Leaps and bounds – Manage the damage – A present from Paris – Falling flowers – Running towards danger – Wainwright’s list – Combat readiness
Linda Davenport reporting
What a time to be alive, Kind Reader. We live in a time where injuries that would be fatal to ancient man, can be repaired using the skills of the surgeon. The Clarion can report that the surgery performed by Dr. Singh of Oxford University, on Miss Alexandra Tennant’s knees, was a complete success, and that with time, she is expected to make a full recovery. The operation consisted of opening up the legs, removing the part of her knees that was damaged by an accident, and replacing them with prosthetics fashioned out of stainless steel by Mr. Andrew Parsons. That we as a people can do this is testament to our great achievements.
Unfortunately, the Clarion must also report that the procedure was rudely interrupted by a number of unknown individuals who attacked the student body with knives. Only through the sterling efforts of our Porters, assisted by certain visitors to our University, was the danger averted, and injuries to Students limited to bumps, scrapes and bruises sustained while retreating to the safety of our dorms. On behalf of the student body, we extend our thanks to them.
Who the attackers are, and what dark motives prompted them to carry out this attack, remains a mystery. The Head of Security, Dr. Pike, assures us that measures have been taken to prevent this kind of attack from even being attempted in the future. The new requirement to wear our student passes on our uniform at all times, is part of these measures. If you see an unknown student without a pass, please do not approach, but warn one of the Porters, who will take the appropriate measures to keep us safe.
With the arrest of the attackers, it is hoped that this threat to our safety is now eliminated.
“Come on, Alexandra. put a bit of effort in. You didn’t go through all this to walk on your hands!”
I sneered at my father, set my jaw, turned round between the parallel bars, and started to walk to the other end. It was two weeks since my operation, and sad to say, my knees still hurt. Still, the nature of the pain had changed. Where once was the desperate complaint of bones, cartilage, and tendons damaged beyond repair, there now was the protest at an unwelcome intruder, an unnatural presence. Most importantly, this pain promised to go away once my poor abused legs would become used to the new situation. I could not fault the handiwork of Andrew Parsons, nor that of Dr. Praveen Singh, who had returned to Oxford. My future now lay in my own hands, or rather at my feet. My days were filled with walking exercise, examinations, physical therapy where Dr. Bernhardt or one of his assistants would bend, straighten, and turn my legs as far as they would go and maybe a fraction beyond that. My greatest joy was that I could bear the remaining pain with only one or two drops of morphia, and that only at night before bed, to help me sleep. The wheelchair that I had feared would be my constant companion for the rest of my life, stood by the starboard exit inside Lady I, unused. Once my confidence would be restored, I would return it to the infirmary to help some other unfortunate.
Brenda Lee had signed on as “cabin boy and general dogsbody” with what had suddenly become “Tennant Airborne Scientific Transport and Expedition Company.” No longer was Lady I simply our home, she was the main asset of our company. Even though I knew full well that Father had always intended it to be so, it felt strange that we were turning our home into a Bed-and-Breakfast for scientists. The front cabins, with four bunks each, would be reserved for paying guests. Brenda had joined me in my cabin, which meant that gone were the days I cold simply leave my clothes lying around in my bottom bed. The professional military teaches an iron discipline in tidiness, and I felt compelled to be at least as tidy as she was. At least I could claim seniority, and with it, the bottom bunk.
As it turns out, one cannot simply fight off an attack from a foreign agency, killing enemies here there and everywhere, without inviting the Police’s warm attention. Of all our little troupe, I was the only one with a cast iron excuse, having been unconscious throughout the whole affair. Between them, Father, Carl and Brenda had killed or knocked out six men, caused the loss of a hand in a seventh, and caused an eighth to soil himself with salvos of incendiary rounds. Dr. Pike, the Porters, and the Police had caught and arrested four more agents, and they were now in prison in London, being interviewed by members of the Secret Police. In the end, all of our homicides were judged justifiable and self defence, and we were all released back into an unsuspecting world.
Margaret had recovered from her injuries, though with a bitter sneer, she said that her days of off-the-shoulder dresses were now a thing of the past. It was unlikely that her knife wound would heal without a scar. I was worried that she no longer seemed to enjoy lunch in the students’ mess hall, but kept to the Faculty lounge, or more often, her own room. I visited her regularly, often with Fatin and Raage, or Brenda, but she seemed to tolerate those visits more than that she welcomed them.
Andrew Parsons was another story altogether. During the fighting at Algernon, one of the enemies had come into his workshop, aimed a gun at him, and fired. Luckily for him, Andrew had been working at the smelting cauldron, making ingots of chromium steel for a project, and had been wearing full protective gear that had turned the bullet leaving little more than a dent. Andrew had stormed forward, bellowing, and broken his attacker in many places. Once his first rage was over, and he realised what he had done, he had simply broken down, muttering to himself in phrases only known to himself, until Miss Felicia had found him. He had eventually returned to his workshop, but since that day, not a single working device had come out of his hands. My replacement knees might have been his final product. He hadn’t spoken a single word since the attack, not even to Miss Felicia.
Brenda and Carl had crawled all over Lady I‘s envelope and checked every inch of her for leaks, replaced the broken window, plugged and painted over the bullet holes, until she was fully airworthy again. With a fresh supply of hydrogen gas, a full tank of boiling water, and a full bunker of high energy coal, she was once more ready to take us wherever we needed to go. Where exactly that was, was a matter of some debate, but for now, we simply licked our wounds and restored ourselves as best we could.
I had started walking outside for my exercise, usually with Brenda, sometimes with Carl. The pain was now a low undertone in my daily experience, and I honestly could not tell whether it had grown less, or whether I had grown used to ignoring it. My new knees, now that every step was no longer a sting of pain, felt solid, strong, supple. With Carl, I tended to take longer walks, where Brenda would seduce me into taking short runs that left me sore, tired, but satisfied.
After one of these runs, I walked back onto the bridge with Brenda. Father and Carl were at the navigation table, cups of tea in hand, looking at maps.
“Ah, Alexandra,” said Father. “There’s a package for you. From Paris. Have you been clothes shopping?”
“I’m not expecting any package,” I said. “What kind of package?”
Father shrugged. “Oblong. Fairly large. Go see, I left it by your cabin door.”
We walked down into the cargo bay, where Brenda had hung up a punching bag and laid down mats. She and Carl regularly sparred these days, and were about evenly matched. The stairs up were still hard for me, but I pulled myself up by the handrail. At the door to my, our cabin, I found a rectangular slab of brown paper with Paris postmarks.
“Santa’s come early,” said Brenda.
“Paris is much nicer than the South Pole anyway,” I said. The package was heavy. I put it on the dining table, pulled out a pen knife and cut it open. Inside was a light brown wooden box, and a short letter.
You stupid woman, what kind of sniper drops her rifle? I found this in the Prometheus hideout in the Marais, and thought you might like it. If you’re dead, kindly have someone return it to me because I can sell it for a mint. I’m hoping that with this thing, you can make yourself useful for a change.
“Christ,” said Brenda. “Even when he’s sending you presents, he’s still an asshole.”
“It’s his job in life,” I said. “And he excels at the position.”
I turned the box round and unsnapped the locks. I opened the box. Inside, in green baize, lay a rifle, disassembled in parts: stock, forestock and barrel, scope, suppressor, bipod. There were five magazines, five rounds each. Empty, of course. One does not exhaust the loading spring by shipping magazines full.
“Oh my,” I said. “Well, if he keeps giving me presents like this, he can be an arsehole for all I care.”
I took out all the parts and assembled them. I recognised this rifle as the Accuracy International Arctic Warfare Super Magnum. The finished product was… ugly. My Mauser SR220 had been a polished work of art, a rifle that one would display on a wall when not in use. This rifle looked and felt different. The scope had a range finder that showed you the height of a man at various distances. It had a much greater magnification than my old rifle. It had knobs for windage, focus, visual indicators for elevation. But the finish was rough and utilitarian with nuts and bolts showing. This was not a piece of art. this was a tool for ruining people’s lives with. Before this adventure, I would never have given it another look. I would probably never grow as attached to this rifle as to my Mauser. But this rifle put me solidly back into the game. It would do nicely.
“I’ll have to test this,” I said.
One simply cannot trust a rifle unless one has seen it in pieces, so I stripped the rifle down to its component parts, brushed out its barrel, applied a little oil here and there, then reassembled it. I attached the strap, slung it on my back, picked up one of the magazines. I walked to the bridge, showed Carl and Father my new toy, told them not to wait up, and together with Brenda, I headed for the range.
I had expected a large group of members busily practicing, but there was nobody there. I looked at Brenda. She shrugged.
“Let’s go find one of the girls,” I said. “I need someone to open the ammo cupboard for me.”
We walked up to the girls’ dorm, knocked on the door, entered. The only person there was Jocelyn. She was sitting at the table, seemingly reading the newspaper, but it was still turned to the front page and she was staring out of the window. Brenda waved.
“Hey Handjob! Where is everyone?”
Jocelyn looked round to us, and I was startled to see how dull her eyes were. I hadn’t talked to her since my operation.
“Tour of the Alchemy lab,” she said.
“Oh?” I said. “So why aren’t you with them?”
“Not gonna study sodding Alchemy,” said Jocelyn. She looked back down at the newspaper, no more reading it than before.
“Hey!” Brenda walked over to her. “Miss Alexandra here has a new toy. Wanna come with us and play with it? I’m sure she’ll let you have a go. After me, of course.”
I unslung my new rifle and showed her. “Just arrived. Haven’t fired Round One with it.”
I saw Jocelyn shiver and look away. “I never want to touch one of those things again.”
“What? Why not? You’re so good at it.”
“I don’t want to be good at it anymore. I’ve shot two people now! I don’t want to shoot at another person. Ever again!” Jocelyn’s eyes filled up with tears. “It’s horrible!”
I put my rifle on the table on its bipod, then hurried over to Jocelyn, prompting a stab from my knees reminding me that they were still new at this job. I ignored them, sat down next to Jocelyn, put an arm round her shoulder.
“You saved my life, and you saved Margaret’s life. You did nothing wrong.”
“I know that,” said Jocelyn. “It’s still horrible. The blood, and the pain. That man lost his right hand because of me. He must hate me so much right now.”
“Yeah,” said Brenda, sitting down on Jocelyn’s other side. “He’s gonna have to jerk off with his other hand from now on.”
“Every time I close my eyes, I see it happen again. I want it to stop. I’m scared!”
Brenda reached out and put her hand on Jocelyn’s shoulder.
“Listen Handj… what’s your name again? Jolene?”
“Jocelyn. Good. Jocelyn, you wanna know what happened? I’ll tell you what happened. There were these three bastards who wanted to steal Lady I. Lady I has two very big repeating cannons, and a stack of fire bombs. Do you realise what they could have done with that? So they grabbed your goddamn Physics teacher, and she’s never even slapped anyone, and they beat the crap out of her to get into our airship.” Brenda turned her chair towards Jocelyn and faced her. “So Carl and I came up and killed two of them, and then the third cut her, and he was going to stab her where she’d die slow. That’s the kind of scum you were up against.”
“Brenda…” I said. Jocelyn was shivering.
“Shut up, Tennant.” Brenda bent forward. “And then there was you. You were over half a click away, and you saw this happening.” Brenda pointed a finger at Jocelyn’s face. “Now if it was me, I’d have gone for the head, and it’d have been a Hail Mary shot, as likely to kill the Prof as anything. But you. You saw this goddamn pig raise his arm, and you fired, and you hit exactly what the hell you were aiming for.” Brenda grinned. “You did good, Sister.”
“He’s going to come after me,” said Jocelyn. “Once he finds out it was me.”
“He is in prison,” I said. “And unlikely ever to come out again.”
“You’re clear,” said Brenda. “Carl told the cops that it was me who shot him, and I said yes. Nobody knows you were even there.”
“They’ll find out. They’ll come after me, and I’m scared!”
“That ain’t what you’re scared of,” said Brenda.
Jocelyn sat still, her shivers stopped, as if Brenda had slapped her. She started to say something, shut her mouth.
“I know exactly what you’re scared of. You, Sister, are scared of how good it felt. That little jolt just beneath your belt when you saw that man’s arm explode.” Brenda grinned. “It did feel good, didn’t it? Go on. Tell me you didn’t need a clean pair of underpants afterwards, and I’ll call you a liar.”
“I…” Jocelyn’s shoulders righted themselves as she sat up. “Yes. It did feel good. And I don’t want it to feel good. I don’t ever want to feel good again about hurting someone.”
“Too late,” said Brenda, simply. “First time you shot someone, you probably got away with it because you were pissing yourself. This time, no such luck. You ain’t no virgin anymore, Jocelyn.”
“I still don’t want to go out and shoot people. I’m not like you.”
“You think I’m sitting here, just waiting for the next time I can blow someone’s brains out? Ain’t that crazy yet.” Brenda laughed. “Give it time.”
“How many?” No need to guess how many what.
Brenda shrugged. “Don’t know. Honestly don’t know. I can tell you exactly what the weather was like, raining, baking hot, ice cold. The sounds. Flies. Bombs. Gunfire, theirs and ours. The lay of the land. But not the faces of everyone I shot. Hand to hand, I remember a few, ’cause it’s more personal and you’ve been stupid to let them get that close. But I couldn’t tell you exactly how many if I wanted to.”
“Anna says you tried to kill her.”
Brenda’s jaw dropped. “What, that sour piece of…”
“Yes.” Jocelyn chuckled. “I told her that if you’d really tried, she wouldn’t be here.”
Brenda leaned back in her chair, closed her eyes, sighed.
“Got that right. Stupid bitch.” She looked back at Jocelyn. “There’s the bad guys. Scum like Prometheus, their hired crazies. There’s loads and loads of people like ’em in this world. And then there’s the civilians. You, even if that’s gonna change if I’m any judge. Your friends with their old guns shooting at bits of paper. Moss-covered professors. Farmers. Builders. Mothers with children. The people who make the world go round. And in between…” Brenda rolled her shoulders, smacked her fist into her hand. “There’s me.”
Brenda and Jocelyn sat still for a few moments, looking at each other.
“Hey Handjob,” said Brenda.
“I never did give Nigel a handjob. You know that, right?”
“Well there’s your problem. You give him one, and he’ll do whatever you say to get another.”
“I’ll keep that in mind.”
“There’s pieces of paper out on the range,” said Brenda. “The paper… is very evil. Want to go and shoot ’em?”
“Are you sure the paper is evil?”
“Positive. It’s got circles on for Chrissake.”
“Let’s go,” said Jocelyn.
Brenda grinned. “First one out on the range gets the first shot.”
“Brenda!” I scowled at her. “You bloody biped!”
We were in Chancellor Monroe’s office, I, Father, Carl, Fatin with Raage, Brenda, Wadcroft, Margaret, Pike, Miss Felicia Sunderland. Andrew was in his workshop. He still hadn’t made anything worth mentioning, and Miss Felicia was in a permanent bad mood.
“We have not been attacked for two months,” said Munro. “I would never have thought that I’d ever have cause to be relieved at news like that. This is a school, ladies and gentlemen. It is not a sodding crannog.”
“We’ve stirred up a hornet’s nest,” said Carl. Fatin’s eyes gleamed at him, and she said a few words in her own language. Carl laughed. “As my lovely wife often reminds me, that is never a good thing.”
“Got to kill all the hornets now,” said Brenda.
Wadcroft gave a kind of disgruntled grunt. “The problem is that the hornets are scattered all over the globe, and that they employ wasps to come and sting us here.”
“They are hurting our students,” said Monroe, clearly not in the mood for the aphid theme. “And despite the work of Dr. Pike, we cannot keep them out.”
“We could,” said Pike. “But then, this place would become a crannog.”
Margaret looked rond the table. “Are we going to see the elephant in the room? Prometheus is not after our students. They’re after us. Wherever we go, they go. We are the ones endangering our students. Even Andrew.”
There were a few long moments of silence after that. There was no escaping the truth in this. If Prometheus would set off a bomb right under Munro’s desk, all their worries would be over. There was only one thing to do to keep Algernon University safe, but nobody wanted to be the first to mention it.
“So when are we leaving?” said Brenda.
“If need be, we can leave within the hour,” said Father. “Lady I is fuelled, watered, repaired and provisioned. All we lack is a destination.”
“Andrew will miss his workshop,” said Miss Felicia. “He does not thrive on change. And unlike last time, there will be no guarantee he can return.”
“He’s got a whole airship to tinker with,” said Margaret, a hint of the twinkle of old in her eye.
“He is still not working,” said Miss Felicia. “And he is not talking to me either. I don’t know what is going on in his head.”
“Where are we going?” said Carl.
Father reached out his arm and knocked the head of his pipe on Munroe’s ashtray.
“Paris,” he said. “We will find Mr. Riley, and then we will set course for each and every one of the cities on Mr. Wainwright’s list. We will find all the hideouts of Prometheus, and we will destroy them. If Slate is still alive, then we will find him, and kill him.”
“Good hunting,” said Chancellor Monroe.
Lady I was over the English Channel once more, making for Paris. I was looking forward to seeing the Eiffel Tower again, knowing that it was due to my efforts, and those of Carl and Fatin, that it still stood. I remembered the leap of faith I had made into Carl’s arms. Would I be able make that same leap now, even with knees made of steel? I was more sure than ever that Carl would catch me, but was I strong enough to leap the distance? I didn’t feel the same thrill I usually felt at the start of an expedition. Normally, I would have been excited to think of the new things we would find, the things we would learn in this strange and wonderful world. This time, we would not go in search of knowledge, but to hunt. At the same time, Prometheus would be hunting us, and so far, it seemed like their resources were superior to ours. We might die. Worse. We might fail.
I looked up to see Brenda sit down in the chair next to me. She put a mug of tea on my armrest, coffee on her own. She pulled out a small black Moleskine notebook and started to leaf through it.
“What’s that?” I said.
“One of the eggheads died back in Slate’s lair. I got this off him. Maybe he’s got family and I can give it to them.”
“What does it say?” I said, mainly to distract myself.
“Don’t know,” said Brenda. “I can’t read French. It says here Nid d’Aigle. That means Eagle’s nest doesn’t it?”
“Let me see,” I said, taking the notebook from Brenda. I turned a few pages. Dr. Dupont’s pencil handwriting was small, crabbed, with the occasional smudge.
“Hmm. Mademoiselle Lee. That’s you.”
“What’s the little frog saying about me?”
I squinted at the handwriting. “He was charmed to meet you.”
“I’ll bet he was.”
“Les jolis taches sous ses seins… The pretty spots underneath her breasts.”
Brenda burst out laughing. She pulled up her shirt, and stabbed a finger at the light brown, unmarked skin there. “You’re full of it, Tennant.”
I chuckled like a twelve-year old girl, read through a few more pages. “Well, he did seem to like you.”
“Only girl there in a sea of men. Hell, I could have picked a new one every day.”
“Distracting them from important scientific work.” I read on, and as I read, a chill went up my spine. This part was about…
“You weren’t the only girl,” I said.
“Only nice girl.”
Brenda looked at me. I looked back.
“Yes. I’ll give you that.”
I looked back at the note book, skipping a few pages. My mouth fell open. “Bloody hell!”
“Did Carl really lop that woman’s head off? Put it on a bloody spike?”
Brenda looked at me strangely. “You were there! You mean you didn’t notice?”
I shook my head. “I was otherwise occupied.”
“Well, he did.”
“Good,” I said.
Brenda shook her head. “You Tennants. You seem so nice and friendly, but when push comes to shove, you’re really a bloodthirsty bunch of sumbitches.”
I sneered. “And you’re not?”
“Ex professional military,” said Brenda. “They don’t train us to smother ’em in kisses.”
I looked back at the notebook, struggling a bit with the French. Was I reading this correctly?
“It says here they knew of the departure of the Khartoum airfleet within an hour of them leaving. Dr. Dupont mentions some sort of device with flickering lights. Is that the same sort of device Carl found in London?”
Brenda shrugged. “Slate was evil, not stupid. Maybe he did some science of his own before he kidnapped the eggheads from France.”
“It says here he has connections to Paris. London. Lots of other places.”
“Had,” said Brenda. “Slate’s dead.”
“How do you know?”
“Your brother and I saw the place go up. Nobody’s gonna survive that.”
“We weren’t there. The place is buried under tons of rock. Poor little Frenchie is buried deep.”
I turned to the last written page in the notebook. There was one hastily written note. I handed it back to Brenda.
“Read this,” I said.
“I told you, I don’t read French.”
“It’s in English.”
Brenda took the book, looked.
My dear friend,
I thank God that you are alive, and I thank you and your friends for making the attempt to take me away from this place. I do not deserve such dedication, but that does not diminish your grand efforts. We are about to go into danger, and I know that this may yet end badly. If the worst should happen, please take this notebook to people who will know what to do with it. It will, perhaps, explain to them what happened in this hell on Earth.
I have slipped the designs of my electrical engines in with the documents my esteemed colleagues have been so eager to gather before leaving. No doubt they intend to use their work as currency in the reckoning that is to follow. If it should come to that, I will simply tell the truth, and bear what life sends my way. I make no excuses.
Above all else, I wish you well. May you find what you seek in life, and may God protect you.
Yours, André Dupont.
Brenda closed the notebook. Looked out of the window with no sign of emotion showing on her face.
“Stupid little man,” she said.
It is night. Lady I flies above the clouds, and I am standing on the observation deck, watching the moon turn the clouds into a sea of light. I am looking back towards England, back towards Algernon University. The wind blows my hair into my eyes. I am wearing a new all-environment suit that keeps me warm in cold places, cool when it is warm. I can now climb the ladders with only the memory of pain in my legs. I can touch my toes. I can run. I can jump. I can kick. Yesterday, I first sparred with Carl, who went easy on me. Then I sparred with Brenda, who gave me no mercy, and gave me new bruises where my old ones had just faded. I bathed, then stood naked in front of the mirror and watched myself.
The marks of the ropes have grown less, but can still be seen, and I think they will never completely disappear. The long proficient cuts of Dr. Singh have left me with stitches showing. My legs are no longer beautiful, but they work. My knees are made of unbreakable steel, and my strength is returning. There are burn scars on my arms, on my feet, on my breasts. I remember every touch of the candleflame, every lustful, sadistic smile.
I turn around, walk across the observation deck to Lady I‘s bows.
I have grown used to my new sniper rifle. It is so accurate that it is almost frightening. I have hit targets the size of an apple at two thousand meters, with ease. One of the cartridges, I have saved. I have engraved on it the name of Nicholas Slate. I am wearing it now on a silver chain around my neck, and I will not take it off again until our expedition is done.
At the behest of Magister Nicholas Slate, people have died.
People have suffered. Margaret. Dr. Wadcroft. All those poor women and children who now lie dead in an unmarked mass grave. Their husbands, enslaved, and now recruited into an unknown organisation by Master Nazeem, learning to curb their hatred.
I have suffered more pain than I ever thought I could bear, and more.
Even Brenda, with the ghosts from her past, has suffered at Slate’s hands.
We will hunt him.
We will find him.
I will use that bullet.
And I will not miss.