Cornelia reclined in her chair as she watched the golden sun set through the polluted haze of smog that veiled the horizon. The orange rays trickled through the gondola's windows and warmed her pale cheeks, but Cornelia barely noticed any of it. Her mind was perusing the distant hallways of bygone years. How cruelly strange life was sometimes. Once, Cornelia would have given anything to spend just one more day with Cliff. Now, the thought of a journey with him filled her with dread.
Cornelia got to her feet and wandered from the control room, starting out along the axial corridor. She closed her eyes and tried to take in the immense peace that filled the airship. There was no thrumming of the engines or mingled shouting and cursing from the crew. Just the echoey tapping of her boot heels against the floor.
As she walked, Cornelia trailed the fingers of her left hand along the wall, affectionately tracing the exposed pipes and wires that spilled from the ship's hull. At times like this, when no one else could bring her comfort, the Belle Marie was always there for her. The ship was quiet as a grave right now, and yet she spoke to Cornelia in ways no one else could hear: in the texture of the cables beneath her fingers, in the winking of the lights on the control room dashboard, in the silent anticipation of the gas bags as they waited to carry the ship off into the skies once more.
Eventually, Cornelia made it to the engine room. She often spent time in here when she needed to focus her thoughts. There was something about the process of fixing the complicated machinery that enthralled her. Even though Hunter took good care of the Bell Marie, Cornelia sometimes liked to take apart the many pistons and cogs merely to marvel at their complexity.
Cornelia dropped down to the ground and began to inspect the large engine, but she couldn't seem to immerse herself in it as she usually could. Her thoughts kept returning to that night years ago. She had packed everything; she had been ready to leave, to sail away in the Belle Marie and seek better fortune in other skies. But she hadn't really expected to do it. She had hoped, no, expected, that Cliff would deny it, that he would give her some reason, and she would so happily have believed him, no matter how unlikely it all seemed. Because Cliff had loved her, and more importantly, she had loved him.
But he hadn't denied anything. He had not countered any of her questions, only said that he had needed to do it. He had needed to be with that other woman! And so Cornelia had left, sobbing, wishing he would call her back. But he never had.
The prospect of spending days, weeks, with him on this ship suddenly struck Cornelia as particularly horrible. She wondered if there could be enough hiding places on the Belle Marie to avoid Cliff. Their meeting this evening had been quite painful. Cornelia didn't want to have to go through it again.
A small noise, little more than a tiny click, suddenly reached Cornelia's ears and she paused, head cocked, listening hard. The noise sounded again and Cornelia heard it more clearly this time. It sounded like the noise of the gondola door opening.
Cornelia set down the cylinder she had been greasing and rolled cautiously out from beneath the engine. She got to her feet slowly, wiping her blackened hands on a dirty oil rag at her belt, and tip-toed to the door. From the ship's A-deck, came the soft clink of footsteps echoing off of the metal floors. Cornelia frowned. She was sure she had locked the door behind her before boarding the ship this evening.
Knowing that her aviator's boots were about as stealthy in the metal corridors as dragging a ball and chain from her ankle, Cornelia slipped them off and padded to the nearest crew ladder. The ship was dark, only dimly lit by the fading daylight through the windows, but Cornelia was fairly certain that there was nobody above her. She slipped her slim, six-shot revolver from beneath her coat and gingerly made her way up the ladder, straining her ears all the while.
She climbed up past A-deck and scrambled onto the cold grille of the catwalk that ran above it. The catwalk was narrow and unlit, but Cornelia knew it so well that she glided easily down its length, fingers barely brushing the handrail on her left. After she presumed she was roughly over the ship's entrance, she dropped to her knees and put her ear to the ground. Sure enough, she could hear the muffled footsteps almost directly below her.
She crept silently to a small service hatch and bent down over it. She carefully greased the hatch's hinges with her oil rag, then eased it open.
A tall, dark silhouette was visible below her. The figure had stopped and appeared to be examining something on the wall. Cornelia didn't wait for the intruder to notice her. She dropped through the hatch, landing bent-kneed in the corridor behind the figure, then she raised her pistol and pointed it between the man's shoulder blades. He whipped around swiftly at the sound of her landing.