#39 Expeditions & interrogations: part 2
The beginnings of a long journey for Nisha and Zoltan
Previously: All change for the detectives of the SDC as they’re sent on unusual missions far from home. While Clarke and Styles have traversed the portal to Palinor, Kaminski and Chakraborty are heading in a very different direction: south, across the continent, on the fastest train the Empire has to offer…
The steam bullet raced at close to two hundred miles per hour across the French countryside, its engine pulling the twenty carriages down the tracks at such a speed that Kaminski felt slightly nauseous as he leaned back in his seat and gazed out the window. The journey had begun early with a far less impressive train to Dover, then the ferry across the channel. Robin knew her stuff, and had deemed that this was the fastest route, but the road ahead still seemed impossibly long.
Chakraborty sat opposite, which made the prospect of the trip altogether more palatable. She’d softened a little after the kengto incident, the frosty distance that had been there ever since Max-Earth seeming to thaw. It was almost like the old days. As long as they didn’t kill each other, it would be a good chance to reconnect away from the madness of London. The sun was high, which meant they were around halfway to Marseille.
“I haven’t been on European soil since I first came to England,” he said, lighting another cigarette.
“I used to go on holidays to France when I was a kid,” she said. “Seems like another lifetime. I can’t remember the name of the place.”
They wouldn’t be getting off the train, not until they hit the south coast. France seemed huge compared to Britain, but it was nothing compared to what came after. “You think this is a wild good chase?” he said, “or reckon we might actually find something?”
“It’s about fifty-fifty.”
He laughed. “Better odds than I was thinking.” They were sat in a small private cabin, one of several, with a narrow corridor running all the way down one side of the carriage. It was a comfortable, almost luxurious experience, a long way removed from the crowded trams of central London or even the regional services back home. The cabin’s two benches were plush and forgiving, while there was a small sink and mirror in one corner for refreshing one’s appearance and a fold-down table for reading or playing games. Two carriages down there was a restaurant carriage providing a dining experience smart enough to make Kaminski feel awkward, and at the far rear was an impressively well-stocked bar. He’d never been one for travelling, but doing it in style had a certain appeal.
The track hugged the banks of the Rhône as the train whipped along, town and villages flashing by in an instant. This was the express, the famous steam bullet, crossing all of France from north to south in less than a day. It would stop for nobody until it reached Marseille.
Kaminski stretched his legs and opened the sliding cabin door. The corridor was noisier, less sound proofed, and standing he was more aware of the rocking of the train and the clacking of the wheels on the rails. This leg alone would have taken days back in the day; now anyone could get across all of France in ten hours. It still impressed him, even knowing that Max-Earth could travel from the Earth to the Moon in the same time. Everything there was scaled up, to the point that Kaminski’s brain couldn’t hold the numbers straight. From the windows in the corridor he looked east, and could just make out the foothills of the alps.
He heard the door at the rear end of the carriage click open, then a man appeared in the corridor holding a coffee and a newspaper. He hesitated, but Kaminski waved him on and withdrew back into the cabin. The moustachioed man, about his age, nodded his thanks as he passed, then disappeared into the adjacent cabin.
“Shut the door,” Chakraborty said, “it’s noisy. I’m trying to sleep.” She had her feet up on the bench and had covered herself with her jacket. “How long?”
“I’m not sure, but we passed Lyon about half an hour ago. So another hour? Two perhaps? We’re making good time, I think.”
The airship dock at Marseille was one of the busiest and largest in Europe, rivalling even the London portal station in terms of footfall and shipped cargo. The city had organically become the best jumping-off point for anyone travelling from north and western Europe to anywhere else on the Mediterranean. The maturation of airship technology had shifted the focus of passenger travel from sea to air: it was faster, safer and considerably more exciting.
Transfer was simple, with the steam bullet station located directly below the airship dock. After they’d disembarked with their bags, Kaminski and Chakraborty had merely to show their passports and ascend in an elevator. They emerged into an enclosed waiting area with glass for walls, offering a remarkable view of the city and the water to the south. The dock was wide, able to house half a dozen large airships at any one time. As soon as one departed another would arrive.
It was hot and humid, sweat starting to form in the small of Kaminski’s back as soon as they left the cooled train carriage. There was more of a cooling breeze once they emerged onto the airship platform and were led into a partitioned lane. They shuffled toward the ramp onto the airship.
“I wish we were stopping here for a while,” Kaminski said. “I could take a few days on the Med. Bars, a few drinks, sit on the beach.”
“Have you noticed the air here?” Chakraborty waved a hand vaguely. “Even here at the dock, it smells completely different to London.”
“Smells like it’s not killing you.”
It was an overnight flight to Cairo. The airship’s interior was less luxurious than the steam bullet, but it made up for it by having space. Chakraborty walked the communal lounge, up and down, repeatedly, for the first hour, simply revelling at regaining feeling in her legs. Zoltan had explored the train somewhat but she’d largely remained in their cabin, a decision she’d regretted when they’d disembarked and she’d discovered any form of movement to be a new form of agony.
They had a cabin at the rear. A single cabin, keeping up the pretence of being a newly married couple. Zoltan was back there at the moment catching some sleep. They’d arranged to swap after a couple of hours. Kaminski and Chakraborty, off on another adventure. It reminded her a little of the Max-Earth rescue, though this time Kaminski was travelling on purpose. There was still that sense of being outside of their ordinary lives, that slightly heightened magic of being away from home and away from the office. She could go wake him up; like she had back on Max-Earth, in that hotel. Part of her wanted it. Most of her warned her against it. It had been amazing; then it had been difficult, and awkward, and everything had felt simply wrong once they’d returned to London, like a spell had broken. Why was it she could only do this when she was outside of her normal life?
It was still work, of course: once they hit Cairo they’d transfer to another train that would whisk them halfway down Africa to Addis Ababa. The Ethiopian capital and the only other city to be host to a portal. Bakker had wanted them to check it out in person, and had used the people trafficking case from the previous year as an excuse. Following up loose ends. Checking that the traffickers hadn’t simply moved to a different port. It was close to the truth, which made it a conveniently believable lie.
Addis was different in that it only had a single portal, rather than London’s twins. Addis was connected only to Max-Earth, though it was a link they’d exploited to maximum effect, based on what she’d seen. Official British channels downplayed it, but there was no disguising that Ethiopia - and the UAC in general - was now a leading technological country, thanks to help from their Max-Earth friends.
First there was the Mediterranean to navigate. The airship would fly them over Italy, over the southern tip of Greece, before touching down on African soil. Another seven hours to go. The world was impossibly big. And there were three of them.
Thank you for reading. I’ve had Covid for the last week, which has not made getting this chapter out any easier. If any of it seems delirious or generally nonsensical, my apologies.
More on that and everything else in the author notes, which follow for paid subscribers…