City of Mists

by Sawyer Grey
 

Chapter 6
A VOYAGE BY AETHERSHIP

 
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Prologue
Chapter 1 - A Night in Hong Kong
Chapter 2 - A Secret Mission
Chapter 3 - The Airship Zambesi
Chapter 4 - Attacked by Sky Pirates
Chapter 5 - Singapore
Chapter 6 - A Voyage by Aethership
Chapter 7 - Return to Mars
Chapter 8 - Secret Mission Revealed
 

DAWN WAS BREAKING WHEN OUR launch rounded the fortress island, Blakang Mati, and we approached the floating aethership docks. After a couple of rather exciting accidents in the early days after the discovery of Cavorite, most nations had banned the presence of aetherships from land around any inhabited areas. As a result most aetherships now took off from the seas around major ports, which was convenient because most returning aethernauts preferred to land on the water. At Singapore, the East India Company had anchored large floating wharves just outside of New Harbor, where their aetherships could dock to handle cargo and passengers. When they were ready to take off, a tug would tow them out into a region of the Singapore Strait marked by buoys to warn off ship traffic. Landing aetherships would try to hit the ocean close by their port, but were equipped with colored smoke and flares in case the pilot misjudged. Of course the great new aethership liners never landed at all; workers assembled them in space from components ferried up by the smaller ships, and they spent all their time cruising the airless voids between Venus, Earth, and Mars.

Lightning, the ship we sought, was one of the lighters used for transfers between the Earth and the large space-bound liners. Imagine a polyhedron with twenty-six sides—eighteen square and eight triangular facets. Now picture that rather than being solid, it is a thirty-foot-tall frame constructed from bars of the finest Krupp steel thick as a man’s wrist. Cocooned within this frame is a sphere of welded aluminium, polished to a mirror-like finish, broken at regular intervals by brass portholes set with thick leaded glass panes three inches thick. At the top of the sphere is a large, round hatch through which the vessel is loaded.

While the frame and sphere are quite impressive, the true masterpiece of the aethership’s engineering is its Cavorite apparatus. To one edge of each facet is bolted an assembly exactly like the common roller blinds you might find in the windows of any household; only instead of cloth or canvas the blind is made of a thin sheet of steel coated with Cavorite on the side facing away from the sphere. Electric motors draw or retract the blinds according to directions made using switches on a control board inside the sphere. The Cavorite coating of the blinds completely blocks any force of gravitational attraction in that direction. Close all the blinds and the aethership will fly through space in a straight line; open a blind and any mass in that direction will immediately exert its gravitational force upon the craft. Selectively opening and closing the blinds allows the navigator to steer and also control the vessel’s speed. Thus man makes his way among the spheres of heaven.

Sykes showed the papers authorizing my passage to the two crewmen of the Lightning, who swiftly stowed my baggage aboard and began preparations to unhook their craft from the floating dock. The soldiers standing behind Sykes eyed the aethership with great misgiving, muttering among themselves and keeping as far away from it as they could on the narrow dock. The colour sergeant himself looked none too happy about the prospect of venturing aboard.

“Are you quite all right, Colour Sergeant?”

Sykes swallowed, and looked at his men. “Well, Captain, I was thinking that perhaps there is no need for us to escort you up to Canopus. Once this craft is out in the middle of the Straits, there’s not much of anywhere for you to go even if you wanted to, is there?”

I agreed that there was not. “So since you’ve been such a model prisoner, as it were, if you were to give me your parole that you would just quietly ride up and board Canopus like a good gentleman, we would be happy to get out of your hair.”

“Colour Sergeant Sykes, I give you my word as a gentleman that I will do precisely that. My only desire is to get back to Mars as quickly as possible.”

The soldiers behind Sykes relaxed, their relief palpable.

“I knew that, sir, and that’s why I made the offer. We’ll go back to Hong Kong and report that we saw you safely on your way.”

One of the crewmen stuck his head through the loading hatch and called out that it was time to board. I started up the gangway to the hatch, then stopped and held out my hand to Sykes.

“Thank you for the escort, Colour Sergeant. If I can, I’ll put in a good word for you and your men.”

He shook my hand firmly. “You be careful up there on Mars, Captain Branham. Watch your back. Do you still have Corporal Singh’s revolver?”

I had conveniently forgotten to hand it over after the fighting on Zambesi. “Yes, I do.”

“Keep it close by you, sir. When you need to use it, think of the Hong Kong Regiment. There’s a lot of lads there who think quite highly of you, sir.”

I nodded, and climbed down into Lightning’s dark hold. She was meant for cargo, not passengers, so rather than ascending to the heavens in a comfortable chair, I had to strap myself against a rack stuffed with boxes and parcels. The crewmen bustled around a bit, double-checked that all the cargo was properly tied down, and closed the top hatch. The aethership lurched sharply as the tugboat pulled her from her berth, and I could see spume frothing up over the top level of portholes. About two miles out of New Harbor they unhooked us and steamed quickly away. Few sailors wanted to risk being near a departing aethership. One of the crewmen stood before a panel and fussed over some control settings while watching a chronometer. When he was finally satisfied, he turned back to us.

“Ready for launch?”

We assured him that we were indeed quite ready. He flipped a switch and the lights went out. I felt a little jerk and heard a rattle from the hatch over our heads, then the crewman at the panel turned a knob and the dim lights inside the sphere came on. He continued fiddling with switches and wheels for several minutes, and occasionally peered through one of the two small periscopes that pierced the aluminum sphere at the top and bottom. When he was satisfied, he fed a handful of punch cards into the craft’s analytical engine, a grey cube about six feet on a side bolted securely to the surface of the sphere, and waited as it chugged for a while. It finally spat out a thin stream of paper tape, which he examined briefly before he threw a switch that opened one of the rolling blinds.

White light from the moon flooded in through the porthole on that side of the ship. I looked away for a few seconds, blinded after the long dimness inside the sealed sphere. When I looked back I could see features of the lunar surface far more plainly than I ever had from Earth. I had only a few moments to marvel at the craters and jagged peaks, though, before the blind closed again and blocked my view.

The crewman went back to peering through the telescopes and adjusting the controls. I watched the minutes creep by on the chronometer by his head, unsure how much longer the trip would take and anxious to be on my way. More cards went into the analytical engine and more tape came out.

At last the man glanced over at us. “Not long now, chaps,” he assured us, and turned off the lights. A few more seconds, then he straightened up from the periscope. “Ah, there. Now,” he said, and all of the blinds flipped open at once, revealing the starry universe surrounding us through every port.

“You’re headed to Mars on Canopus, eh, chap?” he asked.

When I agreed, he pointed to a porthole across the ship. “You’ll want to take a good look through there before you go.”

I pushed my way over and looked down at the swirled blue, white, and green Earth turning below. I spent a few minutes watching it turn serenely beneath us while the crewmen got us ready to dock with Canopus. The Earth was beautiful, I could appreciate that, but I felt little more than a vague sentimentality over leaving it behind. For the last few years it had been more prison than home; my true home was Mars, and there was precious little on Earth that I would regret.

Lightning was small enough to fit inside the enormous cargo holds of Canopus, and that was exactly what we did. Canopus sent out a crew of men in space suits to attach a line to us, and reeled us in. The bulky suits consisted of a rubber bladder that fit around the body, covered with a brilliant silvery-white samite material, and a bulbous copper and brass helmet with three portholes that bolted onto the suit body. Long rubber hoses reinforced with metal coils ran back into the ship and connected to pumps that provided cool, breathable air. Working in the suits was difficult and dangerous, and I had heard that losses among the workers due to heat stroke and exposure to vacuum were very high.

The crewman who had piloted us into space adjusted our trajectory with tiny jets of compressed air, and before I knew it the suited men had us lashed down to the steel deck plates inside Canopus. Our pilot watched through a porthole until he saw a green light come on, then he climbed up the ladder and opened our hatch. It was only as the fresh air poured in that I realized how stale it had become inside our little vessel.

Canopus reminded me of Zambesi. Both ships were as luxurious as they could be, given the constraints of their operating requirements. Canopus was far larger, with bigger staterooms and open spaces that were simply not possible on the airship, but she lacked the scenic vistas available through Zambesi’s promenade windows. For most of the voyage there was little to see through her tiny viewports but the endless blackness of space. She possessed a rather large telescope and the navigation crew would often throw the image from it onto a reflective screen to an audience of passengers, but that in no way compared to the views of the Earth or moon I got while aboard the Lightning.

In short I was ready for the journey to be over from the moment I set foot on the Canopus. I was impatient to be home again at last, and every minute of the three weeks it took for us to complete the voyage to Mars grated on my soul. I spent most of the trip in my cabin brooding and staring at the ceiling from my berth. When word came that we had reached Mars and were preparing to debark, I lost no time packing my belongings and was the first in line when the landing boats for the passengers started loading.