“We’re over Greenland, if I’m not mistaken,” Nimrod said from the bridge. For a moment he just gazed through his glass at the horizon, where land and sea became one. “Not too much longer now, old man. Perhaps we’ll set down in Canada this time.” He turned to look at Keats over his shoulder. “Perhaps, should we find somewhere civilized enough to have a proper hospital. How do you find our chances?”
Keats sputtered, a sound that Nimrod recognized as the closest approximation of a laugh the man could manage with half his chest done in. It was a wonder he could breathe at the moment, let alone speak. Laughter would have to go. “My chances are not half so good as yours, sir,” Keats said in his difficult almost-whisper, and Nimrod flapped one hand in dismissal.
“Nonsense. We’ve expeditions aplenty yet to come.”
“Yes,” said Keats, “into the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns, I’m afraid.”
Nimrod moved back into the dimly lit control room. Keats was pale, his usual sanguine complexion faded and his blond hair gone somewhat grey. The fuel pump Nimrod had used to replace his heart was far too small, and his blood could not quite reach all the places it was expected. A doctor might have worried about limb infarction, necrosis, septicemia, but Nimrod was not a doctor.
“Insufferable, dramatic fool,” he said.
Keats’ lips took on the ghost of a smile. “Greenland, you say? You’d best correct for the change in wind, then, lest we place ourselves at the mercy of the Soviets. We’ve only two engines, remember.”
“Ah! Wrong again, my friend. Already corrected. With my pilot dozing here instead of at his post, I’ve had to rely somewhat on my own navigational skills.”
“Heaven forbid,” said Keats, sputtering again. Nimrod sat down beside his and placed a hand on his shoulder.
Nimrod’s fingertips scraped against imperfect edges of metal. He had done up a piece of copper plating, hammered in to follow the curve of his friend’s chest. So Keats wouldn’t have to see his own damage, to know what grotesqueness Nimrod had made of him. He would need specialists, if he was to live. Nimrod had done what he could with a hunting knife and his innate mechanical knowledge. Familiarity with the Carson informed his work as well, as he knew what pieces the airship could spare.
After all, the Carson too was damaged. For a moment, when it had happened, Nimrod imagined that he had lost them both, the man and ship he sometimes fancied extensions of himself.
He might still.
Specialists. Those he would find only in New York. The State Department had, at a time, experimented with this sort of thing. Nimrod had heard rumors. Whispers behind closed doors. He was a man who seemed to be instinctively drawn to cracks and keyholes. Perhaps those stories were why, when he leaned over the broken body of Keats, he had done this. He had looked down at his own hands, stained with blood, so bright against the white that was all else he could see, and he had torn his knife from its sheath at his hip. Had begun his work.
Nimrod regarded Keats more tenderly than anyone in the world, it was true. His batman in the Great War, his companion to the Arctic, the patient co-designer of the Carson. He cared for the man well beyond the love he could ever have given a wife.
And yet. How it pained him now.
“I can afford to be away from the controls for a while,” he said. “Shall I read? We’re back at the beginning.” Nimrod forced himself to smile, though he noticed Keats had closed his eyes. “Next time we’ll bring along a bigger library, eh?”
He sighed and reached for the book.
“I want a hero,” Nimrod read, his voice louder now, filling the ship. “An uncommon want, when every year and month sends forth a new one. Till, after cloying the gazettes with cant, the age discovers he is not the true one. Of such as these I should not care to vaunt, I’ll therefore take our ancient friend Don Juan. We all have seen him, in the pantomime, sent to the devil somewhat ere his time.”
He looked up from the page and saw the Keats had gone still. He listened, but there was no breath, no rasping ins and outs. He had come to find that sound, so foreign at first, comfortable.
“Sent to the devil somewhat ere his time,” Nimrod said again.
After a moment of silence, he closed the book, slipped it into his pocket, and continued the poem from memory.
Captain Carson walked the length of the dining room, examining his artifacts but not quite seeing them. They helped him think. Now and then, he glanced between a photograph and Byron, whose expansive back was turned.
The man in the photograph was young, with a face often overlooked by young women who dreamed of Valentino – but he was not unhandsome. In every instance, he stood behind Carson himself. Back straight, snow goggles pushed up above his head. Smiling. Happy.
Byron did not remember the expeditions. For some time, Carson had supposed that part of his injuries, which were quite severe. The treatment, too, was severe.
But then Carson had spoken to the mysterious Nimrod, and slowly he realized. His memories, not Byron’s, were the anomaly. The expeditions in his mind were dimmed versions of events that had happened long ago, to someone else. Nimrod’s stories were so bright, so vivid. Great feats, superhuman accomplishments, boastful claims. And sadness, too – a sadness that Carson remembered only viscerally, as a vagueness around the edges of his thoughts.
Byron was not the blond man. He was only a reflection, an echo of a dead friend. The peculiarities of the connection between Empire State and New York City had fashioned his mortal weakness into the strength of metal. Or perhaps, based on the understanding Carson had of his double’s demise, it was all merely some sick joke on behalf of the universe.
Yes, Byron was an echo. Like the sound left in one’s ears after a phonograph has gone silent.
Sometimes, Carson thought, those few seconds were the most beautiful.
“Byron!” he called, breaking himself from his thoughts. He clapped his hands. “Some tea, my friend?”