Alexandra Tennant: Faltering steps

Home port – Unsound minds, unsound bodies – First, do no harm – Undying metal – Aggravated bodily harm

Freedom of the Press obstructed at Algernon University?

Rina Prescott reporting.

In a civilised society such as the one we live in, it is of the utmost importance that the Press, even a student newspaper such as the Algernon Clarion, be able to gather and report on news without interference from the Authorities. The People have a right to be properly informed of events occurring in their immediate surroundings and the rest of the world. It is one of the pillars upon which Democracy rests.

The treatment of your reporters at the hands of the Police is therefore nothing less than an outrage. Are we, the journalists, to stand idly by why an esteemed member of our University staff is led away in handcuffs? Are we not to investigate this matter, so that our body of students can learn the truth on these matters?

Yet, not only were our enquiries brusquely opposed by the people whose task it is to uphold the Law, but we were expressly forbidden from reporting on any of these troubling events.

I assure you, Readers, that the last word on this matter has not been spoken. We will find out the truth, and you will be informed.


 

When I woke up, I could see the river Orwell from my porthole. Brenda was asleep in the bed above me. I strained, but the tower of Algernon University would be dead ahead, and I could not see it. Last night’s medicine had not yet worn off, and I could turn round in bed. Father would be at the helm. I could recognise the way in which he made Lady I descend, heavy on the aillerons, slowly emptying the four main envelopes all at the same time with a hiss of gas in the pipes far above us. We were home. Soon, I would see my friends again. Margaret. The girls from the Rifle Club. Dr. Pike. Dr. Wadcroft. I gritted my teeth and moved from my bed to the mirror. I looked at myself. I had come back to Lady I bruised and battered from the beatings I had received. Most of the swelling had gone down, but there were still dark marks on my face, my shoulders, my arms. Cuts had healed, but were still visible.

I sighed. I have never been one for making up my face. A bit of rouge and lip balm was all I usually bothered with, and then only on special occasions. Today, I would see my friends again. I reached for a pot and started to cover up the worst signs. I put on layer after layer of rice powder, but the dark marks still showed. I sighed, looked round to see Brenda had woken up and was watching me from her bed. I smiled at her.

“How do I look?”

Brenda pushed her legs out, leapt down.

“You look like crap. You look like you got beaten up badly and you’re ashamed of it.”

I looked back at myself in the mirror. “I don’t want to scare my friends.”

“You’re going to scare them more by trying to hide it. Wash that stuff off your face. Give ’em hell. Who’s on breakfast?”

“Carl.”

“I better go give him a hand then. He does things to eggs.”

Brenda pulled on a pair of trousers and a shirt, then walked out to prevent Carl from ruining the eggs. I sat still for a while, then picked up a flannel and wiped my face, revealing it in all its horror. It would heal. The marks of many a sparring match with my brother had disappeared mostly without leaving a mark.

It took me rather longer to dress myself. I could not wear my khahi trousers with the bandages on my knees, so I put on a long skirt. I tried to stand up, one hand on my bed, pretend that nothing had happened. Like every morning since my ordeal, I failed. I accepted my defeat by pouring myself a glass of water. I put in ten drops of medicine, no more. I drank the bitter water and felt the numbness spread through my body. I would have to learn to live without the morphia eventually, accept the pain, but not today.

In the mess hall, Fatin was feeding Raage. Agent Wainwright, Brenda and Carl were having breakfast. Father was at the helm, steering us towards Ipswich. It felt good to be among ourselves again. The noisy scientists had been dropped off in Paris, and much to my relief, Riley had disembarked at Paris at well. I had mostly slept through those activities.

I sat down on the bench, and Carl helped me move my legs over. Voices were quiet, careful not to startle me.

“We’ll be at Algernon soon,” said Carl. “We’ll have a proper doctor look at your… look at you. You’ll be up and about in no time.”

“Good,” I said.

Everybody was nice to me. Treated me like a frozen flower that would shatter at the slightest touch. With ten drops of morphia inside me, they needn’t worry. The pain in my knees was pushed away by a golden haze, and my mind was floating on that same cloud of oblivion. The tea, toasted bread, eggs, sausages, beans, and bacon tasted of nothing. They filled my stomach, no more. I felt removed from the world, and for the first half hour after taking the medicine, I was content to be removed. After that, the fear was the first thing to return.

Through the open door to Carl’s and Fatin’s cabin, I could see the sunlight change as Father brought Lady I about. The engines slowed down. There was the hiss of gas in the pipes above us.

Fatin looked up. “We are home,” she said.


 

I returned to my cabin, where Brenda re-tied the supporting bandages round my legs. She worked quietly, quickly, without looking me in the eye. She tied off the last end of the bandage, then pulled down my skirt.

“Thank you,” I said.

She only nodded, got up and turned round to leave. At the last moment, she turned round, as if to say something, but then she looked away again.

“Your father is talking to the doctors,” she said instead. “I’ll see about getting you there. And then we’ll see.” She walked out of the door.

See what? Whether I would ever walk again? Brenda had told me that I’d be up again in but a few short weeks, but I didn’t believe it anymore. I picked up Father’s crutch and stumbled to the dining table. Fatin was cleaning and changing Raage, singing to him. When she was finished, she put him in my lap, smiled at me, and went to the kitchen to wash up. Normally, I would have followed her, but what was normal now?

Agent Wainwright came walking in, waited by the door. His duffel bag was on his shoulder. I looked at him, and he gave me a nod. “I… I am going back to my office to write my report. I wish you well, Miss Alexandra. I hope your, um, problems will be sorted out soon.”

“Thank you,” I said.

He opened his mouth to say something, changed his mind, gave me a quick smile and a wave instead, and went amidships, to the gangplank.

I looked at the small child on my arm, gently rocking him. He looked back up at me, reached out for my hair. I picked up a few locks and tickled his nose. He giggled, and despite everything, I had to smile. I bent down over him. He looked at me, dark brown eyes in a brown face, an earnest look. Then he reached out with his little hand and gently touched a dark bruise on my cheek.

“Ma,” said Raage.

I slowly breathed in, put my hand on Raage’s, rubbed my cheek against his fingers. Raage had just spoken his first word to me.

“Yes,” I said. “But it’ll get better.”

Fatin came in, wiping her hands on a towel. I looked up, held up Raage in my arms, but she waved a hand.

“You hold him. He is a happy boy, full of milk.” She touched my shoulder. “You need a little happy.”

“Happiness,” I said.

“Yes?”

“Happiness. The, um, ‘juice’ that makes you happy.”

“Happi-ness. Good. You need a little happiness.”

“He just said a word.”

Fatin smiled. “What word?”

Ma.”

Fatin sat down next to me, her arm round my shoulders. “In the Ajuru, that means ‘You will be well.’ He is right.”

“What a clever little boy,” I said, leaning into Fatin.

Brenda came walking in. “Hey. I got you a present. Come on outside and look.”

I gave Raage back to Fatin and slowly got to my feet, Father’s remaining crutch on one end, Brenda on the other. We made our way down the stairs into the cargo hold, then up again towards the bridge and down the gangplank. At the bottom, waiting for me, was a wheelchair.

“I got it from the hospital. Threw out the old geezer in it, ’cause you need it more.”

“Brenda…” I looked at her.

“He’s all right. He landed somewhere soft. Go on, try it. See how fast we can go.”

There is something about Brenda’s direct crass trans-Atlantic sense of humour. At least I think she was joking. I never found out. I stumbled down the gangplank and sat down. Brenda got behind and pushed me towards the bell tower. The bell tolled for the end of class. Before we arrived at the main building, someone came out, walking with large strides towards us. It can be a bit awkward to embrace someone when you are sitting in a wheelchair, but that did not stop Prof. Dr. Margaret Enderby.

“Alexandra my dear, I’m so glad you are back!” She looked into my eyes, no doubt guessing more than anyone else about my state of mind and body. “I could hardly believe it when I saw that airship of yours on the lawn. We must get you some tea. Would you like some tea? You always feel better after a nice hot cup.”

“You got a doctor at nine,” said Brenda.

“Oh!” Margaret looked at Brenda and held out her hand. “I’m sorry. Margaret Enderby, how do you do.”

Brenda took Margaret’s hand. “Brenda Lee. I’m Push Chair Woman.”

“Ah. Must be lovely for you Yanks to find something useful to do. Shall we take young Miss Tennant to the cafeteria?”

“Lead on, MacDuff,” said Brenda.

“It’s lay on.”

“Bill Shakespeare is dead, he won’t mind.”

Margaret grinned. “I’ve got a bunch of English profs I want you to meet. The trough is that way.”

Margaret is a person of influence and weight at Algernon University, so she had no trouble getting a pot of tea from the cafeteria where students, lesser Faculty and other mortals could only get small cups. She looked at the clock.

“I’m afraid I can only spare you fifteen minutes or so. Got a second year Physics class coming up and if I’m not there on the bloody dot, the little sods bugger off for fags behind the stables. Isaac Newton would weep if he knew.”

“So how have you been, Margaret?”

“Interesting times, very interesting. Been held at knifepoint by a bunch of heathens wanting to get at Hammond’s blitherings. We have two of them on ice. Any more coming?”

“The Khartoum air fleet dropped a mountain on their heads,” said Brenda. “I’m expecting that to cease about now.”

“I’ll believe Slate is dead when I see a corpse,” I said. I closed my eyes for a moment, inhaling my tea. “Not that I’ll get any chance to.”

“Not so glum, Tennant. As soon as he heard what had happened, Dr. Bernhardt wrote to a friend of his who did nothing in his whole career except stare at ladies’ legs. Indian bloke named Singh. You’re going to be fine.”

“It’s easier to tear down a tree than to grow one,” I said. I looked into Margaret’s eyes. “Are you all right?”

“I was married to a crypto-zoologist for seventeen years,” said Margaret. “Once you’ve seen a chupacabra barrel down on you, everything else is tame by comparison.” She put her hand on my arm. “Really love. You just think of getting better. Don’t worry about me. If there’s things you don’t want to tell Dr. Schmidt, my door is always open to you.”

“Dr. Schmidt?” Dr. Schmidt was the University’s expert on diseases of the mind. “I have no desire to spend the next twenty years in a cell with pillows on the walls, and I already have all the morphia I need.”

“Exactly what I thought,” said Margaret. “I didn’t want to go and see him. Jocelyn didn’t want to go and see him after someone tried to murder you in your bed. You may not know, but your father put his foot down and kept you out of his clutches. But Dr. Schmidt’s subject is the effect of fear and suffering upon the Human mind.”

“I have sore knees,” I said. “There’s nothing wrong with my head. I’ve boxed against Carl for crying out loud!”

Margaret shrugged. “If I know Dr. Bernhardt, you won’t get out of the infirmary this whole afternoon. Have Miss Lee here push you to my door, and we can teach her all about gin and tonic.”

“That’d be great,” said Brenda. “You know what? I’ll bring some eggs so I can teach you how to suck ’em.”

Margaret laughed, getting up. “This will be a trans Atlantic liver destruction derby. Well, I think I still have students, so I’ll see you tonight. Glad you’re back Alexandra, lovely to meet you, Miss Lee.”

We watched her walk out of the cafeteria. Brenda turned back to me.

“I like her.”

“She’s going to drink you under the table,” I said.

“In her dreams.” Brenda looked over my shoulder at the clock. “We have about half an hour till your doc’s appointment. What do you want to do?”

I took a deep breath.

“I want to go for a run.”

Brenda put her hand on my arm.

“Rise and walk, Sister.”

I only gave her a weary look.

“Well, seems like I’m not Jesus after all.”

“Maybe you just need to try harder.”

“Yeah, I reckon. I’m in Limey Country. More tea?”

“Lovely.”


 

Brenda wheeled me into Dr. Bernhardt’s office, helped me onto an examination bed, then made herself scarce. Dr. Bernhardt, our most senior physician, sat down next to me. He pointed at my face.

“I see you have been using cold compresses for that. Good.”

“Fight against a brother twice your weight, and you soon learn that.”

The Doctor gave me a quick look, but decided against dwelling on the subject of fighting.

“Dr. Singh will be here momentarily. In the mean time, why don’t I have a look at those poor legs of yours? Could you raise your skirt, please?”

I did. Dr. Bernhardt looked at them with a painful look on his face, then quietly started to undo the bandage that covered the gunshot wound in my thigh. The bullet had gone through the flesh, but hit no bones. Carl had bound the wound, and we had changed the bandage only once on board Lady I. The Doctor nodded, apparently satisfied. He walked to his cabinet, pulled out a bottle and a cloth, and cleaned and re-bandaged my thigh. Just as he tied off the bandage, there was a knock on the door. He let in a brown-skinned man, about his own age, black hair turning grey at the temples. He wore gold-rimmed glasses, and was holding a heavy Manila envelope.

“Good morning Miss Tennant,” he said. “I am Dr. Praveen Singh. Has Antoon told you why I am here?”

I was grateful that he did not ask me how I was feeling. This was a subject most people shied away from.

“You are an expert on ladies’ legs,” I said.

Dr. Singh’s eyes twinkled. “My fame preceeds me, though my interest is purely medical in nature, I assure you.” He pulled a few sheets of paper from his envelope and put them on a clipboard. I looked, and saw a drawing of the torture device. I shivered, looked away.

Dr. Singh seemed not to notice, though he put another sheet of paper on top. He turned to my legs and removed the bandages Brenda had put on there that morning. Under the bright light of the surgery, the skin was every colour imaginable, except healthy. The welts of the rope were still clearly visible. I tried to speak, but found my mouth was dry. I coughed.

“Has the… gangrene advanced?”

Gangrene? Goodness me, no. This is not gangrene. It would be dry gangrene, and that only sets in after a week or so. This is simply discoloration of the skin due to lack of circulation. Why do you think this is gangrene?”

“The…” I could not keep my voice from shaking. “The woman who tortured me said so.” I closed my eyes. It was the first time I had clearly stated what had happened to me. I’m afraid I sobbed.

Dr. Singh took my hand. “You have my sincerest sympathy, Miss Tennant. Torture. Arguably the most misguided application of human ingenuety. But let me tell you. I too am an ingenious man. All of my knowledge is at your disposal. If there is but a single possibility, you will walk again. You have my word on it.”

With that, he put my bandages to the side and lifted my left leg. The morphia I had taken had not completely worn off yet, but the pain was beyond its reach. I gasped. Dr. Singh gave me a quick look, then ran his fingers from my calf to my thigh, squeezing in places. He gave me a few moments to catch my breath, then did the same to my other leg. Sweat pearled on my forehead. How had I endured several days of this pain? And why could I not do so again, even aided by a large dose of morphia?

Dr. Singh gently put down my right leg, then picked up an anatomical drawing of a pair of legs, on which he started hastily to scrawl notes, connected by lines to various parts of my knees.

He took the time to explain to me what exactly was broken, what ligaments were torn. I’m afraid I don’t remember his words, only the forcedly optimistic way in which he said them.

“Miss Tennant, I stand by my words. I will do what I can. I will not accept defeat as long as courses of action are open to me. This is now a matter of honour.” He turned to Dr. Bernhardt. “Would you please join me? I need to discuss this with you.”

As soon as Dr. Bernhardt and Dr. Singh had left, the door opened and Father walked in. He pulled up a chair and sat down next to me. He looked at me with his one remaining eye, and made a bit of a show of adjusting his metal leg, as if to remind me that all was not hopeless.

“What did they say, Alexandra?”

“My legs are buggered,” I said.

Father raised an eyebrow. “Language, my dear. Buggered in what way?”

“Ligaments torn, cartilage cracked, likely to deteriorate more.” I gave my father a wry smile. “But at least I don’t have gangrene.”

“Thank God for small mercies,” said Father. “Do they have plans of any sort?”

“Plans are being drawn as we speak. We can only hope and pray.”

“That couldn’t hurt.” Father gave me a grim smile. “There is an ancient North American saying. Pray to the Spirits, but row away from the rocks.”

“I can do that,” I said. “I still have my upper body strength. What do you have in mind?”

Father sat back in his chair, and drew a deep breath. “For the moment, let us see what the medicine men can do for you. I asked around. Dr. Singh seems to be one of the best that Medicine has to offer.”

“Maybe in a few years, I can stumble,” I said. “Or roll around in one of these chairs.”

“Alexandra,” said Father, in the quiet voice that I dreaded as a young girl. “Look at me. Five years ago, I could have walked from one coast of South America to the other. Fate dealt me a cruel blow, and I lost my right leg, most of the use of my left arm, and one eye. Even with the willpower of a god, I could not do now what would have been easy to me but a few short years ago. Still, I am now the captain of one of the fastest craft in the sky. I can go to any place on this Earth, as long as I have coal. I have made friends and acquaintances in these academic circles, and I intend to serve them by bringing together scientists from all over the world, and bring them to the inaccessible places where they must go to gather their knowledge. Lady I will do what no other vessel is willing and able to do, to our profit and that of Humanity itself. This is the future I see for our family. This is who I intend to become.” Father’s eyes… eye, wandered over my poor abused body, then settled on my eyes. “What you must ask yourself, is who are you?”

I opened my mouth to say something, but Father waved me away.

“I said ask, not instantly answer. Who knows? The good Doctors may restore your legs to satisfactory function yet. But if they don’t, well, life continues, and you must re-invent yourself. I promise you, there will always be a place for you on board Lady I.” Father got to his feet, patted my shoulder. “Do not disappoint yourself, Alexandra. You are my daughter, and you are formidable.” He looked at the sky through the clear part of the frosted glass window, then back at me. “And that is very well, because I will need you. These troubles are not over yet. But first, recover. With Slate’s fortress destroyed, we have some time. Well, I have an appointment with Chancellor Munroe.”

I watched him walk out of the door, metal leg and all. I ran my fingers over my legs, closed my hands on my knees. The pain was becoming more familiar. Would I ever be able to ignore it, and walk again? I looked round at the wheeled chair Brenda had acquired for me. It was the kind with the big wheels that enabled the person in it to move about by turning them. Was that to be my future? To look at the world from waist height?

The door opened, and Brenda came walking in on her strong, perfectly functional legs.

“Howdy Partner,” she said, laying on a thick trans-atlantic accent that I hadn’t noticed her ever having before. “What’d the doc say? They gonn’ saw ya?”

I took a deep breath. “I’ll be getting a pair of legs made from the finest timber.”

Brenda raised her eyebrows. “Really?”

“They haven’t come back yet. They are taking their time. Supposedly, Dr. Singh is an expert leg man.”

“Dirty bastard,” said Brenda. She sat down in the wheelchair, and waited with me.

Dr Singh and Dr. Bernhardt returned half an hour later, sending Brenda out of the room. I could see they were trying to stay optimistic as to my future, but that future would not, it seemed, include running miles or climbing mountains. Dr. Singh took the time to explain to me the medical operations that would have to take place, which would leave my legs just about able to support me, but not much else. Dr. Bernhardt assured me that Algernon University would do what they could. I’m afraid I let the explanations and the soothing words wash over me. I saw my future. That future would be spent mostly sitting down. I had been damaged beyond the capability of even the best doctors to heal me, and there was nothing to be done about it. I vaguely remember Dr. Singh putting his hand on my shoulder, and reassuring me that if there were any way at all to restore me, he would find it. Dr. Bernhardt asked me what medicine I was taking, and looked horrified when I told him about the Laudanum. He walked away to get me something better, leaving me alone in the examination room to face my fate.

There was a crash at the door, and Brenda came rolling in in my wheelchair.

“You know, if you put your arms into it, this thing can go fast!”

“Good,” I said, unable to work up quite the same enthusiasm.

“Are you done here?”

“Well, I need to wait for-”

“You hungry? Cause I am.”

It was early for lunch, but it was coming up to elevenses. A cup of tea and maybe a piece of dry cake sounded preferable to waiting here, brooding.

“Famished,” I said.


 

Margaret often had lunch in the cafeteria, but she was the exception rather than the rule. No other teacher would allow the disusting eating habits of the student corps to put them off their lunch. Margaret had once taken me to the teacher’s lunch room, and afterwards none would deny me. Brenda pulled away a chair and wheeled me up to one of the tables.

“What do you want?”

“Tea with a slice of lemon cake.” I reached for the bottle in my pocket. “And a glass of water.”

“Some day, you’re gonna have to get off that stuff, you know?”

“Yes.”

Brenda walked off, to return a while later with a tray. Brenda ate with military efficiency. Food needed to be inside her. Even cheesecake. Did the girl not know that this was to be enjoyed? I ate slower, sitting very still to put off taking the mind-numbing medicine that would take away the pain and my thoughts.

“I am never going to run again,” I said.

Brenda looked up at me for a moment, then said nothing and continued eating.

“You’ve never seen anyone recover from that place, have you?”

“No.” There was a moment of heavy silence. “Poor bastards who got what you got were usually for the chops. Didn’t get the time to get better. Gunther just bashed their heads in and dropped them down a hole.”

I wanted to ask her why she had lied to me, but that was a stupid question. The truth was not what I had needed to hear. But now, it was.

“If I’m going to be in one of these chairs for life, then we’ll need some changes to Lady I,” I said. “Ramps into the cargo hold. Maybe a bridge.”

“Uh huh.”

“We’ll need some kind of high chair at the helm. Can’t let everyone else do all the helm duty. If we can’t do that, maybe some kind of platform for a wheelchair. I’ll have to move to one of the front cabins. Can’t have people carrying me all the time.”

“Yeah.”

I seemed to have lost my audience. Brenda was looking over my shoulder with a strange half-smile on her face.

“Brenda?”

“Hm?”

“Are you all right?”

“Who…” She pointed behind me. “…is that?”

I looked, to see the massive form of Andrew Parsons, grandson of our founder, walking to one of the tables with a tray containing a large cup of tea and a piece of cake. He would have positioned both items on his tray in such a way that the centre of balance would be in the exact middle.

“That’s Andrew Parsons,” I said. “He’s the best engineer England has to offer. He made Lady I‘s engines. That’s why she’s so fast.”

“He’s a machine!” said Brenda. She grinned at me. “I don’t suppose you could, well, introduce me?”

“If you wheel me over there, there’s nothing I can do to stop you.”

We put our teacups and food on the tray in my lap, and made our way to Andrew Parsons’ table. I asked him if he’d mind if we joined him, and he said he did not. Brenda put me off to the side a bit and sat down opposite Andrew. I pointed at her.

“Andrew Parsons? This is my friend Brenda Lee.”

“How do you do,” said Andrew.

Pleased to meet you,” said Brenda, holding out her hand.

Andrew shook it carefully, cut his piece of cake in half, then cut the halves, then the quarters. I am sure that if one had weighed the pieces, the scale would not have tipped even a fraction of an inch to either side.

“So,” said Brenda. “What do you do here, Mister Parsons?”

Andrew considered a moment. “I am drinking my tea, and eating a piece of lemon drizzle cake.”

Brenda stared at Andrew, no doubt trying to figure out whether he was joking. She was learning that there was an art to talking with Andrew. All my life, I had never met anyone with quite as literal a view on life.

“What Brenda means,” I said, “is what you are working on at the moment.”

“I have completed the restoration of the gyroscopic stabiliser for the airship Aeolus, and am now preparing and packing it for installation.”

“Wow,” said Brenda. “That sounds so complicated. Alexandra tells me you’re the best engineer around.”

Andrew did not interprete that as a question, and so said nothing. I watched Brenda with some amusement. It didn’t seem like she often ventured out on the battlefield of the sexes, being more comfortable on actual battlefields, but she was by no means ill-equipped for the purpose. With her well-defined muscle, the dark pictures on her arms, and her acerbic wit, she was bound to attract the stronger of men. Sadly, though strong enough to bend steel girders in his hands, Andrew was not the usual kind of man. On the other hand, Brenda was nothing if not persistent.

“Brenda is helping me around,” I said. “I’ve hurt my legs.”

“I am sorry to hear that,” said Andrew.

This was a taught phrase, a result of Miss Felicia Sunderland’s coaching. The correct thing to say when someone tells you about their hurt. Left to himself, Andrew would simply have taken it as information, made a note of it, and left it at that.

“Thank you,” I said. “Say Andrew, would you be able to free up some of your time? We may need some changes made to Lady I, so I can move around it. Maybe a platform for a wheelchair by the helm. Moving some of the controls closer to the wheel.”

Andrew, due to his special character, was mostly left to his own devices. Chancellor Munroe knew that no matter what Andrew did, the results would be worthwhile. Our Lady’s engines had been duly reported on by one of the scientific journals, complete with schematics drawn by Andrew himself, from memory. He frowned.

“Would it not be more efficient to repair your legs? That way, you can also use them outside Lady I.”

I gave Andrew a sad smile. So sophisticated in one area, so ignorant in another.

“Oh Andrew,” I said. “Could you make me a new pair of knees?”

Andrew stared at the wall for one or two seconds, completely drawn into himself. Then he looked back at me. He had a way of looking at someone’s chest rather than into their eyes. For someone who didn’t know him, it might be uncomfortable, but the simple reason was that Andrew didn’t like looking into people’s eyes.

“Yes,” he said, simply.

“I was joking, Andrew.”

His thick eyebrows knotted. “You do not wish to have your knees repaired?”

“I do,” I said, “But the human body is the domain of physicians. You can’t just swap out parts.”

“I made a leg for Captain Philip Tennant,” said Andrew.

“This is different,” I said. “A knee is a complex part.”

“It is a simple joint,” said Andrew. “It bends to one hundred thirty degrees, extends to fifteen degrees, and has a a ten degree lateral rotation. I have made twelve such joints for the track supports of the Tracked Vehicle, Mark One.”

Brenda leaned over to him, chin on her hand. “If you want a working example, I can show you mine.”

Brenda!

She didn’t even look at me.

“I’m sure Dr. Parsons’ interest would be completely…” She grinned like a tiger. “Academical.”

Andrew looked at Brenda. “I have two knees of my own, Miss Lee. It is not necessary for me to study yours.”

“But there’s so many things that are more fun to do with other people’s bodies than your own…” Brenda was now positively purring.

Before I could say anything, a woman appeared by our table. From the look on her face, I could tell that she had been watching for a while. Miss Felicia Sunderland is a kind spirit, but nonetheless, she protects Andrew like a mother bear would protect her cubs. Her good morning reminded one that mornings can be bad as well.

“Miss Sunderland,” I said. “How do you do?”

“How do you do, Miss Tennant. Miss…” she looked at Brenda.

“Lee. Brenda Lee. Charmed.”

“Ah. We don’t often get visitors from the Americas. Welcome. Oh, Andrew? What’s the time?”

Andrew looked at the clock, then compared it to his pocket watch.

“Between eleven forty-four and eleven forty-six,” he said. Without another word, he drank the last of his tea, stood up, picked up his tray, and walked off.

Miss Felicia sat down on his chair, giving Brenda a warm smile.

“Andrew is very much set in his ways. His tea break is precisely from eleven fifteen to eleven forty-five.”

“Does he have a lady friend?” said Brenda.

“He does not,” said Miss Felicia. “Why? Were you thinking of applying for the position?”

Brenda clutched her heart. “Never have I seen a finer figure of a man than him. I am lost. I must have him.”

Miss Felicia gave a little smirk. “My mother warned me that this would happen one day. I told her that I would never have children.” She looked up. “You win this one, Mother. Now I will have to buy a firearm after all.”

“Don’t go for the Prussian ones,” said Brenda. “They’re, what do you Limeys say, ‘rubbish’? Go for a nice Colt revolver. Every girl needs one.”

“Quite,” said Miss Felicia, turning to me. “how have you been, Miss Tennant? I can’t help noticing…”

The words were left hanging in the air. My knees started hurting again.

“I…” My mouth was dry, and my teacup was empty. “I will be fine.”

Brenda got up, walked to the counter and fetched me a glass of water. Only now I noticed that she’d also taken my bottle of medicine. She pushed the glass towards me, and I drank. The soft cotton-wool feeling of the medicine spread through my body and cushioned my mind. If she wants to, Brenda can move quietly.

“I fell into the wrong hands,” I said. “The doctors are finding a way to heal my legs.”

“I’m sure they will,” said Miss Felicia.


 

“You were flirting!”

Brenda was pushing me back to the doctor’s office.

“Yep.”

“You were flirting with Andrew!”

“What can I say? I like my men big and strong. Like they’re made of steel. Heck, an actual steel man, that’s what I want. But I’ll have Andrew until I find one. Heads up, it’s the doctors.”

“Did you ask Andrew Parsons to make you a new pair of knees?” Dr. Bernhardt looked at me over the rims of his glasses.

“Um…”

“He was just here, asking me if I had your measurements, which I do not. He will be back shortly.”

“It was a joke,” I said. “I thought he understood that.”

“Mr. Andrew Parsons is not compatible with jokes,” said Dr. Bernhardt. “He actually thought that we would saw off your legs, and connect them back up with bits of metal!”

“Actually,” said Dr. Singh, pushing up his glasses. “It has been done before, except it was a hip joint. An assistant stevedore was caught in a cable and his leg nearly pulled off. One of my friends fashioned a new femural head out of steel. The man was able to walk without a cane afterwards. There is a very interesting treatise on the subject, which I’ll be happy to send you. But a hip joint is a fairly simple affair. A knee is more complex. The craftsmanship would have to be superb.”

“We do have a superb craftsman in our Andrew,” said Dr. Bernhardt. “You’re not really thinking of doing it are you?”

Dr. Singh slowly turned his eyes to me. “Miss Tennant, I must be frank with you. The work on your knees would be long and hard. The muscle is only stretched, but some of the tendons are completely torn off. We would have to re-attach them first. At the same time, we would have to repair the bone damage. It could be years before you could walk a few steps, and I can give no guarantees that it would be worth the pain and effort.” Dr. Singh took off his glasses, polished them, as if to give himself some time to think. “To remove the damaged parts, and replace them with steel, would be the quickest way to recovery.”

“Very well,” I said. “Then that is what we will do.”

Dr. Bernhardt shook his head. “I will not accept any decision yet, Miss Alexandra. There are risks. First and foremost, an operation of this size must be done with you in the arms of Morpheus. We have become better, but it cannot be denied. A small but significant number of the people who are put under the Aether, never wake up again. Secondly, even my esteemed colleague will admit that this is no small task, even for an experienced surgeon. We may fail.”

“Fail?” I said.

“Opening the Human body is no small matter, Miss Tennant,” said Dr. Singh. “We may make a mistake in re-attaching your new knees. There is always the risk of infection. Your body may reject the implant.”

I glanced at Brenda, who was sitting by the wall in my wheelchair, hands in her lap, quietly observing everything. She gave the smallest shrug observable.

“Assuming you survive the operation,” said Dr. Singh, “If any of a number of things would go wrong, you might lose both your legs.”

“And in the best case?”

“You will be able to walk, even run again in a matter of weeks, maybe months. Finally, the implants will wear out and need replacing, maybe in twenty years or so.”

Dr. Bernhardt took my hand, looked into my eyes.

“Think about it, Alexandra. Talk about it with your friends and family. There is no hurry. Let us know what you decide.”

There were three knocks on the door. Dr. Bernhardt opened it and Andrew Parsons squeezed himself through the doorframe. Back by the wall, I could see Brenda sitting up straight. I quietly shook my head at her. She grinned in return.

“I am here to measure Miss Tennants’ legs,” he said. “For the replacement knees.”

“Andrew,” said Dr. Bernhardt. “No decisions have been made yet on that score. You are too early to trouble Miss Tennant with this.”

“Let him,” I said. “We may as well get this over with.”

The first time we met, he measured me accurate to the last Continental unit, simply by looking at me. How much worse could this be?

“But it is a useless exercise!” Dr. Bernhardt raised his hands. “He needs to know the size of your bones, and the usual methods of estimation are made inaccurate by swelling. He cannot look inside your legs!”

“Just a minute,” said Dr. Singh. He walked over to a human skeleton hanging from its support in the corner of the room and brought it to Andrew.

“Mr. Parsons, please observe.” He pointed at the skeleton’s knee. “This is the part of Miss Tennant’s knee that we need to replace, from here…” He marked a part on the bone. “To here. This is the fibula… tibia. The tibia serves to stabilise the leg, and must be preserved in full, where it rests against the tibiofibular joint. What are your thoughts?”

Andrew looked at the dead person’s knee joint with an intensity greater than any. He closed his eyes a moment, then pointed.

“I will fashion a sleeve that will go over the ends of femur and tibia, which will need to be shortened to here. I will replicate the shape of the tibiofemural joint so that it can move as before. Attachment will be by screws here, here, and here.” he pointed.

“I must remind you, that there must be no protruding elements, as the muscles will need to move along these sleeves.”

“I will counter-sink the screws.”

“Another thing is that the joint will operate in a wet, mildly saline, oxygen-rich environment. Rust and corrosion are serious problems, as we can hardly open up Miss Tennant’s legs to oil them. Obviously, any lubricants or toxic substances are out of the question.”

Andrew frowned a moment. “I can use an alloy of chromium and steel that will resist corrosion for approximately fifty-five years.”

Dr. Singh looked at Andrew. “Do you have an answer to everything, Mr. Parsons?”

“No.”

Dr Singh stood up, and so did Andrew. “Would you like to take the skeleton with you, for reference?”

“No. That will not be necessary. I need to know the size of Miss Tennant’s bones.”

“Precisely!” Dr. Bernhardt. “Like I said before, How do you propose to look inside Miss Alexandra’s legs?”

“Presumably, you have measuring apparatus for this purpose?”

“Damn it, Parsons, I am a doctor, not an engineer. I hardly ever need to measure anyone’s bones, and when I do, it is usually post-mortem.”

“I have brought my calipers,” said Andrew.

“Do I have to keep repeating myself? They cannot measure inside Miss Tennant’s legs!”

“Perhaps…” Dr Singh rubbed his chin. “If we attach a pair of awls to the legs of the caliper, we can penetrate the tissue until we touch the bone.”

Dr. Bernhardt glowered at Dr. Singh. “Praveen, you are being unhelpfully helpful. This will be torture for Miss Alexandra. And to what purpose?”

For the tiniest of moments, I was back on the bench, under the mountain. Anger stirred in me. I scowled.

“Doctor.” I said. “I have endured actual torture, where people were hurting me to destroy me. This is in the interest of restoring me, and I have just had a dose of morphia. Dr. Singh, Andrew, Please proceed.”

Andrew produced a small welding torch, and welded two of Dr. Bernhard’s medical needles to the calipers. I watched in amazement when he held it up to the light, closed it, and the needle-sharp points actually touched in the middle. He nodded, satisfied. At Dr. Singh’s directions, he played the torch flame over the needles once or twice to sterilise them. He waited for the metal to cool down. Then, without another word, he walked up to my bed, pulled my skirt up, and pushed the needles into my leg.

It hurt.

Despite the morphia, I had to grit my teeth and hold tightly onto what turned out to be Dr. Bernhardt’s wrist. Andrew took his measurement, pulled out the needles, then turned the calipers a quarter-turn and pushed them in again. I closed my eyes tightly, and I must have let out a whimper. There was a hand on my shoulder, a voice in my ear.

“Suck it down, Tennant, you’ve had worse than this.”

I took a few shallow breaths, glared at Brenda. “Go to hell, soldier. Ah!”

Marine, Tennant. Soldiers are sissies.” She came a bit closer. “You’re not a soldier are you?”

“I’m a bloody sniper. I shoot bloody marines.”

“Good on you.”

Andrew finished his measurements, and Dr. Singh busied himself putting bandaids over the wounds.

“I will start the design of your knees now, Miss Tennant,” said Andrew.

Just as Andrew turned round to leave, the door opened and several people came in. The first was a man in a raincoat. The second was a furious Miss Felicia Sunderland. Next were a number of uniformed policemen.

“Andrew Parsons?”

“Yes.”

“Inspector Morris, Ipswich Police department. You’re under arrest for aggravated bodily harm on Miss Carrie StJohn.” He held out a pair of handcuffs. “You’re coming with us.”

“No he’s not!” Miss Sunderland stepped between Andrew and inspector Morris. “You are not putting Andrew in with the criminals in your jail.”

“He broke a young girl’s arm, Miss. That’s not what law abiding citizens do.”

“That was an accident!”

“If he’s innocent, Miss, he’s got nothing to fear.”

“If you want to arrest him, you’ll have to arrest me as well!”

Miss Felicia drew back her hand to strike down an officer of the Law, but before she could, someone grabbed her arm.

“Change of personnel, Miss. You get into jail, they’ll eat you alive. You look after Tennant, I’ll look after Andrew.”

“What? You…”

It didn’t even look as though Brenda moved particularly fast. She grabbed the inspector’s hand, still holding the handcuffs, and pulled him back towards her. She pushed her knee into the back of his and dropped him on his knees. Her arm wrapped itself round his neck in a scarily efficient choke hold.

“Back off, coppers! I can break his neck before you take one step.”

The inspector struggled in Brenda’s grasp. “What the bloody hell…”

“You wanna arrest me? I’ll come quietly if you put me in the cell with Andrew.”

“What makes you think you…”

Brenda tightened her grip.

“I can make this hurt a lot more. You want me to come quietly, don’t you? I don’t know if I can win against all those cops, but I’m damn sure that if I try, some of them ain’t gonna sleep in their own beds tonight.”

“You want to be in the cell with him?”

“I’d love to be in a cell with him.”

“Done,” said the Inspector.

Brenda let go. She held out her arms.

“Oh god, what was I thinking? Resisting such a fine body of men. Please be gentle with me.”

Morris got to his feet, rubbing his neck. He pulled Brenda’s hands behind her back and cuffed her.

“You’re going to have a lot of friends tonight,” he growled.

“Oh goody,” said Brenda.

Andrew and Brenda were firmly escorted into a police carriage, and carted off. Miss Felicia turned to me.

“Well, Miss Tennant,” she said. “I think I’ll take you back to your airship, and then I’m going to have a word with Miss StJohn’s parents.”

She gave the wheelchair a push and set off for Lady I.

“And rip their heads off,” she added.

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