Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 13: Spirited

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 13 –  Spirited

Cover art by RJ Cote/Kikuchiyo

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In the previous episode, Lee and Flapjack discover the traitor in their midst and accept the aid of the baronet as they try to escape the attacking airship.

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

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The rumble of distant bombs falling came from the windows, muffled by the room’s ice columns and long blue curtains. The guests’ murmuring voice grew louder.

Another bomb blast shook the great room. A woman shrieked.

“What’s this?” someone cried.

A wordless shout arose from the assemblage, gasps of shock and cries of confusion, men and women’s voices together.

The bell glasses and silverware on the table shivered. Flapjack barked sharply under the table and did his best to push his way out, but Lee grasped his collar. She glanced at Vera Nulla.

“Whatever happens now, don’t run,” the baronet said.

The rush of voices continued to grow. A heavyset man in a top hat skated past the table, a burning torch in his hand. Shadows flew among the arches. Every few feet, he stopped and lit a glass lamp in an alcove in the blue-white wall.

Tall gothic arches and mushroom-like columns emerged in the light. In the hall’s center, at the lowest end of the room, as the light grew, the stage became visible.

“What is happening?” Lee asked.

Vera Nulla raised her hand, ear raised, straining to hear among the wave of panicked cries. “Wait!”

The doors beyond the frozen columns flew open. The ice walls, dimly lit, resounded with footsteps. Vera Null nodded. “People are gathering here, the hotel guests and staff. Hopefully, we will be lost in the crowd. Remember, First Lieutenant, don’t panic.”

Singly and in pairs, people flooded from the wide room’s gates, stairwells, and corners – men and women, plainly dressed citizenry in black overcoats and scarves and aristocratically appointed travelers in top hats or heavy fur coats, sporting monocles and flashing pearls. Some walked, some skated. Slowly they moved, en masse, toward the stage at the far end of the room.

A tall woman in a blue satin corset and a long flowing iridescent black skirt took the stage. All the faces in the room turned toward the stage.

The woman in blue satin spoke, her hair swaying as she shifted back and forth on her feet at the stage’s edge. “Compatriots! Samlandanoj! Fellow citizens of Freehold, and our honored guests. Hold fast! In the name of our Queen and the lost King, I ask you to remain calm and seated. An airwarship of the Neo-Prussian Confederacy is presently on the edge of the glacier that surrounds the settlement of Freehold. Of course, this is not just an aggression against a free and voluntary community, but a violation of military treaties between the great powers, treaties that have endured for a generation. There are casualties among the Black Militia of Freehold, but a ceasefire has been negotiated.”

A murmur echoed through the great room. “I am informed that, in a few moments, we will be hosts to guests from the airwarship, representatives of the Kaiser.”

Boos and hisses rang out from the tables among the shadows. A man cried out: “I am Neo-Prussian and I came here to get away from the representatives of the Kaiser!” Sparse laughter came shook the room.

“The Angrboda – yes, the Angrboda herself – is here. They are seeking someone, someone they say has nothing to do with our collective security. An interloper.”

The baronet gave Lee a long look. Lee shut her eyes and shook her head.

On the ice stage, the woman continued: “Please, do not use threats or violence against the Eidgenosse soldiers. There will be representatives of the Black Militia here as well to guard our interests and protect your safety. Again, please remain calm. They are searching all the rooms of the ice hotel for this person, a female spy is all I have been told. I ask you to remain and not flee in fear. A spotlight fell on the woman’s face. She lifted a fist. “Remember: If we can’t dance, the statists will win!”

Applause rang out, and the assembly rallied around the stage. “Personoj , ne burokratio!” she shouted. The crowd answered, chanting the words: “Personoj , ne burokratio!

The waitress, her peacock feather askew, arrived at the table bearing a heavy tray laden with dishes on her shoulder. Under the table, Flapjack sat up so quickly he almost knocked her off her ice skates. Lee corrected him, waving a finger, and he sat down, eyes widened, tongue hanging.

The waitress set steaming plates on the table before them. “Roast pork with one finger poi and the anti-authoritarian special: black beans with quinoa and flambéed kale, roasted mature plantains and papadum on the house.”

“Thank you,” said the baronet.

Ni manĝas!” she said with a broad wink, skating away. Under the table, Flapjack growled. Lee shushed him once more.

Vera Nulla reached out her hand across the table. “Let’s go,” she said above the crowd’s hum.

“But what about dinner?” Lee asked, her face contorting.

“I’m afraid we don’t have time for that!” Vera Nulla shouted above the chanting.

Lee wrinkled her nose, sniffing the air. “But I am very hungry.”

The baronet shrugged. “If you are captured by the Confederacy, it will be some time before you are fed: that would be just the beginning of their interrogation procedure.”

With a sound like a passing wind, the room fell quiet. The echoes of chanting faded.

“Why won’t you tell me what’s happening?” Lee asked her voice too loud in the sudden quiet.

“There isn’t time now. Listen,” hissed the baronet. “Do you hear it?”

Lee lifted her hand to her ear. “What is that sound? Trumpets? A fanfare?”

The baronet nodded, pursing her lips grimly. “They are here.”

The crowd filling the aisles heard the ringing notes as well. Whispers and staccato chatter swelled.

Vera stood up from the table, facing Lee. “I had hoped it wouldn’t come to this. Our best hope is to get lost in the crowd now. Come.” She took Lee’s hand and pulled.

Lee got to her feet, followed by the malamute. Flapjack pressed his nose against the side of her uniform trousers. She reached down and grasped his collar.

“We move with the crowd,” the baronet hissed.

Lee followed Vera Nulla into the aisle. The crowd closed in around them. Vera Nulla took Lee’s hand. Flapjack walked close beside them.

They moved with the mass of people. A gentleman in a silk suit lifted his hat to Lee when he pressed against her. A woman in a gauzy hat raised opera glasses to her eyes and murmured, “Oh dear.”

Pushing her way through the assembly, Vera Nulla looked over her shoulder at Lee and pulled her impatiently. The ice columns parted around them as they moved closer to the stage.

“Now, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: Herrick Clapton,” came the announcer’s voice from the unseen stage.

A man with a large-bowled mandolin took the stage, a handsome, red-faced man with a strong jaw. He bowed courteously as applause came in waves. The crowd did not quiet for a few minutes.

Finally, the singer spoke in a rich tenor. “I don’t know about you,” he said. “But when the Neo-Prussians are at the crossroads and I feel a little anxious – I like a little port wine.” A collective cheer rose from the assemblage.

“If you want to drink up, you’re gonna need a cup – port wine.

If you want to slow down, till you’re on the ground – port wine.

You can find, you can find, you can find,

Port wine.

As he sang, a commotion sprang from the wide room’s other end, but most people ignored the uproar, their eyes on the stage. Lee, however, turned her face. A shadowy entourage struggled to enter, their passage barred by black uniformed guards.

On the stage, Herrick Clapton acknowledged the disturbance with a guffaw but otherwise ignored the noise, strumming blithely on the mandolin. The audience followed his lead.

“This is good!” Vera Nulla cried. “Herrick Clapton is rallying the people! I knew he would. He is citizenry.”

She leaned toward Lee and her voice dropped. “Perhaps we can escape in the confusion. Captain Nemo is awaiting us in the tunnel.”

“What?” Lee said, her voice almost lost as the crowd began to sing along:

“When you got nothing to lose, and you’re sick with the blues – port wine.

When your day was a grind, you still need to find – port wine

She won’t mind, she won’t mind, she won’t mind – port wine.

“An old folk song,” the baronet said.

A phalanx of twenty men in dark brown uniforms entered the room’s central aisle. They wore feathered black shako helmets with visors and a death-head insignia. They carried black cast-iron blunderbusses. Two carried cannonettes which they trained on the crowd.

At the center of the brown-jackets strode a tall man in a blue-black uniform and a spiked pickelhaube helmet. A leather crossbelt decked in medals was draped across his coat. He wore a long, steel gray, imperial moustache.

“In the name of the Kaiser!” the man said, reflexively lifting his hand, “I, Colonel Oberst Oberstark of the Konföderation Zeppeline Korps, now command all of you to halt.”

“Halt!” echoed the brown uniformed soldiers.

From the stage, Herrick Clapton struck a discordant note on the guitar. Startled laughter rose from the audience.

Hände hoch!” several brown-jackets shouted. “Und make cease mit the music!”

Mein Vorgesetzter,” one of the soldiers shouted. He lowered his blunderbuss and pointed at the stage with his chin. “There she is!

The Neo-Prussian soldiers stormed the stage. Herrick Clapton cried out in a brave baritone: “I am not afraid of you thugs!” He raised his mandolin like a baseball bat.

But the brown-jackets passed him. As one, they closed in on the woman who had rallied the crowd.

“There!” “Get her!” “Ergreifen sie ihre!” “The woman!”

Herrick Clapton watched, dumbfounded, as the guards grasped her by the arms and handcuffed her.

Der Kapitän der Gigas!” one of the brown-jackets crowed triumphantly.

Lee’s eyes widened; Vera Nulla nodded. “I hadn’t noticed before but La Dame de L’ego, the revolutionary chanteuse, does indeed bear a resemblance to you, First Lieutenant.” She nodded grimly. Lee shook her head, muttering to herself.

Ahead of them, an angry throng advanced on the stage. The brown-jackets encircled the colonel and their prisoner. At a shouted order, they lowered their weapons at the assembly. Someone threw a bottle, but it crashed harmlessly on the stage.

“Where is the Black Guard?” Vera Nulla asked, wringing her hands. Lee shrugged.

The brown-jackets retreated from the stage, bearing the woman with them despite the protestations from the audience. The colonel, his spiked helmet bobbing, berated the crowd but his words were drowned out in the rising tumult.

“This is our chance,” Vera Nulla said, tugging Lee’s hand.

“What do you mean?” Lee asked.

“They believe they have arrested you. Perhaps they believe you and La Dame de L’ego are the same person, or perhaps they are simply confused. Either way, we need to take this opportunity to make good our escape.”

Lee craned her neck, looking across the room. “The exits are covered by more brown-jackets with guns. And I am would guess the Angrboda is hovering over the hotel, ready to seize anyone trying to leave.”

“You are astute,” Vera Nulla said above the rising commotion.

“A what?” Lee said.

“Nevermind!” the baronet shouted. “Come this way!” She pulled Lee’s hand and guided her through the assembled citizens, most of whom were turned facing the stage. Together, followed by the malamute, they found their way past an ice palapa toward a side hall leading to a rest room. Vera Nulla stopped before a door marked “STAFF ONLY. DELIVERY.”

“Where are we going?” Lee asked, following her through the door and into a dimly lit hall and stairwell.

“The only secure way out,” Vera Nulla whispered. “Shh.” She turned and descended the stairs without looking back. Lee shrugged and followed.

Above, the crowd noise receded as they followed the steps downward. Flapjack’s claws clicked on the ice.

Lee slipped and caught herself on the wall. “Be careful,” Vera Nulla said. “We are descending into the glacier itself.”

“Aye aye,” Lee said, forcing a laugh.

Flapjack panted. The women’s breath fogged in a cold subterranean breeze.

They came to an ice landing and another door, wooden, with heavy hinges. “We have to hurry,” Vera Nulla said. “We don’t have much time before the Eidgenosse discover their mistake.”

Vera Nulla pushed open the door and a sharp breeze blew over them. Lee followed the baronet into an even darker, but much larger room, filled with the sound of flowing water. A distant lamp threw light on the glistening walls. Flapjack’s fur lifted in the wind. The baronet, picking up her pace, led them down a hall. At the end of the hall, the walls opened up suddenly.

A street lamp glowed alongside a night dark street. The babble of running water filled the air.

“Old Susan B!” Lee swore. “That isn’t a street, is it?”

“No,” the baronet answered, almost smiling.

Beyond the edge of the walkway, a canal flowed from a tunnel through the sub-glacial ice. From the walls, water spouted out of brass lions’ mouths and into the waterway. Flickering oil lamps on ice shelves lit the tunnel walls.

“What’s that?” Lee said, pointing into the darkness. At her feet, Flapjack barked.

They stood together, watching breathlessly. A regular rhythm, like fingers drumming, came from the shadows, as well as the soft chiming of jingling bells.

A horned animal, walking but somehow not seeming to move, slowly slipped out of the arched tunnel entrance. A familiar shape followed right behind the animal, standing still yet sliding forward: a man in a tartan wearing a flat helmet.

“It’s Captain Nemo!” Lee said. Rich laughter emerged from the dark.

A heavyset reindeer walked a treadmill lazily, moving the boat ahead in the water. The captain made a clicking sound with his mouth and drew the reins up so the reindeer stepped off the treadmill, hooves clattering on the deck of a flat raft. The captain picked up a long pole and pushed back against the sides of the tunnel, grunting, so the raft came to a halt with a thud.

Flapjack barked again and jumped on the boat wagging his tail at the skittish reindeer.

“I see I have a new first mate,” said Captain Nemo with a wry grin.

“We don’t have any time for jokes, you fool,” said Vera Nulla.

“Just don’t call me a dummkopf,” he said.

Vera Nulla held out her hand. Lee took it and clamored on to the deck, swaying slightly with the raft, which shook from side to side when the baronet leaped down to join them.

“Welcome aboard the Nautilus.”

“Why this isn’t a submarine, it’s a boat!” Lee said and smiled.

“It is a submarine, sure,” Captain Nemo said. “Right now we are traveling under nearly a league of water. Frozen water.

“Let’s go!” the baronet ordered.

The captain took hold of the reins and guided the reindeer back on the treadmill. He whistled, and the reindeer took off. Flapjack barked and the raft followed the echo into the tunnel. As they glided by, Vera Nulla reached up and took an oil lamp from the walls.

“Won’t we need this? In the dark? Fool,” she said again, with a half smile.

“What for?” the captain asked, his face veiled in the growing dark. “There’s only one way to go. And Donder knows it.”

The clip-clopping of the reindeer’s hooves and the captain’s low chuckle resounded louder than the water flow. Behind them, the dock room faded and disappeared.

“These tunnels were melted out of the glacier,” the captain said. He had the pole in his hands again and here and there reached out with the tip to push them away from the ice wall’s edge. “They follow natural cracks in the ice.”

“This is amazing,” Lee said, shaking her head.

“The technology behind the glacier fortress has been in existence since the early twentieth century – World War One, I believe,” Vera Nulla added in a scholarly tone.

A blast of wind came down the tunnel, blew out the lamp, and left them in utter blackness.

“May the gods help us,” said Captain Nemo. “A sudden blast of wind like that can only mean someone has opened the canal gate at the far end of the tunnel. Someone is waiting for us there.

“Turn us back!” Vera Nulla cried.

“I can’t”

“Why not?”

“The raft only goes one way. We can’t turn around until we reach the other end.”

Vera Nulla’s voice rose in volume and pitch. “No one should be using the tunnel right now. None of the king’s vassals know we are here.”

“Kwan Yin!” Lee cried. “Doesn’t either one of you have a match?” Neither answered.

Flapjack barked. The reindeer’s steps grew louder and louder as the animal ran faster.

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