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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Steampunk · #2249934
All that we hold most precious. (4064 words)

Rockingham, Western Australia

Sullen, grey clouds hung low above the Indian Ocean, filled with the promise of foul weather and drifted east over a woman walking along an old jetty. Her hat, veil, McCall-patterned full-sleeved blouse and skirts were all black as were her umbrella and buckskin boots. She stopped near a cast iron lighting-pole and looked down at its base. A diamond shaped brass plaque was nailed to the weathered jetty timbers. Engraved upon it was the letter Z, pierced vertically by a double-edged, ebony-handled dagger.

         The inscription simply read: Zed Special Unit, 1897.

         She knelt and placed a single yellow rose on the memorial. She bowed her head and wept in silence.


They wheeled him out into the sunshine in silence, on a trolley: not unlike a furniture trolley. Talk about trussed-up. They were taking no chances. He was chained and handcuffed and leg ironed and gagged. His neck was tied to the trolley with hemp ropes half an inch thick.

         “Get that shit off him,” a man in a grey suit said.

         The guards hesitated. The second one said, “He’s dangerous, sir.”

         “Yes,” the grey-man said, “and so am I.”

         “Yessir. As you wish.”

         “As I wish?” The grey-man pondered the words. “I like the sound of that.” He smiled and watched them unlock all the cuffs and chains and remove the ropes.

         Then they just stood there. Both the guards unsure what to do next.

         “Tea,” the grey-man said, “in two China cups. Strong and black. No sugar.”

         They stared at him in disbelief.

         “You do know what tea is?”

         They said nothing.

         “Off you toddle,” the grey man said. “And make it quick. Make it like the rest of your life depends upon it... And here’s the thing—it does.”

         The prisoner smiled and watched the guards hurry away, rubbing his wrists where the cuffs had bitten. “You haven’t changed a bit, sir.”

         The grey man smiled. “Poor sods need direction. It’s always going to be the case I’m afraid.”

         They were outside the prison gates. The manicured grass was lush and green, just clipped. The prisoner took a deep breath through his nose, taking in the ocean breeze. The smell of freedom.

         He said, “What’s on your mind, sir?”

         “We really should wait for the tea,” the grey-man said. Two uncomfortable looking wooden chairs sat side by side facing the ocean. “Take a seat.”

         Lieutenant David Marsh rubbed his neck where the hemp ropes had chafed and sat down casting his eyes over the Indian Ocean. He glanced sideways at the grey-man. He was the Australian Chief of Defence now. Not an imposing looking man by any means, but he was the founder of Zed Special Unit. They’d worked together in the Mid-east in the past. The Chief was an easy man to underestimate and knew it, almost counted on it.

         Now, he wanted to wait for tea.

         So, they waited.

         It arrived in seven minutes, brought by the first guard. Good and strong in fine China cups.

         “Excellent.” The chief took a sip. “Thank you.”

         The guard simply nodded, turned, and disappeared through the gate.

         “You really are in a bit of a pickle,” the Chief said to Marsh. “You’re going to get two years, at least. And that’s just for striking a senior officer. Never mind the other charges.”

         “I only hit him once, sir.”
         “Quite so. But he won’t be eating solid food for a long time.” The Chief sipped his tea.

         Marsh said, “He called me a coward, sir.”

         “Well, all the same. You’re looking at fifteen years all up... out in nine if you’re lucky.”

         “That’s not going to happen, is it, sir?”

         “Oh... How so?”

         “Because you’re going to offer me a job. A job that nobody else wants.”

         The Chief stood, finishing his tea.

         “There actually is a job that nobody else wants,” he said and placed his empty cup on his chair. “In Africa.”


Marsh had never seen anything like her. Thick hawsers held her fast to the jetty at Rockingham Naval Base.

         “She’s the AE1,” the Chief told Marsh proudly. “First of her kind. I’m thinking of renaming her Swordfish, or something like that.”

         “A submersible? That big?”

         “A submarine, actually, 181 feet long with a displacement of 750 long tons. Her twin bladeless-geared-turbines push her along at twenty-four knots.”

         “Impressive,” Marsh said, as their horseless carriage lurched to a hissing, squealing stop in front of the guardhouse.

         The Chief nodded at the submarine. “Your kit is already onboard. She will be your new home for about twelve days. Destination Mombasa, Kenya. Commander Stoker has your sealed orders and will brief you underway.” He offered his hand.

         “What if I don’t accept the job?”

         The Chief smiled and said, “Good luck, Lieutenant.”

         Marsh shook his hand and stepped down from the carriage. He barely noticed the Lance Corporal salute him as he strode past the guardhouse and returned the salute out of habit, deep in thought.

         A job that nobody else wants, he thought.

         He stopped at the gangway and turned aft, saluting the ensign sharply and faced the gangway again, this time saluting the Officer of the Deck.

         “Permission to come onboard, sir,” Marsh said. “Reporting to Commander Stoker.”

         The OOD returned the salute. “Very well, Lieutenant. The Commander is expecting you.”

         Marsh walked up the gangway and headed for the conning tower.


The chart table was a modest three by three feet square and took pride of place between the periscope and the portside bulkhead of the control room. Commander Stoker seemed to be made for the crowded conditions; his five-foot-ten frame was completely at home amongst the brass gauges and valves and switches.

         “They are already calling him Der Lowe von Africa: ‘The Lion of Africa,’” Stoker said to Marsh. “Von Lettow-Vorbeck is assembling an army in German East Africa, preparing for war. Imperial Defence intercepted and cracked their radio codes, so now we know Vorbeck is desperate for materiel, guns mainly. Of course, he wants to resupply quietly... without us being any wiser. They plan to use a Zeppelin LZ-3 airship.”

         “An airship?” Marsh said. He glanced about the control room. It all seemed somehow surreal. The submarine was well under way, still surfaced. Her crew, all stern-faced and focused on their work of sailing her. The smell of hot, steamy grease hung heavy in the air.

         “Yes. An experimental hydrogen dirigible seven hundred feet long capable of carrying fifteen tons.”

         “You’re kidding,” Marsh said, examining the map before him. “Eastern Bulgaria to German East Africa. That’s over four thousand miles.”

         Stoker plotted a line vertically on the map. “Your job is to shoot it down and recover any intel onboard.”

         “Wouldn’t it be flying too high to be shot down from the ground.”

         “Yes. But they must cross over the mountains north of Lake Victoria. The cold mountain air is expected to compress their hydrogen causing a loss in altitude. So, you should get a shot if you’re set up on the shore of the lake... about here.” He pointed to the map.

         “So, what do I shoot it down with?”

         “It’s easier to show you. Follow me.” The Commander led the way up the conning tower ladder.


The deck, where a tall, dark-haired, skinny man stood was only twenty-two feet wide. He rocked forwards on his toes as the sub raised her bow to a slight swell. Lashed to the decking amidships, just aft of the conning tower, was a six by four-foot crate. The man examined the contents, with obsessive care, oblivious to everything around him.

         The Commander stopped Marsh at the foot of the conning tower ladder. “His name’s Nicolas Kesler... Professor Nicolas Kesler.”

         Marsh said, “Never heard of him.”

         “He’s an American inventor.” The Commander clasped his hands behind his back. “This submarine is powered by his invention. The bladeless turbine.”

         “American eh? What’s in the box, sir?”

         “An experimental weapon. He calls it a Teleforce Superweapon. You are to protect him and his equipment at all times and get him in a position to shoot down the Zeppelin.”

         “An experimental weapon to shoot down an experimental airship in peacetime,” Marsh said with a wry expression. “Not just any airship. A seven-hundred-foot-long, German airship filled with hydrogen. On the shore of a lake mostly controlled by von Lettow-Vorbeck’s German army. Sounds a little optimistic, Commander.”

         “Felo-de-se,” The Commander said. “For the lack of a better expression.”

         Marsh knew the idiom. Suicide... more or less.


Lieutenant Marsh had been there before.

         Mombasa, Kenya.

         The AE1 surfaced nine miles offshore running almost silent on battery power. The sea was calm. Fort Jesus was clearly visible silhouetted dark against the moonless night sky. The Commander’s orders brought the submarine alongside an airship-frigate and was quickly made fast.

         Now that’s what I call an airship, Marsh thought, his eyes full of admiration.

         The Nightshade was built from ebonized timbers and was lightly armed with only one gundeck. Her mainmast was cut short and attached her to a large, fat, cigar-shaped balloon three times her length.

         Thick hawsers secured her fore and aft. Her main propeller turned ever so slowly beneath her, its blades breaking the surface rhythmically, holding her on station. The hiss of impatient steam, from her overpressure chimney, filled the otherwise silent night: she was primed to fly.

         Captain Walter Carey met them in person as they boarded. “Welcome aboard gentlemen. We’ll make way as soon as your gear is onboard.”

         Marsh saluted him. Kesler shook the Captain’s hand. The hands grunted as they took delivery of the now tarped and tarred superweapon crate.

         “It’s a six-hour flight to Mfangano Island.” Carey said to Marsh. “Freshen up and get changed into civies.”

         “Thank you, sir,” Marsh said as their lines were let go. The airship ascended, slowly picking up speed.

         The AE1 disappeared beneath the waves.


Mfangano Island was uninhabited. Marsh cleaned his semi-automatic handgun, oiled it, and reloaded it. He holstered it under his armpit.

         “Unusual sidearm,” Kesler said. “Looks heavy.”

         “It’s a forty-five calibre. Self-loading. First of its kind. I like the weight. Kind of reassuring.”

         Kesler frowned. “Where do we set up?”

         “Right here between these trees.” Marsh grabbed a machete from his duffel bag. “I’ll build us a blind. You start assembling the weapon.”


Marsh walked down to the rocky beach, turning his back on the lake, and examined his handiwork. The blind concealed Kesler’s partly assembled weapon well. He could barely see Kesler’s movements as he fussed over the contraption. Brass glinted brightly as the wind rustled the leaves of the blind occasionally. He made a mental note to cover it with the tarred tarp as a final solution.

         He heard a woman singing to his right up the beach. This island was supposed to be deserted. He crouched low and made his way towards the sound. And then he saw her. A beautiful native woman sitting on a rock near the water’s edge. She was dressed in a long white robe pulled tight around her narrow waist. Her long hair was so black: it glowed blue in places.

         She fell silent and grasped a long spear in her right hand. “Who are you?” she asked without looking at him.

         “David Marsh.”

         She turned her head towards him. Her dark eyes took his breath away. “And what are you doing here, David Marsh?”

         He said nothing.

         “It is an easy question.” Her accent was heavy, but her English was perfect.

         He was at a loss.

         She stood, took several enticing steps, and stopped before him. “I mean you no harm.” She smiled a brilliant white smile.

         “Who are you?” Marsh said, regaining some composure.

         “You shall call me Mami.”

         “And what are you doing here, Mami?”

         She raised her perfect chin a little. Her dark eyes fathoming his face. “I’m here to destroy von Lettow-Vorbeck’s flying ship.”

         The Lieutenant frowned. “How do—?”

         “I am Mami Wata,” she said. “Goddess of water and fidelity. I do not have to explain myself to anyone.”

         “Well, of course you are,” he said with a smile and raised his arm to point back along the shoreline. He turned his head and looked at the blind. “We’re about to have some lunch.” Then he turned his head back towards her. “You're welcome to join us if... ” He fell silent, for she was gone. All that remained were her footprints in the sand.


As night fell, Kesler bolted the last of the components in place. The weapon now sat on a geared turntable. Long belts and pulleys, when activated, would turn it from side to side. Long lengths of heavy rope secured it to two thick trees for stability.

         Marsh built a small fire using the lid of the crate to shield it from the north, just in case. He wasn’t expecting the Zeppelin for another ten to twelve hours, but he’d learned through experience to expect the unexpected.

         Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.

         He sat in the sand and marvelled at Kesler’s machine. “Okay. So, the steel cylinder with the rivets is a boiler.”

         “Correct,” Kesler said.

         “What is that attached to it?” Marsh pointed to a brass tangle of plumbing.

         “That is a steam powered reciprocating electricity generator.”

         “And the thing between the two shiny plates?”

         Kesler sighed. “That is an open-ended vacuum tube with a gas jet seal.”

         “What does it do?”

         “It directs superheated particles and allows them to exit at almost light-speed and directs them through electrostatic repulsion.”

         “You’ve tested it?”


         Marsh was perplexed. “Why only once?”

         “Because this—” Kesler held up a small test-tube filled with grey metallic powder. It glowed purple. “—is niobium carbide. Thousands of tiny projectiles and it’s quite rare and expensive. We only have enough to fire it once.”

         “You’re kidding. What if you miss?”

         Kesler took a deep breath. “If I miss, I’ll be going home disgraced and penniless, so I won’t miss.”

         And I’ll be going back to prison, Marsh thought.


Marsh sat away from the fire in darkness, scanning the night sky with his brass starlight binoculars. No Zeppelin yet. Kesler was resting. The wind had died down. The lake was like a sheet of glass and mirrored the stars so well, it was difficult to make out the horizon. He scanned the trees lining their little cove. He could see the sand and the rocks clearly.

         “So, tell me something.” Mami Wata appeared, sitting in the sand beside him.

         Marsh started. “Shit,” he said.

         Mami laughed. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”

         “Surprised is all. Not scared.”

         She hugged her shins. Her long dark legs drawn up, and she rested her chin on her knees.

         “Most men find me irresistible,” she said softly. “You made no advances towards me when we first met. Why is that?”

         “I’m spoken for.”

         “Ah. A man of principles. How refreshing and rare. What is her name?”

         “Her name is June.”

         “A beautiful name.”

         “She’s a beautiful woman.”

         Mami pondered the thought for a time. Marsh returned to his vigil.

         “So, what is it you want, David Marsh?”

         He lowered his binoculars. “Not much really. Maybe a small yacht. June and I could sail away into the never-never.”

         “What about the military.”

         “I’m a bit disillusioned with them. Besides, I’m sure they’ll get along fine without me. What is it you want, Mami?”

         “I want to teach von Lettow-Vorbeck a lesson he will never forget. We are lovers, but he is unfaithful. He cannot keep it in his trousers. So, I shall destroy his airship to show him that without me he is nothing. Without me... he will be known as the Mouse of Africa.”

         Marsh chuckled. “You’re going to destroy the airship with your spear?”

         “Yes,” she said, “with my spear.”


The Zeppelin arrived ahead of time with the dawn. Marsh and Kesler fired up the weapon’s boiler.

         “See those boulders behind us,” Marsh said. “If it all goes pear shaped, head for those and take cover. It wouldn’t surprise me if the gondolas are armed with light cannon or Maxims and they won’t be happy to see us.”

         Hope for the best. Plan for the worst.

         “I won’t miss,” Kesler said and busied himself checking dials and fine-tuning valves.

         The Zeppelin lost altitude, as predicted, as it closed in on them.

         Marsh said, “That thing is huge. You ready?”

         “Ready.” Kesler sat in a seat behind the weapon, turning a valve from side to side. The weapon swung back and forth obediently. A rising, whining hum resonated from the electric generator.

         The Zeppelin closed to two hundred yards. Marsh tore the limbs from the front of the blind, throwing them aside and had to yell to be heard. “Fire at will.”

         Kesler pressed a pedal with his foot. The trees lining the right-hand beach of their small cove crackled into flame. The lake below the Zeppelin boiled momentarily and subsided. The airship flew on towards them.

         Kesler checked the dials and gauges. He glanced up at the Zeppelin with a look of disbelief.

         Then the gunners in the gondolas opened up with their Maxim machine guns. Four-hundred-and-fifty rounds per minute. Times two. Spurts of sand walked up the beach towards the blind. They were zeroing in. Twigs and leaves rained down around Marsh and Kesler.

         “The boulders. Now!” Marsh grabbed Kesler by the shoulder, but Kesler brushed his hand away and just sat there dejected. His chin slumped to his chest and he screwed his eyes tight shut.

         Marsh drew his semi-automatic and took aim at the forward gunner.

         This is stupid, he thought.

         Then he saw Mami Wata rise from the lake right under the Zeppelin. She held her dripping spear high, aimed at the airship. A blinding bolt of lightning crackled from the spear and enveloped the airship. It exploded in a ball of rising orange-red flame. The air blast was savage. Shrapnel from the airship whistled through the air around Marsh as he took cover behind a tree.

         Kesler just sat there, shielded by the weapon itself, with a huge grin on his face.


They walked down to the beach; Marsh examined his right forearm as he walked, wiping some blood away.

         “You’ve been hit,” Kesler said.

         “Caught a bit of shrapnel is all. Nothing to worry about.”

         Part of the Zeppelin’s bent and blackened frame stuck out of the water only thirty yards from the beach. Flotsam was washing in with the warm northerly breeze.

         “So much for gathering any intel,” Marsh said.

         “What do you mean?”

         “I’ve a feeling not much is left of the gondolas. Hardly worth diving for I reckon.”

         Kesler was still smiling. “It worked. It must have been a delayed reaction. For a moment there I thought I’d missed it. I’ll be famous. The scientific world will know my name.”

         Marsh looked at him sideways but said nothing.


Marsh sat next to his duffel bag, dug around inside it, and came up with a bottle of whiskey and a small first aid kit. He grabbed a pair of tweezers pouring spirit on it, splashed some on his wounded arm, and took a long swig.

         Kesler sat and watched. “Looks like you’ve done this before.”

         “Once or twice,” Marsh said wincing a little and pulled a pea sized piece of metal from the wound. He held it up to his eyes, examining it closely. He frowned and wiped it with his shirt.
         “I’ll be damned,” he said.

         “What is it?”

         “Gold,” Marsh said slowly.


Marsh waded into the water, then dived right in. The water was cool. Not cold. The visibility was good. Wreckage littered the sandy lakebed. Most of it bent, blackened, and twisted metal. One of the Maxim guns lay half buried in the sand in three fathoms of water. Only the firing handle looked damaged.

         He rose to the surface taking deep breaths, saturating his lungs with oxygen, and dived again. He saw only one gondola. It lay half buried, twisted and broken in half. A soldier’s arm protruded from it; the hand still clenched into a singed pink fist. There were scorched crates of rifles, blackened crates of ammunition, and a charred broken chest filled with gold bullion, some of them were melted blobs of gold in the sand.

         He picked up a small piece, surfaced, and swam ashore where Kesler was waiting for him, handing him a towel in exchange for the chunk of gold.

         Marsh was quiet as he pulled on his shirt.

         Kesler turned the nugget in his fingers. “How much is there?”

         “More than the two of us will ever need.”

         Kesler chuckled. “My Teleforce Superweapon will be snapped up by the military. I’m already rich.”

         “Not quite,” Marsh said and sat in the sand. The midmorning sun felt good on his face. “You missed.”


         “You missed,” Marsh said again. “Something else happened.”


         Marsh said nothing.

         “The Nightshade,” Kesler said, “will be back to pick us up in three days.”

         Marsh looked at him sideways. “And we won’t be here. We’ll build a raft, raise the gold, and be long gone by then. I know a guy at the railhead at Kisumu who will get us and the gold on the train to Mombasa—no questions asked. I know another guy in Mombasa who can get us anything we want. I’ll sail you home to any port in America.
         “From there you can write your own ticket. Be anyone you want; live anywhere you want; do anything you want. But—”

         “But what?”

         “The Germans will want their gold back. They will also hunt the man who they think destroyed their Zeppelin and set their plans back somewhat. You may want to change your name.”

         Kesler frowned. “To what?”

         “I don’t know.” Marsh hesitated. Then he smiled. “Tesla has a good ring to it.”


Every day for the past week, Marsh watched them watch her. They watched as she walked along the jetty. They watched as she knelt and placed a yellow rose on the memorial. They watched as she bowed her head and wept in silence. There were three of them positioned along The Esplanade. The young guy selling papers to his right, the old man sitting and feeding the seagulls to his left, and a man with a bicycle-vendor’s cart, selling ice-cream cones right there on the boardwalk.

         The seagulls screeched and squabbled. The sky was bleak and overcast. Not exactly ice-cream weather.

         He’d anchored his yacht, Sovereign, about a cable length west of the decommissioned naval pier. Six months since the mission in Africa and still they watched June. There may be another agent, maybe two, watching her rented flat, he wagered with himself.

         How long will they keep it up? He pondered. I wonder what they told her about me? MIA probably: simply missing in action.

         God she was gorgeous. Talk about beauty: He certainly didn’t spare any when He made her. June stood and turned; her black skirts swept the weathered jetty timbers; her eyes swept over the ocean, over him and his yacht. Not seeing him. Not knowing how he hurt inside. Not knowing how much he missed her.

         Slowly, she walked away yet again.

         A horseless carriage hissed and puffed in the distance, its progress growing louder by the second. Marsh aimed his binoculars and refocused on the vehicle. The driver heaved on the parking brake, the door opened, and a man in a grey suit stepped down to the boardwalk. He spoke briefly with the ice-cream vendor, who then closed his icebox and rode away. The newspaper guy was already gone. The man feeding the seagulls stood, walked to the carriage, and hopped in.

         The place looked deserted; even the seagulls disappeared; the coach hissed a steady stream of steam. The grey-man turned towards the sea, looking directly at the Sovereign, one hand on the door handle. Marsh felt a cold chill as he dialled the magnification to maximum and focused the binoculars on the Chief’s face.

         The Chief mouthed the words, “Good luck, Lieutenant,” and got back in the carriage.

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