Albion Clemens and the Future that Never Was (prelude)

Prelude>

The sights that ran through Albion’s mind as he turned the valves open were not what he had imagined at all. The youth had thought that on an occasion such as this, the vision that would be at the forefront of his mind would be Sum, the waitress at the Kowloon café where he took his afternoon tea.  That was usually the kind of thing his heroes would be thinking about, just before certain death. These swashbuckling pirates or selfless airmen would face down bullets or blades with only the thought of their loves before their eyes. They would see their lives flash before them as they floundered in the open sea, or before being downed at the hands of savages.

As for himself, Albion only saw the peaceful sea through one porthole and the cliff face rushing by the other. The valves were not very cooperative, forcing Albion to grasp each brass fitting and wrench with all his might. His hands, slippery with cold sweat, were not helping. Neither was the fact that he was suspended in the middle of the room along with anything that wasn’t bolted down. As each valve opened, Albion grasped the bulkhead to anchor himself as he moved laboriously to the next valve. Through the thick, grimy glass of the portholes, the youth watched his impending doom coming closer with each second. Air howled and whistled on the other side of the metal. Albion found himself thinking that this was nothing like the two-penny novels he read on Sunday mornings, full of dashing peril, damsels in distress or dramatic villainy. In a real life or death struggle, Albion found that all his senses of adventure fled him. This, he decided, simply sucked. With that, Albion threw back the lever next to the valves.

Nothing happened at first, and Albion panicked. Perhaps he had gotten the order of valves wrong? Did he remember to purge the moisture before injecting steam? Did he, quite simply, fuck up? Then a hiss of pressure, a clatter of pipes as vapor flowed through, and finally a great whine and groan of metal as everything righted itself around him. His face slammed into the sheet-metal floor, followed by the rest of him.

“FUCK!” Albion cursed. On his tongue was a metallic taste, and a quick feel confirmed a cut on the corner of his lip. He wiped the blood off on his overalls and made his way along the bulkhead, avoiding the older, rusting pipework. It was necessary to grasp the more secure fastenings and bolts, since the floor was still rocking slightly from side to side. Albion bent to check the gauges dotting one whole bulkhead with round white faces and gleaming copper, their jiggling needles flitting every which way. For the moment, every needle was buried in the red on the starboard side, while the port side was void of movement. Albion reached for a brass horn set into the wall, covered with a worn lid. He undid the latch and spoke into the horn.

“Captain, starboard boiler’s completely jacked.”

“Gave me a considerable scare there, boy, ain’t nothin but a good save! Got out the good book and Sunday clothes for a minute. Never ye mind, got the old girl in a good hidin’ spot, so bleed the boiler once she’s down. But not until you charge the port tank!”

Albion took a peek out the porthole to find the encroaching darkness of a cave of some kind. Trust the old rat bastard to know how to run and hide, he thought. There was a dull “clank!” as the ship touched ground, a little askew but stable against what felt like rock. Albion moved a large lever near the floor and checked a gauge. The ship’s pipes hissed as pressure moved up from the boilers in the bow. Albion turned another valve, and the porthole was filled with white as steam escaped into the cave. It visibly scoured the stone clean of moss and lichen. Task done, he opened the hatch behind him and picked his way through the ship.

The engine room door led out to an enclosed catwalk of alloyed cable, rooted to the ribs of the bulkhead. Her supports arched out like a small cathedral, lit with kerosene lamps every few feet. Albion moved swiftly, stepping surely over the metal grating. Below, the cargo bay yawned a good five stories high, filled with haphazard darkness and ringed by the other decks of the ship along the bulkheads. Albion ducked through another hatch at the far end and slipped himself into a seat padded with fading leather.

“Set on down and git your straps on boy,” the man in the other seat whispered. The right side of his face was buried in a copper scope, rooted to the side of the ship. His right thumb delicately turned a dial set next to the scope, and his left hand grasped an ornate wooden wheel set on a gently quivering lever. A grove of gauges and other controls dotted the front of the ship, and before that was the shadowed opening of the cave. Everything was shrouded in darkness, though the metal fittings still glimmered in the half-light. The man had turned down all of the lanterns.

“Them no good copper’s right on our tail… “He added. With his salty beard and ill-fitting leather coat, Albion often thought of him as a down-on-his-luck Saint Nicholas. An old battered hat and walnut pipe never left his head and hands. The Captain was a right old salt, though, and Albion often found himself hauling ass on every order. He pulled on the leather harness from both sides of the seat and buckled himself in solidly. Then the two of them sat, motionless, with only the occasional drip of condensation breaking the calm.

“Captain,” Albion said quietly after awhile, “Are you sure you saw them?”

“Knickers outta yer crack, boy,” the Captain replied. “and I tell ye once, I tell ye a thousand times, call me Clemens. This ain’t no Navy and this ain’t no fancy warship.”

“This old bucket of bolts? Hell no. Bet you miss those Ospreys now, eh?” answered the teenager. Albion’s obvious curiosity roused a dry, whispery sound from Clemens. On his first day on the ship, Albion had had to take a moment to realize the sound was laughter, a practiced kind of dry cough with no S sounds. The bulkhead in the cabin could muffle the sound of their conversation, but a single loud laugh would register on any enemy ship’s sonograph. No self-respecting pirate would let himself be caught for laughing at a dirty joke.

“Gon’ take more n’ that, son, to git me to spill my beans.” Clemens replied mirthfully. The Osprey were the American Navy’s backbone. Each of them was roughly four times the size of Clemens’ ship, the Huckleberry. They were also known to be assigned only the most experienced captains. Clemens had a lot of quirks and it was taking Albion a lot of time figuring out where this old codger came from.

Clemens pulled his leather tricorn on lower over his forehead, perhaps to shut out more of the cabin’s light. Albion tapped the grizzled shoulder, for in that moment he had caught a glimpse of something in the darkness of the cave.

“I see ‘em.” Clemens said under his breath.

“They’re coming from the wrong direction,” Albion whispered. Indeed, even as they spoke the blue and red lanterns were casting long shadows across the rock. A drift of black wafted over the ship; Albion thought he caught a whiff of their charcoal smoke, even in the sealed chamber. After a few more seconds the bow was fully visible. Thick gray plates riveted to an ornate frame, a wrought iron dragon topping the entire affair. Snakelike, the dragon’s body wound down the hull to the keel floating a couple feet over the cave floor. The mouth of the dragon was full of fangs, framing a very large cannon. Her snarling face was coming from the starboard side of the Huckleberry, and Albion realized their port side was pushed snug into the wall.

“What were you thinking, you senile old fart, putting us in a hole like this?” Albion said.

“Not to worry, I got ‘em in my sights.,” Clemens replied confidently. “Just let ‘em sidle up to us… “ Clemens’ hands were relaxed on the levers, but his blue eyes were intently focused on the frosty glass. Indeed, Clemens was right- though they could see the other ship, the bastards hadn’t spotted them yet. Clemens had put the Huckleberry deviously into a shadowed nook. Albion loosened his own white-knuckled grip on the seat under him. Not wanting to look the fool, he reached forward and tapped the gauges with the pad of a finger. Needles not wavering, he sat back, more calmly. The other ship was fully visible now.

“Damn fool way to catch pirates,” Clemens whispered triumphantly.

“Fuckers are using search lamps,” Albion agreed as steady beams began lancing outward. Not only that, but a metal panel slid open in the side of the ship, revealing a mesh layer. Shortly after, a booming voice filled the cavernous space.

“ATTENTION PIRATE FREIGHTER. THIS IS IMPERIAL CANTON NAVAL FORCE VESSEL CHING-LONG. SURRENDER PEACEFULLY AND RETURN CARGO OR PUNISHMENT WILL BE MOST SEVERE.”

“In other words, they ain’t seen us yet,” Clemens translated.

“But they know we’re here,” Albion said. “And those are some nasty guns.”

“How ‘bout we give ‘em a greeting?” Clemens said. He had that grin on his face that made him look like a shark, especially when he took a swig out of the canteen at his side. His eyes never left Albion’s. Doubt crossed Albion’s mind for about two seconds, but really that grin said everything.

“Fuck it, let’s give ‘em hell,” Albion finally replied. He reached back, cracked open the case in the bulkhead, flipped a switch and dropped a needle onto a spinning cylinder, tube engraved with numerous channels and nubs. At the same time, Clemens rolled down the window.

“FUCK YOU PIGS, COME AND GIT US!” The old man yelled at the top of his raspy lungs, and gave the answering search lamps both fingers. Then he threw back a lever in front of him. As the first riffs rolled out of their gramophone throughout the cavern, the Huckleberry pounced out of the nook and rammed herself into the other ship.

There was a loud crack and a deafening rumble- the Canton ship was firing into the dark. The harnesses snapped the pirates back as their bodies whipped to port, but no cannonball came tearing through the bridge. There was an animalistic sound as the hulls scraped past each other, a sort of whining groan. An enormous flailing piece of metal came into view on the port side- the pressured manipulator arm running down the side of the Huckleberry, which had thrown them from the cave wall. Albion slapped the side of the bulkhead, opening a series of valves that let out an aria of whistling steam. Clemens punched another lever all the way forward and the ship pitched into the light and out of the gloom.

“I wanna destroy passer by cos  IIIIII… wanna beeeeeee… ANARCHY!” The Huckleberry sang back as they left the Ching-Long in their steaming wake. Cave sped by at an alarming rate, at any moment seeming to collide and crush the pirates between riveted plates. Somehow, Clemens kept the ship hovering just low enough to avoid the hanging stalactites, whipping around at breakneck speed so they shot into daylight like a bat out of hell, trailing smoke and steam. Behind them, a thunderous roar signaled cannon fire, fifty-pound lead shot crashing through stone and cracking rock.

“HAHAHA, DUMBSHITS!” Clemens yelled out the window, accompanied by Albion’s whoops of laughter and the painful whine of their one operating boiler. Mirrors propped on the Huckleberry’s hull showed the ugly tear in the ship that had caused their earlier fall. Clemens tilted one of them to show the other ship tearing out of the cave in a cloud of steam, stuck like a pincushion with stone fangs. Smoke poured from the vents and tears near the rear, showing a fatal breach in the furnace.

“Think they’ll keep afloat like that?” Albion asked.

“Hard to say. Ship that size… but they’ve lost a lot of steam.”

“We can’t make speed like this either.”

“Well, we are highwaymen o’ the skies…” Clemens winked. His rough hand deftly spun the wheel around. The cliff face came into view again outside the glass. They had dropped into a lagoon of sorts when the Ching-Long tore her boiler, and now Clemens ducked between the cliff faces. A warm green blanket of jungle zipped past at a decent clip above, barely disturbed by their passage even with the pounding rumble of music. Underneath, schools of fish shimmered in the pristine water, prismatic with coral. In the mirror, the Imperial ship hovered at an angle, dragging its keel in the waves but still doggedly following. Clouds of multi-colored birds burst out of the jungle as the smoke and noise from their engines powered through. It looked a lot more imposing when it was gunning for them full-speed earlier, Albion found himself musing.

“All steam to the screw, Cap.” Albion said, adjusting his valves.

“All right, lets give them authorities a ride,” Clemens said, and ducked the Huckleberry into a narrow corridor of stone. Clemens weaved the ship through, barely skimming the water. The shining hull threw reflected sunlight onto speeding rock that could crush them at any moment, but the old man never faltered, bringing them through the insanely narrow space at breakneck speeds.

“Holy shit, Cap, you trying to kill us?” Albion shouted. Through the haze of impact paranoia, Albion noticed the old man using only one hand on the wheel to steer; his other hand was reserving steam by using the steering flaps on the outside of the ship.

“I think that about does it.” Clemens said unhurriedly. “Slow her down.”  Albion hastily obeyed. There was a metallic crash, and for one second he thought they had finally pancaked onto the cliff. Outside the portholes, Clemens was turning the ship around, and Albion breathed a sigh as the torn wreckage of the Ching-Long barreled out of the space they had just left. It came dragging the cliff face with it, the engine dementedly trying to keep the ship in the air with horrible clanking sounds.

“Ha! Pigs!” Captain Clemens laughed. As the Huckleberry approached, there was no cannon fire. They sidled right up to the side of the ship, close enough to see the horrified crew dangling from the cockpit and decks.

“Pressure moved from the screws to the right tank, Cap.” Albion said, moving more valves and levers.

“It’s Clemens, boy!” The Captain yelled as he thrust one of the larger levers forward. Rivets rushed past as the right manipulator extended fully and penetrated the hull of the Ching-Long. There was a sickening crunch as the ribs of the ship collapsed and a stream of blackish water spewed from the hole, along with a dense cloud of steam. Clemens moved the lever back and the arm retracted, yanking out a load of flaming coals.

“That’ll cripple ‘em,” Clemens commented needlessly. The thing was sinking into the shallows and crewmen were leaping for safety. Tons and tons of metal sank onto the crashing rocks, doomed to break apart and rust away.

“No shit, Cap, that bird will never fly again.”

“Shut up and grab them arm levers!” Clemens yelled, reaching under his seat and pulling out a long rifle. He undid his harness, pulled the thin strap over his shoulder and nimbly hopped out the window, disappearing onto the deck. Albion hastily shifted into the Captain’s seat.

“YOU SONS OF BITCHES!” Clemens continued. “NOBODY MOVE, Y’HEAR?!” Several loud reports sounded as the old man fired, then more insults and threats. Albion chuckled as he maneuvered the levers, ripping apart the other ship plate by plate. It took him about five minutes to fish out the valuable bits- the intact boiler, the supply stores, and the armory. The gunpowder store was useless- what they could readily move was soaked with ocean spray. Not that they normally used firearms on the Huckleberry; their total munitions consisted of Clemens’ rifle and a couple of repeating pistols, one each. The rounds being fired up top were blanks, but none of the Canton sailors knew that.

Luckily the Berry’s cargo bay was haphazardly stacked, but still roomy. Albion simply slid open the side panels and tipped the new stuff in, carefully. After making sure the sailors had enough to survive until their rescue, he shifted to his own seat just in time for Clemens to climb back in.

“Didn’t count on the patrol, bit of luck that turned out to be eh?” He chortled.

“Getting senile in your old age? Shouldn’t have surprised you,” Albion replied, in equally high spirts. He reversed the valves turned earlier to the gentle whistle of steam. The Captain spun the wheel, pointing them out to the open ocean.

“You’re a right bastard, you know that?” The old man countered. “Okay, half speed, skim the waves boy. Last thing we need is another bunch o’ pigs.” He leaned back. “Turn that shit off, and wake me when we git to Shanghai.”

“ It’ll wrap up in a minute, “ Albion said. “Wait a minute, you’re letting me drive?”

“Figure you can’t fuck her up any more than she is. Just watch the roll, the old girl likes to git on top every so often. Oh and pull the arms back in, it’s like a goddamn jolly roger to any patrolling authorities out there.”

The old man pulled his hat over his eyes and began to snore enthusiastically. Albion obediently turned off the music and rested his hands gingerly on the wheel.

At Shanghai, they unloaded the cargo. It took them awhile to pawn the parts off the other ship and sell their loot. Clemens had Albion load up on supplies in port and sell their ill-gotten gains, then stayed and tended to the rest of the cargo in the ship.

Then the ship moved off down the coast, into a shaded beachfront and unloaded the rest of it. Just before the two boarded the Hucklberry again, one of the children turned around, rushed up to Clemens and leaped into his arms, lightly vaulting over the undone shackles dotting the glittering sand.

 

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