©2020 William A. Lasher
December 24, 1882 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Cairo Airship Station, Egypt
Our squadron set sail for the Kilimanjaro H gas plant following Delone’s refusal to down the winged croc. A dormant volcano, Kilimanjaro was the tallest mountain on the African continent, and at just under 20,000 feet above sea level, it dominated the view as we sailed across the Serengeti Plain. The snow capped summit seemed out of place. Having crossed the Equator on Lake Victoria, we were now deep in the African tropics.
On the Fiery Crimson Messenger, the mood of the crew was quiet and subdued. The usual banter between Moonblade and Delone was conspicuously absent, and Johnny was feeling more sympathetic towards his old friend.
We arrived at the garrison’s airship station early in the morning after traveling through the night. The base was adjacent to the gas plant on the lower flanks of the mountain in a dense tropical forest. Beyond the military base, the area was largely uninhabited, though construction of the plant had attracted a number of native African workers. Many of the construction laborers had stayed on, and were now employed by the plant’s operator, Extremo H Gas of Birmingham.
The plant’s steam turbines were powered by coal, and the separation process increased the volume of usable energy geometrically, as compared to simply burning the coal as a source of fuel. Steam power had been tried in early airships, but rotary motors powered by hydrogen had made the coal burning aircraft obsolete. The hydrogen powered motors were lighter and more compact, and one hundred pounds of H gas produced more horsepower than almost a ton of the fossil fuel.
Colonel James Chadway was commanding officer of the Kilimanjaro garrison, and he conducted Delone’s preliminary hearing in a spartan meeting room next to his office. He sat at the head of a long table, and the rest of us sat along both sides with our chairs slightly turned to face him. Captain Galloway was closest to him on one side, with Delone on the other. Molly and I were there too, along with Queensbury, Wingham, and Jane Deven. Sitting silently in a hard back chair, Delone looked scared to death.
The air outside was hot and oppressively humid, and the windows in the room had been partially opened for ventilation. A polite African worker set a drinking glass down in front of everyone’s place at the table, and then used a water pitcher to keep the glasses filled. The jungle was alive with the sounds of screaming primates and a variety of song birds. A pair of curious colobus monkeys looked in at us from the branches of a tree outside the windows.
Chadway’s longish blond hair was dressed and combed straight back. He shuffled through the paperwork before him, cleared his throat, and commenced the hearing, “Captain Galloway, please give us an overview of what happened on the lake yesterday.”
“Would you like me to stand, Colonel?”
“No. This is an informal hearing. Witnesses may stay seated and at ease.”
“As you know, sir, my squadron was dispatched to Lake Victoria in response to reports of a new mutant species, the winged crocodile. We arrived yesterday, and within a few hours, one of the winged crocs was spotted. We were flying in formation, and Captain Abbotsford’s ship came up behind the flying croc.”
“Captain Abbotsford, of the three airships, the Fiery Crimson Messenger was the closest one to the flying crocodile?”
“Did your forward gunner have a clear shot at the croc?”
“Yes, sir. He did.”
“And did he take the shot?”
“No, sir. Sergeant Delone said he would not shoot the winged croc.”
“You gave him a direct order?”
“Yes, sir. I sent Private Queensbury to the emplacement twice to ask him why he wasn’t shooting, and then went down there myself and ordered him to roast the croc, but he refused.”
“So you took control of the flamethrower and successfully downed the mutant beast.”
“Sergeant Delone, if what your superior officers say is true, you stand accused of an extremely serious charge. Refusing a direct order is dereliction of duty, and in time of engagement with the enemy, the penalties are severe. Do you have anything to say for yourself?”
Delone looked around the room, from face to face, and when his eyes met mine, I grimaced and looked down to my hands folded before me on the table. Finally, he spoke up: “The croc wasn’t hurting anyone, colonel. You said the croc was the enemy, but he was just flying along minding his own business. I don’t understand why everyone is making such a big deal out of this.”
Chadway responded curtly: “Dereliction of duty is indeed a big deal, sergeant. You refused a direct order, and I have no choice but to recommend this matter for a court martial. Captain Galloway? Do you have the means to incarcerate Sergeant Delone on the Constantina?”
“Yes, sir. We have a storeroom that can be converted into a secure holding cell.”
“Alright then. I’ve been in touch with General Pierpont. Your squadron is ordered to refuel and proceed back to Cairo where Sergeant Delone will face a general court martial.”
We made better time on the trip back to Cairo by sailing due north instead of following the meanders of the Nile. At night, Moonblade used the North Star, a Ursae Minoris, as a beacon to set our course. Because of Johnny’s natural talent in navigation, the Fiery Crimson Messenger became the designated lead ship in our squadron. Molly plotted our course on the charts, and using a sextant, compass, and other tools, Moonblade did the actual nuts and bolts work of getting us there.
Five days later, we arrived in Cairo to find little had changed in the situation with the rebels. The city was still a live fire combat zone meaning liberty restrictions were back in effect. No one could leave the airship station without an approved reason for doing so. We had time on our hands before Delone’s court martial – ten days, so we went to work on maintenance and cleaning chores to stay busy.
There were only so many decks to swab and fixtures to polish, and just about the time the boredom began to set in, Captain Galloway gathered everyone together for a series of long-winded lectures on military regulations and etiquette. He seemed to have the official manuals that Molly so diligently studied already memorized.
Would we be returning to Lake Victoria following Delone’s court martial? Captain Galloway said it appeared unlikely. MEF forces were losing ground to the swarms of human zombies in the Western Territory. They needed our help desperately, before towns close to the frontier were overrun. The Pendlebury Gas plant in Dunkwell was to be defended at all costs.
It appeared the toxic environment of the Forsaken Zone followed the zombies when they crossed into the Western Territory – yet more unexplained phenomenon for Professor Krause. The mere presence of the gnawers spread the poisonous conditions. When they arrived in large enough numbers, the forests and grasslands were instantly turned into a noxious wasteland. They carried it with them like a virus.
Our ten day layover in Cairo gave Krause an opportunity to return to the Red Pyramid with Dr. Farquhar. The Dahshur necropolis had been re-secured following the uprising that broke out the day we opened the vault. When the scientists returned, the secondary chamber with the mechanical entryway had completely vanished, along with the oddly attired corpse. Instead, they now discovered an authentic Egyptian mummy in the antechamber that had been vacant before.
Delone was jailed at the main British garrison in central Cairo, about a mile and a half from the airship station. His court martial was scheduled to take place in an adjoining building.
The day before the trial, Molly and I rode to the garrison on camels to visit Delone. We were accompanied by Moonblade. The conflict with the rebels was growing more violent by the day, with frequent skirmishes throughout the city. Cairo was for all practical purposes a war zone.
The camels took some getting used to. They were friendly, but had peculiar habits, and each one seemed to have its own unique personality. After riding one, I must say I prefer a horse, but the dromedaries were surprisingly quick on the hoof, and we reached the garrison in no time.
We racked our mounts and went in. It was an older mud brick building, low slung and flat roofed, with iron bars visible on the open air windows. Each one had shutters that could be closed and locked, as opposed to the more modern glass windows on the rest of the garrison’s buildings. The floor was hard packed dirt, and there was a pervasive resident odor, stale and dry, it reminded me of the subterranean passageways beneath the Red Pyramid.
Sergeant Campfield was in charge of the jail. He sat at a desk inside the entryway. As Molly walked through the door, he stood and saluted her.
“At ease,” said Molly as Moonblade and I filed in behind her. “We’re here to see one of your inmates, Sergeant Delone.”
“All inmate visits need to be approved by Major Picardo.”
“You should already have an approval. I talked to Delone’s defense counsel earlier today about our visit.”
Campfield sat back down and made a show of shuffling through the papers on his desk. “I haven’t heard a word about it. Who’s Delone’s defense counsel?”
“Yes, I’m familiar with Lieutenant Thorndale, but he said nothing to me about your visit. I can’t allow you to see Delone without a stamped approval form from Major Picardo, those are the rules.”
“Where can I find Major Picardo?”
“In the administration building. To your left when you walk outside. The two story building with the flagpole out front, you can’t miss it.”
We walked to the administration building where we discovered Major Picardo had departed for the day. He wasn’t scheduled to return until the following morning.
During the week of the winter solstice, the days grow short. The sun was already setting as we walked out of the garrison, and the ancient city was bathed in a surreal orange glow. We approached the spot where we had racked our camels. The animals were missing. Moonblade went back inside to ask Campfield about it, and the jailer shrugged his shoulders, and said we should have brought them inside. It was apparent the camels had been stolen.
“So what do we do now?” I said.
“Walk,” responded Moonblade. “I don’t think we have a choice.”
“We better get moving,” added Molly, “it’s going to be dark soon.”
We began to hoof it back towards the airship station. Moonblade and I were carrying rifles, and Molly had a holstered service revolver. Before long, we came upon a skirmish taking place in the street, and unhappily, we were on the wrong side of the battle – we were coming up behind a band of rebels engaged in a running gun battle with a company of British army regulars.
“Now what?” I said as we ducked into an alleyway.
“We could try to fight it out with them,” said Moonblade.
“Bad idea,” responded Molly. “We’re outnumbered and low on ammo.” She pulled a street map out of her pocket and unfolded it. “We’ll backtrack and then circle around.” She pointed out an alternate route in the rapidly disappearing daylight.
We retreated from the fire fight we had stumbled upon, and then circled around to the north as darkness descended upon the city. There was no rhyme or reason to the layout of the narrow, winding streets. It was hard to stay on course.
The local residents spoke little or no English, and when they saw our uniforms, they gave us a wide berth. Children stopped and stared, and the adults ignored us, looking the other way. Any hint of providing assistance to the enemy could get them a beating or worse from the indigenous rebels.
We reached a point where the dirt avenue began to wind around and meander off in the wrong direction. Instead of backtracking, we found a slim alleyway that branched off and kept us moving towards the airship station. It was extremely narrow, with mud-brick buildings on both sides. As we walked down the alley, I could smell food cooking over charcoal, and hear folk music in the distance, though it was hard to see more than a few feet ahead of us in the darkness. There was a quarter moon cresting the horizon, but it provided little light.
Johnny was in the lead, followed by Molly. Bringing up the rear, I began to hear a scuffing noise behind me, like someone dragging their feet on the hard-packed dirt. I stopped and turned, and was shocked to see a figure leap from the shadows and take a swing at my head with a sword. The ghoul looked similar to the oddly attired mummy in the tunnels beneath the Red Pyramid. The same style of clothing, and the same eerie grin on its decomposed face.
I shouldered my rifle and squeezed off a round that hit the aberration point blank in the chest. On impact, the walking corpse disintegrated into a cloud of dust that hung in mid-air for a few seconds, and then floated to the ground.
“What was that?!” exclaimed Molly. “What did you shoot at?”
“The mummy,” I cried attempting to collect my wits. “It looked just like the mummy from the Red Pyramid!”
“I wish we had more light,” said Moonblade. As he spun back around to keep walking, he was surprised by another walking corpse that leapt from the shadows ahead of him. This one wore a suit of ring maille, and it took a swipe at him with its sword. The blade cut through his shirt sleeve and grazed his arm. He shouldered his rifle and fired. The result was the same – on impact, the mummy disintegrated into a cloud of dust, including the sword and chain mail armor.
Two more appeared, and we all began to shoot, including Molly with her pistol. As quickly as one crumbled into dust, another appeared behind it, darting out of the darkness, brandishing its sword. Then another and another, and all dressed like warriors from the Middle Ages. Finally, after we dropped a number of them, the onslaught let up. And there was nothing left of the walking corpses, but a fine layer of dust on the hard packed dirt.
“Let’s keep moving,” said Molly returning her pistol to its holster. “The rebels may have heard the shooting.”
I picked up the pace as I loaded more cartridges into the magazine of my rifle. “Where in the name of God did those things come from?”
“Ghosts?” said Moonblade walking faster now too. “Were they ghosts? Like this city is so old it’s haunted?”
“We can ask Professor Krause,” said Molly. “But I have a feeling I already know what he’ll say.”
“An illusion,” I said aping Krause’s thick German accent. “The mummies were nothing more than an illusion.”
“But how can an illusion draw blood?” responded Moonblade. “Look, my arm is bleeding.” He pulled a bandana from his back pocket and carefully tied it around his injured forearm. The cut was not that deep, but Johnny’s ruddy red blood was as real as the blood at the Southwark Bridge.
The day of Delone’s court martial arrived, just two days before Christmas. We were finishing up morning calisthenics on the elevated platform when we saw an unusual airship approaching. It was close to the size of one of the gunboats, with dual Longstone emplacements, but it had no sailing apparatus, and there were iron bars on the gondola’s windows.
“Is that one of ours?” said Moonblade.
“They’re flying the Union Jack.” I could see the banner distinctly.
“It looks like a prison ship,” said Deven.
Captain Galloway strode over to join us. “It’s the Hornet, and you’re correct, Corporal Deven, it is indeed a prison ship. Manned by a crew of police robots, the ship’s chief function is transporting convicts back to the military prison in Twickenham.”
Molly was stunned. “They’ve come for Delone? He hasn’t even gone to trial yet!”
Delone’s court martial was a somber affair. It was held at the central garrison, in a meeting room that had been converted into a rough approximation of a formal courtroom. It was mid-morning when the proceedings began, and the only light in the room was provided by a low December sun. There were no curtains or blinds to block it. Though the room appeared freshly cleaned, I could smell the desert dust in the stuffy air.
General Pierpont acted as judge advocate, and he sat at a desk towards the front. The five members of the court sat in a row of chairs to Pierpont’s right. They were all senior officers, major or higher. It looked as if most of the high ranking officers in the Egyptian theater were in attendance.
“I shall now bring these proceedings to order,” said Pierpont in his booming basso profondo. “Sergeant Alton Delone, defendant, is charged with dereliction of duty. He’s accused of refusing a direct order while engaged with the enemy, a mutant beast described as a winged crocodile with a wingspan in excess of twenty five yards.”
“Good god,” muttered an elderly Major Wiggs, just to the General’s right. He slowly shook his head back and forth, frowning. An artillery commander and partially deaf, he aimed the bell of a brass ear trumpet at whoever happened to be speaking. Though seated, Wiggs used his other hand to support himself with a walking stick planted on the creaky floorboards.
Pierpont paused to look towards Wiggs. He raised his eyebrows, grimaced, and then continued: “Colonel Rockfort, you may proceed.”
A cavalry commander, Colonel Rockfort acted as prosecutor, and on Pierpont’s cue, he sprung to his feet. “There’s no question in regard to Sergeant Delone’s guilt. His refusal to obey a direct order can not be disputed.”
Rockfort had a gruff demeanor. He was well tanned with a heavily lined face. It looked as if he had spent a number of years outdoors in the bone dry desert. The breast of his parade dress uniform was decorated with a multitude of ribbons and medals. As commander of the 3rd Light Dragoons, Rockfort severely out-ranked Delone’s defense counsel, Lieutenant Thorndale, and that part of it it didn’t seem fair at all.
“There’s no reason to waste the court’s valuable time calling witnesses, though I see they’re all in attendance.” Rockfort turned to look towards the gallery where Molly and I sat with Captain Galloway. Queensbury, Wingham, and Jane Deven were seated behind us. (Deven was operating the telegraph machine on the Constantina when Delone refused Molly’s order.)
Three of the police robots from the prison ship stood near us along the wall. They looked strikingly similar to the Pendlebury Robots in Dunkwell, and as it turned out, were manufactured by the same company in Hong Kong. Towering above us, their expressionless faces were fashioned from brass and copper, and the insignia on their uniforms identified them as prison guards.
Rockfort continued, “We’ve all read Colonel Chadway’s transcript from the preliminary hearing, and I think we can all agree that Sergeant Delone is indeed guilty of the charges beyond the shadow of a doubt.”
Pierpont looked towards Thorndale, seated at the defense table. Delone sat next to him, barefoot, in a blue and white striped prison uniform. “Lieutenant Thorndale, do you wish to dispute Colonel Rockfort’s position as stated?”
Sheepish and wearing thick spectacles, Thorndale slowly rose to his feet. It was obvious that he felt intimidated by his more seasoned adversary. “In light of the circumstances, I think it would be in the defendant’s best interest to admit his guilt and throw himself on the mercy of the court.” Thorndale retook his seat. He looked utterly defeated.
Molly put her hand on my arm and looked towards me wide-eyed. “That’s it?” she whispered. “They’re railroading him!”
“Shut your trap,” said the police robot closest to us.
She glared at the robot and jumped to her feet. “General Pierpont, may I say a few words in Sergeant Delone’s behalf?”
Raising his head, Pierpont immediately recognized Molly. “Of course, Captain Abbotsford. You have the floor.”
Rockfort turned to give Molly a look of disdain while Pierpont and his panel of jurors seemed delighted to hear her speak up. “I first met Sergeant Delone when we were scrips at Fort Greyling. Like Sergeant Highgarden and myself, Delone was conscripted into the MEF to fight the growing human zombie threat. In that way we’re similar, but in other ways, it was easy to tell that he was much different because he grew up in the city, in California. Donovan and I are from a rural background.”
Molly took a few steps forward until she was standing behind the defense table. From his seat, Delone looked up at her with an awe-struck smile as she continued: “The reason why I brought up our differing backgrounds is because it’s obvious at this point that Delone was never suited to a job I may have forced upon him. I made him forward gunner on the Fiery Crimson Messenger because we were short-handed. Honestly, I had my doubts. He was Sergeant Highgarden’s assistant gunner on the Champion of the Skies, but he had never operated a Longstone himself.
“Furthermore, no one here has said a word about Delone’s bravery in the Forsaken Zone, and the Conspicuous Gallantry Medal he was awarded by General Evernight. He may have had a conscientious objection to roasting the winged croc over Lake Victoria, but Delone didn’t let us down when we were fighting off the gnawers after the Champion’s crash landing. We might not have made it out alive if he wasn’t there to help dig one of the Longstones out of the wreckage.”
Major Wiggs produced a handkerchief and wiped a tear from his eye as Molly stayed with it. “We lost two airship crews in the tragedy, and we’ve been short-handed ever since. If we lose Delone now, it’ll hurt the entire squadron because I don’t have anyone to take up the slack. We’re still 5,000 miles from Borneo and our replacement sailing crew. I respectfully ask the court to give Sergeant Delone another chance. I can find work for him aboard the airship, and I desperately need experienced hands who know their way around.” She paused for a moment and then, “I suppose that will be all I have to say, and thank you for allowing me to speak up.”
As she returned to her seat, Molly gave me a look of distress – she was wondering if she had done the right thing. A court martial was serious business. It was within Pierpont’s authority to give Delone a lengthy prison sentence at hard labor in Twickenham. Maybe she should have kept her mouth shut and not said anything at all, but it appeared her impassioned plea was Delone’s only chance.
Pierpont collected a written vote from each member of the panel, and after reading through them, he announced his decision: “Sergeant Delone, you’re indeed lucky to have a commanding officer of Captain Abbotsford’s caliber. After hearing her speak in your behalf, I’m going to grant you the leniency that she requested. Your pay grade is hereby reduced to private, and I’m suspending a five year prison sentence. I’ll ask Captain Abbotsford to report back to the court after one year has passed. If at that time she gives me a favorable conduct report, all charges will be dismissed, and this unfortunate incident will be removed from your service record entirely.”
Delone was released from custody at the conclusion of the hearing, and we returned to the airship station on camelback. In light of the continued street fighting, Pierpont authorized a company of regular army to accompany us. Delone appeared to be in a state of shock at first, but by the time the outline of the Constantina’s immense dirigible came into view, he was grinning ear to ear.
“I think I’m close to starving. I haven’t had a thing to eat except stale bread and navy beans in two weeks.” Delone was unsteady on his feet as we climbed the steep gang plank to board the Fiery Crimson Messenger.
“Scribbens made a first-rate mutton stew last night. I’ll have him warm you up a bowl,” said Molly.
We found Moonblade and Sunarko studying charts on the bridge as we made our way to the main deck. When Johnny saw Delone, he rushed over to shake his hand and pat him on the back. “Delone! They released you! We thought they were taking you back to England on the prison ship. What happened?”
“Margaret saved my arse. You should have seen it, Johnny. She stood right up and put the prosecutor in his place. What was he, Donovan? A colonel?”
“Oi,” I said, “he was a colonel alright. I believe it was Colonel Rockfort, commander of the 3rd Light Dragoons.”
“I dodged the bullet, Johnny. Pierpont busted me down to private, but if I keep my nose clean, he’ll drop the whole thing in a year.”
It was a relief to have Delone back on our crew. Though he had failed as a gunner, and wasn’t the best atmospheric sailor in the world, he was still an important member of our core group. We’d been friends since our first days at Fort Greyling, and later on that evening, Delone told me he would never forget how Molly had stood up for him, that he owed her his life.
We would sail for India at first light, and just as we were settling in for the night, Professor Krause showed up on the gang plank with Rebekah and Kristin trailing close behind. He was carrying a quart bottle of cinnamon schnapps. Molly greeted him at the door.
“Good evening, Captain Abbotsford. I have something important I would like to discuss with you, concerning a matter of airship rules and etiquette.”
“Yes, Professor. What do you have on your mind?”
“Captain Galloway doesn’t allow drinking on the Constantina. I can carry a bottle of liquor aboard his ship, but I’m not allowed to open it. He said that it’s up to the commander of each individual ship, and here on the Fiery Crimson Messenger, it’s your choice. That you might allow us to have a drink on your ship.”
“I see. So you’re asking me for permission to come aboard and have a drink on my airship?”
“As long as it’s in my quarters, it will be fine.”
“Wunderbar. Shall we proceed to your quarters?”
“Of course. Sergeant Highgarden? Would you care to join us?”
I took a slight detour, to grab a handful of drinking glasses from the galley before I joined them. Molly gave Krause the leather arm chair at her desk, and Rebekah and Kristin took seats on the compact settee. Molly and I sat on her bed.
“A wonderful German schnapps that I think you will enjoy.” Krause poured a bit of the thick liqueur in each of the glasses. “Not too sweet with a smoky aftertaste, and it’s exceptionally strong, 80 proof.”
He handed the first glass to Molly. She took a sip, “Oh yes. That is tasty. Thank you, professor.”
Krause handed out the rest of the glasses, and then took a sip of the strong drink, “Captain Galloway said you did outstanding work in keeping Delone out of the clink today, Captain Abbotsford. He was very impressed, and personally, I’m glad to see Delone back in the squadron.”
“Ja,” said Rebekah, “I like Delone too. He’s a little different, but he has a good sense of humor.” She looked towards Kristin and smiled, as if she was waiting for her to comment too, but instead, the pretty blonde just rolled her eyes and made a face like she had just bitten into a sour lemon.
“We have yet another mutant species to investigate when we arrive in Bombay,” said Krause. “As if the MEF doesn’t have its hands full already.”
“Captain Galloway has yet to brief me on it,” said Molly. “Tell us more.”
“This particular mutation is different than any of the ones we’ve examined in the past because it involves humans. The group of people involved have acquired some of the physical characteristics of peafowl, the colorful birds known colloquially as peacocks, though technically the females are peahens. The mutants still have the form, as well as the intelligence and communication skills of humans, but they’ve grown long tails and feathers on parts of their bodies. It appears their genes have inter-mingled with the genes of the peacock. So far it’s been classified a non-malicious mutation – from all appearances, the mutants are friendly.”
“Astounding. And they live in Bombay?”
“Yes, in the highlands close by. In a small village. The peafowl people belong to the Brahmin caste, the aristocratic upper crust of Indian society, and the locals consider their mutation to be a religious miracle of sorts. The peacock is considered sacred in Hindu culture, and the faithful believe the bird displays the divine shape of Omkara when the male spreads his tail plumes into a circular form.
“Could the peacock people be illusionary, like der Wasserwolfe?”
“A good question, Captain Abbotsford, and in my view, much of the phenomenon we’ve observed in the post Hydrogen War world could be classified as illusionary, though it appears quite real.”
“I’ve been meaning to tell you about an experience we had last night. We tried to visit Delone at the central garrison, but for some reason the paperwork didn’t go through, and when we went back outside, we discovered our camels had been stolen. We decided to walk back, we really didn’t have a choice, Donovan, Johnny, and I, and we ended up taking a detour after we encountered street fighting. To make a long story short, we were walking through a dark alley, and we were attacked by walking corpses.”
“You were attacked by walking corpses? What did they look like?”
“They were dressed like the mummy in the Red Pyramid,” I said. “Like warriors from the Middle Ages. They threatened us with swords, and one of them had on a suit of armor.”
“What happened? How did you respond?”
“We shot at them point blank, and they disintegrated into dust,” said Molly. “Do you think the walking corpses could have been an illusion, Professor?”
“It would seem likely, don’t you think? I don’t know how else to explain it. The world has changed in many ways since the Hydrogen War, and it seems to me there may be more to it than we can easily comprehend.”
To Be Continued …