Robert Appleton

Prehistoric Clock

Chapter 1

Red Fire, White Steam, Blue Ocean

1908. Somewhere over the English Channel…

Verity collapsed her brass telescope and winced as the pyre of yet another British airship blazed on the rough waves. The odds of surviving this suicidal folly dwindled with each crimson flash. She shielded her face from the sting of lateral rain. All around her, metal warped and canvas groaned as the storm gathered fury. What she wouldn’t give to be back in Angola right now, even in that godforsaken heat she was famous for griping about. Anywhere but here! Gusts battered the Empress Matilda’s bullet-shaped, hydrogen-filled envelopes like a flurry of fists, swinging the deck and veering the airship away from the line of buoys below. Verity lurched against the taffrail, bit her tongue.

“Tangeni,” she yelled for’ard through the pain.

Her stoic coxswain spun round. “Yes, Eembu?”

“Commence separation. Have Mbenga’s team man the upper deck for you. Burton and Kwame can steer. Have Kibo meet me in the bell house.” She clung to her sou’wester’s chin strap with pruned fingers, and grinned bitterly. “It’s time to divorce the Empress.”

Tangeni grimaced at their private joke, baring his too-many white teeth, and then shook his head. “English women crazier than English men. ”

“Oh, you haven’t seen the half of it yet.”

He snatched up the megaphone and bellowed orders to the crew. His oversized silver-blue slicker made him look like a fat sea lion leaning over the brass railing-a far cry from his hunting days in the wilds of Namibia.

A lull in the wind allowed her to dash safely to him across the poop deck. After placing her hands on his shoulders, they touched foreheads-perhaps for the last time. Her mission, they both knew, was now a halfpenny short of impossible. For years Tangeni had looked forward to seeing England for the first time. Only six miles shy, he would probably never be closer than he was right now.

The image of Captain Naismith hanging over the side amidships, burning to death in the steam jet from a ruptured boiler below as he reached for those poor drowning sailors, seized her heart. That was the moment she’d inherited this responsibility, this…countdown to oblivion.

“ Enda nawa, Tangeni,” she said. Regret ached through her shivering frame.

“Goodbye, Eembu. ”

As she hurried down the iron steps to the quarterdeck he called after her, “When rain stops, I buy us ice creams in Piccadilly.”

The awful weight of finality squeezed the air from her lungs. Salutes from Reba and Philomena, the two statuesque Kenyan girls who maintained the balloons’ canvas and lines, steeled her resolve, quickened her descent to B-deck. This crew was so far from home on a mission so alien to their lives in Africa, she at least owed it to them to give her very best, to reward their faith in English ingenuity. The admiralty’s emergency telegram had snatched away their promised vacation and sped up their transfer to the London fleet-rotten enough circumstances for her first command without the threat of imminent death.


At all costs? Those callous words hammered home as Verity ran to the square bell house in the centre of B deck, her heavy boots thumping across the wooden floor, then clanging on the riveted iron plates upon which the diving bell stood. At all costs? Granted, a rupture in the Dover-Calais petroleum pipeline would grind British industries to a halt for days, possibly weeks until it was repaired, but was that really more important than the lives of several good Gannet crews? Countless British Air Corps personnel had already drowned or been blown to bits tonight whilst trying to recover and defuse those enemy explosives safely aboard British vessels. The storm was simply too volatile, the waves too punishing for that kind of retrieval.

She had no choice but to take the fight to the sea bed.


She remembered the words in her sister Bernie’s final telegram from Angola, the last words she’d ever written before the rebel attack. “Come join me, sis. You will love it here, I promise.” And in the top corner of the telegram, the ubiquitous British Steam Age motto stamped by the authorities, “Ambition Soars. The World Is Yours.”

Bernie had believed utterly in the empire, and Father had given a proud, heartbreaking eulogy at her funeral. If those two people she’d always looked up to in her life reckoned the flag was worth dying for, if they measured humanity’s progress with such sacrifice, who was Verity to argue? This was a vital mission. It was her chance to prove her worth to the cause.

No pressure, Verity. She eyed the diving bell’s dull, copper curvature behind the square storehouse. Literally, no pressure. Enjoy it while it lasts.

Sea spray whipped through open seams all around as crewmen piled up from C-deck to help rotate the iron capstans fore and aft, cranking A-deck up to the clasps’ tensile limits. As soon as the Empress ’s hull touched water, A-deck would lift free and Tangeni would try to fly it home through the storm, leaving the remainder of the vessel, a ship in its own right, to anchor to the buoy line and complete the mission. But so many things could go wrong with an uncoupling in calm weather, let alone in such an hellacious brew.

“ Eembu, give me your hand,” Kibo urged as he clung to the sturdy bell house rail. She gripped his arm just as the Empress thumped bow-first into the sea. The impact threw her against his broad shoulder, winding her. The capstan teams were floored like ten pins.

“Tell them to…hold steady…crank on my mark,” Verity struggled between gasps. Kibo relayed her commands, held her while she doubled up to recover. Christ, of all the times to be winded…in the run-up to a crucial dive, when air meant everything.

The Empress listed dangerously to port. Howling gusts, yells and the sound of groaning metal filled B-deck. “Stop engine,” she said. Now Tangeni had solo propulsion as well as lift-A-deck’s propellers hummed faintly astern, above her. The vessel righted and she screamed to the signalman coordinating the two teams, “Lift her free!”

The heavy, zip-like clak-clak-clak of the rotating capstans quickened her pulse. She watched the signalman’s tongue wag nervously in rhythm between his tight lips. A deafening clatter from every direction made her cover her ears. The iron clasps had uncoupled. When she looked up, the ceiling was alight. The dirigible banked away above, tilted to forty-five degrees by the strong wind, its propellers spitting streams of rain behind it.

The full weight of the storm heaped upon exposed B-deck.

“Kibo-” she now had to shout again through the fury, “-move those men from the capstans to the bell winch. As soon as I’m in, have them lift me over the side. You remember the drill?”

“Yes, Eembu. The captain went underwater plenty in the Indian Ocean. I oversaw all his dives.”

“Good man. When I’m down there, you’re captain here.”

The big man’s nose flared and his eyes bulged. He puffed his cheeks, saluted and then hurried aft, his familiar splay feet holding an amazingly straight line given the ship’s tilt. Of all the officers on board, Verity had dealt with Kibo the least, as his duties tended to confine him to the steam engine rooms. His time spent maintaining and driving steam-powered automobile racers on the European circuits had inspired his brilliance in the ship’s engine room. He had to dress the smartest-he wore a waistcoat at all times-and his subordinates had to be drilled to a level of efficiency unsurpassed in the fleet. Anything less and he would launch into his racing diatribes, and one might be forgiven for thinking he’d not only designed those cars, but invented steam locomotion as well.

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