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The Sugarcane Drive

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From the cramped office beneath the rafters of the old rum distillery, windows opened on one side to the outdoors, and on the other to the factory floor. The sounds and scents from inside and out met and mingled: the squealing of a drove of pigs en route to market seemed for a moment to come from indoors, where the tang of methane escaped the distillation tanks; the shouts of the workers shoveling bagasse seemed to drift up from the dockyards. A sweet note that might have been molasses in the retorts or honeysuckle climbing the eaves hung unplaceable in the air, belonging to nowhere more specific than Port-au-Prince itself.

Eugenie Rillieux listened to the experimental fuel-works as she imagined Jessaline must listen to the world itself: aware of its rhythms, and prepared to jolt into readiness the instant they stumbled, without needing to put a name to the danger. Jessaline, seated at Eugenie's desk, gave no sign of divided attention as she perused Eugenie's carefully-inked plans, but Eugenie knew not a murmur escaped her. Though Jessaline, she thought,  could not have put a name to all the factory's sounds: the  rattle of the boilers in the distillation room, the screech and hiss of the valve on the hydrogen tank, as someone-- probably Nuñez, who noticed such things-- released some of the built-up gas into another vessel before the too-fragile steel could burst.

Soon, Eugenie would have a new place, with new sounds to get used to: a purpose-built engine works, to construct the metal mouths that would eat these fuels and the metal stomachs that would turn them to power for flight. 

Jessaline read the plans through twice, the second time with an abstracted look that said she was doing sums in her head. "Copper vats," she said at last. "Copper pipe. Copper tubing. The Bureau d'Industrie has already allocated nearly the whole of domestic copper production to the dirigible fleet, and what we can purchase from Santo Domingo. And then there is the steel, and the glass, and rubber and zinc—it is too much." She straightened the papers and folded her hands neatly atop them.

"I see." Eugenie resisted the impulse to grab up the plans and disarrange them—or to crumple them and fling them away, for all the good they had done, for all the evenings Jessaline had watched her at her drafting-table, working by lamplight, and paused behind her to stroke her hair. "Is that what you will tell the Bureau?"

"I will tell them that I still favor your first proposal, unless you can tell me where the money is to come from for so much equipment—where the money is to come from at all, with so much cane going to this ethanol fuel?"

It had seemed so easy and efficient, when she had first set to work. Rum distillation produced effluent; effluent produced methane; methane produced methyl alcohol and hydrogen. Eugenie, taken by the wondrous efficiency of the chemistry, had laid out a plan by which the rum waste might be broken down into lighter-than-air gas to lift an airship, and efficient, clear-burning fuel to propel it-- and for a prodigious distance, with no fuel needed to provide lift. The sugarcane provided the fuel for its own refining in its woody waste, the bagasse; and the refined cane provided everything else.

She'd laid out the process before ever setting foot on an airship. The flight to Haiti, and the tour of their craft that Jessaline had arranged, had shown her quickly enough the errors in her thinking. An airship was not a locomotive, which might take on coal anywhere along its route. It was a little world, carrying everything it needed along the whole of its journey; the stored fuel and the engines were suspended together, not even yards away from the fragile envelope of waxed cotton and bamboo. Even on Eugenie's craft, with its coal furnace and its balloon of heated air, fire had been a constant threat. To replace the fuel with quick-flaring methyl was worrisome enough; to suspend that torch beneath a globe of hydrogen gas... was the sort of danger that only a chemist truly comprehended, Eugenie supposed. Jessaline, for all her knowledge of the world, was no scientist; and her superiors at the Bureau d'Industrie, though learned enough in their own fields, were practical men and women. And, survivors of a revolution, they had learned to hold danger lightly-- especially when it did not wear a face.

"We can run the fleet just as well on ethanol," Eugenie maintained.  "My design is highly efficient: we extract the methane from the effluent and burn it to power the secondary distillation, all under one roof-- and the Bureau can buy up existing rum distilleries, which are already fitted out with half the equipment the process needs."

"And the other half will need to be repeated ten to a dozen times to power the existing vessels alone. The hydrogen works could power the entire fleet out of two or three facilities like this one—and without cutting into our export production. We need to stay within our capacities."

"That's not a sentiment I expect to hear from you," said Eugenie. It came out too primly, too clearly a reference to more personal matters. Jessaline lifted an eyebrow, and Eugenie could not help but blush. She felt a rush of envy—for Jessaline's complexion, she told herself, too dark to betray a blush; but in truth, it was her partner's self-possession she envied. She could speak boldly of—of all sorts of things,  cool as you please.

Jessaline considered her, head cocked, and then reached out and traced Eugenie's heated cheek with a slender finger. "If I've been pushing you," she said, "beyond what you're prepared to do, I can—"

"You can refrain from distracting me," Eugenie said and caught Jessaline's hand firmly before the touch could become a caress. "This is a conversation for later."

"Mademoiselle Rillieux." Eugenie jumped; Jessaline, predictably, only smiled and turned to the door. "Mademoiselle Cleré," the visitor added, tipping his hat: Anatol Nuñez, the Dominican engineer Eugenie had hired to manage the testing of the experimental engines. "Mademoiselle Rillieux, I think you should examine the hydrogen tanks."

Jessaline followed them down to the factory floor, to where the hydrogen was captured and stored in steel tanks. "You see, Mademoiselles, how the sides of the tank are out of true. If it should rupture—"

Eugenie knelt, carelessly spreading her chintz skirts. The warping was very subtle, but she could see, where the valve was set in, a slight swell and dimpling in the steel.

"That was well spotted, Monsieur Nuñez. Were you expecting this?"

"It seemed worth paying attention to," he demurred. "The consequences of failure being what they are."

"Have it replaced immediately," she said, "and examine it thoroughly." Nuñez called for his crew and gave the orders, addressing them in the same smooth and educated French with which he spoke to Eugenie.

"If you were not so naturally guileless," Jessaline murmured afterwards, at the factory gate, "I should think you planned that."

"And if you were not so naturally suspicious, I should be offended," said Eugenie. She squeezed Jessaline's hand in lieu of a kiss. "I'll be home at six, or not long after. And I do mean to continue our conversations. Both of them."

~*~

In Eugenie's mind, the conversation had started even before she had set foot on Haitian soil. A marriage, she had said. Her price, for emigrating. And marriage meant children, or the chance of them at least. She wanted to take that chance; she wanted a child. But there was a necessary first step.

Jessaline had started by suggesting men to her, trustworthy men, men she knew and cared for. But Jessaline was a famous beauty, courted by half the society of Port-Au-Prince-- and by many who were no part at all of society, there or elsewhere. And Eugenie was under no illusions that Jessaline's courting had been as chaste as hers. It was a strange sort of jealousy, but Eugenie could not bring herself to be touched by a man who would be making that particular comparison.

She had articulated this to Jessaline—with some difficulty, for it was not a question she had ever considered—and Jessaline had simply nodded and said "Then you shall choose someone else." As though it was as simple as that.

Eugenie found it anything but simple. She had never made a habit of considering men in that way. She had taken pride in that, once. Since Jessaline, she had come to think it no more an accomplishment than her pale skin, and no more a matter for airs and pridefulness than anything else God had given her. But still, it was a hard habit to pick up, at the age of twenty-five.

Jessaline, for the moment, contented herself with broadening Eugenie's connexion.  Her new role in the Bureau required her to play politics, and she entertained frequently; Eugenie tried to meet the men who came through their house with an open mind—a terribly open mind—but it was trying.

And the more so when, as tonight, she returned home and found Jessaline surrounded by strangers again. She found herself explaining their flight from New Orleans to a trio of young men from the diplomatic corps.

"My original plans—on which I'm glad to say I have improved considerably—were stolen by a man named Forstall, an agent of the order of the White Camellia. You have heard of them?" she asked the senior diplomat, a man called Duroe.

"To my despair, yes," he said. "And I have heard more than that. Forstall sold those plans to the United States Army, for a considerable sum."

Jessaline was silent a moment—repressing an oath, Eugenie suspected. "I expected no less of him," she said at last. "And what of the United States Army, Monsieur Duroe?"

He smiled like a conjurer about to draw your own watch from his pocket. "Of them, I have grave intelligence indeed. The United States has declared war on Mexico." His smile faltered as no one gasped at this revelation.

"Well," Jessaline said, "after Texas, it was bound to happen."

"There's already been war with Mexico for a generation," Eugenie agreed. "As well call it what it is, instead of dismissing both side's aggressions as mere banditry."

"Airships have been sighted over Santa Anna's front line," Duroe offered, and this garnered the reaction he had hoped for; but when he could say no more about the ships' configurations and range or even which side they belonged to, the conversation stumbled again, fatally this time. Duroe took his leave, crestfallen, shepherding his comrades out before him. 

Eugenie managed to stay quiet until the men had gone. "Jessaline Cleré!" she accused. "Have you—have you told these men you meet, what you—what I—do they know I'm—"

"I've told them nothing," said Jessaline. "But we are two unmarried women, as far as the world is concerned. Those who lack the imagination to see what we truly are believe they may court us both at once; and those that have sufficient imagination… they imagine they can court us, both at once, if you follow me."

"I believe I do. Oh, dear. Oh, dear me." Her affront turned to laughter at the memory of Duroe's hopeful, puppyish face. "Monsieur Duroe did not strike me as a man of great imagination," she said.

"No," Jessaline agreed. "I am sorry to have inflicted him on you, though I needed to hear his intelligence for myself, what little there was of it. Eugenie, my dear," she said, "am I pushing you? You do not need to do this thing."

"By that, do you mean it need not be done at all? Or just not by me?"

"Both," she said at once. "But if you want a child of my body, I will give it to you gladly. If you want a child of my body and your blood, your brother could—"

"No. Heavens, no. Anything but that."

Jessaline smiled in obvious relief. "Then we are agreed on that, at least."

The matter was dropped, for the moment, and they talked of other matters while they dined. There were more visitors after dinner, the political giving way to the merely social. Eugenie worked at her drafting table and let Jessaline play hostess; she only noticed they were alone again when Jessaline appeared at her elbow and said "To bed, my dear?" in her smoothest Parisian tones.

It was a political principle with her, to always speak Kreyol when at home. Only for Eugenie did she make an exception, and then only by dark. But with their two heads together on one pillow, Jessaline would murmur to her in a sweet and cultured accent that was a balm to Eugenie's ears.

It was in proper French that she said, much later, "That you would like it less than I is not a reason for you to volunteer." She laced her fingers together over Eugenie's stomach and pressed against her back. 

Eugenie covered Jessaline's hands with her own. "You would like the rest of it far less than I would," she said, and Jessaline did not argue the point.

For Eugenie did want to be the one to carry the child. She told herself she was burning with curiosity to learn what it was like to feel a child grow, knitting together out of her own blood and body. But it was more than that. While she knew she would love Jessaline's child as much as her own, she had so little privacy here, in their house with people in and out all day. Add a child to the household, and she would have even less; and she wanted that time alone with it, getting to know it while it rode in her womb, with a closeness and focus that might never be matched again. She wanted something unambiguously her own.

So. That meant a man—and, moreover, one who would not fight her over the child. Not Jessaline's suitors and lovers; not her political contacts; not anyone she should have to nod to in the street.

~*~

It was with this in mind that she received M. Nuñez's flight plan for the first test run of the small hydrogen craft, a looping island-hopping course of six or seven days.

He would come back, of course. But a flight engineer might spend a great deal of his time away with this ship or that one…

The thought having arisen, Eugenie nourished it all that day, watching the man at work in the hangar and on the factory floor. He was certainly clever, anticipating problems almost before they started, and knowing how to solve them on the first try.

And then there was his voice, the careful Parisian accents he took such obvious pride in, for he used them even to his own countryman working the boilers, who spoke to him in their particular dialect of Spanish. Above the raucous Kreyol which she still strained to understand, his educated accents carried straight to some chamber of her heart. Eugenie was not sure if it was homesickness or a reflex learned from many nights of Jessaline's pillow talk that made her susceptible, but she was increasingly confident that she could take this man into her bed, so long as he kept speaking all the while.

Though it was curious that Jessaline had never suggested Nuñez in that capacity. She was quick enough to quiz Eugenie about every other young man she met, and some who were not so young. But she seemed to have taken against the man from the start.

Perhaps she was merely prejudiced against his countrymen. Haiti had annexed its neighbor Santo Domingo, and the Dominicans had fought, finally evicting the Haitian forces a few years ago. Relations between the countries were becoming friendlier—neither side was willing to forgo the commerce that had always existed, before and during the years of annexation—but the final struggle had been a bloody one.

She let Jessaline find her that evening, deep in conversation with Nuñez in her tiny office. "Mademoiselle Cleré," he greeted her. "Are you come to take Mademoiselle Rillieux away?"

"Monsieur Nuñez has been sharing some insights into gas containment. He proposes goldbeater's skin for the hydrogen cells."

"A costly solution, I fear," Nuñez said.

"But one that can be produced domestically," Eugenie said. "Of course, in a hot-air envelope containment is trivial."

"As you have said." Jessaline rifled through the drawings on Eugenie's desk—there were rather a lot; Nuñez, when asked, had turned out to be full of ideas. "Which do you favor, Monsieur?"

"I confess myself dubious of hydrogen and methyl both," he said, "but I am maintaining, shall we say, a professional agnosticism until the test flights are completed."

"Then I bow to your bravery, Monsieur," Jessaline said coolly, "to trust yourself to a vessel in which you have such little faith." She switched to Spanish for a sentence or two—a proverb, Eugenie thought, for she recognized the word for God.

"But, as you would say," Nuñez answered her in French, "one must break the shell to eat the almond."

"Indeed one must," said Jessaline. "And now if you will excuse us, Monsieur?"

"You were quite short with him," Eugenie said. "Are you jealous of him?" What a relief it would be, if it were so simple.

"Have I a reason to be?"

"I see as much of him as I do of you, and you know how highly I esteem his skill."

"Yes," said Jessaline, abstractedly. "About the man's skill—how well would you say he knows the factory? The ships? The underlying chemistry?"

"The refining processes, he knows more by association than by study. But he knows the airships as well as anyone—better than I do, certainly. He knows what the machines are going to do before they know it themselves."

"Does he, now," said Jessaline, and stalked away toward home so quickly Eugenie had to trot to keep up, sweeping her skirts up out of the street.

~*~

Jessaline was closeted most of the night with documents from the Bureau. After a hurried dinner, she retreated back into the small parlor she used as a study, and sent the maid out twice with letters. When a runner from her office arrived at half past eleven, Eugenie gave up on her and went to bed alone.

She slept poorly, the bed too big around her and Jessaline's worry preying on her own mind. It was something to do with Nuñez, it had to be—something she had worried about for a long time, to have never proposed him as a solution to their personal trouble, but something that had only become urgent in the last day.

Since Nuñez had made his flight plans? Since the trouble with the hydrogen tank? Those were weighty things in Eugenie's realm, but trifles to Jessaline, who dealt in matters that touched all of Haiti, and the world—

And then it was all there, as clear in her mind as the synthesis of methanol: Since the news of the Mexican war.

Nuñez knew Spanish, but would not speak it—for fear of betraying his own accents. Nuñez had known the fuel refinery from the moment he had walked in the door—just as if he had seen the stolen plans. Nuñez could have had the experimental ship flight-ready any time in the last month—but had waited on news from home.

But was home Mexico, or American Texas? It was not Santo Domingo, that much was clear.

Jessaline still had not come to bed. Eugenie rose and dressed and went downstairs to find her—but the study was empty.

She had not been gone long; the lamp was still warm to the touch. And, uncharacteristically, she had left her derringer behind.

Eugenie hesitated only momentarily before pocketing the weapon, and stepped out the door.

~*~

Jessaline was not at the factory when Eugenie arrived. She must have gone straight to the hangar, then. For a spy, it was the obvious choice: it offered sabotage and escape, both.

But the watchman at the hangar had Nuñez's flight plan, and he would give the alarm over any unscheduled movement. The factory watchman had not been told to stop M. Nuñez the engineer from coming in at night if he chose, and he would not know the difference between experiment and maintenance and sabotage—not until the building went up in flames.

Eugenie's guess was right. "Oh, yes, he came in, oh, a quarter-hour past," the watchman said. "You want me to find him for you, Mamselle?"

"Yes, but silently," Eugenie said. "Stay behind me, and make no sound."

They found Nuñez at the hydrogen tanks, as she had suspected, but everything was in place. He was taking readings from the pressure gauges, noting down  the figures in a book thickly marked with drawings and measurements.

Eugenie watched from the shadow of the great copper retorts while Nuñez thumbed the pages, stopping now and then to correcting and annotate his notes. If he was bent on sabotage, he was making a complete record of the factory design beforehand. There was a small sound from the darkness—a rat's scuttle, almost below hearing, but Nuñez stiffened. Eugenie seized the instant, and drew the derringer. "Señor Nuñez. Where are you off to, when you finish here?"

He turned and regarded the gun with something like disappointment. "Mademoiselle Rillieux. You would not fire, so close to the holding tanks; we both know it." 

"Ah, but I would," said Jessaline, from Nuñez's other side. She stepped into the light, revealing a tube of bamboo, such as airships were framed in, and in her other hand a sharp splinter of tarry wood: a blowgun, perfectly safe for use in  a volatile environment. Oh, wonderful Jessaline! "Now speak, Monsieur."

Nuñez spread his hands, beaten. "I was to take the experimental ship back to Mexico, for the war effort," he said. "The Yanquis built a methane fuel works months ago, from the Forstall plans; Santa Anna captured it and found it abandoned."

"So you knew what we were doing here from the beginning," Eugenie said. "All your insight…"

"I like to think some of it was my own, Mademoiselle," he said, genuinely stung. "I didn't know what I would find in Port-Au-Prince. I knew only what the Yanquis were doing, before they gave it up, but they had persisted in mistakes that you corrected before this project left the drawing board: their refinery devoured coal, too quickly to make the process economical."

"But you anticipated their errors, and kept me from falling into them."

"You are kind to say so." He smiled, without hope behind it; it was so far from his usual expression that it looked quite wrong on him.

"Enough," Jessaline said. "You admit to espionage, you admit you have planned to rob us. Tell me, Monsieur, why I should not shoot you now?"

"Because," Eugenie said, "he has a proposal to take to his government." The others stared, though Jessaline turned only with her eyes, keeping the blowgun trained on Nuñez. "Copper," Eugenie said. "Zinc, rubber. Mexico has these; and it seems to me we are in a fine place to negotiate."

Jessaline frowned. "It will not be so fine a place when the guns are put away; and we will still need copper next year." A single line appeared between her fine brows as she thought.

"We lead the world in airships, Jessaline," Eugenie said; at the ease of that we, Jessaline's eyes widened. "Surely, we can trade from a position of strength."

"We can," Jessaline said at last. "But not for copper." She turned to Nuñez. "Air havens. Five to begin with—Chetumal, Veracruz, Ciudad Mexico, and two towns of your choosing, the land to be treated as consular grounds, Haitian soil."

"Air havens?" he echoed. "You take a very long view, Mademoiselle."

"I try." To Eugenie, she explained, "The trade of commodities will work itself out. It is trade itself we are negotiating for now. If we give them the refining processes, the Mexicans will build their own fleet in short order, and our hold over the Caribbean air routes will be in great jeopardy." 

"Unless we establish ourselves first."

"Precisely." Jessaline beckoned to the watchman. "Escort Monsieur Nuñez up to the office; we have a document to draw up." To Nuñez, she said, "you will understand that we cannot allow you to fly yourself back home. We will simply have to find another flight engineer for the tests."

"I had assumed as much," he sighed. "A great pity."

"Indeed," Eugenie said. "I fear we shall have to start the fuel trials on the hot-air vessel, if we cannot rely on your assistance with the hydrogen containment."

Jessaline's eyes narrowed, but she granted Eugenies the point. "I do hope," she said,  "that we may rely on your help when we come to Mexico to establish the air havens there. I know Eugenie should be glad to continue your collaboration."

"As should I, Mademoiselle. As should I." He sounded more pleased than Eugenie should have expected, and she found herself smiling back at him. Collaboration, indeed. Jessaline was taking a long view, bless her. Eugenie couldn't complain.

"We have much to work out first, Monsieur," she said, and waved him and the watchmen up the rickety stairs before her.

Jessaline relieved her of the derringer, and tucked it and the dart gun into her reticule, still within easy reach. She seemed easier with the black-tipped splinter than Eugenie would have been.

"Was that dart actually poisoned?" she murmured, outside the office door.

"You must leave me some secrets," said Jessaline, and swept into the office.