The year is 2012. The nations of the world are bound together in an alliance of collective security, overseen by the International Patent Office, and its ruthless stranglehold on technology.
When airships start disappearing in the middle of the Atlantic, the Patent Office is desperate to discover what has happened. Forbidden to operate beyond the territorial waters of member nations, they send spies to investigate in secret.
One of those spies is Elizabeth Barnabus. She must overcome her dislike of the controlling Patent Office, disguise herself as a man, and take to the sea in search of the floating nation of pirates who threaten the world order.
File Under: Fantasy [ A Lost Airship | On the Sargasso| Stowaway Bay | The Crow Queen ]
About the Author
Some might say that he is obsessed with boundary markers, naive 18th Century gravestones and forming friendships with crows. But he says he is interested in the way things change.
Author hometown: Leicester, UK
Read an Excerpt
Afternoon sun rendered every colour dazzling: the green and black of the Company flag, limp at the masthead; streaks of orange rust on the white-painted deck housing; the calm ocean, a teal blue; blood blossoming from the carcass of the whale.
A gantry of planks and rope had been swung out over the dead beast. Fires burned under try pots on the main deck. Gaffs, pikes and bone spades lay ready. And the crew waited.
"Get on with it, why not!"
The anonymous shout had come from among a knot of sailors gathered next to the starboard paddlewheel. The first mate shot them a warning glance, but no more. The slight figure edging out from the safety of the deck was the young scientific officer. Any sign of respect would have been transparent pretence.
The captain glowered down from the quarterdeck with ill-disguised impatience. He may have chosen the crew of the whaling ship Pembroke, but it was the Company that placed the scientific officer. All were subject to a captain's command, but only that one had a direct line of communication back to the board of directors in New York. Perhaps even to the International Patent Office. On such reports, the ship could be ordered to stop killing one type or another of whale, or be moved on to a different hunting ground.
This scientific officer was even less popular than the one the Company had called home so abruptly the previous year. This one carried a singular aloofness and had no stomach for the job, sins made flesh in the form of an ugly wine-stain birthmark. Ill-fortune is a contagion no sailor would willingly be near.
"Take your time, sir," the captain shouted.
Some of the sailors laughed.
The scientific officer wobbled and grabbed a rope for support, then began shuffling further out over the dead beast. Below, another wave washed the gash that had been left by the killing lance. More blood swilled into the ocean.
Such a creature. Such a death.
The sperm whale had rolled somewhat on its side, revealing the edge of a belly patterned with barnacles. At fifty foot, she wasn't large. But it had taken three harpoons to stop her. Somewhere in the fury of dragged boats and thrashing water, her calf had been left behind.
"Mr Barnabus?" called the captain.
The scientific officer turned, unsteadily on the plank. "Yes, sir?"
"Are your observations quite done?"
"They are, sir." It was a reedy voice.
"Then may I suggest you return to the quarterdeck to make report!"
Grinning, the men picked up their tools. Sunlight flashed from the surface of a blade.
Then a shout came from the lookout. "Steamer ho!"
The captain looked up, shielding his eyes against the brilliant sky. "Bearing?"
"Two points abaft the port beam. Heading straight at us, sir. And she's signalling."
They moved as one, the crew, to the other bow to stare at the approaching ship. All but the young scientific officer, who clambered back to the safety of the deck, then silently opened the hatch and slipped unseen below.
Privacy was another reason for the crew's resentment. Scientific officers did no real work. They looked on, risking no danger, distant from the stink of blood and oil. They hindered rather than helped. Yet, despite all this, they enjoyed the unique dispensation of a cabin to themselves.
But privacy was the very thing. Without privacy it would have been quite impossible.
Scientific officer Barnabus bolted the cabin door, top and bottom, then, hands shaking, stripped off tunic and shirt and began to unwind the cloth that gave her the illusion of a masculine figure.
There comes a moment when deception is unbearable.
It had been the calf, not the mother, that had unsettled Elizabeth Barnabus. The thought of it had come to her unexpectedly as she stood out at the edge of the gantry. Under the gaze of the crew and unable to show a reaction, she'd felt acid rising in her throat. If the other ship hadn't been seen, she could still have done her job; climbed the steps to formally report the species, sex and size of the animal to a man who would have surely known all those things from a quarter mile out.
With the ritual complete, she would have been obliged to stand beside him on the quarterdeck and keep tally as blanket strips of blubber were minced and rendered. All that, she could have done, as she had many times before. She could have maintained the voice, gait and bearing of a man. But this unexpected release from duty had cracked the mask.
She lowered herself onto the narrow cot and closed her eyes, feeling the skin of her breasts pinching tight against the cold air.
The calf had escaped the harpoons but wouldn't survive. Orcas would find it. Or sharks. It was the way of things. The knowledge shouldn't have disturbed her. She didn't want to consider why it had.
Picking up a hand glass, she inspected the false birthmark on the side of her face. It would do for another couple of days before she needed to apply the indigo dye and deepen the colours again.
A tin mug on the cabin shelf rattled against the wall. Elizabeth's eyes snapped to it. She'd not noticed the change, but the Pembroke's engines were no longer idling. They were moving. The ship tilted with the start of a turn. She grabbed the binding cloth and began to wind it around her chest.
Other sounds she heard now; orders barked and feet running on the deck. And closer, booted feet marching towards her cabin along the narrow passageway outside. They stopped next to the door.
It was the first mate.
"You're wanted on deck. Quick now!"
She tucked the end of the cloth tight and reached for her clothes. "I'm coming."
"Captain's burning to know what business you have with the fleet."
"We're ordered to get you back. And in such haste we must cast off the whale."
Elizabeth returned to the deck, uniformed once more and steeled for trouble. Captain Locklight had a reputation for competence and measured judgement. But early in Elizabeth's voyage, he'd taken against her. His antipathy had grown as the months passed. At the best of times, being summoned would be the harbinger of some little humiliation.
The remnant of the gantry was being dismantled. The tools had already been stowed and steam billowed from beneath the try pots where fires had been doused. Junior officers had taken the watch on the quarterdeck. The first mate pointed to the prow, where Captain Locklight stood alone.
If the glances of the men had been insolent before, they were now hostile. Elizabeth started to pick her way forwards, but a pike clattered to the deck in front of her.
"Beg pardon," said the man who'd dropped it. He took his time to pick it up, his eyes locked with hers all the while. He rubbed his thumb over the edge of the blade.
She didn't blink.
Passing herself off as a man hadn't been the problem. That was merely a matter of disguise, movement and voice, things she'd been tutored in from childhood. Indeed, aside from the voice, presenting as a woman in polite company felt no less unnatural. Corset and binding cloth were disguises both. The illusion she had not mastered, could not master, was to pass herself off as a sailor.
She stepped forwards again. The men parted, staring as she went. But as she neared the captain they turned their backs.
"You wanted to see me, sir?"
Instead of answering, he stepped up from the deck onto the bowsprit – the spar pointing forwards over the water from the prow. Though one of his hands touched the rigging, he seemed to balance without its support. Gripping one of the ropes – Elizabeth could never remember their names – she hoisted herself up and followed him out, clearing the figurehead. The bow broke through a wave, sending up spray. She felt a mist of it on her cheek and her eyes stung.
"The wind's with us," Locklight said. "The engine's drinking fuel, but we're making good speed. We'll have you back with the fleet before noon tomorrow."
The prow dipped into a trough, pulling her forwards. The rope bit into her palm as she gripped tighter.
"Are you enjoying your time with us?" he asked.
"It's an education," she said.
"That's a true word. There's always learning – some hidden thing to be seen. And this is your first tour."
"Well, Mr Barnabus, I've never known a scientific officer quite like you."
He took another step out along the bowsprit. This time she didn't follow.
"I'll confide in you," he said. "I've a problem with the men. Two things make them follow my say – fear and greed. There's only so many backs you can flog. If I can't lead them to the whale, they don't get paid. They know that. They accept it. But to have them risk their necks killing one and then order them cut it adrift – that I've never done. Never had to."
Saying this, he turned and faced her full on. She tightened her grip on the rope.
"Can you swim?"
"Of course you can. Though these waters are too cold for it. A man with some fat on him might last a few minutes. If his heart didn't stop directly. You've no fat on you."
"I'll not be going in."
"Well, that'll be for the best." His eyes flicked from her marked face to her feet, placed askew on the beam. "You didn't give me your report. Why is it you're always running away to that cabin? You might win more respect if you took time to walk among the men."
"It was a sperm whale, sir. Fifty foot. A female with calf."
"You will add it to the ledger."
"A shame we lost the little one. A calf will stay by the dead mother. One time we caught three bulls that way. They must have heard its cries and come to rescue. Five whales in one day! But then, we'd still have had to cast them off. So it was no loss. Why d'you suppose it's with such urgency that you're wanted back at the fleet?"
"I don't know, sir."
It was the truth.
"Perhaps you'll be leaving us?"
"I really don't know."
"Well," he said, "we can hope. Maybe they'll next send an even younger man. With a yet more hideous face."
Elizabeth found herself faltering under his inspection. "Will there be anything else?" she asked.
"Yes, Mr Barnabus. I've held back from asking. But now it comes to it and I need to know. Why were you thrust upon us, and in the middle of a tour?"
"I don't know."
This was a lie.
"Would you use me for a fool?" He spoke quietly, for her ears only, though the crew would surely be straining to hear.
"I say you would!"
She glanced over her shoulder. The crew's backs were still turned, but for the officers on the quarterdeck.
"Stand," he growled. "I'll have my answer. The truth, sir!"
"You will speak. And frankly."
"I know I've pained you, sir. You've made no secret of it. You've ridiculed me at every call. So, frankly, if I did know this thing, why in heaven's name would I tell you now?"
Captain Locklight flinched. She began backing towards the deck, but his hand shot out and grabbed the collar of her tunic. She felt herself being pulled off balance as he drew her closer. Scrambling to find her footing, her hand slipped from the rope. If he dropped her, she'd tumble. There'd be no time to freeze. Her body would be broken under the paddlewheels.
"Best not wander the deck at night," he whispered. "You might meet me alone."
When her hand found the rope again, he released his grip.
"Go nurse your secrets," he said. "Perhaps that cabin is the best place for you after all."
Secrets are a benediction, when held for the betterment of others, and lies should be embraced.
Thirteen months before the casting off of the whale, Elizabeth's dearest friend had been preparing for marriage. Indeed, Julia Swain was friend, student and confidante all rolled into one. If Elizabeth had had a sister, it would have been someone like Julia, she thought. The wedding would be joyous. She kept repeating it to herself. Julia would be happy. And that was all that mattered.
There would be two ceremonies; the first to take place in the church of St Clement Danes in London. That for the benefit of the groom's family, who were "social Christians" in the same way that some people are social drinkers. The second ceremony was scheduled for the Secular Hall in Leicester, to satisfy Julia's own parents, who were good atheists in every sense. Such was the mistrust that each congregation held for the other that the two families found themselves bound together in a happy conspiracy of small lies and shrewd silences.
On the evening before the first wedding, Elizabeth found herself promenading arm in arm with Julia along the embankment overlooking the Thames. They'd indulged in buying colourful dresses suited to the London fashion. Julia had chosen plain sapphire. Elizabeth's was emerald, with a printed leaf pattern along the hem. Both were Egyptian cotton. The skirts moved with a satisfying swish, attracting admiring glances from other promenaders.
As they walked, Julia became quiet. Contending emotions seemed to be battling within her.
"Don't worry," said Elizabeth. "Marriage will be all you've dreamed."
Julia's grip on her arm tightened. "Everything will change."
"Your love for him won't."
"Nor my love for you. If you'd not tutored me, the university would never have taken me on. And it was through you I met Robert in the first place."
"You're seeing too much good in me," Elizabeth said. "As always. You're worthy of your blessings. You studied hard. And Robert loves you for what you are. That's why I'm allowing you to marry him!" She winked, to show that it was mostly a joke. "And tomorrow you'll see a marvel. Tinker has a new set of clothes for the wedding. You'll not recognise the boy. It turns out his skin has a fairly human colour, once he's been scrubbed."
Julia's frown deepened. "Tinker needs you," she said. "And so do I."
"A peculiar family we make – you, me and a half-wild boy. Now at least you'll be respectable. And we'll visit so often, you'll be yearning for time to be alone with your husband."
Elizabeth expected at least a blush from this. But it was sorrow that racked her friend's face.
They had stopped next to the parapet and were staring out at the Thames. The reflections of coloured lights from the south bank marked out the wake of a cargo ship on its way up river. London was a hungry city. The business of feeding it never stopped. A sailor stepped up to the prow. Then the boat was under one of the arches of Westminster Bridge and he disappeared into shadow. Thoughts of loss should have had no business on the eve of a wedding.
"I'm expelled from the university," Julia said, blurting the words in a rush as though she'd been holding them back for days. "They won't allow a married woman to study. We knew it would happen. But now it has. And ..."
"Take them to law!" said Elizabeth. "Force them to have you back."
"It's the other way about. They could make a suit against me if they chose. The university has rules – which I signed up to. It's I who broke the contract."
"And are there such rules for all? Are married men expelled also?"
"We're different – however much you might wish it otherwise."
"Now you sound like your mother," said Elizabeth.
"You mustn't mention it to her!" There was a note of alarm in Julia's voice.
"She doesn't know?"
"Nor Father. Though he won't mind so very much."
That seemed to be the wrong way about. Elizabeth searched her friend's face for clues. Julia's father enjoyed shocking dour friends by boasting of how his wonderful girl was away studying law in London. He'd be devastated if she were to be expelled.
"What are you not telling me?"
"I'm following your advice," said Julia, who now would not meet her eyes. "You said I should never give in. You said it was up to me what I did in the world. The universities back home don't let women study, so I came here. And now in London they won't have a married woman as a student. But in the Free States of America ..."
Elizabeth's hand shot to her mouth to cover the shock and the unexpected stab of sorrow.
"Robert's practice has an office in New York," Julia continued. "After we're done with all this – the wedding and everything – he'll be flying out there. I'll follow just as soon as he's found a place for us to live. Columbia University has offered to take me. I'll be studying Patent Law. It's what I always wanted."
America. Under those broad skies even the impossible might find a place to hide, beyond the gaze of propriety or reason.
Elizabeth burst into tears. "I'm so happy for you," she said.
The arrangements took a month longer than expected. But at last the day of departure was fixed. Elizabeth left the boy, Tinker, under the watchful eye of a neighbour and accompanied Mr and Mrs Swain to wave off their daughter on her long journey.
Mrs Swain's eyes were wide as she stepped into the hangar of the St Pancras Air Terminus. It was only her second visit to London and everything must still have seemed brash to her.
A thin veil of smoke hung in the air, lit gold by beams of sunlight lancing down from windows in the high canopy. The vast scale of the arched roof would have been hard to comprehend but for three airships, which lay at berth side by side.
They found Julia standing next to a pile of tan suitcases. A private porter was harrying her for work.
"No thank you," she was saying.
Excerpted from "The Queen of All Crows"
Copyright © 2018 Ron Duncan.
Excerpted by permission of Watkins Media Ltd.
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