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Authors: S.G. Schvercraft

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BOOK: The Zeppelin Jihad
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Special Agent Mackenzie Hoff, this is Inspector Deacon Harker,

Speer announced.

He handles our interrogations.


I guess that explains the black suit,

I said.


Actually, I borrowed this from our guillotine fellow,

Harker
said
.

My other suits are being laundered.

I almost thought he was serious until Speer erupted laughing. Harker

s thin face broke into a smile, and he extended his hand. I put mine out as well, but to my surprise he bowed to kiss it like a French courtier.

I hope you don

t find this offensive,

he said,

but such is the nature of our rather traditional etiquette.

Stateside, guys might open doors on the first few dates, but a year in, it was a miracle if they didn

t burp in front of you. I got the impression that a man like Harker never would.

I suppose I should have been bothered that I wasn

t being treated like one of the boys, but it was better than being treated like a lesser life form by Speer.

Thank you,

I said, looking sideways at Speer.

You

re actually the first person to extend such courtesy on this trip.


Don

t
consider
Hiram
representative
,

Harker
said
.

Many Pointers enjoy chatting with the few Americans they meet.


Only because they haven

t spent as much time amongst them as I have,

Speer cut in.

By the bye, isn

t there a terrorist we

re supposed to be hunting? Why yes, I recall that there is. Did you get anything out of those three Arabs, Deke?

There were two desks in the subcellar office, both with papers neatly stacked on them. Harker pointed to the documents on one table.

This is what we found when we tossed their apartments. Two of them had receipts for several questionable Middle East charities. We also found printed-out Internet journal articles they must have brought from home in the

Kill Jews, Kill Christians, they

re the root of all your life

s failings

genre.

Internet journal articles
. I guess he meant blog posts. These would have had to be printed out by Talib before he came here since computers were illegal in Steam Pointe.


In other words,

Harker continued,

they were more like armchair-Mujahidin than the actual thing. Their responses to questioning were consistent with that interpretation. One of them even cried during our discussion. I am having them held pending deportation.


And the third?

Speer asked.


The third is a man named Omar Khaliq.

Harker picked up a sheaf of papers from the other table and handed them to Speer.

He is more the genuine article.

Speer looked them over with a mild look of disgust before handing them to me.

These sheets were a heavier bond, more like parchment than anything you would stick in a laser printer. I could feel the slight imprint where the old-fashioned mechanical press had stamped the words, and the seal of the Steam Pointe government.

The first couple pages were a list of all incoming cargo vessels. One listing was circled in pencil, a ship out of New York carrying, among other things, helium. It had arrived in Steam Pointe three days earlier.


The ship we think Talib escaped on,

I said.

This man knew.


Khaliq probably picked him up at the docks himself,

Speer
said
.


What are these other documents?


Those,

Speer said with a grimace,

outline the government

s production of hydrogen, our security protocols for same, and the airship routes that employ hydrogen zeppelins.

Hadn

t these people heard of the
Hindenburg
?

You use hydrogen blimps?


Rigid airships,

Harker corrected.


Helium has to be imported from the United States, and so is relatively expensive,

Speer explained.

Hydrogen we can cheaply produce here through industrial electrolysis. We use the helium for military and passenger airships, and any others whose routes take them over populated areas. Hydrogen primarily gets used for industrial heavy-lifters traveling just off the coast.


Talib wouldn

t need any of his plastic explosive or electronic detonators. All the explosives he needs are right here,

I said.


If they

re so interested in finding accessible explosives, it follows that Talib isn

t here to hide. He

s planning another attack,

Speer
said
.


But what would be the target?

Harker
asked
.

We

re in the middle of the Indian Ocean, far from any vital international sea lanes. The only American interest close-at-hand that I can think of is their consulate.

Speer shook his head.

I don

t think the target is American. I think it

s us.


How do you figure? It

s not like you guys committed troops to Afghanistan or Iraq,

I said.

Speer
shrugged
.

We

re not Muslim. Need they another justification?


Well then,

Harker said before I could get into an argument with Speer,

I suppose that means I should continue my conversation with Mr. Khaliq. I was just taking a breather when you all came by.

Harker led us into a darkened room. I could sense more than see its cathedral-like scale. From high above, a single point of light

too bright for a gaslight, this was electrical

stared down onto the floor like the angry eye of God. Inside the light

s cone was a man strapped to a chair. It made me think about old pictures I

d seen of Thomas Edison

s electric chair.

We crossed the room

s vastness towards the man in the chair, our steps echoing like gunshots.

The prisoner was an Arab, mid-to-late 20

s. He was naked. His head hung down on his chest, and though the room was cool, sweat beaded along his receding hairline. I smelled the vomit before I saw it, stuck in his hair and smeared on his chest and groin.

No injuries, though. At least, not on the outside.

Like a man anxious to return to his muse, Harker

s gait had sped up as we

d entered the room. He was far ahead of us when I hissed to Speer,

This is inhumane. What have you done to him?


You

ll see,

Speer
said
.


No.
Make him stop
.


And give up our only lead?


How are you any better than he is?

I hated how Pollyanna I sounded, but it was true. This job had taught me that the world was colored in grayscale, and sometimes rules had to be bent. But there was a difference between bending rules and not having any.


I am better than he,

Speer
said
,

because I do not blow up theaters showing the latest Disney movies to maximize child casualties. Nor do I enable, celebrate, or excuse those that do. I stop such people.


Nice rationalization. You

re white, racist xenophobes with an enthusiasm for torture. Nazis, basically.

He actually laughed at me.

One man

s racism and xenophobia are another man

s common sense.


Sounds like a police state,

I said.


Does it? Applying common sense to counterterrorism, for instance, one would naturally focus first on those coming from Islamic countries, and next on legal residents of Arab extraction, while allowing the rest of the citizenry to go about their daily lives unmolested. Ignoring common sense, one might very well wind up with a regime where all citizens are subject to checkpoint stops, surveillance, and offensive searches as they simply try to travel around what used to be their country.

That stung. My badge had spared me from being groped by the TSA on the flight out of JFK, but I

d still had to wait in line half an hour for the privilege of getting irradiated by a body scanner.

Speer was on a roll now.

Civil society is organized to protect citizens, not vouchsafe the sensitivities of foreigners and their imbecilic champions among the native population. When did you people forget that?

I was tired of this. I needed Talib found. So this would be one of those moral compromises we make for the greater good. At least any blood was on the Steamies

hands, not mine.

We caught up with Harker. Just outside the light now, I could see a series of levers jutting out of the floor. Weirdly, an umbrella stand was also nearby.


Hello again, Omar,

Harker chimed in the same pleasant tone with which he

d greeted me.

Do we feel more cooperative now that you

ve had some time to think? Or would you like to go for another spin on the Merry-Go-Round?

There was fear in Khaliq

s eyes, but the Arabic that came from his throat was guttural and defiant. Harker responded himself in brief, polite-sounding Arabic before throwing one of the levers.

The floor shook slightly, as if a dragon was awakening beneath us. Then there was a hiss of steam, and the groan of massive iron gears limbering.


What did you say to him?

Speer asked, as the steam

s whine grew louder.

Harker
smiled
.

Bon voyage.

Dozens, maybe hundreds of gaslights suddenly came to life. The cavernous torture chamber glowed orange, and I could see now what the darkness had been hiding.

Weaving all around and above us was a hopeless tangle of what looked like rollercoaster tracks. Silhouetted black against the orange light, it might have been an amusement park designed in hell.

My eyes couldn

t follow the layout, but Khaliq

s scream drew my gaze back to him. I noticed now that there were wheels on his chair

s legs, threaded into tracks beneath him. Carnival music

popping and skipping as if played on a phonogram

blared on, and the chair shot away from us down the length of the room.

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