Part IX – Winged Reptiles of Equatorial Africa

©2021 William A. Lasher

December 24, 1882 – Aboard the Fiery Crimson Messenger, Cairo Airship Station, Egypt

General Pierpont received an urgent telegram from the British East Africa Company – a boat on Lake Victoria had been attacked and capsized by a mutant winged crocodile. After conferring with General Evernight in London, he ordered our squadron to proceed up the Nile to investigate. It would add a significant detour to our journey – a bit of a dogleg between Egypt and India as Captain Galloway put it. 

We departed Cairo in tight formation, and quickly gained cruising altitude with our hydrogen tanks refreshed. We put on our oxygen suits as Molly plotted the course and the ship continued to gain altitude. 

So we’re headed for the jungles of Africa now,” said Delone. “At this rate we’ll never make it home.” 

“Actually, the part of Africa we’re headed for is tropical grassland,” said Molly looking up from her charts. “Rain forest in Africa is limited to the Congo Basin.” 

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. A high-altitude plateau teeming with wildlife.” 

Delone was pulling on his insulated boots. “What to do we do when we see a winged croc? Tear it to pieces with the Longstones?” 

“Or we can roast it with the flamethrowers,” said Moonblade. 

“They’re living creatures,” said Delone. “Is it really necessary to kill them?” 

Molly made a face at him, “What do you want to do, put them in a zoo? We’re MEF – Mutant Eradication Forces. Remember, Alton? 

“Delone just needs something to whine about,” said Moonblade. “He’s always got a complaint about something.” 

“Stick it in your ear, Johnny.” 

Our squadron 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. 

It was just over 2,000 air miles to Lake Victoria; about the same distance we had traveled from London to Cairo.  The conditions were prime for atmospheric sailing. There was a steady north wind at the upper levels. 

Once the sails were unfurled in the morning, Delone and I returned to the gondola while Moonblade and Sunarko stayed topside. We would remain short-handed until we reached Borneo, so there were plenty of chores to keep us occupied. 

The new ships had more advanced weaponry as compared to the Champion of the Skies. The location of the gun emplacements was the same, one forward and one aft, but instead of just a machine gun, we now had an additional flamethrower in both stations. 

It was my job to turn Delone into a competent gunner. We went into the forward emplacement and I eased myself down into the Longstone chamber and sat 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 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 a winged croc.” 

“Why not?” 

“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, okay, whatever you say.” 

“I’ll show you how to shoot the flamethrowers next. Do you want the forward guns or the rear?” 

“It doesn’t make any difference to me.” 

“Then take the forward. That’ll put you close to the bridge if you need help from Molly. I had the rear Longstone on the Champion, 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; an 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 a 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 his flamethrower. 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!” 

“Aye,” 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 Galloway 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.” 

“Yes, Ma’am!” Queensbury gave Molly another hand salute and hurried off. 

“How should I reply to Captain Galloway, Ma’am?” said Wingham. “He asked us to advise at once.” 

“Tell the Cap’n that Delone is chicken.” Moonblade was 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 Galloway 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 Galloway 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 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.” 

 

 

 

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 snowcapped summit seemed out of place; we had crossed the Equator on Lake Victoria and were 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 a 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. 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 pitcher to keep the glasses filled with water. The jungle was alive with the sounds of screaming primates and a variety of songbirds. 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?” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“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.” 

“And then you took control of the flamethrower and successfully downed the mutant beast.” 

“Yes, sir.” 

“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 on the table before me. 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 had become the lead ship in our squadron. Molly plotted the 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.  

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 would 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 gnawers’ presence spread the poisonous conditions, and when they arrived in large enough numbers, the forests and grasslands became 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 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.  

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 walked inside. 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?” 

“Lieutenant Thorndale.” 

“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 go out the door. The two-story building with the flagpole in 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. 

 The sun was 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 gone. It was apparent the camels had been stolen. 

“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 conflict. 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 fight it out,” 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, 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 locals 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. Any hint of aiding 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 an alleyway that kept us moving towards the airship station. It was extremely narrow, with mud-brick buildings on both sides. As we walked down it, 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 like 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?” 

“It looked just like the swordsman from the Red Pyramid!” I cried attempting to collect my wits. 

“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 ghoul disintegrated into a cloud of dust, including the sword and chain mail armor. 

Two more appeared, and we all began to shoot. 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 were dressed like warriors from the Middle Ages. Finally, after we dropped several of them, the onslaught let up. 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 did those things come from?” 

“Maybe they were ghosts,” said Moonblade walking faster now too. 

“Or perhaps they were an illusion,” I said aping the professor’s thick German accent.  

“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. 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 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 still 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 regarding Sergeant Delone’s guilt. His refusal to obey a direct order cannot be disputed.” 

Rockfort had a gruff demeanor. He was well tanned with a heavily lined face. It looked as if he had spent quite a few 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 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 gazed at 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?” 

 “Of course, Captain Abbotsford. You have the floor.” 

Rockfort turned to give Molly a look of disdain, but Pierpont and the 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 I, 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. Delone looked up at her with an awe-struck smile as she continued: “The reason why I bring 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. 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 hadn’t been there to help dig 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, 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. Captain Abbotsford will 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.” 

©2021 Surreal Science Fiction

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