Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Chapter 6: The Shadow

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 6 – The Shadow

Cover art by Sarah Rocheleau

The Shadow Illustration

Courtesy of Sarah Rocheleau

In our last episode, Lee and Brand survive a parachute drop in a crate of emergency supplies. When the sun rises on the glacier, they see nothing but ice in every direction. They bury the crate in snow and hide from the privateers aboard the Don Juan.

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

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Lee and Brand crouched together inside the little ice cave they had constructed from the shipping crate. Wind whistled across the glacier.

“I hear an engine, but I can’t see anything,” said Brand, who was closest to the entry. He pulled his white parka hood tight around his face. An icicle dangled from the tip of his nose.

“Go outside, then, if you please, Mr. Brand,” said Lee. “Stay low. The Don Juan might be hiding just behind us, in the air above the ridge.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant,” said Brand.

He crawled out the narrow entrance on all fours, his furry snow-boots disappearing last. Lee sat against the piled clothes, her gloves in her pockets, her breath as white as smoke. She waited.

A shadow flashed across the entryway. Outside, Brand shouted something, but the words did not carry. The wind died. Lee held her breath. Her jaw trembled so her teeth chattered. Nothing happened.

Shivering and leaning on the walls, Lee crept forward. “Brand?” she called softly.

The distinctive tinny drumming of an airship engine came in with the cold air. She shifted her weight, crouching. Cupping one ear, she leaned forward.

The sound abruptly vanished. “Lieutenant!” Brand called. Boots crunched on the ice.

Squatting on his knees, Brand stuck his head inside. “You can come out, Lieutenant,” he said. “Don Juan is gone over the horizon, away over to the southeast.”

“What was that noise? I thought they were on top of us.”

He shook his head and shrugged. “I know. It sounded like propellers humming, but there was nothing. I couldn’t see anything. Then the sound faded. I couldn’t tell what direction the buzzing came from. The sun went behind a big cloud. Whatever it was, it’s gone.”

“I heard it also,” Lee said, grimly. “It might have been the Gigas.”

“Or the echo of the Don Juan’s engines,” said Brand. “The sound stopped about the same time the Don Juan disappeared. Miles of open ice can distort the way sound-waves travel, they say.”

Lee nodded stiffly. “It was odd.”

“Aye,” he said. She crawled out the entrance on her good hand, avoiding the wet slush. Brand gave her his hand and lifted her slightly.

Lee steadied herself on the crate. The pale sun shone on Lee’s face. Her eyes fluttered in the glare. Brand searched the sky, turning around slowly in a circle.

The promontory against which the shipping crate had crashed, a jagged peak of solid ice, sheltered their northwest. They stood at the center of a wide winterland, a vast icy slope, highest in the far north, ringed in by rounded ice foothills and stark glacier cliffs.

Out over the glacier, a sunbeam, a column of light as wide as a rainbow, fell between the shining clouds. In broad daylight, the gray, windswept glacier was the luminous sapphire color of a tropical sea. Snow blew like ocean spray across the motionless waves.

At last, Lee broke the stillness. “I never knew the glacier would be so beautiful.” Brand grunted, nodding his head.

“I have lived in a cloud sphere city all my life,” Lee continued. “I had always seen the big ice from the sky, of course, -white as ashes. It’s menacing -you know- the abominable snow monster that ate the world. The stories they tell you are never good. The photoplays you see are always scary. But, it’s beautiful.”

A gust of wind arose from the ice and blew her backwards, and she fell. She refused his hand, and picked herself up off the snow.

“The abominable snowman might eat us up yet,” Brand said.

He held a brass compass and pointed downhill. “But look, there’s good news: smoke,” he said. “To the south. Where the airship wreck should be. On the edge of this layer of glacier.”

“I don’t see it,” said Lee. “The sky is so hazy. Everything is white or blue or gray. And I probably couldn’t tell east from west on a good day. Are you able to serve as our navigator, Mr. Brand?”

“I have an understanding of our position and the Gigas’s course, but only loosely. And I have no charts, or maps-nothing.”

“Are there none in the shipping crate?” Lee asked.

“Not at all,” Brand said. He tilted his head to the south.

Lee sighed. “I am uncertain if we should remain here to await the shipwrecked crew.”

“They should come looking for the supplies immediately,” Brand said, nodding. “After all, they didn’t expect you and me to come along with the package. What are your orders, Lieutenant?”

“Let’s lay low for a little while, Mr Brand, so Captain Kerry doesn’t find us,” Lee said. “But -we need to keep a lookout for the shipwrecked crew, even as we hide from the privateers.” She wiped at her cold red nose.
Brand coughed and spat. “If it’s your order, Lieutenant, I can keep watch while you rest.”

“I don’t feel hungry or tired,” she said with a shrug. “But I do feel cold. Let’s go inside for now.”

Lee crouched down and slithered into the crate; Brand came after.

In the cramped space, Lee carefully arranged a nest atop the pile of disarrayed parkas and blankets. Brand sat beside her and delved into one of the sacks of food, rattling tin cans. He pulled out a can and opened it with a pocketknife.

“Something to eat, Lieutenant?” he asked.

She sniffed and made a face. “What is it?”

“Canned peaches,” he said. “Eat them before they freeze.”

Lee shook her head. “I don’t know if I can eat, I am still so shaken up.”

“Eat them. You’re going to need it.”

Lee took a deep breath. She sat up and stabbed at the syrupy egg-yolk-colored slivers with the knifepoint, slurping one into her mouth. She choked on the peach, swallowed it, then dug greedily for more. In a minute, she had snapped them all down; then she drank off the thick juice.

Brand found dried beef strips, which they shared from a single open package. Lee gnawed at the leathery meat and drank more peach syrup, mixing it with a fistful of snow. Brand crammed the lean strips in his mouth, chewing and smacking his lips.

Lee sighed and when she was finished. “After nearly falling to a horrible death, those peaches might be the best I have ever eaten.” She yawned, stretching her arms.

“I think you’re right, lieutenant,” he said with grin, draining his own can.

Brand turned and pulled parachute silk down over the crate entrance, cutting off the cold draft. From the equipment, he produced a brass lantern which he lit and placed on the ground between Lee’s feet.

“It’s warmer already,” Lee said, loosening her hood.

“I will keep watch, Lieutenant. You should try to get some rest for now,” Brand said.

Lee’s head had already nodded backwards on the pillow of a brown paper package. Her jaw dropped open and she snored.

 

Lee shook her head. Parkas and other warm clothes covered her; she pushed them off. Sweat beaded her face. She was alone within the shipping crate.

Lee crawled outside. The sun was high overhead. The snow glowed, white-hot. The clear sunlight made her sneeze abruptly . She shielded her eyes.

Brand stood guard. His parka hood was down around his shoulders. A fire of crate splinters snapped and popped in the shelter of the ice hill’s shadow. A tray with a steaming white-and-blue teapot, a can of milk, and two oranges sat on a checkerboard tablecloth on a mound of compressed snow. Seeing Lee, he saluted.

“Lieutenant,” he said. “Were you able to rest?”

“Brand!” she cried. “The fire. The smoke. Captain Kerry will find us us.”

“The fire’s almost out,” he said. His grin was lit by the sunshine. “It was just enough to boil some tea water. And the smoke is hidden by the shade.”

“How long did I sleep?” she asked.

“Four hours,” he said. “I just made the tea now. There’s toast and lemon marmalade there as well.”

She clapped her gloves together over the table and gave a cheer. “Mr. Brand, you are a magician -you’ve made us a parlor on the glacier. I insist you have some tea with me.”

“Aye aye,” he said.

He smiled thinly, the skin around his lips red and dry. He upended their cups and filled them with smoking brown liquid.

Lee seized her teacup. Brand took his and added a drop of milk.

“How’s your hand?” he asked, as they drank.

She raised her bandaged left hand up and waved. “A little better.”

“While you slept, I climbed the ridge to get our bearings and have a look around,” he said, nodding his head at the ice wall.

“So where are we, Brand?” she asked. She cradled her teacup in both hands, letting the steam rise in her face.

“We are on the big ice somewhere south of the Ontario basin. The only thing around for miles is, well, more ice. Even the tundra on the glacier’s edge is maybe a hundred fifty miles or more away.”

Lee wet her lips. “I am concerned we haven’t seen any sign of the crew from the airship wreck. We may have to circle the area. By all accounts, the wreck shouldn’t be far. We have skis. I’ve always heard they are the best way to get around on the ice. ”

“I’ve set up our skiing gear already,” he said.

Lee nodded. She lifted her bandaged hand over her eyes, turning her face to the glacier. In the distance, the wind blew a mist of snow across the ice waves. “Brand, what if we can’t find the shipwreck?”

He sighed, shrugging. “In the worst case, there are supplies here for fifty people, so we are well stocked. The only way to go is southeast. Old New York City is about three hundred fifty miles. We’d have to head there. Inland, the glaciers go a lot further south. I guess it would take about two weeks to reach Old New York, over the ice.”

“Three hundred fifty miles?” she said, turning pale. “To the nearest people? What about the observation balloons on the Canada line?”

“That’s to the north. We might get lost on the ice. It’s treacherous. But we will find the airship wreck. They should be within a ten mile radius.”

“So you agree with my plan?” Lee said. “We should search the area for the airship wreck survivors?”

“Aye,” he said.

“Let’s get ready then,” Lee said.

Brand rummaged through the rest of the supplies, unwrapping hardtack biscuits, desiccated fruit, and more dried beef strips. He bundled some food away in a big rucksack and filled their canteens with peach syrup and snow. He gave Lee a packet of jerky.

“Put the canteen inside your parka so it won’t freeze,” he said.

Among a bunch of tools he found a small leather case; he opened it, and burst out laughing.

“Look!” he cried. “A flare gun and flares!” he tilted the box toward her.

“These will be useful if we see the Gigas,” Lee said. “And by finding it I feel like we’ve foiled Captain Kerry in some small way.”

Brand handed her the box. Lee nodded and stuffed it inside her parka pocket.

Brand packed the supplies into a tan rucksack and belted it shut. Observing, Lee smiled, but grimly. “It’s the warmest time of the day. We should get going soon. We want to return well before dark.”

“Lieutenant,” Brand said. “If you wish, I can circle the ten mile perimeter on my own and return with a report for you on the shipwreck location.”

Lee shook her head solemnly. “The glacier is far too dangerous to explore alone. I’ve been warned about it since I was a child. You know. ‘You can be walking right next to someone and a crack in the glacier will swallow them and there won’t even be a hole in the snow’. ‘The monstrous seracs eat lost hikers and bad little children’. I can’t let you go out there on your own, Mr Brand. What if you didn’t return? I would be alone. I am going with you.”

“Aye aye,” he said. He busied himself unwrapping equipment: snowshoes, a bundle of skis and poles, hammer-like snow-axes, goggles, steel crampons, even a pair of woolen scarves.

“Are you certain you’re able to ski, Lieutenant?” he asked. “With your injured hand?”

Lee held up her bandage swathed left hand. “I will have to go easy on it.”

Lee sat on the snow. Brand dragged out the bundled skis and untied them, a bunch of poles, as well. The snowshoes, made of oiled wood, were shaped like oars and netted like tennis rackets. They each tried on several pairs of long wooden skis until they had made a selection.

Afterward, Brand climbed on top of the crate. “What are you doing?” Lee asked. He gazed out at the wasteland of ice, turning his head slowly east to west, a notebook and compass in one hand and a fountain pen in the other. Looking up and down from the distant ice-peaks, he scribbled some notes.

He climbed down and tapped his temple to Lee in a hurried salute. “I believe the shipwreck is over there, Lieutenant, at the southern end of this ice-field beyond those ridges. I took some notes on our location. We need to remember exactly where we are or we will never find this crate again. All this ice looks much like all the rest of it,” he said.

From inside the crate, he produced a coil of hemp rope. He tied one end of the rope around his own waist and the other end around Lee’s. About thirty feet of line ran between them.

Lee tugged uncertainly at the rope around her waist and frowned. “Are you certain this is necessary, Mr. Brand?”

“Yes. Skiing an unfamiliar glacier is like climbing a mountain. Being roped together helps keep you from falling into a crevasse. Are you ready?” he asked her.

“If you have our bearings,” she replied.

They put on their skis. Lee carefully pushed the toes of her boots into the bindings. Brand wrapped his scarf around his neck. Lee pulled ski goggles over her face.

“I haven’t skied in years,” Lee said. “Since I was a little girl. My aunt and uncle sometimes brought me down to the earth’s surface to the Rocky Mountains.”

“Keep your skis parallel,” he said. “Don’t lean too far forward. Try not to bend at your waist. And only use your arms when you have to. Stay close to ice and fresh snow and avoid flat open stretches even though that is the easiest going. Look out for snow bridges.”

“Snow bridges?” she asked.

“Yes. Glaciers are prone to cracking into man-eating crevasses. Snow covers the gaps and what looks like an open field turns into a tiger trap.”

They put their poles to the ice. “Skiing tied together can be difficult,” Brand added, pushing the points of his poles into the ice up to the guards and setting off. Lee squeezed the handgrips of her poles and pushed away after him.

They ran a little way on the ice before the rope went taut. Brand tottered under the heavy load of the rucksack; the rope yanked Lee, much lighter, to the side and off her feet. She landed on her shoulder on the crushed ice, skis in the air.

“Oof,” she said. Brand, circling back, tangled his skis and ankles in the rope and fell over as well.  Lee jumped to her feet, crying with laughter. It took them several minutes to untangle and get on their way again.

 

They slid off onto the open plain of ice toward the west. The ridge receded so gradually it seemed to be crawling away. Lee skidded along awkwardly at first, avoiding pulling on the rope.

Brand led the way. Everything was blank white or shadowed in blue. They avoided thick snow and veered away from the seracs, columns and piles of ice and snow whipped up by the wind. The skis often crunched on rocky ice.

Lee’s stride steadily became more graceful, left pole, right pole; soon, she was pushing off with both poles together, crouching, and leaning forward on the slight slope. They rushed across the white wasteland.

In the middle of the snowy waste, Lee slowed and called out to Brand, and they stopped. The clouds overhead had blackened. Gritty sleet whipped their faces.

Leaning on her skis, she looked back at the ridge, an ivory islet in a blue sea. “Just getting my bearings, Mr Brand,” she said when he glided up to her side.

They skied across half a mile before Lee hit a ridge of ice and fell forward onto her right side with a shout. She refused Brand’s offered hand and climbed up first on one knee then the other.

“Look!” Lee cried out, pointing. Something lumpy and gray with a gold medallion and a scarlet ribbon glittered in the sun.

They skied toward the object. Lee reached it first and picked it up.

“What is it?” Brand asked.

“It’s my First Lieutenant’s hat!” said Lee, brushing it off and trying it on her head. She secured the chinstrap.

They trekked on several miles, continuing to the northwest. When they saw nothing, no sign of the wrecked ship, they turned southwards.

The smaller mounds of snow, they climbed by sidestepping.  In places, the ice became so uneven, they were forced to change to their snowshoes. They did not untie the rope binding them. When the terrain became flatter, they returned to skis. After a circumnavigating a series of mounds, they came upon a steep ridge, craggy and blue, blocking the way like a dam.

“We couldn’t climb this even with the snowshoes carrying the skis,” Brand said, tossing his head at the fractured ice wall.

“No, we couldn’t,” said Lee. She shivered and tightened her scarf.

They skied further west and discovered a pass through the wall, a rift like a canyon cut by a petrified river of deep ocean blue. The downhill slant turned steeper, and they surfed up and down on the motionless waves.The wind blew back their parka hoods. They dropped, accelerating.

 

At the bottom of the windblown glacierside, Lee stuck both her poles in the frozen snow. “Wait a minute, Brand,” she said panting. “I have to rest.” He huddled near her. She took her goggles off and wiped them on her coat. Her face was red except around her eyes.

“You’re starting to get a sunburn from the reflection of the snow,” said Brand.

“I don’t burn easily,” she said. “It’s an advantage of being half-Asian. But it’s so bright,” she said and blinked.

Brand stopped abruptly, planting his poles in front of him and turning sharply to break his momentum. Lee collided with him, so they fell against the ice wall together. She smiled, but stopped.

Brand’s face paled. He pulled back the parka hood and put his hand to his ear.

“Listen.”

“What?” Lee asked, getting on her skis. “All I can hear is wind.”

“Get down!” he said sharply. They threw themselves down on the wet ice. A noise emerged from the sky, a steady hum growing louder.

“What is it?” she cried. A brown dirigible with a long football-shaped balloon appeared above the glacier. Two large batwings emerged from the gondola. The airship’s name name was emblazoned in gold blackletter on its side.

Don Juan!” she cried. The dirigible cast a long blue shadow on the ice valley.

The engines buzzed over the empty snowbanks. Brand muffled his voice. “Sounds like they are flying extremely low. They must be looking for us.”

“They won’t be very happy with us when they find us, I am going to guess,” said Lee. A breeze lifted her hair and the fur lining on her parka hood. “The wind is rising. Maybe they can’t land.”

“No,” said Brand. “The wind is their propellers. They are coming for us”

“Oh no,” said Lee, her voice breaking. “We are trapped out here in the open. There’s nowhere to hide,” Lee said.

“Lay down. We’ll try to dig ourselves into the snow. It’s an old sniper’s trick,” Brand said.

“What would you know about that?” Lee snapped.

“Get down,” said Brand. “I will cover you with snow.”

“It’s too late Brand. Look! They are headed straight for us.”

Lee lay down hesitantly. Brand threw down his rucksack and with his arms, covered her in snow. He rolled himself into a snowdrift and pushed snow on top of his body; nevertheless, he was plainly visible on the backdrop of brilliant whiteness. The Don Juan, flying toward them about a hundred feet in the air, sped up.

“Oh feague,” said Brand.

Brand paled and pointed up at the sky. Above the Don Juan, a shape as large and black as a thunderhead loomed directly overhead. A shadow like a cloud covered the valley.

“It’s a giant blimp of some sort,” Brand said. “It’s too high for me to make out any details.”

“It’s not the Gigas, it’s too fast. But it’s big!” Lee said. “It -it looks like a battle zeppelin,” she said. “A big one.”

“And Don Juan has disappeared!” said Brand.

 

Continue the adventure: Chapter 7

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