The airship Antaeus floats like a leviathan above the desert, the day before having cast a memorable vista as it flew over the pyramids near Cairo, and now appears like a huge fish in a tropical shoal over fine sand sea floor. Harawa just appearing on the horizon, the airship precedes the column of steam powered armored cars, camels carrying riders and baggage and horse drawn wagons of the latest scientific expedition. The Antaeus approaches a line of stone outcroppings.
Major Oldrich, late of the Prussian Army, is the engineer on board. He is monitoring the gauges, adjusting the pressures, and eyeballing linkages for the engines, when he hears one of the starboard stanchions snap. A few seconds later he hears the cry “Ambush! Ambush!” First there is the cracking of rifle fire, and then the unmistakable report of a cannon.
Now comes the ear ripping sound of the steam Gatling in the nose spraying rounds, and the poom, poom of the cheek 20 mm cannon engaging. The speaking tube rattles, and he hears the Captain “Oldrich, we need steam and lift.”
“Acknowledged, Sir!” he reports, and opens the dampers. More coal later, he decides, the helium tanks must be opened. As he is cranking open the valves he hears the ominous echo of solid shot tearing through the fore, and the spatter of small arms all along the gondola.
“Oldrich!” the speaking tube squeeks, “Cells one and two have been holed! We need to bring up the nose!”
The Major runs back and responds “If I swivel the gambol engine to level her, we will lose altitude faster, Sir!”
“Yessir! Fireman Smoot! More coal damn you!”
All this in a few seconds time, all done with no time to think. No one made the comment that this was just a scientific mission, the ship was just a sloop with minimal armaments, that she did not have any armor to speak of, or that she was flying with a skeleton crew. None of this made any difference to the petty warlord incensed that he was overlooked for the “tax” he demanded to allow passage through his territory, nor did it have any effect on the company of modern soldiers who swept forward to eradicate his sovereignty.
A cannon round pierces the keel of the Antaeus, passes inches over the left shoulder of Major Oldrich, and impacts the top of the main boiler, where it spalls out a semi-sphere of iron. Oldrich sees this, hears the tick ticking of failing metal, and turns in terror. He grabs Smoot by the arm and pulls him with him, screaming “Boiler! Boiler!” as he runs for the bridge. He goes eight, maybe ten, steps before the pressurized tank explodes and tears the little aircraft in half. The rear end of the sloop devolves into a ball of fire while the front half plows at forty-five degrees into the soft sand below. The pilot, co-pilot and two man steam Gatling crew are killed instantly. Young Smoot survives with every limb broken, and Oldrich is torn and burnt.
The cheek gunners, their perches high up on the gondola, continue to fire despite their stunning from crash, the proud Antaeus fights on from her very ruins. The military escort, awash in fury, overrun the attackers and dispatch them brutally. The scientists and soldiers at the research site reach the skirmish grounds in fifty minutes, among them is the ingenious Physician and Mechanics expert Dr. Ardeth B. Thothmaatre who quickly locates and treats Major Oldrich, stabilizing him and returning him to his wheeled laboratory where, over the next four months, he maintains the soldier’s life and rebuilds his broken body. A fortuitous intersection of individuals, Oldrich becomes the perfect subject for the innovative Doctor. Some men would never consent to becoming part human, part device. Most physicians would never consider certain extraordinary efforts reasonable. But Doctor Thothmaatre, employs his unique and wondrous Phlogiston Coil (being a winding of tubes containing two kinds of gases, one of which has a negative mass) and is able to provide power to a clockwork heart and analog liver for the devastated Prussian.
Fortunately not a man afflicted with any degree of vanity the Major now has a startling appearance, festooned with wires to connect severed nerves as well as power the erectile rubber muscle replacements (another Dr T. invention, requiring a small galvanic potential to operate) and hold together his extremities. Our own Glaubrius Valeska, the Major’s patron and the man most responsible for sending him to Egypt, was shocked nigh unto fainting when he saw his friend again at their first meeting after the fact on the floating city of Alnilam.
As to those wondering what became of the ambushed expedition, from his sickbed the major, the ranking military officer after all the casualties are sorted out, demands the work go on. And is it would happen, there is nothing to be found. What had promised to be a resource of ancient Deshret’s wisdom and technology turns out to be collapsed ruins, texts undecipherable due to damage from pillage by Ptolomies and Romans, and sand.
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