The first in what I hope will be enjoyable post-apocalyptic steampunk adventures. Levels of swashbuckling will vary.
The Belenus began to descend from her cruising altitude towards the Amazonian river below them. The airship had been dispatched by the Vulcares Ministry of Defense and Oversight to secure what was reported to be a source of electrical power unlike any outside the City-States. Settlements in the blasted or overgrown wastelands were authorized to have small wind or water power supplies, but anything larger than that risked a Ministry sanction and a visit from their Special Response Division. The Belenus, however, did not belong to that “black bag” operation, not as long as Ethan Pendragon was in command.
He stood at the Belenus’ wheel, adjusting the altitude engines to push the airship lower rather than help keep it aloft. The main deck was buzzing around him, but his keen eyes were focused on the thick, overgrown carpet of the resurgent rain forest. Since the last wars, environmentalists refusing to come under the auspices of the City-States had used radical methods to breathe new life into rain forests all over the world, transplanting wild animals from old zoos back to their native habitats. The environmentalists were surprised, naturally, when the carnivores saw them less as saviors and more as meals.
“Captain, we’re approaching the drop-off point.”
Pendragon turned to his navigator. The young woman half-bent over the various charts once again double-checked their current position against the detailed topographical map of this stretch of the mighty river. Laying the clear sheet depicting the mission map over the chart, Abigail Abernathy gave a short nod, meeting her captain’s eyes.
“We’ll want to enter station-keeping in about 100 meters, sir,” she said.
“Thank you, Abby.” Pendragon adjusted the throttles, looking back out the forward windscreens. The surface of the forest was inscrutable beneath the greenery, which rippled beneath the Belenus with the downforce of her fans. He heard a soft tapping behind him, a distinctive sound that told him his first mate, Lieutenant Davenport, was ascending to the main deck. Her clockwork leg prevented her from leaving the airship on dangerous assignments, an annoyance she tried very hard to subdue for the sake of the mission. Where the young Abernathy’s hair was blonde and flowed over her shoulders, Davenport kept her dark hair in a braid, a holdover from her days of front-line combat.
“I’m here to relieve you, Captain,” Davenport reported. “Mister Renquist awaits you on the deployment deck.”
“He’s a punctual sort, isn’t he?” Pendragon sighed, moving away from the pilot’s station for Davenport to come forward and take hold of the wheel. “We’re approaching our station-keeping position, and I’m sure I don’t have to tell you that you should remove to Belenus to the secondary station if anything happens.”
“And yet you just did,” Davenport responded with a bit of a smile, leaning her cane against the console. “This is not my first dance, Captain.”
“From your fancy footwork, I can tell,” Pendragon smiled. He touched his first mate’s shoulder as he walked aft to the spiral staircase that served the five decks of the Benelus. Directly beneath the main deck was the gunnery deck, where the gunnery master Cromwell walked from fore to aft, barking orders at the gun crews to ensure their breeches were clean and ammunition stacked. He acknowledged Pendragon with a gruff nod, his beard crinkling as he scowled when presented with one of the portside cannon positions.
The yelling followed Pendragon down to the quarterdeck, where the ship’s cabins, living quarters, medical bay and docking collar were located. He made a mental note to inquire again the next time they made port when he’d be getting a standing medical officer. Davenport was a decent hand with first aid, but if they ran into full-scale combat he’d need her on the main deck. Continuing downward, he arrived at the engineering deck, where the massive steam turbines of the Benelus powered the ship’s primary fans. The bulky black man crouching by the starboard turbine looked up from his work and waved. Pendragon smiled as he kept walking. He enjoyed talking with the engineer, whom everybody called “Tiny” due to his size, but he had a mission to complete, and if he didn’t meet Renquist promptly, he was bound to hear about it both right away, and afterward during the Ministry debriefing.
Finally he arrived in the bowels of the Benelus, the deployment deck. Aft of him were four small parasite aircraft, agile but delicate monoplanes. As he usually was, the flight master was ensuring they were secure, their repeaters were loaded and free of jams, and they were adequately charged for flight. Their electric motors and low-capacity batteries meant they were short-range craft, but their agility and proportional firepower added a great deal to any battle they became involved in. Pendragon touched the flight master on the shoulder.
“Ready to ride to my rescue, Mister Wainwright?”
“I certainly hope I don’t have to,” Samuel Wainwright replied, turning and standing to smile at his captain. They were about the same height, but very different men. Pendragon’s shock of blonde hair, well-maintained clothing and freshly polished goggles perched on his forehead were a stark contrast to Wainwright’s darker hair, five-o-clock shadow and smudged goggles and uniform. Wainwright looked past his captain towards the fore end of the deployment deck. “He’s not in a good mood, Skipper.”
“I suspected as much,” Pendragon replied, “as I’ve yet to meet a Vulcares man who enjoys these sorts of things the way you and I do. Is he at least dressed appropriately?”
“About as much as expected,” Wainwright shrugged. “He’s still wearing his suit, but I managed to convince him wearing one of our spare expedition vests was a good idea.”
“I didn’t think he’d abseil into a forest using his tie,” the Captain smiled, turning his attention to some of his own equipment. Rather than wearing one of the all-purpose expedition vests, Pendragon wore a climbing belt along with his gun and sword belts. Various pouches on the belt held rope, carabiners and descenders, as well as anchors and other equipment. His satchel had been stocked with a canteen of water, a couple days worth of food in the form of flatbread, fruits and nuts, and even the most recent topographical map of the Amazonian area they were entering, even if it was a bit old. He secured a descender to a carabiner on his belt and walked over to where Edmund Renquist stood with arms crossed, his vest only half-fastened, clearly reluctant to cover up either his Ministry lapel pin or his avant-garde tie.
“It’s about time you got down here, Pendragon,” Renquist sneered. “I was about to think you’d have me going in there alone.”
“Perish the thought,” Pendragon replied, preparing one of the ropes that hung from the deployment deck’s ceiling rails. “I’d never dream of letting you into anywhere outside of City-State walls all by yourself.”
Renquist snorted. Not waiting for permission, Wainwright set about getting the Ministry liaison ready for descent. Ethan had to smile. Renquist was their third liaison officer this year. Vulcares had been surprised that one of their most successful airship captains was opting for paramilitary duty rather than front-line combat. Even more shocking to the Ministry was the immaculate nature of the paperwork he’d filed for sole oversight of personnel changes, reduction of mandatory inspections from six months to three years, and status change from military officer to independent contractor. Every request had been granted, with the only caveat being the inclusion of a liaison officer, the one position on the crew in which Pendragon had no say.
The Benelus slowed to a halt, her drivefans adjusted to keep her afloat above the Amazon rain forest. Esuring that both his captain and the Ministry representative had secure lines, the flight master opened the deployment doors. The large rotors on the main mast of the Belenus caused ripples in the lush, green canopy beneath them, with two smaller spots of more agitated rippling caused by the drivefans. Pendragon tossed the lines out of the deployment doors, and exchanging looks with Wainwright, took hold of his line and dropped out of the airship. He slowly worked his way down towards the rain forest below, and looked up to see Renquist gingerly stepping off the Benelus’ deck. The captain smiled; the first two liaison officers had been similarly reluctant to leave the airship, but their untimely ends had been purely accidental.
Getting through the canopy to the soft, moist floor of the rainforest was a bit of a chore, but such situations were why Pendragon carried a sword. His sabre sliced through a few branches, allowing both his rope and Renquist’s to drop down into the shadows. Sheathing the weapon, he produced a light from his satchel and guided himself down through the foliage. He landed softly, and set about unbinding the line from his belt. A few moments later, Renquist landed on his rump with a dull thud, wincing at the impact and slowly getting to his feet, looking down at his dark shoes which were now covered in mud and soil.
“I just polished these,” he said with a sigh.
“Those are going to be hurting your feet if we have to do much walking or running,” Pendragon pointed out, helping him unbind the descender on his vest. Renquist snorted.
“I’m assuming your young navigator was able to find us an entry point close to the disturbance,” the Vulcares liaison said, trying to brush some of the leaves and dirt from his suit. “She does have something resembling experience, yes?”
“Of course she does,” Pendragon replied, consulting his compass. “We’re a couple dozen meters away from it, to the north east.” The captain oriented himself and set off, sabre in hand to hack away some of the overgrowth. Renquist followed, more than once nearly stumbling into Pendragon as he tried to keep up.
“I only ask because she seems very young,” Renquist told his companion, shaking insects from his shoe. “Normally a girl her age would be somewhere in the Ministry’s educational system, learning how to be a proper and productive citizen.”
“You saying navigating an airship isn’t productive or proper?”
“No, not at all,” Renquist replied, leaning on a tree and instantly regretting it when a centipede tried to crawl onto his hand. “I’m simply saying that it’s unorthodox.”
“Unorthodox is how I tend to do things,” Pendragon said. “Once I got all of the paperwork out of the way, I saw no reason to play everything according to the Ministry’s rules. Vulcares helped us survive the war and the depletion of fossil fuels, introducing safe hydrogen systems and whatnot, but at the cost of oppressing everyone inside the walls of every City-State, even if they don’t know it.”
“Those are dangerous sentiments, Captain,” Renquist warned. “Your young navigator could easily end up in the aforementioned Ministry academy, to say nothing of Lieutenant Davenport’s future. Who else would take on a crew member with that fragile clockwork leg of hers? Wainwright has discipline problems, and…”
Pendragon stopped and turned on Renquist, who nearly fell backwards due to the sudden motion. His hazel eyes seemed set to bore holes right through the liason’s head.
“Threaten my crew again, Mister Renquist, and I will kill you where you stand. Do you understand me?”
Swallowing, Renquist nodded, then looked past Pendragon and stared. Pendragon blinked, but before he could turn, the thick scaly body of a snake wrapped around his neck. Quickly, the serpent wrapped another coil around the captain’s throat, and with strength belying its slender shape, it hauled the man off his feet. Ethan struggled, gripping the warm body of the snake in one hand and reaching for his sabre with the other. It had landed point-first in the ground when the crushing coils of the serpent had gripped him, and his fingers brushed the pommel of his weapon as he dangled. Renquist was stunned for a moment, then moved forward to hand the sword to the airship captain, only to hear a low growl behind him.
Sweat sliding down his brow, the hairs on the back of his neck raised in alarm, Renquist turned slowly. Stalking towards him, taut muscles rippling under spotted fur, was a vicious and hungry-looking jaguar. Opening his mouth to scream, Renquist ran. The jaguar was quicker and pounced on the Ministry liaison, digging sharp claws into his shoulders. A shot rang out through the jungle, carrying the jaguar off of Renquist’s back, and he looked up to see Ethan Pendragon flicking blood from the blade of his sabre as he held a smoking pistol in the direction of the large hunting cat. Holstering the firearm, he walked over and reached down to get Renquist on his feet.
“Are you all right?” the captain asked.
“I think so,” Edmund replied breathlessly, but before he could elaborate, the jaguar growled, getting to its feet and glaring at the humans. Pendragon moved quickly despite having been nearly strangled moments before, sabre brandished towards the predator.
“This is where you run away,” he said over his shoulder to Renquist as the jaguar prepared to pounce. Without another word, Renquist took off through the underbrush. His flight was heedless and aimless, just trying to get away from the horrors of this humid and overgrown place. He missed Americana, his home City-State, with it’s clean shimmering skyscrapers, lazily floating zeppelins, and the comforts of his office. Why had he ever agreed to take this assignment? Were Pendragon and his wayward crew of miscreants really worth all of this?
Edmund stumbled and fell on his face, pushing himself up and wiping mud from his eyes. He was about to bite out a virulent curse on all things green and living when he heard weapons being cocked. Looking around, he saw men and women dressed in torn fatigues and headgear ranging from wide-brimmed hats to simple bandannas, all carrying pre-war rifles, aiming at him with cold detachments. One of them said something that sounded like a question or a demand, and Renquist slowly got to his feet, arms raised. The statement was repeated, and Edmund just shook his head, looking confused.
Another voice was heard, a familiar one, speaking the same language. Edmund turned to see Ethan Pendragon coming out of the green, sheathing his sabre, sporting long cuts in his left forearm. Renquist blinked.
“You speak their language?” he asked, in shock.
“It’s Portuguese. It really isn’t that rare. Now be quiet while I convince them not to shoot you.”
A conversation ensued, after which the man who’d been speaking gestured with his rifle and Pendragon gestured for Edmund to follow. The Ministry liaison shook his head.
“Amazing. I had no idea you spoke Portuguese.”
“I speak a couple languages,” Ethan replied, “just to get by in places I might have to visit. These are the ‘natives’ we’re looking for, and they’ve agreed to show us their settlement and how it’s powered. It’s still pretty rough living, as far as I can tell.”
They walked for the better part of an hour until they reached what appeared to be the ruins of tall buildings, choked by vines and challenged by tall trees. Pendragon narrowed his eyes as he examined the skyline.
“This used to be Rio de Janiero,” he observed. “Nature’s a vindictive sort, isn’t she?”
Renquist merely nodded, astonished that people managed to live in this former city despite the encroachment of the jungle and the dangers they faced. They passed men and women walking in former office buildings that had been converted into multi-level vegetable gardens, convenience stores that were now first aid stations, and even a cinema that was now a slaughterhouse. At length, they arrived at a subway station, descending a long flight of stairs, and walked down a subway tunnel to another door situated in one of the curved walls. Another long staircase took them deeper into the earth, and Renquist began to feel a growing level of heat.
Pendragon felt it as well, and was starting to put two and two together. His suspicions were confirmed when he saw the dull orange glow coming from the bottom of the stairs. They arrived in a large chamber where a few men in hard hats walked to and fro between makeshift monitoring stations, arrayed around the central feature of the cavern: a large fissure in the rock, from which issued the telltale glow of magma. A flimsy railing surrounded the fissure, and a column as big around as a man plunged into the center of it. Renquist leaned over the railing as Pendragon kept his distance.
“This is a geothermal plant?” the Ministry liaison asked.
“It appears that way,” Ethan replied. “These men are monitoring the amount of heat it’s generating, how much is being converted into electricity, and the agitation level of the tectonic plates we’re standing on. It wouldn’t take much for this place to go volcanic.”
“This is an unauthorized use of a natural resource. The Ministry will need to be informed.”
Renquist turned. Pendragon stood with his arms folded, a few of the natives nearby holding their rifles at rest.
“Because that’s the Ministry’s protocol,” Edmund replied simply. “If a resource is being used without the express written permission of Vulcares Industries with a proper contract for oversight, subsidization and revenue sharing, it’s illegal.”
“Vulcares’ law,” Pendragon pointed out, “applies to people in the City-States. These people do not live in a City-State. By my reckoning they’re free to make their lives as comfortable as possible, especially when surrounded on all sides by threats that can kill and devour them in an instant.”
“There are laws that apply to people outside of the City-States,” Renquist persisted, “and this is one of them. Settlements outside the Walls are permitted a single windmill for power or a hydroelectric system of specific size and output. Anything more risks sanction.”
“What are you going to do, bring the SRD down here and start killing people if they don’t shut their plant down?”
“That’s not your concern,” Renquist said flatly. “Your job was to bring me here and take me back. We’re through here. It’s time for your ship to come pick us up.”
“You’re asking me to condemn these people, to pretend I don’t know what’s going to happen as soon as you file your report.” Pendragon looked Renquist in the eye. “I can’t do that.”
“You can and you will, Captain, or I will see to it that you are removed from command. Your ship will be impounded and your crew will be disbanded, folded into various divisions of Vulcares if they’re fortunate enough not to get discharged without honors, or perhaps even executed in one or two cases.”
“I warned you about threatening my crew, Renquist.”
“Make all the threats you like, Captain. I am the one in control of this situation. I represent the full power and authority of the Vulcares Ministry of Defense and Oversight, while you are merely a privateer under contract to that same Ministry. When you filed for your charter you became little more than a pirate. If you want to keep your precious little ship and your ragtag band of miscreants and losers, you will shut up and take me back to Vulcares headquarters, and you will do it now.”
Ethan Pendragon didn’t say a word. After a moment, he unfolded his arms, drew his pistol, took aim, and fired. Renquist’s head snapped backwards, Pendragon’s shot having put a hole between his eyes. Pendragon stepped forward and plucked the Vulcares pin from the man’s lapel as he toppled backwards over the railing towards the magma below. His body would never be found. One of the natives stepped forward.
“Thank you,” he said quietly. “We are in your debt. We do not have much here and we must do what we can to survive.”
Ethan just nodded and holstered his pistol. The natives didn’t normally speak English to outsiders, but most of them knew it. There hadn’t been confusion in their eyes during Renquist’s final rant, but comprehension and, in more than one case, anger. If Ethan hadn’t shot him, they’d have torn him apart. A quick death at the end of a bullet was a mercy by comparison.
Pendragon headed out of the jungle city and arrived at the rendezvous point. The Benelus was waiting for him, hovering above the jungle. A small clearing near the river had been chosen for the captain to rejoin his crew. He looked up the long ladder that Wainwright had dropped from the deployment deck. He was already contemplating a variety of explanations for the disappearance of Edmund Renquist. In truth, it didn’t matter. They’d return to Americana, and the Ministry could believe whatever they want, but after his harrowing report on what dwelt in the jungle, they’d be reluctant to send anyone or anything else into the perils of the Amazon.