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Authors: S.G. Schvercraft

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BOOK: The Zeppelin Jihad
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At the airfield, I checked my electronics into a security deposit box. I

d been concerned they were going to give me grief about the Glock. It was a polymer framed autoloader, after all, and I wasn

t sure if that would get it on the forbidden technologies list. But the customs agent handed it back to me without comment after he

d finished rifling through my bags.


Enjoy your stay, miss,

he said, smiling politely. Maybe it was the Steamies

weird
accent

the bastard child of a Central Pennsylvanian dialect wrapped in a Victorian grammar obsession

but the way he said
miss
made it sound like he was dubious I

d actually qualify.

There was a small crowd of travelers moving through customs, mostly returning Steamies. Some of the men had worn more traditional western suits, as you might see on the streets of New York. Even so, the occasional pocket watch, handlebar mustache, or dueling scar betrayed their citizenship. The rest, however, hadn

t even bothered trying to mask their nationality while overseas. These men wore dark, three piece suits and derby hats, a look which, though slightly updated with deep blue or crimson shirts and gold cravats, had probably last been fashionable in America when Jack the Ripper was making a name for himself.

The women wore high-collared blouses and ankle-length skirts. Yet what could have been a stern style was mitigated by bright violets, yellows, and emeralds. Their hair, too, kept them from looking like daguerreotypes of Emily Dickinson. They wore it long, kept in place by jeweled hairbands. In addition to their bags, they collected their pets from the crates where they

d been stowed during the flight. Trained raccoons had first been used here to remove gear obstructions from heavy machinery, and had eventually been domesticated.

Making my way through stares and whispers from women who had raccoons peeking out from their purses, I eventually made it through customs. A tall man in a dark suit was waiting for me.

He was maybe 6

4

, with eyes as blue as frozen seawater. I figured he was in his late thirties

about 10 years my senior

but the mustache made him look older. His hands were hitched at his belt, on which hanged a holstered revolver, and sheathed dagger.


Mackenzie Hoff, Federal Bureau of Investigations, I presume,

he said.


Yeah,

I said brusquely, annoyed by the looks I

d been getting. Didn

t these people know it was wrong to judge others? To make them uncomfortable?


Hiram Speer, Sensitive Inquiries Office, Boothcross branch,

the tall man announced. He held up his left hand to show me a ring inlaid with a red jewel and I saw that his knuckles were misshapen and swollen, as if repeatedly broken. It made me think he must have been a boxer.

It occurred to me that I should probably show him ID.

Please, don

t bother showing me your badge,

he said as I reached inside my jacket pocket.

One
doesn

t have to be an Arthur Conan Doyle protagonist to recognize you as an American federal agent.


How so?

I asked, prepared to be flattered.


The harsh coarseness of your pantsuit combined with an overly aggressive attitude, as if you

re an actress in a man

s role playing your part more for stereotype than for nuance. Also, I received your description over the telewrite, and knew you were a redhead.

I was stunned by his rudeness, but all that came out was:

I

m strawberry blonde
.


Of course you are,

he said evenly.

Shall we?

He turned on his heel and walked away without asking if he could help me with my bag. Back home I wouldn

t really have expected an offer. But it surprised me that a Steamie wouldn

t do so. The implication seemed to be that I wasn

t worthy of such consideration.

I

d imagined the streets would have been filled with carriages and hansoms, and while there were some of those, Speer showed me to his car. At least

car

was as good a word as any. Less of a mouthful than

ornate,
rolling
furnace
.

I rode shotgun as Speer released some levers. The car whistled like a locomotive, and we chugged into traffic heading for downtown Boothcross.


I received the primer regarding your errant terrorist,

Speer
said
.

We
haven

t found Mr. Mohammad Talib as yet, unfortunately. But I had some of our men target likely information founts.


Have you increased security around here?

I asked.

Talib

s cell blew up three movie theaters before fleeing the States. He

s more than capable of doing the same thing to one of your opera houses, model zeppelin clubs, or whatever else you people have around here.


Talib was using electronic detonators

mighty difficult to requisition on Steam Pointe,

Speer
replied
.


Our intel says he got here by stowing away on a cargo ship carrying helium. Would have been easy to smuggle some detonators too, huh?


Yes, I

m aware of how easily he escaped you all. But I expect he

ll be running to ground rather than leisurely seeding bombs around town. We have posters up. Given how visibly he stands out from most Pointers, he

d be a fool to show himself. Most of our citizens go around armed, after all.

On the sidewalks, men walked confidently in their fine suits and canes, ladies in their elaborate dresses and gloves. However colorful their clothing, the people themselves were decidedly monochromatic.


I guess he
would
stand out here,

I agreed.

A grain of brown rice in a sea of salt.


Best watch it. By that metaphor, yours is a rather salty complexion, too. Besides, if you have a grain of brown rice in a container of salt, or vice versa, then by definition you have an impurity. Wouldn

t it be better for all concerned if that impurity were removed?


The natural world is full of blending. It makes things better, stronger. Combine iron and carbon, you get steel.


Doesn

t that depend on your components?

Speer asked.

Gold, for instance, doesn

t react with most metals. When it is formed into an alloy, the more base metal that is included, the less valuable the whole. Other elements are quite dangerous when brought together. Take hydrogen and chlorine, combine with water, and you have hydrochloric acid. Carbon, hydrogen, chlorine, and sulfur can form mustard gas. Iron oxide and aluminum give you thermite. What kind of reaction do people like Mohammad Talib make when introduced to a civilized society?

I ignored the disgusting racial jab.

With that kind of knowledge about chemistry, you

d be on a terrorist watch list back home.


Land of the Free, indeed,

Speer said with a smirk.

Look around you. Engineering and Chemistry are our gods, and Pointe Island is their temple. I

d say as between hard sciences, and Female-African-Sodomite Studies or whatever it is American universities teach these days, we made the correct choice.

We passed the rest of the drive in silence. Given our countries

bad blood, maybe it was inevitable we

d be at one another

s throats.

Steam Pointe

s seed had been the chemists, architects, mechanics, and engineers that Lincoln secretly turned loose on the South during the Civil War. The Experimental Munitions Regiment. Warrior scientists, they were good at killing Confederates. Horrifyingly so, as it turned out.

They offered a glimpse of 20th century warfare, and mid-19th century America recoiled.

Before Congress could have them hanged, the officers and enlisted men of the experimental unit collected what family they could and fled the country they

d fought for. They had settled here, making a nation in their own image. Isolated on this island, their descendants

along with what few immigrants they thought worthy

remained frozen in time, socially and morally Victorian, even as the industrial sciences they practiced continued evolving and mutating, like bacteria in a Petri dish. The whole thing was like a vast uncontrolled experiment in parallel social development. Men like Hiram Speer were one of that experiment

s results.

We pulled into what looked like New York

s Flatiron Building had it been trimmed in jade and brass: the Sensitive Inquiries Office HQ.

Once inside, Speer led me down into the building

s bowels.

You mentioned leads. How did you drum them up?

I asked. They hadn

t cell phone intercepts, cameras on every building with facial recognition software, or any of the other standard counter-terrorism tools afforded by modern society. The island was a black hole to any intelligence apparatus geared towards signal intercepts. It was why, the FBI and NSA figured, Talib had come here.


Simple,

Speer said, leading me down a gaslit hallway. The doors we passed looked thick enough to hold off invading medieval armies.

We have only twenty-six Arabs in all of Steam Pointe, fifteen of whom are here in Boothcross. None of them are citizens, so naturally we didn

t need a warrant to search their residences. Of those fifteen, three were found in possession of pro-jihadist books or pamphlets.


Like what? A Koran?

I asked.


Don

t be stupid. That is merely anti-Western. Despite what common sense and fourteen hundred years of inter-civilizational conflict might suggest, such a tome would not be dispositive of conspiracy. In this investigation, at any rate.

My voice was loud enough to echo down the hall.

Race might not be dispositive either.


True,

he conceded,

but irrelevant. We have an Arab terrorist hiding in this country. If he were to find assistance here, it would most likely be amongst those with whom he shares language, culture, and religion, not to mention physical appearance. If you were looking for a Chinese spy, absent any other information would you begin in a given city

s Irish pubs, or its Chinatown?

I felt like I had landed on another planet. Such obvious profiling would have meant a lawsuit back home, and dismissal from any police force.

He paused, awaiting my reply. I didn

t give it to him.


Irish pubs, obviously,

he said before opening one of the doors.

Inside was a thin man in a black suit. He looked younger than Speer, and his skin was such a phosphorescent white, it was as if he never left this basement room.

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