Previously: “Pursued by unknown assassins, we finally set off on our journey north to locate EON-1.”
Part 21: Casting Off
The docks at Portensea were deserted now, but the detritus piled high - abandoned luggage, rusting equipment - proved how busy they had once been. As we rounded a mountain of rotting suitcases, and our immediate destination came into view, Lady Una stopped dead in her tracks.
“This is it?” she demanded. “You have the privilege of commanding the world's last coal-fired, floating scrapheap?”
I tried to look at it as if seeing it for the first time - the pitted, rusting superstructure, the squat, armoured turrets, and crooked funnels. For the longest time now, this had been home and sanctuary for me. “The past five years have been hard on everyone, and the HMS Inquisitor is no exception.”
“It's a fine sight,” Major Thurlow attempted. “A sterling relic of naval might.”
“Does it actually float,” Lady Una asked, “or is the gangplank holding it up?”
“It floats,” I assured her - clearing my throat and avoiding her eye.
She studied me carefully. “Who are you trying to convince when you say that?”
Sigrid walked on ahead of us. “Not fond of the sea, milady?”
Lady Una blinked. “I... I can't swim very well.”
Sigrid absorbed this fact with little reaction. “Best not fall overboard then. Perhaps if you dressed a little more sensibly...”
“Thank you,” Lady Una replied curtly. “I'll take that into consideration.”
I followed her up the gangplank, watching as she glided hand over hand, never letting go of the chain link railing. On the main deck, the Commander greeted me in her customary manner, lifting her pipe up in one hand.
“How did the repairs go?” I asked her, knowing that Lady Una's ears would have pricked up.
The Commander hooked her pipe on the corner of her mouth and, with both hands, gripped the binoculars that hung around her neck. “Good and bad. The dry docks are all crumbling to nothing. I didn't want to risk putting the ship in there and not getting her back out, so I decided to forego it entirely. Without a chance to check out the hull beneath the waterline, she's probably only got a year or so left in her.”
“Well that's the bad,” I agreed, “what about the good stuff?”
“I was able to trade for parts to fix the pumps. We're finally putting out about as much water as we're taking on. We won't recover the bottom deck any time soon, but at least we're not sinking any more.”
“Delightful,” Lady Una interjected.
“And aren't you going to introduce your new friends?” the Commander asked.
“Of course. This is Lady Una, Sigrid Phenice and Major Thurlow. We're expecting one more, a mechanical fellow. This is Commander Kelson.”
“Pleased to meet you all. Oh, that reminds me, we lost another three crew members.”
Lady Una looked shocked. “Dead?”
“Hardly. Just tired of slaving in the engine room. It's nothing we can't cope with.”
“I'm surprised we've kept as many people as we have,” I commented.
“Well, doctor, not everybody's as keen on the shore-side delights of the new world as you are. This old heap is as good a place to stay as any hovel on land. Oh, right, one last thing. We had to expend a shell.”
Major Thurlow raised an eyebrow. “At what?”
The Commander waved her pipe at the sea. “Who knows? Used to be the sea was the one place you could be sure you were safe. But now all sorts of things swim out of the Twisted Forests or blow downwind of the Poison Wastes.”
“That's eight shells left then?” I asked.
The Commander tapped her pipe on the railing as if emptying it of ash. A habitual gesture - we'd seen no tobacco in three years. “Seven. I've had a good look at what's left, and I think one of them's poorly made. We'll save it for last and hope it doesn't take the barrel with it when we let if off.”
“Well,” I said.
“Oh yeah, last thing now for sure. We loaded the fore turret, but it's no good any more. Only about forty degrees of turn in the thing. Mechanism's all rusted solid. Might be an idea to disassemble it and use the parts to repair the midships turret. Course, if we do that we'll have to hope the aft one doesn't give out while we're working, or we'll be defenceless.”
“We need to leave as soon as possible, Commander. But if you hired any crew here, discharge them first. Someone wants our heads.”
She looked at me with her cold grey eyes. “I don't know how you do it, doctor. I really don't. No, no new crew. We'll cast off as soon as your 'mechanical' friend turns up. No sense hanging around to get shot at. And it's not as though we have to clear it with the harbour master.”
She hooked her pipe back in her mouth and strode purposefully off towards the bridge, barking orders as she went.
Lady Una slipped her arm in mine. “You know,” she said, “if this thing can float, maybe I stand half a chance myself.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: Out on the open sea, something is following the HMS Inquisitor. What is it? And will seven shells be enough to stop it? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!