If I had my druthers, or if I'd even been slightly consulted about the travel arrangements, I'd have taken the train for the entire long trip from Austin to Chicago. Instead, it became something of a political and technical necessity for me to switch from the fast and luxurious streamliner, the Lone Star Special at Texarkana to a slow and clunky US airship. Our railroads don't run on the same size gauge track that theirs does, so our trains stay firmly fixed on our own sides of the border. This is a mutual national security 'feature' that no one is really happy with but keeps our political masters sleeping easier at night. The idea of the US invading the Great Western Alliance (GWA) nowadays is sort of laughable, or vice versa, but there is some less than pleasant history between us. We're a bit friendlier these days, and we share a common hated enemy, the demon-worshiping kooks of Deseret, but good fences still make good neighbors.
In the case of this particular border fence, our final train station is a good two hundred yards away from the border. This means passengers and cargo have to all be unloaded and transferred to a central customs station in-between both of our barbed wires fences and then again transferred to the US Arkatexas train terminal another two hundred yards north. Done properly by dual sets of indifferent civil servants, this transfer can take nearly a full day to accomplish, almost as bad as crossing any border in or out of the French Monarchy in Europe. Here they just frog-march you off the train, walk past barbed wire and machinegun towers, right through the order of two sets of customs and then finally you're in the USA, with a choice of getting on another older, less modern and virtually antique steam train for destinations onwards. Or like me, if they want you somewhere else, further and faster, they put your weary ass onboard a blimp, or dirigible, as they prefer to call them.
Unless you're flying First Class, no one pretends that traveling by airship is fast, fun or even remotely enjoyable ... at least in the US. Like seemingly everything else, our daft American cousins seem to take immense pride in being backward and unnecessarily primitive. Sure, they have virtually no sources for domestic fossil fuels and they save 99% of their corn-based bio-fuel for military use, so that leaves just coal to run their entire civilian infrastructure and national economy. Notice that I didn't mention Arc-Tec. Twenty years ago they were already twenty years behind us, or the more enlightened nations of Europe, and now they're still at least thirty years behind us. With their cultural distrust of anything magical, even the idea of modern hybrid-electric motors is as frightening to them as making fire would be to a Neanderthal. In theory, there is a new division within the US Department of Energy to cut the red tape for commercial exploitation of Arc-Tec for civilian applications (like creating an airship motor that could manage more than 10 miles-per-hour), but their hated rivals in the nearly omnipotent Department of the Environment seem to run the Federal Courts and every step forward into progress results in another slide back into endless delay and litigation. I could try and explain how this ass-backwards country could be both politically ultra-liberal and yet ultra-conservative socially, but your head (and mine) would just hurt.
Going through customs was relatively fast and painless, and mercifully free from anal-probing. When nearly anything interesting or essential to health or happiness, like alcohol, is prohibited, then nearly everyone becomes some sort of criminal and is pretty much treated that way. The looks of banal maliciousness that my own US customs official was giving me warned me right from the start that the little bureaucratic turd was itching to make trouble so I decided to perform a preemptive strike and TK'd my two hand-carry bags through the air and onto his inspection table. Before my life became interesting, back when I was still a rather mundane Adept, I was frankly terrible at telekinetic lifting anything bigger or heavier than a beer bottle, but with a little recent practice I discovered that I was now rather good at it. I'm 98% sure that my demonstration made him go completely Code-Brown right into his pants. Then I glared at him and handed over my GWA Adept's credentials, along with my Letter of Recognition from the US Federal Bureau of Magical Regulation (FBMR) authorizing me to use magic within the limits of my 'best judgment' within the borders of the USA. After I was sure that he had read my documents I then smiled at him. It was a particularly evil looking smile that I had spent a lot of time in front of a mirror practicing. It suggested rather overtly that I wouldn't at all mind readjusting some of his internal organs if he didn't speed my way along, and darned if he didn't just wave me pass to go onwards on my merry way. A good thing too; I had two bottles of decently aged imported Scotch for Sean and a full hip-flask of some of Texas's finest sipping whisky for myself.
Yes, decades later Prohibition was still active. That alone was enough to rank our pathetic US inbred dimwits as one of the least civilized countries in the modern world. Sometimes I wonder why we even try to deal with them at all, and that is far from a public minority opinion back home. Still, we need them as part of our geopolitical alliance against Deseret, but everyone is certain if we have to go to war with the US by our side it would be just like being shackled to a corpse. If push came to shove, neither their biggest national enemy the Confederate States of America nor their principal commercial European rival Great Britain would break a sweat at becoming involved in yet another war with the US. Except for some minor successes during the long imperial Presidency of Theodore Roosevelt, aka 'Teddy Rex', the US hasn't won a single war worth mentioning in over a hundred years.
It wasn't really part of my mission of assistance up here, but my Bureau of Magical Affairs (BMA) bosses back home wanted me to size up any part of the US military I happened to run into. Conventional Wisdom was that the individual soldier was adequate and had decent equipment but that leadership and strategic vision were lacking. Officers at and above the company level appear to succeed at advanced promotion largely via social and political connections rather than by merit. Fine for a parade army but criminally negligent when faced against a real army with superior generals, not to mention better Arc-Tec weapons. You can say many awful things about Deseret, but their senior commanders are crafty and blooded in battle, and their use of magic in combat, tactically and via cutting edge modern weapons, is perhaps second to none. I'd like to think that our GWA generals and wizards are just as good, but actually we hold our own lands with a less than firm grasp these days, replying often upon quantity rather than a near parity of quality. If at war, our Emperor could command our thriving civilian economy into war production, but it would take time. Our growing cooperation and alliance with the USA hopefully help give us that time.
Relying on zeppelins for commercial air travel is nearly no one's idea of quality. Sure, our military keeps a few for ocean surveillance but unlike the USA, we've got extra petroleum and Arc-Tec for airplane travel. Availability of planes and fuel or not, most GWA travelers will still take one of our modern electric/hybrid streamliner trains; for convenience, its inexpensive luxury and comfort, and even its speed, able to fly like a bullet from Austin to California in barely less time than a plane could fly the distance.
The D137 was typical for her class, fairly big, almost as large as one of the Anglo-German European luxury zeppelins, with a very elongated gondola that was split into a nice first class lounge and a diner. The second class shmucks like me had our shoebox sized staterooms, a small lounge and an eating facility (I wouldn't call it a diner by any stretch of the imagination) way up high up inside the skin, inside the rigid structure running all the way down the length to the engines, which were coincidentally right next to my tiny cabin. Our cabins were small and dark, without even a hint of a porthole ... but they did include two burly stewards to make sure us cattle-class riff-raff stay well away from the 1st class areas.
I heard the 'twump, twump, twump' from the engine room next door nonstop in my sleep for the next week ... and it took us nearly that long to get to Chicago.
Alright, American steam engines aren't particularly reliable, so they just concentrated on making them bigger instead. Bigger is not always better, especially when you pull into a US railyard and it takes the terminal crew nearly a full day to move enough freight around off of the tracks to clear you a path onwards to your next destination ... assuming that your coal burning engine isn't broken and the nearest available spare needs to be brought in from two hundred miles away, and if it doesn't break en-route too! These sorts of horror stories never (well, hardly ever) happen on our nice modern diesel-electric Arc-Tec hybrid engines back home! On the Great Golden West, a high-speed streamliner, a trip from Texas to California takes only about a day, with the engine hitting over two hundred miles an hour at its peak, as opposed to the barely twenty miles per hour that this gasbag seemed to crawl at!
Stories ... you hear stories, and lots of them while stuck inside a giant gasbag with just tiny portholes in the lounge to look out of, counting the hours impatiently until you feel desperately hungry enough to risk eating another week old stale sandwich from out of the automat snack machine in our dining room. There are no attendants to serve you and you can just forget all about nice vintage wine served in good crystal or good silver service ... the only forks and spoons are plastic. In theory, beer and wine were exempt from the 'intoxicating liquors' statute that prohibited alcohol, but in practice seemed to be equally difficult to find. I suppose this was just a preventive measure in case the cattle-class passengers decided to revolt and wanted to take a big knife to the airbag. After three days in the air we had just barely reached St. Louis ... and if sticking a knife into the airbag would have gotten me off this airship a minute earlier, I'd have done it gleefully! Even with the hydrogen gas airbag being magically sealed or treated and was supposedly now invulnerable to fire, the weak coal oil motor seemed just barely powerful enough to spin and turn the propellers for any sort of forward movement at all. Even with a tailwind all the way to Memphis the airship still wallowed like a crippled whale. Good reliable and efficient diesel fuel is apparently too scarce up here to waste on an airship, even one of their modern and near top of the line ones!
Management should have installed some serious Arc-Tec power generators, like the also energy poor German Federation use on their modern airships, like the beautiful aircoil wonder that is the Reinholt series Arc Deco motor, an engine of both aesthetic wonder and functional power. That would have cost them some serious money and time, maybe even more than building the rest of the airframe itself. Also the US doesn't have near the Arc-Tec industries that we do, or in the CSA for that matter, so they played it cheap and cut every corner that they could and still keep the flying whale going on powered flight. From my own fairly considerable experience in Arc-Tec artificement, I'd have built something that connected to and utilized the air Ley lines, with flexible solar panels instead of the thin dirigible canvas treated cloth skin for secondary electrical generation, perhaps along with a small diesel-electric battery system for additional backup under contrary conditions.
The USA had some military grade fixed wing aircraft that supposedly ran on distilled corn or grain alcohol, and even that sort of engine would have been a huge improvement here! I guess even that fuel is expensive or too hard to reliably get up here for civilian transportation applications. It just serves me right for agreeing to leave my home, and a venerable land of plenty for a business visit to our inbred and extremely technically backwards northern neighbor!
Why did I agree to go? I've asked myself that a lot from the moment I set foot into this floating barge. Sure I had my arm twisted a lot by the politicos back home to go help out our neighbors - we sort of have the same friends and enemies at the moment, and they asked me nicely ... and more importantly, they offered to pay me!
Since I didn't have a job at the time, and I was very much in the doghouse with my superiors at the BMA of the Republic of Texas back home, any job opportunity that got me safely out of town was nothing to be sneezed at, even if it paid in weak ass American paper dollars instead of good solid GWA silver. I wasn't even going to be able to exchange them up north, the idiots still have a complete ban on the private possession of gold, or silver coins heaver than 0.40 ounces each. Another pointless prohibition and just another crutch to further artificially prop up their weak paper dollar. This made my rolls of good full one-ounce 90% silver GWA dollars major forbidden contraband ... and thus the perfect gift for tipping surly American waitresses and lazy hotel staff. I'd stuffed a couple hundred dollars worth into paper coin rolls hidden inside my bath kit. Unlike the liquor bottles, these were small enough that with a minor avoidance spell, no customs clerk would have noticed them.
Silver is the river that makes a lot of magic flow, or flow faster and stronger. I've read a lot of very technical articles that supposedly explain why silver is essential to the working of a great many fields of magic, but after reading even the simplest explanation my head starts to hurt enough that I needed a nice long quiet lay-down. No one really knows why – but silver just flows with magical currents. Don't get me wrong, gold and platinum have their uses too, but used properly with the right charm, ritual or spell, a bit of cool sweet silver makes the spell flow flawlessly, or stick fast and tight where it should. With a small charm spell I'd just recently learned placed upon a silver dollar, I could make the most surly servitor treat me like old European royalty, and make a reluctant witness sing like a choirboy ... and more importantly, forget he ever saw my face afterwards, if necessary.
I'm not really very good at charm spells. I spent most of that class daydreaming about all of the wondrous artificements that I was going to make once I became powerful and rich. Heh. Sometimes I think I'd like to go back in time and relive all of high school all over again, just so that I could get my head out of my ass and this time actually bother to learn something. I might be board certified in Artificement, Banishment and Remediation, but there were dozens of other useful things that I ought to have learned a decade ago, but couldn't be bothered to do so. Ah, sweet youth! For light reading on this boring trip, I brought along a couple of old textbooks that I'd barely even opened back in school. I was still a fairly young dog, and with my new and rather alarmingly augmented powers, I thought it might be clever to actually learn some actual skills and technique to accompany raw sheer force and dumb luck. Also the fact that I was considered the staff arsonist back in Austin wasn't doing my checkered reputation any good at all these days.
If you want to be absolutely technical, my Adept's license was suspended and is still under pending appellant review for continued indefinite suspension or even permanently revoked, and as far as my bosses were concerned I was a potentially dangerous but useless burnout, unworthy of the slightest remaining interest. They thought my powers were gone, burned out along with about five hundred other lives in one of the worst magical disasters in Austin's history. I was now an object lesson fit only to warn the younger magical students about, and when some agents of the USA Federal Bureau of Magical Regulation showed up on my doorstep wishing for me to assist them, my boss couldn't approve and stamp the legal paperwork fast enough! Barely a week later, and now I was now stuck inside this airship until it finally wallowed the rest of its way north to Chicago. The Austin fire department was probably having a fiesta and big BBQ cookout and catching up on overdue vacation time. Ingrates! Trust me, I burned those two buildings down for very, very good reasons!
Bored to tears, I strongly considered conducting some subtle sabotage of the automat, but I decided that someone else nastier and crueler had already beat me to it when they last stocked its inventory up ... probably sometime back in the days of Teddy Rex! I wouldn't have fed that last corned beef sandwich to a starving death-row prisoner, or even forced it down one of the clowns at BMA!
The blimp had apparently just two speeds, slow and slower. Looking down at the ground as the airships travelled I could have sworn that I could have run the same distance faster on foot. My companion abductees tried to convince me that taking the trains up here was likely to be even slower still, with breakdowns and interminable railyard shuffling, but I doubted it was possible. On the other hand, the engineers and firemen tended to walk out every week taking 'industrial action', either yet another strike or just plain working as slow as they possibly could.
Everyone in America seemed to belong to some sort of labor union, which apparently guaranteed their right to never, ever have to do any actual real work, but still somehow get paid for doing virtually nothing all the same. If anyone even dreamed of pulling this shit off back at home in the Republic of Texas and GWA, they'd get their socialist asses kicked back north so fast that their butt cheeks would grow wings ... or else find themselves in a very deep unmarked grave, with their head cut off and stuffed with garlic, and a stake pounded in the heart for good measure, like a doomed vampire. Not to mention sowing the grave with salt to make certain that their madness couldn't become infectious.
Already, my fellow cattle-class passengers were bored with either sitting around their tiny windowless cabins or being stuck all crammed together in a too-small lounge that seemed to be directly copied from some dentist's waiting room. The lounge was cozy, to say the very least. It had about two dozen hard uncomfortable chairs in a long oval all facing each other with stacks of positively ancient magazines on the only coffee table. Some of the magazines were even old enough to date from Kennedy's second term as President. The fashion this year still seemed to be the neo-Victorian style of prim high collars and long hems for dresses that has been en vogue for much of the last decade. Very polite, and absurdly politically correct and proper, making sure hardly an inch of bare wickedly evil and sinful flesh could be discerned. The gentlemen were all sporting their hair long with either long sideburns down to the bottom of their jaws or even full sets of muttonchops to accompany the apparently compulsory mustache. Hats and parasols for both men and women seemed to be virtually mandatory. Needless to say with my short almost military style haircut I obviously looked quite out of place and tempo, and most of the women in the lounge were either trying to avoid looking at me entirely or else were giving me nasty looks. I wouldn't have minded an in-flight romance, or even a single late-night torrid encounter, but I was apparently quite unfashionable enough that even the most rebelliously inclined female didn't think much of my offerings and never passed me a single crumpled note during the trip suggesting a late night rendezvous.
Naturally, any thoughts of dalliance with some of the posh dainty bits down in First Class was quite impossible, or nearly enough so that I didn't bother trying. Sometimes, well actually quite often, the Americans can be even more snobby and class-conscious than even their European aristocratic counterparts. The worship wealth up here and if you're not sporting it large in First Class, then you're definitely not worth knowing or their even acknowledging your presence.
Bored with reading textbooks, I casually suggested that just like in Canterbury Tales, everyone take turns telling a story to help pass the time, but most of my fellow imprisoned inmates looked at me in dismay as if I were wanted to dispute Keynesian economic theory. On the other hand, I certainly couldn't discuss my job, or magic, even in abstract generalization, as I was traveling sort of undercover and most Americans view magic, and the practice thereof, as both being in exceptionally poor taste and quite vulgar. It's a curse to be ashamed of rather than a pretty cool talent to be proud of. If the Puritans or the Founding Fathers could have burned every single 'witch' with even a hint of magical powers at a stake, they'd have done so ... and they didn't fail due to lack of trying, or the result from running out of firewood! Teddy Rex enacted the final definitive law to ensure full citizen rights for magically inclined citizens, but many Yankees still hate and fear anyone with an ounce of adept or wizard power ... and god help the poor 'witches' or 'sorceresses', who still get occasionally lynched if caught unaware in a lonely place.
Just like in the Great Western Alliance and CSA (or Deseret for that matter), magical sensitives and adepts, and even the occasional wizard are born in the poor backwards US ... and since every other country around them has embraced magic as just another weapon of war, and economics. Even the utterly retarded USA finally had to eventually get its collective head out of its ass and admit that magic does exist, and should be used for something useful ... because their enemies have magic and the will to use it against them! Unfortunately, socially there is a very large 'but' – but it can be permitted only as long as it can be completely proven that the Adept or Wizard possessing this power isn't in fact a pawn or agent of the devil, or other legions of darkness.
Sure ... right ... it's marvelously near impossible to prove a negative. Accordingly, unlike my own BMA, the FBMR is not one of the happier federal agencies to belong to if you're a Yankee wizard (still mostly called witches (male or female), or sorceresses or warlocks for wizard grade talent. No one trusts you, and probably a near majority of your fellow citizens want you to die in a bonfire ... and that really hurts badly back in Washington at budget approval time.
The French ignited Arc Deco revolution eventually helped bring them out of the stone age, but then again the USA has always been jealous and mistrusting of anything French, until recently when they joined together in a political alliance against Great Britain. In theory, if France and England go to war again, this could break the fairly stabilized peace between the USA and the CSA, creating the first true world-wide war. The GWA has strong economic ties and treaties with the German Federation of States but not quite to the level of a mutual defense pact which might keep us free and still neutral, but I wouldn't like to bet good hard coin silver on it. Frankly, we've told each of them through diplomatic channels to 'play nice', or at least have the decency to wait until Deseret is taken care of ... permanently. We don't want a war with anyone, but dealing with those demon worshiping cannibals with ultra-high Arc-Tec must come first ... duty now, we tell our other American cousins – settling old scores with each other can wait until later.
To avoid upsetting the primitive locals, I didn't wear most of my blatantly obvious magical protection rings or jewelry, and only packed and wore just one of my usual three-piece suits, heavily imbedded with as many protective spells as I could safely layer upon it without it spontaneously combusting. No suitcases, just two hand carry bags. One with a couple of changes of more casual clothes and the other full of magical textbooks ... and an alarming amount of Miracle Putty. I wondered now if I should have brought along another suitcase full of cheap glass beads to trade with the rather simple natives, especially since some of my fellow travelers looked particularly inbred and dull-witted.
I kept my jacket and long-sleeved shirt on to help cover over my heavily scarred right arm, where an unusual and absurdly powerful ancient Incan magical artifact had more or less grafted itself right into my very skin and made itself quite at home. I guess five thousand degrees of heat, or more, can cause that to happen - but there are always unforeseen dangers when you match powers against an ancient fire god, and I've pretty much decided that it was past time to stop burning down various parts of Austin. It was definitely getting extremely bad for my reputation!
This artifact was powerful enough to grant a 'normal' woman without an ounce of magical power the ability to summon a bunch of increasingly nasty critters that I could only just barely handle or banish even as a highly skilled Adept with years of magical experience. Dealing with the rogue Fire God back in Austin, I'd put her long bracer onto my right arm, along with a similar but more modern attempt at a re-creation onto my left and gone into battle, and somehow impossibly lived to tell about it. The modern reproduction bracer puddled into expensive junk but Incan relic bonded itself into my flesh and hung around for the duration. What it was really intended or designed to do, I hadn't the slightest idea, but now as a physical part of me it certainly seemed to boost my powers well beyond Adept range and into Wizard level ability. The fact that an old flame with near godlike powers also had gone into my brain and done a little 'optimizing' before taking off on an eternal tour of the multiverse, probably boosted my powers too, enough so to handle packing off the angry god back to his distant other dimensional home by myself, long after I should have been burned to a crisp. Even now months later after some 'recharge' and recovery time, I still had no idea what my real level of ability was or just how much sheer raw magical power I could handle in another emergency, but I had the willingness to find out.
But the next time some rampaging fire or sun god wants to burn down the rest of some city, someone else can handle the job!
The stopover in St. Louis wasn't too bad at all. They probably thought they were punishing us by locking us up in a tiny secure terminal waiting room with just one broken toilet for thirteen hours while we waited for some needed maintenance on the airship to be agonizingly slowly completed, but after three hours some of the local staff ruined the scheme by taking pity on us caged second class passengers and let us disembark into the main terminal and mix with our social betters for the next ten hours. Other than breathing space, we were also all getting desperate for some food that hadn't been packaged back when Roosevelt or Kennedy was still President. The terminal restaurant was open twenty-four hours and we all stuffed ourselves silly, and then we each ordered a couple of extra meals to-go, to take with us back on the airship. Oh, the food wasn't that good, but it was just barely fresher and slightly less vile and nasty than the automat offerings. One evil-minded steward started to give me some bullshit about not being allowed to bring food on-board, but I fixed his clock good without casting a single malicious spell – I just showed him the corned beef sandwich that I'd obtained from the automat and threatened to make him eat it!
He rather quickly agreed to our point of view and let us board with all of our ill-gotten food!
Some say that Teddy Rex is still alive, being kept in a secret Washington bunker as a mystic arcane oracle via extreme measures of magical preservation immediately after his assassination, but I doubt it. He was the greatest US president ever, and anyone ought to be tired of political power after four and a half terms as President. I hope they let him enjoy his rest, eighteen plus years as the big boss would drive anyone nuts, and no one needs a demented oracle!
The trip from St. Louis to Chicago was scheduled to take about two more days, but some strong cross winds blew us nearly as far east as north, nearly as far as Indianapolis before our weak-motored airship could keep us pointed and mostly heading in the right direction north.
For this leg of the interminable trip, some faces in our second class cattle pen of a lounge were now new, having just joined our merry little traveling caravan at St. Louis, but I couldn't say that most of them were any friendlier, except for one darker skinned gentleman that seemed to take an instant shine to me.
"Zak Zephyr, is that the name? A very unusual one ... do you work in the air conditioning business? Ha!" The thin fellow looked heavily tanned and was taking his rusty sense of humor out for a test drive. Allegedly he was from the Yankee side of northern Colorado, but his eyes had that unmistakable dark look that immediately screamed to me 'Deseret'. You just can't miss picking out their terrorist 'missionaries' ... oh they talk and sound fairly normal and look just like everyone else, but it's their crazy dark eyes that give them away every time! Too much time spent on their knees praying to their insane dark demonic gods marks them in ways that any minor Adept with even half of a brain couldn't mistake!
The fact that I had also had never once given out my last name to any of my traveling mates convinced me that despite anything he said, he was here on a mission ... probably to make damn sure that I didn't fulfill mine! You can't reason with the kooks in Deseret, they don't live in the same universe with you and me. Any of them would sacrifice their lives in a heartbeat to do anything that their unholy bishops would even vaguely hint needed to be done, preferably suddenly, violently and with extreme prejudice. To die with joy and a song in their heart in the hope of receiving their just martyr's rewards in their demonic paradise. Fuck them!
Frankly, it's the nutjobs in Deseret that give all Adepts and Magicians everywhere a bad name! I'd been a thorn in their side once already and I'm sure that my name had been written into some black book inside their big black basalt rock temple on the Salt Lake, with a notation that I'd been very wicked and naughty and needed to be punished severely, preferably something involving massive bloodletting, dark demonic forces and/or including a very professional carving of the Viking blood eagle across my back.
I decided to decline the opportunity.
"Aye, lad." My hidden little friend Sean whispered to me inside my head. "You've picked him out right and he'll yet be trouble soon, you'll see!"
In the process of closing a massive inter-dimensional rift between a thousand worlds that we'd like to remain as far away from us as possible, I picked up a 'Visitor', an inter-dimensional guest, or should I rather say that he instead picked me! He's an odd one, that's for sure ... but he's proven himself to be very useful to me in the past – like helping me to save my life when confronting that ancient but nearly omnipotent fire god! He prefers to spend most of his time invisible, even to me, which was fortunate for everyone around us because the little bugger is not much of a looker. Short and thin, kind of like a cross between a demented leprechaun gone to seed and an undersized and oversexed goblin with too much nose that's gone into the knee-breaking business. The clumps of hair growing from out of his ears are just too disturbing for words. He can speak out loud, with a bit of fake Celtic accent that he sometimes forgets to use when he gets excited, like now, but usually he just talks to me in my head and then listens hard for my sub-verbal response ... he says my mind stutters.
At first I thought he was an imp, a scrawny little troublemaker from one of the nether-realms, but they're mostly magical nonentities, more sizzle than steak, and this little guy has more hot juice in his pinky finger than I used to have in my entire body. For lack of a better classification, I've now decided that he's sort of a brownie, albeit one absurdly powerful one from god knows where. Very definitely not one of the weaker home-grown domestic ones here on Earth.
In the local Austin BMA library, I tried to do some research on brownies and I found a few domestic correlations ... but none that exactly matched my visitor. There are English and Scottish hobs, the Scandinavian tomte, the Slavic domovoi and the German Heinzelmännchen ... and then there is my visitor who calls himself Sean, just plain Sean. I did find a few allusions to an odd visitor race known as the Ùruisg, but even that clue got me next to nowhere. One fourteenth century wizard was said to have been befriended by one and wrote a book about the race, but no surviving copies are known to survive. Another obscure mid-19th century Texican history has a footnote about John Lovett and James Joseph Wylde meeting one of these rare and incredibly powerful magical creatures who helped them with an impossible task, but that footnote referred to a rare original document of which no complete modern reproduction has been made ... and the original is preserved in the Emperor's own personal library. No chance of my ever seeing that!
Sean, despite probably being the most powerful creature within a thousand aeronautical miles of us, is surprisingly quiet and low key, but usually has the attention span of a four-year-old preschooler. Back at home, he concentrated his efforts upon a comprehensive study of human behavior, first starting with television soap operas, then infomercials, until finally he was ready for the profound experience that is the Home Shopping Network. It was something of a relief when he next discovered the dozen or so cable hardcore porn channels, and it was much cheaper too! He has also discovered the twin delights of human accomplishment, aged bourbon and scotch, especially served with fine Dominican cigars, preferably smoked while watching a John Wayne movie. The Duke amuses and awes him greatly and Sean has declared him the greatest human ever born, and a savior to our otherwise shallow and vapid, but otherwise highly amusing race.
Sometimes when he's had a couple of bottles in him, he'll laugh that he's just a scout for the invasion force – here to find the best bars, booze, broads and bacon for the advance troops. Bacon is also apparently our greatest contribution to inter-dimensional cuisine, and a priceless rarity eagerly sought after on most worlds. He keeps asking if we can give up the minor magician for hire bullshit so that we could start earning some real silver by starting a hog farm!
I try to avoid getting into these sorts of discussions with Sean ... they always make my head hurt and my mouth thirsty for more good Texas whisky than is good for me. I just can't tell if he's kidding me or if he's deadly serious.
It wasn't a very good plan, but I decided that my best plan for staying out of the way of the Deseret assassin for the next few days until we reached Chicago was to just lock myself in my microscopically small stateroom and catch up on a decade's worth of reading magical textbooks. For the most part, it worked. I had two days of peace and quiet reading my old school books and eating my stack of take-out dinners. It was time surprisingly well spent – I was actually learning quite a few things I should have learned years ago and some even better techniques for some things I'd already learned by accident or by trial and error, but being inordinately stubborn, I always had to do things my own way, or rather mostly not do them at all. Now I was slowly making up for lost time, but maybe a new trick or two would help keep me alive up here in the unfriendly north.
Sean, going slightly through vid withdrawal and down to just a few remaining inches of scotch in his last liquor bottle, had taken a bar of Miracle Putty and created a pair of Napoleonic armies, complete with cavalry and regimental flags, and had lined the pairs up in a recreation of the Battle of Austerlitz. I ought to have been extremely disturbed, particularly with the sounds of the cannons going off filling the cabin now full of clouds of black powder, but I was used to Sean constantly doing unusually perturbing and disturbingly unnatural things, so I kept reading and pretended not to notice. I was halfway through a rather interesting text on air-weaving techniques when I suddenly noticed that the armies were suddenly gone and the air was immediately clear of cannon smoke. I could now hear loud noises outside my door next to the engine room, as if someone was trying to beat down that door.
"Uhhh, oh..." I think Sean beat me to it, but I was certainly already thinking it myself.
"Laddie, just how well do ye think ye could fly? Like in another half moment ... if this air barge were to blow apart to smithereens – just a wee bit?"
"Don't even joke about that, because the answer is slim and none. If there were a strong Air Ley, I might be able to hover for maybe a minute but flying is right out of the question." That was an understatement. Levitation is supposed to be easy-squeezy, just a matter of applied willpower, but I never had the knack for it. Levitation and flying is pure middle-school level easy magic and often it separates the wizards from most of the Adepts. I was pudgy as a kid and everyone laughed their asses off that the nerdy fat kid could just barely lift his tennis shoes an inch or two above the ground. I think even today I still have some sort of mental block about this, even though I shed (most of) the puppy fat many years ago.
If my life depended upon being able to fly my way out of here, then I was already seriously screwed! This was another damnable reason against flying when I should have been on a nice enjoyable train trip!
"Fight or flight time." Sean suggested. "And hurry ... I think our Deseret friend is about ready to explode his bomb and go meet his infernal maker!"
That was exactly what I was afraid of!
From what I could now tell outside my door, just about every member of the airship crew was now trying to force open the door to engineering, where apparently our zealot assassin had locked himself and was quite good and ready to blow everything up sky high. Or at least sky higher than we were already at. They weren't making much progress as the door seemed to be jammed tightly shut, but I knew a trick or two for that.
"Guys..." I suggested to the aircrew. "Unless you've got the urge to go skydiving without a parachute, get out of my way and let me deal with him. He's going to blow up the airship, and rather messily ... and I'd rather not let him get away with it ... your government would probably only put me back onboard another fucking airship! Now give me some room – or better yet, fix me up a nice table for lunch down in the first class diner, with a pretty companion in a short skirt and with some nice big tits ... that's some good chaps!"
The door to the engine room wasn't just locked, it was also barred as well. Fortunately, since I had been reminiscing about old school days, I remember an old trick that a classmate had taught me to jinx open any door, usually locked bathroom stalls. It still worked like a charm ... and it was also still extremely destructive and tended to not leave much if any door left over. It worked off of an elegantly simple process – the more the door was jammed or barred, the more force was slowly exerted to open it! In this particular case, the door exerted itself backwards completely off its hinges about forty feet, with a destruction wave pattern in its shattered wake not unlike that of a shotgun shell. The blast, and a three-foot square chunk of metal door, had blown our zealot enthusiast right off of his feet, and knocked him a further ten feet away from the hydrogen airbag.
The gas airbag was supposedly magically protected, but it wasn't remotely resistant enough against a very close ranged magically enhanced explosive, of the sort that our nutjob had been holding in his hand and was nearly ready to activate. The explosion of the door, and the impact of the shrapnel had caused him to drop the explosive for a moment, but already the shock of our entrance was beginning to wear off. We matched eyes for a moment and then he drove dove to reclaim his bomb, and now I had an instant decision to make.
I've never been good about doing two things at once. Some folks might say I've even had difficulties doing one simple thing at once. Ha-ha! I thought for an instant about just wrapping a shield around the Deseret loon and his device and hope that I could muffle and absorb the explosion, protecting myself, the aircrew and not least, the gas bag. Sean had other ideas.
"Quick lad! Just shield the doorway and the air bag. Now!" I didn't have any time to think about it, so I just did it. There was no time at all to be subtle or clever. I just threw up my hands, grunted to exert my force field and tried to think happy thoughts. With my left arm touching the base of the gas bag I could feel my power flow through the coated fabric, increasing its magical protection strength, and with not a moment really to spare.
The explosion was loud, bright and blinding, but other than being slammed against the wall by the force, my shield held, as did the gas bag ... or rather most of it. The force of the shield flexing had split the gas bag in three places, but the explosive energy – and its flame, had all channeled mostly away. The outside skin of the airship had been blown wide open, but at least there was no 'Kaboom' ... at least not today.
I've always been good with shields. They've saved my life several times and I've had enough practice with them that with some preparation time I can do some fairly clever things with them. In this case, if I concentrated hard I could cap them over the exposed open areas of the gas bag that were releasing hydrogen, and reduce the flow of the escaping lift gas a bit ... sort of. I did sort of have that sinking feeling that we were quickly losing altitude and I was none too sure about what I could do now, if even anything about our predicament. I thought if I collapsed my shields entirely now, we'd definitely start to fall like a rock, and probably even fast enough to bounce when we smacked into the ground.
"Someone, anyone ... go take a look outside and see if we're holding enough air to float down, or if we're going to crash down instead. I'd rather know now, rather than discover the hard way! And someone go turn off that damned engine, or better yet put it into full reverse! Yesterday, ladies!"
Already I could tell that we were tilting down by the nose, listing a good 30 degrees to forward, as if the airship were gathering speed to slam nose first into the ground ... and with the propellers still going at full speed to increase our impact. The stewards wouldn't like the 'ladies' insult, but I had a bad feeling that the normal engineer on duty was probably already dead before he was blown up and pieces scattered to the winds, and now someone needed to do something about our forward descending movement. I certainly was doing already more than my share. As I said, doing two things at once, with magic anyway, was a recipe for disaster.
"Aye, and disaster or not, you'll be needing to do a wee bit more, at least if you'll be wanting even a remotely soft landing. Feel behind you, up high and to your left a wee bit ... there's a strong high Air Ley. Grasp it – pretend even you want to anchor yourself to it. Fix yourself firm to it ... harder! Try to wrap your thoughts around it like a loop, or even a knot it you can ... yes, like that! Now, without letting go of your tie, use your shield to anchor the other end, secure and then use it like a winch, to ratchet the tie tightly. Pull yourself up now towards the Ley, slowly but don't let go at either end!"
Like a ship that had dropped its anchor during a storm, I was now doing the equivalent of slowly reeling in that anchor line. How I quite kept the focus line from stretching out until it snapped with weakness, I'm not quite sure. This was definitely wizard level magic, something I could never have hoped to do when I was an Adept. Slowly though, our downward speed decreased until an indeterminate eternity later one of the crew returned to report that our descent had finally stopped. For the moment we were level, more or less, and slowly still under way.
Once we had a buoyancy equilibrium, sort of ... we were still losing hydrogen slowly but steadily, the mental pressure to hold us in place wasn't too bad. Now that I could stop and actually think a bit, I realized that I could also do a few aeromancy tricks that I'd just read about, and with a little trial and error I found I could use some wind to push up against the bottom and rear of the airship, to help give us a little bit more lift.
Not for the first time, I regretted spending most of my school classes thinking about nubile young female breasts and doodling plans for Arc-Tec circuitry.
"Aye lad. Better later late than never! And well and crisply done on anchoring on that Air Ley. No flames here today! And of that, ye should be well proud!"
Amen to that!
Our sturdy but wounded airship, never a swift eagle of the air even to begin with, wallowed its way north ... slowly, until I began to develop a major splitting headache. Holding on to that Air Ley for nearly two hours was probably the longest that I'd ever had to concentrate on anything in my entire life. This gave Sean the opportunity to remark that a bit of dedicated concentration was a good learning experience for me. In turn I remarked that I didn't need any more lip from snarky visitors ... especially ones that had expensive Home Shopping Network habits.
Eventually, as my patience wore out, I sent off a steward off to the bridge with a polite request (firm order) suggesting (demanding) that the pilot get his head out of his ass and start finding a place to bring his wounded airship safely down to the ground ... the alternative being that I'd do it for him, albeit rather more quickly and suddenly, and probably involving a lot of gratuitous property damage and an abundance of grievous bodily harm. He got the hint quick, and made an emergency landing at an airfield just outside of Gary, Indiana.
I never did get my fancy first class luncheon in the 1st class diner. I did glare menacingly at one of the stewards until he brought me a glass of red wine to sip for a respite, along with about four swift refills. No, I didn't offer the swine one of my silvers for the pleasure. Really, it was the very least they could offer me. I'm still not quite sure if I ever did get a proper, let alone vaguely sincere 'Thank You' from anyone! There was even a rumor later that some executive in some corporate ivory tower actually considered billing me for all of the damages, but fortunately someone with a modicum of common sense talked him out of it.
I wasn't quite the first passenger off of the airship, but I sure wasn't the last! I sent a telegraph to the Chicago FBMR office saying that my flight had been grounded and that I'd be on the next train from Gary. I was, but the train then sat on a siding at the rail yard in Calumet City for about sixteen hours without any word, rhyme or reason. I've never learned how to do any Transalteration, even simple stuff like turning grape juice into wine. You either have the knack for it or you don't. I don't – and it's just as well, otherwise more than a few union rail workers would be now enjoying their new careers as frogs in the nearby local pond!
About two days after our airship aborted its journey, my slow train to nowhere finally gasped its last few lurching yards into the protective safety of Chicago Union Station where it could at last happily have its long overdue complete mechanical breakdown in relative peace. I couldn't have cared less. My First Class cabin on the train was probably twice the size of the tiny airship cabin, it was quieter, and the passengers were easier to deal with ... not to mention it had a real dining service, although the attendents seemed to be unionized as well, and nearly equally exempt from having to demean themselves by waiting upon hungry customers. Still, I had two fairly decent days of relative peace and quiet where I could sleep, catch up on my reading, and occasionally even get a reheated semi-reconstituted meal that was worlds better than automat chow.
I'd made it to Chicago in one piece and with a tiny modicum of decent good humor and I was even more or less ready to be helpful to my new FBMR masters. Things could have been much worse.