Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 11: Cornered

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 11 –  Cornered

Cover art by RJ Cote/Kikuchiyo

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Courtesy of RJ “Kikuchiyo” Cote

In our last episode, Lee and Brand found that life on the glacier is not what they have been led to believe. From their sumptuous lodgings, they can see the ice domes of the Bandit Queen.

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

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The ice hotel, glacier-blue with peaked ivory rooftops and towers, sparkled in the sunlight.

Shaking her head, Lee gasped.

Brand grunted, nodded. “Well, well.”

Lee walked slowly toward the grand entryway. She started to slip. She caught herself. Brand took her hand.

“Thank you,” she said. She took a deep breath. Her legs shook.

Flapjack brushed against her knee and whined. “It’s okay boy,” she said, stroking the malamute’s ears.

Lee glanced behind them. There was only the wall. She and Brand looked in each other’s eyes. He gave a thin smile. She offered him her good hand in its leather mitten; he took it, and they walked together up the footpath across the courtyard. Flapjack followed Lee.

They came to the bottom of the steps. In the distance, a silver bell rang in the air. On an outer wall, a sign read: “Glaciotelo. 1871 Avenuo Blanqui.”

The hotel’s grand entrance loomed over crystalline doors framed by carved ice in varied patterns of scintillating geometric shapes. A wide stairway led up to tall double doors of ice. Sand was sprinkled on the steps so they were not slippery. A Tiffany-esque window of stained ice crowned the doors: a glowing sunrise above the ocean.

“Sophonisbe!” Lee said quietly. “I never dreamed of such a thing! Had you ever heard of anything like this, Mr. Brand?”

“I haven’t,” he said. “Fortresses, I’ve seen, dug into the glacier, but this is certainly much different.” On the steps, Flapjack sniffed the air.

Lee turned her head back to the ice wall surrounding the building

“Where is everyone?”

In answer, one of the hotel’s tall doors swept open; a hall of blue-glowing gothic arches stood empty before them.

“I hear something,” Lee said.

“What’s that sound?” Brand asked.

Lee shrugged. “It sounds like someone -skating?”

At the hall’s far end, a bellhop in a blue uniform and kepi hat leaped out of a grand doorway, skates first, and turned sharply. Picking up speed, he careened down the hallway and leapt out over the steps, and landed on the ice with a deft pirouette. He came to a stop directly before Lee and Brand, doffed his cap, and bowed deeply.

Bonvenon hejmen!” he said with a red-cheeked grin.

The bellhop rose from his bow and noted his cap was empty. He swept his eyes over the two travelers and the dog, and he frowned.

Lee shivered and “I, uh – I am sorry but neither of us speaks, uh, Esperanto and-”

“Who rang that bell?” the bellhop asked, stroking his chin.

Simultaneously, both Lee and Brand shrugged. “We didn’t.”

“Are you from a cruise blimp?” the bellhop asked with a somewhat suspicious glare. “The one from Cloud 21 isn’t in yet today. It’s too early.”

“No, we are not from the cruise blimp,” Lee said. “The – the baronet said we were prisoners.”

The bellhop raised a lone eyebrow but said nothing.

Lee continued: “We were rescued – on the big ice.”

The bellhop straightened. “Ah, yes,” the he said, nodding. “I heard something about it. But why aren’t you checked in already?”

Lee spoke slowly, her lips stiff from cold. “We, l – pardon me, but the baronet said we are prisoners, but-”

“The baronet?” the bellhop said. “Which baronet?”

Lee stamped her boot on the frozen floor. ““This is your – whatever it is – this is your hotel. And we are your prisoners!” Her voice rose. “You should know who I am and who I am talking about. What kind of place is this? Her name is – Vera Nulla. She claimed to be the baroness of Denver or some other wasteland.”

“Delaware,” said Brand. “The baronet’s family runs a large rhodiola farm in the Delaware tundra.”

“What?” Lee asked.

“Yes,” Brand said, nodding his head. “They grow some diamond-leaf willow too, she said. She and I spoke while you slept.”

The bellhop frowned again. “I am not sure who around here cares what Vera Nulla has to say. But you should come in before all the warmth disappears. Do you know how hard it is to heat a building made of ice? Come in already.” He retreated from the entrance, motioning for them to follow him.

Lee and Brand huddled together, stepped through the door; Flapjack came after, sniffing the air dubiously. Once they clambered inside, the the ice door swung closed of its own volition.

The ceaseless sound of the wind died. They stood together in a long hallway of solid blue-ish ice.

Lee drew back her hood. An aquamarine glow suffused the room. At the end of the hall was a fountain and, beyond that, a front desk of faux marble.

The bellhop regarded them. “You aren’t tourists at all. Tourists have luggage.”

“N-no,” Lee said. “We are not tourists. We are someone’s prisoners, as I told you, I believe. I am not sure who. Your king or queen? We are exhausted and half frozen and I am beginning to wonder if I have not succumbed to some end-of-life hypothermic hallucination.”

The bellhop sighed and snapped indignantly, “Well, we had better get you checked in. Sooner or later one or the other will foot the bill. King or queen – the dame or the dean, as we say. Follow me.” He put his hands together behind his back and skated slowly, in a zigzag, down the hall ahead of them.

Lee shrugged at Brand, who took her arm. Their footsteps echoed. The dog followed Lee.

The hallway widened abruptly into a circular lobby around a central fountain. Half-shut water lilies in the pool perfumed the air. Ice vases held bouquets of lavender asters and furry goldenrod. Scott Joplin’s Evergreen Rag echoed from an unseen player piano.

Flapjack skipped up to the fountain and lapped at the water. Brand whistled. “Well I’ll be a groundhog’s uncle.”

“I’ve never seen anything like this,” Lee said.

“Welcome to Glaciotelo,” the bellhop snapped. He guided them around the fountain. “Locals come here to ski. Tourists come for the gambling. We’re the only real hotel outside Freehold. Here we are,” he said, motioning at the front desk.

An older gentleman, a tall man with bluish hair in an immense coif, crouched over a fat book. Behind him on the wall was a coat of arms: a black cat with a red rose on a white shield beneath an ebony crown. The motto read: Caritatem et Iram.

Looking up, he lifted his bejeweled pince-nez eyeglasses. “Are these guests, Jeffrey?” he asked the bellhop.

“These are pirates from the shipwreck on the glacier,” the bellhop said.

“What’s this?” the gentleman asked.

“Wait – what are you saying?” Lee demanded. “We aren’t the pirates.” Both the bellhop and the older man ignored her.

“I saw the pirates earlier,” the maitre d’hotel said, polishing his pince-nez. “There were three of them, well two of them: they had a prisoner themselves.

“Your prisoners had prisoners?” Lee asked.

“Who brought these two in?” the older gentleman asked.

“Vera Nulla,” the bellhop said.

The maitre d’hotel replaced the spectacles on the tip of his nose. “Are you together?” he asked.

“Yes we’re together,” Lee said.

“What I mean is, shall I bill the baronet for two rooms, or one?”

Lee stopped, glanced at Brand, blushed, and stammered: “T- two, of course,”

“Put them in 246 and 247,” he told the bellhop, who saluted.

“Come with me then,” the bellhop said.

“Enjoy your stay,” said the maitre de. The bellhop, skating from side to side, led Lee, Brand, and Flapjack around the fountain and down a hall to the left, a massive, rounded room with a candlelit ice chandelier.

Alcoves opened up on either side leading to numbered rooms and named suites. Intricately carved and interweaving decorations filled the white and blue walls: polar bears, salmon and sturgeon, pine trees, skiers, ice boats, skaters, pods of whales, and three-dimensional reproductions of works of great paintings, including Hokusai’s Great Wave off Kanagawa, Gainsborough’s The Blue Boy, and Picasso’s Old Guitarist (holding a real guitar) in stained ice.

“Where are the other guests?” Lee asked. “It seems terribly quiet here.”

“It’s a week before Septemberfest,” said the bellhop over his shoulder. Finally, he turned sharply and, in his skates, led them up a spiral stairway. Huffing and puffing, Lee struggled up the steps supported by the malamute. Brand climbed close behind her.

The steps opened suddenly on a cloistered terrace with arches and columns of marbled ice, and rooms on either side.

An ice age panorama spread out before them: bluish mountains blanketed in white snow and hidden by haze. The ice boat piers beyond the wall bustled with ships of varied sizes, sailors and cargo.

“Brand, look!” Lee said, pointing.

The sun came out and the white haze vanished. Beneath the peak on which the hotel stood, out on the vast glacier, there emerged from the frosty mists a metropolis of clear ice domes like transparent mountains. Within some the ice domes lay a forested city with streetlights, parks, broad avenues. Some of the domes contained green pastures, orchards, and ink blue lakes.

Lee leaned to the side as though to faint. She caught herself on the banister. She started to speak but did not. Brand’s jaw fell open and he swore unintelligibly.

“They’re like snow-globes,” Lee said at last in a whisper. “Only the snow is on the outside.”

“Indeed,” Brand said softly.

“The ice domes of the bandit queen,” she said. “I thought they were only a legend, a rumor – some kind of propaganda one way or the other.”

The bellhop interrupted them, “Your rooms?” He led them to one end of the terrace. One room stood to each side of the alcove

“You two were found on the ice? That is odd. Three others were rescued last night, wandering out on the ice. Parachuted down from a freighter blimp or something. Wouldn’t say why. They set their parachutes on fire as a smoke signal. An ice boat coming back from fishing brought them in. Two pirates – a tall Jamaican and young woman in a borrowed uniform, as well as their prisoner, a chubby fellow, a Prussian spy, they say, masquerading as a laundry ensign on a freighter blimp.”

“Brand!” Lee said. “They followed us!” She gasped, spun around, and fainted.

 

Lee opened her eyes. She lay in on her side, still wrapped in her parka, on a wide bed covered in blankets, furs, and pillows. She was in a turret room, a quarter of one of the round towers. An open fire burned on an iron tripod. An oval window of clear ice looked out over the plain.

Amber light from the glass candles filled the room. The air carried a faint scent of sweet wood smoke. Frozen statues filled the church-like alcoves of the otherwise empty room.

“I am so damn tired,” Lee said aloud to the figures. She stretched her arms and yawned.

“Flapjack,” she said, looking around. The dog lay in the bed’s corner, eyes half shut. His tail twitched.

“It’s nice and warm in here, isn’t it?” she asked. “Lazy dog,” she said when he failed to move, and she laughed. She stripped off her parka, then her uniform and, naked, she fell into bed backwards, yawned again, pulled up the covers and furs, and fell asleep.

 

Darkness filled the room. The blackened window overlooking the glacier let in no light. Flapjack gave a husky whine.

“What is it, boy?” Lee asked. She blinked her eyes, sat up, and looked around. Stretching out her arm, she found the dog and patted his neck, making a soothing noise. She sighed thoughtfully. “Do you need to go out?”

Flapjack growled. He jumped off the bed and paced across the ice floor, still grumbling in his throat.

Lee held a hand to her ear. “It’s thunder. Just another snowstorm. Or maybe there are people in the hall. Lie down. Let me sleep.”

Flapjack stopped pacing, sat, lifted his snout, and howled.

Lee sighed. “I do not hear anything.”

Big-eyed, the malamute panted, watching her. Lee shrugged her shoulders. She rose from the fur-lined bed, and crossed the room to the curved window of clear ice. The dog followed her. wagging his tail. She pressed an ear to the ice, wincing. A low humming sound emerged, unhurried, but steadily strengthening.

“Oh no,” Lee said. She turned from the window. Her clothes lay on the floor next to the bed. She dressed herself rapidly. Shivering, she seized a blanket and drew it around her naked shoulders. Flapjack barked fitfully and commenced pacing again. The hum in the air increased in volume.

“Good boy,” Lee said. “Something is moving out there, in the sky,” she whispered. “And whatever it is, it is enormous.”

Lee steadied herself against the wall with her injured hand and nudged the ice window slightly to the side.

Her hair blew backwards. She gasped from the shock of cold. Her legs and her hands shook. She took a deep breath. The dog jumped up next to her, stuck his head out the window, and barked fitfully.

“Flapjack,” Lee said. “It’s the battle zeppelin!” The engine noise grew louder than the wind. The dog whined louder. He dropped back on all fours, grabbed her by her uniform pants, and tugged her backwards.

A pink light erupted through the window, and a deep rolling sound, like a distant drumrolll, shook the hotel’s ice walls. Flapjack yipped.

“It’s bombs! Bombs!” Lee cried. The dog barked at her. He turned, ran to the room’s door and nudged it with his nose.

“Good boy,” Lee said. She pushed the ice door open so it slid outwards. The dog, yelping, ran outside. Lee followed him on to the balcony. ”Brand? Brand?” she cried.

From the distance came a trilling whistle, growing louder. Lee covered her ears. A red hot blast shook the hotel grounds.

“We’ve got to get out of here!” Lee shouted.

Another explosion and another rattled the hotel.

 

                                                                                                                                                                                                  

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