In The Matter Of Savinkov Snippet 02

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.