by Gustavo Bondoni
Dust Rabbits is the sequel to Moo Tube, published here in June.
“It really smells in here,” Francois observed for the hundredth time.
I’d ignored the first ninety-nine, but not this one, because I was getting nervous, too. “We should arrive at a ventilation shaft soon.”
Other than the clacking of the gears and the occasional screech of metal against metal, there was no noise. Anyone who’s been around cows for any period of time knows that they should have been making some sound. Blowing, snorting, stamping, something.
Instead, they were riding the conveyor belt through the pitch blackness in silence. They didn’t like it any more than we did, and it showed.
“How far do you think we’ve gone?” Francois asked.
“About ten miles, give or take a couple. I’d say we’ve been in this thing for an hour or so.” I peered into the distance and held up a hand, a useless gesture as not even I could see it. “I think we’re coming up on one of the vents.”
“You’re right. I see light up there. Thank God.”
“The cows around us began to grow restless. I only hoped they wouldn’t stampede towards the brighter zone ahead.
We duly arrived at the opening. From fifty yards away it appeared to be just another one of the vents we’d passed already, an air hole cut into the rock above so the cattle wouldn’t suffocate.
A few yards closer, it looked different. It was coming right towards us, and I thought it might be set in a curve that made it look like we were going to plow straight through.
Then we actually did go through and only Francois’ hand on my shoulder kept me from falling on my face and immediately being trampled by the cattle who, now liberated from the tunnel, had begun to look alive. We were in a shallow, well-illuminated cavern. After the darkness, the light felt painful, but I still looked back to see where the conveyor belt ended.
“Stay low,” Francois said.
We worked our way towards the left side of the formation, crouching down so our hats remained below the level of the cows’ backs, but not low enough that we’d have to crawl. This wasn’t the kind of floor you’d want to crawl across.
“Smells even worse down here,” Francois remarked.
“What did you see?” I asked. His eyesight was better than mine. There was a reason he was a legendary hunter. “More ghosts?”
He ignored the jibe. “Two men up ahead. One looks like a cowboy, the other is wearing a grey suit. Right at the edge of the cave, on the other side of this bunch of cows.”
That meant we couldn’t reach them without recrossing the stream of livestock hiding us from view. “All right. We’ll go out with the cows and see how things look from there.”
The cattle appeared delighted to go out into the sun again, and you really couldn’t blame them. Anyone who’d ever been stuffed into close quarters—say an army barracks or the crew quarters on a naval vessel—with a large number of men will tell you how humid and stuffy that can be. Well, I was never going to complain about hot, humid and smelly again. I’d lived the worst of it.
But we’d made it. Francois and I were one step closer to unraveling the mystery of the missing cows. In fact, as my nose insisted on reminding me, we’d already found the cows, and the Army would soon be closing down the other side of this tunnel—the captain of the airship that had taken us there would make certain of that. But I wouldn’t consider the case solved until I found out who was behind it.
The cows had emerged into a dusty, bowl-shaped depression between two wooded hills, a perfect place to hide cattle from anyone who came snooping… and far enough away from where they’d disappeared that you could honestly pretend they were yours—with adequate doctoring of brands, of course.
Black smoke belched out of a shack to our left. Even from a distance, I could tell there was some kind of heavy machinery at work inside. “That’s probably the engine for the belt,” I said.
“Well, I’m not going in there,” Francois said. “Sounds like it’s about to explode.”
“Maybe I can hurry it along. To distract them. Cover me.”
I sprinted across the open space between the cows and the shed, without looking back. Francois would spot any movement and take down any unfriendlies before they could get a real bead on me. More importantly, though, the cows had churned the earth beneath us into a near-suffocating dust cloud which would do a creditable job of hiding my movements.
The shack was bigger than it looked from a distance, the size of a hotel in a frontier town. It was built of timber and steel sheets, and brown with accumulated dust.
Inside stood the largest steam engine I’d ever set eyes on. It chugged and wheezed and clanked while I stared at it in disbelief. I’d seen smaller houses. Lots of them.
It would have taken a barrel of dynamite to attack the power plant directly, but fortunately, that wasn’t necessary. As any airship gunner could tell you, there were two weak links in any motor: the boiler and the transmission.
Damaging the boiler would likely kill me and leave nothing but a crater for my efforts, so I turned my attention to the system of leather straps and pulleys that appeared to be taking the movement generated by the flywheel down into the conveyor tunnels.
I wondered how many motors like this one they’d needed to keep the entire complex moving. Ten miles was a long belt… and we hadn’t even gotten on at the beginning. There had to be multiple plants, spread along the route. We’d need to round them up and grab the men working them.
Someone had invested a lot of money in this. They wouldn’t be happy when the government shut it down.
But that wasn’t my problem. My problem was cutting the leather straps without a loose piece slicing me in two. I considered shooting one of the shafts from a safe distance, but I suspected all I would get were dangerous ricochets.
Then I saw the pitchfork and smiled. Sometimes the easiest solutions were best.
I picked up the farm implement—with all these cows around, it wasn’t hard to guess what they used it for when I wasn’t around—and advanced towards the whirring mass of belts.
Up close the machinery was quite intimidating, but it had to be done. I needed a distraction big enough to make the rustlers come running. Swallowing hard, I shielded myself behind a metal plate and poked at the nearest belt with the tines.
Not a lot happened, so I did it again, pushing harder still.
This time the pitchfork caught on something and the machine yanked it out of my hands hard enough to wrench a shoulder. I cursed and started walking in the direction it had gone, hoping to recover it and try again.
But there was no sign of the thing. It had been pulled into the works.
A grinding noise filled the hut, and then the whole transmission began to thump and wobble even worse than before. The shriek of tortured metal deafened me. They must have heard it all the way to Grand Junction.
That was my cue to run. I only just made it past the door when something metallic shot through the tin roof and into the air, to land halfway up the hill. The sound of the engine stopped.
A figure sprinted towards me. Unable to see who it was, I raised my revolver until Francois came into view.
“You alright?” he said.
“Couldn’t be better. Now let’s get under cover before someone spots us. If I’m right, we just knocked out the conveyor belt.”
We ran towards the base of one of the hills and dropped behind three large boulders not one second too soon. Several men were running towards the shack.
“Did you see where they came from?” I asked Francois.
He shook his head.
No matter. The diversion had worked as well as possible. Now, we needed to get behind them and figure things out. The logical direction was the one in which the cows were heading.
We sprinted across the open space, trusting the dust in the air to keep our identity hidden. The gate leading from the field was unmanned. Just beyond it, the path entered a deep ravine between hills and we had to dart around the slowly-moving cows to advance.
A sharp turn hid the exit of the ravine from view, and when we reached it Francois gasped.
Airships. Dozens of them in yet another sheltered field, much bigger than the last. Men herded the cows into them in brown lines.
“That is stupid,” Francois muttered, his New Orleans accent stronger than ever. “It’s much cheaper to transport cattle by train. Or just walk them to market. How can they make any money this way?”
“By stealing the cows? Zero cost for the material, you just pay for manpower and transportation.”
In fact, it made a whole lot of sense. There were no checkpoints in the air, no one to inspect doctored brands. No tax collectors. And once you were over the mountains, no one cared. The cities growing up on the California coast needed a lot of beef, and they weren’t too particular in checking where it came from.
It was brilliant, except they weren’t in the air just yet.
“We need to send up a beacon,” I told Francois. “What kind of bullets did you bring for that air gun of yours?”
“It’s a pneumatic rifle.”
“I don’t care if it’s one of the French Emperor’s fabled steam cannons. All I need to know is whether you brought the incendiaries.”
The only nice thing about the air rifle was that it could fire incendiary bullets without setting fire to the person behind the trigger.
I patted him on the shoulder. “You’re the best shot west of the Mississippi,” I said. “One is enough.”
“East of the Mississippi, too,” Francois muttered, but I could tell he was happy that I trusted him.
An incendiary round wouldn’t do much unless I could make a hole in one of the gasbags. They were too thick to shoot through, mostly.
And I knew just how to go about it.
“Cover me,” I said.
Francois rolled his eyes. I guess he had every right to do so, too. He always covered me, even when I wasn’t constantly reminding him.
Six hoppers were parked in a row to one side of the field, and I ran across. They looked like rectangular columns ten feet tall standing on four legs that formed a cross. Metal rungs gave access to the top. The first two had zero air pressure, which was just irresponsible. You had to keep these topped up when not in use or the seals would begin to fail.
Of course, people who made their living selling rustled cows probably weren’t sticklers for following maintenance recommendations.
The third was a charm. The gauge on the side told me the entire cylinder was full to the top of compressed air, so I clambered up the rungs and positioned myself in the conductor’s chair.
Hoppers weren’t landcrabs, of course. Where landcrabs had their own power source and walked, hoppers were much lighter and… hopped. They were ideal for herding cattle from a safe place, but they had to be refilled quite often.
Fortunately for me, the forest of levers you had to move to manage a landcrab was absent. Hoppers had only two controls: a stick for direction and a button that would cause the vehicle to jump.
So I pointed the stick in the direction of the nearest airship and pressed the button.
I nearly fell out of the cockpit. Only the fact that I managed to grab onto a railing when the pistons in the legs exploded downward kept me from being thrown out completely by the unexpected violence of the motion. As it was, I suffered yet another wrenched arm. I suspected that, when I stopped to rest, I was going to find myself blessed with two strained shoulders and some medical leave.
But I’d worry about that later. At the moment, my hands were quite full trying to keep the hopper under control. It struck the ground square on its legs, and I wondered if I had to press the button again or whether I’d just slam to a violent halt.
I was pleasantly surprised when the hopper bounced without another air discharge. The legs that had been so rigid when the pistons inside them were fired, now seemed as pliant as a cart spring, and allowed me to hop in the direction I was already headed. With a little practice, the spring-bounce-bounce-bounce dynamic would become second nature.
Right now, however, I needed to make certain that this unknown quantity worked the way I wanted it to. I pointed it towards one of the airships and hit the bounce button. This time, I was more prepared for the violence, and I’d hooked my feet into two rungs on the floor of the capsule. The bouncer was quite well-designed: though I hit the button in mid-bounce, the pistons held their discharge until the unit was square on the ground.
“Yee-haw!” I exclaimed as I sped into the air. “I could get used to this.”
Not right away, though. The Airship was fifty yards away. Forty. Twenty. That was when I saw something interesting, but not something I could deal with right then. At ten, I hit the button again and hoped I’d calculated right.
Perfect. I bounced high above the ground, even above the dust cloud and dropped like a stone towards the gas envelope of the nearest flying machine. Like a large, heavy stone with a lot of sharp edges.
The bag sagged and deformed… but it held. I couldn’t believe it. No wonder my airship captain friend Theresa Bowes was so confident in her vessel. Of course, maybe it would have been better if she was a little more worried. It might curb her exuberant flying.
“Dammit.” In frustration, I pounded the jump button. The pistons emerged and I braced myself for launch.
Nothing happened. Instead, I heard a tear of thick cloth followed by a sinister hissing sound. The pistons must have torn through the fabric… which meant that I was sitting in a cloud of rapidly escaping hydrogen gas.
I needed to get out of there before someone with a cigarette walked past.
I clambered down the stairs, careful to keep the metal on my boots away from anything that might cause a spark, and jumped onto the deck of the airship.
A sailor approached with a loading hook. “What in blazes are you doing here?”
“Oh, don’t mind me… I was just leaving.” I jumped over the edge and landed with a grunt in the dust below. Then I started sprinting, not in any particular direction but away from the airship which was about to blow.
When I was less than halfway to what I would have considered a safe distance, I heard a whine overhead and looked up to see Francois’ incendiary bullet sail across the sky and lose itself in the opening I’d created in the gas bag.
I dove to the floor and covered my head, hoping the explosion would kill me instantly. I didn’t want to linger in a burn ward.
A few moments later, I wasn’t dead, so I turned to look. Not only had the Airship not exploded, but it was still there in all its glory. Only a few sparks danced around the ragged edge of the hole I’d made with the hopped.
As I watched, those sparks expanded in size, catching the fabric around them and turning those into a blaze. Soon, the gas envelope on both sides of the hopper was alight.
The framework inside, normally concealed by the cloth, began to burn even before the envelope finished combusting, while the metal collapsed, melting under the heat.
Then the deck caught fire and one of the sailors ran out, burning from the waist up. He made it about ten yards before collapsing onto the dirt.
The cows, faced with this new insult, stampeded.
But they had nowhere to go. This wasn’t the open plain, this was a plateau full of airships and surrounded by hills. So they milled around, crashing into each other, trampling anyone who got in their way and doing a lot of damage. Often, the flow forced them back towards the fire, where they’d spook and make things worse.
Fortunately, Francois was standing in a clear area a dozen meters up a hill. He was in his shooter’s stance, pneumatic rifle perched on a boulder to stabilize it. He grinned as I approached.
“You looked like jackrabbit,” he said.
“You should have waited for me to get clear.”
He shrugged. “You looked clear enough. Besides, I didn’t want the gas to escape.”
I tried my best dark look on him, but it was no use. He’d long since become impervious to them. Besides, I had something I wanted to tell him.
“Well, while you were trying to kill me, I found out something useful. I know where our villain is.”
His expression didn’t change. “Black airship in the third row from the other end of the clearing?” He held up his rifle. “I was just awaiting your order to clear his deck of sailors so we can go arrest him.”
I grumbled something, but before I could really get into what I thought of uppity subordinates, a flash caught my attention. I turned to see that the airship beside the one I’d savaged had caught fire.
“We don’t have time for that,” I said. “Come on.”
We ran down the hill and across the field, avoiding cows, cowboys, airship crew and embers of burning cloth that came from the sky. Other than the cloth, none of them gave us any problems. We could have been a full regiment of army troops and no one would have spared us a second glance as they scrambled to get their dirigibles aloft.
The confusion was a secondary benefit, however. My main objective had been to burn things. The tall black column of smoke rising into the clear afternoon air would be visible for miles.
The black airship was beautifully lacquered. The light reflecting off the surface was so bright it hurt my eyes. A burly sailor was lifting the gangplank just as we arrived.
“I thought I told you to wait for us,” I growled at him.
Confusion flashed across his features, and before he could gather whatever few wits he possessed, we were past. I turned, expecting him to follow, but he just shrugged and kept right on raising the ramp. I didn’t know whether I should be relieved or worried. I chose worried… that was the way my luck usually ran.
We headed aft, walking with confident strides as if we belonged and opened the door to the captain’s cabin just below the steering deck.
Something grabbed my waist. I tried to tear it away, but it appeared to be a rope made of metal.
It squeezed until blackness came.
“Mr. Edwards,” a woman’s voice said. “What a delightful surprise!”
The sound of clapping and giggles just didn’t go with the sense that my body had been pulled through a harvester. I opened my eyes.
The room was illuminated by candles, but even those were too bright. The light stabbed me in the eyes. I blinked as if the movement would clear away my splitting headache.
The owner of the voice sat in a deep, upholstered throne in the shadows of the cabin. Dark curls fell around her in waves, and she wore a muted peach dress. I felt my stomach drop.
“Mrs. Dean,” I replied. “I wasn’t expecting to see you here.”
“Who were you expecting, then? My husband?”
“No. Your husband is an honorable man. He’ll be devastated that you’ve besmirched his honor in this way. A congressman whose wife is in prison will find himself answering a lot of uncomfortable questions.”
The woman actually snorted. “Good. After spending most of my family’s money to get that seat, I wouldn’t mind him doing a little honest work for a while, even if it’s answering questions about me. Anyway, someone has to look after the family fortune, and since he’s too busy trying to become a footnote in some history book, I took it upon myself.” Then she smiled. “Besides, it doesn’t look like you’ll be doing much arresting, and if you insist on making yourself unpleasant, I’ll just throw you off the ship to see if you can fly.”
Normally, her threat would have been hollow. Even though she was still young—certainly not forty yet—and healthy, I had a good six inches and fifty pounds on her. But the mechanical octopus holding me had steel arms and felt like it could toss me halfway back to Washington. If I got out of this, I’d need to find out who’d built it for her. I wanted one of these for a deputy.
Of course, I needed to talk my way out of this, first. “It’s not me you have to worry about,” I told her. “It’s the Army Airship Corps.”
“Now why would they bother little old me?”
She shrugged. “There’s no law against aerial piracy or even the aerial transport of stolen goods. All the laws say stuff about crossing state and territory lines. No one says anything about going over them. Besides, why would the Airship corps be in Colorado? Aren’t they supposed to be patrolling our borders, keeping us safe from marauding Canadians and Mexicans?”
She was splitting hairs, but I’d seen cases fall apart on thinner technicalities. She laughed at my discomfort, but then looked at me frankly. “I hear you’re a man of honor. If you promise that neither you or your deputy in the hold below will interfere with the running of my ship, I’ll tell the octopus to let you go.”
“I already told you. It’s not me you need to be worried about,” I replied. Hopefully, I could keep my word… I suspected that I’d already interfered with her plans enough that I could behave like a gentleman when the time came to keep my word.
Besides, I was reasonably certain she was toying with me. You couldn’t allow a Federal agent who knew what I did to live to tell the tale.
“Do I have your word?”
“Yes,” I replied.
She whistled, a two-tone sound, and the iron arms around me loosened. I rubbed my chest, but it wasn’t much good: it hurt to breathe deeply. I was either bruised or had some cracked ribs. I suspected I wasn’t going to be much good in a fight, word or no word.
“Would you like to look around the airship?”
It would be nice to travel on a dirigible without a lunatic military captain attempting to kill us all, so I nodded and let her lead me back onto the deck.
Her airship made Therese’s look like a flying slum. Sleek, well-maintained and plush, it would make for every pleasant flying in the shade of the gasbag for my hostess and her entourage.
As for the engines driving the propellers, they felt smooth, without any of the thumping and throbbing of the military power plants.
But the military units were more powerful. This ship was built for stealth flying, at night. It wouldn’t be able to outrun an attack craft.
I shaded my eyes and looked in the direction of the sun. I couldn’t quite see the orb itself because the envelope was in the way, but I did see a speck up there. It might have been a cloud… but I doubted it.
So I relaxed and let Mrs. Dean show me her pride and joy.
“It’s too bad,” I said.
“That you’ve decided to kill me.”
She smiled. “What makes you say that?”
“The fact that it’s true. But apart from that, the fact that you can’t afford to let me live. You won’t trust me to keep my mouth shut.”
“I didn’t ask you to keep your mouth shut,” she said with a twinkle in her eye.
“That just proves my point.”
“Perhaps. There’s a choice, though. You can join me. We can build an empire up here as pirates of the sky. By the time anyone realizes what’s happening, we’ll be too strong to stop.”
“I already stopped you,” I said.
She laughed. “You mean the cows down there? That’s just a little sideline. It was never going to last forever. Losing a couple of airships isn’t the end of the world. I’ve already forgiven you.”
“I wasn’t referring to what happened down there.”
She sighed. “You’re going to be stubborn about this, aren’t you? Just think that you’re also throwing away the life of your French compatriot in the stockade.”
“I don’t think so.”
As if on cue, one of her sailors shouted: “Airship ahoy!”
“Run, you fools!” Mrs. Dean screamed.
But it was too late. Therese had come out of the sun, and she was already much too close. Her airship wasn’t just heavily armed… it was also designed to survive a fight against an equally well-equipped enemy. And it was full of sailors who were also soldiers.
“Where did that come from?” Mrs. Dean didn’t seem to know where to turn. Finally her eyes settled on me. “I’ll use you as a hostage. They won’t dare attack me.”
“That won’t stop them, I’m afraid. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m willing to die for the country… and anyone who doesn’t won’t care what you do to me.” I paused only long enough to slam my closed fist into one of her sailors unwise enough to try to assail me. I felt something snap in his jaw and he went down like a sack of potatoes. I composed myself as the flash of pain from my ribs subsided. “Besides, I only said I wouldn’t interfere with the running of your ship. I never agreed to letting you take me hostage.”
She whistled, three tones—high, low, high—and I heard a scrabbling. A moment later, her monstrous octopus appeared from the cabin. Hesitating only long enough to wonder how the heck they managed to cram a difference engine that could obey whistled commands into a structure that small, I jumped for the nearest tope and climbed onto the rigging.
From there I made it onto the air bag.
Luckily for me, the mechanical monster really wasn’t built to climb airships, and I managed to stay just ahead of it by scrambling furiously.
It was there, with me hanging from a rope, that Therese found me once her men had captured Mrs. Dean’s vessel.
“What are you doing here?” she asked with a frown.
“Running from a monster.”
“That thing with all the arms? Why didn’t you just shoot it? That’s what we did.”
“Because I don’t have a gun. I was a prisoner here.”
“Prisoner? Or guest? That Mrs. Dean has a reputation, you know.”
I rolled my eyes. I was never going to hear the end of this.
“Either way,” I said, “I’m sure glad you saw my beacon. I was afraid you wouldn’t.”
She laughed. “Oh, I would never miss a chance to save you… again.”
It was official. I was never going to hear the end of this.
“Is Francois all right?”
“We’re taking Mrs. Dean to Washington. Francois told me about the cattle rustling and some other stuff the crew told him when they thought he was going to be tossed off the ship. You want to fly back with me?”
I gave her a long look. “I would rather wrestle alligators in Francois’ bayou than fly a thousand miles in an airship piloted by you,” I told her.
She pouted. “Your problem is that you have no sense of adventure.” With that, she climbed down the ropes and out of sight.
I breathed a sigh of relief. While it was true that I didn’t want to fly with her if I could avoid it, there was another reason I wasn’t interested in joining her.
When this airship landed, I was going to impound it as evidence. And then it was going to disappear.
The mere thought of getting my Marshalls their own night-flying airship was too tempting to pass up.
Provided, of course, that I could find someone halfway sane to fly it.
I amended that thought even as I had it. Airship captains were never sane.
Slightly less insane would have to do.
Gustavo Bondoni is novelist and short story writer with over three hundred stories published in fifteen countries, in seven languages. He is a member of Codex and an Active Member of SFWA. His latest novel is Test Site Horror (2020). He has also published two other monster books: Ice Station: Death(2019) and Jungle Lab Terror (2020), three science fiction novels: Incursion(2017), Outside (2017) and Siege (2016) and an ebook novella entitled Branch. His short fiction is collected in Pale Reflection (2020), Off the Beaten Path (2019) Tenth Orbit and Other Faraway Places (2010) and Virtuoso and Other Stories (2011).
In 2019, Gustavo was awarded second place in the Jim Baen Memorial Contest and in 2018 he received a Judges Commendation (and second place) in The James White Award. He was also a 2019 finalist in the Writers of the Future Contest.
His website is at www.gustavobondoni.com