The Sun Always Sets
Israel woke with traces of bile in his throat and the taste of copper coating his parched mouth. He blinked slowly, trying to knock loose dirt and dried blood. Through the dim haze of pain he struggled, drawn to full consciousness by what at first sounded like insidious laughter not too far off. It wasn’t until he started to sit up that Israel recalled his circumstances. His crown grazed at the ceiling of rock above him. Back down the battered man hunkered. The outcropping was his protection and with any luck would not be his tomb.
He groaned softly, not wanting to attract the attention of whatever was making that noise. His fingers pressed to the gash above his ear and found it more or less a mass of matted hair. His ankle and elbow still hurt like hell. He’d twisted them both in desperate flight an untold number of hours ago. From the little light that filtered into the hole into which he’d wedged himself it was either dusk or dawn. He just couldn’t tell. After groping along the stone face in front of him Israel pressed against it and focused on the noise on the other side.
It was closer to high pitched cackling than actual laughter. After a moment he decided that it had to be coming from some animals. There were even a few low snarls, snaps of teeth and other sounds he could not give a name to. If Richard were still alive he could have told him right off what beasties were responsible. If Richard were still alive he’d not be hiding like an errant school boy from an angry headmaster’s switch.
Israel scowled, more at his behavior than the situation. Looking around he spotted where he’d thrown his revolver ahead of leaping into the hole. It took a moment of patting around before he scooped it up. In the faint light he squinted and wondered if it still worked. This safari hunt had turned out to be a terrible idea. Oh sure, the lure of exotic landscapes and real blood and guts adventure had been great for the first week. However, now that the innards spilled were not of big game but of his mates, the cog-smith wanted to take the first rail out of the damned savanna and hop a tramp home. He sighed and tried to decide if his luck was turning or not. The recoil suppressor on the underside of the oversized gun had a bent gear but he was pretty sure it could still fire.
He’d frozen when the elephants had turned suddenly and attacked his party. There were still six shots in his gun, not a single one fired before he’d run for the rocks. As far as the coward knew he was the only one still alive. He used the meat of a thumb to wipe his mouth clean. Was it wise to see what was making the noise and the state of his fellows or should he keep hiding?
In the end Israel mouthed a short prayer and crawled carefully out of the break in the rocks. He wasn’t prepared for the sight that greeted him.
Dogs. His fine associates and the stalwart man who had led them into the African bush were being eaten by dogs. The indignity of the idea was almost too much to bear. The canines were hideous, misshapen and discolored when compared to the fine breeds back home. Their coats reminded him of patterns one would see on a cat instead of noble canine. The mocking sounds came from the animals’ gore smeared muzzles.
Fury and shame, a potent concoction, mudded the blood left in Israel’s veins. This could not stand! Men of the Empire should not be treated in such a way! He jutted out his chin. The fact that he could not put a name to these ugly dogs infuriated him all the more. By quick count there were seven or eight of the blighted things. He didn’t have enough lead for each of them but with any luck a few shots would send them scurrying. The revolver was leveled at one that in turn raised its head. Its ears flicked as if it knew that mortal peril was upon it, but the feeling came a moment too late.
Although the bullet fired knocked the ‘dog’ off of its paws the pistol nearly came out of Israel’s hands. Without the suppressor he was pretty sure it might break his fingers or wrists. By the time the boom echoed across flat land and tall grass, however, the scavengers were in disarray. They were not really sure where the attack came from or if they should scatter. Despite the throbbing of his hands the desperate fellow fired again. This time the bullet went wide but so did the animals. They dashed off in all direction seeking shelter from the noise and high speed death.
“Bollocks.” There was no celebration for Israel. As he slid back down into his hole for a moment the rough rock grated at his stomach despite shirt and vest. His thumb had jammed and the rest of the hand went numb with it. He didn’t dare drop the pistol though. He gave the offending extremity a hearty shake to try to get feeling back into it.
A growling maw appeared over the lip of the rock above sooner than he’d hoped. He gripped the gun with both hands and squeezed off another shot. The gnarl evaporated along with the carnivore’s head. Israel was no longer menaced as dawn slowly gave way to morning.
It was still some time before the novice hunter came out from his hiding place. It took some effort to do so as well. His hands were still somewhat numb, the right one bruised. As he scrambled over the rock he caught what he thought was another person out of the corner of his eyes for a moment. His mind registered the lovely contours of a dark-skinned woman. Imagination had filled in details of nakedness and traces of ethnic jewelry by the time he’d pulled himself all the way to the top of the rocks and could get a good look. There was no one there, just shadows produced on part of the outcropping by the rising sun. He shivered and hoped he wasn’t going to have hallucinations due to blood loss and shock. That would be ever so bothersome.
A few carrion birds were shooed away as he waded into the trampled and scattered remains of the hunting party. It took all of Israel’s willpower not to empty his stomach as he picked through the gore. None of his friends had made it through the incident unmolested. Hell, the only parts he found of Stetson was the man’s clockwork arm with strips of meaty shoulder attached – and one boot. Their guide, Richard, had been trampled by more than a single elephant. The rest were in various states of dismemberment after being fed upon by the local wildlife. Israel let a long breath hiss between his teeth after he plucked up the least damaged goggles among them all. He slid them on to help protect his eyes from the rising sun. There was no way that these men were going to get a burial, especially a Christian one. He needed to gather what supplies he could for his own survival first and foremost.
Worst of all, the rover they had used for travel had been mangled beyond repair by the angry pachyderms. He gave one of its iron wheels atop a twisted axel a futile turn. It more wobbled than spun, its bronze filigree glinting in the early morning sun. The boiler had been ruptured and twisted; the cables severed beyond repair. The cabin was flattened and the great pair of ivory tusks on the front partially powdered. Really he had to wonder if the bull elephant had taken the time to tap dance atop the horseless conveyance thinking it a downed rival.
Water canteens, one serviceable repeating rifle, one elephant gun, cloth ripped to bandage his head wound, knapsack of jerky, cog-spark lighter, half-bottle of bourbon, his travelling tool-kit, a steam distiller, and a cracked gyro-compass. He tapped the side of that last item then gave it a shake. He was almost sure that he could fix it if he had time. However, orienteering was beyond his capabilities. It made him feel better to have it though. Israel kicked Stetson’s false arm with the side of his boot. It wouldn’t be any help so he’d leave it there. Last he took up Richard’s wide hat and settled it on his crown. He’d need to keep the sun off of him.
“Right then.” Back in London if one got lost it was best to find a major street and work their way back home. There were no streets here and as far as he knew no help was coming. He tipped his head down to fend off the heat and adjusted his goggles. Let’s see the river they had come down was back in… Israel turned slowly trying to recall the landmarks they’d passed despite the dull ache in his head. Why did so much of the African bush have to look the same? His attention skipped off the carnage around him. One thing was for sure he didn’t want to be here when more scavengers returned. For a tick he thought he saw the woman again beckoning him in one direction. Her come hither sweep of arm was as tempting as trying to sleep his ache away. When he pulled down the goggles to get a better look she was gone. Still that felt like it was the right direction. Laden with enough equipment to survive, he hoped, Israel started walking.
Over the course of that day while meandering through tall yellow grass he took note of the majesty of nature as he never had before. Without the illusion of protection that his now-dead companions or the rover had provided Israel felt very small. He wanted to marvel at a tower of giraffes but fear that if he neared the long necked creatures they might startle and trample him. Likewise the sight of exotic birds gathered around a watering hole nearly drew the man over to wonder at their shapes and plumage. Then he imagined what might be lurking unseen in the muddy water that would find him a better meal than a few dozen birds. No it was better to stray from that area as well; after all he still had plenty of water in the canteens. A few times he was certain there was a predator nearby lurking at the edges of his senses and he’d un-sling the repeater from one shoulder.
Nothing of fang and claw ever materialized though and thus he continued walking. It was when the ache in his legs added to the pain of bruises, the throbbing of his head, the beating sun and the leaden weight of all he carried that it struck Israel that he should have tried to follow the rover’s tracks back to what passed for civilization around here. The realization was hours late, and he kicked himself for being so very daft. By then the afternoon had grown intolerably hot so he found a downed tree next to its still living sibling and set his burden down. He knew that having a full pulls of bourbon was a terrible idea, but he did it anyway. It dulled the myriad hurts and the self-admonition. It also made his head swim.
He brushed away a few ants from his leg before leaning against the still upright tree. His gaze rose to the dancing leaves above and rays of sunlight that trickled through them. It wasn’t just the spirits that were making him weak. He’d lost blood and was battered all over. The searing sun didn’t help and he wasn’t sure if eating would either. Still it was the smart thing to do, at least Israel hoped so. Thus far his choices had been those of a simpleton.
When the cog-smith snapped awake, he found that the half-eaten strip of dried meat in hand was covered with ants. The jerky was tossed away with a startled cry. He leapt to his feet spilling what bourbon remained and frantically brushed the little bastards off of his arm and shoulder as well. Lord above! He was surprised he wasn’t already half-consumed! He’d heard stories after all about the voracious appetite of African ants. Why was everything here so savage? Well for the time being anyway. Soon enough the flag of Britannia would bring Nature to Her heel here as it had on the isles. That didn’t help him at the moment though.
Balance quickly drained from Israel’s body and he toppled against the stump. His stomach bunched up in knots but he successfully fought to keep down the little food that he’d eaten. This was hopeless. By passing out he’d lost enough hours that night was already fast approaching. When he squinted in the direction of the setting sun he caught a long glint of metal on the horizon. He lifted his goggles and tried to focus on what he was seeing. There had to be something crafted by the hand of Man in that direction! He wasn’t sure exactly how far it was but it was a sure sign of civilization. The gleam persisted and he was able to make out a bulky shape around it. Perhaps it was a military fort or trading outpost along the river!
As fate would have it as soon as Israel’s heart started to soar a string of thick black clouds swallowed the sun. With it went the glimmer of hope as the wind picked up. He sighed deeply and left the goggles up. From the way those clouds were swollen it was going to be a storm of biblical proportions. He didn’t have time to lose. Booze and discarded meat forgotten he scrambled to his feet and started moving.
The Dark Continent plainly had it in for the Englishman. It was not long before the torrent came. His filched hat, no matter how wide the brim, provided little protection front the driving rain. Nor were his soiled shirt and caked trousers any help what-so-ever. Israel wanted to solider on, but after stumbling forward through all but blind in the falling sheets, it was clear that he needed to find shelter and fast. Lightning danced across the sky in a wild manner creating momentary highlights of purple shade through the clouds. The thunder that followed rolled freely across flat plains and drowned out even Israel’s heartbeat. There was nothing he could see through stinging drops besides another copse of trees and he hurried to them. He half expected to be haunted by the female apparition once more but was disappointed. Along the way he let the elephant gun was slid off into the mud. He wouldn’t need it once he got the outpost.
Under the branches he found some succor but not much. Hat was taken from his head and given a good shake before he tried to peel shirt from his chest. The bandages around his head were thankfully more or less dry for now. He slid down to sit on a gnarled root. It was best to wait out the storm here, he decided. The cracked gyro-compass was taken out of his pack and he rolled it from one palm to another thoughtfully.
It had been Stetson who first suggested that they take this holiday. Israel had met the man when he had been hired to fine tune the clockwork arm and they had been business partners ever since. They were more than partners really. The mountain of a man had been the engineer’s closest associate, the brother he’d never had. Israel sighed deeply and closed his eyes as the storm continued to rage. He should have dragged what was left of his dear friend out of the wilderness. The last day had been one terrible mistake after another, atop of misfortune. How could a jolly foray, into backwater colonies, gone terribly wrong? How was he going to face Stetson’s family and give them the news?
For that matter he expected quite the verbal lashing from poor Wallace’s wife. The banker had been very excited to come along with him and Stetson even if it meant leaving his precious ledgers for a time. Of all of the Englishmen it was surprising that Wallace had perished, he was an avid hunter after all. How many times had Israel sat in a pub regaled by tales of fox chases and dangerous encounters while stalking harts? He’d never have to hear those stories again. Wallace’s wife had urged her mate not to go. Mostly she was worried about the lure of aboriginal women, as Wallace put it anyway. Clearly the wife had been right. They should never have come.
He opened his eyes and tried to pierce the night before him instead of falling deeper into melancholy. Part of him was worried that he saw no firelight in the direction in which he’d caught the trace of civilization. The anxiety was rationalized away by the storm around him. There would be no way light would travel through so terrible a gale.
Out of the corner of his gaze he caught ‘her’ again. He saw the shapely curve of hip and waves of dark hair barely covering comfortable bosom. Understandably he started and let the compass fall from his fingers when he abruptly stood. “Hello?”
A stroke of lightning illuminated the truth however. It was not the dark woman of his delusions but branches brought low under the weight of rain water against the slope of a tree. He was certain his injuries fueled such fantasies. That and recalling what Wallace claimed his spouse was really worried after.
Not that Israel didn’t understand, on some level, the woman’s worry. He had been struck by the primal and exotic cast of the women here. There was something about them that stirred his blood more than the corset bound waifs of home. Richard had in fact encouraged him to dally with natives, part of a good Englishman’s vacation in the bush he’d said. Israel had declined, however, feeling that such unions were unclean.
Their other two companions, Massingberd and Phillips, on the other hand had over-indulged in such things. They had often gone on about how the women here were plentiful and eager to please for a taste of the wealth of England. Some of the litany of crude tales and euphemisms the pair had come up with had been too ugly for Israel to give more than give a passing chuckle to. He’d always thought them good and God-fearing men until they were away from the constraints of society. In fact he’d often wondered the last few days how he’d ever become acquaintances with the two physicians in the first place. Yes, they had all shared a passing interest in coming up in ways to protect those that could afford it from choking fogs along with other inventions. However, it was obvious that he’d never really known them. Not that he needed to worry about such associates now. They were surely being picked at by buzzards or spotted dogs.
After a rambling sigh he settled back among the roots of the tree and curled up close to it. If he continued to just brood, he was going to drive himself mad. Besides his head was swimming again and he’d need his rest to make it somewhere safe tomorrow. Eventually the rain abated enough that Israel was able to sleep.
More animals surrounded Israel when he woke. This time it was not predators but rather a thick herd of wildebeests which had apparently taken shelter among the same trees in the night. He was surprised their cattle like bellows to one another had not woken him sooner, or the stench of still drying hair. A gag preceded a cough which he had to stifle. He didn’t want to frighten these otherwise docile creatures and end up like his fellows had. Ginger on his feet Israel picked his way through the wooly bovines. More than once he had to pause when one turned their head to him and snuffled. A few expressed the discontent of having a human among them and shifted away. He tried to speak gentle words to emphasize that he meant them no harm. The worst that happened, however, was him getting bumped by the rump of one of them turning who didn’t care he was there.
Once he was outside the herd he let loose a long sigh of relief. He left behind the broken bauble that didn’t really show the way. He drank from his canteen and ate the rest of the dried meat as he trekked. If the outpost was more than a day away he’d have to shoot something edible before night. By the time he was done with breakfast, such that it was, he could already see the vague shadow of his absolution.
It was slow going though as the landscape dipped. Arid land had been turned into patches of mud overnight. As the day warmed the air grew sticky and thick, as did the unclean feeling of his clothing. He had to slide his goggles back down into place and knew that the bandages would need to be changed soon so infection didn’t colonize the wound. He didn’t stop walking though. One more night out in the bush would surely do him in. He’d lost sight of the goal for several hours thanks to the rolling hills. Though he was sure, now and again, he caught the distant shadow of a flag dancing in the wind. That was definitely a good sign.
A breeze danced through swaying grass, clearing the air of miasma for a moment. It carried with it the fresh scents of flowers and Israel could have sworn the gentle laugh of a woman. To his ears however it had a mocking tone. He stopped and took the repeater into hand. Had the spotted dogs tracked him? The hat was stripped off of his head as the wind picked up, quickly lost from sight as it tumbled through the scrub. His temple throbbed and one ear was ringing, however, Israel was all alone. After a second, and then third long look around, the fellow continued on his way. With any luck over the next rise he’d get a clear look ahead.
The cog-smith again didn’t like what he saw.
While he could not make out all the details at this distance, it wasn’t a fort or outpost . It wasn’t even a blasted village full of savages! It was an airship, or more precisely the wreckage of an airship. The vessel had crashed on its port, boat-like underside twisted with loose planks jutting out. The planks reminded Israel of a hand reaching up for rescue that would never come. Only traces of the wood’s once fine stain remained, the relentless African sun, storms, and sand had taken their toll. The bow had all but broken off of the rest of the ship on impact. A gaping dark maw was left on its exposed belly. Long ago debris had sloughed out of the breach, but most of it now was covered by years of blown dirt. Some of the smaller articles were even overgrown with patches of grass.
Absolutely stunned, Israel didn’t move for several minutes. He wanted to sink to his knees and weep out of frustration. His demeanor wouldn’t let him do so. Part of the upper decks were bent vertical by the ancient trees they had crashed against. It was from one of shifted section that the Union Jack flew. What remained of the flag anyway, the symbol had been reduced to all but tatters. Proud colours had faded and it now flapped languid in the wind.
Despite his best efforts stinging tears rimmed Israel’s eyes. There was no hope here, no civilization – only its desiccated corpse. He should never have come to Africa. The rifle was slipped back over his shoulder and Israel tried to take a step forward. He didn’t want to get any closer to the wreckage though; it broke his heart to see something so magnificent in such a state. Most of the portholes had long been smashed out; the white paint of its upper decks stripped down so that only stripes of it remained between scars. All of the rigging was frayed and snapped, exhaust pipes on the aft were rusted out. He could barely make out the last remaining shreds of the dirigible float clinging to the branches of unyielding trees.
No one had lived here in a long time, or at all after it had crashed. He squeezed the bridge of his nose and fought down gasping breaths. He had to face the fact he was hopelessly lost now. Even if he was lucky civilization was leagues away at best and in which direction he didn’t know. He tried to sooth his eyes with a slow rub of forefinger and thumb. Once they hit his cheeks, the engineer’s tears were soaked up almost immediately by the day’s dust. What the bloody hell was he going to do now?
The breeze shifted and carried with it the sound of his name and curls of exotic spices mixed with smells most definitively feminine. He blinked wetness away and peered ahead. There was that damned hallucination again. This time however there was more than just a fleeting impression at the edge of vision.
The beautiful black woman drew into the shadows as soon as she was spotted. Israel could make out only the dim shape of her comfortable curves and the supple planes of her ebony skin. Though, that was enough to stir what little blood remained in his body. Sunlight glinted off of the circular bands of metal draped around her neck and across the top of her bare bosom. His gaze lingered on her soft chest for a bit too long. He coughed and blinked rapidly again before starting forward without an air of caution.
“Wait, miss, please.” Maybe a local tribe had set up a home within the scuttled airship?
She smiled with a slow push of darkly painted lips against one another and only a hint of teeth. The woman tilted her head in a coy manner more in common with the street women back home and brushed her hands against her hearty hips. Every movement, breath and feature of this dark beauty spoke of the promise of her fertility. Her yellow eyes shimmered. She took a step further back into the darkness of ruptured hull. Ivory bracelets clacked off of one another.
Israel stumbled over a half-buried pipe but managed to keep his footing. If he didn’t reach her in time he might lose his chance to get out of here. Part of his mind realized that this was nothing more than a phantom. The rest, unfortunately, had reached its breaking point. “No! Wait!”
In response the woman merely purred low and sensual. She finally smiled fully with a row of bright sharp teeth, complete with pronounced canines. That slash of white was the last Israel saw of her before she faded away into the gloom.
“Just a figment. Dear Lord, just a figment.” He muttered.
A low growl rolled out of the depths of the flotsam. It had a lovely timbre to it, but came from no woman. Israel’s blood shifted from lustfully hot to frozen in just a breath. Fingers twitched for want of the rifle on his back, and for good reason. With womanly grace a lioness stalked out of the darkness. The occasional ray of sunlight which pierced through the hull cast shimmering gold across her fur. Muscles sensually rippled under pelt as she locked gazes with the interloper. Her tail lashed back and forth with clear agitation.
“No. Not like-“ The rest of his words were dashed away by his blood curdling scream. Even though he was trying to slid rifle from his shoulder the Englishman was not fast enough. The great cat pounced with claws outstretched and jaws spread wide. His scream echoed out until it became a wet gurgle…
A breeze rustled through the tall grass. A flock of birds crossed the sky. Wildebeests lapped at muddy water that sparkled in unrelenting sunlight. Giraffe stripped leaves from tall branches. Hyena picked at carcasses. The lioness licked her red chops clean.
The savanna continued on.