by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
The large hairy beast pinned Lydia’s arms to her side before she could take evasive action, crushing her face into a chest of greasy smelling fur. She brought her leg up and kicked at the bear’s instep with the heel of her boot. The thought occurred to her, do bears have insteps? The bear spun her into the middle of a low ceilinged room and let her go as if she were a dancer given a twirl.
Lydia crouched in a defensive stance, the training she had received as a young officer in the Admiralty’s Aerocorps returning to her tensed body like a remembered presence. She faced the bear, turning warily, sensing others in the shadows of the oil lamp’s mute orange glow. The flower girl sat on a very large ornately decorated trunk, feet dangling in picturesque innocence. She was the one Lydia wanted. About to demand her wallet back, she caught a third figure at the periphery, moving toward her. Tall, muscular, a dark skinned man with a crop of white hair and narrow, also white, iron jaw whiskers held his hand palm up in the universal gesture of no harm. On her guard, she turned to keep all three of them in her field of vision.
The bear did indeed have an instep, large blocky brogans, and appeared only half dressed not to mention headless. The head had been set aside on a large colorful round hat box. The bear costume pantaloons flopped like thigh high furry boots next to it. The large man, still wearing the bear fur shirt, had a head of shaggy gray hair and a silver tinged beard that covered his entire face except for the coal black eyes and the red tip of his large square nose. From the way his beard uplifted at the cheeks he appeared to be smiling. The girl too appeared to be smiling, a pale oval face with the sketchiest of features.
And now the tall man spoke. “Please forgive Vlady, he is such a playful child at times.” Lydia understood Vlady to be the bear man and that he was harmless. “And Serpina, please return Captain Cheése her property.”
The young girl extended the wallet and Lydia snatched it, returning quickly to her guarded posture. She searched the tall man’s dark eyes and gauged the frankness of his serene gaze. “At least you know how to pronounce my name. I demand to know the meaning of this.”
“No need to be alarmed, Captain Cheése. . .I am Doctor Jean-Pierre Serre-Pain, herpetology is my profession,” he said indicating what Lydia now saw as rows of glass faced enclosures in which writhed long narrow beady-eyed shadows, “and may I presume to call you Lydia?”
Lydia swallowed. She could handle two legged creatures, maybe even four legged creatures, but cold blooded no legged critters transfixed her with uncertainty. In other words, snakes gave her the creeps.
“I don’t care for any of your presumptions, Doctor, an explanation is what I require in these circumstances.” At least the slithereens were behind glass. For the moment. Now the cool, faintly acrid dankness revealed its source.
“Surely you know why you are here, don’t you?”
The man she now realized was the African she had seen with the trained bear currently removing the remainder of his costume and seeming to be chuckling to himself over something he deemed frightfully funny.
“Please have a seat at the table,” Doctor Serre-Pain spoke leading the way to the small table from which the oil lamp radiated its dim flicker of light. It and the vague green light from the piping on her sleeve comprised much if not all of the visible spectrum.
Cautiously, Lydia approached the low wooden chair, tracking the bear man and the young girl and then settling on the African. “What do you want with me?”
Serre-Pain smiled, sitting, indicating that Lydia do the same. “Are you not seeking your father, Commodore Jack Cheése?
Lydia sat slowly, throwing a glance of caution at the other two. “Yes, I am looking for my father. How did you know?”
“I, like anyone else who reads the personal advertisements in The Greater London Tines, the faux food gourmet magazine, would have come upon your notice. You thought to disguise your quest by placing a notice in an obscure publication read only by gastronomists, bacteriologists, yoghurt culture specialist, and possibly the pathologically curious. Would that be to keep your search from coming to the attention of IOTA?”
Lydia directed her full attention at the snake doctor. “Yes, you have read the advertisement correctly, and my intent to keep my undertaking from coming to the attention of the Investigative Office of The Admiralty. Since my father’s disappearance a dozen years ago, I have been preoccupied with finding out what became of him.” She took a breath and dropped her guard down a notch. “Only recently have I decided to become more aggressive in my pursuit of an answer. At first I made public notice of my intention. As a result I was paid a visit by the gentlemen in the dark hats from the Investigative Office. Much to my surprise, rather than assist me they sought to hinder me. My employment as a Captain with Aerosud’s passenger fleet was put under a cloud. I have been placed on disciplinary probation for trumped up infractions, my command of airships is under scrutiny and my flights are regularly canceled. I believe that someone high up in World Air Power Operations is trying to thwart my efforts. I have had to consider going underground.” Even as she said it, she realized that she was underground.
“As I said, I am a herpetologist. I deal primarily in the venomous variety, cobras, mambas, North American rattlers.”
“Your father, Commodore Cheése, was outspoken about the abuses of bacto-research by the big air power companies. He sounded the alarm that there were not enough industry safeguards against virulent strains of energy life. He warned of another Chordin that might possibly eat whole swaths of the planet down to its mineral base before self-devouring. Unrestrained heat energy from selfdev bacteria is as wasteful as it is dangerous. What if the breach had occurred in a populated area as they believe happened at Sunyata Station? What became of the inhabitants there has never been completely revealed. Certainly the relocation camps have never been open to public scrutiny. If they even exist.”
“Everything you have said is merely idle speculation, the stuff of paranoid conspiracy theorists. My father is a misguided delusional man. His claims are based on nothing concrete and fed to him by those who wish to disrupt Her Majesty’s government— anarchist, revolutionaries, anti-bacterialists and icers, with the aim to undermine the Pax Victoriana that has been in effect these last one hundred and eighty years. My purpose in finding my father is to provide him with a caring safe environment where he can live the remainder of his days free of the anxieties that afflict him.”
Serre-Pain’s chuckle was low and melodious. “You father is indeed fortunate to have such a devoted daughter. But what of IOTA? They may well have an abiding interest in finding The World Order’s most vocal critic. Even now, tracts, pamphlets, voice box cylinders ostensibly by Commodore Cheése continue to circulate and criticize TWO and its cooperators among the commonwealths. If you found him, how could you ensure his safety?”
“I have the means to keep him incommunicado if that should prove necessary. Once his mental state has been officially declared diminished, I can apply to have him cared for by a staff of trained professionals on my husband’s plantation near the source of the Orinoco. We have friends in high places at the palace in Sao Paulo.”
“A worthy project, and ambitious, though not one I’m sure Commodore Jack and his followers would approve of. How can you expect to accomplish this rather grandiose plan?”
“That is none of your concern, Doctor. If you can aid me in discovering the whereabouts of my father, I am prepared to authorize payment of the advertised reward. Otherwise, I must conclude that our discussion is over.”
“Please, Captain Cheése, don’t be hasty. I have information.”
“Then speak up, Doctor. Tell me and I will make the authorization as soon as I can access a World Bank kiosk.”
“I’m afraid it is not all that simple. For one thing, monetary remuneration is not what I am asking for in exchange.”
Lydia noticed that the young girl had dropped from her perch on the large trunk and was busying herself with packing things into a large carpet bag as if she were getting ready to leave. Also that her limp was no longer discernible. The large man called Vlady was stacking the long glass faced boxes into a brightly decorated double door cupboard with wheels. She could see that there were several such containers of different sizes, some with wheels and some without.
“What do you want, then? My resources at present are limited.”
“I need your assistance. It would require your skills as a pilot.”
“What, you want me to fly you somewhere? Unauthorized flight would draw the attention of IOTA in a zygote. You would be intercepted before the last guy wire dropped. Impossible! Not to mention that I risk my pilot’s license being revoked. If you have information, I will pay with coin of the realm, Victorines. Otherwise, I will seek my answers elsewhere.” She stood to leave though the only exit she could fathom was the way she had entered and a large trunk had been wedged in front of it by Vlady. A spark of panic made her catch her breath. She had been in tighter situations, especially at the siege of the Bushwackers, but then she had been with compatriots of her Aerocorps Intel Battalion.
“Please, Lydia, hear me out.”
She read the earnestness in his bearing and again, despite her agitation, lowered her guard.
“As I said, I am a herpetologist. I deal primarily in the venomous variety, cobras, mambas, North American rattlers.”
Lydia gave a shudder at the mere mention of their names.
“I travel the world collecting specimens for the expressed purpose of making anti-venom to counteract the deadly effect of snake bites. My anti-venom can save lives, Lydia. There has been an infestation of poisonous adders in the Horn of Africa Republic. . . .”
“HOAR? HOAR is a non-aligned state, Doctor, are you mad? It is a country overrun by pirates, revolutionaries, subversives, and worst of all, icers and their preposterous coming of the Ice Age creed. I have no intention of going there and. . . .”
She was interrupted by the sound of heavy boots clambering on the floor above them. The footsteps were accompanied by loud voices announcing themselves as Agents Of The Admiralty, AOTA, IOTA’s para-military enforcement arm.
Serre-Pain was now standing, alert. “We appear to have visitors, Serpina. You know what to do.”
The young girl started across the room toward Lydia who immediately crouched in a defensive stance though how much of a threat could a tiny girl present. Distracted for that moment she felt Serre-Pain’s hand brush her neck. She turned to focus on him as the greater threat. The blow was entirely ineffectual yet something was wrong. Her lips began to tingle as did her neck where he had touched her. Her legs itched and her vision blurred. She realized she was falling.
“Quickly, quickly now,” she heard Serre-Pain say. “Vlady, hold her up. Serpina, the lid. Now gently, gently, lower her down.”
Lydia was immobile, paralyzed, her entire body coursed with a fiery itch yet conscious of being lowered into a musty smelling box and a mesh cloth placed over her. Then snakes, a tangle of slithering vipers, were dumped on top of her prostrate form. She tried to scream but her vocal cords were affected as well. She heard Serre-Pain’s voice, a soft soothing whisper, “Please forgive me, Lydia, but it was necessary to prick you with a small dose of octopus venom. You will be immobilized for about twelve hours. You will remain conscious but unable to speak though you will be able to move your eyes. Don’t fret about the snakes. Since you can’t move, they won’t bother you though they will be attracted to your body heat. The mesh will protect you. Now I must deal with our visitors.”
Livid, Lydia lay limp as soggy linguini unable to lift a limb. Her anger was causing her heart rate to soar and claustrophobia was making her hyperventilate. To someone accustomed to freedom of movement, her present situation was intolerable. As an airship pilot, soaring among the clouds had become almost second nature. Yet she was confined underground in a vile airless snake pit. Her skin felt aflame with a burning itch as if she were enveloped in a cocoon of raw home spun wool, or worse, biofiber.
She calmed herself with a thought. She thought of her mother. Her mother, Adeline, a child prodigy gymnast who had run off to join the circus to become a trapeze artist, calmed herself before each performance with a breathing exercise. Lydia had learned it at her knee as a young child. She concentrated, regulating her breath blocking out all other distractions, the shouts, the threats, the stomping of big boots on the floor planks, the slithering of scales rubbing up against the mesh of her protective veil. She visualized herself outside the gaily decorated main tent, its multi colored pennants and streamers snapping in the ocean breeze, and nearby the hissing garishly painted steam calliope, the crews of men and women setting up stalls and positioning wagons in the vacant field at the edge of a village on the Normandy coast, a pale sun emerging from the dark clouds and splashing streaks of gold onto the undulating metallic gray waves. Her breathing fell into sync with the rolling rhythm of the sea. Eyes closed, she would have drifted off but for the harshness of the voice pulling her back, a demanding voice.
“Where is she? She has to be here somewhere! Search the place!” It was an unpleasant voice, a voice used to giving orders and making demands, a woman’s voice.
Then Serre-Pain’s voice, soothingly, answered. “Please, Chief Inspector, I beg you to be careful with my specimens. If you would just tell me what, who you are looking for, perhaps I can be of some assistance.”
Chief Inspector? Lydia’s eyes snapped open. IOTA! IOTA was out there beyond the glass. Bright biotorches cast large shadows flickering at her peripheral vision. She could hear the scrapping and shuffling of large objects being moved around accompanied by Serre-Pain’s pleas for caution.
The woman’s voice again. “I will need to see all your papers as well as your captive creature permits.”
“Of course, of course, Chief Inspector, I assure you that they are all in order. But please advise your men to be careful. Some of these snakes can become very excitable when disturbed, and some are quite venomous.”
That voice, Lydia thought, I know that voice. She tried to move her head but her body would not obey. It had been quite a while since she had heard the voice. Then it was in the Academy gymnasium in her last year there. She was leader of the Aerosud team as each of the big Navair companies sponsored their future officers in the Admiralty Air Academy, Triple A as it was known to most, even though they would be required to serve the Admiralty as junior officers for a requisite two years of service. Once they were released from active duty they would be reemployed by their sponsors. The occasion had been a martial arts competition. The underdog Aerosud team had bested all the others and was slated to go against the Aeroskya team, the favored defending Academy champions. The bleacher seats were crammed with cheering rowdy cadets and high officials from all of the competing Navair companies. Their top combatant was a tall blonde woman with high cheek bones and narrow intensely electric blue eyes. Everyone who had gone up against her had been resoundingly defeated. The Aerosud trainer, Master Mo Han Yan, had more or less hinted that they resign themselves to a silver medal in the competition.
Lydia remembered stepping to the mat to face her. The hubbub of the crowd settled to a low murmur as their names were announced, and finally, after four years, they finally got hers right. That was a victory in itself. As she circled her opponent, taking her measure, looking for the opening, she was taunted by the blonde woman with the merciless eyes. That voice, those same arrogant tones, belonged to the same woman. Her name was Karla Kola.
Chief Inspector Karla Kola of the Investigative Office of The Admiralty. When they were both assigned their compulsory service, Kola had been given a post in the Investigative Division at headquarters in Greater London. Ensign Lydia Cheése had been posted to Alamo Station in Greater Houllas, in the Republic of Texas, capital of the United Slave State Republics. Her cover was Transportation Officer, in charge of the dirigible pens as well as securing modes of ground transportation for the Embassy. In reality she was a junior intelligence officer. ROT, as the Republic was known, and the USSR were not affiliated with TWO, The World Order.. They were responsible for the hostilities that had led to the PanAm Wars. She was lucky to be alive after the siege of the Bbushwhackers.
“Where is the woman?” that same voice demanded.
“I’m sorry, Chief Inspector, I’m not sure I know what you’re talking about.”
“She came to an appointment at 221B Baker Street. This I know.”
“Excuse me, who? This is 221C, B is upstairs and over one.”
“Cheesecake? You’ll see that we have no cake here. Only my collection of herpetological specimens. We were just packing up my samples. I have an engagement in Old Orleans and it will take a few days travel what with my wagon and equipment.”
“You keep snakes? What useless creatures. What can you possibly do with them?”
“I extract their poisons.”
Lydia detected hesitance in the pause.
“And these poisons, you use them how?”
“I use it to make anti-venom medicine. I milk them of their poisons.”
A gruff voice interjected, “You must have to sit on a very tiny stool, then.” A titter of laughter spread through a number of the assembled agents.
“Enough, Cogan. Have your men completed their search?
“Yes Guv, everything except for the large trunk in the corner.”
“Careful, please.” It was Serre-Pain. “That contains the Marimba mamba, even more venomous than its black relative.”
Lydia could see the shadow of the torchlight pass over her. Then the lid slapped shut. She was trapped in a box with the most dangerous snake in the world and there was nothing she could do about it.
“Nothing but snakes in there, Guv, big ‘uns.”
“Interesting. I see by your papers you are proprietor of Madame Ophelia’s Ophidiarium and Traveling Medicine Show.”
“Yes, chief inspector, we are, my associates and I, an educational enterprise, traveling the countryside and providing education and entertainment. I am Doctor Jean- Pierre Serre-Pain, at your service.”
“Doctor Pain, is it?”
“Yes, it is pronounced payn, the n is barely vocalized. It means bread in my native language.”
“And in World Wide Standard it means exactly what it says, Pain. Tell me, Doctor Pain. Have you ever been bitten by your poisonous pets.”
“Yes, I have several times.”
“Yet you are still alive.”
“Fortunately I had the anti-venom at hand. Or I was very lucky.”
“I would think you would need to be more than just lucky with these lethal overgrown worms.”