feeling depressed. Everything was filthy and ruined. He had no idea how they were ever going to return the house to the way it was. He gave a deeper sigh, acknowledging to himself that it was more than just the state of the house, it was Didier being missing that made it all seem insurmountable. With the loud-mouthed goats gone, Scottie could make out a fainter sound. From a dim corner, close to the cold fireplace, he could here a strange slurping. Scottie moved cautiously toward the noise.
As he stepped into the shadows at this end of the room, he gave his eyes time to adjust to the dimness. The clanking and hissing of machinery still chugged along in some other part of the house, but the slurping sound was clearer now. He could make out the form of something on the ground near the fireplace. He squinted leaning forward. In his peripheral, he caught movement, but it was a second too late. Something struck him from the side, knocking him off balance. He threw his arms up defensively, guarding his face. The body that landed on him was warm and furry, and the room filled with fierce growls. Scottie pushed the heavy dog off of him. "Morta! What is wrong with you?"
The dog stopped its attack and looked him over. Morta shared her sister’s black and tan markings, but her blaze was speckled with black dots and she was thicker through the body. She eyed Scottie suspiciously, then gave a slightly abashed wag. She stalked over to the form on the floor, paced back, then returned. Scottie's eyes had adjusted and he could see that Decima, the third sister in Didier's small pack of Swiss mountain dogs, was lying on her side. She was frantically licking at the floor, her eyes glazed. S'more came up behind him and knelt next to the dog. He softly stroked her fur. She whined and her eyes rolled toward him, her tongue still slipping compulsively in and out.
S'more looked up questioningly at Scottie. Morta sat beside the huge Samoan, looking back and forth between Scottie and her sister with pleading brown eyes. Nona nuzzled her wet nose into his hand. He petted her soft fur, thinking. "I have heard of dogs doing that when they are starved."
S'more nodded and scooped the dog into his thick arms and marched toward the kitchen. Morta and Nona fell in behind him. Scottie looked around the room and ran his hand through his hair. "What happened here?"
"Didier was working on something." Oscar's oddly deep voice startled Scottie and he jumped, spinning around to see the small, birdlike man standing in the entryway.
"Could it have gotten him into trouble?" Scottie asked. "I don't think he would have left things like this. Decima was havin' a lick fit."
Oscar's sparse eyebrows pulled together. "Is she going to be alright?"
Scottie nodded. "S'more took 'er in the kitchen. He has a way with animals. Remember that time he got that elk to stop chasing Dylan and even got her to come close and wait while he got Edwin's pants off her hind leg?"
Oscar let out a short snort of laughter, then tilted his head back toward Didier's workshop. "I think I know what he was developin', but the goats have been in there. Pieces of his documentation are missin'."
Scottie followed him back into the laboratory. It was hard to tell what was the normal mess of the inventor’s workspace and what had been caused by the animals. The large table in the center of the room was covered with papers and bits of metal. Loose gears and bolts pebbled the surface. Drawings of ideas for inventions lined the walls. Small contraptions in various states of completion were placed on every available surface. Scottie picked up what looked like a large brass spider. Its bulbous body was roughly the size of his fist, and heavier than it looked. The eight legs that extended out of the body were manipulated by a delicate pulley system, and each leg ended in a small, flexible dome. Scottie turned it this way and that but couldn't figure out how to make it work, or even get an idea of its purpose. A variety of tinkerer’s tools were hung neatly along one wall. Several had been taken down and were littered across the table.
Against the far wall stood eight massive crates. Three of them were open and empty. Scottie walked closer and examined the interior of the closest open box. The back was padded, with a curved depression lengthwise down the center. A triangle of small rounded depressions was formed toward the top. "I wonder what was in these?"
Oscar looked over at him and studied the crates. He squeezed the frames of his goggles, releasing his current set of lenses. They sprang up on their arms, connected to his tall hat. He reached up and felt around before he found the set of lenses he wanted and pulled them down to his goggles. They snapped into place and he moved forward to stand beside Scottie. "I 'ave deducted that Didier was workin' on a military contract. He was buildin' sentinels, constructs that would be able to act as mobile prisons."
Scottie frowned, looking back and forth between the empty crates and the ones that were closed. "Did he finish them?"
Oscar was looking closer at the sealed boxes. "I don't know. It's possible."
Scottie was starting to put the pieces together. "If he finished them, and that is what is in these boxes," Scottie pointed to the unopened cartons, "then where are the ones that were in those boxes?" He pointed at the open crates.
Oscar's lips pressed together. "I think we better take a look in these crates and see what he was working on for ourselves."
Scottie pried the front of the crate open and pulled out a thick layer of padding. He took a couple of stunned steps backward. Inside stood a colossal man made of brass. It stood easily eight feet tall, wide shoulders just slightly hunched. The chest was heavily armored, and a small round head fit snugly onto the shoulders. The right arm hung straight beside the body, ending in a massive display of weaponry, and the left arm folded at the elbow to fit tight to the body. A massive shield hung from it, protecting the waist and knees. Wide-treaded platforms formed its feet, leaving no doubt that this robot was prepared to go anywhere.
Scottie stood before it, staring in amazement. He was so awestruck that he didn't register the noise behind. A great clattering sounded on the stairs, Dylan and Edwin shouting and hooves knocking along the wooden steps. The hallway echoed with crazed baaing. "NO! OUT THE DOOR YOU BED-MUNCHING TW-" The goat's head slammed into Scottie from behind and he lurched forward. His hands shot out and he crashed into the shield, his head painfully meeting with the metal chest plate. The shield lowered slightly and Scottie grappled, leaning his weight on the machine, trying to gain his balance.
The air crackled and filled with static, Scottie’s mouth filled with the tangy taste of copper. The great arm swiveled, knocking Scottie to the floor. He lay still, trying to catch his breath and sort out the spinning sensation the world was currently providing. The robot stepped forward and scooped Oscar close to its body, trapping him beneath its shield. Scottie had a clear view of Oscar's dangling feet as he was carried past. The construct moved in smooth motions and made a soft hum, as its internal workings spun. It raised its right arm. The large gun that formed the bulk of its limb was producing a high, whining sound. The robot scanned the room with its multi-barreled weapon.