A ‘Kaiseradler’ story by Duncan Meredyth
The airship came down like a wounded whale, shearing roofing shingles and trusses off several houses and flattening a wooden storehouse, its centrally positioned steam engine crashing through wooden pillars like cannon shot through brittle bushes. The damaged hull, pierced and perforated by 75 millimetre-shots and harpoons, broke apart completely and folded. Small fires flared while the two pursuing rigid airships, sleek cylinders build for speed and firepower, started their descent. The town of Colmar, jewel of Alsace-Lorraine, awoke to life in the midst of night this January 21st, 1905.
Fritz David Lange, retired Major of the 2nd Prussian Hussars Regiment and operative in the late Bismarck’s secret service, managed to secure a horse from the damaged craft’s stable that had survived the crash landing unscathed, mounted, and threw back a last glance. The airship had been one of the earlier military models, intended to quickly carry soldiers and horses to wherever they were needed, powered by a single steam engine. Not one of the legendary twin carriers of the ‘Kaiseradler’ class of course, that could take a complete compagnie of airborne cavalry and operate independently for weeks – David had served on one of those for more than six years himself – but she had been a trusty vessel that had weathered much in the past years. It was a shame to end like this, shot down by friendly troops on a mission that to the current government was, he had to admit, pure treason.
While the crew released the other horses – or put down those too injured – and began to scatter as ordered, David put his spurs to his steed and hurried to create distance. A thin coat of snow covered the streets, and as soon as he had left the crashed ship’s surroundings and the aroused commotion behind, he could not help feeling the coldness of the night air that smelled of more snow to come. He paused to orientate himself, using the tips of the great cathedral’s towers he could just glimpse over the white-dusted roofs as a reference point, then urged his mount to a trot again. He soon found what he had already spotted from the air: an old but desolate looking church at the brink of a newly founded industrial area, with two chimneys attached bellowing trails of dark smoke into the night sky. The seemingly abandoned building laying amidst warehouses and several manufactures was dark from the outside, yet the rhythmic throbbing of machines could be heard through the walls.
David dismounted and hammered against the bronze-plated church door. Only some silver strands in his otherwise black hair betrayed that he already was in his early fifties. He still was a good-looking man, though the dust on his black, white-braided hussar’s jacket and high black boots showed the strain of the last past days. He had to wait a few seconds only until the bolt on the other side was removed with a loud cracking noise and the portal opened. He quickly hurried inside, leading his horse behind him through the gap. A familiar face greeted him, but the scenery was far from comfortable.
The inner church was illuminated by electrical light bulbs hanging from wires fastened periodically on walls and pillars, the huge windows having been covered with dark hangings. The altar room and rear part of the main hall housed an immense machine that squatted between the carved stone pillars like a huge monster from another world: a complicated arrangement of cylinders, tubes, flutes, and cables, some of them extending through the outer walls to adjacent sheds and the chimneys build outside. David, who had no special interest in technology beside the practical aspect of the soldier, recognized two great steam engines similar to those used on railway locomotives, these radiating a strong heat he could feel even near the entrance, and shedding a low fiery glow. Behind them stood something like a wired circle of copper and steel tubes, attached to a wall of flutes arranged in a half circle behind it, reminding him of the flutes of a church organ. Nearest to those were two blocks of a strangely shimmering anthracite-coloured metal the size of small stables, endorsed at their upper surface with odd-looking protrusions and antennae that sparked with an eerie blue light now and then. It didn’t look like anything he had ever seen before. A score of technicians in light grey tunics supervised the structure.
“Welcome, David.” Lutz Herman Jost von Auerhammer greeted him with a smile that was clearly dimmed by his exhaustion. The tall German entrepreneur and part-time researcher of mysterious cases was dressed in civilian clothes but carried himself with a military habit. Although he had retired from cavalry life early to pursue a life of industrial venture and exploring the blank parts on the maps of the earth – the later occupation with more satisfying results than the former, it remains to be said – he still liked being addressed by his military rank of Rittmeister. He had changed in the past years though, David noticed, his short hair and beard being all grey now, his eyes behind the obligatory pince-nez looking worried instead of amused.
“Thank God you made it in time.”
“Barely”, David answered, “my ship was shot down; the Imperial Guard is no more than half an hour behind.”
“Verdammt!” von Auerhammer cursed. “This is hardly enough time. So it is true?”
David nodded. “The Emperor is dead. Officially his old malady has returned and claimed the life that was wonderfully restored in 1888. In fact it is most plausible that Friedrich III. has been murdered by his nephew, who planned on this for years. Most members of the staff and of the Nachrichten-Bureau, that now has become more or less Department III B, have been suspended. Wilhelm is taking over the reins quickly, his trusted agents have been in waiting for months now, pulling strings. As we all know he will push forward his twisted global-power agenda, which inevitably will lead to war with England and France. Only yesterday did he announce that Germany will have its share among the colonies, too. He wants to repeat all the mistakes the British made in India and Africa, mistakes that Bismarck successfully prevented during his office. It was then that I received your telegram and jumped an airship with a crew I knew, before that moron von Dankenschweil could arrest me, too.”
The Rittmeister was clearly shaken, his face having paled to the colour of death. “We heard rumours, but I just hoped...” He managed to straighten himself. “So we have to act quickly! Do you know what we have been doing here?”
David looked again at the machinery emerging angry sparks and a rhythmic thunderous noise. “You mean, instead of turning a house of God into Hell’s antechamber? I have no bloody idea.”
The joke was lost on Auerhammer, who turned and beckoned to a tall, ramrod-thin ascetic wearing glasses and a broad utility belt stuffed with tools and measuring instruments. The expression of his face below the scrubby pale hair reminded Lange of sour milk. His expression didn’t change as he approached, greeting the men with a stiff nod only slightly noticeable. Doctor Claude Adalbert von Montjoye-Hirsingen, last offspring of a venerable noble family, was known as a genius and inventor of marvellous machines as well as the very opposite to a sociable fellow. If he ever took note of people he usually scorned them, being endued with the temper of an Indian spectacled cobra, but he had devised and improved diverse equipment over the last fifteen years that had proved more than useful in many fields of expertise.
“Montjoye here could probably explain it better”, Auerhammer began, which the Doctor commented “Would be a waste of words anyway”, in a low, grating voice that the Rittmeister choose to ignore, “you sure remember I planned to scientifically explore the Aether, that world that is unseen yet clearly permeates to influence us and the happenings around us, as you yourself came to know during our dealings with certain fakirs, psychics, and the minions of the occult sect called ZODIAC that has striven for world domination?” David nodded impatiently. Auerhammer’s fascination with the occult was well known to him.
“For some time, I have planned to find a means that makes those invisible layers of the world perceivable, even accessible. The good Doctor has a theory that all kinds of matter, substance, the whole physical world just may be a form of energy, tuned to different frequencies.”
“Not that you yourself understand it in the slightest”, the scientist grated.
“You wouldn’t believe what we managed to accomplish, as soon as the Doctor had the first prototype assembled”, Auerhammer impassively exclaimed. “It is a pity we don’t have more time, may it suffice to say that we may have developed a new ways of transportation, probably a means to alter advanced materials, clearly a revolution in the appliance of science!”
“The imagination of a Homo primigenius”, Montjoye commented scathingly.
Lutz Herman coughed. “What we didn’t accomplish was a gateway into the world of the Aether”, he continued, “but we made an accidental discovery that now may prove the salvation for the current political disaster!”
David, who was growing more and more impatient, snapped: “So what?”
“What your fellow imbecile is trying to say, Herr Major”, the Doctor interrupted in his rasping voice, “is that the machine, attuned to the proper harmonic frequency and supplied with a sufficient amount of energy, is capable of bending the fabric of the temporal layer of existence, creating a gateway that will let certain objects pass in a one-way direction.” He made a small pause to study the other men’s reaction from behind his absurdly thick spectacles, making an expression that looked like he was about to vomit. “Your colleague named it a time machine!” The way he spat out the two last words clearly showed his disgust.
“We found out by accident”, Auerhammer explained. “It was hard to figure out what was really happening, despite Montjoye’s calculations. When we first sent a volunteer trough the circle we thought him lost at first. Two days later he woke us around midnight, saying he had just materialized outside the church next to a manufacture building. That sent us on the right track. We had to try a lot to master the specifics, but we are quite sure we can send a man trough time – back or forth!”
David shuddered. “This is hard to believe”, he protested. Auerhammer just smiled. “It’s the 20th Century now, my friend. You have to have an open mind.”
Fritz David Lange considered. “Visiting Achilles and Hector at Troy would make a marvellous expedition for sure, but if I understand correctly, it would be a one-way ticket. What do you have in mind?”
“Energy is the problem”, the queer Doctor retorted. “We would need the voltage of a hundred lightning bolts at once for such an endeavour. As soon as Herr Auerhammer came up with his plan, we started to run the steam engines continuously, storing the kinetic energy they produce within those huge batteries over there, I have designed especially to contain huge amounts of energy. Even so, the maximum we can probably accomplish is ten weeks.”
“This is more than two months”, the Rittmeister said. “More than enough time for you to secretly reach Berlin, talk to people in charge and convince them of the danger ahead. It would be time enough to save the Emperor’s life and prevent the present calamity that might bring disaster to all of Europe!”
Lange was far from convinced. “Who would believe such a tale?” he mused.
“It will be no easy task, but it must be accomplished. You are the only one who has a chance to do it, as you are known and trusted by the ministry. I beg you, David: We have no choice!”
David Lange stepped into the circle with a feeling of fateful apprehension. He had put down his sabre and parabellum pistol to reduce the chance of an electrostatic discharge, now waiting for the transmission that would take him back in time. The idea still resounded inconceivable in his mind, but the increasing crescendo from the pipes behind the circle of copper and silvery steel drowned out all else. The machinery’s adjustment worked similar to a church organ indeed, Montjoye had explicated, the audio frequencies manipulating the multi-dimensional rift the intense energies would create. He sent a short prayer to his Creator, not being a distinctly religious man, but the venture’s sheer madness, risen from nothing short than total desperation, seemed an appropriate cause to place some hope into the Almighty’s hands.
Just before the light became too intense to see anymore, David’s gaze was distracted by a commotion at the church gate. One part of the door shook, there was movement behind it, while Auerhammer and his helpers rallied in a half circle to shield the church’s interior from whatever was coming. Something hit the machinery just above him; David had the slight impression of a momentary discord. Then suddenly a brilliant white-blue light engulfed him and extinguished all else.
Nausea overtook him before he could see again. He retched and vomited, falling on his knees helpless like a newborn child. Only slowly his senses recovered; he was kneeling inside a hemisphere burned into the ground, as if the energy that had transported him here had disintegrated all that had been in its place before. He could discern the railway tracks nearby and it was still night. Not still, he corrected. If all had gone well, this was a night two months ago. He was not far away from the church, but there was no snow on the ground. Yet there was lightning in the western sky, or so it seemed; a red angry glow that was ravaged by an irregular flickering of white flashes. There was no airship to be seen hovering in the sky. Without hesitation he started off walking beside the sections of track. It was bitter cold and soon a light snow began to fall. After some five hundred yards or so a slight limp interfered with his stride, the remnant of an old wound he had taken in Africa. He had sacrificed so much in the past twenty-odd years – health, innocence, belief, his marriage – to help the Empire prosper and to prevent exactly that kind of predicament that was now threatening its peace and the future of all Europe. He just had to succeed!
The first peculiar thing he noticed was an automobile that parked beside an industrial shed. It was quite huge and the shape seemed odd to him. True, these engine-driven vehicles had become more or less common during the last few years, but as big transportation devices horse-carts still held their place beside the increasing competition by railway. Soon after that he beheld a cordon of several carts and automobiles that were stuck at a railroad crossing; apparently there was a jam at the road exiting the city, accompanied by blinding lights and raised voices. David quickened his pace. Again, the big trucks struck him as unfamiliar, but the horse-drawn carriages seemed trustworthy enough; yet there was a smell of fear connected with the scene that Lange recognized only too well. The men in the coach-boxes seemed either agitated or dull, the women were tense and spoke in shrill or hushed-up voices. David felt a terrible sense of dread. Something was appallingly wrong here.
“Soldat!” The soldier turned around, his gaze first startled, then puzzled. A bit late he snapped to attention. “Ah – uhm, sorry, Sir. It’s been some time I’ve seen a hussar officer in full attila, apologies. Gefreiter Friedmann, at your service Herr Major!”
Lange was equally concerned with his opposite’s uniform. The man, though obviously infantryman, wore the green-grey known as the colour of the mounted huntsmen, but his tunic was devoid of golden buttons or lapels; all metal parts on his uniform were coloured field grey.
“Stand at ease. I had an accident with my horse and have lost track for some time. What is the situation?”
“Nothing much changed, Sir. The Frenchmen hold out at the Hartmannsweiler Kopf, but it will be a matter of time only until we take it and march on. These people here want to visit family, but they have to show their passes. Can’t trust these Alsatians.”
There is war with France! David was shocked. How could this be? Surely no one could have had this planned that fast, and Montjoye’s device should have taken him back in time after all.
“Herr Friedmann, you may find this question weird, but answer nevertheless. What is today’s date? Which year?”
Though the soldier’s gaze betrayed his notion about his superior, he answered with military obedience.
“It is January 22nd, Herr Major. 1915!”
Ten years, he thought. Ten years into the future instead of ten weeks into the past. A rifle bullet fired by the pursuing guard must have had hit the machine in the last moment before the transit and somehow had made a mess of everything. It was Fate, if anything. It was disaster.
All had been in vain. He had failed.
The Great War had begun.
And Fritz David Lange’s world was lost.