by Phyllis Huldarsdottir
Cast of Characters (Partial):
Captain Lydia Cheése (pronounced “Chase”), Airship Commander for Aerosud, a luxury liner airship company based out of Sao Paulo in the Empire of Brazil, who is searching for her father, Commodore Jack Cheése, an outlaw and anti-government rabble rouser.
Professor Doctor Jean-Pierre Serre-Pain, proprietor of Madame Ophelia’s Ophidiarium, a traveling snake show, who has abducted Lydia to get her to pilot an illegal unregistered airship to HOAR (the Horn Of Africa Republic) on a mission of mercy in exchange for helping her find her father.
Serpina, a young girl who serves as Serre-Pain’s assistant and snake handler who is also a psychic Vessel.
Vlady, an older bearlike man also in the employ of Madame Ophelia’s Ophidiarium and some one that Lydia recognizes from her past.
Commodore Jack Cheése, Lydia’s father, a former officer in the Admiralty’s Medical Corp and outspoken critic of the Clockwork Commonwealth, hunted by agents of IOTA (Investigative Office of The Admiralty).
Chief Inspector Karla Kola, head of the IOTA team charged with capturing Commodore Jack Cheése and Lydia’s nemesis and pursuer.
Pyare, a young man with dreams of being an airship pilot, and member of LBFDS (the League Bousculier Francaise Du Sud) helping Lydia and Serpina rendezvous with Serre-Pain and Vlady at an illegal airship.
Pax Victoriana, a period of peace imposed by the Clockwork Commonwealth and its enforcement arm, The Admiralty, dating from the beginning of Queen Victoria’s reign to the present for a total of 180 years which includes the TSR (Temporal Shift Realignment) of 56 PV (1893 AD) after which Commonwealth calendars where recalibrated to reflect Her Royal Majesty’s peaceful rule (following the devastation of the first Pandem and its resurgence 30 years later as Pandem II).
Impatient, the phony Pyare urged them to hurry. “Why are you taking so long?”
Lydia handed Serpina her trousers ripped at the seam with a shrug. “Maybe we can repair them when they’re dry. In the meantime, I’ll wear your burnoose.”
Serpina gladly shed the bulky cloak. There was a gleam in her eye as she passed the sopping clothes to the man waiting outside the door. It was fear or desperation or both. Her lithe body still garbed in wide pleated trousers and a rough pullover blocked Pyare from closing the door completely.
“Someone might see you,” he protested, “think that you are burglars. Or worse, refugees!”
“We’ll stay out of sight,” Lydia spoke over Serpina’s shoulder.
Faux Pyare stepped back to gain a new appraisal of the two women he was aiding. A smile seemed to dissipate his sullen mood. ”Yes, yes. Remain inside. I will return shortly.”
Lydia watched imposter Pyare leg it across the overgrown courtyard toward the main house. She didn’t have to say it, the look Serpina gave her said she didn’t trust him either. Something had to be done. “Can you remember anything that he said that would give us an idea of what his plans were? He had a friend. He would take us overland. Something about the clans. What else did he say?”
“He likes to talk about himself. He feels he has to prove himself. An idealist besides. And handsome. Handsome idealists are rare in real life. I remember when he spoke of his friend and I pictured them sitting at a table plotting a revolution.” Serpina gave a bemused smile. “They were in a café. The Clumsy Rabbit on rue Gilles Lapin.”
“I don’t remember any of that.”
Serpina hesitated. “I don’t think it’s a memory.”
Lydia stared at the young woman. “Pyare?”
“I think so. . . .”
“How did. . . ? Did you two entangle?”
“He is very receptive for the brave front he puts up.” She smiled to herself.
“You’re communicating with him?”
“I sense an impression.”
“In real time?”
“I know that! Are you entangled with me?” Lydia asked suspiciously.
“No. You’re not receptive. Your guard is up. Like someone with something to hide or repressing a terrible emotion.”
Lydia glanced around, desperate. She and Serpina were synced in their anxiety, it was written in their expressions. “We can’t stay here.” Lydia paced the small room examining the corners, the one window from which the red door of the outbuilding could be seen.
Serpina had pulled open the top drawer to the dresser. “Nothing.”
“It doesn’t look like anyone has lived here in a while. Otherwise we would have noticed their scent.” Lydia stood in front of the wardrobe. A small waistcoat with a hole in the elbow and white padding extruded. A frock hanging limply from a peg.
“I don’t think our new friend lived here. These are woman’s things, scarves, stockings.” Serpina said looking up from the second drawer.
Lydia had moved aside the frock. “What’s this?” Hidden behind the garment was a wide belt with a large ornate buckle. “It’s real leather.” She examined it taking it down from the peg. “What do think this represents?”
Serpina looked closely at the heavy round metal clasp depicting in profile a woman with flowing curls underneath a Phrygian cap and a bird’s wing at the temple.
“This could be precious metal,” Lydia suggested.
Serpina shook her head. “No, it’s cheap cast ore. They’re very popular at fairs and markets. That’s Frida the Fearless. That’s why the buckle has an ‘F’ on either side of the figure. Surely you know of her, the popular storybox heroine from the early years of the first Pandem. I’ve even seen old pulps of her adventures in some antiquarian stalls. People collect them.”
“I don’t pay any attention to any of that trash.” Lydia kept the belt in her hand as she cast her glance back to the small room and its furnishings. At the foot of the narrow cot was a gray overstuffed chair that was coming apart at the seams. A colorful banded blanket was folded over its back. She lifted an edge to her nose and it made her sneeze. Unfolded she held it out at arm’s length. “This will have to do,” speaking to no one in particular and wrapped it around her waist so that the hem fell just above her tall boots. She cinched the belt tight around the top of the blanket to hold it in place. “Let’s get out of here.”
Lydia led Serpina briskly down the cobbled lane of the old neighborhood in the opposite direction from where they had come with the false Pyare. They had to locate the real Pyare. Lydia kept the hood of her cloak close around her face. They’d met an elderly man pushing a velo and Serpina had asked directions to the café, The Clumsy Rabbit. He’d frowned at them suspiciously, especially at the taller Lydia and her unusual outfit. It was in a bad part of town he’d advised as he pointed the way.
The district they found themselves in was one of small tradesmen and yeoman mechanics. The streets were not paved but graded earth and gravel. The clangor of building and construction echoed in the square white washed walls of the warehouses and wide doored stalls. The scent of grime and smoke emanated from them and filled the air.
They were overtaken and passed by a few young men and boys hurrying in the direction they were headed. Soon they were joined by others hurrying toward some kind of excitement.
Where the crowd of mostly men, workers from the nearby business and factories, had congregated was a small nondescript two story building with a wide wood awning over the entrance and a handful of simple mis-matched chairs and tables announced by a sign depicting a rabbit with a crutch and a bandaged head hanging from the eaves, They had found the Clumsy Rabbit. So had the gendarmes.
Lydia kept to the fringe and peered in the direction of the activity. The police had detained four men lined up facing the side wall of the café. They were guarded by two officers while a third was shouting commands at the gathering crowd to stay back.
Serpina snaked her way through the jostling bodies and murmurs of speculation taking her to the front of the raucous crowd.
The men being detained were partially obscured in the shadow of the overhang as lengthening day worked to erase them. None of the men were Pyare. In the ever growing assembly Lydia was beginning to feel conspicuous. She and Serpina were the only women apart for an older matron talking loudly, gesticulating wildly, pointing agitatedly at the café where apparently she was the proprietress. Another officer, chevrons on his sleeves, stepped to the doorway of The Clumsy Rabbit and frowning, gazed out over the growing throng of onlookers. She noticed the two official magnovels parked to one side and a squat six seater squad halftrack blocking the roadway past the cafe into the warren of neighborhood homes and shops. The policeman at the door stepped aside as another officer pushed a man out into the light of late morning. It was Pyare.
Serpina returned with what she’s overheard. “They’re waiting for some higher official to arrive. They’re rounding up members of the League. This is one of their suspected meeting places.”
“And there is Pyare. From the frying pan into the fire.”
“That’s an odd thing to say,” Serpina commented.
“It’s an old folk saying where I come from. It makes more sense in Esporto.”
Pyare had joined the men in the shadows facing the wall. And another man was taken into the dark doorway of the café by the chevroned official.
“A prisoner transport has been dispatched to take them to the main prison in Oldest Orleans I heard someone else say. You can tell by the grumbling that these workmen are angry. They don’t like the police because it is an enforcement arm of IOTA, that the local officials do its bidding.”
“Pyare said that Leon had been arrested,” Lydia remembered. “But what is he doing here? He was supposed to take us to his friend who would help us get to Autre Lyon and Dr. Serre-Pain and Vlady.” At the mention of the man bear Serpina’s expression clouded and Lydia felt a pang of regret. Her actions had caused the change of plans for their journey to rendezvous with the illegal airship she was to pilot to the Horn of Africa. Her attempt to escape her captors had put her in danger of being apprehended by the agents of The Admiralty. If she had any doubts, the appearance of Karla Kola at the check point in Oldest Orleans earlier that morning had rendered them moot. She was now in alliance with those who had abducted her in the guise of helping her find her father, the elusive anti-Commonwealth provocateur, Commadore Jack Cheése.
Serpina spoke into the ear of a man in a welder’s hat who had come to stand in the crowd around them. The ruddy faced man looked alarmed and then nodded his head before he said something to a large coverall clad man who repeated it to the man next to him who passed it on to another man until the message made its way through those gathered to witness the police action and caused them to surge forward in anger. The gendarme charged with holding them back raised his white baton, but it was too late. A brick was lobbed at the officers guarding the detainees. They raised their pistols and fired over the heads of the seething mass.
Lydia and Serpina were carried forward by the press of bodies and had to push against the current to extricate themselves to the fringe. But it was over quickly. No one wanted to get shot. When Lydia searched the shadows where the suspected Leaguers had been detained, there were only three and none of them was Pyare.
In that instant of confusion, Pyare had disappeared and Lydia was not the only one who had noticed. The chevroned officer barked orders and two gendarmes set off down the narrow cluttered gap between the café and the adjacent building in pursuit.
“Come,” Lydia urged and Serpina followed quickly behind. Once at a distance from the police activity, they stepped up their pace. “This street parallels the alleyway. We might be able to head them off. Hurry!”
“But the police. . . .”
“We’ll deal with them if we have to.” Lydia was tired of passively waiting for an avenue of escape. She decided that she would make happen what needed to happen. It was crucial that Pyare get them to their guide who would take them across the Massif and to the hidden airship.
They reached a corner and strolled casually across the deserted intersection. A shout and the sound of something falling or breaking alerted them to look in the direction where two gendarmes exited the alley onto the street. The policemen circled each other confused as if they had had their expectations deflated.
Lydia and Serpina continued their casual stroll as if they hadn’t noticed them hoping for reciprocal invisibility.
“Stop! You Two!” The gendarmes trotted over to confront the two women. “Did you see anyone run past here in the last minute or so? A man, shaggy hair, a maroon topcoat?”
Lydia shook her head mutely and Serpina answered in the local dialect, “No, we have seen no one.”
“Your papers,” the one who was doing the talking demanded.
Lydia glanced at Serpina and gave a slight nod. Serpina reached into her shoulder satchel as Lydia considered how she would overpower them. They were suspicious but because they were dealing with women their guard was relaxed. Two moves, maybe three, and she would incapacitate the one demanding their papers. The element of surprise would give her the advantage for the other one as well.
“No, no, this can wait till later,” the second officer insisted. “We have to find the runner. The sergeant will skin us alive if we don’t bring him back!”
The officer who had demanded their papers looked annoyed but relented, taking in Lydia’s unconventional gear, pointing a finger at her, a broken finger if she’d have her way, and commanded, “Do not leave the area. I will return to confirm you identification!”
Lydia watched them scurry into the alley across from the one they had just exited. She held up her hand and motioned to Serpina. “Wait till they’ve committed themselves to the chase.” She hurried to the entrance of the narrow alley. “Since they didn’t find him when they came through here and we didn’t see him exit, Pyare must still be in there.”
Serpina picked her way through the clutter behind Lydia. “Yes, he is here, I can sense him.”
Lydia tried a door on one side and it was locked. She glanced around a rank of blue bio barrels. Pyare had eluded the police but where had he gone? Lydia and Serpina looked at each other and then up into the rafters of the roof overhang.
Pyare dropped to the ground between them. “How did you find me? I thought I had lost you for good.”
“No time for that now. We need to leave immediately!” Lydia pointed in the direction they had come, herding Pyare and Serpina ahead of her.
As they turned the corner out of the alley, the gendarmes were waiting for them, pistols trained on them.
“Well, well,” said the one as he moved to secure Pyare, “You were. . . .” He didn’t finish what he was going to say. Lydia sprang off the ground and launched a perfectly aimed kick at the tip of his chin, toppling him like a bag of wet sand. The other policeman turned his focus on Lydia and was about to shoot when Serpina’s satchel caught him a round house blow from behind the head. Lydia jammed the heel of her palm against his nose and levered his arm until the pistol dropped from his grip and clattered to the ground.
Pyare stooped to pick up the fallen weapons.
“Leave them!” Lydia warned, “If they catch us in possession of firearms we’ll spend the rest of our lives in the labor camps!”
“You’re right, but we have to disappear. Leon has obviously said too much. My contact, the guide who would take you through clan territory was one of those being held by the police!”
“We have no choice now but to run!” Lydia had no objection to running. She just wanted to be certain of the direction.
“We’ll have to cross the mountains on our own. I will accompany you to your destination.” He smiled at Serpina and she smiled back. “But first we have to locate my friend’s SLOTS.”
“You mean well be traveling by SLOT?” Lydia didn’t hid her displeasure. “Walking would be faster.”
“These are V models with magnetic torque. Very fast. Like a torpedo.”
Lydia was relieved. “Why didn’t you say so?”
Next Time: The Clans of the Massif