Zeppelin City

Zeppelin City

illustration by benjamin carre

This story is also available for download from major ebook retailers.

Radio Jones came dancing down the slidewalks. She jumped from the express to a local, then spun about and raced backwards, dumping speed so she could cut across the slower lanes two and three at a time. She hopped off at the mouth of an alley, glanced up in time to see a Zeppelin disappear behind a glass-domed skyscraper, and stepped through a metal door left open to vent the heat from the furnaces within.

The glass-blowers looked up from their work as she entered the hot shop. They greeted her cheerily:

“Hey, Radio!”


“You invented a robot girlfriend for me yet?”

The shop foreman lumbered forward, smiling. “Got a box of off-spec tubes for you, under the bench there.”

“Thanks, Mackie.” Radio dug through the pockets of her patched leather greatcoat and pulled out a folded sheet of paper. “Hey, listen, I want you to do me up an estimate for these here vacuum tubes.”

Mack studied the list. “Looks to be pretty straightforward. None of your usual experimental trash. How many do you need—one of each?”

“I was thinking more like a hundred.”

What?” Mack’s shaggy black eyebrows met in a scowl. “You planning to win big betting on the Reds?”

“Not me, I’m a Whites fan all the way. Naw, I was kinda hoping you’d gimme credit. I came up with something real hot.”

“You finally built that girlfriend for Rico?”

The workmen all laughed.

“No, c’mon, I’m serious here.” She lowered her voice. “I invented a universal radio receiver. Not fixed-frequency—tunable! It’ll receive any broadcast on the radio spectrum. Twist the dial, there you are. With this baby, you can listen in on every conversation in the big game, if you want.”

Mack whistled. “There might be a lot of interest in a device like that.”

“Funny thing, I was thinking exactly that myself.” Radio grinned. “So waddaya say?”

“I say—” Mack spun around to face the glass-blowers, who were all listening intently, and bellowed, “Get back to work!” Then, in a normal voice, “Tell you what. Set me up a demo, and if your gizmo works the way you say it does, maybe I’ll invest in it. I’ve got the materials to build it, and access to the retailers. Something like this could move twenty, maybe thirty units a day, during the games.”

“Hey! Great! The game starts when? Noon, right? I’ll bring my prototype over, and we can listen to the players talking to each other.” She darted toward the door.

“Wait.” Mack ponderously made his way into his office. He extracted a five-dollar bill from the lockbox and returned, holding it extended before him. “For the option. You agree not to sell any shares in this without me seeing this doohickey first.”

“Oh, Mackie, you’re the greatest!” She bounced up on her toes to kiss his cheek. Then, stuffing the bill into the hip pocket of her jeans, she bounded away.

Fat Edna’s was only three blocks distant. She was inside and on a stool before the door jangled shut behind her. “Morning, Edna!” The neon light she’d rigged up over the bar was, she noted with satisfaction, still working. Nice and quiet, hardly any buzz to it at all. “Gimme a big plate of scrambled eggs and pastrami, with a beer on the side.”

The bartender eyed her skeptically. “Let’s see your money first.”

With elaborate nonchalance, Radio laid the bill flat on the counter before her. Edna picked it up, held it to the light, then slowly counted out four ones and eighty-five cents change. She put a glass under the tap and called over her shoulder, “Wreck a crowd, with sliced dick!” She pulled the beer, slid the glass across the counter, and said, “Out in a minute.”

“Edna, there is nobody in the world less satisfying to show off in front of than you. You still got that package I left here?”

Wordlessly, Edna took a canvas-wrapped object from under the bar and set it before her.

“Thanks.” Radio unwrapped her prototype. It was bench-work stuff—just tubes, resistors and capacitors in a metal frame. No housing, no circuit tracer lights, and a tuner she had to turn with a pair of needle-nose pliers. But it was going to make her rich. She set about double-checking all the connectors. “Hey, plug this in for me, willya?”

Edna folded her arms and looked at her.

Radio sighed, dug in her pockets again, and slapped a nickel on the bar. Edna took the cord and plugged it into the outlet under the neon light.

With a faint hum, the tubes came to life.

“That thing’s not gonna blow up, is it?” Edna asked dubiously.

“Naw.” Radio took a pair of needle-nose pliers out of her greatcoat pocket and began casting about for a strong signal. “Most it’s gonna do is electrocute you, maybe set fire to the building. But it’s not gonna explode. You been watching too many kinescopes.”

This story is part of Steampunk Month: ‹ previous | index | next ›
James Felling
1. Maltheos
Wow. Beautiful story, I like the timeless quality of it -- it has a kind of golden age feel, but a modern sensibility. Great job.
- -
2. heresiarch
Swanwick and Gunn for the win! Awesome.

So, is Amelia Spindizzy this alt-history's Amelia Earhart?
3. DewiMorgan
Your ideas are intriguing and I would like to subscribe to your periodical.
4. A. Dorrance
Listened to them read this at WorldCon 2009 -- definitely a high point!
5. A. Dorrance
Ach, I meant ReaderCon. Well worth it.
Ben HM3
6. BenHM3
While you posit a number of incredibly challenging achievements, I had no problem accepting them and enjoying the story.

Given my usual tendencies, this is darned high praise for the smoothness and integration of your story.

I even enjoyed the flying/flight parts, though really, a gyrocopter competing with a fixed-wing aircraft? Well, it would make a visually appealing movie.

A great story: thanks Michael & Eileen for writing it, and Tor for making it available.
7. EKGunn
Wow -- thanks everybody!

Heresiarch: I like to think of Earhart as being our timeline's Amelia Spindizzy.

A. Dorrance: Glad you heard the Readercon performance: Swanwick and I are only rarely in the same place and time. It was great fun to do. There may be a tape of it somewhere.

BenHM3: You're quite right. Amelia had to rely on the element of surprise if she was ever going to knock Eszterhazy's plane out of the sky. That's why she tended to position herself between him and the sun. Also, her gyro was really noisy and erratic in flight -- but then, so was his plane.
8. nortonryder
Fascinating! After 45 years of reading science fiction, I find that there is a new world out there of creative speculative fiction that catches my attention and holds it, as much as my first juvenile Heinlein did, throughout the "new wave" and then the "cyberpunk" period.

I had nearly given up the genre since it has been handed over to the dragons, swords and sandals, and feudal epics.

THIS kind of writing I can get behind, and intend to start exporing all the authors connected with it, starting with an old favorite, Gibson.

THANK YOU Mr. Swanwick and Ms. Gunn and TOR.COM for opening my eyes, and giving me back a sense of wonder!
BryceL Liskovec
10. likwidoxigen
That was a fantastic story, but, dang it... WHAT HAPPENS TO THE "new" BRAINS!?!??
11. Fsck
Love it! So much action packed into the story, along with some great ideas and imagery. I'll be keeping an eye out for more from you two, that's fer shure!
Jeff Closs
12. SupRspi

I enjoyed every aspect of this story - my only complaint would be that it isn't long enough. I'm totally ready for a novel length version of it, or a novel length story set before the fall of the brains.

Great job, thank you for writing it that I should be able to read it.
Isaac Doubek
13. Dr.Goggs
This is great. thanks for the wonderful story
14. EKGunn
Thanks again!

likwidoxigen - I hesitate to post a spoiler, but you can get the drift from pages 11 and 13.
15. htgreen
Great story. Interesting ending.
Nicole Cantwell
18. NclCntwll
I love it. Only issue I had was I felt like I stumbled in, in the middle. Definitely make it into a book if you can and I will buy it and track you down for a signing. ^_^
19. Jonny B. Goode
"That was a fantastic story, but, dang it... WHAT HAPPENS TO THE "new" BRAINS!?!??" Well, since Rudy got his body back, I'd assume they all did.

Good story!
Kevin Carlin
20. kcarlin
I thought from the start she'd wind up falling for Eszterhazy. Genre expectations and all that. Good story!
21. pperez333
Any problem in creating the "book" in Goodreads?
22. Chrisg
Excellent story telling! Thankyou very much. To create the inner images of a fantastic society and world in so few words as well as this, is great writing.
23. SimonVO
That was a brilliant story!! I really enjoyed the ending, Amelia's sacrifice and also, I was honestly expecting Rudy to just become a Lenin or a Stalin, rather cool that he stuck to his ideals...bravo!!!

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