©2020 William A. Lasher
Captain Blooey entered the crowded conference room through a door behind the lectern. Wildenstein jumped to his feet and was about to cry, “officer on deck,” but Blooey shook his head and gestured for everyone to stay seated, “we’re all quite familiar with each other by now and can dispense with the formality.” He looked around the room and made eye contact with Rebekah and Kristin, “except we do have two visitors in attendance whom most of you may have not met before – Rebekah Krämer and Kristin Schumacher are graduate students from the University of Rostock. They’re on Professor Krause’s research team.”
Rebekah and Kristin briefly rose out of their seats and then quickly retook them. Scattered applause broke out in the predominately male assemblage, and then someone towards the back whistled vociferously.
“Alright, that will be enough of that,” said Blooey, “showing our visitors a bit of respect isn’t all that difficult, is it? No, I didn’t think so.” He paused to look down at his notes on the lectern and continued, “I’m sure by now all of you have heard the news about the aqua wolf emergence last night. A pack of approximately twenty five appeared just east of the Southwark Bridge. Witnesses said the wolves moved extremely fast, and their speed seemed almost supernatural. The pubs were just closing, and there were a number of people in the street. Eleven people were killed by the wolves. The victims had their throats ripped out, it was a grisly scene.
“Three of our Morpurgos were nearby, Sergeant Tantama, and Corporals Pangestu, and Handoko.” The Morpurgos rose out of their seats at the behest of Blooey. Cheers and applause broke out, and the diminutive soldiers smiled and bowed in affirmation before retaking their seats. “A witness running from the carnage told them what was happening, and Sergeant Tantama showed great courage in leading his squad to the scene of the mayhem. They came out atop a berm on the bridge approach, and when they saw what was taking place in the street beneath them, all three opened fire with their gas charged .50 caliber rifles. The wolf pack fled the scene and returned to the waterfront. Upon reaching the river, the wolves dove into the water and disappeared.
“One of the wolves was hit by the gunfire, and when Tantama and his men rode down to inspect their kill, they could scarcely believe their eyes. As the aqua wolf passed, it changed into a common Middle Russian forest wolf. The fish tail and the rest of the aqua wolf’s amphibious appendages vanished.”
The door behind the lectern gently opened. Krause and Ferndale appeared, and silently took places standing behind Captain Blooey.
“I will now yield the floor to Professor Krause, who I hope will be able to provide an explanation.” Blooey took a nearby chair, and the room became so quiet you could hear the morning breeze lightly rattling the window panes.
Krause moved behind the lectern, and at first looked inquisitively about the room without saying a word. He had a questioning expression on his face, as if he was waiting for someone who knew more about the subject matter to speak up, but no one did. Finally, he cleared his throat and began, “Dr. Ferndale and I performed an autopsy on the fallen wolf, and we were unable to find anything out of the ordinary. From his bushy tail to his canine nose, everything about the animal appears normal. The only explanation either one of us can come up with is der Wasserwolfe is an illusion.” He went back to gazing about the room silently. Delone raised his hand.
“You have a question or comment, Sergeant?” Krause raised his eyebrows.
“What do you mean by that? You just said der Wasserwolfe is an illusion. How can an illusion be responsible for eleven homicides?”
“Ah yes, a good question. How can an illusion be responsible for eleven homicides, and the answer is, we don’t know. We’re stumped, Sergeant Delone. Dr. Ferndale and I are unable to come up with any type of plausible scientific explanation whatsoever.”
Construction of the new airships was nearing completion. Soon we would be leaving London, bound for the Western Territory by way of North Borneo, with stops at the British colonies in Egypt and India. Moonblade, Delone, and I began a training regime that was designed to give us the skills and fortitude necessary to man the sailing apparatus atop the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Though a temporary assignment, we needed to become nothing less than fully competent atmospheric sailors.
At the same time, Molly and Kurniawan were attending classes that would give them the knowledge and the mettle necessary to become airship commanders. Upon graduation, both would be promoted to the rank of Captain.
The remaining soldiers continued on patrolling the waterfront at night, but there were no further sightings after the emergence of der Wasserwolfe at the Southwark Bridge, the only known time that an aqua wolf had been shot and killed. Had we succeeded in scaring off the mysterious mutants?
Our busy days commenced at sunrise. I departed the barracks house at dawn, walked over to meet Molly at her cottage, and then the two of us walked to the mess hall. Following breakfast there were calisthenics led by Kurniawan, and then Najwa Sunarko, Moonblade, Delone, and I departed on a two mile run to the wharf where we boarded a ferry bound for the Isle of Dogs. I missed Molly a great deal through the long and strenuous days, and meeting her for dinner in the evening was the highlight of my hard-working schedule.
Part of the reason why Kurniawan chose Sunarko to lead our squad was because he had good language skills. Generally, the Morpurgos stuck to themselves and were reluctant to learn much English, mostly because it was so difficult to learn, and also because many were socially shy. I could hardly blame them because London’s fast moving culture was so different than their own.
In contrast, Sunarko was a natural extrovert with a talent at forming friendships. He had taken it upon himself to master the English language since we had arrived in London, and he was beginning to acquire a British accent as well.
Sunarko turned the three of us into adept atmospheric sailors on the five tall masts of the Constantina. The mammoth airship was attached to heavy iron rings by multiple ropes, and when a few of the sails were unfurled, it would not move around much in a light breeze. On the other hand, if a more substantial wind came up, we found it better to leave the sails rolled up.
The hardest part for me was leaving the gondola and then climbing up and over the immense dirigible. There was an airlock to go through first, to preserve the cabin pressure inside the gondola when flying at high altitude. It wasn’t necessary to wear an oxygen suit while practicing at sea level in London, but the bulky suits would be a further impediment when we were actually underway.
The airlock consisted of a small compartment that we entered after climbing up a ship’s ladder inside the cabin. Once the entry door was sealed, we were then able to unlock a second door that put us on the roof. From there, we climbed a rope ladder that was fixed to the skin of the dirigible, up and over to a narrow walkway that ran between the Constantina’s tall masts.
On our first trip up, Sunarko went through the airlock first, and then waited on the gondola’s roof as the rest of us went through the airlock one at a time. I was the last to go through and felt a queasy feeling in my stomach when I realized how high in the air we were, and surveyed the skimpy rope ladder we were supposed to go up from there. We had all acquired climbing skills at Fort Greyling, but on the rock faces we were always tied in. The Morpurgos were free climbers on the airships, they used no safety lines.
When the Constantina rescued us over the ruins of Philadelphia, we had free climbed a rope ladder to a height at least 30 yards above the ground, but in the heat of battle, and with the gnawers moving in, my fear of heights was the last thing on my mind. The rope ladder we had to climb now looked much more precarious, because when you began climbing, you were halfway upside down.
It was a chilly November morning with winter rapidly approaching, and we were all wearing our military issue pea coats, with wool watch caps and gloves. The heavy clothing restricted my movement, and made the climbing all the more difficult.
We had an outstanding view of the river from our elevated perch. Looking to the east through the misty smog, I was just beginning to make out a convoy of airships gliding across the channel from the Continent. To the west, the iron grey sky was dark and ominous – it looked as if we were in for another round of afternoon drizzle.
Moonblade had no fear of heights, but when Sunarko saw how weak-kneed Delone and I looked, he grinned, “I’ll go first and then come back down before any of you try it. Now watch,” the diminutive Morpurgo began to climb slowly, “the most important thing is to remain confident. If we were three feet off the ground, it would be easy and you would never fall. And if instead, we’re 30,000 feet off the ground, it’s just as easy. You’ll never fall because you have confidence. No fear, just confidence.” He continued to climb slowly and steadily, “One hand after another, make sure you’re grabbing something solid, and make sure your footing is good. It’s really very easy. Nothing to it.”
He climbed up and over, and then climbed back down in reverse, “Climbing down is always harder than climbing up. We all learned that at Fort Greyling. It’s mostly because you can’t see where you’re going as easily because your feet are much lower than your eyes. But it’s the same principle as climbing up, and confidence is still the key. No fear, just confidence.”
Moonblade had no fear and all the confidence in the world. He went up the rope ladder first, and before he disappeared over the top of the dirigible, he paused and yelled back down to us, “if you think the view is good down there, wait until you climb up here!”
As Johnny went over the top, Delone watched intently, then stepped away from the bottom of the ladder and held out his hand, “after you Donovan, you’re next.”
I went up the ladder more slowly than Moonblade, and tried my best not to look down. Sunarko remained quiet, he didn’t want to break my concentration. I methodically found one foothold after another, grasped the rope rungs tightly, and climbed up and over. It was actually not that difficult at all once I overcame my fear of falling. We were all in fantastic physical shape from the daily calisthenics at the garrison.
I reached the top of the dirigible, and Moonblade patted me on the back and grinned as I steadied myself on the narrow walkway, “Pick a mast, Donovan, I’ll race you to the top.” I looked to the crow’s nest high above us and felt the queasy feeling returning to to the pit of my stomach.
Delone was white as a ghost when he pulled himself over the top a few minutes later. Sunarko was right on his tail. Higher up now, we had a much better view of the work taking place on the Fiery Crimson Messenger and the Amelia Snavely. The dirigibles and sailing apparatus were complete on both, and the ship building crews were hard at work finishing up the gondolas.
“Is there a reason why we can’t use safety lines?” said Delone.
“It would be impractical,” replied Sunarko quickly. “Safety lines would restrict movement and become tangled too easily. It’s hard enough to move about when we’re wearing our oxygen suits.”
“It seems like an excessive amount of risk. I mean, one slip-up and you’re toast.”
“If you want to drop out, I’ll notify Captain Blooey. You can stay in the gondola and assist Leftenant Abbotsford when we’re underway.”
“Yea, Alton – you can stay inside and help Margaret if you want to chicken out,” added Moonblade.
Delone gave Johnny a dirty look, “No, I’m not chickening out. I can do it. Just go easy at first and let me spend some time up here getting used to it.”
“Of course,” said Sunarko, “that’s the whole point of the exercises. By the time we set out for Cairo, you’ll be quite used to the altitude as well as the free climbing.”
News came by telegraph from Egypt. The entrance to a burial vault had been unearthed deep inside the Red Pyramid at Dashur. It appeared to be a large, room sized tomb that had never been opened. A breaching of the vault would occur within the next few weeks, and the British command in Cairo invited both Professor Krause and Dr. Ferndale to attend the momentous event.
Dr. Ferndale turned down the invitation. The stuffy eccentric despised foreign travel, and he elected to remain at home in Dulwich. Conversely, Professor Krause accepted the invitation with vigor saying he would not miss it in a hundred years, and he made arrangements with Captain Blooey to hitch a ride on the Constantina. Much to the delight of Johnny Moonblade, Rebekah and Kristin would accompany Krause to Egypt.
Molly was up early on the day of our departure. Normally I would walk to her cottage, but instead I found her waiting outside the barracks. We had breakfast at the mess hall, and on that day skipped the calisthenics. It was a chilly morning with frost on the window panes, and a low winter sun peeking through the cold grey overcast.
The airship crews set to work packing personal belongings into duffel bags, and loading them on a pair of wagons with sacks of basic foodstuffs and other imperishable supplies. By noon, the Newington Garrison was close to empty.
Molly was promoted to the rank of Captain, and the christening of the new airships worked wonders in improving her melancholy mood. General Evernight joined us on the Isle of Dogs for the ceremony. He gave us a long-winded pep talk before buckets of dirty Thames river water were splashed on the bows of the gondolas.
We departed London in formation with the Fiery Crimson Messenger and the Amelia Snavely leading the way across the icy waters of the English Channel, and I must say my bricky girlfriend looked irresistible standing at the helm in her parade dress uniform, with three brand new gold Captain’s buttons on each of her epaulettes.
The interiors on the new airships were more accommodating as compared to the Raven and the Hawk. The gondola cabins were pressurized meaning we didn’t have to wear our cumbersome oxygen suits while cruising at high altitudes, and everything inside was sparkling new. Instead of the hard backed seats and raw exposed framework, we had comfortable leather upholstery and pinewood paneling. The sleeping berths were bigger too, and Molly had her own spacious Captain’s quarters.
The airship crews would be shorthanded until we arrived in North Borneo, and we had three newcomers on the Fiery Crimson Messenger. Corporal Alice Wingham had experience as a pilot. She would cover for Moonblade when we were topside rigging the sailing apparatus. Private Grady Scribbens was trained as a cook, and his compeer Dorian Queensbury was assigned to oxygen tank maintenance and other miscellaneous duties. Queensbury was our utlility man.
Hydrogen supplies were plentiful in Egypt and India, so on the first leg of our journey, refueling would not be an issue. The abundant gas would allow us to make good time, traveling at speeds upwards of 15 knots. During the day we would unfurl the sails and travel under both wind and hydrogen power. At night we would roll up the sails and continue on under hydrogen power alone.
We gained altitude as we crossed into the skies above France, and Moonblade yielded the ship’s wheel to Alice Wingham. Sunarko was already suited up and on top of the dirigible. Delone and I were putting on the heavy woolen under garments that would protect us from the extreme cold outside the heated confines of the cabin. Moonblade joined us as we pulled on the bulky oxygen suits.
“I want you men to be careful out there,” said Molly looking up from the map she was studying on the charts table.
“Of course, Captain Abbotsford,” said Delone pausing to give her an antic hand salute.
“I’m serious, Alton. No monkeying around, we can’t afford any casualties.”
“Delone won’t be doing any monkeying around,” said Moonblade with a devilish grin, “he’ll be too busy shaking in his boots when he sees how high off the ground we are.”
Delone noticed Wingham trying to suppress an outburst of laughter and he began to blush, “yea, and you can go to hell too, Johnny.”
“C’mon guys, enough of that,” I said taking a seat to pull on my boots, “we’ll be relying on each other up there, and we don’t need any hard feelings to spoil things.”
Delone checked the fit on his helmet. He pulled it down tight on his head, and then slipped it off again, “I know Sunarko told us safety lines are impractical and I get it, but couldn’t we wear some kind of parachute or something like that?”
“That’s all I need,” said Moonblade, “more crap strapped to my back, like the oxygen tanks won’t slow us down enough.”
I stood up and moved closer to Delone, resting my hand on his shoulder in a gesture of friendship, “And even if you could manage to get a parachute open, Alton, you might not like where you land so much.”
“Yeah,” said Johnny, “like in the middle of a pack of aqua wolves a hundred miles out in the ocean.”
“Or in a nest of human zombies a hundred miles into the Forsaken Zone,” said Molly without looking up from her charts.
The climb to the top of the dirigible was easier than in the practice sessions. Though weighted down with my bulky oxygen suit, the girth of the rigid balloon was smaller as compared to the Constantina. Each of the new airships was approximately a quarter the size of the immense mother ship.
Moonblade was already on top, standing on the walkway below the three tall masts, waiting on Sunarko as he climbed down from the crow’s nest. As Delone crested the top of the dirigible behind me, I looked to the north and saw Kurniawan’s Morpurgos unfurling the full sailing array on the Amelia Snavely a couple of hundred yards away. The stiff westerlies caught the sails, and as they billowed out, the airship picked up speed, and quickly outpaced us. Behind us, and higher in the air, the Constantina was picking up speed too, as Captain Blooey’s Morpurgos unfurled sails of their own.
High above the clouds, Moonblade and I did our best to assist Sunarko in rigging our own sails. Johnny was a better climber, but I was finally overcoming my fear of falling. The key was to not look down.
The rectangular sails were fixed to horizontal booms, and each one was fitted with gadgetry that allowed the sailors to mechanically roll them up or roll them out. The complicated array of gears, cranking handles, and locking levers made it easy to maintain control over each individual sail in the wind. The hard part was accessing the hardware because it required climbing the masts to reach each individual station. Keeping a secure foothold while operating the apparatus with both hands was tricky.
When I looked to our aft, I noticed we were starting to pull away from the Constantina now. It was hard to tell how fast we were moving, because beyond the two other airships, there was no reference point. We were thousands of feet above the surface of the earth.
There was a tiny cabin built into the base of the center mast, with a pair of Morpurgo sized bunks and a compact desk at the message tube terminal. Delone was sitting inside with the door open, and it appeared he had just received correspondence from Molly. I worked my way back down to the walkway as he unlatched the brass canister and unfolded the paper message it contained. He read it first and then handed it to me when I reached the minuscule cabin. Here’s what the message said:
We used sign language because our voices were muffled by the thick glass on our helmets. I signaled to Sunarko and Moonblade that Molly had cut off the motors, and gave them the thumbs up to continue sailing.
I could still see the Amelia Snavely. They were a good distance out ahead of us, but it looked as if Kurniawan had turned off his hydrogen motors too, and their forward progress was slowing as a result. Behind us, the Constantina was beginning to catch up, with sails fully deployed, and the gondola’s propellers turning at full throttle.
The engineers on the Isle of Dogs had promised us the new airships would be the fastest ever built, and on the first day out, both had exceeded our most optimistic expectations. Flying downwind, 15 knots was a normal cruising speed for the Constantina. Air speeds over 25 knots were unheard of.
The airships fell into a more orderly formation as we sailed high above the Lorraine Region of France. Every once in awhile there would be a small break in the heavy cloud cover, and we would get a chance to view the rolling farm country thousands and thousands of feet below us.
As afternoon became evening, and the sun disappeared behind a cloud bank on the western horizon, we furled the sails and Molly fired up the motors. The hydrogen power would be enough to keep us even with the Constantina through the night.
Scribbens cooked dinner, the first ever prepared on the Fiery Crimson Messenger. He had fresh chicken and vegetables to work with on that first night, and he baked loaves of bread in an onboard oven. Like everything else, the kitchen was more modern and better equipped on the new airship, and had a freezer compartment built into the gondola’s roof.
Anything could be kept frozen outside in the rarefied air high above the clouds, including my toes, and I sat by the furnace with my dinner, thawing out my feet. Moonblade had enough energy left to take the wheel from Wingham while she ate. With the ship’s wheel in one hand, and a drumstick in the other, he gave Queensbury a primer on the basics of piloting an airship. Queensbury would stand a late night watch on the bridge, so the rest of us could get adequate rest.
“Never do anything too fast, that’s the key to it,” said Johnny, “if you change course, the ship has a delayed reaction, so be careful not to over correct.”
“What if I do over correct?” Queensbury looked as anxious as Delone on the dirigible.
“You can lose control. Worst case scenario, the ship goes into a full three-sixty.
“Then what do I do?”
“Wake me up fast, but there’s no need to be so nervous about it. We’re set on a beeline course for Cairo, so you don’t have to worry about making any turns at all. Just keep your hands on the wheel, and an eye on the Amelia Snavely’s running lamps. It’s a four hour watch. You can handle it, Queensbury.”
Light from a full moon gave the top of the cloud deck beneath us a supernatural glow. I sat with Molly on a cozy settee by the window in her quarters. The Amelia Snavely was traveling abreast of us, a hundred yards or so to the north, and I could make out details on our sister ship’s fuselage easily in the bright moonlight. Dog tired, I began to dose off as Molly studied her books.
“I’m reading about military discipline, Donovan,” Molly raised her voice slightly in an effort to keep me from falling asleep.
“Well that certainly sounds risqué, Captain Abbotsford.” I said yawning.
Molly gave me a playful punch on the shoulder, “I’m serious. It’s part of my required curriculum. You might be surprised to learn that officers are held to a much higher standard of conduct as compared to the enlisted ranks.”
“What about scrips?”
“Same as enlisted. It’s all according to rank. As a sergeant, there’s more expected from you than a private.”
“What happens if I screw up?”
“As your commanding officer I would have a number of options. Flogging has been abolished, but in a case of treason, you would be handed over to a court martial, and if found guilty, hung by the neck until dead.”
“Oi, that sounds awfully harsh, and thank god we both made it out of Dunkwell with our necks intact.”
“I should say. Here in the MEF, any military punishment you might receive would depend on the severity of the offense, and whether or not there were extenuating circumstances. In time of war I would have more leeway in my decision.”
“Are we officially at war right now?”
“Oh yes. We’re at war with the human zombies in the Forsaken Zone, as well as the proliferation of mutant species around the world.”
“We’ve got our hands full alright, Margaret.”
“And speaking of war, it sounds as if the situation in Cairo is a bit dicey as well. We recently landed an occupational army following the bombardment of the port of Alexandria. Control of the Suez Canal was the motive.”
“When you say we, you mean the British.”
“Of course. As MEF, we’re British military,” Molly turned a page on the bulky manual she had propped up on her knees, “By now I’m feeling awfully British, aren’t you too?”
“I suppose, and I think we’re both starting to acquire English accents.”
“I didn’t tell you before, but when we were commissioned as officers, Kurniawan and I both received automatic British citizenship.”
“Can I become a British citizen too?”
“Complete your term of service and you’ll be a shoo-in.”
“Do we have to give up our American citizenship to become Brits?”
Molly paused, “There isn’t anything left of the United States, Donovan. Remember? The Western Territory is a British protectorate and everything east of the Rockies was destroyed in the Great Hydrogen War.”
“Yes, of course. It’s just hard to get used to the idea that the United States is gone. Even after seeing the devastation firsthand in the Forsaken Zone.”
“Gone but not forgotten. I shall never forget our carefree lives in Leacock Corners.”
I saw the sadness returning to Molly’s eyes and quickly changed the subject, “the situation in Cairo sounds dangerous.”
“It is indeed. Dr. Ahmed ‘Urabi is the leader of a nationalist uprising that’s been gaining strength since the Suez Canal was completed. If their rebellion is successful, they’ll seize control of the canal, and close access for European shipping.”
Molly closed the military manual and returned it to its place among a number of other thick tomes on a shelf next to her desk. She kicked off her boots, moved closer to me on the settee and continued, “The legitimate khedive of Egypt is Tewfik Pasha, the sixth ruler of the Muhammad Ali Dynasty. Pasha is our ally and we’re fighting to keep him in power. When we’re on the ground in Egypt, everyone needs to stay on their toes and carry weapons at all times. Blooey said we should be ready for anything, including the possibility of live combat with the rebel forces.”
The clouds cleared off overnight, and the morning sun was bright as a well polished diamond as it crested the eastern horizon. Wearing a pair of dark tinted goggles, Alice Wingham retook the ship’s wheel from Queensbury, who seemed more confident than he had been on the evening before, and now seemed reluctant to yield the wheel.
We fell into our normal strategic formation as Molly and Kurniawan became accustomed to the increased power of the new gunboats. The Fiery Crimson Messenger and Amelia Snavely traveled abreast of each other in the lead, and the mother ship followed a few hundred yards behind at a slightly higher altitude.
As our sailing crew climbed out of the gondola and over the dirigible, we were treated to a wondrous view of the Swiss Alps rising up to the east. The atmosphere had dried out, and the visibility was extraordinary. It seemed as if I could reach out and touch the distant peaks, the air was so clear.
It wasn’t hard to pick out the iconic Matterhorn as we crossed the border from Switzerland into Italy. Late in autumn, the mountains were already blanketed with heavy snowfall.
The beeline route to Cairo took us over Milan and Bologna, and then out over the Adriatic Sea. We didn’t get to see Rome, but on the fourth day we sailed over Athens. Using my quadoptical, I could see the Acropolis distinctly. The ancient citadel sat on a rocky outcropping a few hundred feet above the city proper.
It took a full six days to sail from London to Cairo. Once we pulled out of the clouds over France, the skies stayed clear and the humidity low as we crossed Italy, Greece, and the Mediterranean Sea. We began our descent over the Nile Delta, and we could see the Great Pyramids to the south as we found berths at the busy airship port in Cairo.
To Be Continued …