Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 2: Don Juan

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 2 – Don Juan

Cover art by RJ Cote/Kikuchiyo

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Courtesy of RJ Cote

 

In the previous episode, First Lieutenant L Lee is a passenger on a freighter-balloon, the Gigas. The Gigas is dropping emergency supplies for a civilian dirigible wreck on the glacier. The captain of the Gigas has died suddenly in her sleep. Lee (a bureaucrat but the ranking officer onboard), is ceremonially given command and assigned a valet, Able Bodied Flyer Brand.

Lee begins to suspect something is being hidden from her when a fast moving dirigible with no flag is spotted on a collision course with the Gigas.

Setting: A mile above the Laurentide Ontario Glacier on the Canadian/New York border, September 2186.

 

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“What’s wrong?” Lee asked from behind the dressing screen, toweling herself dry.

“Sorry again to disturb you,” Brand said. He waited in the hall. His shadow made an outline on the beaded curtains. “An unknown airship is flying toward us, apparently to intercept us.”

“That’s not so unusual,” she said.

“We are flying over an empty stretch of the glacier. There shouldn’t be anyone else out here. Lieutenant Gilbert says they are headed straight for us. If their intention was friendly, they would have hailed us.”

A fresh commissariat uniform (white shirt, gray jacket, and gray pants) lay on the faux marble counter. Lee’s bicorn hat was next to it, the felt freshly brushed.

She dressed swiftly. Her floppy blimp boots went on last. She put her hat on with two hands, adjusting it in the gilded mirror and straightening her tie.

Lee ducked through the beaded curtain. Brand saluted and stood erect in his camel brown uniform, his flyer’s cap at an angle.

She nodded curtly. “Let’s get to the wheelroom. Perhaps Gilbert knows more by now,” Lee said.

“Yes, Lieutenant,” said Brand. He turned down the promenade hallway; she followed.

There was no turbulence at this high altitude. The panoramic windows of the promenade hallway were black, the last sliver of moon gone. They hurried down the mile-long corridor. Their blimp boots, thin suede with cotton soles, made little sound. They passed a cardboard grandfather clock that showed the time as 2 a.m.

The walk to the bow took almost ten minutes, even at a brisk pace. At the end of the promenade hall, Brand slid open the hatch to the bridge, standing aside so Lee could enter.

The bridge was a narrow platform jutting out into the center of a greenhouse-like structure, a geodesic sphere of glass supported by an aluminum spider web. Lights were kept dim for visibility at night. Lee hastened up the steps, Brand behind her.

Lieutenant Gilbert stood at the ship’s wheel. His uniform was brown in the darkened room. He touched the brim of his peaked cap when he turned and saw Lee. “Please, accept my apologies for summoning you so soon, First Lieutenant.”

“What is happening? Lee asked. “Mr. Brand said an unidentified vessel is approaching us.”

“Well, it’s all very mysterious. I can’t say for certain,” the older man started.

Lee stamped her padded boot so the platform shook. “What do you mean? This has been some kind of a ruse all along, hasn’t it? You knew something was going to go amiss, didn’t you? And you didn’t have the courage to face it yourself, did you? I see right through you.”

“Good Lord!” Gilbert roared, dropping the wheel. “I am a man of honor, and I would never behave so disgracefully.”

“Perhaps I spoke hastily,” said Lee, half-frowning. She drummed her fingers on her hip. “But please explain to me the nature of this emergency. An unknown ship approaching?”

“She’s a small vessel. Fast. Lightweight. Can’t see her name because her nose has been pointed right at us the whole time. She is closing on us, head on.”

“An airship is not a woman, Mr. Gilbert, but an inanimate object,” said Lee.

“She – it – has been staying just below the cloud cover, hiding from us,” Gilbert said. “This is terribly out of the ordinary, to say the least.”

Lee sighed and leaned over the banister, looking out through the thousand windows. No stars were visible above. Far beneath, the white earth was mostly hidden by pale clouds. The skies around the ship were hazy.

She lifted a hand above her eyes, searching the direction Gilbert indicated. “I can’t see anything approaching,” she said. “I can’t see anything at all. There is no light. These clouds are thicker than smoke.”

Beside her on the balustrade, Gilbert pulled a spyglass from his coat pocket and, focusing, pointed it slightly downwards. He moved his head side to side and stopped.

“Aha! There it is,” he said. “Here you are, Lieutenant Lee.” He gave the spyglass to her, guiding her hands slightly with his own. In the gloom, below and off to port, the red and green navigation lights of a small aircraft blinked.

“There!” she said. Looking over her shoulder, the older man grunted and wiggled his fat moustache from side to side but did not answer.

Lee twisted the eyepiece, focusing; the mysterious craft was an oval shadow on the edge of visibility. Darker than the falling snow, the vessel bounced on the wind as it ascended, emerging from the cloud cover: an old fashioned dirigible with bat-like wings swooping up through the mist.

“You are right,” she said. “Excellent work, Mr. Gilbert.”

“Thank you, Lieutenant,” he grunted again, obscuring his smile under his enormous moustache.

“I see them clearly now,” Lee said. “A small dirigible with stabilizing wings. And much faster than us. They seem to be – yes – they are turning to the side directly ahead of us – in our path.”

“How far away?” asked Gilbert, moustache twitching. “Is she stopping?”

“Yes, they are. Here,” she said, handing him the spyglass.

Gilbert looked through the lens. “I would estimate they are about a mile ahead. We are moving forward at five knots. About ten minutes roughly before we come face to face,” said Gilbert.

“Wait,” Lee said. “Something’s moving. They’re – they’re hoisting a flag from the bowsprit.”

“Can you see the colors?” Gilbert asked, leaning out over the balustrade, straining to see.

“Give me a moment,” said Lee. “I am looking. Wait! Oh. It’s not a flag I recognize. It’s – it’s a skull with a ruff collar, on black – over two crossed swords!” she said.

“Oh feague!” Brand said, groaning. Sweating, he wiped at his face with a handkerchief.

“What is it?” Lee asked.

“This is terrible. That is the flag of the Don Juan,” Gilbert said. “A ship of scoundrels, scallywags, and ragtime fanatics. An airbus of the infamous.”

“Don Who?” Lee asked.

Gilbert took a meerschaum pipe from his coat. His hand shook, and he stuffed fragrant chocolate brown tobacco into the bowl, dropping crumbs on the deck. “A notorious privateer out of Cloud Seven,” he said. He wedged the mouthpiece between his teeth, but did not light the pipe.

“What?” Lee asked. “What do you mean, privateers? Mercenaries who work for the state? Commissioned pirates?”

Gilbert took the pipe from his mouth. “As you no doubt remember, Lieutenant Lee, the North Atlantic government established a privateering airship fleet at the end of the world war.”

“Yes, of course,” said Lee. “About ten years before I was born. I’ve studied it at the university. After the long stalemate – the Battle of the Azores. Field Marshall Hubert, ‘Our destiny is not defeat’, all that.”

“A flotilla of dirigibles was needed,” Gilbert said, sonorously. “To operate outside the law, harassing and sabotaging the airships of foreign states, particularly our old enemies the Neo-Prussians, the Dominio Santo, and the Russian Empire, all of whom have privateering airships as well, although they deny it.”

“So, these privateers are on our side?” Lee asked.

“The privateers are on their own side,” Lieutenant Gilbert said, waving his pipe. “At least, the government tends to overlook their excesses. It has been suggested that a number of recent disappearances of airships and other vessels might be blamed on them as well.”

Lee raised an eyebrow. “I had always heard scandalous things about Cloud Seven, but I can’t believe the North Atlantic Community government still allows this kind of thing to go on.”

“If we don’t cooperate with them and let them board, it is likely they will force us to do so, one way or the other,” Gilbert said. “Their ballast is all weaponry. They are armed to the teeth and could easily force us to the ground. I would guess they suspect our air telegram is out because of the inclement weather. The Gigas is way out on an isolated arm of the Laurentide Glacier. We are totally unarmed. There’s no one to come to our aid. I would say we had better find out what they want and give it to them.”

“I can’t imagine what they could possibly want from us,” Lee said.

“We have nothing.” Gilbert shrugged. “We just unloaded in Cloud Twenty Two: coal, water, bananas, wheat, corn, and a bunch of bales of plastic scraps in the stern holds. Oh, of course, we do have a few passengers onboard traveling to West Buckminster – and their luggage. No one important. Small time bureaucrats,” Gilbert said.

Lee pulled back her big hat and straightened her posture so she was shoulder high to the older man. “I would remind you, I was one of those unimportant bureaucrats not long ago, Mr. Gilbert. And you neglected to mention the relief supplies we are dropping on the cruise-blimp crash.”

“Pardon the oversight, Lieutenant. From everything I’ve been told, the shipping crate is full of emergency relief supplies. Blankets. Heavy clothes. Food. Dog food, even, for sled teams. Nothing a privateer would want.”

Gilbert peered at Lee through his octagonal spectacles. “What do you want to do? Some situations just aren’t covered by the rulebooks.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Well, I was a chess champion. In school. And it is always the same in the end: flight, fight, or surrender. None of the choices are good.” She shrugged. “Dropping the relief supplies is the Gigas’s mission; it’s mine now, too. I don’t like any of this – and it all seems very suspicious, particularly the timing, just as we are arriving at the dropsite. Put it in the logbook, Mr. Gilbert: I intend to take action to prevent the Don Juan from disrupting our mission.”

“Aye aye, Cap – Lieutenant, that is.”

“Permission to speak. The Don Juan is signaling us now,” said Brand, pointing out into the dark. A light flickered, half hidden by fog. “See? The yellow light is a signal lantern.”

“What are they saying?” Lee asked.

Brand leaned over the edge of the balcony, straining to see. He muttered as he translated the Morse Code letters under his breath.

“H – A – L –T,” Brand said.

“Great Scott!” Gilbert roared.

“They are commanding us to stop?” Lee asked; her face paled.

The yellow lantern on the privateering vessel continued flickering in fast and slow pulses. Brand nodded and looked down at the deck. “Yes, Lieutenant.”

“On your command, I will slow us down and bring us to a stop,” Gilbert said.

Lee’s eyes flickered. “Slow us down, Mr. Gilbert, but don’t stop us just yet. Keep us moving ahead at two knots. We are barely moving now, as far as I am concerned.”

“Aye aye, Lieutenant,” he said. With both hands, he pushed downward slightly on the ship’s wheel. The propellers vibrated the deck as the ship decelerated.

“We’re at two knots,” Gilbert said.

“They are warning us to stop immediately,” said Brand.

“Shall I brake?” Gilbert asked.

“Bring us closer to them. Let’s see what they do,” said Lee.

Silently, the three stood together on the bridge, watching the sky closely. The Don Juan, still ascending, grew larger in the sky. The ship was a prolate spheroid in shape (like a football), with a long nose-cone in the bow and a rudder and elevator flaps in the stern. The bat wings extended from the gondola and shook up and down as the airship climbed so they appeared to flutter. The signal lights continued to flash.

“Shall I stop now, Lieutenant?” Gilbert asked.

“No,” Lee said firmly, licking her dry lips. “Keep us steady, Lieutenant Gilbert.”

“They want to board the Gigas,” Brand said finally, turning to them. “They are telling us to drop our dinghy bell so they can come aboard immediately.”

“They do not have the authority to do that,” Lee said loudly. “Can we get to the dropsite and release the supplies before they come aboard?”

“We can’t outrun them,” Gilbert said and guffawed. “The Don Juan will catch us before we reach the dropsite either way. We’re unarmed. I believe you should do what they say and let them board.”

“Will they shoot us down if I don’t?” Lee asked. She swept her auburn hair from her face.

Gilbert shook his head. His big, waxy moustache quivered. “One airship doesn’t shoot down another in flight. It’s the code of the air since the world war. It’s not sporting to sink a blimp, particularly a freighter-balloon like this.”

“Something is happening. Look!” said Lee, pointing. A twinkling orange light appeared under the Don Juan’s gondola.

Gilbert looked through the spyglass. “That looks like a – a –”

“A what?” Lee asked shrilly.

“Oh no!” Brand cried. The orange light beneath the dirigible flared brightly then shot out across the night sky.

“– A rocket,” said Gilbert.

“It’s coming straight for us!” she shouted.

Sparking and fizzling, the missile flew through the air directly ahead of the bridge like a flaming meteorite. Lee shrank away from the balustrade but made no sound; Gilbert groaned. Brand swore aloud. The Gigas’s propellers rumbled furiously as the ship abruptly stopped. All three grabbed at the balustrade.

The Don Juan’s signal lights flashed again. Brand, reading the words to himself under his breath, paused and gave a gasp.

“What do they say?” Lee asked,

“Lieutenant Lee, they say ‘Stop or drop,’” Brand said.

“Why, I never!” said Gilbert.

“You said they wouldn’t shoot us down!” Lee said.

Gilbert shrugged his epaulettes. “It would be a gross violation of aerial law. We are holding our position in the air, in any case. If they wish to hinder our progress, there are, however, any number of things they might do.”

“There must be something we can do,” said Lee.

Gilbert coughed into his fist. “There is a reason they call this old freighter-balloon a caterpillar. It’s a string of hot air balloons that generate their own heat with solar electricity. The Gigas is as slow as can be.”

“We might wait them out,” she said. “Make them follow us over the glacier to the ocean. So they run out of fuel.”

“I think they have shown they would take some action before they allowed themselves to run out of fuel,” Gilbert said drily

“Lieutenant Lee, Don Juan’s signaling us again,” said Brand. “We’re out of time. They say they’re preparing another missile. And we’re going to catch it.”

Gilbert whistled. “There’s gonna be a hot time in the old town tonight.”

 

 

Our Modern World, Global History text, copyright 2198 Aether University: (Written in pencil and underlined, a student’s handwriting between margins) Treaty of Rio de Janeiro 2154= glacier demilitarization + creation of the International Ecological Park (remaining portions of earth’s surface to return to natural state, recover from human industry and war).

Excerpted from ‘Chapter 9– Global Cold War: The chaos brought about by late twenty-first century global glaciation is considered the root cause of the worldwide strife which led ultimately to the mid-twenty-second century ‘Pan-Asian’ nuclear war and then the world war twenty years later. After the world war, the glaciers (which effectively separated the remaining terrestrial regions of the great industrial powers of the northern hemisphere) were declared demilitarized zones. “Cold War Two” or the “World Cold War” then ensued.

At the time, most of the habitable sections of earth’s surface were controlled by the fascist “Axis” states, the Neo-Prussian Confederacy and El Dominio Santo (also known as the Holy Spanish Empire). The Neo-Prussian Confederacy, the largest power, stretched from Germany through the Alps, Italy, and across all of Central Africa, and Antarctica. Their staunch ally, El Dominio Santo, ranged from Iberia and the Canaries throughout the entire continent of South America.

Continue the adventure: Episode 3

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