13. Dex, returning to the Legion, finds he has to act fast to avoid death at sea - Book Three - Fog on the Clyde by A.J. Hall
Joe’s idea of the time needed to restore the Warhawk to combat readiness - based, so far as Dex could tell, on a mixture of blind optimism and his experience of repairs carried out by a fully equipped base not constrained either in the matter of personnel or spares by the need to remain strictly secret - had been out by a factor of five. If the situation hadn’t been so desperate he would have preferred another couple of days on top of that, to fine-tune the repairs, and implement a couple of mods that had occurred to him over the intervening period.
Not that Dex was precisely complaining, you understand. The days, it was true, had been filled with precision welding and the nice contrivance of solutions for problems which, in all justice, should never have been posed; and the politest way to describe the nights had been - restless.
Nevertheless, Dex was not, in any sense of the word, complaining. It was just that as he stood on the Liverpool dockside beside the towering bulk of the Empress of Britain, a tourist class ticket in his pocket together with a set of documentation that proclaimed for the benefit of anyone who might be interested that he was one Michael Newnham, of Toronto in the Province of Ontario (profession: consulting engineer), that four days or so with nothing, really, to do except catch up on his sleep was not actually a wholly bad idea.
He dodged back as a burly manservant and a twittering nurse in veil and uniform passed in the direction of first class, respectively pushing and hovering over a frail figure in a wheel-chair, submerged to the point of invisibility beneath multiple rugs and wraps. “Sea air,” hissed the nurse to no-one in particular as she passed. “Bound to work wonders. Poor dear.”
Dex grinned politely, slid a sliver of gum between his lips, and contemplated the bulk of the liner towering above him. A blimp would have been faster, of course, but Davies’s increasingly disconcerting reports over the last few days had convinced both him and Joe that the tentacles of the enemy conspiracy reached who knew where, and that travelling by air was both absurdly vulnerable and remarkably open to detection. And Dex had been lucky, too, in picking up an unexpectedly cancelled berth for the Empress of Britain that very morning; he had expected to have to wait for a week or more. Joe, doubtless, reading his hasty wire from the dockside would be flabbergasted to learn how quickly he would be on the high seas. And, he thought happily, the sooner away, then the sooner he could return -
And the Empress - the biggest and fastest thing the Canadians had ever put on the water, and the first liner in the world ever to innovate with ship to shore WT - would certainly be of technical interest during his passage.
As she would to any consulting engineer (of Toronto) travelling on business for his European employers. Of course.
Dex shouldered his more precious luggage, indicated to a hovering porter what ought to be done with his cabin trunk, and headed aboard. On the upper decks a fancily dressed mob seeing their friends off across the Atlantic with the benefit of champagne and streamers; it dimly crossed his mind to wonder whether any of the elegant shore visitors ever got left aboard when the whistle blew; the deferential stewards seemed hardly likely to ask them awkward questions about tickets. Not, of course, that it was any business of his.
Once in the security of his cabin (for those of a less sanguine disposition, disconcertingly far below the waterline), Dex kicked off his shoes, hoisted himself into his narrow berth (the upper one, thankfully, was empty also; evidently it had been a pair of travelling companions who had baulked at the last minute for whatever unknown reason, and the Canadian Pacific Line had failed to dispose of the other berth before sailing time), and was asleep long before the outline of the Liver Building had vanished behind the Empress.
The coast of Ireland was dim off the port bow when he roused himself. The flickering lighthouses on the Antrim coast were beginning to wake to life. Remembering the comfortable ship-board convention that no-one was expect to dress for dinner on the first and last nights, he went in search of the dining saloon.
Once fed, he took the opportunity to explore.
A turn or two down some intriguing passages in the deeper bowels of the ship he happened upon a small and scrawny crew-member (his sojourn in Glasgow allowed him to recognise that the undernourished waif appearance nevertheless meant that he was probably looking at someone who was nearing twenty and not - as size alone would have indicated - twelve) balanced precariously on a step-ladder doing something complex with an angle-grinder to a mess of ducting which joined and branched there.
He gave an excitable squeak which sounded remarkably like, “Oo-er!” as Dex hove into view around the bend of the passage.
Dex, instantly grasping that any angle-grinding being done at sea less than six hours out from the Bar light-ship should in no sense of the phrase “ship-shape” be being carried out at all, and that at least the mechanic’s job and probably everyone’s up to and including the Chief Engineering Officer would be in jeopardy if it were to come to the ears of the directors of the Line, assumed the air of dumb ignorance proper to a passenger (at least, a passenger who was not, by profession a consulting engineer, of Toronto), smiled sunnily at the kid, muttered the first thing which came into his head (which sounded rather like, “Precautionary repairs, eh? Good job for getting down to them. Stitch in time and all that, I suppose?” - God, he must have been too long in Charlie’s company!) and started to stroll nonchalantly past. The kid, giving vent to a barely-suppressed gasp of sheer relief, squeezed himself almost to invisibility against the bulkhead to allow his passage -
The judder of the ship’s engines changed note - faltered - changed again. There was a sudden hard movement to starboard - Dex was flung against the bulkhead - he was conscious of the step-ladder collapsing - the kid being flung on top of him - a shower of sparks and the acrid smell of burning as the angle-grinder, still hitched to its power source, hit the deck - and then another smell; metallic, obscene, reaching straight to his back-brain with an atavistic force. Something warmly damp sprayed over him; he glanced down and saw a brightly tell-tale scarlet fountaining out from the kid’s arm where the angle-grinder had caught him as it fell.
“Sir - oh sir - I’m that sorry -! Please don’t -” keened the kid, still, mercifully in the first seconds of numbness before the pain set in.
Dex picked himself up from the decking. He had seen countless workshop accidents - though not many, he prided himself, in shops he’d had the supervising of - and spent months in a war-zone, to boot.
He knew exactly what he was seeing, what he had to do.
Before the note in the kid’s voice could change to the agonised wail Dex knew was coming he was whipping off his tie, fumbling in the breast pocket of his jacket for the Eversharp pencil which - thank God - never left him. His voice had a bark which came from somewhere he hadn’t realised he possessed.
“Lift your arm. No - the right one. Right above your head. Hold still, you little idiot.”
The kid gaped blankly - he seized the arm, and was dragging it into position, rolling up the flannel shirt-sleeve and applying the improvised tourniquet before even - he suspected - the kid’s nerves had had a chance to tell him that they’d just been rudely severed. He twisted the pencil in the knot, applying a brutal force which made the kid’s veins stand out in his forehead. Mercifully, the spouting blood died away under it.
“Right,” he said brusquely, “Get moving. No. Don’t waste your breath talking. Move. Now.”
The kid, looking uncomprehendingly down at the wreckage which had, seconds before been his wrist, gulped; Dex hoped his grasp of anatomy wasn’t adequate enough to allow him to recognise the rudely divorced ends of the tendon in the middle of that bloody mash. Before the kid could falter, Dex pressed ahead, frogmarching him ruthlessly down the corridor, looking desperately for help at every turn. No-one appeared. He was virtually carrying him before their journey ended.
At the first door marked “Private; Crew Only” he came to, he kicked thunderously once, and then again. The cabin door flew open - he half-stumbled over the raised threshold. It was some sort of recreation room apparently - there was a bare deal table with cards on it, and a swinging light, and bottles on a bar, and the blue smoke of numberless cigarettes. They must - he thought with a faint flicker of amusement - make a weird picture, scarlet blood covering them both.
“Surgeon - accident - angle-grinder,” he snapped, adding, as a moment’s afterthought, “artery.”
Someone - thank God – bolted out, presumably to get help. Someone else took his burden off him and spread the kid out on the decking, someone who knew enough - the demand died unheard on his lips - to keep the injured limb uppermost and well above the heart. A third someone - a prince among men if not a haloed saint - thrust a tumbler into his hand, which a tentative sip revealed to contain a fine brandy. There were questions - conjectures - a buzz all around him. He answered them as best he could. He stuttered out his own in return. The sudden stop - change of direction - had, it appeared been caused by a steam drifter suddenly appearing under the bows of the liner out from behind the Bloody Foreland, and not showing his lights until the latest possible moment. Quarrel - waxing heated - about blind-drunk Killibegs skippers and their foibles; some of the people present appeared to think of them as a greater hazard to shipping than ice. Illustrative anecdotes of same, waxing incomprehensible. His head swam. Shock, a remote part of his brain told him dispassionately. He took another swig of the brandy.
Everything suddenly went deathly silent around him. He looked up to see a figure, resplendent in Navy blue, brass buttons and gold braid, looking down at him. He found himself being invited to come with him.
A moment’s clarity of thought when he was passing his cabin door caused him to dig in his heels. Dex pointed out to his sheep-dog that it would make rather more sense if he met the Chief Engineering Officer (who it seemed had expressed an interest in seeing him at once) clad in clean clothes rather than ones with a patina of gore. This argument appeared to appeal forcibly to his escort; not only was he allowed to spend a few moments washing off the blood and changing, but when he emerged from the tiny washing area his clothes were already being gathered up by one of the stewards, with the assurance that they would be returned to him in, if anything, a better state than he had left them.
When he finally arrived in the official cabin of the Chief Engineering Officer Dex was comfortably dressed, calm, and in a mood to take no bullshit from anyone.
The Chief Engineering Officer’s cabin had a reassuringly business-like air about it; a large mahogany desk occupied most of the floor-space, and every available scrap of bulk-head was occupied by framed plans of the Empress - every deck, every cabin, each connecting door, every porthole outlined with precise detail. Dex itched to examine all of them.
But the room’s owner was already getting up from his chair behind the desk - coming round to extend a hand in a firm handshake.
“Mr Newnham? The name’s Simmons. Can I offer you a drink?”
Dex, slightly taken aback by the use of his alias - though heaven knew after the last month or so he shouldn’t be bothered by anything anyone chose to call him - cast a quick glance over towards the desk. As he had half suspected, there was a passenger list sitting on it. So. The Chief Engineering Officer had evidently taken steps to make himself aware that Mr Michael Newnham was a consulting engineer. Of Toronto. Indeed. A small, tight knot of anger started to form deep within him.
Trying to work out what I saw about incompetent maintenance on board, and what I might slip to the Company that could damage your standing, are you, Mister Simmons? Estimating your chances of a cover-up, are you? Drink with you? I’d as soon drink with a black widow spider.
He gestured an angry negative as Simmons moved towards a bottle and two tumblers sitting on a small round tray on the corner of the desk. It was only the fact that he was hardly in any position to kick off a huge, public row that kept him from making a more pungent comment. But the Chief Engineering Officer was continuing.
“You’re sure? Anyway, I thought you might be wondering what’s happening. To fill you in on the picture; I’ve just come from sickbay. Look’s like McAuslan’s not in any immediate danger - thanks to you - but the ship’s doctor’s got doubts about how much use we’ll save of that hand. Fortunately, I discovered we had a Swiss surgeon travelling with us on this trip - man at the top of his field, European-wide eminence - and I took the liberty of asking if he minded taking a look - which he very generously didn’t - they’re working on him now -“
Slightly stunned, Dex sat down on the nearest available chair. So the passenger list hadn’t been out to check up on him, but to allow the Chief Engineering Officer to scour for anyone with any relevant knowledge who might make a tiny fraction of difference to the kid’s chances. And if he was prepared to stick his neck out to ask First-Class passengers those sort of favours - because presumably surgeons of Europe-wide reputation didn’t travel tourist - then he was not planning on any sort of cover-up to the Line. Far from it. Involuntarily, his lips relaxed. He looked across at Simmons, seeing him properly for the first time: round-faced, balding, clearly worried, but with the air of a man who would do his duty whatever it cost him. Salt of the earth.
“That’s good to know,” Dex said. He paused, doing mental penance for his ungenerous conclusion of moments ago. “Mind if I change my mind about that drink? But - uh - make it a small one, please. Your - uh - the crew have already been - uh - quite generous -“
Simmons’ face crinkled in return. “I don’t doubt. McAuslan’s half-brother is my second radio-operator. Popular chap. Without that, doubt we’d have taken - well, anyway. Spilt milk. Anyway, I’ve a log entry to write up. If you don’t mind helping me -? What did things look like to you, when it happened?”
The question was casually put, but Dex caught the slight, anxious undercurrent. No. This was not a man who would initiate a cover-up, or be anything less than generous to an injured man, but Dex could destroy him with a few words, nonetheless. A mere hint to his masters that he’d spotted what looked like routine maintenance being done on the hoof would kill his career stone-dead, and worse, probably. And it was, Dex thought, quite definitely bad practice, and whatever the explanations and excuses the man had - on the evidence of his demeanour generally, and looking at the rest of the ship, however he might with justice argue it was an aberration in an otherwise unblemished career - the purist should say “let justice be done, though the heavens fall”.
Perhaps, even, the Dex of three months ago might have been minded to say it.
Let he who is without sin -
“Very unlucky,” he said promptly. “I mean; it was a flat calm, and the ladder was chocked, braced and perfectly steady. I guess it would have stood up to any normal conditions you thought might be on the cards - I’ve had some experience designing for on-board environments -“
(True enough, though his work on the Albion and the rest of the Fortress-class was sufficiently heavily classified not to be likely to enter the public domain for a hundred years or more, when doubtless they’d all be living in bubble cities on Mars, and no-one would worry any more about oceans).
“The kid - I mean, McAuslan’s - technique with the tools looked sound enough - I’ve trained enough apprentices, and I’d have taken the liberty of saying something if he’d looked like there were any dangers. He’d got the duct-work to brace himself against - he was working on one of the pipes, I think - didn’t really notice which one - I take it someone had spotted a weak spot after we’d undocked -?”
He paused. Simmons didn’t say yes, but he didn’t say no, either. Dex smiled inwardly, and continued,
“Anyway, that’s all I can really remember. Suddenly we had this violent lurch and everything went everywhere. For a few seconds I thought we’d hit something. Hope it helps?”
It did, evidently. Simmons smiled at him, they exchanged further pleasantries, mainly concerning the ship’s design, and Dex left.
He was back in his cabin and had been for some hours, fitfully dozing (his body, it seemed, had become annoyingly accustomed in a few short days both to broken sleep patterns and to not sleeping unaccompanied) when he was conscious of a noise at the door. In the morning he saw an envelope had been pushed underneath. He read it, raised his eyebrows, and read it again, an amused grin forming on his lips.
It would seem that Michael Newnham (consulting engineer, of Toronto) had been somewhat adopted by the crew of the Empress of Britain. And that they wondered if he might care to join them for drinks and cards at “the Pig and Whistle” (their slang, he gathered, for the mess-room he had broken into carrying their stricken crew-member) any time that might suit him after the second sitting (the less fashionable of the two) for dinner that evening. And throughout the rest of the passage.
Dex, who had not taken long to gather that his fellow passengers in Tourist Class were not of the most congenial, accepted with alacrity.