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Rated: 18+ · Novella · Steampunk · #2187733
The tenth story of the Beyond the Rails series
         “So, vat is your next port of call, Captain?” Hafner asked.
         He had stood back out of the way while Monroe had overseen the Kestrel’s landing in Nairobi, a simple task given the complete lack of wind on this beautiful afternoon. His ship was made fast with multiple loops of heavy hawsers, and only the gasbag could sway at the top of the shrouds. The stevedores were aboard, wrestling the boxes of salt fish from Kisumu onto hand carts and preparing to take them to the buyers for sale in the market.
         “That isn’t a question I can answer just yet,” Monroe replied. “This is our first visit to Nairobi this month, and we have to check in with—” He stopped short, almost having given away their secret relationship with the Governor-General. He gave a little cough, hoping it sounded genuine, then continued, “There are a few people we have to check with to see if anyone needs a special run. Everyone has their favored customers. You understand.”
         “Of course, Captain. Vell, I intend to get down to Mombasa as quickly as I can arrange it. I mean to begin researching the map your pilot found on that coin.”
         “Your best bet’s probably the train, then. It departs in the morning and arrives in Mombasa right around dusk. Takes eleven hours, and I’m told the seats are at least adequate, so you can get a few winks in. If you want Patty’s help, look for us down there. If we go straight there, we’ll be waiting for you. Otherwise, I’m sure we’ll be there in the next few days.”
         “I vill certainly meet with you again, Captain. If nothing else, this coin is a gift for your pilot, and if it leads novhere, I would very much like to return it to her.”
         “I’m sure she’d appreciate that, Mr. Hafner.”
         “Good. I’ll just get my things. I’ll see you in a few days, then, Captain. God willing.”
         “God willing.”
         The two men shook hands and Hafner went below.
         “Interesting fellow,” Patience Hobbs said, emerging from the pilot house.
         “Indeed.”
         “Any idea where we’re going next?”
         “Not until we see Major Cole.”
         “Well, let’s hope he doesn’t want us to wrestle a crocodile or something.”
         “Oh, I’m sure you could manage.” He walked aft to check the mooring lines there as Patty Hobbs stuck out her tongue at his back.

*           *           *

         “Crew of the airship Kestrel are here to see you, sir,” the corporal announced from the doorway. “Captain Monroe and two subordinates.”
         “Oh, I know who those pirates are, well and truly! Show them in.”
         The corporal stepped back into the anteroom as Major Ulysses Cole fluffed out his red muttonchops and glanced to see that the row of medals on his spotless white tunic were flawlessly aligned. There was time for nothing more before the corporal was at the door again.
         “Crew of the Kestrel reporting for an audience, sir,” the man said.
         “Very well, Corporal, carry on.” He rose upon Hobbs’ entry, and waved airily to the several chairs before his desk. “Gentlemen, Miss Hobbs, please, take seats.”
         He sat down himself as Monroe, Hobbs, and Ellsworth pulled chairs up in front of his desk.
         “So, what brings you to my office, Monroe? Lull in the piracy business, is there?”
         “Actually, Major, we have struck an arrangement with Governor-General Sanderson to engage in more of it on behalf of the crown. So, do you perhaps have any skullduggery lined up for us?”
         “I have been informed of this arrangement, Monroe, and as a matter of fact, I have.”
         Cole turned to the pigeonhole cabinet on the wall behind him and withdrew a slip of paper. Opening a stamp pad on his desk, he took up the steel ingot engraved with his official seal of office, dabbed it around in the ink, and carefully pressed it onto the paper.
         “There you are, Monroe,” he said, waving it about to speed the drying of the ink. “Five pounds, your first month’s stipend. I suppose this completes your transition from a soldier of the Crown to a low-life mercenary, for sale to the deepest purse.”
         “It may interest you to know that as a soldier of the Crown, I was paid a regular wage by a military paymaster, just as I suspect you are. Perhaps we aren’t as different as you like to think, Major.”
         “Eh, what? Apples and oranges, Monroe! I’m a member of the thin red line, while you and your ragamuffins are, are, privateers, that’s what, profiting from the misfortune of others.”
         “You just keep telling yourself that, Major. Maybe someday you’ll even come to believe it. Now, do you have a job, or should we go line one up ourselves?”
         “Yes, quite. Do you know Garas, Miss Hobbs?”
         “East, past the swamp. Trading village, has a hospital and some missionaries?”
         “Capitol, Miss Hobbs, that’s the place indeed. They’ve been dealing with a bit of an outbreak up there.”
         “Of?”
         “They weren’t specific, Monroe. One sort of jungle rot or another. This abysmal climate seems to breed every disease known to science. Well, the climate and the primitive lifestyle. In any case, they sent word by dispatch rider that they are critically short of several medicines, and we have assembled a crate of them to replenish their stock. Do you think you could manage to get them out there in a timely manner?”
         “Patty?”
         “Certainly.”
         “How long, girl?” Cole asked impatiently.
         “Ten, twelve hours. Depends on the wind, basically. Once you get down over the veldt, there are no landmarks. It’s all compass work. You might as well be out at sea, really. If you’re fighting a crosswind all the way, you could miss it by miles.”
         “You can’t even say you can find it, then?”
         “Of course I can find it! You asked about the time, and that is less exact.”
         “Quite. Within a day, though, you think?”
         “More or less.”
         “All right, then, it will have to do. The crate is here in the headquarters. You can take it with you.”
         “Along with our pay, I presume?” Monroe asked.
         “You have your stipend. You get paid for the job when the job is complete.”
         “Your confidence is inspiring, Major.”
         “I didn’t make this arrangement with you, Monroe, and my opinion was not solicited. I would as soon do business with Edward Teach as a senior officer the Crown saw fit to discharge. Since the conversation has taken this turn, let me make one thing perfectly clear for you. You could gain far more than five pounds for this medicine on the black market. Should that be at the back of your mind, let me assure you that should that happen, Africa will be too small to hold you. Are we clear?”
         “Crystal. Would you like to ride along? To protect your cargo, you understand.”
         “What? Of course not! I suggest, Miss Hobbs, that you fly at high altitude if you expect the wind to be that big a problem for you. The mission will have a church, and the church will have a steeple. Also, the hospital will likely be the only civilized building between here and Cairo. You should be able to see them from miles away.”
         “An excellent suggestion, Your Lordship. I’ll take it under advisement.”
         “Such a waste,” Cole said with a shake of his head. “A pretty girl like you could be the first lady of the colony with just the slightest bit of effort. And how about you, Ainsworth? You haven’t said much.”
         “Sorry, sir,” Ellsworth replied. “You seemed to be talking enough for both of us.”
         Cole stared at the doctor for a moment, then turned back to Monroe.
         “You’ve wasted no time ruining him, I see. All right, you brigands shove off. We all have work to do. I’ll see you back here in two days’ time, three at the most, and I expect to hear that you’ve managed this simple delivery in a satisfactory manner. Now, hop to it!”

*           *           *

         “This really doesn’t look good, Captain,” Hobbs said quietly, stating the glaringly obvious.
         Monroe stood beside her in the pilot house, Smith leaning on the rail just outside the door. What she referred to were the columns of smoke rising from the ground just beyond the marsh whose south edge they were skirting.
         “Is that the town?”
         “You’re the navigator,” Monroe said. “It does seem to be in the right location, though. Is there anything else around here that would burn like that?”
         “Just the grass, and that would be a wide line of fire. This all seems to be coming from one spot. Remember Malinde?”
         “Who could forget?”
         They motored on in silence as the minutes ticked by, the ground under the ominous columns finally revealing its secrets to Monroe’s binoculars.
         “The place has been sacked,” he said, “the whole lot burned. There’s no sign of life, Patty, residents or attackers. Bring us down to two hundred feet, and make a slow circle.”
         Hobbs moved to comply, and as the ship got lower and closer, the extent of the destruction became more and more clear. Bodies lay in the street, barely clothed, cut down where they ran; the attack must have come in the night, catching the people in their beds. Most of the town consisted of wood and straw houses with mud brick foundations and lower walls, and some of these had been burned without being disturbed, while others had been shattered as if a child had kicked a toy house of toothpicks. Monroe’s trained military eye noted the black star-like patterns of shell explosions. The steeple of the Lutheran Church had collapsed down into the shell of the building, and one end of the two-story hospital was smashed, its roof burned away.
         “This is complete,” Smith said. “There ain’t a stray dog. Even the Apaches wasn’t this thorough.”
         “Take us over to the hospital, Patty. I want to get a closer look.”
         “Aye, Captain.”
         “Didn’t you tell me that the red Indians would carry off the women to make them part of their tribe? Maybe that’s what happened here.”
         “Maybe. Plenty of dead women layin’ in the street, though.”
         “The first attack was pretty violent. The ones we see were cut down in the initial carnage, maybe, and the survivors carried off?”
         “Could be. Truthfully, though, Cap’n, ain’t seen that many Apaches around here.”
         “No. This is beyond the Maasai, though. They kill, they loot, and they burn, right enough, but it would have taken a major engineering project to do that level of damage to the hospital building. Not their style. Not at all.”
         They came over the hospital, and Hobbs brought them to a stop two hundred feet in the air, the shattered masonry building just below the starboard rail. Monroe took the megaphone from the rack in the pilot house.
         “Hello!” he shouted toward the ground. “Is there anyone alive down there? We are here to assist you. Please answer if you can hear me.”
         They waited. Ten seconds, twenty passed, with no sound but the breeze moaning around the jagged edges of the tortured brickwork.
         “Don’t sound promising,” Smith observed.
         “Doesn’t sound like anything at all,” Monroe agreed. “Well, it’s pretty obvious that we’ll have to go down there. Cole will want a complete report, and I mean complete.”
         “Old chair-polisher will probably try to say we did it.”
         “No danger of that. We don’t have one-tenth part of the firepower it took to do this. Go below and get our guns. Bring the doctor’s first aid kit, too.”
         “Are we gonna bring the doctor himself?”
         “No, Patty will need him here. Patty, set us down on the roof, then go find someplace to hide. Well, as much as you can hide a flying whale, anyway. There are some trees over there, and some hills to the east. Whatever works best for you.”
         “I’ll try the trees first. Don’t want to be too far away if you need me in a hurry.”
         “There’s a good lass. Have Nicholas rig the fowler for you, and be ready for anything.”
         “Anything? That’s a tall order.”
         “Best I can do. Ah, David.”
         Smith had come back up the ladder and passed Monroe his LeMat revolver in its holster, and leaned his Martini-Henry against the pilot house along with his own Winchester.
         “You bring your rifle,” he told Smith, as they buckled on their pistol belts. “I’m going to leave the Henry here with Patience. It’s too slow if we get into trouble, and too heavy if we don’t.”
         By the time they were ready, Kestrel’s gondola hung some twenty yards from the shattered west wall, and her deck was barely twenty feet from the ground. Both men checked their weapons, and stepped onto the cargo hoist.
         “If you hear shooting, come on the fly,” Monroe told Hobbs. “We’ll either be signaling you, or deep in trouble. Either way, get here on the quick step.”
         “Have I ever let you down?”
         “Only takes once. All right, let’s go.”

*           *           *

         Smith and Monroe stepped off the cargo hoist onto the remains of the ruined roof, weapons in hand, feeling the weakened structure sag beneath them. Kestrel’s motors whined, gaining power, as Hobbs angled the frame away from them and motored off toward a stand of acacias that would at least break up the balloon’s shape should anything unsavory return.
         “Stay near the outside wall,” Monroe cautioned. “This whole structure must be ready to fall in on itself.”
         “Aye,” Smith replied. “Whatever did this didn’t miss much.”
         The two hugged the edge, approaching the brink of the destroyed area until they could look directly into the hospital building. Torn linoleum in brown and green squares greeted their eyes, scattered equipment, wheelchairs, gurneys, examination tables, papers and the contents of cabinets tossed and scattered everywhere. And bodies. Corpses lying everywhere, struck down as they ran or cowered. Some burned, some dismembered, they could count a dozen from the edge of the roof.
         “What in God’s name could have done this?” Smith asked.
         “Artillery, some of it,” Monroe said. “See how the masonry bricks are all over the interior and exterior both? Something hit the wall about there, and exploded.”
         “What, the Maasai got cannons now?”
         “There’s no evidence the Maasai did this. These people are fighters. Do you see any Maasai bodies?”
         “Not yet.”
         “Well, let me know if you do. No, these people were attacked by something outside their ability to defend themselves against. Someone with artillery, which means Europeans. Or Americans, or even Arabs. I don’t know what these burn marks signify, though.”
         “Fires, surely.”
         “Fires would have taken hold. There’s plenty of wood in this building. This is something else. Let’s get in there.”
         Setting deed to word, he turned, hung from the edge, and dropped to the partially collapsed second floor below them. He turned and caught Smith’s carbine, passing it back to him when he made the drop.
         “Let’s try the area that survived,” he said, turning toward the sagging but intact remains of the second floor. “If there are any clues, they’re likely to be there.”
         They were in the remains of a decent-sized room, and through the doorway, its door missing, they could see a hallway. Stepping out into it, they could see into a similar room across the hall.
         “Wards,” Monroe said. “The bed patients were kept here.”
         “Not many of ‘em.”
         “This isn’t London. Most cases would be minor injuries, treated and released. These would have been for the bad injuries, and the sick.”
         “Cheerful thought!”
         “Well, they aren’t here now, David. Let’s hope they took their miasma with them.”
         “I’m with you there.”
         “Come on, downstairs. There’s nothing to see up here.”
         The wall at the east end of the hallway was relatively undamaged, and they found a stairway with some scattered debris, but sound and functional. They moved down to the ground floor, being careful only to avoid those places that might collapse beneath them; whatever had done this was obviously long departed. Were it still around, it would be making more noise than an elephant stampede.
         “At least two artillery rounds were fired into this area,” Monroe said, looking at the pattern in the chaos, with interior walls, desks, and cabinets blown toward the eastern wall. “Someone did a thorough job on this place.”
         “A hospital,” Smith said in disgust. “Somebody did this to a hospital. I want this guy, Cap’n. Whoever it is, he’s in bad need of havin’ somethin’ amputated.”
         “Couldn’t agree with you more, my friend. We have to find him first, though, and that means finding whatever clues he left behind.”
         “Assumin’ he left any.”
         “There is a theory in current vogue that stipulates that you cannot enter an area and perform an interaction without leaving some evidence of yourself behind. This was one hellacious interaction. We’re bound to find some piece of evidence or another in here.”
         “Well,” Smith said, looking around skeptically, “we can hope.”
         “Logic, Mr. Smith, logic. You’re a skilled tracker. Why don’t you look outside that collapsed wall and see if anything left any spoor?”
         “All right, sounds reasonable.” He moved off in the indicated direction.
         Monroe turned his attention to the debris that had been blasted into a hopeless jumble by whatever force had turned its fury on the interior walls. If a bomb had been set off under a warehouse, the devastation wouldn’t have been more complete. He shook his head in quiet frustration. A trained archaeologist wouldn’t be able to sort this mess out. He picked up a paper at random and started to read.
         The patient, a ten-year old boy named Rashid, displays the classic swollen neck, fever, and cough characteristic of diphtherial infection of the larynx. Recommended treatment with…
         A patient report. Useless in terms of puzzling out what had destroyed the lion’s share of the town. He dropped it, looking around for something else to evaluate.
         “Cap’n!”
         “Have you found something?”
         “Maybe. You may want to have a look.”
         Monroe walked across the open space to where Smith stood just inside the wall. In the bare dirt outside, and exposed by the destruction of the concrete inside, he pointed to a depression in the soil, eight inches wide, arrow straight, and marked at one-foot intervals by crescent shaped features pressed more deeply into the dirt below.
         “What do you think?”
         “You’re the tracker, David. What do you think?”
         “Well, this is a typical wheel track. You see them behind every wagon that ever moved. But an eight inch wide wheel? You’d need elephants to pull something like this. And those crescents. They’d have to be something attached to the wheel, and that would just make it harder to pull.”
         Monroe studied them, screwing up his face as he tried to imagine the conveyance responsible for leaving them.
         “What if the wheel was powered? Those . . . things would provide grip and traction in loose soil and mud. We could be looking at a—”
         “A what, a trackless train? Do you have any idea the power requirements something like that would have?”
         “It would be quite a lot, I assume. You found the tracks. What do you think they’re from?”
         “Got me there. Something might have been dragged along here.”
         “What about the crescents?”
         “Rolled, then. God almighty, Cap’n, you don’t know what you’re suggesting.”
         “Yeah, I’m reasonably sure that I do. There’s too much carnage in here. We’re not going to find out anything. Let’s start toward the town, maybe there’s something more straightforward there.”
         “Maybe.” Smith looked out through the ruined wall toward the remains of the town. Smoke rose from smoldering ruins and some still-active fires. “Or, maybe not.”
         He took a step in that direction, then spun back toward Monroe.
         “You hear that?”
         “What?”
         “I’m not sure. A cough or a sneeze. Came from back in there.”
         He indicated the direction of the ruined part of the building. Monroe drew his pistol and nodded.
         “We’d best have a look, then.”
         They started into the shadows, stepping over the rubble, trying for the first time to be quiet. There were a few doors against the back wall. Most of them proved to be offices with their outer walls blown away, but when Monroe pulled the one under the stairs open, he was greeted by a thunderous explosion and a cloud of powder smoke. He had jumped to the side, though that hadn’t been what saved him. There was no warning at all, simply a shot by a panicked shooter holding a stubby, large bore hunting weapon. When he and Smith whirled back into the doorway, guns leveled, a woman’s voice sobbed from the darkness within.
         “Mon Dieu, mon Dieu! Nous laisser seuls! N'avez-vous pas fait assez?”
         “Do you speak English?” Monroe asked, lowering his weapon. “We’re here to help you. We brought the medical supplies you requested. What’s happened here?”
         “Oui. Le sanglier. Le sanglier. Eet came in ze night. Eet was surrounded by smoke and fire. Eet killed us wiss fire and bombs and bullets. Eet killed everyone.”
         “All but you?”
         “I – I do not know. I tried to get everyone to come into ze basement, but ze médecins, zey told everyone to run. I managed to get two of my wheelchair cases to ze basemont, but everyone who ran is dead, as far as I know. Unless you saw anyone. Did you?”
         “No, but we just arrived. You say there are two patients in the basement?”
         “Oui. Zey have, how you say, ze diph – diph—”
         “Diphtheria.”
         “Oui.”
         “All right. The first thing we need to do is get them aboard the Kestrel. David, go signal Patty.”
         “Right, Cap’n. You think it’s safe?”
         “What do you think, Sister? Are they contagious?”
         “I am not a nun, I am an infirmière, how you say, a nurse. Eet should be safe eef you can isolate zem.”
         “We’ll work something out. Go on, David, get Patty over here.”
         “Aye, Cap’n. What’s she saying about a sanglere? What’s that?”
         “Some sort of boar, I think.”
         “Oui! A beeg boar wiss smoke all around. From hell eet came, I am certain!”

*           *           *

         “Zeese thing, eet came in ze early morning, after midnight.”
         The woman, whose name was Lynelle Fortier, leaned against the bulkhead at the foot of Kestrel’s mess table nursing a cup of strong coffee as the crew lined the table to hear her story.
         “I am an infirmière, a nurse at the hospital. Or I was,” she added, a view of the carnage visible through the porthole reminding her that that was a very past-tense situation. “Zere were three doctors and seex nurses. We rotated out from Paris weeth ze blessing of your government. We were strictly humanitarian in our operation, you see. I have been here for ten months, and would have rotated back to Paris at ze end of October. Would to God my seester Trinette could be going weeth me.”
         “You lost your sister?” Hobbs asked.
         “In spirit,” Fortier replied. “We had been together through l’école, ze nursing, uh, training. We were assured zat Garas was safe. Isolated, but safe.”
         “It’s supposed to be,” Monroe said. “It’s far from the Maasai, far from the borders, far from the melting pots of the ports. It very much should have been safe.”
         “Eet was, Captain, until last night. Zees morning, I suppose. Just after midnight, we were awakened by a rumbling you could feel through ze ground. As it grew stronger, we began to hear a roaring noise, like a waterfall zat became louder and louder. Zat ees ze gauge of how close ze thing ees. Eet produces zis noise zat must be ear-splitting at close quarters. Added to eet quite soon were crashing noises and explosions which I liken to cannon fire.”
         “You are familiar with artillery, Miss Fortier?”
         “During last year’s threat of war weeth Prussia, I trained to work weeth ze army. Ze crack, followed immediately by ze boom of ze bursting shell ees not unknown to me.”
         “You’re an amazing woman, Miss Fortier.”
         “Thank you, Captain. I try. To continue, zees sanglier, zees boar, came from ze west, ze direction of ze marsh.”
         “The Lorian Swamp,” Hobbs said. “The outflow from Lake Baringo tries to reach the sea, but it can’t get out of the depression here, so it settles in to form a marsh. It’s shrinking now, as the Long Rain has been over for three months.”
         “Oui. Ze device came from ze marsh, I am sure of eet.”
         “Device?” Smith asked.
         “Oui. I am a woman of some degree of education, Mr. Smeeth. I do not believe for one moment zat an animal of any sort came out of zat marsh to feed on zees town. Eet was surrounded almost to ze point of invisibility by a cloud of dark smoke zat smelled like a cross between coal and tar.”
         “You were close enough to smell it?” Hobbs asked.
         “Zere was a weend last night. It carried considerably. Zere were also sparks, and an occasional red glow. Ze cannon seemed capable of shooting in all directions, and from ze front, eet breathed great tongues of fire, fifty feet or more, zat burned trees, buildings, people alike. Eet was horrible!”
         “Miss Fortier,” Monroe began.
         “Please, call me Lyn.”
         “Lyn, you say this was a machine, but you keep describing it in terms of a living animal. What do think it was?”
         “Eet was a machine painted and shaped to resemble an animal, probably to add fear to eets already considerable weaponry. Had I not trained briefly weeth ze army, I would likely have not recognized eets nature myself. Eet was controlled een a way to resemble an animal’s actions. Despite eets formidable weapons, eet actually inflicted most of eets carnage by trampling and crushing ze buildings and ze people under eets feet.”
         “It had feet?” Smith asked.
         “I could not say. Eets sides came nearly to ze ground, and zen zere was ze smoke. Zere could have been feet, wheels, or some other method of locomotion. In ze end, eet does not matter. Zis thing comes een ze night and kills everything eet encounters.”
         “How did you manage to save those two patients?” Monroe asked.
         “I saw eet from my window on ze second floor. I saw what eet was doing, which was chasing and keelling anyone who eet saw. Eet was fast, and I knew we could not outrun eet. We had a few moments of time, because it first turned eets attention on ze church. Ze House of God seemed to incite eets wrath, and eet was brought down very early. I awakened everyone who was steel asleep, and begged ze médecins, the doctors, to bring everyone into ze basement, but zey would not leesten.”
         “Your military training, again,” Monroe observed.
         “Oui. Eef you cannot run, zen you take cover. But zey would not. Zey wasted much time trying get everyone eento wheelchairs, and by ze time zey were ready to run, ze thing was coming for us. Most of zem did not make eet to ze trees. I was able to get ze two patients you brought here to ze basemont, where we heed until you found us.”
         “And you nearly killed us,” Smith added.
         “I am terribly sorry for zat. I heard you walking above, and I took Doctor Bettencourt’s old hunting rifle and crept up ze stairs. I was terrified, and hoping zat you would go away, and when you jerked ze door open, I thought eet was ze men from ze mechanical boar finishing off ze few zey had missed. I can only thank God zat I missed.”
         “You and us both!” Smith observed.
         “Oui. I do not know whether anyone else escaped or survived by hiding, but no one returned to ze town, I can tell you zat.”
         “You’re sure?” Monroe asked.
         “Well, no one came to ze hospital, in any case. Ze part zat steell stands is ze only structure left. Eet should attract zem like a beacon.”
         “Was no communication offered,” Monroe asked, “no ransom demand, no chance to surrender?”
         “No, none at all. Eet came, eet killed, and eet left. A demon from hell would have acted no differently.”
         “I say,” Ellsworth said, sitting up suddenly with his thought. “Is there any possibility that this could be Mordecai?”
         “From Malinde?” Smith asked.
         “Quite.”
         “Not likely. I’m reasonable sure we killed him, unless that destruction mechanism he activated did it for us.”
         “Did he not say that he was but one wasp of many, and the whole hive would deal with the Empire?”
         “Don’t they all say that?” Smith asked. “You may have killed me, but I’ll still have my revenge.”
         “That doesn’t mean it can’t be true.”
         “Then, what’s he doing out here in the middle of nowhere?”
         “Testing his machine,” Monroe said thoughtfully. “He wants to be certain that everything is in working order before he attacks someplace that has a military garrison. Mombasa, maybe, or Kisumu. Someplace bigger than this little squat, in any case.”
         “So, what do we do?” Smith asked.
         “Report what we’ve found to Sanderson. But I want to get back down there tomorrow before we leave. I want to look for other survivors, and clues about what this thing might be, and the weapons it uses. If Sanderson has to fight this, he’ll need intelligence, and lots of it.”
         “We aren’t safe here, Captain,” Hobbs said, concern raising her voice. “That thing has a cannon. The mesh liner may protect us from small arms, but a cannon will cut through it like a knife through butter. We have to get out of here at first light!”
         “What we have to do is give Sanderson a picture of what’s out here.”
         “Which we can’t do if we’re blown out of the sky!”
         “Patience, what we have to do is what I just said. You and Nicholas keep the ship at a safe distance, and we’ll signal you when we’re ready to go. We’re going down again, and that’s final.”
         “I am going weeth you, Captain,” Fortier said.
         “What? No. I can’t ask you to go through that again.”
         “You have not asked me to do anything. I am going.”
         “And who’ll look after your patients?”
         “Zey are not difficult. Keep ze masks on when you are around zem, and do not touch zem. Zeir disease ees only contagious through contact, and breathing ze meest they exhale when zey cough. Keep zeir water bottles filled, and zey will be fine. What zey really need ees sleep, anyway.”
         “Out of the question,” Monroe said.
         “And what weel you do eef you find survivors, drag zem back, untreated, through ze streets? You need a person weeth medical training weeth you, and zat person ees me.”
         “Can you use a firearm?”
         “Oui. A woman does not come alone to a place like thees unless she can defend herself.”
         “Well, it’s against my better judgment. Nicholas, could you see your way clear to loan the lady your Webley?”
         “I suppose.”
         “All right, it’s settled, then. I suggest everyone get some rest. We start at first light, and I don’t want any fuddled heads down there tomorrow.”

*           *           *

         Night had fallen, and the exhausted trio had returned to the Kestrel empty handed. Well, perhaps not entirely empty handed. They had found no one alive in the ruins, but many, many bodies, most of the population of the town burned, crushed, dismembered by explosions, but a surprising number of them had been shot with large caliber bullets. They gathered around the Kestrel’s little mess table to partake of Ellsworth Stew, whatever meat and vegetables were available simmered with some form of pasta, or as he called it, “glop.” As he passed the steaming bowls around the table, the young doctor asked the question that was on everyone’s mind.
         “So, Miss Fortier, did you hear any rifle fire during the attack, see any soldiers accompanying this boar, anything that might have produced bullet wounds?”
         “Mon dieu, zere was so much noise. I saw very leetle, and in all zat noise, zere could have been rifle shots. I just don’t know.”
         “Understandable,” Monroe said. “Very little is as confusing as a surprise attack. Even trained soldiers have difficulty getting organized under unexpected fire.”
         “Zat ees true, Captain. I had only eyes for ze terrible machine, and only zen to ze extent zat I could avoid eet. Eet was so beeg and loud, and eet keeled everyzing een eets path. I was but a terrified mouse running for my life.”
         “And nothing affected it?” Ellsworth asked.
         “I am not aware anyone tried to affect eet. Eet was as tall as a house, and when eet went through a house, what little was left collapsed ze moment eet emerged from ze ozzer side. Eet shot cannons at anysing it could not reach, and anysing zat got close was shot weeth a reebbon of fire. Eet may have been a machine, Doctor, but eet was also ze angel of death.”
         “You’re an incredibly brave woman, Lyn, to have faced that thing, and kept the presence of mind to save two of your patients as well,” Monroe said.
         “That’s quite true,” Hobbs said. “Not many men could have stood up to what you described.”
         She placed her hand, as women will sometimes do, on the forearm of the young nurse she was addressing, and was surprised to find it trembling.
         “Lynelle?” she said, looking up into the nurse’s wide, staring eyes. “What is it?”
         “Now you weel see,” she said very quietly. “Eet ees coming. Le sanglier. Eet comes. Eet comes!”
         “What do you mean?” Monroe asked.
         “Ze boar,” she said louder, becoming agitated. “Ze boar comes!”
         “Listen, Cap’n,” Smith said, holding up his hand.
         All eyes swung to the open portholes on the port side, through which could be heard a crash far off in the distance, like a tree falling in the forest. A background sound imposed itself gradually on their senses, like a waterfall heard from far away. It was definitely coming closer.
         “Battle stations, people. Nicholas, raise steam. David, is the fowler rigged?”
         “Rigged it this morning.”
         “All right. First thing is to be ready to get on the ground in case the anchor doesn’t clear. Patience, as soon as we’re free, get us some height, at least a thousand feet. Keep that thing in sight, and don’t get silhouetted against the moon. Lyn, you can stay here or come on deck, wherever you think you’re safest.”
         “No place ees safe. I weel be weeth my patients.”
         “Don’t worry, Miss. That thing won’t get us.”
         “Zat thing weel get what eet wants. Thank you, Captain, for all you have done for me. I sincerely hope zat you are right.”
         Ellsworth had stepped through the door to the motor room, and Smith and Hobbs had gone forward at a trot to the deck ladder. Monroe followed Miss Fortier to the forward cabins where they had isolated her patients.
         “Don’t worry, Lyn,” Monroe told her. “I’m reliably informed that this balloon can go two miles high if it needs to.”
         “And how far can a cannon shoot?”
         “Faith, Miss. Patty flies like an angel. She’ll get us out of here.”
         “One angel against anozzer, eh? I hope yours ees ze better. You had better see to your sheep, Captain, and I weel see to my patients. Good luck to you.”
         “To us,” Monroe said, and climbed the ladder to the deck. Smith was at the fowler looking down at a cloud of smoke approaching from the direction of the swamp, still a mile or so off.
         “Anchor came free right away,” he reported. “As you can see, Patty’s takin’ us high, and that thing’s comin’ in from the swamp. Can’t see much yet, but I was thinkin’, if that thing’s the size of a railroad engine, it can’t carry much coal. I mean, a railroad engine carries a car full of coal behind it. If it’s only carryin’ what it can pack on board, along with engine, crew, weapons, and whatever else it’s got, it must have a damned limited range.”
         “Interesting.” He stepped to the open windows in the pilot house. “Glasses.”
         Hobbs passed the quality Prussian binoculars out to him.
         Fitting them to his eyes, he found the so-called boar easily. It wasn’t hard to see why the nurse chose that particular description. The front end, the “snout,” was low-slung and painted with a red maw. As he watched, a stream of fire shot forth and arced into a ruined house where a single wall had dared to remain standing after last night’s onslaught. As the smoke swirled and occasionally cleared, he could make out a bit of the side. It was high, possibly ten feet, and curved, offering no purchase to shot or climber. He assumed it was iron, maybe a strengthened alloy, and certainly thick. You wouldn’t build a machine like that, and allow vulnerability to a simple field piece. He estimated it would take a naval rifle to make an impression on those inside.
         As he watched, the thing came to a halt near the ruined church. The lack of movement caused the smoke to engulf it, and it virtually disappeared in its own spew. A moment later, he caught sight of movement on the ground, as two figures appeared out of the smoke and walked toward the church, disappearing into the ruins.
         “What you s’pose they’re up to?” Smith asked. He likely couldn’t see the people with the naked eye.
         “Robbing the altar, most like. That thing must have cost a fortune. Pity we’re out of range, we could take out a couple of them, at least.”
         “Surprised to hear you say that, Cap’n. Thought you’d given up warmakin’ as a matter of principle.”
         “As did I. Wouldn’t be warmaking, though, nor would it be murder to rid the world of that scum. Just look at what they did to these people who did nothing to them.”
         “We don’t know that. But, yeah, this is a hell of a piece of vengeance, if that’s what it is.”
         The men came out of the ruined church and disappeared into the smoke. After a moment, the thing started to move again, turning in a circle over the ruins of several buildings and starting back the way it had come, its path unchallenged by the bricks, planks, and timbers left by its rampage.
         “Patty,” Monroe said, “we might as well head back to Mombasa. We’ve got enough for Sanderson to request instruction from London.”
         “We can get more,” she said.
         “How’s that?”
         “That thing has no idea we’re here. Why don’t we follow it home? That would be a nice piece of information for the Governor-General.”
         “Hmm. All right, but lay back and be careful. We don’t know what sort of cannon that thing has, and we don’t want to find out by being its target.”
         “I’m certainly in full agreement with that, Captain.” She pulled one of the speaking tubes down. “Nicholas!”
         “Yes?” came the reply.
         “We’re going to follow that thing for a while. Keep the boiler to a level that won’t throw any sparks. It wouldn’t do for us to get spotted.”
         “No, ma’am, it wouldn’t. Understood.”

*           *           *

         Having risen to about a thousand feet, Hobbs spun the wheel to the left and added a bit of power. Kestrel came around smoothly, and began to follow the mysterious “boar.” It wasn’t at all difficult in any aspect. The trail of smoke covered half the countryside, and the red glow flickering within marked the source with pinpoint accuracy. All that smoke trailing from the back masked the airship in the darkness even should an operator look straight at them.
         It followed an arrow-straight course at a speed Hobbs estimated to be twenty miles per hour directly toward a hill looming in the distance. Coming to the point where it started to rise, the contraption simply drove right into the side of it and disappeared.
         “What the holy hell?” Monroe breathed.
         Hobbs cut power to the motors, letting Kestrel drift slowly forward.
         “What happened?” she asked. “Where did it go?”
         “I’m damned if I know,” Monroe answered. “It looked like it just drove into the side of that hill. Circle around the other side and see if it comes out.”
         “Aye.”
         She powered up and took Kestrel in a full circle tour of the little kopje, but no further sign of the monstrous device was seen.
         “Well, I’ll be damned,” Monroe said, puzzled.
         “It’s like they drove through a . . . a door,” Smith said.
         “Not like any door I’ve ever seen. There wasn’t any sense of them going into a tunnel that changed the smoke pattern or anything. They’re just gone.”
         “It’s dark, Cap’n. The eyes play tricks. The only way to really find out what happened is to get down there an’ take a closer look.”
         Monroe mulled this over for a moment.
         “I don’t like it. We’ve never seen anything like this before. We’d be going on foot, just the two of us, to what is most likely the lair of that beast. We don’t have any idea what’s in there, how many guards, anything about it.”
         “Or maybe it just kept on goin’. That’s the whole point of goin’ down. What do we have to tell Cole? Next to nothin’, that’s what. He probably won’t even act on what we got right now. Hell, look what it took to get him to send a squad out to look at them spirit reaper fellows. An’ by the way, I was plannin’ on goin’ alone.”
         “That’s out of the question! I don’t place my crew members in jeopardy without being present to back them up.”
         “Cap’n, one of us or both ain’t gonna make any difference. It ain’t like we’re goin’ in to raid the place. Just a quiet look around, see what we’re dealin’ with, then it’s back to tell Cole all about it.”
         “You aren’t going alone, and that’s final.”
         “Captain!”
         “Final, Mr. Smith, do you understand?”
         “No, I don’t. This is a sneakin’ job. Two of us sneakin’ gives them twice the opportunity to spot one of us. I’m the best sneaker in the crew. I’m goin’.”
         “You make a strong case.” Monroe paused for thought. “All right, here are the conditions. Patty puts us down, let’s see, over by those trees.”
         He indicated a stand of acacia some two thousand yards away from where the machine had disappeared.
         “Patty, does that give you ample opportunity to remain undetected?”
         “That should work. I wouldn’t want your approach to be any longer. I’ll spiral down and come at it from the other side.”
         “All right. David, I’ll take your Winchester. We’ll go together until we find a place where I can hide and wait for you. You’ll go in, look around, and when you see what the situation is, you come back by the same route, and we’ll return to the trees. If you get in trouble and you’re pursued, I’ll ambush your pursuers. Patty hears the firing, comes on a line from the trees to the thing’s exit point, we get on the hoist, and off we go. Patty, better leave the hoist down against that contingency.”
         “Aye, sir.”
         “Well, how about it, David? Does that plan suit you?”
         “To a T. Gives me a chance to work, and I know I got help if I need it.”
         “All right, Patty,” Monroe said, “Let’s get on the back side of those trees, then.”
         “Aye, Captain. And do be careful!”
         The whiff-whiff-whiff-whiff-whiff sound of the propeller blades cutting the air started up, and the deck tilted just slightly as Kestrel began a long descending loop to her rendezvous with a small copse of trees.

*           *           *

         Monroe and Smith stepped off the cargo hoist platform behind the cover of the small grove of trees, and watched as Kestrel powered away, gaining height to become all but invisible against the night sky.
         “And what are we doing here again?” Monroe asked as they crouched in the grass, taking in the lay of the land.
         “Gatherin’ information.” Smith’s practiced eye took in the nearly flat bottom land, the hill fairly looming in the distance. “’Course, it wouldn’t break my heart if I could slit a few of these bastards’ throats. As long as we’re here anyway, you know. Look at all this grass. I’ll bet the water table ain’t six inches down.”
         “No throat-slitting, David. I mean it. Success in this case means you get the information, you get out without being seen, and no one is any the wiser.”
         “You forgot what these bastards done to Garas? The people in the hospital there?”
         “Have you? This job is far too large for a chap with a Bowie knife. Get your information, get back here, and don’t leave any calling cards, do you understand?”
         “All right, Cap’n, but if it comes to me or him, it’s gonna be him.”
         “Obviously. Are you ready?”
         “Yeah. I think there’s some gullies over to the right. You can set up there and cover me if it comes to that. Stay low and be quiet. We don’t know how far out these people might have stationed sentries.”
         Once they were out on the ground, they found plenty of wrinkles that a single man could use for cover. A little over half way in, Smith pointed out a depression, a dimple in the ground as if a giant had pressed a fingertip into the earth, that offered perfect concealment from every angle.
         “Here’s a good spot. Close enough to fire in at them, far enough you may not get spotted right away.”
         “Great. Full of mud. That damned water table I suppose.”
         “We can look for something else.”
         “No, this will be fine. Just get in there, see what you need to see, and get out.”
         “That’s the spirit, Cap’n. I’ll be back before you know it.”
         Monroe took the Winchester, settled into a comfortable position on the front slope of the little dent in the ground, and by the time he looked up again, Smith had disappeared as completely as if he had been raptured.

*           *           *

         Smith had left his hat aboard the ship and worn his soft moccasins. The bottom of his pistol holster was tied down to his thigh, as always, and the only thing that might flap was the scabbard of his Bowie on the left side. That was easy enough to control.
          He came in low and surprisingly fast, given that his life depended on stealth. He would slip in ten yards, find a terrain wrinkle, and stop to observe, a ghost in the darkness. About fifty yards out, he found his first sentry. He had stopped for another look, each one becoming longer and more thorough the closer he got, and as he waited, scanning for movement, he saw some. Twenty yards to his right a man shifted his weight, turned slightly, and began to slowly walk away from him. He slipped silently past the line the man would follow if he returned on a straight line and went to ground again.
         And then he saw how the machine had disappeared from view. Just ahead of him was the edge of a vast net anchored on poles. It seemed to cover acres, the far edge extending to and over the edge of the hill. Strips of cloth, presumably that matched the color of the ground, were woven through it, and all one then had to do was attach some artificial vegetation to the top, and from the air, everything under it would disappear from view. It was brilliant, but that wasn’t what he was here for.
         There were a few lanterns lit beneath the net, and in their light he could see several roughly constructed buildings. They hadn’t been here more than a couple of months from the look of them, and from their unimproved look, there was no plan for them to be here for too long in the future. The feeble light, combined with the soft ground, also showed him the tracks of the beast, deep, parallel ruts with the crescent shaped pattern of the paddle treads clearly visible.
         For a man who could track an Apache across a sandstone desert, this was no challenge at all. The tracks spread out in several directions – test runs? – but all converged at the end of one building, a barnlike structure with a large square door to accommodate it. Inside the line of sentries, Smith was almost alone, but he couldn’t count on that. Keeping to the shadows, he worked his way up to the near, darker side of the barn. There was an ordinary house-type door midway along the wall, and he made his way to this.
         He examined the edges for light, found only a dim glow, and heard nothing at all. Releasing the rawhide loop from the hammer of his Peacemaker, he tried the door. Other than a slight catch partway in, it opened smoothly and without noise. A quick look left and right showed him that he was alone.
         There before him rested the “boar.” It was easy to see how the nurse had made the connection. A ten foot diameter cylinder nearly thirty feet long, it was made of blackened metal, certainly iron or steel. He rapped it with his knuckle; it was thick, with no resonance at all. The front was low-slung, coming to a sharp point, or more precisely, a ram. Just above was a discolored tube that was undoubtedly the flame gun. Below it was painted a savage red mouth filled with sharp teeth; he could only imagine what native superstition would make of that. The nine barrels of a Gatling gun poked through a steel ball fitting directly above his head, pointed upward as the heavier weight of the mechanism inside pulled the breech downward. On top, mounted in a low, obviously revolving cupola, was the cannon. He estimated a three-inch bore, with some tubes and hoses underneath, probably to regulate recoil. A weak spot?
         He walked carefully to the back, hoping to get a look at the propulsion system, but the rear of the carriage was covered by a flat plate, sloped to deflect round shot upward into the air, and gave no clue how it might be powered. He assumed from all the smoke that coal was involved somehow, but the smoke it produced didn’t smell like coal. He stepped back to the side.
         “Vas ist los?” demanded a guttural voice from the doorway, and his pistol appeared much more quickly than the space of a human heartbeat as he took in a man in dark coveralls holding a large, tan dog on a short chain.
         “Angriff!” the man shouted, and threw himself out the door as the dog launched itself at him in a fury of teeth and fur. The dog died instantly as the harsh report of the Colt filled the confined space, and Smith ran to the doorway.
         The man was out of sight, but Smith could hear him shouting, “Raus! Raus! Eindringling! Raus!” off to his right. That defined the direction of the barracks for him, and he sprinted quickly toward the dark shadows to the left. This was a tricky problem, and Smith was certainly glad he had come alone. The barracks would be emptying out behind him as the men pulled on trousers and boots, and caught up their weapons, and he would have to evade the sentries who may or may not be coming in from their posts. Tricky, but not insurmountable.
         The first thing was to get away from the light, and he ran for the darkness beyond the edge of the net in a hunched-over run optimized for stealth rather than speed. A sentry saw him at the last second and tried to raise his rifle, but Smith tackled him, and as they slid in the grass, Smith on top, the American bashed him in the face with the handle of his pistol. That took the fight out of him, but enraged at the callous disregard these people held for human life, he struck him hard in the forehead with the barrel before getting up to run again, taking his rifle with him.
         A shot rang out in the distance and he heard the whirr of the bullet off to his right; a man with poor training firing at shadows. Maybe he’d hit one of his own sentries. That would be helpful.
         Then a shot came from far to his right front. Too far away to be a sentry, it could only be Monroe. He was firing far too early, but Smith would forgive him, because it told him where he was, and he adjusted his course to compensate. Monroe fired again, and though Smith knew he was hardly likely to hit anyone at this range, those random bullets whizzing by could only serve to make them cautious. He fired the sentry’s bolt-action rifle into the air, hoping to signal the Kestrel, then continued to run, bullets beginning to cut the air as his pursuers took cover and began to fire in Monroe’s general direction.
         “Cap’n,” he said, sliding up to the hole and turning to look for pursuers, “ you ain’t gonna believe this! Any sign o’ the ship?”
         “Thought I saw motion to the left a minute ago. Couldn’t actually tell, though.”
         “Patty’s a smart girl. She’ll be here.”
         “Keep firing. All she has to go by are our muzzle flashes.”
         “Aye. Those fellers, too, unfortunately.”
         Knowing the Colt produced a wicked flare when fired in the darkness, he pointed the pistol in the general direction of the camp and fired. The return fire increased in intensity as the flash provided a target, then a thunderous boom came from just behind them to their right. Kestrel had arrived and joined the fray with her light fieldpiece.
         Fire from the camp slackened off as the big lead ball found some mischief to perform, and Smith and Monroe sprinted toward the approaching ship, its cargo hoist slithering through the weeds. Smith jumped on, wrapped the arm holding the enemy’s rifle around one of the guywires, and extended his hand to Monroe. The older man tossed the Winchester onto the platform, grabbed the offered hand, and with Smith’s help, was quickly aboard.
         “We’re on, Doc,” Smith shouted. “Go, go!”
         As the winch began to pull them up, and Kestrel rose into the darkness, Smith spared a shudder for what might have happened. Kestrel had approached at 10 – 15 miles per hour, and had either of them missed his attempt to climb onto the cargo hoist, the starboard propeller was cutting the grass not ten feet behind it. He made a note to tell Patience to never do that again!
         The winch drew them inboard, and they stepped off the platform, looking quickly around to get reoriented in the wake of Kestrel’s turn.
         “We need height,” Monroe said. “If that thing comes after us with its cannon . . .”
         “No danger of that,” Smith told him. “It’s inside a building, and cold-iron. Well, not exactly cold, but the fires are out, and it will take them time to raise steam. We’re safe.”
         “You’re sure?”
         “Wouldn’t have said so otherwise.”
         “All right. Nicholas, stoke the boiler, then join us at the pilot house. We need to discuss what we’ve found.”

*           *           *

         Kestrel motored majestically over the big seaport of Mombasa, crossing the aerodrome from east to west, Patience blowing the long-short-short of the docking request on the twin steam whistles. The smudge pot at the base of the west dock was soon lit, showing a southerly wind, and she circled around to the north, lining up with it, and beginning her descent. Hobbs being the pilot she was, she gentled up to the timber ramp as softly as a kitten curling up with its mother. Smith and Monroe had naught to do but hand the mooring lines to the handlers, and cinch the little ship in tight.
         “Are you offloading, sir?” one of the longshoremen asked as Monroe stepped over to the dock.
         “No, Salene, not this trip,” he answered. “You can take a rest.”
         “Thank you, Nahodha,” the man said with a smile. He flashed a hand signal to his crew, who joined him in leaving the platform. Monroe looked around the yard until he saw what he wanted.
         “Corporal,” he called to an armed redcoat, walking a patrol beat among the docks. “Corporal, may I have a word with you?”
         “Aye, Gov’nor,” the man replied, moving to stand on the ground at the base of the dock.
         “We have vital information for the Governor-General. Could you possibly get word to him that the crew of the Kestrel will be visiting his office as soon as we can get organized, and we’d greatly appreciate it if he could see us at his first opportunity?”
         “Aye, Gov, consider it done.” The man walked smartly to a point where the ramps fronted on the aerodrome’s administrative buildings, cupped his hands to his mouth, and shouted in a parade ground bellow, “Sergeant of the guaaaaard!”
         Monroe shook his head with a smile—soldiers!—and turned back to his ship.
         “Well, folks, I guess we’d better get ready to visit the governor. Patty, tell Nicholas that we’re finished with the boiler, then go below and see if Miss Fortier needs any assistance with her patients.”
         “Aye, Captain” his pilot replied. She turned to one of the speaking tubes. “Nicholas, we’re finished with the motors. Bank the fire and come topside.”
         “How about you, David,” Monroe asked. “Care to freshen up?”
         “For?”
         “Our audience with the Governor-General.”
         “What? You want to impress him with the gravity of the situation, don’t you?”
         “Of course.”
         “Well, we go in there dressed for an audience with the Queen, he’s gonna think we found it unimportant enough to take the time to put on our finery. Appearance is everything. You want him to take this serious, we need to look like we just stepped out of a barroom brawl.”
         Monroe looked at him like he’d just met him for the first time.
         “I’m really going to have to look into your background pretty soon,” he said.
         “Bad idea, Cap’n. You find out how ordinary I really am, you’ll lose all respect.”
         “Somehow I doubt that.”
         “Reporting as ordered, Captain,” Ellsworth said, climbing on deck through the motor room hatch. “Fire’s banked. We’ll be on battery power shortly.”
         “Very well.”
         “Miss Fortier is fine,” Hobbs said, coming on deck via the forward accommodation ladder. “She only asks that we send medical people to her as soon as possible.”
         “Fair enough. Shall we pay our respects to the governor, then?”
         “I say,” Hobbs said, “a bit disheveled, aren’t we?”
         “David assures me that the more ragged our look, the more believable our story will be.”
         “Well, this ought to do it, then. Tell me, David, when did you become a fashion expert?”
         “Before you were born, young lady. I was raised by two old spinsters, least ‘til I was old enough to run away.”
         “Huh. I’ll bet you can cook, too.”
         “I’ve made a meal or two in my day.”
         “And yet you never said a word all the time we were eating canned beans and chokeberries. Say, has anyone seen Eric?”
         “Eric?”
         “Hafner. Mr. Hafner was going to meet us here.”
         “I’m sure he’s about,” Monroe said. “laid out in a cheap hotel room, drinking and thinking, no doubt.”
         “He seemed awfully eager to find out where the map on that coin led to, and get after it.”
         “Maybe he did that,” Monroe told her as they walked down the ramp. “If he pieced it together in our absence, well, we aren’t the only balloon in Kenya, after all.”
         “I would have thought he’d show more loyalty than that,” she said.
         “Ahh,” David said, dismissing the whole idea of spending more time with the Belgian, “you know the type, girl. Africa’s crawlin’ with ‘em, and Kenya the more since they found rubies up north. There’s plenty of payin’ passengers to be had, honest merchants, and them what’s doin’ God’s work. Folks like Miss Fortier, out here to help others. We see too many drifters an’ grifters as it is, without goin’ out lookin’ for ‘em.”
         Hobbs glared at him, cheeks coloring from more than just the heat.
         “I’d tread lightly, David. I believe our young pilot’s interest in Mr. Hafner lies in a completely different realm than his value as a passenger.”

*           *           *

         “I have to say, Monroe, that is one of the most incredible tales I have ever heard.”
         Governor-General Sanderson sat back in the comfortable chair at the head of his conference table, Monroe and Hobbs on his right, Smith and Ellsworth to the left.
         “I assure you, General, every word is true,” Monroe told him. “Even as we speak, that nurse, Miss Fortier, is aboard my ship preparing her patients for transfer.”
         “Oh, I believe you, Captain. You may be surprised to know that I’ve heard a bit about you since I’ve come here. Even before that business in Malinde, I had been told that trouble seems to follow you in your travels.”
         “I’d noticed that, meself,” Smith drawled quietly.
         “There’s plenty of trouble in a place like this for everyone to have a share,” Monroe replied, shooting Smith a cautionary look. “This particular bit, though, this promises to shape up as the greatest danger you’re likely to face in your entire career.”
         “If I hadn’t been informed that you had risen to flag rank in Her Majesty’s aero services, I’d almost be inclined to believe you prone to exaggeration.”
         “Yes, well, my career was brought to a close by a groundless accusation made by a junior officer whose family was better placed on the social ladder than I. You’ve seen the effect yourself in your confrontation with Lady Blackwell.”
         Sanderson glared at the memory of that recent incident.
         “But imagine,” Monroe continued, “if that machine appeared outside Mombasa and began to savage the city. Or leveled Kisumu, and took control of the ruby mines. How might that look on a Brigadier’s resume?”
         “You don’t think that’s a little extreme, Captain?” Sanderson asked. “I have two battalions of Her Majesty’s finest within a bugle call of here.”
         “A few hundred more casualties, is what you’ll have. Tell him, David.”
         “Aye. The thing’s made of steel plate. Feels at least an inch thick, and shaped to make even cannon shot deflect harmlessly. It has its own cannon in a revolving cupola on top, a gun that shoots fire in front, and a Gatling gun on the left, probably a mate on the other side.”
         “The thing still has to run on wheels. They can be attacked.”
         “Yes. Tell the general about those wheels, David.”
         “Barely exposed below the armor. Steel spokes. And instead of rims, a series of flexible steel plates that conform to the ground beneath, with a cupped scoop or shovel between each plate for traction. You ain’t gonna get far attackin’ those wheels.”
         “Balderdash, man! Everything has a weakness.”
         “You are undoubtedly correct,” Monroe told him, “but if that thing comes here, it isn’t going to give you time to puzzle out what that weakness might be.”
         “And you really think it means to come here?”
         “It means to attack some strategic point. The port, the mines, the railroad. There isn’t much else worthy of that level of effort here in Kenya.”
         “Seriously, Monroe, do you realize what you’re implying?”
         “Indeed, I do. This thing cost someone a bloody fortune to build, and this was after they invented the science. Materials had to be assembled, infrastructure built, a crew interviewed and hired, and not just the crew of the machine. There’s a whole support staff for that thing, and as a military man, you have to know it. I don’t know what their plans are, but I can guarantee you, all of that effort and expense was not put forth to lay waste to Garas. That thing has bigger plans in store, and Garas was only a test.”
         “I see. You’ve certainly given me a great deal to think upon, Monroe. And you, Mr. Smith. I’m not allowed to recommend a foreign national for a military award, but you have my gratitude, for whatever that’s worth to you. Thanks to your bravery, we have a fair idea what we’re dealing with. Do you have any recommendations, Monroe, as a former officer?”
         “Figure out what your most important point is, and mass your artillery there. Run cavalry patrols outside so you don’t get surprised, and if it shows up, pray to God, and open fire.”
         “Any thoughts on what the most important point might be?”
         “Mombasa. Anything it takes up country, you can eventually mount a campaign to take back. If it cuts you off from the port, you’re under siege for the duration until that thing’s dealt with.”
         “Quite. Well, unless you’ve anything else, I have quite the briefing to hold with my staff.”
         “No,” Monroe replied, “I think that covers everything. Anyone else?”
         Amid a chorus of negatives, the parties stood, the Brigadier briefly taking Hobbs’ hand with a slight bow, and the crew started toward the door. At the door, Hobbs turned back.
         “General,” she said, “we were supposed to meet a client here, but he didn’t show up. Is there any chance he may have checked in with this office?”
         “Oh, Patty, for God’s sake!” Smith blurted out.
         “No, no, it’s all right,” Sanderson said. “What’s the party’s name?”
         “Eric Hafner,” she said, and stuck her tongue out at Smith.
         “That does sound familiar, for some reason. Come with me, please.”
         He led them down a hall to a large room lined with shelves and cabinets, and six desks arranged in the middle. Three soldiers in shirts and suspenders, no tunics, shot to attention like spring-loaded toys as the general walked through the door.
         “As you were. Sergeant, does the name Eric Hafner ring a bell with you?”
         “Eric Hafner,” the sergeant repeated. “Eric Hafner. Oddly enough, it does. I think it was in a dispatch. Let me check the log.”
         Stepping to the front desk, he took one of those ubiquitous green cloth-bound logbooks from a small rack, and flipped through it to the page where the writing ended.
         “Here it is, sir. It was in the dispatch pouch on yesterday’s train.”
         Crossing to a file cabinet, he took out a folder, flipped through several pages until he found the one he wanted, and handed it to Sanderson.
         “Thank you, Sergeant.” He skimmed the paper. “Well, there you are, Miss Hobbs. Seems an Eric Hafner was arrested for the murder of a Portuguese traveler in Nairobi two nights ago. Cole is holding him in the stockade there for the civilian authorities.”
         Patience drew a sudden intake of air.
         “This fellow a friend of yours?”
         “A client,” Monroe answered. “We were going to continue our business dealings upon our return from Garas.”
         “Well, it appears that’s out of the question.”
         “So it would seem. Does your dispatch happen to mention the name of the Portuguese that he’s supposed to have killed?”
         “Let’s see.” Sanderson read the paper in more detail. “According to Cole’s report, it was a fellow named Pablo Cardenas.”
         “Hah!” Smith snorted. “Good for Eric!”
         “History, these two?”
         “Quite possibly,” Monroe said. I suppose we’d better get up there.”
         “Any chance of us mindin’ our own business once?” Smith asked.
         “David!” Hobbs exclaimed.
         “Just sayin’ . . .”
         “No, we’ll go. Hafner is a colorful character, but murder? Patty, take Nicholas and visit the boards, see if there’s anything for Nairobi. David, pick up some groceries, and I’ll get us a hundredweight of coal. Good talking to you, General. It seems that you have your problems, and we have ours. Best of luck with that . . . thing.”
         “And you, Captain. Until we meet again.”
         “Let us hope.”
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