Beyond the Rails, story one by Jack Tyler

* * *

Ellsworth washed his face in the pull-down sink before making his unsteady way to the deck. He had a sickening moment on the stairs as the ship took a long roll to port, but he fought it down and pulled himself onto the main deck. What he saw there brought it back in spades.

He emerged on deck at the very bow of the gondola, directly in front of the pilot house. The deck had a pronounced slant to port as the Kestrel continued a sweeping left turn that had already been in progress for some time by the look of things. Turning his head to the left gave him a view through the railing of the rooftops of Mombasa at least three hundred feet below. His hands involuntarily clamped themselves onto the stairs’ brass rails as he sucked in a breath and held it.

Hearing voices, he fought down this wave as well, and managed to turn his head toward the stern without releasing his hand hold. Behind the glass windows of the pilot house, Miss Patience Hobbs, Airship Pilot, smiled at him as she lifted one hand from the big wooden ships’ wheel to beckon him to join her and the man he vaguely remembered as the captain; Morten? Martin? He’d know in a minute.

Carefully transferring his hands, one by one, from the stair rails to the brass railing around the outside of the pilot house, he made his way to the door.

“We have to deliver these parts to the Stephenson homestead, so you may as well follow the rails up to Misong, and turn toward their place from there.”

“Aye, Captain,” Patience replied as he stepped inside. “We’ll have plenty of landmarks once we clear the forest. Good morning, Doctor. You rested well, I trust?”

“Except for this abominable pitching!”

“Actually, we’re rolling. We always do headed up-country this time of year. Trade winds take us on the starboard beam. The envelope is much more resistant to being pushed sidewise than the gondola, you see, so we swing like a pendulum underneath if there’s a good blow going. Sorry if it unsettled you. Takes some getting used to if you’re new to these things.”

“I just came round the horn on a side wheeler. I thought I was used to a moving deck.”

“Ah. Ships roll round the keel, you see. We swing beneath the gas bag. The motion’s just backward.”

“Well, it’s certainly ruined my breakfast. Good morning, Captain.”

“Doctor,” the captain replied, a slender man of medium height with neatly trimmed white hair and van dyke beard.

“I’m terribly sorry, but your name seems to have slipped my mind. I know it’s something like Morten, but things were a bit of a blur last night.”

“I don’t doubt they were, Doctor. I’m surprised you remember your own name. It’s Monroe, Clinton Monroe.”

“Monroe, of course,” Ellsworth said, extending his hand.

“As you have already found, imbibing alcohol in the tropics has a little different effect than it does up in the cooler latitudes,” Monroe said, shaking his passenger’s hand.

“Indeed. I think I’ve learned my lesson.”

“Being hung over and riding this ship will complete the lesson, I’m thinking. You were less than clear on your destination last night, Doctor.”

“I’m not decided on where I’m going yet,” Ellsworth replied. “Someplace with a wide variety of foliage, that I’m certain of.”

“There’s plenty of forest up-country,” Monroe told him. “Plenty of danger, as well. Leopard, boa, mamba, gorilla, spiders whose venom can start fires, and if all that isn’t enough to deter you, there are always the Maasai.”

“I’ve heard that before. What the deuce is the Maasai?”

“A native tribe. They live back in the interior, and have taken a real dislike to progress. Dislike to the point of raiding isolated plantations, killing travelers. White travelers, that is to say. Hardly pays to be a God-fearing Englishman anymore.”

“Herr Kapitan,” Gunther’s voice came through a brass tube, “do you sink you could come to ze generator flat for a moment? I vant to show you somesink.”

“Coming, Gunther,” the captain shouted into the tube. “Excuse me for a moment.”

He stepped out and headed aft, threading his way around the cargo crates on the flat after deck.

“So why does he stay out here, one wonders,” Ellsworth muttered when he had left.

“The captain was a military commander,” Patience said unexpectedly. “I gather he led a division of frigates in some ‘dispute short of war,’ as the newspapers call them. He got decoyed out of position by one of his opposite numbers, and the Crown had to humble itself before a hostile government. He was disgraced and cashiered. Came out here and crawled into a bottle for two years before he composed himself, built this ship out of cast-off parts, and started freighting to all points beyond the rails.”

“I see. That may go some way toward explaining the fare he charged me.”

“How’s that?”

“Well, he found me inebriated, it touched a chord in him, and he decided to charge me enough to buy my own team and carriage.”

“That’s where you’d be mistaken, Doctor,” she said, giving the wheel a slow swing to starboard and letting it spin a couple of rotations. “The fare is what it is.”

“Two pounds, two? You’re in it, too, then?”

“Not at all,” she said, stopping the wheel with casual expertise and watching the compass settle on a new course. “You see, above this roof is a great bag of hydrogen. It will lift a specific weight, and not an ounce more.”

“What has that to do with taking advantage of a man in his cups?”

“Well, an ocean vessel is designed to carry a certain tonnage. If you overload it, it rides lower in the water, but if you distribute the weight carefully, and be careful to stay where it’s calm, you can move your cargo relatively safely, you see?”

“Yes, but—”

“Same with a train. An engine is rated to pull a certain load, but if you’re willing to pay a price in engine wear and increased fuel consumption, you can overload the train and do what you need to accomplish. But with an airship, you take the total tonnage we can lift, subtract the weight of the vessel, our equipment and supplies, personal effects, the weight of our bodies, and what remains is the exact amount of weight that we can sell to make our living, and not an ounce more. It costs what it costs.”

“I see. So if the Queen’s Consort needed a ride—”

“He’d pay the same rate you did.”

“Seriously?”

“I give you my word on this, Doctor. He didn’t swindle you.”

“All right. I’ll take your word, then.”

“Good. Now, what’s this obsession you have about going out into the bush alone?”

“I’m a botanist. The way you study plants is to go where the plants are. I am given to understand that there are plants in this land that science has never seen.”

“Probably. So what? They’re just plants.”

“They aren’t just plants! Well, they are, but have you ever stopped to think about what a plant is?”

“I suppose you’re about to tell me.”

“Of course. Plants are chemical factories. Did you ever notice how some plants never seem to get bug infestations, others are resistant to frost, and so on?”

“Hmmm. Now you mention it.”

“All those immunities and abilities come from chemicals made by the plant. Most of our pharmacology is plant-based. One of the finest lubricating oils is extracted from a Japanese legume. These forests may contain thousands of plants with thousands of chemicals that science has never seen.”

“That’s very possible, Doctor. They also contain a good many ways to die that are well documented. Do you own a gun?”

“Of course.”

“What sort? Because I didn’t see a case when Faraji’s boys brought your things aboard.”

“A Webley .455. It’s in my suitcase. One of the most powerful handguns made.”

“Yes. Have you ever seen a leopard, Doctor?”

“Of course.”

“I mean a live one, up close. Picture a house cat as big as Gunther that hunts by ambush. You’ll have no idea it’s around until it lands on your back and digs in with inch-long claws and two-inch teeth. And then, if you are able to get your Webley out of the holster and bring it to bear, you shoot an animal like that with a pistol, you’re going to make it exceedingly angry.”

“A Webley?”

“Believe me. And leopards aren’t your biggest problem in the bush, either. Add in snakes, venomous insects, the odd man-eating plant. Wouldn’t that be ironic? And the Maasai, mustn’t forget the Maasai. No, the only safe way for you to go into the bush is to have a dozen boys, armed with rifles, watching your back, and even that isn’t really safe. If you’re so bent on going into the bush alone, you should just get out your Webley and put a bullet in your head. That would save you a considerable amount of agony later.”

“I say!”

“This is the world we live in, Doctor. I’m just trying to save your life. We carry a lot of newcomers, fresh from the boat, up-country. The lucky ones see what they’ve gotten into, and we carry them back a fortnight later. You’re a nice boy, Doctor. I hope you’re one of the lucky ones.”

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