©2020 William A. Lasher
The giant bats appeared in the sky over London for three nights straight. They came and went with the full moon. It was unknown where the bats roosted in the daylight hours, but the remains of five of their victims were discovered by sheepherders in the Chiltern Hills to the west of the city; the clown, the hansom cab driver, and three others … and their bones had been picked clean.
The terrified sheepherders deserted their flock and rode into Cookham. They reported their grisly find to the local constabulary, and then went in a public house where they became roaring drunk. By nightfall a crew of severely intoxicated vigilantes had formed at the pub. They devised a plan that involved building a giant bat trap from an assortment of fishing nets connected with rope, but in knocking on doors around the village they were unable to locate more than one fishing net. Cookham was a ways inland, in the hill country, and inhabited by farmers not fishermen.
“What’s all the racket? Why are you banging on my door in the middle of the night?” A farmer named Cheevers found a gang of drunks carrying lanterns outside his door in the early morning hours past midnight.
“We need nets. Are you having any fishing nets?”
“Fishing nets? It’s one o’clock in the morning. What do you need fishing nets for?”
“The bats! Haven’t you heard? We’re building a trap to catch the giant bats!”
“I’m a farmer, not a fisherman. No, I don’t have any fishing nets!”
London was buzzing with gossip about the bats, and Captain Galloway said we should stay on our toes: “If you’re out on patrol, and see the bats coming, take cover immediately. If you’re in an open area, dismount and get under your horse. The bats will not attempt to grab a horse – they’re too big. We learned this in the past in the Western Territory.”
Crawling under my horse sounded awkward, and I thought it would be much easier for a Morpurgo – the diminutive Morpurgo could simply dismount, walk underneath his mount, and remain standing up.
On the third day of the full moon, Molly and I rode to the Museum of Abnormal Science in Dulwich to meet with Professor Krause and his colleague, Dr. Clayton Ferndale, the curator of the private museum. Moonblade and Delone accompanied us. It was a two mile ride from Newington to Dulwich, and Molly led the way on a Cleveland Bay stallion named Dawson. Our surroundings became more rural the further we rode; there were fewer slums and less horse dung evident on the boardwalk avenue. We rode through Dulwich Village, and found the private museum beyond, in a forested area with few residents. Krause and Ferndale sat waiting in a carriage at a wrought iron gate with ornate brass skulls atop the balusters.
“Good evening, Professor Krause,” said Molly, “we received word that you have more information about the aqua wolves you’d like to share?”
“Yes, Leftenant Abbotsford. Good to see you again … and this is my colleague Dr. Ferndale.”
“Welcome to the Museum of Abnormal Science,” Ferndale tipped his silk derby hat and climbed down from the carriage to unlock the front gate. He wore a black carnation pinned to the lapel of his frock coat, and carried a walking stick with a griffon vulture handle. “As you’re members of the MEF, I shall waive the normal entry fee;” Ferndale had an eccentric, haughty demeanor.
He unlocked the gate and swung it aside. Krause piloted the carriage on to the grounds, and parked it inside a horse barn next to the entrance. We followed him inside, racking our steeds under an overhanging roof on the side of the barn. Ferndale closed the gate behind us and relocked it. A noisy flock of rooks cawed and rattled at us from the trees as we walked across an unkempt lawn towards a Pyracantha maze.
“The museum itself is at the center of the maze,” said Ferndale gesturing towards the dense walls of Pyracantha bushes. “You must find your own way in, no one will help you. Each of you will have just 15 minutes to find the center.”
“Just 15 minutes?” said Delone.
“Yes. Just 15 minutes. It’s an intelligence test. If you can’t find the center in 15 minutes, I will deem you too slow-witted to proceed, and you will be asked to leave the grounds. Our exhibits require at least normal intelligence to understand. None of you should have a problem with the test, but the rules say you must take it.”
There were two paths at the entrance to the hedge maze. One led to the beginning of the puzzle, the other was a shortcut to the inside. At the beginning of the shortcut, there was another gate featuring the same brass skull balusters.
A service bell hung from a cable on the gate. Ferndale rang it with vigor. Before long, a wall-eyed man in a workman’s uniform appeared inside. He walked towards us in a lumbering gait, suffering from an apparent case of severe kyphosis. He produced a key from his trousers, unlocked the gate, and opened it.
“This is my caretaker, Victor. He will make sure that each of you starts your test at the proper time.” Ferndale produced a pocket watch and handed it to Victor; “So, we shall start at the top of the hour, that’s in less than five minutes. One of you will begin the test every 15 minutes in whatever order you choose, it makes no difference to me. Professor Krause and I will take the shortcut and wait for you inside. Good luck.”
Within an hour, all four of us were standing at the center of the maze with Krause and Ferndale, relieved that no one in our party had been deemed mentally incompetent. Before us stood the Museum of Abnormal Science, housed in a one story structure built from irregular granite blocks, and covered with moss and lichens. There were few windows, and the low building looked more like a medieval dungeon as opposed to a hall of exhibition.
Ferndale unlocked the massive oak entry door, and it creaked on it’s heavy iron hinges as he swung it open. A musty odor laid heavy on the cool, damp air inside. Victor had rejoined us, and the odd little man lit gas wall lamps as we entered the first room. The first exhibit, MacNulty’s Time Machine, was well illuminated by the eerie orange light. It was a complicated looking piece of machinery featuring a multitude of gears and armatures with a polished obelisk of purple amethyst at it’s center, and the face of a clock at it’s crown.
“Barnabus MacNulty was a brewmaster and unaffiliated research scientist who lived in Paisley, Scotland, a small town near Glasgow,” said Ferndale standing before the strange looking contraption. “He built his time machine in the 1860s, and swore on the King James Bible that it enabled him to travel into the future. At first he made a few small bounces in time as he called them. Only a few hours into the future, because he wasn’t sure whether or not the machine would allow him to return to his present place in time. If he wasn’t able to go back, then time would catch up with him.
“But he claimed that it worked, and after bouncing forward a month and successfully returning, he decided to go further, this time a full century. Unhappily, he failed to reappear. We have no way of knowing if he was able to travel a hundred years into the future or not. He may still be alive, and living in the next century, or he could have perished, no one knows. His wife waited patiently for his return, but after a few years she gave up hope. Subsequently, Mrs. MacNulty brought the machine to London and left it with us.”
“Do you know how it works?” said Molly with keen interest, “does anyone know how to operate it?”
“We’ve examined it thoroughly,” said Krause, “and we haven’t been able to make it work.”
“Could it be a hoax, then?” said Delone, “an elaborate ruse? Perhaps Mrs. MacNulty murdered the old boy, and used the story about the time machine to cover her tracks.”
“Highly unlikely,” said Ferndale, “MacNulty assembled witnesses before he made each one of his departures. The police investigated and never turned up anything suspicious.”
“Maybe he’s living in the future and doesn’t want to come back,” said Moonblade.
“It’s possible,” said Ferndale with a small smile, “anything is possible, and the truth is unknown.”
Victor the hunchbacked caretaker had gone ahead of us lighting gas lamps throughout the mostly windowless building. Outside, the shadows were growing long as the sun sank below the thick forest to the west, and inside, the hydrogen lamps cast an eerie orange glow on the clammy confines of the dank stone structure.
The next chamber was larger than the first, and held a number of glass walled cases. Inside the cases were the mummified remains of a number of bizarre looking creatures – in a humanoid form, but as compared to us, they had a much larger head atop a frail looking body with eight arms instead of two.
“Are they mutants?” said Moonblade.
“No, not mutants,” responded Ferndale, “what you are looking at are the apparent remains of outer space aliens, visitors to Earth from some far off world. They were discovered when archaeologists opened an ancient tomb at Dahshur in Egypt. One of the oldest of the Egyptian pyramid fields, Dahshur dates back to 2600 BC. Forensic pathologists have examined the corpses thoroughly, and their conclusion is the creatures could not be from our planet.”
“How did they get here?” I said.
“They may have been space travelers, perhaps from a more advanced civilization.”
“The location and time of their entombment is noteworthy,” said Krause, “because prior to the 27th century BC, there is no evidence of man building anything more complicated than one story thatched roof huts and meeting halls, then suddenly the great pyramids rose up out of the Sahara Desert.”
Ferndale nodded in agreement and continued on, “The tombs in the pyramids were normally used to house the remains of royalty or other important members of the upper castes. The creatures in the cases were entombed in the Red Pyramid, grandest of the Dahshur pyramids, leading us to believe they had the status of ancient Egyptian kings. In connecting the dots, we think they may have played some part in the construction of the pyramids.”
“Like maybe they taught the Egyptians how to build them?” said Delone.
“Precisely. The hieroglyphic writing on the inside of the Dahshur pyramids alluded to visitors from the sky who shared great knowledge, and the writing was followed by unusual symbols that could have been individual alien names.
“Why would outer space aliens spend their time teaching the Egyptians how to build pyramids?” said Moonblade, “what was in it for them?”
“Very good question,” said Ferndale, “and one of our Oxford colleagues, Dr. Oremus Hassleberry, came up with a theory. Dr. Hassleberry thinks the aliens intended the pyramids to be navigational beacons that would be visible from outer space. There’s seldom cloud cover over the Sahara Desert, so the location makes sense. His theory says the aliens are likely from a planet similar to Earth in the Canis Major Dwarf Galaxy-”
“Poppycock!” exclaimed Professor Krause, “Hassleberry’s postulations have no basis in fact.”
Ferndale gazed at Krause with an expression of contempt and continued, “as I was saying, Dr. Hassleberry’s theory says the aliens are from a planet 25,000 light years from Earth, relatively close in astronomical terms, and their spaceships are able to travel the great distance between our two worlds by making a jump into ‘lively space’ as he calls it-”
“Lively space?!” bellowed Krause, “Good God, man, listen to what you’re saying! Hassleberry’s paper should be filed under speculative fiction, it’s not a serious scientific paper!”
Ferndale frowned at Krause and continued, “Hassleberry said the aliens used the Earth as a reference point when they prepared to make the jump into lively space, to plot their course, and avoid collisions with other celestial bodies when they accelerated beyond the speed of light-”
“Rubbish!” roared Krause.
Molly cleared her throat and took a step forward, adjusting her officer’s cap, “these exhibits are extremely interesting, but I’m wondering why you invited us here today. I’m thinking there must be something you wanted to show us that’s more relevant to our status as on duty soldiers of her majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces.”
“Yes, of course Leftenant Abbotsford,” said Krause in a much calmer tone of voice now, “I know your time is valuable and we do indeed have something to show you that’s more relevant to our present crisis on the Northern European waterfront.”
“Let’s move on to the next chamber,” said Ferndale motioning for us to follow; “though we’ve yet to capture or kill an aqua wolf, a skilled taxidermist has constructed a life size replica.”
“Der Wasserwolfe,” said Krause gesturing towards the exhibit as we entered the next room, “Mr. Burnheart used a Middle Russian forest wolf, and the tail and dorsal fin of a blue shark to construct his replica. He also put cavities below the wolf’s ears to simulate where the amphibious gills would be. An impressive model, and it should only be a matter of time before the real thing shows up on the Thames here in London.”
“You said before that der Wasserwolfe had grown more muscular than a common wolf,” said Delone.
“That’s correct, sergeant.”
“Then this model isn’t accurate?”
“It’s an artist’s rendition,” said Krause with slight impatience, “to give you an idea of what we’re dealing with. It’s based on the descriptions provided to us by eyewitnesses as well as examinations of the aqua wolf’s victims.”
“Is there anything else about the aqua wolf that’s different than the model?” said Molly.
“The teeth. The aqua wolf has bigger teeth and a larger, more evolved jaw structure.”
“Burnheart used a blue shark’s tail,” I said, “is that because der Wasserwolfe mutated from a blue shark?”
“We don’t really know because we’ve never examined one. The scale of the tail on the model seems accurate based on the eyewitness descriptions, but the species of fish involved in the mutation is unknown. The wolf genes are dominant, and more than likely it grew out of the Middle Russian forest wolf as portrayed, but the actual species of fish involved in the mutation could be different.”
“Do you think we could capture one alive without killing it?” said Moonblade.
“It’s possible. It would be a dangerous undertaking, but certainly within the realm of possibility.”
After patrolling the waterfront for eight days straight, Captain Galloway gave our company leave for the weekend. Lieutenant Kurniawan’s company would continue watching the river, and on the following weekend, our team would be back on duty, and the Morpurgos would be off.
On Friday afternoon, Molly and I departed Newington Hill dressed in civilian clothes. We hired a hansom cab and headed across the Blackfriars Bridge into the City of London proper where we rented a suite at a nondescript inn. We had not had an opportunity to spend much time alone since we had departed Major Saxby’s outpost ten months before, nor had we had the opportunity to spend much of the money we had made.
Mrs. Fletchly was at the front desk, “I’m pleased to have military staying at our inn, and personally I don’t mind that you two aren’t married, but I shall write it down as Mr. and Mrs. Highgarden in the ledger if you don’t mind.”
“Of course not,” said Molly.
“Just in case the Reverend Tembo and his morality crusaders come snooping around. If anyone asks, tell them you’re a married couple from Ickford on holiday or something along those lines. A little white lie that could prevent trouble.”
“Easy enough,” I said.
“When you want to draw a bath, let the water run for a few minutes. It will run cold at first, but after a couple of minutes it will turn hot.” Mrs. Fletchly produced a cookie tin and set it on the desk. “A complimentary tin of Tutweiller Date Cookies, and you’ll find everything you need to make tea in the cupboard above the stove. Enjoy your stay, and if there’s anything else you need, please let me know.”
It was an adequate suite with a separate bedroom and a sitting room with a coal burning stove much like the one in the gatekeeper’s cabin. The furniture was a bit threadbare, but comfortable, and the bathroom was clean with a large free standing tub. We settled in, and warmed a kettle on the stove. Molly found black tea in the cupboard, and poured us both cups after the pot began to whistle.
We sat together on a compact settee with our hot beverages, and I popped open the cookie tin. Tutweiller was Major Saxby’s favorite brand, and these were much fresher than the cookies he had shared with us on the frontier. It was a relief to be alone in each other’s company, away from the lack of privacy in our military lives, and we were able to talk openly as our true selves.
“Do you think we shall ever return to Leacock Corners?” said Molly. “Return to our lives as teenagers in 1851?”
I took a sip of tea and then, “it doesn’t seem likely, and after seeing what has become of western Virginia, maybe our strange passage through time could be an advantage. I mean, at least we’re not gnawers. We could have become human zombies.”
“I suppose you’re right, but somehow we’ve lost thirty years of our lives. That’s what troubles me the most. That I have no recollection of how we ended up where we are, with no memory of how we got here. I’m still a bit startled when I look in the mirror and see the lines on my face.”
“It is quite a shock, I agree,” I moved closer and put my arm around Molly’s shoulders, “and maybe we shall both live to be a hundred, to make up for the years that we’ve lost.”
“Do you think there’s a way back? If we could find another way into the caves, or maybe dig through the rubble that the earthquake left?”
“I guess it’s possible, but think about it Molly, the Hydrogen War destroyed everything we knew, and what we are now is what we have become. Going back might change everything. We could die and become human zombies.”
Molly gazed at me silently and then, “I think I understand what you’re saying, but I’m still a little perplexed. The mystery is this – what happened to those thirty years? Did we lose them completely? And why can’t we remember what happened?”
We continued to talk for an hour or so, and as twilight approached, we prepared for a night out on the town. Molly put on the full length dress she had bought earlier in the day, and though she looked beautiful in her new outfit, I thought she looked more dishy in her smartly tailored lieutenant’s uniform, though I kept that opinion to myself, and instead, complimented her unabashedly on her good taste in fashion.
I asked Mrs. Fletchly to call for a hansom cab, and when it arrived, I told the driver to head for the waterfront where we met Moonblade and Delone. I had asked Jane Deven to join us for dinner too, but Moonblade informed us she had made other plans. Standing in the common area on the north side of the old Blackfriars Bridge where the circus had been set up a week before, we were about to walk over to the Ship And Turtle restaurant when we saw Lieutenant Kurniawan riding along the river on horseback.
“Bagus!” exclaimed Moonblade cupping his hands around his mouth. He saw us, waved, and rode over to have a chat.
“Looks like you’re out for some fun tonight,” said Kurniawan, “next weekend my company will have liberty. Let us know if you find any good places to eat.”
“We’re going over to try the snapper soup at the Ship And Turtle,” said Molly, “it’s supposed to be good.”
“Snapper soup?” he replied with a puzzled expression.
“It’s a stew they make from snapping turtles.”
“Ah, sounds good.”
“I have something I’ve been wanting to ask you,” said Delone.
“Yes, what is it?”
“How did you and your men end up in the Mutant Eradication Forces, anyway? It’s a long ways from here to North Borneo.”
“A long ways indeed,” said Kurniawan, “and it’s a long story how we ended up here. If you’re not in too big a hurry I will tell you all about it.”
“Please do. We’re on leave and in no hurry at all.”
“Of course. My English has improved greatly since we arrived here in London, so I shall tell you the story of how we met Captain Galloway and joined the MEF. Mutant Komodo dragons are what brought the Eradication Forces to Borneo.”
“Giant monitor lizards?” said Moonblade.
“Yes. The Komodo dragons are the largest and most dangerous of the monitor lizards. They’re carnivorous predators that grow up to ten feet long. Before the Hydrogen War they were rare on Borneo, but in the aftermath they began to propagate like rabbits. This was the essence of their mutation. It wasn’t that they grew bigger like the bats, or changed in form like the aqua wolves. Instead they began reproducing at a wildly accelerated rate. Within a few years, thousands and thousands of the mutant Komodo dragons had overrun the entire island. After they wiped out the deer and wild pigs, they turned to humans as a primary food source.”
“Most of the Dayak tribes were wiped out, but my people, the Morpurgos, escaped to small islands off the coast. The mutant Komodo dragons turned to cannibalism because they had eaten everything that moved on the main island including the monkeys, wild boar, and deer. They even went after the horses and water buffalo. Some tried to swim across the straits to our smaller islands, and we would patrol the ocean in our outrigger canoes, and kill them with spears and arrows when they approached our isles. The dragons run fast on land, but they are slow swimmers.
“We were low on food too, and we tried eating the dragons, but the meat was tough and had a bad flavor, even if you cooked them for a long time. We survived on fish and wild fruit we picked in the jungle, but we longed to return to our villages where we had once grown tea and sold it to the British and the Dutch for good money.
“When word of the mutant dragons reached the British colonies in India, two MEF airships were dispatched, the Champion Of The Skies and the Marco Polo. Captain Galloway led the campaign to eradicate the mutant Komodo dragons, and he conscripted my people to help. Most Morpurgos do not speak English, but I knew a little from dealing with the traders who bought our tea. We united to kill off the giant lizards, and this was what led to North Borneo becoming a British protectorate.
“They taught us how shoot rifles, and gave us clothes and good shoes to wear, so we didn’t mind having them around. Morpurgos are peaceful people, we have a live and let live philosophy, and our religion teaches us to share the land’s bounty.” Kurniawan smiled, readjusted his position in his saddle and continued, “After the last of the mutant dragons were killed off, Captain Galloway was called to the Western Territory to fight the growing human zombie threat. It was a long voyage, all the way across the Pacific Ocean, and he wasn’t sure the airships could make it without refueling.
“I was talking with him about it, and I said maybe you could use the wind, like a sailboat, you could travel as far as you want, and never have to worry about refueling. I remember him shaking my hand and saying, ‘by god Bagus, that’s the best idea I’ve heard in years, we’ll retrofit the dirigibles with sails, like clipper ships!'” Kurniawan laughed and kept going, “so they did the work at the ship yards in Hong Kong, and Captain Galloway decided to use Morpurgos for sailing crews because we’re naturally so small and lightweight. The Champion Of The Skies and the Marco Polo were the first airships to use sails, and that’s how we ended up traveling the world in the MEF.”
“Do you miss your home in North Borneo?” said Molly.
“Oh yes. Of course we can’t bring our families along, and I send most of the money I’m paid to my wife. My family lives well and someday I will return,” he looked towards the river, inky black except for reflections from a few gas lamps here and there.
“You have kids?”
“Yes, a boy and two girls,” he looked towards Molly, gave her a quick smile, then glancing back towards the river, “still watching for der Wasserwolfe. The captain said police in Bremerhaven shot at a pack and the wolves turned and slaughtered them, then disappeared back into the harbor. Two dead policemen.” Kurniawan shrugged his shoulders tentatively, turned on his mount, and began riding back towards the waterfront.
“It’s a dangerous situation,” said Moonblade, “Keep your eyes peeled, Bagus.”
Kurniawan silently tipped his lieutenant’s cap and rode on.
To Be Continued …