Part XVI – An Invasive Mutant Species

©2021 William A. Lasher

March 27, 1883 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Hong Kong Airship Station

It had rained off and on through the night, and as a result, there were mud puddles for Molly and I to dodge as we walked up the trail towards the Caroline Hill garrison. The small stream had grown, and we had to jump across it at one point to keep from getting our feet wet. Walking alone through the forest, we could talk as our true selves. 

“Do you think the waterfall is still there, Bertram?” 

“The waterfall above Dunkwell, where everything changed?” 

“We never went back to look for it. Maybe we could go back and find it.” 

“We might not have time. We’ll have our hands full roasting gnawers.” 

“You’re not afraid, are you?” 

“Afraid of what?” 

“Finding our way back to 1851.” 

“No, I’m not afraid, Molly. I’m just trying to be realistic. I’m not sure what happened, and I don’t know why we can’t remember so much of our lives, but something tells me we’re stuck here.” 

“Deep down inside, I still feel like I’m sixteen.” 

“You’re as beautiful now as you were then, and I think you look absolutely dishy in your khaki service uniform.” 

“Thank you, Bertram.” 

“It was my idea to follow the otters into the cave, do you blame me for what happened?” 

Molly took hold of my hand. “I went walking with you because I wanted to. I don’t blame you for anything.” 

We had lost track of thirty years of our lives, but I still had Molly, and I was thankful for that. When she was promoted to captain, I was afraid I might lose her, though I never said it out loud, but instead our love had grown stronger. 

Towards the top of the hill, we passed a Buddhist monk in orange robe and sandals. Sitting on a stone bench in the trees meditating, he silently acknowledged our presence with a nod and a smile. 

The sun was breaking through the clouds as we cleared the dense forest, and the dirt trail became a wide flagstone pathway that meandered through bright green grass, glistening from the fresh rainfall. There was a bird’s-eye view of the harbor from the summit, and we could see the airships below us, testing their moorings in the morning breeze. 

The garrison was a short distance beyond the monastery. Like Newington Hill, it was low key in appearance. We found General Weatherstone’s residence and Molly rang the doorbell. Dressed in all white, Dequan answered the door promptly. 

“Wonderful to see you again, missy,” he said to Molly, “it’s been way too, long.” And then to me with a quick wink: “I made more hot candy, Sarge. Better than before.” 

“I think I’ll pass on the hot stuff this time, Dequan.” 

“The gang’s all here,” he said, waving us in. “Walk this way.” He wiggled his hips effeminately as we followed him down the hallway. 

Galloway and the Germans had taken a carriage, and they were already seated in Weatherstone’s study sipping tea. The room had an assortment of eclectic furnishings and well stocked bookshelves, mostly military manuals and history books, but I also noticed philosophy and classic fiction. There was a watercolor portrait of the general’s wife Clementine on the wall between two windows that afforded a view of the ornamental Jacaranda and Blue Wisteria trees outside – both were in full bloom with an eye-catching display of purple and sapphire blue flowers. Standing before a large wall map of China, the general was pointing out the scene of a famous battle to Kurniawan when Dequan led us through the door. 

“Captain Abbotsford and Sarge,” announced Dequan. “Better late than never.” 

“Actually, you’re right on time, captain,” said Weatherstone, walking over to shake Molly’s hand as I came to attention and gave him a quick salute. “At ease, Highgarden. Dequan, bring us more tea, please.” 

“You got it, big kahuna.” Dequan gave him an affected open palm salute and disappeared down the hallway. 

“Your houseman is quite a character,” said Galloway when he was out of earshot. 

“He spent time working as a dock hand unloading merchant ships,” said Weatherstone taking a seat behind his red sandalwood desk. “That’s where he picked up the slang. The Californians taught him how to speak English.” 

“I noticed a number of ships in the harbor flying the California flag.” 

“They trade shipments of gold bullion, fine leather, and wool garments. From what I’ve heard, Asian tea and opium are currently in high demand in San Francisco.” 

Weatherstone picked up a fountain pen and opened a hardbound notebook on his desk. “I had a conversation with a Qing dynasty diplomat last night and found out more about the mutant blister beetles. It’s a shame they couldn’t have shared the information with us sooner, but it’s normal for the Chinese to be secretive.” 

“I didn’t have a chance to examine the specimen,” said Krause, “but Captain Galloway described it to me in detail. The size of the swarm is especially troubling.” 

“Troubling indeed, professor. The diplomat I talked to told me the insects were first spotted in the Gobi Desert during a late winter thaw. In the weeks since, the swarm has migrated southward, and a number of farming villages have been devastated.” 

Weatherstone read from his notes occasionally as he continued: “On average, each beetle is about three feet long, and carries enough poison to kill a horse. The insects aren’t particularly smart, nor are they very agile, but they come in large numbers. Villagers on the mainland have awakened in the middle of the night to find the beetles coating their dwellings with a slimy substance that they secrete from their glands. When the substance dries, it creates a hard shell that contains poison. If you touch the rigid shell it causes severe burns on your skin. Apparently, when the insects coat the huts with the slime, they’re attempting to trap the villagers inside, so they can come back later and eat them.” 

So, there’s been casualties?” said Rebekah. 

“Yes, quite a few of them, Miss Krämer.  My contact also confirmed the story that Dr. Jafata’s associate related, that imperial troops used flame throwers to keep the insects from penetrating a perimeter they established around the capital city.” 

“What’s our strategy to protect Hong Kong, general?” said Galloway as he meticulously leveled off a teaspoonful of sugar and then added it to his tea. 

“The swarm is currently in the vicinity of the Dong River about sixty miles to the north of here. Thus far the beetles have been travelling almost due south, and if they stay on course, they should be entering Hong Kong airspace within 24 hours. I want you to take the Constantina and the Fiery Crimson Messenger up at first light tomorrow morning and patrol our northern border with China. It’s possible the swarm could veer off and head in another direction, but if they stay on their present course, you’ll be well situated to eradicate them with your aerial flame throwers, and in so doing, protect the city from a disaster in the making.” 

“I talked to MacDougall yesterday,” said Kurniawan. “They’re close to finishing the repairs on the Amelia Snavely, but still need a few days. It’s possible we could take my ship up too, before they’re completely done.” 

“No, we should let them finish their work.” said Galloway. “Our return to the Western Territory is already weeks behind schedule, and the Amelia Snavely needs to be up to snuff for the journey across the Pacific.” 

“I concur,” said Weatherstone. “I know it’s been frustrating for you to be grounded for so long, captain, but the Amelia Snavely will have to be completely shipshape before it leaves the yard. Not only to protect the Crown’s investment, but also for the safety of the crew.” 

Dequan returned with two fresh pots of tea, and he refilled our cups as the general continued on: “My Qing dynasty contact also recommended the use of guandaos, a martial arts weapon that’s been effective against the giant beetles on the ground. The guandao is a long hardwood pole with a heavy serrated blade on one end and a counterweight on the other. It allows you to stab and kill them without getting close enough to come in contact with the poison they carry. More efficient than gunfire – from all appearances, you can use up quite a bit of ammo because they come in such large numbers, and the guandao reduces collateral damage if you’re trying to clear a dwelling or other valuable property. I put out a call this morning and managed to locate quite a few of them. We’ll split them up evenly between the Constantina and the Fiery Crimson Messenger.”  

Dequan stuck a small dish under my nose. “Best hot candy yet.” 

“Thanks, Dequan, but I think I’ll pass on it this time,” I said, waving him off. 

“Aw, c’mon Sarge. I know you’re gonna love it.” 

Weatherstone took a sip of tea and continued: “I talked to a local martial arts expert, Jianjun Xue, about proper use of the guandaos, and I’ve arranged for him to give a demonstration at the airship station.” He paused and then looked towards Molly. “Did you enjoy your walk up the prayer trail?” 

“Oh yes, it was a lovely morning. The view of the harbor is spectacular.” 

“I’m glad you enjoyed it, but I’ll have Dequan call an extra carriage for your trip back down. We need to get both crews up to speed on use of the guandaos and prepare the airships for departure. I’ll use the telegraph to stay in touch as the operation proceeds.” The general rose out of his seat to signal an end to the conference; “Good luck and God save the Queen.” 

Kurniawan accompanied us back to the front entry, and he stood under the portico with Dequan as we boarded the carriages. Molly and I took the first with Captain Galloway, and the Germans climbed aboard the second when it pulled up on the circular drive. 

The lead carriage driver snapped his reins and Kurniawan watched us depart with a forlorn expression on his face. The crew of the Amelia Snavely would be absent on another important mission, and it was easy to see he was feeling left out. But when Molly slid the coach window open and waved farewell, his sour expression changed to a small smile as he returned her gesture of camaraderie. 

“Well, the Crown certainly is keeping us busy on our unanticipated layover,” said Galloway taking a pinch of snuff. 

“Aye,” replied Molly. “It sounds like we’ll have our hands full with the mutant beetles. It’ll be a relief when the Amelia Snavely rejoins the squadron.” 

The route back to the harbor took us down an exceptionally steep grade. The narrow lane was paved with cobblestones to keep the roadway from washing away in the rain, and the driver kept a tight grip on his hand brake to keep the carriage from over running his team of Arabians. We were followed closely by the second carriage, occupied by Professor Krause and his fair colleagues. 

Upon our return to the airship station, we found Moonblade and Delone helping a crew unload wooden crates from a trio of delivery wagons. It appeared Jane Deven had taken charge of the operation, and she stood by the entrance to the stairway, hands on hips, her service cap visor pulled down smartly to shield her eyes from the bright mid-morning sun. 

“What’s in the crates, Delone?” I asked as I climbed out of the carriage. 

“I’m not sure, but they certainly are heavy.” Delone and Moonblade set the crate down they were carrying to take a rest break and chat. 

“The guandaos that General Weatherstone ordered, that’s what’s in the crates,” declared Galloway as he exited the carriage after Molly. He feigned dusting off his uniform and returned Deven’s snappy hand salute. 

As Professor Krause and his colleagues joined us on the boardwalk, a muscular Chinese man rode up on horseback. “I’m here to see Captain Galloway of Her Majesty’s Mutant Eradication Forces,” he said as he climbed down from his mount. 

“That would be me.” Galloway stepped forward and offered his hand. 

“Jianjun Xue, at your service.” He bowed deeply before shaking Galloway’s hand. Jianjun spoke fluent English and wore a loose-fitting black outfit with fancy red and gold trim that signified his status as a master of the martial arts. He was reputed to hold a 10th degree black belt, the ultimate level of proficiency. 

Galloway was a stickler for decorum, and after returning Jianjun’s bow, he took the time to individually introduce each member of our assemblage. “Our science advisor, Professor Krause, and his assistants Miss Krämer and Miss Schumacher; Captain Abbotsford and her security man Sergeant Highgarden; Private Delone and Sergeant Moonblade.” 

Jianjun bowed politely to each of us, and when the captain said “Sergeant Moonblade,” his eyes lit up and he smiled broadly. “Moonblade? Is that an American name?” 

“Yup,” replied Johnny proudly, “Native American, I’m full-blooded Shoshoni.” 

“An interesting coincidence,” said Jianjun. “Guandao is the Romanized name for the weapon I’m here to teach you how to use today, but the proper Chinese name is yanyuedaowhich translates to English as ‘reclining moon blade,’ a reference to its quarter moon shape.” 

Delone put his hand to his mouth to suppress a snicker. Johnny was clearly delighted: “In the Shoshoni language, my family name is pronounced muhtuhutappüyun. My grandfather said it’s the name of a spear like weapon that our people hunted wild game with. It was translated to Moonblade when the British taught us how to speak English.” 

“Fascinating,” replied Jianjun, “and most noteworthy that our peoples share something in common.” 

“Except our traditional hunting weapons didn’t have metal blades,” continued Johnny. “The head of the spear was a sharpened stone, and I think the moon reference has more to do with how we hunt at night. The wapiti often feed under the light of a full moon.” 

Jianjun called out in Chinese to one of the men unloading the wagons. The workman produced a pry bar, opened a crate and brought him one of the guandaos. He took it in both hands and held it up vertically. “The ancient weapon we have come to call the guandao – it has a rich history in Chinese folklore. The first was called the Green Dragon Crescent Blade, and it was specially built in the 3rd century AD for General Guan Yu, a man of legendary strength and stature. Normally the guandao is a defensive weapon. It’s used ceremonially to signify strength and power, but it can also be used in battle as an offensive weapon.” 

Jianjun’s assistants used bales of straw to construct a pair of practice targets on the platform, and he gave the airship crews a demonstration of how to use the pole-like weapons. The big, serrated blades on the business end were quite sharp, and Jianjun advised caution in handling them. He skillfully rotated the weapon above his head with one hand, and then swiftly brought it to bear on one of the targets with both, cleanly slicing a bale of straw in half in the wink of an eye. 

Following Jianjun’s lesson, the rest of the crates were opened, and various crew members tried the guandaos on for size. Moonblade and Sunarko picked up on Jianjun’s one handed twirling trick quickly, which was no surprise, but when Zanetti tried to mimic the stunt, Jane Deven exclaimed, “stand back!” 

We were an hour or so into the exercises when Kurniawan appeared at the head of the stairway. A cheer went up as the crew of the Amelia Snavely jogged on to the platform. Before long, Kurniawan had his Morpurgos marching around the perimeter of the platform performing drills with the guandaos in unison. They would twirl the weapons above their heads, then bring them down vertically, and tap the floor twice with the weighted blunt end. Next, they brought them up to their chests, held them diagonally, and then all looked to the left simultaneously. They kept it up for a while, and the drills became more complicated as they proceeded.  Molly said it was a shame they were still grounded – it was easy to see how badly they wanted to go along with us. 

  

  

The sky was mostly clear except for a few puffy cumulus clouds as we gained altitude over the Kowloon. Using the spotter’s scope in my gun emplacement, I could see Princess Franziska’s estate clearly. The rolling green pastureland was surrounded by fence lines, and beyond the tall iron barrier, the terrain looked much rougher. The sloped tile roof on the Princess’s residence was easy to make out, as well as the flat roof on Dr. Jafata’s laboratory. I could also see the compact gatehouse where Hogwood lived. 

Moonblade was behind the ship’s wheel and once we had gained sufficient altitude, he set the throttle on the H gas motors so low that we were practically stationary in the strong headwind, watching and waiting. The Constantina was a few hundred yards to the east, and in a similar holding pattern, sails furled, and props barely turning. I climbed up to the main deck and found Molly anxiously scanning the horizon with her quadoptical device. 

The telegraph came to life. “I have an incoming telegram from the Constantina, captain.” said Wingham from her station. 

“Read it to me as soon as you have it deciphered.” 

“Aye, aye.” After a few moments she read it aloud. 

We received a telegram from Dr. Jafata. A spotter on the Chinese border said the swarm just passed overhead, and it’s headed due south towards Hong Kong. 

“The beetles don’t seem to have any interest in Shenzhen,” said Molly. 

I heard Queensbury shout from the forward emplacement, and then he appeared on the ship’s ladder, hurrying up to the main deck. “They’re coming!” he cried. “Look to the north, close to the ground.” 

Molly scanned the horizon with her instrument and then stopped cold. “I see them now. Look at the size of the swarm! Li Wei wasn’t exaggerating when he said it was big enough to black out the sun.” 

“That’s a boatload of beetles to roast,” said Moonblade. “What’s our strategy, Cap’n?” 

“Gain altitude. As the swarm passes beneath us, we’ll light up the flamethrowers and roast ‘em good. Highgarden and Queensbury – return to your stations and prepare to open fire.” 

Settling in behind the controls of my flamethrower, I could see the Constantina clearly. The mother ship was maintaining its holding pattern, staying close to Princess Franziska’s estate, and I wondered why Galloway wasn’t gaining altitude too. Apparently, he was confident they could meet the swarm head on. Open up all four of their flamethrowers and destroy the giant insects as they met them point blank. 

The swarm appeared as a pulsating black cloud as it closed in, and I lost sight of the Constantina. I turned up the magnification on my spotting scope and could make out individual insects as they drew closer. Their wings moved quickly, and their flight patterns seemed slightly erratic though their actual forward progress was not that swift at all. Did they have a leader? Was there a “queen” beetle? And if not, what made them swarm up and move with such purpose? 

Delone appeared on the ship’s ladder behind me. “Margaret said you may fire at will.” 

I pressed the button that lit the pilot and then turned the H gas knob to high. Using the control levers to pivot the weapon’s flame back and forth across the advancing swarm, I lit them up quickly. Some were completely incinerated, while the blackened remains of others fell to the ground. Queensbury and I kept the firestorm going, and within twenty minutes or so, the swarm began to thin out, and I could once again see the Kowloon’s vivid green landscape beneath us. 

Soon there was nothing left to shoot at, though it was apparent we hadn’t killed them all. Looking towards Hong Kong, I could see that many of the flying insects had made it through our gauntlet unscathed and were beginning to regroup. 

I shut down my flamethrower and returned to the main deck. The elevated bridge was surrounded by glass, and Molly was using her quadoptical to scan the sky to the south. “It appears we killed off a large part of the swarm, but there’s still quite a few of them headed for the city.” 

Wingham spoke up, “I have an incoming telegram from the Constantina. From Captain Galloway.” 

We have a problem with these infernal insects. There’re scores of them buzzing around the gondola. They’re coating it with their slimy discharge and it’s hardening quickly. The intakes are clogged, and it shut down our rotary motors. Both airlock doors are sealed shut as well. The sailing crew took refuge inside the gondola, but now we’re all trapped inside.  

“I had better contact General Weatherstone and see what he wants us to do.” said Molly. Wingham, send the following telegram off at once.” 

We engaged the mutant blister beetles on the north end of the Kowloon and managed to roast quite a few of them, but there’s still a significant swarm headed your way. We received a distress call from the Constantina. It sounds as if the beetles have coated the gondola with their discharge, and now the crew is trapped inside. Should we try to help the Constantina, or pursue the insects?  

It didn’t take long for General Weatherstone to respond. Wingham received his reply within a couple of minutes. 

The situation is under control here in Hong Kong. I’ve alerted the police and we’re mobilizing all available military troops. See what you can do to help the Constantina. The crew could be asphyxiated if the intakes are sealed shut.  

“Alright, we’ve got our work cut out for us then,” said Molly. “Wingham, send Captain Galloway another telegram. Tell him we’re going to sail in for a closer look. Maintain a higher altitude as we move in, Johnny, it appears the beetles won’t fly higher than a couple hundred feet off the ground. Delone, tell Queensbury to stay on the lookout for strays.” 

I joined Molly at the forward glass, and as we moved in closer, I noticed that most of the giant beetles were beginning to vacate the Constantina’s gondola. “They must have finished encasing the gondola. Now they’re going for Princess Franziska’s residence.” 

“Aye,” said Molly as she turned up the magnification on her quadoptical. “Most of the beetles are flying downward towards the estate, but a few of them are remaining behind, and they’re staying close to the airlock doors and the intakes.” 

“Guarding their prey,” offered Moonblade. 

“But there’s only about eight of them,” I said, “maybe ten in all.” 

“We can’t hit them with the flamethrowers,” said Molly, “it might light up the gondola.” 

“Much too dangerous,” I agreed. “With their fuel tanks freshly topped off.” 

“We need to come up with a plan. The entire crew could be suffocated.” 

“We have the guandaos,” I said. “If we could board the dirigible somehow, maybe we could climb down to the gondola and kill off the guard beetles.” 

“And then chip the crust off the topside airlock,” said Moonblade. 

“Isn’t that slime they squirt out poisonous, though?” said Wingham. 

“We’ll wear our oxygen suits. They protected us from the toxins in the Forsaken Zone,” replied Moonblade. 

“But how are we going to board the dirigible?” I said. 

“I have an idea,” said Moonblade. “If we can bring the ship in close, and hover above their masts, we can lower a rope ladder out of the main airlock.” 

“Do we have a ladder that’s long enough to reach the top of the dirigible?” 

“Not long enough to clear their masts, but Sunarko is agile enough to climb down a free-floating ladder. He can fix it to the crow’s nest, and our landing party will climb down from there. We can tie the guandaos to our backs.” 

“We have no choice.” said Molly. “We have to save the Constantina. But how many of you are brave enough to go?” 

“Not me,” said Wingham, “and it’s got nothing to do with bravery. I’m not physically capable of pulling off a stunt like that.” 

Wingham and Molly weren’t qualified to go. Nor were Queensbury and Scribbens. Beyond the Morpurgos, only three of us had been trained to free climb the dirigibles, Moonblade, Delone, and I. 

“I’ll go,” I said. 

“Are you sure?” said Molly. 

“Yes. I can do it.” 

“I’m in too,” said Moonblade, “and I’m sure Sunarko and the sailing crew will join us. What about you, Delone? You’re a trained atmospheric sailor.” 

Delone had been standing quietly by the top of the forward ship’s ladder as the conversation proceeded. He looked towards Johnny and grimaced, “yeah, I’ll go.” 

Molly used the message tube to summon Sunarko, and when she related the details of our plan, all four of our Morpurgos agreed to join the boarding party. The three new recruits, Abubakar, Paloh, and Fadilah were excited about having another chance to prove their mettle. They had performed well in our entanglement with the pirate craft over the open seas, but in the days since had spent most of their time on maintenance chores. 

So, there were seven of us, the four Morpurgos, and Moonblade, Delone, and I. We put on our oxygen suits, and each one of us strapped a guandao to his back. We would board the Constantina in a most unconventional manner, by way of the crow’s nest. 

Wingham took the ship’s wheel, and Moonblade stood close by as she maneuvered the Fiery Crimson Messenger into position. “How does it look down there?” he called out to Sunarko who stood by the open entry door. 

“Just a little bit more and you can kill the throttle.” A few more seconds passed and then, “yeah, that’s perfect,” and Wingham shut the props down. 

As I stood by the open airlock watching Sunarko climb down the rope ladder, my knees felt as if I was standing in a vat of gelatin. Towards the bottom, he began to sway back and forth a bit like the weight on a pendulum. When he was even with the top of the center mast, he held on to the ladder with one hand, and then reached out and grabbed hold of the crow’s nest with the other when it came into his reach. 

“What if the rest of the swarm comes back when we start killing off the guard beetles?” said Delone. He stood next to Moonblade as we watched Sunarko tie off the ladder. 

“Then we’ll have a real fight on our hands,” said Johnny. “You have to quit worrying so much, Delone. Remember what Sunarko said when we were training back in London – confidence is the key.” 

“That’s right,” I said. (I spoke loudly so I could be heard through the thick glass of my oxygen suit helmet.)  “And we learned how to free climb on the Constantina. It’s not like we don’t know our way around.” 

“Yup. All three of us know the topside of the Constantina like the back of our hands. You can do it, Delone. You saved my life over the Empty Quarter when we were free climbing above the clouds – you can do this too.” 

“And we couldn’t be more than 3oo feet off the ground,” I added. 

Abubakar, Paloh, and Fadilah followed Sunarko down the center mast ladder. It was built with brass steps that were through bolted to the meat of the Sitka Spruce, much more substantial than the rope and wood dowel affair on the Fiery Crimson Messenger. I went next, after the Morpurgos. The first part of the climb was hardest, from the airlock to the crow’s nest, and I thanked my lucky stars a gust of wind didn’t come up when I was part way down. Delone descended the ladder after me, followed by Moonblade, and before long, all seven of us were standing on the walkway at the top of the dirigible. 

We hadn’t formulated much of a plan beforehand, and Moonblade and Sunarko were hashing out the details when the first blister beetle appeared, flying straight towards us as it cleared the side of the dirigible. They must have sensed our presence, maybe from the vibration of our steps, or perhaps from our scent, I’m not sure which, but somehow, they knew we had arrived, and we were soon under attack. 

Paloh skewered the first one as it made an aerial beeline for our boarding party. Fadilah nailed the second one, and then a third before he had time to remove the initial victim from his pole. (It was necessary to pull the weapon out of the insect carcass with force if the blade went all the way through, it didn’t just fall off.  You could use your boot to hold the beetle down while you pulled the spear out or wedge it against some stationary object.) 

We had a definite advantage over the dull-witted insects. Not only were we smarter, but also more agile, and we had our razor-sharp martial arts weapons. The guandaos gave us the edge. 

The giant beetles were fearsome looking creatures, more terrifying when animate as compared to the dead one we had seen at Dr. Jafata’s laboratory. They were slow on the approach, and their wings made a sort of buzzing, rattling noise. Delone managed to puncture the slime gland on the one he killed, and the toxic secretion sprayed out all over his suit. That was when we discovered that Moonblade’s theory was correct – the oxygen suits protected us from the poison. 

After the last of the guard beetles was skewered and the carcasses shoved overboard, we climbed down to the gondola. The insects had completely encased it. The dried crust was an off-white color, and it had an iridescent sheen in the bright sunlight. We cleared the airlock entrance by repeatedly hitting the hardened slime with the weighted blunt end of our guandaos. It took some time, but with all seven of us going at it, we soon had the door open, and found Captain Galloway waiting inside. 

“Good work, men. We could hear you chipping away at the dried crud from inside. You’re just in time, the gondola was beginning to acquire a distinctly unpleasant odor. Let’s leave the door ajar and get to work on the air intakes.” 

Galloway had already donned his oxygen suit, and he walked out on to the gondola’s roof to oversee the crust removal operation. The Constantina’s Morpurgos joined us as well, and they went to work uncovering the intakes and the glass on the bridge. 

“If we can get enough of it off the glass to see where we’re going, we’ll return to the platform, and figure out how to clean the rest of it off there. Those insidious insects made a mess of my ship!” 

  

  

Dr. Jafata had taken refuge with the Princess inside her residence, and though the insects completely encased it, the house had bullet proof windows and thick granite walls – they were safe and sound inside. The beetles enveloped Hogwood’s gatehouse in slime as well, but he and the rest of the security detail had retreated to an underground potato cellar when they saw the swarm approaching. Once the insects were done encasing the buildings, including Dr. Jafata’s laboratory, they departed the grounds of the estate, flying southward towards the city to rejoin the main swarm. 

We were partway back to the airship station when the heavy rains began. A surge of tropical moisture was moving in from the south, and the rain was forecast to keep up through the night. As Inspector Dowling told Molly and I later, he and Lieutenant Ngai were the first to discover that the heavy precipitation was fatal to the mutant beetles. They were watching from a distance as the insects encased the Central Square shopping district in downtown Hong Kong. But when the torrential rain showers moved in, the giant beetles began to promptly die off. They also noticed that the insects’ toxic secretion was rapidly dissolving. 

By the time we had made it back to the airship station, the dried crust on the Constantina had completely washed off in the heavy rain. The ground was littered with dead beetle carcasses, and it took a citywide effort to clean up the mess when the rain finally let up. Wagon loads of the deceased insects were transported to an incinerator in the industrial district on the Kowloon. 

In the end, the mutant blister beetles were defeated by the most common compound on earth, H2O, and in the Springtime, there was always plenty of rain in Hong Kong. Professor Krause said it was possible there could be another hatch, but the repairs to the Amelia Snavely were almost completed, and in another few days our squadron would be long gone. 

 

©2021 Surreal Science Fiction

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