Live to fight another day – Dizzying heights – A mother’s wrath – Return to the Nest – Friends you have not killed yet – A heavy burden – In the arms of Morpheus
THE DEVIL’S COCKTAILS
Linda Davenport reporting
It is not often that us mere students are invited into the Alchemy laboratories in Building Four, a safe distance away from the rest of the buildings. I can tell you, it is quite an experience. Building Four is where our Alchemy Professors and their brave (or dare I say ‘expendable’) undergraduate students probe the depths of all manner of alchemical compounds. Since nothing very dangerous was taking place, Prof. Lowe allowed your reporter to walk the dread hallways and even enter one of the laboratories itself.
We can dispel any rumours that our faculty is producing perfumes. Despite the presence of fume hoods, a lingering smell of experiments past remains. When we think of Alchemists, we picture cackling madmen with glass Erlenmeyers, pouring drop after drop of dangerous substances together, until an explosion follows. This, dear readers, is a profound misconception. The truth is even more frightening. I was shown some of the apparatus, which uses a blast furnace to heat up noxious substances to hundreds of degrees on the Celsius scale, and forces them together, creating chemicals that have no right to exist in the fresh outside air, and often do so only for the briefest of moments, before exploding with prodigious force.
To show the Clarion the full experience of an Alchemy career, your reporter was invited to try on some of the protective gear for working with high energy compounds. The ensemble uses a mixture of natural heavy leathers and steel plates to rival the heaviest of High Street corsetry. Over the trousers and jacket, an apron is worn. A steel-and-leather helmet and face mask and a pair of leather mittens complete the look. A special feature is the self-contained breathing apparatus that provides the user with fresh air imported specially from the Swiss Alps. We have to admit that these clothes lack in elegance, but retaining all one’s limbs in an unburnt state is a look that will never go out of fashion.
Finally, Dr. Lowe remarked on the fact that so few young ladies choose to follow a career in Alchemy, especially high-energy Alchemy, and warmly, nay very warmly recommended it. So ladies, throw your instincts of self-preservation to the winds and apply for one of these exciting courses.
We only just made it, Nazeem and I. If it hadn’t been for Alex’ suppressive fire, they would have caught us. Though if I had known at that time what she would have to endure, I would have given myself up willingly. She is in her bed now, with Fatin watching over her, deep in the arms of Morpheus. How much of her we managed to save, I don’t know. But I am getting ahead of myself.
As Lady I took us up, still climbing the rope ladder, we turned round to pick Alex up from her sniper’s position. But we were too late. The monstrous shape of the airship Aquila appeared on our port, guns blazing, and we were forced to flee. We did not see what happened to Alex, being too busy saving our own skins. Fatin was at the helm, and if it had been anyone else, our Lady would have been shot down in flames. Lady I‘s mighty engines hefted her aloft and away from our pursuers, until their cannon could not aim at us. I ran to the bridge, to see Father, calmly sitting in the Captain’s chair, his pipe between his teeth. Riley was at one of the telescopes, looking down.
“Father! Alex is still down there! We have to go back for her!”
Father slowly looked round to me. “If we do, my son, we will die. First, we need to escape our pursuers. Only then can we think of returning for her. Let us hope she will be able to keep out of their hands.”
“Fatin.” I turned to her. “Take her around. We must…”
“Don’t be a goddamn idiot.” Riley’s Yankee accent cut through the air. “If we go back there, we’ll be shot out of the sky.”
“Steady as she goes, Fatin,” said Father. He stood up, and walked up to me. “Last time I looked, Carl, you were not the captain of this vessel. We will return for Alexandra, but we will do so when we have a chance of rescuing her. At present, we do not.”
“They’ll kill her, Father,” I said, the blood drained from my face.
“They’ll put her through the wringer first,” said Riley. “And you’d better hope and pray that they do, because if they just shoot her, we’ll be wasting our time and our lives looking for her.”
Nazeem walked in. “It was given Nazeem to know that Miss Alexandra has been captured, and that they have not killed her. Rejoice upon this knowledge.”
“How do you know that, you fraud? And don’t start about your bloody spirits.”
Nazeem’s eyes darkened. “They are not my spirits, Carl Tennant. Nazeem thanks them upon his knees for every word they speak to him, and so should you. Miss Alexandra lives. You would do well to show gratitude for this.”
“She’s not going to stay alive for much longer,” I said.
“First, we shake off that floating monstrosity of theirs,” said Father. “Then, we return to save Alexandra.”
I was sitting in the aft gun bay, looking through my telescope. In the distance, Aquila still loomed, unwilling to give up, though we were gaining. The whistle in the speaking tube sounded, and I removed it.
“My love?” I remembered Fatin’s face when first she heard Alex’ voice through that tube. “Captain Philip wants you on the bridge.”
“On my way,” I said. I climbed the ladder, trotted through the mess hall, through the cargo hold, and onto the bridge. Father arrived a minute or so after me and handed Fatin a thick fur coat that had belonged to my mother. He gave me my duffel coat. Our son Raage was all but invisible under a stack of blankets in his cot tied to the railing.
“These devils will not give up,” said Father. “I don’t want to be chased away too far from Alexandra. So we will go where they cannot. We will take Lady I up as high as she can go, then turn back. Mr. Nazeem? You’re not wrapping up. It’s going to get cold in here.”
“Nazeem has the Spirit of Fire. He needs no other trappings than these.”
“Suit yourself,” said Father, with a sneer. “Fatin? Up, up and away!”
Fatin nodded, and turned to the hydrogen controls. “Breathe in deep, my friends,” she said in the Ajuru language. “We are going to play with the Sun, won’t that be fun?”
I could hear the drum of the hydrogen pumps, pushing more of the lighter-than-air gas into the envelopes, and saw the Earth fall away from us. I could hear the pitch of Lady I‘s propellers changing as the air became thinner. I grew anxious, as the pressure inside the envelopes increased. If any of them would rupture, we would be a candle in a cloud of the most flammable gas in existence.
“Higher, Itzel. Higher Iris!”
Their names sounded strange to my ears in the Ajuru tongue, and for a moment, I could have sworn I’d heard women’s laugher. Lady I shot up like a cork in a bathtub. Presently, ice flowers started to form on the bridge windows, and our breath floated before us in little clouds of vapour. There was a whistling sound and Fatin leapt round, turned one of the hydrogen wheels back.
“Don’t scare us like that! I know you like to, but now is not the time for playing with us. Won’t you rise a little higher? The Sun and the Moon are waiting for you. You have left the clouds below, won’t they be jealous?”
The air became thin and cold, losing its flavour, like tea made from too much water and not enough leaves. I felt light in my head, and had to fight to stay awake.
I could hear that the pitch of the engines had changed, the noise of the propellers. Lady I‘s fires burnt lower, starved of the air that machines and living creatures need.
Fatin’s dark eyes turned upwards to Lady I‘s envelope. She whispered words of encouragement, then adjusted the hydrogen controls.
“Philip,” she said, in English, “This is as high as she will go. Isn’t she clever?”
Father smiled. “She certainly is. Well done, my child. Well done my Lady. Now take her round.”
Fatin uncoupled the propellers for a few moments, reversed the pitch on the port propeller, then engaged them. Slowly, sluggishly in this thin air, Lady I turned. I ran to one of the telescopes and looked down. Far below us, struggling to rise to our height, was the monster. I could see people small as ants scurrying about on its top deck. Father walked up and pushed me away from the telescope. He grunted.
“We are faster to rise, but at some point, they’ll catch up. I have had enough of this. Carl, man the fore’ard guns. Nazeem, aft guns if you would. Riley. In the cargo hold is a case of thermite grenades. Do you know what to do with those?”
“Now we’re talking,” said Riley, and limped off.
“What’s the plan?” I said.
“We’re going to jump them from above, and give them a concentrated taste of Hell.” Father grinned. “Use one of the red ammo drums, they’re all incendiary rounds. We’re going to light up the sky!” He turned to Fatin. “Now, we’ll show those devils that our Lady has talons. Dive down on them, then fly over them.”
“Yes Captain Philip,” said Fatin. If she was afraid, she did not show it. She turned to the controls. “Do you see the ship below? It is an old lion, hungry and dangerous. It wants to hurt Alex. Today, our spears will pierce it, and we will wear its skin.”
She pushed the ailleron controls, and with a cracking of her beams, almost like a man cracking his knuckles, Lady I turned her nose downwards. I lowered myself into the freezing gun deck, open to the elements once I opened the firing slit and pushed the cannon out. I blew on my hands to warm them, loaded up the red drum of fire bullets, gripped the handles, and waited. Someone blew the whistle, and I answered. It was Father.
“Hold your fire until the last moment. We want the incendiary rounds still to be hot when they strike.”
“I understand, Father.” I sneered at the funnel that would carry up my voice. “Ready to fire on your command.”
“The effective range is five hundred yards,” said Father. “Do I have to tell you everything? You have two eyes.”
“I…” I thought of several excellent answers to that, but decided not to. “Aye-aye, Father.”
With hydrogen streaming from the safety release valves like a banshee wail, Lady I came plummeting down. I picked up my binoculars, and saw several people on top of Aquila, armed with some kind of gun. I grabbed the speaking tube.
“Father! Gunmen on top!”
“We’ve seen them. Fire at will. Fire!”
I lined up my sights, and pushed the button. The Andrew Parsons Repeating Rifle Mark Two roared into life and spat round after round of magnesium fire down at the airship Aquila. Return fire flew up to meet us, but they had had to improvise their rifle mountings, and most of their shots went wide.
None of mine did.
I painted a dotted line of bright light across Aquila’s canopy. I could see fire breaking out in dozens of places. I could hear the angry noise of bullets striking the gondola. That was fine. It could take it. As long as they didn’t hit the envelopes, all would be fine. In a flash, Aquila zoomed past. I could see bright white lights against the clouds as Riley’s thermite grenades fell down towards Aquila, through her damaged canopy, into their supply of gas. Finally, I heard the tearing noise of our aft cannon.
Lady I lurched as one of her propellers reversed its pitch, and the ship threw itself about. A few hundred yards below us, I could see an inferno of bright yellow flames. Aquila was burning, burning beyond rescue. Lady I shot upwards, and as I watched, the whole of Aquila’s cigar shaped form exploded and plunged to the ground in burning fragments. I waited a few more minutes, but nothing presented itself for me to shoot at. I climbed the ladder to the bridge. Father and Riley were standing by the windows, one of which had a star-shaped bullethole in it.
“Is everybody all right?”
“They aren’t,” said Father.
“Well,” said Riley. “That there, is why these things never took off for heavy combat duty.”
I walked over to Fatin. The first thing I saw were her bare feet on the cold hard metal floor. Tears were freely streaming down her face. I put my arms round her. She buried her face in my collar and sobbed.
“So many people,” she said, in Ajuru.
I stroked her hair, gently rocked her. “I know.”
Father and Riley came up on the bridge. Father put a glass in my hand, and poured two fingers of the Scotch single malt whisky that he kept for special occasions. He raised his glass to me.
“To Lady Iris,” he said.
I raised my own glass. “To Lady Itzel.”
I had put Fatin in bed with little Raage, and I was at the helm. We were at maximum altitude, heading back to Slate’s lair, with the setting sun in our backs. Nazeem was sitting at the window in his meditative pose. Riley was in his cabin. Father was on his throne, pipe unlit in his mouth as some of Aquila‘s bullets might well have made it through our envelopes and we would need to check them soon. The engines were operating at half speed. Soon, we would shut one down and reduce the power on the other, to glide towards our objective in near silence. Nazeem and I would enter, find Alex, then take her back with us. Then we would fly back to Khartoum and warn the authorities. We arrived at the mountain just as the sun disappeared below the horizon. Father took over the helm.
I dressed in my desert khakis. I’d dropped my revolver in our run to freedom, but at my belt was a twenty inch kukri and one of the pistols we had taken from the Jäger, weeks ago. It seemed fitting somehow. Nazeem bore no weapon, but would rely on his magical powers to overcome his enemies. I had long given up arguing against him. He could use the power of love for all I cared. If worse came to worst, he could always pick up a rock. As soon as we were down, Lady I would rise back up, with Riley at the for’ard machine guns for fire support while we were outside. There was a knock on my cabin door, and I opened it to see Father. He handed me a first-aid kit consisting of bandages, slings, a tourniquet, and field dressings. I slipped it onto my belt without a word. He put his hand on my shoulder.
“My son, I have added one more thing. There is a bottle there with enough morphia to kill a horse.”
I looked at him, blankly, for one or two long moments.
“Understood,” I said.
“Use it wisely,” said Father.
We didn’t bother with rope ladders, but slid down a long rope to the desert sand, a few hundred yards away from the side entrance. We reasoned that with aquila gone, the enemy would expect us to mount an attack from above. We would try to enter by stealth. Nazeem, having the better night vision between us, went first. After half an hour’s slow march, we reached the entrance to the tunnel that had nearly cost us our lives the first time. With practice, we would get used to this tunnel.
We slowly crept forward into the mountain. The guard post was lit with a single lantern, drawing a circle of light on the floor. Two guards, armed with rifles, sat on the ground, looking out. I put my hand on Nazeem’s shoulder. Pointed at him and the guard on the right, then at myself and the guard on the left. It is often said never to bring a knife to a gunfight. That may be true, but this was not a gun fight. I took up my position, then waited and watched. I saw Nazeem at the other end of the circle of light. He saw me, then leapt forward as I did the same, kukri out. The guard tried to bring his rifle round to me, but I was already too close and could simply push it aside. My knife came round and I sliced his throat. Next to me, Nazeem had his arm round the other guard’s neck. He pushed, and there was a cracking sound.
We dragged the guards to a hiding place in the dark, then entered the cavern. Lights were on in the complex to the North, and the squat wooden buildings to the West. The rest of the cavern was dark. I pointed at the lights, and Nazeem nodded.
We set off. As we approached the lit buildings, there was a noise behind us and we dropped to the floor. A soldier carrying a lantern, a water jug, and a large bag, was walking at a brisk pace to the buildings. With one look at Nazeem, I walked up behind him. I grabbed the back of his collar, kicked his knees, and put my kukri to his throat.
“Hello,” I said. “My name is Carl Tennant. Be quiet, or I will take your head off. You have my sister. Tell me where she is.”
I nearly let go. This was a woman’s voice.
“You are looking for Alexandra Tennant?”
I took a tighter hold on her collar. “I am. Take me to her.”
I could feel her hesitating. I pressed my sharp blade to her throat. “It’ll either be you or the next soldier we find.”
“Okay, I’ll take you to her,” said the soldier. “Just don’t blame me for what she looks like. I had nothing to do with that, you understand? Nothing.”
“What do you mean?”
Nazeem put a hand on my shoulder. “They have not been kind to her. We must hurry.”
Keeping a firm hold onto the soldier, we relieved her of her revolver and walked to a building we had missed in the gloom. It was made of bricks, with the windows barred and shuttered against the light. Shivers went up my spine. This was a place of evil.
“Any guards?” I asked.
“One,” said the soldier. “The only pig who likes this detail. All the entertainment he wants.”
The soldier turned her head round and scowled at me. “Anything you can think of, he’ll have done it. What the hell do you think this is, a hotel? He likes boys if that’s any comfort.”
“Carl Tennant, now is not the time to think of revenge.” Nazeem stepped forward. “First, we must bring Alexandra to safety.”
“For what it’s worth,” said the soldier, quietly, “I hope you do.”
We entered the prison building. There was no guard in the expected place.
“Busy,” said the soldier.
“Nazeem perceives his location. He will subdue the guard, and stop what evil he is doing.” He disappeared into the gloom.
“This way,” said the soldier.
There was a single gunshot. I would have recognised it anywhere, any time. It was my own revolver. I pushed the soldier woman away, tore open the door and ran in, to a sight that I should have expected. Alex, tied down, beaten black and blue, bleeding. A blonde woman was sitting on a chair, watching Alex. She jumped to her feet, cried out for the guard, but she was too late. My kukri came round, and passed through her neck. I kicked her body, and her head fell to the floor. Blood spurted up high, her heart pumping it to a head that was no longer there. A hellish desire came over me to make her suffer till her very last moment. I took her by the hair, swung the head round, and dashed it into the wall.
I turned to Alex. Oh merciful God, Alex. They had tied her legs down to the point of breaking. Beaten her, burnt her, humiliated her, and finally shot her through the leg, to make her bleed to death slowly. I raised my kukri to free her, but there was a shout from the female soldier, and she grabbed my hand.
“No! Not like that! Slowly. Easy. It’ll hurt her more if you cut it suddenly.”
She kneeled by Alex’ legs, and started to untie the knot that held her legs down. I took the first aid kit from my belt. Pulled out the bottle of morphia. I took the cup from my water bottle and half filled it. I carefully put ten drops of the drug in the water, swirled it round to mix it in. I stepped over to my sister.
“Alex? Drink this.”
My sister turned her head towards me, fought to open her eyes. I put the cup to her lips and she drank the water. She smiled at me, tried to say something, but then her eyes closed and her head slumped down.
The soldier woman untied the knot, and slowly let out the rope. That done, she gently picked up Alex’ feet and took away the stack of bricks. I cut the rest of the ropes, and had to support her to keep her from falling.
Nazeem came in, a serious look on his face.
“Miss Alexandra lives, but she has suffered much. There are others here who have suffered like she has. Nazeem has seen to the needs of one. The other must return to his comrades, that they may take care of him. Nazeem will stay with them, and help them as he can.”
I put Alex in the chair, started to wind a bandage round her bleeding leg.
“Who will see to Alexandra’s needs?”
“You will,” said Nazeem.
“You want me to fight my way back to Lady I carrying her?”
I tied down Alex’ bandage, checked her for other life threatening injuries. There were burns, cuts, bruises, and God only knew what she looked like inside.
“I can hold your gun for you,” said the soldier.
“Very funny.” I gave her a hard look. “What’s your name?”
“Lee,” she said. “Brenda Lee.”
“Well, Miss Lee, if you think I’ll give you a gun, then you are insane.”
“But I like guns,” said Miss Lee. “Oh well then. How about I carry your sister for you instead? Take care though. I’ll be carrying her over my shoulders, so if you want to chop my head off, you’ll hit her instead.”
“You look a bit… small.”
Miss Lee sighed. Then, she took off her jacket and put it on Alex.
“You done with her?”
“For now, yes.”
She took Alexandra’s arm and pulled her unconscious body over her shoulders. She looked at me.
I picked up my revolver, stuck it in my belt.
“One more thing.”
With my kukri, I hewed at the back of the hell-bench till the back was a sharp point. Then, I picked up the blonde woman’s head, and put it on the point.
Miss Lee whistled softly. “You’re nasty, mister Carl Tennant.”
“I can think of nastier people.”
Nazeem took the one remaining prisoner away, while we made our way back to the side entrance. Miss Lee did not seem to make much of the burden.
“I must say, it’s well you are as strong as you are.”
“I lift,” said Miss Lee. “Try it sometime.”
“Before your lot came here, I was lifting ore here. It is not as healthy as you think it is.”
“No argument there.”
The guards at the side entrance hadn’t been replaced yet, and we could leave the mountains of madness unmolested. When we were well away into the desert, I set off my blue flare, and like a ghost’s whisper, Lady I came down. The side door opened. I held out my arms for Alex.
“Miss Lee, for your help you have my sincere thanks. You can give her to me and return to your station now.”
Miss Lee sneered at me. “Are you kidding me? What do you think will happen if I go back there and tell them I’ve been on a stroll with Vlad the Impaler? I’m sure they can cobble up another one of those benches. They thought I was getting too friendly with your sister anyway. I’m coming with you.”
I hesitated only a moment. “Welcome on board Lady I, Miss Lee.”
Miss Lee carried Alexandra on board, and we were met by Riley. He eyed Miss Lee up.
“Did you trade in our brown voodoo man for a chick?”
“Oh crap,” said Miss Lee. “Not another damn Yank.”
Riley grinned. “Well you are mostly a Yank. What’s the other half?”
Miss Lee smiled sweetly at him. “Bit of friendly advice Mister. You want your nuts to stay where they are, you shut up about my ancestry.”
“Well, ain’t you a little ray of sunshine. We can still chuck you out, you know?”
“You and what damn army?” Miss Lee pointed at Alexandra. “Where do you want her?”
“Follow me,” I said.
We put Alex in her bed as Lady I rose to a safe altitude, out of the reach of gunfire and prying eyes. Father came in as fast as his prosthetic leg would carry him. He looked at Alex, and turned pale.
“Dear God, my daughter! What have they done to you?”
“Messed up her legs, starved her for two days, beat the crap out of her, burnt her, then shot her in the leg,” said Miss Lee. “Oh. Was I supposed to say you don’t wanna know?”
Father looked at her. “And you are?”
Miss Lee threw off a perfect salute. “Ex United States Marine Corps Sergeant Brenda Lee Sir! Reporting for whatever the hell you want me to do.”
At that moment, Alex stirred, looked at us through swollen eyelids. Father dropped to his knees at her side.
Alex took a little time to speak. “Father? Is everyone alive?”
Father took Alex’ hand. “You’re alive, my daughter. You are safe. Everything is going to be all right.”
Alex tried to move, and gasped suddenly. “My legs… They… My legs.”
Miss Lee bent over Alex. “Your legs’ll be just fine. Seen guys sitting on a bench like that for much longer than you have, and two weeks later, they were working the mine again. You’ll be running again in a month, believe me.”
Alex looked at her. “Brenda?”
“Yeah, it’s me. Harder to get rid of than a yeast infection. Now you take some more medicine, and you get some sleep will you?”
Alex gave her a little nod. I gave her a few more drops of morphia to drink, and she sank down again. Fatin came in.
“All you men. Get out. There is woman’s work to be done here.”
“Don’t mind me,” said Miss Lee.
“I don’t know you. But get out. I will speak with you when Alex is clean.” She turned to me. “My love? Large bowl of warm water and cloths. Also there is nobody at the helm, and maybe Itzel and Iris are playful. Go!”
There was no denying Fatin’s words, and we all filed out of the room, leaving my beautiful wife to take care of my sister. Father walked to the bridge to take the helm, and Riley followed him, leaving me alone with Miss Brenda Lee.
“Are you sure she’s going to be all right?”
Miss Lee gave me a hard look. “Want me to lie to you as well as to her?”
I bowed my head and went to fetch a bowl of hot water for Alex. When I returned, Fatin was in bed with Alex, quietly singing to her, one of the ancient songs of soothing and healing. Alex had her eyes closed. I put down the bowl. Fatin gave me a quick smile. Just before I left, I heard Alex’ drugged whisper.
“They broke my legs, Fatin.” Alex sobbed. “They broke my legs.”