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Thomas Pynchon 'Against The Day' - Aboard Stupendica/Emperor Maximilian

from Three: Bilocations - part 6.













IN THE ENGINEERING SPACES, things slowly drifted back to normal, whatever that meant down here. The telegraph moderated its demands for speed, everybody was told at last to secure from general quarters, port and starboard shifts resumed. Peacetime again.
     When the insults had migrated on to other targets and Kit had reached a sort of invisibility, “Well, this has all been mighty educational,” he announced, “and I guess I’ll be getting back up to my stateroom now, thanks for everything, and you especially, Chief Oberhauptheitzer, there. ...”
     “No, mister, no no—he does not understand—there are no staterooms, it is no longer the Stupendica up there. That admirable vessel has sailed on to its destiny. Abovedecks now you will find only His Majesty’s dreadnought, Emperor Maximilian. It is true that for a while the two ships did share a common engine room. A ‘deeper level’ where dualities are resolved. A Chinese sort of situation, nicht wahr?
     Kit at first took this all for some sort of Black Gang jollification, and snuck up the ladders as soon as he could to have a look. Marine sentries with Mannlichers stood at the hatchway. “I’m a passenger,” Kit protested. “I’m from America.”
     “I’ve heard of it. I’m from Graz myself. Get back below.”
     He tried other ladders, other hatches. He climbed ventilator shafts and concealed himself in the laundry, but none of it was good for more than five minutes in a grim, gray military world stripped of civilian amenities—no women, flower arrangements, dance orchestras, haute cuisine—though he was grateful for a lungful or two of fresh air. “No, no, bilge-crab, not for the likes of you. Back to the lower depths with you, now.”
     Kit was given a bunk in the crew’s quarters, which were squeezed into the cusp of the bow, and O. I. C. Bodine came around to make sure he was getting along all right. He became the Phantom of the Lower Decks, learning where to hide when anybody appeared from topside, working regular stoker shifts otherwise.
     For a Teutonic of executive rank, the Captain of this vessel appeared unusually indecisive, changing his mind every few minutes. For days S.M.S. Emperor Maximilian haunted the coast, running north, then south again, back and forth, increasingly desperate, as if trying to find the epic seabattle the Captain continued to believe was in progress. ... Although the first port of call had been advertised as Tangier—at the moment, according to scuttlebutt, under the control of local warlord Mulai Ahmed er-Raisuli—the Captain had decided instead to put in far to the south, at Agadir, Queen of the Iron Coast.
     Kit discovered the reason for this when he noticed a stack of used plates and dishes from the first-class dining salon outside one of the empty coal bunkers. Curious, he stuck his head in and to his surprise discovered a group of hidden people who’d been living here all along, and most of whom spoke German. It seemed they were destined for plantation on the Atlantic coast of Morocco as “colonists” whose presence there would then justify German interest in the area. For reasons of diplomacy they were being kept sequestered down here in the engine spaces, and known only to the Captain, among whose orders had been encrypted a couple of clauses concerning their disposition as shadow-colonials on call, homesteading though the area was not promising for husbandry, the coast being as much at the mercy of the wind as its hinterland was at that of the tribesmen of Sus, who did not take kindly to Europeans in their midst. The coast was in fact closed to all foreign trade by edict of the young sultan Abdel Aziz, despite France, Spain, and England having made a deal allowing France the right of “peaceful penetration” elsewhere in Morocco.
     Out there like a dream, out past the gray, unrelenting march of the rollers, the colonists would come to imagine they could see at the horizon, even smell on the wind, the fabled Canaries, which would soon embody their only hope of deliverance. Many would go crazy and set out in small boats or even swim west, never to be heard from again.
     “What happened? We went to sleep in Lübeck and woke up here.”
     “I’m headed for Göttingen,” Kit said, “if there’s any message I can take for you, I’d be happy to.”
     “How good can your chances be of getting there if you’re hiding down here like us?”
     “Temporary setback,” Kit mumbled.

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