by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
Lydia awoke, eyes throbbing, temples pulsing, moaning through the dry stickiness in her throat. Even her eye sockets registered pain. And shifting on her back, her hips, her knees, as she pulled them in, warned her, creaking with ache, to be more tentative about her movements. It seemed safer where she had come from, a silky wispy world of subdued light, a tangerine streak on tattered clouds hovering over a severe dark blue horizon. A woman, parasol held over her head, dressed in a shimmering pearlescent tutu skipped along the ledge of a tall building overlooking the acute angles of a pastel cityscape vying with the colorful atmosphere. It could have been London except for the throbbing green of jungle beyond so it was probably São Paulo. A man in a white tunic with gold epaulets of the Admiralty Medical Corps stood with his back to them. He and the woman with the parasol. Who was he? Who was she?
A large rectangle of light hovered nearby and she turned her head toward it. It was a window set into the severe slant of an attic room. Now she was aware of the vague itching of her legs, her torso, into her armpits and around her breasts. She scratched at the tiny tingles of pain on her arm and cleared her throat again. She blinked, focusing on the light at the window. It was maddeningly indistinct. A shadow crossed the brightness and she tracked it, her head heavy as lead and painfully molten as she moved it.
“She’s awake” a high voice spoke and was answered by the scrape of a chair across a floor.
A taller shadow joined the original one accompanied by a bright object from which she felt the need to shield her eyes. Sensation returned to her body and she struggled against her covering.
“There, there,” a voice spoke soothingly, “let’s untangle you from the quilt.”
She stared at the gray bearded dark face uncomprehendingly, panic joining her renewed sensitivity. She tried to sit up but her body protested. Dimly, it was a familiar feeling, but the circumstances were shrouded in insubstantiality. Her self-awareness was missing something. Who was she?
The dark face frowned, the light source that no longer bothered her as much held closer to her face.
“Lydia? Lydia Cheése?”
It was clear he was speaking to her. Lydia was a name, her name perhaps. She tried answering but her tongue wouldn’t listen to her. It rattled against her teeth and allowed guttural air to pass unaffected.
“Serpina,” the dark face spoke, “Fetch me my bag, quickly.”
The urgency in the voice alarmed her. She struggled to sit up in the bed and managed it. The dark arms belonging to the dark face assisted.
“Lydia, it is Doctor Jean-Pierre Serre-Pain, Lydia, how are you feeling?”
She said the word this time, “Pain.”
“I understand, yes, that’s to be expected. You are experiencing nerve shock from the venom. But it was a very low dosage and you will recover.”
The smaller shadow returned. “Good, now Serpina, find Vlady and tell him to begin loading the barge immediately.”
The River Loire lapped at the stone quay where the barge rocked gently in the wake of passing river traffic. In the harbor copper hulled transport ships bobbed at anchor. Clouds like a mountainous gray escarpment over the expanse of sea further out provided the backdrop for a horizon hyphenated by the oblong shapes of Navair traffic. Lydia, wrapped in a dark blue carriage cape with the hood pulled close around her face, struggled with her still reluctant muscles, putting one foot in front of the next. Serre-Pain hurried at her side and indicated the stone stairway down to the large barge moored at the quay. Serpina laid hold of her other arm as she swayed looking down.
The large man called Vlady hopped among the stacks of tarp covered containers on the deck of the barge securing them with ropes. He glanced up and gave his master a nod to indicate that things were proceeding as planned. Lydia turned her head back to the street they were leaving, fretful, as if she had left something behind. She had no past thus far, the hasty steps across the acid eaten cobble of Vieux Quartier Nantes accompanied by the furtive and cautious snake doctor, collar of his great coat pulled up around his ears. As if to get some sense of bearing she glanced at the street name, a corroded brass plate affixed to the side of the column leading to the quay, Boul Verne. The name like a shadow flitted away as she returned her gaze to the path ahead and her future. Ever since awakening in the attic bedroom she had been trying to reorient herself. It was difficult at first since she had still to get a grip on who she was. And then as if a mist thinning, but selectively with whole areas of identity obscured, she began fitting the pieces together.
Her name was Lydia Cheése, pronounced “chase,” and the butt of hilarity practically her entire life. She’d answered to it when the doctor spoke it. She was a senior pilot, captain for the Aerosud fleet of luxury airship liners. She was married to. Wait. She was married. Of course. To Seignior Professario Cornado de Belize Gutman, a member of the royal court in São Paulo. Nado. How long had it been since she’d seen him? Six months. Longer. Easily. But that was not so unusual. He was often ensconced at his research farm near the headwaters of the Orinoco. And she, even though she could have taken her place at his side as Doña Lydia de Belize Gutman-Cheése, loved to fly. As a child she had been fascinated by stories of the Admiralty Air Corps told by her father, Commadore Jack, and her grandfather, Harvey Thomas, stories about her great grandfather and hero of the First World Pandemic, Pandem I, in which nearly a quarter of the world’s population was wiped out by the persistent Black Mold virus. Colonel Bartholomew Cheése had been an army doctor on the front lines of the scourge that swept the world. Her ambition was to emulate and follow in the footsteps of her illustrious, and notorious, ancestors. And, yes, it was because of her father that she was in her present fix.
Mother always said that Lydia’s father was a soft-headed idealist. But what of mother’s life choices? Give up a promising career as a ballerina to become a trapeze artist in a flea bitten French circus? She had to face it, both parents were a little loony. And she had tried so hard to be normal. First as an air cadet, then her tour of service with the Admiralty Air Corps, her marriage to Nado, and her employment with Aerosud, thanks to Nado’s sister, La-la, and her influence at the Brazilian Royal Aeronautic and Science Society. She would not allow herself to be a rogue as her parents had been. She would fly the course according to the flight plan. It was those odd instances of impulsive mischievousness that led her to worry about her self-control and brought her to the attention of her superiors, that and her intractability in the face of coercion even when confronted by her own error. She did not like to be wrong. Or be told what to do.
Lydia counted two days passed in confinement on the barge slowly being hauled up the River Loire toward Older Orleans. She could view from the round ports on the barge cabin the undulating hillsides shimmering with tentative purple hues of biocrops still struggling to take root long after the Great Mold Devastation early in the previous century. There were dead spots that would never regenerate, she knew, yet the Commonwealth spent untold Vicotorines in trying to regenerate vast areas of the continent that had been sanitized in a misguided effort to eradicate the Black Mold. The lethal unproven bactophagic bug did eradicate the black mold and large swaths of the Northern Hemisphere’s flora down to mineral soil as well. It was her great grandfather who had pioneered the lactobacto that brought the bacterial scourge to a end. She remembered that one of her biostory professors in Pandem 101 at the Academy had said. “After Darwin came Mendal, and then the whole world changed.”
A pale haze hung low over the self-pollinating fields, the bee population almost nonexistent at this latitude. Tank farms and spinning turbines blazoned with the ubiquitous Freud Werke logo dotted the expanse. An old wood pulp powered steam six wheeler hauled the barge along the towpath from one lock to another on their slow progress up the river. They were in a line of barges and boats being pulled along by a variety of steam powered mules, some with the standard bio turbines or the newer bio batteries. All, loaded with wares, performers and sight-seers, were headed for the annual Victorianaissance Festival in the old regional capitol.
Madame Ophelia’s Ophidiarium and Traveling Medicine Show would be participating in the festivities. Lydia tried comprehend just what Doctor Serre-Pain was suggesting. When she first felt completely conscious in the darkened cabin after the venom had left her system and had regained her wits about her, he had been there to calm her and to explain her predicament. She had struggled at first but both Serre-Pain and Serpina were able to hold her down as the snake doctor, his soothing hypnotic voice earnest, convincing, had explained that she was now a fugitive. IOTA had broadcast an all points fugitive alert on the coney frequencies for one Lydia Cheése, Aerosud Airship Captain, also known as Doña Lydia de Belize Gutman-Cheése. They were monitoring all the NavAir terminals leaving Greater London as well as roadways, ports, and borders. It was imperative that she remain incognito until they had passed the next lock. And the inspection station, ordinarily a minor provincial obstacle easily bribed to look the other way, was swarming with Agents of IOTA. She really had no choice but to pose as Madame Ophelia if she did not want to be found out. Of course, she could refuse and she would be arrested, as would he and his associates, the snakes impounded and undoubtedly destroyed. They would all be taken off to Rouen for questioning. Nobody wanted to go to Rouen, even for the cathedral and the fact of Flaubert, as it was the central headquarters of the Admiralty’s World Intelligence Tactical Services and home of the infamous Beau Vary Interrogation Center, the BVIC, where all the dissidents, rebels, radical icers, doomers, and bio insurrectionists were held, and from whose confines very few left alive.
Justice under the Admiralty was the removal of obstacles to a smooth operation in the Clockwork Victoriana Commonwealth, and of its client and aligned states. One of those obstacles was her father, Commadore Jack Cheése, the outspoken ex-Admiralty Officer, vocal critic of the bio corporations and the nav industry, questioning the validity of the Holoqueen, and the succession to the throne by the Rejuvenates, and those who sailed under the black flag of IOTA.
Lydia knew that. She was a citizen of the Empire of Brazil, and although the Empire was one of the non-aligned nation states, their security apparatus and IOTA worked to each other’s advantage. In other words, she couldn’t count on the Empire’s intelligence service, the Royal Intelligence Bureau, the RIB, also known as the Liège, to get her out of this fix.
They had fed her because she had to regain her strength and because she was ravenous. She’d raised an eyebrow at the crude unprocessed nonsterile comestibles grown in natural organic materials. She had balked at first, remembering her first contact with unprocessed native grub for a festival for the villagers at Nado’s research station at the source of the Orinoco. The retching revulsion at the smell, the vomiting and cramps afterwards, all for the sake of diplomacy and propriety. The fare on board the barge was not as repellent and certainly much more flavorful than the bland biomeal that was an accepted standard for a civilized Victorian cuisine. It took some getting used to and she knew she would have to get a thorough probiome purge at the first opportunity. But it gave her time to think. And to observe. And plot her escape.
Lydia not only had to escape the captivity of Serre-Pain’s snake show, but she also had to elude the notice of IOTA’s spies and informants she would undoubtedly encounter in the occupied countryside of Former Burgundy now under direct grip of Greater London. Her resources were limited. Her friends were mostly across the corrosive Atlantic on another continent in the uberburbs of Amazonia. And they were all intellectuals. They certainly could be counted on to write letters and demand her release from Admiralty custody, but beyond that, their activity did not venture far from the comfort of their domed tropical bubble.
Lydia was the adventurous one, commanding double hulled luxury superships, flying to exotic locations such as Neumonrèal, the intellectual capital of the Joual Republic, the wild ocean coast of Newer New York and the Jersy badlands beyond, Alta Morocco, and of course the popular Islands of Birds and Bees with their lush exotic interior jungles of pre-Dev flora and fauna. Winged creature had been steadily declining in the northern latitudes if one were to believe the Ice Age prophets of doom. Flying insects and the birds that feed on them were scarce. The poles were cooling, they said, the icepack thicker and creeping down the latitudes from the frost encased wastelands.
For most of her youth at prestigious private schools in Rio, the exclusive enclaves of Lisbon, and in residence at the family home in Amazonia, she had never had to experience the discomfort of prolonged cold. And only upon her enrollment as a cadet in the Admiralty Aerocorps Academy, the AAA, did she suffer bitter mornings on the parade grounds of the Hansiatic Campus, coming and going to classes, bracing against the gusts of frozen cinders and ash blown by fierce winds off the Baltic. She’d had to acclimate as well to the numbing cold of the upper atmospheres during pilot training in ancient unheated helium dirigibles. It was merely the condition of the northern latitudes she knew, and she had come to appreciate the vigor that brisk weather often initiated by the nip in the air, if for no other reason than to find some place warmer. She would always be a Glosud, or a lowcator, the warmth of days expected almost year round as opposed to a Glonor, or upcator, if you were of a vertical rather than a horizontal persuasion, and as they had taught in the Academy, Top Down Is The Only Way.
She had been warned not to seek her father. Still she persisted. She would bide her time, she decided, until the opportunity arose to make her move. Now they were approaching the locks and the inspection station and positioned next in queue. Serre-Pain had brought Serpina with him. From an oblong box they removed a mass of diaphanous material glistening with sequins shaped like half-moons, stars, and of course coiled snakes, and held it up for her to see.
“If you are to be Madame Ophilia you must dress the part.” Serre-Pain gave a slight smile, one that Lydia recognized, in the few days she had spent in his presence, as his ironic smile. She had the opportunity to get a closer look at the chief of her captors, an almost ageless African with the grace of wisdom whose dark skin was creased and scarred. Once she resigned herself to the fact of her abduction she realized that she had nothing to fear from him. She admired instead his calm demeanor and his honest straightforward judgements. In exchange for her help as a pilot, he would provide her with the means to contact her father and perhaps precipitate a reunion.
Everything was in flux he had explained. It would require the right circumstances and timing. Once the festival was over in the next few day they would be in touch with the LBFS, League bousculer française du sud, the anti-Victorian rebels, who would guide them on the next leg of their journey through the Massif Central. In the meantime, she had to dress the part and he would leave Serpina to help her on with the Madame Ophelia costume.
Serpina’s hostility was not disguised. The young flower girl no longer seemed as young or as girlish in a loose fitting rust colored rough shirt and dark trousers of a heavy canvas material, definitely not bugweave, whose bottoms were rolled up at the ankles above a pair of wooden sabots. The girl’s hair, close cropped and accentuating the shapeliness of her head, was blond enough as to be almost white and exposed her tiny shell-like ears. Her pale blue eyes narrowed in impatience as Lydia removed her outer garments. She smiled a thin lipped smile, tongue flicking out in sadistic pleasure, when the diaphanous chiffon caught in Lydia’s luxuriant though disheveled red tresses, yanking it roughly down along the shoulders.
The musty perfumed scent of the dress made Lydia sneeze as she pulled the sleeves down to her wrists and gave herself a cursory glance. The spangled costume had obviously belonged to someone a size larger than her, and reminded her of the times she dressed up in her mother’s old gowns as a child.
“What happened to the original Madame Ophelia?” she asked as she flounced the skirt and adjusted the waist.
Serpina seemed reluctant to answer, averting her eyes from Lydia’s questioning look. She had reached into a round hat box to extract a large dark wig. “She is dead,” she muttered finally, twisting Lydia’s hair in a colorless scarf and tying it up at the top of her head to allow the big hairpiece to fit over it. Her slender fingers expertly tucked stray strands under the bejeweled headpiece and she stepped back to examine her handy work.
“Oh,” Lydia said, “How did she die?”
Serpina’s lips tightened in a half smile grimace, a mischievous sparkle to her blues. “Snake bite.”
Lydia shivered, looking around and over her shoulder for any signs of slithereens.
Serpina opened another larger hat box, this one with little holes in the sides and top, and set it next to Lydia. Coiled inside the box was a large headed python. “Madame Ophelia is never seen without her snake, Ophy.”
Lydia drew back with an intake of breath, the tension of her body making her shake. “No,” she gasped, “I can’t, I can’t!”
Serpina’s grin was diabolical. “Ophy, like Madame Ophelia, is dead.” She picked up the coils of snake skin and held it out. “He is stuffed with wool and weighted with sand.” She uncoiled a length near the head. “It is against the law to have human endangered animal interactive displays. According to the Endangered Animal Autonomy Act of Pax Victoria 130, all animals under the jurisdiction of the Clockwork Commonwealth are entitled to the dignity of their nature and shall not be deprived of that dignity by their interaction with humans.”
“Of course, so right!” Lydia cringed as the dummy snake was laid around her shoulders, the large head draped above her left beast. She was surprised by the weight and the peculiar clamminess of the skin exuding a rather moist earthy odor. Trying to get comfortable with the idea that she had to masquerade as a snake goddess to pass station inspection, she breathed a sigh to relax, taking a closer look at the imposingly powerful shape and intricate patterning of the scales of the python’s head. The large glistening orbs of its eyes, luminescent amber marbles bisected by vertical irises like cold cruel otherworldly suns, rolled awake. A thin naked tongue slithered out from the front lips and curled toward her, sensing the heat of her panic.