The abandoned mine – Gathering of knowledge – Familiar Surroundings – Meeting the enemy
THE ALGERNON RIFLE CLUB GOES TO WAR!
Linda Davenport reporting
We have had a bit of a surprise from Prof. Pike of the Rifle Club. He has just informed us that we have been entered in an international rifle contest all the way up in Folkestone. Say what you will about Miss Alexandra Tennant, but she at least would have informed us before entering us. Professor Pike says he has great faith in us.
Since the competition in Folkestone will be rifles at eight hundred yards, the boys have rolled up their sleeves, in some cases removed their shirts altogether, and moved back our firing booths by some two hundred yards in a grand display of brute strength, well supervised by us girls. Well done to them, I say!
We are now organising a competition amongst ourselves, to see who will represent us. Three of our group will be sent to Folkestone bearing the new sniper rifles provided by Mr. Pike from origins unknown. Needless to say, we are all practicing hard for the final contest in three weeks’ time, to see who will accompany Miss Carrie StJohn to London.
I am shocked, nay horrified, to report that the sin of gambling is alive and well under the roof of Algernon University. At the moment, behind Miss StJohn, clear favourites are alledgedly Mr. Nigel Arterton and Miss Christa Whelan. It would of course be unethical of your correspondent to place a bet on herself, so she vehemently denies doing any such thing. The patently false rumours that my co-correspondent, Miss Prescott, would be willing to take bets, are based on nothing but vile and deceitful lies. I must stress that gambling leads to slackening of social norms, poverty, excess drinking, and a clear and direct path to a criminal career. You have been warned.
With plenty of practice at Lady I‘s helm, I have become quite good at steering her. Put me on the helm even in the busiest of airports, and I will take our home in the sky where she needs to go, even in the worst of conditions. Lady I is well and truly our ship now. It pains me to write it, but Carl is as good at it as I am. The best helmsman our Lady could ask for though, is Fatin. Carl, Father, and I are good at navigating her through the sky. Fatin, when she takes the wheel, becomes the Lady I. I watch her, with her bare feet on the metal floor of the bridge, one hand on the wheel, one on the ailleron controls, her dark eyes on the horizon, her mind extending itself from Lady I‘s bows, through the propellers, all the way to her rudder, and I know that even with my Helmsman’s papers where she has none, I will never be her equal. It makes one think. How many people are there in African tribes with talents like hers? How many brilliant painters, engineers, alchemists, guitarists, walk the deep dark forests of Africa, doomed never to explore their talents to the fullest? For that matter, how many hunters languish in office jobs or in factories, watching endless rows of engine parts float by on the conveyor belt? Those of us who have found our calling in life, should consider ourselves lucky.
Mindful of this, Fatin was at the helm when we approached the Belian-Ibelin mine with the wind at our bows and the sun at our backs. Riley was at the fore’ard guns, and I was making ready to drop down to a hill overlooking the mining compound. I was to provide cover fire for Nazeem and Carl as they explored the buildings. A job for people with a functioning pair of legs when a speedy exit was needed.
The last time we were here, we had to leave under fire, in the Beast of Algernon, the tracked vehicle designed and built by Andrew Parsons. This time, we were prepared for anything. Or so we thought.
I was winched down into the trees with my Mauser SR-220, wearing my all-environment suit. I ran to the top of a hill, and set up my nest half way up a tall tree. Looking through my scope, I watched Carl and Nazeem approach the main building. I scanned doorways and windows for unfriendly attention. Nothing or nobody showed itself. Apart from the song of the birds and the buzz of insects, all was quiet. The big wheels of the pumps stood still, nobody was mining today. The small children would not need to drag heavy loads of coal to the surface.
I saw Carl enter one of the buildings, a kind of barracks. It made me nervous that I could not see him, but Nazeem was just outside, ready to come to Carl’s rescue. Carl stayed inside the building for only a minute or so. Then he walked out, bent over, and emptied his stomach onto the ground. I increased the magnification on my rifle scope so I could see him talk to Nazeem. Carl’s face was ashen pale. I pulled back my vision, quickly checked their surroundings for enemies. There were none. I could see Carl stand up with a determined look on his face. He and Nazeem walked from building to building. When they were satisfied that nothing or nobody stirred, they made the hand signal that meant to join them there. I slung my rifle on my back and ran down, into the compound. Carl was sitting on the ground, staring ahead of him without seeing. I kneeled before him.
“What’s the matter, Brother? You look like you’ve seen a ghost.”
Carl blinked slowly. “I’ve seen dozens of ghosts. Hundreds.”
I stood up and turned to one of the buildings. Carl grabbed my arm.
“Don’t go in there, Alex. For the sake of your faith in Humanity. There is nothing we can do.”
“I won’t let you carry the burden alone,” I said.
I put my hand on his shoulder, smiled at him. Then, I walked into one of the buildings. I wish now that I had listened to Carl. As I opened the door, a thousand thousand flies swarmed about me, and I was struck by such a stench that it almost seemed like a physical wall to me. I wish, as no doubt does Carl, that I could erase from my eyes and from my mind the scene in that building. It was a slaughterhouse of humanity. This building had been a sleeping quarters. All the beds had been pushed to one side, and on the other side were stacked dead bodies. They were ordered youngest to eldest. Orderly. Efficient. I tried to turn off my imagination. Tried not to see what had happened here, and how. Details assaulted my attention. The trails of blood on the floor. The torn clothes of the two young women on top of the pile. Closing my eyes made no difference. I could hear the screams. I could feel the fear and pain.
There was a hand on my shoulder. I looked round to see Nazeem standing behind me with an indescribable expression in his dark eyes.
“Their troubles are over. The Spirits are seeing to their needs. It is we who are the wretched ones, to live among all this beauty defiled and desecrated by these actions of cruelty. Nazeem has seen what must be seen. Our airship is descending. Let us leave and take counsel.”
“That’s the best you can do? ‘Oh dear God look at all the dead people. How horrible!’ You weren’t there for a horrorshow, you were there to get information.”
James Riley, spy of Arkham University, scoffed at us. After we had reported, he had given us a dark look and stepped down to have a look for himself.
“By all means enlighten us, Mr. Riley.” Father looked at him over the rim of his coffee cup.
Carl and I were sitting at the table. Nazeem leaned against the wall. Fatin was at the helm with their son Raage. Riley paced up and down the mess hall.
“Two sleeping quarters, about a hundred bodies each. Boys aged six to maybe twelve. Girls aged from seven to, oh, twenty or so. This happened maybe a month ago. Flesh goes runny in about that time.” Riley grinned, savouring our expressions. “Almost all of them were killed with a bayonet to the heart or the brain. That’s one of the quickest and cheapest ways to kill someone. They weren’t messing about. Maybe they had a bit of fun with the last ones, but that was it.”
“A bit of fun?” Carl glared at Riley. “Would it really hurt you to have a little respect, Riley?”
“Oh sure,” said Riley. “Those poor women. Subjected to a fate worse than death. And then death.” He thumped his fist on the table. “Guess what? They’re still dead. They still got raped. Your bleeding hearts don’t make one goddamn bit of difference to them. Except you were so busy feeling sorry that you didn’t even stop to ask yourself the important question.”
I gave Riley a dark look. “I’m sure you will be telling us what that question is?”
“Who is not here,” said Nazeem.
Riley turned to him, pointing. “Give the man a cigar. Who ain’t here?”
“Well?” said Carl.
“Boys and men from thirteen up. Big strong men. Workers. And not just any kind of workers. Miners. And what does that tell us, kids?”
“Slate needs more ore,” said Father.
“Correct. Now do we know any place where we can find some? Because a dime gets you a dollar that wherever we can find some of those glowy rocks, we can find us some scientists.”
“Hammond’s last camp,” said Carl. “I was hoping never to set foot there again.”
“I’ll go and set the course,” I said. “It’s marked on the map, isn’t it?”
“Yes,” said Carl. “Latitude and longitude are in the log under ‘inadvisable to visit’. Are we stupid or what?”
“Speak for yourself,” I said.
I walked onto the bridge. Fatin smiled at me, and I smiled back.
“Turn North,” I said. “We’re heading for Hammond’s camp. I’ll give you a more precise course in a minute.”
Fatin turned the wheel and brought Lady I round. The beams of afternoon sunlight played on the floor. I found the camp in our log, pulled out the map, and drew a line from our present position to the place that had nearly killed my brother. A little trigonometry later, I could give the course to Fatin. She moved the wheel with tiny, precise motions. I leaned on the railing that separated the helm station from the rest of the bridge, and looked ahead.
I looked round. Fatin is one of the few people I suffer to call me that. When I first met her, I shortened my name because ‘Alexandra’ would be a bit of a mouthful. Fatin nodded at the pram tied securely to the railing.
“Go and look at Raage sleeping. That is what I do when I feel sad.”
I didn’t ask her how she knew. I walked over to Raage and looked at his little brown face, quiet and content as he slowly moved in his sleep, making the tiny noises that babies make. A fresh soul, untouched by the darkness in this world. I reached out and pulled the blanket over him. He kicked it away again, gave a little snort and woke up. I could see him take a deep breath to demand food.
“Oh dear. Now I’ve done it.”
Raage seemed to agree. He started crying, but in a polite kind of way, suggesting that if Mummy could see her way clear to giving him some milk, that would be splendid.
“Take the wheel? North-north-east. I will give him the breast.”
I took over from Fatin, and she settled cross-legged in the Captain’s chair with Raage. She turned it round to look at me.
“You have seen bad things.”
“When Carl came in, he looked pale and wouldn’t talk.”
“Our faces always look pale,” I said.
Fatin laughed quietly. “I can’t cure that. That is how you were made.” She looked down at Raage. “You have seen the bad side of people. How many were there?”
I paused a moment. It was easy to see Fatin as a rather naive, primitive young girl, but every time she talked to me, she proved me wrong. I looked at the compass, turned the wheel.
“Two hundred,” I said. “As many people as there are in your tribe, ten times. Mostly women and children. The men were taken away.”
Fatin shook her head. “So many. So many children not born. So many meals not cooked. So many lonely nights.”
“They didn’t need the women. They needed workers. Miners.”
“They are wrong,” said Fatin. “They do need the women. Men on their own become dark and do bad things. Their minds become like that of an old lion who is cast out of the group and can only kill weaker things, fighting pumas for their food.”
“Maybe they are not expected to live that long. Remember what happened to Carl. I fear for them.”
“It doesn’t take long for their minds to go bad.” Fatin drew back into her memories. “When men of the M’bari tribe took us to be their wives, Kal go bad very soon. He killed many M’bari with fire. I was afraid to look at him. Only when I lay with him later did he grow easy.”
“He doesn’t get angry easily,” I said. “But when he does, he gets very angry.”
“No. He does get angry quickly. When someone hurts me, or you, or Raage, he is like thunder from a clear sky.” She looked up at me, a soft look in her eyes. “But most times, he is just my big dumb man.”
Raage seemed to have finished, and Fatin buttoned herself up. She put him back in his pram, picked up a rattle and jiggled it in front of him, singing softly to him in her own language. Raage giggled and reached out for the toy. She gave it to him and he shook it. He muttered a few words, closed his eyes and went to sleep. Fatin took the helm back from me.
“North-north-west. Go and have a sleep, Alex. You will be at the helm tonight.”
“Can’t,” I said.
Fatin reached out and stroked my shoulder. “Then make tea. I would like some.”
I put the kettle on. The English answer to everything. I handed Fatin her mug, and stood next to her as Lady I made her way to where we needed to be.
We were hovering above the spot at very high altitude. From below, Lady I would be a small dot. Lady I was painted dark on top, light below, making her long cigar-like shape resemble an orca, commonly known as a killer whale. With her ridiculously over-powered A. Parsons Mk.14 steam turbines and rapid-fire guns fore and aft, she was a hunter. She was a relatively small airship, dwarfed by the massive bulk of other dirigibles, but she was originally designed to tip the balance in the crippling trench warfare of the latest Franco-Prussian wars.
Father was standing by the large telescope, looking down on the location of Hammond’s camp. Nothing remained, not even of the cemetery where we buried the unfortunate members of the Arkham expedition. Carl stood next to Father, his own telescope in hand. Fatin was at the wheel. Nazeem was in the hold, meditating, observing the land below with his sight beyond sight. Either that, or he was simply taking a little nap before setting down. Riley was in one of the comfortable chairs on the bridge.
“It’s gone, ain’t it?”
“Not a trace,” said Father. “Carl, are you sure we’re in the right place?”
“Of course Father,” said Carl. “I wouldn’t forget those mountains. I am looking at the trail that we used to carry those bloody rocks down. Nearly dying of poisoning does wonders for one’s memory.”
“Trust, but verify,” said Father.
“We’re going down for a better look, aren’t we?” I said. “I’ll get my rifle.”
I walked into my cabin and dug out the wooden case containing my heavily customised Mauser SR-220, a model also known as Fräulein, because it is smaller than usual, making it more suitable for ladies to handle. I’d bought it from a friend of Carl’s. I’d had it modified so I could take it apart and pack it in a smaller case. I changed the stock myself, the better to fit my physique. I had put on a modified scope with a higher magnification and a wider lens. It had an effective range of fifteen hundred meters in the Continental metric system. I had hit targets at two thousand yards with this rifle. In the five years I’d had it, it had become almost like an extra limb to me. As I assembled the parts, lock, stock, barrel, scope, I checked them for dirt. Not that I hadn’t cleaned them obsessively when I’d last put them away, but you never knew. Gnomes might have come in and made it all dirty again.
I gently laid the rifle down on my bed, then pulled my all-environment suit out of my trunk, freshly washed and folded. I stripped down to my underwear and slid into it, closing the hook-and-velvet fastenings till it looked and felt like a second skin. This suit, made by Mrs. Peabody, master clothier of Ipswich, would keep me cool in hot places, warm in cold places. It also nicely accentuated my figure, to the point where walking round in it was likely to cause a bit of a stir among the easily distracted young men. I loaded five clips up with high velocity rounds, put them in pouches on my belt, one more clip went into my rifle. Round in the chamber, safety on, I slung it on my back. I quickly checked myself in the mirror, because going out to war improperly dressed is very rude, then walked back to the bridge, ready for anything.
We brought down Lady I a few miles away from Hammond’s camp. Carl, Nazeem, and I came down the ladder and marched off to the cave entrance where Prof. Hammond first discovered the mysterious ore that started this adventure. Carl said the place had changed. When he arrived, and it became clear that these caves were worth studying, they had created another entrance. That entrance had now collapsed, and Nazeem told us he could feel the lingering presence of the Spirit of fire. To put it more prosaically, explosives had been used. This was all the evidence we needed. People had been here, and changed the place to suit themselves, so that there was now only one entrance into the complex and that was at the top, only accessible from the air. Except, there was one other entrance, only known to Carl.
He pointed at a narrow passage leading up into the mountains, and up we went. This was the original passage where Carl’s expedition had originally meant to cross the mountains on a geological survey of this country. They had been looking for coal, of course. Our society is forever looking for more coal, to warm people’s houses, and move civilisation. They had found a small cave entrance, gone in to investigate, and found the glowing rocks that had ultimately caused their death by breathing in the poisonous dust. Carl still bore on his chest and back some of the burn scars, from carrying big sacks of the stuff to camp.
We climbed up the steep track, until we came to a small decline, some sort of bowl between cliff faces. In the side of the mountain was the entrance, a high, slender passage into the bowels of the Earth.
“Well,” said Carl, “We’re on the doorstep. Now all we need is a Dwarf with the key.”
“I wonder if the Dragon knows of this entrance,” I said.
“On this subject, the Spirits are silent to Nazeem. He must see with his own eyes.”
“Just in case the answer is yes,” I said. “Shall I set up a sniper’s nest opposite the door? Then, if you need to turn and run, I can keep them inside.”
“Excellent plan,” said Carl. “It’s hot up there. Got enough water?”
I didn’t need to check. Life in the desert teaches you to know precisely how much water you have left in your bottle.
“Plenty,” I said. “Give me twenty minutes to set up.”
I walked along the top of the cliff, glancing up at the sky where I knew Lady I was hovering, watching our every move. I couldn’t see her, which was good. I found a nice spot, hidden between two boulders. The place was hot as a furnace, and not even my all-environment suit could keep me cool. Still, I had a good view of the cave entrance and the path to it, which was what mattered. I pulled the dust cover off my rifle’s barrel, looked down, and set the range on my scope to eight hundred meters. After ten minutes or so, I could see Nazeem and Carl walk up to it, crouch next to the entrance, peer in. I tensed up, put a round in the chamber. At a nod from Carl, Nazeem walked in, and Carl followed. I waited. Snipers never learn patience. If they don’t have it to begin with, they do not last in the trade. There are stories of snipers lying perfectly still for as much as a week, waiting for the perfect shot. I had to wait only ten minutes or so. Voices came out of the cave mouth, echoing against the cliff walls. Carl and Nazeem came running out, Carl with his revolver out. I saw him stumble, fall, get up again and run on. He’d dropped his revolver and now grabbed his rifle. Presently, their pursuers showed themselves in my scope. They were wearing some kind of military uniform, beige like the stone and sand around us.
I aimed for the legs of the first. The bang of my rifle echoed through the valley, making it more difficult to spot me. He fell down, screaming, clutching his leg. I put another round in the chamber, fired again, deliberately missing. I wasn’t trying to kill anyone, only to keep them from following Carl and Nazeem. Two of the men grabbed their stricken comrade, and took him running back to the cave entrance. There was the noise of Lady I‘s engines, and the banshee wail of hydrogen gas blowing out of every safety valve. As I looked round, I could see her swooping down, rope ladder out for Carl and Nazeem. Carl leaped up, pulled himself up hand over hand. Nazeem followed him. As soon as they were on the ladder, Lady I turned herself up to the skies, and sped off in a Northerly direction. I looked at her through my rifle scope, saw Carl and Nazeem make it to the entrance, disappear inside. Lady I came about, turned into my direction. I looked round, spotted a high point, got up, and made for it.
At that moment, there was the roar of cannon fire, and the drone of many propellers. Like a monster from ancient legend, Prometheus‘ airship Aquila came towards us. I stood watching in horror as the tiny shape of Lady I turned again, accelerating upwards and away, with Aquila in pursuit, firing, though thankfully not hitting Lady I. As far as I could see, she was outrunning Aquila, her rear guns spitting tracer rounds at the massive form.
At that moment, someone shouted at me in Arabic. I turned round, to see two men dressed in burnous, rifles aimed at me. I had to bring round my rifle, then shoot both of them, in the time it took them to pull the trigger. One of them repeated what he’d shouted at me. I sighed, put down my rifle, carefully, not to get sand on it. One of them came forward, I backed off. With a curse in Arabic, he picked up my rifle, tossed it over the cliff edge. I took a breath. That rifle was worth a fortune in these places.
“Turn round! Down!”
I raised my hands, seething inwards at these stupid men, walked down the path. They took me down to the cave entrance, pushed me inside. I could see the man I’d shot lying on a stretcher. As I looked, someone behind me kicked me in the back of the knees, slammed the butt of his rifle between my shoulder blades. They bound my hands behind my back, and marched me down into the mountain, till we came to a large cavern. I could see the last daylight shining through a hole in the ceiling. Then, someone put a bag over my head.
Someone pushed me down onto a wooden chair, and I could hear a familiar voice.
“Miss Tennant. How nice to see you again.”
“Slate,” I said. There was a hard blow to the side of my head.
“Speak only to answer questions. Do you understand?”
I said nothing. From out of the dark, another blow.
“Do you understand?”
“Yes,” I said, shaking.
“Take off her blindfold.” Slate’s voice.
Someone pulled the bag off my head, and I blinked. I was in an office, or perhaps a small classroom, with stone walls. There was even a chalkboard on one of the walls, meticulously swept clean. Slate was at a desk, raised a little above the ground. A blonde woman stood next to him, arms crossed, an arrogant little smile on her face. Two large men stood next to me, I could sense another behind. I didn’t know any of their names, but I recognised them as Klemm’s Jäger, the mercenary force that had been our protectors on our first expedition. There was little comfort in my knowing them. They were hired hands, and at the moment, they were hired by Nicholas Slate. Also, their commander, Gustav Klemm, had died on board Lady I, shot in the forehead by Godfrey Pike. I prayed that they didn’t know about that.
“Welcome to the Eagle’s Nest,” said Slate. “From the fact that you have shot one of my men, I deduce that this is not a social call. Why are you here? Who do you work for? How many of you are there? These are the things I must know.”
I took a breath, said nothing. The man behind me hit me again, and I fell off the chair, onto the ground. I’ve been hit before. I’ve been in fist fights. I’ve been in boxing matches. This was worse. I could not run away, could not defend myself. Someone grabbed me, put me back in my chair. Slate sat there, a little smile on his face.
“Please answer my questions, Miss Tennant, and we can forego this… unpleasantness.”
“Go to hell,” I said. I knew it would cost me, but I wanted to tell him, at least once.
One of the men grabbed my shoulders. Another stepped in front of me, waited till he had my full attention, then drew back his fist and hit me in the face, hard. I could not keep myself from crying out. Blood trickled into my eye. Behind his desk, Slate shook his head.
“Well, Miss Tennant. If that is how it is going to be, then I wash my hands of you.” He turned to the woman beside him. “Hester? Find out what she knows. And do it where it won’t spoil my carpet.” He looked back at me. “I regret that we won’t meet again, Miss Tennant. But at least, my memory of you will be as a pretty woman. Take her away.”