The Forever Engine – Snippet 32
October 8, 1888,
Aboard Her Majesty’s Aerial Ship Intrepid,
Aloft over Austria
The next morning I woke in the darkness and felt the rhythmic vibration of Intrepid’s engines through the bunk, felt the warmth and slower rhythm of Gabrielle’s engine beside me. Her back rested against my chest in the narrow bunk, her bare shoulder rising and falling as she snored softly. For an instant, it was the best morning I’d had since coming here, perhaps the best morning in years. Then a wave of panic swept over me. What the hell was I doing?
I pulled away and sat up on the edge of her bunk, sat there shivering, appalled at what I’d done.
When Sarah was just six or seven, my wife and I had taken her to a seafood restaurant. We had to wait before being seated, and Sarah spent the time studying the tank of lobsters which stood beside the hostess station like an aquarium in the doctor’s office. After a while, she began naming the lobsters, and I knew: no lobster tonight, maybe never again.
I had called Gabrielle Gabi last night, over and over in our mutual passion, our entwined dance of life as we hurtled toward a rendezvous which would enable me, if all went well, to snuff out this time and everyone in it to save my own.
Gabi — naming the lobsters.
Behind me she stirred, then stretched a little, and yawned.
“Ah,” she said. “You are awake.”
“Yeah.” I got up and started to dress. For a moment she rested on her stomach, chin propped on folded arms, face obscured by a soft tangle of golden curls. Then, nude and unselfconscious, she sat up on the bed, crossed her legs, and pushed her hair away from her face. I had never imagined a Victorian woman remotely like her.
“Gabi — mon surnom. You would say nickname? Do you have the nickname for your daughter?”
Like an incantation, her name summoned her, and, for a moment, if only in my mind, Sarah was there, about twelve or thirteen years old. I guess we always think of our kids as younger than they really are, just as we think of ourselves that way. Sarah looked at me with her knowing smirk, one eyebrow raised when she looked at Gabrielle, torn between approval of “Daddy’s hottie” and vague distaste at the idea of “old people sex.”
Then she was gone, and my cheeks were wet and my lungs empty of air.
Gabrielle studied me, frowning slightly in concentration.
“You fear for your daughter, she will be impoverished if you do not return?”
I caught my breath and wiped my eyes.
“I fear she no longer exists. But if she does, I had good life insurance. Plus she’ll get my IRA and the condo on Lake Shore Drive.”
Gabrielle had that look that said she had no idea what I’d just said.
“Trust me, financially she’ll be fine.”
“What of her mother and siblings?”
“There’s only her — her mother died when she was eight.”
“Ah, so you are her only family. You fear she will be alone.”
“No, she’s still got two grandparents alive, plus a bunch of uncles, aunts, and cousins, mostly on my late wife’s side of the family. We’ve stayed close to them.”
She looked more confused than before. I was, too. I’d spoken about Sarah as if I would never see her again, as if she would go on but without me. I would save her, somehow. But would I be able to face her afterwards, knowing what I had had to do to accomplish that?
The duty officer had rigged a set of pistol targets to a long outrigger off the port side near the stern, where the Marines normally took rifle drill. I’d already stashed my new revolver, fresh from Intrepid’s arms locker, there along with my towel and a box of cartridges. Gordon showed up with his own revolver about when I finished my run. Gordon being up and moving shortly after dawn, and not visibly hung over, was a good sign.
“I see they gave you one of the new Webleys,” Gordon said, looking it over. “Do you need help with this? I imagine it’s different than the weapons you are used to.”
“Thanks. Let me see if I can figure it out first.”
With a six-inch barrel, the Webley had a nice heft to it, about two and a half pounds. It smelled of gun oil, and, if it had ever been fired, it had been carefully cleaned afterwards. It was the break-open kind, the frame hinged forward and below the cylinder. I found the release catch and opened it, checked the cylinder to make sure it was empty, then clicked it shut. I cocked it and dry fired it, then dry fired it a couple more times from the hammer-down position. The action was stiff, but the trigger pull was even, if a bit long.
I dug a handful of cartridges out of the box of fifty, slipped all but six of them in my trouser pocket, and loaded. They were nice big cartridges, about the size of a .45.
Gordon had his revolver out as well now. It was different looking, slightly smaller and more complicated in design, with what looked like a hinged lever below the barrel in front of the cylinder.
“It’s an Enfield,” he explained. “Slightly larger bore, a four-seven-six as opposed to your four-fifty-five, but with a shorter cartridge. I think it makes it more controllable when firing.”
I didn’t say anything, as part of my new policy to avoid irritating Gordon any more than necessary, but I couldn’t help remembering how the “more controllable” low-powered bullet had bounced right off the hashshashin’s body armor in London.
“You a pretty good pistol shot?” I asked him.
Instead of answering, he raised the Enfield, took careful aim, and fired at the target on the outrigger. His pistol made a healthy bang and left my ears ringing.
“Jesus, do you guys do anything to protect your ears when you’re shooting? It’s a wonder you aren’t all deaf as posts.”
Gordon looked at me as if good hearing was for sissies.
The target was about twenty yards out, so I could see the hole, one ring out from the center. This wasn’t competition shooting, so in the black was good enough as far as I was concerned, especially since the target frame was shaking a bit from the wind and engine vibration. The shooting was fine, but his stance was terrible, sideways with his right shoulder forward, right arm straight out, left arm at his side. It was the classic dueling pose, probably good for standing inside a red-coated square and picking off Fuzzy-Wuzzies, but worthless in the sort of combat we were likely to see.
I dug some cotton out of my kit, chewed on it to get it wet, and packed it in my ears, then took my stance — left shoulder forward, both arms slightly bent, left hand supporting and steadying the pistol hand. I raised the pistol but ignored the sights and just focused my eyes on the target. I fired three shots in as quick a succession as I could manage, given the stiff action, and then took a step to the left. The recoil had been strong but controllable. That’s the beauty of a heavy pistol like the Webley or the Colt .45 automatic: it can handle a powerful round and not jump all over the place. It felt good to shoot.