Tag Archives: Jean-Pierre Serre Pain

Cheése Stands Alone IV

by Phyllis Huldarsdottir

Chapter Nine

Serpina was quite a practiced liar, and practical joker. Her laugh, a shrill whinny, was playful yet dangerous. Lydia had to reassess her assumptions about the young woman. Nor was she very talkative, and often inobtrusive as if she could make herself invisible. Orphy, the python, was kept soporific on a steady diet of who knows what, Doctor Serre-Pain didn’t specify or explain after he had rushed into the cabin at Lydia’s scream and had once again soothed her nerves with his calm, hypnotic voiced assurances, gently patting the blood back to her cheeks. His disapproving frown had caused Serpina to pout and after a long deliberate silence to mutter a reluctant “sorry.” Lydia would not have to interact with the other snakes, Serre-Pain swore, with the exception of Orphy, and then only on briefly while they were at the festival.

tristan_0123The inspection official and two sinister looking men in black hats had roamed over the barge examining the cargo, and when they came into the cabin, stared wide eyed at her propped up in one of the bunks with the python wrapped over shoulders. Her terrified look might have suggested an otherwise haughty imperious annoyance at the intrusion. The station inspector apologized profusely, and the IOTA agents, not in the habit of showing deference to the general public, dropped their gazes awkwardly.

Once past the inspection station and well up the Loire River approaching Oldest Orleans, the doctor had Vlady bring in a big trunk into the cabin. She had not seen much of the large man on their journey up the river. He spent most of his time on the deck of the barge with Serre-Pain. In the light of day, without the bear suit. he was still an imposing figure with a thick mane of steely gray hair that hung down to his shoulders. His dark eyes seemed to laugh as did the large white beard punctuated by the red dot of an imbiber’s nose. There was something unsettlingly familiar about his manner toward her.

“We have to change your attire,” Serre-Pain was saying, “Your fashionable dress will make you stand out as a privileged Victoriate, especially where we are headed. In the trunk you will find clothing that might fit you and conceal your identity. Even if where we are going is technically outside of IOTA’s jurisdiction, they have spies and informers everywhere. It is important that we avoid any hint of suspicion.”

Serpina stood back as Lydia lifted the heavy lid. The blouses befitting a snake priestess were laid out in layered trays, billowy sleeved embroidered with flowers, birds, animals, and snakes. Colorful skirts, long tasseled and tiered, none of which she felt she could wear with any conviction. Nor was it bioweave but actual antique cotton and silk. And could she ever convince herself to don someone else’s underwear? Pulling away another tray, she uncovered on the bottom a pair of folded trousers much like Serpina was wearing, possibly wool by the feel of the material, and a robust rust fabric shirt with a wide collar, two items she thought she could live with. There were also several pairs of spangled gold slippers that didn’t appear to be made for walking.

She pulled her hand back quickly when she felt under them. And she looked closer with Serpina peering over her shoulder and drawing a breath. For a moment she thought that it might be another of Serpina’s tricks. Then she made out the sleeve and lapels. An overcoat. But one of snakeskin. Dark mottled scales outlined the sleeves, large turned back cuffs lined with dark blue satin, the three quarter length of the coat ending with a slight upturn at the skirt and fitted with large slant pockets. The row of ovoid buttons were of a faded amber. And Lydia recognized them. Orphy had an identical pair. Holding it out at arm’s length, the scales seemed to undulate, tricking the eye with their meandering pattern. The coat lining was also a dark blue satin. A faded label sewn beneath the rear collar read SA I   E RO and spoke of its antiquity. “This is gorgeous!” Lydia exclaimed in spite of herself.

stilettoThe yoke fit comfortably across her shoulders as she shrugged into the coat, the sleeves extending a little ways past her wrists, the hem, past her knees. She was surprised, expecting it to be heavier. Her hand in the right pocket extracted a heavy dark blue cotton scarf. The left pocket was empty although it was shaped as if some object had had a permanent residence there. Lydia pulled on the lapels pleased by the way the coat fit. She felt something hard nudge under her left breast. Inside she found the pocket and the narrow object protruding from it. Throwing open the coat she extracted a long ornate double blade stiletto.

Serpina nodded her head, looking at the gleaming blade admiringly. “The fangs,” she said.

Chapter Ten

The streets of Oldest Orleans were filled with rubble, dust, debris, and choking air. The Victorianasance Faire was held in arcades along the perimeter of Place D’Arc. Outside the walls of the old city, in Older Orleans, vapors from the bioturbines of the factories warped the air adding a gloomy orange pall over the rooftops and the refracted rainbow sparkles of larger particulates gleaming like minor stars. Serre-Pain always staged his performances at dusk when the shadows were long. One of the Medicine Show wagons converted to a stage with a proscenium. At the back behind a red velvet curtain was a narrow antique settee upon which she was obliged to lounge with the coils of Ophy across her shoulders for several excruciating minutes while she was introduced as the descendant of an ancient Minoan queen who was in possession of the secret recipe for an antivenom elixir. Once the pitch was made, Serre-Pain would begin his lecture on the fascinating history and myths of snakes, and  the reason snakes were believed to be immortal. By then the curtain had come down and Serpina would come to get Orphy off her neck.

In the side closet Lydia changed out of her priestess garb and donned the snakeskin coat, wrapping the dark blue scarf around her head and over her nose, masking all but her eyes. She stepped down from the wagon and into the space behind where she saw Vlady getting into his Bear suit. He was just about to fit the head on when he turned and smiled at her with such childish mirth that she felt compelled to smile back. It was the sparkle of his eye. Once the costume was complete he maneuvered his prop, a large ball painted with serpents and moons, ready to make his entrance at Serre-Pain’s cue, and with amazing agility leapt to the top of the ball and rolled it with his feet to maintain a casual balance.

arcadeAt the cheers from the crowd Lydia made her way out from behind the large ophidiarium on wheels that attested to Serre-Pain’s claim of herpetology and proof of his knowledge, like an old library full of old books. The crowds had thinned out further under the arcade where merchants had set up their wares, most everyone wearing a face covering, and some, goggles, against the silicate laden air. Serre-Pain had asked her not to go out in public unaccompanied by one of them. She would appear out of place and thereby attract attention. She was willing to chance it. She had friends who might be able to help her slip back to Sao Paulo. Even though The Empire of Brazil had an extradition treaty with the Clockwork Commonwealth, she doubted that the Emperor’s court would allow it over such a trivial matter as a Citizen of the World Order searching for her paternity. She would have to stay out of IOTA’s jurisdiction which would make her an exile from the world hub of Greater London. She would certainly not be allowed to pilot airships outside of the Empire’s zone of influence which spanned the southern hemisphere and the Atlantic to the inter desert zone of New Mali and Congola further south. She would no longer be an airship commander in the glamourous passenger fleets like Aerosud or Canamair. Most of the navair traffic in the Free Corridor of Cancer was freight and third class which meant much of the world’s poor and retched, refugees from the camps adjacent the dead regions and the encroaching tundra.

A loud noise startled her and she turned to seek it’s origin. A crowd had gathered in front of the stall from where the noise was emanating. She glanced over a shoulder at the edge of the gathering. She could see clearly a man standing in front of a square block of gray bioluminium that was vibrating to a low purr of its working. A propeller whirling at one end and a small tube emitting gray vapors at the other. She identified it immediately. An internal combustion engine. Icers. She didn’t know why she was surprised. Many nonaligned nations allowed the development of petrol powered engines despite the scarcity of the fuel. The Scarce Resources Treaty of Pax Victoriana 80 had banned oil as a fuel source, with the exception of lighting. The bacteria that had been released to eradicate the Black Mold infestation of Pax Victoriana 75 unfortunately had had the characteristics of a petrophage and rendered practically the entire oil reserves of the Northern Hemisphere to a watery nonvolatile solution of less than seven percent accelerant.

She shouldn’t have been surprised. The most standard motor source in the Commonwealth’s zones of influence was the bug drive, the bio repro engine that powered everything. The giant factories that produced the bacterial strains, or seeds, were the same ones that were polluting the skies above Oldest Orleans and stretched further north up the valley past the precincts of Old Orleans. The waste accumulated in piles, attaching itself to the lifeless sands of the devastated deadlands, was blown about in the atmosphere by fierce hyperborean winds. The giant windmills erected around the perimeter of the old city on biostyl stilts were not that effective at deflecting the bitter cold of the poisonous sand storms of the north.

The man in front of her stepped back unexpectedly and stepped onto her slippered foot. He glared at her as if it was her fault after she had pushed back. She apologized. No need to draw attention to herself. She quickly moved through the throngs and clots to the end of the arcade where it made another turn paralleling the edge of the square. She could see the orange bacsodium lights of the medicine show and Serre-Pain leading the faux bear in the open space in front of the wagon. Serpina was likely in the tiny dressing space behind the stage fitting into her snake costume. The young woman’s contribution to the entertainment was her hyperflexability. She could literally twine herself around herself, but mostly she slithered along the stage and up the wall and then provocatively curled around a projection overhanging the top of the stage at which time a red round object like an apple appeared in her mouth.

To this backdrop the snake doctor made his pitch. The little pamphlet he held high over his head contained the secrets of Madame Ophelia’s most famous recipes for making antivenom, revealed for the first time, which he offered for a meager sum but within the affordable range of most everyone in a crowd of people who were not particularly interested in reading. As a bonus he offered free of charge with the purchase of Madame Ophelia’s Secret Recipes, a sample bottle of one of her most potent antivenom elixirs.

After the entertainment  ended and the crowds drifted away, the stretch of the Place D’Arc where the snake show had been held was littered with pamphlets but not one tiny bottle. Serpina had told her that the secret recipe’s ingredients were a local fruit distillate mixed with cayenne, the “dash of snake venom” Serre Pain claimed in his sales pitch.

Lydia look down to see a women pointing at her slippers. She had stopped in front of a footwear stall. Arrayed on neat shelves were a variety of sabots, some painted bright colors, others with intricate designs burned into the particulated nearwood. They were quite popular in Greater London where there was a strong artisan market and certain guilds and houses were recognized by name, their products highly sought after. Along with the display of shoes, apparently locally sourced, was a collection of boots. They attracted Lydia’s eye by their sturdy design, one pair reaching to calf length made of a stiff dark material, some kind of fauxhide. The boots had round pale buttons near the top and across the ankle. She was partial to that type of footwear, similar to the style she always wore but more rugged. She felt the dark material between her thumb and forefinger as the woman in the stall nodded approvingly. At first touch she realized that she had been mistaken. It was real leather, a forbidden pleasure as along with ivory and live animal pets, it had been banned by treaty among the states aligned with the CCCP, the Clockwork Commonwealth Cooperative Protocols that were at the foundation of the Pax Victoriana, hammered out over a hundred years ago. She fingered the buttons, tapping one with a fingernail. Bone, maybe ivory.

steampunkThe woman nodded her head and spoke a single word in dialect, “O.” And again pointed at Lydia’s slippers seeming to infer how puny they were when compared to the rugged specimen Lydia was holding in her hand.

Lydia asked, “Is this real leather?”

The woman canted her head to one side as if making a calculation and then nodded. “Queer.”

Lydia understood the problem. She had assumed the woman spoke Standard. She’d come across these language gaps before. Often they could speak Standard but chose not to in resistance to contempt that World Standard had for their native language that was thousand years in the making while WS was an Anglo-Saxon based universal language only recently seeded over the breadth and width of the Victorian Empire.

“Do you speak Standard?” Lydia was casting a practiced eye over the foot of the boot and at the same time removing her right foot out from the slipper.

The woman in the stall held up her thumb and forefinger to indicate how little, shrugging her shoulders in the heavy blanket coat covering her stooped figure. She too had a scarf wrapped around her head and pulled across her nose. She made agreeable noises as Lydia pulled the boot up around her ankle.

“How much,” she asked, “How much do you want for these boots?”


Now it was Lydia’s turn to calculate. She shook her head. “How much? In Victorines.”

The woman showed her a faded piece of paper. The number 90 followed by three zeros was written on it, and slightly below, the letters nfr, meaning New Francs.

“All I have are Victorines. Is there somewhere I can exchange them for the local currency?”

The woman looked over Lydia’s shoulder and held up her hand to wave someone over. “Iceepyare!”

A young man in a beret, scarf slung below his wispy little chin beard and showing the beginnings of a moustache joined them. The woman rattled off something to the young man while pointing at Lydia, the young man nodding in understanding. Suddenly Lydia felt very conspicuous.

“I can help you with the exchange.” He reached into his inside coat pocket and retrieved a large mouchoir enveloping a sheaf of cash. “You wish to buy these boots it will cost you one hundred victorines not counting the exchange fee of ten percent.”

Lydia was astounded. She couldn’t believe her good luck. She had paid twice that much for her cold weather zipper boots and the workmanship had been shoddy. She tried to cover her elation by negotiating. “Ninety, but I’ll go as high as one hundred victorines to include your commission.”

The young man shrugged and turned to walk away, returning the cash to his pocket and revealing the dagger in the sheath at his waist. Lydia was reminded of the stiletto in her inside breast pocket. At the fringes of the civilized commonwealth a knife fight would not be unlikely.

The woman in the stall implored the departing banker. He stopped and looked over his shoulder at Lydia. He had read her.

She sighed and nodded her acquiescence. “Very well, one hundred and ten victorines.” She had a thousand victorines in her wallet. She was an easy mark when it came to footwear. And they fit perfectly as if they were made for her. She admired how nicely they suited her, the square stubby toe and sturdy utilitarian heel.

The woman in the stall was delighted to make such a big sale, shaking Lydia’s hand as did the young man congratulating her on her purchase. He looked at her closely.

“You are not from here. A guest of the Victoriannesance Festivities, perhaps?”

Lydia pointed across the square at the snake show. “I am with Doctor Serre-Pain.”

“Ah,” the young man raised his eyebrows, “The mysterious Madame Ophelia, am I correct?”

“At times,” Lydia admitted and at once realized that she might have revealed too much. She disengaged and moved swiftly away. She had acted frivolously and dallied too long. She was due back to the wagon for the finale of the snake show. Serre-Pain would raise the alarm and come looking for her.

Light spilled across her path from an alcove and she glimpsed the empty tables of a café from which emanated the sounds of Einstein’s first violin concerto, Relativity, her favorite, E in Minor C sharp. And it was the first thing in her flight from IOTA that beckoned to her with its familiarity. She found a table in a dark corner beneath some anti-IOTA graffiti, a common sentiment in the old city she had come to realize. It was time to consider her next step.

bear1Having spent time in an Admiralty intelligence unit when she was stationed at the Commonwealth embassy in Houllas in the Republic of Texas, she knew that she would have to secure new papers if she were going to cross physical borders. And that she would have to avoid travelling by air. It would have to overland until she was safely out of the reach of IOTA. The Capricorn Free Corridor was her best bet. Surely there was someone in Older Orleans who could provide her with a passport that would escape detection, especially if she stayed off the main routes and avoided the busy checkpoints. The strains of the violin concerto had a soothing effect on her although at times she knew that it could also be quite stimulating. She closed her eyes for a moment, amusing herself with the fact that the President of the ISR, the Invincible Swiss Republic, was Albert III, the great grandson of the world famous musician. Unexpectedly her mental image changed, as often happens in reverie, to that of Vlady fitting the bear head onto his own and she realized then why he seemed so familiar to her. How could she had forgotten?

When she opened her eyes there were two uniformed men standing in front of her table. Their patches and canted berets identified them as local gendarmes. “Your papers, please,” the shorter one spoke.

Next Time: The Massive Escape

Cheése Stands Alone—Sneak Preview

 by Phyllis Huldarsdottir

~Sneak Preview~

The World of Lydia Cheése

In March of 1892, a Scotsman by the name of Arthur C. “Artie” Doyle was hanged by the neck until dead after being found guilty of a string of grizzly murders of prostitutes in Whitechapel. At that moment, history veered off its presumed course and headed in a direction all its own in which the Great War never happened because the Kaiser was afraid of offending his grandmother, Queen Victoria, whose life was prolonged by the wonders of biology. The peace of her reign, known as the Pax Victoriana, despite some major environmental disasters, has lasted 180 plus years keeping as many Victorian airs as possible while making accommodations to bio lydcirtechnology. Follow Capitan Lydia Cheése (pronounced Chase), Airship Commander, into a world in which the biological sciences overshadow the physical sciences. Steam engines dominate most modes of propulsion. The skies are filled with lighter-than-air craft and railroads cover most of the globe. Internal combustion engines are banned except in the non-aligned nations of the African continent. Brazil has an emperor and holds an empire of its own covering much of the southern landmass, with Sao Paulo as one of the most modern cities in the world, far outstripping Newer New York and Greater London with its lively futuristic culture. The North American States fractured in the early 20th century after the revelation of the imposter president Cleveland. The Supreme Court under Justice White then ruled that the Southern States had the right to secede as they did nearly half a century previous and promptly left the Union to form the USSR, United Slave State Republics. Subsequently the Eastern Seaboard was renamed Newest New England with the Boston Bubble becoming an independent city state much like Newer New York. Albert Einstein was the name of a famous Swiss watchmaker, Henry Ford was tried for sedition for the rebellion at Belle Isle and faced a firing squad, and Guillaume Apollinaire was the last mayor of Paris before its annexation, along with Amsterdam, into the sphere of Greater London’s influence. Can Lydia Cheése find her father, the antigovernment turncoat and radical, Commodore Jack Cheése. Will her quest take her around the world in less than 80 days or is it a lifelong journey? Below is a sample of how any of that might occur in an alternate world never before explored.


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 Watson House, name after the famed inventor of propulsion biology, Dr. John Watson, 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 Commodore 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.

Watson 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 Watson 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.”

row houses 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 Bushwackers.  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 dimly lighted 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 façade.  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.

lower london 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.

To Be Continued At A “Future” Date