Wheelworks: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen – Episode 4: Air Privateers


Wheelworks by KT Sebastian

Part one: Ice Domes of the Bandit Queen

Episode 4 – Air Privateers

Cover art by Ben Vivas


Courtesy of Ben Vivas

In the last episode, Lieutenant Lee ordered the Gigas to be defended by force from the privateers.

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




In the dark immensity of the freighter-balloon’s cargo hold, Lieutenant Lee faced the privateers. A longhaired blond man with a goatee led them. Behind him stood a black man with a top hat and dreadlocks, carrying a bamboo pole. A pale woman in a green military uniform followed; she wore a doll’s head with one winking eye as a pin on her jacket’s breast pocket.

The blond man glanced at the assembled ragtag Gigas crew shouldering various weapons (a pipewrench, kitchen knives, a hockey stick, and a weighted monkey’s fist), and then he looked at Lee in her bicorn hat and the tan-uniformed Flyer Brand standing guard beside her.

With a nod to both his companions, the blond man said simply, “Let ‘em have it.”

The woman in green seized the shirtfronts of the two Gigas crew members closest to her – Ensign Svendsen from the laundry and Petty Officer Ahmad the mechanic – and she knocked their heads together so hard it made a loud noise. Svendsen dropped on the deck in a pile; Ahmad staggered, then collapsed.

The blond man took a flying leap at Brand. Grappling together, they fell to the deck.

The dreadlocked man swung the long bamboo pole over his head in a figure eight, back and forth, and back again. Each time the end of the pole slapped against the side of a different crew member’s head: rudder master Santa Maria, Flyer recruit Smith, and Ensign Jennings from the galley. They spun around, howling and clutching their ears, and tumbled like ninepins. The bamboo pole did not strike the two women in the rear. Shipswain Deschamps, a burly woman with bangs, shrugged, dropped her mallet, and put her hands up. Ensign Jameson, the chef, gasped and covered her face with her hands; she had already dropped her knife.

Brand and the privateer, wrestling, rolled back and forth, shaking the deck. Lee crouched over them, crablike, but each time she started to jump into the fight, the two men spun over and around on the deck.

The woman in green turned toward Lee, smiled, raised her fists, and fell into a wide martial arts stance .

“All right,” Lee said. “Stop it.” She hesitantly put her hands up in the air. Brand, on his back, let go of the blonde man, who jumped to his feet and brushed himself off. Beneath them, the Gigas shifted and the deck bobbed. Far above, a light flickered and went out.

“This one in charge?” the man with dreadlocks asked, indicating Lee with his pole.

“Yes” said the blond man. “She has the fancy hat.” He nodded at Brand who stood behind Lee silently. “That’s her butler.” Brand blushed

Lee touched her bicorn, then stood as tall as she could in her flat blimp boots. She and Brand both backed up slightly so the wooden shipping crate, a rectangular box of raw boards, was behind their backs. “I am North Atlantic Community Commissariat First Lieutenant Lee CL33 18997-412. I am in command of the Gigas. You need to be informed: we are on a rescue mission. Where are your authorization orders for boarding us? They must be signed in triplicate by at least two North Atlantic Council members.”

The blond privateer laughed so hard he shook, elbowing the black man in the ribs. The echo rang and repeated in the warehouse-like space. “I can see what your rank is. Commissariat -hah! Spare me the official blather, you paperweight. Captain Kerry of the Don Juan at your service, madam.”

He made a courtly bow, turned to the other privateers, and nodded his head toward the defeated Gigas crew. “Wrap this bunch up pretty, Nightingale.”

“Aye aye,” the woman said. From her belt hung a coil of leather cord. Watched over by the tall black man (who gripped his pole tightly with two hands), she set about tying the hands of the crew. They made no resistance. Ignoring their bitter complaints, she pulled them together back to back and tied them all in one large knot, hands behind their backs, facing outwards. When this was done, she gagged them each with a length of rope. She glanced at Lee and Brand. “And these two, sir?”

The blond man’s smile widened further. “Not quite yet.”

“You have no authority aboard this vessel, Captain Kerry,” Lee said, shivering. “I demand you cease these actions at once and release my crew. And don’t call me madam.”

Captain Kerry grinned and drew off his leather gloves. “I assure you, my actions are entirely authorized, or at least, authorizable. I have a letter of marque from the North Atlantic Community Council for any and all privateering activities.”

The Gigas, trembling, passed through a turbulent airstream. Snow blew in through cracks in the canvas walls. The ship listed sharply to the side, and the crew moaned as they slid together toward the edge of the deck and the flimsy canvas walls of the hold. Captain Kerry stopped their slide with his cavalier boot.

“-But this is a North Atlantic Community freighter,” Lee said. “Your letter of marque is intended for use on vessels of foreign empires. I am outraged, sir.”

Captain Kerry shrank from her as if to run and hide, but then resumed laughing. The man with the dreadlocks and the green-uniformed woman looked at each other and joined in.

“You have my sincere apologies,” Captain Kerry said. “But if you are outraged, I would suggest an air telegram to your senator. It so happens, between you and me ‘tenant Lee, that I am doing the Council’s work – indirectly, yes, but who cares?”

He pulled a silver-capped glass flask filled with sickly greenish liquid from his pocket on a long chain. He opened it, drank, and offered some to Lee. “Tequila?” he said, nearly tripping over the bound crewmembers seated on the deck.

“What do you want here?” asked Lee, ignoring his offer. Her big hat bobbed excitedly.

The privateer captain wiggled his blond goatee. “I am looking for something – some thing. And the thing I am seeking is a thing of the utmost importance.” He leaned against the shipping crate. “So important that the North Atlantic Community Council won’t even question how it got in their hot little handbags. They will just be happy the Romanovs didn’t get it. Or the krauts. Or the Holy Spanish Empire. In fact, if I were you, I would joyously hand it over unto me because then you will have something to tell the bunch of them when they start showing up here looking for it, too. Comprehenday?”

“Captain Kerry, I am unable to help you in your quest,” Lee said, folding her arms. “I have no idea what it is you are seeking. I should tell you, I am only the interim commander of this ship, as Captain Anderson passed away unexpectedly earlier this evening.”

“Hah!” shouted Kerry. He tugged on his triangular beard. “You like to play games, do you? Have you ever played ‘Answer-the-questions’ with a holy-rolling Spaniard? It’s more fun than a barrel of groundhog crap, I promise.”

“This is piracy,” said Lee. “You have taken this ship by force. And I don’t have any idea what you are talking about or how I might be even expected to know if you won’t tell me.”

“I’m sorry, mademoiselle,” said Kerry. “Desmonds, I want a full search of this vessel conducted. stem to stern.”

“Top to bottom sir,” the black man said. His accent, with its deep timbre, was West Indian.

“But first,” he said, “Mister Desmonds, see what in hallelujah is in Lieutenant Lee’s pockets?”

“Nothing,” Lee said, bewildered.

Standing behind her, the tall man patted her jacket and pulled something heavy from the pocket. He muttered sonorously.

“What’s that Big D?” The captain said, spitting. “A flare gun? Do I look jack-stupid to you, sister?” he asked Lee.

When Lee did not answer, the captain laughed uproariously. “This balloon-boat of yours is made of kindling and held together with flammable glue. If you fired that thing in here we would all drop from the sky like the wrath of the Lord.”

“Shall I subdue them Captain Kerry?” Miss Nightingale  asked, batting her big eyes.

“No, just tie ‘em up,” he grinned and then shook with laughter once more so loud it filled the wide open cargo hold. “But let’s finish our chat first, shall we? How many people are riding onboard this birthday balloon, Lieutenant?” he asked.

Lee hesitated; beside her, Brand shrugged and said. “We’re running on a short crew, nine all in all, and twenty passengers.”

“You know,” Kerry said, “That is such an astoundingly small crew, if I were a betting man (and I have to admit, there are certainly those who have called me that, and worse), I would bet you were telling me a tall tale.”

“No, it’s true,” Lee said. “He is telling the truth.”

Kerry grinned foxily, rubbing his hands together. “We air privateers have a saying: ‘Time is flying.’” As he spoke, the Rastafarian raised the bamboo pole and, slowly, with one hand, spun it around.

“We have offered you no resistance,” said Lee, shaking slightly.

“No resistance?” Captain Kerry said. “You had half a dozen people with rocks and sticks here to greet us.” He rolled his eyes dramatically. A freezing blast of wind blew through the dark empty hold, whipping up his blond hair.

Lee ignored his comment, taking another step backwards and keeping the crate wall behind her. “If what you say is true and you are involved in some quasi-legal government operation, there are still jurisdictional matters involved and you will be held accountable for any acts of kidnapping, sabotage, or-”

“Jurisdictional matters?” Captain Kerry roared. “Are you the product of our university system, mademoiselle? Law school?”

“Aether University, ‘82,” Lee said.

“I bow before your superior education. You are real smart, I can see. So where is it?” Kerry asked.

“Where is what?” Lee responded. “If you told me what you were looking for, I might be able to help. Our only cargo is the emergency supplies we are dropping as a mission of mercy for airship wreck survivors. A mission, I might add, which you are preventing us from completing.”

Kerry ignored her, pacing the flimsy deck so Lee, Brand, and the captive crew bounced with each step. “I’ll admit it might take days for us to search this whole ship, dammit.” He pulled his goatee. “I don’t really have time for that.”

“You don’t,” Lee answered smartly. “The Council could have airships here in a matter of – well, a couple days, I guess.” She crossed her arms and frowned. Miss Nightingale and Mr. Desmonds laughed wildly.

“Exactly,” Captain Kerry said. “Plenty of time for me to search this thing tip to tip, find it, and amscray. And you know what? Right now, nobody’s flying around the vicinity for a few days anyway. There’s an ionospheric lightning storm blowing up the upper atmosphere. Ever seen a jet of ultra-violet lightning rip through the envelope of a high-speed hydrogen dirigible? It’s like a big blue finger coming from the clouds. Whatever it touches just goes poof sha-bang! Not a damn thing is left. You don’t have to worry about falling a few miles to earth. Except as dust. You have seen it happen, didn’t you, Jamaica?”

“Aye,” said Mr. Desmonds.

“Ships have lightning rods,” Lee said, sneering slightly. “And, you know, they could scramble a blimp from West Buckminster on the earth’s surface or from Island City.”

“If they had a blimp ready at West Buckminster they would have sent it. And ionic lightning will pick its teeth with a damn lightning rod. If you were a bureaucrat at a desk, would you take that risk for an empty freighter-balloon or would you wait a few days, until the storm blew over? I know I would stay in the harbor. I’m not ready for Jesus; he doesn’t want to see me any quicker than I want to see him. So, let’s give me some assistance, can’t we?”

Lee squared her shoulders. “Well,” she said. “What if we do have it? Whatever it is? And it’s as important as you think it is. Then what?”

“We don’t want confrontation,” said the Jamaican ominously, standing behind his captain.

“Speak for yourself,” said Miss Nightingale smiling so she showed her teeth.

“So why don’t you just tell us where it is?” Kerry smiled again like an alligator.

“Because I really don’t know what you’re talking about,” said Lee.

Captain Kerry’s teeth gleamed in the dark. “That’s just what you would say either way, wouldn’t you?”

“Can I subdue these two now?” Miss Nightingale asked.

“Aye,” he said.

“Aye aye, captain.” Nightingale said with enthusiasm and saluted. The Jamaican lingered, within arm’s distance.

“Give me your hands,” she said. Lee looked at Brand; he nodded just slightly. Lee and Brand turned toward the shipping crate.

“Tie them to the outside and then they can watch us look through the box,” Captain Kerry said. “I am certain ‘it’ is in there.” Miss Nightingale bound Lee and Brand to the outer post of the shipping crate door.

Miss Nightingale secured the knots. The Jamaican spoke sonorously, indecipherably, to Miss Nightingale, pointing to his head and looking at Lee. The two privateers burst out with noisy laughter.

“What is so funny?” Lee snapped.

“My Rastafarian friend wants to know where you got Marcus Garvey’s hat,” Miss Nightingale said. She and the Jamaican laughed even louder. Lee blushed.

From somewhere up above them, the ship’s whistle blew three times. Lee hissed angrily. Brand, facing her whispered, “What is it?”

“The triple whistle means we are at the dropsite,” said Lee, her eyes growing bigger as she spoke. “That means in twenty minutes, Gilbert is going to eject the crate.” Brand paled, then he shushed her as Captain Kerry, pacing, drew near.

“Now,” the captain said, “I am going to have a little lookie in here and see what we can see. And I don’t want the damn thing being catapulted out of here with me in it, you got me, Jamaica? So keep an eye on the eject button. Open her up,” he said to Lee and Brand and pointed at the container with his triangular goatee.

“I don’t know how,” Lee said, shaking her head.

“I am only the lieutenant’s valet,” said Brand with a shrug.

The captain sighed and looked up at the ceiling. “We don’t wanna make me angry, right? You’re in command of the vessel you say, mademoiselle. You don’t look it, I would say. Desmonds. Come with me to the bridge to see who is really in charge of this ship so they can open this box up for us.”

“I am sure no one there knows either,” Lee said.

“Are we going to lie to a man, now?” he said. “I think one of you malingerers knows how to open this thing. Miss Nightingale, please keep watch on these uncooperative malcontents.”

“Yes sir,” she said. The captain and the Jamaican disappeared into the gloom, headed for the spiral stairwell.

Miss Nightingale sat in front of the captives, Lee and Brand, who were tied together to the shipping crate doorpost. She did not speak. After a few minutes, Miss Nightingale took a rectangular silver box from her uniform pocket, struck a match and lit a cigarette.

“Mother Jones!” said Lee. “Are you really smoking on the deck of a giant balloon?”

“I like to live on the edge,” Miss Nightingale said and took a puff.

“Where I come from, ladies don’t smoke cigarettes,” said Brand.

“Where I come from, nobody smokes them,” Lee said. “They’re illegal.”

Miss Nightingale took a deep drag so the cigarette brightened in the dim illumination in the hold. “That doesn’t mean nobody smokes them,” she whispered.

“You know,” Lee said, “one stray spark could set this giant airship on fire, don’t you?”

“It’s not my airboat,” she said, waving the cigarette dismissively. She smiled, took a few more puffs and crushed the stub out on the floor under her boot.

Captain Kerry and the Jamaican returned down the spiral stairs. They carried Lieutenant Gilbert  between them. When they reached the others, they dropped him. Lieutenant Gilbert smoothed his gray hair, straightened his spectacles, and shrugged at Lee.

“Can we make haste?” Kerry wiped his forehead with a monogrammed handkerchief. “Open sesame! Alberta John Jolly Horah in Spanish! You know, –now.” Turning aside to his subordinates, he said, “‘Lonzo’s teaching me to hah blar-blar a Espanol.”

Frowning and grunting, Gilbert dug in his pocket and produced a ring of different-sized keys. He adjusted his bifocals, counted the keys back and forth, and at last, when he could delay no longer, he held out a tiny key, read its serial number aloud, and satisfied, he opened the padlock on the crate. The door of raw boards, the square side of the rectangular crate, swung open.

Gilbert stood right next to Lee and Brand. He whispered uncomfortably under his moustache, “The target’s lights are below us now. Shall we hold our horses on that plan of yours, Commander?”

Lee half-frowned and nodded her head. “Aye,” she said, eyes downcast.

With a whoop, Captain Kerry and Desmonds set about immediately digging through the bundles and boxes, and ripping open the bundles wrapped in brown paper: tin cans, heavy parkas, wooly boots, blankets, pup-tents, sterno, lanterns, and sacks of dog food.

The Jamaican pulled the sacks of dog food out on to the airship’s deck and slit them open with a knife as big as Lee’s forearm so kernels of kibble spilled everywhere, rattling on the hollow-sounding deck. When the light proved too dim, Kerry took a candle stub from his pocket and lit it with a brass lighter shaped like a monkey. He gave the candle to the Jamaican who climbed back inside the paper-filled wooden crate. Kerry smiled and lit a hand-rolled cigar.

“Are you people all insane?” Lee asked, ducking to avoid an armload of brown paper. Miss Nightingale, who held Lieutenant Gilbert with one arm, filled the large empty space of the hold with her laughter again.

“Ah-hah!” Kerry cried out. He climbed out of the crate followed by a cloud of foul, bluish smoke and said “Aha!” again, pointing up at the ceiling for emphasis. “What devilry is this, Lieutenant? Weapons?”

“Weapons?” said Mr. Desmonds. “That’s bad.”

In the far corner of the crate, under another sheet of brown paper, a dozen repeating rifles were tied together back to back in a neat package.

“This is breaking international law,” said Captain Kerry.

“A violation,” the Jamaican said.

“What?” Lee asked. “Is this the mysterious ‘thing’ you were looking for?”

“No,” said Captain Kerry, “But you must admit it’s very interesting nonetheless. Dropping weapons on an area – a glacier dammit – which we all know very well is NOT OPEN to military maneuvers of any kind, are we? We are,” he said and sneered.

“We are not!” Lee said, almost shouting. “This crate of food and supplies is a humanitarian mission -a rescue mission- for a civilian airship flight that crashed while touring the glacier. And now you have defiled it.”

Kerry and Miss Nightingale together joined in, braying, unabated. Each time they started to stop, one of them started again, and they broke anew into uncontrollable fits until they gasped for air.

“Why wouldn’t they send weapons?” Lee demanded. “There are wolves and robbers and all kinds of creatures on the earth’s surface.”

“You ever hunt deer or elk with a bangity-bing-bang machine gun, Mr. Desmonds?”

“No sir,” he said. “You know, rasta is vegetarian.”

“Ha! Ha! Ha! That’s right,” Captain Kerry said. Desmonds pulled the rifles out and on to the deck.

Captain Kerry turned to the woman in green. “If mademoiselle here keeps going like this,” he said, nodding at Lee, “Do us all a favor and gag her, Nightingale. You know I can’t concentrate when people are telling dumb damn jokes.”

“With pleasure, sir,” Nightingale said and smiled a crimson smile. The privateers turned their backs to speak together.

Brand, facing Lee, pulled his bound fists together slightly to the side. He had been working the leather cord back and forth on the beam. “This is almost ready to go,” he said.

Lee whispered to Brand. “It seems to me there’s only one way to get this shipping crate down to the earth’s surface and make sure the shipwrecked crew can find it.”

“What’s that?” asked Brand.

“How much weight can the crate parachutes bear?”

Brand looked at Lee. He looked at the supplies that had been unpacked and the rifles that had been removed.

“I think I understand what you’re getting at,” he said. “I would say that more than four hundred pounds of supplies have been removed from the crate. About half.”

Lee nodded wearily. “That’s about what I guessed as well.”

“Shall we do it then?” asked Brand.

“Yes,” Lee said.

He worked one hand free, then the other. One of Lee’s hands, tied together with his, came loose at the same time. Lee leaned entered the container. Brand jumped inside behind her, shut the door, pulled the chain through the wooden slats of the big crate, and clamped the padlock with a click.

“Ha ha ha ha ha . You can’t do a damn thing,” Kerry said. “Can’t you see? I am watching this ejection button. I got a man in the bridge. Nobody is going nowhere. The twister isn’t coming, so you can come out of the house now, Dorothy and Toto.”

“No,” said Lee, leaning through one of the gaps between the shipping crates boards. “You’re wrong, the tornado’s coming back through, wicked witch.” Saying this, Lee threw one of the tin cans and hit the ejection button squarely.

Red electric lights flashed. The ship’s steam whistle, somewhere far above their heads, blew five times. Lieutenant Gilbert dropped to his knees, seizing the emergency button console.

Captain Kerry jumped straight up, howling, turned and ran for the dinghy bell. Nearby, the Jamaican got to his feet and stood stock still, his eyes opened as wide as they would go, taking in everything in front of him in an instant like a man in the dark when lightning strikes; then he leapt away from Lee and Brand.

Miss Nightingale threw herself flat on the ground. She clutched a rope, saw it was connected to the crate, and leaped backwards. She seized the one of the ship’s ribs with her hands and held on to it.

A gate in the wall of the Gigas the size of the shipping container clattered open as the mechanism rose. The huge door opened; icy wind filled the room. The bell continued ringing. Snow blasted through the hold.

The Jamaican shouted “Jee-zam-peas!” his long arms writhing. His fingers snatched at a swath of netting. Captain Kerry was hugging the wicker basket of the dinghy bell with both arms.

Still tied together on the deck, (like a giant spider), the circle of Gigas crew members strained with bent knees against the almost magnetic pull of the open gate. Air rushed outwards into the howling high altitude snowstorm.

The crate rocked and shuddered under Lee’s feet. Her body shook.

“I’ve seen crates like this dropped a hundred times,” Brand said.

“Have you ever ridden one?” she asked hands trembling.

“I have heard of it being done – No, I haven’t,” he said. “The first part, from all reports, is going to be the worst. Wrap some of the netting around your wrists and your ankles if you can and hold on.”

The crate slowly leaned further and further to one side. An industrial mechanism akin to a catapult was automatically pushing the box closer toward the rapidly widening opening.

First Lieutenant Gilbert and Captain Kerry scream ed. A tremendous outdraft of frozen wind pulled them ever more swiftly toward the exit. The Jamaican wailed aloud, a sad, religious sound. He clutched the rope ladder coil with all the strength in his hands. A small hook and eye held it closed. His waist-length dreadlocks, come undone, appeared to reach for the fully opened door.

The shipping crate leaned at a forty five degree angle out the opening toward the thundering winds of the high altitudes. A tiny switch fell. The catapult mechanism dropped.

She  said something but it was incomprehensible. The case ejected in a falling arc away from the freighter into a sleet storm. The freight gate snapped shut behind them, sealing the ship’s hold from the atmosphere.





The emergence of floating sphere cities globally

Our Modern World Global History text, copyright 2186 Aether University.

From Chapter 1: “A Brief History of the Floating Metropolis”

Abstract: The twentieth century philosopher and architect R. Buckminster Fuller first suggested that a geodesic sphere more than a mile in circumference would float in the air of its own volition due to the air temperature difference inside and out. Dismissed as a fantasy until the coming of the ice age and the pandemic of insect borne illnesses in the temperate zone caused by the unbalanced ecology, the

industrial countries  of the northern hemisphere built hundreds of spheres ahead of the rapidly encroaching glaciers. It is generally considered that without the cloud cities, humanity would not have survived the 2115 “Pan-Asian” Chinese-Japanese Pakistani-Indian nuclear war and then the world war in the generation that followed . The surface of the earth was allowed to return to its natural state in order to reverse the devastation of industrialism and pollution.


Continue the adventure: Episode 5


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