The Arkology Reports
1873, somewhere above the Atlantic Ocean
Dark clouds were gathering overhead as a lone airship cruised over the restless waves at a comfortable 200 feet. Inside its sleek hull, the 7th Chairman inhaled the sharp smell of petrol as she shifted in her seat. Her back hurt as if to remind the Chairman of her frailty. Once again, she adjusted the mantle covering her right side so the dragoon section beside her wouldn’t notice her withered hand.
Meanwhile, in the hind section of the cabin, the electric generator’s pitch grew higher as power increased. Behind her, she heard the red-bismuth solution rushing through the pipes that circumvented the vessel’s hull as the 25-foot airship compensated for the increasingly violent winds that threatened to push her off course. The Nimrod was designed for silent airborne operations, not passenger travel. Its red-lit interior would have suited her personality just fine if it wasn’t for her damned body. There were no windows or storage compartments, only racks and nets to stash personal equipment, maintenance tools, and utilities. Even the passengers had to sit in the hammock-like seats, which were as comfortable as campaign chairs.
Despite its rudimentary interior, the vehicle was a marvel of engineering, disguised as an ordinary blimp for this journey. If it were possible, the Nimrod could revolutionize the world. If the French Empire had possessed ships like these at the dawn of the century, no cossack skirmishers would have been able to stop the Grande Armée’s barrage trains into Russia, and England would have been conquered for sure. Alas, the red bismuth that provided its lift was created of such an organic substance that a single leaking canister or a crashed Nimrod could contaminate the entire world with Red Coral. But the reward! Vehicles that could fly with incredible mobility. The Nimrod would make most ground vehicles obsolete if only God provided them with a way to neutralize the Red Coral’s infectious nature… If only.
The screeching sound of her leg brace woke the Chairman from her musings. ‘Merde!’ escaped her dry lips. The brace around her left leg got stuck between a crate and the chair's frame again. She had to reach down with her left hand to dislodge the leg free and grabbed the frame near the base of the shin. She uttered a soft but frustrated groan as she pulled. Her limp right arm was folded uselessly against her ribs as she jerked at the brace again, finally dislodging the prosthetic.
Looking sideways with suspicion, she glared at the airborne dragoons. Fortunately, they didn’t pay her that much attention. The six of them swayed in their seats to the rhythm of the Nimrod’s movements. Observing them had an oddly hypnotic effect and inevitably made her motion sick - almost worse than being on a boat.
Still, she marveled at their uniforms for a moment. These were inspired by those of more futuristic armies encountered in the multiverse but still resembled common uniforms but had wide pockets in various places containing various tools. Their decorations were reduced to minimal, streamlined designs, and their joints were protected by couters and poleyns. They gossiped through their fully enclosed lobster helmets like a bunch of old veterans.
‘Who’s the girl?’ asked one, as if she wasn’t there.
‘The Association’s 7th chairman, as I understand it,’ answered the dragoon opposite of him.
‘But she’s a child,’ the first one said, pointing at her gold-colored epaulets. ‘Dressed as Jean Paul’s grandpa at Waterloo.’
‘Oui, it’s true,’ answered a dragoon with a French accent. ‘It’s a very similar uniform.’
Smiling, the Chairman addressed the Frenchman. “Quel était le nom de votre grand-père, soldat?” the Chairman replied.
The dragoons went quiet.
The French Dragoon hesitated but then called her bluff. ‘Jean Paul Garville, 4th Grenadiers.’
‘Vieille Garde,’ she responded whimsically.
‘Ah, oui,’ he responded hesitantly.
‘The 4th was at Genappe, was it not?’
‘You are very knowledgeable,’ he answered, somewhat stupefied.
‘Genappe,’ she repeated softly. ‘It was our last stand.’
‘We have a visual of our destination!’ cried the pilot.
‘Take an evasive approach,’ the chairman responded. ‘They have several machine gun positions.’
The pilot looked over his shoulder. ‘S- Madame,’ the pilot corrected himself. ‘I was not informed of any hostiles.’
‘Sir, is fine,’ she assured him. ‘As for the hostiles. They actually weren’t that enthused when we announced our arrival. So, just in case, evasive maneuvers.’
‘Uh, right,‘ muttered the pilot as he looked in front of him. ‘Picking an evasive course… Just in case.’
‘Are you expecting resistance, Chairman?’ asked one of the dragoons coldly.
She looked at his visor. Through the triangular glasses of the lobster helmet, a pair of sincere eyes glared back at her. She figured they would speak out sooner. Originally, the dragoons had been told the Nimrod was heading for Sierra Leonne. They had to know better by now. ‘I am certain it’s nothing the elite dragoons cannot handle, soldat,’ she said, trying not to sneer.
As the Nimrod made a wide turn, the passengers on her side of the cabin tilted forward, only kept in their seats by the belts strapping them to the chair frames.
The Chairman bit her lips together as the strap was pressed inside her right shoulder, causing her polio-stricken muscles to strain as if they were being stretched like rubber bands.
While leaning closer to the floor, she looked sideways toward the cockpit. In front of the dome-shaped viewport, the pilot sat half-submerged beneath the deck. Through the veil of the clouds, she could see the pale bell-shaped vignette of the Elysium-Object in the night sky. Right beneath it was the Babylon Launch Platform. The repurposed oil rig looked like a lonely fortress of steel pipes and girders in the middle of the ocean, whose roaring waves failed to reach the top deck.
A long bridge connected a smaller rig to the west. It was a launch platform, occupied by a vertical space rocket, ready to be launched. The fish-shaped vessel was standing at attention for years now, like a weathered monument to men’s ambition.
On the main platform, amidst the arrangements of pipes and industry, rose a wide tower with a large glass dome. The top was green with algae and its once bright copper structure had turned turquoise green. It was the only location where faint light burned beneath the dome. The remainder of the rig looked like a ghost town.
The Chairman called out to the pilot. ‘You have seen any boats nearby?’
‘Non?’ That surprised her. It meant the inhabitant left themselves with no means of escape.
The Nimrod shook as it descended on the top deck, right in the middle of the square. But finally, the vessel managed to collapse its broad rubbery skids and landed on the steel surface.
The back folded open like an unsealed letter in three directions. Immidiately, the dragoons removed their straps and got up in unison facing the ramp. Then they stormed out, taking on a tactical formation outside and around the exit hatch. The Chairman, however, was in no rush. The pilot helped her remove her buckles and got her to stand up. Supported by her cane, she walked off the ramp. Her mantle wrapped itself around her chest as the wind got hold of it.
‘There is nobody here, chairman!’ a dragoon cried over the roaring of the wind.
‘I wasn’t expecting a welcome! We’ll head straight for the dome.’
‘Who still lives here?’ asked the dragoon.
‘Don’t worry,’ she assured them. ‘The inhabitants are recluses in voluntary exile. It’s a miracle they managed to hold out for this long.’
Amidst the dragoon’s formation, the Chairman was escorted across the platform. The wind howled between the structures as the group made its way to the dome. But they did so at the Chairman’s pace, to the dragoons’ chagrin. They should praise themselves fortunate, she thought. It wasn’t that long ago she needed a crutch to walk.
Finally, they approached the tower. The metal steps reverberated through the whole structure as they ascended the stairs curled up around the base. Once they reached the causeway around the dome, they stopped in front of its main entrance. It was a rather cinque entree in a Hellentian style. Though the paint was flaking off the cast iron curls and leaf patterns.
The Chairman rang the bronze bell beside the door. While waiting, the dragoons kept their carbines directed at the door, but the Chairman said nothing.
Behind the foggy glass panes, the blurry resemblance of a person appeared. As the door opened, a woman barred the way. She was of Indian descent but wore western-style clothing apart from a colorful shawl around her chest. Ignoring the guns, she looked defiantly down on the Chairman.
‘Bonjour, madame,’ the chairman greeted her, looking up. ‘Mind if I come in? This cold is wreaking havoc on my constitution.’
‘You must be from the Association,’ she responded, dismayed. ‘My grandfather was very clear in his response.’
‘And we were very clear that he didn’t have a choice. Now, considering the fact you didn’t use that gun emplacement by the landing pad, you are alone?’
‘My grandfather is old. There is little you can threaten him with.’
‘Threaten? Oh, non, madame. Vous avez mal compris. I am here to make him an offer.’
‘He’s not interested,’ she responded abruptly.
‘Tell me, is your grandpapa unable to speak for himself?’
‘He is fine.’
‘Biene. I’ll go see him then.’
She stopped the Chairman. ‘No!’
The chairman looked the woman in the eyes. ‘I’ve had enough of this.’ She turned to the dragoons and jerked her head sideways. ‘Move her out of the way.’
Two dragoons grabbed the granddaughter by the shoulders and forced her aside.
As the granddaughter protested, the Chairman stepped inside, allowing the unique environment to sink in. The interior of the dome seemed bigger on the inside than the outside. It would have been impressive if the area didn’t give off the flea market vibe. It smelled of dusty carpets marinated in the scent of incense. Clusters of cobwebs obscured part of the dome above. On the ground floor, besides the sitting area, furnished with buttoned leather chairs, was a pile of books and curiosa filling the space beneath the staircase. Behind batik drapes, rows of paintings and photo portraits leaned against the wall, covered in a wooly layer of dust. The second and third floors were open, like decks on a ship, and could either be reached by a spiraling staircase or the elevator beside it.
The Chairman wiped her finger across a surface and watched as the dust accumulated beneath her finger like pocket lint. ‘Do you have any staff, madame?’ asked the Chairman, rubbing her fingers together.
‘Some… They are away, fetching supplies.’
‘They took the only boat?’
‘Yes,’ she admitted.
‘Iintéressante…Is that elevator still working? It's hard for me to walk such stairs.’
She nodded reluctantly.
The Chairman walked up to the elevator. When she failed to pull the fence aside, she looked over her shoulder. ‘Dragoon, would you mind?’
The fence roared as the dragoon pulled it aside as if it was in dire need of greasing. After entering the capsule-like elevator, the soldier shut the gate. The Chairman pushed the ivory button, and the cabin ascended without much protest. She passed the first floor, which was very much like the bottom one, be it more a workshop of sorts with drawing boards and machine models. She imagined that once the greatest minds on the planet worked at those tables. It was unlikely anyone would get anything done there now.
Then, she arrived on the second floor. The moment she pulled the fence aside, there he was, glaring at her like a sour old man. In his defense, he was old and immobile. From his wheelchair, he peered at the Chairman from underneath his thick eyebrows. His jet black hair had turned to stained silvery strands that could barely conceal the pale complexion with ink-like patches of melanated skin underneath.
‘Mr. Ghulam Ali, je suppose?’
‘Are you mocking me, mademoiselle?’ he sneered with his unpleasant old man voice.
‘You will address me as Chairman.’
‘You came into our home with armed thugs. I’ll address you the way I like, girl.’
‘I am sorry, but you forced my hand. You have something I desire.’
‘Oh, je comprends,’ he sneered in fluid French, holding out a single handle with a button beneath his thumb. ‘All I have to do is push this d detonator, and the payload inside the Comet III will explode.’
‘You’re determined,’ she acknowledged.
‘I worked my whole life to get a rocket to Elysium. It’s only fair it dies with me.’
‘You think humanity can’t reach the stars without your help? Utter-Krapp launched its first prototype a few months ago.’
‘Those idiots couldn’t reach the clouds.’
‘They reached the stratosphere,’ she gloated.
His droopy lips frowned even further.
‘That’s right,’ she continued. ‘While you have been living in this snowglobe, with your memories of faded fame, humanity has progressed without you.’
He licked his lips in frustration. ‘Well, if you are so well off without me, why are you here?’
‘Urgency,’ she stated. ‘You have what we need, and we can give you what you want.’
‘What can you possibly offer me?’
‘We know your supporters are still trying to acquire the funding for the launch of the Comet III. We can provide.’
He rolled his eyes.
‘I’m serious, monsieur. I can bring you back into the public consciousness so your name will never be associated with failure again.’
‘Why would I believe you?’
She stepped closer. ‘Remember what Napoleon said when you were admitted to the Academy D'Aéronautique?‘ she asked pedantically. ‘If you never spread your wings, you’ll never know how far you can fly.’
His thin jaw dropped. ‘How do you know that?’
‘Never mind that, mon ami… Do you want the Comet to reach Elysium?’
He looked up at the dark sky above. The faded outline of the Elysium Object was barely visible through the weathered dome. But it was there nonetheless, visibly reminding him of his past failures.
She leaned her cane against the wall. ‘I get what I want, with or without you,’ she said, and reached out her open hand. ‘Whether you benefit or not is irrelevant to me. Everyone knows you want to make history. I am offering you that chance. You already sacrificed so much. What does your pride mean to you at this point?’
‘It’s all I have left,’ he said, admittingly.
‘Think of what you get in return,’ she encouraged him. ‘One last chance at flying!’
He looked at the detonator.
‘Give it to me,’ she insisted with a straight face. She was sure she got him, but he still had the power to turn the tables. It was more than a detonator. It was his legacy, his final decisive act.
He kept postponing his decision, but she didn’t dare to say anything. She swallowed as he slowly reached out his trembling hand, his thumb still at the ready to push that button. But then, finally, a sense of relief flushed through her body as the detonator lay idly in her hand as Ghulim retracted his quivering fingers. She dropped the device on the floor and rested the sole of her leg brace on top of the gadget. His face cringed as the improvised device cracked beneath her foot. She shifted her full weight on top of it until there was nothing left on the floor tiles but some strung-together electronics.
An hour later,
Two dragoons pushed Ghulam Ali in his wheelchair up the ramp of the Nimrod as Miss Congrave stood idly by, in between two suitcases. She didn’t look pleased at all, even if she had nothing to complain about, as far the Chairman saw it. She might be disappointed in her grandfather for relinquishing the Babylon Project. Or maybe, she had intended to continue the project after his death.
‘We’re going to keep an eye on that one,’ she said to the dragoon closest to her.
‘Affirmative… Chairman, can I have a word?’
‘Is that man, Ghulam Ali?’
‘That man developed the rockets with which Napoleon bombed my grandparents!’
‘The past is the past. We can only judge him for his present actions. And he agreed to help.’
‘What?’ he sneered.
‘It means we are going to explore Elysium,’ she announced, enthused. ‘Tu comprends?’
‘He worked for the French Empire. You think he can be trusted?’
‘As much as he can trust us. We are his last chance at fulfilling his dream. And that launch might be our last chance at doing anything at all.’
Corporal Maurits, 3th Airborne Dragoons
Against prior instructions, we delivered the 7th Chairman of the Association of Ishtar to the Babylon Launch Platform. We encountered no resistance. The only people present on the platform were renowned scientist Ghulam Ali and his granddaughter Sara Congrave. Miss Congrave offered minor resistance. When the Chairman was refused entry into the habitation complex of the island, we forced her out of the way and made her sit in a chair for the duration of the Chairman’s and Mr. Ali’s conversation.
We were unaware of their identities at this time and only realized Mr. Ali was present when the Chairman and he, inside of a wheelchair, came down in the elevator. When Private Walton recognized him, he called the old man out, telling him he was a murderer, referring to the Rocket attacks on England.
Order was quickly restored. I gave Walton a stern talking to.
After the incident, I ordered the platoon to embark with Ali. I addressed the Chairman personally, out of earshot of the men. I asked the Chairman why she hadn’t taken her own agents on this mission. She replied the Chair wasn’t aware of her presence on the Babylon Platform. I asked her if she understood I would have to report these events to Bellerathon headquarters. She said she didn’t mind.
Afterward, we boarded the Nimrod and delivered the Chairman and Ali at the Pendelton Manor.
Note: We tried the new disembarking procedure when leaving the Nimrod on the Babylon Platform. No comments.