tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 02

The Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 02

byCase21©

Dear Reader, kindly allow me to resume my tale.

As might be imagined, I felt considerable distraction when facing Miss Pryor again after having read the pages of her diary in secret and glimpsed the mysteries of her pleasure. I had accessed such an intimate side of her. In any other circumstance my agitation upon seeing her with such images in my mind would have been obvious, and I don't doubt she would have found out the cause quickly. However, this was no ordinary circumstance and so she did not catch me out. Instead, I returned to her lab in the darkest hours of the night and we left immediately for the aerodrome, there to seek our passage East.

It was a night of bustle and strain. A night of furtive movements and inky silhouettes against London's halogen-blue night. We were transformed into nocturnal creatures by our rushed, hushed passage through the city, and in that slippery state my silences and averted eyes were recast as natural behaviours. Likewise, Miss Pryor's cool, far-eyed control of the mysterious situation seemed the proper order of things. She led while I followed, like dancers at a masked ball. As these two characters other than ourselves, we made our way through trolleys and cabs, back-streets and alleys, to the launching fields at the outskirts of the city.

It is a testament to my great distraction that I did not even consider how we might purchase, barter, or otherwise commandeer a spot on an aero-liner in the middle of the night. I simply assumed that since she meant to leave in the wee hours, she had means of transport already arranged, or perhaps some kind of connection in the hangars. I half-expected a dapper gentleman-pilot to meets us with a brisk, "Right-o! Constantinople it is!" and usher us to our cabins. Regrettably, it was not half so tidy as that.

"Nothing too big, but large enough for at least four," she murmured to me as we approached the aerodrome.

"Pardon?"

"Once we're through the bars, look around quickly for an airship that is not so big as to draw attention, but large enough to accommodate at least four people. Ourselves, Ulupi, and an additional space if needed."

"Through the bars?" I echoed weakly.

But she was already moving ahead of me. Timing her movements to avoid the sweep of the iodine-halogen watch-light, she walked straight up to the wrought-iron fence and pushed through the bars. She did it as easily as one might push through saplings in the underbrush on a weekend stroll.

"Iron," she muttered in disgust. "Decorative, certainly, but not a practical defence."

I slipped through the gap she'd left, not even pausing to inspect her handiwork. A military steam-suit could do as much, but a solider-suit, standing half again as tall as a grown man, would draw far more attention than lithe little Eva and myself. As it was, we simply walked through the grounds at a calm pace as if we belonged there, and then melted into the shadows of the first hangar we came to. It was only at this point that I realized she intended to steal an airship. It wasn't until much later that I realized how this would bring the entire weight of the Unified Nations to bear on us. So, all unknowing of the consequences, I did everything in my power to help her locate a ship suitable for our voyage.

Indeed, it was my enthusiastic eye for things aeronautical that allowed me to identify the right craft within minutes. It was a small, lightweight, long-range steam-skipper, seating two up front at the wheel and potentially another two in the cabin behind. It boasted a small bunk for the pilots to trade off their respite, along with a compact but fully-stocked galley and the head. The space below was taken up by a cargo area and the powerful engines and fuel stores required to make long-haul flights. I thought it was a private owner's touring-craft rather than a Crown working vessel. One could also do a decent trade in smuggling with a ship like this. We found no evidence of the previous owners inside, however, and taking that as a sign, we took the little boat as our own.

Casting off was, of course, the most difficult and dangerous part. We might be able to hide ourselves on the ground, but the liftoff of an airship before dawn was highly irregular and bound to draw attention. Our primary hope was that the majority of airships fast enough to chase us would not have their gas-bladders fully distended (which, after all, was a fire hazard) and would not be able to inflate fast enough to catch up with us.

So quietly we inflated our own balloon, so quietly we hovered mere inches above the ground, so very quietly we opened the hatch in the aerodrome above. Then with a great surge, we cast off the grapples and burst into the sky.

Almost immediately, klaxons began to sound, harsh baying tones like mechanical hounds on the hunt. The force of the wind was terrific; it took all my strength to hold the wheel steady and keep us from losing our speed to buffeting cross-currents.

"There!" she shouted, pointing to a hangar top opening below us. "The pursuit zeps! At three-quarters' capacity, I'd say. They should be able to launch in moments. Tack around, use the wind, the wind!"

"But it's blowing us Westerly! We need to go East!"

"No, we'll go out over the ocean, as if making for New York. Then we can track back around over Unified Russia."

"But the U.N. Occupation forces-!"

"Better them than the French!"

I had to agree there. Giving up the argument, I set the wheel's auto-turn due West and let go. It spun round wildly as the wind took us hard and sharp about, until the compass' needle neared West and tripped the gearshift to set our course, stopping the wheel. Once we were around, I engaged the little skipper's turbo propellers to give us more acceleration in advance of our pursuer's arrival. I hadn't seen any sign of heavy arms on our craft, and besides, our massive aft propellers would have interfered with artillery. This was a craft for evasion. We fled. The sleeping land slid below us, at once unnervingly fast and sickeningly slow. The pursuit zeppelins rose behind us with predator grace.

"Keep us over the countryside," Miss Pryor commanded. "We need to avoid the battalions at Portsmouth and Southampton. I don't think Cardiff will give us trouble. Localists, you know."

"Unless we're shot down there," I muttered. "Not too fond of Englishmen, your Welsh Independents."

"We will not be shot-"

At that very moment, a series of screeching whistles pierced the air and a shudder ran through the craft. Smoke blossomed from the aerodrome's cannon below.

"Scattershot! Blast it!" she growled. "They do want to shoot us down, but by inches. Gain what altitude you can!"

Without warning, she leapt up and threw herself down the stairs, falling into the hold without any apparent control whatsoever. There was a crash. I called out in alarm,

"Are you hurt?"

I got no answer but a series of muffled thumps.

"What are you doing?!"

Just as I was about to run to her rescue, she emerged from the hold and tossed up an armful of coarse fabric.

"Patching and tar. If I don't seal the holes we'll sink before we can make it out of the county."

"Seal the holes? What are you saying? You can't, no, you can not go out onto the balloon in flight with them shooting at us! Let me land somewhere, find some safe place to make repairs-"

Miss Pryor cast a baleful glance back towards the pursing craft and I knew my alternative was madness, but I could not bear to place her at such risk. I tried again.

"Madame, I insist, if either of us goes out there it should be me."

She suddenly grew very calm, and very, very cold.

"Benjamin D'Aville. Are you, or are you not, a skilled pilot of the Royal Geographic and Aeronautic Society?"

"Well, yes," I conceded. "But-"

"And are you, or are you not, a trained and licensed aeronautical engineer?"

"No, I am not. But neither are you."

"Not legally licensed, true, but skilled as any man from my life-long scientific studies. It is just such an attitude as yours that keeps women from receiving our due recognition in practical mechanics. You will fly the craft, and I will fix the craft. Is that understood?"

I had never encountered such adamantine certainty before, in man nor woman. There was nothing to be done in the face of it. I tilted the wheel, angling the steam-skipper upwards.

"Right." I said shortly. "Find some goggles and a face-mask, then, and I'll take us up into the clouds for cover."

After a pause, I turned to face her again.

"Can you truly do this thing, Eva?"

She looked directly into my eyes then, and though I saw fear, I also saw daring.

"Yes. I can."

And with that, she was gone.

Bracing myself, I returned my gaze to the cloud-bank before us and the panoptical viewer that showed the pursuit behind us. Dawn was just beginning to touch the bank, turning it bloody at the edges. I shuddered to be engulfed by such malevolent red light. I nearly called out to Miss Pryor, but at that very moment I heard the clangour of the pressure-hatch and I knew that she had mounted the ladder up and out. Even as we breached the scarlet-soaked clouds, she opened the top hatch and emerged into the wet, windswept non-place between earth and sky.

It was an inexpressible agony, to guess at what she must be doing but not be able to see it. The ship's pan-ops were trained at a far distance behind, and I had no first mate to spot out the gondola's portside window. Unfortunately, I have been cursed with a vivid imagination, so I could all too clearly envision her, with her black hair streaming like whipped satin, balanced precariously on the cabin roof at the mercy of her own too-delicate mechanism. What would become of her if her joints were to spasm and lock in the dense, freezing moisture of the cloud? How long could I stay at the wheel before the impulse to seek her overcame me? I listened for her footsteps on the deck above and after a few moments I heard them pacing back and forth as she made a visual survey of both sides of the gas-bag tethered above her. It was brief reassurance, as well I knew. Naturally, there was no chance she could stay on the gondola's top-deck. The scattershot hit our aft end, so she would have to climb up the wire-struts along the very face of the gas-bag to assess the damage.

I heard a clatter above as of a dropped spanner. I looked below to see the tool -or the body- fall. But nothing passed the cabin window, and the fog was too dense to see if it fell further. Perhaps it was a ladder-end striking the deck? In my mind's eye I saw the metal rungs condensed with dew as Miss Pryor climbed. I saw her gripping the slick metal, pulling the extra weight of her frame and her portable engine up against gravity. Moisture streaked her goggles and ran like tears in the wind. How was it, in reality? Did she slip as she went, did her heart pound in terror? Or was she calm and keen, testing the mechanism of her body to its limits with exhilaration singing in her ears?

However she felt, I knew that she would do her utmost to find and patch every hole. So I watched the only things I could: the gas pressure-gauges, the pan-ops, the eddying fog before me. Several times we broke out into the gulfs between spires of cloud, fantastic marbled architectures limned with uncanny hues. With every void we crossed the daylight grew clearer, the sky paler. Yet she did not return. I twisted in my seat, yearning to set the wheel back on auto-turn and seek her, consequences be d--d. But if our pursuers should break through the twisted mass of cloud behind us -it didn't bear thinking about, much less risking in reality. So I stayed and suffered eternal moments of uncertainty, convinced that this was a special hell reserved for me.

Salvation, when it came, was sweet but brief. An hour after the hatch had closed it once again opened, and more welcome squeal of hinges I have never heard. I was calling out to Miss Pryor even before the doors to the bridge opened. I can hardly recall what I asked her -I knew not even in the moment- but the sight of her flushed, triumphant face answered all. She threw herself into the chair next to me and peered at the pressure gauge.

"Steady," she confirmed breathlessly.

"Yes, Ma'am, steady as she goes!"

"Ah, Benjamin. Ah, it's good."

For a long time she did nothing but get her breath back. It was quite a while before she even removed her aviatrix's goggles. I held any further questions until she had voice to answer, and instead reported on our progress, as we were approaching Cardiff with no sign of intercepting craft yet.

"Our little ship is uncommonly fast," I noted. "A regular Vimana."

"Vimana?"

"Surely the great warrior Arjuna knows of the flying Vimana, the famed chariot of the Indian gods?"

At that Miss Pryor burst into laughter.

"Even so! Our very own flying chariot. Let's christen her such: the Vimana."

"Wonderful! And how is our Vimana doing now? Any holes remaining?"

She sobered, though a spark remained in her eye.

"I did a full survey of the gas bag from the bottom up and found three holes the diameter of a sixpence, or a bit larger." She made a circle with her thumb and forefinger, then clapped her hand over it in a sealing gesture. "It would have been a slow descent, but we would not make it to Constantinople with them, particularly if they stretched and compromised the bag's integrity."

"Would we make it to New York, do you think?"

"Likely not. Of course our pursuers will guess that we would try to patch the bag. But they might also wager that it couldn't be done and send ships to search for us downed in the Atlantic instead. Benjamin, this vessel was not designed to be repaired in flight by an ordinary man. There were no ladders to the aft underside, just -how shall I call them?-grips."

"Grips?"

"Handlebars of a sort. But positioned so that only one with enhancements such as mine might feasibly access them."

I nodded, unsure of what this could mean. Unsure of what she had actually done out there.

"There are advantages to being underestimated as a lady." Miss Pryor concluded. "Even if they suspect I'm on board, I doubt those following us will credit me with the nerve to go out. I think we will be safe from aerial pursuit until we come over Unified Russia."

"And just who is following us?"

Her eyes cautioned me to silence. Rather than reply, she plucked at her rain-soaked skirts.

"I should dry off and service my steam suit." She stood, and after a moment's thoughtful pause, added, "You will stay here on the bridge, yes?"

"Yes?" I replied, letting my tone convey an implied question as much as agreement. She chose to take only the agreement, and with another "Yes. Good," she was gone again.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Eva. I didn't mean to pry, to intrude on your privacy as I did. But you were so beautiful I can't bring myself to regret it.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I have mentioned once before the Imp of the Perverse which drove me to collect Miss Pryor's papers. As she began to remove her steam suit for servicing in the little bunk to the rear of the airship, I thought of those pages again, and of what I had read there. Remembering her vivid descriptions, the voice within me was awakened a second time.

'Go,' it whispered. 'Go and see.'

By this time, however, I had a greater respect for Miss Pryor than that. While I might read her words, I was above spying on her in her private moments. And while she hadn't forbidden me from going back into the bunk, she had strongly implied her wish that I leave her be.

Nonetheless, my senses became sharpened, attuned to every trace of her. The faint, metallic scent of steam hung in the air, and underlying it the tang of her sweat and the sweetness of her powders. I closed my eyes and breathed in deeply. Without vision to hinder me I could hear the sounds of her motions as she shuffled in the tiny bunk. Faint metallic clicks, the decompressing of joints, the gulping flex of an oil can and the burnish of a brush. She was slow, careful, and, I began to imagine, sensual in her gestures of self-care. Her white hands moving over brass struts, and the soft flesh caged underneath it. I began to feel myself growing warm, stirring. The Imp tugged me hard. I told myself that it was all a fiction of my feverish brain, that Eva was not doing what I thought she was doing. But some deeper spiritual or intuitive connexion between us told me that I was right.

I rose and crept closer to her door, listening, only listening. I tried to parse the sounds I heard and prove myself wrong, to quell my excitement with mundanities. But the sounds of linen rustling and Miss Pryor's breath pitched just a bit higher than usual only drew me further. She gasped, and my own throat ached to echo her.

Suddenly, something fell with a loud clatter inside that closed room, and at the same time Miss Pryor cried out. The pain in her voice made me leap forward and seize the handle of the door, but the hint of pleasure underneath it is what made me open it.

"Eva!" I cried involuntarily. There my voice stopped, silenced in shock.

She was entirely naked but for the brass lattice that twined her body, binding and supporting it. She had removed her steam-engine from its casing so that she could lie supine on the bed, but clearly she had enough strength and support to make minute movements on her own. And moving she was, in strange fashion. She had removed the tiny servos that usually clasped her hands and pinched the thumb and finger joints, tight as little vises, to the rosy buds of her breasts. Her own bare hands clasped their curves, stroking and pressing her bosom. Her leg struts were intact from hips to knees, but below that she had taken off her calf-braces. One had fallen to the floor, causing the clatter that jolted me. The other, however, was what wrenched the cry I heard from Eva's flushed lips, for she had mounted its piston between her legs and set it into vigorous action on her delicate femininity. The pain that pierced her, a pain that was also clearly the deepest pleasure, was radiant across her body. At my intrusion she jerked and turned her startled grey eyes on me. A spike of panic, a surge of spirit within her, overwhelmed her in a moment when she could not stop. Her eyes closed tight. Throwing her head back, Eva gave herself to the heights of her self-induced pleasure.

Finally, after a long moment of exquisite fixity, she gave a spastic moan and went slack. Her hand caught a wire and the piston that had continued to thrust into her as I watched went still. The clamps loosed and dropped as well. Her body in lassitude was a sight I shall never forget. But I knew that she would recover quickly-much more quickly than a man-and that I would need to explain myself very soon. I prepared to say how I thought she was hurt, how I was motivated only by a desire to help her. Instead of excuses, however, I found myself speaking honestly from the heart.

"Madame, I am sorry. I am so very sorry to intrude. I admit it, I wanted to see you in your private moment. But it's unpardonable. If you wish, I will go. Or I will stay and fetch your parts, your fallen braces. Do you need help? Say the word. If not-"

Indeed, I was already moving to leave, certain that she would wish me out of her sight as soon as possible. But instead, Eva made a sound that stopped me, a murmurous preparation for speech.

"Mmmnn."

I paused, a hand on the door-frame.

"The body is a machine," she said softly. "There is no shame in an engine venting its steam. There should be no shame in the body releasing its energies, when necessary."

She shifted herself. She did not hide her body, but rather settled more comfortably to show herself without shame. I turned back to her.

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