The fifth story in the Beyond the Rails series
| There was a tense undercurrent at Mombasa Aerodrome as Kestrel made her approach, two heavy shroud lines trailing from the gondola, cargo derrick askew, steam hissing from the cracked condenser coil below the port rail. It could be read in the busy group of longshoremen rolling an overloaded cart toward the heavy cargo dock, the purposeful tread of a file of Redcoats marching in from their barracks, the natty grooming of their NCO calling cadence beside them, and in the party waiting on the ramp they had been signaled to approach, the gleaming white dress jacket of the Governor-General making a smart contrast to the five scarlet enlisted uniforms formed up behind him. It could be smelled on the stiffening breeze should one tilt his nostrils just right.
“What do you suppose His Lordship wants?” Smith asked through the shattered windows at the front of the pilot house.
“They likely heard the boom from here last night,” Captain Monroe replied from the wheel, “and he wants to ask us if we know anything.”
“Could a’ sent a corporal to ask that. Mark my words, Cap’n, somethin’s up, an’ we ain’t gonna like it.”
“You don’t know that, David. New man, new methods. Let’s not get incensed until we have good reason.”
“Just him bein’ here’s reason enough. You know nobody from the government looks you up to give you good news.”
“Point taken. Here we come, then, let’s get a line over.”
Kestrel’s lead line sailed across the narrowing gap, the hawser was pulled across and made fast, and Monroe swung the stern in close enough for the stern line to follow. The lines weren’t yet snubbed in when the white-suited officer, a man surprisingly young to hold such a posting, made his way to the rail.
“Which of you gentlemen is the captain?” he inquired.
“That’s him, Gen’ral,” Smith said, pointing toward the pilot house, “Clinton Monroe.”
“Obliged. Captain Monroe, I’m Brigadier Giles Sanderson, the new Governor-General.”
“Welcome to Kenya,” Monroe said, stepping out onto the deck. “Clinton Monroe, late of the Royal Aero Forces. Would you care to come aboard?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary, Captain. There’s a lot I have to attend to today. You were airborne last night, is that correct?”
“Do you have any intelligence you can offer me about the explosion we heard in the early morning hours?”
“Only that it occurred in Malinde, either in town or out in the anchorage. We were too far away to see any details, and it still brought down two shrouds, and broke every piece of glass on the ship. Our condenser coil is holed, my pilot needs a doctor, and we haven’t had a chance to look at the hull yet.”
“And yet you made port without further mishap.”
“She’s a tough old girl.”
“That is certainly good to hear, Captain. I’m going to put these soldiers aboard with my captain of engineers, and you’ll need to take them up to Malinde with all speed. Is there anything you need, coal, water?”
“Yes, Governor-General. We need a week in a boat yard. Didn’t you hear a single word I said?”
“Yes. You’ve some broken glass, a few parted lines, and the odd puncture or two. There’s an emergency in progress, and everyone will have to pitch in and do their bit.”
“You aren’t an airship man, are you?”
“No. So what?”
“You don’t just order an airship to go. It isn’t a horse. The glass, I agree, is inconsequential, but the shrouds are what connect the gondola to the gas bag. There are ten of these on the Kestrel, and we’ve lost two on the same side. That puts an enormous strain on the three remaining, and if they go, well, death from a long fall can’t be pleasant. The hole in the condenser leaks boiler water, and meant that we had to use almost all of our drinking water to keep enough pressure up to get back here, and then there’s the matter of our pilot, who almost lost an eye. We’re really in no shape to go anywhere for any reason, especially with the Long Rain due to start at any time.”
“I’m sorry, Monroe. I didn’t come here with the intention of being a military dictator, but I need transportation for an emergency, and this is the only airship in sight. If you refuse to provide it, well, you aren’t the only man who knows how to pilot a blimp. I shall have no choice but to commandeer your vessel and put my own crew aboard.”
“Giles Sanderson, you’ll do no such thing,” came an angry feminine voice from the bow. Cynthia Blackwell had just assisted her friend, Patience Hobbs, up the ladder from the berthing spaces, and even on her lovely face, the expression she wore could not be mistaken for anything but outrage.
“Cynthia?” Sanderson asked, unable to conceal his surprise.
“That is Lady Blackwell to you. I have just buried my parents, and I’m in no mood for high-handed tactics from Her Majesty's minor functionaries.”
“What? Minor functionaries? Milady, I happen to be the Governor-General of the Territory of Kenya!”
“And as such, you are expected to be aware that there are rules intended to prevent officers at remote postings from stealing the private property of Her Majesty’s subjects. I am certainly aware of these rules, since my great uncle Gregory was instrumental in getting them written into law.”
“Milady, I am simply attempting to deal with an emergency. There is no reason for you to trouble your— your head over such matters.”
“My pretty little head, General?”
“I didn’t say that.”
Funny, because I heard it. Now you listen to me, you pompous ass. Everything you say or do, for good or ill, will be included in my next letter to my uncle Gregory. I’m sorry, to Lord Gregory, so if you intend to use your position to bully my friends and benefactors, then I suggest you be ready to defend your actions before a committee of Parliament.” She indicated Hobbs, who leaned against her, a blood-soaked bandage wrapped around her head and covering her left eye. “Before we continue this discussion further, I suggest you obtain some medical treatment for my dearest childhood friend here.”
“Of course, Milady. Hopkins, Clark, take that woman to our dispensary. And be gentle with her!”
Two of the Redcoats handed their rifles to their mates, and went aboard to take Hobbs’ arms and guide her toward the dock.
“Milady,” Sanderson said in a placating tone, “why are you so interested in this minor administrative matter?”
“Because I hired these people to perform a task for me, and they for their part treated me like family. If Captain Monroe says his ship is not airworthy, than you may take it as gospel that it isn’t airworthy. You are not going to kill these people over some bureaucratic nonsense, and not be held accountable. Now, if the use of this vessel is so almighty important to you, I would suggest that instead of browbeating the shipmaster, you invest some of that energy in expediting his repairs.”
“Oh, very well, but Milady should be aware that she may be exacerbating an already desperate situation.”
“Milady is aware,” Cynthia said sarcastically.
“Very well, then. Captain Monroe, this is Lieutenant Porter, my staff engineer. I was going to send him to investigate the explosion, but apparently we’re going to do something more important. Porter, I want you to work with this crew to assess what they need to become airworthy. Keep Corporal Drake with you, and when you have a complete list, send him to me with a report. You two men come with me. There’s still plenty to do. Captain. Lady Blackwell.”
He clicked his heels and touched the brim of his white helmet, and turned to depart, jaw muscles twitching on both sides of his face.
"Lieutenant Porter,” Monroe said, offering his hand across the rail.
“Captain Monroe. Where do you suggest we begin?”
“Oh, let’s see. This is David Smith, my deck hand.”
“David, why don’t you pull Gunther out of the boiler room? Gunther Brown is my engineer. The three of you can look everything over and make your list.”
“Aye, Cap’n. This way, sir.”
“I don’t think you made any friends by embarrassing the new Governor-General in front of his subordinates like that,” Monroe said to Cynthia as the officer of Royal Engineers moved off.
“He embarrassed himself with his behavior, Captain.”
“Nonetheless, he’ll be looking for ways to get even.”
“He is welcome to try. Captain, I’d like to make a request.”
“I’d like to accompany you when you depart for Malinde.”
“Oh, I don’t know. We’ll be standing into known danger, and you’ve been through enough at our hands already.”
“None of what I’ve been through has come from any of your crew’s hands.”
“Even so, Captain, I find myself alone at the far end of the earth, having just buried my parents and killed my own uncle. The last thing I need at this moment is a fortnight at sea with nothing to do but look toward the horizon and think. What you’re going into promises to be an engaging diversion. I’ll keep out of your way, and make myself useful. I’ll even pay for another passage, if that will help to sway you.”
“Milady has just paid for passage.” They both smiled at that. “Given what Milady says, I suppose you can ride along, but there is one demand I will place on you, and enforce rigorously.”
“And that is?”
“You will keep yourself safe and out of harm’s way at all times. I’m in quite enough trouble with Her Majesty without it getting back to her that I’ve allowed the new Lady Blackwell to come to grief before she even returns to Everwood to greet the servants.”
“You have my word on it, Captain,” she said with a grateful smile.
* * *
Nor was Cynthia Blackwell the only mysterious woman ordering her business this morning. Another was Abigail Jenkins, a slender youth dressed in knee-length khaki shorts, knobby brown boots, a soft white shirt, and a khaki sun hat sporting a leopard band that might have been made for a teenage boy. She was sometimes mistaken for just that, despite the mousy brown ponytail that fell loosely to her shoulder blades; not to mention the large cut-down Winchester carbine that hung, holstered, almost to her right knee, and the Indonesian fighting knife protruding from the opposite boot.
The bars and bawdy houses behind Mombasa’s waterfront comprised an area tough enough to make many grown men give it a wide berth, but this young woman walked the plank sidewalk like she owned the place. Though many eyes observed her passage, something in her self-assured stride and the confident gleam in her eyes protected her from further attention. She made her way to the Drunken Baboon, a semi-notorious watering hole on the Street of Knives, and pushed in through the half-door. The darkness was complete for anyone stepping in from the bright sunlight, and she stood just inside, waiting for her vision to clear.
“Jinx,” came a quiet summons from the deep shadows to her right, “over ’ere.”
She turned and followed the wall to a small table in the corner. There, back to the wall and facing the door, was a big fellow with curly ginger hair, sleeves rolled up, and his leather stockman’s hat sharing the table with a half-drunk beer. She pulled out the rough wooden chair and took a seat, and also took a long pull of the man’s beer.
“Wonderful, Nathan,” she announced, setting the mug back in front of him. “You always bring a girl to the nicest places.”
“Our kind ain’t exactly welcome at Anderton’s now, are we? Anyways, I know ye won’t make a trek to a dive like this afore you got a good reason, so what ye got for us, love?”
“To hear this lot tell it, that explosion we heard last night was in the heart of Malinde. Could be just the break we been lookin’ for.”
“Hmmm, could at that. If it’s true. You’re the one listenin’ to these wogs. What do you think?”
“Well, we all know somethin’ blew up, don’t we? I found a couple of fishermen who were up north last night. Middle of Malinde, they said, a flash like sunrise, and then it started rainin’ stones. Where might those stones have come from, you might ask? A good candidate might be masonry from the town.”
“It might, ye know, it just might. O’ course, it’s a day to Malinde, an’ a day back, plus the time we waste scufflin’ ’round in there. Hate t’ waste all that on the rumor of a superstitious fisherman.”
“Yeah? Well, what else we got, Nate? Funds are runnin’ low, and you don’t exactly look like you’re chasin’ down a promisin’ line of inquiry, then.”
“Aye, that’s the short of it, then, Itn’t it? You’re a practical girl, Jinx. Whyn’t ye go round up Owen an’ Chang Wei, an’ I’ll hire us a launch.”
“I got an idea. Why don’t you round up Owen an’ Chang Wei?”
“Yeah. They’ll hop into line a lot quicker for you than they will for me. And besides,” she added, opening the top button of her white cotton shirt, “I can likely get a considerably better price on a launch than you can.”
“As I say, Jinx, you’re a practical girl! Go work your magic, then.”
* * *
From ten miles out, Malinde had appeared to be completely hidden by a low-lying cloud of dark, oily smoke, tendrils of gray or white marking the locations of other combustibles, an occasional puff flaring up to mark the demise of a stored explosive. As the distance had closed at the stately speed of thirty miles per hour, more and more detail came into focus, until now, barely drifting overhead at about six hundred feet, the full extent of the devastation was evident.
The yellow masonry blocks used for the majority of the town’s permanent buildings lay broken and scattered like a child’s discarded toys, parts of wagons, dead horses and people, and the flotsam of less enduring construction materials scattered throughout like a bitter spice. The smoke was everywhere, choking the living who shuffled aimlessly or tried to move with a purpose without discrimination. No Roman legion had ever sacked a town more thoroughly.
“I say, Monroe,” Lieutenant Porter said as they stood together at the bow of the Kestrel, “you were a military man. Have you ever seen anything like this?”
Captain Monroe took his time, surveying the debris field that had been a thriving port, before answering.
“Well, there was a village in the Danish isles that had been pounded to rubble like this, but they had been subjected to a week-long barrage by Prussian artillery.”
“And yet you say that a single explosion caused all this?”
“If I’d not seen it with my own eyes . . .”
“And still I harbor doubts. Only my knowledge of your background keeps me from labeling you a madman.”
“I’d almost have to agree with you.”
“Indeed. I say, what’s that over there?”
Porter indicated an area set back from the port that seemed to be shrouded in white smoke, some of which dissipated as steam, but most of which lay heavy on the ground, obscuring everything beneath it.
“Patty,” Monroe called back to Hobbs in the pilot house, “take us over to that white smoke, and do a complete circle round it if you can find the edge.”
Kestrel’s bow began to swing to the left, and her speed rose by the barest increment. As they drew nearer, it became clear that the source was a deep pit, smoke rising out of it to be caught by the gentle breeze and carried off slowly along the ground to the west.
“Captain,” Hobbs called, “if I go all the way around that, we’re going to spend some time in the cloud. Is that all right with you?”
“No. I don’t want to be breathing that muck until we know more about it. Just give us a view where it’s clear, then stand off.”
“What do you, think, Monroe? Volcanic eruption, maybe?”
“Well, I’m no geologist, but that explosion didn’t seem like any volcano I’ve ever seen. Just one quick flash, and it was gone. Still, I can’t imagine anything man-made that could do this to a city in one blink of an eye.”
“Quite. Well, I suppose if you’ll be so good as to put me and my men down upwind here, we can start to earn our pay. This seems to be the center of whatever it was that happened.”
“Most likely. Patty, take us down to ground level. We’re going to drop the engineers in here.”
“You know, Porter, you might benefit from taking young Nicholas with you.”
“Who, that botanist of yours? There can’t be a plant within five miles of here.”
“True, but he’s a bright lad, and thoroughly trained in the scientific method. He could prove to be quite an asset to you down there.”
“You say so. All right, I’ll take him. He’d best not freeze up on me if we encounter any difficulties.”
“According to Lady Blackwell, he’s absolutely heroic when the situation calls for it.”
“Well, you can’t argue with an endorsement of that caliber.”
“Indeed. Patty, call the motor room. Tell the good doctor to arm himself and present himself on deck. He’ll be accompanying the engineers on the ground.”
Porter assembled his men, Corporal Drake, three engineer privates, and a field medic of the Royal Hospital Corps. They were joined by Ellsworth, his .455 Webley holstered at his hip, and within moments, they were at ground level, and being lowered to the rubble-filled street with the cargo derrick.
“We’ll remain in the area,” Monroe told them as they prepared to lift away. “Fire some shots if you need us, and we’ll find you. If we see anything that looks unusual, we’ll note it for your attention.”
“I’m of the impression that this whole place looks unusual,” Porter said.
“Quite. Well, we’ll do our best, then.”
With that, Hobbs lifted the Kestrel until her propellers were well above head-level, then started them up to drive her back into the sky.
“All right, lads, we’re on our own. Form a loose skirmish line, and we’ll move up and have a look in that crater. Doctor, you stay near me. We don’t know what we might find here, and I have no man to nursemaid you.”
“Don’t get all huffy. I simply mean you have no military training, so I want you to stay where we can look out for you without having to make a project of it, you see?”
“Good, then. All right, Corporal, let’s move out.”
“Aye sir! Skirmish line, forward!”
The party had barely covered fifty feet when they were approached by an old African gentleman wearing a colorful caftan, the woven dress worn by men and women alike in this part of the country.
“Nahodha,” he greeted Porter; Captain. “Have you come to slay the beast?”
“Beast? What beast?”
The m’tu m’wizi.”
“M’tu m’wizi, Nahodha.”
“I say, does anyone know what this man is talking about?”
“Aye, Mr. Porter,” Private Hopkins, a man nearing the end of his tour replied. “It means ‘man stealer.’”
“Most of these people have no scientific background,” Ellsworth offered. “He may be referring to some toxic component of the smoke, or possibly the explosion itself. This had to be an incredible trauma for the residents, coming in the middle of the night like it did.”
“Ah, I see. Yes, old boy, we’ve come to take care of it. Corporal, move out.”
* * *
Rounding the headland from the south came an ancient deep-ocean fishing vessel, the Sansuri. At least, the shipmaster claimed it was a deep-ocean craft. Her ancient boiler hissed, creaked, and wheezed, sending at least half of its steam to the pistons powering the walking beams that towered above the deck, giant iron teeter-totters that turned her groaning sidewheels. As much sweetly rancid smoke seemed to come from the motor room hatch as issued from the tall, crooked stack, while the Indian engineer cursed fluently in all the languages of the coast, shifting between them with a facility that would have left a professor of languages panting in his wake.
Barracuda, indeed! Harding had thought the moment he had been told the meaning of the old girl’s name. Calling this thing the Bottom Feeder would be a compliment.
The extent of the damage became apparent as soon as the town came into view. The wreckage of buildings, masonry walls and entire thatched roofs littered the broad white beach below the cliffs. Household items, from cabinets to wicker furniture, rode low in the gentle swells of the anchorage. And bodies. In any direction he looked, Harding could see naked people of every race and coloration, clothes blown away or incinerated in place. The towering smoke cloud, visible from beyond the horizon, could now be seen to have its origin in the center of the town; as if there were any doubt remaining, given the nature of the debris clogging the harbor.
“This is very bad, Bwana,” Kitwana, the boat’s captain said, stepping out of the pilot house to join Harding and his crew at the rail. “All this crap in the water makes my chart useless. I will put you on one of these drifting dories, and you can safely row your way to shore.”
“You ‘ear that?” Harding said, addressing Jinx, who stood next to him. "Now 'es got our money, ‘e wants to cut an’ run.”
“Typical male behavior,” she said dismissively.
“Look, friend,” Harding said in a none too friendly manner, “we’ve paid you for a round trip, dock to dock service. What you’re gonna do is make your way to that pier, where we will step safely ashore. You will then wait for us, and when we return, you will take us back to Mombasa, and place us on the dock there. Understand?”
“It is too dangerous for me to even remain here, let alone approach the docks. I will not risk my boat.”
“Then you risk your life. Chang Wei.”
At Harding’s summons, a slender Chinese man of wiry build and graceful movement turned from the rail to face him.
“This is Chang Wei,” Harding told the captain. “You’ll have to pardon his manners. He don’t speak much English. He’s a Chinese assassin. I keep ‘im on my crew to deal with weasels like you. You ain’t ‘ere when we get back, Africa won’t be big enough to hide you, kuelewa?
Kitwana tried to hold Harding’s gaze, but looked like he was about to soil himself.
“Kuelewa,” he said sullenly, “but you will pay for any damage to my boat.”
“We got a contract, Skipper, an’ I’ve already paid you all you’re gonna get. Now, you’d best get us in there while you still have light to see by.”
Almost shaking in impotent rage, the man picked his way across the congested harbor, a crewman at the bow signaling turns to miss the flotsam in their path, and by the time dusk was settling in, Sansuri was nosing up to the wooden dock to discharge her sinister passengers.
“We ain’t back in three days,” Harding called, “then you’re free to go. Ye leave us stranded, well, you don’t want to think about that.”
“Three days,” the captain repeated. “I will be anchored out. You signal me. Three shots, I come for you.”
As the boat backed away, Owen Tucker, another big, sunburned fellow in Australian stockman’s livery, clapped Chang Wei on the back.
“Yer evil, Nate,” he said with a laugh. “You’ve accused poor Chang Wei of everything but the murder of Julius Caesar. Have ye no shame at all?”
“’Course I do. People tend to fear what they don’t understand. It’d be a shame not to take advantage o’ that. That crater’ll be the place to start. Not one stone on another up there, most like. First things first. Everyone check your Dumas Lights.”
Everyone reached to stiff leather pouches at the back of their belts, and took out frosted glass tubes some eight inches long, and no thicker than a lady’s wrist. Each went through a ritual of rapidly turning a small crank on one of the others’ boxes, and one by one they briefly switched on bright white lights that emanated from the tubes.
“All right, let’s get started, shall we? We have a living to make.”
“That crater has to be huge,” Jinx pointed out. “We may need climbing gear.”
“Well, shouldn’t be hard to pick up plenty of rope around here. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Night’s the best time for what we’re after, so let’s get up there.”
* * *
Patience Hobbs, at her captain’s direction, had brought Kestrel up to within a hundred feet of the edge of the still-smoking crater, the early morning sun at their backs. From barely twenty feet above what remained of the street, Monroe and Porter surveyed what little they could see from the small deck ahead of the pilot house.
“I really need to get in there,” Porter said. “Damned shame we can’t see anything but smoke.”
“A shame, indeed.”
“So, what’s the possibility of taking your vessel down?”
“Patty,” Monroe asked, “what do you think?”
Hobbs pulled Ellsworth, who was taking bag pressure readings from the engineering console, to the helm.
“Hold her right here,” she said, ignoring his but I— as she stepped out the door and joined the men at the bow. She studied the column of smoke and steam in silence, making only a few clicking noises with her tongue.
“I don’t like it,” she announced at length. “The smoke means there’s a fire down there somewhere. All the interesting aspects of mixing fire with hydrogen aside, the concentrated heat source means a strong updraft. The steam means water’s being vaporized, and that means turbulence. The fact that it’s a vertical shaft means we can’t use our motors to maneuver. If we try, we’ll just ram the side of the shaft.”
“We can’t just drop straight down, then?” Porter asked.
“That’s really all we can do,” Hobbs replied. “The thing is, I would have to make us dangerously heavy in order to descend.”
“Could you define dangerously?”
“Certainly. See how we’re hanging weightless above the ground?”
“This state is called neutral buoyancy. If we vent off some gas, we fall into negative buoyancy, and we begin to settle. To fall through that rising heat column, we’d have to vent off a lot more than we would in order to settle here in the street. To regain neutral buoyancy, we have to generate more hydrogen, which is done by spraying acid onto coal. This separates the hydrogen, which is then captured and sent to the bag. It takes time, and while the process is going on, we continue to settle. Out here on the surface, I could tip the nose up and use the motors to drive us up, but if we try that down there, we’ll hit the side of the shaft. Is that dangerous enough for you?”
“I daresay it is. Should your worst fear come true, and the air stop rising, how hard would we strike the bottom? In your estimation, of course.”
“That depends entirely on how deep the shaft is. Our rate of fall will slow as soon as the hydrogen generator is activated, but it is likely to continue for several hundred feet, and any sort of impact is likely to damage the motors beyond use, which will leave us in a pretty fix indeed.”
“And yet, the great likelihood is that the column won’t stop rising, at least not suddenly.”
“I’d tend to agree with that estimate.”
“Well, then, Monroe, I put it to you. She’s your vessel. Will you take her into the pit?”
“What of it, Patty? If I go down that hole, will you do the piloting?”
Hobbs studied the smoke, started to speak, then closed her mouth and blew her breath out through her nose. Her fingers drummed on the side of her thigh before she turned to look Monroe in the eyes.
“Captain, if you’re fool enough to go for a harebrained scheme like this, the least I can do is make sure you have a decent pilot at the helm.”
“All right, then. I wouldn’t have tried this without you. Whatever you need, go ahead and set it up.”
“Okay,” she said, turning to the pilot house. “Nicholas, we’re going in. Tell Gunther to load the hydrogen generator with the best coal he has on board, won’t you?”
“That’s about all we can do. Cynthia, would you like us to put you down here? We have no idea what’s down there.”
“Do you jest? I would rather fly into hell with your crew beside me than be left alone in a ruined town.”
“All right, then. I’m going to move up and test the air. Everybody be ready for some turbulence when we hit that smoke. It could be a long fall in there.”
“Corporal,” Porter said, “you and your men take stations fore and aft, both sides. Lock and load just in case. Mostly, you’re lookouts. Sing out to the pilot if you see anything unusual.”
“Aye, sir. ‘Course, everything ‘round ‘ere’s bloody unusual, itn’t it?”
“Do your best, son.”
“Lieutenant,” First Sergeant (Medical) Branson said, “might be a good idea for everyone to wet a cloth of some sort and tie it over their mouth and nose. There’s no telling what might be in that smoke.”
“An excellent suggestion, Sergeant. Milady, could you possibly assist with that?”
“All right, folks,” Hobbs said, as Kestrel began to creep ever so slowly toward the lip of the crater, “here we go.”
Under Hobbs’ sure hand, Kestrel slid up to the edge, just feet off the ground, as the crowd of people who had gathered to search for treasures from loot to loved ones stopped what they were doing to take in the spectacle. As she got out past the edge, Patience turned her to the left to parallel the wall, and pulled the bleed valve to begin the descent. She began to drift down, but then entered the column of smoke and heat which pushed her back upward.
“You’re sure about this, Captain?” Patty asked through the broken glass of the pilot house. “I’ll have to make her as heavy as lead to descend through this.”
“Yes, Patty. Just be as careful as you can.”
“Aye, sir,” she replied, and reached for the bleed valve again. Once more, Kestrel began to sink, and the smoke closed in oppressively as First Sergeant (Medical) Branson and Lady Blackwell returned to the deck to pass out the soaked cloths.
“What do you make of it, Monroe?” Porter asked as they began to settle.
“You’re the engineer, Lieutenant. My expertise stops as soon as I’m looking up at the ground.”
“About your balloon, then?”
“You heard Patty. Heavy as lead. This updraft stops, we could find ourselves in serious trouble.”
“Let’s hope it doesn’t stop, then.”
The smoke closed in like an oily yellowish fog, until they couldn’t see from one side of the deck to the other, nor tell whether they were still descending, or if that was an illusion caused by the smoke rising around them. Sounds, those made by the vessel herself, and those coming up from below, echoed around, losing all treble qualities as well as any sense of where they might have originated. Occasionally, one of the soldiers would report seeing rising walls through a break in the cloud, confirming, at least, that they were still descending.
Suddenly, Cynthia Blackwell, who had been standing near the stern with Smith, gave a shriek of terror as three near-human creatures wearing translucent, batlike wings of stiff fabric, propelled by some sort of clockwork mechanisms in backpacks with six-foot diameter propellers spinning in cages, swooped up from below. Two of them carried brass and copper bulbs with long, wide pipes attached, and the third, whose hands were free, grabbed Lady Blackwell in his powerful arms, and dove back for the rail.
Smith drew his Colt Peacemaker almost too fast for the eye to follow, and got off a round that hit the abductor in the upper arm, but before he could fire again, one of the others pointed his pipe at him and launched a blob of yellow glue that struck him in the chest, enveloped his arms and upper body, and immediately began to harden. The soldier standing near them was given the same treatment by the other, and then they were gone, disappearing into the depths.
“Lieutenant, to the stern at the double!” the other soldier shouted, looking over the rail for any sign of them.
“What is it, man?” Porter questioned as he and Monroe arrived together.
“Some sort of creatures with wings and motors took Her Ladyship.”
“What do mean, took?”
“Took, sir, took! They scooped her up and flew away! Hopkins and your crewman tried to stop them, and they got shot with that stuff.”
“Good Lord!” Monroe muttered. “Porter, you and your man try to get them free. Patty!” he shouted, turning to start for the pilot house. “Patty, down as fast you can go! Never mind safety! Just drop her!”
“Wait, Monroe,” Porter said. “What’s that noise?”
“Sort of a hissing. Don’t you hear it?”
“I do, sir,” Clark, the soldier, said.
As they stood, cocking their heads, a rocket some four feet in length whooshed from the pit, narrowly missing the gasbag. It was quickly followed by a second and a third, then the fourth hit the bag, and deflected to strike the wall above them where it exploded with a sudden, sharp report. Then one hit the bottom of the hull, and Kestrel was rocked by the blast. Another missed close alongside.
“Patty,” Monroe shouted, “belay my last! Take us up! Up, girl, as fast as you can manage it!”
It took a few moments to generate more gas, but, prodded by the occasional rocket, including another hit on the bottom, Kestrel finally began to rise toward the sanctuary of the surface, leaving behind a very important passenger.
There was no possibility that they wouldn’t be returning.
* * *
Nate Harding crouched on the ledge on the vertical face of the raw shaft that yawned among the ruins of Malinde. He had brought his crew to the crater expecting to find complete destruction with the ruins of buildings mixed at the bottom in chaotic disarray; no better place to collect stray artifacts than the epicenter of an explosion. They had waited for a moment of relative solitude and started down, but instead of a V-shaped crater, they found themselves in a smoking shaft that seemed to run straight to the center of the earth. The sides were rough and offered access, so he had led them down for a look about.
Now he estimated they were some two hundred feet below the town with no bottom in sight. He had first imagined that the smoke would drive them out, but once the walls became vertical, it tended to rise in a column centered in the shaft, rising faster than logic suggested it should, and avoiding the sides as if getting its tendrils snagged among the crags and ledges would impede its urgent progress.
The going was certainly dangerous enough to keep the casual explorer out, so the last thing they expected to hear was a woman’s scream in the distance, followed by a gunshot. They grabbed what cover was available as the screams continued, growing rapidly closer. It was the work of a moment to place the source as being above them, and emerging from the smoke they saw a most amazing sight.
Three men, one had to assume they were men, with bat-winged frames attached to their shoulders, spinning propellers in place of backpacks, emerged from the side of the smoke column, spiraling downward. One held two bulky devices, shiny metal tubes protruding from copper spheres, one slumped in his harness, perhaps wounded by the shot they had heard, and the third clutched tightly a terrified woman, her screams having given way to moaning sobs.
As they watched, streaks of fire whizzed up from the depths, headed for the surface. Well before they would have reached open air, there came a quick explosion, then another.
“What the hell?” Harding snarled, frustrated by the sudden chaos.
“Look,” Chang Wei said, carefully pointing up without exposing himself.
Following that extended finger, Harding and the others could make out the shadowy outlines of a dirigible dropping slowly through the smoke column. More rockets flashed up, not another barrage, but a measured series of shots, as if the shooter were conserving ammunition. Shouted commands could be heard from the gondola, and its descent began to slow.
“Nate,” Jinx whispered urgently, “you’d better take a look at this.”
Harding shifted his gaze to a ledge fifty feet below, where the creatures had landed with their captive. They waited on the ledge for a moment, then quite unexpectedly, an irregular section of the rock face slid back a few inches, then swung back into the wall, opening a view to the end of a lighted corridor leading back into some mysterious stronghold.
“Crikey, this changes everything!” Harding said. “We’re goin’ to need some tools to get in there, and no mistake.”
“You think it’s a cell?” Tucker asked.
“Down here? What else could it be?”
“And the four of us are going in there?”
“Could be rough,” Jinx agreed.
“Well, there’s no time to send for reinforcements.” Harding said.
“The crew of that balloon are gonna want that woman back, I'm thinking,” Jinx allowed. “Might be some help to be had there.”
“After we tell ‘em what?” Tucker asked.
“Same as always,” Harding answered, “as little as possible.”
* * *
Lady Blackwell stood trembling, only able to hold herself upright because of the wiry Middle-Eastern man holding her upper arms from behind. The hidden door in the rock face had closed seamlessly behind the party of flying raiders who had snatched her from the deck of the Kestrel in full view of two redcoats and the American cowboy; the cowboy had at least gotten off a shot, striking her captor in the upper arm, and it had nearly cost her her life, as he came within an inch of dropping her into the depths below. One of the pair with the odd glue-cannons, the tall Arab now holding her, had taken her from him and carried her on their descent to this mysterious cavern.
Attendants in uniforms, olive trousers and khaki shirts, had awaited their entrance, and now, as two each removed the wing and propeller paraphernalia from the three fliers, she could see that David’s heavy bullet had wreaked havoc with the man’s arm. He had been the largest and strongest of them, doubtless chosen for his ability to bear the weight of the captive, but he wouldn’t be bearing any extra weight for a long time to come now. Once they got his blood-soaked shirt off, she could see that he had been struck in the left deltoid, and the break of his shoulder had been reduced to ground meat, the red muscle and blood making a sickening contrast with his black skin.
“Take him to the dispensary,” the man holding her arms ordered. As the attendants led him away, he turned her to face him and examined her eyes. “Are you injured, lady?”
“No,” Cynthia replied with a tentative shake of her head.
Her captor had sharp features, and a thin, perfectly trimmed mustache. Under other circumstances, she might have found him rather handsome; now he was merely a dangerous thug, and she took a step back from him as he released her arms.
“I see that you can stand,” he said to her. “You will come with us.”
“Where? What are you going to do to me?”
“Why, nothing, beyond delivering you to a place where you can rest.”
“But then someone else will do something to me, won’t they?”
“That I cannot say, but we have no mandate to harm you unless you resist us. Will you walk?”
She thought for a moment, saw no advantage to be gained in refusal, and nodded.
“This way, then,” he said with a gesture, and fell into step beside her as the other flier, another thin, wiry African kept pace behind.
The floor was of some polished material resembling marble, but it wasn’t that. It didn’t echo as sharply when her small, hard heels struck it, and it seemed to have the slightest bit of give to it. The long corridor was lit by electrical fixtures in the ceiling. They were brighter than those dim yellow filament bulbs she was accustomed to, their light being almost pure white, though only the least bit brighter. The stainless steel walls reflected it at a level that made shadows almost nonexistent. Smaller hallways crossed the one they followed, and her companion indicated a left turn at one of them, and led her down a narrower hallway lined with doors of various pastels the shape of coffins. They stopped before a blue one bearing the numeral “9,” which he opened with a lever set into its frame.
The door opened, and he gestured her into the room, a richly appointed combination room with a bed in one corner, washing and grooming facilities against the wall, and a sofa with two matching chairs arranged in the center.
“For a thug, you surprise me,” she said. “I had expected a more rudimentary cell.”
“Good, milady is regaining her composure. We have some truly vile accommodations we can offer, should you prefer.”
“That will be quite enough, Enok,” a man said in a piping, sing-song accent, rising from the chair with its back to the door. He wore a spotless white suit cut in the manner of an English butler, a turban, a rich, almost shiny black beard, flawlessly groomed, and a red dot centered on his forehead. “Where is Ashon?”
“Shot by one of her companions.”
“No, but I doubt he will ever fly again.”
“Pity. You may go.”
“You may go.”
Dismissed, the two fliers bowed to the Indian, and took their leave.
“You are in command here?” Cynthia asked.
“Oh, dear me, no! I merely serve the doctor.”
“There is no time for idle chatter, milady. I am here to welcome you—“
“Yes. And to point out the amenities available for your use. The wash basin is served by running water, as is the commode inside that cubicle. On the dresser are all the items you will need to freshen your hair arrangement, and there are new clothes of several styles in the wardrobe, should you wish to change.”
“What on God’s earth are you talking about?”
“Your appearance, miss. You have an audience with the doctor in,” he consulted a wall clock, “thirty-seven minutes. Your hair and attire has been disheveled by your journey, and it seems appropriate that you should take these few minutes to make yourself presentable.”
“Presentable? You’ve kidnapped me, you little worm! I assure you that when my most formidable friends find me, they will extract your brains through your nose, and that’s but a pale shadow of what they’ll do to this so-called doctor of yours!”
“I assure you, miss, that neither your friends, nor anyone else, are going to find you, and if they do, they will be the ones dying the horrible death. You have seen but a tiny sample of the technology the doctor commands. I have suggested that you clean yourself, but if you wish to make a poor impression on the doctor after he has gone out of his way to provide you with an audience, that is your decision. You have thirty-six minutes. I suggest you use them wisely.”
He favored her with a slight bow, used a key around his neck to open a panel beside the door, and pulled a lever inside. The door clicked open, and popped an inch out of the frame. He pushed it open and left the room, and the door closed behind him with the sound of a thick bolt sliding home.
There was no knob on the inside.
* * *
“So get some rope, tie it all together, and let’s get back down there!”
Patience Hobbs was livid, trembling, fit to be tied. Monroe had never seen his normally mischievous young pilot in such a state. If it were actually possible for flames to shoot from a person’s eyes, he would be a charred corpse already. He wondered for a moment if she might be about to reach for her boot pistol.
“It isn’t that simple, Patty,” he said, holding his hands up before him. “You saw those rockets.”
“Of course I saw them! We all saw them. All of us but Cynthia, anyway. I cannot believe you! You always talk about how we’re a family, how we have to trust one another, and you wait until now to tell me they took her?”
“I couldn’t risk it. If you’d known, would you have lifted us out of there?”
“Of course not! And had you trusted me, we’d have never been in there!”
“That’s Miss Hobbs to you, Captain. You brought her on a ride she never should have taken, you took us down that hole against my advice after you asked for it, those things, whatever they were, plucked her from your deck, and I’m holding you personally responsible for whatever has been done to her.”
“Now that’s about enough, young lady.“
“Enough? I’m just getting warmed up! Whatever they’ve done to her, I intend to do to you. And I’ll tell you something else, old man. This is the last flight I’m making with you. Whatever happens down there, we’re quits. Now get this bucket organized, and get us down there. Your hubris caused this, and now you’re going to make it right. Give your orders, fix your blimp, and let’s get airborne.”
“Kestrel isn’t going back into that hole.”
“The hell she isn’t!”
“You saw the rockets. If that first one had hit the envelope squarely, we’d be gore on the bottom of the pit right now. We’ll go in on foot.”
“That’s right. We’ll arm up, take ropes. Gravity will get us down there. Those creatures and those rockets came from somewhere, a cave or a tunnel, and we’ll find it.”
“And how will we get back up? Especially if Cynthia isn’t ambulatory?”
“They’ll have a real entrance with stairs or a ramp, something normal people can use. This crater wasn’t here two days ago. It can’t be their primary egress.”
“Fervently. We should have a meal. We’ll need our strength. Then we’ll arm up, weapons of choice, and in we go. Save some of that rage for those creatures. They went to a lot of trouble to take Cynthia, and I shouldn’t imagine they’ll hand her back to us simply because we ask politely. Select your weapons, and I’ll poll the crew as to who’s going with us.”
“I’m pretty sure we’re all goin’, Cap’n,” Smith said as Monroe turned to find him, along with Brown and Ellsworth, standing behind him, drawn by Patty’s outburst.
“All of it.”
“Someone has to stay with the ship.”
“One o’ Mr. Porter’s redcoats could be detailed. Some o’ them may even come with us.”
“We can’t assume they’ll participate.”
“We can ask.”
“All right. Doctor, I need you to fix us a meal. Make it a good one. It’s likely our last. David, a coil of light rope for each of us, something we can use for safety line on the way down. Gunther, secure the boiler. Then everyone arm up. Bring whatever weapons you’re most effective with, and plenty of ammunition. I’ll go see what Porter’s willing to do for us.”
“Well, well, well,” came a voice from the ramp as everyone parted to see to their duties. They all turned to see a big curly-haired man with trousers, vest, and a leather bush hat standing at the edge of the loading ramp. His companions were a smaller man, a rough-looking, though not unattractive woman, similarly dressed, and an Oriental man, his face beginning to show some lines of maturity, dressed in a black pajama-like garment.
“We’re a bit busy here,” Monroe said, stepping forward. “What do you need?”
“Good ’ay. That’s a nice little prang you got in your hull there. Almost like you ran into somethin’.”
“Things happen. What’s your business?”
“Direct. I like that. You like that, Jinx?”
“I do,” the woman said.
“Huh! Been tryin’ to get her to say that for years. All right, then. We was down that hole a couple hours back. We seen a blimp most remarkable like yours get smacked with a projectile right ‘round where that prang is. We also seen a woman get snatched off the deck. We was just wonderin’ if she belonged to you, an’ if it were on your agenda, like, to try to get her back.”
“You’re here to deliver the ransom demand, is that it?”
“What, us? I’m insulted, Cap’n, I am! No, we know where they took her, an’ it happens to be a place we got an interest in getting’ into. Occurs to us, we might be able to help one another. You provide some extra guns, if you’re goin’ down anyway, o’ course, we provide the route, once we get in, well, you got your business, we got ours.”
“And what is your business, Mr. ahhh . . .”
“Harding, Cap’n, Nate Harding. This fellow’s Owen Tucker, the Chinaman’s Chang Wei, an’ our lady friend goes by Jinx. believe me, no truer name was every bestowed.”
“So, Mr. Harding, what is your business? Are you thieves, perhaps?”
“An’ what do you care if we are? Blokes down that hole kidnapped a woman from you, an’ I’m guessin’ you’re wantin’ her back. So the question is, are you gonna accept our help, or are you gonna protect the kidnappers from the nasty thieves comin’ to rob ‘em?”
If Monroe was taken aback by the man’s manner, he recovered quickly enough.
“Welcome aboard the Kestrel, Mr. Harding. We were just about to have an early supper before we set out. Would you care to join us?”
The thrilling story of Lady Blackwell's visit to Africa will be concluded in Story Six, The Larrikins.