Airships and Autogyros
At first glance, the envelope inside the Federal Express wrapper seems innocuous enough—crisp white paper embossed with a discreet corporate logo. Closer examination, however, reveals an origin address in, of all places, the city of Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy on the Kamchatka Peninsula.
The contents of this thick packet are even odder: an itinerary and tickets for travel on a series of charter flights, tourism brochures, and a cover letter with a proposal. Exotic Vehicle Research, a start-up company investigating exciting new possibilities in transportation technology, is looking for investors and employees to facilitate expansion.
The rest of the letter is similarly vague but enticing, culminating in a promise that all will be revealed after the signing of nondisclosure agreements and a tour of the companys facilities in a small ex-military town up the coast from the city. As an additional inducement, the brochures rhapsodize on the recreational opportunities and considerable natural wonders of the peninsula. It might be a scam, but theres just enough substance that it could be genuine, and at least the trip is free.
What the characters do not realize is that the offer is simply bait. There is indeed an exotic vehicle, and Herr Johan Schmidt—not his real name—will indeed demonstrate it. Unfortunately, its a one-way trip not simply to another place but to another world, and the characters will be stranded there . . . unless they can find and gain control of the vehicle again.
The characters fly separately to Tokyo, where they board a chartered business jet for the final leg. Just up the coast from Petropavlovsk-Kamchatskiy is one of many abandoned airfields left over from the Cold War, when US and Soviet aircraft played a tense game of chicken—the former probing for intelligence, the latter seeking to deny it. The nearby town, a fishing village before the military moved in, is crumbling away, unable to return to its former living thanks to decades of heedless pollution in the name of national security.
The resulting desperation for local sources of income may explain the welcome extended to a cutting-edge start-up company. The need for a site far from prying eyes—and bystanders should something go wrong—likewise appears a plausible explanation for the firms acceptance of that welcome.
Once the jet stops taxiing on the cracked and weed-grown runway, its disembarking passengers are met by their host—alone. The small existing staff is away for the weekend, he explains, leaving him to conduct the demonstration and tour without distractions. With no further ado, he ushers his guests to the sole remaining intact building: a refurbished corrugated steel hangar. Dusk, and a storm, will soon descend in force. The rickety old structure doesnt look very reassuring, but it must be sturdier than it appears.
Inside, the characters are faced with a large, bizarre-looking contraption filling most of the hangar. It resembles the illegitimate offspring of an open-air automobile ferry and a Second World War jeep carrier, crouched on rows of huge landing-gear-style wheels. He urges everyone to climb up an acient airplane boarding stair pulled up to a side ladder.
Herr Schmidt clambers up another ladder to the top of the vehicles conning tower structure. He waits only until everyone is aboard before seating himself at one of the two control consoles and pulling out a black leather pouch, small and flat, about the size and shape of a change purse. Oddly, it is strung on a bead-chain around his neck, much like military dog-tags.
Saying nothing further, he swivels the pouchs contents out. Because it too is strung on the bead-chain, only the lower half of it is visible at all, and even that is poorly glimpsed—simply a flash of bright yellow—before he shoves it into what looks for all the world like a giant automotive ignition keyhole and gives it a quarter-turn.
Instantly there is a loud click and the rumbling whine of a huge turbine spinning up. The deck underfoot vibrates, then sways slightly as the whole vehicle floats a few feet into the air. The landing gear retracts and a bluish glow builds, obscuring the view of the hangar. With an air of finality, Herr Schmidt flips up a plastic safety cover and slams a palm down flat on a big red button.
Suddenly the blue-tinged panorama starts jerking around like badly executed time-lapse photography. The hangar flickers, sometimes intact, sometimes ruined, sometimes completely absent, as if it had never been built. Even the vegetation changes constantly, trees of different sizes and ages appearing and disappearing in different locations. There are occasional glimpses of animals or even people, so fleeting no details can be made out. The only elements that seem constant are the gross landforms, the worsening weather as the storm breaks, and the darkening of evening.
The accompanying turbine whine, vibration, and a wind-like rushing sound make conversation effectively impossible. One or more of the passengers may be tempted to violence, but theyre effectively hostage, since Schmidt is the only one who has any idea how to operate the strange craft. After about half an hour, the vehicle extends its wheels again, the flickering slows to an abrupt stop, and the blue glow dissipates. Theres a brief descent, a gentle thump as the wheels settle on the floor, and they are at rest once more.
Now they are in a dim, rather dingy brick warehouse, the vehicle partially surrounded by stacks of shipping crates. The gloom is heightened by blacked-out windows and skylights, sparse incandescent overhead lights, and the drumming and howling of a severe storm outside. Herr Schmidt descends into the conning tower and emerges with a ladder extension, which he hooks onto one of the side boarding ladders before scrambling down to the floor.
Any engineer in the group who takes a moment to examine that control board may be a bit disturbed; theres an ineffable sense that the technology is considerably more advanced than any to which he (or she) may be accustomed. Yet it also has a familiarly no-nonsense industrial air, with actual push-buttons and switches. Something is definitely awry here.
Herr Schmidt by now seems a little nervous. Maybe he isnt sure whether hes sufficiently impressed the people hes trying to woo into investing with or working for him. In any case, as he twists and removes that bright-yellow object, then rises and hastily heads for the cargo deck, he clears his throat and invites everyone to follow him to a conference room, where nondisclosure agreements, a full explanation, and a place to stow luggage await.
Anyone whos slow to pick up baggage and troop off after him is urged on, to the extent that if necessary he will grab what he can carry in one hand. The pouch dangles, half-forgotten, from the other. He trots down the ramp and around the vehicle to a steel side door in the warehouses brick wall. Beyond is a narrow, not terribly well-lit hallway lined with office doors of a style three-quarters of a century out of date.
Herr Schmidt manages to get some distance down this corridor before a loud, muffled explosion rattles the building. The howl of the storm, the pounding of boots, and distant shouts follow, and, stricken, he hisses that we have just run out of time! He picks up the pace even more, chivvying everyone ahead of him down the dim, narrow hallway and around a dog-leg to another steel door. When the one behind bursts open with a hammer-blow of sound, he turns back, ashen-faced . . . and staggers back against the wall as a fusillade of shots ring out.
It doesnt kill him outright, but when he stumbles around the corner, its obvious hes not long for this world. He falls to his knees, holding out the hand from which the chain and pouch dangle. Whether hes asking for help or simply wants someone to take the pouch isnt clear—the best he can manage is a sort of aspirating gasping. And those thundering bootsteps are approaching as fast as the hallway will allow.
Assuming the characters have any sense, theyll grab the pouch and what luggage Herr Schmidt might have been carrying and charge out the door. Its very heavy, with a powerful pneumatic ram on it, so once theyre out itll swing quietly shut on their erstwhile host and his attackers, the lock clicking automatically. The characters are alone in the storm.
Time to go. Ω
Go to . . .