Welcome to Steampunk Adventures! In this expanded issue... Dr. Pershire, I Presume--Sylvia Baxter Eternal North--Ginger Jorgental A Flight of Dwarfs (Part I of II)--CJ Casey/Bovis Rex A Sparky World--Stereo Nacht Book Review: Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities Friendly Fire--Samantha Warren/Mariyta Halasy A Walk in the Country--Ginger Jorgental The Puppeteer War (V)--Gordon Soleil ruins--Ginger Jorgental A Flight of Dwarfs (Part II of II) -- CJ Casey/Bovis Rex
Dr. Pershire, I Presume Sylvia Baxter It is only from the vantage point of the dirigible cabin that one can appreciate the beauty of the vast expanses of that continent. The immeasurable reaches of the desert that extends from the edge of the narrow strip of fertile coastal land towards the very heart of the large landmass, where the impenetrable primeval forest harbors unexplored mountain ranges, undiscovered lakes the size of counties, and a million unknown sources of the mighty streams that meander to the sea. My last way-point, the town of O. – I will not disclose its name for reasons you will soon understand – lay on the banks of such a river. The events I will recount happened quite a while ago, and for all I know the dirigible endpoint is no longer in operation. Even then, it was a dead end on the network, it did not even feature a docking tower, so the zeppelin had to be moored on bollards like a river boat. After a couple of eventless days in an assemblage of huts that back home would have accounted for nothing more than a hamlet, I managed to hire a boat to carry me further upriver. My desire was, as you have doubtlessly guessed, to discover the traces of the famed and missing Dr. Pershire, fellow of both the Geographic and Botanical societies, gentleman and notorious adventurer, presumed dead for some years at the time. Contrary to common belief, I was inclined to think he was not dead; and if he was, he would have left a legacy for other researchers to pick up and build upon. In short, I meant to find the man or at least his diaries and notes. It would be a tremendous boost for my own popularity and thus, career, to present such a proof of perseverance and luck. So while my motives were not entirely altruistic, I meant to meet the man, the hero of my late childhood. I would have been devastated to discover his dead body, but I was determined to do at least that. My investigations in the town led me to a man who claimed to have sold various items required for scientific studies to Dr. Pershire. The man himself seemed not too trustworthy, but I surmised his list of Dr. Pershire's alleged purchases, which included a selection of unusual drugs, was far too consistent to have sprung from his limited imagination. Even more exciting was his claim that Dr. Pershire collected his purchases in person only nine months ago, suggesting he was still in the area. Not only had he seemed quite alive on the occasion, but he also seemed agitated about some new discovery he had made in the Eastern woodlands. Unfortunately, the shop-owner's ignorance of scientific matters prevented me getting any glimpse of what the nature of those discoveries might have been. “Sorcellerie, vous savez? Ne vous y mêlez pas, monsieur,” he whispered, in an attempt to save the soul of a paying client. Not minding such superstitious objections, I spent two full weeks on one of the narrow boats the locals build from animal skin wrapped over a wooden frame. My only company were two broad shouldered fishermen who slowly paddled our fragile vessel against the current. At times, we had to carry the boat through the thick underbrush to get around shallows and rapids. Every evening, I set up my linen tent to keep out the malaria-infested mosquitoes while my dark skinned navigators chatted and sang in their strange guttural language. We subsided on the meager catch of their spear fishing and the fruit they collected from the riverside trees, drinking cooked river water. When I offered them to accompany me on a hunt further inland, they seemed genuinely afraid and, not being able to convince me to stay, began to treat me like a madman in a rather obvious way. I depended on them, therefore I let them get away with it, and anyway the hunt proved fruitless: No animal or bird worth the shot was to be seen. I returned mud covered and empty handed.
At noon the next day, the two fishermen claimed we had reached the place the merchant described. They tied the boat to a tree and waited for me to leave. I suspected they came to the conclusion the mad white man would die soon anyway, and therefore there was no point in carrying me further upriver. However, the few words of French and the local dialect that comprised our common language did not suffice to express the concept, and in any case they did not show much interest in what I thought. Being left with trust as the only option, I tried to get some further directions from them. Again, they looked at me like a man who is completely out of his wits, but they pointed to the South. Taking out my compass, I marked the direction and set out with the little luggage I had. I did not dare to think about the voyage back to the town, as I was certain the boatmen would waste no time to leave from this place that made them uneasy to the extreme, the white of their eyes even more visible than usual in their dark faces. So I set out. I quickly left the marshy river banks and hit solid ground. Overgrown and difficult to penetrate as it was, I welcomed the feel of the earth under my boots after a fortnight of uncertain wood and leather on the river. I had brought a light mosquito net instead of the heavy tent, but now I was not only concerned about malaria but also snakes and spider bites and insects and worms that would eat into my skin. I figured these would be harder to fend off than the predators, which I could keep at bay with a nightly fire and my double barreled pistol. Every night I rested my head on a small stand while lying down, like I had seen some tribes in the far South do, to keep critters from creeping into my ears. It didn't cross my mind that I would soon get to know an infestation far more frightening than that. So I traveled though the rain forest for at least ten more days. At some point, I lost count as well as direction. I dropped my compass while climbing down a steep rock face on the fourth day, and I did not keep my diary orderly. There are only the flimsiest notes on the last days of the travels, partly because nothing happened and partly because I became aware I was lost in the jungle and would certainly die. That is of course not an excuse to let go of scientific discipline, I know, but such is the power of the untamed nature; It is the eternal antagonist of order. So I can only estimate how many days had passed when I stumbled across the traces of human habitation. I will not say civilization, because it wasn't, and I will not pretend it was due to methodical exploration, because it wasn't. But the circle of blackened rocks and charred twigs was as clearly a sign of human culture as any. There were also remains of a meal, bones of an animal of an unidentifiable species, and shells of fruit whose pulp had been gnawed off. I was enthusiastic! I might, after all, be saved from certain death. Of course, for all I knew I might also be eaten--although the bones I'd found did not appear human. Immediately, I began to look for traces that would put me on the trail of the people who had kindled a fire and had eaten here. I moved on hands and knees or in a low stoop, extending my search while at the same time taking care not to get too far away from the site, lest I'd be lost again and this time for good. The natives of the heartland of this continent are no strangers to the art of concealing tracks, and so it was more by luck than by skill that I discovered a broken bough here and a footstep in moist ground there, gradually being able to make out the general direction in which they had gone. I followed the tracks as best I could, and the thick forest gave way for a more open savannah. I noticed I had walked uphill for most of the day, gaining higher ground, and before sunset I was able to look back at the canopy of leaves that covered the landscape in that direction as far as the eyes could see. In the haze, closer than I had expected, I could make out an oddly winding line in the roof of trees. I was shocked to realize that this must be the river--less than a day's travel to the North. But that is, of course, our reckoning in a land of roads and railroads and dirigibles. Onwards, the track seemed to lead to a ledge that
appeared to conceal a depression, perhaps a plateau or even the crater of a long dead volcano. I was thrilled to discover a distinguished geographic feature that would endear itself nicely to my name. In my mixture of exhaustion and euphoria, I even danced a solitary quadrille. Thus it happened I nearly stepped onto a ghastly discovery. Beneath a bush, the corpse of a man was arranged in a very odd manner. He was dark skinned and short, laying on his belly, his jaws clenched on a large root of the bush. On his head, the unknown morticians had placed a plant of a species I hadn't seen before. Its single, unbranched, and leafless stalk measured roughly a yard in height. About two thirds up, a round, leathery fruit grew around it. The dead man's skull seemed to have been pierced to insert the plant. A burial rite I hadn't seen before, it was appalling to behold, but we are scientists after all. I could not see any roots, not could I see the face or any features of the man, so I tried to turn over the body. This proved no simple feat because the jaws were fixed fast to the root. I attributed that to rigor mortis. I cannot describe my horror when I finally managed to loosen their grip by force, tearing at least one tooth out of the jaw bone. The jaws snapped shut with such force I was afraid it would bite off one of my fingers. And to my surprise, the man who I had mistaken for a corpse opened his eyes and looked at me with an expression of deepest despair! Dante alone, when he coined the motto at the gates of Hell, “all hope abandon, ye who enter in,” may have imagined the same degree of resignation and sadness in those eyes. He did not speak or make any sound. He did not as much as breathe, for all I could tell. But he seemed to be as certain of his death, indeed wishing for it, as I have never seen a man before or after. Of course, I tried to revive him, get him to move to the fireplace to tell me the reasons for his strange condition. I gave him a dose of laudanum from my small reserve, but after only a little while he started to struggle against my ministrations. Despite his small stature he was strong and so I had to let go of him. To my increased amazement, he crawled back to the bush’s root, cast his teeth into it and lay still. All the time, the strange plant had remained affixed to the back of his skull, so in the fury of a helpless man, I took my knife and cut the stalk off right at the base. The effect was quite unintended. With a sigh, the man died the moment the stalk was severed, his body going limp and his bite loosening. His face, now lying in the setting sun, seemed peaceful, happy even. I didn't carry a mirror to check for breath, but there was no mistaking it, the man was now the corpse I had taken him for when I first saw him. I looked at the plant that seemed to have been connected to the man's life, and that I held in my hand now. It was not like any other plant I knew but still it reminded me of something I couldn't quite put my finger on. The stalk felt mushy and the leathery capsule of the fruit could be indented easily, as if it was at least half hollow. Before my eyes the stalk wilted and the fruit changed its color from a dark red to a muddy brown. At the same time it became taut and even grew in volume, like, like … like an overfilled balloon about to explode. That was precisely what I thought just a moment before the fruit burst open with a plop, filling the air around me with a cloud of spores. A fungus! That was what the plant had reminded me of. Startled, I stepped backwards, tripped, and everything went dark. My head must have hit a stone, because the next thing I remember was a burning sensation in my throat and the taste of strong liquor in my mouth. I coughed, my head feeling like it would burst any moment, as the fungus had. “Drink, my dear fellow,” a remotely familiar voice said in plain English. I opened my eyes to look into those of Dr. Pershire. “It's the best these savages can produce although you probably wouldn't want to learn the details of the process.” He laughed loudly and deeply.
Eternal North Ginger Jorgental Pathfinder holds a canister and rifle of good caliber, rations in a pack to help her explore; at night spinning yarns of lore, dreamy eyes yearning by a burning campfire. Swift dog sleds, pack teams paired in eights laying lines where no sole waits. Units pricking ears and belting yelps prance, skim over the vast expanse. Camp cookâ€™s dogs have passed, moving so fast ahead. Explorers pace to sketch the land; uncertainty slivers their hands that mandate rivers to wind and caper, chisel mountains in paper and lay lakes to rest while they attest horrors. Sifting ore, a sourdough pretends his niche is productive of ends. While ties break and fall to calamity his drinks ensure sanity. A knife at his throat, minerals float ashore. Iced liquor quenches nothing cold that seeks gravity in heatâ€™s hold, eyes pulled toward flame in the hinterland. Echoes in the timberland; resides a nation, isolation lingers.
A Flight Of Dwarves (Part I of ll) CJ Casey/Bovis Rex Billson looked over the railing at the ground below. Far, far below. Even after three years of occasionally flying the not-so-friendly skies with his fellow Dwarfs in Lord Greyson’s Reavers, he had never gotten used to it. If it hadn’t been for the fact that he found it difficult to turn down any honor that Lord Greyson wanted to give him, he never would have come on board as this mission’s Operations Boss. What a joke, he thought. For starters, he had at least ten years of seniority on Gruffin, who, when he wasn’t piloting the Airship Nibelung, worked directly for him, and he was still getting used to being outranked by one of his own people. Not that Gruffin was a bad person or a poor operative... he was one of the best. But still, there was that. And second, he was pretty sure that the average Ops Boss would be expected to look over the side once in a while, and he wasn’t quite sure he was ready to do that yet. “Major Billson!” Gruffin cried behind him. “I mean... Ops Boss Billson. You gonna be alright?” The shorter Dwarf slapped the taller and sicker one on his shoulder. Billson tried to smile, but that was beyond his powers right now. “How much longer?” Gruffin laughed. “You’re joking. We just launched, what, an hour ago? We won’t even get to the Badlands for two days, at least. Then a day or two there, and then hopefully two days back. Unless we have to take the long way.” “Why on Earth would we have to do that?” “Storms and Dragons, Maj... err, Billson. Sorry. I know this is just for the mission, and you’re still my Captain on the ground, but you have to admit that it’s kind of strange.” “That’s the least of the things I’m worried about.” He heaved again, but nearly everything was out of his system. Nearly. At least from this high up, he couldn’t tell if anyone was below him. He still felt bad for the farmer who had looked up at them at exactly the wrong moment. “Oh, you’ll get your air legs soon enough,” Gruffin said to him. “That’s what they told me the first time I rode one of these things. That was three years ago. And so far, well, you see where I am.” He swallowed, then decided to risk a little bit of water. That should help. When he looked up from the jug, Gruffin was anxiously checking the vast array of brass watches and dials and devices that he kept pinned to a wide belt. Billson knew how half of them worked, though at least one of them, the Magickal Transportator Teleportation Device, wouldn’t work more than a few feet off the ground, and wouldn’t work at all where they were going. Gruffin probably still had his attached just out of habit. And a good habit it was, what with all the jumping around between Realms that Lord Greyson had them doing. On this mission, though, they were going to spend all of their time in the First Realm. High above the First Realm. Very high above the First Realm. I really need to stop thinking about that, he thought. “I swear, Mr Billson,” Gruffin said, “it’s like you’ve never been on an airship.” “It’s the height. I’ve never been good with heights. And every other time, I’ve just been a passenger, so I could lock myself away in a cabin.” “Billson, we’re not too far, yet. We can turn around.” “No. We can’t afford to do that, can we, Captain? They might already be closer than we are.” He backed away from the rails... turning away would have felt worse... and made his way into the gondola. The enclosed part of the gondola.
“I’m going to call the crew together in a few moments, Billson. You’ll be there?” “Why are you asking me? You are the Captain, you know.” “True, but it’s still weird. I’m not used to being in charge of you.” Billson was almost inside, so he could think a little more clearly now. “Well, I suggest you get used to it, Captain. Until the muster, I’ll be below, okay?” “First Mate Billson!” Gruffin yelled. “I want my boots polished, my bunk made, and lunch in my stateroom in twenty minutes!” Billson made a rude gesture and secured the hatch behind him. The Airship Nibelung was the third of its class, though since the first had been devoured by a hunting group of Manticores, it was really only one of two. It was four years old and quite properly the pride of Lord Greyson’s industrialization program. The Lord Himself had embarked on it three times, not counting the maiden voyage, and there were rumours that he was planning on building a small version for his own personal travels. As long as the skirmishes that they had been having with Elvindred never turned into a full-scale war (or if they just managed to conquer them outright) Billson could see that happening. If Lord Greyson loved anything more than his chunk of territory, it was technology. The things he and Billson’s fellow Dwarfs had already thought up were pretty amazing, he had to admit, even if a lot of them weren’t exactly Dwarf-like. Lord Greyson had grown tired some time ago of depending on the little bits of magic and wizardry that Elvindred doled out to them, so he struck out on his own. And in just a few short decades, their little Freehold hummed with steam and gears and pneumatic tubes, brass and glass and classy leather bindings. The airship was testimony to that... when the first ship, The Airship Thorin, had cast a shadow on the Freehold, the people knew that they wielded their own power, now, in the face of the Elves and Pixies and Centaurs and other magical beings of the First Realm. Of course, the Elves of Elvindred were none too happy with losing their monopoly or their indirect control over the Freehold. No one had officially declared war on anybody, but from the first month, there had been ‘accidents.’ Things would change colour in a way that they shouldn’t. People, and Dwarfs, and other denizens of Greyson’s Freehold, would disappear, only to reappear in the most random of places. Break-ins, petty theft, lost caravans... all of these things were common enough to be annoying. Billson personally thought that if the Badlands hadn’t served as a buffer zone between the two countries, they definitely would have open war by now. Lord Greyson was constantly reminding the Elven Prince that he had no official complaint with the Elves and wished only to live in peace. And in Lord Greyson’s estimation, the best way to live in peace with the Elves was to never let them out of his sight. That was why a good portion of the work that The Secret Eye did was... well, ‘espionage’ was such a dirty-sounding word. Lord Greyson preferred to say that he was just keeping both eyes on Elvindred. Or maybe all available eyes. Of course, Billson knew that Elvindred probably had their own network of eyes and ears, many of them running off of magic, too, but counter-espionage wasn’t his department. His job was to collect reports from the various spies that inhabited the Princely Fiefdom of Elvindred. And in certain, thankfully rare situations, he had to collect the spies themselves. When Billson traveled this way before he was never quite sure if he got more used to it after a few hours, or if his body gave up on telling him how messed up everything was. He did know that Dwarfs were meant to be underground, or at least on the ground, and while he had respect for Gruffin and his crew, he couldn’t fathom how (or why) any Dwarf would volunteer to go aloft. Still, it was illuminating to watch the five-man crew run about the gondola, tightening lines and taking readings, jotting down measurements from large mounted brass
telescopes and sextants, and carefully keeping them in leather notebooks. Somehow, they could tell from one quick glance if they were so much as a quarter-kilometer off course. And the three Dwarfs who ran up and down the lines forward and amidships, and aft... well, they were obviously crazy, or at least were suffering under a nasty curse, but they knew their jobs and they did them well. Even if it was an un-dwarflike job, that counted for something. All too soon, he heard Gruffin’s whistle from amidships, and he made his way to the fantail at the rear of the gondola, below the directional propellers and rudders. Before the rest of the crew members showed up, he grabbed the lectern that Gruffin had set out for him and dragged it to the back railing. “Sorry, Captain. This way, when I talk to your crew, I don’t have to look out there.” “Whatever works for you,” Gruffin said. “This is your show.” It didn’t take long for everyone to get there, either. Barad, the Navigator and the real second-in-command, regardless of Billson’s title, was almost there as it was, and he was carrying two or three rolled maps that were nearly as tall as he was. (And Barad was pretty tall for a Dwarf.) Before Billson could do much more than shake his hand, Erick and Froderick, two of the linesmen, ran up, fresh from their usual spots right up next to the gas bag of the airship. Like all linesmen, they were both tiny by Dwarf standards, and they spent nearly all of their time shirtless with only their beards providing some sort of cover. Billson had at least worked with Froderick before, though not on an airship, and he wasn’t sure if Froderick himself even knew that they’d been temporary colleagues. He nodded to both of them as they lined up in front of the lectern, and busied himself with his notes for his briefing. Even though he couldn’t see the vast emptiness of the open sky, he could tell it was there behind him if he let himself think about it. “Do we have everyone?” he asked Gruffin. “I think so,” he said. “Barad, Erick, Froderick... wait.” A howl or a yelp or some sort of unnatural sound spun down from overhead, and a spinning ball of colour hurled to the deck of the gondola. Both Erick and Froderick ducked, but not in time to avoid it. With a double somersault, and one last war whoop, the fifth member of the crew took his place, perched on his crewmates’ shoulders. “Oh I nearly forgot,” Gruffin said in a dry voice. “We also have Sean.” “Sean?” Billson said. “What kind of a Dwarf is named ‘Sean?’” “The best kind,” Sean said, jumping down from his perch and running up to Billson. “Pleased, very pleased to meet you, sir. I’ve been looking forward to this mission for the whole two hours that we had to prepare for it.” “Airman Sean,” Gruffin said, in a voice that sounded like he was very used to saying those words, “your place, please.” “Oh. Right.” He snapped a half-hearted salute and stepped back into the ranks. “Airman Sean will be performing the extraction for you,” the Captain said, with a curious mixture of pride and disgust. “He’s the best Dwarf I know of for the job.” “Well. I guess that means you need to pay attention to the briefing, then.” Billson pulled out one document that had a tintype clipped to it. This, of course, was the sanitized copy that he had made himself. He had all the information memorized, but he wanted to give the others on this mission an idea of what they were up against. “Code Name Alberich,” he said. “This agent has been under deep cover for almost five years. About a week ago, he made contact with us...” “Excuse me,” Sean said. “Go ahead, Airman.” “How could a Dwarf be ‘undercover’ in Elvindred? Wouldn’t they realize that something is up?”
Gruffin stepped toward him with a dark look on his face but Billson waved him off. He was used to such questions. Every time he gave a briefing or a discussion about his job, someone... and it didn’t matter if it was a peasant straight from the farms or a highborn lord... would make some smart-ass comment about how exactly a Dwarf could blend in with the Elves. “We of The Secret Eye have many methods at our disposal. This briefing is neither the time nor the place to go into them, but understand that we have many devices, some magickal, most mechanical, all involving some degree of misdirection and deception. Our agents are also chosen for their ability to blend in. And perhaps most importantly, you should know, you really should know that the Fiefdom is not a monolithic conglomeration of Elvenkind, as our own country isn’t just a bunch of Dwarfs, either.” He saw a grumble or two among the linesmen and decided to stay away from that subject for the time being... not everyone in the Freehold was okay with Lord Greyson (one of the human-like ‘Faded Ones’) being in charge of the Dwarfs. But even if Billson didn’t work for the guy, he wouldn’t have had a problem with him. He did okay, for what he was. He cleared his throat and went on. “Now, Alberich was already planning on returning to us at the end of this month, but something happened to make him think that his cover had been blown. So a week ago, he attempted to leave on his own. The last that we heard from him, he was about to go to ground in the Badlands. He was also pretty sure that the Elves knew he was going there.” “Do we know what happened?” Erick asked. “What blew his cover?” “I know what happened,” he said. “We do know that they’re not completely sure he was a spy; else, we would have heard that they’ve declared war on us.” He let that sink in for a second. Even Sean (who names a Dwarf ‘Sean?’ Must’ve had weird parents) stopped smiling for a minute. “I really can’t give you more details about what he was doing or what his mission was. I can tell you that it is absolutely imperative that we get to Alberich before the Elves do. If you think that things are bad between us now, well...” He didn’t need to finish. They could all come up with something suitably horrible. And if he told them what Lord Greyson expected as a worst-case scenario they probably would have turned the airship around themselves. The rest of the day passed uneventfully, and Billson's stomach started to keep to its proper place and shape by early evening. Still, he didn’t push it by making it do any more work than it absolutely had to. He did take a cup of tea to his 'cabin' once he decided he'd stayed up long enough, but he didn't think that would be too much of a problem. At least it wouldn't taste too bad on the way back up, if it came to that. Billson could remember the first time that he'd ever had to embark on an airship. Not only was he able to completely lock himself away before they had so much as loosened a single line, he’d had his own cabin, one befitting a middle-level, yet important member of Lord Greyson's staff. He supposed he couldn't be too upset about not having his own room, now, since the Navigator and the Captain were sharing a stateroom and the Captain’s usual quarters was filled with equipment that Billson had convinced the airships to carry. They had at least given him all the privacy that they could afford. Most of his room was taken up by spools and loops of every line known to Dwarf, Elf, and Other, but they had shoved enough of it aside to give him room for a cot and a tiny writing table. Of course, no sooner did he strap himself into his bed and close his eyes, Sean burst in, carrying a lantern and digging madly through the spools of rope and cord. It was only when the strange Dwarf threw a loose coil onto the cot that he noticed he wasn't alone.
“Sorry, sir,” he said, as he pulled the dry, dusty rope off of Billson's face. “I'm so used to this being our line locker.” “It's alright. I don't think I’m going to sleep for a while, anyway.” Billson sat up and looked at the Dwarf. He didn't have much of a beard, though he looked old enough to have one. That only meant that He Cut His Beard Short! Billson knew that some of the younger Dwarfs were doing such a thing, but he had never seen one of the radicals. “What are you doing this late anyway?” Billson asked. “Aren't you on duty tonight?” “Just got off. The Captain sent me here to get my Bosun's Chair ready.” “Bosun's Chair?” Sean pulled out a tangle of ropes, woven together into something that might, with a lot of imagination, look like a large (flimsy) potholder. “I have to put another seat on this thing. That way when we go get your spy, I can just strap him in and you'll crank us up.” Billson wanted to throw up his tea just thinking about what the Dwarf was talking about. “You're going to ride in... in that thing, down to the extraction site?” “Well, I have a day to tighten it up, and make sure it's safe. That's what the Captain told me, anyway. Said there wasn't a good place to set down anywhere near where we were going.” Billson knew that... in fact, he had told Gruffin that himself. He’d assumed that they were going to land and then send a party up the ridge to the rendezvous point. “You...” He swallowed. His stomach was telling him that any second, the floor of the airship was going to open up and drop him to his death. He looked away from the Bosun's chair, but he still heard one of the ropes snap when Sean pulled it. “You know it's probably going to be storming in the Badlands, right?” “Oh, it won't be that bad,” Sean said. “Navigator told me we're going to have good weather for at least a day. He said otherwise we wouldn't even think about going after this guy.” Billson was pretty sure that they still would, storm or no storm, but he was in no condition to argue. The spool of line that Sean had wheeled out looked like it was at least a thousand meters long, and he didn't want to think about being that high above land anymore. “Well... that's brave of you to do that. Very brave.” “Maybe,” Sean said with a laugh. “I'm looking forward to it.” “You are?” “Of course. I've walked off the airship before, and I've been to the Badlands before, but I've never done both at the same time.” He grabbed the Bosun's Chair and a coil of thick rope and slapped Billson on the back, forgetting his rank for a moment. “Just watch,” he said. “It's going to be a blast.” Having a blast was nowhere on the list of things that Billson wanted to do the next day, but he did his best to at least survive without running to the railings every five minutes. He even managed to look at the ground passing underneath them, and as long as he wasn't looking straight over the side, he felt alright. He even enjoyed the bread, garlic, and oil they had for lunch, though he couldn't watch the others shovel down their salt fish and veggies. In fact, if they hadn't been attacked that afternoon, the day would have been absolutely perfect. It happened just before supper. He was sitting outside the cabins talking to Gruffin about the plan for the next day. Billson was still thinking about trying to pull rank on him and insist on finding a place to set the airship down, but when the Captain showed him the fine-detail maps of where they were picking up Alberich, he agreed they probably wouldn't have much of an
airship left by the time they got in the air, and it would take much too long for them to walk to the rendezvous point. “Barad tells me the winds are picking up, too,” Gruffin said as he rolled the maps up. “Still no storm expected until tomorrow evening, and we'll have the winds at our tail then.” “Provided we're on the way back,” Billson said. “Exactly. Provided we're on the way back. In fact, if we're not turned around by 1400, we might have to leave early, whether we have Alberich or not.” “That's not going to happen,” Billson said. Gruffin looked at him strangely and then shook his head. “Billson, you might be the Ops Boss for this trip, and you might outrank me on the ground, but that stops on-board my ship. If I say it's too dangerous for us to stay any longer, we are going to leave. Period.” Billson felt a pressure in his stomach that threatened to grab hold of his hands and send them around Gruffin's neck. “Gruffin... Captain Gruffin... I was tasked to pick up Alberich. We're not going to leave until we get him.” “You do know we're heading into the Badlands, right? You do know there's a reason they're called 'The Badlands', right? If my ship is in danger...” “We will stay until Alberich is safe on-board” Gruffin's eyes looked as hot as Billson's felt, but he kept his cool. “Mr Billson,” he said, quietly, “the safety of my ship and of my crew is paramount. If we have to leave before we perform the extraction... We. Will. Leave. If we can, we'll come back. If we can't, we won't. That is final.” “Captain Gruffin, I was charged with extracting our agent by Lord Greyson Himself. I answer directly to him. Anyone who doesn't agree is going over the side.” Gruffin got up and slapped the maps into his palm. “I was also charged by Lord Greyson. He told me that I was to take you to the Badlands so you could do this.” “Exactly. That's my point, Captain.” “Do you know what Lord Greyson did not give me permission to do?” “What?” “Let anything happen to his airship. His airship. And nothing will happen to it.” Billson opened his mouth to tell him that if he did need to start tossing people over, he would be more than happy to start with him, but at that moment, two of the four archers onboard ran aft past them. One of them had his leather armer coat on, but the other looked like he had just rolled out of bed. Gruffin shouted something to them, but they didn't stop. “What's going on?” Billson said. “Make them tell you.” Gruffin started jogging behind them, forcing Billson to walk as fast as he could (without getting dizzy) alongside. “Billson, our four archers are the cream of Lord Greyson's personal bodyguard. They are instilled with discipline for years before they even so much as look at a bow.” “I know that,” Billson said. “But you, their Captain, just addressed them, and they didn't say anything.” “If they are so worried and in such a hurry that they can't take the time to talk to me, we're in trouble.” When they got to the fantail of the ship, three of the four archers were in place, bows at the ready. All three of the linesmen were aloft, too, with Sean huddled up next to the steering jets of the ship. Barad turned around the moment Gruffin got there, and he looked more frightened and more nervous than Billson had felt yesterday.
“Glad you're here, Captain. We've got a minute, maybe. It's circling around.” “What is?” Billson asked. “Probably a BAFT,” Gruffin said, trotting up to where the archers were standing and not really paying attention to Billson anymore. “A BAFT,” he asked, talking to the empty air in front of him. Finally, the Navigator turned looked over his shoulder at him. “Big-Ass Flying Thing,” he said. “Usually, we only see them in the Badlands. This one decided to stretch out.” “I've never heard of such a thing,” he said. “You never flew around the Badlands, then.” “Listen,” he said, and then he heard a scream off in the air ahead of them. It was unlike anything that he had ever heard, but he imagined that if someone was choking a parrot that was on fire... a parrot the size of an elephant... it would have sounded something like that. All three of the archers in front of him shuddered, even as the master archer (the only one who had flown before), perched up over their heads, and looked through a brass mounted telescope. Within a few seconds, he started calling out coordinates to them, and the first volley of arrows went out before Billson could see a hint of the creature through the mists and gray sky around them. He saw the head first, a tiny, leathery reptilian thing with bright green lizard-like eyes. 'Tiny,' of course, was relative. The creature's head was at least the size of Billson's torso, and had bony ridged jaws that looked like they could rip through him in a good two or three bites. But compared to its wingspan, which was at least four meters from claw to claw, its head was pretty tiny. Even though the archers had fired blind, as far as Billson could see, all three arrows had found their mark, though it didn't look like it bothered the creature. At least it didn't fly straight into the airship, though a sudden jolt the craft took to the right might have had something to do with that. He could hear Sean laughing overhead as he leaned and pulled on the propellers, putting the airship level again. Billson was surprised that the strange Dwarf liked this kind of cowardly combat. Archers fought at a distance, never letting themselves get close to their enemy, and as far as he was concerned, that wasn't real combat. That's why the Elves did it. And Sean... he would probably get a citation for fighting, and he wasn't even in any danger. Billson just couldn't figure this out. Oh, sure, he was glad they were taking him to the rendezvous, but the sooner he got away from this new branch of the 'military,' the better. Give him a good thick battleaxe any day, or even a tiny throwing axe like what they had mounted on the fantail in a conspicuous place of honor. Honor, he thought, and spit. The thing didn't even look like it had ever been taken down, not since the day Lord Greyson had commissioned the vessel. Except for Gruffin, he didn't think any of the Dwarfs knew what it felt like to heft one. The flying lizard had already turned around and the archers braced themselves for another volley. They had all restocked their arrows from a large quiver laying on the deck, and this time, the creature was flying close enough to them that Billson could smell it. He heard the shout of the archery master a second before the bows twanged behind him, and this time, he saw the thing dip below the keel of the gondola. One of its wings was torn a little, and he could see fear edging into his shining eyes, but it still weaved close to the airship, diving at the rigging and only missing at the last second thanks to Sean jumping on his cords and almost spinning the airship around. The creature screamed and flapped away to regroup. Billson heard another scream and a thump resounded throughout the ship as the archery master hit the deck. As canted as the deck was, he didn't have a chance. He grabbed at the quiver of arrows on the deck, but of course, that didn't stop him. Billson couldn't look. He
wasn't sure who was screaming louder... him or the archer. It was only when he felt another thunk on the deck that he looked and saw that Gruffin did still know how to throw a handaxe, and that the archery master was probably going to need a new cloak, not to mention new pants. Finally able to move, and look around, Billson ran up and pulled the axe out of the deck where it had pinned his cloak down. “Thank you, sir,” the guy said. “Thank the Captain,” he said, pointing at Gruffin. “Thank the guy who made my spectacles,” Gruffin said. “The last time I tried something like that, I missed.” “He's coming back around,” one of the archers yelled. “So fire,” Gruffin said. “With what?” The archer in the middle held up his bow, which was nocked with the only arrow left on deck. “You're serious?” Gruffin said. “We had more. But Heinrich knocked our quiver over the side, and I don't have time to run to the armory.” Gruffin took a deep breath. The lizard had recovered and was starting its charge straight toward them. It was too close and coming too fast for Sean to be able to to much besides make him hit on one side or the other. “Make the shot count, archer,” Gruffin said. The archer probably would have, too, if he hadn't been so used to always shooting in a group, and preferably always shooting in a group at something that wasn't flying straight at his head. The arrow flew wide of the mark, not even disturbing the air around the lizard. Billson never remembered throwing the axe. One second, he was standing behind the shocked, frozen archer, and the next, his arm was stretched out in front of them and there was a leather flying lizard with half a face hurtling toward the deck. They had a second or two to find cover, and then the screaming, thrashing, bleeding beast smacked into the wooden deck of the gondola. For a moment, Billson was sure they were going to sink. The deck was tilting hard, but he was close enough to some of the rigging to grab on. Something hit his back and rolled off, but he wasn't even paying attention. Only when he felt the deck level out did he open his eyes. The good news was that the flying lizard was dead, or at least not doing more than twitching. They heaved it over the side before it could weight the airship down any longer. The better news was that no one had gone over the side. He could see all the linesmen, all of the archers, and even the other two officers. They were pale and blood-splattered, but alive. The horrible news was that Sean had fallen out of his perch, and unless his arms were built as strangely as his personality, and were supposed to bend that way, he had a compound arm fracture. “We're going to have to call off the mission,” Billson said. Gruffin stood behind the crate in his stateroom that he used as a desk. He looked at Billson like there was nothing he could have said that would have shocked him more. He went on. “I'm serious. With Sean out of commission, can we still perform the extraction?” “We have to, don't we?” “Captain... while you and Froderick were patching Sean up, I took the liberty of talking to the other linesman. Erick told me that this ship needs a minimum of two people in the rigging.” “He’s right,” Gruffin said. He lit a pipe and offered it to him. Billson turned it down. His
brain had just spit up a possible solution to the problem at hand but he needed to focus on not paying any attention whatsoever to such things. “The Navigator has to stay on the ship, Captain, since he is really your second-incommand. If something happens to you, he’s the one who will get us home, not me.” “You’re right. Did you talk to the archers?” “Of course. But the master archer is still dazed from his fall, and according to him, they’re not supposed to leave either except in case of an extreme emergency.” “Not in their contract,” Gruffin said. “They’d get pretty pissed off.” “So... that’s everyone, Gruffin. Unless you can think of someone else who can do the extraction, we’re going to have to go back.” “What about me, Billson?” Billson stared at him in shock. “You could do that?” “No. Of course I can’t. If the Navigator can’t leave the ship, then the Captain definitely can’t.” Billson sat down, dazed. He tried once more. “There’s no one else who can do it?” Gruffin stood up and handed him the pipe. He didn’t go back to his chair until Billson took it. “Billson... Major Billson... I was given orders to the effect that we were to perform this extraction no matter what. In fact, I was told by someone who outranks me that anyone who interfered with this mission was to be tossed over the side.” Billson shrank into his chair a little more. “In other words, Billson... and I think I should feel guilty about how happy I am about this... you’re going over the side, one way or the other.” “I can’t! Don’t you understand? I won’t be able to do it! I’ll fall!” “Ah. So it was okay to endanger the entire airship to rescue this spy, as long as it wasn’t your bacon on the grill. But now that you’re the one who has to do it, suddenly... we can’t?” “You are right,” Billson said. “You agree you have to get your spy?” “That’s not what I meant. I meant you most definitely should feel guilty about feeling happy.” Gruffin laughed. “We’ll keep you safe, okay? Sean may look like a fool and a show-off, but he’s a safe show-off. Usually.” “He fell, though. He couldn’t have been that safe.” “He wasn’t expecting the BAFT to fall on the deck. That’s why we try to shoot them with arrows. Also, he was a little desperate to crank that propeller around, so he unhooked himself.” “Well... I’m already feeling sick enough about everything, so I’m just going to go to my cabin and get ready for tomorrow.” “Good luck, Billson.” He turned to say something else to Gruffin but the Captain had already turned away. Of course, Billson didn’t sleep at all that night, or the next morning. Once or twice, he almost drifted off, and sometime in the middle of the nightwatch, he actually did feel himself falling asleep, and that lasted until a minute later, when the Nibelung entered the storms of the Badlands. This, of course, wasn’t Billson’s first trip to the border zone between the Elf and Dwarf kingdoms. People in his field spent a lot of time riding in and out, or even hiking on foot. With
the wind and rain storms constantly whipping through, not to mention the lightning and heat lightning and St Elmo’s Fire that sometimes raced up and down the rocks, it was an amazing place to conduct the cold war business that was his bread and butter. His Uncle Elgar, who had recruited him into the Eye when he’d been barely twenty, had taught him to hike the Bald Ridge when he was ten. Later, he’d learned that most secret business that his agency did was conducted in the myriad of caves and plateaus that dotted this spine of the Badlands. Even as a baby, he had been in training. Maybe he’d never been to Thorin’s Plateau, but he had been around the ridge enough to know what to expect. On the ground, he knew how to deal with the storms, too. He always took precautions and he wasn’t stupid about diving in to the worst systems at the worst times, but riding and hiking through them was almost a game to him. There was something to be said about dashing up the side of one of the ridges on his pony, fifty-knot wind whipping through his hair and beard, rain stinging his forehead, and an axe strapped to his back, along with a sheaf of documents that could change the face of the war between his lord and theirs tucked away in waterproof oilskin. The devices that Lord Greyson had developed... telescopes, smoked filters, distance communicators (which usually didn’t work in the Badlands, anyway), and other toys, definitely made his job a little easier but still didn’t take away from the intense danger and exhilaration that he felt on a mission. Seen from above, though... or more properly, from right in the middle of a Badlands storm, he felt something completely different. If he had been able to eat during the trip, he would have been worried about embarrassing himself as he looked over the railing at Thorin’s Plateau. But with no food whatsoever in his system, it wasn’t in danger of coming out, one way or the other. At least his severe lack of sleep stopped bothering him once he walked outside to start preparing for the drop. Sean had been bandaged up pretty well (Froderick had been studying to be a doctor, apparently, before the open air called to him) and except for being half-covered in plaster and bandages, still looked to be his happy, annoyingly bouncy self. He had just finished adjusting the Bosun’s Chair for him, and before Billson could say anything (like ‘HELP’) the little Dwarf was draping him in lines and safety straps and buckles. He kept up a running commentary of what each strap did, but Billson wasn’t able to pay much attention to it. The other crewmen, including the archers, were standing in a semi-circle around the two of them, and Billson couldn’t help but think that they all looked like they were gathered at a funeral. Even after Sean finished strapping him into the harness and clipped him onto the rig, they looked like they were amazed that he was actually going through with this. “There,” Sean said, pulling the last strap tight. The whole affair looked like a rope basket, with another basket tied to its side that had even more clips and ropes attached. “When you get your contact, just have him sit in that, and weave these up and over his armpits. Even if he’s unconscious, he’ll be safe.” “Will I be safe?” “Oh of course you will. You’re not getting out of that harness until you’re ready to. No matter what.” “Not even if the ship crashes,” Erick said. “Or if we catch on fire,” piped in the Navigator. “Sshh,” Gruffin said, though he looked like he wanted to add in his ‘advice’ as well. He walked up to Billson and made a show of inspecting the straps, but it was obvious that he trusted Sean’s work. Then he pulled a small cord out from the harness and put it in Billson’s hands, along with a circle of enclosed bells. “This is how we signal you. One pull... ‘drop me’ and we’ll give you one pull back before you do. Two pulls... stop, and three pulls means bring you back up.”
“What are the bells for?” “You clip those on once you unsnap yourself from the rig. That way if we start signaling you, you’ll hear us.” “And once I get the guy, signal back to you?” “Exactly,” Sean said, and slapped the rigging. “Don’t worry, we’ll get you back safe to your wife in no time.” “I don’t have a wife.” “We’ll get you back safe to your girlfriend, then. Or boyfriend.” Gruffin stiffened next to him, but Billson was too nervous to be offended. Before the Captain could say anything, he patted Sean’s shoulder and said, “It’s been a little while, Airman, but don’t worry about it. Single for two years and doing okay.” “His girlfriend left him two years ago, Airman,” the Captain said. Then, to Billson, he said, “But Sean’s right. You’re probably safer in this than you are on the ship.” “That doesn’t make me feel any better,” he said. “Boss,” Sean said, “the only way you’re coming loose is if the harness rips your arms off.” Before Billson could answer, or scream, Gruffin came over and shook his hand. “It’s a lot safer than it looks. We have at least another hour before the serious storms roll in... winds only about ten knots right now.” “I realized something, Gruffin,” Billson said. “What’s that?” “You said that the Navigator couldn’t go over because he was second in command, right? And if something was to happen to you, he was supposed to be in charge? So... why does that mean you can’t do this? I mean, he’ll be in command while you’re off the ship, right?” Gruffin smiled and pushed him off the railing. Billson only had about three seconds of free-fall before the rigging caught him and jerked his shoulders up. From here, he had a pretty good view of the underside of the airship, and except for a few scrapes and marks, it looked like it was in pretty good condition. That made him feel slightly better. He was also close enough to hear the windlass cranking as they slowly lowered him down. He was told that he only had about 500 meters to go, since the weather patterns at that level were smooth enough to let the airship make slow lazy circles overhead, and he’d figured out that at two meters a second, it would only take him four minutes to reach ground. He had timed it because he did not want to look down until he absolutely had to. Riding the harness down, holding on to the extra seat and the ropes that embraced him, wasn’t quite so bad. Nice, even. He could even just about convince himself that he was doing nothing but hovering in a swing at a decent distance above the ground. Only when a stray gust of wind caught him did he suddenly remember that he was still high enough above the ground for him to make a nice crater in the Badlands when he hit. For that matter, the Badlands themselves didn’t look quite so bad from up here. True, he’d always thought that they had a strange beauty, but from here, the metallic rocks caught the light and sent it back to him at an angle he never could see from down below. He could even see the storm that they knew was coming, and a ridge away from him, the clouds looked beautiful and majestic. He could see the fabled heat lightning and ball lightning racing up and down the ridge. The dizziness they had warned him about, something about the change in pressure from the deck of the airship, was already buzzing around his head, but he hadn’t felt any of the hallucinations that they’d said were common. He wasn’t looking forward to them. His timer went off at four minutes, and he finally let himself look down. He had braced himself for a vertiginous, dizzy view, but all in all, it didn’t look too bad. He was still a good twenty meters up, but from here, he could see the cave that Alberich was supposedly hiding
in, and it looked like he was directly over one of the wide flat spots on the plateau. It made him feel slightly better to know that he wasn’t just going to splash on the rocks. He yanked on the signal cord, twice, and smiled when he felt himself come to a halt, ten meters over the ground. Then he realized that he didn’t have a signal that meant ‘slow down.’ He yanked once on the cord, and the harness dropped so fast that he jerked on it twice without thinking. Now he was only seven meters. “Can they not figure out I need to go slowly, here?” he said out loud. A large shimmering purple bird dashed in front of his eyes and answered him, but he pushed it away. He wasn’t in the mood to talk to any delusions right then. He waited a few seconds to see if maybe they would take the initiative or read his mind, and do it on their own, but they were only paying attention to his signals. So he jerked the cord again, prayed for two or three seconds, and, eyes tightly clamped shut, jerked on it to stop. When he peeled his eyes open (using his right hand to do so) he was only twice his height over the ground, and one more good pull got him on the ground. Thankful that he wasn’t yet part of the scenery of the Badlands, he unclipped himself and stashed the rigging under a couple boulders that were at the edge of the clearing. They hadn’t said anything about anchoring the ropes, but it just seemed like a good idea. He was trying to make a point of doing everything precisely and carefully, since his head felt a little dizzy from the drop. It was the dizziness that told him he was hallucinating when he saw his ex-girlfriend Helga standing in front of the cave. “Ah, of course,” he said, laughing and rubbing his belly. “They said that this might happen. I expected flying unicorns, myself, but you’ll work. Sean was making me think about you, after all.” “Billson?” the hallucination said. “What, they didn’t tell you over in Delusion Central whom you were coming to? Of course it’s me. Been a few years, hasn’t it?” He started walking toward the cave, and told himself to shut up for a minute, lest Alberich hear him and think that his contact was some sort of madman. “You’re my contact, Billson?” Now he stopped. “I’m... I’m looking for a Dwarf named Alberich. Is he there with you?” She can’t really be there, can she? In answer to his question, she strode up to him, clutching her thick cloak around herself so all he could see was her eyes and her grim, set lips. “Code Name Alberich, thank you very much.” “Wait... you’re Alberich? You? Helga Gimmelson?” “Yes, she is,” said a silvery Elven voice from the rocks behind him.
A Sparky World Stereo Nacht When the sky goes green, Itâ€™s from Doctor Mean When the peas grow blue, Itâ€™s professor Skew Madboys are quite keen To twist light or gene If in the mix brews A world-shaking coup! When the cows can talk Look at Lady Hawk When a couch can run Point to the Earl of Stun Those crazy-brained chalk Up points as they balk At wisdom; their fun? To make science a pun! When the wind brings death With a deep stench breath When water takes lives Cause it turned to knives The priests of Seth, Rising from the depth, Make hope nose dive-Only pain survives... Yet sometimes they call Beauty to stand tall; Joy takes a new flight Cheers rise to new height We smile in their thrall To their name, we brawl For they bring on the kite Rainbows in the night!
Book Review: Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities June Faramore Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead's Cabinet of Curiosities is the sequel, of sorts, to The Thackery T. Lambshead Pocket Guide to Eccentric and Discredited Diseases. I have not had the pleasure of reading this previous book, but will eagerly seek it out in the back corners of every bookshop I encounter after reading about the doctor's always surprising cabinet. This anthology, containing stories by Lev Grossman, Holly Black, Ted Chiang, and many more, offers a unique glimpse into the mind and obsessions of a man who was, by all accounts, a walking mystery. The tone of the collection is made in the introduction, which is a somewhat dry explanation of the doctor's significance in the world and an overview of some of the curiosities waiting beyond its few thousand words. As it goes with many books, I believe I would've enjoyed the introduction more upon a reread of the tome, but there was not enough time to do such a review before the magazine is required at press. Overall, I would recommend this anthology for the coffee table or bathroom shelf, a collection of pages best read in a leisurely manner, savoring the individual descriptions of Dr. Lambshead's trinkets and tracing the illustrations with fingers shaking from some of the more grisly machines. One such is the "Shank of St. Brendan", immortalized in fine detail by Kelly Barnhill's story of its known history and Greg Broadmore's rendering of its segmented body in pen and ink. The tale comes to a surprising revelation after trying to answer the questions of where the followers of Saint Brendan lived and how they came by their long extended lives. I had to walk away from the cabinet for a few minutes, even with the deadline approaching, to wrap my head around this myth. "Dacey’s Patent Automatic Nanny" is a meditation on the trials of a failed inventor. Ted Chiang shows the glory of an inventions rise, and the twisted gropings of an idea’s failure. This tale of robotic care gone wrong is one of the most human stories contained in the Cabinet, and after reading more of Dr. Thackery, one wonders if he learned anything from this object lesson. The life of Dr. Thackery T. Lambshead is threaded through the offerings contained in this paper bound version of his Cabinet. In the section Visits and Departures, we are treated to the culmination of these small insights, the picture of his true nature most pronounced in the observations of his maid. Her mental state when she tries to dirty "The Pea" is a testament to the way Lambshead tested individuals as if they were objects to be studied. The Cabinet is full of stories of failed tests, but none quite so gruesome and haunting as the shifting sermons that interweave in "Relic", by Jeffrey Ford. They center around the fate of the relic that resided in the Cabinet, St. Ifrita’s foot. A sad rumination on the tension of loneliness and the hard decisions that need to be made in life to survive one more day. The other notable Curiosity in the Honoring Lambshead section is the tale of a bear gone civilized, "Shadow of My Nephew by Wells, Charlotte". While Holly Black begins her contribution to the Cabinet in a way that reminded me of a book about a bullfrog I read to my son when he was five, the end is the result of animal raised as human I never wanted to know. I am haunted by her bear. Lev Grossman describes a man turned to machine in his tale of Sir Ranulph Wykeham Rackham. The more all knowing he became, the less human. It is speculated that Lambshead, in his capacity as a doctor of many odd disciplines, was more involved in the creation of this piece in his Cabinet than he was for many others. We can only wonder if the first cyborg could feel the fire that took from us so many other curiosities. The Book of Categories had to be one of these. The outline style form of this history stays
true to the Curiosity and the sometimes overdone focus of the Cabinet on scientific details. One assumes this is done in reverence of Lambsheadâ€™s profession, but at times it does make the reading quite dull. The Book of Categories is anything but dull, however, its description a look into the madness that may have driven Lambshead in the first place. I found the Cabinet an enjoyable read, and implore you to pick of a copy of Dr. Lambshead's Cabinet this holiday season.
Friendly Fire Samantha Warren/Mariyta Halasy The sun remained hidden that morning, buried beneath masses of thick, gray clouds pregnant with threatening droplets of acidic rain. The increase in technological advances during the past century led to the pollution of the skies, a fact that Annabelle Strang detested. As she wandered down the beach, covered basket in hand, she looked up at the roiling darkness and growled. She had left the barracks a half hour earlier, using the excuse of a picnic on the beach to free herself from her comrades. They didn’t believe a word of it, but they didn’t challenge her either. Belvedere and Wilson had been with Strang long enough to trust her with more than just their lives. If she kept a secret, there was a reason. Their narrowed gazes followed her as she picked up the basket she had packed and headed from the room. Now she was almost at her destination, where she was indeed planning to have a picnic, but it wasn’t on the beach. She would be far from the whipping rains, safe and sound with the man she’d always loved. As she approached the mouth of the cave where Aiden Anders was hidden away, she saw a figure sitting in the opening. She waved, a smile stretching her lips wide. He waved back and she picked up her pace. A gust of wind pulled at the cloth covering the basket and she glanced down to secure it. When she looked back, she was close enough to see the man’s face. It was not Anders. Strang dropped the basket to the sand and reached behind her, jerking her pistol from its holster. Before the man could react, she had the barrel trained on him and a deadly glare in her eye. His hands slowly reached toward the sky, eyes darting nervously between her and the cave behind him. His lips moved, but she couldn’t hear what he said. Moving closer, she kept one eye on him while glancing into the cave. A figure was moving in the dark, slowly but surely creeping toward the door. “Anders?” Strang called out, her heart stopping as she waited for an answer. Time slowed, coming to a complete halt as her breath caught in her throat. An eternity seemed to pass and she felt her finger pulling on the trigger, ready to shoot the man she was sure had killed her friend. “Coming, love. I’m still a bit sore, so you need to give me a moment.” Anders’ voice drifted through the cave to her and she took a ragged breath, feeling life once more fill her lungs. Her heart pounded heavily, echoing in her ears. That was the second time in two days that she thought she’d lost him. She would find a way to make him pay for that. “What the hell is going on?” She stared at the man in the mouth of the cave. He hadn’t moved aside from looking between the two people who fought for his life. Smart man, she thought. As Anders reached the man, he put a hand on his shoulder. “Anna, I’d like you to meet Mike. He was my second’s gunner. Found the cave last night. I told him he could stay for awhile. Hope you don’t mind.” Anders flashed his charming grin and Strang frowned, but she holstered her weapon and went back to pick up the basket. She had brought as much food as possible, hoping it would last Anders a few days so she wouldn’t have to come down again too soon. Now she would have to make more trips than she thought. Mike held out his hand to her as she entered the cave, but she ignored it, brushing past him. Anders slid down the cave wall, propping himself up next to a stone. His breath was coming in deep, ragged gasps, as if he was forcing it. She set the basket down next to him and removed the old bandages. The wound was raw, red, and infected, despite her efforts
from the day before. She swore, bringing a laugh from the men. Strang pulled some disinfectant from the basket and began bathing the wound, a painful but necessary process. Anders gritted his teeth and growled, but didn’t fight her. Mike stood over her shoulder until she swore at him and told him to go get some water. He grabbed the small pot she had packed and did as he was told. As soon as he left, Strang turned her eyes on Anders. He held up a hand before she could speak. “Yes, I trust him.” She opened her mouth to say something rude, but all she could do was smile. Anders knew her too well. She put ointment on the wound and wrapped it securely with sterile bandages, then cleaned his nose before helping him to the back of the cave. “How are you feeling?” she asked as she set him gently on the ground. “Like I was stepped on by a dragon.” “That good, huh?” She smiled and leaned over to kiss him, tasting his warm salty lips against hers. She built a small fire, then settled herself next to him and pulled the basket in between her legs. As she began to unpack it, they relived their days at the academy. “You remember that time Benny stole the commandant’s hat,” Anders asked around a mouthful of apple. “Took his dragon right up to the observation tower. Fool would’ve been skewered had the old man been able to get his sword out fast enough.” Strang laughed, remembering the commandant’s beet-red face as he sputtered at them all during an an ‘emergency protocol meeting’. “He was so mad. I thought Benny would be on paddock duty for years after that.” They both fell silent then, remembering Benny. He was always a prankster, trying to get a laugh out of everyone. If you were having a bad day, Benny was the one to hang around with. He would cheer you up in no time. He was also one of the first casualties of the war. He was flying with his squad when they were attacked by the newly-formed Beaters army. Only two survivors made it home. Benny wasn’t among them. Silence filled the cave for several moments as Strang continued unpacking and arranging the loot she’d brought: more bandages, food, blanket, an extra shirt. “Here, try this on.” He did, grunting as he pulled it over his injured chest. It was a little tight, but Strang didn’t mind. She whistled appraisingly, earning a cocky grin from Anders as he puffed out his chest. “You like that, do ya?” “Mmmhmm.” She leaned in to give him another kiss. As their lips met, she heard the scuff of a boot behind them. She jerked back, ready to berate Mike for eavesdropping and being so rude. Mike was at the door, but he wasn’t alone. A shadowed figure held tightly to his arm, pulling it behind his back. Strang could see the barrel of a pistol pressed tightly to the man’s temple. “Sorry to interrupt,” he said. “But we have company.” He stumbled as the intruder shoved him forward. Unable to gain his footing, he tripped and landed heavily on the sandy floor, bumping his head against a rock. Strang had to give it to the man. He didn’t cry out in pain or try to do anything stupid. Maybe Anders was right about him. Strang looked from the fallen man to his captor. She still couldn’t see the person’s face, but she was almost sure it was a female. The demeanor and stance looked familiar and the cut of the clothing was definitely that of a woman. Squinting her eyes, she could just make out the Risers emblem stitched on their chest. Strang looked up, trying to see the woman’s face. Obligingly, she stepped forward into the
light of the fire. A gasp escaped Strang’s lips as she recognized the angular nose and full lips. “So, picnic on the beach, Strang? Well, at least you weren’t lying.” Belvedere’s mouth held a sneer of contempt as her eyes flitted between the three people at her feet. She snorted, the sound coming out as half laugh, half derision. “I always knew you had a thing for him. You never could kill him, even though you claimed to try so many times. You always let him get away. But I never thought you’d stoop so low as to become a traitor.” Strang hung her head, unable to deny the accusation. Anders placed a hand on her back, which offered a bit of comfort. Her brain worked hard, furious, trying to find a way out. She could see none. For a brief moment, she felt like she should regret her actions, but she could not. She would do the same thing time and again if put in the same position. She loved Anders, and she would go to her death for him. “Was it worth it, Annabelle?” Strang looked up as Belvedere said her name, shock seeping into her face. Belvedere had never called her that before. She had always been ‘captain’ to her crew. Belvedere smiled--a wicked, bitter thing. “What? You think you’ll still be my captain after this?” She waved her pistol at Anders. “No, you’ll not be my captain. In fact, I think I’ll be the captain from now on. After I tell them how I found you down here plotting with the enemy, how I fought and, sadly, had to kill you, I think they’ll promote me. That stupid dragon will be mine, all mine.” The sick grin grew, twisting on Belvedere’s face until it became a snarl. She leveled the pistol at Strang. Annabelle knew she had no hope. Mike had passed out from the fall and Anders was too weak to move fast enough. Turning her head, she locked eyes with the man she loved, gripping his hand. As they leaned in to kiss one last time, they heard a pistol fire. Anders shouted, throwing himself on top of Strang. The force of it shoved her backward, her head cracking against a stone. She felt pain blossom through her skull as she looked up. Anders’ face was contorted in anger and he was shouting, but she couldn’t understand what she was saying. She turned her head toward Belvedere and saw only emptiness where the woman had been before. A shadow flickered across the wall to her right, but before she could focus on it, the world went black. Samantha Warren can be found online at her blog: www.samantha-warren.com. All her books are available there.
A Walk in the Country Ginger Jorgental A withering leaf, slighted from its fall the painted last marks of fall. A billowing cloud presents its fair side, the trinity of air, moisture and sun. Fat brown winter geese, silently exuding contentment, stand in the field watching crimson breasted waterfowl, recently paired, fly in tandem over the reeds. Horses in the grassy field, ponies play on graceful legs. The herd bucks heads in the breeze and brushes the air with their tails; A condensed version of spring.
The Puppeteer War A Serial Adventure Novel Gordon Soleil V: Things Get More Complicated Miss Jennifer Stone's Diary Location Unknown – Presumably the Colorado-Kansas border April 6, 1881 – recording date April 8 I came to a few seconds later when another explosion rocked the ship. Looking around to get my bearings, I found I was still in the hold, in front of the mechanical man and the strange cylinders. As I started to get up, I noticed that the mechanical man was starting to tip over. Scrambling out of the way and behind a crate, I watched it hit the ground with a clang that seemed to go on forever. I stared at the mechanical man to see if it was going to get up or do anything, while outside people ran around, shouting about getting to battle stations. A minute or so later, I realized the mechanical man wasn't going to move or anything, so I decided to look around the room and see if there was anything more I could use to defend myself than the poker. Everything in the room was either too unwieldy for me to use, or too odd-looking to be thought of as a weapon. One of the boxes had things resembling thin tubes with electrical wiring around them; maybe they're going to try to set up an electrical station somewhere. I was just about to head out of the room and take my chances looking for Father when I ran into the mechanical man, stubbing my toe on its side. Whimpering and hopping a little to relieve the pain, I looked around to see that I'd pressed some sort of button on its side. It started humming softly as something started up inside it...and then it got up and looked directly at me. “Language pack loaded: English. All systems functioning normally. What is your designation?” I stared at it for a few seconds before saying, “If y-you mean my name, it's Jennifer Stone.” “Acknowledged, Jennifer Stone.” It turned its body to face me. “Do you have instructions?” I stopped at that. “Um, do you have to obey me?” “This unit is to obey all instructions given to it by its supervisor. Do you have more instructions?” My mind went blank for a second as the implications of this hit me. A flurry of options flitted through my mind: find the escape boats, get that nice Mr. Willis out of here, start destroying things while I escaped. Then, a thought hit me. I took a deep breath. “We're going to go rescue my father. Can you protect me while I look for him?” “Search and rescue. Acknowledged. Do we start now?” Another explosion rocked the ship, which helped me come to a decision quite rapidly. “Yes, of course. As quick as we can.” “Acknowledged.” He turned, looking around the room. Finding the door, he grabbed the handle and, after a second of effort, tore it off its hinges. He stomped out of the room, and I ran after him. It wasn't easy. He was much faster than you would expect a seven-foot-tall metal man to
be, and tended not to see when people got in his way. I had to walk over quite a few who'd been running around trying to keep the ship working when they'd been stepped on. The fact that I apologized to them as I was stepping over (and in the case of one particularly fat deckhand, on) them didn't help my rate of travel. We managed to get to the crew deck without encountering much resistance, mostly because everyone was busy trying to shoot at the militiamen below. That changed as soon as we started approaching the captain's quarters, where six of Patterson's men were guarding the door. They gaped for a second before pulling their guns and starting to fire. The shots caromed off the mechanical man's armor plating, hitting two of them and making the rest dive for cover. As I watched from behind a misplaced crate of ammunition, the mechanical man punched two of them so hard they flew down the hall, crashing into a heap in the end of the hallway. One of the others decided to try to punch him, and was hammered into the ground for his trouble. The last, one of the skinny ones that had leered at me on the way to the ship, dodged around the mechanical man and made a grab for me. I tried to get away, but I tripped over a section of pipe that had fallen from the ceiling, which delayed me just enough for him to grab me and whirl around to face my protector. “Okay, you overgrown boiler, you take one step closer and the girl gets it!” he yelled, his gun pressed to my temple. The mechanical man stopped as he was approaching the two of us, trying to decide what to do. The man began backing away, muttering “This is just too damn strange. You 'n me, we're both going down and getting the hell off this thing and to hell with the revolution and the Confederacy and all of it!” My mind raced as he backed the two of us away from the mechanical man, trying desperately to come up with a way to get away from this maniac. Unfortunately, all the adventure novels I'd read up to this point tended to show the heroine either hitting her captor ineffectually on the chest or passively waiting for the male hero to rescue her. I doubted this would be a very effective strategy. Then I remembered something that had happened a year ago, during the plowing season. I'd been dragged into running the plow since Andy had the ague and Father was in town that day negotiating for extra seeds from the general store. The heat must have gotten to me, because I fainted and woke up in my bed around four or so. Father said he'd seen me collapse just as he was approaching the farmstead, and had to haul me into the house. He made a joke about how heavy I was, asking if I was sewing rocks into my skirts. I'd harrumphed at him at the time, but the incident gave me an idea. It might not work, but... I slumped in his arms, my legs going limp as I rested all my wait on him. He yelped as I slid out of his grip, falling to the floor. The mechanical man was on him in a moment, his fist thudding into the man's gut, sending him flying to the opposite end of the ship. Turning to me, he said, “Are you in working order, Jennifer Stone?” I nodded, slowly picking myself up off the ground. “Y-yes, I'm fine...” Dusting myself off, I put my hand on the latch of the door the men were guarding, unaware of what exactly was behind it. Transcript – Personal Audio Diary of Zechariah McCannon Location Unknown – Colorado April 6, 1881 [sound of gunfire being exchanged. In the background, the deep booming of cannon fire can be heard]
McCannon: Oh, this gets better and better, don't it? Gotta get to the top level, find Patterson and get the hell out of he--oh no you don't! [the sound of a pistol shot, and a scream, followed by the gunfire's silence.] Teach you to go for the speakin' tube while someone's shootin' at you. Now then...okay, two floors up and down the hall... [the sound of running feet, with the sound of the cannon in the background fading somewhat. After a few seconds, the meaty sound of what is presumably a body hitting a wall can be heard, followed by a low groaning] McCannon: Okay, what the hell did that? [sound of running, with a young woman's sobs being heard at the end of it] McCannon: Uh. Afternoon, Miss, what're you doi-- oh God, is that Jim Stone? Young Woman: Yes, it is. [continues sobbing] McCannon: Oh. And, uh...you'd be? Young Woman: Jennifer Stone... McCannon: Oh. [muffled explosion, presumably a shell hitting the airship] Listen, we have to get going, or we're going t-Stone: Let me go! Mechanical-Sounding Voice: Let go of Jennifer Stone. [sounds of struggle, including what sounds like metal feet clanking against a deck] Stone: Wait, no! Stop it! Don't hurt him! Mechanical-Sounding Voice: Acknowledged. Standing down. McCannon: ...okay, alright. Nothin' about this job's been normal, so why not throw in a big metal man? [sighs] Look...I know what happened to your father is...hard to think about, but we gotta get going. [sound of a muffled explosion in the distance] I mean...I saw what a piece of work Patterson was, and from the looks of it, he died fighting the crazy little bas--uh, cuss to the end. I just took some papers that'll help my boss take him and this whole operation down, and-Stone: My father is dead! I don't care about any organizations or Confederacies or any of the stuff you men keep talking about! [sound of a slap]
McCannon: Get a hold of yourself! Yes, he's dead! Do you think he'd want you to die too?! Stone: ...no... McCannon: Then come on and let's get out of here! Stone: [sniffle] Alright... [sounds of three people running on metal, one of whom is apparently wearing metal boots, for a few minutes. The sounds of battle intensify.] McCannon: [muttering] ...damn my chivalrous hide, she's just gonna slow me down. Maybe I can get her and that metal man to guard a lifeboat while I blow the guns... [The booming of the cannon enters the foreground as the three of them enter the gun deck. McCannon starts to say something, but is cut off by what sounds like the tap of a cane on the metal deck] British-sounding Male Voice: Mr. McCannon, I can't help but think your recent behavior means you're not wholeheartedly committed to the cause. Theft of papers, assault on a superior officer, helping to break a...guest out of her quarters, and, judging by your appearance here, attempted sabotage. One might think you're working for someone else. McCannon: Smith...I knew I should've hit you harder. Alistair Smith: Indeed. [sound of what is apparently a sword-stick being unsheathed] And unfortunately, that's a mistake you shan't be making again. Who will walk away from the confrontation between Smith and McCannon? What is the purpose and origin of the Mechanical Man? Does he have a rocket punch?! These answers and more will be answered in future chapters of The Puppeteer War, serialized exclusively in Steampunk Adventures!
ruins Ginger Jorgental nestled beside long collapsed ruins a path, bereft with mossy rock, slopes down into a meeting spot, fountain rebounding silence off rocks in bluntly stilted light. Silent air, cool as stones, fine as limbs that creek above, awaits her garlanded heads. Moon gray stone remembers well, dry to the bone and creviced, still, her deep bowl burgeoning with leaves. Statue lingers unkempt, it sees pallid urn emptying air into ground.
A Flight of Dwarfs (Part II of II) CJ Casey/Bovis Rex Billson had been through enough training to not jump as soon as he heard the Elf behind him, but he did tense up, putting every muscle on alert. At least he had thought to grab the throwing axe before he left the airship. He patted his hip where he had stashed it, and realized that he could barely feel it under his harness and the extra seat that was strapped to his side. Alright, he thought. Plan 'B.' Or are we on Plan 'E' by now? “What are you doing here?” she said to the Elf. “Oh, you know exactly why I’m here. This has been frightfully easy,” the Elf said, walking toward him with even more of the typical Elven cocky swagger that could set any selfrespecting Dwarf on edge. “Your spy wasn't that hard to follow, Dwarf. She didn't seem too concerned about avoiding us.” “She's my ex-girlfriend,” Billson said. “She's not a spy,” “Yes I am,” Helga said. “Sshh,” Billson said. “Don't lie just to protect the guy, okay? That's noble of you and all, but not necessary right now.” “Noble? Are you serious?” She laughed at him and reminded him of exactly why he had wanted to break up with her in the first place. “I'm the 'Alberich' that you're looking for, Billson.” “Mmm hmm,” Billson said. “Code X?” “Excuse me?” “You heard him,” the Elf said. “Give him the code word.” Billson looked over at the Elf. He looked like a Ranger, complete with a short bow, a crossbow, and a couple long daggers. He was camouflaged with the Badlands pretty well, too. His cloak was a mottled gray that didn't really look like it was any color at all, and the bottom part of his face was covered in soot and dust. And on top of it all, he wore the typical half-knowing, half-smirking Elven grin that all of them seemed to love, especially when they were talking to a Dwarf. Billson was sure that most of the problems between the Fiefdom and the Freehold could be traced to that infuriating grin. “I'm not going to say it in front of him, Billson. Come on.” “How will I know you're who you claim to be?” “Deal with it.” Billson walked a little closer to Helga, almost touching, but he stopped when he caught the Elf's open smirk out of the corner of his eyes. “You should learn to trust each other,” the Elf said, musically. “You are going to be spending quite a bit of time together. Although I must say that this reunion between master and employee is much more entertaining than I'd expected.” Billson was seriously regretting that his handaxe was buried beneath his harness. And of course, they were on the one part of Thorin's Plateau that didn't have a rock covering, or even a scattering of scree and pebbles. Trees? Of course not. Even if an acorn had been unlucky enough to try to grow here, every last fragment of wood would have been scoured away by the first winter storm. Then he heard a scraping and dragging sound behind him, and he knew what he was going to do. “What are you waiting for, Elf?” he asked, sliding up to Helga as close as he could. “All in good time, my friend Billson. All in...”
For a second, the Elf's smile slipped, something that Billson had never seen in his years of dealing with them. “Billson? It just dawned on me who you are. Billson.” Billson was worried on at least three levels. Of course, he was famous to a point in the Freehold, but not for what his real job was, or at least he really hoped that he wasn't. But something in the Elf's eyes really worried him. If he hadn't already wanted to leave, that would have made up his mind. “Thanks for blowing my cover, Helga,” he muttered. Then, to the Elf, he said, “I hope you're not waiting for reinforcements, Elf. There's a storm rolling in.” “Do you really think such petty things as storms and the vicissitudes of nature bother us, Dwarf?” “Yes.” He started edging back. He heard the dragging noise behind him again, and knew that they only had maybe a minute before things got to be seriously interesting. “It should bother you,” Billson said, edging back and mentally willing Helga to follow him. Thank whatever Gods looked favorably upon Dwarvenkind, she did. “I mean, Dwarfs are used to this kind of thing, especially if we grew up hiking and climbing here. But the Badlands are nothing like your average Elven forest, with singing unicorns and happy bumblebees.” “That is really what you think the noble Fiefdom is like?” he said, laughing. “It's not like that at all, Billson,” Helga whispered, but he shushed her. “I mean...” and thank the Dwarf Gods again, a lightning bolt cracked on the far side of the plateau, and he saw the Elf's smile slip along with it. “You may think you know what a storm is like, but until you've weathered one of these babies, you haven't really lived.” There was another rumble in the distance, and the Elf's smile didn't come back. Billson knew that the same forces that destroyed their navigational tools and meters and communication systems played hell with some of the innate abilities of the Elves, and they spent as little time here as they could. Billson actually couldn't really fault them on that, since he imagined it would be like just taking the airship blind across the continent, or delving into a mine without being able to sense where the ore deposits and exits were, but he still didn't mind milking it for all it was worth. If there really were reinforcements on their way (and he was pretty sure that there were) he knew that they were probably moving as slowly and as carefully as they could. And as for dealing with this one, something that Billson could never even think of getting away with, just might... Lightning struck again, closer this time, and he grabbed Helga's elbow and ran. He heard the Elf sliding and shuffling after them, but they had taken him by surprise and were around the outcropping and to the landing site with a couple of seconds to spare. “You came down on that?” she said, eying the line that seemed to disappear overhead. “Yes. Grab it,” he said, shoving the rope into her hands and the rock into the Elf's face. He didn't even groan before he hit the ground. “You really are surprising me, Billson,” she said, looking at the bloodied (yet still smirking) face at their feet. “The whole time we were together I thought you were a desk flunky for Lord Greyson.” “Well... I did do a lot of desk-work.” Don't ask what kind, not now. I'll figure out what to tell you, and what you know, once we're safe. “Besides,” he said, strapping her into the seat at his side in what he really hoped was the correct way, “he ran into the rock. That was mostly him.” “You're not going to leave him down here, are you?” “What else can we... oh no.” It took them twice as long to make it to the deck of the Nibelung, and going by the looks
on the faces of the crew, they were none too pleased about how heavy they had been. Even after Helga told them who the bloody, screaming, barely-conscious Elf was, Captain Gruffin had given Billson a look that said, in no uncertain terms, that they would be talking once everything settled down again. When they'd first left the ground, carrying the Elf with them really hadn't seen like that big of a deal. Sean had used more than enough rope to tie him to the harness, and it was a simple matter of wrapping a few loops around the guy to keep him safe on their laps. Even though he was an Elf, Billson didn't want to drop him on their way up. (Or at least, he didn't think that he should.) Even after he yanked on the signal rope and felt the slack go away, he felt pretty proud of himself. After all, not only had he successfully made contact with their spy and rescued him... her... he had a prisoner of war as well. That was definitely going to count for something once they got back to Lord Greyson's offices. He and Helga didn’t say a word while they were getting ready to leave, and for a brief, shining moment, Billson thought that they would keep things completely professional for the rest of the trip back to the Freehold. It was such a nice, pleasant thought that he held onto it as long as he could, perhaps even tighter than he was gripping the harness. In theory, the trip back up couldn’t be as bad as the trip down had been. He’d already at least confronted the heights (if not conquered them) and he knew what to expect. Somewhat. They sure seemed to be going a lot slower, though. It wasn’t until the rope shuddered, and then dropped down half a meter, that he realized what was going on. "Are you sure this is safe?” Helga asked. "Of course it it,” he snapped. “I came down on it just fine.” “By yourself, though, right?” The rope shuddered again, then started cranking them up even faster than before. Not much faster. In fact, ‘faster’ was only technically correct, since he still thought they were going painfully slow. Within a second or three, he went from ‘oh, I’ve done this before, so I’ll be just fine’ to ‘holy crapbuckets I’m about to go up again... and I don’t think this harness was set for three people.’ Desperately, he tried to change the subject. “Why didn’t you ever tell me you were Alberich?” “I was told not to,” she said, sounding a little miffed at the question. “My contact said that under no circumstances was I to let anyone know that I was on this mission, so I didn’t.” That still wasn’t a good enough answer for Billson, but he didn’t want to sound too hurt, either. Not right now. “You still could have let your boyfriend know. When you left...” “He said ‘no one'. I follow my orders. Besides, how was I supposed to know that you were the head of the Secret Eye? Did you ever tell me that?” “Well... umm, I couldn’t very well tell you that, of course.” “Why not?” He couldn’t see all of her face from this angle but he could tell that she was smirking. “Well, because I was, I was...” “You were told to tell no one what your job was, right?” I can’t let her win this one, not now, he thought. “And anyway, I’m not the head. Lord Greyson is. I just work for him. There are a few of us, too, not just me.” “Ahh. So it’s okay for you to keep a secret from me, but not for me to keep one from you?” “That’s not what I meant! And if I’d known that you were Alberich, I never would have sent you!” The air was already getting thinner but he couldn’t suck those words back into his mouth, no matter how hard he tried. He didn’t think it was right to apologize either, since he had done nothing wrong, and he couldn’t explain, either, since there really wasn’t anything to explain.
He just hung there from the harness, trying to be okay with looking down at the plateau (since that meant not looking at Helga) and waited for her to say something. And she was about to do just that when the Elf started stirring and twitching on their laps. “Billson?” Helga said. “He’s waking up. How much further do we have to go?” Billson craned his neck up. His scream was probably (hopefully) lost in the wind that was blowing them around like a deranged pendulum. At least he could see the airship, though. It was a lot smaller than he thought it should have been, but he could at least see it, now. “I don’t know. It only took me ten minutes to get down, and we look like we’re more than halfway up, but it’s taken us ten minutes already, and plus...” “Billson, he’s waking up! Shut up, okay? What do we do?” One tiny, bleary, blooded eye slowly cracked open. Before the Elf could so much as open his mouth, Billson yelped and punched him straight in the face. Later, he wasn’t sure if he thought that this was supposed to knock him back out, but whatever he had intended, it had done nothing but wake him right back up. “Dwarf?” he said, sounding drunk or drugged or dying. “Dwarf, where are we?” “Umm...” Billson hunted around for an answer, but before he could say anything, the Elf looked down. About a second later, he was treated to a good, long demonstration of how his own fear of heights probably looked to other people. “Get me down!” he yelled, jerking on the harness. Helga held onto his shoulders as best as he could, but she had one arm mostly wrapped around Billson and could only do so much. The Elf jerked again and the harness suddenly stopped moving upwards. All three of them were deathly quiet. Billson could tell that they were close enough to the airship to smell the gasbags but he still couldn’t see much from his position. And he couldn’t hear anything from the deck, either, though he could feel the rope stretching and straining overhead. “Elf,” Billson said, speaking as quietly as he could in the wind. “Calanius,” the Elf muttered, apparently in hopes that if the Dwarf knew his name, everything would be better. Billson couldn’t think of any other reason for him to introduce himself right at that moment. “Fine. Calanius, we’re almost on the ship. Okay? Just stay calm and we’ll be there, okay?” “I want you to get me down. Now.” “It’s a long way down,” Helga said, absolutely not helping the situation at all. “Calanius, be calm for another two minutes and we’ll be safe, okay? Just two minutes.” The Elf started to struggle again. He was weaker now, but he still stretched and pulled at the rope enough to make Billson think that it was going to part any minute. “Elf, please! You’ll kill us all.” “Exactly,” Sean said next to them. “That harness isn’t rated for three people.” Billson whipped his head around, twisting the line almost too far. Sean was dangling next to them, held up by a lasso of sorts caught under his armpits and through his crotch. His broken arm was strapped up under his coat but he still had one arm free. “Captain’s pissed off at you, Billson. I came down to take Alberich. Between you and me, once you get the Elf on board...” “Calanius,” the Elf said. “He’s very proud of his name,” Billson said to Sean. “Once you get your guest on board,” Sean said, “you may want to jump back over the side. You’ll be safer.” “I outrank your boss on the ground.”
“How did I know that you were going to say that?” Helga said. “And how is it that you were able to come down with a broken arm?” Billson asked. “No choice, really. Someone had to save you guys before the line snapped. And I really shouldn’t be doing this, either. It would be way too easy, slipping and dropping whatever I was holding on to. I mean, I would still hold on, of course.” Sean worked quickly, and a minute later, he had the Elf strapped to his side. It was easier for the little Dwarf to unstrap him from the harness, and Calanius was apparently mollified enough by the experience of being loose and attached to nothing nearly a kilometer over the ground to do nothing but grab where he was supposed to grab. A few minutes later, the bosun’s chair finally started moving again. And a few minutes after that, Billson found himself seriously considering Sean’s advice. “You nearly crashed my ship, Billson,” Gruffin said to him. It was the first Billson heard from the Captain since they’d locked Calanius the Elf inside the supply locker. That had been almost ten minutes ago. “Major Billson, I might remind...” Gruffin spun around on him, and Billson was glad that he still had the handaxe strapped to his side. “I’ll call you ‘Major’ on the ground, but on my ship, you’re whatever I say you are. You nearly crashed us, Billson. That harness wasn’t made for three. The windlass cranking your asses up here was definitely not made for three. In fact, I wasn’t sure it would hold long enough to get you guys up here once the wind started blowing you and us around. You’re damn lucky it didn’t rip off the deck and fall on your head. As it is, Froderick is going to be working all night to get that ready for our water run tomorrow.” “I’m sorry... Captain Gruffin. I just...” didn’t want the Elf to go back to his people knowing who and what I was... “I didn’t want to leave a potentially valuable prisoner behind.” “I understand he’s valuable,” he said. “But so is this airship. You should have felt how it was rocking, Billson, especially once the wind picked up. The BAFT hitting the deck had nothing on it.” He sucked on his pipe a little more, and then went to offer it to Billson. At the last second, he pulled it back and knocked the coals out of it. “You should have left him. Or if you couldn’t leave him, sent him and the spy up. Or just the spy.” “I was worried that we didn’t have enough time. That you’d have to take off and leave me there.” “Reasonable. Honestly, we only had another five minutes that we could stay at that spot. We very well might have had to circle around. But we would have got you. You know that.” Billson opened his mouth to apologize again, but Gruffin cut him off. “Enough of this, okay? We’re heading back, so let’s put that behind us.” “You said that we’re stopping for water?” “Yes, yes, we have to. Lake Ironson, just inside safe territory. We lost a couple of barrels when we took that spill.” He pointed at a map of the Freehold and the Badlands that covered his packing crate desk. “Honestly, we have one barrel left, which is enough for us to make it back, if we catch all the right winds and don’t have to make a detour for any reason.” He left his finger on a spot just on the other side of the Badlands and Billson got his meaning. “You mean, if they pursue us and we have to...” “Exactly. We have enough... with the spy and the prisoner to consider... to last two days exactly.” Billson thought about it, and thought especially about how the Elf had acted when they were facing off on Thorin’s Plateau. “They’ll be after us. I think the Elf was just lucky and found us when he did, but I saw the look on his face. They want her.”
“I expected as much. That’s why we’re going to put down someplace safe.” “It wouldn’t be the first time that the Elves crossed into our territory,” Billson said, wishing he had a chair. “Really?” Gruffin had a twisted smile on his face. “I thought that the official position was ‘Neither Freehold nor Fiefdom have ever encroached on one another’s space, keeping the possibility of open warfare to a minimum.’” “That was the first thing I ever wrote for the Secret Eye,” Billson said. “I was interning then.” Gruffin suddenly rolled the map up and tossed it off of his desk. “Have you debriefed her yet? We should at least have an idea of what she knows.” “Do you want me to get her?” Gruffin nodded to the door. It took Billson a few seconds to convince himself to move around again (he still felt like he was going to fall over the side of the ship any second, never mind that he was well inside the gondola) but he finally was able to do it. He opened the door and motioned to Erick, who was mending a large tarp next to the cabin door. And while he was waiting, he tried not to think about whom he was waiting for. That night, he lay in his bunk and thought about the debriefing. For the most part, it had gone better than he’d thought it would. Helga... ‘Alberich’... only made them wait for a few minutes, and when she did show up, it looked like she’d found the washroom on-board, or at least what passed for one. He almost said something about how they were short of water as it was, and it was so like a woman to insist on bathing before doing her duty, but (1) he was pretty sure that if he had been hiding in the Badlands for a week, he would still be scrubbing himself silly, and (2) sooner or later, she would find him at the railing and take advantage of his vertigo. For all of the trouble that they had gone through to get her, the information she had brought back didn’t seem all that bad. Oh, he was sure that he would get more, once they got back on the ground and into a secure office, but some of the things that they had been worried about seemed to be complete non-issues. Yes, they were working on a new weapon system, a way to mass-produce their enchanted bows, maybe even in a way that wouldn’t violate the terms of their treaty with the Freehold. But on the other hand, the Elven Rangers were the only ones who could use them effectively, and Billson’s people had suspected for some time that they didn’t quite have the numbers that they liked to say they did. Not even close, really. And the only other bit of interest that she brought back was news that the Fiefdom had indeed established a small colony in the Kobold Ranges, but that was far enough away from either of their countries for him not to be too concerned about it. He couldn’t quite see a bunch of soldiers sitting in bat-choked caves as a threat. Something to take notice of, of course, but not a threat. He’d also been worried that Gruffin would lecture him again in front of her, but he was nothing, if not civil and polite. Even when Helga had tried to blame the entire incident of the Elf prisoner on Billson (which was not how he remembered it at all) the Captain didn’t say anything. He’d asked a few questions, jotted down a couple of notes (especially about the colony in the north), and then congratulated her on her mission. A moment after that, he took his leave of them. Billson hoped that they would now, finally, be able to talk about what had happened, but she turned and followed the Captain. “Can I... can we talk for a minute?” he asked. She turned around. She definitely looked less bedraggled and abused than she had when they’d met on the Plateau, but she still wore a distant, preoccupied look. He thought that if he waved his hands at her, she wouldn’t notice. “Not right now, Billson. Maybe when we’re off the airship, but not right now.”
“Why not?” “A lot of reasons, really. But...” “Listen, I didn’t know that you were Alberich, okay? I would never have sent you had I known that.” “That’s reason number one. But...” “And I’m sorry about anything I might have said when we met again, okay?” “Billson, I have to go look in on Calanius, okay?” He stared at her for a second, words melting on his tongue. “The prisoner?” “Yes. You hurt him pretty bad. Your navigator looked at him and said that he was going to be okay, but I still have to make sure.” He ran after her toward the line locker. “But he was going to kidnap you, Helga. And me. Do you realize what they would have done to us had they brought us back to the Fiefdom?” “I realize that. Do you? That place looks nothing like what you see behind your desk.” He stopped. He really wasn’t sure what to say next, so he let her go on. “Besides, Billson, I’m not mad at what you did. Had I known you were running for that rock, I would have done the same thing. Twice. Maybe even a third time for personal reasons... today was not the first time that I’d met our friend. But he’s hurt, he’s in our custody, and since I don’t have anything else to do, I might as well make sure that he’s still alive by the time we get him home.” He didn’t have anything to say to that, either, so he let her go. The night passed uneventfully. Everyone in the crew was talking about their unexpected guest, and he almost popped in once to see him, but he had had enough of the guy during their journey up to the airship. A few of the archers even congratulated him on bringing a prisoner back, but he didn’t pay any attention to them. He really only wanted to talk to Helga, but of course, she was otherwise occupied. And when she finally left the line locker, she all but ignored him on the way to the tiny corner of the bunk room that they’d given her. Of course, as the Captain explained to him, the only space that they could use as a cell was the line locker, so Billson was just going to have to drag a bunk out to the deck and sleep there. But they’d somehow found a place for Helga. Somehow. Billson made note of the situation and was pretty sure that he was going to let their superiors know, once they were safe on the ground again. As it was, he was a little upset at Helga for spending so much time with the prisoner, especially since she insisted on having the door shut. Of course, he didn’t think they were up to anything bizarre, dirty, or illegal in both of their countries, but it did seem kind of strange that a spy, fresh off of her mission to hostile enemy territory, felt a need to sequester herself with the very person who’d been charged with kidnapping, and maybe even killing her. He had planned on taking a few days off after this mission, but now it was looking like he was going to have to check up on her, and checking up on his own men was never something that he enjoyed doing. But even she had to admit that it was kind of strange. Even stranger, he was able to get some sleep that night, despite the travel stress and worries about Helga (no jealousy, though... I will not be jealous!) and having to stretch out on top of a blanket on the deck. The crew had been expecting one of the famous Badlands storms to break ever since pulling him up, but they’d been disappointed. Or not disappointed... Billson wasn’t quite sure what one felt when you planned for the worst and then it didn’t happen. Whatever it was that he felt, he had braced himself for a restless night cuddled up in the lee of the gondola and then been surprised to wake up seven hours later just before the airship made their descent. They still had at least another hour before they were at the lake. Here, thankfully over the
Badlands, and very nearly over their own territory, the beautiful rocky hills and blue skies seemed to settle him down. Maybe it was because he’d been ‘underway’ for a few days, maybe it was because they were close to home, but he felt a lot better about being in the air. He wasn’t planning on tap-dancing on the rails or anything, but perhaps after dangling a kilometer below the ship in the middle of a good twenty-knot wind with a struggling Elf tied to his lap, just seeing how far they were over the ground didn’t seem quite so bad. Right now, the sun seemed to bring out the best in the landscape, the wind wasn’t blowing too much, and he was almost completely alone on deck. Only Erick was up, and he was busy working at the fantail of the ship, adjusting the shiny plates that had something or other to do with how the craft was navigated, as far as Billson knew. He was so engrossed in what he was doing that he nearly jumped over the side when Billson came up to him. “Sorry, didn’t mean to startle you. Just saying ‘good morning.’” “That’s fine... Major Billson. Just fine.” He stood with his back against the plates, nervously twitching his hands like he had to get back to work, and in a hurry. In one of his hands was a scrap of paper, probably covered with his steering orders. Since Billson was feeling pretty damn good this morning, he wanted the Dwarf to show him exactly what he was doing, but he also was conscious that he might be getting in the guy’s way. So with a nod and a handshake, he turned and walked back to the front of the ship, where Helga was just coming out of the bunk-rooms. “Good morning,” he said, politely. She stared at him a moment, then ran forward, throwing her arms around him. “Bills, can you forgive me?” He returned her hug and then held her at arm’s length. After all, he was on duty still, until the end of this mission at least, and he was still a little upset about everything. “You were just doing your job, Helga. Really.” “I know, but I still should have gotten word to you. Somehow.” “Well... you were doing exactly what you were told to do. I can’t be too upset about that.” She started to say something else but the Captain came out of his cabin, looking like he was in a hurry. He shouted up to the lines and the other two linesmen came out from wherever they’d hidden themselves. “Are we there already, Captain?” “Close enough,” he said, already not really paying attention to him. A minute later, the archers ran to their positions, and he and Helga were alone on deck again. “Seriously, Billson. I promise I’ll let you know if I do anything like this again, okay?” “Helga, really, don’t worry about it. At least nothing happened to you, okay?” That was when the first arrow hit. The airship took a sudden dive down, but Billson was too busy digging the arrow out of Helga’s shirt. By some strange quirk, it had merely pinned her against the wooden bulkhead, just scratching her arm. But he gouged her again pulling it out, and this time she screamed a little. Before she could yell at him, though, he grabbed her arm... the non-bloody one... and pushed her back into the bunk room. He could still hear her screaming after he closed the door, but he had other things to worry about. “What’s going on?” he yelled at the Captain, once he tracked him down. “What do you think?” he said, after another two arrows thunked into the gondola. “This ain’t hail, you know.” “I know, but... who’s attacking us.” “A dragon with a crossbow.” He pulled a lever and a few shields slid up, protecting the bottom part of the gasbag. The airship took another dive down, but the linesmen got it mostly stabilized.
“You’re joking, Gruffin.” “How perceptive. Who do you THINK is attacking us?” “But... but how? How can they follow us?” “They’re on the ground. In fact, I’m pretty sure that they’re right about where we want to go.” “They’re hitting us from the ground?” “Longbows, Billson. Come on, I thought you worked in intelligence. Please tell me you have a little of it.” Abruptly, Gruffin shot his hand out and knocked one of the arrows away from them. “They’re not seriously attacking us, Billson. They’re too far away to do much but scratch up our sides and maybe, maybe break our equipment. They’re just trying to get our attention.” True to Gruffin’s guess, they heard a shout from below. They were only cruising a halfkilometer or so over the ground, but the Elf was most likely enhancing his voice. They were extremely limited in what kind of magic they were allowed to do over on this side of the Badlands (at least, what kind of magic they could do, openly, without Lord Greyson complaining to their Prince) but this kind of a parlour trick wasn’t anything that was going to get them in trouble. “Attention, Dwarfs!” the loud, silvery, snarky voice boomed from below. “We know where you’re going. We know what you’re doing. We know that you know you’re not supposed to be carrying what you’re carrying.” “Do you see what you started, Billson?” Gruffin said, though he didn’t look as mad as he sounded. “Do you honestly think that they wouldn’t have come after us if I hadn’t grabbed the Elf?” “No. But now they have a convenient excuse, one that they might even be able to legally...” “We won’t debate this, Dwarfs,” the voice boomed again. “We will give you fifteen minutes. If it doesn’t look like you’re about to return what belongs to us, you and your entire crew will pay.” The voice giggled, and then abruptly said, “I won’t wait for your response. Even if we could hear you, we wouldn’t be interested.” “How did they know we were here?” Billson said. “That’s what I want to know." Gruffin had a pensive look on his face but for once this morning, he didn’t look like he was about to rip Billson’s head off. “Well, they probably knew that we were heading back here. But the exact location...” He peered through his telescope at Lake Ironson, just coming into view, and cursed. “Yup, there’s a bunch of them over there.” “Well... we don’t have to go down, do we? You said it was just a good idea, right?” Erick ran up to them, looking even more nervous and edgy than he had in the morning. “Damage report, Erick?” the Captain asked. “Well... besides the scratches that you see... they got our barrel.” Gruffin stopped and slowly, slowly turned around. “Our last barrel?” “Yes, sir. Fluke shot.” “Could the arrow have pierced it, Captain?” Billson asked. After seeing Gruffin just knock one out of the way, he didn’t think that they would do all that much damage. “It’s possible,” he said. “Unlikely as Hell, but possible.” The door to the bunk-room opened and Helga walked out with a helmet wedged on her head and a crossbow cradled in her elbow. “They still there?” “Go back inside,” Billson said, in a tone that said he didn’t expect to be disobeyed. She
disobeyed it, of course, and looked over to the Captain. “No,” Gruffin said. “But we have to touch down, now. We have to.” He led them around the gondola to the far side, where the barrel sat on its side, still leaking a little water. Someone had rolled it over in an attempt to keep most of the water inside, but it didn’t look like it had done much good. The arrow was still wedged in the cracks between the staves, the back end and the fletching nearly bent in half. “They got us good,” Gruffin said again, and said something that shocked Billson to the bones, even considering that the Dwarf was a sailor. He kicked the barrel and then looked out into the sky. “Billson,” he said finally. “I think we might have to give him up.” “We can’t, sir.” Before Gruffin could yell at him again, he backpedaled. “If at all possible, we need to keep him. Lord Greyson is going to want to talk to him, and he knows... I’m pretty sure he knows things about our operations that we can’t let him know. We have to take him back.” “We have to touch down, Billson. We need water. We could use some food, too, and we can take care of that down there as well. Billson...” And here, he looked like the Dwarf who had been friends with Billson for years, and not the guy who had been lecturing him up, down, and sideways since he’d embarked. “I wish there was a way. But... well, if we go back up, they won’t be able to do anything to us, but they can keep us from restocking.” “Last Pass, too, Captain,” Erick said. “He’s right. When we go over Last Pass, we’ll be close enough for them to attack us. Billson...” “Why is this arrow bent in back?” Helga suddenly asked. Gruffin looked at where she was pointing and snorted. “Probably because it slammed into that water barrel. Arrows break all the time.” “Yes, but not like this. If they break, they’ll break at the head, when they hit. Not at the end. That looks like someone was pushing on it.” Gruffin crouched down and took a better look. “Billson?” he asked, in a strange voice. “Yes, Captain?” “You were first on deck this morning, right? I saw you moving around even before I was out.” “Not first. Well, Erick was here, but he was on duty.” “So he was in the lines?” “No, he was at the fantail, steering.” Gruffin stood up. “What do you mean, steering?” “You know, those plates that you steer with? Those shiny ones?” “Billson, we steer up by the gasbag, not on deck. Let me ask you again. What did you see on deck?” Billson had never heard the Captain sound quite so serious, or deadly, and for the first time, he was actually worried about what was going to happen to him. “Well... I thought you steered with them. I saw the linesmen play with them when we were fighting that lizard.” “Grab him,” Gruffin said to Froderick, and before Billson had a chance to duck, the Dwarf threw his arms around Erick and pushed him to the deck. “Captain! I didn’t do anything!” he yelled. “Who were you signaling, Erick?” “I... it wasn’t me! I didn’t...” Gruffin kicked him in the ribs until he shut up.
“He wasn’t steering, Gruffin?” Billson asked. “No, those are signaling plates. We lower them whenever we have to do any fancy maneuvers, but only because they can throw us off.” “Captain,” Erick tried again, but this time, Helga kicked him. Gruffin crouched down next to him and spoke in a deadly calm, even voice. “Erick, you know the penalties for mutiny. You know what I can legally do to you, right?” Erick nodded, eyes wide open. “Give me a good reason... a damn good reason why I shouldn’t throw your ass over the side of my ship.” Helga crouched down next to the two of them. “I can give you a good reason why you should, Captain.” Lake Ironson wasn’t the only lake that they could restock at. It was definitely the most convenient, but a few kilometers away was another spot where they were at least able to fill up their empty barrels. It was rough going for a few hours, since the Captain didn’t feel right setting the airship down, and after Froderick had chopped the line that had once held the Bosun’s Chair, they were robbed of their easiest method of restocking. But between the oneand-a-half able-bodied Dwarfs, along with two of the archers (who were told that they could either help them out despite what their contract said, or they could not partake of any of the water they brought back) they were able to eventually fix most of the damage their saboteur had done. Billson and Helga stood at the rail... a little ways away from the rail... and watched the operation. “You think they realized who we gave them,” Billson asked. “Of course. They’re not stupid.” “They are Elves.” “They’re not stupid,” she said, sounding a little more serious, and Billson reminded himself that he wanted to investigate exactly what she’d been doing in the Fiefdom. But now was not the time to bring that up. “We did wrap him up pretty well,” she said, after a moment. “And once Froderick cut him loose, right at the top of that hill, they probably had to run after him. That was pretty brilliant on the Captain’s part.” “Yeah... though I can’t imagine how they looked when they unwrapped him.” She laughed, and then went back to staring over the little lake. “You know I’m going to have to debrief you when we get back,” he said. “I know.” “You and the prisoner.” She turned. “Just don’t go too rough on him, okay?” He started to ask her why she was so concerned about the guy, but she cut him off. “Don’t ask me to explain, okay, not now. It’s not like that, though. And it’s not like that, either. But... well, at the bottom of it, I think he was just doing his job.” Billson had so many arguments against that point that he couldn’t decide which to use, so he went back to watching the last of the water buckets come on-board It also didn’t help that she was right, either. Or at least partly right. “Besides,” she said, finally breaking the silence. “You owe me dinner.” “I what...?” “You asked me to dinner, remember? You said, after you got done at work, you planned on taking me out.” “I... Helga, that was two years ago. You left.” “You told me to go, remember? I was just following orders. And I like my steak rare. Very rare.”
Billson could tell that it was going to be a long trip back. Final Explanations That's it for this month's Steampunk Adventures. Hope you enjoyed my last issue as Editor, and wish all at the Steampunk Adventures headquarters the best. This expanded edition seems a fitting way to celebrate one year of the magazine being under Cathy Haystack's fine publisher-ship.