©2021 William A. Lasher
July 7, 1882 – Gatekeeper’s Cabin on the old Blackfriars Bridge, London
I’d never been anywhere near a big city, nor had Johnny Moonblade. Molly had once traveled to Richmond, before our time travels had begun, and Delone had been to San Francisco, but both of those cities were small as compared to the Big Smoke. It was hard to miss it as it came up on the horizon – the overwhelming size of the resident smog cloud was appalling.
Flying high above the clouds, we noticed an increase in air traffic as we began our descent. Corporal Jane Deven was a native of London, and she said some of the dirigibles were civilian aircraft and others were military.
As the Constantina came in low on our landing approach, Deven pointed out famous landmarks, the tallest buildings shrouded in the murky smog.
“Alright, now there’s Buckingham Palace, the royal home of Queen Victoria,” said Deven crouched down between our seats pointing out the window. “And coming up is the Tower of London and the Tower Bridge.”
“Wait a minute,” said Moonblade looking over Deven’s shoulder from his seat. “We’re flying downstream but the river is flowing backwards!”
“It’s high tide, Johnny.” Deven turned her head towards Moonblade and smiled. “We’re not far from the coast, and we’re still at sea level.”
“Excuse me for saying so, Jane,” said Molly. “But the water looks awfully dirty.”
“Aye, the River Thames,” Deven with a small laugh. “Hardly the pure mountain springs of the Western Territory.”
The Mutant Eradication Forces were based in Southwark, on an incline above the river, between Westminster and the Isle of Dogs. Newington Garrison was the MEF administrative headquarters, and it had a presence that was intentionally subdued – native Londoners did not take well to military occupation, even if it was in their own defense. It was a compact military base on the top of a hill, surrounded by green space, and home office of the MEF top brass, General Evernight.
The mooring stations and airship construction platforms were across the Thames on the Isle of Dogs. Technically not an island at all, it was formed by a large oxbow in the river, more of a U-shaped peninsula with water on three sides.
We landed on a long and narrow mahogany plank platform, supported by iron piers, 20 yards or so above the surface. The agile Morpurgos climbed down rope ladders and went to work attaching heavy lines to substantial iron eye bolts.
As we exited the Constantina’s gondola and headed down a criss-cross stairway, we noticed two new airships under construction. Replacements for the Champion of the Skies and the Marco Polo already underway, I thought.
We were ferried across the river on a steamboat. The tide had turned, and the water seemed to be flowing in a more natural direction, downstream towards the Isle of Sheppey and the open waters of the English Channel. The river was congested with a variety of vessels, barges loaded with coal, ocean going clipper ships, small rowboats, etc. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to their directions of travel, and we saw a tiny rowboat narrowly miss a collision with one of the much larger coal barges.
The sky was overcast, low clouds mixed with heavy coal smoke from numerous industrial plants along the riverbanks. It was hard to tell where the smoke ended, and the clouds began. A light mist of rain began to fall, and a chilly north wind came up. A lonely foghorn bawled in the distance. I looked back towards the Isle of Dogs to see the Constantina testing its moorings, slightly swaying in the stiff breeze. The scent of coal smoke laid heavy, and the river water had a peculiar odor, like nothing I had ever smelled before. It was an unpleasant stench, like dead fish mixed with rotten vegetables.
When we reached the south bank, Captain Galloway led our party in exiting the ferry. We were twenty-seven men and women strong, and twelve of us were Morpurgo tribesmen. Dressed in our khaki uniforms and dark blue pea coats, we strode across the pier and on to dry land. The diminutive Morpurgos had been issued the smallest of sizes, but their heavy wool pea coats still hung down to their knees.
“No need to call for carriages. I say we hoof it up to the garrison, it couldn’t be more than a mile,” said Captain Galloway.
“Good to stretch our legs,” said Sergeant Kurniawan, leader of the Morpurgos.
“I agree, even in this abysmal weather.”
“Is it normally this cool and rainy in June?” said Moonblade.
“Oh yes. The weather is normal for London. I think we might be a bit spoiled by all the sunshine in the Western Territory.”
On the streets of London, there was an irregular mix of affluence and poverty, often in the same neighborhood. As Captain Galloway led our party in a brisk hike up Grove Street to Grinstead Road, we passed through a row of tidy well-kept bungalows with freshly painted shutters and orderly flower gardens out front. But after crossing an intersecting side street, we suddenly found ourselves in a squalid slum of dilapidated misery.
Further along, in an alley next to a public house, we passed by a row of numbered wooden boxes where a few sad souls lay sleeping. A pair of boozy looking vagrants were sitting up in two of the boxes, passing a bottle of liquor back and forth. As the proud Morpurgos marched past them on the sidewalk, the two drunks began to make rude comments.
“Hey lookey there, it’s a tribe of Philipeenie midgets. The little buggers are barely three feet tall. Where do you think they could be headed?”
“I don’t know. Is the circus in town? They look like circus freaks with their big baggy coats and their little black boots.”
Zanetti overheard the impolite talk and stopped to confront them. “I’ve hit a man in the mouth for less than that!” He shook his fist at the two drunks.
Moonblade and Deven put their hands on Zanetti’s shoulders to restrain him as Captain Galloway stepped in. “Alright Zanetti, that will be enough of that. These two oafs aren’t worth the waste of time.”
“Where’s the circus there soldier boy?” said one of the cheeky drunks to Captain Galloway now. “Where’re you going with your little savages?” Before he could say another word, Galloway slapped the drunk across his face with an open hand. “Owww!” screamed the vagrant, “That was assault! I’ll report you to the police!”
“You shut your mouth, you worthless sod, wallowing in your own filth in that wretched box.” Galloway was incensed. “These brave Morpurgos are finer soldiers than you could ever be!”
The Newington Garrison was at the top of a slight hill. Except for General Evernight and his staff, the base was close to empty. Military forces were stretched thin throughout the British Empire, from the Western Territory to East Asia. We had plenty of room to stretch out. There were four steep roofed barracks houses, and Captain Galloway set up shop in one of the officer’s cottages.
Early on the following morning, we met on an observation platform, at the highest point on the gentle hill. The tower was about twenty yards tall, constructed of iron, and painted jungle green. The stairway within the framework led to a wide deck of weathered hardwood, with enough breadth to accommodate a substantial number of people, close to thirty of us on that gloomy London morning.
As we waited on the arrival of Evernight and Galloway, I used my quadoptical device to have a look at the airship station and construction works on the Isle of Dogs, a couple of miles away. It had rained steadily throughout the night, but the clouds were lifting enough for me to pick out the oblong outline of the Constantina’s dirigible, slightly wobbling in the perpetual breeze.
General Evernight appeared winded from the climb when he and Captain Galloway arrived on top to join us. He wore a long tan colored trench coat, and a military cap that displayed a red band with a gold tudor crown and crossed sword insignia. His pasty white English face displayed an eccentric waxed handlebar mustache that was de riguer for senior officers in her majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces.
“You may all remain at ease, ladies and gentlemen,” said Evernight as he walked to a central location along the iron railing with the view of the Isle of Dogs over his shoulder. Captain Galloway used his hands to signal us to gather round and then he too took a position facing the general with Sergeant Kurniawan at his side. Galloway was a tall man, and the crest of pint-sized Kurniawan’s hat was scarcely higher than the buckle on his belt.
“As you can see,” said Evernight gesturing with his hand and turning slightly towards the east, “replacements for the Champion of the Skies and the Marco Polo are under construction. The two new airships, the Amelia Snavely and the Fiery Crimson Messenger, will use helium gas for loft, a non-flammable alternative to hydrogen gas. The Constantina’s dirigible will be retrofitted for helium gas as well. We’ll continue to use H gas to power the airship’s motors and the flamethrowers, but it’s far too dangerous for use as a lifting agent, a lesson we learned all too well in the recent tragedy over the ruins of Philadelphia.”
Evernight paused for a moment and acquired a solemn expression on his face. “The four of you who survived the crash of the Champion, please step forward.” Moonblade, Delone, and Molly and I looked at each other and then took a few steps forward. “That’s it, don’t be shy, step right up.” He pointed at the deck directly before him.
After moving in closer, the four of us stood before the general silently, hands clasped behind our backs, legs slightly spread, and he continued, “I’m awarding all four of you Conspicuous Gallantry Medals as well as promotions. Alton Delone, Johnathan Moonblade, and Donovan Highgarden – all three of you are now sergeants. And Margaret Abbotsford, you’re now a junior officer, I’m promoting you to the rank of leftenant.”
Molly and I glanced at each other in surprise. I immediately thought of Major Saxby, and I’ll admit that I felt a small twinge of jealousy – not because of Molly’s new rank, but because of Saxby’s obvious love for her, though I overcame the feeling of possessiveness quickly. Major Saxby and I were the best of friends, and Molly certainly had enough love in her heart to share with both of us.
Evernight proceeded down the line, walking from one of us to the other, gently removing our medals from a velvet lined case that his assistant Corporal Dimmsdale held flat. Pinning them to our uniforms, he said a few words to each of us, and shook our hands as he went down the line. “Thank you, sir,” I said as he pinned a medal on my lapel and thanked me for my service in the name of Her Majesty Queen Victoria. Subdued cheering broke out in the assembled throng as Evernight returned to his position in front of the railing.
“The loss of Captains Blacklock and Flemmington has created a dilemma because the MEF is currently stretched frightfully thin. Seasoned officers are in high demand, and none are available to replace our fallen captains.” He addressed Molly directly now, “Leftenant Abbotsford?”
“Yes sir,” said Molly smartly as she took a step forward.
“Upon christening of the Fiery Crimson Messenger, you shall take the helm as the ship’s new captain.”
“Thank you, sir,” said Molly beaming with pride.
“Sergeant Kurniawan?” said Evernight looking towards the diminutive Morpurgo leader now.
“Yes, sir,” he took a step forward.
“I’m promoting you to leftenant as well, and you’ll take command of the second replacement airship, the Amelia Snavely.”
“Thank you, General,” said Kurniawan grinning widely.
“I have utmost confidence in both of our new officers and the rest of you gathered here today. That you will continue to serve Her Majesty Queen Victoria with courage and bravery. Now do any of you have questions?”
Delone raised his hand. “Yes, Sergeant Delone. What’s your question?”
“How long will it be before the new airships are completed?”
“Three or four months, but don’t fret. We have plenty of work to keep you all busy in the meantime.”
Following the departure of Evernight and Galloway, we descended the long stairway to the green below, and we spent the rest of the morning in group calisthenics led by Lieutenant Kurniawan. The Morpurgos were tough as nails with boundless endurance. After wearing us out with stationary exercises, Kurniawan led us in a lengthy run on a circular track.
When the clock struck twelve, we heard distant church bells, and the wail of a firehouse siren from the city streets below. We took lunch at the mess hall where we had buttered black bread and mutton with a plain tasting bean soup. I was relieved to learn I could still eat with Molly, even though she was a junior officer now. We sat with Moonblade and Delone, and then were joined by Jane Deven, who arrived late after mailing a letter to her Aunt Wilma in Manchester.
“Must we salute you now every time we meet?” said Deven to Molly as she set her tray on the table squeezing in between Moonblade and Delone, across the table from where Molly and I sat eating.
“I think I’ll allow you all to remain permanently at ease unless the bigwigs are around.”
“So, tell us Margaret,” continued Deven, tearing a piece of bread in half, and dipping it in her soup. “How did you pull it off, anyway? Getting promoted to leftenant ahead of all the rest of us?”
“Abbotsford is brainy,” said Moonblade. “I noticed how smart she was on the first day we met. I’ll bet you a lot of it was her test scores – that’s why Evernight chose her instead of Delone or Highgarden, or maybe someone else.”
“Molly, I mean Margaret, was always a good student in school,” I said.
Delone gazed at me silently at first, and then, “that’s not the first time you’ve done that.”
“Called Margaret, Molly.”
“It’s a nickname,” I said quickly. Delone gave me a sly smile, like he might have suspected we were using false identities. I decided to change the subject with no delay. “I’m just hoping I’m assigned to the Fiery Crimson Messenger.”
“If I have any say in it, you’ll all be on my crew.” Molly rested her hand on my arm and glanced at Moonblade and Delone. “And perhaps I might even steal Jane away from the Constantina.”
“Well, we’ll see about that,” said Deven. “I appreciate the offer, but I’m actually quite comfortable on the mother ship. There’s a higher degree of risk on the gunboats, and I’ve become rather accustomed to the accommodations on the Constantina.”
After lunch, we walked to a conference room on a narrow flagstone path lined with rhododendron bushes. The low shrubs were in bloom, with purple flowers that had attracted a number of yellow jacketed wasps. After sailing across the desolation of the Forsaken Zone, I took comfort in the greenery and bird songs of the Newington Garrison. Though the weather was abysmal and the air quality unpleasant, the hilltop was alive with the natural beauty of the maritime region, the forested areas dense with silver birch, English oak, and black alder.
We filed into the conference room through a pair of french doors that were painted jungle green. The south wall was mostly glass, and the interior trim was painted in that same vivid color. We took seats at three maple wood tables that looked as old as the Tower of London. Captain Galloway stood at a lectern that was situated at the head of the center table and he greeted us as we settled in.
“I’d like to introduce you all to Professor Hermann Krause of the University of Rostock.” He gestured towards a barrel shaped civilian in a coat and tie who rose from his chair and moved towards the lectern. “Professor Krause is here to tell us about a dangerous mutant species that could be showing up on our doorstep any day now. This is serious business, and I would like you all to pay close attention. Feel free to take written notes.”
Molly had brought along a bound notebook, and sitting next to her, I watched as she opened the hard black cover and put a title on the first page with her pencil: “A Dangerous Mutant Species.” Molly was on my right, Delone was on my left, and Moonblade and Deven sat across the table facing us – all slightly turned in our hardback chairs to face the lectern.
“Good afternoon, men and women of the MEF.” Krause had long sideburns and unkempt graying hair. He spoke fluent English in a thick German dialect. “Our subject today is der Wasserwolfe, or as my colleagues at Oxford have come to call him, the aqua wolf. The first recorded sighting of an aqua wolf was in 1868, following the Great Hydrogen War. For many years we thought of the aqua wolf as a myth, but in the last year or so we have come to realize these unusual wolves are quite real.”
There was a floor easel set up next to the lectern and with a dramatic flourish, Krause pulled off a blank cover to reveal a detailed pencil drawing.
“Good god,” whispered Delone. “Look at that thing.”
It was apparent that Krause had sharp hearing, because he overheard Delone’s whispered comment. “Yes, Sergeant Delone, look at that thing. We think a cloud of toxic fallout from the Hydrogen War may have been responsible for the mutation, but that’s only a theory, we don’t know for sure. The aqua wolf is an amphibian and has gills below his long-pointed ears.” Krause used a metal pointer to note details on the drawing. “The gills allow him to breathe underwater. He uses a long, shark-like tail to propel himself through the depths while submerged and take note of the pronounced dorsal fin on his back.”
Krause pulled the first drawing up and laid it over the back of the easel to reveal another. The second drawing showed a pack of aqua wolves emerging from the water in an urban setting. “Though an amphibian and able to swim, he is more wolf than fish, and travels in a pack. He preys on humans as well as sheep or cattle and will make several kills before stopping to eat. The wolf is a thrill killer. He only feeds at night, and he travels in stealth, leaving little sign beyond the carcass of his victim.
“The first sightings and subsequent killings were in St. Petersburg, Russia along the waterfront. As I said before, we at first did not take the reports seriously, and the Russian authorities worked hard at keeping the stories out of the newspapers. They attributed the killings to a mass murderer, a fictitious man who they named Oleg the Ruthless, when in truth, it was a pack of mutant wolves that were terrorizing the port city. The murder scenes were quite bloody. The wolves take down their prey and rip out their throats before quickly moving on to their next victim.
“At first the sightings were limited to Russia, but then in 1880, a pack of the wolves struck in the port of Danzig, then a few months later in Rostock, and then in Copenhagen. These events lead us to believe the aqua wolves have multiplied. The original pack is still in the vicinity of St. Petersburg, in the Gulf of Finland, but new packs are spreading out, migrating west looking for new territory. Last year, the aqua wolves showed up in Bremerhaven, and then finally in Amsterdam, where a panic broke out when a prominent businessman and his carriage driver witnessed a pack emerging from the water under the light of a full moon.
“The wolves seem to favor densely populated port cities, and it’s only a matter of time before they appear in London, if they haven’t made it up the Thames already.” Krause produced a pocket watch, checked the time, and continued, “any questions before I head over to Oxford?”
“Yes,” said Delone rising to his feet. “If der Wasserwolfe only feeds at night, where do they go in the daytime to rest? Do they live underwater, or on land?”
“A good question, and the answer is we don’t know for sure. It’s possible they stay submerged, in underwater caves perhaps, but it’s equally possible they spend the daylight hours on land. Though amphibious, they mutated from mammals, and would probably feel at home in the forest, but it’s all just conjecture, we don’t really know.”
Delone retook his chair and Wildenstein stood up. “Has an aqua wolf ever been captured or killed? Have you had a chance to examine one up close is what I’m getting at?”
“The answer is no. In truth we don’t know much about their anatomy beyond the drawings made from the descriptions provided by eyewitnesses.”
Jane Deven was next. “The shark tails on the drawings look awfully large and are probably quite heavy. Do their big tails slow them down when they’re on land?”
“Excellent observation, Corporal Deven. We think that in the evolution of the mutation, the canine portion of the body has grown much stronger. Eyewitnesses have reported their bodies look heavily muscled, and we think they must use their front legs as much as their tails in swimming, otherwise they would have no way of navigating in the water. When on land, the aqua wolves hold their tails high in the air, much as any common canine would, and it’s reported that they move rather swiftly. So, to answer your question, no, the heavy shark tails don’t seem to slow them down at all.”
As Deven sat down, Moonblade rose to his feet. “And how shall we go about hunting the aqua wolf? I’m assuming our next assignment will be to seek out and kill him before he establishes a foothold in London.” (Moonblade caught Galloway’s eye, and the captain nodded in affirmation.) “How do we hunt der Wasserwolfe, and how will we kill him once we find him?”
“You will need a great deal of patience, Sergeant Moonblade. I would recommend watching the waterfront closely at night, under the light of a full moon. To kill the wolf, I’m not sure. I’m not a military man, but I think it would be a large caliber weapon that you can easily carry and shoot quickly. It will be a dangerous assignment, and I wish you all the best of luck. Use caution, because der Wasserwolfe is a beast like none we’ve ever encountered before.
I must say that Molly looked rather smart in her new lieutenant’s uniform. With her hair cut so short, she looked almost handsome, if you don’t think it strange for me to describe such a beautiful woman in that manner. And I will say sincerely and admiringly, and without a hint of lust, that she looked quite good for her age. In fact, Molly looked smashing, and continuing on in her company meant everything to me.
Our strange trip through time had left us in the oddest predicament, but we were still together, and I was thankful for that. After seeing the devastation in western Virginia firsthand, perhaps the strange twist of fate was to our advantage. Did following the three otters save us from becoming human zombies, aimlessly wandering the Forsaken Zone?
We began patrolling the waterfront on horseback at night, concentrating on the stretch from the Isle of Dogs to Westminster, an area that included the City of London proper. Lieutenant Kurniawan led one company and Molly another.
When and where der Wasserwolfe would appear in Greater London was unknown, if the mysterious mutant species would appear at all. Professor Krause and his assistants monitored the various police precincts, watching and waiting for any sign of unusual nighttime activity. Unexplained murders or slaughtered livestock; reports of anything out of the ordinary along the Thames from the mouth of the river inland to Brentford.
Sleeping in the daytime and working at night was difficult at first, but after a few days I grew accustomed to it. We rose from our beds late in the afternoon, ate a hearty meal, and then rode off into the city as the sun was going down, our .50 caliber rifles secured in scabbards on our mounts.
The old Blackfriars Bridge was built from Portland stone with elliptical arches and bulky support columns, and it had a gate keeper’s cabin halfway across. In years past, a toll had been charged, but now crossing the span was free, and the gate keeper’s quarters had been abandoned. It was a cozy cabin built into one of the support columns at a lower level than the main deck. There was a narrow balcony at the center of the span that was big enough to hobble horses, and then a stairway led down to the cabin. We took charge of the cabin and set up a telegraph station that was operated by Jane Deven. The optical telegraphy allowed us to stay in close contact with Captain Galloway, back at the garrison on Newington Hill.
The cabin had windows on both the upstream and downstream side, and a pot belly stove. A soldier on patrol could duck inside to warm up late at night, to take a cup of tea, and share a chat with Corporal Deven. Above the balcony, there was a small observation post accessed by a circular stairway, a good vantage point to see both sides of the lengthy bridge from.
In the first week of July, a traveling circus set up three big top tents in a common area just to the east of the bridge’s northern approach. The circus used gas lamps to illuminate both the inside and outside of the tents, and their final show lasted well into the evening, almost until midnight.
It was the first night of the full moon, and I stood watch on the observation post above the balcony. Molly was working on her daily report in the cabin below while Deven sat at the telegraph station. Delone, Moonblade, and other soldiers in our company were patrolling the wharves and common areas on horseback, along both sides of the river. There was considerable activity around the circus with crowds of visitors and food vendors set up in impromptu stalls as the last show of the evening began to wind down.
I watched the water’s edge closely with my quadoptical device, looking for sign of the aqua wolves, but thus far I had seen nothing. After three weeks of it, I was beginning to wonder if we would ever see the mysterious amphibians. So far, all we had seen were the pencil drawings Professor Krause had shown us.
I heard someone calling out to me from the deck of the bridge below. I lowered my observation glasses and turned to see a hansom cab pulled in next to the balcony, well-lit with hydrogen lamps. “What-cha up to there mate?” called out the driver from his perch behind the cab. He wore a blue tuxedo jacket, polka-dot bow tie, and a tall top hat, “I’ve seen you here more than once, standing up there staring at the water with those odd-looking glasses. What is it you’re looking for?”
I was unable to say because it was a secret operation, and it would likely start a panic if the details of our mission were to leak out. Instead, I replied: “Just keeping an eye on things for the Royal Crown.”
The driver persisted. “An eye on things for the Royal Crown? An eye on what? What the ‘ell you lookin’ for, mate?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “Crocodiles,” I hollered in jest, “I’m looking for crocodiles.”
“Crocodiles you say? Ha, ha, ha. Did you hear that Mr. Limegood?” To his passenger in the cab now, “the soldier says he’s looking for crocodiles in the Thames!” The driver snapped his reins and hurried his horse back into the traffic moving across the bridge towards Southwark as he continued to laugh.
As the clock struck midnight, the traffic began to thin out on the bridge. The circus was shutting down for the night, and I watched a lone clown walking out on an ancient pier at the water’s edge. A sad clown, he looked half drunk, and had an exaggerated frown painted on his face with red make-up. I continued to watch as he sat down on a low wall built of weathered timbers. He pulled off his big fake nose and produced a pint of rum from his baggy clown pants. He took a long swig from the bottle.
At that precise moment, I looked to the sky and saw them coming. Giant crows in the distance, flying upstream from the direction of the London Bridge. There was no mistaking their profile, well illuminated in the moonlight. The mutant crows were making time, flying low along the river, and in under a minute they were on top of us.
There were three of them, and as I scrambled down the stairs towards the gate keeper’s cabin, I heard the sad clown’s blood-curdling scream as the first of the crows swooped down and scooped him up in its claws. I turned to look as I reached the balcony, and saw the immense crow flying across the deck of the bridge low, with the struggling clown dangling beneath its broad wings, screaming at the top of his lungs. Fast as Halley’s Comet, the first phantom crow soared across the old Blackfriars Bridge.
I stopped at the top of the lower stairway to catch my breath, and as I glanced back across the well-lit deck, I saw the same smart-aleck hansom cab driver stopped at the crest of the span, standing up on his perch, watching the first of the crows continue upriver, the silhouette of its struggling captive distinct in the eerie moonlight.
“Get down!” I yelled. “Take cover!”
Just as the driver turned to look towards me, the second of the mutant crows swooped in low and plucked him out of the carriage. I heard the driver’s frantic screams in diminuendo as I ducked into the stairwell. I was down the stairs and into the safety of the gatekeeper’s cabin in a heartbeat. “Message Captain Galloway at once,” I called out to Deven as I slammed the door behind me. “It appears the mutant crows have made their way to London!”