tagSci-Fi & FantasyConceal Me What I Am Ch. 01

Conceal Me What I Am Ch. 01

byStultus©

Arc Deco 3 - Conceal Me What I Am

Copyright© 2010 by Stultus

Synopsis: The worst part about being apparently a very minor magician is that no one takes you seriously, until it's once again time to save the world and it's all up to you once again!

Sex contents: Almost no Sex

Genre: Speculative Alternative Historical Fiction

Codes: MF, Magic, Supernatural, Violence

Originally Posted at SOL: 2010-10-12

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Thanks to my usual cast and crew of advance readers and editors, especially Dragonsweb, The Old Fart, WanderingScot & WorldWanderer



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Viola: Conceal me what I am, and be my aid
For such disguise as haply shall become
The form of my intent. I'll serve this duke


William Shakespeare
(Twelfth Night, Act I, Scene 2)



*************

Author's Forward:

This is the third story in the Arc Deco series, and unlike the second story, I'm not going to back up as much to explain the weird and twisted world that Zak Zephyr lives in, so I'd suggest that you read those two stories first if you want to have a better idea of what is going on. This will be a long story, nearly novel length, so this should help satisfy the many readers that have been emailing me regularly for the last year, eagerly awaiting the next Zak adventure! Like this story, the next tale might be significantly delayed, so enjoy!

I'm slowly working on some large scale political maps of the Great Western Alliance, and its borders with Deseret, the CSA and the USA. Not to mention the western British Colonial Zone of Columbia and the very reduced frontier border with Mexico (or what's left of it). Maybe with luck I can get these done by the time the story has completed posting or shortly afterwards.



**************

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.

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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.

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