Airship to Egypt

Previous: A simple matter of energy

Unleashing the Beast – Departure – A most vexing gentleman – Unscheduled disembarkation – Arrive on foot, leave on horseback

To tell you the truth, I never believed poor Gerald until he showed me a specimen of his first cryptid. It was a juvenile coatl, with a beautiful yellow plumage. The poor thing had run into one of the dirigible’s propellers. Unfortunately, the state of the specimen was such that when Gerald brought it home, it was disdainfully dismissed as a fake, which is all too common to happen to a cryptozoologist. With so little data, pursuing the scientific method is an almost impossible task, and many cryptozoologists end up being brought low by alcohol. I suppose in that respect Gerald’s fate was a good one, as nobody could deny that the bodies I brought home were a thoroughly exsanguinated husband and a somewhat perforated chupacabra.

— Proving the negative wrong, by Prof. Margaret Enderby

When Andrew Parsons first produced the blueprints to his amazing vehicle, most engineers considered it a pipe dream, ‘pipe’ referring to the pipes used first by the Chinese to smoke the hallucinogenic substances introduced by the English in the Opium Wars as a way to weaken the Chinese Empire that was cheaper than actual warfare. Fortunately, as Andrew was our founder’s grandson, and could make the parts using nothing but his bare hands, the faculty didn’t complain too much. The obnoxious gits could crow to the Gazette that the grandson of Charles Algernon Parsons was working hard on the University’s projects. As long as the sponsors would support him, they didn’t care whether it was a better mousetrap or a clockwork man capable of destroying Mankind. As it turned out, it was neither. The Beast of Algernon was quite simply the best form of land transport ever made. It could travel on dry land, mud, ice, and on one occasion, a river. It was first used in our expedition searching for a batty bunch of American scientists who had managed to lose themselves in Africa.

Andrew, bless him, had never even stoked up its furnace until the day that Wadcroft came up with the wonderful idea to give the thing a bit of a spin. Andrew had made his calculations. They were sound. The machine would work. Another little thing that had escaped Andrew was that, having brought it in piece by piece, it would not fit through the doors. Or maybe Andrew never intended it to leave his workshop. It was there for no other reason than to be itself.

Fortunately, getting the Beast out of its lair was quite easy. Its impressive armour and its powerful steam turbines allowed it to exit with ease, door or no door. Fortunately, none of the walls through which it made its escape were load-bearing, and the repair crews, with an eye to the future, installed a very practical set of hangar doors in their place.

“So, Andrew,” said Wadcroft, “How does one drive this machine?”

The Beast had come to a standstill in one of the fields surrounding the University. At that time, it was used by the Chair of Homoeopathy, and the Beast had rolled over most of their cultures of things that looked like diseases. Luckily, since their medicines’ potency increases, the less of the original substance is in them, that did not matter much.

“By operating the controls,” said Andrew.

For sheer thinking power, I can’t imagine anyone being smarter than Andrew. There’s a few mathematicians that could give him a run for his money, but to give you an idea, there is only one blueprint of the Beast. Andrew made it because they go with machines, nd as everything was correct, he didn’t need to revise it. It’s in one of the University vaults, and Andrew never even looks at it. Within Andrew’s head, there is another Beast, and he can recall every single rivet on it. As long as he works on his own, that’s not a problem. But as soon as he has to explain something, he’s hopeless. It isn’t that he won’t answer. I’ve seen plenty of so-called scientists who’ll sit on their inventions, claiming that nobody would understand it, normally hiding the fact that they’re rubbish. But not Andrew. You can ask him anything, and he’ll answer your question exactly. And that’s the problem that was staring Wadcroft in the face.

“Yes, I understand that, but could you tell me what all these controls do?”

“Yes,” said Andrew. He pointed at two massive handles next to his seat. “These handles set the ratio between the revolutions of the turbines and the movement of the tracks. Steam pressure is regulated with these controls. This dial regulates the power differential between turbine one and two. This set of controls sets the timing between the various strokes of the secondary propulsion units…”

Wadcroft’s face was a picture, and I had to try hard not to burst out laughing. He was trying with all his might to remember what Andrew told him. He pointed at a large ring pull hanging from the ceiling.

“What does that one do?”

“It raises awareness of the vehicle’s position.”

“I see,” said Wadcroft. He paused a moment. “How?”

Andrew reached up and pulled the ring. A very, very loud whistle blew, raising even the History students from their eternal slumber. Wadcroft gave Andrew a blank stare.

“The steam whistle.”

“Yes, Professor.”

Wadcroft looked at Andrew, who looked back at him with the calm expression he always has on his face, simply waiting for the next question, completely oblivious to the look in Wadcroft’s eyes, which was one of weary patience, born from the knowledge that getting angry with Andrew was no use at all.

“How long would it take someone to learn how to drive this thing?”

Andrew’s eyebrows knotted up in a deep frown. Underneath his beard his lips were moving. He nodded to himself.

“I can describe all the controls on the vehicle in eighteen minutes and thirty seconds.”

Wadcroft took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes. I stepped forward. Time for a bit of the woman’s touch. “Andrew, is there anyone but you who knows how to drive this Beast?”

“I have not explained it to anyone,” said Andrew.

“Right. Would you like to join us on our expedition? Drive your Beast for us?”

“No, Professor Enderby. I would much prefer to stay in my workshop. I have many projects.”

“But this would allow you to see if your machine actually works!”

“I already know that,” said Andrew. “I have checked all my calculations.”

“Twice?” I said.

“No. Once.”

“Then how can you be sure that you checked them properly?”

“The numbers on the first calculation were identical to those on the second calculation.”

“But…” Here I felt Wadcroft’s hand on my shoulder.

“Andrew, you are on the expedition. Please go and pack the things you’ll need. Ask Miss Felicia to help you pack.”

“As you wish, Professor.” Andrew turned a few valves and the machine felt like it was resting. He climbed out of the hatch and walked through the holes in the wall.

“Well,” I said, “It never hurts to have another pair of strong hands.”

That afternoon, the dirigible Boreas made its appearance above the bell tower of Algernon university. Captain Gaskin had been given to understand that we would be packing some twenty-two metric tons of equipment. After some quick conversations with his navigator, he had told us that Boreas was up to the job, with the proviso that once the Beast was unloaded, Boreas would go up like a cork, and not come down again until adjustments could be made. This meant that we would travel the last few yards inside the Beast, in a vertical direction. This was put to Andrew, who made some mental calculations, then gave a brief nod.

There is something almost magical about a dirigible, the way such an enormous object simply hangs in the air, without anything to support it. We humans are conditioned to equate “Large” with “Heavy”, and air, being invisible, we think to be lighter than anything. It takes a bit of mental gymnastics to realise that air is actually pretty damn heavy, and that a hydrogen-filled airship is, by volume, lighter than the air it floats in. I can easily explain the calculations to a classroom of students, but something in the ancestral hunter-gatherer hindbrain will still think that this is impossible. Part of any observer that afternoon simply knew that the massive object above Algernon University’s bell tower would crash to the ground, taking out most of the buildings. With most of its envelopes pumped empty, the Boreas had a slightly hungry look as it lowered itself to the field where the Beast waited. Cables dropped down from Boreas’ cargo bay, were attached to the Beast, and then Boreas settled on top of it like a hen on an egg. With a hiss of gas through the pipes, hydrogen was let into the envelopes, an additional few tons of ballast were released, and Boreas rose slowly into the air, held in place only by a pair of heavy manila cables, some ten feet above ground. We all climbed up the ladder, and more hydrogen was pumped into the envelopes. Boreas’ propellers started to turn, and majestically, a one-hundred and twenty yards long flying machine pivoted on the spot, aiming to the South-east. Boreas’ steam engines roared, and at a good speed of fifty knots, with a favourable tail-wind, we set off for Africa.

The dirigible Boreas, named after the Greek god of the North Wind, was purpose-built by Miskatonic University for supporting scientific expeditions in inhospitable places. It had room on board for about two dozen scientists, as many aeronauts, and a lot of their gear. Like all dirigibles, it looked like a giant floating cigar. I’m still waiting for one that uses red lights to make one end glow now and then, but the engineers who build these things are a dry, humourless bunch of gits who wouldn’t see the point. Or perhaps the mere idea of the thing being on fire gives them the shudders. I suppose, with hydrogen being the most flammable gas in existence, they have a point there. There were compartments inside the hull as well: A modest infirmary, a records chamber, a few storerooms, an arsenal, and the galley. All the cooking equipment was fitted out to use steam produced by the steam engine that powered the main propeller. From the central space, claustrophobically small tubes led to the wing gondolas, and I pitied the poor sods who had to crawl through those tubes to keep the drive shafts greased.

Due to the danger in allowing open flames near a massive ball of hydrogen, smoking was not allowed anywhere on board, much to Wadcroft’s annoyance, and all the gas lamps on board were a variation on the design of Davy’s mining lamp. We were led to our cabins for the trip. I shared mine with young Miss Tennant, Wadcroft shared with Andrew. Once we’d settled in, and metaphorically powdered our noses, we went to the mess for a late dinner of sandwiches and soup, and then Miss Tennant and I grabbed gin-and-tonics (quinine being essential to jungle survival, you know, and gin being essential to enjoying life), sat down in comfortable seats, and looked out of the windows at the English Channel. We were travelling at an altitude of a few thousand feet, and we could see several ships, small as a child’s toy. Wadcroft was having a vitally important discussion with the captain, and Andrew was admiring one of the engines, and probably redesigning it on the spot.

As we were following the ships far below, we were joined by an American gentleman, who greeted us with a polite smile and a nod of the head.

“Good evening ladies,” he said. “I assume you are Professor Enderby and miss Alexandra Tennant?”

“You have the advantage of me, Sir,” I said.

“I tend to,” said the man. “Have the advantage of people, I mean. That is why I am on board this expedition. I am in acquisition and procurement.”

Miss Tennant’s cool eyes turned to me. “He looks like a James to me. A good solid name. Biblical. The third Apostle of Jesus after Peter and Andrew.” She looked back to the sea and sipped her drink. “He got his head cut off by King Herod.”

“Forgive me my rudeness,” said the man. “By an amazing coincidence, you are right. My name is James Riley. I’m an attache to Miskatonic University. If there’s anything you ladies want, I can probably get it for you.”

“At a price?” said Miss Tennant.

“Of course not,” said Riley. He walked over to the drinks cabinet and poured himself a Bourbon. “You are doing our University a great service. We may be many things, but stingy we ain’t. Whatever I can get for you, is yours.”

“And what sort of things can you get for us, Mr. Riley?” I said.

Riley raised his glass first to me, then to Miss Tennant. “Anything, Professor. Anything at all. Given the circumstances, I very much doubt any request of mine would be turned down. Oranges from China. Finest silks. The latest fashions straight from Paris.” Riley grinned at Miss Tennant. “The best sniper rifle money can buy.”

“I already have that,” said Miss Tennant. “Father did not hold with using second-rate equipment.”

“I could get you the Remington 900P,” said Riley. “I know someone in the Khartoum regiment who used to use it before they promoted him away to a desk job.”

“I have tried it,” said Miss Tennant. “It is almost a pound heavier than my current rifle and only has fifty yards more range. It’s also the ugliest rifle I’ve ever laid eyes on.”

“As for me,” I said, “Haven’t needed any fancy knickers since poor Gerald got it. Come to think of it, didn’t have much use for them when he was still alive either. Can’t think of anyone I’d show them to.”

“Ah,” said Riley. “But showing them is not the point. I can tell when a lady has nice underwear on, even if she’s dressed from top to toe. She knows she is wearing it, and that shows in her confidence.”

“Pray tell,” said Miss Tennant, ice in a voice that hadn’t been overly friendly to begin with. “What am I wearing under these clothes?”

Riley bent forward, and made a show of slowly examining Miss Tennant.

“Practical underwear. No frills. You don’t need to prop up your confidence, Ma’am. You have your Mauser rifle, and the skills to use it. You know in the back of your head that if anyone don’t give the proper respect, you can put a bullet through their brain.” He grinned. “Am I right?”

Miss Tennant leaned back in her chair, smiling, eyes closed, as if Mr. James Riley of Miskatonic University had just disappeared like a ghost.

“You are half right.”

There’s only so much to see about the English Channel rolling away underneath you, and once it gets dark, even with the moonlight, it gets old pretty quickly. So Miss Tennant and I made our excuses and retired. Our cabin was small, but comfortable. For all we knew we could be on one of those sleeper trains that the Europeans like so much. It had a tiny wash basin with a mirror. The place was lit, like every place on board, with tiny bright gas lights. We changed into our pyjamas, and got ready for the night. As I stepped into bed with my worn-out copy of Ulysses, the lower bed as was the privilege of the eldest, Miss Tennant bent down and touched her toes. Then, she planted her hands firmly on the floor and raised her feet into the air. She lowered herself until her forehead touched the carpet, then pushed herself up again.


Miss Tennant laughed. “Mother always said that there is something very wrong with a girl who can’t at least touch her toes.”

She lowered herself again, and without any hint that what she was doing might be difficult, pushed herself up again.

“I can’t even see my toes,” I said. “Not with my generous personality in the way.”

Miss Tennant snorted with laughter, but disappointingly didn’t collapse in a little heap. She kept up her acrobatics in a steady rhythm. I put down my book.

“You knew that man’s name didn’t you?”



“Read it on the log when I signed in,” said Miss Tennant. She kept up her press-ups. “He was the last name on the list before ours.”

“You don’t like him, do you?”

Miss Tennant lowered herself, pushed herself up again, and said nothing. Her expression was cool, her emotions hidden away. To tell you the truth, I had doubts of my own about Mr. James Riley. I’d met men like him, in remote corners of the world, before I met Gerald. They would give you things, out of the kindness of their own hearts, and ask for nothing in return. Bollocks, I say! They might not ask for anything now, but once you’d come to rely on their generosity, they damn well would. Would you tell them to get stuffed if it meant having to wait in some Godless place for a week? Having to go hungry for a few days? Not knowing how you were going to get back to civilised places? Thank God I’ve never had to find out what would have bought me. But everybody has their limits. Miss Alexandra Tennant was clearly nothing if not fiercely independent, and it would take more than a nice rifle and a few well-crafted compliments to take that away from her.

She continued her exercises. The legs of her pyjamas had slid down, and I could see strong calf muscles, and a skin marked by many tiny scars, presumably from walking through thorny bushes, and older ones where she’d pulled off leeches before she’d learnt simply to let them finish and drop off. She showed no sign of stopping, and since I wouldn’t get a wink until she did, I decided I might as well take some air.

“There isn’t a lavatory in here, is there?”

Miss Tennant pointed her toe at the door. “It’s at the end of the corridor.”

“Good. I’ll go and tell the French what I think of them.”

“We are still over the Channel,” Miss Tennant pointed out.

“Well, then they’ll have to do without my opinion, can’t hold it up just for their benefit. Pardon me?”

Miss Tennant flipped to her feet, then flipped over again and resumed her press-ups. I shook my head at her and and walked into the corridor. Of course, I walked the wrong way first, not towards the bow, but astern, where the Beast of Algernon was hanging, securely fastened with steel chains. The cargo hatch had been left open because the Beast didn’t quite fit the cargo bay. If I really had wanted to relieve myself upon the French, then this would have been the place for it, but the last Anglo-French war was ages ago, and we’ve forgiven them for it, leaving only the crime of being French, which I’m afraid is unforgivable.

I opened the heavy door, to have a look at the machine that would be our home away from home for several months, like the carts of the Romani travelling people. A wise explorer does not call them Gypsies, because although there are several groups among them who use the term themselves, it’s an exonym used mostly by the English, and not always in a friendly way. As I opened the heavy steel door, a blast of wind greeted me. The dark shape hung with its tracks in the air. I half imagined I could hear noises coming from within. Probably Andrew had found a new way to improve the efficiency of the steam turbines by a few more percent, and was making much needed changes. I stepped round to the gangplank the airmen had put up to it, to have a talk with him. Andrew is one of those people whose sheer genius with all things metal has come at the price of being completely unable to work with people. He can look at a face, and be totally oblivious as to whether the person is happy or sad. He does not understand the concept of wishing people harm, which, given his size, is a blessing.

I walked up the gangplank, and looked down. I simply had to laugh, as Andrew was on one of the bunk beds, fast asleep, snoring with a noise rivalling that of the engines.

“Bless you, Andrew,” I said, and turned round.

I stopped dead. I definitely remembered hearing metallic noises. Andrew, despite appearances, is not made of metal. What, then, had been the noise? I closed my eyes, listening. My eyes opened wide. There it was again! Someone was banging bits of metal together. I looked in the direction of the sound, and saw a dark figure at one of the chains, with a hammer and chisel, no doubt planning to drop our vehicle into the Channel. He either didn’t know or didn’t care that Andrew was on board. Well, I wasn’t about to let some bastard get away with that. I ran down the gangplank, too stoked to worry about the sheer drop below, and ran round the Beast, towards the chain.

“Hey you!” I shouted, “Stop that you bastard, there’s someone in there!”

The man, a shifty little so-and-so, looked up, and saw me barreling down on him. I probably outweighed him two to one, so he decided to continue his evening somewhere else. He dropped his tools and ran the other way round the Beast.


Andrew had already woken up from my yelling. I do have a healthy pair of lungs if I say so myself. His head appeared out of the hatch, and he jumped up and walked down the gangplank. Our little metalworker friend was now caught between me and Andrew, who was looking at him with a confused frown on his face. There was only one way for the little man to go, and he took it. He took as much of a run-up as he could, and leaped on top of the Beast. At least, that was the plan. He misjudged his jump, scrabbled frantically at the smooth armour plate for purchase, slid down, and fell into the night with a scream I would rather not remember. Andrew and I looked down. There was nothing to see, and the wind thankfully made it impossible to hear.

“Good God,” I said. “I just wanted to talk to the bugger. I didn’t want him to die.”

“He is alive, Professor.”


“We are travelling at an altitude of one thousand metres. It will take him twenty seconds to reach the sea.”

I stared blankly at Andrew.

He gave a little nod. “Now, he is dead.”

Captain Gaskin, as soon as he heard the news, called all hands on deck, and went through the entire roll. As it happened, nobody was missing, and nobody was able to recognise the poor sod from my description. That wasn’t surprising, as I’d only seen him for a few moments. Gaskin was not pleased, and paced back and forth in front of the men, before dismissing them with a handwave.

“A god-damned stowaway. On my airship, ladies and gentlemen. How the hell did that little rat get on board? Did you check that contraption of yours before getting it on board? Well did you?”

Andrew gave a severe nod. “I was on the vehicle when it was raised into the cargo hold. There was nobody inside, and I was on top.”

Captain Gaskin walked up to Andrew. “Are you really damn sure about that? Is there no place in that thing where a man could hide?”

Andrew considered a moment. “The right-hand side toolbox is large enough for a man his size to hide in. But I took a wrench from it, and the man was not there. There are no other places large enough.”

Gaskin made an angry noise, and started pacing again. “Then how did he get on board?”

“Perhaps a spirit took him,” said Wadcroft. “It has been known to happen.”

“Very funny, Professor. But I don’t see any cause for humour. Somebody wants this expedition to fail, Professor. If he’d dropped that twenty two point five tons of metal of yours off the ship, do you realise what would have happened? We’d have gone up like a damned rocket, when we’re already at high pressure altitude. The emergency exhausts cannot cope with a pressure differential that large. The envelopes would have ruptured, and we’d be in a cloud of hydrogen. We’d have had to shut down all the lights in seconds, Professor. If we hadn’t, if only one damned light kept burning, we’d be a ball of flame three thousand feet above sea level. We’d all have burnt to death on the way down. I do not find that situation one in which humor is appropriate, Professor.” Gaskin glared at us. “And who says there ain’t no traitors left on board? Who knows who they are? No, ladies and gentlemen, I do not see the humorous side of this at all.”

Next: Port Said by night

Copyright: © 2014 Menno Willemse. All rights reserved.


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