science fiction writer
Love in the Balance (All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories)
by David D. Levine
Theophile Nundaemon closed the book, shaking his head over the images he’d found therein. So sad, so mad… he closed his eyes and set the book aside, a few maroon particles of the decaying cover dusting the ormolu surface of the table.
Unobserved, a cleaner descended silently and snuffled the debris away. It sniffed at the book as well, but Theo’s scent on the cover indicated this was no discard.
The little creature puffed itself up to grapefruit size and drifted off to its nest in the corner of the room. Immature cleaners peeped supersonically and opened wide their jaws.
Theo opened his eyes and stared out the window. Beyond the glass loomed the fog of endless night, and bulbous shapes drifting. Here and there a spotlight picked out the sigil of one or another House on a pennant or tail fin. The red bat of the Unknown Regalia… the silver spoon-and-circle of Theo’s own Guided Musings… and there, the gilded fish of the Pulp Revenants. Angrily, Theo twisted the brass and crystal handle beneath the worn sill, and wooden slats snapped shut over the view.
How dare Kyrie summon the zombies again— on this day of all days, and upon the Musings of all Houses? How dare she?
Theo picked up the book and shoved it back on the shelf. That compendium of ancient lore and legends was nearly as useless as the endless mutterings of the House Fathers. He paced before the shuttered window, heedless of the books’ shuffling and muttering as they rearranged themselves alphabetically, lighting his pipe. Then a low familiar foghorn sounded outside the window and Theo sighed and opened the shutters.
Looming from the dark and fog came the nose of the Grand Edison III the personal airship of Kyrie Strommond, the flagship of the Revenants, and the long-estranged lover of Theophile Nundaemon.
Theo still felt fondly toward the Edison, and he knew that despite everything, she still held some warmth in her engines for him. But those cooling ashes of love would be no protection at all from the zombie warriors the Edison now bore within her gravid silver hull. For fluttering from the foremast was Kyrie’s own sigil, Capricorn, on a field of stars.
That damnable goat.
A tear gathered in the corner of Theo’s eye.
“Zenobia,” he called to his personal servant. “Prepare my zeppelin gun.”
Not waiting for a response, Theo strode from the library and descended the brass-railed oak spiral stair to his quarters. There he shrugged on his black wool overcoat, with the high, stiff collar and gold-braided epaulets of a Commander of the Musings. He descended two more flights, then took a long corridor, his thudding boots raising dust from the worn carpet below, lining a hallway full of portraits of long-dead zeppelin captains on towards the reception bay. House slaves had already opened the bay doors and extended the boarding ramp to meet the descending Edison. A cold, damp breeze blew in from the endless night. Theo fastened his topcoat button.
Theo stood silent, marinating in memory and regret, as shouting slaves tossed lines to the Edison and held her fast.
Then her hatch opened, the boarding stair unrolling itself like a great slatted tongue, and Kyrie Strommond descended to the ramp, majestic in the green uniform of a Commander of the Revenants.
Though the threads of gray in her hair now outnumbered the black, Kyrie was still a handsome woman, with keen intelligent green eyes and clear, pale skin. But the mouth tightened in a hard line as she saw who had come to meet her.
“Honor to you, Theophile,” she said. “And honor to your House.”
“Honor to you, Kyrie,” he replied, “and honor to your airship.”
It was a calculated insult, barely within the bounds of protocol, but his only reward was a single blink.
Despite himself, Theo had to admire her steel. It was a shame they could never be friends.
“I require quarters for my troops,” she said. “As stipulated by the Compact.”
“That may be… difficult. At this time of year. How many?”
At that, Theo blinked. So large a contingent had not been seen in centuries. What could the Revenants be planning?
“But they require no food or water, and only the minimum of space.”
He escorted her to an alcove in the wall, where a wooden model of the House of the Guided Musings floated in the air. He touched one of the brass knobs that studded its surface, and the model obediently split open, revealing the warren of rooms and corridors within. Thousands of tiny wooden pegs populated the spaces; mahogany for men, maple for women, fir for slaves, their fitful motion reminding Theo of a disturbed anthill.
“As you see,” he said, “the Reunion Day crowds have already arrived.”
Naturally, since this model was in a public space, much of the information was lies. But Theo’s lip quirked in amusement at the two pegs— that of maple and mahogany— that stood by the alcove in the model’s reception bay.
Theo turned the model this way and that, opening and closing its various sections.
“Ah yes, I believe the children’s squanderball games can be moved from the lesser gymnasium. Would that do?”
Kyrie pondered the model gymnasium, as though trying to discern its size. The model did not show the steel doors and mantraps that surrounded it, of course, but Kyrie would be looking for telltale voids and discontinuities.
Theo sweated under his heavy coat. He had supervised the reconstruction of the Red Diamond section himself, and the model’s complex of feints and deceptions was superb. Yet Kyrie was a formidable strategist.
“Yes,” she said at last, “that will suffice.”
Theo pointed out the route from the reception bay to the gymnasium. “Your troops will be escorted, prevent them from losing their way.”
“Thank you.” She gave a smile that appeared nearly genuine.
As Kyrie returned to the Edison, Theo climbed an aluminum ladder to the glass-enclosed mezzanine. There he stepped to a brass trumpet set in the wall and pulled a chain for privacy. Immediately the reception bay’s clatter and banging were stifled to a dull mutter, accompanied by a feeling of pressure in Theo’s ears.
The grating voices of the House Fathers emerged from the trumpet. “What does Kyrie plan?” they demanded without preamble.
“There can be little doubt she will attempt to take the House, most likely tonight,” he replied. “I have quartered her troops in the lesser gymnasium.”
“Excellent. We will transfer Cherub and Centaur divisions to that section immediately.”
“You must also prepare to cut the section loose, if necessary. Even with all our preparations, three hundred zombies are a formidable force.”
The Fathers muttered in consternation but finally replied “We will begin calculations. We hope it will not come to that.”
“As do I.” Theo hesitated. The final element of his defense plan would be highly controversial, and he considered keeping it to himself until the thing was done. But the long habit of duty compelled him to speak.
“There is one other thing.”
“Kyrie’s airship. The Grand Edison.”
“What about it?”
Theo swallowed. “I intend to kill her.”
At that, the Fathers’ chorus fragmented into a confused babble.
“Hear me out!” Theo shouted into the trumpet, his throat tight with rage and anguish. “Even if we prevail in this battle, the Revenants have made it clear that they will not hesitate to summon the zombies again and again until they achieve complete domination. They have bent the Compact nearly to the breaking point already. Killing the Edison will only complete a process that the Revenants began. And without her, their strength will be reduced to the point that the other Houses can once again balance them. We can restore the spirit of the Compact only by breaking its letter.”
Theo’s outburst silenced the Fathers for a long moment. “We cannot officially sanction such an action,” they replied at last.
“I understand.” The privacy field pressed in on Theo’s head like a vise. “Any action I take will be my responsibility alone.”
Theo took a moment to compose himself before returning to the floor of the bay, where the zombies were already lining up. The smallest of them was over six feet tall and heavily muscled, and their dead gray skin and lifeless eyes hinted at their incapacity for pain and fatigue while belying the speed of which they were capable. Each wore a poison-green uniform, with Kyrie’s Capricorn sigil at the shoulder, and carried a heavy spider rifle. Theo noted that the rifles’ bores and magazines were exactly at the limit prescribed by the Compact.
A company of the Musings troops, uniformed in black with Theo’s own trident-and-anvil on their shoulders, confronted the zombies with razor whips at the ready. Theo nodded in approval; standard-issue confusers would be of no use whatsoever against zombies. The last zombie marched off of the Edison and lined up with its fellows.
“This is Sergeant Shrive,” Theo said to Kyrie. “He and his men will conduct your troops to the gymnasium. Once they are settled, would you do me the honor of joining me for dinner?”
“The honor would be mine,” she replied.
“It will be a formal occasion, of course.”
They leveled stares at each other like lances at a joust. Under the Compact, a formal dinner was a web of obligations and prescribed courtesies, offering many opportunities for insult. The Revenants’ last three battles had all begun over protocol violations at formal dinners, and one of them might have even been justified.
At the invited party, Kyrie had the choice of wine.
“I have an Upwelling Iris ‘623 in my cellars. Would that be appropriate?”
The Revenants always used poisons from the cadenine family with that vintage. He made a mental note to issue the appropriate antidote to his steward.
“One of my men will bring you to my quarters at seven bells.”
They bowed stiffly to each other, sealing the invitation. But with the formalities concluded, Theo had one more request.
“As you may know, I once served aboard the Edison. While you are seeing to your troops’ comfort, may I come aboard for a visit? An informal visit.”
Kyrie hesitated. Theo knew she was torn between denying him the intelligence he would gain and granting him the pain and distraction the visit would cause.
“Certainly,” she said at last. “My captain will escort you.”
Theo smiled a grim little smile. As he had expected, Kyrie’s sadism had won out over her strategic judgment. His stratagem had succeeded, but now he would have to live with the consequences.
The captain was a lean, cadaverous man who seemed half-zombie himself. He conducted Theo across the creaking boarding ramp, stretched across infinite blackness from the House of the Guided Musings, and up the Edison’s warm and faintly pulsing steps.
Once inside, Theo was assaulted by an appalled nostalgia. His old lover’s familiar halls, railings, and wainscotings were now covered with a gray coat of fireproof military paint; the oak sideboards had been replaced by racks of laser-guided scramblers.
Theo was led on a circuitous route to the airship’s audience chamber. The route itself told him much. Clearly, something major had been installed on deck three between the fore and mizzen engines, and the captain didn’t want him to see it. He thought it might be a bay for boarding craft, but then the scent of hydrazine in section twenty-five told him it was even worse: guided missiles.
Inwardly he trembled, even as he continued counting men at duty stations and analyzing the upgraded firefighting systems.
“This is the audience chamber,” the captain said unnecessarily. “You may have ten minutes.”
“Thank you,” Theo said and slipped down through the opened hatch.
Unlike the rest of the ship, here nothing changed. It was still close and moist and warm, echoing the thrum and gurgle of the great zeppelin’s life fluids.
“Hello, Theo.” The airship’s voice was warm and maternal but still gave Theo an erotic tingle.
“I’m surprised you came. I thought you wouldn’t want to see me.”
Tears pinched at the back of Theo’s throat, but he refused them.
“I… it was a hard choice, Edie. But, the way things have been going lately, I thought it might be my last chance for a while.” Maybe forever, he thought.
“I’m sorry, Theo.” Warm pseudopods extended from the wall and rubbed his shoulders, and Theo relaxed for a moment into the familiar touch. “Kyrie is keeping me so busy these days.”
Theo sat up and brushed the pseudopods away. “Yes, I know. That’s what I’m here to talk with you about.”
The seat of Theo’s chair stiffened and grew cool.
“The answer is still no.”
“Damn it, Edie!” Now the tears did come, though he sniffed them back. “How could you abandon the Musings? How could you abandon me? I loved you!”
“And I loved you too. But the Revenants are the future, Theo. Why can’t you see that? The Musings, the Regalia, the Apocrypha… they’re trying to hold on to the sky by their fingernails. How many Houses have gone down in the past year?”
“Eight,” he replied automatically.
“Eight,” she repeated, “and madly flapping around the Compact isn’t going to keep the rest stay in the air forever. As long as each Households its thaumaturgies and technologies close to its vest, each will float or fall on its own… and each one that falls takes all its secrets with it. Only by pooling our best ideas do we have a chance to keep what remains of humanity aloft.”
“The Compact has provisions for information sharing.”
“The system isn’t working, Theo. The lesser Houses, the ones that float lowest and are closest to losing buoyancy, are naturally the most driven to create new techniques. But because of their reduced status, none will trade with them, and so they fail. And so their learnings are lost to us.”
“And the Revenants’ forced labor and torture are better?”
“We’ve already learned so much, by combining the work of the Whistlers and the Philosophers and the Radiant Ones. Once all the Houses are united under Revenant guidance, we will surely find the final solution. And then these unfortunate practices can be brought to an end.”
“‘Unfortunate practices’? ‘Final solution? Edie, what’s become of you?”
“Nothing’s changed, Theo. I’m still trying to do what I was built to do: keep you all alive. In the best way, I know how.”
The sounds behind the walls changed, as though the great airship’s heart were beating more slowly.
“Whether you understand it or not.”
The hatch opened, sending the harsh military light of the cabin above into Theo’s stinging eyes.
“Time’s up,” said the captain, and without a word, Theo climbed out of the audience chamber.
He thought he heard “I love you, Theo,” as the hatch closed. Perhaps it was only his imagination. But as the captain walked him back to the boarding ramp, he pushed the question out of his mind and focused on the enemy airship’s defenses.
Seven bells. Theo paced his dining room, sweating in his dress uniform. Five battalions of the Musings’ best troops were hidden in the walls around the lesser gymnasium. Tanks of acid were pressurized and ready to spew, frenzied eagle-cats snarled and battered their great wings against the walls of their cages while transdimensional fields strained the vertices of their dark crystals. All was in readiness, but the forms of the compact must still be observed.
As the sound of the seventh bell echoed away down the oak-walled corridor, and two men in radiation armor escorted Kyrie in, a tiny constellation of five pea-sized diamonds orbited above each of the epaulets of her dress uniform.
“So pleased you could join me, Kyrie.” He proffered his arm. “May I show you to your seat?”
“Why, thank you.” Her uniform sleeve was lined with ceramic plates, which struck rigidly against the defensive field-grid sewn into his own. He pulled out her chair, the one facing the door (as required), and brushed off the seat with his handkerchief. She sat, and he helped to push in her chair. Kyrie peered at the table. All the cutlery was in the proper positions. The napkins were folded appropriately
for the time of day and the season. The number and size of servants were within prescribed limits. Theo was certain there was nothing Kyrie could use to provoke an incident.
“What a charming table.”
Theo bowed and called for the first course. A serving cart rolled out on silent rubber wheels, parked obediently by the table, and raised its silver dome, revealing fairy shrimp steaming in a glistening brown sauce. The steward carefully ladled out a precise portion on each plate.
Kyrie took a bite… and immediately spat it out.
“This tastes like shit!” she said.
“Yes,” Theo said and smiled. “My own, to be precise.”
Kyrie sat, mouth open, too stunned to say anything.
“I decided to cut short the agony of waiting and give you your opportunity to attack in the first course.”
“You…” Then she snapped her mouth shut and gave him a brief bow of acknowledgment, not taking her eyes off him.
“Very well. I, Kyrie Destinia Strommond of the Pulp Revenants, do take the gravest offense at this violation of protocol, and under Article XVII, Section 7 of the Grand Compact of Humanity, I invoke my right to restitution.
And then she clapped her hands together and vanished with a blue flash, leaving behind the tingle of thaumaturgical energies and the smell of ozone.
Theo bent down and spoke to the brass trumpet fastened to the arm of his chair.
“We are at war.”
“Acknowledged,” came the voices of the Fathers, and alarms sounded throughout the House.
Throwing his napkin on the floor, Theo hurried up the spiral stair to the library. The bookshelves had already been cleared away, replaced by screens and crystals showing views from throughout the House and the air nearby. On one screen, zombies in pale shimmering armor waded through hip-deep acid, their spider rifles spitting poisonous metal spiders at the defenders. On another, an enormous zombie, stripped to the waist, mowed through Theo’s black-uniformed troops with a broadsword in each hand.
But Theo’s attention was riveted to the three-dimensional display in the center of the room, a rotating web of crystal threads that depicted the House and the airships nearby. With the exception of the Edison, they were all Musings ships. On Reunion Day, all members of the other Houses would be with their loved ones. And the Musings’ best zeppelins were no match even for the Edison in which Theo had served, never mind her new configuration.
Nonetheless, Theo ordered his zeppelins into combat.
Tarantella and Eagle Scout immediately slipped their moorings and drove ponderously toward the Edison, followed shortly by Razor and Wedgwood. Edison responded smartly, whipping out of her berth with the full power of her seven enormous engines. She began hammering the Musings’ airships with missiles, lasers, and black coruscating webs of arcane energy; soon Razor and Eagle Scout had been reduced to embers, fluttering down into the endless dark, and Tarantella was listing badly.
Theo cursed the loss of life, but the attack had achieved the desired effect: it had brought Edison out into the range of his zeppelin gun. He ordered his first
subcommander to take charge of the aerial defense and clambered up the ladder to the highest point in the House. Zenobia had done well. The zeppelin gun gleamed, its long brass barrel polished to perfection, its sights precisely aligned, it's every nickel-plated wheel and lever gleaming bright. The harpoon was loaded and charged, humming with electricity and shimmering with thaumaturgical energies.
This one harpoon had cost nearly half of Theo’s defense budget five years ago. The arguments had gone on for months, and now he was vindicated. And nothing could have made him more miserable.
Theo stepped into the zeppelin gun’s shoulder braces and placed his hands on the grips. The dome overhead divided smoothly, letting in a wedge of night and fog. He peered through the gunsight at the Edison, heeling hard to the right as it unleashed a flight of missiles at Wedgwood. With only the one harpoon, he had to be certain of his aim.
“Commander!” cried his second subcommander from the room below. “The zombies are breaking through into the Blue Star section!”
Theo spat out a curse, then spoke into the trumpet to the House Fathers. “Cut loose the Red Diamond section immediately.”
A new set of alarms sounded, ear-shattering and urgent. On the displays, those Musings troops not directly engaged with the enemy dropped their weapons and ran. In the library, subcommanders and lieutenants began securing equipment.
The voices of the House Fathers sounded over the public address system.
“The Red Diamond Sector will be separated in 60 seconds.”
It was the first time Theo could recall the Fathers speaking to the entire House at once.
In the sight, the Edison had finished off the Wedgewood and was turning to strafe the House. She would be closer than the gun’s minimum range in less than a minute. He engaged the harpoon’s tracking, evasion, and anti-thaumaturgical systems.
Theo breathed a prayer and pressed the firing stud. The floor shuddered and, with a scream of superheated steam, the harpoon flung itself out of the gun, trailing its cable behind.
“Thirty seconds.” Steam obscured Theo’s view. The floor thrummed as the cable paid out. Theo cursed, over and over.
The view in the gunsight cleared just as the harpoon pierced Edison’s silvery envelope. The great zeppelin twitched all over at the impact, then convulsed as a mighty charge flowed into the harpoon from the alchemical batteries beneath Theo’s feet. He could almost hear her scream through the gunsight.
The Edison continued to quiver and shake as though with fever, jerking and twisting, but the harpoon held firm in her envelope. Reluctantly Theo stepped back from the gun and slid down the ladder.
“Five. Four. Three. Two. One.”
Theo held onto the ladder as though it were his long-lost sister.
A rumble as though the whole House had indigestion vibrated through the floor, the wall, and the ladder, as chemical and magical explosions, severed the structural connections between the Red Diamond section and the rest of the House. Half the displays went black; most of the rest showed pandemonium.
In the center of the room, displayed in a tracery of crystalline filaments, a large lobe fell slowly away from the House, while three huge gasbags detached from the top of the structure to compensate for the lost weight.
Meanwhile, Edison thrashed at the end of her line.
Then, suddenly, she reversed herself and dove toward the House. “No!” someone shouted.
Theo realized it was himself.
The ghostly, crystalline Edison smashed into the top of the ghostly, crystalline House. The impact drove them sideways, knocking aside everyone in the library except Theo, who still clung to the ladder. The lights flickered, along with the technological displays; when they cleared, it was plain that two of the House’s gasbags had been destroyed by the collision. Above them the Edison
floated free, still connected by the slack cable, but no longer twitching. It was unclear whether she was dead or alive.
Theo dragged himself to the nearest trumpet, as the floor shivered and tilted, and a queasy feeling of uncontrolled descent flowed through his stomach.
“Deploy emergency lift!” he shouted to the House Fathers.
“We have already done so. It is not sufficient. Too much reserve gas was lost in the detachment of the three gasbags that supported the Red Diamond Section.”
Theo sagged against the wall. The House of the Guided Musings was doomed. Helpless, he watched the altimeter drop. The room tilted slowly to one side as the crystalline model of the House fell away from the model of the Edison.
And then the Edison came to the end of the cable. Or perhaps the House did.
In either case, there was a sickening jerk and the floor suddenly tilted fifteen degrees further. Theo’s head slammed against the wall and he lost consciousness.
When he recovered, probably only a few seconds later, the three-dimensional display showed the Edison floating at the top of the cable, docile as a child’s balloon. The altimeter was nearly stable; the great zeppelin had just enough lifted to compensate for the two destroyed gasbags.
Theo stumbled across the tilted, debris-littered floor to the ladder, then clambered up to the gun room. The cable stretched through a gash in the dome, thrumming like a guitar string, and the whole room groaned with structural stress. There was no telling how long the cable, or the drum to which it was attached, or the structure to which the drum was in turn secured, would hold out.
He climbed up on the zeppelin gun, now bent nearly in half, and put his head next to the cable. Peering along its length through the broken dome, he saw the Edison rotating slowly high above. Gas leaked from the rent where the harpoon pierced her skin. And he heard his own name.
He looked around, but he was alone in the gun room, and the voice was so soft it could not have come from very far away.
Then he heard his name again, and this time he felt it as well; felt it thrumming under his fingers in the cable that held the House to the Edison. He pressed his ear to the cable.
“Theo,” came Edie’s voice, vibrating down the cable to his ear. Or perhaps it was just his imagination.
“Theo. Theo. I still love you, too, Edie,” he whispered to the cable.
All around him the shadows deepened, as the House’s lighting failed and the endless night crept in.
“Theo, Theo… I still love you, Theo. Though you have killed me.”
“I still love you, too, Edie,” he whispered to the cable.
All around him the shadows deepened, as the House’s lighting failed and the endless night crept in.
Love in the Balance by David D. Levine - All-Star Zeppelin Adventure Stories