Chapter 28: The Far Wanderer

Widsith was a dark, cold place.  They would need to remain here another ten days to make repairs and rest the crews.  Grand Corsair McAllister, feeling claustrophobic, set course on taking a stroll.  Kruger insisted on accompanying him for safety reasons but kept his distance, seeing the man wanted to be alone.

A thick layer of snow-like dust clung to the rocky surface, the planet’s atmosphere frozen and fallen from the sky.  For untold eons this orphaned world made its forlorn way through the boundless void between the stars; a sibling of Earth, cast into exile in the early days of the solar system when hundreds vied for position in the young star’s court.

            He had been here only once before but it remained one of the deep places in the family consciousness.  It was here that Pit Fiend waited for young Jack McAllister to return with his sister after her escape from Earth.  Fifteen years later that same ship, now called Vercingetorix, stopped here to refuel on its way to Epsilon Indi, taking Julian and his brothers to their first dance.

Julian McAllister found it hard to believe that was really his life, the memories distant for all their clarity.  Intimately familiar but apart from him, like a book read long ago.  The mariner felt old now for the first time in his life, a chasm between himself and his past.  It could not be seen with the eye but it was out there, growing wider, deeper and hungrier.

Above him loomed the gleaming white band of the Milky Way, two-hundred billion suns huddled together in Mother Night’s embrace.  He heard the words before recognizing the voice as his own, trying to recall the lines from which this lonely place took its name.

 

“The weary in spirit cannot withstand fate,

A troubled mind finds no relief

Wherefore those eager for glory often

Hold some ache imprisoned in their hearts.

Thus I had to bind feelings in fetters,

Often sad at heart, cut off from my country.

 

Where has the horse gone?  Where the man?

Where the giver of gold and gifts?

Where is the feasting?  The mead hall pleasures?

I mourn the gleaming cup, the glory of the prince.”

 

* * *

 

Vercingetorix hid on the far side of Magna Alexandria, a banded blue-white jovian with three dim ring arcs and some two-dozen moons.  Julian still felt overwhelmed, and more than a touch nervous, around the huge gas worlds that he would be spending his life among.  They spoke of unassailable power and utter indifference; no one could help feeling small in their shadow.

            On arriving at the giant’s nightside face, the captain relieved the helmsman and gave his nephew a gentle push to the vacant seat.  “Important rule,” he explained as Julian strapped himself in.  “Always top your tanks off first chance you get.  The name of the game is getting away with it.”  He placed a firm hand on the pup’s shoulder as the youngster did his level best to do a good job and not kill everyone.

            Julian relaxed a bit once Vercingetorix had her fill and he began pulling up.  A nerve-wracking sensation, watching yourself sinking into the dark clouds of the huge planet, knowing the slightest mistake could send you plummeting to depths you would never emerge from.

Moving her into a geosynchronous parking orbit he surrendered the helm.  Something then occurred to Julian: the tight lump in his stomach did not go away when he rose from the pilot’s chair.  It was faint, manageable, something he could learn to put out of his mind, but he was never again without it; his own private Gordian knot.

            “Nice work, lad!”  The captain gave his young nephew a sound slap on the shoulder.  “Our three little exiles will assume responsibility for securing the chase’s bridge once she’s boarded.”  A few heads turned at that but not a word was spoken.

Mad Jack knew how run a crew, always the right mix of ass-kicking and sidelong smiles.  People would follow him through the gates of hell knowing he’d be the one to kick them down.  Most corsairs half as successful flew a wing of three ships or more but Mad Jack never would, save for the odd freighter or gunship for a special job.

“The Rix is a demanding mistress,” he would say. “One who suffers no rival.”

 

Waiting in the EVA prep room, the boys looked at each other in silence as the lights turned red and three sharp klaxons set everyone to donning their helmets.  Above the inner airlock door, between the two roller lights, a sign read:  “Respect Nothing: Nothing Kills.”

That lesson Julian had learned well.  The constant two-minute decompression drills had been at the top of their training schedule.  On the first try he nearly blacked-out, moving too slow.  He only remained conscious because of the harsh training regimen, giving him the extra few seconds he needed.  His face had swollen and was covered in bruises but no permanent damage had been done.  Still, the sensation of gasping for air that didn’t exist and the saliva boiling off your tongue left an impression on him, as it typically did with everyone.

The long barque, a series of cargo pods secured along a central spine, lumbered along with a pair of gunboats at her side.  Escort duties would be taken-up by a frigate and two corvettes once it reached Bernard’s Star, but well within the core worlds, security here remained a minor concern.  The pirates fell on the freighter with ease; its escorts made brief attempt at fending them off but soon recalled the better part of valor.  Mad Jack gave the order to let them go, no ships were detected above Dietrich’s World and the capture would be swift.

They overtook the chase and clamped down on her as the gunboats sped away.  The saw-toothed boarding tube began to spin, cutting its way into the captive vessel.  A massive blast of compressed air pushed the disk-like hull section down into the ship and the raiders followed head first into the darkened hulk.

            Guided by their helmet lights, they entered the first cargo pod and found it empty.  The raiders divided into two groups, the large main force headed aftward while the boys and their companions made for the command module.

            “There’s nothing here,” an anonymous voice said over the com line as the party came to the armored door of the bridge.  Gauges indicated it was still pressurized so they set four thermal charges and cleared the passage before igniting them remotely.  Julian, his back pressed against the bulkhead, felt a vibration when he triggered the mines set by his brothers.  A bare instant later the heavy door flew by in a rush of escaping air, smashing into the rear hatch.

            A body followed close behind, wearing a vacsuit but without a helmet.  The dying spacer’s eyes had popped out of their sockets and bounced about, tethered to the inside of his head by their optic nerves.  The man’s face was already blue and he clawed wildly at the emptiness all around him, filling him.  Julian raised his LAM pistol and put two quick rounds in the man’s chest.  A hand grabbed him and pulled him in close.

“Not in a tight space with friendlies nearby!”  It was Julian’s assigned partner, a big man named Bastian.  Julian nodded, understanding.  “Turn up your nitrogen before you hyperventilate,” the senior mariner said, already adjusting the pup’s mix for him.  He gave Julian a wink and a pat to the arm.

            “I wonder if he could still see,” Julian thought aloud.  Bastian laughed enthusiastically at the remark.

            The party of eight passed through the open bulkhead into the small bridge and went to work.  Deacon and his assigned veteran partner, a beautiful little woman not a meter and a half tall named Ingrid, set to gaining control of the computer.  A ferocious fighter and brilliant engineer, she was the first Earther Julian ever met aside from Billy who came to the Rift when he was eight.  The freighter crew managed to lock-out the computer before the bridge was overrun.  Delicate work, compounded by equipment damage sustained in the decompression, but they were making progress.

            “Nothing,” the crackling voice on the com said again.  “There’s nothing here, something’s not right.”

            “How far along are you?” Mad Jack’s voice was dead flat but his nephew thought he heard concern in it.

            “We’ve only got one more container to–”

            “Bulldog, respond,” the captain’s voice remained steady but grew louder.  Julian turned to locate Bastian and caught sight of his feet disappearing through the hatchway.  Following, he caught up with him at the pressure door leading to the cargo area.  They struggled to move the loose bulkhead from out of their way and stabilize it, only to find the hatch had been smashed-in and quite impossible to open.  They were out of thermal charges and cutting through it with the gear they had could take half an hour.

            “What the hell is going on down there?”  Captain McAllister was in no mood for secrets.

            “The pod directly behind them jettisoned with about twenty aboard, it’s falling into the atmosphere now,” The voice belonged to Luther Hernandez, Rix’s provost, stationed at the entry point to the captured vessel.

            “–ire, say again, we are under small-arms fire, it’s–”

            “A trap,” Mad Jack finished as the signal cut out.  “Ops, keep an eye out for–”

            “There,” said young Debbie Love at operations.  “Both gunboats have doubled-back at speed, four patrol corvettes emerging from behind moon nine.”

            The captain looked over his monitor for a hard moment and made up his mind.  “Abandon the chase.  Say again, abandon the chase. Stand by to set her adrift.”

            “Most of them can’t get out,” Debbie reminded him.

            “I’m aware.”

            Julian’s eyes went wide as he and Bastian’s met, “We can’t get back either!”  He grabbed the veteran mariner by the arm and yanked him toward the bridge.  “We can drop the whole fucking carriage,” he said as they reentered the control room.  His eyes darted about franticly, “Where is it?”

            Ingrid found the ejection controls and they broke away from the rest of the ship, everyone securely strapped in or holding on for dear life with the rear hatchway now open to space and no inertial containment.  The sense of momentum came back suddenly as the command module separated from the superstructure and Julian nearly threw-up in his helmet.

            Not only one of the more disgusting things that could happen to you, it could leave you blind or choke you on your own stomach fluids.  Modern spacers favored small, fitted helmets that turned with the head.  When the moment came you had little choice but to try a power blow.  Time it just right, throw open your visor and hope for the best.

            Suddenly they were jerked violently in a new direction and began accelerating.  Vercingetorix had come back for them, latching on with a hog line.  “Uncle Jack. . .” Julian said for the first of many times to come.

 

His body an enormous bruise, Julian held a cold compress to his jaw where Bastian had smashed him with a closed fist before giving him a bear hug.  These were strange people he’d be running with.  Getting blood wet was clearly the most physically traumatic moment in his young life.  It would hold that distinction for some time to come in fact, but he had to confess it also the finest.

He held the corners his uncle presented to him gingerly, like a dream he could dispel by too firm a touch.  A deep forest green, trimmed in golden, Celtic-style knot work.  The Rix’s crest sewn upon its left front-face: a cloaked rider, brandishing a sword atop a rearing horse in silhouette.  On its right were the inverted chevrons of a mariner with a sextant affixed, denoting him a navigator.

Though traditionally worn with an embellished coat known as the dodgy long-threads, the tricorner hat was a corsair’s only uniform; his badge of office and mark of status.  The young mariner found it both exhilarating and humbling to realize there were things bigger then himself; he had not considered the possibility.

            “You boys did a good job in a fucked situation,” Uncle Jack told them.  The old pirate invited them to his cabin in the commander’s centrifuge for a drink after the ceremony and follow-up medical intervention.  All three had made an impression on their supervisors during the raid, Julian earning rare praise from Bastian for a pup’s first action.  The captain rummaged through a locker fastened to the wall and returned to the small table with something wrapped in a blanket which he set down before them.

            “This,” he explained, “is to my knowledge, the last of its kind.  Oh, I’m sure some worthless monger has a bottle or two somewhere but it’s likely been fouled by keeping it around a bunch of snooty French wine.”  He produced four glasses and set one before each of them.

            “Jamison’s Irish Whiskey,” he began to pour the dark elixir as he spoke.  “From the land of our ancestors, young Julian, what’s left of it anyway, purchased in a place called Roundwood on Wicklow Island by Conner and Ellen McAllister after they married and set-out to make their fortune.”  Mad Jack laughed at the bitter irony of that.

            “Last time anyone holds a straight job in this family,” Julian said.

            “Damn fuckin’ right!” the elder McAllister agreed and they nearly shattered their glasses in toasting so.

            “They placed it in a safe box on Antigua when they made their way to a place called Sisyphus Rock,” Jack went on, “intending to open it when they retired there.  It’s the only remnant of our parents that survived to find us, your mother and me.  We had a drink from it when we came back from Earth. . .  Fifteen years ago now.

            The four of us will have a bite and then it leaves this cabin for the first time in ten years for you to look after.”

            Hoisting a glass up high he said, “To Boudicca McAllister and her works!  And to Mother Ireland, may Mac Llyr raise her soggy ass from the sea!”

            After they drank, Mad Jack corked the bottle and replaced its wrappings.  “This is the only ship I’ve ever served on,” he told the boys as he glanced about the cabin, distance in his voice and eyes.  “Lots of history in these bulkheads.  I was about your boys’ age when I signed on.  ‘Pit Fiend’ she was called back then, an all nik ship.  We used to take an awful lot of shit back those days.”

            “These too,” Deacon said to general agreement.

            “Here, fuckin’ here,” the captain said as he produced a bottle more suited to the bender he felt coming on; filled with a bright yellow liquid that glittered in the dim cabin light.  A strange tube-like creature rested at the bottom.

“Meet the worm,” he told them, filling their glasses.

            “What the fuck is that?” Julian asked.

            “The worm, as I’ve explained.  The last man to take a shot eats it.”

            “Are you serious?” Billy asked, more than disgusted by the idea.

            “Trust me,” Jack told them.  “You get anywhere near the bottom of this bottle and you’ll eat a live rat on a dare.”

“Why is it in there?” Deacon asked.

            “Purportedly it induces sacred visions,” their captain explained.

            “Does it work?”

            Jack lifted the bottle, considering.  “Hard to say; you typically black-out.”

 

* * *

 

Julian McAllister took in a final view of the blanketed valley and distant mountains from the high plateau they were perched on.  It was impossible to scale distance; the whole planet a flawless and unbroken white surface that glittered in the starlight.  He had only seen it in person on a handful of occasions but always found it gratifying to tromp through a fresh snow.  This, however, was a herculean labor he had no time for.

With a deep breath he turned and made for the Queen.  Bow to stern she was a mass of welded patches and blackened, scorched metal.  Everywhere she crawled with hull rats, their shadows growing long and flickering by the light of arc welders as they scurried about on scaffold and tether.  Grueling work, Julian pulled five straight months of that duty his first year on account.  Still, the sovereign wore her scars with a stern dignity, proud and unbroken like those she’d been named for.

Once upon a time, at the edge of a long dead forest, in a country now beneath the waves, on a world he had never seen: another Iceni Queen made ready to battle.  Julian’s thoughts wandered back to his reputed ancestor, back across three thousand years and twenty-five trillion miles.

Did you think you could win, did that even matter?  Were you afraid?  Not the petty fear of death but extinction, knowing you had led them?  Did you wail in despair when it all fell apart, or just laugh and say: “Fuck it, better dead then a slave.”

 

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