The Forever Engine – Snippet 35
“Four eighty by the glass,” Jenkins announced, and Harding shook himself as if waking from an unpleasant dream.
“I had better see to my vessel,” Harding said. “You gentlemen may be more comfortable belowdecks. If I were you I’d make sure those Bavarians and Mr. Fargo’s French trollop are ready to disembark. I believe we are running a bit ahead of schedule.”
Gordon shot me an angry look, as if I were to blame for Harding’s attitude and manners, but I didn’t much care what Gordon thought. There were only two people in this particular world I gave a damn about — Gabrielle and Thomson — and Harding was about to write them both off because it was more convenient to do that than to do his job. Never mind what I might have to do to them later to save my own world, this moment was real, they were still alive, and this spiteful little shit wasn’t just going to turn his back on them.
“I guess it makes you feel big to insult a woman who isn’t here to defend herself,” I said. “Especially since if she were here, she’d make you look like a monkey — again.”
“I won’t –” he started, but I cut him off.
“Fuck you, Harding. Fuck you up the ass. That’s how it’s usually done in the Royal Navy, isn’t it? What are the three enduring traditions of the service again? Oh, yeah, I remember: rum, sodomy, and the lash. Which one’s your favorite?”
There was a moment of stunned silence on the bridge. Harding stood with his mouth open, face turning red, and then I heard a nervous snicker from one of the trimsmen behind me.
“You’re in a bad spot, Harding,” I said. “If we come back, you and I might have to have a real serious conversation you won’t like. If we don’t come back, then no matter how good an excuse you come up with, Lord Chillingham is going to flay the skin from your bones. I guess you’re going to have to decide which one of us you’re more afraid of.”
There I was, using Chillingham as a boogey man again. He was becoming so useful in the role I was starting to feel gratitude toward him for being such an over-the-top son of a bitch. I left the bridge while Gordon wasted his time sputtering an apology to Harding.
I found Gabrielle in her cabin. She sat on her bunk, dressed in a green-grey riding habit, with her gear packed and piled neatly at her feet. I noticed her hands clasped tightly in her lap and her face paler than usual.
“What’s wrong, Gabi?”
“I am frightened. The weather . . . it is not good for the flyer, is it? For the trim? If the ship tilts too far to one side, the lifting panels cannot compensate, because they will line up with each other and then they lose all their lift and we fall.”
I couldn’t exactly reassure her on that point. Flying by jet was safer than driving a car, but they didn’t have either of those here. I didn’t know much about the safety record of liftwood flyers. I felt a shudder of anxiety myself, but it was submerged in the wave of surprise I felt at Gabrielle’s fear. She showed so few emotions it was easy to fall into thinking she was immune to them, but fear was a basic animal instinct.
She cried out as the porthole flashed white, flooding the room with light. She clamped her hands over her ears with the crack of thunder immediately following it, her face wrinkled up and tears streaming from her eyes.
One long step took me across the little cabin. I sat down next to her and put my arms around her, and she clung to me as if to a life preserver at sea.
“I do not like the lightning,” she explained in a small voice, trying to choke back the panic. “Or the thunder. It hurts my ears.”
“Yeah, it sucks.”
“That means it’s bad.”
She nodded her agreement against my chest.
“Did my pistol shooting hurt your ears yesterday?” I asked, just to make conversation and divert her mind.
“Oui. All my life the loud noises bother me, more so than others. So I could not sleep while you shoot. But it was good watching you. You are funny the way you shoot.”
“I’m here all week.”
She lifted her head and looked at me, confusion momentarily replacing the fear.
“Sometimes the things you say — I understand the words but not the sentences.”
“Yeah, I get that a lot, mostly from my students. Listen, I kind of kicked a hornet’s nest up on the bridge a little while ago. Gordon’s going to be pissed — angry — at me and he may try to take it out on you, maybe try to leave you behind.”
“We have the agreement. He is not an honorable man?”
“He’s a frightened man. To be honest, I don’t know what sort of guy he is under all the fear.”
“You need to find this thing out, Jack,” she said, concern for me momentarily trumping her own fear. “So much for you now depends on him. For me as well, but I still have information he needs which I have not shared.”
“Good girl. I figured, but it’s good to be sure. He needs me as a translator with the Turks and maybe as bait. Our plan doesn’t use me for that, but it’s always there as a back-up.”
She was right about Gordon. What did I really know about him? He was angry a lot, probably as a cover for his fear. He drank for the same reason, but he’d stopped, and that showed something. What sort of man was he underneath?
Lighting flashed outside the porthole, and Gabrielle jumped again.
“Tell me something about this Tesla guy I don’t already know,” I said, just to get her talking and take her mind off the storm. “Tell me about his folks, his family.”
“He . . . his father was an orthodox priest, well-educated and très charismatique. It is said he had many affairs of the heart outside of his marriage.”
“No vows of celibacy in the orthodox church, huh?”
“Non. Priests marry and raise families, the same as the Protestants. His wife, Tesla’s mother, was the daughter of a priest herself, but she was uneducated, unable to read. She memorized many of the Serbian epic poems and recited them to Nikola as he grew.”
“Are they still alive?”
“Non, both dead. His father died eight years ago. His mother died six years ago, when he lived in France. He was grief-stricken at her loss, so much he suffered the physical collapse. Strange. He broke the ties with his family ten years ago, and yet he was so upset at the deaths of his parents. This is odd, don’t you think?”
“People are strange, Gabi, no getting around it. Is there a woman in his life?”
“He had three sisters, all married, but they died in an outbreak of typhus not long after his mother died.”
She started telling me where they had lived, what their husbands had done for a living, how many kids they had had, but I shook my head.
“Oh, a woman. You mean the romance? Non, he is — what is the word you used? — celibate. He says the celibacy keeps his head clear.”
“A lot of nutcases think that.”
“Nut case?” she asked and then nodded. “Ah, you mean the crazy person. But is he crazy because he has the different ideas?”