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BLACK CHAMBER

by S.M. Stirling


 

CHAPTER ONE:

 

American National Airways
Dock One, Manhattan Airship Harbor
New York City
September 1st, 1916(b)
Point of Departure Plus Four Years

 

I’ve never flown before, Senior Field Operative Luz O’Malley Aróstegui thought.

She looked up at the docked airship, a study in light and shadow beneath the glare of the hangar’s banks of lights, silver-bright above and reflected off the rippling water of the berth below.

And my first trip... three thousand miles over an ocean, to a continent at war!

At seven hundred and fifty feet from nose to tail and a hundred and forty across at its broadest point, the great silvery whale-shape of the San Juan Hill was the pride of American National Airways—four months out of the yard at Lakehurst and with its three sisters the only dirigibles in the world capable of routine transatlantic trips. The Battle class were a leap even for the brilliant, daring young engineering wizards of the National Aeronautical Administration, with a more advanced teardrop shape than any Zeppelin and bigger too, larger even than the one that had spent a hundred hours in the air recently to reach German East Africa from Bulgaria despite the Entente air patrols.

And fortunately not one of their occasional brilliant daring failures, like that six-engine flying boat that kept crashing and sinking, or bursting into flames... and then crashing and sinking.

The airship above her was so large that its floating over the water seemed utterly unnatural, as if the giant silvery-gray thing was in an eternal mid-fall ready to topple down on you... though it was also a fragile lacework of aluminum covered in fabric, when you thought of Atlantic storms. The interior was vast, millions of square feet, but most of that was bags full of hydrogen and gas-fuel for the ten engine pods.

She couldn’t tell if the stirring she felt and the shiver on the back of her neck was excitement or apprehension. Not fear, certainly not that. Luz inhaled deeply; that smell of brackish harbor water, fuel oil, lubricants and the doped cotton covering the giant flying machine was a new thing in the world. A coughing roar sounded as the engines began to turn over, the four-bladed aluminum propellers started to spin and the breeze of them went washing over her and tugging at her hat and skirt and fluttering cool fingers into her hair.

Excitement, verdad. Fear I leave for others... I left it behind with my childhood.

Luz wasn’t afraid of much; she had never been timid, and what remained had been scoured out the night Pancho Villa’s men burned the hacienda where her family had been staying, back before the Intervention.

Her face changed as she remembered, and for a moment her midnight-blue eyes might have been black, as the lighter streaks around the iris vanished. Remembered waiting in the back of the wardrobe in the dark, with the muzzle of the pistol pressed under her chin. Listening to the Villistas kill her parents while she swallowed her sobs, then crawling out on her belly like a snake below the worst of the smoke, past their machete-hacked bodies and through the sticky pools of their blood. Five years ago now...

“Miss?” the ticketing officer behind the counter of his kiosk said, alarm in his voice and a startled look in his eyes at what he’d seen in hers.

“Sorry,” she said, blinking back to reality.

The stabs of uncontrollable memory were rare now. Now that every man involved was dead, including Villa. She’d watched most of them die, the ones she hadn’t killed herself.

The agent was still puzzled by what he’d seen, frightened without knowing why. She gave him a charming smile as she handed over her passport along with the ticket.

The passport was forged in the name of one Elisa Carmody de Soto-Dominguez; there were more formalities to travel these days, what with the war, but the Black Chamber’s documents section was on the job. Mexicans who wanted to travel abroad also had to get US passports to do it, but that and the requisite dual citizenship were fairly easy to acquire for wealthy ones in good odor with the American authorities who ran the Mexican Protectorate now. Elisa had been one such, until the Chamber found out she was also a secret member of the Partido Nacional Revolucionario and conspiring with the German Empire against the United States.

While Luz traveled under her name the luckless actual Elisa was either dead of what the file would say was heart failure—a .45 slug in the back of the head did make your heart fail very badly indeed—or was still undergoing a series of exquisitely unpleasant experiences in El Palacio Negro de Lecumberri. The Black Palace of Lecumberri was a hulking ill-omened pile northeast of Mexico City that had been built as a prison by President Porfirio Díaz back around the turn of the century, and one which made her skin crawl every time she came near.

It had been the sort of place where you went for offending one of The Indispensible One’s jefes políticos and slept tied upright to the walls because there were five thousand inmates in cells theoretically designed for seven hundred and fifty. And there you stayed until you died or some guard made fifty pesos under the table by selling you to a labor agent from the tobacco estates of the Valle Nacional, which was about the same thing with fresh air.

It was still a prison for the Protectorate today, though much more select in its client list. It also housed the Black Chamber’s southern headquarters, a Federal Bureau of Security station, and representatives from what she thought of as the Heinz 57 Varieties of Military Intelligence.

The ticket agent visibly relaxed under the beacon of her smile, dismissing the unguarded emotion he’d just seen in her eyes. Charming smiles were something Luz did well, along with other, hidden talents. She was in her mid-twenties, with straight fine hair the color of raven-feathers, so black that it had metallic-blue highlights in the sun. It was done in the bobbed style the French actress Polaire had recently made fashionable among the daring, and framed a comely straight-nosed, full-lipped, olive-skinned oval face, high cheekbones under a round turban-style hat with a single peacock plume and a scarf-like silk fall that was looped under the chin and fastened on the other side with a silver clasp.

Her clothes were modish but a little more conservative than the bobbed hair, a dark maroon tailleur outfit of jacket and lower-calf-length skirt of light worsted suited to the humid heat of New York’s summer, with a cream silk shirtwaist blouse and a few small pieces of day-jewelry in the popular Southwestern style. She’d picked those up in Santa Fe while debriefing from her last mission in a Black Chamber safehouse.

Being obviously a bit of a dashing New Woman of the era of the New Nationalism was one thing, but she didn’t want to stand out as a full-scale flapper with a cigarette in an ivory holder and a whiskey flask tucked into her garter. That would be bad tradecraft, both because it would attract attention and because it would be another layer of pretense she’d have to keep track of. It was much easier to disguise who you were than what you were. Like most of her generation and class Luz regarded the old Victorian conventions of Mrs. Grundy and her ilk with a degree of amused contempt and enjoyed herself without qualms, but she wasn’t basically a frivolous person.

Thank God the corset is dead, though, she thought. My luck!

She’d just barely missed the period when you were a hopeless eccentric or a free-love advocate in odd-looking William Morris-style aesthetic gowns if you didn’t start corseting by your late teens. The change had been very swift. Nobody her age wore one now, except dowdy lower-middle-class provincials who hadn’t gotten the news or a few pinch-mouthed conservatives in enclaves like Beacon Hill in Boston where they tried to pretend the twentieth century hadn’t started yet.

And thank God that looking active is fashionable now, too, everyone living Uncle Teddy’s Strenuous Life or pretending to.

Her honorary uncle approved of strenuous women, too. Luz knew he meant it because she’d visited the Roosevelts often since girlhood; her father had been a Rough Rider, and as an MIT man who made his living as a consulting engineer in wild and wooly places was just the type of scientific modern buccaneer the President admired.

I’d have been out of luck in the era of the tight-laced swoon and interesting pallor.

The middle-aged man in the blue uniform behind the booking booth’s counter concealed any annoyance at her carefully calculated last-minute arrival and looked at the baggage the sweating porter had piled up behind her with his dolly. There were two expensive Vuitton steamer trunks in yellow leather with brass corners to go into the hold, and a large ostrich-hide suitcase and a hatbox by the same maker for the eighty-odd hours of the journey. They were plainly visible, since an airship boarding process wasn’t the mob scene you’d get at Grand Central or Penn Station, especially when you were the last passenger to arrive. In fact there were several hundred people in the hangar, but they were mostly ground crew lost in the hugeness of it, disconnecting the lift-gas and fuel-gas and ballast-water pipes and electric power cables and standing by the mooring lines.

None of them were paying her any special attention, except the corporal in charge of the very bored but reasonably alert Federal Bureau of Security squad in their new turtle-like steel helmets, baggy olive-dust-brown-green uniforms and buckled gaiter-boots.

He’d been giving her a few uneasy glances, his knobby narrow-chinned hillbilly face puzzled. He had a long scar over his sandy eyebrows, a very deep tan, an Arkansas Toothpick tucked into his boot and a drum-fed Thompson gun with a use-pitted muzzle in an assault sling across his belly. The rest carried the light self-loading rifles Browning had developed and Colt manufactured, or battle-shotguns. The Bureau got their pick of the new toys, of which there were many these days since Uncle Teddy loved gadgets and inventions, particularly those that shot bullets. Or flew, or better still flew through the air shooting bullets.

His hand worked on the grip of the machine pistol as he frowned at her in puzzlement, and he was obviously listening to instincts that had kept him alive. She disarmed him with a brilliant smile and he flushed and looked away scowling, unable to match the inner prompting with what his eyes told him.

“You’re traveling alone, then, Miss, ah, Carmody?” the ticketing officer said, grizzled brows rising on a face like the map of Ireland.

She nodded casually. Even in these enlightened modern days—and when years of war and Roosevelt’s Equal Rights Amendment had changed many things—it was still just a little risqué for an obviously well-born young woman not to have even a maid with her, or an older traveling companion. Her mother’s family, those stiff-necked birth-proud Cuban hacendado sugar barons, would have fainted in shock. But then they’d cut off her mother as if she were dead for eloping with the dashing young engineer Patrick O’Malley a quarter century ago, and she’d been raised very differently from the gloom and almost Oriental seclusion her mother had endured. Mima had enjoyed that adventurous tomboyish girl’s life vicariously, even when she felt her daughter and only child was going too far and insisted on spells in finishing schools.

And besides, the Black Chamber doesn’t have enough female agents to waste one playing my maid.

“If you’ll stand here on the scale with your things, Miss, we need to have the exact weight... ah, your cabin baggage is a bit over the maximum...”

She paid the stiff extra charge without a qualm; it fit her persona as an arrogant headstrong rich girl, which Elisa Carmody had been... though being a secret revolutionary had been arrogantly headstrong and very, very foolish. This was on Uncle Sam’s nickel anyway, through the clandestine budget the Treasury funneled to the Secret Service and they to the Chamber, though she could have afforded it herself. Her father had left her the house and real estate in Santa Barbara and the ranchland near Los Olivos and enough income from conservative investments to finish her education at Bryn Mawr College and live very comfortably for the rest of her life, if not enough for the Upper Ten Thousand’s social whirl. She’d chosen the Black Chamber instead because she wanted it. First for revenge, and then because...

Well, it would have been very dull to have nothing important to do. Even in Santa Barbara, where you can spend a month ambling around without noticing whether it’s Friday yet. And I had to show Uncle Teddy he was right to trust me, and not let the other women in the Chamber down either. Peace someday... but not today.

A stamp on her passport ended the process. “That’ll be Cabin A12, Miss Carmody... Miss de Soto... Miss... Dominguez...” he said, gradually running down as he ran through the names, mangling the Hispanic parts with a nasal big-city east-coast, dese-and-dem accent probably acquired growing up in the Bronx.

“All three, technically, but Carmody will do,” she said patiently.

Her own natural accent in English was pellucid General American of a Californian variety with a very faint Western tinge, though she could have donned one that would make her sound like the man’s younger sister. She was letting a very slight hint of both Mexico and Ireland into her speech, to match the report of Elisa Carmody’s patterns.

He continued, with obvious relief at not having offended someone who could afford to spend better than his yearly salary on a ticket.

“Dinner will be served from seven, Miss Carmody. Welcome to the friendly skies of American National Airways, and have a swift and pleasant flight. Please follow the steward who will carry your cabin baggage.”

She turned and strode with a gracefully springy step up the ramp that led to the gondola entrance, ignoring the passengers looking down at her disgracefully late arrival through the inward-curving windows of the lounge above; the three-level inhabited part of the airship was built into bottommost curve of the hull save for where the semi-circle of the flight deck jutted out like a chin near the underside of the prow.

There was work to be done before they left... and possibly a man to kill in the skies over the gray northern seas.

The attendant who carried her gear answered her smile as she paused and looked up at the great machine, taking it for admiration. The real cause was the thought of another historic first, like her vote in the 1914 mid-term election.

Only better. Uncle Teddy, qué Dios te bendiga, isn’t the only one who can make history.

Millions of other women had voted, and helped put in the first and so far only woman senator. But Luz doubted anyone had assassinated a German spy on a dirigible yet. According to the grapevine and the implications of their new orders, Teddy had said the gloves were well and truly off. He was... peeved.

Sinking the Mauretania and killing two hundred Americans on board her, for one. It would have been interesting to be a fly on the wall in the White House when Uncle Teddy got the news about that back in the spring.

She’d been mildly surprised that he hadn’t declared war then and there. Reportedly his old Cuba comrade and current Chief of the General Staff General Leonard Wood had talked him out of it, on the grounds that the US wasn’t quite ready.

Readiness had gone into high gear since.

I can smell war coming, smell it down the wind from the future. And not far away, either.

 

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Copyright © 2016-2018 by S.M. Stirling <joatsimeon@aol.com>


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