Lane cocked her head to the left, Monica cocked her head to the right.
"Is that a blimp?" Lane asked.
Captain Idris's smile froze.
"Did you strap a giant plane to it?" Monica asked.
Now the face of the Captain blanched.
"Why did you break off the wings of the plane?" Lane added.
The cheeks of Tasnim Idris started to flush red. Right past the red of blushing into the red that signalled the serious risk of an aneurysm. The pride had left her eyes leaving them free to frost over with murderous intent. Her grin lost all its warmth turning into bared teeth that would find joy only in dismemberment.
"Blimp?" Idris hissed through her teeth. "That up there you dog born idiot is a Zeppelin and that is not a plane..."
"It does look like a blimp." Lane said pouting. Monica poked Lane with her elbow shaking her head vigorously, she knew exactly when people went right past angry into a killing mood. Idris now turned around in a jerky little movements with all the grace of a robot assassin. When Lane saw the captains expression she stopped talking.
"Blimps." Idris said. "Are glorified balloons. Not much better than those ridiculous things you can buy at a fun fair. A Zeppelin has a rigid structure inside. They are far more advanced than a fucking, god forsaken blimp. And what you are desecrating with your filthy ignorant looks is the most advanced piece of air-ship technology that you have ever seen..."
"I'm very sorry." Lane said. "I don't know much about these things."
"Obviously..." Idris said with a look in her eyes that would have sent an active volcano back into sheepish dormancy.
"Why did you choose a Zeppelin for your... for your business, it looks very... obvious?" Lane was trying not to provoke more anger but her curiosity was getting the better of her.
"Why?" Idris hissed. "Why?!" She inhaled "Look at it!" she shouted. "Look at its majesty. Its Style and elegance. It is an airship. A ship with which you can sail through the sky! This here is the apex of human civilisation. It carries us into the heavens and does so with quiet sophistication. If you are looking for more practical reasons and I hope, I really do, that you are not that small minded, an airship can fly low to the ground evading detection a good airship a proper one can fly so high that the sky will darken and you will be able to glimpse into space. You can drift into the air currents and get carried to any place on earth and if you need any other reason the Unconquered Sun can lift over 100 tons of cargo.
Besides" she turned towards Monica, "what you see there is not a plane with clipped wings, it is a type two ground effect craft. The wings are not 'cut off' they are supposed to look that way."
"Can I ask another question" Lane had always felt the most disconnected from fear when she was really fascinated with something. A trait that had often help her immensely at work as well as nearly ruining at other times. When a question that needed an answer was born in her mind she needed to know, without fearing the consequences of making any of her superiors look like utter idiots in the process.
"Is it going to be horribly offensive?" Idris wanted to know.
"I have no idea."
"Why do you have a ground force..."
"Ground effect." Idris said.
"Right. Sorry. Why do you have a ground effect craft..." Lane was trying to find a word that did not sound very insulting, "attached? to the Zeppelin?"
"It is not attached to the Zeppelin. It is part of it." Idris said her anger retreating but keeping a close eye on Lane and Monica just in case they said something scandalous again. "I built it so that..."
"Wait, you built that thing?" Lane said.
"Yes. What about it?"
"That's aaaaawwwwwwsome!" Lane's eye grew wide. She even started to undulate a bit in excitement. "You are right that is much cooler than a stupid blimp!"
"You think so." Idris said unsuccessfully trying to hold onto her grumpiness. "Well I did have a bit of help but it was all according to my design and I did add some rather helpful innovations to the craft in general." she now blushed a bit, she was not used to praise much less at such impressive levels of enthusiasm.
"That's sooo cool. So you combined that not quite a plane with a Zeppelin?" Lane said.
"Why?" asked Monica who did not quite understand Lane's fervour nor what Idris was so proud about.
"Why what?" asked Idris.
"Why did you make a hybrid thing. If you powered the turbines of the ground effect thing, how could the Zeppelin part withstand that? And would the plane part not work better on its own?"
"Because," Idris said, "this is a best of both worlds design. As it is now the Unconquered Sun can fly at a good clip with minimum power or even just follow a strong air current. If the need arises, I can fold in the Zeppelin, into the ground force craft and fly away or hide."
Monica pointed at the airship. "That thing is a convertible?"
"In a way... yes." Idris said with obvious pride in her voice.
"Oh my god..." Lane said. "And here I thought it could not get any more awesome."
"Doesn’t that take forever, what with the gas and all?" Monica said.
"Depends but not really. As you see it the Unconquered Sun is carrying all its modules. Behind the main craft you see the secondary cargo compartment and at the sides there are the weapon pods. Depending on the situation the secondary structures can be dropped. And then the Zeppelin parts folds into the main craft. It does not take long because it isn't filled with gas."
"That's impossible." Monica said.
"No. Not really. To fly the Zeppelin must be filled with something that is less dense than air. Our atmosphere is mostly nitrogen. So these things are usually filled with hydrogen or helium."
"I know." Monica said.
"This one is filled with something even lighter."
"There is nothing lighter than hydrogen."
"Exactly!" Idris said.
"I still don't understand, maybe I have not taken the right drugs?"
"The gas cells of the Unconquered Sun contain a vacuum. There is actually nothing in them."
"I don't get it." Monica said.
"I do!' Lane said. "You take Helium. It is light. But then you replace it with Hydrogen which is even lighter... or less dense or something, but you want more buoyancy so you take the Hydrogen out leaving almost nothing behind which is even lighter."
"OK..., but why have I never heard of that before? If it is such a clever idea." Monica asked.
"Well partially because we live in a barbaric time when people don't take the airships seriously any more. But also because you need materials that are very light but can withstand the crushing force of the atmosphere when you pump out the air."
"So how did you get around that problem?" Monica asked.
"Magic." Idris said.
"No really. How did you do it?" Monica insisted.
"I mean it. Magic. If there are materials in this world that can do that I don't know of them."
"Only one way to be sure." said Lane. Monica turned towards her. When she saw that Lane had taken out the little torch she had bought from the charlatan in the lower market earlier she groaned. "You can't be serious."
"Sure I am. That way we find out if the guy in the shop told us the truth and if she is enhancing the truth."
"What's that supposed to mean." Idris said her eyes narrowing.
Lane pointed the little torch at the airship above them and with a "Tadaaaa." she switched it on. While the torch did its best outshining all other torches of its size it was not not powerful enough to outshine the flood lights inside the cave at that distance. "Hmmm. How anti-climatic." said Lane. "Let's see I think if I push this bit forward..." she adjusted the lens of the torch focusing it more tightly now the light beam visibly reached the Unconquered Sun painting a faint round light dot on the outer envelope of the Zeppelin, the light was green. "It works!" Lane said turning the flash light around shining it in her eyes blinding her self with the now plae yellow light.
"I need a drink." Monica said.
"No problem. We should get aboard anyway. Do you have more luggage or is that all?" Captain Idris asked pointing at their bags.
"Just those." Lane said, still blinking.
"Perfect. We'll be on our way in under an hour."
Idris led them to a metal tower that was mostly made of girders and thick cables. She opened a little metal box with a key and punched in a code into a mechanical number pad. Above them a lift came to life and starting to descend towards them sending little flakes of rust sailing down towards the three women to announce its arrival. The lift arrived a few minutes later slowing down even more as it approached ground level only to fall the last two three inches to the ground with a loud crashing noise causing a cloud of dust to fly up.
"I need to finally repair this stupid thing." Idris said as she opened the door motioning the others to enter. While the lift was large enough to carry at least ten people Lane and Monica stood huddled in the centre as the lift was pretty much just the frame of a cube with a floor inserted into the bottom of it. As it juddered its was up swaying slightly bumping gently into the metal scaffolding that suggested its way of ascent Idris looked at the two with light puzzlement. "It's perfectly safe. Just don't hold your arms out of the cabin, or any other body part for that matter and nothing can happen to you."
"It's OK." Lane said. "We are perfectly happy where we are."
Idris just shrugged. At the top of the tower the lift lurched to a halt making Lane and Monica stumble and panic a bit as the tried to regain their balance without falling out of the cabin. "Come on." said that captain. "Follow me and be careful when exiting the gap between the cabin and the platform is a bit wide and you don't want you bags to fall through it to the ground.
A bit wide turned out to be more than a foot. While Lane did have no fear of heights she noticed when she stepped over the gap with her large bag unbalancing her that certain heights demanded a certain minimum of respect. The walkway was worse. It swayed lightly under each step and it was one of these metal walk ways where the floor was not made of metal plates but thin iron strips arranged in an x-shape. Very stable but one could look right through them all the way down to the cave floor that was now far, far away.
"You get used to it." Idris said with sympathy in her eyes. "But for now it might be better if you did not look down. See over there?" she pointed past Lane and Monica. "Over there is the skyway to the ship. It is more solid you can go there if you want and wait for me there."
"Where are you going?" Lane asked still looking down enjoying a little cold sweat.
"I'm going to ground control." Idris now pointed with her thumb over her shoulder pointing to a little shack like construction with big windows that rested half on the platform they were standing and was half built into the cave wall. "I have to run through some checks, shut down most of the base, activate the hangar doors, that kind of stuff. Won't take long." She turned around and left them standing.
"I... I don't want to move." Lane said.
"I don't even want to breath right now." Monica said.
"You afraid of heights?"
"If they look like this then yes."
"I wish the fucking platform would stop moving. I keep imagining that some part of it will give way and we will fall all the way down with sharp pointy metal things falling after us."
"In a way it is good to know that the things you imagine are far worse than what I was thinking." Monica said with a hint of terror in her voice.
"What were you afraid of?" Lane asked.
"You'd just catch the handrail." Lane said.
"There is only a hand rail to the right Lane."
Lane looked left. "Oh..." she said very softly.
"We should go to the skyway." Monica said she grabbed hold of the hand rail and gave it an experimental tug. While the rail held the whole platform swayed.
"Never do that again." said Lane.
"Agreed. Now please move forward, because I am not going to squeeze my way past you."
Lane closed her eyes and made a small step forward. Her inner eye showed her many ways to die by falling, her limbic system kicked her hard in the survival instinct. She opened her eyes again. Slowly one step after the other she moved towards the skyway. When she started to drag her bag after her the little wheels on it made the whoe platform vibrate and she stopped immediately holding the handrail even tighter.
"Stop behaving like such pansies." shouted Idris who had reached the command room and had turned around to see what Lane and Monica were doing. "The platform is secure. Just walk."
Lane moved forward again, her rattling bag making the whole structure vibrate under her. "That's right!" Idris said. "Just move along. Keep your eyes glued on the door of the skyway." She did. Only now did Lane notice that the skyway had a proper wooden door, a large massive one. Somehow that sight calmed her a bit. As she moved with more regular steps the swaying got a certain rhythm which again for some strange reason let her relax a bit more. She could not walk to fast but she inched forwards towards the door. As it grew larger it became easier to ignore everything else. When she finally reached she was relieved. She exhaled and opened the door. She froze mid step Monica bumping into her from behind. From outside the skyway had looked like a bridge with windowed walls and a roof, she had expected an utilitarian corridor much in the style of the rest of the base. Instead what she saw were a wood panelled ceiling and walls and a floor covered by a red carpet. She stepped inside, the skyway also swayed a bit but it felt absolutely solid. The smell of the oiled wood and the carpet reminded her more of an opera house than a hangar. Monica squeezed past her not wanting to stay on the walk way for a second longer. "Wow." Monica said also stopping in her tracks.
"Isn't it cool?" asked captain Idris over a PA system that had been built into the walls. "I always thought that when you walk into a airship you should do so with the proper dignity. Getting that skybrige right took me ages." Lane looked out of the window and saw Idris waving from the control room. "Make your selves comfortable. I'll be with you in a few minutes OK?" Lane showed the captain her raised thumb through the window.
It took Idris a bit more than twenty minutes to return. Enough time to give Lane and Monica the idea how much nicer the skybridge would be with a few leather armchairs. Maybe a small bar. Definitely a bar. Also some magazines wouldn’t go amiss. When they told that to captain Idris they were surprised that her first reaction was not one of instant dismissal but of careful consideration. In the end the captain concluded that as she never took passengers, as always she underlined that comment with a reproachful look with her eye, it would not be worth the effort. As she marched past them towards the Large mate black painted door of the Unconquered Sun she said, more to herself than anyone else that perhaps one armchair and a drinks cabinet might be a nice addition to the place.
The door to the strange airship had the peculiar addition of a lock which captain Idris unlocked with a big overambitious key with made out of a strange opalescent metal that made it look like a miniature Art Deco Christmas tree. Even the act of turning the key was a complex ritual with the key being turned this way and that sometimes pulled out for half a turn sometimes shoved deep into the lock to turn the other way, the clicking starting like a subtle notice turning into a clockwork symphony. Lane and Monica watched the entire protest carefully keeping their awe in check as they had by now learned that in here they needed to ration it carefully not knowing which new wondrous oddity was waiting for them around the next corner. While the unlocking procedure was reaching its high point, every turn of the key becoming slower and more forceful sending little shock-waves through the skybridge Lane took out her little magic detecting torch and shone it at the door. The light turned a radiant white as it touched the metal of the hatch.
"Wasn't the light green before?" Monica asked.
"The door and the locking mechanism," captain Idris said mostly focusing on opening the door, "are a Vatican design and where built by Jesuit monks. Looks like your little torch there is sensitive to different kinds of..." she paused for a moment shoving the key far into the metal door deep within its mechanisms her lower arm vanishing half into the hatch, where she turned it one last time, the door closed snugly around her arm, "...magic." she finished her sentenced as golden lighted traced along engravings that lain hidden from sight within the metal of the ship. She slowly pulled back her arm leaving not a hole behind but a seamless sheet of metal decorated with the emblem of the Society of Jesus where the key should have been. Now the captain pull down the lever of the door opening it wide.
"Please. Come in." she said grinning.