Fiction – “Twentieth Century” by Michael Glenn Farquhar
If the sky pirates had attacked the Twentieth Century Limited but minutes earlier, Jack Mozart would have had no chance to destroy the film in the spy’s camera.
Things might then have turned out very differently. At the very least, he would have been contemplating a profoundly different report to his superiors in Washington.
Better in the beginning to have simply denied Gillian Tudor entry into the train compartment he was sharing with Carl Engler…
Had there been any basis for denying her.
Or, Jack admitted ruefully, had she been any less beautiful…
She appeared in the compartment’s door just as the calls of “All aboard!” began echoing down the platform. Jack, who had been seated watching a file of Army troopers march past, their blue uniforms bright under the platform’s lights, rose politely.
The top of the woman’s head, a labyrinth of caramel-gold braids, barely reached his collar. Her features—chin, nose, and cheekbones—looked sharp as blades. Yet, Jack had to admit, she was utterly beautiful, and he considered himself both knowledgeable and a connoisseur. She looked to be in her midtwenties, but he suspected she was older than that.
“How do you do?” he murmured, tipping slightly from the waist with a click of his heels. “May I be of some assistance?” The train’s whistle shrieked like a dinosaur gored for supper.
The young woman’s eyes snapped wide, and she stepped in quickly as if for shelter from the sound. She wore an ankle-length skirt—buttoned down the side and, in Jack’s judgment, so fashionably slim as to allow for a single sheer petticoat at best—and a short-waisted jacket, both emerald green, her creamy silk blouse blossoming in frills at cuffs and throat. She carried a brocaded valise in one hand and a small black-leather purse in the other.
“Crowded train,” commented Carl Engler curtly from where he slumped in a corner away from the window.
The woman shrugged. “The Twentieth Century. What can one expect?” She smiled tightly. “Truly, all the other compartments are full, except the one with the screaming child. May I enter?”
“As if you haven’t already?” muttered Carl. Jack stepped back and gestured her in with a wave of his hand. He knew that the presence of federal troops and the train’s unusual cargo had left limited accommodations for the paying passengers.
“By all means,” he murmured. “Plenty of room here.”
The woman tossed her valise onto the overhead rack and sank into the plush seat opposite Carl with a sigh. If she was put off by the scientist’s unkempt appearance she gave no sign. “Thank you,” she said, smiling again, her small, even teeth and sharp features lending her a vixenish look.
Jack seated himself next to Carl as the train lurched and the platform began to slide past. He noted with some amusement that the young woman had the knack of taking in both men without seeming to look at either. Justice, he felt, would incline her attention toward him rather than Carl, his immaculate pinstripes, not Carl’s worn tweeds, his crimson four-in-hand and silk-faced waistcoat, not Carl’s half-undone cravat and stained shirtfront. He knew his clean-shaven features, blue eyes, and freshly barbered black hair contrasted more than sharply with Carl’s several-day growth of beard, muddy, bloodshot gaze, and lank brown hair hanging in his eyes, and he knew from past experience that women found the scar down his left cheek fascinating.
Now, however, was not the time for casual romance, and Jack’s professional side appreciated the injustice of the woman’s unfocused attention.
“I’m Mr. Mozart,” he said. He tilted his head toward his companion. “Mr. Engler.”
Gillian folded her hands in her lap. “Miss Tudor, but you may call me Gillian.”
“Very well, I’m Jack, he’s Carl.”
Gillian’s eyes, fully as green as her ensemble, twinkled. “You’re related to Wolfgang Amadeus…?”
Jack shook his head. “If I am, it’s too distant to have come down to me.” He grinned. “And you’re descended from…?”
Gillian had a charming laugh, light and tumbling. “Not that I know of, but I guess none of us ever really know, do we?” She shrugged. “Your destination is Niagara Falls as well?”
“None other,” nodded Jack.
“Important meeting,” muttered Carl, ignoring Jack’s sudden hand on his arm.
“Oh,” murmured Gillian, her eyes wide. “You, then, must be men of business.”
“You might say that,” Jack concurred carefully.
Carl twitched as if something had crawled down his pants. “I am the author of a very important discovery,” he said, his voice as stuffy as a sealed attic. Jack winced inwardly at the word author. “At Niagara Falls we will meet men with the training to copy my plans and implement them.”
Gillian leaned forward, clearly fascinated. “Do tell,” she murmured, her voice as soft as silk and smooth as a hawk’s gyre. “And what discovery is this?” The twinkle in her eyes proved so infectious that Jack found himself wanting to smile along. Don’t answer, he thought.
Of course, popinjay that he was, Carl did. He straightened in his seat, pushed his chest out, and let the corners of his mouth rise in what otherwise might have been a somewhat bashful smile.
“The secret of turning wood into anthracite, or into naphtha,” he said.
“Carl!” snapped Jack. “Have a care!”
Carl frowned. “It’s in all the papers, Jack,” he sniffed.
“But your presence on this train is not.” He turned to Gillian. “You’ll have to forgive us, but perhaps it would be a good idea if you left after all.”
Gillian raised a hand, her face stricken. “I swear, Jack—Mr. Mozart—there is nowhere else to go. And to what point?” Her teeth again revealed themselves in a careful, foxlike smile. “As a matter of fact, I should have recognized Mr. Engler’s name, since I was reading about him just yesterday in the Times. They say his process, if successful, has the potential to completely remake civilization.”
“Indeed.” Carl positively beamed.
Jack wanted to throw his hands in the air in disgust, but refrained. Only the chief of the Secret Service and the president of the United States were supposed to know he and Carl were on this train but that was clearly a plan consigned to smoke.
“They say,” she continued, directing her attention entirely to Carl, “that if the evolution of wood-digesting bacteria had been delayed for some millions of years, trees of that primitive, swamp-ridden era might, under extended geologic pressure, have turned on their own into anthracite or naphtha. That your process can emulate that which geology might otherwise have performed on our behalf.”
“You see?” Carl pointed a finger at Jack. “Here’s a young woman who understands what she reads!”
Jack cocked his head. “You wouldn’t be one of those modern young women who has a college degree in one of the sciences?”
Gillian pressed her fingers to her chest just below her throat. “Me? My gracious no! One doesn’t have to be a scientist to understand what a newspaper says!”
The enthusiasm that fired Carl’s eyes alarmed Jack, but the inventor and the young woman had both put him in a position of being able to do little without drawing even more unwelcome attention. Granted that the powers-that-be had chosen the Twentieth Century Limited because it had already been partially appropriated for a bullion shipment, with plenty of troops to guard it. Nonetheless, keeping Carl Engler’s presence secret—or, at this point, little known—remained a priority. Jack’s superiors would have kept Carl from the newspapers if only they had known what he was up to in time to stop him.
Some in Washington now believed he should have been put under arrest, but there had seemed little point to slamming the door on the man after his ideas had bolted.
Or perhaps not, as the fire in his eyes reached his mouth.
“Imagine!” he exclaimed. “The land transformed! A motorized vehicle for every citizen! Heavier-than-air flight finally possible for human beings!”
“Like those Wright boys out in Ohio!” cried Gillian.
“Exactly!” Carl ran his fingers through his hair and grinned delightedly. “It is clear from both their articles and their work with gliders that they have solved most—if not all—of the problems of heavier-than-air flight. The one thing they and their competitors lack is a power source sufficiently compact and lightweight to get their machines into the air and keep them there.”
“And your mass-produced naphtha would do that?” Gillian clasped her hands as though a lovelorn lass awaiting word from her beau out West.
Carl raised a finger. “Not by itself, no. But properly distilled it could provide the fuel for such an engine—”
The inventor glared at Jack. “A reporter from the Sun asked me this very question yesterday!”
Jack folded his arms across his chest and kept his gaze steady. “I’m sure Miss Tudor is already as fully up to date as the papers will permit.”
“But, Mr. Mozart—Jack—this is wonderful!” She turned again to Carl. “So this would free us from our geographical dependence on wind and water for power, especially electrical generation?”
“Absolutely,” said Carl. “We would still need to burn fuel for long-distance travel, as with this train, but that fuel would produce energy much more efficiently.”
“But the energy to run your process—”
“Would come from the electrical and wood-burning facilities we already have.”
“And that must involve converting even more land to hardwood plantations?”
Carl suddenly appeared more cautious. “Some, perhaps.” Just as abruptly his spirits lifted. “But, my dear”—Jack watched Gillian’s eyes blink once, lightning fast, as that trace of condescension slid through Carl’s voice—”much of the world, both temperate and tropical, is covered with wild forest. That will last a long time.”
Gillian smile broadened as if she had just been passed a truly delightful bon mot. “And when those forests are gone?”
“We will undoubtedly have passed on to superior technologies.”
“But, as you said, the land will have been transformed.”
“Assuredly.” Carl glanced distractedly toward the window opening onto the corridor, and Jack saw, with some relief, that he was becoming bored. Apparently there were limits to how long even the flattery of gorgeous young women could engage him.
“How about a bite to eat,” Jack suggested.
The dining car of the Twentieth Century was sumptuous even by the standards of contemporary rail travel. Jack would have enjoyed luxuriating in the plush upholstery of the seating, the snowy linen covering the tables, the gleam of china, silver, and crystal, the polished wood of panels and fixtures, plus the Limited had a real reputation for truly fine food preparation. As it was, he held both himself and the bitterly complaining inventor to iced tea and shrimp cocktail appetizers. Not to his surprise, Gillian Tudor had insisted she was not hungry and wanted to remain behind in the compartment to rest.
Jack couldn’t trust Carl enough to leave him in the dining car on his own, but after a few minutes he realized he could wait no longer. He rose.
“Come on,” he said. “Let’s go.”
“What are you talking about?” Carl protested. He yanked his arm away from Jack’s hand, and one of the liveried servers stepped toward them as if on the verge of interfering. Jack smiled at the server forbearingly.
“You know we have to check up on Miss Tudor,” he said calmly to Carl.
“Then go check up on her. I’m hungry!”
“We’re in this together,” continued Jack, “and you’ll keep that in mind if you plan on meeting with the rest of our group tomorrow.”
“There’s nothing you can do to prevent it!”
“Do you want to test that?” Jack asked softly. Carl sighed and rose.
Jack smiled again at the server as he and Carl slipped by.
He did have the truculent inventor wait a few steps inside the door at the end of the passenger car, where he would be within eyeshot of Jack—Jack felt he couldn’t trust the man to remain sufficiently quiet for a stealthy approach to their compartment, even over the click of the rails and the occasional deep rumble as the car shifted.
It came as no surprise to see Gillian through the compartment door industriously photographing Carl’s papers with an elegantly small camera she had apparently had hidden in the walnut vanity case now lying open next to her valise on one of the seats.
She spun as he slammed the door open.
“Oh,” she said, her voice dropping, the implied it’s you conveying her disappointment at his arrival. Not a trace of fear entered her eyes.
“Very nice.” Jack took the camera from her, the small box of wood and laminate fitting neatly in the palm of his hand. “You really are interested in the science of hydrocarbons, aren’t you,” he remarked. He popped the camera open and yanked the film out. She winced as if cut to the bone.
“A girl without prospects has to make a career for herself by some means,” she replied softly.
“You without prospects.” Jack choked back a laugh. “Tell me another one, sister.” He slipped the camera into a coat pocket. “Such as, for whom are you working?”
Gillian shrugged. “I was hoping for a scoop.”
“You’re passing yourself off as a newspaper writer?” He patted the side of his coat. “Not with this, you’re not.”
Gillian sighed as if in exasperation. “Honestly, this is not what you think—”
From somewhere toward the front of the train echoed a loud thud, as if a several-ton weight had been dropped to the earth. The locomotive’s whistle shrieked, and a shadow rushed across the ground, darkening the window.
“Blast,” muttered Jack. “We’re under attack.” He shoved the papers Gillian had been photographing back into the attaché case from which they had come, then slid it under one of the seats. “Come with me.”
Like Carl before her, the young woman tried to yank her hand away, but Jack caught her wrist in an iron circle of thumb and fingers. She gazed at him without blinking, and he suddenly had the oddest feeling that she was taking his measure. A crackling series of pops and several distinctively sharp explosions drifted back from the general direction of the locomotive.
“Where are we going?” Gillian demanded.
“I’m going to see if I can help. You are staying away from those papers.” Jack leaned backward out of the compartment’s doorway and into the corridor. He saw a number of faces, caught in various stages of concern or fright, peering out of compartments the length of the car.
“Carl!” Jack called. “Come here!”
Glowering, the disheveled inventor made his way down the corridor, looking—in Jack’s estimation anyway—more akin to a scarecrow than a man.
“Yeah, what is it?” he muttered.
Jack gestured. “In you go.”
“What do you think you’re—”
Jack assisted him into the compartment with a firm hand.
“There’s going to be fighting,” he said. “Do you want to be in the thick of it, or comparatively safe?”
Carl pointed with his chin. “What about her?”
“She’s coming with me.” Jack pointed. “I want you to stay out of harm’s way and guard those papers. Can you do that?”
An explosion thumped close by, and several cries of alarm and outright screams rang from the front of the car.
Carl scowled. “I’ll stay here,” he said.
“Good man!” Jack clapped him on the shoulder. “Lock the door.”
“Is that wise, leaving him alone like that?” Gillian murmured as Jack pushed her down the corridor.
“No, but what choice do I have? If our attackers get this far, there won’t be much I can do to protect him.”
“I could have stayed—”
“Your game is espionage—I could hardly leave him alone with you.”
“So you don’t care what happens to me?”
Jack looked at that beautiful, foxy face glancing back at him over her shoulder, those emerald eyes again seeming to take his measure.
“Under other circumstances, I might. But right now—no.” He reached under his jacket and pulled his .45 Range Buster from its holster. Faces vanished into compartments behind slammed doors at the sight of the pistol.
“I’m a fair shot,” Gillian said. “If you have another…”
Jack reflected that, since he had proved so easily distracted as to not search a spy for firearms, he should start considering retirement. On the other hand, he doubted her purse would hold more than a miniature single-shot, and her purse remained back in the compartment. He paused, reached down, and extracted his .25 Bull Pup from its ankle holster. He extended it to the woman butt first.
“You’ll have five shots,” he said. “It won’t do you, the train, or Carl any good to waste one on me.”
She nodded with a thin-lipped smile, and Jack decided that she was canny enough to see the truth of what he had said, and that for the moment she could be trusted.
As long as he wasn’t once again committing a misjudgment…
He focused on the renewed rattle of gunfire up ahead and opened the door to the car’s platform. As he stepped out he kept his pistol raised in one hand and his other hand on Gillian’s arm, compelling her to follow. At that moment a man in blue uniform jackknifed feet-first over the roof-edge of the car in front and half slid down the ladder, firing with a pistol back the way he had come.
“What’s happening?” Jack shouted.
The soldier glanced down. “Sky pirates!” he shouted back. “High-speed mini-dirigibles, front and back!”
The soldier jerked a nod. “Pincered us. Only had a squad in the rear car…”
Jack showed his Range Buster. “We’ll go that way!”
The soldier nodded, then raised his head and shouted something to someone ahead of him on the roof of the car.
“Looks like our work’s back the way we came,” Jack cried to Gillian over the clatter of wheels on steel and the snap of gunfire. She only nodded, as curtly as had the soldier. Glancing toward the front of the train, Jack could see the locomotive where the tracks curved up ahead, smoke belching black from its tall stack, a streamlined-looking rigid-frame dirigible tethered to the mail car. As he pushed Gillian back through the door, he wondered whether the engineer thought he could outrun the damned thing, which clearly would have no trouble keeping pace—at least for the period of the assault—with its powerful screws and compact, high-efficiency steam engines.
Now, once again inside the rearward car—the rearmost but one, in fact—Jack could hear additional sounds of battle from that end of the train. Not a single face showed at a single door down the length of the corridor. As he advanced, pulling Gillian with him, he saw the door at the far end smash open and a pair of blue-jacketed troopers back through. Smoke filled the air in front of them, and the percussive discharge of their rifles as they fired back the way they had come crashed like thunder in the confines of the car. As the soldiers worked at the bolts of their weapons, Jack shouted: “Get down!”
They must have known an attacker would not be shouting a command like that from their rear—one dropped to the floor, the other crouched low to one side. Jack took a sideways stance and raised his pistol and, as several figures clad variously in black and tan and green—emphatically not blue—filled the doorway, he squeezed off four shots. Two of the figures went down. His Bull Pup cracked next to his ear, and down went a third. Sheer force of will kept Jack from looking at Gillian. He couldn’t have hit one of those men from that distance with the little gun.
He and Gillian advanced again as more figures appeared. He took down yet another with his remaining two rounds, and she a hulking bastard who only fell after she had emptied the Bull Pup into him. The amount of bullion on the train would likely make every surviving outlaw a millionaire if they succeeded in taking it—they must have had investors, to be able to afford two cutting-edge airships. So they just kept coming, filling the doorway, spilling through, all but trampling the soldiers, firing wildly and missing as Jack twisted and jinked and met them full-force with fist and gun barrel.
Whether from caution over hitting their own or lack of ammo, the gunfire tapered to nothing and the entire affray devolved into punches and kicks, thrusts and bites, while gunmetal and blades waved and flashed. A blow to the head stunned Jack momentarily, and for that instant he found himself with his back to a compartment door watching as Gillian Tudor whirled like an ecstatic dancer amid the attacking outlaws.
Somehow she had torn her skirt free and wrapped it around one arm as a makeshift shield; Jack saw no trace of even a sheer petticoat, only startlingly short drawers and pale, fetchingly muscular legs that lashed out and back and around as kick after spinning kick hit home, her skirt-shield entangling blades and fists, her own fists getting in the occasional strike to nose, eye, or throat. One of the brigands froze at the sight of the open crotch seam of her drawers as a leg flashed high. He continued to stare, fixated, as her foot connected with his jaw and took him down. Jack felt sure her shoes were made of more than leather, and he could see an unusual amount of metal in the bit of corset extending below her blouse and jacket.
Aspiring reporter indeed, he thought, as he shook his head and launched himself back into the fray just as an outlaw managed to smack her in the side of the head with his fist and send her sprawling along the floor. Reversing his pistol, Jack clubbed the man down with the butt.
A rifle shot boomed. “Enough!” someone shouted. “Surrender or die!”
Slowly the fight stalled, and the outlaws still standing took in their predicament. The two soldiers at the rear of the car stood with their rifles leveled, and a half-dozen additional soldiers advanced from the head of the car, led by the soldier from the ladder. He wore captain’s bars on his shoulders.
“Much obliged to you, sir,” he said to Jack. Gillian had regained her feet and was holding her skirt wrapped around herself. She stood mutely by a window, the side of her face livid.
“Captain Harkness,” the officer added, extending his hand.
“Jack Mozart.” Jack shook the hand.
“Thanks to you,” said Captain Harkness, “the gang attacking the front of the train didn’t get the reinforcements they expected, and we were able to regain the upper hand. Both the dirigibles have fled, and we are left with a number of dead, wounded, and prisoners to deal with.” He looked past Jack. “Sergeant, what about your detail?”
“All dead except Schmidt and myself, sir.”
The captain sighed. “Damn. Leave the bodies for now, they’ll keep till Niagara Falls. We’ll need you two to get the prisoners to the front and to guard them.” He returned his attention to Jack. “That’ll leave the rear of the train unguarded, but I think a second attack on the same train would be rather against the odds.” He sighed again. “I hope so, anyway.”
Less than a quarter-hour later, the car was clear of soldiers and prisoners, and passengers were beginning cautiously to stir from their compartments. By then Jack and Gillian had made their discovery.
Carl Engler had apparently been fool enough to stand watching as the outlaws invaded the car, and one of those early stray bullets had taken him right between the eyes. Jack was so stunned that he found himself going along with Gillian’s suggestion that they remove Carl’s body to the rear car and add it to the rest of the dead.
Once they had returned, Jack pulled the shade in the door’s window to cover the bullet hole, and slid the attaché case out from under its seat. He shook his head.
“I suppose the people we were going to meet in Niagara Falls will be able to noodle this out.”
This time it was Gillian who laid a hand on his arm. “Perhaps it would be better it they didn’t.”
Jack looked at her sharply. “What do you mean?” He saw that Gillian had somehow restored her skirt so that, despite wrinkles, it looked properly fitted and buttoned. Perhaps the buttons were snaps—he felt too tired to speculate.
“Only that this…process…really does have the potential to remake civilization as well as the land…”
Jack tried to chuckle. “You mean you don’t want your own personal motor vehicle?”
“Perhaps a sufficiently powerful battery will be invented for such a purpose.”
“Do wind and water produce enough electricity for charging so many batteries?”
Gillian smoothed her hands down the front of her skirt. “We’ve created quite an amazing civilization of steam and iron, supplemented by wind and water. You know how much smoke wood stoves and boilers produce—imagine that raised to ten, maybe even a hundred times what it is now. From what I found…read in the newspapers, the fuel produced by this process would itself be used to generate electricity.”
Jack stepped back. “Whether you’re the reporter you claim to be or the spy I know you are, it is not your place—any more than mine—to interfere.”
Gillian smiled. “You’re right, of course.” She stepped forward, those wide, clear green eyes gazing up at him. “It doesn’t matter now anyway—I’m just glad we’re alive.”
Jack wanted to lie down. “I can’t disagree with you there.”
She touched his arm again. “Jack. Back there…before the fight…you said you didn’t care what happened to me, but that under other circumstances—”
“No aspiring reporter fights the way you fought, sister—”
“Circumstances have changed, don’t you think? The man you were guarding is dead—”
“So?” Jack felt dimly amused, but at the same time disconcertingly interested. He knew well from past experience the regenerative processes that came into play in the wake of the terror of battle. And the popinjay inventor was dead…
So, when she slid a hand up around his neck and pulled his head down, he let her, the vision of her legs whirling through his imagination. His mouth gave way to her tongue, fluttering against his like a tiny bird. Oh, why not…
He felt the sting of the needle against his back and with a shocked gasp pushed her away so hard that she crashed against the locked door. Already, his vision was fading…
“You’re good, Jack,” he heard her whisper, “but with me you need eyes in the back of your head.”
Jack had awakened on one of the seats in the empty compartment, with a splitting headache and a conductor in the corridor outside announcing that the Twentieth Century was a half-hour out from Niagara Falls. An envelope had been lying by his right hand. At his feet sat the attaché case, open, filled with paper shredded, then chopped, spilling over onto the floor.
He recognized the tissue-thin vellum on which Carl had done his drawings, the yellow-white bond on which he had scribbled his notes. An assortment of knives plus a cutlass, all presumably culled from dead brigands, lay scattered on the floor.
Rage and hilarity had contended, and both had lost to bitter calm.
Now, on the platform of the rear car, the bodies of the dead behind him, he reread the note Gillian had left for him.
You will say I had no right, and I claim no right. I only did what seemed right. If Carl had not died I certainly would not have killed him, making destroying his papers superfluous. Equally, if you had simply put my camera beyond my reach rather than destroying the film, you would have made destroying his papers pointless. But he let slip early on that copies remained to be made of his papers, so his death and your action created an opportunity to nip this thing in the bud. Perhaps others will make the same discovery, but the world must cross that bridge if it comes.
Your government will never admit to what has happened, and all mine will learn from me is that Carl Engler died at the hands of pirates, and his secret died with him.
From the platform, Jack again could see the locomotive chugging around a curve of the tracks ahead, its smoke belching high, then drifting away like the remains of a dream.
He considered having the train searched, but knew that, one way or another, Gillian Tudor would not be found. Instead, he tore the note in half, then tore it again, and yet again, and those pieces individually a final time.
Jack let the remains fly from his hand, scattering like smoke on the wind.
About the Author
When not playing the role of grammar meanie for the communications office of a major research institution, Michael Glenn Farquhar spends his time reading and writing about science, religion, and politics and the myriad ways they overlap and intersect, and indulging his taste for pulp thrillers. He is currently working on a neopagan novel set in a far-future interstellar realm where magick works, the dead can be resurrected, and deities walk among mortals. His story Heart of Venus appeared in the LGBTQ issue of Crossed Genres.
He can be reached at email@example.com.