tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 03

The Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 03

byCase21©

We sailed throughout our first day over the wrinkled and foam-flecked expanse of the North Atlantic. Once Eva was sufficiently recovered from her earlier...shall we say, exertions, we made an inventory of the provisions and supplies on our borrowed craft. To our considerable relief, the Vimana was equipped for a voyage at least as long as ours -perhaps even longer, given the stockpile of tinned food laid in, as if for an Arctic expedition. I wondered aloud whether it might have been an explorer's vessel, and if so whether we might find the owner within the ranks of the Royal Geographic and Aeronautical Society when we returned. Eva, however, was much less optimistic.

"I wouldn't count on our return to England, much less an opportunity to restore the airship with civil explanations."

"Ah yes, civil explanations. We're running quite short on those 'round here, aren't we? But at least we have plenty of bully beef."

I intended it to be light, but it came out testily. Eva narrowed her eyes at me.

"Too much knowledge is a dangerous thing."

"As is too little."

"I don't want to involve you too deeply."

"And yet, somehow, I seem to be involved. Eva, I know that you had me pegged before our first meeting. You know that I oppose the British Empire's strategy of Unification. You approached me for a reason, and I highly doubt it was just for my silver tongue and prodigious memory. We've taken stock of the ship. Now let us take stock of each other. If I must show you something of mine to start, I will do it."

"Do it, then."

I took a breath and a risk.

"I remember you in the garden."

It was as if Eva stopped short in mid-flight. It was not what she had expected to hear at all. But to her credit, she did not feign confusion to draw me out further. Her quick mind drew the conclusion and she stated it outright.

"You knew me in my infancy at the Conservatory." She said wonderingly. "Only, I recorded the events of my life scrupulously even as a child, and don't recall ever entering the name of Benjamin D'Aville."

"I never told you my name. You called me 'Boy,' as did everyone else."

"Boy...? Ah. The groundskeeper's son."

"The very same. I wondered if you remembered me as well. If that was why you chose me, because I was your only childhood friend."

Eva shook her head almost ruefully.

"No, nothing so literary. It was your rumoured political convictions. They say that on the surface you serve the Royal Society, but after hours you do things at odds with your position. I thought perhaps pamphleteering, or illicit translations of anti-Unification tracts. I know that some Localist literature from among the Ottoman dissenters has been circulating and thought it could be your work, that you could have connections among the Ottomans as well. But I had no proof. I thought to test you with the letter -which, by the by, is genuine."

Now it was my turn to shrug.

"I wish it were so. I know the tracts you speak of, and in the beginning I did produce a few translations from the French. The most recent, though, are the work of radicals in more underground dens than mine. It has been too difficult under the Treason and Sedition Act to be openly critical as a Royal Society member. I haven't done any pamphleteering in a year or more, and nothing from the Ottomans at all."

"But you do oppose the Imperial Unification project from within."

"Yes. I suppose I do."

"Then I chose well, and it is time for me to lay down a card of my own."

Eva sat in the chair next to mine.

"I am a product of the technology of Unification. You know it as well as I. The same scientists who made steam suits for the Crimean War made me. That team was headed by the esteemed Dr. Pryor, my adoptive father of sorts. In the course of his research, Dr. Pryor found me, a nameless orphan babe with scarcely the strength to suckle her wet-nurse's teat. And then he made me into a woman capable of bending iron. He hoped to create a new legion of soldiers more compact and portable than the Armoured Brigades, soldiers with their suits built directly into their bodies. His project foundered, however, when it was discovered that a hale soldier's body is too resistant to the framework."

She lifted her arm, flexing a delicate array of tabs and levers.

"A man in the heat of battle cannot relax and let the machine move him. His instincts make his muscles jump, which locks the mechanism. I, on the other hand, as a woman and a cripple, have a weaker, more subtle response, perfectly adapted to the small levers and gears of my suit. Even among other paralytics, Dr. Pryor could not find one with my sort of mobility. I have some natural strength in my hands and arms, enough that not much needs to be done with the fine motor skills mechanically. This-" she waved her brass-threaded hand "-is just for enhancement. But below the torso, I need the suit, and my body does not resist it. It is apparently the ideal balance. 'A unique physical specimen' --that is what he called me."

"And that you are," I added impishly. Eva raised a disapproving finger, though she half-smiled as she did it.

"He meant it in a scientific sense. So, since I owe my life to imperial Science, you might suppose I'd be as loyal to the Empire as its day is long."

"The sun never sets and all that, wot wot!" I agreed blithely, more to teaze her with interruptions than anything else. This time she nudged me with her foot.

"In fact, being bound to the scientific progress of the British Empire had the opposite effect on me. I grew restless. Though obedient on the surface, I craved to know all about the world and my capacities. My father -Dr. Pryor- would not allow me to explore. I was simply too valuable to risk. And the older I grew, the more I began to understand that within my body and in the body politic at large, there were potentials that were being stifled."

"What kind of potentials?" I asked.

"I cannot quite say." Her eyes grew distant. "But I feel it. I feel the shift of nations, of cultures, of peoples that wish to join their powers, but without being beholden to a single Unity. Ulupi feels it too. The desire to express what is now made dormant. To open boundaries. To become..."

Suddenly, I grasped it.

"A third, yes? A third way, between global Unification and Localist division."

"Yes. And between the British Empire and the Ottoman Empire."

"So that is the import of the message. But what about the phoenix, the pyre?" I raked my memory for the rest of the letter's cryptic imagery. All I came up with was Ulupi's passionate metaphorics of intercourse, which rather derailed my effort to comprehend the intricacies of world politics.

"I cannot go into it all. You know enough for now, Benjamin. We are going to the Ottoman Empire to meet my contact Ulupi, a scientist like myself who is in danger because she seeks a third way, beyond Byzantine glory and the rule of Britannia. I believe you also wish to see a future where that alternative exists. So we will go together, get her out, and join with those who run the third road. It was always my intent," she added almost off-handedly. "It's just been hastened by recent events."

"But...what will we do? Actually, concretely, do?"

"We shall begin with dinner."

I blinked in surprise.

"Yes, dinner," Eva nodded decisively. "Our next meal. After that, I recommend that we plot our course for the night, then alternate shifts of sleeping and watching for pursuit. Concretely, as you say, that is all we need worry about for today, and likely a good few weeks after. The rest is speculation. Until we meet the next danger or opportunity, all we can do is survive."

"You don't have a plan beyond 'just get there and see what happens'?"

"I do have a plan. I just don't have all the details. It would be too limiting to make one scheme and follow it in one way only. We must throw ourselves into the course of events and make corrections along the way."

I thought of how she moved, continuously falling and catching herself. It seemed unnatural to me. Nevertheless, I trusted her, and so we sailed on.

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

Air-travel is glamourous and exciting, provided one spends the least amount of time possible in the air. A hop from London to Paris on a luxury Zep-liner, standing wrapt in furs on the deck, gazing out upon a vista of clouds -ah, that feels like the height of adventure! Long and perilous air voyages, by contrast, are exceedingly dull. As Eva predicted, we made dinners. We took it in turns to sleep and watch for pursuit. We ran without lights at night, stayed as high as we could, and followed cloud-cover to avoid being seen from below.

The territory over which we travelled was fractious. Between the Unified strongholds of France and Russia and the Ottoman-controlled areas of Greece and Turkey there lay a shattered mass of duchies, kingdoms, and tiny, precarious city-states struggling in the pincers of opposing empires. This was a fractured land of insurrections, coups, and radical resistance fighters who, unfortunately, fought as much among themselves as they did against incursions from their Imperial neighbours. No doubt there were many Unification supporters -not to mention straight-out spies- among them as well, who would be more than happy to report sightings of an airship off the regular trade routes. But Eva was gambling on the fact that the lines of communication across such chaotic areas were spotty and dependent on passing aeronauts. Even if someone sighted us, it might take weeks before anyone from the Unified Forces came along to pay for the news. If we had played our cards right, those searching for us would be looking along the Atlantic route to the Unified States of the Americas. Meanwhile, we made a large, labourious circle around the island of Great Britain and over the North Sea, then cut down across the Continent, making for Constantinople.

Besides warming over tinned food and piloting the airship, the only thing I had to occupy my mind was Eva's diary. I read it a few pages at a time, deep in the night during my interminable watch. I delved into the territories of her mind and body, which at times seemed as disparate as the nations below. She wrote about her scientific studies, of course: applied mechanics, thermo-dynamics, chymistry, and aeronautical engineering. I read the aeronautical notes with some interest, but skimmed over the rest, comprehending little. Of more interest to me were the detailed records she kept about the mechanics of her body. Here I found accounts of the best techniques for walking smoothly, jumping higher, dancing, writing a fine copperplate hand, and many other actions that for most are so intuitive as to seem automatic. Eva dealt with each of her limbs as if they were reluctant allies in need of convincing, sometimes by force and sometimes by persuasion. She learned her body by writing down everything about it, including what gave her pleasure, pain, or some combination of the two.

'What is the body?' She wrote in a speculative tone. 'A collection of animal impulses: muscles and tendons, energies and powers. I am tempted to say, a Machine with its own stresses and forces, all following the immutable laws of Nature. My body, though, seems both more and less than the sum of its parts. I am driven by Natural laws to Unnatural acts. For what Natural creature seeks out pain the way I do? And what Machine desires such pleasures? Perhaps it is only my experience that makes me what I am. Of course, I am used to suffering hardship for the rewards of my freedom, since it is only through the most strenuous efforts that I have gained my power to move. And yet, it feels deeper-rooted. Something within me desires more, and I can see no cause but that it is inherent in me to want this.

'What do I want? I want extreme and unusual sensations, above all: to feel the keenness of the cold North wind on my face, the burn of my engine on my back. To push myself to the very limit of my abilities. Sometimes, irrationally, I want to feel things that I also fear: a blade at my throat, or the giddy, ecstatic rush of a fall from great heights. I toy with my body, taking it to the edge of the danger it desires. I have run mild electric currents through my framework, grounding them with one hand on a table, then lifting that hand to the very fingertips so that the electric flow increases and courses across my skin, embracing me in an invisible cloak of nettles. I have caressed my own skin with the sharp ends of cut wire -not hard enough to draw blood, for I don't actually wish to be harmed, but just enough to make myself shiver with the imminence of it. I am drawn to the most vulnerable parts: the soft insides of my arms, my flanks, my belly, my thighs.

'Especially when I take off my steam-suit, I feel my body, so soft and vulnerable, yet so compelling in the immediacy of its sensations. When I wear the suit, every physical movement I make must be translated through steel and copper wire, causing a delay, slight yet noticeable; but the sensations on my bared skin are instantaneous and automatic. O most perfect Machine, the skin! That it can feel so much with no visible mechanism to transmit the impulse, so that feeling seems to grow out of itself, a movement of pure spirit in flesh. But at the same time, the skin is a barrier, a mask. I cannot get inside it to see what I am made of. I cannot service my own organs the way I can my suit. I try, though. I try to get inside, to change my inner workings, hoping that the pain will bring me pleasure.

'There is one place where I am meant by Nature to be opened and entered. The Natural purpose of it is reproduction, which my animal essence should seek. But I feel no maternal impulse. For my purpose, I want that access for experimentation. What can I feel, there? I explore my folds, push into myself, and find I can feel quite a bit. Intensity, pressure, heat, force: all the founding principles of the Age of Steam. As youths we are told that 'onanism' is a degenerate impulse which drains the spirits and ruins the body, but this very term is antiquated and not well-supported by research in the Physical Sciences or Natural History. It is my hypothesis that the practice of 'self-abuse,' as it is called, is in fact a kind of vent, a way of managing our bodily energies. I have run numerous experiments in this regard.

'For instance, when I am unable to concentrate on my work due to nerves or exhaustion, then I find it most agreeable to lie down and employ one of the small handheld engines in my shop that create vibrations of increasing frequencies. Vibration, I found early on, is an excellent stimulant and good for reviving the body. To test its full effects, both the exterior and interior, I developed an attachment, a small rod based on the shaft of my leg-strut, that can be strapped to the inner surface of my pelvic brace and inserted as deeply as I please. When the little engine begins to rev, I can indeed feel its vibrations inside and out, all through the brace and along the full length of the rod. I hesitate to describe too closely the specific sensations it brings. But if I were to be daring, I would say that it begins as a tingling deep inside my sex, like an itch that I yearn to scratch, and then becomes a hot and liquid sensation as of something welling up inside me. Like oil from the earth it comes in pulses, oozing out around the edges of my brace. I wish only to press myself ever harder against the hot, resonant metal. If I continue, a wild impulse rises in me, until I must, I must-'

Here the page ended and the next was missing from my ill-gotten hoard. Or perhaps Eva never wrote another page, but deliberately finished there. In either case, her discoveries did no good for me that night when I bedded down for my shift in the single bunk that Eva and I perforce must share. Her scent was still in the sheets, a trace of her warmth in the pallet. I lay awake for long hours that night pondering her strange perspectives on pleasure and self-abuse, wondering if I shouldn't try an experiment of my own.

Ah, dear Reader, I do not mean to be prurient in recording these private matters. I only wish to provide the context for what happened next. The long and short of the matter is that, though I was tormented by my secret knowledge of Eva, I refused to allow myself the slightest indulgence; not self- pleasure, nor 'accidental' touches or glimpses of her body. I tried to reign in my Imp through sheer bull-headedness alone. If I hadn't been so d--d stubbourn, if I had just 'vented my steam' as Eva advocated, would all our sorrows have come to pass? I lost so much sleep, wound tight as an overcrank'd spring. And so, I was in no fit state to respond coolly when the Unified forces finally caught up with us.

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