Half a day out from Port Benson, we spy a huddle of ships in the distance and my heart sinks. This is not what I had imagined.
Two small Reaver traders are offloading cargo to a wallowing tub of an airship. No elegant clipper cleaving through the turbulent birdroads for me. This plump goose will wallow along leaking gas in every direction. Fool that I am: how could I have even dreamed of anything better? Once again I have deceived myself into thinking I am something special. I’m just a raggedy mouse in the employ of a sleazy rodent – nothing I do here will make even the slightest smudge on the world.
The two traders slip quietly away as we pull alongside the wallowing transport.
Jack leaps up the quarter deck ladder, two steps at a time. “Look at her, Nina, isn’t she a beauty.”
No Jack, I want to say, she is not.
He points to the stern. “Her name’s picked out in gold letters.”
Oh, Jack, you are so easily pleased.
I turn my back, not even wanting to know the name of this floating bucket. I’ll climb on board, deliver the job, and depart as quickly as possible.
A gangway is laid across empty space between the two ships. I clasp the handrail, the fingers of my left hand pulling hard against their artificial ligaments. In this moment of stepping between the two ships and setting foot on my new command, I am intently aware of my coggler enhanced hand.
“Capt on deck!” Magnus hollers.
I tip the rim of my top hat, with my good hand, to acknowledge my new crew.
The sullen crew, larger than I expected, stop what they’re doing and stare at their new captain, sizing me up in silence. I can feel everyone staring at my mechanical hand. Then a low murmur of conversation bubbles up as the sailors share their initial thoughts.
I was expecting something a little more… defined… definite… animated… enthusiastic even. Certainly not this complete disinterest.
Are they unimpressed by their new captain? Then I realize: they don’t give a damn. How many captains have they seen come and go? I doubt any good ones stayed for long. They share the same hopelessness when they look at me, as I feel when I look at their ship.
This is not what I had in mind when I accepted Stan Wallingham’s offer. Somehow, I had a romantic notion of a sailing clipper or privateer graciously cutting the air. Me, the rakish captain cutting a dash for others to envy. There is no way this merchant ship could possibly inspire anything but disdain.
I walk the filthy deck, watching the crew wind ropes and stow tackle preparing for departure. They glance at me suspiciously and drop their eyes as I pass. This ship is in worse condition than I thought. Not only is she slow and badly crewed, she is also rundown, decrepit, and in desperate need of some tender-loving-care.
Sails heaped on deck, ready to hoist, are in such bad repair they have patches sewed onto patches – trim these taught to the wind and they’ll explode into a thousand shreds. Mechanical winches are in short supply too, which would account for all the extra crew: everything needs hauling by hand. Stand Wallingham doesn’t splash out on repairs, but bad crew are cheap.
Then I turn into the wind and smell hits me. The ship reeks to high heaven. It makes me gag and I nearly heave. Some of the crew notice and share a private snigger.
There is only one smell like that: unwashed humanity.
I turn to Magnus. “What is our cargo?”
I am right; my blood boils. “When I said no slavery,” I snarl, “which bit of ‘no slavery’ did Mr Wallingham fail to understand?”
Magnus just grins back wolfishly, as the St. John departs. “When you sold your soul to Stan Wallingham, girl, you gave up any right to set conditions.” He pauses waiting for reality to hit me. “Besides, technically, these are not slaves. What we are transporting is bonded servants – people who have sold themselves into slavery for a set period to pay off debts or buy their families out of poverty.”
“Is there a difference,” Jack asks.
Magnus grins again. He’s enjoying my discomfort. “Massive, all the difference in the world.”
I fail to see any significant difference between those taken into slavery against their will, and those compelled to put themselves into slavery: ultimately, neither has a choice. “Show me!”
“Show her,” Magnus snaps to a sailor, who leads us towards a hatch and we descend a ladder into the dark depths of the forward hold.
The deck is sectioned into a maze of narrow corridors lined with small cells. Each tiny room contains six or seven slaves locked in together, sometimes an entire family. The smell is appalling: raw humanity. But at least no one is chained—the one concession to bonded servants.
The deck below is identical, but the smell of humanity is even worse down here. I estimate we are hauling upwards of three hundred slaves. People, I remind myself.
I grab the sailor. “I want fresh air down here—masses of it. Open all the hatches and windows, and if that is not enough cut openings in the hull. And I want each cell to visit the heads in rotation, at least twice a day—I don’t want no more slops in the cells. And let each cell out to walk the deck twice a day too. These people may have sold themselves into slavery, but there is no reason we should treat them like animals.”
The sailor just stares at me blankly.
Obviously I didn’t make myself clear. “Well get to it then, sailor!”
“Oh, aye, aye, Captain.”
Ideally, I would have the whole place hosed down, but I know that won’t happen unless we encounter a ferocious storm. Supplies of fresh drinking water are the most precious commodity aboard any airship. Most sailors wouldn’t even dream of wasting water on washing, let alone hosing down a deck—which explains the characteristic smell of most airships.
We duck through the dividing screen to the aft holds on our way to my cabin. In the lower hold is the sprawling compressor, that controls our lift, by either compressing or decompressing the amount of hydrogen gas in the blimp. To the rear of the compressor are the small private cabins for the officers, sailing master, coggler master, and senior ratings, in size hardly larger than the cells occupied by slaves.
We climb a ladder beside the chimney stack that rises from the compressor, through both decks, then up into the blimp. On this deck are the tread-wheels, four of them, that drive the compressor, the propellers, cannons, power winches, and any other mechanical power needed on the ship.
This deck also houses the levers and gearing mechanisms that the cogglers use to transfer power around the ship from the hamster wheels. At this moment the cogglers, in their overalls, bowler hats, and goggles, are lounging around playing dice while awaiting my orders and the power demands of the airship. As I pass through they jump to their feet and tip their bowlers towards me. So far, the only sign of enthusiasm I have encountered on this third-rate ship.
The wheels are silent at the moment, but when mechanical power is required, crew members climb into the wheels and run, while the cogglers work their magic. As Reaver ships often fly below cloud level, solar power is not so reliable. Besides, Reavers, especially cogglers, have an inherent distrust of electrical power that I have never understood.
Behind the tread-wheels are the captain’s cabin and map room, stretching the full width of the stern.
I pause by the door to my cabin. Something, that I can’t yet pinpoint, is not right. I need to know more about this ship and its cargo.
“Jack, go find the Burser! I need a full inventory of this ship’s cargo, and I don’t just mean what’s on the manifest. Magnus, find me the Sailing Master, and bring them to my cabin. I want this ship underway in less than ten minutes!”
When in doubt, keep your airship moving, because without momentum you are nothing more than a sitting duck.
Light floods in through the large stern windows to illuminate a cramped cabin which overlooks the rear of the ship. The shabby quarters contain a rough dining table and six chairs, a desk, the captain’s chair, a drinks cabinet and a chart cabinet, because this also doubles as the map room.
To one side is a small screened alcove containing my very own hammock and a canvas wardrobe. Inside the closet I find spare clothes, though not, I discover after a brief investigation, in my size. They must have belonged to the previous captain. I literally only have the clothes and weapons in which I stand – I hope this is a short journey.
To the other side of the main cabin is a tiny bathroom containing a sink and the head: a toilet, the bottom of which opens to the sky. This is my new home.
I stride straight to the chart cabinet, the only piece of furniture that shows any sign of quality workmanship, and fling open the doors. I rummage through the myriad cubbyholes until I find the chart which corresponds to our current position, then spread it out on the dining table.
Magnus crashes through the door. “The ship doesn’t have a sailing master,” he gasps, and makes straight for the drinks cabinet.
The lack of a sailing master is a real blow: this is normally the person most intimately acquainted with the sailing abilities of a vessel and can advise a new captain on how to get the best out of the ship and its crew.
The drinks cabinet is empty and Magnus slams it shut in disgust. “Cheapskates, can’t even provide a man with a decent drink.”
“Magnus, do you know how to sail a Reaver ship?”
“Of course. I’ve lived on sail ships all me life. Been a senior rating too in me time. But you told Mr Wallingham you were experienced.”
“I lied. I know the theory, but I need you to teach me the practicalities.” I ignore the look of alarm on his face. “Congratulations by the way, I just promoted you to Sailing Master.”
Magnus stares at me with wide eyes. “Thank you, Ma’am,” he whispers, “I’ll do me best”
Oddly, Magnus looks genuinely pleased, as if I have just awarded him some special Honor. This couldn’t be the first time anyone has ever given him some genuine responsibility, could it; always the lackey never the leader?
Back to business. I turn point to the map. “Any idea where we are going?”
Magnus digs inside his coat. “You’ll be needing this then, Captain.” He produces a crumpled envelope.
I rip open the envelope to find a note with coordinates and a bearing and a time of delivery. I need to arrive at the coordinate at a set time and date to bypass the local law enforcement. Presumably someone has been bribed to allow the ship to pass or escape a search, they probably don’t even know which ship, just a date and time.
After delivering my cargo I can make my escape from this hateful ship and pursue my search for Papa Doyle. I find myself briefly touching the package through my coat, to check it is still safe. Damn you Trent, damn you mother; why did you have to draw me into your private war?
As I work out our course against the prevailing winds and mark it on the chart, Jack enters and quietly closes the door behind him.
“Hmm, nice cabin, Nina.”
“The Captain is busy,” Magnus announces.
I wonder if he isn’t perhaps taking his new responsibility a bit too far. I might live to regret promoting him, though, remembering the startled look on Jack’s face might just make it worthwhile.
“That’s okay, Jack. Magnus, the new Sailing Master, was just helping me plot our route. What did you find?”
Jack looks from me to Magnus and back again, then strokes his chin. “Nothing out of the ordinary. In fact, as far as I can find, the entire cargo is legit.”
“Then look again, Jack. Check the sales receipts on those bonded servants, we are definitely smuggling something.”
“You saying I haven’t done my job to your exacting standards, Nina? Course I’ve checked the sales receipts, and the manifest, and all the holds. There is nothing.”
Why does Jack have to choose this moment to argue? “Then why did Stand Wallingham make a deal with us to smuggle his goods? Look again!”
“I’m telling you, Nina, unless there is something really small and well hidden, the Sequestria isn’t smuggling a thing.”
“Nina? Nina, are you okay?”
I lean heavily on the table staring into space, Jack is squeezing my arm. “The Sequestria?”
“Yes, Nina, the Sequestria.”
Everything falls into place like the pieces of a jigsaw puzzle; like shards of a smashed pot reassembling into a masterpiece. Now I know exactly what is wrong. My blood runs cold, my knees weaken, and I struggle for breath.
“Hells teeth,” I whisper, “we’re all going to die.”