Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 7: Battlefield

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 7 –  Battlefield

Cover art by RJ Cote/Kikuchiyo

ch7Battlefield_airship_downR3 (1)

Courtesy of RJ “Kikuchiyo” Cote

Last episode, Lee and Brand, hiding from Captain Kerry, set out on skis to find the airship wreck. The Don Juan, pursuing them, suddenly flees when an enormous zeppelin passes over the glacier.

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

 

heavy_gear_flourish

 

In the midst of a wide plain of diamond-blue ice, Lee and Brand lay motionless, covered in snow. Lee moved first, shaking wet slush off her shoulders and her parka hood. She bent and retrieved her bicorn hat. Brand got up, groaning, and dug his rucksack out from under the snow. The ropeline binding them together like mountain climbers went taut as they moved apart.

Brand uncovered his head. Goggles on, he searched the skies. The clouds were bright and empty. “The zeppelin’s gone,” he said.

“It was huge,” Lee said, blinking. “If you hadn’t seen it as well, I would have thought I was hallucinating. It was bigger than a cloud. Now that it’s gone, I am not certain it wasn’t a hallucination.”

Brand turned to her, rubbing his eyes. “Lieutenant, I was facing the sun so it was hard to see any details, but I thought I saw a black, white, and red tri-color flag. With an eagle.”

“A Neo-Prussian zeppelin?” Lee half-shouted. “On a glacier in North America? – I would say it wasn’t possible, but isn’t that what Captain Anderson saw? Before she died?” Lee covered her face and groaned. “Brand – we need to find a way to report this to the Air Navy right away.”

“Aye,” he said.

The sun reappeared and snow glare blinded them. Lee rubbed her gloves together. Her eyes followed the line of cliffs to the south.

“If the zeppelin is gone,” she said, “We need to get on our way. I have never heard of anything like that happening since the war. We need to find the airship wreck!”

“Aye aye,” Brand said with a heavy nod.

Puffing steam, Lee pushed her boots into her skis. She pulled her goggles over her eyes and picked up her poles. Brand slapped his gloves together to knock out the snow, and kneeling, reattached his skis.

Lee put on her wind rumpled bicorn hat, firmly strapping it to her head.

“Remember,” Lee said, shaking the rope around her waist, “stay close to me or I will be thrown off my feet.”

Brand saluted with his ski pole. “Aye aye, Lieutenant.”

Lee fell into place about fifteen feet behind Brand. When he signaled he was ready, Lee counted, “One, two, three.” They simultaneously pushed away and slid away across the ice.

 

To the east and west, the glacier was furrowed and broken. The slope, a river of smooth ice, ran downhill among snowbanks and tall seracs, icy columns formed by high winds. The motionless river was ultramarine, like blown glass.

Brand leaned forward, rucksack over his shoulders, using the poles both to push and balance. Lee, skidding side to side, favored her right hand.

They skied downstream for an hour. More than once, Brand moved too quickly or Lee went too slowly, and the rope tightened, throwing Lee to the ground. Each time, Brand circled back to help her get on her feet.

The third time, Lee refused his hand. “I can help myself,” she said sharply. “Why don’t you try being more careful, Mr. Brand?”

The snowbanks and ice-crags grew higher. The channel they followed narrowed. Brand led the way. At the bottom of the stream was a wide circular ice field. Snow blew thickly in the wind. Brand halted suddenly, held up a glove, and cried out a warning. He stood over a frozen waterfall about two feet tall, a motionless cataract made invisible by the unending whiteness.

Lee swept past him, skis grating, unable to stop short. She hunched down, took a deep breath, and jumped the ice-falls, landing squarely on both skis. Tangled, Brand spun around like a top, bumping his skis. He fell over on his side, tumbled off the edge, and landed with a crunch in a heap of skis and poles.

“Brand!” Lee cried, twisting around sharply. He did not get up.

“Brand!” she cried again. She glided over to him with a shove of her pole and stood over him. “Are you alright? Can you stand?”

He opened his eyes and kicked his legs. The rope was wound around his boots. “I might be able to stand if you would only untie me, Lieutenant, so I could get this rucksack off my shoulders.”

Lee laughed until she was breathless. “Perhaps you will be more careful now, Able-Bodied Flyer.”

“Aye,” he answered, red-faced.

They determined Brand was uninjured, then at once resumed course, bearing toward the south. The grade of the slope deepened slightly. They sailed on, leaning forward, poles lifted up behind them. Brand, tottering under the rucksack, cursed loudly; Lee whooped. They skied downhill, the rope dragging between them.

About a mile further, an island of mud and  rocks split the ice river into a fork. They stopped, throwing up a wake of snow.

“Which way from here?” Lee asked.

“Southwest,” Brand said, pointing. He squinted, the sunshine in his eyes.

Lee shrugged with her ski poles.

Brand turned toward the lowest incline, and Lee followed, chasing the rope.

They insinuated their way through boulders and mudslides. They picked their way slowly through a winding gulley and found themselves at its mouth atop a steep ridge.

“Oh no,” Lee said. “We’ll never get down from here. And it will take us hours even to get back to the fork that way.”

Brand pointed with his chin. “There’s a way down if we follow the cliff a few miles. We will have to be careful not to fall off the edge. But look beyond, southward.”

Lee shielded her face from the sunshine, squinting in the wind. Several miles away, above a crevasse-furrowed field, a pillar of smoke arose from a wide mound. Across the hillside, a dark hulk lay on its side, a long structure like an ocean liner, burnt black, listing, and partly submerged in snow.

“What is it?” Lee asked limply.

Brand’s face went red, contorted, “It’s the wreck! We found it!”

Lee jumped to her feet. Shouting, she tossed her ski-poles up like batons, and they fell in the snow.

Lee’s cheer died in the air. She shook her head, pointing. “But, that simply can’t be right. It’s much too big to be a dirigible. It’s a blimp of some kind. Not a yacht of some sort.”

Brand shrugged his shoulders. “It’s where our wreck was supposed to be – it must be ours.”

“I see a flag,” Lee said. “But I can’t tell what it is. The damn snow.”

They skied onward. The bluish walls surrounded them and receded. Snowbanks rose like islands, hiding the surrounding hills. The column of smoke led them.

Lee stopped on an embankment with a view through a steep gap, whistling as the rope tightened. Brand ground his poles into the snow and circled back.

“There’s the flag,” she said, pointing and smiling. “Gold stars and blue globe on white. It is one of ours. It’s the wreck! You were right.”

Brand cheered. Lee stomped a ski on the ice. “I thought we were lost out here, Mr. Brand.”

Smiling, he handed her his flask. She drank till she choked, gasping when she finished and wiped her mouth on her parka sleeve.

She lifted her face to the breeze. “I can smell the smoke,” Lee said.

“They are probably cooking a moose on a spit,” Brand said, sniffing the breeze.

“Let’s go!” she cried. She pushed off so swiftly, Brand had to jump to follow.

They came to a sharp turn in the glacier. Brand stopped, lifting a hand. Lee slid next to him and gasped, “Oh no!”

The glacier, like blue-veined marble, was still as a mausoleum. Even the clouds in the sky were motionless. On the other side of an ice floe lay the wreck, an empty ribcage of aluminum covered in soot, a vast burnt smudge on the snowy landscape: the ruined airship, still smoking.

Lee stood overlooking the disaster. Brand, next to her, shook his head and covered his eyes with his leather gloves.

Lee’s nose and cheeks were red with cold; she adjusted her goggles. “That wreck is awfully big for a private dirigible,” she whispered.

“That’s a battle-blimp,” Brand said, coughing into his glove. “Where is everyone? The survivors? The rescuers?”

Lee shook her head. “Lieutenant Gilbert said there were dogs here didn’t he? I don’t see any.”

They waited; even with goggles, Lee covered her eyes to shield them from the white glare, but there was nothing.

“Perhaps they’ve all taken shelter in an ice cave nearby or in the wreckage of the gondola,” Brand said. He pulled his goggles off and rubbed his eyes. “Let’s go see.”

“Something is wrong,” she said. Wisps of snow, like ghosts, blew among the airship’s circular ribs.

They pushed off simultaneously, finding their way down an empty field. Lee panted, her breath fogging. With only shining snow all around them, the black hulk appeared, strangely, to approach them, almost floating above the ground.

Clouds covered the last corner of sun and a shadow fell across the glacier. The two approached the wreck in silence. Wind shook the ribbons of balloon silk like streaming flags.

Sliding across the ice ahead of Lee, Brand shouted. He stopped abruptly, twisting on his skis and splashing snow. Lee’s injured hand jammed on her pole, and she winced and tumbled into Brand. He fell backwards against her, knocking her into the powdery snow.

Lee leaned on her right pole and clumsily turned on her side to get her skis flat on the ground, then stood. Directly in their path and hidden by a ring of snow, a circular hole gaped as deep as a grave. Lee stopped over it, examining the conical pit.

“What is it?’ she asked.

Brand’s expression was grim. “I would think it was a crater from a bomb.”

“I would think so too, if not for the treaty of Rio De Janeiro!” Lee said. Shaking her head, she threw her hands up. “The glaciers are a sanctuary. No military actions. Because the glaciers circle the world in the north and south, and they separate the terrestrial colonies of the great powers.”

Brand nodded. “Yes. And the treaty has not been violated for what? Thirty-five years? – More than my lifetime.”

The icy hill was too steep to climb, so they traded their skis and poles for snowshoes and waddled up the hillside. Lee led the way, prodding the snow ahead of her with a pole. They came to the hill’s crest, and, ascending, found themselves facing the wreck. The gargantuan wreckage, black and dripping snow, covered the hillside, billowing smoke in sections. The airship’s gondola was broken neatly in two. Half was burned to ash. The other half had slid down the hill and wedged into a crevasse.

Carefully picking their way up the steep slope, Lee and Brand walked alongside the destruction. Nearly halfway across, they found the first body on its back, resting beneath a blanket of snow an inch thick: a man in a thick white parka with a fur-trimmed hood. Goggles were frozen to his eyes like coins. Underneath the coat, he wore a white uniform with ribbons and medals. He was about twenty years old. There was a red hole under his collar, like a carnation.

“Good Lord,” whispered Brand.

Kneeling, Lee detached a circular onyx-and-silver pin from the soldier’s uniform: the number thirty-seven. She held it up in the sunlight for Brand to see, and she made a quiet sound of denial. “Oh! Brand! How could this be? This boy is from Cloud Thirty-Seven! -He is an Atlantican soldier !” She bent and touched the copse’s’s solid cheek.

Beyond, a dozen other bodies lay in the distorted poses of the fallen, their arms and legs tangled. Snowfall had obscured the red blood. The soldier’s backpacks were torn apart, their contents – papers, cartridges, medals – littered the ice. Stovepipe shako hats with visors and feathers, like toy-soldiers’ helmets, were scattered across the snow.

Brand halted beside the body of a young cavalryman with yellow hair. The soldier’s eyes were pale blue. He held a bugle still clenched in his purple fingers. “A trumpeter,” Brand said.

Swords, pistols, spears and short rifles lay scattered around the field. Brand pronounced their ranks as he moved through the field. “A   The soldiers wore ornate winter uniforms, camouflage overcoats, and silver helmets. A few were young women with their long hair spilling out of their helmets on to the ice in all directions.

“Cavalry,” Lee pronounced.

“Crack troops,” he said. “Some of them are still attached to parachutes. They died in heaven.”

“‘They Died in Heaven,’” she repeated with cold-dulled lips. “I remember my grandmother singing that, do you? One of those sentimental songs, from the war. But why have these bodies been abandoned like this? Some of these soldiers are just children! How could this have happened? Where are our troops? It’s almost like they were –”

“– Chased away,” Brand nodded. “Routed. Before they could recover the bodies.”

Lee  crouched next to the body of a youthful . Tears rolled down her face and froze on her cheeks. The lancier wore a Union Jack pin with the number seventy eight.

Brand slid up on his skis and kneeled next to her. Lee pushed a wisp of hair from the lancier’s face. “Our defeated troops…” she whispered. “What’s going on? This shouldn’t be happening. What happened to these people? Brand? What could have happened here? Where are the survivors?” The feathers on the lancier’s helmet fluttered.

The sky darkened. Hidden by snow-clouds, lightning flashed; thunder rumbled across the big ice. A sunbeam pierced the darkness. All across the ice, the light was golden and clear for a perfect moment: the smoke-black clouds, the red reflection of the sun, the glistening snow.

The light illuminated them. Brand’s face was pale, his eyes were red. Lee’s lips were cracked. Her cheeks were smudged with ash.

“Come,” Brand said. “If there’s anyone alive here, they’ll be in the gondola. If not, we can take shelter there.”

“Yes,” Lee said, nodding.

Before them, the wreck’s stern was partially buried in a wall of snow. The ship’s aluminum ribs, melted and twisted, stood a lonely guard. Structural wires, covered in icicles, crisscrossed the envelope wreckage, the broken ends dangling and swinging. Frayed silk, burnt brown and black, fluttered and flapped. The wreck’s bow had snapped off and rolled on its side. One section was burned flat; the other half was untouched.

Lee and Brand climbed downwards. The gondola’s hull, dark-stained wood walls, were covered with gunports. The portholes were thick glass.

“Over there,” Brand shouted. He pointed down into the wreck, which leaned at an angle on its side. “There’s the galley; it’s intact,” he said. “The officers’ quarters behind it are partially buried. We can warm up inside.”

He helped her step down into the wreck, catching her when she slipped. They climbed through a slanted hatchway.

“Hello?” Brand called. No one answered.

He shut the hatch behind them. The ship’s interior was spartan. The walls were institutional green. The officers’ quarters, gray paneled with six bunks, leaned at a topsy turvy angle.

Straw mattresses filled the aisle. Lee pushed one against the port wall and fell down on it.

“I’m exhausted, Brand,” Lee said, nodding weakly.

Brand sighed. A blanket lay on the bulkhead, He picked it up and gave it to her. “Rest here, Lieutenant. I’m going back up to have a look in the galley.” He climbed stiffly out the hatchway and slammed the hatch. Lee sighed and kicked her feet in the air.

Brand returned after a few minutes. He threw open the hatch and stepped carefully down into the cabin.

“Aha,” he said. Lee lay curled up in the blankets without speaking, open-eyed and watching him.

He carried a small coal stove shaped like a chubby tin lantern. He shook it with a grin, rattling the coal inside. “There’s plenty more coal, too,” he said. He found a stable surface on the wall at the other end of the officer’s quarters and set the stove down. Whistling a cheery tune, he opened the tin lid and lit the coal with a match, then he shut the lid and nursed the yellow orange flame, blowing gently through the grate. Soon, a red glow emerged from the stove’s belly, and he sighed.

“Soup or tea, Lieutenant?” he asked.

“Both,” she said, lifting her head.

He opened a tin can with his knife and placed it atop the burner, then he disappeared again into the galley. This time he returned with a kettle , cups, and a glass teapot.

When the soup was warmed, he poured it in a cup. Lee took her mittens off; trembling, she took the cup in her fingers. He put the kettle on the stove.

The cabin filled with steam. In a little while, the kettle whistled, and the glass teapot was filled with warm, red liquid.

Brand smiled lightly. “There’s sugar, but no milk I’m afraid, ma’am.”

“I’m too tired to complain. And, in any case, you are by far the best valet I have ever had.”

He poured some in a ceramic metal mug for her, and she drank it greedily. She leaned back against the floor.

“I do not understand,” she said drowsily. “It doesn’t make sense.”

“I don’t understand either,” he said. “This was a pitched battle. The bomb craters.”

“Brand,” she said. “What about us? Where are we going to go now? We were bringing supplies here. But these people are beyond the need of any supplies. And we are trapped in the middle of nowhere.”

He leaned against the wall and looked out the porthole.

A harsh cry, a howling mournful noise, drifted on the air into the cabin. Lee and Brand both raised a hand to their ears. Lee’s face fell.

“Sweet Susan B!” she swore. “What was that?” The scream rang out again, echoing among the ice hills and crevasses.

 

heavy_gear_flourish

 

The colors of the four colonial empires of 2186 as well as the flags of privateering vessels.

Spanish Inquisition

The flag of the Spanish Inquisition.

Don Juan

The flag of the Don Juan, courtesy of Kikuchiyo Studios.

Neo-Prussian Confederacy

Neo-Prussian Confederacy flag courtesy Kikuchiyo Studios.

North Atlantic Community

North Atlantic Community flag courtesy Kikuchiyo Studios.

Russian Empire

Imperial standard of the Russian Empire.

 

Continue the adventure: Chapter 8

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