Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 9: The Lawless

Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 9 –  The Lawless

Cover art by Dale Michels

IceShip2

Courtesy of Dale Michels

In the previous episode, on the battlefield Lee and Brand find Flapjack a sled dog who leads them to a young pilot near death. Polar grizzlies threaten them, but mysterious ice boats appear and chase the bears away.

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Within the gondola wreckage, a miniature stove’s orange glow gave the only light. Lee, wrapped in her outsized parka, sat on the bulkhead, leaning against the sideways ceiling and warming her feet. Her eyes were bleary. The injured pilot lay on the other side of the stove. By Lee’s feet, Flapjack, the sled dog, sat up, flipped his tail, and whined.

Brand, standing on the crate, wiped the porthole clean with the palm of his glove. His cheeks were wind-burned and red. He pressed his face to the black glass.

Snow fell through the black night air, blowing between the ribs of the blimp’s skeletal wreckage. In the stern, the galley was intact, the hatchway blocked. One tilted porthole overlooked the smoking bulk of the ruin. Three strange figures on snowshoes crossed the moon-blue ice toward the gondola. Two men, dressed in identical black uniforms, carried heavy rifles; the third figure wore a pointed cap like a hood and leaned on a long halberd.

Brand shook his head and dropped down from the porthole. “There’s three of the ice boat crew coming this way: a halberdier and two musketeers. Your orders, Lieutenant?” he asked. A kitchen knife from the galley wreckage hung from his belt.

“Whoever they are, we had better hail them,” Lee said, her voice flat.

Beneath her, in the brown shadows, the pilot groaned. “He is in shock,” said Lee. “We don’t look well ourselves.” She held up her swollen left wrist wrapped in soggy bandages and wriggled her blistered fingers. Brand said nothing.

Lee’s hand shook as she brushed her hair out of her eyes. “You don’t have any idea who they might be?”

“Groundhogs of some kind,” Brand whispered. “Wearing odd uniforms. Maybe they’re mercenaries for the Neo-Prussian Confederacy.”

Lee sighed and nodded her head. “If they are the Kaiser’s soldiers, or even Spaniards, maybe they will have mercy on us. We are on the ice – The treaty.”

“The treaty’s already violated,” he said. “And whoever killed those soldiers wasn’t merciful.” Noise, muffled, came through the airship’s thin walls: human voices shouting.

“We don’t have any choice,” she said.

“Aye aye, Lieutenant,” Brand said with a nod and a salute. “Here they come.”

Lee braced herself and rose unsteadily to her feet, closing and opening her eyes. Brand stood in front of her. The pilot moaned again. Flapjack crouched beside him and made a high-pitched whine.

The hatchway handle rattled and opened with an arctic gust, and a shadow filled the entry. Brand’s fingers touched the knife. Lee’s breath caught.

A man in black carrying a blunderbuss entered the tilted galley, rifle pointed forward. Snow followed him. His eyes fell first on the stove.

Saluton?” he said quietly. He blinked when he saw Lee and Brand crouched together in the corner amidst the flotsam of the room, raising their arms. He fell to a crouch, aiming straight at their faces.

“Hello!” Brand said calmly.

Kiu estas tie?” The man said. “Identigivin!” His face, pale and young, framed his wide open blue eyes. He wore a black uniform with baggy pants.

Kavaliro!” he yelled. Behind the musketeer, a woman entered through the galley, lowering her halberd to come through the hatchway. She wore a red phrygian cap; her uniform and boots were white, and her jacket was black with gold clasp buttons. Another musketeer followed after her, blunderbuss raised.

Her eyes followed the barrel of the first musketeer’s gun and fell on Lee, Brand, the pilot, and the dog. “Put your hands in the air please,” she said with a cheery smile. “Manoin in laero.”

Flapjack growled. The rifle barrels dipped, pointing at him.

Don’t shoot!” Lee said. She fell to her knees and wrapped her arms around the malamute’s chest, shielding him. “Don’t shoot. We surrender! Good boy, Flapjack. Sit,” she added.

The dog sat hesitantly. Lee gripped his collar.

The uniformed woman was middle-aged, with dark brown skin and pale green eyes. Under the red cap, her hair was tightly braided. Her eyes hardened. “Who are you?” she asked. “You can speak English. Are you Atlantican? Êtes-vous de l’Atlantique?

Lee and Brand answered simultaneously. “First Lieutenant L. Lee, North Atlantic Community Commissariat, commander of the freighter-balloon Gigas NAC CL2.”

“Able-Bodied Flyer, M. Brand, North Atlantic Community Air Navy.”

“What happened here, Lieutenant?” the uniformed woman asked, “Is this the Gigas? There was a battle here. We picked up the bodies of almost twenty of your soldiers.”

“They’re not our sold –” Lee stopped when the woman raised an eyebrow skeptically. “ – I mean, this is not – That is, Flyer Brand and I parachuted down from the Gigas.”

“What about him?” The red-capped woman pointed at the young pilot lying beside the stove. He moaned gently; his face was white, his eyes red, his lips blistered. The wind rattled the wood panels of the cabin, blowing in a fine mist of snow; the pilot shook violently.

“We found him in this wreckage, clinging to life,” Lee said. “He is too cold. He is in shock. He needs a doctor.”

“Hold the dog,” the woman ordered Lee. She crouched over the pilot, laying down her halberd. She peeled off one glove, lifted the pilot’s brown collar, and touched his neck. She winced. “He has hypothermia. He is half frozen.”

Lee drew herself up as tall as she was able. “I hope it isn’t rude,” she said, “to point out you have not identified yourselves. Who are you? Your uniforms aren’t North Atlantic. What language are you speaking? It sounded like Spanish or Italian – Axis languages.”

Lee and Brand glanced at each other; Brand nodded. Lee steadied herself and spoke, her voice trembling. “If you are Axis soldiers, I hereby place you under arrest in the name of the First North Atlantic Council. Surrender yourselves, and you –”

The woman in the red cap lifted her head and filled the cramped galley with rich laughter. “We aren’t speaking any Axis languages, certainly!”

The mysterious woman paused, wrinkling her lower lip thoughtfully, her face ominous in the shadows cast by the stove’s yellow light. “You are a courageous young woman. But you are alone on a vast glacier. Hasn’t it occurred to you – you are at our mercy?”

With a nod, she turned to her companions. “Malaltigi la pafilon,” she said to the first musketeer, who lowered his weapon.

The second musketeer was middle-aged with black and white hair. He nodded at Lee. “To answer your question, we are from Freehold. We are the Royal Guard. I am the Sergeant-at-Arms.”

“What?” Lee and Brand said.

“We are the Royal Sentries of Freehold Over-the-Hudson,” the man continued, lowering his heavy gun with a sigh.

“ – Freehold on the Ice,” the woman corrected. “And I am with His Majesty’s Guard.” The two exchanged glares. Watching them closely, the first musketeer said nothing; his face had the blank but attentive look of someone who does not speak the language.

“I have never heard of, of – this place,” said Lee.

“Neither have I,” said Brand. “ – Are we near Old Albany?”

“We are asking the questions here,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said. “Don’t you know this is a demilitarized zone?”

“We weren’t involved here. We don’t know what happened,” Lee said. “The Gigas was bringing relief supplies from Cloud Two – for a civilian wreck, is what I was told. We were boarded by privateers and Flyer Brand and I escaped by parachuting out with the supplies – I wasn’t the commander until yesterday.” A fine mist of snow blew through a crack in the bulkhead, and Lee shivered.

“A civilian wreck?” the woman said. “Not commander till yesterday? That’s clearly a lie. An outrageous lie, at that.” She gave a forced laugh.

“It’s all true, what the Lieutenant’s saying,” Brand said.

Please,” Lee said. At her feet, the big malamute’s tail thumped and he gave a low growl. “I am telling the truth. And this man, the pilot we found, he is going to die if we can’t get his temperature up.” Lee pointed at the pilot. “He has no dogtag, but as you can see, his uniform is NAC Air Navy, for snow combat.”

“He has no tags?” the woman asked, raising an eyebrow. “That’s the sign of a covert mission. And you say he was not with you – but he has the same uniform as you?” She eyed Brand’s camel colored uniform.

“Yes.” Lee said, nodding. “ – I said the same thing –”

“One of you is lying,” the woman snapped. The first musketeer watched her closely, uncomprehending, bending his arms to raise his weapon again.

“Which one of you is with the Higher Intelligence Organization?” the Sergeant-at-Arms asked.

“Are you the agents of any state or government, imperial or otherwise?” the woman demanded.

“Well – yes. No,” said Lee, uncertain. “That is, I am just completing mandatory service in the NAC Commissariat. But I am all but discharged. I am on my way to a managerial position at my uncle’s associate’s plastic mine in West Buckminster.”

“You said you were the commander of a freighter-balloon,” the woman said.

“Well – I am,” said Lee, her jaw chattering. “But I wasn’t, you see, when we started out. Captain Anderson died during the night. I wasn’t even part of the crew until Mr. Brand woke me up!”

“I think she is the one who is lying,” the woman said, nodding at Lee. “You must come with us. It would be preferable to being eaten by bears, in any case. Pardon my saying so, but the story you have offered is contradictory, at the very best. And the one thing you both agree on is that you are the agents of an oppressive system.”

“The North Atlantic Community is a democracy, not an oppressive state,” said Lee.

“ –Are you groundhogs?” Brand asked.

“An elitist notion, typical of the aeronautical bourgeoisie,” the Sergeant-at-Arms said, snorting and leaning on his rifle. The other musketeer stood next to him.

“You know what I think of your classist ideology –” the woman snapped, glaring.

“This man needs help!” Lee pointed at the pilot. “We need to get him somewhere warm and raise his body temperature or he will die.”

“She is right,” said the woman. She looked at the musketeers, shrugged, shook her head, and sighed. She turned to Lee, gave a slight bow, and said, “I am Vera Nulla, Sergeant-at-Arms, Baronet of Delaware. These are my free associates, Knights of Freehold On-the-Ice, Sir Jean-Jacques Paine and Benjamin F Goldman, Count of Northern Jersey.”

At the mention of his name, the first musketeer gave a little bow; he was younger than the other two. “Sorcxita,” he said, with a smile at Lee.

“Jean-Jacques? I took French in school, and that is not what he is speaking,” said Lee.

“No, it isn’t,” said Vera. She removed her own white scarf and, stooping again, wrapped it around the fallen pilot’s neck. “But now that we have all been formally introduced, why don’t we see about keeping this mysterious gentleman alive so we can have some answers. All will be explained onboard our ship the Lawless. Don’t worry, you will find no Axis collaborators here.”

The uniformed Vera turned to the musketeers. “Preta?” she asked.

“Niiru!” the Sergeant-at-Arms said to the other. He gave his gun to Vera Nulla and picked the fallen pilot up in his arms. Grunting, he climbed slowly out of the cabin through the hanging hatch.

Lee and Brand exchanged a glance. Lee shrugged. “Let’s go.” The malamute pushed against Lee’s leg, nearly knocking her over. “Come on, Flapjack,” she said. He wagged his tail.

The first musketeer, Sir Jean-Jacques nodded his head at the hatchway. Brand took Lee by the shoulder. Together, they picked their way up the side of the wall and out the hatch.

Wind shook them as they stepped up and out through the slanted hatchway. Lee shrank and tightened her hood. Surrounding them like an ocean, the glacier glowed deep purple with midnight. The sky was a whorl of black and gray storm clouds.

Below the blimp wreckage from which they had emerged, the ice boat lay anchored on the frozen river, a two-masted caravel with a pot-bellied hull. Black flags flew from the top of its two masts. Outriggers protruded from either side. The figurehead, a sea eagle with wings outspread and beak wide, clutched a black shield in its claws. Emblazoned on the hull was the name Senleĝaj.

Lee shivered. Snow blurred the air.

Lee spoke; the wind blew her voice away. Her eyes dizzy, she slipped; Brand took her arm. She held him until she steadied, then followed the mysterious blackguards.

As they approached, a gangway lowered. The two musketeers went first, one carrying the pilot. Lee coughed into her glove. She tripped and fell face forward on the icy deck. Brand stooped and picked her up in his arms. Leaning against the wind, Brand followed, Lee in his arms. Her big hat was still attached firmly to her head.

Flapjack, sniffing at the gangway, followed them closely. The red-capped woman brought up the rear.

Gently, Brand lowered Lee on to her feet and held her as she got her balance.

“Thank you, Flyer,” Lee said. She grabbed the rails surrounding the deck for support. Behind them, the wreck of the battle blimp stretched out across the glacierside, still smoking and steaming.

Brand supported Lee as they crossed the slippery deck. They passed a small cannon, a bottle-shaped ordnance rifle, mounted to the deck between the masts.

“This is a warship,” Lee said in Brand’s ear; he nodded.

Two sailors in heavy black anoraks, almost like gorillas in appearance, shouted from the rigging and the rear deck. Frosted pulleys squeaked. The canvas sails unfurled, whipping back and forth in the wind.

“Into the cabin, quick,” said the Sergeant-at-Arms.

“It’s the only warm room on this ice-bucket,” the baronet said above a rising wind. “Open the hatch.” The Sergeant at arms fumbled with the latch and threw open the door.

Leaning on Brand’s shoulder, Lee followed the others down through an ornately carved archway below deck. Light and steamy air flooded over them. The hatch shut with a squeak and it thumped as the sergeant closed the bolt.

Lee pulled back her hood. Glowing lanterns hung from the ceiling, lighting the cabin’s paneled rosewood walls. Mahogany benches ran along the portside, as well as a space for hammocks. A lightweight potbelly wood-stove was bolted to the deck’s center, a wood fire crackling and popping within. The portholes were lined with brass. At the end of the room, a flight of steps led up to the wheelroom.

Vera hung up her halberd. Brand leaned against the bulkhead. Lee tilted toward him, her feet giving away under her. With a sigh, she slid down the wall to sit on the deck. Snow dripped from her coat and hat.

Atentu!” the baronet said, waving the musketeers to the side. She strung a net hammock from one bulkhead to the other, and the two musketeers gently placed the unmoving pilot inside. Then they stripped off their outer layers and their wet mittens, hung their coats on wall hooks, and huddling together, crouched to warm their red hands over the stove.

“Welcome aboard the Lawless,” Vera Nulla said, with a slight curtsy. Her braided hair was salt-and-pepper. Her face looked older in the bright cabin.

She turned to the steps at the head of the room. “You must meet our captain,” she said unbuttoning the gold clasps on her uniform

At the top of the steps, the captain minded the ship’s wheel. He wore a kilt of green, red, black, and dark blue and a flat, World War I style Brodie helmet (like an upside-down plate) on his head. He had long red hair. A golden apple medallion dangled from his breast.

The baronet turned from Lee and Brand and called out, “Captain Nemo!”

Lee and Brand looked at one another, mouths slightly open; then Lee gave a laugh and Brand joined her. “Captain Nemo,” Lee exclaimed, quietly. Brand shrugged his shoulders.

A tall figure, the captain looked down from the top of the steps, nearly hitting his helmet on a ceiling beam. “It’s not my real name,” the captain said with a guffaw. “At least, it’s not what my mother called me.”

He gave a low, rumbling laugh. “What have we here? Three survivors and a dog? Sie sind Neue-Preußen?” When Lee and Brand failed to respond, he waved his hand. “Not Neo-Prussians, clearly.”

The baronet and the two musketeers raised their fist in salute. “We picked up the dead Atlantican soldiers,” the baronet said.

The Sergeant-at-Arms nodded. “We found these two inside the wreck with the dog and the other one – a pilot. They appear to have been out on the glacier on a skiing trip.”

“Well?” the Captain asked.

Trembling, Lee stood. “Look, I don’t know who you are,” Lee said. “But if you aren’t Neo-Prussians or their agents, you need to help us get to a NAC base – so we can report this. We saw a battle zeppelin over the ice today. And now this, the battle – all these soldiers, dead.”

The captain looked Lee up and down. In the direct light of the lantern, a long scar was revealed from his forehead over his eye to his cheek. He squinted. “What’s that insignia you’re wearing? A cog?”

“It represents a locomotive wheel,” Lee said.

“A desk dragoon!” he said. “Which sphere are you from?”

“I am from Cloud Thirty Three,” said Lee

“Twenty Six,” said Brand.

“I have always wanted to visit Cloud Twenty Six,” the captain mused. “I have been up to Thirty Three – can’t say as I liked it very –”

“Just who are you people?” Lee demanded, interrupting him. “And what language is it you are speaking? This boat – it had a different name on the side.”

The woman sighed slightly. “By our law – pardon me, by our agreement, all iceboat names must be in Esperanto.”

“Esperanto!” Lee said. “I didn’t think anyone spoke that, really.”

“Neither did I,” Brand said.

The captain leaned forward and spoke, slowly and loudly, into a long brass tube descending from the ceiling. “Bosun, hoist the anchors! Laborestron, izo la ankroj!

The sound of wind followed and a ghostly voice answered: “Anchors up, cap’n! Ankroj supren, kapitano!

Lee’s eyes were wide; her mouth was slightly open. She swayed and steadied herself on the bulkhead. Brand seized her.

“She is exhausted,” Brand said.

At a nod from the captain, another hammock was unstrung from the opposite wall, next to the pilot. Brand put his hands together, and gave Lee a lift into the hammock. From a cabinet, the Sergeant-at-Arms produced a thick olive green wool blanket and gave it to her.

Lee sighed and leaned back, pulling the blanket around her shoulders. The dog, Flapjack, immediately curled up beneath her.

Snowflakes tapped at the portholes. Captain Nemo, lifting his head so his red hair spilled out of the flat helmet, shouted into the voice tube. “Prepare to cast off.”

“Preparing to cast off, cap’n,” the voice answered.

The ice ship vibrated slightly as a blast of wind shook the hull and rattled all the windows. Lee pulled the blanket around her tightly. The pilot, like a strange caterpillar in a cocoon, tossed and turned in the other hammock.

“Cast off!” the captain yelled up into the tube.

“Casting off!”

An engine kicked on. The ship turned gently into the wind. Curving into a slight downhill slope, the ice boat slid slowly forward on its outrigger blades until it caught the wind and took off, skates hissing.

In her hammock, Lee bounced up down; Brand tottered and caught himself. The ice boat swerved and they leaned to the side.

The captain yanked the tube down to his face and shouted as loud as he could over the roar of air: “Bring her up to thirty knots, if you can, bosun.” The only answer was the wind.

“I will arrange for some refreshments,” the Vera Nullasaid. “I trust you will not interfere with the operation of this vessel?”

Lee nodded slightly; Brand grunted agreeably. The baronet and the Sergeant-at-Arms went through a side hatchway and disappeared, leaving them alone on the lower cabin with the first musketeer, who yawned amiably.

Lee sat up in her hammock. Brand moved closer. “Where are we going?” she whispered. “Who are these people?”

Brand eyed the steps leading to the captain and the ship’s wheel and spoke softly. “Lieutenant – haven’t you ever heard of the outlaw town on the Ontario glacier?”

“The place the Old New York Post called the Capital of Crime?” she hissed.

Brand spoke under his breath. “Yes, the Metropolis of Madness.”

“Can that be where they are taking us?” Lee asked.

“They seem civilized enough for a bunch of groundhogs,” he said.

“They are not that kind of surface dweller, I think,” Lee said. “It seems at least the captain has visited the NAC spheres.”

Outside, white and blue ice and snow streaked past. The ice boat hit a bump. Brand jumped; Lee swung back and forth in the hammock.

“Do they have to go this fast?” she said.

bnwonderad

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