©2021 William A. Lasher
December 12, 1882 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger over Lake Victoria, British East Africa
There was a collective grumbling among the airship crews when Captain Galloway 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 and hottest 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 Galloway 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.”
Galloway paused for a moment and then, “Better yet, I’ll 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. The soldiers who accompanied us 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 on foot changed their direction of travel when they saw our convoy approaching. They turned and disappeared down a dark alleyway.
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.
“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. 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 Galloway, 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 close 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 Galloway 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. We initially 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.”
“The effects of the Great Hydrogen War have become more pervasive than we once anticipated,” said Krause.
“Yes, it’s a worldwide crisis, and this particular mutation is one of the most bizarre anyone has seen yet.”
Captain Galloway 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 its natural non-mutated form. So now imagine how dangerous a Nile croc would be if it could fly.”
“A flying crocodile?” said Captain Galloway 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 Galloway. “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 one of the oldest too, 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 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 H gas 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 Galloway 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 to a lower chamber where 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,” in Arabic,) they managed to topple it over.
The burial vault was open. 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 Galloway.
“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 Galloway, “what did you find?”
Krause appeared at the opening, “Nothing. The vault’s empty.”
Galloway 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. “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 Galloway.
“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. 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 closer too. 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. “There’s a mummy in the vault.”
The two scientists entered the hidden vault. Captain Galloway was right on their heels. Rebekah and Kristin moved in close enough to see inside, and Molly and I squeezed inside the antechamber 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 European 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 collected 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 Galloway leaned in 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 Galloway 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 thousands 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 Galloway, 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 rifles. 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 Galloway 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 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 Galloway.
“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 Galloway. “We have no weapons beyond Highgarden’s rifle, and we’ll have no transportation back to Cairo.”
Farquhar paused to think for a moment, and then, “the Amenhat III Pyramid is close to the river and there’s normally boatmen around. We shouldn’t have much trouble finding 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?” Galloway 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 Galloway. “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 we 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 Galloway was next in the procession, followed by Molly, who carried the third. Toting my .50 caliber rifle, I fell in behind Molly.
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 had a musty odor, and I began to see spiders and other unsavory looking insects. The arthropods ran for cover when exposed to the candlelight, and at one point I saw 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. When I slowed and turned to look, the shuffling noise stopped.
I caught up to Molly. “I keep hearing something moving 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. 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 stopped 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 Galloway 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 it’s 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?”
Galloway 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 communicate with them in their native tongue.
Upon our return to the airship station, I took tea with Molly in her quarters aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger.
“Do you think there could be some logical explanation for what we just saw in the tunnel?” I looked towards Molly and fiddled with my teacup anxiously.
“I’m not sure,” said Molly popping open the cookie tin. “What do you think?”
“I immediately thought of our conversation with Duke Archambeau. How he talked of his nemesis taking on the form of a Belgian nobleman of the sword in the Middle Ages – I can’t recall his name.”
“It was Baron Guillaume De Vreese.”
“Do you think it’s possible that De Vreese may have had something to do with the mummy?”
“At this point, I think anything is possible. Remember how Kristin asked Professor Krause if he thought the mummy could be an illusion? I’m starting to think that may have been awfully perceptive on her part.”
I gazed at Molly silently as we both thought things over. After a few moments she continued on: “Duke Archambeau said he would contact us upon our return to the Western Territory, but maybe we should talk to him sooner.”
“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.”