* * * *
“How far now?” Hercules Quicksilver asked the pilot as he stared out of the glass cockpit at the front of the dirigible’s gondola.
“Eight miles, sir,” the young woman at the flight controls replied, peering resolutely ahead through her tinted goggles at the lightening landscape below.
“Dawn’s here. Damn!” Hercules cursed.
The plan had been to come in over the drop site just before dawn, using the twilight to mask their arrival. Travelling on board a purloined Nazi airship would only get them so far. Up close, chances were that they would soon be found out.
Hercules adjusted the officer’s jacket he was wearing. It felt strange to be got up like one of the enemy. As an agent of the crown, he didn’t often find himself in uniform. The stiff jacket, the iron eagle pin and the swastika-emblazoned armband lent him an unmistakeable feeling of efficiency and authority. He wondered if it had the same effect on the German military personnel, and supposed it did.
The problem was that the wind had been against them as they crossed the Eifel range. Then they had run into a squall that had forced them off course and added precious minutes to their journey time.
He turned his attention from his jackboots and the stiff, grey-coloured cap in his hands to the steadily brightening view beyond the cockpit once more.
“What’s that?” he asked, leaning forward to get a better look at the jagged shadow looming ahead of them on the horizon.
“Er, we have incoming, sir,” the pilot suddenly announced, her voice loud over the drone of the aero-engines.
Hercules followed her gaze out of the glass bubble of the cockpit. A flock of black shapes, eight in all, were rising from the still-dark turrets of a crumbling castle, anonymous silhouettes against the salmon pink sky.
“But they’re only birds,” Hercules said.
The flapping forms immediately began to move towards them. As the gondola and the flock closed on one another, however, he could see that they were very large birds and even caught the glint of sunlight on their machined parts.
“With all due respect, sir, they’re not just birds. They’re weaponised cyber-eagles. We’ve been found out.”
“Damn!” Hercules cursed.
“Your orders, sir?” the pilot said desperately, hands on the zeppelin’s control levers, body tensed, ready for action.
Hercules watched as the cyber-eagles continued to close on the airship with a ruthless, unnatural determination. “Evasive action – now!”
The pilot pulled back on a control lever. The pitch of the port-side aero-engine dropped perceptibly and the airship rolled sideways.
The approaching birds wheeled and turned in response, matching the manoeuvre.
The pilot pushed forward on another lever and the nose of the airship dipped sharply towards the indiscernible trees, hills and structures that were just shadows against the still-dark ground below. Hercules grabbed hold of a railing and hung on, bracing his legs.
With a screeching cry that could be heard even over the scream of the engines, as they were pushed to their utmost limit, the eagles turned again – and struck.
Folding back their wings, the cyber-eagles dived at the dirigible. And then, as they came within reach of the reinforced aluminium and canvas outer skin, they spread wide their wings again, the feathered pinions acting as natural air-brakes, swinging their talons forward as they did so. Brass-tipped points as sharp as surgical instruments tore at the thinly-armoured surface of the zeppelin. Stabbing steel beaks puncturing the sheet steel as the birds’ dreadful claws ripped their way through, like the savage Stymphalian birds of myth.
Impotent inside the gondola slung beneath the massive gas balloon, there was nothing Hercules could do but hang on for dear life as the cabin began to tilt along its horizontal axis. They were going down.
There was only one thing for it now.
Clinging onto whatever handholds he could find, Hercules began drag himself back up through the cabin. Secure in its cradle at the rear of the gondola, the large, coffin-like cryogenic pod rattled and jolted as the pilot jinked the craft left and right in an attempt to counter the effects of the eagles’ assault.
The pod hummed, drawing power from a coupling with the airship’s own steam-furnace to ensure its occupant remained on ice. Beneath the ice-frosted glass panel in the front of the capsule Dr Henry Jekyll slept, while all about him was chaos and confusion.
The pod’s thermostatic controls were sunk into a recess on its hinged edge. It wasn’t hard to work out how to activate them. At Hercules’ interference, cryogenic gas began to vent through an outlet in the side of the pod, filling the cabin with ethereal vapour.
“Sir, what do you think you’re doing?” the pilot called back, a look of horror on her fine-as-porcelain features.
“You just worry about getting us down in one piece!” Hercules shouted back.
The airship lurched again, Hercules losing his grip on the slippery, frost-rimed capsule. The angry screeching of their avian attackers rang through the gondola again as the pilot physically fought to keep control of the craft.
Exerting himself, Hercules grabbed hold of a frozen length of piping, wincing as the cold of the metal burnt the soft flesh of his palm, and set to work on the pod’s control panel again regardless.
The regular ping of a chime sounded from somewhere inside the pod and the needles on the ice-rimed dials at the side of the device began to move, detecting a change of temperature within.
“Sir!” the pilot shouted. “Our orders were to deliver the package to the target before defrosting.”
“And if I don’t defrost the good doctor now, and we crash, he may well die!” Hercules bellowed back over the protestations of the airship’s engines.
With a depressurising pop, the container’s seal was broken and the lid levered upwards, automatic systems opening the front of the coffin-like chamber. There lay the slight form of Dr Henry Jekyll, his naked skin prickled with ice crystals.
He looked dead. Hercules studied the body critically for a moment. Had he indeed been too hasty? Rather than revive the doctor, had he in fact killed him?
A wisp of icy-mist suddenly escaped the man’s motionless lips and Hercules saw his chest rise and fall, almost imperceptibly.
He let out his own pent-up breath in a relieved sigh. Doctor Jekyll was alive! Now Hercules just had to keep him that way.
The cabin rocked again and this time, for a split second, Hercules’ stomach leapt into his mouth, as if he had gone into free-fall. The portside engine spluttered and suddenly died.
“We’re going down, sir!” the pilot cried.
“Tell me something I don’t know,” Hercules muttered.
The zeppelin had gone into an uncontrollable spin, the centrifugal force created by the one remaining over-compensating engine whirling the dirigible around with frightening force.
Jekyll still lay motionless in the coffin-like cryogenic pod.
“We have to bail out while we still can, sir!”
Suddenly abandoning the controls, she ran for the exit hatch, only hesitating to pull on one of the two parachutes that hung from hooks beside the cabin door.
Clipping the pack tight across her chest, the pilot opened the door. Wind howled into the gondola, louder than the scream of the starboard engine.
Hercules looked from the pilot and the crashing cabin door to Jekyll’s still half-frozen form. He didn’t have time to wait for the thaw to finish.
Reaching into the pod he tried to move the ice-stiff body but it wouldn’t budge. The doctor’s limbs were locked and there was nothing Hercules could do to manoeuvre the man out of the restraints in which he was secured, other than to break all four of his limbs.
“Come on, sir! There isn’t time, and the parachute won’t take the weight of two!”
It might, Hercules thought, but there was no way he could manhandle Jekyll as things stood. Despite his selfless actions, it had all been for naught. The zeppelin was going down and all he could do was try to save himself and then, if he managed that, try to come up with an alternative strategy once he was safely on the ground.
No! That was unacceptable. There had to be another way.
“Stop!” he shouted after the pilot. “There must be a way we can land this thing!” But it was no good; the pilot had made her decision.
His curses carried away by the wind howling through the cockpit, whipping the ethereal nitrogen mist away with it, Hercules scrambled for the door as the pilot disappeared through the hatch, arms and legs splayed, ready to be caught by the wind and pulled clear of the whirling vessel, the parachute ripcord clenched tightly in one hand.
The airship continued to spin, the note of the whirling engine rising in pitch with every dizzying rotation. Hercules had no idea how high up they were, or how close to the ground, only that every second counted.
Pulling on the parachute pack, his cold-numbed hands struggling to buckle the harness across his chest, he struggled against the tilting, dizzying flight of the zeppelin, trying to make his way back to the pilot’s position. Surely he could do something to land this thing.
The craft lurched violently, and suddenly Hercules was no longer in contact with the floor. He tumbled backwards unable to stop himself and then suddenly there was the exit hatch behind him. As he fell through it, he eyes fell on the cryo-pod in time to see the doctor’s ice-flecked eyelashes flicker open.
And then he was sailing out of the cabin, screaming in rage as he was forced to leave Jekyll to his fate.
* * * *