Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 8: Caught

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 8 –  Caught

Cover art by RJ Cote/Kikuchiyo

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Courtesy of RJ “Kikuchiyo” Cote

In our last episode, Lee and Brand discover, not a civilian crash as they expected, but the wreckage of a pitched battle.

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

 

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Snow blew through the shattered portholes of the airship wreck, and the mysterious cry – a guttural, animal noise – filled the cabin. Lee shivered and wrapped her thick parka-clad arms around herself. Brand peered out through broken glass. “What is it?” she asked.

The howl, louder this time, echoed once more over the empty ice. Brand’s jaw was clenched, his face red. “It’s not the wind,” he said.

“Let’s take a look,” Lee said. She shoved herself up on to her feet and climbed out of the lopsided cabin, throwing open the hatch. A blast of glacier air struck her.

Above them, the gray sky was darkening as evening fell. Wet, slow lumps of snow, obscuring the distant blue glaciers, fell on the ice with a sighing sound. In the distance, on the edge of visibility at the top of the slope, a gray shadow leaped along the slope. Lee shouted and pointed. A four-legged animal raced over the ice, shaggy and low to the ground.

“It’s a timber-wolf,” Brand cried.

“No!” Lee cried. “It’s a dog – a sled dog!” She clapped with her mittened hands, but falling snow dampened the sound. The dog disappeared behind the fluttering sheets.

Lee leaped out over the snowbank beneath the vessel and set out running over the battlefield. Brand, yelling, jumped down and followed.

Lee shouted crazily, “Whoo-hoo, here, boy,” waving her arms overhead. “Here, boy!” she shouted again.

On the hill’s apex, the dog re-appeared, silhouetted, ears to the sky. Lee whistled.

The dog turned, and seeing them, bounded downhill, barking frantically, a black and white malamute hurdling over the snowdrifts.

“Be careful,” Brand shouted. The dog ran faster, kicking up snow as he neared.

Lee kneeled on one boot and whistled. The dog opened his mouth, his tongue out, his big teeth showing.

“No!” Brand screamed.

“It’s alright,” Lee said. Tail wagging, the dog ran into her arms, barking and whining.

“Hello, boy,” she said, laughing and stroking his neck.

The dog was as tall at the shoulder, almost as tall as Lee on her knees. He sat in front of her, tail thumping.

Brand shook his head. “This poor dog must have survived whatever happened here – the crash or the battle.”

Lee fumbled in her pockets with her mittened fingers and produced a strip of dried beef. The dog gobbled the meat, jumped on his hind legs, and licked Lee’s face. Lee laughed and patted the animal’s ears.

“Get down,” she said.

She searched the silver and black fur around his neck and found a collar. “Flapjack,” she read. At the sound of his name, the dog sat at attention; she rubbed his neck.

“With a sled dog, we might make it to Old New York in half the time,” Brand said.

The dog pulled away; his ears perked. Pacing in a circle, he threw back his head and howled, then he leapt up, kicking his front legs like a stallion and took off running toward the abandoned battlefield.

“Flapjack!” she called, but the dog did not stop or turn back.

“Let’s go,” Lee said.

Without looking back, she ran after the sled dog on her snowshoes. Brand followed Lee, puffing steam.

Far off above the ice hill to the east, another cry rang out. Muffled by distance and snowfall, the thunderous growl much deeper than the dog’s barking. Lee froze; Brand stopped, holding his gloves to his ears and looking back and forth.

“Feague!” Brand swore. “What in the wingnut was that? It sounded almost human.”

Lee paled. “I don’t know.” The roar shook the air again, coming from the east.

Lee raised her hands to her mouth.“Flapjack!”

Brand caught her arm. “Where are you going, Lieutenant?” She pulled away.

“The dog’s bringing us somewhere,” Lee shouted over her shoulder.

“To our deaths,” Brand muttered, jogging across the ice, snowshoes slapping.

Fading behind them, the blimp wreckage disappeared in a white curtain. Brand, jogging, drew ahead. Lee stumbled and picked herself up.

The dog stopped, wagging its tail and barking. Whenever they neared him, he took off running again.

Ahead on the slope, away from the rest of the battlefield debris, a burnt fragment of balloon silk flapped loosely atop a section of the airship gondola. The dog ran to it and disappeared below the sheet.

Lee, first to arrive, stopped, and crouched down. She lifted the covering. With a shriek, she hopped backwards and fell on her hands.

“Mr. Brand!” she screamed. “There’s a man here – alive!”

The balloon silk had formed a tent-like enclosure beneath which the dog sat, chin on its front paws, smiling with its black jaws, and thumping its tail. The man lay supine, draped in a heavy trench coat, a red wool scarf around his neck.

Lee crouched next to the man. His hair was frozen under his wool flyer’s cap. He was a young man, beardless, with crew cut yellow hair. His lips were bluish.

Lee touched his face with her glove, and his eyes opened and shut again; she gasped.

Brand, panting bent over her shoulder. “He’s freezing to death,” Brand whispered.

“We need to get him back to the gondola immediately,” Lee said.

Brand stripped off his gloves. With both hands, he traced the man’s neck and touched his chest. “He’s part of the crew of the wreck. He’s cold, too cold.” said Brand, nodding at the man’s tan uniform. “Air Navy. But he has no tags on his neck.”

“I’ve always heard that was the sign of a covert operation,” said Lee.

Brand lifted the man’s coat, revealing a ship-wheel insignia and a silver pin with the number forty two on the man’s breast pocket.

“Ship’s pilot!” said Brand. “He’s young for such a high rank. He’s younger than you, Lieutenant!”

“A pilot,” she said. “Let’s get him back up to the main wreckage. We can take shelter there.”

“Aye aye,” Brand said. With a grunt, he picked the man up in his arms and started for the shipwreck.

Lee pulled on her snowshoes and ran after Brand. The dog fell in behind her at her heels, whining.

Brand’s face was red and sweat ran down his forehead. Brand, arms linked, carried him under his arms, dragging his legs. He stopped suddenly, covering Lee with the white fog of his breath.

“I heard something!” Brand said. He leaned forward and cried out: “Hello?”

From beyond the seracs came an answer, another long, low roar like a lion’s, closer. Lee shrank and shivered.

“What was that?” Lee asked.

“-That certainly wasn’t another dog,” Brand said.

Lee trembled. “What was it then?”

Brand looked down, avoiding her eyes. “I don’t know-”

“Tell me what you think it is, Flyer,” Lee said.

His face was pale under his parka hood. “I am pretty sure tigers wouldn’t be this far up on the glacier. Nothing to hunt up here except arctic birds going south.”

Tigers?” Lee asked, incredulously.

“Siberian tigers,” he said plainly. “They escaped from zoos back in the old days. They’ve become naturalized over the last hundred years. But we are too far up on the glacier; the tigers like the pine forests.” Brand looked around again. He resumed his course across the ice, dragging the young pilot.

Lee hurried alongside him, the dog at her side. “That still does not answer my question, Mr. Brand.”

“Well. I can make a guess.” Walking steadily, he searched the ice with his eyes. “When the glacier shifts, cracks appear, often over rivers where the ice is thin. The rivers are full of fish.”

What do you think it is, Mr. Brand?” Lee snapped.

He sighed. “I would guess it’s polar grizzlies, at least two or three. They run in packs.”

“What?” Lee spat.

“Polar grizzlies,” Brand repeated, panting. “A hybrid. Big as a polar bear. Mean as a grizzly.” He stopped, and with a groan, he threw the young man over his shoulder. “We have to hurry. Before they see us.”

The dog, facing uphill, growled and snapped at the air. Lee wiped her nose with her parka sleeve.

There!” said Brand, pointing with his nose. On the far side of the ridge, beyond the wreck, four bears, taller than horses, lumbered through the snow.

A snuffling noise resounded among the drifts, followed by a long groan. No snow fell, but wind blew a white curtain across the valley as thick as a blizzard. Large gray shapes slowly emerged from the whiteness, walking shadows taller than a man.

“They are probably starving,” Brand said. He hurried across the ice in the face of the wind, the other man slung over his shoulder like a duffel bag.

They crossed a last peak of frozen snow. Ahead, the blimp wreckage appeared on the icy slope, still smoking.

A last ray of sunshine pierced the cloud and threw bright light on the snowbanks. Suddenly illuminated in the orange light, the bears, above the wreckage, roared. Their lips were black in the white panorama. They showed their teeth and their red mouths as they edged forward. Their fur was mottled white and brown, as though stained or dirty. The wet fur smell of their musk preceded them on the breeze. The dog whined sniffing the air.

Brand did not slow his pace, so Lee had to jog to keep pace.

“Hurry,” he spat. “A polar grizzly is like a hungry dog as big as an elephant. If they charge us – and they will – there won’t be anything we can do.”

They ran, the dog chasing them. An eerie purple twilight covered the ice. A wind passed over. Lee fell backward, jammed her weak hand, and moaned. The dog leaped to her side.

Brand, still facing the ice, walked backwards until he was next to her. The dog nuzzled her under her arm, pushing her. She got to her feet, but shivering, fell backwards.

“My legs are giving out,” she said, trembling violently. “I don’t have the strength.”

“Here,” he said, the fog of his breath hissing. Still bearing the man on his shoulder, he gave her his arm and she stood.

The bears came, not lumbering and slow, but running on their big paws.

Brand stood in front of Lee, Flapjack at his side. The dog lifted his black lip and showed his fangs.

Brand wielded a pocketknife in his one free hand. “Lieutenant, run!” he said, not looking at her. The bears were galloping.

Lee pulled something from her pocket: the brass ship’s whistle, and she pressed her lips to it and blew a piercing note.

The bears slowed, then stopped running, looking ‘round quizzically. One stood up and looked around. Grunting together, they moved forward slowly, sniffing the air and growling.

Lee fumbled frantically in her pocket. Panting, she got on her knees and withdrew from her coat pocket the flare gun. She jammed a cartridge into the barrel with her bandaged hand.

“Aaaah!” she screamed, tears freezing on her high cheeks. She fired the gun.

Coughing black smoke, the flare flew across the glacier, struck a snowbank, burned brightly with a blinding magenta glow, then fizzled and turned black.

Lee opened the flare gun but could not remove the spent shell with her mittens. She pulled them off and pulled the hot cartridge out with her fingertips, screaming.

The bears examined the flare’s black crater. Flapjack barked and two bears glanced up. The tallest bear, a heavy matron with a light brown hood and a streak down her back, sniffed the air, glanced at Lee and the dog, and without hesitating, turned and leapt down the snowbank, trotting toward them.

“Ah!” Lee cried. Shaking, she pulled two more flares from her pocket. Lee pushed the second flare into the gun with her palm, she snapped it shut, and got to one knee. She bit her lip, aimed squarely at the gigantic bear, and fired again.

The flare hissed. A cloud of smoke covered Lee and Brand.

A shadow behind the gray smoke, the bear threw back her head and roared so loud Lee fell over, clutching her ears. She snapped open the flare gun and, weeping, pulled out the second burning shell. She struggled to her feet, but could not rise.

Gasping, she pointed the flare gun straight up and shot. The flare rose like a missile for a minute and popped, brightening the underside of the gray night clouds.

Lee held up her hand. The palm and fingers were covered in red circular burns. She fell over onto her elbows, pressing the hand on to the ice.

Something grasped her by the outside of her parka hood and pulled. Lee rolled over crying.

“Flapjack!”

The dog seized her by the shoulder and pulled. Lee got to her knees and threw herself atop the dog’s bristling shoulders and grasped him in her arms. The dog dragged her over the ice, running.

​Brand stumbled, the man in his arms. Gradually, the wreckage of the blimp appeared out of the night.

“The gondola,” Lee breathed. Ice covered her eyelashes.

The dog pulled Lee onto the snowbank beside the hull. Lee let go of the dog, pushing herself up on her feet with a cry, threw herself over the wall. She fell down into the snow and rolled down to the hatchway. The dog bounded over the hull and stood next to her, pushing her up under her arm. Lee opened the hatch and fell inside. The dog jumped neatly over her. A moment later, Brand filled the doorway, the man over his shoulder, and stumbled inside.

Lee braced herself against the wall, and when the malamute came to her she threw her arms around his neck. His tail waved like an ostrich feather. Brand placed the young pilot against the wall. As Brand found matches and relit the little coal stove, Lee wobbled to her feet and, with one hand, she dug through the rucksack. She took out a wool blanket and pulled it over the pilot.

“How’s your hand, Lieutenant?” Brand asked.

“It hurts,” she said, drawing a sharp breath.

Brand started and leaped up at the porthole. “I think I saw something!” said Brand.

“Is it a NAC airship?” Lee asked with a groan.

Brand turned toward her away from the porthole, face pale. “No,” he said. “It’s some kind of ship, but it’s not a NAC airship. It’s not an airship at all. I think it’s coming in on the ice. It’s hard to see with all the snow blowing around.”

“What is it then? Is it the Prussians?”

“I can’t see,” he answered.

Lee handed him the spyglass. He squinted and adjusted the focus with a twist.

“Ice boats,” he said. “Coming over the ridge.”

“Ice boats?” she said with a gasp. “Who could be out here in the wilderness? Help me up, Mr. Brand.”

He picked her up. Following her nodded directions, he held her beside him so they could watch the glacier through the porthole.

In the wrecked airship galley, Brand pressed his face to the galley porthole. Outside, fresh snow fell in the dim moonlight, covering the blue glacier ice and filling the air so thickly only gray outlines were visible moving back and forth where the ice-boats circled.

“I can’t see anything but snow,” said Lee.

“Then you’re not looking in the right place,” he said.

Lee gasped. A sailboat, a two-masted ice caravel with a tar-black hull and swollen jib sails, swept across the ice, spraying an arc of snow in its wake and bouncing as it ran. A man in a black parka and goggles teetered atop the vessel in the crow’s nest. A yacht and a half dozen catboats with outrigger blades followed.

Driving through the slush, the ice-boats headed straight for the polar-grizzlies. The crews whooped and fired rifles into the air loud enough the echoes carried across the battlefield to the wreck. The great animals remained unperturbed by the arriving vessels; a hefty male sat down on the snow with a thump to better watch them approach.

The smaller ice boats swooped to a stop. Black pennant flags flew from their masts.

Lee, still exhausted, sat back down against the wall. “Tell me what’s happening,” she said, her face pale. “My legs don’t have the strength.”

Brand did not look away from the porthole. “The ice-boats threw some sort of smoke bombs on the ice so it’s hard to see anything.” The glass porthole rattled and the airship’s thin walls vibrated loud popping sounds.

“What was that?” Lee asked, raising her head.

“It looks like some kind of cannon was fired into the air from the big boat’s deck.”

Nursing her sprained, burned wrist, Lee worked her way back up to her feet again. She stood on the wall and climbed up the slanted floor again next to Brand. He reached out his arm to support her.

A coal black smoke like a rising mist hovered over the ice. The piebald bears sniffed the air and looked around; one yawned. Affronted at last by the acrid haze and the obnoxious screams (but appearing only slightly dismayed), the bears turned their backs and wandered unhurriedly away more or less following the largest bear, a mottled white and gold matron.

“Maybe the ice boats will go away too,” Lee said, nodding through the porthole at the dark figures from the ice-boats. Some had disembarked. They moved slowly as they were dressed in heavy robes. Their faces were hidden under leather hoods.

“They’ve begun searching the field,” he said. “I believe they are collecting the bodies.”

“Well then, they must be allies, mustn’t they?” Lee asked and let go of the portholes backing plate. She dropped down to the opposite, slanted wall again, resting.

“I don’t see any North Atlantic insignia or uniforms,” Brand continued. “They aren’t soldiers, I believe, or air sailors. If they are a covert battalion, they could be from anywhere. But, they don’t look like any kind of military to me.”

Shouting rang out from the glacier walls. The smoke dissipated, revealing about a dozen ice sailors. “They’re piling the bodies on a cart-sled,” Brand said.

“Who are they?” Lee asked. “Could they be the survivors we were dropping the supplies for?”

“I don’t think they are,” Brand said. He wiped the fogged porthole with his coat sleeve. “They are speaking English, I think. I guess they are the inhabitants of the glacier. Let’s hope so, eh? If it’s the Spaniards, they will kill us when they find us, doubtlessly.”

“What do they look like?”

“They look like wildmen,” said Brand.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “Surface dwellers?”

“Yes, groundhogs,” he said. “But they don’t look dirty, and they aren’t dressed in rags. And I never heard of any groundhogs living this far north, on the ice.”

“They can’t find us here!” Lee said, gasping. She drew her arms around herself protectively.

“They are heading this way now,” Brand reported, turning from the porthole. “Three or four of them.”

“We are entirely outnumbered,” Lee said.

Brand shrugged, “We’ll see, I guess.” She took a drink of water from her canteen. “Should we put up a fight?”

“I don’t think it will do us much good. There’s a lot of them. Perhaps they are groundhogs. I bet you they are fishermen or fur trappers who trade illegal furs on the black market at the local airship port, maybe. As long as they aren’t some foreign army coming to invade across the arctic – or strongarms and highwaymen – we should be okay. In the worst case, I am certain the merchant air-marine office would pay a ransom for us.”

Coughing erupted from the shadows of the galley. The young pilot tossed in his blanket and moaned feverishly.

“Don’t let him kick the stove,” Lee said.

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