Being a waiter on R 418 Balmoral was Ernest MacVeigh’s dream job. As a young boy in Kansas he was captivated by the Phantom Airship stories. For two years humans all over the globe reported encounters with mysterious airships. Like many young men and women he dreamed that he too would be taken on a ride with the strange airmen. The stories had inspired half dime novels, stage plays and finally the invention of real airships. The skies were filled with Mr. Wells’ invention — great silvery cylinders that challenged the blue skies or cast wonderful shadows against the full moon. Ernest’s older brother was a captain of the R 118 Empress Victoria that had gone down in Benares. It had been the last of the hydrogen ships. There was great irony in its holocaust — its flaming debris raining down on the vast open air crematoria that fill the holy city of Benares. Brother John’s ashes mixed with the stink of the city and the sacred water of the Ganges.
John had been the smart one. Top in his class at the University of Kansas. He had excelled in mathematics and astronomy. He believed the airships were mankind’s first step toward leaving the Earth. Ernest was the dreamer. Instead of doing well at school he had poured over the romance of Mr. Poe, the “scientific” tales of Mr. Twain and Charles Dickens Eben Mizer on the Moon. When his brother wrote one of the first serious studies of Roentgen’s X-Rays, Ernest was reading the uncritical accounts of how X-rays could do anything from curing blindness to reanimating the dead. The day brother John submitted his patent for an improved sextant, Ernest had joined the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor — a mail order occult order. John was taller, blonde and well built. Ernest had dark brown hair and brown eyes set too far apart. John attracted ladies, Ernest attracted fellow fanatics and enthusiasts. John had been drawn to commercial air travel because he wanted to be part of the modernizing of the world. Ernest wanted to be nearer to air elementals. John believed the world was ruled by reason: Ernest believed the world was ruled a vast conspiracy run either by Jews, communists or demons (assuming these were different groups).
The Balmoral flew around the world every two weeks. Paris, Chicago, Victoria, Tokyo, Peking, Moscow, Paris. A heady mix for a young man from Overland Park. Ernest had spent time in each of these cities. He had hoped for love and for adventure. Only at the very end did he receive the latter.
The letters from John had reached him in Victoria, British Columbia. With some irony they had been chasing him around the globe for nearly two years, and the five envelopes were almost black with grime. The first three letters were commonplace. John described Rome, Tehran, Benares, Barcelona, Mexico City, Honolulu. He told of romance and fine dining. The last two letters were a different sort. Ernest wondered if they had been meant as a joke, but John was not really the joking sort. He genuinely cared for younger brother, as much as he sometimes taunted him for uncritical thinking.
British Air Mail Service
September 18, 1894
My brother I had never supposed that I would write you about such matters. Do you remember as a child when we first heard of airships? You were a true believer. You thought the story of the Dallas airship that kidnapped a steer from a rancher’s field was gospel truth. Remember how you couldn’t sleep for weeks? I have come to wonder if there might be something to those stories. Months ago in Cairo, I spent an evening with a renowned Egyptologist Wallis Budge, who told me that during certain dynasties Egyptians believed that they were dealing with beings that lived in the clouds. These creatures were not gods or demons per se, although they were in league with the darker gods of their pantheon Set and Nyaralathotep. “Hotep” is an Egyptain word meaning “Satisfied” and “Nyarla” means “Dark Churning” The name itself means “He Who Is Pleased By Stirring Up The Dark” — or perhaps “the Silence.” It was an interesting discussion, and I wished you had been there as mythology is more your hobby horse than my own. But at the end of the evening Mr. Budge mentioned that the cloud beings were invisible unless viewed with certain special lenses. Now Mr. Budge had no way of knowing this (and I am risking my job) telling you, but all of the British Dirigible Company’s dirigibles carry a special optical device that can only be taken from its special case by very high ranking company officials, even I lack the clearance to use these glasses. The rumor has been that the German or Russian dirigibles have been treated with a special paint that renders them invisible — and that this news is being kept from the general public to avoid mass hysteria. The special glasses unpolarize the light and reveal the ships.
I did not rush to correlate these facts, but I found that I could not stop thinking about the glasses. They rest in a small chest in the captain’s office, I’m sure the Balmoral has a pair. I am writing to you so that you may have a record of my discoveries and (in the event something should happen to me) let the world know. Making a long story short, I arranged to buy some lock-picking tools from a criminal in Barcelona. He was a jewel thief that plied his trade on the Victoria. The ship’s detective was never able to catch him, and I had invited to the captain’s table several times because I admired his incorrigible nature. He explained the use of the tools. Since I had the opportunity to spend several hours alone with the case — opening it proved no problem. The glasses were simple goggle looking affairs in no way remarkable. I took to wearing them anytime I could be unobserved. I saw nothing of interest for nearly nine weeks.
Then while passing over the Himalayas I spotted several flying creatures one night entering a saucer shaped platform. I will not describe the nightmare city, save to say that I have come to believe that there are certain shapes and colors that humans cannot look upon without damaging their neural tissues, I nearly screamed in fear and pain. . I removed the special glasses. The creatures, which resembled a sort of flying crayfish , were not invisible, but their platform could only be seen with the glasses. I realize that the Royal Airforce is not hiding the truth about Germany or Russia, but about the state of the world. I replaced the glasses in their case. I wrote a letter to Mr. Budge asking about the sources of the cloud people legend — wondering if that was the remotest of coincidences or if perhaps this planet has been occupied for thousands of years. I remember your quoting of Fort that humans are property. I do not fear for my life, I doubt the powers that be would be able to keep this secret much longer — and how could they (whoever “they” would be) could know that I happened upon this secret. I wonder if the Russians or Germans know. I wonder what these creatures are and what they want.
Dearest brother, it seems that you are right about many of the aspects of this world. I hope this validation of your beliefs impels you toward health and happiness rather than shocks you toward morbidity. Perhaps letting that secret society you are a member of know about this, would be the correct first step. How would mankind deal with this knowledge?
The effect of this letter upon Ernest was galvanizing. The Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor taught that humans were under the influence of another species, a sort of galactic overlord that helped steer human evolution. The Brotherhood claimed to be in contact with these Beings, who were said to live in the Himalayas! Ernest was thrilled, he began drafting letters What if astral communication wasn’t the most efficient way of contacting these space brothers? What if airships could simply dock at their cloud cities? His brother would be seen as a hero, and that secret role of leadership that the Brotherhood always claimed to have held would become something manifest rather than secret. What if he profited by this news, and didn’t have to scrounge for tips by complimenting overweight matrons and vain business tycoons? By the time he read the second letter, he was already naming colleges after himself.
I suspect this letter will find you after some accident has found me. Budge wrote me confessing that he has known for years that all four national dirigible companies know and are in league with the “Fungal Fliers.” It seems that in exchange for a certain number of human lives a year, the Fliers give out technology. The difference engine, the X-ray, pneumatic limbs, dirigibles, cure of cancers, wireless lighting, machine guns, have all been exchanges. But Budge says these that these items are designed to make great wars possible. He says weapons far worse than these have been given to the great powers, and that Nyaralathotep is playing a game. Each of the four great powers has been given a different sort of weapon harsh enough to end life as we know it. He thinks the British have a terrible bomb, the French have some airborne plague, and the Russians have the ability to summon horrible creatures from the past. He does not know what the Germans may have, although he suspects it could be a fairy tale sort of horror — an army of trolls or werewolves. Nyaralemheb, another of the god’s names, means “Churning Darkness Is In Jubilation.” The creature lives off of chaos and misery. His servants have less abstract needs. They need metals from Earth, and He won’t stir up the final battle until their needs are met. Each of the great powers knows this, yet each believes that their own weapon will cause them to win the final battle. Budge says the god needs something more than a bloody sacrifice, it needs pent-up Desire. He points to the killing of the Sioux by Custer’s airborne and the germ-driven Herero and Namaqua genocide of the early 1890s as trial runs. He says similar but unreported incidents have happened in Khirgiz region of central Asia. He hopes that the truth will filter out into the world. He warns against occult groups that claim to be in contact with hidden masters such as Blavatsky’s mahamatas or the Vril Society. These groups are actually putting in place the equivalent of feeding stations to tap into the coming despair of all humanity.
He says that the huge investments the great powers made in Egyptology after the Napoleonic Wars was a scramble to find devices that could be used to contact the floating cities. The fungal fliers are nearly finished mining the earth, and they intend to pass it off to their Master. Budge thinks perhaps a few men in each country could avert the madness of mutually assured destruction. I have my doubts. Part of me wishes simply to run and spend my last years in a grass shack in Hawaii with a simple brown maiden that speaks no English, but part of me wishes to be in the fight. You must make your own decision as to flee or fight. I leave it to you to seek after the special glasses aboard the dirigible you work in. Go, see. Decide. Tell others, or hide away. Knowing what I know I have been unable to avoid the temptation of telling you, and I know that I have given you a burden that you did not deserve. Had I not looked upon the floating city, I would not have believed it. Ironically this cancer of my psyche feeds the very entity I wish to fight.
Written in love and fear,
This could not be so. All of things John had written about were signs of progress. They were real discoveries of human ingenuity. Everyone knew that the golden age of man was about to begin. John had been duped. Some paranoid man in Cairo had shared his fears. The lightning that struck the Empress Victoria was an unfortunate accident. He would forget this all. He would burn the letters.
But he couldn’t burn the letters. Every night as he brought rich desserts to richer humans in the Balmoral he heard how a new invention had turned up here, a new sort of engine there, The turn of the century was approaching, and everyone spoke of a New World Order or a New Age.
Then the dreams started. He dreamed of British dirigibles dropping bombs in Rome, Berlin, Moscow. He dreamed of Russian airships deploying a living light that mesmerized the enemy, who would simply and happily watch its rainbow flickers while dying of thirst and starvation. He dreamed of the French spreading a powder in the air that called up the Black Death in New York and San Francisco. He spoke less. He got fewer tips. His skin color grew pallid. He wrote his superiors in the Hermetic Brotherhood of Luxor and asked them how they knew the aliens they sought to contact were benign.
His Praemonstrator in the Brotherhood wrote him back and suggested that he was developing male hysteria, and that he should seek a job on the ground. No doubt the rarefied air plus the gravitational stress of flying in the opposite direction that Earth spun was effecting badly.
Ernest resolved to search the captain’s quarters. He began by exercising more and eating better. He told his superiors in the Brotherhood that his doubts had passed. He became charming. He started stealing desserts from the kitchen to give to the cleaning crew that took care of the captain’s quarters. Ernest found out that the captain did have a small safe in his room. He never opened it. The captain had even told his orderly that the safe contained “papers” that could only be inspected by a vice president of the company.
Ernest began to suggest that the small safe contained gold or diamonds or something else small and very valuable. Surely it would be easy enough to open it when the captain was not around — perhaps the day before they were due to dock in Paris. There were places to sell things in Paris. The theft could happen and the captain would never know. He didn’t open the small safe anyway. At first the orderly disbelieved. Why should there be something very valuable that the captain had no access to? But Ernest asked the opposing question — why so much security for “papers?” Surely the item was something the captain could use in an emergency to buy the ship’s freedom. It was a big and bold lie, but Ernest had read adventure novels all of life. He raised the threat of the Yellow Peril — what would happen if they crashed in China? How could safety be bought for the rich men and women on board form a Chinese warlord? This could be believed. The orderly knew no money would be spared to save him, but vast money would be moved to save the rich from inscrutable oriental torture.
Ernest came up with a perfect plan. The orderly would simply act as guard one night when the captain was away. Ernest would open the safe by removing it from the wall with a saw. He would open the back of the safe with a diamond drill borrowed from the machine shop. He would take the valuables out, and then replace the safe. Unless the captain inspected the safe closely, it would go undetected for weeks. They could sell the diamonds or rubies or platinum to a French fence and be on their way to the good life before anyone was the wiser.
The night came. The captain had taken an interest in a beautiful blonde American and was visiting her in her quarters. The orderly kept watch. The tiny hand-held saw, made from one of the new metals discovered last year, cut through the aluminum wall that held the safe like a hot knife through butter. Ernest MacVeigh lifted the safe out and applied the drill to the back. It seemed to take forever, each moment he was expecting the captain to show up. Who knows? Maybe the captain would be intrigued enough by the tale to at least find out what was in the safe. How could he live with such a grueling mystery. In the objective world it took less than twenty minutes to make a hole large enough to draw the goggles from the safe. My god, John was right. Ernest put the safe back into the wall. Only the smallest of cracks showed that the safe was no longer a permanent fixture. He slipped the goggles in his pocket and began the second half of his scheme. He walked out of the captain’s quarters and told the orderly that the safe had been empty. The orderly immediately suspected that Ernest was cheating him — Ernest challenged him to search him. The orderly did so. He found the goggles in Ernest’s pants pocket, but goggles are clearly not an item to life-changing value. Ernest re-pocketed them. The orderly began cursing and pummeling Ernest. As expected the noise attracted other workers. The crazed orderly was quickly subdued. He couldn’t very well say that he had been part of a plot to steal from the captain. In less than twelve hours the orderly was fired and left in Paris.
Ernest wore the goggles every chance he could. For months he saw nothing. Perhaps John had been crazy, perhaps reading about John’s madness had merely infected his brain. Hysteria could be catching according to alienists. Then one moonlit night as the Balmoral sailed over New York, he saw a floating city. Ernest watched through the thick quartz of an observation porthole in the lower decks,
John had wisely not tried to describe the floating madness. The city bristled with waving spires of living metal in a thousand colors of gray and a dozen colors that Ernest could not name. Parts of the fliers, themselves a horrible mixture of lobster, beetle, and slimy fungus were welded into some of the walls. The city had angular mouths with triple rows of obsidian teeth that bit at the fliers. It had exposed wiring and gears and vents that released steam, and mechanical eyes and organic eyes. It had gutters running with pulsing green fluid that bore tiny red flowers. It had living slow moving statues of creatures untouched by the sane symmetries of Earth. It had glaring searchlights that flashed unknown messages to the Cosmos. Human parts had been welded into the living walls as well — and Ernest knew this had something to do with the myth of the twelve men and women sacrificed to the minotaur in his labyrinth — and he knew if he understood exactly he would go painfully mad. The shape of the city was a Symbol, a Hieroglyph. It would make any true sentient creature have certain thought and Ernest realized that the divided brain of humans, the brain of yes and no, was NOT a brain of a truly sentient creature. Ada Lovelace’s difference engine was a sort of joke on humans — a bad binary brain to simulate bad binary consciousness. The human brain with its Evil/Good, Love/Hate, Right/Left was bad mock-up of the real brains of the crustacean Outer Ones : it was a useful device for making fear and anxiety — and his last clear thought before he tore the goggles from his face was that if humans ever became thinking and correlated the contents of their mind — the pains of hell would not be myth.
Ernest fell against the observation porthole. John must have managed because he was smarter. He had always been the stronger one. Mother’s favorite. Simple truths like the latter can keep minds intact that look upon things not meant for humans. They found him in the hallway as the Balmoral floated above the stockyards of Chicago. Ernest kept saying, “It’s all stockyards. Everything is stockyards.” They put him off the ship, and the kindly officials of the city of big shoulders put him an asylum.
For the first years he could not talk. He kept a pair of unusual goggles with all the time, finally an official from the British Dirigible Company came and retrieved the glasses. When 1900 came and the great war had not come, Ernest began talking about hysteria and anxiety and the shape of human brains. When the Russians put a man on the moon in 1901, he predicted the end of the world — but everyone was making that prediction. By 1903 so many people had a paralyzing madness because of the rate of change of life and warfare capacities Ernest wasn’t considered special enough to be kept in an asylum. There were now seven great powers instead of four — China, Turkey and America had joined the club with the power to end organic life on this planet. Each of them had their own terror weapon. There were skirmishes. French germ warfare versus Chinese mechanical men in in Vietnam. German trolls overran Greenland and renamed it Mhu Thulan.
He took up his old job of being a waiter at a rundown cafe near Hull House. He visited mom in Kansas, and his uncles in Texas. He got used to the killing summer and the sharp winds off the Lake Michigan in winter. He tried to write down some of the revelations that crowded his brain when he had looked upon the floating city of the fungal fliers — and with an irony he was sane enough to appreciate — he crafted them into pulp stories. He could spot here and there — others that knew. It didn’t matter, these fragments of truth made for more fear as well. Everything he could do served the Churning Darkness, everything anyone could do served this Force. Millions of years of breeding made the fake brains that humans have, he couldn’t change that. Laws of society and the rules of civilization laid down in the dark dynasties of shadowy Khem made humans the cattle of the gods.
In his last year 1913, when the British placed a military base on Venus, Ernest took to spending all of his free moments in the stockyards. He would talk freely to his fellow cattle. He sang to them often — especially William Blake’s hymn, “Jerusalem.” He thought for a long time that the fliers would kill him, but he had not been a threat like John. The world was far too rotten with nervousness and hysteria to note yet another fool blaming it on the powers of air and darkness. Just another cow walking up the shoot to the slaughter…
(For Howard Waldrop)
Don Webb has over 40 stories in “Best of Year” lists in the last 24 years. Winner of the Fiction Collective and Death Equinox Awards, Don is pleased with his secret chili recipe. He teaches Science Fiction writing at UCLA Extension – and lives in the very Lovecraftian city of Austin, TX (as do William Spencer Browning, Lawrence Person and Walter DeBill). He’s a graduate of the University of Texas. Go Longhorns!
Browse Don’s books on his Amazon page.
Here’s an interesting link about Don Webb, and here’s a link to Richard Gavin interviewing Don.
Story illustration by Robert Elrod.
If you enjoyed this story, let Don know by commenting — and please use the Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus buttons below to spread the word.
I just recently decided to start branching out and reading more fiction. My writing teacher recommended this one and I’m glad they did. Thank you for sharing your talents with us!
LikeLiked by 1 person
I like the way the piece addresses current paranoia about accelerating change by placing it in a past setting. Also greatly enjoyed the description of the nightmare sky-city.
Steampunk Lovecraft! To witness so closely the disintegration of a mind into not madness, but truth, gave me gooseflesh. Bravo, Don!
Wow, what a great alternate reality piece. I was very immersed in the setting of this story, as I love stories and video games that have to do with zeps. Also, it had a kind of steampunk feel about it towards the end, almost to the extent it could be the birth of the steampunk world. Awesome job, Don! Thanks for the excellent read.
Mr. Webb, that was a very good story! After the first “letter” I was hooked. The only criticism that I had was that “mail order occult order” would be better as “mail order occult society”. Nice job and thanks for sharing!
Pulp extravagance at its finest!
This was my favorite piece of this zine. And that doesn’t mean others were bad.
Another great story by Don Webb.