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Chapter Three

The insistent chirping of a songbird pulled Jonathan out of murky unconsciousness. He first noted bright light behind his closed eyelids, followed by a fresh breeze carrying a sweet perfume of roses mingling with the sharper scent of ammonia disinfectant. Then came a cacophony of discomforts to make him wish for the blackness again: a persistent ringing in his ears, a bandage wrapped around his head, and a swollen, painful lump at the base of his skull. Furthermore, all of his joints felt like steel traps long rusted shut, and his mouth had the scummy, stale flavor of unwashed teeth. But despite it all, he could feel his own weight in his bones again, which meant he was back on Earth. That eased the pain somewhat.

He opened his eyes to the white and sterile surroundings of a medical ward, with curtains fluttering in the open window like carefree spirits, taunting him. The babble of conversation beyond his field of view told him he wasn’t alone.

Hello?” He cringed at the hollow and creaky sound of his voice, which reminded him of his grandfather’s.

A nurse in a blue work dress and white apron stepped past the curtain. “Bonjour, Monsieur. Comment allez-vous, aujourd’hui?”

I-I’m sorry. I don’t speak French.” Jonathan gave her a weak smile.

“‘Ow do you feel today?” She switched to English even more accented than Cecilie’s had been. She checked his pulse and temperature.

Sore. Thirsty. May I have some water?”

I’m so sorry, Monsieur. Not until the doctor says it is all right. I will get him for you.”

Nurse, I don’t know where I am. Is this Paris?”

Mais oui, Monsieur.” She patted him on the hand and then disappeared behind the curtain once more.

Paris. He tried to recreate his arrival, but couldn’t recall anything after Cecilie’s warning. He hoped she was all right. The young French woman had charmed him with both her intellect and her physical beauty in the short time they’d been together. Thinking of Cecilie also reminded him of Porter. Where was he?

The doctor’s arrival interrupted Jonathan’s thoughts. “Bonjour, Monsieur Orbital. I am Dr. Montclair. I would welcome you to Paris, but only wish it had been under more pleasant circumstances.” Dr. Montclair had hair like steel wool and a French Foreign Legion tattoo on his forearm. His English carried the barest trace of his French roots. “How do you feel? Shoulders hurting a bit?”

My head hurts. And yes, my shoulders as well. How did you know about that?”

Montclair smiled. “It is a common symptom of decompression sickness. Apparently you were in a compartment that lost partial pressure on board your orbital train.”

Is it serious?” At that moment, Jonathan promised himself never again would he venture into orbital space.

Oui, mon ami, but fortunately for you, quite treatable. You should feel yourself within a couple of days. I’ve made all the arrangements with your man.”

Jefferson? Where is he?”

I’m here, sir. I stepped out for a moment to see to your luggage.” Porter stepped past the curtain. The black man’s smile gleamed. He looked none the worse for the wear. “I’m glad to see you’re awake.”

I’m glad to be awake. What happened? I had just escorted Mademoiselle Cecilie back to her berth when someone slugged me.”

Porter’s smile faded. “The pirates raided the front half of the train. Those of us in the lounge managed to seal the door up tight and held it against them. We heard shooting and I feared for your safety, sir, since you weren’t among those of us at the rear. I was all for mounting a sortie to find and recover you, but the young gentlemen wouldn’t hear of it.” His eyes cast downward out of embarrassment. “I’m afraid I was rather cross with them, sir. I may have even struck one for shouting an epithet at me.”

Jonathan laughed in spite of the pain in his head. “I’m sure you gave them all quite a schooling in manners. Was Miss Renault with you?”

Porter shook his head. “No, sir. I am sorry.”

His stomach knotted up, but he wasn’t going to get worked up about it just yet. Cecilie struck him as brave and resourceful. He couldn’t imagine her going down as easily as he did, if she went down at all. “What happened next?”

One of the women spotted a British Space Guard cutter approaching. The pirates must have seen it too, for they unhooked their Fulton from the train and fled. There was a battle, and the pirates escaped after disabling the cutter. We hurried forward, that is to say, the bartender and I, and we found several passengers robbed and beaten. Including you, sir. I’m afraid your grandfather’s watch is gone, as well as your traveling bank notes.”

Jonathan sighed. The bank notes weren’t such a painful loss; he’d planned to spend them anyway. The watch, though, saddened him. The family relic had survived two wars—the Texas Revolution and the Civil War—and Jonathan had lost it after a simple knock on the head. “Well, I suppose I should consider myself lucky to be alive. However, we’ll need to return to the CR right away. I’ll need to assess the damage and make a report to my father.” He kicked off the sheets and sat up before he considered whether or not he might be naked in front of a woman, even if she was a nurse. Lightweight cotton drawstring pants covered his legs, and he took it as an omen of good fortune.

Monsieur, I must protest!” Dr. Montclair raised his hands. “Two more days here before I feel it is safe to release you.”

Nonsense. I feel fine. I’ve been hurt worse falling off a horse.” Jonathan didn’t mention his lightheadedness or the twisting in his stomach, but they were passing sensations. Too much was happening for him to stay in the hospital any longer.

Regardless, I am ordering you to stay here. I’ll have Nurse Camille give you a sedative if I must.”

Jonathan sat back and folded his arms across his chest. “Fine. Perhaps she could bring me something to eat. And a pen and paper, so I can compose a letter to my father.”

Oui, Monsieur,” said the nurse with a smile. “I shall see what I can . . . ’ow you Americans say it? Rustle up for you.”

I’ll be back to check on you in two hours,” said Dr. Montclair. “Until then, I expect you to rest quietly.”

Jonathan gave him a halfhearted salute. “Yes, Doctor.”

After the doctor and nurse left, Jonathan stole out of bed and peeked through the curtains. Satisfied that they weren’t coming right back, he turned to Porter. “Where are my clothes?”

I have them in your valise, sir.” Porter slid the leather case from under the bed.

Jonathan rummaged through the case and found a pair of soft-soled tennis shoes and an undershirt. He pulled on the shirt and stepped into the shoes. “Take the case and meet me outside. We’re getting out of here.” He leaned out the window and looked around. A tree was near enough that he could jump onto one of the boughs. He was only on the second floor; it wouldn’t be a long drop if he did fall.

Sir! Do you really think that’s such a good idea?”

Jonathan gave him a wry smile. It was a terrible idea. He wasn’t usually so driven to defy orders or risk his health, but perhaps nearly losing his life had knocked a little of his courage loose. “If I fall, at least I’m already at the hospital.” He jumped for the branch, and his foot slipped. For an eternity of a moment his arms wheeled around before he toppled over and fell. He grabbed in desperation at the bough and managed to just catch it. His shoulders aching in protest, he tried to see past his own feet to find out what he might land on if his grip failed.

He saw only manicured grass below, but it looked a long way down. Then he heard voices and froze. Two nurses stopped just below his feet, lit cigarettes, and started conversing in rapid-fire French. Jonathan’s nose tickled as the pungent smoke drifted past him, and he crossed his eyes and held his breath to keep from coughing or sneezing. If they glanced up even the slightest bit, they’d see a very strange bird in cotton trousers dangling among the foliage.

Jonathan closed his eyes and concentrated all his efforts on his increasingly tenuous grip. Just when he thought his muscles would turn traitor, the nurses headed back into the hospital.

Sir?”

Jonathan looked down again and saw Porter staring open-mouthed up at him in shock. Before he could reply, his sweaty hands slipped free and he tumbled down. The grass was soft and spongy, but the impact sent a shudder of agony through his already aching body. For a moment, he regretted craving gravity so much.

Sir, are you all right?” Porter knelt and checked Jonathan for injuries. “Is anything broken?”

Only my pride, Jefferson.” Jonathan groaned as he sat up. “Quickly, my coat. I’ll finish dressing once we’re away from this hospital.”

He threw on and buttoned the proffered jacket. It conveyed at least a marginal level of civility, though his thin trousers offset it, making him look like a hobo who’d found a nice jacket. The humor of Jonathan’s appearance wasn’t lost upon Porter, either. “We should find you a top hat with a popped lid. Or at the very least, remove your bandage.”

I hope I’m not going to bleed all over everything. It’ll be hell trying to catch a cab if I am.”

They chuckled at it until Porter flagged down a puffing steam Hansom that reeked of coal smoke. “Ou est votre destination, messieurs?” The portly driver pulled a lever to drop a few more chunks of coal from the overhead hopper into the boiler.

Sir?” asked Porter, who knew French from his time during the War.

Ascension Tower.” Jonathan struggled into more civilized clothing inside the confines of the Hansom.

La Tour Montée, s’il vous plaît.”

Oui, messieurs.” The driver engaged the clutch and the Hansom chuffed down the street on its India rubber tires.

Despite the prominence of coal-powered boilers, Paris skies remained clear thanks to the springtime breeze. Jonathan watched out the windows as they trundled through town, the driver shouting an unending stream of blistering profanities at other Hansoms, horse-drawn carts, and bicyclists. Overhead, brightly-colored dirigibles cruised the skies; the large international flights docked at the Eiffel Tower gangplanks while the smaller domestic ones descended toward a large field north of town. Travelers from exotic locales like Hong Kong, Delhi, and Cairo spread through the streets of the City of Lights. Jonathan knew that sooner or later he’d be visiting all those cities and more as he helped spread the reach of the Orbital empire, at least if he survived this little adventure.

Beyond the Eiffel Tower, at the center of a large plaza, rose the Ascension Tower. Its elevator cable disappeared into the sky overhead, where it terminated a hundred and fifty miles straight up at Pinnacle Station. While the Eiffel Tower’s majesty was black iron, the obelisk of Ascension Tower was clad in brilliant white marble. The Hansom driver paused in his tirade long enough to stop at the edge of the large plaza. “Sortir, messieurs.” He added a lengthy diatribe in French.

This is as far as he’ll go, sir,” said Porter.

Jonathan looked across the plaza, where the tower sat nearly a quarter mile away. “No front door service? I see other taxis there.”

It would seem he’s superstitious, sir. Afraid of the cable falling.”

Jonathan snorted. “That’s preposterous. My father tested those connections against fifty times the forces they could be subjected to.”

Nevertheless, sir, he won’t take us any further.”

Non. Je suis désolé.” The driver shook his head in an unmistakable negative.

Pay the man,” said Jonathan. “We’ll hike from here.”

They crossed the plaza to the main entrance, all leaded glass and brass filigree. Elevator passengers milled about the entrance, enjoying the sunshine and fresh breeze. Vendors, buskers, and pickpockets worked the crowd. Jonathan wondered how soon the next elevator would lift. He reached for his pocket watch before remembering he’d lost it to pirates.

A dark-skinned doorman in a red jacket and hat opened a brass-and-glass door for Jonathan and Porter. “Bonjour, messieurs. Bienvenue a la Tour Montée et de l’ascenseur á Station Pinacle.”

Merci.” Jonathan exhausted most of his French vocabulary with the doorman and then hurried across the marble floor of the large lobby to the station offices. He glanced off to one side where engineers worked over the elevator car to prepare it for its next ascent. It was a great, finned brass sphere, designed to let even the strongest gales blow around it without shaking it as it climbed or dropped. A coal boiler provided heat for passengers as the vessel would rise into the higher altitudes, and the steam from it drove the pumps which kept the air flowing. While the stewards restocked the appetizers and beverage service, other maintenance people cleaned out the water closets and pumped sewage from the holding tanks. Still others wiped down the thick leaded glass portholes or applied grease to the clamps that held the car to the main cable.

Je suis désolé, messieurs. Ces bureaux sont pour les employés de Circulaires Rail seulement,” said an earnest young fellow in a red jacket like the one worn by the doorman. He stood by the entrance to the station offices.

Jonathan’s grumble was heartfelt. “French. Why do they all speak French?”

We are in France, sir,” said Porter in his best dry butler’s tone.

Jonathan crossed his arms. “I’m Jonathan Orbital. I need to speak to the stationmaster.”

The young man’s eyes flicked upward to the large painted portrait of the Orbitals hanging overhead. He looked back down at Jonathan and then his eyes grew wide. “I’m so sorry, sir! I didn’t recognize you. I must have looked at that portrait a thousand times.”

Just let us inside, please.”

The man unclipped the velvet rope and motioned them inside the offices.

Jonathan had only taken a few steps into the offices when a large man with a shock of white hair accosted him. “Jonathan Orbital, as I live and breathe! Good to see you, lad! I’d heard you were on the train that was robbed. I’m glad to see you’re all right.” The man pumped Jonathan’s hand and slapped his back.

Jonathan winced. “Hello, Ernest.” Ernest Pickering had been one of the movers and shakers in his father’s ground-based rail empire back in the States. His specialty had been kicking down the doors of potential investors and yelling at them until they wrote a check to make him leave. It appeared that the boisterous man’s time among the French hadn’t tempered him a whit.

I expect you’d like a status report on the train, eh?”

Yes, please.”

Ernest consulted his watch. “It’s five hours before the elevator lifts. Plenty of time for lunch. I’ve found a place nearby where the chef actually knows how to cook a goddamned steak. Best cuisine in the world? Cream sauces and weeds. Hah! Give me an American beefsteak and some proper Idaho potatoes any day of the week.”

Jonathan was hungry, but he’d also dined with Ernest before, and watching the man make love to his food was enough to put anyone off their own meal. “Actually, Ernest, you’d better tell me the details now. I’ll need to cable my father.”

Ernest’s jovial attitude disappeared. “I’ve already sent him a report, lad.”

Jonathan bristled at the man’s tone and injected a bit of frost into his reply. “Of course you have, Ernest, but he’ll want to hear from me directly, especially if you told him I was injured in the attack.”

Very well, Jonathan. Come with me and I’ll show you the report.”

Are there daguerreotypes?”

Yes, they came down on the elevator. And we developed them here.”

Ernest brought him back to the stationmaster’s office and handed him a sheaf of papers inside a folder. “Goddamn pirates.” Ernest poured small cups of strong coffee for both of them. “I kept wondering when they were going to hit the train. I’ve been telling your father for years that we needed armed security on board.”

Jonathan shook his head as he paged through the file. “He doesn’t want to repeat the lawlessness of the Old West in space.”

Ernest snorted. “It’s already here, lad. You’ve got pirates in secret bases on the moon and that criminal sanctuary at the Lagrange Sargasso. The Space Guard can’t keep up, and the CR is a juicy target with a predictable schedule. Honestly, it’s a wonder we weren’t hit before today.”

The file broke down the losses into stark black and white numbers for Jonathan. Four hundred gallons of water. Three hundred cubic feet of compressed air. Assorted foodstuffs, beverages, and personal effects of passengers and crew. All negligible and easily replaced.

Personnel and equipment losses were much more of a detriment to the CR. It was an expensive enterprise to operate, and required highly-trained employees. All that translated into high passenger fares, and the kind of people who could and did pay those fares responded poorly in a public way when bad things happened, which made them unlikely to invest further in the company.

The loss report grew even more grim as Jonathan read on. One car was a complete loss and would have to be towed to the Lagrange Sargasso. Three others were damaged enough to require disconnection from the track for extended repairs. That in and of itself was an expensive procedure, requiring multiple Fulton tugboats and zero-gravity cranes. The major work had already been completed, and the cost numbers stretched into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. Jonathan looked at the daguerreotypes and shook his head.

Two CR employees lost their lives to the pirate attack, both of them stewards who’d been caught in a car that lost pressure too quickly to be rescued. The chief engineer had been severely traumatized and entered a sanatorium for treatment. A longtime resident of orbital space, he faced a long, painful battle as he had to re-acclimate to gravity. Jonathan didn’t envy him.

Finally, one passenger had been killed, six injured, and one was missing. “Missing?” asked Jonathan aloud. “We lost a passenger?” He thought of Cecilie again and tried to push away his encroaching dread.

I’m afraid so, lad. We couldn’t find any sign of her. We’re afraid she may have been taken by the pirates. Nasty business, that. Poor girl.”

Her? Who was it?” But he already knew, deep in the pit of him.

French lass named Cecilie Renault. Traveling by herself.”

And what’s being done to find her?”

Ernest shrugged and downed his cup of coffee. “Nothing, I’m afraid. Space Guard couldn’t catch the bastards. She’s gone. The CR will have to pay off her family to avoid any kind of unpleasant press.”

Unpleasant press?” Jonathan was aghast. “We’ve had a girl kidnapped off our very own train and all you can think about is unpleasant press?”

Ernest fixed a solemn gaze on him. “What else would you have us do? We have a business to run. We’re not the Space Guard. Leave it to them to chase the pirates.”

Jonathan felt his mouth working, but nothing came out. He’d never felt so helpless before. Cecilie was a kind and smart woman, and for the briefest moment in the cupola, he thought he’d felt a spark kindle between them, a connection born of being the children of highly ambitious fathers looking to change the world. He might have even courted her, if she would have had him. And now she was the pawn of some pirates floating around somewhere in the void of space, and for what? Perhaps they thought she was wealthy and worth some good coin. Certainly they couldn’t have been interested in her father’s crackpot petroleum venture.

We can’t just let them get away, Ernest.”

What are you going to do, lad, rescue her yourself?” Regardless of intent, Ernest’s laugh sounded mocking. Of course, the idea of Victor Orbital’s disappointingly bland spawn jetting into space to rescue a fair maiden from the clutches of greasy space pirates was worth mocking. Jonathan didn’t have a heroic bone in his body; his only real ambition in life had been to balance ledgers and push paper across a desk far, far away from orbiting trains. Even now, the mere thought of entering microgravity again made him queasy, but for the first time in his soft and simple life, he felt the calling of a greater purpose. This mad certainty must have been what drove his father to build empires, but Jonathan didn’t want an empire. He just wanted the chance to find the woman that had captivated him, and perhaps ask her to dinner.

He stood up. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do.” Knowing he was going to need every bit of fortitude he could muster, he drained his strong, bitter coffee in a single gulp. “Give me her passenger information. I’ll need to speak with her father.”

Ernest shook his head in sad amusement as he handed the railroad’s copy of Cecilie’s ticket to Jonathan. “It’s a waste of your time, lad. If they haven’t already killed her by now, she’ll certainly wish she was dead.”

Don’t be so sure. She’s no wilting violet. Good day to you, Ernest.”

Porter fell into step behind Jonathan as the young man marched out of Ascent Tower. “Shall we return to the hotel, sir?”

Eventually, yes. First I need to cable my father, and then we need to find Dr. Renault. We’re going to rescue Mademoiselle Cecilie from the pirates, Jefferson.”

Porter didn’t even blink. “Very good, sir.”

 

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