The Caves of Ceres

by Sawyer Grey
 

Part 2
RNS ANTIGON, AUGUST 8, 1890

 
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Part 1 - Spitalfields, June 11, 1890
Part 2 - RNS Antigon, August 8, 1890
 

I pushed myself to my feet, legs trembling at the effort, and staggered across to the forward porthole. With the deck awash in filth it was all I could do to keep myself upright, but I refused to crawl through the muck. In the dim light leaking in from the shutters I could see eyes glittering where the others huddled together for warmth. I kept my focus on the porthole, refusing to look at the stack of bodies piled against the far wall of the compartment. I was terrified that if I looked at them, they might start to move.

By the time I reached the porthole I was panting from the effort. The air in the cabin was stale and reeked with the stench of death and our bodily wastes, thick enough to cut with a knife. One of the men had gone mad and tried to smash out a window while screaming about letting in fresh air, but Red had shot him before he could do any damage to the thick glass. Yesterday, it had been. Or was it the day before? I wasn’t sure; the days all ran together and no one was keeping track any longer.

I wrapped my arm around a pipe to steady myself and peered outside. The brilliant glow of Venus remained centered in the porthole, so we were still on course. We might yet make it, although I was not sure how we were going to manage to be rescued. Like so many other parts of our craft, the difference engine that controlled the aethership during maneuvers no longer functioned, and it had been years since I had attempted an orbital insertion or landing by hand. Odds were that we would slingshot around Venus and disappear into the endless void, or that our air would give out before we got close enough to the planet to attempt a landing. Nevertheless, I refused to give up hope.

As I had done every day since this hellish voyage began, I pulled the delicate locket from within my tunic and gazed at the picture inside. The light from the porthole was just bright enough that I could make out Elizabeth’s face. Not that I needed the light; the image was burned forever into my heart. The act of looking was simply a way to renew my determination; I would not die in filth and madness. I would live for her, live to hold her in my arms once more.

A large hand gripped my shoulder, squeezing it once in a gentle gesture of commiseration.

“Don’t worry. You’ll pull us through, lad,” Red’s voice rumbled quietly.

I nodded in the darkness. I was so tired, though, and I did not want to walk all the way back over to my spot against the wall. I slid down along the pipe until I was on my knees, head slumped against the cool metal.

“You mustn’t sleep now, lad. You need to be awake for this.”

So tired. I just needed to close my eyes for a few minutes.

“I need you to wake up, now, lad. Captain, wake up!”

My eyes popped open. Bosun’s Mate Edwin Wilkinson hunched over my bunk, worry written on his thick, florid features as he shook my shoulder.

“What is it, Red?”

“Trouble in the lower decks, Captain. A bunch of the male transportees got into the women’s section.”

“Oh, hell.” I swung my legs off the bed and began buttoning my tunic. “How did that happen?”

“I’m guessing that they bribed someone to unlock the doors.”

“Find out who it was. When this is over I’m going to have his head.”

I strapped on my pistol belt and dashed along the corridors behind Red, our boots ringing against the metal decks. Three levels down we found Lieutenant Harding waiting for us with six of his Royal Marines, who fingered their carbines nervously. Screams echoed down the hallway ahead, and the relief on Harding’s face as we arrived would have been comical under other circumstances.

“What’s the story, Lieutenant?”

He nodded up the corridor. “There are sixty or seventy of them in there. I’ve ordered them out, but they refuse to budge, and they’ve armed themselves with whatever they could tear loose. I’ve got four men posted at each of the other stairwells to keep them from breaking out of this section, but I didn’t want to go in after them without your approval.”

I nodded. Indiscriminate firing inside an aethership was generally not a good idea. “You were right to wait for me, but I’m afraid we don’t have much choice. We’re going to have to force them out and back to their part of the ship.”

“We could wait them out,” Red said, carefully not looking at me. “They’ll get tired of this. Eventually.”

I clenched my jaw as another scream plunged icy daggers into my heart. “You know we can’t do that. Lieutenant, pass the word to the rest of your men that we’re going in. They are to shoot any of these men who do not surrender. Go take command of the section coming in from the other end of the corridor.”

“Yes, sir.”

As he dashed off, I squared my shoulders and stepped around the corner.

“This is Captain Warren,” I called out, my voice echoing hollowly in the narrow corridors. “Surrender now, lay down your arms, and march out one at a time. If you do not comply with this order in the next five minutes, I will send in the Marines and you will get no mercy.”

A chorus of derisive shouts rose over the screams.

“Sod off!”

“You’ve kept these birds to yourself long enough. It’s our turn, now.”

“Go bugger yourself!”

Red shook his head, and I shrugged. “Had to try. If any of them want to surrender later, let them. We’re going to need some alive to make examples of after this is over with.”

I gave them a full minute to change their minds before pulling out my pistol and turning to the men. “Ready?”

Red raised one bushy eyebrow. “You said five minutes.”

“Right, so that’s what they’re expecting. We’ll surprise them before they’re ready for us.”

“All right, but I’m going first. You keep your head down, lad.”

The big man shouldered past me, followed by the Marines. I brought up the rear, hoping that Harding would hurry to join up with us as soon as he heard us firing. As we charged up the hallway towards a barricade of mattresses, the transportees met us with a hail of objects - dishes, bits of broken up furniture, anything they could find. Red did not slow down; he began firing as he reached the barricade, and the shrieks of the wounded rose to drown out the screams of the women. A wave of men armed with lengths of pipe or metal rods swept toward us from a side corridor, only to be met by a crash of gunfire from the Marines. Three volleys rang through the hallway before the survivors broke and ran, leaving a pile of broken humanity in their wake.

More gunfire sounded from both sides as Harding’s other Marine detachments began to push forward. We followed the retreating transportees, firing into their backs as they ran. Ahead, the screams of the women broke off as the men with them realized they were under attack. Angry shouts bounced raggedly from the metal bulkheads, but by now enough of the men had seen the carnage that they were reluctant to charge in the face of our gunfire. Over the next few minutes the shooting died down as the Marines switched to the bayonet and took control of the corridors, trapping the surviving transportees in the small compartments. Once we had them cut off from one another, small groups began pleading to surrender.

Lieutenant Harding found us soon after, his scarlet tunic soiled by powder and blood.

“Leave enough of your men to keep them bottled up, Lieutenant, and we’ll use the rest to clear the rooms one at a time.”

It took another hour, but we secured the remaining transportees without further bloodshed. We had killed about thirty in the fighting, and grim-faced Marines stood guard over the survivors.

Red poked his head out of the last room in the corridor. “Sir.”

I followed him inside where a naked girl barely in her teens cowered weeping in the corner, blood smeared on her face from a broken nose. Another naked woman lay motionless at the base of the wall next to her, and the bodies of two male transportees sprawled facedown in a pool of blood on the other side of the room. The girl whimpered and pressed herself against the wall as we approached.

“It’s all right, girl. We won’t hurt you.”

I knelt by the fallen woman and pressed my fingers against her limp wrist. She still had a pulse, though it was so faint I almost missed it.

“Red, she’s still alive. Get Doctor Hazeltine in here, now.”

The girl watched us and sniffled. “She kilt two of ‘en when they come for us,” she murmured. “I thought they was goin’ to kick ‘er to death.”

Cursing under my breath, I poked around the room until I found a blanket thrown from the room’s bunk when the transportees started the rapes. The girl took it without looking at me and wrapped it tightly around herself.

“Come on; let’s get you out of here.”

The Marines were still clearing the hallway as we stepped outside.

“Harding,” I called, and pushed the girl gently towards the Lieutenant. “Gather up the others and take them up to the officers’ mess. Make sure they have whatever they need until Hazeltine can check them over. And if they want to use the showers in the officers’ quarters to clean themselves up, let them.”

“Yes, sir.”

As they turned away, one of the transportees kneeling in the hallway spat at them with a curse. “Fuckin’ ‘ore.”

A wave of cold anger crashed through me. “Shut your mouth.”

The man sneered. “Naw, she’ll spread for your pretty boys, won’t she, Cap’n? She thinks she’s too good for the likes o’ us, now. But we taught ‘er better, di’n’t we, lads?” He laughed. “Now the little ‘ore knows what it’s like ter ‘ave a real man.”

Before I knew it, my pistol was in his face and I pulled the trigger. The back of his head blew out against the wall, spattering the men next to him with blood and brains. They surged to their feet with shouts of mixed fear and anger, only to face the leveled carbines of twenty very unsympathetic Marines. Slowly they raised their hands and sank back down to the floor.

“Next one of you that says another word joins him,” I said, and went back inside the room to sit next to the unconscious woman.

My hands were shaking as though stricken with palsy when Red came in behind me.

“You all right, Captain?” he asked softly.

“I will be. Where’s Hazeltine?”

“He stopped to sew up one of Harding’s lads who got his face cut open in the fight. He should be here any minute.”

“Fine. Arrange the transportees into work details and start cleaning this mess up. None of them is to get any medical attention until after the women and any of our men that got hurt have been treated. When they’ve finished, keep this lot separated from the ones who didn’t participate. We’re going to have a trial in a couple of days. Oh, and make sure Lieutenant Harding posts a guard over the women. I don’t think it’s necessary, now, but maybe it will make them feel safer.”

“Yes, sir. What about the bodies?”

“Dump them out the airlock with the rest of the trash.”

I visited Hazeltine’s infirmary once things settled down. The badly injured woman occupied one of the two beds, pale as death with her head swathed in bandages. Only a barely perceptible rise and fall of the sheets gave any indication she still lived.

“How is she?” I asked.

Hazeltine gave me a noncommittal shrug. “I’ve done what I can, which was little enough. She’ll either live or she won’t.”

“Do we know who she is?” Something about her, the line of her jaw, or the tilt of her nose, reminded me of Elizabeth. Or perhaps it was just my imagination running wild with the situation.

“Her name is Beatrice Haste. I looked up her records. Her sentence reads ‘death recorded and transported for life.’”

A chill ran through me, cold as the grave, and I shuddered. “What?”

“‘Death recorded and transported for life,’” he repeated. “Never seen that before, and it doesn’t say why. She must have done something really special, and the way she killed those two rapists I can well believe it.”

It could mean something quite different, too, as I knew only too well. I sank into a chair and hoped Hazeltine would not notice my hands shaking.

“I’ll just stay here and watch over her for a bit, if you don’t mind.”

He gave me an odd look, but shrugged again and went back to his reading; I was the captain, and it was no business of his. I sat there for a long time, just watching her breathe, and wondering.

Two days later I presided over the trial. It took less than an hour, and then I had Harding’s Marines put the ringleaders and the crewman they had bribed out the cargo airlock. Most of the women showed up to watch the Marines herd the guilty into the cold steel chamber. Afterwards I retreated to my cabin and settled down to enjoy a stiff brandy. While those men certainly deserved their fate, it was nevertheless a heavy load on my soul to have consigned them to death. Killing someone in battle is one thing, but to murder a man in cold blood is something else entirely. I had enough of that on my conscience already.