Artemis Hemingway and the Lead Zeppelin from Darkest Fife
by Stewart Wilson
It’s too damn late (GMT) in the heart of Edinburgh, the city that couldn’t resist just one more. These scant hours into Monday, even the students and the slackers are asleep or stoned out of their gourds. Bar-staff sweep the few drunks with stamina out of the few pubs with late licenses. Nobody looks to the stars. Nobody sees the threat coming their way.
James Stamforth worried at the remains of a bottle of brandy. He didn’t normally drink, but he felt the need after visiting his father’s grave. Especially given the maelstrom of thoughts running through his mind. What-ifs are all well and good, but I cannot shake the feeling that T. has more substance to what he says. The folder containing the mysterious e-mails sat in front of him. He poured the rest of the brandy into a glass and raised it to his lips–
*Fingers on a keyboard. The Rhapsody in Blue haunts the air in between the
sound of typing. Displayed on a screen:* With a sigh, he closed the folder
in front of him. He needed sleep more than brandy, after all.
With a sigh, he closed the folder in front of him. He needed sleep more than brandy, after all. Ignorant of the danger above, Stamforth headed for his bed.
A new day dawned over Edinburgh. Looking out of his window, Stamforth couldn’t help but register that something was wrong. Two things, in fact. One was the incessant banging noise coming from his door. The other was the strange shape in the sky. He was certain that the two had to be linked, but he hadn’t the wherewithal to resolve the problem—the aftereffects of brandy on his unprepared system. Another voice joined the thudding noise.
“God’s Bollocks, Jim! What the devil time do you call this? Even I’m awake and alert enough to see that… that thing.” The voice belonged to none other than the great Artemis Hemingway.
Stamforth opened the door before it gave way to Hemingway’s fist. “What the– what are you talking about?”
“It’s some kind of bloody airship, Jim.” Artemis paused, scratching his beard. “Nobody knows where it’s come from, but three pints says the damn thing means no good.”
“Come in, come in… let’s get a look at the thing.”
They moved into the study, where the large windows (a feature in Scotland, for sunlight is notoriously cheaper than electricity) afforded them a much better view. Stamforth passed a pair of binoculars to Hemingway, then extended a telescope for his own use.
“Oh, my. I recognise that design on the side.”
“What is it, man? Nobody else seems to know.” Hemingway set down the binoculars.
“It’s the mark of the Underground Kingdom of Fife. A hidden brotherhood of political extremists who took their Stalinist learnings somewhat too far. They have great laboratories, machine-shops, and even hangars under the Land That Shall Not Be Named, isolated in the dark.”
“How do you know about them? I’ve never come across these devils before.”
“They’ve always been more of a political threat. I know of them for only one reason: they killed my father.”
“I thought he died in a boating accident.”
“Whilst in the pay of Her Majesty’s government? A boating accident might account for them finding his limbs in different lochs, and the things done to his head.”
Artemis nodded quietly. “I see. It seems that I never did know your father as well as I could. But that is immaterial. They’ve parked a zeppelin over our fair city. We have to find out why and stop them.”
“Why must it be us?”
“There’s a mysterious zeppelin parked over Edinburgh. Who else is going to put a stop to it?”
“I see your point.”
They left Stamforth’s flat, each thinking of ways to board the strange airship. As they rounded the corner onto Forrest Road, the strangest thing happened. Car radios, televisions, mobile phones… anything with a speaker started relaying the same message.
“People of Edinburgh! Our weapon is in position. If you do not swear allegiance to the Kingdom of Fife, we will crash our nuclear zeppelin into Edinburgh Castle. You will be the surface-enclave of Darkest Fife.”
The message was met with derision. Cries of “Bugger off!” rose from the streets. People shook their heads, unsure as to the seriousness of this latest ludicrous situation. Whatever surveillance equipment monitored the city from above caught signs of people making rude gestures at the invaders from the North.
Stamforth frowned. “If it really does contain nuclear material, I dread to think of how much lead must clad that airship to stop the radiation from leaking.”
“Wheras I merely wonder how we can get aboard and stop these bastards. This is no game, they mean business.”
“I’m well aware, Artemis. We need to get higher. If I can secure a rope to the landing struts, we should be able to climb aboard.”
“Cunning.” One blast from the great man’s Hell-pistols got them access to an old tenement block’s stairwell. They started running, heading for the roof. “Once we are aboard, we have to take out the pilot and neutralise the cargo.”
“If you can handle the captain of the airship, I have an idea of how to deal with the payload.”
Clambering onto the roof, Stamforth clipped a hook to the front of his omni-rifle. The technological marvel made attaching a rope to the landing struts of the balesome blimp look like child’s play.
The nuclear zeppelin flew over the fair city of Edinburgh at quite a speed, oblivious to the passengers it had acquired. Hanging from the landing struts of the gondola, the great Artemis Hemingway turned to his companion. Wind scarred his face, but his booming voice still carried. “When we get aboard….”
James Stamforth nodded. Once again, the incredible pair were engaged in deadly battle for the fate of the city of Edinburgh. Each had his role to play, if they could only get inside. One well-placed flailing leg caught the emergency release, and a hatch opened above Jim’s head. With all his strength, he hauled himself inside.
Rolling to one side and drawing his omni-rifle, Stamforth put down two of the flight-suited guards before they could see him. Normally he found such endeavours tasteless, but his patience with these minions was sorely lacking.
Hemingway pulled himself inside after hearing the shots, taking but a moment to orient himself. Hell-pistols in hand, he ran towards the control room. No guards got in his way. One peeked around a bulkhead, but was gone before the great man’s bullet could connect. Obviously, they had gone to warn their dread master.
The door to the control room sat open. Hemingway regarded the back of the commander’s chair, unable to see who lurked behind. A sudden jolt tore his Hell-pistols from his grip. With a CLANG they struck the ceiling, held fast by a powerful electromagnet.
The chair spoke then. “So, the great Artemis Hemingway. We meet again, for the first time.”
“You have me at a disadvantage, sir. You know my name, but all I know is that you’re the lunatic trying to crash a nuclear zeppelin into Edinburgh Castle.”
“I thought you might have recognised me by reputation alone. It is I, Baron Aubergine von Lederhosen!”
A frown crossed the great man’s face, and his beard bristled. “I’ve never heard of you.”
“I’m very popular in Fife. Tomorrow, every man, woman, and child will have heard of me. Not only will I have destroyed your fair city. Not only that! I will be the man who finally killed their great hero.”
“Better men than you have tried. Better men who I’d actually heard of.”
A rapier sailed through the air, landing just in front of Hemingway. The figure in the chair leaped to his feet. “We shall settle this like gentlemen. En garde!”
Hemingway grabbed the rapier just in time to parry his opponent’s first thrust. The clash of steel echoed around the bridge as the two men tried to gain the measure of each other. Another flurry, their blades clashing a half-dozen times without either striking home. Clearly, this duel could last for a long time.
“Tell me, Herr Baron, why now? Why choose this time to make your underground kingdom public?”
“You’re a fool!” Their blades crashed, the Baron forced to back up. “For too long the government chose to infiltrate our great culture with their agents. We tried pushing for Scottish independance, but that didn’t work! Anthony Stamforth, the Man from H.O.L.Y.R.O.O.D., proved that whatever happened politically to your country, we would remain persecuted.”
Hemingway tripped, falling for the Baron’s feint, and retreated. “You haven’t answered my question.”
The Baron pressed his advantage, his steel flashing through the air. “It took us this long to gather enough radioactive material. Now, the world will take us seriously!”
“I toast your ambition, sir.” So saying, the great Artemis Hemingway smashed the top from a bottle of gin and sloshed a generous measure of the contents down his throat. The view of Edinburgh Castle from the observation windows was growing too close for comfort.
Stamforth, meanwhile, was learning things about himself that he didn’t want to know. These nameless, flight-suited men—literally nameless, their suits having naught but a barcode where others would have a name—were nothing to him. These people killed his father. They threatened his city. They were obviously mad, and it was up to him to stop it.
Hemingway’s got the easy bit, he thought. Find the big cheese, get the story, then beat him up while obtaining only photogenic scars. It’s up to me to do all the hard work in any case.
The baloon of the lead zeppelin was too large for just the helium needed to suspend the machine in the air. It was also the home of the deadly payload. He stepped forwards. A sharp crack and a blur of movement tore his omni-rifle from his grip. A woman stepped forwards, coiling a razor-tipped whip.
“Minnesota Smith! What the deuce are you doing working for these scum?”
“You must be James Stamforth… I recognise the chin. I guess nobody told you that I’m a Fifer by birth. It’s going to be fun, killing two generations of the same family.”
Stamforth couldn’t believe the evidence of his ears. “You killed my father?”
He could feel his destiny blowing in the wind. His father, snatched from the world ten years ago as part of a mission in the Kingdom of Fife. His mother already gone, no siblings, only his uncle for the boy to stay with. In many ways, it was this woman who had driven Stamforth to his current life. “Prepare to die.”
She grinned, cruelly. “All this time you thought I was one of you, one of the great adventurers, when all this time I’d been working for my real countrymen.”
“You may not have noticed, but I’m not Artemis.” Stamforth grabbed a bottle from his pack and smashed it open on the steel gantry. “I don’t listen to monologues.”
Her whip flickered out, faster than the eye could follow, but Stamforth was already moving. One foot in the air, the other connecting with a different strut, he thrust the splintered glass at his opponent. She couldn’t react in time. Blood blossomed from her skin as the glass bit deep. She looked at him, her eyes begging forgiveness as her life flowed from her body in crimson torrents. Jim turned his back to her, concentrating on the computer attached to the zeppelin’s radioactive payload.
Hemingway grunted, desperate for the advantage. He threw more of the gin down his throat, trying to work out how to best his opponent—who was easily his equal as a fencer—while keeping the airship from hitting the castle. HIs blade flashed once more as he attempted a feint, but his foe let loose a deadly riposte.
I’m too sober for this devilry, Hemingway thought. His fighting style was becoming more erratic as his alcohol consumption increased. The Baron couldn’t figure out what strategy would be the best to bring the duel to a close. One blunder later, and Hemingway was close enough to shift the fight to more familiar terms. He jammed his steel-clad toe into the Baron’s testicles with devastating force, following up with a mighty fist to the stomach and a ferocious knee to the Baron’s face.
“My city, my terms,” he growled.
With one huge fist, Hemingway destroyed the control panel next to the Baron’s seat, releasing his Hell-pistols. With his familiar weapons once more in his posession, he moved to the abandoned navigator’s station. Unfortunately, his reputation had precluded his ever learning to pilot an airship, but the purpose of a single control stick was obvious. He pulled back hard, and the airship levelled off, then started to climb.
Stamforth appeared in the doorway. “I’ve stopped the detonatior. What now? We’ve saved the city, but there’s still the matter of the radiological airship. We can’t just plunge it into the Forth.”
“You’re right, Jim. That’s why we will turn it against it’s original masters. This has been a long time coming. There shall and must be vengeance!”
“We’ve no idea where it came from, but I think the nvaigator’s logs might give me an idea.”
“Good man. We’ll do to them what they so dearly wanted to do to us.”
The airship turned ponderously, pointing it’s prow towards darkest Fife. The engines whined, propelling their dangerous cargo—and a large quantity of radioactive material—towards the land to the North. Thy couldn’t hear the cheers of the city they had just saved.
It was a scant hour before the airship approached its original mooring point. The ground below them fell away, allowing them to descend deeper into the underground kingdom. Hemingway tensed. His hackles rose. They had to play this just right. We need to get out of here. Thirty minutes after we land, this place is going to be so much glass. And yet, if we don’t escape, it’s just another sacrifice.
The zeppelin touched down. The doors opened to the sound of soldier-scientists readying their weapons. They didn’t stand a chance. Hemingway’s awesome Hell-pistols spat death, Stamforth laying down smoke for cover before dealing his fair share of destruction.
Somewhere here, Stamforth’s father had died. Somewhere here, they probably had his remains on display, a trophy of their victory. This ultimate revenge was what his father would have wanted. James changed firing modes again, blasting a number of foes aside with high explosive rounds.
The tannoy blasted to life. Close the aerial doors! Seal the base! More soldier-scientists poured from the doors, unable to believe the carnage wrought in the landing zone. Fully fifty men already dead, their torn and twisted bodies littering the floor. Artemis Hemingway standing in the centre of the carnage, the technological marvels in his hands roaring almost as loud as the man himself. Stamforth behind the great man, his omni-rifle killing those further out with ruthless efficiency. The two were heading for the helicopters, but the doors to the hangar were closing faster than the pair could progress.
Stamforth looked to his left and shouted something to his companion. They turned, backing instead towards a rack of emergency jetpacks. “They won’t get us back to the city, btu they’ll get us through those doors!”
Hemingway’s guns silenced for a moment. “What are we waiting for? Cover me while I get this thing on.”
The pair struggled into the jetpacks, each providing covering fire, Artemis with a hail of bullets and Stamforth with fast-expanding aerogel foam that blocked their opponents’ fire. With one parting high-explosive round, they fired the jetpacks and rocketed skywards. The doors closing above them threaten to trap them within, the troops below firing with renewed confidence now that the suppressing fire has vanished.
With bare seconds to spare, the packs propel them through the roof and out towards the Firth of Forth. The clang of the doors below is a pointed reminder of the fate that almost befel them.
“Jim! I’ve a problem, the bloody thing’s stopped firing!”
“They were only for emergency use, Artemis. Try to angle your fall!”
“I don’t know!”
The ground approached them, hard and unyielding. Only as they came closer did they realise that they were about to get very wet. The Forth loomed before them. The heroid duo jettisoned their jetpacks, falling towards the water and salvation. Just before they hit the water, they both heard the muffled BOOM of an underground explosion. The Kingdom of Darkest Fife was no more.