by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
Lydia set the near empty flagon on the roughhewn table between them and gave Peyare the benefit of her frown. Was he just stupid or willfully ignorant? His knowledge of current affairs was largely rumor, Icer propaganda, and conspiracy theories. She’d heard it before, that the Admiralty controlled the box broadcasts and the plasmovid media so they were unreliable as sources of the truth. It was not so much the outright lies but the half-truths. Truth had a relative value. When something could be ascertained as true, or at least partially so, it gave weight to the lies that accompanied it and downgraded the veracity of anything claimed to be true. The world is out of balance, he claimed, a popular catch phrase broadcast daily from the antiroyalist underground.
She gave his expectant expression a slight shake of her head. He was pitiful, and pitifully unaware of it. Naïve, and he did not care about anything that had not occurred during his life time, and hardly anything remarkable prior to adolescence. He’d received just enough education to make him arrogant, adopting the swagger of an air ship pilot, or what he believed was litherian swagger as depicted in lurid biopulp story boards. He was full of himself and youthful ambition. He was not uncomely, she had to admit, with a rugged virility that might serve him well if he could constrain his impulsiveness.
Yet he dismissed the entire extinction event of 77 PV, a bacterial explosion that ravaged large parts of the Northern Hemisphere and, to a lesser extent, the Southern, leaving behind bare mineral dead zones, barren frozen wastelands. As for the Queen’s Jubilee Proclamation that bound the industrial nations to a concerted effort in battling the plague that threatened humanity and ushered in an era of peace and prosperity under Victorian guidance, he rejected that as ancient history and suspect, especially after the forced Reconciliation and Alignment Act of 101 PV which he claimed, as preaxial shift adherents, so-called preaxers, did, that history had been revised and adjusted to suit the overall fiction of Pax Victoriana. And the idea that the Queen in her eightieth year of reign had become alarmed by the increased pace of life and declared that the brakes must be applied because, along with peace, she wanted quiet was a fairy tale told to children and which Lydia had to agree was a much simplified version of the actual Imperial motivation.
“Listen, this may be news to you, but I was at the siege of the Bushwhackers at the conclusion of the PanAm War!”
The Queen’s peace had been in jeopardy due to her belligerent nephew Willy’s threatening to go to war with Nicky, their Muscovite relations to the east, and with the regicide republic to the south. And her quiet, the story went, was threatened by the racket created by the development of the internal combustion engine to say nothing of its abhorrent stink. The greed and pretentiousness of the social climbing industrialist, biochem barons, and bankers whose titular aspirations were beneath dignity also was a factor. And those were the reasons given for why the Queen had formed a royal commission to look into these matters, known thenceforth as The Queen’s Royal Commission To Ensure The Queen’s Wishes, known to most as The Queen’s Wishes which he found both humorous and absurd.
Lydia wanted to slap that smug expression off his face. For someone who was so uninformed, he certainly rose on the heat of his own hot air. It was almost like he was chuckling to himself, amused by his own self-satisfaction. “What do you find so amusing? Do you find it funny that I am stuck with you in this fetid wine cave? Held prisoner by your underground group at the behest of a carnival snake doctor? I have been kidnapped and made to perform with snakes! And you are an accomplice to my captivity!”
Peyare didn’t restrain his guffaw. “I was just thinking of the expression you made when Leon told the gendarmes that you were a famous porn box courtesan. Shock would be an understatement.” He slapped the table for emphasis.
“How could you have possibly witnessed my reaction?”
“I was hiding in the shadows. I was the one who alerted Leon. I followed you to the café. I knew who you were when you bought those fancy boots. A good choice for where you’re going, I might add. I know the bootmaker. They’ll last a good long time.”
Maybe it was the wine, but she felt the lines of her otherwise staid Victorian demeanor blurring. She raised her voice. “You know where we’re going?”
Peyare was surprised by her question. “You don’t know where you’re going?” He shrugged matter of factly. “All I know is that Leon will arrange transport to Autre Lyons and pass you along to those who have the lighter-than-air.”
“I don’t think it’s a balloon. An airship, but of an older generation.”
A derelict, no doubt, Lydia thought to herself. Anytime anyone referred to an airship as ‘older generation’ it inevitably meant something from the Zeppelin era.
“I would be honored to accompany you but my role is to keep you safe until you can leave Oldest Orleans without attracting attention. IOTA has their spies everywhere. Leon will provide you with new papers. You don’t need to be frightened.” He said it condescendingly.
“Do I look frightened to you?” She stood up in the low ceilinged wine cellar to make her point, a tall redheaded woman, blue scarf over the shoulder of her snakeskin jacket, pleated, pocketed trousers bloused over her new boots. “Listen, this may be news to you, but I was at the siege of the Bushwhackers at the conclusion of the PanAm War!”
Lydia could still picture the flaming wreckage falling onto the crowded tenements of the Outer Houllas slums and catching the tinder dry dwellings on fire.
That did the trick. Peyare, suddenly dead serious, sat up interested. Be it fighting and killing but deemed heroic and valiant, boys, men, have a precise affinity for legendary exploits. “PanAm One or Two?”
“Do I look old enough to have been in One?”
The young man grinned sheepishly, “No, I guess not. And besides the Siege of the Bushwhackers happened at the end of PAW II. You weren’t with the Royal Marines who rescued the hostages and broke the siege in the Greater Houllas Megalopolis, were you?” His eyes widened with disbelief on the verge of fawning respect.
Lydia managed a smile. “No, nothing so heroic. I was a young ensign assigned to the dirigible fleet at the Crown’s Embassy in the Slave State Republics confederation capital. I helped extract some of the hostages once a ceasefire was negotiated with the Counterforce Bushwhackers aligned with the rebellious slave republics.”
“You flew the rescue operation? That was heroic. I heard you lost some HV Airships.”
Lydia could still picture the flaming wreckage falling onto the crowded tenements of the Outer Houllas slums and catching the tinder dry dwellings on fire. The greatest loss of life was on the ground not the few hostages and embassy personnel killed by the rebels. The fire had practically razed the entirety of the makeshift sub-metropolis, the pall of smoke wreathing the tall buildings of the ruling elite in Greater Central Houllas for weeks. And she had known the pilots of the two HV Lighters that had been shot down, or had at least seen them in the Embassy cafeteria. She had flown high velocity lighters when she had trained at the Academy and realized that she was too sane to be a lighter pilot. Lighter pilots were a breed of their own.
“Yes, the negotiated truce was to allow for safe passage of the hostages as well as the obviously outnumbered Bushwhackers back to their home territories. But some in their ranks preferred death with honor over retreat and disgrace and began firing on the rescue airships as soon as we lifted off. The highvel escorts took fire to protect the dirigibles. But as soon as the shooting started, the Royal Marine Bionic Brigade aboard my airship deployed their glide platforms and neutralized the threat with only a few further casualties.”
“Bionics? You worked with Bionics? The indestructible air marines?”
Lydia could tell by his expression that she had made an impressionable fan. “Well, yes, as much as you can work with a bionic.”
“Really, what are they like?”
She thought that the name alone should have made it obvious. “They’re machines.”
A noise at the door drew her attention. Someone had lifted the bar and the heavy door creaked slowly open. There were two of them, revealed in the orange glow of their bacsodium torches. Behind them was pitch black. Then another figure moved in the shadow of the reflected light.
Leon strode in, raising a questioning eyebrow to Peyare, followed by Serre-Pain, grim jowled to a slow simmer, dark eyes flashing darkly. Then Serpina appeared at his side, her eyes shooting daggers.
Impulsively Lydia blurted. “Where’s Vlady?”
“Vlad had to prepare the wagons for transport.” The snake doctor’s tone was flat, impersonal. “I had hope to have more time to make preparations. But because of your foolishness we must now separate. Vlad and I will take the wagons on the main road to the northeast to throw IOTA off the scent. Leon has arranged for you and Serpina to leave from the south gate and travel with a group of agricultural workers. We must depart immediately. You will not see Vlady or I until we rendezvous at our destination.”
“But I know him, I know Vlady from my childhood. He knew my mother. We traveled with a circus!”
Serre-Pain threw her a concerned look and then glanced at the flagon at her elbow. “How much wine have you had to drink?”
At the break of dawn when they arrived at the transport, an ancient repurposed streetcar easily a century old. A cold gray brume had settled over the open air market and on the crowds of laborers in their brown canvas overcoats, hoods or scarves hiding all but a sliver of visage, a beard, made-up eyes, and jostling against each other to achieve their conveyances at the start of the work day.
Lydia and Serpina were attired similarly and mingled with the crowd of women before boarding the transit car to the work destination. According to Leon’s instruction, they were to travel to the fields several leagues south of the ancient city. Peyare would make sure they boarded the right transport but from then on they would have to be on their guard. Once passed the exit inspection to verify identities and head count, they would be met at the work site by someone who would take them up into the hills to a lumber mill where the operator of the mill would secret them in a special compartment of the lumber wagon and take them the rest of the way to Autre Lyons to meet with another agent of the League who would then take them to the rendezvous with the airship.
In return she would be led to the illusive Commodore Jack Cheése, her father.
Leon had provided her with a set of false papers. Lydia was now Odette O’Day, a Class III worker, one class above Class IV transient, but still at the bottom. Serpina had an assortment of identity papers and chose the one that would attract the least attention. He had warned her to keep her face covered and make sure no one looked at her too closely. He delicate features could easily be identified as a Victorian. And he had rounded up the rough working togs including a pair of gloves. “Wear these. If anyone sees your hands they might become suspicious. They’ve obviously never done any labor.”
To make matters worse, Serpina’s hostility toward her was undisguised and intense. Once aboard the ancient tram hitched to an equally ancient steam mule belching puffs of acrid smoke from its fore stack, the young woman had chosen to sit apart from her. Instead Lydia found herself next to a short round woman who smelled of cooking oil and who could not help staring at her all the while babbling in some argot that was barely comprehensible. She realized also that if she tried to engage in conversation, she would be quickly identified as a Victorian. Her Standard was just too proper and uninflected.
She caught Serpina giving her a smug smirk at her predicament over her shoulder. Fortunately she had the window seat and feigned that she was going to take a nap by placing her palms together and leaning her cheek against them. Then she rested her head on the discolored real glass of the window and watched the bustle of the marketplace through half closed eyes.
She understood that the further away from any large population centers she traveled, especially outside of the influence of the Clockwork Commonwealth, her obvious non-Class III mannerisms would give her away, that she was a World Citizen, t’zen as they were commonly called, and not just a Class I, but legacy ranked. Yet she found herself a prisoner of the Doctor’s manipulations and as much she chaffed at her constraints, she accepted that she had to play along until the circumstances turned in her favor. Serre-Pain had once again emphasized the importance of their mission and her role in bringing about its success. But even his persuasion had seemed muted when he had remonstrated with her in the wine cave, his dark skin ashen, a weariness around his eyes. She did not doubt that the intention of his mission was reasonable and dire. She wasn’t being given a choice in the matter.
In return she would be led to the illusive Commodore Jack Cheése, her father. She did want that, not having seen him in over a decade. He had mysteriously disappeared soon after she had entered the Air Academy. And the chance to reason with him, convince him, as only a daughter can, to reconsider his opposition to the hologram succession, the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, the Admiralty Court and the Lord High Inquisitor. She thought his hostility to the Crown foolish. After all had he not once been a loyal subject, rising through the ranks of the Admiralty Medical Corps, to become a Commodore in the Advanced Research Division? What had turned him. She’d heard it said that after her mother’s passing that he had gone rogue, publishing secret documents that pointed to the Commonwealth’s complicity in covering up the cause of the vast defoliation that ensued after the battle against the BMI, and aligning himself with Icers and anti-royalist factions. She believed in the benevolence of the State toward its t’zens, which was perhaps a little naïve considering her life of privilege growing up in the exclusive enclave in the Empire of Brazil’s vast Sao Rio mega province, attending the best schools in Lisbon, and obtaining a legacy appointment to the Admiralty Air Academy. She could conceive of no reason not to support the Crown and Pax Victoriana. She considered herself to be a Victorian and proud of it. The Queen had set the example long ago. As long as nations kept talking when they could go to war, a modicum of peace could be insured. It was the model of consensus. Although opponents to the Pax Commonwealth called it coercion. Her father being one of them. But she was following the Queen’s example. She just wanted a chance to talk to him. In person.
She sighed and let her eyes wander across the plaza beyond the pocked glass of the tram wagon. A considerable confusion of conveyances, some steam, some spring driven mechanicals, and even a few with live drayage teams sought purchase through the maze of merchants setting up their stalls.. The street carriage lurched forward with a sudden jolt and she realized that they were underway, pulled by the large wheeled steam tractor. They made their way through the packed market place and she got a better view of the streams of transports arriving, some of more recent vintages powered by the latest bacteria drives, known to all as bacteries, obvious from the pale breath of water vapors emitted by their exhaust stacks.
At the gate to the old city, their transport idled in line with others while teams of gendarmes worked their way through the vehicles checking identifications. A pair clambered onto her carriage and marched up and down the aisle looking bored and acting agressive.
Lydia averted her eyes and pretended to be sleeping. She felt the presence of one of the policemen hovering near her. He was demanding to see her papers, or so she assumed. The woman seated next to her was saying something to the official, imploring and repeating what sounded like the word “dorm.” Finally the gendarmes disembarked and Lydia cocked a cautious eye and saw her companion give a reassuring nod and smile. She was about to express her gratitude when out of the corner of her eye she caught a glimpse of the square black chassis of an armored carrier and watched as the men in the black hats, agents of IOTA, took up positions at the periphery of the waiting traffic.