In The Matter Of Savinkov Snippet 05

Chapter 3

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 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 inside 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 made 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.