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“If we all worked on the assumption that what is accepted as true is really true, there would be little hope of advance.”
It was hard to believe a mere thirty years ago, America had been at war with itself. Now Jonathan Orbital was gazing over his head at the majestic blue Earth as an atomic-powered train chugged along its steel track suspended in the darkness of space. Brass goggles rested against his forehead, ready to be lowered at a moment’s notice when the sunlight became too much to bear, but in spite of the technological miracle before him, what he really wished he could do was go home. Or at the very least, will away the miserable nausea that had plagued him since leaving Earth’s gravity. This was his third ride since the Circumferential Rail’s maiden voyage, but he wasn’t sure he would ever grow to enjoy the sensation of weightlessness.
It was still magnificent to behold, the impossible made possible through his father’s backbreaking work, canny determination, and staggering fortune amassed from decades in the railroad business. It was also horrifying in its ambition. One minor error or one loose screw could obliterate the entire structure, subjecting every passenger onboard to a nasty death in the vacuum outside, where no human was meant to survive. He’d had several nightmares involving such cataclysmic failures, with the evening before a journey typically sleepless and laced with quantities of bourbon sufficient to calm his nerves. Perhaps one day he wouldn’t have to rely on milk of magnesia to keep his stomach calm, or pretend to share his father’s enthusiasm for the marvel he’d created, but in the meantime, he was a company man, and he had to try to act the part even as he dreamed of solid ground and the reassuring gravity of his Houston home.
Far ahead on the rails, the locomotive’s radiators sprouted forth from the great steel and ceramic atomic reactor like feathery antennae, glowing a dull red even in the naked sunlight. The engine’s vent of excess steam left behind a wispy cloud of snowflakes that sparkled like diamonds, and Jonathan slowly started to doze off. Then a knock sounded against the teakwood door of his stateroom, and he sighed, fully awake and jittery again. Alas, hiding out in here until the train arrived at the station orbiting over Paris would not be an option.
At least he had a private room aboard. Most passengers on the CR would be traveling coach, forced to doze in the microgravity and sour exhalations of their neighbors. Jonathan and other ultra-wealthy passengers could enjoy the orbital rails from the comfort of rooms with brass fittings and Indian silk pillows. Some would say it was wasteful to bring such luxury up the gravity well into orbit for a journey that lasted less than a day, but Jonathan’s father Victor Orbital, the railroad tycoon and founder of the CR, was a visionary who believed this mode of travel would soon live up to its name by encircling the entire globe instead of a single line running between Houston and Paris. Apart from having all the technical bits and bobs in order, Victor’s chief priority was giving his opulent passengers their money’s worth.
Jonathan adjusted his tweed town coat and smoothed his muted paisley vest. His cravat was a stylish black. It wouldn’t do for the owner’s son to appear sloppy in public. He slid open the door to reveal the dark face of his butler and oldest friend, Jefferson Porter. The middle-aged Negro had been a dirigible pilot for the British during the 1882 bombardment of Alexandria and subsequent occupation of Egypt. After the war ended, he returned to America to follow in the footsteps of his own father, who had served Victor Orbital for many years as a free man. Jonathan couldn’t remember a time when Porter had not been part of his life. Many people saw only a black servant, but Porter took great pride in his position, and Jonathan loved the man like a favorite uncle.
“The staff has prepared hors d’oeuvres and a selection of whiskeys and bourbons in the dining car, sir. Would you care to sample them?” Porter reached up to straighten Jonathan’s cravat and gave him a close look, probably noting his peaky complexion. “You should definitely eat, sir. The nausea is much harder to bear on an empty stomach.” He adjusted the hang of Jonathan’s coat.
Jonathan wasn’t sure he could manage more than look at any food or drink until he was in Paris. “I will try. Do I look terrible?”
“No worse than anyone else out there, sir. You will be fine.” Porter, of course, looked as at home in microgravity as he did on their estate back home. Space suited him well.
The two men walked down the corridor toward the lounge car. Their steps were measured and careful to let the magnetic soles of their boots gain a firm grip upon the steel floor beneath the tasteful cranberry-colored carpet. Without such precautions, passengers would drift willy-nilly through the cars, colliding with walls and each other. Jonathan could feel the rhythmic thrum and clack of the wheels upon the rails through the soles of his feet. Even with the boots giving him a proper sense of which way was up, Jonathan still felt disoriented and more than a bit wobbly. Now that he’d emerged from his stateroom, people were watching, and those who recognized him would expect to see the public face of Orbital Industries looking sturdy and confident.
They passed through a coach car on the way to the lounge. Coach was a misnomer, given the astronomical prices for tickets. Compared to the four days by dirigible and the ten days for a steamship, the CR covered the distance between Houston and Paris in only twenty-two hours, but was easily ten to twenty times as expensive. Between the great elevators at either end of the line and the actual transit time, taking the CR might save a passenger a day and a half over taking a dirigible, but traveling into space conveyed status above all else, so the wealthy preferred it, even if it might mean floundering about like boneless, nauseated blobs. The car was only half full, with passengers belted into their seats. Some dozed while others conversed quietly, more than a few of them showing stoic faces holding back the protests of their sour stomachs.
He stepped into the lounge car and paused by the entrance to survey the room. Accoutered like a modern gentleman’s club, electric lamps were bolted to ornately-carved wooden tables beside overstuffed easy chairs covered in Corinthian leather or brocade. A fireplace with a thin stone veneer sat in one corner, but instead of a fire burning to consume all their oxygen, a curved screen rotated around an orange electric lamp to give the illusion of flickering firelight. The polished granite mantel was expensive to bring up into orbit, but the weight was negligible to the powerful towing capacity of the atomic engine at the train’s front. Clusters of stately travelers conversed about the state of the world, their investments, or any number of petty diversions upon which they spent far too much money. It was Jonathan’s primary job on this trip to divest them of some of that and apply it toward the future of the CR.
After building a dozen rail lines through the southwest, his father Victor had turned his attention to the skies. He hired atomic engineers, rocketry experts, and crackpots to build a station in orbital space with an elevator running down to a dirigible field in Houston. He had been so determined, though some might say obsessed, to see his dream come to fruition that he’d even changed the family name from Orville to Orbital. Being the only son, Jonathan was cursed with lofty expectations to carry on and even expand the family business, with future generations perhaps setting their sights far beyond Earth’s orbit. It didn’t matter that Jonathan preferred to stay at home than to travel, to balance figures than to explore and schmooze, and he most definitely had no designs on gallivanting through space. However, Victor had paid for an expensive Ivy League education for his son, and he refused to let his investment go to waste behind a desk. The company had plans for stations in Delhi, Shanghai, and Melbourne, and who better than the heir himself to make it happen?
Perhaps business could wait until Jonathan was certain he wasn’t going to vomit on potential investors. He selected an unoccupied chair and pulled the velvet strap across his lap to keep himself from drifting away. Porter approached the bar where a burly Irishman was trading good-natured barbs with the men leaning against it, their feet hooked through the brass loops. A wide swath of sunlight filled the cabin, and passengers lowered their goggles and smoked glasses without any interruption in their conversations. The car’s interior grew warmer, despite the hiss of cool air pushed through the ventilation system by a steam-powered pump, though it might have been Jonathan’s own nerves working overtime at the thought of having to be charming and gregarious with these people. A moment later, Porter returned bearing a covered tray and a bulb of amber liquid. “I took the liberty of selecting Kentucky bourbon and some crab crostini.”
“Thank you, Porter.” Jonathan still didn’t feel much like ingesting anything, but he decided to be a good sport about it. CR chefs had quickly learned tricks with food to make it friendly for microgravity. On Earth, for example, these crostini would have been simple flat pieces of toast with a crab mix spread on top. That would have been a messy disaster in orbit. Instead, the bread was carefully wrapped around the topping and toasted inside an oven. They floated above the tray like tiny asteroids, swirling and spinning as Porter removed the lid.
“They are delicious, sir. Try one. I guarantee they will make you feel nearly human again.” Jonathan sighed and popped one into his mouth. Porter was right about the taste, but then again, the man was rarely ever wrong in such areas. He sipped bourbon from his bulb but paused when he heard a silvery chime of feminine laughter from across the room.
Both Jonathan and Porter turned their attention to its source, a young woman holding the audience of several besotted men. He could immediately understand why. She was gorgeous, with wavy locks the same shade as the black void outside the leaded glass windows, and her eyes sparkled like the stars themselves as she spoke. She’d eschewed goggles in favor of a wide-brimmed felt hat with a turquoise brooch. Her white blouse and dark skirt were simple, but Jonathan knew fine material when he saw it, and her erect posture gave her an air of confidence and control he rarely saw in women who weren’t royalty.
The longer he watched her, the more he could see she was playing the gaggle of men with the skill of a Vaudeville performer. She winked and said something with a smile, which made the gaggle of enthralled men bray with laughter. If Jonathan had even a shred of her charisma, he could have secured enough investors to keep the family business in the black for the next two generations. After making a conciliatory gesture, she set down her drink bulb as if to leave, but the men reorganized themselves to make an informal screen to keep her in their presence. Although she smiled at them, Jonathan could see she wished to be rid of them. For the first time since setting foot onto this train, he felt a spark of interest in something other than setting foot back off it.
“Porter, that young lady over there. Who is she?” One of Porter’s jobs was keeping a running log of everyone on the train who might be important to speak with.
“I believe her name is Cecilie Renault, of Paris.”
Jonathan pulled a visiting card from his pocket. “Can you send her my regards and ask her if she might enjoy accompanying me on a tour of the train?” He wasn’t sure exactly what his intentions were with Miss Renault, but he felt compelled to make her acquaintance. Perhaps she knew the right kind of people who would be interested in making an investment, or was an heiress herself. Or perhaps she would just be someone pretty to converse with while he endured the remainder of this trip. His nausea had receded a little, and he wanted to make the best of it.
Porter clutched the card between his white-gloved fingertips and nodded. “Certainly, sir.”
Jonathan sipped his bourbon and watched as Porter gently but firmly pushed his way into the middle of the group, bowed, and handed Miss Renault the card.
A look of palpable relief crossed her face and she smiled at Jonathan. Several of the men looked in his direction with withering gazes, but they all knew him, and none of them would interfere in the business of an Orbital on his own train. Porter led Miss Renault across the lounge, and Jonathan noticed her steps were cautious as if she feared flying off the floor at any moment. He looked at her feet and saw she wore high boots with insufficient magnetic plating. They were both out of their elements, it seemed. Jonathan stood in greeting.
“Mr. Orbital, may I present Mademoiselle Cecilie Renault. Miss Renault, Mr. Jonathan Orbital.” Porter stepped back to remain unobtrusive.
Jonathan caught up Miss Renault’s gloved hand and pressed his lips to it. “Howdy, Mademoiselle, I’m pleased to make your acquaintance.”
“Orbital? As in the owner of the Circumferential Rail? Perhaps we can discuss the exorbitant price of your fares. I had to pawn all of my mother’s jewelry to afford my ticket.”
Jonathan’s had dealt with similar complaints from passengers before, and he normally shrugged them off as the pointless yammering of the wealthy and entitled, but he was charmed enough by her pretty French accent that he didn’t mind it so much. “I’m sorry the expense was difficult for you, Miss Renault. My father owns the railroad, and we are hoping that as the business expands, we will be able to make the fares more affordable. I would be happy to provide you a voucher for your next trip.”
The French woman flashed a dazzling smile. “Your generosity is most appreciated, Monsieur. I insist you call me Cecilie.”
“Make it Jonathan, then.”
“Jonathan.” She lengthened and softened the J into something delicious. “I am grateful to you for your timely interruption. I fear those men had no interest at all in my business proposition.”
Jonathan’s ears perked up. Clearly she was a shrewd young woman, as anyone fishing for investors would do well to troll the richest waters, and the CR was thick with moneyed folk. Of course, that was also Jonathan’s aim for this trip, so he hoped this wouldn’t turn into a rivalry of sorts. “Well, I myself am a businessman. Perhaps you can tell me about your proposition.”
“In time, Monsieur—I mean, Jonathan. I simply cannot abide this lounge any longer, especially with those men staring holes into my back. I would love to take the tour you offered.”
Jonathan extended his arm, his wooziness all but forgotten under her clear gaze. “As you wish. We will start with the Engineer’s Cupola. I find it a peaceful place in which to gaze out upon the wonder of God’s Universe.”
She grinned. “As long as your intentions are honorable, Jonathan.”
“They are indeed. However, I must admit they are somewhat selfish. My father sends me on these trips to woo investors, but I’m not much for space travel. I would love nothing more than some genuine conversation with a nice person to make the trip pass by faster. When I saw you from across the room, I thought you looked like just such a person.”
Her face filled with a mixture of relief and good humor. “In that case, I will gladly accompany you.” She slipped her slender arm through his. Jonathan nodded at Porter, the unspoken communication stemming from many years of close friendship. Porter would remain at a respectable distance and deflect anyone who came to interrupt them.
The Engineer’s Cupola was a blister on the side of one of the maintenance cars. Its leaded glass was protected from the earth’s glare and the sun’s rays by large sails on collapsible frameworks. It permitted the engineer to examine the length of the train toward the front or rear for any irregularities, using a double-lensed brass telescope. With the shielding sails in place, thousands of stars were visible. To get into the Cupola required some crawling through a narrow tube and Jonathan fretted about Cecilie’s clothing, but she was game and followed him without complaint.
The Cupola was cozy for two people, but Cecilie didn’t seem to mind; she was transfixed by the view of all the stars. “C’est magnifique! Amazing. But why can I not see this from my berth?”
“The light from the sun and Earth smothers the starlight. But here, that light is blocked so the engineer has a clear view of the entire train.”
“And that is the engine?” She pointed at the glowing radiators above.
“Indeed, powered by a Curie-Rutherford atomic pile, the most modern of its kind in the world.”
“Oui, it is truly wondrous what your father has built.”
Jonathan nodded. “Yes, it certainly is.”
“You don’t sound like you mean that.”
Her gaze was direct and sharp, and Jonathan could tell this was a woman who would suffer no fools. “You’re a straight shooter, aren’t you?”
She blushed a little and looked away. “I am sometimes too frank for my own good. My father says this is why I will never find a husband.”
“I don’t mind it. Anyway, my father’s creation is an amazing thing. I admire everything he’s accomplished. I just don’t feel like any of it is mine. I’m just along for the ride.” He was shocked by how much he’d opened up to someone he hardly knew. Perhaps it was the intimate space of the Cupola, almost like it was some sort of confessional.
“We’re all along for someone else’s ride. You just have to find a way to make the trip more bearable until it is your turn to take the wheel.”
She spoke like someone who could personally relate to what he felt, and this only made him want to know more about her. “You’re absolutely right.”
“Do you wish to hear my proposition now?”
“Yes, of course.”
“My father has been researching petroleum, and has developed a means to refine it for wide use. I am seeking investors so that we may develop the process into a viable industry, as an alternative to atomic-steam or coal-steam power.”
“Petroleum? Are you looking to make asphalt or light some lamps? That industry hasn’t gone anywhere in half a century.”
Cecilie’s words came faster as she spoke, excitement making her accent grow thicker. “Monsieur, my father’s refining techniques have produced kerosene and natural gas that are valuable fuels with many applications. We could stop burning coal in our boilers, and more importantly, we could replace steam power with a direct-driven internal combustion engine.”
Jonathan goggled at her, then laughed in spite of himself. “Now I know you’re dreaming, Cecilie. I’m no engineer, but even I know that internal combustion doesn’t work with kerosene. It isn’t energetic enough.”
Cecilie’s tone turned frosty. “I did not come here to be laughed at, Jonathan. I’ve seen the results of my father’s work. It is revolutionary. I was visiting Texas, where there is much petroleum underground. I hoped to find someone to invest in the project, but had no luck. My father has worked very hard and will be so disappointed.”
“I apologize. I shouldn’t laugh at any visionary. Plenty of people laughed at my father when he told them about his idea for the Circumferential Rail. I’ll be traveling through Europe on business myself, seeking investors to expand the line, but when I return home, I’ll certainly mention your proposal to my father. He will likely see its promise.”
“Zut alors! Qu’est-ce que c’est?” She pointed at an object moving through space.
Jonathan looked. “That’s a Fulton.”
“What is a Fulton?”
“A schooner. Basically it’s a giant coke-fired teapot with a cargo hold attached to it. I’ve never been in one, but I hear they’re sweltering hot inside and cramped like a cattle car. They carry freight through orbit, clear wreckage, and any other number of things.”
“But why would someone send freight through orbit instead of by land, sea, or air?”
Jonathan shrugged. “For the same reason people ride the CR when they can take steamships or dirigibles. Because it’s faster. Modern commerce has to happen faster than it ever did before the turn of the century, and some people realized it was faster to ship their freight up into orbit, transport it through space, and deliver it back to Earth again.”
“I never would have thought such a thing. Yet, I see how it could be very effective.”
“I don’t know much about it except that it’s a complicated process. High-altitude dirigibles raise cargo to the very edge of space. Then Fultons lower crane cables to pull that cargo into their holds. Afterward, they reverse it to deliver to the destination.”
“And even this complicated process is faster?”
“Yes. Perhaps when we reach Pinnacle Station, I can show you.”
Cecilie lowered her eyelids. “I would like that. I am sorry for my short tone earlier. It has been a stressful trip and I was hoping to have good news to deliver to my father when I returned home.”
“I understand that sort of stress very well. Maybe we can have dinner in Paris, if you would like. You can show me around the city.”
Her eyes widened and she pointed at the Fulton again. “Sacre bleu!”
He turned to look, expecting she’d seen some other mundane thing, but instead saw something he never expected but had long feared when he started traveling in space.
Sunlight glinted off a pair of huge kettles welded together in tandem. A great plume of steam shot from the thrusting nozzle, crystallizing into snow immediately. A shaft protruded obscenely from the end of the vessel, tipped with an intricate arrangement of geared teeth. Along the sides of the cabin, Jonathan could see open gunports with cannons protruding from them. The vessel rolled over to display the image of a blood-red shark painted upon a field of black as it closed in on the train.
“Pirates!” cried Jonathan.
“Pirates? But what does this train have for them?”
“Passengers with a lot of money.” Jonathan found the emergency cable wrapped in bright red tape and yanked on it to sound an alarm in the locomotive’s cabin.
A moment later, the intercom crackled and a heavily distorted voice boomed from the speaker. “Who’s in the Cupola? What’s the alarm?”
“It’s Jonathan Orbital, engineer.”
“Orbital!” yelled Jonathan. “Jonathan Orbital! Sound the alarm, we’re about to be boarded by pirates.”
“Who?” A shrieking whine filled the speaker. “What the hell is—” The engineer’s voice cut off.
Jonathan and Cecilie watched as the Fulton schooner touched its snout to one of the cars. A whining vibration carried through the train’s framework, setting Jonathan’s teeth on edge. Men in pressure suits boiled out of a bay in the pirate vessel, trailing tethers and towing hoses. They headed for the atomic engine itself. Jonathan knew they’d be after spare water to refuel their own ship and any compressed air canisters they could find. The water and air were valuable, certainly, but not worthwhile enough to attack a train.
“Jonathan, we must do something!”
“What can we do? Those are pirates. Desperate men. They’ll be armed.”
“I have pistols in my berth. I bought them in Houston. A gift, for my father.”
“You can’t fire a pistol inside the train. You could put a hole in the wall or window, and then we’d lose all our air.”
Cecilie opened the hatch that led back down from the Cupola. “Then I will have to be careful not to miss. Now are you coming or are you going to cower here?”
Without waiting for his answer, she squeezed into the tube and wriggled back toward the car below. Jonathan cursed under his breath and went after her. He couldn’t let her put herself into danger, but she was bound and determined to get them both killed. Rumors floated around about some of the independent Fulton crews that roamed low-Earth orbit, preying upon the valuable cargo transported through the void. The pirates were brutal men, lifetime spacers who knew how to fight in microgravity. They eschewed modern weaponry in favor of the far more terrifying crossbows, swords, and axes of the past.
As they emerged from the tube into the car, Jonathan could hear shouts further forward in the train. “Your berth. Tell me it’s toward the rear.”
“Oui. Two cars back.”
They hurried through the cars, already empty of passengers who had fled to the rear as they realized the train was going to be overrun. The CR employed a few security officers, but they would be with the passengers, ready to defend them from the pirates. Jonathan kept glancing back, expecting to see a horde of space barbarians come boiling through the end of the car at any moment.
Cecilie rummaged through her luggage and emerged with two Colt pistols in a polished wooden case with brass hinges. She handed one to Jonathan. “I have never fired a pistol before. What do I do?”
Jonathan may not have been one for adventuring, but he was from Texas, and he’d done a fair amount of target shooting over the years. He popped open the cylinder and fed six bullets into the chambers. The cylinder closed with a well-oiled click and he handed the weapon back to her. “Point it and pull the trigger. It’s loud and it will jerk in your hands. This is a very bad idea.”
“So is standing idly by while pirates overrun your train. Have you no sense of honor, Jonathan? Do you not feel an obligation to—mon Dieu!”
Jonathan sensed someone behind him and started to turn, but something hard and heavy crashed against the base of his skull and he knew nothing more.