Venus, Mars, and Hell

The adventures of two young women in worlds very different from our own. Worlds in which the laws of nature have changed—but human behavior hasn’t. Worlds in which travel to the planets is much less dangerous than the people aboard the ships that make those voyages.

 

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Storming Hell

It was difficult enough for the young women from the Pilot’s Academy to fit into the male world of The Royal Navy but, as a new graduate, Sarah Brown expected to be put on the Luna-London shuttle. Instead, she had to guide one of Queen Mary’s warships across the vast distances between the stars for Captain Fitzwilliam—into the very jaws of Hell. Starships, spirit guides, black magic and the problem of the correct sequence of cutlery usage in the Officer’s Mess.

Storming Venus

When Captain Fitzwilliam rescued Sarah from the Exorcists, she discovered he had an ulterior motive, apart from the usual. The Prussian Secret Police had a secret laboratory on Venus experimenting with a spirit-warped disease and Naval Intelligence needed someone to pilot a secret high-tech flying machine straight into the clouds of Venus. And guess who Fitzwilliam had chosen for the task? An aggressive spirit of a Roman soldier, a love-sick flying reptile, and a fence charged with black magic are merely the start of Sarah’s problems.

In the Matter of Savinkov

Fourteen-year-old Charlotte Luff is excited by her trip to Mars in the company of her admirable father and annoying little brother. But excitement turns into concern and then terror as she discovers herself drawn into the savage secret wars between the Tsar’s secret police, the Okhrana, Russian revolutionary assassins, and Martians with motives of their own.

“Look, Charlotte! Look!” said Adrian Luff. “It’s the aethership!”

Charlotte went to his side and peered up at the area of the sky he was pointing to through the window. She had to stoop a little to see under the swell of the gasbag. Her eleven-year-old brother was short for his age, and she was tall for a fourteen-year-old girl.

She had to restrain herself from exhibiting the same public enthusiasm as her brother. Charlotte was quite excited herself, of course, this being her first extra-planetary voyage. But she was a young lady now, no longer a child. Adrian could behave indecorously, but she needed to maintain a proper demeanor.

After a moment she spotted what he was indicating. “I don’t think …”

By then their father Edward was at their side. Being a large man, he had to stoop quite a bit more than Charlotte in order to bring the object into his view.

“That’s not the aethership, Adrian,” he said. “That’s the transfer station.”

Adrian frowned. “Are you sure?”

Impatiently, Charlotte was about to answer of course he’s sure! But her father placed a hand on her shoulder and said genially, “Well, I could be wrong, of course. Let’s ask someone who’d be certain.” He looked about, spotted one of the stewards on the observation deck, and waved him over.

That was typical of him. He was very careful not to be overbearing toward his children, especially since their mother had died. But while Charlotte generally appreciated his attitude, there were times …

Especially involving her brother!

Of course that wasn’t the aethership. After her father had told his children that his researches would be taking them all to Mars, she’d read up on the famous vessel that would transport them to the red planet. The craft they were approaching was much too small, for one thing. Now that the airship they were riding in had come closer, and she’d had more time to examine the object, she had a better sense of scale. That thing was not much bigger than their grandparents’ house in East Finchley. Taller, to be sure, but no bigger in terms of volume.

Granted, that house was large; much larger than the average home in England. Their mother Emily’s parents had been quite wealthy.

Charlotte made a face. She didn’t like her grandparents. They were polite to her and Adrian, when they visited, but were never very welcoming and certainly not warm-hearted.

From things her parents had let slip in her presence, from time to time, Charlotte knew that the Danbrooks—the entire family, not just her grandparents—had disapproved of Emily’s marriage to Edward Luff. True, he came from a respectable middle-class family, but he was a scholar—which is to say, from their viewpoint, barely this side of penury.

Had he been an economist, or a respectable historian of Britain—at least France or Germany—they could have let the matter slide, perhaps. But … but …

An historian of South Asia? A man who mucked about in the legends and myths—you could hardly call them histories—of Hindoos and Mohammedans?

Had Charlotte’s mother still been alive, the family’s scandal would have become even worse. After Cecil Rhodes publicly revealed his expeditions to Mars and the existence of intelligent creatures on the planet, in April of 1900, Edward Luff had shifted his field of study and become one of the world’s very first “areologists,” as such people styled themselves. That is to say, from the standpoint of the wealthy and oh-so-respectable Danbrooks, an outright charlatan—and never mind that his change of scholarly focus enabled him to obtain much larger grants to pursue his new field of studies, such as the one from the Meredith Foundation that had made this voyage possible. The Danbrooks viewed such financial acquisition as no better than swindling or embezzlement.

The steward arrived. “What may I do for you, Mr. Luff?”

Stooping again, Charlotte’s father pointed …

“Oh, it’s now out of sight.” The airship had come close enough for the huge gasbag to have completely obscured the view. Her father straightened back up. “I was wondering—my son and I were wondering—if the ship we were nearing—are nearing, I should say—is our aethership or the transfer station?”

“That would be the transfer station, sir. You’ll have a four- or five-hour wait there before the Agincourt arrives.”

“Why so long?” asked Adrian. He wasn’t being cross, simply curious.

For her part, Charlotte was wondering why the BEPC, the British Extra-Planetary Company, named their aetherships in such impolitic ways. Among the other dozen or so were included the Poitiers and the Crécy. Did Cecil Rhodes have some special animus against the French? To be fair, on the other side of the ledger was the Hastings. Then again, from what she knew of the famous man’s racial views, Rhodes probably didn’t consider the Normans to be French.

She’d asked her father once. He’d shrugged and said: “I don’t know. But it’s not as if anyone really cares what the French think. Politically speaking, at least, their nation is the joke of Europe.”

Which was also impolitic, of course—but at least it was said in the privacy of a home, not blazoned across the flanks of the world’s most famous and glamorous vessels.

Did one refer to the sides of vessels as “flanks”? She’d have to find out.

“… the delay,” the steward was saying. Charlotte had missed the first part of his response in her musings. “You were supposed to be the last airship, but there will be another coming, it seems. It’s expensive for an aethership to come this close to the surface, so the Agincourt’s captain decided to wait until the final passengers were aboard the transfer station.”

✽✽✽

Less than half an hour later, the airship docked at an entryway located on the very top of the hovering transfer station. It struck Charlotte as an odd arrangement—she’d been thinking more in terms of a traditional gangway by which one might board a steamship—but with the hindsight of this new experience she understood the logic. The huge gasbag that provided their airship with its buoyancy would have made it impossible to come alongside the transfer station. This way, aligning the bottom of the airship with the top of the spindle-shaped transfer station, they could lower themselves onto the station through a hatchway in the deck of the airship. Much the way Charlotte imagined one might board a submarine.

Once aboard the transfer station, they were greeted by a steward who murmured polite and vacuous phrases, ending with: “Do make yourselves comfortable.” He gestured in the direction of chairs bolted to the floor some distance away, and then moved off to attend to other duties.

There were quite a few of the chairs; fifty or sixty, arranged in three arcing rows that spread across half the space of the transfer station’s central chamber. The chamber itself was perhaps twenty yards in diameter. The chairs were upholstered and looked very sturdy and well-made, with headrests, but were simple in design. Most of them were taken up already by other passengers waiting for the aethership to arrive.

Charlotte’s attention was drawn to one end of the seating arrangement, occupied by a large group of rather exotic-looking people. They seemed to be an extended family, judging by their obvious familiarity with each other.

As they drew near the chairs, Charlotte tried to determine the language the group was speaking. It was certainly not Slavic, although the people looked vaguely Bulgarian to her. But then, for whatever peculiar reason, all dark-skinned Caucasians looked vaguely Bulgarian to her. She had no idea why, since she’d never actually met a Bulgarian. The closest she’d come were a couple of her father’s academic associates. One of them was a visiting professor from Poland; the other, a Russian of uncertain profession who worked at nothing Charlotte could discern. She suspected he was a refugee from the Tsar’s notorious secret police, being given shelter at the university. But when she’d inquired of her father, he’d been unusually close-mouthed and claimed he knew nothing himself.

That was nonsense, of course. Charlotte’s father knew something about everything.

Leaving aside the group’s national origins, Charlotte also wondered as to the reason for their presence here. They ranged in age from a trio of elderly women to several small children. There was even a babe in their midst. And they looked … well, not poverty-stricken. But certainly not well-to-do, either. For one thing, they were carrying an alarming amount of baggage, presumably because they hadn’t wanted to pay the—quite modest—surcharge of having their belongings handled by the BEPC’s staff. That was what Charlotte’s father had done, even though he’d had to pay for it out of pocket. The voyage itself was being financed by the Meredith Foundation, but they didn’t cover what they presumably considered frills.

Edward Luff had inherited very little from his wife. Her family had seen to it that when she married him against their wishes she was provided with nothing more than a modest annuity—which they discontinued immediately after her death. Yet, even on the none-too-fulsome salary of a university professor, he hadn’t hesitated to pay the luggage surcharge.

That meant—had to mean—Charlotte prided herself on her skills at deduction—that this family (or group of whatever kind; she cautioned herself not to jump to conclusions) was of limited means. So how were they managing a voyage to Mars aboard the prestigious flagship of the BEPC’s fleet of aetherships? And why?

Had they been about to cross the seas in a steamship—say, to America—Charlotte would have thought the hypothetical family of Bulgarians would be traveling in steerage. But she was fairly certain there was no such thing as “steerage” on board an aethership.

Variations in the quality of the cabins, certainly. Even great variations—the sumptuousness of the Founder’s Cabin was well-known. That cabin was always reserved for Rhodes himself on the now-rare occasions he returned to Earth from his retreat on Mars. But even the smallest and most austere cabins on the Agincourt, such as the ones they’d be taking, were quite expensive.

Travel between the planets was still very new, and there just weren’t that many aetherships in existence yet. Great Britain had less than twenty, all told, most of them owned by the BEPC and the rest by the Royal Navy. The Germans, less than ten. The Russians, no more than a handful, and the same for the French. She thought the Americans had three or four and the Italians perhaps as many. And that was about it, so far as she knew.

There were certainly not enough aetherships to allow for the luxury—using the term in a perhaps ironic manner—of having poor people crossing to the other planets in steerage.

Would that be called “steerage” on an aethership? She’d have to find out.

Then, alas, her father demolished her pleasant exercise in deduction. Spotting someone in the little mob, he smiled and strode forward, his hand outstretched.

“Vijay!” he exclaimed. “I thought you’d be aboard the Agincourt already.”

A short, slender man about her father’s age rose from one of the chairs and the two men shook hands. He looked rather harassed. “I had expected to be, Edward. Yesterday, in fact. But …”

He made a vague gesture toward the rest of the group. “I’m afraid that herding a Brahmin family is akin to herding cats. Argumentative cats, at that.”

Charlotte’s father studied the group, now smiling widely. “You brought them all?” He nodded toward one of the women in the group. Her black hair was streaked with gray at the temples. Charlotte made a tentative hypothesis that she was the Vijay fellow’s wife. She seemed older than he was, but certainly not old enough to be the man’s mother. His sister, perhaps … except they didn’t resemble each other in the least, other than both being Indian. And the fact that she was older than her husband wouldn’t be surprising. She knew from comments made by her father that Indian customs on these matters were often quite different from those of Europeans.

“Sumati,” her father said. “You’re looking well.”

The Sumati woman looked even more harassed than her husband. (Tentatively classified husband, Charlotte reminded herself; one mustn’t jump to conclusions.) “I most certainly do not, Edward. But I thank you for the pleasantry.”

Charlotte’s father turned his attention back to Vijay. “How …”

“The Nizam insisted. He’s a young fellow, you know, very full of modern ideas—and insistent that Hindus take their rightful place in the human race’s solar expansion. I think he has daydreams that by shipping to Mars an entire clan—well, smart part of one, at any rate—he will somehow have advanced that project.”

He shrugged. “He may even prove right, in the end. All I know, at the moment, is that trying to conduct a scholarly quest”—here he winced slightly, as a babe squalled—“in the midst of chaos is not what Sumati and I had in mind. It would be nice if the Nizam’s purse were as expansive as his notions, so we could have afforded a few nannies and more than one tutor. As it stands … grandmothers and great-aunts make excellent caretakers of children, but they invariably have demands of their own.”

Edward Luff chuckled. “You have my heartfelt sympathies. And now, some introductions are in order.”

He turned back to face his son and daughter. “Charlotte, Adrian, allow me to introduce you to Vijay Shankar and his wife Sumati. They are two of the world’s pre-eminent scholars of Mars. Vijay is an historian like myself; Sumati, a linguist. Vijay and Sumati, this is my daughter Charlotte and my son Adrian.”

He smiled slyly. “All that I brought with me of my own small clan, happily. And”—he nodded toward a heavy-set woman approaching them—“I even managed to persuade the Foundation to let me bring our nanny. Her name is Mrs. Smith. Helen Smith.”

“Oh, lucky fellow,” muttered Shankar.

Mrs. Smith arrived. She also looked harassed. But then, she usually did.

“When will we be boarding?” she asked. She hadn’t heard the earlier exchange with the steward because she’d been busy fussing with another steward who’d been overseeing the entryway. About … something. Charlotte made it a point not to investigate the source and nature of Mrs. Smith’s fusses. First, there were too many. Second, they were invariably boring.

“Soon,” her father replied.

Four or five hours was not Charlotte’s conception of the term soon. But Mrs. Smith seemed satisfied. She moved over to one of the chairs and lowered herself into the seat.

Time moved differently for Mrs. Smith than it did for Charlotte. As long as the woman had no tasks or chores to perform, she seemed quite content to sit and do nothing at all, for hours on end. It would drive Charlotte mad.

She was not an unpleasant woman, Mrs. Smith. Quite conscientious in her duties; and if she was not what one would call enjoyable company, she was not nasty or rude either. Just … boring.

The expression on the face of the airship’s officer was decidedly unfriendly, as Alexander Evalenko and his companion Ilya Drezhner came aboard. But he said nothing, and Alexander thought silence on his own part was the best course. It was hardly surprising that employees of Great Britain’s premier transportation company would be irritated at having the departure of their flagship delayed in order to await the arrival of two unexpected passengers.

Alexander wasn’t happy about the situation himself. If word got out, as it almost certainly would, the conclusion anyone would come to was that political pressure had been brought to bear. There was no doubt at all that their quarry would draw that conclusion. And, having drawn it, be made more alert to the possibility that he was being pursued.

Alexander moved toward the other side of the airship, seeking to get away from the unfriendly scrutiny.

“He seems a bit testy,” Drezhner said softly.

Alexander’s mouth quirked. “Puzzled, too, I suspect. He’s probably trying to figure out how the Russian government could bring enough pressure to bear to make such a schedule change. Given that we are not—ah—held in any great regard in Britain these days.”

Relations between the United Kingdom and Russia were always shaky, despite the two nations being officially allied. Right now they were on particularly edgy terms, given the tensions over the Peshawar Incident. Even the Irish nationalists, normally so pragmatic in accepting aid from any party in their quarrel with the English, were hostile to Russia. As such malcontents almost invariably were, the Irish were rabid republicans—and the Tsar of All the Russias was universally considered the world’s premier autocrat.

As it happened, although political interference had been necessary to get the last airship shuttling passengers and supplies to the Agincourt to delay its departure, it had not been pressure from the British government. So far as Alexander knew, the British authorities were quite unaware that the BEPC’s premier interplanetary aethership’s schedule had been altered.

“Luckily for us,” Alexander said, in the same soft tones, “Cecil Rhodes thinks well of the Okhrana. Rachkovsky himself sent the radio message to Rhodes—a polite request, no more—and, voila, c’est fait.

His French was fluent and unaccented, as you might expect of one of Russia’s top secret agents in Paris.

He and Drezhner came to a stop against the windows on the far side of the airship cabin. The craft had lifted as soon as they came aboard and they were now at least a thousand meters high. Through the panes they could see the soft countryside of southeastern England below them.

“I hadn’t known that,” said Drezhner. “About Rhodes. I thought he despised Slavs. What did he call us? One of those most detestable …” He waved his hand in a gesture that indicated a minor loss of memory.

Alexander smiled wryly. The pronounced racial views of Cecil Rhodes were a byword in Europe. To be born English is to win first prize in the lottery of life was his best-known axiom on the subject, but he had many others.

“The phrase he used was ‘the most despicable specimens of human beings.’ He wasn’t singling out Slavs, however. And the man’s theories have their quirks as well as their … ah, fervor. He’s quite partial to Germans; considers them almost as good as Englishmen. And while he generally sneers at Slavs, he makes an exception for the Russian aristocracy.”

“Ah.” Drezhner smiled. “That old business about Kievan Rus being ruled by Nordic conquerors and adventurers.”

“Exactly so. And since the Okhrana officially recruits only from the Russian army, and the army does not allow Jews in the officer corps unless they convert to Christianity, Rhodes has concluded that the Tsar’s secret police are stout fellows. It doesn’t hurt at all, of course, that we generally co-operate with his own intelligence service.”

Alexander spent a moment contemplating the view before continuing. “The odd thing—the man has his foibles, there’s no doubt about it—is that Rhodes is not particularly hostile to Jews. Or, at least, no more so than any English gentleman. It’s that he presumes—so I was told by Rachkovsky, who knows him rather well—that the Russian army’s anti-Semitism indicates a generally stringent attitude toward the acceptance of lesser breeds. By his logic, if you won’t find Jews among the Russian secret police, you won’t find lowly purebred Slavs and Mongols, either.”

“Ah.” After a moment, Drezhner said: “But we have a number of Jews in our ranks. Including—”

“No names, please.”

There was silence for a bit, as the airship continued to rise, heading toward the transfer station. When they were perhaps three miles high, Drezhner commented: “Can’t say I much care for the yids myself.”

Alexander shrugged. “Such is the world we live in.”

✽✽✽

The steward who welcomed them aboard the transfer station was more polite, or at least more diplomatic. As they came into the main waiting room, they were greeted with the sight of three rows of chairs, all of them now occupied.

“Marvelous,” muttered Drezhner. “A tribe of gypsies. How on Earth did they get aboard?”

In point of fact, the people in question were obviously south Asians, not gypsies. Hindus, at a guess, although they might be Muslims. But by now, more than a week since they’d made their acquaintance, Alexander understood that his new junior partner was something of an ignoramus as well as a bigot.

The second fault was minor. The first was not. Especially since, in Alexander’s estimation, Drezhner’s ignorance was willful. Lack of knowledge could be repaired. Willful ignorance was not far removed from outright stupidity.

But such was the nature of the world he lived in.

✽✽✽

Vera knew who they were—had to be—the moment the two men came aboard. She hadn’t been expecting them, precisely, but from the beginning there had been a chance the Okhrana would learn of the project. Not very much, probably, but enough to send a team in pursuit of Gavril Savinkov.

She wasn’t especially worried that the Okhrana agents would be able to spot Savinkov. But she’d have to take steps to evade detection herself. Fortunately, the arrival of the new party presented her with a better opportunity than trying to fit herself into the large group from Hyderabad. That had been her best option prior to their arrival, but it hadn’t been a very good one. Her features could pass as those of someone from south Asia, but her skin tone was far too light.

Being careful not to move too quickly and draw attention to herself, she slid into a seat behind a tall young girl sitting next to a man she assumed to be her father. The girl was pretty, in a modest sort of way. Northern European, clearly: pale skin; dark blonde hair; blue eyes. Not one to draw the attention of most boys immediately, but a girl who’d have no trouble fascinating any boy who did become attracted to her.

Vera leaned over the shoulder of the girl and asked: “How much longer will the wait be, do you know?”

The girl turned to look at her, a bit surprised. She hadn’t heard Vera take her seat. “I’m not really sure, Madame. But I don’t have the impression it will be much longer.”

“Let’s hope not.” Vera smiled ruefully. “These chairs are sturdy but not very comfortable for long stretches.” The rueful smile expanded into something more cheerful. “Fortunately, I am—ah, how to put it in English?—‘well-padded,’ perhaps? In my native German, I would say zaftig.

Vera extended her hand. “I am Vera Duchesne.”

The girl extended her own and they shook hands. “Pleased to make your acquaintance. I am Charlotte Luff. I thought Vera was a Russian name, not German.”

Vera took a brief moment to wish a silent curse upon all precocious girls. Only a brief moment, though. Having been one herself, the curse was half-hearted anyway.

The best way to deal with such girls was to intrigue them. Trying to fend off their curiosity was pointless.

“You’re quite right—although the name is widespread across the Slavic lands, not just Russia. My given name, however, was Verena.” Here a bright, gleaming smile, hinting that the girl was being drawn into conspiracy. “Which, despite its Latin origin—from vereri, it’s thought—is now properly Teutonic. But my late husband was half-Russian on his mother’s side and since he thought the name was a bit grandiose—”

The girl clapped her hands gleefully. “Oh, yes! If it’s from the Latin, it would mean ‘to fear’ or ‘to respect.’ Certainly nothing a husband would favor.”

Vera took a brief moment to wish a silent blessing upon all precocious girls. “Exactly what he said himself. So he insisted on substituting Vera. Being honest, I prefer the name myself. ‘Verena’ is so … so …”

“Stand-offish,” the girl supplied.

“Precisely.” Now joined in mutual conspiracy, the plump middle-aged woman and the slender teenage girl exchanged gazes of mutual admiration.

Mission accomplished. Immediate mission, at least.

The girl shifted on her own seat. “They’re really not very comfortable, are they? I think they’re designed this way in case of emergencies. Look—they even have some sort of safety harnesses.”

✽✽✽

The spirited discussion Charlotte was having with Madame Duchesne drew her father’s attention. He’d left off his discussion with Mr. and Mrs. Shankar and taken a seat between Charlotte and Adrian. He looked over Charlotte’s shoulder and smiled.

“Indeed, they are,” he said. “Aetherships have difficulty with strong magnetic fields at times. The engines which keep this transfer station in the air are essentially the same as those in aetherships. If the Earth’s magnetic field gets unruly, which can happen from time to time, the transfer station could undergo rather severe turbulence. Hence the design of these chairs. They keep the passengers from being flung about and injured.”

Adrian’s attention had also been drawn and, as usual, he became obstreperous. “But that doesn’t make sense, Father. Shouldn’t they have them all around, then, instead of only on one side?”

“I imagine the weight in those compartments across from us fairly well counter-balances our own, Adrian,” their father replied. “In any event, as heavy as this transfer station is, I doubt if the weight of the passengers is all that great a concern.”

“How fascinating,” said Madame Duchesne. She returned Edward Luff’s smile with a very friendly one of her own. For a moment, Charlotte wondered if the woman might be trying to flirt with her father.

No, that would be ridiculous, she decided. Madame Duchesne was apparently a widow and she was attractive enough, in a fleshy sort of way. She had intelligent eyes, so dark a brown they were almost black. Quite striking, really.

But—

She was much too old; at least five years older than her father.

It was too bad, really. After Charlotte’s father celebrated his fortieth birthday, just a few months earlier, she had set herself the goal (among many) of seeing to it that he remarry. Madame Duchesne was an interesting woman—quite perceptive, obviously—and would have otherwise made a suitable match. Preliminarily speaking, that is. Inquiries would have had to be made, naturally. A woman from the continent—formerly married to a Frenchman—one never knew what one might encounter under such circumstances.

It would have made for an interesting investigation, actually. But there was no point to it, given the age difference between her father and Madame Duchesne. Five years. Practically an eternity, even for someone at the mature age of fourteen. Had the genders been reversed … possibly …

But, no. Out of the question. They were not Hindus, after all.

The wait aboard the transfer station seemed to take forever to Charlotte. Very soon, Madame Duchesne was drawn into a conversation with her father and the Shankar couple concerning the intricacies of Martian history. It turned out the widow was a scholar of sorts herself. She was an amateur, not a professional like Edward Luff and Vijay Shankar. But amateurs played a prominent role in areological studies, at least if they were wealthy enough to devote themselves to the pursuit. Apparently Monsieur Duchesne had left his wife a sizeable inheritance.

There really wasn’t anything to do aboard the vessel, whose furnishings were as austere as those of a small-town train station. There wasn’t even that much to see out of the viewports. The craft was kept hovering far above the ground—eight and a half miles, Charlotte was told by one of the stewards—and within a short time after their arrival the cloud cover had filled in completely below them.

But, finally, a dong-dong-dong announced the arrival of the Agincourt. Like most of the passengers, Charlotte moved back to the observation windows to observe the aethership. But she made it a point not to rush eagerly and gawk avidly as did her brother.

It was hard not to gawk, though, when she caught sight of the craft. The aethership was huge, much bigger than the transfer station or even the airship. And whereas most of the airship’s volume—you could hardly call it “bulk”—was composed of the gasbag, the Agincourt’s hull was made of steel.

Charlotte had studied the ship before they left Earth. Being the BEPC’s flagship, there was a great deal of literature on the Agincourt. So she knew the vessel was really no larger than an ocean liner—and smaller than the very largest of those. She weighed a little under 15,000 tonnes, about the size of the German ocean liner SS Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse but only three-fourths the size of its sister ship the SS Kaiser Wilhelm II. And the Agincourt would be almost dwarfed once the Cunard Lines launched their Olympic-class super-liners, a trio of ships which would include the Titanic and the Britannic. Those would each weigh around 46,000 tonnes.

That was measuring solely in terms of weight. The Agincourt’s design was radically different from that of a sea-going ship. It was much longer than any ocean liner, measuring just over three thousand feet from the tip of one aether-drive chamber to the other. One couldn’t refer to them as “fore” and “aft” chambers because they were quite interchangeable. An aethership, unlike an ocean liner, could readily move in either direction.

Most of that length, however, consisted of the slender pylons that connected the aether-drive chambers to the main body of the Agincourt. The powerful electromagnetic forces involved in propelling a spacecraft through the aether needed to be kept at a considerable distance from the living quarters.

The main body of the Agincourt also bore no resemblance to any ocean-going craft. It was shaped like a stubby cylinder, two hundred feet from top to bottom (front to back? hard to say, since the ship was completely ambidextrous, propulsively-speaking) and approximately three hundred feet in diameter. One might, somewhat fancily, depict the Agincourt as being a can of tinned meat with two long rods sticking out from the center of the top and bottom of the can—understanding that “top” and “bottom” were arbitrary terms in this application—which ended in two knobs.

But such a depiction would be a gross simplification. For one thing, the outer rim of the cylinder—the “tin can” of her fancy—contained the hydroponic gardens that provided the ship with breathable air and some of its food. Its huge water tanks also provided the living quarters located in the interior with shielding against radiation. Most of the dangerous radiation encountered in space travel was shielded against by the aether-drives themselves, but having a water bulwark could be critical in case of unexpected solar flares or bursts of cosmic radiation.

At the moment, the great windows that would be exposed in the voyage to provide the gardens with sunlight were covered by steel shutters. The insides of those shutters also served as mirrors that would concentrate the light as needed, when the ship moved far enough away from the sun, or would serve as photoelectric power sources whenever the sunlight alone was sufficient for the vegetation. Charlotte had seen photographs of what an aethership looked like once the shutters were fully exposed. The “tin can” of her analogy would then look far more like some sort of bizarre coral formation than any sort of neatly defined cylinder.

For another thing, the term “knobs” was also a gross oversimplification, referring to the shape of the aether-drive chambers. True, the chambers were roughly spherical in design. But they had a multitude of protuberances and whatnots which served the engines in whatever peculiar manner was needed to make them work.

✽✽✽

The Agincourt docked with the transfer station by extending a long tube from a hatch in its flank to the same entryway at the very top of the station that they’d used to gain access to it. Two long tubes, rather—there was a much smaller one extended to a narrower entry not far away. Charlotte’s guess that this smaller tube would be used to transfer supplies and luggage was confirmed by her brother. As was to be expected of boys his age, Adrian was a font of excessively detailed information about all things mechanical and electrical.

The bigger tube, of course, was the one used to transfer passengers and crew. It was rather exciting, actually. The tube was flexible—like a stiff garden hose, not a flimsy stocking—which made the process something of an adventure. It was as much like climbing a rope ladder as a set of stairs.

Charlotte’s father handled it with aplomb. He assisted Madame Duchesne as well, although from what Charlotte could see the widow didn’t seem to need any help at all. That was male gallantry at work, even if it was quite wasted under these circumstances in romantic terms.

But perhaps she was being unfair to her father and his gender. Edward Luff extended the same assistance to several of the elderly Shankar ladies, after all.

Those ladies were not shy about expressing their displeasure with the whole business. Silly of them. What did they expect? A barge to take them across?

Adrian didn’t help things at all when he piped up to explain to the Shankar women that their fretting and fussing over the unsteady footing was completely misdirected.

“The worst that a fall or slip caused by a sudden sharp flex in the tube would do you would be a broken leg.” The wretched boy rapped the wall of the tube with a knuckle. “This is what should be making you nervous. If such a flex were to rupture the wall …”

He waved his hands and widened his eyes in the silly melodramatic manner that was so typical of eleven-year-old males. “Whoosh! We’re at almost twice the elevation as the very tip of Mt. Everest. The air outside is much too thin to breathe. Not to mention the temperature! Be a race to see whether we froze to death or died gasping for breath.”

“Enough, Adrian,” chided their father. He bestowed a reassuring smile upon the now-more-worried-than-ever Brahmins. “Don’t listen to him. It’s quite safe. There’s never been a mishap in such a transfer—”

“But that’s not true, Father,” protested her brother. “Just last year—”

Charlotte’s father got a pained expression on his face. “Involving any BEPC vessel,” he continued firmly. Again, the reassuring smile made its appearance. “The unfortunate incident my son is referring to involved naval maneuvers. Entirely different matter.”

The Shankar ladies didn’t seem mollified. But at least their heightened apprehension caused them to fall silent as they concentrated on the task at hand.

And, eventually—it probably didn’t take more than a couple of minutes, really—they came aboard the aethership.

“Welcome to the Agincourt,” said a hearty voice. Looking up, Charlotte saw a ship’s officer extending a hand. With a little lift, he helped her make the final step up into the vessel.

At last—everything she’d been expecting. The entry chamber she now stood in was everything the transfer station had failed to be.

No provincial train station environs here! The carpet underfoot was thick and luxurious. Gleaming brass everywhere you looked. Except the lamp fixtures, which looked to be gilded.

“Oh, how splendid!” exclaimed Adrian, following on her heels. He pointed to the side. “Look at that magnificent barometer, Charlotte!”

Leave it to her brother to marvel over the one and only instrument in the room. And the only item that seemed to be completely utilitarian.

This would be their environment for the next several weeks.

Weeks. Their cabins would be on the small side, of course. But they were probably even more luxurious—and the food aboard the Agincourt was reputed to be superb.

Weeks, without any of Mrs. Smith’s sturdy but unimaginative cooking to endure.

On the other hand …

Weeks, putting up with her brother in close quarters.

Weeks, with nothing for Mrs. Smith to do—which meant weeks watching her stare at nothing like a cow in the fields.

Madame Duchesne came aboard. Charlotte must have been frowning, because the widow placed a friendly hand on her shoulder and murmured. “Just think, Miss Luff. We’ll have so much time for conversation, with no chores to distract us.”

Charlotte wondered what sort of “chores” a wealthy woman such as Madame Duchesne had to deal with. But the thought wasn’t sarcastic. In truth, she was looking forward to those conversations herself. Duchesne was interesting—for a girl like Charlotte, without question the cardinal virtue in a traveling companion.