Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Chapter 5: Glacier

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 5 – Glacier

Cover art by Debra Weiss

 

 

Courtesy of Debra Weiss

Courtesy of Debra Weiss

In the previous episode, the freighter balloon, Gigas, is boarded by the Don Juan, a notorious privateer. Captain Kerry will not say what he is seeking but he does not find it. He takes Lee and the Gigas crew prisoner. When the freighter reaches its destination, Lee ejects with the supplies and escapes.

 Location:The Laurentide Ontario Glacier on the Canadian/New York border, September 2186.

heavy_gear_flourish

Lee and Brand, trapped inside the shipping crate, fell through space. The high altitude air blew through them like a freezing river, louder than a great waterfall. Above, through the spaces between the boards, the Gigas’s lights disappeared beyond the cloud haze and falling snow.

The sky was a bottomless well, a rushing blackness. Lee’s hands opened and closed as they fell, reflexively grasping.

The crate, unbalanced, spun in the air and tilted with their weight. Loose packages and bundles pinned Lee’s legs against the rough boards. Tears ran sideways across her face. Only a latch and a lock held the door shut; outside was the screaming night. Lee opened her mouth, gasping, and cried out, but she made no audible sound over the hundred mile-an-hour winds. She closed her eyes, opened them, and moaned inaudibly again.

Brand’s mouth opened and moved. He was tangled in netting. He shouted.

“What?” Lee yelled.

He pointed at the pocketwatch in his hand and counted down on his fingers: five, four, three, two, one. They looked at one another breathlessly. Lee’s eyes grew wilder; her lips muttered a speechless prayer.

Above the crate, the parachutes opened like flapping sails. The central chute, tall and skinny, blew upwards, unraveling the other four. The crate jerked, slowed by straining cords. As each chute opened, the container swung violently side to side. Lee dry-heaved, choking.

Lee and Brand were thrust against the ceiling – then they fell. The wind’s howl softened. The crate, decelerating, hung suspended inside a column of snow.

“What?” Lee repeated, louder. Her jaw chattered uncontrollably.

Brand cupped his hands over his mouth. “I said. I thought. The multiple. Chute. Might not. Open. Under these adverse conditions!”

“Did they all open?”

“I think so. This drop-crate’s not meant for passengers. We might land hard.”

“Nellie Bly!” Lee swore. Her body trembled and shivered.

The dark-blue snow-covered earth climbed slowly upward. The moon appeared. The parachutes drifted with the snowflakes.

A geyser of orange flames lit the night sky above the parachutes, an immense pyrotechnic torch burning brighter with each second. Beneath the boards, the vast plain of snow and ice glowed as red as hot coals in the reflecting light, a hellish landscape.

“The flare!” Brand said.

“Gilbert did it!” Lee shouted. “He outwitted the privateers! The shipwreck crew will be able to find us!”

Floating downward, the crate spun slightly and swung back and forth like a lantern. Steadily, the glacier cliffs widened and grew beneath them in the moonlight; then surrounded them. Slow time sped up.

“Hold on!” Brand said. “Here we go!”

The packing crate slammed into an ice cliff and skidded downwards. Lee screamed.

The second crash was harder; she was thrown backwards. She and Brand bounced against each other’s sides and shoulders.

The crate slid down a steep wall with a sound like grating chalk. The parachute dragged. The lower corner opposite Lee hit a sharp outcrop of ice, and the crate bounced away as though kicked, spinning upside down. They tumbled and tossed around like a pair of dice.

The parachute tore with a loud rip. “Whoa!” Lee cried.

“Feague!” said Brand.

Wood and ice shattered. Lee was thrown forward. The netting she clung to gave way.

The crate split, spilling its contents on the snow. The parachutes descended, landing one after the other and settling in heaps with puffs of icy air.

 

 

Snowflakes fell in Lee’s eyes, and she blinked. She trembled powerfully. She lay on the snowbank, shivering and dizzy-eyed. The snow-blotted sky floated overhead like a dream.

She tried to stand, but her legs only trembled. Her hands and arms shook uncontrollably. “I don’t think I can move,” she said, then carefully turned her head side to side.

She cried out when she leaned on her left hand and fell face forward in the snow. She rolled over and sat up, guarding her wrist.

She pushed herself up on her right side and got to her feet. She examined herself, patting her arms, legs, and face. She stood alone on a bed of snow at the bottom of an ice promontory. To the east, an eerie blue light crowned the frozen hills, the first light of sunrise. A vast plain covered in ice boulders and scarred by crevasses extended into the horizon, a cold alien landscape of purple, pink, black.

The wooden shipping crate was mostly intact. One section of boards was broken open. She put her limp left hand in her pocket and pulled her gray jacket tighter in the face of a windblast.

“Brand?” Lee cried, turning her head left and right. Empty snow faced her. Above, the cliffside showed their downward path, a long gray scar.

“Brand?” she yelled, louder. With her blimp boots, she kicked against the frozen snow under the crate, dislodging the gravelly ice. “Brand? Brand? Brand?”

A masculine groan came from beyond the square crate. Lee fell backwards against the wood wall. Hobbling, she stumbled around the corner.

Brand sat, legs splayed out against a frozen snowdrift. He was wrapped in his camel brown uniform. Eyes wide open, he was laughing breathlessly.

She climbed on all fours toward him. “B –brand – are you well?” she asked, falling backwards against the crate.

“Lieutenant,” Brand said, gasping. “Are you injured?”

“M -my wrist,” she said, holding up her left hand. He offered his hand. They stood up together, leaning on one another for support. “I think it’s b -broken,” Lee winced. “Or sprained.”

“Can you move it?”

Shivering, she held her left forearm in her right hand and lifted the wrist up and down. “Yes,” she said. “I can move it. So I might just be scared. I’m still shaking l-like a l-leaf.” Her lips moved stiffly with cold.

A wind blew snow horizontally and whistled against the ice cliff. Lee’s hair was frozen; her cheeks flushed red. Frost had formed on her eyelashes.

“I’m freezing B-brand. I am sorry. I erred and nearly killed us. As soon as it happened – as soon as I did it, I mean – I wished I hadn’t, b -but it was too late.”

Brand chuckled. “I never saw anything like it – hitting the emergency eject button with a tin can.” His voice was hoarse.

He sat down again, abruptly. “Whoops. My legs feel like rubber,” said Brand.

Lee wrapped her arms around herself. Her head was bare.

“Let’s find something to wear,” said Brand, nodding at the broken crate. “There’s heavy clothes among the packages. Let’s get something warm on.”

He leaned against the crate. “Here,” he handed her a silver flask from his pocket. His hand shook as roughly as hers. She drank and coughed and gave it back; he drank.

Lee rubbed her palms together and blew warm breath into them. “Now that I’ve stopped shaking from f -fear, I’m freezing c-cold.” She rubbed her wrist with her other hand.

“The adrenaline is wearing off. You have nerves of steel, Lieutenant,” he said. “I’m still rattled. I never would have attempted such a daring escape on my own.”

“When you’re in command of a freighter-balloon, you have to think on your feet,” Lee said. She held a straight face for a second then laughed. “On the other hand, I hope I made the right decision to eject with the supplies and fulfill the Air Naval mission. I had only an instant to choose whether captaining the Gigas or making the drop was more important. I suppose Gilbert was really running the ship anyway. Let the doctor be the ship’s figurehead now.” Snow blew over them and she shivered again.

He held out his arm and she fell against him. Together, they turned and limped through the spilled wreckage to the broken crate. Snowfall covered the gray-brown boards with fine white lace.

Lee kneeled in the shelter of the ice wall and the box. Brand fell to digging through the packages, unwrapping and untying brown paper bundles. Lee, sheltered between the ice wall and the shipping crate, crouched, shivering violently.

From the crate’s innards, Brand withdrew hooded parkas, fur-trousers, thick leather gloves, wool socks, padded boots, and, after these, snowshoes, goggles, and skis. The parkas were reversible, white outside, fluorescent orange inside. “NAC Army issue,” he said. “They are useful whether you want to hide or whether you want to be found. White side out?”

“Yes,” Lee said. “For now. Are there any guns?”

He shook his head. “No.”

Lee tugged off her wet boots and stripped off her steaming socks. Brand tossed her a roll of thick wool socks, and she pulled them on, wiggling her toes. She dressed in the thick pants, and Brand helped her pull the sleeves of a heavy brown leather parka over her uniform jacket.

She hunched over, gratefully warm. “This hood makes my head feel small,” Lee said, with a pixie smile, rubbing her hands together.

Brand found a tin box with a first-aid kit. Lee pulled the parka’s thick sleeve up to her elbow, and Brand wrapped cloth bandages tightly around her left wrist. She lifted her bandaged wrist and turned it to and fro.

With a start, Lee touched the top of her head. “Do you see my hat, Mr. Brand?” she asked. “My first lieutenant’s hat?” She held her hands over her head indicating the absence of her formidable headpiece; he shook his head.

“No, Lieutenant. The wind must have taken it.”

“What about the Gigas? Any signal or sign?” she asked. They both turned their heads up to look at the snow clouds. A gust blew the hood off Brand’s head.

Lee’s eyes fell; she sighed. “How long do you think we will need to wait before anyone comes looking for us? The shipwreck victims must have seen the flare. They must need the supplies. Do you see any hint of them?”

“No, nothing, and I don’t see any sign of the Don Juan either,” Brand said.

“Maybe Lieutenant Gilbert will come looking for us after this weather is over and the privateers are gone?” Lee said.

“It will be broad daylight soon.” Brand said. “Gilbert’s a good man. If he is able, he will try to look for us, but the Gigas is not designed to land on a glacier.”

“I seem to have made a terrible mess of my first command,” said Lee. “I guess my career as a freighter-balloon commander has ended as abruptly as it started.”

“It’s probably for the best,” Brand said. His face was red with cold and his chin and cheeks were stubbly, but he grinned. “Freighter-balloon captains have a high suicide rate, as I understand.”

“Well,” Lee said, “I can hardly remain your commander if we are no longer aboard the ship, Mr. Brand.”

“That’s not true at all,” said Brand. “As in cases of shipwreck or mutiny, per regulation, you remain my commanding officer until I am discharged in a friendly port.” He straightened his flyer’s cap and saluted.

“I didn’t notice anyone else falling from the sky,” Lee said. “I suspect no one got sucked out of the hold by the atmospheric pressure. Did you see their faces though? The pirates? Rude vagabonds that they are. They were scared to death.”

Brand nodded his head. Lee jumped up with a sudden recollection. “The privateers! We must hurry, Mr. Brand. We’re dressed. My hand is bandaged. We need to hide the crate from Captain Kerry. We had better get going.”

“What do you mean, Lieutenant?” Brand asked.

“It’s going to take Kerry almost an hour to descend safely from that altitude – assuming he comes after us immediately. Help me get the crate covered with snow. We’re partially sheltered by the ice wall. If we can cover the shipping crate, there’s a chance Kerry won’t be able to find us. That will slow him down.”

Brand glanced at his pocketwatch. “We have to hurry because the sun is up. If these clouds break-”

“We will be completely exposed. What about the parachutes?” Lee asked, pointing. The parachutes were gray. The bulk of the silk material was mounded in three piles.

“Look,” Lee said. Clumsily, she grabbed at a mass of silk with her good hand. She pulled it over her shoulder toward the crate.

“Assistance, please, Able Bodied  Flyer,” she said. Together, they unfolded the silk around the box enclosing it. Brand pulled the other parachutes over one by one.

The sun broke through the gray eastern hills of dirty ice. The sky lightened. The wind stopped, and the incessant snowfall paused.

Lee turned her face to the sun, a blinding orange circle. Fresh snow topped the jagged ice hills, like white-capped waves on a stormy sea. “I’ve never been on the glacier before,” she said. Brand did not answer.

Lee and then Brand turned back to the crate. Together, they pushed the soft new snow with their arms and legs. Lee, with her right arm, covered the box’s upper corners. Their breath made puffy clouds.

“It looks like a pile of snow,” Lee said when they were done, satisfied.

Brand, kneeling on the snow, pointed over Lee’s head, behind her. “Look, Lieutenant! We were just in time.”

Lee spun around. From the ceiling of clouds, the bat-winged dirigible, a long, black shadow, floated downward slowly in a widening spiral.

Don Juan,” said Lee.

“They’re circling as they descend,” said Brand. “A search pattern. They’re looking for us.”

“That madman is relentless,” Lee said and spat. She pulled the hood closer over her face.

“What shall we do, Lieutenant?” Brand asked

“Let’s climb in the crate and lay low,” Lee said. “And let’s hope the wind starts up again and keeps Don Juan from landing.”

“Aye aye,” Brand said. The shipping crate, mounded with snow, resembled a deflated igloo. A circular foxhole opened to the interior.

“After you, Lieutenant,” said Brand. Lee, on all fours, crawled inside; Brand followed. Lee rearranged some of the packages and sat back on them. They waited in the darkened crate.

“Do you hear anything?” Lee asked. Brand sat by the entrance. Wind stirred the fur trim on his parka hood.

“The wind’s rising!” Lee said, her voice too loud in the enclosed space.

“But what’s that sound?” Brand asked, raising a hand to his ear.

“I don’t hear anything,” Lee said.

A noise, a buzzing sound, drifted inside; Brand spat.

“It’s a dirigible engine!” Lee said. “See who it is. Is it Don Juan? Or has someone come to rescue us?”

 

 

 

Excerpt: North America, Perspectives on the Post Terrestrial Globe, 2198, World Civilizations Textbook

The Laurentide Ice Sheet reemerges approximately every twenty thousand years and covers most of North America. The glacier averages a mile in height.

On the coast, the glaciers extend to Old New York City, but inland reach as far south as the ruined Cincinnati Urban Complex. Tundra and taiga stretch southward hundreds of miles.

Glaciers cover much of the North Atlantic up to Greenland and beyond.

Continue the adventure: Chapter 6

 

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