Those Less Fortunate

It’s Christmas. Well…it is here. I’m working. Or have finished work at some ridiculous hour because I set this up several days before. Automation. Wonderful stuff. And I’m probably asleep. That’s what happens when you work unsociable hours. Or are just…unsociable. Getting sidetracked.

I’m going to very briefly get up on my soapbox despite promising someone recently that I don’t in fact do that very often. Get on a soapbox that is. Honestly, have you ever tried to find one to get up on? I don’t even think they still make them. But they say good things come to…don’t even think about getting me a soapbox for Christmas! Just don’t. Moving on.

Yes, it’s Christmas, which generally is a feel good time with friends and family when we all eat and drink too much and celebrate the Christmas cheer. Except for those who aren’t celebrating for whatever reason. So spare a thought for those who might be a little less fortunate than yourself  or who don’t or can’t get with the Christmas spirit for whatever reason. I mean they might have their reasons, right? Everybody has reasons. So be a little considerate. And kind. And polite. And other…look, I’m just going to get down off this box, ok? Somebody take it away and turn it into kindling and we can all sit around and roast marshmallows, alright? Sound good? Let’s do that. Before anything bad happens.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oh. You’re still reading?

Spoilers…

 

***

 

‘Show a leg and turn out, people. I want to see sails down and sailors stand from under! And standby to weigh that damned anchor!’

Nel and the Captain’s shouted orders blurred into one long oratory as they whipped the Tantamount’s crew into action. Sailors climbed high into the rigging to unfurl sails, ropes were winched or loosed as required, hatches battened, supplies secured and all chests downed. Gabbi caught Nel’s eye from the galley door, their situation was grim and both knew it.

The Captain stood tall atop the bridge, flanked by their new navigator. The first time the Tantamount had boasted two in years and it already looked as if they might be back to one. Nel and Gabbi had barely arrived only to find Quill missing, traipsed off to town on some whim. And not just Quill but Violet and Jack hadn’t returned either.

Nel cast furtive glances at the dock, they were only a few agonising minutes from being able to cast off. Half the lines were already gong and two crew were standing by to remove the gangway at her order. For the first time Nel started to give serious consideration to what might have to happen. If her wayward crew didn’t return in the next few heartbeats, they might be left stranded at Port Border. It was Cauldron all over again. The Tantamount had no choice but to set sail, stuck in their berth they were an easy mark for boarding parties or the trained gunners of the Alliance ship.

No, they couldn’t wait. The whole ship, every soul aboard, was at risk.

‘Captain,’ Nel said through gritted teeth as she bounded to the top of the stairs, reaching the bridge. ‘Captain, we can’t…’

‘There they are, Nel,’ Horatio nodded towards the docks. Nel turned her attention, a heavy weight lifting from her chest as her eyes found the last three stragglers. Quill was leaning on Violet, he seemed to be struggling. Jack brought up the rear, one of his arms dark and stained to the elbow. But whatever their condition the three scampered up the boarding plank and onto the deck. The crew cast off the last of the remaining lines and at the Captain’s command the sails started to fill as their new navigator pushed them away from the docks.

‘Go see to them, Nel,’ the Captain bade her. ‘Make for the edge,’ he said to Mantid. ‘Full sail, as short a course as you can plot.’

Nel descended to the main deck with an eye towards the trio.

‘What happened?’ she demanded without preamble.

‘They jumped us, Skipper,’ Violet told her. ‘Me and Jack. Then all of us on the way back.’

‘Alliance?’ Nel held her voice steady.

‘Kelpies,’ Jack spat.

‘Heathen,’ Quill grimaced.

‘You saw her?’

‘I recognised her kind.’

Nel let that go, now was not the time to be making an issue of Quill’s religious cant. ‘You hurt badly, then?’

Quill drew himself. ‘Not bad enough that I can’t fly the ship better than that…bug.’ He eyed the bridge disdainfully.

‘To the Captain with you then, Quill. Catch your breath for now, let the Mantid do the easy lifting. I want you ready if things get nasty later on. We aren’t out of this yet so save your strength for when we need you.’

Quill snorted but accepted her words, hopefully she’d plumped his ego enough that he wouldn’t try and wrestle the helm away from his backup.

‘Jack,’ Nel continued, ‘up in the rigging. I want every scrap of sail we’ve got patched and up on our masts. See it gets done.’

‘Aye, Skipper,’ Jack grunted in reply, heading for the ropes. He wiped his knife on his leggings as he moved, thrusting the still gory blade back into his belt.

‘What about me, Skipper?’ Violet asked.

‘You hurt?’ Nel asked. ‘Don’t lie to me here.’

‘No, ma’am, was just Quill who got knocked around some. They never got near me.’

‘Right, up in the nest then, lass, I need your eyes. The Mangonel’s coming for us and we’re dead if she sees us first.’

‘Aye, Skipper,’ Violet nodded fiercely, to Nel’s mild surprise. Normally the girl did not fare well in the crow’s nest but she turned and darted up the ratlines like she was born for it. A small dark blur shot after her, Bandit, racing her to the top.

‘We’re in deep, aren’t we, Nel?’

Nel faced her friend. Gabbi’s face was creased with worry lines but she seemed a small spot of calm in the whirl storm of frantic activity that gripped the Tantamount. The deck heaved and swayed under their feet, riding the swell of the waves, so unlike the smooth passage through stars. Yet that wasn’t what had caused the greyish tinge to Gabbi’s face.

‘We’ve been in worse,’ Nel heard herself say.

No,’ Gabbi shook her head stubbornly. ‘We haven’t. We’ve been in debt, in danger and in ruin. We’ve never been on the run from the law like this. Skirted the edges maybe, but never a price or a warrant on our heads. Nothing like this.’

‘Them out there,’ Nel gestured vaguely. ‘They ain’t the law.’

‘They’ve the name, the uniform, the officialdom. All they need to hunt us down. Might as make no difference.’

‘We’re getting out of here, Gabbi,’ Nel placed a hand on her friend’s shoulder. ‘I’ll get us clear of this. Back to the Free Lanes where none of it matters. Thing’s will be just like they were, like they ought.’

Gabbi squeezed her hand. ‘I trust you, Skipper. Always have.’

Nel accepted the praise silently, what could one say to it, in any case? She made her way to the bridge, joining Horatio, Quill and Mantid.

Their new navigator didn’t have Quill’s finesse when it came to managing the Tantamount, though Nel was prepared to put that down to their hasty exit and inexperience with the ship. But he might be stronger, the Tantamount was steering a straight line for the edge of the world at an impressive clip. Quill was doing his best to ignore this, fussing over his charts, head coming up to mark the distance to the horizon.

Nel gave the Captain a rueful look, it would do Quill some good to have competition for his duties aboard the ship, but the expression her Captain returned was a grave one. Silently he handed her his brass chased telescope.

‘Violet sighted her, Nel. We’re in for a run to the edge.’

Tension coiling in the pit of her stomach, Nel trained the spyglass in the clouds over Port Border. Violet had done well to spot the incoming ship, it was still distant but there was no mistaking the expansive silhouette.

‘Well, Skipper,’ Horatio said quietly, ‘as a former Alliance officer, what would you expect them to do in this situation?’

‘They may not be following Alliance guidelines, Captain,’ Nel cautioned him. ‘This isn’t a textbook situation for either of us.’

‘Heathen was trained in the Alliance, the same as you,’ Horatio reminded her. ‘The same as most of those crewing that ship. I doubt they’ll become too creative, the simplest plans are often the best. My question stands.’

‘Aye, Captain,’ Nel considered. ‘Boarding craft, either from the Mangonel or from Port Border. That ship might be faster up there than us while we’re still waterborne but if we launch free we can outrun her. They’ll try and cut us off at some point, maybe take out our sails or some such. They won’t be content to just chase us.’

‘You think they’ll fire on us?’

‘Not yet, not here, too close to the settlement. Official or not they won’t risk that, too many questions, might even provoke a response. When we get to the edge…’

‘That would be when you come in, Mister Quill,’ Horatio faced his long time navigator.

Quill nodded eagerly, though he still held a hand to his side, over his ribs. ‘I have an idea. The falls…’

‘Keep us in one piece, navigator,’ Nel warned him.

‘Yes, yes,’ Quill dismissed her concerns. His attention was split between the fast approaching horizon and the behemoth overhead.

‘They’re really coming for us,’ Horatio said, almost musing. He turned his head towards Nel, adjusting his hat. ‘I thought they might forget about us. I wonder how they found us.’

Nel had been wondering that too, along with how their newly inducted crew members might be reacting to being chased by a ship-of-the-line during their first week aboard the Tantamount. Questions, too many questions and no time to address them. Her hand came up to touch the key on a cord around her neck. She briefly considered breaking open the arms locker, but only briefly. If they were boarded it was all over. Better to be taken prisoner than die fighting hardened marines.

‘Warning shots,’ Quill observed, snapping Nel’s attention back to the moment. Cannon fire was coming their way, at the outer limit of the Mangonel’s range, far outside of what the Tantamount’s token battery could manage. The first round sent a geyser of water shooting skyward off the starboard bow. Second and tertiary shots marched steadily closer to the ship, each sending causing another column of water.

‘Quill, take over,’ the Captain ordered. ‘Don’t let them get that sort of bearing on us.’

A smile spreading over his face, Quill resumed his usual post at the helm. The ship gybed immediately as Quill’s efforts started to bring them around, the sailors in the rigging moving quickly to respond and rejig the sails. Nel grabbed for a handhold, silently willing Quill not to submerge the ship. It was easy to forget they were restricted to a mere two dimensions here, their movements as flat as the world they were trying to escape.

‘We need a diversion, Nel,’ the Captain advised her. ‘Perhaps the guns?’

Nel stared for a moment, before catching the guise of the Captain’s thoughts. Another canon shot smashed into the waves nearby. Nel was already running for the guns.

 

 

Atop the mast, huddled and clinging to the inside of the crow’s nest, Violet followed the Skipper’s mad run across the deck to one of the thaumatic cannons mounted on the sides of the ship. The weapons seemed insignificant compared to what the Mangonel Falling could throw at them. Violet had watched the warship manoeuvre into position above them, twisting on its axis to bring its lateral batteries to bear. She’d been counting them, at least three gun decks, with maybe fifty different cannon making up the broadside. Over a hundred in total when the other broadside was taken into account. A full broadside, even at this range, might take them out entirely, yet the Mangonel seemed content to toy with them for now.

Violet tried to figure out the Skipper’s plan, sure there was some method to her madness. She wasn’t fool enough try and outshoot the dreadnought, the best gunners in the Lanes wouldn’t take those odds. So what then?

The Skipper took charge of one of the guns, Jack, apparently acting under orders Violet couldn’t make out, took another on the opposite side of the ship. Both pointed the cannons directly at the water and let loose as fast as their weapons could fire. The resulting barrage kicked up fountains of water and spray. The Skipper and Jack kept at it until both their cannons ceased firing, spent. Violet watched the Skipper spin her battery around, whacking at it repeatedly with her hand until it discharged its’ burnt out canister, a practically luminescent crystal the Skipper pitched far away from the ship into the water. Super-heated and already volatile the crystalline ammunition exploded when it broke the water’s surface with a cracking boom that made Violet duck down inside the nest. Spray rained down on her even at that height, when she peaked she saw a curtain of water still falling.

Both Jack and the Skipper moved to the secondary guns alongside and began again. By then the sea around the Tantamount was a blue and white haze of mist and steam, the air so badly obscured Violet couldn’t make out the Alliance ship anymore. She signalled as much to the crew below and got a wave in return from the Skipper. It wasn’t much, their watery camouflage, but enough to stop any sharp-eyed gunners lining up their killing shot.

The Skipper’s stop-gap smokescreen had bought them the time to reach the edge. And that Violet could see. The falls, where the water tumbled off the edge of the world, just like the Tantamount was about to. And if they were lucky they’d vanish just as mysteriously into space as that same water. Weeks before Violet had pestered the Skipper about where the water went to, seems she was about to figure that one first-hand.

Coming up to the edge the water frothed and boiled, bubbling over into the black abyss that was space. Quill held the Tantamount steady, just as Violet clung tight to the rim of her nest and Bandit clung fiercely to her. She considered making a run for the relative safety of the deck but the mast was swaying too violently for it to be safe. Most of the rest of the crew had descended down out of the rigging, leaving her alone up high. It wasn’t a comforting thought as the Tantamount cleared the falls and…

Violet had expected the Tantamount to keep sailing, using the momentum of the falls and Quill’s thaumatic powers to push out into the void, clearing the world’s grasp. Instead…Quill held back. The Tantamount crested the falls, riding the current for a few brief moments before violently pitching forwards, diving straight down with the rest of the crashing water.

Without the ether hammered into the lining of the hull the ship and all its crew would have been thrown asunder, following the plight of cascading water or tossed like rag dolls into the black. But up in the nest at the edge of the envelope the ether’s grasp was weakest, the air thinnest. Violet and Bandit were thrown against the curtain of the nest, Violet almost rolling over the rim as she clutched with one hand, the other wrapping around the terrified and screeching loompa. Small clawed hands tore at her, desperately seeking a purchase. She barely felt the scratches as the ship plunged down, was almost thrown from the nest again when the ship twisted through a half roll, driving directly through the curtain of the world’s waterfall, the sails and timbers of the ship groaning in protest as tons of water crashed down on them. Then the Tantamount broke through, emerging into the dark underbelly of the flat world, inside the aquatic curtain.

Quill pulled the Tantamount up, levelling their path off relative to the world above them, sailing parallel to the world. Violet stared in awe at that world. It was like a vast, giant cave, blocking out most of the light and shrouding the heavens in a black deeper than space. But from that dark stabbed giant mountains, the craggy roots of the flat world that the Tantamount now wove its way through. The spaces between them were vast, inverted canyons but it wasn’t long before the ship felt lost in stone forest. Violet cast around but was unable to see anything beyond the dark in the menhir like maze. She threw a leg over the nest, ready to make her way back down to rejoin the crew.

And paused, halfway through the motion, Bandit perched on her shoulder. She could see the curtain again through a gap in the massive stalactites, a chance opening that let her see their back trail. Just long enough to spot the dark shadow on the other side of the curtain. Before it broke through.

***

 

Screams from the crow’s nest wrenched Nel’s attention up. She saw Violet gesturing frantically, signalling be damned. Genuine panic set in for a moment, had the Mangonel Falling already followed them through the falls? She’d been convinced Quill’s gambit would buy them the lead they so desperately needed, it was madness for a ship the size of the Mangonel to try and follow them here.

Above them dust and debris blossomed from one of the massive inverted mountains. Where above the explosions had been limited to water here the Tantamount was showered with rock and stone. Nel raised a hand to shield her face, running for the bridge. She joined the stunned Captain and navigators, all facing the stern of the ship.

Behind them a bright spot gleamed, wand fire, ship mounted, pinpoint in the darkness. The stream of turbulent light shot overhead, causing another explosion of rock ahead of them where it hit.

‘Quill!’ Nel grabbed the navigator by the shoulder, forgetting herself and snatching her suddenly numb hand back.

Quill took charge again, the Tantamount rising in tune with his hands, climbing to dubious refuge amongst the roots of the world. Nel strained her eyes trying to catch a glimpse of the ship behind them, but all she could make out was the discharges of their weapons. Every shot, and they were shockingly few in their frequency, narrowed the gap, striking closer to the Tantamount. They were being stalked, hunted, by someone who wasn’t just firing blindly anymore.

‘Captain,’ Nel twisted away from the stern to face the Captain, ‘we need to…’

Her words were lost as another brilliant bolt lanced out of the darkness, striking true, direct to the main mast, just above the top platform. The mast swayed when the light from the impact faded, cracking, a sound shockingly loud inside the envelope, and began to topple backwards, the top third falling towards the bridge.

It crushed the stern. Nel tried to sit up, not even aware of how she’d been knocked down, trying to wave the air in front of her face clear. The Captain lay across her body, looking down at her, eyes bright and shockingly aware. She couldn’t recall seeing the man so focused. He pulled Nel to her feet.

A wordless cry from Quill. Echoing the pain of the ship. Her poor ship. But that wasn’t what had struck at Quill. She saw then.

Violet, still clinging to the nest atop the mast. A nest on the verge of separating from that mast. And in front of Nel’s eyes it did. She saw the look on Violet’s face as she started to float free of the Tantamount’s envelope, a certain death in a cold void.

And the nest stopped, hovering, shaking.

Quill. It could only be him, Nel hadn’t missed the still and broken form of their other navigator, crushed beneath the mast. She saw him then, at the head of the stairs leading to the main deck, framed by a damaged and flaming ship. Successive shots had struck the sails. One threatened to rip itself free and blanket the deck. The Tantamount was burning. And Quill was ignoring it all, one hand outstretched, almost imploringly, trying to drag Violet back in by sheer force of will.

Because he’d promised.

Nel faced her protégé, only a dozen feet away. Violet’s eyes found hers, wide, frightened, terrified. And Nel had to look away, her body feeling heavy and sluggish as she turned towards Quill. Each step felt like lead as she closed the distance between them. And then it was Quill’s eyes that found hers, filled first with surprise, then with horror, as she crashed into him, carrying them both over the stairs and down hard to the deck below.

Breaking his concentration.

 

 

Quill gripped the front of her shirt, threatening to rip Nel off her feet. He grabbed her with both hands, pulling her right to his snarling maw. His hands didn’t burn like they should, too far gone to even channel his own power. The navigator shook her, wouldn’t stop shaking her, incoherent. Rage. Grief? She couldn’t tell. Didn’t care.

She struck him, it felt like breaking her hand in the process. Quill went down to the deck and lay still. In what felt like a forever moment before he raised his head to face her again.

‘Save the ship, Quill. Save the gods damned ship.’

Nel turned her back on him, found herself facing the galley. The galley was exploding, a billowing fireball that threatened to engulf what was left of the ship. Jack was thrown clear, taking Nel down with him. He got up, bellowing. Calling Gabbi’s name. But the Captain got there first, striding into the inferno, arm raised in front of his face as he forced his way through the smoke. Gabbi was there on the floor, trapped under fallen timbers. Alive or dead, Nel couldn’t tell. She shouldered Jack aside, trying to run to her friend’s side. The Captain heaved aside burning debris, smoke was rising from him as well now. His great coat, trailing around his knees had caught alight. Irritably, almost casually, Horatio threw the burning garment aside, far into the inferno. He stooped, and to Nel’s amazement, the Captain pulled Gabbi free, turning to face her.

Horatio, Gabbi cradled in his thin arms, took a step towards Nel. And the rear of the ship erupted in flames, smoke and fire swallowing them both.

There was a scream. Was it her? The Captain? Gabbi or Jack? It didn’t matter. Right then nothing else mattered.

Crushing, stabbing pain on her shoulder. Quill spun her around, away from the carnage. The deck shifted under her feet, the bow of the Tantamount dropped out of sight. Nel stared in disbelief as half the ship broke away, ripped asunder from its other half. Ether spilled out into the void between the severed portions, painting the macabre cross section of the gutted ship with a silver sheen. She saw crew above and below decks alike tumbling away.

‘The ship’s dead!’ Someone grabbed her by the shoulders, made her face them. Hounds. ‘We need to go.’

Nel pushed the woman away, trying to locate what it was that was ripping her ship apart. All around her the timbers screamed in their death throes. Splinters, jibbing, ropes, everything was falling away, disintegrating before her eyes.

A flash of light blotted out expanse. A heavy battery of wand fire. It ripped up the deck, through her back. She saw stars. Then only black.

She grabbed at the hands lifting her up. Quill’s. He hesitated.

‘I told you to save the ship, Kelpie,’ Nel heard herself say.

Quill’s eyes narrowed. ‘You are the Tantamount.’ He threw her back and hard, rough hands caught her. Felt like Jack. Smelt like him too. Quill climbed in after her. They were inside a bubble, the hatch closing behind them.

‘Let me up,’ Nel shook off the hands roughly. It wasn’t hard, she was already floating. Jack let her go. It was just the three of them inside, already drifting away from the ship. Her head was spinning. Or was that the bubble? It was both. The bubble was spinning, rolling, rotating. One of them. She glimpsed severed cables, their tether and hose. No going back.

The Tantamount was burning. In pieces. Like a giant, petulant child had ripped her ship apart in a fit of pique.

There was another bubble alongside them. Nel had just registered this when the world lit up. Incandescent streams arcing through the black. They struck unerringly, all seeming to find the other glass sphere.

Then it grew larger. The sphere was stressed, fractured. Behind the patterned cracks Nel saw faces, people she knee. Saw their expressions grow wider before they got closer.

Nel put her hand against the glass as the two spheres collided.

 

***



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