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In the Matter of Savinkov: Chapter One

       Last updated: Sunday, July 22, 2018 16:52 EDT



    “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 than 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.

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