Cleghorn turned from the window. The captain was staring, just as Cleghorn had been, at the gradually receding form of the Utopia beyond.
‘No boarders?’ He was talking to himself. ‘Not one blasted shot fired at the cælines? Damned inconsistent bastards, these Corsairs!’
‘Not Corsairs,’ the doctor heard himself say.
The captain turned to him, irritably. ‘Are you still here?’
‘They’re not Corsairs.’ The doctor was a little surprised to notice that he was still speaking. ‘The Utopia is manned by a crew of career criminals, abducted from transportation by Doctor Gunther Von Stahl, and subjected to the Vaduz Process before-’
‘Corsairs or criminals or whatever the devils are, I won’t be intimidated, damn their eyes!’
‘Intimidation? Von Stahl isn’t the type.’
Before the captain could respond, his attention was distracted by the entrance of another æronaut; the officer Cleghorn had seen previously. ‘Captain!’ He saluted. ‘I’ve just exchanged words with the Chief Engineer. Prop Number Four took a thorough grunting, and the vessels are sagging almost thirty per cent.
‘We’re descending into Rouen.’
Isabel reached the door to the engineering deck; when she released the catch, it swung open freely. A cloud of acrid black smoke burst out of the narrow passage beyond, stinging her eyes and making her cough. As her vision cleared, she saw first the reddish glow of a small fire burning ahead; then, as more smoke drifted out through the doorway, the corridor’s interior became visible. Halfway down, she could see a mechanic trying to plug a leaking steam-conduit, his thick-gloved hands fumbling with the airship’s flexible arteries, pausing occasionally to wipe the particulate from his blackened goggles and look nervously at the growing blaze beyond.
”Scuse me, ma’am!’ A boilerman moved past her, carrying a bucket of sand. As he approached the fire, he called back to her, ‘It isn’t safe down here! You should get up to the lounge!’.
Isabel turned around. Descending the stairs behind her was the strange woman she’d seen with Trovato.
The woman stopped, glanced distractedly at the scene behind, then looked back at Isabel. She smiled. ‘Is there a problem?’ she said, in French.
Isabel made a polite gesture. ‘A fire down this way. We can’t proceed.’
‘Oh.’ Dismissive. Isabel couldn’t read her expression behind her dark-tinted glasses. ‘I could swear I saw my companion pass by this way.’
Something was itching at the fringes of Isabel’s mind. She smiled. ‘We should retire to the public lounge. Perhaps your friend will be waiting there?’
The woman nodded, absently, craning to look over Isabel’s shoulder. ‘Perhaps.’ Abruptly, she turned and walked back up the stairs. Isabel stood where she was momentarily, trying to recall some fleeting notion that had eluded her. Then she followed.
Travellers were packed into every corner of the public lounge. The air was thick with laughter and tobacco-smoke. Isabel cast a glance at the patrons: all present were dressed expensively, though without ostentation. Passengers, she suspected, of the first class. The strange woman had seated herself on one of the long silk-draped couches that crossed the room in pairs.
Isabel approached her, bobbed slightly, and sat opposite. ‘Do forgive me, but I’m certain I recognise you from somewhere.’
‘Perhaps.’ The woman laughed. ‘I’m Belle Noire.’
The name was unfamiliar.
‘Isabel.’ She inclined her head. ‘You’re a friend of Signor Trovato, no?’ Belle nodded. ‘A fascinating gentleman. I exchanged a few words with him before we boarded.’
‘You find him fascinating? I don’t.’
A silence emerged. Isabel changed tack.
‘Does it strike you as unusual,’ she said, looking around, ‘that these people seem so relaxed? I’ve never seen such sang-froid so soon after a deadly calamity.’
Belle gazed into the middle distance, pensive. Then she looked directly at Isabel, and said coldly, ‘The self is born in the face of annihilation.’
Isabel’s face betrayed no recognition. She frowned theatrically. ‘Nietzsche?’
‘I don’t believe I’ve heard the name.’
‘He’s only read within a narrow circle. The academic world never took him seriously: blind to his revelations.’
‘Isn’t that always the case? The great thinkers are never appreciated in their own lifetime.’
‘He’s quite dead. I take it you are a woman of leisure, madame?’
‘Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘Your indifference. You appear utterly calm even after an unmediated confrontation with the void. Like these people.’ She gestured vaguely. ‘Most wouldn’t.’
She looked around, left and right, before leaning toward Isabel in a gesture that seemed almost comical.
‘Do you believe our society is reaching a time of crisis?’
Isabel laughed. ‘Why on earth should I believe that? I’m sure if I did, I’d hardly be inclined to take a leisurely vacation in Paris.’
Belle shook her head. ‘There are bombs exploding in the streets of the great capitals. Secret officers rounding up the malefactors and putting them to death, with nobody to see the trial. The ancient regimes are crumbling, but they will destroy all of civilisation in their death-throes. You try to ignore it, and yet you cannot! Even your lovely holiday‘ – she said the words in English, with an odd, hollow intonation – ‘is disrupted by marauders of the air.’
Isabel was silent. She observed the room; the movement of the passengers, the coppery light of the setting sun soaking across the manifold textures of the furnishings. Above the thrum of conversation, she could hear the distant rattle of the engines.
Finally, she looked back at Belle, and nodded.
‘What is to be done?’