Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 3: A Plan

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 3 – A Plan

Cover art by M. Leigh Hood

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In the previous episode, the freighter-balloon, Gigas, is fired upon by the Don Juan, a notorious privateer.

Location: A half mile above the Laurentide Ontario Glacier on the Canadian/New York border, September 2186.

 

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Lee, Gilbert, and Brand stood motionless on the Gigas’s bridge looking out through the thousand triangular windows. About a half-mile away, veiled by clouds, the privateering dirigible Don Juan hovered in the moonlight, batwings beating, close enough its portholes revealed its bright interior.

Lee put down the spyglass. “Mr. Brand, clearly you know Morse code. Can you manage our signal light? I need Mr. Gilbert on the ship’s wheel.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant, I’ll operate the signal,” Brand said. He pulled off his tan flyer’s cap. His forehead shined with sweat.

“Do it,” said Lee sharply. She was flushed. Her hair had come undone, so she pushed it back and adjusted her bicorn hat. “Hail the Don Juan, Mr. Brand, and make it wordy. Try and stall them.”

Brand bent over the brass and wood console. “What shall I say?”

“Tell them we are preparing to bring them aboard,” Lee said. “Mr. Gilbert, start us up again slow; keep moving us closer to our target – the parachute dropsite. Those shipwreck victims are going to receive the supplies they need.”

“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Brand and Gilbert together.

“Respectfully,” said Brand. “The standard message is an AOK followed by the amount of time it will take to lower the dinghy.”

“Yes,” she said. “I know. Hopefully a non-standard message will slow them down. They will have to discuss it.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant Lee,” he said. He tapped at a key on the console, saying slowly as he did, “PREPARING-TO-BRING-ABOARD.” Flashing on and off, fast and slow, the signal light illuminated the snowflakes outside the thousand windows so they burned like sparks descending in darkness.

When Brand finished, he stood at attention. Lee leaned with both hands on the balustrade. Gilbert held the wheel, peering into the distance. The Gigas drifted forward haltingly. The Don Juan’s portholes twinkled behind a misty stratus cloud.

No one stirred. The quiet stretched. The privateering airship sank deeper into the mists. There was only stillness and night.

“I don’t see any fuses being lit,” Lee said, breaking the hush.

“With permission,” said Brand. “I would guess their captain is consulting his mates, as you suggested, Lieutenant Lee.”

“Or they are readying an attack,” said Lee, adding, “Mr. Brand, henceforth, you are at liberty to speak.”

“Thank you,” Brand said.

“You were quite right, Lieutenant,” said Gilbert, “You seem to have given them something to discuss.”

Lee brushed at her face with a handkerchief. “Let’s hope so. Mr. Brand, keep a watch for their response; if you see anything flying at us, please speak up,” she said.

“Aye aye,” he nodded.

“How far is it to the dropsite, Mr. Gilbert?” she asked.

“About half a league ahead,” he answered. “Just beyond the Don Juan.”

“Good,” said Lee. “Brand, signal them. Ask them not to fire. Tell them we are not able to stop completely, plead mechanical difficulties, but tell then we will drop the dinghy bell in – how long will it take?”

“About half an hour,” Brand said.

“Tell the Don Juan to fall below us, and we will drop the bell so they can come aboard in forty-five minutes.”

Brand withdrew a gold timepiece on a chain from his tan jacket pocket. “At precisely zero three-four-five hours?”

“Yes,” said Lee. “If we can stall them long enough and keep moving forward slowly, we can drop the emergency supplies before the Don Juan can do anything to stop it.”

Brand tapped at the signal light key. The falling snow glittered again in orange flashes. Pushing the ship’s wheel slightly forward, Gilbert quickened their speed. Gigas, engines running, floated forward.

Wind shook the wheelroom. “She is moving again – Don Juan, I mean,” said Brand.

The distant airship’s signal light cut through the foggy night in bursts.

“Mr. Brand?” Lee said.

“They are telling us to brake or they will fire on us again.”

Lee tipped her hat back, sighed, and licked her lips. Sweat ran down her face; she shivered vigorously. “Remind Don Juan we are a much bigger ship. We are less maneuverable and we are caught in an air current. Tell them we are having trouble coming to a complete halt. Anything. Keep them busy just a moment longer,” she said. “I think I may have a plan. I do have a plan.”

Brand, at the console, tapped frantically at the signal key. “Yes, Lieutenant Lee.”

“Mr. Gilbert,” Lee said. “Both the dinghy bell and the shipping crate with the supplies are in the main hold, aren’t they? I saw them when I boarded in Cloud Twenty-Two.”

“Yes,” said Gilbert. “That is exactly right.”

“Now,” Lee said, “I know we’re flying with a skeleton crew – just how many crew members are there?”

“Nine,” said Gilbert, stroking his moustache.

“That’s all?” Lee asked.

“It doesn’t take much to sail one of these contraptions.” Through his octagonal glasses his eyes looked almost big enough to match his outsized moustache. “There’s myself, Second Lieutenant Gilbert, W; Able-bodied Flyer Brand, M, of course; Petty Officer Third Class Ahmad, A, ship’s mechanic; Ensigns Jameson, L, and Jennings, Q, who run our galley; Ensign Svendsen, K, in the laundry room; Petty Officer Second Class Green, T, the navigator; Martinez, E, ship surgeon; Ensign Santa Maria, J, our rudder-guide and rigger; Swabbie Sam, that’s Flyer Recruit Schmidt, S;  and – oh, of course, the Shipswain in the brig for drunkenness, Deschamps, Joan.”

“The drunken Shipswain is a woman?” Lee raised an eyebrow.

“Quite so,” said Gilbert, shrugging his epaulettes.

“Lieutenant,” Brand said. “Don Juan says AOK. They want to synchronize with our speed and path. They are commanding us to slow down as much as possible.”

“Shall I slow us down some more, Lieutenant?” Gilbert, at the wheel, looked over his shoulder.

“No, Mr. Gilbert, steady as we go,” Lee said. “That exchange went just as I hoped. We bought ourselves a few minutes, anyway. I believe I have a plan. We need to rouse the crew.”

Gilbert cleared his throat. “Mr. Brand, if you will hit the red button on the console, that will sound a general emergency alarm in the crew’s and officer’s quarters. The crew will dress and assemble.”

“Aye aye, sir,” Brand said. He hit the button with his palm. A red light blinked.

“What is your plan, Lieutenant Lee?” Gilbert squinted at her through his octagonal glasses.

“My plan is this,” Lee said. “We shall try to stall them until we can drop the supplies. If that fails, we will overpower the privateers when they first come aboard, when they will be at their weakest. Mr. Brand, I want you to proceed to the crew’s quarters and rally them.”

“Rally the crew?” Brand asked.

“Have the crew bring any sort of arms they might possess down to the main hold.”

“Arms?” Gilbert asked, lifting his glasses.

Lee stood as tall as she was able. “Yes, arms: bats, knives, mooring pins. Maybe someone has a pistol. Anything they can find. These are my orders. It’s just a guess, but I think the shipping crate with relief supplies for the airship wreck is what the Don Juan is after. That is our only significant cargo; if it isn’t the crate, we will have the opportunity to find out after the supplies have been safely dropped. The shipwrecked survivors on the glacier are depending on the Gigas to drop those supplies. And we are going to drop them.”

She nodded decisively. “On the double to the crew’s quarters. Rouse the crew, Mr. Brand, and get them down to the main hold with weapons as a welcoming committee. I will meet you there.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant,” he repeated.

“Oh, and Mr. Brand?” Lee called.

“Yes, ma’am?”

“Release the Shipswain from the brig.”

“Aye aye,” Brand said. He saluted, turned on his bootheels, and rushed down the steps.

When the hatch closed, Lee slumped against the balustrade and heaved a sigh. She produced her handkerchief again and wiped her face.

Gilbert took off his glasses. “Lieutenant Lee, I did not want to mention it in front of Flyer Brand, but your plan is very risky. What if we fail to contain the privateers? Then what will we do?”

Lee closed her eyes and took a long breath. “If we can’t overwhelm the privateers, we will fall back to the upper deck and eject the supplies automatically. What’s our altitude?” Lee asked.

“We are cruising at twelve thousand feet above the glacier.” Gilbert said. “The glacier is more than a mile high. We should be about eighteen thousand feet.” He pulled a large pocket-watch-like apparatus from his coat. “Altimeter says, yes, eighteen thousand, four hundred fifty-five feet above sea level.”

“Very good,” Lee nodded. “Earlier, Mr. Brand reminded me about the air pressure. The cabin is pressurized at this altitude, correct?”

“Yes.”

“And the cargo holds too?” Lee asked.

“Some, yes, Lieutenant. The main hold is. Some of the others aren’t.”

“But the air pressure – it’s not enough at this altitude to pull someone out of the ship, is it?” she asked.

“Not quite,” said Gilbert. “Although it would be close. You would certainly feel it. If we were much higher, nothing would stop you from going out the window.”

“Well then, if the privateers are in the cargo hold when we drop the supplies, they’ll have to hold on for dear life, won’t they? No matter how many there are. When the large gate opens to release the shipping crate?”

“Indeed,” said Gilbert smiling faintly. “Very good, ma’am.” Then he stopped abruptly, pulled off his peaked cap, and scratched his head. “Lieutenant Lee, I can eject the shipping crate from the bridge, but the dinghy bell – the emergency rescue craft – has a safety lever that must be pulled up before I can release it.”

“I will do that now,” Lee said. “I am going to the main hold anyway. If this strategy works, we can complete our mission – dropping the supplies – and continue on our way to West Buckminster.”

“Oh,” said Gilbert. “A flare must be fired, Lieutenant – when the supplies are ejected. I can fire the flare from the bridge, but in case of equipment failure, we have this.” Gilbert pulled a wood-handled, brass-barreled flare gun from his coat pocket.

He handed it to Lee. “Here. In fact, I ask your forgiveness, Lieutenant Lee. I had completely forgotten under the circumstances. As the balloon’s commander you must carry a flare gun. I have one as well.” He dug in his deep coat pockets. “And here are three flares. Obviously, the flare gun should only be fired from the specified portholes.”

Lee nodded and dropped the shells in the pocket of her gray jacket. “Very good. Mr. Gilbert, listen carefully. These are your orders. Stall the privateers for as long as you can. When you must drop the dinghy bell, ring two bells in the hold.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant.”

“When we reach the drop site, ring three bells. Fifteen minutes after that, if you have not heard from me, eject the crate.”

“Aye aye,” Gilbert said.

“All right,” said Lee. “I am ready. I will go down to the hold, pull the safety lever for the dinghy bell, and await Mr. Brand and the crew.”

“Aye aye,” said Gilbert. “And good luck.”

 

 

After the wheelroom’s dimness, Lee blinked and squinted under the dull lights in the promenade hall. The late night quiet was nearly all pervasive. The only sound was the white noise of air vents.

She hurried, almost sprinting, down the hall about half a mile and stopped when she reached a stairwell entrance beneath a sign: CENTRAL HOLDS 23, 24, 25, 26. The hatchway opened on a square, empty room with a circular deck hatch in its center.

Lee lifted the hatch with both hands. A cold breeze rushed up in her face. She grabbed her bicorn hat with one hand so it did not blow off her head.

“Hello?” Lee shouted. The space below was so big there was no echo. The only answer was another gust.

A spiral stairway receded down into the hold. Lee shivered. Clutching the handrail, she followed the steps, turning and turning, down into the depths. Below decks, the light was fainter than in the wheelroom. The wooden steps squeaked. Her bootheel slipped and she stumbled.

“These steps are icy,” said Lee. Her voice sounded empty in the vast hollowness. She steadied herself and started downward again.

At last, the dim light revealed, below her, the bare, wooden deck. Lee clattered down the last step. The hold deck bounced under her boots. “Whoa,” said Lee . She turned her head from side to side, watching the shadows at the room’s edges. Shivering, she pulled her gray uniform jacket tight.

The Gigas’s main cargo hold, occupying as it did the central portion of the lower three-quarters of the freighter-balloon’s hull, was an ominously large room: vast, cold, dingy, and deserted. Lee stood at one end. Behind the stairwell, a canvas wall, bulging outward, rose straight up to the invisible  ceiling.

The wide walkway ran ahead into the murky distance. On either side of the deck, walls of stiffened canvas curved sharply upwards and outwards. Empty netting, industrial hammocks used to suspend cargo, hung from the dark ceiling and threw distorted shadows on the concave walls. Wind howled just outside the thin screen of the hull. Here and there, small rips in the canvas fluttered outwards.

Walking, Lee kept toward the deck’s center and avoided its edges; there were no railings. Her breath fogged. She hurried along the walkway, footsteps echoing.

Detritus from the Gigas’s last voyage littered the deck. The air smelled of over-ripe bananas. Ahead of her, a shadow streaked across the deck.

“Carrie-Nation !” Lee swore and threw her hands up protectively. “Was that a rat?” She crept forward more cautiously.

At the hold’s center, she passed the shipping crate, a rectangular box of rough boards, sitting on a mechanical wooden dais, the ejection mechanism. Atop the crate, almost like a chef’s hat, was a bundle of parachute packs bigger than the box itself. On a console beside the mechanism was a glowing red button labeled: EMERGENCY EJECT.

Lee hurried past the big wooden box. At the far end of the main hold was a tent-like structure of netting. Quite large in and of itself, the tent was so small in the gigantic hold it was nearly unnoticeable. Above the entrance was written: HIGH ALTITUDE RESCUE CRAFT. The area was illuminated by green lights.

The HARC or ‘dinghy bell’ was a bell-shaped wicker basket with seats inside for twelve persons. Inside the netting tent, the bell was suspended over two folded canvas flaps. The top was attached to a heavy cable and a large winch. Next to the winch and protruding at a sharp angle from the deck was the safety lever.

Lee stood next to the handle, set her feet square, and tugged upwards. It squeaked but did not budge.

Lee bent her legs and, grunting, threw herself against the long handle with all her might so it rose. Gears clicked under her feet; she gasped, let go, and sat down abruptly, shaking the whole deck.

Lee, picked herself up, brushing the dirt from her hands. She pulled her jacket around her again and turned up the collar.

From somewhere in the dark, a bell pealed, the ship’s bell, once, twice. “Ah!” Lee cried and jumped back on her feet. “For Phryne’s sake!” Lee shouted up at the ceiling. “Couldn’t you have held them off a few more minutes, Mr. Gilbert?”

As if in answer, the bell rang again twice. Next to her, slowly, the spool began to unwind. The dinghy bell basket swayed, lowered to the deck, and slowly dropped through the canvas flaps. Air rushed, pulling the netting walls inward with a hiss. A sharp wind blew toward the opening like water being sucked into a drain. Lee had to grab her hat. Her hair came undone and lifted in the breeze.

Once the dinghy bell was through the flaps, the wind stopped. The spool continued turning. “There it goes,” Lee muttered straightening her hat.

Far above her head, a light appeared in the brown gloom: the circular hatch opening. The spiral stairwell was revealed in its entirety, a narrow, coiled tower that reached the enormous room’s ceiling.

Lee cupped her hands around her mouth and shouted up, “Mr. Brand? Is that you?”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant!” Brand answered. He carried a hurricane lantern. His legs were visible first as he circumvoluted the stairs, then his arm holding the lamp, then his face. Seven crewmembers followed him carefully down the steps. They all wore tan uniforms and held various weapons.

“Hurry!” Lee cried. “Gilbert is lowering the bell! The privateers will be here any minute!” Next to Lee, the spool stopped turning.

Flyer Brand leading the way, the crew stumbled off the stairwell one after the other. Even as far away as they were, the flimsy deck shook. Lee bounced up and down as they hurried toward her.

“Here we are, Lieutenant,” Brand said, his breath steamy in the lantern light.

“You are just in time,” Lee said. “The dinghy bell has been lowered already. The privateers are boarding now.”

“Aye aye. Crew, line up for inspection,” shouted Brand. The crew assembled themselves, stretching out into a line facing Brand and Lee.

“Attention,” Brand announced. “This is First Lieutenant Lee. She is in command of the ship.” The crew regarded Lee and saluted

“Step forward when you hear your name,” Brand said. “Petty Officer Third Class Ahmad, ship’s mechanic.” A tall man with long hair stepped forward and bowed, hoisting a pipe wrench.

“Ensign Svendsen,” Brand said, indicating a jovial fellow with a salt pepper beard. In one hand, he swung a laundry iron tied up inside a sheet.

“Ensign Jameson, Ensign Jennings,” Brand said. The middle-aged chef and her apprentice, a young man, both raised their butcher knives in the air.

“Ensign Santa Maria, our rudder and rigging master.” Ensign Santa Maria hefted a weighted rope monkey’s fist.

“Flyer Recruit Smith,” Brand said. A plain young man with freckles waved a hockey-stick at Lee.

“And Shipswain Deschamps,” Brand finished, with a flourish. The Shipswain was red eyed but awake, a tall woman with black bangs hefting a hammer.

Lee stood up straight and turned to the assembled crew. “As I said, you are just in time. The infamous privateer, Don Juan, has taken our dinghy bell cable. They have forced us to bring them aboard. I believe it is their intention to prevent the emergency supplies from being dropped on the airship wreck, but we don’t know. I thank you all for your service to the Gigas and to the North Atlantic Air Navy. All of you will receive official commendations for coming to defend the ship.”

“Is that all?” asked Ensign Svendsen.

“Yes,” said Lee, snapping. “Now, to your stations! We must surround the dinghy bell and capture its occupants in order to keep our ship from being hijacked. Is that clear?”

“Aye aye!” they said together.

The Gigas jerked sharply under their feet, like a floating boat’s deck shakes when it bumps against a pier. “They caught the line,” Brand said. “They’ve successfully brought the bell onboard.”

In a few moments, the light started to pulse. The winch engine hummed, and the cable spool turned, rewinding.

Lee, Brand, and the crew waited without moving, silently. The wind blasted as the dinghy bell ascended through the flaps. Lee’s hair whipped around her ears.

The wind stopped. The cargo hold was utterly quiet.

The wicker hatch opened; three figures appeared. First came a tall man with blonde and silver hair piled atop his head like a courtier from Versailles or a twentieth century rockstar. He wore an embroidered flight jacket and brown cavalier boots with cuffs. He grinned as soon as he landed on his feet.

A top hat rose out of the hatch next, then the head of a tall black man, followed by his long arms and torso (in a well-brushed gray wool greatcoat), and last of all his lanky legs and oxblood brogue boots. He held a bamboo pole that was not only a little taller than he himself, but that seemed, somehow, much longer than the dinghy bell from which they had emerged. Arisen from the hatch, he straightened his coat and tie and took off his hat so his long dreadlocks spilled on to his shoulders.

Finally, a brunette woman jumped from the bell. She was unnaturally pale with large brown eyes and dressed in a green military uniform; it was apparent, however, she was not in the military service. Instead of medals or other insignia, she wore black ribbons, shiny pins, skulls, and a miniscule doll’s head with wild hair and one eye. The woman caught Lee’s gaze and, licking her lips, she smiled.

 

 

 

 

 

Our Modern World, Global History text, copyright 2198 Aether University: Excerpted from “Chapter 4: Roots of the North Atlantic Community”:

The North Atlantic Community formed in the wake of the twenty-second century nuclear and world wars. The Allied States suffered considerable losses culminating in a disastrous defeat at Pico and Terceira Islands in the central Atlantic. The Neo-Prussian and Spanish onslaught was only stopped when Field Marshall Hubert rallied the defeated Allied Air Navies in the now famous Bermudan Gambit. For this reason, H.G. Hubert is known as the founder of the North Atlantic Community.

The terrestrial portion of the North Atlantic Community is comprised of the remains of the United States of America, the United Kingdom, and those English and French speaking countries of the world (including the island continent of Greater Australia/New Guinea, commonly called Austruinea) untouched by the ice; also Mexico, the Caribbean, and Greece.

The aerial portion of the North Atlantic Community consists of more than five hundred floating-sphere “Cloud” cities. About half were constructed in the late 2090s as part of the United States. Some were originally tethered to the earth’s surface or the ocean floor. The vast majority were designed for human occupation, some were devoted to various industries and to food production.

Today, most NAC sphere cities are free floating, occupying the lower stratosphere.

Continue the adventure: Chapter 4

 

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