Race Against the Clock
“Captain, we located the distress signal,” the young woman in military uniform announced. “It’s coming from the city of Edinburgh, Scotland.”
Captain Khalilah looked at the monitor in front of her. A map showed they were 332 miles from Edinburgh. With the highest possible speed it would take them about one hour and twenty minutes by airship from the Academy’s port here in London. With five hours time granted for the mission, the Academy really were pushing her limits, not that she had expected the final test for licence as Captain to be easy. There was a reason not more than a minuscule percentage of students finished this last exam successfully. But with one’s own ship and crew as the price, she was willing to do everything to succeed.
“Accelerate to highest speed and head straight north,” she ordered.
Khalilah relished in the sensation of the airship accelerating as she was pushed back into her seat and ordered her first officer to bring her the mission file. Although she had memorized the information the first time she had read it, she went over it again, repeating it via the speakers to the whole crew.
“Our mission is to retrieve missing person #346995. The name is Lakshmi Patel. She’s a scientist from India and currently on the run because she fears for her newest invention. It’s a molecular model for an explosive mixture she accidentally discovered. In the wrong hands this has the potential to cause massive destruction. We have no confirmation of the visual, except that she has three parallel scars on her left cheek.”
For the rest of the flight, Khalilah strolled around the galley, supervising her crew, giving orders and making sure they stayed on course. In-between these tasks, Khalilah checked her uniform and weapons, while formulating a plan in her head. Although she didn’t like it, she would have to take a crewmember with her. There was no other option but First Officer Santiago. We’ll see whether he would still keep his opinion that a woman could never be a Captain, she smirked to herself. He wasn’t the first who disapproved of there being a woman allowed to join the Academy and he wouldn’t be the last. But she would show all of them. She was a much better captain than he ever could wish to be.
“First Officer Santiago,” she called out, summoning him from where he had lounged comfortably in his chair, staring at his nails, while expecting her to fail. “This is how it’s going to go down. According to surveillance in Edinburgh, our missing scientist was last seen, in the Burke & Hare Inn, right beneath Calton Hill, which is apparently a cemetery. We’ll take it from there. Questions?”
He opened his mouth to form what she was certain would be no question. Before he could create a sound, she interjected, “Good. Prepare yourself. Because if you sabotage my mission, I swear by the Empire, I will make sure the only position in our glorious organization you will ever have, is as a toilet cleaner at the Academy dungeons.”
The digital plate on the inside of her arm buzzed. She pressed a button and held it to her ear.
“We’ve begun to descend. Landing in three minutes, Captain.”
“Roger,” she replied and nodded at Santiago, “Take your position. We’ll jump out as soon as we are near the ground. The crew will secure the airship.”
She glanced out of the window and saw Edinburgh before her. Khalilah had never been to Scotland herself but now was not the time to appreciate its beauty. Standing behind her chief navigator, she watched on her screen as they approached a hill located within the city centre. As they began to descend right over a large empty space, Khalilah gave Santiago a stern look. Following her example, he took his place next to her. They hooked themselves to the security ropes and faced the hatchway, which would open in a few seconds.
Once it did, they jumped out without hesitation, falling several feet, before they dangled less than a foot above the ground. Khalilah unhooked the rope and landed with practised agility. It wouldn’t do to twist an ankle before the mission had even started.
She consulted the compass, which was attached to her belt. The needle had been programmed to point toward the coordinates of the inn they were looking for. Since time was of essence, she jogged down the hill and down a flight of stairs, passing graves and surprised passers-by as they made way for her.
By the time they had arrived in front of the Burke and Hare, a dingy old pub, Santiago was out of breath. Looks like someone had been eating too much cake.
“Do try to keep up,” she ordered, hardly out of breath.
She pushed open the doors to the pub and headed straight for the barmaid.
“Captain Khalilah, Aerospace Academy,” she said and showed the woman her badge. “I am looking for a missing person by the name of Lakshmi Patel, although she may have used an alias.”
“There’s a Lakshmi Patel in Room 3,” the barmaid replied, giving the two Academy students a confused look.
Khalilah was taken aback for a moment. This was too easy. Something didn’t ring true here. Was it a trap?
“Can we have the keys to that room, please?”
The barmaid shrugged and handed them a bunch of keys. “It’s this one. First floor.”
Khalilah took the keys. “Thank you for your cooperation.”
She sprinted up the stairs, aware of Santiago following her at a snail’s pace. Her steps hastened the closer she got. Deep down, she felt something was amiss. She drew her revolver and motioned for Santiago to do the same. This time he obeyed without hesitation, sensing how precarious the situation was.
Khalilah knocked on the door. “Aerospace Academy. Open this door, Miss Patel.”
There was no response. She silently signalled Santiago to be alert and unlocked the door. Khalilah pushed it open slowly, before pointing her revolver at the middle of the room with a practised move.
Scanning the room, she found signs of a forced intrusion. The window stood open, the curtains billowing in the wind. Pieces of paper, books, and clothes were strewn all across the room. Amidst them lay the bloody body of who could only be Lakshmi Patel.
“Check for traces of the intruders,” she ordered and knelt down next to heavily injured woman. “Miss Patel, can you hear me?”
With great difficulty, the woman moved her head in her direction. The effort caused her to cough up blood.
They certainly were dedicated to making their training simulations realistic, Khalilah thought. She brushed the splatters of blood off her legs and rubbed her bloodied fingers together. The blood’s texture was incredibly authentic. Bringing her fingers to her nose, it caused her stomach roll.
“Miss Lakshmi Patel,” she repeated, more urgently this time. “Who did this to you?”
“Molecule model…hidden,” she gasped between wheezing breaths. “Riddle…key is Arthur…Lady of the Lake.”
Lakshmi Patel released a deep breath and stilled completely. Khalilah called her name repeatedly, lightly slapping her cheek. She didn’t move. She held two fingers to the side of her neck.
“No pulse,” Captain Khalilah said, a hint of panic tingeing her voice.
“You’re not doing it right,” Santiago argued and pushed her away so he could feel for a pulse himself.
His eyes widened when he realized there was none. “What the hell is going on here?”
“I don’t know.” The first moment of panic had passed. Khalilah activated the plate on the inside of her arm to contact her crew back at the airship. “Report back to the Academy. We found Lakshmi Patel dead in her room at the Burke and Hare. Send reinforcements, while Santiago and I continue with the mission.”
“I need geographic information. Are there any landmarks, streets or whatever related to King Arthur or the Lady of the Lake within Edinburgh?”
“There’s a volcano, not active anymore though,” the chief navigator replied. “It’s called Arthur’s Seat.”
“Is there a lake near it or a pond –”
“There are several ponds all around it, none with a name which could be associated with the Lady of the Lake.”
“Send me the coordinates,” Khalilah ordered and ended communication.
“Are you sure this is a good idea?” Santiago asked. “This can’t possibly be part of the emergency simulation.”
“If you would rather hang around her and wait for her killer to return, you are welcome to stay but not under my command.”
She held out her hand for his badge.
He heaved a sigh and with an eye roll, conceded. “Fine. Lay on, Macduff.”
“Been inspired to make literary references, have we?” Khalilah remarked as they rushed downstairs. On the way out, she shouted to the barmaid. “Expect reinforcements from the Academy to arrive any moment.”
“What?” the woman squeaked.
“I locked the door,” Khalilah replied, throwing her the keys. “Don’t let anyone in and don’t contaminate the crime scene.”
With an eye on her compass, Khalilah and Santiago followed Calton Road until they caught sight of Holyrood Palace. The street led them at great distance around the royal palace, directly to the foot of Arthur’s Seat.
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Santiago complained.
“I hope you did well on your cross country running exam,” she said and started jogging up the steep path.
She had made the mistake of looking at her watch. More than two hours had already passed and she was supposed to be back at the Academy in time. Not to mention Lakshmi Patel looked as if she had been genuinely murdered.
Something was terribly wrong and she would only get closer to finding out the truth if she found the molecule model Lakshmi Patel had taken such pains to hide.
She kept running, fuelled by the desperate need to find another hint. Arthur’s Seat was close enough to King Arthur. What did this have to do with the Lady of the Lake? Maybe it meant the location or form of the surrounding small lochs would give an indication of where the molecule model was hidden.
Santiago had trouble keeping up with her. His breath was like heavy staccato notes. Khalilah knew he was too proud to admit he was less physically fit then his female captain. Nevertheless, she pushed him and herself by quickening her pace yet again.
Thankfully, the path was secure with little chance of slipping. However, the further up they climbed, the steeper and more littered with larger pebbles the hill became. The last part of the mountain was a slope made of larger boulders and smaller stones in-between. From there on, they had to climb.
The moment they had reached the top, Santiago let himself fall to the ground. He sucked in the air as if someone had been strangling him.
Khalilah brushed the strands of purple hair the cold wind twirled around out of her face. Her chest heaved with deep breaths. Perspiration glistened on her forehead but her breathing pattern was even.
Reassured her first officer was rather behaving melodramatically than suffocating, she scanned the city visible from atop Arthur’s Seat. Smoke drifted from chimneys of the new factories, shrouding the city in dark clouds. In the centre on top of a hill, was Edinburgh Castle, watching over its city.
On the other side lay Calton Hill, on top of which she could easily make out her trusty airship. Behind it lay the endless sea, no coast in side. Her glance drifted back to the airship. She may be parted from that part of the crew but she was still responsible for them.
Holding the panel on the inside of her arm to her ear, she contacted her chief navigator again. “Is everything in order on-board?”
“Has the Academy replied yet?”
Khalilah held her breath, while she waited for a response.
“They sent local police to the…crime scene. Lakshmi Patel’s murder has been confirmed. Reinforcement from London has been sent since it’s the closest station but it might take them a while to get here.”
“Colonel Carter ordered you to step down but –”
“You think he’s doing it because he doesn’t want a woman in the field, let alone in a leading position?”
There was a pause. “Aye, Captain.”
“The simulation has gotten out of control,” she admitted. “If anyone wants to step away from the mission, they may do so.”
She waited, while the chief navigator talked to her comrades who must have been gathered on the bridge. Then she replied, her confidence regained, “You have our fullest support, Captain.”
“Thank you, team,” Khalilah smiled. It was good to know that those who mattered the most, her crew if only for this one mission, had trust in her. “Lock down the airship. Be on your guard. You may be in danger. I’ll be in contact.”
“Roger,” the chief navigator replied. “Good luck, Captain.”
“Captain,” Santiago said, for the first time without a sarcastic tone. “I have no idea what you are looking for but you might want to have a peek at this.”
Her eyes followed where he was pointing. At the foot of the boulder wall they had climbed was a meadow on top of the hill. Much smaller stones lay scattered in the grass. Santiago was pointing out the curious formation of the stones.
“Are those letters?”
Khalilah retrieved a camera operated by clockworks from one of the bags hanging from her belt. She zoomed in, took a picture and within seconds the finished photograph slipped from the slit. After having packed away the camera and grabbed a pen, she began connecting the stones in the grass like dots in a colour by numbers game. Soon letters became visible.
“Shoo,” Santiago shouted. “Get away.”
Khalilah looked up, her hand instinctively on the hilt of her revolver. Santiago was waving his hands wildly.
“Those damn crows are destroying the message.”
“I don’t think they are,” she mused, staring at the crow dropping a pebble. “I think they are the ones writing the message.”
She continued connecting the dots, making a new one for each pebble the craws dropped. At least, the pattern made a word visible.
“Excalibur,” she read.
“Like King Arthur’s sword in the legend?” Santiago asked.
“It fits into the pattern.” She packed away her tools. “But what does it have to do with the Lady of the Lake? That is, apart from the obvious legendary connotation.”
Her eyes followed the crow. “Hmm, seems to be the only way.”
She began her descent back down the boulders. Santiago was confused by her seemingly random actions but didn’t question her anymore. A few yards behind her, he followed with less steady steps. Khalilah climbed down the boulders with the agility of a mountain goat.
However, once she reached the meadow part, she slowed down and crouched, approaching the crow with great care.
“Hello, you,” she whispered. “Do you know something about Lakshmi Patel?”
The crow cocked its head to the side and cawed. Although, she was a few yards away and still approaching, it hadn’t fled. Khalilah sat back on her heels one foot away from the bird. “What does it mean? Why Excalibur?”
After another caw, the crow hopped to her and flew onto her shoulder. She slowly brought her hand to it, stroking its silken feathers. “I’m a friend of Lakshmi’s. I need to find the molecule model.”
The crow nipped at her fingers, before taking off. Khalilah jumped to her feet and followed the bird, which flew a few yards in front of her, so she could easily keep up with it. Some distance behind, Santiago trotted after them.
The bird led them back down the volcano, this time around another path, which was less steep and shorter. If only we had known about this route before, Santiago probably thought. He could take his complaints up with the chief navigator if he still had any breath to yell at someone once the mission was over.
This path led around the mountain in a long loop. It took about twenty minutes of brisk walking until a small lake came into view. Khalilah was exhilarated. They were so close now. This had to be where the molecule model was hidden.
Once they had reached the edge of the lake, the crow croaked a goodbye and flew away. She scanned the lake. Nothing looked out of place, except maybe the ginormous swan trotting toward then.
“I’ve got no bread,” she told it absentmindedly.
Santiago repeated his prolific scaring away birds skill. Again, to no avail. The swan was entirely unimpressed and continued its approach, quacking angrily.
“Can we find the damned molecule model, before we become swan fodder?” Santiago complained.
“Shush,” she chastised. “Don’t you hear that? There’s a creaking sound, a rattling.”
Khalilah listened more closely and identified the sound of the ticking noise. It was coming from the swan. She pulled her revolver from her belt and pointed it at the still approaching swan.
The swan hissed and flapped its wings, revealing the source of the mysterious ticking noise. There were no feathers on its sides, revealing the machinery underneath. Clockworks ticked with every flap and movement it made.
Now, the big question was: Did Lakshmi Patel leave it here or was it a minion of the people who killed the scientist?
The answer became clear, when she scanned the lake again; this time with the aid of binoculars. In some distance she spotted a curious object suspended from a tree. It looked like a sword. Considering all the mysterious messages, this was without a doubt their Excalibur.
“First Officer Santiago,” Khalilah said. “I have great faith in you. Keep this monstrosity distracted. Shoot if need be. Should I fall, return to the airship and wait for reinforcements.”
“Where are you going?”
She was taken aback by what looked to her like genuine worry.
Khalilah voiced her deductions.
“Oh,” Santiago said, trying to make out the sword in the distance. “Good luck, Captain.”
“Good luck, First Officer,” she replied and set off, jogging at a fast pace.
To get to the sword, she would have to go around the side of the lake, since the water was much too cold to swim through. The sword pulled her to it like a magnet. Her legs carried her like the wind. Adrenaline cursed through her body now but tomorrow her legs would probably hurt so much she would hardly be able to move. But she’d have earned her Captain’s title then and it’d all be worth it.
Finally, the sword was within her grasp. She kept jogging at the spot because one attempt to stop moving her legs had almost caused her to drop to the ground. Keeping them in motion was the only way forward.
She picked up a long twig form the ground and poked the sword with it, although it hung low enough for her to unhook it like a treat from a Christmas tree. But years of experience had taught Khalilah to be cautious. Testy as the swan was, it seemed to be too little protection for such an important artefact.
The twig made contact with the sword and swayed. Nothing else happened.
Khalilah repeated her mistake of looking at her watch. Throwing caution into the wind, she reached for the sword. When nothing happened upon touching its handle, she unhooked it from the tree.
A metallic shriek pierced the air. She whirled around and saw a humanoid robot composed of clockworks underneath a white flowing dress emerging from the water, straight toward her. Lady of the Lake, indeed.
Pushed by a new wave of adrenaline, Khalilah broke into another sprint. Carrying the sword, clutched in her hands in front of her chest slowed her down, while the Lady of the Lake became only faster once she had left water and moved on land.
Khalilah reached Santiago who had shot the mechanical swan several times, going by the hole in its feathered wings. None of its injuries had slowed down the swan. Seeing the robot trap her first officer into a corner between a tree, park bench, and bushes, Khalilah acted before thinking.
She swung her sword and brought it down on top of the swan. Excalibur entered the swan’s body and cut through it with a creaking sound. The swan’s wings stopped in mid-flap and it fell into two parts.
Santiago sighed a breath of relief, “Thank you, Captain.”
“Run,” she replied, motioning at the mechanical Lady of the Lake, which was still on their heels.
Santiago swore under his breath and made for the first time an honest attempt at running. She handed him the sword and activated the panel on the inside of her arm. “We are being pursued by mechanical minions. Prepare to take off immediately.”
“Already prepared,” she was grateful to hear her chief navigator say. “We are on our way to pick you up.”
Khalilah and Santiago kept running. From their position they could see the airship hover not far over them. Her crew must have acted proactively and navigated it to where they were. A Captain truly was only half as good without their crew
The two reached the main street, opposite of which lay Holyrood Palace. Khalilah led the way to the right, away from the city unto meadows, where the airship could fly low.
Once the airship was lowered to the point where it hovered about two yards above the ground, the chief and assisting engineer appeared through the hatchway. They threw out ropes. Being the ever-dutiful Captain, Khalilah hooked her first officer unto the rope, before attaching herself to it.
She gave the two engineers a sign and they pushed a button, which started the mechanism that retracted the ropes. Flying so low above the ground was dangerous, even with the best of pilots. Therefore, the airship gained height, while Khalilah and Santiago were still being pulled upwards through the hatchway.
Khalilah looked back down on the ground. The robotic Lady of the Lake was jumping upwards, still stretching out its hands toward them but they had surpassed its reach. At last, Khalilah and her first officer were heaved aboard with the engineer’s hand under their armpits.
The hatchway was closed. They were safe. Khalilah unhooked herself and took the sword from Santiago. With wobbly legs, she stumbled toward the bridge. She entered it, Santiago and the engineers behind her, and the whole crew started clapping.
Her face lit up with a proud smile. “Good job, crew. Honestly, well done. I’m honoured to have worked with each and everyone with you.”
During the last part, she shot a meaningful look at Santiago, who gave her an apologetic smile in return. She held up the sword. “Though we couldn’t save Lakshmi Patel, this is her legacy, the riddle we retrieved.”
“What is it?” the chief navigator asked.
“That’s the question.” She examined the sword, turning it around. “Any ideas?”
“I might do a few tests,” the chief engineer suggested.
“Go ahead,” Khalilah suggested. “Meanwhile, I hope we are heading south now?”
The chief navigator returned her attention to the screen. “Heading south at full speed.”
“Brilliant,” she replied, plopping down in her captain’s chair. “No news from the Academy yet?”
The chief navigator shook her head.
Holding her breath, she glanced at her pocket watch. They had less than one and a half hours left to get to London. It would be a race against the clock but with a bit of luck and the right winds, they might just make it in time.
“Captain,” the chief engineer approached as they flew over Nottingham. “We found out the mystery behind the sword.”
She stared at the metal molecule model in his hands. “How…”
“It’s called nitinol, meaning it’s an alloy of nickel and titanium.” The engineer handed her the silver molecule model. “Nitinol is a rare and expensive metal with a special ability called shape memory. It can be deformed as much as you like, even crafted into a sword. Once it is covered in hot water it returns to the shape, into which it has been forged.”
“Fascinating.” Khalilah ran her hands over the engravings on the silver metal disk and added with a smile at her engineers, “Amazing. Absolutely brilliant job.”
“Ready Captain,” the chief navigator exclaimed. “We’re about to descend.”
“Everyone take your places and don’t forget to fasten your seatbelts.”
Khalilah took her place, fastening her seatbelt with trembling fingers, before laying them in her lap, so they covered her pocket watch. She didn’t dare look at where the clock’s hands were. The mere thought of them made her lungs constrict. She was so close to her goal now.
The airship touched down gently. Taking a shaky breath, she left her seat. Her trusty engineers opened the hatchway. This time, they additionally let down a staircase, which unfolded from the airship’s underbelly.
As Captain, she would have to embark first. She straightened her clothes and brushed down her purple hair. Standing half a step behind her, Santiago gave her an encouraging smile, “Captain?”
“Let’s go,” she nodded.
Holding her head high, she stepped down the stairs with perfectly poised confidence. Not only her teachers were waiting in the hanger, but people so high in the military, she almost expected the Emperor himself to stand amongst them.
Now, she wished she had chanced a look at the watch after all, as she waited with bated breath for someone to say something.
Colonel Carter, who was responsible for administrating the final exams, stepped forward. “You have proven great courage today, bordering on foolishness in going ahead on a mission, which was not yours. You risked your crew, what do you have to say for yourself?”
Santiago stood behind her, holding out what used to be a sword. Khalilah smirked. “I present to you Lakshmi Patel’s molecule model Excalibur.”
The crowd hummed with excitement. Apparently, no one had expected them to prevail in the mission. Then it occurred to her there had been something odd in his word choice. She turned back to Colonel Carter and asked, “What to do you mean by not our mission?”
“There has been a rather embarrassing mix-up of top secret files.” He glared at the test administrator who ducked his head behind his clipboard. “Accidentally, you were given files for an actual top secret mission of highest priority.”
Captain Khalilah held her breath. “Does that mean I passed?”
“You successfully completed a mission reserved for a senior Captain and experienced crew and all that within the time limit of your exam,” the President of the Aerospace Academy said and held out his hand for her to shake. “Congratulations, Captain. You have a very bright future ahead of you.”
Colonel Carter congratulated her as well. “Expect to be called in for your first official mission soon. But tonight you should celebrate.”
“Thank you, sir. What do you say, crew?” She turned around to face the airship. “First round is on me.”
A wide smile spread across her face, when the crew cheered, “Aye, aye, Captain.”