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Till Eight Bells Do Ring Out

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“There's work,” says the man with the ship, “there's work for Sherbrooke folk, I say you true,” and Marrah's eyes find mine over her oldest boy’s shoulder like the danger beacon you don't see until you're foundered.

Three days later, home she comes from the Market, and she says to me, “Now, Stosha Kaczmarek, don’t you be thinking of signing on with that Barrett, him who’s going about flashing that marque like he was His Majesty himself. Don’t you do it.”

Of course I knew there was an old lag of a ship docked at Rohayem’s, we all knew it. And there was that man Barrett, calling himself Captain, down the pub every night, buying rounds and showing his letters. Folk crowding ‘round him, too, eager to hear his tales and tell their own.

Marrah herself had been among them, often as not, her dark hand on his pale wrist, her gold-and-silver voice cutting through the crowd. “Captain,” and again, “Captain Barrett, sir. If you’re needing a few good hands on your voyage, sir, there’s my wife Stosha, a steady girl in a fight, sir.” Showing me off, talking up her fine fair young bride. She doesn’t tell him that I drifted into Sherbrooke running scutwork for a merchanter, drifted into Marrah’s cozy house, drifted in a year ago and never left.

Her hands on him, his coin paying for her drinks, my empty bed when she doesn’t come home at night. And first she tells me not to sign with him, and then she tells me it’d be a fine thing for us all if I went, there’s no work in Sherbrooke and there might never be, and then two days back she changes her mind again.

I’d been down to Rohayem’s, of course I had, wanted to see the ship before I signed on. And when I saw her, I’d thought Marrah had the right of it. I’m no engineer, but it’ll be a wondrous thing if the Antelope ever makes it to her next port, say nothing of picking up any plunder on the way. I’d half-decided not to sign after all.

So home I go to say so, to say I’m not leaving, I’m staying here with her and the kids, they’re not going to lose their Mamma Stosha the way they lost their dad. And the moment I get in the door, doesn’t Marrah swoop on me like a fury, wailing about how if I go then I’ll never come back. And so we get into it, then and there, and in the end she slams out of the house and tells me, if I do go and if I do come back, I’d better not plan on coming back, you hear me say it?

I hear you, Marrah-love. You’ll change your tune soon enough when the credits start turning up in your account.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

The crew numbers twenty, Barrett his own self not included, when we leave. It wouldn't be enough for a ship this size if she were in fighting fit. As it is, all hands spend most of the first watch making what repairs we can. All hands except the Captain, of course, and Herron down in the engine room.

When we first board, there's a little woman with a scarred face standing in the corridor that leads to the bunk rooms. "Hope you've brought your provisions along, for we've none to spare you until we reach Montego," says she, and that's when we know this was a bad idea.

Herron is the nearest thing the Antelope has to a quartermaster, and a bo’sun, and an engineer, and a damn-near-all-else. She and the Benezra sisters in the gunners’ seats, and the no-name-given-no-words-spoken co-pilot are the only crew Barrett brought to Sherbrooke with him. Herron and the co-pilot are hitched, of sorts, although out here that likely means one or the other of them beat any other suitors bloody until they stopped coming around. My creds are on Herron.

Mean hand with a wrench or no, she's friendly enough if she gets some whiskey down her. Not so bright, maybe. Not a good mix, in my experience. She is for sure no friend to our Captain, nor he to her, else I'd think she was his eyes and ears.

Herron tries twice to get a good look at what I wear on a chain around my neck. When she tries a third time, I put my hand to whatever's closest--length of pipe this time, might be something sharp the next--and look her in her eyes. I'm taller. She doesn't try again.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

There'd be questions if Herron saw it, or anyone else.

Fits in the palm of my hand. Snaps open like a clam. Thumb-side shows time passing here. Other-side shows time passing in Sherbrooke.

We learned, long ago and not-long, after that first time, oh yes we learned. Wherever you go, always know when you are, and when they are, and how long you're gone.

Three days' trip.

Split the days into hours, split the hours into watches, check them off, hope the Captain told you the right time.

Three days.

 

* * * * * * * *

It's nearing the end of the first day (twenty-two hours to thumb-side, ninety-one days to the other) when we put in at Montego Station. The Antelope’s engine is old enough that it still runs off solid fuel, and it predates the continuous filter-and-feed systems that became standard a few years back. So it’s two hands to the engine, every watch, one to load the fuel and one to watch the filter screens, turn and turn about.

I stand watches with young Jacky Marcoux, or with one of the Kober brothers. Kobers never were much use for anything other than getting tossed out of the pub at closing time. Young Jacky’s dad and granddad have mended ships in Rohayem’s repair yards for longer than anyone bothers to count. He takes to the Antelope’s engines with keen eyes and gentle fingers, talks to them under his breath while he feeds the intake, and Herron pats him clumsily on the shoulder when she passes by.

Montego’s not bad as stations go. The Watch are everywhere, but they don’t ask too many questions as long as you show your pass quick enough, and you’re not likely to be set upon by the locals in public unless you’re fool enough to travel alone. Kas Kober and young Jacky and I go together to the nearest stationside market, a bar for a quick round, and then back on board before we can give the Captain an excuse to leave without us.

In the end, the station’s dockmaster keeps us waiting longer than Barrett intended (ninety-six days in Sherbrooke) and he’s in a snarling mood when we lift off again. Kas and his biggest brother go to stand their watch in the engine room, and the rest of us to our berths to sleep off the dank Montego beer and the Captain’s temper. We’re down for no more than a ship’s hour before the speaker crackles us awake.

“All hands,” says Herron’s voice. “I say again, all hands. We have a target in sight. All hands to battle stations.”

* * * * * * * *

Battle stations are posted on the walls in the mess and crew berthing: next watch goes to the engine room and everyone else queues up at the weapons locker to be issued a firearm. Stand by to repel boarders, I say you true. Crowd into the loading bay, stare at the cracked monitors, listen for the sound of shuttles, and curse the day you ever signed on to this bloody ship.

“Gunner one ready,” says one of the Benezras on the speaker.

“Gunner two ready,” her sister adds.

“Stand by.” For the first time, I hear someone else in Barrett's voice, the far-off echo of whoever trained him. “Repeat, stand by. We’re not in range yet.”

We can see the League ship on the monitors. She’s a battle-worn beast, scarred and hulking, but sporting the Class-G thrusters that won the last war and painted with the colors of the League’s powerful Northern System allies. A ship that age, fitted with Class-Gs, will be transporting important passengers or valuable cargo or both.

Whether she chooses to run or to stand and fight, we’re outclassed well and true.

 

* * * * * * * *

 

She runs, when it comes to it, turns on her tail and lights out for the nearest jump point. To me that says ‘passengers’, followed quickly by ‘not worth it’ and ‘the League never meets ransoms’ and ‘we’ll eat up all our fuel chasing something that won’t pay’. But the Captain, he says go, and so we go.

The jump point is one bell away at the Antelope’s best catch-you speed (half an hour, two days, don’t you count the minutes and seconds, Stosha Kaczmarek, don’t you do it). Herron passes the word for the crew to stand down. Most of us linger in the loading bay, and no one orders us to turn in our weapons, but we all know that if we don’t engage the League ship before she jumps then that’ll be the end of it.

“Want some?” Kas holds out half of a protein bar.

I break off a piece of the bar and hand the rest back to him. “Where’d you come from? You were on engine watch last I looked.”

“Swapped out with Mendez. All the action’s down here, I say you so.”

I open my mouth to protest. The Kober brothers’ idea of action tends to involve property damage. Then I look at where Kas is looking—across the loading bay, over to where young Jacky is sitting against the bulkhead with his eyes shut and his head tipped back against the wall of the ship he whispers to when he feeds her engines—and I figure I’d best leave it alone.

 

* * * * * * * *

The League ship stops at the mouth of the jump.

It doesn’t make any sense. She could have gotten away, easy. She’s heavy, but she’s faster than we are. And yet there she sits, waiting.

Barrett’s voice comes over the speaker. “Gunners, on my mark. We are on approach and closing.”

Close enough to shoot means close enough to be boarded. Or shot, come to that, but if they were going to shoot first then they would have already. We watch on the monitor as the League ship grows closer and closer in our sights.

“Gunners, ready, and…fire.”

I haven’t seen the Antelope’s guns, but the sharp bangs and the white flashes on the monitor tell me that we’re firing K-7s or something like them. Less than state of the art, even when they were new, and designed more to distract and confuse than to damage. What are we doing here?

“Gunner two here.” Irit Benezra’s voice is tight. “Captain, we’re getting a stress reading in the starboardmost cannon.”

Barrett swears over the open channel until Herron cuts him off. “Gunner two, what area of the cannon is reading stress?”

“Uh…all areas.”

Next to me, Kas grabs at Jacky’s arm. “What does that mean?”

“It doesn’t matter,” says Jacky, very quietly, pointing at the monitor. “Look.”

On the monitor, hanging in starry space, the concave disk has sprouted an angry red speck on its near edge. Then two specks, three, five.

“League ship’s activating weapons, Captain,” says the other Benezra sister.

“I see them.” There’s a thump on the speaker, and then some muffled speech, as though someone has covered the comm with their hand. Barrett comes back. “Gunners, stand down. We’re going to the shields.”

I look over at Jacky. “Has this thing got any shields worth mentioning?”

“Nothing that’ll hold up for long. And she can’t power shields and guns at the same time. There’s extra fuel intakes, but if we use them for more than a few minutes we’ll start to burn out some bits we can’t do without.” Kas makes a faint moaning sound, and Jacky takes his hand and threads their fingers together.

The pitch of the Antelope’s background hum rises, tightens somehow. “Auxiliary intakes engaged,” says Herron. “Shields powered.”

"Shields at full," says a guttural male voice on the speaker. Herron's man, the nameless co-pilot, the two of them stationed on opposite corners of the ship at the end of everything.

Jacky reaches out and strokes the bulkhead like I would have petted a dog. “Poor old girl. You deserved better.”

And then there are moving red lights on the monitor screen, and there’s the impact as the League ship’s first attack hits us, and there is the great wave that knocks us all to the deck and floats us all away.

* * * * * * * *

“Final log entry, HMSS Antelope. We have taken extremely heavy fire in pursuit of a ship of the Meridian League. Our engines and most other areas of the ship are damaged. Our weapons are inoperable. Our navigation system is offline. The crew—“

I have to turn off the recorder for a moment. When my throat is clear, I turn it back on and continue.

“The crew and all officers are dead, including the Captain. We are rapidly losing power, and the readouts suggest that life support will fail within two ship’s hours. In view of this, I have opted to direct all remaining power to an escape pod and abandon ship. I say again…I repeat, I am abandoning ship.

“Reporting, Stanislava Barbara Kaczmarek, last survivor of the HMSS Antelope.”

* * * * * * * *

The escape pods are in a seldom-used corridor just aft of the officers’ cabins. As with most things on the Antelope, they’re out-of-date and under-maintained, but one of them still shows the two tiny yellow lights of a functioning standby cycle. I press the release on the lid of the escape pod and it hisses open.

Before I leave the loading bay for the last time, I drag myself beside them where they’ve fallen—Jacky, propped against the wall, and Kas with his head in Jacky’s lap. There’s an ugly scratch across Jacky’s forehead, but otherwise they might have been asleep.

The escape pod is a bed where I will rest, it is a chrysalis where I will wait until the light returns, it is a soothing embrace that will restore my ruined legs, it is a box. It is a box. It is a box with no air. It is the belly of the beast. It is a coffin.

I look again at the tiny readout inside the pod, but it hasn’t changed. The power on the dying ship is enough to eject the pod, but not enough to send it very far. The pod is designed to float in space, sustaining its passenger in endless sleep, until it drifts close to a planet with atmospheric conditions that can support the lifeform the pod contains. According to the readout, the estimated time for this pod to reach a suitable planet is six years.

Six ship’s years.

I don’t need to look at my timekeeper to figure out the time difference. We learned, long ago and not-long, we learned. Always know when you are, and always know when they are—the ones you love—always know how long you’re gone. How much of their time is passing without you.

It was the first volunteer mission, the very first. At first they didn’t want to accept any apprentices, but my scores at the Academy broke records and finally they took me on. Exploration, a voyage of discovery, seeking new worlds as our world grew old around us.

We were gone for a year. We didn’t know. We were gone for a ship’s year. We didn’t know.

We learned.

One year on ship, a hundred years on Earth. All of us aged just a year when we came back, all of us still young, and the world grown so much older than we knew. The crew of our mission numbered twenty, our Captain his own self included. Before two Earth years were gone, eighteen of us had taken pills or blades or long walks into the burning seas, only me and the Captain still living and him beginning to go blank somewhere behind his eyes.

I lower the side of the pod until I can use my arms to pull myself into the suspension bed and shift my legs over the edge. My weight on the bed sets lights blinking on the monitor. I tap the buttons that tell the pod to close around me and begin the suspension cycle. When it knows that I’m asleep, the ship will eject me softly into space.

Six ship’s years in my silent, drifting cradle. Six hundred years planetside.

I will land, one day, I will land. The pod will open, and I will be inside it, still twenty-three years old, Marrah Ronayne’s fine fair young bride. The world will be new. I can learn. I did it before. Never look back. I can be new, begin again, as many times as I need to, say you true. As long as there are still ships sailing the skies, there you’ll find me. The last of the first explorers, the last of Barrett’s Privateers, lifting my face to the worlds beyond, looking to the stars and rising up to meet them.

...oh, Marrah.

No more brides, no more children, no more. No one left behind to lose me to the stars. No home, not for me, nothing left behind that can destroy me when I lose it. Not ever again. Only me myself, and always an escape pod, for all my life remaining.

No pity, Captain, don’t you dare pity me. Don’t you do it.