©2020 William A. Lasher
There was a collective grumbling among the airship crews when Captain Blooey made his announcement. We were ordered to stay on or near the ships at all times with no liberty for as long as we were on the ground in Cairo. There were daily skirmishes between the British Army and the rebel forces, and any westerner was an easy target.
The airship station was located at the edge of the city, and was protected by the occupational forces. The elevated mooring platforms provided us with a view of both the city and the harsh desert beyond. The Sahara was the largest, hottest, and driest desert in the world. Annual rainfall in Cairo was less than an inch. A stark visual contrast was in evidence from the verdant oasis along the banks of the Nile to the barren windswept desert.
General Zachariah Pierpont was the leader of the occupational forces, and he invited our airship captains to a formal dinner the first night we were in Cairo. The khedive of Egypt, Tewfik Pasha would also be in attendance.
Professor Krause was invited as well, and he received approval to bring along Kristin, though Rebekah chose to stay with the airships. (Johnny Moonblade had promised to give her tours of both the Amelia Snavely and the Fiery Crimson Messenger.)
Molly asked Blooey if I could come along too, and at first he said no. General Pierpont was a stickler for military convention. It would be a violation of the code of conduct for an enlisted man to sit with officers at a formal state dinner.
“Could I bring Sergeant Highgarden as my bodyguard then?”
“As your bodyguard?”
“Yes, my personal bodyguard, considering how dangerous the situation is with the rebel forces.”
Blooey paused for a moment and then, “Better yet, I will appoint Highgarden our sergeant-at-arms. He won’t be seated, but he will be allowed to stand at ease by the door. Would that be acceptable to you, Highgarden?”
“Of course, sir. It would be an honor.”
“Right-o, then. I’m sure General Pierpont will allow you to eat with the kitchen staff.”
A company of soldiers brought an enclosed carriage drawn by two stout Arabians. It was a tight fit, but we all managed to squeeze inside. Kurniawan was practically sitting in Captain Blooey’s lap. The soldiers who accompanied us to Pierpont’s residence rode on camels. It was a two mile ride from the airship station.
The setting sun cast a surreal orange glow across the exceptionally old city, and traveling through the narrow winding streets, we more than once heard gunshots and loud voices. At one point a ragtag band of rebels changed their direction of travel. They turned and disappeared down a dark alleyway when they saw our convoy approaching.
Pierpont was a large, square-headed man with a booming voice and imperious demeanor. He welcomed us at the front door and guided us to a neatly furnished study where cocktails were served. The khedive was an Islamic fundamentalist and teetotaler, so the Brits would get their drinking done before the guest of honor arrived later on.
“I see you’ve brought your own security man,” said Pierpont lifting his chin towards me.
“Sergeant Donovan Highgarden at your service, sir,” I said, coming to attention and executing a snappy hand salute.
“At ease, Sergeant. Yes, we can’t be too careful with the situation so volatile. I’m glad to see you’re carrying your .50 caliber rifle … and Captain Abbotsford, I’ve heard so much about you. I’m strongly in favor of female officers, and it’s a pleasure to meet you.” Pierpont took Molly’s hand and lightly kissed it.
Dr. Archibald Farquhar arrived shortly after. An old friend of Professor Krause, he was the archaeologist in charge of exhumations at the pyramid fields, an unpopular pursuit among the indigenous Egyptians. The unearthing of the ancient artifacts was part of the rebels’ beef with the British, they considered the digging to be a sacrilege.
Corporal Tydings acted as cocktail waiter, and he kept the brandy snifters and whiskey glasses filled. Krause and Farquhar were seated, while Blooey, Kurniawan, and Molly stood in a loose circle listening to Pierpont tell war stories. A silent Kristin sat close to Krause, and I stood by the door feeling slightly out of place.
Pierpont thought Kurniawan’s diminutive stature put him at a disadvantage in the conversation, and he summoned Corporal Tydings to find a remedy; “Tydings, fetch an ottoman for Captain Kurniawan to stand on. He’s a brave man and deserves to be eye-to-eye with the rest of us.”
Kurniawan waved his hand dismissively. “Oh, that’s alright, General. I’ll be fine.”
“I insist,” as Tydings dropped a footstool down in front of Kurniawan. “Now step right up there on the ottoman so I can look you in the eye when I’m speaking.”
My post by the door was closest to Krause and Farquhar, and it was easy for me to follow their conversation.
“We’re ready to open the tomb at any time, Hermann, I delayed the procedure pending your arrival.”
“Would tomorrow fit into your schedule? Captain Blooey is anxious to proceed on to India.”
“I think tomorrow will be splendid. Are you and the girls going to continue on with the airships?”
“At first we were going to return to Rostock following the exhumation, but General Evernight offered me a position as science adviser on the Constantina. He included a generous salary in his offer, so I took him up on it. Kristin and Rebekah are rather excited at the opportunity to sail around the world, and the administrators at the university think it will be a wonderful opportunity for continued research.”
“Ja,” said Kristin, “Rebekah and I are looking forward to the travel very much.”
Dr. Farquhar smiled at Kristin politely, took a sip of brandy, and continued, “We’ve received reports of a new mutant species in the vicinity of Lake Victoria, Hermann. At first we thought it might be a Bantu witch doctor telling tall tales, but subsequently, the story has been corroborated by credible British military sources in Mombasa.”
“A new mutant species?” said Krause, “and in East Africa? The effects of the Great Hydrogen War have become more pervasive than we once anticipated.”
“Yes, it’s a worldwide epidemic, and this particular mutation is one of the most bizarre anyone has seen yet.”
Captain Blooey overheard the conversation and turned to face the scientists. “A new mutant discovered? Is General Pierpont aware of this?”
“Quite aware,” said Pierpont. “But the rest of you haven’t been briefed, so listen up please.”
Now that he had the attention of everyone in the room, Dr. Farquhar cleared his throat and proceeded with more volume, “The Nile crocodile is one of the largest reptilian predators in the world, often growing to sixteen feet and longer. It’s a fearsome creature, even in it’s natural non-mutated form. So now imagine how dangerous a Nile croc would be if it could fly.”
“A flying crocodile?” said Captain Blooey with an exaggerated frown. “Excuse me for saying so, but that sounds patently absurd. How much does a Nile croc weigh?”
“Upwards of a thousand pounds, and apparently that’s why the mutants have grown such large wings.”
“Mutant crocodiles with wings?” said Krause. “Are they bird wings? Is there some type of bird involved in the mutation?”
“They appear to be much more like bat wings. Translucent flesh. No feathers.”
“It seems as if it would take an awfully large wingspan to get a thousand pound crocodile off the ground.”
“Upwards of twenty five yards, and with jointed wings.”
“My God,” said Blooey, “how many of these monsters are in existence?”
“More than one has been spotted soaring above the perimeter of Lake Victoria. Exact numbers are unknown.”
The Red Pyramid was the largest of the pyramids in the Dahshur necropolis, and the third largest in all of Egypt, rising to a height of 341 feet. Named for the rusty reddish hue of its limestone slabs, it was also one of the oldest, built during the dynasty of Pharaoh Snefru in 2600 BC.
Located about 20 miles south of Cairo proper, the Red Pyramid’s main burial vault was where British archaeologists had discovered the outer space alien remains housed at the Museum Of Abnormal Science in Dulwich. Following their extraordinary discovery, a series of additional passageways were discovered beneath the main vault. While exploring the subterranean tunnels, the entrance to yet another apparent burial vault was discovered.
A temporary wooden stairway allowed us access to the lower set of narrow passageways built into the pyramid’s massive base. Dr. Farquhar said we were beneath ground level now, as we followed him further down. Egyptian workers had gone ahead of us lighting wall mounted hydrogen lamps positioned within sight of each other. The lights cast long, eerie shadows, and the bone dry desert air had a stale odor, like a poorly ventilated crawlspace.
Farquhar was followed closely by Krause and his lovely young assistants, Rebekah and Kristin. The tunnels were so narrow that we needed to walk single file. Captain Blooey was next in the procession, and Molly and I brought up the rear. A company of British Army regulars had provided us with security on the twenty mile journey from Cairo, and they remained at the entrance to the sizable chamber outside the main burial vault.
The tunnels led us to a lower chamber, and we found a group of Egyptian workers preparing to open the newly discovered burial vault. The ancient gypsum mortar had been chipped away from a thick slab of limestone that sealed the entry, and the four men used poles and pry bars to gradually inch it away from the opening. They were speaking in Arabic, and none of us beyond Farquhar could understand a word of what they were saying.
When they had moved the stone far enough to get behind it, they all put their shoulders into it, and on the count of three, “wahid, itnan, talata,” managed to topple it over.
The burial vault was open now. The four workers backed away from the chamber, looking towards the dark void with apprehension. The leader said a few words to Farquhar, and the group rapidly departed, heading back up the tunnel towards the surface.
“Evil spirits,” said Farquhar.
“Excuse me?” said Captain Blooey.
“The Egyptians took off so fast because they’re afraid they may have disturbed supernatural entities. They think evil spirits guard these burial tombs.”
“Are we ready to take a look inside?” said Krause. He struck a wooden match to light the candle lantern he was carrying.
“Let’s have at it.” Farquhar lit his own lantern, and he and Krause moved towards the vault tentatively, holding their lanterns high, while the rest of us remained where we were standing.
Molly looked towards me with an anxious expression on her face, and edged in closer until our shoulders were just touching. She reached for my hand and I reciprocated, lightly grasping hers.
Farquhar stepped over the fallen slab gingerly, and went inside. Krause was right on his heels as they both moved out of our view. There was a pause and then we heard Farquhar, “Oh for the love of God!”
“What is it?” exclaimed Captain Blooey, “what did you find?”
Krause appeared at the opening, “Nothing. The vault’s empty.”
Blooey strode over to the opening and peered inside, “By jove, you’re right. The tomb is empty. After all that hoo-ha, there’s nothing in here.”
Farquhar used his lantern to closely examine the far wall, “just hold your horses, gentlemen. It could be an antechamber. The actual burial vault may be in another room beyond this one. Wait a minute, what’s this on the wall?” He paused to examine a metallic rod protruding from the limestone. “It appears to be a lever of some sort.”
“It looks like iron,” said Krause peering over his shoulder.
“The ancient Egyptians worked with metals?” said Blooey.
“Ja,” said Rebekah as she stepped up on the fallen entry slab to get a better look inside the vault, “Copper and bronze were used to make tools and weapons as early as 3150 BC, and the early Egyptians also harvested iron from fallen meteorites.”
“It seems to be a moving part,” said Farquhar grasping the metallic rod, “I’m going to pull on it and see what happens.”
Molly and I moved in close enough to get a look inside too, and as he pulled down on the lever, we were astonished to at first hear a groaning noise, and then see a portion of the limestone wall pivot open.
“How in the world did they manage that?!” exclaimed Farquhar as he carefully examined the camouflaged door. “Mechanical entryways in the Great Pyramids are unheard of. This is something we’ve never seen before.”
“And it looks as if we hit pay dirt,” said Krause peering around Farquhar, and then turning to face the rest of us, “there’s a mummy in the vault.”
The two scientists entered the hidden vault. Captain Blooey was right on their heels. Rebekah and Kristin moved in close enough to see inside, with Molly and I in the antechamber now too, lifting our heads to look over their shoulders.
Light from the lanterns illuminated a horizontal stone slab in the center of the room, at about the height of a dining table. There was a mummified man in a position of repose stretched out on the slab. The mummy was far different than any of the ones Farquhar had examined in the past, and what made the ancient remains so unique was the style of dress.
The clothing on the corpse looked to be well preserved. A tunic secured at the waist with a rope belt of sorts, and tall boots over striped pantaloons. The mummy was armed with a sword in a scabbard attached to its belt.
“I’m not sure what to make of this at all, Professor Krause.” Farquhar was stunned.
“The mummy appears to be dressed in the style of a French nobleman of the sword,” said Krause raising his voice so everyone could hear. “The skull and facial features appear to belong to a Western European as well.”
“Dating the wardrobe and sword I would guess somewhere in the 800 to 1200 AD range,” Farquhar collecting his composure.
“I concur. And it’s a rather bizarre turn of events considering the pyramid and its burial vaults were constructed in 2600 BC, over 30 centuries before men in Western Europe dressed in this fashion.”
Captain Blooey leaned over to take a closer look at the mummy, “What’s the explanation, gentlemen?”
Krause shrugged his shoulders and held up his hands, “I’m not sure, Captain. Any ideas, Archie?”
Farquhar slowly shook his head, bewildered, “Completely out of the ordinary. This discovery is easily as bizarre as the alien life forms we found in the upper vault.”
“Maybe more so.”
Kristin spoke up, “Perhaps the mummy is illusionary, Professor.”
“An illusion?” said Blooey wide-eyed, “but the mummy is quite real. Can I touch it?” holding out his finger.
“I wouldn’t,” said Krause, “not yet. The corpse is hundreds of years old and could disintegrate easily, perhaps releasing toxins into the atmosphere.”
Molly was the first to hear the commotion above us, “What’s that noise? Do you hear it?”
“Ja,” said Rebekah, “it sounds like yelling and muffled gunfire.”
An out of breath soldier appeared at the entrance to the chamber. “Captain Blooey, sir, we’re under attack. The rebels have the pyramid surrounded.”
“Quite a few. It looks like they have us outnumbered, but they’re short on weaponry. Most are carrying swords and knives.”
“They’re unhappy with our exhumation work.” said Krause.
“Yes, sir,” said the soldier, “they’re yelling ‘death to the infidels!'”
“Alright, very good Private, return to your post and keep up the fight.” Captain Blooey dismissed him with a quick salute, and the soldier dashed off.
“Are we trapped down here then?” said Krause.
“Not quite,” said Farquhar. “There’s a network of tunnels leading to the pyramids to the south of us – The Bent Pyramid and the Pyramid of Amenemhat III – the passageways are low and extremely narrow in spots, but it’s another way out.”
“I have faith that our troops will prevail,” said Blooey.
“For as long as their ammunition holds out anyway,” said Farquhar, “and the rebels may have reinforcements.”
“Maybe we should try to escape through the tunnels,” said Krause.
“But what do we do when we reach the end?” said Molly. “We could end up in a worse situation.”
“That’s a good point, Captain,” said Blooey. “We have no weapons beyond Highgarden’s rifle, and we’ll have no transportation back to Cairo.”
Farquhar paused and then, “The Amenhat III Pyramid is close to the river and there’s normally boatmen around. It shouldn’t be that hard to find transportation. I’ve hired boatmen at the same spot a number of times before.”
“Better than waiting it out inside this stale smelling tomb,” said Krause. “I say we give it a try.”
“You’re sure you know the way?” Blooey to Farquhar.
“Of course. We’ve explored the tunnels thoroughly looking for artifacts. I drew up a map at one point, though I don’t have it with me just this minute.
“Rebekah, Kristin – how do you feel about it?”
“I think we should give it a try,” said Rebekah.
“Ja,” said Kristin, nodding in affirmation.
“Alright then,” said Blooey. “Lead the way, Dr. Farquhar.”
We set out for Amenemhat III with Dr. Farquhar in the lead. There were no hydrogen lamps beyond the burial vault, so the seven of us had to rely on the three candle lanterns that we had brought along, Farquhar carried one of them. He was immediately followed by Rebekah and Kristin, then Professor Krause who carried the second lantern. Captain Blooey was next in the procession, followed by Molly who carried the third. Toting my .50 caliber rifle, your faithful narrator brought up the rear.
The tunnels became narrower as promised, to the point where we had to duck our heads down and turn sideways to squeeze through in spots. When a junction came up, Dr. Farquhar never hesitated in his choice of routes, he was confident he knew the way. At first the walls were solid limestone, but became earthen with stone support structures here and there. The dirt tunnels had a musty odor, and we began to see spiders and other long legged insects who ran for cover when exposed to the candle light. At one point word was passed down the line that Dr. Farquhar had seen a pair of rats.
The movement of Molly’s lantern cast long shadows that danced on the walls as we proceeded. The path before me was well illuminated, but behind me, it was hard to see anything at all.
More than once I was sure that I heard something moving in my wake. I thought I heard plodding footsteps, like we were being followed by someone … or something. When I slowed and turned to look, the shuffling noise stopped.
I caught up to Molly, “I keep hearing something back there. It sounds like someone is following us.”
“Following us? Are you sure it’s not your imagination?”
I stayed close to Molly as we kept walking, and then we came to a hard turn in the tunnel, “Let’s stop here for a moment.” I put my finger to my lips as we rounded the tight corner, “stay perfectly quiet and listen.”
The rest of our party continued on, and as the sound of their footsteps became fainter ahead of us, we remained stationary and stood listening.
I heard the shuffling noise again, “Do you hear that?” I whispered, pulling my rifle from its sling.
“Yes. Keep your rifle ready.” Molly held the lantern high, and as we both peered around the corner, we could scarcely believe our eyes. The mummy from the burial vault had come to life. Though there was little left of the blackened flesh on its face, its eye sockets seemed to make contact with my own eyes, and an evil grin formed on its face as it unsheathed its sword, and raised it in a threatening gesture.
“Good God!” I cried as I shouldered my weapon and squeezed off a round. The noise from the .50 caliber charge was deafening in the confined space. As I lowered the gun down to my waist, Molly and I were both shocked to find the mummy had vanished. We hurried back to the spot where we had both seen it, but the bizarre aberration was gone.
“Abbotsford, Highgarden – what is it? Why did you shoot your weapon?” We heard Captain Blooey shout as he ran back to where we were standing.
“The mummy,” said Molly as she attempted to regain her composure. “It was following us, but now its gone. Donovan shot his rifle and it vanished!”
“The mummy?! The mummy was following you?!”
“Yes, sir,” I said, my ears still ringing from the rifle’s deafening report, “I kept hearing footsteps behind me, and when we stopped at the corner and looked back around, it was there, plain as day.”
We heard Krause calling from further ahead, “Is everything alright back there?”
Blooey cupped his hands around his mouth and answered, “Yes, Professor, everything is under control.”
“I know it sounds unbelievable, but it was there, we both saw it.” Molly checked to make sure she still had the spare candles in the back pocket of her khaki slacks.
“I’m not questioning your story, I assure you, and it does seem to fit in with the rest of the unusual occurrences we’ve been experiencing lately. We’ll try to make sense of it later on. Once we get through these infernal tunnels that Dr. Farquhar insisted on leading us down.”
I heaved a sigh of relief when we exited the subterranean passageway at Amenemhat III, and saw the sunlight once again. The seven of us walked down a wide stone stairway to the waterfront where we hired a sail powered skiff to take us back to Cairo. The boat was constructed of buoyant papyrus reeds, and piloted by an exceptionally dark skinned Egyptian and his assistant. Neither spoke any English, but Farquhar was able to adequately communicate our needs in their native tongue.
Upon our return to the airship station, I took tea with Molly in her quarters aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger.
“There was something awfully suspicious about that mummy.”
“That’s an understatement,” said Molly popping open the cookie tin.
“I immediately thought of our conversation with Duke Archambeau. How he talked of his nemesis taking on the form of a French nobleman of the sword in the Middle Ages – I can’t recall his name.”
“It was Baron Guillaume De Vreese, and he said that he was Belgian, though I’m fairly certain Belgium was part of France in the Middle Ages, and if we’re going back as far as the 9th Century AD, it was all part of the Holy Roman Empire.” She held out the cookie tin so I could take one.
“Do you think it’s possible that De Vreese may have had something to do with the mummy’s unusual appearance and actions?”
“At this point, I think anything is possible.” Molly took a bite out of her cookie. “Remember how Kristin asked Professor Krause if he thought the mummy could be an illusion? I think that may have been awfully perceptive on her part.”
I paused to take a sip of tea and then replied, “and the only explanation Krause and Ferndale could come up with for der Wasserwolfe was they thought it might be an illusion as well.”
“Duke Archambeau said he would contact us upon our return to the Western Territory, but maybe we should try to talk to him sooner. He might be able to answer some of our questions.”
“How do we go about doing that?”
“I’ll send a telegram to Henry and ask him to meet us in India. If De Vreese was behind the animated mummy, and his actions were directed at us personally, we should notify the Duke of Courbevoie as soon as possible.”
Word came from East Africa – the frequency of winged crocodile sightings had increased dramatically, and a fishing boat on Lake Victoria had been attacked and capsized. Our airship squadron received orders to proceed up the Nile River Valley at once. It would add a significant detour to our journey, but there were no other MEF units available to take the call.
We departed Cairo in tight formation, and quickly gained cruising altitude with our hydrogen tanks refreshed. All of the airships had been converted to helium gas for loft, but we were still using the lightest element in the periodic table for power. Hydrogen gas was far more plentiful and it was combustible – dangerous, but highly valued as a dependable fuel source.
The British East Africa Company produced the gas at a plant on the lower flanks of Mount Kilimanjaro, so refueling on our extended detour would not be an issue.
It was more of a separation method as opposed to extraction. When compressed water was fired into an underground volcanic hot spot, the procedure reduced the aqua to its two basic elements, hydrogen and oxygen. It was viable to use seawater to produce the H gas as well, so the power source was for all practical purposes unlimited – hard coal resources were not.
We put on our oxygen suits as Molly plotted the course and the ship continued to gain altitude.
“So now we’re headed for the jungles of deepest, darkest Africa,” said Delone, “at this rate we’ll never make it home.”
“Actually, the part of Africa we’re headed for is a tropical grassland,” said Molly looking up from her charts, “rain forest in Africa is limited to the Congo Basin. The majority of the continent is arid or semi-arid.”
Moonblade walked over to the charts table as he secured his gloves to the sleeves of his oxygen suit, “we’re headed for the Serengeti, the tall grasslands where the lions live. Am I right, Margaret?”
“You’re correct, Johnny. A high altitude plateau teeming with wildlife. Lions, zebra, giraffes, cheetah, and wildebeest, just to name a few.”
“And winged crocodiles,” I added. “This is bound to be an exciting mission.”
Delone was pulling on his insulated boots. “What to do we do when we see a flying croc? Tear it to pieces with the Longstones?”
“Or we can roast ’em with the flamethrowers,” said Moonblade, “Cap’n Blooey said hydrogen supplies are not an issue in Africa. There’s plenty of H gas to go around.”
“They’re living creatures,” said Delone, “is it really necessary to kill them?”
Moonblade made a face at him, “Yeah. Living creatures alright – just like der Wasserwolfe and the giant bats. What do you want to do, put them in a zoo?”
Molly was equally astounded at Delone’s comment, “We’re MEF – Mutant Eradication Forces. Remember, Alton? It’s our duty to seek out dangerous mutant species and exterminate them. You made a pledge to Queen Victoria when you put on that uniform.”
“There’s no place for sentimentality in the MEF,” I agreed.
“Delone just needs something to whine about,” said Moonblade. “He’s always got a complaint about something.”
“Stick it in your ear, Johnny.”
It was just over 2,000 air miles to Lake Victoria, about the same distance we had traveled from London to Cairo. In the Sahara, we were in the north-easterly trade wind belt, and the conditions were prime for atmospheric sailing, with a steady prevailing wind from the north at the upper levels. On the surface, it was normally dry and tranquil in the immense desert.
Our squadron of military airships followed the Nile due south. The skies remained cloudless as we navigated the narrow ribbon of green. Beyond the riparian oasis, the parched brown desert stretched to the horizon.
With sails fully deployed and propellers turning, the Constantina averaged between 15 and 20 knots. Molly and Kurniawan kept the motors shut down on the faster gunboats during the daylight hours. Sail power alone was enough to keep the Fiery Crimson Messenger and the Amelia Snavely even with the mother ship as we rode the dependable trade winds towards the wilds of East Africa.
Once the sails were unfurled in the morning, Sunarko and Moonblade were able to keep things running smoothly topside, and Delone and I could return to the gondola to attend to other duties. We would remain short-handed until we reached North Borneo, so there were plenty of chores to keep us occupied.
Delone and I were the designated gunners, and the new ships had more advanced weaponry as compared to the Raven and the Hawk. The location of the gun emplacements was the same, one forward and one aft, but instead of just a Longstone in each position, we also had high powered flamethrowers fueled by H gas.
On the Raven, Delone acted as my assistant, though he had never actually operated a Longstone himself. It was now my job to teach him how to use the machine guns, as well as the flamethrowers. Molly and I had a considerable amount of experience with both.
On the second morning of our journey, we went into the forward emplacement and used a belt of blank rounds in a practice session. The blanks had a powder charge, but no slugs. Molly telegraphed Captain Blooey and Kurniawan so they would know what we were up to.
I eased myself down into the Longstone chamber and sat down with my chest against the padded stop. I put my feet on the pedals and began cranking, winding up the spring loaded firing mechanism before actually engaging an ammunition belt. “There’s no need to pedal too fast. The gun operates the smoothest if you keep an even, steady pace. If you get excited and pedal too fast, the firing mechanism can jam, and you’ll also wear yourself out.”
“I’m not sure I can do it, Donovan.”
“You can do it. There’s nothing to it. Use these wheels to move the barrel up and down and side to side until your target is in the sights. Then crank up the firing mechanism and squeeze the trigger.”
“Yeah, I can do that part of it, but I don’t think I’m going to be able to shoot at the winged crocs.”
“I’ve never killed anything before. I don’t think my conscience will let me do it.”
“What about the human zombies in the Forsaken Zone? We shot hundreds of them.”
“That was you and Molly. I was just feeding you ammunition, and besides, the gnawers were already dead.”
“The winged crocs are dangerous mutants, Alton. It’s our job to exterminate them. You don’t have any choice. You have to shoot them!”
“Yea, O.K., whatever you say.”
“I’ll show you how to shoot the flamethrowers next. More than likely we’ll use them on the mutant crocs. Do you want the forward guns or the rear?”
“It doesn’t make any difference to me.”
“Then you take the forward. We’re closer to the bridge here if you need help from Molly. I had the rear Longstone on the Raven so I’m used to it back there if that’s alright with you.”
“Sure, Donovan. Anything you say.”
I never said a word to Molly about our conversation, but privately, I began to worry about Delone. Maybe he wasn’t cut out for the military service, and if he failed to follow through in a combat situation, it could create a bad situation for all of us.
On the third day, we passed over Khartoum, and the desert sand gave way to grassland. Short steppe grass at first, but by the fourth day, we were flying over a green tropical savanna with intermittent pockets of palms and acacia trees.
Finally, on the morning of the sixth day, we reached Lake Victoria, and it was a splendid sight indeed. The region was wilderness with limited human settlements, just the occasional small village with thatched roof huts, populated by Bantu and Maasai. East Africa was in the process of becoming a British protectorate, and the closest military garrison of any note was at the H gas plant below Kilimanjaro, halfway to Mombasa on the coast.
We began to patrol the perimeter of the gigantic lake. It was the source of the Nile, the world’s longest river. We flew in formation, a few hundred yards above the surface with the sails furled, propelled by hydrogen power alone. The rainy season was just beginning, and by noon, tall thunderstorms were building to the south. We saw herds of zebra, wildebeest, and elephants coming to the lake to drink.
Within a few hours, we found our first winged croc. We came up behind the bizarre beast as it flew along the shoreline. Moonblade was at the ship’s wheel, and he brought the Fiery Crimson Messenger in close to the flying mutant so Delone would have a good shot at it with the flamethrower in the forward emplacement. The Amelia Snavely was even with us, a hundred yards or so off our starboard side, and the Constantina was, as normal, trailing behind at a higher elevation.
“Look at the size of that thing,” said Molly on the bridge, “the wingspan must be thirty yards wide!”
“Oi,” said Moonblade, “and Delone has a perfect shot at it – why isn’t he taking it?”
“I’m not sure. Queensbury, climb down there and ask Sergeant Delone if there’s a reason why he isn’t firing his weapon.”
“Yes, Ma’am.” Private Queensbury gave Molly a snappy hand salute and hurried off towards the forward emplacement.
“Captain Abbotsford, I have an incoming telegram from the Constantina,” Wingham sat at the telegraph machine.
“Read it to me as soon as you have it deciphered.”
“Yes Ma’am. Alright, here it is, Captain Blooey wants to know why we’re not roasting the winged croc.”
Queensbury returned, and out of breath, gave his report to Molly, “Sergeant Delone said he can’t do it. He’s not going to shoot the winged croc.”
“Go back down there and tell Sergeant Delone I’m giving him a direct order to roast the winged croc with his flamethrower.”
“Yes, Ma’am!” Queensbury gave Molly another hand salute and hurried off.
“How should I reply to Captain Blooey, Ma’am?” said Wingham, “He asked us to advise at once.”
“Tell the Cap’n that Delone is chicken,” Moonblade grinning behind the ship’s wheel.
Molly frowned at Johnny, “Simply tell him that Delone is refusing to shoot.”
“Yes Ma’am.” Wingham began tapping the message out.
Queensbury was back, “Sergeant Delone said he won’t do it. He’s not going to roast the winged croc.”
Wingham sent Molly’s reply, and with only a slight delay, the machine came back to life with another telegram from the Constantina. “Captain Blooey said to advise Sergeant Delone that refusing a direct order in time of engagement with the enemy is a hanging offense.”
“Good God!” exclaimed Molly, “I better go down there and talk to him in person.”
Molly hurried down the passageway and climbed down the ship’s ladder that led to the emplacement. She found Delone sitting behind the controls of the flamethrower.
“Alton, you’re getting yourself in deeper and deeper trouble by the moment. I can’t lie to Captain Blooey about this. If you continue to refuse my orders, you’re going to wind up in a court martial.”
“I can’t do it, Margaret! The flying croc may look like a monster, but it’s a living creature, I can’t kill it!”
“I’ll give you one more chance – Sergeant Delone, sight in your weapon and roast the winged croc!”
“I’m not doing it. I’m not going to roast the winged croc.”
“Alright then, move out of the way. I’m taking over.”
Delone stood up and backed away from the weapon. He was visibly upset, trembling, and shaking his head from side to side.
Molly slid into the seat and skillfully aimed the flamethrower’s sights at the immense beast as it soared through the sky just fifty yards or so ahead of us. The dull-witted croc seemed oblivious to our presence.
Once the flamethrower’s sights were locked in, Molly turned the H gas control knob to high. A long flame shot out of the weapon’s barrel, and instantly enveloped the flying crocodile in a red-hot inferno. The occupants of all three airships watched intently as the scorched carcass spiraled down out of the sky and hit the surface of the lake in a huge splash.
Molly turned towards Delone, “Alton, you just got yourself in a world of trouble.”
To Be Continued …