As the morning sunlight trickled in through the tiny windows of her cabin, Cornelia combed her long dark hair into a tight bun. She then scrutinized her freshly washed face to ensure that any trace of last night’s tears had been erased. It was the first time she'd cried in a long time. And she allowed herself only a few while within the privacy of her own cabin. Looking in the mirror she reminded herself that she was a stalwart woman, a good leader with a mildly impressive career. Yet she was still a woman and certain men had the power to provoke tears.
This knowledge made Cornelia frustrated and slightly ashamed of herself. She had resolved to put Cornwall behind her and proceed with this expedition professionally. But that note, pathetically and silently scrawled on a napkin had lit a spark of hope inside her. Perhaps he was sincerely sorry for what he’d done to her but it was too little too late. Regardless of that spark of hope no degree of handsomeness or intellectual charm would get Cliff into her good graces again. Her eyes had narrowed with the inaudible resolution her jaw set sternly and her fist unintentionally curled into a fist on the simple desk table serving as her vanity.
The internal conversation was brought to a close by a rapping at the door. Cornelia let out the sharp acknowledgment “what do you want?” assuming that it was a member of her crew. Most likely Johnson, the boy had a never ending stream of excuses to come see her. Something she didn’t really need to authorize, inane updates on simple voyages or her personal favourite, projects and chores being suggested or offered to be done by him. Walking to the door she unclenched her fist to straighten her vest but kept her jaw in an aggressive pose. Already she had become annoyed by the prospect of another scheme to ‘improve’ the Belle Marie.
Understandably she was slightly embarrassed and taken aback when a slightly offended baryton-martin voice with the bearings of being well-bred and educated replied to her previous rude query:
“Well, your presence has been requested to accompany me on my visit to Mr. Cornwall later this morning Ms. Harper. I apologize for the short notice but it is of the utmost interest and importance to this expedition at the moment. I do not wish to impose upon you of course however, I’m sure that you understand that under the circumstances . . .”
Cornelia opened her door quickly and in one smooth yet slightly suspicious movement slid herself from between its opening and closed it behind her, impeding Professor Harold Ikonov’s apologetic elucidation from continuing further. Cornelia locked the door to her cabin, preventing Ikonov or anyone else for that matter from seeing its untidy state and flashed an admittedly charming contrite smile at the tall flustered man.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting professor, shall we be off?”
“Not a problem Ms. Harper and I think we shall.”
Together they walked down the corridor of the Belle Marie which housed its more domestic functions. The captain’s quarters, various storage facilities, and the galley.
“Might I ask the nature of this visit?”, Cornelia interrupted the silence.
“We are going to inspect that, what did he call it?, submersible of sorts that Mr. Cornwall has been bragging about.”
“Ah the Nautilus”, supplied Cornelia.
“yes that’s it.”
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It was breathtaking. “Isn’t she beautiful”, boasted Cornwall with a flourish towards the vessel half exposed out of the water.
“Fascinating”, gasped Ikonov “However do you supply the chamber with enough oxygen?”
“Surely a brilliant scientific mind like your own can provide a solution to such a conundrum, Ike.”, Cornwall prodded good naturedly.
“It would be easier to imagine if I could lay eyes on such a device.”
“Of course, come let me show you how the mechanisms work.”
And with that the old school chums took their leave. Ikonov’s hands moved about wildly to accompany his stream of questions and his own conjectures at their answers. Cornwall left with an apologetic glance. Cornelia however was happy to be relieved of the men’s company. The professor was a pleasant man but his scientific babbling could be grating on the nerves and Cliff was, well Cliff.
Cornelia took the time to inspect the vessel herself. She ran a leather gloved hand along its iron hull. Despite being halfway submersed in the cool waters of the Seine River it felt warm against her palm. She could imagine it pulsing from the massive engines that must lie within. In form the vessel was not that different than her airship. It was smaller and sleeker and definitely younger though.
The largest difference was that there was nothing forgiving about the submersible. It was hard and austere, every feature had a purpose. In contrast the Belle Marie was like an auntie or mother. Her well used hull protected its occupants. Her sails unfurled like pillow-y breasts. She was soft and comforting yet became formidable when situation needed.
Such a massive piece of technology must have taken a fortune to build. Cornelia wondered if Cornwall was capable of building such a vessel. It was conceivable, he had dabbled in engineering. Funding however must have come from an external source. She wished she had a gaggle of charmed aristocrats with loose purse strings to fund her expeditions and repairs to the Belle Marie.
As her hand came to the end of the hull she spotted the men coming above deck. She rested her hand on the prop, now benign but deadly when in motion. The propeller was not unlike the one’s she’d seen on the more exotic ships in the hangar.
“Ms. Harper, would you mind coming below deck with us?” called the Professor.
“of course”, she acquiesced before following the men back into the vessel.
The inside was as cold and metallic as the outside but with numerous levers and controls scattered about. The interior was dark; it took Cornelia’s eyes a moment to adjust before she could see Cornwall and Ikonov properly.
“Ms. Harper I know that this expedition has already proved”, the professor paused and nervously shifted his eyes between Cornwall and Cornelia before continuing ”. . . difficult however I regret to inform you that another complication has arisen.”
Cornelia didn’t let the knowledge take her off guard but she did find it irritating. She crossed her arms and set her jaw in an offensive display ready for whatever new problem was about to be put under her responsibility. Ikonov looked at her apprehensively, afraid to anger the woman he had put in so much danger. “Get it out!”, she goaded impatiently.
Cornwall stepped up to answer for him, “We’re being monitored.”
“you mean like spied on?”
“in a manner of speaking.”
“This is a problem that endangers the expedition and my crew; therefore I need to eradicate it. So please explain yourself before I can no longer compose myself gentlemen.”
“They aren’t spies in the nature that you’re thinking of” helped Ikanov.
“Last night I noticed a radio signal coming from the Belle Marie.” Continued Cornwall.
“But the radio is only operable when she's in the air.”
“Exactly that’s why I was suspicious; I tracked the signal and found this.”, Cornwall held up a small bell shaped device with an impossibly long thin metal stick protruding from it’s curve.
“So that’s why you were on the ship. Well, I’ve never seen that!”, protested Cornelia.
“We’re not accusing you and few people have seen such a thing” calmly replied Ikonov. “The radio beacon is very sophisticated, the Belle Marie’s average movement and altitude would usually make reception and broadcasting extremely difficult. You know how radio's work of course, however the disturbing element is the devices ability to act as a receiver from remote distances.”
“like a telephone?”, asked Cornelia
“vaguely”, agreed Ikonov “but using radio waves instead of wires. Also this device is only able to transmit sound and its pair can only receive. In that regard it is less sophisticated than your average communications radio aboard ships.”
“How do you know so much about this?”, asked Cornelia
“I briefly experimented with forerunners of this invention a time ago. The funding came from a gentleman who decided to exploit the science for it’s value to the militia. I disagreed with the projects new direction and quit.”
“Well how did such an infernal device land aboard my ship!,” outraged Cornelia.
‘There are only really two possibilities” followed Cornwall. “Either there’s a mole on your crew or an outsider put it there.”
Cornelia seethed with disgust knowing what Cliff was going to say next.
“From what Ike has told me the odds in this wager lie most heavily with Lord Alastair.”
Cornelia was so infuriated. That noble tallywagger had gone a step too far. Harassing her and the crew was tolerable but invading their privacy and fiddling with her ship were out of the question. He would never lay finger on the Belle Marie again. She had already made up her mind to turn heel and go make a thorough inspection of her airship but before doing so applied a quick coat of lipstick the colour of her rage and uttered the most unladylike profanity, “That Bastard!”