Part XI – Darkness at Midday in the Wilds of Borneo

©2021 William A. Lasher

February 26, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Kudat Airship Station, North Borneo

The airship squadron set out for Borneo with our fuel tanks refreshed. The prevailing trades would dog our progress for another two weeks, until we reached the third largest island in the world and picked up our new recruits. 

For Kurniawan and his small army of Morpurgos, it would be their first visit home since joining her majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces in 1880. To say they were excited about the stopover would be a vast understatement, and their happiness was growing contagious. 

I suppose Molly and I had expected Bombay to be more like London with the British in charge, but we found it much too crowded and poverty ridden. The highlight of the stop had been Chao Zeng’s, and we returned the second night with the whole crew of the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Moonblade brought Rebekah along too, and Huang gave us a semi-private banquet room where we could play poker. Delone was quite the card sharp, and a drunken Scribbens accused him of cheating when he lost a month’s pay at five card stud. 

It was slow going with the sails furled in the strong headwind. We crossed a craggy mountain range along the coast as we gained altitude, and then entered a semi-arid region of low hills and flatlands. The January sky was cloudless. At cruising altitude, we floated over an endless patchwork of irrigated cotton fields as we traversed the Krishna River Valley towards the Bay of Bengal. 

Traveling under prop power alone, there was no reason for Delone and I to suit up and go topside, though Sunarko and Moonblade still did. I think Johnny enjoyed the excitement of the sailing duty – the element of danger free climbing the dirigible and the tall masts, but personally I found it a relief to stay inside the gondola. It was a tough job working at high altitude in a bulky oxygen suit. 

Delone and I went to work cleaning and oiling the Longstones. We checked the calibration on the sights and made sure everything was up to snuff on the flamethrowers as well. 

So, did you give up on Kristin?” I said with a cheeky grin. 

“I don’t think she likes me, Donovan.” 

“Quite the attractive fräulein. Maybe you should give it another try.” 

“But every time I see her coming, she avoids me. She’s not giving me much of a chance.” 

“Women can be hard to figure out sometimes.” 

“So says the chap who shacks up with the airship captain every night. Looks like you’ve got things figured out.” 

I laughed, and then: “Moonblade asked Captain Galloway if Rebekah could ride with us to Borneo.” 

“I’ll bet that went over big.” 

“Absolutely not!” I said aping Galloway’s crisply enunciated English. “You should have seen the look he gave him.” 

“Johnny has a big set of bollocks.” 

“Yeah, he’s fearless up on the dirigible.” 

Delone paused for a moment, and then: “I hope you don’t think I’m a coward for refusing to roast the winged croc.” 

“No, you’re not a coward, Alton. You’re just not cut out to be a gunner.” 

“I appreciate you and Margaret standing up for me.” 

“Queensbury picked right up on it, so let’s just forget about the whole thing. There’s no need to even mention it again.” 

“What do you think will happen when we get back to the Western Territory? Are they going to send us back into the Forsaken Zone?” 

“From what Captain Galloway said, all the action will be on the rail lines. The gnawers are migrating west in bigger numbers than before, and we need to establish a perimeter to keep them out. When they cross into the territory, they’re bringing the toxic conditions of the wasteland along with them.” 

On the second day, the airship squadron sailed out across the open waters of the Bay of Bengal. Five days later, we crossed the skinny Malay Peninsula, and sailed over the Gulf of Thailand. We could see the swampy Mekong River delta distinctly as we traversed the extreme southern end of Vietnam, and finally, ten days into the journey, we sailed out across the South China Sea towards Borneo. 

We landed at the airship station in Kudat, the capital of the British colony of North Borneo. It was nothing more than a trading outpost on the coast, and thankfully, less densely populated as compared to Bombay. Kurniawan’s village was within a mile of the airship station, on the opposite side of the bay, and we could see scores of Morpurgos arriving in outrigger canoes as we secured our berth. 

The Morpurgos in our squadron were ecstatic, and Sunarko and Kurniawan introduced family and friends to Molly and I after they scrambled up the tall stairway and arrived on the ironwood mooring platform. It was a joyous scene, the first time the atmospheric sailors had been home in over two years. 

Captain Galloway called for quiet because he had an announcement to make, and when things had quieted down sufficiently, he climbed a half set of steps and proceeded: “All Morpurgo crew members have unlimited liberty for the next three days, for the entire time we will remain on the ground. That will be all.” He then motioned towards Kurniawan, who had climbed the steps to stand next to him, and when Kurniawan translated his short speech into their native tongue, cheering broke out. 

The Equator dissected the island of Borneo, and the climate was extremely wet. A true tropical rain forest with no dry season, there were daily thunderstorms on a year-round basis. Moonblade and I found a store that sold short pants and light short sleeved shirts in the town center – what a relief, because our woolen English street clothes were much too heavy for the hot and humid climate. 

The next day, Molly and I accompanied Professor Krause and his learned colleagues to the Morpurgo village. Kurniawan sent a party of young lads in outrigger canoes to pick us up. The size of the ocean surf was greatly diminished within the confines of the protected bay, and the strong Morpurgo boys used paddles to propel us across the placid waters. 

In stylish culottes that stopped at the knee, Rebekah and Kristin were adequately prepared for the tropical heat. Krause was also dressed more casually than normal, including an Australian style outback hat. Molly and I both wore khaki shorts and a low-cut version of our military issue boots. 

The village was built in a long man-made clearing that ran parallel to the white sand beach. The dwellings had steep thatched roofs with wide overhangs that afforded protection from the frequent afternoon downpours. We could see more of the small Morpurgo villages in the distance, along the perimeter of the bay. 

As we walked through the village, we passed by people here and there. Few of them spoke much English, but all were friendly – positively beaming when they saw Kurniawan, a local hero. 

Professor Krause asked Kurniawan about the Dayak people, an indigenous ethnic group who had been wiped out by a mysterious jungle virus in the years following the Hydrogen War. “It’s noteworthy how the Morpurgos were completely unaffected. As if your people had some type of natural immunity.” 

“It didn’t affect us at all. Maybe because of our diet or because we live here on the coast. The Dayak lived in the jungle.” 

“Perhaps a genealogical immunity of some sort.” 

“There’s an abandoned Dayak village not far from here, professor.” Kurniawan motioned in the direction of the interior. 

Krause brightened up, “The ruins of a Dayak village? Are the buildings still standing?” 

“Yes, the buildings are still there, though the jungle has begun to overcome them.” 

“Can you take us there?” 

“If you don’t mind a hike. It’s about two miles through the jungle. I think the trail is in good shape.” 

“Splendid. I’m sure Rebekah and Kristin are up for it – ladies?” 

Ja,” said Rebekah, “after being cooped up on the Constantina for two weeks, I would love it.” 

Ja,” agreed Kristin, “a chance to stretch our legs.” 

“Captain Abbotsford? Would you and Sergeant Highgarden care to accompany us too?” 

“Of course,” said Molly. “The jungle looks fascinating.” 

“Let’s do it,” I said. 

We stopped at Kurniawan’s modest home where he introduced us to Ambar, his wife. She knew a few words in English and fawned over Molly. He had told her the story of how they attended officer’s school together and were both promoted to captain in the same ceremony. 

It was a primitive dwelling, with heavy shutters in lieu of glass windows, and native hardwood for flooring. No indoor plumbing, but it was clean, and the open-air cooking area was equipped with a modern H gas powered stove. Kurniawan and the rest of the Morpurgos sent most of their paychecks home, and their families were able to afford simple luxuries such as well-made cotton clothing and gas-powered lighting and appliances. 

Kurniawan produced a wooden bowl that contained a grayish yellow paste. “Smear a little bit of this on your exposed skin. It will keep the mosquitoes away.” 

“What’s in it?” said Rebekah as she dabbed a bit of the repellent on her legs and neck, and then passed it on. 

“Medicinal herbs and a secret ingredient. We make it here in the village.” 

He loaded a canteen and machete into a tan colored knapsack, and I glanced at my pocket watch as we headed out the door. It was mid-morning; the afternoon rains were still a few hours off. Kurniawan carried a rifle. He chambered a round, checked the safety, and hung the firearm over his shoulder as we walked into the rain forest on a hard packed dirt trail. 

“Are there predators we should watch out for?” I was carrying a rifle too, and Molly had a holstered pistol on her belt. 

“Sumatran Tigers. Normally they won’t give humans much trouble but stay on the lookout.” 

“What about snakes?” 

“Watch out for blue coral snakes. A beautiful reptile in appearance, but their venom is deadly. It’s rare to see one, just watch your step.” 

Calliophis bivirgatis,” added Krause. “Notorious for their fast-acting venom. The snake paralyzes their small sized prey instantly.” 

Kurniawan nodded in agreement. “Coral snakes won’t attack without being provoked, but if you step on one, it’ll bite you. More common are leeches that drop from trees and attach themselves to your skin. If you get one on you, pull it off immediately. The wound may bleed, and I have a first aid kit in my knapsack.” 

We were walking single file on the trail, and Molly turned towards me and grimaced when he brought up the leeches. Kurniawan was in the lead, followed closely by Rebekah and Kristin. 

Vegetation on the jungle floor was colorful, bright green with a multitude of flowering plants. Wet from the frequent rain, there was abundant standing water in the puddles. Hardwood trees towered overhead, and the high canopy was alive with the sounds of bird calls and screeching monkeys. 

The trail followed a small creek, and there was metal piping about an inch in diameter that followed the stream bed. After a few hundred yards we found its origin, a spring bubbling up out of the rocks. The pipe was a gravity flow water system that provided safe drinking water for the village. 

We stopped for a few minutes to drink from the spring. The taste of the water reminded me of the springs Molly and I had drank from as children in the Appalachians. Kurniawan walked a short distance into the undergrowth, and returned with a bunch of wild bananas, ripe enough to eat. There were more than enough to go around, and the wild fruit was sweet and tasty. 

The trail continued uphill. It came out on top of a rocky outcropping before descending the far side into a stretch of jungle that appeared darker and denser. We paused for a few moments to take in the picturesque view back down towards the village and the wide white sand beaches. 

“Look in the trees over there,” said Kurniawan pointing off to the south. “Orangutans.” 

“A shrewdness of apes.” Krause carried a small pair of binoculars, and he used them to examine the docile primates seated on the lower branches of wide crowned deciduous trees. They had noticed us too but appeared unafraid. 

We lost sight of the ocean as we descended the far side of the outcropping, and the jungle canopy overhead grew denser. No longer following the stream bed, the hard packed dirt trail narrowed. The heavy undergrowth brushed against our shoulders here and there as Kurniawan continued to lead the way. 

An hour and a half into the trek, we came upon the deserted Dayak village. The jungle was in the process of consuming the abandoned dwellings. The leafy undergrowth was taller than our heads. Some of the buildings had collapsed and were partially buried beneath tangles of vines. I was quick to notice that the ever-present odor of organic decay seemed stronger and more malignant in the proximity of the crumbling dwellings. 

We came upon a larger dwelling that was still standing. The entry door was closed. Krause attempted to open it, and when he was unable to, he put his shoulder into it, and the rotted wood broke away easily. 

“Metal hinges,” he said examining the doorway. “A deluxe building for a primitive jungle village. Must have belonged to someone important.” He lifted his chin towards Kurniawan. 

“Dayak witch doctor. Most important man in the village.” 

Krause stepped inside the doorway, “Good god, look at the skulls!” 

The rest of us crowded around the doorway, and when I peered over Molly’s shoulder, I saw them too. A long row of human skulls hanging from the ridge pole on the ceiling. The interior was dimly lit by sunlight filtering through the uncovered windows, and a massive network of spider webs cast eerie shadows on the hanging skulls. I could hear scurrying rodents through the omnipresent din of birds and monkeys in the high canopy above us. 

“Headhunters,” said Kurniawan finally breaking our awed silence. “Some of the skulls may have belonged to Morpurgos.” 

“Likely British and Dutch too,” said Krause. 

“Were they cannibals?” Rebekah backed away from the entryway. 

Kurniawan nodded his head gravely. “Yes, the Dayak ate human meat. Any outsider who ventured into their territory was quickly killed. The severed heads were presented to the tribal leader as proof of loyalty and as a sign of manhood.” 

“They were enemies of the Morpurgos?” said Kristin who had moved away from the doorway too after getting a look inside. 

“All outsiders were enemies to the Dayak. Even other Dayaks who were not a part of their local tribe. Morpurgos stayed on the coast to avoid conflict. On the beach, or on the water we held our own, but the Dayak ruled the jungle. 

Krause and Kurniawan were still halfway inside the doorway, surveying the interior of the decaying structure. The rest of us had moved outside. 

I was anxious to get moving again, struck by a feeling of raw fear standing there in the jungle wilderness. Looking towards Molly, I could tell from her eyes that she felt the same thing. 

I pulled a bandana from my back pocket to wipe accumulated moisture from the steel of my rifle. Afternoon thunderstorms were blossoming high above the jungle canopy, and I heard the rumble of distant thunder. 

“We should head back,” said Molly. “Before it starts raining.” 

Ja,” said Krause. “I think we’ve seen enough. Thank you for the guided tour, Captain Kurniawan.” 

“Of course, professor. It was my pleasure.” 

As we walked back towards the coastline, the sky darkened considerably, as dark as twilight beneath the dense forest canopy. The rumblings of distant thunder grew more numerous, and I hoped the heavy rain would hold off until we made it back to the village. Kurniawan said we still had a couple of hours, the daily rains began in the mountains, and then spread to the coast by late afternoon. 

We were halfway back to the rocky outcropping when I heard a rustling sound in the undergrowth off to one side of the narrow trail. “What’s that noise?” 

Kurniawan heard it too. In the lead, he stopped dead in his tracks. “There’s something out there.” 

Krause motioned for Kristin and Rebekah to move to the side of the trail, allowing Molly and I to position ourselves between them and the movement in the undergrowth. I took my rifle off its sling and Molly pulled her pistol. 

“What is it?” said Molly. “A tiger?” 

“Whatever it is, there’s more than one of them.” Kurniawan checked his rifle’s action to make sure he had a round chambered. 

“More than one tiger?” I said. 

“No, cats are solitary hunters,” said Krause. 

“Komodo dragons,” said Kurniawan. “I can smell their stink.” 

The dense undergrowth was over our heads, and the three giant lizards took us by surprise. We didn’t see them until they were just a few feet away, racing out of the giant ferns and bromeliads like lightning to attack us. I shouldered my rifle, shot at the first one point blank, and stopped it cold. 

The Komodos were fearsome reptiles, over ten feet long, and notoriously carnivorous. After Kurniawan shot the second lizard with his rifle, the third came in low and wrapped its jaws around his lower leg. He cried out in pain and dropped his rifle. In the nick of time, Molly shot the last of the dragons with her pistol. 

Krause and Rebekah rushed to Kurniawan’s aid as he fell to the ground gritting his teeth in pain. The lizard had seriously mauled his right leg beneath the knee, and it was beginning to bleed profusely. 

“There’s a first-aid kit in my knapsack.” He struggled to speak through the severe pain. 

“Is that it?” I said to Molly as we stayed alert, eyes on the undergrowth, ready for more of the giant lizards. 

“There doesn’t seem to be any more of them.” 

Kristin picked up Kurniawan’s rifle, skillfully ejected the spent casing, and chambered another round – it was a small relief, Miss Schumacher knew how to handle a gun. She stood with us watching the jungle as Krause attached a tourniquet to Kurniawan’s thigh to stem the blood flow. Rebekah went to work cleaning and bandaging the wound. 

“Is he going to be able to walk?” I said to Krause. 

“Yes, I can walk,” Kurniawan through gritted teeth. “If you help me along, I can make it. We need to get moving before the rain comes.” He forced a smile. “When you asked me about indigenous jungle predators, I meant to tell you about the Komodo dragons too.” 

Molly took the lead, followed by Krause and Rebekah on either side of Kurniawan, helping him take the weight off his injured leg as he hobbled down the trail. It was slow going, but we made it back to the village before the heavy downpours began. 

  

 

Delone was a talented artist, and he often carried a sketch book when he was on liberty. He made detailed pencil drawings of a variety of subjects, from the old Blackfriars Bridge in London, to the belly dancers of Bombay. 

He asked Molly if she would sit for him so he could draw a portrait of her as captain of the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Moonblade and I thought it was a terrific idea. We would have his drawing professionally framed, and then hang it on the wall in her quarters; we could put it behind her desk. Of course, Molly agreed to it – I could tell she was tickled pink, though she maintained a humble demeanor. 

Delone began his drawing in the modest tavern next to the airship station in Kudat. Molly sat in a chair by an open window. There was just enough of an onshore breeze to lightly disturb her pretty red hair, and I must say my bricky girlfriend looked exquisite. She had let her hair grow in to the point where the naturally curly ends just touched her shoulders, and her skin had acquired a subtle tan from our time outdoors in the tropics. 

“You’re going to put her in uniform, right?” I said as Moonblade and I looked over his shoulder. We had spent the afternoon exploring the beach, and Molly was dressed in shorts and a light top. 

“Oh yes, I’ll put her in full parade dress. I could even make her a general if you’d like.” 

“Don’t do that,” protested Molly, slightly blushing from all the attention. “Even if it is just a drawing, I don’t want to get in trouble for impersonating a higher-ranking officer.” 

“Right-o, then a captain you will be, just like in real life.” 

Professor Krause arrived at the tavern with Rebekah and Kristin. The bar had a Filipino lager on tap, and he bought a fresh pitcher before taking a seat at the table with us. Rebekah took a seat next to Moonblade, and Kristin picked a chair that looked to be as far from Delone as she could get. 

Kristin’s dislike of Delone went back to the night we had first met in London. When he found out the ladies worked with Krause, Delone decided they were tailing us, that their appearance in Castleberry’s was no coincidence. As a result, he made a comment to Kristin that she took offense to, and their conversation turned nasty. Delone’s vocabulary often became vulgar when he was drunk, and apparently Kristin was unaccustomed to hearing foul language. 

When Rebekah filled me in, I told Delone that he should apologize to her. That he had probably hurt her feelings with his raw language, but Delone just shrugged his shoulders. He said he didn’t understand why she was still worried about it, and he was convinced they had been following us. 

Had they already known who we were when we met up at the pub? Rebekah was evasive when I asked her, and I didn’t think it was important enough to pursue any further, so I let it go. 

Moonblade had a textbook on meteorology that he had bought in London. After studying it thoroughly, he came up with a theory – if we flew high enough in the atmosphere, the prevailing winds would reverse themselves, and blow in the opposite direction. 

He showed Molly and I diagrams in the book that explained the Coriolis effect, the effect of motion on a rotating body, first described by French mathematician Gustave-Gaspard Coriolis in 1835.  The Earth’s rotation was the cause and effect behind the dependable global wind patterns, the key to the science. The natural phenomenon created the three wind belts, the trade winds, the prevailing westerlies, and the polar easterlies, (duplicated on both sides of the equator,) and also caused the formation of low-pressure cells. 

One of the diagrams showed a return flow at higher altitudes in all three of the major zones, but there was nothing specific about how high we would have to go to find it. Moonblade asked Professor Krause about it as we sat in the tavern watching Delone draw Molly. 

“The Coriolis effect is a proven law of physics,” said Krause as he stood to refresh Kristin’s glass from the pitcher, “but no one has ever flown much higher than 30,000 feet above sea level, so we can’t be sure of its effects at the upper levels of the atmosphere where the air becomes quite thin.” 

“Do you think it would be possible to fly at higher altitudes? Say forty or fifty thousand feet up?” responded Moonblade. 

“Anything is possible. We could fly to the Moon if we had adequate technology, but with our current airships, 30,000 feet or so is the limit.” 

“Why can’t we fly higher?” 

“Because of the lack of atmospheric density. Earth’s atmosphere is composed of nitrogen, oxygen, argon, and carbon dioxide. The higher we fly, the less dense these gases become. Outer space is an absolute vacuum. If we flew much higher, it’s likely the pressurized cabins would explode, along with the oxygen suits the Morpurgos wear when they’re rigging the sails. Beyond that, the low density of the helium in the dirigibles would be negated by the low density of the high-altitude atmosphere. The rigid balloons would no longer have any lift.” 

“This may be a dumb question,” I said, “but what keeps the atmosphere in place?” 

“Gravity, Sergeant Highgarden. The same physical force that keeps your two feet planted firmly on the ground.” Krause took another sip from his glass and smiled. “This is by far the best drink we’ve had since leaving London. My guess is the Filipinos use rice to brew it. A truly delightful lager.” 

Moonblade asked Delone for a sheet of paper and a pencil, and he began to sketch out a new airship. 

“You never told me you were an artist, Johnny,” said Rebekah as she watched him work. 

“Nowhere near as good as Delone, but I can draw diagrams and stuff like that.” 

“And maps,” added Delone, “Johnny has a talent with maps.” 

When Moonblade was done with his sketch, he showed it to Professor Krause. “We’ll build the body of the craft out of steel, so it will stand up to the difference in air pressure as we climb higher in the atmosphere.” 

Ja, the steel will be strong enough to take you the upper limits of the atmosphere, but it will be expensive to construct, and extremely heavy, how will you get it off the ground?” 

“With wings.” Moonblade pointed to a gigantic set of wings attached to the cylindrical steel cabin at the center of the drawing. “We’ll stretch canvas over jointed framework on each side of the craft to create a set of wings. Rotary motors powered by H gas will turn a set of gears that will create a flapping motion in the wings, just like a bird.” 

“The wings will have to be quite large, I think, to get the contraption off the ground.” 

“We’ll let the engineers in London decide how big to make them. We’ll also use propellers – use the wings to gain altitude, and the propellers to carry us along.” 

“Very imaginative, and how high do you think you’ll be able to fly in your new ship?” 

“All the way into outer space. You said we could fly to the Moon if we had adequate technology, why not fly all the way to Mars?” 

Krause laughed. “An ambitious project, Sergeant Moonblade, but you’ll have a number of roadblocks to contend with before you’re able to fly your new airship to Mars. To begin with, the higher you go, the less effective your wings will become. As you gain altitude, the friction between your wings and the air’s molecules will decline arithmetically, and when you reach outer space, your wings won’t do much of anything at all.” 

“Then we’ll use the propellers to get us the rest of the way to Mars. Once we’re beyond the Earth’s gravity, we’re not going to fall out of the sky, right?” 

Krause shrugged his shoulders and raised his bushy eyebrows. “No one knows how far into space the Earth’s gravitational pull extends. Once you leave the atmosphere, it’s likely it will diminish, but it’s all conjecture because no one has been there yet. But with that said, I don’t think your propellers will work in outer space either. There needs to be the same friction against the atmosphere’s molecular makeup. I don’t think the propellers would accomplish anything at all in an absolute vacuum.” 

“There has to be some way to move through space. A way to use the power of the hydrogen gas to propel us.” 

“While you’re working on a method of propulsion, also consider how far you’ll have to travel to reach Mars, and how long it will take. On average, the distance between Earth and Mars is thought to be 140 million miles. So, if your new airship averages 20 knots, it will take-” Krause picked up Johnny’s pencil and did the math. “Approximately 800 years to make the trip there, and 800 years to make the trip back.” 

That certainly gave Moonblade more to think about, and I decided to change the subject: “What made the Hydrogen War so catastrophic, Professor Krause?” I asked. “Why was it so utterly devastating?” 

“The accelerated H gas bombs used a fusion reaction to unleash vast amounts of destructive energy. The detonations were triggered by toying with the basic structure of matter, creating an atomic chain reaction by shooting one piece of fissionable mass into another. 

“How the Union and the Confederacy acquired the technology to begin with is a mystery, but once Richmond and Philadelphia were destroyed, the conflict escalated. The total number of bombs detonated is unknown, but the toxic conditions spread quickly, until the native environment of eastern North America was completely poisoned, and it’s unlikely that anyone or anything will ever be able to live there again. 

“It appears that man has evolved to the point where he has the ability to destroy his home planet, and the bombs may have created a destructive chain reaction that’s impossible to stop.” 

 

 

There were thirty-one applicants, but we could only take thirteen of them. Kurniawan needed help desperately on the Amelia Snavely – they had sailed from London with just a skeleton crew aboard our sister ship. Captain Galloway said he could choose six new men, but Kurniawan wanted eight. Finally, after a lengthy debate, they settled on seven. 

Beyond those seven, Molly would choose three new hands for the Fiery Crimson Messenger, and Captain Galloway would select three more for the Constantina.  

It was a tough job, because all the applicants were eager to go, and over half of them would end up disappointed. Many of the Morpurgo men worked on the British tobacco plantations that had sprung up on the island following the Hydrogen War, others worked in logging operations. Joining the British military meant a sizable increase in pay as well as a boost in status within their local communities. Morpurgos already in the MEF were treated like visiting celebrities for the duration of our short visit. 

The induction process was conducted by Captain Galloway in an auditorium at the garrison in Kudat. He wanted to make it as fair as possible, with no favoritism, so first each applicant was given a written test – a basic aptitude test that was translated into the Morpurgo language by Kurniawan. The test resulted in three disqualifications because of literacy problems. 

Next there was a physical endurance test. Normally Kurniawan would have led the five-mile run and calisthenics, but because of his injury from the lizard bite, Sunarko and Moonblade ran the applicants through multiple laps around the garrison, followed by hundreds of jumping jacks, sit-ups, and squat thrusts. The physical endurance testing resulted in four more washouts, but most of the applicants were in adequate shape. 

We were down to twenty-four men but could only take thirteen. Before the final cut, each man was interviewed privately by Molly and Captain Galloway with Kurniawan translating. Molly said it was an extremely difficult decision because she thought all of them were qualified, and she asked Sergeant Sunarko for help in figuring out who to take. Finally, Molly and Sunarko chose three new atmospheric sailors for the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Joyo Abubakar, Buana Paloh, and Santoso Fadilah – Kurniawan conscripted seven more, and Galloway took three. 

The lightning storm over Philadelphia was now just a distant memory, and with two brand new gunboats and thirteen fresh recruits, our intrepid squadron was back up to strength. We would sail for the Western Territory at sunrise with one more refueling stop in Hong Kong. 

 

 

©2021 Surreal Science Fiction

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