©2020 William A. Lasher
February 26, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Kudat Airship Station, North Borneo
From all appearances, there was an ongoing proliferation of mutant species in the post Hydrogen War world. Most were dangerous, but the peacock people of Bombay were an exception to the rule.
“We traveled to the village today, and found a whole flock of them on display,” said Professor Krause as he half filled glasses of gin. “And I hope this pedestrian gin is acceptable. It was the only decent drink I could find in this primeval burg. There was a locally produced rum available, but you can’t be too careful with low grade spirits. Remove one carbon and two hydrogen atoms, and alcohol becomes a deadly poison.”
We were seated in Molly’s quarters on the evening before our departure to Borneo. Molly and I on the bed, Rebekah and Kristin on the settee, and Krause in the armchair with his back to the desk. He screwed the cap back on the bottle after handing everyone a glass.
I took a sip of the gin. “Not bad professor, but I think the cinnamon schnapps was better.” I had never drank straight gin before. It was exceptionally bitter.
“That was a fine German schnapps, and it was surprisingly easy to find in Cairo. I’m not sure why it’s so hard to buy a decent bottle of liquor in India, and I for one will be relieved when we’re gone from this godforsaken place. I would avoid drinking any of the local water without boiling it first. It’s more than likely riddled with cholera.”
“So you visited the peacock people today?” said Molly attempting to put the professor back on track.
“We did, and quickly discovered a communication problem. They spoke little English, and no German. Rebekah has studied a bit of Hindi, but apparently there’s significant variation in the vernacular from region to region, and she wasn’t able to fathom much of what they were saying at all.”
“Ja,” said Rebekah, “I had the feeling they were doing it on purpose – using excessive slang to make their speech hard for me to understand.”
“Not a surprise, the whole affair appeared rather cult-like, and the chief bird denied our request for an audience. Am I correct, Rebekah?”
“Ja, I think they were trying to get rid of us.”
“The nudity was disgraceful,” said Kristin. “Completely unexpected.”
“Nudity?” said Molly. “The peacock people were in the buff?”
“Except for tiny codpieces stuck on their private parts, they were naked as jaybirds.”
“More than likely for comfort.” Krause poured a bit more of the gin in his glass. “I imagine it would be next to impossible for one of the cocks to put on a conventional pair of trousers considering the long tails.”
“They could pull them up close. The tails start just above their human rear ends. They could at least conceal their hairy buttocks.” Kristin scrunched up her nose in distaste, and I noticed her pale Teutonic complexion was sunburnt.
“Do the hens have tails too?” I said making sure not to laugh.
“Ja,” said Rebekah, “but much smaller than the cocks. Less feathers too. The cocks have longer tails and more feathers on their torsos.”
Krause tossed back a shot of the bitter gin and continued: “They had the local villagers fairly mesmerized. They were down on their knees bowing to the chief bird like he was the second coming of-… What would a Jesus Christ figure be called in Hinduism, Rebekah?”
“Probably Vishnu. That’s the closest thing the Hindus have to Christ.”
“Close enough for me. So they were down on their knees bowing to the big bird like he was the second coming of Vishnu with his schmeckel barely concealed behind that peanut shell he was wearing.”
“Let me pose a question to you, professor,” said Molly. “Considering the rest of the unusual occurrences we’ve experienced lately, do you think it’s possible the peacock people are an illusion?”
“A good question, Captain Abbotsford. Normally we would trust our common sense to tell us what’s real and what might be imaginary, but in this post Hydrogen War world, perhaps we shouldn’t be so sure of ourselves anymore. The peacock people certainly appear to be real, am I correct ladies?” He looked towards Rebekah and Kristin raising his bushy eyebrows and lifting his chin.
“I think so,” said Rebekah, and Kristin silently nodded in agreement.
“But how did we arrive at this decision? It was based on nothing more than what our senses told our brain. What our nervous system and its sensory accessories interpreted from the larger world around us, and then how we communicate that information among one another.
“And then consider the size of the human brain – just three pounds of neurons, cells, and blood vessels. That’s it. Three pounds of grey matter connected to our vision, hearing, touch, taste, and smell. That to us is the essence of reality, but more importantly, how we as human beings perceive reality.”
Molly took a small sip of the bitter gin. “Do you think it’s possible that there could be an alternate reality?”
“An alternate reality. Ja, now we’re getting somewhere. I think it’s possible that there could be any number of alternate realities, and further, that there could certainly be a greater reality. By that I mean a level of reality that is beyond our ability to comprehend. A reality that is bigger, more complex, and completely beyond the cognitive abilities of our own brains to fathom.”
“Do you think we’re alone in the universe? Or do you think there could be intelligent life on other planets?”
“We thoroughly examined the creatures that were found in the Red Pyramid, the ones Dr. Ferndale and I showed you at the Museum Of Abnormal Science in Dulwich. After completely dissecting one of them, our conclusion was the subject could not have originated on Earth. The basic molecular structure of the organism was not of this world. Instead of cells and DNA, we found inexplicable physical phenomenon.
Krause pulled a curtain aside and peered up at the nighttime sky. “I think it would be incredibly pig-headed to think that man is the ultimate form of life in the universe. In my view, it’s likely there’s intelligent life out there that would make us look quite small.”
“Like ants compared to elephants?”
“Indeed, Captain Abbotsford. Like ants compared to elephants.”
As I listened to the professor’s theories, I was immediately reminded of our conversations with the Duke of Courbevoie, and I wondered if it would be wise to tell him about our extraterrestrial contact. Molly and I talked about it later, and though we both thought it was a good plan, we also agreed that the timing was wrong. It would be better to wait until we returned to the Western Territory. There was certainly no hurry. Introduce him to Winterborne first, and then let Krause meet Archambeau in person.
The airship squadron set out for Borneo with our fuel tanks refreshed. The prevailing trade winds 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.”
“Yeah, well 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, I think 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.”
“That sounds completely bizarre. Like there’s more to it than just walking dead. Could there be some evil force behind the zombies?”
“It seems likely, doesn’t it?” (Sometimes it was hard for me to keep it to myself, what Archambeau had told Molly and I.) “In any event, I don’t think there’s a reason for us to go anywhere near the ruins of the eastern cities again, if that’s any consolation.”
“I’m glad they stopped using hydrogen gas to fill the dirigibles, but what happens to the fuel tanks if we get hit by lightning again? Won’t that be just as dangerous?”
“I was wondering about the same thing, but from what Molly said, the tanks are insulated.”
Late in the afternoon 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. Flying over French Indochina, 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 Morpurgo sailors 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 certainly 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, an apparent local hero of sorts.
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. Like your people had some 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 off of 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 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, and came out on top of a rocky outcropping before descending down 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 in peering 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 the sound of 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.
“Everyone was an enemy 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 – as Kurniawan nailed 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 anymore 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 Kristin, and then 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.
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 of 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 wash-outs, 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 full strength. We would sail for the Western Territory at sunrise with one more refueling stop in Hong Kong.
To Be Continued …