by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
Captain Lydia Cheése (pronounced chase), one hand ungloved, read the memo with a frown. Her airship, Orinoco III, had been grounded. An Aerosud cadet stood by at attention in a blue glossy visor cap and the impeccable dark blue company tunic with the distinctive sky blue piping at the collar. Lydia placed her thumb on the bio wax pad of the message board and then pressed her print at the bottom of the white message square. The cadet knuckled a salute. Captain Cheése returned it perfunctorily, and with a sigh. She watched the young woman exit her suite at Doyle House as she peeled off the other maroon porskine glove. “Pshaw,” she said with gritted teeth. G. B. Pshaw was her supervisor, nemesis, and constant irritant at Aerosud HQ. She caught a look at herself in the mirror above the marble mantle of the faux hearth as she unfastened the gold frog at her throat and sloughed off her Aerosud officer’s tropical dress tunic.
What she saw did not please her, a fringe of auburn hair, brow knit into a frown, grey eyes staring back in anger. Not again, she thought. Two groundings in as many weeks, and her suspension only just overturned. Tossing her tunic onto her grandfather’s vraisther smoking chair, she glanced at the stack of documents on the side table. In particular, she eyed the communication she had set aside the day before when she had been too preoccupied with preparing for her flight out of Lesser London to give it much more than a cursory glance. Addressed to her, handwritten in green ink, that in itself unusual, on what felt like a slip of parchment. “Parchment, really?” she said aloud. It was just one of the many come-ons and false leads she had received since she advertised a reward for information as to proof of life of Commander Jack Cheése, her father and the brilliant airship engineer who had disappeared many years ago, around the time she had entered the Air Academy for the freshman term.
The slip of parchment, or faux-par, she wasn’t going to believe that it was actually real, gave an address on Baker Street, Old London, current day, and specifying two in the afternoon. As it was almost four, she grabbed her walking coat and went quickly to the door. “Impulsive!” she imagined her mother saying. But no, not impulsive, an intuition she felt compelled to act on. The preciseness of the hand that had shaped the words “I can help you” tipped her in favor of the certainty of her hunch.
The elevator man gave a bow of recognition as she stepped on, and slid closed the door grill. A quiet whirr of machinery brought them down to the main floor lobby. Off to one side, framed by potted finger palms, was the entrance to the lounge frequented by her fellow lighter-than-air officers. Collectively they were known as litharians and the ships they flew were commonly known as lithairs. She would have been welcome at any table or congregation of hale fellows well met as she was known among them for her cutting wit and outrageous pronouncements as well as the sincerity of her companionship.
Doyle House, where Lydia Cheése maintained a permanent suite, was a hostel catering to the Navair trade, especially their officer class. Crews of ships officers, pilots, navigators, drive engineers also known as chemists represented dozens of navair companies doing business at the aerodrome on the far western edge of Lesser London lodged at Doyle House on layovers from continental and trans-oceanic flights. They flew passenger rigids and cargo semi-rigids, rigs and semi-rigs to those in the trade. Their companies were from all over the flown world. Large luxury passenger transports like Rajair and Anglair. Canamair operated both trans-Atlantic passenger and cargo service, as did Aerosud, Lydia’s employer, based out of Sao Paulo. They offered service to the major ports in Greater London which included Paris, Amsterdam as well as Lesser London where Lydia was now feeling, in a word, ruffled and in no mood for companionship.
The doorman greeted her opening the door, and she crossed the threshold into the torch orange glow of phosphorescent plasma lamps lighting the perpetual brown haze of Lesser London. Her grey walking coat was cut to the knees of the darker grey of her uniform culottes. Her boots were pointy, at heel and toe, and made of supple maroon psuedo, matching her porskine gloves, and fastened along the calf by large pearlite buttons. They made her appear taller, and she was already tall. On her head was a jaunty little cap of ribbons and silk made to look like a tiny bird had nested in the soft pile of auburn hair. She strode down the wide granite steps to the cobbled walkway where the carriages for hire and their drivers waited. She chose one at the head of the line and spoke the address on Baker St.
“Would that be Baker St. West, mum, or would that be Baker St East?” the driver asked over his shoulder, whip testing the haunch of the blocky beast of burden, an equlone, specifically bred for urban drayage. Like mules, they could not reproduce and their life span was less than five years. Small as a pony but as strong as a full grown natural equine, they were cheaper to maintain. Unfortunately, as they approached their end date their pace became slower and slower, signaling a reluctance to hasten their passing.
Lydia glanced at the address on the parchment impatiently. “It just says Baker St.” she said as if that settled it.
“Well, mum, Baker St is a very popular name here in Double L, Lesser London to you, and as I said, there’s East and West Baker St as well as Baker St South, Baker St North, and South Baker St North. Of course there’s also Upper Baker St and Lower Baker St. Upper Baker St Southwest. And Old Upper Baker St. If you understand what I’m saying, mum.”
Lydia restrained herself from knocking the man off his bench. “Take me to the intersection where all these Baker Streets meet!”
“Ah, yes, mum, Baker Square.” And under his breath, “should have said that in the first place.”
After what seemed like an interminable time, the plodding near death equlone carriage brought a fuming Captain Lydia Cheése to Baker Square, a rather nondescript roundabout, so not literally a square, from which each of the various Baker Streets radiated like the spokes of a wheel. The driver hunched over, shoulders to his ears, as if feeling the heat of her rage.
She disembarked and paid him. “Here you are, sir, a five Victorine, and not a Regina more. You have hindered me long enough.”
Baker’s Square was hemmed in by blocks of apartment dwellings designed to look like rowhouses, stacked one atop the other. They were all the same whichever way you looked. Their sameness caused her a momentary claustrophobia.
A figure approached, steadily, methodically. When it stepped out of the shadows she saw by the cut and buttons it was a constable.
He smiled and saluted her. “Be of any service, mum?” He was a big man. Lydia looked directly into his eyes. She knew what the tattooed lines radiating from the corner of his left eye meant.
“Yes, perhaps you can. I seem to be unable to find this particular address.” She showed him the parchment. “Is there not simply a Baker St without any of the bothersome directional appendages?”
The constable studied the square she held out to him and scratched his chin. “Yes, of course there is.”
“Then please be so kind as to direct me.”
“In Old London.”
“Old London, but. . .” It then occurred to her. Old London, not Lesser London. Old London, underground London, the London that Lesser London was built upon.
The Constable pointed to the iron gate set in the granite base of the monument at the center of the Baker Square roundabout. “Tours to Old London just now closed up for the evening. Too dangerous to go down there now, without a guide, and you being a lady and all.”
“Constable, I will have you know that I served as an ensign at the siege of the Bushwhackers. I know what danger is!”
“Aye, mum, I was in the PanAm Wars meself.”
“Yes, that is evident from your eye tat. You were with. . . .”
“The Lost Brigade, yes, mum.”
“You are one of the brave, and I respect that. However, I must to Baker St. I am already late!” Lydia strode toward the iron gate.
“It’s not safe, mum,” he called after her.
At the bottom of the concrete steps joining the cobblestones of Old London the bacterial-sodium lamps lit dimly shades of grey and black as flat as house paint. A man in a dusty worn gray shirt, pants, and shoes stood against an almost identically gray wall beside a weathered gray real wood produce cart upon which were displayed row upon row of bright though somewhat desiccated illegal Valencia oranges. Lydia was about to ask directions when she saw the street name in plain view attached to the side of a dingy gray brick facade. Real brick, not that faux coral that was used now almost exclusively for building exteriors. She’d always been under the impression that Old London was shuttered after daylight hours yet a goodly press of people, all dressed in the varying shades of gray, black, and brown of their surroundings, shuffled past like shadows, busy about their business. Brighter light splashed out onto the cobbles from storefronts, and distantly, music and singing could be heard. There were also clots of men clustered around porn boxes listening to the endearments of courtesans. Others stood in doorways and eyed passers-by.
Lydia proceeded down Baker St searching out the house numbers, peering into alcoves and letting her eye follow the buildings’ truncations as the support to Lesser London. At least here you could see some of the sky bathed in the rust orange of plasma light between the roadways and the avenues joining the elevated sectors like the bridges over the fabled canals of Venice.
Her forward progress was halted somewhat by the throng of dingily attired Old London denizens in the thrall of street entertainment. A bear on a chain rolled a large red ball with its feet wearing a red Phrygian cap strapped under his chin. A tall African in a flowing ostrich cape led the furry apparition around in a circle as if he were holding a magnet in his extended hand. Lydia paused to observe, a bit distracted by the unusual show. Live animal acts had been banned aboveground for decades.
As she turned to resume her quest, she was confronted by two coppers. They had been keeping an eye on the crowd and had noticed her. She was out of place. They were young, one barely out of his teens, a tense meager set to his jaw that was trying to pass for determination. The older one with the light fuzz of lip hair spoke. “Your papers, mum.”
Lydia reached into her pouch bag and retrieved her Aerosud identification. She handed it to him, “It’s quite alright, constable, I have an appointment.”
The copper nodded, “Captain Cheese, is it?”
Lydia narrowed her eyes, and for the hundred thousandth time said, “It’s pronounced ‘Chase’.”
“Yes, mum. And I should be warning you about traveling the depths without an escort, mum. It is very dangerous.”
The younger one nodded vehemently. “This lot here would think nothing of kidnapping an upper to sell on the fem market!”
A commotion at the other side of the gathered throng drew their attention and they hastened away. An explosion sounded, a pistol or fireworks. The crowd scattered pushing past Lydia caught up in the fleeing mob. She felt a tug at her waist where her pouch was slung. She looked down to see a young girl slip effortlessly, eel-like, through the press of legs, arms and torsos. The bag pouch perceptibly lighter, Lydia understood immediately that she’d been picked. She forced herself through the crowd after the young girl.
The girl moved away quickly on what appeared to be a crippled leg. She wore a gray crochet bonnet over dusty brown hair, her shoulders draped in a shawl a shade lighter than her hair, and one arm hooked through a large wicker basket indicating that perhaps she was a flower seller.
The pickpocket veered into the alley between two buildings with Lydia still in the tangle of panicked underdwellers. She kept her gaze fixed on the hobbling figure and once free of the mob ran swiftly to the entrance of the alleyway. The already inefficient bacso street lamps hardly penetrated the deep darkness of the cleft between buildings. Indignation overrode her sense of caution and she strode into the shadows. Slowly her eyes gathered the available light and sharpened to the dark. An oversplash of orange from the city above allowed her to discern edges and contours. The young purse snatch bobbed hurriedly toward the light of a parallel street at the other end.
Certain that she could easily overtake the thief, she hesitated for a beat. Someone had reached the girl first. Springing from the shadows a wiry figure grabbed for the girl’s shawl. The undersized shape stumbled. The much larger outline pounced on the fallen child. It occurred to Lydia that a thief was robbing another thief, one that seemed a little more formidable than a crippled girl. By then Lydia had caught up to them. She just wanted her wallet back. Instead she got the attention of the crippled girl’s assailant.
He was a narrow dagger of a man, drawn emaciated face, stubby hard shoulders extending boney brittle arms and long fingers. “Now we have ye,” he gargled a mirthless laugh.
Lydia had been taught well. As she flipped forward she extended a hand and placed it on the attacker’s rib cage, the momentum and force of her acrobatic maneuver was enough to give her thrust the power to unbalance the man. As she landed she swung her right leg and tapped the man’s chin with the toe of her boot at exactly the right spot, rendering him instantly unconscious. She made all these movements effortlessly as if simply slipping an arm through a sleeve or brushing back a fall of hair.
The young flower seller, now unburdened of her empty basket, scrambled around the corner of the building and out to the lighted thoroughfare. Lydia stepped over the fallen man after her. As she emerged into the light, the young thief was nowhere to be seen. Lydia hurried past a young couple sauntering ahead and then turned and hurried in the opposite direction, their startled gazes following her. She glanced across the street beyond the hack stand and the motionless equlones. The girl had disappeared.
Lydia strode to an iron railing on the other side of the alleyway. She leaned over the bar railing and stared down into the stairwell that led to a basement door. The door itself seemed to sway slightly as if it had just moments before swung closed. Lydia trusted her instincts and leapt down the stairwell. The door pushed open easily and once again she was in pitch black, this time with not enough ambient light to gather for sight. She turned back the piping on her coat sleeve and massaged the phosphene activator until the piping emitted a faint green glow like low viz string lights. It was a purely decorative feature of her garment, but it had enough phot, 33 lumens per centimeter if she remembered correctly what the salesperson who sold her the coat had claimed. She moved her arm in a slow arch across the front of her body to illuminate the bare edges of the light’s reach. A passageway opened up in front of her. Attenuated by the lack of the visible spectrum, she heard the whisper of shuffle steps ahead. She hurried and almost ran head on into the wall where the passageway turned sharply left. The rhythm of the foot falls changed and, after almost tripping, she was now following steps leading up and toward a light, a pale narrow splinter at the edge of a doorway. Without the slightest hesitation, she flung open the door with such force that it slapped against the inside wall of a small room lit by the soft glow of an oil lamp. The bear confronting her made her catch her breath.
Next Time: Slithereens