The sixth story in the Beyond the Rails series
This story is dedicated to my Australian friend, Kaz (http://bookkunkiesanonymous.blogspot.com), who inspired and informed The Larrikins with her no-nonsense dedication to truth, justice, and excellence in literature.
Enjoy, my friend!
Cynthia Blackwell arranged herself in as dignified a pose as she could manage. After an unsuccessful search for a weapon, she had turned one of the armchairs to face the door, and taken her seat in an imperious posture, back straight, legs angled to the side with the ankles crossed, hands relaxed in her lap. She made no attempt to straighten her hair or cover the smell of her sweat, as she had no wish to give this doctor, whoever he was, the impression that she was any less than outraged over the manhandling she had received. She hoped her hands wouldn’t betray her by trembling when the door finally opened.
She had in her head no preconceived image of who this captor might be, though her mind raced to put a motive to the faceless title. Her first thought was that she had simply been taken for ransom, being the new grande dame of one of the first families of London. Then again, given the proximity of Arabia and Persia, with their custom of polygamy, was it possible that she had been taken to be sold into a harem, never to breathe free air again? Or was he a drooling madman of the sort in Miss Shelley’s dark novel, collecting body parts for his latest experiment? Her frame gave an involuntary shiver. Then the door gave out its little click of the latch releasing, followed by the sigh of the pneumatic tubes easing it out of the frame.
There, framed in the opening, sat a man in a wheeled chair. Never had she seen a human more suggestive of a ferret. No, she thought. A weasel. He moved a small handle set into the arm of the chair, and it rolled silently into the room on soft India rubber tires. The chair was bulky, and built in the manner of a solid cabinet, but she could discern no power source in the form of coal smoke or the hum and crackle of electricity. Two of his uniformed minions started to follow him into the room.
“That won’t be necessary,” he said to them in a vaguely eastern European accent, raising his hand in a gesture of dismissal. “I am in no danger. I would examine this flower the aerialists have plucked for me.”
Without a word, the two attendants gave slight bows, and exited the room, sealing the door behind them.
“So, my dear, I am sure you have questions. I am Doctor Mordecai, creator of wonders, such as this underground city you find yourself in. May I ask whom I have the honor of addressing?”
“Indeed you may,” Cynthia said haughtily. “You are addressing the greatest miscalculation you have ever made. I am Lady Cynthia Blackwell, of the London aristocracy Blackwells. My family are frequent guests of Queen Victoria herself, and when Her Majesty learns that I have been kidnapped, this entire planet will not be large enough to hide you!”
Far from being intimidated, Mordecai’s face lit up, and he actually clapped his hands once, leaving them steepled before his dark goatee.
“How the Gods smile today! I told them to seize a hostage, a woman if possible, but this could not have gone better had I planned it for a year!”
“Have you heard nothing I said? My friends know where I was taken. When word of this reaches Mombasa, an immediate rescue mission will be mounted by my friend, Brigadier Sanderson. When Her Majesty hears of this, you will be hunted to the ends of the earth like the rabid dog you are, sir. No hole will be deep enough to hide you.”
“Oh, my dear lady, I am counting on it! I am sure that once Sanderson, is it? Once Sanderson knows you are in my tender care, he will leap through any hoop I set before him to ensure your safety. Oh, but this is wonderful!”
“You are, of course, quite mad,” Cynthia pronounced, not realizing that it is not always a good idea to confront a madman over his madness.
“Mad? Mad, am I?” He stepped out of his chair, surprising her, and took a few paces to and fro before her. “Dear lady, I am the first and only Doctor of Retribution. My degrees are in death and destruction. You have had the misfortune to become a pawn in a game you cannot understand.”
“No? What is it you seek this retribution for, sir?”
“The rape of the world at the hands of your country.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“You English roam the world and lay claim to every place you set foot. You outlaw the religions, destroy the culture, and declare the very way of life an abomination to your filthy queen, that bloated spider at the center of her web of tyranny.”
“Don’t be ridiculous! We bring civilization, transportation, industrialization, cures for disease—”
Cynthia jumped at his sudden outburst, sliding to the back of her chair. He leaned on the arms, putting his face inches from hers, his bloodshot brown eyes magnified by the thick lenses of his black-rimmed glasses.
“After you have destroyed any vestige of independent thought, you proceed to take anything of any value back to England, crops, gems, ore, anything that’s worth a farthing, leaving the people to suffer in poverty on the nothing that you leave them. You cannot imagine how many enemies your arrogant, posturing nation has made around the world.”
He stood, leaving her room to draw breath.
“And kidnapping me will remedy this how?”
“I told my men to secure someone from the airship, preferably a woman. Men are much more responsive to a damsel in distress, you see. But never in my wildest dreams did I imagine they would bring me the jewel of London society. You will be traded for the cooperation of this new Governor-General. He will be offered a chance to surrender Kenya peacefully.”
“He hasn’t that authority, even should he wish it.”
“Then things do not bode well for your early release.” He turned to face her. “It is fitting that your nation takes the lion as its symbol. All life runs for safety when the lion goes on the hunt. But sometimes a careless lion trods upon a lowly scorpion, and the insect delivers its sting. The lion jumps, swats at the scorpion, perhaps even does it grievous harm, but the damage is already done. The venom has begun its work. The lion limps, then staggers, then falls to its side and lies gasping for breath. Eventually the lungs cease working, and the heart stops. The mighty lion is laid low by a tiny creature beneath its notice. I am the scorpion, dear lady. The venom was injected the day I was trod upon, and the lion has already begun to die.
* * *
Kestrel’s little dining room was solidly packed as the four members of the Australian crew joined four of the Kestrel’s around the long center table. It became more crowded as Smith pushed his way in from the passageway with the ship’s collection of long guns in his arms.
“This is what we’ve got,” he said, as several of the others took the rifles and shotguns from him and laid them on the table.
“Have to do,” Harding, the big, curly-haired leader of the Aussies said, “difficulty bein’, o’ course, we don’t know what they got in there. Still, nice load o’ firepower.”
So, what, exactly, is your plan?” Monroe asked.
“Exactly ain’t exactly the right word for this operation, Cap’n. We saw ‘em take your girl in, and we know where the door opened. Whether there’s a latch outside, an’ whether we can operate it if there is, are two other questions that’ll have to be answered when we get there. After that, we don’t know what’s in there. There could be ten o’ those blokes, or a thousand.”
“We always knew that,” Monroe said. “The question is, what happens if we get to your door, and we can’t get in?”
“Don’t you worry ‘bout that, mate. Me lad Tucker’s got a tidy stock o’ blasting gel, an’ the know-how to use it. He’ll get us in, all right.”
“And you’re sure ve can reach ze door vithout climbing gear?” Brown asked.
“Not a problem,” Harding said. “We started down, just to scout, mind you. The shaft’s ringed with irregular ledges an’ craggy bits like stairs. There’s a few places, mind, where caution’ll be an asset, but we never had to uncoil our rope.”
“That can’t be natural,” Ellsworth, the young botanist, put in. “The explosion that the people who saw it described would have flattened everything on the surface, of course, but that shaft must have been there long before, maybe forever.”
“I can agree with that,” Tucker said. “I know somethin’ ‘bout explosions, an’ to make a shaft like that, it would have had to come from underground, an’ been stronger than anything men know how to do.”
“Maybe a woman did it,” Jinx offered.
Patience Hobbs, the pilot, gave a chortle that blew a bubble in the tea she was sipping.
“Never mind, you,” Harding admonished. “Point is, we can get to the door easy. We get in one way or another, but after that, it’s anybody’s guess what we find. If we’re opposed, we do what’s necessary, includin’ shootin’ our way through, so if any o’ you lot aren’t prepared to take peoples’ lives, let’s hear about it now. I’d rather ‘ave five blokes I can rely on than fifty that I can’t.”
He looked around the table, evaluating each face in the Kestrel’s crew.
“Lady Blackwell was my best friend throughout my childhood,” Hobbs said. “Not only will I shoot anyone who stands between us, but if they’ve harmed her, I’ll be pleased to exact a lingering revenge.”
“That’s the spirit, lass! How ‘bout you, Doctor? No offense, but you got a fresh, green look about ye.”
“I feel as Patience does. I’ve not known Cynthia very long, but no young woman should be subjected to what she’s had to go through, even before this last outrage. You can count on me.”
“Right, then. Nine it is. So, we get in, quiet if possible, loud if necessary, we shoot our way through any opposition, and once we hold the field, as it were, you lot go after your girl, and we’ll take care of our business. Get out as best ye can. If we meet up on the way out, that’s a nice bonus, but don’t wait for anything. Once your business is done, just go. Any questions?”
“Yes,” Monroe said. “Just what is your business, anyway?”
“That’s our business.”
“Secrets? You know all about ours.”
“Which is why we knew to offer our help. Look, you’re a military man. You know that if you get captured, you can’t tell anybody what you don’t know.”
“All right, I suppose. You certainly know a lot about what we’re doing, though.”
“What you’re doin’ ain’t no mystery. Hell, they gotta be expectin’ ye to make an attempt. Now we oughtta get goin’. It’d be nice to have a bit o’ light left while we’re goin’ down that hole.”
* * *
Later, as they walked down the rubble-strewn street bristling with weapons and whatever gear each individual felt he or she might need, eyes watched them from the shadows of the ruins.
Thinking what, Monroe wondered. Were they viewed as angels or devils? Was there really any difference? Did it matter?
He trailed to the rear of the group to fall into step with Harding.
“It occurs to me, Mr. Harding, that anyone as secretive as yourself probably follows an unsavory trade. The one that comes most readily to mind is that of thief.”
“Look, I told you—”
“I know, you told me. I just can’t help but wonder, that’s all.”
“Well, seems like, if you’re thieves, there’s a lot more things of value to steal up here, and in fact, in some other town, than down in that hole.”
“Ye got a fine analytic mind, Cap’n. ‘Course, there’s things to steal, an’ then there’s things to steal. Ye seen them flying machines that took your girl right off your deck.”
“I didn’t actually see them, but I’m aware of them, yes.”
“Aye. An’ ye seen them rockets what was turned on ye.”
“An’ can ye imagine, then, what a king’s ransom technology like that might be worth up here in the backward little world that we inhabit?”
“Ah, I see,” Monroe said, apparently satisfied at last with Harding’s answer.
But of course, he wasn’t satisfied at all; Harding had already been on his way down the shaft before he had ever seen those things.
* * *
“You’re sure this is where you saw it?”
Monroe was skeptical, at best.
“Well, not exactly,” Harding replied, looking back and forth along the wall.
He had led them down the shaft, moving along the irregular ledges and rough outcroppings in a descent as easy as he had promised, but now that they were face to face with the rough dirt and stone, he couldn’t pinpoint the location of the door.
“That was the entire point of joining with you, was it not, that you knew the way in?”
“Look, Captain, this ain’t an exact science. They’ve made this door to be hid, like, but only from a distance. It ain’t gonna stand up to any sort of close scrutiny, so how’s about we spread out and examine the wall. There’s gonna be cracks, joints, hinges . . . Somethin’s gonna make it obvious that there’s a door here.”
Monroe acquiesced, though he was less than thrilled with the plan. These Aussie hooligans and their Chinese comrade were the only lead they had. Without their chance observation, they could spend months looking for a way in.
The two crews, nine in all, spread out along the rock face and began to examine every crack and fissure. It was frustrating work, made more difficult by the fact that the ledge was less than six feet wide here, so it was impossible to back away to get a wider perspective. By Monroe’s estimate, they spent a half hour groping their way along the face before Hobbs announced that she had something.
“There’s metal under here,” she said, as they gathered around the spot where she had her small hand thrust into a crack up to the middle of her palm. “It’s cold and smooth.”
“Good lass,” Harding announced. “Chang, pass me that pick.”
A pickaxe with a shortened handle was passed forward, and as Patience stepped aside, Harding began to hack away at the surrounding wall. With its composition of hard-packed dirt and fist-sized rocks, it was the work of moments to clear a foot-wide circle, exposing the polished, almost chrome surface of a panel set tightly into a frame. Knowing what they knew, they could make the assumption that it was the door they sought, but they didn’t know much more.
“So, is zis ze hinge side, or ze part zat opens?” Brown wondered aloud, running his fingers along the crack.
“Hardly matters, does it?” Harding asked.
“How’s that?” Monroe asked.
“Unless you want to spend the next two days excavatin’ this wall to expose the door, we need a quick way in. Tucker, do your magic.”
“On it, boss,” the other big Aussie said, already getting out his blasting paraphernalia. “Won’t be a mo’.”
“Here,” Monroe said, “how do you propose to drill into that surface?”
“Actually, I don’t,” Tucker said, laying out gear on the ground.
“Then the explosion will just dissipate into the air. All you’ll do is alert them to our presence.”
“Yeah? Maybe they’ll come open the door then. Gunther, you’re a Prussian engineer. Are you familiar with the work of a countryman of yours named von Foerster?”
“Ja, vaguely. He has some theory zat you can somehow shape ze dynamite to tailor ze explosion to ze job I sink?”
“That’s good. Not too many people keep up on the latest developments out here. Foerster’s a genius, mate. It’s not dynamite, though, it’s blasting gel. You form it into a cone, put the open side against the face you want to move, an’ it’ll cut through that surface like a bayonet through butter.”
As he was speaking, he produced a thin metal cone perforated with holes, probably a piece of some long-broken industrial machine, and packed a layer of gray claylike material around it. Setting that aside, he drove two eyebolts into the dirt on both sides of the cleared space, and attached a strap to one end.
“Hold the open end against the face,” he said, and as Brown did so, he tied the strap across the back.
“Zat vill never hold it against ze blast,” Brown said.
“Don’t have to. By the time it lets go, the damage is done.” He stuck a cap into the gelatin. “I’d recommend that everyone move away to the sides, and get behind somethin’. Hold your mouths wide open to equalize the pressure in your ears. I can’t say what else might happen, but when this blows, shit’s gonna fly everywhere.”
And with that, he struck a match and lit the fuse.
It wasn’t a long wait. Monroe had barely scooted in behind an outcropping, ducked down, and opened his mouth when the world erupted in an explosion that seemed to rival the one that had opened the crater itself. As the jet formed by the conical shape of the explosive struck the hard metal door like the most powerful hammer ever swung by a god, he was certain that his eardrums touched together in the center of his head. The air was filled with dust and flying debris, and the confines of the shaft concentrated the sound like being inside a giant’s largest bell.
He was sure no one would survive.
* * *
Abd al Jabbar made his way through the rubble along the still-recognizable street far from the carnage that had caused the crater. Of course, the name he had received at birth hadn’t been Servant of the Mighty, but he had chosen a new, more fitting name to reflect his unwavering devotion. When he dealt with these condescending white infidels, he assumed the name they believed all Arabic people bore anyway.
His tattered robe was faded and grimy, though obviously once a robe of many brilliant colors. It was the sort of robe a merchant would don to become a walking advertisement for his wares, then be unable to replace as his business ventures barely made enough to bring food to his lips. These white men loved to feel superior to the wogs of colored skin, so he would show them a failure.
His destination was impossible to overlook amid the mostly flattened houses, a huge bag of gas drifting above the hull of a boat. Once having located the odd collage of parts known as Kestrel, he made his way to the squat stone building it was tethered to, and climbed to the roof, where he came level with the airship’s rail. As he approached the vessel, he was surprised to be challenged by one of the hated redcoats.
“That’s far enough, Achmed,” the man warned as he stepped out of the pilot house, leveling a big service rifle with fixed bayonet at his midsection. “State your business, an’ be quick!”
He could hardly tell a soldier he was here to deliver a ransom demand for a daughter of London’s aristocracy, so he stalled as his mind raced by fixating on the derogatory use of the generic name.
“Forgive me, master,” he whined, “but I am Muhammad Habib, a poor merchant of Malinde.”
“I don’t care if you’re Muhammad the Prophet,” this thug in uniform snarled, “what d’ye want here?”
“Please, kind and all-knowing master, my business has been ruined by the explosion, and I have been told that the master of this vessel can help me move my surviving goods to Mombasa. Is it true? Can I possibly speak with him?”
“He ain’t here. Whole crew ain’t here. I’m just guardin’ their stuff til they get back.”
“Could you tell me when they plan to return?”
“Couldn’t rightly say. They went down the hole. They got some business with some wogs that kidnapped one o’ their friends. Can’t really say if they’ll ever come back. Could get nasty down there, if you take my drift.”
Al Jabbar fought hard to keep his eyes from opening wide in surprise. Resetting the impassive mask on his features, he bowed to the sentry and began to back away.
“Thank you, master, thank you. I apologize for having disturbed your vigil.”
With great effort, al Jabbar kept his steps slow and unhurried as he backed toward the steps that led down into the ruined shop. Heart pounding, he turned and went slowly down those steps, maintaining the illusion of a man in no hurry until his head disappeared below the roof. Then he took off at a running pace that caused his robes to fly out behind him.
Master Mordecai had to be appraised of this development at once!
* * *
Monroe was sure that he would never hear again. The veteran of years of training and a number of live air battles had never heard a sound so loud as the focused explosion in the confines of the shaft. He became aware of the Australians moving quickly toward the door, and shook his head to bring back focus.
Through the fog bank of dust hanging in the air, Monroe saw that a large square of the wall was skewed in a clockwise fashion, exposing the edges of a passage behind that ran back into the wall. The bottom left corner where the charge had been set was almost completely missing, and what was left had been forced back into the passage. Jinx squatted before this opening, her sawed-off carbine held at her waist, took a quick look inside, then dropped to the floor and slid quickly in on her belly.
“All clear!” Monroe heard her call through the cotton in his ears, and Harding, Tucker, and Chang Wei moved to follow.
“Come on,” Harding said as he entered. “They’ll be down here quick after that!”
Seeing the wisdom in that statement, Monroe directed Smith toward the hole, waved the others to follow, and entered behind the American. He was still coming to his feet when a pair of guards rounded the corner at the far end of the passage. Without comment, warning, or demand for surrender, Jinx took quick aim and cut one down. The other took cover at the corner and returned fire with a rifle that made surprisingly little noise.
When a glass ampoule shattered against the inside of the door behind them, Monroe realized that the weapon was pneumatic, as any powder charge would break the glass before it left the barrel. Immediately following that, the obvious reason for the ampoules came to him.
“Mind your cover, people!” he shouted. “They’re using chemical bullets. Any hit anywhere will likely render you unconscious.”
As he was giving this warning, another pair of guards arrived at the end of the corridor, followed quickly by another, and the volume of hostile fire increased dramatically. As the glass vials shattered all around them, some of the contents splashed on Brown’s back. Wisps of white smoke began to rise from the fabric, and a few seconds later, he was pulling off his shirt, crying, “Scheisse, scheisse, it burns!”
Harding darted across the passage and slid in behind the concrete buttress where Brown was, pouring water from his canteen on his bare back.
“Still think they’re interested in prisoners, Captain? Owen, deal with that.”
Opening a pouch at his belt, he took out a small iron sphere, struck a match, and lit the fuse that protruded from the top.
“Half an inch,” he said to Jinx as he tossed it across the corridor to her. “You go first.”
As he spoke, he was lighting another. Some desultory fire was exchanged as they waited, then she shouted, “Cover!”
“Fire, fire,” Harding shouted, and put deed to word, rapid-firing his two revolvers down the passage, even though he had no target. Chang Wei joined in, and then Kestrel’s crew followed their example, making the corridor ring with gunshots and ricochets.
Under cover of this barrage, Jinx slid out from behind her buttress and with an underhand motion, slid her grenade down the smooth floor. A second later, Tucker stepped out and threw his hard and overhand to strike the wall at the end of the corridor and fall just out of sight around the corner. Almost as one, two sharp explosions ripped through the air, a body flew across the end of the corridor, and two more were observed to fall from the sides.
There was a moment’s silence, then Jinx darted to the corner, flattened herself against one side where she could see the opposite direction, then spun to look the other way. Raising her carbine, she fired at something out of sight on the floor.
“All clear!” she called. Harding stepped out from behind Gunther and, waving Monroe’s people forward, began a trot to the end of the hall.
Monroe followed with his people, and reaching the corner, looked to see what he knew he would, a dead guard with a fresh head wound, courtesy of one Jinx Jenkins.
“My God,” he said. “Was that necessary?”
“Of course. You don’t leave a live enemy behind you, not if you plan to come back the same way.”
“So you resort to cold-blooded murder?”
“I’m a larrikin, Cap’n. We all are. We do what’s necessary.”
“What the devil is a larrikin?”
“It’s the word for a person who does what needs to be done without givin’ too much thought to propriety. Your Robin Hood was prob’ly the first of ‘em. Stairs are to the left, boss,” she added to Harding.
“Right, that’s for us, then. Captain, I recommend you look for a corridor like the one on your ship, lots o’ doors close together, prob’ly on both sides. Those’ll be quarters, cabins, whatever. She’ll likely be in one o’ them, unless she’s in the lab. If she is, we’ll bring her out.”
“Lab? Have you been in here before?”
“Long story that I’ll tell you later. We need to get started before more guards come to see what all the noise was about. See you topside!” And with that, the Aussies moved at a trot down the corridor, Jinx checking an opening to the right before they all disappeared.
“They’re right, of course,” Monroe said. “Let’s move out. David, out front. Do what Jinx was doing.”
* * *
The Australian crew arrived at the top of a broad, two-flight staircase, creeping up wordlessly as if they all shared one mind. Jinx put her back to the left wall, Tucker the right, and both crept to the top, each covering the other’s back as they checked their respective sides of the corridor above.
“All clear,” Jinx said, quietly but clearly, followed immediately by Tucker.
At Harding’s nod, they moved into the corridor, a deserted stretch of undecorated hallway, the lighting turned down to maintenance levels. At the end of the hall was a set of double doors.
“Cor,” Jinx muttered, “all these people must use the same architect.”
“Simplifies our job, now, don’t it?” Harding replied. “Let’s get it done, shall we?”
They approached the doors, bristlingly alert, and pushed them open, fanning out into a fantastic laboratory that seemingly combined every discipline known to man. Glassware, books, and sample jars competed for space on the shelves. The back wall held ovens and other appliances of unknown purpose and on the six workbenches stood microscopes, test tube racks, mortars and pestles, and a dozen other sorts of instruments as flasks of mysterious liquids bubbled over small burners built into the counters. A tall, dignified looking man in a laboratory apron stood from behind one of the benches with a look of surprise.
“Stop right there!” he shouted imperiously, and started toward a bell rope on the side wall. Before he could take his second step, three metal star-shaped objects struck him in the temple, the side of his neck, and his upper arm. He staggered against the bench behind him, looked in confusion at the star stuck into his deltoid, then his arm began to twitch. His look changed to one of horror as his head pulled forcibly back and he fell to the ground, where he began to make a quavering humming sound and jerk spasmodically. Tucker started to move toward him.
“Stay clear,” Chang Wei warned. “He is already dead, but if he thrashes, and the blades cut you, well, as you can see, it isn’t pretty.”
“All right, people, we have work to do,” Harding called out. “Let’s get busy!”
As Harding and Jinx began collecting every book and paper they could find into a pile in the middle of the room, Chang Wei produced a hatchet from his gear and began smashing lab equipment. Tucker, starting in the far back corner, began the process of placing a small charge on each bench where it would do the most harm, be it in a sink, a drawer, or among some piping.
“Long fuses on those,” Harding admonished, “we’ll need time to get away from here.”
“Yeah, standard couple o’ minutes.”
Good,” Harding replied, pulling a leather case from one of the shelves. “What have we here?”
Opening the case revealed row upon row of small glass vials containing crushed leaves, roots, bits of bark, and the like, some larger tin canisters, and a metal dispenser with hand pump and nozzle.
“What’s that?” Jinx asked, hurrying past with an armload of papers.
“No idea,” Harding replied, “but I’ll bet Monroe’s young botanist can make something of it. We’ll take it along.”
It was at this point that the man who had been hit by the poisoned stars rose to his knees, moaning and foaming at the mouth. He came up directly across the bench that Tucker was rigging, holding a small pistol in one thrashing arm, trying to get his other hand to join and steady it, and badly startling Tucker in the process. Tucker, heart in his mouth, drew and fired his pistol without any thought to consequences.
Struck in the chest from point-blank range, the man was knocked to his back, his arms going wide, his gun going off in the process. Across the room, Chang Wei gave a sharp grunt, fell forward across the bench he was vandalizing, and slid back to the floor.
“Chang!” Jinx was at his side in an instant, holding him still, then rolling him to his side to see a dark stain on his cotton jacket, a hole torn over his shoulder blade.
“This ain’t good,” she said to Harding, who had joined her.
“Didn’t expect it to be. Finish up, Owen,” he added to Tucker, who had started to come over, “we gotta get outta here before this completely goes to shit on us.”
“I think he’ll make it,” Jinx said. “There’s nothing vital in that area.”
“Good. Sit tight, Chinaman. Buddha ain’t ready to welcome you yet. Owen?”
“All right, start lightin’ ’em. Come on, Chang, up you get. Jinx, check the door.”
As Harding got Chang on his feet and held him steady, Tucker lit the first match, and began lighting fuses. He got the pile of paper going, lit the last two, then joined the others at the door.
“Still clear,” Jinx announced.
“Well, let’s get going, then.”
They booted the doors and made for the stairs as quickly as possible with Harding supporting Chang Wei. They were nearly halfway there when a squad of the guards rounded the far corner on their way to some unknown rendezvous. Without hesitation, Jinx raised her carbine and fired into the group, sending one crashing to the floor. The rest of them scattered for what sparse cover there was, and began firing their nearly silent pneumatic rifles.
Tucker scampered to the sparse cover of one of the thin buttresses as Jinx dropped to the floor and began firing. Harding pushed Chang toward a similar buttress to the left, and they almost made it before Harding was hit in the chest.
“God!” he shouted, pulling one of the glass vials from his chest where it hung by its long needle. He stared at it for a moment before doubling over and starting to scream.
“Nate?” Tucker called. “Nate, what is it?”
“Owen, for God’s sake, shoot!” Jinx shouted.
The guardsmen had begun to leapfrog toward them, a couple moving while the others fired.
“Nate!” Tucker called as Harding’s cries became weaker and more agonized.
“His chest is dissolving,” Chang said. “He will die in agony unless . . .”
His odd Oriental brass revolver came to Harding’s temple, the shot rang out, and his agony ended.
“Nate! Noooo!” Tucker fired his pistol empty down the hall, then repeated the action with his bolt action rifle. Two more guards fell, though Jinx may have hit one of them. Both guns empty, he took out his last charge, a good-sized one, cut the fuse short, and lit it.”
“Cover!” he called, and as Jinx opened up again, he threw it. As the blast sent bodies flying, he crossed the hall, picked up one of Harding’s revolvers, helped Chang to his feet, and started toward the stairs, firing as he came. Jinx took cover in the stairwell, loading her carbine, and as Tucker dropped the pistol and passed behind her, she kept watch on the end of the corridor, but no one else appeared. When the men reached the landing, she fell in behind and they continued down as the explosions began in the lab above.
* * *
Kestrel’s crewmembers watched nervously in both directions as Brown manipulated a six-inch tall rectangular panel set into the shiny metal beside the first of a score of doors along the featureless hallway. Seconds dragged on interminably while he worked out that he needed to press the panel further into the wall then release it, at which point it slid back out to become a handle. A quarter-turn clockwise caused the thick metal door to slide three inches into the hallway, then swing smoothly open on its pneumatic pistons, offering free access.
Monroe and Smith entered, pistols at the ready.
“Stay back,” Monroe warned as the others started to follow. “Don’t let that door close. We may not be able to open it from inside.”
The room was vacant, apparently an unoccupied living quarter; guestroom or cell, Monroe couldn’t hazard a guess. Each of them opened a conventional inner door. One revealed a closet, the other an indoor toilet and washroom. They were back out and moving down the hall within seconds, the next door opening easily to Brown’s newfound knowledge.
That door hid another unoccupied guest room, but the bed in the third held an occupant, an unconscious African man wrapped in sheeting, an intricately articulated brass and copper device strapped and taped to take the place of his missing right arm. A rubber tube led from a bottle hanging on a pole to a needle taped into his left elbow joint.
“What the devil?” Smith exclaimed.
“Whoever’s running this place must be turning him into something not quite human, some sort of machine. Something like those flyers, only for a different purpose.”
“Should we put him out of his misery?”
“No, no noise if we can help it. Just stick to what we’re here for.”
The group moved quickly and efficiently to the next door, manipulated the control, and waited for the door to hiss open.
There in a sumptuous black and ivory dress, Lady Cynthia Blackwell sat on a love seat, a small book in her hand as she passed the time with something from the shelf over the bed. The look of astonishment on her pretty face as the Kestrel crew crowded the doorway was breathtaking.
“You!” she exclaimed. “But how?”
“Because we’re very, very resourceful,” Patience replied, pulling her to her feet for a quick embrace. “We were afraid you might be confined under harsh conditions,” she added, looking around. “I see we were worried needlessly.”
“A pretty cage is still a cage,” she replied.
“And we’re here to get you out of it, Milady” Monroe said. “Will you be able to run in that dress, or do you need to change?”
“I’ve nothing to change into. Everything I’ve been provided is like this. Fortunately, I’m accustomed to moving around in this sort of thing.”
“Acceptable.” She lifted her skirt to display a pair of low-heeled leather ankle boots.
“Let’s get going, then. The longer we wait, the more likely we are to be discovered.”
Setting action to words, he led them out into the hallway.
“David, take the lead. Back the way we came, and do whatever you need to do if you’re challenged.”
“Right,” he answered, and set off toward the corner, the others following in a ragged line.
But just before they reached that corner, a swarthy man of eastern European appearance rounded the corner before them, raised the apparatus that had replaced his right arm, and released a charge of electrical energy that crackled and flickered over the group. All dropped whatever they were carrying, mostly pistols, as Ellsworth and Blackwell fell to their knees. As they knelt or stood unsteadily, a thin man, his bright, intelligent eyes taking in the situation from behind his black wire glasses, rounded the corner in a bulky, powered, wheeled chair. Three more henchmen accompanied him, these with normal bodies and conventional weapons.
“So, the whole family is reunited at last! I do so love reunions. Oh, how did I arrange this?” he said to their confused expressions. “A wonderful thing, electricity. You see, each door you opened turned on an electric lamp on a panel in another room. It didn’t take my security forces long to realize what was happening, especially given the little inconvenience we had upstairs. That wasn’t you as well, was it?”
“We only wish,” Monroe grated through unresponsive jaws.
“Ah, how unsatisfying for you. You didn’t seriously think you were going to walk in here and take my guest away, did you? And after all the trouble I went to to get her to accept my hospitality.”
“Whoever you are, you have a strange view of kidnapping,” Hobbs said, control of her facial muscles returning. “You’ve taken our friend against her will for God knows what purpose, and we have come to retrieve her. An abductor is the lowest form of criminal, and you’re no exception.”
“That’s quite the acid tongue you have, young lady. Obviously, no one ever taught you a woman’s place. Pity. Endre, be so kind as to fry the young shrew’s face.”
That strangely modified right arm came up, pointing directly into the eyes of Patience Hobbs.
Hobbs tensed her still-trembling legs, preparing to dive to the side as a small blue pilot flame popped on at the end of the arm. The man’s eyes narrowed as he aimed carefully at the center of her face. A loud boom rang out, Hobbs threw herself down, but instead of some hideous application of science leaping out to sear her face, the man with the arm jerked violently sideways, knocking the small man from the motorized chair as he fell across it, then tipping it over as he unsuccessfully tried to support his collapsing frame on its high back.
As everyone looked to the side where the shot had come from, several sharp reports rang out, along with another heavy boom, and the henchmen all went down without firing a shot, surprised and slaughtered within a couple of seconds.
The man who had been knocked from the chair attempted to fast-crawl back to it, but Smith, drawing on experience the others had long guessed at, avoided being drawn into the confusion, and instead dived for his gun. As the man on the floor opened the chair arm, revealing an array of toggle switches and a couple of meters of unknown function, Smith shot him in the back with his Peacemaker. He grunted loudly as the air was forced out of him by the heavy slug, and lay still.
Everyone collected their fallen weapons as footsteps clattered on the smooth floor, and around the corner came the Australians, at least what was left of them. Jinx led, that sawed-off carbine leading the way, followed by Tucker, supporting the wounded Chang Wei with an arm under his shoulders, smoking pistol in his right hand.
Ellsworth rolled the man from the chair over onto his back, listened to his labored breathing for a moment, then said, “I don’t think he’s going to make it.”
“Tragic,” Tucker said. “One less blight on humanity to atone for.”
“Oh, you know him?” Ellsworth asked.
“Not personally, no.”
“Mordecai,” Lady Blackwell said quietly.
“How’s that?” Tucker asked.
“He said his name was Mordecai. He was going to use me to force Brigadier Sanderson to surrender Kenya to him. His plan was to bring down the British Empire. From this hole, I suppose.”
“And you think this is over?” the dying man wheezed. “You think because you’ve killed me that everything is going to be roses?”
He lapsed into a coughing fit, bringing up some blood in the process.
“This is only the beginning. You’ve killed a wasp. The rest of the hive isn’t going to like that.”
“I don’t want to break up this touching moment,” Jinx said, “but we need to get moving. No telling how many thugs they have in here.”
“Excellent suggestion,” Monroe said. “Same way we got in, then?”
“Sounds like a winner to me,” she said.
There was a dull clunk from the chair, accompanied by a grotesque, gurgling laugh from Mordecai. Everyone spun to face him, finding him with his extended arm reaching into the switch box in the overturned chair arm.
“Wonderful thing, electricity,” he wheezed. “The signal has been sent, and the carnage begins. How fast can you rodents run?”
His question was punctuated by a rumbling sound in the distance, accompanied by a vibration that could be felt through the floor.
“Now what?” Smith grumbled.
“Better get started,” Mordecai cajoled. “It’s a long way to the surface.”
His words were punctuated by a louder explosion.
“Now there’s some good advice,” Jinx said. “Let’s go!”
Smith raised his pistol to finish Mordecai off, but Monroe pushed his arm down.
“Let him enjoy his own party. Doctor, you help the Chinaman. Mr. Tucker knows how to support Miss Jenkins effectively.”
“Of course.” Ellsworth moved to take Chang Wei from Tucker. “Say, where’s Mr. Harding?”
“He didn’t make it,” Tucker growled. “Let’s move.”
As Jinx and Tucker fanned out in front, the combined groups began to move as quickly as they could toward the compromised door that opened onto safety, if only they could reach it. Another explosion boomed in the distance.
* * *
The fugitives rounded the last corner, and the exit door loomed at the far end, perhaps a hundred yards away. Explosions were sounding more frequently, and getting closer, spurring their pace like nothing else could.
Eighty yards to go, then seventy, then sixty. A file of guards emerged from a side tunnel at the end of the corridor and immediately leveled their deadly pneumatic rifles at them. Jinx and Tucker both fired, dropping one, and slammed themselves against the sides of the passage, seeking the meager cover of the support buttresses. The others followed their lead, going to ground as the explosions began to seriously shake the foundations.
“Damn it!” Tucker swore. “They don’t have to beat us. All they have to do is keep us here until those demolitions catch up.”
“David,” Monroe called back, “where does that side tunnel we passed lead?”
Smith Indian-crawled back ten yards to the dark, narrow passage they had bypassed in their flight, ducked around the corner, and stood up. The only opening was another side passage not five yards in, and moving to that corner, he looked to see a bare metal stairway rising in many flights toward the surface. He returned to the main corridor, being careful not to expose himself.
“Stairs up, Cap’n. Can’t see to where.”
“Tucker!” Monroe shouted. “There’s a route up back here. Up is good, correct?”
“Correct! Start getting your people up. We’ll cover you.”
“Right. Gunther, you’re with David. Ladies, you’re next. Doctor, take Chang as soon as they’re in, and we’ll be right behind. Go!”
The companions were almost psychotically intent on preventing the diabolical weapons of the guards from firing, and under the blistering accurate fire of Jinx and Tucker, the guards couldn’t manage an aimed shot. Everyone had soon made it to the stairway and started up. They expected there to be pursuit, but with their quarry out of sight, the guards had presumably succumbed to the self-preservation instinct and fled for their lives through the ruined door.
They made the exhausting climb for what felt like miles to their aching limbs, but there was only one small mishap. As Lady Blackwell’s right ankle gave way and let her foot turn under, she staggered hard into Hobbs, who had been giving most of her attention to the route below. It knocked Patty into the railing, and while she was in no danger of falling, the iron rail slammed against the back of her right wrist, and she lost her grip on her little four-barreled Smith and Wesson pocket pistol. With an anguished look, she watched it disappear down the stairwell, firing a random shot as it struck the bottom.
For a bare moment, she almost looked like she meant to go back after it.
”Come on, Patty, for God’s sake!” Monroe yelled back at her. “I’ve always wanted you to carry a heavier weapon. I’ll buy you one myself. Let’s go!”
With a sigh, she started up again.
“That’s a custom piece,” she panted as she resumed her climb. “Uncle Jeffrey had it made for me when I announced I was coming to Africa. It’s irreplaceable.”
After passing several doors that opened onto other levels, they eventually came to a short vertical ladder with a trap door at the top. David climbed this and eased it open, then beckoning everyone to follow, disappeared into the darkness above.
They had come out in the ruins of a pottery shop, mostly all shards of crockery and partially collapsed masonry now. As they emerged from the ruins and got their bearings, Monroe turned to Tucker.
“Can I offer you a ride? I’ve an airship ready for flight on the other side of this crater.”
“We’ve a ride of our own. Boat in the harbor. Say, it might save Chang’s life if you could take him with you, mate. I hear there’s a decent hospital in Mombasa.”
“More of a clinic, really, but they do have a couple of experienced doctors on the premises. And of course I’ll be glad to take him.”
“Right, then. We better get going before this whole plateau collapses.”
As if in response, an explosion broke ground, throwing up a geyser of dirt at the end of the block. The two groups started to part ways, then Tucker turned back.
“Hey, Doc,” Tucker called to Ellsworth, taking a leather-bound case from the shoulder bag he carried. “Nate said you might find this interesting.”
"What is it?" Ellsworth asked, taking it from him.
“No idea, mate. Full of cans and bottles, far as I can see. In case we don’t see you again, it’s been a pleasure.”
Another explosion erupted even closer.
“Now we’d best move out before we all end up in a mass grave together!”
Putting words to action, he and Jinx threaded their way through the rubble, stepped over a low part of the ruined wall, and trotted off toward the harbor.
“Good advice, people,” Monroe said to his own crew. “Let’s move out.”
* * *
Monroe sat, shoulders slumped, on the rear of the mess deck roof, watching the ruins of Malinde receding into the wake. Though it was mid-afternoon, the sky was dark with gravid rain clouds, harbingers of the Long Rain, and it matched his mood perfectly. Patty Hobbs was leaving his life as suddenly and unexpectedly as she had entered it.
Disgraced, broken, he had slunk away to Kenya, determined to die of alcohol poisoning. After two years of failing at that endeavor, he had tired of the beggar’s life, and turned to the only trade he knew to make a living. Calling in a favor from an old enemy, once a friend in a time long ago, he had purchased a leaky river transport and a suitable envelope, assembled a crew of misfits and castoffs who no one else would have, and began his passenger-cargo service. Anything to anywhere, no questions asked, had been his slogan in the beginning, before the reality of life on the frontier had beaten that out of him.
But he had built a business on his reputation for scrupulous honesty and unwavering integrity, and no small part of that growing trust had been due to one Miss Patience Hobbs. The girl had presented herself at the rail, one of his placards in her hand that advertised an opening for an apprentice deck hand. He would have shooed the cute, blonde aristocrat on her way, but she produced a letter from Colonel Wilfred Fairfax, one of the few friends he had left, extolling her work ethic, and recommending she be given a chance at whatever she chose to put her hand to.
So he had taken her aboard and given her that chance, and the first time she placed her hands upon the wheel, he knew he had found his pilot. She loved being at the helm above all other things, and by all appearances, the Kestrel loved her just as much in return. With her delicate hands on the controls, his lumpy gasbag with its ungainly riverboat hanging underneath soared like the little raptor its name described. Not only that, but her very presence brought respectability and a non-threatening aura to a ship whose otherwise rough appearance might have frightened off any prospective customers.
And now she was determined to leave, hurt, angry, betrayed, and it was all due to his poor judgment in a moment of stress. Fitting, somehow, he thought with a sigh. The character flaw that had cost him his military career had now cost him the friendship of the young woman he had come to love like a daughter.
“Good evening, Captain,” came a soft voice from beside him.
Monroe looked to his left to see Chang Wei, his freshly bandaged arm in a sling with his jacket draped over that shoulder.
“Evening,” Monroe replied.
“Forgive me. Am I intruding?”
“No,” Monroe said after a moment, “not really.”
“We accomplished some good work together in that complex.”
“We did. We still don’t know what your part in it was.”
“The less you know about that, the better off you are, I assure you, Captain.”
“If you say so.”
“It is so. May I ask a question, Captain? I mean no offense.”
In my life, I have taken many journeys with many captains. Never have I seen one stare into the wake as though looking for something lost in the past.”
Monroe fixed him with a sharp look of surprise.
“I apologize,” Chang said with a bow. “I have offended you.”
“No,” Monroe said, “not offended. Surprised. I didn’t realize I was that obvious.”
“What a man feels inside shows in subtle ways on the outside. I merely observed. I am sorry. I will speak of it no more.”
“It’s all right, really. It’s just that my pilot is leaving me. This is her last trip with us, and I will miss her terribly.”
“She is returning to her home?”
“I don’t know. She’ll probably go to another ship here in Kenya, and take half my business with her.”
“Ah. You have offended her?”
“I have angered her.”
“And is her anger justified?”
“Oh, yes. I endangered her friend, then didn’t tell her when those flying things took her from the ship. She’s justified, all right.”
“Ah. So you didn’t anger her directly, you took actions that frightened her for her friend’s sake.”
“What’s the difference? The end result is that she’s leaving because of my stupidity.”
“In China we have a saying. Fear brings anger to the lips, but a friend listens only to the heart.”
“Nice. What the hell does that mean?”
“It means, noble captain, that although she lashed out at you for your stupidity, she may not wish to leave any more than you wish her to. She is headstrong, this one?”
Monroe gave a derisive snort.
“You could say that.”
“And so her pride has trapped her in her corner, just as your own pride has trapped you in yours. If neither of you can find it within yourself to set your pride aside, then this terrible event will come to pass.”
“It was she who said she was leaving,” Monroe protested. “She can just as easily say she’s not.”
“And was it her actions that set these events in motion? Forgive me, Captain, I must lie down. My wound is beginning to pain me again. Have a pleasant evening.”
“Yes, Chang, you as well.”
Monroe watched him walk forward to the accommodation ladder, then followed him as far as the pilot house, where he found Hobbs and Blackwell engaged in a quiet conversation.
“Good afternoon, ladies,” he greeted them.
“Captain,” Blackwell replied at once; Hobbs gave a barely perceptible nod, and kept her eyes forward.
“Lady Blackwell, do you think you could hold the ship on this heading for a few moments? I need to have a word with my pilot.”
“Yes, Captain,” she said with a slight but unmistakable smile, “I believe I can manage that.”
“Thank you. Patience, would you do me the honor of joining me on the cargo deck?”
“Don’t forget what I said,” Blackwell said as she took over the wheel.
“Never,” Hobbs replied with a faint, sad smile at her friend, the first Monroe had seen in days. “Lead the way, Captain.”