Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 1: Lee
Wheelworks by KT Sebastian
Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen
Episode 1 – Lee
Cover art by Dale Michels
In which the adventure begins.
Setting: The Laurentide Ontario Glacier on the Canadian/New York border, September 2186.
The giant airship, NAC CL24 GIGAS, trembled. A mile above an ocean of ice, the freighter-balloon fought to ascend over the snow clouds, propellers humming.
On the upper deck, in her sleeping berth, a bell rang, awakening Lee: five chimes was an emergency. She sat up. There was just enough room without hitting her head.
The bell rang again five times. The berth was cramped, almost coffin-like, slightly longer than her mattress. Lee sighed and threw off her blanket, blinking.
She switched on the bed lamp. Her hair was auburn, shoulder length. She was half Chinese and half caucasian. She wore an ivory-colored lace nightgown.
She opened the hatch beside her feet and climbed backwards down the bunk ladder. There was a berth above and below hers. A double curtain separated the dressing room from the hallway.
From without came a man’s voice, “Lieutenant Lee?”
“Why are you waking me up? Are we sinking?” she asked the canvas curtains.
“It’s something else. An emergency,” the man responded.
“What is it?”
“You’d do well to come to the bridge right away, I’m afraid,” he said. “It’s a situation….”
“I am a passenger, I am not on the crew. It’s midnight. I think you have confused me with someone else.”
Next to her in the wall, a sleeper hatch opened beneath the one from which she had emerged. A middle-aged man, unshaven and wearing a sleeping cap, stuck his head out into the dressing room, blinking.
“Is there an emergency?” the man asked, glowering. “I heard the emergency bell.”
“The bell was for me,” Lee said. “I am terribly sorry to have disturbed you. Good night.”
The man grumbled and rubbed his eyes. He slid back inside the berth and shut the hatch.
“Are you Lieutenant L. Lee?” the man beyond the curtain asked again, insistently.
She sighed. “Yes. Give me a moment.”
In her bare feet, she went behind the paper dressing screen and removed her nightgown.
Her pike gray uniform hung beside two others. She pulled on a white shirt, light gray pants, and a white crossbelt. Her jacket had big epaulettes. Her blimp boots went on with a grunt. She left her dress helmet on the shelf, a Napoleonic bicorn with pom poms and a plume.
In the mirror, her jacket was askew, so she rebuttoned it from the bottom. She splashed water on her face from the pitcher and adjusted the part in her hair. With a final yawn, she slipped through the curtains into the aisle.
The man in the hall snapped to a salute. He was unremarkable in his appearance, a thin man with a strong chin, slightly older, blond, without moustache or whiskers. He wore a flyer’s hat and a beige uniform.
“First Lieutenant Lee? Able-bodied Flyer Brand. I’ve been assigned to you.”
Lee rubbed her eyes, shaking her head. “There has been a mistake, Flyer Brand. I am a passenger, as I said. I am not on the crew of this vessel. I think you had better straighten this out with whoever sent you. They have made a mistake. Is something the matter?” She lowered her voice. “Are we in danger?”
“I thought you’d already been informed,” he said, and he grinned, apparently relishing her confusion. “No wonder you were still sleeping. We should get to the bridge. You’re needed there right away.” He turned away and started down the long hall toward the bow.
“Informed of what?” Lee asked a little sharply, following him.
“I believe there’s a message for you on the bridge,” Flyer Brand said. He did not slow his pace.
A panoramic window ran the length of the gondola on the freighter-balloon’s starboard side, nearly a mile. The window leaned outward, displaying the vista of gray clouds, night-blue snow, black sky, and ice mountains. On the port side, a paper wall was painted to appear like ornate woodwork. Sconces like antique streetlamps lit the walkway.
Flyer Brand glanced back over his shoulder. “Lieutenant Gilbert will make everything clear.” Lee pursued him, yawning and grumbling down the long promenade.
“Well, if I need to go to the bridge, I don’t need an escort,” Lee said. “I have been on this ship for four days. I know where the wheelroom is, Flyer.”
He said nothing.
“You are the Captain’s assistant, aren’t you?” Lee asked, finally catching up.
“Yes, of course. I’ve been assigned as your valet,” he answered.
“You are clearly an excellent valet, but why in the sky would I need a one? I am a socialist.”
He winked at her. “What kind of officer are you?” he asked, nodding his head at the insignia on her breast pocket, a toothed gear. “Is that a cog?”
“It represents a locomotive wheel. I am a First lieutenant in the commissariat.”
“What is that? A desk dragoon?”
“That is not that funny,” she said
“I didn’t laugh, ma’am.”
“Ma’am is an antiquated honorific.” She frowned. “Do you know what it means? Please address me as lieutenant.”
“Aye aye,” he said. His grin suggested he knew something she did not.
“Don’t stare at me like that,” she said.
“Look,” he said, pointing. “Up ahead, it’s the bridge.”
Thick mist filled the window. Turbulence shook the deck. At the vessel’s head and up a flight of steps, the wheelroom was a geodesic glass sphere designed in the antique greenhouse style of the Crystal Palace; the bridge deck extended like a balcony into the sphere’s center, giving a view in all directions. Brand led Lee up the steps. A thousand triangular windows, kaleidoscope-like, revealed a fantastical moonlit cloudscape all around them, a frozen cumulus archipelago floating in an ink black sea.
A middle-aged man in a camel-colored officer’s cap and coat stood at the ship’s wheel next to a control panel console. He turned, seeing the light from the opened door. He was a tall, skinny man with octagonal glasses. His reddish Franz Josef moustache dwarfed his weasley face. Numerous medals covered his chest. “Great Scott! What’s taken so long, Brand? And this is the Lieutenant Lee, I presume?”
“First Lieutenant Lee,” she said, saluting.
“Second Lieutenant Gilbert,” the older man said; he saluted her loosely. “I see you’ve found Brand already. He’s been assigned to you, now.”
“I found her,” Brand said.
Lee looked from one man to the other. “I do wish one of you would let me in on why you’ve chosen to awaken me in the middle of the night.”
“Here,” said the second lieutenant. “This is a message for you, from the North Atlantic Council.”
“Pardon me?” Lee’s expression was blank.
Gilbert handed her a slip of paper, an air telegram: OFFICIAL CONFIRMATION L LEE COMMAND GIGAS (STOP).
Lee, edgy, shifted from one foot to the other. “If someone doesn’t tell me what’s going on immediately.” The two men exchanged a knowing glance but neither spoke.
Her voice rose. “I do not understand this message. This gentleman said there is some emergency. There has been a terrible mistake. I am not sure who sent this air-telegram, but they don’t mean me. My Air Naval rank is honorary. And I am being discharged from service at our destination. I was in my bed. And I would like to return.”
“I will get right to it then as you have so kindly suggested,” Second Lieutenant Gilbert said, harrumphing a little. “Without any more ado, I am quite sad to say: our Captain, Captain Anderson, has suddenly passed away-”
“Oh my,” said Lee, with a gasp. “This is a tragedy.”
The older man nodded and adjusted the ship’s wheel with one hand. “Quite right.”
“Is there any explanation?” Lee asked. “For the captain’s death, I mean. How is it possible that she just died?”
“Sudden death. ‘It happens’ is all the ship’s doctor said. The body is being stored on the cold deck for an autopsy. The doctor said he did not suspect foul play.”
“She just died?” Lee wiped her face with a handkerchief.
“It happens, they tell me. It happens.”
Lee continued: “Captain Anderson was certainly a great woman, a credit to womankind everywhere, and I am deeply saddened by her passing. I am not sure, however, what this might have to do with me. Are you certain I am who-”
“-As I was attempting to say before I was interrupted, due to a series of circumstances, procedural and otherwise, you, First Lieutenant L. Lee, are the ranking officer on board, and you are therefore in command of the Gigas.”
Lee shrugged and sighed. “But what about you, Second Lieutenant? You are the obvious choice.”
“You clearly outrank me, ma’am, although I am the Third mate and the Flightmaster’s apprentice. More importantly, regulations prevent me from serving both as the pilot and ship’s captain, and no one else aboard is qualified to pilot. So it’s you or the ship’s doctor, I’m afraid. The Council prefers you. Did I mention commanding the ship will bring you a hefty stipend from both the Air Navy and from Solar Airshipping LLC on our final landing in West Buckminster? I am, myself, being paid double for my added responsibilities.”
“I wasn’t being paid anything at all. I paid for a ticket on this ship.” She leaned against the control panel, carefully not touching any dials or switches. “I am in the commissariat,” she said. “Like the modern major general. I was in command of a ferry blimp for six months once, but that was an entirely different vessel.”
He waved away her protestations. “You must know something or they wouldn’t have pulled your card. We were running on a skeleton crew to begin with. There’s only seven crew members onboard, other than Brand and myself. Our quartermaster is on leave. Flightmaster was transferred to another flight at the last minute. And the shipswain is in the brig.”
“In the brig?”
“Drunkenness. The captain’s last order before she, er, retired.”
“Well,” Lee said hopefully, “Mightn’t the shipswain have sobered up by now?”
Gilbert gave a wry half smile under his moustache. “A crew member can’t be reinstated until we’re in port and a hearing has been held-”
“-By three or more Air Naval officials in an aerial court of law,” she finished, reciting. “Lieutenant, I do not even have the slightest idea what this ship’s mission is.”
“Well, as you know, the Gigas is merchant marine, but as any and all aerial vehicles are under the auspices of the Air-Navy, the ship was commandeered and ordered to drop emergency supplies on a civilian wreck on our way to West Buckminster. That’s what our orders say.”
She leaned out over the balustrade. A mile below, the glacier, glowing ice blue, was nearly obscured by snowfall. “Really?” she asked. “Way out here? I thought this was a no-man’s land. What is the name of the airship that crashed?”
“That detail was omitted from our orders. The Air Navy only gave us the longitude and latitude.”
“Really?” Lee asked.
“It does seem a bit odd though, doesn’t it? Captain Anderson suspected there was more to it than that, but that’s what they say,” he replied coolly.
“More to it?” Lee asked.
“I don’t know,” Gilbert raised one eyebrow above his spectacles. “I didn’t pay too much attention. Captain Anderson had many unorthodox opinions. Why, even just this morning, she said she thought she had sighted a Neo-Prussian zeppelin over the ice, but, of course, that is hardly probable.”
Directly behind Lee, Brand asked for permission to speak, startling her. “If it’s your order, Lieutenant Lee, I’ll show you the cabin. I’ve already had it cleaned it out for you – if you’re tired of sleeping in a desk drawer.”
“I – I still don’t know what to say,” Lee stammered. “Does the crew know Captain Anderson has passed away?”
“Yes,” said Gilbert. “I assembled everyone right after the evening meal, earlier tonight. I didn’t make any announcement last night for fear of causing panic among the passengers. I know -”
“I see,” Lee said. “I still don’t understand how she could have just died so suddenly.
“If you wish to begin an inquiry, you are the commanding officer and would be well within your rights and-” Gilbert said.”I could ring for him.” He reached for a button.
“It’s not necessary,” she said.
“You know,” Gilbert continued, “I might conceivably contact the Admiralty, Lieutenant Lee, if you wanted to turn down the command. Shall I send the message? You can go back to bed if you want.”
The two men watched her. Outside, beyond the glass globe, snow fell lazily in puffy flakes. Lee stood by the balustrade, looked down through the glasswork on the clouds, and took a deep breath.
“No,” she said. “I will do it, of course.”
Gilbert and Brand looked at one another. At once, they both saluted her. “Let me be the first to wish you congratulations, lieutenant,” Brand said.
Gilbert took a brassy ship’s whistle from his vest-pocket. “A mere token of your authority.” He held it out to her; the whistle dangled from a chain.
“Thank you,” Lee said. She took the whistle and dropped it in her breast pocket.
“And this,” Gilbert continued. “I cannot give you Captain Anderson’s captaincy medal, as that will be shipped to her family in Cloud Twenty Two. But I can give you this. It is unofficial of course, but it will do for now.” He held out a pin, a black caterpillar with wings. “The symbol of the freight balloon corps.”
Lee accepted the pin and secured it next to her locomotive wheel insignia. “Thank you very much. I am honored to serve, if I can.”
“Mr. Brand,” Gilbert said. “Escort Lieutenant Lee to the captain’s cabin and see to her needs.”
“Aye aye, sir,” Brand said.
“All is well, then?” Lee asked.
“Don’t worry.” Gilbert said, nodding. “Weather’s good. No sign of any real blizzards approaching. We reach the drop point in about two hours. Then we turn and head south.”
“Let me ask you, since it is my responsibility now – where is it? How is it dropped?” Lee said.
“The shipping crate of relief supplies? In the major cargo hold at the center of the ship, Hold Number Twenty Four.”
“I should be on the bridge with you when it is dropped,” said Lee, nodding. “Or do we need to go down to the hold to watch it? It’s dark and cold down there.”
“Not at all,” said Gilbert. “The crate can be launched from the hold, but we are cruising at too high an altitude for that. It is ready to go. All it takes is the push of a button on the command console right here, and the crate will eject automatically. A set of parachutes will open in fifteen seconds and it will float down to the glacier surface.”
“Very good,” Lee said.
“Command of the Gigas, even for the few days it will take to get to West Buckminster, will look good on your record. Don’t worry about anything, Lieutenant Lee, I can keep us afloat for you. As we say in ballooning, ‘Everything is still up in the air.’”
Lee nodded, pleased. “You are very good to me.”
“Your good report would be greatly appreciated by me.” Saying this, he twirled the ends of his moustache.
“You’ll have it, Lieutenant Gilbert,” said Lee.
Gilbert gave a gentlemanly bow. “Unless the situation changes drastically, your command should be strictly ceremonial. If I need you for any formalities, I will ring the bell.”
Lee grinned sheepishly. “Well then, I guess it’s carry on, isn’t it?” She and Gilbert saluted one another.
Gilbert turned back toward the wheel and the night sky. Lee descended the steps; Brand, waiting, slid open the hall hatchway.
Lee and Brand walked together back down the hall. “Can I have anything I want from the galley?” Lee asked. “I have been doing my mandatory four years in the service and it’s been mostly mess hall food for me for the last four years.” She licked her lips.
Brand nodded, ship-proud. “A special larder’s maintained for the captain – the commander of the vessel, that is.”
“Can I go to the galley and order a turkey dinner? With apple pie and pumpkin ice cream?”
“Better than that. I can just send a shout through the voice tube,” Brand said. “If there’s any turkey onboard, they’ll have it in the dining room for you in twenty-five minutes -or in your cabin, if you prefer.”
“Really? And a decanter of white wine?”
“Aye aye,” he said and saluted.
Ornate sconces lit the wall, interspersed with oval hatchways. The quiet of midnight filled the empty promenade ; there was no sound but the occasional whoosh of air through vents.
Lee stretched her arms and yawned slightly. She stopped and pushed her hair back. “What did Lieutenant Gilbert mean by ‘That’s what they say?’ And that scary talk about Neo-Prussian zeppelins. It’s terribly mysterious. What do you know about this mission, Mr. Brand?”
“They say it’s a civilian wreck,” he said. “A cruise blimp.”
“What do you think it is?” she asked.
He shrugged. “I don’t know. There’s been a lot of rumors blowing around. Whoever controls the glaciers, they say, controls the Northern hemisphere and so, the world. That’s why the glaciers were declared a neutral zone after the world war. Some say the Russians are making a move.”
Lee shrugged her shoulders. “The crash of a private yacht blimp sounds a lot more likely. It must be lovely to be a well-to-do toff who’s rich enough to come down to earth’s surface for a long weekend on a cruise blimp to see the glacier that crushed civilization.”
“And then crash,” Brand added.
A full length beaded curtain in a geometric pattern separated the captain’s cabin from the officers’ quarters. A glass dome skylight crowned the cabin’s arched ceiling.
“The captain’s cabin,” Lee said. “I still can’t believe it.”
“It’s a closet really,” said Brand, “but it has a private bath, a bed, a sink, a desk, and three windows. A miniature terrace as well, but, take my advice, don’t open it.”
“It’s terrifying, honestly. We are cruising nearly five thousand feet over the glacier, about three quarters of a mile, and the glacier is nearly a mile and a half above sea-level. At this altitude, the air pressure could nearly pull you out the window. If we were much higher than this, nothing could stop you. The balcony hatch lock failed once, and the captain lost many of her personal belongings over the North Pacific Ocean. I had to send three crewmembers on harnesses and safety lines to reclose the door.”
The room was stripped clean. The bare walls were marked with nails. A corset string and some other overlooked odds and ends hid in the corners and the closet. The mattress was bare. “I’ve already sent for fresh linens” Brand said. “I will have Svendsen, the steward, pick up your steamer trunk and bring it to the cabin. He will press your uniforms as well.”
He held open the hatch to display the captain’s private bath. Lee made admiring noises. The cabin had an empty closet and a triple window (no portholes). A glass hatch revealed the balcony, frosted with ice and shaking as the freighter went through a cloud. A paper lantern, a fashionable icosidodecahedron, lit the room.
“This bed is three times the size of the one I was sleeping in,” she said. Lee sat on the bare mattress with her hands folded in her lap and looked around the room with an open mouth and big eyes. Brand stood against the wall and grinned.
“Are you alright, Lieutenant Lee?” he asked.
“Nothing this unusual has ever happened to me before,” Lee said. She looked up at the skylight. “I am sure you understand. I have gone from a dull childhood in Cloud Thirty-Three to a useless education and now a drab adulthood. Even the ferry I commanded was attached to a tether on wind-buoys between two cities. I am on the way to an utterly unremarkable existence in West Buckminster where my uncle found me a position as Assistant Assistant-Manager of a plastic mining company.”
She folded her hands together and sighed. “I am going to have a bath. Then I will eat. Thank you again, Flyer. Please have the steward bring my dinner here.”
“Very well, Lieutenant,” He smiled. “The steward will bring your meal and everything else. If you need anything, the voice tube from the cabin goes directly to my quarters.”
Lee got to her feet. “Thank you again,” she said. Brand saluted once more, then hurried off through the tinkling beads.
Alone, Lee put her hands on her hips. She sat in the room’s one chair, a comfortable lightweight rattan seat with armrests. “I never thought armrests would feel like a lot of space,” she said aloud. She took a breath so deep her head nodded back.
A few minutes later, Svendsen the steward, a stout fellow with a graying beard, arrived with towels and linens, awakening Lee from her reverie. When he had finished making the bed and putting the linens in the close, he left. She went to the entrance and slid the silk curtains shut behind the beads. She was alone in the empty cabin.
The bath entrance was a faux marble alcove with an antique coat stand. She pulled off her boots. She stripped off her jacket with its garish gold epaulettes, her stiff shirt, then the pants. She hung her clothes on a peg and took a bathing gown from the cabinet.
Lee pressed a button; the door opened. She stepped inside. Soft music started: Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune. The room was small but luxurious, with smoked-mirror walls. Brass fittings shaped like seagulls admitted steam.
The mirror wall quickly fogged over. She swiped it with her hand so she could see herself, a slender woman with brown hair and slightly Han features . She took a deep breath, straightened her posture, pulled back her hair, saluted her reflection, and laughed. “Aye aye, captain,” she giggled.
Lee arranged her towel on the cedar bench. Steam filled the room with the scent of mangos and lemongrass. Her skin flushed with heat. A drop of perspiration trickled down her forehead and off the tip of her nose. She sighed and shifted on the bench, leaning back on the wet wall.
“Ah,” she said meditatively. Her face flushed. Sweat beaded on her forehead. She breathed deeply and closed her eyes.
The music rose as Debussy’s opus came to its first shattering climax. Above the music, a voice echoed through an invisible tube. “Lieutenant Lee?”
”Yes?” she shouted, looking around in all directions for the speaker; she did not find it. She spoke to the ceiling. “Tell the galley if there’s no turkey I am happy with roast chicken.” Outside the steam room, a bell rang five times.
“Lieutenant?” said Brand’s voice. “It’s not that. It’s an emergency.”
She sighed and stuck her head out of the sauna. She jumped when she saw Brand; he offered her a fresh towel.
She grimaced but took the towel. “This alone would be a violation of protocol on Sphere Thirty Three.”
“Extremely sorry to disturb you. There is a strange vessel approaching us, Lieutenant. She’s not a merchant ship nor is she flying any flag. It’s likely she means mischief, Lieutenant Gilbert said”
“What?” she shouted. Lee moved to the door.
1. The Centi-pod
Excerpt from training manual description of North Atlantic Community naval balloons:
The 1FF3 freighter-balloon ‘Centi-pod’, or the ‘bristly black caterpillar’, is known affectionately as the ugliest aircraft in the history of aeronautics: a string of hot air balloons under one envelope with a suspended gondola a mile or more in length. The aircraft uses the immense surface area of its envelope to generate the solar electricity which provides hot-air and powers the numerous propellers. The centi-pod model moves at speeds approaching eight knots. The gondola (storage, crew, and passenger quarters) is a long tube of ultra-light alloys, in some cases as many as three miles long. Crew’s double decker quarters are in the stern. The 1FF3 freighter-balloon is generally used for carrying heavy loads, equipment, and fuel from the surface of the earth to floating sphere ‘cloud’ cities.
Continue the adventure: Episode 2