The Notorious Doctor Cleghorn

A penny-dreadful
transmitted by Ætherweb

4 January 2010

Part Seven

The doctor turned to look at the observation window at the opposite end of the deck. Just visible at the port-side edge was the great dark bulk of another vessel, disappearing out of view as the ship veered to starboard and yawed toward the sky. He grabbed hold of the brass rail running along the bar just in time to keep himself from falling; Trovato and Mademoiselle Noire did likewise. Several less fortunate passengers had been thrown to the floor; those not trying to right themselves were staring in horror at the sky outside the window.

‘Are they-’ began Cleghorn, before another violent blast shook the gondola again, spilling what remained of his whisky across the length of the bar. Miss Noire said something sharply to Trovato – Cleghorn’s meagre grasp of French was no use in understanding – and left for the lower deck, at a run.

The passengers were shouting, now, in an incomprehensible cacophony of languages. Cleghorn tried to say something to Trovato, but gave up quickly, and began to make his way out of the room. As he neared the door, the floor before him dropped away sickeningly. He caught hold of a nearby railing, and for a moment he found himself grateful the airship was so ungainly; a more manoeuvrable craft would only encourage its pilots to indulge in even more reckless ærobatics.

Hauling himself to the door, he swung into the stairwell as the ship righted itself; unprepared for the sudden motion, he was thrown into an ungraceful collision with the stair-rail. He stood for a moment, gripping the rail with both hands, and then carefully ascended.

Isabel was roused from her brief reverie by the sound of cannon-fire. She turned to the window of her berth, and through it she stared in horror at the military dirigible outside, smaller than the Ærotopian craft but no less intimidating for that, its dark-red gondola flanked with gun-barrels and its bag unadorned by any standard.

She’d planned for a bewildering variety of eventualities, but the one thing she hadn’t taken into account was bloody pirates.

Cleghorn threw open the door to the upper deck. An airman ran past him, carrying a bucket of sand. Several passengers stood against the wall of the corridor, braced for the next impact; some others were sitting. None injured. He was forced to shout and barge his way through.

The bulkhead door at the corridor’s end opened just as he reached for it. Out came an whiskered æronaut – some officer rank; Cleghorn couldn’t read merchant insignia – holding up his hands. He addressed the assembled passengers in a braying, foghorn voice.

‘Ladies and gentlemen, it is my duty to inform you that this vessel has come under attack by Corsairs. We are fortunate enough to have a troop of cælines at our disposal, who will be doing their utmost to ameliorate the situation with as little bloodshed as possible. In the meanwhile, I must ask you all to return to your quarters and, above all, not to panic.’

A tide of audible protest and indignation rose behind Cleghorn. From the other side of the door, he heard someone shout, ‘Is there a doctor on board?’

Cleghorn nodded at the officer. ‘That would be my cue. If you’d be so good as to excuse me?’ He was offered no resistance as he pushed through.

The flight deck was a confusion of contrivances and frenzied æronautic activity. The captain, a great mountain of a man with an enormous, rippling, spade-shaped beard, was bellowing orders from his chair in the centre of the room. One of the pilots was engaged a heated argument with a boilerman. Several stewards were attending to an injured under-navigator, while a brace of mechanics attended a burst pipe that was spewing forth a torrent of steam across the room.

Cleghorn immediately approached the small group. One of the stewards stood; Cleghorn raised his hand – ‘Doctor,’ – and knelt down to examine the injured man. A large, fresh burn ran across the left cheek, just missing the eye. The man was conscious, but remained stoically silent. Cleghorn turned to the steward. ‘Do you have an infirmary?’

She shook her head. ‘We use spare berths. But we can’t reach the physician.’

‘Is anyone else injured up here?’

‘No. The captain thinks – they’re just trying to scare us. Warning shots.’

Captain’s a fool. ‘Get this man to a berth. Cool the burn. With water. Don’t use ice.’ He turned to the injured party. ‘It’ll scar.’ The man nodded in resignation.

As the staff escorted the navigator away, Cleghorn became aware that the captain was shouting something. He looked up at the elevated chair. The æronaut was looming over him, his great beard shaking with the effort of exercising his majestic voice.

‘I said, who the devil are you and what in hell’s own fiery chasm are you doing on my confounded bridge?’

Cleghorn looked up at him. ‘I’m a physician. One of your men was injured.’

‘What?’ The question rang out like a church bell.

‘Steam-burn, I think. From over there.’ Cleghorn turned to indicate the burst pipe, still under repair by the two mechanics. As he did so, his gaze was caught by the view from the front window. The other airship had outpaced them, now, and the sight of it in full drew from the doctor a gasp of horror.

For a full ten seconds his mind raced through possibilities. The vessel was known to him. Its singular appearance had been indelibly printed on his memory since his first encounter with its murderous crew, and the blasphemous scientific abominations wreaked by their diabolical employer.

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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 UK: Scotland License by Alex McGivern