A Worm Is A Bird And Other Bad Things, was originally published in SFF e’zine, which is unfortunately no longer with us 😦 Anyway I thought it a shame my story died in that way, so have resurrected it for you to read. It’s from the steampunk issue 5. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did writing it. RIP SFF e’zine… (SFF e’zine by Peter Saga)
Amongst the ruins of her ship, crawls Captain Isabel Deckard. She can see Paris, blazing. They’ve reached Europe. “A woman’s no substitute for the real thing!” She looks towards a shadow turning into a man, can see the smugness on her first mate’s face as he offers his hand, to mock her. “M’lady!”
She growls, “This is no time for blame, Mr. Bailey.” She scrambles to her feet, pushes him away, and points towards the sky. “I suppose men can fight gravity? An unnatural gift if that were the case!” Through the smog and dust of falling debris, they see more Zeppelins plucked, like fledglings crashing to the war torn streets, once the cultural hub of Paris.
She barks, “Mechanical worms! The laws of science have reversed the natural order of things. We’re living in a land where worms eat birds!” She grabs his hand. “Run, Bailey. Or are you immune?” They run far enough away to see the full damage to the Zeppelin. A home for five months to twenty crew, burnt beyond the survival of anyone trapped inside. But Deckard didn’t earn her place without the respect of her men, or most of them, at least. She begins to turn, in hope that others were fortunate enough to be thrown from the cabins. “My crew!”
Bailey screams, “Captain, get back!” A tremor underfoot begins to break the ground beneath until the ship is taken, sliding into a place deeper than it was designed to venture. It was made for the sky, not for the depths of earth. They run, avoiding death, like insignificant specs in a landslide. “It’s chaos!” cries Bailey, dragging his captain, sensing her reluctance to leave her ship.
Other ships are being plucked from the sky. More worms drag a once proud army into graves, marked only by the craters left behind. The mechanisms screech, like living creatures, driven by human pilots, trained for terrestrial conquest. Deckard takes some explosives from her coat, more for comfort than use. “The world’s turning to ash, and the sky even more so.”
Mr. Bailey draws his rifle. “It would have been kinder, if we’d died with the others.”
Dwarfed by their enemy, the two of them run between the shrapnel from exploding Zeppelins, amongst the falling debris of their once proud fleet. “We fell two hundred feet and survived, Mr. Bailey. Maybe we yet have purpose in this terrible series of events?” She points towards the Flight Academy, a giant amongst the Parisian landscape. “The project, Bailey. There’s a chance it’s not damaged.” He calls, “What project?”
She dodges the back end of a molten statue, as it shakes loose from the top of a building, the cause of its crumbling, quite obviously, another fallen ship. She drags him into a side alley with buildings still attached and points towards the Flight Academy. “It’s said the French government were working on a way to drag these worms from the ground, just like they’ve plucked our ships from the sky.” She grins. “A reversal of physics sounds much more palatable than death, wouldn’t you say, Mr. Bailey?”
He smiles at last. They run, towards the Flight Academy, a dream of something to cure this infestation speeding them past the dangers all around. Flashing by are all the possible avenues for failure, the alternatives, which shadow victory, the chance that death will take them, sooner, like everyone else around.
As they continue to run, Captain Deckard, hollers. “It’s three streets away, we can get there. It’s supposed to be in the lower levels.”
Bailey isn’t so hopeful. “What if this project’s gone?”
She growls at him. “I lost eighteen good men and women back there. Don’t make me regret you survived!”
He stops and waves his arms at the chaos, pulling her backwards. “But look around you! If this miraculous project existed, these worms would be in the sky already!”
She pulls him forward, and they begin running again, but she takes a second to reply. “If it’s gone, we’ll flee the city. Watch the world crumble as we get drunk on French wine.” She ducks as shrapnel from an explosion skims close to her face. “If we survive this, I’ll gladly join you. But not yet.”
They speed up, as the rain turns to ash. It would have been spring, but this carnage has stripped Paris of its season. Apart from the cherry blossom, which fall between the cracks. Pink tears, from trees mourning for the tourists who worshiped their beauty, before the worms came. Deckard slows, as they reach a row of cherry trees. She stops to reflect, to watch events beyond her. Death doesn’t discriminate, doesn’t care about daughters or husbands, or those left behind. It’s rolling back its eyes and laughing as it reminds her of New York; of a place she never wanted to look back on.
“Isabel?” Bailey grabs hold of her, “What’s wrong? Why have you stopped?” She doesn’t answer. He takes her hand, as if they are no longer Captain and mate, but two people, caught up in something horrific. “Come on, run!” There is some sign of life. A few survivors scramble from the wreckage of fallen Zeppelins. Bailey, points at the nearing Academy. “We’re almost there!”
She nods, allowing him to cauterize the memories, as the bouquet of present events filter into her, leaving New York where it should be. She becomes something better and braver. “I’m sorry. Yes, of course.” She looks at the world as it is now. Civilian’s clamber about, searching for the quickest exits, for unbroken bridges connecting them to the country, allowing them to run away from Paris, into the suburbs. Those who haven’t been swept into the Sein, or the other unmentionable places, beneath civilized structures.
She motions to the Flight Academy as they sneak past another worm, too gigantic to register them as a threat. As if they’re fledglings, already chewed by a cat, and doomed to starve. “There it is!” They stop, outside the large and tattered entrance. Its gates have been blown off. Craters and Zeppelin’s litter its foundations, just like everywhere else in the city. The main building is steaming, the Zeppelin hangars lined with skeleton ships.
Bailey mutters, “We’re too late!”
Deckard regains her authority, as if it’s a natural part of her. “Let’s look inside first, before we reach that conclusion.” She signals to the carnage, to the dead all around. “This is genocide. I can’t give up, until I know for sure, that we’ve lost.”
Bailey nods. “You’re right, but I’d rather be in the country, drowning myself in wine and women!”
Despite this, they sneak towards the main entrance, using the cover of trees and their own slight of foot. Five months on board the Zeppelin hasn’t robbed either of them of their stealth. In fact they have set foot in many foreign lands, but nowhere as strange as Paris looks now. “Get back!” whispers Deckard. She pushes Bailey into the foliage, as something lumbers out of the security doors, leading through to the Academy foyer. They squat, as the thing is followed by others, all of them shaped like men and women, bound in some sort of mesh, distorting them into something less than human. “What the hell are they?”
What used to be flesh is pressed so tightly to the mesh that it looks like little fatty eyes, bursting through. Their features appear like worms, walking on two legs. Bailey whispers, “Look at their boots!” They both look down as the parade of human worms march past, with the same boots as themselves.
The two survivors crawl back further, allowing the last to march past. Deckard whispers. “Now we know why no one’s saved us!”
She moves swiftly, dragging Bailey towards the entrance. “Something’s changed them. We’ll have to do it ourselves!”
Bailey holds back. “I’m not going in there with those things! You’re mad, woman!”
Deckard doesn’t smile. “Then run away, knowing a woman saved you. Remember me if you see worms flying, during your orgy, because I’m not handing our world over to them!” She drags him backwards, as another troop of human worms march past them, out onto the streets of Paris. “You’ll be court marshaled for desertion.”
He spits, “That’s if you’re not turned into a worm, Captain!”
Before she can lecture him about his attitude the ground shakes, more violently than it had when their ship was taken. They cling to the branches of their hideaway, unable to move, predicting another metal worm emerging from the grounds. But something different appears. Steam, followed by the smell of sulphur, bursts from a fissure, making the human worms open fire. Their bullets ricochet, slicing holes through the surrounding area, as an enormous metal bird takes shape and grows into something beautiful. The flying machine opens fire, turning the sky red for a moment. It bears the colours of France, the colours of Europe, the seals of Queen Victoria and president Félix Faure.
The mechanical worms, for miles, begin to turn as the steam and the sounds of churning cogs, the workings of two great nations, arise, from the earth. As if they sense it’s not as flimsy as a Zeppelin. “It’s bullet proof, Bailey!” Cries Deckard. “But is it worm proof?” She laughs, and turns towards him, but his eyes are wide, dead man’s eyes, staring at the blood, seeping from a tiny wound in his stomach. He crumbles, “Bailey?” She has no time for him. She’s lost better people today. She wipes off his blood, takes out her gun and waits, as the mechanical worms burrow their way towards Her Majesty’s flying machine. She whispers. “The project. This must be it!”
The sky begins to fill with mechanical worms, lifted out of their burrows, with no hydrogen to give them flight. Her Majesty’s ship is the source of their levitation. They become specks, floating upwards, becoming so distant that Deckard finds it hard to see any trace of them other than the devastation they’ve caused, tiny spots of light, thousands of small explosions, as the mechanical worms burn up in the earth’s atmosphere. Instead of trees mourning, the sky begins to weep, the remains of worms, silicon ashes spat out by the atmosphere. “It works!” She cries, but too loud, as something grabs her foot. She twists round, aiming her gun, at what used to be Bailey, his face contorted into an inhuman mess. His death must have triggered some horrid transformation. She fires, and falls out of her hideaway, scrambling into the courtyard towards Her Majesty’s ship and the troop of human worms in between.
She feels the ashes falling, takes out her pack of explosives and hurls them at the troops, scattering some, disabling others. In some rage for survival, she sprints across the grounds towards the flying machine, waving her hands, hoping that someone inside will see she’s still human. “Open up! Stop!”
A hatchway opens and a ladder falls out from the base. A man’s voice calls in broad French, “Are you infected?”
She scrambles towards the ladder and clings on as the ship leaves the ground. She’s used to being at the helm, not clinging for her life below. “I don’t think so!” She clambers upwards, and the man’s hand hauls her onto the deck. The hatch closes. Her eyes adjust to the unnatural light.
The man, dressed in a cleaner’s overalls, smiles and shakes her hand. “A Zeppelin Captain!” He looks relieved and says in fluent English. “We’ve got a crazy scientist piloting this ship! We need you at the helm, Ma’am. Unless you fancy a world full of worms?” He adds, “We’d better get up there. The world’s a big place to save and we’ve only got one ship!”
It seems she does have purpose, after all. “Looks like the laws of science have shifted in our favour. Show me to your deck, Monsieur!”
Without introducing himself, the cleaner disappears up a spiral stairway, “This way, Captain!”
She follows, swaying as the ship ascends, hoping that the rest of the crew is more qualified. It’s a difficult climb, with the gravity shifting. She’s not used to such swift takeoffs as Zeppelins were designed for gradual flight, not the obvious maneuvering this ship is capable of. She feels sick, remembers herself falling as her own Zeppelin crashed from the sky, as a worm ate through the gasbag. For the first time since her daughter and husband died, she feels completely helpless. New York is so far away, but the smell of burning fuel; mixed with the blossom in spring air, encourage such cruel memories. A dead woman’s life has no place amongst the living, and certainly isn’t appropriate onboard a ship capable of such potential. “Not now, Isabel.” Shaking off the emotion, she reaches the hull, peers up at the new space, through the floor hatch. It’s empty, save the cleaner, but she can see the crew through an open doorway, to the control room.
The cleaner holds his hand out to help her to her feet, a rare gentleman, with misguided chivalry. “Captain?”
Deckard marks him as a hopeless romantic at best, but accepts his gesture gracefully. “Thank you, Monsieur?”
He looks sick, as the ship enters some turbulence, but replies. “Christophe Lautrec.” He motions towards the cabin. “Let me introduce you to the others.” She follows him through to where two more people sit, a man and a woman, both of them fluent French speakers. Unfortunately French was far from her mind as a girl. She didn’t need it in London.
The conversation dies, as she enters, and both glance at her as the cook begins to boast. “She’s a captain! We were right to pick her up! I told you!”
Deckard assesses the hierarchy. The cook is obviously at the bottom as the woman teases him, using English to include her new companion. “Ah, Christophe thinks he’s saved the world, he’ll clean it of worms, but if we get out of here alive he’s going to end up cleaning the ship, just like before, while we destroy these worms!”
There is underlining tension, as Christophe retorts sarcastically. “That’s so sweet of you, Genevieve. I feel so worthwhile!” She assumes there’s more to this relationship. Sexual politics had its place on her own ship, and she can sense the chemistry between them.
Deckard looks at the jumble of alien controls, and the hopeful expressions on the faces of her new crew. She says in her best Captain’s voice, to establish her dominance, “Isabel Deckard, former captain of The Birmingham.” She keeps calm, but inside, the woman who knows nothing about advanced technology, panics. Captain Deckard takes her place, beside the old man piloting the contraption.
He offers his hand. “Professor Yuri Moreau!” He looks precarious and frightened, as if he’s never flown a ship before.
She glances at him, and asks. “You built this thing?” He is perspiring. “Yes, but I’m not a pilot!” She can see why he’s so scared, as more worms begin to break the surface of the earth. The ship weaves around, like a mouse avoiding snake strikes.
He yells. “Tirer, Genevieve!” Genevieve looks hardened, Deckard can sense military, her eye patch and attitude give her away, despite civilian atire. She takes hold of a machine gun, begins blasting the worms, lifting them out of the ground, as they had before, screaming, “Die!” Deckard steps in, takes the machine gun on the opposite side, as more worms strike at the ship. Professor Moreau clambers over his seat, muttering, “We should swap!” and pulls her from the machine gun, so that she is sitting at the ship’s helm. She quietly panics as she realises there are no rudder or elevator wheels, just a strange looking handle bar, which forced the ship to plummet, when Moreau removed his hands. He screams at her. “Grab the joy stick! Pull her up!”
Deckard grabs hold of it as the ship nosedives, and growls at him as the earth spins rapidly nearer. “You’re crazy!”
Moreau replies, “You’re a captain!”
“Of a Zeppelin!”
The controls feel heavy, but she pulls them down until the ship stops vibrating. It stabilises, and begins to climb upwards as she steers it. Genevieve lets out a cry of relief, still firing indiscriminately at anything that moves outside of the ship. She says to Deckard. “Stay just below the clouds so I can see anything that crawls from the earth, and blast it into the sky.”
Deckard smiles, for the first time, in a while and jokes. “Are you always this dramatic?”
Genevieve grins, and says quite coolly. “It’s been a dramatic day!”
Deckard looks outside, along with the others. There are worms all around, being elevated, broken up and burnt, like before. It’s like a fireworks display, during daytime. She hasn’t been to one of those since she was Genevieve’s age. She was a civilian back then, but things change. She concentrates on steering, despite the worm’s sudden aversion, but turns to Moreau, the man with the brains. Hopefully. “Professor, any plans?”
He nods, and points towards the horizon, where the land swiftly turns from earth to sea, revealing how fast this ship travels in a matter of moments. He mumbles. “Head South, towards Antarctica.”
She waits for an explanation, but Moreau stands up, motions for Christophe to take his place beside the machine gun, says absently. “Just point and shoot!”
Christophe pulls a face as Genevieve laughs at him. “Pretend it’s a mop!”
Deckard focuses on steering southwards, across the Mediterranean, as Professor Moreau sits down, perspiration dripping down his forehead. He wipes it with a handkerchief and lights up a cigar. He’s a man who looks like he’s had a few heart attacks in his long lifetime. Antarctica is where the first worms appeared. It’s a no fly zone, in fact no Zeppelins came back from there with human crews, or so it was rumored. “Antarctica? You are mad!”
Professor Moreau looks quite the opposite, as he watches the worms burning. “You should know as a Zeppelin Captain, this infestation originated from there.”
She nods. “Yes.”
The first sign of North African land, skims by, as the ship accelerates past the Sahara, past South Africa, every worm flying upwards, as this ship drags them to their death, like a reaper, calling locusts back to heaven by the millions. She warns. “Antarctica’s supposed to be impregnable!” Her own ship had been diverted from that region, several months ago, when the plague first broke out.
Moreau continues, “I didn’t plan to be onboard, when this day came, but if we can find the factory, maybe we can survive long enough to stop production.”
Deckard retorts, “That’s very encouraging!”
Christophe and Genevieve say together, “Icebergs!”
Moreau jumps out of his seat. “Stop the ship!”
Deckard has no idea how to stop. “How?” Genevieve flips a control, and the ship hovers over the open ocean.
Moreau points at something in the South, jutting from the water, a hundred miles high, so high in fact, its peak skims the clouds. “There it is!” He screams, at Genevieve, “Sergeant Lambert, full power to the anti gravity device! I want to wipe these things off the planet!” It looks like a giant iceberg, but it’s teaming with holes, and inside can be seen billions of mechanical worms.
Deckard says, almost to herself, out of shock, “A worm factory!”
Genevieve begins firing, at the giant factory, as the mechanical worms team out, towards the tiny ship. The anti gravity device lifts the worms upwards, until they cascade like a carpet of serpents, mechanical bones crunching as the atmosphere burns them into innocent flashes.
The factory remains intact, sitting quite smugly as if it has some awareness of its menace. Deckard steers the ship nearer, past stray worms, as they pummel against the sides, making the ship spin, into unwelcome turbulence. Moreau cries, “Force fields!” Everything inside goes dark, steam bellows from the engine, before the power returns, and the generator charges the force field, making the worms ricochet off the sides, into the sky.
Deckard hollers, “How do you plan to destroy it?”
Moreau removes his cigar. “The opposite of ice, Captain, good old fashioned fire!”
The ship emits another noise, and the crew covers their eyes, as a light, sweeps all trace of the landscape. When the whiteness fades, Deckard hears her companions screaming, but in euphoria, rather than its opposite. She joins them, watching as the ice factory crumbles into the ocean, little worm workers tumbling, like in some apocalyptic painting she saw in The Tate as a girl, although God has no part in this, machine induced justice. She laughs, “Looks like it’s bird over worm, machine beats machine.” She sits back, with the others and remembers Paris burning, toasts her crew, silently, and hopes there’s enough left of the world to call this victory.