tagSci-Fi & FantasyThe Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 04

The Fall of Eva Pryor Ch. 04

byCase21©

"---I repeat, surrender now and prepare to be boarded. You are under arrest for theft of Pryor Engines property. Surrender or be taken by force!"

There was a loud bang and my eyes snapped open. For a moment I could not recall where I was or what I was doing there. Harsh tones echoed in my ears. I looked round quickly and found that Eva had entered the bridge, her hand still on the door she had just slammed open with a bang. Yes, the bridge. I was at the helm of the Vimana, but in my over-wrought and under-rested state, I'd fallen asleep. Lost in the moment between dreaming and waking, I was briefly unsure as to whether the tinny, mechanical voice I'd heard was real or not. The panic in Eva's face chased away all doubts.

"Benjamin, we're under attack! Two Russian pursuit zeps, at least!" Eva shouted, striding across the bridge. She didn't need to say she'd caught me sleeping; her stormy expression told it all. Nonetheless, she said it anyway.

"Your nap may have cost us our venture!"

"Skies were clear with unlimited visibility not ten minutes ago, and I saw no airships approaching!" I protested. "They must have been using some clever protection device to render them invisible. I only fly; the Science side is yours!"

"Had you been observing your route instead of your eyelids, you might have noticed the cliffs below. It hardly takes a geologist to conclude that an airship might hide under an overhang!"

"Surrender now and prepare to be boarded! This is your final warning!" The mechanical voice boomed out, amplified to terrifying proportions.

"Do it." Eva commanded. "Run up the white flag and we'll bargain or battle our way out with the captain. If we can just take hold of one of their ships, they'll never suspect--"

"No! We stand and fight, Eva. No more uncertainties! Action!"

I leapt to my feet as my frustration found its vent at last. Eva's eyes grew wide with astonishment, but I gave her no time to protest. In the heat of the moment, I was certain that our lives were on the line and that I had no choice as a man but to defend them. A heady rush of power coursed through me like a lightning bolt and I streaked off the bridge into the hold. I could hear Eva cursing in a most unladylike fashion as she grabbed the wheel and turned us to face the enemy.

"We acknowledge, Unified Russian vessels." I heard her saying through the ship's loudspeaker. "This craft is unarmed. I repeat, we are unarmed. Turning about and preparing for boarding through the fore starboard hatch."

It was true, the Vimana had few conventional ship's weapons. But I had conceived a plan such as one can only imagine in a moment of brilliant insanity. I recalled that our stolen craft, as an explorer's vessel, had come supplied with weapons for hunting and fishing. Among them was a steam-powered spear gun for large sport fish. It wouldn't work at long range, but at short range it could probably pierce the gas-bladder of at least one of the ships.

"Bring us alongside their ship as close as you can!" I shouted up as I climbed from the hold.

"What are you-- Benjamin, do you mean to shoot them down with a fishing dart?"

"We just need to wound one and distract the other long enough for the Vimana to get into Ottoman airspace. We're close now, one more good sprint will do it. Pull this lever to drop ballast, and this one to set the turbines to full speed. Rise fast and surge forward."

"And where will you be, O Captain?"

"In the lifeboat, dear Lady, saving your life."

With that, I made a hasty exit. Running full tilt across the deck, I launched myself into the lifeboat just as we were drawing alongside the pursuit zep. I got off a spear within seconds of landing and pulled the attached cord, ripping the spear downwards in a long rent. To my immense satisfaction, I heard their silks tear with a hiss. I released the cord. Not enough gas was escaping below to ignite the ship immediately, but they would have to extinguish their boilers and go into a controlled drop to avoid disaster. I could see men inside, Russian soldiers who had been preparing to board us, now rushing to assist their crewmates with an emergency landing. A few of them fired hand-pistol volleys at me from the decks, but no man found the lucky shot he hoped for.

With one zep crippled by my attack and the other blocked by its comrade's unexpected manoeuvers, I prepared to launch the lifeboat. I would streak past the second zep, firing as I went, and present enough danger to them that they must engage me even if it meant leaving the Vimana. As I reached up to release the rope, however, I was seized by the arm and pulled bodily out of the lifeboat. Standing over me was Eva Pryor. She did not look amused.

"You may be a hero, Benjamin, but I cannot let you become a martyr."

"It's your only chance, Eva! Let me take it for you!"

She stopped then, and sighed.

"I told you once before to observe the cause as well as the effects. You are thinking of an effect you wish to have: distracting the enemy. But you're not thinking of all the things we could use to cause it. Do you need to be on that boat? Or can we not instead use this?"

From beside her on the deck, she drew a chunk of machinery. It took me a moment to recognize the Vimana's auto-turn mechanism, which she'd pulled from under the steering wheel.

"We affix this to the lifeboat's wheel. Set an arcing course past the second vessel. Wire the auto-turn to the trigger of the spear gun, such that it will exert pressure at the zenith of the arc..."

I saw it all.

"Yes! Yes, Eva, you're brilliant!"

"And you're foolhardy. But this time, it might just pay off."

No ordinary woman could have lifted the entire mechanism of the auto-turn onto a lifeboat, but Eva had the strength of her suit. Her engine huffed with steam as she levered the bulky machine into position and began to work on the mechanism.

For my part, I ran to the bridge to take the wheel. Without the auto-turn we were adrift, and the second pursuit zep was rising rapidly over the first as it descended. They could not yet use scattershot without risking their comrades' gas bladder, but they were already firing light artillery into our rigging. Ropes snapped alarmingly with every hit.

"Come on, Eva," I muttered under my breath.

At that very moment the lifeboat launched, looking like a dragonfly with its two flexible wings a-quiver. With no gas-bag to hinder it, the little air-to-ground flitter shot through the sky swift as an arrow, heading directly at the second ship. At the last moment, it curved away, and at the zenith of the arc it auto-fired a cordless spear at the second zep. The spear hit at a bad angle and glanced off the gas bladder, doing no real harm. However, it was close enough to convince the crew that the lifeboat was manned and armed with intent to attack. The pursuit zep turned to aim its forward battery at the madly gyrating flitter.

"Now, now, now!" Eva gasped, stumbling in the door.

I dropped ballast, thrust our turbines to top speed, and surged out of the battle-zone toward Ottoman airspace.

"Huzzah!" I cheered.

As if in pessimistic reply, the Vimana's rigging gave a series of ominous creaks. Flying at top speed required that the ship be in top condition, and we were not in good aerodynamical form after the strafing we took. I could see the stresses in my mind's eye, as if in one of Eva's aeronautical engineering diagrams.

"I'll see to it," Eva began. But then her eyes went to the pan-op's display of the scene behind us. I looked, and saw why she paused. The second Russian pursuit zep was giving up its chase of the lifeboat and heading back our way. They must have realized it was a red herring after a few minutes' observation. Cannon fire boomed across the gulf between us.

"You'll be cut to ribbons if you go out on the rigging, Eva. They have line-of-sight on us."

"I know. I won't go. Let's think this through."

We both stared at the pan-ops, trying to figure out a plan. Every now and then I glanced ahead of us to be sure of our airspace. The first time, I saw only clouds. The second time, I saw clouds again, but something looked different. One of the huge, massed cumulus clouds seemed to have broken off and was coming our way.

"Eva, what is that cloud doing?"

I pointed. She turned her analytical gaze on it.

"I believe it's going against the jet stream. It must be-- "

Before she could say it, a massive, gilded prow broke the cloud bank. It gleamed bronze in the sun as if coated in armour worked with the devices of art: raised, gilded shapes that repeated to form a network of elaborate patterns. The eye danced along it, unable to guess the vessel's true form underneath. Was it really so massive and so widely bowed out, or was that just a trick of perspective created by the confusing patterns? The effect was unsettling and deeply foreign to my eye.

"An Ottoman barque!" Eva cried. "So they have developed the cloud-cloak after all. There's your clever scientific camouflage, Benjamin!"

Her tone was joyous, but I felt my stomach sink to see the strange gilt form of the barque heading toward us, still wreathed in unnatural mist. I felt trapped between the Unified Russian forces, who hunted us with the grim coldness of men pressed into service, and the Ottomans, in the strange scientific splendor of their rebirth as...but what? I had no idea what to expect from the Ottoman Empire.

As the barque cleared the cloudbank, we spied a figure standing on the forward deck: a man in a steam-suit, at least ten feet tall, his fist raised high. Instinctively, I set the Vimana to dive. The creaks rose to a squeal but I didn't let up. Above us, pure power crackled across the void. It was a distance-strike. A chymical reaction propelled the steel fist of the suit at incomprehensible speeds across the miles to strike down its enemy with a force greater than any known in the history of warfare. The pursuit zep was smashed to shards by the onslaught, its hydrogen consumed in a plume of fire that rose to the heavens. Even after I had pulled the Vimana out of her dive and leveled off, I could still see the black and red cloud hanging like a wound in the sky itself. But I could spare only a glance at it now, because before us lay the Ottoman barque.

I slowed, then brought the limping Vimana to a halt outside the range of the barque's guns, as near as I could estimate.

"Enter their range, just by a ship's length." Eva said.

"Why? They can destroy us with a distance-strike if they wish, but why put ourselves within their cannon range too? We haven't the capacity to strike first."

"It shows respect. It puts us at their mercy. We acknowledge their dominance."

"Like a dog showing its belly?"

"I had thought of it more as laying down one's sword before their army. It seems a more noble way to show we come in peace. But if you'd rather be a cowering dog..."

I couldn't help but smile as I replied.

"No. Let us stand together this time. I won't go off half-cocked again."

I ease the ship forward, and she returned my smile.

"Well, if you do decide to run amok and save our lives again, at least tell me your wild idea first so that I might amend it for you."

"Yes, my Lady."

"Thank you, Sir."

With that, we fell into silence and watched the Ottoman barque approach.

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

The hours following the Russian airship attack were spent in tense negotiation with the Ottoman vessel. To my mind they were ambivalent saviours, as likely to blow us from the sky as to give us succour. However, I quickly saw the reason that Eva had recruited a linguist as well as a pilot. The Commander of the great vessel spoke only Ottoman Turkish, and Eva had no Turkish flag or other token to signal her friendly intentions. I had to explain, cajole, flatter, and otherwise persuade them to spare us via the loudspeaker, translating for Eva all the while. The fact that they found us in combat with U.R. forces made it clearer that we were the enemy of their rival, and so perhaps their friend. I managed to hold them off from boarding us immediately by pointing out the extent of the damage to our rigging, which went far beyond what anyone would endure as a ruse. Indeed, I was very concerned that the major structural lines, though woven of metal, would unravel and drop us to our deaths at any moment. My first order of business was to convince the Commander that he must let Eva repair the rigging before anyone could board.

Once that was accomplished, I negotiated for safe passage to Constantinople. I hinted that my passenger, Eva Pryor, the unmistakable creation of the great Dr. Pryor, was defecting to the Ottoman cause and brought with her valuable knowledge of advanced scientific research in the Unified Nations. They did not seem entirely convinced. So, in a moment of inspiration, I offered to surrender the Vimana upon landing as a gift to the Sultan, along with all of her cargo. Despite the damage, the Vimana was, I hoped, a suitable peace offering. The steam-suit-clad Commander appeared mollified by the prospect of this gift. He agreed that the Vimana was a most impressive craft. He even congratulated me on executing such a steep dive to avoid his distance-strike. His amplified laughter boomed like thunder across the sky between us. My blood ran cold as I considered the possibility that he had meant to strike us down with the Russians, and only held off now in order to take our vessel intact whether I willed it or no. But I laughed along, humbly professed myself unworthy of his praise, and told him how honoured we would be to accept his fleet's escort to Constantinople.

I am not sure how much the Commander believed my tale, but at least he allowed me to save face by taking us peaceably without sending a boarding party. What need had he to board a ship that was already taken prisoner? Once we agreed to his escort, a convoy of Ottoman vessels, including smaller pursuit zeps and mid-sized cruisers, appeared from within the cloud bank and arrayed themselves around us so that we could not escape. In the middle of this protective sphere we continued our journey Eastwards.

After a few hours' hard work, Eva returned from the rigging, flushed with exertion but quiet in demeanor. Rather than head to the bunk to service her suit, as I would have expected, she sat down in the co-pilot's chair and gazed out the window meditatively. I sat down next to her and let the silence stretch until my curiosity got the better of me.

"Is all well, Eva?" I asked. "You seem preoccupied, and I have the sense that it is not just the Ottomans you are worried about."

"No, not them," Eva said slowly, her gaze returning from a distance. "I am thinking on something that happened during the attack."

"What is it?" Suddenly, I was nervous that some other damage had happened to the ship, something she could not repair.

"The announcement," she said. My train of thought derailed.

"Announcement? What announcement?"

"When the Russians first attacked, do you remember what they said?"

"Er...prepare to be boarded? Your money or your lives? I admit, I was still a bit groggy at that point."

I got a sardonic glance and a two-fingered rap on the table for my efforts to be comical.

"No. They said 'You are under arrest for theft of Pryor Engines property.'"

"Pryor Engines? Is that not---?"

"My father's company. Yes. Which means this is no ordinary airship. I should have realized it was faster and better stocked than the typical pleasure-craft. And those strange grips on the superstructure, which could only be used by someone like me... perhaps they were intended for me all along. Could it be that he meant to take me somewhere in this ship?"

Eva was visibly disturbed. For once, I was at a loss for words. Naturally, she would feel guilty about betraying her father just as he was about to give her what she'd always longed for: the chance to explore.

"Come now, we didn't know, it's not your fault," I began.

"Of course it's not!" Eva burst out. "The b-----d! I knew he had some fiendish plan for me all along!"

I opened my mouth to speak, but she kept going in a torrent of words.

"He never saw me as a person with my own desires and convictions. I was always just a thing to him, a prop he could hold up to confirm his Genius and advance his plans. All those fancy balls where he forced me to dance with his High Society friends, though I was still so clumsy I could have cried. All those Great Men of Science he invited to the Conservatory who toyed with my mechanisms and posed my body at their will, no matter what I wanted! And now, to make an airship designed to exploit my skills, outside, during flight! He meant to use me for his own ends once again. His pretty little tool. Well, no more. I shall never go back to him!"

I winced at the force of her vitriol, but understood the impulse behind it at once. I had seen for myself the humiliations Dr. Pryor had subjected her to those many years ago in the Conservatory. So instead of reacting to her anger, I held out my hands for peace.

"Calm yourself, Eva." I said in level tones. "He has treated you cruelly, I see that. I saw it even as a child, which is why I tried somehow to comfort and befriend you. But he is not here now. You do not have to go back to him. And he is not your true father."

Eva's expression slowly cleared.

"You're right. He's not my father. I have no father."

I was uncertain as to whether or not it were a good thing, to have no father. But Eva's eyes grew brighter with dawning revelation.

"Dr. Pryor may have given me his name and constructed my basic framework, but I built my mechanism up to what it is today. I made myself what I am. I am not bound to him, nor to anyone --except to those who are loyal and good to me."

Here, she laid a hand upon my shoulder.

"Benjamin. Thank you for being here with me. For always being with me, in some way. You are the truest companion I have in this world."

Touched, I placed my hand over hers.

"You are welcome."

For a long moment, I basked in the softness of her touch. Then, gently, ever so gently, Eva disengaged from my hand and stood up. She looked around the ship as if seeing it for the first time. Some gear in her mind engaged.

"We need to look for something on board. It will be about the size of an egg, heavy, metallic, perhaps incorporated as a door-handle or in a decorative feature. Come, help me search."

"What is it?" I asked.

"A lodestone," Eva replied. "A magnetic element that has been given a particular chymical charge and matched to a mate. Through some strange attraction, the two stones match their motions exactly no matter how far apart they may be. As we move in travel, so the mate at home is drawn forward. When the home-stone is placed inside a compass ring, it can be used to track the direction of the ship-stone. Even our speed may be calculated by allowing the home-stone to travel short distances. It is a new device just developed at Pryor Engines. If this is one of his vessels--"

"Then Dr. Pryor has been able to track our course this entire time?"

"Perhaps not. We went quite far North, and the Earth's natural magnetism may have interfered with the lodestone's properties. But once we turned South again..."

I nodded grimly. So we did not fall prey to the Russians by chance. The ambush was planned in London --I would wager, at Pryor Engines headquarters.

"Let us find this lodestone, then."

A thorough search of the ship turned up the lodestone in an almost perverse place: the bunk. Embedded in the woodwork of the door-panel under the bed was a large, metallic-black stone polished to a gloss but dulled by dust. We had not needed to store anything under the bunk, having brought little enough with us, so it had remained untouched and unnoticed in the very place we slept. I felt a superstitious chill, as if it were the eye of God watching us and judging our conduct in that room, that time --but, no. The lodestone had no such power to spy on us. It was only in my mind.

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