Part 22: Echo
“How are you feeling?”
“Okay, for the moment.”
Lady Una sat facing the open porthole in her cabin, next to a heap of faded books. “You were right,” she said. “It helps.”
As she focused on watching the horizon, I sat on the bunk beside her and took the opportunity to study her aristocratic profile: singular and delicate. “Thank the Commander,” I said. “She told me on my first voyage. You know, if you went out on deck...”
She shook her head. “No. I'm too frightened of going over the side.”
“You probably have less reason to worry about that than anyone else on board. I'd imagine you're quite bottom-heavy.” I caught my tongue. “I mean- That is to say, your centre of gravity seems like it would be lower, what with-”
“I'm many things, doctor,” she interrupted, “but pointlessly vain is not one of them.”
“So come outside.”
“Fine. I know better than to try and change your mind.”
“In some ways,” she said, wistfully, “I think it would be better if I could actually throw up and get it out of the way. The trouble with having an artificial stomach that's been constructed with forethought, and a natural inner ear. I feel nauseous, but it doesn't amount to anything. I miss that brief sensation of relief after you've emptied your stomach.”
I followed her gaze out towards the misty horizon. “I guess you never knew what aspects of your old body you were going to miss until you lost it.”
“You have no idea how right you are.”
“But I doubt you miss the parts about not being bulletproof.”
She smiled. “And how many times have you been shot, doctor?”
“Well it would probably just take the once. I've certainly been shot at enough times to feel like I could use metal skin.”
“You've got mine. Just get behind me, I told you already.”
“The others will think I'm a coward. Hiding behind a lady.”
“They'll all get shot. Then it won't matter.”
I laughed. “You think of everything don't you?”
A knock rattled the cabin door.
“Come in,” Lady Una called out, speaking in the manner of one used to being attended to.
A young sailor entered, wearing a patched old navy uniform. He saluted. “The Major said I might find you in the Lady's cabin, sir.”
“I've told you before,” I said, “don't salute me.”
“And the Lady, sir?” he asked.
“Salute me if it makes you happy,” she said. “I don't mind either way.”
“The Commander wants you on the bridge, doctor,” the sailor announced. “She says it's very important.”
I turned to Lady Una. “Come along too.”
“I'm fine where I am. I don't want to upset the equilibrium by moving.”
The bridge was a cage of rusted metal and cracked glass, crammed full of the most important instruments of the modern steamer. Commander Kelson was waiting for me, her empty pipe hanging from her mouth.
“How much do you trust this ultrasound echo thing we got from the Society?” she asked.
I thought for a moment. “In principle? Absolutely. The equipment itself? Somewhat.”
She pointed to the small circle of green glass that constituted the machine's output. “Look at this thing. Either it's broken, or...”
I peered into the glass. Lights and electrical switches inside were designed to try and represent the echoing response from a pulse of high-pitched noise put out by an electromagnetic speaker beneath the ship. A technological gimmick for helping fishing vessels track shoals of fish, never developed far enough to make it to mass production. One of the many pieces of electrical rubbish I'd managed to acquire over the past five years.
“It's broken,” I said. “You were right, we need to get this ship in dry dock and scrape a good load of barnacles and gods know what from the bottom of the hull. We'll be passing under the Smogton bridge soon. Maybe we'll find better docks at High End.”
“It's broken,” the Commander agreed, touching her pipe. “But, I can't help but wonder, what if isn't?”
I looked at the screen. “Then there's something about twenty metres long following our every move from beneath the sea.”
She winked. “But there can't be, right?”
“Sure,” I said. “That's what they said about creatures from the stars.”
TO BE CONTINUED...
Next week: What's following the HMS Inquisitor? Check back in a week's time for the next instalment of Into the Mind of the Sky Spiders!